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Vin turned in the tiny prison, pounding his fists against the barrier as he called for help. The sound of his own voice was his only companion and again he kicked out, cursing the walls that held him captive. The darkness was absolute and he thought the air was running out and that this place, this small hole would be his tomb for all eternity. Forcing himself to be calm he relaxed and slowed his breathing until he could think straight once more. He remembered kicking something just before the walls closed in on him. He lowered himself to the floor and used his hands to feel his way around. His fingers came up against a leather bound book and he tried to pick it up.
Something held it down, but he was determined to pull it from its prison into his own. He pulled as hard as he could, feeling it loosen a little, crying out as red eyes appeared directly in front of his face and something sharp raked across his hand. He felt something warm and sticky on his hand and knew he was bleeding, but still he did not relinquish his hold. Cursing whatever creature was in the cell with him he pulled once more. Putting every ounce of strength he had into the effort, he nearly laughed as the book came free. He was rewarded with the screaming banshee like wail that came from the creature as it disappeared, and he held his treasure close against him. Whatever secrets it held, the demon had not wanted him to have it. A new sound met his ears and he looked up as a halo of light surrounding an angelic face appeared at the top of his prison.
"You have the answers in your hands, Vin Tanner. Keep it safe and you will find the way to defeat this curse surrounding the corruption."
"How will I know?" the sharpshooter asked as the halo grew dim above him.
"Read it...the words were written long ago...at a time when this Inn was new and filled with the promise of a wonderful future. My time here is at an end, but there are others in need of your help. You must save him and release the souls trapped within these walls. Be strong and have faith in God, for he will not forsake you!"
"No! Don't go...don't leave me trapped in here!" the Texan called as the light was extinguished and he found himself alone in the darkness once more. He knew what he had to do and forced his body to obey his commands. Ignoring the blood that dripped onto the floor, he slipped the book into his pocket, making sure it would not fall out. Satisfied he was not in danger of losing it, Vin began searching for a way out once more. He felt the evil surrounding him and shuddered at the thought of the injured man trapped in room 17.
'I'll find a way to you, Chris ya jest gotta hold on 'til I do!' he silently vowed as he felt along the corners of the walls, seeking a way out of the prison he was trapped in.
+ + + + + + +
Chris heard the familiar chant whether he was sleeping or awake. It echoed through his skull, keeping him from the rest he needed and pulling him towards the shadows waiting on the edge of consciousness. His body ached, his stomach growled in protest to whatever vile concoction the creatures forced on him. He knew he was feverish, the heat in the room and the scent of death and decay making him sluggish as he tried to form coherent thoughts. Someone was calling to him, someone he trusted and he tried to reach out for him, to touch that familiar spirit. A name stayed just beyond his ability to focus, but the face was there. The blue eyes so filled with such intensity they could not be ignored. He tried to speak, but there seemed to be no energy left in him. The effort it took to fight Columber was wearing him down and he knew he didn't have much left. The words flashed in his mind. A vow from the man with the blue eyes, the man who's name he knew, yet could not form the familiar word in his mind.
'I'll find a way to you, Chris ya jest gotta hold on 'til I do!' Chris' head shook as he heard the silent vow and he knew he was not alone.
"...trying..." he whispered as the voices grew louder and the blue eyes disappeared. He lifted his right hand, searching for the comforting touch, but felt only a deep cold as a hand clasped his. He forced his eyes open, crying out as the demonic face hovered above him.
"Welcome back, sweet prince. The master will return in a moment," Lilith cackled through decaying lips, flecks of skin dropping from her putrid face.
Chris tried to turn away as her fetid breath made his tumultuous stomach heave. He felt the bile rise in his throat as she watched him. He tried to tear his gaze away, but the deadly eyes held him enthralled. He coughed as the burning liquid threatened to make a return trip and watched in horror as Galla Shedim appeared holding the cup once more.
"N...no..." the blond spat, finding the strength to fight once more as Tanner's words came back to him.
"Drink the lifeblood of Satan, Christopher," Shedim whispered.
"...Nooooo!" Larabee repeated as the chant was taken up by the writhing bodies vying for a place of honor around his bed.
"Drink...drink...drink...drink..." the single word was repeated again and again from ruined mouths and hideous faces. The swaying bodies were hypnotic as glowing candles were held high above his bed and hot wax dropped onto the blankets.
"Drink of the lifeblood of Satan," Lilith repeated her husband's words as she placed a finger on his chin and forced his mouth open.
"Lifeblood of Satan!" the words came from every mouth in the room and the blond was shocked when he heard his own voice join in the chant. He tried to fight, but the restraints held him fast, making him an unwilling spectator at his own sojourn into darkness.
Chris' eyes widened in terror as the cup was placed at his lips. The thick liquid entered his mouth, covering his tongue as the noxious vapors entered his nostrils. He gagged, but could not rid his body of whatever this new drink was. The drink opened his mind and he knew he would be awake for whatever new visions Columber wanted him to experience. As if thinking about him, the demon appeared beside the bed and Chris watched the others move back as the mirror shimmered to life once more.
"Buckkkk..." the blond's strangled cry revealed the pain he felt as his best friend's image filled the wall.
+ + + + + + +
"This can't be real," Wilmington whispered into the darkness as the room around him shimmered and solidified into something he'd rather forget. He tried to shake off the visions, but found himself unable to stop what was happening.
+ + + + + + +
"It's no...not real, Buck...it's not..." Larabee muttered as the metallic taste invaded his mouth and Columber's laughter filled his head.
"Isn't it?. Watch and relive that night...the night that cost your family's lives. You could have been there if you hadn't been so drunk! All you had to do was refuse that final drink and you could've saved your family!"
"...no..." Chris watched as the scene unfolded and the time before the dark years replayed before his eyes.
+ + + + + + +
"Sarah, we'll be back in three days," Chris vowed, leaning down and kissing her as Buck kept their son occupied.
"I love you, Chris, and I have something to tell you when you come home," she said, smiling as her husband looked into her eyes.
"What is it?"
"Sorry, love, you'll have to wait until you get back. Maybe we'll get Buck to take Adam fishing," the woman suggested as they made it to the corral and Larabee checked Pony's saddle.
"Faster, Uncle Buck, faster," Adam laughed as they rode back to the horses.
"Sorry, Kid, looks like your Pa's ready to go," Wilmington said, depositing the small boy on the ground.
"Can't I go with you?" Adam asked.
"Not this time, Son. I need you to look after your ma for me. Think you can do that for me?" Larabee asked as he hugged his child.
"Sure, Pa. I'll do all my chores and help Ma with hers," the child said excitedly.
"Thanks, Son, I'm glad I got someone can trust to take care of things," Larabee said, kissing his wife once more. He watched as she took Adam's hand and moved to the front of the house. He mounted up and turned to look at his family once more before turning the horses away from the corral.
Buck's eyes grew wide as he watched Sarah drop her hand to her stomach and smile at him. He knew the gesture, had seen it several times while growing up with his mother in the bordellos and whorehouses. Sarah Larabee was pregnant, and had not told her husband yet. Buck would make sure he bought his friend a drink once they reached Mexico...several if they sold the horses. Turning away from the beautiful woman and her son, Buck Wilmington smiled as he looked at his friend's back. Yep, there was reason to celebrate this day.
+ + + + + + +
"I see you remember that day, Christopher. Did you know Sarah was pregnant with your daughter?" Columber asked.
"No...God...no..." he whimpered softly as the mirror shimmered and solidified on a new scene.
"Watch and remember what you did! Why you were not there to save them!"
+ + + + + + +
"Well, Pard, how about a drink or two to celebrate?" Wilmington asked as they walked away from the corral. They'd sold the horses for more than they thought possible and both were elated as they moved down the street.
"It's still early," the blond said, licking at dry lips and smiling at his friend. "Tell you what, Buck, I'll buy the first round."
"Sounds like a plan to me, need to wash some of this trail dust out of my throat," Wilmington said, tipping his hat at two elderly ladies as they passed him.
The blond shook his head at his friend as they continued towards the cantina. The women had both smiled at the rogue and Chris heard one of them comment about what a handsome gentleman he was. They made it to the swinging doors, hurried inside and smiled in surprise at how clean the interior was. Several tables were empty and they quickly made their way towards one at the very back. A dark haired woman hurried to their table and smiled sweetly as she pointed to the menu over the door.
"You hungry, Chris?" Wilmington asked.
"Could go for a good steak," the blond answered.
"Me too," Wilmington said and smiled at the waitress. "We'll have two of your specials and a bottle of your finest whiskey."
"Si, Senor," the woman said as she hurried away.
"Didn't think we'd find a place like this here...kinda reminds me of a little place back in Indiana," Larabee said, smiling at the memory of the restaurant his parents took him with them when they went into town.
"Yeah, think we had one of those places too...Ma was a regular there and the lady who ran the place gave me my first job. I cleared the tables for food...but mostly to be around the owner's daughter. She was a real beauty...dark hair, green eyes..."
"How old were you?"
"Ten," the impish rogue wagged his brows. "I was an early bloomer and that girl was a real beauty!"
"Girl? How old was she?" Larabee asked as the waitress returned.
"I don't know, but she couldn't have been much more'n twenty," the rogue answered and saw the laughter in his friend's eyes.
"Ma always said I set my eyes on the older ones," Wilmington said as Larabee poured two stiff drinks. The two men stopped talking as the waitress brought their meals. Buck's mouth watered at the juicy steak, potatoes, and thick gravy. "Now that's gonna cling to my ribs."
"Yep, you know there's only one thing I like more than steak and potatoes," Larabee said dreamily.
"Sarah's chicken and dumplings," Wilmington finished. They ate the rest of the meal in silence, enjoying the quiet of the cantina, the sharing of memories, and the bottle of whiskey. Appetite sated, the two friends got a fresh bottle and took the path back down the road of years gone by. The laughed at some of the old memories and swallowed down the bitter taste only brought on by war. The hours drifted by and more liquor with it.
+ + + + + + +
"I'm disappointed! I did not think you would stoop so low! What would your pretty wife and your boy think if they'd known the real reason you were late? To think you were indulging in the evils of liquor while your wife and boy were waiting to die!" Columber's laughter filled the room.
"...no...d...didn't..." the blond whispered, shaking his head in an effort to clear the thickening fog.
"Didn't you? Why didn't you leave when you were supposed to. Instead you sat there drinking and laughing while someone murdered your loved ones. They trusted you..."
+ + + + + + +
Chris poured the last of the whiskey into the glasses and knew he was feeling the effects of the drinks. He lifted his glass, and waited for Wilmington to do the same as he spoke in a slurred voice.
"To Sarah's chicken and dumplings!"
"I'll dink ta that!" the ladies man said as they touched their glasses and downed the last of the fiery liquid.
"Well, fuck, Buck!" the blond said and the two men laughed at the way it sounded. I think we'd best get rooms and stay...I don't think I can walk..."
"Think Sarah'll be mad?"
"Nah! We'd fall and bust somethin' and then she'd be really mad!" the blond's words were still slurred as he stood, swayed and caught hold of the table before plopping unceremoniously back in the chair.
"Damn, ol' son, yer drunker'n a skunk!"
"I don't know, just somethin' sounded funny!"
"Yeah, well, it won't sound so damn funny when you wake up with a hangover. Come on, Stud," Larabee smiled as he tried once more to stand up. "Let's get us a room."
"Sounds like a plan to me!" Wilmington said as the exited the cantina into the waning daylight. He frowned as a shadow was cast over his friend and looked up to see a large black crow circling overhead. 'Damn scavengers!' he thought, stumbling along beside his friend.
+ + + + + + +
"See, my dark-souled one, you drank too much and didn't make it home for your family...for Sarah...for Adam...you were selfish and looked after your own needs. It's your fault they died that day!"
+ + + + + + +
"No, Chris, don't believe him! You couldn't have known...we couldn't have known!" Wilmington whispered, tears brimming in his eyes at the thought of what Columber was doing to his friend.
Chris Larabee already harbored the guilt for not being there and now this demon was feeding on that guilt. Buck wanted to turn away from the wall as a new scene shimmered and formed. This was something he prayed he'd forget, but the memory of it was burned into his mind, just as the fire had burned the half the soul out of his friend.
+ + + + + + +
"Well, Stud, bet you can't wait to get home?" Wilmington said, smiling as the final rise came into sight.
"Well, Buck, Sarah and I were kind of hoping you'd take Adam fishing."
"Ah, guess you two need some quality time together. You gonna see about making Adam a brother or sister?"
"Gonna give it a shot," Larabee said, frowning as something caught his eyes.
"Something wrong, Chris?"
"Not sure...Buck! That looks like fire!" Larabee cried, spurring Pony forward as thick black smoke loomed on the horizon.
Buck followed closely on the heels of the other horse, but soon lost ground as the terrified blond raced across the expanse and disappeared over the rise. He heard a bloodcurdling scream that tore the air from his lungs and he knew he had to hurry. Cresting the hill he spotted horse and rider hurtling towards the burning house.
"CHRIS! NO!" Wilmington called. He didn't know where his horse found the energy it needed but he quickly caught up with Pony as Larabee dismounted and raced towards the house. The sound of a terrified scream rent the air and Chris Larabee's world crumbled around him as the blackened remains of the roof and walls shifted and collapsed to the ground.
"SARAH! ADAM!" the heart wrenching cries continued as Wilmington grabbed at Larabee's twisting body. "LET ME GO! SARAH!"
"Chris, No! IT'S TOO LATE!"
"NO! IT CAN'T BE, LEMME THE FUCK ALONE, BUCK!"
"I can't Chris!" the ladies man said, tears of pain and sorrow racing down his cheeks as he fought to keep the blond from entering the fire engulfed remnants of his home. The shadow of a crow sailed across the shell as the windmill in the yard turned slowly in the wind. Time seemed to stand still, but Buck knew it was an illusion and Larabee twisted out of his grip once more. Grabbing hold of the man's white shirt, Buck turned the angered man towards him and lifted is fist. Before the blond could react the fist struck his chin and he fell backwards in the dirt. A second blow connected with his chin as he struggled to sit up. This time Wilmington's tightly clenched fist did its work and Larabee was unconscious before he finished his journey to the ground.
+ + + + + + +
Buck found himself back in the four foot by four foot cell, his clothes stained with black soot and the unmistakable smell of fire surrounding him. He heard a sound and turned to see the wall transform into a huge screen that showed Chris Larabee tied to a bed. One of the walls in the room continued to show the same scene he'd just relived in all its unholy hell. He could hear someone speaking to Larabee and immediately cursed as he recognized the lawyer from Farmington. The sleazy man looked his way, baring red glowing eyes and rows of uneven black teeth. His gaze went to the scene once more as Larabee's shocked voice reached his ears.
"Chris...no...it's not real..." he stammered as he looked into his own smiling face.
+ + + + + + +
Chris tried to come off the bed as he watched the smile come over the mustached face. In his heart he knew what he was seeing was not real, yet his ravaged mind could not separate reality from Columber's evil mind. He closed his eyes, clenching them tightly as he heard his own laughter and slurred words. He hadn't been there to save his precious family because he'd spent the day drinking and talking. He could smell the smoke and fire, could hear the screams, could feel his own heart aching with misery as he relived the loss of his family.
Chris watched as Buck stood and turned to see a woman walk out of the flames. He knew it wasn't real, yet it tore at his heart, fed by the satanic drink he'd ingested.
"No...not real...not real...not real!" Larabee repeated over and over as his family's bodies were consumed by the deadly fire. His soul was torn...ravaged once more as he saw the new reality Columber was showing him.
"He could've saved them! But his lover would not allow that. Look at them...hear their laughter even as Sarah and Adam are burned alive!"
"No...Buck...No...please...God...no more..." The blond tried to twist away as the cup was again placed at his lips and the familiar tasting liquid entered his mouth.
+ + + + + + +
"Leave him alone you bastard!" Wilmington shouted as his friend was forced to drink from a cup. Larabee's eyes glazed over as the thick liquid entered his mouth, leaving a crimson stain on the blond's top lip. He struck out as Chris twisted on the bed, writhing in agony as whatever was in the cup hit his stomach.
"Chris! Godammit just hold on!" he cursed, ignoring the scene as it began again on the wall of Larabee's room. He pounded on the walls of his cell, anger and fear giving him the strength he needed. He heard a faint click and felt cold, fetid air on his neck. Turning slowly his eyes, widened as the spawn of hell solidified in front of him. He took an involuntary step backwards as the creature reached for him. Desiccated flesh hung in ribbons from splintered skeletal arms. The eye sockets were empty, the nasal space hollow, clumps of hair clung to the scalp and bare skull. The mouth was a sickening mixture of flesh and teeth as the bones made grated against one another. The tongue moved and Buck could see pieces tear from the roof of the creature's mouth.
"You are m...i....n...e...!" the creature cackled reaching for him, even as its tongue flicked past its ruined gums. The hand now held a set of manacles as it closed the distance between them.
Buck couldn't speak, the air around him filled with grotesque images and the clattering sounds of chains and moaning floorboards. He knew if he didn't move it would be upon him, but where could he go. He backed up, keeping the creature before him, screaming out as a hand came down on his shoulder and pulled him backwards.
+ + + + + + +
Columber smiled as he stood back and watched Larabee struggle with the turmoil racing through his mind. He turned to the creatures surrounding the bed and smiled as he pointed towards the bed.
"He is ready for the final test! See that the great room is prepared! Tonight is the time of the great feast and tomorrow will herald the rise of a new day such as never been known! Our brethren will join us with the final stroke of the tarnished blade and our dark prince comes home to take his rightful place of honor! Tonight he will shed the blood of an innocent...a brother! Go...see that everything is in readiness!"
Columber turned towards the writhing blond and watched as his body relaxed. The green eyes were wide, but there was none of the light in them...Chris Larabee was there, but his mind was no longer his own.
+ + + + + + +
Buck screamed as his body was pulled backwards and his eyes caught sight of the elongated fingers clutching his shoulders. The creature shifted so that it was directly above him while the second one moved to take its place. His body was lifted and turned, his arms twisted and pulled behind him. He fought, but the evil was too strong and they subdued him easily. An icy talon ran down the length of his spine, sending a chill deep into his bones, surrounding his mind with the horror of what was happening. Of what he was seeing and hearing as a keening wail permeated from the walls of the Inn. His body was lifted and held high above the creatures and carried out of his small prison. He tried to scream, but it felt as if the very breath he tried to take escaped before it entered his lungs.
'God help me,' he thought as the sights, sounds, and smells caused his stomach to rebel and his insides turn to ice.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra knew he had to move, to put the past back where it belonged or he would never be able to face his life again. Marguerite Delacroix was dead and buried, and there was nothing his guilt would do for her now. He needed to help his friends and to do that he had to be able to think and act. The memory he relieved left him feeling weak and drained, but he forced himself to stand and search for a way out of the prison that held him. He needed to help his new family, the people who were alive, the ones who helped him from what could've been a life of loneliness and desperation. A life of cheating that would have ended with him dead at the hands of some irate mark. He used his hands to feel for the walls and hoped something would open his prison and release him. He grimaced as his fingers came in contact with the barriers and something thick and tacky sent shivers through his spine. He knew there was something familiar about the cloying scent that seemed so heavy on the air. The odor could only be one thing...blood and it seemed to be coming from every crevice in the walls, slowly filling his prison. He had to get out before he drowned in the thick sludge as it engulfed his shoes, but there seemed to be no way out of this hellish prison.
+ + + + + + +
Vin knew time was running short. Something felt wrong...something that dealt with his instincts and his connection with Chris Larabee. He'd always been able to sense when something was wrong, but there was nothing there anymore. He renewed his efforts to free himself from his prison and frowned as he felt something warm against his body. The heat was comforting, not painful, and seemed to be coming form within his pocket. He stopped his search and reached for the journal, pulling it out and frowning as he realized the book was glowing with a white light.
"What the hell!" he thought as it seemed to glow brightly in his hand and illuminated the prison. There were so many questions he wanted answered, yet right now he needed to move, to get to his friends and save them. He turned around in the cell and was surprised when the light from the journal shone on an opening barely large enough for him to squeeze through.
"Thanks, Anahita," he whispered as he placed the book inside his pocket once more and knelt in front of the opening. He pushed his body through, wincing as his sides scarped up against the wood. Finally free of the prison he stood up and leaned heavily against the wall. His senses reeled with the onset of evil forces surrounding him and he knew he had to keep the journal safe, but where. As if in answer to his question the object grew warm once more and he removed it from his pocket.
He stood in a narrow corridor, stretching far into the distance, the walls seemed to shimmer and shift, setting off an attack of vertigo, yet he knew it wasn't real. Closing his eyes he forced the sickening sense of nausea away and waited until his stomach calmed. Forcing himself to take deep breaths he opened his eyes once more and watched for some sign that would let him know he had indeed found a haven for the journal. He walked, one step at a time, ignoring the grotesque hands that formed within the walls and reached for him.
They tried to touch him, but there seemed to be something protecting him as the journal glowed brightly. A door loomed ahead, glowing with the same intensity as the book and he knew he'd found what he was looking for even as the hideous creatures moved to surround him. He reached for the handle, smiling as he felt the warmth from within. The door opened easily, revealing a twelve foot by twelve foot room. Candles glowed on the walls, a simple wooden cross was set against the back wall, a small table stood just below the cross and he knew it was the right place to put the journal. He quickly crossed the small room and placed the diary directly under the cross as the two items began to glow.
Taking a deep breath, Vin Tanner did something he seldom did and blessed himself. He'd always believed in God, but was a man who rarely showed that side of himself. Turning away from the feeling of warmth he slowly made his way across the room. This place, this safe haven would be there when he found his friends, and he would bring them back here no matter what it took. With that final thought he stepped into the corridor and closed the door. Blinking his eyes he realized he was in total darkness once more as horrid images flashed through his mind. Death had come to this Inn, but so had life and that life lived on inside the room evading the demonic presence in spite of its strength.
Vin felt the air around him grow heavy as hands reached out for him, sending shockwaves of pain through his body as they quickly subdued him. These creatures were only the beginning, the real evil was waiting for him somewhere within the walls of this evil structure.
+ + + + + + +
Columber reached down and placed his hand upon the wound in Larabee's side. This would confine him to the Inn forever and would not be removed. He felt the splinter move and grow under his touch, yet the dark prince showed no sign of the torment it caused.
"Lilith, Galla, prepare him."
"Yes, Highness," Shedim said as the mass of demons fought each other for the chance to touch their newest conquest. Chris Larabee signaled the onset of the feast and the creatures were hungry for blood. The taste, the smell, the feeding frenzy that would be unleashed when one brother took the life of another. The hour of darkness was almost at hand, but the thirst for blood was only just beginning. Tonight would see them released from the confines of this Inn, and would set the sentinel in his rightful place at the gates.
"I will return for him shortly, but there is something I must do to make sure no one can interfere with the festivities," the high demon said, before shifting into the familiar black crow and flying through the open window.
Galla released the restraints and reached for the unresisting body. They needed to mark him and dress him in the dark robes that would hide his identity from his friends until the time was right to reveal him. He watched as Lilith stepped forward and knew the bowl in her hand contained the ritual blood of the first sacrifice made so long ago. He pulled the dark prince to his feet and smiled at the blank look in the green eyes.
"We must hurry, Lilith for I fear the hunger will consume us before we finish," Shedim said as a circle of robed figures surrounded them completely. Some hung from the ceiling, some clung to the walls, but most continued to fight for space, as if their salvation meant being close to this man.
Lilith smiled as she stepped up to the man who would release them. She placed the bowl in her husband's hands and dipped her right thumb into the thick substance as the familiar chant began once more.
The demoness lifted her hand and showed the blood on her thumb before marking Larabee's forehead with the sign of evil.
Chris could feel the evil surrounding him, but could not fight the hypnotic sway of the demons and the escalating chant from the grotesque creatures. He could not move, could not speak, could not feel, yet he understood what was happening. He screamed, yet no sound escaped as Lillith's thumb touched against his forehead. Her touch burned as she marked him and he found himself joining in the chant as his mind slowly gave in to the evil presence.
"That's right, sweet prince. Tonight is the night of sacrifice and your hand will spill the blood of your brother. Your soul will forever be blackened and your heart will no longer feel anything but death." Lilith quickly marked his chest with the inverted cross and stepped back as her husband moved forward.
Galla stood in front of the chosen one, a black robe draped over both arms.
"This is your ritual cloak, dark prince. It will be worn by you at all times and never be removed," the demon explained as Lilith took one end and stood on Larabee's right side. They lifted the cloak and eased it down over the blond head, carefully avoiding the marks Lilith had made. They eased his arms into the sleeves and sat him back on the bed.
"Soon, sweet prince," Lilith said as the gathered throng watched over their chosen one.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra pressed against the walls, leaning heavily as he sought a way out of his prison. He had no idea how long he searched, but knew he could not quit. Too many people depended on him and he would not let them down. As if something heard him the wall seemed to crumble under his touch and he felt through the opening he made. He cried out as bright light nearly blinded him, but blinked rapidly in an effort to clear his vision. What he saw could not be real, yet he knew it was...he'd found his way out, but had landed in hell.
"Buuuccckkkk!" Standish stammered as hands latched onto his arm and began to drag him into the candle lit room. There were so many the heat from them made him perspire as he was forced to kneel and his arms were held behind his back. Wilmington was being passed from one demon to the next, held high over head until he was dropped beside the gambler.
"Ez...Ezra...the hell's goin' on?" the ladies man asked as they were dragged forward.
"I don't know...I don't think I w...want to..."
"What the hell is it they're singing!"
"...n...not singing...chanting...some kind of chant!"
"Jesus!" Wilmington cursed as he saw their destination.. The hideous creatures continued to chant, their dark robes hiding the grotesque forms as the horde pulled the captives forward. They tried to fight, but they were no match for the legion of demons surrounding them and soon found themselves kneeling in a circle of darkness.
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They'd been riding through the hottest part of the day, making very little headway and yet they would not give up. Even their horses seemed to understand it was necessary to go on. The heat swam ahead of them giving the land a surreal quality that added to the journey they were undertaking. A journey they hoped would end in the banishment of evil, but could very well end with the destruction of the world. Josiah saw it first, perched on the desiccated trunk of a long dead tree. The eyes were wrong, yet he understood what he was seeing. This was not a simple harbinger of death; this crow represented the annihilation of the human race. He drew his horse to a halt, knowing his two companions would do the same.
"Josiah?" Dunne asked, his voice laced with uncertainty as he looked at the bird before them. It seemed to grow, stretching and melding into a new shape as they watched. The crow soon turned into a man, but the eyes continued to glow a deep crimson color as the mouth turned up into a hideous smile.
"You are looking into the face of evil, JD...remember it and never turn your back on it!" Sanchez said, grabbing the younger man's arm as JD went to turn away. "Face it, Son, for what you can face you can defeat!"
"Josiah's right, JD, we need you...the others need you," Jackson said.
"How very true, Nathan Jackson!" the smooth voice seemed to come from inside their heads as the vile creature before them remained still. "They need you, but you will not be able to help them. Leave now and perhaps I will spare you..."
"We will not forsake our brothers!" Sanchez vowed.
"But you will arrive too late to save them and you will die with them!"
"If the good Lord means for us to die then so be it, but we will not let you have them...any of them!" the ex-preacher said.
"What can a defrocked priest know, Josiah Sanchez? Your God will not help you because you have lost faith in him!"
"That's where you're wrong, dark angel. I have not lost faith in God. I had lost faith in me! We will save the others and bring Chris Larabee home!"
"You can't stop us!" Jackson spat contemptuously.
"We're stronger than you think!" Dunne told the newcomer.
"Perhaps you are, but you will be too late...you already are in fact. Chris Larabee has already surrendered his mind to me and tonight, when the red veined moon is high overhead, and the stars begin to dim he will take the life of his brother and his soul will be mine forever!"
"NO!" Sanchez shouted as the shape shifted back into a crow and flew off.
"Come on, Josiah, JD, we need to get moving!" Jackson insisted.
"How much further?" Dunne asked as the black speck disappeared in the distance.
"Not far, Son. Satan is toying with us and has been blinding us to what we need to see. Open your minds and your hearts and let God guide us from here on. We must not let the devil control what is happening...for their sakes as well as ours!" Sanchez told them and urged his mount forward once more.
"The Lord is my Sheppard I shall not want.
He maketh me to Lie Down in Green Pastures;
He Leadeth me beside the still waters.
He Restoreth my soul;
He leadeth me in the paths of Righteousness for his namesake.
Yea tho I walk thru the Valley of the Shadow of Death,
I shall Fear no Evil,
For thou art with me
thy Rode and Staff Comfort me..." he continued to repeat the psalm, and his voice was joined by Nathan and JD's as they took the path that could lead them to hell.
+ + + + + + +
They dragged him along the corridor, tearing at his shirt with razor sharp claws that lacerated the flesh underneath. Vin clenched his teeth, digging in his heels in an effort to slow their journey. The mass parted, pushing him along until he stood before a set of iron doors. Each one held a carving of demonic beings standing before an altar of blood. The handles were bones, and Vin had little doubt that they were human. He stood his ground as a chant began and the doors began to swing inwards.
Again he was moved forward, his legs rubbery as the noxious scent of sulphur and something intoxicatingly sweet assaulted his senses. Candles cast a flickering light over the immense chamber as the swaying multitude continued the now familiar chant. He felt his body grow heavy, his mind dulled by whatever was in the air. A hand, oozing green fluids, clamped down on his shoulder and he stood still as a bent and disfigured creature stepped in front of him. He tried to speak, but the glowing green eyes held him enthralled as his clothes were stripped from his body and a black silk robe was draped over him and again he was led forward until the hand stopped him once more. He felt alone, defenseless and very vulnerable to the throng of on looking creatures, yet he could do nothing to stop what was happening. His eyelids were heavy and he fought to keep them open as several more hands touched him, lifting his body and lying him on something cold. He stared upwards, aware of nothing beyond the sound of the chant and the cloying scent that permeated the great room. His lips moved and he tried to speak, but nothing but air escaped.
Buck and Ezra heard the difference as the chanting intensified and the demons before them parted to reveal an altar of stone and ivory. A red clothe was draped over the top, inverted crosses on each side, a black candle sat on each corner, casting an evil glow over the entire scene.
None of this registered on the two men as their eyes lit on the area on the opposite side of the altar. Vin Tanner was being led towards them, but did not seem to hear or see anything.
"Vin!" Standish called.
"Jesus! Vin! Wake up!" Wilmington shouted, wincing as something struck him between the shoulder blades. Still there was no movement as Tanner's body seemed to levitate until it was stretched out on the sacrificial altar. Buck turned to see the horror on the conman's face and knew his own showed the same terrified emotion. This was the dream he'd had before, the only difference was that Chris Larabee was nowhere to be seen. Something told him it would not remain that way for long.
+ + + + + + +
The night sky quickly gave way to morning, yet there was no lessening of the evil air surrounding them. The ground underfoot quickly changed from the dusty brown to a lifeless circle of blackened earth. The animals they rode shuddered and shied away, but the three men held them to the course set before them. An aura of light surrounded the trio, protecting them and the horses they rode from the deadly curse that took the lives of so many creatures. Bones, blackened and brittle lay in piles around them as the earth churned in living turmoil. Cries of pain, long since screamed reached their ears and the friends tried to ignore them, but there was no denying the death throes they were seeing. Animal spirits formed and dissipated in the blink of an eye, but nothing deterred the men from their mission.
"I see it, JD," Sanchez answered as a structure seemed to form before their eyes.
"Is that the place we've been looking for?" Jackson asked as the evil wind hurtled lancing grains of sand and small pebbles into their faces. If asked to describe the sensation the healer would've described it as tiny needles piercing the skin and driving into a man's very soul.
"It is, Brother, and it will not take us long to get there. Do not be fooled by anything you may see or hear. We stay together and fight for our brethren. JD, you will stay between me and Nathan at all times!"
"JD, whether you realize it or not you still have the innocence of youth on your side..."
"Josiah, I am not a kid..."
"That's not what I'm saying, JD. There are times when you're more of a kid than you realize, but that is not meant as an insult. It simply means that where evil is present your soul stands out. Nathan and myself and the others have lived through things that you are just beginning to see and understand. It is not a fault of yours, but it is a fact of life. With age comes experience and yours is only just beginning. They will single you out because your soul is the least touched by the evil that can and does walk the earth. Ride between us, JD, and have faith in your own abilities...that's what's going to get us through the days ahead," Sanchez said as he moved to JD's right and Nathan moved to his left.
The sky was no longer the bright blue that came with sunrise over the dessert. Instead crimson colors clouded the area, swirling in and around them. A kaleidoscope of colors that blinded everything else and gave the landscape a bloodied hue that nauseated any living for within its circle. The trio rode on, knowing the battle was just ahead of them and that they were not waiting for it to come to them. They would face what lay ahead with the hope of a bright future, no matter how bleak things looked right now.
+ + + + + + +
Room 17 was awash with demons, writhing in anticipation of the coming feast. It was only a matter of time before they escorted The Chosen One to the great hall where the sacrifice would be readied and the bloodletting would signal the oncoming darkness. The swaying, grotesque images waiting anxiously for the strength they would gain from the sacrificial lamb.
Lilith smiled as the high priest returned and inspected the cloaked figure standing within the circle of demons. She knew her own form was still grotesquely misshapen, and vowed to do anything to get back in Satan's good graces.
"You have done well, Lilith."
"Thank you, Highness," the demoness said, smiling lewdly at the quiet figure standing before them.
"Is all in readiness? Have you captured the others and positioned them properly?"
"Yes, Highness. Galla has them ready for you. The great hall is in readiness and the sacrificial lamb is prepared."
"Very well," Columber smiled, showing the blackened teeth as he circled the still figure of Chris Larabee. The potion, a mixture of blood and herbs would make this man pliable to suggestions. "Hello, Dark Prince, soon you will be taking the place you were born to fulfil. Can you feel the evil inside you, waiting to surface?"
There was no sound from the black robed figure standing in the center of the room. His eyes stared straight ahead, mouth set in a thin line, arms at his side, body taut and rigid. The crimson colored marks were bright against the too pale skin of the gunslinger's face.
Columber reached forward and touched his hand against the wound in Larabee's side, smiling as the blond reacted to the shifting splinter within his body. This would be a part of the Dark Prince forever, bonding him to the Inn where he would live out his life for all eternity.
Somewhere deep inside what was left of Chris felt the pain of the shifting missile and tried to pull away from it, but his body and mind were still one. He would feel everything that was done to him, and knew for a certainty that he would know everything he did to others. Satan's hand continued to touch him, banking he fires of hell around his heart and burning them into his mind. He wanted to fight, yet there was nothing he could do against the inferno of the hellish nightmare he was living through. He heard and saw the demons around him, and understood why he was here. There was nothing left for him, but pain...the pain of utter defeat at the hands of the demonic presence surrounding him.
"Come, Dark Prince. It is time to bleed out the pure and innocence and start the bloodletting that will bring on the new harvest. You will feel the strength as you taste of Vin Tanner's blood! You will no longer fight the evil that has festered in your heart for so long! You will be a Sentinel...the strongest there as ever been and you will herald the rise of a new day of darkness such as never been known before! Bring him!"
Taloned hands clamped onto his arms and Chris felt himself being propelled out of the room and along a darkened corridor. Candles flickered around him, sending demonic shadows creeping along the wall. He cringed as something touched his face and yet, he could not stop them.
'Columber is Satan' he thought as the man stepped in front of him and led the way to their new destination. He tried again to break through the dark thoughts now clouding his mind, but to no avail. Whatever was ahead did not bode well for any of them, and he understood no matter what happened he would be trapped in his own body. That although his subconscious would fight against the horror surrounding him he would have no free will of his own. He would be as evil as the creatures surrounding him and would be the reason for the darkness that befell the world.
'No...no...no!' He thought he screamed the words, but they were a silent mantra that only he could hear. At least that's what he thought until Columber stopped them before a set of double doors and turned to face him once more.
"I can still feel you fighting, Christopher, but that will stop soon enough. When I open these doors you will meet your fate, one that was set in stone years ago. Look, and you will see one last vision that will prove exactly why you are the chosen one." Columber waved his hand and the dark stones shimmered and shifted until Chris looked upon something he thought was a dream, but now he realized it was something he'd lived through, but could not understand how or why he was so sure of this. His eyes widened as he watched the scene unfold before his eyes.
The music was soft, the crystal chandelier hung from the sedately decorated ceiling high above the heads of the lively guests. Two sets of eyes met across the dance floor, seeking each other out through the crowds of writhing bodies. Long black tuxedo clad legs stepped into the melee and green eyes sought out the beauty his eyes longed to see. He smiled as he caught sight of the blond tresses framing the face of an angel. She was the guest of honor. One he hoped would agree to be his tonight. As he reached the center of the ballroom the face he had come to love stood directly in front of him. He reached out and took the white gloved hand in his own, smiling contentedly as the twinkling blue eyes met his own. The music continued, but they remained still, enchanted by each other and ignoring everything around them. A silent bond held them to each other, one that would prove beyond a doubt that they were meant to be together. This Inn had been chosen for it's elegance and charm as a place where they would finally seal their bond in a lifetime of love.
Above them, unseen by the party goers, ghastly figures waited for the feeding frenzy to begin. Demons with twisted torsos and skeletal arms waited for the signal that harvesting of new blood and flesh could begin. A lone figure stood at the front, watching the two figures meet in the center of the throng of twisting, unsuspecting bodies. Red eyes glowed in anger as the couple lost themselves in a warm embrace. This woman was meant to be his, his reward for serving the darker side of life. This man was inconsequential in the midst of his wanting need, yet the man's soul seemed to be the real reward. To take that soul, strong in the fight that had saved his own soul would prove that he was stronger than others of his kind.
He turned to his silent followers, smiling as his legions of death could not meet his eyes. This was his victory, and he would celebrate in the taste of flesh and blood. He felt the Inn surrounding him, a living structure that he was linked to. His home whenever he was allowed time in the light and warmth of the living world. He felt it breath expectantly as he stepped out onto the landing and once more gazed at the couple. They would both die this night, but the man's soul would be his, a victory to the dark side as the strong soul was pulled deeper into the darkness he'd once beaten.
"The time has come, Children. The blood of those spilled tonight will feed us in the trying times to come. You will not touch the man or woman," he ordered, knowing his legion of demons would know who he was speaking of. 'Tonight's victory will seal my fate and place this Inn in the world of light forever!' he thought.
The red eyes glowed with the promise of fire and death as he led his followers towards the delicious temptation of unsuspecting flesh and blood.
Chris watched the figure standing at the top of the spiral staircase as it caused his heart to stop and his lungs to constrict. He heard the screams surrounding him and reached for the woman he held. Not really understanding who she was, yet knowing he had to get her to safety, he dragged her towards an open door. Winged creatures flew over his head, swooping down on the screaming guests frozen in the center of the floor. They were all strangers to him and he knew instinctively they were not meant to live through this unholy night, yet he needed to free this woman.
The door loomed ahead of him, but the opening was now covered by a demonic creature. Blood dripped from canine incisors, elongated fingers were covered in the flesh of a former victim. Red eyes glared at them as the crimson lips opened and a swarm of locusts flew from it's writhing mouth. He felt them enshroud his body, yet they didn't touch him. He pulled the woman towards him, terrified by the sense that her body was being devoured. He watched as blood ran in rivulets from the tiny wounds the insects inflicted. He heard the large creature in the door, yet he ignored what it said as he tried to protect her. The woman turned to him and spoke quickly.
"You must find the journal and heed the..."
Chris gasped as the creature pulled her from his arms and twisted her perfect body until it snapped in two. Its high pitched cackles sent shivers of fear down his spine, working fingers of death into his mind and causing a scream of agony to erupt from his own mouth. He saw the razor sharp talons reach for him and screamed.
"NO!" as pain erupted in his left forearm.
As quickly as the vision started it stopped and Columber turned to face his chosen prince once more. His eyes glowed with demonic intensity, his face set in a grimace of hatred that could not be denied. Again he reached forward and touched the blond's side, smiling as the blood welled up around his finger as he spoke.
"She was to be my reward, Christopher, but you turned her eyes that night. It may not have been you, as you are now, but you remember it don't you? You remember that night as easily as I do. You were not supposed to be there that night! You were never supposed to see her! She was to be mine, but you were too much of a temptation for her. She turned away from me and everything I stand for, but she did not escape me as you did. She is trapped within these walls and will serve me for all eternity in much the same way you do! Oh, this is such a delicious fate...I will own not only your soul, but hers and will keep you both near me forever."
Chris listened to the litany of words from the demon's mouth and fought the solitude he was trapped in. He knew his strength, his will was quickly leaving him as fiery pain roared through his mind and body. Using every ounce of stubbornness he had left he forced one word past clenched teeth and stared Satan in the face.
"NO!" Instantly he wondered if the effort was worth it as the pain intensified and he knew he was going to collapse. He felt cold hands grabbing him as his body sagged, but he was not given the opportunity to lose consciousness. Something was placed before his mouth and the sickly sweet scent he'd grown so familiar with invaded his nostrils. He tried to turn away, but several more pairs of hands clamped down on him and his mouth opened to partake of the repulsive mixture. He felt the thick fluid hit the back of his throat and felt his body rebel against it, but he knew he would not be allowed to vomit as hands clamped over his mouth and nose. He lost track of time as he tried to breath past the nauseating drink that burned his throat until he swallowed it, and the bile that rose up in his throat.
Columber watched as the blond's face went slack and the emotional display of seconds before disappeared as the drink once more took hold and lulled him into the black void once more. He smiled as he lifted he hood until it covered the catatonic man and finally turned back to the big doors once more. Holding his hands high, fingers splayed in front of his head he watched as the doors opened and the mass of bodies began to chant.
"Behold the high priest of Hell!" Galla Shedim chanted as the swaying demons continued to stretch and writhe in frenzied anticipation of the upcoming feast.
Columber moved through the doors hands held high for all to see what he held between his taloned fingers.
+ + + + + + +
The Inn loomed ahead, darkly ominous against the backdrop of crimson sky and blackened earth. Nothing moved within the realm of evil except the trio of riders racing against the harbingers of evil. Tonight there would be a fight such as never been seen in all the lands. A Holy war that would see either light or darkness dominate the world they lived in. The trio were wrought with fear for their friends' lives, but they would not give into those thoughts. They had to believe that God was leading them towards their destiny and would be there to show them the way to defeat the evil. A warm glow seemed to brighten around the three peacekeepers as the distance between themselves and the Inn diminished with bone jarring steps.
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Ezra heard the commotion at the door and strained to see around the twisting mass of darkly robed figures. They tried to use the distraction to escape, but putrescent fingers clamped down on their shoulders, singing their flesh as they cried out in pain. Forced to remain on their knees both men tried to see who or what this newcomer was.
Vin couldn't move, but his body reacted to the turmoil of the air as the door opened and a new evil entered the Hall. He tried to turn his head, but his body felt weighed down. someone had opened the robe, exposing his well tanned chest to the air and drawing an inverted cross above his heart. He didn't know the reasons for the marking, but understood it didn't bode well for him. Whatever was about to happen was something he didn't want to think about, but his mind was open to the evil around him. The air crackled as someone entered the room and he heard a sharp gasp from the side of the altar. Again he tried to turn, but couldn't, yet he knew who was in the room. Closing his eyes tightly, Vin concentrated on the shift in his own subconscious and tried to speak through the unspoken connection.
'Chrissssss,' he thought, feeling the cold heat of hell lap at his body as the throng of demons parted and footsteps sounded across the floor. He knew he was totally helpless to stop what was happening and yet there was a spark of hope inside him that he could not explain.
'Vin...help...Vin...' Chris was helpless to fight the well of black evil cloying at his mind. He tried calling, but no sound escaped and he knew the concoction he'd been given was once more damping his will, making it impossible for him to fight anymore.
Buck and Ezra were held enthralled as the man they knew as Columber held a vicious looking dagger high above his own head. The creature, who they now understood was Satan in another form, advanced on the altar and they tried to reach for the Texan lying so pale and still before them.
"VIN, WAKE UP!" Wilmington and Standish cried at the same time.
"No...oh God...!" the ladies man whispered in dejected defeat as the high priest of hell stood over the exposed chest of the Texan.
Columber smiled as he stood over the altar, smiling grotesquely at the unmoving man. He turned and held his hands high as the mass of demons swelled and moved forward. With them The Chosen One was carried forward along with the promise of a dark future. He looked at the two men kneeling before the sacrificial lamb and knew they could not interfere in the upcoming ritual. Their blood would be used to solidify and consummate the beginning of a reign of darkness, never before heard or talked of.
Vin could watch, but he couldn't move or speak. He knew Columber was Satan and understood he was watching the onset of his own death as another cloaked figure was marched towards him.
'Chris,' he thought, his eyes opening wider as the figure was stopped before him. Without seeing the face, Vin knew who it was and tried to reach for him.
"Fight 'im, Lar'bee!'
Chris felt the familiar sensation and fought to hold onto his own soul, straining to once more take control of his own life, and forced his eyes open.
Across time and distance the eyes met...green and blue...filled with hope that they could defeat the evil permeating through the Inn. The coldness surrounding them seemed just a bit warmer, but it changed again as The familiar chant started out low, and built toward a cataclysmic sound.
Chris fought to hold onto what little of his soul was still his as he stared into the Texan's eyes.
Tanner tried to answer, but no words came out as he watched Columber force something into his friend. The eyes he'd clung to were no longer green, but glowed a ghastly red, and Vin felt a deep chill wash over his body. The special connection he felt with this man seemed to be nonexistent as if nothing was left of he Chris Larabee he knew and called brother.
'Chris,' he thought, but there was no answering call from the blond.
Buck and Ezra could only watch as Satan reached up to lift the hood from the newcomer's head. They knew instinctively they'd found Chris Larabee, but there was nothing they could do to help him as the glowing red eyes, set in the pale face glared down at them, before turning back to the tracker.
"Chris!" the two men cried, as Columber placed something in Larabee's outstretched hands.
+ + + + + + +
Outside the wind whipped around the peacekeepers as they entered the yard of the Inn. The high columns and ramshackle appearance of the structure was mystifying to them, but they did not question the need to enter the building and seek out their friends before it was too late. Dismounting the trio led the horses into the barn, smiling as they spotted four familiar horses.
"I'll take care of 'em," Dunne assured them.
"There's no need, Son. They'll be fine where they are until we return for them," Sanchez said, placing a hand on the younger man's shoulder.
"Are you sure, Josiah? I mean they're tired...need feed and water...."
"I know, JD, but we need to find the others first. I know you're..."
"Don't say it, Josiah! I'm not scared..."
"Then you're a fool, JD, because right now you would be justified to be scared. I know I am..."
"So am I," Jackson agreed as he stood by the Bostonian's opposite shoulder.
"Of course. This is not an ordinary fight, Son. It's not one we can win with a gun and bullets. This fight will be won by the strength of soul of God's children. That's who we are...all of us...each and every man, woman and child is depending on us to keep the light in this world. Do you think you can handle the burden?"
"I don't know...not by myself," the easterner said truthfully.
"You won't have to, JD. As long as we're together we can fight the evil. We may see things in here that were not meant for mortal man, but we cannot shy away from them. We must project a united front and make sure the demonic presence is unable to divide and conquer us. I know it sounds impossible, but remember what's in your heart and don't let the devil inside," Sanchez told him.
"I won't!" the young man vowed as they left the relative safety of the barn.
+ + + + + + +
Strong hands wrapped around the hilt of the knife as Chris was maneuvered into position. Somewhere deep inside he fought to retain his hold on sanity, but with each chilling breath he knew he was losing his free will. The droning voices were hypnotizing as the bodies of the undead swayed. With candles held high, they illuminated the unholy scene before them.
Unable to do anything to stop what was about to happen, Buck and Ezra were rendered mute in horror. Right before their shocked eyes, Chris Larabee accepted the long bladed dagger and held it above Vin Tanner's heart. Straining against the powerful demons holding them, the two men gasped for breath as the oppressive air grew heavy . The scent of burning candles added to the weight in the room as terror filled their hearts.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah placed his hand against the battered remnants of what was once a door and pushed with all his strength. He felt Nathan and JD join him as they sought entry to the structure looming high above them. It now dominated the entire sky above them blocking out everything as if it were growing with each shove of their hands. It screeched on its hinges before opening wide on the maw of darkness inside.
"Josiah, are you sure this is the place?" Dunne asked, voice quivering with raw emotion.
"JD, ask yourself that question and I'm certain you will have the answer," Sanchez said, stepping through the doorway.
"I...I..." the Bostonian stammered as he stepped over the threshold and stood next to the bigger man. Jackson came next and the trio gathered their courage as the house seemed to breathe around them.
"This way," the ex-preacher ordered and began leading them along the corridor. The darkness was cloying as the scent of burning wax permeated. . Cobwebs and spiders cast ominous shadows on the walls as if lit by an unholy fire from below. The sound of voices rose high above them, shaking the rafters as dust billowed down upon them. Josiah kept them moving, undaunted by the stench of disease and decay surrounding them. He heard someone retch and turned to see Nathan Jackson wipe his mouth before moving forward once more. They entered a large foyer that opened on a spiral staircase that had seen better days. The sound of chanting escalated, building to a catastrophic climax as they neared a doorway that led below the staircase.
"This is it, JD, Nathan. What lies beneath either escapes to spread disease upon the world or we defeat it and send it back where it belongs. Are you ready?"
"Yes," the two men answered and followed Josiah into the depths of hell. The ex-preacher's voice drowned out the hypnotic chant with words that were familiar to the two men with him. Thunder echoed through the darkness as lightning flashed from within the realm of hell they'd entered. Josiah's voice grew in direct proportion to the unholy battle that was about to take place. Creatures, great and small waited anxiously for the outcome of the war between dark and light.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death: I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over..."
+ + + + + + +
Buck and Ezra watched entranced as the deadly blade began a slow, unwavering decent towards the exposed chest of Vin Tanner. Around them the writhing, swaying demons continued the monotonous drone.
"Chris! Jesus, don't do this!" Wilmington screamed as he tried to pull free, but was forced back to his knees next to the equally struggling gambler. Tears of frustration welled in his eyes as he watched his long time friend being forced to do something that would darken his own soul forever and destroy everything he'd ever lived for.
"Please, Chris, don't do this! I know you're in there somewhere and I need you to fight the bastard!" The rogue's voice began to grow hoarse as things seemed to happen in slow motion.
"Chris, That's Vin! Look at him!" Standish raged as the candles cast the blades shadow across the crimson colored walls.
Somewhere deep inside, Chris Larabee heard the voices and knew they were calling to him. Weakened by a darkness that had begun spreading when he discovered the death of his dreams, Chris could not find the will to fight it any longer and felt the hatred grow to encompass his heart. His eyes glowed with a crimson tide that flooded the whites and shimmered behind the pupil. His lips curled up in a snarl, and his fingers tightened around the hilt of the knife.
Vin couldn't move, but he could hear the chant, the worried shouts from Buck and Ezra, yet he couldn't answer them. He could smell the death and decay surrounding him, and feel the cold of the slab of rock he lay on. He shivered as his eyes locked on the ones above him. Gone was the familiar green that could glare down the deadliest of gunfighters...instead a crimson tide flooded the orbs, drowning out the pupils and surrounding them with shifting mists of red.
'Chris, ya can stop this!' the Texan silently pleaded as bit by bit the lethal weapon continued its murderous journey. He saw the lips curl up in an evil imitation of Larabee's grin and Vin knew beyond a doubt his friend was no longer there. A new sound joined the chanting and both warred for dominance in the spacious chamber. A sound so familiar it rocked the Texan to the core and gave hope where none was before.
"Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever."
The name screamed from five mouths as the blade made its final approach and Vin saw Larabee's arm waver momentarily, but not enough to stop the strike he'd started.
Chris stared into the blue depths, but he was no longer the gunslinger who'd stared across a dusty street to meet his destiny. No trace of the man who'd loved with tremendous passion remained. In his place stood an empty shell that was easily possessed by the demonic aura that oozed from every crack, every crevice, every creature hell had spawned. From the deepest recess a blackened soul encompassed the man who had once been Chris Larabee and in its wake was an insurmountable evil that cared not what happened to the mortal shell it now owned. The soul that once lived within was now a small spark that would be extinguished with little effort once death came calling for the victim on the altar. The knife began the downward arc once more as demonic laughter reverberated off the decaying walls.
The shock wave of pain raged through Vin's body as the silver sharp point slipped through his flesh, glancing off a rib and burying itself deep in his body. The last thing he saw was the stunned look on Larabee's face as he slipped over the edge into darkness.
Josiah, Nathan, and JD raced through the sickening demonic presence as Columber's cry of Victory rose above the now silent chamber, echoing off the walls and screaming through the foundation of the Inn. The walls seemed to breathe of their own volition, drinking in the sight and smell of fresh blood as it pooled around the hilt of the deadly blade.
Columber's eyes glowed red with the strength of his victory and he raised his hands as his followers cleared a path for the newcomers. Where moments before there was a screaming vortex of emotions, now there was an ominous silence as if the death of the last innocent had taken place. Columber reached for Larabee's arm and turned him to face his friends, smiling at the crimson stains on his hands. He waited until the trio of peacekeepers stood before him and lifted his hands high in the air.
"Behold The Dark Prince! The Chosen One who will keep the gates open so that we shall rule this world and begin a reign darkness and disease upon the people who live there!"
"You're wrong, Columber or Satan or whatever other names you choose to call yourself! The gate may have been opened, but it will be closed by our hands today and your kind will remain in hell where you belong!" Sanchez said as Jackson released Standish and Dunne did the same for Wilmington. The evil surrounding them did nothing as Columber's laughter rose up through the air and enveloped them all.
"I will allow you to take those two, Preacher Man, but the other two stay. The Dark Prince has killed his brother and now they will both serve me. If you leave now I shall not follow and you can find someplace to hide until I have time to hunt you down and take what is rightfully mine!"
"We will not leave until we finish what we came here for!" Sanchez warned. He felt the other four men move towards him, two on either side, shoulder to shoulder in a holy symbol of brotherhood. "You can not have them!"
"I already own them, Holy Man. Chris Larabee's soul is now truly black with the spilling of Vin Tanner's blood. He will live in hell with the knowledge that he murdered his friend in cold blood." Thunder crashed within the walls as an unholy cacophony of screams began to grow. Wind howled through the building shaking the roof and sending showers of noxious smelling dust and debris down on their heads. Yet through the hellacious roar, Josiah's voice rose easily above it, bathing the demons in a burning testimony that seared the evil within.
"Look behind you, Columber, for he has not killed Vin Tanner. Even with your evil influence Chris could not kill his brother. He is alive and will remain that way. Behold the word of The Lord...for He is our savior and protector. He is the one who banished the evil from this world and lives on through us...His children!" Sanchez reached into his pocket and removed the bible from within. He carried it with him always, but never before had the gold embossed cross glowed with such brilliance.
"NO!" Columber screamed as he watched the tiny light grow and spread. Long tendrils of warmth spread out over the demons present sending their bodies into a twisted macabre dance as their screams bounced off the walls and ceiling.
"Go back to hell where you belong!" Wilmington and Standish screamed as James Clark tried to get past them. Standish's arm snaked out and latched onto the murderer's elbow, shoving him back into the throng of writhing bodies.
"Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death: I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me: Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over...Be gone, Satan! You are not wanted here!" Sanchez shouted.
"This is my domain! You cannot influence me here!"
"Can't I? Look around you...what do you see?" Josiah watched as the demon scanned the area closest to him.
Columber watched as his followers tried to get away from the burning light cast from the small cross. His face burned red as his own body reshaped into another form, one with glowing eyes, serpent skin, and small protuberances on either side of the head. His true form was gruesome and he knew it would chill even the most devout of humans, but the men before him showed none of the terror he sought. The cries of his own worshippers told him they were losing the battle against the light surrounding them and he watched as his newest convert, James Clark slowly succumbed to the white fire around him and his body exploded in a mixture of dust and other organic material.
"You may have won this round, Sanchez, but your God is weak and I have not lost everything! I will take what is rightfully mine and leave you trapped in the living hell you're in. Come, Dark Prince..."
"You can't take him!" Wilmington spat, moving forward and grabbing Larabee's arm.
"He is no longer of your world...he is The Chosen One and will follow me!"
"No...Chris Larabee stays here!" Sanchez vowed.
"He is no longer Chris Larabee! Look into his eyes and see the truth of my words!"
Buck gasped as he locked eyes with his long time friend. No sign of the man he knew remained there. The orbs glowed with an evil light that set his nerves on end and cut him to the bone.
"C...Chris," he whispered, but there was no answering sound from the blond.
"He will not answer!" Columber laughed and released the blond's arm. "I believe I will leave him here with you. Perhaps I shall even check on your progress, but I will return for him since the door has been opened and will remain so until Vin Tanner succumbs to his wound. When that happens we shall return to take our proper place and The Dark Prince will again be at my right side! Do not try to leave The Inn for it will kill your friend. He is tied to it now and always will be!"
"You bastard!" Wilmington cursed as the demonic presence blurred and shimmered before disappearing in a cloud of angry dust and fire. Buck grabbed for his friend as Larabee seemed to wilt once the demonic strength was removed.
Nathan rushed to the Altar and winced at the sight of the blood dripping onto the black altar. He knew he shouldn't move the injured man, but the evil surrounding the slab of stone sent chills down his spine. He felt Sanchez touch him and knew the older man would help him in any way he could. He heard Wilmington and Standish behind him and knew they were tending the unconscious blond.
Tanner looked lifeless, the skin almost translucent in appearance as the blood continued to leave his body. Afraid of what he'd find, but needing to know, the healer's hand moved to the neck, seeking some sign that the man was still with them. He released the breath he'd been holding as he felt a flutter beneath his fingertips. Turning his gaze towards the ex-preacher, Jackson asked.
"How did you know?"
"The Lord works in mysterious ways, Nathan, and sometimes he lets us be privy to things we are not supposed to know or see. We need to get him and Chris out of here."
"I need to get the knife out and stop the bleeding first!" Jackson said.
"Use this!" Sanchez said, passing the cloth he usually wrapped the bible in.
"Are you sure?"
"It is being used for good, Nathan," the older man said and watched as his friend eased the knife from the prone body. The smell of death was strong in the room and he knew they had to escape before the sickness surrounding them penetrated their bodies and minds.
"We need to keep him flat!" Jackson said.
"Hold on! JD, give me a hand!" Sanchez called as he moved to the big double doors hanging by its hinges.
"Buck, how's Chris?" the healer asked
"He's burning up, Nathan! You need to take a look at him!" Wilmington answered.
"All right. You come here and put pressure on this!" Jackson ordered and shifted as he heard movement behind him.
"I've got it, Buck. You stay with Chris!" Standish told him, patting the bigger man's shoulder before taking over for Jackson.
"Thanks, Ez," Wilmington sent his gratitude through the two words as he waited for Jackson to look after his friend.
Nathan knelt opposite the ladies' man and shook his head at the heat rising from the unconscious man. His hand touched against the two marks on Larabee's chest and he prayed the wounds would not scar. His attention was drawn to the bloodied bandage on the gunslinger's right side and he tried to ease the material away from the wound. It remained in place, stuck there by the dried blood that adhered it to the red, swollen skin.