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The battle inside the Inn may have ended, but outside the circle of corruption boiled and rolled, churning up the black soil and revealing death and decay underneath. The Inn stood at the exact epicenter, breathing in the scent of death as a holy presence moved inside its walls. The sand began to churn in a turbulent tunnel of swirling, shifting winds and rose high above the gabled roofs. Screams rattled the broken panes of glass as hideous creatures fought their way back to the hell that had spawned them. A cloven hoofed figure stood perched atop the highest peak, the eyes glowing blood red as it watched victory snatched from its claws.
"Savor your empty victory, mortals, because it will be a short one!"
The vortex reached its perch, but was not felt by Columber as his body rapidly morphed into several creatures at once. There would be no help for those within the Inn's walls this day and he would take his revenge and would see six bodies stretched naked and their skin shriveled and dried by the sun. He watched as his strongest minions clawed their way to the roof and bowed before him.
"The Dark Prince is still mine, but they will try to claim him. We will allow them this small victory, for ours will be far greater with their deaths. Look to the darkness and you shall be free!" Columber smiled as the chant began and knew all was not lost.
+ + + + + + +
"What's he saying?" Wilmington asked as Larabee's eyes remained open and staring. The red glow shimmered as if the eyes themselves were alive with unholy light.
"I don't know," Jackson said as he continued to examine the blond.
"It sounds like the same chant those demons were saying before Josiah stopped them," Standish said.
"I didn't stop them, Ezra. The Lord sent his strength through all of us. We are but children in this world and God knows when we need him."
"Well, I wish he'd show up now," Dunne said straining under the weight of the door.
"I can't get the cloth away from the wound. Buck, stay with Chris while we get Vin off that altar."
"Buck, there's nothing I can do for Chris until we get him out of here. Least he can walk. Right now we need to move Vin and then we can take care of 'em both. Okay?"
"Yeah...guess so," Wilmington reluctantly agreed, chilled at the blank features of his long time friend. He stared into the eyes, hating the omnipotent presence he felt emanating from the man he knew so well. He patted Larabee's shoulder only to have the man grasp his wrist and twist it. He cried out as he was thrown across the room and malicious laughter cackled from the gunslinger.
"Buck!" Dunne cried and was relieved to see Wilmington regain his footing and look at him.
"I'm okay, JD!" the rogue assured him as he shook off the powerful blow.
"LEAVE HERE NOW!"
"We're leaving together, Chris!" Wilmington said as the others continued to move Vin out the door.
"YOUR FRIEND IS NO LONGER HERE! I OWN THIS FRAIL BODY AND WILL USE IT AS I WISH!"
"Not if I can help it!" the ladies man vowed.
"YOU CAN DO NOTHING WITH YOUR PUNY MORTAL MINDS. CHRIS LARABEE WILL SUFFER FOR EACH OF YOUR TRANSGRESSIONS!"
"Who are you?" Sanchez asked as they placed the makeshift stretcher on the ground and moved to stand with Wilmington and Dunne.
"I AM THE CHOSEN ONE! THE DARK PRINCE!"
Buck watched Larabee's mouth move, but the voice was distorted as if speaking was a chore. Something about the way the blond began to stand warned him that Larabee was about to attack.
"I know, Buck," Sanchez said and moved to stand beside the ladies man. They faced the man they'd called friend with a mixture of trepidation and fear. There was little doubt in either man's mind that the Chris Larabee they knew was still there, but whatever Columber had done to him had brought out the darkest part of his soul. The fight to save both Chris and Vin would be a hard one, but they'd win it, no matter what it took.
Nathan knelt beside Vin and nodded as Standish tore a piece from his shirt and removed the blood soaked cloth belonging to Sanchez' bible. The two men knew there was nothing they could do for Larabee and that it was up to the other three to gain control of the blond so they could move him.
"Nathan, he's losing so much blood," Standish fretted.
"I know, but there's nothing I can do until we get him out of here," the tired healer said as he watched Tanner's eyes moving behind his lids and realized the Texan was on the verge of waking up. "Not now, Vin, God not now!" Even as he said the words he knew things were escalating as Sanchez, Wilmington and Dunne faced off against the possessed gunslinger.
Sanchez took a deep breath before speaking to the possessed man. "Chris, listen to me..."
"I LISTEN TO ONLY ONE MASTER, PREACHER MAN!"
"No, Chris, you're your own master!" Wilmington tried and cursed as Larabee reached for him.
""NO!" Sanchez said and brought the bible out once more. The light shone with an iridescence of holy fire and they watched as Larabee faltered slightly.
"I'LL KILL YOU!"
"You'll kill no one!" the older man vowed as he moved closer to the blond, the bible his lifeline of hope.
Chris fought the darkness enshrouding him, but nothing could break through the quagmire that threatened to tear his mortal body limb from limb. He knew his friends were talking to him, but he could not fight the overwhelming sensation of power that seemed to be taking control. He could see everything around him and looked at his hands. The fingers seemed elongated, disproportionate from his own body, yet he knew they were his. He could no longer think, his mind fuzzy as two beings fought for his soul. Columber was still lording his power over him, yet Josiah's words sometimes broke through, but it was the look on Wilmington's face that gave him the strength he needed to reach out. His eyes shifted and the familiar green orbs pleaded for help.
"Chris," the name barely left his throat when the eyes once more clouded with the crimson tide.
As quickly as the words left Larabee's mouth an unholy scream was wrenched from his throat and he dropped to his knees in pain. His eyes glowed red once more and he snarled as the two men rushed forward. Josiah held the Bible in front of him and began reading from the scriptures as Wilmington and Dunne moved to secure the gunslingers arms behind him.
"FUCK YOU HOLY MAN! YOU WILL ALL PAY FOR YOUR INTERFERENCE!"
"Behold that which is holy and kneel before the word of God!"
"NEVER!" The gunslinger fought against the two lawmen even as Buck fastened a piece of rope around Larabee's wrists. Once they had him secured Dunne helped him force the blond to the ground where they watched as the blond's body began to contort and writhe as if burned by the very book Josiah held.
Sanchez felt something shift as the bible came in contact with Larabee's exposed skin and the eyes shimmered as if the man was terrified. Again he touched the holy book against the gunslinger and listened as a banshee like wail escaped the man's throat. The sound echoed off the walls and was quickly picked up by the creatures that inhabited the Inn.
"Josiah, stop! You're killing him!" Wilmington cried as he felt Larabee's body buck under the onslaught of pure energy that seemed to radiate out of the leather bound bible.
"Buck...it's not hurting Chris it's..."
Wilmington's eyes met Larabee's and for an instant the familiar green orbs stared back at him from beneath half mast lids. "Chris?"
"I'll help you, Chris, just tell me what you need." Wilmington said and cried out as the eyes once more became molten lava and the creature inhabiting Chris Larabee regained control.
"GET THIS FUCKING PREACHER MAN AWAY FROM ME!" Larabee bucked and tried to pull away as cackling laughter wrenched from his throat.
"Nathan, we need to get them both out of here now!" Sanchez warned.
"I know...Vin's waking up! Easy," Jackson said as Tanner's eyes fluttered open and he gasped for air.
"C...Chris!" the Texan snapped.
"We got him, Vin," the former stretcher bearer explained.
"Need ta h...help 'im."
Jackson nodded as he spoke to the injured man. "We will..."
"It's a long story, Vin, just lie still," the healer ordered.
"Yeah, we know, but he's not here right now," Jackson assured the Texan before looking at the ex-preacher. "Josiah, can you, Buck and JD handle Chris?"
"I think so, he seems to have quieted down...not sure why?" Sanchez asked.
"Good, now all we need to do is find our way out," the dark skinned man told them.
"What about Chris?" Standish asked worriedly.
"We'll carry him if we have to," Wilmington said.
Standish shook his head and began to speak/ "That's not what I meant. We have to remember what Columber said. If Chris..."
"Leaves here it'll kill him," Dunne finished the gambler's sentence.
"Damn, Josiah, do you think there's anything to Columber's threat?" Jackson asked.
"I think we should consider it a possibility," Sanchez said as Larabee finally ceased struggling against the ropes binding his arms.
"Well, we can't stay here," Jackson said of the dirt and debris surrounding them. The air was heavy with the stench of decay and fecal matter and the former stretcher bearer looked down into pain filled blue eyes as Tanner gripped his wrist.
"Know a...a p...place..."
"Just rest, Vin," Jackson ordered as he watched the Texan struggle to speak.
"N...no. Need t...t tell ya. ," he pressed on, blue eyes rolling in waves of pain. "S...s...s..." he paused, brows creased in frustration at his body failing him. "...anc...t'ry..."
"Sanctuary..." Nathan translated and felt the huge release of relief coursing from the gravely injured man as the damp head nodded once.
"Sanctuary, in this Godforsaken domain?" Standish asked incredulously.
"Y...yeah...s...safe fer us... " Vin rasped weakly, licking his dry lips. "...fer...Chris...save...only...way..."
"Where is it, Vin?" Sanchez asked hopefully as he continued to clutch the bible in his hands.
"B...back t...through the g...gates," Tanner said and shuddered as a wave of pain washed over him, his eyes locking on Buck Wilmington's. "...o'Hell..."
"Ya got that right," Wilmington said as he looked towards the gates. Thick black sludge seemed to flow from every fisher in the wall ceiling and floor. Joists popped open revealing the remains of blackened bones from long ago victims. The Inn sighed as if it breathed and gave birth to the corruption that was taking place around them.
"G...get me u...up!" Tanner groaned.
"Now you just stay put, Vin! Ezra, you grab than end and we'll carry him! You boys ready?" the former stretcher bearer asked.
"I think so. Chris seems pretty out of it right now, but God knows that could change!" Wilmington explained as he and JD lifted the semi-conscious blond to his feet.
"All right, Vin, you tell us which way!" Jackson ordered and huffed out a breath of air as he struggled under the weight.
"JD, give Nathan and Ezra a hand with Vin!" Sanchez said.
"But what about Chris?" the young easterner asked.
"We got him, Kid," the ladies man assured him and watched as JD moved to help carry the Texan.
Josiah held the bible in his right hand and linked his left through Larabee's right.
"All right, Vin, think you can guide us?" Jackson asked.
"T...try...." Vin vowed, his gaze drawn to his fallen best friend. His features clouded over then, trying to remember how he found that place. He drifted back to that day that he first locked eyes with the gunslinger, over a broom on a street named Destiny. He found a surge of confidence than and took a steadying breath. "...fer...Chris..." he whispered, extending a bloody hand . "...w...w...ill...get..ya...there..."
"Son, nothing that's happened in the last week was by accident. " Josiah reassured, sensing the anxiety the young man felt. "Everything is building towards either a victory of light or dark. So if you point us in the general direction I believe we'll find this sanctuary of yours," the ex-preacher explained.
"G...get us through those gates a...and f...follow the h...hallway...corridor'll t...take us there," the injured Texan told them as he lost consciousness once more.
"Hallway and corridor, but which one?" Standish asked.
"We'll know it when we see it," Wilmington said and wondered why he was so sure of his words. They began to move towards the gates, slipping and sliding in the thick black quagmire underfoot. Nathan, held one end of the makeshift stretcher while Ezra and JD took up the opposite end. Something wet broke beneath Buck's foot and he was sickened by the grizzly image the sound conjured up.
"Watch it!" Jackson called as the Inn seemed to be fighting their every step. The sound of something slithering behind him sent shivers down his spine and he was suddenly afraid to look behind him.
"We'll go through first," Sanchez suggested as they made it to the doors leading out of the chamber. He kept a death grip on Larabee's arm and knew Wilmington was doing the same thing. The smell was sickeningly cloying now and Josiah felt his stomach lurch as he stepped through the squelching floorboards. The very Inn seemed to take offence of their presence and was trying to make them part of it, but they would not let that happen.
"The place is falling apart!" Wilmington shouted above the twisting screaming mass of boards and nails.
"No, I think it's reshaping itself into what it actually is!" Standish called as Wilmington cleared the doorway.
"What's that?" Dunne asked.
"Hell on Earth, Son, and it'll be up to us to stop it from becoming a permanent structure," Sanchez answered and felt Larabee's posture change. "Buck!"
"I know!" Wilmington said and renewed his effort to hold onto the blond as they watched the others start through the doors.
Ezra and JD held tightly to the stretcher as both men moved through the wrecked doorway. The black sludge clung to their clothing and both men began to gasp and choke as the noxious fumes assaulted their senses and threatened to render them unconscious. They swallowed the bile that rose in their throats and twisted and turned the makeshift stretcher until they made it through the doorway. From somewhere deep inside the Inn the screams of previous victims could be heard and their was little doubt as to the reality of the suffering souls trapped within the walls.
"Look at the walls," Wilmington said as Nathan finally stepped out of the chamber. The others could see what Wilmington was alluding to as the luminescent sludge covered fortifications seemed to undulate and breathe with each step they took. Another sound became apparent and Buck stared at his long time friend. The sound was unmistakable and again Wilmington found it difficult to believe that this was the same man he'd known most of his adult life. "Chris..."
"Ya know I'm really beginning to hate that sound!" Wilmington cursed as Larabee's nostrils flared with each incantation.
"Which way, Josiah?" Standish asked as they came to a corridor that stretched off in two directions.
"We take the right," Dunne answered instinctively.
"You heard him," the older man said and dragged Larabee with them. The walls seemed to breathe as they passed into the right branch of the corridor and the footing became uncertain once more. Several beams had fallen from the ceiling and threatened to stop their progress, but they continued to fight the evil surrounding them.
+ + + + + + +
The crow shimmered with the Inn and knew where the six men were taking The Dark Prince. The dark feathers ruffled and a soft cackle escaped through the beak as it lifted off and flew down through the building, slipping through the wood and mortar and inside once more. He raced down the narrowing vortex that seemed to swallow up everything around him and once more entered the chamber leading to hell. Once there he exited through the broken gates and followed the same trail as the others. He could hear them up ahead and smiled as his wingspan grew and brought up the winds that caused the sandstorm to bring him The Chosen One.
+ + + + + + +
"Jesus!" Buck cursed as he lost his footing and fell to the side. He felt his grip on Larabee's arm loosening, but held on as Sanchez kept the blond upright. "Sorry."
Nathan knew the fumes they were breathing in was affecting their lungs, but for now there was nothing he could do about it. Larabee's continual mumbling was grating on his nerves, yet he knew it was not the blond's fault. Somehow they would have to figure out a way to rid him of Columber's evil influence, but right now they had to concentrate on finding the sanctuary Vin mentioned.
JD strained under the burden, but there was no way he would relent and give in. His body felt mired down in quicksand as the thick sludge deepened underfoot. Several times he'd nearly gone down and was thankful the Standish was there to help him. He kept glancing at the darkly clad gunslinger and wondering would they ever have him back or would the Inn succeed in taking him into the darkness.
Ezra kept glancing left and right as they made slow progress through the semi darkness. He knew the light was cast by whatever the living tissue in the walls came from, and right now he was grateful they could at least see. Each step he took he was sure would be his last as his legs were forced to keep moving. 'Courage, Ezra, courage!' became his constant litany as the corridor branched off in three different directions.
"Now what?" Jackson asked.
"We keep going straight," Standish answered. The journey through the living hell of the Inn seemed to last forever as each man tried to stay on their feet and keep the two injured men from falling into the quagmire of muck. Chris continued to mumble the strange chant and moaned when they neared a room with the door closed.
"This is the place Vin was talking about!" Jackson said.
"Yes, it is," Sanchez agreed, though he wondered how such a holy haven could possibly be a part of the unholy establishment they resided in. All around them the Inn seemed alive with pestilence and open sores, yet the door in front of them seemed untouched by the demonic presence surrounding it. He watched Larabee's eyes open wide with fright and knew they would have a hard time getting him inside, but they would do it. He looked at Wilmington and knew the other man had the same feeling as he gripped Larabee's arm tightly.
"JD, open the door!" Standish ordered, gripping the end of the makeshift tightly as the younger man released his hold.
+ + + + + + +
Columber reached the end of his quest and the red eyes glowed as he stared at the scene ahead of him. The seven men were standing before a door that had defied him admittance since the dawning of the Inn's birth. The barrier was closed to him for all time, but he watched as the youngest member of the Seven chose to reach out and touch the handle.
+ + + + + + +
JD reached for the handle and felt a jolt of warmth throughout his body. This place would harbor them from the unearthly creatures that inhabited the Inn and hopefully give their friends a chance to heal some while they tried to find a way out of Hell. The door opened easily, revealing a fairly large room. Candles glowed on the walls, a simple wooden cross was set against the back wall, a small table stood just below the cross. On the table was a book and JD's eyes were drawn to it as if it held their fate on the inside.
+ + + + + + +
The crow felt something pushing at him and understood why he could not get near the chamber as a soft sound, almost the singing of a child reached his ears. He cawed sharply, a screeching sound that shook the very structure to the core. He reached out, suing his mind and seeking out that which now belonged to him.
"You are The Dark Prince and you belong with me. Fight them!"
+ + + + + + +
"JD, help us get Vin inside!" Jackson ordered as the sound of a crow nearby reached his ears. He knew they were all running on empty and in need of rest, but right now they needed to get inside and out of the deadly influence of the swirling edifices now encircling them.
"Sorry," Dunne apologized and grabbed the end with Standish as they maneuvered the front part of the door through the frame.
+ + + + + + +
"Come to me, Dark Prince and we shall rule the earth forever!"
+ + + + + + +
Buck could feel the strength of the chamber and breathed a sigh of relief as the others brought Vin inside. The air around him seemed malevolent as the four men made it through the doorway. He felt Larabee tense and looked at him as the sharp cawing reached his ears.
"Josiah, we gotta get him inside now!"
"I know, Buck!" Sanchez said as Larabee began pulling away from them in his bid for freedom.
"LET ME GO!"
"Hold on to him, Buck!" Sanchez shouted as the screeching and cawing continued. The wind howled down the corridor throwing broken boards and other debris at them in an effort to loosen their grips on the possessed man.
"Jesus, what the hell's going on?" Wilmington cursed as their escape seemed to be cut off and they were being forced away from the opening.
"It's Satan's influence! We need to get Chris inside!" Sanchez screamed and looked up to see Nathan and JD hurrying towards them as if in answer to a prayer.
"JD, grab his other leg!" Jackson snapped as he latched onto Larabee's right leg. Between the four men they lifted the blond off his feet.
Chris struggled against the men holding him, but they would not release their hold.
"YOU BASTARDS! I'LL FUCKING KILL YOU FOR THIS! I'LL RIP OUT YOUR HEARTS AND FEED IT TO THE RATS!"
"Easy, JD, that's not Chris you're hearing!" Wilmington explained as they moved towards the opening once more. The cawing of the crow grew louder with each step they took and Larabee's bid for freedom increased with each foul word that escaped his throat.
"YOU'RE DEAD! ALL OF YOU! NO!"
+ + + + + + +
"Come to me, Dark Prince and taste of the blood of those who fight me!"
+ + + + + + +
"LET ME GO!"
"Never, Son, never!" Sanchez vowed when they finally broke clear of Columber's evil influence. As the door behind him closed a scream of torment and pain was born form two men and echoed through the chamber. The five men looked from one injured man to the next before realizing whatever was happening, Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were being tortured once more.
"What the hell's going on?" Wilmington asked as Larabee convulsed and shuddered in their arms.
+ + + + + + +
Outside the darkness was eerily quiet as Columber perched in front of the door and solidified into the earthly image he'd used in Farmington. He reached out to touch the door, but drew back with a curse as an holy fire burned his skin. There was nothing he could do for now, but the time would come when the six men would be dead, and he would reclaim The Chosen One.
"Soon, you will all die and this time it will be at The Dark Prince's hand!"
+ + + + + + +
Nathan knew he had to help both of his injured friends and didn't know where to begin.. Taking a deep breath he realized there wasn't much he could use in the small room. His saddlebag was still on his horse in the stable and he knew there was no way he could ask one of these men to get it for him. Rubbing his hands on his clothes he looked down at Vin Tanner and knew he had no choice. He stood away from the injured men and looked towards the ex-preacher.
"What's wrong, Brother?" Sanchez asked.
"I need my saddlebags. I should've taken them with me," Jackson said berating himself for not having the fortitude to bring the supplies with him.
"Nathan, there was no time," Sanchez assured the healer.
"Be that as it may, Josiah, I need what's in those bags for Chris and Vin," the healer fretted.
"Then I'll go get them," Buck offered placing a hand on the former slave's shoulder. "Chris and Vin need you here."
"I'll go with you," Dunne said joining the two men at the door.
"No, JD," Wilmington tried, but was brought up short as Sanchez placed the bible in JD's hands and the gold cross glowed with renewed vigor.
"I think JD is meant to go with you, Buck. Just follow him and he'll get you there and back," the holy man explained.
"Be careful," Standish warned.
"We will," the young Bostonian assured them as Sanchez pulled the door open.
A heated wind swirled into a vortex on either side of the open door, but as Dunne stepped through it parted as if unseen hands kept it at bay. The bible felt warm in his hands and a confidence built deep inside him. His mother had been a devout Christian and had read to him from the holy book and he knew some of the scriptures by heart. Taking a deep breath he began reciting the words that had brought him comfort on many a cold night in Boston.
+ + + + + + +
As soon as they left Sanchez closed the door and watched as the healer knelt between the two men. Chris had quieted somewhat, but the annoying chant continued to escape his lips and the eyes were filled with a crimson tide of hatred directed on the men he called brothers.
"Is there anything I can do to help, Nathan?" Sanchez asked.
"Not right now," Jackson said, wishing he could do something about the pain etched on the tracker's face. "I need to stop this bleedin'..."
"Perhaps this will help," Sanchez said as he removed his coat and tore off several strips of his shirt.
"Thanks, Josiah," Jackson said and eased Vin's hand away from the wound. He watched the lids flutter and open and tried to instil a sense of calm in the younger man. The Texan's gazed around the room before he stopped on the former stretcher bearer.
"M...made it?" Tanner asked tiredly.
"Yes, we did, thanks to you. Now just be still while I check the wound," the healer ordered.
"He's here, Vin," Jackson began, but Larabee's voice grew to a higher pitch and it took both Josiah and Standish to hold him down.
"Kill you all! Tanner's blood will always be on my hands and I will taste of his soul!"
"T...tha's not C....Chris!" the Texan said sorrow in his eyes as he watched the two men trying to keep the gunslinger on the floor.
"We know, Vin...it is but it isn't," Sanchez tried by way of explanation.
"You think you'll see those two again, but you're dead wrong!" Larabee told them, but the voice wasn't his own.
"Chris, you need to be quiet or I'm going to have to gag you," Sanchez warned.
"Their bones will be drying in the and their flesh ripped from their bone by rats and vultures and the demon spawn of Hell. Listen and you'll hear them scream for help..."
"Chris be quiet!" Jackson ordered as Larabee's deceptively calm words had an adverse effect on the tracker.
Josiah watched as Larabee became silent, yet there was little doubt that he was taunting them. The eyes were filled with hatred and disdain, yet he wore a smug grin that made his silence as damning as the cursing he'd done earlier. There was a fight ahead of them and two souls in particular needed to be rescued before Hell came to this world.
+ + + + + + +
The demon grew silent as it felt the weaker being fight for dominance. It wanted to keep Chris Larabee's spirit close and feel the power coursing through the veins as the tormented soul watched what was happening with his friends. The other inhabitant of this shell was watching in horror as the healer worked to stop the blood flowing from the tracker's wound.
"You did that! You have killed him!"
The creature spoke inside his head and Chris knew the words were true. It had not really been him, but his hand had caused the damage and he could not tear his gaze from the sight of the bloodied bandage.
"No!" Chris shouted as he tried to refocus on expelling the demon taunting him, but his body was weak and the creature stronger than anything he'd ever fought before. The power struggle shifted once more and he found himself looking at his face as if from a distance. The voices were muffled, but there was a raw edge to the psychological wounds the demon inflicted.
"See how weak he grows...there is no chance for him now that he knows the truth!"
"No, damn you!" Larabee cursed and again tried to fight the savage beast, but was thrown aside by a powerful blow that threw him across the room.
"There is nothing for you here! Leave while you still have your soul!" The creature cackled with demonic glee as it saw the look of defeat come over the gunman's face before he walked through the walls of the sanctuary. The strength of his victory added fuel to his fire and he stared with utter glee at the men in the room.
+ + + + + + +
Buck watched the younger man as he strode confidently along the narrow corridor. The bible seemed to glow with brighter and the walls shone with a malevolent luminescence that chilled him to the core. He drew on his own inner strength as he kept pace with the easterner.
"JD, are you okay?"
"I'm fine, Buck, just stay close. Stay within the light from the bible."
"I will," Wilmington assured him, shuddering as if invisible hands reached for him. "You sure this is the right way?"
"Yes, can't you feel it?"
"All I feel is cold, Kid."
"I feel that too, but there's something about Josiah's bible that's keeping the Inn at bay. You can grab my arm if you want."
"Don't need..." but he didn't finish as banshee like wails sounded around them and the sound of souls in torment. The sound intensified until Buck pressed his hands against his ears. He felt sorry for his companion as JD continued to hold the holy book in his hands.
To say that JD Dunne was terrified would have been an understatement, but he moved with the grace and poise of a young man on a mission. He knew if he relinquished his hold then he and Buck would be lost to the evil permeating through every inch of the Inn. He relaxed as he felt Buck come up beside him and they continued onwards in spite of the horror surrounding them.
"Any idea how much further, JD?"
"No, but I don't think it's very far. Seems like the Inn is weaker the further we get from the chamber where we found you guys," Dunne explained.
"Weaker? Jesus, JD, how can an Inn be strong? We're talking about it as if it was alive."
"It is, Buck, can't you feel it?"
"I feel something, JD, and right now I wish I didn't feel a damn thing!"
"Me too, Buck...hey, looks like a door up ahead!" Dunne exclaimed as the glow from the cross shone on a heavy wooden barrier. The two men moved forward and Buck reached out to test the door. The handle turned slightly, but wouldn't give until they put every ounce of strength into it. With their combined weight the aged wood creaked and groaned before finally giving way. Buck and JD fell through the open door into the front yard of the decaying Inn.
+ + + + + + +
Chris continued to wander along the corridor and hallways, unable to rid himself of the icy touch of the creature that invaded his body. For now the demon had won a victory, but the war was far from over. Something had told him he was needed outside the room and he left without putting up much of a fight, but that would change when he got back. He saw his two friends up ahead and knew they were in danger, but he did not know how to help.
+ + + + + + +
Buck was the first to clamber to his feet and reached down to help the younger man to his feet. Both men stood in awe of the turmoil surrounding them. The ground seemed to bulge in layers as brackish soil roiled with bones and debris. Above the ground the air was heavy with the onset of a vortex of sand so violent it would have torn them limb from limb if they were to be caught in its outer fringes. The vortex moved with them as if shadowing their every move as the two men took their first step towards the barn. They could hear the horses as they moved about inside the stalls, yet the screeching sounds of the malevolent storm drowned out every other sound.
"JD, BE CAREFUL!"
"YOU TOO!" Dunne shouted as they began zigzagging towards the barn. JD watched as his friend lost his footing and went down. Something, JD didn't really want to know what it was, reached up and snagged Wilmington's pants and began dragging him towards a dark fissure that opened nearby.
"HOLD ON, BUCK!" Dunne screamed above the cacophony of noise surrounding them. He tucked the bible under his shirt and felt the warmth near his heart. He dropped to the ground and grabbed at the older man's arm. It took several tries, but he finally succeeded and had his fingers wrapped tightly around the older man's wrist. He groaned with the effort it took just to keep the grip he had.
+ + + + + + +
Chris watched in horror as what looked like the gnarled branch of a long dead tree came to life and snagged Wilmington's leg. He saw the determination on JD's face as the younger man grabbed the other man's arm and held on for dear life. Chris reached forward and tried to grab is friend's arm, but his own body was only a wisp of air and there was nothing he could do. The struggle between life and death continued and his anger grew with each agonizing inch as the two men slid towards their death.
+ + + + + + +
Buck could see the strain on the younger man's face and knew it was one of determination, yet he felt his own body being dragged towards the hole. Whatever held him in its grip was dragging him towards the edge of darkness and he felt something sharp dig into his flesh. He lifted his head until his eyes met JD's and knew the younger man would follow him into hell if that was what it took.
"NEVER!" the Bostonian vowed even as he felt his grip slipping. "PLEASE GOD...DON'T LET ME LOSE HIM!"
+ + + + + + +
Chris closed his eyes and concentrated with every ounce of his being. He could not let these men die and he realized he could help if only he knew how. Concentrating on the youngest member of the team he reached forward until his hand touched the Bostonian's arm and prayed what he was doing would help save the two men. His heart soared as he felt the solid form beneath his touch and with a last ditch effort they snagged a victory from the jaws of death.
+ + + + + + +
Buck heard the cry of rage from the younger man and felt a newfound strength emanating from the easterner. Whatever had ensnared his left leg was losing its strength and he clawed at the ground with a renewed effort. Inch by agonizing inch his body was drawn away from the dark maw and into the beckoning light caused by a young man's plea. Finally, just as he thought it would go on forever, the pull on his leg stopped and he laid on his back beside his saviour.
"YOU'RE WELCOME, BUCK," Dunne said and reached into his shirt to pull the holy book into his hands once more. He stood up and helped the older man to his feet. He glanced down at Wilmington's leg and winced at the sight that met his eyes. Buck's pant legs were missing up to his knee, the flesh underneath was covered with blood and JD knew his friend would have trouble walking for some time. "STAY HERE!"
"NO! WE NEED TO STAY TOGETHER, KID. NATE WILL TAKE CARE OF IT WHEN WE GET BACK!"
+ + + + + + +
Knowing Nathan needed the saddle bags, Chris stayed with the two men as they continued towards the barn. If there were any more surprises he wanted to make sure Buck and JD could overcome them and make it back to the sanctuary.
+ + + + + + +
JD nodded and reached for his friend. He lopped one arm around Wilmington's waist and accepted Wilmington's weight on his shoulders as they moved towards the barn once more. Once inside, the duo sank to the floor and rested for several minutes.
"Stay put while I get what we need," Dunne ordered and without waiting for an answer he moved towards the horses. He wished he could take the time to unsaddle the animals, but it was imperative they get the supplies back to Nathan. Reaching for Nathan's saddlebags he grabbed the canteen before moving to grab his and Josiah's saddlebags and canteens as well. He emptied the contents of his saddlebags into Josiah's and hefted them over his right shoulder. Next he took the canteens, but Wilmington's voice stopped him.
"JD, I can carry the canteens," the gentle rogue assured him and saw the dark head nod once before he was handed the three items. He accepted Dunne's hand up, wincing as he put some weight on his leg. He looked gratefully at JD when the young man offered a shoulder to lean on. He saw the bible reappear and knew the book was only partially responsible for their success. JD Dunne was proving once again that there was more of the man in the boy than most people realized. Taking a deep breath the two men exited the barn and began the journey back through hell.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan looked at Larabee worriedly. The man had grown eerily quiet yet there was a fire in his eyes that promised vengeance against them all. Josiah was still kneeling near the gunman ready if he should try anything. Ezra had been standing near the door as if anxious for the missing men to return. Vin had lapsed in and out of consciousness, mumbling incoherently as if caught in a nightmare only he could see.
"They should be back by now," Standish said from his position by the door.
"The path of the righteous is not always an easy one," Sanchez said softly, yet the others knew he was as worried as they were. He stood up and looked around the room as he stretched the kinks out of his back. Frowning he spotted a weather beaten journal underneath a cross on the small table. He walked slowly towards it and picked it up.
"What's wrong, Josiah?" Jackson asked.
"Nothing, but perhaps we can find some answers to the Inn's evil in this book," the ex-preacher suggested as he ran his hand along the edge of the book.
"Where did it come from?" Standish asked.
"The inscription says 'Our Journey to our new home by Anahita De Montoya'," Sanchez read and opened the book to the first page. The words were faded, but written in concise handwriting and Josiah sat on the edge of the table as he began to read aloud.
June 17/1671- we leave today on a journey that Papa says will mean a better life for all of us. I promised papa I would keep a record of every day as we cross the dessert to our new home. The weather is perfect for the start of our adventure and I am so excited. It is hard saying goodbye to my friends, but mama says I will have new friends when we reach California. I must go now, mama is calling....A.D.M.
+ + + + + + +
The demon watched as the gunslinger returned and didn't miss the look of satisfaction on his face as the green eyes swept over him. The fight for dominance began anew, but the creature taunted Larabee with the suffering of his friends.
+ + + + + + +
"Someone's coming," Standish interrupted and Chris Larabee glared in his direction as the door burst open and the missing men stumbled inside.
"Thank God," Sanchez said.
"Amen to that!" Wilmington said breathlessly.
"What happened to your leg?" Standish inquired.
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you," the gentle rogue answered.
"After everything we've been through I would believe anything you say," the gambler assured him as JD handed the saddle bags and canteen to the healer.
"Thanks," Jackson said. He knelt beside Vin Tanner and gently eased the material away from the wound. "Josiah, help me with Vin! Ezra see to Buck's leg until I can take a look at it! JD, keep an eye on Chris and make sure he doesn't try anything!"
"What'll I do if he does?" Dunne asked.
"Hit him," Wilmington offered as the conman took a cloth and began cleaning the jagged wound.
JD took a deep breath and nodded his head in understanding as Larabee's head came up and the red eyes stared into his own.
"He's cold, Nathan!" Sanchez said as he looked at the Texan's face. The younger man's skin was cold and clammy to the touch and he shivered as if there was no warmth to be found.
"He's in shock, Josiah. He's lost so much blood his body is fighting, but until I get the wound taken care of he's gonna feel that way. Just wish we had a cleaner place to do it in."
"You do what you can, Nathan," Sanchez said and watched as the former slave poured whiskey on a cloth and began cleaning the tracker's wound.
Vin cried out as something burned his skin and reawakened the dormant dragon that resided within his flesh. His eyes snapped open and he tried to focus on the man leaning over him. His hand was grabbed and he squeezed tightly as wave after wave of agony washed over him.
"Easy, Vin. Josiah, hand me the laudanum!"
Josiah held tightly to the injured Texan as he reached for the brown bottle Jackson had set beside him. He watched as the healer lifted Tanner forward and used his teeth to open the cap.
"Vin, drink!" Jackson ordered and was glad to see the younger man accept the offering. "That's enough Josiah! Vin, I need to get you taken care of so I can look after Chris and Buck. Understand?"
"Y...yeah," Tanner mumbled as he was laid back. This time something soft was under his head and he noticed Jackson was without his jacket. He closed his eyes and listened as the others talked. He soon felt Jackson's needle and gasped as the sharp implement pierced his skin again and again. With Herculean effort he fought to remain conscious, but pain and exhaustion won out and his eyes closed once more.
"Josiah, how's he doing?" Jackson asked worriedly.
"I think he's out, Nathan," the ex-preacher answered.
"Thank God for that. I'm nearly finished here. There that's got it. Hand me the whiskey," the former stretcher bearer ordered and quickly washed the blood away from the wound. It always amazed him at how steady his hands were when he was dealing with an injured patient, yet there would come a time when he'd be shaking like a leaf. That time would not come until he was sure his friends were out of danger and he could afford to let himself relax. He nodded as the ex-preacher lifted the unconscious young man forward and quickly wrapped the wound with bandages before turning towards the gunslinger and finally the ladies' man.
"Nathan, I'm okay. Ezra's cleaned it up some," Wilmington assured him.
"There are several areas that will require your expertise," Standish corrected.
"They can wait!" The mustached man glared at the gambler.
"All right, but Buck, no matter what happens you stay away from Chris until I'm done! I don't know what he's gonna do when I try to look at 'im and right now you've got enough wounds! Josiah, give him a little laudanum and then I'm gonna need ya ta help me with Chris!"
Buck knew better than to argue with the healer as Ezra retrieved the bottle of laudanum from Josiah and quickly held it to his mouth. He took two quick swallows and winced at the taste it left in his mouth. Ezra was quick to hand him a canteen and he drank several sips of the water before settling back to watch the former stretcher bearer work on Larabee.
Nathan knelt beside the prone form of the blond and wished he could get through to the injured man. Unfortunately the Chris Larabee they knew and respected was not present and in his place was a demon so vile that the crimson tide had engulfed the green orbs and glowed with fiendish delight.
"Chris, if you're in there...if you can hear me at all I need you to let me look at you," Jackson said as he reached out to touch the bloodied bandage covering Larabee's right side. The instant his hand touched the ravaged skin Larabee bucked and fought. He kicked out at anything within striking distance, his laughter and curses stirred up an unholy cacophony in the room.
"Josiah, you and JD see if you can hold him down! Ezra, get over here and help! Buck stay put damn it!"
The four men fought to gain control over the bucking bronco they once knew as friend. Time and again Chris through them off and in spite of the ropes around his wrists he continued to thrash about until he gained his feet.
"STAND BACK!" Sanchez ordered as JD was felled by a kick to his leg. Ezra moved in and quickly pulled the youngest member of their group out of harm's way.
"We need to get him down, Josiah!" Jackson ordered and made to move in once more, but a hand on his arm stopped him.
Josiah moved in quickly and without giving the demonic presence a chance to realize his intentions he drew back his fist and struck the blond in the face. Larabee's head was rocked back with the force of the blow and his body toppled backwards. He hit the floor hard, his head contacting with the floor as his eyes slid shut.
"Thank the Lord!" Sanchez said as the blond's body remained limp where he'd fallen.
"There'll be time enough to thank the Lord later, Josiah. Right now I want to get him tended to before he decides to bring the whole place down on us!"
"Just a figure of speech, brother, but one that is needed tonight...or today. I don't seem to remember. What do you want us to do?"
"Get that damned robe off him so I can get a look at that wound!" Jackson ordered and hurried to get his instruments. By the time he knelt beside the blond he'd been disrobed and he cursed as he saw the mark on Larabee's chest.
"Is that..." Ezra started.
"It's an inverted cross. The sign of Satan!" Sanchez explained.
"Damn. Josiah, use the whiskey to clean it up!" Jackson ordered and began prying the cloth away from Larabee's side, but the material was stuck fast. "Ezra, pour a little water on here!"
Standish uncapped one of the canteens and quickly soaked the bandaging. He watched as Jackson expertly began prying the material away from the ravaged flesh. He turned away and fought back the nausea brought on by the putrescent smell emanating from the jagged wound.
"Ezra, go see to Buck!" Jackson ordered.
"I'm okay, Nathan, just tell me what I need to do!"
"Help me clean this up so I can get a better look at it!" Jackson heard the gambler as he poured whiskey onto a cloth and quickly began to wash the dried blood and gore from the taut abdomen.
"Nathan, there's something in there and it moves around if you try to remove it!" Standish explained.
"What are you talking about, Ezra?" the healer asked.
"When Vin tried to remove it the thing just shifted away from his touch. As far as we know it's still inside Chris and it seems to have something to do with this godforsaken place!" the gambler explained angered by the atrocities he'd witnessed since arriving at the Inn.
Nathan carefully prodded the wound and jumped back as something pressed against Larabee's skin. He could see the shape as it twisted and moved as if it was a life all its own. With each movement a whispery breath of heated air surrounded them and the acrid smell of sulphur assaulted their senses. He quickly looked at the conman and understood what the other man was telling him. Whatever was inside Larabee's body was affecting the structure they were inside or the other way around. Either way, Nathan knew he had to find a way to remove the foreign object before it did more damage to his friend.
"I have to take it out!" Jackson told them.
"It'll kill him. When Vin tried it shifted so much we were afraid it would puncture his lungs or be driven into his heart," Standish explained.
"There has to be a way," Jackson said and laid his hand upon the wound. Again the projectile shifted just under Larabee's skin making a grotesque dance that sent shivers of fear through the others in the room. He reached for his scalpel and pressed it against the ravaged flesh. The smell of pus and gore grew stronger and a scream of pain was wrenched from the blond as the splinter moved away from the scalpel.
"Nathan!" Sanchez warned as Larabee's eyes widened with fear. The crimson tide was missing and for the first time they saw the familiar green orbs they were used to.
"Easy, Chris, I'm just going to..."
"Nathan, stop! It'll kill him!" Sanchez warned as he watched the splinter move towards the gunslinger's heart.
"I can't just leave it there!" Jackson warned.
"For now you have to!" the ex-preacher told him.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had watched in awe as the men worked on his body. He felt cold beyond anything he'd ever felt in his life and nothing he could do helped. He hadn't felt Josiah's beefy fist as it struck his face, but smiled as he watched his own body surrender to unconsciousness. He could still feel the pure evil and hatred as the demon was thrown out and he smiled as he squared off to fight for what was his.
"I won't let you kill them!"
"You can't stop me!" the vile creature said as it reached for him.
Chris had no doubt that the demon could easily overpower him, but there was something he needed to do. If he could get to his body he could let the others know he was still there but he had to ward off the powerful creature before him. A taloned hand touched him and he gasped as a fiery blue haze sparked between them. Their bodies were no longer solid and the air filled with the smell of an electrical charge as if lightening had struck them. Chris' felt the burns and bit back the agonizing pain as again and again he was struck with the hellacious current. The battle between them continued as Chris tried to force his way towards his prone body. He twisted and turned in the nightmarish grip and smiled as the demon threw him across the room. He landed on top of his battered body and smiled as he felt himself whole once more. The creature screamed and Chris tried to get a message to his friends before he was once more expelled into the unknown vortex once more.
+ + + + + + +
"...he...lp..." Larabee's voice was weak, but before either man could move to help him the glowing red beacons had returned and all trace of Chris Larabee was lost once more.
"Chris?" Jackson whispered as for a fleeting second the eyes seemed filled with the familiar emotions of the gunslinger. Cold hatred seeped from the man's body and Nathan knew Larabee was no longer with them.
"That's no longer Chris Larabee!" Sanchez said as a calculating smile marred the taut face. Muscles contorted and the body spasmed as an evil force ravaged the lean form. Once again he reached for his bible in an effort to regain a modicum of control. The glowing red eyes latched onto the hallowed pages and Josiah saw a look of fear cross the familiar face, but it was quickly masked by the creature inhabiting the gunman's body.
"All I can do is clean it out and put clean bandages over it until we figure out a way to remove it without killing him," Jackson said.
"You'll never take it from him! It marks him for what he is and what he will do! Satan has marked him and he will not be able to fight the master's will!" the demon inside Larabee raged.
"Satan does not...nor will he ever own Chris Larabee's soul!" Sanchez said and placed the book to the blond's forehead. A screeching banshee like wail echoed across the rafters shaking the Inn to its core as the demon tried to escape the holy fire that touched the skin of the shell he inhabited. Darkness won out and he found himself in the lost realm once more facing the true owner of the ravaged body.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan completed his task of caring for the unconscious gunslinger and turned his attention to the third injured man. He grabbed his bag and dwindling supplies and hurried to kneel beside Wilmington and saw the true depth of the man's pain. He knew instinctively it wasn't caused by the wound to his leg, but more from what he'd witnessed in the last few days.
"Buck, I don't have much laudanum..."
"...ain't thirsty..." Buck wheezed, then nodded to Vin and Chris. "..they...need...it more..." The rogue ordered as JD helped him get comfortable. The younger man had removed his jacket and used it as a makeshift pillow for the older man's head.
Jackson nodded and eased back on the bandages Dunne had used to cover the wounds on Wilmington's left leg. Jagged tears ran along the lower half of Buck's leg, some deeper than others, but all an angry red that spoke of poison.
"Josiah, I'm gonna need some help here. JD, I want you to watch Chris..."
"I can help, Nathan! I can do this!"
"I know you can, Son, but I'm gonna need Josiah to hold him down. Buck's strong and I don't think you'll be able to hold him down for me. You and Ezra are gonna have to make sure Chris and Vin stay put," Jackson explained.
Dunne knew the older man was right. Wilmington was a big man and about the only one who had a chance of holding him down was Josiah Sanchez. The Ex-preacher could handle either one of them if it came down to sheer power.
"Go on kid," Wilmington said and saw the dark head bob once before he moved to sit beside Larabee.
"Josiah, hang onto him!" the healer ordered.
"I got him," Sanchez assured him.
Jackson looked into Buck's eyes once more before turning his attention to the wounds. He used a little carbolic mixed with water and felt the gentle rogue tense up as he touched the cloth against the worst of the damage. It shocked him to see so much infection in a wound that was less than an hour old and yet each time he pressed against his friend's leg his stomach churned. He kept talking to Wilmington as he worked, hoping the sound of his voice would keep them both anchored to the reality they'd been cast into.
"Almost done, Buck!"
"God, Nathan!" escaped from Wilmington's tightly clenched teeth.
"I know," the worried healer said as he pressed against the bloodied wound.
Only a couple would need stitches, but for now he wanted them left open until he was sure he'd drained all the poison. Finally done he wrapped the ragged wounds and was glad to see some of the tension drain from Wilmington's body. Taking a deep breath he suddenly felt as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders and to a certain extent it was, at least where these men were concerned.
"Are you all right, Brother?" Sanchez asked of the weary healer.
"Just tired," Jackson answered honestly.
"I think we all are. Why don't we move Buck over with Vin and maybe you, JD, and Ezra can get some sleep while I take first watch?" the older man offered and saw the former slave look around what now appeared to be a battle zone.
"I don't have enough supplies, Josiah. We're gonna need to get outta here," Jackson explained.
"We won't be able to go anywhere until we've had some rest, Nathan. So far we seem to be doing everything where supposed to and I think we may find some answers in that journal. I'm going to see what happened to Anahita and her family."
"Maybe you're right," the healer said as they helped Buck to the other side of the room and eased him down beside the still unconscious Texan.
"Read it aloud, Josiah, might help keep the evil at bay," Standish suggested as he leaned heavily against the wall.
"He's right," Dunne said. "Maybe one of us will hear something that'll tell us what happens next!"
"All right, but try and rest," Sanchez said and moved to the table. He reached for the journal and sat with his back against the wall.
Before he opened the book, the gambler stood and walked to the door. The younger man grabbed the handle and made sure it was firmly closed before moving back to his position between Tanner and Larabee.
"Better to be safe than sorry," was Standish's simple explanation.
"Smart move, son," Sanchez said and opened the journal.
June 17-1671- Father says we made good time today. We traveled ten miles and I am so tired, but the excitement of today keeps me from sleeping. Papa and Raul are taking care of the horses and oxen and mama is fixing dinner. We journey south west and the weather is still holding. Tomorrow we leave at sunrise.
June 18-1671- we woke to a wondrous sunset, but it has papa worried. He said morning sunsets, no matter how beautiful are harbingers of danger. The first sign that papa was right was when the left wheel of our wagon split along one side. Papa's temper rose with the heat of the day, but once we were back on the trail his humor returned. We traveled eight miles today.
June 19-1671-No sunset today...rain. The trail is muddy and we had to dig the wheels out several times. We traveled only five miles today and bedded down early as the rain continued to dampen not only the ground but our excitement as well.
June 20-1671- We woke to blue skies and all is well with the world again, but Raul still seems down, surely we will soon have my beloved brother happy again. We traveled twelve miles today. Raul shot a couple of quail and mama roasted them for dinner.
June 21-1671- I woke up this morning and I am not sure what I saw, but I am afraid now. I do not think Raul saw me, but when I opened the flap of the wagon I saw him staring out into the desert. Father says we are nearing The Bisti Badlands and that many a weary traveller has become lost in the barren wasteland. Raul turned in my direction and I am sure he saw me, but I cannot explain my own fears. We traveled thirteen miles today, but I am no longer sure we are moving in the right direction. We seem to be moving more south than west, but when I spoke of this Raul told me I knew nothing of directions and I should return to my duties as a daughter. We made seven and a half miles today over rough terrain and I think we may have crossed into the badlands. I am afraid, but I don't know why.
June 27-1671- I have not written in my journal for several days as I am afraid Raul would not approve. He has become increasingly agitated and his eyes seem to have taken on a red glow. I hear Raul chanting in the distance. Mama is making dinner, but I fear I have no appetite for the food she now serves. Raul shot two rabbits last night, and gave them to mama. She cooked them, but not enough and it sickened me to see the blood drip from Raul's fingers as he bit into the meat. Yesterday and today we traveled sixteen miles and I believe Raul is doing something to the animals to make them move faster. I find him staring at me when I am near him and it feels like I am bathed in ice water. I am afraid...and in fear of my life.
June 30-1671- We have traveled over a hundred miles since this journey began and I wish we were back home. Raul has taken control of our travels and we are moving deeper into the Bisti Badlands. I have noticed a black crow following us. I feel it's glowing red eyes watching me and I am horrified of the thought that it is controlling Raul. I tried to talk to mama about it tonight, but she just holds onto her cross and begs me not to say anything. I cannot sleep at night for fear I will not awaken.
"Josiah, I think Raul's crow is the one we've been seeing," Dunne said.
"You may be right, Son," Sanchez agreed and turned the page. A dark smudge appeared in the upper right hand corner and Sanchez knew it was Anahita De Montoya's bloodied thumbprint.
July 1-1671- There is a darkness in the distance and papa says it is a sandstorm. The very air around us seems to be charged and I am terrified. Mama is driving the oxen. Raul disappeared earlier today leaving only papa to find us a safe haven from the monstrous cloud that seems to stretch across the horizon. The sky has been blotted out and mama is calling to me. I fear this could be my last entry for death seems close by.
July 6-1671- Papa is so happy and mama thinks this is the most wonderful home she has ever had. Raul even seems like his old self and I am beginning to believe I was dreaming the whole thing. We fought through the sandstorm and broke through to find this Inn owned by a reclusive couple named Galla and Lilith Shedim.
"Damn!" Wilmington cursed as he heard the familiar names.
"It appears that we were not the first travellers to be drawn into this nightmarish dwelling!" Standish said, swallowing his own fears as he listened to the tale written so many years ago.
"There are several entries after this one, but it looks like someone smudged them on purpose. The next entry I can read is two months later and seems to be the final entry in the journal," Sanchez explained. He looked at the trio of injured men and took a deep breath before continuing
September 7-1671- Tonight we are having a party. Papa and mama are so excited. There have been many travelers arriving at the Inn and Galla and Lilith are planning a big party. I have seen a man with golden hair and eyes of the deepest green I've ever seen and I believe I am in love with him without even knowing his name. The main room is in readiness and the staircase is decorated with wondrous desert blooms and I am intoxicated with the scent. Raul has been scarce the last few days and I think he is angered by the party goers. Mama made the dress I am wearing and I am so pleased with the way it fits me. I think tonight I can dance the night away. My fears of the last week have left me and I am truly happy for the first time since coming to this region. He has arrived! I must go...I need to meet this man.
"That's the final entry," Sanchez explained.
"If Galla and Lilith were there you can probably bet they're the reason there are no more entries," Wilmington said.
"There is something else you all need to know. Galla and Lilith are names that may not be common, but they are well known to those who study demons and their existence. Galla is said to be a demon from Kur, the Sumerian underworld. There were said to be seven demons and they were attendants of Ereshkigal, the goddess of death and gloom. Neither man nor a god could leave Kur once they entered. Galla is supposed to be an exception. They could wonder the world searching for mortal men and haul them to the dark world. Lilith is said to be a demon-woman who hunts men, seduces them and drains their life with a kiss. There is a variation of this demoness in many religions yet the name remains close to the original. Some call her Marilith or Lilitu, but all of them connect with the common theme: A demon woman, often with wings, who kills men and sometimes children. A succubus."
"Remind me to be more careful of the women I meet," Wilmington said, shivering at the thought of the woman he'd met when they first arrived.
"We need to get them out of here," Jackson said frowning as he looked from Tanner to Larabee. He knew Wilmington's injuries were bad, but for some reason the gunslinger and the Texan seemed to be the focal point for the evil that permeated the walls.
"I don't think we'll get any answers from this book, Nathan. Get some sleep and I'll watch over all of you," the ex-preacher said and saw the dark head nod once. He stayed where he was and watched as the four men relaxed towards sleep, knowing rest would not come easily for any of them. His own lids grew heavy and he fought to keep them open, but there was no fighting the call of sleep.
Josiah knew he was dreaming as he found himself entranced by the scene unfolding before him. He saw the pretty young woman as she made her entrance and watched in morbid fascination as a man who could be Chris Larabee's twin slowly made his way towards her. Their eyes met and locked as their hands touched, yet the moment that should've been filled with happiness was filled with the evil essence that could only be the Inn itself. He lifted his eyes and saw the hideous creatures at the top of the stairs. Creatures with taloned hands and empty sockets, demons of such power that the walls themselves were filled with electricity. He felt as if he was part of the scene, yet detached from it in some way as the two would be lovers moved towards each other and melted into an embrace that seemed to sent the hideous creature into a feeding frenzy. Screams echoed and re-echoed as a horde of demons swarmed over the party goers. He watched in dawning horror as the vilest creature he'd ever laid eyes on. He watched as the beautiful woman was wrenched from the man's arms and torn in two and Josiah suddenly found himself back in the room with his friends.
Josiah tried to control his breathing as he looked at the men who still appeared to be sleeping. Something shifted in the corner and he watched as a shadowy wisp of smoke lengthened into the woman from his dreams.
"Anahita!" he sighed.
"Yes, Josiah, I am Anahita and I have come to help you!" The voice was unlike anything he'd ever heard before. Like the whisper of the wind on the hottest day of the year and he wished he could listen to her forever.
"How do we get out of here?" Sanchez asked and wondered why the others didn't awaken.
"The six of you can leave at anytime, but Columber...The dark prince will not allow you to take his chosen one with you!"
"We're not leaving without Chris," the ex-preacher vowed leaving no room for arguments. "I have to believe there's a reason the seven of us were guided into this room."
"This room was a haven for me when we first came here. I used to hide from Raul here and could write in my journal without him coming to me. I know you have seen what happened to my mortal form and the likeness between the chosen one and the man I loved."
"It's more than a likeness, Anahita. They could have been twins."
"Yes, this is true, and perhaps your Chris is indeed the same man who tried to court me so long ago. I don't know what happened to him after...after he...he...after I died, but perhaps this has come full circle and he has returned."
"What made this room special, Anahita?"
"I had a bible with me and I used it everyday. I know it should have been done by a holy man, but I read the words and blessed this room. It is a place where evil can not venture forth!"
"There is evil here now," Sanchez told the specter.
"But not true evil, not as long as Chris is able to fight. He is here and so is the demon who possesses his body and until there is a victor in that fight his body can remain within these walls, but if the demon is the victor he will have to be removed and taken beyond the haven's walls."
"We won't give him to Satan!"
"He will die if he remains here in the grip of the demon, but there may be a way for you to close the gate that has opened within these walls."
"There are many bodies buried within these walls. Murdered families that came here that night. Papa and mama are here somewhere and Raul too I think. There souls are trapped here...lost and alone and crying out for help, but I can do nothing. I too, am one of the souls you can hear crying out for help. Your friend has been hearing our calls for some time, but he did not understand what he heard. It was one of the reasons he has been chosen to stand as sentinel at the gate to hell. This Inn has been damned from the moment this ground was chosen simply because this is a strong point on earth. A point where evil begets evil and death comes to those within the circle of corruption. I will not be here to see if you are successful, for I am no longer a part of this."
Josiah watched as the ghostly figure began to fade and sat up further as he looked into the angelic face. "Tell me what we are supposed to do!"
"You have to find the room...he," she turned her gaze upon the unconscious Texan before speaking again. "He knows where it is for he has felt its wrath. It is a well of darkness, of evil squelch that hides the bones of those who died that fateful night and any that came afterwards. Find the well and remove the bones..."
"And do what?" Sanchez asked as her voice grew weaker and the wispy tendrils of smoke seemed to lose what little substance they had.
"Remove them...take them away from his unholy ground and bury them properly. Read the sacred words from your bible that they will know peace and find their way past the evil they've lived in. I will pray for all of you...pray that you are given the strength you need to carry out your destiny for it is a fight against all things evil...all things that belong in hell!"
Josiah sat up and shook himself. He wasn't sure if he'd fallen asleep and dreamed the whole thing, and there was no sign that anyone had been in the room with him. He couldn't be sure what he'd seen was real or brought on by the story written in the journal, but to save his friends he would act on the message revealed to him. Taking a deep breath he sat up straighter and guarded his fellow peacekeepers from the horror outside their haven.