Jesse took a long drag from the cigarette dangling loosely between his lips as he checked the chamber of his Colt. He slammed the full chamber into the gun and spun it, watching the dark streets below his window.
The dirty sheets on the bed were still turned up and unruffled. He would find no rest in this cheap excuse for a hotel tonight. Through the dusty windowpane, orange flames flickered in the night on the edge of town, casting eerie shadows across the room. If Jesse squinted hard enough, he could see the shadow things out there, dancing around the burning church.
X’ah had followed him here and soon this quiet little town would be fighting for its life. Even now, Jesse imagined Reon’s residents being dragged from their beds by X’ah’s creatures, their flesh rent from their bones by the demons’ razor-sharp claws and their despair as their physical bodies were eaten alive while their very souls were consumed by mouths that could not be seen.
A shotgun thundered somewhere down the street from the hotel. Horses reared and kicked out against the walls of their pens. They felt the evil as deeply as he did. He should not have come here. The blood being shed in the darkness was upon his hands.
He wondered why he’d come, perhaps in search of protection? Some vain hope that mankind could or would rise up to save him as he had for them time and again? But he realized with certainty that in coming to Reon, he’d only brought death to their door. They could do nothing to help him and the limbless preacher dangling from the steeple of the church across the street was proof of that. Reon’s destruction would do nothing but buy him a few precious moments to prepare for what lay ahead.
Jesse tossed the butt of the cigarette aside and pulled another from the tin in his shirt pocket, striking a match against the room’s rough wooden wall to ignite it. There would be no more running. It would end here, tonight.
The door to his room burst open, nearly ripped from its hinges, as Matthew entered. The fat hotelkeeper was sweating like a pig and his skin burned a deep red from fright and exertion. “Mister, you better clear out! There are things out there in the street! They ain’t human, killing everything in their path. They’re working their way through the whole town!”
“I reckon’ if I was you, I’d be runnin’ then,” Jesse smiled. Matthew stared at him for a second, befuddled by his calmness, and then shook his head, vanishing back out into the hall. Jesse listened to his shouts as he roused his other guests, warning them to the danger.
The streets below Jesse’s window were alive now. Six-guns and rifles barked in the darkness, their short bursts a sharp contrast to the longer cries of the wounded and dying. Dark shapes flowed from the shadows and back into them, unhindered by the gunfire. Several other buildings were aflame now and the town outside the window reminded Jesse of Richmond of a few years before. He felt helpless, now as then. But maybe this time he could save the men from the Dark, as he couldn’t save them from each other. Jesse shattered the window with a quick blow from the butt of one his twin revolvers and took aim at one of the moving shadows below. The gun’s muzzle flashed and the shot was followed by a howl shrieking, high pitched and monstrous. A white body materialized and fell with a thud onto the walkway of the general store across the street. The thing was barely four feet tall and hairless from head to toe. It wore no clothes and a yellow puss leaked from the wound on its scalp as its body twitched and thrashed about in the throes of death.
“X’ah!” Jesse shouted, “I’m here! Come out and face me like a man!”
Shadows moved and leapt. Dark forms hurried through the chaos below toward the window and the hotel. Jesse opened up, blazing away with his Colts as white demons suddenly appeared as they died, littering the streets.
His Colts clicked empty. He flung the chambers open spilling spent cartridges onto the floor with a clatter and began to reload. Quickly, he packed six silver rounds into each of the twin chambers. He kissed each of the chambers, a gentle, patient blessing completely at odds with the chaos around him.
“J-E-S-S-E,” a voice colder than the deadest winter echoed in the hotel below. The sound of an army of tiny feet climbing the stairs told Jesse all he needed to know. The Devil didn’t believe in a fair fight. Neither did he, not this time. He climbed out the window, tossing his cigarette underneath his bed. As he half jumped, half fell to the street below, his room exploded in a shower of broken wood and flames. He heard the squeals of the demon things behind him as they died in the blast. “It’s amazing what a few well-placed pounds of TNT can do,” he laughed to himself.
He rolled with his fall, barely managing to avoid breaking his legs as he hit the ground. He was on his feet and running even as the hotel buckled inward on itself in a fiery collapse. He didn’t delude himself with the notion that he’d been lucky enough to get X’ah too. At best, he’d merely evened the odds a bit.
Reon’s survivors still ran about in the streets, panicked and terrified. A few had managed to find horses or wagons and were hotfooting it out of town. The Shadow things were there also, though their numbers were smaller, patches of blackness descending upon the innocents as they tried to flee.
Jesse stumbled in his haste for the stables and went tumbling into the dirt. Cursing loudly, he got to his feet as he saw the glowing figure of X’ah standing outside the remains of the hotel. A halo of light surrounded him, and though the angel should have been beautiful in his white robes, the effect was marred by the glistening blood of the damned dripping off of him. His eyes held an infinite blackness and long blonde hair spilled down over his shoulders. He stood with his arms spread wide as if to embrace the carnage before him.
“Jesse, it is time,” his voice called out inside Jesse’s head though his lips never moved.
Jesse stood his ground, his hands resting on the butts of the Colts tucked in the holsters on his belt.
“Go back to hell and leave me alone!” Jesse screamed at the figure in white.
“Not without you,” X’ah floated an inch off the ground as he swept towards Jesse. “Not without my son.”
“I am not your son!” Jesse wailed as tears well up in his eyes. With blinding speed, Jesse’s Colts cleared their holsters but X’ah merely waved his hand and they flew from Jesse’s grasp.
Jesse turned to run but X’ah was upon him, his arms snaking around him with blinding speed. “Are you not?” the demon asked as he drew the man close to him. Jesse struggled, but was helpless in the tentacled embrace. X’ah turned the man around, deposited him on the ground before him. “Are you not?” he repeated. “And who else would have you? The Creator?”
Jesse looked up, tears causing little channels on his soot darkened face. He said nothing.
“Oh, yes, and will the Creator come and claim you as his offspring, haul you down from the tree where you hang amongst thieves and criminals? You made that mistake before, did you not? How many fathers will you call upon before you recognize me?”
“You cannot be my father.” Jess stubbornly shook his head. The demons surrounded him, visible now, leaving off their sport with the humans and leering at him maliciously.
“Cannot? How can I not be your sire? Again I ask you, how many times will you be reborn, how many times will you give yourself to these sheep, calling on whatever god they hold dear at the moment to recognize you? Did Zeus save you when you were chained to the rock, as I came every day to feed upon your liver? Will you give away more palaces, more riches, more kingdoms? Who else came for you and Brahma? How many incarnations will you have, Lughnasadh? Or shall I call you Adonis, or Tammuz, or Enkidu or Quetzalcoatl?”
Jesse said nothing, defiance on his face, but despair in his heart.
“Who is there with you, son of man, at every death? Who is the father of the Hanged Man, if not the Devil?”
Jesse wept. “Enough,” he said, “It is as you say. What do you want of me?”
The demon leaned forward, eagerly. The stench of ten million corpses was in his breath as he stretched forward to embrace his ‘son.’ “Finally, you will acknowledge me?”
The voice came from behind X’ah, and the demon whirled around, dragging the unfortunate gunslinger with him. “Who dares?” he started. A small girl-child stood there, tattered and dirty in her nightdress, ash on her face. “No!” She shouted up at X’ah. “You let him go!”
Jesse clamped his eyes shut, desperately praying to whatever god might be watching this generation, praying to the child. Run, child, run. “Leave her, X’ah, you have me.”
X’ah released Jesse, who slumped to the ground. He snaked his tentacles toward the child. “I have you both, Jesse. And this one I will enjoy.” “No! Mama says you can’t hurt me, not when my angel is watching. I know who you are, old Scratch. You have to go, ‘cuz my friend’s tougher than you.”
X’ah caressed the girl’s face, dragging his tentacle along her cheek. “Really, child? And who is your friend that is so tough?”
“He is.” She was pointing to Jesse, who was standing again. He had quickly looked for his guns, but realized now that he didn’t need them. He stood behind X’ah, wrapped his arms around the demon, breathing into his ear like a lover. “She is right, you know, X’ah. I am stronger than you. You will always be here for them, but so will I. Despair is strong, but Hope is stronger.”
X’ah screamed, lashing out at the girl, but his tentacles bounced off of her like she was under glass. Then he lashed back at Jesse, who calmly ignored the tentacles tearing at him. X’ah kept striking, and pieces of flesh and clothing were flayed from Jesse’s back. But Jesse didn’t seem to notice. He leaned in, and seemed at first to be kissing X’ah on the neck, but his mouth kept opening wider, and he drew X’ah in, slurping the demon’s grotesque form into his mouth, slurping the tentacles in last. He turned to the screaming demons. “Be gone,” he said, and they were. The girl wrinkled her nose at him, “You ate him. Yuck.”
“It was yuck. He tasted awful.”
The girl laughed. “I have to go find Mama.” Jesse nodded.
He turned and found his guns, slung them in their holsters. He patted his stomach, and opened a door to nowhere, “Come, father, we should get you home.”
Copyright © 2003 by Eric S. Brown & Pete Allen