Evan looked out the window and thought, “No backing out now.”
The snow was falling, and falling with a force and thickness that if he did not know better, the young man in the cabin would have thought the world itself had gone white. Gone were the thick aspen groves and clumps of cedar trees that grew tall despite the extreme altitude. Gone was the crushed gravel and granite “road” that led him here in the banged up old Land Cruiser that had seen far too many winters. Gone even was the stack of wood that would provide him warmth in this long, cold winter of soulful examination.
Evan had spent the better part of his twenties in the exact opposite location from where he now found himself. In a sun drenched cubicle in southern California, just a five minute walk from a beach he had made a lot of money.
And lost his soul.
It all hit him one day when he had a flat tire on the side of the road. He had no idea how to change it. So, he called a tow truck. He got home to find that his girlfriend had left him a message- a literal note on the door that she was done with his distance and lack of interest. Not ten minutes later, his boss called him and told him that he needed to ‘fix’ a problem. ‘Fix’ meant forge or fabricate something. He had done it a thousand times, but this time, something hit him.
Right in the heart.
He had always wanted to grow up to be a real man. A man of integrity, character and capability. His grandfather Paul had been that kind of man. A man with strong hands, a soft heart, and kind eyes. A man that knew how to fix a tire, chop a tree, and mend a young boy’s broken heart when his parents had divorced.
He was none of these things.
Grandpa Paul had died the last fall, but before he died, he had said something that Evan had initially dismissed as dementia. But here, now, those words and the image of Paul’s face rushed to the forefront of his consciousness:
“Lose yourself in nature to find your soul.”
And so the next morning he handed his boss a note of his own- it simply said, “I quit.”
He sold it all. All the trappings of his unethical and self-centered life from his lavish apartment to his fancy sports car. He bought the old, worn out but rugged Land Cruiser and headed east to the Rockies.
The old man that sold him the cabin looked at him from grizzled eyes and with less than the average number of teeth he spoke with dismissal. “You’ll be comin’ down the mountain in a week. Two, tops. Ain’t no city folk got the gumption to make it in a Rocky Mountain winter. And this is gunna be a beast of one.”
Looking out at the blanket of snow and the fading light, Evan started to agree. He saw the reflection of a man gone to waste. He saw his pudgy hands rub the smooth and round chin of a man thirty pounds too heavy. He looked at the well-kept two hundred dollar haircut and stared back into the beady eyes made tiny by the excess flesh that crushed in around his eyes. Then he put his hands in the pockets of the two hundred dollar “mountain pants” that he bought because they were “guaranteed to keep you warm and dry in winter.” He saw a ghost of a human, ironically suited up for battle with nature in the very same type of armor he had suited up in for his unethical cubicle life.
He saw a joke.
He saw a man desperate to change, yet still trapped in the materialism he had fled to the mountains to escape. He turned back to the den, a small, sparsely appointed space that would have seemed cozy if it had not suddenly taken on the shades of a prison. No, a death row cell.
Panic gripped Evan. Yes, he had stocks and stores of food for months out in the rudimentary refrigeration barn. Yes he had wood cut, yes he had fuel for the snowmobile he knew nothing of how to operate. Yes he had supplies- but he lacked the most important thing. The thing he had dreamed of having as an adult. As a MAN.
The Land Cruiser keys were gleaming on the kitchen counter. He felt a pull toward the keys and at the same time, a quiet, almost imperceptible whisper:
“Lose yourself in nature to find your soul.”
Evan turned quickly, looking for the source of the whisper- knowing it had been in his head. For a brief instant, in the faint reflection in the snow plastered window, Evan thought he saw his grandpa’s face. Then he realized it was just his own reflection distorted in the dying light of day.
He looked at his right hand, white knuckled as it gripped the keys. He slowly released his grip, and stepped back. No. Evan would stay.
He would stay alone in this cabin, he would test his mettle against nature, he would learn to really live by daring to face death.
And it must start with lighting that pile of wood in the fireplace. It was getting cold.
Evan struck a match and lit the kindling beneath the dry, fragrant pine logs. Before the flames took, he placed his hand on the wood and felt the rough and brittle texture of the pine bark. He began to feel the heat of the fire catching, so he stepped back and settled into the old recliner that sat near the fire. He leaned back, mesmerised by the fire as it danced and twisted, sending sparks up into the piercing darkness of the chimney.
Outside, the wind howled and occasionally there was a scratching noise on the window as the wind whipped the snow onto the old, thin panes of glass.
It was quiet. There was no television, no cell service. Evan just watched the fire dance and crackle. On his first night, that is where he drifted off to sleep.
And so was his routine in the evenings for the next few days. He began to acclimate to the quiet- something very different from the loudness of his apartment that was just blocks from a freeway. The only sounds here came from the things no human had made. Mostly the snow for the first few days. It was near blizzard like, and the old man and former owner had warned him that “nobody finds themselves in the blizzard until the thaw.” Evan assumed that meant he would die in the blizzards, so he waited to “Lose himself in nature to find his soul,” until the snow stopped flying.
In the meantime, he explored the cabin. All eight hundred square feet of it. There was a tiny kitchen with an oven and stove and sink and small fridge. All run by the generator that was just outside the kitchen window, steadily along providing power to the cabin during the day. But at night, just like the first night, Evan preferred to keep the generator off because he felt something soothing in the sounds of the rough and rustic world surrounding him.
The bedroom was small, containing a full sized bed and a single window, but it had been covered from the outside by window flashing to keep the heat in. In fact, Evan had yet to sleep in the bed, choosing instead to stay close to the fireplace.
The bathroom was small as well, but then, Evan wanted simplicity, right?
The cabin had the exposed cedar timbers everywhere, and Evan liked to run his fingers over the rough and stringy bark packed down with whatever they had sealed the logs with eons ago by his reckoning. There was a bookshelf in the den, and it contained dozens of books- some classics from the Victorian age, and some more modern paperbacks from the likes of King and Cussler and L’Amour and Crichton. During the snows, he devoured them.
When the snow let up, he ventured out. First, not much farther than the sightline of the cabin. It’s small outline was made smaller by the massive amount of snow piled on the roof as well as rising up in drifts from the ground. The smoke poured from the chimney constantly, as Evan knew there could be nothing worse for him than to lose that fire. It was heat, it was backup power, it was life.
After about a week of exploring, he finally let the cabin escape his sight. On the first venture, he encountered a deer. His loud movement spooked it, and it darted away with grace through the loosely packed trees of the forest. In that brief moment, Evan learned what freedom looked like. What the ability to move and go wherever one wanted.
Evan made a mental note to learn how to not scare the wildlife.
A few days later, the snow had been packed well down by his trampling, and he felt secure enough to venture much farther than before. Up one ridge and down another. Here, he found a truly majestic bull elk. He watched from a distance as the massive creature lifted his head and shook his antlers. They rattled as they contacted small branches on either side of it. It must have smelled Evan, because it turned and looked right at him. Evan locked eyes with this beast, and there was an understanding, it seemed. The elk tossed his head again, as if to say “Follow me!” then it raced up the mountainside.
For the briefest of moments, Evan considered it. But just then it began to snow. Immediately, it was near blizzard levels, and terror gripped Evan. He turned and ran back, following the tracks he had made. But he had been hiking for over an hour, and after about fifteen minutes, finding the trail became very difficult.
After thirty minutes, the trail was completely gone.
Evan must have wandered, lost in nature, for over an hour. The temperature was dropping fast, and a tingle in Evan’s toes and fingers was causing him greater concern. He knew that he must get over a ridge and then go down into a small valley to find the cabin, but in the sheets of snow- everything was white. By the time he crested a familiar ridge, and begun the literal slide down toward the cabin, he could not feel hands, feet or nose despite his “guaranteed” pants.
As he scrambled to the door of the quaint cabin, he caught a glimpse of himself in the window. If his fingers had feeling, he would have felt a rough stubble growing over a slightly thinner face. He did notice that the gear he wore was hanging on his body in a different way- much more loosely and free. The bulge in his mid-section was almost gone.
But noticing the bluish tint to his nose, Evan burst into the cabin and felt the warmth of the dying but still alive fire hit him full in the face. He rushed to the pile of wood he kept inside to keep it dry and tossed a few decent sized logs on. There was no sound like the grinding of the ash and wood as the two combined to combust and give life and heat. Evan stripped the wet and cold outer clothes off and huddled next to the fire. He need to eat, but the heat was even more of a necessity. He placed a numb and blue hand on the stone hearth of the fireplace and deep in his bones he felt the heat- but it took a few minutes before the extremities began to feel alive again.
It was a few more days of snow, and Evan was okay with that. He had scared himself. Too much too fast. But every now and then, he could have sworn he saw an elk outside his window in the whirling snow.
When the snow stopped this time, Evan took the ax by the door out to find some wood to chop. He still had a decent amount, but he wanted to be prepared. And he wanted to test his mettle, too.
The ax handle was smooth and wooden, rather light to the touch. It was clear the bulk of the tool was kept in the iron double headed blade. He noticed the sheen of a sharp edged blade on each side, then recalled the strange stone that sat near it by the door. The old ax must be kept sharp by that thing, he thought.
He found a decent sized dead tree not too far from the house, and he began to chop. His first swing missed and he tumbled down into the soft snow bank. He stood up, dusted himself off and tried again. The blade hit, but it bounced back and flew out of his hands back down the embankment he stood on. He looked back at the cabin, and marveled once again at how much he had come to depend on the small, rudimentary structure for life.
Learning from his mistake, he gripped the recovered ax and went to work on the tree. It was clearly user error, as once the blade found its mark, it bit deeply into the wood and sent small splinters flying. After fifteen minutes, there was a cracking noise at the site of the cut, and the tree began to move. Evan hopped out of the way as it crashed down into the snow, where it rested silently. Evan drug it down closer to the cabin so he could continue to work it into burnable sections.
The next week was spent chopping the tree up during the day, and sharpening the ax in the recliner by the fire at night. Evan would run the stone over the blade, sending small sparks that seemed to be tiny children of the larger fire just feet away. In these moments, Evan appreciated not just the silence, but the smells he had come to love. The burning wood. The scent of cedar that lingered in the walls of the cabin. The occasional gust of wind that would bring the pine and aspen scents in through the thin windows or in one of the cracks by the door.
One night, a deep squealing sound tore his attention from his sharpening. He rushed to the window looking up the mountain and saw the bull elk. It was standing, hind legs towards the cabin at an angle that allowed the elk’s front half- which was higher up the mountain- to lift the head and antlers up in a way that made it look like the elk was calling to the mountain top. Then it turned as it finished its bugle and looked directly at Evan through the window. “Follow me,” it seemed to say again. Then it ran up the mountain and into the night.
Evan caught a glance of a strange man in the window. He was thin, bearded, and had longish, unkempt and wild hair. His eyes were wide, bright and vivid. And his smile- that was the most foreign thing in the image. The man was bulky, but in a muscular way, not an overweight way. It took Evan a moment to realize that the stranger was him. And he saw his grandfather Paul in the window- only this time, he realized the face of Paul was his own. He was seeing that the man he had sought to be his whole life was there. In his face, in his DNA, Grandpa Paul was the man he strove to be. And those final words echoed in his ears:
“Lose yourself in nature to find your soul.”
Evan rose early the next day and set out up the mountain. For the first time in his adult life, he felt capable of something. He had developed character in his time in the cabin. Now, he had to see if he had the integrity. The fortitude to do something good. Something great.
One of the books he had found in the cabin was about tracks. He found the ones he was looking for quickly, and followed them. By noon, he had passed above the tree line.
He stopped for a quick lunch, then continued his climb. At times he almost ran, at times he literally crawled. But by the time the sun was about to enter the last third of the sky, he reached the summit of the mountain whose name he did not know. He as the highest thing in any direction, and as he looked out over the surrounding mountain tops, he felt, for the first time ever, like a man.
He heard a cracking noise and turned. His breath caught in his lungs.
Fifty feet away stood the bull elk. It looked out at the horizon, then locked eyes with Evan. They stared at each other for a long time, then the elk turned slowly and walked down the mountain. Evan smiled.
“I’ll be chasing you for the rest of my life, friend.”
He had gotten lost in nature, and truly found his soul.
He turned and started back the way he had come. Back home.
Back to the cabin.
Note: This story takes place after Rites of Passage, but before Red Hand Rising.
Note: I have DREAMED of writing an action packed scene set to Carol of the Bells for- well, for as long as I can remember. So, here it is. For added impact, go to this link for WAY more than enough repeating Carol of the Bells in the background. Enjoy! And Merry Christmas- If Sawyer can save the day!
Please don't let them chime.
That is the thought running through my head right now. I am trapped on a rooftop overlooking a nearly empty downtown New York on Christmas Eve. I have until midnight to reach Rockefeller Center and that blasted tree to save Christmas.
I know, I know. Sawyer Shepherd, could you be more melodramatic? The short answer is yes, but in truth, in this Yuletide Emergency- no. No I cannot be more melodramatic. See, here is the deal:
A couple of doofus wannabe witches with a serious anti-Christmas vibe decided to cancel the holiday. They wanted to expose the real basis of the holiday- the Winter Solstice, in their mind- to the people. It was simple enough, they conjured a spirit of the pagans- but not the one they wanted- or maybe they did want it and didn't understand it? Anyway, they unleashed an Anti-Claus.
But this Krampus has elves. Demented little nutters, if I do say so myself. They love to attack by shooting arrows tipped with a sleeping spell. Since they are so small- about two foot high- they have to shoot you with about fifty to actually knock you out, but since there are about a thousand of them, I think they are good.
Mandy and I got word of the spell cast too late, and the two wannabe witches got coal for Christmas, in the form of Krampus killing them as part of his ritual to take over the world. All evil demonic anti-Claus's want to take over the world. And they ALL love the milk and cookies, but substitute human sacrifice for milk and cookies. Problem is- the little demon elves took Mandy. She is the final sacrifice at midnight. At the "Temple of Christmas" Krampus called it. Then he took Mandy and vanished. It took me a good two minutes to figure out it was Rockefeller Center and the tree. That left me about three minutes to get from the rooftop where they summoned him to the tree- which is just a few blocks away.
But the second Krampus poofed- the elves showed up. They look like the Elf on the Shelf- but the have the faces of ugly old lady that gives Snow White the apple.
I can't kill all the elves, but I do have two clips of silver bullets for my gun. And silver kills most things, so, here it goes.
I fire at the three elves nearest the fire escape and POOF! they disappear in a cloud of- is that glitter? And I race to the edge of the roof with Nyquil laced darts zooming past me. I grip the rung and swing over the edge, firing one more shot at an advancing elf who disappears into glitter.
The escape is icy, which actually makes my descent faster. I slip and slide down to the icy ground and a trio of elves advance from behind a dumpster. I punt one (man they are light!) into a street light and then run between the other two. I hurtle a row of trashcans and trashbags as I slide into the main lane and look up to the tree. I see a large demon Santa Claus waiting with what is most definitely not a bag of toys and a large scythe. I sprint down the street.
Elves are everywhere.
One springs at me from a windowsill and I make it rain glitter with a perfect shot. Another swings at me from a light pole and my left hand hooks him in the face and the keeps spinning around the pole. A taxi cab (normal, not demonic) turns into my path and without thinking I run up its front fender and over the top as I see two more elves emerge from the alleyways on each side and I fire a shot first toward the one on my right and then the one on my left.
I am one block away and I feel a tremor and I realize that Krampus brought a big friend. This elf is not really an elf as much as a cave troll- nine feet tall and wielding a club. He swings it at me and I slide under it and between his legs, firing my gun until the clip is empty. He doesn't glitter bomb- he stink bombs. Ugh.
I hit the ice on the rink and see that Krampus is there, scythe raised and the bell starts to toll. Mandy is unconscious on the table (did Krampus bring that in the bag) in front of the golden Prometheus. I am twenty feet away as the third chime hits.
Fifteen feet and fourth chime.
Ten feet and fifth.
Five and sixth.
I jump and fire the gun into Krampus- but it does nothing. Seventh. Then I remember- I have to stab him in the heart with a pine stake, (eighth) which I happen to have strapped to my left leg. Ninth.
He swings the scythe at me, (Tenth) and I duck under and move towards his hideous, wrinkled and pointy face (Eleventh) and thrust the pine tree into his heart. Twelfth.
He begins to shake and shimmer, then his whole body seems to swirl and shrink into a black hole. I hear thousands of yips as the elves all pop in unison, creating a blizzard of glitter all over the ice rink.
I turn to Mandy, and see she is stirring. She smiles at me, and I at her, and I see her eyes looking above me. I turn expecting a demonic Rudolph, but instead see mistletoe. I turn to her, and just as I am about to finally kiss the girl I think I love, the fifty darts that I did not avoid in my devil elf dash overcome my adrenaline and I am out.
And what did you do for Christmas?
Dry Hollow Arizona doesn't seem like much, and really, it isn't.
About a dozen wooden structures line the only street in town. Most of them are vacant. The Sheriff's office definitely is. So is the clinic, the church, and the grocer. No one in Dry Hollow needs anything from those places.
They are all dead.
Most of them, anyway.
The saloon is open, it is the honey to draw the fly into the trap. And it works well. Over the last six months, five of the West's top gunslingers have come to Dry Hollow to test their mettle against the man claiming to be the fastest gun that ever walked the earth.
None have ever left.
But they all started in the same place, the saloon. So that is where he starts. He walks up to the bar, sits on the stool and orders. "Whiskey." His voice is raspy and dry from miles of desert riding.
The bartender casts a side eye at him and then looks down. "We don't serve your kind in here."
Hezekiah Romer is used to this kind of dismissal. A black man in the United States in the 1880's gets used to being ignored for the color of his skin. But this is different. There was a look of fear- not disdain- in the barkeep's eye. There was a look of pity, sorrow, and resignation. He is merely playing a part, speaking his lines, Hezekiah realizes. The trap is sprung.
"My kind?" Hezekiah asks, knowing the answer will not be the usual, but instead the shocking, the usually unexpected. But Hezekiah Romer expects it. He came looking for it.
With a dead and defeated voice, the barkeep responds. "The living."
There is a creak, then a thump, thump, thump from the swinging doors at the entrance. The sound of wood on wood is heard as the doors bang back together. Thump, thump thump. Then the entrant is at the bar. Hezekiah has not looked yet. He won't look. It is his part of the script. To be distant, to play the role of a gunslinger looking for the ultimate challenge. A cold remorseless killer looking to lay claim to a title.
"I can help make him the kind you do serve, Al." The new arrival drawls. Not in a stupefied, dumb southerner drawl, but in an educated, affluent, and well kept southern royalty kind of voice. Like a plantation owner in the deep parts of Georgia. Hezekiah knows it is for his benefit alone that that is the voice that speaks. Hezekiah had been born in Georgia, before Emancipation. He was a teenager when Lincoln freed the slaves. But he was old enough to know that the gentlemanly southern voice was meant to mask the cruelty of the hands that would lay upon any young black boy that dared defy.
Hezekiah did not look around. He merely stared ahead. "That's mighty presumptuous of you, sir." Hezekiah would not let this trick of the tongue shake him. He had come too far in life, faced too many demons- figurative and real- to let this demon (and yes, there was no doubt that that is what this was) shake him. "What makes you think you've got the faster draw, Mr. Black?"
Out of the corner of his eye, Hezekiah saw an almost imperceptible twitch. "You know my name. Do you know what I can do?"
"Other than talk a good game, I hear you have laid claim to killing a half dozen or so of the fastest guns out west."
The demon leans in close to Hezekiah. "You heard wrong. It's way more than that, boy." Hezekiah smells a sweetness in the breath that issued from the demon. After a moment, the sweetness gives way to a bitter, rotten smell.
The smell of sulfur and death.
For the first time, Hezekiah turns to face Mr. Black.
He is tall, skeletal in frame and face. There are deep indentations in his cheeks, and hollow, deep set eyes. He wears all black- just as the name suggests- except for a kerchief around his neck that is blood red. A pencil thin mustache rides his upper lip and a triangular patch of hair sits just beneath the lower. There are twin guns on his hips, large Colts by the look of it. And they were silver- pristine and gleaming as if they were almost mirrored. Hezekiah thinks he might be able to see his reflection in them.
"Don't ever call me 'boy.' I don't take kindly to it," rasps Hezekiah.
He knew it was a trick of the light, but at times, Hezekiah almost thought he could see Mr. Black's actual skeleton through his extremely pale, almost translucent skin.
Mr. Black has been leaning against the bar, but now he stands. He had seemed tall before, but standing up straight, the man seems almost gigantic. For the first time, Hezekiah notices just how large his hands are, as well. They too are skeletal, but their reach from smallest finger to thumb seems almost a full foot. Hezekiah imagines a ludicrous image of him holding the normally large Colt revolvers in each hand, but the hand covered all but the barrel. "Tell you what. Since I have offended your delicate sensibilities, I will offer you a chance to avenge them." He walks over to the entrance, his feet thumping loudly with each step. He points to the street. "A duel. Like two gentlemen. You win- you lay claim to killing the fastest gun in the West and no one will call you 'boy' ever again."
Hezekiah knows this part of the script well before he asks the question. "And if I lose?"
Mr. Black smiles. It is a toothy grin- giant teeth filling a mouth stretched obscenely wide. He cocks his head slightly to the side, and with one gargantuan hand tilts his hat back just a bit. "Why, I get your soul. Boy."
"Don't do it- its rigged!" yells the barkeep, before a cutting glance from Mr. Black silences him.
"Now Al, out of the kindness of my heart I allow you keep bar in my town, and you try to scare off any diversion that comes my way. I think I have given enough. Boy- you win, and you save Al's soul, too. But lose and I get both your lives and both your souls. That is non-negotiable."
Hezekiah feels a cold sweat break out on his neck, and a trickle down the center of his back. He came to put his own life on the line- not an innocent bystander's as well. He looks at Al and sees a ghastly terror. In a show of unearned confidence, Hezekiah gives him a wink and a nod. "I got you."
Mr. Black laughs a deep and hollow laugh and claps his hands. "Alright- five minutes." And he bursts through the doors, leaving them clacking behind him.
Al grabs Hezekiah by the arm. "He's demon, son! He cheats!"
Hezekiah smiles and gently removes the barkeep's hand. "It's why I came, Al." And he walks out the door.
The sun blinds him for a second, and he puts his arm up to shade his eyes. As the world came back into focus, he sees sand and dry wood buildings.
Then he sees shimmers.
Standing on the balconies, behind the windows, on the steps of the buildings, there must have been two dozen shimmering bystanders. Hezekiah's first thought was that all the townspeople must have come out of hiding, but he quickly realizes that isn't true. He sees in each of these spectral apparitions a deep red spot- the site of their fatal wound. Then he sees that same skeletal shift he had seen in Mr. Black and he knows- these were the ones that Mr. Black had laid claim to. Souls he had swindled or bested. But why- why were the souls here, haunting an empty town?
"Any great duel needs an audience- BOY! Take a long look- they all thought they could best me. At duels, or gambling, or at simply trying to trick me into losing. In fact-" he points at a coupleof specters that were standing by the Sheriff's office- "-you are not even the first exorcist to make a play here. Oh, yes, I tagged you the second you stepped into town. You all have that...smell about you. The smell of death that is waiting to reach out and grab you at any moment. Well, boy, that moment is now."
Mr. Black squares up, and so does Hezekiah. Al had come out onto the porch and stood, wringing his hands in a dishrag. Hezekiah's hands float above his twin revolvers, while Mr. Black stands relaxed and still, arms limp at his sides. Then from behind him, about a dozen specters step up, and each draw twin guns, aimed at Hezekiah.
Mr. Black widens his mouth into that rictus grin, "Should have listened to Al. I do cheat." He begins to laugh an obnoxious, braying laugh.
Hezekiah begins to laugh as well, and Mr. Black stops. Puzzled by this action, he looks quizzically at Hezekiah. Hezekiah meets his gaze. "So do I."
Mr. Black looks down at his chest. A large black hole is over his heart. He looks up at Hezekiah, who had yet to draw his guns, first with confusion, quickly to anger, then to an evil grin. "Bullets cannot kill me- I am Death!"
Hezekiah's smile does not falter. "I knew that. But this one can definitely trap you."
Mr. Black goes to draw his guns, and finds he cannot move his arms. "Wha- what did you do?"
Hezekiah begins to walk toward Mr. Black, whose horde of gunslinging ghosts are as frozen as their master. He pulls a bullet from his pocket and inspects it. "Wrote a little rite on these bullets that makes any demon it enters stand stock still. Even the demon that is the Horseman of Death." He meets Mr. Black's dead eyes.
"But you still can't kill me!"
"Nope. Killing Death- that'd be a trick. No, but I can send you back to Hell. Oh, and free these souls up to go where they really belong. But while I have you- heh- why are you keeping these souls anyway?"
Mr. Black's face squirms. "I won't tell you."
Hezekiah shrugs, then steps to his left.
Another black hole just above the first appears.
"That one has a rite that forces you to comply. So, why the horde of ghost gunslingers?"
Mr. Black screams, and Hezekiah definitely sees the skeleton this time. "Ughh- a war is coming. Lucifer is looking to build any army he can to fight. My job is to acquire spectral forces."
"And other demons, other horsemen?"
"Making monsters, new creatures, hybrids. Aaargh! All manner of Hellish things are coming."
Mr. Black laughs. "Oh, you won't be there to stop it. No, He is playing a long game with you humans. You'll be dead and rotted to dust before his plan comes to fruition. There is no stopping him!"
"Funny, that's what my friend Otto said about you, boy. And the name is Hezekiah Romer." Then Hezekiah recites a Latin rite the expels Mr. Black from the Earth. He dusts away, mingling with the hot sandy air, leaving only his shiny silver Colts. And his army of spirits.
Hezekiah looks around the town at the spirits that have gathered. "You are all released to your final home. Fear not- the demon does not hold your souls." They begin to disappear, one by one. All but the gunslingers, who still stand frozen. "But not you. You he still holds, apparently. Go, go to your place, until such as a time as Death calls you up." With an angry howl, they disappear as well.
Al comes down the steps into the dusty street. "How did you do that? I never saw you even lift your guns!"
Hezekiah smiles. "That's because I didn't. He did." He points down to the end of the long street. A single man strides through the hazy, sandy, windblown horizon. When the man was finally within earshot, Hezekiah boasts. "Told you it would work!"
"You did. But if that wind had picked up even a smidge more, that first shot would have hit him after going through you."
"Come on- the great Otto Schmidt, Exorcist Guild marksman extraordinaire? He never misses." He laughs as he claps the man on the back.
"So there were two of you the whole time?" asks an incredulous Al.
"Of course," smiles Hezekiah. "Exorcist's never hunt alone. Rule number one. There are a lot more, if you want to know them."
Note: This story takes place after Rites of Passage, but before Red Hand Rising.
Basking in my (okay, our) victory over the Speed Demon, Eli Romer and I (Sawyer Shepherd) returned to Sage City, Colorado. Eli told me various tales of demonic monsters he had hunted over the years, including a few he had heard of, but had not encountered.
There were werewolves and vampires and a Jersey Devil. Lots of possessions and the occasional demonic pet that got loose. Yes, you heard that- demonic pets. Which is interesting he mentioned that based on what came next.
We arrived in Sage City late on a Wednesday to a message on Eli's machine. It went like this:
"Hey Eli, Norm Redding here. It's been awhile. Look, I'll cut to it. We have had some cattle mutilations out here in the Northwestern Arkansas Ozarks. We got wolves and whatnot, but these mutilations have slime on them, too. Then the other day, couple campers were down by a river and they heard something crawl up out of the water. Big something. They didn't get a good look at it, before it attacked them. One of 'em got gored pretty good, and the other got big claw marks, but they got out. Told 'em it was a gator. But it ain't. Sound like your kinda thing?"
Eli called Norm back and told him we were on our way. Then he called Mandy Jane- my partner in training- and informed her we would pick her up on the way. She was off at college in Gunnison Colorado, but apparently this experience would trump that. And it would trump sleep, too.
We drove all night, taking turns, then drove most of the next day. Nothing like no sleep and driving through the long flat of Oklahoma to make you regret your life choices.
We arrived at our destination, Boston Mountain Ranger Station, just after sundown, and Norm Redding was waiting. He was about seventy, and medium in stature. He wore a felt fedora and khaki cargo pants. His eyes were a deep blue that seemed to say he had seen a lot in his day. We introduced ourselves and we learned that Norm had retired from the Forestry Service a few years earlier, shortly after an incident with a beast that Eli had taken care of.
"A black dog," Eli said as if that was to mean anything to us.
"So, you hunt strays, too?" asked Mandy, a mix of sarcasm and genuine curiosity that only she could pull off without sounding petty.
Eli laughed. "No, a black dog is a demonic hound. Not exactly a hell hound sent to collect on deals, but a hunter. Sometimes they get out and do a little sporting. That one killed a couple campers before we got it."
Norm nodded somberly. "Yeah, and whatever this is- it just took a camper about an hour ago. Husband and wife- the man got taken. Wife said it was a crocodile- officially. Off the record, she said it slithered more than walked, and that it had tusks."
Mandy's face went white. "Slither? Like a snake?"
I tried to be the comforting partner (and potential someday love interest) by gently putting my arm around her shoulders to offer comfort and said, "Don't forget, it's like twenty foot long, too."
I think her punch left a sizable bruise on my rib cage.
Not wanting to waste any time, we grabbed our hiking supplies- including machetes and several powerful firearms- and headed down the trail. I was also carrying my Roman gladius- the Sword of God as it had named itself. Rumored to be made of the nails from the actual Cross of Jesus, it may or may not have significant supernatural power. We are looking into that- but it had come in handy several times already.
After about fifteen minutes of unhindered hiking, we hit the denser treeline, and before too long, the trail grew steeper and more ill defined. It was easy to see how one could get lost. Norm was explaining some of the more frequent dangers in the area. Rock slides when it rained, falling branches from old trees, an occasional mountain lion. Norm explained that the mountain lion would sound like a scream, and that as a ranger, that sound was more terrifying than anything he had ever seen. Save that experience with Eli a few years back.
Not five minutes later, we heard a scream. "Mountain lion?" I asked hopefully.
Norm's face was grim. Even in the low light, I could see fear in the lines of his aged face. All he said was a hoarse, "No."
"That's a man," answered Eli. "It's hard to tell its origin. I think that way?" He indicated an easterly direction with his machete. We picked up the pace.
Within ten minutes, the only sound was our footfalls on the ground. Occasionally we picked up on the rush of water in the direction we were heading. At first it just sounded like a small stream, but as we drew nearer, the rush became a dull roar. Then we heard the scream again. It was close.
Eli, Mandy and I broke into as much of a run as we could manage, bounding over boulders and downed logs every few steps. I shouted now, as the river was much louder and I could see sparkles of moonlight reflecting on it through the trees occasionally. "Any idea what we might be hunting? Just in case I accidentally run into it while we sprint blindly towards danger?"
"Eli, if you say giant snake, I swear I will turn around right now!" Mandy yelled.
"Nah, not a snake. Or a basilisk, either. Might be a gowrow. Kinda giant slug crossed with a cavefish that has arms. " Eli was breathing heavy, which is not surprising with our pace and his moderately advanced age.
We broke through the treeline and we were on the banks of a large river. There was a current, and you could smell the sent of fish heavy in the air. The current was decent in most spots, but the roar we heard was from the bends up and down river where the currents bordered on whitewater. But where we stood was mostly calm, and probably passable. Which was good.
Because laying on the opposite shore was the body of a man. He was bloodied and wet, and he was screaming. This close, we could hear that he was actually yelling "Help!"
Without thinking I dove into the river to cross. I guess adrenaline was pumping and I as still high on that last twenty six hours in the car. I shouted, "Stay there we are coming for you!"
Instantly I regretted this for two reasons. One, the water was much colder than I thought it would be. Two, it was much deeper than I expected. I plunged in and sank for a second before I could get my swim stroke down. I was submerged, and when my head broke the surface I was halfway across. I could hear Mandy and Eli yelling, but I was committed to the crossing now.
That's when I felt something swim past me toward the bank I had just left. It was large and very soft, and it seemed to pay me no mind whatsoever. I at first thought it was a fish, but if it was, it was very long. The cold had dulled my thoughts, so I did not reason anything out until I reached the other shore and crawled out- my body numb from the cold. I ran up to the man and kneeled beside him. I placed my hand on his shoulder to calm him. That is when I realized he was not wet- he was slimed.
Then I heard a sound that was part sucking sound, part squishing sound. I turned in time to see a large, semi-translucent worm looking thing emerge from the water on the opposite beach and start to crawl- wait, it had ARMS- toward Mandy and Eli. Norm had joined them, saw the worm and turned and ran. Good man.
Eli and Mandy were firing at the beast with their guns- Eli had a .357 Magnum, and Mandy had a twelve gauge. Mixed in with the blasts from the guns was a squelching sound as the shots hit their mark. The shots were working, as the beast was slowing down- but not fast enough. In a last ditch effort, I unsheathed my gladius and shouted, "Use this!" before throwing across the river.
In a stroke of great skill (that should read luck) the gladius embedded itself in what should be the creatures head. It screeched once, then collapsed and went to ash. All was quiet once again except the roar of the river. "Nice toss!" yelled Mandy.
Eli was not so happy. "What if that had landed in the river? We can't afford to lose this sword. Don't be a fool, boy!"
"Noted. Now, since I saved the day, mind helping me get this guy back across?"
Mandy and Eli waded slowly into the river and I helped the camper to his feet. Norm, who had apparently decided not to completely run away re-emerged from the forest. The camper was awake enough to dog paddle on his own and I got him halfway across when Eli took his hand and pulled him the rest of the way. I decided to paddle across myself.
I could hear Eli saying, "Yeah, that was a gowrow alright. Other than magical swords, apparently-" he cut his eyes at me- "-fire does them pretty well. But problem is, they're so slimy, it takes nearly an explosion to-"
I didn't hear the last because I was pulled under the water. There was a faint glow surrounding me, and I turned and looked into two giant glowing eyes. It looked almost like those deep sea fish in Finding Nemo. But it had arms. And one was pulling me down and back toward the bank. Then I saw more glowing. Eyes. Dozens of them. But smaller.
It was the gowrow nest and it was in an underwater cave. And I was meant to be food for the kids. I kicked and spun, then remembered I had a pistol of my own and tried to fire. One shot hit the right eye and it released me as inky black blood filled the water around me.
I shot out of the water and gasped for breath. Mandy was shouting my name, and then she saw me. "What happened?!?!"
I coughed and sputtered as I climbed ashore. "Nest. Dozens of babies and momma are down there in a cave."
Norm looked ready to bolt. Eli was thoughtful. "Got just the thing." He dug into his backpack. "Thought it might be gowrow, and that I'd need waterproof fire. So I brought these." He produced two grenade looking devices. "These will burn underwater- kinda like a phosphorus grenade- and that should do the trick." He handed one to Mandy and one to me. "Good luck!"
Mandy and I looked at each, then at Eli. I faces apparently conveyed the message well enough. "Hey, hey- I am not a strong swimmer- and besides, you need practice." We looked at other, and I turned and reluctantly dove back down.
The residue of the wound hung in the water, so we followed it down to the cave, where we saw the large and medium sized glowing eyes. We pulled the pins and then swam as close as we dared, then tossed the grenades in. We started to swim backwards and up as the eyes came towards us- then the explosion tore through the water. We were blown up and out of the water and onto the bank. The opposite bank deformed as it imploded the cave. A bright white light glowed under the water, and a single large eye floated to the surface.
Panting and freezing, we laid back on the beach. Eli walked over and smiled. "Good job. And that's rule number one- never hunt alone. I'll get to the rest later. Now- who's ready to head home."
I wanted to murder Eli Romer right then and there.
Note: This story takes place after right after Rites of Passage.
I have to admit, my car sounds good.
I rev the engine on my Camaro, and it growls- much louder than it used to. After the winter, with all that went down in the mountains, my mentor- Eli Romer- and I rebuilt my car. I was content to simply repair the damage that had been done by the...things that had banged it up. New windshield, replaced front end, new passenger door. But Eli insisted on upgrades.
And boy did he upgrade. Eli had been an engineer before he began a life as a supernatural expert. So he used all that skill to develop a new engine for my Camaro- taking it from a sturdy V8 to something else. Something monstrous- in a good way. I thought "Man, what a friend!"
Now, I'm not so sure.
By the way, I'm Sawyer Shepherd. A year ago, I graduated high school in Texas and set off on a journey of self discovery. Solo roadtrip across the good old USA. By fall I had landed in Sage City, Colorado intending to see the aspen leaves changes and do a little hiking. Instead, I got caught in a snowstorm, an avalanche and I learned that monsters are real. Especially demons. But how those rites of passage went down is another story for another day. Since that time I have been training with Eli, learning about the supernatural world, building a cabin, and suping up my car.
Which all really went together more than I realized, actually. See, about two months into working on the car, Eli started telling me about a legend. And when Eli calls something a legend, he is talking about a monster. (I picked up on that tell quickly.) In this legend, there is demon drag racer in the Mojave Desert. He loved to race for 'pink slips' ( I think that means the title for the cars in old people speak. Eli is getting up there- like fifty or something)- but the pink slip was the opponent's soul. Only the racer didn't know that. They thought if they won, they would get the demon's super fast car- it used to be a Shelby Mustang, then it was a Corvette Stingray, then in the eighties it was a Ferrari Testarossa. That was the legend Eli told me. That a man had figured out the demon's scam, and tried to cheat the demon. During the race, the man was holding his own for a while, but then saw the demon start to pull ahead. So the man threw some spikes down in the road under the Ferrari. But the demon saw this, and with a flick of his finger, he redirected the spikes under the man's car, causing it to roll. The demon came over to the accident and told the man that he admired the desire to win at all costs, so he could keep his soul, but he would bear for the rest of his short life the cost of trying to trick a demon. Then the demon vanished, his car along with him.
The man was paralyzed in the accident, and died just a year later.
Eli told me the legend was just that- a legend- for over thirty years. Then about two years ago, sightings of a fancy Lamborghini Aventador racing around the Mojave started. Then there were accidents- horrific, metal rending solo accidents that were reported almost every month, near the full moon.
Then he told me that I was going to have to race the Demon Drag Racer.
So, there I was. In my suped up Camaro, in the Mojave, under a full moon. Alone.
Yep, Old Eli said the demon never shows for racers with a shotgun passenger. So Eli rode down here with me from Colorado, giving me great advice on how to really get the most out of the Beast (what he has taken to calling my car) and what do if I lose the race and by extension, my soul and life.
It was quiet, for a long time. So I started listening to some tunes. Good Alternative music, some Classic Rock- and appropriate Van Halen song about "Runnin' with the Devil" comes on, and I get psyched. I might have even been drumming on the steering wheel and air guitaring. Maybe.
Then I heard it. A rumble. No, I didn't just hear it, I felt it. The rumble was in my bones. It was like hearing a jet do a flyover, but at an altitude of ten feet. Not only was the growl of this as yet unseen super car shaking me up- I had the same feeling I had last winter when I met my first demon. Not a fear, thing. No, more of a foreboding, and anxiety to get it over with and meet my fate.
It was an adrenaline surge.
And I loved it.
Then I saw it.
I have had my breath taken away before. I feel down a well once. I got punched by a horned demon. I met a beautiful girl named Mandy.
But that car.....
It was a sharp thing, as if I touched a single square inch of it, I would pull away a bloody finger. It was dark, and out there the light was nonexistent, but the red streaks in the paint- mostly a matte black- looked as though demonic sparks were dancing in the night. It rumbled up next to me, and stopped. For a long time, neither of us moved. Then the window went down.
I would like to say I was shocked at the hideous monster behind the wheel, but this demon looked more like a rich playboy out playing with his excessively expensive toy. He had longish hair, slicked back. He wore sunglasses at night (due respect to Corey Hart), but they were pulled down on the bridge of his nose. He had a ring in his left eyebrow, and several in each ear. Honestly, he looked kinda like Mickey Rourke in the eighties- not in Iron Man 2. He reached up to adjust his glasses a bit, and I could see he was wearing leather (God I hope that was leather and not what I fear demons wear for accessories) fingerless gloves. He was tanned, naturally, not spray on. He half smiled. Then he asked me, "Wanna race, kid?" The voice was deep and confident, to match the look.
I knew my script. I laughed my best smug scoff. "Not sure you're up to it." Yeah. I said I knew the script. I did not say it was Oscar worthy. Or true. Or rational.
"Oh, heh, I am. But I only race for big stakes."
"You mean pink sl--I mean titles?"
He looked out his front window in a far off way. He licked his lips. "Something like that." He turned his head back to me, chin declined and eyes - red eyes- leering over the sunglasses. "You win, you get my car and your life. I win, I get your soul."
I kept telling myself, 'stick to the script.' But it was difficult. Why couldn't I just exorcise this guy right here? Oh yeah, the car was some sort of demonic anti-exorcism shield. It had to go. "Soul? Yeah, I'm not into long term deals."
"Oh, but kid- this is a Lamborghini Aventador- you are never going to get a shot like this again. Plus, your car looks like it might just be up to the task." For a demon, he was terrible at lying.
"OK, deal. Shake on it?"
"That's how we seal this deal."
We both exited our cars. I'm an average sized guy- about five-nine. This guy stood and was an easy six-two. He wore a leather (I hope) jacket and motorcycle boots with spurs. His sleeves were rolled up and I could now see leather bracelets on his wrists, and a pitchfork tattoo running up his left arm. Nice branding, there demon.
We stood between the cars and shook. With his other hand, he pointed off toward the distance. A low hill was all that was on the horizon of the long straightaway. "To that hill. First one wins." He half smiled and nodded. "Good luck, kid."
"Yessir- what's your name, by the way?"
"Call me Phil. And you?"
I really did not want to tell him. I knew that knowing my name gave him power over me-but I also had to trust that my soul was in fact safeguarded for this fight. So I told him, "Sawyer."
"See ya on the other side, Sawyer."
In our cars, we both revved the engines. The Beast was a kitten compared to the Lambo. For the first time, my rational mind kicked in- I was going to lose. BIG TIME.
Our eyes met across the cars and the demon clicked his tongue.
We tore off.
We held even for a bit. I felt he was toying with me as we reached sixty. We were still matched at eighty. And at 100. For the first time, I looked over, and he had a look I had not expected.
At 130 I felt the Beast shake a bit. At 150, it shook a lot. I spared a look over- the Lambo was as smooth as silk- but we were still even- and I think I saw sweat on the cool car demon's forehead.
Now, truth be told, I had no idea how much my newly rebuilt Camaro could take. But I was in for the whole deal. Eli had left me a trick- there was a nitrous button on the dash. I hit it.
The Beast surged to 200 and I pulled ahead- whitest of knuckles on the steering wheel. I pulled ahead- a full length. I still do not know how. For a second, I caught a glimpse of Phil- he was angry. Red eyes behind sunglasses angry. Then he was gaining on me. Fast. I felt that rumble again as the Beast topped out and the Lambo began to pass with ease. Phil turned to look at me and gloat.
That was the mistake he made.
At that moment, the Lambo slammed into something- something I had not seen either, but that I drove right past at 210. In my rearview, I saw the beautiful Aventador's front end crumple, and the rear end rise up and fly over the front- pausing for just a moment at an apex where it looked like a clock face at midnight, then the whole car crumpled in an ear-rending metal screech.
I slammed on my brakes and skidded to a stop. I looked out my side window- I was perfectly in line with the low hill we had aimed for. I'd won.
I wheeled around and drove back to the wreck site and I saw it. Written in chalk was a Latin incantation. I couldn't read it, but I knew what it was. A demon binding spell. And I knew who wrote it even before Eli walked up from the ditch on the side of the rode, dusting off sand.
Phil crawled out of the wreckage, but just stood up- uninjured, but unable to move, thanks to the incantation trap on the blacktop. He shook his head and cursed. "Just what do you think you've accomplished- you cheated!"
"Like you did when paralyzed my father thirty five years ago?" A steely eyed Eli was staring Phil down. Suddenly, I understood. This was revenge. This was how Eli knew so much.
it was personal.
Phil smiled and shrugged. "All is fair, I guess. Okay, send me back to Hell. I'll be back up in another fifty."
Now Eli shook his head. "Not this time. Sawyer, you got the sword?"
I drew out a Roman gladius that had proven quite useful in my first demonic encounter. It might or might not be a sword forged from the nails that were driven into Jesus' hands on the cross. Either way- it seems to kill demons just fine. "And what is this fellow's name, Sawyer?"
"Goes by Phil."
"Phil, Phil...." Eli was rubbing his graying chin. Then he snapped his fingers. "Mephistopheles."
Phil tensed up, then growled.
"Yep. Gotcha." Then Eli began to recite an ancient rite of exorcism, stopping before the end to motion at me. I stepped forward.
"Sorry Phil- good race, though." Then I drove the gladius into his chest- flame erupted from the wound and his eyes as Eli finished the rite. Then Phil disintegrated into the warm night air. And so did the wreckage of the Lamborghini Aventador.
Eli clapped me on the back. "Good job, son!"
I looked at him with a mix of shock and anger. "Seriously? You couldn't let me in on this part of the plan? 'Hey, Sawyer, I'm gonna put up a supernatural roadblock and wait for you and the demon to hit it.' Really, how hard would that have been?"
Eli shrugged. "I had to let the demon think you were totally alone- that whole 'no sidekick' thing and all. And if you were thinking about where I was hiding, well, you might have given me away. Or you might not have been as convincing."
"Convincing? I legit thought I was going to die and lose my soul to a George Michael reject in an awesome car!"
"Ah, your soul was never in danger. And you were definitely convincing! Besides- I engineered your car to go beyond its limits. You had it."
"Yeah, the Beast did great. Thanks for the upgrades."
"And how about that nitrous- eh?" Eli nudged me with his shoulder.
"Nitrous was cool. But next time- we put your soul up against the demon, okay?"
"C'mon- you're the rookie- you gotta earn your stripes somehow! Now give me a ride back to town- my feet are killing me."
So let this be a lesson to you all- the next time a kindly older gentleman fixes up your car for free- make sure you know the WHOLE deal. You never know when you will have to put your soul up against a demon just for a few extra MPH's.
Chad Lehrmann lives with his wife and two teenage daughters in College Station, Texas, where he teaches High School Psychology, Sociology, and Debate.