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By Steve Crow A tale of Deadlands Weird West

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"Klaatu barada. . . necktie? Klaatu barada . . . nickel?"

Despairing, Mordecai Whateley slammed the flesh-bound book closed. What good was all of the information at his fingertips if the thrice-cursed scribes of some bygone age couldn't be bothered to use decent ink?

Disaster loomed. Mordecai could feel it beneath his skin. On the surface, the state of the Whateley clan seemed well. Their enemies had been driven before them. Lilith and her "girls" had killed Slate and the others at the Golden Mare. The blood of the Rangers still decorated the yard around the Estate. Hunter was obsessed with vengeance for wrongs both real and imagined. Jackson was missing or dead, and the Collegium and the Rats were sniping at each other. Findley had played his part, however poorly, and the Flock was firmly under Wilhelmina's control.

And yet ... and yet, Mordecai was worried. He had always been the pessimist in the Family. He didn't believe there was anything wrong with preparing for the worst, and the best way to do so, in his opinion, was through research and study. One never knew what hex might assure the Family's final triumph, the completion of the plan the Dark Master had set forth so long ago.

Nicodemus, on the other hand, was an overconfident braggart -- Mordecai's opposite in every way. Always one to crow when he had the upper hand, Nicodemus strutted about more than ever; where once he had moved through the shadows, he now walked with the confidence of a king. Only Jebediah's caution reined in the boy's arrogance, but everyone knew whom Granmama Wilhelmina favored.

Amidst the shifting alliances of the Family, Mordecai had more often than not sided with Jebediah. He preferred the older Whateley's studied caution over Nicodemus' youthful conceit. That, as much as his personal reticence, was why he was confined to this dusty library.

Mordecai served the Family loyally. What other choice did he have, when all was said and done? Besides, he had always been ... different, even by Whateley standards. His own cousins and siblings had rejected him, treating him as if he were a monstrous freak like Enoch or Malrog.

In those dark times, Mordecai's only friends were his books. They had taken him to many faraway lands, and whispered to him of secrets that had allowed him to don the skin of humanity, slowly gaining the Family's respect. He wouldn't be locked up in a stinking basement somewhere. That he had sworn. If nothing else, he would choose his own cell.

Which brought Mordecai back to the matter at hand, as he glanced about the library. Thousands of books, imported from the main library in Deseret, as well as from other parts of the world. Wilhelmina had spared no expense in bringing them here, and Mordecai had taken full advantage of her largesse.

He had paid dearly for works that were only whispered of in the catacombs of the Vatican. Sections of the Bible that had not been seen in 1600 years. The lost chapters of Hoyle, withheld for fear of the hexes locked within, and the demons they could unleash upon the earth.

Mordecai pored over such works now, seeking a hex or ritual that would give the Whateleys complete domination, and assure the fruition of the Master's plans.

Snatching up a book at random, Mordecai thumbed through it wearily. It was late, and although he did not sleep as mortal men did, even he could grow weary from too much effort.

A fragment of text intrigued him. "Joseph came with the power o' his gods, Wilhelmina with the power o' hers. Nobody could take a stand against either of 'em -- except each other."

Frowning, Mordecai glanced over the page again. Joseph? The Indian had disappeared after Nicodemus had his fun with their camp. The so-called "Sioux Nation" were less than nothing without their leader. What could the text mean?

The cover provided Mordecai no clue about the book's origins. There was no title, no author. The title page was blank.

Could this book be prophecy? Mordecai wondered, awestruck. He had heard of such things - books that had been passed down through the dim ages . . . but from the future, not from the past. Perhaps some Whateley of the far future had sent this back to provide Mordecai with the knowledge he needed to assure the Whateleys' triumph, and his own position within the Family. Perhaps he had even sent it back himself!

Excited, Mordecai flipped to another page at random.

"Hurts, don't it? Welcome to my world, Knicknevin."

Did someone threaten the Master? Who had the power to do such a thing? Concerned, Mordecai thumbed back a page. He could pass any information he gained to Wilhelmina, who would assure the death of whomever considered harming Knickne-

The Ghost returned to his feet and shook his head once, as if to assure the neck bones had set properly, then strode over and kicked Wilhemina's withered corpse. "You reap what you sow, old woman," he snarled. "This isn't vengeance. This is justice."

Mordecai looked up. Did he smell smoke? Yes. So enrapturing was his find that only now did he notice smoke seeping beneath his library door. Despairing, he raced to the door and cautiously tried the knob, only to quickly snatch his hand back. The door was hot - too hot.

This high up, the mansion's windows would provide no escape. And besides, Mordecai had a greater concern. The books! His life was nothing, but the books must be preserved.

But how? If the prophecy was correct, the Ghost and his followers had already surrounded the Estate. That left Mordecai with only one option . . .

Muttering a few words of Latin beneath his breath, and sketching an ancient druidic sigil in the air, Mordecai cast the Rite of Summoning. As his fingers completed the sign, they burst into flame, the power of the gulfs flowing directly through his body. The scholar was beyond such minor pain, and ignored the agony that might have overwhelmed a lesser being.

Instead, he merely smothered the fire by smashing his hand down on the table. There was enough fire in the Estate already, to judge by the flames growing at the library's upper corners. Dimly, Mordecai could hear a painful scream from above: Basil, in the attic. Mordecai couldn't help but register some small pleasure at the sound of mortal agony. I bet the plump bastard wishes he hadn't placed his soul in that damnable painting now!

If the attic was on fire, the library couldn't be far behind. Though it had the thickest walls of any room in the Manor, the fire wouldn't be held at bay forever. Mordecai busied himself gathering the necessary tomes. He considered the journal briefly, but his messenger could only carry so much, and Wilhelmina's orders had been clear . . .

There was a sound from one of the windows. Mordecai turned toward it just as it shattered inwards, shards flying everywhere. The skin of his face was laid bare in spots, revealing white flesh beneath. It was an inconvenience at best, the minor agony offset by the welcome sight of Nebuchadnezzar responding to the Summoning.

"To me, my pet," Mordecai croaked as smoke filled his lungs. With his good hand, he gave the Family Bible, Hoyle's lost edition, and the annotated Pembroke's Analysis to the twisted green mockery of a man. "You know where to go. Give the books to Nicodemus or Jebediah." He considered telling Neb to visit Wilhelmina, but remembered the passage of prophecy. Could she survive Joseph's attack? He wasn't willing to put the books at risk by ordering the demon to seek her out. And Mordecai knew that if anyone could survive their enemies' attack, it would be Nicodemus. The arrogant bastard always managed to come out on top.

"Beware our enemies that lurk outside. Now go!" he commanded as a rafter slammed down behind him. Without a word, Nebuchadnezzar scurried back out the way it had came.

The temperature rose in the library and books burst into flame as Mordecai sank back, his duty done. There was no escape for him; merely one final task.

He raised his right hand, its skin bubbling from the heat. Reaching up with his other hand, he peeled it back, revealing a stunted white appendage extended through a tubelike arm-construct of flesh and tissue. Then he firmly grasped his right wrist and pulled. The arm-tube pulled off and the pseudopod retracted into his shoulder.

Concentrating against the pain, Mordecai used what remained of his left "hand" to peel the rest of the flesh-covering from his chest, revealing the sickly tissue beneath. The fire aided him, its heat further loosening the flesh-covering; within a matter of seconds, the remaining human flesh had sloughed away, and Mordecai slumped to the ground, a boneless wormlike mass.

Any semblance of humanity shorn away, Mordecai squirmed limblessly on the carpeted floor. He managed to raise his head enough to see the weakened ceiling coming down on him.

I shall greet the Masters as they made me, unadorned and unashamed.