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By Steve Crow A tale of Deadlands Weird West

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"Alas, poor Caligari. I knew him not."

Sighing, Nicodemus Whateley tossed the head sans its elderly owner to the stage. The foolish stage manager had attempted to interrupt him. That had been his last mistake.

Nicodemus glanced about the stage, and was satisfied. The ocean backdrop had satisfied his sense of the theatrical. And he had never liked "Steven Regret & His Shakespearean Troupe" anyway. Their corpses scattered about the theatre, would sign "Fini" to Nicodemus' most recent work of art. The slower among the theatre-goers, their bodies now cooling in their seats, provided an adequate audience. Nicodemus was no master of the canvas like Basil, but he was skilled enough in sketching in blood and carnage. His only regret was that the few panicking sheep who had managed to flee would remember his power, but not the artist itself.

As Nicodemus glanced out past the footlights, making sure that no one had remained behind in the audience's stampede when he made his entrance, there was the rumble of thunder to his left.

"'A pox o' your throat, you bawling, blasphemous incharitable dog!'"

Nicodemus turned to see a broad figure of a man brush past the metal sheets used by the once-living stagehands to create thunder for the production. The new arrival wore jeans and a white short-sleeved shirt, and a cowboy's hat with a white feather tucked into the brim.

"I thought I sensed you sniffing at the edges, Whitmore," Whateley chuckled, smiling broadly. He tipped his own hat to the huckster in an insolent gesture with one hand, while executing a flourish-cut of his ever-present deck with the other. "Or are you still titling yourself 'Sir' Whitmore these days?"

"'Hang cur, hang, you whoreson, insolent noisemaker'," Whitmore snarled, taking in the carnage. "What harm did these men and women ever do you?"

"They performed Shakespeare. As you may have noticed, I hate Shakespeare," Nicodemus snarled. "And our time has come upon this town. Gomorra is the Whateleys' now, its inhabitants playthings to suit my whim."

Whitmore sighed. "What does this destruction gain you?"

"Perhaps for you and others of your ilk, your libraries are dukedom enough. But we Whateleys seek more than that. 'Hell is empty, and all the devils are here.'"

Whitmore frowned. "For one who claims to hate Shakespeare, you quote it well enough."

Nicodemus replied, "The benefits of a classical education." Nicodemus chuckled. "Rest assured, I dispatched my teachers shortly thereafter."

"Enough!" Whitmore thrust his hand forward, a hand of cards materializing in it. A translucent yellow blast of energy shot across the stage, striking Nicodemus straight on.

The Whateley staggered for a moment, then shrugged and casually straightened. "'But this rough magic I here abjure.' Hardly good manners on your part, Whitmore."

The English huckster frowned. "That's not possible! Your soul should be rent asunder."

"You're assuming that I have one. 'You fool, I and my fellows are ministers of fate.' The Gulfs already have a lien against my soul in return for services rendered. For I am a devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nature can never stick."

"'You cram these words into mine ears, against the stomach of my sense.' Do you expect me to believe such a thing? 'If but one of your pockets could speak, would they not say you lie?'"

"Believe the evidence of your own eyes or not, as it pleases you," Whateley replied. Almost casually, he reached into the air with his free hand. A hand of cards appeared in it, and pale, almost invisible threads of energy surged across the stage and around Whitmore.

"'Come on, obey. Thy nerves are in their infancy again, and you have no vigor in them.'"

Corporeal Twist! Staggering, Whitmore struggled against now-leaden limbs. He had hoped to win the duel in the opening moments, but such was not to be.

Slowly, raggedly, Whitmore brought his hands up. He had moments before Nicodemus took advantage of his handicapped status to cast another, more lethal hex. Again he sent his senses forth, reaching into the Hunting Grounds to draw energy from a manitou there. The ritual of poker, ingrained upon his mind due to decades of application, steadied him for a moment and the cards materialized briefly in his hand.

There was a huge gust of wind as a swirling maelstrom formed on the stage where Nicodemus stood. The Whateley was forced to retreat, disrupting the twisting energies that strove to incapacitate Whitmore. For a moment, Whitmore tried to expand the twister's diameter, and boards and curtains flew everywhere.

Then, its purpose served, Whitmore ceased concentration on the miniature twister. Once more he and Nicodemus stood facing each other across what was left of the stage.

"Well played, Whitmore, but the game is not yet over!" taunted Nicodemus. "My ... 'grandmother' would have crushed you by now. However, I lack her experience. For the moment, anyway. Still, you should be thankful she can't be bothered to deal with you."

"Wilhelmina is an abomination upon the face of the earth," Whitmore ridiculed, hoping to distract Whateley and force a crack in his smug exterior.

"'I should sin to think but nobly of my grandmother,'" Nicodemus chuckled. "'Good wombs have born bad sons.' Let us see if enough remains of you to be sent back to your own granddam."

Once again Nicodemus gestured, the cards filling his hand once more. Chanting, he called out, "'All the infections that the sun sucks up, from bogs, fens, flats, on Whitmore fall, and make him by inchmeal a disease!'"

Before Whitmore's horrified eyes, a swirling cloud of insects, disease and plague given flesh, appeared before his debonair opponent. With another gesture, Nicodemus directed the cloud across the stage towards the English huckster.

Whitmore ducked to the rear of the stage, seeking the shadows for escape as he brought another hex to mind. The manitous on the Other Side, sensing that the critical moment was upon him, resisted his efforts. Still, Whitmore knew he could overcome their resistance. But there was a sudden disruption, an unexpected weakness, as if Nicodemus or something else was draining his energies. Whitmore reached the shadows but went nowhere, and then the plague cloud was upon him.

Whitmore could feel the disease course through his blood from a hundred agonizing stings. Bugs crawled into his mouth, muffling any scream he might have made. Stumbling, he crashed into the metal sheets used for the sound of thunder and collapsed.

Nicodemus waited patiently for the living cloud to disperse. The hex was a new one. Even if he had lacked the element of surprise, however, the Englishman had been foolish to challenge him. Heroism. What a curious and quaint custom. Neither I nor Knicknevin shall tolerate it in our brave new world.

The insects were finally gone. Whateley strode forward to look down upon his fallen opponent. Whitmore's flesh bore the marks of a dozen diseases. Red splotches fought for dominance against open weeping sores and black mottled skin. Still, incredibly, Whitmore held on to life. Nicodemus knew, however, that it would not be long before the Englishman expired. He had seen too many tortured bodies to fail to recognize the nearness of the moment when they yielded to death.

Nicodemus could see Whitmore gasp for air. He knelt down on one knee, curious and faintly amused to hear the huckster's last words. Whateley made a faint moue of disappointment upon seeing the lack of fear in the man's eyes. Almost a pity to waste such a working upon the unappreciative. Almost.

Bending over, he could just make out Whitmore's last utterance. "'He that dies pays all debts. I defy thee. Mercy upon us.'" And with that, Whitmore fell back, going slack in that manner which Nicodemus always found so enchanting.

Standing and brushing his knees off, Nicodemus looked about the stage and was pleased. A fine day's work, and Whitmore an additional bonus. Enough of a holiday, though. Now, he had to tend to the Master's affairs. The fools would be amassing as best they could to defeat Knicknevin, and the Flock were incompetents. Nicodemus didn't expect them to hold against Stoker and whatever allies he could draw together for long. Now, however, they would have one less ally to draw upon.

Nicodemus' work here was done. He was supremely confident, but even so it would be foolish to leave any evidence. There was always a very small possibility Knicknevin might lose. And Wilhelmina Whateley had never raised any fools.

With a gesture, Nicodemus extended his senses to the Hunting Ground once more, and a manitou fell writhing in his mental grasp. He gestured and energy surged from his hand and across the theatre. The bolts o'doom insinuated themselves into the curtains, the gilded finery, the corpses, the chairs ... everything.

Whistling cheerfully, Nicodemus departed stage left as the entire theatre collapsed behind him.