12 Months Ago...
The two men stood looking down on the edge of the mesa. Below them, a water-filled Maze channel stretched off to either side. Across the channel was a mine opening. A crude wooden platform extended up from the water to the shaft entrance.
The younger of the two looked down in concern. "Master, what do we do about the Shark's Grin?"
The older, a balding Chinese dressed in flowing robes, merely shrugged. "We let it rest, Chao Li. By the time we return, it will be mature enough for the Harvest."
The younger man did not seem quite satisfied with the answer. He seemed hesitant to express his thoughts, however. His newest master, sensing his discomfort, voiced Chao's unspoken doubts.
"You question the wisdom of Lord Kang calling us back to Shan Fan, my pupil?"
"It is not my place to question, Master. Still, it seems that amidst the devastation that has stricken Gomorra, we could move in and take control of the town."
The older man chuckled. "You do not yet see the Iron Dragon's wisdom. Sim's actions and Sun's sacrifice at the Whateley Estate gained us a modicum of trust. If we were to strike now, the surviving factions would rise up against us anew. Our plans are best served by letting the seeds of Gomorra's destruction grow quietly. We have laid the groundwork here, while Kang's servant Lang Kung begins preparations at the Labyrinth."
"Also, Lord Kang wishes to...refine the Maze Rats, as a swordmaker refines his metals. Those who did not meet his expectations will be ruthlessly eliminated."
"And finally...your training is far from complete. You are but on the first steps of a path which will eventually bring you into conflict with my predecessor, the one whom you wisely abandoned so as to accept my teachings."
Chao Li bowed his head, chastened. "Truly, there is much wisdom in Kang's actions that this poor one is unable to comprehend."
Po Yu chuckled again. "So it should be, for if you had seen all that I seen, you would not need me to complete your training and reach your full potential. The potential your old teacher would have prevented you from achieving. But come! We return to Shan Fan!"
"Tell me more about the Shark's Grin, Andrade," Garrett said, leaning forward.
Behind the Mexican, William Rose tapped the butt of his gun lightly. Andrew preferred to let Rose do the threatening. With Jackie gone, he was the thinker for the Blackjacks...at least, the ones who still followed Jackson. Gordo had worked with Jewel, Rachel's sister, and wasn't to be entirely trusted.
"There's so little to tell, senor," Andrade replied hesitantly. He glanced around the stable, as if expecting a rescue. Maybe he was, Garrett figured. That's why he and Rose had taken steps to catch the Mexican away from Rachel's gang.
"But you'll tell me what there is," Garrett drawled. "Or my friend William here will have to put the fear of God into you."
"It would truly be a pleasure," Rose chipped in.
Gordo shrugged. "But it is such a little thing, and of very little concern to such gentlemen as yourselves. A military matter, nothing more.
Garrett frowned. That didn't sound like something Rachel would be interested in. Was she and her rival gang gearing up for an alliance with one armed force or the other? Or was Gordo working something on the side?
He nodded encouragement, and Gordo continued, "El Ejercito de los Muertos." Then he winced as Rose gasped behind him.
"'The Army of Death'," the outlaw hissed, crossing himself.
Andrew wasn't a religious man, but he shared Rose's sentiments. There were all kinds of rumors of how that particular faction of the Mexican Armada had earned its name. Some claimed that Santa Anna had nicknamed them just to provoke such a reaction. Some claimed that the name meant exactly what it said.
"Where?" rasped Garrett.
"Out by the Shark's Grin, senor. They've been out there for a couple of weeks now. They've dug in, and I think they're expecting an attack."
Andrew thought for a minute, then asked, "Why is that, anyhow? The Rats abandoned that place along with all their other holdings in Gomorra Valley."
Gordo shrugged. "Apparently the Mexicans have heard that there is a great deal of ghost rock out there, and have decided to claim it for themselves. Who can say how they may have come to believe such a thing?"
Garrett had a sneaking suspicion that Andrade had a hand in it himself. Gordo's smuggling connections to Mexico were well known among the criminal community, and Jackie had briefed him thoroughly. Andrade's story also confirmed certain rumors Andrew had heard of other factions heading out towards the Sharks' Grin.
He nodded to Rose. "Get this filth out of here." Andrade looked like he would put up a final struggle, so Garrett added, "Leave him alive. For now. Then get the others. Horowitz, Garrison, Victor if you can find him. We ride."
"What's the situation here, Mr. Hillard?"
Zeke had been reluctant at first to let anyone approach, but the wizened miner knew Walter Ponds, and the bodyguard was perhaps the only Sweetrock man other than Max Baine that Hillard would let anywhere near his property. Walter had vouched for Kerry and Jane, and so here they were.
Hillard raised a hand to his head in a rough salute, as much a sign of respect as he gave anyone, then answered, "An army like you've never seen, riding through here. Mexican, by the look of them. They settled in over by the Sharks' Grin, and that was fine. But then they've been sending out the occasional patrol, and takin' potshots at me. A man's got a right to his property, and I don't cotton much to anyone steppin' onto my deed. Current company excepted, of course."
Ponds pondered Zeke's report. "Hmmm, have you seen anyone else?"
"One of those dag-nab flying horse-carriages went zoomin' over. Gallagher, I think the fella's name is."
The Agency? Ponds wondered. Idly he glanced over towards Arizona Jane, and noted that Kerry was also eying her for any kind of response. If Jane was an Agency plant, as Walter half-suspected, she hid it well.
"Mr. Baine appreciates the information, Mr. Hillard," Walter replied with his typical mannered courtesy. "Our resources are stretched a bit thin at the moment..." he ignored Kerry's muttered curse "...but we'll look into the situation. Send up a flare if you have any more trouble: we'll keep an eye out."
Zeke nodded once, tightly. "Tell Mr. Baine I appreciate the effort. He's a godsend, that one. I would have gone to the law, but a man don't rightly know who to trust there." Hillard looked for a moment as if he might say more, but then bit his lip tightly.
Ponds turned and headed back for the horses, his two associates falling into formation behind him. When they were out of earshot of Hillard's strike, Kerry asked, "So what's the play?"
Walter considered his options. Duvalier and Miller were wild cards these days. As much as he had despised MacNeil, at least the outlaw had been nigh-on unstoppable with a gun, and this was just the kind of assignment he would have relished.
Finally, he replied, "Get together all the shootists we've got, Kerry. You and Arizona, take them out to the Sharks' Grin. Don't bother Clell on this one: he's got other business to tend to. We've got enough trouble without the Mexican Armada poking their noses into things. Besides, if they've found something out there, we'll want it."
"Where will you be," Jane asked.
"I'm going to see if I can find some reinforcements for you." Silently, Walter wondered if Nadia might be of help. She had been promising much in return for Sweetrock West's cooperation, but didn't appear to have much in the way of manpower. Maybe this would give him an excuse to see if she would bring a few men out if she had them hidden away.
The three of them reached the horses. As he mounted up, Walter finished, "Get the men out to the mine as soon as possible. We're not sure who else in town knows about this. If any townfolk are out there, don't shoot at them unless you have to. The Mexicans are the target. I don't think anyone in Gomorra will begrudge us killing a few of them."
"What do you mean, you ran?!?" Nicodemus screamed.
Jack Brash flinched, fearing that the huckster would throw his ever-present deck of cards at him. If that happened, he wouldn't give a plugged nickel for his life.
Hell, why did he have to be the one to give the report. Astoreth had shrugged, his eyes focussed on some distant sight as if he hadn't even seen the debacle at the Sharks' Grin. And Requiem...Jack wasn't even sure that bag of bones could speak. He (or it-Jack had never been sure) had ridden at the head of their small army of living and dead, and fought well enough, but after the rout it had disappeared as silently as it had came.
Jack was just a gunslinger who had fallen on hard times, and the Deseret Whateleys had loaned him some money. They just hadn't bothered to tell him what the down payment had consisted of. Oh well, guess it's time to pay up and see if I can still walk away afterwards.
"I don't rightly know, sir." Jack began, trying to keep his voice steady. "The Mexicans were putting up one hell of a fight, sure enough. And the Confederate army was out there, and some of Sykes' men. Couldn't rightly tell if they were fighting against each other or against the Mexicans half the time."
"And then there was some kind of...I don't know what the hell it was. An earthquake, maybe. Or one of those volke...volko..."
"'Volcano'?" Nicodemus asked, his previous tantrum forgotten. He drew closer, his eyes burning brightly into Jack's very soul. Or so it seemed to the hapless shootist. "Tell me more, damn your eyes!"
"Not much more to tell, sir. I've never seen it's like, that's for sure. I was off to one side, and your...troops (Jack was hesitant to identify them for what they truly were, as if his eternal damnation might be staved off if only he didn't name them from his own mouth) took the brunt of the...attack, I guess you'd say."
"And you never saw the source?"
"No, swear to G...ummm, swear on my mother's grave."
"As well you might, Jack, as well you might." Not for the first time in Jack's experience, Nicodemus' mood had switched mercurially from anger to good cheer. The Whateley leader slapped him boisterously on the shoulder. "And a good thing you survived it. Why, we couldn't do without your services. Asteroth, I've already heard from. Requiem, he survived?"
"As best I could tell, although I haven't seen him since. Have you heard from him?"
Nicodemus looked downright shifty at that comment. "Well, Jack, to be perfectly honest, no one really 'hears' from Requiem. Not unless he's so inclined. I think we can safely assume that this little setback hasn't damaged him overly much."
Not like the rest of your troops, Brash thought. He was not sure exactly what the other 'men' were that had ridden with him. He had heard their screams, alive or dead, amidst the hellfire, and hoped he would never hear such a thing again. Unfortunately, in the Whateleys' service he feared he would. Even more, he feared it would be the last thing he heard, from his own mouth.
"Go, Jack. Look to your brother Barney, perhaps. I can well appreciate the bonds of siblings. But leave me for now. I will contact you when next we have need of your services."
Nervously, Brash left the room, leaving Nicodemus to his silent pondering of this new information.
"Damn it, Simpson, you and your men are supposed to be the experts in this kind of thing."
Dexter glared at the Brigadier-General. The man might be the designated commander of all Confederacy forces in Gomorra, but Simpson didn't let anyone order the Rangers about. Still, he had to step carefully. He wished Katie were still here: he was no diplomatic, and he didn't have the influence she had with the higher-ups. He restrained a brief pang as the image of her face crossed his mind, as it so often did.
"We're working on it, sir," Dexter rasped out. "Father Terrance is busy with other concerns, but Fred, Handlen, and Hastings are checking out the terrain past the last point of your advance, up to where the Jacks are holding the Sharks' Grin. And Bobo here is doing the best he can. Perhaps if I could talk to your surviving men...?"
"What surviving men, Simpson," Patterson snarled. "Slade here is the only survivor."
If you want to call him that, Dexter thought, looking at the ruined heap of flesh that lay before him. He had never been sure if harrowed were the worst of survivors, having died once already; or the best of them, clinging still to 'life'. J.P. had never seemed too appreciative of his new life, and Dexter had never pushed him too closely on the matter.
Bobo was waving a hand of cards over Slade's 'corpse', and chanting in a mix of Latin, Cajun, and Spanish. Mostly for Patterson's benefit: Dexter knew a little of voodoo, from an unpleasant experience a few years back, and was aware that Bobo only used the trappings of the religion.
Finally the Ranger-huckster bounced to his feet, pausing a moment, and then brushed off his pantlegs. Having worked with the man many times, Dexter could tell LeVeux was deeply upset and was willing to give him time to get together his thoughts. Patterson had no such sensitivity.
"What is it then, Ranger? What wiped out my men?!?"
Bobo didn't let his nominal "commander" rush him. He thought for a few moments more, then shrugged. "I'n'I not be entirely sure what be happenin' here, beggin' your pardon sir. Big magical powers be here and abouts, de likes of which I'n'I never be seein'."
"And my man? Slade?"
Shrugging, Bobo replied, "He'll be survivin', as best I can be tellin'." A moue of distaste crossed the Cajun's face. "I'n'I not be workin' with de dead, so maybe you be knowin' more about that kind of thing. Be givin' him a few pounds of raw meat, and maybe in a few weeks he'll be able to tell us what he was seein'."
"I've seen Sean take a cannonball full to the chest and walk away. Are you telling me that it'll be weeks before he can tell us anything?"
"That's what I'n'I' be tellin' you, believe it or not as you be wishin'. I'n'I never be seein' a body as devastated as your man Slade's, dat be for sure."
Patterson looked intent on pursuing the matter further, but there was the crack of gunshots to the north, towards where Dexter had sent his men. Rifles, to Simpson's experienced ears.
He nodded to Bobo. "Begging your pardon, sir," Dexter said, "But there could be trouble. And since you don't have any men left, I'd better see what my Rangers are into." Without waiting for the Brigadier-General's response, Simpson and LeVeux headed towards the gunshots.
Once Patterson's sputtering had faded away, Bobo grumbled. "Dat man be an idiot, I'n'I be tinkin'."
"I know, Bobo. But the Confederacy put him in charge. Doesn't mean we have to like it...Fred?"
The Harrowed scout staggered over the next rise. As always, Dexter had to repress a shudder at the sight of the nominal Ranger's eyes, stitched close. Glancing around, he spotted Far-Away's ever-present raven circling overhead.
The undead Ranger looked to have taken at least three shots. They didn't seem to have slowed him down any. Approaching, he hissed out, "Blackjacks. At least twenty."
"So they managed to take the lode with minimum casualties," Dexter grumbled. "We'll have the devil's time of it trying to take it away from them, particularly if they salvaged any of the Mexican's equipment and weapons. And with our own losses, and the other outfits opposing each other and us..."
The three Rangers turned to the east, where Rex Handlen was just coming into view. Dexter was surprised at the man's appearance: usually Handlen was the most implacable of men. Simpson wasn't sure if Rex was just too unimaginative to be scared of anything, or if he really was as inscrutable as he appeared.
Today was the exception. Dexter had never seen such a look of shock on Rex's or any other man's face. In fact, Handlen couldn't even speak. He just gestured mutely, his eyes glazed with shock.
Dexter and the others followed him, walking about a quarter mile around several outcroppings and a mass of bushes...and came to an abrupt halt.
Simpson stared down in shock. When he had first arrived in Gomorra he had seen the surveys of the terrain, and heard Richardson's reports. What was before him had never before been seen on any map, or heard in any report.
To call the hole in the ground before him a crater would have been too mild. Craters weren't an eighth of a mile across. Craters...stopped. And craters didn't appear overnight.
Dexter knelt down and felt the nearest edge. It was warm to the touch. Peering down, he could see the flicker of flames along the crater walls, a flicker that failed to illuminate the bottom (if there was any bottom a part of Simpson's mind whispered) that extended downwards into the earth. The crater walls were almost smooth, as if some vast worm had bored its way out of the earth. From where such a creature might have come, or where it was going, Dexter didn't want to contemplate.
He turned and looked to Bobo, but the huckster was at as much a loss as he was. Simpson glanced at Far-Away, who was looking up towards his ever-present raven. The bird flew down to the edge of the crater, then shied away. Dexter had never seen the creature disobey its master's commands, or refuse to fly where Fred needed to see. This was a day for many firsts.
"So what we be doin', boss?" Bobo asked.
Dexter brought himself to a semblance of order. "You tell me, LeVeux. Any magic?"
"Enough that I'n'I not be needin' de cards to sense it. I'n'I' never be seein' such a thing. De flames are magickal, de hole be magickal. Dere be a powerful aura of ghost rock like none I'n'I ever be seein'. Dis just ain't nothin poor Bobo ever have seen before."
Dexter spared a glimpse for Fred, who was frowning in eyeless concentration. His raven was still quite deliberately refusing to fly down into the crater, or shaft, or whatever it was.
"This can't be Jackson's doing," muttered Simpson. "If he's got this kind of power...that's it. There's nothing we can do about it."
He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts. "But that's never stopped us before. Still, I think it's best we regroup back in town. Anything you can do with Slade, Bobo? If he's got information, it may prove the key to all this."
LeVeux shrugged. "I'n'I be doin' what I can, but that not be much."
"It'll have to do. Fred, contact Hastings and have him head back this way. Gentlemen, let's move!"
The two red-robed men tossed the gibbering outlaw before their leader.
Elijah considered the men before him, thoughtfully stroking his beard. "My thanks, Brother Cain, Brother Abel. But this is not the gift I asked for. Victory...that was what I demanded of you! Why do you not bring me that, instead of this idiot?"
Cain was silent. Looking closely at his appointed bodyguard's eyes, Elijah saw that the man was in shock. The man's normally beatific look of near-idiocy had been replaced with a deep fear and sheer disbelief.
That is how others should look at me, Elijah thought. And someday they shall. But until that day... "Abel! What happened at the mine?"
In Abel's eyes Elijah could see some of the same terror. But whatever else he had done in his misbegotten life, Abel was a survivor. He would never let himself be overwhelmed by something if it could cost him his life. Apparently this occasion had proven no exception. Still, when he spoke it was with a small stutter that marred his usual supercilious tones.
"Damned if I know, begging your pardon Brother Elijah. We went out there as you said, with twenty of the men. Already the other outfits had made it there, battling the Mexican Armada."
"As I predicted," Elijah nodded. "Still, we should have triumphed. Divided, they fall and we rise. But what happened?!?"
"The outlaws, the so-called 'Blackjacks', managed to get to the Sharks' Grin. We could have driven them out, with the powers of the Lord supporting us. But before we got the chance, there was a great roaring sound, as if the earth had split asunder. And something flew out of the earth."
"What was it?"
"I...I couldn't say, Brother Elijah. Me and Cain, we were...leading from the rear. There was a huge gout of flame, and the men ahead of us were burned to a crisp." Abel glanced down, and for the first time Elijah noticed that the Angels' robes were charred, still smoldering in places. "Then something passed overhead.something so big...I couldn't see the sun."
"Some kind of cloud?" Elijah asked incredulously.
"It was...no...cloud!" Abel practically screamed, spittle drooling down one side of his mouth. "We thought perhaps the Blackjacks had done something. But they have no magic, no powers..."
"And this man?" Elijah asked cautiously. Clearly Abel would require his leadership nd guidance: without it the man looked fit to lapse into a coma.
"One of the Blackjacks. Horowitz, I think his name is. He saw it too, and managed to survive. We thought to bring him here...back to Soddom. We figured he knew...he might know..."
"You've done well, Brother Abel," Elijah reassured his underling. He clapped both hands on Abel's shoulders, then shuddered. It was like embracing a slab of meat, and Abel didn't even seem to notice the gesture.
Then Elijah turned towards the outlaw. By now, Horowitz's sobbing had died down to whimpers. Elijah gently took the man's head in both hands and peered into his face. The Blackjack's eyes were dilated wide open, but seeing nothing but some dread inner vision.
Clearly Horowitz would tell him nothing, provide no clue to what had happened. Whether he was an inadvertent victim of the Blackjacks' own weapon, or had fallen prey to another outfit's magicks, it did not matter: he would be useless as a source of information.
Still, that didn't make him entirely useless. The time of the Last Kingdom was at hand, and sacrifices must be made. This outlaw, Horowitz, would serve. One way or another, he would serve. And whatever weapon, whatever creature, whatever magic that Elijah's rival (whomever he might be) had employed, it would be as nothing when the Great Ritual were completed.
Still, Elijah couldn't help but repress a shudder at whatever power had caused all this.