Thursday, August 8th, 1878 - 11:45 a.m. Five days to Doomsday
Sandra Harris looked up as the bell over the Dispatch Office door tinkled gently. Her visitor was not expected today, or any day, for that matter.
Jebediah Whateley moved to the counter, took off his stovepipe hat, sat it on the counter, and silently wrote a precise message on a telegraph slip. He didn't speak when he looked up and handed it to Sandra; he didn't even clear his throat. He merely glared at her and held the slip level without a word.
The dispatch operator refused to be intimidated. With a final flourish of her pen, she completed her invoice and approached the counter. "How can I help you, Mr. Whateley?" her pleasant voice wavered, only slightly.
"This is a dispatch office, Miss Harris, is it not?" the cadaverous man replied. "I have a dispatch for you to deliver."
"I think I can manage that," Sandra returned, matching Jebediah's sarcasm as she took his slip and payment. Exact change, she noted. Good. She had no desire to keep the Whateley here any longer than necessary.
Jebediah silently turned to leave, then frowned and squinted up at the ceiling. For a moment, Sandra wondered at this, but then she heard it, too. The fluttering of wings. She could make the sound out through the ceiling. Pushing through the desk's door and moving to the window, Sandra noticed that the sky outside was overcast, and that shadows fluttered over the ground, irregular and quick. Sandra had some difficulty making out the silhouettes overhead, backlit by the bright noonday sun. But they seemed to be men... with wings. Huge white wings that fairly glistened in the sun. Heading north.
"Even in Gomorra, there's something you don't see every day," Harris muttered under her breath.
To her surprise, Jebediah Whateley saw fit to respond to her. "Indeed not, Miss Harris, indeed not. I believe that you should shortly be expecting a sizable increase in business. Please see to it that my telegraph goes out to New Orleans before the rush." Donning his hat, Jebediah silently left the dispatch office. Harris looked down at the telegram slip in her hand. It looked to be in some kind of code: a Latin derivative, perhaps.
Max Baine would want to know what it said. And there were others as well that might be interested. Nothing prevented her from selling the information twice, if it wasn't critical to Sweetrock affairs. Returning to her desk, Sandra industriously went about her work.
Friday, August 9, 1878 - 10:08 p.m. Four days to Doomsday
"I appreciate your efforts, Sandra," Max said. Harris fought down a blush; few men other than Robert impressed her, but Baine had a certain way with people - men and women alike.
"I'm sorry for the delay, Max. But the Whateleys are tricky, and their Arabic variant threw me."
"That's quite all right," The Sweetrock leader examined the telegram copy. "This is only a confirmation. There are other, more immediate, matters at hand. Which reminds me... Walter?"
The hired gun stepped forward. "No word on Miller yet. Jane and Kerry are out looking for him with a few of the men. They haven't been able to find Childes or Duvalier, either."
"Thieves, the three of them," Max grumbled. "And our lawyers? Any word on the Gulgoleth situation?"
Walter shrugged. "No luck there, either. Grimme's lawyers are damn good; if we let things stand, they'll take the site in court, and Elijah will move in by the end of the month. Looks like we're going to need the Sioux's help after all."
"A pity that Applegate couldn't get here earlier," Max sighed. "How much help do you think the Sioux are going to be? From what you said earlier..."
"They seem to have their own problems, certainly. But Walks-in-Footprints assures me that the Sioux need to keep Gulgoleth out of Elijah's hands as much as we do. I'm just as worried about this as you are. If this goes down with half as much bloodshed as we expect."
"I know, I know, Walter... Here's the way we'll play it. Rope in Jane and Kerry, and as many others as we can spare. We'll deal with Miller and Duvalier later. Put Dr. Branson on alert and make sure we've got enough supplies set aside to handle the wounded. Then link up with the Sioux scouts and head in. It's time we nipped this in the bud - if it's not already too late."
Turning back to the dispatcher, Max asked, "You have anything else for me?"
"Like Jebediah said, traffic is picking up. I'll let you know what I hear, but all I can say right now is that it looks bad. All the outfits got runners bringing stuff in here, but they're using new codes every time. I'll do my best to crack the ones I can, but."
"That will have to do, then. Let's go, people."
Friday - 4:37 p.m.
Screams of agony decorated the laboratory-warehouse.
Internally, the manitou that ran herd on Jacynth Ambrose's organic shell reveled in the destruction. But appearances must be maintained. It ran a hand over a nearby bank of controls, and a strange gun - mounted on mechanical legs rather then any sort of carriage - lurched out of a corner, tracking the rampaging robot.
Recently rebuilt, SUZY-309 was stronger than the technicians' reports had led Ambrose to believe. Snatching up another of her re-creators, Suzy cut off his scream and his head with a single savage motion. All the while, a bizarre sound akin to gurgling laughter issued forth from the raging automaton.
Lab-coated assistants ran for cover as Jacynth's Soul Cannon locked on and fired. SUZY gave out a scream that was almost human, and Jacynth focused on the sound. She had never determined if rumors that the construct had a soul were true, but it certainly reacted as if it did - as if it were feeling pain from the blast.
Another beam of light cut into SUZY's flank from the other side of the warehouse. Jacynth spared a glimpse for the sharpshooter, a white-clad scientist with a shock of blonde hair, firing a huge hand weapon from atop the remodeled Death Bus. The combined fire drove SUZY into a frenzy, pushing her back into the warehouse wall, which partially collapsed on top of her. Rising from the rubble, she seemed to take stock of her situation for a moment, hovering in place, still. Perhaps her systems are recouping from the damage, Jacynth considered, just before the automaton whirled around and crashed through the warehouse wall, fleeing into the wilderness beyond.
Zarkov dropped to the ground with the agility of a man half his age, and strode over to the Hellstromme representative. "Why in the name of Sam Hill did you order SUZY reactivated?"
Jacynth glared at the impertinent man. "Because the Gulgoleth matter is important," she snarled.
"Maybe to Hellstromme, but that's his lookout, not ours."
"You work for Hellstromme now, Zarkov. You would do well to remember that. These toys of yours..." she swept her hand across the warehouse, pausing meaningfully on the two-story Entropy Projector, "...are expensive, and as long as Dari... Dr. Hellstromme is paying your bills, you would be wise to respect his authority."
"If he's so free with his money, why hasn't he funded any of the new projects? Instead, we have to rebuild the Bus, and SUZY." Zarkov's voice trailed off for a moment as he choked down his rage. How dare they put SUZY through this. again? "Maybe that project in your private lab might be of some help in taking the site," he suggested.
Jacynth's gaze remained level with Zarkov's own. "My personal investigations are dedicated to... ethereal research, which will be of little use to us here. Time's short, Zarkov. You'll have to take Gulgoleth with what we have."
Zarkov sighed. "I'll need 30 men..."
"What?!? Twenty men, with nothing but out-of-date equipment and this. experimental junk of yours? I don't care how important Gulgoleth is, that's not enough!"
"It will have to do." The demon within Ambrose loosed the foreboding look upon Jacynth's face and calmed her voice into a low, feminine tone. "Erik. Dr. Hellstromme is counting on you. If the Iron Dragon were to get a rail line through the site..."
Zarkov snapped back. "Kang wants that site?" Jacynth smiled inwardly as she noticed Zarkov's hackles rise. "The Rats will not have that site, madam. You have my word on that. Forty-eight hours, and we'll be ready to hold Gulgoleth come Hell or high water."
"Then I'll leave you to your plans." The demon-puppet placed a comforting hand on Zarkov's shoulder, and said, "You're making the right choice, Erik. Dr. Hellstromme will look favorably on your efforts."
Zarkov softened at the touch, and with a final nod, returned to his work; Hellstromme had designed the Ambrose body well.
Success! the manitou crowed internally. Though it had little concern for Hellstromme and his agenda, a certain amount of interest had to be feigned. Otherwise, its plans would be discovered far, far too soon.
Friday - 7:51 p.m.
"A nice piece of work, that," Coleman admitted, somewhat admiringly. "Though I figured you'd have to kill those two hired guns of Grimme's to get the Bible."
The contempt was clear on Mad Wolf Striding's face. "Much as someone should have done with you?" the Sioux shaman growled.
J.P. chose not to take offense at Mad Wolf's comment. These days he found it best if he didn't get riled at folks who offended him. Otherwise, the results tended to be... bloody. Katie had managed to endear herself to the Sioux by returning Joseph's body, and since Coleman's return, Dex had warned him to be... "diplomatic".
"Maybe so," Coleman replied casually. "I'm just here observing for the Rangers. But I can't help but wonder. You folks must have had some help. Or maybe it was just the sun in my eyes playing tricks.?"
"You whites know so little of the world around you," Mad Wolf Striding sneered. "So unlike us. Even after the Sioux die, our spirits battle on, without the need for demons and bargains. Our power is pure."
"...'and you're as strong as ten men'?" Coleman finished sardonically. "Which of your buddies drew the short straw in the Hereafter?"
"Little Running Bear, dead man. His spirit aided us against Elijah's men, and now we have the Bible."
Coleman sneered. "Score one for the good guys." So much for diplomacy, he added.
If Mad Wolf took offense at the comment, he didn't honor it with a response... or he considered Coleman unworthy of one.
"So what are your plans now?" Coleman continued, after a moment of silence.
"We head for Gulgoleth. Sweetrock is already with us. Are you?" Mad Wolf's expression clearly belied his preference on the matter.
Apparently he's not too good at this 'diplomacy' stuff either, Coleman noted. "I'll get back to you. Patterson thinks the rail barons plan to take it, but that might not be enough to get him involved. Anything you want me to tell him?"
"Elijah has no interest in your iron horses. Gulgoleth is a seat of power. Even without the Bible, the Mad One has many resources. Perhaps enough to take the site. Perhaps not."
"Sure, whatever," mumbled Coleman, turning to leave. He was done with this; if Dexter and Patterson thought it was important, they'd join. If not, then the others could face Elijah alone. It made no difference to him anymore.
Saturday, August 10, 1878 - 1:03 a.m. Three days to Doomsday
Elijah turned as Alonso entered the mesa's central chamber, followed closely by Cain and Abel. The latter two were disheveled, and stumbled forward, their condition all too familiar to the Prophet. "Tell me you have not failed. again."
Judiciously, Cain stepped back, letting Abel take the lead. The larger Angel tugged vaguely at one ear and had the good sense to look sheepish. "We were attacked by the Sioux. They took the Bible." He winced in anticipation of Elijah's angry reply, and most likely a hail of blows. Or worse.
But instead, Elijah laughed. "Beautiful! The Lord does indeed work in mysterious ways, his wonders to behold!"
Abel looked to Cain, confused, and the smaller man shrugged. "Begging your pardon, Brother Elijah, but wasn't the Bible rather... important to your plans?" Certainly, the Prophet had led Abel's employer Grimme to believe that the volume was important, and the Reverend probably had his own plans for it as well.
"It was a work of vast evil," Elijah explained to the shocked soldiers, "written by craftsmen of the Devil! A necessary tool, to be sure, but one I loathed to use. If it has been taken from us, then it is the Lord's Will. as I believed all along."
Abel looked no less puzzled, but this was the case with many topics, even long after they were ably explained. It was up to Cain to pursue the issue. "So the ritual can proceed without it?"
"Per the Lord's Will," Elijah intoned. "Is that not right, Enrique?"
"Yes indeed, Brother Elijah," Alonso answered. "Within days, victory will be yours. Brothers Cain and Abel are weary from their labors, my Prophet. Perhaps some rest."
"You are correct as always, Brother Enrique. Cain! Abel! You may retire to the temporary quarters below to prepare. I will need both of you at my side when inspiration comes."
As the two Lost Angels withdrew, Elijah turned to Alonso. "Your time has come, Enrique." Elijah paused for a moment, and Alonso's stomach clenched. "Complete the errands we discussed earlier. Prepare Sister Megan and the other runners. When you return, we shall be ready. The Last Kingdom is upon us."
With that, Elijah returned to his work, spread out across the table before him, and Enrique withdrew quietly from the room. Given the burden Elijah had saddled him with, Alonso had only a few minutes to prepare a message for Father Terrance.
Saturday - 11:14 p.m.
"So where the hell is Blackjack, anyway?" Rhett snarled.
"He's got business elsewhere, Rhett." Garret looked up lazily from checking his gun. "Like it said in the telegram."
"I don't like it. Why'd Jackie pick me to deal with those Injuns?"
"Jackie's got a weird sense of humor," Rose pointed out. "Pickin' you as the diplomat and all. Probably just figured you'd been around town a little longer then me or Andy. And it's not like they're going to listen to Skunky."
Caufield didn't seem particularly satisfied by that explanation, but rather than pursue the matter, he began pacing back and forth about the cavern, between the slumbering bodies of ragtag outlaws. Most of the men were trying to get some shuteye before the assault on Gulgoleth, and while they'd learned to ignore Skunky's staccato snoring and obscene stench, Caufield wasn't sure they'd appreciate it if an argument woke them up.
"What about Rachel?" asked Caufield. "I kinda doubt she's gonna to stay out of things."
Garret held up part of his rifle, checking for traces of dust. Satisfied, he slipped it back into place. "Don't you fret about her now, Rhett. She'll stay out of it if she knows what's good for her. Let's go over the plan one more time."
Caufield scowled. "Simple enough. We head north for Gulgoleth, runnin' alongside the Sioux and the Rangers. Two parties: me with Skunky, Darren, and half the men: you two and Wendigo leadin' the rest. We shoot anythin' weird that ain't an Injun or Confederacy. And if we see Elijah, we take him down first thing."
"Good enough," Garret nodded. "And if we get separated?"
"I get my men back to the hideout, or into Gomorra if any of them need healin'. I get word to that Wise Cloud fella 'bout the situation if I get back first: otherwise, you'll take care of it."
"Sounds like a plan. Suggest you get some sleep, Rhett. Gonna be a long couple of days." With that, Andrew leaned back against the rock wall, closed his eyes, and was out like a light.
"Still don't like it." Caufield grumbled. But like Garret said, it might be a long time before he could get any rest again. He settled down, but still, sleep was a long time coming.
Sunday, August 11, 1878 - 4:31 a.m. Two days to Doomsday
Quon Lin's long braided hair flapped in the wind as he perched neatly within the cave mouth. He had discovered this small niche on the eastern edge of Gulgoleth's central mesa during his first reconnaissance. From here, he could see most of the eastern exits out of the Gulgoleth valley. If anyone tried to slip out this way, he'd see them. The other exits were covered by the various outfits the Sioux had recruited - all except the north, which was too far away for convenient access to anything.
The Maze Rat redirected his attention as he heard a brief fluttering noise. Squinting through the moon's glare, he thought he saw a figure flying through the air above him, recently emerged from an entrance higher up on the mesa cliff side. The figure circled about and headed north.
Quon Lin wasn't surprised to see a man fly: it was no less believable then anything else he'd seen as a member of the Spiritual Society. But the unexpected presence of aerial warriors made his task much more difficult - and threatened the Sioux's ground-based assault of the area. Was it worth leaving his post to warn them?
Lin weighed the options for a moment, then prepared to leave, only pausing when he heard a pebble dribble down the cliff side above. Instinctively, he brought the sickle in his right hand up and around, preparing to meet the new threat head on.
A piercing wail preceded a stream of thick green ichor, sprayed down onto the cave mouth, inches away from Quon Lin's hunched form. Glancing up, the martial artist caught sight of an abomination, clinging to the mesa wall - a large scorpion-like creature with an orange, scale-like hide.
Wall Crawler! Lin cursed. But what is it doing so far from the channels?
Pivoting across the ledge on the ball of one foot, Quon Lin narrowly avoided the creature's long tail as it slammed down beside him. The Wall Crawler withdrew its tail for another strike, but Lin lashed out again, severing the tip. The creature was wounded, but not mortally, and was mere moments from pouncing onto the ledge and ripping Lin apart. Left with no other alternative, he released his grip on the rock face and dropped into the darkness.
Time seemed to slow as Quon Lin summoned his chi. The mesa wall drifted idly past him, allowing him more then enough time to twist into the proper posture. Energy welled in his legs, the world fell away, and he landed on the ground as lightly as a snowflake. Time sped back into sync and lightning crashed above, revealing the Wall Crawler descending towards him. Lin would have to find a less occupied vantage point next time. Turning, he ran south for the Spiritual Society's headquarters.
Sunday - 6:26 a.m.
"Forward, men!" Sykes shouted.
The Lieutenant Colonel glanced at his soldiers with pride as they moved forward towards the mesa, knowing that Patterson and his Confederate forces lurked somewhere up ahead, and mentally revised his battle plan. Williams and his elite squad would provide cover fire and eliminate any. 'special' nuisances, distracting Elijah's forces long enough for the remainder of the Union troops to close on the central mesa.
Ultimately, though, Sykes' attention was focused on Patterson. The Union would never fall to untrained civilians on the field of battle. The real threat would be Confederate, and Sykes was well prepared to deal with them. One way or another, by sunset tomorrow, the mesa would be theirs.
It was only when he heard the first screams up ahead, and the unearthly wailing, that Frederick Sykes began to wonder if he was wrong.
Fifty yards to the left, Ripley Scone glanced at his leader. "I dare say, that does sound rather painful."
Cort sighed. "Sykes is a big boy. He had to learn sometime what he's facing in Gomorra. We've got our own assignment, and if we fail. there may be nothing left for Sykes to fight for."
The Agency commander gestured the rest of his team forward, towards the mesa.
Sunday - 1:03 p.m.
"I don't like it, William." Wise Cloud glanced nervously over the gathering tribes. There were many of them, but it was his experience that his people operated best as an army of individuals, not a sea of chaotic regimen. "We are not meant to fight like this."
Iron Horse shrugged. "Eagle Rock and Walks-in-Footprints are in rare agreement. Gulgoleth poses too great a danger. I understand your concerns about the Tree, but no one agrees that the Dim Eyes' attack on it has weakened us."
Disappointed, Wise Cloud asked, "Not even you?"
Billy Iron Horse considered the elder shaman for a moment, then shrugged. "Not even I. The Dims are a wound, true, one which continues to bleed. But we must trust to Raven Smiles and the others to protect the Tree. And I also believe that Elijah's control of this mesa is a threat just as dangerous, and far more pressing."
"I am not arguing against the need for this assault, but without the Tree, we can protect nothing! Can't you feel our spirits weakening? Our ancestors' voices growing faint?"
For a moment, Billy Iron Horse considered the shaman's words, then visibly shook off his doubts. "Eagle Rock leads us, and I trust his judgement. Besides, Little Running Bear now watches over me, as you well know. Bear lives in the Spirit World now, regardless of his presence here, and he would warn us of any pending danger from the roots of the Tree. He has power now, and vision. He healed me, when you and Singing Feather could do nothing."
"Do not become overconfident, William. Bear's spirit protects us all, but without the Tree, even he can do little. And the Tree is much weakened since he brought you back."
"Enough!" exclaimed Iron Horse. "Eagle Rock leads us, and Walks-in-Footprints has committed our people to help Sweetrock remove Elijah from Gulgoleth. That is our path, my friend, and it is enough."
Wise Cloud said no more, for in truth Eagle Rock had spoken, and few would move against him. Still, he was concerned. Very concerned.
Monday, August 12, 1878 - 8:12 a.m. One day to Doomsday
Buster Madison strolled along the boardwalk, absently whistling to himself. It had been a rough night at the Casino Morongo; seemed all the gamblers on their way to Soddum had stopped in Gomorra along the way. More than one fight had broken out, and Buster felt obliged to report to the Sheriff on the collateral damage. A little "civic service" couldn't hurt a talented man of the felt, and he might be able to eliminate some competition to boot.
Arriving at the sheriff's office, Buster frowned. The deputies' usual early-morning chatter over coffee was absent. This wasn't the hustler's first visit to the sheriff's office - voluntarily or otherwise - and he could set his watch by Radcliffe and Montreal ragging each other over a morning cup of java.
Cautiously, Buster tried the door. It was unlocked, which wasn't unusual; Hunter had kept up Coleman's "open-door policy", figuring it was good for public relations. There wasn't much of anything inside worth stealing, except for Coleman's badge mounted on the wall. And even the Whateleys weren't fool enough to swipe that.
Madison didn't carry a gun, figuring there were enough gunslingers in town that one more wouldn't make a difference, so he tread lightly as he entered the office and glanced around. Deserted, he noted. The cells were empty as well. No surprise there. The worst of the rabble are probably all whooping it up out at Soddum. Godforsaken place. I wouldn't be caught dead there.
A note was pinned to one wall, where Hunter and his men usually left messages for each other. Stepping closer, Buster could make out Jessie Freemont's cribbed handwriting:
The Snitch came by earlier and warned me that something big is going down at Gulgoleth. Everyone else is still out hunting Templeton. But someone has to look into this. I am already on my way. If any of you get this message, follow as soon as you can. P.S. Radcliffe's in charge while I'm gone. Jesse - make sure there's a town left to come back to. Jessie - 6:45
Buster frowned. That doesn't sound good. He was a city man, born and bred. But he had heard enough whispers about the Gulgoleth wilderness to know it wasn't a place he would visit any time soon. Elijah's folks were out there in great numbers. And his palms still itched from his last encounter with the Lost Angels...
Leaving the note undisturbed, Buster turned quietly around and left the way he came.
Scowling, Jessie Freemont assessed the situation. The Law Dogs were undermanned and outgunned, by the look of things. Nate, Olson, and Montreal were back in town, Powell and Flatbush were God knows where, and he couldn't trust newbies like Beenz and Cooper with something this important. Radcliffe was a good man, for a performer, but he was going to have to man the shop. For a moment Jessie considered simply withdrawing and letting the various outfits shoot it out. But Nate Hunter had given him a chance and with it his trust. Jessie wasn't about to let the sheriff down, no matter how strange he was acting recently.
"The men are ready, Jessie," Wendy said, returning with a crowd of newly appointed deputies. "From what I can tell, the Union troops skirmished with something weird yesterday, and spent last night recouping. They think the Confederacy was responsible. But the loners out on the plains say Patterson's men are miles away, and have problems of their own." She paused for a moment, apparently thinking the same thing as Freemont. "This is only marginally within our jurisdiction, Jessie. No one will think less of you if we leave the armies and the rest to duke it out without us."
"To hell with that, Wendy," Freemont snarled. "I've had a belly full of the Confederacy and the Union, marching in here like they're the law o' this land. Last I checked, Gomorra answers to itself and to California, and everyone else can go to hell. We're the Law around here, and I mean to make sure they understand that."
"I'm with you - you know that," Wendy reassured him. "So long as you know what we're getting into. The Whateleys, Elijah's. men."
Jessie patted her shoulder sympathetically. "That's part of it, too. Maybe Sheriff Hunter can't prove it, but Nicodemus Whateley killed your father. I know it in my gut, and it's a score the law can settle. here, today."
"Not in cold blood, Jesse. You know that dad wouldn't have wanted it that way."
"Only if that's what it takes, Wendy. Only if that's what it takes."
Monday - 9:46 a.m.
"Where is it?!?" the demon within Jacynth screamed. Lab technicians scrambled for cover and a few even considered fleeing the building, to take their chances with the chaos outside to avoid her wrath. "Jacynth" shoved her way through desks covered with blueprints, raging through piles of partially assembled devices, but there was no trace of the weapon she was looking for. Reaching out, she casually grabbed one man by the neck and hauled him up close to her face. "Where is it?" she screamed at him.
Elmo Schacci's eyes were wide with loosely concealed panic. "Where's what??"
"The pump gun, you idiot! Tell me where it is! Did Zarkov take it?"
"Ummm, no. I don't think so. I thought I saw Miss Franklin with it earlier."
"That!" Jacynth screamed, throwing the hapless delivery boy away from her with a single fluid motion. Schacci slammed into a bank of equipment, then scurried away before she could get to him again.
Jacynth paced back and forth irritably, considering the situation. Hellstromme be damned! Catering to his whims to preserve her "cover" could only go on for so long before she snapped. While Zarkov and the better-armed members of the Collegium were at Gulgoleth, the Whateleys had launched an unexpected assault on Gomorra. She would need the pump gun to defend herself it they reached the Observatory. Though its booster cells were still experimental, it was still the most powerful weapon left at the Collegium base.
With a near-inhuman growl, Jacynth returned to her private lab. It looked as if she would have to activate the Captivator sooner then expected. It was best not to anger her fellow manitous in Gomorra so early, but this was an emergency. If Jacynth didn't protect herself now, she wouldn't live to feel the manitous' wrath later.
Susan Franklin stalked the streets of Gomorra. This section of town was strangely quiet. Apparently the Whateleys' zombie armies had already moved on. Maybe they're mobilizing at Elephant Hill, she reasoned.
Regardless, Susan intended to see this matter to an end. The Gomorra Collegium had sat by far too long while first one side and then another picked them off like flies. First the Maze Rats, then the Whateleys and their ectoplasmic summoning. Pierre, Whale, Lawrence, and all the others, they would be avenged. She would have preferred this to happen another way - she was a scientist, not a fighter. but sometimes you just had to take a stand!
She'd already destroyed two packs of Class III ambulatory corpses with the pump gun, and sent the townsfolk she'd rescued to St. Martin's where Father Terrance was accepting survivors of the fighting in town. Though she had little use for religion herself - she'd thoroughly mapped the heavens years ago - she was sure the refugees would find the place welcome relief. She knew that the Southern preacher would take care of them, and defend them with his own life if need be.
Elephant Hill was close, so Susan carefully approached to see if the Whateleys had moved back in. They seemed to be using it as a staging area periodically these days, no doubt for the abundance of fresh cadavers to add to their ranks. A light drizzle started, matching her foul mood. Good. That will provide excellent cover.
Susan slowed as she approached Elephant Hill. There was movement upon the cemetery's central hill. Ducking behind a nearby corner, she peered cautiously toward the motion and tried to make out the invaders. Strange figures cavorted and danced in the graveyard, amidst corpses standing upright and motionless. Genetic mutations of some sort, by the look of them, clad in mockingly cheerful garments. Susan recognized a few of them from the circus outside of town. Members of the "Troupe," no doubt. Franklin wasn't aware the carnival freaks were working with the Whateleys, but somehow it didn't surprise her.
Suddenly all the twisted mutations came to an abrupt halt as two women emerged from one of the mausoleums. One was a gunslinger by the look of her, though Susan didn't recognize her. Maybe she'd seen the woman about town once or twice in the company of the Blackjacks.
The other was Chinese, and wore wholly inappropriate white undergarments. Franklin held a pair of magnifying spectacles to her eyes, and could just discern a bright flush to the woman's cheeks. If she was an ambulatory corpse, she was at least Class II, and maybe even Class I. She seemed sluggish, almost dazed, as if newly awakened - or newly reanimated.
The women spoke back and forth for a moment. Susan had never mastered the art of reading lips, and was unable to make out their words. In a moment, the Asian woman turned away and scanned the area, as if trying to find something, or someone.
There was a rustling of wings overhead, and Franklin glanced up to witness the first Class I mutation she had ever seen in Gomorra. A human male, with a broad pair of wings. Such experimentation was banned by the Collegium, of course (though she had her own dark suspicions about exactly what Klippstein was up to in his laboratory). But as far as she was concerned, only the Whateleys' occult sciences were capable of creating such a creature.
What was it doing here? Occult propaganda? Misdirection? A common citizen might mistake the being for an angel of God and panic, but Susan had never been superstitious. Maybe this was one of Elijah's reputed "lost angels."
The winged man landed next to the gunfighter and they shared a few words. Franklin considered the situation carefully. The Whateleys, she would have gladly gone up against on her own. But if they were allied with the Blackjacks, the Lost Angels, and the mysterious Troupe, that was far more than she - or perhaps even the whole of the Collegium - were ready to tackle.
Zarkov must be informed! This is far more important than petty vengeance. At a sudden noise behind her, Susan spun to face a group of Class III alchemically-animated corpses. She triggered the pump gun, and a burst of electrostatic energy blew the head of the lead figure clean off. It toppled to the ground, but the others behind it surged forward.
Monday - 10:24 a.m.
Whatcha doin', Charlie... This is suicide, the former bartender thought to himself as he approached the tent. He had vowed never to cross paths with the Troupe again, but here he was, sneaking through the Devil's Playground under cover of rain. Coming here during broad daylight would have been suicidal. but then again, it was scarcely less obvious - and potentially far more deadly - at night.
Charlie Landers had scores to settle. But first, he had to take back what was his. Unfortunately, he didn't have a clue how to go about it. That's typical. This is just where you were ten years ago - younger, but just as stupid.
Scratch's deal was tempting then, but Charlie had since had a decade to look back and regret, and now he was ready to close the bargain - on his own terms. He wasn't a total idiot: he'd waited until most of the Troupe crawled, slid, and slithered through the streets of Gomorra, heading towards Elephant Hill to meet the Whateleys. They never went anywhere without Esmerelda, and without her to psychically watch over the carnival, the former bartender had at least a passable chance of sneaking in unnoticed.
Cassandra had provided a plan of the Troupe's current. configuration. The place had changed more then once since Charlie had been here, which didn't surprise him. The one thing you could always count on was that the Troupe was always changing.
According to Cassandra's map, Esmerelda's tent was on the other flank of the sideshow. With luck, he would be in and out long before she returned from whatever battle she and the Whateleys were fighting. As for Scratch - who knew where he was? Landers had seen him about town more then once since the Troupe had returned, and he knew that the man - was he really a man? - took many disguises - or were they forms?. He couldn't count on Scratch to be gone any more than he could count on getting out of this situation alive. Those are the risks when you deal with the Devil.
Charlie ventured straight through the sideshow tent, slipping past the flap and into the dark, humid interior. The first thing that hit him was the stench; Charlie gagged at the reek of vomit, unwashed human flesh, sulfur, formaldehyde, and other substances he had never been able to pin down. It seemed different than he remembered, and yet somehow part of it remained the same, even after all these years. The Troupe usually tidied up for public shows, but there weren't any scheduled for some time, especially with the weirdness of late.
Then the sights hit him: a few feebly flickering oil lanterns illuminated the Troupe's prize exhibits. at least, the ones currently useless to them on the field of battle. Slugs of flesh floated in glass jars of preservatives, stuffed creatures stood poised in eternal tableaus of torment. But Charlie saw through the illusion; the slugs were not preserved, merely drugged, and the exhibits weren't entirely dead, and not quite stuffed. A casual viewer might have dismissed the creatures' flickering eyes as a trick of the light, or the work of an expert craftsman, but Charlie's sanity was not so well protected.
Shuddering, he kept his eyes to the twisted path leading through the Sideshow and out the other side. He stumbled forward, unaware of the two figures who followed quietly behind him. Never one to ignore the lessons of the past, Scratch had not committed all his minions to the fray.