Tuesday, August 13, 1878 - 4:03 a.m. Doomsday
"I can't thank you enough for your help, Mr. Williams."
"Don't mention it, Jessie," Cort replied, wearily. "And I mean it. My superiors would be very unhappy if it were to get out that I was helping out."
Freemont shrugged. "Whatever you say."
It had been a long night. Cort, Nelson, and Armstrong had worked alongside Freemont and his Law Dogs, trying to contain the situation at Gulgoleth. Gus had managed to get Harris and Zarkov to the Colorado Lode, where they reestablished communication, and Williams had managed to get in contact with Sister Mary, Benjamin, Delilah, Desmond, and the remaining Agency operatives in town.
The in-town team had stayed out of the way as much as possible, covertly eliminating supernatural threats as they could. Armstrong and Nelson had remained out in the field, and Cort decided that was about as much overt support as the Agency could supply. Sykes would have to clean up on his own from there. Whether the colonel obtained Gulgoleth for Union Blue or not was less important than containing information about the attack as far as Cort was concerned.
It had been surprisingly easy thus far. The townsfolk seemed all too eager to accept any explanation the Agency cooked up for them. Almost like they wanted to accept it. He hadn't noticed it until now, but Cort was pretty sure that the Agency's job in Gomorra had been getting easier ever since the Knicknevin disaster last year. Something was wrong here, but he couldn't put his finger on it yet.
But just as soon as this little mess is handled, he pledged to himself, I'll get to the figure it out.
"So what's the word from Gomorra, Mr. Williams?" Jessie asked.
Williams paused for a moment as they slogged through the mud toward base camp. What was the story again? "According to all reports, the Collegium were a big help at first. But then they pulled back toward the power plan, where a gas leak drove most of the town nuts. Confusion set in, and then that automaton of theirs showed up."
Freemont seemed all too willing to buy it. Cort couldn't blame him, of course; the Collegium had a fairly bad reputation in town, and most folks were willing to believe the worst about mad scientists in general. The outfit had a few good men, but as far as Williams was concerned, anyone willing to work with Darius Hellstromme deserved what they got. Maybe he could protect Zarkov, who was out of town with Harris through most of the fighting. Or even recruit him. The Agency could always use a field-scientist.
Gomorra loomed up ahead. The rain had died down by now, which was probably why the fires were burning so bright. "What the hell?" Freemont exclaimed. Even from this distance they could hear shouts, yells, and the sound of breaking glass as a mob swept through the town.
Tuesday - 6:35 a.m.
"Where's Zarkov?" Jacynth demanded.
Alice Chamberlain shrugged. "He disappeared with that Gallagher fellow sometime yesterday."
"Disappeared?" Jacynth asked, a little more tersely than Alice was willing to put up with after the night she'd had.
"Look!" Chamberlain yelled back at her. "We were pretty busy out at Gulgoleth, and then you call us back here to protect the power plant and SUZY escapes again. Then Sheriff Hunter and his good ol' boys start shootin' at us. It's a wonder we managed to pull through it at all!"
"Where is the automaton?" Jacynth asked, ignoring Chamberlain's outburst. A human might have wasted time wading into a fight with an underling, but she didn't see the need right now. Alice - and especially her feelings - were insignificant to Hellstromme's plans. And Ambrose had already vented her rage at Elmo earlier. She didn't feel the need to do so again.
"In a containment zone at the far end of the base," Alice said, somewhat confused by the attaché's response. "After we captured her during her unscheduled 'tour' of the asylum, the techs thought it would be a good idea to restrain her until Zarkov returned. I must say, your little 'addition' was quite effective in bringing her down."
"The cyber-demon was rather effective, wasn't it," boasted Jacynth smugly.
Alice eyed her suspiciously. "And quite the surprise, too, dear. Still not quite up to snuff, though. I thought I caught a glimpse of rebellion in its eyes. Perhaps a lobotomy."
"I don't think that will be necessary, Miss Chamberlain. As you were." Jacynth strolled toward the containment platform where SUZY was being held. Next time, she thought, my command of the Whateley's servitor demon won't be interrupted before it can finish the job. Next time that Armitage 'rebels', it will be at the cost of my enemies' lives.
SUZY's hulking form was strapped to a magnetic plate, which held her in place as the technicians crawled about, performing a mechanical diagnosis of her systems.
"How is the analysis progressing, Dr. Hardstrom?" Jacynth asked the lead, white-clad technician.
The scientist glared up over his mask. "A sloppy, sloppy piece of work. No wonder you've been having problems with it. Wherever did you acquire this brain?"
"Lycanthropic Subject 2A," Alice retorted sharply. "You have read the files, haven't you?"
"What I could find of them. I'm rather shocked at the lack of professionalism I've seen here since we arrived from Deseret."
"I don't think we need to chastise our fellow scientists over this just now," cooed Jacynth reassuringly. "Can you get the unit back on-line? Will she be controllable?"
"I believe so. Better, stronger, faster. as usual. If we're finished?" Hardstrom returned to tinkering with SUZY's internal connections, all of which ran into the mass of gray matter at the center of the unit's chest.
If Hardstrom could stabilize the connections and bring the Lycanthropic Cerebral Unit under complete control, Jacynth could "borrow" his research and apply it to her cyber- demon. Perhaps she might even send it against Nicodemus Whateley. Wouldn't that be grand, she mused, resisting a smile. Given what I understood of their relationship, the creature probably wouldn't even resist.
Tuesday - 6:51 a.m.
"We're not defeated yet!" Elijah screamed. "This is a tactical retreat, nothing more."
Enrique Alonso could only assume that the Mad Prophet had finally lived fully up to his nickname. True, the Host had initially been triumphant. But as far as Enrique could tell, Elijah had been foolish to waste them in the assault on Gomorra. Divided, those defending Gulgoleth were driven back by the mysterious wave of magic the attackers had unleashed.
Elijah had few reinforcements left. Mallory, Lillith, Moloch, Gnosis. all were still gone, sent away on various missions. Perdition, Alastor, and Haborym had retreated within the mesa with the surviving Host, leaving only Winters, Owens, and Regen to guard the Prophet. They, and Enrique himself. But the Prophet remained confident. What does he have up his sleeve? Alonso wondered.
As if in answer, Elijah shouted, "Come!", and stalked off into a side passage, not waiting for Alonso to follow. The Brothers chased after him, and Enrique and Winters trailed behind. For several minutes they descended ever deeper into the bowels of the earth, finally emerging within a huge chamber flooded with green luminescence. The opposite wall was nothing but a great ruin, the remnants of an enormous, tortured angel chiseled into the stone. From the look of it, the place was once a mausoleum or tomb, or perhaps a temple of some kind.
"Behold! Sabtabiel's Remains!" Elijah screamed triumphantly. "The portal to the Last Kingdom!"
Madre de dios! Enrique prayed silently. He'd heard the name, but always figured that the first of the Fallen was merely a legend. Of course - until recently, the Fallen themselves were assumed to be legends. This changed things. Alonso had to get word of this out to the Rangers - and to the Order of St. George. They had to be warned of the danger - of what the Last Kingdom was - or all their efforts would be for nothing.
"Do you need me for the ritual, Brother Elijah?" he asked, swallowing hard.
The bearded maniac spun on him, his eyes blazing with triumph - and concern. "What? You would leave, now, at the moment of our greatest triumph?"
"Why. why, no, Brother Elijah. But these... remains are obviously important. I must go above, and secure the entrances. If the blasphemers were to gain entry at this critical moment..."
Elijah nodded, a smile creeping across his face. "As always, you speak wisdom, Brother Enrique. I do let my passion for God's work overwhelm me at times. Sister Mercy and the Brothers will be sufficient for the ritual. Go! Tell Alastor and the others to man the ramparts, and ensure that no one gains entrance before the ritual is complete."
Enrique nodded and started to withdraw, as Elijah continued. "But return with all haste, my son. For soon, the entire Gomorra Valley shall bear witness to the most glorious sight since Creation itself." That's what I'm afraid of, Alonso thought as he stole away. When he was out of sight of the Prophet, his quick gait became an open run. That's what I'm afraid of.
Tuesday - 7:15 a.m.
Walter Ponds fired off a last volley of gunfire, and could only breathe a sigh of relief when the skeletal figure atop the horse turned to ride away, taking its surviving walkin' dead with it.
He glanced around, taking in the devastation around the Sweetrock offices for the first time. Corpses, many killed for a second time, were scattered everywhere. Men, wolves, bats, dogs, horses, and some creatures that Ponds couldn't name (and hoped never to see again) blanketed the landscape. Near the end, he and his men had fired indiscriminately, surrounded as they were by not only the Whateley forces, but also an unexpected street mob.
Exhausted, Ponds leaned against the doorsill, then noticed the Sioux reinforcements getting ready to leave. He tipped his hat to their leader, the sprightly young woman named Singing Feather. "My thanks for your assistance, ma'am. We couldn't have held them off without you."
"I hope that dividing our forces did not ultimately result in Elijah's victory," she answered. "We managed to hold the Tree, and near the end we were able to call upon its power. But it is still weak, and in the future."
Ponds didn't know how to respond. All this talk of a spiritual place and a great Tree of Life was beyond him. He was just happy that, for the most part, Sweetrock had survived this latest storm. Of course, if Max didn't find Clell Miller and his traitorous operation soon, it wouldn't matter.
"I go now to join with the rest of the Sioux," Singing Feather called to him. "We have to use the power of the spirits while they still answer to us, and it is time the Whateleys and their new allies are stopped once and for all." Tugging the reigns of her mount, she swung about and joined the war party leaving Gomorra.
It never ends, does it? Ponds wondered rhetorically. Kerry and Jane approached, and Walter gestured them into his small office. "Has anything changed since your last report, Kerry?"
"Nope," the gunfighter replied, lighting up a cigarillo. "We held the power plant through the night. Davidson's over there now watching the place with a few of our men. The rest are scattered throughout town, cleaning up. Hunter's gone nuts, near as I can tell, but we managed to hold him off and it looks like he's taking most of his ire out on the Collegium."
"That leaves Gulgoleth." Ponds summed it up.
"Looks like we control the town through default," Arizona Jane chipped in. "Unless Hunter somehow gets his act together."
"I suspect mayorship is a burden Mr. Baine doesn't want right now," Walter replied, as an older, balding man entered the office.
"You ladies know Father Terrance, I believe." Walter waved them to each other in lieu of introductions. "He's been tending to the sick and injured over at St. Martin's, but thanks to... just a minute." Ponds stepped over to an elaborate electrical console and flipped a few switches. Getting no response, he went on. "As I was saying, thanks to the Rangers, and Sandra and Zarkov's efforts out at the Colorado, he's also managed to keep us up-to-date on events out in the field."
"The situation is still not favorable," Terrance intoned. "Our infiltrator reports that Elijah prepares for some great ritual. Whether he means to empower his troops once more, or summon a greater power to strike directly, we do not know. The report from our man was unexpectedly cut short."
Kerry sighed wearily. "Great. Where's this ritual takin' place?"
"Deep beneath Gulgoleth itself," the priest replied.
"Well, that's it, then," Arizona Jane concluded. "From what I've heard, the Prophet's drawn all of his surviving forces in there, and the place is a veritable fortress! There's no way we can take it!"
Walter chuckled. "Don't worry, little lady. We have a plan."
Tuesday - 8:11 a.m.
Rhett Caufield cursed. Darren was ranting and raving, and slowing them down. They were separated from Garret and the others during the Angels' initial push, and now they were cut off from the rest of their forces, out in the middle of nowhere, with wounded no less.
"How're you doin', Skunky?" he asked the older man, who stumbled along beside the others.
"Well's as can be expected," the squatter huffed, favoring his left side. "How's Titus doin'?"
Hearing his name, Darren started screaming, "No! Not in there! It's death! Death, I tell you! Monsters, monsters everywhere!"
"What the hell?" Rhett jerked backward.
"I think he's still talkin' about Soddum, Rhett."
Their destination: the closest place where they could get some food and medical help. Caufield had heard about Soddum, but didn't know anyone who'd actually been there. Most Gomorra folk wouldn't go near the place for love or money. It supposedly got a lot of out-of-town visitors, though. Buster once told him that it was a gambler's paradise; most who visited came back flush with money. Then again, Madison also talked about how the losers never came back to tell their tales.
Skunky wasn't going to make it much farther without aid, and Soddum was it. Regardless of its reputation, the new boomtown was his best hope to make it out of this alive. Soddum was just... there. One second you were walking through the wilderness, the next, the outskirts of town just sprang up around you. As the Blackjacks stumbled into town limits, Rhett glanced back over his shoulder, checking the path they'd taken.
Coulda sworn that town was still half a mile away, he marveled. Rhett was also surprised by how peaceful the town was. They were only a couple of miles from Gulgoleth, but the place seemed to have avoided the devastation surrounding the mesa. Its quiet, white houses were well built and beautiful, like something you might see out East, and the rain was already drying all around the area.
Skunky was just as struck by the bizarre sight. "Don't think we're goin' to find a doc here, Rhett," he muttered nervously.
"Don't have a choice, Skunky. Let's get movin' in and see what."
"Stop right there!"
A man, wearing a cowboy outfit that was just a bit too clean. His shirt was pressed and bright, and his chaps nearly gleamed in the morning sun. He had a neatly trimmed goatee, bright blue eyes, and a smirk that would have given the Devil pause. He was accompanied by a woman wearing a broad brown duster, her face painted white and surrounded by flowing red hair. She had a huge revolver in hand and was pointing it directly toward the ragged group of outlaws.
It took a moment for Rhett to notice their badges - a sheriff's tin on the woman and a deputy's on the man.
"What I believe we have here, Sheriff Syn, are some trespassers," the Deputy continued.
"You're not welcome in Soddum," the sheriff said to the Blackjacks. "Turn back the way you came."
"We've got a wounded man here, sheriff," Rhett pointed out. "And I'd understand that many gamblers have come here. You suddenly closed for business?"
"Under normal circumstances, you'd be more then welcome. But unless you'd care to gamble with your friends' lives..."
Darren Titus suddenly bolted upright and screamed, "Charlie! Charlie, is that you?"
What the Hell? Rhett wondered. Why is Darren suddenly babbling about Landers. Or was he talking about Flatbush?
"I'd suggest you be moving along. Preparations are underway for a... town celebration, and you're not invited. Deputy Tophet, please escort them back to the city limits."
The deputy stepped forward, tapping his fingers suggestively on his gun butt. Out of options, Rhett swung around and led the others away.
"We can't leave," Darren hissed. "They're here. All of them! Charlie, Eddie, Spike, Juan. They're all trapped here. They can't leave. Neither can we."
"What the Hell are you on about, Titus?" Rhett asked, gripping the Indian by the shoulders.
"Careful, Rhett," Skunky said. "He ain't been right since that weird explosion that brought down all the angels."
I'm beginning to wonder if he's the only one of us who is right, Rhett commented to himself. Hearing a noise, Rhett turned back towards Soddum. Two figures stumbled toward town, a man and a woman. Both looked like they'd been at the center of a pretty bad explosion, and the man was damn near unconscious, draped over his companion like so much cordwood. The two passed the outlaws and were greeted openly by Soddum law enforcement, who helped them in toward the town's interior. None of my business, Rhett thought. Gotta get Skunky to a doctor before he bleeds to death.
Tuesday - 8:58 a.m.
"Move it, you idiot!" Donovan snarled. "We've only got a couple of minutes before they come back."
"Shaddup your own self," Sam Horowitz whispered back irritably. As far as he was concerned, Sweetrock wasn't paying him enough to take Vance's garbage.
The Blackjack went back to stringing the demolition charges. He took great care not to touch the rock that made up the walls of the ruins. Horowitz had brushed against it earlier, and that was enough. He could have sworn that it felt like... well, skin, soft and fleshy and pulsing. He didn't want to know if he'd been imagining things, he just wanted to be done with this and to get the Hell out of the mesa.
"Gotcha!" Sam snarled, pushing in the last wire. "Move it, Donovan! What are you doing? Could you be any slower?"
Vance sighed. "Everyone's a critic." With a final flourish he finished off his own pack of explosive charges and pulled back from the cliff face. "Now I suggest we retire. Our timers are synchronized, and we've got until ten o'clock to reach safety."
"Amen to that!" Horowitz agreed, heading toward the tunnel leading to the surface. "The faster we get out of here, the better."
Not twenty yards into their ascent, the demolitionists heard footsteps up ahead. Without a word, they ducked into a side tunnel as six people walked past them and toward the ruins. "The time of our ultimate power on Earth approaches. One hour, no more, and we shall rule the earth in the Lord's name!" Elijah's booming tones were easy to recognize.
"And the Whateleys plan to be there to collect what's theirs," a woman in a skin-tight black dress and designer holster said.
"Of course, my pretty," Elijah answered. "Your brood will be most pleased with the Last Kingdom, I'm sure."
Their conversation faded into the distance as the crowd moved out of earshot, into the central chamber at the center of the mesa. Horowitz glanced silently at Donovan, whose expression was enough. Without another word, they broke into a run up the tunnel and away from the lair.
Tuesday - 9:27 a.m.
"This is a mistake, Jebediah," Nicodemus pointed out for the fourth time.
"Silence! I've tolerated your insubordination for the last time, 'nephew.' I'll see the heads of those benighted redskins on poles, every damned one of them, if we have to march into Hell itself. Besides, once we hold the power plant, we hold the town."
Nicodemus shrugged, and went back to flipping through his deck of cards. Now wasn't the time to challenge Jebediah's power. Not yet. Nic had never been convinced that Elijah was anything more than insane. Not that he was worried about working with the mentally ill. Some of his best friends were crazy. Speaking of which...
Armitage? Where are you? Nicodemus wasn't sure whether to be relieved or nervous that the voice in his head (the newest one, anyway) had died away. Was the manitou on some special mission, or had the chaos that engulfed Gomorra finally destroyed it? Nicodemus would have welcomed the latter, but suspected the former.
"Strike! Now!" Jebediah screamed suddenly. His followers, and the Lost Angels remaining in town, were struck dumb for a second, but then slowly lurched into motion.
In the morning light, something soared overhead - a twisted, bloated figure of pale green. It struck down, straight as an arrow, at Jordan Caldwell. Screaming, she unleashed a volley of bullets into it, but it was undeterred, and slammed into her, driving her into the ground. Nicodemus, stunned, watched as the attacking ghost yanked Caldwell's spirit from her body and tore her ethereal form apart.
"Oh, that's not good." Nicodemus muttered. Squinting, he was just able make out the true form of the spirit that had attacked Caldwell. "Cousin Malrog?" The spirit-being looked up. Yes, it was definitely Malrog Whateley. Through the blank stare, he could almost see a glimmer of recognition. Instinctively, Nicodemus summoned a hex to mind as the spirit threw itself forward at him...
...and was blasted into a thousand slithering pieces of mist as a bolt of energy slammed into it from ahead. Glancing to his left, Nicodemus saw the tattooed freak, Gnosis, the barrel of his gizmo-gun smoking and leaking a pale yellow liquid onto the ground. The Whateley scion tossed off a mocking salute of thanks, then paused as a white nebulous mass formed behind the Lost Angel.
Seeing the look on Nicodemus' face, Gnosis spun to find another spirit glaring down at him, its eyes sharing the same dull Whateley stare. The new spirit swept out at Gnosis with a gaseous tentacle, sending him flying across the street, then swept up a half-dozen Angels and sucked them slowly but inevitably into its mass.
Et tu, Enoch? Nicodemus pondered. He could now see other Whateley spirits rising about them. Dear departed Ezekial staggered through the ranks of the Angels, striking them down one by one. Moses stalked their ranks as well, crushing them and leaving behind their broken remains. Then, behind the spirits, Nic caught sight of a flesh-and-blood Indian, his eyes burning with infernal fire. Then another, and another, until there were more than he could count.
"How!?!" Jebediah screamed, "Where did those thrice-damned Sioux get this kind of power?"
Nicodemus wasn't sure that this power was entirely Sioux. The shards of both Caldwell's and Malrog's spirits drifted up into the air, then flowed northeast as if carried by a strong ethereal wind. Toward Gulgoleth, he noted.
Other wisps emerged from the dead and dying, and were swept up into the current as well, as Nicodemus finally realized what was happening. Nice work, Elijah, he commended. Let us kill each other off, then claim our spirits as your own. But how did you do it?
Now, the real question: Did Nic care? Tzipporah was already inside the Mad Prophet's Lair, and could be contacted easily enough. She might even be able to kill Elijah before his minions shredded her where she stood. But ultimately, would it matter? And even if it did, was it a foregone conclusion that Elijah's plan would result in the total devastation that Jebediah wanted so badly?
I believe I'll let this one ride, he decided, turning to leave. Death held no terror for him, but dying to be part of a spirit battery for a religious zealot was not on his agenda. "Where are you going?" one of the Lost Angels screamed at him. "Stand and fight, Whateley, or I'll kill you myself!"
"Mallory, isn't it?" Nicodemus asked off-handedly. "I believe this is for you." A card spun off the top of his deck of its own volition, cutting through the air and into her throat. The impact threw her back and off her horse. She landed, hard, on the bloodied earth, her spirit already rising into the ethereal stream.
That had to hurt, chuckled Nicodemus. Tipping his bowler to her raging spirit, he stepped over the body and headed for Gulgoleth. The time of Elijah's "Last Kingdom" must be close, and maybe he could reach it in time to see the fireworks.
Tuesday - 9:51 a.m.
"The time to strike is now, Brigadier-General," Kerry insisted. "Father Terrance says that we can't wait any longer."
Patterson observed the gunfighter carefully. "You also said the explosives will go off at the top of the hour. Why not let the blast do the job? We keep them bottled up, and the explosion brings the mesa down around them."
Arizona Jane practically stamped her feet in frustration. "We don't know that the explosives will even dent those ruins. Besides, Elijah's followers might already have found them. We can't take the risk."
Killer Kerry nodded her agreement. "She's right. The Union forces were hit the hardest, a couple days ago, and you wouldn't work with them anyway."
"Quite right, madam!"
"...our men are holding the town, and the Sheriff's men are... restraining the looters. The Collegium are working for themselves now, or so I'm told, and the Sioux are busy with Elijah's remaining followers in Gomorra. That leaves you."
Patterson considered her words, but his thoughts were interrupted as an unearthly howling flowed through the air. "Whaaatt?!?" he exclaimed, glancing up as a ghostly white stream of energy drifted through the air, from Gomorra toward Gulgoleth.
"Hellfire and damnation!" he bellowed. "Ladies, that's enough for me. Sergeant Slade! Front and center!"
The Sweetrock women stepped aside as the Harrowed underling staggered forward. "Looks like he bought it," Jane whispered to her companion.
"Quite a while ago, too," drawled Kerry. "Uh oh!"
"What do you mean, 'uh...'?" Jane asked, turning to follow Kerry's line of sight. "Oh. Uh-oh."
An army of the dead marched north from Gomorra, some clad in the tattered remains of Confederate uniforms, most in common street clothes. Jane thought she'd seen some of them walking the streets of Gomorra over the last year or so. before the undertakers had hauled them off to Elephant Hill. "Ah. My reinforcements have arrived. Excellent!" Patterson exclaimed triumphantly. "Ladies, I'd suggest you step back. This is man's work."
Slade raised a bugle to his lips and tried to suck in a breath of wind. He only partially succeeded, as more air hissed out of the gaping holes in his chest than into the horn. Still, the signal went out loud enough to be heard across the field, and the lurching corpses fell into ranks behind Patterson's human commanders.
"He's just as crazy as they say he is," Kerry said.
Jane looked as nervous as Kerry had ever seen her. Who knows? Maybe crazy's just what we need right now, she thought.
Tuesday - 9:58 a.m.
Enrique never planned to leave Elijah's lair alive: the mission was suicidal from the start. His duty was to the Church, and he had accepted it gladly. But he intended for his death to mean something.
Elijah was consumed with the ritual at the moment, leaving his personal safety to Cain and Abel, who never left his side. Sister Mercy also remained nearby, and the sultry Whateley gunslinger kept a respectable distance, watching the spectacle in silence.
Elijah looked up, out of the hollow mesa and into the morning sky. "Lord God Almighty," he rasped, raising his hands into the air, "give your power unto me!" As if on cue, a white column of energy pierced the sky and engulfed him. Everyone in the room knew to expect a display of power, but this image was stunning, and they withdrew from the searing energy, even though it gave off no heat. Cain and Abel fell prostrate on the floor, their arms outstretched in reverence to the power of their Lord, though Alonso knew that this display had nothing to do with the Divine.
The Prophet chanted in some language that even Enrique, for all his schooling, didn't recognize, then suddenly paused. "SISTER MERCY!" he cried out. "ATTEND ME!"
The Lost Angel stepped forward. "Brother! What can I do in this, your moment of transcendence?"
Elijah smiled proudly upon her. "YOU CAN. DIE!" With a casual motion, he reached forward, thrusting his hand into her chest. There was no mark, no sign of ripping or tearing: Elijah's hand simply passed through the skin and yanked back with a grisly ripping noise. His fist throbbed and Alonso, only now working through his shock, realized that he had torn the woman's heart clear from her chest!
For a silent, impossible moment, Winters stared into her leader's eyes, then crumpled slowly to the ground. "BROTHER ENRIQUE! ATTEND ME!" Alonso froze. The silence in the room was palpable, and Alonso knew that his time had come. If he were to make his mark, it would have to be now. Reaching into his robes, he clasped the pistol he'd smuggled into the lair and...
...fell backward as the entire mesa was rocked to its very foundations. Artillery fire, Alonso noted. Father Terrance to the rescue!
Tzipporah, sensing things were falling apart, ran for the entrance and disappeared up the tunnel. Cain and Abel rose, only to be knocked to their feet again as Elijah's precious "Sabtabiel's Remains" exploded outward into the heart of the mesa.
Perhaps today isn't such a good day to die after all, thought Enrique, as Cain and Abel dove forward, into the pillar of white light surrounding Elijah. There was a flash, and they were gone, vanished. Elijah himself was fading, as if he was slowly winking out of existence, and Enrique thought he saw the Prophet glance knowingly in his direction.
I suppose, if it's the only option, he thought, diving after the Angels. As he hit the white light, he felt a shock of intense pain and then nothing, absolute numbness, as he was lifted up and away from the fireball that consumed the mesa's center. One second, Sister Mercy's body lay on the ritual site, torn and bloodied, and the next it was reduced to so much ash and blown away, rolled into the fierce blast.
Alonso felt himself lifted up, his body now completely weightless. Am I dead, he wondered. Is this... Glancing up, he saw Elijah, Cain, and Abel. More to the point, he saw through them as they rose through the devastation, rocks harmlessly passing through them and fire licking harmlessly at their transparent images.
"Do not fear, my son," Elijah said to Alonso. The Prophet's voice was uncharacteristically soothing and warm. "We are at the cusp of a new world."
"But," Enrique asked, more with his mind than his voice, "the ritual failed."
Elijah smiled. "Far from it, Enrique. You are very nearly ready to understand the truth. Very nearly, and yet a lifetime away."
Torn between survival and duty, Enrique did as he was asked, and found that the horrors of the real world paled to those in the one beyond. His silent, spiritual cries tore through the heavens.
Tuesday - 10:00 a.m.
The horde of Angels came soaring out of the mesa entrances, descending onto the approaching horde of walkin' dead. Patterson, in the lead, parried the thrust of a flaming sword and stabbed beneath it, causing the blonde "angel" who struck at him to backpedal furiously before collapsing into his kin.
"Men or angels, kill them all!" Patterson screamed, and the undead surged forward, grabbing at anything foolish enough to pass within their reach. Artillery shells flew through the air overhead, impacting on the mesa walls. The best placed attacks garnered minor avalanches, which rolled off the cliff side and clouded the battlefield, shrouding the warriors in a haze of brown.
Moments later, the scene was shaken by a huge explosion from within the mesa. Everyone on the field - dead, living and angelic alike - froze in their tracks as huge gouts of flame shot from every entrance into the central Gulgoleth mesa. Fallen who were close to the mound's cavern mouths were lost in the blast, incinerated where they flew. Rocks and debris rained down onto the final battleground, crushing angel and soldier alike.
Patterson wheeled his horse around and kicked it to a gallop, yanking the reins hard to avoid a massive boulder rolling off the mesa foundation. He watched the skies above him, searching for an angel moving with purpose. When he found one, he followed it, ordering neighboring troops to follow, and picked up the pace to keep up with it. As he suspected, the creature rode through an opening in the debris, then soared up and out of sight.
Buggers have their uses, he mused grimly. The Brigadier-General wheeled his horse around just as the mesa let forth a final, lingering groan and collapsed inward, caving in upon itself. More rock and debris flew out, killing the survivors too bold or too stupid to steer clear of the area. It took nearly a minute, but when it was over, Gulgoleth was a pile of rubble on the field.
Tuesday - 11:03 a.m.
From his temporary command post, Patterson surveyed the smoldering ruin of Gulgoleth with dismay. He had sustained massive casualties among his undead soldiers, who, for the most part, were too slow to make it out in time. Not that he missed them personally, but without their support, the Confederacy was vastly outnumbered by the other forces in Gomorra. So much for military conquest, he concluded.
Sergeant Slade was missing in action, but the man was a survivor. The Brigadier-General had a team searching for him now, though he was half inclined to believe the man would make his own way home. His adjutant would be back at his side shortly, of that Patterson had no doubt.
Dexter Simpson had been in contact via the gadget that Zarkov and Miss Harris had built, vouching the Rangers' complete support, but Patterson was sure that the covert operatives were against him. Especially now that they knew of his "secret weapon", he was sure he'd made another enemy.
Sighing, Patterson turned away from the battlefield. Only one thing left to do, he noted. "Ladies," he said, mustering what little 'Southern charm' he could as he approached the Sweetrock gunfighters, "Miss Kerry, Miss Jane. My apologies. I hope you can understand how heavily this defeat weighs on my soul."
"Not a defeat," Kerry corrected him. "Elijah is dead, buried under tons of rock. The Lost Angels have scattered. And, unless I miss my guess, you're the hero of the hour - with a little help from us frontier folks, that is."
"Perhaps. But you must understand that from my perspective, and more importantly, that of my superiors, this whole campaign has been a loss. What's left for Dixie Rails to occupy? Several tons of unstable rubble that'll be burning for years. We've neither the manpower nor the resources to salvage anything of use from this."
"True. But Union Blue won't get it. Neither will Hellstromme, Kang, or Devlin."
"Well, there is that, isn't there?" Patterson admitted. "In any case, ladies, I must take my leave. My thanks for your assistance, and tender my regards to Mr. Baine. I shall look forward to meeting him when things have settled down." With that, Patterson tugged at his uniform, climbed atop his horse, and began the ride back to Gomorra.
"Well, that went about as well as could be expected," commented Jane.
"Yep. Sweetrock holds most of Gomorra, we've got the resources close at hand to salvage Gulgoleth without much outside help, and we're still on good terms with the Sioux."
"You really think that's the last we'll see of Elijah?"
"I hope so, Jane. But this is the second time we've had this conversation, now isn't it?"
Epilogue - Tomorrow
Megan Mallory woke with a start, bolting up to a sitting position in the clutching mist. The ground felt clammy beneath her palms, and she recoiled from the oddly slick surface she was resting on. Instinctively pulling herself into a fetal position, she rocked back and forth, her eyes adjusting to the sudden darkness around her.
Where am I, she wondered. The last thing I remember... Her hand flew to her throat and she swallowed, just to check, then pulled her hand back in horror, not believing what she felt there. It's not possible.
"Are you alright?" Mallory jumped at the unexpected voice in the freakish wilderness, reaching for her gun and twirling on its source, only to come face to face with a little girl of perhaps nine, dressed in a soiled white dress and matching bonnet.
"That's not gonna work," the child giggled.
What the Hell is a little girl doing in a place like this? she wondered, re-holstering her weapon. "What's your name?"
"They call me Lily."
"Alright, Lily," Megan said, as calmly as she could manage. "Where are we?"
"You don't know?"
"I... just arrived. I'm a little dazed."
"We're in Heaven."
Megan tried to blink away her confusion. "What?"
"All good souls go to Heaven," Lily chimed, laughing and dancing through some twisted childhood sing-along. "My uncle told me so."
"Your uncle? Who's your uncle?"
Lily stopped and stared blankly at Megan again. "The Prophet. Elijah."
"Oh, God," Mallory sighed.
"Precisely," came a second voice through the mist.
"Who's there?" Mallory called, her hand back on her pistol, just in case. Too slowly, a figure crept through the mist, a man in his fifties wearing suspenders and a short-brimmed, miner's hat. He looked harmless enough, but Megan could make out more silhouettes just behind him, approaching her, so she kept her hand where it was.
"My name's John," the newcomer said, offering his hand in greeting. When he spotted her stance and the position of her hand, he added, "We're all friends here."
"You afraid, John?" Megan smiled. Maybe it will do some good after all.
The miner laughed. "No, of course not."
"None of us are afraid here," another man said, exiting the mist, a robust figure with an attractive shock of platinum blonde hair.
"Not anymore," another voice continued, this one female and known to Mallory.
"Mercy? Is that you?" the gunfighter called into the mist.
"None other," the Angel responded, stepping into sight. It was her - Sister Mercy Winters - but her chest was splayed open, a gaping hole where her heart should be.
"Oh God! What happened?" Megan gasped.
"I was chosen," Winters answered. "As were you."
"I wasn't chosen! I was murdered! By that demon-huckster, Nicodemus!"
"Regardless, you're home now. And our being here means that the first step has been taken."
"First steps? Toward what?"
"Look around you," John said. "Can't you see? It has begun."
"What?" Mallory asked, noting that the mist was falling back from the small circle to reveal more and more of the surrounding landscape - and ring after ring of the dead. Elijah's Deadly Sins and his guardian pets, Flim and Flam, an albino Collegium chemist, a ritually scarred African warrior, a hulking, drooling gunslinger with a red and white poka-dot scarf, missing the backside of his skull.
There are hundreds of them, Megan's shocked mind registered. Maybe thousands. The mist was consciously withdrawing now, exposing the local terrain, a vast, gnarled bog - and the base of something that extended well out of sight above, a towering tree which looked to be hundreds of feet across and decaying from the roots. On the boughs above, she could hear voices, whispering cries on the wind, and raging, angry replies.
And she could see lights, waning on the upper branches, dancing around shadows and tricks of the light. In a moment, one of the lights fell, fading as it approaching the roots, its voice singled out and shrieking in terror for a brief moment, then silent as another figure appeared on the twisted plain below.
"Every time one of them dies, or anyone in the Gomorra Valley dies, we grow stronger," John said, holding his hands up to the gathering throngs on the plain. "Soon, there will be too many of us, and too few of them, and we will spill out into their world."
Megan, too stunned for words, stood frozen with horror, even as the numbness of death took her a second time. "The end is here," John finished. "The Last Kingdom has arrived."