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High Noon The Man with the Grinning Shadow
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Short Story

The Man with the Grinning Shadow

By Jared Rosen

“You the marshal?”

Lore

“You the marshal?” the river man said, his features an unreadable patina of lowland dust and dried bottlebrush needles, caked together by mud from the bottom of an old lakebed. He stood in the doorway of Lucian HighNoonCircle Lucian's private train cabin, small and large at the same time, dressed in gold-panning rags that had been picked from a dead claim jumper on the outskirts of Progress.

The river man didn't breathe in or out. Didn't have to.

Lucian had heard about them before, the river men, but never seen one up close. They needed moisture or they'd dry out, never venturing far from the mudholes and gulches they spawned in. If a traveler was unlucky enough they’d try to fill a flask with a river man's putrid water, or dig a pan into the silt where one lived. Without warning, it would snap up like an alligator, pulling you into the suffocating muck with wide, earthen arms, and just like that you were gone. Another ghost of the Old West.

“Not anymore,” said Lucian.

Lucian looked at the river man and the river man looked back, the gunslinger comfortably resting against the floral draperies of his cabin. Flecks of light occasionally entered through the curtains as their train rattled along, illuminating the river man's dark, piscine eyes, nearly hidden beneath the earthen cracks in his face.

“I want your badge,” he said.

Lucian nodded. A federal's badge would get the thing past Fort Nox, away from its government monster hunters, and down by way of caravan to the mangrove swamps just south of Bandle. Probably thought it could take up shop there, now that more and more east coasters were settling the low desert. Didn't make the creature's gamble less desperate, but Lucian appreciated when the stakes were clear.

“Must not be many of you left,” said Lucian.

“Ain't too many of anything left,” said the river man.

The boxcar's springs clicked once as they compressed against a couplet of uneven rail lines, and in the instant that the cabin shifted, the river man spread his arms wide, the mud on his face giving way to dozens of needle-sharp teeth as great spines burst from his shoulders. Before the springs clicked again a gunshot rang out, a thin ray of hellfire erupting through the side of the train and into the setting sun, and before the river man hit the floor Lucian's sidearm was already back in its holster.

The creature's head, split down the center and burnt beyond recognition, smoldered with the faint scent of sulfur and blackthorn. Its body contorted on the ground, flame roasting its membranes from the inside, and Lucian straightened his hat as he leaned back into the darkness of his room. The darkness shuddered softly around him, and smiled.

No one came to check on Lucian. No one came to take the dessicated body of the river man. The two traveled in silence together, door open, all the way down to the last stop at Angel's Perch.

And then out to the preacher who spoke with the dead.

Progress had been alive with whispers that this was the lawman what tangled with the devil and lost, and now he was headed up to New Eden to meet with the holy reverend. Both were ill portents in the Old West, so nobody would deny the aims of the man with the grinning shadow. They didn't need another Twin Reeds or Redriver, entire towns swallowed up and gone with some foul twist of happenstance. They needed Lucian out of their settlement and fast, and would give him anything he needed with all speed.

This had been the game ever since his last job with the federals, when they'd sent him out to reckon with the devil himself and drag him back to civilization. They would ‘put the devil on trial’—or that was the play, at least—and prove to the world that the frontier was safe to claim.

Of course, Lucian knew there wasn't just one devil, but the public thought better in singulars. He’d seen how the desert was crawling with strange creatures from every end of the world: Tahm Kench OriginalSquare demons in clean pressed suits, Kayle OriginalSquare angels holed up in mountain crags, witches and ghosts and Skarner SandscourgeCircle all manner of Kog'Maw SonoranCircle beast that might cloak itself in moonlight and tear an unsuspecting pilgrim to ribbons. The western natives and their alien weaponry; the skull-faced colossi who fed on ripened flesh; Blitzcrank OriginalSquare the mechanical men built by Viktor OriginalSquare human hands, long gone rogue. And always, always devils.

This Thresh HighNoonCircle devil, though, was different. He went by many names—The Reaper, The Slaughter God, Old Turnkey, and Great Horn. He collected souls, or so the stories said, and went from town to town conducting his dark business, tearing the spirits out of the living and leaving their flayed skins behind. A creature of the Old World and demon of the wild frontier who, like his kin, sated his terrible hungers on an endless river of fresh-faced pioneers. Enough so that folks were starting to take notice, and for a government aimed on expansion, folks taking notice was bad for business.

Three marshals were dead at his hands, all told. Lucian had known two of them.

“They call it Thresh,” his handlers revealed. “Think you can catch him?”

Lucian looked over the sketches, noting the monster’s brazen, bovine skull, alight with the flames of all seven hells. He figured the lantern hanging curiously nearby was the source of its power, and if he could get in a clean shot, the fight would be over before it started.

Yet it was never that easy with devils, especially devils with a federal bodycount. He remembered tangling with a particularly nasty Hecarim HighNoonCircle specimen near Chuparosa that moved with the speed of a desert storm, kicking up whirlwinds as it went. It was too fast to hit with a bullet, and if it hadn’t been for the timely intervention of his partner, Lucian might not have made it out alive. This hunt required backup.

“Not alone,” said Lucian. “I’ll need Senna OriginalSquare Senna.”

“Last stop, Angel’s Perch,” the conductor uttered, so gently it was almost a whisper. The heat of the journey had shriveled the river man’s corpse nearly into rawhide, but in the long shadows of the cabin a worse creature had perched itself upon Lucian’s seat.

It was smoke and fire, teeth and flames, its arms the artillery of a demon general cast up from the bottom of the abyss. It had the rough shape of a man, were a man made from campfire ash, with the glowing sigil of the federal marshals inverted upon its breast. Its legs were the incinerated spires of ancient, burning elms. Its red heart pulsed with the rage of all the earth.

“God,” spoke the conductor, not knowing which god he was invoking. The thing stood on its curious, spindling legs, leaning against the train’s still air. Its face seemed to peel apart, mouth broken in horrific ecstasy, as hellfire illuminated a ragged, mocking grin.

In that moment the ash fell away, and Lucian stepped out from the darkness.

“Sorry, friend,” he spoke. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”

The conductor quivered in silence for a long while before Lucian brushed past, down the steel halls of the cabin car and out into the twilit evening. He figured the man would make a good story of it.

Angel’s Perch. A boomtown at the edge of civilization, where the trees grew tall and the air was thick with the scent of honey and wine. No one knew what lay beyond the ring of gargantuan pines at the foot of the mountains west of town, but they did know they had enough guns and men to hold off anything the far frontier could throw at them. Or at least they assumed. The creatures who made a home of Angel’s Perch would only reveal so much about what lay beyond, and no other living thing what had ventured that far west had returned sane, or at all.

Lucian made his way through the Perch’s bustling train station and into the center of town, past no less than three snake oil salesmen, each hucking the artificial magic ointments of the industrial east, and Cassiopeia DesperadaCircle a saloon girl with the body of a cobra. Her milky eyes were hidden behind a veil, lest a paying customer turn to granite before they ever sat down to drink.

Near the mouth of main street, beyond the loggers and lamplighters, the general stores and the brothels, and the Ornn OriginalSquare reclusive gunsmith rumored to be a fallen deity, there stood the town’s famed saloon. Popular myth held it had been in business since the founding of the settlement, or perhaps even before. It was called The Earthly King: be you man, woman or beast with a fate to outrun, its kingdom was open to you… as long as you had cash to spare.

It was, in many ways, the kind of place where a man might lose himself. But Lucian didn’t have much of himself left to lose, always feeling the tug of invisible strings against the weight of his soul, the shadow grinning behind him. He couldn’t stay for long.

Humans had little knowledge of settlements in the far west, and creatures living in town wouldn’t spill their precious secrets without a fight. The natives, if they spoke at all, would never reveal anything about anything, the few who tolerated settlers busying themselves with their strange machines.

Lucian had to rely on friends. Most could have been counted among the federal marshals, but they didn’t take kindly to demons, and like it or not that was what Lucian was fast becoming. He had to reach even further back, before the government contracts and the cobblestone streets of St. Zaun, to his days as a brash young gunfighter for hire. There he’d met many friends who lived and died with a revolver in their hand, but one figure remained as steadfast and obstinate as always, too big to kill and too old to die. He wasn’t a man per se, but he’d been fighting long before the first ships landed on the continent, and would probably be fighting long after everything else was dust and whispers.

Lucian stepped through the wide-set doors of the King and, for a moment, the bar grew quiet as its unsightly patrons sized up the harrowed stranger. “I’m looking for the longhorn,” he said, and they at once turned back to their card games and beer, the high shrill of an out of tune piano crashing against a dozen incomprehensible hoots and hollers.

Lucian soon spotted the longhorn at the far end of the bar—his massive bulk was hard to miss, even amid the carousing of the King’s clientele. Despite his frame he liked to keep to himself, though it was not uncommon for cocky young fighters to call him out over some perceived slight, hoping to down the beast for fame and glory. This never ended well, and more nights than not a boisterous challenger would have their skull pulverized with a single, swift butt to the head.

Alistar LonghornCircle Alistar was a minotaur, easily ten feet tall and six feet wide. If you picked a fight with him, you got what was coming.

“Longhorn,” said Lucian.

“Marshal,” replied Alistar.

“I’m making my way to New Eden,” said Lucian.

“Aren’t we all,” replied Alistar, as Lucian sat beside him.

Alistar was old, now—few of his kind remained, and he would no doubt outlive them all. He spent his days as a glorified thug for other, weaker creatures, and his nights on a bar stool built for beings half his size.

The pair gazed solemnly ahead. Not a man came to Angel’s Perch without a reason, and fewer still walked through the doors of The Earthly King unless that reason was dire. It was the drinking hole of renegades and dead men, a drain where the aimless slowly circled downward, and those seeking a final battle spilled their coin before vanishing into the wilderness.

Lucian was heading deep into the uncharted northwest, where no trains ran and vicious gods walked among the trees, seeking a rumor on borrowed time.

Both knew the stakes, and the favor, though none had been asked.

“What do you think she’ll say?” asked Alistar. “When you get there.”

“I don’t know,” answered Lucian. “I don’t rightly know.”

The longhorn sighed into his drink, a thick aluminum tankard about the size of a child. He never had liked long goodbyes.

“Let me draw you a map.”

Lucian had first met Senna at the end of a gun—her gun—during a bloody shootout in one of Buzzard Gulch’s most squalid drinking parlors. Not that shootouts in Buzzard Gulch were uncommon, but this one had involved some fool bounty hunter drawing on an Outsider with his back turned. It got ugly.

Tahm Kench OriginalSquare The Outsiders, so they claimed, were from everywhere and nowhere at once, creatures in clean pressed suits whose love of gambling had made them infamous among outlaw clans and desperate homesteaders. Beating one meant riches beyond compare, conjured from nothing and guaranteed by an Outsider’s wax seal—itself worth a small fortune. Losing was another matter, as they accepted no wager less than a man’s most deeply cherished possession. Farms, watches, children, souls… a favorite knife—the bet was always steep, even if you didn’t know it yet.

Rumor had it this specimen had beaten Urgot HighNoonCircle Jeremiah James, a millionaire railroad baron Lucian had once done small jobs for. Jeremiah was a giant, and a mean one at that, who’d posted a sky-high bounty the moment he lost whatever dire prize he so foolishly put up for collateral—enough to bankrupt him twice over.

And as almost every gunfighter knew, once a reward swung out of the piss-pot, gully stabbing, prairie-shotgun-ambush fare of Buzzard Gulch’s wanted board and into the realm of jilted industrialists, bounty hunters would come calling. The whole lot of them loved money and killing, and not much else.

The hunter drew with little warning, and instantly the room went quiet. The Outsider sipped his whiskey with a calm that suggested the absence of all intent. Senna, a handful of federal marshals and Alistar LonghornCircle the longhorn were present, among the town’s usual collection of Jhin HighNoonCircle heavily armed scoundrels and Yasuo HighNoonCircle murderers. Everyone waited to make a move.

“Now, friend,” the hunter cooed, her voice sugar tinged with blood, “I know you’ve got what I came for. Turn it over, and everybody walks out the way they came in.”

The Outsider said nothing—his face was as placid as a porcelain doll, unmoved and unperturbed by the threat of his assailant’s twin six-guns. He’d known she was coming the whole time. Probably knew before she even took the job. But in the heat of the low sun, plied with drink at the edge of the world, it was hard to tell who was itching for a fight, and who was just bluffing.

The hunter broke the silence with a bullet, and a heavy round exploded from her pistol and into the center of the creature’s chest. The Outsider’s body billowed outward, the hole rippling black smoke in the shape of crows, and from the smoky mass a great, vicious claw burst into a table of Twisted Fate HighNoonCircle poker players. Cards, chips, and searing blood sprayed across the room as the hunter started unloading.

Lucian drew on the hunter, the marshals drew on Lucian, and the longhorn tore through the bar to get as many pieces of the action as time would allow. Every gun in the place lit up, and as bullets ripped through fastgun and marshal alike, Lucian took cover behind a pool table—where he found himself in quite a different predicament.

“Hello, stranger,” said Senna, her gun squarely aimed at Lucian’s forehead. Her eyes were the color of a gentle prairie, mottled with specks of black, and Lucian almost forgot he was speaking into a loaded firearm.

“Ma’am,” he replied.

“I assume you choose to associate with these upstanding individuals?” she asked, as the lead-riddled body of a barkeep collapsed limply beside them. Black smoke drifted softly out of his mouth.

“Some of them,” Lucian answered.

Senna ducked as another shell ripped past the backside of the bar, taking a chunk of a pool table with it. The motion was so quick Lucian almost didn’t see it—then again, he’d never seen anyone dodge a bullet. Certainly not with such confidence, and Senna had plenty to spare.

She smiled warmly, her badge glinting in the light. The star of a chief marshal, one of the deadliest quickdraws in the known world.

“Well, to each their own,” she grinned, gingerly confiscating Lucian’s pistol. “Don’t worry, I’ll give it back… if you’re not dead when this is over.”

And with two quick shots from cover, she swung back into the fight, leaving Lucian wondering what had just happened.

The rest of the shootout was a blur. At one point Miss Fortune CowgirlCircle the bounty hunter ripped some sort of oil-soaked object from the Outsider’s roiling body and ran out the saloon doors, and the creature went screaming after her. With most of the clientele dead and nobody left to shoot, the survivors went across the street to finish their drinks. Buzzard Gulch never found itself wanting for corpses or liquor.

It was there, the marshals like to say, that Lucian decided to hang up his hat and hunt monsters for the government.

Though they’ll also mention it was less about saving people from beasts, and more about a pretty girl who dodged a bullet with a smile.

Alistar LonghornCircle The longhorn’s map had been useful, if sloppy. Lucian had followed it on foot for what seemed like a hundred years, further north from Angel's Perch than most living souls would ever dare to venture. Here colors seemed more vivid, the air itself breathed with strange magics, and when Lucian drifted off, he could swear gargantuan creatures lurked just beyond the edge of his vision, watching. Yet Lucian did not feel afraid. He made camp as the sun dipped over the horizon, and steeled himself. The shadow grew strongest at night.

He would sense its evil dragging him downwards, pulling him out of himself. Soon Lucian’s skin would itch and flake away, his mouth twisted into a hungry grin. He would feel the flames, hear the demon whisper in his own voice. He would drown in the crackling inferno of indigo sagelands erupting into a sea of hellfire. And he would feel the anger. The terrible, ageless anger, the shame, the disgust. Hateful bile born the from the darkness of his own soul. Only then would the battle begin—the demon assuming Lucian’s body, while what was left of the man tried to wrestle it back.

Lately, the transformations were beginning to last longer than Lucian liked.

He felt his skin begin to prickle, and watched as it cracked against the cool night air. Lucian rested himself against an old log, as comfortably as he could. His muscles froze in place—awaiting the change, and the struggle, and the promise of morning.

His eyes glazed over. The sky twisted into deep crimson—overtaken by a perpetual sundown, ringed with flame, and the trees around him stood as ghastly totems against thick, otherworldly fog. Only the campfire illuminated the world as it was, the greens and browns of patchy grassland. The change had begun.

Or if not the change, something worse.

Deep in the forest, a train whistle sounded. It rang hollow, a warped and yawning sound that spilled out from the demonic vision’s umber mist. This was something new, a creature Lucian had not prepared to face—and locked in combat with himself, he could not turn or draw. He tried to stand as thick metal legs splintered the primeval woodlands like they were toys, dragging a colossal torso awkwardly behind them. He could not move, nor turn his eyes from the glowing core of hungry coals, or grisly flesh, or smoke from bulbous locomotive valves that lined the shoulders of a long-dead giant.

A devil, Lucian thought. Another devil.

The hulking thing stepped before him, still obscured by fog, and bent its massive legs down until a familiar face leaned into view of the firelight.

“Lucian,” it spoke.

Lucian recognized it—him—instantly. The millionaire, long thought missing or dead, who so many years ago had wagered his own heart in an Outsider’s game of chance.

“Jeremiah?”

The old industrialist chuckled. He was hideously malformed—gone were even the last glimpses of his humanity, replaced instead by infernal steamwork and the gutted skeletons of a dozen ruined cargo trains. His belly swelled with heat of a devil’s furnace, and the campfire between the two travelers seemed to draw towards it, as though Jeremiah were breathing it in.

“I have shed that name, my good marshal,” he spoke, his voice melting over the land as Lucian sat paralyzed before him. “You may call me Urgot HighNoonCircle Urgot now, for that is the name I have taken.”

“I know what you are wondering,” he continued. “Understand that I was laid low in my efforts to civilize this desperate land, and divorced from my plans for a great steel empire. No, I made a mistake of hubris—I took a deal, as you once did… and paid so, so dearly for it.”

The colossus motioned towards where his heart might have been, now nothing but a tangled mass of white-hot copper. The rumors had been true. Jeremiah had died.

“It was not death,” he said, as if snatching the thought from the air. “Though by the time my treasured property was returned, it was far too late to call myself alive. My body was abandoned at the edge of the desert by some… associates… who have come to know the dire price of treachery. Yet as you are aware, there are many devils… and unlike the monster you failed to destroy, I was visited by one with a particularly tantalizing offer.”

Urgot was close now, the campfire pouring endlessly upwards into his stomach. The grinding of a thousand starving gears echoed from somewhere within him, and Lucian imagined a devouring maw, chaining the sky down before swallowing it whole.

“I know you will lose the duel within yourself, marshal. I did. Brought low by my losses I turned to common banditry, and the darkest hollows of my sadly mortal imagination. When you follow me down that trail—and you will—I intend to meet with the creature wearing your body. We have… a great many things to discuss.”

With that, the enormous metal legs pulled Urgot away, until even his illuminated hellmouth disappeared from view. The sky buckled, and broke—bitter sun replaced once more by cold, lightless midnight, and Lucian was alone.

The shadow would claim him soon.

He had to move quickly.

Lucian had been careless.

Forgetting what a devil was, the kind of power one could wield, he and Senna had rushed into an alpine tundra on horseback, determined to take Thresh with a single shot. Lucian was one of the greatest marshals the outfit had ever seen; Senna was the greatest. They were brave, and impetuous, and in love—and Thresh had been waiting for them.

The devil called Thresh HighNoonCircle Thresh was not an ordinary monster of the high frontier. Ravenous and cruel, he had lived for eons before the men of the Old World landed on his continent’s eastern shores.

The cosmic beings who birthed the gods grew old and died, their ancient bodies fell to earth to become the mountains and valleys and primordial seas, but Thresh continued on, his unnatural life sustained by a bottomless, ravenous thirst for destruction. Before spoken word could give shape to his name, all living things knew his face—the skull of a beast, hateful and burning, gazing balefully down upon them. His malice was woven so deeply into his ancient form that it could never be purged, and he walked across the broken bodies of the vast things he had outlived, devouring the souls of their sad and forgotten children.

Lucian didn’t even see his opponent before a razor whip sliced cleanly into his shoulder, knocking him from his mount and crippling his shooting arm. Senna leapt for her lover’s pistol, but she too was struck low by the devil’s power, walls of flame erupting from the earth as laughter echoed from his bleached, lidless skull. His voice rattled within their heads, a deep and primordial howl, and Lucian saw in his mind the beast sinking his blade deep into Senna’s throat. The fight had lasted only seconds, and already Thresh had won.

The devil stood over Senna, flames within his ancient body twisting against the chill air, and he drew a jagged blade from somewhere inside of his ragged, billowing coat. Lucian had seen the skinned corpses of a dozen frontier towns on the way to Thresh’s den, and the piles of twitching muscle where unlucky wagon trains had drawn his hellish gaze. Lucian was prepared for the devil to take him, and always had been—but he would not let Senna share the fate of a young and foolish gunfighter.

And perhaps, momentarily amused after so many years of dark, sumptuous slaughter, that was why Thresh offered him a deal.

Such a simple thing, Lucian had thought. So easy to accept.

His soul for the life of the girl.

Then the shadow took hold, the hate and shame within the young marshal coming alive, hijacking his senses, his body corrupting before Senna’s pleading eyes. The bargain had been struck, the pact sealed. As Lucian’s vision turned to flame, he watched the monstrous devil he had been sent to hunt turn to Senna’s defenseless body—laughing hideously as he ripped out her heart.

Karthus OriginalSquare The holy reverend of New Eden was little known or understood, but the rumors of his supposed power had spread even as far as the eastern territories. A man who could speak with the dead, as many liked to say, though few did survive the pilgrimage into the unexplored northwest to see if the rumors were true. Those who struck out for New Eden never returned—and now, looking down upon the enclave from a nearby hill, Lucian understood why.

Untouched by the elements and unspoiled by the beasts of the forest, the modest church commune was small and thriving, surrounded by bountiful crops and quaint homes that seemed to swell with life. Children ran across dirt roads as shopkeeps and townspeople passed peacefully by, far removed from demons and Outsiders, gorgons and giants, and the machinations of bandit clans that should have long ago picked every building clean. It was a place from a storybook, bright and clean. Lucian wondered for a moment if he had lost the duel with the demon already, and this was his reward.

He descended from the hill, and the villagers turned to see the newcomer in their midst.

“You’ve come to meet the holy reverend?” asked a fresh-faced young man.

Lucian nodded.

“Then hallelujah, stranger,” he smiled. “You’ve come home.”

No town in Lucian’s memory accurately compared to the sights of New Eden. A bakery filled his nostrils with the scent of fresh bread, as young women danced and fiddlers played in the street. Songs of salvation drifted from mead halls that had never for a moment known the Old West’s violent madness. Ordinary people greeted him as he passed by, offering him food and water, asking where he came from and where he was going.

The demon raged inside him, but in the light of day Lucian could overpower it, control it. And there was something about this place that calmed him, in a way he hadn’t felt in a long, long time.

“No one fears death here,” someone spoke. Lucian turned to find a kindly old man, dressed in a modest preacher’s frock, possessing a youthful glint in his now-faded eyes. “A fear of death is a fear of life. We accept death for what it is, and live a life free from the snares of its uncertainty.”

Lucian liked the way the man spoke. His speech lilted softly, like a song.

“I don’t know if I believe that,” replied Lucian.

The man smiled. “Of course.”

He continued on, walking in no particular direction. Lucian followed.

“We live in a land of angels and demons. We see their influence every day, for good or evil, and the calamities they wreak. The world is old, but many of our gods are still alive, watching over their progeny even now.”

He motioned to the center of town, where a picturesque church with white walls and a blue roof stood. The building was immaculate—even the stained glass windows seemed to glow, polished to a radiant sheen. Villagers milled in and out, talking and laughing, as children crowded around their legs. The building could have been erected yesterday.

“And they bestow the faithful with many gifts. The gift of life, the gift of love.”

The man turned to Lucian, a knowing smile upon his face.

“And the gift of death.”

Something rang curiously in Lucian’s ears. It was the way the man said death, the way the sound was shaped by his lips, much like a secret whispered to a lover. The passersby, too, had become still, their eyes closed as if dreaming, and they only opened them again when the odd melody had finished washing over them.

“Meet me inside, when you’re ready,” he said. “They call me Karthus OriginalSquare Reverend Karthus, and I have so much I want to show you.”

The interior of the church was clean and white—its pews were polished, its pulpit modest. Karthus shooed the rest of his congregation outside, and they looked lovingly at Lucian as they passed. Some whispered a passing “welcome,” others clapped their hands together in quiet reverence. To Lucian, New Eden seemed to be a sleeping child that hadn’t yet awoken to the monsters in the world outside its door. The fact that it stood at all was testament to whatever powers Karthus claimed to possess, real or not.

Deep within Lucian, the shadow raged. He once again felt the itch beneath his skin, the flames bubbling up from some dark corner of his soul, and his mouth twisting into a forceful, mocking grin. But something was different—the creature was frightened, and Lucian couldn’t understand why.

“My, my,” Karthus spoke, a smile still crossing his face. “We can’t have that now, can we?”

The reverend picked up a small, black-bound book, emblazoned with the symbol of a golden key. With a gentle wave and some intangible words, the demon was suddenly silenced—but not before Lucian felt something else, something the creature had not done before. It whispered softly in his ear, the low and crackling whimper of a dying fire.

“They are monsters.”

“In a land of angels and demons, I wonder what you will become?” continued Karthus, resting a faded stole over his shoulders. The reverend then motioned for Lucian to kneel before him, and to Lucian’s surprise, he did.

“Why do you fight this battle? What do you have to gain?”

Lucian did not answer. The light had begun to fade, as New Eden’s hopeful music slowly twisted into a strange, lopsided dirge. Karthus nodded slowly, his smile widening, and Lucian kept his eyes locked ahead. A curious skittering echoed from the floorboards behind him. It was a sound he knew well.

“We give so much of ourselves to fear,” spoke Karthus, his voice growing deeper and darker. “And you have given most of all.”

Energies swirled about the old man—luminescent blues and greens in the rough shapes of friends Lucian had lost, things he had killed. They danced against the rafters of the now decrepit church, its paint peeling away to reveal black, moldering rot.

Lucian sensed the presence of at least a dozen shapes behind him. Some were crouched on all fours, others clambered softly over the warped and ruined pews, and still more waited outside the church, their human disguises melting away. Lucian now knew why the town lay untouched, why its people seemed so good and kind: they weren’t people at all. Or if they had been, they’d been dead a very long time.

Lucian’s hands moved slowly towards his pistols.

The reverend now loomed over him, lifting off the ground as he gripped the book with the golden key, his sermon exploding into a rapturous chorus of overlapping voices: “Our souls will be purified in the cool waters of death! Our broken spirits will be repaired, the things we lost shall be returned!”

The creatures behind Lucian crawled forward, slavering and starved, as Karthus floated ever upwards, his arms outstretched, ascending into the musty air. Images of Lucian’s past twirled all around him, men and women whose deaths played out again and again.

A familiar voice brushed against his ear, almost a word, but not.

“Do you hear her?” asked Karthus.

Lucian listened.

The sound was crackling sage, the ashes of a campfire, the striking of a match. It spoke of Senna’s death, and how Lucian had fallen into despair. For years the ruined marshal had wandered from place to place, dead in everything but name and emptied of all joy. As each day had passed, another small, cruel thing filled his mind, and the shadow had grown wild within him, his inner darkness yearning to seize control. Any offer of peace had to be investigated, no matter how dangerous or foolish.

Lucian had heard of a man who could speak with the dead, and gone without question. He had given himself to a shadow that took the shape of his own monstrous hatred, and allowed it to rule him utterly.

Lucian found himself alone with the demon—away from the church, and far from the streets of New Eden. The two stood apart, facing one another, in a moonlit field of white flowers. Lucian could feel the cool air against his skin. He could see the distant lights of a town, high in the mountains, and the moon hanging low in the sky. Beneath the demon the flowers burned, but the creature stood calmly, its face twisted into a familiar, ravenous grin.

Lucian breathed. So much of himself had been lost to the shadow—to Thresh, and the spectre of the unforgiving west. But he still ruled his own soul, half-corrupted as it was, and the shadow was a part of it—a part of him.

It drew closer, slowly, each step burning more flowers away.

Lucian reached out his hand, and the shadow rested a charred limb upon it. It whispered: “Would you cast your enemies into the fire?”

Lucian was silent. His skin crackled at the shadow’s touch, but he said nothing. It already had its answer.

It whispered once more, now in Lucian’s own voice, as its ashen body bonded with his mortal flesh: “Then we will go together.”

“Do you hear the love you have lost?” Karthus sang.

Lucian drew his pistol. “No.”

His arm elongated, stretching into the hellish cannon of the demon within him, and a ray of unholy flame ripped through Karthus’s forehead. As the preacher’s body fell, Lucian spun around, melting into shadow as a screaming ghoul leapt at him from one of the broken pews. He fired again, obliterating the creature, and launched a third shot into the crowd of its shriveled, wide-mouthed brethren—the fiddlers and bakers, dancers and farmers now shrunken, twisted, and hollow. The bullet exploded among them, blasting their bodies apart, and at once a swelling sea of horrors flowed in through the doors, windows, and broken cracks in the church’s ruined facade. New Eden had risen to greet him.

Lucian’s body gave way to the shadow, and it lifted its arms high as a stream of liquid fire tore through the crowd of monsters. The demon shrieked with joy, its voice melding with Lucian’s own, and it soared into the air as hellfire sprayed in every direction. Burning wood fell from the ceiling as shots tore outward through the church’s brittle walls and across the sprawling wastes of New Eden, setting the town alight. Ghouls shrieked in terror, their hordes turned to flee, but the demon was quick—springing through the crumbling roof and into the delipidated streets, firing the cannons of hell into the creatures’ still-open mouths.

Then, Lucian surged outwards from within the demon’s form, its body bursting into ashen mist. He clapped his pistols together as the undead hordes scattered in every direction. Artificial magics woven into the gunmetal bubbled, their intricate filigrees spiraling outward as the barrels hungrily fused. A concentrated beam of light surged from somewhere within them, cutting across the plains as screaming undead melted beneath its fury.

Soon the light faded, and the metal unwound itself as Lucian scanned his surroundings.

He waited. The shadow within him was quiet now. No more ghouls lept from the burning, derelict homes, or rose from the beds of rotten crops. Karthus lay dead as his church collapsed around him, flames consuming even the memory of his fell magic. Though from the corner of his eye Lucian swore he could see the old preacher, grinning among a crowd of New Eden’s townsfolk, as the burning roof finally caved in over their heads.

The former marshal turned back towards civilization and began to walk, the shadow grinning close behind.

He’d been close to speaking with Senna again. Closer than he’d ever been. But Lucian no longer needed the comforts of old rituals and incantation—he would see his love once more, one way or another, the day he was lowered into the dirt. That was the rightful end of a true and valiant gunfighter. Until then, there were terrible things lurking in the darkness, which could only imagine the demon soon to knock upon their doors.

Out there, somewhere in the wild expanses of the great frontier, Lucian had a devil to kill.

References

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