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High Noon With Hell Before Them
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Short Story

With Hell Before Them

By Jared Rosen

June 7th, 1868

Lore

June 7th, 1868

The caravan has delivered me unto Dust.

It is a listless and dead-eyed town, as likely to be swallowed by the desert as any other two-street this far south of the rail line. I recall it was once something quite spectacular back in the days of the Great Expansion, but now there is little left save a filth-encrusted saloon and a handful of sunken homesteads. The people’s faces are weighed down by a certain heaviness—they look to me for some measure of salvation, but I am not a true angel, and I cannot answer their prayers.

I am unsure how long this place might weather the dark of the frontier, or if it will be here to greet me when I return. Regardless, I must press on.

My own goal is east, shadowed by sandstone arches and miles of open backcountry. No man in his right mind would settle in these lands, as dangerously hostile as it is even for the well-prepared, and the quarry I seek is leagues beyond simple bandits or stick-up gangs. To that end, a killer travels with me. Paid half upfront, and half when the deed is done.

He is a towering hulk of a creature, filled with that selfsame darkness endemic to his kind. I can almost feel the heat of his blood boiling within that blackened heart, but he is the quality of man this venture requires. No doubt. No hesitation. Only raw power and instinct. Thus the manhunter Darius HighNoonCircle Darius has joined me in this, our ride into the lonely spines of the Black Canyon.

It is in the depths of that bleak place that we will hunt the devil, and kill him.

June 9th, 1868

It has been two days since we left the town of Dust, and Darius has scarcely spoken a word. His is a grim and unclouded resolve, fueled by some swirling anger clutched deep within his breast. He reminds me strongly of my creators in the east, but moreso of his forebears—men who years ago stormed the gardens of paradise, and slew the things within.

That is the great irony of this endeavor. Ashe HighNoonCircle A machine made in the image of the lost angels and a killer descended from killers, contracted to destroy the very product of mankind’s gravest sin. I am sure my companion is amused.

We ride against the wind, following the scent of brimstone ash, burning hoofprints, and brushlands singed by hellfire. Here the land goes on for a thousand leagues and a thousand more, an endless, open pastiche of dirt, grass, and wild lavender that meets the sky at its middle and continues on into forever. It is a blessed country; I have explored much of it in the time since my birth, and will explore more in the decades and centuries to come, should this shell of a body hold out for that long.

Sadly, the secrets of my creation were long ago lost; I stand the first and last of the artificial angels, fueled by the very blood of the old choirs. Their whispers still reach my ears, but the gods are dead and their attendants lay scattered across the frontier, words shorn of all power or consequence, until they, too, vanish completely from the world. That is why I keep this journal: so that those who remain when the old has been lost might not forget us, and know, at least, our story.

In time my own earthly form will rust and the being within will return to wherever the souls of angels are wont to go, perhaps a long way from here, and I sometimes wonder if, when my days come to an end, I will ever again look upon this land of such agonizing beauty.

June 11th, 1868

We smelled the ranch before we saw it. A two-story farmhouse and horse stable, both rendered down to black, ashen ruins. These are the unmistakable signs of the Hecarim HighNoonCircle devil we hunt: trails marked with smoldering hoofprints and the incinerated bodies of animals and people, scattered about as if some sadistic giant had tossed them through the air before finally delivering them unto oblivion. Each creature’s burnt face twisted upward in horror and fear as they stared into the flames of some distant, devouring hell.

Damn these devils! Foreign horrors all, escaped from their prison of smoke and darkness. Some may have made this place their home; famously the great Thresh HighNoonCircle cattle-skulled stalker of the old world, prowling about this land since the time of the ancient progenitor deities. But the rest dwelt for eons within the bowels of the underworld, torturing the souls of the condemned and delivering pain upon the spirits of wicked and broken men. Then heaven fell in that first, great continental land rush, and paradise was lost to humanity for all of time.

Human souls, compromised as they were, had nowhere left to go but the great grinning maw of the pit.

Yet even hell could not hold all the wailing masses of mankind, and it burst open in a furious upwelling of flames and hatred—the devils finally rushing forth to join their cousins, the long-maligned demons. Those bestial creatures masquerading as snake-oil salesman, carnival barkers, and traveling undertakers, whose preference for plotting cruel and ironic downfalls of the desperate married happily with the newly expanded threat of hellfire and death.

Now heaven is empty, and hell has overflown, and these poor mortal souls can do fair little to save themselves from a damnation of their own making.

Still, Darius seems unmoved by the destruction that so often marks our path. He speaks of his obligation to me and to the success of our venture, yet wonders aloud what a mechanical angel might gain from fighting the long-concluded battle between good and evil. He does not seem ill at ease by my presence, nor does he expect the miracles of the angels to lighten his inner darkness. He seems rather unmoved by almost everything, save the fight ahead and the reward for his victory.

I trust the man, despite my misgivings about humanity. It is a feeling born of pragmatism, and I suspect he trusts me in kind.

I sometimes watch him in the dim hours when we camp for the evening, his eyes always drawn to the glittering coals within the firelight. Searching, perhaps, for something I cannot see.

June 14th, 1868

We have reached the mouth of the Black Canyon, after many days of tracking the black hoofprints of the devil’s dread riders. Darius’ horse refuses to move ahead, and so I will leave my own mount, Virtue, behind, and the two of us will continue on foot. In the end it could work to our advantage. The beasts will not spook this way, and cannot alert our target.

The manhunter carries with him a mighty hatchet, upon its hilt countless notches for countless claimed bounties. A man devoid of emotion is a man incorruptible by fear or weakness, unlike the marshals and their untoward aggression to anything less than human. His eyes are consumed with violent intent, always alert for the slightest sound or movement, even when there is nothing on the horizon—used to, as any seasoned killer is, the unpredictability of supernatural assailants.

The winds are soft, and no sound carries save the crunch of pebbles beneath our feet. Darius asks why a devil would make his home here. I tell him that for a devil, the only better place is hell itself.

We stand amid the bones of a god, slain by men not so long ago.

It was only fifty years prior that the deities who did not retreat into the Far West were hunted mercilessly by the government, gunned down by federal marshals and broken apart by skinners, tanners, and scavengers. The god’s colossal bones, too big for even these greedy men to lift, were left here—the rock quickly forming around them into what cartographers have deemed a canyon, though a canyon it is not.

Darius laughs, and the sound carries across the limestone walls and down into the open belly of the earth. Twisting and contorting, rolling across great slabs of rock as they collapse in upon one another, his voice terminates into whispers and then into nothing—and at this, the manhunter smiles.

How long do you think it took those men to kill a god? he asks me. Before I can answer, he shoulders his weapon, a new hunger apparent upon his face, and marches down the trail, his pace faster than ever before.

June 15th, 1868

Darius is beginning to worry me.

I took the manhunter on for his ruthlessness, but something about this place is awakening the coiled serpent deep within his heart, and now it has given way to even darker intention. He walks with purpose, the hilt of his axe gripped tightly in his hands. When he looks at me now, I no longer see a companion, but a challenger—a man who would split the world in two if only he could muster the strength. What he sees within me is a road to that power, barely holding himself back as the sky falls away and the air grows warm and still.

He mutters in the night about demons and devils, and what their bargains could offer.

Demons give you what you want, he likes to say. Devils give you what you need.

June ?, 1868

The true nature of the Black Canyon reveals itself the further down we journey. Whispers from within my blood grow muted within its vast stone walls, their jagged spines ripping into the rapidly vanishing sky. Dirt and dust have given way to ghostly vegetation—fields of odd white flowers contained within valleys that should not exist, ringed by mountains that defy geologic time. Night and day seem interchangeable with each passing hour, but still we move deeper into the bowels of the rock, and deeper still into the lair of the devil.

Darius grins, now and again, asking of gods and monsters, angels and demons. His questions are fueled by odd tics; he glances behind us as though someone might be there, batting at his ears as if an insect is buzzing about. I watch him carefully as we camp each night. His wild eyes glow as they stare into the burning coals, reflecting embers as they dance upward into the still air, and he interrogates me about the god who died here and how exactly it was slain.

Occasionally, as he sleeps, I will spot the grinning silhouette of an outsider watching us from some distance away. Though those strange gamblers would never test the patience of an angel, I know why they have come, sensing within this killer some vicious longing for an intractable bargain.

Darius is becoming a threat. But the devil is so close now—I can sense it, this thing we must slay… and no living creature can destroy one alone. Surely once the deed is done my charge will regain his proper senses, and perhaps the cloud over this place will finally lift itself forever.

I have prepared myself in the event that Darius turns on me. We need each other alive until we strike into the monster’s lair, but after…

Well, perhaps this man will find himself dead at the bottom of the world.

Or, if fate demands it, all three of us will.

???

I wonder if I will remember my death.

The thought haunts me, at times. I remember my birth quite well—the sensation of being pulled from someplace very far from here, and awakening surrounded by the creaking and clattering of old machines. I was a miracle, I was told. Built from some archaic plan found in a great, silver city, and filled with the essence of the things that had lived there but now do not. Their whispers began to touch my ears, then, and I knew how painful it was to be the first and the last of something I could only half recall.

Yet I know when I die I will remember the devil Hecarim, his skull burning within the canyon’s otherworldly darkness.

My companion had regained himself after we reached the bottom of the crevasse, where the still air broke into a calm wind, and the deep unease that had dogged us thus far seemed to finally dissipate. We found ourselves standing before the mouth of a great opening in the rock, its entrance blasted jet-black as small fires flickered across the ground, and we knew our quarry was finally within reach. The hateful riders, that roving pack of demonic horsemen that seemed to follow Hecarim everywhere, would surely meet us inside. Weapons at the ready, we entered the cave to find—

Nothing.

A dark tunnel lay before us, but the riders did not make their presence known. How long had we prepared? How long had we been down here? It was difficult to say. We followed the path for a time, into the gloom, into the heat of that furnace, lit only by the glow of crackling ash that lined the edges of the cave floor. Far ahead was some sort of clearing, some opening on the other side of the canyon wall, and in it the flickering red-yellow tongues of fire that were the telltale signs of a devil awaiting his audience.

For while we had hunted the devil, he had hunted us in turn. That was and always has been the nature of the creatures. Devils are the great kings of hell, and they demand an audience with the pomp and circumstance of any old world nobility or government man from the eastern territories. Demons may lie, and trick, and deceive. They may give mortals the things they want, and extract their prices once the terrible weight of their gifts is finally appreciated. But a devil is never caught unaware, and is always prepared to give its pursuers exactly the thing they need.

Darius sneered, his eyes lit with the glimmer of so many burning coals, and I knew he had found whatever he saw within the heart of the fire.

We emerged into a barren outcropping of molten stone and searing heat, ringed by a tower of flame that seemed to climb the very walls of the canyon itself. In its center was Hecarim, his body that of a great black stallion and the monstrous torso of a man, wearing the face of a skinless, burning horse skull. From it jutted a single wicked horn, cloaked in thick smoke, and he spoke with the voice of a mountain slowly tearing itself open:

Why have you come?

My companion said nothing. The question was not meant for him to hear, but for me, since his answer had already been given. Perhaps in his sleep, in the recesses in his own dark dreams, or whispered in the echoes of rocks and dust as they crunched beneath our feet in this long journey down. Power, he had said. I must have power. And he turned as if to answer for me, raising his axe high above his head, the weapon glowing with some bedeviled, red-hot flame, that he might bring it crashing down upon me.

Two arrows I did fire into his heart, and two arrows struck true. Darius fell to earth before his pact could be sealed: the power to slay everything before him, given at any cost.

Without a word, the manhunter was dead… or so I believed.

As I drew another arrow against the devil, Darius rose once more, his face twisted into a hateful grin, his axe glowing with the newly gifted powers of hell. And through the flames behind him rode the host of demonic horsemen. Hecarim’s trap had been sprung.

Through the tunnel I fled, up the winding paths of the Black Canyon toward my steed and open prairie. Pursued by the legions of hell, and the blackened heart of that wicked, brutal man. For monsters are drawn to such power, changed by it, made into a force that in time will burn the continent and everything in it to dust.

I ride for the border town of Angel’s Perch. There is Lucian HighNoonCircle a man there, a slayer of devils and an ally of those who once called the frontier home, who can rally the wild soul of such chaotic rabble against the threats allied against them. Perhaps they would not fight for the fate of mankind, who have cast us all into damnation with their lot. But they may yet fight for themselves.

If you have found this journal, I ask that you join us. Our forces muster at the edge of the world. There is precious little time.

Hell is coming. We must rise as one, or lose the west forever.

References

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