The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|“I’ll raise five hundred.”
The gambler slid the chips from the stack before his place to the mountainous pot in the center of the round table. He scanned the faces of his opponents; each one was as blank and unreadable as a stone slab. They were the best damned poker faces he had ever seen. Truly deadpan.
“Call,” said the player to his left, and decreased his stack by the proper amount. His voice revealed nothing; it was flat and inflectionless. He might as well have said, “I’ll raise another five hundred,” or “Fold.” He had said both of those things during the course of this long, high-stakes game.
The next player laid his cards facedown on the table. “Fold,” he said, and his voice, too, was as deadpan as his face.
The player directly across the table from him matched his bet and raised the pot another five hundred. The gambler let nothing show on his own poker face, but this was the point he had been afraid would come. The fellow across the way kept his expression blank as well, but the triumphant gleam in his eyes told the gambler that he knew how small the remainder of his stake was. He was forcing his hand, hoping for an uncontested win.
The next player folded, as did the next.
By the time his turn came back around, only three players were left. He reached into his shirt and pulled out the solid silver locket his sister had sent to him, the one she begged him to bring back to her. Her desire for him to go to that little town she lived in was sweet, but he had no intention of going there. He knew that if he did, she would convince him to stay and keep watch with her for something that was never going to happen. He regretted the necessity, but…
“This is solid silver, and worth twice the call.” His opponent frowned, but when he looked closely at the item, his eyes grew hot with greed. He nodded once, accepting the bet.
The player to his left folded.
The betting round concluded, his opponent laid his cards on the table; he did the same. The cards beyond the pot from him were a full house: kings over jacks. He spread his own cards a bit further apart, so that the faces of all four queens peeked up at him.
The poker face across from him shattered into a grimace of rage. The man sprang to his feet, clawing for the gun holstered at his right side. Before the angry card player had it halfway out, two of the gambler’s bullets drove into his chest.
He stood motionless as the sore loser flew backward, taking his chair along with him, and sprawled on the rush-strewn floor. He lay there staring up at the saloon’s pressed-tin ceiling, his gun clutched unfired in his dead hand.
While smoke wisped from the muzzles of his twin Colts, the gambler’s eyes scanned all around him for other belligerents. Nobody else moved a muscle.
He slipped his guns back into their holsters, removed his bowler hat and held it inverted while he scraped the pot and his own remaining stake into it. His eyes still scanning the room, he went to the bar.
“I believe I’m ready to cash in,” he said to the bartender. He had pocketed his cash and was headed for the door when the man he had killed stood up and took a shot at him.
As he dove out the door, the gambler thought, “Damn. Not again.”
He tucked his right shoulder under as he hit the porch, rolled to his feet and started running. He heard the swinging doors slap the wall as the dead card player – what a sore loser – burst out of the saloon behind him. A moment later, bullets began to whine past. He made a quick right turn at the corner and sprinted toward the Riverest Inn, the hotel where he was staying on his current visit to St. Louis.
She was right all along, he thought, as he ran across the dirt street, dodging the piles of horse dung that lay here and there. Even fleeing for his life, he was careful to keep his boots clean. She tried to tell me, but I just wouldn’t listen. He ran into the hotel and slowed to a more decorous pace as he crossed the lobby. Harris, the desk clerk, was turned to the key cubbies as he came up to ask for the key to his room on the second floor.
He was about to tap on Harris’ shoulder, when the man’s head turned all the way around to regard him from a vantage directly above his spine. His brown eyes bulged from their sockets, and were already beginning to cloud over. He opened his mouth wide and uttered a hissing scream that sent a chill through the gambler’s soul.
From an overstuffed wingback chair by the hearth, a behemoth rose. His brawny arms and thick wrists were evidence enough that he was the one who had twisted Harris’ head around and broken his neck. He himself had a head that lolled precariously to one side and a rope burn around his neck, no doubt artifacts of the hangman’s noose. The gambler drew his Colts and put four slugs of lead into him. They didn’t even slow him down.
He was unprepared for an assault of this kind. He had no suitable weapons. His only hope for survival was improvisation. He looked around for inspiration, and he found it in the clatter and clink from the room next door.
The gambler ducked as Harris tried to grab him. He holstered his guns and ran for the arched entry to the hotel’s restaurant, the hulking Hanged-man right behind him. Dodging between the tables full of patrons and narrowly avoiding a waiter with a tray full of steaming-hot entrees, he headed for the kitchen. As he went, he began to chant in a very old language that was in little use these days anywhere on Earth. His hands began to glow with blue radiance.
Behind him, there was a crash, as the Hanged-man barreled into the tray-laden waiter. Then a shot rang out and a gas lamp in a wall sconce exploded. A jet of flame hissed from the truncated end of the copper gas line. The Sore Loser had arrived, as well. As he dashed through the right-hand door into the kitchen, he counted up the enemies of whom he was aware: the Sore Loser, the Clerk and the Hanged-man. With luck, that ought to be manageable, he thought.
He gestured, and a trail of blue fire followed his fingers. From these trails he wove an intricate knot of blue light, crafting it to serve the purpose he intended. Then, with another gesture, he pushed it away. It sank into a bin full of tableware.
Sore Loser burst through the door, the bark of his gun sharp in the roomful of hard surfaces. The gambler grabbed a steak knife, tested its balance, and with a quick flick of his wrist, launched it into Sore Loser’s throat.
Whereas the lead slugs had done nothing against these revenants, the spelled silver knife blade severed the strings animating the cadaverous puppet. He dropped to the floor. This time, he did not get up again.
The Clerk, who had been a nice man but was now an angry zombie, lunged through the door and hit him with his full weight. Luckily, Harris had been a slightly built fellow; his inertia spun the gambler around, but though he staggered, he did not fall. The Clerk wrestled with him, trying to get his hands around his neck, but the gambler managed to hold him off. With a great shove, he put a little space between them and snatched another knife from his spell-enhanced armory. The Clerk moved back in to grapple with him again. When he came in close enough, the gambler drove the knife into his chest.
While the Clerk’s last grasp still held the gambler, the huge, rough fingers of the Hanged-man closed around his throat. The Clerk fell away, but the behemoth was behind him, squeezing off his air, lifting him up. His boots came off the floor. He wheezed and clutched at the monstrous fingers, to no avail. He groped for his tray of weapons. He needed another knife. Even a fork would do.
His fingers found the edge of the bin; he fumbled into the array of handles, grasped one as the Hanged-man jerked him away. Black splotches were creeping into the edges of his vision as he tried to stab his attacker, but he seemed to have no effect. He inspected his weapon. It was a soupspoon.
He couldn’t reach his silverware bin. He had only one chance. He switched his grip to the cup of the spoon and drove the ornately worked handle backward with all of his remaining strength into the Hanged-man’s face. The Hanged-man shrugged, and the spoon was yanked from his grip. The monster’s grip held fast.
For another long moment, the gambler thought that he had failed. Then, the fingers digging into his throat loosened, and he toppled forward to the hardwood floor, the Hanged-man’s heavy bulk crashing down atop him.
He had a devil of a time getting a breath back into his lungs, and when he did it hurt so badly that he thought his ribs were broken.
He struggled out from beneath the Hanged-man, dead now for the second, and hopefully final, time. The spoon sticking out of the behemoth's eye socket looked like a tiny birdbath. When the gambler regained his feet, he quickly took a handful of steak knives from the silverware bin.
Only then did he look around at the goggle-eyed kitchen staff.
“Oh. Hello, there,” he said brightly as he stepped over the three corpses. He paused at the door, looking back and flashing his most charming smile. “Er… my compliments to the manager. You have very fine silverware.”
A very short time later, he had raided his hidden cache of special implements to supplement the commandeered steak knives, which were secreted in his waistcoat, duster and boots. He tied his packed rucksack behind his saddle. Sadly, a portion of his poker winnings had gone toward repairing the damage to the Riverest Inn. Ah, well...
He mounted Jet, his black stallion, and headed west out of town. His sister had been right months ago, when she’d sent him the locket. Now returned to its place beneath his shirt, it hung by its chain over his heart. It had taken an attack by re-animated corpses before he would even consider that she might have been so. He had actually risked the talisman, so obviously bursting with her energy, in a poker game. He couldn’t believe he had been so blind, so irresponsible… so stupid.
Lily had been the responsible one. She had kept the watch fires burning. And a damned good thing that she had. He had vilified her for insisting that their inheritance be spent on renewing the family’s vigilance and rebuilding their power base. He owed her an apology; he was a disgrace to the family name. When he saw her, she would get it, on bended knee.
I just hope it isn’t already too late, he thought. I’ve allowed him to re-build his strength, when I should have been with her, attacking while he was still weak. If he was animating corpses from halfway across the continent, his power must have already returned to its previous levels, or even increased.
Damn. He couldn’t believe it. Father and Mother’s deaths had been for nothing. Their home had been obliterated for nothing.
Myrddin was still alive.