The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|Leroy Sykes plodded up the mountain trail, just putting one foot in front of the other again and again, heading back to report, like he had been ordered to do. The job didn’t call for much thinkin’, just lookin’ and listenin’. Good thing, too, ‘cause the fog he was walking through was nothing next to the one inside his head. Like the one around the mountaintop, that kept his destination secret from everybody else, the fog in his head never lifted.
Leroy was a man without ideas. He hadn’t had an original thought since the time he had figured it would be a good idea to steal a rich man’s son, and then ransom him back. It had sounded easy; way easier than robbing a bank or a train or even a stagecoach, what with the way they guarded that stuff these days. A man was more likely to get shot than rich doing them things. So, a little kidnapping seemed like it’d be a breeze, ‘specially during all the hoopla of the Centennial.
Might’ve been, too, if it hadn’t been for them damn Burnleys. They killed every one of his gang, and only missed him ‘cause of the man he now called “master”. He heard the call while he had been outside the hideout takin’ a leak. The voice inside of his head that chased out everything else had been too strong to ignore like he wanted to. It had been too strong for anything but obeyin’. So Leroy obeyed.
He had walked away from that shack without even looking back when the shooting started. He didn’t see it happen, of course; he didn’t have to. Master had told him who done it, and damned if them Burnleys didn’t parade back into Rattler’s Fang like they was conquerin’ heroes, and offered up the brat to old man Gadsden.
Leroy had never been much of a one for regrets, and that was a fact. But still, when he thought about the Hanfield brothers, Clay Danvers and old Roscoe Bennett, who had been Leroy’s partner for more years than he could remember, he still felt a touch guilty. That just made him hungrier to get even with them Burnleys once and for all. Soon, now, he would get his revenge. The master was almost ready, almost back to his full strength. It couldn’t happen too soon to suit Leroy.
Though the air became suddenly much warmer, he still shivered as he emerged from the fog onto the bridge that led across the deep canyon that served as a moat for the run-down castle that sat atop the mountain peak before him. The dense mists swirled all around the giant sphere of perfectly clear, warm air that surrounded the big building, though its tallest tower roofs stuck right up out of the clear, the tips of their leaky slate cones disappearing like gap-toothed ghosts into the fog. Even though it was July the first time he had come here, he nearly froze to death by the time he got to this spot. He thought he was seeing the gates of Hell when this damned castle appeared before him. Thinkin’ back on it, mayhap he was right.
He crossed the narrow, arched bridge, staying carefully in the middle so he wouldn’t have to see the long drop below him, and approached the pointed archway in the outer wall. As he passed beneath the spiked bottom of the iron portcullis, Leroy almost wished for the cold to come back: anything to lessen the stink of death from the master’s guards. Two pairs of empty, black eye sockets followed him, and skeletal fingers caressed the grips of the Colts belted around two skinny, starved-looking waists. Dead, these Comanche warriors were better armed than they had been in life. Dozens of ‘em roamed around the bailey like sleepwalkers, with brand new Winchesters clutched in their bony hands.
Another chill that had nothing to do with winter sent a shiver through Leroy. The master’s newest recruits gave him the creepin’ willies. He had probably killed some of these guys himself, back in the Comanche War. The quick stirring of pleasure that came when he remembered some of the fun he had had with them squaws while their menfolk was tied up, watchin’, was shoved out just as quick by the looks the dead men were givin’ him. He had a feeling that some of them remembered him, remembered what he done to their wives and daughters. They sure didn’t seem to cotton to him, anyhow. Not that he wanted anything to do with them, or their walkin’ dead squaws, either.
Leroy mounted the seven uneven steps to the weathered main doors and passed another pair of Injun rev’nants as he entered the darkness of the Grand Hall. He crossed the cracked black and white marble squares and triangles of its patterned floor, polished so smooth by the dead redskin squaws that the flickering reflection of the fifty candles in the wrought-iron chandelier was near as bright as the candles themselves. At the far end of the Hall, the Grand Staircase curved upward. He mounted the steps to the second floor balcony and halted before the guarded entry to the master’s audience chamber.
The Comanches barred the door with crossed Winchesters, but after a long moment they got their silent orders and stepped aside so that Leroy could enter.
The audience chamber was nigh as big as the Grand Hall, with big torches along both sidewalls and a blood red rug running down the center of the polished floor, slicing in half the blue shield with its golden, rearing lion that was laid into the stone.
At the far end of the room was a dais of three steps, on the second of which stood another dead Comanche. This one was different from all the others, and not just because of the big, feathered chief’s headdress he wore. He had eyes like burning red coals that stared a hole right through you. He had a voice, and a skull that was filled with real, working brains. The Yamparika Comanche chief, Ten Bears, had signed the treaty that ended the Comanche War. He tried to make peace with the USA right up to the time he died. The promises all got broken right afterwards, and the Comanches got driven off their homelands. And why the hell not, Leroy had always thought. The white man was stronger. Why keep promises to somebody you can just kill?
Mayhap, he thought now, it was because death wasn’t enough to keep ‘em off your back. The master had raised Ten Bears up from the dead, and he was royally pissed off.
Ten Bears knew Leroy, all right. A third chill raced through him. Damn, he thought, as he felt that hot gaze and an image of himself flashed across his sight: staked out in the hot sun as vultures pecked at his eyes. Not for the first time, he wondered if his revenge against the Burnleys was worth all of this.
Then, like iron to a lodestone, the master’s voice pulled his attention to the throne. Those eyes, like the chief’s but a hundred times hotter, a thousand times more evil, seared a hole into his brain. He almost lost control of his bowels as he was forcibly reminded that he had no choice in the matter.
“What news, then, Leroy Sykes?” The thing on the big black chair was shrouded in black robes; only the red eyes gleaming from the darkness within the hood showed that there was anything alive within. Leroy had seen what was in there, and it was awful to look at. He saw it again whenever he closed his own eyes. He fell to his knees, and this time, the shiver that ran through him did not go away again.
“Th-the g-g-gunslinger is here, m-my lord,” he stammered, his voice quaking along with his spasm-wracked body. “He and the Sh-sheriff rode out of t-t-town together, headed for the B-burnley place.”
The master’s laugh echoed in the chamber like the ringin’ of the church bells at a hangin’. The sound that came from Ten Bears’ throat was more like the hissin’ of a whole nest of rattlers.
“Excellent,” the master said, after he got done laughin’. “At last, the moment has come. Tonight, we shall all have our revenge.”