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The Quick and the Dread

His spurs jingled as he stepped into the road, his boots throwing up tiny dust devils from the parched earth. To either side of him, frightened but curious townsfolk gathered to watch the spectacle about to unfold. Sunlight flashed off the tarnished badge that proclaimed his role as Sheriff, but Jasper Stallings felt like anything but a steadfast lawman. He absently stroked one side of his greying mustache, his mind wandering to that night so many years ago.

Jasper found himself wishing, more often of late, that he’d joined his father in the priesthood. Ezekiel Stallings may have been overly strict as a father, but he was honest and righteous—two qualities he passed on to his son in spades. He never understood , or forgave, his only son for walking away from the Church—something that tore at Jasper’s heart even after his father’s passing. Thinking about it again made the Sheriff’s eyes begin to mist up, but he blinked away the tears quickly. There was no room for obstructed vision in a gunfight.

About 10 yards up the dusty street, Clete Blake stomped about in a small circle. His clenched jaw barely held the remnants of a cigar between his lips. Forcibly slowing his movements, he drummed his fingers on the butt of his pistol while his sullen gaze alternated between the Sheriff and the clock that adorned the front of the town hall. I’m gonna kill that sumbitch, he thought.

“You ready to die, Sheriff?”

Jasper pulled his duster clear of the pistol holstered on his right hip, letting his hand hover over the butt. He glanced at the clock, and with the deathly silence hanging over the town he could just make out the click as the minute hand advanced. In another minute Clete Blake would most likely be dead, but the Sheriff’s own life was far from secured. The outlaw wasn’t a terrible shot, and lady luck was a fickle mistress.

“You made your choice, Blake. Now reap the consequences like a man.”

The clock struck twelve, setting off a chime that could be heard throughout the entire town—and steel cleared leather. Two shots echoed through the wood and glass canyon, and smoke mingled with dust. When a light breeze finally swept the air clear, Clete Blake lay dying in a pool of his own blood as the Sheriff knelt beside him. The outlaw was trying to speak, and Jasper had to lean in close enough that Clete’s coughed up words left flecks of blood on the Sheriff’s ear. When Clete Blake finally expired, he left the Sheriff with one short statement.

“My brother will avenge me.”

Jasper didn’t know of any other Blakes, let alone a brother, but he wasn’t concerned either way. Clete wasn’t the first to offer vengeance from friends and family, and he wouldn’t be the last.

*****

A furious rumbling jolted Jasper awake, and he realized it had been forever since he’d eaten. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, he locked his office and started up the street towards Miss Ellie’s. The sun was just setting, and it cast an eerie red hue across the town. Something slithered across the back of Jasper’s mind, subtle and fleeting, but it sent a chill down his spine. He paused a moment, resettled the duster on his shoulders, and continued on.

Approaching the saloon, his mind caught that sensation again—a feeling of dread, a foreboding that something terrible was about to happen. The lanterns outside Miss Ellie’s, in fact down the whole street, seemed dim. He started up the steps, and that’s when he noticed the silence. His boots thumped on the wood, but those were the only sounds he heard – the normally raucous saloon din was only a memory. The Sheriff swallowed hard and pushed through the saloon doors.

All of the lights within flickered weakly, as if waging a war against something earnestly trying to snuff them out. The tables and chairs had been pushed out of the center of the room to line the walls, and the few patrons in evidence stood near the bar silently watching him. A half dozen steps into the room he realized that the floor was marked up. He was standing inside a five-pointed star—in fact it almost looked like someone had painted his badge on the floor in red paint, but the circle around the star was where the similarities ended. Around the edge of the circle, in the same deep red, someone had drawn dozens of swirls and scribbles. Jasper drew a long breath in wonder at this bizarre sight, and then realization hit him like a punch to the jaw. The drawing on the floor hadn’t been done in red paint.

“I see by the look upon your face, good Sheriff, that you’ve come to understand the severity of the predicament you find yourself in.”

Jasper turned to see that one man had separated himself from the group assembled at the bar. He was a tall fellow, with hawkish features and an impeccably tailored suit. Something about the man’s eyes seemed unsettling, yet familiar.

“Josiah Blake, at your service sir,” the man said with an exaggerated bow. “You had the pleasure of my dearly departed brother’s acquaintance, if I am not mistaken.” A sly grin spread across Josiah’s face at the mention of his brother.

“Clete Blake was a thief, a liar, and a murderer,” the Sheriff said dryly. “He called me out, and threatened the lives of several children to get me to agree to the duel. He deserved everything he got.”

“Oh, make no mistake, Sheriff. My brother was the lowest of the low, a pariah through and through—but blood is blood, sir, and you will be held accountable for his death.”

That now-familiar feeling crawled down Jasper’s spine once more. “So what’s your play then – why all the theatrics? You’re clearly an educated man—too proud to just put a bullet in me?”

“No, it’s not pride, Sheriff.” The sly grin Josiah presented took on a more menacing appearance. “Yes, I am a very well-educated man, as you have surmised. What you fail to understand, however, is to what depths that education goes.”

The next thing out of Josiah’s mouth wasn’t so much a word as it was a sound, and Jasper nearly wretched at hearing it. Whatever it was, it’s effect on the room was immediate. Every person in the saloon save the Sheriff and Josiah himself dropped to the floor convulsing, and blood ran freely from their eyes. Jasper tried to curse at the man responsible, but found he could no longer form the words.

“You are about to witness first hand, dear Sheriff, that there are powers in the universe beyond the ken of mortal men.” Evil flashed behind Josiah eyes as he opened his mouth to speak once more, but as before the words were more like guttural noises.

Jasper quailed at the torrent of sound Josiah unleashed. His every instinct screamed at him to run, but he couldn’t make his legs move. A sickness spread through his belly, and if he’d eaten anything earlier Jasper was sure that he’d have vomited it up just then.

Josiah droned on and on, hands now raised to the ceiling, his voice growing louder with every passing moment. A chill swept through the room and Jasper thought his bones had turned to ice. Darkness swirled in every corner, threatening to swallow every light present. A figure appeared in the doorway, cloaked in the night. Josiah was screaming now, his eyes open wide and impossibly white.

A pregnant silence fell over the room. Jasper’s heart was pounding in his chest. Josiah stood there exultant, panting from his efforts, and staring into the Sheriff’s eyes. The darkness around them shifted, pulsing as if alive. Tendrils slowly crept from the darkness with every pulse, twisting and lengthening. The air was heavy with evil, and the Sheriff somehow knew that the tendrils hungered for human flesh.

Josiah’s mouth stretched in a maddened grin. Insanity clouded his eyes and clung to his breath. The writhing of the tendrils ceased, as if awaiting one final command. “Your moment is at hand, Sheriff! Vengeance for my brother is served!”

Jasper Stallings slowly closed his eyes to await his fate—and the tendrils struck.

Josiah Blake screamed for only a moment as his body was torn apart. Jasper opened his eyes wide and immediately regretted the decision, but he couldn’t bring himself to close them again. Outside the markings on the floor, the saloon was a slaughterhouse. Dark tendrils tore at human flesh—Josiah Blake, the rest of the bodies strewn about the floor—all of them shredded beyond recognition until the wood was soaked with blood. Jasper stood immobile inside the circle, untouched by the carnage surrounding him, afraid to move lest he draw the attention of whatever dark force was at work.

Just when Jasper didn’t think he could watch any more, it was over. The tendrils receded into the darkened corners of the saloon. The blood and gore covering everything slowly faded into the wood and disappeared, leaving only a small leather-bound book where Josiah had been standing. Finally, with a brief flash of light, the circle surrounding the Sheriff winked out of existence. Jasper dropped to his knees and wept uncontrollably.

As his shaking subsided, Jasper finally regained his composure and stood. There, in the saloon doorway, was the same dark figure he’d seen earlier. A man emerged from the shadows, walked over to the book on the floor, and picked it up. Jasper would later try to remember what the man looked like, but was never able to put together any identifying features. As the stranger was about to walk out the door, he paused.

“Josiah Blake was right about one thing. There are powers in the universe beyond the ken of mortal men. Men like Josiah who crave such power are easily swayed into thinking they can harness that power—and even more easily fooled into using that power to punish themselves for their hubris. The circle Josiah was led to believe was the focus for his revenge was actually protection from it—so you get to live to see another day, Jasper Stallings.” The man turned back to look at the Sheriff.

“If you’re lucky, you won’t be insane by morning.”

FIN

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