This is part 3 of a 3 part tale. Read the first part here, and the second part here. ♠♣♥♦ I drew my gun, cocked the hammer, and put Howard King’s skull in my sights.
I drew my gun, cocked the hammer, and put Howard King’s skull in my sights.
Saigo shouted through his demon mask. “Why did you kill my brother, you swine?”
King laughed. “It was all fun and games. Your brother was so eager to learn, and I needed a foreigner’s blood. Well, he learned. He saw magic no human eyes have witnessed before, but he didn’t count on enduring pain no human body had felt before as well.”
“The miners. What’s with them?” I asked.
“They’re thralls to an ancient power now, but I got what I needed in exchange for leading them to its resting spot. I trust you’ll be able to handle the situation. I’ve got other places to be.” King stroked his pointed beard.
My finger squeezed the trigger, and my target vanished like smoke.
I kept my gun raised and ready to fire again. “What in tarnation?”
“He’s not a being like us,” Saigo said. “Sadly, my brother’s vengeance must wait for another day. Let’s continue to the dynamite.”
I returned the weight of my gun to my right hip and led my Japanese ally. As we walked, I squeezed my fist tightly to keep it from shaking. I’d seen horrible things before, but I’d never seen anything supernatural.
The Company Store was bigger than all the rest of the buildings in Silver Springs, but not by much. Inside, the few goods stocked were scattered on the floor, and most of the shelves were tipped and broken. A room in the back contained the dynamite, but an enormous lock held the door shut.
Saigo swiped it off.
I collected the closest crate of dynamite. “Now, we’ve got to be careful here. Just last week, I saw a miner split into several pieces when he mishandled this.”
Saigo nodded. “You carry it, and I’ll make sure no one gets close to you.”
I considered arguing the point but decided that would only waste time. Who knew how long we had before the miners came swarming out to town? From the looks of things, something had turned the initial miners, and they’d come to collect the others in town. They could be back at any moment.
After carefully loading the crate and a new lantern onto a small wagon and attaching my horse, Saigo and I made our way up the mountainside by the light of the moon. We went at a snail’s pace, but I still winced every time the wagon wheels went over anything larger than a pebble. The mine entrance came back into view, and two men with pickaxes and green eyes stood guard.
Saigo withdrew his sword and charged before we could discuss battle plans. The miners spotted him, and instead of moving to attack, they reached out for each other’s hands. The two men’s flesh seemed to liquify, and they fused into a hybrid thing with four legs, two arms, and two heads. They reminded me of a sideshow I’d seen on my way west years prior. The newborn thing scuttled forward, swinging the pickaxes wildly.
Saigo ducked and swung his sword, making it through three legs before his blade got stuck in the fourth. The conjoined miner wobbled and fell but managed to connect a blow to Saigo’s chest. My Japanese ally’s armor prevented penetration, but the samurai was hurtled backward and tumbled a few feet down the mountainside toward Silver Springs.
I brought the wagon to a stop and went to help Saigo regain his feet. As I got him up and dusted him off, he pointed behind me. I turned to see the mutated miner standing on his two arms while his remaining leg flailed about. Saigo’s sword flew loose and clattered the ground. The thing’s midsection split open to reveal an array of rib-like teeth that opened and closed as if the miner’s maw had relocated. It charged us, and I pulled my gun and fired. My first two shots ricocheted off rocks, but then one of the scuttling arms exploded from my blast, and one of the thing’s heads was pierced by my last bullets.
To my shock, my hits didn’t slow the beast. I slid bullets from my belt to reload. The miner-monster slammed into me.
On the ground, I felt something bite into my foot, making it through my thick boots. Seconds later, I was being dragged, and I lost the bullets in my hand. My head scraped off a rock as my hat sailed away on the breeze. Everything went dark as the conjoined miner dragged me toward the mine.
I was shivering from the cold air when I returned to consciousness. I went for my revolver, only to realize it wasn’t on my hip. A ring of six unarmed miners surrounded me on the stone dais where I’d found Saigo’s brother. Their green eyes stared beyond me. A crimson light oozed out of the passage that led deeper into the mine. It had been the spot the mining company had been so excited to explore. To my relief, I wasn’t tied down.
The group cried out at once. “To the Living Void, this flesh is offered.”
(Editor’s Note: Read The Threshold for more on The Living Void)
I stood up and slid my legs off the stone. The miners weren’t disturbed, so I got up. I approached the gap between two of the miners. They didn’t react. Taking a breath, I dashed forward. The group spread out their limbs, which stretched and merged to fence me inside. They were now one massive, circular thing. I couldn’t tell where any individuals ended because even their clothes had changed and morphed.
There was a loud gust of wind, and Saigo’s blade cut through the limbs before me. The conjoined mass of humanity screamed. I rushed out of the circle.
Saigo turned and fled with me close behind. Just as I thought we’d be lost in the darkness, a dimly burning lantern appeared. Saigo sheathed his sword, grasped the lantern’s handle, and didn’t stop moving.
The sound of something large scraping off rocks followed us. I pictured the miners, changed into a giant burrowing worm.
Fresh air reached us, and we escaped the tunnel for a second time that night. Outside, I collected my lost gun from near the mine’s mouth and reloaded quickly. Saigo brought the horse with the wagon forward, nearly to the mine entrance.
As I detached my horse, a glob of human flesh reached out of the mine. The individual miners’ skin had stretched and distended in hideous ways to form the huge, wormy shape. I withdrew my gun and fired at the monster, sending my horse running just in time to escape the clutches of the thing.
Saigo grabbed my shoulder. “You fool. That thing’s not going to be stopped by bullets.”
I took Saigo’s meaning and ran down the hill a short span before spinning back around. The mass of fused miners was pushing past the wagon filled with dynamite. I took aim, inhaled deeply, made sure I had my mark, and fired.
The explosion eviscerated the piece of the monster that had managed to escape and sent rock flying into the air. Saigo and I were sent sprawling from the blast.
Warmth kissed my cheek, and I thought of the time I’d spent a week in a New Orleans saloon with a woman named Rebecca. I opened my eyes, and I realized the first rays of the sun had woken me up. I’d spent the remainder of the night unconscious on the mountainside. My clothes were covered in an accumulation of rocks and dust. Blood smeared through some spots, but I didn’t feel any screaming wounds. My current injuries were nowhere near as bad as the bullet I’d taken while riding with General Sherman.
My body ached from lying in the same position for hours, but I managed to get to my feet and dust myself off. I reclaimed my gun from where it lay and holstered it. The night’s events flooded back to me, and I glanced up to the mine.
The dynamite had done its job. The entrance was sealed by rocks. Nothing could get in or out without more dynamite or more workers. The thought of whatever entity had forced those miners to go mad and combine bodies still lurking in the dark made my skin crawl. I could only hope that whatever force resided there wouldn’t figure out how to burrow out. The clops of a horse approached and made me turn around.
Saigo rode up to me on what had once been my mount. “I apologize, but I must take my leave if I am to catch my train.”
My ally had taken off his armor, re-bagged it, and cleaned up in the time I’d been left out in the cold.
“You could’ve woken me.”
“I couldn’t find you in the dark. I did try for a short time. The rocks must’ve concealed you.”
I didn’t buy the excuse, but I also didn’t care to disagree.
“Then I guess this is the end of our partnership.” I offered my hand for a shake.
Saigo stared at my hand for a moment, but he slowly offered his own.
I gripped his hand firmly and shook it once.
The hint of a smile crept across Saigo’s face. “I’m sure my government would prefer that I killed you for sharing the secret of my brother’s mission. If word reaches me that you’ve told anyone, I will return for your life.”
Now it was my turn to smile. “Provided I ever let you close enough to hack at me with that sword again. Besides, you can tell your government and that pencil mustached bureaucrat you arrived with that I am dead. Things will be less complicated for me that way. Are you going to try and pursue Howard King?”
Saigo nodded. “Of course. I’m honor-bound to avenger my brother.”
“I think I might look into his affairs myself. I owe him for what he did here. If I get word on him, another partnership might be in our interest. Is there a way I can reach you if I need to?”
“If all goes as planned, my people will be establishing an embassy in San Francisco soon. Get word there, and it will reach me eventually.” Saigo turned the horse around and started away.
I stood in the morning sun, watching him go. Below me, the town I’d called home for the last few months was empty. I was confident I could find another horse and supplies to get me to my next destination. If I recalled correctly, the company Howard King worked for originated out of Denver City. That would be where I’d start my search for him. First, I’d get out of here and find a nice saloon to rest up in for a few days.
As I started down the mountain, my hat inexplicably blew back to me from wherever it’d been. I picked it up and reapplied it to my head.