If Whiskey hadn’t already been dead—well, undead actually—Hurt would’ve been in deep, deep dragons scat.
Hurt was fresh out of water, out of absinthe too, and Warlock Township remained a hazy, heat shimmer on the desert horizon. The noon day sun was merciless, roasting him inside his quilt-heavy duster and wide-brimmed hat. His boots were steaming, runny in places where the leather had begun to melt. At his heels, his spurs glowed red like a masons forge. Hot as he was, Hurt could’ve burst into flames and he still wouldn’t have removed his hat, or duster, or boots. He was a Ranger after all—the last Ranger—and Rangers had a reputation to maintain. He tugged at his neckline, bushy with hair the color and texture of steel wool. He could’ve done without the chainmail though. It itched like a son of a witch.
Drops of sweat Hurt couldn’t spare rained down onto Whiskey’s exposed skull cap and desiccated mane, plopping in time with the zombie horses plodding hoof stomps. He patted her gently on the neck. A flap of rotten skin sloughed off and fell away like a dead leaf, revealing a mass of maggots that looked especially white against the backdrop of necrotic flesh. Sir Hurton ‘Huckleberry’ El Fuego didn’t love anything, not a damn thing in the whole stinking realm, but Whiskey came closest. He had won her in a card game from a drunk wizard who’d attempted to cheat him with a lousy conundrum spell. Hurt won the horse. The wizard won a quick death.
If Whiskey had needed to eat, or drink, or rest, she and Hurt would have been goners back in Jericho, or in Camelot, or countless times throughout the previous fortnight as they trudged across the Sand Sea. But alas Whiskey hadn’t, and the hazy, heat shimmer on the horizon was larger now.
Warlock was getting closer.
Hurt closed his eye. His left eye. His right was permanently closed–gone actually–ever since he was six years old and a distempered unicorn shucked it like an oyster with its gnarled horn. He kept the puckered void hidden, concealed behind a fragment of dragon scale he’d fashioned into an eye patch.
There was no wind, and Hurt was close enough now that the sounds of Warlock were beginning to reach him; the muffled pop of gunshots, the clang of sword on armor, faint screams, and soul-less cackles. Hurt smiled. The sounds reminded him of home. His dusty lips cracked, oozing black blood into his grey beard. Warlock was a vile town filled with vile creatures, and Hurt was hunting two of the absolute vilest.
Nestor and Lester Feral. The Feral brothers. Berserkers. Half-ogres. War hammer enthusiasts. The Feral brothers were outlaws, wanted for robbing a bank in Monterey, holding up a stage coach outside Gravestone, and finally, the heinous act that bumped them from simply Wanted, to Wanted Dead or Alive; murdering a family of immigrant dragon ranchers in cold blood.
Then eating them.
Whiskey snorted, whinnied, lashed her head, sending black flies the size of silver dollars scattering. Hurt didn’t even need to open his eye.
He caught the raw-boned buzzard by the throat as it swooped in to feast on Whiskey’s exposed jugular, crushed the bird’s sickly windpipe, and dropped it dead into the dust. He chuckled, opened his eye, just in time to see the bullet-riddled sign as they plodded past:
WELKUM TO WARLOCK
Abandon all hope ye who enter here
POPULATION: why bother?
The sand beneath Whiskey’s hooves gave way to the gritty packed gravel of the lone street in Warlock. To one side, there was the trading post (which also served as a whorehouse) the general store (also a whorehouse) the barbershop (simply a barbershop) and several other ramshackle, sun-bleached buildings Hurt assumed were probably whorehouses. On the other side, there were six clearly marked whorehouses, a tumble-weed choked, otherwise empty lot with a crudely painted sign out front: ‘WHOREHOWSE A’ COMIN’ SOON!’ and Hurt’s ultimate destination: The Fightin’ Syclops Saloon.
Hurt turned up the collar of his duster, pulled his hat down low. It was as if his arrival in Warlock had triggered a Medusa curse, turning the townspeople to stone. Folks paused their petty evils as he passed, stopped to watch him, to loathe him.
A centaur in rusty armor spit out a mouthful of syrupy chew as he rode passed. An old Minotaur Comanche in a wooden wheelchair shouted a dusty curse in a language Hurt didn’t understand, chucked a handful of chicken hearts at him that didn’t even clear the old bulls dirty diapered lap. Hurt had ceased wearing his Ranger’s badge years ago, but there was no question that the no-goodniks of Warlock knew who he was. His reputation—as it did everywhere in the realm for the last eighty years—had preceded him.
Out of nowhere, a limping troglodyte boy hobbled out into the street begging for coins. His panicked mother snatched him away in a frenzy, as if Hurt was the Devil himself. Hurt smirked.
He wasn’t the Devil of course.
Hurt was worse.
Whiskey stomped flat a rat that was making a meal of her dragging Achilles tendon, squishing the varmint like an over-ripe tomato. She smeared the critter for a dozen yards or so until she came to a stamping halt in front of the Fightin’ Syclops Saloon. Hurt climbed out of the saddle in agonizing slow motion. He groaned, cursed, stretched, and groaned again. His bones creaked, his joints popped—and finally relieved of a long rides worth of saddle pressure–his hemorrhoids throbbed like infected teeth. He didn’t bother lashing Whiskey to the hitching post. The horse was spiritually bound to him. She wasn’t going anywhere. No matter what.
As he always did before the killing began, Hurt took a quiet moment to admire his guns.
Two gleaming silver, Colt Peacemaker pistols. One for each boney hip. The pistol holstered to his right—Doom he called it—had an etching on the cylinder of two of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Conquest and War. The pistol holstered to his left—this one affectionately named Gloom—had an engraving of the remaining two horseman, Famine and Death. Hurt had never met Death, but he’d crossed paths with the other three in his travels once or twice. War was an alright enough fella in his books, but he thought Famine and Conquest were yellowbellies.
Hurt stuffed his pistols back in their holsters. There was no need to load them. They were enchanted, gifts from an opiate addicted fallen Angel Hurt had helped go clean. He could blow away every horn-toad and armadillo in the Old West and still not run out of bullets.
For an instant, he considered digging out the broadsword that slept in his saddlebag. He was hunting half-ogres after all, big and armor-boned. After a few seconds he shook his head, decided against it. His sword was enchanted as well, and although it was a brutally effective instrument of death, it sang like a chorus girl during the killing, and if Hurt had to hear ‘Home on the Range’ one more bloody time, he was likely to drive Songsinger right through his own chest.
He turned his sunken grey eye toward the saloon. It was quiet. Far too quiet for high noon in a town full of drunks. With the heart rate of a sound sleeper, and an expectant smile on his face, Hurt strolled inside.
It took a moment for his eye to adjust to the darkness, but Hurt’s crooked nose was up to snuff right away. The bar room of the Fightin’ Syclops Saloon reeked like a hundred rotting manticore corpses roasting at a hundred degrees. Dead bodies—reduced to nothing but maroon paste—covered the tables, walls, and in one dripping splat Hurt thought looked curiously like his mother, the ceiling.
Everyone was dead.
All but two.
At the bar, casually snacking on the barkeepers bones as if they were complimentary pretzels, hunched the Feral brothers. Jaundiced yellow in places they weren’t gangrenous green, covered in scars and patches of bristly hair, the Ferals were each larger than Hurt’s undead appaloosa and each ten times as ugly. Hurt couldn’t tell them apart—especially from their boil-speckled backs—but one of them had a monstrous axe leaning next to him, while the other was absently scratching the crack of his ass with a hammer that could have been borrowed from Thor.
Hurt swallowed a bile-burp.
The Feral brothers turned. By the Gods Above and Below they were hideous.
“Howdy fellas,” Hurt said. His voice was low, thick, sarsaparilla and gun powder. “If you boys would be so kind as to step outside, I believe we’ve got some business together needs attendin.”
Before they could grunt out replies, Hurt turned and casually moseyed back out into the sunshine. He took a half dozen steps and knelt to admire a desert flower that had somehow managed to bloom in a road that saw more blood than rain.
With roaring laughter, the Feral brothers followed, one rumbling through the swinging saloon door, the other rampaging right through the wall, exploding dead wood shrapnel and dusty brick into the air. Their monstrous weapons were raised high–killing blow high– glinting sunshine in the few meager places they weren’t streaked with blood and gore and clotted brain matter.
Hurt whirled, stood, shouldered off his duster, and liberated his pistols from their holsters as fast and as effortlessly as drawing breath.
He didn’t need to look. He didn’t even need to think. Most of him was still admiring the desert flower.
The Feral bother closest secured a silver bullet in each eyeball. As he was still getting used to the idea of being dead, falling into the dirt—
–his brother received the same.
Sated for the moment, exhaling gun smoke that smelled like vanilla cigarillo, Doom and Gloom were holstered.
No sooner had the dust settled, then out of the corner of his eye, Hurt caught the skeletal town undertaker skulking forward with his dangling measuring tape. Hurt threw up his hand, halting him. The undertaker slithered away. There was no sense measuring the Feral brothers for coffins. At least, not yet.
Hurt still needed their heads.
His employer—the murdered dragon ranchers nephew—had made that part of the contract very clear. He wanted their heads, wanted to feed them slowly over the course of weeks to Brataxus, the albino Carthusian saddle dragon that had loved his departed uncle like a lap dog.
Hurt approached the bloated corpses, wondering if he might be able to handle the enormous fallen battle axe to conclude his contract.
Then he spotted something that stopped him dead in his tracks.
A glint of medal on one half-ogres chest, a twin on the other. Stars. Badges. Lawman badges.
Hurt frowned. “What the hel–
His words strangled away in his throat as dark magic seized him, paralyzed him, and lifted him a foot off the ground.
“Well I’ll be damned,” came a poisonous voice behind him. “That can’t be my old partner Huckleberry El Fuego, now can it?”
Hurt knew who the voice belonged to even before the sorcerer spun him and looked him in the eye.
“You are damned, Laugh” Hurt spat, struggling to speak. He was choking, drowning in black magic. It felt as if a thousand flaming cat claws were raking across his chest, his face, his eye.
‘Laughing’ Sam Cadaverous was an ex-Ranger, no-good, backstabbing Necromancer, and judging by the tin star pinned to his billowing, maroon robes, the current Sherriff of Warlock.
“Hmm? Seems you killed my deputies, Huckleberry.” Sherriff Cadaverous laughed.
“Deputies,” Hurt scoffed in spite of his strangling organs.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” Cadaverous said. “You never should have come here, Hurton. You were supposed to die with your wife in El Paso.” The Necromancer raised a gnarled hand that looked more like a buzzard talon. “But I suppose this will have to do.”
Hurt’s skin began to flay around his fingernails. Unseen plyers wrenched on the few remaining brown teeth still anchored in his jaw. One by one, his ribs began to creak and groan, finally snapping like dry kindling.
Appropriately enough, ‘Laughing’ Sam Cadaverous began to laugh.
Hurt turned his eyes skyward, retreating inside himself, trying with all his might to ignore the agony.
He didn’t want to scream.
‘Laughing’ Sam Cadaverous fed on screams.
Almost imperceptibly, a monstrous white shadow passed over the sun.
A dragon shaped shadow.
“You’re not going to see her again where I’m sending you, Hurt,” Cadaverous said as he stalked closer. “It’s too dark even for shadows where I’m going to send you.”
Hurt mashed shut his eye to stop tears from escaping. His spine groaned under the demonic pressure, like a dead tree branch under heavy snow. As the pain wrecked him, racked him, he thought of his wife, of home, of his Rangers Oath, mired in blood and magic. He thought about everything he had loved and lost, and then he thought about how he was finally ready to die.
Preoccupied with dying as he was, Hurt didn’t see the nine thousand pound albino dragon land in the street, nor did he see its enormous jaw unhinge, but along with the rest of Warlock, Hurt absorbed its rage, felt its own brand of merciless justice for its murdered master.
Warlock was swallowed in flames as tornado force dragon fire scorched the earth.
Finally, Hurt screamed.
The world turned searing, cataclysmic white, then just as suddenly faded to black.
When Sir Hurton ‘Huckleberry’ El Fuego awoke, it was in a crater of black ash and grimy soot. Warlock Township was decimated, nothing but a smouldering smear in the center of the Sand Sea.
The Feral brothers were charred, smoking skeletons.
‘Laughing’ Sam Cadaverous was a charred, smoking skeleton.
Whiskey was mostly a charred, smoking skeleton, but thankfully her head had only been mostly burned, not entirely. Hurt gave her a sooty smooch on her pustule covered nose, told her he knew a Mage in Consequence Creek that owed him a favor, could have her right as rain in no time flat.
With his hat and duster burned to nothing, and his chainmail and gun belt melted to a hardened glossy puddle, Hurt stood there in his blackened birthday suit; singed body hair like a bear with matching odor, pancake ass, beer belly, pitchfork tail swaying lazily like a mesmerized cobra, stubby horns tingling at the tickle of evening breeze.
Hurt felt the advantages to being Hell-born were few and far between, but besides the ability to start campfires with piss, and cook beans in the palms of his hands, being immune to fire—especially dragon fire–was pretty much at the top of the list.
Bending at the waist, Hurt scooped Doom and Gloom up out of the ash. The pistols were untouched, gleaming silver brilliant as ever. Whiskey—or more accurately Whiskey’s head—whinnied. She was directly behind him, close enough to kiss his charred ass.
Hurt laughed, which caused another rib to crack. He winced in pain, laughed again, spit out a tooth. Gently, he picked up Whiskey’s head, cradled it in his arms like a baby. His tail was prehensile. He used it to hold his pistols. With shambling steps, he made his way over to the charred remains of the Feral brothers. He kicked one of their giant skulls, which promptly disintegrated and scattered on the wind.
“Let’s get on, Whiskey,” Hurt said, the same way he would’ve in the saddle. He turned, and began his naked march into the endless, sandy nothingness. He had no food, no water or clothes, and there wasn’t another settlement for a hundred leagues, yet still, a smile played on his lips and his Hell-born tail swayed like a contented bloodhounds. “Nuthin’ left for us here. Can’t collect no bounty on a stinkin’ pile uh ash.”