The gunfighter rode into the small, dirt-encrusted town just as the fourth sun had dropped below the horizon and three shimmering, amethyst-colored moons began their slow, ethereal dance into a stark night sky. A small, bullet-riddled sign with crudely painted glyphs that read: RESPIT POP. 100 42 suddenly stopped its idle swaying almost as if it sensed the tall, shadowy rider’s approach.
The gunfighter’s warhorse strode purposefully down the town’s only thoroughfare, its massive head turning in every direction, scanning everything in the dimly lit night.
The horse’s rider looked around as well, but seeing more than any other in this world could see. There had once been twenty buildings in this town, but now only six remained. The others had been utterly razed, burned down to the dry, dusty earth. The only things that remained were the dozens of faceless, voiceless wraiths wandering this way and that, crying out in silent rage. The gunfighter inhaled sharply as the pain and fury that the wraiths were exuding penetrated all psychic shields.
With an unspoken request, the shadowy figure asked the horse to come to a halt directly in front of the largest building, a two-story structure that appeared to be Respit’s only remaining hotel and saloon, and dismounted. The gunfighter stood just over six feet tall and wore an ankle-length hooded cloak made of black leather covering a simple, long-sleeved wool shirt and breeches.
The warrior moved swiftly and noiselessly toward the building’s entrance. The warhorse chuffed loudly and shook its massive head. There was no need for a verbal alert; rider and steed were psychically and spiritually bonded.
Besides, the three C-shaped jade dragon talismans surgically implanted in the gunfighter’s wrists and breastbone were humming softly and growing steadily warmer, a sure sign that evil was lurking nearby.
The gunfighter paused outside of the entry and reached out with all eleven senses.
There were thirteen beings inside the building: seven on the first floor, six on the second and at least two dozen firearms between the lot of them. The gunfighter could smell the different cleaning oils and propellants for the ammunition. That meant that their guns were well-maintained. While not uncommon, it was unusual. Especially in this world. What was even more unusual was the fact that the gunfighter couldn’t read any of the minds of the town’s inhabitants.
Most mortals had minds like open books. This was different. It was almost as if they had no conscious thought. As if their minds were turned off. Even more disconcerting was the overwhelming sense of hate and rage emanating from the townsfolk. Even though the gunfighter had traveled across countless worlds and encountered many hate-filled beings, this was something different altogether. It was almost palpable.
A flash of sudden realization and clarity struck the gunfighter: This must be the place that Honorable Teacher spoke of so many millennia ago!
The gunfighter could almost hear the wizened mentor’s calm, lyrical voice as if she were right there: “On the eve of the seventh year, the Year of the Dragon, three royal sisters will lead you to respite and in respite you shall find that which you seek.”
At the time, the Honorable Teacher’s words were vague and esoteric, but now they seemed like the purest of prophecies. It had indeed been almost seven years to the day that the gunfighter began this journey. And now, after travelling from one town to the next, one world to the next, the gunfighter had arrived in the ignorantly misspelled Respit.
The gunfighter knew that purple is the color of royalty, so the three royal sisters were no doubt the three violet moons that hung so delicately in the starless void above.
The cloaked rider looked back at the warhorse and nodded. The horse snorted softly and reciprocated. This was indeed the place. At last, the warrior’s destiny would be fulfilled. The gunfighter walked through the door.
The entire two-story building was larger than it appeared outside. At the far end of the first floor was a forty foot wide bar that appeared to be carved from a single piece of flawless sapphire-blue marble. Behind that was a gilded mirror that nearly took up the entire wall. The mirror was lined with thin crystal shelves stocked to the hilt with various bottles and containers.
The gunfighter saw four drunk-looking dregs, two professional escorts at the bar and a portly-looking tender sporting a handlebar mustache attentively manning his station.
All heads turned as the tall cloaked stranger moved swiftly and silently forward to the bar. The gunfighter felt the miasma of rage and malice grow noticeably thicker with each step. When the tall figure halted at the bar, the rotund barkeep smiled broadly. It was a smile of icy fire; blazing heat and utter frigidity all at once. “Help ya’, stranger?”
The gunfighter had to pause a moment before responding. The dragon talismans were burning wildly within. An abrupt thought of relinquishing control to the pendants rushed through the gunfighter’s mind: Just let go and be done with it all.
A scene of an unstoppable firestorm washing over this backwater village flashed before the warrior’s eyes, utterly wiping it, and the evil within, from all existence. That’s when the gunfighter realized that control must be maintained at all costs.
No. There can never be enough evil in one place to warrant such destruction.
These two thoughts were processed in less than a second and if any of the people nearby noticed the hesitation, they didn’t let on. “Water.”
“Wouldn’t recommend it, stranger,” the bartender replied matter-of-factly,
“Better off takin’ yer chances with ol’ Twyla here. Yer less likely ta catch somethin’”
The nearest prostitute cackled loudly and slapped the bar. “Screw you, Marty!”
“Water.” The gunfighter repeated. The barkeep nodded and fetched a tall crystal tumbler and filled it with a thick, greenish-brown liquid. “Here ya’ go. One water. Anythin’ else I can get ya’?
The stranger looked at the viscous liquid, quietly drained the glass and reached inside the thick leather cloak plunking two medium-sized lead Argents onto the marble countertop. “Need a room for the night.”
Marty the bartender’s eyes grew perceptibly wider and the corners of his mouth twitched a little. “You betcha, stranger. All of em’ cept fer nummer one and eleven is open, so take yer pick.” He seemed to think for a moment. “How’s about nummer seven?
"The gunfighter nodded slightly and headed for the staircase on the right, moving quickly up to room seven. The occupants of the saloon paid no attention to a small bluish-green shrike with black wings that flitted with lightning-quick speed past the tall, mysterious stranger and through the door.
The windowless room contained a small ramshackle bed with a thin, viciously stained mattress, a threadbare horse blanket, and a termite-infested soapbox on which a small unlit candle sat slightly askew.
The gunfighter took a slow, deep breath and removed the hooded cloak; shook out her long, raven-colored locks, unhooked the dual-holstered gun belt fastened snugly to her thin waist and lithe hips and placed it gently on the bed.
Her sculpted golden face was lovely; with large almond-shaped eyes the color of burnt umber, a small, well-formed nose and full, cinnamon-colored lips.
After removing each gun from their holster, the gunfighter sat down and looked at the bird. “Did anyone see you, Xiao-xing?”
“No, Lin,” the little bird replied, her voice sounding slightly amused by this question. “I should think that after four thousand years, you’d think better of my skills.”
Lin ignored her friend and stared at the expertly crafted pistols she was holding. They were works of art. Each weapon was made of rare Black Iron with meticulously carved glyphs signifying truth, justice, temperance and righteousness. The pistol grips resembled her dearly departed mother and father in their true dragon form, made from their very bones before being laid to rest.
The eyes of these miniature sculptures glowed bright green all the time; a constant reminder of the life-force powering the remarkable weapons she’d wielded countless times before. The pistol’s huge, seven-shot cylinders held rune-inscribed bullets filled with Dragon’s Light, an awesome force that Lin knew she would soon use again.
Xiao’s melodic voice pulled her from her reverie. “You’re feeling angry. Why?”
“They died too soon,” Lin answered, her eyes fixed on the pistols clutched tightly in her delicate golden hands. “It’s not fair.”
“Fair?” Xiao chuckled. “That’s a human concept. Irrelevant. Your mother and father are with you all the time.”
“It’s not the same,” Lin retorted, placing the runic pistols back into their holsters. “I can’t reach and out and touch them. I can’t hold my māma’s hand like I used to. Now all that’s left of their greatness is these… lifeless weapons.”
The runic guns rattled angrily in their scabbards, the crystalline eyes set into the grips glowed brighter. Lin touched the weapons gently and closed her eyes. “Forgive me, māma, bàba, I meant no disrespect.”
“The physical self is little more than illusion,” Xiao replied, her voice as calm as ever. “It is no indicator of the power all beings hold within. You should know better. Perhaps that is why you fear unlocking the talismans.”
Lin was about to respond when a light tapping came from the door. She quickly strapped the gun belt to her waist and donned her cloak and boots before opening the door. A thin, ashen-faced, weary-looking man about Lin’s height stood in front of her, a tattered, dirty hat gripped tightly in his bony, liver-spotted hands.
Lin’s sharp eye spotted a small golden ankh bearing a common symbol for justice pinned to his threadbare shirt and two large caliber pistols hanging from his narrow hips. He appeared to be some sort of peace officer. “Beg your pardon, miss. May I have a word?”
Lin ushered him inside and closed the door. His mind was closed to her as well. Her hands instinctively went to her guns. “What do you want?”
The old lawman’s face got even paler and he raised his hands in surrender, dropping his hat on the floor. “P-please, I mean you no harm, ma’am! I-I saw your horse turn into that little bird there and I just knew that you might be able to help me.”
Lin scowled at the tiny shrike perched on the headboard and then said to the old man: “How do I know you’re not lying to me?”
A sudden look of realization moved across the lawman’s face. “O-oh!” He tapped his temple with two slender fingers. “Go ahead.”
Lin saw everything that the old man knew. A daemon held the residents of this town in thrall. Many of the people were simply too weary and gave themselves over to the fell beast. Those who resisted had been savagely murdered.
This old law man, whose name was Vern, was somehow able to resist, but at a huge price. The daemon had imprisoned Vern’s wife and five children; it was holding them hostage somewhere in town.
“It-it calls itself Asmodeus,” Vern croaked, “It has control over everyone. Even me. It uses my love for my family against me. Adonai only knows what that son of a bitch has done to them.” Tears started welling up in the lawman’s yellowing eyes. “Please…you have to save them.”
“How do you know that they’re not already dead?” Xiao asked.
“I-I guess I don’t,” Vern replied, the color left his tired face so quickly Lin thought he might die right there. “I just... feel that they’re still alive.”
“Do you know where the daemon is keeping them?” Lin asked.
“N-no,” Vern answered with a defeated sigh, turning his dusty hat over in his bony hands. He stared at the weather-worn thing for quite a while and then looked up at Lin excitedly. “M-maybe he’s keeping them in his lair!”
“And where exactly is this creature’s lair?” Xiao demanded.
“Wh-well…”Vern responded, a confused look unfurling across his haggard face, “I-I don’t rightly know.”
Before Lin could even reply to what Vern said, the floorboards, door and walls erupted into splinters and chunks in a hail of lead and thundering noise. The old lawman was torn to pieces in the blink of an eye, his frail limbs and other body parts tumbling through the air in a shower of blood, bone and viscera.
Lin dove through the blasted open doorway with a speed and agility borne only by dragons; her ancient runic weapons drawn and unleashing their pent up fury at her attackers while Xiao changed into her true form, ethereal fire engulfing their foes.
By the time the gunfire and dragon-fire had ceased and the haze of smoke finally cleared, thirty five mangled, smoldering corpses lay strewn about what was left of the hotel/saloon.
Xiao transformed back into a shrike and perched on Lin’s shoulder as they walked out of the wrecked building and into the empty, windswept street.
A deep, sepulchral laughter rose up out of the darkness behind Lin and Xiao. The jade dragon pendants beneath Lin’s flesh were screaming to be unleashed. “Show yourself, Asmodeus!” Lin roared. “Face us and be destroyed!”
Lin desperately wanted to free the awesome power within, to utterly destroy the daemon and what was left of this accursed little town. She knew all too well that as long as six innocent souls were nearby, she couldn’t. The gunfighter was going to have to fight the hell-spawned creature with the rune-inscribed weapons gripped tightly in her hands.
The ancient laughter began anew as Marty the bartender walked from within the shadows; completely unscathed. With each step, Marty’s flesh, blood and bone dropped away with a dull, wet slap onto the dusty ground; revealing the monster that lie beneath.
A wide belt and two holsters made from what appeared to be human skin hung beneath the daemon’s rotund belly. The creature held two large, ancient looking pistols in his chubby, spade-clawed hands.
A sudden, terrifying image filled Lin’s mind. It was a horrifying memory from her childhood: A nightmarish beast standing over the smoldering bodies of her lifeless parents. Now the beast from that nightmare memory stood before her.
“Foolish child,” he began in a voice that sounded like molten lava running over a meadow, “I killed your parents so many years ago. What makes you think I can’t just as easily kill you? Draw!”
The daemon’s pride was its greatest weakness. Lin was much faster on the draw than the beast expected. The look of utmost surprise and absolute terror as the powerful Dragons Light bullets tore into the creature’s body and ripped it apart were enough to make Lin smile.
Asmodeus screeched wildly as it staggered about in a pool of its viscous, greenish-yellow blood, tripping repeatedly over large hunks of its smoldering torso that lay strewn about. The foul stench of sulfur and ammonia filled the warm night air. “Filthy dragon bitch!” the daemon roared, “Look what you did to me! I…”
Before the wretched creature could finish speaking, Lin blew the top half of its head off. A huge plume of oily-looking smoke billowed out what remained as the daemon toppled to the ground with a loud smack, twitched a few times and then lie still.