”The Ranchero of Miracle Mesa” - Strings: Part Two
“The Cowboy must never shoot first, hit a smaller man, or take unfair advantage.”
“You are my vessel.”
Greg Saunders couldn’t make sense of the world before him. It was a mess of color, images bled into one another until it was an amalgamation of nothing at all. The one thing he could make sense of was the air around him. It somehow had a waxy, burnt quality to it -- he could feel waves of heat rippling off from the nonsense.
Greg flopped on the ground, trying to gulp in as much of the thin air as he could, closing his eyes shut and hoping whatever this was would end. He felt a searing hand close around his neck.
His eyes opened to a figure out of the madness that swirled through his vision. It was a stark white skull, streaked with calcification and wreathed in fire. The hand closed around his neck was made of thin, spindly bone. The bone creaked and Greg dropped, slamming into the familiar feeling of brimstone.“Guh-”
Greg felt a boot on his chest, forcing out what little was left in his lungs. Above him was a ghastly rider. He was wrapped in leather and hellfire. The skeleton cocked its head, considering him. Greg pushed at the boots. They refused to budge. The skeleton cackled.“You try so hard to resist. You feel me at the edge, rotting your defenses.”
The skeleton drew closer. Greg could feel its head flames licking his face.“It’s only been days since we’ve been together, but you are already losing. Mephisto rallies his forces. Soon, you’ll have to let me out.”
The skeleton’s smile was a perverse thing. The bone drew itself back, sending a crack spidering up past its jawline in a hollow imitation of the gesture.
Greg was soaked in sweat, near naked and on the floor. The dim neon of his clock read “2:33 AM”. He groaned and pushed himself to his knees, trying to raise himself back into the warmth of his sheets. It’d been like this the past few nights. Countless Advils and tylenols to try and drown the voices and the headaches so he could get some sleep. Every time he closed his eyes he was back there, swimming in demons while a skeleton laughed at him. It made him look forward to the back breaking defense work in the morning with Hex.
The Kid and Stripsey had left a few days ago to seek out their old SHIELD contacts to try and accrue some aid; Shining Knight was still convinced that his horse was alive out there, somewhere, and Crimson Avenger tagged along so he wouldn’t get himself killed. Frankenstein had gone off in search of some old occultist friends of his, if they were still alive. That left Greg and Jonah Hex to make what defenses they could for Warpath.
In Hell, the game had mostly been about dumping as much firepower into demons as possible, until they stopped moving, or just outrunning the things. Warpath had neither the luxury of extreme firepower or of mobility. Over the past few days, Greg and Hex set to erecting makeshift frisian horses and digging trenches around the town’s edge. They’d also been trying to get as much Holy Water as possible, but the town’s one Priest who hadn’t split could only work so fast. At least by Billy Gunn’s reckoning the attacks had slowed since the start, but he had a feeling the demons sensed the presence of the town’s new defenders and were marshalling their forces. They’d come in force, and soon.
Greg rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and stared at the wooden ceiling. His eyes followed the gentle curves and cracks in the wood, trying to distract himself from the voices. They were quieter at night, evidently sated by the dominion they held over his dreams. Every other moment they were crying to be let out, attempting to wrest control of his mind and his body. God knows who or what they’d exact their “vengeance” upon. Hopefully he’d never have to find out. All he could do now was close his eyes and surrender himself to the lull of his nightmares…
New York City, New York --- The Offices of Ramon J. Solomano
The office’s intricate tilework had been sledgehammered away to reveal the subflooring. Now there was a pentagrammic rune there, carved in with a small pile of now broken combat knives in lieu of access to a proper cutting tool. The only light in the room was from the Moon, high in the sky, projecting a shaft of light onto the circle and the two figures that stood around it.
Big Caesar wrung his hands at the far end of the circle, his back to Solomano’s desk. On his belt was a wicked, curved knife, with humming red runes beveled into it. Across from Caesar was Solomano, The Hand himself. He held a leathery black tome in one hand, while the other showed his scar to the pentagram.
“I nommus Otsihpem.” The Hand cast the book aside, verbal portion of the ritual done, and snapped at Big Caesar for the knife. The goon complied and the knife sailed through the air. It caught above the center of the pentagram, and the runes upon it changed shade to blue. The humming grew higher in pitch. The knife moved closer to Solomano’s hands as his scar changed its hue, pulsing with the blue.
He snatched it out of the air with his scarred hand and sliced down on the other. His blood dribbled onto the edge of the circle. The Hand made slow revolutions around it, allowing his blood to pour onto every part of the circle. That done, he threw the knife inside. The blood around the circle began to dance, like crimson waveforms, revolving around the circle’s edge.
“I tnaw ot ekam a laed
.” He said. The blood began to vibrate down the lines of the pentagram, moving towards the center and spiraling up into the sky to meet the knife. The blood pulsed to the beat of the knife’s song, gradually forming around it into a necrotic, red torso. The knife’s runes pitch-shifted back to a deep scarlet, as the rhythm sped up. The room itself seemed to vibrate to the hymn, as the blood coagulated into the form of a man.
He was both there and not, a hollow representation of some greater monster. He stood easily eight feet tall, with horns spiraling off his head and down his back. Blood continually dropped or shook off his form and then shuddered back to the center, coming to refill the holes that exposed his empty interior.”Who summons me?”
The creature’s voice was unreal, each word seemed to trail off into the whispered screams of lost souls, and sent vibrations through the blood that formed its body.
“The Hand calls for aid.” Solomano showed his mark to the creature. Its blood lips drew back to reveal the black nothing inside.”What do you require? And what do you offer?”
“I need powered Enforcers. My people need to fight back against the metahuman scourge. In return…” Solomano swallowed, “I offer my mortal soul.”
Somehow the monster’s smile drew back further, the edge of its ‘lips’ going up past its cheekbones.”Exxxcellent… But I have a… Counter offer. Come inside the circle, Roman Solomano.”
Solomano stared into the creatures empty eyes. His jaw hung open. He looked to Big Caesar for guidance, but he was just as locked on the monster. This wasn’t supposed to happen. All the scripts said that the caster should never enter the circle. But he felt compelled. His legs were moving before his brain told them to. Every atom in his body quivered as he crossed the line, slicking his shoes with blood. His organs shuddered in their cages of flesh and bone. Solomano could feel his own sacrificed blood drip onto him as the creature towered over him.”I take your soul… But, you can get it back. I suspect a Vigilante in Texas has something of mine. Just one, little, trident. Get it for me… And your soul is yours again.”
Solomano felt both of his hands rising, slowly, towards the Demon lord. A clawed hand came out to touch each digit on every word:”Just, one, soldier, for, each, finger, on, your, little, hands.”
He said. ”Do you accept?”
Solomano nodded slowly.”Excellent. Sign.”
The creature's blood claws snapped to Solomano’s wrist, turning the mobster’s inner forearm to himself. The creature reached into its own chest, blood pushing past blood, and producing the ritual knife. He forced it into Solomano’s hand.
Solomano bit his shirt with his mouth. It didn’t make his screams any quieter.
When the deed was done, the words “THE HAND” bled anew from Solomano’s forearm.
The creature gave one last smile before all the light left the knife and the rune. All at once the blood lost form and fell in a thick sheet, covering Solomano’s face and clothes. He clutched his new scar and hissed. He turned to Big Caesar, his face locked in a sneer.
“Bring me the fucking Dummy.”