Ashes to Ashes

Thin River, South Dakota 1875

Anson and Francois’ boots crunched in the windswept dust as they dismounted their horses in front of the Thirsty Nag Saloon. They pushed their way through the swinging doors. Anson shook the dirt of the road from his sleeves and scanned the room. It was the standard, one-horse town kind of bar he had imagined. A smattering of tables pressed into the corners featuring a few dozen card players and drunkards. The bar dominated the far wall, at the end of which, sat an out of tune piano being played by an almost talented drifter. The smell of smoke, stale beer, and urine was powerful in the warm air as the pair made their way to barstools.

Francois sat and placed his arms on the bar, gesturing for one of the two bartenders. An enormous black mustache was the only hair on the gentleman behind the bar. His striped shirt stretched from the muscles underneath. “Welcome to the Thirsty Nag. Name’s Nathaniel. What’ll it be strangers?”

Anson tapped the bar. “Scotch, neat, and information.”

Francois extended a hand to shake. “Hello, my name’s Francois Bordeaux and my gruff friend here is Anson Walker. Please excuse his manners.”

Nathaniel grabbed a dirty bottle from under the bar and poured the dark liquid into the glass in front of Anson. “His manners is fine, we don’t get many dandies like yourself through here.”

Anson chuckled. “I told you that green velvet jacket was a bit much.”

“There’s no accounting for taste in these parts.” Francois shook his head and wiped a smudge off the bar. “I’ll take a beer.”

Nathaniel poured the drink and passed it to Francois. “Y’all some kind of bounty hunters? You should know we ain’t had an outlaw in our town since before the war.”

Anson sipped his drink and smiled. “We’re not bounty hunters.” Anson reached into his pocket and produced a photograph. “We’re looking for our friend, Jacques Beauregard. This is last place I knew he was heading.”

“What would he have been doing way out here? Ain’t no one ever come to Thin River on purpose.”

Francois leaned in. “Our friend is something of a problem solver. People hire him to explain the inexplicable.”

Anson shot a glare at Francois. He was never good at keeping the whole wizard thing a secret.

Nathaniel rested his elbows on the bar, his voice a hush beneath the din of the room. “I remember him now. Called himself a monster hunter. He passed through here a few days back.”

Anson suddenly remembered where Francois learned it from. “Did he mention where he was going?”

“Not to me. But he seemed like a good sort.“ Nathaniel rubbed his chin and smacked his lips. “I think he met with Sheriff Hamilton about something, before riding off.”

Francois shared an uneasy glance with Anson. “Have strange things been happening in your town?”

“Maybe it would be best if we spoke to the Sheriff.” Anson finished his Scotch. “Can you point us that way?”

Nathaniel rose to his full height and looked to his partner behind the bar. “Can you watch the saloon for an hour or so? I’m going to fetch the Sheriff for our guests here.”

Francois stood and placed a hand on the sapphire amulet on his chest. “You don’t have to do that, we’d be happy to walk over ourselves.”

“Nonsense, you fellers have been riding hard from the looks of it. Head upstairs, pick out a room and I’ll be back in two shakes.”

Anson clapped a hand on Francois’ back. “Sounds good to me, we’ll see you soon, Nathaniel.”

The pair headed upstairs and selected the third room on the right. It was a simple space with two threadbare beds, a footlocker, and a wash basin. Anson dropped his coat on one of the beds and walked over to the window. He stretched as he gazed out on Thin River.

Anson had seen hundreds of towns just like it in his journey west. A hopeless collection of shacks and boardwalks relying on two things to keep it afloat: gold and fools’ dreams. The main drag featured the facades of fifteen or so buildings: a bank, a jail, a general store, and of course the saloon. The hot summer night meant that most of Thin River was asleep, save for the drunks downstairs.

“Did you get anything?” Anson said to Francois without turning from the window.

“As far as I can tell he was telling the truth.” The mattress creaked as Francois sat.

“What do you mean as far as you can tell?”

“His thoughts were hazy.”

Anson faced Francois. “Hazy? How so?”

Francois’ brow furrowed, making him look like an overdressed owl. “It was like pushing through molasses. But you know how telempathy can be. I’m probably just weary from the ride.”

Anson crossed his arms. “When is it ever just weariness?”

“I know. I’ll check him again when he gets back.” Francois took a swig from his beer and placed the mug on the footlocker.

After a few minutes there was a knock at the door. Francois answered as Anson finished rolling up the sleeves of his dress shirt. Nathaniel and the Sheriff entered the room. The Sheriff removed his hat and placed it over his chest.

Sheriff Hamilton was an older man with a pot belly and wild white hair. He carried himself with the proud puffery of a former military man. The sheriff caught a glimpse of Anson and Francois and stopped cold. He cleared his throat and said, “Just what I need, more wizards. I ain’t seen one of you in ten years and now it’s three in one week. What’s the world coming to?”

Anson frowned, his grip tense on his cane. Most people who knew about wizards had a habit of shooting first, especially lawmen.

Francois raised his palms to Hamilton. “Is our nature that apparent?”

Sheriff Hamilton shook his head and broke eye contact. “I worked with your kind during the war. Y’all put off this weird sensation. I don’t mean no offense but it ain’t natural.”

“You’re wrong about that. There’s nothing more natural than magic.” Francois put his fists on his hips.

“That’s neither here nor there, Francois.” Anson produced a notepad and pencil from his pocket. “The other wizard, Beauregard, he met with you?”

Hamilton didn’t break eye contact with Francois, but nodded. “Yeah, older fella, said he wanted to help.”

Anson scratched a few notes in the pad. “Help with what exactly?”

Hamilton and Nathaniel looked at each other. The Sheriff spoke first. “It all started a couple months ago. Miners were going missing in the hills, which usually ain’t odd but they was regulars.”

“Regulars?” Anson caught Francois focusing on his telempathy out of the corner of his eye.

If Hamilton noticed, he gave no indication. “Sometimes you get people who give up and head back home, but these were the passionate, fortune or death fellas. My idiot son, Jedidiah was one of them.”

“Was your son one of the men who went missing?”

“Sure was and he wouldn’t have just run off without warning, so I rounded up a posse and we rode out to check the last place he’d been prospecting. He told me he felt good about some cave, so we checked there first.”

Francois stumbled and fell against his bed.

Nathaniel leaned down and helped him to his feet. “You alright?”

“Sorry for the fuss, just a little faint. Keep going.” Sweat dripped from Francois’ pale face.

“I told you you wasn’t dressed for the weather.” Nathaniel helped him pull off his jacket. “Lay back now, I’ll run and grab you something cool to drink.”

Anson scowled and gestured to Hamilton. “Please, continue.”

Hamilton spat tobacco on the floor. “Something destroyed his camp. We found claw marks, but bigger than any bear I ever saw. We searched for hours but couldn’t find anything. The sun went down and night settled, we opted to make camp in the cave and ride back in the morning.”

Anson stopped jotting notes in his notepad. “I imagine that was a mistake.”

“You ain’t kidding.” Hamilton grimaced. “The monster came back in the night, a demon, made of darkness, and cussedness if ever there was one. It killed half of the posse before we could make tracks for town. I’ll never forget the noise it made.”

Anson scanned Hamilton’s expression. With Francois down for the count it fell to him to probe his mind. Pale yellow fear and maroon frustration lurked inside the Sheriff. Anson leaned back and went over his notes one more time. “Strong, fast, and only comes out at night. There’s a lot of things that match this description you understand.”

“Your friend said the same thing. You gotta list?”

“It could be a vampire, a lycanthrope, maybe even a demon of some sort.” Anson stroked his goatee. “I’m going to have to take a closer look at the cave before I can really tell you what we’re looking at.”

Hamilton frowned and pulled his belt up. “He said that too. I offered to go with him, but he took off on his own in the middle of the night.”

“That doesn’t sound like Beauregard. Something must have forced his hand.” Anson closed his eyes and forced out the worry. Beauregard was going to be okay. He had to be. “Would you mind show us this cave in the morning?”

“Whatever you need. Do you want me to roundup a posse?” Hamilton rested his hand on the handle of his revolver.

“I don’t think that will be necessary. I don’t imagine guns are very useful against our prey. Good evening Sheriff, we will see you in the morning.”

Hamilton donned his hat. “Evenin’ fellas.”

Anson walked the Sheriff out and met Nathaniel in the hall. He was carrying a wet rag and a glass of ice tea. “How’s your friend?”

“He’ll be alright, sometimes he has trouble with life on the road.” Anson gestured to the rag. “I can take those back to him. You’ve done more than enough.”

Nathaniel handed over the goods. “Anyone who stays at the Thirsty Nag gets treated like family.”

“We appreciate the hospitality… and the discretion.” Anson raised an eyebrow.

“Of course, I can keep a secret.” Nathaniel smiled and moved down the hallway.

Anson rejoined Francois and placed the rag on his forehead. He let his friend drink some of the tea and placed it on the footlocker. “What happened? Did you get anything?”

Francois shook his head and took a deep breath. “No, it was more like a complete absence of thought. A darkness in his soul that I couldn’t peer through.”

“I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

“I have. The Empath trainer in Avalon once told me that reading Merlin’s thoughts was like that.” Francois’ face was still pale. “You don’t think--”

“No, I killed him. I’m sure of it.” Anson looked away from his friend and exhaled. “Let’s investigate the camp and we don’t find anything we’ll look more closely at our host.”

The following morning Anson and Francois joined Nathaniel in the saloon for breakfast. They ate in relative silence, exchanging few pleasantries. Nathaniel intrigued Anson. The man was strong to be certain but there was an unexpected compassion and intellect to him. He was nothing like Merlin.

After their meal, Anson and Francois met with Sheriff Hamilton, saddled up, and rode for Jedidiah’s campsite. The camp was at the end of a two-hour ride into the hills surrounding Thin River. The party kept the eponymous Thin River on their left, riding in silence.

The camp was located halfway up one of the larger mounds, just off the riverbank. The roar of flowing water drowned out the buzz of insects and the clip clop of the horses. The area was strewn with debris. Torn fabric, shattered shovels and

pickaxes were interspersed with blood stains and broken stone. A dark cave entrance loomed over the site.

The group dismounted. Anson knelt and ran his fingers through the dust. He closed his eyes and focused his other senses on the environment. He could taste magic in his mouth, but something was wrong. Beauregard’s signature hung in the air, but there was a darkness in the energy. Something powerful shimmering in his mind’s eye.

Anson turned to the Sheriff. “There’s definitely something sinister here. I’m not sure exactly what we’re dealing with, but it’s mystical in nature.”

Francois finished tying the horses to a nearby tree. “I can sense it too. Darkness has seeped into this place.”

Hamilton unclipped the holster of his revolver. “Maybe it’s in the cave.”

Anson stood up and brandished his cane, summoning an orb of white light above him. “We’ll scout ahead, Sheriff. Stay here and call out if anything comes. If it’s the monster, run.”

Hamilton drew his pistol. “You got it.”

The wizards passed into the mouth of the cave, Anson’s spell cast a pale glow that reflected off the stone. The air was hot and heavy, pressing down from all sides. Shadows danced with malevolent glee at the edge of the light.

They followed the river to the back of the cavern and found the remnants of the prospector’s operation. A sifter lay shattered against the river bank, along with nuggets of pitch black stone. Fragments of blasted stalactites, and deep cracks were visible in the stone floor. Thick blood stained the wall behind the broken tools and the taste of magic was stronger here than ever. The cataclysmic struggle was short.

Anson walked over to the stained wall and placed his fingers against it. The blood was human, and a trail of it led down a side tunnel. “Francois, stay here and see what you can find. I’m going to follow this trail.”

Francois nodded and began poking through the wreckage.

Anson crept along, letting the orb sweep low in front of him. Scorch marks lined the walls of the corridor, along with deep gashes from claws. Beauregard fought his attacker, retreating as the battle wore on. Anson strained to listen ahead, but could only hear the clicking of his own footsteps. The darkness of the cave settled on him, cold and wet against his skin.

Panic crept across Anson’s mind. He couldn’t imagine anything over powering his mentor, not after everything they’d survived together over the years.

Then his heart dropped flat.

Sitting in the gloom, at the edge of Anson’s vision, was Beauregard’s pipe. Its orange jewels twinkled in the low-light. Blood stained the carved wood. That pipe was his mentor’s focus, losing it meant there was a good chance he lost the fight. Anson scooped it up and clutched it in his fist. He had to find Beauregard.

The stench of decay became overpowering as Anson made it to the deepest part of the complex. A ditch filled the space nearest the entrance of this cavern. The buzzing of flies was almost deafening. Jedidiah Hamilton, the spitting image of his father, was slumped in the corner of the room. Anson peered into the pit and swore. Dozens of corpses in various states of decay were smashed into the floor, mixing with each other in a macabre mural of bodies. Beauregard was on top, his old body broken and mangled, ripped almost in half by massive claws.

Anson fell to his knees and roared in agony. Beauregard was the one who took him in after the Wizard Lords abandoned him during the war. The old man turned Anson from Merlin’s teachings, and continued his training when no one else dared. Whatever did this was as good as dead.

Two quick gunshots and screaming echoed from the entrance, pulling Anson from his thoughts. He gathered himself and rushed to investigate.

A shadowy figure was dragging Sheriff Hamilton into the cave near the shattered prospecting site. Francois clutched his head and cried in agony, “Anson! Where are you?”

Anson tightened his grip on his cane and gritted his teeth. “Stop where you are.”

Nathaniel’s voice resonated from the darkness. “Excellent, I was hoping you hadn’t run off on these poor souls. I need your help, Mr. Walker.”

Anson stepped forward, summoning two additional orbs of light. “What are you?”

Nathaniel dropped Hamilton and regarded Anson with a sneer. “I am the end of all things. I am the oblivion from which the universe was born, and the grave that it will one day crawl into. You may call me Moon.”

“I’ve met some grandstanding demons in my time, but you take the cake pal.” Anson stepped forward, drawing his cane over his arm and aiming towards Moon.

“I am no demon.” Moon frowned and unbuttoned the top of his shirt and stepped deeper into the cave. The shadows coalesced around him. Ripples of dark energy flowed across his body as his stature grew. Long jagged talons began to tear out of his hands. He bent forward and filled the passageway with his hulking form. “You’re perfect for my needs. Virile, angry, powerful. Become my host and you will be spared.”

Anson stopped and assessed Moon. Dark energy swirled through his aura, it was magic, but not like anything he’d ever seen. He wasn’t a demon. “What are you?”

Moon snarled and slammed his talons against the ground. “I am the hate that claws at the hearts of men, a manifestation of pure evil. One day I will be the only thing left.”

“No, you killed Beauregard. Today is your last day. That, I can promise you.” Anson summoned a battering ram made of white energy, smashing Moon against the far wall.

Moon collapsed to the ground, but pushed himself up with in an instant. He crossed the distance between them with astonishing speed and sank his claws into Anson’s torso. Black ash fell from the wound as the magician swore.

Anson brandished his cane and fired two of the white orbs into Moon’s face. The magic sizzled as it burrowed into his head and exploded with a pop.

Moon released him, and fell to his knees.

Anson followed up his spell by cracking his cane into Moon’s knee and releasing a volley of razor sharp missiles into his head.

Moon rolled to the side, oozing black liquid from his wounds. He staggered to his feet and raised an arm to cover his face.

Anson spun his cane and prepped another salvo. “I imagine you haven’t dealt with a white wizard before. I am the Heir of Merlin. My power is beyond your reckoning.”

Moon roared and punched Anson in the torso sending him flying.

The wind left Anson’s lungs as he buckled to the ground. It was a force unlike anything Anson had ever felt. His cursed body rarely felt pain, but this was almost blinding.  

Moon charged forward and stomped on his leg. Bone snapped and Moon smiled in the dark.

Anson cried out in anguish. How was this possible? He channeled his magic into a blinding flash of light and summoned an energy cannon. The artillery fired, knocking a hole in Moon’s chest.

Moon fell from the blast, buying Anson a moment. He redirected some of his energy to form a splint around his broken leg and rose from the ground.

Moon staggered to his feet, struggling as his wound oozed gallons of ink. The creature swiped out and struck Anson, knocking his cane from his hand. The splint dissipated causing Anson to fall on his broken leg.

Moon loomed over him for a moment. The black liquid poured over Anson as Moon’s form slowly began to dissipate into the shadows of the cavern. It buried its talons in Anson one last time before bubbling into a puddle.

Anson swore and spat. He pulled the pipe from his pocket and sobbed. Beauregard was gone, and vengeance wasn’t going to change that.