Cyril’s head nodded forward. He had been on the horse for nearly twelve hours straight, and time and again he jarred himself awake. It was obvious the nag was exhausted as well, but Cyril pushed the beast, not caring if he killed it in the process. He was so close he could feel it. It had been four days since he'd left Sagebrush, the town’s air so thick with the reek of death that each breath choked his lungs. Everywhere he looked, there were bodies—weeks dead; mostly picked clean; their sun-bleached bones in disarray where the scavengers had mindlessly tossed them.
The bodies left inside were a different story. Using the heel of his boot, Cyril had kicked in the door to the Sagebrush’s one hotel. Through the haze of dust he’d stirred up, he found a family of four huddled in the corner of the small dining area. They had been spared the scavengers by virtue of the four walls that had become their tomb—but the maggots had descended on them in force. The wriggling white shroud covering them flowed across their bodies like liquid, crawling in and out of their mouths and eye sockets with gleeful abandon as they feasted upon what was left of the rotting corpses. Cyril could imagine their deaths, the wonderful moment in which the coyotes sent on their mission of vengeance had struck these folks down, tearing at their soft throats and pleading eyes.
Cyril had wrapped a kerchief soaked in water and camphor around his face to keep out the heavy odor of death. He went to the jail where they had kept Galen—first as a condemned prisoner, then as a hanged man lying with a broken neck on the hard, packed dirt floor. Inside, Cyril could feel Galen's presence in the room.
He stopped. He cocked his head. There was something else. The presence of someone, no, something else that had been in the cell as well.
He sensed fear—a confirming fear.
This couldn’t have come from Altos; it didn’t smell like him. Cyril even questioned Galen’s ability to experience fear—his level of self-awareness. Whatever the second being had been, it had come in haste and left no more than a trace of its presence. Cyril squeezed his eyes tight and tried to get a closer bead on it. He stood silently in the still air, arms outstretched to the sides, and palms facing upward. He willed it to happen, but could not get a clearer image to coalesce in his mind. After several attempts, Cyril gave up and shut the cell door behind him as he left. There was something different about him now. Before he’d been as sensitive to such things as a dry sponge to water, but he felt as if his ability had diminished since he’d left his post at Fort Jones. The incident there had left him—
“Stop it,” he muttered to himself. Cyril recoiled from the memory—his very body reacting.
“Get a fucking grip,” he chided himself. But his hands were shaking. Once his work was done with Altos, he promised himself that those back in his old regiment would get the surprise of their lives.
He looked around the deserted town.
It was this place, he thought, that was causing this temporary shift from control to a borderline insanity.
This land was cursed. This town had been done a favor by its annihilation. Of this he was sure.
Back at the hotel, Cyril refilled his provisions then went about razing the town. With a torch in hand and several rag-stuffed bottles of whiskey liberated from one of Sagebrush's corpse-filled saloons, Cyril began the process of returning the town back to the earth.
In less than one hour, the deed had been accomplished. Cyril stood outside the burning schoolhouse and watched his work. Feeling the heat of the fire on his face, he fell to his knees. By nightfall, the dozen wooden structures that had made up this small town were little more than embers soon to be swallowed up by the Texas sand.
Cyril knew the direction Galen was heading. His horse, grateful now that they had left the town, went with a looser gait. There was little doubt the ghosts of Sagebrush lingered heavily in the air, but Cyril knew better than to be afraid of such things. Ghosts, he knew, could not harm you; only trick you into harming yourself.
He had been taken by the powers he served—there was nothing voluntary about it. He had been killed in the woods and his bones had been left to rot. Cyril himself was a ghost by all manners of definition.
But that was not true, he thought. He was real. He was flesh and blood. He was.
He was being followed.
The trail out of town had been deserted; it was only him, the horse, dirt, and rock for as far as the eye could see. But there seemed to be something else. Another being broke his feeling of solitude. The hairs on the back of Cyril’s hand stood up. There was a sense of something lurking at the very edge of his vision, but when he turned back, there was only the empty trail behind him. His hunter's instinct was being piqued. He stopped looking behind him, so as to not reveal his awareness to whatever was there. There was a pair of eyes on him, cold and dead like slime on a pond. Whatever was following was getting closer—to the point where Cyril started to believe it was almost breathing down his back.
Slowly he cocked his head, trying to catch any sound. There was only his own breathing. Even the light breeze blew silently past.
Ghosts, Cyril thought again. Wisps of things unseen that dared not appear before him. The air everywhere you went was full of them—millennia worth of spirits of the dead, hiding in walls and between dark shadows. This plane belonged to those who walked the ether between this world and the next, unaware of their own banishment. Cyril forced his eyes into a squint to see them, like ignored dust floating in the air; the countless dregs of the departed appeared in their indistinct forms as tricks of light or haze. Those just beyond the mortal world could do him no harm, and he was far past being haunted by them or any of the faces of those whose lives he had taken.
When he looked again, it hit him what he was now seeing.
Fresh ones cut into the dirt between the deep ruts driven long ago into this dusty and infrequently traveled corridor.
Cyril blinked. Those prints could not be recent. Rain should have erased any footprints, but as far as Cyril reckoned it had been dry here for months.
Suddenly it seemed the horizon was further away than usual. As if it had been pushed back while he had been watching it.
Must be the heat, he reckoned.
He had been in the sun for weeks and knew how that kind of exposure took a toll on a man. He opened his canteen and tipped it to his mouth. During the war he'd seen soldiers with heat stroke drop their weapons and run directly into the path of enemy gunfire, thinking themselves indestructible even up to the moment the bullets kissed their flesh and tore it to bloody ribbons.
Even Galen, Cyril thought. On the night he'd accompanied him into Veracruz, Altos had gone on some murderous tear after spending too much time in the—
Cyril's thought stopped dead, for as he lowered his canteen, he saw more footsteps.
These were in front of him, and advanced in his direction.
Not even a breath escaped him. He was certain they had not been there before. The trail ahead had been—
Empty, Cyril thought.
But there they were, fresh and new in the dirt stretching back down this narrow road for as far as the eye could see.
Yet whoever had owned those boots was nowhere to be found.
Cyril looked down. The prints went directly under those of his horse. He turned back behind him and frowned.
How could that be? He wondered, stopping his horse. Getting down from his saddle, he knelt on the ground to see if his eyes had been playing tricks on him. The footsteps coming from behind him were so new that they lay on top of those just made by his horse—as if whoever had come down this road had doubled back following him.
He quickly drew his pistol and sprang to his feet, spinning to see what he knew what behind him.
Standing in front of him was a man with two badly burnt wings sticking out of his back.
From the scorched angel’s mouth came the voice of a Southern gentleman. “I don't suppose you'd shoot someone without first hearing what they had to say to you.” The stranger grinned. “Oh I’m sorry. I forgot who I was talking to.” He laughed in a near mocking tone.
“Who are you?” Cyril asked.
“Someone with a bit of information you may find important.”
“I asked ‘who are you?’” Cyril insisted. But inside, he sensed that part of the answer lay inside the Sagebrush jail cell.
“Well, if you must ask, mah name is Ghent. Briar Ghent.” His mouth curled upward in a knowing grin. “And your name is Cyril, though you've gone through quite a few surnames, I reckon.”
“Do not presume to know anything about—” Cyril started before being cut off.
“I know you were stationed at Fort Jones out there in the California territory when a mysterious letter caused you to leave your post, and that a day later you were captured by members of your own regiment who dragged you back to the commanding officer. That same captain had you lined up against a wall and shot by a firing squad for being a deserter. Isn't that why it took you so long to get to Kansas City, to the man who sent you that alarming letter in the first place?”
Cyril bristled at hearing his own story told back to him with such blunt detail. Briar Ghent continued.
“Though waiting a couple of weeks wrapped in a shroud buried in shallow ground out there sure beats the heck out of laying around rotting in the woods for more than a hundred years, waiting to be needed, now don't it?” He finished with a cackle. He reached out and pushed Cyril's gun aside—and as their hands briefly brushed against each other, Cyril saw Briar helplessly plummeting from dizzying heights in the sky, his once majestic wings now aflame.
“You see, my boy, you and I seek the same thing: a closure that will bring an end to our otherwise interminable wait on this useless world,” Briar explained. “But you killing Altos will get you exactly the opposite of what you seek.”
Cyril eyed the man before him, confused. He was unsure if he could trust his senses, let alone this apparition. Nevertheless, his intuition was beginning to pique.
Briar leaned in closer, carefully scanning the surrounding area. He brought his voice down to a whisper and began divulging a truth about Galen—one that caused Cyril to realize that everything Miles had told him from the beginning had most certainly been a lie.