Two monstrous machines flanked the entrance to the gate. They towered above me, vaguely man-shaped; two arms, two legs and one ugly-as-hell face. I had been warned about them, told how I could pass unharmed.
Something about a toll at the gate.
My left arm hung limp at my side, my hand caked in dried blood. Other than that I was just dandy.
Behind me the town was already beginning to smell like death.
I could have sworn that I heard the flies gathering, an army mustering for war.
Then the world tilted, and the ground punched my head.
The town was a dark spot in the golden desert. It couldn't have had more than three hundred or so inhabitants.
And it had a bad reputation.
Supposedly I had been there before, but I couldn't remember. There was so much I couldn't remember, important things; like how the fuck I got here, for a start.
My horse had died the day before. It was almost ready for the knackers when I bought it, so I couldn't complain too much.
I wanted to raise it, but I was too weak and besides, I would need everything I had for the town.
That night, I ate horse for the first, and hopefully the last, time in my life. Then I slept, dreaming of rush hour traffic and shitty reality TV. Funny what your mind thinks of as home, no?
The morning brought a messenger.
A black bird, the size of a large house cat, was perched on the horse carcass. It's head cocked, black, beady, eyes fixed on me.
"Well good mornin' to you too, ya old bastard." My voice was dry, hoarse.
Of course, black birds can't speak, not even here in this land of magick. The message, however, was clear. As was the messenger.
I almost said thank you, before remembering that this was mostly the old man's fault. Instead, I looked the bird in the eye and slowly nodded.
With a shrieking caw and a single beat of it's wings, it was gone and I was left to prepare myself for the journey home.
When I woke, it was dark already.
The guardians were still in place, unmoving and, somehow, terrifying for it.
Left arm still useless, I carefully got to my feet, spitting blood from my now mashed cheek.
Life, didn't get any better.
Taking a moment to gather myself, I felt for my guns. I almost panicked, then I remembered the kid and the destruction I had left behind me.
By the time I reached the town the sun was well up. Baking heat made me carry my heavy duster under my arm, my wide brimmed hat still atop my head despite the sweat soaking the band.
Even knowing what to expect, the sight of them was shocking. Man, woman and child, all had changed into a grotesque parody of humanity.
The old man had warned me, told me I would have to use what he had taught me to get through the town to the gate. He had spun a tale of the demons the townsfolk had become: bulging faces, budding horns, even stunted wings. Some were even beginning to rot.
What he hadn't told me was how quiet it would be.
The inhabitants shuffled along, as if about their normal, daily chores. The shop keeper -- jaw hanging loose, giant canines protruding down from under his puffed lip, -- swept the boardwalk in front of his store. A woman in a bonnet carried flowers in her basket, chatting with what looked like a little boy with four arms. If it weren't for the fact that they were no longer human, it could have been any one-horse town, in any cheesy western on the TV back home.
Steeling myself, I drew the two enchanted weapons and stepped over the invisible barrier I knew was there.
I didn't know if I could do it without the guns.
All I wanted was to go home, I had been through enough. Torn away from all that I knew to this hell of a world. Forced to do things a middle-manager should never be made to do. I had done it all, I had played my part.
I gathered what little power was left to me, squared my shoulders and walked towards the guardians of the gate.
Once I had passed the border, into the town itself, I could make no sound. Silence was king in the town of demons. It was worse than if they had screamed, shouted and cursed.
The shock I felt, when the guns didn't produce their usual boom, almost made me drop them. Sheer terror kept my hands tight around their butts.
Snarling faces rushed at me, blood and saliva dripping from gaping maws. I made each shot count, putting enough magick behind each one deadly.
As they dropped, they writhed. The demons that possessed the towns inhabitants fought to control the bodies, but, as the magick forced them out, the corpses resumed their human forms.
Searing pain flowered in my arm as claws bit deep, small cuts appeared on my back, chest and face. Walking forward became an agony.
And, suddenly, there was only one left. Small like a child but with fully formed wings and horns, black flames burned in its eyes.
The demon laughed at me, throwing its head back in silence. Its lips moved and its hands burned black.
The weapons became so hot, I dropped them and watched them melt into a silver puddle, the runes along their barrels flaring briefly. All fear fled me then and I felt the power rise in me, it wasn't my power and it wasn't me controlling it. My mouth opened in a soundless scream and I felt as if I would explode. I screwed my eyes shut, wishing it to be over.
Next thing I knew, I could hear myself screaming. In front of me lay a young boy, no older than eight, his chest was a mass of red.
As I approached the metal monstrosities stirred.
Faces born of hell turned to look at me and I braced myself for the worst.