It was a gunshot that woke the angel Azrael from his dream of the wars and put him on the path to redemption. A single shot that cracked through the hot air of the day like the world had snapped and broken somewhere.
At the time, Azrael was slumbering in the saddle atop the dead horse, letting it take him where it would across the badlands, for he had no destination of his own. He was dreaming of the final battle at the Jericho Wall, of the angel Lazarus standing amid all the dead in the breach in that wall, his bible burning in his hands and flames in his eyes as he stared accusingly at Azrael. The battle cries and screams of the dying were so loud in Azrael’s ears that he almost didn’t hear the shot.
He opened his eyes to find himself riding across the same lifeless plain as when he’d drifted off to sleep hours or perhaps even days earlier. The ground was hard and cracked from the unrelenting heat. He suspected it hadn’t seen a rainfall in his lifetime. It rose and fell here and there, providing just enough cover for someone to set up an ambush. But Azrael saw no other soul, living or dead, and no bullet struck him. There wasn’t even a mark of one hitting the ground anywhere nearby. The shot must have been fired somewhere else, at someone else. He rested his hands on the guns at his hips nevertheless.
The dead horse was following a wagon trail, but that trail had come to a crossroads where it split in two. One branch angled off to the west, while the other disappeared into the horizon in the opposite direction. There were no signs indicating where the trails might lead.
Azrael squinted up at the sky, searching. The merciless sun filled the heavens with a bright emptiness. The two buzzards that accompanied him everywhere were circling to the west, a sure sign there was something of import that way. Azrael nudged the dead horse in their direction. The buzzards had a sense for trouble that was rarely wrong. Experience had taught him it was best not to ignore them.
Azrael didn’t know why he’d dreamed of the war among the angels again after all these years, but he tried to force the memory of it from his thoughts. He didn’t care to be reminded of that distant time and everything he had done and had failed to do. But the gunfire and screams lingered in his mind, as they often did.
As he rode, a shape began to shimmer into existence on the horizon, right under the circling buzzards. A stagecoach, stopped on the trail, with four gaunt horses hitched to it. The closer he got, the more real it became, until he could see that the coach was half painted in red and half bare wood, as if the person doing the job had just given up partway through.
An old man stood outside the coach, two guns on his waist and a hat with a bullet hole through its crown on his head. His hands were empty but hung near the guns, as if they never strayed too far away. He was looking at the body of a man out on the plain, maybe fifty yards away. Another gun lay on the ground near the dead man, close enough to his hand that Azrael figured he knew what was going on here.
There was a time when Azrael would have ridden on and left the old man to whatever fate awaited him out on this empty plain. There was a time before that when he might have descended upon the man with his guns out, ready to pass judgment for crimes real or imagined. But the world had tempered him, as it does all things, so he rode toward the coach slowly, with his guns holstered, to see if the old man needed whatever meager help he could offer.
The old man caught sight of him quick enough and turned to watch him approach. Now Azrael saw he had a ruined left eye that looked as if it had been melted. He didn’t make a move for his guns, and neither did Azrael. Azrael reckoned he could beat the man to it if need be. When they were a dozen or so yards apart, he reined in the dead horse and dismounted, but it took a few more steps toward the coach, as if it couldn’t help itself. He had to hold on to the reins to stop it.
Azrael glanced at the coach, taking in the shadowy interior, the scattering of bullet holes in the unpainted side, the handful of travel bags tied to the back along with shovels and pickaxes and other tools strapped atop them, and the tired horses in the harnesses.
Farther out on the plain, the parched earth had already soaked up all the dead man’s blood. He had the appearance of a hired gun, the type that was supposed to protect coaches and their passengers in badlands such as these. Only something had gone wrong.
The old man eyed Azrael and the dead horse in turn. If he found it peculiar to have an angel ride up on a rotting, half-skeletal mount, he did a fine job of keeping it to himself.
“It weren’t me that did it,” he said, as if worried about Azrael’s judgment. It wasn’t unusual for strangers to try to justify themselves or prove their innocence to Azrael.
“If I had a drink for every time I’d heard that before,” Azrael said.
“It ain’t like that,” the man said. “Three Shots there told me to stop on account of he’d had enough. I figured he was tired of the ride and needed to stretch his legs for a spell. He just said all this ain’t ever going to end. Then he walked over there and shot himself.”
Azrael wasn’t sure if the dead man was named after gun shots or liquor, but he supposed it didn’t matter now. If a man wanted to end himself out in the middle of nowhere, it wouldn’t have been the first time someone had been so inclined. Azrael could sympathize, even though it wasn’t in an angel’s nature to follow that particular path.
“Where were you headed, that wasn’t enough for him?” he asked.
The old man gave Azrael’s ruined wings one last look, then walked out to crouch beside Three Shots. “Why you want to know that, Fallen?” he asked as he turned out the dead man’s pockets. They were bare and full of holes, so he moved on to the gun belt next, emptying it of bullets that he added to his own belt. He moved with the speed of someone who’d had a lot of practice at it.
“Just making conversation,” Azrael said. Which wasn’t exactly the whole truth. You could learn a lot about a stranger by finding out what they were leaving behind or what they were riding toward. “I ain’t seen another living soul in weeks, and my horse ain’t much for talk these days, as you can plainly see.” He stepped a bit behind the dead horse so he had some cover if he needed it, but he found his gaze straying back to the coach.
“Well, I ain’t set eyes on one of your kind since the wars,” the old man said. He picked up Three Shots’ gun from the ground, which drew Azrael’s attention back. “And I’d have been content to keep it that way. In my experience, an angel riding up on you never comes to any good end. Never comes to any end other than more blood and suffering, in fact.”
Azrael could see the tenseness in the old man despite his age, like he was ready to spring into action. The man’s good eye narrowed a little without blinking. A lot could happen in the time it took a man to blink, when an angel was involved.
“You fought in the last war,” Azrael said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Didn’t everyone?” the old man asked. “I can see that you did. You got that look about you.”
“What kind of look is that?” Azrael asked.
“Same as him,” the old man said, nodding at the dead man lying on the broken earth. “But yeah, I saw my share of fighting and then some. I was there at the fall of Absalom when Adam and his legion razed it to the ground. And I marched every inch of that godawful retreat from Hell’s Hope. I was even part of the rebels’ last stand at the Jericho Wall, although I don’t know why I managed to walk away from that one when most others didn’t.”
Azrael knew then it was likely no coincidence that he’d happened across this scene right after his dream of the Jericho Wall. That didn’t exactly come as a surprise. Sometimes the dreams of angels were just dreams, not much different from those of mortals. Other times, though, the dreams of angels were signs to be interpreted, the same as a sudden eclipse or the caul of a child born during a blood moon. He didn’t know yet what his dream meant, but it clearly meant something. He didn’t let any of that show on his face, though.
“I’ve often asked myself why I’ve persisted after one battle or another,” Azrael said. “But I ain’t come to no satisfactory conclusions yet.”
The old man considered Azrael for a time before he spoke again. “Which side of the wall were you on, Fallen?”
Azrael knew what he said next would likely change how the day would go, and maybe even both their lives. But there was no point in drawing things out.
“I’ll confess I followed the first angel, Adam, for a time,” he said.
The old man’s ruined eye winced then, as if those words had caused some affliction to him. But the other one remained steady on Azrael. “You were one of those that turned our world into Hell then, trying to rebuild the Heaven you lost,” he said. His fingers eased onto the trigger of Three Shots’ gun. So he hadn’t been part of Adam’s legion.
“For a time,” Azrael said, then went on before the man decided to do something foolish. “I admit I wanted to help create a new Heaven on this earth, to replace the one lost in the Fall. All us angels did. But not at any price. When I realized Adam meant to raze every inch of this world and build our new Heaven out of the ashes... That was one of the reasons I left the Holy Wave behind and found my way to the ranks of Lazarus and the rebel angels you fought with. That’s the side I found myself on at the Jericho Wall, for whatever it’s worth now.”
The old man was almost completely still, barely even taking a breath. “And whose side are you on this particular day?” he asked.
Azrael shook his head. “I’m done with all that,” he said, although the dream told him otherwise. “The only sides left now are the living and the dead.”
The old man squinted at the way Azrael had come. “That so? Because I find sometimes the past ain’t done with us, and it comes riding up out of nowhere.”
At that, the dead horse took another step toward the coach, as if it were tired of the conversation and wanted to continue on. Azrael reined it in again but not before the old man lifted Three Shots’ gun a little.
“How do I know you’re actually done with the wars and not corrupted, like your kin Lazarus after he got shot down at the Jericho Wall?” the old man asked. “I seen him raise his own self from the dead and turn on those around him, both friend and foe. And I heard the tales of him and his raiders falling upon travelers ever since, and carrying them off to destinations no living soul knows. Travelers like myself maybe.”
“First off, it weren’t Lazarus that raised himself from the dead after he was killed at the Jericho Wall,” Azrael said. “The Lazarus I knew never would have done that. Nor did he have the power. It was his bible that raised him. It was a peculiar holy text with a mind of its own. Second, I don’t want you to get the wrong idea and think I owe you any answers. I ain’t the one with a dead man at my feet.”
He knew he could just ride on and leave the old man behind. Whatever had happened here wasn’t any of his concern. Except there was the matter of that dream. He hadn’t puzzled out the connection between it and this man yet. But he knew there was some question here that needed answering, even if he didn’t fully understand what it was.
The old man glanced at the saddlebags on the dead horse. “Well, maybe you got a bible like his.”
“Yeah, I got a bible, just like every other damned angel,” Azrael said. “But mine ain’t anything like Lazarus’s was. It’s as different from his bible as the Lazarus that fell at the Jericho Wall was from the Lazarus that rose from the dead after. Now, are you satisfied I ain’t looking to spill any more blood in this godforsaken corner of the earth? Or you want to draw on me and find out just what kind of angel I am?”
The old man dry spat at the ground without taking his gaze off Azrael. He didn’t have any trouble facing down an angel, which said something about his character and what he must have gone through in the past.
“Well, if you ain’t like Lazarus, why exactly are you riding up on us then?” he asked.
“A man of your years, I imagine you’ve done a lot in your life,” Azrael said. “No doubt even things you want to make amends for. Only maybe there’s no way to do that now, because the offended parties are long gone. So how do you make peace with yourself?”
The old man stared at him a moment longer before he finally blinked his good eye. “You do what you can, I guess,” he said.
“That’s why I rode up on you. I’m doing what I can.”
“An angel who talks about peace,” the old man said. “Never thought I’d see the day.”
“The fact that I talk about peace don’t mean I’m oblivious to your maneuvering. You didn’t just go over there to check Three Shots’ body for valuables and loot him of his bullets. You wanted to get the angle on me. Because you ain’t alone. ‘Why exactly are you riding up on us?’ you asked. There’s another shooter in the coach, set up for a crossfire. Probably just one, though, or you all would have made a move already. Why don’t whoever’s in there show yourself, so we can make our proper introductions?”
He didn’t have to wait long before a woman eased into view around the edge of the window, pointing a rifle at Azrael. She wore a black mourning dress and enough makeup that her skin looked white as ivory. He could tell at a glance that she was the old man’s daughter. She was young enough she didn’t have the scars of age yet, so she probably hadn’t even been born when Azrael and the old man were spilling blood at the Jericho Wall. He imagined there was some story behind her manner of dress, but everyone in the badlands had a story.
“You appear to be someone intimately familiar with violence,” she said. “We could use someone like that now. It’s a long way to Ezekiel’s Remains.”
“I don’t know if you’re talking about a town or a friend,” Azrael said.
“It’s the next town down the line,” the old man said. “At least according to the map I bought back in Dry Hope.” He sighed, as if coming to some decision he didn’t much care for. “I suppose we could use an extra gun or two now. Especially ones that appear to be as unique as yours.” He eyed Azrael’s guns, then turned his gaze to the landscape ahead of them. “Besides, I don’t know that you have any other place to go anyway. You stray too far from the trail in these parts, you may as well put a gun to your head, like Three Shots did.”
“So you ain’t never been to this Ezekiel’s Remains before,” Azrael said. Not if they needed a map. “This ain’t no regular wagon on a weekly ride.”
“You could say we are in search of something we have yet to find,” the old man said. He took off his hat and squinted through the bullet hole that marred it, as if there were something special to see through it, then put it back on his head. “We bought ourselves this coach and the map from a man who wanted to spend less time out here in the wild and more time in a room with a bottle. Found our hired gun there in the very same saloon. But as you can see, things strayed a bit from the plan.”
“Maybe he had a different plan than you,” Azrael said.
“We’re just hoping for a better life somewhere else,” the woman said. She hadn’t lowered the rifle, and her aim was steady. “And to leave the past behind. Sounds like you and us may have similar destinations.”
Azrael nodded, but he knew these two weren’t being truthful. If they were moving stakes, they’d have had a lot more than travelling bags on the back of that coach. The shovels and pickaxes told him they were up to something else. And no one out here had any hope left for a better life.
“Two bits per day,” the old man said. “Same as we were paying him. It’s a fair wage.”
“Doesn’t appear to have been enough for him,” Azrael pointed out.
“So what would be enough for you?”
The buzzards in the sky caught Azrael’s eye then. They were drifting farther to the west, as if beckoning him down the trail.
“The things I need, you can’t provide,” Azrael said. “But I’ll ride with you for a time.”
“And why would you be so motivated if not for the money?” the old man asked.
Azrael wasn’t entirely certain of the answer to that question. Maybe so he could puzzle out his dream along the way. But he knew that wasn’t the only reason. “Like I said, these days I’m just doing what I can,” he said.
They left Three Shots where he had fallen because the ground was too hard to dig a grave and the day too hot to carry a body with them. They granted him a moment of silence, at least, even though no one said any words in his memory. Azrael thought that was maybe because the others didn’t know him much more than Azrael had, which was not at all.
They followed the buzzards toward the horizon. Azrael rode alongside the coach and scanned the land around them while the woman, who gave her name as Lily, sat inside and poked her head out every now and then, as if checking to see if he was still there. The old man sat up front and guided the horses. He had grudgingly introduced himself as Winter, but Azrael wasn’t sure if that was his real name or an affectation.
They saw no other signs of life, but they passed more of the dead. The wagon trail took them past a plain of skeletons, hundreds of them scattered about the broken ground of some forgotten battlefield. Their flesh and clothing had long ago rotted away, but they hung on to rusting guns and blades. Many of them were still locked in violent embrace, as if death itself could not calm their troubled spirits.
Winter contemplated the battlefield for a time as they rode past, and Azrael knew the question the old man was thinking. He decided to ask it instead, to get it out in the open.
“How’d you manage to escape the Jericho Wall in one piece?”
Winter didn’t look away from the dead. “Don’t know that I did. Sure as all the hells thought I was done when the Holy Wave washed over us. Never knew the world even had so many people, let alone seen them in one place before. No matter how many of those damned souls we shot, Adam’s angels just kept forcing more up to fill the holes in their line. There seemed to be no end to them. But I guess you recall all that, too.”
“Sometimes,” Azrael said, lifting his gaze away from the ancient battlefield and to the horizon ahead.
“Well, that must be a kindness to have such an easy conscience that the past don’t haunt your every waking moment,” Winter said. “I used to wonder what was wrong with us, so many of our kind joining Adam’s cause and wreaking havoc across the land. But then I heard the stories after, that it weren’t voluntary for most of them. That they were prisoners rounded up by Adam and his angels as they scoured the earth. Did I hear right, Fallen?”
“I can’t argue with your recollections,” Azrael said.
“And you just went along with that?” Lily asked from the coach.
“Let’s just say there was a whole herd of reasons why I left the Holy Wave behind,” Azrael said. “And I ain’t much interested in dwelling on the past these days. I’m more curious about what lies ahead. Like what may be waiting for us up there.” He nodded at a smudge on the horizon.
Winter brought a hand up to shield his eyes. “I can’t see a damned thing, but I admit my vision ain’t what it used to be. Not since the Jericho Wall.”
“You take a wound in the battle?” Azrael asked. He’d picked up a few scars at the Jericho Wall himself.
“Weren’t no mortal wound but more of a spiritual one,” Winter said. He rubbed at his ruined eye, as if feeling some pain there. “Happened when Lazarus led us into the breach, chanting from that damned burning bible of his and raising the dead from both sides to fight alongside us. As though the things I witnessed were wounding by their very nature. But I guess that sort of madness ain’t nothing to your kind.”
Azrael didn’t answer because they were memories he would have preferred to forget. He could not shake them for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was he still wished he had put a bullet in Lazarus’s bible, or perhaps even in Lazarus himself, before that day was over.
They left the battlefield behind and rode in silence for a time, long enough that they could make out what lay ahead of them on the trail. Another coach, stopped beside a dead tree that had impossibly managed to grow out here at some point in the past. A figure hung from the tree on the end of a rope, as still as the tree itself.
“Could be time to earn your keep, such as it is,” Winter said.
Azrael rode ahead without discussion because the buzzards had already led the way.
The land was particularly broken in this area, the ground buckled and cracked all over as if the earth had been wracked with some great upheaval here. The other coach sat sideways across the trail in front of them just past the dead stunted tree, blocking their path. Its harnesses were empty and the horses nowhere in sight. One of the wheels was missing, and there were bloody streaks on the door of the side facing them, the finger marks of someone who had been dragged out.
The figure hanging from the tree turned out to be a scarecrow made of straw and wearing a tattered soldier’s uniform. Two ragged wings from a buzzard had been sewn into the back of the uniform and hung limply, staining the scarecrow’s back with blood. It also wore a gun belt with two guns that looked as real as any Azrael had seen before.
There were three graves near the tree, even though the ground was just as hard here as where they’d left Three Shots. The graves were marked with crosses made from the busted-up spokes of the missing wheel from the coach, the rest of it lying scattered around the ground. The crosses had more gunbelts with guns hanging from them. A fourth open grave had no cross, although there was a shovel stuck in the mound of dirt beside it.
Azrael reined in the dead horse a few dozen yards away and studied the scene, trying to make sense of it. Not only was it a peculiar sight, but it was clearly connected to his dream as well. The scarecrow’s uniform bore double skulls on its shoulder patches—the emblem of the Lazarus Legion. He wished he had some whiskey left in his saddle bags, for this was shaping up to be one of those days.
He was still pondering the scarecrow when Winter brought the coach to a stop behind him. The old man climbed down, and he and Lily came to stand on either side of Azrael. Lily held the rifle in her hands again, but Winter kept his guns in their holsters. He seemed reluctant to actually draw them, which didn’t surprise Azrael any. It wasn’t the first time he’d crossed paths with a former soldier who wanted to keep his guns holstered.
Winter studied the scarecrow hanging from the tree for a long moment before he spoke.
“Seems awfully coincidental, first running into a rebel angel out here in the middle of nowhere and then coming across this.”
“I’ve been thinking more or less the same thing myself,” Azrael said. He twisted around on the horse to look in all directions, but he couldn’t see anyone else out here.
“Could be a warning of some sort,” Lily said. “Maybe someone around here heard those tales about Lazarus and travelers, and they are trying to send him a message to keep away.”
“Could be those wings mean whoever constructed this is warning all angels to keep away,” Winter said, eyeing the buzzard wings affixed to the scarecrow.
“Then it would be a misplaced warning, for Lazarus was always on the side of the mortals,” Azrael said. “Maybe on account of the mortal blood flowing through his veins.”
“I ain’t following,” Winter said.
“A mortal woman saved him after the Fall, when our god cast us out of Heaven,” Azrael said. “He told me about it once, before his corruption. She came upon him lying there in the broken earth, ravaged by ghouls that thought him an easy meal. Probably correctly at that. She planted a couple of them back in the ground and drove the rest off, then carried him to her home and nursed him back to life.”
“Why would she do such a thing?” Lily asked, making it clear she couldn’t imagine helping an angel herself. Azrael couldn’t fault her that.
Azrael surveyed the graves, but they offered up no more answers than the coach. “I never knew her, so I can’t speak to her intentions. Lazarus said a plague took her husband and the rest of her kin. Maybe she was trying to offer Lazarus some salvation she could not offer them. She gave Lazarus some of her own blood to help him live. He said that was why he couldn’t help but side with the mortals against Adam when the wars began. Because of her blood inside him.”
“Never heard that tale before,” Winter said after a moment.
“Lazarus didn’t much like to tell it,” Azrael said. “He didn’t want anything to happen to her. But I suppose that don’t matter much now.” He considered the scarecrow. It hung completely still, as if time had stopped here. “If it is a warning, maybe we want to backtrack. Could be whatever you’re looking for ain’t to be found in Ezekiel’s Remains.”
Winter and Lily exchanged a glance, and then Winter shook his head. “We’re going down this trail,” he said. “With or without you.”
There was no doubt in Azrael’s mind now that they were hiding something. Most people would take the time to think things through when faced with a sight like this.
“You may want to ready your guns then,” Azrael said, riding up to the scarecrow. “Because I feel trouble ahead.” The buzzards were circling lower now, as if agreeing with him.
“I only pull them when in absolute need,” Winter said behind him, confirming Azrael’s guess about that. “Ever since the wars.”
“Things somehow get better since the wars ended?” Azrael asked. “Because if so, I must have missed it.”
“I guess you could say I saw what happened to those who couldn’t put their guns away,” Winter said.
Now that Azrael was nearer to the scarecrow, he noticed the bony fingers and toes sticking out the ends of the uniform. Whoever had made this scarecrow had put an actual skeleton inside it.
“You sure know a lot about Lazarus,” Lily said, “yet you’re telling us you don’t know anything about this peculiar tableau?” He didn’t have to look to know she was covering him with the rifle, not the graves or the scarecrow.
“I ain’t one much for old armies or forgotten causes these days,” Azrael said. “I’m as in the dark here as you lot are.” Neither the scarecrow nor the graves were giving up any answers, but the buzzards weren’t moving on. “The only thing I have still binding me to that time is a promise I made to Lazarus but ain’t managed to keep so far.”
“A promise,” Winter said.
“Back before the battle, Lazarus made me promise to destroy his bible if anything ever happened to him,” Azrael said. “I should have done it before that day.”
“Don’t see as it matters much now,” Lily said. “There ain’t much left of that bible anyway.”
“And how would you know that?” Azrael asked.
That was when the ghosts rose from the graves to attack them.
There were three of them, in tattered soldiers’ uniforms like the scarecrow. They came up out of the ground without disturbing it, and Azrael saw at a glance they were all dead, their spectral bodies disfigured by battlefield violence. The ghost that rose from the grave on the left had been gut shot, and her entrails hung around her legs. The one on the right had nothing but torn flesh and bone for his face, with eyeballs smashed flat in the middle of the mess. The one in the middle was the least damaged, with only a knife sticking out of his chest. None of them seemed to notice their current state of being, or they didn’t appear to be concerned about it.
As fast as snakes they pulled the guns from the holsters hanging on the crosses, and now Azrael understood why those weapons had been left there. This wasn’t some little roadside graveyard—the graves were the trap.
Azrael had to admit the specters had laid a good ambush. But they hadn’t accounted for an angel riding shotgun with the next coach that rolled up their way. He pulled out his ghost gun and snapped off a shot as fast as the dead soldiers had grabbed their guns from the grave markers. His bullet caught the ghost with the knife in his chest square in the heart, blowing spectral blood out the back of him. The dead man’s curse turned into a gurgle, and he slumped back down into the earth and slipped out of sight.
Azrael wasn’t able to shoot down the others in similar fashion, though, because just then another ghost threw itself out of the scarecrow and snatched Azrael’s gun from his hand. This one wore the same uniform as the others, but that was where the similarities ended. His face was melted, as if someone had lit fire to him but only his head had burned. Green flames flickered inside his empty eye sockets. The stubs of wings that had been sawed off sprouted from his back. When he opened his mouth to speak, a cloud of flies erupted from it, and his words were like a howling wind.
“Not this time, Azrael,” he said.
Azrael realized this was the moment his dream must have been trying to warn him about, even as he rolled out of the saddle and put the dead horse between them. He’d been drawing near to Lazarus after all these years, and he must have sensed it in some way that was enough to prompt the dream.
He didn’t have time to dwell on it, though, for Lazarus started blasting away at him with his own ghost gun. He put a couple shots through the dead horse that blew away handfuls of its rotting flesh, but the bullets tore into the ground on either side of Azrael without hitting him.
Winter and Lily were not so lucky. They unloaded on the ghosts that had risen from the graves, Winter finally having drawn his guns. At this range they couldn’t miss. But the bullets just went through the ghosts as their bodies turned spectral in substance. Azrael knew it was the nature of such spirits that their guns and any belongings they held turned insubstantial with them, which meant they couldn’t do harm to others. But the ghosts only stayed in that state for a few seconds, long enough for Winter and Lily to empty their guns, and then they came back so they could return fire.
Lily spun around, looking confused by the blood that was suddenly staining her dress, then sank down as if surrendering to a dizzy spell. Winter tried to swear at the ghosts, but the sound turned into a groan instead as a couple of holes opened up in his shirt. He dropped one gun and pawed at his belt to reload the other, but he didn’t have the strength and fell to his knees.
Azrael pulled out his Hell gun even as he went around the back end of the dead horse, using it for cover. The Hell gun did fearsome damage against flesh and blood but wouldn’t be much use against ghosts. It was all he had, though, and he didn’t see any point in running away. There was nowhere for him to run.
“I was hoping maybe you’d met your end for good somewhere,” he called to Lazarus.
“You should know better than to have hope,” Lazarus said. His shots blew more chunks of meat off the dead horse, which didn’t seem to mind any more than it ever had.
Azrael readied himself for the inevitable rush from the ghosts. He figured one of them would try to pin him down while the others flanked him. His only chance would be to pick them off while they were substantial. But he wouldn’t lay any money on himself to come out of this one alive, seeing as one of the ghosts was another Fallen like him.
Once again, they surprised him. The ghosts didn’t even try to move on him. Instead, he caught a glimpse of the woman ghost run over to the coach he was supposed to be protecting and leap inside.
He blasted a couple of shots into the side of the coach with his Hell gun, and the wood exploded like it had been struck with a cannon ball. But the woman ghost was already rolling back out and to the ground, with a few curses Azrael hadn’t heard in scores of years. She held a small wooden chest in her free hand now, and she scrambled past the graves.
Azrael leaned out for a shot but had to duck back as Lazarus sent another bullet from the ghost gun his way, close enough that Azrael felt the icy wind of its passing.
“I got it!” the woman cried.
“Now let’s finish him!” the ghost with the torn-up face said. His voice was close on the other side of the dead horse.
“Let’s get the hell out of here instead,” Lazarus said. “For this is none other than Azrael, the angel of death. You been riding my trail this whole time, Azrael?”
“Can’t say as I intended this,” Azrael replied. “But I did make you a promise I aim to keep.” He stepped out from behind the dead horse then to snap off a shot at Lazarus, for he knew Lazarus had emptied the ghost gun and would need to reload.
Only he couldn’t pull the trigger because Lazarus had thrown Winter across his shoulder, covering his body and leaving a shot that was nigh impossible, even for an angel. Azrael couldn’t risk hitting the old man.
The ghost with the mangled face came around the dead horse then, firing with a gun in each hand. But Azrael was already stepping back because he’d expected that’s what the soldier would do. He fired a shot of his own in return. It took a gun from one of the man’s hands, along with a couple of fingers that faded away as they fell.
The ghost swore and backed away, firing blind as he went. Azrael waited for him to run out of bullets, but as soon as he did the woman ghost opened up and kept Azrael behind cover. They knew what they were doing.
“I free you of your vows,” Lazarus said. “So you can keep on riding and forget you ever crossed paths with me.”
“There’s a lot of things I wish I could forget,” Azrael said, slotting more bullets into the Hell gun. “But it ain’t that easy.” He waited, expecting the ghosts to come at him from three directions at once.
Instead, though, they headed out into the badlands, maneuvering in a way that made it clear they’d learned a few things while wearing those uniforms. They took turns firing at Azrael to keep his head down, one shooting while the others ran and reloaded, Lazarus carrying Winter slung over one shoulder the whole time. They made their way across the plain like that until they were out of range and could turn and run full out. Azrael watched them fade into the land, like a mirage.
It was a strange scene, but Azrael reckoned he had some understanding of it. He’d had the dream of the wars because of Lazarus’s presence. The other spirits had to be war ghosts of some sort, likely some of the dead raised up by Lazarus at the Jericho Wall, judging from their uniforms. Could be they were the raiders that people whispered about in their rumors of Lazarus after the wars. Lazarus himself had clearly met some misfortune in the years since the Jericho Wall if he were a ghost now, too, but it hadn’t been enough to end him. Maybe it was just bad luck that Azrael had stumbled into them out here in the middle of nowhere after all these years. Maybe.
But he knew this was no random robbery. Lazarus and the other ghosts had been looking for the chest they took from the coach. They’d clearly been lying in wait for it, which meant it had to be of some import. Nor did Azrael have an answer for what Lazarus wanted with Winter, who had looked close to death’s door but not quite knocking on it yet when Lazarus had grabbed him.
Azrael knew he could keep on riding, just like Lazarus had suggested. Maybe Winter was still alive and maybe he wasn’t. Maybe he’d bleed out or some infection would finish him off if the ghosts didn’t. Azrael didn’t owe him anything, or Lily neither. There was nothing to keep Azrael from getting back on the dead horse and following the wagon trail to Ezekiel’s Remains or wherever else it led. In days past, that was exactly what he would have done.
But, like he’d told Winter, he wasn’t like that anymore.
Besides, Lazarus had Azrael’s gun now, and he had gone through a lot to acquire it. Azrael wasn’t about to let it go so easily.
He inspected the bindings on the dead horse to make sure the ghosts hadn’t blown away anything important, then went over to check on Lily. She was still drawing ragged breaths where she lay, although Azrael could see from the amount of blood spreading across her clothes that she didn’t have many more breaths left.
Azrael crouched beside her and put a hand on her head. There wasn’t anything he could do to help her, but it was the sort of gesture that made a difference to mortals sometimes. She rolled her eyes around a bit until she focused on him, and then she grabbed on to Azrael’s hand.
“My father?” she asked.
“The ghosts took him,” he said.
“And the relic?” she gasped. “Did they take it as well?”
“If you mean that chest you were hiding away in the coach, then yeah, they took that,” Azrael said. “Should have told me what you really were.” It was clear to him now they weren’t travelers like they claimed. They were relic hunters, wandering treasure seekers looking for artifacts of import lost to the world. Azrael had encountered their kind before, usually at the sites of ancient battlefields and the like. He knew there was good money to be made selling such relics to the right customers, which he figured was the reason for this whole journey.
Lily spat blood free of her mouth so she could speak. “And would you have ridden with us if we had? We needed your guns to get us through the badlands. For all the good it did us.”
“You ain’t the first I’ve disappointed,” Azrael said.
“You need to get it back,” Lily said.
“You won’t to be able to sell it now, whatever it is,” Azrael said.
“It’s not about that,” she said. “It’s the only thing that can save me. And my mother, rest her soul.”
Azrael glanced out into the badlands to make sure Lazarus and his raiders weren’t creeping back. “Maybe you’d best tell me what was in that chest,” he said.
“A page from Lazarus’s bible,” she said. “A scrap of it anyway.”
“Damnation,” Azrael muttered. He’d been hoping Lazarus’s bible had been destroyed, but Lazarus had been right—he should have known better than to hope. He was starting to put things together now, although that didn’t set him any more at ease. “And how did you lot manage to obtain such a thing?”
Lily spat up more blood, some of it spraying his shirt. “We heard that the dead still walked and fought each other where the Jericho Wall had been, all these years later,” she said. “Figured there had to be something causing it. So we ventured there to see for ourselves. Thought maybe we could use it to bring my mother back to life, after the plague took her. Only there weren’t nothing but a landscape of bones and rusted guns for as far as we could see, none of them showing any signs of natural or unnatural life. My father was the one to find it, held tight by a fallen soldier. Said he felt it calling to him and went straight across the battlefield to a big pile of skeletons and dug through them, until he uncovered the one holding that scrap of paper, which had somehow survived the elements all that time.”
Azrael considered her words. The relic was probably why the dead horse had kept trying to walk toward the coach, as if drawn toward it. Angels’ bibles worked in mysterious ways.
“We couldn’t decipher its secrets,” Lily went on. “Truth be told, we could barely look upon it, for it hurt us just to regard it. And it gave us dreams....”
“What kind of dreams?” Azrael asked.
“Visions where we saw ourselves at the same place. The same crossroads or mountain range or what have you. We travelled the land until we found those places, and then we would have the next dream. We knew it was leading us somewhere. It weren’t easy going, though. That little bit of the bible afflicted us in ways I don’t even know how to talk about. That’s why Three Shots ended himself. He couldn’t take it no more.”
Azrael nodded, because he understood the terrible burden of a holy text. It was hard enough for most angels to bear, let alone mortals.
“Lately we dreamed about a little town with a church that had a shot-up bell. The townsfolk all dead, but they were the walking dead. We were trying to find it when you happened upon us.”
“Doesn’t sound like a welcoming place,” Azrael said.
“We figured there was something else calling to the relic. Maybe the rest of the bible. If we had the full bible, then maybe we could use it to bring my mother back from death.”
“There was something calling to that page all right,” Azrael said. “Lazarus himself.”
“You need to get it back,” she told him again. “I’m dying. I know that. But maybe you can use it raise me from the dead. Like Lazarus did those soldiers. And then we can see about my parents.”
“You don’t want that,” Azrael said.
“Easy enough for an angel to say,” Lily said. “You ain’t got to reckon with death like the rest of us.”
Azrael thought about telling Lily he’d had to reckon with death countless times more than she could ever imagine. But he kept his words to himself and his hand on her head to comfort her. She didn’t say anything else, and after a time her skin grew cold under his hand.
Azrael stayed where he was for a while, thinking things over. Lazarus and the ghosts had set up a carefully planned ambush, so they must have known the bible page was coming their way. Maybe they’d had their own peculiar dreams. He wasn’t sure exactly how they’d been tipped off, but he knew that no good would come of Lazarus being reunited with even a stray scrap of his bible. The remains of Lazarus’s bible could only cause trouble, as was evident by the dead decorating the ground around him. He needed to go after them and destroy it.
But if he was going to chase down war ghosts, he would have to prepare first. When the ghosts were in spectral form, they couldn’t be hurt by anything from the mortal world because they weren’t really part of the mortal world anymore, even though they hadn’t fully surrendered to death yet. When they were in physical form, they could be hurt but they couldn’t truly be killed because they were already dead. You needed a weapon like the ghost gun that could kill them for good, no matter what form they took. But Lazarus had stolen Azrael’s ghost gun.
That particular weapon wasn’t the only thing that could harm a ghost, though. Azrael had walked this earth for a long time, and he knew how to kill pretty much everything he had ever crossed paths with. War ghosts were no different.
He started with the one he’d shot. He went over to the grave the soldier had sank back down into and shoveled aside the earth until he uncovered the ghost’s chest and arms. He left the face buried. The ghost took a heaving breath every few seconds, but he was already beginning to fade as he truly crossed over into death. Another hour or so and he would be gone from this earth completely and forever. But enough of him remained for Azrael’s purposes.
Azrael waited for the ghost to become material again for a second and then yanked the knife from his chest. It felt real enough in his hand.
He took it over to Lily’s body and ran the blade through the blood from her wounds. Then he cut his left palm open and added his own blood to the mix. He found a small box of lucifers in a bag on the coach and lit one, running the flame up and down the blade to seal everything together. He muttered a few words of blessing while he worked. He knew all the blessings—the words to make holy water, the sacred utterances to protect babies from the plague, the soothing whispers to usher the dying into death. The blessings he uttered now were the blessings of war and violence. The blood of innocents was best for blessing weapons. Mix in the blood of a spirit like the war ghost and the blood of an angel, and you had what it took to affect even the dead and the immaterial.
When he’d finished, he pocketed the lucifers and stuck the knife in his boot. Then he emptied the bullets from his gun and gun belt and did the same thing with them.
Once Azrael had blessed all his bullets and even the gun itself, he freed the horses from the coach and left them to their own destiny. He kicked dirt over the soldier, burying him again. Then he pulled himself back up on the dead horse and rode after Lazarus and the war ghosts. He had a promise to keep.
The ghosts had left a line of bootprints across the badlands, for Lazarus had to remain material to keep carrying Winter. Azrael followed that trail and the buzzards in the sky until a town slowly materialized on the horizon, as if he had summoned it from the nothingness out here. The sign that had once stood at the edge of the town and named the place had been set alight and was little more than ash now. Azrael decided to call the place Burnt Sign, which was as good a name as any for a place that seemed like a mirage.
But the town became more and more real as Azrael rode near, solidifying into a half dozen weather-beaten clapboard buildings of the usual variety, lining a solitary street. On the left side, a saloon, a corral with a number of horses, and an undertaker’s with a single coffin standing upright beside the shop door. On the right side, a general store, sheriff’s office and barber’s shop. The street ended at a church with closed doors and two stained glass windows to either side, one broken and boarded up but the other not. The bell in the spire and the spire itself were scarred by dozens of shots, as if someone had been using them for target practice.
The town’s graveyard was at Azrael’s end of the street. A half dozen of the graves had been dug up, and coffins were scattered across the ground, all smashed open. A few of the coffins were empty while most still held skeletal remains.
They weren’t the only dead in the town.
A man in a suit with a cane and a bullet hole in his forehead was meandering along the street, weaving from side to side like a drunkard as he headed toward the saloon. A pair of men in laborer’s clothes were bumping against each other in the doorway of the general store, one trying to go in while the other was trying to go out. Neither one seemed to understand how to turn to go past the other, perhaps because the one coming from the street had half his head blown away and the one coming from the store had rotted so much that he no longer had eyes. Through the broken window, Azrael could see a similarly decomposed woman with a cut throat wandering inside. Another woman in better shape except for the hangman’s noose around her neck stumbled aimlessly in circles in the middle of the street, stopping and looking around every now and then, as if trying to find something or someone she had lost. A man with charred melted skin that looked like he’d been burned alive climbed into the coffin propped outside the undertaker’s store, as if checking how it fit him. He stepped back out and stared at it and then stepped into it again, over and over.
None of them seemed to notice Azrael as he rode up. It was like they didn’t know where they were or they were missing some guiding thought.
Lazarus’s trail disappeared in the town, obscured by the marks of the wandering dead. The fact that the buzzards were circling over the town was as good a sign as any that the ghosts were still here, though.
Not everything in the town was dead. The horses in the corral were gaunt but otherwise looked cared for, unlike the town’s dead residents. They were about a half dozen in number—enough for a stagecoach and a couple of riders.
Azrael reined in the dead horse at the edge of the graveyard. This was the town from the dream that Lily had spoken about. It had been drawing them to it as sure as he’d been drawn toward Lazarus with his own dream. He didn’t know the connection between the bible page and this town, but he suspected there was an answer hidden in one of these buildings.
One thing he was certain of was that the dead walking these streets weren’t more war ghosts, or even ghosts at all. They were dead, that was for certain, or rather had been dead. But someone or something had obviously raised them from that final rest. Azrael figured Lazarus to be the likely culprit, but these dead didn’t appear the same as those Lazarus had raised so many years ago. They seemed confused and aimless compared to the violence and ferocity of those risen soldiers at the Jericho Wall.
Azrael would have liked to observe the town more and think things through better, but he couldn’t linger. Lazarus was somewhere in the town, and the bible page was with him. And there was also Winter. Given how badly he’d been wounded, time was no doubt running out for him.
Azrael dismounted the dead horse and pushed it ahead of him, so he could use it for cover once more. He followed it along the street, deeper into the town.
Now that he was closer to the dead, he could hear them all mumbling to themselves in ragged voices that seemed as aimless and undirected as their movements. The dead paid Azrael no mind, though, and in fact seemed unaware of his presence. That didn’t put him any more at ease. He scanned the doorways and windows, looking for some trace of Lazarus and the other war ghosts.
Then he saw it. A stain of blood on the church steps, already drying out in the day’s heat but not quite dry yet. They had to have brought Winter in there. Azrael was so intent upon that trace of blood that he almost missed the shadow of the buzzard passing over him, moving back in the direction he had come. As if it were pointing behind him.
He spun to the side and caught the war ghost who had been gut shot coming up out of the ground underneath one of those coffins in the graveyard—pulling herself right through the coffin and snapping off a shot at Azrael. Her bullet would have no doubt planted him in the ground if he hadn’t turned around. As it was, he felt something tug at his shirt on his left side.
He fired a shot of his own as the ghost turned insubstantial again and dove back into the ground. His blessing on the bullets worked, and the shot hit her gun and took it from her hand. That wasn’t enough to stop her, though, and she disappeared into the earth with a curse.
He wasn’t certain why the ghosts had ambushed him again here when they’d chosen to flee earlier. This town or something in it had to be important to them if they were willing to stand and fight. He didn’t have time to dwell on it, though, because he needed to get out of the open.
If the ghosts had seen him coming, they were likely thinking a step ahead and anticipating his next moves. He was going to have to be unpredictable to get through this alive. So he threw himself away from the dead horse as it drew even with the corral. At the same time, shots rang out from the corral, and bullets whipped through the air in between Azrael and the dead horse.
The shots prompted the horses in the corral to bolt, running this way and that in an attempt to get away from the gunfire. Azrael caught sight of the ghost with the missing face in their midst before the specter darted deeper among them and vanished again.
Azrael fired a couple of shots into the corral to keep the ghost’s head down while he whispered a quick command into the ear of the dead horse. It turned and galloped toward the corral, and Azrael kept close behind it. The dead horse ran past the woman with the noose around her neck, who was wandering toward the church now, and hit the railing of the corral. It plunged through, knocking the rails free of their posts for an entire section. It was the sort of impact that would have seriously injured if not killed a living horse, but the dead horse didn’t have to worry about such things.
The living horses were spooked by a dead horse suddenly appearing in their midst, and they scattered away as it charged into the corral. That was exactly what Azrael had wanted, as their flight revealed the ghost hiding among them.
The ghost tried to chase after the horses to hide again, but they were too panicked to stay still long enough for him to disappear once more. He realized that and lifted his gun to aim at Azrael even as Azrael came at him.
Azrael fired, and a bullet blessed with the blood of innocents, an angel, and a ghost, and then shot from a Hell gun, smashed into the remains of the ghost soldier’s face and blew it apart. He started fading as he fell and was completely gone by the time he hit the earth.
The horses surged through the gap in the fence and out into the street, raising a dust cloud as they went. Azrael used the cover of it to crouch down behind a section of fence and reload his gun.
He knew he was at a hell of a disadvantage. Lazarus and the ghosts had clearly seen him coming and set up this ambush, and he was still outnumbered. The ghosts could come at him from anywhere in the town. The best thing to do to save his own hide would be to pull back out of the town and look to pick off the ghosts from a distance.
But Azrael had never been one particularly inclined to save his own hide. Besides, pulling back would mean leaving Winter and the bible page with Lazarus for longer than he liked. He had to find a way to the church.
“That’s two of your number down,” he called out. “You want to parlay before I add to the toll or one of these unfortunate townsfolk get caught in the crossfire? Or do we keep inflicting ruin like the days gone by?”
He wasn’t expecting Lazarus to agree to any truce based on his actions to date, but maybe the nature of Lazarus’s response would tell him something about why this town mattered. And if the ghosts just replied with more bullets, well, then at least he’d know their positions.
“This place was already a ghost town when we first set foot in it.” A voice like the howling wind came from the street, and Azrael snapped his gun up as a figure stumbled out of the dust his way. The voice sounded different than Lazarus, though. And it wasn’t Lazarus that emerged from the dust but one of the dead laborers he’d seen earlier. “We’re bringing life back to it, not ruin,” the laborer said.
Azrael kept his gun on the man but didn’t pull the trigger. The laborer had no weapon that Azrael could see. Nor did he seem particularly interested in Azrael despite speaking to him. He was staring straight ahead, looking past Azrael like he didn’t even see him. Maybe he didn’t, for Azrael realized it wasn’t the dead man that was addressing him now but instead Lazarus speaking through him. All the angels had their tricks, and this was one unique to Lazarus.
“If repopulating this town with the living is your goal, you don’t appear to be doing a very good job of it,” Azrael said.
“We’ve got some distance to go, I’ll grant you that,” the dead man said. He walked up right into a length of surviving rail around the corral and kept moving his legs like he was trying to push through it, or didn’t have enough awareness to even realize there was an obstacle in his path. “But we’ll get there eventually.”
“What’s so special about this town that you set up here instead of going home?” Azrael asked. “It don’t look any different to me than all the other ghost towns scattered across the land.”
As soon as he was done speaking, he left his position and eased toward the broken gap in the corral fence, heading toward the church. He knew he had to move before Lazarus and the remaining ghost caught him in a crossfire.
The dead man stumbled over a piece of loose rail on the ground but managed to right himself. He was facing toward the church now too, and he staggered back into the dust cloud, muttering something about finding his hammer and nails. The storm was gone from his voice now.
At which point the dead man with the cane wandered past Azrael in the opposite direction. “I got no home left,” he said, and it was Lazarus speaking again. “Adam sought out mine after the wars and burned it to ash out of vengeance, then spread the ash on the winds to ensure I had nothing to return to.”
So that’s why Lazarus had come to this place. He was after a new home.
“I’ve given up enough for this world, and now it’s time I took something back,” the man with the cane said, as if Lazarus had guessed Azrael’s thoughts. “I just wanted a place where we would be left alone. Where we could get back to life how it’d been before the Jericho Wall. But then you came along.” He kept walking, disappearing into the dust. “You ain’t going to be moving on, though.”
The dust was starting to settle, enough that Azrael could make out the dead horse standing in the middle of the corral. Which meant he didn’t have much time before Lazarus or the other ghost would be able to spot him. Lazarus was just giving him enough information to keep him talking until they could find him.
And he had even more questions than answers now. Why was Lazarus raising the town’s dead? Besides which, there was something peculiar about these dead beyond the fact they were once again walking the earth. If this place truly had been a ghost town for a time, then the dead buried in the graveyard would be completely skeletal by now, like in the unearthed coffins Azrael had seen there. Even Lazarus couldn’t stop the flesh of the dead from rotting. But these walking dead looked as if they hadn’t been in that state no more than a few weeks.
He had to get to the church.
Azrael left the dead horse in the corral. He went back out into the street and nearly ran into the woman with the noose around her neck as she came out of the dust.
“He’s dead. They’re all dead,” she muttered. Her own voice and not Lazarus’s.
Azrael grabbed her and spun her around, pushing her toward the church and using her for cover. She didn’t resist him, so Azrael figured Lazarus wasn’t controlling the dead in any meaningful way other than speaking through them.
He wouldn’t have long before one of the remaining ghosts realized he wasn’t just another dead man walking. The church was only a few dozen steps away, and maybe all the answers to his questions were inside.
That was when he noticed the woman’s fingers. The nails were all broken and her fingertips ragged and bloody. Like they’d been clawing at something. He remembered the bloody finger marks on the stagecoach door, and another piece of the puzzle fell into place.
There was a sudden movement behind the church window that wasn’t broken. Then Azrael realized it wasn’t behind the stained glass but was instead a reflection. He stepped to the side and yanked the dead woman around as the first shot rang out, kicking up dust where he had just been.
The war ghost who had ambushed him at the graveyard was on the roof of the sheriff’s office now with her remaining gun. Her vantage point allowed her to see down into the street unobscured by the settling dust. But she hesitated at shooting again as Azrael crouched behind the woman with the noose.
Azrael had no such hesitation. He snapped off a shot of his own that sent her dropping back down behind cover.
Azrael didn’t know if he’d hit her or not, but he didn’t want to stand around in the open waiting to find out. His boots found the bottom of the stairs leading into the church behind him, and he dragged the dead woman up to the top. The doors were open a crack, as if inviting him, and he threw himself inside the church, spinning the woman around again as a shield and kicking the door shut.
Someone had ripped up all the pews and smashed them apart with an axe or some similar tool, reducing them to so much kindling that littered the floor of the church. The only furnishing that remained standing was the altar at the other end of the church. Winter was lying on top of it, holding the small chest the war ghosts had taken from the coach in one hand. The lid was open a little, and Azrael could see a scrap of scorched paper inside. He knew at a glance from the symbols he could see upon it that it was from the bible of Lazarus.
Winter was still alive but in a bad way, his chest heaving with irregular breaths and his shirt stained all the way through with blood. He still hung on to his remaining gun with his other hand, as if he wasn’t ready to give up the fight quite yet. But the way he stared up at the ceiling like he wasn’t seeing anything told Azrael he probably wouldn’t make it to nightfall without help.
Azrael left the woman with the noose and started toward Winter. “These walking dead ain’t even from this town, are they?” he yelled. There was no point being quiet now, for the ghosts knew where he was. “They’re travelers you killed and then raised back up. This woman is from that other coach.”
“Can’t have a town without people,” the woman with the noose said, her voice filling with that sound of the howling wind. She stumbled among the broken pews, still searching for who knew what. “And the old ones buried here were no more than bones, as you no doubt saw. We needed residents that were a little more lively.”
Azrael paused just out of arm’s reach from Winter, studying him. He wouldn’t put it past Lazarus to have hidden some trap on Winter or the altar.
“So you killed these poor innocent souls just so you could keep them captive in your new home?” Azrael asked.
“Who in this world is innocent anymore?” the woman said with a laugh.
“Tell me how that’s any different from Adam burning the world to make a new Heaven,” Azrael said. “Can’t you see your own corruption?” He was hoping that maybe there was still some trace of the old Lazarus left in this troubled spirit, and that he could reach it.
“We all become corrupted if we live long enough,” the woman said.
“Well, it don’t seem to be working out any better for you than it did for Adam,” Azrael said. “Unless your notion of Heaven is a town full of mindless dead.” He walked around the altar, so it was between him and the door, just in case Lazarus or the other ghost entered that way. They had had to know he was in here with Winter and the relic. So why weren’t they coming for him?
“I need my bible to raise the dead properly,” the woman said. She was bumping up against a window now, as if trying to see what was on the other side. “I’m not quite the angel I used to be without it. I’ve been fading away ever since I lost it at the Jericho Wall. I knew that enough of it survived to keep me in this realm, in spirit if not flesh. So imagine how I felt when I started dreaming some months ago of this page coming back to me, in a coach with a couple of travelers accompanying it. A chance to become whole again! You weren’t in that dream, so at first you were an unwelcome surprise. But it turns out you’re the answer to my prayers.”
Azrael stepped forward at that and reached for the chest that Winter held. It was time to end this madness. The paper inside was so ancient and brittle it looked as if would simply crumble in his grasp. Then he would finally be done with his promise to Lazarus.
That was when Lazarus rolled out of Winter’s body in his spectral form, onto the other side of the altar, and brought the ghost gun to bear on Azrael.
Azrael was able to catch Lazarus’s hand as he turned corporeal again and deflect the gun away before Lazarus could pull the trigger. Azrael tried to bring his Hell gun up for his own shot, but Lazarus caught his hand in turn. They strained against each other in a stalemate, Winter lying on the altar between them.
“Have to drive the ghouls away,” the woman muttered, face still pressed to the boarded-up window. Her voice was her own once more. “Are you a ghoul?”
Now Azrael finally understood what Lazarus and the war ghosts were doing in this town.
“That ain’t no traveler,” he said. “At least the soul in her ain’t. That’s your love.”
Lazarus’s burning gaze flicked to the woman, then back to Azrael.
“Like I said, when Adam was done there weren’t anything left of my town but ash,” he said. “I couldn’t raise her without a body for her.”
“You’ve been killing travelers and using their bodies to host the spirits of your townsfolk,” Azrael said. “Raising souls into bodies they don’t belong to.” That must have been why the ghost on the roof had hesitated at shooting when Azrael had used the woman for cover. She didn’t want to harm one of Lazarus’s people.
He tried to imagine what it felt like for a soul to be trapped in a body not its own. The only thing he could think of was what he’d felt after the Fall from Heaven, when he found himself in this world.
Now he knew what the war ghosts wanted with Winter. But having an answer didn’t make him feel any more at peace.
Azrael’s fingers suddenly went through Lazarus’s hand, as Lazarus turned spectral once more and dove forward, through the altar and through Azrael himself. Azrael felt a cold sensation slide between his ribs—and then he felt an even colder burning of metal suddenly spike into his side. Lazarus had grabbed the knife from his boot and buried it in him.
Azrael dove away, spinning around with the Hell gun. Lazarus was running for another window, pointing his gun back at Azrael. His other hand held the chest containing the relic.
Azrael only had time to squeeze the trigger once before Lazarus reached the window. He shot the chest out of Lazarus’s hand even as Lazarus leapt for the window and fired his own gun at the same time.
The wooden chest shattered under the impact of the Hell gun’s bullet, shards flying off in every direction. The bible page hung in the air for a second, sparks showering from it and smoke curling from one edge. Azrael had been hoping to destroy the page, but the bullet had only caught one corner of it. That was enough that some of its power was escaping, though. Lazarus twisted around, trying to snatch it out of the air, but his momentum carried him through the window and outside before he could lay his fingers on it.
Azrael had steeled himself to take Lazarus’s bullet, but it didn’t strike him. Instead, it smacked into Winter’s temple, blowing his brains across the altar.
Azrael muttered a curse. He shouldn’t have been surprised he hadn’t been able to save the old man. That was nothing new. The number of people he’d been unable to save over the years outnumbered the stars at this point. But it stung nearly as bad as the knife in his side.
He headed for the bible page, which had fallen to the floor.
But then a whirlwind of smoke and sparks poured out of the page, obscuring it. The whirlwind quickly grew to fill the inside of the church, and Azrael cursed again as he stumbled forward, trying to find the page in the smoke. It was always dangerous to harm a holy text, and this one was proving no different.
He reached the spot where he thought the page had been, but it was no longer there. It had been moved somewhere during the chaos. Or maybe it had moved itself.
Azrael took hold of the knife buried to the hilt in his side and yanked it out. It hurt twice as much coming out as it had going in, and he had to catch his breath for a moment. He knew he would live, though. It took more than a knife to kill an angel.
He stumbled through the smoke some more, until he could see the woman with the noose around her neck. No, not a woman. An abomination. She was mumbling to herself again, but he couldn’t hear what she was saying because of the howling wind.
He lifted his Hell gun and shot her in the head. She dropped to the floor and was still. And now Azrael was the only living soul in the church.
“Ain’t no reason for you to linger,” he called out to Lazarus, wherever he might be. “Best you follow your love through to the other side and whatever awaits there.”
“I ain’t done with this world quite yet,” Lazarus yelled back from outside. “And I ain’t done with you, either.”
Azrael stepped over the fallen body and went over to the door. He opened it a crack and peered outside. All the dead of the town were converging on the church, along with a good dozen more that must have been inside the buildings. They muttered to themselves as they came, a chorus of madness. The war ghost with her guts hanging out was moving along the rear of the crowd, herding them forward. She ducked down behind the man in the suit with the bullet hole in his forehead and fired off a shot that slammed into the door beside Azrael’s face, making him duck back into the church.
“We got him pinned now, just like you said!” she shouted. “He ain’t going nowhere.”
Azrael knew in that instant he’d walked into another trap, and he hadn’t even seen this one coming. The ghosts hadn’t been trying to keep him out, like he’d thought. Instead, they’d drawn him into the church and boxed him inside. The blood on the steps had probably been bait to get him where they wanted him.
He saw the trap now, too late. The ghost popping up out of the graveyard behind him, to force him into the crossfire from the corral, and then making him retreat into the church. The bible page in plain sight, to lure Azrael to the altar, where Lazarus had been lying in wait. And now they were penning him in with the dead.
He shifted position to the broken window and peered out through a crack between the boards. “You planning on adding me to the town’s population?” he asked, and the crowd all laughed as one.
“An angel would make a pretty good body for any of our lost souls,” the woman with the cut throat said in Lazarus’s voice.
“Something so hard to kill as you, well, we wouldn’t have to worry about our loved ones dying on us again, would we?” the laborer who’d had his head partly blown away said, also in Lazarus’s voice.
“I have to admit, when we first encountered you at the coach, I just wanted to get the hell away from you because you’re so damned unkillable,” the other laborer said. “But I knew you’d follow because of that promise I made you swear back at the Jericho Wall. Then I got to thinking how this town could use an unkillable angel. My love gave me her blood to keep me alive after the Fall. I’ll do her one better by giving her an angel’s body to keep her alive.”
“You have the page?” the woman ghost asked, putting another shot through the door of the church. So they weren’t quite sure where he was. That was something at least.
“It’s still in there with Azrael,” one of the other dead said. The man from the undertaker’s that had been stepping in and out of the coffin. “It won’t be able to hide from him forever, though. Let’s get in there and finish this.”
Bullets started slamming through the clapboard walls of the church then. The ghosts were firing in a spread, no doubt hoping for a lucky shot or at least to drive Azrael back and behind cover. He knew what would come next. The ghosts would force the dead through the door, much like Adam had forced the Holy Wave to attack the Jericho Wall. Azrael wouldn’t be able to gun them all down before Lazarus and the remaining ghost made their move.
“You only kept the old man alive as bait, didn’t you?” Azrael said, reloading his gun and taking a few steps back so they would hear his voice receding into the church. “And once you had me in here, you needed him dead to make room for a new soul in his body. One of your own.” He cast about for the bible page one last time but still couldn’t see it anywhere in the whirling smoke that filled the church.
“Can’t call a dead soul into a living body,” Lazarus said. “Believe me, I’ve tried.”
Azrael knew he’d made a mistake. Maybe if he’d come into town like the death angel he’d once been and killed everything that moved, then he wouldn’t be cornered here in the church. Maybe Winter would even still be alive. It was his fault that once again, innocent blood had been spilled. And it would be his fault if the ghosts killed him and raised him from the dead with some new soul to occupy his body and wreak the kind of trouble that Azrael couldn’t even guess at.
He’d tried to leave that past behind. But it was time to be the angel of death once more.
He ran forward and out the church doors then, even as more bullets burst through the walls. Most were directed into the church behind him, the ghosts trying to guess where he’d been retreating toward, but one burned a line across his left shoulder and another tugged at the remains of his right wing. Neither stopped him.
The war ghost with the torn-up guts tried to take cover behind the dead man with the hole in his head, but Azrael put two bullets into the man. The first expanded the hole in his head, and the second went through that hole and took the ghost herself between her eyes. The dead man fell forward while the ghost fell backward, dropping her gun. But only the gun and the dead man hit the ground, as the ghost faded away.
Azrael rushed down the steps, firing into the crowd as he went. He shot one of the laborers and the man from the undertaker’s shop, dropping these abominations that had the wrong souls in their bodies. He normally wasn’t one for gunning down innocents these days, but in this case maybe he was doing them a favor. He scanned the street for Lazarus but didn’t see him anywhere.
Then he heard the sound of footsteps on the floorboards of the church behind him, just as he reached the bottom step. He spun around to see Winter pointing his remaining iron at him from the doorway. The old man was somehow alive again. Azrael didn’t have time to move out of the way before Winter pulled the trigger, and the shot took Azrael in the opposite side from where Lazarus had stabbed him. His flank went numb for a second, then lit up with fire. He managed to throw himself into the crowd, rolling around their feet. More shots kicked up the dirt about him, but they weren’t from Winter. They were from Lazarus, who came out of the coffin propped against the wall of the undertaker’s shop. He held Azrael’s ghost gun in one hand and his own gun in the other. Azrael crawled behind a dead man wearing a barber’s apron, but Lazarus blew away the man’s head and he fell to the ground, leaving Azrael exposed.
Azrael knew in that moment that killing Winter had been yet another trap set by Lazarus. He had shot Winter so Azrael would forget about him and redirect his attention to those outside the church. Then Lazarus had raised someone up inside Winter’s body to shoot Azrael from behind. He’d outplayed Azrael at every step.
Winter paused at the top of the steps and felt around his neck with the other hand, as if searching for something that wasn’t there. And now Azrael saw the scrap of paper from Lazarus’s bible. It was fluttering down the steps toward Lazarus, as if caught in some breeze.
“Lazarus?” Winter said, in a lost, thin voice that didn’t sound anything like him. He scanned the crowd until he caught sight of Lazarus, then smiled.
“Well, I’ll be damned all over again,” Lazarus breathed, pausing to stare at Winter. His voice sounded different now, more of a gentle breeze than the storm of before. “I wasn’t sure if I had enough of my bible present to manage a proper raising again, but look at you.”
Azrael knew what Winter was feeling for around his neck. The noose. Lazarus had raised the soul of his lost love in Winter’s body, now that Winter’s own soul had departed it.
“What am I?” Winter said in that same lost voice, looking down at herself.
“Patience,” Lazarus said to Winter. “We’ll soon have all eternity to get reacquainted. And I will have a better form for you momentarily.”
Azrael rose up for a shot as Lazarus turned back to him. He’d only have time to pull the trigger once, but there were two facing him down now, angel and abomination. So Azrael made his choice. He put a bullet right between Winter’s eyes, blowing out what little was left of his brains. Winter stared at him for another heartbeat, then tumbled down the stairs and was still again.
Lazarus let out a howl and took a step toward Winter’s body, as if he couldn’t help himself. It was all the distraction Azrael needed.
He put the last bullet from his Hell gun into Lazarus’s chest, sending him stumbling back into the empty coffin propped against the undertaker’s shop. Lazarus dropped his guns and grabbed on to the coffin’s sides to pry himself back out, the flames flaring in his eye sockets.
“If death itself didn’t stop me, what makes you think you can do any better?” Lazarus spat.
Azrael reloaded, doing his best to ignore the pain in his sides from the knife and the bullet. He was moving slow and didn’t know if he’d be able to hold off the remaining dead if they turned on him. But they seemed to have lost interest in the church and him now that they weren’t being herded by the war ghost.
“I’ll just raise her up again,” Lazarus said. “If I can’t use you, I’ll find someone else. I’ll empty out every last body on this world of its soul if I have to.” His hands closed on the air above his holsters, as if trying to draw his fallen guns.
Azrael remembered then what Winter had said back at the ambush site, before all the shooting had started. I saw what happened to those who couldn’t put their guns away.
He dropped the Hell gun into its holster, then looked about for the scrap of bible page. It was blowing toward Lazarus as if still carried by some invisible wind, picking up speed as it went.
Azrael bent down and reached for the page. It darted away from him at the last second, but he’d been expecting that and lunged after it, managing to catch it. At the same time he snatched the box of lucifers out of his pocket and slid it open, grabbing one and lighting it on a bullet in his gun belt.
“You’ve already come back from the dead once,” he told Lazarus as he touched the lucifer to the paper. Flames leapt up the page, and it writhed and twisted in Azrael’s grasp like something alive. “There’s no guarantee you won’t do it again. So I’m going to make sure there’s nothing calling you back. And fulfill that promise I made long ago.”
Lazarus threw himself forward and tried to rip the page from Azrael’s grasp, but his fingers closed on no more than ash that fell away back to the earth as the fire burned itself out.
“God damn you, Azrael,” he said.
“He already has,” Azrael said.
Lazarus slumped back into the coffin and didn’t try to pull himself out this time. “All you’ve done, how do you live with yourself?” he asked. The flames in his eyes flickered and then died.
“I do what I can,” Azrael said.
The townspeople suddenly began to fall to the ground up and down the street, as if they’d been emptied out of whatever little guiding force they had. They didn’t move again when they hit the dirt. The wind howled out of the church and raised dust from the street, scouring Azrael for several seconds before it faded away as quick as it had come.
When Azrael looked back at Lazarus, he was gone and the coffin empty once more.
Azrael wasn’t sure if the page he’d burned had been the last of Lazarus’s bible. If it was, maybe this would finally put Lazarus to rest. Azrael doubted he would ever know the outcome of that, though. Like Lazarus had said, he should have known better than to have hope for anything. But sometimes he just couldn’t help himself.
Azrael crossed the street to pick up his ghost gun. He turned it over in his hands, inspecting it, but there wasn’t even a scratch on it from its time spent in the hands of an undead angel. He slid the ghost gun into its holster, then whistled for the dead horse.
He checked his wounds while he waited. They hurt like hell, but they weren’t anything fatal for the likes of him. And they weren’t anything he hadn’t experienced before. He’d live, for better or worse.
The dead horse returned to his side, and he pulled himself back into the saddle. He glanced up for the buzzards and saw they were circling higher and higher in the sky, as if no longer interested in the town and its strange inhabitants. So that was that, then.
He rode out of the town, letting the horse choose the direction. Maybe it was taking him to Ezekiel’s Remains, maybe somewhere else. It didn’t matter to Azrael one way or another. He closed his eyes as he rode and drifted off into slumber, hunched over his wounds. Now he slept the sleep of the dead, and he wasn’t haunted by any more dreams. For a time, anyway.