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Phenomenal One

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Phenomenal One

 

Author’s note: This is a supernatural/western story and takes place in the Law Dogs ‘verse following the events of Legend Killer. If you haven’t already read Law Dogs and Legend Killer, you may be a bit confused, but I’ll try to give you enough information about the settings and situations to get through. Be aware that characters from the previous two stories will show up from time to time and they might be more than human in some cases.

 

Needless to say, there will be much blood and swearing. Some implied sexual violence and lots of AJ torture and angst.

 

Prologue

 

The Betrayal

 

Somewhere south of the Montana Territory - 1875

 

Strong arms belonging to his trusted friends Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson held him up on his feet; otherwise he would be sprawled on the ground. He closed his eyes just before the heavy fist cracked against his jaw, whipping his head to the side. It was quickly followed by a vicious kick that slammed into his midsection, forcing all the air out of his lungs. For several nauseating seconds he couldn’t breathe, and then with a sickening lurch, he was able to draw a whopping breath. He instinctively tried to double over, to protect himself, to ease the gouging pain. But the supporting hands of his so-called friends were holding his arms tight, preventing him from moving, from dodging the blows and retaliating. His legs were unable to hold his weight and he sagged in their grip while three more kicks to his stomach had him gagging, blood staining his lips.

 

The hands abruptly released his arms and he crashed to his knees, clutching his stomach. He fell forward on his face into the damp mud on the riverbank. Mocking laughter rang in his ears. Too hurt to be humiliated, he worked a hand underneath his body and pushed himself over onto his back. The clouds spun above him and he closed his eyes and just focused on breathing. The cool river right next to him tumbled over jagged rocks.

 

Despite the crushing pain, AJ Styles was furious. They were in the middle of nowhere, on the run after their latest bank robbery. It had been a large score and things had gone perfectly until Kenny fucked up and some of the town's folk ended up dead. The local law enforcement and probably a sizeable posse were hot on their trail. And now Kenny pulls this shit. But Kenny hadn't acted alone.

 

The two idiot kids who called themselves the Young Bucks, Matt and Nick, cackled. “What’s wrong AJ?” they taunted. He ignored them. Instead he tried to focus his gaze on his former friends, to ask why they didn't have his back. He mouthed the word, “Why?”

 

Without expression, Doc and Karl picked him up out of the mud. He didn't have the strength to resist as he sagged between them, a low moan clawing past his throat. The pain in his stomach radiated outward, competing with the pain in his head. Darkness hovered at the edges of his vision. But inwardly he seethed.

 

Kenny, his eyes wild, closed in on them and grabbed AJ by his thick brown hair, forcing his head back and so he could stare directly into AJ's eyes. AJ glared back. He saw the hatred and insanity on Kenny's face. Though Kenny had joined their gang a little less than a year ago, AJ had to admit the young man had fit in nicely, quickly making friends with the kids. He was fast with his gun and a great horseman to boot. But AJ had never fully trusted Kenny. There was something not quite right about the man. However AJ never let personal feelings that get in the way of what was best for Bullet Club. He knew one day Kenny might pull something like this, and he half suspected the young bucks would join him. They were arrogant and had often chafed at AJ's control of the group. Needless to say, AJ had never put up with their shit and that had bred resentment. Before Kenny, they had been too afraid to go up against AJ. Once Kenny came, however, AJ knew it was just a matter of time. But he had honestly thought the others would have his back. They had rode together for years, trusted each other through heists and robberies, yet in the end it had was insecurity and jealously that had led them here, to this moment.

 

And they all turned on him.

 

“You can't be surprised. You had this coming AJ!” Kenny raved, spittle flying from his lips. “We helped you do the big jobs, we helped you with the big scores! We gave you the most money from each heist! And you didn't do it alone. We made you! Everybody called you a leader? Everybody called you the boss! Well, AJ, if you are the boss, I'm just going to say it. You have now. Been. Fired!” Behind Kenny, Matt and Nick grinned with psychotic excitement.

 

“Too bad there are no trees around, so we can’t just hang you. And I wouldn't waste a bullet on you.” Kenny leaned in close and AJ could smell his breath, see the grime on his cheek. Kenny's eyes held no hint of sanity; only hatred and triumph. With his free hand, Kenny grabbed AJ's throat and slowly started to squeeze, choking him. AJ thrashed trying to get his legs underneath him so he could fight, to pull away, but he was not match for the combined strength of Karl, Doc and Kenny.

 

Stepping closer Kenny increased the pressure. AJ's face was turning red. He struggled harder but to no avail. His empty lungs were demanding oxygen but there was nothing, no hope of mercy from Kenny Omega and AJ knew it. The darkness increased and his struggled grew weaker, until finally he went limp. Sneering, Kenny jerked his hand away from AJ's throat. He examined AJ closely for a few seconds, trying to see any signs of life. Satisfied, Kenny released AJ’s hair and signaled to Doc and Karl to let him go. AJ slumped bonelessly to the mud, flat on his back. Looking at the others, the gleeful young bucks Matt and Nick Jackson, the grim Doc Gallows, Cody Hall and the expressionless Karl Anderson. Kenny smirked, “Bullet Club for life.” He brought his boot down hard right on AJ’s chest but there was no response. “Except for AJ Styles.” He spit on AJ’s face.

 

The young bucks hurried forward to get their kicks in as well. Their boots thudded heavily on AJ’s limp body. Doc and Karl looked disgusted but they didn’t move to intervene.

 

Then Cody Hall, who had been holding the horses and keeping a look-out shouted, drawing their attention from AJ. “Posse on its way!”

 

They could see dust rising in the distance. “Fuck!” Kenny snarled. The others ran for their horses. However, Kenny drew his gun and turned back to the river bank “Changed my mind AJ,” he started to say, but stopped. AJ’s body had disappeared. Kenny looked around for it but it was gone. Eyes narrowed, he realized AJ must have crawled into the river.

 

“Kenny, we have to go!” Matt shouted.

 

Cursing, he holstered his gun. He scanned the turbulent surface of the water, but there was no sign of their former leader. “Drown then, AJ,” he muttered to himself, and then raising his voice he called out to the Bullet Club. “Come on, boys, let’s ride.” Spurs chiming, Kenny ran to AJ’s horse and swung up into the saddle. The saddle bags were heavy with their ill-gotten gains. He didn't look back to see if the others were following, he knew they would. He set the pace at a swift gallop, leaving nothing behind but tracks and prairie dust.

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Phenomenal One

 

Wrestling enthusiasts may recognize the scene and dialogue from the previous chapter. Right before AJ came to WWE, he was unceremoniously tossed out of Bullet Club in New Japan. Kenny initially attacked AJ, later joined by the Young Bucks, and then the rest of the Club. They proceeded to beat the crap out of the helpless AJ and left him lying in the middle the ring. That scene is what set the stage for the opening of Phenomenal One in my head.

 

As always, a huge thank you to my beta reader, Kiss316. She caught a continuity error that I think many would have found confusing. This is because she is awesome.

 

Warning: Big spoilers for Legend Killer. If you have not read it, be aware there are direct references to the previous story. Also, there is blood and swearing.

 

The Offer

 

The icy water swept AJ downstream for at least a mile before he ended up caught in the branches of a dead tree near the center of the wide river. The roots were still clinging to the bank, anchoring the tree against the raging water. Gasping for breath, he tried to pull himself out but he was stuck tight, submerged in the water from his chest down. The water had numbed his body so completely he couldn't feel anything below his chest. The stabbing pain in his skull and the aching cold made it so tempting to just let himself sink back under, but he stubbornly refused to give in. As he lay tangled up in the branches, the strong current tugging insistently at his body, he focused on what he was going to do to Kenny when he caught up to Bullet Club again to motivate himself. He was determined to live solely because he still had former friends to kill. As he struggled, trying to free himself, he sensed something change, like a vibration in the air of an approaching storm. He looked up, blinking a spray of water out of his blue eyes and jumped in surprise. For the first time since the war, AJ Styles felt heart-stopping terror.

 

Someone was crouching on one of the thick limbs of the downed tree in front of him. It looked like a man wearing a long black coat and a wide-brimmed black hat, the type usually worn formally by undertakers. He had two monstrously big revolvers strapped to his thighs in a classic gunfighter rig. How he got onto that branch AJ had no idea. He might have been squatting by a fire on the open prairie for all the concern he displayed. His face was expressionless even as he cocked his head to the side. Other than that one slight movement, the 'man' didn't move. And he cast no shadow.

 

The worst part was that AJ recognized him. But the man in front of him was dead. AJ had watched him die, outside of Sharpsburg, Maryland near a small creek called Antietam on a blood-soaked day many years ago. He couldn’t help it; he screamed and thrashed at the branches with renewed energy born of sheer panic. But his body was wedged too tight in the branches and the current held him firm. Finally he subsided, panting, almost whimpering in fear. The man had watched him the whole time with no change to his expression. For a long time, they regarded each other. Then AJ gathered up his courage and he said in a hoarse whisper, “You’re not him, you can’t be.”

 

The being quirked an eyebrow but didn't say anything.

 

“Christopher Daniels is dead.” That earned him a very sharp look but the figure still didn’t say anything. “He was killed at Sharpsburg.” AJ hoped it was an illusion, that the beating and subsequent near drowning had his mind replaying old horrors. He had seen so many soldiers die but Chris’ death had been the worst.

 

But that hope was killed even as it was born when the man opened his mouth and replied, “I was there,” he told AJ. “It was a busy day.”

 

Despite the roar of the river, AJ could hear him clearly. The voice sounded like gravel, a crawling, grinding sound that filled AJ's ears with ghosts and cobwebs. He wanted to clamp his hands over his ears, but he couldn't move. He was frozen like a rabbit before the fox. “Are you here for me?” he asked.

 

Yes.”

 

He shuddered, but had to ask, “Am I dead?” He didn't feel dead, but he had never been dead before, so he couldn't know what being dead felt like.

 

No, not yet. But you will be very soon.” He hesitated then told AJ, “Look down.”

 

Slowly, AJ lowered his gaze. Through the water, he could see the end of one of the branches he was caught on had sunk deep into his abdomen. Bright red blood was swirling away in the current. A strange lassitude was filling him but the rage he carried against Kenny still burned hot. He shook his head, trying to deny it.

 

To put it bluntly, you're fucked.” The man who wasn’t Christopher shifted slightly, his pale green eyes never left AJ.

 

AJ swore and rested his forehead against a wet branch. He couldn’t die, not yet. Not like this.

 

As if he could read AJ’s thoughts, the man asked, “Why do you want to keep living? You're an outlaw, a killer. If you do survive, which is highly unlikely, the only thing waiting for you is a rope.”

 

“It doesn't matter as long as I kill him first.” And it didn’t. He had been through the War, survived countless shootouts and gun fights and this final betrayal by Bullet Club. He had known his life was always going to end violently. AJ did not fear death but he wasn’t ready to die, not yet. Not when Kenny still lived.

 

Kill who? It was your entire gang that betrayed you, not just Kenny. Besides, they're long gone, boy. And you’ve only got a few minutes, at the most.”

 

“You’ve made your point. So why are you here?” AJ asked bitterly, changing the subject. “Do you get off watching men die?”

 

No, I'm here to make you an offer.”

 

“An offer?” AJ repeated, feeling stupid. It was getting hard to think. He was glad he couldn’t feel his body. Water sprayed in his face, keeping him awake. What could this thing offer AJ?

 

It doesn’t have to end like this. You don't have to die here, alone in this river.”

 

“How? Are you going to heal me?” AJ asked skeptically.

 

The 'man' bared his teeth in a parody of a smile, which was terrifying. “No, I can't do that. But I can give you the strength to survive, if you want.”

 

A chilling thought occurred to AJ. He had been born and raised in the Deep South of Georgia. A deeply religious area. He had to ask. “Are you a demon?”

 

Incredibly the figure chuckled and shook its head. “Why does everyone think that?” he asked himself.

 

AJ had no idea what he was talking about. He swallowed, and coughed, tasting blood. “Why are you coming to me now?”

 

I'm here because the only thing you want is to kill your former friends. But you can’t do that because you’re dying.”

 

“Where's your point?” AJ was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. But he stubbornly refused to give in. He adjusted his grip on the slippery branch.

 

You're dying, boy. In a matter of minutes, even I won’t be able to help you,” the man who looked just like Christopher did right before the cannon ball ripped through his lower body paused for a few seconds. His eyes glittered. “Unless you let me in. If you do, I will give you the strength to survive. And to kill everyone who betrayed you.”

 

The fear of the figure in front of him collided with the need for revenge. It was tempting to believe what the man said. But AJ was still wary. “What do you get out of it?” he asked, just as bubble of blood slipped out of his lips.

 

You’ll work for me when I need you to,” he said.

 

Hearing that, AJ believed him but still hesitated. Darkness creeped into the edges of his vision. He shook his head to clear it but it didn’t work.

 

Choose quickly, you’re out of time.”

 

The memory of Kenny’s insane, triumphant eyes flashed through AJ’s mind and he knew what he needed to do, for better or for worse. AJ looked the man straight in the eye. “Okay,” he said as more blood filled his mouth.

 

The man smiled and once again AJ shuddered in terror. It wasn’t a happy smile, or the reassuring smile of the Chris he had known until that blood-soaked day. This was something else, something powerful had been satisfied. Then the apparition reached out and tapped him in the middle of the forehead. “It’s done.”

 

AJ waited several seconds but didn’t feel any different. “What now?” he asked, swallowing more blood and coughing. “I’m still stuck here.”

 

They’ll be here soon.” The man twisted around and looked towards the far riverbank. “However, it’s best if I’m not here when they get here. He’s still mad at me.”

 

“Who?” AJ wanted to ask, but he was alone once again. He tried to look around, but all he got for his effort was a face full of water. He coughed again and the darkness he had fought against for so long finally began to win out. He started sinking down into oblivion. His last thought was that ‘Christopher’ had lied. He was going to die there, alone. And Kenny would get away with it.

 

Fuck Kenny...

 

He was roused by voices a little while later. “Is he alive?” someone called from a ways away. It was a man’s voice, a bit gravelly but human.

 

“What? You don’t know? You’re the reason I’m out here.” This person was much closer, and sounded like he was straining against something. The current, AJ thought idly. He didn’t recognize the voices, so not the people who betrayed him then. His so-called family.

 

“I’m not omniscient.”

 

“News to me. You act like you are.”

 

“Randal, quit arguing and save your breath for getting you and him out of there.”

 

There was splashing and sputtering nearby. “God damn, why is this water so fucking cold?”

 

“It’s snow melt coming down out of the mountains.”

 

“I know why it’s so cold, Doctor Obvious. That was a rhetorical question.”

 

“You’re bitchier than usual today.”

 

“I’m just not happy to be in the middle of the freezing river, trying to fish out some guy who may or may not be dead and I have no idea why.”

 

“Why you had to go get him, or why he was there?”

 

“Just can’t answer a question directly, can you? Just hold on, let me get him out of the tree first. Why aren’t you helping anyway? This was your idea.”

 

“Because I’m older than you.”

 

“Lame fucking excuse.”

 

“Son…”

 

“I know, I know. Ugh, bastard’s really tangled up in the branches.”

 

As AJ hovered on the edge of awareness, he listened to the shouted back and forth going on around him. How those two could be carrying on such a normal conversation over the roar of the river was beyond AJ’s comprehension. He just lay there, limp. Suddenly, he felt a body pressing up to his, fighting the treacherous current. Strong arms worked their way under his and wrapped around his chest, and there was hot breath against his ear. Then a powerful kick propelled them backwards, pulling his body out of the branches. AJ felt a sharp snap in his belly and tried to open his eyes, but the lids were too heavy. He just lay limp in the strong arms, letting his rescuer do all the work. Evidently his rescuer, whom the other had called ‘Randal’ was thinking along the same lines about his partner.

 

“You just going to stand there while I do all the work?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“For fuck’s sake.”

 

“Quit your bitching, Randal. It’s not like you’re not strong. You’re almost to the edge now. Watch the footing.”

 

As soon as the man said that, AJ felt the man carrying him slip on the bottom of the river and go under the water. The person was back up immediately, so quick that AJ’s face hadn’t even been submerged, swearing a blue streak. AJ’s mother would not have approved. The strong arms steadied him again and continued to pull him through the water.

 

“This better be worth it,” Randal growled.

 

There was no answer and then AJ felt himself being lifted completely out of the river like a child and carried up the riverbank, water sheeting off them. As the two men kept bickering, AJ peeled his eyes open. His lids were still very heavy but he had to see what was happening. He immediately regretted it, because the man carrying him had picked that moment to swing his body around and lay him down on flat ground. He squeezed his eyes shut again and groaned.

 

“Well that answers your question.”

 

“Get those wet clothes off.”

 

“Mine or his?”

 

“His. You’re too stubborn to die of a chill.”

 

Opening his eyes just the barest amount, AJ was able to recognize he was lying on the ground under a thin stand of tall cottonwoods, the sun dazzling through the leaves high above. But it was too much effort to think and he succumbed to the darkness once again.

 

Teeth chattering, Randy looked down at the nearly drowned man. He noted the deep bruises on his face and neck. It looked like someone had tried to throttle him. He also noticed blood staining his abdomen and the end of the branch sticking out. He swore. “Shit, that’s not good.”

 

“Here,” Mark said.

 

Randy looked up right as a rolled-up wool blanket smacked him in the face. Growling in irritation, he unrolled it and started to dry the man on the ground. He grabbed the knife from his belt and cut the man’s shirt open, being extra gentle around the area where the branch was. He pulled the soaking cloth off of AJ, shaking his head at the boot-shaped bruises cover the man’s chest and abdomen. “Besides the branch, it looks like he’s got some cracked ribs too, maybe even a couple are broken,” he reported to Mark as he ran his fingertips over AJ’s rib cage. “I think one punctured his lung.”

 

Next to them, Mark was starting a fire, feeding the dry kindling quickly enough to get it blazing in a matter of minutes. The heat relaxed Randy as he continued to work on AJ, gently drying the icy skin where he had been beaten. Then, working with brisk efficiency, Randy stripped AJ of the rest of his clothes. The air was warm and dry, and the fire was giving off a good amount of heat. He rubbed the blanket vigorously over AJ’s arms and legs.

 

“That’s good, get his blood circulating,” Mark said in approval.

 

Ignoring Mark, Randy laid the blanket flat on the ground and lifted AJ’s naked body onto it, folding the edges over the unconscious man and letting the fire warm him while Randy started to strip out of his own soaking clothes.

 

“You going to tell me who he is?” Randy asked as he dug around in his saddlebag for dry pants and a shirt. He had left his boots and socks on the bank before wading into the river to fish AJ out. Randy’s big roan swished its tail idly at a fly and chewed on the bit in its mouth. Next to it, Mark's pale mare nibbled at some leaves on a branch hanging down within her reach. Their pack horse, an iron gray with a silver mane stood hip-shot and looked irritated. It pinned its ears back at Randy who ignored it. The roan gave it a warning snort and the gray backed off.

 

“He was the leader of a gang of outlaws who called themselves Bullet Club,” Mark told him as he stirred the fire to get it burning even hotter. Then he leaned over AJ and examined the branch sticking out of his belly.

 

“Was?” Randy asked. Then he realized, “It was them that did that?” he guessed as he pulled on some dry pants.

 

“That would be my guess,” Mark said. “One usually doesn’t leave outlaw gangs on good terms, only dead terms. He got lucky.”

 

“Lucky?” Randy echoed in disbelief. “I noticed you never answered my question. What’s so special about this guy?” A look of understanding dawned on Randy’s face as he put the pieces together. “Oh wait, don’t tell me; he was dying out there and the only reason he wanted to live was to kill the guys that did that to him?” he guessed.

 

“Got it in one,” Mark said.

 

“So did he come with his offer?” Randy asked bitterly. He didn’t name his father, the Saint of Killers. Randy was still coming to grips with horror he had suffered in the mine at the hands of the Beast a couple of weeks earlier; his beating, and subsequent rape and death. His father had come too late to save him.

 

And the world had nearly paid the price. Only the combined efforts of Seth Rollins, Punk, Hideo Itami and Mark himself had stopped the apocalyptic rage of Death at what had been done to his son.

 

“Yes,” Mark said, keeping his tone neutral. He waited for the explosion, but Randy just scowled at the mention of his father, which was a tiny step towards their eventual reconciliation, Mark hoped.

 

Instead Randy just shook his head and sighed. It wasn’t AJ’s fault. The outlaw had nothing to do with the situation between himself and his father. “So he’s now one of us. But why? I thought he killed all the demons in hell.”

 

“He did. But there are still some demons already here, like the Ascension.” Mark paused and considered his words. “There are also other things in this world, things worse than demons. Old things. Things much more powerful than your run-of-the-mill demons.”

 

“You said something about another Beast?” Randy tried to hide the catch in his voice when he said the Beast’s name. Despite his best efforts to forget, he still remembered the terrible weight pinning him down, the Beast’s hot breath right before its teeth sank into the back of his neck, activating the demon marks on his shoulders. He closed his eyes. He stood still for a minute, trying to remind himself that the Beast was dead. Ambrose, with the help of the Saint of Killers had killed it.

 

Tried and failed.

 

Mark looked up at Randy as he stood frozen, holding a dry shirt. Aside from the faded demon marks on his shoulders there were no marks on Randy physically, or even on his soul thanks to Seth Rollins. But Mark knew there were still vicious, raw wounds in his psyche. Those would take a long time to heal and Randy would carry the mental scars for the rest of his life. After what the Beast had done to Randy down in that mine, not even Seth could heal them. “Yeah. Ever hear of a Skinwalker?” he asked, pulling Randy back to the present.

 

Finishing getting dressed, Randy turned around and studied Mark. “Punk mentioned one once, but I never was able to get anything specific out of him about what it was. I know it worried Crow Foot.” And that was the scary part. The old shaman didn't fear anything.

 

“They’re old beings, really old from the times before humans came into the world. And because they are part of this world, they aren’t limited like demons are. They don’t need to possess things. Instead they can change their appearance to look like something else. Anything else, even humans.”

 

Randy thought about it and had to admit that was concerning. “And where does he come in?” he gestured to AJ.

 

“There was a rumor of a Skinwalker in the area a while back,” Mark told him. “I imagine your old man figured having someone around here couldn’t hurt, in case it’s true. Especially since Reigns and Ambrose are busy with the Ascension.” In theory, Randy could have handled a Skinwalker. The Colt Walkers could kill anything, mortal and immortal alike. But the volatile situation between Randy and the Saint of Killers made it more prudent for them to stay away from each other for the time being. The son had his father’s temper.

 

Randy understood this as well. He glanced at AJ, and shook himself back to the present. Hanging both his own and AJ’s clothes on some branches to dry, he said to Mark, “Then we should fix him up.” Blood was still flowing steadily from the wound.

 

Seeing Randy wanted to be distracted, Mark agreed. The Skinwalker lesson could wait until their newest recruit was ready to learn what he needed to. Getting a small cast-iron kettle from the pack horse, Randy filled it with river water and set it on the fire to boil. He didn’t quite understand Mark’s obsessive need for boiled water, but his respect for the mysterious doctor kept him from questioning Mark’s orders about medically-related things. As a result, he too had always had boiled water available when he was patching up the wounded.

 

While Randy was getting the water set to boil, Mark retrieved his medical bag from his saddle and rooted through it. He glanced at AJ several times, trying to determine exactly what he needed to help the former leader of Bullet Club heal. He yanked a couple of hairs from the pale mare’s tail and threw them into the hot water to soften and sterilize. Finally settling on several items he closed his bag and walked back to where AJ was laying, unconscious. Randy joined him.

 

“First things first, we get that out of him,” Mark said, touching the broken end of the branch lightly.

 

“Fine,” Randy said and settled himself on the other side of AJ’s body. He leaned on AJ’s bare shoulders as Mark took a knife and after holding it in the boiling water for several seconds to make sure it was clean; he inserted the hot blade into the pale flesh next to the broken branch, widening the hole. Still unconscious, AJ trembled and gasped. Randy held him down to keep him steady, murmuring a soft reassurance to AJ.

 

“Ready?” Mark asked. Randy nodded.

 

With a smooth motion, Mark grasped the end of the branch firmly and pulled straight up. AJ cried out and his eyes flared open. Blood gushed out of the wound but neither Randy nor Mark moved to stop it. It would help cleanse the wound from foreign particles better than they could out in the middle of nowhere. Awake now, AJ’s eyes were wide and staring. He panted and tried to cover his wounded stomach with his hands. Both Randy and Mark stopped him. AJ tried to speak, but Randy told him, “Don’t bother, we’ve already heard it all before.”

 

“You have got to work on your bedside manner, Randal,” Mark told him.

 

Randy just shrugged. He wasn’t there to hold AJ’s hand, even though that was exactly what he was doing.

 

Still in shock, AJ turned and focused his eyes on Mark. He studied the doctor as he panted from the pain. “Where did he go?” he rasped.

 

Not looking up from studying the wound, Mark replied, “Hold still, boy or your intestines will fall out all over the ground. And that would be a mess to clean up.”

 

“Bedside manner?” Randy snarked as AJ’s eyes widened in horror.

 

That brought back a flood of memories Chris and AJ tried to sit up, struggling against the hands holding him down so he could see the damage. But he was badly hurt and no match for Randy. He gave up and lay still. The memory of the man in the river was fresh in his mind and he had to tell them. “He looked like Christopher, but he wasn’t.” he said. “Chris died at Sharpsburg. They all did. Except for me. Chris had to hold me up when the Yanks came. He was brave. But the cannonball blew his legs off, and he howled like a beaten dog. He wasn’t the only one. There were so many hurt. So much blood.” AJ gasped in pain and gritted his teeth. Now that he was warm, he could feel every injury he had sustained from Bullet Club and the river. He had never felt such agony before and despite his best effort, tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. “Then he came and silenced them.”

 

“Any idea of what the fuck he’s talking about?” Randy asked, keeping a firm grip on AJ while Mark wiped the blood away and studied the wound. The flow of blood was slowing down to a steady trickle. Knowing that AJ’s internal injuries were no longer life threatening thanks to the Saint, he started to sew the wound partially closed with the boiled horsehair. “Son, have you heard about the Battle of Antietam?” Mark asked as AJ twitched against the pin-prick of the needle.

 

Frowning, Randy mentally rummaged through his knowledge of the War. He had served in Missouri where neighbor fought neighbor. But the big battles, the ones where blood soaked entire fields, had been fought out East. “It was a pretty big dust-up between the Union and the South back in ‘62, in Maryland, wasn’t it?”

 

“Yeah, it was the bloodiest battle of the whole stinking war. There were so many dead so fast that your old man himself had to come personally to that battle to reap the souls. If I were to take a guess, he saw your father there on the battlefield.”

 

“No wonder he was confused, poor bastard,” Randy said, looking down at AJ, who was in a sort of half-conscious daze. “He must have appeared as his dead buddy Chris.”

 

Mark tied a final knot in the thread and cut it with the knife. “Get the bandages from my saddlebags and then we’ll see if we can fix his ribs,” he instructed while he cleaned up his equipment and got ready to make another incision. The punctured lung would be troublesome if not addressed right away.

 

Randy retrieved the bandages and helped Mark bind up the stomach wound. AJ didn’t protest throughout the process. But once again Randy took his place near AJ’s shoulders and held him down as Mark started another incision along AJ’s ribcage. AJ’s cry of pain and shock was muffled by the rushing water as it continued to rage its way downstream, only to calm a mile or so away.

 

Afterwards, they wrapped AJ back up in the blanket and gave him some water to help with the blood loss. Finally, Mark was satisfied. “There, that should do it for now.” He knew it would take a few days before AJ would turn the corner and truly start healing. There was too much dirt on the branch to believe that AJ wouldn’t suffer from infection. He and Randy would only be able to watch, unable to do anything to relieve AJ’s torment as the infection would rage out of their control. He wouldn’t die, but he doubted AJ would find that comforting while in the throes of delirium. He could tell Randy wasn’t looking forward to it either. Probably because of all the people in the world, Randy was the only one who had personally experienced what AJ was about to go through.

 

But Mark hoped that by focusing on helping AJ, Randy would also start to heal.

 

Despite the stabbing agony in his abdomen and chest, AJ nodded his thanks to the two men who rescued him. He had no idea what had happened, or what would happen. And he was too exhausted to care. He closed his eyes and fell into an uneasy sleep.

 

“So now what?” Randy asked as he walked down to the riverbank to wash the blood off his hands. Despite the strength of the river, the day was peaceful. It was mid-July and the sun dazzled off the water. He was getting hungry and wondered if there was a way he could fashion a fishing pole.

 

“With luck and your old man’s strength, he should be good to go in about a week or so. In the meantime, AJ Styles gets to learn about his new calling in life.”

 

“Poor bastard,” Randy said again.

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Phenomenal One

Many thanks to Kiss316 for continuing to beta for me. She is so great!

Warnings: Exposition, swearing and AJ delirium.

The Awakening

AJ woke up in Hell.

 

There was an inferno inside his stomach, cooking him from the inside out. He could even hear the fire popping and crackling inside his flesh. Sweat poured off him and he panted in agony. It was impossible to take any deep breaths thanks to some demon stabbing him over and over again in his ribs. His entire body shook. He heard a whimpering, as if some creature were in terrible pain, and wondered what was making that pathetic sound. Then the fire shifted in his stomach and he realized he was making the sound. He gritted his teeth and tried to quiet the whimpers. Weakly he grasped at his midsection, looking for any relief. But there was none.

 

Gradually he realized he was not alone. He could sense whatever it was beside him was very large physically, but the sheer overwhelming presence made AJ shudder in fear and instinctively try to pull away. He knew what was beside him could squish him like a bug with no effort whatsoever. He felt a large hand under the back of his skull lifting his head up and he cried out in terror. Then something cool and wet was pressed to his lips. Hesitantly he opened his mouth and to his delight, water, blessed cold, clean water dribbled onto his tongue. He pawed at the canteen, trying desperately to get the water to come out faster, but the individual holding it refused to let it budge; only giving him maddeningly small sips. Gradually, too damned gradually, AJ’s thirst was slacked. The hand gently set his head back down on the ground and to his relief, the massive presence retreated. He breathed a little easier and drifted off to an uneasy dream-wracked sleep in which he was drowning in ice. Christopher tried to crawl to him, but couldn’t because his legs were blood-soaked strips of flesh and his intestines kept getting caught in the branches of a dead tree. Doc and Karl looked on with disapproving expressions and all the while Kenny laughed his crazed laugh. Maggots writhed where is eyes should have been.

 

Sometime later, (it could have been days or weeks for all he knew) the sound of fire crackling and popping roused AJ again. He slowly peeled his eyelids open, dreading to see it burning inside his stomach. He almost cried when he saw it was just an ordinary campfire next to him, embers glowing hypnotically. He was lying on the ground, wrapped up in a blanket. He was so hot that he actually longed for the cold of the river. He weakly pushed blanket off of him, and with hesitation, felt his stomach. He was relieved not to feel any gaping holes. The fire light flickered off tree branches high above. Crickets sang enthusiastically. It was dark and it took him a ridiculous amount of time to realize it was nighttime. He should have known it was always night in Hell. In the distance he heard running water. For a long time he stared at the sky above him. The stars shone brilliantly through the leaves and the Milky Way divided the sky. Eventually it occurred to him that he shouldn’t be able to see the stars if he was in Hell. There was only one logical conclusion.

 

“I’m not dead.” He hadn’t intended to say it out loud. His voice, raw and scratchy from dehydration, startled him. As if a mental block had been removed, he suddenly remembered everything. He had been rescued from the river by someone called ‘Randal’, but there had been more than one person. There was no sign of either of them now though. He wondered why they had bothered to rescue him. He hadn’t asked for mercy. He was an outlaw, a killer. He wondered if they just moved on, leaving him there alone, maybe to be finished off by wolves. AJ didn’t really expect an answer but got one anyway.

 

“No, you're alive.”

 

Still caught between the remnants of delirium and the dawning awareness of his surroundings, it took him a while to process that answer. The fire popped and the embers settled deeper into their nest of ash. Tearing his gaze away from the dancing light, he raised his head and looked down. His ribs and stomach were neatly bandaged. He let his head drop back down. The betrayal and rescue had been real it seemed, but he wasn't sure about what happened after. He had to know. “Did it really happen?” he asked the sky above. He didn’t elaborate what it was, but the voice answered him anyway, sounding amused.

 

“Yep.”

 

Now he remembered that voice. It was the other one, not Randal. Wincing and holding his abdomen, (part of him was still afraid his insides would fall out despite the bandages) AJ curled slowly onto his side, bringing the person belonging to the voice into his line of sight. He was an older man; sitting next to the fire on AJ’s left. The man had pale green eyes and short graying hair. Deep shadows moved behind him that didn’t quite seem to line up with the flickering firelight. That was unnerving and AJ tried not to look at it too closely. Just by looking at him, AJ knew this was someone not to be trifled with. “I’m AJ Styles,” he told the man. He didn’t know why it was important the man knew his name.

 

“Mark Calaway,” the man said in return. He didn’t offer any other information. No explanation as to why he was there in the first place, or why he had helped save AJ’s life.

 

Even so, AJ, who had been raised in the traditional Southern style, had his manners pounded into him by his parents, sometimes literally by his father who liked to drink too much. “Thank you for saving me.” God, it hurt to breathe.

 

Mark tipped his head, acknowledging the appreciation but said nothing. The fire popped again. Somewhere in the dark, a coyote yipped.

 

“How long?” AJ knew that time had passed; he just had no idea how much. He thought he remembered seeing the sun a couple of times, but it was an indistinct memory clouded with pain and heat. And other images he tried not to remember.

 

“Six days,” was the reply.

 

Six days since Kenny and Bullet Club betrayed him. Six days since he agreed to something out of sheer desperation and a burning need for vengeance. Six days since he had been pulled out of the river more dead than alive. Looking around, AJ asked, “Where’s your friend? The one that pulled me out of the river. Randal?” The pain in his stomach flared and he gritted his teeth and tried to breathe through it.

 

“He’s keeping watch,” Mark said, his voice completely neutral but his eyes were shadowed despite the firelight.

 

Instinctively sensing this might be touchy subject, AJ backed off. Unable to stay on his side any longer, he once again eased onto his back. It was easier to breathe without the additional pressure on his ribs. He stared up at the night sky again. The pain lessened a bit, allowing him to think, to remember what happened: the betrayal, the river, him. He was silent for a while. It still seemed like a dream, or more accurately a fever-dream. How could something like him be real? Yet, “You said it really happened?”

 

“Yes.”

 

And AJ believed him. He knew deep down on an instinctive level that this person would tell no lies. “I take it you know what’s going on,” he said after a while. “Would you be kind enough to explain it to me? 'Cause I’m in the dark here.”

 

Mark had been debating with himself about how to have this conversation with the Saint’s newest recruit. Now that AJ was finally alert enough to ask questions, he needed to learn the truth without delay. Randy would have been the ideal person to talk to AJ, like he did the others who had made an agreement with the Saint. But Randy was still working through the horror of his own recent ordeal with the Beast. He hadn’t yet opened up to Mark and it was easy to see the haunted look in Randy’s eyes every time the subject of the supernatural came up. But AJ needed to know, to understand, to be ready. All three of them were incredibly vulnerable out there in the wild. Forcing AJ to handle the Colt Walkers before he was ready would be disastrous. And if a demon or the Skinwalker found them, it would fall on Randy to defend them. And Mark feared it would cost Randy the precious little ground he had gained after what had happened down in that mine.

 

But when AJ asked the question, there was a movement in the dark and Randy stepped into the circle of light. His jaw was set, but he appeared calm. “You sure you’re ready for this? You still look like shit,” he said.

 

“I feel like shit,” AJ admitted with a wry curl of his mouth. He recognized Randy’s voice and now he had a face to match the voice. Although he was grateful to Randy for saving his life, there was something about the way Randy carried himself that reminded AJ of a lawman. And because of that, AJ wasn’t sure how much he could trust Randy. AJ’s past association with Bullet Club had made him very wary of anyone who even hinted at being associated with the law. He didn’t say that though. “But I’m alive, thanks to you,” he said with sincerity.

 

Shrugging off the gratitude, Randy sat down and stared moodily into the fire. The firelight illuminated the dark circles under his eyes and the gauntness of his cheek bones. For several minutes no one moved or said anything. Mark sat patiently, a steadying presence for Randy as he mentally steeled himself against the memories of his last encounter with the Saint of Killers. Taking a stick he poked at the fire, stirring it higher and brighter against the darkness that surrounded their campsite. He glanced at AJ and asked, “What did he tell you?” He didn’t specify who he was but AJ knew who he was talking about.

 

“Not much,” AJ admitted, his southern accent noticeably thicker at the memory of not Chris sitting in front of him, expressionless. Despite the days of delirium, the memory was as clear and cold as the river they had fished him out of. “Just that he would give me the strength to survive in exchange for me working for him. He said he wasn't a demon but it was obvious he wasn't a human either. Who was he?”

 

Randy looked down and forced himself to unclench his fists. He took a deep, stabilizing breath. He could feel Mark’s steadying presence and that helped too. “He is the Patron Saint of Killers,” he told AJ.

 

Skeptical, AJ frowned at Randy. “I ain’t never heard of a Saint of Killers,” he said. He wasn’t Catholic, but nothing in his religious upbringing had even suggested there was one.

 

“It’s a relatively new post. He took the place of the Angel of Death several years ago,” Mark told him. “The news hasn’t reached the religious circles yet.”

 

Not able to tell if Mark was serious, AJ decided to move on. “Well, what does he want?”

 

Randy was drawing a breath to answer, but Mark beat him to the punch. He told AJ about the new spirit of Death who killed Satan on his way out of Hell and unintentionally unleashed demons into the human world. He also spoke briefly about Heaven wanting to control the Saint but learned a costly lesson. “For now, the Saint operates independently. But there are still demons in this world. And worse things,” he added ominously.

 

“And what exactly does this have to do with me?” AJ asked. The story was fascinating but he wanted nothing to do with the business of Heaven and Hell. “It sounds like it’s the Saint’s mess to clean up.”

 

“The Saint is working to rectify his mistake, but he can only work in this realm through mortals,” Mark said.

 

“Look, I’m not priest, just an ordinary guy.” AJ started to protest, getting a bad feeling about the situation.

 

“You’re not an ordinary guy anymore,” Randy told him, looking at him with unnerving intensity. “You belong to him now.” Randy’s voice caught and he stopped. Mark moved slightly. Shaking his head, Randy recovered a bit. “You are now his conduit into this world. He will work through you to kill demons and other monsters. And he will use you until you die, or worse.”

 

That sounded…not good. AJ was getting more and more uncomfortable with the deal he made with the Saint of Killers. Then he finally got to the question that had been eating away at him. “But why did he choose me?”

 

“He chose you because you are a remorseless killer and only wanted to live in order to kill someone,” Randy told him.

 

Surprised, AJ almost asked Randy how he knew, but managed to keep his mouth shut. He had never advertised it, but AJ had personally never been bothered by killing people. He knew he should have been, growing up in a deeply religious family. But he found out early in the war that killing people was something he could do, like any other job and not lose sleep over it. After the war, it was the same. He didn’t go out of his way to do it, but if killing became unavoidable, he just got on with it and then moved on. He was smart enough to understand the legal consequences of killing though and worked to rein in the more psychotic members of Bullet Club. There was no faster way to get the Marshals involved than indiscriminate killing of civilians. ‘No killing’ was his orders. Kenny had fucked that up and AJ vowed he would personally kill Kenny. Realizing his thoughts were wandering, he focused again. After years of running from the law, AJ had developed a life-saving amount of paranoia. Instead of admitting out loud that Randy was right, and possibly incriminating himself to someone who could have been law enforcement for all he knew, he asked, “So if you think you know what I am, what are you going to do with me?”

 

“What do you mean, do with you?” Randy asked a bit sharper than he intended. He could tell AJ was wary of him and it annoyed Randy just a bit. Randy had risked his life saving AJ from the river and despite the thanks AJ had given him, he could tell AJ didn't trust him.

 

“You rescued me and I want to know why,” AJ told him.

 

“What? You think we would bother to save you from that vicious tree only to hang you?” Randy’s lip curled into a half sneer. Randy liked AJ’s spirit but it was far too early to tell if AJ would eventually become a friend, let alone a brother.

 

“Look, I don’t know who the fuck you are. You have the stink of a goddamned US Marshal on you. If you’re not going to hang me, then why did you bother? ” AJ snapped, his patience running thin. He was hurting too bad to have to pry information out of Randy. He squeezed his eyes shut as the pain in his abdomen spiked.

 

“When you agreed to work for him, you became one of his men. That’s why we bothered,” Randy all but shouted back. The subject of the Marshals had touched a nerve. Mark moved slightly and Randy looked away, working to compose himself.

 

“His men? Are there more?” AJ asked, trying to change the subject. The pain in his stomach was still growing, but he wanted answers.

 

“There were three of us, now there are four counting you.” Randy acknowledged. “There were more but the others were killed,” he trailed off for a second, remembering Edge.

 

“Us? You too?” AJ asked. He was having a bit of trouble keeping up. His mind was demanding answers but his body was still demanding rest.

 

Randy nodded once and kept his eyes locked on the fire in a death glare. “Like you, all of us were killers who were dying when he came to us. He offered us a chance to continue to live because all we wanted to do was to kill someone.” He didn’t say anything about his estranged personal relationship with the Saint however. That was getting too close to his recent ordeal.

 

Randy's words made sense, if the spirit was called the Saint of Killers. AJ gritted his teeth against the pain in his guts. The other two didn’t move to help him. After it subsided a tiny bit, he asked again, “So where are the others?” His voice was breathless.

 

“They are hunting a pair of demons near Helena,” Mark told him.

 

There was a stretch of silence only broken by AJ’s panting. Finally the pain subsided and AJ’s head cleared a bit. “So I am one of his now?” he asked, trying to focus on something beside the pain. “What does that mean?”

 

“It means the Saint will protect you,” Mark said, taking over the conversation so Randy could compose himself. The Legend Killer had always had trouble relating to people and now even more so. He wasn't bothered by the white-hot glare Randy shot in his direction, but he did put a hand up before he could say anything. “Most of the time,” he amended.

 

“Yeah, don’t ever count on him to be there when you really need him,” Randy muttered bitterly.

 

Ignoring that for now, AJ asked Mark, “Protect me?” He had always been able to look out for himself and the rest of Bullet Club. What did he need protection from besides his former family and the law?

 

“Demons hate you and will want to torture and kill you for who you are,” Mark said, completely serious.

 

Looking between Randy and Mark, AJ decided enough was enough. “This has nothing to do with me,” he said. “I have lived my whole life without encountering demons. Whatever is going on, it’s your problem. I have former friends to kill.” AJ wanted to go on a rant, but this time he couldn’t hold back the gasp of pain and he curled again on his side in a vain effort to find relief. Still locked in his head, Randy watched but didn’t move to help him.

 

“We’ll finish this in the morning,” Mark said as he rose to his feet and moved over to AJ. He gently forced AJ to uncurl and lay on his back. Checking the bandages around AJ’s stomach, he winced at the smell of infection. But after he removed them, he was pleased to see the wound was showing signs of healing, as was the incision Mark had made to fix AJ’s punctured lung. He gave AJ some water infused with ginger and cleaned the wound again. He decided not to rewrap AJ’s wounds. The open air would speed the healing process. During the examination, AJ sank back into unconsciousness.

 

All the while Randy just stared moodily into the fire. While he worked on AJ, Mark glanced up and said, “You’re tired.”

 

“I’m fine.” It was a flat-out lie but Randy wasn’t going to tell Mark he was too afraid to sleep, afraid to close his eyes while it was dark. Afraid the nightmares would begin again. Being forced to stay in one place and be patient was very hard on Randy. Except for fishing and taking care of the horses, there was nothing to distract him. And any much-needed rest he gained was erased by the nightmares.

 

Though Randy didn’t tell Mark, the doctor understood. But he also knew Randy desperately needed rest. “I know, but you need to do some hunting today. He’ll be ready for real food soon and you need to eat more. I’ll keep watch.”

 

Knowing what Mark meant was he would wake Randy up when the nightmares started; he was tempted to do as Mark said. He was so tired, and he trusted Mark, the one person in the world who had not let him down. But he couldn’t. Not yet. Not until he could see the east horizon pale with the imminent sunrise.

 

After he finished examining AJ’s wounds, Mark settled down again and waited near Randy for the sunrise. Gradually, the eastern sky lightened and Randy’s eyelids grew heavier. Birds started singing high above in the trees. As it grew lighter, and the darkness retreated, Randy finally laid down on his bedroll and slept. Mark added more wood to the fire and started some coffee brewing. AJ was getting stronger physically. And Mark suspected the southern outlaw would settle quickly into his new life, if they could keep him from running off after Bullet Club to exact his revenge.

 

How is he doing?” the Saint of Killers asked from nearby.

 

Mark didn’t jump. He had been expecting the Saint to visit at his usual time, after Randy fell asleep.

 

“About the same,” Mark said. “Still won’t sleep unless its light.”

 

The Saint nodded, his eyes never leaving his son. Coming too late to save Randy from the Beast was the worst mistake of his life. He had put vengeance over his son and Randy had paid with his mind and body. The Saint vowed it would never happen again. He looked over at AJ. “What about him?”

 

“He’s improving. He woke up a few hours ago and is already asking questions.”

 

The Saint paced a few feet and stood looking out over the riverbank. He considered his plans for a few moments and turned back towards Mark. “You need to take my son and go north. Find a place to lay low until Reigns and Ambrose can join you.”

 

Mark raised his eyebrows. “Does this have anything to do with the Skinwalker?”

 

Yeah, it disappeared for a while but it surfaced again west of here. Somehow it found out about Benoit’s marks. It knows they are on one of mine and its searching for them.”

 

“Fuck,” Mark said in an uncharacteristic show of anger. It seemed Randy just could not catch a break.

 

That’s why I want the new boy on his feet and hunting it. The minute it shows its face, I’ll deal with it. I will not let it get near my son,” the Saint said. Nearby, Randy stirred uneasily, reacting to the Saint’s anger subconsciously.

 

“How long will it take Reigns and Ambrose to finish dealing with the Ascension?” Mark asked, trying to change the subject and calm the spirit of Death. Because of Randy, the Saint still had emotional ties to the human world and was having trouble letting them go. As time went on, they would diminish and the Saint would settle in. But until then, Randy was arguably the most important person in the world.

 

It’s taking longer than I had anticipated. They finished one of them but the other is proving slippery. We nearly lost Ambrose.” The Saint actually looked frustrated.

 

That was not welcome news. Mark indicated to where AJ was lying. “He needs at least another day before he’s ready to travel. And,” Mark hesitated. What he was about to bring up was something the Saint hadn’t considered, but AJ’s reaction to what they had told him so far did not fill him with hope. “He might not want to do what you want him to do.”

 

It doesn’t matter what he wants, he will do as I say. He doesn’t have a choice,” the Saint stated, not concerned.

 

The Saint’s response was about what Mark expected. “That attitude will bring more trouble than not,” he warned the spirit. If AJ proved stubborn, and Mark could already tell the southern outlaw had a mind of his own, it could be disastrous for all of them. The Saint would not hesitate to force AJ to bend to his will. And with a will as strong as AJ’s, he would break before he bent.

 

The Saint shrugged. “The only thing that matters is protecting my son.”

 

They were interrupted by Randy stirring, frowning in his sleep. “You’d better leave,” Mark told the Saint. Randy’s nightmares were starting. The Saint didn’t need to be there when Randy woke up screaming.

 

Nodding, the Saint disappeared right as Randy started to toss restlessly. Mark knelt beside the Legend Killer and put a hand to Randy’s shoulder. Randy jerked awake with a cry of terror. Still locked in his nightmare, his eyes were wide and staring, not seeing Mark.

 

“It’s okay now, son, the Beast is dead.” Mark repeated the words in a low voice over and over, until Randy drew a shuddering breath and put his face in his hands.

 

“I am so tired of this shit,” he said, sounding utterly spent. The only other person he had admitted it out loud to was to Seth Rollins right after Seth had stopped him from putting a bullet in his brain. But this time he wasn’t suicidal, just completely exhausted. He hadn’t been able to sleep since the Beast and it was taking its toll.

 

For the first time since he carried Randy’s body out of the mine, Mark reached out and gathered Randy into his arms. Initially Randy was stiff, subtly resisting the offered comfort. Patiently Mark waited and Randy began to relax and rested his head on Mark’s chest, wrapping his arms around the doctor’s chest and closed his eyes. His hands trembled as he fisted the back of Mark’s shirt. But his breathing remained steady and his eyes were dry. He had long ago used his meager supply of tears for his friends and family. He had none left for himself.

 

On the other side of the fire AJ watched them. He had been jarred awake by Randy’s cry. He didn’t dare move, trying not to draw attention to himself. Though he felt like he was intruding on an extremely private moment, he couldn’t help but observe the interaction between Mark and Randy. There was nothing sexual about the embrace between them. Rather, it felt protective, like a father holding his son and it reminded him of his own father, who had been a loving man when he wasn’t drinking. He wondered what had happened to a man like Randy to break him so completely. He watched until he noticed Mark looking directly at him, and he looked away. He knew with dead certainty that he would never speak of this moment to anyone.

 

It was none of his business.

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Phenomenal One

 

As always, a huge thank you to Kiss316 for being an awesome beta reader.

 

Warnings: Swearing.

 

The Parting

 

About a day after he initially regained consciousness, AJ's fever was down. For this first time in over a week he woke up feeling hungry. Per Mark’s request, Randy had gone hunting and had come back with a several rabbits, with which he set about making into a stew. AJ was happy he was able to sit up and eat without assistance, even if he had to have his back propped against the trunk of a cottonwood tree. The meal was surprisingly tasty; having been seasoned with some dried herbs provided by Mark, and it went a long way to helping AJ regain some of his strength and good humor. Finding someone who could cook decently in the wild was rare, as AJ knew from years of experience. So with complete sincerity AJ complimented Randy on his cooking skills, the way his mother had taught him. Randy actually smiled and that started a conversation between the two centering on the choices of seasonings for various fish and game and gradually moving on to comparing the awfulness of army rations, on which they were in total agreement. So soon they laughing at each others horror stories of the 'food' they had eaten in the past. Pleased, Mark watched them find some common ground in the mundane. Their earlier conflict wasn’t forgotten but they called an unspoken truce during the meal.

 

But it couldn’t last long.

 

“So, what are your plans?” AJ asked, looking from Mark to Randy and back, brushing his hair out of his face. He was using a borrowed needle and thread to mend his cut-up shirt. AJ always had held to the philosophy that it was better to be doing something productive than sitting around doing nothing. He was tired of lying around in his underwear in the presence of two men who were much, much bigger than he was. Both of those elements combined to make AJ feel vulnerable and he hated that. But he covered it like he always did, with his cocky attitude.

 

“We’re heading out tomorrow,” Mark said, giving Randy a look. At the unspoken request, Randy nodded and went to check on the horses. AJ’s mistrust of Randy was still there despite their friendly conversation. They both knew Mark could better handle a stubborn AJ alone than with Randy present. Mark never lost his temper but he could be as intimidating as hell when he wanted to be.

 

AJ watched Randy leave and then turned back to Mark. He guessed Randy’s leaving meant there was going to be an unpleasant conversation between Mark and himself. Nevertheless, the years of leading Bullet Club and its psychotic members had taught him never to show weakness. “Well, I guess this will be good bye. I want to say thank you again for saving me and someday I will repay you,” he said, hoping Mark would take the hint. Although AJ was grateful they had saved him, he had no intention of going with them. He had vengeance to pursue, not demons.

 

Mark saw right through AJ's facade. He knew he was intimidating, had even used that to his advantage in the past. But right now he didn't want AJ to be scared of him. Rather, he wanted AJ to trust him. Randy, Roman and Dean, arguably the least trusting people in the world, all trusted him implicitly. But even though he had saved AJ's life, the southern outlaw was still watching him as warily as a wounded falcon, which was a new experience for Mark. AJ's trust had been destroyed by Bullet Club's betrayal. It would take time to rebuild, too much time Mark feared, but he had to try. He knew the best place to start was to be completely honest with AJ all the time, every time. “It would be best if you stayed with us,” Mark told him. He knew the Saint wanted AJ to hunt the Skinwalker, but Mark felt that Randy needed AJ more at that point in time. However, Mark wasn't going to force AJ into doing something he didn't want to.

 

“Its very kind of you to invite me, but I believe I must decline. I have some business that cannot wait,” AJ said firmly. The pain in his stomach and ribs had subsided since yesterday but tensing up caused it to flare and he gritted his teeth, forcing himself to relax. He met Mark’s eyes as steadily as he could.

 

But Mark asked AJ the question AJ didn’t have a good answer to, yet. “What is your plan? You have no friends, no horse, no guns, not even extra clothes. Are you going to hang out here or walk to back to the nearest town, which is quite a few miles away? And you just happened to rob their bank. They might still be upset with you.”

 

“As opposed to going with you to god knows where to kill demons? Fuck that, I’ll take my chances out in the wild,” AJ said firmly.

 

“What about the Saint of Killers?” Mark asked.

 

“What about him?” AJ wanted to know.

 

“You made the agreement with him. There is no going back. When he wants you to do a job, you will do it.” Mark wasn’t going to coddle the former leader of Bullet Club.

 

“And when the Saint of Killers wants me to do something, I will. But I don’t see him here,” AJ argued.

 

Right then Mark decided that this was the Saint's problem to deal with. He himself had Randy and his issues. He nodded. “Fine. I’ll tell you what; we’ll take you as far as Bannack.” he offered knowing full well that was where the Saint wanted AJ to be.

 

Eyes narrowed, AJ looked for the trap, but not having access to the Saint's plans, he couldn’t see it. Reluctantly he nodded. “Okay. I would appreciate that. By why there?”

 

“It’s near enough to drop you off without us going too far out of our way.” Mark told him, deliberately vague. He had planned to go meet up with the others up by Helena. The Saint’s news of the Skinwalker hunting Randy had Mark worried. Hopefully, Reigns and Ambrose would have the Ascension sorted out by the time they joined them. Meanwhile, AJ would be on his own, except for the Saint of Killers, who would probably hover over AJ like a terrifying guardian angel.

 

AJ went back to concentrating on his stitching, something he had learned to do while in the army. He wanted to be completely dressed before setting out. He didn't think his mending would hold up for a long stretch on the trail, but if they were willing to take him to a town, he would have the chance to pick up new clothes. And get a horse. “Never been a fan of Bannack, it’s a dying town. Most of the easy gold is gone and most the politicians left a long ago for Helena,” AJ said. “The last time Bullet Club went through Bannack, we didn't even bother to rob the bank.” Instead, they had hung out the local watering hole and made pests of themselves, especially Kenny and the kids. The sheriff, who had been elected mostly because he had bribed enough people, had left them alone despite the town’s No Gun policy. Still, AJ did manage to ditch the Club for a few minutes and make a deposit at the bank, insurance for an uncertain future. Allen Jones had quite a few deposits in several different banks across the Montana and Idaho territories. That was something he had been doing in some of the towns they had passed through since Kenny had joined the Club. AJ had meant to tell Doc and Karl about it, but Kenny had made his move too soon.

 

And Doc and Karl had stabbed him in the back.

 

After making another stitch, AJ put the needle and thread down and gave Mark a hard look through his hair. “Look, I'm sure you and Randy are real good guys, and don't get me wrong I am truly grateful to both of you for saving my life. Someday I will make it up to you. But for now I have different priorities.”

 

“That’s fine,” Mark said. He knew the Saint wouldn't allow AJ to run after Bullet Club, not with the Skinwalker in the area. But it was up to the Saint of Killers to decide how he was going to get AJ on board.

 

Suspicious that Mark had gave in so easily, but not quite daring to ask what the older man was thinking, AJ went back to his stitching and eventually Randy returned to the campsite. They didn’t talk the rest of the evening. Refusing to ask for help, AJ struggled to put on his mended shirt and pants. He was trembling with weakness and covered in sweat by the time he got dressed but feeling less vulnerable. Then he lay down and went to sleep. Randy and Mark exchanged looks.

 

“What was that all about?” Randy asked. He was enjoying seeing Mark just slightly discomfited by AJ. It wasn’t something he saw very often. And as much as he trusted and respected the doctor, it had been a relief to have Mark's attention on someone else for a while.

 

“Your old man wants him on his feet and hunting that Skinwalker as soon as possible,” Mark said soberly.

 

“Seriously? The guy can barely stand,” Randy protested. Even though he and AJ didn’t see eye to eye, he automatically came to AJ’s defense against his father.

 

“He’ll heal quickly. With an ego that big, he won’t stay down long.” Mark was pleased to see Randy’s protective side coming out once again and bringing him out of his shell. A wry smile curled across Mark’s lips. “Reminds me of you in a way,” he said.

 

Raising an eyebrow, Randy disagreed. “I don’t see it,” he said.

 

“Cocky, arrogant, argumentative and stubborn?” Mark said a bit sarcastically.

 

“I’m not as bad as that, am I?” Randy protested.

 

“Worse,” Mark said, grinning to take any sting from his words.

 

Dawn was breaking over the rocky ridge as Randy dumped handfuls of wet sand over the embers of their campfire. They had finished their coffee and both Mark and Randy wanted an early start. When the camp was packed up and the horses saddled, Mark helped AJ get to his feet. “Thanks,” AJ said as he swayed a bit but didn’t fall over. He looked up at Mark and, good god that man was tall, grinned his cocksure grin just to let the man know that he wasn’t intimidated. Not fooled for an instant, Mark just pointed over to where the horses were tied up.

 

AJ knew as soon as he laid eyes on that sullen gray nag Randy and Mark were using as a pack horse, he would never, ever swing a leg over its back without a saddle. The horse's spine jutted up out of its back like a razor blade and AJ didn't even try to imagine what sitting on that would do to his private parts. “I'll walk,” he told Randy, whom he just now realized how tall the man was standing next to him. For Christ 's sake, why was everyone in the world so much taller than him?

 

Randy smirked at him but it was laced with sympathy. “You can ride with one of us,” he told the former leader of Bullet Club. But when AJ took a look at Mark's pale mare, he came to the same conclusion. Not because she had a spine like the gray's, but there was something about that mare that put AJ's hackles up. She looked like a placid, ordinary animal but somehow he knew that mare wasn't to be trusted to just be a horse. In the end, he did allow himself to be boosted up on the back of Randy's big roan, which could easily pack double. He sat behind Randy's saddle, balancing easily with years of living on the back of a horse. Both Randy and Mark appeared to be relieved to be on the move again. They kept the horses to a walk and talked about inconsequential things. Away from the river, the landscape was barren. There were a few tall hills covered in sage brush and dead grass. A great mountain range jutted up far to the east, the highest peaks still covered in snow. The late July heat had settled in and only the hot dry wind provided any sort of relief. AJ tried to ignore the constant throbbing in his ribs and stomach, made worse by the motion of the horse underneath him and the relentless sun. For a while he was able to, but as the day wore on and the heat increased, the pain grew worse. He didn’t realize he was leaning his forehead against Randy’s back between his shoulder blades, unconsciously trying to curl in around the pain until Randy pulled the horse to a stop. “You doing okay?” he asked turning around to look at AJ.

 

“I'm fine,” AJ assured him, sitting up and attempting to smile. He didn’t fool anyone. His face was pale and he was sweating.

 

“Bullshit,” Randy said with a bit of impatience. Next to them Mark smirked. Randy was getting a taste of his own medicine. Now understanding that Mark had been right in his assessment of their similarities, Randy never had enough patience to deal with someone who refused to admit they were in pain, even when it was obvious. “Let's stop for a while,” he told Mark who was already dismounting.

 

Randy swung his leg over the roan's neck and slid off the saddle, landing easily in the dry prairie grass. He offered a hand up but AJ, determined not to look weak in front of the others ignored it and jumped off the roan's back, landing hard and his legs immediately buckled. Moving incredibly fast, Randy caught him before he could sprawl face down in the grass. For several seconds Randy held him, waiting patiently for AJ to get his legs and balance sorted out.

 

“Thanks,” AJ said. That hadn't been his smartest maneuver, and luckily, Randy had spared him the indignity of eating dirt in front of the two men who had gone out of their way to save his life. Later, when he thought back on it, he realized this was the second time Randy had held him in his arms. He had been too out of it the first time, but this time AJ was fully conscious and could not believe how strong Randy was. Up until then he had thought Doc Gallows was the strongest person he had ever met. But Randy held his full weight with no apparent effort.

 

“Next time say something before you pass out,” Randy told him as he let AJ go and stepped back. It was the first time he had voluntarily held another human being since Punk had left. And yet, with AJ it didn't feel strange.

 

Watching their interaction with subtle interest, Mark unhooked his canteen and added some herbs to the water from his saddlebag. He shook it to mix it up a bit, then handed it to AJ and told him to drink it. With both men looming over him, AJ drank without arguing. He was surprised by the pleasant taste and immediately felt better. After drinking half the canteen, he handed it back to Mark with a nod of thanks.

 

They walked slowly for a while. The dead grass crunched underfoot and grasshoppers jumped away. Once AJ felt stronger, Randy boosted him up onto the roan’s back with ease. They made better time on horseback but it was still late in the afternoon when they saw smoke and steam rising from the town in the distance. “Here is where we leave you,” Mark said, pulling the mare to a halt. This was news to both Randy and AJ.

 

Randy reined the roan and turned it so he could look inquiringly at Mark. The abrupt movement caused AJ to grab Randy’s waist to maintain his balance.

 

“We’re leaving him out here alone?” Randy asked. Even though he didn’t know how he felt about AJ, the man still looked pale and injured. It didn't seem right.

 

“He needs a horse and supplies, which he can get in Bannack,” Mark said as he fished out his wallet and counted out some bank notes. He handed them to AJ along with the canteen of water. AJ, with Randy's help, slid off the roan with more grace than the last time. “He’ll catch up to us when he's ready.”

 

Randy shot Mark a puzzled look, but didn't question him, yet.

 

“Well, thank you once again for the rescue,” AJ said, not unhappy about getting dropped off, but was surprised that they were dropping him off so far outside of town. He reached up to offer his hand to Randy, who took it. “I’ll pay you back, I promise.” And AJ meant it. Randy had braved the river to save him.

 

“Watch your back,” Randy told him. While he had been dreading going into a town surrounded by deep mines, he didn’t like leaving AJ alone either. He would make Mark explain himself when they got out of earshot. They turned the horses to go wide around the town and set out at a jog, leaving AJ standing on the prairie alone. Randy spurred the roan lope so he could ride abreast of Mark. “Okay, what’s going on?” he asked.

 

“The Skinwalker has shown up around here recently. We need to move,” Mark told him, looking straight ahead. “The boy is close enough to town he can make it without passing out.”

 

“And we’re just leaving him to face the Skinwalker alone without any back-up?” Randy was concerned. This was not the way he had done things in the past.

 

“Not alone. Your old man will be there to watch over him.” Mark looked straight ahead. The sun was sinking towards the west but Mark figured they should be able to make some miles before dark.

 

By now, Randy knew something was up. Mark was always honest, but not always forthcoming with information. He glared at Mark, who was unaffected. “What else?” he asked. “What aren’t you telling me?”

 

Heaving a sigh and bracing himself, Mark told Randy, “It knows about Benoit’s marks.”

 

It felt like a bucket of ice had been dumped over Randy’s head. His mouth went dry and he started shaking. He clenched his fists hard and took a deep breath. The roan held steady in its pace but Randy had stopped guiding it. All he could think of was the Beast's teeth sinking into the back of his neck, and its weight on top of him. And then then Beast was inside of him and he had been helpless to stop it. Luckily he hadn't eaten in several hours but he still felt nauseous.

 

Glancing over at the Legend Killer, Mark could see the horror Randy was trying to hide. He offered the only reassurance he could think of. “Don’t panic. It doesn’t know which of you carries the marks.”

 

For a brief minute, Randy was relieved, but then Mark’s words truly sank in and a hot rush of anger overtook the cold fear. “So that’s it? AJ is to be bait for the Skinwalker?” He turned around in the saddle but AJ was out of sight. If the Skinwalker thought it was AJ with the marks, it would do to the former leader of the Bullet Club what the Beast had done to him down in that mine. And the thought of AJ's broken, violated body made him sick. He swore and pulled the roan to a halt. “Fuck that. I ‘m not letting that happen to him.”

 

Mark pulled the mare to a halt and pivoted her around to face Randy. “The old man will be with him. That boy has a better chance alone than with you hanging around. With you there, your old man will be focused on you, not AJ. He’s strong and if you go back, you’ll be putting him in even more danger, as well as yourself,” he said sternly. He willed Randy to understand. “After what happened to you, your old man will not let anything like that happen ever again. He will do anything protect you, even if it means sacrificing another.”

 

“I don't want that!” Randy shouted at Mark, who interrupted him, completed unfazed at Randy's rage.

 

“It doesn't matter what you want. He will protect you at all costs. And the best thing you can do right now is to let him. If he thinks that boy is the best chance to kill the Skinwalker, then he will use him. Don't interfere with his plans. Because if you do, AJ Styles will die like you did. And there will be no one to bring him back.”

 

Swearing in frustration, Randy knew Mark was right. He hated it, but couldn’t argue. Reluctantly he nodded to Mark, then touched his spurs to the roan’s sides urging it back into a slow jog. Mark’s pale mare fell in beside them. They didn’t speak anymore but Randy’s thoughts were back in Bannack, where AJ was walking unknowingly into a devil’s den. For the first time since the mine, he wanted to speak to his father. He wanted to tell him to not to let AJ face the enemy alone. To protect him better than he had protected his son.

 

~~~~~~~

 

Huffing a breath of relief, AJ watched them ride out of sight, and then he started walking towards the town. As he walked, AJ planned on buying a horse and leaving the area. Bullet Club was still out there. Kenny was still out there. With a little luck he could hunt them down and kill them before they knew what was happening. That thought cheered him up a bit.

 

Not going to happen,” the Saint said from right beside him. You have work to do.”

 

Startled, AJ jumped and stumbled, nearly taking a header right into the prickly sage brush. “Jesus fucking Christ! Alright, I get it! You don't need to sneak up on a person.” He almost bit his tongue as soon as he said it. The Saint looked like Christopher but his presence was very intimidating, something Christopher’s never was. But AJ stuck to his guns, so to speak. This being had saved his life but had yet to tell him of what it wanted from him. And it was much taller than him which annoyed him to no end. Christopher hadn’t been that tall when he was alive. “So are you going to tell me the truth about what's going on?” he demanded.

 

I have no reason to lie to you, boy,” the Saint said impatiently. “I need you to help me kill something.”

 

“Then just fucking tell me what!” AJ yelled back. Usually he didn't swear but he was getting sick of not knowing what was going on and what was expected of him. “I agreed to work for you, but so far I haven't heard of what that means except for killing demons which I don't know how to do!” He jammed his hands through his hair in frustration.

 

The Saint's eyebrows rose but he held his temper. AJ did have a point. He gestured for AJ to keep heading to Bannack. As they walked, he told AJ about how he would need to identify the Skinwalker and how the Colt Walkers, with their ability to kill anything, would be what he used when the time came.

 

“So let me get this straight. I need to find this Skinwalker, whom nobody knows what it looks like, and you want me to identify it and help you kill it with a pair of magic guns that never jam, never need reloading and kill anything they hit?” AJ asked, brushing his hair out of his face.

 

Correct,” the Saint said.

 

As he walked, AJ thought about it. There was risk and great danger. But AJ had never backed down from a fight. He grinned. “Well, why didn't you just say so? Give me a little time and I’ll get it done,” he said. He resumed walking to town, but now it more like his characteristic Leader of Bullet Club strut. Truth be told, AJ’s confidence was way out of proportion to his size, but he hadn’t lead a gang of psycho killers as long as he had by being weak willed or careless.

 

For the first time in a long time, the Saint of Killers blinked in surprise. He hadn’t been expecting that response. AJ Styles was not the usual type of killer he was used to dealing with. The confidence, bordering on arrogance, was present in all his other surviving men. But AJ reminded him more of Seth Rollins than Dean or Roman. He wondered if AJ had Seth’s ability to plan moves and counter moves as well as Rollins did. If so, maybe, just maybe, AJ had a chance to come through this alive.

 

Near the outskirts of town, something stirred and opened its eyes. The slightest scent teased its nostrils, so small it could have been its imagination if it had one. Its eyes brightened at the whiff of death, and demons. It licked its lips in anticipation. Its prey had arrived.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Phenomenal One

 

As always, a huge thank you to Kiss316 for being an awesome beta reader. She is amazing.

 

Warnings: Swearing, violence and attempted sexual violence.

 

The Dudleys

 

Bannack was once the capital of Montana Territory but that had been several years prior and only for a single year, when the gold had been easy to find in and along the banks of Grasshopper Creek. And while there was still plenty of gold far beneath the creek and under the surrounding mountains, it was now very difficult and dangerous to unearth, requiring heavy expensive equipment and greater man-power. As a result the town’s population was slowly dwindling, moving on to easier riches found elsewhere.

 

The sun was settling in the northwest as AJ approached the town from the east side, walking past the silent gaping black maws of the tapped out mines in the sides of the low mountains. His earlier burst of energy had dwindled and his fever was starting to climb again. There was a few swallows of Mark’s water left in the canteen but he wanted to hold out for a while. He might need it later. At the edge of town the faded sign asking newcomers to Please Check Your Revolvers with the Sheriff sat dispiritedly on its post, leaning slightly. AJ smirked. It wasn’t like he was carrying thanks to Bullet Club, but he knew from personal experience that the policy wasn't generally enforced.

 

The livery was close to the eastern side of town, about a quarter of the way up the gradual slope of a mountain covered in dead grass and powder-dry dirt. Thorny sage brushes and granite outcroppings pocked the upper part of the mountain and prickly-pear cactus blossoms gave some relief to the brown and gray landscape. Even though it was getting late he turned up the path to the livery, figuring he may as well take a look at their stock. He'd heard reports the owners Enzo Amore and Colin Cassidy (also known as Big Cass for some reason) were from out east and extremely smart business men who took no shit from anyone. But they were considered odd. He had never met them personally, as he had owned a good horse until Kenny stabbed him in the back.

 

Fuck Kenny.

 

As he approached the massive barn, he started to get the feeling that something wasn't right. The open air blacksmith’s area in the front sat cold and quiet. He didn't see anyone around, but two horses were tied to the hitching rail to the left of the open doors, listlessly swishing their tails at the flies buzzing around their legs. Both were thin and their coats were dull. One of the animals had a swollen foreleg. He frowned at their poor condition. If those were the kind of horses the owners were selling, AJ would be looking elsewhere for a mount. He entered the barn and stopped just inside the doorway. The setting sun glowed through the windows and door behind him, illuminating dust motes. The big barn was full of stalls, some containing horses, others were empty. The smell of horses and hay was thick in the still air. It was very quiet except for the sound of a couple of horses moving in their stalls, munching on hay. Unlike the two horses out front, they were sleek and looked to be in excellent condition. AJ concluded those two horses were not indicative of the condition of the livery's stock. He peeked over the side of a nearby stall to examine a horse closer. It was a bright palomino, deep chested with a wide blaze and four white stockings up to its knees. It looked at him inquisitively but didn't move from the mound of hay it was eating. AJ smiled but shook his head. That one would stand out and people remembered unusual colorings of a horse too well. Part of him wanted the attention, but the smarter part knew it was best to lay low when running from the law.

 

Looking around, he didn’t see any sign of the owners. Figuring they had gone home for the night, AJ was turning to leave when he heard a man’s sharp cry of pain coming from the back office. He hesitated. Normally he didn’t interfere with domestic issues, it wasn’t his business. But the two ill-used horses he’d seen out front gave him a bad feeling.

 

Don't get involved,” the Saint advised him, standing nearby in a darkened corner. AJ was too valuable to the Saint for him to risk getting involved in things that weren't the Saint's business. And he needed AJ to be healthy as soon as possible. Getting beat up or shot would set him back and they couldn’t afford that.

 

Knowing the Saint was right, AJ headed out the door. He later blamed the fever and the fatigue for his slow reflexes. He was stepping out of the barn right into the sunset, which was shining directly into his eyes so he didn’t immediately see the huge black guy coming around the side of the barn, leading two fresh horses.

 

Watch out,” the Saint warned, too late.

 

“What are you doing here?” the man demanded. He was armed with a Colt Peacemaker which he had pulled from its holster and pointed at AJ.

 

It took less than half a second for AJ to know he was in bad trouble. By his demeanor AJ could tell the black guy was most likely stealing those horses, which was a hang-able offense. And AJ was witness. With no Bullet Club to back him up, AJ had to think fast. “Hey, I just came here to buy a horse. But there doesn't seem to be anyone around, so I'll come back later.” He smiled even as he winced, knowing he wasn't convincing anyone with an explanation that lame. Behind him, he heard the Saint sigh in exasperation. This was going to be ugly.

 

The guy dropped the horses' lead lines and strode towards AJ, who held up his hands showing he was unarmed. There wasn't much else he could do as the guy had a gun pointed right at him. “I don't want any trouble,” he started to say but the man's free hand closed around the back of his head, grabbing a fistful of AJ's thick hair, then without a word dragged AJ by his hair back into the barn and to the back. He kicked the office door open and shoving AJ to his hands and knees inside. The stitches in his stomach and ribs tore and he gasped. It hurt like a son of a bitch and his scalp stung. Bastard was going to pay for that, AJ decided. He just didn’t know how, yet.

 

“D-Von! What the fuck?” a blocky bald white man yelled from the far side of the room. He was bending the arm of a small blond man painfully behind his back. The bald guy was pressing his hips into the smaller man's in a way that uncomfortable to think about.

 

On the floor in the opposite corner was a long-haired man, probably the one AJ had heard earlier. His wrists were tied behind him to one of the big barn posts, blood pouring down the side of his head. AJ could tell he wasn’t completely conscious. “Get your hands off of Enzo,” the long-haired man slurred at the huge bald man, jerking weakly at the ropes that kept him tied to the post. “You're too much of a chicken shit to face me, so you go after 'zo! You’re a fucking coward!”

 

“Nah, you're wrong Big Cass,” D-Von said sounding bored. “Enzo here sold Bubba Ray unsound horses. We’re just here to correct the situation and get what he owes us and teach him that no one messes with the Dudley Boys. We know how you feel about your partner, so we'll let you watch. Maybe you'll even learn a thing or two.” The statement was followed by Bubba Ray's chuckle. He jerked Enzo's arm higher and the smaller man gasped in pain. Enzo had a hazy look on his face, like he wasn't exactly sure where he was. AJ could see blood trickling from a deep gash on Enzo's cheek. It was obvious the man had been pistol-whipped.

 

“You're lying!” Big Cass’ accusation was followed by a cry of pain as D-Von kicked him hard in the leg.

 

“Don’t touch him you big sack of shit! I didn’t sell you unsound horses, you just don't take care of ‘em,” Enzo insisted and cried out as Bubba Ray leaned hard on his arm.

 

“I'm sick of this bitch's mouth. Get the table D-Von,” Bubba Ray told his partner.

 

“If you hurt Enzo I will kill you,” Big Cass warned, trying to get free but cried out again when D-Von kicked him in the stomach. Big Cass leaned forward as far as ropes allowed, dry-heaving.

 

“That's it! You're dead!” Enzo shouted, struggling in Bubba Ray's grip.

 

Rolling his eyes and sighing loudly, D-Von said to Bubba Ray, “I don't honestly know what Cass sees in this pipsqueak,” he said. Then he leered at Enzo. “Unless he's smart enough to fill that mouth with his dick so he can't talk.” Calmly, he holstered his gun and with no emotion, he closed his hand into a fist and punched Enzo right in the face. The smaller man slumped down, limp as a dishrag. Blood trickled from his nose and mouth. D-Von then maneuvered a wooden table in front of them.

 

“Bastards!” Big Cass hissed, his head lolled to the side.

 

“Thank you, D-Von. As I had been trying to tell Enzo here,” he bent Enzo over the table. “Before I was interrupted, was that he was going to repay us for those two nags he sold us by trading them for two good horses. And we were going to fuck him like he thought he had fucked us in that deal, only we’re going to do it literally. But before I begin, would you mind telling me who the fuck this is?” Bubba Ray asked D-Von, pointing to AJ who was still on the floor, considering his options.

 

“I found him in the barn,” D-Von said. “Spying on us.”

 

“Wait, just hold up a second,” AJ protested. He climbed to his feet, hiding his pain the best he could. He could feel blood soaking the bandages but he didn't dare look down. There was no way he was going to show any weakness in front of these two. “I wasn't spying on you. Like I was telling D-Von here, it’s okay if I call you D-Von right? Like I was telling him, I was just here to buy a horse. Mine was stolen.” He brushed the hair from his face. He glanced at the back to where the Saint was standing and watching. No one else seemed to pay attention to it and the spirit didn't look like it was going to step in to help. His mind moved quickly through his options, fueled by adrenaline.

 

“Do you hear that D-Von? It sounds like this boy is from the South. I will bet you money that him and his family owned slaves.” Bubba Ray told his partner with a sly look. He didn't appear to hear what AJ had said.

 

“Did you own slaves?” D-Von growled at AJ. He didn't look so bored anymore. He looked downright dangerous.

 

Shaking his head, AJ quickly denied it. “No, we were too poor to own slaves.” That was true.

 

“Maybe so, but I'll bet he fought for the South,” Bubba Ray said, egging D-Von on.

 

“Did you fight for the South?” D-Von demanded, getting even angrier.

 

Well, shit. That was something AJ would never deny. He had fought, bled and wept for the South. “Yes,” he told them, standing up as tall he could. His pride demanded no less.

 

The Saint rolled his eyes and shook his head. He needed AJ alive. “Don't do it boy,” he warned, sensing what AJ was planning. D-Von was at least five inches taller than AJ and more than fifty pounds heavier. And he was armed. AJ ignored him. If the Saint wasn't going to help, screw him.

 

“Tell you what, D-Von, while I get started with Enzo,” he ground his hips against Enzo who was recovering enough to squirm but couldn't break the hold Bubba Ray had him in. “You explain to this hee-ah Southern boy,” he drawled, mocking AJ's accent, “your views on people like him keeping your people as slaves.”

 

“Well, boy,” D-Von said. “It seems we have something to talk about after all. I had family that was slaves to white trash like you.”

 

“And I had nothing to do with that,” AJ argued back. “I fought for my home, which I lost I might add.” Indeed, there had been nothing left but ash and charred bones when AJ had returned. Like so many others with nothing left to hold him in Georgia, AJ headed out west to find a new life. And he did, he found Karl and Doc, and Bullet Club.

 

“Oh that’s not the only thing you'll lose,” D-Von promised. “I'm gonna start with your teeth. Some of them slave owners liked to pull out their slaves' teeth. Only I’m going to knock yours right out of your head. And after you lose those teeth, I'll fuck your bloody, toothless mouth, boy. And while my dick is down your throat, I want you to think about all those people whom you fought to keep slaves.” He clenched his fists and started towards AJ.

 

With a sideways grin, AJ's eyes brightened but not with fear. Adrenaline masked the pain in his stomach and ribs. He held himself ready, his weight balanced on the balls of his feet, the picture of absolute confidence. He had the measure of D-Von now. It had been a long time since he had fought alone but he had lost none of his abilities. Enraged, D-Von growled and moved in close enough for AJ to smell his sweat and bad breath. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Saint start to come forward. Then D-Von swung a heavy fist at AJ's jaw. For such a big man, he was very fast. But AJ, with the speed of striking falcon, ducked under the swing and retaliated with a right elbow square to D-Von's jaw, dislocating it. Immediately following the elbow was a hard left strike to D-Von's chest that cracked several ribs, then a hard kick to his upper thigh and finally AJ spun completely around. His right fist slammed into the side of D-Von's head with a vicious thud. As D-Von staggered back, trying to protect himself from the flurry of blows, AJ followed and reached into D-Von's holster. He pulled out the gun, cocking the hammer back and pointing it directly into D-Von's surprised face. Pausing long enough to make sure D-Von could see his wicked grin behind the Peacemaker, AJ adjusted his aim and pulled the trigger, immediately swinging the gun to cover Bubba Ray. The whole ‘fight’ had taken place in less than five heartbeats. There had been a reason it had taken no less than three Bullet Club members to overcome him even after catching him by surprise.

 

D-Von howled as the bullet tore through his shoulder, spraying blood. Bubba Ray shouted in surprise. D-Von backpedaled quickly, limping from the deep bruise AJ's kick had left on his thigh and covering his shoulder with his opposite hand, vainly trying to stem the blood gushing out of the wound. Before he could even think to grab his own gun, Bubba Ray found himself staring down the barrel of Peacemaker. His grip on Enzo loosened and the smaller man pulled away, staggering to Big Cass' side. He cupped Big Cass' cheeks, trying to peer into his eyes to see if he was okay. Seeing Cass' eyes were open, he sighed in relief and rubbed his arm trying to get feeling back. The room was suddenly very quiet. Only D-Von’s heavy breathing could be heard.

 

The Saint's eyebrows rose at the sudden turn of events. “Not bad,” he admitted.

 

Now in control of the situation, which was much more to his liking, AJ gestured with the Peacemaker for Bubba Ray to remove his gun from its holster and put it on the top of the desk. Calmly AJ said, “Back away from the gun, Bubba Ray. Now, like I told you, I'm just here to buy a horse. I don't give a shit what issues the two of you have with the owners of this here establishment. That's between the four of you. But right now, I got business with them,” he pointed at Big Cass and Enzo, who was watching him from the floor. Enzo was working on freeing Big Cass from the ropes. When Enzo heard that, he looked up and opened his mouth to make a remark but AJ gave him a hard look, raised eyebrow and all.

 

In an uncharacteristic show of good sense, Enzo shut his mouth and waited to see how AJ would handle the situation. As he watched AJ deal with the Dudley boys, he breathed thanks to whatever deity had been watching out for him and Big Cass. He didn't know yet if AJ was a friend or foe. For all he knew, he and Big Cass might have gone from the frying pan into the fire. But when the Dudleys had come storming through their door, wielding guns, Enzo was sure one or both of them would end up dead. Big Cass would have died before he let anything happen to his partner. He remembered Bubba Ray pressing his groin into him and shuddered.

 

For his part, AJ was glad Enzo didn't say anything. He didn't need the man to complicate the situation. He turned back to the two bald men. He was tempted to kill them right then and there and be done with the whole situation, but he didn't want things to get even messier now that he could no longer claim self-defense. Even the current Sheriff of Bannack would feel obligated to detain AJ over two killings. “Why don't the two of you just run along? I'll keep your guns though. And if you think I’m depriving you unlawfully of your property, I'm sure you can explain to the sheriff what you lost and how you lost it,” he told D-Von with a sardonic grin.

 

For a moment, it looked like the Dudleys were going to leave quietly. Then Bubba Ray lunged at AJ, hoping to take him by surprise. But AJ had been expecting it and smoothly pivoted out of the way, lifting a foot to trip the bigger man on his way by. Sprawling hard on the dirt covered floor, Bubba Ray grunted. Backing out of reach, AJ kept the gun trained on D-Von in case he tried something too. “I can see neither of you has an overabundance of brains. But if you want what little you do have to stay inside those thick skulls, don't try that again. The only reason I haven’t killed you is that I have things I need to do and don’t have time for paperwork. Now, I'm going to escort you to the door and if I see you even turn around and look in my direction, a bullet will be between your eyes before you can blink,” AJ told them, sounding amiable until the last part when he sounded like an upset dad threatening a recalcitrant kid and that made it even worse. Like AJ wasn’t taking them seriously. And to be honest, he wasn't. People like Bubba Ray and D-Von were never a threat to a man like AJ.

 

Upset, Bubba Ray picked himself up off the floor and helped D-Von limp out of the barn with AJ trailing behind them until he came to the open door. The sun had set but the northwestern horizon still glowed a brilliant orange. Crickets sang enthusiastically in the early twilight and lamps were being lit in the town. The July desert heat was finally dissipating. The horses D-Von had been in the process of stealing had wandered off in search of grass. The two men were turning to get on their pathetic horses when AJ spoke up. “Just leave them here, boys. I'm sure the owners will take them back as an apology for your rude behavior.”

 

They glared at him but he smirked and raised the gun, aiming it straight at Bubba Ray's forehead, pulling back the hammer. They got the message and headed back down the path to town. When they were out of sight; AJ let out a sigh and allowed himself to sag against the barn. He finally looked down and was dismayed to see there was some blood staining the front of his shirt. His injuries throbbed steadily and his head was ringing. He ran his hand through his hair, pushing it away from his face. Only sheer stubbornness kept him on his feet. The Saint lurked nearby looking as approving as a slab of cold granite could. AJ opened his mouth to ask him a question.

 

“How you doin?” Enzo asked from right beside him.

 

“Jesus fucking Christ!” AJ spun and pointed the gun at Enzo’s forehead before he could stop himself. Luckily he didn’t pull the trigger but it was a near thing. He cursed inwardly. He needed to do better. Twice within the span of a few minutes he had been caught unawares and that was unacceptable.

 

“Wow! Slow your roll there, my friend,” Enzo said, putting one of his hands in the air. The other arm was dangling limp at his side. “We ain't gonna hurts ya.” The blood was drying on his face, black on white in the twilight. It looked like he would be sporting a black eye by morning. His nose was still bleeding, and his lips were puffy. He drooled some blood but quickly wiped it away. Big Cass was standing beside him, holding a shotgun with one hand but still blinking blearily. He was pressing a rag to his scalp where D’Von pistol-whipped him.

 

Still a bit jittery with the leftover adrenaline, AJ lowered the Peacemaker and nodded. He did take a step back however, so he could keep both of them in his sight. Now that the immediate danger was past, AJ stuffed the Peacemaker into the waistband of his pants and took a longer look at the men he had unintentionally saved. Enzo was almost as short as AJ, with white blond hair tie up in an outrageous manner on top of his head but his short beard was dark. And speaking of outrageous, that accent…Big Cass, however, now that he was standing up it was easy to see why he got that nickname. AJ shook his head, and nearly staggered as a wave of dizziness swept over him and his body felt unnaturally hot. He put out a hand and braced himself against the side of the barn, trying to act casual. He answered Enzo's question. “I'm fine. How are you doing?” he asked, not really caring but manners and upbringing won out.

 

“My virginity is still intact thanks to you. My name is Enzo Amore,” the man said then he gestured to his partner. “And dis right here? Dis is Big Cass. And if ye can’t guess why he’s called Big Cass, it’s because he's seven foot tall.” Big Cass nodded soberly. “As you figured out, we run this here establishment. To whom do I direct my heartfelt thanks?”

 

“Allen Jones,” AJ said, prudently using his alias. The name of AJ Styles was synonymous with Bullet Club. Allen Jones was the name under which he had made deposits at the bank. Anyone inquiring would only know that Mr. Jones was an assayer and had a substantial amount of money. He was also an upstanding citizen. “Who were those two?” he asked.

 

“A couple a haters,” Enzo snorted. His accent made it sound like he said A cupla haytahs. “They was sore about the horses they bought a couple of weeks ago. The morons don't take care of them and blamed me when they went lame.” He paused, studying AJ carefully, taking in the mended shirt with fresh blood-stains and AJ’s pale face. Though AJ was trying to hide his weakened condition, he wasn’t fooling Enzo. But AJ seemed reluctant to talk about his injuries. Still, Enzo needed to be sure that AJ knew just what kind of hornet’s nest he had stirred up. “You made some pretty bad enemies right there. Those Dudley Boys? They're meaner than a striped snake and they will fuck you up for what you did. But it goes without sayin’ that Big Cass and I, we owe you big.”

 

AJ shrugged. He had only done it because D-Von threatened him. He wasn’t a hero, just a guy with a huge ego who didn’t put up with threats from people who weren’t in his league. “I just need a horse,” he said.

 

“Yeah, we’ll fix you up with a real good one. You was sayin' yours was stolen? Do you know who it was?” Enzo asked. “We gots connections and if it turns up, we can reunite you with your trusty steed.”

 

“Yeah, Bullet Club stole my horse and all my gear.” AJ had been out of the loop for a while and he had no news about what happened after he parted ways with Bullet Club. Most towns usually had a reliable gossip mill and now was his chance to get caught up. Maybe get some information on the whereabouts of his former family so he knew where to find them after he killed the Skinwalker.

 

“Bullet Club? I thought they only robbed banks and trains,” Enzo said, trading looks with Big Cass. “They robbin' honest business men now too?”

 

“I heard they graduated to killing people in their latest bank robbery,” Big Cass told Enzo. “Sounds like Bullet Club has gone off the rails. You got lucky, Allen. Whoever is leading it now is a real psycho.”

 

“You've no idea,” AJ muttered. He glanced at the Saint who was looking over the town but listening to the conversation. Then the dizziness grew worse and the ringing grew louder, drowning out Enzo and Cass’ conversation. The last thing he remembered was the ground rushing up to hit him in the face and then everything was darkness.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

As always, I must acknowledge the awesomeness of my beta reader Kiss316. Simply said, she is great.

Warnings: Violence, swearing.

 

Phenomenal One

 

The dizziness grew worse and the ringing grew louder, drowning out Enzo and Cass’ conversation. The last thing he remembered was the ground rushing up to hit him in the face and everything was darkness.

 

He dreamed of fire, crackling and popping. He gasped, reflexively grabbing his stomach, terrified of being cooked alive again. “No! Stop!”

 

“Take it easy there, Allen,” a vaguely familiar voice told him. “You're okay.”

 

How did the person know his name? Allen was his old name, his christened name. He had left that name behind in ashes of Georgia, except... His head hurt but he sifted through his memories trying to make sense of the situation. It wasn’t Mark or Randy talking. Where were they? Oh yeah, they had left him alone, riding away without looking back. Leaving him to face the unknown with only the Saint of Killers for guidance and company. But that still didn't help him identify who was talking to Allen.

 

“How's 'e doin'?” another voice asked.

 

“I think he's waking up.” That was the first voice.

 

His eyes felt gritty. He rubbed them open and looked around, squinting from the throbbing in his skull. He didn’t recognize where he was. He was lying in a real bed in a nice room with a decidedly feminine touch. Some pictures of flowers hung on the wall. Lace draped over the tall chest of drawers. Memories trickled back slowly: the Dudley boys, Enzo and Big Cass, who was sitting in the chair beside the bed with a bandage wrapped around the crown of his head. There was a gray light outside the window, the kind that heralds the dawn. How long had he been asleep?

 

"It was only the night," the ghost and cobweb voice of the Saint assured him from the far corner of the room. His hat and coat were impossibly black against the grayness. He was watching AJ carefully.

 

“Where am I?” AJ asked him. His voice was rusty as an old nail.

 

“You fell over at our feet and we carried you to Miss Carmella's place,” Enzo said, sitting on the edge of the bed. He didn't notice of the spirit lurking in the corner. His eye was swollen and black. His nose and cheek were puffy and his lips were scabbed and blue. He was holding a steaming cup. “It’s nicer than our place and she can take care of you better than we can.”

 

That was embarrassing. He raised his head and looked at his chest and stomach. His shirt had been removed and the bandages had been changed. He saw his shirt had been washed and hung up on the dressing screen. Someone had re-mended it, doing a much better job than he had.

 

“Yeah, we got those changed for ya's while you was out,” Enzo said. “Those were some serious hurts. What the hell happened to ya?”

 

“I told you, Bullet Club happened to me,” AJ told him as he laid his head back down and put a forearm over his eyes, trying to subdue the headache by sheer will-power. He didn’t want to think about Bullet Club because with a sickening pang, he realized he missed them. Well, not all of them. He missed Karl and Doc. They had been his friends, his confidants, and his back-up. They had laughed together, pulled heists together and endured hard times together. Bullet Club’s betrayal was still fresh and festering and he hated himself for missing them. He had been surrounded by friends for years but now he was alone.

 

Fuck Kenny. AJ should have put a bullet in him the day he showed up at their campsite.

 

“You said that they robbed you, not that they tried to kill you,” Enzo said reproachfully. He felt guilty that AJ had collapsed at their feet after saving them while they stood around talking. He and Big Cass hadn’t realized how wounded the small man had been. To be fair, they couldn't have known and they were hurt too.

 

“Doesn’t matter. I got away. A couple of guys found me and patched me up,” AJ said.

 

“They knew what they was doin, that's for sure'” Enzo observed, interrupting AJ’s train of thought. “I ain't never heard of anyone surviving a belly wound.”

 

“I got lucky.” But was it merely luck that Mark and Randy had been there to pull him out of the river? He wondered, his gaze straying to where the Saint was lurking. He needed to be alone so he could talk to the Saint. He had some questions he wanted answered.

 

“Very lucky,” Enzo agreed, his blond top-knot bobbing. “Here, dis will help with that headache.” He helped AJ sit up and handed him the cup of coffee, which AJ took gratefully.

 

“What I want to know is how you was able to take on both Dudleys unarmed and barely staying on your feet,” Big Cass asked, blunt as always. “Those strikes seriously messed up D-Von and he is one of the toughest guys I know.”

 

Blowing on the steaming coffee, AJ didn't know how to answer that believably. He looked at the Saint who didn't appear inclined to answer the question. So he shrugged and pushed his hair out of his face. “I caught him off guard,” he stated with false confidence. “He wasn’t expecting me to take the fight to him.”

 

Big Cass nodded but looked skeptical. He would have pursued that topic but Carmella swept in. She was a slender young woman with long blond hair. Her presence made AJ sit up straight, remembering his manners around women, especially good-looking women. Then she said, “Are you boys botherin my patient?”

 

Holy hell, AJ had been amazed by Enzo’s accent but he had nothing on Carmella. That woman’s voice was like shards of glass in his spine. “Actually, Miss Carmella, I'm feeling much better. They tell me it’s from your expert care,” AJ assured her with his easy Southern charm. “If I had known I would be in the care of such a beautiful young lady, I would have passed out at Big Cass’ feet earlier.”

 

She beamed and red dusted her cheeks. “It was the least I could do, after you saved Enzo and Big Cass,” Carmella said batting her eyelashes just a bit. Even though she liked Big Cass, she didn’t mind if AJ flirted with her. “You should get a medal for what you did, driving off those horrible Dudley Boys. They’ve been terrorizing the town for weeks! And that useless sheriff wouldn’t do anything about them! I have never seen such a coward!” Her voice rose and AJ tried not to wince as the pounding in his skull increased. Seeing AJ’s pained look, she took a deep breath and smiled at AJ who was trying not to cringe at her voice. “You're welcome to stay as long as you need to recover, Mr. Jones.”

 

Nope, that wasn't going to happen for several reasons, not the least was Big Cass starting to frown. He realized the other man was sweet on Carmella and didn't like AJ flirting with her. He backed off, not wanting to make an enemy of Big Cass. Carmella didn't interest him anyway. He said as earnestly as he could to Carmella, “I appreciate your hospitality, Miss Carmella and thank you for your kindness and generosity for offering your home to me. But there are things I need to do without delay. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get dressed and out of your hair.” He swung his legs over the side of the bed, intending to stand up but hesitated. He wasn’t sure of his balance just yet and didn’t want to fall on his face in front of witnesses again.

 

“But,” Carmella began, but Big Cass interrupted her. “Don’t worry Miss Carmella. Enzo and I will watch out for Allen. Now let’s let the man get dressed. I’ll help you with breakfast.” He had set his cap on Carmella and appreciated AJ leaving. He politely herded Carmella out of the room and closed the door behind them.

 

“What’s your plans, Allen?” Enzo asked. “You gots a place to stay?”

 

“I’ll stay at the hotel,” AJ said, standing up and testing his legs. To his relief they seemed steady. He ran a hand through his hair. He needed a bath but for now he would settle for washing his face.

 

“You can stay wit me and Big Cass until you're better,” Enzo offered, watching AJ closely. Watching AJ's back was the least he and Cass could do. He could tell AJ wasn’t at a hundred percent. Although it truly seemed like AJ didn't need protecting. Enzo could not believe how fast AJ could move, or how strong he was, even injured as he was. It wasn't natural. But he didn't say that to AJ.

 

“I appreciate the offer, but the hotel will be fine,” AJ told Enzo. Between the Saint of Killers, Mark, Randy, now Big Cass and Enzo, he didn’t need more babysitters. He needed to be able to come and go at will, and staying with Enzo and Big Cass could lead to awkward questions about the true circumstances bringing him to Bannack. He looked hopefully at Enzo, “I could use a horse though.”

 

“Sure thing,” Enzo said, standing up. Truth be told, his and Big Cass' place wasn't big and three of them would be very cramped, even with AJ being as small as Enzo. But they owed AJ and would’ve made it work. “Carmella’s got breakfast going. Cass and I will be heading up to the barn to feed the stock. Come over when you’re ready.” He left the room, leaving AJ alone with the Saint, who fixed the spirit with a gimlet stare.

 

What?” the Saint asked, unaffected by AJ's look.

 

“Why am I the only one that can see you?” AJ asked, keeping his voice low so anyone lingering outside the door wouldn’t overhear.

 

Only those of you who entered into the soul contract can see me.”

 

“Just great,” AJ muttered. “So if I talk to you when there's someone around, they’ll think I’m crazy.”

 

The Saint shrugged. That wasn’t his problem.

 

Rolling his eyes, AJ gingerly pulled on his boots, being mindful of his injuries. As he straighten up he asked, “Did you know that Bullet Club was going to try to kill me?”

 

No.”

 

“Then how was it that Mark and Randy knew to be at the river at that particular time and place? It couldn't have been a coincidence.” That was the question that was driving AJ mad.

 

You’ll have to ask Mark. But if you hadn’t made the agreement, you would have been dead regardless. It was my strength which enabled you to survive.”

 

Now AJ really had food for thought. “Is that how I beat D-Von so easily? Sure, I’m fast, but even if I was at one hundred percent I was never strong enough to break a person's jaw.” Knock out a few teeth maybe but not flat out break a jaw.

 

Yes. Even though you are still recovering, you are now considerably stronger than a normal human,” the Saint said. “Keep that in mind the next time you decide to fight someone. You might unintentionally kill them.”

 

AJ pulled on his shirt. It was still a bit damp but the blood stains were gone. He felt much better after sleeping a full night in a bed. The ribs were still sore but at least fever was gone. The coffee had helped with the headache and he could smell breakfast. His stomach growled but he wanted answers more than food right then. “Is it the same with all your guys?”

 

Yes.”

 

“You might have made that part more clear,” AJ told him but he wasn’t displeased with the news. Being stronger than anyone else was definitely a perk to the job. And that explained Randy. Thinking of Randy made AJ wonder once again what happened to the guy. If he was so strong what the hell had happened to him? Whatever it was, it must have been horrific. Shelving the thought, AJ went on to his next question. He brushed his hair out of his face. “What else can I do?”

 

You can see demons where they hide, even inside of other humans,” the Saint told him. “You can also sense them in the vicinity.”

 

“And that’s a good thing?” AJ asked with sarcasm.

 

But the Saint didn’t rise to the bait. “Yes. Once they know you are one of mine, they will try to kill you if I am not with you. You have my strength if you must fight them. Regular bullets can’t kill them.”

 

“If you're not with me? Like, you’re actually going to leave me alone?” AJ asked hopefully. If that wasn't the case, it would be very uncomfortable if he wanted to get intimate with someone. Or himself even.

 

Not until you kill that Skinwalker.” The Saint wasn't taking any arguments.

 

“Can I sense the Skinwalker?” AJ asked. Maybe this wouldn’t take as long as he feared.

 

It’s not a demon.”

 

Well, shit. “Why do you want me to kill the Skinwalker if it’s not a demon?” AJ asked.

 

It intends to hurt something very important to me. I will not allow that to happen.” The Saint's eyes turned from pale green to white and room got noticeably colder.

 

Shivering, AJ said, “Guess it’s time to get to work. Where do we start?”

 

There is someone that can help you find the Skinwalker,” the Saint said. “Get your gear and I’ll give you directions to find him.”

 

After breakfast, he bid goodbye to Carmella and set out. The sun was clear of the horizon and promised a brilliantly hot day. He headed to the bank. The banker had just opened and AJ withdrew enough of Allen Jones’ money to cover his costs and have a bit extra for emergencies. He decided that clothes came next so he made his way through Bannack's morning foot and horse traffic to the general store. It was open and he bought a new shirt, jacket, hat and socks. Even though it was high summer in the desert, the nights were still chilly in the upper elevations. He immediately changed and felt much better. He also bought a new set of saddlebags, a bedroll, a skinning knife and a rifle with plenty of ammunition. When he talked to Enzo, he would have to ask what had happened to D-Von's Peacemaker. He hadn’t seen it at Carmella’s.

 

After checking in at the hotel and dropping off his purchases, he navigated through the crowded main street. He was considering stopping at the barber shop for a shave and haircut when heard shouting up ahead. There was a sizable crowd gathering in the middle of the street several blocks east of the hotel.

 

That’s him,’ the Saint’s voice whispered from inside his head and AJ shuddered. That voice was ghosts and hell and gravel in his skull. ‘He’s the one that can help you identify the Skinwalker.’

 

“Who?” AJ asked, looking around. As most of the people were taller than him, he couldn’t see what was happening. Annoyed, AJ pushed through the crowd. At the center of the mob were two men. One of them was a stout, older man. He had been spending most of his time outside of civilization, if the state of his clothing was any indicator. His salt and pepper hair and beard were a snarled, tangled mess. AJ figured the man's last bath coincided with the last time it rained, several months ago.

 

“Did you look at me?” He was holding skinny blond man by the front of his shirt. The small man’s eyes were huge with terror. He also had no chin. AJ had a hard time imagining this guy was a threat to anyone.

 

“N-no, Cactus Jack,” the skinny man stammered.

 

AJ's eyebrows rose. He hadn't expected to run into Cactus Jack here. The man was rumored to be as unhinged as anyone that didn't eat bugs and mutter to himself behind the outhouse. Or maybe Cactus Jack did eat bugs, that wouldn't surprise AJ, given what he'd had heard about the man.

 

'The big one off to the side.'

 

AJ craned his head, trying to see which one the Saint was talking about. But as it turned out, he was hard to miss. The man was taller than most of the crowd, with long brown hair and a receding hairline. He was silently watching the altercation in the middle of the street along with everyone else. “Fucking of course it is,” AJ muttered to himself, because why should anyone he had to work with be short like him? “Whats so special about this guy?”

 

Around him, the crowd pleaded at Cactus Jack to the let the skinny guy go. But despite their pleas, none of the crowd looked like they wanted to actually step in and stop the imminent beating. There was no sign of the sheriff.

 

Typical.

 

In a way AJ couldn't blame him. AJ had encountered men like Cactus Jack before, during and after the war. This one didn't care; he hurt people for the sheer fun of it. But AJ hated to see big guys pushing around smaller guys. And he knew the sheriff wasn't going to stop this.

 

'He's a Wolf.'

 

AJ had no idea what a Wolf was or why it looked human, but he didn't have time to question further. The situation in front of him was deteriorating rapidly. He had to act. He just couldn't stand by while this little guy got the shit beat out of him.

 

“I saw how you looked at me! Do you think I look funny? Do you? Well you're going to look funny after I beat that look off your face!” Cactus Jack drew his fist back, clearly aiming for the place the man's chin would have been, if he had one. The skinny man shut his eyes, not wanting to see the blow coming.

 

“Whoa! Okay, hold on,” AJ called as the stepped into the center of the circle. “What’s going on?” he asked, looking between the two men.

 

What the hell are you doing?’ the Saint demanded in his head but AJ shuddered but ignored him.

 

The man called Cactus Jack turned to AJ with a measuring look. “And who the fuck are you?” he asked with a big gapped-tooth smile, still holding the skinny man easily, like a child.

 

“The name's Allen Jones,” AJ told him, projecting the same self-confidence with which he led Bullet Club on a risky heist. “I'm an assayer,” he added just to make sure no one watching would associate him with his former gang.

 

“Well, Allen Jones The Assayer, do I look like I need any ore assayed?” Cactus Jack demanded, shaking the skinny guy for emphasis.

 

“No, you don't,” AJ replied, holding his hands out to show he was unarmed, trying to appear reasonable.

 

“Then why the hell are you bothering me?” Cactus Jack demanded, pointing at the skinny guy with his free hand. “Is he your buddy? You trying to save him?”

 

“Look, Cactus? Or do you prefer Jack? Normally I wouldn’t get involved. But seeing as you are twice as big as that guy,” he jerked a thumb at the chinless man. “That just doesn’t seem fair.”

 

Cactus Jack's eyes narrowed. “Bastard was laughing at me!” By the look on the skinny guy’s face, AJ could tell the man hadn’t been laughing at him. Who would be stupid enough to laugh at Cactus Jack? He decided to humor the crazy man though. He was well aware of the crowd that surrounded them and didn't want to embarrass Cactus Jack in front of them. “Give him a chance to apologize,” he suggested. “I’m sure he didn’t mean it.”

 

The crowd murmured in agreement. They knew Cactus Jack and didn't want to have him rampaging around the town in a fit of rage...again.

 

“No!” Cactus Jack was also aware of the crowd and didn’t like the fact that AJ was making him look bad. “He has to learn you can’t laugh at Cactus Jack!” To everyone's shock, Cactus Jack pulled a revolver and aimed it point blank at the skinny guy’s face. Several women in the crowd screamed.

 

Before he could pull the trigger, AJ was right beside them and yanked the gun out of Cactus Jack's hand. “Whoa there,” he said, “Don't you know there's a No Gun Policy in town? Its right on the sign as you come in.” He opened the cartridge and let the bullets pour into his hand. Making sure the gun was unloaded, he stuffed the revolver in his belt.

 

“I can't read,” Cactus Jack said in a daze as he stared at this empty hand. He hadn’t seen AJ move at all. His grip on the skinny guy loosened and he was able to get free of the madman.

 

“Well, now you know. So don't do it again,” AJ warned him in his stern Dad-voice. AJ turned to the chinless man who was staggering back. “Cactus here wants you to apologize. Would you do that?”

 

“Sure!” the little man readily agreed. He had thought he was going to be killed. Cactus Jack's temper was legendary. AJ stepping in to save him was a miracle. “I’m sorry Cactus Jack. I didn’t mean to look at you.”

 

“That was a very nice apology,” AJ praised the man. “There, you see Cactus? It can all work out without violence,” he beamed.

 

But Cactus Jack didn't look satisfied. He looked downright murderous. His thick eyebrows pulled into a scowl. “The hell we can't!” he shouted and lunged towards AJ.

 

The crowd nervously backed away. AJ stood as tall as he could, balanced on the balls of his feet. The Saint was moving closer in his mind but AJ wasn’t paying attention. Cactus Jack swung at him with a heavy right fist. Seeing it coming a mile away, AJ ducked. The wind from the swing blew his hair back. AJ danced a step backward, forcing Cactus Jack to lean forward. Mindful of the Saint's warning, AJ hit Cactus Jack in the jaw with his forearm, not his fist. Cactus Jack's head snapped back and the rest of him followed hard into the hard-packed dirt. The crowd murmured in surprise. Cactus Jack tried to sit up but AJ's boot on his chest stopped him. “We'll have this conversation once,” he told Jack and there were ghosts and cobwebs in his voice. He could feel the Saint inside him. “You are going to leave town and not come back. You see this?” AJ held up one of the bullets he had emptied from Cactus Jack's gun. He dropped it onto Cactus Jack's forehead. “The next one's coming faster.” He stepped back, letting Cactus Jack sit up, the bullet rolling off his face. Cactus Jack’s eyes were wide and his face was white, as if he were seeing a ghost.

 

The crowd nervously took a step back.

 

“Get out,” AJ told him.

 

He nodded. Staggering to his feet, the crowd parted before him as Cactus Jack headed down the street to the edge of town. The man was still dazed from the single blow AJ had given him. Everyone watched until Cactus Jack was out of sight, and then broke out into applause for AJ. The Saint left him and he felt a bit strange but AJ acknowledge their appreciation with a nod and a wave. Brushing aside the stammering thanks of the guy he'd rescued, AJ turned to look for the Wolf the Saint had pointed out to him. As he scanned the dispersing crowd, he noticed a slight man with a beard watching him with a sharp look. AJ nodded at him, subtly letting him know that he noticed the attention and wasn’t bothered by it. He couldn’t help the surge of adrenaline when the man walked up to him, an ingrained reaction from years of running from the law. He knew this man wasn’t the sheriff, but he did project some kind of authority figure. Had he recognized him as AJ Styles, leader of Bullet Club? If so, AJ needed to think fast. He scanned the area, noting unattended horses. He was so engrossed in how planning how he was going to escape that he almost missed what the man was saying to him.

 

“So you're Allen Jones,” the bearded man said.

 

“Yes I am,” AJ answered confidently. “Who’s asking?”

 

“My name is Daniel Bryan. I'm the mayor of Bannack.” Daniel planted himself right in front of AJ. “I heard there was some trouble last night at the livery with the Dudley Boys and that you were involved.”

 

At least it wasn’t about Bullet Club. “I just wanted to buy a horse.” He wondered what this was about. AJ hadn’t killed anybody so he had no idea why Daniel Bryan was interested in last night’s events.

 

“I also heard you beat the shit out of D-Von Dudley,” Daniel said. “And then you ran them off with their tails between their legs.”

 

AJ shrugged but he didn’t deny it. He knew gossip mills in towns worked fast, but this was surprising. He hoped Daniel would get to the point soon.

 

“The Dudleys have been known to beat people so bad they die from their injuries. Aren’t you worried they’ll come back and kill you?” he wanted to know.

 

“No,” AJ answered honestly, baffled by the questions. “Why, should I be?”

 

“You humiliated them. The Dudley’s have killed people for less,” Daniel warned him. He found it interesting that Allen Jones, an assayer, wasn’t concerned about the consequences of making the Dudleys look like fools. And then there was the fact that Allen had not only stopped Cactus Jack from killing James Ellsworth, he had run him out of town. No other person in town had the guts to do that, including the sheriff.

 

Giving him the side-eye, AJ said, “I must say, your concern is very touching but I have business I must attend to. If there is nothing else, have a good day Mayor Daniel Bryan.” He turned away but Daniel put a hand on AJ’s arm to stop him.

 

“Before you leave, I would like to know what you’re plans are, Mr. Jones.” Daniel asked. “Are you going to be staying in Bannack a while?”

 

“Until I have finished my business here,” AJ told him. “After that I haven’t decided.” It all depended on where Bullet Club was.

 

“How long will it take you to conduct your business?” Daniel wanted to know and now AJ was really getting annoyed with the mayor’s prying.

 

“That depends,” he said, moving away from Daniel ’s restraining hand.

 

“Depends on what?” Daniel asked.

 

His patience finally gone AJ turned and looked Daniel Bryan dead in the eye. “On whether you allow me to finish my business,” he said flatly. Then he turned his back and stalked away.

 

Daniel watched AJ leave, eyes narrowed thoughtfully. Allen Jones wasn’t what he had expected. From hearing the story through the gossip mill, Daniel had expected someone bigger. But he wasn’t unhappy with what he saw in Allen. The guy had backbone, and if he really did run the Dudleys out of town then Daniel definitely had use for him. Specifically a certain sheriff whom Daniel was planning to get removed. Sheriff Mizanin was more concerned about his appearance and his celebrity than enforcing the law. It was time for that to change.

 

~~~~~~~

 

The Skinwalker twitched inside its skin. It wanted to change again but resisted. Its prey was close, it could smell it on the skin of the two humans who had ridden by a few minutes ago. One was wounded; its mouth and chest were broken. The Skinwalker began to stalk them, slowly, patiently. It salivated. It would taste its prey.

 

As the sun set and the two stopped for the night in the high, lonely country, the Skinwalker attacked. It easily dispatched the lighter one. The darker one, the injured one smelled strongly of the Skinwalker's prey. The darker one writhed as the Skinwalker sniffed it closely, but it couldn’t escape with its broken back. Finally, getting all it could from the scent, the Skinwalker took a bite of the darker man. The dark man screamed as he felt the teeth sink into his skin and muscle, but the Skinwalker didn’t care.

 

Terror only made the meat taste sweeter.

 

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Many many thanks to Kiss316 for beta reading this. She is awesome.

 

Warning: Swearing.

 

Phenomenal One

 

His patience finally gone AJ turned and looked Mayor Daniel Bryan dead in the eye. “On whether you allow me to finish my business,” he said flatly. Then he turned his back and stalked away.

 

Putting nosy mayors out of his mind, AJ set out in the direction the Wolf had gone. The morning sun blazed down in the clearest of blue skies. There wasn't a cloud in sight and it promised to be unbearable soon. But AJ wanted to get this business over and done with. He had vengeance to pursue.

 

You called unwanted attention to yourself by stepping in,” the Saint rebuked, strolling through the street beside him. He didn’t seem to notice the heat despite being dressed in a heavy black coat and hat.

 

Still annoyed, AJ just shrugged. He had his reasons for doing what he did. He scanned the area for the Wolf but didn't see it.

 

Why did you do it?” the Saint pressed.

 

Glaring at the Saint, AJ didn't answer. He didn't want to have a conversation in the middle of the dusty street, surrounded by people. They would think he was as crazy as Cactus Jack. He kept walking.

 

You don't have to talk,” the Saint told him. “I can hear your thoughts.”

 

“For fuck sake,” AJ muttered to himself out loud. Luckily no one seemed to notice. 'Why the hell didn't you tell me earlier?' he thought very loudly.

 

You don't need to shout,” the spirit sounded almost peevish.

 

AJ rolled his eyes. I did it because I hate to see big guys picking on smaller guys just because they’re smaller.' A terrible memory, long buried, of when he was a soldier in the War inadvertently bubbled to the surface of his thoughts. The naked branches above him were black slashes against the gray January sky. It was cold. AJ immediately buried the memory again but the Saint had seen enough to shut up. They walked past the jail and the butcher shop. AJ kept his hat pulled down in case someone recognized him, as unlikely as that was. Bullet Club had worn bandanas over the lower half of their faces every time they pulled a heist. And AJ's hair was getting considerably longer, disguising him even further. 'So what the hell is a Wolf?’ AJ asked, getting back to the object of his hunt.

 

A Wolf is exactly what you think it is,” the Saint told him.

 

'It looks human,' AJ said, striving to be patient. It seemed everything in the world was conspiring to aggravate him today.

 

You'll have to ask him about that,” the Saint shrugged, supremely unconcerned.

 

Even as little as several hours ago, AJ found the Saint to be intimidating. Well, he was over that. He wondered if Randy felt the same way. Then finally, seeing the tall, long-haired man walking in front of him, AJ sped up. “Hey, wait up!” he called out.

 

The man either didn't hear or was ignoring him. He kept walking, crossing the street and heading to the edge of town. Dodging around a horse-drawn wagon loaded with fresh-cut pine logs, AJ broke into a jog, coming alongside the Wolf. “Wait,” he said again. “I need to talk to you.”

 

The Wolf still didn’t look at him as they strode past the Mercantile. Up close, AJ could see there was indeed something different about him, despite looking human. There was a sharpness to his features, a loose easiness to his gait. Yet there was also a wariness about him.

 

“Why are you following me?” the man asked. Even his voice was similar to a growl.

 

“I know this is going to sound weird, but I need your help to find someone.” AJ smiled his winningest smile as he brushed his hair behind his ear. It was damp from sweat.

 

“Fuck off,” the Wolf responded promptly and walked faster.

 

Damn, it was too hot for this. AJ had to jog to keep up with the Wolf’s long legs. “Believe me, I wouldn't bother you if it wasn’t important,” he told the taller man.

 

The Wolf ignored him.

 

“Do you want to make a lot of money?” AJ asked, trying a different tactic.

 

The Wolf stopped abruptly and glared at him. AJ skidded to a halt. He had to crane his neck to look into the Wolf’s narrowed yellow eyes. There was something in the Wolf’s expression that set AJ’s hackles up. He saw contempt there, and viciousness. “How much?” the Wolf asked.

 

AJ knew where Bullet Club had hidden a large stash up in the mountains. “A lot,” he said and in a low voice reeled off a number that widened the Wolf’s eyes. “And its gold.” He saw genuine interest now.

 

Looking around to make sure no one would overhear the conversation, the Wolf asked, “And you want me to find someone?” He was suspicious. There had to be a catch.

 

“Yes.” Yeah, this Wolf was no ordinary guy and as such, AJ deliberately projected every ounce of authority he had learned during the War and while leading Bullet Club. He asked, “What’s your name?”

 

“I’m called Baron Corbin.” The Wolf answered, unconsciously responding to AJ. He considered AJ’s proposal. “Must be a pretty important person. Who is it?”

 

“I don’t know.” Seeing Baron’s glare, he hurried on. “Actually it’s a something. It’s a Skinwalker. It can look like anyone.”

 

“A Skinwalker?” Baron’s eyebrows rose.

 

“You know what it is?” AJ asked hopefully. This might go better than he expected.

 

“Yeah, and I know you don’t fuck with them,” Baron replied bluntly. “I’m not taking on a Skinwalker, no matter how much you offer.” He turned to go but AJ stopped him.

 

“You don’t have to engage it. I just need you to find it and tell me where it is. That’s all.” AJ assured him.

 

The Wolf thought it over. AJ had offered a lot of money. Greed clashed with self-preservation. “Why me?” he wanted to know.

 

“Well, I was told you could find this Skinwalker. After all, you are a Wolf,” AJ said with a shrug but the Wolf grabbed AJ by the front of his shirt and slammed his back into the side of the cabin they were standing next to. AJ winced as his wounds complained, but he shoved that thought to the back of his mind as Baron leaned down and growled right in his face.

 

“How did you know?” he demanded, furious.

 

Eyes wide, AJ started to stammer an answer. He had no idea how to tell Baron that it was the Saint of Killers standing nearby, looking as concerned as a chunk of granite, who had told him. But then Baron's nostrils flared and a look of uncertainty replaced the suspicion. He released AJ, stepping back a pace. “What are you?” he asked in a low voice. The sun was turning the street into an oven.

 

Not entirely sure what Baron was talking about, AJ just grinned sunnily, but his blue eyes were hard. “I'm the guy who needs your special talents. So you'll find the Skinwalker for me?”

 

The Wolf glanced around. He contemplated the offer and made his decision. “Pay me upfront,” he said.

 

“Half now, half when you find it,” AJ countered. “No offense, but there is no way I’m going to pay that much and have you bail on me.”

 

Baron made a face like he was sucking on a lemon, but he could see AJ’s point. “Okay.”

 

“Good! When do we get started?” AJ asked, anxious to be done with this.

 

Despite his status as Lone, the Wolf felt a primitive response to AJ. This was a natural pack leader. But not his, so Baron was able to deny him. “We do not do anything. I’ll let you know when I find it. Get me the money, and I'll start looking.” He turned and walked away, ducking into an alley, effectively disappearing.

 

Well, it could have gone better but he’d take what he could get at this point. AJ released a breath. The sun illuminated the street and buildings in harsh relief. Dust from the parched streets stirred up from the pedestrians hung in the still air. Leaves hung limp from the few scattered trees. He adjusted his hat and wished for something cold to drink. But that wasn’t happening in the near future so he put it out of his mind.

 

Do you have the money?” the Saint asked.

 

'Yep. Just need a horse.' Luckily, Enzo and Big Cass owed him and he headed over to the livery.

 

Enzo's remuda had a surprisingly good selection with several horses that AJ approved of. He eventually decided on a sturdy buckskin mustang. The blond man had generously offered him the palomino but as tempting as it was, AJ turned it down. He didn't need a memorable horse right then. He also purchased a saddle at a greatly reduced price. While Big Cass fitted shoes to his new mount, AJ returned to the hotel to retrieve his saddlebags, rifle, ammunition and bedroll. He had taken a look at Cactus Jack’s revolver. It was so old it was starting to rust. He could tell by the looks of it, it had rarely (if at all) been cleaned. The damned thing probably wouldn’t even fire. He tossed it on the dresser with a disgusted sigh. It was a useless hunk of metal as it was, and AJ didn’t have the time to clean it up right then. The location of the gold was pretty far from town and he knew it would take him at least the rest of the day to get there, let alone dig up the gold and return to town. He left the revolver in his room. The rifle would have to do.

 

“Are you Allen Jones?” a man asked as AJ was exiting the hotel, rifle in one hand and his saddlebags slung over his shoulder. The man had been climbing up the wooden stairs to the covered veranda in the front of the hotel just as AJ was coming down.

 

AJ immediately noticed the brightly polished star pinned to the man's hand-tooled leather vest. His shirt was the finest cloth and there was barely any dust on his boots. His guns were pearl-handled. He was very clean and his hands had no callouses. Even his hair was neatly brushed. “For fuck sake,” AJ muttered to himself as he rolled his eyes. He didn’t need this. The Saint looked annoyed as well.

 

“I’m Sheriff Mizanin.” The man had a perfect white smile and perfect hair. Just standing next to him made AJ feel like a two-bit cowpoke from the sticks. And that irritated AJ more.

 

“Is there something I can help you with, Sheriff?” AJ asked impatiently, easily sliding around the Sheriff, not stopping to chat. He had someplace to be and not even the sheriff was going to stop him.

 

Mizanin chased after AJ, trying to get in front of him to stop him to talk. He succeeded and AJ halted and fixed the Sheriff with a stony stare. Mizanin glared back even as smiled, fuming that AJ was effectively brushing him off, making him feel irrelevant despite his station. He tried not to show it but AJ wasn't fooled. “I was just wondering what your plans were, Mr. Jones. Trouble seems to follow you and I don’t like that in my town.”

 

And AJ wasn't scared by some showman who was more interested in his hair than doing his job. “The trouble was here long before I got here and had to deal with it, which I believe is your job. Now, my plans are my business, which you are keeping me from, Sheriff.” AJ was in no way going to kowtow to this man. He tried to step around him but the Sheriff stepped in his way. He sighed loudly. He really didn’t have time for this.

 

“So you’re leaving town?” the Sheriff quizzed, seeing the saddlebags and the rifle in AJ’s hands.

 

“For the moment,” AJ told him. “Why, are you going to try to stop me?” He got right up into Mizanin's face. To his credit, the sheriff quite didn't back down.

 

“No. I'm just interested if you’ll be coming back,” the Sheriff asked him, trying to play it cool. Mizanin's hand was near his sidearm. “Like I said, trouble seems to follow you. I don’t want it to follow you back here.”

 

Maybe it was the blatant way Mizanin tried to intimidate AJ, or maybe Mizanin had such a punchable face. Whatever the reason, AJ was hot and annoyed and he just wanted to piss the guy off. “Fuck, yes I’ll be back,” AJ snapped. “I love this town so much I’m thinking of setting up shop here. Is there anything else you wanted to know, Sheriff?” he asked with exaggerated sarcasm. He really didn’t like Bannack, but he could tell Mizanin wanted him gone.

 

People were stopping to watch the confrontation and Mizanin knew this was not the time or place to have this particular confrontation. He wasn’t going to admit that he was looking for an excuse to get rid of AJ. “No, you're free to go, but just so we’re clear, I have my eye on you,” Mizanin warned. AJ didn't even care enough to react; he just resumed his trek to the livery, leaving the Sheriff in the dust.

 

Sheriff Mike Mizanin glared after Allen Jones, the talk of the town. He’d had to spend all morning listening to people burbling about how Allen Jones had run off both Dudleys and Cactus Jack. And Daniel Bryan hadn’t even tried to hide his smug satisfaction when Daniel had described how easily Allen had dealt with Cactus Jack. A real hero indeed. Well, Allen had better watch out, because the Sheriff was keeping a close eye on him. And if Allen stepped one foot out of line, well the Sheriff was the Authority in these parts. He caressed the butt of his gun.

 

After collecting his horse from Big Cass, instead of getting on the gelding and riding away, AJ chose to lead it east, out of town. He wanted to take his time and make sure no one was following him. With both the Dudley boys out there, and Cactus Jack still in the area, AJ wasn’t taking any chances on being ambushed. He walked in the heat, past craggy hills covered in brown grass and rocky ravines. His single canteen was full but he wasn't worried, he'd been in the area before and knew where the springs were.

 

Quit stalling and get on your horse,” the Saint growled, impatient. He too wanted to get this over with. So far, the others hadn't needed him, but the longer this dragged out, the better the chances were that Reigns or Ambrose would need the Colt Walkers. And that meant leaving AJ alone. He wasn't going to do that unless he had no choice.

 

“Hey, let me do this my way and we’ll have a better chance of succeeding. I have to be sure I’m not being followed.” He continued walking for a while, pausing every now and then to ensure there was no one behind him. Finally, as the sun blazed down from directly overhead, AJ was satisfied. He climbed into the saddle, gritting his teeth against the pressure on his bandages. The buckskin stood patiently while AJ adjusted his stirrups and got himself comfortable. It was going to be a several-hour ride to the mountains north of town, and AJ was still acutely feeling his injuries. He touched the horse’s sides with his heels and the horse set out at an easy lope. He pointed the buckskin towards the highest peak in the mountain range in the distance, a rocky pyramid jutting high over the other mountains, patches of snow still clinging doggedly to its sheer cliffs. Bullet Club had a hideout in the trees below that mountain. It wasn’t much, a single-room cabin and paddock. Only someone who had been there before knew where to find it. They didn’t use it very much but they did stash most of their gold there, before Kenny had joined them. He glanced down at the rifle in the scabbard. With luck Bullet Club would be there and AJ could make their day miserable.

 

That thought kept AJ upright in the saddle.

 

Heat rippled the distant horizon and AJ could smell the sweat dripping off the buckskin. He reined it to a walk to let it catch its breath. At the rate he was going, it was going to well after sundown when he got to the hideout. But AJ had confidence he could find it in the dark if he needed to, if he was physically able to. So far his wounds weren't stopping him, and he was determined they wouldn't. His freedom depended on it. After a while he urged the horse back into a lope. The buckskin’s breathing grew louder in the thin air as it climbed the high hills leading into the mountain range. The air cooled as they entered the trees, tall pines mixed with aspens and birch sheltering them from the sun’s brutal rays. The fresh scent of pine filled the air as the gelding’s hooves stirred up the fallen pine needles. Beams of sunlight slanted between the trunks from the west.

 

It was deep in the woods, near a swift-running stream that AJ picked up the trail he was looking for. It was little more than a deer trail, except at odd intervals, certain trees had a crudely carved bullet in their trunks. They made better time.

 

As the woods grew darker, the bare mountain peak loomed high over them, a giant orange pyramid still illuminated by the setting sun’s rays. AJ reined the horse to a stop and listened. Except for the chatter of the stream, it was silent. There was no breath of wind to make the trees whisper. The horse shifted underneath him but AJ waited for a while longer. Finally satisfied, he touched the gelding’s sides with his heels and they set out at a walk again. It had been habit to stop and listen for any sound that didn't belong. AJ didn't think Bullet Club would take refuge in this high, lonely place, but it didn't hurt to be cautious.

 

It was full dark when they reached the small cabin. Exhausted and aching, AJ dismounted, and it took several seconds of hanging onto the horse to get his feet securely under him. Cursing his wounds under his breath, he unsaddled the horse and let it wander in the tiny paddock. There was enough grass growing within to give the horse something to eat. He had watered the horse at the stream before going up to the cabin. Too tired and in pain to eat, he unrolled the bedroll and was asleep before his head touched the ground. The Saint lurked nearby not saying a word. He just watched AJ sleep and thought about his son and what he saw in AJ's memories. In the paddock, the horse raised its head at a soft noise nearby. It blew suspiciously through its nostrils, but the noise wasn’t repeated and after a while it lowered its head to graze again.

 

In a nearby bush, the Wolf narrowed his eyes in annoyance. Normally he was much quieter, so much so leaves didn’t stir at his passing. He had been spending too much time as a human, he decided. Being human dulled his senses. The Wolf eased himself down onto his belly and placed his muzzle on his forepaws, waiting for morning. He didn’t intend to show himself to AJ. He was just going to wait and watch. His nostrils twitched as he smelled the faded scent of other humans who had visited the area a long time ago. He had followed the human Pack Leader, trying to figure out what it was about the man that unnerved him. AJ didn’t smell quite right. To his Wolf senses, AJ smelled of the usual human scents: horses, sweat, fresh blood and leather. But underneath, he also faintly smelled of death, and something worse. The scent clung to AJ like lingering horror. It unnerved the Wolf and he almost turned AJ down. But the money was too good. Finding the Skinwalker would be a challenge but the Wolf had confidence in his senses. His ears twitched as he listened to bats overhead dining on insects. The stars wheeled silently through the night sky overhead.

 

Birdsong woke AJ up. He sat up, disoriented for a moment, but recognized the cabin. He had been here before several time after he and the rest of Bullet Club had pulled high-stakes heists and needed to lay low for a while. He brushed his hair out of his face and glanced around. Something was different. It took him a couple of seconds to realize he was alone. The Saint wasn't there, lurking like usual.

 

“Hey?” he called out to the thin air. “You around?”

 

There was no answer. He climbed to his feet with a surge of hope. By the amount of light filtering through the windows, he could tell it was about an hour after dawn. He gathered his gear and wandered outside, enjoying the fresh air and the peace. Chewing on some jerky he had packed in his saddlebags, he led the horse to the stream to drink. Inhaling deeply, he contemplating his plans. With the Saint not hovering over him, there was nothing in his way from going after Bullet Club. Of course he'd go dig up the gold for the Wolf, and get that ball rolling. But after that, Bullet Club was his.

 

Yeah, not until you kill the Skinwalker,” the Saint said from right behind him.

 

“Son of a bitch!” AJ yelped, startling the horse with his shout. He spun around and glared at the Saint of Killers. “What the hell, man?”

 

The Saint just smirked. It was terrifying.

 

“Fuck,” AJ muttered to himself. “Alright, let’s get this over with.”

 

The Saint only nodded in agreement. He had gone to visit Mark about Randy again. They were up north of Helena. Since John Cena was still the temporary Sheriff there, Randy was safe enough. John was still busy getting the town rebuilt; he wouldn't take the time to try to arrest Randy. In fact, there was a grudging respect between the two of them.

 

Nearby, the Wolf laid its ears back and tried not to whine. It couldn’t see who AJ was talking to, but he could sense there was something there that hadn't been before. And it was terrifying.

 

After the buckskin had drunk its fill, AJ led it back to the cabin and saddled it again. The gold was hidden further up, not too far but it was a climb. He figured he would make it before noon. The trek was steep but luckily the gelding was sure-footed. The air was much cooler this high up. They came to an area where the trees could no longer grow and AJ dismounted, tying the reins to a bush and continued alone. There were some clouds high in the stratosphere, but nothing that would indicate any moisture in the future. From where he was, AJ could see an incredible view of the smaller mountains, giving way to the hills and valleys. And above all of that, the glorious heavens. He paused.

 

Stop gawking,” the Saint growled.

 

AJ rolled his eyes and headed up the slope, climbing past small patches of snow scattered over granite chunks. It took a while because the air was so thin and his lungs were still hurting where the one had been punctured. There was a small cave near the base of the final cliff that formed one side of the peak. It only went back several feet, but it was sheltered enough to protect the gold from the winter winds and avalanches. Getting on all fours, he crawled inside. Several bags of gold coins lay against the back wall, undisturbed from when the last time AJ was there. One of them was more than sufficient to pay Corbin. He grabbed it, and then grabbed another one just because and dragged them as he crawled backwards out of the cave with a grunt.

 

He carried the bags, extremely heavy for their size back down the slope. The horse didn't twitch as AJ secured them to the saddle. He led the horse back down the steep mountainside through the trees, careful of his footing. Small birds fluttered in the treetops, calling out to each other. His legs were aching from the strain by the time he got back to the cabin. He planned to grab a bite of food there, then head back to Bannack. Several yards away from the tiny building as he threaded his way through the trees, he stopped dead. There were two horses in the paddock. Horses he recognized. Swearing under his breath, he realized he had left his rifle in the cabin with his bedroll. A twig to his left and behind him snapped.

 

“Hold it right there,” a familiar voice commanded. “Hands in the air.”

 

Eyes closed, AJ raised his hands over his head. He couldn’t believe it.

 

“Now turn around.”

 

AJ slowly turned to face Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

As always, all my thanks to Kiss316 for beta reading this. She is awesome.

 

Warning: Swearing.

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 7

 

Hold it right there,” a familiar voice commanded. “Hands in the air.”

 

Eyes closed, AJ raised his hands over his head. He couldn’t believe it.

 

Now turn around.”

 

AJ slowly turned to face Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson.

 

When he recognized AJ, Karl's jaw dropped. “AJ?” he stammered. Beside him, Doc looked like he was seeing a ghost.

 

A small part of AJ enjoyed the hell out of that. But mostly he felt white hot anger. Lowering his hands, AJ glared at them through his hair. He didn’t say a word. The Saint lurked nearby, not pleased by this turn of events. The spirit was aware of the Wolf's presence but didn't say anything.

 

“We thought you was dead,” Karl said inanely. He looked at Doc as if to verify that the tall man was seeing what he was seeing.

 

“You thought wrong,” AJ snarled, practically shaking with rage, but annoyed at himself. Usually he was better prepared in these situations. He hadn't even considered Doc and Karl showing up after he got there and found the place empty. Why didn’t he think to bring his rifle! Well, he would just have to use his bare hands. Even though they both had weapons pointed at AJ, they looked so stunned that AJ might have been able to attack them before they thought to use them. Beside him, the buckskin turned its head and nuzzled AJ’s back. AJ ignored it. Small birds chirped in the tall lodgepole pines around them, unaware of the drama going on below. A mule deer wandered by, its large ears flickering at the noisy humans. It gave them a wide berth.

 

“But we saw Kenny kill you!” Karl was still trying to believe what his eyes were telling him. “How are you still alive?”

 

“Bullshit! You helped Kenny try to kill me,” AJ corrected through gritted teeth. “And I survived, thanks to a couple of guys who pulled me from the river.”

 

Doc was recovering from his shock faster than Karl. He nudged Karl with his elbow. “I think AJ’s pissed at us, Karl.” Doc wasn't slow or stupid by any means, but he did have a talent for stating the obvious.

 

“Ya think?” AJ replied. He knew that he might be shot but it might be worth it to get his hands around Karl’s neck. He didn't see the Saint stepping nearer, intending to stop AJ if he tried to charge Karl. He wasn't going to let AJ get hurt or killed when he was needed so badly.

 

Seeing the look of absolute fury on AJ’s face, Karl swallowed hard and took a step back, keeping his gun pointed at AJ. “AJ, just let us explain,” he started to say.

 

“Explain! Explain?! How for one fucking minute can you explain holding my arms so Kenny could strangled me?” AJ demanded.

 

While the humans were arguing, the Wolf watched with amusement from the bushes. So Allen Jones was actually AJ Styles, the famous Ace of Bullet Club. It made sense. The man had too much swagger to be a simple assayer. It also explained how AJ was able to pay Baron in gold, if even half of the reported heists were true. It appeared AJ and Bullet Club had a falling out. That piece of information, coupled with the knowledge of where Bullet Club hid their stash, made it a very good day in Baron’s mind. The amusement turned to concern as, unnoticed by the humans, the birds abruptly fell silent. The Wolf’s nostrils twitched as he caught a faint scent that sent his hackles up. It smelled of rot and blackness. He bared his teeth but didn’t growl. He didn’t want the source of that stench to notice him. Baron hoped it would pass them by and go about its business. But the humans were making such a racket that he worried it would come and see what the fuss was about.

 

Oblivious to the potential danger, the humans were arguing loudly. “Now AJ, before you do anything you might regret, just hear us out,” Doc said.

 

“Oh believe me, killing you is something I won’t regret,” AJ told him, fists clenched. Even though his two former friends were several feet away, he was a heartbeat from flying at Karl to pound his face into the dirt.

 

Don’t get shot, boy,’ the Saint warned. AJ ignored him. He was completely focused on the two members of Bullet Club. The only thing that mattered was Karl and Doc, and what he was going to do to them.

 

The smell of corruption grew stronger. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. Baron crouched down into the earth, making his body as small as possible. What was coming wasn’t something he had ever encountered before and it terrified him. He suppressed a whine. The Wolf wanted to run, but something held him still, centering on AJ Styles.

 

“Look, we knew you was going to betray us, so we turned on you first.” Doc tried to sound reasonable, but AJ wasn’t having any of it.

 

“You thought I was going to betray you? That is such bullshit! How many years did we ride together, Doc? Who came in and helped you pick up the pieces after Devitt left you guys high and dry? Who was it that took all the big risks for the Club? Who scouted all the targets and made sure everything was planned to perfection? And you knew I didn’t want Kenny but I held my peace since you guys did. I knew he was going to turn on us and try to take over. But I never thought you’d help Kenny try to kill me!” He jammed his hands through his hair. It felt good to vent. But it would feel even better to kill his former friends.

 

By now the horses were getting restless, tossing their heads and swishing their tails. They too could feel whatever it was that was approaching. But the humans were too involved in their personal drama to notice. It was the Saint who dragged AJ’s attention away from Bullet Club to focus on a much greater threat. ‘'Damn it boy, pay attention!’ he roared. AJ staggered, clamping his hands over his ears, dropping the buckskin's reins. The Saint’s voice was inside AJ's head and he couldn’t escape from it. The loose horse trotted over to the others in the paddock. Doc and Karl had no idea what was going on with AJ until a stick snapped nearby and finally the humans took notice of the thing that was approaching.

 

It stepped delicately into view from between the pine trees. It was human-shaped but it wasn’t human. Its limbs were too long and thin, its joints were too loose. Black hair on top of its head was slicked to the side. It was 'dressed' all in red. Its eyes were solid back as it looked at them. It tilted its head, opened its mouth and smiled. Blackness gleamed where there should have been teeth. Where is stepped, the vegetation died instantly. When it brushed against a pine tree, the tree turned a sickly brown and dropped all its needles.

 

Then it turned black.

 

This is piss-poor timing,’ the Saint said, scowling. This situation was not good. If AJ killed it, he would be at the mercy of his former friends who had helped try to kill him. But if he didn’t kill it, AJ would die anyway. What was approaching them wasn't something any mortal could mess around with. One touch and flesh would rot unabated until the victim died.

 

“AJ, what the fuck is that?” Karl asked. Whatever that was, it had no place in the rational world.

 

“Shit,” AJ said, his rage at Karl forgotten in the face of this monstrosity. “Is that a demon?” he asked the Saint, adrenaline surging through his body. His blue eyes were wide. Though he wanted to deny the demon in front of him was real, he trusted his senses. He could smell it, sickly sweet and cloying. He hadn’t quite fully believed the story the Saint, Randy and Mark had told him, about demons and their presence in the world. But now, seeing this thing that shouldn't exist, he believed. Face to face with this new reality, AJ finally, truly understood that this was why he had been pulled from the river. Not for revenge on his human friends.

 

And yet he wasn't afraid. The Saint's presence steadied him.

 

Yes, that's a demon. And yes you need to kill it, but if you do, you’ll be out of commission for a while and vulnerable to your friends,’ the Saint told him. He actually sounded concerned.

 

“What do you mean?” AJ asked. That didn’t sound good but the Saint didn’t have the time to answer. The creature advanced on AJ, smiling but its eyes were blank. It left black, slimy footprints on the earth. AJ and the creature measured each other. It smiled again. Up close, it smelled worse, of the rot and corruption. He almost gagged.

 

Not knowing who AJ was talking to, Karl aimed his gun and fired at the creature. Unconcerned, the creature caught the bullet out of midair and looked at it curiously. It shoved the bullet into its mouth, chewing thoughtfully. Then it abruptly spit it out, black and sizzling. There was a twisted smile on its face as it advanced on them. “Boma ye?” it asked.

 

“That’s not good,” Karl muttered. Both Doc and Karl backed away.

 

“AJ, get out of there!” Doc shouted. He and Karl were ready to run. But AJ remained where he was, arms at his sides like he was about to draw guns that he didn't have. They would remember that.

 

'You ready?' the Saint asked from right behind him.

 

“Yeah,” AJ replied, not sure what to expect. Then AJ felt the Saint step into him and suddenly there was pain intertwined with rage as cold as old ice aimed at the creature in front of them. Memories and thoughts that weren't his own appeared in AJ's mind. He caught glimpses of Mark carrying Randy's limp body out of a mine covered in blood, three men AJ didn't know standing shoulder to shoulder facing a monstrous demon, AJ himself in the river holding onto a branch as the Saint made his offer. There were worse memories, so bad that AJ’s mind rejected them. And he knew the Saint could see his own memories, of Bullet Club and the War. But as uncomfortable and unnerving as that was, they were nothing compared to the manifestation of the two guns at his thighs. Those were downright terrifying in their sheer destructive power. And they hurt.

 

Go ahead,’ the Saint’s voice was gravel and cobwebs in his skull. Like he did a thousand times throughout his lifetime, AJ drew. Focusing, he was surprised the gun in his hand was weightless for all its massive size, yet it was as solid as the mountain he was standing on. He aimed it at the creature, who cocked its head. “Boma ye?” it asked again as it reached for him.

 

In the bushes, the Wolf's eyes were wide. The man known as AJ Styles had changed into something else. Baron Corbin had heard stories about the End of Days and his twin revolvers that could kill anything. Tales were passed around from pack to pack when Corbin was a pup. But he never thought he would see him in person. Any thought of double crossing AJ was forgotten as he pulled the trigger almost point blank into the creature's chest.

 

The thunder of the Colt Walker's report rolled off the mountain peak above them, echoed off the surrounding ones, and then died away leaving silence in its wake. The creature collapsed flat on its face and AJ slumped to the ground, unconscious. For long seconds, nothing moved.

 

In shock, Doc and Karl stood staring at AJ and the creature's corpse. Then one of the horses snorted and broke the spell. They cautiously approached AJ, taking care not to get too close to the body of the creature which seemed to be melting. All the vegetation around it was putrid and black, but it didn’t look like it was spreading.

 

“AJ?” Karl asked, tentatively shaking AJ's shoulder. There was no response. Doc turned him on his back. He was still breathing but it was obvious he wasn’t sleeping. His hair spilled over his pale face which was lined with pain.

 

“What's wrong with him?” Karl asked.

 

“No clue,” Doc answered as he examined AJ. He opened AJ's shirt and saw the bandages, but the wounds there were healing, not fresh. The creature hadn't inflicted them.

 

“Have you ever seen anything like that before?” Karl asked as he stared at the mound of rotted flesh. The forest was unnaturally still around them.

 

“No,” Doc answered. Indeed, how could anything like that exist? They looked around helplessly, trying to figure what to do.

 

“What happened to the guns? Did he drop them?” Karl wanted to know as he crouched over AJ's body. He pointed to AJ's waist. There was no gun belt.

 

Doc had watched the whole thing closely. “They just disappeared.” He felt AJ's pulse. It was strong and steady.

 

Karl was unnerved. “HOW?” he shouted at Doc, grabbing his shoulder. The surrealism of the moment intensified on that bit of news.

 

Equally unnerved, Doc shouted back. “HOW THE FUCK SHOULD I KNOW?”

 

They glared at each other for a minute, then Karl looked away.

 

“What do we do, Karl?” Doc asked. He and Karl had known each other forever, and Doc would follow Karl's lead. The only time he ever regretted it was when the Club turned on AJ.

 

Looking around in vain for any clue about what had happened Karl shrugged. “Let’s get him inside the cabin,” he suggested and Doc nodded, scooping AJ’s body up easily. He carried their former Ace inside the cabin and laid him down on his bedroll. Then they looked at each other still at a loss. “Now what?” Doc asked.

 

“We wait to see if he wakes up I guess,” Karl said, feeling way out of his depth. He couldn't stop remembering what had happened. The way AJ had just stood there, waiting for whatever it was to come to him, the supreme confidence in AJ’s stance before he drew the biggest revolver Karl had ever seen, the thunder of AJ’s gun still echoed in his head.

 

“This doesn't make sense. He didn't have those guns when we first saw him, I looked. He was unarmed.” Doc pointed out.

 

Still mulling over what happened, Karl asked, “Are you saying AJ can conjure guns from thin air?” he wanted to scoff but...

 

“Well we know he's unarmed right now. Do you have another explanation? ‘Cause I sure don’t.” Doc argued. “He killed that thing out there with a gun.”

 

“Yes he did.” Karl was thinking furiously. He didn't believe in the supernatural. But he couldn’t deny what he had seen. There was a rotting corpse outside to prove it.

 

Evidently thinking along similar lines, Doc looked grim. “Do you think he's made a deal with the devil or something after he escaped? Kenny had fucked him up good, and yet now he’s alive and well.”

 

“Shit,” Karl said. “Are we really taking this seriously?”

 

“Do you have a different theory? I’m willing to hear it,” Doc said impatiently.

 

He had to admit that he didn't. “And he wants revenge.” Karl said finally.

 

“Yep. Can’t say I blame him though.”

 

They both thought it over. Sunlight slanted through the windows.

 

“If he did make a deal with a devil, maybe we should kill him now, before he wakes up. For his own good.” Karl suggested. He had always respected AJ. Their former friend always had a cool head and a great sense of humor. But he and Doc had chosen, for better and for worse, to side with Kenny and the rest of Bullet Club and betray AJ Styles. Of course AJ would take exception to that. AJ was as tenacious as a bulldog and if he set his mind on killing Doc and Karl, nothing would stand in his way. Including, it seemed, making deals with devils.

 

That instant, the horses chose to start acting up, whinnying and snorting in alarm. Concerned that another one of those creatures was coming, Karl and Doc hurried outside just in time to see their horses cantering away down the mountainside.

 

“Shit!” Karl swore.

 

“C'mon, we gotta get them before something else happens.” They started running after the horses.

 

Nearby, Baron watched in smug satisfaction. The distraction worked. Now in his human form, he held the buckskin’s reins to prevent it from following the others. It would take a long time before the two men could catch their fleeing mounts. Baron made sure they were properly spooked. He tied the buckskin to the paddock post, his gaze lingering on the sack of gold that soon would be his, but left it where it was. He wasn’t going to fuck with the End of Days.

 

Unseen, the Saint nodded in approval.

 

A while later, AJ struggled towards consciousness. Oblivious to his new guardian, the only thing he knew was that he hurt. It was a deep hurt, and it was one he recognized. He had experienced a similar hurt a long time ago, during the War but there was no mistaking the feeling something catastrophic had happened to him. He shuddered at the memory of the cold January night, and fought to stop his mind from revisiting the nightmare.

 

The Saint was standing nearby when AJ opened his eyes. They were alone in the cabin. Mote of dust danced in the sunlight. With a groan, AJ sat up and held his aching head, his hair hiding his face. He didn’t want to look at the Saint of Killers. All his memories had been laid bare to the most terrifyingly powerful being in existence. He hadn’t wanted anyone to know about that night. And right then, he was hurting too badly to build his defenses back up. He hoped the Saint wouldn’t say anything about it, to pretend it never happened.

 

What? Do you think I don’t understand?” the Saint asked, surprising AJ. The spirit sighed. “Boy, I spent a long time in hell. Do you think the demons that tortured me drew the line at that?”

 

Hearing it put so bluntly surprised AJ. He looked at the old man in the black coat and hat. There was only understanding in those cold, pale green eyes, not judgment.

 

And no sympathy whatsoever, for which AJ was grateful.

 

You’re still alive, boy. You got back to your feet and killed the ones that hurt you. And didn’t look back.”

 

Gritting his teeth, AJ climbed to his feet, testing his balance. The ache was slowly fading. He saw his rifle on the ground nearby, picked it up and checked the load. It was ready to fire. “Did you kill them?” AJ asked curiously.

 

As you see, I’m working on it,” the Saint said.

 

Feeling better, AJ smiled his crooked grin, sardonic and arrogant. “Then let’s get it done.”

 

When he went outside, Doc and Karl were gone. AJ looked around. He was surprised the buckskin standing hipshot nearby, tied to the paddock rail with the bags of gold still hanging from the saddle. It looked at him expectantly. He saw the now-greasy spot where he killed the demon but the body had melted. There was no sign of Gallows and Anderson.

 

“Did they leave?” AJ asked, at a loss.

 

Yep,” the Saint answered, poker-faced.

 

“Huh. Surprised they didn’t try to kill me again,” AJ said, brushing his hair back. He decided he needed a haircut. “I wonder why they let me live.”

 

The Saint didn’t say anything.

 

The wind whispered through the trees and judging by the position of the sun, AJ would get back to Bannack sometime in the early morning if he started right away and rode all night. It took all of three minutes to pack up his gear, get on the horse and get the hell out of there. He didn’t see the Wolf shadowing him through the trees.

 

As he rode back down the mountain, he thought about what happened. After seeing (and smelling) the demon, he had to accept that his life had changed. Though he had a very strong religious upbringing, he had never once considered demons as being part of this world. He had figured they would be something he would theoretically encounter when he finally went to hell, preferably after going out in a blaze of glory. Seeing one in the real world shook his beliefs to the core and he was grateful the journey gave him the time for a serious mental adjustment. It galled him to admit it that Bullet Club was irrelevant and though he would still kill them if the opportunity presented itself, he wasn’t going to seek them out anymore.

 

It was considerably easier going downhill than up, and it was relatively cool most of the journey out of the mountains. By the time he got to the plains, the sun had set and the heat of the day had subsided. He gigged the horse with his spurs and they loped leisurely towards Bannack. The moon rose waning gibbous, giving enough light that AJ didn’t need to stop. It was nearing dawn when he entered Bannack and dropped the weary horse off at the livery, putting it in an empty stall with some hay and water. Carrying his gold and gear, he walked through the quiet town to the hotel. There was a light in the bakery but most houses and businesses were still dark. As he entered his room and locked the door behind him, he had just enough energy to pull off his boots, hide the bags of gold under the bed and flop on the mattress. He was so tired he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

The sun was barely above the horizon when there was a loud banging on his door. AJ groaned and pulled his pillow over his head, hoping the person would go away. The banging came again, louder, along with the command to ‘open the door Mr. Jones; I know you’re in there’.

 

“Fucking seriously?” he asked the air around him. He sat up, pausing a second to gather his strength before pushing himself to his stockinged feet and padding to the door. He opened it and Sheriff Mizanin was standing outside, clean and coiffed. He was wearing cologne, AJ noticed. A lot of it. It stung AJ's eyes.

 

“Sheriff, what do hell you want?” AJ asked bluntly, wanting nothing more than to slam the door in Mizanin’s face. But he figured Mizanin would just keep banging on it.

 

“Where were you yesterday Mr. Jones?” Mizanin asked, looking like he was smelling something from a barn floor.

 

There was no way in hell AJ was going to tell Mizanin the truth. But he already had a story made up, just in case anyone asked. “A couple of miners working a small silver mine up in the Pioneers paid me to come look at some of their ore,” he shrugged. He doubted Mizanin would be bothered enough to go and check his story. There many mines up there and it was reasonable for miners to request Allen Jones’ expertise. “What’s this about?”

 

“Someone killed the Dudley boys,” Mizanin told him. He looked down his nose at AJ’s sleep-mussed hair and scruffy beard.

 

“And you woke me up to tell me this why?” AJ asked, at a loss as to what that had to do with him. He yawned and rubbed his hair, messing it up even more. He saw the sour look on the Sheriff’s face and knew what was coming. “You think I killed the Dudleys? Are you a fucking idiot? What evidence do you base that on?”

 

Mizanin glared. “The fact that you just happened to be away on ‘business’ while someone hunted them down and killed them,” he said. “And I am sick of your lack of respect. I am the Sheriff.” A vein in the middle of his forehead pulsed.

 

“Well Sheriff, now that you told me that, my lack respect has certainly come to a middle. Like I told you; I had business outside of Bannack.”

 

“You had a run in with them right before they were killed.” Mizanin told AJ, as if that mattered. “I’m tempted to bring you in right now.” He put his hand on the butt of his revolver.

 

“Do it,” AJ challenged. “And I'll knock your teeth right out of your head. Of course if you really wanted to prove that you’re not a fucking failure as a Sheriff, you could try to find the actual killer, instead of bothering me. But that would require you to do your job, wouldn’t it Sheriff?” AJ asked snidely. He asked the question loud enough for the occupants of the other rooms to come out into the hall and see what the fuss was about. They snickered and Mizanin flushed red. He stepped right up into AJ’s face.

 

“I’m going to be watching you like a hawk, Mr. Jones. Don’t leave town,” he warned AJ as he turned around and walked away, back stiff with wounded pride. AJ controlled himself just enough to not slam the door shut. He went back, sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.

 

Fucking great.

 

TBC

 

 

Chapter Text

As always, thanks to Kiss316 for beta reading this. She is awesome.

 

Warning: Swearing.

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 8

 

I’m going to be watching you like a hawk, Mr. Jones. Don’t leave town,” he warned AJ as he turned around and walked away, back stiff with wounded pride. AJ controlled himself just enough to not slam the door shut. He went back, sat on the edge of the bed and sighed.

 

Fucking great.

 

Running a hand through his hair, AJ noticed the Saint was gone again. Eying the bed, he considered going back to sleep, but decided not to. Depending on how hard Corbin was to find, he might have a lot of ground to cover that day. Instead, he washed his face and hands in the basin, scrubbing the grit from his eyes and called it good. After making sure the door was locked, he dug the bags of gold from under the bed and opened one of them. The coins glittered as he divided them into two piles. Putting half the coins back into the bag, he wrapped the rest into his old, mended shirt and tied it shut. Considering his options, he made an incision on the side of the mattress at the head of the bed. Hiding the gold inside the mattress, he stuffed Baron's payment into his saddlebag and finished getting dressed. Locking his door behind him, AJ wandered downstairs, following the aroma of baking bread and hot coffee to the kitchen. The hotel offered a decent breakfast and after a couple of cups of hot coffee and lots of eggs, biscuits and bacon, he felt more awake. The clock on the wall reminded him morning was ticking away.

 

After breakfast, AJ stepped outside the hotel and looked up and down the main street. The late morning sun was already almost unbearable. The foot and horse traffic was fairly heavy but not crowded. He had no idea where to even start looking for Corbin. He strolled in the direction he had last seen the Wolf, towards the west edge of town. He ended up back at the spot where Corbin shoved him against the cabin. He looked around but didn’t see the Wolf. AJ had just decided to go back when a voice from right behind him said, “Here.”

 

To his credit AJ didn’t jump three feet into the air, he just turned very quickly. The Wolf’s expression was hard to read but interestingly, the contempt he had shown AJ before was gone. AJ noted the change in the Wolf’s attitude, but didn’t ask about it. “You’ve been waiting here the whole time? Don’t you get tired of lurking?” AJ adjusted the saddlebag over his shoulder.

 

“I pace myself,” Corbin replied, deadpan.

 

AJ grinned, pleased that Corbin had a sense of humor after all. He reached into the saddlebag, pulled out the half full sack of coins and handed them to Corbin. “Here you go. Find the Skinwalker and you’ll get the other half. And if you do it within a week, I’ll give you a bonus.” He really wanted to be done with the whole Skinwalker business. And since he was using Bullet Club’s money, he didn’t feel the need to be stingy. “When you find something, let me know. I'm staying at the hotel.”

 

“I know.” Corbin weighed the bag in his hand thoughtfully. For a second it looked like he was going to say something else, but then he turned and walked away.

 

Hopefully, it won’t take too long,” the Saint said, echoing AJ’s thoughts.

 

“Where were you?” AJ asked out loud, not looking at the spirit.

 

Checking on someone,” the Saint told him.

 

Interesting. The Saint said someone. AJ filed that bit of information away for later. Knowing he wasn't going to get any more than that, AJ considered going back to bed again. He slung the empty saddlebag over his shoulder and headed back into town. He saw the gunsmith's shop and decided to pay it a visit. He needed some revolvers and the general store didn't carry those. The gunsmith had a decent collection of guns and AJ decided on a pair of the new Colt Single Action Army revolvers and a belt. The gunsmith promised to hold them for AJ to pick up when he was done with his business in town. After that, AJ found himself back out on the Main Street feeling almost at a loss. It was strange, not having anything productive to do. No heists to plan, no chores to attend to, no stupid little adventures to go on with the rest of Bullet Club. For the first time in his adult life, AJ Styles had nothing to do but wait. He hated it. He had always been active and involved in something.

 

Almost as if fate was listening, he heard the hoofbeats of a horse at a full gallop. People scattered as a chestnut horse and rider hurried by, lather flying off the laboring animal. AJ caught a glimpse of a US Marshal badge as it gleamed in the sunlight. Several blocks down, the rider sat back and hauled on the reins, sliding the horse to a stop right in front of the Sheriff’s office up the street. The rider jumped down and strode inside. The horse hung its head, gasping for breath as sweat dripped down its neck and belly. The animal looked completely played out. AJ wondered what the fuss was all about but figured whatever it was, it had nothing to do with him. Seeing the saloon nearby, he headed to it. Just sitting in a shady bar and nursing a drink suddenly seemed very attractive. He was still tired despite the coffee. As AJ was walking by the Sheriff’s office, the door was open and he heard shouting. Several other people had stopped to listen so he joined them.

 

“Listen Mizanin you idiot, they’ve crossed the line. They robbed the Wells Fargo stagecoach heading to Butte two nights ago. They tied the driver up and made him watch as they raped the female passenger and killed the men. And this is right after they robbed that bank in Idaho Falls! Now since you’re not going to do anything about them, I will.”

 

Shit. He had to be talking about Bullet Club. That explained why Doc and Karl were at the cabin. They were on the run as per their old instructions. After a heist Bullet Club would split up, each going to a different location to lay low.

 

“I should lead the posse, I’m the Sheriff,” Mizanin was arguing.

 

“I don’t want to hear it, Mizanin. You sat on your ass for the past year and did nothing! I even heard that Bullet Club used to come into town and you would just hide in your office until they left. This whole mess is on you! Now I have to clean it up. Before you open your mouth again, I will remind you that Marshals have jurisdiction so you have to do what I say.”

 

“If I can’t lead the posse, then I’m not coming!” Mizanin threatened.

 

“Then stay here! I’ll run those bastards to the ground without your help.” The man exited the Sheriff's office, banging the door shut behind him muttering “Stupid idiot,” under his breath. With a start, AJ recognized the stocky blond. It was Chris Jericho, a well-known US Marshal. He didn’t notice AJ standing there in the crowd. Instead he glared at the exhausted animal in front of him as he jammed his hat back on his head. Jericho grabbed the reins and jerked them to get the horse moving. He led the animal away, heading towards the livery to exchange for a fresh mount. The look on his face could have curled milk and people scrambled to get out of his way.

 

Not your problem, boy,” the Saint reminded him.

 

AJ didn’t argue. After encountering the demon up in the mountains, he knew the Saint was right. He nodded stiffly and headed towards the saloon right across the street from the Sheriff’s office. He'd been there a couple of times with Bullet Club, flaunting their notoriety. He was taking a chance on being recognized, but he didn’t exactly care. And since his hair was longer and Bullet Club hadn’t been in the area lately, he doubted anyone would associate him with his former gang. And if they did? Fuck them.

 

Jack's Saloon was a very tidy place, despite being located in a dying mining town. The floor was swept and the mirror was polished. The glasses were clean and rumor had it the liquor was only somewhat watered down. Except for the bartender, the saloon was empty when AJ came in. With a nod to the bartender, AJ sat on a stool at the far end of the polished wooden bar so he could have his back to the wall and watch the door. He dropped the saddlebag at his feet and hunched over the bar.

 

He knew Bullet Club, and any posse sent after them was going to get chewed to pieces. Bullet Club was just too tough, too good and too crazy to get caught. But here was the perfect opportunity for him to go after Bullet Club legally and with back up and he couldn't. He knew the Saint was right, but it didn't make it any easier.

 

The bartender came over. Jack Gallagher was an outlier in the community. Straight off the boat from England, he was the very definition of a refined Englishman despite his relative youth. He sported a curled and waxed red mustache, the same color as the hair on his head which was neatly brushed to the side. He had very pale skin that burned rather than tanned. He was a wiry man but that didn't mean he couldn't toss patrons out on their ears when they became obnoxious. “Gentleman” Jack was a pugilist. A very good one. He was also the owner of the saloon.

 

“What can I get for you, my good man?” he asked, his English accent was thick but precise. He smiled at AJ politely as he wiped the already immaculate bar top with a rag.

 

“A drink of your best,” AJ said, pinching the bridge of his nose. He was getting a headache, probably from lack of sleep and tension. He put some money on the bar. More than enough to cover several drinks.

 

Seeing that, Jack's polite smile became genuine and put a shot glass in front of AJ and one for himself. He then pulled an unmarked bottle from under the bar and poured the liquor into the glasses. “Here you go,” Jack said, putting the cork back into the bottle and set it on top of the bar.

 

Instead of drinking right away, AJ just lifted it up and stared at it, turning it slowly. The sunlight coming through the window filtered through the amber liquid.

 

“What are we drinking to?” Jack asked, raising his own.

 

“To old friends,” AJ proposed. “May they rot in hell.”

 

Jack raised an eyebrow at that but clinked his glass against AJ's. They downed the shot. Throat burning, AJ set his shot glass down, nodding to Jack. That was as smooth of liquor as he'd had in a while. He sighed and sat back, relishing the quiet. The Saint lurked nearby. AJ stared at his empty glass. Jack raised an eyebrow and AJ nodded. Jack poured another round of drinks. But AJ didn’t reach for the shot glass immediately. Jack downed his then sensing AJ wanted to be left alone, wandered to the other end of the bar.

 

As he stared at the glass of liquor, AJ thought about the Saint’s memory of three men standing tall, shoulder to shoulder as they faced a demon. He asked, ‘What are they like?’ The others you recruited.’

 

You’ve met Randal. The other two used to be US marshals until they encountered a demon named Sister Abigail,” the Saint replied.

 

What happened?’ AJ asked as he took a sip of the excellent, barely watered-down whiskey.

 

He listened as the Saint of Killers told the story of US Marshals Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose and Seth Rollins and their first encounter with the demon Kane, and then Sister Abigail.

 

Interesting that the majority of your recruits come from the Marshals,’ AJ observed.

 

The Saint shrugged. “They tend to be the ones who want to live so they can keep killing.”

 

That made sense. US Marshals were usually devoted to their duty, living only to bring outlaws to justice. And needless to say, tangling with outlaws usually became violent encounters where either the Marshal or the outlaw wound up dead. AJ would know, he’d killed several of them.

 

Are they still friends?’ AJ asked. He hated himself for asking. But seeing Doc and Karl again and knowing they let him live left him conflicted. He still would kill them given the chance, but maybe he’d let them explain first.

 

Maybe.

 

Yes,” the Saint told him. “They trust each other with their lives.”

 

AJ wanted to sigh but stopped himself. God, he was getting downright maudlin. Never one to wallow in self-pity for long, he sat up and waved Jack over. “Another, please.” There was something about Gentleman Jack that made you mind your manners.

 

“Of course, my good man.” Jack poured another shot, mentally tallying the amount of liquor verses the amount of money on the bar. He figured AJ had two more shots coming, if he wanted. Jack had been watching AJ covertly and knew something was bothering the man, but it wasn’t his business. Unless AJ wanted to tell him, then he would listen, of course.

 

The peace AJ was enjoying was interrupted by men talking loudly right outside the saloon. He glared at the door but it didn’t sound like they were going away anytime soon so he thought fuck it; he was going back to bed. He was just about to pick up his empty saddlebag and leave when the door opened and they trooped into the building. Enzo and Big Cass were among them. Seeing AJ sitting at the bar Enzo called out, “Hey Allen! You gonna join us?”

 

“Thanks, but I'm done,” AJ told him.

 

“Nah, not for a drink, the posse,” Enzo grinned. The swelling was going down on his face. His black eye was turning purple, green and yellow. “They are putting a posse together to go after Bullet Club. Marshal Jericho is leading it.”

 

Fuck. He hadn't considered Enzo and Big Cass would join the posse. In a weird way, he liked Enzo and Big Cass. They were strange, yes, but overall good guys. He knew they didn’t have a chance against Bullet Club. “I heard,” AJ said, neutrally. It wasn’t his business, he reminded himself.

 

“So you're gonna join, right?” Cass asked as they sat down next to him. Jack lined up shots, but poured from a different bottle. “After what they did to you?”

 

Before he could answer, Marshal Jericho barged in, Sheriff Mizanin behind him, sneering. Before Jericho could say anything Mizanin raised his hand, “Alright, when my hand goes up, your mouths go shut!” he announced, absolutely smug at being the center of attention. Beside him, Jericho rolled his eyes. “As you heard, you’re going after Bullet Club. They were last seen outside Dillon heading toward the Pioneer Mountains. They robbed a stagecoach and killed a couple of passengers. We are not going to stand for that in our community!”

 

The men murmured a general agreement. Not because they cared about the stagecoach or its passengers, they were there for the chance to kill some notorious outlaws and collect the sizable reward.

 

“There were five of them according to the driver. He identified Kenny Omega, Karl Andersen and Doc Gallows for sure. He also thinks the other two were the Young Bucks.”

 

“I thought Bullet Club was led by AJ Styles,” someone in the crowd said.

 

Glaring at the crowd, Jericho shrugged. “The driver didn't see him. But if he's around, we'll hang him alongside the others.”

 

AJ had to stop himself from snorting. ‘Keep dreaming Marshal, you’re nowhere good enough to take me down.’ He mentally put odds that roughly seventy percent of the posse would be killed. That was only because AJ wasn't there. If he had been leading Bullet Club, it would have been one hundred percent. Posses were different in AJ's mind. They knew what they were in for when they signed up. Therefore they were fair game. However, with Jericho leading the posse, they might have a chance of taking out a few members. Jericho had a reputation for ruthlessness and didn’t put up with nonsense.

 

“Are there any questions?” Mizanin asked. Seeing none, he told them they were going to be deputized and moving out soon. “So get ready, you hit the trail in half an hour,” he told them. The posse started to file out the door.

 

“C’mon Allen, let’s go,” Enzo told AJ. But before AJ could respond, Mizanin came over, glaring at AJ.

 

“Allen Jones isn’t going anywhere.” The last thing Mizanin wanted was for Allen to get any of the glory for bringing in or killing Bullet Club. There was no way Mizanin was going to allow that cocky bastard to play the hero in his town again.

 

“What?” Enzo asked, angry and annoyed. “He has to come! He was robbed by Bullet Club and they tried to kill him. Besides, he’s good with a gun.”

 

“Why the hell would we leave Allen behind?” Cass asked calmly. He didn’t like Mizanin personally but the guy was the Sheriff and had authority.

 

“He is a person of interest in another crime and he can't leave town until I determine that he didn't do it. And I don't trust him.” Mizanin shot a smug look at AJ, who glared back in general annoyance at Mizanin. But, he hadn't planned on going anyway, and this just gave him the perfect excuse.

 

“Bullshit!” Enzo responded hotly.

 

“What crime?” Cass asked at the same time.

 

“Someone killed the Dudley Boys,” Mizanin told them. “And Mr. Jones just ‘happened’ to be out of town at that time.”

 

“So you think Allen did it? Are you a fucking moron?” Enzo asked in disbelief. He started to get up into Mizanin's face to tell him exactly what he thought of him, at length and in great detail but AJ shook his head.

 

“Its fine, Enzo,” AJ said, lying and he could tell Enzo knew he was lying but not for the obvious reason. “I have business to attend to anyway.”

 

“Well, me ‘n Cass’ll be sure to shoot them a cuppla extra times just for you,” Enzo told AJ as he and Big Cass rose to their feet, gave Mizanin a dirty look and left. Soon the bar was empty except for AJ, Mizanin and Jack who was standing a discreet distance away.

 

Mizanin glared at AJ, the vein in his forehead pulsed. He leaned into AJ’s personal space and hissed, “Remember, I am watching you closely, Mr. Jones. If I hear of any trouble, any trouble at all, anything that you had something to do with, I’ll hang you so fast your head will spin.” He spun on his heel and strode out the door, slamming it dramatically behind him.

 

AJ realized that Mizanin’s bullying wasn’t just for show, the man truly hated him. He had no idea why. He sighed, ran a hand through his hair and signaled for Jack to pour him one last drink. The last thing he needed was someone else looking over his shoulder, watching his every move. AJ considered luring Mizanin somewhere quiet and just killing the bastard. That was an attractive thought and he decided to think about it some more after he got some rest.

 

“Chin up, my good man,” Jack said with an encouraging smile. “The Sheriff is an ass but anyone with a set of eyes can tell he’s insanely jealous of you.” Seeing AJ’s puzzled look, Jack laughed. “In one day you proved you can easily handle dangerous outlaws that he never had the stones to engage. Rumor has it, he has his wife handle the really tough ones.” He grinned wickedly.

 

AJ laughed. “I can believe it,” he said. He remembered he wanted to get a haircut.

 

“Anyway, it’s probably for the best that you don’t go out there after your former friends,” Jack said as he wiped the bar. “It would be awkward if they got the chance to point out who you really are to the Marshal.”

 

AJ froze for a second. “How did you know?” he asked, very quietly. He held himself ready. Ready to reach over the bar and break Jack’s neck if need be.

 

Giving AJ an offended look, Jack said, “I’m not blind. You don’t look that different from the last time you were in here with Bullet Club. Most people don’t recognize you because AJ Styles is the leader of Bullet Club and they expect him to be with them.”

 

“Are you going to tell anyone?” AJ asked. He really didn’t want to have to hurt Jack.

 

Mustache twitching, Jack shook his head. “No. You’re a good customer. And as long as you pay your bill and don’t cause trouble, I have no issue with you. I heard what you did, to both the Dudleys and Cactus Jack. Your past is your business. Pouring drinks is mine.” He saw AJ’s skeptical look and held up a hand. “Upon my honor as a gentleman.”

 

AJ nodded, but the urge to drink left him. He made sure his tab was paid with a hefty tip for Jack. Jack smiled again. “What do you think? About the posse I mean. Will they get Bullet Club?”

 

“Jericho is good. But I know those boys and they’ll chew up any posse that goes after them.” AJ picked up his saddlebags and headed back to the hotel. Until Corbin had any news about the Skinwalker whereabouts, he might as well catch up on sleep. It was too hot to do anything anyways.

 

“There you are,” Danial Bryan said as AJ exited the saloon. Daniel had hoped to track Allen down for a proposition and had just started looking for the man. He knew Mizanin had ordered Allen to stay in town, only because Mizanin couldn’t stand the thought of Allen upstaging him again. Daniel had made damned sure Sheriff Mizanin had heard in lurid detail how easily Allen had handled Cactus Jack. After the exchange got heated, Daniel had lost his temper and had flat out told Mizanin he was a coward and held up Allen’s behavior as an example of what a real Sheriff should be like. Of course that hadn’t gone over very well. Mizanin had a complete meltdown, screaming that he was the best sheriff in the territory and Daniel Bryan was the coward not him, and Allen Jones was a nobody. It was Mizanin who was there every day to ensure the citizens’ safety, not Allen Jones. Mizanin would show Daniel what a real sheriff was like. Daniel, satisfied that he had tweaked Mizanin enough, had left.

 

“For fuck sake,” AJ muttered to himself. Seeing the mayor smiling at him made AJ feel the slightest bit uneasy. “Whatever you’re going to ask, the answer is no,” he said automatically.

 

“You don't even know what I was going to ask,” Daniel said, grinning.

 

“Do you need ore assayed? Cause that’s what I do,” AJ reminded him. He rubbed the bridge of his nose again. The headache was intensifying. “Otherwise you’re out of luck. The good Sheriff told me I can’t leave town.” Not that AJ had any intention of following Mizanin’s order. But it was a good excuse.

 

“I just wanted to talk to you about something.” Daniel grew serious. He looked around, making sure they were not overheard.

 

AJ drew in a deep breath and let it out, trying to scrape together enough patience for this. “What about?” he asked.

 

“Not here. Come with me,” Bryan said, relieved that Allen hadn’t outright tell him to fuck off. Daniel honestly didn’t know how to tell him about the things that had been happening in town lately.

 

Frowning, AJ followed the mayor back to his office several doors down from the Sheriff’s. They didn’t see the blond woman watching them from the opposite side of the street. She was glaring, but even her expression didn’t mar her icy beauty. Daniel’s office was sparse but comfortable. He indicated for AJ to sit and offered him some cool water, which AJ refused.

 

“Okay Mayor, what’s this about?” AJ asked. He let the saddlebag slide to the floor.

 

Daniel tapped his fingers on the top of his desk as he tried to figure out a way to convince AJ of something that was impossible. “Look, I don’t know exactly how to say this, but there is something weird happening in this town and I need your help to deal with it.”

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Many many thanks to Kiss316 for beta reading this. She is awesome.

Warning: Swearing. Violence, The Miz

 

Phenomenal One

 

Chapter 10

 

 

“Daniel, I’m not going with you to investigate a bunch of dogs hanging around the cemetery,” AJ told him, standing up and heading to the door. He was too tired for this nonsense.

 

“They aren’t dogs, unless you know of a type of dog that only appears at night and has glowing red eyes,” Daniel said quickly, willing AJ to believe him. He hadn't wanted to bring up that particular bit of information; Mizanin had already laughed in his face and was starting to use it against him. He barely contained his relief when AJ stopped, turned around then sat back down, staring intently at Daniel.

 

Running a hand through his hair, AJ refrained from looking over at the Saint of Killers. “Glowing red eyes? You’re sure?” he asked finally. As little as two days ago, he wouldn’t have believed the mayor.

 

But now there was a melted corpse high up in the mountains.

 

“Yes, I saw them myself when I was coming back from Dillon late one night. I went back the next day but there was nothing there. I heard from a couple of other people that they have seen them too, but only at night.”

 

“Why didn’t tell me about the red eyes in the first place?” AJ asked.

 

“I didn't want you to think I'm crazy.” Daniel leaned forward with his elbows on the desk. “I don’t like the idea of them out there, so close to town. So far as I know they haven’t left the cemetery but that doesn’t mean they won’t. I would investigate them myself but my wife made me promise not to go alone. She’s expecting our first child,” Daniel explained with pride.

 

“Congratulations,” AJ said absently, exchanging looks with the Saint. ‘Demons?’ he asked silently.

 

The Saint frowned. “Maybe. Not necessarily. You should check it out though.”

 

“Why did you come to me? Isn’t there a sheriff in town whose job it is to look into stuff like this?” AJ asked with just a hint of sarcasm. ‘If not demons, what else could it be?’

 

“I already made the mistake of telling Mizanin about them. He accused me of making it up to make him look foolish by asking him to investigate it,” Daniel shrugged, trying not to let his dislike of Mizanin sidetrack him.

 

“But there are lots of other guys in town you could ask,” AJ asked Daniel, stalling for time.

 

Boy, there are other nasty things in this world besides demons,” the Saint said. “You just haven’t met them, yet.”

 

“I saw how you handled Cactus Jack. You don’t lose your cool under pressure, even without a gun.” Daniel said, oblivious to the conversation AJ and the Saint were having.

 

You and I are going to have a conversation about these other nasty things,’ AJ promised the Saint. He would go check out the cemetery but he didn’t want it to look like it was only because he was a helpful citizen. He was going to get something out of this. “Okay Daniel, I’ll go with you, but only if you get the sheriff off my back,” AJ bargained, bring his full attention back to Daniel. In all honesty, AJ more than willing to take care of the Sheriff permanently but he was trying to maintain a low profile. Suddenly dead (or missing) sheriffs tended to draw attention.

 

Not surprised, Daniel nodded. He wasn’t very optimistic though. “Like I said, he thinks I’m out to get him and he won’t listen to me. But I’ll do what I can.” He didn’t tell AJ that the reason he had been so late coming back to Bannack that night was because he had been talking to County Commissioner Shane McMahon to see if there is anything they could legally do to get Mizanin removed. He didn’t want the sheriff to get wind of what Daniel was trying to do.

 

Sighing AJ said, “All right, Mayor, I’ll come. When do we want to do this?”

 

“Tonight,” Daniel said immediately. “I’ll meet you at the west edge of town after sundown. That should give us enough time to get there before it’s completely dark.”

 

“Okay, see you then.” Grabbing his saddlebags AJ left the mayor’s office and went back to hotel to grab some sleep, thoughts full of what might be at the cemetery waiting for them. He noticed a beautiful blond woman standing outside the courthouse giving him a dirty look, but AJ didn’t give her a second thought. He just wanted a nap.

 

The west horizon was still faintly glowing when Daniel arrived at the meeting place. The town was dark with most of the population in bed. AJ had his rifle, a belt of ammunition and a full canteen. Daniel too was armed with a rifle. He was also carrying a lantern. Without talking, they headed out of town to the new cemetery which was a little over a mile to the west. The old cemetery on the hill above Bannack had filled to capacity a couple of years earlier.

 

Finally, AJ broke the silence. “Why do you suppose dogs are appearing in the new cemetery and not the old one? And why now?” he asked. There was no wind, but the dry night air was cool.

 

Daniel pursed his lips as he thought about it. “You know? I’m not sure. You think that maybe something buried there is attracting them?” he asked. They walked around the base of a hill, turning north and the last lights of Bannack were hidden, giving them a sense of isolation.

 

“Something or someone,” AJ said. He had asked the Saint about possibilities and it seemed logical. “Did anyone die around the time the dogs started appearing?”

 

“I’d have to check. Bannack doesn’t have a real undertaker right now, but we’re hoping to get that changed.”

 

“How many dogs did you see?” AJ asked.

 

“Four or five I think. My horse was having a panic attack at the time so I couldn't get an accurate count,” Daniel said.

 

If they are demons, it sounds like there’s a lot more than one or two,’ AJ said asked the Saint of Killers. ‘Should I be concerned?’ He could kill two at once, but if there were more…

 

That might be a problem,” the Saint replied reluctantly, not wanting to admit that AJ really could use a partner. Reigns and Ambrose weren’t in a position to help. And Randy wasn’t going near the Skinwalker if the Saint had anything to say about it. “But I have confidence you’ll think of something.”

 

Thanks.’ AJ shot him a nasty look, which did nothing to faze the Saint.

 

They walked on. The dead grass crunched under their boots and the crickets sang enthusiastically. Venus flickered brightly in the west. They saw the vague shape of the cemetery ahead of them in the dark. As they got closer, they could see the wooden grave markers in neat rows surrounded by a fence meant to prevent coyotes and other scavengers from digging up the corpses. There was quiet, lingering sadness that seemed to cling to the area. It was completely still.

 

“No dogs with glowing red eyes,” AJ observed as they entered the cemetery gate. The Saint lurked nearby, his hat and coat blacker than the night.

 

“They were here, I swear!” Daniel insisted. “I’m not crazy.”

 

“Well, let’s check it out since we came all this way,” AJ suggested. He wasn’t sure if he felt relieved or disappointed.

 

Daniel lit his lantern up to provide some light. They walked among the markers for a while, but nothing stirred. The cemetery was completely deserted. Outside of the fence there were two places of recently disturbed dirt without markers. As he studied them, AJ knew that was going to be his fate one day, if he was lucky. If not, the buzzards would have a feast. Finally, they ended up near the center of the cemetery, next to a grave marked R. Lynch. “I’m sorry I wasted your time, Allen,” Daniel said, sounding discouraged.

 

AJ shrugged. “Just get the sheriff to lay off me and we’ll call it good.” The last faint glow of the summer sun faded from the sky.

 

“Sure. But do me a favor and don’t tell anyone that we came here. If Mizanin gets wind of it, he’ll keep telling everyone I’m crazy. I can’t stand the guy when he’s being smug,” Daniel admitted. “Or any other time for that matter.”

 

AJ chuckled. The sound died in his throat when a low growl came from the far end of the cemetery. The hair on the back of his neck stood up. A pair of red eyes appeared in the dark from behind the furthest grave marker. “Shit,” he said, hefting his rifle to point in the direction of the eyes. “Looks like you aren’t crazy. Get ready Daniel,” he said.

 

At his side, Daniel hung the lantern on a crosspiece of the marker and raised his rifle, pointing it at the eyes. They heard another growl, coming from behind them. Daniel pivoted to cover that one, putting his back against AJ’s. Another set of red eyes joined the pair AJ was covering. They were staying out of range of the lantern’s light, making it hard to judge what their true appearance might be. But if they were dogs, they were easily the size of timber wolves. One set of eyes disappeared, only to reappear off to the right.

 

“What are they?” AJ asked, keeping the butt of the rifle firm against his shoulder. He was asking the Saint, but Daniel answered him too.

 

“I don’t know.”

 

They’re not demons, nor are they hellhounds.” The Saint knew what those looked like, having personally encountered those nasty things before. “I don’t believe you’ll need the Walkers.”

 

“Well that’s helpful,” AJ muttered. He felt Daniel at his back. The man was steady, which was a good sign. “How good of shot are you, Daniel?” he asked, just to keep the conversation going.

 

“You don’t have to worry about me,” Daniel promised.

 

Several more sets of eyes joined the ones they could already see. The growling became louder. “How many you got?” AJ asked, not taking his eyes off the creatures in his field of vision.

 

“I got four,” Daniel said, his voice was tense but he wasn’t panicking. “You?”

 

“I got six,” AJ reported. “Do you want to engage or get the hell out?” AJ knew he could fight, but Daniel had a wife with a kid on the way and he might not want to risk his life.

 

But Daniel stayed firm, the warmth of his back seeped through AJ’s coat in the cool air. “I’m good. Let’s take these bastards down.”

 

“I just hope they die like anything else.” One of the creatures stalked closer. Black as pitch, the only thing that could distinguish its location was its red eyes as it moved between the grave markers. It growled again, louder. AJ took a deep breath to steady himself, placed his finger on the trigger and exhaled.

 

BOOM

 

AJ’s rifle roared in the quiet night, the whip-crack report echoed off the hills and the butt kicked hard into his shoulder. The red eyes fell sideways and were extinguished.

 

That did it,” the Saint said.

 

“They can be killed,” AJ told Daniel as he racked another bullet in the chamber.

 

“Thank fucking god,” Daniel said, and for some reason the Saint snorted. But AJ didn’t have a chance to ask because the rest started circling them. Aiming carefully, Daniel fired. AJ could feel the rifle kick Daniel’s shoulder back into his. “Got it,” Daniel reported. “This keeps up and we’ll be just fine.”

 

As if they could understand what Daniel had just said, the dogs all charged at once. Both AJ’s and Daniel’s rifles fired, dropping two more. Out of the corner of his eye AJ saw one leap at Daniel from the AJ’s left side as Daniel was still racking the next bullet. At the same time, one from the right came at AJ.

 

Look out!” the Saint warned. But AJ turned to the dog on the left, pointed the rifle and fired. He killed it but didn’t have time to turn and rack another bullet into the chamber of his own rifle before the dog to his right was on him. He got an arm up just in time to protect his neck but cried out as he felt the sharp teeth sink deep into his right bicep. The weight of the creature dragged him down to one knee. Swinging the rifle around, he clubbed the beast in the head with the stock. The beast let go, staggering back. Blood poured down AJ’s arm. Daniel fired right above him and killed the dog before it could attack again.

 

Didn’t think you were the heroic type,” the Saint said but AJ ignored him.

 

“You okay?” Daniel asked, turning and firing off another shot, killing another one. The remaining dogs seemed to be hesitating.

 

“Give me one second,” AJ told him. He quickly fished a bandana out of his pocket. The wooden grave marker he crouched next to creaked ominously as AJ leaned into it. He gripped a corner of the cloth in his teeth, holding back a groan as he wrapped the other end around the bandana on his upper arm and tightened it. Air hissed between his clenched teeth. He awkwardly finished tying the knot and released the cloth. Blood was already seeping through the makeshift bandage, but at least it would slow the bleeding down. He didn’t want blood running down his arm and coating his hand. It would make it too slippery to hold the rifle steady.

 

“How are you doing, Allen?” Daniel asked, not turning to look at what AJ was doing. He gripped his own rifle tightly, trying to see where the next attack would come from.

 

Another one. Its over there, to your left,” the Saint told him. His black coat and hat were darker than the moonless sky. His eyes glowed faint as starlight.

 

“Shit.” Panting, he looked around for his rifle and saw it lying nearby in the dry grass, illuminated by the lantern. He winced as he reached for it. Grabbing the rifle off the ground, AJ aimed at the pitch black dog-like figure charging through the cemetery. He pulled the trigger just as it leaped at them. The thing howled and landed with a thud three feet in front of him. It snarled in hatred as it continued to crawl towards him even as it died. For several long seconds, the only noise in the cemetery was their breathing. Even the air was completely still. Both Daniel and AJ looked for more targets but there was nothing there anymore.

 

The rest of the dogs had disappeared.

 

“Are they gone?” AJ asked, breaking the silence as he lowered his rifle.

 

Yep, at least for now,” the Saint said, turning his head to look over the grave markers to the cemetery entrance. It remained empty.

 

“God I hope so,” Daniel Bryan said fervently, not hearing the Saint. “I don’t see any more, do you?”

 

“No,” AJ answered. His arm ached horrible as he climbed back to his feet. Daniel handed AJ his canteen and AJ gulped down about half the water. “Thanks,” he said.

 

“I saw what happened. You saved my life,” Daniel told him. He picked up the lantern and walked over to one of the bodies of the dogs. He touched it with the toe of his boot. “The damned thing must weigh over a hundred pounds,” he observed.

 

Well, at least they weren’t demons,” the Saint said. If they had been demons, AJ and Daniel would have been dead. The Saint knew AJ had gotten very, very lucky.

 

Think they'll be back?’ AJ asked.

 

I don't know. Probably.” The Saint wasn’t too worried about them, though. They didn’t seem to be inclined to leave the cemetery and they could be killed by conventional weapons. It was the Skinwalker he was concerned about.

 

AJ and Daniel gathered their gear and slowly walked back to town. As they approached the dark houses, Daniel said, “I'll try to find out who was buried there recently. Maybe that will shed some light on why those things keep appearing.” He turned to AJ and held out his hand. “Thank you Allen. I owe you. Get that cleaned up and get some rest.”

 

“Is there a doctor in town?” AJ asked.

 

Daniel looked resigned. “No. We’re trying to get one of those too. Meet me at my office later. You and I need to talk,” Daniel told AJ before heading to his house at the edge of town. A small light burned in the window.

 

As he made his way up the deserted Main Street, AJ’s arm throbbed. He hoped those things weren’t venomous.

 

You wouldn’t die even if they were,” the Saint reminded him. “You’d just be very sick for a while.”

 

“You’re such a comfort,” AJ told him snidely.

 

The Saint grinned and AJ shuddered. He saw Jack's saloon was still open and decided to stop in and see if there was any word about the posse. It had been less than a day, much too early for any news but you never knew. Jericho might have gotten lucky. The saloon was quiet this late/early in the morning. Only a couple of determined drinkers remained, doggedly putting away as much alcohol as they could afford.

 

Jack looked up from wiping an empty table down and his eyebrows rose when he saw AJ’s bedraggled state and bloody arm. “Its closing time, gentlemen,” Jack told the remaining occupants. They grumbled but didn’t argue with Gentleman Jack. They got to their feet and staggered out the door.

 

“You're up rather late,” Jack said he went behind the bar and pulled the bottle from underneath, pouring a shot for AJ. He pushed the glass towards AJ.

 

Taking the glass, AJ nodded his thanks. “How’s it going, Jack?” he asked politely. He could tell Jack was bursting with curiosity.

 

“I am having a better night than you I would surmise by the amount of blood on your clothing. What were you doing to get yourself in such a state?” Jack wanted to know as he gathered some clean rags, and another bottle of cheaper alcohol.

 

“The mayor asked me to do something with him.” AJ said. He sat down on a bar stool and massaged his eyes. He should go to bed, he thought. But he still needed to tend to his arm.

 

“He asked you to fight a bear?” Jack guessed. He came around the bar and approached AJ.

 

Picking up the shot glass, AJ laughed wryly. “No, dogs. Out by the new cemetery.” He downed the booze and set the shot glass down and brushed his hair out of his face, wincing as pain shot up his arm. He jerked in surprise when Jack reached out to the blood-soaked bandage.

 

“Steady on, old boy. That needs attention or would you rather lose the use of your arm?” Jack asked pointedly. Warily, AJ settled down and Jack started to untie the knot. “So, you said it was dogs. Were you able to tell if they were rabid?” he asked, trying to keep AJ's attention off the wound.

 

He glanced at the Saint who shook his head. AJ breathed sigh of relief. “No, they weren't,” he said, shuddering at the thought. An outbreak of rabies was something everyone feared.

 

“That’s good. But they must have been right vicious buggers.” Jack gently removed the bandage, made a long slice to AJ’s tattered shirt sleeve with his pocket knife and examined the deep bite on AJ's bicep. Blood started pouring down his arm again.

 

“Yeah.” AJ didn’t mention the blood red glowing eyes. Turns out, he didn't need to.

 

“Was Mayor Bryan right? Did they truly have red eyes?” Jack wanted to know as he poured some alcohol on one of the rags.

 

For a second, AJ was startled. “How did you know?” he asked.

 

Jack gave AJ a smile that was fairly enigmatic. “I’ve heard the same rumors. Mizanin thinks the mayor is making up stories but if I understand your reaction to my question, they did have red eyes.” He pressed the alcohol-soaked rag firmly to the bite wounds.

 

Bemused, AJ nodded. His jaw tensed as he tried not to squirm away from Jack's hands. Fuck, that hurt!

 

Jack held the rag there for a while, and then removed it, looking at the deep gashes in AJ’s arm carefully. Pouring more alcohol onto the bloody rag, Jack smiled. “My friend, I don’t believe those are dogs. I’ve heard stories about them before I came to Bannack. Back in Mother England, they are known as barghest.” He applied the rag to AJ's arm again.

 

Making a fist with his other hand and biting down hard on a knuckle, AJ squeezed his eyes shut for a few breaths. Getting control of the pain, he finally managed to ask, “Barghest?”

 

“Ah, yes.” Jack was finally satisfied the bite had been cleaned as much as possible and set about wrapping one of his clean rags around AJ's bicep. “They are said to appear in packs when there is a powerful curse on a place or person. And they will continue to appear until the curse is lifted.”

 

“Curse? Really?” AJ protested. He glanced over at the Saint, who shrugged. “That’s not what I signed up for.”

 

“Well, if you want to stop the barghest, you need to uncover the reason for their appearance.” Finishing tying the rag firmly into place, Jack stepped back. “There are you are, right as rain.”

 

AJ inspected the bandaging. It was immaculate. “Thanks, Jack. I appreciate it.”

 

Jack smiled and gathered up his bloody rags. “Get some rest Allen. Oh, and by the way, there is no news from the posse, if that’s what you were coming in for.”

 

Surprised, AJ nodded, thanked Jack one more time, grabbed his rifle and gear and left the saloon. The street was completely deserted. The stars shone brilliantly down and the crickets sang as AJ neared the hotel. He stopped abruptly as he saw the blond woman he noticed earlier walking towards him holding a lantern. She was alone.

 

“Evening, ma'am,” he said, intending to go around her to enter the hotel.

 

“Mr. Jones?” she asked. She had a thick French accent.

 

“Can I help you?” AJ asked politely, his southern manners coming to the forefront. He didn't want to help her, he was tired and in pain. But according to AJ's father and the lessons he taught with a belt, AJ had no choice but to offer it.

 

Behind you,” the Saint warned.

 

Immediately AJ swung around, raising the rifle. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he asked when he saw who it was.

 

“Where were you Mr. Jones?” the Sheriff stepped closer. He had a hand on his revolver but AJ had the drop on him.

 

“I don’t see how that is any of your business,” AJ told him. He kept the rifle pointed straight at the Sheriff. “I wasn’t breaking the law,” he added with dripping sarcasm.

 

“I told you not to leave town. And now you’re threatening me with a firearm,” Mizanin said. “You’re under arrest.”

 

“Oh this is not a threat,” AJ promised. He was about pull the trigger when the woman stepped in front of the sheriff and walked towards AJ, deliberately keeping her body between AJ's rifle and the sheriff.

 

“My husband will arrest you,” she told AJ firmly.

 

Behind her, Mizanin smirked and AJ truly wanted to shoot him. But he could not shoot an unarmed woman. His upbringing would not allow it. He sighed and lowered the rifle.

 

She took the rifle from him with a smile that bordered on a sneer. “Thank you, Mr. Jones. You now know what happens when you think you are better than my husband.”

 

 

The Wolf sat down on its haunches and examined the scene in front of him. The pines trees towered overhead in the dark. Glimpses of stars could be seen through the gaps in the branches. The corpse at the base of one of the trees had been there at least a day. Animals and insects had been working on it but Corbin still recognized the smell of Cactus Jack’s unwashed clothes. Whatever had killed the crazy man had done it slowly, given the amount of dried blood had been splashed liberally about. He didn’t smell gunpowder. Cactus Jack’s killer hadn’t used a gun.

 

First the Dudleys, then Cactus Jack. Two thugs and a crazy man. The only common denominator was all of them had interacted with AJ Styles recent enough to still have his distinctive scent on them. Corbin’s ear turned to catch the sound of bats as he thought about the implications.

 

What was unnerving to Corbin was the smell of something unbelievably old on Cactus Jack’s corpse. Dusty as ancient history, it smothered the smell of blood and urine. He knew what it was. Corbin was about to get up and go back to town to collect the other half of his payment when the blow sent him flying through the air and slammed into a tree trunk. He yelped like a frightened pup as he felt several ribs break on impact. He slid down the tree, the rough bark catching his fur. He landed at the base, the stirred up scent of pine filling his sensitive nose even as his mouth filled with blood.

 

Baron painfully turned his head. His attacker was a black form in the dark. It was a huge, human shaped figure. But he knew it wasn’t human, it was the Skinwalker.

 

“Why are you here, puppy?” a voice rumbled. The figure moved closer and Corbin heard it inhale.

 

With wrenching dismay Corbin remembered that he too had interacted with AJ Styles recently, just as huge hands reached out and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

Phenomenal One Chapter 11

 

Warning: Violence, swearing, disturbing images. And Miz and Maryse.

 

As always, a huge thank you to beta-reader extraordinaire Kiss316.

 

The jail reeked.

 

Since the violent criminals were usually dealt with immediately, the jail was mostly used to let rowdy drunks sleep it off. And it was obvious by the smell that Mizanin didn’t have any enthusiasm for cleaning up after inebriated inmates puked their guts out.

 

Instinctively reluctant to go into the cell, AJ paused at the door. With a hand between AJ’s shoulder blades, Mizanin shoved him forcefully into the jail cell and shut the door behind him, locking the padlock into place with smug finality. “Don’t think you’ll be out of here any time soon,” the sheriff sneered through the iron bars and went back to his office in the front of the building. His wife was standing in the doorway and smirked at AJ over her husband’s shoulder. It might have been his imagination but AJ thought he saw her eyes briefly gleam. Then the sheriff shut the door, blocking out all the light except for a slender beam under the door. Alone in the dark, AJ could hear him kiss his wife, both of them giggling.

 

Grinding his teeth, AJ glared at the door. His arm throbbed hotly as he pushed his hair out of his face. He wanted to vomit, and not just because of the smell. Here was the famous AJ Styles, former ace of the most notorious gang in the Rocky Mountains, designer and executor of the most infamous bank heists in the history of both Idaho and Montana territories, brought low by a sorry excuse for a sheriff and his wife who didn’t even realize just who it was they had arrested. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on him. He just hoped that Bullet Club didn’t find out about this. They’d die laughing.

 

In the office, Mizanin and his wife were still going at it. Apparently, her name was Maryse, according to the moaning Mizanin. The solid wooden door between the office and the jail did nothing to mute the sounds.

 

Got a plan on how you’re getting out of here?” The Saint was amused at AJ’s predicament and didn't bother to hide his smirk.

 

AJ turned his glare on the Spirit of Death. ‘Don’t you have anyone else to bother?’ He wondered if the Saint was going to tell Randy about it. God, this was embarrassing.

 

The Saint gave him a very unimpressed look. “No.”

 

Nearby, AJ could hear the woman starting to moan. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he shouted at the closed door. The couple didn’t seem to care that AJ could hear them as it became obvious they were engaging in full-on sex. Right against the wooden door between the jail and the office, from the way the door was rattling on its hinges.

 

“For fuck sake,” AJ grumbled. He sat on the edge of the cot and resolutely tried to ignore what he was hearing. Thinking about how her eyes flashed when she looked at him he asked, “Is she a demon?”

 

No,” the Saint replied, with a tilt of his head. “Why?”

 

“I thought I saw something,” AJ shrugged. “Must have been my imagination.”

 

Not necessarily. Demons are easy to spot because they are not from this world. But there are beings of power native to this world too.” The Saint looked over at the rattling door. “She might be a dabbler or something more powerful. You won’t be able to tell until she reveals herself.”

 

Finally, the couple came to a noisy conclusion and AJ breathed a sigh of relief as the woman’s caterwauling died away. There was some rustling of clothing. The light was extinguished and AJ could hear the front door opening and shutting.

 

They’re gone,” the Saint reported.

 

“About time.” AJ waited a little while for his eyes to adjust to the dark then went over to the door and examined the lock in the meager moon light. It was just a standard padlock, the size of AJ's hand. His lip curled in derision. Even the Young Bucks could have picked it. As it was, AJ slid a thin piece of metal he habitually carried on the inside of his left boot and set about to open the padlock. It took him about three minutes.

 

Not bad,” the Saint observed.

 

AJ just smirked. Years of being an outlaw and hanging around with Bullet Club had taught him many things. He closed the cell door behind him and locked the padlock again. He listened for a minute to be sure no one was close by. Only the steady song of crickets and the waters of Grasshopper Creek nearby could be heard. AJ went to the office door, grunting with pain when he moved his right arm on instinct. He placed his left hand on the door and tested it. It was locked too but that only slowed him down a few minutes. When he entered the sheriff’s office in the front of the building, he saw his rifle and ammunition just lying on the desk (Mizanin either hadn’t bothered to lock them up or forgot to) and grabbed them. Then he left the building, again, locking the door behind him and stalked back through the dark street in a huff. As he breathed the clean air, he thought fuck this town. As soon as he was done with this Skinwalker business, he was leaving this shithole. And if by some small chance Mizanin had the stones to pursue him? Well, AJ could easily deal with him. They wouldn't even find the body.

 

After collecting his gear from his hotel room, he talked to the night clerk about getting a new room, under a different name with a discreet gold piece with instructions if anyone came looking for him. The clerk, whose eyes were bugging out at the gold, fervently promised that no one would disturb AJ. Satisfied, AJ found his new room which was almost identical to the old one, locked the door, hid his gold again and flopped on the mattress. He was asleep in a matter of minutes.

 

When he woke up, it was early morning. His room was warm, but a slight breeze moved the air to keep it from stifling. He roused himself, changed the bandage on his arm, which was still swollen and hot, and took a few minutes to clean the blood off his new shirt. He stitched up the sleeve where Jack had cut it and called it good. After a quick bite to eat from the kitchen, he wandered over to the Mayor’s office, inside the courthouse. Daniel was sitting at his desk and looked up when AJ entered. He smiled at gestured for AJ to join him. “How’s the arm?” he asked.

 

“It’s fine,” AJ said as he eased himself into a chair, slouching in unconscious arrogance.

 

“That was some good shooting last night,” Daniel said. “You’re probably the best I’ve seen around here.”

 

AJ shrugged. He knew he was an excellent shot and didn’t need Daniel Bryan to tell him.

 

“Where did you learn to shoot like that?”

 

“My daddy taught me,” AJ said neutrally. It was a safe enough answer.

 

“I’m glad he did,” Daniel nodded and then got down to business. “I found out who the last person buried in the cemetery was. A young woman named Rebecca Lynch, recently emigrated from Ireland. She died over a month ago.”

 

“How?” AJ asked. The inside of the courthouse was quiet. Through the open windows he could hear the sounds of people outside going about their daily business.

 

Daniel shook his head. “Not sure. She was found dead in her room at the boarding house. There wasn’t a mark on her.”

 

“That doesn’t mean it was murder,” AJ shrugged. People died all the time for unknown reasons. Such was life in the rugged West.

 

“But why would the dogs appear if she died of natural causes?” Daniel wondered.

 

“Good point.” AJ asked. “Did she have any enemies?”

 

Daniel shrugged. “I don’t know. She hadn’t lived here in Bannack that long. But she made an impression on the men around here, that’s for sure.”

 

AJ raised his eyebrows.

 

Daniel smirked. “She had an unusual hair color, like fire from what Brie tells me. And a temper to match.”

 

“Did she get into a fight with someone and they killed her?”

 

“Who knows?” Daniel sighed. “There are some very petty people in this town, and dangerous ones as well. But since there were no witnesses, we might never find out what killed her.”

 

An idea occurred to AJ. ‘Can you ask Ms. Lynch what happened to her?’ he asked the Saint.

 

The Saint looked startled as if it never occurred to him to try to talk to the souls of the dead. He shrugged. “I can try, if she hasn’t moved on.”

 

They were interrupted by someone entering the courthouse, slamming the door open and shouting, “Where’s Daniel?” It was Sheriff Mizanin.

 

Bryan rubbed his eyes as if he were trying to ease a headache. “What the hell does he want now?” he asked the air around him.

 

AJ sat back and schooled his expression into polite interest. This was going to be good.

 

Mizanin stomped into Daniel’s office and stopped dead at the sight of AJ, slouched in his chair. “Who let you out?” he demanded as he pointed at AJ. “Was it you?” he shouted at Daniel.

 

“Mizanin, what the hell are you talking about?” Daniel asked, sounding infinitely weary. “And please, you don't need to shout. We are right here and can you hear you just fine.”

 

“Its SHERIFF Mizanin and I asked if it was you!” Mizanin lowered his voice, if only slightly.

 

Sheriff Mizanin, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Allen and I were just sitting here talking,” Daniel replied, sounding tired.

 

But Mizanin interrupted him. “Bullshit! I arrested him last night! He should be in jail right now!” he insisted.

 

“Whoa, whoa, whoa. What are you talking about, Sheriff?” AJ asked, blue eyes wide. “You didn’t arrest me. I went to bed after stopping at the saloon last night,” he shrugged at Daniel with feigned helplessness. Behind him, the Saint chuckled.

 

His face bright red, Mizanin took a menacing step towards AJ with a hand on his pearl-handled gun, but Daniel got to his feet and intercepted the irate sheriff. “Sheriff Mizanin, I don’t know what’s going on here but I’m sure we can work it out,” he started.

 

“He’s calling me a liar!” Mizanin shouted in Daniel’s face.

 

Some spit must have landed because now Daniel flushed red and despite his earlier entreaty to keep voices down, he started yelling right back at Mizanin. An audience started to gather at the office door. AJ could tell by the expressions on the faces that this situation wasn't unusual. AJ tried his best to look as if he had no clue what was going on, but he had a hard time hiding his smirk.

 

Seeing it, Mizanin pushed past Daniel to loom over AJ who was still slouched in his chair. “Who helped you?” Mizanin demanded, bending over to get right up into AJ’s face. “It was Daniel Bryan, wasn’t it?”

 

“What?” AJ asked, feigning puzzlement. He wasn't doing a great job and he could tell Mizanin wasn't buying it. But it didn't matter, because Daniel wasn't going to believe anything Mizanin said at this point.

 

“Who. Helped. You. Escape. From. The. Jail!” Mizanin shouted.

 

“Like I told you, Sheriff. You can ask anyone and no one helped me,” AJ persisted, just to aggravate Mizanin even more. “Because I was never there.”

 

“Calm down Sheriff,” Daniel told him, trying to get Mizanin to back away from AJ. “You’ll give yourself a stroke in this heat.”

 

But that was exactly what AJ was aiming for. “You can ask the night clerk at the hotel. I was there all night.” He stood up and said to Daniel, “Look, you obviously have things to discuss. We can finish this later. Sheriff,” AJ acknowledged and headed toward the office door.

 

Nearly frothing with frustration, Mizanin grabbed AJ by his sore arm and AJ went from amused to infuriated in a heartbeat. He jerked his arm out of Mizanin's grasp and grabbed the pearl-handled gun from Mizanin's holster before the sheriff could even think of reaching for it. The hammer was cocked and the barrel in Mizanin's face before either Mizanin or Daniel could react.

 

“Don't you EVER touch me again,” AJ warned, hissing through clenched teeth.

 

For a few seconds no one moved.

 

“Alright, everyone just CALM THE FUCK DOWN!” Daniel said firmly. He could not believe how fast AJ was. “Allen, please put the gun down.”

 

Glancing at Daniel, he took a breath to master his rage. AJ held the gun in Mizanin's pale face for another heartbeat before uncocking the hammer and lowering his hand. He forced himself to smirk again as he brushed his hair out of his face. He nonchalantly reversed the gun and held it out to Mizanin, handle first. “Certainly, Daniel. Here you go Sheriff,” he said.

 

With a shaking hand, Mizanin took the gun and put it back in its holster.

 

“Those are some quick reflexes,” a good looking gentleman with dark, lively eyes observed from the door. He had short gray hair but his face didn't have many lines.

 

“Commissioner McMahon,” Daniel greeted the newcomer with relief. He looked over at the people peering into the office pointedly and they reluctantly shuffled away.

 

Looking between the newcomer and Daniel, Mizanin looked like he was going to spit, decided against it and stalked out of the building without another word. Watching him go, Daniel sighed and shook his head. “Commissioner, this is Allen Jones. He’s been helping me with an issue.”

 

“Please, call me Shane,” Shane told him as he offered his hand to AJ.

 

“Okay, Shane. I’m Allen.” AJ shook his hand. He grinned his cocky grin as he looked up at Shane. “Nice to meet you.”

 

“What do you do Allen?” Shane asked with genuine interest, looking directly into AJ’s eyes.

 

AJ was opening his mouth to say ‘I used to lead Bullet Club until they tried to kill me, now I'm hunting a Skinwalker for the Saint of Killers' but the Saint’s hand landing on his shoulder stopped him just in time. “I’m an assayer,” he said, feeling a bit bewildered. He had no idea why he had almost said that about Bullet Club and the Saint.

 

That was close,” the Saint growled.

 

Before AJ could react, Daniel smiled and told AJ, “Shane and I have some things to discuss. We’ll finish the Lynch case later.” He held the door for AJ.

 

AJ didn’t take offense. He had accomplished what he set out to do. Mizanin’s remaining credibility was gone. “Let me know when you’re ready, Daniel. Shane, nice to meet you.” AJ nodded to the commissioner and left.

 

As they watched AJ leave, Daniel shut the door and leaned on it in relief.

 

Shane raised an eyebrow at Daniel. “Was that the reason you wanted me to come here? To see how unstable Mizanin is? Or to meet Allen Jones?” He had used some of his power on Allen just as a test. For a second he had thought Allen was going to answer differently. Interesting.

 

“Both,” Daniel admitted. “Mizanin’s getting worse.”

 

“Why was Allen threatening him?” Shane asked.

 

Daniel replayed the events in his mind. “Mizanin has always hated Allen. He made the sheriff look bad by running Cactus Jack out of town before he could kill anyone. Then, last night I asked Allen to go with me to the cemetery. He saved my life from those dogs I told you about. But in the process he got bit in the arm, the one Mizanin grabbed him by. I’m sure it really hurt Allen but, even though he was mad, I don’t think Allen was really going to shoot him. He was just letting him know that grabbing him wasn’t going to be tolerated.”

 

“Really?” Shane’s eyebrow’s rose.

 

Sighing, Daniel nodded. “Yeah. Allen isn't the type to lose control in high-stress situations. Please, sit down; we have a lot to discuss.”

 

Outside, AJ couldn’t resist grinning. That couldn’t have gone any better. He sauntered back through town.

 

Feeling pretty good about yourself, aren’t you,” the Saint observed.

 

Of course. That idiot Mizanin tried to pull a power play on me and failed miserably. There’s a reason I was the ace of Bullet Club.’

 

Don’t get too cocky, boy. That Commissioner has power and he used it on you.”

 

That sobered AJ up. 'Yeah,' he thought. He'd have to watch that one closely. Where the hell was Corbin? He needed that Wolf to get back so he could finish this stupid mission and get the hell away from Bannack and its weirdness.

 

Speaking of weirdness, he decided to go check the graveyard. Maybe examining the bodies of the Barghest in daylight would shed some answers. He retrieved his buckskin from the livery and headed west out of town. In broad daylight, the graveyard looked normal. Dead grass rustled in the slight breeze and small birds sang as they flitted among the sage brush. He dismounted and tossed the reins over a fence rail. The gate creaked as he opened it and entered. He frowned when he saw there were no signs of the bodies of the dogs he and Daniel had shot just last night. Disturbed, he made his way to Rebecca Lynch’s grave marker. It was tilted just a little bit and he absently straightened it. The Saint hovered nearby.

 

“Is she there?” he asked quietly.

 

Don’t know yet,” the Saint shrugged. He was concentrating on the earth below their feet. “It’s not the best time to do this. Daylight makes this much harder.” He grew quiet again. Bored, AJ shifted his weight and studied the horizon. He saw a line of clouds far to the west and hoped they indicated a rare August rainstorm. But the month was almost over and things usually cooled down in September.

 

Beside him, the Saint glared at the earth. “She’s down there. Gonna need you for this.”

 

“What?” was all AJ had time to say before the Saint stepped into him. AJ felt the guns manifest but the Saint stayed in control, buffering their horrific power on AJ’s soul.

 

Get up here, young lady,” the Saint of Killers commanded in a voice that brooked no argument.

 

In front of them, a transparent young woman rose up from the ground. Like Daniel had described, she had hair like fire. She was sturdily built, obviously used to hard work. She also had a thick chain wrapped around her neck and wrists. The links were so black they absorbed any light around them. The end of the soul chain sank into the earth at her feet. She seemed to be straining against it.

 

What killed you?” the Saint asked the chained soul bluntly.

 

“A curse.” Rebecca Lynch had a very thick Irish accent. Her voice sounded as if she was speaking from far away. “I was unable to move. They buried me alive. I lay in darkness until I died. I can’t move,” she repeated frantically. She pulled against the chain but it was no use. It was too strong for her, the links bound too tight for her to free herself.

 

She’s stuck in her corpse,’ the Saint told AJ, who was only able to watch in horror. AJ could feel the Saint's rage, not directed at the helpless, bound soul in front of them, but for some reason, he was thinking of Randy. AJ had no idea why.

 

Can we do something to set her free?’ he asked.

 

Easiest way is to break the curse. Then she can move on,’ the Saint told him. “Who cursed you?” he asked out loud.

 

“The witch. She cursed me,” the soul of Rebecca Lynch said. She pulled against the chain in vain. Tears were leaking from her eyes like rivers of ice. “I couldn't move. I called out but only the Barghest could hear me.”

 

Do you know her name? What does the witch look like?” the Saint asked, impatient.

 

The trapped soul shook her head. “White hair. Please don’t send me back down there. My body is rotting,” she begged. The chain had started to retract into the ground, pulling the girl with it. She was on her knees now.

 

The Saint hesitated, if only fractionally. Then still using AJ’s body, he reached out and grabbed the soul chain. Despite the spirit’s buffering presence, AJ screamed in his own mind when his hands touched the icy black links. As if it had a will of its own, the chain unwrapped itself from Becky’s soul and reached for AJ’s which was already aching from the presence of the Colt Walkers. It wound around his wrists and neck, binding him to the rotting corpse below. Through the chain he could feel the maggots, which had finished with the eyes and were burrowing further in. The chain continued to resist but Saint of Killers pulled with all of his incredible strength to slow it down. Blood from the Barghest’s bite wound soaked through the bandage and poured down his arm from the strain. AJ’s sanity started to slip as he felt grave worms squirming inside the corpse of Becky Lynch's stomach and along her legs. For long seconds the cursed chain resisted, but the Saint, despite heavy damage it was doing to AJ’s mind and soul, continued to pull. Slowly, inch by inch, the chain started to give. Then one link, slightly weaker than the others broke with a silent ‘snap’, freeing AJ from the corpse.

 

The unbound soul of Rebecca Lynch smiled at them. She had been very pretty when she was alive. “Thank you.” Then she disappeared as if she had never been there at all. Nearby, a finch trilled on a thistle.

 

The Saint left AJ’s body and he collapsed, panting with agony. The fresh memory of the rotting corpse below the ground he knelt on made him violently sick. After his stomach was empty, he dragged the back of his trembling hand across his mouth. He attempted to get to his feet but he was too weak, so he ended up crawling to the grave marker. He set his back against it, bracing his elbows on his knees and tilted his head back to let the slight breeze cool the sweat on his forehead. He had witnessed many atrocities during the War, but nothing had horrified him like the feeling of being trapped in a copse as it rotted around him. He closed his eyes and desperately tried to forget.

 

Expressionless, the Saint watched AJ slowly recover and knew he made a serious mistake. The soul chain and the Colts together were too powerful for a living human to be near without devastating consequences. AJ's soul, vulnerable from the proximity of the Colt Walkers, now bore black marks where the chain had wrapped around it. And the black was very gradually spreading. But the sight of the Lynch girl's soul, chained to her corpse, unable to move on reminded him too much of his son. His regret for Randy had gotten in the way of the mission.

 

“What was that?” AJ asked hoarsely when he finally opened his eyes again. He flexed his aching hands. It felt like he had held them ice for an hour. The sun overhead was unbearably bright, making his head pound. And the Barghest bite on his arm continued to leak blood.

 

A very nasty curse. It took a lot of power to do that. You need to be careful. What you’re dealing with is not some hedge witch.”

 

“I thought you said we had to break the curse to set her free.” AJ had imagined finding the person who cast the curse and making them reverse it. Not grabbing the chain and...he shuddered again and slid his aching hands through his hair.

 

We did. Breaking the chain breaks the curse.”

 

Still on the ground, AJ tried to think of something else. “White hair? Mizanin’s wife?”

 

Could be,” the Saint shrugged. “But in any case, the curse is broken and there will be no more Barghest. We’re done.”

 

“And the person that did this just gets away with it?” AJ asked, getting angry. Anger was good; it was something to focus on instead of rotting corpses. And grave worms. He shuddered as his stomach did a slow roll.

 

Don’t forget what you’re true objective is here,” the Saint warned. He wouldn’t let AJ to go on some crusade against a powerful witch. Not after being weakened like this.

 

But AJ was stubborn, and being bound to a decomposing corpse by a soul chain was apt to get a man’s temper up. AJ somehow found the energy to glare at the Saint but didn’t care to argue. It took him several tries to get to his feet and stagger out the cemetery gate to his horse. He leaned against the animal for a good minute before he could gather the strength to climb into the saddle. He grimaced at the blood still trickling down his arm as he gathered the reins. It seemed he was destined to never have a non-bloodstained shirt.

 

AJ let the horse walk back to Bannack. Every part of him ached. He hadn’t felt this punished since the war, and didn’t that bring back unpleasant memories? After putting the horse in its stall with some hay and water, he considered going back the hotel and sleeping. But the hotel was a long walk back through town and he just didn’t have the energy. He ended up on a cot in the livery office. The barn was warm and quiet and he was asleep in a matter of seconds.

 

The Saint of Killers was troubled. He didn’t want to leave, but knew it was best for AJ to be away from the Colt Walkers. He decided to talk to Mark.

 

TBC

 

 

Chapter Text

Phenomenal One Chapter 12

 

Warning: Swearing, disturbing images. And more spoilers for Legend Killer

 

And it bears repeating, a huge thank-you to beta-reader Kiss316! She is, as always, amazing.

 

The room was stifling when AJ woke up. It never used to bother him, having grown up in Georgia. But he couldn’t seem to get his brain and body going. He lay in a daze for a while, and then finally mustered the energy to sit up, staring blankly at the rough-hewn board wall. It took a while for him to remember where he was. He could hear horses moving around in their stalls on the other side. He hadn’t felt so groggy since the day Karl and Doc had spiked his drink with that god-awful homemade moonshine. Finally, running his hands through his hair, he forced himself to stand up. The room spun around him, and he was forced to brace his hand against the wall so he wouldn’t fall down. This was not good. “What’s wrong with me?” he asked, his voice a hoarse croak. But except for the occasional sound of horses, the barn was silent. He looked around for the Saint but didn’t see him or even sense his presence. He was alone.

 

Perplexed, he managed to stagger out into the barnyard and crashed to his knees by the water pump. He gritted his teeth and pumped some water from the well spigot. The knees of his trousers got wet but he didn't care. As he sipped the icy cold water from his cupped hands, and scrubbed his face, he felt a little better, enough to get to his feet and walk down the hill to town. The sun was low in the west, sinking into a cloud bank and turning a bloody orange color. Disguising his weakness with a slow, cocky swagger, he got as far as Jack’s saloon before he was trembling with exhaustion. Jack’s was fairly busy when he entered the building but AJ’s “usual” spot was open. He saw Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan sharing a table, talking. As he sank down onto the stool, Jack came over, wiping a sparkling glass with a snow-white rag. The curled ends of his red mustache were especially pointy that evening.

 

“Hello Allen. You look like shit, if you don’t mind my saying so. Did the mayor ask you to fight a mountain lion this time?” Jack asked, only partially joking.

 

“No, I broke a curse,” AJ told him and wiped a hand over his face, rubbing his eyes, feeling very frustrated with his continuing disorientation. He usually bounced back quickly from injury, even faster now with his enhanced strength. But this wasn’t a weakness he had experienced before. And there was no there who could tell him why. Where was the Saint?

 

“The Barghest?” Jack guessed, leaning under the immaculate bar to retrieve the unmarked bottle. He poured AJ a drink.

 

Taking the shot glass filled with amber liquid, AJ nodded. “They won’t be back.” He downed the drink with a shiver. He really didn’t want to go into the gory details.

 

“Well done old boy.” Jack congratulated. He cocked his head to one side, studying AJ closely. AJ had changed. Or, more accurately, something had happened to change AJ. Before there was a strength to AJ that Jack had rarely seen. But now, AJ looked like he couldn't stand up to a stiff breeze. The man was pale and his hands were shaking. There were shadows around his eyes and lines of pain that hadn't been there previously. Breaking the curse had hurt the outlaw more than he was letting on. Jack did the only thing he could think of to help AJ. “I say, have you eaten today?” Not waiting for an answer he signaled for one of his helpers to come over. “Go to the boarding house and ask Miss Carmella to fix a plate for Mr. Jones,” he instructed. As the young man scurried off, Jack beamed at AJ. “We’ll get you fixed up in a jiffy, Allen.”

 

“Thanks, Jack.” AJ tried to smile. He wasn’t sure how successful he was. But Jack was looking at AJ’s arm and frowning. AJ glanced down and saw the huge amount of dried blood caked on his sleeve.

 

“Oh dear. Come with me.” Not waiting for AJ to protest, Jack herded AJ to the back of the saloon and up a set of narrow stairs to Jack’s private quarters. It was a small room but of course it was unnaturally tidy. “Sit,” Jack instructed, pointing to a chair next to a small table that didn’t dare show any dust.

 

With a sigh, AJ sat. He simply had no energy to argue.

 

“Take your shirt off.” Seeing AJ’s reluctance, Jack raised an eyebrow. “You did a passable job fixing it last time. But let’s not have to cut it again, shall we?”

 

Gingerly, AJ did as he was instructed. Jack ‘tsk’d’ at the sight of AJ's older wounds and began to unwrap the bloody bandage from around AJ’s arm. AJ hissed between his teeth as the dried blood stuck the bandage to his sore arm and broke the scabs as Jack pulled. Once the bandage was off, blood started leaking again.

 

“Steady on,” Jack murmured. AJ inspected the wounds and was relived there was no smell of infection as Jack got some water from the basin and cleaned the wound again. “It looks a better,” the red-head told AJ confidently. Quickly cleaning it, he rewrapped AJ’s arm, tucking the bandages snugly around AJ’s bicep. Noting how pale the man was, Jack told AJ, “Stay there. I will bring the food up when it arrives.” He went back down the stairs.

 

Alone once again, AJ couldn’t help but wonder why? Where was the Saint?

 

~~~~

 

“Fish for dinner?” Mark suggested. He had cut a pole from a sapling and was currently attaching some string to it. Their campsite was next to a huge glacial lake, crystal clear and ice cold. They were west of Flathead territory, having taken refuge in a deep valley surrounded by towering jagged mountains, their granite tops getting lost in the clouds. Beams of sunlight from the setting sun would slip through and sail across the surface of the water. The place was sacred; no demon no matter how powerful could enter the valley. They were completely safe. It was a perfect place to heal.

 

Randy didn’t respond to Mark’s question. Sitting on the rocky shore, he stared at the single island, way out in the middle of the lake. His shoulders were slumped in defeat. He hadn’t bothered to shave and he was barely eating.

 

Randy wasn’t healing.

 

Mark shook his head and went back to getting his fishing pole ready. Randy had been making progress after they left AJ Styles outside of Bannack. The Legend Killer was worried about AJ. The Saint's newest recruit had yet to even see a demon before they left him on his own to deal with the dangerous being known as a Skinwalker. It pleased Mark to see the younger man’s showing interest in something besides what had happened to him in the mine under Helena. Randy felt guilty AJ was being used as bait in his place. Even though Randy was worried about AJ, the Saint’s morning updates on the situation in Bannack told them AJ was mostly recovered from his wounds and had already killed his first demon. But there wasn’t any progress on the Skinwalker and every day increased the danger AJ was in. And to make matters worse, there was something else going on in that town and AJ was now right in the middle of it. But Mark didn’t tell Randy that, he didn’t need Randy to feel guiltier.

 

After they visited Crowfoot, Randy had sunk into a black depression. No matter what he did, Mark couldn’t coax him out of it. Normally very patient, Mark was growing concerned about his charge. Obviously waiting for AJ to kill the Skinwalker wasn’t helping Randy’s state of mind. He knew Randy needed something to do, something to focus on. The man was just too used to being on the move and hunting demons. Mark thought about their options. According to the Saint, Reigns had finally killed the second Ascension demon. If things had gone according to plan, the trio would have gone straight to Bannack to help AJ deal with the Skinwalker. But as luck would have it, they had run into a nasty little demon pack called Sanity. Since AJ was holding his own in Bannack, the Saint decided the trio should deal with it right away. The latest report had them heading into the Dakota Territory in pursuit.

 

“You want to join up with Reigns and Ambrose? They might need a hand,” he suggested, knowing it was a bad idea, but it wasn’t the worst idea. That way, Reigns and Ambrose would be there to kill the demons, but Randy could at least be involved.

 

To not feel useless and even worse, helpless.

 

Randy knew what Mark was trying to do. He liked the guys, but they knew what they were doing and didn’t need his help. “No.” He picked up a flat rock and chucked it out across the water. The rock skipped on the surface several times before sinking.

 

Well, at least there was a reaction. “Well, what do you want?” Mark asked. He decided to provoke Randy just a bit. “Do you want to just mope here for the rest of your life?”

 

That did it. Slamming a fist into the ground, Randy stood up. He stood for a moment with his head bowed then straightened up, came over to the campfire and sat down. “I want to go to Bannack,” he said, his blue eyes were hot with rage and grief.

 

Mark wasn’t surprised by Randy’s answer. He’d seen how much caring for AJ had brought Randy out of his depression, even if was just to argue with him. But he knew it wasn’t what was truly bothering Randy. “I told you, you going to Bannack would just make the situation worse for both yourself and AJ. Do you want to get him killed because you're bored?” Mark asked the Legend Killer, keeping his voice cool.

 

Randy flushed. He knew he was being ungrateful. Mark had gone out of his way to help him through what the Beast did to him. He ducked is head in apology. “I hate sitting around like this. I don’t want to live my life in a prison,” he argued. “I’d rather die fighting.”

 

Given the breathtaking view they were currently enjoying, the term ‘prison’ seemed a bit harsh. “There are worse places to be,” he told Randy, his voice soft. “What’s really bothering you?” He knew, but he wanted Randy to say it, to acknowledge it and deal with it.

 

Scowling, Randy took a stick and poked at the fire, not wanting to put into words the deep despair he felt, the tearing grief he thought he could never feel again. But Mark was patient and waited for an answer. “Punk is dead,” Randy said finally.

 

“His spirit is with his people,” Mark reminded him. “That’s more than most can say after being possessed by demons.”

 

“I know but he was my friend and I couldn’t save him.” Punk had been possessed by a demon collective called Nexus, targeted specifically because he was Randy’s friend. Though Punk’s grandfather Crowfoot had been able to save his soul and move it on to the spirit lands, Randy’s friend was dead.

 

While Mark worked on getting a hook set on his line, he considered what Randy said. The doctor knew everything about death. But truth be told, he was still struggling with life. He learned human beings generally lived better with companions. Reigns and Ambrose had each other, as well as Rollins. They didn’t need or want anyone else.

 

But Randy was a loner through circumstance not choice. Now Randy’s friend was dead and it devastated him. It wasn’t just the loss of Punk, it was the loss of someone who understood. And there wasn’t anyone else to offer support to the Legend Killer, except... While Mark agreed with the Saint’s decision to keep Randy away from Bannack, he personally felt there potentially could be a strong friendship between AJ and Randy, given the opportunity. But it would take a lot of work. AJ would be very reluctant to trust anyone after Bullet Club’s betrayal. And Randy’s friends by the very nature of who he was were always in danger, always a target. But AJ was better able to defend himself than someone who was not one of the Saint’s men. AJ could not be possessed by demons. The smaller outlaw was smart with a powerful survival instinct. And while he was a cocky bastard, he didn’t take himself too seriously.

 

Given the right circumstances, the two men might become close friends, watching each other’s backs and helping each other up. It was true they were different in nature, but Mark had observed the very strong friendship between Reigns, Rollins and Ambrose despite their differences. He hoped Randy and AJ could create a friendship like theirs. They needed time, and that was something AJ might not have much of. He tested the hook and was satisfied. “Do you want try to catch some fish?” he asked.

 

“I hate just sitting around,” Randy grumbled. “I think this is a mistake. AJ shouldn’t be doing this alone. We should be there with him.”

 

“And if there is a demon there, would you be able to strap on the guns again?” Mark asked gently.

 

Swallowing hard, Randy thought about it. He knew he could kill demons, but given that meant he would have to interact to his father again, would he? He was still furious and hurt that the Saint of Killers had abandoned him at the worst possible time in order to go to war with Hell. But time and distance were starting to scab over the emotional wounds. And AJ, who was a rank novice to demon hunting, was fighting his battle. If it meant working with his father to save AJ, could he do it?

 

As if on cue, the Saint appeared. Mark immediately knew something had gone very wrong. “What happened?” he asked.

 

On the other side of the fire, Randy clenched his fists. It was the first time he had seen his father since Helena. He had to remind himself to breathe. It helped that the Saint wasn’t trying to interact with him. It allowed the Legend Killer to get himself under control and not immediately start yelling. He forced himself to listen to what Mark and the Saint were talking about.

 

The Saint’s expression was even grimmer than usual. “I think I fucked up,” he growled.

 

“Explain,” Mark’s eyes narrowed.

 

There was a soul chain,” the Saint said to Mark. “A witch cursed a local girl. She had been bound for a month when we freed her.”

 

Jaw tightening, Mark asked, “How bad is it?”

 

Bad. And it’s spreading.”

 

Mark's thoughts were racing, putting pieces together. The Skinwalker, a soul chain. He swore abruptly and climbed to his feet. “He needs to get out of there!”

 

The Saint looked startled. “What?”

 

“It’s a trap,” Mark insisted with utter certainty. “He’s been set-up. Tell Styles to get the hell out of Bannack and get to Helena. But don’t stay with him. It’s those guns. You being near him makes it spread. You’ll end up destroying his soul.”

 

The Saint looked mulish. “But the Skinwalker,” he began.

 

“Was bait,” Mark cut him off. “For you and AJ.”

 

The Saint was catching on to why Mark was so anxious. “Fuck!” The spirit’s normally pale green eyes were almost white. He paced in agitation, ignoring Randy completely. “And I can’t protect him now.”

 

“You can warn him. Just tell him to get out of Bannack,” Mark instructed. “I’ll meet him in Helena. And tell Reigns and Ambrose to bring Rollins and meet us there as soon as possible. Rollins should be able to fix any further damage you cause but keep it short.” Mark told him.

 

Still sitting at the fire, Randy bit his lip but he didn’t say anything. This wasn’t about him. It was about AJ.

 

I will.” The Saint nodded and vanished, still without acknowledging Randy.

 

“What happened?” Randy asked, forcing himself to unclench his fists. He wasn’t sure how he felt about being totally ignored by his father and Mark but it obvious that something had gone very wrong in Bannack. Wrong enough for the Saint of Killers to admit he needed help.

 

Nearby, the lake lapped gently at the shore as a loon laughed on the water. The lines in Mark’s face cut deep in the firelight as he sat back down by the fire. “Your father used AJ to break a soul chain.” He didn’t tell Randy that he suspected the reason the Saint did it was because Randy’s soul had been trapped in his corpse. He didn’t want Randy to blame himself for something he had nothing to do with.

 

“What’s a soul chain?” Randy asked. The fire popped and sparked.

 

“Dark power that binds a soul to the body. A dead body.” Mark said, picking up his fishing pole again but watched Randy out of the corner of his eye.

 

Randy swallowed hard. He knew what that was like, if only briefly. And the girl had been bound a month? He shuddered in horror. “Oh. But they broke the chain so what’s the problem?”

 

Mark resumed fiddling with the hook, just to give his hands something to do. “Normally there wouldn’t be one. But, touching the chain infected AJ with that power because his soul had already been damaged from the Colt Walkers when he killed that demon. Now that the dark power has taken hold of AJ’s soul, the real problem comes from proximity from the Colt Walkers. They are so powerful they make the soul incredibly vulnerable when your old man possesses someone. And since he carries them all the time, every time he goes near AJ, the infection spreads further. If the Skinwalker finds AJ, and AJ is forced to fire the Colts to defend himself, it will exponentially increase the damage his soul suffers. And if a few demons conveniently show up as well?” Mark let that train of thought trail off.

 

Now Randy completely understood why Mark looked so grim. “He’ll be in same place I was, a soul too damaged to move on.” Randy finished for him. “But you think it was a trap?”

 

“Yeah. The Skinwalker’s threat to you was the bait to lure one of your father’s men to Bannack. The trap was sprung when AJ broke the chain.” It was all so obvious. He could see it clearly, except for who was actually behind it all. But he had his suspicions.

 

“The trap was for me?” Randy asked, grim.

 

Shaking his head, Mark disagreed. “No. Most likely it was for either Reigns or Ambrose. It was just very bad luck that AJ happened to be nearest to Bannack.” The newest recruit who had no backup.

 

Randy thought about it. “But why?” he asked. “Vengeance?”

 

“I don’t think so. It‘s more likely to be about power.” Mark said reluctantly.

 

“How?” Randy asked. The sun sank below the towering mountains to the west. The peaks were so high they would take you to the sun, according to native lore. Up there, the snow never melted and rivers of ice carved new features in the granite. White goats walked easily up sheer cliffs.

 

“Son, even though you are your father’s first and longest lived, there are things you still don’t understand.”

 

“Like what?” Randy asked.

 

“When you agreed to be his avatar, you didn’t just gain the ability to wield the Colt Walkers and his strength. You are also immune from demonic possession. But that doesn’t mean demons wouldn’t want to get hold of one of you, even if they can’t possess you in the traditional sense.” Mark said. Seeing Randy still didn’t understand, Mark grimaced at what he was about to say. It was going to be painful for Randy to hear this, but he would always be completely honest with the younger man. “As you know, Benoit didn’t just burn those marks on you solely to torment you. When those marks are activated with the right 'ritual', they can make a demon much more powerful.” Mark didn’t elaborate on that. They both knew what the 'ritual' consisted of.

 

the smell of dew on the grass under his cheek

 

Mark continued to talk, pulling Randy shuddering out of the memory. “Your average demons like the Ascension and Nexus can’t make those particular marks on a person because they don't have the power. Of course they can still take the power after a person has been marked if they perform the 'ritual'. But that never happens more than once because harvesting the power will kill ordinary humans.” He paused and considered his words. “Once the Saint recruited you, you ceased being ordinary and were able to survive Benoit's 'ritual'. You were the only human to do so.” Mark stopped talking. The fire popped and crackled.

 

“What does that have to do with AJ?” Randy wanted to know. He didn’t need a recap of arguably the worst moment of his life.

 

“Think about it. He’s now just like you in that he has the same abilities and strengths, but now he's isolated and unable to kill demons.” Mark said, trying to stay patient.

 

For several breaths, Randy sat perfectly still, working through what Mark was telling him to its logical conclusion. “So what you’re saying is, if it was a powerful enough demon that set the trap in Bannack to get their hands on AJ, they could mark him like Benoit did me? And they’ll have a continuing source of power because he can’t defend himself because of the soul chain’s infection?”

 

“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Mark said grimly. “You killed Benoit. But AJ can’t wield the guns, at least until Rollins heals the infection. Your father can’t even get close to him right now for more than a few seconds. If he does, the presence of the guns accelerates the infection of AJ’s soul and hastens its destruction. And if a demon puts a mark on him, every time it recharges, there's nothing to stop the demon from harvesting its power, again and again.”

 

Abruptly, Randy remembered the Beasts’ teeth sinking into the back of his neck, the terrible weight on top of him, pressing him down and… he bolted to some nearby bushes and was sick. Mark didn’t say anything when Randy was finished. He just handed Randy his canteen to rinse his mouth. When he was done, Randy asked, “Are there any demons left that can make a mark? I thought we already killed the..the most powerful demons.” He couldn’t name the Beast.

 

“Why do you think we’re here?” Mark asked, indicating the beautiful landscape. “You and the others killed most of the remaining lesser demons. But there are still some out there, just as powerful Benoit.” He didn’t elaborate that the few still out there were the smart ones, ones with the cunning and patience the Beast lacked. Randy didn’t need those nightmares. Especially about the one which concerned Mark the most.

 

The Destroyer.

 

“But Rollins can fix him,” Randy was saying. “Make it so he can defend himself from demons?”

 

“He can, but Rollins is far away and will take a while before he can get to AJ. Until then, we have to hope AJ can survive on his wits. Or if things go wrong, just survive until we can save him.” Mark got up and went over to Randy, crouching down in front of him so he could look directly into the Legend Killer’s eyes. He put a hand on Randy’s shoulder and said, very serious, “I need you to stay here while I go after AJ. You’re safe here. No demons will come to this valley. But AJ needs me and while I’ll stay here if you need me to, I’d like to try to save him.”

 

“I’ll go with you,” Randy insisted.

 

“Son, AJ is in great danger. I need to focus on him. If I let you come, can you put aside the past? Because I can’t divide my attention between the two of you,” Mark warned.

 

Unable to meet Mark’s pale green eyes, Randy looked down. Could he? He knew Mark wouldn’t think any less of him if he stayed.

 

The clouds hid the first stars of the evening.

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Phenomenal One Chapter 13

 

Once again, a huge thank you to Kiss316 for beta an amazing beta reader.

 

Warnings: Mostly implied violence, swearing and the Miz

 

 

Slouched in a chair in Jack’s immaculate quarters, AJ listened to the muffled sounds drifting up from the saloon below. It was weird being alone and he wondered where the Saint had gone off to. He didn’t wonder too hard though, enjoying the rare peace. The noise from the saloon were almost soothing and he was drifting towards sleep again when, “How are you feeling?” the Saint asked, appearing nearby.

 

A hard wave of nausea swept through AJ and pain spiked between his eyes. He leaned forward, curling around his midsection and took some deep breaths. “Not good,” he admitted, his hands threaded through his hair. “What’s happening to me?” he asked, staring directly at the floor between his boots. Darkness danced on the edges of his vision.

 

The Saint cursed as the black on AJ’ soul writhed and spread. Mark’s warning was fresh in his mind. “I’ll make this short. It was a trap. That chain was set to infect you. And the infection spreads when the Colt Walkers are present, meaning I can’t be around you.”

 

The deeply religious part of AJ shivered in horror, but he kept taking steady, even breaths. “Is there something I can do to get rid of the infection?” he asked, his voice steady.

 

There is someone who can help but right now they are far away. It will take some time before he can get to you.” Rollins would come, of that the Saint had no doubt. Because if he didn’t come willingly, the Saint would possess Reigns and drag Rollins to AJ by his hair if necessary.

 

AJ flexed his shaking hands around his skull. “What do I do in the meantime if the Skinwalker shows up?” he asked, keeping his gaze fixed firmly on the floor. He fought to remain conscious.

 

You won’t be here. You are going to leave Bannack and head north to Helena to meet up with Mark. I’ll deal with the Skinwalker later, with the others,” the Saint instructed.

 

Now AJ did look up at the Saint, squinting through the headache. He must be really bad off if the Saint was actually concerned about him.

 

Go now. Don’t wait for morning,” the Saint told him, then disappeared.

 

Alone once more, AJ’s headache gradually eased off. He drew a deep breath and tried to organize his thoughts. He didn’t know exactly what was happening but he had his orders. Now he had to figure out how he was going to get the strength to get out of the saloon, let alone the town.

 

Footsteps on the stairs announced Jack coming back with food. “All right old boy, eat everything on this plate,” the young gentleman instructed briskly as he set the food in front of AJ, along with a knife and fork, both polished to a shine.

 

Still feeling a bit nauseous AJ eyed the food without enthusiasm. A thick slice of warm bread with butter, cheese, potatoes and some kind of roasted meat. At Jack’s impatient huff, he forced himself to eat, deliberately not thinking about maggots. After he was done, AJ smiled wanly at Jack. “Thanks, Jack. I owe you.” And he meant it. Jack was a rock.

 

Ducking his head, Jack smiled. “Glad to be of service. Now, I have a saloon to run, but you are welcome to stay here for a bit until you feel better.” He left AJ alone again.

 

Surprisingly, the food did help and soon AJ felt well enough to navigate the stairs with a semblance of his usual cocky swagger. AJ tossed a salute to Jack, who was pouring drinks behind the bar and headed to the open door of the saloon, nearly running right into Sheriff Mizanin.

 

For two full heartbeats they stood face to face. Then AJ curled his lip into a slow, sideways grin and with exaggerated politeness, stood to the side to let Mizanin enter. “Good evening Sheriff,” he greeted the glaring man cheerfully. He couldn't help himself. Mizanin was so easy to aggravate.

 

But Mizanin didn’t move. He was still furious about being embarrassed in front of the Commissioner and the Mayor. “I told you not to leave town, Mr. Jones. Where were you today?” he demanded not bothering to keep his voice down. He didn’t see Shane and Daniel sitting at the table on the other end of the saloon.

 

Taken aback at Mizanin’s decision to have this confrontation right there, AJ answered honestly. “I was taking a nap.” He didn’t care that it didn’t sound plausible to someone as suspicious as Mizanin.

 

“All day? Bullshit. You were seen riding west out of town.” Mizanin got right up into AJ’s face. Everyone in the saloon was watching them with interest. They had heard about Allen Jones showing up Mizanin at least once with Cactus Jack and they were eager to witness a repeat performance. Most of them had past interactions with the Sheriff and wanted to see Mizanin get some sort of come-uppance. Behind the bar Jack was frowning. He didn’t allow any trouble in his saloon, even from the Sheriff and Mizanin was getting close to crossing the line.

 

AJ knew Mizanin was trying to provoke him just so he had an excuse to put AJ in jail again. But AJ wasn’t going to play that game. For the sake of the audience, especially Daniel and Shane, AJ made a show of trying to be reasonable. “I went to the cemetery to pay my respects. And you must have seen me coming back into town shortly after, Sheriff. I wasn’t hiding. I dropped my horse off at the livery and I took a nap there. That’s it,” he shrugged.

 

“I don't believe you,” Mizanin said, a sneer twisting his lips. Placing his hand was on his gun so AJ couldn’t steal it again, Mizanin grabbed the front of AJ’s shirt with his other hand and pulled him closer. “I’m taking you in.”

 

“On what charge, Sheriff?” Jack asked from behind the bar, mustache bristling with disapproval.

 

“He’s lying about what he’s really doing here and I aim to get the truth out of him. So he can sit in jail until he tells the truth.” Mizanin told the crowd, enjoying his authority and being the center of attention. The funny thing was, Mizanin was completely right about AJ, but no one would believe him thanks to his attitude. Over to the side, Shane was watching with interest, but not doing anything just yet. He could tell Allen was telling the truth about the cemetery and taking a nap, but wanted to see how the assayer handled the situation. Next to him, Daniel was leaning his forehead into this hand, wishing he was anywhere else.

 

The Saint had warned AJ to leave town immediately and he couldn’t do that until he got the Sheriff off his ass. Luckily, AJ had never been above playing dirty. “Okay Sheriff, its no problem. I’ll go peacefully.” He raised his hands in a show of surrender. As he turned to the open door, he leaned into Mizanin’s space and asked in a low voice, “You know she was faking it, right?”

 

Immediately Mizanin’s eyes bulged in their sockets and his face flushed beet red. He swung his fist at AJ’s jaw. AJ saw it coming a mile away but took the hit head-on. He exaggerated his stagger, but not by much. For all Mizanin’s fastidiousness with clothing and cleanliness, the guy could hit. AJ’s head rang and his jaw ached. He sagged against the wall. “Why did you do that?” he asked; all hurt innocence. “I said I was coming peacefully.”

 

“Here, now! There was no cause for that!” Jack protested moving from behind the bar. “He wasn’t making trouble.” The crowd shouted in agreement. None of them cared for the Sheriff, and his bullying, especially against the man who had run Cactus Jack out of town.

 

But one voice, one which had the ultimate authority rang out over the others. “Sheriff Mizanin! You will conduct yourself in a professional manner as appropriate for your office! You just used violence against a man after he agreed to go peacefully. You have also been threatening and harassing this man since he came to town with no proof or provocation! You will come with me, now!” Shane said sternly as he rose to his feet. He didn’t need to shout. The man’s sheer presence was enough to back Mizanin down.

 

“But he…” Mizanin started but Shane was having none of it.

 

Now, please.” Shane was giving an order, politely. He looked down at Daniel. “Thank you for bringing this to my attention. Please give my regards to your lovely wife,” he said. Shane gestured for Mizanin to precede him out of the saloon. Sullen, Mizanin did as he was told. With the show over, the crowd went back to their drinks, openly speculating if Mizanin would still have a job by morning.

 

“Are you okay?” Jack asked AJ.

 

“I’ll live,” AJ smiled ruefully, rubbing his jaw. “But he packs a hell of a punch for such a dandy.”

 

Jack still looked concerned. To him, AJ still looked like a stiff breeze would blow him over. “Are you sure?”

 

AJ sighed. “I’ll be fine, but I should leave town before the Sheriff comes looking for me again. See you around Jack. Thanks again for the all the help.” He offered his hand and Jack took it.

 

“Watch your back, Mr. Jones,” Jack told him.

 

“Allen, wait a minute, will you?” Daniel asked, coming up behind Jack. “You told Mizanin that you went back to the cemetery. Did you find anything?”

 

“Nothing, it was empty. But don’t worry, you won’t have to worry about the Barghest anymore,” AJ assured Daniel blithely. He wasn’t going to tell Daniel what happened to him there. He was doing his best to forget it.

 

“Really? Why?” Daniel asked, curious.

 

“I’ll tell you about it someday,” AJ promised with a sideways grin. He looked over his shoulder through the open door. It was still empty. “But I need to leave. I have some unfinished business I need tend to, preferably before Mizanin comes looking for me again.”

 

“Are you leaving town?” Daniel asked, disappointed. He liked Allen Jones a lot and felt that a man like Allen was a big asset to any community, especially one that was (hopefully) in the market for a new lawman.

 

“I need to. It’s not just the sheriff,” AJ said as Daniel was opening his mouth to tell AJ that Mizanin wasn’t going to be a problem anymore. “I have to meet someone in Helena in the morning, so I have to get going.”

 

“Will you be back? I have a feeling we will be looking for a new sheriff soon,” Daniel didn’t say what he was thinking, that AJ would make a fine replacement for Mizanin.

 

But AJ caught the unspoken insinuation and actually laughed out loud. Him! AJ Styles, former ace of Bullet Club, a sheriff! But he considered it and the idea was strangely compelling. But, first things first. “Daniel, let me conclude my business. Then we’ll see what happens.”

 

Daniel nodded. “Thank you for all your help, Allen. And thanks for saving my life,” Daniel told AJ as he extended his hand. AJ took it and shook.

 

“You’re welcome.” AJ stepped out into the evening. His jaw was stinging, but weirdly, getting punched in the face helped clear his head. There was no sign of Shane or Mizanin. With a quick stop at the gunsmith’s to pick up his new revolvers and ammunition, he headed to the hotel and got the rest of his gear. He didn’t linger, partially because of the Saint’s warning and partially because he knew he had limited time before Mizanin would come looking for him again. If AJ’s suspicions were right, Mizanin would be looking for retribution this time. AJ was tempted to linger if that was the case. But the Saint had been crystal clear, AJ was to get out of town immediately.

 

Vengeance would wait.

 

By then, the street was mostly deserted, but one or two groups of people were strolling around, enjoying the mild summer night. There was a roll of thunder in the distance as the line of clouds moved closer. A freshening breeze swirled through the dusty streets. Ominous, but it didn’t mean a storm was imminent.

 

AJ made it to the livery unbothered. The weight of revolvers on his hips was reassuring but there was an itchy feeling between his shoulder blades, like someone was watching him. Uneasy he looked around, but didn’t see anything unusual in the big barn. After a careful check, he found it was still deserted. He quickly saddled his buckskin, making sure the saddlebags were extra secure, and led the horse out of the barn. Figuring the nearby storm and the absence of the Saint had his nerves on edge; AJ tested the buckskin’s girth one more time. He froze when he felt the barrels of two revolvers pressing into his sides.

 

“Well this is a pleasant surprise. I set my trap to catch some regular jack, and lo! I catch an Ace.”

 

The hair on the back of AJ’s neck stood up.

 

“Hello AJ,” Matt Jackson said from his left.

 

“We’re so glad see you again,” Nick Jackson said from his right.

 

A feeling of unreality swept over AJ, like he was caught up a nightmare. He hadn’t seen or heard them approach at all. It was like they had materialized out of thin air. The horribly familiar voice chuckled quietly in his ear. “I should have known. Was it the need for revenge on Bullet Club that called the Saint to you?”

 

AJ’s fingers twitched towards his belt for the revolvers but the guns in his sides pressed further into his ribs. “Now, now. None of that, AJ” Nick warned. “We know how fast you are, but not even you can outdraw two of us with the drop on you.”

 

The voice behind him said, “Who could have foreseen that it would be AJ Styles to help get my brother back?”

 

AJ finally turned, keeping a sneer fixed firmly in place as he faced Kenny Omega. But the sneer fell away when he saw Kenny for the first time since the Saint recruited him. There was a golden glow behind Kenny’s eyes. What was looking at him from inside Kenny was not human. It was the last thing he saw before a heavy lethargy overtook him, and he felt himself sinking to the ground. Two sets of hands caught him by the arms.

 

After that, it was darkness.

 

 

~~~~

 

Consciousness returned slowly to Baron Corbin. His head hurt so bad it almost canceled out the stabbing pain of his broken ribs and what felt like a deep bruise on right hip. From what he could smell, he was still in the forest, lying on a carpet of dead pine needles. A breeze whispered through the trees above him. With a shudder he realized he could hear breathing of something very large nearby. The clean forest air practically seethed with the deep malice. Fighting rising panic, he peeled his eyes open but didn’t yet have the strength to raise his head to look around. It was nighttime, the bright stars filtering through the trees. Then the wind shifted slightly and he could smell it.

 

The Skinwalker.

 

To Baron, it smelled unimaginably old and malevolent. Like a combination of old bones bleached by the sun and fresh decay, shrouded in the coppery, dusty aroma of dried blood. He bit back a whimper.

 

“Awake now puppy?” a deep voice rumbled. It sounded like two boulders grinding against each other.

 

Despite the pain, Baron clenched his teeth and raised his head, unable to suppress a whimper as his head throbbed in agony. There was movement and the Skinwalker crouched down in front of him. He squinted but in his Wolf form his eyesight wasn’t as keen as his sense of smell. He could only make out the general shape in the darkness. It was huge; at least a hundred pounds more than Baron’s human form. Hackles rising, Baron’s fear manifested itself as rage, overriding his sense of self preservation and he showed his teeth to the ancient being with a warning snarl.

 

“Behave yourself, puppy,” it warned. “I don’t tolerate insolence from whelps like you.”

 

A hand the size a frying pan cuffed him upside the head, and he yelped like a pup. Black spots swam before his eyes and he succumbed to unconsciousness once again.

 

When Baron woke up again, the Skinwalker hadn’t moved. It was still crouched in front of him, studying the Wolf with its inhuman eyes. It was lighter now, dawn was coming fast. Baron could see the Skinwalker clearer. It had long brown hair caught up at the nape of its neck and a full beard. Its skin was oddly smooth, making it look younger that Baron would have expected. It looked at him without expression.

 

The Wolf dragged his forepaws under his body, trying to get enough leverage to at least sit up. He was shaking hard but in the end he managed to sit on his haunches. Something was around his neck. It took him several seconds to understand, to his horror and shame, there was a fucking collar on him. He had never had one on before in his entire life and now this thing was treating him like he was a goddamned dog. Hot rage ignited in his chest. It gave him the strength to ignore the agony in his head and body. He willed himself back to his human form, but something was blocking him. It was that collar, he realized. And to make the situation completely fucked up, there was a thick length of rope tying him to a solid tree trunk. In response to his emotions, his hackles rose.

 

“Mind your manners, puppy,” the Skinwalker warned. “You’re lucky I don’t skin you.”

 

Head still ringing from the ‘light’ cuff from that creature, Baron glared at the Skinwalker but controlled himself enough to refrain from baring his teeth again. He knew he was in trouble and he had no chance of getting away if he didn’t control his temper. There was no way he could challenge the Skinwalker and come away alive. It was too strong. He would have to be smart and bide his time if he wanted to escape.

 

“You should have stayed out of it,” the ancient creature advised. “This has nothing to do with you.”

 

Baron didn’t ask what he should have stayed out of. He had known tracking the Skinwalker was going to be risky, but the gold had been too tempting and he had been arrogant. He had believed he could find the Skinwalker and not face repercussions. And now, even though the situation was desperate, deep down, he was still more terrified of the End of Days than the Skinwalker.

 

“But since you are involved now, I have to decide what to do with you,” the Skinwalker mused. “The gold one didn’t say anything about this.”

 

Unable to speak the human language in his Wolf form, Baron approximated a raised eyebrow by cocking an ear. Having no idea what the Skinwalker was talking about, Baron just sat there and waited. Waited to live, or die at the whim of the creature in front of him. He wondered what the Skinwalker intended to do with him. The dead humans he had found while tracking the creature in front of him had been partially eaten...

 

As if reading his thoughts, the ancient being told him with a sneer “I only eat humans, puppy, so don’t get yourself tied up in knots over it.” The Skinwalker chuckled mirthlessly. Baron glared at him. “I should just kill you, puppy.” The ancient being reached out a massive hand and placed it on the back of Baron’s neck.

 

Barely daring to breathe, Baron didn’t move a muscle. If the Skinwalker did decide to kill him, there was nothing he could do about it. Baron braced himself. He refused to cower from this creature, even if it was going to kill him.

 

Instead of snapping Baron’s neck, the Skinwalker ran his thick fingers through Baron’s fur. Heaving a great sigh, the Skinwalker shook its head. “I have lived for time beyond memory. But now, I think my time is coming to a close. The gold one warned me he was coming for me. And he is stronger than me, but I won’t go easily, that I promise you.”

 

Trembling violently, Baron resisted the urge to turn and bite the hand that was stroking the fur at the scruff of his neck and base of his ears. He hated the touch, hated the petting. It made him feel violated. Any other creature would have been torn to pieces by now. He laid his ears flat against his skull.

 

Oblivious to Baron’s torment, the Skinwalker continued to talk. “At first I thought you were one of his, coming to kill me like the gold one said,” the Skinwalker was saying. “You carry his stink.”

 

The hand continued to stroke him. Almost exploding with tension, Baron waited for the inevitable tightening around his neck. He wondered if he would feel anything when his neck snapped.

 

“But even if you’re not his, you’ve been around one of them, I can tell. He has a distinct smell, you know, like gunpowder, rage and death.”

 

That was close to what Baron had experienced when he smelled AJ in Bannack. The Skinwalker ran his fingers under the collar, tightening it enough that Baron felt his throat close. He trembled in anticipation.

 

“I hate the gold one. He has his own plans for all he pretends to care. But like the old saying goes: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” The collar loosened enough for Baron to breathe again after the Skinwalker resumed stroking Baron’s ears. He desperately wanted to get away from those hands. They could end his life at any moment and there was absolutely nothing Baron could do about it. And Baron would have much preferred instantaneous death to being stroked like a dog.

 

The fingers started scratching the base of his ears. ‘Why didn’t it just kill him get it over with?’ Baron thought desperately. The humiliation was unbearable.

 

“The witch said the collar will stop you from changing. I like animals so I’ll just keep you with me for now.”

 

He had been so sure the Skinwalker was going to kill him that it took him a few seconds to process what the Skinwalker said, then Baron nearly collapsed. The relief was short lived when the Skinwalker untied the rope from the tree. Using the rope as a leash, it began to drag Baron through the pine forest by the collar around his neck. Baron knew his Wolf strength was no match for the Skinwalker, even if he was at peak health. And with his injuries, he was helpless to get away. He tried his best to keep up with the giant being, but his hip and ribs were making it difficult. In his torment he missed the low rise and stumbled. The rope tightened around his neck and he instinctively pulled back on it.

 

The Skinwalker abruptly looked over his shoulder at his new pet. “The gold one said to come to him when he tries to find me, so keep up, puppy.” He jerked hard on the rope, and Baron was off his feet, landing hard on his side. The broken ribs flared in agony and he panted as he scrambled frantically back to his feet before the Skinwalker could drag him more than a few yards. He limped quickly after his captor, mentally cursing the day he met AJ Styles.

 

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

As always, my heartfelt thanks to Kiss316 for her feedback. She is the best!

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 14

 

Warning: swearing and violence

 

Deep in the pine forests of the Pioneer Range foothills, about twenty five miles north of Bannack, a lone house was nestled in a valley next to a clear running stream. Black-eyed Susan’s provided splashes of color to an otherwise uniform brown and green landscape. Dawn was breaking and the birds were enthusiastically reporting it to the house’s owner. The vast, uninhabited acreage surrounding the house was thick with massive granite boulders and dense pine thickets, not suitable for anything resembling farming. That was fine, as the house’s sole owner had no interest in tilling the land. The young woman was currently standing in the doorway, watching three riders with a fourth horse in tow approach. She was the only occupant since her brother, and more recently her father, had died. Pale blond with broad shoulders, she had a raw-boned beauty to her that gave anyone pause. Normally a young woman living alone in the wilderness was cause for concern, but Charlotte was different. She was strong in more ways than just physical.

 

The leader of the riders approached the house; his bright chestnut gelding shook its head and snorted at the woman.

 

“Is it done?” she asked. She absently brushed a stray strand of sun bleached hair out of her face with one gloved hand. In her other hand, she was holding a set of wrought iron manacles, so dark they absorbed the light around them. The runes she had placed in the thick bracelets were invisible to the eyes of the ordinary.

 

“Worked like a charm,” Kenny Omega said with a sideways grin that contradicted the tension around his eyes. “You are as good as you say you are.”

 

She didn’t bother responding to that. “Who is that?” she asked indicating the fourth horse, with a man draped over its back. The morning light wasn’t great but she could make out this man was smallish, with brown hair that hid his face. Not who she was expecting.

 

“That’s AJ Styles, newest recruit of the Saint of Killers,” Kenny said.

 

She frowned. “AJ Styles from Bullet Club? You told me he was dead. That you had killed him.”

 

“I might have been wrong about that, as it turns out,” Kenny said sourly, he didn’t like having to admit he wasn’t perfect.

 

“You promised me Randy Orton,” she reminded him.

 

“I know what I promised and I always keep my word. But AJ sprang the trap. Don’t worry, he’ll do just fine.”

 

Not believing him, she walked over to the buckskin and jerked the back of AJ’s shirt up. There was only smooth, pale skin. Her eyes narrowed in displeasure. “There’s no mark.”

 

Kenny raised a placating hand. “That’s not a problem. I have a plan.”

 

“Do you?” she questioned, not quite sarcastic.

 

“You have to have patience. Benoit wasn’t the only demon who can place a mark. And Orton isn’t unique. Any of the Saint’s men will do,” Kenny gestured grandly at the unconscious man.

 

“You’d better be right,” she warned. To the other two, she instructed, “Take him to the clearing behind the house.”

 

Matt and Nick guided their horses and AJ’s buckskin around to the back of the house and into the woods. She followed them with Kenny dismounted and walking beside her. Dead pine needs crunched under their feet. “You know perfectly well why I wanted Orton,” she told Kenny.

 

“It will be fine,” Kenny promised. He was distinctly pale. Keeping AJ unconscious was draining him faster than he liked. “The others, including Randy Orton, will come looking for him.”

 

“How?” she asked. Charlotte didn’t trust him. He wasn’t human despite his appearance and he hadn’t delivered on any of his promises yet. Kenny's planning skills were still suspect in her opinion. Still, she had her goals, and he had his and for now their interests ran parallel. So she would help him until she got what she wanted. “We set the trap to keep the Saint away. If he can’t find this one, how can the others?”

 

“Patience,” Kenny counseled again. “We need to prepare our welcome, and then we’ll invite the guests.” The Destroyer had to come and mark AJ first. He didn’t tell Charlotte what was to come after. She might not be so eager to help if she knew.

 

“And Orton?” she asked.

 

“Orton will come,” Kenny assured her. “He’s not the type to let others suffer in his place. Now let’s get this one secured. The Destroyer is on his way and I want him to feel welcome.”

 

Charlotte gave him a skeptical look, but didn’t say anything else. About a half a mile behind the house, the trees and brush opened up into a small clearing about one hundred paces across. In the center was a huge pine tree, at least a century older than the surrounding ones. Its spreading branches started about fifteen feet up the tree. As they got closer, they could make out sets of runes carved above a thick chain wrapped around the massive trunk. Smirking, she handed the set of manacles to Kenny, who took them gingerly, grimacing with distaste at the dark power she had imbued into the metal. He didn’t like it but Charlotte didn't care. This was his idea. He could get his hands dirty.

 

As the Matt and Nick set AJ down with his back against the trunk of the tree, Kenny hefted this manacles, “Are you sure these will hold him?”

 

“Yes,” she answered with utter certainty. The manacles combined with the runes to strengthen the tree would hold a charging elephant. She had been extra cautious but with good reason. Nothing less would hold one of the Saint of Killers’ chosen.

 

Kenny secured the manacles to AJ’s wrists and used the length of chain to fasten them behind the tree trunk. The tree was so large that AJ’s arms only reached part way around. After double checking to make sure they were locked, Kenny sighed in relief. Now he could let AJ wake up and face his fate. He grinned boyishly at Charlotte and they all noticed how the rising sun seemed to shine a bit brighter. There was a hint of the smell of blooming flowers in the air and birds sang just a bit louder. A small bird flew over and landed on Kenny’s shoulder, trilling happily.

 

Charlotte roller her eyes and headed back to the house. She had no interest in watching Kenny gloat over AJ. And she wanted to make sure her wards were in place and working perfectly before the Destroyer came. She had no confidence Kenny could protect her when it inevitably turned on them.

 

Kenny crouched down in front of AJ and gently brushed the hair out of AJ’s face, first one side, then the other, coming to a rest cupping AJ’s cheeks. “Wake up, sleepyhead,” he murmured. The he leaned forward and brushed his lips over AJ’s.

 

AJ felt the touch and it reminded him of his wife, whom he had loved more than life itself. It had to be a dream, she had died while he was away fighting in the war. But it felt so real. He could feel her love for him in that touch. His chest ached with love and longing. He smiled and opened his eyes.

 

The warm, loved feeling instantly changed into hot rage mingled with disgust when he saw Kenny crouching right in front of him, smiling as he cupped AJ’s face. AJ jerked his head away and tried to get his hands around Kenny’s neck, but he could barely move his arms. They were chained too tight behind him. His eyes opened wide when he felt what they had bound him with. He frantically pulled as hard as he could, no longer trying to get at Kenny, but to get free from the chain. It felt exactly like the one that bound the soul of Becky Lynch, cold and hungry. Horrified, he realized he couldn’t break it. AJ shuddered, feeling the chain’s power like a deep bruise.

 

“Don’t try to fight it. You’ll just hurt yourself even more,” Kenny advised, still smiling.

 

As much as he hated to do anything Kenny said, AJ stopped struggling. He settled for glaring at Kenny through his hair. Once again he saw the golden glow behind Kenny’s eyes. He refused to be intimidated by this thing that was Kenny Omega. “Don’t ever touch me, you bastard,” he snarled, voice gravelly with hate.

 

“You look good, AJ. Really good.” Kenny sounded sincere as he looked AJ up and down. “Better than last time I saw you at any rate.” Considering the last time was when Bullet Club had beaten AJ within an inch of his life, the statement was pretty accurate. “But now that you work for the Saint of Killers, I would expect nothing less.”

 

“What the hell are you?” AJ asked. Kenny didn't feel like the other demon AJ had encountered. Behind the tree, he wrapped his finger around the chain, using the cold links to anchor himself. He needed to think clearly, to wait for his opportunity.

 

“I’ve never had anything to do with hell,” Kenny told him flatly, no longer smiling. “I’m from somewhere else. Some place you’ll never see.”

 

“Start making sense, Kenny,” AJ snapped, impatient because he needed answers to deal with this situation. Mostly because the god-damned Saint wasn’t around to give him any information. “I asked you a question.”

 

“Okay, fine. I’m what you humans would call an angel from heaven,” Kenny smiled that strange smile of his.

 

“Bullshit,” AJ said bluntly. Everything he had learned about angels from the bible never hinted at them being murderous assholes like Kenny. Kenny had to be delusional.

 

“No, it’s true. Ask the kids. Hey Matt, what am I?” Kenny called over to the Young Buck who was standing several paces back, watching Kenny and AJ with eager anticipation.

 

“An angel,” Matt answered.

 

“See?” Kenny said, as if AJ would believe anything the Young Bucks had to say. They were known to be idiots, and liars.

 

AJ decided to play along instead of pointlessly arguing. “Say I believe you, which I don’t by the way. What’s this about? If you know about the Saint of Killers then you know what we do, so why are you doing this?” He jerked against the chain once more to bring his point home.

 

“Oh, you’ll find out soon. For now you just need to sit here and be a good boy.” Kenny told him patting him on the cheek. AJ jerked his head away with an angry hiss.

 

“Did you think I was going to hunt you down for revenge so you grabbed me first? Was that it?” AJ was shooting in the dark, trying to keep Kenny talking, looking for any scrap of information about why Kenny had chosen him.

 

“Believe it or not, I didn’t even know you were still alive, much less working for the Saint of Killers,” Kenny rolled his eyes. “It’s just a coincidence, that’s all.”

 

“But why? You’re helping demons by keeping me here,” AJ argued. “If you truly are an angel, you wouldn’t be doing this.”

 

But Kenny kept smiling, making AJ want to punch him in the face even more. “I admit working with demons is not my first choice. But I need their help with something.”

 

A memory came back to AJ. “Saving your brother?”

 

Kenny didn’t deny it but he did change the subject. “Remind me to give the witch extra reward. She did a beautiful job with those chains, both for you and the girl,” Kenny smiled as if could see right through AJ, and liked what he saw.

 

AJ stilled, making connections. “It was your idea to chain the girl’s soul to her corpse just so you could catch me?” he asked softly. He remembered the maggots, and the corpse rotting around him, the horror in Rebecca’s eyes.

 

“You have to admit it was effective. It separated you from your guardian,” Kenny shrugged as if it didn’t matter to him that the girl had suffered horrifically for a month.

 

He hadn’t thought it was possible to hate Kenny more than he already did. Yet, here they were. Knowing he was unable to do anything about it at the time, AJ worked to keep his temper under control. There would be a reckoning soon, he promised himself. He shook his head to bring himself back to the present situation and looked around but all he could see was pine trees and brush. The early morning air was still delightfully cool with just a hint of breeze. The tall grass was browned by the late summer heat. “Where are we?” he asked. If the Saint came, maybe he could tell Randy where AJ was.

 

But Kenny was too smart for that. “Nowhere important. Now you just stay here and rest. We'll be having visitors soon.” Kenny said. “You’re in for a busy few days.”

 

“What about Bullet Club?” AJ asked suddenly.

 

“What about them?” Kenny smirked as he rose to his feet.

 

“I only see Matt and Nick. Where are the rest of them?” AJ asked. The more he studied Kenny, the more exhausted the “angel” looked. There were dark circles under his eyes and he was pale, despite having a good tan.

 

“Cody and Bad Luck Fale were hung two nights ago by Jericho’s posse.” Kenny shrugged, completely indifferent to the deaths of two men he had ridden beside for over a year. He stretched his arms and back. “Doc and Karl will probably be joining them soon,” he said nonchalantly.

 

Behind him, AJ saw Nick smirk. AJ clenched his jaw but didn’t say anything.

 

Kenny was a bit unsteady on his feet but he was still smiling as he looked down at AJ. He turned to Matt and Nick. “I would appreciate it if you would keep AJ company, just to make sure he behaves himself. Feel free to get some breakfast. I’ll join you after I’ve rested.” He didn’t tell the kids how drained he really was. He had used most of his reserved power making sure no one noticed them kidnapping AJ and more importantly, keeping AJ unconscious. The last thing he wanted was a recruit of the Saint of Killers awake and fighting him every step of the way. Especially one with as much cause to hate him as AJ did. Now that they had stopped and AJ was safely chained up, he could rest and recover. He managed to walk away under his own power but he was seriously depleted.

 

After Kenny disappeared, the Young Bucks worked on getting breakfast going. Nick gathered wood for a fire at the edge of the clearing while Matt filled the coffee pot with water from the nearby stream. While they waited for the fire to get hot, Nick stripped the horses of their saddles and rubbed them down. With the wood so dry, the fire was quickly crackling merrily and Matt set the coffee pot on the fire to boil.

 

Silently, AJ watched them go about their tasks. He remembered other mornings like this, when Bullet Club was on the move, heading to their next heist. Mornings where there was an air of anticipation, of camaraderie. Laughing and joking with Karl and Doc. He missed them. And he hated himself for missing them. The manacles were heavy and cold on his wrists.

 

Are you there?’ he asked in his mind. ‘I could use some help here.’

 

There was no answer.

 

He felt along the chains with his fingertips but if there was a lock, it was out of his reach. Nearly seething with frustration, AJ decided to try to get more information. “Do you seriously believe that Kenny is an angel?” he asked Matt with a sneer.

 

“Yeah,” Matt replied enthusiastically. “We do.” He had pulled a frying pan from his saddle bag and set it on the fire. Bacon and biscuits were on the menu if the smell was anything to go by.

 

“What makes you so sure?” AJ asked. “He could be a demon.” He wasn’t but maybe AJ could plant a seed of doubt in the Young Bucks.

 

But Matt barked a laugh. “No way. Kenny’s special. He can do things no one else can do. With him around, we get away with everything. He asks someone to do something, and they’ll do it, even if they don’t want to. Our horses are faster and can run for much longer,” Matt paused, and then added reverently. “And, he can heal wounds. I saw him do it once. His horse’s tendon was bowed. He just touched it and the horse was right as rain.” The bacon popped and sizzled in the pan.

 

“Wait, what do you mean, he asks someone to do something, and they’ll do it?” AJ asked slowly, a sick feeling started in the pit of his stomach

 

“It’s true! Like when Doc and Karl didn’t want betray you after the Idaho job, but Kenny just asked them, all politely, and they did,” Nick said as he came back to the campfire. He said it offhand, like betraying AJ and trying to beat him to death had been no big deal. Matt handed him a plate with food piled on it. Nick sat down by the fire opposite Matt and they dug in with enthusiasm. They didn’t offer AJ any. The smell of bacon wafted over to him, but it didn’t make him hungry.

 

AJ’s thoughts spun furiously. If what Nick said was true, then Kenny had somehow influenced Doc and Karl to move against AJ that fateful day. It made perfect sense.

 

And AJ had been so blindsided by their betrayal it had never occurred to him that maybe it hadn’t been their choice. He remembered the raw pain he had felt, the blind rage and how much he had wanted to kill the two of them on sight when he saw them at the cabin, before they were interrupted by the demon. It had been a rare lapse of judgement on AJ’s part that he wasn’t carrying his rifle on the mountain. Had he been carrying it, he would have killed them without question. Knowing what he now knew, AJ realized he would have happily murdered his innocent friends. He felt tainted by that thought. He knew he was being hard on himself. He hadn’t known about Kenny’s meddling at the time. But still…

 

As he silently watched the Young Bucks carry on with the mundane tasks of cleaning up and extinguishing the fire, the hot rage AJ nursed in his chest slowly turned to a cold hate, borrowed from the Saint of Killers and became AJ’s own. He let the ice calm him. He may not have access to the Colt Walkers, but he did have the Saint’s strength. And AJ would rip Kenny limb from limb with his bare hands for what he was doing…had done… to Bullet Club. And what he almost made AJ do to his best friends.

 

Calmly furious, AJ lowered his head and pulled against the chain with all his strength, until his muscles trembled and sweat ran down his temples and over his chest. Blood dripped down from his wrists over his hands where the manacles rubbed them raw. But since he was seated on the ground, there was no way to get the leverage he needed. Finally he gave up. He tilted his head back against the trunk of the tree and closed his eyes. He would have to wait until they unchained him which meant he would have to endure whatever Kenny had planned for him. And he vowed that he would endure. Kenny would pay for this.

 

It was nearing noon when the sound of hoofbeats rapidly approaching caught their attention. Nick and Matt got to their feet, hands casually resting on their guns, until they recognized Karl and Doc. The two had had been riding hard. Their horses were dripping foaming and their flanks heaved with exhaustion.

 

“Hey guys!” Nick yelled cheerfully, the idiot. “Glad to see you got away from that posse.”

 

Snarling, Karl dismounted, throwing the reins of his bay horse to Doc. He stalked right up to Nick and punched him right in the jaw. Nick went down hard on his back. Matt was about to draw his gun when Doc said calmly, “Step back, Matt.” He had his rifle pointed directly at Matt. They were so focused on the Young Bucks they didn’t seem to register AJ sitting at the base of the tree in the middle of the clearing.

 

Karl stood above Nick, breathing hard. “You little shit! You told us to meet you outside of Dillon. But guess what? There was Jericho and his posse there instead, waiting for us. And now, apparently you knew they were there. You know what I’m thinking? I’m thinking we were set up. What do you think, Doc?”

 

“It certainly appears that way, Karl,” Doc said mildly. But his expression was stony and the barrel of his rifle never wavered from Matt’s chest. “Perhaps Nick could be so kind as to explain to us why he betrayed us?”

 

Holding his jaw, Nick looked like he was about to get up when Karl kicked him hard in the stomach. Nick curled up, retching.

 

“I may have broken Nick’s jaw. Maybe we should ask Matt?” Karl suggested maliciously.

 

For the first time since AJ had met them, the arrogant expressions were gone from the Young Bucks and they actually looked scared. He smirked at their predicament but didn’t draw attention to himself just yet. He wasn’t sure what Doc and Karl would do when they saw him. If there were still under Kenny’s influence they might try to kill him again. And truth be told, he was enjoying the Young Bucks being on the receiving end of a beating for a change.

 

“What’s going on, Matt?” Karl demanded. “First, we get rid of AJ like Kenny asked us to, but things have gotten worse not better. Now we find you guys are here hanging out like it’s no big deal that posse almost caught me and Doc. And we haven’t seen Cody and Fale in days! Ever since Idaho, things have gotten out of hand, despite Kenny’s promises.”

 

“Where’s Kenny?” Doc asked calmly.

 

Matt didn’t answer, he just shifted his weight and looked scared.

 

Karl looked disgusted. “These two pieces of shit are worthless. Let’s get out of here. Bullet Club is finished.”

 

“Maybe,” Doc said. “Maybe not. If we can find AJ maybe we can get back on track.”

 

AJ perked up at that. Maybe they weren’t still under Kenny’s influence. Hell with it. “Then you came to the right place,” he said, not even bothering to hold back a grin.

 

“AJ?” Doc asked, eyes bugged out.

 

“The fuck? What’s going on? Why is AJ here?” Karl demanded, aiming his revolver at Nick, who was still on his back, holding his jaw. But the two kids didn’t answer. They remained stubbornly silent.

 

“They brought me here.” AJ jerked his head at the kids. “This is going to sound strange but I swear it’s the truth: Kenny isn’t human. He’s working with demons, like the one I killed up at the cabin.”

 

“Demons? That’s what that thing was?” Doc asked. He hadn’t dismounted and his rifle never wavered from Matt’s chest. “So those were really magic guns? How’s you get them?”

 

“It’s a long story and I’ll tell you about it later. Right now we need to get out of here before Kenny comes back,” AJ said. Now that he understood the situation, he was determined to save his brothers from Kenny.

 

“I don’t understand what’s going on, all this stuff with demons and Kenny,” Karl turned away from Nick, trusting Doc to cover his back. “But AJ, you have no idea how sorry we are. We never should have listened to Kenny. I don’t understand why we did in the first place.”

 

“It wasn’t your fault. Kenny has the power to make you do things you don’t want to do. Like I told you, he isn’t human.” Both Doc and Karl looked royally pissed and that AJ felt absurdly pleased.

 

“Then you’re not mad at us for what we did?” Doc asked. He too, looked sorry.

 

AJ shook his head. “He can influence you and make you do anything he says,” he told them. For the first time since the betrayal, AJ was genuinely happy. “Hey, you’re my brothers. I should have known that you wouldn’t willingly betray me. And now that I know what Kenny is, I can take him down. I just need to get out of these chains.”

 

“I got it.” Karl strode over and knelt down next to AJ, examining the chains. He was an expert at picking locks more so than AJ himself. He let out a low whistle. “I don’t think I can open this in a hurry,” he said. “This is some serious hardware.”

 

AJ’s heart sank. “Okay, that’s fine. Then you guys need to get out of here, before Kenny comes back. Find Randy Orton and tell him what’s going on. He’ll know what to do.” If they could find Randy and Mark…

 

“We’re not leaving without you.” Doc looked mulish.

 

Frustrated, AJ shook his head. “You have to. I’ll be fine. Kenny’s not going to kill me. But you can’t resist him. Go north to Helena and find Orton. Go! Now!” He felt something coming closer. Something not a demon.

 

AJ’s urgency got through to them. Karl nodded and shoved his revolver back into his belt. He hurried back to his horse and vaulted into his horse’s saddle and turned the animal to go.

 

“Please don’t go just yet, gentlemen. We need to talk.” Kenny stepped into the clearing, smiling.

 

The sun shone down like a benediction.

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

This wouldn't be nearly as polished without my beta reader Kiss316. She is so great.

 

Warning: Torture.

 

Please don’t go just yet, gentlemen. We need to talk.” Kenny stepped into the clearing, smiling.

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 15

 

As soon as he saw Kenny’s slightly malicious expression, AJ’s heart started racing. “Doc! Karl! Get out of here! Go! Now!” he shouted, hoping that somehow Karl and Doc would escape Kenny’s influence.

 

But Karl reined his horse around and looked at AJ, perplexed. “Why” he asked. “Kenny just asked us to stay.” The two of them dismounted. Doc shoved his rifle into his saddle scabbard and left his horse ground tied as he went over to stand beside Karl.

 

“No,” AJ denied as Kenny walked over to the Young Bucks. The angel looked amazing, rested and refreshed. He was almost glowing. “Kenny let them go,” he half commanded, half pleaded. “You have me, you don’t need them.”

 

But Kenny ignored him. He bent down and touched Nick’s jaw lightly. Even at a distance of a few dozen feet, AJ could clearly feel a surge of power, clean and pure, like sunshine in spring after a rain. Then Nick was smiling, looking at Kenny like, well, like he was an angel. He climbed to his feet and Kenny stroked Nick’s hair away from his face and said, “Its okay, little brother. Thank you for believing in me.” He hugged Nick and kissed him on the forehead. Nick melted in Kenny’s arms. Kenny smiled again and let Nick go. He turned to Matt and touched his arm. “Are you okay?” he asked with perfect sincerity.

 

“I’m fine,” Matt assured him. It made AJ sick to see the open worship on the Young Buck’s face.

 

Kenny continued to ignore AJ as he turned to Doc and Karl. “How are you boys doing?” he asked like he really cared about them.

 

“We’re good, Kenny,” Karl answered with an open smile, a far cry from his usual sneer. Doc stood silently at his side, eyes never leaving Kenny.

 

“I’m so glad to hear that,” Kenny said practically beaming in delight. He walked around behind them and slung his arms over Karl and Doc’s shoulders like they were old pals, which they had been. He gave them a sorrowful look. “But you shouldn’t hurt your little brothers. I am disappointed.”

 

Both Karl and Doc looked deeply ashamed. “We are so sorry Kenny. Will you forgive us?” Doc pleaded. Unable to do anything but watch, AJ seethed in frustration.

 

Kenny perked up and he smiled once more. “Of course!” He stared directly at AJ as he said, “In fact, there’s something the two of you can do for me.”

 

“Anything,” Doc said promptly.

 

“Would you and Karl please get back on your horses and go find Jericho’s posse? Of course you should leave your guns here with us.” Kenny said, like it was the most reasonable request ever made.

 

With sinking feeling, AJ could feel Kenny use his power again. Karl and Doc relaxed even more in Kenny’s arms. “No!” he protested and struggled futilely against the chain. “You don’t have to do this Kenny! Just let them go.”

 

“I would love to, AJ but I can’t take the chance that someone will find out where you are. Someone like the Saint of Killers? Surely you understand that, right?” Kenny asked, in that infuriatingly reasonable tone.

 

“Then tell them not tell anyone. They’ll do what you say. Just don’t send them off to die. You know that posse will hang them as soon as they find a tree big enough.” AJ didn’t want to beg, but he would if Kenny insisted on it. Doc and Karl just stood there, completely enthralled.

 

“But AJ, you've seen firsthand that my influence doesn't last forever.” Kenny cocked his head to one side, like he was seriously considering AJ’s words. “But you sound like you actually care what happens to them, even after what they did to you?”

 

“Don’t pretend you weren’t behind that, Kenny,” AJ responded, trying to stay calm, despite wanting to tear Kenny’s head off with his bare hands.

 

Kenny laughed and the sun shone brightly. “Yeah you’re right. That was me. And now that you know what I can do, I’m curious, what will you do to save them?”

 

“Whatever I need to,” AJ vowed. He played the only card he had. “If you let them go, I’ll let you do whatever you want with me. I won’t fight it.” He would take it, whatever Kenny had planned, if it meant Doc and Karl lived. Nothing Kenny could do to him could be worse that what he went through during the war. Or the soul chain.

 

Kenny gave AJ a measuring look. AJ stared right back, chin up defiantly. “Will you have sex with me?” Kenny asked suddenly.

 

The request took AJ by surprise. As soon as Kenny said it he knew Kenny was expecting him to hesitate, to show revulsion and disgust, to choose his own body over his friends' lives. And indeed, when he was young, AJ had been taught that sex between men was an abomination. But after he joined the army, he learned that it happened more than he had thought. Even between some of the soldiers he had respected and some he considered friends. Confused, he had gone to Christopher for an explanation. Christopher explained why some of his fellow soldiers would willingly do such things. He warned AJ to stay out of it and asked that he not judge them too harshly. After a while AJ began to understand that sheer loneliness could drive men who were probably going to die soon to seek whatever comfort they could find. Even in the flesh of another. AJ had never willingly participated but eventually he did understand.

 

And it was a way to keep warm in the unbelievably cold Pennsylvanian nights in January.

 

“If that’s what you want, then let’s go.” And he grinned at Kenny so savagely that the Saint of Killers would have approved. With the lives of his friends in the balance, AJ knew he had to meet Kenny head-on. AJ just hoped that Kenny couldn’t tell he was bluffing. The thought of sex with Kenny turned his stomach. It was a risk but he felt it was better to come on too strong than to meekly allow Kenny to rape him.

 

Kenny’s confidence seemed to wilt just a tad in the face of AJ’s unhesitating acceptance. Even Nick and Matt looked uncertain. “Kenny, I don’t think that’s a good idea. I think we should just leave him tied up for now,” Matt urged.

 

Frustrated, but unwilling to call AJ’s bluff, Kenny agreed, but he quickly regained his confidence. “Fine! You’re the one I need anyway. To show you I’m not a bad guy, I won’t ask Doc and Karl go find the posse. But only if you promise that you won’t fight us?” Birds chirped and fluttered in the trees above Kenny. “Otherwise, they go straight into Jericho’s arms.”

 

“I promise,” AJ said but he was suspicious. That was too easy.

 

“Okay, I have your promise.” However, Kenny knew he couldn’t maintain his influence over two strong-willed men for an extended period of time without depleting his reserves. He needed the two of them gone. “Doc, Karl, come with me.” They walked away from the clearing. Making sure they were out of AJ’s hearing, Kenny told them, “Here’s what I want you to do. Head to Bannack and find the sheriff. Then lay down your weapons and surrender to him. Can you do that for me?”

 

“Sure, Kenny. We’ll do that for you,” Karl agreed, smiling in delight.

 

“If by some miracle he resists gunning you down right then and there, he’ll hang you. Just as the rope is being pulled tight, I want you to understand something. That I made you betray AJ Styles and destroyed Bullet Club. Do you understand?” Kenny didn’t want AJ to know, but his ego made him want someone to know what he had done.

 

“We sure do!” Doc said enthusiastically.

 

“Then you should get going,” Kenny suggested. “You don’t want to keep the sheriff waiting.”

 

Without another word, Karl and Doc got on their horses and rode out between the trees, the hoofbeats gradually fading away.

 

Watching them go, AJ was uneasy. He didn’t trust Kenny at all. “Where did they go, Kenny?” he asked.

 

“Don’t worry about them, I just sent them on an errand,” Kenny told him. He saw how raw AJ’s wrists were from trying to free himself from the chain. “You’re hurting yourself.” The angel came over beside AJ and crouched down, examining AJ’s torn and bloody wrists. “Let me help you.”

 

“Stay the fuck away from me!” AJ warned. The uneasiness was growing into a feeling that something was terribly wrong, like a dirty oil was coating his skin. He hated that feeling almost as much as he hated Kenny Omega.

 

“Hey! Calm down,” Kenny said gently, reaching out to touch AJ’s arm. AJ could feel Kenny trying to use his power to make him sleep again, but AJ was having none of that. AJ fought back as hard as he could with all his helpless rage and Kenny sat back on his heels, surprised. “You shouldn’t be able to do that,” he said out loud. AJ just glared at him through his hair.

 

“Kenny?” Nick asked worriedly.

 

“It’s okay, those chains won’t break,” Kenny assured them. But he didn’t as sure of himself as he did earlier.

 

But Nick repeated, “Kenny? We have company.”

 

They all looked around. Nick was right, someone was there at the edge of the clearing, watching them. To normal eyes, it looked like a large, stout human male with a swarthy complexion, short black hair and a round face. But underneath the human exterior, AJ could clearly see the demon. It looked like loathing and he shuddered in spite of himself. Its aura was sheer malice. He didn’t need to be told that this demon was much more powerful than the one he had killed up on the mountain. He didn’t want to admit it, but he was glad Kenny had sent Doc and Karl away. “Untie me!” he told Kenny. “That thing will kill us all.”

 

But Kenny only rose to his feet and greeted the thing cheerfully, but politely. “Good afternoon. Am I addressing the demon known as the Destroyer?” he asked. Kenny's aura, so clean and pure also increased.

 

“Call me Joe,” the demon replied, its voice was rough. Its eyes were hidden in the folds of its face. It stepped deliberately into the clearing and Matt and Nick edged back, closer to Kenny. Despite Kenny’s presence, the sun seemed to dim as it approached them. There was also a peculiar smell that AJ couldn't put his finger on, but it reminded him so much of Antietam that he could almost hear the screams of the soldiers dying around him.

 

“Sure! Joe, I’m so glad you could make it.” Kenny was relaxed, confident in his ability to deal with the demon if the situation deteriorated. “I’m Kenny Omega, and these are my brothers.” He emphasized the word ‘brothers’ to let the demon know they were under his protection.

 

“What do you want with me, angel?” Joe asked bluntly. He didn’t look impressed by Kenny and the boys and flat-out ignored AJ.

 

Kenny stepped in front of the Young Bucks, keeping himself between them and the demon. AJ was offered no such shielding. “I asked you here because we have a common enemy.” He waited for Joe to ask who but the demon kept quiet. So Kenny continued with confidence bordering on arrogance. “The Saint of Killers. I am going to neutralize his influence in this world. I would like your help.”

 

Now Kenny had the demon’s full attention. It shifted its massive frame and glowered at Kenny. “Why does it matter to you if the Saint operates in this world? He isn't hunting your kind down,” he said bitterly.

 

The light around Kenny grew brighter, and hotter and for the first time, AJ sensed barely-masked rage from the angel. “Then you don't know that he killed my brothers too. Heaven is a waste land,” Kenny said. His voice grew harsh. Matt and Nick looked at each other, shocked. AJ tried to picture the spirit who looked like Christopher killing the entire heavenly host, and failed. Nothing he had seen in the Saint's memories indicated he had committed such an atrocity. But deep down he knew Kenny wasn’t lying. Had AJ known, he doubted he would have agreed to work for the Saint, vengeance on Kenny or no. He would rather have died in the river than worked for such an abomination.

 

This was news to the Destroyer too. But if anything, the demon was practical. “And you still want to take him on? He'll just kill you with those big guns like all the others. Fuck this. I'm not getting involved.” He turned to leave but Kenny held up a hand.

 

“I have a plan. I know I can't kill the Saint, but he can only work through select humans here. I will eliminate them and then he can't do anything to us while we occupy this world.”

 

The Destroyer snorted, unimpressed. “I know your kind can be idiotic but this is taking it to a whole new level. It’s been tried by others better than you, and failed. You’ll never kill Ambrose and Reigns, they’re protected. And Orton is out of everyone’s reach.”

 

“I know,” Kenny agreed. “Forget Orton for a minute. I found a way to bring Reigns and Ambrose here, to expose them and eliminate them. And I have the perfect bait.”

 

The demon’s eyes narrowed into slits and his complexion darkened with suspicion. “You better not mean me,” he warned.

 

“No, him,” Kenny gestured to AJ, who was watching the whole exchange with mounting unease. “The Saint of Killers' newest recruit. He's so new he's only killed one demon.”

 

The Destroyer pondered AJ, who glared back with defiance. He shrugged. “I don’t buy it. They've let others of their kind die. Why would they come to rescue this one?”

 

Kenny nodded. “Good question! That's where you come in. If you put a demon mark on him, you and your demon friends will be able to harvest the power as many times as you please. The Saint can't ignore that. He'll have to send them to deal with it.”

 

AJ didn't understand what they were talking about. Put a demon mark on him? Harvest power? He didn't like the sound of it. ‘Are you there?’ he mentally called again. There was still no answer.

 

Joe thought about it, looking for holes in Kenny's plan. “When they get here, then what? Even if you fill them full of bullets, they still have their healer buddy. He won’t let them die.”

 

“I know how to neutralize the third one, so he can't help them. Without him, those two will die just like any other human.” Kenny spoke with such complete conviction that AJ believed him. Apparently the demon did too.

 

Joe was silent for a minute, considering what Kenny had told him. “But what about Orton?” he asked. “What if he comes?”

 

“The witch has a plan to deal with him.” Kenny didn't elaborate. Mostly because he didn't know the specifics. But he did know Orton had killed her father, Ric and she was powerful enough to trap a soul. He believed her when she said she could deal with Orton. Enough said.

 

Joe studied the angel thoughtfully. “Why?” he asked. “What's in it for you? Revenge?”

 

“That’s my business.” Kenny told him. Again, AJ could feel the underlying rage of the angel.

 

“And my only part is to put a mark on him?” Joe asked, pointing at AJ.

 

“Yes,” Kenny answered. “After that, if you want to walk away, you can.”

 

For long seconds, the demon mulled Kenny’s plan over. Finally he nodded. “Okay. I'll help you, if only to get rid of Reigns and Ambrose. What’s real his name?” Joe wanted to know.

 

“AJ Styles,” Nick said with confidence. Kenny shushed him. He didn't want his friends to draw the demon's attention. That was risky.

 

AJ just glared at the Destroyer when it crouched down next to him. It inspected the bracelets and chains that bound AJ. Up close, AJ could see the pockmarks on the demon's face, could smell his foul breath.

 

“You don’t want to remove those chains. He'll tear you to pieces,” Kenny warned.

 

“The back is best place to place a mark,” Joe replied. “It’s closest to the heart. But I can make do, if necessary.” He reached over and tore AJ’s shirt down the front, exposing his chest and stomach. AJ couldn't repress a shudder as the demon touched him, running its thick fingers over his ribs where Mark had put them back together. The demon frowned in concentration. It traced the livid scars where the branch had impaled him and where Mark had cut the wound wider to remove it. AJ wanted nothing more than to more away from that unwelcome touch. Finally it prodded AJ’s right side. “Here,” he said.

 

Kenny leaned over, looking intently. “Why there?” he asked out of curiosity.

 

The Destroyer grunted and indicated the scars on AJ’s stomach and left rib. “Something healed him here, and here. Something powerful. These places will not hold a mark. The best I can do, with the position he’s in, is right there. It as close to his heart as I can get from this angle.”

 

Kenny nodded thoughtfully. “Do your best. Is there anything you need from me?”

 

Joe gave him a withering look and said, “Just don't interfere.” He pulled out a very sharp knife from his belt. The blade had an oily, sickly yellow cast. AJ instinctively leaned away from it but instead Joe sliced his own palm. Black blood sizzled as it was exposed to the air. If it hurt the demon, AJ couldn’t tell. Joe cupped his cut hand, allowing the blood to pool in his palm. He grinned at AJ, but there was no reassurance in the expression, only a sick pleasure in what was about to come. “If you're too 'good' to witness this, you should leave now,” Joe said to Kenny and the boys.

 

Nick and Matt exchanged uneasy looks but Kenny remained calm. “You two go back to the witch’s house. I’ll stay.” He didn't say outright that he didn't trust the Destroyer, but it was implied. Matt and Nick nodded and grabbed the horses and left. Joe sneered and turned back to AJ.

 

Eyes wide, AJ’s breath quickened as the Destroyer dipped a finger into the blood and touched AJ’s side. It felt like a branding iron was being pressed to his skin. AJ squeezed his eyes shut and clamped down hard on a scream. Air hissed through his gritted teeth.

 

The Destroyer smirked at AJ’s attempt to stay quiet. “Hurts, doesn’t it? Well, I got some bad news for you. Because you are protected from possession, this is going to take a lot longer than it normally would,” he promised. He started outlining symbols on the AJ’s bare flesh, occasionally pausing to inspect the mark. Each time AJ prayed it was over, but the Destroyer continued to dip his index finger in the pool of blood, tracing the thick lines on AJ’s side over and over. The burning continued to intensify and soon AJ was sweating heavily in the dry afternoon air. The blood bubbled and burned through AJ’s skin, penetrating deep into the flesh of his side. Each nerved touched by that black blood burned and throbbed incessantly. Unable to stop shaking, AJ weakly laid his head against the rough bark of the tree trunk. Time stretched out, each second was an eternity of burning agony in his side. He was nauseated by the smell of his own skin cooking. And yet for some reason he stayed conscious. There was no escape from what was being done to him. The sun crawled on its path past its zenith and started sinking to the west.

 

Kenny watched in horrified fascination, leaning over the Destroyer’s shoulder trying to discern what the demon was burning into AJ’s flesh. “Interesting. Benoit didn’t use Orton’s name.”

 

The Destroyer snorted in derision. “Benoit was a show-off. He was more concerned with appearances than power. This one is better. More powerful because it’s tied directly to him. And will be much more painful for him when my brethren use him.” He smiled savagely at AJ, who was in too much pain to notice or care. Finally, he sat back and inspected his work. The flesh around the thick black letters down his side was raw and red.

 

“Is it done?” Kenny asked. This was taking way longer than he had thought.

 

“Not quite,” Joe said. “Still have to activate it.”

 

AJ had no warning as Joe pressed his bloody palm deep into the mark. He couldn’t help it, he screamed his throat raw and thrashed against the chain holding him captive. But try as he might he couldn’t get away from it. The demon continued to push against the mark, smirking as AJ writhed in helpless agony. Then the demon leaned forward and said something in a language that had no business in the rational world. AJ was too busy screaming his heart out to hear the actual words, but Kenny went pale and actually clamped his hands over his ears ineffectually trying to block out the horrible sounds. The Destroyer repeated the sequence of 'words' again, and again. Each time, the mark burned blacker and AJ could feel it sinking deeper inside of him, mingling with his essence, a sickening violation of him.

 

Finally, the Destroyer was satisfied. “That should do it. One mark of power.” The demon brushed his hands together and suddenly, there was no blood. They were clean. He stood up and faced Kenny. Behind him, AJ’s head hung limp and his body continued to quiver in lingering pain and exhaustion. His hands were crimson from the blood pouring from his raw wrists, staining the tree bark and steadily dripping down to pool at the base of the tree.

 

“Are you going to use it now?” Kenny asked curiously. He'd heard how the demons harvested the power, but had never witness it. But the Destroyer shook his head.

 

“That will bring the Saint’s wrath down on me, especially if you fail. Why would I risk that for more power? I helped you because you might have a chance of actually pulling this off. But that’s all. There are others who will want to indulge,” the demon shrugged. “And if you do succeed, I’ll be back to claim him. Good luck, angel. You'll need it.” And with that, the demon walked away, into the trees and out of sight.

 

After a while, the Young Bucks returned. They were subdued but came over to stand at Kenny’s side. For long minutes, no one said anything. AJ had stopped sweating but started shaking from shock and fever as his body tried to reject the poisoned flesh that was now permanently part of him.

 

“We're doing all this so you can rescue your brother?” Nick asked quietly. He had the utmost faith in Kenny, but hearing AJ's screaming made him seek some reassurance.

 

Kenny was still staring after the demon, even though it was long gone. “Yes. He's one of the few of us left. I won't let him be condemned to die as a slave.”

 

“He's a slave?” Matt asked, concerned. Somewhere high in the hills a wolf howled.

 

“Yeah, my brother was sent to get the Saint of Killers back under Heaven’s control. But he failed and they sealed him in the body of a normal human. Now he’s their slave. Reigns and Ambrose use his power at will. He’ll eventually die when the human host dies.” Kenny glowered at AJ, whose head was still hanging limply, his hair covering his face. “So I'm doing the same to one of his. He'll be a slave to demons. And as long as my brother suffers, so will he.” Kenny glanced around, noting the darkness starting to creep in. The sun had set and dusk was settling. Crickets sang with enthusiasm in the brown grasses. “Let’s go. No one can come here without my knowing.” The trio left the clearing.

 

The clearing was grew quiet. In the dimming light, there was no one there to see AJ slowly gather his legs up to his chest and rest his forehead on top of his knees. There was no one to see the wetness dripping down his cheeks. Or hear the quiet hitching of his breath.

 

Only the uncaring stars that shone down between the branches of the trees overhead.

 

TBC

Chapter Text

This fic wouldn't be what it is if not for Kiss316. She is so amazing for taking the time to read this over and over. She is the best!

 

Warnings: Spoilers for Legend Killer

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 16

 

 

“He should have been here by now,” Randy insisted for the sixth time in fifteen minutes, making another circuit in the Helena sheriff’s office.

 

Unperturbed, Mark was leaning against the desk watched the younger man pace back and forth in agitation. It was a far cry from the dejected Legend Killer he had camped with in the glacial valley. They had been riding hard since before first light the previous day, only stopping to let the horses eat and drink before pushing on. It was closer to dawn than midnight when they finally rode into Helena, heading straight for the Sheriff’s Office. For the first time since he acquired his big roan, Randy’s horse was tired. It was currently drowsing at the hitching post outside of the office in the quiet pre-dawn. Mark’s pale mare was tied next to him, but unlike the gelding, she showed no ill effects from the long, fast ride.

 

Inside the office it wasn’t so calm. John Cena was sitting in the chair behind the desk, watching Randy pace the length of the room. Ever since John had met Randy Orton, he had never seen Randy so worried. “How far is Bannack from Helena?” he asked, rubbing a hand across his eyes and jaw, scraping the stubble. He needed to shave. The temporary Sheriff had been sleeping on his cot in the back when Mark and Randy had unceremoniously barged into the jailhouse. He sipped his coffee but the caffeine hadn’t started to work yet as Mark explained to Cena why they were there, to meet someone.

 

Except that particular someone hadn’t shown up yet.

 

“About a full day’s ride, if he pushed it,” Mark said. John got the sense that the doctor too was worried but hid it much better than Randy. Finally, Mark sighed in exasperation. “Settle down, son. Getting yourself worked up isn’t going to help. He’s probably taking his time and making sure he wasn’t followed.”

 

“Or stopped to rest his horse,” John suggested.

 

Randy shot them an annoyed look but stopped pacing, opting to slouch against the wall of John’s office. There were patched cracks in the thick stone walls of the jailhouse but overall the building had weathered the earthquake several weeks earlier fairly well. Most of Helena was still rebuilding.

 

“I still can’t believe the Saint of Killers recruited AJ Styles,” John said, not sure whether to be amused or appalled. All of the Saint’s men he had met had been former US Marshals, which gave them some legitimacy in his mind. From what he’d heard AJ was pure, unrepentant outlaw.

 

“Bullet Club kicked him out,” Mark said with a shrug. “It wasn’t an amicable parting. He was nearly dead when we found him.”

 

“Does he still look like that?” John waved his nearly empty coffee cup at the wall where various Wanted posters were hanging. There were several of individual Bullet Club members with listed amount of reward. AJ’s was the most by far.

 

“Hair’s longer, and he has a short beard now,” Randy said, fighting the urge to resume pacing. Seeing AJ’s picture with its mocking side-sliding grin reminded him how much trouble AJ might be in. He shuddered when he thought about AJ, tied to the ground, being tortured the way Benoit had tortured Randy. He had been gut shot when Benoit had painted his mark across Randy’s neck and shoulders. But even a hole in his guts was nothing compared to the demon blood burning its way into him, violating Randy in a way even worse than the Beast had. Strangely, his demon mark was inert after his encounter the Beast. Randy thought Seth had something to do with that. If so, it might be good news for AJ, if worst came to worst.

 

“I can ride down there and look for him,” John offered. “I still have authority for a few more days.” The county elections were going to be held the next week. The previous Sheriff, Wade Barrett had been killed, leaving a power vacuum. Official word was that he had been attacked by a rabid animal. Only a handful of people knew the truth: that Wade, his deputies and several other prominent townsfolk were actually part of a demon collective called Nexus. Randy, Roman and Dean had risked their lives to put Nexus down. Wade himself was killed by Dean Ambrose. Now that there was an opening, a special election was mandatory for a new sheriff. Cena wasn’t planning on running for the office, however. He still intended to return to the east coast to arrest Judge Hunter for his role in setting up Randy, and his former deputies Ted and Cody to be tortured and sacrificed to the demon Benoit. He wasn’t sure how he was going to do it legally, but John was confident he’d think of something. He had a way with words and getting people to listen to him. But after seeing Randy and Mark show up on his doorstep looking grim, he got the feeling he would have to put his travel plans on hold until this latest crisis was resolved. He didn’t really mind, though. Montana was growing on him. Not to mention a beautiful dark-haired young woman had recently caught his eye. Her name was Nikki.

 

Both Mark and Randy were surprised. It took a lot of courage to make that offer, after what happened to John the last time he got involved in their business.

 

“No, you might inadvertently expose him if you go. I’ll go.” Mark was firm. When Randy started to get up he amended, “Alone. You’re staying here.” Scowling, Randy was going to argue but Mark put a hand to stop him. “The Skinwalker is still out there looking for you. And there is at least one very powerful demon in the area. The three boys will with be here soon, and then you can all come. Together.” He emphasized that last word.

 

“What do you want me to do?” John asked. There wasn’t much he could do, not being able to take on a demon or a Skinwalker.

 

“Keep an eye on him,” Mark told Cena. “Make sure he stays out of trouble.”

 

Both Randy and John gave Mark a look. John couldn’t actually do anything to stop Randy from following Mark and they knew it.

 

“Can’t the Saint find him?” John asked. He listened in horrified fascination while Mark explained about the soul chain and why it was bad for AJ to be near the Colt Walkers. But still… “Even only for a few seconds, at least to give us a general idea of where he is? He might be close to Helena for all we know.”

 

Reluctantly, Mark agreed. He turned to Randy. “Are you going to behave yourself when he comes? If not, you can step outside.” Randy was glaring at the floor but he nodded, holding his peace. As much as Mark held sympathy for the Legend Killer, now was not the time for Randy to get into an argument with his father. “All right, call him.”

 

Surprised, Randy looked up but only saw the stony resolve in Marks face. Bracing himself, Randy closed his eyes. “Old man, can you please come here?” he asked out loud.

 

What is it, son?” The Saint of Killers asked appearing in the room. Only Mark and Randy could see and hear him, but John shivered, feeling Death close by. Randy curled his hands into fists and glared daggers at the spirit.

 

“Where is AJ?” Mark asked bluntly before Randy could say anything.

 

The Saint turned to Mark, frowning. “I told him to leave Bannack and head here,” he growled, gravel and cobwebs.

 

“He not here yet.”

 

The Saint immediately disappeared. Mark sighed and rubbed his eyes.

 

“What now?” John asked. The presence of the Saint had faded and he could breathe again. Randy was still standing with fists clenched.

 

“We wait,” Mark said, wanting to distract Randy before he could start pacing again. “Let’s get something to eat and tend to the horses.” Their mounts needed to be ready in case they had to move quickly. As the sky lightened with the dawn, John walked with them to the livery where the caretaker promised a good feeding and rubdown for the horses, although he did give Mark’s horse an uncertain look. The morning air was starting to take on the dry coolness of impending autumn. They ended up at the local boarding house which served a solid breakfast even at that hour. Not having eaten the day before, Randy devoured everything in front of him. They were just finishing when the Saint reappeared.

 

He’s alive, but there is something preventing me from going to his exact location,” the Saint announced.

 

Slamming his silverware down on the table, Randy cursed out loud, which earned him a black look from the cook. She was opening her mouth to protest but John quietly motioned for her to leave. Knowing John’s position as Sheriff, she huffed back into the kitchen, leaving the three men and the spirit to discuss the situation.

 

“Do you have even a general location?” Mark asked, ignoring Randy.

 

All I can say is he’s between here and Bannack,” the Saint said, pacing the length of the room in frustration.

 

“Fuck it, let’s just go. We’ll find him without his help.” Randy said and started to rise.

 

But Mark put a firm hand on Randy’s forearm, stopping him. Despite himself, Randy sank back down in his chair. “If that’s the case, it’s already too late. They got him,” Mark said and if possible looked even grimmer than usual. “We have to wait for Reigns and Ambrose.”

 

“Why? If we leave now, we can at least find his trail,” Randy argued. “They can join us when they get here.”

 

“And what if we find an army of powered up demons?” Mark shot back. “Are you ready to kill them?”

 

Randy paled. The Saint shifted but didn’t say anything. He too was learning to control his temper. Mark softened just a bit. “We need Reigns and Ambrose. We can’t kill multiple demons without them.” He didn’t say out loud that they needed Seth to heal whatever was done to AJ.

 

Randy glared at the table but had no answer. “I hate this,” he said.

 

“How long before the others get here?” Mark asked the Saint who had been watching his son.

 

They’re less than a day out. I’ll tell them to push it,” the Saint said and disappeared. John hadn’t heard the answer but Mark told him.

 

“And what about AJ? You know what they’re doing to him. Are we just going to let him suffer while we wait?” Randy growled. His eyes blazed in agitation. “I say we leave, now.”

 

Meeting Randy’s gaze, Mark merely said with the calm right before the storm, “We will wait.”

 

Both John and Randy knew this was an order, not to be disobeyed. Unable to sit still, Randy shook his arm loose from Mark’s grip, got up from the table and stomped outside. Other early risers, out and about on business of their own, took one look at him and gave him a wide berth. He was so caught up in his own head he didn’t notice them. The memory of AJ, lying injured on the river bank flashed through his mind. Then his mind helpfully started supplying him with images of AJ, now bearing a demon mark and surrounded by demons, some of them looking like Nexus, others looking like Benoit and the Beast. They were reaching for AJ, and forcing the smaller man to the ground, each waiting their turn…

 

Nauseated, Randy shook his head to get rid of the last image. All he wanted to do was to get on his horse and ride out to find AJ. But the smart part of him knew that was suicidal to disobey Mark. He opted to stalk down the street, back towards the Sheriff’s office where he could pace in peace. Mark and John followed, but wisely gave him his space.

 

“What’s that all about?” John asked. He knew there were things Mark and Randy weren't telling him. “Why is he acting like that? What’s really going on?”

 

Mark sighed again, debating how much to tell John. “You've seen the marks on him?” He nodded at Randy's back.

 

“Yeah,” John said, puzzled at the change of subject. Randy had been out in a thunderstorm trying to find a certain plant to put on Ambrose’s cuts after being tortured by Nexus. Both John and Seth had seen the marks when Randy had changed his soaking wet shirt. “Randy wouldn't say much about them, only something about a demon ritual.”

 

“A powerful demon burned those marks on him with its blood. Demons can use them to increase their power.”

 

“Really? How?” John asked, curiosity getting the better of him. The sun was finally coming up over the mountain to the east, warming the day. There was a slight breeze, keeping the air fresh.

 

“It’s…the ritual is not pleasant,” Mark said, reluctant to tell John the details.

 

There was an edge to his voice that John hadn’t heard before. That sounded ominous and John swallowed hard. He knew about unpleasant rituals. He was trying to forget the feeling of something devouring the tainted part of his soul. Almost every night he woke up in a cold sweat, feeling those sharp teeth sinking into him. But part of him still wanted to know. “Was it anything like what Crow Foot had to do to remove the taint from me?” he asked quietly.

 

Stony faced, Mark changed his mind about telling John. “No. It’s much simpler than that. The demon rapes him.”

 

Stunned, John halted as he tried to wrap his mind around what Mark had just said. It couldn’t be right. Randy was too strong! John had watched Randy fight a Nexus demon with his bare hands. Heck, Randy had even thrown John bodily across a clearing once. He shook his head. It didn’t seem possible that Randy would ever let that happen. He hurried to catch up to Mark, who hadn’t stopped walking.

 

As if reading his mind, Mark said, “He didn’t just ‘let it happen’. He fought but they had him chained down.”

 

Sick, John distinctly remember Mark carrying Randy’s body out of the mine. “The Beast?” he asked. He remember how the Beast was so much stronger when it emerged from the mine where Randy had been held captive. “Is that how it gained so much power?”

 

Mark nodded. “Unfortunately the Beast wasn’t the first time.”

 

Something clicked in John’s memory. “Benoit?” he asked. No wonder Randy had refused to talk about it even when he and Seth had pressed him.

 

Mark nodded again.

 

John didn’t know what to say. He hunched his shoulders and wished he had never asked the question now. He hoped Mark would change the subject.

 

But Mark decided John needed to know the whole story. John was someone who didn’t have a personal issue with the Saint of Killers and could stay objective. “This situation is new to this realm. Normal humans are too frail to survive the rape and the draining of power from the mark. But Orton isn’t normal, thanks to his father. And as such, he survived. Luckily, he was able to kill Benoit immediately afterward and hide the marks.” By then Randy was out of sight but Mark knew where he was going so he didn’t bother to hurry after the Legend Killer. “But his luck ran out when Seth told Hunter about the marks. Thanks to Hunter and his schemes, the word about Randy’s marks got out. He’s in more danger now than he ever was, which is why I’m looking out for him.

 

John drew a deep breath, and decided to go back to the original subject. The information about the demon marks was troubling but it didn’t explain Randy’s agitation about AJ Styles. “What does that have to do with AJ?” he asked.

 

At first, Mark didn’t say anything and John thought he wasn’t going to answer the question. But then, just as they were nearing the Sheriff’s office Mark stopped, gazing up at the mountains high over the south end of town. Their tops were illuminated by the rising sun. John didn’t believe anyone could look so grim. “It was only ever a matter of time before someone realized a demon mark will work on any of the Saint’s boys.”

 

Mark didn't say any more than that, but John was smart and after putting together the pieces he come to the logical conclusion. “Oh, shit,” he said.

 

“Indeed. We know of at least one very powerful demon in the area. It’s called the Destroyer and it's powerful enough to put a mark on Styles,” Mark said.

 

“You’re just full of good news,” John observed with a touch of sarcasm. Now he understood why Randy was acting the way he was, and why Mark was so grim. John didn’t want to think about what Styles was facing. Even if he was an outlaw, no human being deserved that.

 

But Mark didn’t react to John’s words. “It’s worse than you think. Orton was able to kill Benoit and Ambrose killed the Beast. But Styles is their captive and can’t be near the Colt Walkers. He’s a renewable power source for an unlimited number of demons. And of course they’ll do everything in their power to keep him. We’ll have to fight our way to him.”

 

“That’s what you meant when you said something about facing an army of powered-up demons?” John asked. A wagon loaded with lumber rumbled by, heading to one of the many damaged buildings downtown.

 

“Reigns and Ambrose are in for a hell of time dealing with the situation. I’m not sure if Orton will ever be ready to kill demons again and for now Styles can’t. But, once Rollins repairs the infection, Styles will be okay to fight again. But we need to find him first.”

 

“And the Saint can’t even tell us where he is,” John said. “This is bad.”

 

Mark nodded. “Yeah. You can bet that once word gets out about Styles, every demon in the country will be heading there. And because he’s one of the Saint’s own, he doesn’t even have the chance of dying to get away from them.”

 

“But Randy died,” John pointed out quietly.

 

Mark sighed and shook his head. “The Beast didn’t kill him. He…gave up. He didn’t want to go on after what the Beast did to him. Remember, Hunter had him chained up with the threat that he would be getting regular visits from demons like the Beast. At that time the Saint was gone from this realm and Randy didn’t know if he was ever going to come back. He could have survived what the Beast did to him, but why would he want to? So it could happen again and again? He saw the opportunity to ‘escape’ and took it.”

 

They stood in silence for a while. John was trying to process everything Mark had told him. John had always assumed Randy’s attitude was just him being an asshole. But knowing now what Randy Orton had lived though, and had to live with, made him rethink his earlier assessment. Randy had known exactly what was being done to AJ, and the inability to do anything about it was obviously driving him crazy.

 

Mark drew a breath. “It’s important that we rescue Styles. Not just to stop the demons, but Orton showing concern for AJ and wanting to fight for him is a good sign. If we lose AJ we could very well lose Orton. And then we’ll likely lose the Colt Walkers altogether. He’s the only thing holding the Saint of Killers here.”

 

“The Saint protects his son.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Is there anything else I should know?” John asked reluctantly, hoping Mark had told him everything. Running a hand down back of his head, John wasn’t sure he wanted to know more about Randy Orton. It felt too private, too painful.

 

But Mark wasn’t done. “Yes. There’s at least one unknown factor we’re facing. Something is keeping the Saint from finding Styles. It takes a lot of power to do that. I don’t know if it’s the same individual that set the soul chain trap, but if it is, we need to be very careful.”

 

“Any ideas what it is?” John asked.

 

“No. And somehow the Skinwalker is mixed in all of this. I get the feeling there’s even more going on than we know,” Mark trailed off, lost in his thoughts. “But with Reigns, Rollins and Ambrose we’ll have a better chance.”

 

“Are you going to tell them about the demon marks?” John asked.

 

“Yes. They need to know about the danger. But as long as they stick together and have Rollins with them, they should be fine. It’s Orton and AJ Styles who are vulnerable.”

 

“Because they’re alone,” John finished.

 

Mark agreed. “I thought they should work together, but the Skinwalker was said to be targeting Orton specifically so the Saint thought it best if he stayed away and let Styles handle it.”

 

John could see the reasoning. But it was turning into a disaster, especially for AJ. Now that John could see the bigger picture, it scared the crap out of him. “I can see why you insisted we wait for the others before trying to find Styles,” he said.

 

“Yes. Because if we fail, we’ll be up to our ears in powered-up demons with no way to kill them.” Then Mark turned and entered the building. As he opened the door, John could see Randy inside pacing again. Then the door shut and John stood alone in the sunshine. He was greeted by passersby and absently returned the greetings. He thought of Randy and AJ Styles, whom he had never met. Mark wisely wouldn’t allow Randy to do anything about the situation without back-up. And even though he had never met AJ Styles, what the man was probably going through made John hope that Roman, Dean and Seth got to Helena soon. He took a deep breath, steeled himself and entered his office once more.

 

The hardest part, the waiting, had begun.

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Once again, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, a huge thank you to Kiss316 who is beta reading this. She rocks!

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 17

 

Bare tree branches loomed above him in the weak morning light, black slashes against iron gray clouds. His breath, steam in the air, obscured the branches for a second before fading away. It would probably snow again soon, keeping everything cold and damp. It was something he'd never experienced before the war, this bone-deep cold. His small farm in Georgia, with its hot summers and his beautiful wife was a lifetime ago. His body ached so badly he wanted to just lie there, but duty called. He slowly gathered his arms and legs, stiff from lying in patches of wet snow, and pushed himself over onto his stomach. He bit down on a gasp as the pain, which had receded to a vicious ache thanks to the numbness in his body, flared sharply again. Any noise might draw the Yankees’ attention. They were on the move when AJ had scouted their position late last night and was making his way back to his camp to report to Christopher when he was ambushed.

 

WHERE ARE YOU?”

 

A railroad spike of pain nailed itself between AJ’s eyes and this time he did cry out, fighting free from the dream-like memory. He would have vomited but his stomach was empty. Awake now, AJ tried to focus on the new pain to keep his mind from slipping back to that older nightmare. But it receded too quickly. Soon it was lost amidst the other aches and pains his body was reporting. His arms from his shoulders to his fingers were numb, his back was cramped and his fever was making him very thirsty. The heavy iron bracelets were practically glued to his wrists by a thick layer of dried blood. And overshadowing all that was the deep burning in his side, throbbing in time with his heartbeat. But even with all that, there was a silver lining. As awful as his current situation was, he had endured worse.

 

The war was as close to hell on earth as anything could be. AJ survived the killing fields where bullets fell thick as rain, had eaten the rotting, starvation rations, and endured the crushing fatigue from scouting the enemy position for days on end. Staggering back to camp after his horse went lame and he had holes in his boots. He had even survived the hatred and jealousy of some of his fellow soldiers, who had retaliated that night in the snow. He hadn’t broke back then, and they sure as hell wouldn’t break him now. He would survive whatever they had in store for him for one simple reason: he was going to see Kenny Omega, Nick and Matt Jackson dead, either by his hand or someone else’s.

 

He studied the clearing, determined to find some way out of this new nightmare. There had to be one, he just needed to find it. The clearing was light enough for him to make out the details of trees and bushes. It was quiet except for the chattering of the nearby steam, which only reminded him how thirsty he was. He craned his neck to look up into the tree’s canopy. He could make out weird symbols carved into the bark above him but they meant nothing to him.

 

The snapping of a twig alerted him and AJ heard the quiet footsteps coming closer from behind his tree. By the lack of feeling of power he knew it wasn’t Kenny. The person was smaller, lighter. A strong hand roughly grabbed his hair and pulled his head back. Before he knew what was happening, the opening of a canteen was forced between his cracked lips. The ice cold water poured down his throat and into his lungs. He choked violently, the water spilling down his neck and chest.

 

“For fuck sake,” a female voice grumbled as the canteen was pulled away. AJ continued to cough, trying to clear the water from his airways. After he stopped and caught his breath, the canteen was once again at his lips. But this time the water wasn’t forced down his throat and he was able to drink. It tasted clean and he closed his eyes in gratitude. Too soon the canteen was pulled away again and his hair was released. It hadn’t been nearly enough, but it helped. AJ swallowed one last time, savoring the feeling of water in his throat and turned to the woman kneeling next to him. She was dressed like a man: trousers and a cotton shirt. Her long light blond hair, plaited back in a single braid was almost white in the early morning sunlight. Her face was too irregular to be considered pretty. Handsome was a better word to describe her. In another life, AJ might have tried to use his Southern charm on her. As it was, he was too tired and in too much pain to make the effort. “Thank you miss. What’s your name?” he croaked, minding his manners. Though the water had helped, his throat was still sore from screaming.

 

“Charlotte Flair,” she said. Her voice was deeper than most girls. She looked down at his side and reached out and moved his open shirt so she could study the black marks the Destroyer burned into him.

 

Anticipating more pain, AJ flinched but she didn’t touch the raw flesh. She wrinkled her nose and AJ was almost glad he couldn’t see what she was looking at. As the sun rose he could sense Kenny at the very edge of his awareness and dread clawed its way up his stomach. Friendly or not, she was in danger and he had to warn her. “Miss Charlotte, please listen to me,” he said urgently. “You have to get out of here. There’s something coming and it’s very dangerous. He looks human but he isn’t. He can make you do anything he wants you to do just by asking you.”

 

Her eyebrows drew together in puzzlement, but she didn’t look up from her examination. “What are you talking about?” she asked.

 

“He goes by the name of Kenny Omega. He isn’t human. He can cast a spell on you and make you do what he wants. He made my friends turn on me. He’s the one that did this to me. You have to get out of here, miss. You’re not strong enough to fight him.” He could feel Kenny’s presence coming closer.

 

Her glare surprised him. “Don’t patronize me!” she snapped.

 

Surprised at her anger, AJ asked, “What do you mean?”

 

“You immediately jumped to the conclusion that I was in danger because I’m a woman. Well guess what? You’re here because of me, not Kenny Omega,” she bragged as she stood up, running her fingertips lightly over the runes on the tree above AJ.

 

It suddenly clicked. The ghost of Becky Lynch had said the person who chained her to her corpse had white hair. “You’re the witch!” AJ said, feeling sick. “You fucking bitch! You chained that poor girl’s soul to her corpse?” Charlotte shrugged, like it was no big deal but her smirk told him that she was proud of what she had done. AJ decided that she was going to die right alongside Kenny. He had no issue with killing monsters, even female ones. “Why are you doing this? What do you get out of this?”

 

“I get revenge!” she hissed, eyes blazing and cheeks flushed.

 

“What’d I do to you?” AJ asked, surprised. He searched his memory. He’d done so many bad things to so many people after the war, from robbery to murder that he couldn’t remember them all. But he swore he had never met Charlotte before.

 

“Not you!” she said scornfully. “Randy Orton.”

 

“What’d he do?” AJ asked. Despite the water, he could feel his fever coming back. “Was he your lover and left you for someone else?” If that was the case, what she was doing gave a whole new level to the ‘woman scorned’ saying.

 

“That son of a bitch killed my father,” she said. “He is going to pay for that.”

 

Well, okay. That was actually a reason AJ could understand. Randy was a killer, the same way AJ was. But Randy had struck him as some type of lawman though. Then he had an idea. “Your father was a demon?” he asked. He couldn’t think of another logical reason Randy would kill her father.

 

Her eyes went wide and she slapped him hard across the face. “How dare you! He was a US Marshal! One of the very best. He personally trained Orton when that son of a bitch was a stupid, green deputy.”

 

So Orton had been a lawman after all. AJ’s instincts had been right. His cheek stung, but it hurt less than his other injuries. He worked his jaw as he looked up at her. “Really?” he asked, unimpressed.

 

“Yes, really. Judge Hunter sent my father after Orton when he turned outlaw.” She folded her arms over her chest.

 

AJ didn’t tell Charlotte that he himself had killed several marshals. “Seems to me just being a US Marshal is a hazardous job. Getting killed comes with territory.”

 

“The only reason Orton was able to kill him was because my dad stupidly trusted him to do the right thing! But Orton betrayed him,” Charlotte said bitterly.

 

“So just what do you plan to do?” he asked, just to keep the conversation going. Kenny was getting closer, but seemed to be taking his time.

 

“I told you, I’m going to make Randy Orton suffer for what he did,” Charlotte vowed.

 

“Charlotte, you’re a smart woman. This is madness. You’ll never succeed,” AJ argued. If he could just make her doubt herself… “Randy Orton is really strong, in case you didn’t know. Not to mention he has access to some really big guns.”

 

She made an impatient gesture. “Not once I cut him off from the Saint of Killers, just like you are,” she told him, her eyes straying to AJ’s wrists. That explained why the Saint hadn’t answered him, AJ realized. It was that cold, hungry chain. His dislike for her grew. Charlotte leaned closer as she hissed. “Then I’ll bind his soul like I did that Lynch bitch. Only with him, I’ll make it so no one, not even the Saint of Killers will ever find him and free him.”

 

She wasn’t handsome anymore, AJ decided. Her hate was making her ugly. The thought of Randy Orton bound to his own corpse made AJ furious, mostly because AJ still owed him his life. And he planned to make good on that. “When I get these off, the last thing you’ll see is the barrel of a Colt Walker,” he promised softly.

 

There must have been something in his voice because her eyes widened and she took a step back. But then she recovered and smirked again. “You’ll never get them off,” she told him. “They are strengthened by your blood. You’ve fought them so much they are literally almost bound to you now.”

 

Bound to him? AJ fought back the panic he felt at her words. She had to be wrong. AJ refused to believe there wasn’t a way to get the chains off. And to make things worse, he could feel Kenny was getting closer. “Then one of the others will get you,” he said. “Do you have any idea what you’re about to bring down on yourself? You’ve never met him, felt his wrath. The Saint of Killers is not to be fucked with.”

 

For the first time Charlotte looked uncertain. She bit her lip and AJ suddenly realized how young she was.

 

“Hey Charlotte! How’s our guest doing?” Kenny called, stepping into view, the Young Bucks at his heels, leading all their horses. Kenny didn’t look exactly pleased to see Charlotte talking with AJ.

 

Holding up the canteen, she waggled it back and forth. A little water sloshed around in it. “I was giving him some water. If you don’t take care of him, he’ll die before he’s of any use to you,” Charlotte said, not bothering to hide her contempt. She wasn’t scared of Kenny or the Young Bucks. If they tried anything, well, they’d regret it.

 

“I think you’re being overly cautious,” Kenny replied as he got closer. He smirked at AJ’s defiant glare. “AJ’s tough. He can take more punishment than you can believe. You don't have to worry your pretty little head about him,” he told her condescendingly. He crouched down next to AJ, ignoring her glare.

 

“Get away from me, you piece of shit,” AJ told him evenly, glaring through his hair.

 

Kenny laughed and the sun glowed around him. “Maybe you boys should get him some water,” he said over his shoulder to the kids. “He’s in for a rough day and we don’t want him passing out and missing the fun.”

 

“Sure Kenny.” Matt and Nick wandered off to fill their canteens in the stream.

 

“So you two are working together?” AJ asked, wishing he could just get his hands free.

 

Turning back to AJ, Kenny nodded. “Of course. Charlotte is amazing. I couldn’t have caught you without her help.” Smiling, Kenny rested his hand on AJ’s forehead, then slid it down his cheek. “You’re feverish,” he said as AJ jerked his head back.

 

“I told you not to touch me,” AJ said, and Kenny chuckled, as if AJ could tell Kenny what he could and couldn’t do.

 

Just to show his prisoner that it didn’t matter if AJ objected, that it was Kenny who wielded the power here, he gently stroked AJ’s thick hair away from his face, letting just the smallest trickle of power dance on his fingertips. He felt AJ’s muscles start to relax under the touch and smiled to himself. He knew AJ hated him and manipulating AJ’s body into welcoming his touch, even against his will was a victory over the former Ace of Bullet Club. And he could tell by the way AJ was glaring at the ground that AJ knew exactly what Kenny was doing. AJ knew he was helpless to stop Kenny when he used his power like that. Kenny leaned close and whispered in AJ’s ear, “Even though you’ll never admit it, I know you like that. Imagine if we had more time?”

 

AJ flushed red but didn’t say anything. His only response was to clench his fists. He would endure this. His time would come.

 

As tempting as it was to stay there and see how far he could get with AJ, Kenny knew they were going to have company soon. He stood up and motioned for Charlotte to join him as he walked out of AJ’s hearing. “The Skinwalker is near. He’s got the Wolf with him,” Kenny told her.

 

“How long?” Charlotte asked. She didn’t know or care how he knew this but it meant Kenny’s plans were ramping up. And her vengeance on Randy Orton was getting closer.

 

“He’s almost here,” Kenny said, glancing at the sun’s position. He felt good, really good. If everything went as planned, he would have his brother back soon.

 

“And you’re sure we’re ready?” she asked. She’d waited for years to get her revenge on Randy Orton but being careless this late in the game would be catastrophic. AJ’s quiet promise weighed heavily on her mind.

 

“Yes, and I’ve sent out the invitations to interested parties to come here. They’re not trustworthy of course, but what can you do?” the angel shrugged. Seeing Charlotte’s skeptical look, he assured her. “Styles will provide them with more than enough power to get them hooked. Once they have a taste, they'll fight to the death to keep him. Or to get another one like him.”

 

“What do you mean?” she asked, glancing back at AJ. The man was suffering from the combined effects of the soul chain and the demon mark. If he didn’t live through the day, they would have nothing to keep the demons in line.

 

“Don’t worry about him,” Kenny shrugged almost reading her mind. “Trust me, he's tough. He'll last a lot longer than you think. The only thing that matters is getting my brother back. And after he’s safe with us, I will deliver both Reigns and Ambrose to the newly powered-up demons. I hear those two are like brothers themselves. Wouldn’t that be perfect revenge, making one of them watch while the demons feed off the other?”

 

Charlotte didn’t care about Reigns and Ambrose. Or even Kenny’s brother. Smiling, Kenny took her by her shoulders and shook her gently. “Of course Orton is yours to do with what you wish.”

 

She smiled back. That’s all she wanted.

 

~~~~~

 

Baron felt like he had walked forever.

 

The Skinwalker led Baron through the woods. The Wolf tried to keep up, but his broken ribs and bruised hip made it hard. And if Baron slowed down, the Skinwalker would just drag him by the rope attached to the collar around his neck until the Wolf regained his feet. They traveled for miles through dense thickets and across swift running streams, not stopping to rest until it was full dark. Baron had collapsed more unconscious than asleep, only to be roughly awakened before first light by a yanking on the hated collar. As he scrambled to his feet to follow the giant, Baron stumbled but refrained from yelping as his ribs protested. He doggedly put one foot in front of the others to keep up with the Skinwalker. The sun was clearing the horizon when the Skinwalker halted. Baron was so focused on the small task of moving, he didn’t realize the ancient being had stopped until he ran into the back of the Skinwalker’s legs. Baron staggered, but remained upright. When it didn’t look like the Skinwalker was going to move on, Baron looked around, trying to figure out why they had stopped.

 

They were at the edge of a large clearing. In the center was a massive tree with someone tied to its base. There was no wind so Baron couldn’t tell who it was. All he could smell was pine trees, a nearby creek and the Skinwalker's overwhelming scent. Then someone hailed them. There were three men and a woman approaching from the other end of the clearing. The one in the lead, with white hair on top of black, smiled pleasantly and waved at them. The sun shone around him like a golden benediction. They all ignored the one tied to the tree as they approached Baron and the Skinwalker. Then Baron got a whiff of the “golden one” and fell in love.

 

He had never in all his life smelled something so absolutely divine, like sunshine and clean air, like spring and mating time. Baron felt something inside him relax for the first time since he had been driven from his pack.

 

Above him, the Skinwalker glared at the humans. “I brought you this,” he tugged at Baron’s leash, pulling the Wolf forward. Baron swayed but stayed on his feet from sheer stubbornness. Then he took a step forward, wanting to get closer to the one the Skinwalker had called the “golden One.”

 

“Good to see you again, Braun!” the wonderful smelling creature said to the Skinwalker. The golden one looked down at Baron. “You know me but your Wolf doesn’t. I’m Kenny Omega and this is Matt and Nick Jackson. And that is Charlotte.” Baron sat on his haunches, glad to not be moving, and just basked in the presence of Kenny Omega.

 

The two ordinary human males exclaimed over Baron in delight. “I want to teach the puppy to play fetch,” Matt announced. He reached out to pet the Wolf’s head. Humiliated, Corbin snarled and snapped weakly. Matt and Nick just laughed. But Corbin couldn’t restrain a whimper as his legs started to shake and he sank down on his belly.

 

“Kenny, he’s hurt!” Nick said, his concern was genuine.

 

“What happened to the puppy?” Kenny asked the Skinwalker, who apparently went by the name of Braun.

 

The Skinwalker shrugged. “I thought it was one of the Saint’s bastards at first, so I roughed him up a bit. Then I realized it was the Wolf she gave me the collar for. The one you wanted me to bring to you. I kept the collar on him. I like him better this way.”

 

“Kenny, you'll heal him, won't you?” Nick asked as he took the leash from Braun.

 

“Of course,” Kenny said and to Baron’s delight, knelt down beside him. Running his hands over Baron’s body, Kenny channeled his warm, sunshine power to heal Baron's ribs and hip. He stroked Baron’s fur and the Wolf melted at the touch. He almost tried to lick Kenny’s face like some cub and caught himself, embarrassed. Kenny laughed.

 

“Who’s that?” Braun asked. He glared at the figure sitting under the tree. “Is that one of them?”

 

“Yes, we caught him yesterday,” Kenny said with a satisfied grin.

 

“Then I want him,” Braun said, striding towards the tree. The others followed and Baron scrambled to keep close to Kenny. As they neared the tree, Baron caught the scent and nearly stopped dead in his tracks. He knew the man. It was AJ Styles.

 

Braun strode up to AJ, who was curled up with his knees to his chest, hair hanging over his face. His hands were covered in dried blood.

 

“You were going to kill me?” the giant rumbled.

 

AJ didn't respond, he didn’t even look up. Up close, Baron could smell the fever and the new, acrid smell of poisoned flesh. He backed away as far as the leash would allow. Before AJ had smelled of gunpowder and death. Now part of him smelled like a corpse left in a stagnant pond. Baron whined softly. What had been done to AJ was an abomination.

 

“I SAID, you were going to kill me?” the Skinwalker repeated loudly. He took a step closer, looking like he was going to kick AJ to get his attention.

 

“Yes, he was going to kill you, but we stopped him,” Kenny stepped between AJ and Braun. He had to crane his neck to look up into Braun’s face. “We saved you, Braun. Do you understand? We saved you from getting killed by the Saint of Killers. That means now you owe us your life. You owe me.”

 

The Skinwalker glared at Kenny and for a moment, Baron was sure the giant would attack the angel. He tensed, ready to spring to Kenny Omega’s defense even though he didn’t understand why. But the moment passed and the Skinwalker didn’t move. “What do you want from me?” the giant asked finally. Baron relaxed.

 

Kenny explained what he wanted from the Skinwalker. The giant nodded slowly. “I see. And why did you want the Wolf?”

 

“He will guide us to Reigns and Ambrose,” Kenny told Braun. Then the angel turned to Baron and asked him, “Can you find them? The ones who bring the End of Days? They’ll smell just like he did,” Kenny pointed to AJ. “They’re looking for Styles but we want to find them first.”

 

Happy to be called upon to do something for the angel, Baron nodded once. He had to restrain himself from letting his tongue hang out with pleasure. It was embarrassing how much he wanted to please the angel but his scent was just too intoxicating to ignore.

 

As the humans talked about their plans, Baron sniffed at the tree. Its scent too had been altered. Even the chain that bound Styles didn't smell exactly like iron, and he lifted a paw to scratch at it. It was cold and hard. His claws slipped off the chain and faintly scratched the rune behind it.

 

“No, no. Come away from there, puppy,” Nick said, tugging on the leash. “Leave the bad man alone.”

 

As Baron allowed himself to be pulled away, he saw AJ finally raise his head. The outlaw’s blue eyes were dulled with pain and fever. He didn’t seem to notice Baron. He was looking towards the edge of the clearing. Baron followed his gaze.

 

Several people were emerging from the woods. When Baron caught a whiff of them, born on the morning breeze, he growled loudly, nearly cowering with fear and hatred. The others fell silent.

 

No less than five demons were entering the clearing.

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Apologies for being late. I slacked off during the holidays. But now, now the Club is back together! That makes me all sorts of happy.

 

Thank you to my beta-reader Kiss316. She had to read numerous variations of this chapter as I tend to be wishy-washy on how much I want to make AJ suffer. She is the best.

 

 

Warnings : Swearing, graphic violence, here be demons

 

Several ‘people’ were emerging from the woods. When Baron caught a whiff of them, born on the morning breeze, he growled loudly, nearly cowering with fear and hatred. The others fell silent.

 

No less than five demons were entering the clearing.

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 18

 

The slight breeze died off and an unnatural stillness filled the clearing. Even the sound of water running in the creek bed was muted. It was as if nature itself was reacting to the sheer menace projected by the demons entering the clearing.

 

As individuals the demons were nowhere near as powerful as the Destroyer, but as a group they were strong enough to give anyone pause. Though they all arrived at the same time there seemed to be two different groups. Two of the big ones were similar in dress and looks, almost like brothers. The other group consisted of two ‘smaller’ demons, along with the final big one with long, unkempt hair. By the ragged state of their clothing, it was obvious the recent past hadn’t treated them well. All of them were wary and suspicious as they approached Kenny Omega, stopping several feet away from the angel and his friends. In contrast, Kenny was confident, even relaxed. For several seconds the demons just stared at Kenny. Nick, Matt and the others stayed quiet several feet behind the angel, following his orders to not draw unnecessary attention but ready to back him up if necessary.

 

From his tree, AJ could clearly see the demons inside the human shells. He didn’t know what Kenny's plans were or how the demons fit into them, but he had a bad feeling and wished the Saint was there. Or Mark and Randy.

 

The silent stare-down between the demons and the angel was broken by one of the smaller demons. “We got your ‘message’, angel. Why should we believe you can help us?” he sneered. He had short brown hair and a scraggly beard. The biggest one of their pack added, “This better not be a waste of our time. ‘Cause if it is, we’ll be happy to pluck your wings off, feather by feather.” He looked over at Kenny’s group and leered at Charlotte. She glared back.

 

Unimpressed, Kenny replied, “Even for a demon, you’re rude. The least you could do is introduce yourselves.”

 

The other smaller demon stepped forward. “You’re right. Where are our manners? We’re SAni†Y. I’m Eric Young and these are my brothers Alexander Wolfe and Killian Dain.” Dain was the big one. “Now that we've introduced ourselves, I’ll repeat the question: Why should we believe you can help us?”

 

“You seem to be missing one. Nikki Cross I believe? Where is she?” Kenny ignored the demon’s demand with infuriating casualness.

 

“We ran into Reigns and Ambrose east of Helena,” Alexander growled, clenching his fists. All of the demons’ faces hardened when they heard Reigns and Ambrose’ names.

 

“Then thank you for coming,” Kenny said, with a sneer of his own. “I appreciate your taking the time away from your getting revenge to meet with me.”

 

“Are you a fucking idiot? How can we get revenge for Nikki? We can't kill them. We can't even hurt them because their damned friend just heals them,” Eric Young said bitterly. “Our only chance was to get the hell out of there as fast as possible.”

 

“And you came here? You guys are the fucking idiots! You probably led them right to us,” one of the demons from the other pack snarled.

 

“Don’t worry your little head, Rezar. We gave them the slip,” Killian Dain said arrogantly. He wasn’t scared of them.

 

“Actually, you didn’t. The Saint called them off your trail temporarily because of me,” Kenny said, buffing his nails on his shirt. It was amazing how smug he could sound. He sneered at their near-panicked expressions. “Oh calm down. I’m not working with him.”

 

The three SAni†Y demons exchanged uneasy looks. “Then what’s your game?” Eric Young finally asked.

 

“I'll tell you in a minute. Right now, I want to be sure who I’m dealing with. You’re Authors of Pain, Akem and Rezar? By your marks you're higher rank than the SAni†Y pack.” The twin demons didn't say anything. They had short dark hair and beards. And they were both massive, with Rezar a good 40 pounds heavier than Akem. “Didn’t your pack have another member as well? Where is he?” Kenny asked. The demons glared but still didn’t answer. Kenny’s lips twisted into a knowing smirk. “Of course. Anyway, thank you for joining us. As you know, I'm Kenny Omega. And you obviously know where I'm from.” He glowed a bit and the demons practically hissed with hate. There was no love lost between demons and angels. And though demons were from two different ranks of order, all of them knew it was highly improbable that Kenny’s offer was for their sole benefit. But, Reigns and Ambrose were relentless when it came to hunting demons down. If Kenny claimed to be able to help...

 

They were willing to hear what he had to say before they killed him and his friends.

 

“All right, you want to know how I was able to get Reigns and Ambrose off your trail. It’s simple, I captured one of them,” Kenny said. All of the demons stepped back nervously, looking around as if they expected the Saint to manifest right then. Kenny barked a mocking laugh as he gestured to AJ, who was watching the demons through his hair.

 

“That’s not Reigns or Ambrose,” Akem said, confused. “And it’s too small to be Orton.”

 

Kenny walked over to stand next to AJ. “You’re absolutely right! This is AJ Styles, former leader of Bullet Club until I set him on the path to meet the Saint of Killers a few weeks ago. Little AJ here has killed only one demon so far.” He reached down and mockingly stroked AJ's hair away from his face. Annoyed, AJ jerked his head away. “It was no small task to separate him from his guardian. You see those chains? As long as he wears them, he can’t summon the Killer. That's why they stopped hunting you. They’re focused on getting him back.”

 

“Bullshit, they’ve never left a hunt before,” Eric Young scoffed. “Why would they start now? What's changed?”

 

Amused by AJ's pathetic attempt to stay out of his reach, Kenny softly stroked AJ's thick hair as he smiled down at his captive. “Remember Judge Hunter's offer when he had Orton in custody several weeks ago?” AJ wondered what Kenny was talking about. Where did Randy fit into this?

 

The demons obviously knew what Kenny was talking about. “So what? This isn't Orton.”

 

“No, but he is like Orton, now,” Kenny said in a tone that insinuated something. AJ fervently wished he knew what exactly they were talking about.

 

“Big deal. Benoit put the mark on Orton and Benoit's dead. Good luck finding any demon still alive that's strong enough to put a mark that one. Reigns and Ambrose killed them all,” Eric Young scoffed.

 

“What would you say if I told you he already has one.” Kenny opened the side of AJ’s ripped shirt with his foot, the toe of his boot scraped over the raw flesh and AJ flinched. Kenny's hand tightened briefly in AJ's hair, then relaxed. He resumed stroking AJ's hair again. It was humiliating.

 

The demons crowded closer to see it. It was clear they were impressed despite trying to hide it. “I’ve never seen one like that,” one muttered. “Who did it?”

 

“The Destroyer,” Kenny said.

 

“He still alive?” Alexander asked, surprised. He had thought the Destroyer would have been at the top of Reigns and Ambrose' list of demons to kill.

 

Kenny didn't bother to answer that. “Now you know why they are so determined to get him back. They don't want you to get more power.”

 

As he listened to Kenny and the demons, AJ was getting the feeling that something awful was going to happen. He tugged ineffectually at the chain again, breaking the tender scabs on his wrists. Soon, fresh blood dripped down his hands but there was no getting free of the chains. Giving that up for now, he looked to see what Kenny’s group was making of all this. Baron, Matt and Nick were looking adoringly at Kenny, much to AJ’s disgust. Braun didn’t seem to care for the demons, but didn’t object either. Charlotte was standing further back, glaring at the demons, her lips twisted as if she was tasting something bad. Whatever Kenny had planned, she didn’t like it. That made AJ even more uneasy.

 

“And what's your price? Are you going to demand that we do something for you in exchange for him like Hunter did? Fuck that. We’re not going up against Reigns and Ambrose, not for any bribe you can offer,” Rezar stated.

 

Still smiling, Kenny shook his head and rested his hand on the top of AJ's head. “It’s not like that at all. You don’t have to do anything. I’m giving him to you.”

 

Kenny now had the demons’ full attention. Suddenly they looked much more interested and their suspicious air morphed into something like...lust.

 

Inwardly disgusted, Kenny wanted to get this over with, to put distance between himself and his natural enemies. He didn’t like being so near the demons, but he’d put up with them until he got it through the demons’ thick skulls. Kenny wanted his message to Reigns and Ambrose to be crystal clear: AJ was going to suffer as Kenny’s brother was suffering.

 

“But what about Reigns and Ambrose? They're probably on their way right now,” Alexander said nervously. Their brush with Death had understandably spooked them.

 

But Kenny was quick to reassure him. “You don’t have to worry, Alexander. Me and my friends here have a plan to deal with them and when I’m finished, you might even have Reigns and Ambrose to play with, in addition to AJ.” As the demons' eyes lit up, Kenny finally allowed himself to take a step back, signaling to the others it was time to leave.

 

“Why are you doing this? What’s in it for you?” Akem asked. The Authors of Pain hadn’t survived as long as they had by being careless or trusting. And they sure as hell didn’t trust Kenny. There had to be a catch.

 

Dead serious, Kenny told them, “My reasons are my own. The knowledge that one of the Saint’s chosen is feeding power to a large number of demons is all the payment I require. However, if you don't want him...”

 

But Alexander was quick to put a stop to that line of thought. “Oh, don't worry, we want him. We were just wondering where the strings are in the deal.”

 

Satisfied, Kenny smiled. There was no warmth in it. “No strings. But I do have a request.”

 

“Here it comes,” Rezar said under his breath.

 

“Relax. I only ask that you share and share alike. Play nice. I didn’t go through all the trouble to get him just for you to keep him to yourself.” Kenny looked pointedly at the Authors of Pain. Then he held out his hand to Nick, who placed the reins of Kenny’s horse in it. “This isn’t about you getting power, it’s about making them suffer. I want Reigns and Ambrose to learn that there are consequences for their actions.”

 

The demons looked at each other, not understanding exactly what the angel meant but they were coming around. They finally stopped questioning Kenny's motives and accepted the gift he had given them. Rezar said, “Our thanks, angel.” The rest of the demons were leering at AJ. AJ glared back, dread coiling in his belly.

 

Satisfied, Kenny mounted up. As he settled into the saddle, he said, “A word of warning: do not take those chains off of him. If he gets free, the Saint of Killers will come. And you know what will happen then.” Turning his horse, Kenny, the Young Bucks, and Charlotte on AJ’s buckskin set out at an easy canter. Braun and Baron followed on foot.

 

As he watched Kenny and the others leave, white-hot rage welled up inside of AJ. “Kenny, you will pay for this. Do you hear me? I will fucking kill you!” he shouted after them, his voice raw. Then his view of them was cut off by the demons clustering around him like a pack of wolves. He glared up at them through is hair. He had no idea what was going to happen, what they intended to do to him, but he would not go down without a fight.

 

“Who gets to go first?” one of the SAni†Y pack asked.

 

“I do,” Rezar said with finality. “Then me,” Akem said. Seeing SAni†Y start to protest, he added, “We outrank you.”

 

That started off a brief argument and some threats were made but in the end SAni†Y backed down. Rank held sway in the demons' hierarchy. With Akem glaring at the other demons to wait their turn, Rezar crouched down next to AJ. He took a closer look at the mark on AJ’s side.

 

“Don’t touch me, you filth,” AJ warned, his eyes blazed with hate. The demons' proximity was driving him crazy. Up close, the demon inside the human body was obscene. AJ dug his heels into the dirt and pushed his back firmly against the trunk of the tree, holding onto the chain with his bloody hands.

 

Ignoring AJ, Rezar took out a knife and held AJ's shoulder firmly while he sliced the tender flesh above the mark. The black letters on AJ’s side twisted and flared with a sickly yellow cast as soon as the blood trickled over it. All the demons’ eyes light up.

 

“Can you feel that?” Killian Dain asked, excitement coloring his voice. “Omega was telling the truth. It is the Destroyer's mark.”

 

“Oh yeah,” Eric Young said, giddy. He lightly kicked Rezar’s boot. “If you’re through admiring it, please get on with it. We’d like our turn too.”

 

“Back off and maybe you'll get your turn when we're done,” Akem snarled. Now that they knew what they had in their possession, the Authors of Pain were reluctant to share with the lesser demons, despite Kenny’s admonition.

 

“Fuck that!” Killian Dain got right up into Akem's face. “There is no 'maybe'. It’s not yours to keep. We all get a turn. And if you think otherwise? Well, rank or no, we'll fuck you up and leave you for Orton to finish off.” He shoved Akem. Enraged, Rezar sprang to his feet and pushed Killian back. And suddenly there was an all-out brawl between the factions. They held nothing back as blood flew and bones crunched. The prize was worth more than his weight in gold. The chance to become more powerful was too good to pass up, to share.

 

Wide-eyed, AJ watched the demons fight over him. He renewed his efforts to break the chain, but it held firm. Forced to abandon his escape attempt, he studied their movements, cataloging potential weaknesses for when he did get free. For the first few minutes, the fight was all SAni†Y. But gradually, despite SAni†Y having the greater numbers and cunning, Akem and Rezar began to dominate through sheer strength. At the end, the bruised and bloodied smaller demons were cowering behind Killian, who was bleeding heavily from his nose and mouth.

 

“Now that that's taken care of,” Rezar snarled, breathing heavily. “Where was I?” The huge demon returned to AJ's tree and crouched in front of AJ. AJ glared warily, heart hammering in his chest, making the mark on his side burn hot with each pulse. The huge demon grabbed AJ's knees and forced them apart, moving closer to settle between AJ's legs. There was a large bulge in the demon's crotch and with a rush of horror, the memory of black branches flashed through AJ’s mind and he knew what the demon intended to do him. Dimly, he thought of Randy. Was this what had happened to Orton? Rezar started to pull at AJ’s pants and for the first time in his adult life, AJ panicked. His mind went blank and with an animal surge of desperation, he pulled with all his strength on the chain keeping him tied to the tree. The bleeding on his wrists intensified but AJ was beyond feeling it, beyond caring about incidental pain. After that cold January night, he had vowed that it would never happen again. He screamed with rage and desperation, his raw vocal chords tearing. As he struggled, the chain, which had been strengthened by a rune the witch had placed on the tree to stop AJ from getting free, the same rune weakened by the smallest scratch made by an inquisitive wolf…broke.

 

Hands suddenly free, one half of the chain dangled from each of his wrists, AJ immediately drove his right fist into the nose of the huge demon in front of him. Bones splintered as Rezar's face exploded in blood. AJ wrapped one of the chains around the demon's neck and pulled as hard as he could, his goal was nothing short of decapitating the demon. He quickly gathered his legs underneath him, still tightening the chain around that thick neck with all his strength, and stood over the demon, using his weight as leverage to increase the pressure. Blood poured down Rezar's chest as the chain dug in deeper. Rezar’s eyes bulged in their sockets and his tongue swelled in his mouth. AJ was so determined to kill Rezar he didn’t see Akem until the demon slugged AJ across the jaw, staggering the smaller man and loosening the chain enough for Rezar to pull it off. The huge demon collapsed on the ground, gasping and clutching at his throat.

 

For a moment, AJ saw stars. He shook his head and tasted blood. With sudden sharp clarity, AJ’s brain re-engaged and he immediately started assessing his situation, which although was very bad (five demons against one, and three were absolute powerhouses) it wasn’t as bad as it had been. He was free from the tree. He was as strong as they were. He was faster than them. And he had studied their moves.

 

He was AJ-fucking-Styles and he would beat them.

 

He kicked Rezar in the head to ensure the demon stayed down and backed-up a few feet to give himself room to maneuver. With a length of chain dangling from his wrists he also had weapons. Going on the offensive he whipped one length of chain into the face of Akem, who was closing in on him, face red with rage. As Akem flinched back with a large gash across his forehead and blood pouring into his eyes, AJ leaped at Eric Young, driving his fist right into the terrified demon’s face, crushing his eye socket. The demon barely collapsed to the ground clutching his face before AJ already moved on to his next target, the enormous Killian Dain. His lips twisted into a challenging smirk as he deftly wrapped the chain on his right wrist around his arm, holding the end in place with a clenched fist.

 

Infuriated, the massive demon ran right at AJ, who neatly sidestepped at the last possible instant. As Killian went by him, AJ swung his chain-wrapped fist to the back of Killian’s head. It broke the demon’s skull and an impossible amount of blood poured from Killian’s nose. As Killian crashed heavily to the ground, AJ smoothly turned to Alexander Wolf who was looking nervous. With a savage grin, AJ stalked the smaller SAni†Y demon. “Yeah, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I shall fear no evil,” he quoted at Alexander. The bible verse he had heard as he was growing up in his parents’ religious household had always been his favorite.

 

AJ saw movement out of the corner of his eye and ducked right under Akem's haymaker. A split second after the meaty arm whooshed over his head, AJ straightened and rammed his chain-wrapped fist under Akem's chin, snapping the demon's head back with a sickening crack. The demon's eyes rolled back and he flopped down hard on the ground but AJ didn't stop to watch. Instead, Killian was rising unsteadily to his feet. The human shell was fatally damaged, but the demon could still force the body to move. Now the body was slower though and he didn’t have time before AJ whipped the end of his loose chain directly across Killian’s eyes. The demon screamed, clutching at his face, blood spurting between his fingers. Alexander, his face a bloody mask as well edged away, but AJ was too quick for him. He tackled the demon to the ground. Climbing onto the smaller demon’s back, AJ clutched its head and which a quick jerk, snapped his neck.

 

Standing up, he paused briefly to catch his breath. He looked almost feral, eyes burning through his hair. Eric Young was the last demon standing but he was backing away. AJ snarled at the demon in a voice that was so close to the Saint’s, the demon yelped in terror. “Because this is my valley, motherfucker.”

 

Eric Young ran.

 

None of the remaining demons moved although he could see they were still 'alive' inside the heavily damaged shells. He eyed them warily as he considered his next move. He needed to get the chains off so he could tell the Saint about Kenny. The rage and adrenaline that sustained him through the fight were starting to drain away and he knew he had to get out of there. Over a day of being tied up with only a little water and a demon mark burning in his side were taking its toll on him and he had to put some distance between himself and the incapacitated demons in case he passed out. The trouble was AJ had no idea where he was. All he could see was trees. And without a horse, there was no quick getaway. He heard the chattering of water in the creek and it reminded him of how thirsty he was. He drew a shaking breath headed towards the water. He acutely felt every ache and pain in his body. He was halfway there when the mark on his side flared and he clutched at it, hissing through clenched teeth. Holding his side he took a determined breath and moved on. He was almost to the edge of the clearing when he felt it: there was another demon nearby. It was very powerful. Much more so than the ones he’d just faced. The mark flared again, this time the burning went straight through his chest, and he stumbled, catching himself on one knee.

 

He heard a noise behind him and started to look around, but was grabbed by his hair and pulled backward flat onto his back. Desperately AJ clawed at the hand but the grip was too strong. Unable to get free, he thrashed wildly as he was dragged back to the center of the clearing where he was thrown face first to the ground. Released from the grip AJ immediately tried to scramble to his feet, flinging one end of the chain blindly, hoping to hit whomever had dragged him there. He was rewarded with a shout of pain and a heavy boot collided with his ribs, right where the demon mark was. His vision went white with pain as he felt his ribs break.

 

“Now lay still,” Rezar’s hoarse voice ordered above him but AJ was too consumed with just trying to breathe to listen. Dimly, he was aware of hands at his waist and with a jerk, he was exposed. Then an incredible weight fell on top of him, knocking any remaining breath out of his body. He felt like he was at the bottom of an avalanche. The weight was crushing his rib cage. Unable to draw a breath, black spots burst in front of his eyes from lack of oxygen. The large hand gripped his hair again, pressing the side of his face firmly into the dirt. He clawed at the hand even as his legs were forced apart. A raw, breathless scream of rage was all he could manage as he braced himself for what he knew was going to happen.

 

The massive weight on his back was abruptly gone. He opened his eyes but his hair obscured his vision. Only half-way conscious, AJ willed his body respond, to get up, to fight, to not give the demon another opportunity to rape him. But all his strength was gone. Then AJ shuddered involuntarily as he felt the presence of the new demon right above him. One that was obscenely powerful.

 

“This one. Is. Mine.” AJ heard the voice vibrate in his mind and bones. Instinctively he knew it was here to claim him, like Rezar had just attempted.

 

“We’re sorry! We didn’t know! The angel said we could have him,” he heard Akem exclaim, sounding terrified.

 

A low, guttural growl was the answer. Then suddenly Akem screamed. The sound was cut off abruptly by a sharp sound of snapping bones and the thud of a huge mass hitting the ground nearby.

 

“You fucking son of a bitch! King or no, I’ll kill you for that.” That was Rezar. Then there was a cracking, squishy, tearing sound, and through his hair AJ saw Rezar’s head, a shocked look still on his face, landing a few feet in front of his own. Blood pooled underneath and AJ realized Rezar’s head was no longer attached to his body. He turned his head and looked up, squinting. Even though his ribs were screaming at him, AJ reached up and moved his hair out of his eyes.

 

Standing over him was something black and terribly malevolent. A single gold eye glared down at him.

 

TBC

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Thank you to Kiss316 once again. She beta's this monster and is awesome!

 

He turned his head and looked up, squinting. Even though his ribs were screaming at him, AJ reached up and moved his hair out of his eyes.

 

Standing over him was something black and terribly malevolent. A single gold eye glared down at him.

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 19

 

Unable to move, AJ could only lay there on the ground, breathing with shallow gasps around the pain in his chest and ribs. Someone was shouting in a language AJ didn't understand. Then a person was standing between AJ and the demon. It sounded like he was commanding the demon, if AJ’s experience in the army was anything similar.

 

“Hurry,” the one-eyed demon replied. “I can't control him much longer with that mark active.”

 

The man with short black hair standing between AJ and the demon did something AJ couldn't see. But whatever it was, the demon seemed to...diminish. The other man turned toward AJ and crouched next to him. Something lightly brushed the exposed mark on his side and AJ flinched. He was answered by a sudden intake of breath, like someone had touched something unexpectedly hot. Then the man said something in the same foreign language as before.

 

“Later,” the demon growled in answer. “We need to seal those idiots before they wake up. They'll be after him immediately if we don’t and we’ll need Bàlor if that happens.” Baffled, AJ watched the demon kick Rezar’s head away and move out of AJ’s line of sight. AJ had no idea what the demon was talking about. Its voice was somehow less demon-like and more…Irish? Then hands were at AJ’s bare thighs and his heart started racing again. “No,” he protested breathlessly. He clawed at the earth in his hands and tensed up, sending stabbing pain through his ribs. It took him several seconds to understand that the person who had stood between him and Bàlor was gently working AJ’s pants back up over his hips.

 

“Hurry, Hideo,” the demon said impatiently. It obviously wasn’t going to rape AJ immediately. Probably just saving it for later, AJ figured bitterly.

 

Unmolested, AJ could hear them moving around, dragging heavy objects through the grass. Feeling some his strength coming back, AJ decided he had rested long enough. Thankfully his body cooperated, albeit reluctantly. Gingerly he made it to all fours, then to one knee, the chains on his wrists catching in the brown grass as he moved his arms. As he looked around through his hair, he could see Bàlor was briskly dragging the Authors of Pain’s bodies over to the small Asian man, who was kneeling next to the SAni†Y demons. That must have been Hideo, who Bàlor had addressed earlier. From his position, AJ couldn’t make out exactly what Hideo was doing, but he appeared to be writing something on Dain’s bare back with a brush and a pot of ink, while muttering to himself. In response, Dain twitched once, and then went limp again. Hideo moved over to Akam and repeated the process. AJ waited to see if the new demon would do anything to Hideo, but the demon didn’t bother him.

 

With a shallow gasp, AJ lurched to his feet, holding his injured side below the mark. He had no idea what was happening but at least he would face it on his feet. Seeing AJ upright, the black one-eyed demon headed back over. AJ glared at it defiantly even as darkness ate around the edges of his vision. The burning mark on top of his broken ribs hurt like a son of a bitch. He swayed unsteadily in front of the demon but grasped the chains in his fists, ready to defend himself. When the demon took him, it wouldn’t be because AJ just let him. He would never lay down for a demon.

 

“Are you okay?” the demon asked. The human body the demon inhabited was smaller than AJ. Some people probably considered the man to be exceptionally good looking, but all AJ could see was the demon inside.

 

“Fuck you,” AJ snarled. He wasn't going to be fooled by fake concern from the demon. His body shook so badly it made the chains rattle.

 

“Poor choice of words, given the circumstances,” the demon said wryly. “Sorry we got here so late, but we got sidetracked on the way.” It glanced at AJ’s side. “Why didn't you just call on the Saint of Killers?” the demon asked, its voice tight.

 

“How do you know about that?” AJ asked, but before the demon could answer, they were interrupted by familiar voices shouting his name. Surprised, AJ turned but made sure the demon stayed in his line of sight. Doc and Karl charged across the clearing on foot. “Are you okay?” Karl asked, skidding to a halt next to AJ. “Shit!” Seeing AJ nearly collapsing, Karl pulled AJ’s left arm over his shoulders to support him, the chain dangled down Karl’s chest.

 

“No! Get out of here! He’s a demon. He’ll kill you.” AJ warned, teeth gritted against the hot wave of agony in his chest and side. Despite the dry air, he was sweating.

 

“Nah, he’s an old friend,” Doc said with a horrifying lack of concern. “He saved us.”

 

Shocked, AJ tried to form a response, but the burning in his chest intensified and he gasped, curling down around the pain. Karl braced his legs to hold AJ’s weight after AJ’s legs gave out.

 

“Itami! Get over here! AJ’s hurt bad!” Doc shouted, moving in to help Karl hold AJ up.

 

Then Karl was saying something to AJ, but AJ couldn’t hear it. He was vaguely aware of Doc lifting him up and carrying him over to a shady spot near the creek. The ground near the creek was cool and damp. It felt good against his overheated body. Then Hideo was leaning over him, saying something to him in his foreign language. AJ didn’t understand and tried to tell Hideo. Then Hideo forced something into AJ’s mouth and AJ tasted something bitter on his tongue and despite his best efforts, he sank into darkness.

 

“That will keep him asleep for a while. Please get some water,” Itami told Karl in halting English, looking up from his examination of AJ. Karl nodded and trotted off to retrieve his canteen and fill it with fresh water from the creek.

 

While Karl was gone, Doc took a closer look at the chains on AJ's wrists. He felt ill seeing the raw, bloody flesh under the shackles. He looked for the unlocking mechanism, but failed. AJ would have to wait for a blacksmith to cut them off. Next to Doc, Itami was examining the black letters on AJ's side with a frown.

 

“Do you know which one it was?” the demon asked.

 

Soberly, Itami answered. “Destroyer.”

 

“Fuck!” the demon said.

 

“That doesn't sound good,” Doc observed.

 

They were interrupted by Karl coming back with the canteen and a soaking wet handkerchief. He handed the canteen to Itami, then wiped the cool handkerchief gently over AJ’s face and neck. He hesitated over the black mark on AJ’s side. There was a sickly yellow sheen that seemed to flicker over the black letters. He blinked, thinking it was his eyes tricking him. He reached out to press the cloth to the mark on AJ’s side, hoping the cold would give their former Ace some relief.

 

“Don’t touch it!” the demon barked at Karl, just as Itami grabbed his hand in an iron grip. Shocked, Karl jerked his hand back.

 

“It will burn you,” Itami said steadily. He released Karl and showed him his red fingertips where he had brushed them against AJ’s mark earlier. To drive his point home, Hideo poured some of the water over the mark. The mark sizzled and hissed when the water touched it.

 

“What the hell did they do to him, Devitt?” Doc demanded, his face was pale. He had never seen anything like that.

 

“A powerful demon called the Destroyer burned its mark on him,” 'Prince' Devitt said, his voice strained. He was uncharacteristically tense and avoiding looking at AJ. “Hideo, we need to finish re-sealing Bàlor. I’m about to lose it.”

 

Immediately Hideo was at Devitt’s side. He spoke to Devitt, who nodded, jaw tight. They turned to leave.

 

“Where are you going?” Karl demanded. “What about AJ?”

 

Hands tightly curled into fists, Devitt strove for control. “AJ can wait. The demon is fighting me to take control. AJ’s mark is still active and Bàlor wants it. The last thing we need is for Bàlor to get even more powerful.” He could feel Bàlor’s lust, the demon’s strong desire to take AJ for himself. He felt his own body’s response and turned away in disgust.

 

“That’s your demon, right?” Doc asked from AJ’s side, not noticing Devitt’s dilemma.

 

“We had to release some of Bàlor's seals to rescue AJ from those other demons. Hideo has to re-apply them before the demon takes control. You boys get the horses and be ready to move out. There may be more demons on the way and we can’t protect AJ from them.” On that cheery note, the two of them left.

 

Karl and Doc looked at each other. Doc sighed and looked down at AJ who appeared to be fighting his forced sleep. Doc brushed a strand of AJ’s hair out of his friend's face. “What are we going to do, Karl?” he asked.

 

On AJ's other side, Karl just shook his head. “Whatever it takes, brother. Come on, let’s get the horses.”

 

After they left, AJ’s face twisted with pain as his mind revisited old horrors.

 

It was cold.

 

What’s the matter, Allen?” they mocked as he fought to free himself from the hands that held his arms. “Are you scared? You said you didn’t need Christopher to protect you.”

 

They outnumbered him four to one but he hadn't truly believed they would hurt him. He wasn't the enemy. Oh sure, they disliked him. Allen had proved to be much better at riding and fighting than his fellow soldiers. And Chris had made no secret of Sergeant Allen Jones’ importance to the unit. His scouting to bring back information about the enemy’s position was invaluable. As a result, Allen enjoyed certain privileges beyond anyone else in their unit.

 

But to them, they were sure it was because of something else. Something only their twisted imaginations could produce. They were wrong, of course. There was only a deep respect between Christopher and him. Nothing more.

 

Why are you fighting us? Don’t you like it when Christopher does it?” They had never made those insinuations within Allen’s' hearing. Allen would have beaten the shit out of them. They were that smart, at least. Christopher had made it clear that internal fighting was not allowed, not while they were so close to the enemy's position.

 

On that cold January night, they got the jump on him. He was on his way back to the camp when the advanced sentry stopped him. Exhausted, Allen had given the password, only wanting to report and crawl into his tent. He didn’t notice they had been waiting for him. They dragged him off his horse and into the woods. At first, Allen believed they were only trying to scare him, maybe rough him up a bit, not that they would stoop so low as to do what they threatened to do. He believed it right up until they pushed him against a tree, the rough bark digging into the side of his face, stinging in the bitter cold…

 

“No stop!” His side was burning. He heard the crackling and popping of a fire, smelled the smoke and...roasting meat? Was it his side?

 

“AJ, it’s okay. You're safe now.”

 

He knew that voice. It was his friend, Doc. Cautiously AJ opened his eyes. Stars shone brightly through the pine branches overhead. Doc and Karl were sitting on either side of him. They looked relieved when they saw his eyes open. “It’s okay AJ,” Karl said. “How are you feeling?”

 

“Fucking hurts,” AJ gasped through clenched jaws. He felt sick, he felt violated. He felt angry.

 

“Yeah,” Karl agreed, eying AJ's side with disgust. “But I think Itami is almost ready.”

 

“To do what?” AJ struggled to sit up, doing his best not to wince at the pain deep in his side and chest. He hated anyone looking down at him. Though the forced rest had helped, he was grateful for Karl's immediately assistance. AJ braced his elbows on his knees and ran a hand through his hair, trying to piece together the situation. The chains rattled as he moved his arms. Someone had wrapped the links around his wrists and secured them with strips of cloth. He looked at them bleakly, mentally cursing Charlotte Flair for her part in this.

 

And Kenny.

 

And the Destroyer and the Young Bucks. But mostly Kenny.

 

Seriously, fuck Kenny.

 

“Don’t worry about those,” Doc promised him. “We’ll get you to a blacksmith. We won't let anything hurt you again.”

 

Touched, AJ managed to produce a ghost of his side-sliding grin. With Doc's and Karl's unwavering support, AJ felt better than he had in days. “I’m glad to see you guys. Kenny told me he sent you to do something. What was it?” he asked, his voice ragged. He wanted to focus on something besides his current predicament. Karl handed him a canteen full of water. He took a long drink.

 

“That piece of shit told us to find the sheriff of Bannack and turn ourselves in. Bastard wanted us hanged,” Doc said.

 

“Wouldn’t that have sucked? Getting arrested by that idiot Mizanin? That guy’s such an asshole,” Karl chimed in.

 

“You’ve no idea,” AJ muttered, knowing from first-hand experience. So that was the errand Kenny had sent them on. Fucker. AJ took another drink.

 

“Anyway, we were right outside of Bannack when we ran into Devitt and his friend. They were on their way to meet Kenny after getting his invitation,” Doc said.

 

“Devitt? Wait, are you talking about “Prince” Devitt?” AJ asked surprised, setting aside the much lighter canteen. Prince Devitt had been the original leader of Bullet Club, but he was gone by the time AJ found his way to them.

 

“Yeah. Some demon named Bàlor was trying to possess Devitt, which is why he left Bullet Club in the first place. I guess Hideo Itami prevented Bàlor from succeeding, so Devitt is only partially possessed. I admit I don’t quite get it, but whatever, he’s still Devitt,” Doc shrugged. “Anyway, for some reason, Kenny invited a bunch of demons to where he was holding you.”

 

“Yeah, I know all about that,” AJ muttered sourly. “What does that have to do with Devitt?”

 

“Turns out, Bàlor was one of them,” Doc said.

 

There was movement and AJ looked across the flickering firelight. He saw the demon staring back at him through the eyes of the slight man with blue eyes. AJ tensed and tried to scoot back but Doc stopped him. “Take it easy, AJ. It’s okay.”

 

Karl grinned that stupid, obnoxious grin of his. “AJ Styles, meet “Prince” Devitt, former leader of Bullet Club.”

 

Devitt grinned boyishly and immediately AJ felt the man’s charisma. “Call me Finn. Too many people associate Devitt with Bullet Club.” He gave the spit over the fire a turn. It was loaded with a couple of hares and a fat pheasant. It smelled wonderful and AJ would have drooled if he wasn't so wary of the demon. Sitting beside Finn was his friend. “This is Hideo Itami.”

 

Hideo bowed his head briefly. He was mixing something with a pestle in a porcelain bowl.

 

“Hideo broke Kenny’s spell. So Doc and I insisted on coming back with them and maybe get a shot at either Kenny or the kids.” Karl said.

 

“You accepted Kenny’s invitation?” AJ demanded, glaring at Finn.

 

“Yes, but not to increase Bàlor’s power,” Finn said. “We came to stop Kenny. We didn’t know he was involved with the Saint of Killers’ business.”

 

“I apologize for making you uncomfortable, Mr. Styles, but we had no choice. We had to release Bàlor to fight off those other demons,” Hideo said.

 

“Did you kill them?” AJ asked, hopefully.

 

“No. Hideo was able to temporarily seal them in their bodies long enough for us to get away. But they are still alive,” Finn said. Despite the freshly applied seals, he could still feel Bàlor fighting them. The tantalizing glimpse of the burning mark on AJ’s side had Bàlor in a frenzy. It had taken all of Finn’s control not to immediately take Rezar’s place when he had pulled the big demon off AJ earlier. And he could tell AJ sensed it at well, given how warily AJ watched him.

 

“Where are we?” AJ asked, changing the subject. It was too dark to see anything beyond the campfire. Crickets sang enthusiastically. Somewhere in the distance, coyotes conversed.

 

“North of the Pioneer mountains,” Finn said. Beside him, Hideo got up and walked over to AJ. He crouched down, politely skootching Doc to the side. He held a hand out to AJ and asked, “May I look at the chains?”

 

Seeing AJ’s reluctance, Finn said, “Don’t worry, he’s very good at mystical things.” He added more seasoning to the meat on the spit.

 

AJ held out his left arm. “The witch made them. She said I could never get them off, that they are bound to me because of my blood,” he explained. Hideo gently took AJ's hand and pulled it closer, studying the chain in the firelight. Both Doc and Karl leaned in to see it as well. Hideo reached into the bowl and pulled out a pinch of a powder, which he sprinkled on the bracelet. The runes Charlotte had placed on them revealed themselves in a soft bluish glow.

 

“Holy shit,” Karl said, his eyes wide.

 

Satisfied, Hideo stood back up and walked away to where their horses were tied and started rooting around in his saddlebags. He came back with a small earthen jar. He crouched next to AJ again and took AJ's hands. He gently spread an earthy-smelling salve on the raw flesh, working his fingers under the shackles to cover as much of the injured area as possible. It felt very good and AJ smiled more genuinely. Hideo smiled back and took out a thin piece of material. With his ink, he marked out several seals on the fabric. Satisfied he once again took each of AJ’s hands and worked the gauzy fabric between the shackles and AJ’s raw flesh. As soon as Hideo finished, AJ breathed a sigh of relief. He raised his hand and studied the shackles, which still glowed faintly.

 

“What are those?” Doc asked.

 

“Those runes strengthened the shackles so he couldn’t break them,” Hideo said. “The seals should weaken them enough for a blacksmith to cut them off.”

 

“Fucking hell, those are serious business, AJ. What were they thinking?” Karl asked as he also studied them.

 

“They’re what’s blocking me from contacting the Saint,” AJ said.

 

“That explains it. We were wondering why he wasn't around.” Finn said. The fire popped and sparked. The meat smelled heavenly.

 

“Who is the Saint?” Karl asked. Apparently, Finn hadn’t gotten around to explaining that to Doc and Karl yet.

 

Hideo gestured to AJ’s side and AJ stiffened. He didn’t want anyone to touch the mark. But Hideo persisted.

 

“You should let him help you,” Finn said, trying to sound reassuring, but he seemed…uncomfortable. Almost nervous. AJ still wasn't sure if Finn could be trusted, but both Doc and Karl had vouched for him. And AJ had endured just too much punishment to turn away help. If Hideo could alleviate the burning in his side, so much the better. Wincing, he removed his shirt. Hideo motioned for AJ to lay down and turn onto his left side so Hideo could examine the demon mark.

 

“Fucking hell, AJ,” Karl said. The ugly yellow glow was still flickering ominously over the black letters. It was even more noticeable in the dark.

 

“That was one bitch of a branding iron,” Doc muttered.

 

“You have no idea,” AJ replied through clenched jaws. He saw Finn get up and leave out of the corner of his eye.

 

Hideo didn’t touch the mark again directly. He pulled out a pair of leather riding gloves and rubbed some of the salve on the fingers. Then he lightly traced the mark. At the first light touch, AJ shuddered. The touch felt intrusive but gradually the salve worked and the burning eased. AJ almost wept with relief. After the jar was empty, Itami directed Doc and Karl to help AJ to his feet. He had AJ hold Karl's shoulders while he and Doc wrapped AJ’s ribs tightly with some heavy cloth. Then Hideo painted a few more symbols on the cloth right over the demon mark.

 

“I have done all I can for now,” Hideo said, putting his stuff away.

 

Finn came back soon after. “Can you seal it?” he asked Hideo.

 

“No, this is beyond my power. The salve will help but it will wear off, and I will need supplies to make more.”

 

AJ wasn’t quite sure what they were talking about, but he was very grateful for the reprieve from the pain. “Thank you. I can't tell you how I appreciate your help,” AJ said. It was hard to breathe, but that was better than the gouging pain in his side. He resumed his seat between Doc and Karl.

 

‘You said something earlier about wondering why someone wasn’t around,” Doc said. “Who is the Saint?”

 

“The Saint of Killers,” Finn said. The meat was done. Always ravenous after Bàlor had been unsealed, he impatiently pulled the spit away from the fire. He took the pheasant for himself, leaving the hares for the rest of them.

 

“How did you know about me and the Saint?” AJ asked, remembering Finn’s question earlier.

 

“On the ride over, Doc and Karl mentioned you had killed something nasty with a really big gun that disappeared,” Finn said. “I know a certain few others that can do that too.”

 

“Who is the Saint of Killers?” Doc asked, annoyed that Finn wasn't explaining anything.

 

“AJ’s new boss,” Finn smirked, starting to relax. Bàlor was finally settling down. “Care to tell them about it while we eat?” he asked AJ.

 

Between mouthfuls of the best hare AJ had ever tasted, he caught them up on what happened after Bullet Club turned on him. It took a long time and they were finished eating before AJ got to the part where Bàlor had entered the picture.

 

“Fucking unbelievable,” Karl said, throwing some bones into the fire.

 

“Yeah, for me too,” AJ said. They all sat staring at the fire for a while, lost in their own thoughts.

 

“What now?” Karl wanted to know, breaking the silence.

 

“Do you know what Kenny's plans are?” Finn asked AJ.

 

Scowling, AJ took the end of a burning branch and poked the fire. “Well, Kenny is claiming to be an angel. Not sure if he's lying but the kids believe him and he can do some things. His issue is with Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose. He blames them for his so-called brother being their prisoner.”

 

Finn shot a concerned look at Hideo. “Does Kenny know who it was that sealed his brother?” he asked, a little too casually.

 

AJ shrugged. “Kenny never said anything about that. Only that Reigns and Ambrose would pay.” He honestly didn't care about Reigns and Ambrose. He only wanted to kill Kenny. “Anyway, as soon as it’s light, I'm going after Kenny. I need to borrow a shirt, a gun and some ammunition, and a horse.”

 

“We're coming with,” Karl said. Doc nodded.

 

“No,” AJ said immediately. “You stay with them,” meaning Finn and Hideo.

 

“Bullshit. We aren’t leaving you to face Kenny and the kids by yourself,” Doc said, a mulish look on his face.

 

“And when Kenny tells you to beat the shit out of me and give me over to demons again? Or what if he flat out tells you to kill yourselves? What then?” AJ asked bluntly. Doc and Karl glared at him. AJ gave them a stony look back. He didn’t like fighting with his brothers but he wasn’t going to back down on this. Blowing a breath out, AJ brushed his hair out of his face. “I want you guys to have my back. Believe me, I do. But you can’t.”

 

“If Kenny is an angel, he's an immortal. How are you going to kill him without the Colt Walkers?” Finn asked, ever practical.

 

That made AJ think. He raised his hand, turning his wrist this way and that. The exposed links gleamed in the fire light. “I need to get these off,” he said.

 

“We should go to Helena,” Hideo suggested and Finn nodded in agreement. “It’s closer. And there’s a blacksmith up there.”

 

“I hate to break it to you, but you do remember we’re outlaws. And you want us to go to a town with a sheriff who actually does his job?” Karl asked incredulously.

 

“Cena won’t be a problem,” Finn said confidently. “He knows about the Saint of Killers and even helped save Randy Orton.”

 

AJ sat up straight. “Oh shit, that reminds me. I have to warn Orton about the witch. She’s planning to bind his soul and bury him, like she did that girl in Bannack,” he told them.

 

“What?” Both Finn and Hideo looked alarmed.

 

“Yeah, apparently Randy killed her father, so she is got some revenge scheme going to get rid of Orton. And it’s nasty,” AJ said. The fire popped loudly when a thick branch broke and fell into the embers, sending a shower of sparks skyward.

 

“Why do you care if she’s after Orton?” Karl wanted to know.

 

“He saved my life when he pulled me from the river. I owe him,” AJ said quietly.

 

“Do you know where Orton is?” Finn asked. Both he and Hideo looked upset, like they knew something that the others didn't. “That needs to be your first priority.”

 

“No,” AJ said. “But once I get these chains off, I can tell the Saint to warn him. Then I'll kill that bastard Kenny.”

 

Finn smiled. He was starting to like AJ. “Okay, but we're all going to Helena at first light.”

 

“Agreed,” Doc said firmly.

 

“Bullet Club is back!” Karl whooped and the two of them touched fingertips over AJ's head.

 

Smiling, AJ felt better than he had in weeks. It was good to be with his brothers again. He had missed it more than he realized. Tomorrow might bring another disaster, but for this evening, everything was sweet.

 

TBC

 

Next up: The Shield

 

Chapter Text

My beta reader Kiss316 is awesomest.

Warnings: Violence and Swearing.

Phenomenal One Chapter 20

It was late afternoon when Roman, Dean, and Seth rode into Helena from the north, heading straight to John Cena’s office. Jogging their horses up the dusty street toward the jail, they saw Randy and Mark waiting outside with their horses saddled and ready to go. John was waiting with them, but Randy and Mark decided it was too risky for him to come with, despite his offer. When they saw the three approaching, Mark and Randy mounted up. John reached up and shook Randy’s and Mark’s hands. “Good luck,” he wished them. He waved at Roman, Dean and Seth, then headed back into his office. Randy didn’t even greet them. He turned his roan towards the road heading east out of town and nudged the horse with his spurs, setting out at a jog.

“You’re not even giving us a chance to grab something to eat?” Dean asked, disappointed. They had been out in the wilderness for several weeks, living off the land. It would have been nice to get a decent meal before they hit the trail again.

“No,” Randy told him curtly. His mouth was set in a hard line and his blue eyes were stony. Dean made a rude gesture but Randy ignored him.

“Fill us in?” Roman asked Mark as they fell in behind Randy. The Saint had given them the bullet points, but they needed the entire story. Mark updated them as Randy led them through narrow gulches, heading towards the road running north and south between the Elkhorn Range and the Boulder Range. As he spoke, Mark studied the three former deputy marshals with a critical eye. They looked healthy, but worn out. Both Dean and Roman had dark circles under their eyes and Seth’s face was pale. Seth had been forced to draw on the angel’s power more and more lately, trying to keep Roman and Dean healed and their horses fresh. The extended hunt for SAni†Y right on the heels of the Ascension had taken its toll. Mark decided after they dealt with this latest crisis, he was going to insist they all take a break.

They followed the hard-packed trail through pine trees and hills until a long valley opened up in front of them and the high Elkhorn Mountains showed themselves on the far side. Then Randy turned south and kicked his big roan into a ground-eating lope, the others following without question. Though the trio were bone-tired, their horses were still fresh, thanks to Seth.

“What’s the plan?” Roman asked as he chewed on some dried deer meat from his saddlebag. It tasted like leather but like Dean, he was hungry. Even though he was used to long stretches on the trail, he was slouching in the saddle.

“Find AJ, kill demons,” Dean suggested. His sorrel mustang tossed its head at Mark’s mare, who ignored it. “Or kill demons and find AJ?”

“More or less,” Mark admitted, with a wry smile but he sobered quickly. “I keep getting the feeling that we’re missing something. Something important. That we're not seeing the whole picture.”

“Any idea what?” Seth asked, urging his paint alongside Dean’s horse. They held Mark in high esteem, and if he was uneasy, they believed him without question.

“No, but we need to stay alert,” Mark replied. And that was going to be hard for the three, as exhausted as they were.

Ahead, Randy held them on a steady course south, swinging to the southwest to hug the eastern slope of the Boulder Mountains throughout the twilight and into the dark. The crescent moon rose, giving them enough light to see by. It was just after midnight when they reached the canyon carved by the Boulder River, which was running low that late in summer. Knowing how exhausted the others were, Mark gigged his horse to come alongside Randy. The pale mare shone silver in the meager light. “We need to stop,” he told the Legend Killer.

Randy barely glanced at him. “Not yet.” They were barely a third of the way to Bannack.

Now. Rollins is done in, and the other two are nearly as bad,” Mark said firmly.

Randy was going to argue, but at that moment Seth swayed and nearly fell off his horse. Dean and Roman were immediately on either side of him to help him stay upright in the saddle. Sighing, Randy reluctantly agreed and pulled his roan to a stop. He looked around and turned his horse toward a stand of aspens on the other side of the river. The spot was tucked between the river and the steep slope of a mountain, with the river between them and the road. “We’ll camp over there,” he said. Randy guided his horse across the water. It only came up to the horse’s knees at the deepest part. The others followed.

As soon as they dismounted, Dean and Roman put Seth in his bedroll under the aspens near the edge of the river, and barely got their own unrolled before they too were asleep. Still feeling uneasy, Mark took the first watch while Randy took the second. Luckily, the night was warm and they didn’t need a fire.

As he lay on the ground, Randy had a much harder time falling asleep than the three. He was tired but he couldn’t get comfortable. It felt like every rock in the area had found its way under his bedroll. And when he closed his eyes, his mind pictured AJ, cocky and stubborn, suffering at the hands of demons. Eventually, he fell into an uneasy doze.

It was about three in the morning, nearing the hour of the wolf, when Mark woke Randy for his watch. As Mark crawled into his bedroll, Randy found a spot further down, near the river’s edge, under a towering cottonwood. A fine mist was rising from the water, covering the area in a knee-high fog. He watched the river in the meager moonlight, thinking about what the next few days would bring. A large stag stopped at the far side of the river and lowered its head to drink, its throat gleaming white. When it was finished, raised its head and looked around, ghostly in the thin fog. Then it picked its way across the water to their side and disappeared into the trees. A little while later, Randy heard something nearby and looked up, hand on one of his Smith & Wessons. He relaxed when he recognized Seth. “Thought you were sleeping,” he said, keeping his voice low.

“I woke up,” Seth shrugged. He sat down near Randy and together they watched the river.

For a while they sat in silence. Then Randy drew a breath. “I never thanked you,” he said.

“For what?” Seth asked.

“For stopping me.” Randy could feel Seth’s gaze on him. “In the bank.” Seth had stepped in just as Randy put his gun to his head, intending to end his life. The Saint of Killers had cut him off, leaving Randy vulnerable to his enemies. If it hadn’t been for Seth, Randy would have pulled the trigger.

“You’re welcome,” Seth said.

Just then, the horses started snorting. Alert, Randy stood up. He didn’t sense any demons, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t some other threat. “I’d better check, with our luck, it might be a grizzly.” He disappeared into the dark, and then Seth got up and followed. The fog on the river thickened.

Roman and Dean were sleeping heavily when Mark woke them up, telling them to get their guns. A thick fog blanketed the riverbank and surrounded them as the sun started to ignite the eastern sky. Grim, Mark reported that except for his pale mare, the horses were gone. A devastating blow because they hadn't been unsaddled, just their girths loosened. The saddlebags and all their supplies were gone with them. But that wasn’t the worst news.

“We need to find him,” Mark said, his voice like jagged gravel. He was furious with himself. He should have been more careful, more on his guard. His concern for the trio had taken his attention from Randy and now the Legend Killer was gone, disappeared with the horses sometime during his watch.

The enemy was one step ahead of them.

Wide awake, Roman and Dean were on their feet with their guns in hand when the whip-crack report of a distant rifle echoed through the canyon. A bullet smashed into Dean’s shoulder, spraying blood. Dean cried out and cursed as he clutched his dangling right arm. Despite the pain, he didn’t drop his revolver. A bullet wound wasn’t new to the lunatic. Dean had been shot, beaten and otherwise injured many times since becoming a deputy US Marshal. He was excessively good at disregarding his personal safety in order to bring in an outlaw or lately, to kill a demon. Initially his recklessness nearly drove Roman and Seth mad, but after the events in Helena, Dean’s behavior had been less of an issue. Seth was always right there to fix any cuts, bruises and broken bones both Dean and Roman acquired during a brawl with a demon pack. Being host to an angel had its benefits, and Roman and Dean unashamedly took full advantage of his abilities.

“Seth!” Roman shouted, standing in front of Dean, using his own body as a shield. He looked around for a target, but couldn’t see beyond a few feet. The fog was too thick. And even if he could find a target, chances were the shooter was too far away for him to hit. Rifles had a much greater range than his shotgun.

“Here,” Seth said from behind them. He was holding his rifle in one hand, but there was nothing to shoot at. The fog swirled above the river, concealing any threats.

“Hurry,” Dean said impatiently, presenting his injured shoulder to Seth. It felt like it was full of molten lead. Seth gave him an unreadable look and touched his shoulder.

Nothing happened.

“What the hell are you waiting for?” Dean gritted his teeth against the hot wave of pain.

“I can't heal you,” Seth told him.

“Not funny Seth,” Dean told him. “Fucking heal me!”

“I’m not joking! I can’t!” Seth insisted. Mark was turning to give Seth a strange look.

“Then get him out of here!” Roman ordered Seth. “We’re sitting ducks out...” The distant rifle whip-cracked again and blood exploded from his head.

“Roman!” Dean screamed in horror, forgetting his own wound at the sight of Roman going down like a ton of bricks, blood spraying everywhere. He scrambled over the river-smoothed rocks to his fallen brother. Dean grabbed Roman’s shoulder and shook it. “Roman? Roman!” His voice cracked.

Then Mark was there, kneeling over Roman’s body. “He’s alive, it grazed him,” he said, examining the wound, pressing a piece of cloth to the side of Roman’s head. There was a third crack from the rifle. Mark grunted, but he didn’t look up from Roman’s wound.

“We need to get out of here,” Seth said, still holding his rifle and looking around. But he couldn’t see anything beyond a few feet.

“Why don't you just fucking heal us!” Dean shouted, looking up at him. He was lashing out at Seth because he had never, ever wanted to see Roman shot right in front of him, again.

“I told you I can’t!” Seth shouted back.

“Enough you two!” Mark barked. “Seth, help me get Roman back further in the trees. We need to get under some cover.”

Glaring at Dean, Seth moved to take Roman’s arms and Mark lifted his legs. They retreated deeper into the trees, right up against the base of the mountain. Dean followed them, holding his arm tight against his side with his left hand. Blood pulsed down his arm and coated his hand that still clutched his revolver. Seth and Mark gently lay Roman’s body down in the prickly grass so he was sitting up against the mountain slope. Mark pressed the cloth to Roman’s head again. For several seconds they didn’t move. All they could hear was their own breathing. Then Roman groaned, low in his throat and tried to open his eyes. “Easy there, kid.” Mark said gently.

“What happened?” Roman asked, his voice thick and slurred. The morning sun finally cleared the horizon and slipped through the leaves, shining on his face, which was dripping with sweat and blood.

“You got shot,” Seth told him bluntly.

“And what the fuck happened to you?” Dean snarled at Seth. “Why can’t you fix us all the sudden?”

“I have no idea!” Seth said. Mark passed him another piece of cloth to press against Dean’s shoulder.

“Well fucking figure it out!” Dean was never one to take a situation calmly when he was angry and hurt. The amount of blood pouring down his useless arm was a good indicator of how much pain he was in. Then he yelped as Seth pressed the rag to Dean’s wounded shoulder. Even without Seth to heal him, Dean would recover but it would take much longer, and time was something they didn’t have.

“Your screaming at me isn't helping!” Seth shot back.

“Seth, Dean, keep it down,” Roman requested quietly, squeezing his eyes shut. The side of his face a bloody mess and he had a headache that almost blinded him. They immediately shut up, settling for giving each other angry looks. “They knew exactly where we were. How could they see us through this fog?” Roman asked Mark. He reached up and took the rag from Mark, keeping it pressed against the wound. Blood soon soaked through the rag and dripped down his wrist.

“I don’t know,” Mark said, mastering his anger. “But I can guess. I don’t think the fog is natural.”

“Do we have any idea who is shooting at us?” Dean wanted to know, wincing when Seth pressed too hard on his shoulder.

“We know it’s not demons,” Roman said, trying not to throw up. Like Mark, he was angry with himself. They had been stupid enough to think nothing would attack them. They had been so sure that they were the apex predators out there in the wilderness. That the only thing they needed to worry about were demons, or maybe a protective mama grizzly. Because Randy, Roman and Dean could sense demons, and they could deal with them easily with Death’s own guns. And if they were caught out? Well, Seth could heal any wounds they sustained, even on their souls. They had thought themselves invincible. But that morning taught them they were only arrogant.

“No, not demons,” Mark agreed. “But it’s obvious they have supernatural help if they can shoot us through this fog. Whomever is behind this planned it out meticulously,” he trailed off, voice strained. He shifted on his knees.

On the ground, Roman frowned. Something was wrong but he couldn’t think past the pain in his head to figure out what.

“Seth, make yourself useful and get something to make a sling for Dean’s arm,” Mark said.

Nodding, Seth went on his errand. “What’s going on with him?” Dean wanted to know, not caring if Seth could hear him.

“Maybe we’ve asked too much from him?” Roman suggested. “With everything he’s been asked to do recently, do you think we drained the angel’s power?”

“I don’t know, but keep an eye on him,” Mark said. He was still kneeling next to Roman. He glanced up at Dean. “Get over here so I can see that shoulder,” Mark told him.

“Don’t think I can,” Dean admitted, leaning his good shoulder against a tree, like it was no big deal. Blood was puddling on the ground from where is dripped off his hand. And his face was pale from shock. “I might pass out. You’re going to have to come to me.”

“I can’t,” Mark said, just as calmly and Roman’s eyes shot open as a surge of panic hit him like a bullet. “Mark!” Mark’s side was completely soaked in blood.

“Bullet broke my hip,” Mark told them, his face was pale but composed. “So get over here Ambrose.”

Obediently Dean came over and slid to his knees, unable to suppress a hiss of pain. Mark examined his shoulder, gently probing the bones. “It’s broken,” he told Dean.

“Fuck,” Roman cursed. The situation had degraded into a complete shit-show. Then Seth came back, carrying Mark’s saddlebags and Dean’s bedroll.

“Get the bandages out,” Mark told him impatiently. Ignoring his own wound, Mark and Seth bandaged Dean’s shoulder, and fashioned a crude sling out of Dean’s cut-up bedroll. Then Mark instructed Seth on how to bandage Roman’s head. As they worked, the fog gradually dissipated until they could see the mountains clearly across the river. The sun rose higher, but it wasn't reassuring. The foliage was completely still. No birds sang. There was still an eerie quiet.

“Mark, we gotta take a look,” Roman told him, getting to his feet.

Grimacing Mark eased his coat and shirt off, both soaked in his blood. The bullet had caught him square. “You need to get the bullet out,” he told them.

What happened?” the Saint asked, appearing nearby at his normal time.

“We were ambushed,” Roman told him, angry. “They knew exactly where we were and could see us through a thick fog.”

The Saint cursed. “Where’s Randal?” he asked, looking around.

“We were hoping you could tell us,” Dean said, a little defiantly.

The Saint immediately disappeared. Seth and Roman got a small fire started in preparation for Mark’s surgery. The Saint came back just as Roman was heating up his bowie knife in the flames.

The temperature dropped abruptly. “Something is preventing me from going to him, just like Styles,” the Saint said, eyes white with rage.

“God fucking damn it!” Mark snarled, slamming the ground with his fist. “I knew it! It’s all part of the same scheme. And I fell for it!”

“Take it easy, Mark,” Roman said, laying a hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Let’s get that bullet out first, then we’ll figure out how to get Randy back.”

Mark looked up at the Saint. “Can you check to see if there's anyone still in the area?”

Nodding, the Saint disappeared.

Working together with Mark guiding them, Seth and Roman removed the bullet from Mark’s hip. By the time they were done, Mark was gray with pain but he walked them through stitching up the wound. Then they gave him some water and made him as comfortable as they could. By the time they finished the sun was high overhead, casting shadows through the leaves in their refuge. It remained quiet out beyond the river.

“What now?” Seth asked.

Taking a chance, Dean stumbled down to the river’s edge to refill his canteen. His shoulder hurt like a son of a bitch, but since there was nothing he could do about it, he ignored the injury. He looked up and down the river. Dust rising in the west caught his attention and he shaded his eyes with his left hand. “Riders coming!” he reported, squinting into the distance. The horses were moving at a brisk gallop along the road on the other side of the river, heading towards Helena.

“How many?” Mark asked, struggling to sit up.

Using an aspen trunk for leverage, Roman stood up from where he had been seated and walked over to stand beside Dean. He picked up his shotgun, which was still laying where he’d dropped it. It was loaded and ready to fire. His head throbbed and he squeezed his eyes shut, willing the headache to go away.

“Four horses. Coming at speed,” Dean said. Then he sensed it, muted but malevolent. “Shit, one of them is a demon.”

Roman was about to call for the Saint when Dean, still shading his eye, straightened in surprise. He recognized the horses in the lead, the bright chestnut and gray mustang. “Hold on, I think its Finn and Hideo!” he told Roman, excitement filling his voice.

“I think you’re right,” Roman said with relief as the horses and riders drew closer.

“Great!” Dean said. “Maybe now we can find out what’s wrong with Seth.” It had been Hideo Itami to seal the angel inside Seth.

“What do you mean?” Seth asked but Mark interrupted before they could answer. “Who’s with them?” he asked, sitting up on his elbows with a grunt of pain.

“Don’t recognize…wait. Holy shit,” Dean said. “That looks like Doc Gallows and Karl Anderson.” They had seen the Wanted posters in Hunter’s office, back in the day. But Bullet Club had operated in Idaho, out of their jurisdiction. They saw Doc’s horse packing double but the passenger was hidden behind the big man. Dean hefted his revolver and pointed it straight in the air. He pulled the trigger and Roman winced at the loud report. Immediately, Doc and Karl pulled their horses to a stop and turned, drawing their guns and pointing them at Dean and Roman.

But Finn recognized them and told the others to put their weapons away. They crossed the river, water splashing the horses’ bellies. “Dean! Roman! Glad to see you’re still alive,” Finn said with a smile of relief. Then he frowned when he saw the carnage in the campsite. “Although, just barely by the looks of it. Kenny moved faster than we thought,” he said to the Bullet Club members.

“You knew about the ambush?” Dean accused.

“Who is Kenny?” Roman asked at the same time.

“We found out late last night,” Finn told Dean as Hideo dismounted and started pulling out his medical supplies.

“I take it you know these guys?” Doc asked, giving Dean and Roman a wary look. They still carried themselves like lawmen.

Finn dismounted and led his and Hideo's horses over to a tree to tie them up. “Yep, we ran into them near Helena a couple of weeks ago.”

“Mark?” AJ asked, peering from behind Doc's back at the big man laying on the ground.

“AJ!” Mark said with genuine relief and a little consternation. All that worrying had been for nothing. AJ had apparently landed on his feet, like a cat. “Are you okay? How did you get away?”

“Help me down,” AJ requested. Turning in the saddle, Doc grabbed AJ’s left arm and gently lowered the smaller man off the back of his horse. Roman and Dean were staring at him, but he ignored them. He walked over to Mark and crouched down, moving stiffly because of his ribs. “Are you okay?” he asked, seeing the bloody bandages.

“I'll be fine, boy. We were coming to rescue you,” Mark said ruefully.

AJ smiled his cocky, side-sliding grin. “As you can see, it wasn’t necessary. But I appreciate the sentiment.” There were black chains wrapped around his wrists, implying a story that needed telling. He looked up and saw everyone watching him. “What?” he demanded irritably.

“You're AJ Styles?” Dean asked, not sure whether to be impressed or disappointed. “I thought you'd be taller.”

“Yes I am,” AJ replied, eyes narrowed with impatience. “Am I supposed to know you?” The men were familiar, he’d seen them somewhere before.

“You should,” Finn said good-naturedly. “They too follow the Saint of Killers.”

AJ looked decidedly unimpressed. He turned back to Mark. “Where's Randy?” he asked. If Kenny had already made his move…

Mark sighed and lay back down. “He's gone.”

“Shit!” AJ said, jamming a hand through his hair.

Coming over to Mark's bedroll, Roman told them about the ambush that morning. He didn’t know what to make of the outlaw. They had come looking for AJ Styles, expecting to find a broken and tortured man, not a brisk, self-confident bundle of no-nonsense. And the only demon in sight was an ally.

As Roman wrapped up the story, AJ swore steadily. “Which one of you is the angel?” he asked, too impatient for niceties.

“Seth,” Roman said, pointing at Seth who had yet to say a word.

“Kenny said he’s your brother and was going to rescue you,” AJ said. Seth wasn’t what AJ pictured. A glob of golden hair on the side of Seth’s head was reminiscent of rat’s nest on top of Kenny’s. There was something oddly familiar about the way Seth was standing, but AJ couldn’t put his finger on what it was.

“My brother?” Seth asked.

“I think you should start at the beginning,” Roman told him dryly.

AJ blew out an impatient breath and brushed his hair out of his face, the chain on his wrist rattling. Leaving out personal, painful details like the Destroyer’s mark and the ending of the fight with the demons, he told them exactly what he had learned of Kenny Omega’s plans.

“Fucking angels!” Dean snarled. “Well, Kenny’s not getting you. You're our brother, and we don't share,” he told Seth.

“We need to find out what Kenny did to Seth right now,” Mark said. “Or else some of us will never fully recover.” He glanced meaningfully at AJ who was still studying a nervous-looking Seth and didn't notice. Mark had figured out what AJ didn't tell them, but he wanted to talk to AJ privately first before that piece of news got out.

“Hideo, will you please take a look at Seth’s seals?” Finn requested.

Soberly, Hideo gestured for Seth to come closer to where Hideo had all his medical supplies laid out. Seth had sweat dripping from his temples even though the air by the river was cool. “Please take off your shirt,” Hideo requested.

“Why?” Seth asked warily.

“I must see the seals.” Hideo told him.

Still kneeling next to Mark, something clicked in the back of AJ's mind and he signaled to Karl, who was standing next to Roman. Karl nodded briefly and put a hand to his revolver. Frowning, Mark put his hand on AJ's arm to get his attention. When AJ looked at Mark eyebrows raised, Mark shook his head: don’t. Unsure, but trusting Mark’s judgment, AJ made another signal to Karl: wait.

Slowly, with great reluctance, Seth removed his shirt, pulling it over the top of his head. Hideo’s eyes widened. Seth’s back was bare.

“What the fuck?” Dean demanded. “Where did the seals go? Did they expire, Itami?”

“No,” Hideo said scornfully. “The seals were permanent.”

“Then what is going on? Seth? When did this happen?” Roman asked.

Before anyone could think to do anything, Seth took off running along the river’s edge.

“Seth, stop!” Roman shouted, more concerned than alarmed at Seth’s strange behavior.

“Where the fuck are you going? Get back here!” Dean shouted. Karl drew his revolver, but Roman grabbed it. “What the fuck?” he asked, echoing Dean. “That's Seth!”

“No its not,” AJ said, with utter certainty.

Seth kept running. Then, right before their eyes, he turned into a stag and bounded through the trees up the steep slope of the mountain. Within a span of heartbeats, he was out of sight.

TBC

 

 

Chapter Text

Shout out to my beta reader Kiss316!

Warnings: Swearing.

Seth kept running. Then, right before their eyes, he turned into a stag and bounded through the trees up the steep slope of the mountain. Within a span of heartbeats, he was out of sight.

Phenomenal One Chapter 21

For several seconds no one moved. The only sound was the steady trickle of water over worn rocks. With a sharp intake of breath, AJ broke the silence. “Fucking Skinwalker!” he growled. He fixed a look at Mark, annoyed. “Why’d you stop us?”

“Wait, Seth is a now Skinwalker too?” Dean asked, confused and going into shock from blood loss.

“God damn it no! The Skinwalker was pretending to be Seth, and I didn’t catch it,” Mark admitted, resisting the urge to slam his fist into the ground in frustration. He’d known something wasn’t right, given that Seth inexplicably could no longer heal. However, it never occurred to him to think that it hadn’t been Seth at all. And he hadn’t trusted AJ’s instincts. This was his fault. He had to do better!

“Kenny and the others must have taken Seth during the night when they grabbed Randy, and had the Skinwalker impersonate him,” Finn said, impressed. “Pretty smart.”

“What the fuck are you taking about?” Dean wanted to know in righteous anger. He couldn't believe Finn was complimenting Kenny.

“Well, if you thought Seth was here with you, your focus would be on finding Randy, who in all likelihood would be with Charlotte. Meanwhile, Kenny could have Seth out of the country by the time you’d figured it out, if you ever did,” Finn shrugged. “You have to admit, that’s brilliant. It was just bad luck on Kenny’s part that we ran into you guys.”

Kicking a rock into the river, Roman cursed steadily. He felt like absolute shit, but his anger and fear for Seth and Randy gave him the strength to stay on his feet. Damn it, Finn was right. If Bullet Club hadn’t come by, they never would have realized Seth was gone until it was far, far too late. “We’ve been fucking around here for hours.”

“Didn't have a choice, given we were all shot to shit,” Mark sighed. “I gotta admit, Kenny’s good.”

“I don’t care how good Kenny is, he’s got Randy and Seth. We should be going after them,” Dean argued. Hearing them praise Kenny was seriously grating on him.

“They’re long gone,” AJ pointed out, rubbing tiredly at his forehead. His ribs were bothering him again but he ignored them while he turned over possible plans of action in his mind.

“All the more reason we go after them now. We’ve wasted too much time here already!” Dean snarled at AJ. Dean was hurting, physically and emotionally, and Kenny wasn’t there to take his pain and anger out on. But AJ was.

AJ, who had the nerve to be there, alive and whole and safe, while Seth wasn’t.

“Are you a fucking idiot? Kenny planned everything out to the last detail. If you go running after him right now, you’ll just get yourself killed,” AJ told him, standing his ground. Dean obviously had a problem with him, but Dean’s issues were inconsequential compared to everything else AJ had endured.

“Hey, watch it Styles,” Roman warned, taking a threatening step towards AJ. Calling Dean an idiot was something only Seth was allowed to do.

“I’m just saying that going after Kenny and the boys without a plan is a bad idea,” AJ said, watching Roman warily. He wasn’t sure what to make of Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose. Supposedly they were all on the same side, even though Reigns and Ambrose were US Marshals not too long ago. AJ couldn't trust them because he knew old habits died hard, especially for ex-lawmen. But antagonizing them was counterproductive so he did his best to keep his temper.

“And what would be a good idea, Styles? Sitting here on our asses while Kenny gets away?” Roman asked, dark eyes narrowed.

Exhaling, AJ pinched the bridge of his nose to ward off an oncoming headache. He understood that Roman and Dean were angry. Their brothers had been stolen from them. AJ could understand that, he really could. But right then, AJ didn’t have the wherewithal to care. Fuck it. He didn’t need the attitude when he was genuinely trying to help. “Look, I’m willing to work with you to save Randy and kill Kenny. Seth is lower on my list of priorities but I’ll do my best to help him. However, if you’re going to act like bitches, you can just stay out of my way.”

“Who are you calling bitches?” Dean growled, his left hand settling on the butt of his revolver. “Listen here, short-stuff, if anything happens to Seth or Randy, anything at all, I’m holding you personally responsible,” he trailed off, a threat left hanging unvoiced in the air.

“How are you going to go after them? Your horses are gone,” AJ pointed out, while Karl and Doc came over to stand behind him. They weren’t happy about Roman and Dean threatening AJ. And knowing what AJ had been through, both really wanted to knock Dean’s teeth out. But AJ never needed help with his battles.

“Maybe we’ll ‘borrow’ yours,” Dean responded with bared teeth. He really hated that AJ was being logical, the cocky bastard. His shoulder throbbed incessantly, fueling his rage.

“Try it,” Doc challenged. Both Doc and Karl moved their hands to their gun belts. Finn came over to stand beside them. He didn’t want to get on the bad side of the Saint of Killers, but neither would he let the Saint’s men take what wasn’t theirs. Mark didn’t say anything, he just waited to see how AJ would handle the situation. Hideo stood back and stayed quiet.

“For fuck sake. This isn’t getting us anywhere. You, if you have an idea for getting Randy back that's feasible, let's hear it. If you don't, then just fucking shut your mouth!” AJ pointed at Dean. “And you guys just relax. No one is taking your horses,” he told Bullet Club. Doc and Karl didn’t quite stand down, but they nodded at AJ. “We need to get our shit together and make a plan.”

“I’ve got a plan,” Dean replied, without missing a beat. “Find Kenny and his bunch of yahoos, kill them and get Seth and Randy back.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” AJ muttered through gritted teeth, determined not to lose his patience and his temper. The mark on his side was starting to get warm, but he ignored it. “You’re out in the middle of nowhere with no horses, no supplies and you’re wounded. You have no way of catching up with them. For fuck sake, you didn’t even know that it wasn’t your friend!

“So what?” Dean raged. AJ’s words cut like knives. “You think we’re just going to sit around here twiddling our thumbs while you come up with a plan? Meanwhile Kenny does whatever the fuck he’s planning to do to Seth and Randy?” His eyes narrowed with contempt. “You don’t seem eager to go find Randy. Are you scared? Is that it?”

“I’m not scared,” AJ said. His voice was level. He knew what he was dealing with: a man who was scared for someone he cared about, and was hiding that fear under a thin veil of rage. Dean was itching for a fight because he was terrified for Seth and Randy. But AJ refused to give it to him. Dean was badly hurt and AJ truly didn't want to compound it. And he knew if he did put Dean down, Roman would get involved. Then things would get really ugly. “But I know Kenny and the kids and how they operate. They know how to deal with possess. If we’re not careful, they’ll kill us and that won’t help Randy or Seth.”

“Really? You know them? If you know them so well, why’d you get caught?” Dean demanded, taking another step closer.

AJ glanced at Mark, who made no effort to intervene. Fine. He would do this his way, just like he did in Bullet Club. Folding his arms across his chest, AJ waited. He knew his lack of response would really piss Dean off and hopefully it would get whatever Dean’s issue with AJ out in the open where he could address it.

“The only reason we’re in this mess is because of you! Randy was safe with Mark and now he’s not, because of you! Kenny has Seth because of you! This whole mess is your fault!” AJ’s jaw tightened as Dean’s words struck home, but he refused to respond. And that drove Dean over the edge. He drew the revolver on his uninjured side and pointed it right in AJ's face.

Time is a funny thing, when it stops. In the eternity where the shadows didn’t lengthen and violence hangs like a shroud in the air, AJ did…nothing, except slowly grinned his arrogant, side-sliding grin that practically screamed you don’t have the guts to shoot me.

Dean saw red. He pulled back the hammer and his finger tighten on the trigger, a mere few inches from at AJ’s smug face. Behind AJ, Doc and Karl kept their hands away from their guns and waited with an air of anticipation.

“Ambrose!” Mark barked, making Dean flinch.

In that same instant, as quick as lightning, AJ backhanded Dean across the face lightly with his left hand. Not enough to hurt, just enough to distract the lunatic. While he did that, AJ yanked the gun out of Dean's grip with his right hand and reversed it to point directly at Dean’s face. He shifted his gaze to Roman, freezing the big man in place as his blue eyes flashed an unspoken warning don’t interfere. Dean shook his head and looked directly into the barrel of his own gun. He glared at AJ but didn't move.

“Christ,” Finn breathed. Doc and Karl just smirked knowingly. AJ Styles was unbelievably fast.

“Dean, settle down,” Roman said, laying a hand on Dean’s uninjured shoulder before the lunatic did something he’d regret, like making AJ shoot him. He could feel Dean’s body shaking. Dean turned his head to look at him, his face was a study in rage and helplessness. And terrified for Seth, though Dean would never admit it. Roman understood exactly what Dean was feeling because right at that time and in that place, Roman felt just as helpless and just as angry. But Roman knew there they needed help to save Seth and Randy from this nightmare. Dean looked back at AJ, who hadn’t moved. It galled Roman to admit that Randy and Seth’s only chance was standing in front of them, pointing Dean's gun at him. With a jolt, Roman realized that AJ had deliberately goaded Dean into drawing his gun. And he had done it so AJ had an excuse to neatly disarm him, shocking Dean out of his unthinking rage. It was obvious that AJ had a phenomenal amount of confidence in himself to even attempt such a feat, let alone succeed.

Because AJ had to know a person like Dean would pull the trigger.

AJ waited patiently for Dean to decide what he was going to do. As the seconds ticked by, he could see Dean’s rage quieting. He would be ready to listen soon. “If you go after them now, you'll be on foot with no supplies. That means you’ll be probably be dead by morning, and Randy and Seth will both pay for your stupidity,” AJ said, breaking the tableau. His voice was deadly quiet as he lowered the revolver's hammer, opened the revolver's cylinder and dumped the bullets into his hand. When the gun was empty, he spun it on his fingers and held it out, butt-first to Dean who snatched it back and stuffed it into his holster. But the lunatic looked thoughtful, rather than humiliated, which pleased AJ. He accomplished his goal: he had their respect. And they would listen to him.

On the ground, Mark was shaken by the way AJ had handled the situation. AJ had known exactly what he was doing, but it was still a hell of a gamble. Any closer and he would have been dead. Mark had no doubt AJ pulled that stunt before, if Doc and Karl's expressions were anything to go by. AJ had been the ace of Bullet Club, now they all knew why.

“Okay. Now that that’s done, Hideo, see what you can do to get Roman and Dean patched up. Mark, sorry but you’re gonna sit this one out.” Which was frustrating. AJ really wanted Mark’s presence to help buffer the two’s volatile personalities but he'd make do. He’d had lots of practice. “Doc, you and Karl get to Helena and get some horses, guns and supplies. Enough for at least a week on the trail. You got money?”

“What about you, AJ? You gotta get those chains off and you can only do that in Helena,” Doc said.

“Pick up a hammer and chisel.” AJ raised one hand to look at the chain, black and cold. He couldn't see any locking mechanism, only a vague seam. He hated them but Hideo’s seals helped a great deal. “If that doesn't work, I'll live with them until we rescue Randy,” he said ruefully. Karl and Doc nodded and untied their horses.

“Wait,” Mark said. Settling in the saddle, Doc turned his horse to face him. “Get a message to John Cena, tell him what happened.”

Surprised, Doc hesitated and looked to Finn for orders. Cena was the sheriff, and could arrest Doc and Karl just for entering the county.

But Finn knew Cena and nodded. “He’s a friend,” Finn said. As he watched AJ take the lead, Finn got the feeling that AJ was moving, had moved beyond Bullet Club. He could tell the Doc and Karl had felt it too, by the way Doc had looked to Finn for orders. He knew AJ Styles would never ride with them again. Not when he was working for the Saint of Killers. But ever since Finn and Hideo had found Doc and Karl outside Bannack and heard what Bullet Club had been up to, Finn had been toying with the idea of forming a new Club. Not necessarily an outlaw gang, but one that offered haven to others who had been hurt by the supernatural in one way or another. He wanted to discuss it with Hideo.

“Okay,” the big man said doubtfully then touched his horse with his spurs. Together, Doc and Karl set out, splashing across the river and onto the road on the far side, breaking into a gallop. Soon they were out of sight.

After helping Dean sit on the ground next to Mark, Roman took a closer look at AJ who happened to look his way. Again, Roman didn’t see any fear or hesitation in those blue eyes, even though they all knew AJ had to have suffered while being held captive. The stiff way AJ held himself indicated he was in pain. But the man standing in front of them hadn’t been broken. And Roman saw the cocky intelligence, determination and incredible stubbornness that was the outlaw’s trademark traits. With a flash of insight, Roman realized that AJ wouldn't let anything stop him, he would get his vengeance. But vengeance would be planned and executed just as meticulously as any bank heist. Suddenly Roman felt a small spark of hope rise in his chest. Hope that AJ could somehow do the impossible and help them get Randy and Seth back.

Inclining his head, AJ understood Roman’s unspoken plea. “Devitt, I need to borrow your horse,” AJ said, running a hand through his hair and ignoring Dean’s scoff. “I’m going to scout around and pick up their trail, just to make sure they’re really gone.”

“Is that smart?” Finn frowned, concerned. “What if they’re still around?”

AJ hesitated then smirked with a bitter twist to his lips. “They won’t be expecting me. They think I’m still chained to that tree, so I’ll take that free shot at them.”

“I'll go with you,” Finn offered but AJ shook his head.

“Better I go alone and you stay here with them,” and Hideo, he didn't say. “Kenny implied he might send more demons after these guys once he got what he came for. Besides, I'm only scouting, and that's easier for me to do by myself.” Dean’s words still rang in his head. This is all your fault! Well if that was the case, it was on him to fix it, not Finn.

Finn nodded and AJ was getting ready to leave when Mark sat up, wincing as fresh stab of pain shot through his hip. “Wait. I'll loan you my guns. I won’t be using them for a while.” He dug in his saddlebags, which were lying next to him and pulled out a pair of beautifully-maintained Colt’s Dragoon revolvers in an unadorned leather gun belt. He handed them to AJ, who took the belt and buckled it around his waist. AJ looked ready, but Mark wasn’t fooled. He could see the pain AJ was hiding, down to his very soul.

What did they do to you, boy?

“Thanks,” AJ said, unexpectedly touched. He made the mistake of meeting Mark’s pale green gaze. Unbidden, he remembered Mark holding Randy in an embrace in the early morning, like a father comforting his son. And he understood why Randy had needed the big man so desperately. If Finn and Hideo had arrived a few minutes later…Part of him suspected that he hadn’t fooled Mark, not completely. But he didn’t want them to know. He couldn’t stand their pity. And damn it, Dean was right. Randy had only been there because of AJ. And AJ owed Randy. He would repay that debt.

Mark smiled. He genuinely liked the Saint’s newest recruit. AJ had guts in spades, in addition to intelligence. Thoughtfully, Mark decided he could give the outlaw one more advantage. He whistled sharply. The pale mare ambled over to him and lowered her head to nuzzle Mark’s shoulder. “Take her,” the big man told AJ. Though AJ was strong, he would need more than luck.

“Fuck no,” AJ said, eyes wide and stepping back. He didn’t know what it was about that horse, but he knew he couldn’t ride her. And from the looks of the others, they agreed.

Rubbing her muzzle, the Undertaker said something softly to her in a language none of them understood. “She is willing to carry you,” Mark told AJ, holding her reins out to the outlaw. AJ looked from Mark to the horse and back. Hesitantly, he took the reins from Mark, and glanced at him again just to be sure. At Mark’s nod, he took a deep breath and mounted up. The pale mare’s head came up. At the feel of an unfamiliar rider, she snorted and danced sideways, eyes flashing a deep red under the black. But she made no attempt to buck him off. Or rend his mind to pieces. She’s just a horse! AJ told himself sternly, settling in the saddle and gathering the reins. But there was no way he believed it.

“Watch your back,” Mark told him.

Nodding, AJ set out, following the path of the Skinwalker. The stag’s hoof prints led up the steep slope of the mountain behind the small campsite, through thick stands of pine trees. The mare followed them without much guidance from AJ, who was hanging on to her mane to keep from sliding off the back of the saddle. Eventually they reached the top of the mountain and AJ pulled the mare to a stop and dismounted, examining the prints and listening for anything that didn't belong up there. It was quiet. He remounted and tracked the Skinwalker for a little over two miles. There, it joined several tracks made earlier by a group of horses. If he had calculated correctly, Kenny, the Young Bucks and Charlotte were together, leading Seth’s, Randy’s, Roman's and Dean's mounts. By the pattern, they were moving at a steady lope, heading northwest.

AJ followed the trail for another few miles around several more mountains before he pulled the pale mare to a stop. She wasn’t breathing heavy despite the steep climbs and stood patiently, waiting for AJ to decide his next move. The Boulder Mountain range spread out in front of them until they were out of sight, their tops covered in lodgepole pine trees and granite peaks. In the silence only broken by the whisper of wind through the trees, he sat on the pale mare and thought. Where could they be heading? Northwest was only mountains and long valleys, with a few random settlements. Kenny had to have a destination, but he never mentioned it within AJ's hearing. But, given what AJ knew about Kenny and the rest, he could extrapolate what Kenny might do.

Kenny would deal with Randy and Charlotte first. Randy posed the most danger to Kenny. And they'd have to stop somewhere to do it. That would allow AJ and the others to catch up if Reigns and Ambrose could ride, which AJ had serious doubts about. Neither Dean nor Roman looked like they could stay in the saddle for an extended length of time. Ambrose especially.

And AJ knew better than to underestimate his own injuries. But he could work around that. He eyed the trail through the pine trees heading northwest, while in his mind he considered and discarded his options. He had no intention of involving Doc and Karl any further in this business. They were vulnerable to Kenny’s power and AJ would not allow them to be hurt again.

Mark, holding Randy in an embrace in the early morning, like a father holding his son.

The smart plan would be to get a good night’s rest and set out after Doc and Karl returned with supplies from Helena. But there was Randy to consider. What the witch had done to that Irish girl… “Fuck!” he said aloud, voicing his frustration. He keenly felt time slipping away and every part of him screamed that he should just set the spurs into the mare’s sides and take off. Fighting the impulse, he reined Mark’s horse around to go back. Whatever he thought, whatever he wanted to do, he had no supplies, was in no way ready to hit the trail and take on a large group of killers. He had to wait.

A horse’s nicker in the distance behind him had AJ pulling the mare up and drawing one of his guns. He slipped off the pale mare, tied her reins to a tree branch and quietly picked his way through the underbrush. Years of experience as a scout taught him how to move like a native. He made his way around the side of the mountain and above a ravine. Using the rise of earth as a cover, he looked down. Two horses were tied to a tree. One was black, and the other was sorrel. They were saddled and carrying saddlebags. AJ carefully observed the area, but there was no sign of anyone else. The black pawed restlessly at the ground and nickered again. Taking his time, and stopping frequently to listen for any noise that would indicate the presence of humans, AJ made his way to the horses.

He checked the saddlebags of the black, looking for the identity of the owner. Two R’s had been scratched into the leather. He bit back his anger. Kenny and the kids had left the animals tied deep in the forest, with no water or food within reach, abandoned to wolves or mountains lions. The sorrel reached over and nipped at his arm but AJ grabbed its reins and untied both horses. He climbed into the black’s saddle, even though the stirrups were too long for him and ponied the sorrel back to where Mark’s mare was waiting. When he got there, he jumped off Roman’s horse, wincing as his ribs complained and opened the saddlebags. They contained food and other supplies. Same with Dean’s.

This is all your fault!

He glanced up at the afternoon sun, gauging how much time he had before he lost the light and made his decision. After securing Dean’s now bulging saddlebag to Mark’s saddle, AJ tied the two horses’ reins around the saddle horns and turned them loose to find their way back to their masters. Then he hauled himself up onto the mare’s back and set out, heading northwest.

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Thank you to beta reader Kiss316! As always, she is the best.

Warnings: Swearing. Kenny being creepy

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 22

 

After AJ left the campsite Hideo inspected Dean’s shoulder, running his fingers over the swollen, tender area, feeling the damage. He prodded the wound lightly, making Dean hiss in pain. “Quit complaining. Or learn to dodge,” Hideo said unsympathetically. He pinched the nerves in Dean’s shoulder and before Dean finished his yelp, Hideo was holding up the rifle ball in his blood-covered fingers. “For your collection,” he said, handing to Dean.

“Lovely,” Dean said blandly. He sat still while Hideo wrapped his shoulder without stitching the wound closed. It would most likely get infected out in the wild, and need to drain if that was the case.

“How’s it look?” Mark asked.

Grimacing, Hideo shook his head. He could stop the bleeding and numb the pain but Dean would never be able to fully use his right arm again, not without Seth’s healing power. While the broken bones would mend, the dense nerve clusters were destroyed.

Since there wasn’t anything he could do to help, Roman sat down between Mark and Dean for a conference. Finn joined them, crouching on Mark’s other side.

“You’re taking a big risk getting involved, but I can’t thank you guys enough for rescuing AJ,” Mark told the small Irishman.

Finn grinned boyishly. “Well, to be perfectly honest, by the time we got there AJ had freed himself and already beaten the shit out of those five demons. We just had to grab him and run.” He avoided any mention of Bàlor’s involvement.

When Finn said five demons, Mark's jaw tightened and he exchanged a look with Roman, whose expression could only be described as both horrified and impressed. Beside him, Dean huffed a laugh. “Little bastard really is as good as he thinks he is,” he said. “I almost like him.”

“Still, he’s lucky you showed up before they seriously fucked him up,” Roman said.

Shuddering at Roman’s choice of words, Finn swallowed hard. He didn’t want to think about those awful few seconds after Bàlor had pulled Rezar off AJ. The memory of the outlaw lying helplessly on the ground with that seductive mark burning brightly still festered in his mind. Bàlor had been a heartbeat from raping AJ and taking that power for himself. Finn knew that if Bàlor ever got free, he would go right after AJ. Which was the main reason Finn did not want AJ involved with the new Club. Finn drew in a deep breath and looked down, willing Bàlor's desire out of his mind. “Not exactly true. We didn’t get there before the demons…I mean, he’s got some broken ribs.”

“So he is hurt,” Roman said. Finn changing what he was going to say about AJ deepened Roman’s suspicions about what really happened to AJ. He could tell Mark was also disturbed.

“Why didn’t he tell us?” Dean demanded.

“When you run with Bullet Club, showing any sign of weakness is fatal, given that some of the members are psychotic,” Finn shrugged.

“Of course, everyone here is perfectly sane,” Roman said sarcastically, looking pointedly at Dean.

“What?” Dean demanded. At Roman’s continued look, Dean shifted uncomfortably. “I wasn’t going to shoot him!” he protested.

“Yes, you were,” Roman said.

“All right, maybe I was going to pull the trigger. But I only try to shoot people I like!” Dean protested. He noticed everyone was looking at him with extremely skeptical expressions. “Fine. I’ll apologize to him when he gets back. Sheesh.”

“You do that. How are you doing, kid?” Mark asked Roman. A bolt of pain shot up Mark's hip when he shifted, and he grimaced, getting his focus back on the here and now. Though AJ was hurt, he was safe, sort of. Now it was Randy who was in the most immediate danger. Christ, what a mess. Mark rubbed a hand over his face. There were some things they needed to do before AJ came back.

“Feel like shit,” Roman said honestly. But not quite as bad as before. His vision had stopped blurring, which was an improvement. He was disappointed Mark had changed the subject. He wanted to know what Finn hadn't told them about AJ and the demons.

“Call the Saint so we can update him. And you guys need to eat something,” Mark said.

“So do you,” Roman told him. The thought of food turned his stomach but he wouldn’t get far without eating. His body needed the fuel to keep going.

“I’ll help with that,” Finn offered, looking out over the river. He too was hungry, still feeling the effects of Bàlor’s release and re-sealing.

Now what happened?” the Saint asked bluntly when he appeared at Roman’s request.

“AJ’s safe. He’s here and he brought some friends,” Roman told him. Nearby, Finn selected a relatively straight branch and started trimming some twigs off with his knife. He didn’t look at the Saint of Killers but shivered when he heard the ghost and cobweb voice. Bàlor was conspicuously quiet in the Saint’s presence.

Where?” the Saint said, startled. He looked around, frowning.

“He’s off scouting the Skinwalker’s trail,” Mark said. “Which is why we called you, before he comes back.”

The Saint got a far-away look in his eyes, then he scowled. “I can’t find him,” he said, thoroughly annoyed.

“The witch made those chains he’s got on his wrists to hide him from you. We couldn't get them off him so we were heading to Helena to find a blacksmith when we ran into you guys,” Finn said, fastening a line to his pole.

“They probably got them on Randy too,” Mark told the Saint, wondering how Charlotte had gotten so powerful that she could create something like that. He’d have to think on it. He told the Saint what AJ had learned during his captivity, about the angel Kenny Omega, his plans for Seth and Charlotte’s revenge. “And AJ was bait to draw us out.”

Then you were wrong about a demon putting its mark on him?” the Saint asked with relief. That was one less thing they had to deal with.

“No,” Finn said quietly. “He wasn’t wrong.”

Suddenly the presence of five demons made much more horrible sense. “God fucking damn it,” Dean growled. Roman wanted to be sick. Hideo shot Finn a look, not sure AJ wanted that to be public knowledge.

“They need to know,” Finn sighed, answering Hideo’s unspoken question.

“Which one?” Mark asked, looking between Finn and Hideo. His pale green eyes were hard as agates. There was no way they could avoid answering the question.

“The Destroyer,” Hideo said.

The air grew colder around them as the Saint’s wrath grew. “I will end them,” he vowed.

“Get in line,” Dean told him. Roman agreed wholeheartedly.

“You have to catch them first,” Mark reminded them, grimacing with pain when he moved again. “Let’s hope AJ can pick up their trail.”

He will,” the Saint said with utter certainty. “He was a scout in the army. Was there anything else?”

They all looked at Finn, who shook his head. “You know everything we do,” he said.

“You should leave before he comes back. We’ll let you know what he finds out,” Mark promised the Saint.

Frowning, the Saint nodded. “Very well,” he said and disappeared.

“Why should the Saint not be here?” Hideo asked as he started inspecting Mark’s wound. Nearby, Finn stepped onto some rocks protruding from the shallow water and cast his line into the center of the river.

Sighing, Mark explained about the soul chain with the resulting infection on AJ’s soul, and the terrible effect the Colt Walkers have on it. While he did, Finn caught six good-sized cut-throat trout. Deciding that was enough, he strung the fish together and left the river. Seeing Hideo was finished with Mark, Finn made a decision and gestured discreetly to his friend. Though Finn was hungry, he wanted to discuss the situation with Hideo in private before AJ returned.

Hideo nodded. “I need to find some more herbs,” he announced to the group and picked up his medicine bag. “Being around you guys drains my supplies.”

“I’ll go with,” Finn said. Grinning, he held out the fish to Roman. “Clean them up?” he invited, hoping Roman would get them ready to cook.

“Sure,” Roman said as he stood up and took the fish. He headed the river’s edge and sat on a rock, pulling out his knife. While he gutted their dinner, Dean wandered over to watch and make comments. Troubled, Mark closed his eyes and pondered Kenny Omega. He hadn’t encountered the angel before…

Finn and Hideo walked down river. A little water spirit curiously followed Hideo. When they were well out of earshot Finn said, “After Doc and Karl get back, we’re leaving.”

Hideo looked at him curiously. “Why?”

“If Kenny finds out it was you that sealed the angel inside Seth, he’ll kill you.” Finn would not allow that to happen. He’d fight Kenny if he had to, but it was far smarter to stay out of the fight altogether.

Crouching down to inspect a patch of promising plants, Hideo shrugged. “I’m not afraid,” he said.

“I know, but we’re not going to take that chance. And I don’t want Doc and Karl involved in this anymore either,” Finn said. “Finding them under Kenny’s spell happily heading towards their deaths…” he trailed off. The feelings of loyalty and brotherhood had resurfaced, and he wouldn’t lose his brothers to Kenny’s influence again.

Hideo glanced up but didn’t question him. He knew Finn was fiercely loyal to his friends, even going so far as to abandon them in order to protect them from himself. Hideo stuffed some of the leaves into his bag, stood up and moved to the next patch. For a while he gathered various plants as Finn stood guard nearby, thinking but alert for any danger. “Are you going to reform Bullet Club?” Hideo asked curiously.

Surprised, Finn grinned widely, making him look much younger than his years. Hideo could always read his thoughts. “No, not Bullet Club. Kenny and the others have tainted it. But a different sort of Club, one that can help those who were hurt by demons. I have some thoughts about it and I want to discuss them with you, Doc and Karl after we’re done here,” he said. Now that he had Hideo to help him fight against Bàlor breaking loose and killing everyone around him, Finn cautiously allowed himself to plan for the future. And it was a defiant ‘fuck you’ to Bàlor.

Smiling back, Hideo told him he had gathered enough. Side by side, they made their way back to camp.

At the camp Hideo took the cleaned fish from Roman and seasoned them while Finn started a fire. While they waited for the fish to cook, Hideo talked to a couple of earth spirits that clustered around him. Mark was dozing, pain free thanks to an herb mixture supplied by Hideo. Dean had rejected it and Roman said he was feeling better, but thanks anyway. Though no one said it, they were all waiting anxiously for AJ to return.

“He’s taking too long,” Dean said out loud, voicing all their thoughts. Hearing Dean’s voice, Mark opened his eyes.

The spirits swirled in agitation around Hideo, but not in alarm. “Horses coming,” Hideo said, interpreting their message.

“AJ?” Roman asked.

“No,” Hideo frowned.

Alert, Roman grabbed his shotgun and Finn picked up Seth’s rifle. He squinted down the barrel’s site at the approaching horses. “Two horses, no riders,” he reported.

Recognizing the horses as they drew nearer, Roman whistled sharply and with a welcoming nicker, the animals crossed the river. Dean whooped as his sorrel walked up to him. He rubbed it neck vigorously, happy to see his mount back safe. The horse responded by biting him on the arm. The resulting swearing was loud and creative.

Laughing, Roman unsaddled his black horse and started rubbing it down. Dean couldn’t help much, given he only had one working arm, but he scratched behind the sorrel’s ears, much to its delight. Mark watched their antics with a small smile.

“No saddlebags,” Finn noted to Hideo in a low voice.

“He’s not coming back, is he?” Hideo asked, equally quiet. Finn didn’t answer but his expression was enough.

 

~~~~

Kenny led them steadily northwest. They left the Boulder Mountain range behind and entered a long valley running northwest to southeast. In front of them the Bitterroot Mountains loomed. Unlike the Boulder Mountains, these didn’t look quite so ordinary. They were darker, more ominous. Kenny held them on a course straight towards them. The horses were galloping easily despite the miles, thanks to Kenny. Their riders were alert and confident having done what they had set out to do. Kenny was reunited with his brother, and Charlotte had her father’s murderer helpless and in chains. Baron, still wearing his collar followed them, occasionally stopping to check for any sign of pursuit.

Beside Kenny, Seth rode his own paint horse. It had been a shock when he woke up in the saddle to find out that he had been kidnapped by Bullet Club, having recognized Kenny and the Young Bucks from their Wanted posters. But what had been even more of a shock was that Kenny was an angel. He could feel Kenny’s power as easily as he could feel the rope binding his wrists, warm as the sunlight on that August day. The rope chafed uncomfortably but at least he was awake and upright. Randy wasn’t so lucky. The Legend Killer was unconsciousness, draped over the saddle of his big roan, and bound with a black chain. Seth couldn’t see any injuries that would keep Randy from waking up and suspected Kenny was the reason. But the chain itself was unnerving. Even from a few feet away he could feel how cold and hungry it was. Seth wasn’t ashamed to admit he was glad it wasn’t on him. A tall blond woman, riding a buckskin horse beside Randy’s was occasionally giving the Legend Killer a look of loathing. Whatever her issue was with Randy, it was serious.

“Where are you taking us?” Seth asked Kenny. Up until then, no one had spoken. He briefly entertained the idea of trying to escape but that would leave Randy alone with them, which Seth would not do after having faced Randy’s furious father before. And Seth’s horse was ignoring him. Seth had tried to guide the animal with his legs, but there was no response from his spurs. And if he bailed and ran for it, Bullet Club was mounted and could run him down immediately. But even though Seth and Randy were in a bad position, Seth was confident that Dean, Roman and Mark weren’t far behind them. There was no way short of killing them that those three wouldn’t be doing everything in their power to get Seth and Randy back. But until that happened Seth did the only thing he could: watch and try to gain insight into the angel’s plans. And be ready to move against Kenny and his friends when the opportunity presented itself.

About halfway through the valley between the Bitterroots and the Boulder Mountains, Kenny signaled them to stop and let the horses drink from a swift-flowing stream. They took the opportunity to eat some dried meat and biscuits as they sat in the saddle. Kenny offered Seth some dried meat, and he took it only to keep his strength up. He noticed Kenny’s hand was shaking. While they were eating, Nick gestured to the Wolf, who was looking back the way they came, ears up and alert. “Did they finally find our trail?” Nick asked.

Kenny nodded. He was distinctly pale. “Yes. But we’re almost to lm-i-sul-étiku, so you can deal with them there,he said.

Stifling a grin, Seth was sure ‘they’ were Roman, Dean and Mark. “What is lm-i-sul-étiku?” he asked, never having heard of it.

“It’s Salish for ‘the place chilled with fear.’ They used to ambush other tribes there. Lots of violent, messy deaths.” Kenny’s voice was filled with disdain. “But what else can you expect from humans?”

Considering the entire country had recently gone through a bloody war, Seth didn’t have an answer for that.

“Are you okay, Kenny? I know keeping this pace and Orton unconscious is taking a lot out of you,” Matt said, concerned.

But Kenny just smiled, “Don’t worry, young one. I’ll be fine. I’ve got my brother back.” He guided his horse closer to Seth’s, stopping when their knees touched. “I missed you.” The angel reached out to gently brush Seth’s hair out of his face.

“You’re not my brother,” Seth replied coldly, jerking his head away from Kenny’s touch. “And don’t fucking touch me.”

“You can stop pretending,” Kenny chided, settling his hand on Seth’s arm. He used the smallest bit of power to try to soothe his brother. “I know those humans enslaved you, used you against your will. But you’re safe now and I’m going to take you home.”

“I have no idea what the fuck you’re talking about,” Seth snarled back. Seriously, who did Kenny Omega think he was? “Get your hand off me.”

Kenny sat back, looking confused. Then his face flushed and before Seth could react, Kenny grabbed the back of Seth’s neck, pulling his face close to Kenny’s. “What did they do to you?” he demanded. Kenny’s gaze bore into Seth’s, like the angel was looking for something.

Seth shivered as he felt something deep inside of him stir. “Let me go,” he demanded, hiding his unease.

“Oh my god,” Kenny whispered in dawning horror. “When I find who did this to you, I’ll fucking destroy them!” He pushed some of his power into Seth, reaching for the angel trapped inside.

“Let me go!” Seth said again, more desperately. He could feel Kenny’s wrath and the response from inside of him felt like something was screaming. It scared the shit out of him.

“I’m not talking to you, human!” the angel snarled. His grip tightened on the back of Seth’s neck. Seth grabbed at Kenny’s arm, but it didn’t do any good. He clamped his jaws against the pain. He knew Kenny was going to snap his neck.

“Kenny?” Nick asked, worriedly.

Startled, Kenny drew a deep breath, and sat back, but didn’t loosen his grip on Seth’s neck. “I thought my brother was a prisoner in the human’s body but was still aware. But I was wrong. He’s completely blocked off inside this filthy human who uses his power like it’s his own. My brother is being continuously raped by this piece of shit.”

“Damn,” Matt said in horror. “Can you free him?”

“Yes, but not right now.” Kenny said. Their pursuers were getting closer. “We have to move. But at least I can stop the human from using his power without permission.”

“How?” Nick asked.

Kenny looked deep into Seth’s eyes. “I’m sorry brother, but I need to do this. I know you understand.” Then Kenny pulled Seth close and pressed his lips against Seth’s in a long, ruthless kiss. To his horror, Seth could feel his power being pulled out of him, like a stream of light. It hurt, oh god it hurt so bad. Frantically, Seth struggled but couldn’t pull free. And it was obvious that Kenny knew he was hurting his brother but he kept on, taking every last ounce of power even as blackness danced before Seth’s eyes, leaving Seth weak and swaying in his saddle. Finally, Kenny pulled back slightly, inhaling the last little bit of light. He wrapped his arms around Seth’s limp shoulders and hugged him close. “Soon, brother, you’ll be free of this filth. I promise,” he whispered. He kissed Seth’s forehead and released him. Seth slumped over his horse’s neck, feeling violated and bereft. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried not to vomit.

Drawing a deep breath, Kenny turned to the others and smiled. The angel was practically glowing with power. “We’re close to our goal, gentlemen. Once Charlotte has her revenge, we’re free to go home.”

“I can’t wait,” Nick said, grinning like an idiot. Kenny had promised to take them with him.

Beside Kenny, Seth started to fall off his horse. Kenny casually reached out and caught him. “Oh dear. It appears that the human can’t handle being without my brother’s power. Let me help.” He pulled Seth bodily across to his horse and in front of him in his saddle, keeping his arms wrapped around Seth’s waist. Seth’s skin crawled at the feeling of Kenny’s body pressed tightly against his, but he was too weak to fight. “I know you hate me, human. Too bad you can’t do anything about this. But at least you have some control which is even less then my brother. And before it’s over, I’ll make sure you feel just as helpless as he does,” the angel mocked, his breath hot in Seth’s ear. He tightened his grip on Seth, smiling in satisfaction at Seth’s shudder of revulsion.

“Who’s following us?” Charlotte asked. She hadn’t anticipated this. She had been sure Kenny would be weak when they got to their destination. She didn’t trust him but she could deal with a weakened angel. Suddenly, she didn’t feel so confident. But she was committed to avenging her father. Nothing would get in her way.

“Just some unwanted guests. But don’t worry, Nick and Matt will deal with them,” Kenny said. “Let’s go.”

Kenny set out at an easy pace, partially because he didn’t want to waste his newly acquired power and partially because he wanted their pursuers to gain on them. They soon entered the foothills of the Bitterroot Mountains. The sun was setting in the west as they turned off the main trail and onto an old path, overgrown at intervals. The mountains loomed large in front and around them, almost black with old-growth forest. The path led to the mouth of a narrow, steep-sided canyon between two mountains, standing sentinel.

“Here we are,” Kenny said as they approached. Seth raised his head and looked up, eyes dull. He was slowly recovering, but he was still ridiculously weak.

Behind them, Charlotte allowed herself to satisfied smile. They were almost there. She had prepared for years for this moment, when she could avenge her father. She glanced at the unconscious figure of Randy Orton. She couldn’t wait to see his face he woke up and he learned his fate.

They proceed through the narrow confines of the canyon. There was something wrong there, Seth realized. It was unnaturally cold. Oppressive. Something hated there. He shivered. Feeling it, Kenny hugged him close.

“You can feel too, can’t you? That’s why this place is called lm-i-sul-étiku,” Kenny said, looking up at steep on either side of the canyon as they made their way through it. Charlotte looked around. The area's blood-soaked history wasn't new to her. Halfway through the canyon, the Young Bucks stopped and dismounted, tossing their horses’ reins to Kenny. They pulled their rifles from the saddle scabbards and made sure they had ammunition to spare. They grinned at each other in anticipation.

“Stay safe you two,” Kenny admonished, smiling fondly at them. He raised his head and spoke to Corbin, who was barely visible in the shadows. “If you would be so kind, Baron, make sure none of our guests escape.” The Wolf ducked its head and trotted back through the canyon to its entrance and hid in some brush.

The two kids climbed opposite sides of the steep canyon walls, hiding among the trees. Seth felt uneasy. “What are they doing?” he asked.

“They’re waiting to greet our guests,” Kenny said and nudged the horses back into a walk. Ahead the canyon opened into a large clearing. The mountains rose around them, creating a bowl. The canyon, wider now, continued out the other side of the clearing.

In the center of the clearing, a large stag grazed. It raised its head as they approached. The stag turned into a huge man with long brown hair. Seth blinked, sure his eyes were playing tricks on him, but it stayed a man.

“Braun, I didn’t expect to see you here,” Kenny said, frowning in disapproval. He dismounted, leaving Seth alone in the saddle. Kenny wasn’t worried, the horse wouldn’t go anywhere without Kenny’s permission. “Didn’t we agree that you would impersonate my brother for at least twenty-four hours? Then your debt to me would be paid.”

Braun snorted. “Your ‘pet’ escaped and found them. He figured out who I was so I had to leave,” the Skinwalker said bluntly. “I wasn’t going to stick around and get shot by the Saint of Killers.”

But Kenny was not pleased. “That was very careless of you,” he said. His voice hardened. “To make up for your failure, you will help the Young Bucks’ greet our guests.”

“After that I’m done,” Braun declared.

“You’re done when I say so,” Kenny countered. But he shrugged and smiled. “Tell you what, if no one survives, I’ll consider your debt to me paid.”

The Skinwalker glared at Kenny. For a moment, Seth was sure he would attack the angel, but then he turned into a huge grizzly bear. The horses snorted in alarm but Kenny’s presence kept them from bolting. The bear ignored them and walked into the narrow canyon, getting lost in the shadows.

Weakly, Seth watched the bear until it disappeared. Roman, Dean and Mark would be going into a kill chute. Their horses would be going berserk from the bear and the wolf and the three would be easy pickings for the Young Bucks. But there was no way for Seth to warn them.

“Now, let’s deal with Orton,” Kenny said smiling.

 

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Thank you to the ever-amazing Kiss316! I am so lucky she agreed to beta this.

Warnings: Swearing. Violence

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 23

 

The late summer sun was setting behind the mountains, leaving a slowly dimming orange glow in the western sky. Deep shadows settled between the jagged mountain peaks and the cool night air crept into the valleys. A few night creatures called out to each other, while others waited with a predator’s patience.

Below a distinctive jagged skyline, a circle of torches lit a large clearing, black smoke wafting into the bruised sky. In the center of the circle, a man was lying on his back in the dead grass, his wrists bound in impossibly black chains. He was being held in a unnatural sleep. The man’s name was Randal Keith Orton, once a promising young US Marshal before becoming the vicious outlaw known as the Legend Killer.

Standing outside the torches, Charlotte tipped her head back to look up at the first emerging stars. She thought about her father, recalling Ric’s smile as he held her safe in his strong arms. He had been the most famous lawman in the north-west. A well-earned reputation, indeed. He’d brought in more outlaws that any three other US Marshals. He wasn’t always well-liked, but he was well-respected. He was called the ‘Nature Boy’ by his fellow US Marshals because of his knowledge of the land. But to her, he had just been ‘dad’.

She prepared for this moment from the time two grim-faced US Marshals showed up at her door with the news of Ric’s death. Kenny’s alliance was the final piece she needed to set the plan into motion. Now it was time to claim vengeance for her father. Taking a deep breath, she entered the circle of torches and stood looking down at Randy, tilting her head to the side as she studied the face of her father’s killer. He looked surprisingly young. The Wanted posters had been fairly accurate but in her mind, she pictured him as older, crueler. She pulled out a dark pair of leather gloves from her belt, sliding them on her hands and up over her wrists. Flexing her fingers, she felt the power of the runes imbedded in the leather. Protected, she crouched down and ran her hand over the cold black chain, feeling for any potential weaknesses and finding none.

“Are you ready?” Kenny asked. He didn’t like the dark power Charlotte was using, especially since he was still using his own power to keep Randy unconscious. He knew she didn’t trust him. And she would probably pay a steep price if she refused his protection, given what lived in that particular clearing. But that was her choice.

“Yes, wake him up. Then get out.” she sneered and rose to her feet with the grace and poise of a queen. This was Charlotte’s show now. She would destroy Randy Orton without his help.

Kenny knelt and laid a hand on Randy’s forehead. There was the slightest whisper of power then an absence, like a slight breeze suddenly dying. Kenny stood up and stepped back out of the circle of torches, leaving Charlotte by herself. He went over to stand near Seth, who was sitting with his back against a tree, slipping in and out of consciousness. Kenny had relieved Seth of his power again before he let Randy wake up. He wasn’t taking any chances. He could feel the chill in the area, not just from the cool night air. He knew they were being observed but it didn’t bother him. The thing that watched hated mortals. If no blood was shed in its clearing, it would only watch. That was why he had the Young Bucks, Baron and Braun set up the ambush in the canyon outside of the clearing. If Charlotte forgot herself, if she let her emotions take control, well as far as Kenny knew, the witch didn’t know anything about spirits. It would be interesting when she learned.

In the circle, Randy opened his eyes and then closed them again. He frowned, trying to figure out what was going on. The last thing he remembered was going to check on the horses. He smelled smoke and grunted as he sat up, automatically reaching for his guns. His entire body was unbelievably stiff and sore. Chains rattled as he moved his arms. Confused, he raised his hands and looked at them. The short chain that bound his wrists together was black and cold. And hungry. “Fucking hell,” he rasped with a shiver. His throat was dry as sand. He pulled against the chain, testing its strength but the links didn’t give. He was about to try again, when a movement drew his attention. A tall, blond woman was standing nearby, her face lost in the shadows of the flickering torches. She wasn’t a demon, but there was something nearby… With a start, Randy recognized the feeling of an angel. It was very powerful. He pulled on the chain, trying to get free. The presence of angels never meant anything good was about to happen. He’d learned that the hard way.

“Do you recognize this place?” the woman asked levelly. She might have been asking about the weather. Her voice was surprisingly deep.

Even though it was almost night, Randy looked up at the silhouette of the mountain peaks above him and felt his stomach sink. He knew this place.

“Do you recognize it?” she asked again, a little slower and sounding as if her teeth were clenched. She gestured with her right hand, and the chains got colder.

Those few hours he spent in that clearing were forever branded into his memory. It was here he had destroyed the last remnants of his old life. It was where Ric had stood in front of Randy, smiling grimly as his finger tightened on the trigger of his Colt Peacemaker. Ric had been so focused on Randy he had ignored the creak of wood from the trees behind him, even though there hadn’t been any wind. Swallowing to get some moisture in his dry mouth, Randy nodded once.

“You killed Ric right on this spot. Now you’ll never leave this place, Randy Orton,” the woman told him. She spat his name like she had a mouth full of venom.

How did she know about Ric? “Who are you?” Randy asked, his voice was rusty as an old nail.

“Charlotte Flair,” she said.

Oh shit. “You’re Ric’s little girl?” Everybody’d known Ric had kids. The old guy had never stopped bragging about them. His son Reid had just started following in his father’s footsteps and was going to be a US Marshal. Ric was so proud the day they’d pinned that damned badge on the young man who was too green and too arrogant. When Reid was killed in that ridiculous barroom brawl, it broke Ric. Already a hard drinker, Ric crawled into the bottle and stayed there, often showing up drunk for work if he bothered to show up at all. Soon the other Marshals, who had once fought over assignments under Ric, began to avoid him, considering him too old and broken down to be of any use. For years, Ric was a fixture at the saloons, telling everyone stories of his glory days, not seeing the eye rolls and the pitying smirks behind his back. Everyone agreed the old man needed to be put out to pasture but Hunter refused to retire him. It was Randy who eventually pulled the trigger, but Ric’s death was mostly because of Hunter. Hunter had sent Ric not only because he knew it would hurt Randy to have to kill the legendary lawman, the judge would be getting rid of an ongoing embarrassment to the Marshals.

Ostensibly, the judge sent Ric to hunt down Randy because of their past relationship. And, if anyone asked, bringing in Orton would give Ric back his self-worth. It seemed to work. At least Ric stopped drinking while he was chasing Orton. His eyes cleared up and some of his old skills had returned. Ric knew he wasn’t fast enough to take down Randy, at least in a fair fight. But Ric never had an issue with fighting fair.

In a turn of incredibly unfortunate timing, US Marshal Ric Flair had tracked Randy down just as the Legend Killer had finally cornered a disembodied demon he had been pursuing for several days. Randy had already called the Saint in to kill it. It was the Saint who had seen the slight movement in the trees and warned his son. As fast as Randy moved, Ric’s bullet still caught him high the bicep, breaking the bone and rendering his right arm useless.

“You’re under arrest, son,” Ric said, stepping into the clearing with his gun drawn and aimed right at Randy’s chest. He didn’t notice the chill in the air increasing as he advanced on Randy, who was holding a hand over the bullet hole, trying to stem the blood pouring down his arm.

At first, Randy had tried to talk to Ric, to let him explain what was happening. But Ric didn’t believe him and ordered Randy to surrender his weapons. Mistakenly believing that Randy wasn’t going to fight Ric, the demon tried for the old man. Randy knew what was going to happen, what he was going to be forced to do. Randy had begged Ric to turn around and leave, to save himself. But Ric, unable to see the demon creeping up on him, insisted that Randy drop his guns. Randy refused and even as the demon lunged at the old man, Ric’s finger had tightened on the trigger. Yet in that bare space of a fraction of a second, two Colt Walkers fired simultaneously, the thunderous report echoing off the mountains. One killing the demon before it could get to Ric, and one killing Ric. The old US Marshal died without noticing Randy’s eyes were pale green when Ric attempted to kill him. The Saint defended his son without remorse, even from what came into the clearing afterwards, drawn to the violence. But with the Saint of Killers was standing guard over his son, it had backed down.

And now Ric’s daughter was right in front of him, all grown up and glaring at him in hatred. Christ, what could he even say to her? ‘I’m sorry’ didn’t begin to cut it.

“You murdered him on this very spot,” she said. There was just the slightest waver in her voice. She wasn’t as in control of her feelings as she’d wanted him to think.

“Charlotte, I,” he began.

“Don’t even try to deny it!” she interrupted in a blaze of fury. “Yes, he was old and a drunk, but he was my father! He was the greatest and you killed him!”

“I wasn’t going to deny it,” he said, voice hoarse. He really needed some water. “I admit it: I killed Ric. I didn’t want to but he gave me no choice. And I know it doesn’t mean much, but for its worth, I’m sorry.” And that was the truth. Ric had taught Randy everything about being a Marshal. The old man was a legend. Randy had always admired Ric, even after Ric had started drinking hard after Reid’s death. And being forced to shoot the old man was heartbreaking. Especially since he’d done it with a Colt Walker.

Shocked, Charlotte took a step back. She had expected him to deny it, to justify it, or even plead. Of all the things Randy Orton could have said to her, ‘I’m sorry,’ wasn’t one she ever thought she would hear. She hesitated.

“Come on, Charlotte, don’t tell me your buying this bullshit!” a male voice demanded outside of Randy’s line of sight. The person sounded both amused and impatient. “He killed your father. Are you seriously having second thoughts because he said he was sorry?”

“No!” Charlotte snapped. “I told you to stay out of this!”

“Hey, you came to me, remember? It was your idea to kill that girl Becky and bind her soul, to use as bait to catch one the Saint of Killer’s men. You do remember AJ Styles, don’t you? The Destroyer put his mark on him, and then we left him to the mercy of five demons. You know what they’re doing to him right now. That was all your idea, not mine,” the male voice protested.

AJ. Randy stared up at Charlotte, rage overcoming the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. Mark had been right. God damnit! “AJ had nothing to do with me killing Ric!” he growled, jerking at the black chain. If he could get his hands loose…

“It’s not like he’s innocent,” she defended herself. How dare he try to take the moral high-ground with her! “I don’t give a fuck about AJ Styles. He can provide power to those demons for the rest of his life, as long as it brought you to me!”

“You fucking bitch! I’m sure Ric would be so proud of you right now,” Randy said, still tugging on the chain in vain. His voice was scathing.

“He can’t be proud anymore, you bastard! He’s dead!” she shouted back.

By now Randy was angry and desperate. Desperate enough to do something drastic: he mentally called out to his father. But there was no answer. Deep down he had thought his father would be there if he called, but it seemed that was not the case. He should have known. He had been betrayed, again.

Something must have shown on his face, because Charlotte laughed. “The Saint of Killers not answering? Poor Randy. Maybe he’s tired of you. You’re going to be alone not only for the rest of your life, which will be short but your afterlife too.”

“Charlotte, don’t do this,” Randy said, trying to make her see what the future lay in store for her. “If you kill me, the others will come down on you like thunder. They won’t just kill you, they’ll destroy you.” He meant Mark, Reigns and Ambrose. Fuck the Saint.

“I don’t care! You have to pay for what you did to Ric!” She was not going to cry in front of Randy Orton. Abruptly furious, she kicked him in the head as he tried to get to his feet. He gasped as he sprawled on his side, the world spinning around him. He swore he heard Seth shout but it must have been his imagination.

“Stay down,” Charlotte hissed.

“What are you going to do?” Randy asked, getting himself back to a seated position. His head throbbed where the toe of her boot hit him. He could feel a trickle of blood down his cheek.

Seeing the blood, Kenny shook his head. She should have known better. The chill grew very slowly but Kenny knew Charlotte had made a terrible mistake. Now it was up to her if she wanted his help to survive.

“I’m going to bind your soul, making it so you’ll never leave this place,” Charlotte told him, eyes bright.

“Charlotte,” he began. Randy could see there was no talking her out of this. He too could feel the chill. He had to warn her about it even though she was going to kill him. She was mad, but she was Ric’s daughter. He owed the old man that much. “You should know there’s a leshen…” he started to say but she was done talking.

“Enough! This is for my father!” she hissed, and pressed her hands together, the runes on her gloves activating the runes on the chains. She closed her eyes and concentrated. As she gathered her power, she reached out and placed her palms directly over his temples. He gasped in pain as everything went dark.

The chain on Randy’s wrists burned black, then doubled. Its twin was visible only to those with the power to see beyond the real world. She guided the spirit chain around his soul, which was completely intact to her surprise. She’d heard what the Colt Walkers did to the Saint’s men, but Randy’s was undamaged. Ignoring the implications, she finished binding Randy’s soul. When it was done, she opened her eyes and sat back, satisfied the Legend Killer would pay for his sin for the rest of eternity.

Randy collapsed, measuring his length in the dead grass. She knelt over him, face over his. Her hair brushed his bloody cheek as she whispered in his ear. “Here is where you will spend eternity, Randy Orton. You can still hear and feel, but you can’t move. You will lay here for days until your body dies, or some passing animal eats you alive, bite by bite. And after you die, your body will rot around you. You will feel the maggots eating your eyes and then your brain and your heart. And after your body has rotted away, only your sun-bleached bones will remain, along with your pathetic excuse for a soul.” She drew a deep breath and slowly stood up, staring down at Randy’s limp body. Her father could rest now.

Off to the side, Kenny applauded. “I knew you could do it!” he congratulated her.

She knew he was being condescending, but she didn’t care. She didn’t look at him, not yet. She was still savoring her victory. ‘Rest in peace, dad’, she thought. Her eyes filled with tears but she didn’t let them fall.

“What did she do to him?” Seth mumbled, forcing himself to stay awake.

“She avenged her father,” Kenny told him.

“But, the Saint,” Seth protested, slipping sideways until he was leaning against Kenny’s leg.

Kenny just shrugged. “What can he do? Orton isn’t dead, yet. No one here killed him. He’ll lay here until he dies of dehydration. Or a bear eats him alive I suppose.” He knew Randy could hear him and took perverted pleasure in it.

As if on cue, the terrible roar of an adult grizzly bear echoed off the canyon walls. Whip-crack reports of rifles firing, mingled with the screams of men and horses echoed through the canyon. Kenny laughed out loud. There were the distinctive reports of revolvers; someone was fighting back. But they were sporadic, becoming increasingly sparse as the battle continued. Except it wasn’t a battle, it was a massacre.

“No,” Seth said, his voice slurring, trying to deny what he was hearing. He was helpless to stop the tears streaming down his cheeks. Mark, Dean, Roman…

Kenny absently stroked Seth’s hair, a satisfied smile playing on his lips. He could feel the increasing psychic chill of something approaching. Something born of the violence of the area’s history, attracted by the spilled blood. He glanced at Charlotte and shook his head. She was still not paying the attention she should have to her surroundings. Orton tried to warn her but she didn’t listen.

As Charlotte stood over Randy’s body, she wasn’t sure what she should be feeling. Satisfaction? Vindication? Was it worth it? She frowned. There were a couple more rifle shots, then silence. Charlotte straightened her spine and squared her shoulders. If Kenny was going to turn on her, it would be soon. She put her hands together, feeling the powerful runes on the palms and fingers of her gloves. She was ready for him.

But Kenny wasn’t moving. He was still standing beside Seth, stroking his hair thoughtfully. Seth looked devastated and she wondered who he thought had been following them. There was movement at the mouth of the canyon. Nick and Matt came back to the clearing, alone.

“Is it done?” Kenny asked.

“All dead,” Nick reported cheerfully, wiping down his rifle with a piece of cloth before reloading it and stowing it in his saddle scabbard. Matt did the same. Behind Kenny, Seth refused to believe that his brothers were dead. He looked desperately at Randy, but the Legend Killer lay unmoving. He glared at Kenny’s back. He hadn’t hated anything as much as Kenny Omega in his life. His sole reason for being was to kill that fucking angel.

“Good,” Kenny said as they worked. “Boys, I’m so proud of both of you.” He kissed their foreheads in turn, giving them protection. They beamed. He reached down and pulled Seth to his feet. Seth’s knees buckled immediately but Kenny held him up easily. “We’re going home,” the angel said, also kissing Seth’s forehead. Then he looked around. “Where is Baron and Braun?”

“Baron was hit,” Matt shrugged.

“Bad?” Kenny asked. He didn’t want to waste power healing the Wolf. They were so close to getting home…

“Dunno, he ran off and we didn’t see him after that,” Nick said.

“And Braun?” Kenny asked.

“Braun said his debt was paid,” Nick added. He hadn’t wanted to argue with the Skinwalker.

Kenny frowned. Baron they could afford to lose, now that his purpose of finding the Saint’s men was done. But having Braun around was good insurance against the unexpected dangers in this world. But on second thought, Kenny decided it was fine. If Braun ever found out the ‘debt’ he owed Kenny was of Kenny’s own making, the Skinwalker might not take it well. Braun was still under the impression Kenny had saved him from the Saint of Killers, when in reality, it had been Kenny who had started the rumor about the Skinwalker wanting to get at Randy. Randy’s demon marks meant nothing to the ancient creature, but Kenny doubted the Saint of Killers would stop to verify that piece of information before killing the Skinwalker. “Braun leaving is probably for the best,” he said finally. He turned to Seth. “Come on brother,” he said and hauled Seth over to his horse. Seth tried to fight but Kenny picked him up with contemptuous ease and practically tossed him over the saddle. The angel glanced around, noticed Charlotte hadn’t moved. She watched warily as Kenny came up beside her.

“Have you fulfilled your oath for vengeance?” he asked curiously.

She nodded, biting her lip and suddenly blinking away tears. It was what she had devoted her life to for years.

“Perfect. I cannot thank you enough for your help getting my brother back. Let me give you one last gift,” Kenny smiled and reached out to pull her close.

“Stay back,” she warned, fitting her gloves together so the rune on the palms came together and flared brightly. The dark power was in opposition to the angel’s. Shocked, Kenny staggered back. “Did you think I don’t know what you’re planning?” she snarled.

Pale, Kenny shook his head. “Charlotte, I wasn’t going to betray you,” he said. “But you need protection.”

“Bullshit,” Charlotte said. When Matt made a motion, she snapped, “Move and he’ll pay.” Neither Matt nor Nick moved.

Seth almost smiled. Maybe Kenny’s plans would get derailed after all. Then something moved in the torchlight behind Charlotte and for a moment Seth thought he had lost his mind. It looked like the skull of an elk perched on the top of a pile of dead branches, twisted roughly in the shape of a human body. Then it moved, its limbs creaking like branches in a wind storm. Charlotte turned and gasped when she saw what was behind her. She raised her hands to protect herself but she didn’t see the blow coming. Roots shot up through the ground below her feet, entwining around her legs, climbing up her torso. Then one by one sank into her flesh. She tried to scream but a root implanted itself in her throat. Blood poured from her mouth as her eyes widened in horror. Then the roots, black with blood retracted back into the earth. She fell down on her back, empty eyes staring up at the uncaring stars.

“Stay very still,” Kenny said to Nick, who started to reach for his rifle. Oddly the horses didn’t seem to mind the creature.

“What is it?” Matt asked. He had killed many people, often horrifically but he’d never seen anything so awful in his life.

“Quiet. We’re protected but it’s best not to draw its attention.” Kenny never took his eyes off the creature in front of them.

They waited, barely daring to breathe while the creature stared at them through its empty eye-holes. Then finally it faded into the night with the creaking of old, dead branches.

“What was that, Kenny?” Matt asked, voice shaking.

“A leshen. An ancient spirit of the forest. There has been so much blood-shed here that the forest spirit drowned in it. Now it stalks anyone who comes into its territory with harmful intent.” Kenny looked down at Charlotte’s body with sorrow. “I tried to warn her, but she didn’t trust me enough to let me protect her.” For a few moments they waited, but the chill was gone. Finally, Kenny drew a deep breath and said, “Time to go home, brothers.” He mounted up on his own horse and turned it to the canyon. He grabbed the reigns of Seth’s horse and led it back towards the canyon. Matt and Nick followed them. No longer needed, Randy’s and Charlotte’s horses were left behind.

On the ground, surrounded by guttering torches, Randy could hear them leave.

The hoof beats of the horses fading until they were lost among the other night noises. Randy fought with all his willpower to move, to open his eyes, to make a sound but his body was dead around him. Don’t leave me here! he thought frantically, locked in his head. He reached out to his father, but there was no answer. It was as if a solid black wall was enclosing him on all sides. He could feel the cool night air, hear night insects, smell the dead grass, feel the blood pulsing through his veins. But he was completely and utterly paralyzed.

He’d heard the leshen kill Charlotte. I’m so sorry, Ric. I tried to warn her.

He didn’t know how long he lay on the ground. It was hard to tell the passage of time. It could have been hours. He tried to remain calm, but terror began seep into the edges of his sanity. What if a demon found him now? Why was his father not answering him? Something sniffed him at one point. He hadn’t heard it approaching, but whatever it was, it was big. A wolf maybe? He expected to feel teeth sink into his body at any second. It must have decided for whatever reason that it wasn’t going to eat him. He didn’t hear it leave. Panic ate at him but his heart beat never once increased.

Someone, please help!’ he mentally begged.

There was no answer.

He thought of Mark, who was more of a father than a friend. And of what AJ was facing and hoped that outlaw could eventually escape. Maybe Reigns and Ambrose would find and help AJ. Randy wanted to weep with frustration and rage. But he could only lay there, in the dead grass, helpless.

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Thank you to the ever-amazing Kiss316! I am so lucky she agreed to beta this.

Warnings: Swearing. Violence.

Phenomenal One Chapter 24



After a few hours in the saddle, AJ’s broken ribs were aching fiercely. The demon mark burned over the top of them, compounding the pain. The pain increased with each mile the mare covered until that was all he could focus on. By the time they reached the foot of the Bitterroot mountains, only sheer, bloody-minded stubbornness was keeping him in the saddle. He knew he was being a hypocrite, doing exactly opposite of his own advice to Reigns and Ambrose. He was in no shape to take on Bullet Club and their allies but he just couldn’t shake the feeling that something terrible was going to happen if he’d waited for the others to get their shit together. And there was no way their mounts could keep up with the pale mare, even if they were fresh.

He had known before he mounted up that the pale mare wasn’t an ordinary horse. But it was a bit unnerving that she didn’t slow her pace even after AJ became consumed with the pain in his ribs and actively stopped guiding her. When he realized the mare was following Bullet Club’s tracks on her own accord; he was more than a little disturbed. She would sip some water at streams when AJ was forced to stop if the pain got too bad, but he got the feeling she was only doing it to be polite.

He decided he wasn’t going think about it.

Heat rippled the horizon as they traveled through miles of dead grass, broken only by the occasional stream bed. The sun set blood red in the west behind the Bitterroots, and finally night exerted its dominance. The cool dry air felt very good on AJ’s sweat-soaked body at first, but then he started shivering as the temperature continued to drop. It was well after midnight, getting close to dawn when the pale mare snorted and stopped on her own accord. He was so caught up in his own misery he almost fell right out of the saddle. Clutching the saddle horn for balance, AJ raised his head and blinked in the dark. A quick glance up at the bright slice of stars overhead told him they were in a narrow canyon. It was too dark to see why the mare had stopped, but since she had been loping steadily up until now, he knew it was something important. Then he smelled it: large amounts of freshly spilled blood mixed with gunpowder. The familiar thick coppery tang coated the back of his throat and he almost gagged. He breathed through his mouth, thankful he hadn’t eaten for several hours. Throwing up with broken ribs would be a whole new level of horrible.

He gritted his teeth as he dismounted, gasping slightly as his ribs protested the move by sending a bolt of stabbing pain through his chest. He stayed on his feet by clutching the saddle and waited. Once the pain subsided, he dug around in Dean’s saddle bag and pulled out some matches and a half-used torch. He lit the torch, mentally bracing himself for the scene ahead.

He crouched down to get a look at the tracks to get an idea of what he could expect. More sets of tracks went into the canyon in front of him that could be accounted for than just Bullet Club and their prisoners. And more disturbingly, there were grizzly bear and wolf tracks mixed with the hoof prints, both were absolutely massive going by the size of the prints. He wasn’t sure how Kenny had persuaded a grizzly bear and a wolf to help him, but AJ had his suspicions. Grimly he drew one of Mark’s Dragoons with his free hand and moved forward. The first body came into the light of his torch, illuminating the matted short blond hair, blue eyes open and milky. Drying blood thickly coated a star on the chest.

It was Jericho.

He had been shot twice, from different angles. He recognized the Young Bucks’ M.O. to hit the leader at the same time. It was their ‘You’re fucked’ message to the others. Jericho’s new horse, the bright palomino from Enzo’s livery, was also dead. Its throat had been ripped out by the bear. Grimly, AJ stepped passed them, the mare following him on her own volition through the kill chute. AJ was too busy examining the massacre to notice her eyes flashing deep red in the torchlight.

In his mind AJ could see it clearly: the posses’ horses going wild from the presence of both bear and wolf, their riders unable to control their panicked mounts, most likely getting thrown to the ground, then the shooting started. They hadn’t stood a chance. AJ knew from experience the entire posse was dead, even their horses. When it came to posses, Bullet Club never left anyone or anything alive. The smell of death and blood was thick and cloying.

Several yards past Jericho, more bodies came into view. He recognized another horse lying dead on its side. It was one of the ones D-Von had tried to steal from the Bannack livery. Knowing what he was going to find, AJ still swore under his breath when he came upon Enzo’s and Big Cass’s corpses. They had made their stand under a hail of bullets. It was obvious that Big Cass had tried to shield his friend and business partner with his own body.

He’d failed.

AJ, jaw set, carefully examined the faces of each of the fallen men. Not that he cared personally about the posse. They had known the dangers when they signed up to go after Bullet Club. But he had to be sure Randy and Seth weren’t among them. When he finally reached the end of the kill chute he breathed a sigh of relief. There was no sign of either of them amongst the dead.

After he passed the massacre, AJ crouched down to study the tracks again. Several horses had come back through the canyon but less than the number which had gone in. He stubbed the torch out in some dirt but didn’t immediately continue forward. He didn’t need to draw a bullseye on himself by waving a torch around in the dark if there were still hostiles in the area. Instead, he waited patiently for his eyes to readjust to the darkness and considered his options. He was already exhausted and in a lot of pain. In short, he was in no shape to keep up his pursuit. But Randy was still out there at Charlotte’s ‘mercy’. He had to keep going. AJ would be damned if he let Randy end up like that Lynch girl because AJ was too tired to save him. He took a swallow of stale water to get the taste of blood out of his mouth, then stowed his canteen back on the mare’s saddle. Once he could make out the outline of the canyon, he led the mare forward. They picked their way through the narrow corridor until AJ could make out an opening ahead. Uneasy, feeling an odd chill the cool air, he eased the hammer back on Mark’s Dragoon and stepped into the clearing. It was completely still.

Bullet Club wasn’t there. If they had been, there would have been a look-out. Quietly he approached the center of the clearing. He stopped when he made out the shape of a body surrounded by dead torches. There was still no sound or movement in the clearing but AJ still approached it cautiously. The person didn’t move. Taking a chance, he picked up one of the torches out of the ground, lit it and used the light to see who it was. He sucked in his breath.

It was Randy.

“Orton?” he asked, keeping his voice low. AJ crouched next to Randy and touched his arm. It was cold. AJ felt his insides turn to ice. AJ did a quick check to see if Randy was still breathing. He was. Then AJ looked for wounds, running his hands over Randy’s skull and body, but couldn’t find any. “Don’t do this to me, Orton. C’mon Randy, wake up!” he muttered. AJ shook Randy’s shoulders hard. But there was still no response. Setting back on his heels, AJ pushed his hair out of his face. He was too late. Charlotte had gotten her revenge. But maybe there was still time to reverse it. Randy was still alive.

On the ground, Randy wondered if he was hallucinating. There was no way AJ could be there. AJ was being tortured by demons. But the touch had felt real, warm against his cold skin. His mind spun in confusion.

AJ raised the torch and looked around, trying to see if Bullet Club had left anything else in the area besides Randy. It was perfectly quiet in the clearing, no insects or night birds called out, but as he stood there in the silence, he became more and more convinced he was being watched. Only the malevolence in the feeling kept him from calling out. The chill in the air could be attributed to the altitude and the depth of the clearing below the mountains, but something told him it wasn’t, really.

Several feet away, at the very edge of the flickering torchlight, was another body. This one was obviously dead, given the amount of blood pooled under it. He approached it cautiously, hoping it wasn’t Seth.

It was Charlotte.

“Oh, shit,” he cursed quietly, his shoulders slumping. He’d just started planning to find Charlotte to force her to lift the curse. Now he didn’t know what to do. He examined her wounds, puzzled. He’d never seen any weapon that could do damage like that. Whatever killed her was something outside of his considerable experience. Was it Kenny? Did the angel possess some new weapon? Charlotte’s corpse held no answers so AJ went back over and sat down next to Randy, completely at a loss. He knew he was truly desperate when, for the first time since he turned his back on the burned-out remains of his home in Georgia, AJ looked up at the sky, an old prayer he’d learned as a child on his lips. But even then, the words wouldn’t come. He’d done too many bad things to too many people for that. He braced his elbows on his knees and rested his forehead on his fists, tired beyond words. Sitting down had been a mistake. All he wanted to do was sleep. But doing so would be a bad idea, if that bear was still in the area. He wasn’t worried about the wolf, having seen the amount of blood in its tracks as it ran away from the massacre.

“I’m sorry, Randy. I’m trying, but I’m stumped here,” AJ sighed, feeling completely out of his depth. But the stubborn redneck deep inside refused to admit defeat. He would not give up. Kenny would not win. There must be some was to free Randy from the curse. Running his hand through his hair, the chain on his wrist caught his attention. He looked at it, turning his hand over and back. If he could get them off he could ask the Saint for advice. But there was no point in wishing for that to happen, there were no blacksmiths in at least a hundred-mile radius. He tried to remember the last time he’d seen one. It was in Bannack…AJ sat bolt upright. “Big Cass! Hold on, Randy, I’ll be right back.” He jumped up, grabbed the torch and took off back to the canyon, unconsciously clutching his ribs when they protested his sudden movements.

On the ground, Randy mentally shouted for AJ to wait, come back! Of course AJ couldn’t hear him. And when he couldn’t hear AJ anymore, Randy started questioning if the outlaw had ever been there at all. The feeling of unreality swept over him. Had he only dreamed that AJ had been there, talking to him? He grew frantic, desperate to move, to open his eyes. To verify AJ had been real and that he wasn’t losing his mind, again.

Finding the corpse of Big Cass’s horse, AJ dug around in the tool-filled saddle bags and was rewarded with a hammer and chisel. “Yes!” he hissed in triumph. Then the reality of the situation hit him. It wasn’t possible for AJ to get his chains off. He needed one hand to hold the chisel in position and the other to hold the hammer. “Fuck!” he said out loud, his voice echoed in the canyon.

Still swearing under his breath, AJ trudged back to Randy. “Sorry Randy, I had an idea that didn’t pan out,” he said as he sank back down to the ground, trying not to jar his ribs. He braced his elbows on his knees, the hammer and chisel dangled loosely in his hands.

Randy wanted to shout in relief. ‘Make some noise, I need to know you’re real,’ he thought at AJ. He had felt his sanity start to unravel when AJ left, like a yawning bottomless pit opening inside his head. AJ returning had pulled him back. But the pit remained.

Unaware of Randy’s issue, AJ absently twirled the hammer in his right hand. The flame of the torch caught a small breath of air, making the light flare. It cast more light on Randy’s hands, chained together by his wrists. AJ glanced at them, brow furrowing as something niggled at edge of his thoughts. He moved the torch so he could see the Randy’s chains. They looked exactly like the ones AJ wore. Just to be sure, AJ touched them, wincing at the cold. He ran his fingers over the shackles, trying to find the unlocking mechanism and wasn’t surprised to find there wasn’t one. AJ wished he weren’t quite so tired so he could think clearer. He forced himself to focus. Charlotte had the same chains on Randy as AJ’s. But why? The chains only kept AJ separated from the Saint of Killers. They didn’t incapacitate him. Why keep the chains on Randy if Charlotte’s plan all along was to curse him?

The memory of standing with the Saint in the graveyard that hot afternoon came back to him. The ghost of Becky Lynch standing in front of them. Her words spoken as if from for away. “I was unable to move. They buried me alive. I lay in darkness until I died. I can’t move, I called out but only the Barghest could hear me.”

Oh Christ. AJ almost smacked himself on the forehead for being so dense. If Becky could communicate with the Barghest when cursed, Randy might still be able to talk to the Saint! Charlotte didn’t want the Saint to find Randy and tell anyone where he was!

Finding a flat chunk of granite, AJ was hammering away at the shackle on Randy’s right wrist within minutes. It took a while but it eventually came off. The eastern jagged horizon was starting to get lighter. Sweating heavily in the cool air, AJ took a break. It was too fucking hard to breathe with broken ribs, he decided. He looked down at Randy and said, “I hope to Christ you can hear me. You’ve probably figured out that you’ve been cursed. Don’t worry, I’ve run into this one before and broke it. I can do it again, I just need some help,” he said with false confidence.

Randy heard AJ’s words and was filled with a surge of hope that pushed back the blackness in his mind. ‘Hurry, I don’t know how much longer I can stand this,’ he wanted to say.

AJ considered his words. “I need you to call the Saint when I get these off. I can’t see or hear him because Charlotte put those same chains on me. It’s how she’s keeping him away from us.”

The Saint hadn’t abandoned him after all! For the first time in his life, Randy was more than willing to talk to his father. Being unable to move, to react, was terrifying.

For his part, AJ shuddered to think of what breaking another curse would do to his already-damaged soul. But this was Randy, who’d saved his life. He would try. Taking as deep of breath as his ribs would allow, AJ positioned the chisel on Randy’s left shackle and raised the hammer. He slammed the hammer down with all his strength, once, twice and on the third, the chain came off with a loud crack, clattering against the rock and slithering onto the ground. AJ grabbed the links with distaste and threw them as far as he could, away from Randy.

Father!” Randy shouted in his mind.

A bolt of pain shot through AJ’s head as the Saint appeared and he pressed his fists to his temples, biting back a groan. He’d hoped for this. Hell, he prayed forthis. But it still hurt like a son of a bitch.

SON?” The Saint roared. The temperature in the clearing dropped dramatically. Compared to this, the malevolence earlier was a mild autumn day.

I’m okay,” Randy said quickly before the Saint could say anything else, overjoyed he could actually interact with someone. But even though couldn’t see his father, Randy could feel the Saint’s concern for him. It was warm, like a blanket on a cold night. He hadn’t forgiven his father, not yet. For now, he was just glad his father was there with him. “Okay, I’m not okay. I need your help,” Randy admitted.

What happened?” the Saint asked.

Ric’s daughter Charlotte cursed me because of what we did to Ric,” Randy said. He felt calmer now, more confidant. Both AJ and his father were there. He wasn’t alone. The darkness retreated further. “That’s why she brought me here.”

I’ll destroy her!” the Saint vowed, eyes turning white.

She’s already dead. The leshen killed her,” Randy told him with no regrets. She didn’t listen to him. At first, he’d felt bad because she was Ric’s daughter but after laying helpless on the ground for several hours, questioning his already-unstable sanity, he’d grown to hate her.

AJ couldn’t see the Saint but he knew the spirit was there. The bolt of pain had rammed straight through the center of his head. He was doubled over, his hair nearly touching the ground as he gasped. But he had been ready for it. “Tell him that you’ve been cursed like the girl Becky Lynch,” he said, fighting nausea and weakness. Darkness ate at the edges of his vision. “And tell him to tell Reigns and Ambrose to hurry the hell up. I’m pretty sure that Skinwalker is still around.”

Randy heard AJ. He was so relieved he didn’t notice how strained AJ’s voice was. “It’s the same curse as the Lynch girl.”

How do you know?” the Saint asked, anger burning in his words.

AJ’s telling me. He’s right here beside me. He got those fucking chains off me so I could talk to you.”

Styles? I underestimated that boy,” the Saint said, impressed. He’d always like Styles’ guts and cocky attitude, but the sheer persistence of the man had was astounding.

Randy agreed. “He says he can break the curse, but he needs help,” he said

He’ll get it. I promise.” The Saint knew who he needed to find. “What else does he say?”

He thinks the Skinwalker is close, so asked me to tell you to tell Reigns and Ambrose to hurry the hell up.”

Reigns and Ambrose are on their way,” the Saint said. “They’re not happy with Styles.” That was an understatement.

Don’t care if they are or not, I’m happy with him. But there’s something wrong with him,” Randy told the Saint. Now that he was listening, he could hear AJ’s labored breathing close by. “I think he’s hurt.”

It’s the guns,” the Saint said, frowning.

Then you should leave,” Randy told him, remembering the trouble AJ was in whenever he was near the Saint.

NO!” the Saint said. He would not leave his son alone again.

You need to! You’re hurting him. I’ll be alright,” Randy insisted. If AJ stayed near, Randy could deal with it. “I’ll call you if anything happens. I promise.”

Very well.” The Saint said reluctantly. He started to fade

Father?” Randy asked, hesitantly.

What is it, son?”

I’m…I’m glad you came,” Randy said. He’d never been afraid to die, but to be forced to lay there for eternity, unable to move or react had scared him like nothing else, even the Beast

The Saint’s eyes softened just the slightest bit. “Hold on son. I’ll be here if you need me.”And he disappeared.

Beside him, AJ took a deep breath, the pain of his damaged soul receded until it was lost among the other pains of his abused body. “Whew,” he said and reached out to grasp Randy’s limp arm. “Hang in there Orton. We’ll get this figured out.”

As he recovered, he looked around the clearing. It was light enough that he didn’t need the torch anymore. He saw the mare standing next to Randy’s horse and his own buckskin nearby, tied to low branches of some aspens. To keep himself awake, he set about unsaddling and rubbing them down and allowing them to graze on the sparse grass. There was some dried meat in Dean’s saddlebag but his stomach wasn’t having it. Instead, he hesitantly unsaddled the mare. She didn’t do anything unnatural, so he worked on her too.

A movement in the trees nearby caught his attention. It was a huge wolf. AJ froze as it limped exhaustedly out of the trees toward him, head low. Its tongue hung out and blood matted the fur on its side.

“Shit,” AJ said. Except for the pale mare, the horses snorted suspiciously at it. He glanced at Randy. Now that he knew Randy could hear him, he figured that Randy might want to know what was going on. “Randy, there’s a wolf coming towards us. Its hurt,” he said calmly, so Randy didn’t get concerned. AJ drew one of his guns. “Better put it out of its misery.”

Oh fuck! Don’t shoot it!” Randy screamed in his head, listening for the sound of dead branches.

The wolf stopped when it saw AJ’s draw, but it held his gaze steadily. It didn’t seem afraid or mad, just resigned. Then it sank down on its belly. AJ aimed Mark’s Dragoon right between the wolf’s eyes. The wolf didn’t flinch. There was a pause as the animal waited for AJ to decide what to do. AJ knew he should shoot it, the animal was hurt, suffering. But there was something familiar about those yellow eyes. AJ, who had never had an issue killing before, was acutely aware that some animals were more than ordinary and looked at the pale mare beside him. He swore that she returned his look, pointing an ear at him, as if to ask ‘what?’.

“Shit.” He’d better make sure. “Umm…Do you understand me?” AJ asked, feeling like a colossal idiot, talking to an animal as if it would understand him.

The wolf bared his teeth, but grudgingly nodded.

“Well, fuck,” AJ swore in surprise. He stuffed the Dragoon back in its holster. “Are you Corbin?”

The wolf’s ears pricked up and its tail moved slightly. Not necessarily a wag, but it was close enough for AJ. So that’s what the Saint meant when he said that Corbin was a Wolf. AJ hadn’t realized the Saint had meant literally. Still a bit unnerved, AJ approached the wounded animal. He noticed the collar almost hidden by the thick fur around its neck. It too was a deep black. “Is that your collar?” he asked.

The Wolf snarled loudly.

AJ backed up a step, hands raised in the universal sign of ‘easy, just relax. Not going to hurt you’. “Take that as a ‘no’. Do you want me to take it off?” AJ asked, deliberately ignoring the bared fangs.

The Wolf’s snarl eased and he nodded again.

Cautiously AJ knelt beside the Wolf and felt along the collar, relieved to find a conventional buckle. He unbuckled it and swore the Wolf breathed a huge sigh of relief when it came off. AJ rose to his feet and stepped back, watching in awe as the Wolf melted into a glaring Baron Corbin, laying on the ground. He had been shot below the shoulder. With a grunt, the Wolf sat up, clutching his bloody side. “Found the Skinwalker,” Baron told AJ, deadpan.

AJ snorted a laugh. “Randy, this is Baron Corbin. He’s the Wolf that I paid to find the Skinwalker so I could kill it. I’m still working on step two.”

“Why’re you talking to him?” Baron demanded.

“He’s been cursed but he can still hear us. It was the same witch that made this collar and these chains,” AJ said, holding up a hand to show the chains around his wrist. “She’s dead now,” he added flatly. He went back to getting the horses ready to travel.

Baron didn’t say anything. He just watched AJ work.

When AJ was satisfied with the horses, he carefully made a small fire in a bare patch of dirt, surrounded by some rocks. The grass in the clearing was so dry, any spark could set the entire clearing on fire. When the fire was hot enough, he set the coffee pot on it to boil. He offered Baron some of the dried meat, but the Wolf sneered at it. AJ couldn’t blame him.

“Want me to look at that?” AJ asked, indicting Baron’s wound. It would help him stay awake while he waited for the Saint to bring help.

Baron shrugged, then winced. AJ knelt down beside the wounded man, noticing his own ribs seemed to be getting a little better. Now if the demon mark would stop burning…

“We’ve got company,” Baron said, eyes wide, staring at something over AJ’s shoulder.

AJ spun around, hand on the butt of one of the Dragoons.

In the pre-dawn light, the spirit of Becky Lynch smiled at him.



TBC

 

Chapter Text

Thank you to the ever-amazing Kiss316! Beta-reader extraordinaire!

Warnings: Swearing.

Phenomenal One Chapter 25



Her hair was the color of flame and her eyes shone with the last fading stars of the oncoming dawn. He could see right through her, but AJ was never so happy to see a ghost in his entire life. “Ms. Lynch! Why are you here?” he asked.

“I couldn’t say no to the Saint of Killers. And please, it’s Becky,” she said. Her voice sounded distorted, as if it was coming from both far away and right next to him. “Did you really think anyone up there would listen to you, considering who you work for?” she asked, arching an eyebrow.

With everything AJ had been through in the past few days, being chided by a ghost didn’t even slow him down. “I was desperate,” he admitted. “But the Saint found you in Heaven?”

“What makes you think I was up there?” Her grin was downright wicked as she approached him.

AJ realized his mouth was open and closed it. “Wait,” he said, shocked. “You went to Hell?” He felt a wave of guilt. Had he condemned her to a fate worse than being chained to her corpse?

As if she could read his thoughts, she said with quiet intensity, “Never regret what you did for me. You saved me.” She smirked. “You didn’t know me when I was alive. There was a reason I left Ireland in a hurry. Besides, Hell isn’t too bad now that there aren’t any demons. It’s quiet and the boiling lakes make nice saunas.”

“Well, in any case, I really appreciate your coming,” he said, his voice was only little strained which could be forgiven, given the circumstances.

“I owe you,” Becky said seriously.

Baron watched the two with interest. Being a Wolf, he wasn’t bothered by ghosts. But it was his experience that humans were a different story, being scared to death of them. Obviously, AJ knew this one. Baron was curious to know what AJ had done for her was but didn’t ask. He wasn’t that curious. He shifted a bit, trying to get more comfortable. The blood from the bullet wound had stopped flowing; being able to shift out of Wolf form had its advantages, mostly because of accelerated healing. But Corbin was not in a hurry to leave the clearing just yet. The Skinwalker was still in the area, which was why Corbin had taken refuge near AJ. If the Skinwalker attacked again, it would go for AJ first, giving Corbin time to get away.

Besides, AJ still owed him some gold.

“How do I break the curse?” AJ asked Becky’s ghost, mentally steeling himself. He was terrified that he would have to repeat what he and the Saint did before, in the Bannack cemetery. Holding that soul chain had hurt him almost as deeply as the Destroyer’s mark. But AJ wasn’t a coward and if that’s what he had to do...

As if reading his mind, Becky shook her head. “He’s still alive so you can’t break the chain. If you did, his soul would be unanchored from his body.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” AJ said.

Randy silently agreed. Having humans nearby, hearing them speak, was keeping him grounded. He could still feel his father’s presence, not close but still with him. The abyss in his mind retreated further but was still present. He needed to move.

“It’s not, but don’t worry. I know how to remove it,” Becky assured him. Seeing AJ’s look, she smirked bitterly. “How do you think Charlotte got so good at casting that curse?”

AJ had to close his mouth again. “She practiced on you?” he asked in horror.

“It took her several tries to get it right,” Becky glared at Charlotte’s corpse. Having her soul bound, unbound and then bound again had been horrific. That, and subsequently being buried alive after Charlotte had left her, lying in darkness for time without end, with only the bargest for company and her body rotting around her, Becky knew she was going insane. Then the Saint called her out of her grave and freed her. She would never stop being grateful to him and AJ for what they did.

Learning what Charlotte had done, AJ shivered, not wanting to think about how that must have felt. Touching the soul chain for a short time was awful enough. He pushed his hair away from his face and forced himself to focus on the issue at hand. “How do I break the curse if I can’t break the chain?” he asked.

“You’ll need her gloves,” Becky instructed as she walked over to stand by Charlotte’s corpse. A sparrow started scolding them in one of the nearby trees.

Obeying, AJ followed her, kneeling down to remove the gloves from the cold hands. He deliberately didn’t look at the corpse’s half-open eyes. “What’s so special about them?” he asked. They were a fine dark leather, too good for every day work. There were white markings on the palms and fingers, but they meant nothing to AJ.

“Put them on,” Becky said impatiently. The eastern horizon was starting to show fire, the exact color of Becky’s hair. “Hurry, I can’t stay here much longer,” she said. It was getting difficult to maintain a corporeal form.

AJ did as she instructed, still having no idea what was supposed to happen. The gloves fit well, up and over his wrists. He snugged them under the shackles.

“Now hold your hands flat, one behind the other” she instructed. Slender fingers of sunlight slipped over the mountain peaks through the trees and into the clearing. Her voice was getting further away. She was barely a ripple in the air beside him.

Frowning, AJ did as she instructed. Nothing happened. “Now what?” he asked. There was no answer. He looked up, squinting into the sun.

Becky was gone.

“Shit!” Swallowing hard, AJ sat back on his heels, determined not to give in to panic.

Baron looked on, amused. “Problem?” he asked casually.

“Fuck yeah there’s a problem. She’s gone, and I have no idea what the hell I’m supposed to be doing,” AJ snapped. God, he was so tired! AJ shook his head and told himself to quit whining. He could do this, damn it! Pushing exhaustion away, he took a slow breath to settle his nerves, ignoring his ribs. He turned his palms up and examined the gloves in the light of the rising sun. The white lines were etched deep into the dark leather. As he studied them, a pattern began to emerge. It looked like the markings on each glove were two parts of a whole, but not quite. Holding his hands flat, he slid one hand behind the other, making small adjustments until the partial curves and lines made a complete circle and suddenly he felt it. Dark power, as cold as the deepest winter, surged through him. The demon mark flared hot in response. He squeezed his eyes shut and clamped his jaws together as his injured soul ached from the fierce cold. He forced himself to accept the pain and finally managed to relax. He cautiously opened his eyes and gasped.

The chains on his wrists were unchanged, but now he could clearly see the runes in the shackles. The runes sealing the previously hidden seams were glowing dark, bloody red that throbbed steadily. With horror, he realized it was pulsing the same rhythm as his own heartbeat. Charlotte’s words echoed in his memory and grimly he turned his hands over so he wouldn’t have to see them.

It was strangely hard to focus on the other runes embedded in the shackles, and at first, he thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. Then he realized they were writhing slowly, like a dying snake. It made him faintly sick to look at them. In stark contrast to the black iron bands, Itami’s white wraps glowed under the chains, the crisp marks were moving gracefully in counterpoint to the runes.

But the shackles weren’t the only things now visible and his eyes widened when he looked at Randy lying nearby. He could see Randy’s soul inside his body and chain that bound it. It wasn’t solid like the chains AJ wore, instead it was a complete absence of light. There was something almost obscene how each link dug into the brightness that was the Legend Killer’s soul. AJ was so startled he fell back on his butt, eyes wide. He put his hands down to catch his balance and the surge of Power abruptly stopped.

The world faded back to normal.

On the other side of the fire, Baron was sitting up straight, lips pulled back in a snarl. If he had been in Wolf form, his hackles would have been raised. “What the fuck was that?” he demanded.

“I could see the curse,” AJ said swallowing hard. He had never experienced anything like that before. It was Power, it was Dark, it was Unnatural, and AJ wanted nothing more than to rip the gloves off his hands and throw them into the fire. Pushing the impulse aside, he stood up and approached Randy. He carefully flattened his hands again, adjusting his hands until he felt the Power surge again. The soul chain came back into view. AJ gritted his teeth, knelt beside Randy’s body and forced himself to breathe, even as the power shivered along his damaged soul. He studied the soul chain, looking for a way to remove it. He didn’t see one right off the bat. Hesitantly he reached out and touched the chain, expecting it to unwind itself from Randy and attack him like last time, but it didn’t move. Encouraged, he traced the chain with his fingers, wincing at the icy cold seeping through the gloves until he found one end wrapped tightly around Randy’s neck. AJ grasped the last link of the chain between his thumb and forefinger, noting how it clung to the brightness. Hoping he wasn’t hurting Randy, he gently began to unwind the chain from Randy’s soul. It took time and patience to tease each reluctant link away but eventually AJ worked it free. The faded from existence as soon as it lost contact with Randy.

Seeing nothing else, AJ stripped off the gloves and the power slowed a stop. He blinked as the world as it should be came back into view. He swayed, dizzy. His shirt was damp with sweat and his hair clung to his face. For several seconds the only sound was the noise of insects. Then with a ragged gasp, Randy opened his eyes.

AJ sagged with relief. He’d done it. He looked down at Randy and saw him staring up at him. Then Randy’s hands were clamped around AJ’s wrists, the hold was tight enough to make AJ wince as the links of the chains dug into his skin. “Hey,” he grinned around gritted teeth. “Welcome back.”

“Are you really here?” Randy demanded, his voice was hoarse.

“Uh, yeah,” AJ said uncertainly. He wasn’t sure what Randy was talking about. Then he damn near cried out in pain when Randy shot up and caught AJ in a bear hug.

Son?’ Randy heard his father’s voice in his head.

AJ did it. He removed the curse,’ Randy replied, coming to grips with being able to move again. He felt the warmth of AJ’s body, felt AJ’s hair in his face, saw the dazzling sunlight through the trees. He squeezed his eyes shut and inhaled. He could smell the scents of sweat, leather and horse that clung to AJ.

AJ was real. Not a hallucination.

“Hey, take it easy. It’s alright.” AJ’s ribs were stabbing him horrendously under the pressure, but he didn’t try to get free. “Hey, hey, it’s okay Orton.” He could feel Randy’s body shaking. He patted Randy awkwardly on the back. Baron smirked at them, but AJ ignored him, waiting patiently for Randy to take what he needed from the contact. Randy’s behavior wasn’t a complete surprise. Soldiers who had fought in horrifying battles, seeing their brother-in-arms either torn to pieces or dying slow bloody deaths, understood the need to touch another human being, to reassure themselves that they were still alive. After a while Randy let go.

“How do you feel?” AJ asked, wanting to be sure Randy was truly free of the curse. He absently tucked the gloves into his belt. His hands were shaking but he figured it was from lack of food.

“Stiff, sore, hungry, thirsty…” Randy said, listing out each one. He rubbed his forehead and looked around the clearing, avoiding AJ’s gaze. He was embarrassed that he had lost control like that, but he needed the contact. The air felt cool on his skin and he could smell the coffee on the fire. He closed his eyes and tipped his head back, basking in the sunlight, reveling in the ability to move.

“Well, let’s see if we can fix two at least,” AJ smiled his side-sliding grin, got ready to stand up and damned near passed out when he was hit hard with a wave of dizziness. He put a hand down on the ground to steady himself and shook his head, attempting to clear it. Darkness danced at the edges of his vision.

“You okay?” Randy asked, leaning over to see AJ’s face. AJ was almost gray with exhaustion, but there was a stubborn set to his jaw that told Randy that AJ wasn’t nearly about to give up.

“Just need some coffee,” AJ lied, pushing his hair out of his face. The second time he tried to get to his feet met with more success. He made it over to where the saddles were without mishap and opened Dean’s saddlebag. He found a small iron pan and some fat wrapped in a cloth.

“Is that Mark’s mare? Did something happen to him?” Randy asked, alarmed. If something happened to Mark, Randy didn’t know what he’d do. The old man was more a father to him than his actual father. He was still sitting on the ground, not feeling ready to stand up. His strength was slowly returning.

“He’s alive.” AJ rummaged around the saddlebag, hoping to find something more edible than the dried meat as he told Randy about Kenny’s ambush, Mark, Reigns and Ambrose being wounded and Seth being a prisoner. Unable to find anything else, AJ finally grabbed some of the dried meat, two tin cups and the canteen off the mare’s saddle and brought them over. He set the pan and the fat on the fire to heat up. “Here, until I can whip up some breakfast,” he handed Randy the canteen.

Randy accepted the canteen without question and gulped down almost half the water in it before lowering it. He glanced over at the Wolf. Corbin was still watching them, but he didn’t say anything. AJ was ignoring Corbin, so Randy followed AJ’s lead. He eyed the dried meat. “That looks familiar. Was this Ambrose’s?” he asked suspiciously.

“Yeah,” AJ admitted. The coffee was boiling on the fire and AJ pulled the pot off with a stick through the handle. “Wasn’t sure if it was food at first. I thought maybe it was extra leather to repair his boots.”

Randy snorted a laugh. “That explains it,” he said at AJ’s raised eyebrow. “The Saint told me they’re pissed at you. You stole their supplies and just left them behind?”

AJ shrugged, not offended by the accusation. He poured the first cup of coffee and generously handed it to Orton. “They were shot to shit and had no horses. I wasn’t going to wait around while they got their shit together. I found their horses later, borrowed their gear and followed you and Bullet Club.” AJ poured a cup for himself and settled down to enjoy it.

“Don’t underestimate them,” Randy warned, blowing on the scalding coffee. It was black and thick enough to chew, but it was close to heaven for Randy. “Especially when it comes to Rollins. They’ll walked through hell to get him back.”

Raising his eyebrows, AJ shrugged, unrepentant. “Would you rather I’d waited for them instead of coming after you?” he asked as he set some of the dried meat in the pan. It sizzled and spat. AJ hoped the fat would make it more palatable.

“Fuck no,” Randy said with a shudder. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold onto his sanity if AJ hadn’t come when he did. As breakfast cooked, Randy sipped his coffee and covertly studied AJ. The smaller man was clearly exhausted, but Randy didn’t see any sign of AJ being victimized by demons, despite what Kenny had said. And there wasn’t a discrete way to bring it up with an outsider sitting there, listening. AJ’s sleeves were rolled up and the black chains around his wrists stood out against the white linen bandages underneath. There was something familiar about the markings on the bandages. “Hitami?” he guessed, gesturing at AJ’s wrists.

“Yeah, he and Devitt helped me fight off some demons two days ago. The writing is supposed to help counteract the chains’ effects,” AJ said absently, pushing the meat around the pan with his stick, trying to get it to soak up the fat. He wasn’t optimistic about the end result being edible though.

“Devitt?” Randy asked. That name was vaguely familiar.

“Um..yeah. He was ‘Prince’ Devitt when he ran Bullet Club. He’s an Irish guy who has a demon named Bàlor,” AJ explained, shifting the hot pan over the fire. Burning the meat probably wouldn’t improve it.

“Small world,” Randy muttered to himself. So that’s how AJ escaped from the demons. He took another sip of coffee, still watching AJ closely. The smaller man was moving gingerly, indicating he was physically injured. But he wasn’t broken. Randy was relieved.

Unaware of Randy’s scrutiny, AJ sighed and removed the pan from the fire, giving up on the ‘meat’. He hated setting out with an empty stomach. His body needed fuel if he was going to riding hard again but there was no way he could choke that stuff down. Then AJ nearly smacked himself again for being so slow. There was plenty of food not too far away. He turned to Randy, “Got an idea, be right back,” and left for the canyon with no further explanation. Grasshoppers jumped away into the long grass as he walked by.

“Where’s he going?” Randy asked Corbin.

“Dead posse out there,” Corbin shrugged. He could tell Randy was just like AJ, they both had that same smell of death, demons and gunpowder. “He’s finally remembered they had supplies and is probably looting the bodies.”

Randy wasn’t sure how to feel about that. Though if there was real food to be had, he was fine with it. He’d forgotten about the shooting in the canyon last night. “What are you doing here?” he asked. AJ had said that Baron had helped him find the Skinwalker. But that didn’t explain why Baron was hanging around.

The Wolf sneered. “Styles still owes me money,” he said. Getting involved with the End of Days had turned out badly for Baron and he didn’t hide his resentment. But he still wanted the gold AJ had promised him. And he wasn’t going to admit it but he was hiding behind AJ if the Skinwalker came back.

Not sure where the attitude was coming from, Randy just stared coldly back. He drained his coffee cup and decided to test his balance. He stood up and stretched. He was still very stiff and sore, but overall his body was fine. His jaw tightened when he saw Charlotte’s corpse lying nearby but he didn’t approach it. He walked over to his roan and started checking the horse for any injury or signs of abuse, still reveling in the freedom to move. The roan sniffed him, and Randy smiled, scratching behind the horse’s ears.

AJ came back a little while later, having scavenged the dead posse’s saddlebags. He carried a bag full of biscuits, cheese, tins of beans and several chunks of bacon. Boots damp with dew, he unceremoniously dumped Dean’s dried meat into the fire and started cooking a real breakfast. After they finished eating, AJ planned to be right back on the trail. He doubted Kenny would suspect AJ was hunting them and planned to use that to his advantage.

Corbin accepted some the bacon, though he preferred his meat raw. As they ate, AJ looked around. “What’s so special about this place that they had to drag you all the way here to curse you?” he asked Randy.

“I killed Charlotte’s father here,” Randy admitted after he swallowed. The food tasted amazing, mostly because he was so hungry.

“Oh,” AJ said, not sure what else to say. “Was he a demon?” Charlotte had slapped him for asking that question, but he figured Randy would know better than she did.

“No, but there was one right next to him,” Randy said. He didn’t want to go into the gory details.

“Speaking of Charlotte, how did Kenny kill her?” AJ asked. He slapped an annoying mosquito away. “Haven’t seen anything that could make wounds like that before.”

“It wasn’t Kenny, it was the leschen,” Randy said.

“What the hell is a leschen?” AJ asked, helping himself to seconds. Randy did the same while he explained about the powerful forest spirit that claimed the clearing as its territory. “So don’t, under any circumstances draw blood from anything here,” he warned.

“Good to know,” AJ said. He wasn’t planning on lingering there much longer anyway. He crammed the last bit of biscuit into his mouth.

Randy had finished his food and stood up to get ready to head out. He noticed the hammer and chisel still laying on the ground by AJ’s leg. “Want me to get those chains off?” he offered. He was feeling much better. The coffee and food had helped a lot.

“Oh god yes,” AJ said fervently, setting his empty plate down. He handed the hammer and chisel to Randy then laid his arm on the stone he’d used earlier.

“Hold still,” Randy warned, carefully positioning the chisel. He could easily break AJ’s arm if he missed.

AJ didn’t move as the hammer slammed down several times.

“What the fuck?” Randy muttered.

AJ looked at the shackle. There wasn’t a scratch.

“I must be weaker than I thought,” Randy sighed.

“I don’t think so,” AJ said, gesturing towards the rock. The granite stone had cracked in half.

“What are these things made of?” Randy wanted to know.

“Not sure,” AJ answered. “Iron I think.”

There must have been an odd tone in AJ’s voice, because Randy’s annoyed expression became concerned, then businesslike. “What aren’t you telling me?” he asked. He could tell AJ didn’t want to talk about it, but Randy would be damned if he let AJ think he was alone in this.

AJ lifted his arm and looked at the shackle, remembering the pulsing, blood-red rune on the seam. “When I was chained to that tree, I tried my damnedest to get away. I was there a while and ended up bleeding pretty badly.” He looked away, allowing his hair to fall over his face. “She later told me blood made the shackles stronger and because of it, they were bound to me permanently.” He didn’t bother to hide his bitterness.

“Bullshit,” Randy said, bluntly. “There’s a way to get them off. And we’ll find it.”

AJ kept studying the black iron band on his wrist, not acknowledging Randy’s words.

“Hey, look at me,” Randy said. He put a hand on AJ’s shoulder, turning the man to face him.

Jaw tight, AJ glanced up. Randy was staring at him with such a burning intensity that, had AJ not been the Ace of Bullet Club, he would have stepped back away from Randy.

We will find a way to get them off. You have my word,” Randy said, stating it as a fact.

AJ quirked a rueful grin and brushed his hair back away from his face. “Sure. But in the meantime, I’m going to kill Kenny.”

Randy could agree to that. “What’s your plan?” he asked.

“You break camp, get everything packed up,” AJ said. “I’m going to pick up their trail.” He glanced over at Randy, gauging the other’s physical condition. Randy didn’t look the worse for wear, but the day was just starting. Mentally going over his options, AJ decided to ride the buckskin. He could have kept the pale mare as a mount. She hadn’t done anything except act like a horse, but she just plain unnerved him. AJ needed all his attention on Bullet Club’s trail. The mare could be used as a packhorse. Or a re-mount if he got desperate.

Throwing his saddle over the buckskin’s back, AJ tightened the girth, tested it and tightened it a bit more. The horse swished its tail impatiently but didn’t buck. Satisfied, AJ bridled the horse. He reached into the saddle bag and grabbed Dean’s jacket. It was a bit big on him, but he would make do. Ignoring Randy’s raised eyebrow, he mounted up. The buckskin snorted and danced a bit, but AJ’s seat was too good for the horse to get out from under him. He let the horse fidget for a minute, letting it settle and get used to his weight. He looked at Randy. “Be back in a bit,” he promised. “Be ready to go.”

He pointed the buckskin at the canyon opening and spurred the gelding into a jog. With luck, today he would end this. The pain in his ribs had faded into a dull ache and the caffeine in his system had him alert and eager to set out. The sun hadn’t yet risen high enough to shine into inside the dark canyon, the leftover night air felt almost cold. AJ pulled the jacket tighter around his shoulders as the horse wove around the bodies of the posse, snorting at them suspiciously. In the dim light, they seemed look at AJ accusingly. But he’d walked the blood-soaked battlefields of the War of Northern Aggression and a dead posse didn’t bother him. Still, he breathed a sigh of relief when they were beyond the kill chute and into the valley heading north. The morning was warming and the heavens were crystal clear. He spurred the horse into a lope. It was nice to ride an ordinary horse again. He hadn’t realized how mentally taxing it had been riding the pale mare. He was pleased to note that Bullet Club’s tracks were heading steadily north. Typically arrogant, they thought themselves in the clear and had no idea AJ and Randy were in pursuit.

After a couple of miles, he pulled the horse to a stop to listen. He didn’t hear anything, which was and wasn’t a good sign, depending on the situation. His instincts were ticking over that something was near. The trail led back into the forest and AJ dismounted and left the horse tied to a tree. He wanted to take a close look at Bullet Club’s prints to be sure they hadn’t doubled back or laid any false trails. He followed the trail for a while, then stopped. It was quiet, there was only the whisper of the wind through the leaves. As he looked around he began to feel that something wasn’t right…

A horse’s bellow of terror shattered the calm. He drew both the Dragoons and swore when he caught a glimpse of buckskin running headlong through the trees. Then he felt it, the dirty, oily feeling of a demon nearby. He forced himself to stay very still and listen. A twig broke off to his right and he spun in that direction, aiming the guns, fingers in the triggers. There wasn’t a target, but he could feel it; it was close. He didn’t move, listening for any sound…

A strong hand grabbed his hair and voice growled in his ear. “You got away from the angel. But you’ll never escape me, boy. You bear my mark. You are mine.

TBC

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Those who have crossed

With direct eyes, to death’s other

Kingdom

Remember us-if at all-not as lost

Violent souls, but only

As the hollow men

~T. S Eliot

 

Phenomenal One Chapter 26

Thank you to the ever-amazing Kiss316 for being my awesome beta!

Warnings: Swearing and violence.

 

A strong hand grabbed his hair from behind and voice growled in his ear. “You got away from that angel. But you’ll never escape me, boy. You bear my mark. You are mine.

The last word was punctuated by a strong jerk pulling his head back and bowing his back. Even as he awkwardly fought to keep his balance, AJ raised the Dragoons to either side of his head, pointing them backwards, and pulled the triggers. The guns’ report thundered through his head, deafening him, but the hand released his hair. Free, AJ dove forward into a roll, then sideways, coming onto one knee with the guns aimed at the Destroyer. The huge demon was covering its face with it hands, blood spurting between its fingers. AJ couldn’t hear anything except for a painfully loud ringing in his ears but he was sure the Destroyer was screaming.

Good.

Rage burned hot through his veins and tingeing his vision with red. This was the creature who tortured him, who put him through hell, who burned him with its mark. Now it was the demon’s turn to scream in agony. He grinned savagely and pulled the triggers again. The demon staggered back as two bullets slammed into its right knee. For a split-second AJ thought the demon was going down but the Destroyer regained it balance, and glared at AJ, its face contorted with rage under a crimson mask.

Not so good.

But AJ was way past giving a shit. He stuffed the Dragoons back into their holsters and charged the demon, determined to make it regret ever hearing the name of AJ Styles. The blood pouring down the Destroyer’s face was in its eyes, blinding the demon and AJ intended to take full advantage of it. Three steps from the Destroyer, he launched himself through the air and came down with his fist square in the Destroyer’s face and immediately following that up with a powerful left to the demon’s sternum. It felt so good to hold nothing back, to unleash the rage within him. He buried his fist in the demon’s midsection. The Destroyer doubled over, clutching its stomach, blood pouring down its face.

AJ ripped away the cloth holding the chains wrapped around his wrists. Two feet of black links unraveled and swung freely. Holding each chain in his hands, he swung them down across the Destroyer’s broad back, once, twice and on the third time, the demon crashed to its knees. Thoroughly enraged, AJ drew one of the Dragoons and fired until the gun clicked empty at the demon’s injured knee. AJ re-holstered the gun, mentally keeping track of how many bullets he used. He still had four left in the other gun, but he always made sure to save at least one bullet. If a fight didn’t go his way, well, he couldn’t count on having enough time to load a bullet into an empty gun. He kicked the same injured knee, wanting nothing more than to make that creature suffer for what it did to him. The demon was howling in rage and pain, but AJ could only hear the ringing in his ears. Could only feel the rage burning in his blood.

Spotting a thick tree branch on the ground nearby, he picked it up and swung it as hard as he could. The branch broke in half across the demon’s back, sending it sprawling in the dirt again. But the demon was too tough to stay down for long. Shaking its head, the demon made it back to its knees, sitting up on its heels. Throwing the broken branch away, AJ kicked the demon in chest as hard as he could. The demon refused to go down. AJ kicked it again, but the demon, still clutching its chest, regained its feet, despite the injured leg. It glared at AJ and said something that AJ couldn’t hear. The demon took a step toward him, still talking. Burning with unspent rage, AJ readied himself to attack again. The Destroyer smirked, its face a hideous mask of blood, its knee a mangled mess. The demon launched itself at AJ, who hit the dirt. He grabbed the injured knee and twisted it, sending the demon back to the ground. He determined to tear the demon’s leg right off. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the demon grab for him and tried to move out of the way, but he was tangled up in the demon’s leg. The massive hand grabbed his hair and pulled him backward, slamming his head into the dirt. Grimly, AJ hung on, but after the third time, the world spun around him and he was forced to let go of the thick leg. Instinctively he rolled out of the demon’s reach and still stunned, staggered to his feet, shaking his head to clear it. He had bit his tongue and the taste of blood filled his mouth.

But the Destroyer wasn’t going to give up its advantage. It struck out with the speed of a rattlesnake, grabbed one of AJ’s ankles and upended him. AJ crashed flat on his back, knocking the breath out of him. But he rolled away before the demon could pin him with its massive weight. With cat-like agility, he regained his feet and danced backward. The speed of the demon shocked him into controlling his rage, to start thinking.

With a little breathing room, the Destroyer heaved itself back to its feet, wiped the blood from its eyes. It said something but AJ, still deaf, couldn’t hear it. He clenched his fists, stepped up to the Destroyer and punched it right in the face. The Destroyer stayed on its feet, still smirking while it retaliated with a right hook of his own, but AJ ducked, the massive fist missing his head by less than an inch. The cold rage that filled him gave him an unnatural clarity. He could see the demon’s every move coming, as if it were telegraphed. He kicked the demon’s injured knee and the Destroyer went down hard.

But the demon climbed back to its feet yet again, a knowing, predatory smirk still on its face. As AJ watched the demon test its balance on one leg, the rage that had driven him was cooling, giving way to cold realization:

He couldn’t win this fight.

He couldn’t kill this demon and killing it was the only way to stop it. AJ mentally ran through his options, which weren’t many. He’d slowed the Destroyer down, maybe he could make a run for it and get back to Randy. It was a long shot, but it was his only chance. Strategy decided, AJ took one step back, then another. The Destroyer followed step for step, limping heavily but still moving despite the sheer amount of damage AJ had inflicted in it.

For a long second, the two antagonists stared at each other, waiting for the other to make a move. AJ flexed his fingers just as the demon charged, faster than AJ could believe for something that size. It was almost on top of him before he could pivot to the side. With a sinking feeling he knew if the demon was still that fast with a destroyed knee, he wasn’t going to outrun it. Grimly, he swung the right chain right at the demon’s injured knee. The chain wrapped around the heavy joint and AJ pulled back with all his strength. The Destroyer crashed to the ground, apparently howling in fury but AJ still couldn’t hear anything. With the Destroyer on the ground, AJ turned and bolted.

He pelted through the trees, mentally cursing the horse for running off, though he couldn’t blame the poor animal. His broken ribs sent shoots of pain through his chest with each breath. He couldn’t hear anything but a sixth sense told him the demon was right behind him. He dug deep for a burst of speed, but the massive body hit him square in the back, knocking him clean off his feet. He crashed shoulder first into a tree and lay stunned for two seconds, his arm numb. Two seconds too long as it turned out. He squinted up into the spinning sunlight filtering between the branches above him. It was abruptly blocked by the massive silhouette of the demon, bending down, reaching for him.

AJ lashed out with one of the chains, the link sinking deep into the demon’s flesh, but the Destroyer didn’t even flinch. It grabbed him by the hair and dragged him to his feet, pulling AJ close. AJ could see its mouth moving. It eyes shone lunatic-bright between the rivers of blood pouring down its face. AJ aimed a punch between the eyes, but with the speed that belied it size, the demon caught the chain. AJ was already following through with the left, catching the demon square the shoulder of the arm that was holding AJ. The demon’s flinched, releasing AJ who landed on his feet.

AJ braced himself and pulled his right chain, trying to get free. But the demon held on, yanking the chain along with AJ back to it with unbelievable strength. AJ grunted as he was bodily jerked off his feet and right into the demon’s outstretched arm across his chest. It was like getting hit by a tree trunk. AJ’s whole body flipped over, and he crashed face down on the ground, stunned once more. Only instinct kept him moving, trying to escape.

Now it was the Destroyer controlling the fight. Taking its time, it reached down and hauled him up by the hair again, smiling through the hideous blood mask. The demon was saying something, but AJ still couldn’t hear him. It dropped AJ and spun him around, snaking an arm around AJ’s neck and pulling AJ back against the massive chest. The Destroyer’s other arm pressed AJ’s forehead, immobilizing his head. AJ grabbed the heavy arm, trying to force it away so he could get air. He braced his legs and pushed against the arm with all his might, but as the Destroyer kicked AJ’s legs out from under him, its bad leg finally gave out. The entirety of the demon’s mass crashed down right on top of AJ.

The weight was crushing him. The arms were cutting off his air. AJ squirmed like a rabid weasel, trying to get free but the Destroyer’s grip was too tight. It rolled them over on their sides, winding its thick legs around AJ’s waist. There was hot breath in his ear, but he couldn’t hear if the Destroyer was saying anything. AJ worked a hand up between his throat and the Destroyer’s arm, pushing it away just barely enough to give him tiny sips of air. Then the arm clamped down, cutting off his air completely. Panic rose up and he fought harder, but the Destroyer had the leverage. As darkness closed in, AJ groped for one of the Dragoons. He pulled it out and tried to bring it up to his temple. But before he could get the gun near his head, the demon grabbed the gun and pulled it away, tossing it out of reach. “Now, now, none of that. None. Of. That,” the demon crooned in AJ’s ear, even though he couldn’t hear it. It stroked the hair away from AJ’s face. AJ fought desperately to get free, but his struggles were weakening from lack of air.

The Destroyer tightened his legs around AJ’s waist, smiling contentedly. He felt AJ finally go limp but held on for another full minute just to be sure AJ was truly out, relishing the feeling of thoroughly dominating the smaller human. He reluctantly released AJ and got up to his feet, looking down at the unconscious man with hungry satisfaction.

“Like I said, boy. You’re mine.”

Blood still flowed from the bullet wounds in his face and leg. AJ had put up a hell of a fight. But in the end, AJ was human and no match for the Destroyer. It amused the Destroyer that all the damage AJ had inflicted would be healed because of AJ himself. When wrapped around AJ’s body, the demon could feel the mark he placed on AJ calling to him, seductive. But there was something off about it. The mark felt like it was active but strangely muted. He rolled AJ over onto his back and opened his shirt. Lips twisted into a snarl at the tight bandages with foreign writing covering AJ’s torso. So that’s what was suppressing the power of the demon mark. With a muttered curse he ripped the bandages off, exposing the mark. Free from the suppressing symbols, demon mark flared powerfully, bright sickly yellow casting over the deep black letters. The demon drew in a breath. The mark hadn’t been used! By the looks of it, the mark had been active for at least two days. The Destroyer almost salivated in anticipation. The longer the mark was active, the more power it drew from its bearer. He reached out and placed his hand on the mark. Only semi-conscious, AJ wordlessly protested the violation. The mark was burned directly into AJ’s soul by way of his body. The Destroyer licked the blood off his lips and undid AJ’s gun belt, tossing it to the side. He hands hovered over AJ’s belt, sorely tempted to take the power right then and there. His body was aching to do so, but he was too old and cautious to give in to the impulse.

Instead the demon pulled AJ’s wrists together tying the chains in a tight knot. Not taking any chances that there were more of the Saint’s men in the area, especially since AJ had fired his guns so many times, the demon ripped a strip from the discarded bandages, fashioned a gag and forcing it into AJ’s mouth, tying it snugly behind his head. The demon didn’t want AJ to shout for help when he woke up enough to understand what was happening. The Destroyer intended to take AJ to a place where he could take his time and draw the mark’s power undisturbed. After the initial draining of so much power, the mark would take at least a day to fully recharge if Kenny was right and AJ lived through it. The Destroyer gauged that using the mark again after fully recharging would get him at least to the level of the Beast. But he had no intention of stopping there. AJ was his to use until the outlaw died, which wouldn’t be a very, very long time if the Destroyer had had anything to say about it.

Satisfied, he saw AJ’s eyes were open but unfocused. The Destroyer grabbed AJ by his hair, hauled the half - conscious man to his feet and dragged him deeper into the trees.

~~~~

Sweating in the thin air, Randy finished piling rocks on top of the dead posse. It wasn’t great but at least it would keep the varmints off them until someone could be sent out to retrieve the bodies, if they wanted. The roan and the pale mare were waiting nearby. There wasn’t very much food in the packs, even after Randy had done a more thorough looting of the posse’s saddlebags. But AJ had implied the Bullet Club situation would be resolved fairly quickly so he wasn’t worried. Randy glanced up at the sun, figuring about an hour had passed since AJ left.

The Saint of Killers appeared in the shadows nearby.

“How’s Mark?” Randy asked his father, brushing dirt off his hands.

He’ll recover but it will take a while. Cena came to get him and take him back to Helena. But we need to get Rollins for Ambrose.”

“That bad?” Randy asked. It was strange, having a normal conversation with his father. He was still angry at his father, but in light of the current events, he could place that anger on hold.

Yes,” the Saint said. “He’s hanging in there, for now.”

“Where are they?” Randy asked. He tested the girth on the roan’s saddle. It was tight enough. The canteens were filled with water. He was ready to set out. He just needed AJ to return.

They’re close,” the Saint said.

Randy mounted the roan, securing the mare’s lead to his saddle. The bodies of the dead horses were already bloating and Randy wanted to get away from them. “Tell them I’m coming to meet them,” he told the Saint. He nudged the horse with his heels to get it moving. Corbin, who was still hanging out in the mouth of the canyon was back in Wolf form, stood up and growled. Two riders were entering the canyon.

“You couldn’t have said how close?” Randy glared at the Saint, who shrugged.

You didn’t ask.”

Shaking his head, Randy dismounted and waved at Roman and Dean.

“Where is that sneaky little bastard!” Dean demanded as they approached Randy. Dried blood stained his shirt and his arm was in a sling. Dark circles were under his eyes, standing out even more than usual against his pale skin. Roman didn’t look much better. Almost gray under his tan, the big man was slouching tiredly in the saddle.

“Good to see you too, Ambrose. AJ went ahead to pick up Bullet Club’s trail,” Randy said sarcastically. He raised an eyebrow at Roman. “Reigns.”

“You got any food?” Roman asked, ever practical. He and Dean hadn’t eaten since the day before. Dean looked he was going to pass out. Roman stiffly dismounted and sighed with relief. It felt wonderful just to stand on the ground.

“I could eat that dried venison I’m so hungry,” Dean said as he followed Roman’s lead, but with a groan of pain when he jarred his shoulder. “Got any coffee?” he asked hopefully.

“Sorry, drank it all,” Randy chuckled at Dean’s glare but pulled some of the biscuits and cheese from the mare’s pack. Both Dean and Roman ate ravenously. Roman paused long enough to ask, “Care to explain what happened?”

Randy didn’t want to, but he did. Giving Dean a pointed looked when he warned them about the leshen.

“What?” Dean asked, trying to look innocent, but failing miserably.

“Who’s that?” Roman wanted to know, gesturing at the cairns.

“Jericho and his posse,” Randy said. “Bullet Club got them last night.”

Dean and Roman exchanged looks. They’d heard of Jericho. He had been one of the better Marshals. “Damn,” Roman said. Dean just kept eating. Randy gave them a bit more of the food and packed the rest away again. They were just getting ready to ride when they hear the faint echo of several gunshots fired in rapid succession. Swearing, Randy leapt into the saddle.

“What is it?” Roman asked, following Randy’s lead.

“Those were Mark’s Dragoons,” Randy said as he spurred the roan into a lope, the pale mare following on her lead. Dean cursed and scrambled awkwardly back onto his horse. They caught up to Randy as they exited the kill chute and Roman called out, “Any idea how far away that was?”

Randy looked up at the towering mountains. “Fuck, I have no idea. It could be anywhere from close to a several miles,” he admitted. They entered the long valley, Randy spurring his horse into a full gallop. Roman and Dean followed doggedly, but they had been riding all night and both they and their mounts were exhausted.

Abruptly Randy sat up straight and pulled his horse to a stop. A riderless horse was walking through the valley, limping on its front right leg. Swearing, Randy turned the roan in that direction and caught up to the loose animal. He dismounted and caught the horse before it could shy away. The horse rolled its eyes suspiciously at Randy. A quick check revealed it had thrown a shoe and bowed a tendon.

“AJ’s horse,” Randy said tightly as Roman and Dean rode up.

“Shit,” Dean said. They looked around but the valley was empty as far as they could see. Brown grass waved in the breeze but no birds called out. It was ominously quiet.

“C’mon. We’ve got to find him.” Randy remounted and set the spurs to his horse, praying they weren’t too late.

~~~~

AJ fought as hard as he could, but his hands were bound, and the Destroyer’s grip was iron on his hair. The demon set a surprisingly fast pace considering its leg was in ruins. It dragged AJ through trees and bushes, going ever deeper into the woods. Finally, the Destroyer stopped and threw AJ onto the ground. He barely got his hands up to prevent landing on his face in a thicket of chokecherries. The ringing in his ears was subsiding but sounds were still muffled. He struggled to his knees, but the Destroyer stepped right on his back, pushing him back down into the dirt. AJ yelled through the gag under the massive weight, his ribs protesting the strain.

Stepping off, demon touched AJ’s side with the tip of his boot and AJ flinched hard. He turned his head so he could see the Destroyer through his hair.

The Destroyer crouched down and grabbed a fistful of AJ’s hair, pulling his head up so he could see AJ’s expression. The blue eyes were blazing hot with rage. The Destroyer threw back its head and laughed out loud. “You’re a fighter, boy. I’ll give you that.”

Smiling, the demon pulled out its knife, the sickly yellow cast made the blade look oily. He held it right in front of AJ’s face, making sure the human got a very good look at it. He saw recognition in AJ’s expression. “I know you’ve seen this. It’s a cursed blade and not even an angel can heal the damage it can do. Now, if you continue to fight me, I’ll put it into one of your eyes. And if you still resist, I’ll put it in the other,” he said. “I don’t need you to be able to see, so if you don’t behave…” The Destroyer left the threat hanging in the air. “It’s up to you if you want to keep your eyes.”

AJ glared but reluctantly nodded. He would wait, survive this, and bide his time.

Smirking, the Destroyer patted AJ’s cheek. “I told you, boy, you belong to me,” the demon said. AJ held himself perfectly still when the massive hands reached under him, fumbling at his belt and pulling at the waistband of his pants. He closed his eyes, bit down hard on the gag and tried to take himself far away from that place and what was about to happen.

Abruptly the demon stopped and listened. AJ opened his eyes. Something huge was moving through the brush towards them. It was a grizzly bear, the biggest one AJ had ever seen.

“You,” the demon said, standing up. He scowled in annoyance.

The bear stood on its hind legs and turned into a big man, bigger even than the body the demon inhabited. “That one wants to kill me. I will kill him,” the ancient being announced. It did not fear the demon.

“No, this one is mine,” the Destroyer insisted. The demon didn’t want to fight the Skinwalker, not when it was already weakened from the fight with AJ. The Skinwalker could hurt the demon badly.

But the Skinwalker didn’t give it a choice. It turned back into a bear and with a rumbling growl, swiped a massive paw at the demon, knocking it to the ground. The Destroyer rolled away but got back to its feet, pulling its knife and charging the bear. The bear roared as the knife sank into its shoulder. And faster than what should be possible, the bear turned and swiped at the demon again, who barely got out of the way.

As the behemoths fought one another, AJ reached down to redo his belt. His entire body was one giant ache but he sat up, hoping that either the two of them would kill each other or at least give him enough time to slip away. As he clutched his belt, he felt a foreign softness and looked down. It was Charlotte’s gloves. After securing his belt, he studied the gloves. An idea came to him, born of sheer desperation. He pulled the gloves on and activated them. As the world changed around him, he took a closer look at the runes on the shackles. They were still writhing.

Nearby, the ground shuddered as the two massive individuals clashed like titans. They took and gave each other horrific blows, blood flew and the Destroyer was coming off the worst. AJ turned his attention back to the shackles. The blood rune pulsed steadily. But this time, instead of turning away, he hesitantly moved one hand to touch the rune. It felt alive through the glove. Drawing a shaky breath, he rubbed the pulsing red mark with one thumb. It smeared like wet blood. Then it stopped pulsing, dimmed and disappeared. The seam on the shackle opened. Stunned, he swallowed dryly and repeated it with the other one. As if in slow motion, the chains fell away just as the Skinwalker tossed the Destroyer bodily into a tree trunk and turned towards AJ, charging with jaws bloody and wide.

Help me!’ AJ screamed in his head as he scrambled to his feet.

The Saint appeared and oh god, the pain in his soul hit him like a hammer blow. The spirit actually hesitated. “Boy?”

Do it!’ AJ insisted, shaking with agony.

The Saint immediately stepped into AJ.

The guns manifested.

Mentally screaming, AJ reached down and drew them.

He aimed and pulled the triggers.

The Skinwalker died.

The Destroyer died.

The screaming mixture of report and echo thundered off the nearby mountain tops and died. Silence followed in its wake. Slowly, AJ lowered the guns and put them back in their holsters. The Saint left him.

And as he looked at the spirit standing near him, AJ felt

nothing



TBC

 

Chapter Text

Beta’d by the amazing Kiss316

Phenomenal One Chapter 27

Mark was lying in bed at the boarding house with his eyes closed, listening to the world going about its business outside the open window next to the bed. The early morning sun shone through and the curtains twitched with a mild breeze. Every shift of his body sent a stab of pain through his hip, but he could live with it. It was the uneasy feeling that woke him up, that something was about to happen. Footsteps on the wooden floor outside his door alerted him before there was a brief knock. The door opened without his acknowledgment, and John poked his head in. “You awake?” he asked.

“Yes,” Mark said, opening his eyes.

Smiling, John walked in carrying a large tray of toast with butter and jam, bacon and eggs and a cup of steaming hot coffee. “How’re you feeling?” the temporary sheriff asked, setting the tray down on the bedside table.

“I’ll live,” Mark said. With a grunt, he struggled to sit up, sweating as his hip objected strenuously to the movement. John reached over and helped him, maneuvering a pillow behind the old doctor’s back. Gray-faced, Mark nodded his thanks as John handed him the coffee.

John set the tray on Mark’s lap so he could reach the food without straining. Then he dragged a wooden chair closer to the bed, positioning it so he could watch both the door and the window. The chair creaked as he sat down. “Heard anything?” he asked. The fact that Mark could talk to the Saint of Killers but wasn’t one of his men was puzzling to John, but he didn’t ask why. He was afraid Mark would tell him. Most things the old doctor told John were deeply disturbing.

As Mark sipped his coffee, he updated John with what he knew. “Styles got to Orton late last night and managed to break the witch's curse by this morning. They’re waiting for Ambrose and Reigns, who were fairly close last I heard. Styles thinks they should catch up to Bullet Club sometime today, if all goes well.”

John snorted at that last phrase. “And how often does that happen?” he asked sarcastically.

“Reigns and Ambrose will stop at nothing to get Rollins back. With Orton and Styles helping them, they’ll find a way to get it done,” Mark shrugged. Separately, those four men were far more dangerous than any outlaw gang, even ones led by angels. Working together, they were unstoppable. Mark sipped his coffee as he thought. Four of them. That couldn’t be a coincidence. Mark wondered if they would become brothers like the ones he himself used to ride with, before.

Seeing how much pain Mark’s hip was causing him, John nodded. “It’ll be nice to get Rollins back, that’s for sure. But realize I’ll have to arrest Styles if he shows up around here,” John reminded him, interrupting Mark’s musings. Technically he should arrest Randy too, but they both knew that wasn’t going to happen.

Amused, Mark raised an eyebrow. “I’ll be sure to let him know,” he said and reached for a piece of toast, then stopped and frowned. He cocked his head and seemed to be listening. John waited, listening as well. He wasn’t sure what he was listening for though. Outside, something called out. It sounded like a falcon to John, nothing unusual. Falcons were native to the area. But Mark set the toast down and closed his eyes, tilting is head forward, and exhaled softly.

“What is it?” John asked, concerned. “Is it your hip?”

“Something happened to Styles,” Mark said, keeping his eyes closed. The lines in his face cut deep.

“Was he killed?” John asked quickly. That was bad, especially for Randy.

“No, but that might have been a better option,” Mark said, opening his eyes, looking old and tired. He picked up the toast again and took a bite.

“Worse than being killed?” John fought the sinking feeling in his gut. “Did the demons get him?” He wasn’t sure he wanted to know, knowing what the demons would do to Styles.

“No, I can’t say for certain until I get confirmation, but I think Styles just killed the Destroyer,” Mark sighed.

“Oh,” John couldn’t think of anything else to say. Normally that would have been great news. It was…except there was only one way for AJ to kill a demon and it would have cost AJ his soul. John shook his head. He had asked Randy once if he could volunteer to be one of the Saint’s men. Randy had told him he would have never made it. At the time John was faintly disappointed, but knowing the steep price they paid, he was also relieved. Then he frowned. “But I thought you said he was with Randy. Why would Randy let him do it?”

“They may have gotten separated,” Mark speculated. He hoped that was the case. Because if Randal had just stood by and let Styles pull the triggers, rather than doing it himself, Mark had seriously misjudged the Legend Killer.

They sat in silence for a few minutes. Then John stood up. “Well, I’d better get back. Let me know if there is anything I can do.”

“I will,” Mark promised.

After John left, Mark leaned back, wincing. “Damn it, Orton, what the hell happened?” he asked the empty room.

~~~~

They pulled their mounts to a stop when they heard it, unmistakable, like a roll of thunder through hell. After the echo died away, Dean broke the silence. “Shit,” he said. His shoulder was throbbing and swollen. He could feel the beginning of a fever but Dean ignored it as best he could. He’d gotten used to Seth’s healing and having to deal with his injuries was a real pain in the ass. But he wouldn’t let anything, even a shattered shoulder stop him from getting Seth back where he belonged. AJ’s lame buckskin was tied to his saddle. The poor animal looked miserable. They waited for the Saint to appear. It didn’t take long.

“What happened?” Randy demanded.

“No time, no choice,” the Saint said, his voice was gravel and…the faintest hint of regret. “He had both the Destroyer and the Skinwalker on him when he called me.”

“Both of them?” Roman asked, voice hoarse. He was pale with exhaustion. The food he had eaten earlier had helped, but his head was killing him and he wanted nothing more than to lay down and sleep for a week. But Seth was still out there, somewhere. Prisoner to a powerful enemy. AJ killing two of their most dangerous foes should have been great news, but it wasn’t. Roman understood they risked their lives each and every time they rode out. But this was worse because it wasn’t a life, it was a soul.

As he sat on his horse, Randy knew his father was waiting for him to lash out in anger. But he didn’t and wasn’t going to. Because he knew when it had come down to it, of either killing the Beast or saving his soul, Randy would have chosen to kill the Beast without hesitation. “Is he alright?” Randy asked.

“He’s waiting for you,” the Saint said, not answering Randy’s question. He didn’t look happy, but that was usual expression.

“He’s awake?” Dean repeated. “That’s not good.” Dean had been mad at the guy for taking off and leaving them behind. But now…When he’d first encountered the famous outlaw, Dean wanted to strangle AJ for being a cocky bastard. But despite AJ’s callous attitude towards Seth, Dean had to admit that AJ cared about Randy enough to follow Bullet Club without backup, even if it was motivated mostly by revenge. If AJ hadn’t cared, he wouldn’t have bothered to free Randy from the curse. And Mark liked AJ enough to loan him his guns and the pale mare. That went a long way in Dean’s book even if the little shit had stolen their gear.

“No, it isn’t,” Randy agreed tightly. If AJ had still had his soul, he would have been unconscious. The roan shifted underneath him, restless. The sun shone down into the valley and time moved on. “Where is he?”

“That way.” Then the spirit disappeared.

“Do we have any idea what we’re dealing with?” Roman asked.

“You never had the privilege of meeting Kevin Owens, a guy with no soul,” Dean sneered at the memory. “In addition to being an utter creep, the guy has no conscience, no morals, and cares about nothing.”

“And now you think AJ will be like Kevin Owens,” Roman said. It was a disturbing thought. Dean had told Roman about the hired killer.

Dean shrugged. “Maybe. Who knows? But if he starts acting like Owens, we need to put a bullet in his skull. That little shit was dangerous enough when he had a soul.”

Grimly, Randy nodded.  Because someone who had the strength of the Saint, who could call upon his guns, was someone that had to be put down before they went psychotic. He nudged his horse forward with a touch of his spurs, Roman and Dean followed.

They entered the woods, still walking their horses. Dead leaves and twigs cracked and snapped under the horses’ hooves. The trail wasn’t hard to follow, there was plenty of blood and broken tree limbs. No one said anything. At one point Randy stopped and dismounted to pick up Mark’s gun belt and the scattered Dragoons. One clicked empty. He checked the revolvers’ loads, filled the empty one and with an absent twirl, re-holstered it. After buckling the belt around his waist, Randy remounted and they moved on.

They continued through the forest, each lost in their thoughts.

They found AJ sitting on a fallen log near the bodies of the two monsters. He was leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, bare hands clasped, head bowed with his hair covering his face. Disturbingly, he didn’t look up until they were right in front of him. He saw Dean and Roman and his lips twisted but didn’t say anything. Dried blood stained his lower lip and chin. There was a strip of cloth hanging loosely around AJ’s neck and red marks at the corners of his mouth.

As their horses snorted suspiciously at the bodies of the Destroyer and the Skinwalker, Roman and Dean exchanged glances.

Ignoring the corpses, Randy dismounted and stood in front of AJ, holding the roan’s reins.

“What?” AJ asked, voice dull, finally breaking the silence. He was battered and bruised, having been in one a hell of a fight. He had come out of it alive, and the others hadn’t. That was the best he could claim. It sure as hell wasn’t victory.

As Randy held AJ’s gaze, he searched for anything behind the hollow blue eyes. “Just tell me, was there no other way?” he asked. The Saint had told them, the bodies were there, but he wanted to verify it with AJ himself.

Pushing a strand of hair out of his face, AJ stared blankly at the corpses. “They were both coming at me. One was going to tear me apart, the other was going to…” he stopped, his hand unconsciously going to his side. His shirt was closed but the others didn’t need to be told what it was covering. AJ squeezed his eyes shut for a moment, then opened them. God he felt so empty, like everything he ever was had been scraped away, leaving a dried husk. Even the memory of feeling the Destroyer’s hands groping at him only elicited a distant shiver of revulsion. “They were faster and stronger than me and you know how well ordinary guns work against them. Tell me what you would have done different?” he asked.

Randy’s jaw tightened but he didn’t tell AJ that what he did was wrong. Randy understood AJ’s choices had been awful. Mostly, Randy was relieved that AJ had been able to kill the Destroyer before it could rape him. In the end, he didn’t say anything.

“Yeah, thought so,” AJ said. He was done with the subject. He spotted the buckskin over by Dean, got to his feet and limped stiffly over to them. Running his hand down the horse’s shoulder, he immediately saw the bowed tendon. Turning away from the horse, he went to the pale mare. They watched in silence as AJ untied the pale mare’s lead from Randy’s saddle and checked her girth, completely indifferent to the others.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Dean wanted to know, watching AJ carefully. The man looked too beat to hell go on a rampage but Dean didn’t trust him.

“To kill Bullet Club. Keep up or don’t,” AJ told them, voice devoid of emotion. He started to climb into the saddle but Randy grabbed AJ’s shoulder, forcing the smaller man to stay on the ground. AJ turned to Randy but didn’t try to fight him for his freedom.

“Bullet Club can wait,” Randy said. “We need to rest and regroup.”

“I don’t,” AJ disagreed. But seeing Dean and Roman with identical set looks, along with their hands near their guns, AJ pushed his hair out of his face. “Fine, but we’re wasting time,” he reminded them.

The other two dismounted, looking like they were about dead in their feet. Roman in particular looked like death warmed over. Randy was opening his mouth to ask another question, but Dean stepping right into AJ’s personal space.

Tense, AJ held himself ready, obviously expecting to be attacked. Randy frowned. AJ hadn’t done anything to warrant a confrontation, yet.

Hands at his sides, AJ waited. He wondered if this was going to be a repeat of his first encounter with Roman and Dean and half expected Dean to go for his gun again. But instead Dean reached out and laid his hand on AJ’s shoulder in an awkward yet friendly gesture. “Look, first of all, I know we got off on the wrong foot, but you saved Orton so thanks for that.”

Not expecting Dean to be understanding, AJ’s suspicion grew. But he saw Randy and Roman exchanged looks of wry amusement behind Dean’s back, which although he didn’t trust Roman, Randy had always been straight with him. So AJ cautiously thought Dean might be sincere.  “Thanks, Ambrose,” he said, wary.

“You know what? I’m pretty sure I’d a done the same thing, were I in your shoes,” Dean went on, squeezing the smaller man’s shoulder but letting go when he saw the tension in AJ’s jaw. It was as close to an apology as Dean could get.

“That so?” AJ asked neutrally, still half expecting Dean to draw his gun.

“Yeah. But now I’m gonna warn you: if you start acting like an asshole and killing a bunch of people because you don’t have a soul, I’m going to put you down,” Dean said as casually as if he was commenting on the weather. Randy closed his eyes and shook his head. Roman however would back up anything Dean would say.

When confronted about it so bluntly, AJ’s eyebrows shot up. It never occurred to him that he would go on a killing rampage because he had chosen not to be killed or raped. “Uh..I’m sure you’ll try your best,” he said skeptically.

“Its fine if you don’t believe me,” Dean said cheerfully, understanding AJ attitude. “But if you do anything that endangers Orton, Roman or Seth after we get him back, you won’t even see me coming.”

AJ rolled his eyes just to let Dean know how much he cared about the threat. “Right. Are you okay with me killing Bullet Club or is that too much like killing a bunch of people?” he asked, voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Oh, that’s fine,” Dean said, stepping back. “Just remember, I warned you.”

AJ watched him, eyes narrowed but Dean didn’t try to further provoke him.

Sighing with relief that the encounter went better than he imagined, Randy said, “You two go get a nap. You need it.”

Tearing his gaze from AJ, Dean was about to argue but Roman agreed. He could tell Randy wanted to talk to AJ alone. And he wasn’t going to argue against getting some rest. “C’mon Dean.” They would let Orton handle this. Roman untied their bedrolls from the backs of their saddles and laid them out side by side under a patch of aspens several yards away from the corpses. As they lay down, grateful beyond words at the chance to rest, Dean sighed in relief.

“How’re you doing?” Roman asked.

“I miss Seth,” Dean said. And fell asleep.

Silently Roman agreed. He vowed when they got Seth back, he would never let their friend out of their sight again. And he too drifted off, confident in the knowledge that Orton was on watch for any danger from without and within.

Meanwhile, Randy led the horses away from where the two were sleeping. He motioned for AJ to follow. As he unsaddled them, the animals practically sighed with gratitude. They ate grass while Randy rubbed Dean’s sorrel down with a handful of dry grass. Without a word, AJ got to work on Roman’s black. Neither of them spoke while they worked. Randy glanced over from time to time, gauging AJ’s condition. The smaller man never once let on that he was hurt but Randy could tell that while AJ was good at covering up physical injuries, he wasn’t quite able to mask them completely. The way AJ moved told Randy that his ribs and one shoulder were hurting. But those would heal. AJ’s soul wouldn’t.

Randy knew what that was like, when his own soul was so damaged that all he could feel was hollow. But he still had a soul, tattered and torn as it was. Randy wasn’t sure if AJ had anything left at all. And if that was the case, then what? Randy had no idea how to help AJ, other than be there and watch the smaller man’s back. Dean’s warning also concerned him. Would AJ change now? A flash of white bandages around AJ’s wrists reminded Randy of a question he wanted to ask. “How’d you get the chains off?” he asked casually, keeping his voice low.

Hands pressed against the horse’s side, AJ looked down at his wrists. He hadn’t removed Hideo’s bandages because even though the chains were gone, they were still protecting the raw, bloody flesh from dirt. “With Charlotte’s gloves. Like how I freed you.”

“Do you still have them? They might come in handy,” Randy said.

AJ nodded and resumed working on the horse, rubbing away the sweat and dirt until the black coat gleamed in the sun.

After they finished with the horses, Randy asked AJ to help him collect some firewood. At AJ’s impatient look, Randy explained that he wanted to make sure there was coffee available when Dean woke up so he wouldn’t shoot them. AJ exhaled in annoyance but he went along with it. Karl Anderson was also unpleasant in the mornings as well. Randy wasn’t going to admit that he wanted to be sure AJ was always in sight.

As AJ cleared out a space for the fire, Randy filled the coffee pot with water from their canteens.

“How long are we going to wait?” AJ asked as the tinder crackled and popped, looking up at the sun, gauging the time. He added a little more wood.

“We’ll give them an hour. They were dead on their feet,” Randy said.

“I’ll ride out and get their trail,” AJ told him getting to his feet, but Randy stood up and blocked his way. AJ scowled.

“No! This time we are all staying together,” Randy told him firmly. The last thing he wanted was for AJ to disappear and get into trouble again.

“Didn’t I just prove that I can take care of myself?” AJ demanded. “Or don’t you trust me?”

Sighing Randy shook his head. He could tell AJ didn’t appreciate being told what to do. He was just like Roman and Dean in that respect. “No, it’s not that. But if I’d been with you, you would still have your soul,” he said.

“Well, it’s a bit late to be worrying about that,” AJ drawled. It was perplexing. He should be feeling something, fear, anger, anything. He’d just destroyed his soul. But he only felt…empty.

“I mean it. We stay together,” Randy repeated for emphasis. AJ didn’t answer but he did sit down by the fire to wait. Randy subtly studied AJ, who was staring at the fire, lost in thought. “Is there any way we can help him?” Randy asked his father.

The Saint appeared. He examined AJ, who didn’t bother to look up when he felt the spirit’s presence. “It would take an angel.”

“We need Seth,” Randy concluded.

“True, but, Seth might not be able to do anything. There is very little left of his soul.”

“Will it affect him?”

“In time he will forget what it was like. And when he dies, AJ Styles will be gone.”

Randy felt sick. “Have you updated Mark? What does he think?”

“Not yet. I’ll go talk with him,” the Saint said and disappeared.

“Tell me about Kenny Omega,” Randy said, to keep AJ from stewing about being restricted. As AJ talked, Randy listened to the story of how AJ and Bullet Club met a young outlaw who went by the name of Kenny Omega. How he ingratiated himself into Bullet Club. How good he was with guns and horses, and people. How he forced the other members to turn on AJ. “You ever deal with angels before?” AJ asked at the end.

“Yeah, I’ve killed one,” Randy admitted. He told AJ about Mayor Shawn Michaels and his connection to Hunter as the water in the coffee pot began to boil. He squinted up at the sky. “Time to get them up,” he said.

After successfully getting Dean up without bloodshed, both him and Roman looked much better. And the coffee also helped. Finally they were ready to hit the trail.

“Really think we’ll catch up to them today?” Roman asked, mounting his horse.

“While Kenny is smart, he’s also incredibly arrogant. He thinks they’re in the clear,” AJ said, sitting on the pale mare. Strangely, her presence didn’t bother him anymore. He decided to think on that later. They had turned the injured buckskin loose.  It would be cruel to make the animal try to keep up with them.

“How can you tell?” Randy said as they set out at an easy jog. “It could be another trap.”

“They’re staying together and not bothering to hide their trail. They’re keeping a steady pace and direction,” AJ explained patiently. “Not to mention the kids horses are still carrying them. If they thought someone was after them, they would be travelling faster, dropping one or both of the kids off to circle around for an ambush. Not that they need to. Kenny can keep the horses going faster and longer than any posse on their trail. Jericho was just unfortunately enough to catch up to them when they knew he was coming.”

Dean nodded. “One reason why I miss Seth,” he said.

“However, even Kenny has to rest. And now that they think they’re in the clear, they won’t push so hard. That will give us a chance to catch up,” AJ said, remembering waking up tied to a tree, and Kenny standing over him, looking smug, yet tired. “Orton said he’s killed angels before, so once we get in range, we can kill that bastard and get your friend back.”

All three of them smiled grimly.

“Any ideas where they’re headed?” Roman asked after they followed the tracks for several miles with no deviation in pace and direction. They were approaching a mountain range of them with towering, jagged granite peaks.

Reining his horse to a stop, Randy pulled a map out of his saddlebag. They clustered their horses closed as he frowned at it, mentally calculating distances. Then he cursed. “Oh for fuck sake, I should have known,” he said.

“What?” Dean wanted to know.

“Have you ever been up in the northern part of the territory?” Randy asked, putting the map away and signaling his horse to set out again. The others fell in beside him.

“No,” AJ said. Dean and Roman both shook their heads.

Randy gestured to the mountains in front of them. “Well, Mark and I were up here last week. According to the natives, there is a mountain up there that will take you to Heaven. It’s called, get this, Heaven’s Peak.”

“You’re shitting me,” Dean said. “For real?”

“Yeah, it really is,” Randy answered.

“And you think that’s where they’re going?” AJ asked.

“Pretty sure,” Randy said. “The natives usually know what they’re talking about.”

“So Kenny is trying to take them to Heaven? Can he do that?” Roman asked.

“Dunno. Anything’s possible I guess. But if that’s his plan, we need to get there and stop him. Otherwise, we’ll never see Seth again.” Randy gigged his horse into a lope. The others followed. They approached the mountains and slowed their horses, stopping at a long, crystal clear lake with colorful rocks along the shore to let the animals drink their fill. The eerie bugling of bull elks echoes off the peaks. The air was clean and crisp, full of the scent of cedars.

“Definitely gonna have to come back here and try some fishing,” Roman said, watching fish jump at bugs hovering above the glass-like surface. There was peace here. The others agreed.

Randy checked the map again, but it just confirmed what they already knew.

“Are we close?” Roman asked, pulling out his shotgun and checking it to make sure it was ready to fire.

“Getting there,” Randy said. “We should be able to see it in a few miles.”

They mounted up and circled the lake, heading north. At the far end was a wide river feeding the lake. Bullet Club’s tracks followed it. The water was an unusual bluish-green color from the glaciers melting further back in the mountain range. Mountains rose high on either side of the river as it thundered through its bed of boulders. The river quieted as they followed back it into a long, lush valley. Deep green trees surrounded them. High above, water falls thousands of feet up hissed off sheer granite cliffs. It was staggeringly beautiful and if they weren’t so pressed for time, they would have stayed to enjoy the majestic view. At the far west end of the valley they saw it, rising above all the other mountains in the area, its top shrouded in clouds.

“That’s it,” Randy said. “Heaven’s Peak.”

TBC

 

Chapter Text

Phenomenal One Chapter 28


AJ was in the lead when he abruptly pulled the pale mare to a stop, hand up for silence, instincts ticking over. Heaven’s Peak loomed over them as they entered its shadow, following Bullet Club’s obvious trail. The very top of the mountain was lost in the clouds. None of them remarked on how the brilliant blue sky was perfectly clear, except for those clouds. The wind whispered through the trees, birds were singing and everything looked normal, except the wisps of fog clinging to the trees around the path that led upward, thickening further up the path.

“Ambush,” Randy said coming alongside AJ, looking up the mountainside. “There was fog when they took me and Seth.”

“They can see us but we can’t see them,” Roman observed, with a curled lip. “Can we go around?”

“I don’t think we have time to find another way,” Randy said, gaze flicking to the adjoining mountains.

“Yeah, but if we try to pass through it, they’ll just shoot the shit out of us again while we’re blind as fuck,” Dean grouched. He didn’t need to say their chances of surviving a second ambush were minimal. He stifled a gasp as his shoulder throbbed when he moved it.

AJ heard it and looked at Dean, wondering if it was even worth asking him if he could go on. The rifle in Dean’s saddle scabbard caught his attention. “Can I see your rifle?” he asked as the beginnings of an idea sprouted in his mind.

“It’s Seth’s but help yourself,” Dean shrugged. He didn’t try to draw it out, but he did move his horse closer alongside the pale mare.

AJ leaned down and grabbed the stock, sliding it out of the scabbard. He was pleased to find out it was a Remington Rolling Block with a big scope. “Nice!” he said. “Where the hell did Seth get his hands on this beauty?”

“It was a gift from US Marshal Dave Bautista,” Dean said with a straight face. Behind him, Roman sneered and Randy sighed.

“Generous,” AJ muttered, not caring about the back story as he examined the buffalo rifle. It had the range on anything the Bucks carried. Seth had taken very good care of it, as well as customized the shit out it. AJ squinted through the sight, focusing above the fog on the clear area up the mountainside. After several minutes of searching, he spotted them among some scattered boulders. With typical arrogance that AJ had admonished for time and again, they weren’t staying out of sight. He lowered the rifle. “Matt and Nick are about a quarter of the way up, above the fog. Armed with Winchesters,” he reported.

“And we have to go through them,” Roman said. His black horse stood still underneath him, head drooping. His and Dean’s horses were getting dangerously close to being played out.

“Open to suggestions,” Randy said, staring up the mountains side.

AJ chewed in his lower lip, thinking about his plan. It was reckless and dangerous, but it was all he had.

“Okay, here’s what we’ll do.” He explained his idea.

The three were silent as they considered AJ’s plan. “That plan sucks,” Dean said finally.

“You’re putting a hell of a lot of trust in me,” Randy said to AJ. Roman wasn’t as good of shot with a rifle as Randy, and Dean only had use of one arm.

AJ shrugged, hiding his doubts. “I’d trade you, but I don’t think your horse will be able to hold its pace for that long. Unless you want to ride her,” he offered the pale mare’s reins.

“Not really,” Randy admitted. He drew a deep breath and nodded. “All right, fine. We’ll do this your way.” He took the rifle from AJ and sighted it up the mountain. AJ reached over and pulled one of Mark’s Dragoons out of Randy’s belt.

“You’ll have a hell of a time getting through the fog,” Roman commented.

“Let me worry about that,” AJ said. He ignored the other’s looks as he gathered his reins into one hand, the other holding the Dragoon. “You see them, Randy?” he asked.

“Yeah,” Randy said absently, attention fixed on his targets. Roman pulled his horse close alongside Randy’s roan, holding more of the rifle’s ammunition, ready to hand it to him rather than forcing Randy to take precious seconds to dig for another cartridge.

“Be sure to get one of them on your first shot. Keep the other pinned as much as you can,” AJ said. If the Legend Killer missed, if he couldn’t reload fast enough to keep the Young Bucks from getting enough time to line up a shot, AJ would die. Running a horse up the side of a mountain would take precious time and give Matt or Nick too much opportunity to get a shot off. And despite being arrogant, their reputation was well earned. The Young Bucks did not miss.

Jaw tense, Randy nodded. “Ready when you are,” he said.

“Good hunting,” Dean said.

AJ sank his spurs into the pale mare’s sides. She took off up the mountain at a full gallop.

Randy raised the rifle to his shoulder and peered through the sight. This was going to be a true test of Randy’s nerve and reflexes. The Young Bucks were waiting, talking to each other as they watched AJ approach, waiting for him to get within range. They were unaware of the Rolling Block in Randy’s possession. Randy drew in a breath, steadied the sight on Nick, and exhaled.

BOOM

The whip-crack report was still echoing off the nearby mountains as Randy ejected the spent shell and reloaded, swinging the rifle to cover Matt, who appeared to be screaming and bringing his own rifle to bear on AJ.

For the first time since Mark loaned her to him, the pale mare wasn’t placid. Her head was raised and her eyes were alert. Snorting, she galloped up the mountain trail much faster than a mortal horse. She followed the narrow path easily, never once faltering or slowing down. “That a girl!” AJ encouraged the mare, leaning forward, lips twisted in a savage grin. It was like riding the wind.

Below, Randy fired again, keeping Matt pinned down behind cover. He reloaded, working smoothly and methodically. He raised the rifle again, watching for any movement. The roan stood like a statue underneath him. Every time Matt twitched from behind his boulder, Randy fired, but he was unable to hit the outlaw. Finally Matt was frantic enough to come out and take aim at AJ who was still hidden from below by the fog. Randy fired again, but Matt moved at the last fraction of a second and he missed. Swearing, Randy loaded another round but knew he wasn’t going to be fast enough. AJ was going to die. He’d trusted Randy with his life and he was going to let AJ down…

Then AJ and the mare finally broke through the fog. AJ saw Matt aiming the rifle right at his chest, raised Mark’s Dragoon just as Matt fired. Matt’s aim was true, but the mare swerved at the last second. AJ flinched as the bullet sliced over his bicep but he refocused and fired back. It was at the extreme edge of the gun’s range, but Matt jerked back, falling out of sight behind the boulder.

Knowing he hit Matt square, AJ pulled the mare to a slow jog. The mare shook her head in protest but did as AJ bid. Blood poured from his arm but he ignored it for the time being. He had to confirm his kill first. They approached the place where the Young Bucks had taken cover. The Bucks’ horses, and Kenny’s and Seth’s were tethered nearby. AJ figured Kenny and Seth must have continued on foot. Looking up, he could see why. The slope of the mountain rose to a narrow ridge that wound its way to the peak. The sides of the ridge plummeted almost straight down for over five hundred feet. From where he sat, only a mountain goat would be able to climb it. A sound caught his attention.

Nick was dead, shot through the head, but Matt was lying on his back, gasping for air. Blood stained his lips. He sneered when he saw AJ. “You’re too late, AJ!” Matt said. He coughed up more blood. “Kenny’s back in Heaven now, where you’ll never get him.”

“So Kenny left you here to die while he ran away?” AJ asked, smiling bitterly. “So much for loyalty.”

“Kenny will make sure our souls get into Heaven,” Matt gasped back. He choked as blood filled his lungs. The death was ugly but Matt didn’t seem to care. He died with a bloody smile on his face.

AJ shook his head. What a waste. Nick and Matt were idiots, but they were Bullet Club. They had been his family once. While he waited, he tore a strip of cloth from his shirt and wrapped it around his bicep to stop the bleeding. The mare pawed the ground impatiently. AJ looked up the mountain again. His eyes may have been playing tricks on him by he swore he saw two distant figures entering the clouds. “Fuck,” he said out loud. Looking down the mountain, the trio was barely past the base of the mountain. AJ knew they couldn’t see how close Kenny was to escaping. He turned the mare up the mountain and touched his spurs to her sides. She responded with enthusiasm, going right back into a full gallop. He swore in surprise as he clutched her mane. This was not the placid animal he’d been riding the past two days.

Even at a full gallop it took them a while to climb the huge mountain. Eventually they reached the clouds, the mare hadn’t slowed a bit. At that point AJ didn’t dare look down. Normally heights didn’t bother him but normally he wasn’t riding a horse at full speed along a narrow path with a fatal drop on each side. He pulled on the reins to slow the mare down but she took the bit in her teeth and charged on, following a trail AJ could barely make out. They were going much too fast and if the mare slipped, they’d plunge to their deaths. “Damn it, stop!” he finally shouted at the horse, who slid to a stop so fast AJ nearly went right over her head.

Why? Don’t you want to catch them?” the mare asked. Her pale hide glowed softly and her mane was spun spider silk. Her now-blood red eyes sparked with a thousand stars. She wasn’t breathing heavy at all.

“Jesus fucking Christ, you can talk?” he asked.

Of course,” the mare said, turning her head to look back at him with disdain.

AJ stared awkwardly down at the pale mare who once again faced forward, but tipped her ears back towards him. Distantly he realized his mouth was open and closed it. “What the fuck are you?” he asked, desperately trying to figure out what the hell was happening and if it even mattered. He’d always known she wasn’t really a horse. But to be having a conversation with her was surreal.

The mare snorted impatiently. “Not a horse,” she said, and pranced sideways, lifting her legs high with each delicate step. Her neck was arched and she snorted impatiently. “Pretending to be mortal is dull but we are too close to a thin place between realms for me to hide what I am anymore.”

“And what is that?” AJ asked.

I am me,” she said with an arrogant toss of her mane. “I am the one that carried Him since before the first being came into existence. And I continue to carry Him until He is no more. Then I will carry the next.”

“Him, being…?” he asked, sitting uneasily on her back. What was she talking about?

Death,” she said, rolling her eyes and making him feel like a dumbass.

“Oh…” Well he’d asked. “You’re carrying me,” AJ reminded her.

He asked me to carry you, so I do,” the horse replied, practically shrugging. She raised her head. “They are nearly at the top.”

“How close?” AJ asked. He decided to just go with it and think about it later. Maybe.

If we don’t hurry, not even I can catch them before they enter Heaven. I don’t think you can cross into Heaven without a soul.”

“Let’s go,” AJ said, barely getting himself settled in the saddle before she jumped right back into a gallop. The thick, moist air muffling her hoof beats and made the smooth granite they were running on very slick. AJ just hoped she was a sure-footed as the goats he’d glimpsed on the cliffs below them.

Lost in the clouds, unable to see, AJ fretted they wouldn’t get there in time. But when they broke through back into the slanting sunlight, he could see them ahead. “Kenny! I am coming for you!” he bellowed, lungs tight in the thin air. Suddenly a brilliant light shone from the very top of Heaven’s Peak. It was so bright that AJ raised an arm to shield his eyes. “Shit, faster!” he yelled at the mare, and she responded with nostrils flaring blood red.

It was time. ‘I need you!’ he shouted in his mind.

The Saint’s response was immediate. ‘Are you ready to finish this, boy?’

Yes’ AJ vowed. Kenny had cost him so very much.

It was time for Kenny to learn what it was like to lose.

~~~~

Unaware of AJ’s pursuit, Kenny dragged Seth forward towards the peak by the scruff of his neck. The sheer drop on each side of the ridge didn’t seem to bother Kenny in the slightest, even as Seth’s boots slid and scraped on the slippery granite. “We’re almost home, little brother,” the angel said. “Soon, we’ll be rid of this human filth.”

The cold had helped clear Seth’s mind and allowed him to focus. He wasn’t going to allow Kenny to drag him into Heaven. “Not your brother, asshole.” Seth started working the ropes around his wrists. If he was going to do anything, he had to do it soon. They were almost to the top. The cold wind gusted, blowing their hair around their faces.

Kenny stopped abruptly, making Seth stumble. “We’re here,” he announced.

Seth looked up at the impossibly blue sky with the world spread out below them. “Where?” he asked.

“Home.” Kenny laughed and stretched his arms wide. Fingers of pure light slipped through the space in front of them. Seth had to close his eyes against the brightness. He tugged once more and felt the ropes slip off. It was now or never. He would not have a better chance, while Kenny was distracted. He took a deep breath and flung his body at Kenny, intending to push Kenny over the cliff. He wasn’t sure Kenny could be killed, but a thousand-foot drop would certainly slow him down.

Without bothering to look at Seth, Kenny caught him easily. He didn’t move an inch.

“No, you don’t!” Kenny said in Seth’s ear. “Nice try, but there’s nothing you can do, human.” With that, Kenny physically hauled Seth toward the light.

“Let me go!” Seth shouted, frantically trying to squirm free.

Then, over the wind came the sound of pounding hooves. Kenny spun around, and his eyes widened.

Bearing down on them was a pale horse, eyes and nostrils blood red. The horse was glowing. The rider’s shoulder length brown hair was streaming back in the wind. His eyes were pure white, glowing with the same pale light of the horse. The rider reached down and drew a Colt Walker, aiming it over the pale mare’s head, right between her ears.

Seth didn’t recognize who the rider was, but he did recognize the Saint of Killers. “Holy shit!” he gasped.

“No! Not you!” Kenny screamed, loosening his grip on Seth, who pulled violently away.

Seth stumbled and hit the ground, sliding to the edge of the cliff. He looked up and saw it happen as if time slowed down to a crawl. Kenny stepped back to the gate to Heaven. Bright light streamed over him. The rider levelled the barrel of the gun at Kenny and pulled the trigger. Thunder rolled off the surrounding mountains as a hole appeared in the middle of Kenny’s forehead.

The angel fell backward into the light.

The horse skidded to a stop right at the edge of the light, rearing high on her hind legs with an eerie, high pitched whinny. The rider sat easily as she sliced the air with her front hooves. Unnerved, Seth fell backwards, lost his balance and plunged over the side.

For one heart-stopping second he fell. Then with a flailing hand, he caught the side and held on. His feet swung sickeningly in the emptiness below him. He reached up with his other hand to grab the rock, but it was too slippery and he was losing his grip…

An incredibly strong hand gripped his wrist and hauled him back up over the side. Laying on the granite, Seth gasped, trying to get his pounding heart under control. He found himself staring into normal human blue eyes and a sardonic, side-sliding grin. “Thanks,” he gasped, crawling away from the edge. “That was too close.”

“Reigns and Ambrose would have made my life miserable if I’d let you kill yourself,” the man said, still crouching next to Seth. He held out his hand. “AJ Styles.” Nearby, the mare shook her head and snorted.

“Seth Rollins, and your timing was amazing,” Seth said. He took AJ’s hand and shook it, noting the fresh blood on AJ’s arm. The wind gusted again and Seth felt goosebumps raise on his arms, not entirely from the cold. AJ felt…empty. Not completely, there was a trace of something there, the echo of a soul. “You used the Colt Walkers to get away from the demons,” he said.

AJ’s expression went flat. “Yeah, I killed the Destroyer and the Skinwalker,” he said, as if it were no big deal.

“And it cost you your soul,” Seth said, carefully neutral. It wasn’t up to him to judge if it had been worth it. Besides, if AJ had a soul when he’d shot Kenny, he’d be unconscious and Seth would be a red smear at the base of the cliff.

Withdrawing his hand, AJ shrugged. “Yeah,” he said again, not really wanting to talk about it. But he had to know. “The Saint implied that an angel could fix it,” he said, not looking at Seth, but over the peaks of the adjoining mountains. The clouds below them seemed to be dissipating. The sun was low in the west, casting a red-gold hue over them. The gate to Heaven was still open but slowly growing smaller.

“I can’t. There isn’t enough left to heal,” Seth said, not bothering to soften the news. He’d nearly killed himself repairing Randy’s, and there was much more left of the Legend Killer’s soul. He wasn’t even going to attempt to heal AJ’s. “I’m sorry.” And he was.

Still not looking at Seth, AJ nodded then shrugged. “Well, I guess that’s it,” he said. He was mildly disappointed. But it was getting hard to care. There was only emptiness where passion, rage and contentedness should have been. He stood up and headed over to the mare, already moving on. “Now we just have to get off the mountain without killing ourselves.”

Behind him, Seth frowned at AJ’s indifference, but he was too was eager to get back to Dean and Roman to pursue what was ultimately a pointless conversation.

“Giving up, my love?” a female voice called to them. AJ spun around, eyes wide. A spirit was standing in front of the gate. She was small, and had a beautiful smile. “The Allen Jones I married would never quit, no matter what obstacles he faced.”

“Wendy,” AJ breathed. His wife, the love of his life. “How is this possible?”

“Darling, I’ve missed you so much,” she said. She approached AJ who reached a hand out to her, then let it fall back limp to his side. “Seriously, what was going through your head, turning into an outlaw?” she asked, exasperated.

“It seemed like the thing to do at the time,” he smiled stiffly. The wind blew his hair across his eyes and he reached up to brush it out of his face.

She grinned and looked at Seth. “If you need another to heal his soul, I want you to use mine.”

“No!” AJ objected. He was empty, but this was wrong. “I won’t let you!”

“Since when do you tell me what to do, Allen Jones?” She fixed him with a stern look and AJ backed down. Seth grinned at AJ’s discomfort. “I gave you my heart and my soul the day we were married,” she reminded him gently. “And I will use it to help heal yours.”

“I won’t let you to destroy yourself for me,” AJ protested. The sun was sinking lower. It was already dark in the valley below. “You were the best thing to happen to me. It was my job to take care of you, and I failed. You belong in Heaven with our kids. I made my decisions and mistakes. And I will pay for them, not you.”

“I know, darling. But I can’t stand the thought of losing you for all eternity. Allen Jones was a good man and deserves a chance to redeem himself.”

Stunned, AJ swallowed hard. His chest ached. “Maybe just some of it?” he bargained.

But Seth was shaking his head. “Sorry, it won’t work. The amount I would need to take will destroy her.”

“Then let me help,” Becky Lynch said from behind Seth, nearly sending Seth over the cliff again. “Two of us should be enough.”

“Becky?” AJ asked, absolutely floored. “Why?”

“Don’t be an idiot. You know why,” she sneered at him. “Is he always this thick?” she asked Wendy.

“He has his moments,” Wendy sighed.

“Alright, if there are no more objections?” Seth asked AJ, who shook his head, not taking his eyes from his wife’s face. “Let’s do this and get off this mountain before it gets dark and we’re trapped up here for the night.”

Both spirits reached out and touched AJ. Seth placed his hands on AJ’s chest and forehead. He concentrated, not feeling the cold wind that blew around them. It was easier this time. The souls were freely given, one with love, the other with gratitude. Soon, AJ Styles was whole once more. The demon mark stayed inert, having no connection to his new soul. Seth also healed AJ’s body while he was there, as a thanks for saving Seth’s life.

As Seth stepped back, AJ opened his eyes. He looked at Wendy once again, this time through tears and he sank to his knees.

“I must go,” Wendy said as the sun finally set behind the mountains. The gate behind her was a soft glow. She was dimmer now but still radiant. “I will take your love to our children.”

Wordlessly, AJ reached out to her. “Good-bye my love,” Wendy whispered as she disappeared through the gate. The glow was gone with her as the gate faded without a sound.

“I gotta go too. But if you don’t get your act together, you can always hang out in hell with me,” Becky winked, the wind gusted again as she too vanished. AJ’s shoulders shook as silent tears streamed down his cheeks.

“C’mon, let’s go,” Seth sighed, placing a hand on AJ’s shoulder. He was cold, tired and wanted nothing more than to see his brothers again.

Heartbroken, AJ nodded. With a sigh he got to his feet and started down the mountain without looking back, Seth on his heels with the pale mare silently following them.

TBC

Chapter Text

Phenomenal One Chapter 29 

It took a long time for Seth and AJ to make their way down the mountain. More than once they ended up clutching each other for balance as their boots caught on the jagged granite ridge. The pale mare followed them, but AJ wasn’t mentally up for riding her and Seth flat out couldn’t. But the Saint was with them, guiding AJ’s steps in the deepening darkness. They were stumbling with exhaustion by the time they made it back to the place where Matt and Nick died.

Where Dean, Roman, and Randy, who was holding a torch, were waiting.

“Seth!” Dean shouted. He rushed over to embrace Seth with one arm. Roman was on his heels.

“Christ can’t you two stay healthy? Every time I turn my back, you’re injured,” Seth grumbled as he healed Dean. Dean sighed in relief and pressed his forehead to Seth’s in gratitude. Then Seth healed Roman, who swept Seth up in his strong embrace. “I missed you, brother,” he whispered.

Off to the side, Randy greeted the silent AJ with a brief, one-armed hug and helped him into the saddle of Kenny’s bright chestnut horse. It was the same one that Kenny had stolen from AJ after the Idaho job when Bullet Club betrayed him. AJ was too exhausted to speak, both emotionally and physically. He just nodded his thanks. After the others mounted up, Randy guided them down the rest of the way to a small clearing where they called it good. Without a word to the others, AJ was asleep nearly before his head hit the bedroll. Seth and the others soon followed suit.

Even though he too was tired, Randy stayed awake, keeping watch while they slept. The night was alive with the sound of insects and animals, and the ever-present hissing of distant, alpine waterfalls. The stars wheeled overhead as the brilliant Milkyway lit the sky. Gradually the eastern sky lightened, and the Saint reappeared. Randy actually greeted him with a nod, but neither of them broke the pre-dawn quiet. Together, they watched the sun rise over paradise.

Mark asked how you’re doing,” the Saint of Killers asked his son, finally breaking the comfortable silence between them.

“Tell him,” Randy hesitated and looked over at his companions, at AJ who came after him and saved him from a horrific fate, at Dean, Roman and Seth, who dropped everything to help. Off to the side, the pale mare shook her head and he thought of Mark, who stayed with him, counselled him and comforted him when the nightmares became too much.

And it truly hit him that he wasn’t alone. AJ, Roman, and Dean coming for him made him realize that there were people who cared for him, and in turn he cared for them. His brothers. His family.

“Tell him, I think I’ll be okay.”

It was well after sunrise when they set out for Helena. AJ was leading the pale mare who looked like an ordinary horse once again. They didn’t hurry, keeping the horses to a steady jog. AJ remained quiet, opting to ride ahead and be alone with his thoughts. Seth had told the others what happened at the top of Heaven’s Peak and at first they left him alone. But after stopping for a late afternoon meal of biscuits, cheese and river trout caught in a clear-running stream, Dean decided AJ had moped enough and started pestering him about Bullet Club.

Finding it impossible to ignore Dean, AJ tolerantly answered his questions, only getting annoyed when they got too personal. That brought AJ out of his depression and soon he and Randy were talking about their experiences in the War Between the States while Dean, Seth and Roman all discussed what they would eat when they got back to Helena.

Despite the pace, they made it to Helena in good time. It was late afternoon the next day when they rode into town. They dropped Seth off at the boarding house where Mark was, joining them after they took care of their horses at the livery. Freshly healed, Mark met them on the front porch with Seth, the same porch where Seth and John had watched Wade Barrett and his men arrest Dean, a lifetime ago.

“I’m starving. Where’s the food?” Dean asked, rubbing his hands together in anticipation of finally getting a home-cooked meal.

“It’s coming,” Seth said with a grin. He had asked the cook to get dinner started early. She had readily agreed, nearly swooning over Seth.

Mark greeted Randy with a hug. “You look better,” he said as he pulled back, studying the younger man with a critical eye.

“I feel better,” Randy admitted. He still had nightmares, but they were easing up.

Mark smiled and clapped him on the shoulder.

Trailing the group, AJ made his way up the stairs. Mark looked down at him with a raised eyebrow. “She behave?” he asked. He didn’t have to specify who she was.

“She was fine. Thanks for loaning her to me,” AJ said. “Without her I wouldn’t have gotten there in time to kill Kenny…and save Seth” he said as an afterthought.

“That reminds me, how could you stand to ride her?” Roman asked with a small shiver.

“Wasn’t too bad,” AJ lied. They all saw through it but didn’t call him out on it. “That reminds me, she said she has been yours since the beginning. Just how old are you?” he asked Mark. They found seats on the porch. AJ opted to hop up and sit on the railing, legs dangling.

“Dunno,” Mark said. “Been around a while I suppose.”

“Wait, she said it”?” Roman asked incredulously.

“Yeah,” AJ said as if it were the most natural think in the world. He brushed his hair out of his face. He needed a hair tie, he decided.

Roman and Dean exchanged looks. “Mark, AJ’s telling stories again,” Dean tattled.

“Are you sure about that?” Mark said, smiling mysteriously.

Dean and Roman exchanged looks again. AJ’s grin was a baring his teeth.

“No way,” Dean denied.

Mark shrugged, “Believe what you want. At any rate, you’re all back in one piece. Have you learned to work together?”

“More or less,” Randy said. The smell of roasting meat wafted through the open windows was making their mouths water.

Dean leaned back in his chair and propped his feet up on the railing next to AJ. “Alright, I admit it, you’re as good as you think you are,” he praised, but AJ snorted.

“I’m better than good. I am Phenomenal.”

Randy, who had watched the exchange with a smile, suddenly looked up and stiffened. John was heading their way.

“What is it?” Seth asked.

“Cena,” Randy said, standing up and stepping closer to AJ, who immediately glanced around, planning possible escape routes. Both Dean and Roman moved to stand between Cena and AJ.

“Hold on, before you high-tail it out of here, he’s not wearing a badge,” Seth said.

“The election was held yesterday,” Mark told them just as Cena reached the steps. He didn’t bother to stand up.

“Who won?” Randy asked.

“Kurt Angle,” Cena said, bounding up the stairs. Kurt had been a popular sheriff in Billings a while back, opting to go south for a while for reasons of his own. Apparently, he’d returned recently.

Randy nodded with approval. “Good choice,” he said.

“Didn’t know he was back in the area,” Roman said.

AJ didn’t look quite so pleased. When asked why, he just said he’d run into Kurt before and left it at that. The cook called them into the dining room and they filed in. After they ate their fill, they lingered at the table, swapping stories late into the night before finding their way to their rooms for some much-needed rest.

The next morning, the trio joined Mark in the common room for breakfast. Randy and AJ had eaten earlier Mark told them as they lingered over coffee. “AJ’s heading out.”

“Already?” Roman asked, running a hand through his hair. “If he’s in trouble…”

“He’s not. But he’s leaving,” Mark said, getting up from the table and walking out the door. The three followed him through the streets to the livery. The sun was shining in the clear blue sky and the freshening breeze coming down off the mountains smelled of pines.

“Where do you think you are going?” Dean wanted to know, seeing AJ leading his horse out of the barn. AJ’s hair was tied back, and he obtained a hat from somewhere. His saddlebags were full.

“Angle’s the new sheriff. Best for all parties if I’m not in his county,” AJ said with his famous side-sliding grin.

“Who says we’ll just let you go?” Reigns loomed over AJ who looked decidedly unimpressed. Mark just watched, amused. Seth leaned against the fence and wondered if he knew something that they didn’t. Well, more than usual.

“I don’t answer to you,” AJ was saying calmly. “I go where I want, when I want.”

“Should I tell him, or do you want to?” Roman asked Dean who was getting up into AJ’s personal space.

“Oh please, let me,” Ambrose practically snarled.

“Tell me what?” AJ sneered back.

“Like it or not, you’re our brother now, Phenomenal One,” Dean smirked and slung an arm over AJ’s shoulders. “So it’s in your best interest not to disappear on us.”

Surprised, AJ didn’t react immediately. Then his brain caught up and he stiffened. He grasped Dean’s arm, moving gingerly out from under it. “Don’t I get a say in that?” he asked.

“Nope!” Dean said cheerfully.

Looking back and forth between Roman and Dean, he didn’t know what to do. Bullet Club had been his family for years but his role in Bullet Club was done. He’d promised Wendy he try to redeem himself, so continuing his outlaw ways was out of the question. Now here was a new family made of outlaws adopting him. He was touched but would never let Dean know that. “Well, brother, I’m saying good-bye. Stay out of trouble, or if you can’t, stay away from me,” AJ advised.

“Where’re you headed?” Seth asked.

“I’ve still got to pay Corbin what I owe him, then I’m heading to Bannack.” AJ said, tightening the girth of the saddle and making sure his saddlebags were secured. The chestnut shook its head and stamped a foot.

“Why Bannack?” Roman asked.

“I got a job offer,” AJ said as he mounted up and settled into the saddle. He adjusted his hat so the sun was out of his eyes.

“Someone offered you a job?” Roman asked.

“Yeah, Mayor Bryan asked me to be the temporary sheriff of Bannack.” AJ grinned at their gobsmacked expressions.

“Wait, you’re going to be a sheriff?” Dean asked highly skeptical.

“Temporary, and yes. Funny isn’t it? You guys started as lawmen and became outlaws. I started as an outlaw and now am going to be a lawman,” AJ said, sounding unbearably smug. “You ready Randy?” he called out.

Randy appeared out of the barn, leading his roan and Mark’s mare.

“You’re going with?” Seth asked as Randy came up to them.

“Yep,” Mark said. He took the pale mare’s reins from Randy. “Someone has to keep on eyes on these guys.”

“I hear Bannack needs a doctor,” AJ told him. He was glad Randy and Mark decided to join him. “And the livery there needs a caretaker, if anyone is interested.” With Enzo and Cass dead, there was an opening for employment.

“You’re all getting regular jobs?” Roman asked, partially incredulous and partially curious. “What about the demons?”

“We’ll take care of them, but according to the Saint, there are only a couple left. And in the meantime it’ll be nice to lead a regular life. At least for a while,” Randy admitted. Mark raised his eyebrows at Randy’s self-inclusion but didn’t call attention to it.

“I can’t fucking believe this,” Dean shook his head.

“Believe it,” AJ said. He touched the brim of his hat to them, turned his horse and touched his spurs to the gelding’s sides, setting out at a steady jog.

Grinning, Randy mounted up and followed. “Later!” he called out.

“Are you three going to stay here?” Mark asked as he settled into this saddle.

“We haven’t made any plans yet,” Seth said, but he got the feeling it was no longer true.

“Well, whatever you decide, watch your backs,” Mark said, “and keep in touch.” He turned the pale mare to follow Randy and AJ.

The three stood shoulder to shoulder and watched them go until they were out of sight. “Anyone else want to go with, just to piss off Styles?” Dean asked.

“Yes,” Roman said.

“Definitely,” Seth added.

“Well then, let’s ride.” Dean said and headed into the barn to get the horses. There were demons still out there, but if AJ was right about becoming a sheriff, Bannack just might be a haven for them. And with all of them together, their family and their world would be safe.

The End.