Tag Archive for Fantasy Western

Goyle Country Update: dogs ain’t people

Hey, here’s a new Goyle Country update (at 2489 words, no less). In which dogs aren’t people, even though some people think they think they are (and that wasn’t a typo). And a plan is put in motion!

 

<A temple indeed,> Hevak intoned, the deep rumble of his words translated once again by the Spirits. <A temple to the hubris and arrogance of the ones who came before.>

Katherine took a moment to look around at all that was displayed on the walls. “I’m surprised you keep it around.”

The Speaker turned to face her, head tilted slightly. <Whatever else they did, whatever else they were, we cannot forget they created us. We keep this to remind ourselves of the good they did, and of all the good they could have done. And above all, to ensure we do not become like them. The last is a lesson some of my people have sadly forgotten.>

“Why bring us here?” Lonesome asked. It was that he didn’t see it as interesting. Far from it, in fact. Once things died down he hoped the goyles would let him in here to study everything in more detail. But what they needed now wasn’t a history lesson, it was a way to stop a demigod.

<Because here is where you will find the weapon you need to fight the Returned.> Hevak held forth one hand. <Open the vault, please. I have need of its contents.>

For a moment Katherine was confused. She saw no vault in the large chamber. But Hevak had not been talking to her. His words had been directed elsewhere, and merely translated with all the rest. Moments after his request, the floor began to shift. Katherine and Lonesome stepped back in surprise as a circular portion of the room seemed to drop away beneath their feet, collapsing down into a spiral staircase that led down into the bowels of the earth.

Hevak thanked the Spirits and motioned for his guests to follow as he led the way down. Katherine half expected it to be dark and foreboding, but the vault was just as well lit as the chamber above. Short columns sporting fist sized crystals were spaced at even intervals, and here and there was a statue like the ones above, if somewhat smaller. But here there were no murals. Instead, shelves lined the walls of the space, and expansive stone tables that seemed to have grown from the living rock occupied the center.

“What sort of weapon are we talking, Hevak?” Katherine asked. She gave the room a thorough looking over, but failed to see anything weaponlike. “Personally I’d settle for a ton or two of dynamite.”

Hevak loomed over one of the tables, it’s surface covered in what must have been truly ancient books and parchments. <The weapon I speak of is knowledge, Arbiter. The Returned is vulnerable, as his people were when they attempted their blasphemy to make themselves Spirits. And it was my people, the Gargoyles, who created their weakness.>

“You betrayed your own creators?” Lonesome asked, surprise ringing clear in his voice.

<Indeed, Lonely One. My people knew the true cost of their ascension, and could not let it come to pass. Here, in this vault, is the secret to that weakness.>

“I don’t mean to ruin the moment of revelation,” Katherine said cautiously, “But if you already have what you need to stop this, why do you need us?”

<An astute question, Arbiter. We are still our maker’s creation, and some things even time cannot undo. We cannot assail them ourselves, only serve. But you… you are free to act against the Returned as needed. We may act through you, as we acted in concert with the Spirits so long ago.>

“Is that why you couldn’t fight the other goyles?” she asked. “Because you’re somehow prevented from it?”

<Our hesitation to harm our brethren was a purely philosophical choice, Arbiter. Now that they have chosen their path, we must do what must be done. When the time comes, we will keep them at bay. By whatever means necessary. Shall we begin?>

 

**********

 

Clem sat beside Clayton, watching as a Gargoyle loomed over him, poking and prodding and muttering to the Spirits. The questions it asked were many and varied, and some of them she had no frame of reference for. She wished she could hear how the Spirits replied, but such was the way of Talking – only those the Spirits spoke to could hear them, even if you did have the talent.

<How’s he look?> she asked.

The goyle, who’d introduced itself as Kasik the Healer, snorted. <He is wrong.>

Clem let her gaze rest on Clayton, once again unconscious. “Yeah, we guessed. Wrong how?”

<He is not what he should be. There is something else there, something wrong. It writhes and squirms within him, evading the Spirits that seek to cleanse it.>

<We ran into something out there, in the ruins of the city. One of the people who came before, now returned. It took part of Clayton’s arm. Could whatever’s in him have something to do with that?>

<Gravik the Longspear explained this to me,> Kasik told her. It looked down at Clayton, studying him thoughtfully. <This is not what I would expect the Returned to feel like. The Spirits agree. This is something else. Something from beyond, where they imprisoned those who came before.>

<Great,> Clem sighed. <As if we didn’t have enough to worry about. Do you think the Spirits can heal him?>

<They are trying,> Kasik shrugged. <All we can do is wait for them to do their work.>

Both Spirit Talker and Gargoyle jumped in surprise as Clayton sat bolt upright. Though his eyes were open they showed only the whites, and it was clear by the way he waved his arms around that he wasn’t really awake. Kasik was faster to recover than Clem, and quickly pushed him onto his back with one massive hand. The impact seemed to rouse him from whatever strange dream he’d been having. His eyes went back to normal and focused on Clem, wide with fright.

“Don’t let them take me,” he whispered, speaking normally.

“It’s alright Clayton,” she said as soothingly as possible. “I’m here.”

“I don’t want to be light enough,” he all but whined, one hand grabbing desperately at her arm. “I saw it. I saw where they take you. I don’t want to go, Clem. Don’t let them take me. It’s full of…” he groaned and relaxed, hand barely clinging to Clem’s arm. “It’s all full of them,” he whispered, eyes unfocused. With one last shuddering breath he was unconscious again.

Clem  held his hand in hers and felt an incredible sense of unease. <That didn’t sound good,> she told Kasik. <Not good at all.>

 

**********

 

“This is insane,” Carter groused, pacing irritably along the length of the room.

“Oh?” Hawkins asked, arching an eyebrow. “Which part? The one where an ancient evil got summoned back to the world and ate Clayton’s arm as an appetizer before grabbing Dorean as the main course, or the one where we’re going to try and kill it?”

“All of it,” Carter grumbled. “Every damn bit of it.”

“Good to know where we stand, then.”

Walsh watched the two of them from where he sat idly holding his rifle. The goyles had let him keep it, and it provided a much needed sense of security. He still couldn’t get used to the fact that they were in the middle of a Gargoyle hive. Everytime he saw one walk past he tensed up.

“Are you not in the least bit worried about this?” Carter demanded, turning on Hawkins angrily.

Hawkins frowned at the other man’s tone. “Of course I’m worried. And of course this is all gods damned insane. Merciful mother, we’re working with Gargoyles! But what the hell are we going to do about it? We can’t just run away and let that thing do whatever it wants. Not after seeing what it did to Dorean. And that means we’ve got to work with the goyles, no matter how much it makes my head spin.”

“That’s where you’re wrong! We can just run away. Now that the goyles aren’t trying to kill us anymore we can just hightail it back to civilization. If we go fast enough we might outrun that thing, maybe get somewhere far enough away that someone else’ll stop it before it gets to us.”

“And how many people will die in the meantime?” Walsh joined in.

“As long as it ain’t us, who cares?”

“I do!”

“Yeah?” Carter asked. “Well, he don’t.” He jerked a thumb at Hawkins. “And don’t you try to tell me you’re doing this out of some kind of do good heroism.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Hawkins demanded.

“It means you’re on Haversham and Bloody Black’s payroll,” Carter accused with a sneer. “You boys don’t do anything without the head office’s say so, ain’t it?”

“I think the circumstances are out of the ordinary,” Hawkins said defensively. “Besides, if this thing gets loose it’ll only hurt the company. And you’re only out here because you were willing to take Haversham & Black money as a reward anyway, so I’d watch where you’re throwing accusations.”

“Look, let’s all just calm down a bit,” Walsh tried to inject some reason into the situation. “Carter… if you want to leave, no one’s going to stop you. We can’t make you fight that thing. But just because these goyles don’t want to kill you right now doesn’t mean the others will hold to that if they find you. And, I hate to say it, but once you’re not helping them they might decided you’re fair game again.”

Carter opened his mouth to argue, but closed it again with a vicious frown. Without looking at the other two he sat against the wall and stared at the floor. “I ain’t gonna let that thing eat me,” he muttered.

“Don’t let him get to you,” the deputy added in a soft aside to Hawkins. “I know you care if innocent people die in this. The company didn’t order you out here. Lonesome told me you insisted on coming along.”

“Yeah.” Hawkins drummed up a friendly smile. “Thanks, Aaron.”

 

**********

 

The posse met outside the butte the next morning. After spending time in the tunnels they all needed fresh air, sky above their heads, and a lack of goyles looking over their shoulders. Katherine presided over the meeting. She perched on a boulder, more kneeling than sitting, letting the breeze tug at her hair as she held her hat in hand. Lonesome stood beside her, looking tired.

“The goyles think they’ve got themselves a plan,” Katherine told the group. “When the old people planned their transformation into gods they meant for it to be just like Spirits – no messy physical bodies to deal with. I won’t bore you with the details, but it turns out the only way for the one that came back to get out of prison was to put itself back into just such a body. That’s why it needed the bones, why it took Clayton’s arm, and why it… did what it did… to Dorean. This presents us with an opportunity. Lonesome?”

“Right now that thing is more or less a Spirit living in a great big chunk of meat and bone,” the Spirit Talker explained. “Being a Spirit requires it to follow certain rules. One of those, we hope, is that it’ll have to listen to the language of command the old people used. It’s like First Words, but… different. The goyles are willing to teach us certain phrases that might be helpful. Phrases we can use to weaken that thing, maybe even bind it. What it won’t do is let us destroy it, but that’s where the second part of their plan comes in.”

“We can send it back where it came from,” Katherine told them.

“The goyles think the ritual the old people used before could work again. If we can force this thing to make the transition, the Spirits can step in like they did the first time. They can capture it and put it back in the hole they’re keeping all the rest of them in. The ritual isn’t easy, but it’s doable.”

“And, unfortunately, it has a significant drawback,” Katherine said grimly. “The ritual has to take place at a fixed location, and that thing has got to be there when we do it.”

“We’re going to have to lure it in,” Hawkins guessed.

“And keep the not so friendly goyles from screwing it up,” Clem added.

Katherine nodded. “Right on both. If we can get that thing where we want we might be able to bind it in place until the ritual is finished. Gravik and those goyles willing to help us will keep their fellows busy until it’s done. It won’t be easy, but it can be done. Now,” she shifted the focus to Clem, “I hear you’ve got something to tell us about Clayton.”

Clem nodded and gave Clayton, who sat next to her, a sympathetic look. “The goyles worked through the night to figure out what was wrong with him. Best they can figure, he’s got something inside him that won’t come out. It’s like…” she grasped for words, one hand waving in the air as if she could fish out or catch an appropriate explanation. “It’s a Spirit, but not,” she settled on. “I think the best way to describe the difference is like comparing a dog to a person. They’re both smart, in their way, and we’re both living things, but you know a dog ain’t a person. The Spirits tried their best to fish it out of him but it sounds like they only drove it to cling harder. It isn’t causing him any purposeful harm, and we know it ain’t the work of the Returned. Best the goyles and Spirits can figure, it’s some low kind of Spirit that lives in the prison and came out alongside the Returned. By accident or purpose they don’t know.”

“So we can’t get it out?” Katherine asked.

Clem shrugged. “We might, but there’s no way to tell how much harm it would do to Clayton, and right now we just don’t have the time.”

“I feel alright,” Clayton spoke up. “I’ve stopped talking in First Words, and all I did was try to wander off. I want to help.”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Clem promised.

Katherine considered for a moment, then nodded. “We’re not so flush with manpower I can afford to turn down someone who wants to help,” she said. “Even if he is a little off. You just do me a favor, Clayton. The moment something seems wrong you go to Clem or Lonesome, you hear?”

“I will,” he promised.

“Good. Now let’s all make sure we’re ready to head out. We’ve got a little more planning to do with the goyles, but they think they’ve found us a location. As soon as we’re finished with them we’re heading out.”

 

Goyle Country Update: In which secret chambers!

Hey. So. In (apparently) keeping with my putting things up late, here’s a Goyle Country update from last week. Well, and a little bit from tonight, because I could. It’s about 2k words, and weird things are happening because apparently the story has a mind of its own now. I’m… not really sure where this is going. Such is the joy of a first draft. At least I got almost to the end before things decided to go off the rails and wandering about.

 

“No need to worry about that,” Clem assured him. “They… oh. Arbiter, Spirits tell me we’ve got company coming.”

“What sort of company?”

“The goyles you wanted to talk to, if the Spirits did like I told ‘em.”

“Let’s hope they did, for all our sakes. Would it be possible for you to spell Lonesome there? No offense, but I’d rather he talk for me than you.”

“No offense taken,” Clem sighed. “I’ll see where he’s at. If I can, I’ll send him over.”

“Everyone get ready,” Katherine spoke loudly enough for all the others to hear, “There’s goyles coming, and I don’t want to get caught flat footed if they’re not the friendly sort.”

They didn’t have to wait long. Minutes after Clem had given her warning the first Goyle appeared from behind a rock formation, spear held almost lazily over one shoulder. If it wasn’t Gravik, Katherine would eat her hat. She holstered her pistol and walked forward with a friendly smile. Gravik swung the spear down and and planted the tip in the dirt, leaving the weapon behind. The goyle’s face split into a terrifying grimace. Katherine took it for a smile.

“Gravik,” she put her hands on her hips and, knowing full well the goyle couldn’t understand her, said, “We’re in a heap of shit here, friend.”

Lonesome translated the greeting from behind her, which was a bit of a surprise, but at least it wasn’t Clem. The Spirit Talker stood beside her, listening intently as Gravik spoke.

“They know something’s come back,” Lonesome interpreted. “The Spirits are all having a fit about it. Seems to have kicked off some sort of internal fighting. Some of their elders want to go to war and destroy it, some want to protect it, and others want to stay neutral. Gravik’s band want it stopped. Sounds like Hevak thought we were dead.”

“We just about were,” Katherine nodded. “Fill him in, Lonesome. Let him know we still want to help, but we can’t do it alone.”

He did, taking Gravik through the entire encounter with Dorean and the results of the meeting. Katherine could almost following along, marking when Lonesome got the part about Clayton losing his arm by the way the Goyle looked over at the former bandit.

“Our friend here says he can help,” Lonesome translated as Gravik began to speak again. “Hevak the Speaker has a plan.”

“Good,” Katherine was glad to hear it. “I like plans. Until they fall apart, anyway. So what is it?”

“We’ll have to meet with Hevak. He won’t say more than that.”

“Fair enough,” Katherine allowed. “But the more time we waste the less optimistic I am about us all living through this. Can Clayton get moved?”

“Not until the Spirits are finished.”

“How much longer?”

“Should be ready to go by tomorrow morning. I know it’s a while to wait, but…”

“We’ll risk it,” Katherine decided. “Is Gravik willing to stick around?”

“They’ll guard the perimeter,” Lonesome relayed after a quick exchange. “Make sure none of their wrong headed friends get too close.”

 

**********

 

Clayton woke in the middle of the night feeling parched and achy. The stars burned bright above him, undimmed by campfire or lanterns. A cool breeze swept through the Bandlands, and it carried soft whispers to Clayton’s ears. The rest of the posse lay around him, curled under blankets and lost in the embrace of sleep while they could.

The tree he was sitting against was incredibly uncomfortable. The bark bit into the skin of his back through his shirt, but that was nothing compared to the insanity inducing itchy fire that consumed his arm. Oh… his arm. He remembered seeing the flesh seemingly melt away from the bone, leaving the appendage stripped almost bare.

He raised his arm in front of his face in the dark, examining it closely. Everything seemed to be there, fleshy fingers and all. When he poked the palm with another finger he found the skin was as tender as if he’d scrubbed at it with lye and a bristle brush. But hey, it was there, and that was the important part.

He was halfway to standing before he realized that’s what the whispers were telling him to do. Stand up. Walk away. Go into the Badlands. Leave the others behind.

Only, that was a bad idea wasn’t it? The last time he’d heard those whispers they made him touch the bones in the box. He’d lost an arm… only, now it was back?

Others whispers joined in, asking him where he was going, why was he leaving, he should go back. Go back? Clayton stopped walking. He didn’t remember having started. He blinked and looked around. He was far from the tree, headed away from camp and out into the Badlands.

“Where are you going?” A solid voice, not a whispers, asked from the night.

“I don’t… I’m not sure. They told me to go?”

“Who told you?”

Clayton squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed at the sides of his head. “The, uh. The whispers. Can you hear them?”

“I can. Don’t listen to them.”

“Erg. I don’t… I can’t…”

“Look at me.”

Clayton turned, trying to see who was speaking to him. He saw nothing, until a shape moved in the night. A large, hulking shape. It took another step closer, and Clayton could clearly make out a Gargoyle.

“Look at me,” it told him. “You should go back. If they tell you to leave, do not listen. It is dangerous.”

“How?” Clayton asked, aghast. “Why can I understand you?”

“That,” Clementine spoke from behind him, “Is a very good question.” Clayton turned, and Clem’s fist put him back into quiet unconsciousness.

Katherine looked down at Clayton in the light of the morning sun. “He was what?”

“Talking to a goyle out there,” she repeated, gesturing to the open expanse of the Badlands. “One of yours, thankfully. Speaking perfect First Words.”

“First of all,” Katherine corrected her, “They’re not mine. They just happen to be on our side right now. Either of you ever hear of somebody just up and learning how to speak to Spirits like that?”

Lonesome raised his eyebrows. “Overnight? No, never.”

“It’s not like Spirit Talking is something you just know how to do,” Clem added. “It takes time to learn, and the Spirits are the ones doing the teaching.”

“Which makes this a might worrisome,” Katherine mused. “The goyle he was talking to said it was the Spirits calling Clayton out into the Badlands. What if, when they were fixing his arm, they did something else to him? Made it so he could hear and understand them?”

“Not saying it isn’t possible,” Lonesome told her, “But I just don’t see why they would. They’ve got two Talkers right here who can understand them.”

Hawkins ambled over to where the three of them stood in a small circle. “Arbiter? He’s awake. He tried to say something, but I don’t understand a bit of it.”

They were keeping Clayton under close watch now. Deputy Walsh sat across from him, rifle on his knees. The moment Clayton saw them he started babbling. Katherine had been around Lonesome long enough to recognize First Words when she heard them.

“Merciful Mother,” Lonesome breathed.

“He’s talking like he was born to it,” Clem added. “Sounds just like… aw hell.”

“What?” Katherine asked, frowning.

“Sounds just like a Spirit,” Lonesome provided.

“Worse than that,” Clem told him. “He sounds just like the thing that killed Dorean. When we talked to it in it’s prison it spoke First Words, but with an accent. One just like he’s got.”

“Yeah,” Lonesome nodded. “I hear it now.”

“Are you telling me,” Katherine asked, “That the thing we need to kill is talking through him?”

Lonesome and Clem shared a thoughtful look. “No,” Clem said at last. “I mean, I don’t think that’s what this is.”

“But who knows what sort of side effects there are for getting chewed on by some ascended evil God Spirit.”

Katherine looked to Clayton, who had stopped trying to talk to them while they had their discussion. “Is he dangerous?” she asked.

“In that he can ask the Spirits to do things, like we can,” Lonesome answered. “But there’s a difference between knowing the words and knowing how to use them. Just cause he can speak the language doesn’t mean he’s all that persuasive, and the Spirits can be particular about how they’re spoken to.”

“So we don’t need to gag him,” Katherine followed up.

“Wouldn’t call it necessary,” Lonesome decided. “Still two of us and one of him, after all.”

“All right then,” Katherine said. “So what’s he saying?”

“For starters it sounds like knows exactly know much trouble he’s in here,” Clem said. “And it sounds like he can still understand us just fine. Ain’t that right, Clayton?”

Clayton took his cue and rattled off some more words Katherine couldn’t understand.

“Yup,” Clem confirmed. “He just can’t talk in anything other than First Words.”

Katherine considered the situation. “All right, we’ve wasted too much time here as it is. If he’s no danger then let’s get moving. Lonesome, keep an eye on him. Don’t take any chances.”

Gravik took them to the cave filled butte where Hevak and so many other goyles lived. If the place had reminded Katherine of an insect hive before, it was more so now. Goyles were everywhere, many of them armed with spears and clubs. Word must have reached ahead of the group, though, since none of them looked twice at the group of humans in their midst.

Hevak met them at the entrance to the caves. The Speaker greeted them in goyle speak, this time forgoing whatever trick it had used to allow Katherine to understand last time. Lonesome handled all the speaking while Clem hung back and stayed next to Clayton.

“Don’t you worry,” she told him. “Whatever’s got into you, we can set it right. The goyles know what they’re about.” He just nodded morosely, having decided not to speak unless he needed to.

After introductions and an explanation of the situation Hevak led them all into the butte. They were split into groups and bidden to stay in separate spaces. Clem and Clayton were put into one. Hawkins, Walsh, and Carter were put into another. Lonesome and Katherine were taken together with Hevak. Like before the tunnels twisted and turned so much that Katherine was completely lost, and the only illumination was the soft glow of the strange mineral deposits in the walls.

The air got heavier the further they went, becoming dense and musty. They saw fewer and fewer goyles in the tunnels. Between that and the feel of the air Katherine got the feeling they were going somewhere deep inside the butte, a place even those living here had mostly forgotten about.

When they came to it the first thing Katherine noticed was the door. An actual square door, on hinges, moulded into the rock.The carvings on it reminded her of the door to Dorean’s great hall, and for the first time she wondered if the goyles weren’t the original inhabitants of the space. Hevak opened it for them by placing its formidable claws between the door and the frame and pulling. It was a feat Katherine was certain she could never manage on her own. Given a long enough crowbar, maybe, but definitely not with her bare hands.

She hadn’t thought it possible, but the air beyond the door was even more musty than that of the hallway outside. Air aside, the chamber beyond was simply amazing. The veins of glowing mineral that ran in traces across the walls converged at a single point on the ceiling above, and from that point hung an immense crystalline structure that served as a natural chandelier. Between it and the walls the room was brightly lit, with not a shadow cast.

“It looks like a temple of some kind,” Lonesome observed. Katherine agreed. But if it was a shrine, to what gods? Not any she knew of. Statues rose from floor to ceiling, depicting alien beings with strange proportions eerily similar to the thing she’d seen absorbing Dorean. Between statues the walls were inscribed with murals depicting what must have been what the goyles described as the people who came before. They were shown commanding spirits, using them to build their great city, destroying their enemies, and more. In one she could swear there was a scene that looked like they were creating large, blocky people that slowly became more refined until, at last, they looked like Gargoyles. And as she followed the murals around the room they culminated in what had to have been the ascension – an entire people attempting a jump to godhood. In the mural they succeeded. In reality she knew it had gone somewhat differently.

In Which The Villain Wins?

Hey there! New update for this week ends on an appropriately ominous note. At 1477 words it brings the story total to 53844. Even as I was writing this update I was noting all the changes I wanted to make when I edit. This whole endgame needs tweaking, I think. Still, not bad. And it’s actually been written, which is the important part. Can’t edit it if you don’t write it in the first place!

 

“Clementine!” Dorean bellowed, pausing his litany of First Words to summon her aid.

“A little busy!” she shouted back from where she was facing off against Lonesome. The two Spirit Talkers had untangled from one another at the bottom of the stairs and entered a stalemate of sorts. Neither was close enough to the sword that they could get to it before the other, and wrestling over a sharp weapon seemed like a decidedly bad idea to everyone involved. That left summoning Spirits for help, which was also something neither of them wanted to happen. Clementine had tried it just after extricating herself from Lonesome, and he’d tackled her again. She’d gotten out of it, if he kept doing that she’d never be able to have a decent conversation with a Spirit. That meant to supernatural assistance, and that in turn left the two of them facing each other down.

“Don’t make this any harder than it has to be, Clem,” he tried reasoning with her again. “Just give yourself up.”

“Ain’t gonna happen, Coop. Why don’t you put away the shiny armor and just throw in with us? You know how this is gonna go. You may as well be on the winning side.”

“I do know how this is gonna go,” he admitted. “But it’s not like you think. You might win this fight, but then what? You get the power of gods? That’s a quick paddle toward a rushin’ waterfall, Clem.”

“Lonesome!” Katherine called from across the room. She and Carter had both gone in separate directions to get away from one of the rock monsters, and she’d been the unlucky one. “Quit your jawing and do something!”

“Better see to it, Coop,” Clementine told him mockingly. “Your girlfriend needs help.”

“I don’t want to hurt you, Clem.”

“You tried to throw me down the stairs!” she exclaimed in exasperation.

“And you were gonna stab me,” he retorted, “so let’s call it even.”

“Lonesome!” Katherine shouted, “Jawing!”

He kept his eyes locked on Clem, doing his best to ignore Katherine, as much as it tore at him. “Just going by what I’ve seen, Clem. You’ve already got blood on your hands. Dorean has shown he’s willing to kill to get what he wants. Say the two of you get the power you’re after. You think everyone is just going to do what you say? You’re going to need to show you mean business. There’ll be a sea of blood before it all settles out, and you’ll both be bathed in it. There won’t be time to decide who deserves it and who doesn’t, not chance to save someone like Clayton. And once Dorean’s had a taste of it what makes you think he’s gonna stop? What makes you think you will? Working with an Arbiter I’ve seen men who got to enjoy it. To need it. One of them was a Spirit Talker. Is that what you want, Clementine? To be a cure that’s worse than the disease?”

Her expression rapidly transitioned from insulted to angry to horrified as what he’d said sunk in. “I can keep him in check,” she said. “I can keep it from getting out of hand.”

“Take a quick look around,” Lonesome told her. “I think it’s already gotten there.”

She did look, silently taking in the rampaging rock monsters and the posse as it scrambled to stay clear of them, trying in vain to get close enough to Dorean to put him down. After a second she set her jaw. “Sorry Coop, it’s too late for – hey!”

Roots, rough and fibrous, had sprouted from the ground and begun to wrap around her feet. She looked back at Lonesome to see his hand grasping one of his many trinkets, lips moving quickly but silently as he whispered to the spirit who lived within.

With a timbre of desperation in her words she tried to convince it to stop, but it wasn’t in the mood to listen. It knew Lonesome, had lived in the piece of wood he now held for years, and was more inclined to listen to him than Clem. And so, despite her objections, it continued accelerating the growth of the ancient, gnarled roots from below. They wrapped up her legs, trapping her in place, and began working their way up her middle. She called out for another Spirit to help, but they were either too busy working the rock monsters for Dorean or not in the mood to interfere.

“Coop!” she abandoned the Spirits to appeal directly to him. “Don’t do this! You can’t kill me, Coop, it’s not right!”

Though the words brought a worried frown to Lonesome’s face, he didn’t stop speaking. The roots continued their growth until they wrapped around her neck and face, firmly lodging in her mouth so she couldn’t speak. Eyes wide with panic she waited for them to constrict, to crush the life from her in one agonizing moment. But it never came. They stopped growing once her mouth was covered, leaving her free to breathe through her nose.

“Now you just stay right there,” Lonesome told her before turning and heading right for her cavalry saber. After scooping it up from the ground he pivoted smartly and headed for Dorean, speaking aloud to the Spirits that animated the rock monsters in the hopes they’d listen to him and go do something else.

Meanwhile, Clayton had passed through the door behind the throne. Beyond was a corridor that went both left and right. He stopped, unsure of which way to go but nervously not wanting to stay put in case one of Dorean’s rock monsters came after him. He wasn’t entirely certain how it would fit through the door, but it wasn’t something he wanted to find out.

High set windows afforded enough light to see by, and Clayton scrutinized first one way and then another. Footprints in the dust and dirt on the floor provided a clue. The hallway to the right looked more heavily traveled, so that was the direction he set out in.

The corridor opened into many empty, long disused rooms. Many showed signs of at least some activity, as if someone had gone in and poked around, but Clayton spared them little more than a curious glance. He followed the corridor through twists and turns, until at last he arrived at a room that looked as if it had been designed as a temple. The stone door was as carefully balanced as the one that led into the Great Hall and equally covered in carved reliefs. Inside, more elegant columns reached for a ceiling that was domed and decoratively carved itself. And in the middle of the room was a waist high stone platform. On the floor beside it was the lockbox, and atop it’s flat stone surface were the bones that had once occupied the box. Laid out in careful order, they formed the frame of something almost human.

He stared in awe for a moment, then remembered why he was there. There was nothing at hand he could use to crush the bones easily, but maybe that didn’t need to happen just yet. If he scooped them all into the box and brought it back to the fight in the Great Hall, perhaps the simply threat of destruction would be enough. As his hand neared the bones, a strange feeling of unease descended. The hair on his outstretched arm rose, prickly and uncomfortable. When his fingers brushed a femur it was almost as if an electrical current shot up his hand. He jerked back, eyes wide, and a voice began to whisper in his ear.

As one, the rock golems stopped moving. Mid action, the animated earth simply froze into immutable rock once again. And then, as gravity once again embraced them, they began to fall apart.

“Ha!” Katherine shouted into the sound of falling rock. “Good job, Lonesome!” She started towards him, revolver pointed squarely at Dorean, who was slack jawed and wide eyed with surprise. But then she realized Lonesome wore a similar look, and stopped. “Talk to me, Cooper,” she ordered him.

“They’re gone,” he told her, eyes darting around the Great Hall as if searching for something. “The Spirits just… up and left. All of ‘em at once.”

“So, not you?”

“No,” he shook his head. “Definitely not me. Something’s wrong, Kat. Really wrong.”

Dorean began to chuckle. It was a low, throaty sound that bubbled up from his throat and burst into the air with dark merriment. Katherine glared at him, and seriously considered pulling the trigger, but she didn’t have many bullets left and didn’t particularly feel like wasting one just yet. “Something funny?” she demanded.

“It may not look it yet,” he told her with a toothy grin, “But I believe I’ve just won.”

 

The Boss Fight

I feel like this latest update is a scene from a computer game, or possibly a tabletop RPG. You’ve gotten to the big baddie, he’s monologued, now kill him and take his stuff! Clunky fight scene is clunky. Also, I really want to go back and change things. For example, Clayton needs to still have that gorram necklace for some of this to make sense. I don’t know why I did away with it. Ah well, noted for editing. This update is 2,048 words long.

 

“Then explain it to me,” he growled. “Because right now it doesn’t make a lick of sense.”

Dorean took up the burden of explanation. “Army after army sent into the Badlands,” he said, waving a hand out for emphasis. “Army after army that failed to return, slaughtered by Gargoyles who suffered few losses. The bodies of countless soldiers left to rot in the sun. And yet we persisted. Why? Because theirs were lands we wanted for ourselves. Because we are arrogant. Because we are greedy. And because we think that with enough violence and bloodshed we can accomplish any goal. You don’t think the powers that be will simply stay content with their failure to subdue the Badlands, do you Cooper? Sooner or later there will be more armies, more war, more pointless death. You saw it first hand. Each and every one of us watched helplessly as those men went to their deaths.”

“And you can stop it from happening again, can you?” It was clear Lonesome didn’t believe it in the least.

Despite his open skepticism, Dorean nodded firmly. “Yes!”

“Bullshit,” Lonesome snorted. “All I see are more bodies in the dirt, killed by goyles. The only difference is that this time their blood is on your hands. Both of you,” he added with an accusatory glare at Clem.

“They were bandits,” Clem tried to dismiss the glare, but there was a trace of guilt on her face as she said it. “They’d killed their fare share of men for stupid, petty reasons. They just got what was coming to them.”

“Those men were my friends!” Clayton interjected from the foot of the stairs. He looked up at Clem with an expression that was part wounded, part angry. “They didn’t deserve to die like that. And if they did, then I should be out there in pieces along with them.”

“No,” Clem took a step down towards him. “You’re not like them, Clayton.”

“I killed a man!” He trembled a little, distraught but defiant.

Lonesome looked down the stairs at Clayton, noting that the others had started to spread out below. Katherine and Carter were beginning to circle around to the left, while Hawkins moved right and Walsh stayed put, rifle pointed leisurely at the floor. “You see what happens when you play at being a god, Clem?” Lonesome asked, looking back up at her and Dorean. “You can’t pass judgement like that. It’s not what we’re here for. What do you think is going to happen when you have your army of Spirits? How many people are you gonna judge wrong?”

“Army of Spirits?” Dorean intoned, brow furrowing deeply. “What are you talking about, Cooper?”

“Don’t play dumb,” Lonesome told him. “I know what was in that lockbox, Dorean. I know about the people who came before, and how they could control the Spirits.”

“You’ve got it wrong,” Clem told him, tearing her gaze away from Clayton with visible difficulty.

“Did he tell you that?” Lonesome asked, tilting his head towards Dorean.

“I did, in fact, and I wasn’t lying. No matter what you might think of me, Cooper, I have only the best of intentions. No, I don’t meant to create an army of Spirits to do my bidding. Did you hear nothing I said before? An army has but one purpose, and I have no stomach for conquest. My goal here is entirely different. It is true,” he pulled at his beard with one hand. “There was a people who lived here long ago. They were indeed able to command the Spirits, but that is an accomplishment of peripheral benefit. No, I intend to emulate their greatest success – to become, myself, one with the Spirits. Think of it, Cooper! With such power at our hands we could render the armies of the world useless! Unable to fight us, what other option would there be but for the governments of the world to accept our call for disarmament? We could end war in its entirety!”

“Then the joke’s on you,” Lonesome told him grimly. “They never succeeded. The people who came before tried their ascension and vanished. Give up this crazy scheme and let us take you in peacefully.”

“Ah,” Dorean smiled as if he was privy to a joke no one else would understand. “But once again, Cooper, you are wrong. The first people succeeded. Their ascension was a success! But they’d made the mistake so many make. They wanted power for the sake of power, so they might conquer and rule. In commanding the Spirits they made enemies of them, and when their ritual came to fruition the Spirits saw an opportunity to strike. The first people became Spirits themselves, but at the moment of their transformation they were vulnerable. The Spirits turned on them, binding and imprisoning them where they could do no harm.”

Lonesome swallowed nervously, throat suddenly dry. “How do you know that?” he asked, fearing he already knew the answer.

“Because I found one!” Dorean crowed. “And it has whispered secrets to me through the bars of its prison. Alas, communicating in this manner is tiring, and much that it says is lost along the way. But there is a better way.”

“A better way?” Lonesome echoed.

“The bones,” Clem spoke up. “If we can reverse the ritual, bind it back into a mortal vessel, it can tell us everything we need to know. Took a long time, but it taught us enough to do that much.”

“What?” Lonesome’s face twisted in disbelief. “Why in the world would it want to do that?”

“To be free,” Dorean told him. “Bound once again to the mortal world its prison would no longer contain it. And once we knew what we needed, we would let it go. We tried everything,” he revealed. “Summoning the ascended to an item was fruitless, as were constructs of wood or stone. Animals, living or dead, could not contain it. We even found a willing Gargoyle, but to no avail. Humans, likewise, would not work, be they living or dead. All that was left was that which had held it originally, the mortal remains of those who came before. We searched for so long… and then along came Haversham & Black’s expeditions.They solved that problem for us.”

The click of a revolver being cocked reached Lonesome’s ear. “Well, that’s fascinating and all,” Katherine spoke up. “But why don’t we just cut to the chase here. I’m giving you one chance to surrender and come with us.”

“Or what, Arbiter?” Dorean asked, one bushy red eyebrow lifting in curiosity.

“Or I shoot you and take your corpse back instead.”

Dorean favored her with a look of distaste, then turned back to Lonesome. “And I give you one chance go join us, Cooper. Help us usher in a new age of peace.”

Lonesome looked to Katherine, and that brief moment of eye contact was all they needed. “Yeah,” he looked back at Dorean. “I don’t think so.”

“A shame,” Dorean sighed. “Clementine, I believe it’s time our guests were leaving.”

The report of Katherine’s revolver nearly obscured Dorean’s last word, coming as it did at the same time. Her threat to shoot him had not been an idle one. Even so she had suspected it would do no good, and that suspicion was borne out as the bullet careened wildly off target and embedded itself into the stone floor some distance away.

Though it had failed to harm Dorean, the served as a signal to the others. Abruptly the calm, if tense, atmosphere of conversation was gone. Even before the sound of the bullet’s ricochet had faded a chaotic frenzy of activity had begun. Katherine was firing at Dorean again as she walked sideways up the stairs. Carter was at her side pulling the trigger as fast as his finger would allow. None of the bullets they fired found their marks, but it was only a matter of time before the Spirits lost interest in swatting aside small but fast little bits of metal.

Dorean knew this, and his voice boomed out through the hall as he spoke to them, seeking their aid against his assailants. Mounds of earth and rock heaved up from the floor at his command. But rather than being used as projectiles, as Lonesome feared, the mounds took on a hauntingly humanoid shape. Arms, legs, torsos, even squat round heads. Dorean had called up bodyguards. Likely created some time earlier, they now responded to Dorean’s call for help. And they would continue responding as long as Dorean continued to convince Spirits to animate them.

Lonesome wasn’t about to let that happen. Heedless of the randomly diverting bullets and the newly formed earthen guards he lunged forward, aiming to tackle the mad Spirit Talker and gag him.

Clementine wasn’t about to let that happen. She drew her sword and stepped between the two, but didn’t have a chance to swing. Lonesome’s momentum carried him into her, and he accepted the change of targets with enthusiasm. He’d never been a man for physical violence, but a combination of anger and the kill or be killed spike of adrenaline that came from having a sword waved at him made it a lot easier to embrace. He grabbed Clem by the shirtfront, heaved her off of her feet, and twisted to throw her down the stairs. It was an act he regretted as soon as he started it, but he’d have to deal with that later. All that mattered now was stopping Dorean.

Clem, however, was not going to let herself get tossed about so easily. She wrapped her legs around Lonesome and caught his wrist with her free hand. She’d hoped only to keep from being thrown to the ground. Instead, she took Lonesome down with her. The two of them tumbled over the hard and unforgiving stone stairs in a tangle of limbs and curses. When they hit the bottom, Clem’s cavalry saber skittered away across the floor, out of reach of both of them.

Nearby, Deputy Walsh chambered another round as a spent casing made music against the floor. It only took one shot at a creature made of living rock to realize another would be futile, but he was at a loss for what else to do. Still, he’d managed to get its attention, and how it was coming his way. “Crap,” he muttered.

Hawkins was flanking Dorean, creating a crossfire with Katherine and Carter on the other side, but the Spirits didn’t seem to mind. They kept swatting bullets aside no matter which direction they came from. He saw the rock monster closing on Walsh and switched targets, peppering the creature with bullets that did nothing more than pockmark its rough exterior. “Aaron!” he called, “Move left, Aaron, I’ll try and draw its attention!”

And in the middle of it all, as the rock guardians began to move against the attackers, Clayton Wells stood at a loss for what to do. Gunfire and his own heartbeat both pounded in his ears. He had no gun, wasn’t even sure it would do any good. Clem’s sabre had come to rest near him, but if a gun was useless a sword was doubly so. So what, then, was he to do? Run? He was tempted, but for some reason he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He needed to stay, to help.

The lockbox. All of this was happening because of the lockbox and what was inside it. Where was it? If he could get his hands on the bones, threaten to destroy them, maybe Dorean and Clem would surrender. There was a doorway back behind Dorean’s ersatz throne. Maybe it was in there?

His feet were moving before he’d even really thought about setting them in motion. Through the chaos he ran flat out for the door. Past a rock monster, up the stairs, past Dorean and the throne…

Dorean turned as Clayton passed him. It seemed as if he’d been expecting another attack, and was puzzled to see this was not the case. Then, as Clayton’s path became clear, his eye widened. He knew what the bandit was going for, and his reaction gave Clayton hope that the plan might work.

Breaking 50k Words

With this update I break 50k words on the my fantasy western, which I’m provisionally calling “Goyle Country” because reasons. Here’s another 2,234 words for a total story count of 50314. Not much longer now, eh?

 

“Not that I’m eager to test that, mind.”

Walsh snorted. “Thanks for the vote of confidence, Walter.”

The place where Clayton’s gang had been ambushed looked a little different than the last time he’d seen it. The scavengers had done their work, leaving little but cracked bones, torn cloth, and bits of inedible equipment that had nevertheless been chewed on just to make sure. Despite the mess there was still enough left to account for Clayton’s story.

Katherine surveyed the area, grimacing a little at the leftover carnage. “Lonesome?” she asked, hands on her hips.

The Spirit Talker was perched on a nearby rock, eyes squinted despite the shade of his hat. He gave a short nod and launched into a conversation with the local Spirits. While he questioned them Hawkins, Walsh, and Carter took to keeping an eye on the horizon. Despite their supposedly friendly goyle allies none of them truly trusted the natives to warn them of an impending attack. Clayton sat dejectedly off to one side, close enough to the others that he felt safe but far enough away that the remains of his friends were comfortably distant. He looked determinedly away from them, searching for anything that could distract his attention.

Behind him Katherine walked across the sun baked dirt in a slow, deliberate fashion. Something had caught her eye, and as she dug it out with the toe of her boot she found it was a small nugget of gold. She dropped into a crouch and searched the area more closely. Scattered around there was still quite a bit of gold to be found, likely the remnants of the pay the other gang members had received.

“Why would Clementine just leave all this lying around?” she wondered aloud. If the Spirit Talker was working with Dorean to silence Clayton and the others, surely part of her task would also be repossessing their substantial payment. Katherine picked one small nugget from the dirt and held it up, lightly blowing the dust from its surface. It certainly looked real. She idly scratched at its surface with one grimy fingernail.

Clem, of course, had not entirely fulfilled her task, had she? Clayton had gotten away. Had something happened while the reluctant bandit was unconscious, something that had also prevented her from collecting the gold?

“Kat,” Lonesome summoned her.

“What’ve you got, Lonesome? Spirits feeling chatty and helpful today?”

“Yes, thankfully.” He tilted his head in Clayton’s direction. “Our new friend here has a bit of explaining to do.”

“Oh?”

“Well, it went down something like this – Clem was smart. She had the Spirits keep the goyle’s scent hidden so they could get nice and close without spooking the horses too much. When the time came they came in hard. Clayton got thrown from his horse, and slammed hard by a goyle. From the sounds of it he was dead meat, unconscious and helpless. Until Clem intervened. She made the goyle back down, and once the others were dead she made sure Clayton was still breathing. Didn’t go so far as to heal him any, but still. Between that and her giving him that necklace…”

“She wanted to make sure he got out of the Badlands alive,” Katherine finished. “Or at least give him a fighting chance. She’s probably the reason the goyles didn’t go after him later, too. But why?”

“Maybe she got a soft spot for him,” Lonesome suggested. “Goodness knows it sounds like she could use one these days.” He sighed and ran a hand through his whiskers. “I don’t know, Kat. This whole thing seems out of sorts. Ambushing people? Purposefully setting goyles on them? That doesn’t sound like the Clem I remember. We had enough of that during the war. All of us did. To go and do it on purpose…”

“People change, Lonesome,” Katherine’s voice was gentle but firm. “She’s been out here a long time. Who knows what’s happened since then?”

“I may not know, but I’ll tell you this – I aim to find out.”

 

**********

 

“That’s it,” Clayton confirmed, his words clipped. “That’s the place.”

Katherine regarded the city in the distance in a kind of quiet awe. She’d never imagined something like this could exist out in the Badlands. “Alright,” she said at last. “If that’s where Dorean’s at, Clem and their goyles can’t be too far away.” And yet, they’d gotten this close without trouble of any kind. It was too good to be true, and that meant it was probably a trap. “Lonesome?”

The Spirit Talker shook his head ever so slightly. “The goyles don’t want anything to do with the place. If the ones working with Clem were going to hit us they would have done it by now. And we better hope that’s true,” he added. “Because Gravik and his followers won’t go in with us. That place has a hell of a taboo on it.”

“What about the Spirits? Could Dorean and Clem have set up a trap of some sort?”

“I’ve talked to the local Spirits and sent some of my own off to have a look. Looks clear,” he decided with a taught smile. She could tell he also thought it was too good to be true. But what else was there to do other than go forward?

Katherine straightened in her saddle and narrowed her eyes at the city. “Lonesome,” she asked somberly, “If it comes down to it… what’re our odds? The two of them against the five of us?”

Lonesome blew a sight out through puffed cheeks. “Depends on how much they’ve got set up ahead of time. It’s one thing to convince the Spirits to do something on the fly. That takes time. But if you work everything out with them beforehand all it will take is the word go and it’ll happen. If we’ve got ‘em by surprise, and I don’t think for a moment that we do, we can take ‘em easy. But if they’ve got something worked up… well, that might be a little harder. I’m good, Kat, but I’m not that good.”

“Could we do it?”

“Does it matter?” he asked pointedly. “We’re gonna try anyway, aren’t we?”

“Yeah,” she nodded. “We are. I just wanted to know what to expect.”

“We’re going up against two talented Spirit Talkers who’ve had plenty of time to hole up. You should expect things to go wrong.”

“Fair enough. Clayton?” she asked, turning to face the former bandit. “You sure you want to ride in there with us?”

Clayton set his jaw, catching the subtext of the comment easily enough. It read, you’re not planning on switching sides, are you?

“I’m sure,” he told her. “Clem might’ve helped me out – probably more than I deserved – but what she did to Morgan, Thomas, and Slim? Hell, even Brodie didn’t deserve that. She’ll pay for it.”

Katherine pressed her lips together and narrowed her eyes ever so slightly. To Clayton it felt as if she was searching his very soul, and it made him shudder. But at last she nodded. With a thoroughly unnecessary flourish she pulled a cigar from somewhere inside her duster. It was a little mashed up from all the rough and tumble she’d gone through lately, but still more or less intact. Its condition certainly didn’t seem to bother her in the slightest.  “Alright boys,” she called out as she stuck it between her teeth and lit the end with a match, “I’m out of whisky and this is my last cigar. Let’s get this done and go home.”

The city gates stood open just as Clayton remembered, and as the posse rode through the gatehouse he couldn’t stop himself from looking for hidden defenders. He’d never been one for claustrophobia, but the thought of getting stuck in here with nowhere to run made his heart race and his palms sweat. It was a relief to get out of it.

“Clayton?” Katherine prompted, having noticed his reaction. “Everything alright?”

“Yeah,” he lied. “I just… don’t like being in there,” he tossed his head back to indicate the gatehouse.

“Fair enough,” she allowed. “Where to now?”

He gave her the route they’d taken to Dorean’s hall as best he could remember it, and as they came into sight of the Great Hall’s flowing architecture there was one thing that immediately stood out. A horse, likely Clem’s, was tied up in front of it. The ornate doors stood open, as if inviting the group in. Everyone had a weapon out, eyes searching for signs of hidden attackers. But there was only the open door, wide and inviting.

“What do you think?” Katherine asked, leaning over to put her head near Lonesome’s.

“I think,” he mused in a thoughtful tone, “If there are any hostile Spirits here, they’re being extremely quiet. As far as I can tell there’s nothing ready to spring on us. But I don’t for a moment think it’s safe.”

“Agreed. Carter, you and I are going in first. Assume there’s two people in there waiting to shoot us. Hawkins, you cover Lonesome. The two of you come in after us. Clayton, hang back with Deputy Walsh. Freckles, make sure you and that rifle have our backs. I don’t want anything you can kill with a bullet sneaking up on us.”

“What if it’s a goyle?” Walsh asked.

“Assume it’s hostile and do your best to take it down.”

She looked to Carter, who grimaced but nodded that he was ready. Then they were in motion.

It took a frustratingly long time for Katherine’s eyes to adjust to the more dimly lit interior of the hall. Even before that process had finished she’d picked out the twisting columns and moved towards the closest one for use as cover. Carter had the same idea. Peering around the stone pillar she saw the hall was huge, but mostly empty. Mostly. At the back of the hall, lounged in his stone throne, was the man who must be Dorean. A woman Katherine guessed to be Clem stood beside him.

“Ah,” the man’s voice boomed from the far side of the room, though it sounded as if he hadn’t strained his voice above anything more than the volume of a casual conversation. “You’ve come at last.”

The words, so similar to how Dorean had greeted Brodie and the gang when they’d first arrived, sent a shiver down Clayton’s spine. He moved behind cover next to Carter. He expected Lonesome to do the same next to Katherine, but the Spirit Talker defied that expectation by striding purposefully forward, past the Arbiter and towards the makeshift throne, the myriad of trinkets about his person swaying chaotically.

“Dorean,” he raised his voice so it very nearly filled the hall as the other man’s had.

Katherine stepped out from behind her pillar to follow, face set with a hard expression of disapproval, and the others gathered to follow in Lonesome’s wake.

As he neared Dorean the more bedraggled Spirit Talker sat up straighter, recognition flickering in his blue eyes. “Cooper,” he made the word sound like a welcome and an accusation all at the same time. “Well, well.”

“Hey Coop,” Clem added, her words carrying an air of comfortable familiarity that struck an odd chord with Katherine. They’d never been anything, Lonesome had said. And yet, the way Clementine said those two simple words was enough to make Katherine wonder.

“Clementine,” he acknowledged her without losing any of his confrontational air.

“And you,” Dorean added, eyes spearing Clayton. “Welcome back, Mr. Wells.”

“That’s some nerve, ain’t it?” Lonesome snapped. “Don’t pretend you didn’t try to have him and all his friends killed, Dorean.”

“I didn’t try, no,” Dorean said evenly. “I did. And yet here he stands. It takes little effort to be polite, Cooper. And one could argue politeness is more than warranted for a man I wanted dead. Make no mistake, I applaud his tenacity, however it was he managed to survive.” This last he said with the barest of glances at Clem, who simply shrugged a little.

Lonesome quickly ascended the stairs that led to the throne’s dias, not content to have Dorean looking down at him from on high. Dorean rose from his throne to meet him, and the two men stood facing one another in a silent battle of wills.

“You’re looking well, Cooper,” Dorean said at last, voice a touch softer. “A bit more weathered than last I saw you, but well. I’d hoped another Spirit Talker would find us here, you know. I never dreamed it would be you.”

“I thought you were dead,” Lonesome spat accusingly. “Both of you,” he added with a sharp look at Clem. “But here you are, in the middle of bloody nowhere, in a city that shouldn’t exist, playing with things you shouldn’t touch, and using goyles to kill people. Goyles, damnit! Did you learn nothing from the war!”

Lonesome vibrated with rage, hands squeezed into fists at his sides as if he were holding back the urge to physically attack. Clem, with an eye towards the posse gathered at the foot of the stairs, stepped closer. Her hand raised slightly, as if she was going to reach out to Lonesome, but it dropped back to her side.

“You don’t understand, Coop,” she told him. “The war is why we’re doing this.”

Update for 2/13

Here’s a longer than usual update – 2776 words, which brings the story total to 48080. In plot terms, you can just about see the finish line!

He’d finished and was wiping the dribbles from his chin when the woman who’d introduced herself as Katherine crouched next to him. “So, Clayton,” she started. One hand gestured to a patch of ground not too far away, where gold nuggets were conspicuously strewn about the dirt. “That’s a lot of yellow you were dragging around the Badlands.” She made the question in her words obvious.

“It’s not stolen,” he old her, and cringed a little at how guilty the words sounded even to his own ears. “It was payment,” he added, which only made things worse. The moment those words were out of his mouth he wanted to kick himself. Now she’d want to know what for, and there would be no good answer to that.

“That’s an awful big payday,” she observed. Again, the inherent question didn’t need to be voiced. He grew taciturn in reply, not wanting to say anything else that might get him in trouble. These seemed like friendly folk, but though they hadn’t said as much Clayton suspected they were Arbiters, or some other agents of the law. “Must’ve been pretty important,” Katherine added when it was clear he wasn’t going to carry his end of the conversation. “I mean, here you are,” she flung one arm wide to encompass the whole of the Badlands, “neck deep in Goyle Country. No horse. No gun. No supplies. But the one thing you’re holding onto is that pile of gold, like an anchor around your neck. Might as well have been tied to a noose for all the good it was doing you out here. Tell you the truth, I’m pretty curious how you stayed alive so long.”

Clayton shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.”

Lonesome, who’d been slowly pacing nearby and muttering to himself, chose that moment to join in. “I think I can give a better answer than that, Kat. Our friend here has got himself a friendly Spirit. You talk to the Spirits, Clayton?”

He shook his head, wondering what Lonesome was going on about.

“No, I didn’t think you did. Which makes your helper here that much more interesting.”

“Interesting how?” Katherine asked, and gave Clayton a scrutinizing look. He got the feeling it was something she’d practiced often. It made him even more uneasy than he had been.

“You know how this works,” Lonesome told her in brief. “You want the Spirits to do something you ask them to do it. Even if you convince one to stick around and live in something you carry with you, you’ve still got to ask it to do things for you. Doesn’t make it any easier, mind, just means you’ve always got one around. But Clayton’s invisible friend? It seems… unusually attached. And unusually helpful. I had a brief chat with it, and for some reason it seems to think its mission in life is to keep our new friend here alive. Spirit Talkers don’t even get that sort of treatment.”

“So how about it, Clayton?” Katherine asked. “How’d you manage such an impressive feat?”

“I have no idea what you two are talking about,” he insisted. “I don’t know anything about Spirit Talking.”

Katherine fixed him with a level gaze. “What it Clementine? Did she do it?”

Clayton felt his stomach sink, and though he’d just downed a full canteen of water his mouth was suddenly bone dry. They knew. They were Arbiters after all, and he was in a lot of trouble. But then a thought struck him. He could turn this around. He knew where they’d taken that box of bones, knew where to find Dorean and Clementine. They were the ones behind all this, and after what Clem had done to Brodie and the others, what she’d almost done to him? Well, the thought of turning her in didn’t give Clayton much pause. Especially if it meant he could get out of this a free man.

“Even Clem couldn’t do something like this,” Lonesome muttered, saving Clayton from having to come up with an answer himself. “Could she?”

The goyles had stood idly by this entire time, quietly keeping watch and letting the humans attend to their business. But now one broke its stoic silence. It approached Lonesome and growled something at him, a sound that was low and menacing to Clayton’s ears. Lonesome, on the other hand, raised his eyebrows. The two of them, goyle and sun tanned human, both looked back at Clayton. “She give you anything?” Lonesome asked.

Clayton was about to say no, but the eerie cold of the medallion stopped him short. He’d gotten so used to it during his trudge through the Badlands, only now did he realize that it had never warmed to his body temperature. With one hand he fished it out from under his shirt and pulled it free. “This,” he said, holding it forth. “She gave me this. I have no idea what it is.”

The goyle snorted at the sight of it, lips curling into a silent snarl. Lonesome took the item and turned it over between his fingers. He spoke the goyle using the same language Clayton had heard Clementine use to talk to the Spirits, and the two of them had a brief conversation. When it was concluded Lonesome handed over the medallion and the goyle stalked away.

“What was that all about?” Katherine inquired.

“I don’t know how, but that Spirit that’s been helping Clayton? It’s bound to that medallion, forced to help whoever carries it.” The look of disgust he wore clearly indicated his feelings about that sort of thing.

“You don’t think that’s something we ought to hold on to?” Katherine asked. “What’re they going to do with it?”

“Destroy it,” Lonesome said, answering both questions at once. Katherine accepted his decision with a nod.

“Listen, Arbiters,” Clayton spoke up.

“Arbiter,” Katherine corrected him easily. “Just me. Lonesome and the rest are deputised.”

“Alright. Look, Arbiter… I know how this looks.”

“Do you then?” Katherine asked. “Because it looks to me like you ran into some trouble out here. You and your friends have a bit of a falling out after you got paid for what you stole off the train? And you did help rob that train, didn’t you Clayton?”

“I…” he swallowed uncomfortably. “I don’t deny that,” he said, knowing it would do him no good.

“How about shooting a man dead?” One of Katherine’s deputies spoke up. “Are you going to fess up to that, too?” Clayton looked wide eyed at him. He could tell the deputy meant him, specifically, and not the gang in general. But how was that possible? The man was dusty and worn looking from his time riding in the Badlands, but Clayton would tell he was the sort that kept himself impeccably clean under normal circumstances. His vest and bowler hat clearly put him apart from the others.

“How did… how did you know that?” Clayton asked.

“I saw you do it,” the man told him.

“That’s not possible,” Clayton frowned. “Nobody else lived through that wreck.”

“It’s true though, isn’t it?” Katherine asked. It was hardly a challenge to read it in his body language, he supposed. Or maybe it was his quavering voice that had given him away.

“I tried to get him to just give up the box,” Clayton said softly. “I didn’t want to kill him. But he wouldn’t… he just wouldn’t stop. He would’ve killed me if I didn’t do him first.”

Katherine looked questioningly at her deputy. “Mister Hawkins?” she asked.

“I… suppose that’s all true,” Hawkins admitted grudgingly. “I can’t say Clayton wouldn’t have shot the man anyway if he surrendered, but that’s not what happened.”

“Then that’s something we’ll handle later on down the line,” Katherine decided.

“I can make it right,” Clayton jumped in, trying to get things back on track. He’d been trying to make the situation better, not dig himself in deeper, and he was desperate to start moving in the right direction.

“Do tell,” Katherine invited.

“You’re after the rest of the gang, aren’t you? Well, I can take you to them. What’s left of them, anyway.”

“That doesn’t sound promising,” Lonesome quipped grimly.

“More than that,” Clayton added quickly, “I can take you to the bones. I know who has them.”

“Bones?” Katherine asked, looking lost. Only Hawkins looked like he had any idea what he was talking about, and when Clayton’s looked to him hopefully all Hawkins did was frown.

“You know,” Clayton explained, though at this point it was obvious most of them didn’t. “The ones in the lockbox we stole from the train. That’s… that’s what you’re after, isn’t it?” Katherine and Lonesome shared a curious look. “You didn’t know, did you?” Clayton sighed. “I guess that makes sense. We didn’t know what was in there, either. Not until Dorean had us open it.”

“What did you say?” Lonesome snapped. He advanced so suddenly that Clayton actually pushed himself backwards while still in a sitting position, pushing with hands and heels.

“Woah, Lonesome,” Katherine came to his rescue. She rose to her feet and put a restraining hand on the Spirit Talker’s shoulder. “Easy,” she told him. “What’s go you riled?”

“Did you say Dorean?” Lonesome demanded of Clayton.

“Yeah,” Clayton nodded quickly. He had no idea why Lonesome was so upset with the name, but he figured it was best to be cooperative. “Dorean’s the one who hired Brodie to steal the lockbox, and Clem to lead us into the Badlands. He…” a thought occurred to him just then, one he was surprised he hadn’t had sooner. What if Clem had turned on them because Dorean wanted her to? What if he paid them all that gold because he knew they’d never get of the Badlands to spend it?

“You know this guy?” Katherine asked as Clayton trailed off into silence.

“Yeah,” Lonesome nodded. He looked like he had something foul tasting at the back of his mouth. “Dorean – Dorean Ash, if it’s the man I knew – was a scout. A Spirit Talker,  just like me and Clem. He went missing a little while after Clem did. We figured he was just another casualty. Mother of mercy, how many of them are out here working together? What the hell are they up to?” He took his hat off and ran a hand through his hair, face tight.

“A scout?” Clayton asked, “Like in the army? Yeah, that makes sense. He was wearing a uniform.”

Katherine turned her attention back to him, hand still on Lonesome’s shoulder. “How many others were there, Clayton?”

“Only him and Clem that I saw. If there’s more than that, I don’t know.”

Katherine nodded to herself and let out a little sigh. “Alright, Clayton. I think you’d better start at the beginning and tell us just what’s going on here.”

So he did, throwing in his own background and why he took the gang up on their offer for quick cash in the hopes of earning some measure of sympathy. He took them through the train robbery, meeting Clem, trekking through the Badlands to meet Dorean and Dorean’s explanation of what was in the lockbox, then ended with Clem’s betrayal and his moribund attempt at walking out again.

“That lines up with some of what we already know,” Katherine said thoughtfully when he’d finished. “Sounds like Dorean’s definitely got some goyles helping him. Question is, what’s he planning on doing with those bones? What’s this all about?”

“I’ve got an idea, but I hope it’s wrong,” Lonesome told them. “If those are the bones of the people who tried to turn themselves into Spirits, he might be trying to summon them back.”

“Why would he want to do that?”

“Think of it like this,” Lonesome laid out, “the goyles said those people just disappeared, right? Well, what if they didn’t? What if it worked, and they made themselves Spirits, but instead of sticking around they went… well, who knows where? Think about it – Spirits that could command other Spirits. You wouldn’t be able to stop them. There’s no countering that. If Dorean could somehow get them on a leash there’s nothing he couldn’t do.”

To Clayton, who admittedly didn’t have much experience with Spirit Talking or the like, the thought of someone with an army of invisible, invincible Spirits was a chilling one.

Nearby, a deputy whose name he’d overheard as Walsh let out a low whistle.

“This just keeps getting worse, doesn’t it?” Katherine muttered. “Well, we’re on our way there anyway, might as well put a stop to that while we’re at it. Clayton, you may not like this, but you’re gonna have to come with us.”

“Beats trying to walk the rest of the way out on my own,” Clayton shrugged. “Besides, if you’re going to go put paid to Clem and Dorean I want in on it. The rest of the gang might not have been the best sort of people, but they were my friends, for the most part. And if I can help make up for my part in all this I will. I just want to ask one thing of you, Arbiter.”

“You’re not exactly in a position to bargain here, Clayton. But I suppose it can’t hurt to hear it.”

He turned to look at the gold still strewn over the dirt. “Even if you have to take me in for what I’ve done, I’d like Millie to get that. And I’d like her to know it came from me, that I did it for her.”

“That gold may not be stolen, but it’s payment for a crime,” Katherine told him. “I’m within my rights to confiscate it. But I suppose we’ll see. You prove to me you really want to atone, and I might consider it.”

“That’s all I ask, Arbiter.”

“Good, ‘cause that’s all you’re gonna get. Now let’s get moving, we’ve got a long way to go.”

 

**********

 

“That’s a hell of a thing,” Walsh commented. He was looking up at the enormous cliff they’d just finished descending, and with no small amount of help from the goyles. “Think they put it there on purpose?”

“What?” Hawkins asked, glancing up from his food to consider the cliff. “You mean the goyles?” They’d stopped here for their evening meal, not far from where Clayton indicated the rest of his gang had been ambushed and killed. Lonesome’s goyle friends had spread out to scout for any others of their kind in the area, so none of them were around to ask.

“No, I mean the people who were here before. The ones who built the city we’re headed for. Lonesome said they could use the Spirits to do all sorts of things, even change the land around. Maybe they put that cliff there.”

“Why would they do that?”

“I dunno,” Walsh shrugged. “Maybe because they could.”

“Not the sort of thing I’d do if I had that kind of power.” Hawkins shoved more food into his mouth and talked around it. “Just makes it harder to get to whatever’s over there.”

“Now there’s a question. What would you do if you had that kind of power?”

“What would I do?” Hawkins raised an eyebrow. “Are we talking the power to move land around, or the power to do anything? Because I’ve seen some of what Lonesome can do, and if you could do all that and more without having to haggle a Spirit to do it…” he paused thoughtfully.

“Sure,” Walsh filled the gap. “Power to do anything.”

“Nothing good,” Hawkins decided eventually. “Oh, it would start out good,” he assured Walsh. “Best of intentions, certainly. But things like that, having the power to do anything you want, it never works out well does it? You end up hurting people just so you can have something. And then you end up with nothing, even if you got what you wanted.”

“So I guess if I said I’d try and use that power to help people, you’d say it would all end badly.”

“That’s pretty much a given, Aaron. It’s nothing to do with you. It’s just how people are.”

Walsh shook his head. “I don’t buy it. There’s bound to be people who can have all that and not hurt people with it.”

“If there are they’re pretty rare and hard to find. And you’d only really know until after they had it, wouldn’t you? Better not to take the chance. But you know,” he added, “If anybody could do it… well, you’re earnest enough it might just be you.”

 

Update – Remember Clayton?

Hey guys, here’s another update for the fantasy western, the end of which we get back to good old Clayton. He hasn’t been having a very good time.

 

“Goyles?” Lonesome repeated. At first he was afraid, but that feeling was quickly joined by confusion. “Wait… they captured us? Took us alive?” It wasn’t what he expected of the goyles, but it wasn’t outside the realm of possibility. And if the two of them were still alive there was still hope for him talking their way out.

“You could call it that. And they did more than just take us in, Lonesome. They put you back together, had the Spirits heal you.”

“Well, that explains the porcupine,” he muttered. “But Kat-”

“I know, I know,” she forestalled as his eyebrows wrinkled together in a frown. “Doesn’t make much sense, does it? Thing is, it does. I had a good long chat with our new friends, and they explained everything.”

“You had a chat?” Lonesome couldn’t help but sound skeptical.

“That’s right. One of their… speakers, I think it called itself. One of their speakers made it so I could understand what it was saying. Had to be Spirit Talking, but I’ve never heard of anything like it before. Anyway,” she took a deep breath and let it out. “Things are complicated, Lonesome.”

“Do tell,” he invited. And she did, explaining everything she’d been told during her conversation with the goyle.

“So Clem’s got a box of evil she’s fixin’ to open,” he muttered when Kat had finished. He shook his head slowly. “Lovely. I’m glad you waited for me to wake up before you went tearing off after her.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Kat told him. “Besides, you and Clem have a history. Might be something there we can use.”

“I don’t know, Kat. It’s been a long time since Clem and I… well, it’s been a long time. I’d feel a lot better if it was more than just the two of us.”

“Oh, we won’t be completely alone.” A small smile lifted the corners of her mouth. “Hawkins and Deputy Walsh are here, along with one of the men we hired back in Red River. It’s not near as many as I’d like, but with all of us together I figure we’ve at least got a fighting chance.”

They set out with an escort of what Kat had started calling the Good Goyles, Gravik among them. They had to double up on horses since Kat and Lonesome had lost theirs, but the goyles leading them set a pace that was easy to keep up with. Occasionally there would be a sudden change in direction. Gravik explained through Lonesome that it was to avoid bands of other goyles, the kind who would not take kindly to human presence.

Carter complained the entire time. It wasn’t very loudly, but it was near constant. He’d been given the opportunity to stay with the goyles in the butte or head back on his own, and had refused both. After a while, Katherine decided Carter was just the sort of man that reveled in his own misery and decided to leave him to it. Walsh, on the other hand, seemed to get some twisted entertainment from it, and would often helpfully find new things for Carter to despair over. Hawkins seemed strangely aloof, but then near death experiences could do a lot to change a man’s outlook on life, so Katherine left him be. And so they passed the days, slowly but surely getting closer to their quarry.

 

**********

 

Clayton soon found that the supplies he’d scrounged were nowhere near enough to get him through the Badlands on foot. Especially not weighed down with a bag full of gold. His back ached and spasmed with every step. His feet were blistered so badly he didn’t dare look at them, and their arches felt like they were being crushed with sledgehammers. Dirt and dust caked onto the sweat that poured from every inch of his skin. Still, he refused to drop the gold. If his corpse was ever found it would still be clutching that bag, because if he let it go it would all have been for nothing. The train robbery, his killing a man, the death of his friends at Clem’s betrayal – all of it for nothing.

But he wasn’t dead. Not yet. Somehow there was always just what he needed to keep going, if only for a little longer.. A pool of water to drink from, a bush with berries he could eat, or a shaded rock outcropping where he could lay and rest for a spell. And somehow, miraculously, no goyles. That seemed the strangest thing of all to him, but after a day or two of constantly watching his back exhaustion had seen to it that he no longer cared. If the goyles were going to find him they’d find him. Until then, it was one foot in front of the other, over and over again.

He must’ve blacked out while performing that mechanical march, his conscious mind retreating into itself while his body carried out its orders, because one moment he was trudging along and the next he was tumbling chaotically down a hillside. When he came to a rest at the bottom, gold strewn around him, all he could do was swallow dryly and stare at the bright, unforgiving sun above. His body wouldn’t even entertain the thought of getting up again – it had, at last, given up. And so, with one last heavy, shuddering breath, Clayton closed his eyes and embraced the dark blanket of oblivion that descended.

Only, it wasn’t all as permanent as he thought it would be. Some time later he slowly woke with a vicious ringing in his ears. It was darker than when he’d blacked out, but still light enough that it could have been either dusk or dawn. His throat felt swollen and on fire, and his lips were cracked and bleeding. He found he was a bit disappointed in his body’s refusal to just give up and quit. It would have made things so much easier.

A cool breeze rustled his damp clothes. His body had just enough energy left to shiver a little. The sudden cold was enough to prompt him to try and sit. As he did the world wobbled dangerously around him, the ground itself seeming to tilting crazily. But the vertigo passed, and the ringing in his ears began to fade. He wiped at his lips and was surprised to see that what he’d thought was blood was really something else. Something that looked suspiciously like water. What else could it be? He sure as hell hadn’t been drooling.

Puzzled, he looked around for some sign of where it had come from. He found it perching on a nearby boulder. The goyle was an interesting umber color, and it watched him with a casual curiosity that came from knowing it could easily kill him if it needed to. In one hand it held a dried gourd which Clayton guessed held water. A moment later he heard voices approaching. Human voices, a woman and a couple of men. Clayton expected the goyle to react to their approach, to prepare to fight or perhaps run, but it simply sat relaxedly on its boulder and waited.

At last the source of the voices came into sight. There were five of them, all armed, and strangely still accompanied by goyles. This did not seem to be cause for alarm to any of them, but it certainly was for Clayton. Were they allied with Clementine? Were they some other group of patsies bringing a prize for Dorean? And more importantly, would the take his gold?

Adrenaline spiking, Clayton grabbed handfuls of yellow nuggets and dirt and pushed to his feet. He had intended to run, but the world began wobbling again, and before he knew it he was crashing back to the ground in a heap. Shouts of alarm sounded from the approaching group. Clayton pushed up again, trying to launch himself in the appropriate direction in the vain hope that momentum would keep him upright. He stumbled forward for a step then faltered, falling face first into the dirt.

It was then he remembered his knife. Pulling it clumsily from its sheath he rolled over and prepared to defend himself. The action came too late. As soon as he was on his back a booted foot came down hard on his wrist, pinning his hand and the knife it held harmlessly to the ground. Eyes wide, Clayton stared up at a man whose sun darkened face was strangely sympathetic.

“Easy, son,” the man said, numerous trinkets swaying from pieces of string on his coat and from his hat. “We don’t aim to hurt you. And those goyles over there won’t, either, so don’t you worry none about them.”

“Who?” Clayton croaked.

“Name’s Lonesome,” the man introduced himself and lifted lifted his foot from Clayton’s wrist at the same time. “Now why don’t you settle a bit and tell me a bit about yourself.”

He didn’t give them any more than his name, and in return they gave him a canteen full of water. After days in the Badlands with only enough to get by, a whole canteen’s worth seemed sinfully decadent. He downed it all like only a man half dead from thirst could.

 

In which there’s mention of a hapless porcupine

Here’s a decent sized update for the fantasy western: 1709 words! I’m… well, I’m not happy with some of it. But hey, it’s a first draft.

 

Luck seemed to be on their side. But luck, as Walter Hawkins knew from the occasional gambling loss, was a fickle thing not to be trusted. Their attempt at sneaking out of the Badlands was going well, with nary a goyle in sight as they moved from hiding place to hiding place. It was a slow endeavor that Hawkins was beginning to think never should have worked.

For one thing, the goyles talked to the spirits. He’d seen Lonesome at work tracking down Clem and the outlaws. If the natives could do the same it wouldn’t matter that they were using the river to mask their tracks. Maybe three desperate survivors headed out of the Badlands just wasn’t worth the effort. He hoped that was the case, but kept his eyes on the horizon nonetheless.

They were moving at night, the moon their only illumination. Walsh, whose sharp eyes eyes had made him a crack shot with a rifle, was the first to spot the goyles. “Walter,” he spoke softly and calmly, “We’ve got trouble.”

“Goyles?” Hawkins guessed, but it was only a formality. He knew that’s what it was.

“Yeah,” Walsh confirmed. “Looks like there’s at least a dozen of them. They’re pacing us on either side.”

“Shit,” Carter grumbled. His first move was to reach for his revolver, but an urgent warning noise from Hawkins stayed the hired gun’s hand.

“Don’t give away we know,” Hawkins admonished. “The moment they think we know they’ll come at us.”

Carter wasn’t happy, but he turned the motion into one that made it look like he was just stretching his back. “So what,” he demanded, “we keep riding like nothing’s wrong? What if we’re riding right into a trap?”

Hawkins strained his eyes to see what Walsh had, but all he could make out was the occasional suspicious shadow. “Keep your eyes open,” he told his companions. “We might be able to take them by surprise if we see a good opportunity. Maybe make a break for it.”

“We run they’ll just chase us down,” Walsh sighed. “Even if we get away they’ll be right behind us. We’re going to have to make a stand.”

“Won’t be much of a stand,” Hawkins muttered gloomily. “Three of us against a dozen goyles? We’ll be dead in no time.”

“Then at least we can take some of them with us,” Carter said. Despite the brave sentiment his heart didn’t sound in it. Hawkins didn’t blame him. He’d almost thought they would make it out alive. So much for luck.

Without another word Walsh pulled his horse to a stop and brought his rifle into a ready position. Carter and Hawkins followed suit, revolvers in hand.

“If we can keep the horses under control we might make this a running fight,” Hawkins suggested. “Even the odds a bit.”

The goyles started circling the group, aware that they’d been seen. But they didn’t rush in to attack as Hawkins had feared. Instead they kept their distance, constantly moving between moonlight and shadow, in and out of cover. Walsh might have been able to pick off a few, but he held his fire until the others could back him up.

“What are they waiting for?” the deputy wondered, rifle slowly tracking a goyle until it moved behind cover.

“Maybe they want us to die of boredom,” Carter quipped.

One thing was certain – there were more than a dozen goyles, and they were actively keeping the group from going anywhere. As the first rays of morning sunlight started to illuminate the night sky, something changed. A goyle emerged from the others and approached. It carried a large spear in one hand, long and straight and tipped with a wicked looking stone blade. Hawkins turned his revolved on it while the others kept an eye on the still circling goyles.

There was something unnerving in its approach, the way it slowly and calmly walked towards them as if it had nothing to fear. Well, Hawkins was going to put paid to that idea. He pulled the trigger. Again, his expectations were dashed. The weapons report echoed across the Badlands, but no others followed. The circling goyles didn’t take it as a signal to attack. Indeed, it seemed as if they didn’t notice or care.

As for the goyle with the spear, it jerked as the bullet dug into its chest. The creature stopped walking, the only sign it knew it had been shot was a glance down at the wound as it slowly oozed black ichor.

“Woah! Hold fire!”

For a moment, Hawkins thought it was the goyle that had spoken, and he was suitably surprised. He was even more surprised when Arbiter Bishop stepped out from behind it, one hand raised to forestall any further violence.

“No call for that, now” she said evenly. “We’re all friends here.”

“Arbiter!” Walsh called, grinning over and lowering his rifle ever so slightly.

Katherine smiled back at him. “Howdy, Freckles,” she used Lonesome’s nickname for the deputy without a second thought. “Miss me?”

“I knew you’d get out alive,” he said, but his grin faded as he looked past her. “Where’s Lonesome?”

Katherine’s smile faded away. “Lonesome’s laid up a bit. Don’t worry though,” she hurried to add, “He’ll be fine.”

“What about everyone else?” Hawkins asked. He’d lowered his revolver, but she noticed his free hand was still hovering near the other he carried.

“No,” she said tightly. “It’s just us, Mister Hawkins. We’re all that’s left.”

Unlike Hawkins and Walsh, Carter showed no signs of relaxing. “Is anybody else concerned with the goyles around here?” he interjected. “Seeing as how they were out to kill us a bit ago and all. And speaking of which, Arbiter, how’d you make nice with them all of a sudden? Not that I’m complaining, mind, I’d just like to know what’s going on here. For my own piece of mind and sanity, see.”

“Man’s got a point,” Hawkins admitted.

“It seems the goyles are more complicated than we give them credit for,” Katherine explained. “These ones here don’t want us dead. That said, we’d better get moving before the ones who do show up. I’m given to believe they won’t fight each other, but I don’t think I want to put that to the test.”

Hawkins narrowed his eyes, clearly skeptical. “I don’t know, Arbiter… might be some kind of trap.”

“Goyles aren’t exactly known for their skill at trickery, Mister Hawkins. They’re not the kind to lull you into trusting them before they kill you. They just kill you. Not like they have to make it any easier than it already is.”

Walsh rested his rifle on one shoulder and came alongside Hawkins. “She’s got a point, Walter.”

“Yeah, I suppose she does,” Hawkins admitted, finally holstering his revolver. “Alright, let’s go then.”

“What,” Carter objected, “Just like that?”

“Pretty much,” Hawkins told him.

“Doesn’t anybody care what I think?”

Hawkins looked back at the hired gun and raised an eyebrow. “You want to stay here on your own, Mr. Wates, you be my guest. Nobody’s forcing you to come along. But Aaron and I are going with the Arbiter.”

Carter thought that over for a moment. “Sonova bitch,” he grunted. “Fine, damnit. Let’s go.”

 

**********

 

It was an odd thing, Lonesome reflected, to realize that you were hallucinating. And he knew he must be, because he could see the Spirits. Everybody knew that wasn’t possible. Not even the most accomplished Spirit Talkers didn’t see the Spirits. And yet, there they were, hovering over him like shadows detached from from the thing that cast them. They swarm through the air, blurry and indistinct, like when you looked at something cross eyed. Beyond them he saw what looked like the inside of a gently illuminated cave.

They whispered to one another, carrying on conversations Lonesome couldn’t quite make out. He tried to speak, tried to ask them what they were saying, only to find he couldn’t. He wondered idly if he was dead. Was this what it was like? People talked about how the Spirits came to take you away when you died… maybe you could see them then, only at the end, when you couldn’t go back and tell anybody about it.

Before he could think much more about it, they slowly faded into nothingness. Their whispers faded, replaced by a terrible ringing in his ears. His body, comfortably relaxed a moment ago, spasmed with pain. A choked, wheezing groan escaped his throat and he did his best to curl into a tight little ball until the pain subsided.

Katherine Bishop walked into his field of view as his gasping subsided. She knelt on the stone floor beside him, a sympathetic look on her face. “Morning, sunshine. About time you woke up. How do you feel?”

He gurgled a little bit in response before finding his words. “Like somebody turned me inside out, beat me with a porcupine on a stick, then turned me rightside out again. Though I’m not really sure of the last bit.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, we’d never do that to a porcupine.”

“I think I’ve missed out on something important,” he said slowly. “What happened after we jumped?”

“You did not land gracefully,” she shook her head. From the way she said it and the way he felt, he was suddenly glad he couldn’t remember. “Just tell me that wasn’t the whole plan, Lonesome. Jump off the cliff and hope we don’t kill ourselves? That wasn’t all you had, right?”

“I thought I’d talked a Spirit into giving us an easy landing. Guess I was having a bad night,” he added bitterly, remembering how he’d failed to stop the goyles from springing their trap. How many of the posse had died because of his failure? It was oh so tempting to simply lay there and wallow in pain and guilt, but unless he was mistaken they were still in trouble. With a groan he pushed himself into a sitting position and looked around. “Kat… where are we?”

“We’re in…” she frowned. “Hell, I don’t even know what to call it. A hideout, stronghold, hive… thing. Whatever it is, it has a lot of goyles in it.”

Short Update

Not nearly as long as I’d hoped it would be, but here’s an update for the fantasy western:

 

The goyle considered her silently, just long enough that she started feeling the urge to fidget. At last, it said <We will help you in this, Arbiter.>

Katherine told herself not to look the gift horse in the mouth, that she really shouldn’t risk losing the only real shot she had at catching up to Clementine and the rest of the outlaws. Even so, the words slipped out of her mouth anyway. “What’s the catch?” From the way the goyle grunted and tilted its head she could tell the phrase hadn’t quite translated. “I mean,” she clarified, “That seems like a pretty big favor. What’s in it for you?”

<Some of us have forgotten why we are here,> it told her. <Our charge is not simply to protect this land from outsiders, but to protect the outside world from what lies within. Those who are misguided, who have forgotten our purpose, seek to end the momentary threat to these lands at the cost of our honor, the failure of our task. To do it they have placed their trust in the Rogue One and her allies. To stop them, we place our trust in you and the Lonely One.>

Katherine raised her eyebrows. That cast a whole new light on the goyles and their tenacious hold on the Badlands. “So what exactly is it that you can’t let get out? Is it something to do with what’s in that box they stole?” She thought, but didn’t say, that whatever it was must be pretty bad if it needed goyles to guard it.

<Yours were not the first people to this land, Arbiter, nor were mine. Those who came before sowed the seeds of their own destruction. Those seeds remain, waiting to be brought to the fertile soil of another civilization. A few chosen among your people can speak with the Spirits, and more among mine can do the same. But those who came before it was a gift known to all, though some were more gifted than others. And they did not treat Spirits as we do. To them the Spirits were not worthy of respect, not conversed with. To them the Spirits were servants to be commanded. They did not ask, they ordered. Ordered the Spirits to perform any task they wished – opening the gates of their great city, taking them from place to place, destroying their enemies, reshaping the world itself… and at the end they could even order the Spirits to take physical shape. Pulled from their native existence Spirits were bound to stone and metal, and some unlucky few to mortal flesh. All to better serve those who came before. But even that was not enough. They sought to bind the Spirits with their own essence, to make Spirits of themselves! It was this final hubris, this act of trespass against nature, that destroyed them. In one great upheaval their city and people suffered the wrath of Spirits who would no longer be ordered to obey. Only those few who had come closest to making Spirits of themselves remained. Steps were taken to ensure those few were rendered impotent. Never again would their hubris threaten the natural order. And then, Arbiter, your people came. And with hubris of their own.>

After waiting a few heartbeats to make sure the goyle was finished Katherine blew out a heavy sigh. “That is one hell of a story,” she told it. “So that’s it, then, is it? Whatever Haversham & Black brought out of the Badlands is something to do with the ones who came before?” She frowned, trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle that still didn’t make any sense. “But then they brought it back to the Badlands… because they were really working for your people, weren’t they? Through Clementine – I mean, the Rogue One? That’s why they let Clem and the outlaws pass, but stopped me and my posse. Only, that can’t be quite right.” She looked up at the ceiling contemplatively. “Because you’re going to help us stop them. Which means something else is going on. Either I’m being played and you’re the group who wants to set things all to hell, or the group using Clem wants something more than just letting that box out into the world. They want to use it for themselves, somehow.”

<There is a human living in the old city,> the goyle informed her. <They bring it to him. Many things might happen to the artifact outside of these lands, once among your people. But there, with him, they know what will happen. It cannot be allowed.>

“Then why not do something about it yourself?” Katherine wondered. “It’s not like you’ve balked at killing humans before.”

<Were it only humans the matter would be solved swiftly and permanently. But there are others of our kind protecting them. They would shield your outlaws from us, and we cannot fight one another.>

“Sounds insane to me,” Katherine admitted. “But you’re offering me a chance to get the job done, and I’m not turning that down. I just wish I had more of my people left. Doing this with just me and Lonesome is gonna be… well, it’ll be the craziest thing we’ve done yet. And that’s saying something.”

<Fear not, Arbiter,> the goyle told her, <We know where more of your people are to be found.>

 

Still Here

So, it’s been a while since I’ve added an update. That’s because a personal tragedy brought things to a grinding halt from the end of November all through December. But work has resumed on the Untitled Fantasy Western (seriously, anybody have any title ideas?). I’m still going to finish posting the draft here on the website, so picking up where I left off here’s a four thousand word update. That’s like four updates in one!

 

“Speaking of timing,” he muttered, and kicked the horse into a run. “It’s about time we got out of here.”

“Is it safe?” she asked, peering around him at the ground ahead. It was hard to see much in the dark, but there didn’t seem to be any sudden upsurges of rock trying to swat them.

“Safer than letting the goyles get us,” he told her.

“Lonesome, I’m not falling into another one of those pits.”

“Don’t worry about that, I think I got those spirits calmed down for now. No telling how long they’ll stay that way, but… look, you just worry about any goyles that get too close.”

Katherine twisted around in the saddle so she could look behind them. It was hard to make out details between the movement of the horse and the dark of night, but she was certain they were being followed. Having lost them once it looked like the goyles were making a concerted effort to keep up so they didn’t get lost again. Her revolved tracked back and forth, looking for a target, and she wished she’d been able to get her rifle before it fell into the chasm that had almost claimed her.

“I’m not going to hit anything like this,” she told Lonesome. “I’m good, but not that good. Won’t be a problem if they get closer, but if more than one gets that close we’ll be in big trouble. If you’ve got a plan of some sort now would be a good time to tell me.”

The horse jerked this way and that, racing around the boulders, hills, and craggy rock formations that characterized the Badlands. Instead of answering her, Lonesome started speaking First Words. That was good enough for her. If he was calling on the spirits it meant he had something in the works. As he spoke she watched the goyles. They were gaining, using the terrain to their advantage. Every time the horse had to slow down to navigate around an obstacle they got a little bit closer.

All those little bits were starting to add up, and Lonesome was still carrying on a hurried conversation with things she couldn’t see. Normally she knew better than to interrupt him in the middle of his Spirit Talking, but something was going to have to change, and soon.

“Lonesome,” she said insistently, “I don’t mean to rush your little gossip circle, but faster would be better. Those goyles are getting so close I can smell ‘em.”

After a few more clipped First Words Lonesome switched back to a language she could understand. “Kat, there’s a canyon coming up. When we reach it,  you’re gonna have to trust me.”

“Not that I don’t,” she replied sincerely, “But would you mind telling me why?”

“Cause we’re gonna jump into it.”

“Lonesome, that is certifiably insane.”

“Kat-”

“Just tell me when,” she cut off the beginnings of his justification. She didn’t need an explanation, and there probably wasn’t time for one anyway. She was right about that. Before she knew it Lonesome was pulling the horse hard to the left, and the yawning emptiness of a canyon suddenly opened up to their right. The sight of it made her guts clench and brought back the very recent terror of falling into empty air.

Lonesome pulled his feet from the stirrups and swung sideways in the saddle. “Now!” he snapped, and then she was alone as he disappeared into the dark. A second later she followed. It wasn’t as clean a move as she would have hoped. The heel of her right boot caught the edge of the cliff, and instead of sailing down feet first she went sprawling head first into the dark.

She learned the hard way that the side of the canyon sloped out after a bit, bruising her hands and forearms as she started tumbling down it in a wild and uncontrolled fashion. Whatever plan Lonesome had, she didn’t think it was working. Her head bounced off of something hard and unforgiving, and after a brief flash of light behind her eyelids she slipped into unconsciousness.

 

**********

 

“Shit, shit, shit,” Hawkins repeated the word like a mantra as they raced away from the stretch of earth that seemed dedicated to killing them. Somehow he’d made it out alive, as had Deputy Walsh and a hired gun whose name he didn’t recall just now. As far as he knew they were the only three men left alive. He’d seen Sheriff Wade plow right into an uplifted slab of rock, and seen too many others fall into sinkholes that opened right underneath them. How they’d made it out alive was beyond him.

They kept riding, blind and desperate in the night, until they came to a small river. “I haven’t seen any goyles follow us,” Walsh spoke as they all looked nervously around.

“Doesn’t matter,” Hawkins shook his head tightly. He was relieved to know they weren’t in any immediate danger, but that didn’t change the facts. “We don’t have a Spirit Talker with us to cover our tracks. Without Lonesome it’s only a matter of time until they catch up. Then that’s it, we’re done.”

“We don’t need a Spirit Talker,” the hired gun spoke up. He pointed at the river with one hand. “We can lose them the old fashioned way. Ride up or down the river for a bit, then find a place to hole up nearby until they’ve stopped looking. Maybe we can sneak out then.”

“Better than any plan I’ve got,” Walsh shrugged. He looked to Hawkins. “Walter?”

“Yeah,” Hawkins agreed. “Let’s find a way in and get going. The longer we sit around the closer they get to finding us.”

They followed the river for the rest of the night. It was shallow enough that the horses didn’t have any trouble, so they made good time. When the first rays of sunlight started peeking into the sky the group left the river, taking care to conceal the horses tracks as best they could. Nearby they found a place where frequent flash floods and river swells had eroded the softer rock behind a boulder into a low, cozy hollow. It was just big enough to fit the horses, though that made for some very unpleasant close quarters. Walsh and the hired gun did the best they could to cover the entrance from casual notice, but there was only so much you could do with dead brush and tree branches.

“So,” Walsh started awkwardly as they all sat facing the entrance to their little hideout. “I don’t think I got your name,” he told the hired gun.

“Carter,” the man supplied. “Carter Wates. I worked at the mines back in Red River. Thought the reward for capturing those bandits sounded too good to be true, but I couldn’t pass up the chance. Guess it was.”

“We’re not dead yet,” Hawkins told him. “You help us get out of here alive and I’ll make sure Haversham & Black give you something for the trouble.”

“No offense, Mr. Hawkins, but that’s looking like a real long shot right now.”

The day passed restlessly and uncomfortably. The horses didn’t like being cooped up in such a small space, and neither did the three men when the horses decided they needed to relieve themselves. Still, they stayed. Each took a turn watching outside, looking for signs that the goyles had found them. “I’ve been thinking,” Walsh said after several hours. “What if somebody else got away? If anybody could survive that it would probably be Lonesome.”

“So what?” Carter asked. “If he’s smart he’ll be doing what we’re doing. Hiding and trying to find a way out with his skin intact.”

“I don’t know, I just thought… maybe we should try and find him?” Walsh shrugged. Hawkins and Carter shared a skeptical look. “Look,” the deputy continued, “I was just thinking we’d have a lot better odds of getting out alive if we had him around.”

“Aaron,” Hawkins tried to sound as understanding as possible, “I want to think somebody else is out there, too. But the fact is we can’t be sure. And if we go looking for them we’re hurting our own chances, not helping. If we’re lucky, and Lonesome is out there somewhere, we’ll just have to hope he finds us.”

 

**********

 

As luck would have it, not all canyon walls were sheer drops. This particular wall gradually sloped inward, making for a canyon that was narrower at the bottom than it was at the top, and it was this geological feature that Katherine could thank for being alive. Whether this had been Lonesome’s plan all along or they’d just gotten lucky she didn’t know, mostly because the Spirit Talker wasn’t awake to ask. He’d taken a nastier tumble than she had, and while he hadn’t broken his neck he’d managed to break a few other things instead.

With a heavy sigh she grabbed the rope she’d tied under his arms and started dragging again. The area where they’d come to rest was out in the open, with no cover from any goyles that might be looking down from the top of the canyon. And once the natives figure out the horse didn’t have any riders, they’d come looking. She could almost understand Lonesome’s reasoning when she thought about that. The last place any sane person would have jumped off a galloping horse was into a canyon. But that didn’t mean the goyles wouldn’t look, especially if the spirits pointed them in the right direction.

It was hard to tell how long she’d been dragging Lonesome through the canyon, but it was long enough that she’d run through every curse she knew twice over and had started inventing new ones. Her back ached from pulling him along, and from the brief time she’d tried to carry him over her shoulder. That hadn’t worked out particularly well, and she was getting mighty thirsty to boot. The sun beat down on her mercilessly, always seeming to find a way to shine between the canyon walls and right down onto her head.

A guttural barking noise echoed off of the rocky walls. She stopped dead in her tracks, clearly recognizing it as the sound of a goyle and trying to figure out if it had come from ahead or behind. Beneath the brim of her hat she squinted her eyes, looking first one direction and then the next. Maybe it was the lack of water, or the heat, or the fact that she was dead tired, but there seemed to be goyles in every direction.

“Shit,” she grumbled. “I just left this party. I’m not doing it again.”

Not that she had a choice. There was nowhere to go, and even if she could’ve run she wasn’t going to leave Lonesome. So there was only one thing left to do. She pulled her revolver, checked to make sure it was loaded, and waited. The goyles didn’t leave her standing alone for long. In a matter of minutes they were to either side of her, advancing slowly without bothering to hide or find cover, as if they didn’t think her revolver was a threat. They were probably right. She could take down one, maybe two if she was lucky, but that was it. There wouldn’t be a chance to reload.

She sighted on the closest of them, and was surprised to see it actually stop moving. But others continued to close, so she aimed at the next closest. It also stopped, and looked over at one of its compatriots as if looking for guidance. She followed its gaze and saw a goyle carrying a spear over one shoulder in a very nonchalant sort of way. She switched her aim to it, and the Badlands native grunted something. All other others stopped where they were, but it continued forward, looking down the barrel of her revolver with the unflinching resolve she’d come to expect from its kind.

The urge to pull the trigger made her finger itch, but she held the impulse in check. Something was going on, she just didn’t know what. Did goyles have a thing for single combat? She couldn’t remember. Still, she didn’t want it getting close enough to use that spear. With one quick motion she pointed the revolver at the ground and fired a single shot at the goyle’s feet before returning her aim to its head. The message must have gotten across, because it stopped coming forward. Its eyes met her, dark and unblinking.

Slowly, gracefully, the spear traced an arc from the goyle’s shoulder until the tip was pointed at Lonesome. The goyle uttered something in its own language. Did it want Lonesome? She supposed that wouldn’t surprise her. The goyles had a certain respect for Spirit Talkers, after all. But that didn’t mean they wouldn’t kill him anyway.

“I’m not giving him up,” she told the goyle. “You want him, you come through me first.”

It wasn’t much of a deterrent, Katherine admitted to herself. There were more than enough of them to make it happen, but at the moment there didn’t seem to be much else to do except put on some bravado.

The goyle seemed to consider this for a moment. Abruptly it thrust the tip of its spear into the ground and left the weapon stuck there like a post. Then, with the hand that had once held the spear, it pointed at Lonesome and growl-spoke something else. It was an interesting gesture, not least because she’d never seen goyles get this close and do anything but try to kill her. No, that wasn’t true. There had been the one when she was hunting Lee Caswell… the one that had called her Arbiter.

With an exaggerated motion she used her thumb to uncock the revolver’s hammer. Then she lowered the weapon to her side, but stopped short of putting it in it’s holster. With one steadying breath for her nerves and a tightened jaw, she stepped aside. The goyle took a step closer, dark eyes searching her face. What it saw there she didn’t know, but the mountain of leathery muscle grunted in what seemed to be a satisfied sort of way. It stooped to grab Lonesome by the front of his shirt, and with one arm lifted him from the ground. With the Spirit Talker slung over one shoulder like a sack of flour the goyle started ambling back the way it had come. Katherine followed, palm slick with sweat against the grip of her revolver and eyes nervously watching for any signs of attack. But the goyles didn’t stop her. The one carrying Lonesome only looked back at her once, and that was all.

They led her out of the canyon and into the confusing geography of the Badlands. It would have gotten her completely lost if that hadn’t already been the case. Through the trek she stayed close to Lonesome like a tick on a dog. It was one of the longest, hardest walks she’d ever taken, and coming off of a tumble down the cliffside at that. The goyles didn’t stop for anything – not to rest, not to eat, not to drink, not even to take a crap as far as she could tell. Their stoic persistence was more than a little unnerving, especially as she felt herself starting to flag with exhaustion. Through sheer will she forced herself to keep walking, unwilling to show weakness among the goyles and afraid they would simply leave her and carry Lonesome off somewhere she’d never find him again.

As the light of day began to wane they came within sight of their destination, an isolated butte that rose tall and proud over the surrounding landscape. Its face was pockmarked with caves of all shape and size, and by their long shadows she could see goyles climbing from one to the other across the rock face. Katherine wondered if the caves ran all the way through the butte. Could it be a giant hive of goyles, like a nest of insects only far more terrifying?

There was one large cave that opened at ground level, and as they neared it was obvious that their approach had been watched. A small crowd of goyles had gathered to watch, speaking amongst themselves in their own harsh language. But none interfered.

The inside of the cave was far more ordered than Katherine would have guessed. Rough, uneven walls had been smoothed by some unknown method. She could see no tool marks on them, no gouges to suggest they’d been dug out. Yet the tunnels were more like hallways in a castle than the constantly changes spaces of a cave.

The light from the entrance faded rapidly as they moved deeper into the stone hive. When they came to a turn in the passage Katherine was afraid she would lose the ability to see where she was going altogether. But even though she expected the goyles to exist in the dark, like burrowing animals, they quickly proved her wrong. The tunnels were illuminated by a soft golden glow, dim but more than enough to see by, which was produced by veins of some strange mineral in the rock itself.

Curious, she reached out a hand in passing to brush her fingers against one large deposit. It had a different texture than the non glowing rock, smooth but pitted like old glass which had been at the mercy of the elements for ages, and it was no warmer than the rest of the wall. Had they done this themselves? She knew goyles could speak to the spirits, and that spirits were capable of a great many things. Was this one of them?

They took her to a chamber with rounded walls and a slightly higher ceiling. The goyle carrying Lonesome made it clear she was meant to stay there, using the blunt end of its spear to gesture first at her and then at the room. Without further elaboration, it turned and started walking again. It was taking Lonesome away from her. A surge of something akin to panic gripped her stomach.

“No,” she protested, “I’m coming with you.”

But that was obviously something they didn’t want to happen. One of the other goyles put itself in her way, blocking the tunnel and grunting in a pointed fashion. Her first instinct was to raise her revolver and force the goyle to move or get shot. But her hand only had time to twitch before the rest of her brain caught up to the idea and tackled it firmly to the ground. She was deep inside what could be considered an enemy stronghold. There were who knew how many goyles in the butte, and who knew how many between her and the way out. She couldn’t do Lonesome any good if she was dead.

So she clenched her jaw, swallowed the lump in her throat, and nodded. “Fine,” she told the goyle in front of her. “I’ll just… wait here.”

The room was as well lit as the rest of the tunnels. To Katherine’s surprise it also seemed to feature something akin to furnishings. There was a deep pile of blankets piled against the far wall. With nowhere else comfortable looking to sit she sank into them and sighed, one hand running idly through the long fur of the blankets as the other rested lightly on her revolver. The blankets were made of some sort of animal skin, and she took to wondering what kind it was. Rumor from the wars had it that huge herds of shaggy beasts roamed through the Badlands. Something akin to cattle but bigger, bulkier, and meaner.

At some point she made the mistake of laying down. When she woke again it was with a surge of adrenaline. It didn’t take any time at all for her to remember where she was, and the idea that she’d fallen asleep among Gargoyles was something akin to terrifying. She wasn’t dead though, so that was a good sign.

To balance out the good she found her revolver was missing, along with her duster, hat and boots. A quick sweep of the room found the clothing piled nearby, though the revolver was nowhere to be seen. And to make matters worse, she realized there was a goyle in the room with her, sitting against the wall near the entrance and watching. She only noticed it because of how it’s silhouette blocked out the glowing veins of light in the rock.

“Where’s my gun?” she demanded, sitting up straight and reaching for her boots.

<You do not need it here, Arbiter the Wildcat.>

Katherine froze, boots in hand. The goyle had spoken, but it had done so in it’s own growling language. Understanding came to her half a second later, whispered in her ear by a voice she recognized as her own.

Under her breath she grumbled, “I swear, Cooper, I warned you.” More loudly she corrected it, “Arbiter Bishop. Katherine if you have to.”

The goyle tilted its head ever so slightly, but remained otherwise motionless. <Some things do not change well from one tongue to another, even when passed through the Spirits. Arbiter will do?>

“Yeah,” she agreed. In the dim light of the room she took a moment to study the goyle across from her. It was different than any she’d seen before. Most goyles were a mountain of muscle and mean, but this one was slimmer, smaller. For the first time she wondered if there was such a thing as girl goyles. As far as she knew everyone always assumed they were just one gender and reproduced by laying eggs or being spontaneously spawned by the Badlands itself.

<Welcome then, Arbiter. I am Hevak the Speaker.>

“Where’s Lonesome?” Katherine demanded.

<The Lonely One is resting after being healed. I wished to speak to you alone before he wakes.>

Katherine grimaced on Lonesome’s behalf. She remembered what getting healed by spirits had done to Hawkins. Effective, sure, but damn. “Well, I suppose I should thank you for that, but I’ll admit to being damn well confused. Your people were trying to kill us. We wouldn’t have jumped off that cliff in the first place if it hadn’t been for that. So why – and again, I’m not ungrateful – but why pick us up and put us back together after all that?”

<As you and the Lonely One are not the same as those who marched on our lands in times past, neither are we the same as those who chased you that night.>

“I get that,” Katherine allowed. “Though I thought you were all pretty much on the same page when it came to keeping people out of your territory. Doesn’t explain why you’d bring us here and help us out. Unless,” she drew the word out a little as her mind focused around the idea. “It’s all Lonesome, isn’t it? Or Spirit Talkers in general. They’re the only ones your people tolerate. They have some sort of special status. I just don’t know why.”

<The Spirits talk to them, listen to them. Do things for them when they ask. That is enough for us to do the same, and the Lonely One carries many Spirits with him. But that is not all of why we help. Gravik, who brought you here, knows why you have come. To follow the Rogue One. To claim what she and her minions carry ever deeper into our lands.>

“Yeah,” Katherine admitted, “That’s pretty much it, assuming Clementine is the Rogue One you’re talking about. Which is an interesting name to saddle her with, but we won’t get into that just now. And we’re not just after the box. I couldn’t care less what’s in it, honestly. I’m more interested in bringing the lot of them to justice, alive or dead, and keeping Haversham & Black from doing something stupid.”