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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.”

 

Short Fiction: Geruth the Debt Collector

Art by Anton Marrast

Art by Anton Marrast

 

“Come downstairs, Marie.”

“I’m not coming down, Geruth. Go away.”

“You can’t stay up there forever. I, on the other hand, can stay down here indefinitely.”

“You’ll get bored and go away.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe I’ll pretend to go away. Maybe I’ll just go a little way down the street and hide. You’ll come down eventually. When you think it’s safe.”

“Hide?” Marie laughed, and the high pitched sound echoed down the stairs at Geruth. “Then you’ll really get bored. I bet you’ll get bored faster than if you stayed standing there.”

“Perhaps you’ll run out of food before I get bored.”

“Perhaps,” she mocked Geruth’s use of the word, “I’ll get someone else to bring me food. Or maybe I squirreled away enough that I can outlast you. If you want me so badly why don’t you just come up and get me?” she teased.

“Funny,” Geruth replied dryly. “The ward on the building was a good idea, I’ll give you that. But you must know you can’t stay in there forever. You have debts that need paying. It won’t be all that bad, you know.”

There followed a silence that stretched from seconds into minutes, and when Geruth had counted ten of them he huffed a little. “I know you’re still there, Marie. I can smell you.”

“Had you worried, didn’t I? I bet you thought I’d snuck out somehow. What if I’d taken a shower and left a bunch of dirty, smelly clothes up here? Then you’d smell them and not me. I’d smell shower fresh!”

“You know it doesn’t work that way. It’s your soul I smell, not your body odor. Besides, even when you smell bad you still smell like flowers. The bodywash you use lingers.”

“Flatterer. Sweet talking won’t get me down there any faster, you know.”

“I lose nothing by being polite. Marie, why do I smell nightsbane? Are you working magic up there?”

“I’m a practitioner, Geruth. Of course I’m working magic.”

“To what end?”

She laughed at him again, a playful mocking sound. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“I would, actually. That’s why I asked. Hmm. Cinnabar? And… was that a Harpy feather?”

“Oh, you’re good. Yes on both.”

“Where on earth did you get a Harpy feather?”

“A Harpy,” Marie answered coyly.

“I seriously doubt you could deprive a Harpy of even a single feather.”

“How do you know? Maybe I made friends with one and she gave it to me as a gift?”

“I… suppose that’s technically possible,” he said skeptically. “Did you?”

“Don’t be silly, Harpies hate everyone. Now be silent, I have to chant.”

Geruth waited patiently until the even tempo of her chant had ended. “I think you missed a couple of syllables and mispronounced eigzath.”

“Don’t you start, I did not!”

“It’s pronounced eye-guh-zath, not eeg-zath.”

“It is not.” Geruth waited patiently to the sound of pages furiously turning. A book thumped shut. “Shit. You’re right.”

“I hope that wasn’t your only Harpy feather.”

“Heavens no, I have a whole bucket.”

“Ready to come downstairs yet?”

At last Marie appeared at the top of the stairs, breath puffed petulantly into one cheek. She blew it out between her lips to produce a purposefully obnoxious noise and sat looking down at Geruth. “I’ve still got a few tricks up my sleeve, you know.”

“Craftily hidden under the sleeves your tank top does not have, I see.”

Marie narrowed her eyes. “Hush, it’s an expression.”

“My apologies,” Geruth smirked. “Please, proceed.”

Marie chewed her lip and looked up at the ceiling. “I’ve still got plenty of juice in a couple of crystals. A bit short on ingredients, but… I could maybe swing a teleport.”

“I’ve got a counterspell going,” Geruth shot down the idea. “First thing I did, actually. Besides, where would you go? You know I’d just catch up eventually.”

“Hmm. I could try to dispell you.”

“There’s a reason it’s dispell and not destroy. I’d come back. I always do. And when I did you’d be at the top of my list. And not my regular list, either. My very special list. The one you really don’t want to be on.”

Marie leaned forward and smiled a wicked smile. “Maybe I’ll trap you, then. Bind you to something horrible – like a toilet!”

“I’d make it so terrifying no one would dare use it,” Geruth countered. “And once word of that got out you know they’d be by to unbind me in short order. Now quit stalling. You and I both know there’s only one way this is going to end.”

“You’ve never let anyone go?” Marie asked. “No one at all, in the untold eons you’ve been around?”

“For one, I’m not that old. For another, no. I take my duty very seriously. You have debts, I collect. No matter how much I like the one who owes them. It’s what I do.”

At last Marie heaved a sigh of resignation. “Alright, alright.” She stood and threw her arms wide. “Take me Geruth, I’m yours!”

“You still need to leave the building, Marie.”

“Huh. You mean the ward actually worked? I thought you were just playing along.”

“Not this time, no. You did good.”

“I told you… nah, I’ve already given up. Flatter me all you like.” She grinned and skipped down the stairs. She paused deliberately in front of the door, then slid through with style.

Geruth turned into a cloud of darkness that enveloped her completely. A second later he was reforming, turning from cloud to large and shadowy and vaguely kanine. “I’ve brought Marie Veledar to settle her debt,” he said, addressing a stern faced old man who stood behind a mahogany desk.

The old man frowned at her. “Overdue library book,” he intoned. “One dollar.”

She dug into her pocket, produced the dollar, and handed it over. As she left the library she grinned back over her shoulder. “See you next week, Geruth!”

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.

Short Fiction: Ironclads

Snow Attack by James Reekie

Snow Attack by James Reekie

 

In the good old days war tended to stop in the winter. Nobody liked dying in the cold and snow, especially when it was the elements that were killing you and instead of the enemy. These days, when trains could carry troops and supplies alike, it was a year round proposition. It was a much slower, more carefully considered proposition, and the people on the front lines still didn’t like it, but it was doable.

Today Cody was lucky enough to be headed away from the front lines. Unfortunately that didn’t mean he was headed away from the war. Instead he was just headed to a quieter part of it – Fort Piston. Piston was as close to secret as the Union could make it, nestled in the middle of mountainous nowhere and connected to the outside world by one lonely stretch of train tracks. Among those few who knew about Fort Piston, even fewer knew what actually went on there.

Cody and his men were about to have the dubious honor of finding out. They’d been on the train for nearly a week, slowly winding its way through the Rocky Mountains. Many of them were getting bored and restless, but Cody himself was enjoying the break. He sat in the dining car with Garrett, one of the technical personnel being transported to the fort.

“A lot of the men are on loan from the First Nation Army,” Cody was explaining. “They’re not actually Union soldiers, so they’re free to dress how they like. Unofficially that extends to all of us. Not much sense wearing a uniform when you’re crawling around behind Confederate lines, eh?”

“Makes sense,” Garrett nodded.

“Alright,” Cody sat back. “My turn. What’s up with the extra security? You don’t usually have the Special Irregulars ride this train back and forth. What’s so special about it this time?”

“You seen all those big boxes in the freight car?”

“Yeah, I saw them get loaded on.”

“Well,” Garrett leaned forward conspiratorially, “There’s a whole Ironclad in those boxes, in bits and pieces. We’re gonna put it all together at Piston and test it out. If it works like we hope the greybacks are in for a hell of a surprise come summer.”

There was a screech of brakes, and the entire car shifted. “The hell are we stopping for out here?” Cody wondered. A quick glance out the window told him the train was slowing down fast, not a single sign of civilization in sight.

“Might be rocks on the track,” Garrett suggested. “Or maybe an avalanche of snow.”

“Hmm,” Cody considered the possibility. “Could be. Excuse me, would you? I’m going to go have a look up front.”

He ran into Lone Hawk on the way to the locomotive. “Trouble?” the First Nation warrior asked.

“Isn’t it usually?”

Lone Hawk gave him a terse not. “Good thing I brought this,” he added, holding forth Cody’s rifle. “Should I get the others?”

“Not just yet. Let’s you and me go have a look up front.”

The snow was starting to pick up as they reached the engineer, heavy wet flakes driven by wind that threatened to turn into a righteous blizzard. A tight faced man in overalls was carefully wrapping a few pieces of dynamite together with string. He glanced up when they entered and shook his head to preempt their questions.

“Got a load of shit on the tracks ahead,” he told them. He spared a hand to tap the binoculars that hung around his neck. “Nothing a little bit of TNT can’t handle. Blow most of it away – mind the tracks – then slowly push ahead and let the plow do the rest. Done it before. Nothing to get worried over.”

“How long?” Cody asked.

“Not too long at all. You boys stay here and mind the engine for me if you like, I’ll be back in a bit.” He grabbed a heavy fur coat from one corner, tucked the dynamite under his arm, and clambered out of the cab into the snow.

“Maybe not trouble after all,” Lone Hawk commented. A minute later the crack of gunfire pierced the drifting snow.

“You just had to say it,” Cody growled. “We-”

A hail of bullets interrupted him, peppering the cab and engine. Seconds later gunfire issued forth from the passenger cars in response – the Special Irregulars, doing their job.

“This ain’t right,” Cody muttered. “We’re too close to Piston for a Confederate ambush.”

“Yet here they are,” Lone Hawk observed, peering carefully out a window. “Definitely greybacks.”

A heavy wud-wud-wud rose above the crackle of small arms fire. Starting from the furthest car back and slowly walking forward towards the engine, the wood and metal sides of the train began to splinter violently, as if they were being hit by small cannon balls rather than bullets. Cody’s eyes went wide. “Ironclad!” he shouted. “Move!”

Without hesitation he and Lone Hawk turned and jumped from the cab, putting the train between themselves and the Ironclad. The cab erupted into shrapnel as they leapt, and as they hit the snow the locomotive itself tore apart in a conflagration of steam and fire.

Cody tried to stand, but his legs wouldn’t obey. Lone Hawk grabbed him around the shoulders and started dragging him away up the side of the mountain. He noted, in a detached sort of way, that there was an awful lot of blood in the snow where he’d landed.

“I think I’m hit,” he told Lone Hawk.

“Only a flesh wound,” the brave told him. There was a muted thump nearby, like a pile of wet snow falling off a roof, and Lone Hawk stopped pulling him. Cody rolled his head to one side and saw another Ironclad approaching through the blowing snow, coming right at them.

Without a word Lone Hawk dropped him in the snow and ran. Over the blowing snow, Cody heard a heavy wud-wud-wud.

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.”