Archive for Writing and Publishing

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.”

Still Here

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cause we’re gonna jump into it.”

“Lonesome, that is certifiably insane.”

“Kat-”

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

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

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

 

**********

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

**********

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Lonesome?” Katherine demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

NaNoWriMo Update Twenty

Missed update? What missed update? Here, have a 1969 word update. Running total is 37146.

The fight went downhill quickly, and the posse learned the same lesson that the army had during the Frontier War. It wasn’t that there were overwhelming numbers of goyles, or that they’d caught the group unaware. It was the fact that it took several bullets to bring one down unless you were lucky. The goyles knew it, and attacked with a fearless and reckless abandon. A handful of them made it through the broken rock perimeter within minutes and were quickly gunned down.

“Hawkins!” Katherine shouted above noise. The Haversham & Black man was wielding both revolvers with calm detachment. When she had his attention she pointed back at the tower, where Walsh was still sniping goyles as fast as he could work the lever on his rifle. “Go get Walsh and get him to a horse! We’re gonna need to get out of here, and quick!” Hawkins nodded tersely and sprinted back up the hill. A goyle burst between the rocks and started to chase after him. It didn’t get far before Katherine emptied her gun into, and another nearby man finished the job.

“Lonesome!” Katherine hollered, one thought on her mind as she reloaded. If they were going to get out of this alive they were going to need spiritual intervention. “Lonesome, where the hell are you?!”

She peered around the stone and sighted down her revolver. Goyles still seemed to swarm across the hillside, but something else was going on. The hill itself looked like it was moving, writhing and changing in the dark. Watching it she feared that some fresh new Badlands terror was emerging, some terrible brand of desert snake that the goyles controlled. Thankfully this was not the case. Instead, the undergrowth and scrub around the hill was coming alive, growing and expanding at a phenomenal rate. The goyles backed away from it, barking and growling. Eventually there was a thick, intertwined wall of vegetation between them and the posse.

There was a scattering of gunfire as goyles caught on the posse’s side of the wall were gunned down, then things calmed down. Katherine didn’t waste any time taking advantage of the lull. Her first act was to find Lonesome on the other side of the hill. “That was you, wasn’t it?” she asked. “Tell me that was you.”

“You see any other Spirit Talkers around?” he quipped back. “Now, I don’t mean to rush you boss, but that isn’t gonna hold for long. You still need to get us a way out of here.” He clapped a hand on her shoulder. “No pressure.”

“What do you mean I need to get us a way out? Just do what you did last time.”

Lonesome made a pained face. “Yeah, that’s… that’s not gonna work this time.”

“What do you mean it’s not gonna work? Make it work,” she snapped. Anybody else might have missed the edge of fear that was creeping into her voice, but to Lonesome it was clear as a bell. He could well understand why it was there.

As calmly as possible he tried to explain the situation. “Kat… it doesn’t work that way. I already tried talking them into it. The spirits just won’t listen. I think there’s another Spirit Talker about there, telling them not to listen. You’re lucky I got us what I did.”

“Another Spirit Talker? You mean Clem?”

“No, no, not her,” Lonesome shook his head. “This is one of theirs. A goyle, probably a shaman or chief.”

“Alright,” Katherine took a breath and chewed on her lip a little. “First thing’s first. We need to know what kind of shape we’re in before we go trying anything. Dead, wounded, how we’re doing on ammunition. Go ask around. We’ll meet up here when we’re done. Tell Hawkins and Walsh if you see them.”

When the group came together again she could tell without asking the news was grim. Lonesome started with the bad news first. “Four dead, three hurt pretty bad – bad enough I wouldn’t want to put ‘em on a horse. Everyone else is either cuts and bruises or won’t fess up to being hurt.”

Katherine drew a little air in between clenched teeth. She’d known it was likely that people would die out here. She could deal with that. But leaving wounded men to the goyles? That was something else entirely. “Can you put ‘em back together? At least enough so they can ride?”

“Given lots of time I don’t have, sure. But right now? One, maybe,” Lonesome said apologetically. “And then it’s even odds whether it’ll be done before the goyles tear their way through that wall out there.”

“Then we’ll tie them down to the saddle if we have to,” she decided.

“Kat, those men might die if you put them on a horse.”

Sheriff Wade, who’d come to stand at the fringe of the meeting, spoke up. “They’ll die if you leave them here,” he said gruffly. “If it were me I’d want to take the chance. Wrap ‘em up as good as you can and put ‘em on a horse.”

“We’ll double ‘em up with someone who isn’t hurt. That way they at least have a fighting chance. What about ammunition?” Katherine asked.

“We burned through a lot keeping the goyles back,” Hawkins told her. “But it looks like most of the boys packed for trouble. We should be fine, as long as we don’t make a habit out of this sort of thing.”

“So what’s the plan?” Wade asked. “I trust you’ve got one.”

“Just give me a minute,” she told him, and pulled Lonesome aside. “Alright,” she sighed. “We’ve got enough bullets to make a fight out of it, but I’d rather we didn’t. I know you can’t pull off what you did before. What can you give me instead?”

“Well,” he pondered the question. “The plant spirits I’ve got listening could be useful. If we made a break for it they could tangle up some goyles. Couldn’t use a wall trick again. We’d be moving too fast, and doing it ahead of time just lets the goyles know where we’re going. I’ve got an earth spirit here,” he indicated one of the many knickknacks that adorned his clothes. “Could maybe muddy things up a bit, slow ‘em down.”

“Then let’s do that, and anything else you can think of along the way. How long do you need?”

It wasn’t long, but to Katherine it felt like forever. Down to almost half their original fighting strength, the posse prepared to move. “Walsh,” she asked as they waited for Lonesome to give the word, “How’s that crack shot of yours from horseback?”

Walsh rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “At night, on a horse galloping hell bent for leather, with a bunch of things around trying to kill me? Never tried it before. Guess we’re about to find out.”

“Everybody get ready,” Lonesome called back. He faced a gap between two of the hill’s jagged rocks, staring intently at the overgrown vegetation beyond. Katherine peered past him at it as well. To her eyes there was no change, but Lonesome must have seen something different. With an enthusiastic “Hya!” he slapped his mount’s flank. It took off like a shot, and everyone spurred after him. Katherine wasn’t sure what she expected to happen. Perhaps that section of plant wall would shrivel away, pull back into the ground leaving a clear path, or perhaps it would turn to dust, or burst into flame, or… something.

None of that happened. Lonesome and his horse hit it head on and tore right on through, branches tearing away as if they were made of paper instead of wood. The goyles on the other side were clearly taken by surprise, but it wasn’t long before they started to give chase. It looked as if everything was going to go just as well as their first breakthrough. Then it all went wrong.

The first sign of trouble was Lonesome’s hastily rising voice, shouting First Words into the night as he attempted to convince the spirits to do something. Or rather, as they quickly found out, not to do something. “No, no, no!” he broke back into an understandable language. “Everyone watch out!”

The ground in front of the posse seemed to suddenly explode. Jagged shards of bedrock lifted up to block their path and sinkholes collapsed down into the earth around them. Horses unable to stop or turn suddenly enough were swallowed whole, animals and riders alike screaming in terror. Others slammed headlong into immovable stone with sickening crunching noises.

The posse scattered, each going their own way to try and ride out of the trap. Katherine found herself alone, frantically trying to guide her horse around the obstacles that were forming around her. She went around one jagged rock as it rushed up before her, urged her horse into a jump over the next sinkhole, and thought she saw safety up ahead, a place where the ground was behaving itself. If she could just get a little further she might leave it all behind.

The hole that opened up in front of her was unavoidable. Her horse’s hooves came down on ground that was already falling away into the abyss. But the other side wasn’t all that far away. In a motion so swift and fluid she surprised even herself, Katherine pulled her feet from the stirrups, planted them on the saddle, and pushed off in one of the wildest jumps she’d ever made.

Time seemed to slow to an excruciating crawl. She could feel herself weightless, her stomach lifting as she began to spin just a little from the awkwardness of her launch. She willed herself forward. Just a little more. Just a little further. All she needed was a handhold on the other side. The thought that she wasn’t going to make it was the most terrifying thing she’d ever experienced.

She hit the other side of the chasm almost sideways, and she could feel ribs bruise against the rock. But she had an arm on solid ground. Her hands scrabbled around looking for something to hold onto, and found only soft dirt that gave way beneath her fingers. She started to slip down into the dark, boots furiously digging at the side of the sinkhole and finding only unyielding rock.

Suddenly a horse was skidding to a stop next to her. “Kat!” Lonesome’s welcome voice shouted down at her, “Grab hold!”

She didn’t know what it was he wanted her to grab, but she went for it. With hands still slipping across the dirt she pushed with every ounce of desperation she had and flailed out for something to hold. Something slapped against her palm and her fingers tightened around it. Without wasting a moment Lonesome’s horse started moving, dragging her up out of the hole. Both hands gripped her lifeline. Now that she was holding it right next to her face she could see it was a belt. The thought of Lonesome’s pants falling off of him as he rescued her was almost enough to make her laugh.

“You couldn’t find a rope?” She asked, hastily getting to her feet once her boots found solid ground.

The crazy distortion of the landscape had stopped, but the pause to rescue Katherine had given the goyles time to catch up. Lonesome reached down and grasped her forearm. He hauled her up into the saddle behind her and spurred his horse into a run once more. “You’ve been wanting to get my belt of for years,” he tossed back at her.

“You’ve got to work on your timing,” she insisted, wrapping her arms around his waist and gripping the horse with her knees. The last thing she wanted to do was fall off again.

NaNoWriMo Update Nineteen

Keeping pace with a 3389 word update from the weekend. Running total is still a bit behind at 35177.

“I don’t get it,” Morgan admitted. “We robbed a train and tromped all the way through the Badlands to bring you that? A bunch of sun bleached, rotten old bones?”

“Precisely that,” Dorean told him sternly. “Do you have any idea what these are? What they mean? Haversham & Black were willing to send men to their deaths to get these bones. Do you think the expedition which brought them back was the first? No! It was merely the first to succeed. Had these bones found their way to Haversham & Black’s headquarters they would have been studied by that company’s finest minds! Scientists and Spirit Talkers alike would have stopped at nothing to unlock the secrets of these remains – secrets which I cannot allow them to have.”

“What secrets?” Brodie scoffed. “They’re just bones. Dead men tell no tales, they say.”

Dorean’s gaze lifted up from the box to spear Brodie with a wild eyed look. His nostrils flared, and for a moment Clayton thought he would begin raving like a madman. But after a moment Dorean calmed himself, and in that calm and resonant tone he said, “The proverbial they would be wrong, Broderick. Look more closely at these bones. Their very existence tells a tale.”

“They’re not human, are they?” Clayton guessed. “But they’re not goyle, either, are they?”

“Indeed, they are not,” Dorean acknowledged. “They are the bones of the people who built this city. The people responsible for the existence of the Badlands itself, in its current form. A people who did not merely speak with the spirits, but who commanded them. They created untold wonders and accomplishments to make this hall pale in comparison. Then they vanished, leaving their triumphs in ruin!”

“Well that’s nice and all,” Brodie shrugged a little, “but pardon me if I don’t really care about all that. You’ve got your bones. Just give me my money and I’ll leave you to ‘em.”

“Hmm,” Dorean gave Brodie a measured look. “Very well. I suppose you have earned your payment. Wait here.” He strode back past the throne and disappeared through a door in the wall behind it.

“You and I need to have a chat,” Clem said, grabbing Clayton by the arm and directing him away from the others.

Unnerved he tried pulling away, but her grip was firm. “What’s got into you?” he demanded.

“Shut up and listen,” Clem told him. “I need to do this quick.” She fished something from one of her pockets, a loop of cord with a small oval disk hanging from it. Speaking softly in First Words she put it around Clayton’s neck, making sure to tuck the disk inside his shirt so it was hidden from sight. “There,” she said after a moment. “You keep that with you, you hear?”

“Why?” Clayton asked, confused. He felt the stone disk through the fabric of his shirt with one hand. It was cold against his chest, so cold it almost hurt, like it had been fished from a frozen creek in the middle of winter. “What is this thing, Clem?”

“Look, I’ve got a bad feeling,” she told him levelly. “Call it woman’s intuition, call it a Spirit Talker’s sense, but something ain’t right here. I’m telling you and not them ‘cause I like you. Don’t go running your mouth about this, either. Last thing I need is Brodie losing his head over nothing. Understand?”

“Alright, sure,” Clayton agreed, though he still wasn’t sure what the pendant was all about. He didn’t have a chance to ask as Dorean returned with a number of small bags.

“Here is your reward,” he proclaimed, and dropped the bags at Brodie’s feet. One opened when it hit, and small chunks of gold spilled out onto the floor.

“Merciful Mother,” Morgan proclaimed, “Is that… where did you get so much gold?”

“I have my ways,” Dorean assured them stolidly.

Each of the group retrieved a back and opened it. Ever suspicious, Brodie took one of the smaller pieces and started scraping at it, perhaps suspecting that it was merely painted. The others did their own checks, and though there was often dirt or other minerals mixed in, the gold was real.

“How about that, Clay?” Morgan asked. “You could buy your own ranch for this!”

“Yeah,” Clayton agreed. “This is… way more than you said we’d get, Brodie.”

“It’s way more than I was promised,” he admitted, looking up at Dorean. “Not that I’m one to look a gift horse in the mouth, but what’s this about?”

“An additional fee, to cover the extra time and effort you put into traversing the Badlands.” Dorean returned to his throne and sank into it, adopting the same slouched and brooding posture he’d had when they entered. “And an assurance,” he added. “To keep me in your good graces and ensure that Haversham & Black don’t hear of the bones final destination.”

“Yeah,” Brodie nodded slowly. “I wager this is enough to make sure they never hear a peep about it.”

“Excellent. Now take your reward and go.”

They didn’t need to be told twice. The group hustled out of the Great Hall and out into the blazing Badlands sun. It hadn’t occurred to Clayton until just now, but the inside of the hall was a lot cooler than outside. He kind of missed it, but going back in with what was almost certainly a madman just didn’t seem worth a few degrees of comfort. After carefully packing his gold in a saddlebag he mounted up alongside the others.

The group rode out the same way they’d come in, laughing and in a good mood. They talked about what they’d do with their newfound wealth, all thoughts of scouring the city for loot forgotten. Nobody thought twice about the dangers of the Badlands. They’d made it here just fine under Clem’s guidance. The return trip, they assumed, would be just as easy.

Despite the group’s joviality, Clayton didn’t so much as breathe a sigh of relief until they’d passed through the city’s massive gatehouse. Even then he was a little nervous, put on edge by Clementine’s warning. Clem herself rode where she always had, at the front of the group, with her back to everyone. They were halfway between the city and the cliff in a field of rocks that seemed like the jagged ends of broken bones pushing up through the earth. It was there that Clem slowed her horse to a stop. Everyone took notice and followed suit, their jokes and light hearted conversation suddenly silent.

“What’s up, Clem?” Brodie asked. “Something wrong?”

The Spirit Talker turned her horse in a tight circle so she was facing the group. “Brodie,” she addressed him in the manner of someone about to reveal a clever joke. “You remember when I said I liked you too much to let you die out here? Well, that might’ve been a lie.”

The group’s immediate reaction was shocked silence, split only but the whisper of metal on leather as Brodie pulled his revolver clear of its holster. He kept it pointing off to the side, barrel down, but ready enough. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing, Clem,” he warned, “But it doesn’t have to be this way.”

“Yeah,” she sighed, “It does.”

Clayton caught sight of something moving nearby. As he turned to look, Slim cried out “Goyles! Son of a bitch, it’s an ambush!”

Everyone went for their weapons as Gargoyles swarmed out of the rock formations, surrounding the group on all sides. Without pause the Badlands natives charged in to attack with a series of ferocious war cries. The first crack of gunfire came from Brodie’s revolver, fired not at a goyle but at Clem. She flinched back as the bullet snapped abruptly off course, diverted by a spirit she’d had more than enough time to call up beforehand. Seeing that his efforts to kill his betrayer would come to nothing, Brodie turned to firing at goyles with the others.

Clayton had time to fire a few wild rounds before his horse reared and threw him. He hit the ground hard with one shoulder, and a whole new world of pain blossomed into existence. Through it he gritted his teeth and thought of just one thing – the gold in his saddlebag. He had to get it, or this would all have been for nothing. With his good arm he pushed unsteadily to his feet and looked for his horse. Just as he found it the poor animal was taken down by a goyle, high pitched cries abruptly silenced as the goyle ripped the mount’s throat out. Then, blood covering it’s face and claws,  it turned to Clayton.

If there was anything Clayton knew it was that going head to head with a Gargoyle was going to end only one way. Amid the gunshots and shouts from the rest of the gang the resolve to go down fighting took hold. If he ran it would just catch him and kill him from behind, and that was no way to go. His revolved lost in the dirt he went for the only weapon he had left – his boot knife.

The goyle charged forward, easily knocked aside his feeble attempt at stabbing it, and threw him to the ground with one solid hit to his chest. He landed hard on his back, his head hit a rock, and everything went black.

He was surprised to wake up again. For a moment he thought he might be dead. Maybe this is what it was like before the spirits took you? Laying on your back, staring up at the sun? But if he was dead he figured he probably wouldn’t hurt so much, and boy did he hurt. His shoulder was still dislocated and he had a hell of a headache. With a groan he sat up and looked around. The site of the ambush was a mess. All the horses were dead. Several of them looked like they’d had meat taken from them in a less than precise manner.

No goyles lay dead in the sun, though wet patches of dirt spoke to places where some had died. They must have collected their dead when they left. What they’d left behind were the bodies of their enemies. Clayton forced himself to count, just in case someone else had survived. There was Brodie, facedown in the dirt and missing an arm. Over there was Morgan, laying face up on the ground with a lot of his chest missing. And there was Thomas. Clayton knew it was him because of his clothes. It would have been hard to tell otherwise, what with his head caved in like it was. Slim was missing, though. Or was he? Now that Clayton considered the battlefield, he saw a shallow crater with chunks of flesh strewn around it. The man had a fondness for his dynamite. Right up until the end, it seemed.

There was no sign of Clem, but then, Clayton hadn’t really expected to find her here. In a pained daze he found an intact saddlebag and pulled the bag of gold from it. Another he emptied, leaving the yellow nuggets in the dirt. Then he filled it with what supplies he could find. When he found some rope he rigged together a rough harness to hang the bags from. Weighted down with as much as he dared try to carry he found his pistol and book knife. Then, with one last look back towards the city, he pulled his hat firmly onto his head and made for the cliff.

 

**********

 

“How’re we doing, Lonesome?” Katherine walked up next to the Spirit Talker. The group had dismounted for a moment, giving the horses time to rest after their latest push.

“We’re catching up pretty quickly. And so far the spirits have done a good job of erasing our physical tracks. I’ve tried to convince them to lie to the goyles about where we’ve gone, but there’s no way to know if they will or not. Honestly,” he took his hat off and wiped a hand across his forehead, “I’m surprised they haven’t caught up already.”

“We’re pushing hard,” Katherine sat gingerly on a nearby rock. “I wager we’ve put a lot of distance between us and them. Even more if they’ve got to stop and take the time to find our trail. The only problem now is getting spotted by goyles who aren’t out here just to chase us down.”

“You think we oughta start moving more slowly?”

“Couldn’t hurt to be careful. Besides,” she looked out over the posse. “We’re going to have to get some real rest soon.

“The ones chasing us are going to go night and day,” Lonesome thought aloud. “If you want to avoid running into any just wandering around, you’ll want to avoid sunup and sundown. And maybe night, took. I dunno… maybe it’s best to find someplace isolated and hole up at night. That way we avoid the most active goyles, and we ride during the day when there’s fewer about. This far into the Badlands they’re less likely to have sentries awake during the day. Unless, of course, they got the word to watch for us.”

“On the other hand,” Katherine suggested, “We might want to have everyone awake and ready to fight if we do run into trouble. Sleep a bit during the day when there’s less of a chance of them coming across us, ride during the night so we can fight if we have to?”

“Honestly, Kat, there’s no good way to do this.”

“I guess we’ll see how it falls out,” Katherine told him, rubbing at her eyes. “We’ll just keep going until we need to stop. If that happens in the day, we’ll stop and sleep a bit in the sun. If it’s night we’ll hole up then. I just want to get as close to Clem and her people as possible.”

Once they’d rested a bit Lonesome had the spirits soak up the pool of water they’d brought to the surface some minutes before. If nothing else the tired horses weren’t going to die of thirst. Then the group pressed on. After a while, it all started looking the same to some of them. Hawkins, for one, could swear they’d passed the same rock at least a couple of time, though he would never bring that up with Lonesome. One thing that stood out was the ruined tower they came across a few hours before sundown.

“That’s new,” Hawkins commented as they approached it.

“Looks like some kind of fort,” Katherine suggested. “Those rocks make a kind of wall. Lonesome, is this goyle work?”

“Goyles don’t build with stone like this,” he said, brow furrowed. “And the cavalry never got this far out during the war. This is… something else.”

“Question is, is it a good place to hole up for a bit?” Sheriff Wade asked. “I don’t know about you, but me and some of the others are on the ragged edge. We need to stop before we fall off our horses.”

“I’m one of ‘em,” Walsh agreed tiredly. “Sorry Arbiter,” he added.

“Don’t you worry about it, Freckles,” Lonesome told him. “We can’t all be as tough as she is,” he tilted his head towards Katherine. “That said, I don’t think there’s room enough for all of us in there.”

Katherine pointed at the wall like ring of rocks around the hill. “Not in the tower, maybe, but there’s plenty of room around the hill. Everybody stay with your horse and find a spot behind one of those big rocks and we should be fine. Spread out, cover all the approaches. No fires. Hawkins, Frec- Deputy Walsh, Lonesome and I can take turns watching from inside the tower there. Anything comes along trying to sneak up on us, we should spot it. And if a fight breaks out we’ve at least got plenty of cover.”

The hired guns spread out on the hill while Katherine and her deputies entered the tower. “Looks like they were here,” Hawkins pointed out the remains of a fire in the center of the structure.

“Was there ever any doubt?” Lonesome smiled wearily. “I’ll talk up a spirit or two,” he turned to Katherine. “See if I can convince them to give us a warning if any goyles come around.”

“That sounds like a good plan, Lonesome. You and I can take first watch. Hawkins, you and Walsh will get second, so get some shuteye for now.”

The posse settled into the hill as the sun sank below the horizon. They ate cold food and huddled under blankets, every one of them within quick reach of a weapon. There was little conversation, and those few that spoke did so in hushed voices. To all outward appearances, it would have looked like any other night on that particular hill.

Lonesome had been asleep for a little while when a spirit started whispering insistently in his ear. He stirred, frowning in a state somewhere between sleeping and waking. Then he realized what that whisper was telling him, and he sat bolt upright. “Freckles,” he hissed into the night, “Hawkins.”

“Easy, Lonesome,” Walsh whispered from nearby. “I think I see something moving out there.”

“Damn right you do.” He got to his feet and joined Walsh at the arrow slit he was peering through, rifle at the ready. “There are goyles out there,” he told the deputy. “Lots of them. Where’s Hawkins?”

“Walter went to get a closer look,” Walsh looked concerned. “If you’re sure there’s goyles out there, maybe we should wake the Arbiter?”

“I’m already awake,” Katherine joined them at the window. “You two whisper louder than two half deaf old ladies gossiping. What’ve we got?”

“Can’t get a count,” Walsh told her.

“At least a dozen, probably more,” Lonesome added grimly.

“We need to get people awake,” Katherine told them urgently. “Lonesome, let’s you and I get to it. But quietly. If the goyles know we’ve seen ‘em they might come at us early. Freckles, stay here and cover us with those sharp eyes of yours. You see any goyles make a move, take ‘em out.”

Katherine and Lonesome scampered out of the tower together, keeping low and moving quickly. Katherine went right, Lonesome went left. Moving in different directions they went about waking up the posse as quietly as possible. “Goyles,” Katherine told them softly. “Get your gun and get ready, but stay quiet.”

She went one after another until she ran into Hawkins doing the same. “Arbiter,” he greeted her. “Good you see you’re up and about.”

“Walsh said you went to get a closer look,” she recalled. “What did you see?”

“Couldn’t get a good count,” he shook his head, “But there’s a good handful. Looks like they’ve got us surrounded. They’re moving slow, though. Maybe waiting for more to show up?”

“Could be,” she allowed.

“So what do we do?” he asked, glancing out into the night. “Make a break for it before the rest show up? Or wait for them to come at us?”

The hired gun whose rock they’d met at spoke up, “I’d like to vote for running.”

“Noted,” Katherine told him. “I’m going to find Lonesome,” she told Hawkins. “If he can get those spirits of his to lend us a hand we just might be able to pull the same trick we did before.”

“Worked the first time,” Hawkins agreed.

Katherine had only gotten one rock further down the line when the sharp report of Walsh’s rifle rang out. A cacophony of howls, roars, and other assorted war cries rose from all around the hill. Lonesome had said at least a dozen, but to Katherine’s hears it sounded as if there were hundreds of goyles out there. The sound got her adrenaline flowing, and her heart pounded in her chest.

“Here they come!” someone shouted in the dark, and gunfire erupted like popcorn on a hot skillet. Katherine looked out into the night and saw a mass of goyles headed up the hill, their numbers both hidden and exaggerated by the dark of night. She fixed her eyes on one, brought her revolver to bear, and squeezed off a shot.

 

NaNoWriMo Update Eighteen

Here’s a 1552 word update for you, in which we meet the mystery man who set all this in motion. Running total is 31788.

 

What they couldn’t tell from a distance, and what became clearer the closer they got, was that the city was in ruin. Not merely decayed, it looked as if the walls had been torn down in spots, and some of the taller buildings looked to have collapsed as a result of damage rather than old age. Everything was made of stone that was, or had been, polished smooth and fit together almost seamlessly. It was obvious that the builders of the old tower had come from this city.

Though there were plenty of holes in the wall through which they could have ridden with ease, Clem took them right in through the front gate. The gatehouse was a thing of beauty, easily a match for any castle fortress from the old world, though none of the group would have known. Clayton shuddered a bit as they rode through, imagining what sort of enemy the fortifications had been designed to defend against. There were slits in the walls to either side, through which arrows or firearms could be shot at any attacker. He peered into a few as they rode past, but saw only dusty stone in the dimly lit rooms beyond.

Clayton also noticed holes in the ceiling above, and his imagination took to devising various fluids that could be poured through them. He was glad when they passed through the interior gates and entered the city proper, leaving the gatehouse and its murder holes behind.

Even the streets were paved with smooth interlocking stones, and the sound of the group’s horses upon them echoed eerily through the empty ruins. “Clem,” Clayton spoke into the echoes as they rode on. “Those gates back there were made of stone.”

“Looked like, yeah,” she agreed easily.

“Who builds their front door out of rock?” Morgan muttered.

“Somebody who really doesn’t want anybody getting inside,” Brodie told him.

“Yeah, but… how would you close them?” Clayton asked, amazed. “Or open them? Or move them at all?”

“That’s easy enough,” Clem answered him. “You get the spirits to do it.”

He looked back over his shoulder at the massive stone gates and wondered what kind of people used spirits as doormen. “Who lived here?” he asked, and though he’d spoken softly some quirk of acoustics made the words all but boom off of the nearby walls.

“Couldn’t say,” Clem shrugged, looking uneasily around as the question continued to echo.

“There must be clues,” Clayton suggested. “Things that got left behind. You haven’t looked around?”

“Now there’s an idea,” Slim spoke up, eyes alight. “A city this big, there’s bound to be something left to loot.”

“You really want to go poking around in here, with who knows what wandering about?” Brodie asked.

“What… what do you mean?” Slim asked.

“I mean I don’t know what the hell lives out here. If something as nasty as the goyles avoid this place I wager it’s gotta be pretty bad.”

“You seen something?” Slim wanted to know.

“I did,” Clayton spoke up. “Last night. Got up to take a leak, and saw… I dunno, some kind of big angry dog thing.”

“Well it didn’t eat you,” Thomas pointed out. “So maybe they aren’t all that mean.”

“Yeah,” Morgan chuckled, “Or maybe Clay just doesn’t look all that tasty.”

“Either way,” Brodie growled them into silence, “Nobody’s running off anywhere or poking their nose into anything until after we get paid. We can maybe take a look on the way out,” he allowed.

“Besides,” Clem added, “Dorean will probably have something to say about that.”

“What’s he care?” Thomas wanted to know.

“He’s been out here a while, is all. Calls it his city, from time to time. And he lives in there,” she added, indicating a large, ornate building they were coming up on. Though it was made the same as everything else in the city, the architects had taken special care of the building ahead. They’d made the interlocking stones to seemingly impossible things, building patterns into the walls and giving the whole thing a wavy, flowing appearance, as if the stone had been molten and malleable. It was one of the few structures that didn’t display any outward signs of damage, despite its intricacy.

“Damn,” Brodie admired it with raised eyebrows. “And, ah, what is that, exactly?”

“Dorean calls it the Great Hall. Other than that, I have no idea. Now grab the box, boys. It’s payday.”

They left their horses in the open courtyard outside and went in on foot, Slim and Thomas carrying the lockbox between them. The doors to the Great Hall were swung wide open, but rather than seeming inviting they reminded Clayton more of a giant maw ready to devour the unwary. Easily fifteen feet tall they were made of stone, just as the main gates were. But while the main gates were plain and unadorned, these were intricately carved with scenes depicting something Clayton couldn’t quite make sense of. As the group passed through the open doorway he reached out to touch one. To his surprise it swung open easily as his fingers brushed against it, as if it weighed almost nothing and was attached to the world’s most well oiled hinges.

Inside was equally extravagant, at least where the architecture was concerned. Any furnishings or decorations that may once have been were gone, but the building itself still gave an impression of majesty. Here, as on the outer walls, patterns had been worked into the interlocking stone blocks. Columns rose in twisted spirals to the arched ceiling, branching near the top to form a lattice of support that looked almost organic, like a great stone plant.

And at the back of the hall, where the floor rose into a set of broad stairs, there was a chair that Clayton couldn’t have mistaken for anything but a throne. It too was made of stone, but numerous blankets and bits of cloth had been piled upon it to make it more comfortable. Sat upon it, slouched and brooding, was a man in a stained and worn cavalry uniform. A hat just like Clem’s sat on his brow in place of a crown, an unkempt mess of red hair spilling out from underneath to settle on his shoulders. A wild and aggressive beard started an inch below his eyeballs and grew to a respective length below his chin. Streaks of grey patterned both the hair on his head and on his face, and his pale blue eyes shone like sapphires as they lit upon the gang.

“Broderick,” the man’s voice rolled across the hall, deep and sonorous. Just from that one word Clayton could pick out an old world accent. “You’ve come at last.”

Brodie walked up to the foot of the stairs, beckoning Slim and Thomas to drop the lockbox there next to him. The rest stopped short of getting that close. As the box thumped to the ground, Clem came to stand just off of Clayton’s right shoulder.

“Yeah, I came,” Brodie told him. “And it was much further than I planned on, so this better be worth it. Here’s your spirits cursed box,” he gently kicked the lockbox. “Now where’s my money?”

Dorean straightened in his throne. “Patience, Broderick, patience. I trust Clementine took good care of you and your fellows? The gang’s all here, as it were?” He spoke slowly, every word measured.

Brodie looked back at Clem, then nodded. “Yeah, she got us here all in one piece. Talked us through the goyles and kept us from falling down that damn huge cliff. She’s earned her share.”

“Good,” Dorean nodded, fingers steepled. “Good. One more thing remains before payment is rendered. I must verify the integrity of my delivery.”

“You want to do what?” Brodie asked.

“He wants to open the box,” Clem clarified, coming forward so she was standing next to it as well. Dorean nodded.

“It is, after all,” he told them, “Such a large sum in payment. I must be certain.”

“Well you didn’t tell us to steal the damn key,” Brodie complained, clearly exasperated. “In fact, I think I recall you saying you wanted it here unopened.”

“Indeed. And if it has arrived in such a condition the odds are good that the prize is unspoiled. Clementine?” he turned his icy gaze on the Spirit Talker, “Would you mind?”

She sat cross legged on the floor next to the box. From a pouch at her waist she fished out an old and worn metal padlock. Holding it in the palm of her hand, she started talking to the spirit that lived within. As she did her work, Dorean’s steady gaze studied each man in turn. With one hand he ran his fingers through the knotted hair of his beard. It was hard for Clayton to tell what the crazy looking cavalryman was thinking. Just as well, he figured. He’d probably rather not know. Even Brodie was squirming a bit under the scrutiny.

There was a series of clicks from the lockbox, which mercifully regained Dorean’s attention. With her free hand, Clem reached out and pushed open the lid. Everyone edged in a little closer to see what all the excitement had been about. Dorean himself stood and came forward, gaze fixed upon the contents.

NaNoWriMo Update Seventeen

Apparently I’m a fan of late night conversations. This update is 1740 words, putting the running total at 30236.

“It’s more than just my promises,” Clem reminded him. “It’s the big pile of money at the end, remember? Now settle down. We’ll be there soon enough.”

The question of where they were going was soon settled. The group crested a rise, and there it was. The ground sloped away from them then suddenly dropped off sharply. To Clayton it looked like you could fall forever if you went over the edge, but way down there somewhere the ground started up again. He could see it stretching to the horizon, broken and cracked and chaotic. It was like the whole of the Badlands confusing geography all brought together, and in the middle of it was a city.

“Aw no,” Brodie was the first to react to the sight. “Aw hell no! No way I’m riding into a cursed goyle city, I don’t care how much I’m getting paid!”

“Goyle city?” Clem asked, looking over at him and grinning. “That’s no goyle city, Brodie. Goyles don’t build cities.”

“Then… then there are humans out here?” Clayton asked, awestruck. “How? For how long? Why haven’t we seen them before?”

“Woah, slow down now,” Morgan cautioned. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but I don’t like it.”

“Neither do I,” Brodie agreed. “Clem, this is where you chime in with some answers.” He fixed the Spirit Talker with a fierce glare. “If it’s not goyles down there, then who?”

“No one,” Clem told him simply. “Whoever or whatever lived down there, they’re long gone. All that’s left now are ruins like the ones you’ve been seeing on the way in. But hey, the goyles avoid the place like the plague, so that’s something.”

“And he’s in there?” Brodie pressed suspiciously.

“That’s right. Take that damn box down there and we all get paid.”

“And you’re sure there’s no goyles down there?” Thomas asked.

“Dead sure,” Clem nodded. “It’s the one place in this whole cursed area they won’t go. That’s why he’s down there, I suppose. Someplace where no one and nothing can get to him.”

“Except you,” Clayton pointed out.

“Yeah,” Clem cleared her throat a bit. “Except me.”

Morgan urged his horse a little closer to the edge and peered along it, first one way and then the other. “Well how are we supposed to get down there?” he asked. “Don’t tell me you’re expecting us to climb down.”

“There are a few paths down a ways from here, where the drop isn’t so sharp,” Clem told them. “They’re steep though. Lots of switchbacks. So make sure you take it slow when we get there.”

She wasn’t kidding. The part of the cliff face that angled out enough for them to traverse was just barely something Clayton would have considered possible. As it was, they had to get off their horses and walk – slowly – leading the animals after them in single file.

“Damn, but this goes on for miles doesn’t it?” Morgan complained. “Clem, can’t you just Spirit Talk a bit and get those invisible little bastards to, I dunno, fly us down or something?”

“Doesn’t work like that,” Clem replied, her voice clipped as she concentrated on the path ahead. “But don’t worry, if I talk fast enough I can probably convince one to keep you from falling to your death if you trip.”

Somehow they made it down without any major problems. A few of them tripped a time or two, and true to her word Clem convinced a spirit to raise up a small mound of dirt or rocks to arrest their fall. It left them bruised and often bleeding, but alive. By the time they reached the bottom of the path Clayton’s whole body was vibrating with fatigue. The moment his foot hit level ground he collapsed into a puddle of aching misery and tried to force tense muscles to relax. Everyone else did about the same, and the horses weren’t in much better shape.

“I think,” Brodie huffed, “We oughta stop here for a while.”

Slim, gasping nearby, made a gurgling noise that might have been intended as a laugh. “Gee boss, ya think?” he asked.

“Just cause I can’t do anything about your sass now doesn’t mean I won’t smack you for it later,” Brodie wheezed.

Though it wasn’t near nightfall they made a hasty and haphazard camp at the base of the cliff. Clayton quickly fell asleep, and remained dead to the world until he woke shivering after dark. Nobody had bothered to make a fire and he hadn’t covered himself with a blanket, leaving the chill breeze free to sap the warmth from his tired body. Every shiver that rippled through him to generate warmth only aggravated sore muscles. He sat with a groan and felt around him for his blanket. Eventually he found it. Firmly wrapped in wool he settled in to fall back asleep. It was at this point that he realized he needed to pee.

He lay there weighing his newfound warmth against the pressure in his bladder. The bladder won, and with many and varied curses spoken under his breath he got up and staggered towards some nearby brush. He’d just finished his business when he heard something move nearby. His first thought was a goyle, and his second a wild animal (probably the hungry meat eating kind). Only when his hand found the empty space where his gun should be did he realize he’d left it by his bedroll. This presented a problem. His body had decided on the fight part of the fight or flight response, only to be stymied. That had unfortunately given him enough time to realize that just blindly running away could end in any number of bad ways. So he stood rooted to the ground, breathing hard, wondering what was going to happen next.

A pair of animal eyes briefly reflected the moonlight in front of him. Now that he knew where to look he could just make out a dog like shape, low and hunched, but bigger than most dogs he knew. Those eyes considered Clayton for a moment, then abruptly dismissed him. Whatever it was stalked away into the night, leaving him to relax.

“Good job, that,” Clem said softly from somewhere just behind him. Clayton nearly jumped out of his boots, but managed to strangle the cry of surprised before it passed his lips.

“Spirits take me, Clem,” he hissed, “You scared me more than that demon dog. Thing. Whatever it was.”

“Didn’t seem that scared to me,” Clem told him softly, keeping her voice low so they didn’t wake the others. “Seemed pretty cool and collected, in fact.”

“Only reason I didn’t piss myself in fear is ‘cause I was fresh out,” he told her, heart still hammering.

“You must be new to impressing women,” she commented. “The right answer there was to say ‘why yes Clem, I was cool as a cucumber, stared it right down’. But I’ll give you points for honesty.”

“I’ll, uh, try to remember that. You know, next time you’re out here watchin’ me in the dark. Which, by the way, isn’t off putting at all.”

“Calm down,” Clem said, her voice holding all the amusement it could without being a laugh. “I wasn’t trying to sneak a peek at anything. You know what I get up to at night.”

“Oh, right,” Clayton tried not to sound too embarrassed. “Talking to the spirits some more?”

“That’s right.”

“What about this time? Find out anything about what’s in the box?”

“Nah, they still don’t want to talk about it. Hey,” she abruptly changed the subject, “Can I ask you something?”

The question took Clayton by surprise, but he wasn’t against it. “Sure,” he shrugged in the dark. “What about?”

“About you,” Clem told him. “You wanted to come out here because you said you needed the money, and you seem to know the rest of them over there. But you don’t fit in… somethin’ about you just ain’t right. You’re not the type to go robbing trains and killing people, not like Brodie. I can tell. So what gives?”

“It’s personal,” he evaded.

The answer didn’t dissuade Clem. “It always is, one way or another,” she observed.

Clayton thought about ending the conversation there. He could have just told Clem it was none of her business and left it at that. But there was something in him that needed to talk about it. “It, um. It’s a girl,” he approached the topic uncertainly. “Millie. I’m going to marry her, or I was. I was working as a ranch hand, saving up everything I could so I could give her a wedding she’d be proud of and buy her a place that would be ours. And then the ranch went under, and I thought I could make what I had into something more, but instead I lost it. I lost it all, and I couldn’t tell her. I just couldn’t see the look on her face. So Morgan and Thomas… I knew them from way back. I knew what they did, so I asked if they had anything I could get in on. My cut from this would have been enough to… it wouldn’t replace everything I lost, you know? But it would be a lot. It would be enough. And I guess I didn’t realize that robbing the train would mean blowing it up, or that I’d have to… that I’d…” he stumbled to a halt, remembering the Haversham & Black man he’d gunned down.

“You’d have to what?” Clem prompted quietly.

“I killed a man,” Clayton wrestled out the words. “Shot him dead.”

“You’re hardly the first,” Clem said in what she meant to be a comforting manner. “What matters is the why of it. Did you have a choice?”

“I told him to just go,” Clayton recalled. “But he kept coming at me. I think, if I hadn’t shot him, he would’ve killed me instead.”

“Then you did good,” she told him firmly. “This life of ours ain’t fair, Clayton. None of us get out alive in the end. Bad things happen, and sometimes they happen to good people whether you want them to or not. All you can do is make sure you’ve got good reasons for what you do. From where I stand, you’re still light enough the spirits’ll take you when the time comes. And I oughta know.”