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.”



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