November 23rd, 1878
Honestly, I was surprised there were that many dead people in the whole godforsaken state. I started suspecting they were importing them. And then Texas arrived…
Shortly after hearing the sounds in the distance, there’s a zipping noise and an apparatus descends from the dark fog on a line. Brady grabs it and begins having a conversation with someone who is obviously his superior. The party listens to him give his report, then he asks if anyone knows the whereabouts of Marshall Dent, the party demurs slightly and says they haven’t seen him since they arrived in Abilene. The conversation continues, and it definitely sounds the like the party is being signed up to assault the fort to slay the Red Lion. He asks for some ammunition and tobacco, which arrives in a small basket dropped on the same line as the reporting device.
When the conversation is over, Brady says he’ll get air cover to help get them to the interior of the fort, at which point the party would be responsible for slaying the source of the zombie menace. Some members of the party play somewhat hard to get, but Brady points out that they were prepared to barge into that fort and whip the Red Lion despite his help, at which point they grumble their acceptance and turn in for what sleep they can get before sunrise.
At first light, the party rises, arms themselves, mainly with the water from the consecrated well, and waits at the gate. With a roar, two single-seat flying machines armed with steam cannons race overhead and mow down the zombies waiting outside the mission. The party follows the path of destruction to the fort, where the copters are hovering and shooting into the courtyard. When they run out of ammunition and race off to the south to reload, the party enters the front gates.
The fort interior is coated in carnage, but there are several hundred zombies still standing but they appear completely placid, watching the party. Eventually, they enter the courtyard, and the zombie eyes (and eye-sockets) follow them to the central building.
Opening the doors to the building, the party is met with a terrible stench and flickering torchlight. Entering they find a handful of zombies, including several wearing the garb of western fortune-hunters, and on a dais made of oozing tissue, they find The Red Lion.
The Red Lion turns out to be Mosi, Ahiga’s kidnapped spouse, the western fortune-hunters her abductors. She’s obviously dead, and possessed by a demon of unspeakable power. Ahiga tries to get answers form her, but receives very little before, with a flick of her hand, The Red Lion orders the zombies to attack.
The zombies attack, and The Red Lion teleports into the midst of the party and casually tears Atta’s heart from his chest, killing him instantly. During the fighting, Holden notes that The Red Lion is wearing a playing card on a string around her neck, a card of the same type and printer that is missing from a deck in his pocket. He feels strongly drawn to it.
Ahiga raises her bow against The Red Lion….
Time seems to slow.
The rough-hewn wooden walls seem to fall away. You get the sense of cave walls, stretching out and up into the dark.
The fight rages on, your companions are moving so slowly they appear frozen, but with them, amongst them and the host of zombies, are others. Swarms and swarms of black, spindly, shadows, like skeletons that move on hands and feet and aren’t constrained by gravity. Everywhere.
And there are others – standing above O’Connor at the door stands a man fifty feet tall, light radiating from it, massive wings dripping with blood, and when it opens its mouth as it roars in anger, an impossible sound of a million-member choir shatters the air. The creatures are crawling all over it, biting, clawing. It sweeps them away by the dozens and shatters them with its light, only to be replaced by more.
There is a man…attached…to Holden. He’s older, portly with a beard, dressed in a nice suit of clothes. A collar of green and black smoke wraps his neck and stretches like a chain to Holden’s hand. He appears…distended…like an over-inflated balloon. In fact, you see a bit of his arm has a split in it, and black fog leaks out of it and swirls away. The black creatures completely ignore him.
Then there’s Templeton, or whatever his true name is, standing tall in his rat-man form, robes flaring around him as he bites and claws and slashes at any of the shadows that get close. He takes note of you in this plane with him before plunging into a crowd of the shadows.
“They made me,” says Mosi, in her small voice, not the voice of the monster, “the Chinaman, Wu, and the other. They made me. To stop him.” She nods at your companions – you’re not sure who she’s referring to. Perhaps O’Connor?
“I’m…I’m sorry,” you stutter, “I tried to follow, but I fell ill…”
“You couldn’t have prevented it. One of us was to be host to the monster and the rest killed. I guess I was strongest.” She smiles softly. It’s an empty smile, with empty eyes.
Templeton stands next to you, picking his teeth with the claw and finger of one of the shadow creatures.
“This is all that’s left of her, girl. This echo. This…message in a bottle. You’ve heard it. Now it’s time to end it.” He takes an arrow from your quiver and licks the head with his black tongue before handing it to you.
Ahiga nocks the arrow and shoots The Red Lion, striking her through the throat. The entire battle goes silent, the zombies fall still. Ahiga rushes forward and catches Mosi’s body as she falls. The zombies seem to snap out of their reverie and renew their attacks, but this time with much less aggressiveness and organization. Ahiga gathers up Mosi’s body, and the party pushes into the doorway only to find the hundreds of zombies assaulting the door. An ear-splitting horn sounds and out of the fog descends a massive airship flying confederate flags. Hatches open in its side and dozens of steam cannons emerge and open fire, utterly decimating everything in the courtyard.
When the firing ceases, the courtyard is an utter slaughterhouse but amazingly, none of the party were struck in the deluge. Onesimus and Olivia recover Atta’s body, while Seri and Holden gather around Mosi’s with Ahiga. When Holden notes the playing card, Ahiga assumes that he may have been the one The Red Lion was created to stop.
A gondola descends from the dirigible, containing several armed men and an officer.
Sims introduces the party to Colonel Roger Kincaid, who shakes hands with everyone who’s willing to, but when he approaches Holden, he leans in and stares into his eyes as if he’s looking for something. “Do I know you?” he asks. When Holden replies in the negative, he hesitates for a moment, says, “Huh,” then continues on.
While Kincaid’s men gather kindling to incinerate the fort, the party splits up to bury their dead. Ahiga keeps the card around Mosi’s neck before burying her.
Kincaid discusses with Onesimus their mutual mission, and Onesimus agrees to go with Kincaid to kill Johnny Wu and then on to Joshua.
Father O’Connor opts to stay behind in Detroit to finish off the zombies and sanctify (or burn down) what’s left of the town.
Seri gives Ahiga a talisman, allowing her to turn into an eagle and soar for a while as the rest of the party boards the gondola to head back to Abilene.
The flapping sound came closer and stopped moving as it was right above us. Something came down from the air. A rope or something, with an object tied to it, dangling a few feet off the floor. The Ranger grabbed the item and started talking into it. From what he said, it was clearly something that let him talk to somebody who was not in the room. Maybe someone up in whatever made the flapping sound. We only heard his side of the conversation, but it seemed he was volunteering us all to attack the fort come daylight.
I was tempted, very much so, to tell him that this was a white man’s problem, and walk away. Partly because of the way he just assumed he was free to make decisions for all of us; partly because I did not trust him, neither his judgement, nor his intentions, though the others did not seem to question them; and partly because I did not really think this would have happened, had the white men not come to our land with their strange ways, and their wars, and their odd customs and beliefs. So, most likely, it _was_ a white man’s problem, and it was mostly the whites who suffered for it.
But I needed to know. The thought that my she’aszdáán could have become chindi would not leave me. It fit too well. The name, the timing. This was where the spirits had led me, and Rat Girl showed no sign of even wanting to protest, so I suspected she had already decided to go. And she, or her spirit guide, would lead me to my she’aszdáán; or so the old Hopi had told me. Which is why I, in the end, chose to go with them when the sun rose.
When the morning _did_ come, we could see what was making the flapping noises. Two small machines were flying above us, each with enough room for one man. They were armed with guns, the white man’s guns that fire rapidly and never seem to run out of bullets. The ones that I fear one day will defeat us all, that will lose us these lands that we have lived on since long before the white men came here.
I filled my waterskin, and any other I could find at the mission, with water from the well. It was still glowing slightly, and though it was a white man’s magic, it had proven effective against the dead before, and against other monsters as well, so I thought it might be useful. I poured some of the water into my quiver; worst case, the arrows would have wet arrowheads. Best case, it would make them more effective against the dead, and anything else we might encounter.
From the roof of the mission, we could barely see the fort in the grey light of early dawn. Between us and it, however, there were still dead people, waiting for us to come out. Not as many as there had been during the night, but still far too many for us to handle. The flying machines, however, solved that for us. They opened fire on the dead, clearing the way for us, and then they went on to clear out the fort.
As we arrived, we could see that the flying machines had been effective. Hundreds of the dead were no longer walking. But there were still hundreds left, and at this point, the flying machines actually did run out of ammunition, and they flew off, away from the fort.
There was quite a mix of the dead, waiting for us. Most seemed to be farmers or ranchers, regular people from the area, I suppose. There were some soldiers, some Chinamen, and a couple of tribesmen who looked like they were from the same tribe that had set the dolls on us, a few days and an eternity ago.
The dead were just standing there, though. Looking at us. There was a building there, at the center of the fort, and its door seemed to call out to us. There was a clear, well, sort of clear, path to it. The flying machines had cleared us a path. The ground was covered by gore, but there was nothing else between us and the door. And the dead, they just stood there, watching us, as if they were waiting for something.
I got the strangest feeling that we were almost invited to approach the door. That whoever was inside that room behind the door was waiting for us to enter. The Singer said that he would hold the rest of them at bay, if we would go through that door and deal with the Red Lion.
Since there was no way the ones inside were not aware that we were coming, and since the dead on the outside had not attacked, I decided to be polite, and knock. Why, I do not quite know. Perhaps to get an opportunity to talk to whomever was inside. The one I was growing more and more certain that I knew.
The door’s hinges gave, and the door fell inwards. The room beyond was dark, and it stank of death. We could see, and hear, something moving inside, but we could see no details at all. The urge to turn around and walk away was strong. Not just because of all the dead, though that certainly did not make things better. But because I was almost certain that what awaited me inside was whatever remained of the woman I loved.
But walking away would have been wrong as well. If she _had_ become chindi, maybe there was something I could do. My old teacher would not have been impressed; he would have told me to accept her death and walk away, to not do anything that would attract the attention of the spirits of the dead that had to be everywhere around us, and hers in particular. Not that I gave that much thought. I had spent something like half a year searching for her, and now, I thought I might have found her. So I stepped inside.
There were several dead there; they were watching us. Before us was a big pile of remains of dead people. It was as if someone had taken a lot of people, mashed them together, and just dropped them there. Before it were several dead men that looked different from the others. They were dressed differently, and though I had never seen them before, I recognised them. I had, after all, been chasing them for half a year. That was when I knew, before I saw her, that my suspicions, my worst fears, were real.
She was there. Small, looking even younger than I remembered. It was always hard to remember that she was actually two years older than me. There were bruises on her throat, and so much blood on her legs, and it was obvious that she had suffered before she died. And yes, she was very very dead. What was standing there before me was not really her, just some evil spirit wearing her body. I still could not help myself. I stepped forward, speaking her name, but her voice, as she spoke, was not her own. It was deeper, crueler, and much like I would have imagined a demon’s voice would be.
Her smile was not hers either. Her real smile had been spring sunlight and warmth. This smile was ice and bad dreams. It looked like the smile of someone who would take great pleasure in hurting whoever got in her way. Or even someone who would go far out of her way to hurt people. _She_ had never willingly harmed anyone in her life.
Part of me wanted to turn around and walk out of there, and let what she had become destroy everything around her. It did not much matter to me, not anymore. Besides, the whites and the Mexians had done this, at that moment, I would gladly have seen their worlds burn. But my eyes were drawn back to the dead men who had kidnapped her, and I had to ask.
“Did they suffer?”
“Everone suffers,” she told me, which was, and was not, an answer. Not enough, though. Never enough. When I told her, she laughed. The laughter, too, was not hers, but something dark, something evil, something from your worst nightmare. And all I could think of was her real laughter, bubbling like a small spring, one of the things I had noticed when I first started courting her.
“Is there anything left of her in you?” I could not help it, I had to ask, though I suspected the answer was no, and even asking might give her, or it, a weapon to use against me. As if it needed more than it had already. As if in response, she signaled, and the dead started attacking us. She herself vanished, just to appear again next to the man from the ghost rock mine, the one who had been following the black man around. In a nonchalant manner, she thrust her hand into his chest and pulled out his heart. And I knew what I had to do. Or rather, I finally admitted knowing what I had known since I started suspecting who the Red Lion was.
As I raised my bow, time slowed. People were still fighting around me, but they moved so slowly, it was almost as if they had stopped completely, and I had all the time in the world. The wooden walls fell away, and the room we stood in became a large cave instead.
Around us were shadows, countless shadows that looked sticklike, or rather skeletal. They moved on all four, and they were everywhere. On the walls, the ceiling, the floor, all around us. Evil spirits, of course, and, I suspected, under her control.
By the door, the Singer with the sword was fighting, but above him was another man. He was almost ten times the height of a normal man, and he had wings, wings that were dripping with blood. He roared, and the sound was like nothing I had ever heard before. It was a sound that should have torn the cave down on our heads. Perhaps the Thunderbird would have a voice like it; nothing else I can think of could have matched that roar.
Attacking him were the shadows that surrounded us. The giant was destroying them with ease, though there were always more, throwing themselves at him. I thought this had to be the Singer’s spirit, or perhaps his guide, which was uplifting and terrifying at the same time. Uplifting, because he was on our side. Terrifying, because he was on our side _now_, but he would not be on the side of the People in the future. If this was the kind of warriors we would have to defeat to protect our world from the white man, I could not see how we could prevail.
Also, there was Exploding Man. Attached to him was another man. He was older, bearded, bloated, with what I suppose the whites would consider nice clothing. Around his neck was something that looked like black and green smoke, and Exploding Man was holding the other end. There was something about him that made me think that this one was different from the giant. This was not his spirit, not in the same way that the giant was the Singer’s spirit. The older man seemed to be a prisoner or slave perhaps, bound into service by Exploding Man.
And then there was Rat. He was fighting the shadows too. That came as no surprise. Nor was his appearance. Him, I had, after all, seen before, in this shape. He fought, a flurry of claws and teeth, and no shadows survived if they came within his reach.
And then, as my attention returned to my she’aszdáán, she spoke, and her words tore at my heart. Her voice was her own, this time. Though sadder and more subdued than I had ever heard it.
“They made me. The Chinaman, and the other. They made me. To stop him.” She nods at someone, but it was hard to see whom she was looking at. Possibly the Singer, or perhaps Exploding Man.
I tried to tell her I was sorry, that I had tried to reach her earlier, but that I had fallen ill. She told me it would have made no difference, that there was nothing I could have done. They had needed someone as host for the monster inside her, and that she, it seemed, was the strongest. The voice was hers, but the sparkle was gone from her eyes, and the life and laughter was gone from her voice.
There was nothing I could do. I was too late. She was dead, and this was all that remained. I knew what I had to do, but before I could do anything, Rat touched my arm. “This is all that is left of her, girl. This echo. This… message in a bottle. You’ve heard it. Now it’s time to end it.” Then he took an arrow from my quiver, licked it, and gave it to me.
In the end, it was the only thing I could do for her. I had come too late to save her. All that remained was to set her free, so that she would not be trapped inside this monster she had become, to free her, so that her spirit could reach the Underworld.
So I killed her. As my arrow hit her in her throat, time returned to normal. She looked at me, and smiled slightly, and everyone else, the shadows, the dead, everyone, stopped for a moment. She stood there, completely still. I knew she would fall in a moment, and because she was still my she’aszdáán; because she had spoken to me in her own voice, and there had been, after all, forgiveness in it; because she had smiled, and it was her smile, though a sad one; because of these things, I rushed forward and caught her as she fell, and I did not let go, not even after it was clear that she was dead, again, for the second time.
Yes, I know we do not touch the dead. Had I followed the ways of the People, I would have let her fall, left her where she died, and burned the building she died in. But I could not let go, not entirely, not yet. I had been chasing her and her kidnappers for months. I had not been there to protect her when she was taken, I had not been there to save her before they killed her, but I had found her and freed her. I could not let her go just yet.
Then the other walking dead started moving again. Less coordinated now. Obviously the chindi who had once been my she’aszdáán was the one who had given them purpose, given them intelligence and speed. Still, there were many of them, and Exploding Man shouted: “Now would be a good time to pull back! Chisi, don’t leave the body behind!”
Had the circumstances been different, I might have been offended by that. He was not to tell me what to do with the dead body of someone of the People. With the dead body of my she’aszdáán. But they were still fighting, and I would not, _could_ not, leave her body here, in this horrible place. She deserved more than that, and I _needed_ more than that. So I said nothing, but simply picked her up and carried her out the door.
Outside, we heard a strange sound, and then saw another flying machine. Not that I paid much attention to it. I was holding what was left of my old life in my arms, and before the day was much older, I would have to let go. I should have already, but for some reason, it did not feel dangerous.
There was a terrible noise, as the flying machine above us opened fire on the walking dead. When the firing stopped, there was not one single walking dead standing. Somehow, they had managed to not hit any of the living. Maybe it was some white man’s magic. Though I think I was a little bit disappointed. Had it killed me, I do not think I would have minded much. On the other hand, dying among the white men who did not know our ways might not be a good thing. Their ignorance alone might have bound my spirit to this world.
From the ship, a basket came down with several men. I ignored them as best I could. Instead, I started searching for a shovel. I knew I would not be able to do it properly, but I still wished to bury her, even knowing the risk. There was nowhere private where I could prepare her body. It was winter, and bitterly cold, but that, I would have endured. There was no ash here, though that, I could have fixed if I really tried.
What I should have done, was put her down and leave the body where it lay. Let the white men deal with it, let them have her angry spirit haunting them. She certainly had cause, and I had no cause protecting them. But I did not want to leave her spirit bound here, so I was willing to risk its anger by burying her, even if I would not be able to do it properly.
Exploding Man came over and stopped a few paces away from me, asking if she was family. I told him, though it was none of his business, that she was my wife, and the reason I had come here at all. The reason I had travelled for months, she was the one I had been searching for.
He told me he was sorry, and that it might have been his fault. She had one of his cards around her neck. It was clear he wanted the card back, but I did not feel like giving it to him. I think the only reason I did not kill him, or tried to, at least, there and then, was what she had said. So instead I just looked at him and said: “It was you.”
Back then, I had not been able to tell who she meant; I had thought it might have been the Singer. But it might also have been Exploding Man. And if she had something of his around her neck, I suspected he was the one they had wanted to stop. It seemed to surprise him, or confuse him. I told him that perhaps they were afraid of him. After all, why else would they go as far as they did to stop him? That was good enough reason to hold my hand, at least right then.
I did not wish to talk to him though, not until her body was buried, at least. I was still holding it, and I did not want to put her down where I was. There were too much death here, too many strangers. And the spirits of the ones who had killed her were probably here. No, I would not leave her in that place.
So I found a shovel and headed away from the fort to bury her. Though the whites have strange ideas of what to do with the bodies of the dead, I am not sure they would have appreciated it had I buried her too close. Or perhaps they would not have cared. But for her sake as well, I wanted to find a private spot, one that would not easily be disturbed. She had little reason to care for them, and I wanted to give her spirit what chance I could to move on.
There should have been two to prepare the body, and two to dig the grave. Everyone else should have stayed away. We should have been wearing nothing but moccasins and ash. But I was alone, and far from any of the Diné, who had known her and might have been willing to help. Rat Girl came along and helped me dig. I let her, even though she was not of the Diné, and had never known my she’aszdáán. She was different from the others, not to mention there was no way I would tell her, and Rat with her, that she was not welcome. After what Rat had done, if he chose to come with me, I would not refuse him that.
It was not a proper burial. There was a real risk that her spirit would get angered by that, and remain, or come after me. But there was only me, and there were too many strangers here, and it was too cold for me to do it properly. And the whites, they have strange customs when it comes to burying their dead. And other things. I do not think they would have understood. Somehow, though, I believed she would forgive me for that. She would have, had she been alive. That, I knew.
What do you do, when you realise that you hold in your arms everything that you have left? That when you let go, and you know you have to, there is nothing left of your old life at all? Nothing to return to; they were all dead. I could have returned to my father’s clan, but they would, by now, think me dead, and I had gone too far down a strange path to ever feel comfortable there again. Besides, I did not think I could return there, knowing that I had failed to protect my family, knowing how my she’aszdáán had died.
I was alone, now. Truly alone. Her sisters, who had become my sisters as well when she married me, were dead. Their husbands too were gone. And their children, who had become our children, as is proper. They were all dead, as were their killers, so I would not even have the cold comfort of vengeance. Except two. The Evil Chinaman, the other one, not my friend. The one that he, too, had been chasing. And the “other one”. Probably the Whisperer.
When I set out, I had thought I would be able to walk away when I had found her. Take her back home with me, had I found her alive, go home alone, had I found her dead. Except there was no home to return to. And I could not leave, knowing that there were two others still alive, at least in a fashion, who had done this to her.
I should have walked away. There is a reason we do not grieve openly; it might remind the spirits of the dead of the world of the living, and call them back to us, to haunt us, to make them yearn for what they can no longer have, and to resent us for having it still. There was a reason why I should have walked away. Until I could put it all behind me, I might still hold her here, in this world. But I was alone, as she had been alone when she died.
We all die alone, but her death would have been a hard one. And she had told me who had done this to her. So perhaps she had been telling me to go after them. I could not protect her while she was alive, perhaps this was her way of letting me make up for that.
Normally, all her belongings would have been burned. Not that I had anything to burn, except that card around her neck. From what Exploding Man had said, it might be important. I took it before I buried the body, though I had not decided whether I would give it to him or not. But if it was him they wanted to destroy, that card might help destroy them in return. I hoped she would have approved of me taking it, to help destroy the ones who killed her. To keep them from doing this to someone else.
I explained to Rat Girl that now that she was buried, her name should not be spoken again. Rat Girl wrote something on her slate, seemingly having forgotten that I could not read what she wrote. But then, Rat Girl almost never spoke, so the chances that she would speak my she’aszdáán’s name were slim anyway.
I thanked Rat for his help as well. True, he had helped me kill her, but more importantly, he had helped me find her and set her free. I had, of course, preferred it had I not found her like this, but it was the polite thing to do. And with spirits, it is always wise to be polite.
As I turned to head back towards the fort, Rat Girl wrote something more on her slate, showed it to me, then pushed something, it looked like a straw eagle, into my hands, and crushed it.
She had done that once before, but with a rat. This time, I suddenly found that I had wings. And yet, it did not feel like evil magic was involved. I never saw her wear the skin of the animals whose forms she took, and she had certainly not thrown one over me. I did not, and still do not, believe that Rat Girl was an ’ánti’įhnii, a follower of the Witchery Way.
She just looked a bit sad, and shooed me away, as if she wanted me to fly.
And so I flew.
I grieve for our Indian friend. What they did to that girl – and barely more than a child! – was a monstrosity. May God grant her soul rest, although I know they don’t worship Him. I don’t know much about the faith of the Indians, so I hope they don’t mind me praying to the Lord on her behalf.
I grieve and pray for poor Atta as well. I had thought the nightmare at the mission was bad, and yet I found strength through God to stand up and at least fight. To my shame, I was struck dumb when faced with the horror that girl had been forced to become. I could not feel His hand in mine, and what does that say of me? That monstrosity tore Atta’s life away, and I only cowered in terror. May the Lord forgive me for my weakness and fear! And may Atta find rest in the Lord’s hands.
I must pray long and hard to renew my faith in Him. If we go with these men to find Wu, and with those beasts from Abilene still alive – much less Joshua who is yet to be found – my faith and strength of will shall be tested again. How can I crumble when these people may need me? I wish Father O’Connor were coming with us, but I understand that he has his own path to walk. So I must not fail. If I return to Abilene before he does, it will fall to me to repair the church since that failing was also mine.
Dear Father in Heaven, give me strength to see this through!