November 24th, 1878
Wu was dead, along with a house full of hired help. No one but Ed seemed to feel very good about it. Actually, that’s wrong. It would seem that someone felt very, very good about it, and had obviously been waiting a very long time to pounce on Abilene.
The party approaches Kincaid as he’s organizing the occupying force. As they come near, they overhear him ordering Marshall Heller detained and sent up to the Bull Run. He greets the party warmly and congratulates them for killing Wu. He sends a runner off to secure the party a place to sleep.
Onesimus intimates that he wants to discuss an alliance with Kincaid in the morning, and Kincaid agrees.
While waiting for the runner, a party approaches dragging Sheriff Dent with them. He appears to have been abused heavily since being detained. The two men appear to know each other.
“You killed that little girl in Topeka,” Kincaid accuses. Dent argues that “it was the monster, not him”. Kincaid says “that’s what they all say,” before pulling a ghost-rock-powered handgun and shooting Dent, disintegrating him. Olivia screams in dismay.
The runner returns, and the party is escorted to a hotel where rooms have been secured along with those of Kincaid’s officers.
The party meets in Onesimus’ room to discuss their plans. Onesimus is convinced the party should appear to ally with Kincaid in order to get the opportunity to dispatch him. There is some debate as to whether Kincaid is Joshua or not. Seri and Ahiga decide to leave town in the night, with Seri providing totems to allow the party to flit away as small animals. Ahiga goes room to room convincing members of the party to leave.
While discussing with Holden, a shapechanger races across the rooftops in a number of different forms before becoming a native man wearing the same war paint as those who have been pursuing Holden who crashes through the window, grabs Holden, and teleports across several rooftops.
The party gathers in pursuit, using Seri’s totem to turn to hummingbirds and give pursuit. Onesimus stays behind.
The party tracks the kidnapper, who meets up with a larger party and head out of town to the north, following the road between Abilene and the stockyards. The party pursues into the dawn light.
Onesimus remains behind in his room, and is woken by Brady Sims, who says that he needs to get out of town because Kincaid has ordered the party to be killed. Onesimus asks Brady some pointed questions about his history with the Colonel. He learns that Brady was assigned to the Colonel some time after the war, and as far as he knew was receiving official orders from the CSA. When Onesimus mentions that Kincaid might be a rogue, Sims is uncertain, but seems relieved and says “hey, if that’s true, you may have just turned me from traitor to patriot!”
Men arrive and Sims takes Onesimus’ guns and tells the men that he’s detained the man. The men in the hall order Sims to “put two into his head,” at which point, Onesimus crushes one of Seri’s totems and takes the form of a hummingbird. He flies up to the Bull Run in an attempt to disrupt Kincaid’s operations there.
Death and destruction. How could so much evil happen in so short a time? Olivia knew she should be sleeping. The others wanted to leave, and that would happen in the small hours of the night. But sleep eluded her as it did after they found poor Ronald’s body plastered to the wall of his own house. First it had been Gregory – torn apart by whatever monstrosity had attacked them on the road. Then the growing darkness around Abilene that spread as the months got colder. Next was William, breaking off from their group so unexpectedly. Olivia could only pray that he had been able to get the Patton family to safety. But then came Ronald. Such a grisly way to die for such a decent man.
Olivia shuddered and tried to nestle deeper into the thin mattress and patched blanket. By some miracle Father O’Connor was still alive. So that was something. Of course, he had the Good Lord on his side too. Some blessings just had to be taken for the gifts they are.
But Sheriff Dent had always seemed so solid. So competent. She had heard the rumors, the rumblings about him. Everyone in the county heard the gossip. And she had dismissed it as just that – gossip. He was the first thing she remembered in this torn land. Their wagon destroyed, unable to walk away, Olivia had expected to die alongside Gregory. Alone in the middle of nowhere. Dent had saved her life. He treated her wounds, gave her water, and most importantly, helped her get to Father O’Connor’s care. He’d said little, but Olivia came to know that the Sheriff was a quiet and solitary man. There wasn’t much cause for them to see each other after he’d left her at the church. The occasional passing in town maybe. He’d always been scrupulously polite, with a tip of his hat in her direction. Yet she never forgot the debt she owed him.
His intervention at the Patton farm and again at the mine had made her wonder how involved – or at least aware – he was of the strange happenings. Since he’d always left them after the battles concluded, there was no time to really ask more than what he offered on his own. She’d patched him up after the mine, but other than offering his thanks, not much more was said.
So seeing him dragged to Kincaid’s feet like a fugitive had been doubly a shock. First that soldiers would treat a lawman so brutally, and second that Dent – solid, capable Dent – would have been taken in the first place. Before she could demand an explanation, Kincaid had fired that monstrosity of a gun. Then poof! Dent was gone in a cloud of dust. The man who’d saved her died while she stood helpless to stop it.
Eyes dry, Olivia turned off that line of thought. She’d already cried herself out on poor Holden’s shoulder. Sheriff Dent was gone. Just like Gregory. Just like Ronald. Just like the poor Indian girl who had been turned into a fiend. And just like the countless innocents that girl’s evil – Joshua’s evil, Wu’s evil, Kincaid’s evil – had murdered.
And now the odd little group that was trying to challenge that evil was splintering. Olivia understood why Onesimus wanted to stay. There was merit to infiltrating the enemy. Yet she couldn’t do it. All of the horrors they’d seen were too overwhelming. What would she do if Kincaid truly was a monster and demanded that she spread more evil as a test? She could never let that happen, so leaving was the only choice left. Even if they weren’t sure where to go next.
Olivia managed to doze briefly while chewing on the injustices and tragedies. Ahiga’s urgent knock on the door woke her from a nightmare of blood and green dust. Hearing that Holden had been kidnapped shook the cobwebs from her mind. Not another one! Not one of ours! Those thoughts were all Olivia could think as they frantically gathered their things to give chase.
It did not take us long to find the leader of the soldiers. It was the man from the flying machine, of course. He spoke briefly to the black man, and then his soldiers came dragging a man with them; the man who had helped us when we fought those straw dolls. It was just a few days ago, but it felt like an eternity. So much had happened since then.
The leader of the soldiers spoke briefly with the sheriff. Said something about him killing a young girl. The sheriff didn’t deny it, but said it was the monster. And before anyone else had time to react, the leader pulled his gun and shot the sheriff. Turned him into green dust.
It could have ended right there. While some of our small group were horrified, others had their weapons out, ready to fire. Maybe they realised that there might have been a truth to what the leader of the soldiers had said. Perhaps the sheriff had been some sort of monster. Or they might have realised that we were outnumbered a hundred to one or more. Whatever the reason, there was no fight.
Instead, the black man and the leader exchanged a few more words, before the leader headed off in one direction, and we were taken to a nearby hotel, a house that was specifically meant to house paying guests. We were their guests, or so they claimed. It felt more like we were prisoners. They were polite enough, but I had the feeling that if we had tried to leave, we would not be permitted to.
At the hotel, we gathered to discuss what would happen next. The black man told us that this leader might well be the last man we were hunting, the one who seemed to be behind everything bad that had happened in the region. He did not explain further, however. And then he told us we should try to gain the leader’s trust, to become his new lieutenants.
He claimed that we would not be able to get out of town with all the patrols around, and that our best chance lay in pretending to want to work for the leader.
First, the way I saw it, it was unlikely that we would succeed. I very much doubted that he would trust us. Most likely, he wanted us dead. We probably knew far too much about him and his operations for him to trust us.
Second, chances were that if he would even listen, not just murder us in our beds, he would put us to some test to prove our loyalty. And that was a test I, for one, was not ready for. I had seen more than enough of his work, or that of his lieutenants. I had seen what they had done to my she’aszdáán. I did not for a moment believe that should he demand that we prove ourselves, it would be something minor. And something more than that, I, at least, was not willing to do.
She had done them no harm, been no threat to them, and they had killed her. Not quickly either. She had died badly, as had the other women they had taken. The ones they had left behind had at least died quickly. If they wished to test us, it would be a real test, not just telling us to kill someone who deserved it, as the black man suggested. At least the Singer Woman seemed to share my worries.
He seemed willing to consider doing whatever it took, however. And that worried me. It seemed he would be willing to kill innocents, perhaps even children, to achieve his goal. And while I agreed that the leader of the soldiers needed to be stopped, needed to be killed, there were things I was not willing to do to achieve that.
Third, we had survived. We had gone up against ugly odds, and survived. All of us. If the leader was who the black man claimed he was, he would most likely consider us a threat. Even if we truly wanted to work for him, we would be a danger to him; if we wanted to work for him, it would be greed, or ambition, or something like that guiding us. Enough to pose a threat to him. We had taken out at least two of his rivals, or former partners, or enemies, in addition to what my she’aszdáán had become, without suffering even one casualty of our own. Reason enough for him to fear us, and want us out of the way.
I found it likely that he would try to have us killed during the night. I had intended to sleep in the stables next to the hotel; partly because I had gotten used to sleeping apart from the others, even if the dreams had stopped, and partly because I wanted to hide away somewhere. But that meeting changed everything.
Rat Girl had been playing with a small straw bird. She was showing us how we could escape the town. That might let us find some other way to strike back; maybe wait for the reinforcements that the black man claimed were coming. Or perhaps find some other way of striking at them, where we could even the odds at least a little bit.
The black man refused to listen, though. In the end, Rat Girl, my Chinaman friend and I left the room, and retired to Rat Girl’s room. We seemed to be fairly much agreeing on what we should do; basically, Rat Girl would make us talismans so that we could turn into birds and fly out of town.
But if we did that, it was even more likely that the others would be killed, unless we could convince them to come with us. So I went back into the black man’s room to talk to them. Singer Woman seemed to be almost convinced. Exploding Man was not, but he had clearly not decided either; he told me to come back when we were ready, and he would decide then. Lightning Man said he would stay with the black man, and the black man, of course, would stay.
I went back to Rat Girl’s room and waited for her to finish the talismans, even for the ones who had said they would stay. That way, at least they might have a way to escape, should they need it. When they were ready, I took five of them, one for myself, and four for the others, and headed out to talk to them again.
Singer Woman agreed to come. She too was worried about what we might be asked to do to prove our loyalty, and though she did not want to leave the others behind, she seemed to agree that the best plan was to leave.
The next room was that of Exploding Man. I knocked, and he opened. He still did not seem to have decided, though I had a few things I could use to convince him. Then I noticed something. Behind him, outside, through the window, I could see a bird. The moon was full, and it was bright enough that I could see clearly, a bird flying low over the rooftops. Then it changed into a strange-looking deer. It jumped from rooftop to rooftop, and then changed into a bird again, back and forth between those shapes.
It came closer and closer, and I could not tear my eyes from it. It was close, on the rooftop right next to the hotel; right outside Exploding Man’s window. He had been talking, but finally seemed to realise I was not listening to him, and he started to turn around, as the deer sprang, and, in the middle of the leap, it turned into a man.
The man burst through the window, tumbled and got to his feet, then grabbed Exploding Man and disappeared. I could see him appearing outside, as he fled with his captive. Or fled? He could have killed me, had he wanted to, of that, I am fairly certain. He did not. He grabbed his target and ran.
He had been dressed much like the tribesmen we had fought earlier. The γát dìndé, whom the white men call Kiowa. And the old Hopi’s words came back to me: “You must beware of the howling wind.” That was what the γát dìndé’s leader called himself, or what they called him. So either he, or one of his people, had most likely just abducted Exploding Man.
Everyone on the floor seemed to have heard the breaking window. Including some officers. If our plan to escape was to succeed, we needed them to go back to sleep, or at least to their rooms, so I told them it was an accident, and that we would pay for the damages. That seemed to satisfy them; they did not ask any questions about the alleged accident. Instead they grumbled and went back to their rooms.
I told the others what had happened, and except from the black man, they agreed to come along. I did not say it directly, not then, that I intended to get Exploding Man back. I did not really know why; I was not sure I trusted him, or liked him. But he had tried to be kind back after we had found my she’aszdáán. He was a mystery, one that I would like to figure out. He had most likely saved our lives in the fight with the evil Chinaman. And this, at least, was something we _could_ do, something that had a chance of succeeding. So, in the end, we were five.
Using the talismans, we turned into tiny tiny birds. The Chinaman, Singer Woman, Lightning Man and me. And Rat Girl turned into a hawk.
We did not have much time, but we did manage to reach the outskirts of the town before it wore off, all the while following the trail of Exploding Man and his kidnapper. From the outskirts of the town, we went on foot, but then, so did they. There were several of them, and it was clear from the tracks that they were dragging Exploding Man with them, though he kept resisting. Meaning they wanted him alive for some reason, they did not seem to have hurt him badly. He would slow them down, at least some, and it would be easier to follow their tracks.