"Its quiet. Too quiet," Katie Karl grumbled, more to let off steam then anything else.
Part of the silence was due to the nature of her erstwhile "partner." You couldnt expect the Harrowed to make any noise, and when the Ghost stood still, he stood still. He didnt shift his weight back and forth, or nervously tap his fingers on his gun butt. Hell, he didnt even breathe.
The near-quiet nearly surprised Katie, given the rioting that had swept over almost all of Gomorra.
The screaming and fighting did provide cover for their activities, but apparently no one was foolish enough to riot near the Whateley Estate. Understandable, though the good guys could really use a noisy crowd right about now.
The Ghost didnt shrug, but Katie could hear it in his voice anyway. "OBannons the best either of us has. If he cant pull this off, sending a dozen men in there wont succeed either."
Behind them, the surviving forces of the Agency and the Rangers waited in the darkness. With luck, Boom-Boom would bring the Estate down and there wouldnt be anything left for them to do but mop up the remaining Whateleys.
* * *
Miles "Boom Boom" OBannon finished cutting through the sixth and final bar on the basement window. Carefully shifting his explosives pack, he slipped through the gap and dropped down onto the dirt-packed floor.
I blow this place up, and we can all go home, OBannon thought to himself, as he looked about for the one perfect spot he could use to complete his assignment... There!
The Agencys demolition expert carefully picked his way through the loose rock, slime, and other... less identifiable objects that covered the floor, listening carefully as he proceeded toward the central, load-bearing beam. Far off in the distance, Boom Boom could just barely hear gunshots and screams from the rioting that had swept across Gomorra, but the basement was strangely quiet.
Kneeling down at the beam, Boom Boom carefully removed the explosives pack and began the laborious job of planting it at the joint. That was when he heard the raspy breathing behind him.
Operating on reflex alone, he dove to his right. Something slapped into the wall above the explosive pack, passing directly through the space occupied by his head only a moment before. As he hit the ground, he twisted around to see a hideous, greenish-yellow creature emerging from the shadows. It slurped a sickly purple tongue back into its mouth and advanced on his position.
There was no trace of humanity in the monsters frog-like twisted body. Malrog Whateley, OBannon guessed, based upon intelligence reports received from the Rangers. Given the ferocity of the beast, Boom-Boom knew that he would either die, or die fighting. But that didnt phase him: hed never expected any other choice when his number came up.
Boom-Boom drew his .38 and tossed off a hip-shot. As if reading his thoughts, the Whateley creature jumped aside. It failed to leap entirely clear, however, and the shot pierced its left leg as it vanished back into the darkness.
Malrog was quiet... too damned quiet for OBannons taste. It didnt matter, though, because Boom-Boom could hear other sounds now - creatures and other... things scrabbling through the darkness, drawn by the sound of his gunshot. Instinctively, Boom-Boom checked his ammunition. Only five bullets left-not enough.
Boom-Boom knew that there was only one way to take out enough of the creatures in time.
Scrabbling across the basement floor, he threw himself onto the explosives pack. He felt the first cold, wet touches of the monstrosities scrabbling at his back as he threw the switch
* * *
The muffled explosion resounded out across the Estate grounds. Fire and smoke belched out of the window where OBannon had entered the basement. The side of the house started to blaze, but there was no indication that the Whateley manor would come tumbling down anytime soon.
"Hellfire and damnation," the Ghost muttered. "Cort! Looks like well have to do this the hard way. Give the order!"
The Agency man gave the order as Katie nodded to Dexter Simpson to do the same. The gates of the manor had already been forced open, and the Agency and the Rangers spilled through as one united force-only to be greeted by a horde of creatures pouring out the front door and windows of the Estate.
Per the backup plan, the Rangers took the lead. The Agency had lost two of its operatives-Melissa Thomas and the Pennsylvania Kid-in the recent rioting, and were scarcely prepared to head off the Whateleys massive counterstrike. Bobo LeVeux drew his opening hand as Katie, Dexter, and Mark Preston opened up into the enemy ranks. James Hastings and Los Ojos del Dios brought up the rear. Abominations like nothing Katie had ever seen in all her years charged at the group. But her men were well-trained, and managed to hold their ground and maintain their fire against the sweeping, monstrous horde.
Meanwhile, the Ghost and Williams split their charge, moving to flank the Whateleys. Williams signaled for Sister Mary and Nelson Roberts to back him up, while Windows Derek and Raymond Armstrong fell in line behind the Harrowed Agency leader. Once in position, all six Agency operatives opened up fire upon the horde, utilizing the crossfire to pepper the unholy aggressors first rank.
Bats, wolves, skeletons with cattle skulls... all charged fearlessly into the volley of fire. On one side, bone-thin men with femurs for weaponry and gnashing teeth sought fresh victims. On the other, a huge figure that seemed carved of stone waded into the fray. A twitching grey blob flowed throughout, bullets passing through its gelloid mass without effect.
Lightning and other mystic energies suddenly crackled down from the gables of the Manor, raining down upon the Coalition warriors. One bolt struck Mark Preston in the shoulder, sending him to his knees in agony. But before a second blast could strike home, Los Ojos del Dios raised his tattooed hands to the heavens, drawing the sparkling arc into himself where it dissipated harmlessly.
Moments later, the greyish puddle of ooze squirmed its way to the forefront of the Rangers. Katie plugged her last two rounds into it, only to see them pass into the ground without effect, and the creature slowly started to climb up her leg...
Bobo spun, a new hand of cards materializing in his hand. A miniature whirlwind came into existence directly atop the creature, sucking it up into the air and sending it spinning in a thousand directions. Katie glanced down at the rancid stain on her chaps. Thats never going to come out, she thought absurdly
"You be owin InI a favor, boss!" the huckster called out, turning back in time to send another blast of energy into the horde of wolves snapping at his heels. At his side, Dexter Simpson had drawn his shotgun and was blasting away, filling the space where the Cajuns former partner, Zeke Beauchamp, had stood once before.
Katie snapped open the cylinder on her revolver and sped-load as fast as she could. They were rapidly being outmatched, however, and their bullets having much less effect than she would like. Even with Los Ojos del Dios lending his mystical powers to the fight and Hastings sniping the Whateley hucksters on the upper floors, she wasnt sure they could turn the tide.
And then someone new came through the manor gates....
* * *
Captain Sim, Sun Shu-Jen, and Freddy "Fast Hands" Groves, backed by a bakers dozen of Gomorra criminals and ex-Typhoon crewmen organized by Harold Longfellow, came pouring into the Estate grounds. Quickly surveying the situation, Sim barked, "Longfellow, take your men to the right!
Sun, Frederick, youre with me!", and the newcomers spread out to join the fray.
The Rats Captain and his two fighters formed a living wedge and charged left, diving into the fight near the Ghost and his troops. Longfellow took his men to the right, flanking Katie to assist Cort Williams. The Agency gunslinger ducked beneath a swing from a huge stone club wielded by the lumbering Stone Man. Roberts was down. Longfellow couldnt tell whether he was unconscious or dead, but Sister Mary hovered over him protectively, beating off a sticklike creature with a pumpkin head with her one good arm.
"What brings you here, outlaw?" Cort called out to Longfellow. "Im afraid Im rather short of money for you to steal at the moment!"
The damn fools enjoying all this! Longfellow cursed mentally. "Open fire!" he screamed at his men. A ragged volley of bullets took the stone creature in the torso, chipping pieces of flint off in all directions. The creature paused, just long enough for Williams to reload. A split-second later, the Agency gunfighter rose up, drew a bead on the creatures head, and fired.
The Stone Man paused for a moment, absolutely still. The bullet seemed to leave no more than a small crack in his forehead, but the gash soon spread across its head, down its neck, and across its body. Before Longfellows disbelieving eyes, the Stone Man crumpled into a cloud of dust.
Williams turned to Longfellow, and the pirate-criminal smirked, curious to see if the Agency man would thank him. But the gunslingers eyes were almost immediately drawn over the Maze Rats shoulder, and his face turned pale beneath his tan. A dread sense of foreboding surged through Longfellows body, and he spun around to greet a monstrosity that had burrowed through the ground to emerge behind him.
The new creature was little more than a writhing mass of purplish-white tendrils emerging from an octopus-like body. In the reddish cast of the fire that was spreading across the manor, the beast was a nauseating and horrifying sight. Worst of all was a small patch where a mass of tentacles came together, forming an identifiably human face.
For a split second, Harold wondered if Nicodemus Whateley had undergone some strange transformation. But this abomination had to be some other degenerate member of the family-something new and awful that no one had seen before.
The creatures wide mouth spread in a malevolent smile as it swooped down at Harold, filling his field of vision...
* * *
Cort gaped in horror as Longfellows head was bitten clean off. The cutthroats men ran in terror - and Williams couldnt blame them - but hed be damned if hed allow the beast to get away with the vicious act.
Screaming in defiance, he ran forward, guns blazing. The Whateley creature dropped Longfellows body to the ground, swaying its head out of the path of Corts bullets. A few struck the creatures tentacles, but seemed to have no appreciable effect.
Dozens of tentacles extended to wrap around Corts legs and torso, hoisting him into the air. He struggled to free the spent cartridges from his gun as Enoch Whateleys grinning face swooped down to face him. Cort braced himself to take his final breath, just as a swarm of bugs slammed into Enochs face.
The distraction wasnt enough to cause him-it-to loosen its grip, but it did provide Cort the time and space he needed to reach deep into his duster. There wasnt time to thank Sister Mary for the timely miracle: as Enoch recovered, Cort lit the dynamite sticks short fuse and reached back for a long throw.
"Eat this!" he yelled, tossing the dynamite into the creatures mouth as hard as he could. Dropping him in surprise, Enoch coughed and gagged furiously to expel the explosive.
Two-second fuse, Cort thought to himself, throwing himself to the left towards Sister Mary. She had already thrown herself over Nelson, and he hit the ground just as Enoch Whateley exploded into a thousand pieces, driving bone shards into Corts back.
* * *
To the left of the Estate, Sim and his men drove as far forward as they could before the sheer mass of the opposition blunted their momentum. In a desperate move to hold their position, all three stood back to back, facing out in all directions. Sim cut and parried tirelessly with his cutlass, as Freddy discharged the last of his flintlocks into the red eyes of an approaching zombie. Clubbing the barrel of one pistol into the face of a second corpse, Fast Hands spun around, lifting the other to collide with its skull. He heard the crunch that signaled the walkin deads final end, and tossed his guns aside, moving on with the blinding speed that had earned him his nickname.
Sun Shu-Jen... was untouchable. Nunchaku in either hand, nothing could come near him. His strength was so great, his attacks so focused, that a single blow was sufficient to crush the skull of any opponent. Corpses of bats and wolves and shambling corpses flew backwards from him in waves... until a shot rang out.
Wincing in pain, Sim staggered back from the impact. Freddy was occupied with yet more of the progressing horde, but Sun ducked low and turned to see who had attacked his charge. Too close, a raven-haired woman stalked towards them through the darkness, wearing a simple black dress billowing in the night wind. She was attractive - of that there was no doubt - but it was obvious that her beauty wasnt her strongest asset-she wielded her Peacemaker with an experts hand.
"So you decided to start the party without me!" Tzipporah Whateley called out. "Now, we cant have that. Ive killed one man who considered himself a leader tonight... lets see if I can make it two!"
Tzipporahs voice took on a deep, rumbling tone and words flowed from her that defied any language known to man. Her firing arm whipped into position with inhuman speed and a burst of five rounds whistled through the air toward Sim.
There was only one choice. Sun Shu-Jen reached deep within himself, drawing on his remaining chi reserves. The screams, the gunshots, all died down to a low rumbling thunder around him. Time itself slowed before him. Sun could see the bullets carving their way through the air, and the contrails of their flight as they cut through toward their target.
In moments less than the blink of an eye, Sun moved into the bullets path, and swung his nunchaku once... twice... three... and four times. Four bullets were deflected away into the night air, but even Sun wasnt fast enough to catch the fifth as it swerved in its path. It impacted the Shaolin warrior squarely in the chest. The thunder in his ears suddenly sped up, and time leapt back on track as he crumpled to the ground.
Thats not possible! Tzipporah stared slack-jawed with awe. Perhaps I should be satisfied with my kills for tonight after all, she thought, retreating back away from the house.
"No!" Sim screamed, dropping to his knees beside his bodyguard. A twisted frog-like creature favoring its left leg tried to take advantage of Sims distraction, but Freddy moved to intercede. "I dont think so," he snarled, snapping the creatures head back with a left-hand spinning knuckle strike. He spun in a complete circle, the momentum adding extra force to the follow-up left back-kick which broke the abominations neck. Malrog Whateley hit the ground hard, and didnt get back up.
Sim reached beneath Suns head, lifting it up and looking into the mans eyes. They were dimming rapidly. Po Yu and his apprentices were guarding the outfits resources against the mobs, but there was obviously no chance of getting Shu-Jen out of the area in time.
Sun had killed dozens of men for the glory of Kang and the Rats, but his death was no easier for that. Continuing in his tradition of stoic bravery, however, Sun showed none of his agony. He merely looked up into the Captains eyes, nodded once, and fell back, his duty fulfilled.
Sim closed his eyes for a mere second-all the time he could spare. Then, rising to his feet, he screamed for his remaining assistant. "Frederick!" he yelled, lashing out unconsciously with his sword to kill a bat-like creature that soared out of the sky to his right.
"Captain?" came Freddys response.
"Signal the retreat. Weve done enough here, and no one will thank us. Chin and the others are at Grimelys Manor. Find them, and order them back to headquarters."
"What about you?" Fast Hands queried, driving one gloved fist forward and disgustingly deep into a soft-fleshed creature that had drifted toward them from above.
"Ive business to attend to."
Sim spared one last glance toward his bodyguard. "Leave him where he lies. Hed want it that way."
* * *
Los Ojos Del Dios glanced down, a tug on his pant leg. Some new threat? he wondered, pointing the palms of his hands toward the distraction, only to find a small blue demon kicking furiously at his shin. The creature didnt seem particularly strong or effectual - comical might be a better description.
Realizing he had been noticed, the demon glanced up. "Ummm, hi! Call me Francis. Anything I can do for you? Power? Women? Money? Cmon, bub, lets make a deal!"
Los Ojos reached down and grasped the creature by the neck. Lifting it up before his face, he stared at it with opaque white eyes as it continued.
"Okay, I can see youre a busy man. Tell you what. Youre a first-timer, so its 50 percent off. You cant beat that, can ya? Can ya?"
Los Ojos Del Dios frowned at the creatures flippant remarks.
"Hey, dont be sore, bub. Ill be around if you change your mi... Hey, that burns! Whatcha doin? Ouch! Stop it, you big bully...!"
White fire spread from the tattoo on Los Ojos hand, enveloping the small blue demon, then fading away to leave nothing but a trace of sulfur.
The Whateleys must be getting desperate, Los Ojos thought to himself before turning back to the battle.
* * *
Nicodemus Whateley strolled lazily down the road. The night had been good to him. A mildly annoying huckster, a Law Dog foolish enough to get in his way (though just fast enough to manage an attack that cracked his spectacles-and ensured him a particularly unpleasant death), and several dozen innocents. All dead. And Knicknevin ready for his grand emergence into his very own Kingdom.
Life couldnt get any better.
Up ahead, Nic could just make out gunshots and screams. Squinting, he noticed several shadowy figures, led by a white-shirted man, slinking out through the gates of the family Estate. Against one wall, he could make out a number of other figures climbing over the west wall. Lightning crashed down out of the sky, and bursts of ectoplasmic energy shot back and forth from the ground behind the wall into the upper stories of the manor. Granma Wilhelmina didnt raise no fools, Nicodemus thought as he turned and strolled back the way he had came, cheerfully whistling "Buffalo Girls" and flipping his deck into the chill night air.
* * *
As Freddy Fast-Hands led the remainder of Longfellows men back out the gate, he saw a shadowy figure standing to one side. He dropped into a combat pose, then relaxed as the figure stepped out of the darkness.
"What brings you here, Lakota?" the Maze Rat asked.
"You leave the field of battle before the war is won?" Joseph Eyes-Like-Rain asked.
Freddy shrugged. "Thems my orders. Cant say as I like em... leaving a fight before its done sticks in my craw. But Ive my captains men to look after, and his orders to obey. Besides, at least we were on the field. Where have you been?"
The fighter turned his back on the Indian leader and followed the other Rats toward Lord Grimelys, leaving Joseph to ponder the question.
* * *
The Ghost stood his ground fearlessly. Death held no terror for him. Hed seen Sim and the others try to reach him, to no avail. No matter. Tonight he was untouchable, and he would send these abominations back to Hell if it was the last thing he did. He fired, reloaded, and fired again, losing himself in the mindless repetition...
Derek shoved the Ghost out of the way as ethereal beams of energy, barely visible in the pale moonlight, drifted down from the upper stories of the Estate. They spread across Dereks body, flowing up to concentrate on his head.
Automatically, the part of the Ghosts brain that was still his own catalogued the hex. Mind Twist!
With a scream, Derek collapsed to the ground, grabbing at his skull. But before the Ghost could move to his aid, two huge grey wolves slammed into him, each grabbing one of his shoulders in its jaws. The Ghost fell to the ground, both dire beasts atop him. A third one advanced, ready to bite off his head at the neck. The Agency man threw all his undead strength into an effort to rise, but the wolves weighed too much...
There was a whistling noise, and the Ghost saw a crossbow bolt pass through the head of the third dread wolf. The other two wolves twisted to see where the bolt had come from, but refused to relinquish their grip. That was their mistake. A war club crushed ones skull, and a bare-chested Indian grabbed the other and casually snapped its neck.
The Ghost glanced over to his fallen comrade. Derek appeared unwounded, but he was twitching on the ground, frothing at the mouth. Nothing could be done for him now. "Armstrong!" he screamed. "Man down! Tend to him!"
Turning to the Indian war party that had come over the west wall of the Estate, the Ghost counted his reinforcements. Three women, six men, and their leader, Eagle Rock. One of the Sioux was conspicuously absent.
Eagle Rock, who had snapped the wolfs neck, dismissed the Ghost with a single glance. That boys going to be trouble... if he survives the night, the Agency leader noted dimly as he got to his feet.
"Ferrets Eye, White Horse, into the house," Eagle Rock commanded. "The rest of you, with me. Lets finish..."
There was a sudden scream from one of the women, whom the Ghost didnt recognize. For a second he wondered if the Sioux were truly as tough as they claimed...
Then he saw the reason for the outburst. Skeletal hands, dozens of them, had emerged from the ground around and amidst them. An Indian squaw had been grabbed and pulled down before any of the Sioux could do anything, and now the rest of her people were occupied fending off other attacks.
The Ghost stomped down hard, shattering the finger bones of one of the undead that clutched at him. Fortunately, he was on the outskirts of whatever unholy planting field the skeletons had been placed in. The field before him was a sea of arms, reaching out to grab at the Sioux or drag themselves free of the fresh earth. Above it all, the Ghost heard a high chanting, like some unholy child reciting a nursery rhyme. "All... fall... down!" a womans voice screamed to the heavens.
The Ghost stepped clear of the skeleton field, taking stock of the battle. The intervention of the Rats had helped. The Rangers were killing the few creatures that still remained near the front of the house, and Cort and Sister Mary had regained their second wind and put down the abominations on their other side of the house.
But it was too late for the Sioux woman. A sharpened fingerbone had cut her throat, draining her blood out onto the ground.
The Ghost could save others. He looked for the worst patch of fighting, and stepped toward it... as an enormous explosion sent the front of the house shooting outwards onto the weed-infested lawn. The only time the Ghost had heard a noise that loud was the moment when the gun had gone off by his ear, a lifetime ago...
* * *
"Mother of God!" Katie swore.
Striding... no, floating through the wreckage of the front of the house was Wilhelmina Whateley. Green mist-like energies floated about her, lifting her clear of the burning wreckage on the ground. In the smoke, Katie could see drifting skeletal faces, like the glimpses sometimes seen in the vapors from burning ghost rock.
"Fire!" she screamed without thinking. Simpson, Preston, and Hastings opened fire a second later, as Bobo unleashed bolts of strange black lightning at the woman. Los Ojos del Dios chanted prayers to a god that seemed to have closed up shop for good, lending blessed miracles to the mix. A second later, Cort and Sister Mary followed suit, opening fire from the east flank.
But the barrage might as well have been a light drizzle to Wilhelmina. Even her clothes were undisturbed by the attack. Wilhelmina cackled wildly, and Katie was sure the eldest Whateleys voice was not entirely her own any longer. It was if dozens of voices spoke through her, laughing at the Coalitions futile effort.
Arrows and bolts flew through the air from Katies left, bouncing off Wilhelmina with just as little effect as the Coalition bullets. Glancing in that direction, however, Katie made out the Ghost striding forward, a party of Indians at his back.
"No more!" he bellowed, leaping directly for Wilhelmina. His fingers extended into long, sharp claws, and he moved with the speed of the supernatural dead.
Wilhelmina gestured in his direction, and bolts of blackest magic shot out, but the Ghost shrugged them off and kept on coming-only to be brought up short as Wilhelmina grabbed him by the throat and lifted him entirely off the ground. Everyone stopped firing, unwilling to hit one of the Coalition co-leaders.
For a moment, silence reigned in the area, and all eyes looked to the unholy figure of the Whateley matriarch as she addressed the Ghost.
"You begin to annoy me!" she screamed, in that terrible voice of many voices. The Ghost slashed at her, but his claws were as ineffectual as the bullets and missiles had been. Wilhelmina tightened her grip further, and Katie could hear the Agency leaders bones cracking from twenty feet away.
The elder Whateley dropped the Ghost to the porch, almost casually, and he did not rise.
Katie was prepared to order another volley, but paused. Wilhelmina cocked her head, as if scenting the air. She seemed... distracted. Which was all the better as far as the Rangers leader was concerned. Nothing they had done so far had gained her attention, let alone caused her harm.
A demonic smile crossed Wilhelminas face. "You! I sense you, old man! Did you think you could hide from us?"
Another momentary hush fell across the yard as an aged Indian stepped through the gates. Katie knew him-like Wilhelmina Whateley-only by reputation.
The Ghost had described him to her once, but had dismissed him as unimportant.
Now, however... nothing in his manner or stride could be dismissed. Joseph walked with the confidence of a natural leader, boldly approaching Wilhelmina with little other than his pride to protect him.
Behind her, Katie heard Los Ojos Del Dios whisper, "Another moment foreseen... now arrives. The first battle for the Last Kingdom? Heaven help us all."
But what can Joseph do...? Katie wondered.
* * *
Enough! Joseph thought, as he watched from the gate. Hopes-in-Winter gurgled her last fading words as her lifes blood spilled onto the hands of the undead rising through the Whateley lawn.
He had held back, as the spirits had commanded - and another of his people had died.
Like his son had died.
Like all the others...
Joseph strode down the twisted path leading to the wrecked house. He closed his eyes for a moment, and felt new strength flow through him from the Spirit Realm. When he opened his mouth, it was not just his voice that came forth, but the voice of a hundred of his bloodline, all heralding his arrival in unison.
The very ground shook from the impact of the single word. Joseph knew that the force within the old woman could not resist such a challenge. The manitou that guided her would not permit it.
The old woman hovered before the front door of her devastated house, putting no effort forth to escape. Despite her blindness and the strength of Josephs voice, she carried herself with the sighted confidence of one who knew herself to be invulnerable.
Of course, her confidence was not without cause. Joseph understood her power; he felt the shame of having granted some of it to her. He had held back when he should have led the Sioux forward, fearing the future that their offensive might unleash. His visions had revealed one possible future-a future in which the Sioux embraced a power beyond comprehension to combat the worst evils the Valley would ever face, but at a cost he could not allow them to pay.
Now he realized that his hesitation may have brought that very future to pass. First some of the Alliances greatest fighters had died in the first assault on the Whateley Estate. Then others perished, as Elijah led his unholy Flock through the streets of Gomorra. Now Hopes-in-Winter, a young woman who had done nothing to warrant such a pitiable death, lay buried with the restless dead.
Perhaps Joseph would die with them. Perhaps then he might repay some small measure of his debt to Gomorra - and the world. Regardless, the time for hesitation was over. Perhaps the Master Demon would walk the earth, even if Joseph moved to stand in its way. Perhaps Wilhelminas crimes, and the fact that she now meant to strike down all these good people, were all fated to occur. But Joseph had stood idly by long enough.
All of those thoughts, and more, passed through Josephs mind in a second. Setting aside all doubts, he looked full into the face of the most evil human being he had ever met in his long life.
"So, old man," Wilhelmina cackled, drifting to the ground and stepping off the porch. "Youve come seekin your death, have ye? Pay no mind to the mess. Those Agency and Ranger gnats have been busy, but their efforts are for naught. Once the Masters settled in, well soon have things fixed up again. Not that any of you will be here to see it."
"Nor will you, witch!" Joseph called out. Around him, the wind was rising steadily, and lightning crackled in the distance. Katie and the other Rangers cleared away from the path leading him to the elder Whateley. They could do nothing but bear witness to the coming spectacle. "The vision has come, and in our arrogance, we were not prepared. Your master walked free, old woman, while those who would help us bickered amongst themselves. But I have journeyed into the wilderness to seek forgiveness. I have atoned for the sins of our folly. And I am not afraid of you-or your master-any more."
With that, Joseph simply extended his arms forward.
It wasnt energy that coiled along them and flew towards Wilhelmina. To those standing nearby, it seemed as if the mist itself had come to life. The mist... and whatever lie within it. The Ghost, barely able to turn his head as the neck bones knit themselves back together, saw small children scurrying towards Wilhelmina. Katie Karl glimpsed young Confederate soldiers, marching off to war against the demoness. Sister Mary saw angels of the Lord Almighty, armed with flaming swords. Los Ojos Del Dios clenched his eyes tightly closed rather than glimpse whatever forces Joseph now commanded?
Eagle Rock and the other Sioux came closest to glimpsing the truth of the spirits that had come to Josephs aid. Such power! Eagle Rock thought to himself. If I survive this day, I must learn to harness it!
What Wilhelmina saw in that brief second, no one would ever know. The spirits directed by Joseph slammed into her full tilt. In the blink of an eye, the green mist about her was shattered into a thousand fleeing shards. Some of the shards fought back, spirit-to-spirit, but most were consumed in the wake of the tremendous spiritual attack.
Joseph strode forward amidst the battling spirits, meeting Wilhelminas lunging attack with the strength and speed of his strongest ancestors.
"Die, you ignorant puppet!" Wilhelmina screamed, wrapping her hands around Josephs throat.
There were no more hexes, no more spiritual favors. No mystic Bibles or tomahawks. Joseph could do nothing but wrap his hands around her throat and tighten his grip. The awe-struck onlookers watched as the clouds of spirits coalesced about the two struggling elders, becoming the funnel of a veritable whirlwind of opposing forces that spiraled into the heavens above. Spirits and manitou alike were hurtled from the whirlwind and faded away as they canceled each other out.
"This cannot be!" Wilhelmina screamed. Just as surely as she was choking the life out of Joseph Eyes-Like-Rain, so, too, was the Indian killing her.
"It is!" Joseph screamed back. "The moment of your reckoning comes now!"
Even as Joseph felt the life energy draining out of him, he could see that Wilhelmina Whateley was... withering. No doubt he looked the same way to her, if she could in fact see at all through her dim eyes. The Sioux leader knew at that moment there would be no escape for either of them?
* * *
"Damnation!" Jebediah Whateley swore. From his vantage point at a window of the upper manor, he could clearly make out the bitter battle - and what could only be Wilhelminas final moments.
"What is it?" Dolores asked, dancing across the attic floor. "Have we won? Have we won?"
Jebediah sighed wearily. "We are undone. Granmama is dying, Dolores. Francis is gone, Enoch and Malrog struck down, Tzipporah fled, Nicodemus the gods know where."
"But I want to plaaayyy..." Dolores whined petulantly.
"Enough time to do that after Knicknevin has emerged the victor this night," Jebediah replied, taking her arm. If he emerges the victor, he thought to himself. Knicknevins defeat had never been a consideration... but then again, neither was Wilhelminas death.
Now was the time for improvisation. The family had prepared a rendezvous spot in town, and the secret tunnels they had constructed were still safe from the Coalition and its allies. At least he and Dolores could escape. With any luck, the others would all make it to the rendezvous point on their own?
* * *
Katie was the first to approach the motionless bodies lying near the manors porch. She was careful not to get too close, though; both looked dead, but with what shed just seen, anything was possible.
"Bravo!" a voice called out from behind her. She spun, guns aimed and ready, the surviving members of the Coalition training their guns in unison with her own.
A Chinaman stepped from the shadows, applauding the assembly gently. "Sim." Katie hissed. "It didnt have to end this way, you know! If youd stayed and fought, Joseph - and a lot of others - might still be alive!"
Sim glanced briefly about the Estate grounds. "Maybe it would have worked out like this no matter what. Besides, what makes you think Josephs dead?"
Katie knelt, and sure enough, Joseph was still breathing. Shallow, slow, but breathing nonetheless. She gestured to Los Ojos Del Dios, who stepped cautiously forward. He knelt and held his hands above the body, not quite touching the Lakota. After a few seconds, the Ranger shook his head. "It is beyond my power to save this man. His time has not quite come, Senora Karl, but it will arrive-soon."
The Ghost returned to his feet and shook his head once, as if to assure the neck bones had set properly, then strode over and kicked Wilhelminas withered corpse. "You reap what you sow, old woman," he snarled. "This isnt vengeance. This is justice."
He turned to Katie, and she involuntarily shrunk back. She had a Rangers distrust of Harrowed, but the Ghost had never given her any reason to doubt his control over the manitou... until now. His eyes glowed red, and his lips were drawn back in a feral snarl.
For a moment, she wasnt sure if he planned to go around her or through her. Then he paused, and tilted his head as if... sniffing the air. Then he nodded, once. "This isnt the end of it. Karl, see to the injured, then meet me at Lord Grimleys soon as you can. Armstrong, Cort, Sister Mary... youre with me." Without another word, the Ghost strode across the ravaged lawn and through the gates.
Eagle Rock stepped forward. He glanced once at Los Ojos, but seem satisfied with the Mexicans sightless prognosis. "I agree. Elijah and his Flock are still on the loose, and as powerful as Wilhelmina was, a greater power may still arise. We go to fight it. Alone."
"But what about Joseph?" asked one of the Sioux women, Singing Feather. "He might not yet be beyond our powers to heal..."
"Enough!" Eagle Rock answered. "Joseph returned at our moment of greatest need, but he has served his purpose. Now it is up to us." Without another word he strode out through the gate as well.
Most of those remaining on the Whateley grounds-especially the other Sioux-blinked in surprise at Eagle Rocks callousness. But they had already discovered what happened when they split their forces. In silence they followed their de facto leader.
Bobo, Los Ojos, and Hastings tended to the wounded, and Dexter strode over to Katies side. He didnt dare put an arm around his leaders shoulder, but his voice carried the sympathetic tone she had come to rely upon from her closest friend. "You okay, Katie?"
She shrugged. "One Ranger, one riot. Maybe handling the looters would have been better. We didnt seem to do much here."
"Dont say that," Dexter replied. "Maybe Joseph was the only one with the firepower to take the witch down, but he wouldnt have had the opportunity if we hadnt thinned out her minions. It was worth it - count on that."
Katie nodded, then turned to Sim, who was slowly easing back into the shadows and out of sight.
"Youre with us, Sim. I need an extra pair of hands, and youre elected. Help me grab Joseph here and get him over to Grimely Manor."
Sim glanced at Katies guns, which had been leveled toward his belly. "I find your argument... most persuasive, Miss Karl. And my men are already there, and I am going in that direction... so why not? But I do have one question: why are we bringing Joseph with us?"
"Hes still alive - there must be some reason for that," Katie replied, kneeling down and slinging one of Josephs arms over her shoulder. "Los Ojos might rely upon fate and predestination to make his decisions, but me, I believe in making my own choices. This ones mine."
She turned to go, then took one look back. The fire from Boom Booms explosives had spread; the Estate was done for. Best they leave before some thrice-damned concoction exploded from the heat and killed them all.
"Lets get the hell out of here."