By David Hogg
Black Elk had sent a message. Something big was about to happen in Tombstone, and help was needed. Having met the enigmatic shaman in the past, Matthew Rising-Sun assumed that Laughing Crow had given him a more direct translation of Elk’s original words when she approached the Spiritual Society for aid. A small group had gathered and as a portal opened, they hastily prepared to travel. He was glad they had the aid of Mazatl to treat with the Spirits and navigate the secret paths of the Hunting Grounds. In accordance with the Society’s aims to learn more about the other cultures now living in their lands, Matthew had trained hard in the dojos of Shan Fan to master their mystical arts. However, the Shaman skills of his own people still posed quite a challenge. The final leg of their journey took them through a realm of inky blackness, and it amazed Matthew that Mazatl could tell one direction from another as Matthew had completely lost his bearings and could make out no details or landmarks at all. Eventually, a ladder came into view, illuminated by a ray of sunlight beaming down from an opening above.
“Welcome to the Kiva of Fathomless Depths,” announced Mazatl. “This site is but a short distance from Tombstone. My task here is done, so now I must leave you. Be careful as you make your way towards the town. I sense something is not right here.” Taking a few steps backwards into the darkness, he vanished from sight.
“Onwards to Tombstone then,” announced Alexander Sequoia, one of the Society’s diplomats.
Leading the group, Matthew headed cautiously toward the ladder, blinking the sun out of his eyes as he passed the dust motes dancing in the shaft of light that pierced the gloom of the kiva’s depths. As he began climbing the rungs, he lifted his gaze towards the opening to see a human silhouette blocking the sunlight. He heard the sound of a revolver cocking, and instinctively threw himself back into the darkness as a shot rang out. The bullet tore through the space he’d occupied seconds before to impact harmlessly on the earthen floor. Matthew rolled as he hit the ground, freeing the nunchucks from his belt in a fluid motion that ended in a combat stance. Around him his fellow travelers braced for action. Suddenly the darkness erupted with violence as lurching figures burst forth from the shadows. Rotted lips parted to reveal gap-toothed grins and milky eyes focused on their prey. As the Spiritual Society moved to repel their attackers, a cruel laugh came from above.
“I don’t know how Adler knew you were going to show up here, but I’m glad you finally did. It’s been terribly dull waiting around, there’s absolutely nothing to entertain a girl in this forsaken hole.”
Matthew glanced up to see a woman standing in the opening. Even in the shade, her face seemed eerily pale as if painted white, and the light shimmered across the taffeta folds and ragged silken ribbons of her dress as she leaned forward. He thought for a second, she had a strange hunched frame, before his eyes focused enough to make out that a snake languished round her shoulders, forked tongue flicking in and out. She raised her revolver towards him and fired, again narrowly missing as this time he ducked to avoid the fetid claw of a walkin’ dead.
“Well darn, I never was much of a shot.” Avie Cline laughed again, “That’s why I borrowed these boys from Papa Marias to throw you a welcoming party!”
Matthew transitioned from his feint into a leg sweep, bringing the abomination tumbling to the ground with a sickening smack. Whipping his nunchucks in an arc through the air, he brought them crashing down on his prone adversary’s head, shattering its decaying cranium. Across from the ladder, he could see Wei Xu holding several attackers at bay with a complex weaving stance, while the scout, Tawodi, hacked down another foe with her knife. Suddenly, Alexander strode forwards and raised an ornate, antique revolver towards Avie.
“This ends here, witch!” he cried, but in the split second before he could pull the trigger glowing playing cards appeared in Avie’s hand and he found himself unable to fire. A spectral serpent coiled around his arm and sank phantom fangs into his hand, causing him to drop the gun as his body was wracked with pain.
“You’re proving annoyingly competent.” Avie snarled as she adopted a sulky pout that instantly segued into a vicious sneer. “Perhaps it’s time I fini-”
Matthew interrupted her gloating by making a superhuman leap up through the opening, grabbing hold of her mid-jump and twisting them both round before rolling backwards to the ground and pushing out with his legs, sending her crashing into a rocky outcrop with a flipping throw. Matthew quickly regained his feet and spied several warding totems on the ground around the opening.
His efforts left Matthew panting in exertion. “I don’t know how you tricked your way past the spirits watching over this place, but I can assure you, you’re most certainly not welcome!”
As he spoke, he focused his chi energy and reached out towards one of the totems, channeling his power to the guardian spirit within. A phantasmal grizzly roared into existence between them, towering over the harrowed huckster as she picked herself up off the floor.
“Ugh, I was expecting some resistance, but this is more than I can bear,” she quipped. “Guess I owe Marias a favor.”
Another hand of cards appeared from the aether and with a burst of darkness she vanished from sight. The spirit sank through the ground to join the melee below. Spitting at the spot where the huckster once stood, Matthew turned and leapt back into the subterranean fray.
“Good evening, my ghostly friend!” Master Shou called as he entered the room. The spectral figure, lying on the bed, silently tipped its hat towards him in response.
“I’ve done a round of the town and had a word with a few of the locals”, Shou continued. “I believe I’ve identified our first ‘client’. There’s a grand lady known as Old Marge, keeps herself locked away in her manor, surrounded by mountains of wealth.”
The ghostly figure shifted to a sitting position, listening intently.
“I’ll give you the address, Mr. Haint, and then you can get to work. After a couple of nights of your performances I feel she’ll be more than willing to employ me to bring balance to her home and ‘banish’ the evil spirits. If by bringing balance I also have to ‘banish’ a few ornaments and artworks that will fetch a decent price, then all the better. There are plenty of folks in this town that are struggling, and I’m sure they’d appreciate a little help.”
The Haint smiled as he listened to the directions. Working with Shou had turned out to be a lot of fun. He faded from view as he walked through the door…
Their time in Gomorra had gone well, but Shou felt the town had a few too many ghosts of its own to be a safe place to run their little scam for long. Some of the friends they’d made there were travelling to the boomtown of Tombstone, so Master Shou and the Haint had resumed their travelling ways and journeyed with them. Having arrived and experienced the raucous nightlife of Allen Street, Shou knew that this town would be the perfect place for a show. Right now, though, he was in a small park towards the edge of town, relaxing in the shade of a Palo Verde tree which offered a welcome respite from the afternoon heat. He’d sent the Haint out to make a few brief appearances in the town’s many drinking places while things were relatively quiet. He couldn’t make a big deal of his powers of exorcism if people didn’t think they were being haunted, after all. He looked across the park to the bandstand, where one of his travelling companions, an aspiring young musician by the name of Stevie Lyndon, was giving a banjo lesson to his friend, Asakichi Cooke. The pair had an interesting past. She’d started learning the instrument when the two of them had been barricaded in a chapel during a gunfight back in Gomorra. Apparently, it’s a good way to calm the nerves. Since then they’d been close friends, and when Stevie announced he was leaving town she decided to follow. They’d been practicing while on the trail, and while the girl was getting quite good at her chords her quiet nature hadn’t yet given her the confidence to belt out hymns the way Stevie did when he played. Today Pedro’s braying and loud munching of the park’s foliage provided an enthusiastic, but out of tune accompaniment. Shou didn’t think he had a future on the stage, but the other two could likely make a few silver coins with their performances.
They seemed to wait for someone’s arrival, but he couldn’t recall who.
“Stevie!”, he called, “why are we here again?”
“Meetin’ some friends of the Wardens,” came the reply. “Not sure who exactly, but they’ll be good folk. We fought together back when I was with Chow’s gang in Gomorra, happy to do them a favor. Father Diamond over at the House of Many Faiths got the details, we’re just the meet and greet”. Stevie nodded in the direction of town. “Be nice to see some friendly faces. I was hopin’ to catch up with Jen – she’s a gadgeteer pal of mine with a sweet velocipede. Set out for this place with that crazy ape, Outang, not long ago. Word is though that they left town just before we got here. Somethin’ to do with that big shootout at the Clanton Ranch just outta town”.
Tombstone was still abuzz with rumor and speculation about recent events that had ended with the deaths of many members of the local law dogs and their outlaw nemeses, the Cowboy Gang. Shou wondered if he could claim The Haint was one of them, back from the dead for revenge. He’d have to check the photography parlor of Camillus S. Fly around the corner to see if his companion bore a close enough likeness to any of the deceased. As he mused, he glanced down the trail to see a group of people approaching, some clutching at limbs or limping.
“I have the feeling that those are the people we’re waiting for,” he remarked.
“We’re a little concerned,” said Matthew Rising-Sun, raising his glass to take a sip. The sarsaparilla wasn’t his drink of choice but it posed a lesser evil compared to the other beverages on offer at the Crystal Palace. The group had secured a large table to plan their next moves. “We came here to answer a call for help,” Matthew said, “but when we went to check in at The Office of Ancestral Affairs, there was nobody around. Well, except for Black Elk, and he was deep in conversation with the spirits and didn’t respond to us. We aren’t sure of the exact threat we’re here to fight, but they knew we were coming. Thankfully we took no serious injuries when they ambushed us.”
“The witch that led the ambush mentioned a couple of names,” said Alexander Sequoia, balancing his teacup carefully on its saucer. “Adler and Marias. I don’t suppose either means anything to you?”
“Afraid they don’t,” replied Stevie. “Truth is we’ve only been in town a day longer than y’all. Father Diamond might know them.” Asakichi interrupted her musical partner, “Um… if I may speak. From the description you gave your ambusher sounds an awful lot like Avie Cline. She was one of the performers in Hawley’s Fourth Ring circus back in Gomorra. I watched her act once with my father. She did… things… with snakes. Anyway, you’re all aware how that group turned out. If it was her, I wonder what she’s doing here, and if it’s linked to the Fourth Ring in some way.”
“We’d better be careful asking around,” Tawodi spoke in a lowered voice. “I’ve heard the Bayou Vermilion Railroad runs this town. I’ve fought alongside the Apache, and listened to tales of raids against the railroad where they encountered manitou…” Her sentence drifted off as the temperature around the table noticeably cooled.
“Relax,” said Master Shou, his voice calm. “This one’s a friendly spirit.” The Haint briefly drifted into view at his side, long enough to tip his hat in greeting before fading from view once again. “I’ve travelled across the country with him,” Shou said. “We have a business of sorts, and part of that business relies on gathering information. No reason we can’t pass on anything we hear that sounds relevant.”
His attention suddenly turned to his glass, which had begun to shake from side to side. It toppled over and spilled the dregs of his beer across the table. The screech of chairs suddenly pushed backward drew some looks from elsewhere in the bar as the others in the group reacted with shock when the droplets of liquid began to move, briefly forming the words ‘bird cage’ before pooling across the surface. “Apologies!” called Shou, “a spilled drink is all. No need for alarm!” he added, noticing some patrons’ hands had immediately moved to their holsters at the sound of alarm.
Once things had calmed down again, he addressed the table. “This is interesting. The Bird Cage Theatre is the name of an establishment just up the street. It’s one of the places I’d been considering a performance, so I sent my associate to check it out. I assume that little display means that there’s something there that’s worth us investigating.” Shou seemed to accept the sharp rap on the table as affirmation. “Well, my friends, it seems we have a lead to follow regarding this little matter.”
It wasn’t actually that difficult getting behind the scenes at the Bird Cage Theatre, thought Stevie, as he walked up the steps by the side of the stage to enter the backstage area. The venue put on a variety of acts and Stevie’s quick medley impressed the manager, Mr. Hutchinson. It helped that Stevie didn’t require a changing room as the theater was ‘fully booked.’ This proved something of a misstatement. There was space backstage to prepare in the prop storage room – indeed several other performers were also there cleaning and tuning their instruments or sitting by makeshift dressing tables getting into costume and make-up. On the other hand, the downstairs changing rooms and gambling hall proved completely off-limits, the restriction enforced by way of a hulking bald man with exceptionally dark skin, a menacing stare, and very little interest in conversation. Stevie weighed up the odds of causing a distraction and slipping past, but the massive bouncer’s frame was so vast he was sure he’d be crushed against the wall before he could escape if he tried anything.
Asakichi had accompanied him to the Bird Cage, and quickly ingratiated herself with the bar staff as her knowledge of the Maze’s headiest concoctions soon created a roomful of happy tipplers. Though she appeared frail, Stevie knew she’d tended bars in Gomorra and was more than capable of handling rowdy miners and cowpokes. He did think it a little odd how Hutchinson had had a vacancy just open up today. He resolved to press the manager for more information once things had quietened down. Something was clearly going on here.
As he prepared to go on stage, something interesting did indeed happen. A figure, identifiably female, but hooded and cloaked, burst into the room via the back door and stormed over to the guard by the stairs.
“Get out of my way, you oaf!” he heard her hiss. “Adler is not going to be happy when he hears this!”
That was one of the names that Alexander had mentioned. He had to get that information back to the Spiritual Society as soon as he could, but he couldn’t back out of the performance now. He took up a seat on the stage and launched straight into a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Goodbye, Liza Jane.” As he picked the strings and sang, he scanned the faces in the crowd, eyes drifting across the stalls and then up into the private boxes – the ‘cages’ that gave the theatre its name. He fumbled a note in surprise as he recognized some of the people seated above. What was Abram Grothe doing here, and was that Valeria Batten with him? A bad feeling began to rise in Stevie’s bones. He saw Asakichi doing her rounds and signaled to her to bring him a drink. He broke off mid-song as she approached, to a chorus of boos from the crowd, but he was nonplussed. Bigger things were at stake here than his reputation.
“Kichi, you gotta get word out to those Spiritual Society folks. I’m sure that Adler character they’re looking for is holed up downstairs,” he said. He tried to keep the panic from his voice. “What’s more, Sheriff Grothe is here. Something’s about to happen, and I bet it’s what they were called here for.”
As she hurried away with the message, Stevie made a big show of coughing and drinking to soothe his throat. “My apologies folks,” he grinned as best as he could. His eyes flitted up to where he saw Abram and he noticed the box was now empty. He gulped down his rising fear and thought back to what he said that time at the Parish. “You don’t gotta believe in anything. You’ve just gotta believe…” He had to believe that everything was going to be okay. He resumed strumming, this time taking comfort in the familiar opening chords to the hymn Hide Thou Me… “Just a little hiccup, folks, don’t you worry. Best get another round of drinks in, ‘cause this’ll be a night to remember!”