The Bone Cliffs lay on the south slope of Shadowturn Peak, a treacherous expansive of sheer ledges and jagged holes. Coal didn't lay close enough to the surface for East Forge Consolidated to sink their shafts into the Bone Cliffs. Gems sometimes appeared to attract lone prospectors, but even they were few and far between. Horace Kettle and his friends – the Kobold Callow Tongs, the twelve-year-old geologist's assistant Nathaniel Pewter, and his bodyguard, the Hill Woman Cora Drake – hadn't come for gems or coal. They had come for the tomb.
They stood together on one wide ledge, Kettle, Drake, and Nathaniel looking over the jagged country while Tongs laid the charges for a gunpowder bomb. General Lusk, Kettle's riding mammoth, sat on its haunches at the base of the trail leading up to the cliff, watching them with disinterested eyes that looked like dark orbs of ice. The bomb would open a hole in the roof of a tomb buried in the Bone Cliffs – hopefully leading to unfathomable riches left over by the Shadow Empire which had once called the Shadow Country home. Even if it didn't have riches, Nathaniel's master, Professor Quillman Arq, would pay Tongs and Kettle handsomely for their efforts. Kettle hoped it would be worth the trouble of coming out here.
His long rifle rested on his shoulder, and he scratched his tangled beard while he supported the gun with the other. "Tongs." His voice came in a rumble. "We there yet?"
"Almost." Tongs stepped back, a match in his clawed hands. "A miracle of explosive engineering, if I do say so myself, is ready to meet its destiny." He knelt down and touched the match to the fuse. "Stand back, my friends, and wait."
Drake pushed up her broad-brimmed hat, revealing her scarred, dirt-stained face. "You worried, Kettle? Afraid of the Shadow Empire's ghosts, lingering here and sniffing around after your soul? Or do Nox tunnel boys like you not believe in those sorts of demons?"
"I'm worried about Snow Boars," Kettle replied. "And what happens if one sniffs us out."
Nathaniel stared at the Bone Cliffs, wiping a gloved hand across his round spectacles. "But do you think there are ghosts and such, Mr. Kettle?" he asked, staring at the fuse. "Wraiths, who haunt the hills. I'm not sure if I believe in such things. But I have studied the Shadow Empire – or what our records tell of them – and they supposedly utilized a great deal of magic, long since forgotten, which gave them control over—"
"Nathaniel." Drake patted the boy's shoulder. "You cover your ears, little fellow. About to be a bit of a noise."
He dutifully covered his ears. Tongs' explosive charges went off, blasting chunks of ice and gray rock into the ear in a brown and blue fountain. Pebbles clattered as they fell down, turning the whole of the Bone Cliffs musical for a precious few seconds. Kettle turned back to the charge. He had seen explosives at work before – in the mines and during his time with the 44th Tunnel Regiment of the Iron Guard. He had to admit that Tongs carved a nice hole. The round circle led straight into the tomb below. Kettle walked over, wafted away some steam, and looked down.
The others joined him. The hole led into a larger chamber, shrouded in complete darkness. Kettle pulled the lantern from his belt and lit the candle, while Tongs began setting out a stout rope and lowering it into the newly made hole. The rope vanished into the darkness, rustling as it descended. Tongs gave it some slack until its weighted base clicked against hard stone. He tied it down on an obliging stump, tested the strength, and then gripped the rope and began his descent. Tongs hummed to himself as he clambered down – his Kobold eyes letting him manage in the dark. The humming echoed through the chamber, sounding strange as it bounced across the distant walls. Kettle took the rope next, and then Nathaniel and Drake. They made their way into the tomb.
Lantern light gleamed across the ancient stones, washing over towering pillars covered in row after row of indecipherable carvings, showing the geometric, spiky letters of the Shadow Empire. Nathaniel could perhaps read them, after his tutelage under Professor Arq, but they looked like the random whittling to Kettle. Statues stood in the corners, armored figures clutching stone swords and axes, their helmeted heads facing nowhere in particular. Kettle hoisted up the lantern, shining light all through the tomb. A stone sarcophagus leaned against the far wall, covered in the same curling script. Silence filled the tomb, and their every step clicked as loud as thunder. It seemed like they had wandered into some silent church – a holy place – and their very presence had disturbed the service. Despite the cold, a trickle of sweat ran down the back of Kettle's neck.
"Great God." Nathaniel fumbled in his coat for a pad and pencil. He moved to the nearest pillar and started transcribing the ruins, scribbling them down madly. "This is where some hero of the Shadow Empire – maybe a ruler or a warrior or something similar – was laid to rest."
"Or a rich fellow?" Drake stepped closer to the tomb. "Buried with his treasure."
"No riches are apparent, my dear." Tongs approached one of the statues and tapped the helmet with his claw. "Merely ancient stones." The clicking filled the silent tomb. Tongs turned to the sarcophagus. "Unless this worthy had his fortune bound about his body."
Drake nodded. "Necklaces, rings, jewelry and the like. Could be."
Kettle faced the coffin as well. A fortune could be hidden beneath that stone lid, wrapped with line after line of strange writing. The lines surrounded the carving of a solemn face, more of an outline than anything else, with hollow eyes that stared out blankly. "Boy." Kettle waved to Nathaniel. "Can you read this?"
"I can, sir – or at least get a rough idea of what it means." Nathaniel joined them and squinted at the carvings. His freckled face screwed up in thought. "He's a wizard. A sorcerer. Apparently of rare power. His name is Ballask Bight." Nathaniel turned back, fear appearing in his eyes. "He was known as the Worm-Eater. I can't really tell why." He paused. "Miss Drake? I'm not sure if you should open the sarcophagus. There all these legends about the sorcerers of the Shadow Empire. They could challenge death itself supposedly – and win. You know the Bone Fellows?" Kettle had seen Bone Fellows occasionally – gaunt, skeletal figures who had no qualms about taking any dirty job in the Shadow Country. "They say that the Bone Fellows are the Shadow Country's sorcerers, cursed to live forever."
"Rumors, my dear child." Tongs' forked tongue flashed past his lips. "Nothing more."
"He could have riches on him, little fellow." Drake's fingers brushed the sarcophagus. "If he did, I could live comfortably. Move off of Shadowturn Peak. Never wake up shivering again." She smiled to herself at the prospect. "Confound it. I say the gain is worth the risk."
Drake moved before anyone could stop her – not that Kettle wanted to. She pulled a long-bladed Hill Man's knife from the sheath on her belt, stabbed it into the side of the sarcophagus, and wrenched open the lid like it was a can of beans. The lid creaked to the side. A torrent of dust flew from the sarcophagus, the motes glowing in the lantern light. The coffin's top crashed down, striking the floor and casting a resounding crack through all of the tomb. The whole chamber shook with the crash. Kettle thought his nerves had been bolstered by jungle ambushes and cave-ins, but he still jumped back at the sheer noise of the lid falling.
They stared at the coffin's contents. Ballask Bight the Worm-Eater stared back – a skeleton in a dark robe, his bony hands folded peacefully over his chest. The bones had gone brown with age, all the flesh rotted away to leave a skeletal grin and hollow eye sockets. Nathaniel shuddered and turned away in sudden fear.
"It's all right." Drake patted his shoulder. "You ain't gotta be ashamed. You ain't seen a dead body before. I have. Many times." She moved closer to the skeleton, her eyes darting to the fingers. Rings, each a geometric square or diamond of dark gold, flashed in the lantern light. "There's nothing scary about them. Once a body is dead, they can't cause you pain anymore. In life, they could – and with no limit. But once they're laid to rest, they're no threat to anyone." She raised her knife for the cutting and grabbed for the skeleton's wrist.
The skeleton's hand moved first. It shot like a snake, the boney fingers unfurling as the rings sparkled, and grabbed Drake's wrist. She didn't cry out or even look particularly surprised, but tugged hard, and wrenched the skeleton from its coffin. They tumbled back together and fell onto the tomb floor. Drake rolled over, hissing and kicking, and Kettle reached for the heavy pick-axe handle on his belt. He yanked it out and swung the blunt end at the skeleton, aiming to shatter some skull. Tongs grabbed Nathaniel's shoulder and tugged the boy back, before he could be hurt. Kettle was grateful for that. He brought down the pickaxe handle, putting all his strength behind the blow.
Before it landed, Ballask Bight's foot rammed into Kettle's chest. Kettle's ribs bent as he fell back and crashed into a stone pillar. His shoulders ached, and he slid down. Ballask Bight rolled away from Drake and came to his feet, his tattered robe fluttering about him like a set of dark wings. He had started to talk, his bony teeth chattering and making strange noises that sounded like the rustling of feet through dry grass and twigs.
"Goddamn skeleton." Drake came to her feet. "Keep Nathaniel back, Tongs. I don't want him seeing none of this." She pulled her revolvers, both guns clearing holster in the same moment and taking aim at Ballask Bight. "You don't like me disturbing your sleep, skeleton?" she asked. "Hand over some of them rings. I'll leave you to your rest."
Ballask Bight stared back. His hollow sockets traveled down the barrels of Drake's guns. Then he clapped his hands. The dry bones clattered together, forming a rattle that echoed through the tomb. Bight began to talk again, making more of his rattling words.
"Nathaniel?" Drake asked. "What's he saying?"
"I'm not sure, Miss Drake. We've never really heard the language of the Shadow Empire spoken." Nathaniel stood on his tiptoes, trying to look past Tongs. "I think he's using some kind of magic – using his sorcery to talk with the mountain."
The stones shook. Kettle could feel them moving under his feet. Dust poured down from the ceiling and wallowed up from the stone pavements, billowing out like fog. The gray cloud wrapped around Bight, covering him completely. Larger stones crashed from the ceiling. One pinged against Kettle's shoulder, already raising a welt. He scrambled toward his three friends as the fog wrapped its tendrils around the great pillars and the statues. The tomb was coming apart. Kettle and the others needed to leave.
Kettle pointed in the direction of the rope – hidden by the billowing dust. "Let's go."
"Truer words never spoken, Kettle." Drake holstered her revolver. "Bight's gone – and he took his rings with him."
They scrambled back to the rope as the tomb shook itself apart. One of the pillars tilted over, creaking slowly like a tree under the lumberjack's axe, and then tilting down and falling. Kettle grabbed Nathaniel and dragged him across the pillar's shadow, while Tongs scampered along and Drake jumped. The pillar collapsed, sending up even more dust. They ran through the rising dust cloud and reached the rope, which formed a dark line against the gray. Drake helped Nathaniel up and the boy started to climb, slipping and wincing and muttering apologies as he hauled himself up. Tongs and Drake followed. Kettle grabbed the rope, but stopped and glanced over his shoulder. He looked back through the crumbling tomb. For just a second, he could swear that hollow eyes sockets gazed at him from the cloud. Kettle shook his head, grabbed the rope, and followed his friends.
Tongs offered a hand and helped Kettle up to the surface. Kettle left the hole and pressed his boots to the solid rock, feeling a sigh of relief whistle through his teeth. "By the tangled beards of the Under Kings," he muttered. "That was a close call."
"Indeed." Tongs knelt down and kissed the frosty stone with his tongue. "A magus of the Shadow Empire – some fell sorcerer and master of the occult and the arcane. He brought the best of his doomful magic against us and yet we remain, unbowed and unharmed." He patted his chest. "Why, I feel as if I could drink my weight in Hill Man's Tea and climb several mountains!"
"Better not try it." Drake pointed to the slope next to the cliff. "We got company."
Several large, white shapes emerged from the slope, approaching the four delvers. White fur, dotted with frost and snow, covered the dozen bulky, lumbering shapes which emerged from the falling snow like blades from scabbards. The Snow Boars had arrived. They pawed at the snow, waving their fat snouts and shaking their curved, knobby ices. Kettle had been afraid of this. Being killed by a Shadow Empire wizard seemed far less likely than simply being gored to death by a Snow Boar. Kettle knew which one was more likely to happen.
"Kettle?" Drake patted her holsters. "We gonna put some holes in that ugly bacon?"
"We start shooting, they'll charge." Kettle withdrew his rifle anyway. He pointed the gun at the Snow Boars, fingering the trigger as he glared at the beasts, if only to have something to do. "I've seen a Snow Boar take a direct hit, right through the brain, and still keep on running. This is their territory. Let's head down to General Lusk and get out of here."
"Very well," Nathaniel agreed. "That seems a fine course of action."
They left the rocky ledge above the hole and crossed the snow, moving down the jagged slopes. Drake pulled one of her revolvers and Kettle kept his rifle aimed at the Snow Boars. The shaggy creatures followed, ice crunching under their hooves as they snorted and growled, which sounded like snuffling arguments. General Lusk sat up, sniffing the air with his trunk and shaking his tusks as Kettle and the others approached.
Tongs scrambled to General Lusks's side. "Certain death faced twice today." His claws gripped General Lusk's shaggy fur and he started to climb. He grasped Nathaniel's hand and helped the boy up as well. "And twice overcome. I certainly feel that numerous glasses of Hill Man's Tea are warranted as a well-deserved reward."
"Drink yourself into oblivion later, Tongs." Kettle reached General Lusk next. "We still need to escape."
He scrambled up and moved onto the mammoth's neck, settling into position while Drake clambered aboard. He made sure that his friends sat secure on General Lusk's palanquin, and then tapped his legs against the mammoth's cheeks. General Lusk released a discontented sniff, turned about, and started to move. Kettle cracked his heels again, increasing General Lusk's speed. The mammoth moved into a gallop, running down the path as he released a powerful trumpet. Kettle kept General Lusk on track while he glanced over his shoulder. The Snow Boars watched, their dark eyes gleaming in the sunlight. They wouldn't follow. The delvers had been in their territory, and now they had left. That was why Kettle liked animals – no matter how monstrous they were, they still played by understandable rules.
That couldn't be said for men – or for fate. Drake looked sour as she sat on the palanquin, an arm looped around the band of a saddlebag. Nathaniel noticed it as well. "Miss Drake?" he asked. "Are you all right? We witnessed an act of sorcery and encountered a living skeleton. Yet, you seem rather glum."
"Glum's right, little fellow." Drake sighed. "I could've had those rings. I could've had money."
"Be glad you still have the breath in your lungs, Miss Drake." Tongs grinned with sharp teeth.
Drake glared at the lizard. "I'll cut the forked tongue from your mouth, Tongs, you goddamn lizard." She adjusted her broad-brimmed hat, shading her face. "What has my life been, but one set of disappointments after another? No sooner is a task attempted than it is failed. Those rings could've changed things around for me, and they're gone now – buried in the dust."
"Oh." Nathaniel bowed his head." I'm sorry, miss."
"Ain't your fault." Drake gave him a weak smile. "Nobody's fault but mine."
Kettle turned General Lusk down a paved road, which curled down to a larger highway and led to Peak Town. "What do you happened to Ballask Bight? He get himself buried when he brought down the tomb?"
"I hope so." Tongs shrugged. "What else would he do?"
"He's a wizard, ain't he? Maybe he re-write the rules of the way things are. Slip out of a door that's been closed and bolted, that sort of thing. Maybe he escaped."
"Oh dear," Nathaniel said.
"Sweet Savior," Drake said. "I hope not."
They all felt the same way.
General Lusk trudged into Peak Town in the later evening, when night's shadows had already extended over Peak Town. Kettle rode the mammoth through the cluttered, dirty main street of Peak Town, past the multicolored shades of lanterns in colored glass hanging from the awnings of every gaudy, shabby structure. The usual collection of ragged miners swarmed the streets, getting a head start on the night's entertainment. They packed the saloons and restaurants – the workers of East Forge Consolidated, seeking whatever relief they could find. Thugs and robbers of all three species – humans, Kobolds, and Nox – waited in the alleys with knives and clubs, eager to roll drunks and earn their dinner that way. Kettle rode General Lusk to the one of the bigger structures in town, the three-story Coal Dust Inn, and brought the mammoth to a halt.
He and his friends swung down from General Lusk's shaggy sides and reached the soggy, snow-covered ground. Kettle tied General Lusk to the hitching post while Tongs stood next to him, his hands in the pockets of his checkered suit as his tongue flickered in and out of his mouth. He stared across the street, at the Whistling Dragon – the biggest alehouse in Peak Town. The Whistling Dragon featured its brass namesake on the squat roof, a statue built around the smokestack so it always seemed to be releasing black breath into the sky.
Tongs' tongue played over his sharp teeth. "You'll want to talk to Professor Quill over our sojourn's results, no doubt?"
"Was planning on it," Kettle agreed.
"Do so." Tongs stepped past Kettle. "It's the Hill Man's Tea for me."
He crossed the street, heading for the batwing doors of the Whistling Dragon. "Sir?" Nathaniel asked. "You don't want to come in?" He stepped after Tongs, holding out his hand like he could drag the Kobold back. Tongs didn't seem to notice.
"Don't waste your breath." Drake pointed to the inn. "Come on. Let's see the professor."
They walked into the Coal Dust Inn and headed to the counter of the little cafe on the first floor. Professor Quillman Arq waited for them, seated on a stool with his stubby feet swinging. The little Gnome smoothed down his spiky silver hair as he swiveled his stool to watch them approach, and he smiled like they came with gold in their pockets, instead of arriving empty-handed. He had already ordered for them, and three plates of steaming goat meat sat on the table, with coffee for Drake and Kettle and melted chocolate for Nathaniel. Kettle stabbed a chunk of goat meat into his mouth, chewing continuously to handle the fat and gristle. The Coal Dust Inn wasn't known for its food – but it would always beat the company store.
Professor Arq clasped his hands and waited while they ate and drank their fill. Kettle could tell that he was holding his questions in. When Kettle had eaten most of the goat meat, Professor Arq leaned closer – nearly falling off his stool. "Well? What are the results, Mr. Kettle? Was the tomb in the agreed upon location?"
"And was it a Shadow Empire tomb? Not some Hill Man's graveyard?"
Drake nodded. "None of my people would lay their dead in the earth like that. They couldn't rise up and greet the Iron Savior's return that far under the stone."
"Very good, very good." Professor Arq bobbed his head. "And what did you discover?"
Nathaniel slurped his chocolate. "We entered the tomb, found the skeleton of a Shadow Empire wizard named Ballask Bight, and he came to life, and destroyed the tomb. We narrowly escaped with our lives." He grinned as he related the story. "You should have seen the skeleton, Professor Arq. I fully believe that all the Bone Fellows are the remnants of Shadow Empire mages, kept alive by their various spells. Mr. Bight had been dead in a sarcophagus for centuries and only our entrance woke him up." He paused. "I think he might have escaped."
"Oh." Professor Arq adjusted his collar. His small stature made his suit seemed ridiculous on him – just like Nathaniel looked a little ridiculous in his coat and scarf, and hat with flaps. "Well, that can be troublesome."
"What was the Shadow Empire like, professor?" Kettle asked.
"Ah. Now that is the question, isn't it?" Professor Arq waved his arms, indicating the walls of the Coal Dust Inn and the mountain beyond. "We know very little about the Shadow Empire. They knew magic and their warrior-mages used that knowledge to carve out vast reaches of territory. They constructed towering castles and fortifications, crushed native resistance, and went about exploring the furthest reaches of magical study. Then, for some reason which we cannot fathom, they collapsed. Perhaps it was civil war, or perhaps their experiments backfired and wiped them out. They left behind the Bone Fellows, but those living skeletons are not the most talkative – mostly because no one really wants to ask them."
"I certainly don't," Drake agreed.
"But imagine what daily life must have been in such a place?" Professor Arq looked at them over his spectacles. "Magic at your beck and call. Your every wish waiting to be granted, if you could recite the proper spell. Magical creatures summoned from the air itself to do your bidding. Why, it must have a paradise – a land of glory. Or, a very frightful place. I suppose we'll never know."
"Ballask Bight knows." Kettle stabbed his fork into the last lump of goat meat. "If he escaped."
"And what will he do, I wonder?" Professor Arq asked. "What must it be like, to be rudely awakened from death's slumber, and then stumble out to find your country vanished, your castles naught but ruins, and your very form free of flesh? It must be quite troubling, I should think." He tapped his chin. "Could I pay you to search for Ballask Bight? And study him?"
Kettle stuck his fingers in his beard. "Study him?"
"I won't do it." Drake folded her arms. "I'm sorry, Professor. You pay me well to look after you and Nathaniel, but not to march myself straight into the Gates of Hell. I don't want to go after a fiend like that." She left out the part about trying to steal the fiend's rings, but Kettle didn't blame her. "Let's just hope Bight got himself buried in the tomb and daylight won't never find him."
The door to the Coal Dust Inn creaked open. Professor Arq waved pleasantly. "Ah, there is the proprietress of the establishment across the street? What's the name of that charming public house? The Spitting Griffin?"
"The Whistling Dragon," Kettle corrected.
He turned on his stool. Sure enough, Petal Pettigrew stood in the hallway. Kettle nodded his head politely. Pettigrew wore a fine lady's gingham dress and tasteful emerald earrings, which shone against her dark skin. A dark-skinned native of the Seething Sea Islands, Pettigrew had come out to Peak Town when outsiders first made their settlements on Shadowturn Peak. She had managed to keep her saloon in business, despite pressure from Kobold and Nox gangs, as well as East Forge Consolidated. That meant she was formidable, which the dimples around her eyes, growing gut, and gray in her hair could not change. She headed toward them, a frown settled on her face that seemed like it would not easily lift.
Drake returned the glare. She didn't like outsiders – whether Nox, Kobolds, or Islanders. "What do you want?" she demanded.
"Easy, Drake. She's no foe of ours." Kettle turned around on his stool and looked up at Pettigrew. "Miss Pettigrew, it's good to see you. How goes business at the Whistling Dragon?" He hated making small talk, and knew how mechanical he sounded.
"Well enough, Horace Kettle. Well enough." Pettigrew folded her fingers. "All things considered." Her eyes turned to Nathaniel. "Who's the child, eh? Who would bring a child to a place like this?"
"You mean Peak Town?" Kettle asked. "Or the world?"
Nathaniel seemed confused by the comment. "Um, I'm Nathaniel Pewter, ma'am. I'm Professor Arq's apprentice in geology, naturalism, archaeology, and—"
"I'm sorry I asked." Pettigrew turned back to Kettle. "Your earlier question – how's business. You meant well by it, I suppose. And I suppose I told the truth. It's going well overall. Miners always gonna want to drink in someplace in bright and dry. So I sell Hill Man's Tea and imported whiskey and even a big of Midnight Meat, for them who really want to try something strong, and I make me a fair profit. But there is violence in such a business. It builds and it breaks and it causes trouble for me. Bodies to clean up. Broken furniture. Drinking interrupted. And right now? Trouble is building. The one building it? Your lizard friend Tongs."
"Goddamn typical." Drake slammed down her mug.
"What's he doing?" Kettle asked.
"Story-telling." Pettigrew pointed across the street. "Amassed quite the audience. Go and see, before that audience causes trouble." She leaned closer to Kettle. "And I'll tell you something that'll hurry you up. Part of his audience? Silver Patrolmen, led by Commander Wellman himself. Another keen listener? Mr. White."
"You're sure?" Kettle's fingers closed around his fork.
"You don't mix Mr. White up with another man." Pettigrew grinned. "He's got that kind of face."
Mr. White was a Bone Fellow – the only Bone Fellow dwelling in Peak Town. A skeletal figure, he lurked in the backs of various bars and saloons, not drinking or eating – as Bone Fellows can't do such things – but simply enjoying music and conversation and waiting. People would come to see him, with money and the name of someone they wanted dead. Mr. White would kill for that money, though nobody knew what he spent it on, and then return to his dark corners, where he waited in silence for the chance to kill again.
"A most distressing turn of events," Professor Arq muttered.
"Mr. White." Drake turned to Kettle. "If he wants Tongs, I say we acquiesce. That Bone Fellow's killed more men than the Frost Flux. He's goddamn lethal. Let's leave him be, before he decides to kill us too."
But Kettle had already stood. "Tongs is my friend. I'm going after him."
"I'll go as well." Nathaniel hopped off the stool. "I like Mr. Tongs and I have no desire to see him harmed."
"No, you won't." Drake pointed to his chocolate. "You ain't finished your meal yet. Sit down and eat. You want to grow up strong, don't you?" She sighed as he left the stool. "I'll go and pull out that lizard, so you don't have to." She paused. "But if you want to help, why don't you go upstairs and start looking through them big tomes of yours. See what you can find about Ballask Bight the Worm-Eater. See if anything interesting comes up."
"Of course, Miss Drake," Nathaniel agreed. "But you're sure you don't need any help?"
"Nope." Drake gritted her teeth. "We'll be fine."
She turned for the door. Kettle followed her, leaving Nathaniel and Professor Arq at the table. Pettigrew turned without a word and started into the thoroughfare. Nathaniel waved goodbye as they walked outside, into the cold night air. Kettle shivered, despite himself, and turned up the collar of his coat. He narrowed avoided stepping in a pile of mammoth dung, weaved around a passing wagon, and then reached the Whistling Dragon. Drake and Pettigrew followed him as he brushed through the batwing doors and walked inside.
The Whistling Dragon consisted of two stories of sturdy, dark wood – well-lit by electric lights and lanterns. Gambling tables sprawled out before the bar, where homemade Hill Man's Tea in fat fruit jars shared space with colored bottles of imported whiskey. A dragon's head had been mounted above the bar, horned and snarling like it would burst forth from the wood and attack. Smaller stuffed dragons rested in the corners, used to hold coats and hats of the various guests. Those guests sat their tables, or before the roaring fireplace in the corner, gambling and drinking in quiet silence. Commander Wellman sat with a half-dozen Silver Patrolmen in their gray uniforms, resting at a table near the back. They listened to Tongs, who gave his speech in the center of the saloon.
Tongs had a jar of Hill Man's Tea in his claws, which sloshed as he gestured. "The treacherous Bone Cliffs, my friends – a treacherous region indeed. Why, a poor scaled son of the earth such as myself would never visit such a place, where Snow Boars and jagged canyons provide endless danger, if I did not have a good reason? But one makes a risk for a reward. And what a reward did I find, but a tomb of the Shadow Empire – with a dead wizard at rest within!"
"He's been going on like that for the past hour," Pettigrew muttered.
"But no sooner did we enter said tomb, when said wizard springs up from his grave – eyes aflame – and comes at us, hungry for our souls." Tongs raised his glass and slurped greedily. His bright eyes flashed as he set down the jar. "Luckily, I am a quick thinker and stood ready to defend my friends from the undead fiend."
"What a yarn he's spinning." Drake spat on the ground. She pointed to the corner. "And look who's listening."
Mr. White sat in a table near the fireplace. The flames rose and fell, crackling and covering his thin form in wild shadows. Mr. White wore a long, black greatcoat, buttoned up to the collar, though Kettle didn't know if he could even feel the cold. A black hat, with a small crown and a wide brim, covered most of his face. He turned slowly to look at Tongs. Kettle could see his face – his skull, scrubbed white and free of cracks. Hollow sockets and an empty nose looked outwards. With no features, it was hard to tell what exactly Mr. White was thinking. But Kettle only had to see the way he coiled up, perched and ready to act, to know that Mr. White was interested.
A drunk miner, enraptured by Tongs' tale, raised his tankard. "What happened to the sorcerer?"
"Perhaps we destroyed him," Tongs mused. "Or perhaps he escaped, to haunt the hills as an everlasting wraith, and rebuild the glory of the Shadow Empire in the bones and blood of any innocent unfortunate enough to cross his path." He paused for another sip. "Or perhaps we did defeat him, and return him to the grave which he—"
Kettle crossed the room. He walked over to Tongs, grabbed his arm, and dragged him to the bar. "We're leaving. Tale-telling time is done." He plucked the glass jar from Tongs' hand and set it on the table. The bartender, a portly fellow with a gut bulging under his apron, waddled over. Kettle tossed a few coins in his direction. "Come on."
Tongs hung his head. "I was simply celebrating the fact that we were not torn to pieces by an enraged skeleton. Is a fellow not entitled to his stories?"
"Not when they'll get him killed." Drake reached Tongs next. "Drink in the Coal Dust Inn if you want. We're taking our leave."
They hauled him across the floor of the Whistling Dragon. Tongs didn't resist or protest, but hung his head and made disconcerted hisses. The patrons of the saloon returned to their drinks and card games, the story forgotten. Kettle focused on getting Tongs to the door. With Drake's help, they managed. They crossed the floor and neared the doorway – only for a silver uniform to block Kettle's path. Commander Wellman stood in the doorway, his hands on his waist. The other Silver Patrolmen stood up, hands resting on their revolvers or the handles of their smooth, black clubs. The Silver Patrol enforced the will of East Forge Consolidated, beating down rebellious miners, guarding coal and cash shipments, and generally using violence to pursue their ends. Kettle didn't doubt that was what they were doing here.
Commander Wellman ran his fingers along the upturned edges of his waxed moustache, tracing them to their stiff points. "Mr. Tongs." He leaned closer. "I am sorry that you're leaving so soon. Shadowturn Peak belongs to East Forge Consolidated. Any treasures discovered in any tombs, thusly belong to the company."
"Company don't own the Bone Cliffs," Drake muttered.
"Let's designate that area as contested." Commander Wellman withdrew his club. "And then adjourn somewhere else. For further conversation on other matters."
Drake exchanged a glance with Kettle. He nodded slowly. It was time for violence. "I'd prefer not." Drake lashed out, reaching for Commander Wellman. She surprised him and he swung his club too quickly. Drake avoided the swinging club, then grabbed Commander Wellman's arm and yanked him to the side. His boots left the ground as she tossed him straight into a table of gamblers. Commander Wellman crashed down, splintering the wood under his bulk and sending cards, coins, and drinks everywhere. He coughed out an order as he fell and the other Silver Patrolmen drew their clubs and moved in – but it was already too late.
The gamblers sprang to attack, eager to slam their fists into any obliging bodies. Miners from the bar jumped up, ready to join in. The whole of the Whistling Dragon erupted in chaos as the brawl consumed the place. Kettle wasn't surprised. Tensions boiled over in the Whispering Dragon once every few weeks, and it would take hours before the place had calmed down. Furniture, bottles, knives and fists were put to good use as the drinkers battled. The fracas would be perfect to sneak Tongs outside and make it to the street.
Commander Wellman came to his feet. "Stop them!" He shouted to his men above the din of the battle. "Restrain the lizard. Bring him here – and for Savior's sake, leave him in shape enough to talk, you pack of dullards!"
The Silver Patrol made their way through the brawl, trying to stop Tongs from leaving. One club bashed against Kettle's back, nearing knocking him off his feet. He turned and attacked with a series of rapid punches and jabs, driving powerful blows into the Patrolman's chin and throat. The Patrolman gasped and stumbled, drooling over his spotless uniform. He tried to use his club again, and Kettle reached for his pickaxe handle first. He yanked out the handle and rammed it with both hands into the Patrolman's gut. The poor fellow folded up and struck the ground. Another Patrolmen moved toward Drake, and she bashed him down with a revolver butt and kicked him before he hit the floor. One Patrolman got his hand on Tongs' shoulder. The Kobold lunged back and bit him, blood shining on his red teeth.
They made their way through the Silver Patrol and reached the door. Kettle barreled through first, with Tongs and Drake close behind. The three delvers raced past the boardwalk and into the street, their boots crunching on the fallen snow. Kettle let out a cry of relief and then rested a hand on his back. The skin felt tender under his fingers. It would ache worse tomorrow. Still, at least they had managed to leave the Whistling Dragon in one piece.
Tongs licked the blood from his teeth. "A true tragedy – I didn't get to finish my drink."
"Let me shed a tear for all the booze you ain't consumed." Drake pointed across the street. Cold starlight illuminated the street now that many of the lanterns had been extinguished. General Lusk remained at the hitching post, protected from the night's cold by his thick fur. "Let's hop aboard that mammoth and depart afore more troubles finds us."
"Too late." Mr. White's voice, a cold rustling like the tongue spoken by Ballask Bight in the tomb, came from the boardwalk. He must have slipped out when the fighting started, and simply waited for Kettle and the others to leave. Mr. White strolled onto the snow and walked around Kettle, Drake, and Tongs. He faced all three of them, his hands in the pocket of his coat.
Drake glared at him – the only one not afraid. "You goddamn bag of bones." She pulled aside her mammoth fur coat, revealing the pistols in the holsters at her side. "I've heard stories of you. Stories of you Bone Fellows. The last remnants of the Shadow Empire. Is that right?"
"As far as I know." Mr. White shrugged. "Heard plenty of stories about where we come from. Shadow Empire seems the most plausible. But I tell you, Miss Drake, I didn't come here to talk to you about my origins." He pointed to Tongs. "I came for a talk with him. So step aside and let me have my word – or I will leave you in the snow and you won't mind the cold."
"You goddamn—" Drake drew – but Mr. White moved faster. Before Drake could even clear holster, Mr. White sprang at her. His thin limbs blurred as he pulled a long-barreled revolver from a holster in his coat, then drove the butt down into Drake's head. Drake stumbled back, stunned by the sudden pain. Mr. White grabbed the scruff of her neck and tugged, pulling her closer. He pressed the muzzle of his pistol into her gut. Drake coughed and gasped.
Kettle reached for his rifle and Tongs fingered a knife, but Mr. White's skull-face turned to them and clicked its teeth together. "Don't you try it. I can shoot you both. The bullets will go through Miss Drake here and strike you dead. She ain't that fat. The slugs won't have trouble getting through her and going to you."
Kettle froze. Tongs did the same. That seemed the only option. "What do you want?" Tongs asked.
"A conversation. With the living, not the dead." Mr. White cocked his head. "About Ballask Bight."
Before Kettle could reply, the batwing doors behind him swung open. Petal Pettigrew leaned out and tossed a bottle of imported whiskey through the air. It hurtled down and smashed into Mr. White's side. The bottle broke. Glass and amber liquid spilled over his coat and splashed his skull. "Run, Kettle!" Pettigrew cried. "Now's your goddamn chance!" Drake rammed her elbow into Mr. White and knocked him down. He tumbled into the snow. As he fell, Drake leapt into the snow and scrambled across the street. Tongs and Kettle followed.
They ran through the empty street, snow flying from their feet. Kettle thought he might have stepped in mammoth dung, but he didn't care. He kept running and reached General Lusk in a few quick strides. Kettle leaned over and pulled the rope from the hitching post while Tongs and Drake scrambled onto the mammoth's back.
"Miss Kettle?" Nathaniel stood in the doorway of the Coal Dust Inn, bundled up and with the earflaps on his hat pulled up. "I think I really need to talk about Ballask Bight. I think he might have survived the tomb's collapse after all – and I think he's going to cause quite a bit of trouble."
"No time for that, little fellow." Drake pointed to the door. "Go on inside. Go to the professor's room, get under the covers, and sleep well."
"What sort of trouble?" Kettle asked. He paused, his heart pounding. General Lusk's trunk played about him, slipping around his shoulders like a friendly arm.
Nathaniel stepped down from the boardwalk. "He was a sorcerer of rare power – and a necromancer."
"What's that mean?" Kettle asked.
"He can raise the dead." Nathaniel's voice came in a breathless gasp.
A bullet hummed through the air, driving into the snow near General Lusk's padded feet. General Lusk snorted in panic, his trunk moving in a snaky circle. Kettle motioned to Nathaniel. "No time. We need to flee. Come aboard and we'll talk as we flee." He didn't give Nathaniel a chance to reply, but took the boy's hand and hauled him closer to General Lusk. Nathaniel grabbed the furry side and clambered up, Drake and Tongs leaned down and pulling him up by his coat. Kettle scrambled onto General Lusk's back and spurred the mammoth to action. General Lusk turned from the hitching post and hurried down the street.
Mr. White stood in the center of the thoroughfare and fired again. The shot whined past Kettle's head as he rode past. He extended his rifle and fired back. The gun bucked in his hands, but the shot merely kicked up snow between Mr. White's spindly feet. General Lusk broke into a gallop, snow flying in white puffs from his heavy feet, as he pounded away down the street.
Tongs released a hiss of relief. He tapped Nathaniel's shoulder. "What was the trouble you described, my dear boy?"
"Ballask Bight's a necromancer," Kettle said.
"And that is?" Drake asked.
"He can raise the dead – animate corpses, give power to skeletons, talk to ghosts." Nathaniel shivered. "Necromancers were rumored to be included amongst the Shadow Empire's mages. They say that's how the Bone Fellows survived, the skeletons animated by dark magic in some bizarre bid for immortality."
"And we let him free." Kettle groaned slightly. "Back into the world of the living."
There didn't seem to be anything more to say. General Lusk kept riding, leaving Peak Town behind and riding out into the countless ridges that swathed the slopes of the mountain. Kettle didn't have a destination in mind, though he supposed his cabin outside of town would suffice. Simply getting away from Peak Town seemed good enough now.
General Lusk galloped down the winding road and hadn't left Peak Town far behind when Kettle realized they were being followed. He glanced over his shoulder and stared back at the road. A white shape, pale against the darkness, rode their way. Mr. White hadn't given up. He rode on a white horse, a scoped rifle in the sheath on the steed's side. The horse outmatched General Lusk's speed, and frost flew from the pounding hooves as it rode closer. Kettle had reloaded his own rifle. He wondered if he could pick off Mr. White as the Bone Fellow neared – knowing that General Lusk's shaggy bulk presented a perfect target. He turned to his friends. They had seen Mr. White as well, and fingered their weapons and waited. Blood had frozen from Drake's nose, making her lips look reddish and brown. She would be willing to fight.
"We'll stop." Kettle patted his rifle. "Hop off of General Lusk. Find cover in the snow. Pick off Mr. White as he rides nearer."
"Mr. White?" Nathaniel asked. "Was he the fellow shooting at you?"
"He has that honor, my dear boy," Tong explained. "He's a Bone Fellow and hired assassin – one of the most feared killers in all of the Shadow Country."
"A Bone Fellow?" Nathaniel perked up. "We need to talk him. Mr. Kettle, could you please stop General Lusk? And put away the rifle, if you wouldn't mind." He smoothed down his coat as he explained. "The Bone Fellows used to be the residents of the Shadow Empire. Mr. White may know Ballask Bight. He may have some clue as to what Bight intends to do." He turned to Drake. "Miss Drake, please – we really need to talk with him."
Kettle turned to Drake. She stared at Nathaniel, and then slid her revolver back into its holster. "The boy's right," she admitted. "We'll talk."
"Very well." Kettle patted General Lusk's head. The mammoth slowed. Kettle didn't know if Nathaniel was right, but he didn't relish a gunfight with Mr. White. Talking things over certainly seemed the better option. Still, he turned around and kept his rifle in his lap as Mr. White rode closer, casually aiming the gun at the Bone Fellow. He didn't think that would dissuade him from trying anything – but he had to do something.
Mr. White rode to General Lusk's side and stopped. He tapped a bony finger against his chin. "Well." He tapped his jaws together. "Looks like you made a smart decision. Your first of the night, I'd say. Feel like making another?"
"Sir, we, uh, accidentally resurrected Ballask Bight the Worm-Eater." Nathaniel offered a weak-smile – a child trying to ward off discipline. "I'm sorry."
"It ain't your fault." Drake stared at Mr. White. "We was looking for money, if you must know. But Ballask Bight came alive and apparently escaped. Caused part of his tomb to collapse as well. Now Nathaniel says he's some sort of necromancer. What do you know about that and all the Shadow Empire business?"
"I don't know much about the Shadow Empire." Mr. White lowered his head. "But I know Ballask Bight. I remember how much he loved the old days. He refused to let them end. His magic wasn't strong enough to prevent the empire's fall, or even his own death. He'll be looking to bring everything back, even if he can't." The Bone Fellow's lower jaw hung open slightly. "He must be stopped. I'll do it. Bight was my friend, and I owe it to see him returned to rest, in what's left of his tomb. But it won't be easy and, though the words burn as they leave my mouth, I'd like to ask for your help."
Tongs wiggled his claws. "Is it really our business?"
"It is." Kettle turned back to Mr. White. "What's your plan?"
"Are there any Shadow Empire ruins nearby?" Mr. White asked.
Drake nodded. "Shadow Stones. They lie around here and there in clusters. Hill People always stay from them, on account of curses, and wraiths, and witches who dwell there. Closest one's not far from this road. It's a graveyard for mountain creatures too. Something draws them to the Shadow Stones, and they set themselves down and die, so that their bones lie together." She shivered. "That's where you figure Bight's gonna go?"
"I know it." Mr. White gripped the reins of his horse. "Lead on."
Kettle turned General Lusk back into the road. The mammoth returned to a trot – no need to run now that Mr. White rode alongside them. They rode in silence for a while, nothing but the clicking of the white horse's hooves against the stone and the shuffling of General Lusk's feet, along with the whistling of the night wind. Drake gave them the instructions to the Shadow Stones. The Hill Men must have known all the ruins in their land – and knew to avoid them. Kettle didn't consider himself a superstitious fellow, but he still found himself gripping General Lusk's fur tightly, and keeping his eyes on the moonlit darkness and the falling snow, like he expected something terrible to be there, waiting for them to ride past.
Nathaniel seemed even worse. He stayed close to Drake and Tongs on the palanquin, his eyes darting about behind his spectacles. He peered over the edge of the palanquin and stared down at Mr. White. "Sir?" he asked. The Bone Fellow faced him. "Do you remember anything at all about the Shadow Empire?"
"Not much. Images sometimes. They come and go." Mr. White shrugged. "I remember it was a beautiful place. But it's all gone now. Swallowed up by the dust of time, and leaving only a few sets of ragged bones behind." He lowered his head. "Of course, Bight doesn't want to believe that."
"We all have our dreams." Kettle stared up at the heavens. "Bight wants the Shadow Empire back. Drake wants money. Tongs and I want to leave this place for good. And most of the time?" He squinted at the sky. "Our dreams just cause us trouble."
"True enough," Mr. White agreed.
"Do you have a dream, sir?" Nathaniel asked.
"I don't remember." Sadness filled Mr. White's voice. Kettle had never pitied the Bone Fellows – but he did now. At least he had good memories.
Tongs pointed ahead. "I believe we approach our destination."
Sure enough, the Shadow Stones lay at the end of the trail. Jagged ledges and tall cliffs bordered the trail, creating a narrow canyon that terminated in a wide, round chamber. The Shadow Stones rested in the center of the Box Canyon – half a dozen stout rocks jabbing skywards, like spear points stabbing up from the ground. Geometric letters had been carved into the sides of the stones, and the strange symbols seemed to catch the moonlight and glow with a slight, green light. All around the Shadow Stones, bone lay in unruly piles. Skulls, rib cages, and limbs jumbled together in a mass, so that Kettle couldn't tell one skeleton from the other. He could see why the Hill Men feared this place. He didn't feel happy about riding up to it himself.
Mr. White tugged at the reins of his horse. "Is he there?"
"He's there." Kettle could see the outline of a skeletal figure, robes like tattered wings, standing before the stones. He pulled the Iron Guard spyglass from his pocket and extended it, then brought it to his eye and looked inside. Ballask Bight did indeed stand there, carrying a spar of warped wood that must have passed for his staff. He waved the staff and a gray sort of mist emerged from the stones and settled over the bones. The bones started to shift and merge. Shapes stood amongst the Shadow Stones– skeletons of the beasts, granted animation by the Shadow Empire's necromancy.
Kettle folded up the spyglass. "He's raising up the dead beasts."
"Poor Bight." Mr. White shook his head. "He can't raise up the Shadow Empire, so he's flailing at whatever dead he can bring to life. He's gotta be put out of his misery." He turned back to the delvers on General Lusk's back. "Any ideas?"
"I think I might have something that can help." Nathaniel reached into his coat, fumbling through his various pockets. "I grabbed this from Professor Arq's assorted artifacts when I visited his room." He withdrew a small silver rod, big as a sword handle. "It's a kind of counter-necromantic device, which will return bones to their proper state – when it is violently applied, of course." He moved to the edge of the palanquin and leaned down, holding the silver rod out to Mr. White. "Would you care to wield it, sir?"
"I would." Mr. White took the artifact and tucked it into his pocket. He turned to Kettle. "You have anything else? Maybe something more substantial?"
"I think so." Kettle looked back over the leather saddlebags of various sizes strapped to General Lusk's sides. "Old weapons from the Iron Guard, that I took with me when I left the 44th. I think they'll come in handy." He turned to Nathaniel. "Stay here, boy. Go there, by the side of the trail, and wait until we're finished."
"It shouldn't take long," Tongs added.
"Are you sure, Mr. Kettle?" Nathaniel asked. "I may be able to help and—"
"I'm certain." Kettle gave him a sly smile. "Stay here."
"Don't worry, little fellow." Drake offered him a quick smile. "We'll come out of this okay. The Savior looks after fools and children, after all." She offered her hand. Nathaniel clasped it, and then slug down from the mammoth and made his way to the trail. He headed to the edge of the trail and watched quietly while Kettle and Tongs prepared.
Soon enough, they were ready. Mr. White rode along on his horse, reaching for his rifle as he neared the Shadow Stones. General Lusk followed, with Kettle riding the mammoth and Drake and Tongs walking along on the trail. Mr. White rode a little bit ahead. Ballask Bight looked up from the mist and rising, skeletal shapes hidden in the shadow. Kettle couldn't make out any expression in Bight's face – only the cold hollows of his empty sockets, turned to face them. Mr. White talked to him, speaking in the creaking, rustling language of the Shadow Empire. Bight listened carefully, and then pointed a bony finger. The skeletons burst free from the mist and broke into a run, a horde of dead animals charging to attack. Kettle recognized the ridged heads and elongated skulls of some of them, along with their heavy hooves and tusks. Dead Snow Boars, skeletal monsters, charged to follow Bight's will. Kettle had narrowly avoided picking a fight with Snow Boars back on the Bone Cliffs. Now, he would have to face their dead counterparts.
Tongs reached for the bombs at his waist. "It seems Bight will not return to his grave willingly!" He snapped a match to life and touched a fuse for a homemade bomb. "Better amend his feelings, Kettle, before he makes us as dead as him."
"True enough." Kettle scrambled back to the palanquin.
He had set up a volley gun – a rapid-firing, multi-barreled cannon that the Iron Guard had used to devastating effect on the Seething Sea Islands. Kettle had seen those guns mow down armies of charging Islanders and Kobolds, and he had even operated one himself. He moved behind the complex array of brass firing tubes and gears mounted on a sturdy tripod, and turned the gun to face the skeletal Snow Boars. Kettle worked the crank and the volley gun roared. The barrels spun, sending out a blaring spray of lead into the skeletons. The big bullets did their job, splintering bone and shattering skulls. Chunks of bone flew through the air, bouncing on the air as the first rank of Snow Boars collapsed in jagged white piles. Tongs hurled down his bombs, adding explosions to the dark dirt and snow. Smoke filled the canyon, mixing with the mist so it seemed that the whole battle took place in a cloud.
The dust, mist, and smoke shrouded the figure swooping down toward General Lusk until Kettle heard the beating of great wings. He kept working the crank of the volley gun, but glanced over his shoulder at the gentle creaking of ancient bones. A skeletal griffin – with a beaked head, spread wings, and four clawed limbs – swooped out of the sky and came for him like a bird of prey. Kettle reached for his rifle. He brought up the gun and fumbled for the trigger, but the griffin struck first. Talons jabbed into Kettle's back, wrapped around his arm, and carried him aloft.
The griffin tore him away from the volley gun and into the sky. Kettle's rifle dangled over his shoulder on its strap. He shook and cursed, wiggling his legs as he tried to free himself. The griffin's beak – a pointed spear of yellow bone – jabbed down and tried to impale him. Kettle writhed and cursed, whispering the names of the Under Kings as he did when he was a boy. The griffin flew higher, sweeping through the mist.
"Kettle!" Drake ran below him, keeping pace with the griffin. She raised both her revolvers. "Keep still, damn you! You keep wriggling, I'm liable to put a bullet through you!" Kettle tried to follow her words and stiffen up. He wasn't sure if it worked. Drake's pistols flashed twice. One bullet struck the griffin in the wing, sending it winging downwards, while the other blasted into its skull. Chunks of bone rained down as the griffin descended.
The dark earth rose up and smashed into them both. The skeletal griffin fell into an exposed tree trunk, and shattered while Kettle hit the earth. He rolled over a few times and came to a rest, with the state of dirt and blood thick on his lips. Kettle stumbled to his feet, trying to stop his head from spinning. Hooves pressed in the dirt in front of him. Kettle stared ahead – looking into the dust. Snow Boars faced him, lowering their heads and shaking their tusks. He should have known better than to pray to the Under Kings. The Nox had been praying to those buried monarchs for generations, and they had never done a thing to help.
The foremost Snow Boar charged, shaking its tusked head as it pounded across the dark dust. Kettle reached for his pickaxe handle. That would have to suffice. He raised it above his head with both hands, waited for the Snow Boar to approach, and then swung it down. The blunt edge bashed against the skull. Splinters of bone rose and the Snow Boar's charge ended. It crumpled before him and he crashed the handle against the skeleton a few times while the Snow Boar's hooves flailed in the air. Kettle sucked in breath, ignoring the pain in his limbs, and looked up. More Snow Boars moved into a charge – at least four of the skeletal pigs. This time, Kettle didn't think the pickaxe handle would help him much.
"Stand back, Horace!" Tongs bounded closer. He carried a bomb with a short fuse, already sparking down. "And cover your ears!" Tongs threw the bomb into the charging Snow Boars – an underhanded toss that set the explosive right under their legs. Tongs and Kettle both turned away and covered their ears.
The explosion tore into the ranks of the Snow Boars. Fire blasted apart their skeletons, causing chunks of bone to rain down and patter on the stone trail. A skull, trailing steam, landed in front of Kettle and he kicked it away. Drake hurried to join them as the thunderous blast of the explosion faded away. A single Snow Boar trotted out of the smoke, and Drake blasted it down with her pistols – punching bullet holes in its skull and sending it crashing to the earth.
Tongs gave Kettle a toothy grin and pointed to the Shadow Stones with his dagger. "I believe Bight is growing desperate. He seems to have used up his last Snow Boar and has now turned to a much more feeble specimen from which to draw fort his forces – the skeletons of men." More skeletal forms emerged from the mist – ancient and covered in dirt. These human skeletons carried sword gone blood red with rust, and armor that fell from them as they approached. Kettle felt that they were pathetic – the remains of the Shadow Empire, called forth to defend its last mad wizard – but he still brought up his rifle and took aim. Drake did the same and Tongs reached for another bomb.
The skeletons charged, and Kettle and his friends cut them down. The salvo from his rifle and Drake's revolvers smashed apart the skeletal warriors, sending fragments of rusted armor and bone spinning through the dark air. Tongs' bomb exploded in their ranks, doing even more damage. Pieces of skeletons tumbled down. Kettle fell into the familiar rhythm of opening his rifle, sliding in a new round, and firing again. Rifles, revolvers, and bombs – those were the powers in the world now. Magic belonged only to the past, and Bight's forces couldn't last in a modern world.
Ballask Bight stood on a rocky outcropping in the shadow of the standing stones, waving his staff and causing more skeletons to emerge from the dirt. He didn't notice Mr. White creeping around from the side. Then Mr. White attacked, firing his revolver as he charged closer. Mr. White's long-barreled revolver cut down several skeletons, smashing their boney forms apart, and he approached his old friends. Bight turned to face him. They stared at each other.
By then, Bight's skeletal warriors had reached Kettle and his friends. Kettle didn't bother to reload, but now spun his rifle around and smashed skulls and decaying armor with the butt. He shattered the skull of one skeleton, slammed the rifle to the other side and broke the ribs of another attacker. A rusted axe, the blade in an ornate, snowflake pattern, swung down and aimed at Kettle's head. He stepped back and let the axe hum past him – nearly taking off his nose. Tongs lashed out with his dagger, driving it into the skeleton's head. The long-bladed dagger shattered the skull, smashing through the bone and causing the skeleton to collapse.
"These skeletons have little intelligence." Tongs swung up with another knife, plunging the blade into the rib cage of a skeleton. He forced his attacker to the ground and stomped down with his clawed foot, smashing the skull to dust. "But they do have numbers. I think we need to end this quickly. How is Mr. White doing?"
"Not so great, Tongs." Drake pointed to the Shadow Stones. "Bight's giving him some trouble."
Under the Shadow Stones, Mr. White tried to slam the silver cylinder against Bight's chest. Bight struggled with him, smashing his makeshift staff against Mr. White's chest and shattering it, then slugging him with bony hands. They tumbled down together, forming a hissing pile of battling bones. The cylinder fell from Mr. White's hands and rolled into the dust.
"Cover me." Kettle couldn't let Bight's strange existence continue. The Bone Fellow sorcerer would drown the world in a tide of skeletons for his dream. He needed to be stopped. Kettle moved back, avoiding the attacking skeletons, and reached for his rifle. Drake and Tongs closed ranks, blocking the skeletal warriors. They battled with knives and fists now, smashing knuckles and blades against bone and shattering the skeletons. Drake caught a sword across her arm, slashing the sleeve of her robe and drawing bright blood, but she kept her pistols steady and gunned the skeleton swordsman down. They gave Kettle time.
He reloaded his rifle, sliding a bullet into the breach and bringing the gun to his shoulder. Kettle looked down the sights, carefully lining up his shot. Mr. White and Bight struggled with each other, with bony fists settling into skulls and dust rising from both combatants. Kettle bit his tongue as he took aim. He would only have shot.
The rifle thundered. The recoil jabbed against Kettle's arm, its familiar pressure running through his shoulder and down to his spine. The bullet shot across the cold air, passed the shadowy earth, and struck the shoulder-bone of Ballask Bight. The wizard slumped to the side. Mr. White grabbed the fallen cylinder, raised it above his head, and then brought it down into the center of Bight's chest.
The cylinder cracked the bone. Crackling energy coursed through the tube, rushing across Ballask Bight's body. The strange currents rushed into the dirt as well, sending up plumes of dust. It snaked into the standing stones. The letters glowed even brighter, shining against the darkness. The brightness made Kettle and his friends look away. Wind rushed through the canyon, stirring up curtains of snow and dust. The attacking skeletons collapsed, their rusted weapons falling into the trail and shattering completely.
When the wind faded, Kettle stared through the dust. A skeletal figure approached. Kettle reloaded his rifle and raised the gun, only for Mr. White to step out, with Bight's motionless skeleton thrown over his shoulder. Mr. White touched the brim of his hat to Kettle. "Many thanks."
"You're welcome," Kettle said. "What will you do with him?"
"Miss Drake?" Nathaniel approached from the edge of the trail. He stepped gingerly over the fallen skeletons and stood next to General Lusk's bulk. When he saw Drake, he hurried to her side. "Is everyone all right? Are there any injuries?"
"None that won't heal, little fellow," Drake explained.
Tongs pointed to Bight's body. "Mr. White was just explaining what he intends to do with Ballask Bight's eternal remains?"
"Well?" Drake asked. "What are your plans?"
"Bury him." Mr. White stared up at the night sky. "That's the place for my friend, I think. Let him rest and forget about the state of the world. Seems better than the alternative." He tossed the silver cylinder back to Nathaniel. "Better lock this away, child. Don't want anyone else using it on me."
"Yes, sir." Nathaniel struggled to catch the cylinder. "I'll see it secured."
"What about his rings?" Drake stepped closer to Mr. White. "He still got rings, don't he? Maybe you could give me some of them, as an expression of gratitude. It ain't like he needs them, after all."
Mr. White stared at her with his hollow sockets. Drake didn't ask again. The pale horse trotted through the snow trail and reached Mr. White, who scrambled into the saddle with Ballask Bight on his shoulder. He cracked his heels and rode away from the Shadow Stones.
"Bight wasn't strong enough, I suppose, to have his dream destroyed," Kettle muttered.
"What about me?" Drake asked. "Do you reckon I'm strong enough?"
"I don't know," Kettle admitted.
Tongs let out a nervous rasp of laughter. "I suggest an immediate return to the Whistling Dragon. The brawl must have faded and it will doubtlessly now be a quiet and refined place for some warmth and comfort – two things which are in short supply out here." He extended his hand to General Lusk. "Shall we ride, Horace?"
"Yeah," Kettle agreed. They hauled themselves up on General Lusk's back, Nathaniel resting his head against Drake's shoulder as his fatigue finally got the better of him. Kettle turned General Lusk around and began the ride back to Peak Town.