Black smoke rose from Eagle Rock's skin as the demon ichor that covered
him slowly evaporated into the cool evening air. Today's slaughter should have been great
enough to quench the thirst of even Raven's Chop, but instead its insistent call throbbed
in his blood-addled mind. The sound of gunfire and the screams of Patterson's grayboys
drifted to the hillock where Eagle Rock stood, and he could feel the hatchet thundering in
his grip, urging him to join the fight. His horse was skittish from it, only calmed by his
warm hand upon her mane.
Rather than remain silent and allow the Chop's voice to overwhelm his thoughts, Eagle Rock addressed the younger man next to him. "You proved yourself a warrior today, Bites the Hand. You have made the spirits of your ancestors proud."
The former soldier stood tall, but Eagle Rock could tell how shaken he was by the close fighting - especially against the unholy creatures commanded by the Lost Angels. Adopted and raised by the Whites, Bites the Hand was ill prepared for the realities of life, especially in Gomorra.
But despite this weakness, Bites the Hand had not shirked when the Fallen Angels surrounded them. He had no death song, but he hadn't thrown down his weapon and begged to surrender, as some would have.
"We broke them, and they ran like the cowardly filth that they are. We've won," Bites the Hand said, gripping his bolt-action rifle tightly.
Eagle Rock shook his head. It would take time for Bites the Hand to truly shake off the White influences and learn a proper way to live. Foolish bravado was as clear a sign of fear as terrified screams. "We haven't won yet. They've retreated, but we haven't destroyed them. And their demon master yet lives. The battle is won, but the war continues "
Bites the Hand nodded, and self-consciously shifted his grip on the rifle. From their small hillock, about a mile from the central mesa of Gulgoleth, they could see a mix of grayboys and Hunter's lawmen assaulting the Lost Angels' stronghold. Eagle Rock would risk no more of his warriors - the cost had already been too great. Weeping Crow and Wise Cloud had been sure to alert the Confederates to the impending disaster, but it had done little good in the end. Even with the danger known, the Whites argued and delayed and plotted their ever-so-cunning plans, and would have continued to do so until Elijah's Judgement Day had come and gone. It was left to Eagle Rock and his few braves to shame them into action.
Bitterness flooded Eagle Rock's mouth. Whites are useless, he considered, even as tools. The spearhead of the Sioux's attack had been shattered by the demonic defenses, who had counterattacked with a fury unlike anything Eagle Rock's warrior-mind had ever envisioned. The Lost Angels had quickly thrown the bulk of their strength into the fight, seeking to overwhelm the Sioux braves before reinforcements came, but away from their fortifications, the demons no longer had the advantage, and the Sioux broke the Lost Angels' main strength.
The cost of victory, however, had been steep. Nearly half the braves who rode into battle were dead, their butchered bodies littering the Gulgoleth plain. Eagle Rock knew he had pushed too hard, that the Sioux should have fallen back and regrouped, but he had pushed them ever forward. With this new killing spirit in him, he was nearly invincible, but the same could not be said for those he led. At least the dead were finally beyond the Whites' encroaching grasp. Eagle Rock shook his head.
This victory would shame him for the rest of his life.
From Eagle Rock's left, a group of forty mounted riders approached at a trot, Strikes a Hawk at their lead. Her portion of the war party had done well. Eagle Rock noted that he would have to watch her closely, to make sure she grew into the warrior and leader promised by today's success. The riders slowed to a walk when they got to the hillock, and dismounted.
Strikes a Hawk's war paint was smeared, but there wasn't a mark on her. Her guardian spirits had performed well this day. Strikes a Hawk's eyes bluntly appraised Bites the Hand. "You fought well," she said finally. "Especially for one brought up by fat takers."
Her slim hand snaked up to smear some of the blood welling from a deep gash in his cheek. He covered her small hand in his, prolonging the contact.
"If this is victory, I could get used to its taste," the new brave said to her, his eyes hungrily devouring her form.
Strikes a Hawk was wily, Eagle Rock reflected, convincing Bites the Hand to forget his fear by invoking his ardor.
The two braves stared at one another for a moment longer, promises unspoken between them. Eagle Rock remembered a time when victory had left him similarly... charged. But such thoughts were distant now. Today, his only lust was fighting, his only peace found in slaughter.
Strikes a Hawk gently pulled her hand away and turned to her horse, pulling a thick book, wrapped in stiff, black leather, from her travel bundle. "Walks in Footprints wanted you to see this," she said, unwrapping the volume and offering it to Eagle Rock.
A spirit warrior didn't even have to open it to know what it was; it blighted the very air around it.
"A Whateley book. Burn it," Eagle Rock said flatly.
"No," a voice countermanded him.
Angry, Eagle Rock turned on the unfamiliar voice, only to come up short when he caught sight of Thunderbird's slender human form. Her face wasset with hard lines, determined. "This book holds the key to the Fallen Angels' plan," Thunderbird explained.
Eagle Rock's hatred of the Whateleys was well known, and Thunderbird was not naive enough to believe that he would simply drop the matter over her word. One of her hands was already balled tightly into a fist; she expected Eagle Rock to fight her over this. Both knew she had no hope of winning - even with her spirit allies. But Eagle Rock could not fail to notice that Wise Could, Ghost of My Father, and Singing Feather stood behind the spirit-goddess, silently supporting her. If he struck her in front of the shamans, he would lose their favor, and his leadership was already in question.
"Would you suck the venom from a wound only to swallow it?" Eagle Rock asked in a measured voice that carried to everyone on the small hillock. "The book is an infection. Better we destroy it than let its poison spread."
"If we do not understand the fever, then we cannot fight it," Thunderbird answered, her eyes boring into the warrior. "This book holds the purpose for which the Fallen came to Gulgoleth." Eagle Rock crossed his thick arms and set his face, as immovable as a granite cliffside. "Do we need that information so desperately that we would make ourselves vulnerable to the same madness that has taken them? That is Whateley knowledge - it never gives without taking away more. It is the way of the fat takers, and the manitou they follow."
"Do I tell you who is the best scout for a war party?" Thunderbird interrupted. "I have been treating with the spirits for generations. Shall I lecture you about how to ride without raising dust? You have your strengths, Eagle Rock, allow me mine."
Eagle Rock could feel the murdering rage of the spirit within him squirming, feeding off his rising anger and shame. He scrutinized Thunderbird for a moment as Mad Wolf Striding - silent as his namesake - rose up behind her. At Eagle Rock's nod, Mad Wolf Striding wrapped an arm around her slender waist and hoisted her off the ground, clapping his other hand over her mouth.
Rather than flail and scream, Thunderbird only shot Eagle Rock a venomous look and slammed a heel into her aggressor's groin. Mad Wolf Striding staggered, but managed to keep a firm grip on her. Eagle Rock took a step closer to Thunderbird. "Among my people, the Pawnee, it is unbroken law that the leader of the war party makes the war party's decisions. I realize I shouldn't take that for granted with members of so many other tribes assembled here, but Joseph is dead, and someone had to continue his vision. I lead this war party because I have led more successful raids against bluebellies and grayboys than anyone else here. And as that leader - and a warrior like yourselves - I say that we burn this book of foul secrets, to prevent its taint from spreading any further."
"Then you can tell us what the demons were doing here?" Wise Cloud asked, assuming Thunderbird's role in the argument. "Does your ability to make war also reveal our enemies' goals? We may have won here, but this victory is small. Your eyes are dim, Eagle Rock - is it possible that they no longer see as well as they used to?"
Wise Cloud's words burned Eagle Rock's pride like hot coals. Swift as a panther, he hammered his fist into Wise Cloud's war shirt, knocking the shaman to his knees, gasping for breath. Then, before the older man could recover, Eagle Rock followed up with a kick that sent him sprawling in the dust.
The war leader's growl was as ominous as the way he pointed Raven's Chop at Wise Cloud's head. "I have always respected your advice. Now let me advise you: The knowledge in this book is dangerous. Once it is known, it cannot be forgotten. Do you want it to haunt you when you are old and toothless? Would you carry this knowledge back to the Necessity Alliance? How long before you slip and infect your Esselen brothers and sisters? How long?"
Ghost of My Father, his own hands balling into fists, tried to step in and help the shaman, but Singing Feather placed a restraining hand on his chest. "Look at his eyes," she said. "He's barely in control. If you fight him, he will kill you."
A moment of watchful silence passed, and Eagle Rock could feel the crowd tensing in the evening air. With a dark look to the warriors surrounding dim, Eagle Rock stepped back, thrust Raven's Chop through his belt, offered a hand to Wise Cloud.
Eagle Rock was the first to speak after Wise Cloud was back on his feet.
"Even now, the book's infectious rot is working at our hearts. We have not even opened it, and already we fight among ourselves. We must destroy it now."
"I won't fight you over this," Wise Cloud said, his face unreadable as he stepped back, rejoining Ghost of My Father and Singing Feather. The other shamans closed ranks, protecting Wise Cloud from any further violent outbursts.
Eagle Rock held out his hand to Strikes a Hawk. "Give me the book."
Thunderbird struggled in protest, but Eagle Rock didn't hear her. He didn't even notice Strikes a Hawk as she handed the book out to him. He was staring agape at the impossible figure of Joseph Eyes-Like-Rain, which had appeared mere feet from the assemblage, his piercing blue eyes fixed upon the new Sioux leader. Those eyes seared Eagle Rock and he was rocked when the old shaman sadly shook his head. Eagle Rock glanced from Joseph to Thunderbird to Mad Wolf Striding; all eyes were on him.
And then he was gone, as abruptly as he had appeared. Joseph Eyes-Like Rain had vanished, leaving only the dying glow of the setting sun, and Strikes a Hawk holding the Whateley book out in his direction. Was the Sioux elder ever really there, or was the bloodlust finally too much for him? The taste of ashes filled Eagle Rock's mouth
"Let her go," he said to Mad Wolf Striding.
Shrugging, the warrior dropped Thunderbird roughly to her feet. Clearly furious, she marched straight up to Eagle Rock, ready for a pitched argument, but he would have none of it.
"Take the book," he commanded, cutting off her storm of words. "Never let me see it again, and never speak to me of anything you have learned from it. If you show signs of the infection, I will not hesitate to keep the poison from spreading."
"I expect no less." Taking the cursed book from Strikes A Hawk, and without a word, she swung onto her horse. Many of the others did the same, following when she kicked her horse into a trot. Moments later, her party were gone over a nearby ridge. Bites the Hand broke the silence that followed. "They won? Just like that? I thought you led the Sioux Union "
Eagle Rock resisted the temptation to bury his hatchet in the brave's skull.
"There is no shame in being wrong," Eagle Rock said, "so long as you eventually find wisdom."
Eagle Rock watched the remainder of his warriors turn their mounts back toward Gomorra, his thoughts mired in today's second battle.
"I truly hope I was wrong."