Over the last month, Hawkeye had been meditating and purging his spirit in order to regain his connection to the spirit world following his unwilling healing at the hands of both white medicine and religion. Everything was beginning to come back into focus when he approached the cliffs overlooking the “Screaming Fire” (known to the Deadwood residents as “Satan’s Garden”) and he had become more acutely aware of a distinct wrongness lying across the whole of the Black Hills.
While sitting in the smoke and heat, his perception of the world flipped:
Flying, the Black Hills below, high enough to see them all
The Hills are dark green, vibrant, but…
Below them is something black and festering
It underlies the whole range, apparently contained
Four immense beings stand on the horizons:
To the southwest, a slavering coyote, drenched in blood
To the north west, a capering spider-shape, apparently made out of metal, belching smoke
To the northeast, a brooding human, wearing the robes of a Sioux shaman
To the southeast, a human skeleton, dressed in the clothes of a cowboy, bearing two smoking guns
All are watching figures scurrying around their feet, corrupting the land in bits
Three men conversing:
A man with a black hole where his heart should be, bent on vengeance
A fat man, his fingers covered in grease, possessed of immense greed
An Indian, with no face and … no purpose?
They agree on something
The blackness below surges up through the mines cut into their sides, and floods throughout the valleys, absorbing everything it touches
It spreads rapidly on to the plains in all directions, taking even the giant watchers by surprise
The world drowns in it…
He awakened with a start on the cliffs, and immediately made the journey to Deadwood as fast as he could.
Dr Dupre had begun to notice an increasing number of people going down with an unidentified illness. They had all the usual flu-type symptoms, along with painful red sores, but were not responding to any kind of treatment. She tried to compare notes with the other doctors in town, but ran into a problem she had encountered before: they refused to allow that her Canadian medical qualifications made her a real doctor. Deciding to carry on her research on her own, she took careful notes of the development of the symptoms and looked for common factors among the patients.
As more patients turned up, she realised that all of them were either based in one of the mines in the valley known as Broken Axle Gulch, or had associated with someone who had. The earliest cases were all miners who had arrived for the winter as the snow began to settle in. She decided she needed to pay a visit to the valley to see if there was an obvious cause and, on talking to the others, a trip was arranged, including Hampden, Folden and Garrett. It was a day’s trip each way, so they planned to set out the following morning, intending to spend the night there.
At this point, Hawkeye arrived in Deadwood, going straight into the saloon and asking for alcohol – to the surprise of everyone who knew him.
Once he had recovered, he explained to the others what he had seen, omitting some details. While the specifics were unclear, he knew that something was deeply wrong in the area, and he believed that it was involved with the nameless evil he had encountered in his previous visits to the town. Hampden suggested that this evil might be connected to the mystery of Connolly and described what they had found at the hotel.
This led the shaman to explain his belief that a being known as a naagloshi or “skin walker”, a native sorcerer who had made pacts with dark spirits to achieve great power, had arrived in town. Skin walkers had given up their very identity to their masters and so, having none of their own, stole the identities of others. There was some confusion as to why the creature would have taken Connolly as a host then done so badly at the gambling, but Hawkeye suggested that he may not have realised how much skill went in to being a good player. Given time, the skin walker could have learned to use its new capabilities properly, but it didn’t have that time.
Of course, with Connolly dead, this revelation wasn’t much use unless they could figure out the skin walker’s current identity. Hampden decided it would help if Hawkeye could visit the room where they discovered the skinless body the week before; maybe he could use his “Injun powers” to find out something useful? They headed down to the Grand Central Hotel and got permission to visit the room. It had been cleaned up but for some reason no-one was interested in renting it, despite the dire need for accommodation that winter.
Hawkeye went in alone while Hampden kept the door clear of the curious. Examining the room, he found little of interest, except for the ingrained blood stain around the former location of the bathtub. Laying out the appropriate ritual and settling down onto the floor, he willed himself into a trance to try to get some kind of glimpse of the recent past. This was successful, but he was almost overwhelmed by a rapid progression of different images of the room’s occupants over the last couple of years (and of the trees from before).
Gradually, he became aware of one constant, a small humanoid figure wearing the clothing of the white man. The figure appeared to be aware of his presence and was watching him. He addressed it directly and managed to get its attention, whereupon its appearance transformed into something more appropriate to the native manitou, complete with miniature antlers. He realised he was seeing the place spirit for the building. It was largely uninterested in helping him, but he managed to persuade it to show him the last night the room was occupied.
Before long he was seeing Lambert Connolly enter the room with a woman and lead her to the bathtub. She did everything he asked without protest and did not react to anything else. As she sat in the tub, Connolly gestured and removed her skin; Hawkeye shifted his gaze and realised that Connolly was now, in every respect, the woman who had been in the tub. Shaken, both at what he’d seen and at the confirmation of his worst fears, he stumbled out into the corridor and related it to Hampden. Hampden was confused: the corpse was that of a man!
They returned to the saloon where they talked to Dupre, who confirmed that the body had been male. Hawkeye was adamant, so the three of them went to the makeshift morgue holding the corpse. Sure enough, the body was female, although all present were adamant that they had seen a male body; Hawkeye ventured the opinion that it may have been some kind of magical ritual which obscured the body’s true form as a means of covering the murderer’s tracks. Unfortunately, he had no memory of what the woman looked like, a common side effect of this kind of magic.
Given this new evidence, the suspect pool had now changed and they were right back to square one. Hampden briefly considered the possibility it might be Miss Hayes, but they quickly rejected this idea. Hawkeye proposed that they undertake a vision quest: a group excursion into a closed off portion of the spirit world to try and divine the current identity of the murderer. The quest would most likely take the form of a series of challenges that must be overcome before they could get their information. After some discussion, all but Law agreed to take part, the pastor refusing for religious reasons.
With Hawkeye’s preparations for the ritual likely to take a couple of days, the others had the time they needed to investigate Broken Axle. They arrived in the broad rocky valley late in the afternoon. There was still some light, so they decided to carry out some preliminary investigations before settling in for the night. They visited two mineshafts, finding them boarded up for the winter, then a third, which was still open. Moving closer, they noticed a low-lying cabin which might have housed the miners. The door was locked, but there was no response to their knocking so they broke it open. The scene inside was not pleasant: there were a number of corpses, all subject to the advanced stages of the disease. Sealing the building up again, they made their way to a sheltered cliff and set up camp, setting watches since they were out of the “civilised” area around the town.
Garrett was on watch when he felt an arrow hit his shoulder. Turning around, he became aware of a figure on the edge of the firelight. He raised his rifle, fired and missed, but the report woke the rest of the group, who scrambled out of their tents ready to fight. The battle was brief, with the attacker being put down by a hail of gunfire, although Dupre was injured. Once the peace had returned, it was clear that the attacker was the animated corpse of an Indian, covered in the same kind of sores connected to the disease. The following morning, they burned the corpse and inspected the other mines. Some of them were sealed properly, one other was also host to infected corpses. They burnt the two plague sites and headed back to Deadwood.
By the time they arrived, Dupre was showing signs of the infection, but Garrett, acting on a hunch, laid his hands on her and the symptoms disappeared almost immediately, although the Harrowed began to feel weaker. After some observation, it appeared that Dupre was cured, although Garrett was showing most of the signs of infection. He retired into a self-imposed quarantine.
Back in the Saloon, Hawkeye voiced the opinion that the corpse, having died of the disease, had been possessed by a spirit with the intention of spreading it back to the local white population.
The next day, Hawkeye led them out to Injun Point, where he began to lay out the elements of his ritual, while explaining that the bird pendants he had given them a few months ago were a vital part of the whole operation (although he wouldn’t explain how). The Hermit turned up almost immediately to find out what was going on; they explained their plans to him and he agreed to keep watch while their quest took place. Eventually Hawkeye was ready and the ritual began, involving chanting, dancing, pungent smokes and all the usual symbolic paraphernalia. One by one, the group nodded off…
…they awakened on the flat top of what appeared to be a high mesa in a network of such mesas, separated by deep canyons. Venturing to the edge, they confirmed that there was a drop of over a thousand feet to the river below them. As they looked around they were struck by the richness of the colours and the feeling of life in the landscape around them; a shadow covered them for several seconds and they looked up to see a huge bird passing overhead, its tail and wings trailing lightning.
As they considered how to descend the cliff, they caught a glimpse of movement nearby as a large snake reacted to their presence. Twisting in a complex spiral, it launched itself into the air and began to generate a powerful twister, moving at speed around the edge of the mesa. It began to look like getting down would not be easy, but the shaman explained that this is where the bird totems would be useful: if they were to throw themselves off the cliff, the totems would ensure they could fly. Taking him at his word, they did as he asked and dived past the twisting snake, the totems transforming them into birds. Hawkeye now led them down the canyon, until they tired and came to earth near a wide spot in the river below.
After a brief rest, they progressed on foot, reaching a narrow passage between large shoulders of rock, watched over by a soldier in a Confederate army uniform. Through the passage, a large military encampment could be seen, flying a number of solid black banners; there was no way they could fight their way through, but sneaking past required bypassing the sentry. Hampden volunteered to take the sentry down, making use of new spell he’d learnt, which enabled him to become invisible. As he closed with his target, he realised that the sentry was undead, which made it easier for him to destroy it without warning. The group went through the passage and sneaked around the edge of the encampment, successfully avoiding patrols as they went.
Moving further down the river bank, they rounded a corner and came upon a huge humanoid figure, dripping with blood.