Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of short fiction based on Dark Trails RPG classes by Pete Spahn. As part of separate project Pete and his partner Brandon Goeringer stat out the story.
Calavera: Spirit-mediums, most often female, that can both see and speak to the nearby dead wandering the closest regions of the Spirit Lands. The calavera shines like a beacon in the night to the restless dead, eager to have her deliver a message, or perform one last task that will put the spirit to rest. Aiding in those tasks marks her as a veritable queen of the underworld and the dead are not only willing to share some of their dark secrets but also have been known to reach across the grave to protect their only connection to the land of the living.1
Charleston, South Carolina, 1870.
The city of Charleston was the site of the first major battle of the War Between the States. Now, five years after Lee’s surrender, the majestic port flourished once again. Although tensions between the North and the South had never fully died, tonight the mood was festive, and the Stars and Stripes flew from gables and lampposts across the city. A banner above the thoroughfare read “In Honor of Our Veterans” and a grandstand of fresh pine stood primed and ready for tomorrow’s Day of Memorial speeches and celebration.
Major Reginald Brantley of the United States Army had been invited to attend the ceremony as a guest of honor. He’d been happy to accept. The last time he’d been in Charleston was in ’63 when Union Army had tried to bomb the Confederate-held Fort Sumter into powder. The Army had arranged his travel from Fort Bragg and he’d arrived tonight to find a note in his hotel room, written in a woman’s neat hand.
I know about the gold, read the cryptic message. Meet me in the trainyard at midnight.
Brantley dismissed his aides and pretended to retire early, ignoring the drunken revelry outside. He was more curious than afraid. Towards the end of the war, he had been given command of a band of irregulars who came to be known as the Brantley Boys. Their mission had been to sow chaos behind enemy lines by harassing Rebel troops, disrupting supply trains, and razing Southern farms.
They had stumbled upon a shipment of Confederate gold just outside Atlanta. Things hadn’t gone as planned and Brantley was the only one who had survived. That had been bloody business, but there was no one left alive who could tie him to it. Unless. . .
Brantley shook his head. No. He was dead. They all were. Their bodies had been consumed in Sherman’s fires before any of them could talk, and Brantley had not said a word about the gold to anyone in all these years. It was hidden far from here, deep inside a covered well on a farm he had purchased in ’69, in preparation for his upcoming retirement. No one else knew about the farm.
Just before midnight, Brantley slipped out of his room and exited the hotel unseen through the back door. The moon was high in the sky. He walked the streets in silence, dressed in full uniform beneath his Union Army greatcoat and cap. The few revelers stumbling about either tipped their hats in respect or gave him a wide berth.
The trainyard was unnaturally quiet at this hour. The noise of the city seemed distant, muffled by the train cars that loomed out of the darkness. The air was humid, with only a faint hint of sea breeze. Somewhere near the train station, a bell clanged and a steam engine let out a slow, steady hiss. Brantley stood on the tracks in the open and peered into the darkness. He sensed he was not alone, but he was unafraid. As long as no one else knew the location of the gold, he was safe.
A shadow shifted near a flatbed car, and a raven-haired beauty in a low-cut top, men’s clothes, and a curved hat strolled into the moonlight.
Brantley drew his Army Colt. “That’s far enough, my dear.”
“I’m glad you came, Captain Brantley,” she said.
Brantley shrugged. “How could I not? The mention of gold is nothing to take lightly. What else does a man hold in higher regard?”
“Honor, perhaps,” she said, a faint smile flickering across her lips. Brantley frowned. “Perhaps. Nevertheless, it’s Major now, if you please. I’m not ashamed to say I was promoted after the war. I do believe you have the advantage over me, Miss. . .”
“Lowell,” she said. “Katerina Lowell.”
The name meant nothing to him, yet it was plain she knew him or at least knew of him. Her demeanor was unsettling. She carried herself with an easy, casual grace, and more poise and amusement than any woman should have, alone in the dark with an armed and dangerous man. The double pistol rig on her hips could account for that confidence, but Brantley sensed there was something more.
He motioned with the barrel of his Colt. “All right, Miss Lowell. Undo the belt. Let the guns fall where they lie, then step away.”
She did as instructed, without hesitation. Brantley eyed the shadows, searching for any sign of movement. He saw none, but he knew they could not be alone.
“Now, my dear, why don’t you tell me who you are, and what you want.” He raised his voice slightly in case others were close enough to hear. “And I must warn you, if anyone tries anything, she will be the first to die. That, I promise.”
“I have no wish to die,” Katerina said. “It is enough to live among the dead and to be haunted by the ghosts of the past.”
“The past is the past. It can only haunt us if we let it.”
“Tell that to the men you killed.”
“I am a soldier, Miss Lowell. I have killed many men.”
“The men you murdered, then. When you found the gold in the Confederate bunker. Your men, men whose bodies you left to burn in the fires that consumed the land in Sherman’s march to the sea.”
Brantley’s voice betrayed no emotion. “A terrible time to be sure. And who was it that told you this fanciful tale of murder and gold?”
“Your former lieutenant, of course,” she said. “Mr. Cole Fuller.”
Yes. It was as he had suspected. Fuller. Damn the man to Hell. He and Brantley had been opposites from the start. Fuller was young, charming, and handsome—the very image of the dashing Union soldier. His family possessed wealth and property in New York, and he was a natural leader, loved and respected by his peers.
Brantley on the other hand, was a self-made man. Orphaned early, he had clawed his way up from poverty only through skillful political maneuvering and military service. He had no friends, nor had he needed any. His men obeyed him because he was a proven tactician and their superior officer, but they had loved Fuller, and Brantley had hated him for it.
The Confederate gold they’d found in the bunker had changed everything. Hundreds of gold bars, guarded by a few ragged Rebel soldiers that had been easily dispatched. Finally, he had found his chance to strike it rich! He had wanted to keep the gold all for himself but had offered to split it with the others, hoping to buy their silence. A disgusted Fuller had refused, and the men—his men—had followed Fuller’s lead.
Brantley had seen by their guarded looks that his career was over. This was a secret that would not be kept. All that he had worked so hard for would be ruined.
He had ordered the men to occupy the bunker and wait for relief. That night as they slept, Brantley had set fire to the ammunition stores and then barricaded the door from outside. The explosion within had been deafening.
As he pondered his next move, Brantley had suddenly found himself face to face with his rival. By some unfortunate stroke of luck, Lieutenant Fuller had been off in the woods answering nature’s call. Fuller’s surprise had turned to swift realization.
Both men had gone for their guns. Fuller was quicker on the draw, but his pistol misfired. Brantley’s had not. The bullet took Fuller high in the chest, and the wounded man had staggered away, falling into the river to be carried downstream. Somehow, he had survived! But why had he returned now, after all these years?
Brantley scanned the Charleston trainyard, searching for any sign of him. “Come out, Fuller. Let us settle this once and for all.”
“That’s exactly why he’s here, Major Brantley. To settle it. He’s come for a reckoning, which sounds so much nicer than revenge, but it’s essentially the same thing.”
Brantley thumbed back the hammer. “Well, I’m afraid that’s unfortunate for you,” he said. “It seems you’ve thrown your lot in with the wrong man. I might have offered you a share of the gold if you’d approached me differently. Now, there is no other recourse. Goodbye, Miss Lowell.” Before Brantley could fire, a ghostly corpse wearing Union blues appeared before him. He knew that face! Fuller!
The monster’s pallid lips pulled back in a snarl as it reached for him. Brantley screamed. The gun roared, a stab of fire in the dark. The bullet passed clean through the nightmarish apparition, causing it to dissipate before his eyes.
Brantley’s heart pounded in his chest. His breath came in shallow, ragged gasps. Fuller’s ghost was gone—if it had ever been there at all.
A cheap trick!
Anger boiled up inside him. He looked for Katerina and saw her duck behind a restaurant car. He fired and heard the bullet ping off metal as he gave chase. She was faster than he was, but if he moved quickly, he could cut off her escape. Slipping between two boxcars, he climbed over the coupling and saw her just as she jumped into the open side door of a freight car.
The moonlight could not pierce the darkness inside. Wary of a trap, he found a lantern hanging from a post and lit it. Gun in one hand, lantern in the other, he climbed up into the car. The cramped space was lined with long wooden boxes on each side, making a walkway in between. Katerina Lowell stood at the far end, waiting.
“Enough of your games, Miss Lowell. Where is Fuller? Tell me now, or I will shoot you dead on the spot.”
“He’s right here, Major Brantley,” she said. “In fact, they’re all right here.”
“What do you—”
Katerina’s face changed, glowing with an unholy light. Brantley felt terror wash over him as a skull pattern traced itself across her cheeks in hues of pink, blue, and green. The charred ghosts of the Brantley Boys shimmered into existence behind her.
“Witch!” Brantley cried, horrified.
The grinning ghost of Lieutenant Cole Fuller materialized directly in front of him. It grabbed the barrel of his pistol, sending a wave of shocking cold through the metal. Brantley hissed in pain and released the weapon, clutching his frozen hand to his chest. The gun fell to the floor with a dull thud.
All around him, the long boxes thumped and shifted, lids straining upward at the nails holding them in place. But wait. He saw now that the boxes were draped in red, white, and blue flags. These weren’t boxes at all.
They were coffins.
The lids splintered and fell away. From them rose the skeletal remains of men wearing fresh Union Army blues. Their eye sockets glowed with a harsh green light that burned through Brantley’s soul.
Katerina’s skull-like visage glared at him. “These men were soldiers who died in the POW camp at Andersonville. They were finally coming home to be laid to rest in tomorrow’s ceremony, but were happy to rise up once more to honor and avenge their fallen brothers.”
As the living dead closed in, Brantley’s screams were drowned out by the whistle of an arriving train.
Included for those not familiar with the Class ↩