Preacher man told O’shua there was a spirit in Creek Town. It had moved in and driven all the people away. They hadn’t seen hide nor tail of it, but they knew it was there, sure enough. Its thirst was unquenchable.
O’shua was a spirit hunter with a long steel sword, and when they answered the notice Creek Town had put out for help, what they saw concerned them.
The entire town had packed up and moved out from the hills onto the wide salt plains. The sun was merciless in the center of the valley, and water was scarce. The crying of thirsty children populated the hasty camp the people had set up. The noise went up to the heavens, but there was nothing to hear their prayers.
Creek Town was a half day’s ride from the camp. The minimal recommended distance to put between yourself and a spirit. O’shua had no mount, so it took them a bit longer to walk. They arrived in the dead of night.
Now they stood on the town’s outskirts where the buildings ended abruptly, where human shelter gave way to vast and yawning open space. The moon rendered the world in pale colors. Everything was amplified out here in the desert: sunlight, midnight, drought, and cold. It was a land that hadn’t yet been pared down by the blades of men. It was still wild, subject to wild whims. Though wells were being drilled and rails were being laid, it was slow, painful work, and the desert disdained the efforts at every turn. Mankind hadn’t yet discovered how to make the desert bow its head, how to turn it soft and pliant and usable for their purposes. And until they did that, they were in danger. The unpredictable qualities of the dead lands were an adversary few could stand in the face of.
O’shua admired the sentiment. They liked a good fight, understood the necessity. But this is the truth about the nature of conflict: there’s always something set against you, and it’s your job to win.
Metal rasped on metal as they drew their sword. The edge was sharp, the hilt soft and gleaming with oil. Blade at the ready, they paced forwards into the rotting town.
Creek Town had only been empty for a few days, and at first, it looked like there was nothing askance. The doors were steadfastly shut, all the windows unbroken. O’shua had seen the work of destructive spirits before. There was no sign of that here. In comparison, this was clean.
Then they heard a soft knocking noise, hollow like the beating of a drum. They turned up their collar against the cold desert wind and followed it to where a pail was knocking against a wall. It was the kind often set under eaves to catch rainfall when the sky blessed the dusty earth, but when O’shua picked it up and set it upright, they saw it was bone dry.
They looked up at the fading storm clouds from yesterday and frowned.
The sound of bleating and breathing drew their attention, and after tracing it to its source, they found a pen filled with goats that stared at them with terrified eyes. O’shua had never seen an animal left alive in the wake of a spirit. They examined the goats and found not a single scratch on them. And there was no sign of blood or bones or rotting fur anywhere in the area.
But the water trough was bone dry.
O’shua pinched the neck of one of the goats and saw how the skin slowly returned to its normal position. They had an idea of where the spirit might have hidden itself.
The creek in Creek Town came from the mountains and wound its way slowly along the bottom of the valley. It was the reason people had gathered there in the first place, seeking the precious minerals that settled between the rocks along the bottom.
O’shua could hear faraway rushing water, but when they found the creek, it was bone dry. They held their breath as they stepped around the bodies of fish and riverweed that had festered in the sun and now chilled in the night.
They followed the sound of flowing water upstream, into the foothills of the mountains, until finally they found the spirit. In the light of the moon, its fur seemed gilded with silver. It was lying on its side in the creek bed, its mouth stretched open as wide across as a man knocked prone. The creek gushed down its throat. O’shua stood and watched a minute, sure that it would burst at any second, but the spirit must have had a hollow leg. Or maybe it was secreting the water away through the trick of some strange spirit magic. Or maybe it was just plain thirsty.
Preoccupied, it did not notice them, so O’shua readied their blade and charged. They slashed at the spirit’s leg. It jumped to its feet with a watery wail, liquid cascading from its overextended mouth. The creek, now unhindered, flowed back into its normal path. O’shua fell back as water crashed against them. Their elbow cracked painfully against a stone.
A shadow blocked the moonlight. O’shua rolled out of the way as a clawed paw came down towards them. Water found its way into their nostrils. They scrambled to their feet. They parried with the flat of the blade as the spirit swiped again. Then drove forward towards its heart. The spirit struck a glancing blow across their shoulders. The air left their lungs in a surprised whuff. They stumbled on the loose river stones, but they ducked under the spirit’s arm and spun to face its back. They drew a deep slash across its side as it turned towards them. Instead of blood and intestines spilling out as they expected, muddy water poured from the gash in the spirit’s skin, mixing with the clear creek.
It wailed angrily, its wide snout curling back to reveal splintery teeth. On all fours it snapped at them, but it was already deflating, water gushing from its side like a contaminated fountain. O’shua backed up into the shallows to avoid its bite. They grabbed a handful of pebbles and hurled them at the spirit. The momentary distraction was enough. They darted forward and sliced open the spirit’s hairy neck. More muddy water flowed freely forth, and this time it pulled gristle and bone out with it.
The spirit’s lifeless skin folded over and was washed away down the creek to wherever all water eventually meets at the end of the world. As the moon began to set and the sky rolled over from night to day, O’shua knelt in the creek and washed the spirit blood from their blade.
There was no longer a spirit in Creek Town, and the land was no longer bone dry.