The flat, cracked table of the desert stretched endlessly out before him. On the horizon a massive sprawling anvil of red clouds billowed impossibly tall and wide. Lightning flickered.
“One heck of a storm coming,” the boy said to no one in particular. He was alone. The Cowboy was dead. The Ranger lost. The Witch… he shuddered. No one should ever die the way the witch had. Even the Ranger’s wolf was dead, which just left him and the ghost girl. And they were the side characters, the people who were supposed to have helped the Cowboy when a particular difficulty arose but who died in the end to show how serious things were. Everything had gone wrong.
“What am I going to do?”
“About what?” the ghost girl asked as she drifted insubstantially next to him, in her tattered Sunday dress and bonnet. “The storm or the quest?”
He looked around. For miles there was nothing but the baked salt flats. Not a tree, not a rock, not a stick of shelter. In minutes when the storm hit, he’d be knee deep in alkali rich mud that would turn his already plodding progress to a crawl. He hefted the Cowboy’s gun belt. At least he’d managed to save that. The heavy enchanted Colt 45 and its rune incrusted cartridges seemed to weigh a ton resting on the boy’s narrow shoulder.
“I don’t see as there’s much you can do in either case,” the ghost said. White dust bloomed around the boy’s boots with each of his slow steps. A hot dry smell rose up as the storm rushed towards him. The wind sighed. Thunder grumbled. “You’re going to get wet, and the quest has failed. That’s the long and short of it.”
“Quest ain’t failed yet,” he said even though he knew it was. The hero was dead and not one of those maybe-he-was-maybe-he-wasn’t deads like in books. Have a big enough chunk shot out of your head and you’ll die, hero or not. It had been a mighty big chunk blasted from the Cowboy’s skull.
“Oh, and who’s going to complete it? You?”
The ghost girl laughed that twittering, mocking laugh she used whenever she really wanted to make him angry. “You ain’t in the prophecy, remember? It says in the end there’ll be either the Rider or the Cowboy. Cowboy’s dead. Didn’t even hang around as a ghost. I checked. That’s how finished his business is. So that leaves the Rider. The end.”
The wind gusted, throwing grit into the air. The boy could hear the distant thrum of falling rain.
“Maybe I’ll take his place.”
“Was you born under a sickle moon on St. Alnoth’s day? Was your family killed by the Rider? Was you raised by the Sky People and taught to shoot afore you could stand?”
“You know I weren’t.” The rain came in a curtain of pummeling drops, big as silver dollars, warm as sweat. The desert seemed to seethe and jitter under their fall. The boy kept walking, instantly soaked. The ghost girl floated un-phased beside him.
“So how are you going to stop the Rider then?”
“Don’t know,” the boy shouted. The mud was already sucking at his boots. “But I aim to try....”