Dust and Sand – Chapter 19 – by Sean P. Wallace
As he stood beside Father Kilkenny, reviewing the spells the Father’d used on his chapel, Dust realised that it’d been some time since he had been amongst ordinary people. A lawman would argue he’d been out in public whenever he snuck out to drink at a local dive but people were different when they were drinking, especially in a small town like Low Tracks; they were sullen and quiet and determined to get out of their drinking sessions exactly what they wanted… the ability to forget themselves and their situations for an evening. Serious drinkers in small towns weren’t ordinary people as they’d given up on life.
But the Crucifix locals had done anything but given up. At the Father’s request, they stripped their homes of wood and brought the largest, most usable pieces to the chapel to repair its broken walls. They did so with a vigor he couldn’t help but admire; these men, women and children had a weary determination about them, one filled with a grim hope that they’d see a new day. They couldn’t have had a good night’s sleep between them in the last few days but they still stood, proud and tall, and forced their bodies to help them survive.
On reflection, that vigor meant these weren’t ‘normal people’ either; a normal person would be weak, would quail and rely on others for help. So his streak of avoiding the common man continued. The townspeople shared one thing in common with normals though; they couldn’t help but stare at him.
“The Vatican’s books say that you can focus the power of your faith with the right combination of markings and spells,” the Father said. He knelt beside his chapel walls and stroked their markings gently. “I’ve written some entreaties to the Lord to add His strength to mine between the traditional sigils and the less… traditional ones.”
Dust walked along the side of the chapel and took in the rear wall for the first time; it was much the same as the others.
Examining the walls had brought a shock; somehow the Father had turned Yahweh’s useless symbols into integral parts of the shielding spells. Dust imagined the vacuum was filled by the man’s soul, perhaps drawn to it by his faith or his desperation to protect his people, but he couldn’t figure out how.
Either way, Dust was impressed by, and a bit horrified at, the sacrifices the Father had unwittingly made. That the Vatican were encouraging people to use their souls like this was not a good sign though. Dust hoped they were doing so ignorant of the consequences. If not…
“Each wall was done by these principles,” The Father continued. He lowered his voice, an odd mix of pride and trepidation underpinning his hushed tones. “It is not… recommended to use the non-traditional symbols as often as I have but I don’t know if I’d have been able to protect people for this long if I had followed that… advice.”
“You did the right thing,” Dust said. He stroked the sigils and felt them thrum in reaction. They’d absorbed a good deal of the Father’s vitality and this strength remained hours later. “Though only someone with your… strength of faith… could make this work.”
“Really,” Dust said.
The Father didn’t exactly smile but it looked for a moment like it was easier for him to hold himself together. Dust would have enjoyed the moment but he was all too aware of the townsfolk’s stares. Naturally, they put protecting themselves over examining him and so focussed on the nails they hammered or the wood they sawed down to size. But in every fallow moment, and between every taciturn conversation, they took him in, never looking him in the eye but giving him looks as dirty as a bandit’s boots.
In fact, when they looked at him, they mostly focussed on his other gun and whispered a name he would never have given it; ‘Noose’. Sometimes, he heard them say something like, “How could that thing have been sent here by the Lord?” unaware of his hearing range. “How could the Father work with him?” was another common question.
Dust closed his eyes. His respect for these people’s determination eroded and he remembered why he hadn’t been among normals for so long; the ordinary person didn’t understand the difference between him and and the creatures of the Triangle. No, they just saw things in the stark contrast of ‘Us’ and ‘Not us’. As Dust was not of their God, he was to be dismissed, denied, decried.
Slowly, he balled his fists. He didn’t mind for himself. He was used to it. But, by using his soul in their protection, Father Kilkenny had driven himself to an early grave; shortening your lifespan was the price you paid for drawing power from your soul like that. And he had sacrificed years and years just to keep them safe. Strictly, he only owed Margaret anything but he had gone beyond that in his guilt so the least they could do was trust him. The least they could do was allow him to save their lives the right way.
But no, they openly questioned his sanity for being so comfortable with the cursed Wanted Man instead. It was sickening.
“Are you alright there, Dust?” Father Kilkenny asked.
Dust unballed his fists. He’d been staring off into the distance, not listening. “Sorry, Father. My mind was elsewhere.”
“Somewhere good, I hope.” Father Kilkenny gave him a nervous smile. He was scared of Dust too but at least he made an attempt to hide it.
“Not really,” Dust said. “I’ve seen enough. Shall we go back in?”
Father Kilkenny looked around, smiling at his townsfolk when he caught their eye, and then nodded. “Sounds like a good idea, to be sure,” he said.
He slowly stood and walked around his chapel. Dust followed close behind and tried not to stare the townspeople down.
“Could anything be improved?” the Father asked.
He wanted to say “People’s attitudes,” but his tattoo radiated a warning from his shoulder, having apparently migrated there as they looked over the chapel’s protection, so he said “Yes,” instead.
The Father gave a small laugh. “You know, my pride was sort of hoping that wasn’t going to the case.”
“No ‘holy protection’ is perfect. Everything can be improved.”
Apparently that applied to even him. The idea that he was missing something, not just in terms of power but his very soul, had begun to worm its way into him. The Word, his Word, had served Dust mighty well as a power source… but seeing the Father’s magic made him wonder if he would have needed such a powerful weapon if he were whole. How much more magic would he be able to do, how many more things could he stop, if he didn’t have this gap in his soul?
He shook his head and the idea cleared. For now, he needed to concentrate on Crucifix.
“Only the Lord gets it right first time,” the Father said.
Dust said nothing.
The Father nodded to himself and led Dust inside.
Some folk were hammering planks into the chapel walls when they entered, covering bullet holes and claw marks, whilst others swept the sawdust up. The buzz of nervousness filled the air as strongly as the smell of unwashed bodies had. Weak sunlight struggled through the chapel’s windows, leaving everyone’s face hidden in deep shadows.
Immediately, the Father went to help with the repairs. Dust sat on a pew and closed his eyes as he wasn’t welcome here.
Soon after, he felt Naismith and Shadows Fade arrive. When he turned to them, Naismith looked bored and made sure Dust knew it with a theatrical yawn, whilst Shadows Fade… well, she looked how she always did, an unreadable expression that he guessed showed blank anger and determination. Still, he was glad to see them both and rose to greet them with a small wave.
Father Kilkenny put down a ragged claw hammer and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. “Everyone, would you mind giving us some space?” he asked the townsfolk. “We’ve got to discuss how we’ll protect you tonight.”
The few people inside the church looked disappointed but they duly walked past Naismith and Shadows Fade and out into their town; they’d been hoping to hear what the Wanted Man and his crew were going to do, maybe so they’d have something to tell their grandkids one day. Or the authorities.
Once they had cleared out, the Father turned to Naismith and said “Welcome.” Then he greeted Shadows Fade in her own language.
Naismith flashed him a smile. Shadows Fade replied, one barked word. A slight frown twitched on Father Kilkenny’s face but nothing more came of it.
“We’ve surveyed the town,” Naismith said.
“Did you find anything useful?” Dust asked.
She shook her head. “It was pretty dull, really. The town has not been attacked using a consistent pattern or even consistent enemies.”
Dust found that surprising. He had expected the cult to donate spare pact creatures they had bound to retrieving this Word but not so many that they could vary each night’s attacks. Either they were dealing with a bigger cult than Dust had previously thought or the mercenaries had been given a very powerful artifact that summoned the monsters each night.
“Anything else?” he asked.
Naismith shrugged. “Claw… I mean, Shadows Fade has mapped out the local area. It would be best if she were let loose as part of any plan, allowed to hunt.”
“Agreed,” Dust said. He hoped the Father wouldn’t notice the slip; it would be best if no-one knew about Claw of the Gods for now. “We’ll let her loose.”
Father Kilkenny cocked a wrinkled eyebrow. “You would leave a woman to fight on her own in the Badlands?”
“And just what is that supposed to mean, Father?” Naismith demanded, crossing her arms. She fixed the Father with a withering glare.
Father Kilkenny looked at Dust for support and found none; Dust enjoyed seeing someone else subjected to Naismith’s ‘attentions’ too much to interject, even if he had agreed with the Father’s point. “I just thought… it’s surely not a woman’s place, to be in the Badlands alone.”
Naismith’s tone became sharp as a knife. “But it is a man’s place?”
“Well, no, but it’s more of a man’s place to-”
“How do you figure that, Father? Is that what it tells you in the Bible?”
Dust decided to interject before this went much further. “Shadows Fade is the one who found us, Father” he said. “Indian warriors can be of both genders and Shadows Fade could probably match the best of them. You would do well to note the spells across her body, the strength she has built into herself.”
“I did,” Father Kilkenny said sullenly. “But it still doesn’t feel right.”