Dust and Sand – Chapter 23 – By Sean P. Wallace
“The cult are here!” Dust roared.
He drew and shot at their aggressor. Naismith also brought her rifle to bear. But Dust was tired and Naismith couldn’t really see her target so both attacks missed comfortably so the cultist raced toward them unharmed, zigging and zagging as Dust had back in Crucifix. And he was racing at a speed Dust would barely be able to match at his best. Dust’s other gun bellowed white death again but the shot even didn’t come within a foot of the man.
Shadows Fade growled something. Claw of the Gods howled back. The warrior had her weapons ready, the Spirit Wolf bared her teeth; both were merely awaiting the right moment to strike back at him.
“What is he?!” Naismith screamed in a panic.
“Kaspera’s employer,” Dust said, still firing. He couldn’t be sure beyond that.
“Then what do we do?”
Their aggressor interrupted him by leaping forward at an even greater speed, knocking Claw of the Gods away with a swipe of his pearl-white hand. In the torchlight, Dust saw him as a pale man in dark leather, a wide-brimmed hat and an elaborate mask. His tattoo’s senses told him this was a person drenched in the power of That Which Sins, someone who had given themselves to the god body and soul.
All this came to him in the flash between Claw of the Gods crashing against the outcrop with a yelp and Dust shooting again. The bastard dodged the shot mid-flight, his head moving at an unnatural speed to avoid being pierced, and then slithered away from two shots from Naismith when he landed.
Shadows Fade roared at the cultist daring to strike her Spirit Wolf and stabbed at him with her knives. But he was quicker even than her; he leaned back, spine curling like it was cloth, and pushed her hands aside. This made her over-extend so much the pale bastard got two good shots in the side of her head. Each blow sounded like a hammer against an anvil as their powers collided.
But the cultist was that bit stronger and so knocked the warrior off balance, stunned her. In that slim opening, the cultist was able to nip under her defences and wrap his arms around her in a death grip.
“The Wanted Man,” the cultist said, calm and in control. To punctuate, he tightened his grip on Shadows Fade, making her grunt in pain. “Drop your weapon.”
Shadows Fade struggled back but couldn’t free herself.
Dust raised his other gun, levelling it for a better shot. “Why would I when I’ve got the drop on you?”
Blank silver eyes stared at him from under the dark hat. “Very well.”
Corrupted magic then crawled over the cultist’s pale skin like a host of hurried maggots. They scrabbled down to fingertips buried deep in Shadows Fade’s skin and into the warrior. Shadows Fade screamed and her eyes went black as the unleashed horror overcame her defences once more. Her body writhed and kicked as the magic ripped through her system, tearing her flesh apart.
Dust took his shot but the cultist was still fast even when gripping someone, sunk his shoulders like they were set in quicksand so his head dipped away from the attack.
“Shadows Fade!” Naismith screamed.
The cultist withdrew his shoulders from his flesh and released the warrior. Shadows Fade pitched forward, landed face first on the floor. Claw of the Gods got weakly to its feet and howled once, an aching and pained sound, before disappearing.
Dust knew they were both dead.
The cultist laughed like a hurtling train and raced toward Naismith. The girl squealed and ran. Dust took another shot and clipped him on the shoulder. The magic tore his jacket, sprayed his dark blood onto the desert floor, and almost knocked the bastard from his feet but he dug his heels in and merely skidded.
The laughter stopped. His silver eyes were no longer apathetic; they were filled with rage.
Dust took two more shots, one of which tore the muscle in the cultist’s arm but didn’t break through to his torso. If anything, it powered the man and he caught up to Naismith in seconds, knocking the rifle from her hand and holding her in another death grip.
Her rifle and torch hit the floor at the same time her scream pierced the air.
“Now, shall we do this again?” the cultist shouted, bleeding from his arm and shoulder. His calm had disappeared as he walked Naismith back toward the outcrop. “Put your weapon down.”
Dust levelled his other gun at the cultist again. He stopped still. Those silver eyes widened, though not nearly so much as Naismith’s. His tattoo didn’t warm; Resistance wanted him to take the shot.
“Dust, what are you doing?” Naismith screeched.
“If I kill him now, it’s over,” he said.
“You won’t be able to. But, if you try, I will kill her,” he said. Dark magic surged along his skin once more, stopping just short of Naismith’s face. “I guarantee it.”
Dust lightly stroked the trigger, close to blowing a hole in the cultist. He looked into Naismith’s eyes and saw terror, abject horror that she was about to die. It wouldn’t be the first time he’d sacrificed an innocent to do the right thing. But there was something about that look, about the fear of a youngster who had relied on him, that made pulling the trigger impossible.
He lowered the other gun. Dust’s tattoo flared like a bonfire, commanding him to kill the cultist while he had the opportunity. Dust would not do it. He couldn’t, not when she’d only just shown contrition for the first time, now she had promise. The pain escalated but Dust gritted his teeth, made no move.
The cultist smiled and dispelled the magic on his skin. “Good. Now you’re coming with me.”
Resistance wouldn’t accept this; his arm went numb, begin to move without his permission. Before it could make him shoot her, Dust threw the other gun over to the cultist.
That unlocked a new level of punishment.
Dust screamed; he had not defied Resistance so openly before and the god’s fury felt as though Dust’s veins were filled with boiling water and his flesh had become an angry mass of biting ants. He didn’t fall into unconsciousness, that would have been too easy. Instead, he fell to the floor and could not move without escalating the pain even further, even when the cultist walked over and hauled him across those dark leather shoulders like he were a hog.
“That Which Sins promised me I would have you,” the cultist said, his voice a whisper over Resistance’s punishment. “And She was true to Her word. You were a fool to follow Resistance rather than Her.”
At that moment, blasphemous and horrible as the thought was, Dust had to agree.
“Girl, follow us. If you get more than five feet from me you will die. Understood?”
Naismith must have nodded because the cultist set off in silence. Dust could see only the Badlands’ floor in the darkness. Resistance’s punishment increased with each step the cultist took but he would not be granted the sweet absence of unconsciousness. Dust closed his eyes, screamed out his pain and hoped he’d done the right thing.