Dust and Decay – Chapter 10 – By Sean P. Wallace
Want to know what’s happening? The first book Dust and Sand was serialised here at Geek Pride. A summary is available here. You can also buy the definitive edition of Dust and Sand at all good eBook stores.
Shadows Fade encountered her first dark spirit when she was eight. Before the Badlands formed, children could roam, search for unusual plants, insects, or old arrowheads, if they carried a locator rune. She had always hated her. In truth, she and her friends thought dark spirits a myth to keep children in line, resented having to bring along those etched pebbles. Which was strange when there were enough white folk to legitimately scare them with…
It had not helped that dark spirits were rare back then. Doubly so during the day. Whenever she felt reflective, as now, Shadows Fade wondered whether Resistance had manoeuvred that thing into her life. Set her on the path to becoming a warrior.
Having left her rune behind, she spent the afternoon searching through cacti and shrubs or watching eagles screech at the distant sun. Unaware of the danger stalking her.
Young, untrained, she did not recognise a dark spirit’s slithers and sighs as it approached. She was curious, of course, but not scared by the sounds. Approached the outcrop they came from.
Then the thing floated down toward her. A scorpion bloated with dark magic. Knee high, it flew on dragonfly wings. The graceful swirls on its carapace and increased brain size told her in hindsight it was a creature of Omnis.
Shadows Fade had screeched and sprinted away. Far from her band, too far to return to their protective wards, she simply ran. Erratic turns and panicked sprints. Anywhere to escape that evil thing.
The dark spirit followed on shimmering wings, fine as smoke. “Stop. You do not need to run. I am a great spirit. I am your friend.”
With no spells or wards, Shadows Fade could not resist. Its seductive magic calmed her. Slowly, surely, she stopped. The dark spirit only wanted to talk. Her band told stories of coyote speaking with mortals, telling riddles and truths, so surely this thing could too.
The dark spirit chittered happily when she turned, arms open.
Before it could kill her, a spear shot through the air. Magic, real magic, gave it speed and power. The sharp, iron head sliced through her braided hair before piercing the dark spirit. The spear was thrown so hard and fast that it embedded in the ground, trapping the dark spirit.
Her mother sprinted into view. In full battle regalia, leather armour with engraved bones. Fear and anger were etched into her beautiful face: beauty which had passed to her brothers, to the joy of their wives, but not her.
Shadows Fade threw her arms out, expecting an embrace. But her mother ran past her, to the dark spirit writhing on the spear. She stamped on its tail, crushing its stinger, then withdrew the spear, all in one swift movement, only to ram the weapon back through the dark spirit’s engorged brain.
The dark spirit squealed and died, legs curling toward its carapace.
She twisted the head and growled, “My daughter, are you injured?”
Shadows Fade had shaken her head. “Mother, how do know the ways of the spear? Of fighting the dark spirits? Are they not for men?”
Her mother stabbed the dark spirit a third time, ensuring her kill, then stepped away. Glistening and glorious. “Kaish Kai, dark spirits come for men and women alike. And for children. This is why we tell you to bring your runes, so we can find you when something like this appears. Our seers saw this thing was nearby. Near you. I and your father raced here to save you.”
She looked at her severed braids and realised she was lucky to have only lost some hair. “I am sorry. So sorry. But how did you find me?”
Her mother knelt by Shadows Fade’s shorn hair and removed a broach which held the fine darkness together. A whispered word brought blue light from it, shaped like the locator rune. “Teotek women are the responsible ones, Kaish Kai. We prepare for the future. But that does not mean we allow ourselves no defences. Strength comes in many forms.”
Shadows Fade remembered those words as One Who Goes About and the Teotek elders cast their ritual over the Bowl Which Knows. She was privileged to watch them write sigils in the air with totems fresh and old, burn scrolls with spells drafted in blood, and chant in low voices. The artefact, suspended over the firepit, juddered and shivered. Water spilled from its lip. One Who Goes About led them, directing even her father. By her skill, the future would be determined.
As her mother had said, there was more to power than strength, though she did not doubt One Who Goes About’s strength: there was also planning and consideration, responsibility. Yet it had taken Penelope Chalmers to remind her of this with her stance toward Dust’s tactics. If Shadows Fade were to one day protect as One Who Goes About does, she had best learn that lesson properly. Because they could not rely on Dust alone.
Dust… He had returned from the hallowed city triumphant, drenched in the blood of a Major Gift. Once One Who Goes About confirmed he had found the right artefact, he had been ushered out of the chief’s tent, and this ritual had begun.
“He cannot be present,” One Who Goes About insisted. “Only those related to the original crafter can witness what we must do.”
Shadows Fade did not think that a true requirement. No, she was protecting her secrets and ways. A reminder that the Wanting Man was not the only means Resistance had for enacting its will, both to the Teotek and Dust.
Godly Claw brushed her thigh, bringing her from her thoughts. She looked down at the Spirit Wolf, who turned its muzzle toward the ritual. It was about to end.
“Shadows Fade, be ready,” One Who Goes About shouted. “We cannot be certain the Bowl Which Knows remains uncorrupted. If we are infested by something of the Three…”
“Worry not. I will end you.”
The old Eagle Doctor grinned. “Good.”
At that, One Who Goes About withdrew crow feathers from her robes and threw them into the fire. Purple-grey sparks erupted. The Elders flinched at their heat, but did not stop chanting. Dark smoke curled from the bowl like a snake climbing a pole, coalescing into a double helix which writhed like it was live.
“Cease!” One Who Goes About ordered.
Everyone went silent and still.
The smoke seemed to look around, then poured back into the Bowl Which Knows.
One Who Goes waited, waited, then hobbled forward to untie the Bowl Which Knows and peer deeply into it, the water gone. Her eyes flashed silver.
“It is as we thought. The Soul Waters can help the Iron Souls.”
The Iron Souls… A caste of warriors rarely discussed: Shadows Fade only knew that a warrior from each generation earned the title through competition and study, was granted a holy purpose, and then never seen again. That the Soul Waters could help them was a boon, for they enacted Resistance’s will. She assumed.
“What do we do?” her father asked. He wore his ritual clothing, all beads and bones. Sweat poured from him. “Does the Bowl know that?”
“The Bowl can only answer one question per day, and only answers the clearest questions. Your band cannot waste time asking wrong questions before discovering the right one. I have an idea what it might be implying though. Blocking, denial. We must get the Soul Waters to your Iron Soul quickly.”
“I have not the men or will to fight across the Badlands. We must involve the Wanting Man. I trust that is okay?”
“It is, if Shadows Fade is with him.”
Shadows Fade stood a little taller. It felt good that the Eagle Doctor respected her. Perhaps she knew of the deeds which warranted her new name, or perhaps she simply liked to see another woman work for Resistance. Whatever the source, she felt stronger for that trust.
“You are sure of that?”
“I say nothing I am not sure of, Chief Fighting Storm.”
The chief closed his eyes. “Ka… I mean, daughter, summon the Wanting Man.”
She did not have to look far: he and Penelope Chalmers sparred at the centre of the band, much to the delight of the children and fledgling warriors. The younger ones rubbed their heads, laughing at Dust’s new hairstyle. The man did not look like he minded their humour, but she could not imagine he was happy about it either.
Dust was, of course, winning, parrying and dodging with ease. But Penelope Chalmers was not doing too badly for someone with no spells or wards. She had truly taken to fighting, which boded well for her, as Dust would surely not leave without her.
“Shadows Fade,” Dust said, stopping the fight. “Everything okay?”
Penelope Chalmers took the opportunity to punch his jaw. A smart move against a normal opponent. Because he was distracted, Dust did not flow with the punch. Her fist struck. He hardly moved. She was a wasp stinging a statue.
Penelope Chalmers’ face screwed into agony. “Son of a bitch!” She waved her hand and hissed. The children and warriors laughed, in good nature. “That was like punching a train.”
Dust rubbed his chin distractedly. “Sorry about that.”
“Are you all right?” Shadows Fade asked, concerned for her friend.
Penelope Chalmers put her hand beneath her armpit and spluttered, “No, no, it’s fine. I enjoy beating up locomotives anyway.”
“Dust, One Who Goes About has called for you.”
Dust looked across at Penelope. “Then everything was okay?”
“I cannot say here. Let us discuss it with the Eagle Doctor.”
“Can I come?” Penelope asked, still wincing.
Shadows Fade shook her head. “No.”
“If you say so. Damn, I should get my hand looked at anyway.”
Dust followed Shadows Fade through the encampment, walking in the shadows of a city he had cleansed. That he had cleared Kehuadinune rankled her, but at least it was safe now. If they wanted, the bands and tribes of Texas could reclaim their ancestral home.
A low murmur escaped her father’s tent when they arrived, an ongoing discussion. Probably about her. For tact’s sake, she made sure Godly Claw entered long before she and Dust.
The tent fell silent when her Spirit Wolf entered. The Elders looked chastened. Her father’s face was thunderous as his name. One Who Goes About looked calm as a winter sunrise over frozen lakes. She must have won out.
Dust stepped toward the firepit and sat cross-legged. On his feet were hard-wearing moccasins, replacements for the shoes he had lost in the revered city. Along with the hair on his arms and head. And everywhere else, presumably. A thought which almost made Shadows Fade crack a smile.
“You paid a price in retrieving the Bowl,” One Who Goes About said, as though she knew what Shadows Fade was thinking. “You will, then, be pleased to know it was not paid in vain: the Bowl has confirmed something to us.”
Her words were relayed to Dust, who said, “I’m glad to hear it. Not for my sake.”
“Very well. Explain to him about the Iron Soul and our plans for them.”
More was discussed in her absence than her father’s unhappiness. Shadows Fade leant forward. If the secrets of the Iron Soul were to be revealed to an outsider, at the order of One Who Goes About no less, he could achieve something incredible with those Soul Waters.
“Dust, you know much of the horrors which created these ‘Badlands’,” her father said after a long sigh. “What few know is that your people’s heretical… dalliance corrupted the land to the core. An evil we thought we could never dispel. Yet matters remain almost in the balance. The Three’s corruption spreads, true, but slowly. ‘America’ would have died if not for we Nations and the Iron Souls who defend us.
“When your people sacrificed so very many slaves, we felt it. How could we not? The fabric of our lands was forcibly changed. A great conclave was called, enmities and hatred set aside. There, we agreed to protect our lands together with a great undertaking. Doctors and warriors ventured to each disaster site like your Badlands, to those wounds through which the Three pour themselves. Wound In The Air, ours is called. Our people worked tirelessly for two moons, fending off fledgling dark spirits and their cults, to cast a spell unlike anything seen before: one which contains Wound In The Air, and others like it, to halt the Three. Mostly.
“The spell is so powerful that living people must sustain it. The Iron Souls, warriors,” his eyes flicked to Shadows Fade, “who withstand the incredible strain of halting and hiding such wounds. Every nine years, a new warrior is chosen to study under their predecessor for a year, taking their place on the previous Iron Soul’s death.”
Her father fell silent. Dust looked shocked and delighted, but kept his peace.
“He remains calm,” One Who Goes About said. “That bodes well. Explain what we should do with the Soul Waters then.”
“Wanting Man, The Bowl Which Knows confirmed something for us: the Soul Waters you brought contain an aspect of That Which Sins, so they can prevent her entering through Wound In The Air. If that is successful, our lands will be almost free of that horror. And the Iron Souls will survive their duties for longer.”
Somehow, Dust took this calmly. “Could it be used on the other… Wounds In The Air? Or the First Wound?”
A great question. The First Wound, a place of legend through which the Three first arrived. If it existed, it was protected well by the Three. But no protection was impossible to overcome…
One Who Goes About chuckled. “Typical. Tell him that, if the Iron Soul can close off an aspect of Wound In The Air, it is not impossible that the First Wound could be closed. Eventually. But that would be so very far off.”
Shadows Fade laughed at the thought of beating That Which Sins. That gave Dust all the answer he needed, though her father still relayed One Who Goes About’s words.
“Then how can I help?” Dust asked.
“Wound In The Air is protected in many ways, most of which you can overcome,” her father said, looking at both her and Dust. “There is one you cannot: the entranceway opens only twice a year. The next appearance is three days away. You must take those poisonous Soul Waters to the Iron Soul before then. We know you are hunted, that many forces would see you destroyed, so Shadows Fade will go with you. And we will obscure you as best we can.
“Speed will be vital to your success. Race to the site of the Iron Soul before the gateway closes.” He addressed Shadows Fade kindly then. As his daughter. “I would send more with you, but Dust’s leaving here will alert many to our presence. My warriors must be ready to defend us. Each but you, my daughter.”
Her heart fluttered. He had never called her a warrior before. “What if we do not make it in time?”
“Those hunting me’ll kill us,” Dust said. “We’ll be a damn beacon for everything within fifty miles when I leave here. And I’m willing to bet some folks and things’ll quickly work out where we’re headed, so we won’t have much time to run. No, if we fail, we’ll face an army.”
“Is that a decline, Wanting Man?” the chief asked, a little hope in his voice.
“Course not. I’ll get this done. Don’t you worry about that.”
One Who Goes About chuckled again. “Arrogance. It will be for you, Shadows Fade, to ensure that flaw does not get him killed before you arrive at Wound In The Air.”
“I swear that I will achieve that.”
The Eagle Doctor’s amusement disappeared. “You had better.”