Dust and Decay – Chapter 11 – 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.
Since the man in black captured Penelope, everything felt different. No, that wasn’t right: the world had remained the same, but she was different. She had been so… privileged before, comfort and wealth like blinds on a horse. She’d thought Africans kin to the beef on her plate. When others discussed the ‘Indians’, she’d thought them savages. They didn’t have a real society, did they? Buildings, technology, or guns of their own? Nothing she considered civilised.
Yet, who’d captured her? Tortured her? Mahrey and the man in black. People of her own race. Who was the more civilised, then, if black folk mostly resisted the call of the Triangle, and the Nations had defied them for centuries, but whites formed such cabals?
She thought this as Snowflake, a Teotek healer, tended to her injured hand. And she reconsidered the Teotek’s kindness. Not outright kindness, particularly by those who had fought whites since long before the Dixie Problem, but more than a United States Senator’s daughter deserved. They even sheltered her in the shadow of their sacred former home. Putting aside old enmities to provide succour. Biblical acts from non-believers.
It wasn’t kindness she felt when Snowflake pressed a burning poultice against her abrasion, but she didn’t make a sound. It wouldn’t do to complain.
Snowflake still felt her tense. “I should have warned you that would sting.”
“No, you don’t have to. You’re healing me. A little pain is nothing.”
Snowflake frowned. She was short with long, lustrous, black hair. Penelope thought of her nose as Jewish, which she chided herself for. Her dark skin was marred only by aesthetic and magical tattoos gracing her hands and arms.
No, not marred. Changed. Enhanced, even.
“Are you okay, Penelope Chalmers?”
She wasn’t. Dust’s barb about keeping her opinions to herself still stung. Doubly so because he was right. It was probably why she’d been so aggressive during their sparring session. Why she now had bruised knuckles.
She wasn’t angry at Dust, but herself. Well, who she had been, and the impression of that person that still shaped her.
“Sorry. No need to worry about me. I’m just a little out of sorts is all. What with Dust leaving for…” She stopped herself from saying God. “For fuck knows where for a day or so. I’m just used to his presence. Weird, seeing as I’ve only known him a little while.”
“You’re used to his protection, you mean?”
“What? No.” She paused. His absence was a convenient excuse for her mood. Wasn’t it? “Least, I don’t think so…”
Snowflake pulled a roll of bandaging from her leather pouch and wrapped it around Penelope’s knuckles. “Your ordeal with followers of the Three has left you scarred and hurt. Use that pain to fight, to learn how to never be taken again, but know deep wounds do not heal in moons: they heal in lifetimes. Penelope, many hear your screams in the night. You suffer still. And it is clear you suffer more without the calming presence of one touched by Resistance.”
Penelope looked away. She hadn’t realised others knew about her nightmares. Plaguing visions of what Mahrey and That Which Sins wanted her to be. What they did to her. The cold of the night, its solitude, often plunged her back into that cell.
Snowflake grabbed Penelope’s chin and turned her back. “I have seen warriors and survivors drink themselves to death after such a struggle. Or go to fight impossible things solely to die. You have lived through a nightmare. Shame is natural, but you must never give in to it.”
Her face was etched with real pain. Penelope touched her arm. “You survived something awful too, didn’t you?”
She continued tending Penelope’s wound. “When I was young, I and many others were removed from the Teotek. Forced into white schools. They taught us much, mostly about your god and his ways. Taught as though it was the only truth. Beat us when we turned to the ways of our ancestors, spoke our own tongue. For seven years, I remained, until the older children contacted the Teotek. Then we were freed. With Resistance’s aid.”
Penelope felt sick. Her father implemented those schools, claiming they would civilise the ‘savages’, integrate them into society. She’d thought them a great idea: the Indians knew so little, had only the technology and wares they could steal or buy. But Snowflake was traumatised by them. It should have been obvious, but such schools were little more than torture.
“What did I do to earn such kindness? From you and all the Teotek?”
Snowflake shook her head. “Kindness is not something you earn: it is something you should expect. Unless you crush it in others with your words or deeds, of course. Respect and trust, they must be earned, but not kindness.”
Before Penelope could respond, Dust coughed behind her. Bald as an old doll. “Penelope, you okay?”
Penelope stood, brushed dirt from her legs. “I’m fine. It’ll be a couple of days before I punch anything, but I’ll live.”
Dust looked to Snowflake. “You mind giving us a moment? I’ve something I need to discuss with Penelope.”
Snowflake nodded and left, taking her kindness and her treatment.
“Thank you, Snowflake.”
The healer waved her thanks away before entering her tent.
“It’ll really be days until you’re better?”
Penelope flexed her hand a little. Pain flared. “Maybe less. I’ll use my other hand in practice sessions. What about your hair? When’s that coming back?”
“Damn,” Dust said, ignoring her. “That’s a problem as we’re leaving today.”
Despite the heat, Penelope ran cold. Her bruised hand twitched. She’d thought the Teotek band, this carved city, was their permanent home. Somewhere to work out of.
“Wh-why? Where are we going?”
“We’ve got a good use for the Father’s Word,” Dust said, unaware of her panic. Or ignoring it. “The Teotek Elders and a Caddo Eagle Doctor, they reckon we can use it to close off That Which Sins from the Badlands. Perhaps all of America.”
Penelope’s eyes narrowed. Her healthy hand clenched. “Do you believe them?”
Dust smiled a little. “Yeah. They reckon that if we get the Word to a kind of… magical fortress the Nations’ve built, someone inside can use it to stop That Which Sins.”
Panic evaporated, unable to withstand her rage. “I’m coming with you. If That Which Sins will take a bullet, I want to be there. I want to hear her screams.”
His smile flashed again. “Hoped you’d say that. We’re leaving soon as we’re packed. You, me, and Shadows Fade. Guess you’ll be fighting left-handed.”
“I’ll manage.” She took a deep breath. “Yeah, I’ll manage. All right, what should I pack for?”
“We’re going a long way damn quickly, so bring only what you need to survive: Shadows Fade’s looking after the food and water and I’m bringing the Solution’s tent. All you’ll need are your clothes, your weapons, and the Collar.”
Penelope touched where Omnis’ Collar would rest. She’d not worn it in days. Now she would wear it out in the Badlands, where monsters and cultists roamed. Her left hand was still clenched. Her right throbbed violently.
“If we’re leaving the Teotek’s wards, won’t you be spotted by… everything?”
Dust sucked on his teeth. “Yup. Straight away. I’ve been working on something to protect us, but it won’t be enough. Everything in the Badlands will know when I’m abroad. Won’t know exactly where, but maybe to within five miles. The Teotek’ll use counter-scrying magic to help hide us, but it won’t do a lot. Another reason to travel light.”
A hundred inhuman eyes following them. Penelope shivered. “Then we’re not coming back, are we? We would only reveal the Teotek by returning.”
“Smart,” Dust said, a little impressed. “You’re right, we ain’t coming back. Even if we tried, the Teotek’ll move on soon, I’m sure. Settle in some other place. No, if we’re successful, we’re off to Missouri next. Their Dark Marshes, like our Badlands. We’ll end That Which Sins in America.”
“Then I should pack anything I care about.”
“So long as it’s not heavy.”
She sighed. “Will we at least get to say goodbye? To the Teotek, I mean. I… I would to thank them for their hospitality.”
Dust nodded. “I reckon we will. Come on, we’d best get packing. Quicker we are, the more time we’ll have for a farewell.”
He stepped away. Out of his gaze, his harsh attention, Penelope reeled. She’d gone from being accepted by the Teotek to wishing them farewell. For a moment, Dust seemed as bad as the man in black. A kidnapper.
She scolded herself: did she not immediately say she would come? Did she not burn with a desire to hurt That Which Sins? To see the Whore God dead?
Still, this wouldn’t be a permanent parting. When they had completely closed out That Which Sins, she’d return to the Teotek. Thank them properly.
“Hey, Dust? Why did you talk about just America?” Penelope asked.
He stopped, turned. “Pardon?”
Penelope jogged to catch up to him. “Isn’t That Which Sins active across the whole world? So why would we concentrate only on America?”
“This is where she first entered, ages ago. Through the First Wound. And it’s where she’s stayed. No idea why.”
“Why doesn’t That Which Sins operate beyond America?”
“Omnis. Omnis is why. The moment it arrived on this world, it left for Europe, leaving the other ‘gods’ to gorge themselves here. That’s why it’s got a Latin name: the Catholic Church identified it. Melting Flesh made it across later, but That Which Sins stayed here. So, if we get her here, she’ll be done everywhere. I’m sure of it.”
Penelope frowned. “So, the Nations didn’t fight Omnis before?”
“They did, they just didn’t know it. It didn’t care about America, with the Old World uncontested for a good while, so the Nations dealt with its influence rarely. Its creatures were mistaken for those of Melting Flesh or That Which Sins. Only when folks came over from the Old World, bringing Omnis’ influence, did the Pair become the Three.”
“Where did you hear all that from?”
“The Teotek confirmed most of it. The rest comes from people I’ve met, intuition, and, well…” He tapped his arm twice and shrugged.
Penelope nodded. When he wasn’t training, helping around the band, or studying with the Teotek elders, Dust worked with the tattoo. Sometimes, she found him whispering to it. She’d initially thought he was losing his mind, but she once saw the tattoo move in response…
Though it wasn’t his mind, he had lost something. “You didn’t say what happened to your hair.”
Dust pressed his tongue inside his cheek, looked away. “I fought a Major Gift of Melting Flesh. Damn thing took my hair as a toll. Everything but my eyebrows and eyelashes.”
“Everything?” Penelope asked archly. “Even… down there?”
Dust blushed. He walked away without replying.
Penelope cackled. Hell, if she could make the Wanted Man blush, she could easily face the Badlands with one bruised hand.