Dust and Decay – Chapter 12 – 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.
William B. Naismith hated anything less than luxury. On the road, he made do to foster a ‘man of the people’ image, but at home he lived as he deserved. His bedding contained the finest down and feathers, their sheets woven with silver and gold. The four-poster bed they lay upon was marble inlaid with spells of gems and bone. His chamber pot was the skull of a great beast of Melting Flesh. Misshapen familiars wafted him with ostrich feathers constantly.
As the sun set, he drowsed in such opulence, dreaming of things to come. Thanks to Omnis, he only slept four hours every two days. The drawback being that sleep came on him so suddenly he couldn’t resist. No one was to disturb him during these spells except with great or terrible news. To break this demand was to court death.
His defences were strong and his plans deep enough to survive for four hours, so he should never be disturbed anyway. As Omnis preached, a plan which cannot cope without its maker is no plan at all. So he rested easily. Confidently.
Two hours in, someone knocked on his oak bedroom door. He rose ready to kill. Moving sluggishly, a yawn on his lips, he threw on a robe and stormed to the door.
“What is it you wish to die for?” William demanded.
Platt, his manservant, cringed in apology. His mouth was sewn shut back when he was William’s property, so he raised a card from a deck hanging from his neck like a millstone. Each card had a meaning William had drilled into him over the years. He must even think in them now.
Platt raised the ace of hearts. Delightful, fortuitous news.
“Very well. What is it?”
Platt raised the jack of clubs and then the ace of spades. An enemy connected to something vile and horrible to William.
“It’s the Wanted Man, isn’t it?”
Platt searched the waxed cards and raised the two of hearts, a simple affirmative.
“Cecil has found him?”
He lowered the two of hearts and raised it again.
“This is fortuitous news.” William clapped his manservant on the shoulders. The man almost dodged the affectionate gesture, expecting something far worse. “I thank you for rousing me. Summon Cecil to my drawing room and have Mary dress me for the occasion. I will also take my leave of our humble home, so pack me attire for a week or so.”
Platt lowered and raised the two of hearts again. Then he left, his laboured breathing a cheerful whistle in William’s current mood.
The Naismith household burst into life. Meals were prepared, his horses and carriage were readied. Mary arrived to dress him in a freshly-laundered, white suit and shirt. She really was very skilled to tie his thin, black string tie so quickly with her burns.
Cecil Silversmith, a Semite from the North, waited in the drawing room. William best described him as slick. In a deep burgundy suit and silver waistcoat, with silver-tipped leathers shoes and a monocle inscribed with powerful magic, he was some sight. A real dandy. He sat in one of the drawing room’s plush green chairs, a map of the Badlands in his hands.
William broke into a wide smile. “Cecil, I understand you have good news for me.”
“William,” Cecil said, his voice deep with a Chicago twang. He put the map aside and rose. “A good morning to you.”
They shook hands. “Please, sit.”
Cecil did so with a nod.
William sat opposite him, the grand fireplace between them, vacant, filled with long-dead ash.
“What news do you have?”
“The Wanted Man has broken cover.” Cecil smoothed the map out on a round, varnished table between them and pointed to a southern region. “We felt him here. Indistinct, but definitely him.”
“The Wanted Man is using an obfuscation spell: it doesn’t hide his signal, per se, but spreads it in a circle about twenty-five miles wide. It’s quite ingenious, actually: we cannot tell what direction he moves in, or indeed if he is moving at all. If he is on the move, we could glean a direction in the next day or so, but it would only be vague.”
“That is most disappointing.”
Cecil nodded. “Know, sir, that we all want your daughter’s murderer caught. You will be notified once we know more.”
William kept his expression blank. Those outside his organisation thought the Wanted Man had turned traitor, allied himself with the Triangle, but that story wouldn’t work with believers. Instead, he told them Dust killed Eleanor when he unravelled their plot against those damned Wastrels. Technically, it was true.
“Thank you kindly, and keep up the good work.”
“We will. Starting by keeping the Wanted Man obscured. But the brief flash before our intervention will have alerted many. Keeping him to ourselves could prove a fight.”
“A fight we shall have to win. Though I will be of help in that regard.” William stood, prompting Cecil to stand also. “You shall have to contact me by ritual with further updates as I plan to head to the Solution within the hour.”
Cecil rolled up the map. “You’re going to make the change now?”
William nodded. Cecil was one of his inner circle, had proven himself time and again to William and Omnis. Those he worked closely with were allowed such intimacy. Not just to bond them: the biggest faults in a plan lay in its inception, so Omnis demanded its worshippers kept themselves honest by engaging with people who question their thinking. It galled William to share his strategies, but it was for the greater glory of Omnis. And his own good.
“Shall I message Mycroft for you?”
“Why, that would be a great help,” William said, genuinely delighted by the offer. “I will need my strength and it would be good if my son could meet me at the Solution.”
Cecil nodded. “I’ll do it now.”
“Thank you, Cecil. The efforts of you, your team, and your familiars is appreciated.”
The Chief Scryer bowed before leaving.
William took a moment to enjoy what was to come. The Word was his chief aim – and the chief aim of every cult and creature within a hundred miles, he believed – but he wanted to end its bearer almost as much. No careful, intelligent plans, no using him as a power source, just his death. The potential benefits of his living were outweighed by the lowered risks if he were gone. That and William wanted revenge for making him kill Eleanor…
After a light meal, he set off, his carriage driven by lower members of his organisation. The Solution was only a few hours away, which gave him the opportunity to catch up on his sleep. The carriage was plush and furnished, but not comfortable enough to sleep well. He merely dozed, a dreamless absence.
Comfort only graced him when they stopped. William rose, stretched, and stepped out of the carriage when the door was opened for him. Men of the Solution greeted him before their great sandstone fort. Lead-framed windows, walls patrolled by men with grim faces and tight grips on their rifles. It smelled of Triangle magic, cooked meat, and hard work.
Ah, the Solution. The great endeavour many viewed as his legacy. He took it in and smiled with a deep and abiding pleasure: the Solution wasn’t his legacy, but the means to one, the vehicle through which he would end Melting Flesh and That Which Sins, securing Omnis’ supremacy and making him the favoured son of the greatest and truest god.
Half of the men who greeted him were, like his drivers, members of his organisation. A cabal with no real name beyond Omnis’, which made it easier to keep their activities clandestine. Regularly updated signals and passwords identified them, but mostly they used subtle magics to detect one another. William knew everyone by sight. He’d inducted them all.
The Solution soldiers saluted. William waved them away. “Now, now, there’s no need for all of that. I am here to see General Ryman. Could one of you advise him? And could someone also request that Lieutenant Osmond meet us in the General’s office?”
Another round of salutes and the soldiers dispersed. Two remained to escort him, both Omnis’. They knew what this was, he could tell by their expressions. He took out a notepad and made a note to warn them to be more careful with their emotions.
William did not knock before entering. The General, fool that he was, stood behind his desk in full military dress. Lieutenant Osmond was already present.
“William,” General Ryman said, stiff as ever. “It is good to see you.”
“And you, General.” William approached the man’s desk, rested his hand on it. “Though I wish this reunion could have been under better circumstances.”
The General frowned. “What has happened? And why is Harvey here?”
“Sit down, Richard.”
The General glanced at Lieutenant Osmond and got only a blank look. He sat.
“Richard, I’m afraid that Congress and the Senate have reached the end of their tether with you. I have tried to argue your case – Heaven knows, this is an impossible job – but they just won’t have it. They view you as weak, incompetent, useless, in spite of everything I have said in your favour.”
The General’s face hardened. He knitted his fingers together. “Really?”
“It is true, I’m afraid,” William said with mock lamentation. “People want results. An end to headlines about the Dixie Problem: Mutated Wolf Attacks Child, Blacks Enchant Women, that kind of thing. In all these years, with all that funding – so they say, at least – you have not found any way to stem this tide. On top of that, you lost our key Eldritch Asset–”
“On a mission your daughter specifically requested.”
“She was just a girl, General.” Lieutenant Osmond said, smoothing that little fold away. “You had the authority to send more people or provide more equipment, even if Eleanor requested otherwise.”
The General looked between them, saw implacable expressions. “Do I at least have the honourable way out?”
William reached into his pocket for a folded note. “Of course. I have already taken the liberty of writing your resignation letter.”
General Ryman’s eyes flared with anger. He plucked the letter from William and looked surprised to find it dignified and elegant. Which William took as an insult. He was no monster.
“Very well.” The General took a quill from an inkwell on his desk and signed the bottom. An angry, rapid flourish and his career was over.
“It really is best for all concerned,” Lieutenant Osmond said. “Now you can retire, spend some more time with your family.”
“Your pension is assured, don’t you worry about that,” William said.
The General stood, brushed down his uniform. “I shall have the men unpack my office and will be out of here by the morning.”
William shook his head. “No. You will leave now. Your possessions will follow.”
“Damn it, will you not even let me speak to my men for the last time?”
His noble face turned blood red. “I hope you rest easy with what you have done here today.”
“I’m sure we will, Richard.”
No-longer-General Ryman straightened, rolled his shoulders back, and marched away. Soldiers loyal to William’s organisation would follow him, make sure he didn’t give any final orders. They would gently insist he leave if he tried something. There would be no violence.
“I shall assume command until Mycroft arrives,” Lieutenant Osmond said. “If that is not too much of a presumption?”
“No. That would be much appreciated. Make sure he is assisted carefully in running this place.”
“Are you leaving?”
“Only in a manner of speaking. The Wanted Man is abroad once more. I have something… special in mind for him.”