Dust and Decay – Chapter 4 – 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.
Thin Creek led them between the Teotek tents, mostly animal skins and wooden poles tied with thin rope. Some were enormous canvases, big as a bar. That comparison made Dust’s throat dry: he’d not had good whiskey in weeks. Or any whiskey. The band’s Elders had banned alcohol decades ago. Dust supposed he understood wanting to keep their people straight, but he wished there was one secret source of whiskey in the band. Just a thimbleful.
The Elder led them toward a great dome at Kehuadinune’s outskirts, where the Elders met every day. Potentially where their ancestors met centuries ago. Earthen with a few cacti struggling on its surface. Smoke billowed from its zenith. Warriors – all men – stood at the entrance, holding guns Dust’d modified. This wasn’t a one-way trade: the Elders’d shared runes to improve his other gun. Given it was his only weapon now, he needed it powerful enough to take on anything.
Might even need it today.
“What’re we meeting about then?” Dust asked.
“A great Eagle Doctor has arrived from afar. There is much for us to discuss.”
“Sounds like a stretch of fortune.”
Thin Creek liked to keep Dust guessing. Liked to keep everyone guessing. Probably one of the few pleasures you get at her age.
Dust looked over the encampment as they meandered along. Penelope ran around the band, trailing laughing children. Teotek folk wove clothes, sharpened weapons or tools, and tended the dwindling, magic-fed farms set up under the ancient city’s protection. The latter was a losing battle. If this Eagle Doctor couldn’t help them, the Teotek would – rightly – have to abandon Dust and Penelope. A choice Dust would agree with, even if it meant Penelope’s death.
Penelope… Determined, free, the girl sprinted, dripping sweat. Should the Teotek turf them out, she might survive if Dust surrendered to a civilian authority. Anyone but the Solution. They’d immediately hand him to the Solution, true, but Penelope could use the furore to get the hell out of Texas. Not that she’d ever listen and do such a thing…
“In we go, Wanting Man, if I can pull you from the air?”
Dust almost walked right into the dome. “Sorry. I’m here.”
The warriors by the entrance – good men, Iron Hide and Gentle Branch – held their rifles out and away to signal they were allowed in. A formality, but such could be important: most of Dustin’s life in the Rangers been formality and laws.
Thin Creek stepped between the warriors. “Enter, Shadows Fade and the Wanting Man.”
Inside the dome, a blue fire burned, dry wood beneath damp wood. Dark smoke streamed up from it. Runed rocks surrounded the fire pit, and low piles of furs surrounded them. Eleven seats. Six Elders in simple clothing, like Thin Creek, were present. All women. Women inherit property amongst the Teotek and were expected to manage practical matters: magical knowledge, law, farming, that kind of thing.
At the head of the fire was Chief Fighting Storm. Fifty or so, he wore magic-soaked hide armour with a spear that held as many runes as Dust’s gun. He was tasked with keeping the Teotek safe and sane. Deep wrinkles and scars showed that’d often been a struggle.
“The Wanting Man, welcome.”
Shadows Fade tutted. “Do you not greet me too?”
“Of course I welcome you, Kaish Kai.”
Shadows Fade growled. “Shadows Fade.”
“Not to me.”
The warrior sneered but said nothing. She’d traded her birth name with a Caddo warrior during her training to fight the Triangle, though Dust didn’t know how that’d come about. She’d only revealed that titbit after a long training session, feeling unusually chatty. She spoke of it with pride. Pain too. Dust saw why now.
Someone spoke gutturally in a language Dust didn’t know. Across the azure flames he saw the Eagle Doctor. White eagle feathers woven into gunmetal hair. Bright, beaded clothes. Dark, magical tattoos crossed her face, neck, and arms, angular and sharp. Gnarled as an oak tree, her eyes sparkled. Crystals in the blue light.
The Chief replied, and the other Elders – including Thin Creek, who had taken her place by the fire – nodded. The Eagle Doctor shook her head and fixed Dust with a stare.
Her magic roved over him. He assumed she was looking for his tattoo, but, when she found it, she paused only for a moment. No, she probed for something else. Dust didn’t know what – and didn’t particularly enjoy the act – but his tattoo warmed when he considered halting this interrogation.
Eventually, the powerful woman relented and spoke. Her tone was less angry, though her expression did not change. Nor did the silvery magic in her eyes.
“Wanting Man, this is One Who Goes About, a powerful Eagle Doctor from a band killed long ago,” the Chief said. “She was named for her mother, a great healer, and knows much of the ways of healing and magic.”
Dust bowed. “Tell her it’s an honour to meet her.”
“I do not need to. One Who Goes About understands your language, but will not speak it. It is enough of a concession that you have even seen her: many Eagle Doctors never allow those not of our people to see their sacred beads and sigils. You may be of Resistance, but you are not one of us.”
“I don’t reckon I can blame her on that.”
One Who Goes About’s mirrored pupils widened slightly.
“One Who Goes About has kept the stories of her band close to her heart,” the Chief continued. “Including stories of Kehuadinune. After we arrived here, we made it known amongst the bands and tribes of this land that the Teotek needed old stories to… meet the opportunity you have provided us. One Who Goes About answered our call.”
“You sought help with the Soul Waters?”
“Yes, Kaish Kai, the Soul Waters of That Which Sins.”
Soul Waters. Dust knew it as a Word, a shard of a soul. As reward for helping Father Kilkenny protect the ailing town of Crucifix, he was given a Word the Father had rescued. One containing part of the god That Which Sins. An incredibly rare item and an opportunity.
One Who Goes About said something. Shadows Fade looked at her father and uttered a short response. The old woman considered this before hissing at Chief Fighting Storm.
“My apologies… Shadows Fade.”
Shadows Fade straightened. She just about managed to not smile.
If just a word could make the Teotek Chief use his daughter’s given name, One Who Goes About was more important than Dust’d thought. Time to give her more respect.
“Anyway, One Who Goes About answered our plea,” Thin Creek said, picking up the thread to save face for the Chief. “She has woven great works across the land, and we are fortunate she could attend within mere weeks. Particularly given what she has told us.”
Knowledge Woman, another Elder, stood. “One Who Goes About knows some of the oldest stories of Kehuadinune. One speaks of an object of great power in the furthest reaches of our once home. In this story, things of the Three assailed our ancestors for this incredible item, and were sealed in the deep reaches of the city. The story only states that this item was a golden bowl. Its name is lost. But there are other tales of a golden bowl that we hold to. If this bowl exists, One Who Goes About could use it to prove a… theory.”
“It is unimportant until we have the artefact,” Chief Fighting Storm said. “Until then, it is smoke that can be cleared with a waft. We will not consider it further until we have this golden bowl of Kehuadinune.”
Dust looked around the Elders. They weren’t looking too thrilled. “Getting this bowl won’t be a stroll, right?”
The Elders looked to the Chief, who nodded. One Who Goes About’s eyes narrowed. She had nothing to say.
“We can no longer enter Kehuadinune,” Chief Fighting Storm said. “Whatever the truth of the old stories, brave warriors who venture into the city of our ancestors have all withered, hair and teeth falling out, and died within months. Something dire and strong is within, a dark spirit which ends everything it contacts.” He paused, considering his next words. “If One Who Goes About’s story is true, these dark spirits will have grown in number, if not strength, by feeding on this golden bowl over the centuries. So, even if I were willing to sacrifice men to enter Kehuadinune, few could face such creatures. If we are to get this golden bowl, it can only be through you, Wanting Man.”
One Who Goes About snarled something uncomplimentary.
“She does not like that only a white man can be sent,” Shadows Fade said. “I do not blame her. Are you sure that only Dust can do this?”
Chief Fighting Storm scowled at his daughter. “Tens of dead warriors like you suggest so. I cannot stop you risking yourself, daughter, but you are without your best defence right now. I hope you can accept your Chief’s wisdom, if not your father’s, and remain here.”
Shadows Fade growled but stepped back. Her becoming a warrior was clearly damn touchy between them. But her old man had a point: she didn’t have the resetting ability that’d saved her last time and wouldn’t for another eleven months.
Dust, though, he was strong enough. At least, he was expendable. He had no malice or resentment about that: the Teotek had been hounded and battered ever since the Spanish arrived, let alone after the Dixie Problem. They didn’t have Resistance to call on as directly as him, nor his peculiar tattoo. If he were making the decisions, he’d’ve said the same.
“I have your permission to enter Kehuadinune then?”
“You do,” Thin Creek said.
“You do,” the other Elders echoed.
“You do, but only to find this bowl One Who Goes About spoke of.”
“Thank you. I accept the task from you then.”
“Good. My warriors will bring you to the most powerfully-protected entrance to our ancestor’s city. From there, you will travel into the bowels of the city. The golden bowl will be deep in Kehuadinune, but we expect you will find the right path quickly.”
Dust nodded. “I reckon I might. At the least,” he tapped his shoulder, where his tattoo rested, “someone will probably guide me.”
One Who Goes About laughed.
The Eagle Doctor spoke, looking around the tent, before fixing Dust with a curious and reflective stare. She smiled without humour.
“Resistance may be the Great Spirit, by Caddo belief, but One Who Goes About believes that even it makes mistakes,” Shadows Fade translated. “She says that she sees one now, with what she takes to be your arrogance and ignorance. She warned us not to expect you to return whole and as we see you now. If at all.”
Dust felt an urge to talk back, but his tattoo warmed. It was right: giving her lip would only prove the Eagle Doctor right. The best way to show her up was to return with this golden bowl.
“I guess we’re going to find out, then, aren’t we?”