Dust and Decay – Chapter 5 – 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.
They were not the oldest. Many had spent more time on this world.
They were not the strongest. Many had greater influence and power.
They were not the best. That honour always went to another.
But they still brought glory and exultation onto Melting Flesh. They corrupted. They infected. They spread the Father’s love and reach. And the mercenaries, men and a woman, who had just entered the Badlands would be their greatest work in His name.
They skirted the Badlands’ border, where the sport was scant but so was the competition. Melting Flesh encouraged fighting amongst his beloved, a constant race, infection against immune system, disease against diseased. One which only those of Melting Flesh understood: the Whore God’s followers compete to debase themselves and others, and the Hoarder’s worshippers face off in silent ways that almost couldn’t be considered competition, but neither knew the biological beauty of utterly absorbing another’s power, or of knowing the one who beat you had the favour of your god.
Not that they’d known the latter pleasure. If Melting Flesh willed it, it would happen, but their Father had not yet brought them into competition with anything fierce enough. There were not many who would face a Gift like them, but some would.
It was as they floated on weak eddies of magic, eager for something to infect, that the mercenaries entered the Badlands. Running like cowards, warded like warriors. Biologies to dominate and sap. The humans immediately earned their attention. The Gift floated toward them, invisible, to ride their ward like a strong gust over calm waters. And they listened.
From their previous victims, they knew what mercenaries were: indeed, they understood most of American culture, white, native, and black. Not yet the Chinese. Perhaps one day. It was interesting to hear the mercenaries’ conversations, to improve their knowledge. For whilst human matters did not shift as rapidly as those of the Triangle, they shifted nonetheless.
“I still don’t get where we’re supposed to start from,” a voluminous man said. His immune system was weak, but he kept himself clean. Aside from a sore on his lip, it would be difficult to compromise him. They dubbed him Lip Sore.
“Crucifix,” another man said. Older, but his system was strong. It had to be, with the cuts and bruises he’d taken over his life. They dubbed him Leader, from his tone and the deference others showed him. Leader would put up the greatest fight. “The Wanted Man left from there. We go, we track, we find him.”
Their excitement grew. The Wanted Man? What boon has Melting Flesh granted him?
“That was a month ago,” Lip Sore said.
The woman spoke. Middling of strength, shallow bite marks on her chest. “We can still follow the trail. And there’s only so many places a man can hide safely out here.”
“There’s something you ain’t tellin’ us,” a third man said. Their teeth were blackened, their gums and genitals diseased. They labelled him Entry Point. “No way you coulda got up the interest you have if that’s all you got to go on.”
Entry Point was perceptive and dirty. A good combination for their needs.
“All right. I held up a wagon a week ago, see. The Solution used it to send documents. Didn’t know that at the time, but I was right pleased when they happened to have the latest map of the Badlands. Map included the places they have, and are gonna, search for the Wanted Man.”
“She brought it to me,” Leader said, “and I’ve confirmed its veracity.”
“Fancy word, that,” the largest human said. He was another with a strong system, but one of his eyes had been removed. The scar would weep under pressure. One Eye then.
Lip Sore sighed. “He means that it’s the real thing. They know the places to look.”
“More’n that, though, ain’t it?” Entry Point said. “We know where to look ahead of the Solution. Alls we’ve got to do is be there a half day ahead, give each place a good scouting, and move on if the target ain’t there. If we do find him, we send back word and get a nice finders fee.” He paused. “Unless we’re feeling really brave?”
Leader shook his head. “We’re not gonna step on the Solution’s toes. If they catch the Wanted Man, we get some reward money, but nothing more.”
One Eye rumbled. “Why not take ‘im?”
“Because we ain’t got a chance in Hell of doing it,” Woman said.
“Who says?” Lipe Sore asked.
“Common damn sense does.”
“You saying I ain’t got any sense, whore?”
“That’s enough. Eyes on the trail.”
One Eye and Lip Sore continued a silent conversation, looks and gestures, at the rear of the pack. Those two shared similar systems: if they were not closely related, they were at least cousins. Getting Lip Sore, then, would make accessing One Eye easier. A rational order was already growing.
Another was amongst the group. Young, vital, his system was yet weaker than Leader’s. They dubbed him Boy and didn’t consider him further.
These mercenaries blazed through the Badlands, going where the magic and competition was strongest. The warded barrier – a more powerful artefact than they would have expected for a group like this – kept those large enough to have vision away and bounced away anything smaller. Unbeknownst to the mercenaries, the Gift helped chase others away with displays of power or by consuming them.
These men and the woman would be theirs. The Gift swore to their Father it would be so.
Still, they infected others as they rode the ward, things of That Which Sins and Omnis. Most of the infections would not work, but those that did could be invaluable. More importantly, they brought glory to their Father.
They felt a little weak as day approached, and not just because of the hateful sun’s draining power: fighting, infecting, and riding the barrier took effort. They grew worried. Now was an opportune time for another to strike, take their place.
Fortunately, the mercenaries chose to stop: many had opened small sores from hard riding and all were low on energy. Rest, food, they had to pause if they were to continue safely. The Gift longed to be within the protective ward, to leap into each at their weakest, but patience was required. Melting Flesh never granted wishes; he presented challenges.
As the humans rested, taking turns to watch for predators, the Gift rested too. They replenished their ranks with some of the magic they’d claimed through the day and used the rest to strengthen themselves. They hungered twice during the human’s rest period, and had to make do with grass to until something real came along. The second one was more filling, a pulsing grass which was half-reptilian, but still a poor meal.
“Hey, did you see that?” Boy said.
“See what?” Lip Sore asked.
“One of those plants, it… it just withered and died, like it were eaten up from the inside.”
They froze. Boy had seen their work. It was strange to be exposed: their unique strength as a Gift was their microscopic nature, being a collection of infinitesimal beings. Few ever sensed them, let alone saw their work. Being seen felt uncomfortable. Like failure.
Lip Sore was not as sharp as Leader or Entry Point. Thank the Father. Instead of questioning Boy, he spat out of the warded area. “So what? Shit like that must happen all the damned time out here. You’ve got to get used to it.”
“Been out here before. I ha’n’t seen nothin’ like that yet.”
“Boy, there’s a whole lot of stuff you ain’t seen nothing like yet, and I don’t just mean out here. You even know what a woman looks like under her clothes?”
Boy burned red at this.
“I thought not. So keep you pie hole shut and let the adults handle this.”
Their insight was not shared with Leader or Woman, who might have done something with the information. They thanked the Father again for such clemency.
As the humans roused, the Gift seized on Lip Sore’s phlegm. His biological make-up, vital strategic knowledge for when the internal fights began. They absorbed his cells and the diseases within them, communing with the latter before they were eradicated, and discovered much.
Entry Point was no longer as they’d dubbed him.
“There’s something I’ve been wondering. Why’ve we got to go to Crucifix if we’ve got the map?” Lip Sore shouted when everyone woke. “Why not go right to the nearest place they ain’t searched yet and have a look?”
“Because, you stupid Polack, we need to know which direction he headed in,” Woman shouted back. “No sense in searching the south if he went north, now, is there?”
“That’s if he’s staying in one place,” Entry Point said. “He mighta been shifting from place to place, keeping the Solution on their toes. Even going places they already searched.”
Leader shook his head. “I reckon not. One of the documents in that convoy said they’d put up wards in places they’d already been. Magic which’d go off like a church bell if they were shut down or if the Wanted Man was near. None of them’d gone off yet. Not much chance he wouldn’t have set one off by accident if he were moving around. And they know he didn’t leave the Badlands because the whole place is agitated as a hive with a spade in it.”
“Besides,” Woman said, “moving about makes sense when you’re a normal fugitive, not when you’re a walking beacon. Every time he stepped out from wherever he’s hiding, he’d be seen by dozens of the Badlands things. ‘Cos they’re after him too, by all accounts. No, he’s in one place, hiding, and we’ve gotta search the right places.”
“Ah, Hell to this shit,” Lip Sore said. “What’re we listening to a damn whore for?”
Woman growled, “Because I’ll gut you if’n you ever call me that again?”
“Oh, just try it,” Lip Sore said, his system preparing for a fight. “Just try it.”
“Enough,” Leader said. “We’re heading for Crucifix. That’s that. Follow my lead.”
Grimly, everyone complied. The Gift eagerly noted the rivalries for their later works.
The day that followed was draining, but the thought of biological components untouched by the Triangle kept the Gift going through the cursed sun’s reign. The humans rode hard, their riding calluses thoroughly tested.
With little else to do, they scrutinised these mercenaries: Woman was approaching the point of her menstrual cycle where her immune system was at its lowest, a small boon; Boy had some minor blood deficiency; Entry Point had… everything. They mapped out each person’s weaknesses and prepared for the coming onslaught.
Oh, it would be delicious. Wonderful. They became a Gift by consuming four people like this two years ago – having been a mere Presence before – and had subsisted since. Now, more had fallen into their lap, with a ward that kept their competition at bay. If they could just slip through, they could become so much more…
When night was only an hour away, the mercenaries halted.
“Dinner time,” Leader said.
“Oh, yes, I am ready for this,” Boy said. “Hungrier than a fat man’s slave, I am.”
“Uglier too,” Entry Point said.
The mercenaries unpacked, fed and watered their horses, and prepared a fire. The Badlands stirred for another night of scavenging and fighting. Which they dreaded. If an opportunity did not come for the Gift soon, they may not survive. Though it went against their nature, they would avoid infecting other creatures. Reserve their strength for combat and the coming day. Nothing, now, was more important than infecting these mercenaries.
This decision seemed to please Melting Flesh, as he granted them a boon. Lip Sore let his mind wander whilst tending to his horse. He caught an old insect bite with his wire brush and broke it open. Blood and puss. The animal whinnied and bit out, catching him strongly enough on the arm to draw blood.
“God damn it, what’d you do that for?”
He smacked the horse on the rump, not thinking. The beast raced toward out of the warded area, poorly-trained and tired. And nervous too. Animals must hate being out in the Badlands: their instincts seem to constantly screech at them to escape.
The Gift circled into the horse’s path. A horse had not been their expected entry vector, but they would not pass up the opportunity.
“Hey, where’re you going?” Lip Sore shouted, running after the beast. He quickly caught its reins and pulled on them. Which the horse ignored. His heels dragged through the soil as the horse cantered.
“Shit, you’d better stop that thing!” Entry Point shouted. “You’re not going on my horse!”
Lip Sore pulled again. Much harder. Training kicked in. The horse slowed, shoes skidding in the dust. But its nuzzle left the protective wards, perhaps a half inch of flesh in the open air. On any other day, this exposure would mean nothing.
Today was no other day.
They leapt into the horse with all their might. Up and through, fighting the tongue and the nose’s mucus protection, they lost perhaps a quarter of their strength. But they were safely ensconced in the beast when it was pulled back through the wards. Another third of their strength was burned away in the passage, leaving them weak and few. But they were inside.
“Did it leave the ward?” Leader asked.
“I’m sure, damn it,” Lip Sore said. “It didn’t leave the protection. Look, you can see its shoe prints. It didn’t leave.”
Everyone checked the marks in the dusty earth.
Woman said, “You’d better be damn sure.”
“Well, I am, so shut up and make us some food.”
“Oh, I’ll cook for you all right.”
“I look forward to it, darlin’”
“Eat shit, you cocksucker!”
Leader stepped in to stop their fight. The mercenaries bickered for a while, but they weren’t talking about the horse. That little breach had gone forgotten.
The Gift was overjoyed: they were in. It wouldn’t do to consume too much of this horse. Not yet. They would make it mildly ill and await an opportunity to jump into a human. Lip Sore, this being his horse. From there, it would be simple to pass into the others, except for Leader and Boy. When they were spread out and strong, and it was too late, they would strike at the stronger ones directly.
Praise the Father. Praise Melting Flesh.