Dust and Decay – Chapter 8 – 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.
Dust put out the light to descend the carved ladder. He needed to concentrate on any sounds, smells, or magic coming from below, and he’d be better off not distracted by vision. And especially to not be blinded by the gleam from his now-bald noggin.
He smiled at his own joke. The hair loss didn’t bother him, but it proved something powerful was ahead. Something which enjoyed punishing whoever entered its domain. And given how long it’d been since people graced Kehuadinune, it had to be mighty old too.
Wasn’t he just lucky to face such a creature in the dark?
Dust started climbing down. Such was life. His life, any road.
In the tiny, plummeting passage, every movement was echoed and amplified, transforming the rustle of his clothes and his boots tapping against the next rung into booms of cannon fire. Dustin, the man he had been before becoming the Wanted Man, had known cannon fire well, so Dust didn’t enjoy the similarities.
Not that he remembered much from Dustin’s soldiering days. A gap which was unrelated to sacrificing his memories to form the Word which powered his other gun: life’d been terrible back then, tough justice and brutal, unfair crimes. Doubly so whenever the Triangle was involved. Every Marshall whispered about the truly godless crimes, hearsay and anecdotes, but Dustin Longe’d witnessed those rumours first hand. And done his damn best to erase every memory under alcohol. Mostly, he’d succeeded.
“Damn maudlin frame of mind you got there,” Dust told himself. “Best put it aside.”
An otherworldly laugh ricocheted around the narrow space in response.
That passageway went down for miles. Deep furrows and scratches were sometimes sliced from the ladder. Something’d clawed its way toward the open air long ago, only to find the way cut off by the Teotek’s ancestors. Damn frustrating, that must’ve been.
After about an hour, there came a rustling, leather against cloth, and something shrieked like it’d been stabbed. Dark wings rose toward him. Whatever was down there had grown tired of waiting.
The tunnel down was narrow enough that he could wedge himself into a firing position. Aim properly down the expanse. So he did just that, quickly but carefully. Dust drew his other gun – no way was he naming it, no matter what folks like Gentle Branch suggested – and aimed downwards. Whatever approached would face his own brand of hell.
Foul magic, a vibrating and sour taste, filled the air. Beating wings grew louder and louder, becoming deafening. Dust kept his hand straight, his aim true, even as his muscles complained at having to support him so.
Sensing the creatures were near enough, he fired. The shot lit the shaft, a descending angel with a grudge. Its kick nearly dislodged him. He glimpsed flesh dripping from makeshift wings and skeletal forms before the lead creature was incinerated. Fire illuminated its brethren momentarily, then the stricken thing turned to cinders.
At least he knew what he was facing: Carriers, familiars of the Major Gifts of Melting Flesh. They’d once been people, long, long ago, but there was no going back. Not when so little of the person they’d been remained. Unable to save them as Penelope would want, he could only release them from their pain.
Indiscriminately, he fired. The kicks jolted him again and again. Tight muscles screeched at him, but he gritted his teeth and kept going. There were plenty of Carriers, maybe fifty, so no shot missed. That also meant he couldn’t kill them all before they got to him.
Normally, Carriers were his meat and bread. Even when overwhelmed, he’d take them in a brawl. And he knew he’d improved a great deal since the fight at Crucifix. But one slip and he would tumble down for… well, who knew how long. He’d probably survive – probably – but might not get a week to recover before the Carriers’ master got to him. Let alone that it would waste time the Teoteks didn’t have.
The Carriers drew close enough to smell. Rot so strong he could taste it. Searing heat rose from their constantly-decaying bodies. Always wasting away, never withering. Such was Melting Flesh’s mindset centuries ago. His followers said he’d changed, wasn’t so cruel, but they would, wouldn’t they?
Dust decided to surprise the stinking things. He fired twice in quick succession and let himself go. Dropped through their ranks. Rotting bones cracked as he struck them. The stricken beasts tumbled with him. Screeches of pain. The surviving Carriers soared past, weakly scratching at him, their momentum too great for anything else.
Dust span and threw his left hand and feet out against the passage walls to stop himself. His wrist snapped like a twig, he completely lost the soles of his boots, but he came to a halt after only fifty yards. Below the pack, ready to gun them down.
The Carriers stopped flapping to let gravity slow them. Turn back. That only made it easier to pick them off. A dozen clean shots and their ashes coated him like rice at a wedding. Their stench clung along with their remains.
“Hope you’re all at peace now.”
None of them responded.
He holstered his other gun and forced his wrist back into something like the right place. This done, he clamboured back to the ladder and took a breather. Waited for his tattoo to repair the damage. There was a toll for being whole again, one of raking pain, but Resistance gave him back a working hand. Which he used to continue the descent.
His now-exposed toes touched the carved ladder’s stone hide. Unpleasant, but he didn’t have spare boots with him, so he’d have to cope. In fact, he didn’t own another pair. He’d have to beg one from someone in the Teotek band.
More begging… Asking more from those with so little. He hadn’t been brought up a leech, hated even contemplating asking for help, but the Teotek wanted to support him. Granted, it was selfish aid – if Resistance triumphed, they might flourish again – but it was still charity he didn’t hold to. Reliance on those weaker than him. Resistance surely hadn’t made him the Wanted Man so he could take from other people.
No, he corrected himself a little, the Teotek might recover with the Three gone, then flourish. They needed to first get back to how they’d been before their world was invaded. And not by the Three.
Dust reckoned he had climbed down for about two hours when his sole struck uneven stone. It made him jump. He cursed himself for being jumpy. Waving his foot around, he found there was a large platform below him. At least as wide as the passage. He stepped away from the ladder cautiously. The ground seemed solid enough: there were no rumbles or shifting beneath him. Seemed like he’d finally found rock bottom.
Dust smiled. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”
He asked Resistance for another light source. This time, his tattoo provided one immediately, showed him a narrow tunnel which soon joined a miles-wide cavern. Seemingly natural, from what he knew of such things. Easily large enough to house most of Texas. At its distant centre was something lit by green flames. Dust couldn’t pick out what, but that seemed a good place to start looking for the golden bowl. And whatever coveted or guarded it.
Water constantly dripped from the cavern’s distant stalactites, uneven and misshapen things. The drops travelled so far they were almost frozen when they splashed on his bald head. A low breathing sound grew, laboured and unwell. The air stank of evil and horror, like the belch which’d tried to kill him, only weaker. The temperature varied wildly too, from Texan summer sun to a cold so deep it couldn’t be natural.
Dust kept his hand on his other gun.
At length, the thing lit by green flames became visible. Seven green torches surrounded it, each on a marble brazier bound by ropes woven with magic. Between the flames was a plinth tiled in bright blue and dark green, diamond patterns and symbols of holding and enforcement. And resting on the plinth was the source of the breathing, the stench, and the tang of vile magic: a Major Gift of Melting Flesh. Perhaps one of the Great Gifts of its time.
Gifts were all unique. Melting Flesh operated under the laws of diseases, having fallen in love with their biology long ago: evolution and ascension, abhorrent growth and diversity. As such, whenever something gained enough prestige, magic, or victims to ascend to the rank of Gift, they became something the world’d never before seen. Like any new disease that baffled doctors.
This one should be maybe eighty yards tall and almost as wide. A mountain of lumpen magic and skin. Dark hair sprouted from sores on its hide, squatting alongside innumerable cankers, blisters, and grossly-swollen muscles. The Gift’d once been human, he reckoned: it mimicked most of one’s shape, at least, albeit in giant proportions. Were it free, it would have towered over Dust, almost godlike. Shambling and rotten, granted, but some gods were like that.
Thankfully, it was trapped in a ten foot wide tube of magic. Tall enough for it to stand in, too slender for anything like comfort. Any other creature would’ve died in such confinement, but this Gift must’ve been down here for centuries, feeding on whoever dared enter the ancient city. Spoiling and taking on this new shape, like jelly set into a mould.
It spoke in a language Dust didn’t know. Repeating itself, the shape squirmed, its prison subtly vibrating as its tone grew hostile.
“You’re wasting your breath.”
The Gift’s bulbous form flashed. The air’s foul stench gained a frisson of magic. Then it turned with some effort. A great green eye squeezed out from the folds of skin and focussed on him.
“Approach me,” it said through yellowed teeth the size of tombstones. “I would see this persistent intruder into my domain.”
Dust kept walking. He tightened his grip on his other gun’s hilt.
The Gift pivoted further, a broken and blistered nose taller than Dust emerging from the folds of its flesh. Wrinkled as well as withered. If they were as old as Dust thought, the Gift’d once been an ancestor to the Teotek.
“A white man. A devil. You should not be here.”
“But here I am. At the behest of the Teotek.”
It pressed its putrid eye against its invisible prison. The flames soared in response. “What is that about you? Is it… Resistance?”
Dust nodded. “It is. I am his.”
“Desperate… Resistance has grown so desperate, it would seem.” It mumbled something Dust couldn’t make out. “As must these ‘Teotek’ be if they sent you. Why are you here, white man? What brings you to my foetid kingdom? My prison?”
“I’m here for a bowl. An item of power.”
“You will not have it.”
So, it was here then. Dust drew his gun. “We’ll see about that, won’t we?”
The Gift’s huge pupil narrowed. “Power! You bring such power with you. It has been so, so… long… I hunger so greatly. Your power, I must have it!”
Cracks and shakes rolled down from miles above. Dust looked up, his other gun aloft, at what’d looked like a standard cave ceiling. Except it didn’t any longer
It seemed not all of the Teotek’s ancestors had fled. Not by a long shot. Now, they were Carriers. Carriers that’d stayed so still for so long that stone had closed over them. This Gift might’ve been trapped for centuries, but it’d busied itself building an army.
Dust bet that there’d been a great war to curse this Gift to immobility. Perhaps every one of the Teotek’s ancestral warriors’d died in the victory they’d earned. But they’d had to leave the Gift alive, and the damn thing’d been using the curious and brave warriors which entered the abandoned city to sustain themselves and their thralls.
That and, maybe, the bowl he was after.
Not that the history of it all mattered much. Hell was about to crash down on him. Yet Dust wasn’t scared or nervous: he smiled. It’d been too damn long since he had a good fight.