But he wasn’t about to ignore the most interesting bit of information she’d given them; there were cults and harriers operating in the Badlands now. That was further proof that the Badlands was evolving, becoming more dangerous.
“I cannot believe she was after us for that long,” Naismith said, looking down at the earth. “And that you did not notice.”
She was annoyed, scared, so he let her criticism slide. “I’m not perfect. And we were never in any real danger.”
Dust looked at the Spirit Wolf and reconsidered. “No,” he decided. “Anyway, could you thank her for explaining?”
A brief exchange followed. But Naismith didn’t translate; she just stared at Shadows Fade.
“What was that?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Naismith said.
Dust slowly exhaled. “She decided to say something.”
Naismith crossed her arms. “Don’t worry, you’re not in any real danger.”
Shadows Fade looked from Naismith to Dust, brow furrowed. This wasn’t the time to look weak or press Naismith further. So Dust shrugged. “Fine. Please ask her if she’s seen anything of Penelope or her armed guard.”
She held Dust’s gaze for a moment and then turned to ask Shadows Fade, asked his question.
The warrior shared a look with her Spirit Wolf before replying. That wasn’t a good sign; no-one reacts like that if they need to share good news. She responded after a few seconds, talked as though carefully choosing her words.
“She says that they were hunting a… a ‘dark spirit’ yesterday that might have been… wait, let me check that…” Naismith asked something and Shadows Fade repeated two of the words. “Okay, this dark spirit was an Eldritch Manifestation inhabiting the corpses of a great deal of men. She guesses that somewhere between forty-five and fifty men were needed to make such a thing. And some of them had worn a uniform, a blue uniform…”
She turned to Dust. “That’s what the soldiers would have worn!”
“That’s Penelope’s whole escort,” Dust said bitterly.
Naismith went pale. In the morning sun, the effect was drastic. “Oh my Lord…”
Dust cursed himself; he should have had more tact there. He reached over and patted Naismith on the shoulder. “It means nothing. Whoever kidnapped Penelope would have had to kill the soldiers to get her anyway.”
“Was that supposed to improve my mood?” Naismith asked with an arched eyebrow, anger draining her fear. “That her captors are capable killers?”
“Well, it doesn’t change anything.”
Naismith shook her head. “You’ve not spent a lot of time around women, have you?”
Shadows Fade said something, her voice gentle.
Naismith replied with a small smile, then said “She says that she killed the dark spirit. She hopes that makes us feel better about their deaths.”
Dust reappraised Shadows Fade. Eldritch creatures that could knit corpses together were terrible and strong; killing one would be hard as Hell. Yet Shadows Fade claimed to have done so alone and had no visible scars from the battle. He’d not considered her as something close to an equal before; now he did.
But Shadows Fade didn’t need his attention now. “Does it?” he asked Naismith. “Make you feel better?”
Naismith put one hand to her shoulder and rubbed it. “A little,” she admitted.
“That’s good, at least. I’m glad.” He paused, let her absorb his small kindness. “Has she seen anything else we should be interested in?”
Naismith asked. Shadows Fade replied at length.
“Bunches of men with engineering equipment keep coming out to repair the telegraph lines. They dash in and out like… children, she says. And a ‘white band’ further up the line is under attack. I guess she means a town.” Naismith asked something and got a reply and a shake of the head. “She doesn’t know the name of the place.”
Dust frowned. The telegraph poles again. There was some link between them and the cult; according to the reports, the last telegram successfully sent through had been the cult’s demands. There was no mention of a distress signal from a town or encampment before that.
“Ask her whereabouts the TTC have been repairing.”
Naismith asked. Shadows Fade pointed ahead of them, to the Paints’ territory and the rough place where Penelope Chalmers had been kidnapped.
“I don’t need that one translating.”
Naismith laughed. “I should hope not.”
So the Paints were protecting the damaged telegraph poles, ensuring the line didn’t work for long. But why? Dust’s mind raced; the cult must have expected a response from the Solution, for the Senator to try and rescue his daughter, so perhaps the Paints’ purpose was to stop news about the attacks on this town escaping… because the cult were involved in them too. Or perhaps they were based nearby and didn’t want the search to be narrowed so easily. The link was tenuous but it explained the connection.
If he was right, the cult weren’t just a bunch of nuts; they were organised, methodical. It was good to know the kind of enemy he was up against. And if they were that smart then it’d be even better to have more fire-power for the eventual fight.
“Now you might not like this one but consider it; would you ask Shadows Fade if she’d consider coming with us?”
“Pardon me?” Naismith asked.
“Would you ask her if she’ll help us rescue Penelope?”
Naismith looked at Shadows Fade and then trotted over to Dust. She put her palm on his chest to halt him and he got a waft of her perfume, a strong lavender scent he couldn’t remember her applying.
Dust reined Horse in and let her form her response.
“I am sorry but you cannot be serious here,” Naismith said. “You genuinely want to invite this… person… along?”
Horse whinnied, nervous at the sudden stop. Dust patted him gently and said “I rarely joke.”
“Then I can only conclude this is your one joke for this week. I mean really, bring a red skin along with us? I get that you respect them for some reason but look at her! She’s vicious, dangerous; she’ll scalp us the moment she gets the opportunity.”
He held his opinions back. “No she won’t. She respects me.”
Naismith leant in and kept her voice low. “And that’s supposed to make me feel better? The fact that she holds you in some kind of high regard won’t stop the likes of her stabbing us in the night! These people are uncivilised, Dust. They aren’t like us.”
Hearing this nonsense brought Dust a moment of clarity; this was Dick’s real punishment for causing a fuss at Low Tracks again. The old fox had known how much she’d get on his wick, this wealthy girl who thought she knew it all. Losing a slither of his ear had been a distraction, a fleeting expression of Dick’s rage; in Naismith, Dust could feel the General’s cold anger at work. It was almost enough to make him smile.