Dust had hoped to find something… straightforward at the telegraph line; something unequivocal and simple, one big fight and then they find Penelope safe and sound. So he was a mite disappointed when they crested a sandstone peak beside the line and found only that one of the poles had been downed. The line was unbroken and unmolested for miles either way; no creatures, no magic and no hint of corruption. Dust could sense no eldritch activity around them either; presumably the Paints had picked the area clean whilst they marshalled the line. All they found was that one pole knocked a dozen feet from its brethren, the wires it had once held scattered like matted, uncombed hair.
Dust held back a sigh. “Let’s check it out,” he said before heading down a rough track carved into the peak long before the eruption of the Badlands.
The sun was in full force as they descended and, with no wind and no hint of cloud in the fierce sky, the land was baking like a rotten apple pie. It was turning out to be a fine day.
After half an hour, they got to the wounded pole. A roughly-cut trunk, some cheap wood from the north. Its various fittings were attached well enough though, suggesting good labour made up for poor materials in the TTC. With no residue, no markings and no tracks, the limit of the story the pole had to tell was that sheer brute force had knocked it down.
“Doesn’t look like anything special,” Dust said.
Naismith nodded, turned her ride round and went to examine where the telegraph pole had come from, a splintered and wretched stump hiding forlornly amongst its unmolested brethren. Shadows Fade, who showed no signs of fatigue despite having walked for hours under the unremitting sun, knelt and ran her hand across the rest of the pole. Claw of the Gods sniffed the area like a trained hound.
Dust took a slow draught from his water skin and watched them search.
He hated fighting cults. The Triangle’s creatures were complex in form and power but simple of motive; they just wanted to spread the power of their God. Once you understood that, fighting them became a test of wills which was relatively easy. Even criminals had been simple back when he was a Ranger. But cultists? Cultists brought complexity both devious and unnecessary; their motives could be selfish or selfless, debased or divine, and they usually added their own spin to whatever their God asked of them. Working through their plans, translating the evidence they leave behind, like this pole, was awkward as picking a rope from a knot of rattlesnakes.
He was so deep in his thoughts that he jumped when Shadows Fade stood and said something. Claw of the Gods was the only one beside Horse to notice; its eyes flashed what might have been amusement.
Naismith took a moment longer examining the stump before looking up and replying, probably clarifying what’d been said.
Shadows Fade nodded, pointed to the pole and repeated herself.
Dust slipped his water skin back into his pack and dismounted. This seemed important. “What is it?”
Naismith walked across and leant over the pole. “Well, I’ll be. I certainly hadn’t expected her to be right. Look, do you see?”
He followed Naismith’s – and therefore Shadows Fade’s – direction and nearly slapped his forehead when he saw what she’d found; he’d looked at it a few times but not registered its importance. Frustration must’ve clouded his thinking, which was unacceptable. His tingling tattoo, now on his shoulder, was none too happy either.
For embedded into the wood, just above where the pole had splintered from its roots, was a man’s footprint. The cheap wood had accepted the impression like dough, letting the toes, arch and ball set deeply into its skin. The footprint was quite tall, too tall to be a woman’s. And whoever’d done it had had seven toes, two of them big.
“Someone kicked this down? What do you suppose that means?” Naismith asked.
“Nothing good,” Dust said.
Shadows Fade said something. Naismith nodded.
After a moment, Dust asked “Anything I should know about?”
“Nothing good,” Naismith replied.
So they were back to that. Great. Dust turned and searched the horizon for Claw of the Gods, to see if it had picked up a scent but mostly to avoid snapping at Naismith. He spotted the wolf half a mile down the line, trotting toward them with something in its maw; something that crackled and twisted with each step it took.
Dust shielded his eyes from the sun and could see a dark mass of necrotic flesh with a dozen rolls of wiggling fat in the wolf’s teeth. It looked like a grub or a maggot. The form’s stillness meant it was dead but its dark magic continued to earth itself against the wolf’s blue mane, crackling like fireworks. The wolf ignored each shock, grimly carried on toward them, which Dust found interesting but ignored for now.
No, the grub was more important. That energy mean it was probably a Bloat, a parasitic by-product of the Badlands; Bloats formed when insects ate honey from the wrong flower or flesh from the wrong corpse and were filled with corruption, became addicted to it. These insects would then seek out other flowers or corpses like the first and absorb more dark magic, fending off rivals and growing large and fat on the energy until they gained a God’s notice. It was good that Claw of the Gods had killed it; the Solution would not have liked facing what it might eventually have become.
Shadows Fade watched her Spirit Wolf approach with interest. He wanted to ask if she’d felt it kill the Bloat but decided that might not be polite.
He would take charge of the corpse though; when the wolf was closer, he stepped forward and held out his hand, made it clear it was to give him the Bloat.
Claw of the Gods stopped and looked from him to Shadows Fade as if for guidance. None was visibly forthcoming. After some deliberation, the wolf trotted over and dropped the corpse into his palm with a liquid squelch.
Dust didn’t relish holding it; its humours were dark, sticky, and they stank like sewage. It didn’t look much better, a pussy mass of grey-green flesh with a circle of thin, razor-like teeth protruding from a triangular mouth. There was still some blood on the teeth; likely the blood of a TTC engineer who hadn’t been quick or lucky enough. But the bulbous, pocked flesh behind the teeth confirmed he was definitely holding a Bloat.
Again, this would not help them find Penelope, but it was good to know Claw of the Gods would hunt these things when bored; he would sleep a little better now. So he thanked the wolf with a quick stroke, which brought a gasp from Shadows Fade.