Dust and Sand – Chapter 16 – By Sean P. Wallace
Father Kilkenny was checking his precious cargo when the news came.
The item was stored in a dark ironwood box, having displaced his personal valuables as soon as the Father had taken possession of it. After making certain no-one was near, he slowly knelt by his bed and slid this box out from behind the tattered leather suitcase he’d once moved in with. Gently, he placed the box on his bed and brushed his hand along its surface – a sweet, smooth and varnished affair with no ornamentation – and whispered a prayer to quieten what lay inside. Only his Bible had ever been treated with more reverence.
Though there was no outward response, Father Kilkenny felt his prayer had been heard and so opened the box carefully. Inside was the Word, this powerful artefact that could do great good or great evil. For now, thankfully, it could do nothing.
The Father checked it for any signs of metamorphosis and could feel it looking back at him, a bright, unblinking eye. White as an angel’s wing, the Word was a gem and a seed both. Tendrils snaked off from its central, multi-faceted hub and wormed along the box’s velvet interior, seeking an exit to grow into. It put the Father in mind of a spider squatting at the centre of a living web. The Word smelled strongly of shoe polish, of all things, so strong that he could taste it. And every few seconds it would absorb the light round it, turning his room dark, as though the sun had sunk behind storm clouds. When this darkness fell Father Kilkenny swore he heard whispering in a language he was glad he didn’t know.
It was no different to before, which the Father took as a good sign.
This was what he was protecting as fervently as his flock, what those damned harriers were willing to kill for. Or, rather, those who were employing them. Just looking at the Word filled him with a renewed sense of purpose; anything this important to the demons of the Badlands must be kept from them.
And it could only have been the Lord’s will that led the Father to becoming its guardian. Less than a handful of people in the Badlands would have even known what a Word was, let alone how to quell it as he had; even he’d only recognised it because of a brief description in the ‘Assorted Scrolls of Rome’. And surely no-one else would have taken that girl into their protection and not misused what she carried.
The Father closed the box and crossed himself. That poor, poor girl. She had arrived at the witching hour and was so weak that he wouldn’t have heard her knocking if he hadn’t been cleaning his pews at the time. After a brief check to see who or what had come calling – he had been careful even then of what the Badlands might send against him – he had given her sanctuary. She’d been a tired and wretched thing with her story and her begging. A long journey and the horrors she had witnessed had taken a vicious toll on her slight frame and she had shivered constantly as she talked.
But somehow she’d had this Word with her. From what she’d said, it was one of the most powerful ones ever made. And that made its protection almost as important as that of every soul in Crucifix.
Then someone knocked on his door. It was a hurried knock. Maybe even panicked. Father Kilkenny slid the Word back under his bed.
“Just one second!” he called.
He pushed his suitcase back in front of it and stood to examine how well he’d hidden his cargo. When he was confident that it was out of sight, he answered the door.
It was Mary, his fainting parishioner. Her tired but still pretty face was as white as… well, as that Word, and her lower lip trembled as she said “Father, some people have ridden into town. Strangers. They look like real hard-cases”
The Father swallowed. It could be the harriers, here early. Though they would have probably run in guns blazing and he heard no shooting…
“One of them…” Mary stopped, looked around and then leant in and whispered “One of them is the Wanted Man.”
“Are you sure?” He couldn’t keep the incredulity from his voice.
Thankfully this didn’t offend Mary. She might just have been relieved that someone else found the situation ludicrous. “I am. I’m no fool, despite what people think; he has Noose, the gun that only kills demons. He wore it as he rode in with two… associates. I’ve never seen a gun so fancy. It has to be him.”
The Father considered that flimsy evidence. It still felt more likely that the harriers were up to something; after all, no-one in Crucifix had seen their faces.
But he said “Alright, don’t worry, I’ll handle this.”
Mary started to chew her lip. “He’s right out on main street, Father.”
Father Kilkenny straightened his back, cricked his neck from one side to the other and mentally prepared himself to hurt someone. “Well then, how about we go and have a word with him?” he asked.
Mary gave him a small smile and her tense body relaxed.
He left the chapel with Mary following behind like a little sister and found the whole town watching three strangers walk down Crucifix’s main street, mostly from the relative safety of their houses. They were curious, his flock; strangers rolling into town would be news even during good times. And given the troubles recently, this ‘Wanted Man’ and his two female companions were lucky they hadn’t been lynched.
It was surprising to see two women with the so-called Wanted Man. That heartened Father Kilkenny straight away; though he hadn’t seen the harriers, he’d heard their voices and none had been female. One of the strangers was young, in her twenties at most. She looked as prim and proper as a lady can after travelling through the Badlands. But the gun across her back was powerful and expensive so not for show. The other was an Indian warrior with savage eyes and spells and runes around her body that Father Kilkenny recognised right away.
Hard-cases seemed about right. The Father stepped out of his chapel, his fingers flexing. Mary stayed inside, almost cowering. He couldn’t blame her.
He stared at ‘the Wanted Man’. Maybe six feet tall, he dressed like a traveller; trail pack, worn boots and decent clothes. A wide-brimmed hat rested on his head but it was tilted back, presumably so as to not be menacing. His face was travel-worn, poorly-shaven and hard as rock. Whoever he was, he was a fighter; slight scars speckled his neck and cheek and one of his ears was missing some flesh.
What mattered was the bigger of the two guns on his hip; if anything looked like it deserved the name ‘Noose’, it was that thing. Custom-made, the gun was practically a cannon with so many densely-packed runes and spells on its body that it would crush any demons it bludgeoned, let alone shot. And they were ‘good’ spells too, many of the same runes that the Father used. Not that this was conclusive evidence of who he was; you could never trust anything that came from the Badlands.
“Howdy Father,” the man said.
“Howdy,” Father Kilkenny replied without warmth.
They stared at each other for a moment, the lonely sounds of a hollowed-out town all that passed between them. The Father got to take a measure of this man then; his eyes did not waiver, his attention did not falter, so he did not mind the silence or the scrutiny. That, at least, spoke for something.
It was he who broke the silence. “We’re looking for someone taken by a cult a few days ago.”
The sheer serendipity of the situation almost stunned him into showing his hand; Father Kilkenny had to stop himself blurting out “The Virgin Mary?” But he had enough presence of mind to suck air through his teeth and say “Who might that be?”
“Penelope Chalmers,” the young lady cut in. “Daughter of Senator Chalmers.”
The ‘Wanted Man’ hardened on hearing the girl’s name, worry for her overcoming his poker face. “She had an army escort through the Badlands but it was ambushed. We think it happened around here because Shadows Fade,” he gestured to the Indian woman with his thumb, “fought something nearby that had used their bodies. We were hoping you folks might know something.”
Father Kilkenny cleared his throat. He had to tread carefully here. “Are you from the Solution?” he asked.
“Are you the Wanted Man?”
Father Kilkenny wanted to clear his throat again but that would show weakness; there was an opportunity to be had here if he played his cards right. “I asked you to prove who you are; many people claim to be the Wanted Man but only one can prove it. So prove it. You could be a cultist or a harrier for all I know.”