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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 21 – by Sean P. Wallace

Chapter 21


Night came quickly, shoving the day rudely aside. Time always seemed to race when Dust was waiting on a battle, when he had to put civility aside and decide things with violence. As a Ranger, such times had come all too often. As a member of the Solution, not often enough.

He didn’t like admitting it but enjoyed facing eldritch creatures as it was pure release, an unburdening of responsibility and morality; Dust didn’t have to worry whether he was doing the right thing, never had that horrible moment of looking into a man’s eyes and seeing the soul leave him… Nor did he have to worry about taking them alive, holding back his strength still he didn’t turn their bones to powder. These were monsters, pitiless horrors that should never have existed, and all they deserved was to be sent back to wherever they came from.

Dust was hidden in one of the more damaged buildings, ready to pounce. In another broken-down house across from him was Naismith. Before entering, she’d wrapped a dark blanket around her shoulders and covered her face with soot to hide her better in the dark. Hence her shadow was all he could make out in the twilight
This would probably be Naismith’s first time killing her fellow man. She’d talked a tough game in the chapel but he imagined she was scared, excited, fearing for her life; all the things a novice should feel before a big fight.

All the things Dust no longer felt.

He looked over to the chapel, locked up with physical barriers and locked-down with more spells than he’d ever seen outside of a Solution holding cell. Seeing the Father’s layout had been one thing but witnessing its full power was quite another; each rune glowed a gentle amber, feeding on the Father’s faith and will, and the whole spell cracked across Dust’s magical senses. Whatever and whoever came to destroy it would face a tough time.

Dust made a note to ask Dick why the Solution hadn’t teamed up with the Vatican; only for the power they had, mind, not the strings that’d come with it. Though the need to qualify himself like that might explain why.

He turned his eyes back north-west, looking past crushed glass and warped walls, and saw nothing more than tall outcrops of red stone and an overcast sky. He kept watching, kept waiting.

After a few minutes, he saw crucifix hanging in what was left of his hiding place’s hall in the corner of his eye, still clinging to the wall that held it up. The whole house had withstood one hell of a battering, perhaps because it was so close to the chapel; the carpet had been chewed and clawed, every window rendered useless, and the whitewashed walls were marked almost as badly as Dust’s torso. Yet still it stood and still that crucifix hung over him.

Dust kept his attention on the horizon but found his eye wandering to that crucifix more than once.

Eventually a wolf broke the town’s silence by howling in the distance. Most of the town, hell, most of the Badlands would treat that as innocuous. Not Dust and Penelope; that was Claw of the Gods’ signal. The harriers were coming. Dust drew his other gun and trained it in both hands, letting it settle in and feel like a part of him. Which, he supposed, it kind of was.

They were approaching from the north-west, just as Shadows Fade had predicted. Dust could feel them, a sizzling build-up of vile magic, an eldritch horde, a small army. With slow, patient breaths, he awaited their arrival. Excitement flickered inside him, bringing a small smile to his face. It really had been too long.

Two minutes later, they crested the north-western horizon. Dozens of creatures belonging to That Which Sins fell onto Crucifix; Fallen Angels, Scamps, Illicits and Shriekers as well as some new things Dust couldn’t name. They gibbered and growled and moaned.

He watched them sprint down a narrow valley that led into the town proper and clash against the chapel’s walls. Immediately, the Father’s protection flared with a brilliant golden light and the most eager monsters were singed by his power. But the following creatures were more careful, something Dust hadn’t been prepared for; some worked together to throw their brethren onto the chapel roof where the protection was weakest whilst others used weapons or rocks to assault the chapel and avoid the burning magic.

That showed a level of planning and co-ordination the Father had not mentioned. And the human harriers weren’t amongst them. Had Shadows Fade really dealt with them already? If so, how were the damn monsters working so well together? The Father couldn’t afford for him to wait and find out. Dust had to step out now even though it was too early, trust Naismith and Shadows Fade to do their jobs.

He looked again at Naismith, darkened and hidden, a sniper. Perfect. Dust had to be the only obvious target if he were going to draw their fire. To achieve that, he’d have to get their mob’s attention first.

That meant being big, obvious, so he jumped through the rotting wall in front of him, knocking that crucifix down to the worn carpet. He gave the owners a small apology before bellowing like a furious bull and charging toward the chapel. He levelled his other gun at the monsters and it roared louder than he had, disintegrating creatures on the roof with three squeezes of the trigger.

This got their attention. The horde turned from their task and took a moment to react. Some dropped their tools in shock, others roared back challenges. Dust killed two more on the roof as they wasted their time.

Then a shot rang out from behind the chapel. A bullet grazed Dust, a flesh wound along his shoulder that barely stopped his charge. The harriers had joined the fray. Dust changed direction, zig-zagging randomly. Two more shots, kill shots, missed him before he could put the chapel’s bulk between him and the shooter.

“Don’t just stand there,” someone shouted, a Mexican with a strong accent. “You stupid motherfuckers, get him!”

That spurred the creatures into action. Those who were still on the ground swarmed round the chapel, attacking in a pincer movement. Dust fired into the crowds as they rounded three chapel, alternating between the two throngs, taking two out at a time.

Just picking them off like this wouldn’t be enough to keep him safe; there were too many of them. Naismith was supposed to be covering him but Dust realised she hadn’t fired once yet. Was she scared of giving away her position? Had she frozen when the harrier had shouted, when she knew she might have to kill a man? Or was she waiting until the horde would least expect a counter-attack?

Dust didn’t know and didn’t have time to work it out as some of the creatures got within clawing range. He’d have to fight them hand-to-hand, even if he might get swamped. He span his other gun, brandished it. The runes and spells still fresh from being fired singed his flesh but Dust ignored this. It was just pain.

Sean is an editor, writer, and podcast host at Geek Pride, as well as a novelist. His self-published works can be found at all good eBook stores.

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