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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 25 – By Sean P. Wallace

Chapter 25

The wretched cultist leaned back and flicked Dust’s neck restraint. The cold circle rang out like a crystal glass tapped by a silver spoon, throbbed between his teeth and back into the nape of his neck, building and building. It hurt. Damn but it hurt. Dust took a deep breath to keep from grunting, knowing it would only excite these people if he did.

“Do you know what this is?” the wretch pointed to the iron instrument around Dust’s neck. His tormentor was emaciated with a pot-belly, much like the others he’d seen further up the subterranean temple, and her eyes were so deeply sunk into her face it was hard to pick them out. On this withered excuse for a face, her ugly smile thrived like mould. She and another cultist led him, drained, compliant and beaten, down a steep passageway into the bowels of the earth, dragging him by a length of chain attached to the black circle that nearly choked him.

“No,” he said when the ringing pain began to fade. The iron around his neck and two manacles around his wrists gripped him like cold, dead hands and added to the freezing underground atmosphere. He shivered. For the first time, he actually shivered.

“It’s a Bond,” her companion cultist said. Parts of his weak moustache had fallen out through his life of excess, making him look like a worn carpet. “That Which Sins enjoys holding people. ‘Specially people like you. And this,” he tapped it too, sending more spasms through Dust’s skull, “is a guaranteed way to keep you held.”

“That so?” he hissed.

The wretch nodded eagerly. “It absorbs magic.”

Patches scratched behind his ear and licked the dirty finger. “And we know your strength is all magic. Mahrey told us so.”

“So you ain’t going nowhere!” she cackled.

Their grips on the chains loosened as they both laughed. When they affirmed their grip, they nearly pulled Dust over. This ‘Bond’ explained how they felt so strong despite having not seen a good meal in days, why his legs were even heavier than before. He’d put feeling drained down to Resistance’s brutal punishment and his own despair but had been too quick to write off his body.

The cultists, razor thin coyotes with half the intelligence, stopped their laughing and dragged him round ninety degrees. They’d arrived. Dust now faced a doorway set into the corridor, carved out using great sweeps of some impossible blade and fitted with a door so secure an angry buffalo couldn’t knock it down. A drip landed on his head. When he looked up, he saw stalactites condensing above him.

“Here we are.”

“Home sweet home,” Patches said.

“Home sweet home!” the wretch echoed.

They unlocked the door with two keys, one in a lock above the handle and another in one below it. The mechanisms were so heavy they had to use both hands to tease it open. Both then put their backs into pushing the heavy door open, a marvellous feat considering their emaciation.

Inside was a six foot chamber hewn using the same blade as the door, a rough hole shaped like a recently-vacated pore. There was no other exit, not even a drain set into the floor for when he needed a piss.

“Looks nice,” Dust said.

“Looks nice, he says.”

“Trying to be strong.”

One of them kicked him into the room, the blow sending him sprawling to the floor.

“Not so strong now, are you, Wanted Man?”

Obviously not.

“No-one’ll be wanting you now, will they?” the wretch asked.

“No-one except him.”

“And that… well, that’s a fate worse than death.”

The door shut behind him and was locked twice. Cold earth settled into his new, weaker body and the Bond dug into his neck like a whore’s urgent nails. The cultists were still giggling as they walked away and their chittering echoed back to him for minutes.

It took him a while to roll over and sit up. The cold dug deeper and deeper, up through his ass and into his core, as he did so. Scooting back to the round walls, Dust used their curvature to get to his feet. At least they’d left him his shoes. He stepped away from the stone and got some respite from the constant of the stone cell.

Was this how normal people lived? This uncertainty of movement, this flesh that loses its heat, strength that comes to a quick end and breath that abandons you after a simple fall. At least he understood people’s hatred and fascination with him now; the difference between having the Bond and not was immense. What he didn’t get was how they coped with it? How could Naismith follow him into the Badlands when she lived in such a limited frame?

Dust walked over to the door and rested against its frame. Compared to the stone walls, the metal was warm as a desert stone at midday.

Naismith. The masked man had separated them as soon as they got to this little hive of his; just grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her away.

“If you don’t do what we say, she dies,” he’d said before disappearing down a warren. “I’ll see you when That Which Sins tells me the time is right.”

Poor Naismith. She wasn’t cut out for torture. These weren’t going to be good days for her. And it was his fault. A deep shame ripped through him. Perhaps it would have been better to take the shot and risk her life rather than leave her in the hands of this cult. Perhaps Resistance had been right to punish him so.

But he’d made his choice. Dust would live with it. As he always did.

After Naismith was dragged away, Dust had been stripped of his weapons and the Bond was clasped around his neck by that wretch. He looked down at it as best he could but it was too close to examine properly. He felt along its flat surface and picked out runes and reliefs, a curious mix. If it truly blocked magic then it was one of the most impressive creations he’d ever not seen. He’d known there was something more to this whole thing. And the ‘Bond’ was proof of that; its sophistication and power was far beyond what this ass-wipe cult should have been able to source.

As the cultists had guessed, the Bond robbed him his connection to Resistance; he could not feel his tattoo. If his hands were free and he had more light, he would’ve searched for it. As it was, he would just have to trust it was still there.

So he was human, kind of. For the time being at least. He would continue to feel cold and hurt and, presumably, bruise like an old peach when booted into a prison cell. Whilst he wore this Bond he might even be mortal. But it wasn’t all bad; he could probably do whatever he wanted. It felt weird though. Limiting. More limiting than the tattoo had. The name ‘Bond’ really suited it. He reckoned the shivering was what ruined the freedom. Otherwise he might have enjoyed a little respite, the first time he’d been in full control of his own actions in… Well, he actually didn’t know how if he’d ever been.

No, Dust, the Wanted Man, had never been his own man before. And now he finally was, he could do nothing with the freedom. He guessed that would be pretty funny to someone.

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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