Dust’s first response to seeing Shadows Fade was to step back, raise his fists. This had to be a trick, someone wearing an illusion to ripen his hopes for crushing. It was a damn good one too; they were the spitting image of Shadows Fade. Magic like that was costly. But then, successfully torturing the Wanted Man might be considered worth it.
“Dust,” the person wearing the spell said, stepping inside. Her voice was heavily accented. “We have to go.”
He shook his head. “Your masters made a mistake. Shadows Fade didn’t speak English.”
The impostor paused, holding almost perfectly still. “Pardon?”
“I know you’re a trick. Don’t bother me any more.”
They blinked. “No, Dust, it is really me. I did not die; I used my own ‘trick’.”
“Sure,” he replied, stepping further back into his cell.
“We must hurry!” she hissed at him.
Dust cursed himself; part of him believed it. If he didn’t have the Bond on, he could’ve sensed the magic before him and dismissed it right away; he’d always been able to see through illusions. Which was what told him the figure before him wasn’t real; there was no way poor Shadows Fade could’ve tricked him.
“I’m going nowhere,” he said.
The impostor approached him but Dust backed up right to the cell wall, jumping when his back touched the cold surface. They took another step forward and threw Shadows Fade’s arms out in exasperation.
“How can the Wanting Man be so… thick?”
“It’s not thick to learn; a cult of Omnis captured me once, tried to torture me with illusions. Most cults do it. With me wearing this Bond,” he put his hands to his neck, felt the cold iron, “it’s only logical that your masters would try as well.”
The impostor sighed and stepped forward to grab him. “ Then I will drag you.”
Dust dodged out of the way. He didn’t really have anywhere to go in this confined space but he was determined to make this as awkward as possible for the impostor. She came at him again and he rolled away, the Bond digging into his neck.
Their tussle was interrupted when someone shouted from the hallway “Hey, this here door’s open!”
The fake Shadows Fade turned and drew her knives. Three guards, all overweight men, appeared in the corridor and stopped short, their eyes widening when they saw the illusory warrior. That was genuine shock. The impostor ran forward and sliced two of their throats like hogs before they’d even worked out what they were seeing. The third tried to grab her but she dodged, moved in behind him and snapped his neck with a familiar crack.
Instead of letting the dead guard fall to the floor, the impostor threw it at Dust’s feet. “Tell me I am not real.”
Dust gently poked the corpse with his boot. It felt real. He knelt down and felt the warm flesh of the man’s crooked neck, gripped the gun he hadn’t had time to draw; they felt real too. He could even smell the guard’s last meal as it wafted from his open mouth; roast beef with cheap, thick gravy.
Now illusion magic wasn’t one of Dust’s interests; with him being immune to it and all he only knew the basics. But it took a lot of power to replicate sounds, sights, smells and the feel of things at the same time; it would require a supreme magician or major sacrifice. Now, it might’ve made sense to torture him with a vision of someone he’d failed to save but Dust didn’t think he warranted something this complex barely an hour after being captured.
Still, the cult’s leaders might just be willing to sacrifice a few guards in their attempts to get… whatever they wanted from him quickly. He’d have to ask the figure something only Shadows Fade would’ve known.
“If you’re really Shadows Fade,” he said, slowly getting to his feet, “tell me the name of the young girl I killed. The one tainted by Melting Flesh.”
They frowned. “His name was Luke. He had been infested by dark spirits. You released him as a mercy.”
Well, it knew about Luke, which was another mark in the figure’s favour; he knew no-one’d watched that encounter with magic. He examined her closely, tried to find any detail out of place from what he remembered of Shadows Fade. Besides her missing Claw of the Gods, it looked exactly like her, right down to the pissed-off expression.
“I’ll be,” Dust said, finally convinced.
Shadows Fade gave him a small smile. “Took you long enough.”
“And you can speak English.”
“I can,” she said.
“Why didn’t you before?”
Shadows Fade looked either way along the corridor. “Shall we talk on the move?”
Dust looked down at the corpses slowly bleeding out onto the stone floor. They weren’t subtle; anyone who saw them would have at least a couple of questions. He picked up the obese guard’s Smith & Wesson Sixgun.
“I’ll need to be freed though,” he said, lifting his arms to display his manacles.
She walked over and pulled Dust’s wrists apart. Her muscles strained, veins on her forehead and arms popped out and then a weak link in the chain parted. Dust had his arms again.
He pointed to his neck and Shadows Fade shook her head. “I can’t remove such as that. This way,” Shadows Fade said.
They ran out into the corridor and up, toward the entrance. Except ran was the wrong word; they hardly set a blistering peace. Dust realised Shadows Fade was moving slowly for his sake, which he was grateful for as just this jog was hard work.
“So, English?” he asked.
“You learn a lot about someone from what they say when they don’t know you can understand them,” the warrior said. “Plus, it would make being captured easier. If that ever happened to me.”
Dust noted the subtle criticism but made nothing of it. “What’d you learn about me?”
“That I can trust you.”
Two guards appeared at the top of the hallway, holding hands and looking into each others’ eyes. They never saw Dust raise the guard’s gun and fire a bullet through each of their skulls, spray their blood across the corridor, so they died content. There was no hope of a stealthy approach now as the gunshots had announced their escape.
The kick shook his shoulder, set a dull ache in his bones. At least his aim was still good.
“How did you do your… resurrection?” he asked, running on.
Shadows Fade leapt over the corpses and said “When you are alone against the Badlands, you risk starting a fight you cannot finish. To save myself, the first spell I allowed onto my skin was one that… stores a moment in time. If I die while this point is stored, my body will revert to it within an hour.”
Dust blew air out through his lips; as everyone thought, the Indians had some impressive secrets. “That’s damn amazing.”
She shook her head. “It works only once per year.”
“That’s enough though.”
Her expression hardened. “I hope so. We have a big fight coming up; the cult have begun a spell to convert Penelope Chalmers and we will need to defeat the masked man if we are to save her.”
Dust stopped. “Do you know what I’m wearing here?”
Shadows Fade halted too. She examined her surroundings quickly, always the hunter, then said “It is an Omnis’ Collar. Your people call it a Bond. It blocks magic.”
“If you know that, you know I’m a normal man now; I have none of my powers and I don’t have Resistance to call upon.”
Shadows Fade smiled, an unexpected gesture that suited her. “Dust, you always have Resistance to call upon. You just cannot prove he is listening, like me or any other who believes in him. You will have to take it on faith.”
“I don’t work well with faith.”
Dust supposed he’d have to; they came here to rescue Penelope Chalmers and, if she was about to be converted, they had to at least try and save her. And Naismith, they’d need to save her too. Even if that meant taking on this whole cult as a mortal.
“Alright,” he said. “I’ll need my other gun first though.”
Shadows Fade nodded. “We’re heading to their magic store.”
They ran on. And on. Dust’s heart began to thrash in his chest, struggling to pump blood around him when it was used to caressing the damned stuff. His throat hurt with each breath and he was taking quite a few of them. He was about to ask to slow down when Shadows Fade put a hand across his chest and slowed to a silent walk.
“We must be ready for this next part,” she whispered.
“What’s the next part?” Dust asked between dragon breaths.
“The guards and lesser cultists of this place are ahead. They have guns and magic. I snuck past them with an invisibility spell before but you will have no such ability. And they will recognise you, wearing that Omnis’ Collar; it was clever to put it on you.”
“So we fight them?”
A vicious smile spread across her face. “We fight them.”
Dust took some more air, calmed his body, then gave Shadows Fade the thumbs up. She looked at his hand, confused, then twigged what it meant and returned the gesture with a widening of that smile.
They snuck forward. Soon Dust could hear excited chatter mixed with the sound of fucking and at least one chant. The bullets hadn’t aroused any suspicions; Dust supposed gunshots might be common when people worship That Which Sins and frequently commit vicious crimes.
Without thinking, he tried to cart his magical senses ahead of him. There was no response, naturally. Dust swore in his mind, wished he could see further, know more, but then he wished he had everything that he’d thought to be a part of himself.
It was odd, missing what he’d at first thought to be a curse, the very traits that made him a pariah and a fiend and a prisoner of the Solution, but he was so damn used to being the Wanted Man that he didn’t want to give it up. A suspicious man, one who thought highly of Resistance’s planning abilities but lowly of his relative morality, might wonder if there were a lesson in all of this.
Dust’d have to survive the ordeal before learning it.
The corridor did turned sharply, like a bent horseshoe. Shadows Fade stopped just before it backed onto itself, her back against the stone crook. Dust crouched beside her, the sixgun ready. It occurred to him then that he’d have a limited supply of bullets; he checked the barrel and found four shells, the most he could’ve hoped for. Still, he’d need to conserve shots until he could steal another weapon.
Shadows Fade frowned. He held up four fingers, then snapped the black barrel back in and gave her the thumbs up again. She nodded and began touching tattoos at different points of her arms; an eagle on her shoulder, a rune on her wrist, the dagger-like symbol of magic along her right forearm. She was casting her invisibility spell, a complex but ingenious variant which consumed people’s memories of seeing her to sustain it for longer. She pressed the last tattoo, flickered then disappeared.
“I will start the fight,” she whispered. “You help end it.”
Not knowing if she were there or not, Dust nodded. After a few seconds, he scooted across and pressed himself against the wall, the Smith & Wesson in his hands. It felt wrong compared to his Colt or his other gun, like a pretender or the second wife of a widower.
Someone gurgled what would have been a scream if their throat was still whole. Other cries followed, surprise and horror and fury. Dust looked round the corner; Shadows Fade was standing over the corpse of a man with cheap jeans, no shirt and no throat, her blades ready.
The corridor ahead was much like the prison Dust’d been held in, except these doors were meant to let people out. A few barrels of wine and dirty plates cluttered the place, helped it look lived in, and a dozen spluttering lanterns kept it lit. Some of the doors were already open and more were opening as people went to check who’d died.
Shadows Fade charged further up the corridor and gutted a naked woman holding a large sword. Her lover, another woman, tried to tackle the Indian but she grabbed the cultist and threw her to the ground before slicing her throat.
Watching Shadows Fade was a gruesome pleasure, an exercise in efficient combat, but he didn’t let himself get distracted; when a ginger teenager with the grey, toxic matter of a Minor Succubus attached to his neck and a Winchester Yellowboy in his arms stepped out, he shot the bastard dead. The explosion echoed horribly in the confined space and his ears rang like cathedral bells.
Three bullets left. Adrenaline pumped through him, amping up his excitement and making his breath feel hot once more. His poor heart was doing triple-time. With only three bullets, he had to pick his targets. That was the way he’d been taught to shoot, calm over haste, but he felt like a young man again in this fight; he was scared, scared for his life and scared that he’d fail Shadows Fade.
He went down to one bullet when two magic users – probably novices but he couldn’t take that chance – shot out of an open door wielding magic so raw he hadn’t needed his abilities to detect it. Their blood sprayed from the bullet wounds he gave them and the blow-back of unused, unrefined magic finished them off, burning them like crackling over a bonfire. Fortunately, it also killed the Fallen Angel they’d been sharing a room with. Unfortunately, what was left of his hearing disappeared entirely, swallowed by high-pitched tones.
In the meantime, Shadows Fade killed another five cultists. They bled around her, having barely dealt her a scratch. She scanned the corridor, looking for other kills, but it seemed as though they’d killed everyone. But neither she nor Dust were green enough to fall for that one. She called Dust up with a wave and then started searching for stragglers planning an ambush. The warrior winced several times when she looked into the bedrooms, perhaps swore, though he couldn’t tell with the gunshots battering his hearing still.
He slowly approached, the gun and his trigger finger ready. She didn’t find anyone by the time Dust got to the dead ginger teenager and checked his room; it was empty apart from a dull bed plastered with semen.
His eyes were drawn to the movement of the Minor Succubus writhing on the corpse’s neck but it was in its death throes; such things need to extract half a person’s soul before they could build a body for themselves, were parasites until then. He helped it on its way with a pounded heel then swapped the Smith and Wesson for the boy’s rifle. It had five shots in it, which should be enough.
Shadows Fade was looking into a room just ahead of him when a door behind her opened. Dust levelled the Winchester and shot through the wood, both to alert Shadows Fade and stop any attacker. He took a kill shot for an adult, not the kid who charged out, a young girl who wouldn’t even have heard of puberty in a normal family. Vile spells that’d built her as a vehicle of pleasure covered her tiny frame.
The girl sprang at Shadows Fade, small face twisted with rage, and bit into her ankle to disrupt the pattern of her tattoos. The warrior’s skin was tough though, probably another spell at work, and the girl’s teeth couldn’t break them.
Shadows Fade turned and stamped down on the girl’s leg, leaving it at a horrible angle. Dust had to imagine the loathsome crack. The girl howled in pain and bit again, gripping the warrior’s legs firmly. This time, she drew blood.
Dust aimed, fired and killed a second child in as many days. Her corpse fell to the floor and added to the blood they had already shed. It all trickled down the incline and towards him.
Angry, Shadows Fade kicked the girl’s corpse away and it crumpled sadly against the corridor wall. She knelt, examined her tattoos, then punched the floor. Her lips moved so she must have said something as well.
“I can’t hear you,” Dust replied. But he could just about hear his own voice, which was promising. “I’m gundeaf.”
The warrior frowned at him.
He tried again. “The shots from these guns have ruined my hearing.”
Shadows Fade said something, mostly to herself. She then stood and indicated that they were to run on with a wave of her hand.
Dust gripped the rifle in both hands and followed her. The commotion hadn’t raised any alarms but he supposed that made sense; they’d killed all those cultists too low in station or spirituality to attend the ritual to convert Penelope. Everyone else would be wherever Penelope was now, trying to corrupt her.
That thought made him run a little harder.
The passage eventually met an intersection at what was presumably the top level of the caves. Off to the left was an open area that looked like a kitchen. Shadows Fade moved to the right. She seemed to know exactly where she was going so Dust trusted her, the squealing in his ears fading as they went.
Shadows Fade ran like someone furious with the world, someone trying to catch the sun to stop it setting. He would have said something about his tiredness if not for her angered expression; that vicious girl must have ruined an important tattoo, one that would be awkward to replace or even one vital for the coming fight.
And there would be a fight. It was usually a good bet to expect one but that masked man proved there would be a rumble; he’d been a tough son of a bitch, the kind who’d sold his soul or something more valuable for power, and he wasn’t about to risk his investment by letting The Wanted Man escape.
The masked bastard was most likely a Faustian but he could’ve been an Absent Father or a Willing Possessed. A person like that was a rare beast because it involved giving up a Hell of a lot and you always received less in return… and the masked man had a lot of power. Dust wished he’d had the presence of mind or the strength of body to learn more about the bastard at the time, get some clue as to exactly how much power he had.
Well, he’d find out soon enough.
“Here,” Shadows Fade said, stopping short. It seemed his hearing had returned, though the ringing continued. “I followed your gun when they took it from you and they brought it here.”
She gestured to a sheet of metal covering a wall beside her, something entirely innocuous and ignorable. He would have run right past it if she hadn’t stopped. He frowned and almost asked what she meant when it struck him that there would be magical protection over the store, something to ensure prying eyes went nowhere near it.
“I miss being me,” he wheezed and slumped against the wall.
The warrior frowned then gripped his wrist and dragged him through the metal sheet. He stumbled, eyes and mind rebelling as they passed through what he knew to be a solid object, but he’d been pulled through it before he could panic too much.
On the other side of the spell was a four foot square with three shelves. Old cigar boxes littered the shelves, most with magical symbols drawn into their lids, spells designed to hide the power of whatever they held and complete the illusion that nothing was in here. All but one were open, empty, their contents likely being used in the ritual over Penelope Chalmers.
Shadows Fade stepped past him and ripped the unopened box’s lid off; her strength tattoos weren’t affected by her attacker’s bite then. She tipped it toward him; inside was his other gun.
“Your weapon,” she said.
Dust checked but his Colt was nowhere to be seen. He’d have to visit his other gun’s horrors on the cultists. He tutted, sighed; it tore at the magic in its victims, the only way to guarantee you could kill an eldritch creature but a horrible and painful death for a person.
He picked the other gun up and nearly dropped it. This was the first time he’d felt just how heavy the damn thing really was; even in two hands, holding it was like trying to hold up a rail road The gun and its Word responded to him; the runes glowed dully as though feeling him out, testing the person holding it was really Dust, and then faded when they recognised him.
“We must hurry. Free yourself,” Shadows Fade said.
She pointed to her neck. “Shoot the Omnis’ Collar from your neck.”
Dust raised an eyebrow at her. “You know how much of a kick this thing has?”
Dust held the gun up, which was no small feat; he supposed he could rest it in the nook of his shoulder, aim backwards and away from his head and blow the damn collar off. He’d have to hope his strength and powers would kick in the moment the Bond was loose or else there’d be no fight left in him. Maybe even no bones.
He thought back to Shadows Fade’s little speech on faith not twenty minutes ago and decided he was being taught something here, being shown he should appreciate his godly benefactor. And Dust reckoned they might’ve been right to try and teach him so.
“Alright,” he said.
It wasn’t easy to arrange his other gun properly with his drained arms and the sheer weight of the thing but he managed it after a few false starts. The hammer dug into the end of his shoulder and the barrel pressed against his neck. If this didn’t work, he might get a barbecued neck too…
Holding the other gun loosely with shaking hands, he moved his finger to the trigger and took a deep breath, braced himself, fired.
The shot was loud as the scream of a god in that small space. Even the cigar boxes shook. Shadows Fade had already covered her ears but it’d been impossible for Dust to do so; he heard two pops and then nothing, not even a ringing. He was deaf now. The other gun’s kick then pushed him to the far corner of this cupboard, a great arm on his shoulder which brought raging agony the moment it touched him. He screamed, a sound he would never hear, and smacked into the floor and wall.
Shadows Fade appeared above him then, a towering and sympathetic figure. She reached down as if to comfort him but he felt no touch. She was mocking him. He waved her arm away and roared his agony and frustration.
There was a clank, he heard a clank, in response.
Dust turned over and saw the Omnis Collar, the Bond, whatever it was, roll away. Shadows Fade had freed him of it. Strength and surety entered his body, sweeping away his fatigue. He was the Wanted Man again. Looking down at his shoulder, he saw that it was whole and the pain disappeared; either he’d only felt the pain because he’d expected it or it’d been Resistance’s price for the magic to heal him.
Shadows Fade offered him her hand and he took it, let her bring him to his feet.
“That wasn’t dignified,” he said. Shock drained from his system as the magic of his tattoo, which rested just announce his tail bone, went to work. He tested his arm and shoulder and found them healthy.
“It worked,” she said with a shrug. “Besides, you are the Wanting Man, not the Dignified one.”
He smiled. “True. Now, let’s save Penelope Chalmers. And Naismith,” he added.
Shadows Fade’s eyes narrowed at the mention of his partner but she said nothing, merely gestured for him to lead the way. Which he did, charging forward with a purpose and the rage to see it through.