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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 31 – By Sean P. Wallace

Chapter 31

Dust woke to Shadows Fade and Penelope Chalmers dragging him through the cult’s temple. His dull eyes scanned them for wounds and found them safe, whole and without the Triangle’s taint. They’d won.

“He’s awake,” Penelope said, noticing his movement. She was thin, a skeleton dragging its skin around, but there had once been a pretty girl over that form and it shone through as she smiled shyly. She’d found some warm-looking clothes, plain shirts and hemp trousers, and swaddled herself in them.

Shadows Fade stopped and together they lifted him, let him stand without embarrassment. Dust planted his feet and stepped away. He’d thought he was tired after the fight in Crucifix but that was nothing; now his feet moved as though in quicksand and hurt like a bastard in the process.

“Are you okay?” Penelope asked.

“Never mind me,” Dust said. “How’re you?”

“She is clear of That Which Sins’ taint,” Shadows Fade said.

“That’s not what I asked; are you okay?”

“I don’t think I’ll be okay for quite some time, Mister Dust, but I can walk if that’s what you mean.”

He smiled at her bravery until fatigue collapsed the gesture. “What did they do to you?”

“Can we not talk about that now?” she asked. “I’m not… I haven’t come to terms with what actually happened in there. I need time to think about it. If that’s alright, sir?”

“I understand. Call me ‘Dust’ by the way.”

Penelope nodded and gave him another small smile.

“Can you travel?” Shadows Fade asked him.

Dust nodded.

“Are you sure? You fought one of the Triangle. Actually fought it. Even Resistance does not allow that without payment.”

When Shadows Fade put it like that, Dust wondered how he could even walk; Penelope had been close to becoming a Vessel when he’d found her and denying That Which Sins her prize at the last ought to have cost him more dearly. Then he remembered the extreme punishment Resistance had meted out for not shooting Naismith; it had felt justified at the time but perhaps Resistance had achieved two purposes with the same action. Something the god had been doing often recently.

“I think,” Dust said, flexing his bloated fingers, “Resistance took his payment in advance.”

Shadows Fade raised an eyebrow but said nothing.

Dust looked at Penelope and realised he’d forgotten something. “Did we kill everyone in the temple?”

“I’m sure we did,” the warrior replied.

“Were there any people with… very unusual magic in them?”

“What are you really asking, Dust?”

He looked back down the tunnel, followed it burrowing deep into the earth. A gentle breeze buffeted his hair but carried no sounds with it. “A girl called Margaret escaped this cult a while ago, seeking sanctuary with Father Kilkenny. She was a Vessel for That Which Sins; a stepping stone to creating an Avatar. Four more like her were with this cult.”

“Vessel, Avatar, I do not know these words. Explain,” Shadows Fade said.

“An Avatar is a physical piece of a god; a connection between them and our world. It would allow a god to act without proxies and demons, directly wield their powers.” They were plain words but Shadows Fade’s widened pupils told him she understood the horror involved. “The Father seemed to think these Vessels were part of building an Avatar, like bricks.”

Penelope’s arm started to shake. She gripped it tightly to her body. “And that’s what the ritual was for? To make me a piece of a puzzle?”

Dust cursed his lack of subtlety. “Yes.”

The girl took a deep breath. “Wow.”

Shadows Fade tapped her chin thoughtfully. “These Vessels are dead.”

“You certain?”

“Four of the cultists I killed contained the same kind of magic as that which fills the Soul Waters Father Kilkenny holds in his chapel,” she said. “Assuming this Margaret was the Soul Waters’ former owner?”

Dust took a second to connect ‘Soul Waters’ to ‘Word’. “Damn. Things would’ve been easier if I could’ve talked to you before.”

“Perhaps. But then Naismith would have known about the Soul Waters.”

“True,” he said, his voice low. “It worked out for the best.”

Naismith. Dust couldn’t believe she’d been a damn cultist the whole time, that she’d followed him into the Badlands only to ensure his death. Their journey made more sense now; her fancy gun, her reluctance to share a tent, the ‘freeze’ that left him high and dry… If he ever got his hands on her, there would be one Hell of a reckoning. His tattoo did not warm at the thought; that was what Resistance wanted.

Her betrayal also put the Solution under a different light. Dust’d have a lot to ask Dick when he got back. If they got there before Naismith.

“Let us hurry,” Shadows Fade said. “We can discuss this further on the way.”

He looked back down the depths of the temple as another thought kicked him. “Wait, the Bond.”

“What about it?” Shadows Fade asked.

“Can you imagine that being in the wrong hangs? We’ve got to go back for it.”

“Is that the metal thing we went and got?” Penelope asked.

Shadows Fade shot Penelope a sour look and then whistled. Godly Claw appeared ahead of them, the Bond in her mouth. The Spirit Wolf’s brilliant blue was still black from magical wounds but now it also faded where her teeth touched the artefact, becoming the grey of a normal wolf.

Dust grinned at Shadows Fade’s theatricality. Some people went in for looking that prepared and knowledgeable but Dust’d never thought it worthwhile. He didn’t blame the warrior for using such arts but seeing behind the curtains was amusing.

“Good,” Dust said. “Thanks.”

It must’ve taken him a while to come to as they were soon at the surface, emerging into heavy rain. The temple entrance was located in a valley, hidden behind two great boulders so casual observers couldn’t see it. The air was clear, crisp, and the rain was cleansing. Dust scanned the Badlands and felt only background magic; the consciousnesses that’d watched them earlier had grown bored and slumped back to their holes. He saw no movement either, the scavengers having been scared off by wards and fetishes dotted along the top of the valley.

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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