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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 4 – By Sean P. Wallace

Shadows Fade followed the strange trail through the Badlands. Something foul had stirred.

Unlike most, she loved the Badlands. She took in a deep breath and tasted home in the air. No matter what the pale folk said, no matter how many pieces of paper they waved around, this was her people’s land. The long and seemingly unending sands, the dipping mountains, the shrubs and cacti and grasses, the creatures and the insects; they all belonged to the Apache, the Comanche and every other bands of ‘Indians’. And they belonged to her too. She owned the sunrise and the sunset, the rain and the wind. She owned it all. And so she had to protect it.

What the pale folk laughably called the ‘Dixie Problem’ was really the ‘Indian Problem’. Like every other facet of this great land it was her people’s to deal with, theirs to solve. Her people had been facing the Three for centuries and would continue to do so until one side destroyed the other. And it would be her people who won, who survived. As Shadows Fade crept through the Badlands, her spirit wolf Godly Claw at her side, she felt this to be true. She knew this to be true. The ‘Indians’ should be the ones taking the fight to the Three, not the pale folk.

It was midday. Sunlight beat her from above, drawing sweat like blood from cooking meat. She paused and took a draught from her pouch; ahead there was a dark spirit, something shambling and shivering and wrong. She did not want to face it with a dry throat.

After all, she was alone on her hunt. She always was. Her band did not agree with her on owning the fight against the Three. Nor did any other band. They would join together to fight the Three if and when they were threatened but it took an enormous host of dark spirits to spark such a reaction. For now, the bands were content to cede the Badlands, live in ignorant peace and let the pale folk fight instead.

But Shadows Fade could not stand idle. Not whilst the dark spirits of the Three were free to taint her land. That was why she hunted; that was why she and Godly Claw were following the strange trail and hoping for a kill.

They had been tracking this thing for more than three miles. Godly Claw had picked up its scent shortly after they’d bid her Father farewell and left her band in the north. Father did not approve of her hunts but he at least understood. The other elders, though…

No, she would not let herself get distracted by thoughts of those men, they who claimed power but were more withered than these blighted lands. She slipped the water pouch back over her shoulder and gently patted Godly Claw’s haunch. The pale blue wolf smiled her beastly smile and enjoyed the moment’s attention. After all, Shadows Fade was the only one who could give her such affection.

Ten minutes of sneaking, of sniffing from Godly Claw and of carefully weighing up the tracks later she finally caught sight of what she was following. It was dragging itself through an arroyo, following the path of a winter stream. She almost wished she hadn’t; no matter how many dark spirits she saw they always affected her. Though she was a warrior, her disgust would always be there like the aches of a once broken leg.

She could not determine what the spirit was; somehow it had inhabited a number of pale people’s corpses and she could see nothing of it beneath that great pile of rotting white flesh. Dead bodies were often a favourite haunt for dark spirits but this one had found a veritable village. She counted more than a dozen faces leering out blindly from the surface of its hide.

Whatever it was, the dark spirit had crafted a body from the corpses that was formless yet identifiably monstrous; a horrible mass with no rhyme to its structure that somehow hinted at a deeper pattern, perhaps one that no human could comprehend. Limbs and genitals and organs hung loosely or writhed helplessly along every part of it. Shadows Fade couldn’t tell whether these twitches were spasms or purposeful movements.

As tall as a man and three times as wide, it dragged itself along the floor. It left a dozen needling footprints in the ground behind it, a deep impression in the arroyo’s carpet. And it was quiet as a grave. But it was the thing’s smell that had truly given it away; a scent of rot and disease and unnatural biological processes that Godly Claw could not help but pick up.

Godly Claw growled softly beside her. The wolf wanted to attack, to kill. Of course she did; that was what all beasts wanted in the presence of dark spirits.

“Hush, my friend,” Shadows Fade whispered. “We must ready ourselves first.”

The wolf nodded with reluctance. Shadows Fade scratched her behind the ear.

Before charging in, Shadows Fade checked on her hunting equipment: the charms around her wrists and ankles – blessed by the spiritual leaders of the Caddo tribe years ago and reinforced nightly by her own hand – were fastened securely; the spells scarred into her torso with iron blades were in tact; Godly Claw nodded to let her know the spells on her back were also whole; and her blessed bow was strung up taut, her runed knife sharp enough to cut bone.

She took a deep breath, centred herself, and was ready for battle.

Godly Claw whined impatiently. Shadows Fade nodded. It was time for the kill.

The wolf darted away, circling round to flank the creature. Shadows Fade went in the opposite direction, following the banks of the arroyo and staying small and out of sight. She was aware of her surroundings in case something bigger had also been tracking their prey. But they had hunted here many times and knew the area so well that she needn’t have feared; there were no terrible nests left here, no predator she hadn’t already taken down.

Besides, the worst of the dark spirits tended to hide until night. They feared the sun. Which raised the question of why this one was moving so brazenly. Shadows Fade could only come up with one answer, one which had made her hunt all the more important; it must have been summoned by something stronger.

Shadows Fade watched her prey as well as her surroundings, checking it hadn’t spotted her. Another question came to mind; how had so many corpses come to be in the Badlands? Why had they been available to be woven together by a dark spirit? Even the pale folk weren’t stupid enough to build a graveyard near the Badlands. She couldn’t puzzle out how they’d come to be there. Some of its exposed limbs had tattered blue clothes hanging from their skin, which probably meant something to the other pale folk. To her, it was a mystery she would never solve.

When she got to what passed for the creature’s flank, Shadows Fade hunkered down in some brushes and waited for Godly Claw to start the fight. The two of them often practiced battle plans between their hunts, trying variances and feints for different manners of dark spirits. But for something as large and ponderous as this there was only one approach; wear it down and don’t get injured.

Patient, she watched the creature writhe away. Parts of it bubbled like boiling water. Others inflated and then withered, moving with biological rhythm. It did not struggle with its prodigious weight and did not seem to be scanning for other threats as it went; whatever was in those corpses must have felt itself too powerful to care about predators. It might take many strikes from her knife and bow to kill it. Or, of course, many bites from Godly Claw.

At that moment her spirit wolf charged out from some brushes. She howled, trying to steal the monstrosity’s attention. Moving as swiftly as a bat, Godly Claw closed the ground on the creature quickly.

The dark spirit didn’t seem to pay her any attention. Or, if it did, it was impossible to tell a difference.

Godly Claw then leaped onto the thing’s back and wrapped its jaw around an exposed arm. Then she leaped away. Her jaw muscles were stronger than the creature’s skin and so the arm came away with an easy, ugly ripping sound.

Losing an arm didn’t seem to rile the creature. It kept moving, methodically but chaotically, south. Shadows Fade allowed herself a moment to wonder why before drawing her bow and pulling it taut. No answer immediately came to mind.

The bowstring yanked back at her fingers, almost as strong as she. Its rest was empty; Shadows Fade had no need of arrows because the bow was blessed so as to fire her willpower, the purest weapon and the best to kill the dark spirits of the Three. An arrow the same pale blue as Godly Claw appeared between her fingers the moment she released the string and was caught in the vicious snap of sinew.

Her willpower shot away, ripped through the air and into creature. The black matter it called blood sprayed across the sand.

That got its attention. It turned to face her and Shadows Fade saw its head for the first time. She should have noticed that the pale faces had empty sockets; dozens of eyes were now fixed on her, tightly packed together on the creature’s only flat surface. They focused on her, all of them, and the seeing sent fresh fear through her.

It was a fear she embraced and channeled into her next attack. Drawing her bow once more, she smiled; now she had some targets.

She let fly and her resolve shredded another stolen eye. The creature did not flinch. Instead it writhed toward her, fast as a snake; it had only been walking before, conserving energy, but now that it wanted to the damned thing could shift as fast as Shadows Fade.

Godly Claw was faster still. And she had seen Shadows Fade target those stolen eyes. Racing before the creature, the wolf dived across that mockery of a face and raked the claws she had been named for over bloodshot spheres. Three eyes burst under the attack. A thick black mucus rained down its hide.

Shadows Fade punctuated the attack with an arrow, robbing it of a fifth eye. But still the creature ran toward her. It was not fazed. Nor was it incensed. It made no sounds and acted no different to before. Relentless, that’s all it was. Godly Claw had to dive away quickly to avoid being trampled under that determined charge and that lost her valuable seconds.

Shadows Fade fired two more arrows, destroying two more dead eyes. Then she slung the bow back over her back; it would be useless up close. Drawing her knife, she studied the advancing creature and planned her counterattack. There would be little room for error; one misstep and it might devour her. Or worse, taint her. But then there was never any room for mistakes when you fought the Three.

With a deep breath, she sprinted toward the creature. She would climb onto the thing’s back and tear it apart from above. Godly Claw got in one good attack before Shadows Fade and the creature met, rending four more of its eyes.

The dark spirit seemed to sense Shadows Fade’s intention to jump onto its back because its form shifted just as she launched herself forward; it sucked all those rotting hands into its mass and made them surround its lost and remaining eyes like a mane. It meant to grab her, perhaps feed her to the mouths that began to slowly float to its surface. Shadows Fade was surprised by this but continued charging. She would not falter, would cut it deeply with the fury of her people.

Two intentions, one evil, one righteous, would clash. Whichever of them had the strongest will would triumph. As it had always been between her people and the Three.

Shadows Fade flew forward, threw out her hands to vault its hand-covered face. They reached for her, those stolen limbs, but the wards and spells across Shadows Fade repelled them with a flash of blue light. Those protections would not withstand such an assault forever but they would last long enough to give her an edge; she grabbed at the arms and used them to flip onto the creature’s back. Once there, she pumped her knife into its flesh over and over. The dark spirit once again made no noise even as its skin blackened wherever the blade touched it.

Not keen to remain in such a precarious position, Shadows Fade stabbed at it twice more before fleeing. To do the most damage, she dug the knife into its hide and dragged it behind her as she ran along its form. The knife, as much an extension of her will as the wards, burnt and seared the flesh as it went.

She slid down its back, narrowly avoiding hands that had repositioned themselves to grab at her, and jumped away. A long line of ruin followed in her wake. Shadows Fade rolled twice and sprang back to her feet, unharmed.

Godly Claw took up the attack from there; she leaped onto the area Shadows Fade had attacked and dug with tooth and claw. The dark spirit was silent still but it writhed, tried to dislodge the wolf. Godly Claw’s will was as strong as Shadows Fade’s, perhaps even stronger, and so the wolf would not be moved.

Dead hands then tried to grab the wolf’s flank but Godly Claw’s magic crackled and repelled each one. The spirit wolf paid no mind to the attacks. Instead it buried further into the creature, like a common dog searching for a hidden treat.

Shadows Fade ran a few feet away, drew her bow and re-joined the fray by sniping the arms that tried to grab Godly Claw. Each shot tore off a wasted white limb. The creature’s mass was getting smaller and smaller as they chipped lumps of it away. Arrows flew. Flesh was torn. Godly Claw twice leaped from the creature to reposition herself, tear into a new part she thought was more vital.

Shadows Fade and Godly Claw fell into the rhythm of violence, with even the creature playing its part. It was like they were in a song. Shadows Fade supposed they were; it was a song as old as her people, as old as the first man and the first arrival of the Three.

And the dark spirit could do nothing to halt the song; apparently still young, still fresh and weak, it had no ugly cunning and no real strength. It was outmatched by wills far stronger than it’s own. It fought but to no end. Soon the creature had no more to give. Its form stopped flailing, its remaining eyes closed and it sagged to the dusty floor. Its vicious scent filled the air, making Shadows Fade’s eyes water.

It seemed dead. But Shadows Fade could not trust it was. Many dark spirits pretend to be dead to get a jump on their attackers. Others simply had multiple lives. There was only one way to ensure this thing would not reach whoever had summoned it. She reached into her small travel bag and took her most powerful charm from within; a tiny crow’s skull.

It was an artifact she’d found in the tomb of an ancient Apache, just outside the Badlands. Of course, she had not gone into her ancestor’s resting place for plunder; it had been desecrated by a chittering host of dark spirits and she had gone there to cleanse it. Shadows Fade could still remember exactly how those miscreations had defiled every aspect of the tomb, how they’d covered it in their filth and their excuse for a language. Every part of the tomb was tainted. Apart from the skull, which terrified them.

After she’d dealt with the dark spirits she had taken the skull, knowing it must be powerful. She had made tacit inquiries with her band and others about the warrior it had belonged to but none knew him or her. And it was only by accident that she’d learned its true purpose; it had fallen from her bag following a fight and done what it was about to do now.

Kissing the skull, she threw it into the creature’s fallen form. Instantly, the corpses began to dissolve, stolen flesh melting like wax. The dark spirit within sprang back to life and tried to escape the agony that was destroying it but it was too late; the crow’s skull quickly melted its way down into a spirit’s core. It would already be destroying whatever kept the dark spirit alive.

Finishing a kill was the artifact’s true purpose. It was useless against something with vitality and strength but deadly against something that had been worn down.

When it was done, when the creature was dead, Shadows Fade took her knife and dug through the mound of liquefied flesh to retrieve the crow’s skull. It was stinking, unpleasant work that threatened to make her retch every few seconds. The unholy smell of the thing was so strong she could taste it. But there was always a price for everything and this was how much certainty and safety cost.

Not that she minded; the bill was hers because the Badlands were hers. She would gladly pay it every time. It was what protecting her band cost. It was what protecting her land cost.

Shadows Fade removed the crow’s skull and started to wipe the dark ichor from its bleached surface. Then Godly Claw padded up beside her. She whined and pointed south-east; there was another plaything of the Three nearby.

Shadows Fade smiled. She took a deep breath as she placed the now-clean artifact back into her pack. The air was clearing, returning the sweet smell of home to her. Another hunt was on. It was going to be a good day.

SeanPWallace
SeanPWallace
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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