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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Dust and Sand – Chapter 8 – By Sean P. Wallace

Chapter 8 

            The kid’s ride had gone a mile by the time they caught up to it, having thankfully trotted along aimlessly following its initial dash. Horse’s hooves gave their position away and the ride kept up its leisurely pace, watched them approach with a prey’s nervous eye.

            The kid jumped from Horse’s saddle when they were within a few feet. “What a useless thing.” It almost dashed off even at that. The Paints had spooked it more than Dust would’ve thought possible.

            She raised her crop and approached the horse slowly. Against all logic, the crop seemed to calm it and it stopped. Or maybe, Dust reckoned, seeing it broke the beast’s will. Either way, it stood motionless as she approached like a coming storm.

            So the Paints weren’t to blame then. Now that he knew to look for them, Dust spotted scars along the creature’s flank. Its mane and shoes were well-maintained so it’d not been neglected, just severely disciplined.

            “Is that a Solution horse?” Dust asked.

            “No. It’s mine. I trained it myself. At least, I thought I had.”

            Dust nodded slowly and breathed out. That explained it.

            The kid climbed onto her horse and started whispering to it. As she talked, she gave it frequent tastes of her crop. And not weak tastes either. The poor animal flinched each time but accepted the punishment.

            Horse gave a low whinny at seeing this. Dust patted him. He would’ve intervened but he needed that horse to be under control. But he would have a hell of a lot to say to the kid, and to Dick, when the mission was done, there was no question of that.

            “Ready to ride?” he asked.

            She looked up. “Yes. I don’t think we’ll see a repeat performance.”

            Dust hoped not, for the horse’s sake.

            So they doubled back, followed the Paints’ trails to whatever they’d been guarding. Unlike before, Dust kept a good eye out; he wasn’t about to drop his guard when the Badlands were showing off their worst. Shielding his eyes from the warm, beating sun, he scanned the horizon for anything unusual. A few new critters skittered between bushes and dunes but apart from that he saw nothing untoward.

            Until he spotted the small figure. It was about an hour after they got back on track when he saw them, a dark outline against the arid land. Whoever they were, they could barely walk; each step was a stumble, a small miracle. If it were a person, they needed help.

            If it were a person; at that height, they couldn’t have been with Penelope Chalmers. And there were no settlements nearby. So it was either a lost child, which seemed unlikely, or something else. And every time he’d patrolled the Badlands, it’d always been something else.

            What gave him pause was the lack of a warning from his tattoo. He couldn’t be sure the damn thing wasn’t playing with him, so he watched the figure a while longer, tried to make a call either way.

            The kid hadn’t noticed him watching the horizon. She hadn’t said much in the last hour, which he was grateful for. And if she’d seen him shielding his eyes, she didn’t connect it with something coming. Perhaps she didn’t think they’d be attacked again, that that wouldn’t be fair. Or perhaps she was relying on Dust to spot anything.

            Well, if so, his call would be key. He went back to watching the figure.

            For five minutes it stumbled along. Then it fell over, to its hands and knees. And it stayed down, as though it had given up. Not really ‘eldritch’ behaviour. That sealed it.

            “We’re taking a detour,” he said.

            The kid frowned. “Where?”

            “North. There’s someone we’ve got to see.”

            He kicked Horse into a canter. He glanced back and saw the kid fall in behind him.

            Dust looked from the kid to the… kid. The other kid. That might get confusing. For now, Dust would think of her as Naismith. Maybe she’d earn the right in the next couple of days… Anyhow the kid in the distance was still on its hands and knees, head hanging loosely from their shoulders, just as he’d left it.

            There was definitely something odd going on here.

            Naismith finally noticed it. She gasped, put her hand to her mouth. “What is a child doing out here?” she asked through her fingers.

            Dust didn’t say he’d wondered the same thing an hour ago.

            Not wanting to scare the kid, if that’s what it was, Dust made Horse trot along all friendly like. When he got a little closer, Dust decided the kid was probably a boy; at least, they had short hair and a frame that’d look gangly on a girl. Maybe ten, he wore tattered clothes and shoes whose soles been worn down to nothing. Dusty as fuck too, he was, head to toe; he must’ve wandered in the Badlands for some time.

            Dust’s was a face unaccustomed to gentle smiling but he tried it out to keep himself non-threatening. Which was funny, when he thought about it; most people were scared half to death when he started smiling.

            The boy didn’t seem to notice their approach. When Dust saw the boy’s face, he understood why, knew his smile was worth less than a prayer; a large black smear of corrupted flesh had consumed the boy’s face, replaced his eyes. His features were a puss-filled mass that dripped and wept onto the ground. There was a deep gash down its face which left half its cheek flapping open; that seemed to be the cause of the infection as the smear spread out from there. Taking long, slow breaths, he was barely coping with the pain.

            “Oh my Lord,” Naistmith said.

            Dust probably shouldn’t even call it a ‘he’; a creature of Melting Flesh had given the child a Minor Gift, a sentient disease that eats at a person until they either prayed to Melting Flesh – he of the Triangle – or were transformed into something that would. Far from any settlements as he was, the Gift must’ve worn through the boy by now.

            But if that were the case, why hadn’t it set off his tattoo?

            Whatever it was, the figure still dangerous. And infectious. He held a hand out to Naismith, warned her to keep her distance; the only cure for Melting Flesh’s Gifts was a quick death.

            “Hey there,” Dust shouted, sounding as friendly as a man can at the top of his lungs.

            The figure slowly stood up and looked around blindly. “H-hello?” The voice was cracked, light and had definitely been a boy’s.

            “Don’t worry. We’re a couple of rangers from the Solution,” Dust lied. “You look like you need a little help son.”

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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