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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Dust and Decay – Chapter 13 – By Sean P. Wallace

Want to know what’s happening? The first book Dust and Sand was serialised here at Geek Pride. A summary is available here. You can also buy the definitive edition of Dust and Sand at all good eBook stores.

Horse nickered and snorted as they approached the edge of the Teotek’s wards. Damn happy to get out in the open. Dust’s ride had enjoyed living amongst the Teotek. Enjoyed it so much he’d been stationed on his own for the good of the band’s mares. But even busy evenings couldn’t compare to travelling, going along under the American sky.

A night sky. Sunset’d come quicker than expected. Packing hadn’t taken long, but securing ‘the Blanket’ had. His tattoo’d wanted a ton of praise before it gave up power. Still, that gave Penelope and Shadows Fade time to say goodbye. A goodbye that was still not done. A crowd watched them cross into the Badlands. Many, he guessed, expecting to never see them again.

Dust didn’t feel too confident they were wrong. Life with the Teotek had been comfortable. Safe. The moment Horse left the cover of the Teotek’s steaming totems and torches covered in sigils, all eyes would be on him. If the Blanket held, it’d take a good day or two before they were located. If not, well, they’d have a hell of a lot of fighting to do.

He looked back at the Teotek. Children, women, men. Chief Fighting Storm and the Elders were at their head. One Who Goes About wasn’t, away somewhere casting anti-scrying spells to obscure the Badlands for them. They were all damn kind. He had come here at Shadows Fade’s request, to help, but they hadn’t needed to move to Kehuadinune to protect him.

At least he’d given them that bowl back. And cleared away that Gift. But he owed them more. He owed them a better America.

Penelope and Shadows Fade trotted between him and the Teotek, sharing a horse painted with spells. A fresh tattoo was on Shadows Fade’s leg, replacing the one she’d lost fighting the Wastrels, and a new bow rested across her back. Penelope wore tanned Teotek clothes and Omnis’ Collar, a bulky growth around her neck.

Shadows Fade nodded. They were ready to step into the open.

Dust spurred Horse forward. He rose to a canter and left the Teotek behind.

Immediately, a hundred eager eyes turned toward him. Or the faint taste of That Which Sins’ Word. Didn’t matter which with a river of spiteful inquiry pouring onto him. The Blanket’s anti-scrying protection threatened to buckle under the weight of attention. A weight which only increased as more demons and demagogues felt magic being pumped into the Badlands and went to investigate.

The Blanket kicked in properly. A literal blanket woven with spells and anti-curses, it hung over him like a poncho. It was damn clever, even if he said so himself: with his ingenuity and Teotek runecrafting, they’d made it so any scrying or detection spells aimed his way struck not him but each other, like bullets shot from the sky. It’d be useless against a few scryers, but Dust would never’ve faced so small a number. With One Who Goes About helping to spread his presence, he was almost undetectable.

Shadows Fade led the way toward the Iron Soul. Horse had sense enough to follow her as Dust concentrated on maintaining the Blanket. They went at a good pace, not sparing their horses or each other. A hard couple of days were ahead, but the reward would be so damn worth it…

Their journey passed under his strain and frenzy. Maintaining the Blanket was like stopping rainwater getting through a leaky roof. He needed to concentrate on certain parts so the Blanket didn’t give way… until the pressure shifted elsewhere. Another pot was filled. It was an endless battle, but one he was winning.

The number of people paying an interest in him dropped to a manageable level, though at an achingly slow pace. By the time he could consider the world again, the moon had risen high and the stars shone like candles.

“Fuck me,” he sighed.

“Are you okay, Dust?”

“Fine. I expected trouble. Got a bit more than I’d thought. How’re we going?”

Shadows Fade nodded. “We are making good time and have not had any contact with dark spirits. That is likely because of your efforts.”

“I hope so.”

Dust looked around. The Badlands were no different. Still the same danger and impending agony. The usual warped insects on their way to becoming Bloats cricked and buzzed in the darkness. It was silent otherwise. At least the air tasted clean, a rarity in the Badlands but a luxury he’d become used to with the Teotek.

Dust found it in him to smile. It wasn’t just Horse who loved being out again.

Being on the trail meant danger though. He cast his magical senses this way and that for signs of trouble, but found none. That didn’t mean they were safe. After fighting the Faustian, witnessing the awful things he had done to himself, Dust couldn’t trust his judgements of the Badlands.

Something’d changed. It was getting worse. The Teotek believed the Badlands were deteriorating as more people joined the Three, subjecting their secrets to the same scrutiny and ingenuity which’d made steam-powered trains possible. A theory he couldn’t discount, given the Solution’s likely cultist infestation.

The Solution… Dust looked to the north west. Was Dick faring okay after what happened to the Naismith kid? He seemed a good enough political operator to survive politically, but you couldn’t negotiate or reason with worshippers of the Three in his midst. Much as he’d butted heads with the man, Dust hoped the General was all right.

Movement ahead. Something powerful. Damn powerful. A Gift of Melting Flesh, if he was any judge. One that’d cross their path.

“There’s something coming. We’d best turn east, go round it.”

Shadows Fade gave him a thumbs up and rode round an enormous outcrop. Horse followed.

Dust kept an eye on the Gift. There were eight of it, a posse of victims. That was unusual out in the open. At least, it had been until recently.

They headed up a narrow path through rising scrubland, out of the Gift’s eyeline. The air ran sour, the Badlands’ taint spreading like morning mist. Shadows Fade slowed, letting their horses rest and quieting their progress. Dust would’ve done the same: their outline at this elevation would be obvious if something looked their way.

In the quiet, Dust heard him. “Help me! Help me!” Young. Scared. About to die. Judging by where the shout came from, he would die at the hands of the Gift they were avoiding.

Dust wanted to ignore the shout. Well, not want: it was just prudent to not bring attention to themselves. He wanted to help, course he did, but that would be a damned big risk, given their mission and cargo and all.

His tattoo had other ideas. It punished him, though it felt different this time. Like acid against his skin. And it used a voice to communicate its displeasure.

“Your fight is for nothing if you let an innocent die,” it said, each syllable exploding like cannon fire. “Intervene.”

That was new. Dust supposed he’d been working closer with his tattoo… Their connection might have improved. He certainly accepted its wisdom and knowledge as somewhat representative of Resistance now. And the damn thing had a mind of its own, so a voice wasn’t too surprising.

“Ain’t we at risk if we ride out?” Dust asked through gritted teeth.

Shadows Fade and Penelope turned, both confused.

“I will fortify the ‘Blanket’ so you are not,” his tattoo boomed.

“What did you say?” Shadows Fade asked a moment later.

“My tattoo just gave me an order. We’re gonna help that boy in trouble.”

Penelope frowned. “Won’t that give us away?”

“Not according to my tattoo.”

Shadows Fade looked down. A figure fled from a pack of riders. Wolves after a lamb. “Let us go, then.”

She geed her horse and raced ahead. Penelope sighed, dragged along.

Dust smiled and caught up.

They took a steeper path down and set their horses to a gallop. Shadows Fade slowed only to leap from her ride, let Penelope take the reins, and prepare her new bow. Dust got a decent lead then. He felt the Blanket strengthen, as the tattoo had promised, freeing him to concentrate on the fight.

He’d wonder about his tattoo’s voice later…

The fleeing boy rode a wounded horse. Dark-skinned and terrified, eyes wide, his mouth frozen in a scream. From their gear and disparate weapons, his pursuers’d likely been mercenaries before the Gift broke their ranks. Even their horses were now the Gift’s. With all that power, it was confident in racing so obviously across the plains.

Overconfident. Dust drew his other gun and shot the Gift’s foremost victim. Crimson magic flew through the night, announcing his presence to everyone a mile around, but it struck true: the lead mercenary exploded, the Gift inside him and his horse searing in green flame.

“Why aren’t we trying to save them?” Penelope shouted. “They are victims!”

Dust tutted. Of course, Penelope wanted him to take these mercenaries alive. He didn’t have time for that, not when the entrance to Wound in the Air could soon close. Besides, he had to be at his best for anything else to come, so he couldn’t waste energy cleansing those things. It was a poor excuse, but his tattoo only mildly warmed at it.

“Let’s save the boy above all else,” Shadows Fade answered.

Penelope grimaced, but didn’t argue.

Dust took two more shots. Only one struck true, the other missing by an inch. But that finally got the Gift’s attention: the four remaining Gift riders turned to him. The riderless horses too, changing direction to come at him.

The boy rode even harder to get away. Probably couldn’t believe his luck.

Horse didn’t stop charging. Dust didn’t stop shooting, rolling his gun’s chamber twice. The riderless horses were the easiest to kill, went down with screams that made Horse’s ears twitch. The riders, though, summoned screens that blocked some of his shots. Not all of them, as another of the four was seared away by his other gun, but enough to be worrying.

Then Shadows Fade shot. Her magic was different enough that it surprised the Gift, took down another rider and their horse. Those remaining shifted, their magic changing tack to account for Shadows Fade.

That slight change, a weakness in their defences, allowed Dust to take a further Gift victim down. Only a final rider and horse remained. And they’d soon be within touching distance.

Dust fired relentlessly to save Horse. Shadows Fade joined in, separating the Gift’s attention. For naught: every attack was deflected with relative ease. The rider and its horse were the Gift’s only forms, so it could bring all its power to bear.

“We need to fire at the same spot,” Shadows Fade shouted.

“Okay,” Dust hollered back.

They couldn’t say where, else the Gift would protect that spot well. He’d have to guess where Shadows Fade would aim, because she was too definite to play that game with him.

He considered and then shouted, “Now!”

The warrior and Dust both fired at the horse’s head. Bullet and arrow, blue and red, blended into a twirling drill. As Shadows Fade suspected, the Gift couldn’t command enough magic to deflect the combined force of both shots. Dust’s bullet broke through. The Gift screamed horribly as the animal died and the rider, a woman, caught in green fire.

Both collapsed into singed messes, fodder for the Badlands’ scavengers.

Dust pulled on Horse’s reins, stopping him yards short of the rider. Penelope did the same. The aftermath was gruesome, seven rotting human and horse corpses, each aflame.

“Damn it, why did we have to kill them?” Penelope asked.

“We had no time,” Shadows Fade said. “Resistance would not want us to waste resources here.”

Penelope tutted. “Sounds like an excuse to me.”

“No, it’s a practicality,” Dust said. “There’s a difference.”

A horse approached. It bore the terrified boy. Boy was the wrong word: he looked twenty if he was a day. Either Mexican or a Native. He wore a look of astonishment and was sweating so much his shirt was soaked through, but was fine otherwise.

“I’ll say something, aside from thank you: you show the kind of practicality I can appreciate.”

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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