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Saturday, May 18, 2024

Dust and Decay – Chapter 14 – 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.

The Solution carriage blazed across the Badlands, bright as a hundred lanterns. Least, it felt that way, with them employing no visible protection or stealth. Joshua knew the carriage’s intricate spellcraft made them look like an Elder, an enormous being of Omnis which anything with a brain avoided. He’d even tested it before setting off and got a good laugh scaring the shit out of the Governor’s visitors. So he knew they were safe. But he felt exposed nevertheless.

Rattling, screeching things of the Triangle ran blindly from them, racing like stampeding buffalo. Swarms of Bloats and other flying evils scatter as they passed. Proof they were safe. He might’ve felt powerful at seeing such fear if he were alone. But Sister Irujo sat beside him, eyes screwed shut in prayer. And Reeves held a Solution rifle, watching the creatures with disgust and fear.

Maybe that was why he really felt exposed.

Still, best try to forge some connection with his temporary posse. “This your first time in the Badlands, Reeves?”

The Marshall shook his head. “I came in once on a manhunt. Wasn’t right prepared for it, nearly died a couple times, so I had to give up the chase. Ended up waiting at the opposite side of this mess, where my target left. Only, well, he wasn’t the man I hunted no more.”

“Sounds about right.”

It took a desperate outlaw to enter the Badlands and a lucky one to leave them. Especially recently, with the Triangle in ascendency.

“I don’t mind saying, I’m awful glad of this coach,” Reeves admitted.

They were most of the way toward Crucifix when something arrowed in front of them. Quick as a starling. It whispered a message, two words. The horses didn’t notice, merely kept charging. Neither did Reeves or Sister Irujo. Only Joshua saw it, heard it.

Two words, meant for him. “The sphere.”

It was from the Solution. Something must’ve changed, or some clue to Dust’s whereabouts had surfaced. Maybe William’d changed his plans after finding out a Vatican representative was with Joshua. Either way, he eased up on the horses.

“Why are we slowing?” Sister Irujo asked immediately, eyes still shut.

“The… horses are tiring a little. They’ve been going for a while. I want to give ’em some feed and water. If that’s okay with y’all, that is?”

She turned her eyelids to Joshua. Weird thing was, Joshua felt like she could still see him. “You are in charge, Mr McManaman.”

Joshua nodded slowly. The Sister smiled and looked away.

He stepped behind a rock outcrop. The Sister remained still. Reeves climbed onto the carriage, his rifle’s butt resting against his shoulder, and span slowly to scan the horizon. Jumpy son of a bitch, really, but at least his attention would be elsewhere.

Joshua hopped into the back of the carriage. He wouldn’t have long before the others became suspicious, so he scrambled after the glass sphere hidden in the carriage’s floor. Pristine and clear, like an unbroken promise.

“Joshua McManaman reporting in,” he tapped onto the sphere. Morse code.

“The Wanted Man is abroad,” he received back. “Covered by a spell we cannot breach. Use your map to hunt him. Praise Omnis.”

“Praise Omnis,” Joshua tapped, feeling elated.

Loyalty to William and Omnis made him want to immediately break out the map, but he couldn’t risk being found feeding it. Instead, he grabbed the feed bags, some water, and the small trough to look after their rides.

Reeves held his unnecessary vigil still. The Sister whispered unnecessary prayers. Only the latter annoyed him: there was but one god who deserved praise.

As Joshua fed the horses, his thoughts drifted. If Dust’d finally shown himself, he had a plan. He’d probably figured out something to do with the Word, which could not be allowed: only Omnis deserved that glorious artefact. And only Joshua should retrieve it.

Not that he’d get that particular honour without a fight. It’d take a lot to bring down the Wanted Man. Hell, an Omnis’ Collar hadn’t stopped him, which Joshua still couldn’t believe. An ambush, though, could weaken him before he could shoot back. Particularly as the Solution guns had been modified recently: now, they would hurt anything with magic…

Joshua smiled to himself. Oh yes, the Solution’s true aim was progressing nicely.

When he was done feeding the horses, he poured some water into the small trough. The beasts lapped it up gratefully. He looked over the Sister and Marshall and decided enough time had passed for him to return to the carriage without raising any suspicions.

His little posse would hate the map, an artefact which used blood to portray the Badlands and anyone within them. With the right blood, you could find anything. The Solution usually used it to avoid powerful demons. Or track them when folks felt brave. Joshua had liberated it along with the special vial shortly after Eleanor’s death.

It was time to combine the two.

“Some of the shit in the carriage has come loose,” he announced before hopping in. “I’m gonna spend some time sorting it all back out. Don’t want any accidents or nothing.”

The nun asked, “Do you require any aid?”

“I’ll be fine, thank you. You two just keep an eye out.”

“Will do,” Reeves said, turning in a slow circle, his rifle gripped tightly.

Joshua leapt inside and closed the doors. Carefully, he listened. No movement from the others. When he felt safe, we withdrew the map from his possessions. Reverentially, like a newborn.

The map felt like leather. It wasn’t, least not any made from an animal. The smooth surface had no markings, no hint of the truth it would reveal if fed. Or what lived within it.

Speaking of which, it must be hungry after not being fed for weeks. Time to give it a feast.

Dust’d been too simple and trusting. Soon as the Solution popped up, he’d agreed to work with them. Never considered there might be more to the organisation. So he let them poke and prod, pissing and moaning all the while, and thought himself useful for doing a mission every now and then. Worse, he felt he was getting his own back by going out to drink. He was powerful, sure, but proud and simple. So proud he never considered where the blood drawn from him went.

Now, most of it went toward working out what in the heck he was. But not all of it. No sir. The vial sewn into Joshua’s travel pack proved that.

Working quickly, he cut into his pack and removed the slender glass container. He lay the map out flat and unstoppered the vial. It hissed slightly on contacting the air. Dust’s blood had a weird habit of evaporating, which the fool hadn’t taken as a hint, so Joshua poured the lot onto the map swiftly, making sure none splashed or was wasted.

The map hungrily absorbed the blood, quivering like a virgin on her wedding night. The smell of old tomatoes filled the cabin as it used the power within, the connection between blood and soul, to find the Wanted Man.

Then the map’s edges blackened. Fiery heat rose from its shivering form. Resistance wasn’t too pleased about this. Joshua hadn’t expected that: Resistance never fought this directly for his odd champion. But then, Dust hadn’t had something like that Word before.

Joshua put his hand on the map. Hot as blazing coal. His skin crackled. Closing his eyes, ignoring the pain, he whispered spells and prayers to bolster the burning artefact. A second presence within it, boiling and righteous rage, fought him and the map.

The map had to win. William had demanded it. So Joshua would have to sacrifice knowledge to bolster its chances. He rifled through everything he’d learned and selected something important enough for Omnis to accept. Something he cared about, had spent time learning. A moment later, he didn’t know what he gave up, but power swelled through him, a heady rush of strength and wisdom he poured directly into the map.

Resistance’s boiling, righteous rage was blown away, unable to handle the power of lost knowledge. They’d won. The map would find Dust.

Joshua sighed and used a quick ritual to heal his burned hand. The map would work away without him, trace their target, so he concentrated on forcing his skin to recover.

Sister Irujo opened the carriage doors. With Joshua’s hand regenerating, the air warm, and the sweet tang of magic mixing with the smell of burning flesh.

“What are you doing in here, Mr McManaman?”

Joshua shook his head, a little fuzzy from the pain and sacrificing some knowledge. “I… I was using the pause to see if I could track the Wanted Man better. Y’know, after I tidied up. I’ve got here a Solution map which should show us his location.”

The Sister frowned. Closed eyes turned to the map. “This is strange magic that you toy with, Mr McManaman. Is it common for the Solution to use such things?”

“Yup. Best way to fight against something is to use their own weapons.”

Sister Irujo examined the map with closed eyes, frowning slightly. “I suppose there is something close to holy magic within it, though I fear for you and your people if you regularly use such things: it is not God’s will that we toy with demonic influences.”

No shit, Joshua thought.

Reeves climbed down from the carriage. “I don’t know about magic and all that, but I’d sure be glad to have something more to go on. Did you find anything of our man?”

The sniper nearly curled his lip at being treated so familiar. A deep breath put his anger aside. Instead, he examined the map. In ink like old blood, the Badlands was drawn. A bruise on Texas. Two dots stood out: one was marked ‘Ritual site’ and the other, unmarked, must be the Wanted Man.

Resistance had lost. It and the Wanted Man’s protections couldn’t fight blood magic powered by knowledge. Not when he was so close. And they were pretty damn close too, only a couple of hours ride away. Praise Omnis.

Joshua looked to Reeves and the Sister, both so eager to do the right thing. He’d have another fight after they captured the Wanted Man. Praise Omnis, they hadn’t caught him doing blood magic, discovered his true purpose.

“We’ve found him. Just a couple hours south of here.” Joshua slid the map across the carriage floor. “Take a look. The map has him right there.”

Reeves picked up the map. “That is mighty close. We’re fortunate, praise the Lord.”

“May I see?” Sister Irujo asked, learning toward Reeves slightly.

“Of course.” Reeves turned the map to her.

The Sister deigned to open her left eye a crack and brushed a hand over the map. Disgust crossed her face, quick as the Solution messenger, but Joshua caught it. She wasn’t quite as accepting of the artefact as she’d made out.

Sister Irujo would be the first to die then. After Dust.

“Then we should set off,” the Sister said. “Our target will not remain for long.”

Reeves nodded, then slid the map back across the carriage floor. “Even if he moves on, we can track him. Just knowing where he is right now takes us halfway there.”

Joshua picked the map back up, a little amused that Reeves was now encouraging him to use it. Best to bolster that opinion. The unmarked dot had moved in the time they’d been talking, an arrow trailing behind it. Heading north by north-west.

“Look, the map shows where he’s heading. We should set up an ambush, somewhere we could fire for a mile around. Take him down safely. That’s the way I work, any road.”

Reeves shook his head. “Not that far out. Can’t give a man his fair warning if so.”

Joshua frowned. “Fair warning? For the Wanted Man?” He waited to see if the man was joking. He was not. “Boy, are you touched in the head?”

The Marshall took this insult calmly. “I am a man of the law, Mr McManaman, and that means giving an innocent man the chance to come peacefully before you shoot him. And he is innocent until a Judge has sat before him. I hate to be awkward, but I won’t have this going any other way.”

Sister Irujo nodded. “I agree with Marshall Reeves. Our target should be allowed to turn himself in and be tried for his crimes before we execute him. All deserve the chance for redemption.”

Joshua gritted his teeth. He’d have to do this their way. For now.

“All right, if you say so. We’ll work out the details when we get closer.”

And soon, Joshua promised himself, I’ll bleed them both like hogs.

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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