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.
Dust’s posse rode across a wild plain in the twilight, the young man they’d rescued in tow. True to its word, his tattoo kept the Blanket going whilst he fought the Gift, so nothing bothered them. This was the quietest he’d ever seen the Badlands. If you ignored the size of the insects, you could think it was anywhere else in the US. Think you were safe.
But they weren’t. No one could be safe here. Nor could anyone you met in the Badlands be truly innocent, as his tattoo’d claimed the boy was. He seemed pleasant enough. And it’d been the decent thing to rescue him. But innocent felt like a stretch. He would’ve been wary had they met him under other circumstances. Yet here he was, sharing Horse with the lad.
He shrugged to himself: his tattoo led him to the right thing, so he should trust the boy more, but he wasn’t used to such direction. Especially after weeks in solitude. No, weeks amongst people he could trust and learn from. His damn tattoo sure had complained when he’d been cooped up in the Solution…
Best to do some formal introduction. He might be worried. “What’s your name, son?”
“Matthew, sir. Matthew Johannson.”
That surprised him, given the boy’s dark complexion. “Swede, are you?”
He felt the boy nod behind him. “On my Pappy’s side, yeah. And Irish from my Grandma. Momma’s side, you can probably guess.”
“My Dad is Irish,” Penelope said with a smile.
Matthew smiled back. “I can see a little of the Blarney in you.”
Penelope blushed and looked away.
Shadows Fade rolled her eyes.
“So, Matthew,” Dust said, driving the smile from his lips, “how the hell did you find yourself nearly dying in the Badlands?”
“I ain’t got no one to look after, so I pretty much look after myself. Make my own money.” The boy spoke to Dust but his eyes returned to Penelope. “In Fortitude, a town north of here, some mercenaries were forming a posse for some famous murderer. They offered four dollars and a few square meals. I couldn’t say no to that, even for a run into the Badlands.
“Out we went, just over half a dozen of us, all armed. I thought we’d be safe. That we’d be the only ones tracking our target. Turned out, we were just the only humans…” He stared at the ground. “That thing took most of the group. Didn’t even realise it until we were outnumbered. It took out the others first, so I got away. Went as fast as the horse would go. Then you rescued me. Which I’m awful grateful for, I ought to say again.”
“That sounds awful,” Penelope said. “I’m sorry you had to go through that.”
“I apologise. It’s nothing a lady ought to hear about.”
“And why,” Shadows Fade asked, “would that be?”
Matthew flinched at her tone. “I… That neither a man nor a woman should have to see those devil-spawned things eat someone like rot, that’s all, ma’…” He thought better of the honorific, instead asked, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch your names?”
Shadows Fade relaxed. Dust reckoned she enjoyed putting men in their place. “I am Shadows Fade. This here is Penelope, and that is–”
“Dustin,” Dust said. “Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Matthew.”
Shadows Fade arched an eyebrow but said nothing.
“Indeed, a pleasure,” Penelope said.
“Well, I sure am glad to meet some decent folks out here. But, if you don’t mind my asking, what are you all doing here? And at night, no less?”
Shadows Fade and Dust looked at one another, unsure how to respond. Two warriors with powerful weapons and a wiry woman who wore an artefact? They didn’t have much room to hide in. Couldn’t very well say they were a circus. And he worried about the ‘famous murderer’ he’d been after…
Thankfully, Penelope stepped in smoothly. “I don’t mind admitting this, Mister Johannson, but I’m a Senator’s daughter. Unfortunately, that makes me a target for the cults around here. Normally, I would be nowhere near these Badlands, but urgent family business means I need to cross this blasted ground. Dustin and Shadows Fade are my bodyguards.”
“Oh, really?” Matthew’s hand twitched, maybe reaching for a hat he’d lost. “Which Senator?”
As Penelope continued to spin a yarn, Shadows Fade leaned over to Dust. “What are we going to do with him now? Did Resistance tell you that?”
Dust shrugged. “Don’t know. Didn’t exactly get a full plan.”
“I do not know if I can trust him.”
Dust was about to reply when he caught a silver glint of moonlight some ways ahead of them. He looked closely and saw someone up on a hilly patch crawling forward on their belly, a rifle in their hand. Without reacting, without even moving, he examined the horizon and found someone else watching them through what looked like binoculars.
“We’re about to be attacked,” Dust whispered. “From the hills.”
Shadows Fade’s face hardened. A whiff of power passed out of her. Then she grabbed Dust by the collar. “I am telling you, I do not trust the weasel.”
Dust got what she was going for and drew his other gun. “And I don’t care who you damn well trust. He’s coming with us. Now, you’re going to let me go, you hear?”
“Guys, what’s going on?” Penelope asked.
Shadows Fade burned into Dust’s eyes with a hatred that could have been real. She slowly reached for her bow. “You cannot hurt me with that peace-shooter and you know it.”
Dust broke from her grip. It was all he could do not to laugh at ‘peace-shooter.’
“What are you doing?” Penelope demanded, riding toward them.
“Stay out of this, child,” Shadows Fade growled.
Penelope looked like she’d been struck. By a puppy.
They continued at a slower pace, getting a little closer. Best to be within a good range to fight back if they were about to be ambushed. Then Dust slowly alighted from Horse. Horse’d grown as nervous as Penelope, stepping slowly and nickering. Shadows Fade leapt from the Teotek horse. It didn’t seem to care either way, a tough and placid beast.
Dust stepped forward, his back to their audience, his other gun gripped with both hands. Ready for a fight. Shadows Fade held her bow ready without drawing on it. His eyes briefly danced to those watching them, judging the right time to strike.
“You really want to risk a fight, little girl?” he asked.
“I will end you, little man.”
“Stop it you two!” Penelope shouted. She also alighted. “What are you doing?”
“Look, I don’t want to cause any trouble between you folks,” Matthew said. “If you want me to get out of here, I’ll be happy to.”
Dust ignored them. “You sure about this?”
Shadows Fade nodded. “Absolutely.”
Quick as a flash, Dust and Shadows Fade turned to their audience and fired. The man with the binoculars deflected Dust’s shot with his rifle – which must be enchanted – and Shadows Fade’s arrow was neatly dodged by the crawling fella.
“Get down.” Penelope shouted, pulling Matthew from Horse.
A bullet passed right through where he’d been in a moment before, fired from the hip by Dust’s target. Damn accurate for a hurried shot. Horse and his Teotek compatriot both reared and fled, knowing to be far from flying bullets.
“You get down too,” Dust shouted to Penelope. “That’s not just magic, it’s a real rifle.”
Penelope and Matthew stayed flat as Dust and Shadows Fade tried to pin their assailants down. Chipping away at the hill’s meagre soil covering, clouds of soil and tainted grass falling from it like blood.
But they weren’t firing back. At all. About two minutes went by without a single shot returned. Wary but curious, he stopped firing. So did Shadows Fade. The dregs of a hissed conversation leaked down during the silence. Inaudible, but neither party was happy.
“Dustin Longe, also known as the Wanted Man,” someone shouted during the lull, their accent thick and Texan. “Is that your name, stranger?”
Dust tutted. Just his luck. “It is. And who might you be?”
“My name is Bass Reeves, Marshall of this fair State. I am here with a posse. An eager one, as you can tell. We hold a warrant for your arrest on charges of heresy and murder. Stand down so we can take you in peaceably.”
Shadows Fade kept her bow taut. Dust took the opportunity to reload.
“I can’t do that, friend. Not when those who enforce the law are corrupt.”
“I don’t rightly know about that, sir, but I can assure you a just trial if you give yourself up. I stake that on my honour as a Marshall.”
Dust snorted. “Believe me, sir, you cannot.”
“Then you won’t come peaceably?”
Despite this strange exchange, Dust respected the courtesy he was being shown. He’d never shown his own targets this much respect. “Without wanting to sound too much like those I used to hunt, Marshall, I won’t be coming at all.”
“None of us will,” Shadows Fade shouted.
The Marshall stood and fired. A dark figure of efficiency. The bullet struck Shadows Fade’s head, sending her sprawling. There was no gush of blood, only a grunt of surprise: it would take more than a bullet at range to take her down. Still, her ears would be ringing.
Dust raised his gun to retaliate. A flash of gold raced out of the darkness before he could. A figure within bowled him over, blurred black and white. Flipping over, his gun ready, he saw a nun of all people, energy like sunlight arcing from her in lightning bolts.
“Lord forgive me for engaging in such violence.”
Before he could get a shot off, Penelope dived at the woman, snarling, furious. The nun focussed on Dust. Didn’t catch in time that Omnis’ Collar was draining her protection, leave nothing between them. She got an elbow to the jaw for her hubris. Penelope went to follow up with a kick to the stomach but it was blocked, the holy woman adjusting to a normal fight quickly.
Dust couldn’t watch them brawl because another shot came at him. He threw himself aside and got two shots of his own off, making both attackers jump for cover. Rolling, he sprang to his feet and rattled off more shots to keep their heads down.
But he was the only one firing back. Beside him, Shadows Fade tried to stand, but fell back on her ass. She looked punch-drunk. Her magic must not have robbed the bullet of all its power. The warrior sat up and pulled on her bow to form an arrow but the bolt fizzled harmlessly. Like a confused toddler, she shook her head and moaned.
That left it to Dust. Alternating between targets, he gave out just enough suppressing fire to keep the Marshall and his posse pinned down, but he was just stalling. They needed a plan, some way of removing their height and numerical advantages.
There was a deep shout from behind him. He didn’t know whether it was Penelope or the nun, who both punched and scratched like feral animals. From the looks of it, Penelope was winning, but that wouldn’t be for long if the nun’s companions got involved.
Dust blinked. He was fighting a nun and a Marshall. What had his life become?
Matthew crawled over beside Dust. “What’re we going to do?”
Dust fired twice more, driving the men back down. “I don’t know. It’s just me and Penelope right now. Shadows Fade is seeing at least double.”
Indeed, the warrior held her head and took slow, deep breaths. Probably trying to stop the nausea and dizziness. Magic had its limits.
“I think I know how she feels, Dustin.”
“We need to distract them, get a clear shot. There has to be–”
A flash of blue leapt onto the hill behind the man with the binoculars. Godly Claw!
Dust pointed up to the outcrop. “A distraction. This fight is about to turn.”
He was right, only for the wrong reasons. Because that was when the Dreamreaper slammed down behind him.