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Friday, June 14, 2024

Dust and Decay – Chapter 16 – 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 ground fractured at the impact. Displaced grit and sand wafted over Penelope. It smelled medicinal, sharp. She and the nun shielded their eyes, coughed hard. The gunfire ceased and the night instead sang with the pattering of small stones landing around them.

The nun dropped her hand and looked toward the impact. Distracted for a second. Penelope took advantage, stepped in and thrusted her palm into the woman’s temple. Knocked the nun over, her head slamming against the ground for a second thunk. Her eyes closed. Her strength drained. She wouldn’t get back up soon.

Penelope’s blood crackled. Her arms and legs pulsed with open scratches and mounting bruises. She spat out bloody phlegm. And yet she’d not felt this good in… ever. She considered planting her boot in the nun’s unguarded stomach, a final visceral note to the fight, but looked to whatever had given her the opening instead.

She almost toppled on seeing it, uneven on bruised legs. Ahead of Dust, something twelve feet tall with eight ragged wings breathed heavily. Iridescent scales and chitin alternated across its back and stomach, giving way only to arms protruding from its snake-like body. Arms the colour of teak. At one end of its form was a forked tail with a bulbous, beehive-shaped bone between the fork; at the other was a child’s head, a young Asiatic girl. Her face was held in immovable pain, more mask than flesh.

This… creature had achieved what civility couldn’t: ended the fight between the posses. Dust, an uneven-looking Shadows Fade, and their attackers turned their guns on this horrible thing. Enmities put aside to concentrate on survival.

Penelope swallowed and her ears popped. Booming shots reached her now, bullets or magical attacks pinging from the creature’s thick armour. Dust shouted at Shadows Fade, though she couldn’t make him out over the buzzing breathing.

For its part, the horror did not fight back. Even with Godly Claw on its back. Shots, claws, and bites went ignored. Matthew ran into the open, an obvious and easy target, but it remained still. Impassive.

Matthew gripped Penelope’s arms. Panic draped over his soft features. “What is that? Something’s not right about it. More than the obvious.”

Penelope drew her knife. “I don’t know, but you’re right about it being… wrong. Look, move this nun somewhere safe.” She gestured to her opponent. “Whatever that thing is, I’ll kill it.”

“Are you mad?!”

She pulled herself from his grasp. “No, I’m capable.”

Trusting the young man to do the only thing he could, Penelope ran toward the beast. Its breathing became a cacophonous assault, a screeching engine that pushed needles into her ears. A good defence, she acknowledged. Yet the creature seemed to only care about defence. Didn’t have a single obvious means of attack…

Halting near Dust, she grabbed his shoulder. Somehow, she surprised him, and nearly got a bullet to the temple for it. He mouthed something at her, looking confused.

“What do we do?” Penelope shouted.

Dust shook his head and went back to firing.

“Dust, what do we do? This isn’t working!”

He rolled his cylinder to reload and emptied another barrel into the beast.

Anger flared in her at being ignored. But no, not even Dust was that stubborn. What the hell was going on? None of this felt right.

Standing so close, she noticed Dust’s magical shots didn’t ping away: no, his and Shadows Fade’s magical attacks were absorbed. Neither Dust nor Shadows Fade had noticed. Now, Penelope didn’t know much about the Triangle, but this monster wasn’t actually doing anything. It hardly moved except to breathe. If they were damaging it, it was remarkably calm about the fact. Impossibly so.

No creature would jump the Wanted Man without a plan of attack. Tiring him out, or using his energy against him, seemed like good plans to Penelope. By firing blindly, he and Shadows Fade were playing into its hands. All seven of them.

She pulled at Dust’s arm to get his attention, making his shot go awry. He tried to push her away, mouthing something undoubtedly insulting, but she held on and shook her head. Tried to get through to him that he was being foolish.

Dust pushed her again, knocking her over. His shoulders turned back to face his fruitless attacks, but his eyes stayed on her. His normal determination or anger was gone. If anything, he looked pleading. Desperate.

He wasn’t in control of his actions.

But that didn’t make sense. Dust insisted he was immune to mind control thanks to his tattoo. He wasn’t the type to talk foolishness like that or be brash. No, if he had a weakness, he would let Penelope and Shadows Fade know it. It could be a weakness he didn’t know about, but he’d spent years facing horrors, met all kinds of attacks. That didn’t feel right.

Penelope looked back to Matthew and the nun. They were gone. In fact, she couldn’t see much of anything. Even the stars had fizzled out. Only a lit circle where the posses faced an impassive creature. An unnatural scene.

An unreal one. Now she knew to look for it, the air had a vague, blurry quality. Like she was looking through an old window. She was neither hot nor cold, despite it being the depths of night. And there was no smell on the air, not even that sharp, medicinal scent from before.

“This isn’t real,” Penelope said. “We’re not really here.”

That vile, buzzing breath amplified. So loud it drilled her eardrums. Penelope curled into a ball, covered her ears, but it didn’t block anything. The sound came from within, starting at Omnis’ Collar. Sweating, breathing hard, she reached down to pull the collar away. But it wasn’t there. At least, not visibly. She felt the dark, cold metal, but her hand seemed to touch air.

Penelope didn’t care what her eyes told her. The Collar was around her neck. She knew it. In a weird way, she trusted the artefact. Certainly more than her lying eyes.

With that assertion, the collar’s cold embrace materialised. Gone one moment, there the next. Hers to command. She flicked it, empowered its protection, and the world rippled. The buzzing increased but it could not hide the truth. Behind this falsehood was the real world, the stars, the moon, and wind which cooled her tears of pain. A cold grip around her wrist.

Then reality disappeared, and she was back in the illusion.

Penelope steeled herself and flicked Omnis’ Collar again. This ripple was more powerful, as was the rattling counter-assault. Her ear drums felt like they would burst, but being deaf was preferable to whatever was really happening to her.

With shaking, weak fingers, she flicked the Collar one last time. The fake world tried to maintain itself, fighting the onslaught of reality, but its magic could not face up to Omnis’ Collar. Penelope phased back into the real world. Smells, sounds, and clarity returned. She felt glad for the horizon and its fresco of distant stars.

Something gripped her arm. A slimy tendril belonging to an amorphous being of pink and purple jelly. It was all mouth, a gaping maw that span like a potter’s wheel, snapping open and shut. The buzzing came from within. This was what had really tried to eat Dust’s posse.

It would have succeeded if not for Dust. He had been partially right about mind control: he resisted this monster, but not completely. And so he stood before the creature’s mouth, pounding at the tendril which gripped Penelope, head lolling, chin resting against his chest, eyes closed. Like a violent sleep walker.

Penelope struggled her knife from its sheath with her bad hand. The creature tried to stop her, but Dust’s constant attacks must have weakened it, for it could barely move. Gripping the hilt with her three fingers, she sliced into jelly-like skin. Ice-cold blood drenched her.

The pulpy flesh loosened around her wrist. She pulled from the creature’s grasp and rolled away. Immediately, the buzzing quietened. Penelope scrambled to her feet and scurried away. The creature tried to grab her, but she was too slick with its blood to be caught. She stabbed at the next attack, severing the tip of a vicious tendril. The buzzing escalated, like a scream, and the tendril retreated spouting blue blood.

She took stock, something Dust had recommended in a tough situation. Her enemy was a congealed pudding, a wet, misanthropic mistake. Even its eyes were smears along its misshapen body. Only two pieces of it were solid: its mouth and seven tentacles, one useless and the other bleeding profusely. It gripped Shadows Fade, Matthew, and their attackers. Only Penelope was still conscious. Technically, she had Dust, but his sleeping self was busy stopping the creature feeding on anyone it held.

Something rustled behind her. She spun, knife ready, on Godly Claw.

“Well, that doubles our odds.”

The Spirit Wolf looked down. Its blue was faded, almost a grey, and it seemed somehow less there. Whatever was happening to Shadows Fade affected the poor thing.

“Kind of doubles our odds. What do you think we should do?”

Godly Claw snapped her mouth, wagged her tail, then whined.

“Of course. Why didn’t I think of that?”

It was trying to suggest something though. Penelope examined the Triangle creature: it had dropped from a great height – the shattered ground was real – so its body was tough. Like its dream form. Which had the face of a child, a mask, nothing real. Whereas saying this thing had a face was charitable.

Wait, the dream monster had had a tail. Penelope couldn’t see this thing’s tail. Maybe it was important? She’d have to go find out.

That meant back within the thing’s reach. She needed something to cover her, or to get its attention, and Godly Claw looked too weak to intervene. She would have to rely on Dust. The part of him in control, at least.

“Dust, cover me!”

She broke into a sprint, finding her cuts and bruises were very real. The monster swiped Matthew at her the moment she was within range. Penelope threw herself forward, rolled, and Matthew’s snoring form sloped overhead.

But she rose with the wounded tendril was around her ankle. The monster pulled her foot from under her and dragged her in. She tried to kick and buck but couldn’t stop it. There would be no messing about this time: the monster would surely finish her off.

The dragging stopped. That vicious buzzing grew. Penelope rolled over to see Dust wailing on the tendril with the butt of his gun. Denting and bruising its miserable skin.

That was the last straw for the creature: it released Penelope and Shadows Fade and wrapped tendrils around Dust’s arms. He kicked and thrashed, expressionless, but could not escape.

Dust was about to die. She ran, gambling on the creature’s tail somehow being important. She thanked Resistance when she found an eighth tendril that trailed away into the night. It had to be important. Had to be.

Penelope raced beside the tail. Godly Claw stayed at her heel for a few seconds before yipping and running on ahead.

“I hope that’s wolf for ‘Bingo’!”

The tendril thinned to the width of spider’s silk, almost impossible to see on a moonless night. It was tempting to sever it now, but that might not save Dust from becoming a one-armed bandit. Or Shadows Fade from being an entrée. So, she followed the fading Godly Claw.

Penelope glanced behind her. The creature pulled at Dust’s arms with all its might. He tensed, fighting it, albeit in futility: his arms slowly straightened, soon to be removed.

The Spirit Wolf saved her some running by bringing the creature’s terminus to her. Penelope stopped on seeing it, feeling sick and unclean. The creature’s tail widened again into an umbilical cord that reached into a twisted form. Withered arms and legs, scrawny and small. It could have been mistaken for a sickly child if not for the saucepan eyes which stretched unnaturally across its bald head.

This… thing stared at Penelope, unflinching, uncowed. It cared little that Godly Claw had it by the shoulder, weak blue blood oozing from the Spirit Wolf’s grip.

“Please,” the creature that’d been a girl burbled, “make it quick.”

There was no saving her. No undoing corruption this deep. Though she hated doing so, Penelope sliced the girl’s throat, aiming for a quick death. A brief spurt of blue shot from the wound. Puss from a burst bubo. The girl twitched, writhed, then the distant buzzing ceased. The umbilical cord rotted from her stomach outward, crumbling to ash in an instant. At the end, she sighed. Contented.

Godly Claw put her shrivelled form down gently and stepped back. Penelope crossed herself without thinking, then prayed to Resistance for the girl’s soul

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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