Dust and Decay – Chapter 17 – 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.
Waking was sudden as a sniper’s bullet: one moment Dust shot that many-armed thing, a damn tough bastard, and the next he stood where they were ambushed. Only a blink’d passed as far as Dust knew. He vaguely recalled speaking harshly to Penelope, but that was all.
He looked around without really taking the world in. Felt unsure of… everything. He pinched himself and felt his own grip. Real pain. But hadn’t he felt his gun’s kick in that other version of events? Smelled the thing’s aggressive chemical breath? So how could he trust where he was?
Dust shook away that thought. Time to concentrate on reality. Whatever reality it might be.
A pink, gelatinous mess collapsed before him. A creature whose bones had suddenly crumbled. Shadows Fade, Matthew, and the Marshall’s two man posse slept around this rotting corpse. Snoring, murmuring. Pink ropes led from the creature’s ‘body’ toward his posse and his pursuers. Thankfully, these limbs only gently dissolved into clothing and the cracked earth.
This creature was so strange. Stranger than that other one. Dust leaned closer and saw it’d always been this boneless mess. But giant piles of corrupted flesh like this usually had some obvious basis in biology, something the Three’d corrupted. This… this was its own species. More, he couldn’t say which of the Three was its master as its fading essence was sterile. Clinical. Tasteless, almost.
Dust was at a loss. Certainly, he’d never come across something that could send people to sleep and control their dreams. A control so complete that their victims didn’t know they were dreaming. Quite some strength, keeping those strong enough to rebuff it from realising how they’d been attacked. Dust wasn’t sure how he’d survived.
“Clever bastard,” he said, giving the pile of puke a kick.
Something caught up with Dust: he’d woken up standing. The others were limp as ragdolls, but he was upright. And he stood a few yards from where they’d been attacked. Shit, he’d been in cover as well, but now was in the open.
What the hell happened?
He would’ve followed his own tracks to find out had Penelope not shouted, “Dust, you’re awake! More awake, that is.”
Dust turned. Bruised and bloodied, Penelope limping toward him. Most of that damage’d come from her scuffle with the nun. Godly Claw padded behind her, greyer than usual. Both smiled like wily hounds that’d just gotten into the good meat.
Wait, he hadn’t noticed Penelope wasn’t here. How had he missed that? Dust slapped his cheeks to get himself sharp.
“Bad dreams?” Penelope asked with a smile.
“You could say that.” Her tone was a little too smug for that to be a throwaway comment. “But you know something about that, don’t you?”
She nodded. “That thing got me too, sent me to sleep, but not fully. I think it used a poison or sedative with its magic. The chemical part sent me to sleep, but it must only last a little while. Hence it needing magic to keep its victims asleep. That, I had some help with.” She flicked Omnis’ Collar. It rang like a spittoon. “I tried to get you out too, but you wouldn’t hear me.”
Dust nodded. “That’s some fine deducting. I reckon you’re probably right. That other place did seem like a dream.” A vague memory surfaced. “You tried to tell me about this when we were there, didn’t you? Obviously I didn’t listen.” He looked back at the creature. “It mustn’t have been easy to kill that thing alone. Good job.”
“Oh, well, not alone. I did have Godly Claw.”
The Spirit Wolf howled and looked very pleased with herself.
“Still, it’s damn impressive.”
“And we had some help too…”
“What do you mean?”
Penelope grin grew as strong as a mule’s kick. “Remember how you said your tattoo makes you immune to attacks like this?”
“I was shown to be a damn fool there, wasn’t I?”
“No, not quite. You were asleep, snoring and drooling like everyone else… but you were also fighting. It was like you were possessed. You kept me safe until the drug wore off and then tried to save Shadows Fade. You even listened when I shouted my plan at you.”
Dust saw only gentle mocking in her expression. “You’re serious.”
Her smile faltered. “Don’t worry about it, Dust. Your tattoo saved us. Even Omnis’ Collar couldn’t fully protect me, but your abilities protected you. We’re only alive thanks to Resistance.”
That was a kind way to put it. But the idea that his damn tattoo could control him – during an unnatural sleep or no – scared him. Scared him plenty. He’d made peace with being the Wanted Man, with his destiny not being his own, but at least he had some small choice in matters. Was he nothing more than a travelling show’s cowboy puppet? Was that all he’d ever been?
“Dust? What’s wrong?”
“Just a bit groggy. Whatever drug that damn thing used is not agreeing with me.”
“I didn’t have a side-effect…”
Very damn perceptive. She was becoming a fine partner for any posse. “But you had Omnis’ Collar to help you, right?”
Penelope shrugged uncertainly.
Dust took a breath and put his worries aside. Time to plan their next move. He thought the situation over: this damn jelly must’ve raised enough Hell to attract things from miles around. Already he could feel the pressure of dozens of scrying…
Wait, no. No! He could feel them… “Shit!”
The Blanket had fallen whilst he slept. He was naked, unguarded from distant gazes. There was enough background magic from the fight to blur most viewings, but that wouldn’t last. He couldn’t bring the Blanket back up either, not without absolute stillness and time. Two things he wouldn’t get with scavengers and cultists surely already approaching.
“Fuck! Fuck!” He turned and kicked the monster. It squelched under his angry boot.
“You’re all over the place, Dust.”
“I am, you’re right,” he said, taking a deep breath. “I can’t get my head around all this: there’s something unnatural about that creature. Not normal unnatural, Three unnatural, but something… fake. It feels like a copper dollar.”
Penelope didn’t seem to understand.
“Look, the way it attacked us is too damn perfect. Flawless, even. Not like the Three. But that’s only half of what’s bothering me! Worse than whatever the Hell that means, the Blanket has fallen. Any fool with a mirror can now find me. So please forgive me if I’m out of sorts, Penelope.”
She nodded. “I’m sorry. I’ve just never seen you like this.”
“It happens,” he snapped. A surge of pain gripped his arm. “And you can shut the fuck up too, you body-stealing snake.” The pain ramped up, but Dust growled and ploughed through it. “I ain’t having it. Let me have my anger.”
Penelope took a step back. “Maybe we should just get going? Regroup, you know, sit down in some protection and plan what we’re going to do next?”
“No. We’re going to keep going.”
“You sure about that?”
He took a breath to release his stress. Stress, of all things! Stress at the tattoo’s new nature, stress which threatened to overwhelm his good sense. He’d lived through firefights where friends fell like bloody raindrops and coped better than he did now. At that moment, his heart felt bunched up and he just wanted to kick something.
It was being helpless. Twice in a handful of months, his power and strength hadn’t been enough. Against the Wastrels, he’d needed Shadows Fade. Just now, he’d needed Penelope. Well, Penelope and the damned tattoo.
Dust sighed. “We’re going to keep going, but you’re right that we need to regroup. Let’s grab the others and get the fuck out of here.”
Penelope nodded. “Right. I’ll take Matthew, you take Shadows Fade?”
They sought their horses and found them a way away from the fight. Horse gripped the other beast’s reigns. He couldn’t see any bite marks or bruises on him, so there hadn’t been a fight: the Teotek trained their horses to cope against creatures of the Three and so this one’d accepted a calm and steady mouth telling them to stay.
“Damn good job, boy,” Dust said, stroking Horse.
Horse knickered and released the reigns.
“Guess we’ll be carrying some sleeping beauties, huh?” Penelope asked with a smile.
They rode back in silence.
Everyone still slept. Shadows Fade snored like a well-worked saw, the bruise on her forehead already fading. She mumbled between grating roars. Dust smiled despite himself. Before picking her up, he made sure to collect her bow. Leaving it behind might’ve been the end of him. More so than mentioning her snoring would be.
The others weren’t quite as dead to the world as before. With that damn horror’s magic gone, the drug part must be leaving their systems. They soon murmured and rolled over, restless as babes in a strange nursery. It wouldn’t be long before they sprang back up.
Penelope was on the same page. “What do we do about those three?”
For the first time, Dust paid this other posse real mind. The woman had rosaries and a crucifix to match her wimple. Definitely a nun. A representative from the Vatican, maybe? He thought of Father Callahan, wondered what the old padre would make of him fighting one of his order.
The man beside her had good working clothes and well-worn boots. Hands speckled with gunpowder burns. Dust guessed he was the Marshall, quite a feat for a black man in Texas.
The third, he knew. “Fuck, that’s Joshua McManaman.”
“You know him?”
“Mostly by reputation. He works for the Solution. The Marshall wasn’t bullshitting us: this was some posse. A United States Marshall, a nun from the Vatican, and a sniper from the Solution. They were here to take me in.”
Penelope hefted Matthew onto her horse and started tying him down. “So, what are we going to do?”
Dust looked over the Solution sniper. He could’ve dropped Dust from afar, tried to end their fight quickly, but he’d elected for an ambush. Maybe Dick had enough juice to demand Dust was brought in alive? Or maybe they’d simply wanted to make him surrender by attacking his companions? He wanted to believe Dick trusted him enough to hear him out, but couldn’t be sure.
“We leave them. Waste no more time.”
“They’re only going to come after us again. We should take their weapons at least.”
He was surprised to hear that from Penelope. “I’m not going to leave good people to the mercy of whatever’s coming to pick that monster clean. That’d be the same as putting a gun to their temple. No, come on, we’re out of here.”
Penelope swallowed, looked back at the other posse. “Are you sure that’s right?”
“For the first time since I woke for real, I know I’m thinking right.” He rolled Shadows Fade onto Horse and climbed into the saddle. “I’m not a murderer, no matter what folks think of me, and these folks aren’t evil. Plus my tattoo isn’t kicking my ass now, so I’m in the right. Now, let’s get far enough away that they might give up on tracking us.”
Penelope climbed onto the Teotek horse. “Glad we’re on the same page, Dust. But folks like this aren’t going to give up.”
“And folks like us won’t give up our principles either. Right?”
Penelope grinned. “Damn right. Glad to see you’re back to yourself.”
She spurred her horse into a trot. Matthew lolled and flopped as the creature went, eyes tightly shut. Dust followed, hoping to Resistance – if the body-stealing bastard was actually listening – that he was thinking right again.