Dust and Decay – Chapter 18 – 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.
Deep below the Solution, William B. Naismith followed the Dreamreaper’s flight across the Badlands via a rough Solution portal. Hands clasped in anticipation. The Wanted Man’s defences would become a paper house in the rain at his command. Such power was exhilarating, but the pregnant pause, the held breath, was better. The possibilities. The frisson of danger. Of chance. A rolled die, heavily-weighted in his favour, but not a guarantee. It was thrilling.
The Dreamreaper was a strange sight in flight. Perhaps because flight was the wrong word. It glided, moving ever downwards with no wings to keep it afloat, only fins to direct it. Without his order, it would simply crash. More power. Another tantalising moment.
“Now,” he ordered. “Attack the Wanted Man.”
His voice echoed through the portal. The Dreamreaper retracted its gelatinous fins and plummeted. At the same moment, three of William’s finest magicians began a counter-scrying ritual. No one else would follow the fight. This victory was for him and his cult alone.
It had been a quick plan, deploying this living weapon, but William loved it. The Dreamreaper had been solely designed to destroy the Wanted Man, blending the new world’s chemical warfare with old magic, but never tested. Dustin Longe’s anti-scrying protection had come as a surprise, but most magic of its kind required the user to be awake. The Dreamreaper would take care of that and any other tricks at his disposal.
“Good job, people,” William said as his weapon crashed into the earth. “Well done indeed.”
The three casters, two men and a woman, nodded. Blue energy tinged their hair. They murmured constantly, occasionally passing a thread or cadence between them. These three had worked together for so long they were almost one person. One mind, one purpose. He could stand there observing them all day, but not during the downfall of the Wanted Man.
And to witness it in the Solution’s secret bowels too. Somewhere Dustin did not suspect when he lived here. Wonderful.
William lazily summoned a small window to the Badlands. His own magic, clearer and more precise. Wide as a telescope, he leaned forward to put his eye to it. He immediately noted the sleeping presence of Joshua McManaman. “My, it seems we caught him at a bad time.”
The posses were strewn around the dusty expanse, both the State’s and the Wanted Man’s. Interestingly, that included the daughter of his erstwhile friend, Senator Chalmers. A witness to his idiot daughter’s mistakes. They were sleeping, restful. Soon to be dead.
“In another setting, the ‘reaper’ might function as a tool for peace. Yes, I declare it could quash rowdy Negroes or rioting redskins. Or the Irish. Maybe that’s something to consider.” He looked away for a moment. “You hear that, people? Keep that in mind for our other endeavours.”
Packed around him were the Solution researchers and scientists he could trust. Which was most of them. They holed up together in the Solution’s deepest chamber, somewhere the General too had no inkling of. It was a celebratory gathering, the culmination of all their efforts. More than Omnis’ triumph, this was their triumph. A recognition of their feats of engineering, biological and magical. The team stood around the casters, watching through the Solution’s crude visual portal. Some scryed on the action themselves, their spells a far cry from elegance and simplicity of William’s.
There were a few cheers when Naismith mentioned the future, but those watching the fight did not join in. A couple looked away, checked others were seeing what they saw.
William returned to his own portal, worried that the Dreamreaper had lost integrity: fusing so much strength and that many chemicals together would eventually result in the creature’s death, though most had thought it would last twelve hours.
But the Dreamreaper was okay. More than okay, it was fighting with someone. The Wanted Man.
“God damn that son of a bitch!”
Whispers and gasps around him hushed.
It only got worse. Penelope Chalmers rose to her feet! A normal human. A damn woman at that. Even more infuriating and impossible. Craning, he tried to see what possible power allowed the whelp to stand, and nearly bit through his tongue when he saw Omnis’ Collar around her scrawny neck.
Foiled by his own damn artefact. By his daughter’s stupidity!
William didn’t bother watching the fight: the Dreamreaper could not defeat a conscious Wanted Man and someone wielding Omnis’ Collar. Some around him held more hope, or less knowledge, but they would witness only failure. One among them even took notes, which William might have applauded if years of hard work and dozens of sacrifices weren’t unravelling.
He cursed his daughter. That damned wet sop had the Wanted Man locked in the Collar and still contrived to lose. He might have let her live if she’d returned with the Collar – she was his kin, after all – but she had only excuses and failure, hands as empty as the space between her ears. For that, she had deserved to die, and he felt no remorse for his actions.
Especially since, somehow, she’d managed to fail so badly it hurt his future endeavours. If not for her, the Wanted Man would now be overrun by the Dreamreaper, unable to fight with drugs filling his blood stream. Damn Eleanor’s eyes, wherever they rotted.
But he knew Omnis’ Collar was unaccounted for. Why hadn’t he accounted for it?
It was a question he had no answer for. Which was abhorrent to Omnis. William took a few deep breaths, calmed himself down to consider the question properly. To act as a true worshipper of Omnis and seek knowledge. This time, of himself.
“My ire is misplaced. I should aim it toward myself.”
“Pardon, Mister Naismith?” one scientist asked.
“I wasn’t talking to you, son.”
William realised he was behaving as badly as his useless daughter. His organisation had years of Solution research on the Wanted Man, an almost bottomless budget, dozens of casters, but had still failed. Everyone here had a part in that failure, but blame should mostly fall on his shoulders. And he should be man enough to accept that. No one but him knew that Omnis’ Collar had fallen into the wrong hands. He decided it was his fault alone that he’d not considered that the Wanted Man might use such a valuable artefact. A mistake he could not repeat.
He felt the researcher’s rituals fade one by one. The fight was over.
Looking through his portal, the only remaining window into the Badlands, he saw the Chalmers kid deliver a coup de grace to the Dreamreaper’s original form. Perhaps it had been hubris to believe nothing could survive that first assault to seek that weak point. No, there was no perhaps. It was pure arrogance. He winced as Penelope finished the girl off. Then banished the portal.
His men looked distraught, downtrodden. As this failure fell upon him, it was his responsibility to bring them back from the brink.
“Now, wasn’t that something to behold?”
Confused or blank faces turned his way. No one responded.
“Listen to me, my fellows, what is Omnis if not the great god of knowing and knowledge? What is our beloved Lord if not the surprise and joy of something you’d not realised? The terror and shock of something you could not have foreseen? Every day, we pray to them for wisdom and more knowledge, do we not?”
A chorus of murmurs followed. Heads nodded.
“Then I ask you, all of you, why look so glum when Omnis has blessed us with truth?” He looked around, each word a careful brick in a new foundation. “Omnis expected more of us, I won’t deny that, but they also gave us the truth. And that truth is two-fold: firstly, that we over-estimated our creature’s abilities and, secondly, that we did not adequately plan for Dustin Longe’s strength or that of his companions.
“Those are our mistakes. Whilst they are galling – and, believe me, I am mortified – these mistakes are forgiveable,” he said, his useless daughter crossing his mind. “It would only be unforgivable if we did not learn from them. Isn’t that right?”
More murmurs, far more agreement.
“Now, break into groups and review what you saw. Cyril has made notes – good man, Cyril – so let’s get copies handed around. I said before that we need ideas for the future, didn’t I? Well, the future starts now. Get back to our work. Praise be to Omnis.”
“Praise be to Omnis,” the scientists chorused back at him.
They broke up into groups. Already, William heard lively debate about what had gone wrong. The Dreamreaper would do plenty of damage in any other setting, and so was a valuable configuration of flesh and magic, but the next iteration must stand up to the Wanted Man. The current generation of sleeping eggs be relocated to other parts of his little empire. Doubtless, they would come in handy.
“I’ll leave you all to this. Get your first ideas out on the table, then on paper, and have a drink or two. Any man deserves a little maudlin after this kind of day. Don’t worry, I’ll supply fine libations for you to drown your sorrows in.”
Some whooped, thrilled at the prospect. Most gave only terse thanks, alcohol the furthest thing from their minds. That was what he liked most about the curious, scientists and magicians alike: you could offer them drink or intoxication during failure and they would take hardly a drop. What mattered most was knowledge, work. Solving a problem, even one of their own creation.
William stepped out through a hidden doorway into the rest of the Solution’s research laboratories. The ones the General knew about. The passage was locked behind him, as it ought to be. A bookcase slid into place over it, masking this entryway and leaving him alone in his Solution.
His words had roused his men, but they rang hollow in his own ears. Omnis only knew what he was going to do now. The Wanted Man remained a thorn in his palm. Worse, he was a liability to his lie about what’d happened to Penelope Chalmers. Especially whilst he protected the damn girl! If their organisation couldn’t take him out or even slow him with the Dreamreaper, what were they going to do? How could they claim the Word and his tattoo?
Then it occurred to him: he didn’t need to take the bastard out. Even Dust’s protection would surely have fallen after the Dreamreaper’s assault. Everyone and everything in the Badlands would see him now. The things of That Which Sins would swamp him. Melting Flesh would surround him. Other Omnis cults would assail him. Surely, one would be successful. And that would be a weight off his shoulders. Yes, some other Triangle worshipper would claim his tattoo, but William had bigger prizes to aim for. He always had.
That thought cheered him as he walked through the Solution’s labs. His labs. And he did own every inch, from the bricks to the glassware and electrical equipment and surgery tools. In the end, the Solution’s aim to claim the Wanted Man’s power may have come to naught, but they’d learned so much whilst he was with them.
More than enough to try and recreate whatever freak accident brought him into being…