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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Dust and Decay – Chapter 19 – 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.

Long ago, Joshua sacrificed a child to Omnis. A little girl, blonde, orphaned. In return, Omnis promised to warn him should his life be at risk from an unknown source. A difficult ritual, complicated by inexperience. Getting the incantations right had taken days, especially as the girl hadn’t shut up hollering throughout. Even through a gag. Like her, he had persevered. Only he succeeded and won Omnis’ blessing. His first real reward for casting in his lot with the Triangle.

He’d forgotten about that long weekend until a blaring buzzing cut through his dreams and yanked him back to reality. Heart racing, vision sharp but jittery, he was more awake and aware than he’d ever been. Immediately, he knew Omnis had fulfilled their bargain. A deep, fundamental knowledge, a debt repaid.

What he saw proved it. A Paint. One of its ineffable limbs – plant, vegetable, and mineral in equal turns – was poised to deliver a mewling egg into his throat. In the pure clarity that sacrifice had bought, he saw the attack coming, slow as treacle.

Joshua rolled away from painful death. The Paint impregnated only the ground. It chittered in frustration, eyes becoming mouths, ears becoming a nose.

Rising to his feet, he went for a gun which wasn’t there. “Well, shit.”

“Well, shit,” the Paint parroted back.

The beast lunged at him. Joshua took to his heels and just avoided it. He cursed his gun for not being where he needed it, then cursed the creature which’d brought him down from his vantage point. Omnis hadn’t smiled on him today.

Pre-empting the Paint’s next attack, Joshua threw himself forward and rolled across the dusty ground. He came up gripping a knife from his ankle sheath. Small, sure, but enchanted. A last resort easily strong enough to kill a Paint.

“And now you die.”

“And now you die,” the Paint replied, nothing but grins.

Joshua flowed under its next attack and scraped the knife along the tenuous skin which held it together. Left absence in the blade’s wake. The Paint burbled and crumpled in on itself to keep its nebulous form together. Leaving its skull, or perhaps tip, exposed.

Not for long. Joshua shoved the knife into the creature’s head, fully piercing whatever kept it in tact. The Paint wailed. Magic leaked out, as air from a burst balloon. It shrieked and chirruped as it died, flailing the feeble attempts at arms and wings it could muster.

Joshua watched it die, enjoying each moment of pain. When it finally collapsed, the last thing it saw – if it could see – was his smiling face.

“That felt damn good.”

Joshua stretched and took stock. He stood at ground level, where Dustin Longe had been. Minor scavengers dined on the rotting, gelatinous corpse of whatever attacked them. The Marshall roused behind him, waving away bloated Badlands flies. In the distance, the Nun was on her feet, stumbling like a teen after her first taste of liquor.

Most importantly, the Wanted Man and his posse were gone.

“God damn that son of a fucking whore.”

Smaller scavengers slowly approached the Paint’s powdery remains, eyeing Joshua nervously. Former rats, snakes, coyotes. Even a dog. Two had the spark of the True God about them. Joshua knelt and threw each a handful of the powder, giving them a head start.

The rat and dog huffed the remains and looked at one another. A bond formed. Unspoken, but he could see them thinking. Planning.

More so than killing the Paint, that cheered Joshua up.

“Are you well, Mister McManaman?” the Nun asked. Bleary eyed, she mustn’t have seen his small act of charity. He thanked Omnis she was so messed up. Her hair was a tangled maze. She’d earned a shiner and a busted lip. Her false husband wouldn’t be too happy tonight.

“Feel like I just got kicked in the head by a mule. And its twenty friends.”

She nodded, some clarity returning. “Me too.”

Reeves started coughing. He rolled over and spat. Something large and black flew from his lips. A fly. Drenched in spittle, it wriggled its dozen legs in a futile attempt to right itself. Shame, really. Things might’ve been easier if the fly had gotten its way.

The Marshall wiped his mouth. “Begging your pardon, Sister, but god damn it, that is the worst way I ever done woke up. Those things have been after me like I am covered in honey. I still think I’ve got one in my pocket.”

“That’s because they’re Badlands flies,” Joshua said with a wide smile. “Nothing ordinary about them: why, I’ve heard tell of men who fell asleep out here and woke with eggs in their ears or between their fingers. You do not want to know how they got rid of them, nor what they might’ve become if someone hadn’t performed such unpleasant surgery.”

Reeves jumped up and frantically checked between his fingers and in his ears. And behind them. Of course, he found nothing. Joshua had only partially been bullshitting: Badlands flies laid eggs inside their hosts, just not in those nooks and crannies.

“I don’t think they got me,” Reeves said with naked fear. “Do you?”

The Nun had to ruin the fun by saying, “I can’t sense anything on you. They likely didn’t have time to lay their foul spawn.”

“You sure?”

“I swear it.”

Joshua looked away and sneered. That ‘Marshall’ may be a fine shot – perhaps as good as Joshua – but he didn’t have the stomach for the Badlands. Even for a normal man, he’d panicked too much over a few flies. Weak, he was. Which shouldn’t have been a surprise.

The Sister coughed and approached the creature that’d attacked them. “This thing has a touch of Omnis about it, but I do not know its kind. Do you recognise it?”

His disdain evaporated. She couldn’t be right. Why would Omnis interrupt a follower who was about to capture the Wanted Man?

Joshua walked over. Damn it if the nun wasn’t right: this strange thing belonged to Omnis. But they’d had Dust pinned down, had him scrabbling for what to do next. Had him beat. And yet… And yet something belonging to the True God had intervened…

“I don’t recognise it at all,” he said, the most honest he’d been with her.

“Me either. But it would seem that Omnis also failed to attack the Wanted Man.”

He knelt and checked over this thing again. It still felt like old paper, bloated corpses, and fresh flowers. Like Omnis. Joshua glowered at it as the Sister drew a pouch from her robes. She was right in another way too: whatever this creature wanted, it had failed.

Joshua pondered on that Perhaps this thing had once been a scavenger, a mindless energy with magic bound to it? If it wasn’t yet sapient, it might’ve blundered into the moment of Joshua’s triumph by accident. A random mistake, nothing more. And so, Omnis had allowed it to die.

Yes, Joshua decided that made sense, ignoring his niggling doubts.

“I’m going to burn it away,” the Sister said. “Unless you have some objections?”

Joshua shook his head. “Let it burn. Me and Bass need to find our weapons.”

Bass looked up from checking his fingers again. “What makes you think that they’re still here? The Wanted Man probably took them.”

Joshua shrugged. “Might’ve. No harm in looking, now, is there? Besides, I think Sister Irujo wouldn’t mind some peace for her ritual.”

She nodded. “It would be preferable, yes.”

“Fine,” Bass said. “Let’s go.”

They used matches to light mostly-uncorrupted Badland branches, needing light for their search and to ward off weaker scavengers. An honest orange glow, healthy. Which stood out in the Badlands. Best not to dally, particularly at any sort of height.

Joshua and Bass climbed back to their hiding places. Treacherous soil and errant rocks tried to bar their way. They took their time: the last thing he needed was a turned ankle or broken arm. If Bass fell, though, he’d happily put him out of his misery.

Soon, they crested the hill. Bass quickly found his rifle and tested it for damage. Joshua tutted and cast about for his own weapon. Sure enough, he found it near where he’d been when the creature attacked. Like it’d been waiting for him.

It hadn’t been damaged. Not obviously, anyway. He would’ve spent more time looking it over had there not been a rush of air above him, bat wings beating against the stars. Probably just a coincidence, but it felt like a threat.

“We should leave,” Bass said quietly.

Joshua agreed.

The Sister had a good fire going when they got back. Scavengers circled its limits, terrified and fascinated by her strange magic. And the fire, of course. Others had been less lucky or smart. They died squealing, flames cleansing their flesh and essence.

“I declare that I just don’t understand this,” Reeves said. “Not at all.”

“What don’t you get?” Joshua asked.

“Why did they leave us our weapons? Look around, they obviously fought this thing off. Had us at their mercy. Nothing that could have scared them off before they could kill us would’ve left us alone, would it? No, they chose to leave us alive, with our guns. And I don’t get why.”

The Sister considered this. “Perhaps they were in a rush? We can still easily follow them: look at their tracks leading away.”

Joshua followed her gaze. Five sets of footprints went away to the south: four human and one from some animal.

That gave him pause. Had the Wanted Man let himself get pinned down because their fifth member was abroad? Someone that could take on animal form? He’d not seen anyone when they scoped the posse out, but Dustin Longe was no fool. He could’ve had their fifth member hide. Or maybe they’d just been unlucky and missed this fifth person when they’d scouted the bastard.

If so, he now understood why Omnis had let the creature intervene.

“Joshua, can you explain this?” the Sister asked.

“Pardon?” he asked. They both stared at him. Clearly, they’d been flapping their gums. “Oh, you mean about the guns? No, I don’t know. Maybe it’s as you said, they didn’t want to waste more time? We delayed them with our attack and so did that creature.”

Bass shook his head. “Two minutes to kill us might’ve saved them another firefight. Hell – pardon my French, Sister – they could have taken our ammo at the very least. By leaving us here, armed, they’ve taken a great risk.”

“And spared us. They spared us being consumed in these tainted lands.”

Joshua didn’t like where this train of thought was heading. “Come now, don’t paint the Wanted Man as a Samaritan. He’s wanted for heresy and murder, remember? I’m certain he was just concerned about the time he’d lost. I can’t imagine he wanted to wait to enact whatever vile devilment he seeks, can you?”

“I guess that makes sense,” Bass said, looking away and scratching the back of his neck.

“More sense than a murderer and heretic giving someone grace. Yes, Sister?”

She eyed Joshua closely. “He has not yet been convicted of those charges, Mister McManaman. Is the term you use not ‘Innocent Until Proven Guilty’?”

“Not for us. Not now. We gave him a chance to come in peaceably. He spat in our faces. Now, the term is ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ Guilt can be decided by the court, if we manage to get him in front of one. Ain’t that right, Marshall Reeves?”

The fool straightened, took a breath. “It is right. Innocent he may be, but one act of kindness doesn’t change that we are duty-bound to hunt him. I’ll certainly mention this to the judge, whoever he may be, when we step before a court.”

Joshua suppressed a laugh. Dustin Longe would never see the inside of a court.

The Sister looked between them, out-voted. “Very well. Let us hurry after him.”

Before they left, Joshua looked back to the scavengers he’d fed. They stood over the former Paint, small corpses dotted around them. Wounded but triumphant. After enjoying their moment of victory, each looked to the other. Nods, magical conversation. Then they divided their spoils fairly.

He wished them all the best.

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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