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The fist graced the tip of Dust’s hair. A nice try from his opponent. He countered by grabbing her arm and throwing her over his shoulder. Shadows Fade, anticipating this, mule-kicked her before she landed. A damn good blow. Winded, she skidded until she came to a stop.
Dust straightened. “You sure you haven’t had enough?”
Shadows Fade stepped beside him. “Do not stand.”
They fought in an undulating plain, flowing and liquid. Like a painting of a field. The sky and ground were grass green. They might’ve fought inside an apple for all it looked.
Penelope Chalmers struggled to her feet. Her face was badly busted up – Shadows Fade’s work ‘cos Dust couldn’t bring himself to hit her face no matter how much she told him to fight dirty – and her limbs shook. She spat blood, a tooth going with it, and shook her head. Then she gestured for them to come at her with a less toothy grin.
Dust matched her grin. She sure had fight. That cult had put her through hell, but she’d come back with a fistful of it to unleash on the world.
Shadows Fade sighed and ran forward. Dust followed. He went to Penelope’s right, Shadows Fade to her left. Penelope lashed out when Shadows Fade got close. Too slow. Too injured. The warrior hopped back and kicked Penelope in the crotch. Penelope doubled over and swore loudly. Her eyes watered.
Dust slammed his elbow into her neck. She ate dirt. Didn’t look like she’d get up any time soon.
“You did well.”
“Thanks,” Penelope spluttered, more blood staining the green floor.
“Ignore his praise. You should not have carried on fighting. Skill and bravery are important, but knowing when to fight is more valuable. Take stock. Admit your limitations. You were never going to survive that last onslaught. You should have avoided it.”
“That’s a mite harsh.”
The warrior turned her scowl on him. Dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes. “Dust, I disagree. You do not know enough about fighting like a normal warrior. Adopting your attitude may get Penelope killed.”
Dust wanted to talk back, but his tattoo warmed to tell him the warrior was probably right. The damned thing always burned when he was about to do something wrong. So, he shrugged instead. “Shall we end all of this?”
Shadows Fade nodded. “Very well.”
The world shivered and they returned to their tent. He woke first, always did. As he stood to stretch back into himself, Shadows Fade and then Penelope roused. The latter immediately checked her tooth was still there.
Their tent was smoky and dim. The fire had died long ago, there only to fuel the ritual. Piles of furs gave ’em places to sleep. A bearskin hung from the ceiling could drop between them for privacy. This’d been their home for weeks now, but they’d spent much of it wherever Shadows Fade sent them. That green world.
Her ritual was so damn curious. It seemed to create bodies for them in some other place. Somewhere else. Bodies which weren’t rightly physical but felt an awful lot like it. Illusions didn’t work on him, so they were sent somewhere outside of this world by Shadows Fade’s magic. He reckoned the ritual made bodies they dreamt themselves into. Fragile and fleeting things, but they acted how they should.
Shadows Fade had trained like this with her mentor, an old warrior who’d spent his life fighting the Triangle. No, not the Triangle, the Three. She was comfortable in that state, could bring more power to bear. And she was ‘only’ human.
A damn convincing argument as to why he oughtn’t question her advice to Penelope.
“Sorry about earlier,” he said. “I’ll hold my tongue better.”
Penelope still wasn’t aware of them. Which was fair. After that beating she was wrapped up in checking herself, telling herself that none of the wounds’d happened. It was a long process. Dust suspected that had something to do with her trial with That Which Sins.
The warrior nodded. “It is fine. The balance between us is where Penelope should aim. We must both ensure we place her there.”
As usual, she was damn right. With the Omnis Collar they’d stolen when they rescued Penelope, she got some of Dust’s imperviousness, but not all. No magic got past the artefact, in or out, so she couldn’t use tattoos to power her like Shadows Fade. And she’d go down under gunfire like anyone. Main thing was that she could shrug off most everything the Three could throw at her while wearing it.
“I got a few good punches in, didn’t I?” Penelope asked, present at last. “Gave somewhere near as good as I got?”
“You got a few punches in, true. Shadows Fade was right though: you risked too much to get ’em. Unless you’re getting a killing blow, don’t risk injury like that.”
Shadows Fade grunted. “But, if you see a killing blow, go for it with all you’re worth.”
Penelope stood. Not much taller than Shadows Fade, blond, hardened by torture. She’d gone from a scrawny thing pulled from a god’s clutches to something like a fighter in only weeks: her arms had definition and her eyes no longer had that starved look. Then she smiled and he could see who she’d been before all of this.
“Your conflicting messages aren’t helping, you know that?”
“Conflict is conflicting. We are trying to teach you good judgement.”
“I guess. That wasn’t a good session then?”
“I wouldn’t say that,” Dust said. “You learned a lot about recklessness.”
Penelope laughed. “I suppose I did. I suppose I did.”
They left their tent. Godly Claw waited patiently outside, lying on the dusty ground like a lazy dog. She yipped at seeing them and padded over to rub against her master. Shadows Fade looked delighted as all get out as she knelt to fuss over the blue Spirit Wolf.
Dust’d thought Spirit Animals were part of the warrior who summoned them, but it was more complex than that. A theme for everything with Shadows Fade’s people: he’d thought he’d understood them, having dealt with them before, but he’d barely scratched the surface. The Indians – no, the Nations – had rituals and cultures far beyond what he’d known. He felt stupid and guilty for each time he’d dismissed them.
He felt bigoted.
Where they’d stayed was proof enough of his foolishness. This ancient city, finer than any cathedral, carved hundreds of years ago. Back when it’d been a home and not a monument. They’d never’ve survived without this oasis of safety. This town of rock.
Mighty fine town it was too. Big as any settlement Dust’d ever seen, it had towers for protection, circular places of worship, markets, wide, sloping paths, and homes enough for a thousand. Kehuadinune, it was called. It was almost always in shadow, which helped it survive the harsh desert sun and had protected it over the centuries since it’d been… vacated.
Weird bit of history that. Not something Dust’d ever come across. The Teotek Elders say Kehuadinune dwindled because folks’d started longing to live as nomads. Much like so many’d come to America for a new life, he guessed. Emigration reduced trade, made the city less enticing to live in. A… spiritual or cultural shift then followed as whole groups decided town life wasn’t for them. The Teotek band one of the first to leave en masse. Soon after, it was a ghost town, and that’d been that. From a thriving centre of culture to a shrine in decades.
It hadn’t been forgotten. Nor had its protective sigils and spells, which even now masked it from the outside world. Strong enough even to hide Dust.
“Isn’t it grand?” Penelope asked.
“There are other places like this across America, you know. Scholars and academics I talked to at Party events were excited by them. Proof the Nations once had great, vibrant cities. Back before they regressed.”
Dust cast a glance back at Shadows Fade, glad the warrior had been too busy with Godly Claw to hear that. “They didn’t ‘regress,’” he replied in a low voice. “They just didn’t do what we did.”
Penelope examined the Teotek’s fur tents and then the city. “You sure?”
Dust tutted. “You’d best keep those opinions to yourself.”
“I’m surprised. I thought you’d be… of the same opinion.”
Dust laughed. Not nicely. “I was bad, but not that bad.”
The girl put her hand to her chest. Her eyes widened. His tattoo didn’t punish him for the comment, despite it being harsh, but the Nations were Resistance’s favoured people. Why else would they know so much about magic? The non-tainted kind, at least.
Shadows Fade and Godly Claw approached. Penelope dropped her hand, wise enough to not give away any clue about her conversation with Dust.
“When do you think we train again?” she said to change the subject. “Go another round? I can take it, I promise.”
The warrior considered this. “We are done for the day. The beating you took drained my (dream essence).” She used a word in her language, an offshoot of Caddo. Dust’d picked up little bits of it, mostly what he needed for day-to-day conversation, but no more: he didn’t have a talent for languages.
“Oh, that’s a shame.” Penelope jumped on the spot. “I’m full of energy.”
“Go for a run,” Dust suggested. “Keep your actual body ready.”
Penelope stopped bouncing. “Yeah, I’ll do that. Goodbye!”
With that, she jogged off. Some of the band’s children were playing nearby, pretending to be warriors or monsters. They broke from this playing to wave to her. Penelope waved back, determined and full of life.
“There is much to her,” Shadows Fade said, standing beside Dust. “If I had a year to train her, she wouldn’t need Omnis’ Collar.”
Dust wondered if she’d feel the same after hearing Penelope’s views. Just considering that earned him a burnt arm. He gritted his teeth to stop from wincing.
There punishments were a regular occurrence of late. Now he was free of the Solution, could do whatever he wanted, the tattoo was trying mould him. Shape him to what the god known as Resistance wanted. And Resistance didn’t want someone petty.
“It is obvious you do not think so,” Shadows Fade said, looking at his arm.
Dust didn’t answer.
Shadows Fade might’ve pushed him further if Thin Creek hadn’t approached. A wizened woman whose face was a little too small for her head, she wore a simple woven poncho and a long skirt. Like every other Teotek Elder, Thin Creek walked with the carefree air of someone others waited on. And she smiled a lot, content as all hell.
“Wanting Man, Shadows Fade, the Elders wish to see you.”
“And what is this about?” Shadows Fade asked, her tone a little biting.
Thin Creek merely smiled more broadly, turned, and gestured for them to follow.
With a shrug, Dust did as bid.