Dust and Decay – Chapter 20 – 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.
Dust, Penelope, and Shadows Fade rode for hours, their horses putting their nervous energy into escaping. All too soon, tired as their riders, they slowed. All of them got an unplanned nap, but it hadn’t brought any rest. Fitful sleep, frightful dreams. Shadows Fade looked the freshest after her early knock, but even she was yawning.
“We need to hunker down,” Dust said. “Any ideas?”
Penelope shrugged. Matthew looked blank, fatigue and shock stealing his tongue.
Shadows Fade tapped her chin. “I might have a cache nearby. Let me get my bearings.”
Dust pulled on Horse’s reins. He gratefully slowed, panted heavily, and looked back at Dust witheringly.
Dust patted Horse amicably. “We’ll stop soon, boy.”
Shadows Fade hopped off Horse and scouted around. Godly Claw caught up with them after a minute and had a quick, whispered conversation with her mistress. The Spirit Wolf replied by pointing with its muzzle. After a few moments, Shadows Fade rose.
“One of my caches is to the north, about five minutes riding. It is big enough to accommodate all of us and safe enough to rest in.”
“Sounds like heaven right about now,” Penelope slurred.
Matthew mumbled something, his eyes lidded.
“Yeah, what he said,” Dust said. “Lead the way.”
Shadows Fade did just that.
They arrived at an artificial valley, its walls too smooth and even to come from weather or erosion. A clean chip in the earth. Dust couldn’t imagine what’d made it, or why, but who could understand what the Three decided to do?
They rode to the valley’s lowest point, where the walls were marble smooth, almost polished. The ground would’ve been too if not for centuries of dust and kicked-up dirt.
Shadows Fade leapt from her ride and approached the seamless rock. “It is here. Opening the way will take a minute.”
Dust felt something watching them. He looked up. “Hurry it up.”
Dust pointed at the Lucifers, or Demonettes, depending on who you spoke to, at the valley’s edge. Tiny, red-scaled versions of the Bible’s Devil, complete with horns, goat’s feet, and yellow eyes. A whole pack, led by one that was almost three feet tall.
This larger leader brayed a command and its horde climbed down to meet them.
Dust drew his other gun – and by Hell was it heavy, like trying to aim a hearse – and fired at the onrushing Lucifers. Four went down quickly, falling to face Godly Claw’s eager teeth. He kept firing. More spilled over the valley’s lip. A damn platoon.
Penelope struggled her rifle out and took some shots. Missed. He put her sloppiness down to fatigue and kept firing. A weather-worn ledge crumbled at Penelope’s next shot, far from any of the Lucifers. Dust was about to say something when falling debris knocked a dozen Lucifers from their handholds. Most survived the fall, but none lasted long under Godly Claw’s attentions.
Dust nodded. He shouldn’t have doubted her.
He concentrated on the killing, while Penelope used her remaining bullets to topple rather than wound. Godly Claw cleaned up their mess. Scores lay rotting around Shadows Fade, but more kept coming. An army of tiny demons. An inevitable fight after he’d lost his Blanket.
Another bray of rage rang out. Dust risked a look behind him and saw more Lucifers racing down the opposite side of the valley.
“Pull towards Shadows Fade. Be ready to run inside when she’s done.”
Dust geed Horse next to the warrior. The others pulled in, forming a tight circle. Matthew had no weapons, but he raised his fists, prepared to fight if needs be. Terrified, but prepared.
Shadows Fade chanted slowly. Faint orange light dripped from her fingertips. Whatever protection she’d put up was damn strong. What did she keep in these caches? Other than dynamite, of course.
Penelope leapt at the first Lucifers to get to ground level. Her blade flashed and killed, her stature working for her against such short enemies. Still, their numbers massed even as the dead piled up, forcing Dust to use his other gun as a club. Huge sweeps to keep them back. Those foolish enough to get too close, or too slow to dodge, were left broken in the dirt.
Horse joined in, stamping and biting. The other animal’d been trained to kick out too, albeit with less determination or spite.
Still, they might have held out if not for the leather-soft whisper of bat wings. The elder Lucifer entered the fray on huge dark wings, wielding a whip made from a creature’s barbed tail. Normally, it would be just another target, but fatigue made it a powerful champion. Worse, its unusual nature was drawing more attention. Nothing concrete yet, but they would soon be found if–
“Done,” Shadows Fade shouted. Magical wind rattled through Dust’s clothes. An orange circle unfolded from the valley’s pristine hide. “Get inside, now.”
Dust grabbed Shadows Fade’s horse and pulled the beast toward the portal. Penelope and Matthew weren’t far behind, then Horse shot through. Shadows Fade jumped in last, narrowly avoiding small, vicious claws and teeth.
The orange portal closed. Lucifers threw themselves against where it had been. Thuds rang out until they finally realised that their prey was somewhere far away. Somewhere else.
Penelope laughed. Matthew joined her, delighted just to be alive. Horse and his pal harrumphed and stamped their feet. They all needed to unwind, catch their breath.
Not Dust. He examined Shadows Fade’s cache. A semi-sphere with no exit. Dark as a cave. No entrances or exits. Safe and easy to defend, if it came to that.
Shadows Fade rustled in the darkness and lit a lantern. Illuminated the murals lining the walls, carvings of warriors fighting the Three. Rough statues embedded with skeletons stood in the centre, honouring long-dead warriors. This wasn’t just some cache. This was a sepulchre.
“Welcome,” Shadows Fade said, a smile playing across her features. She lit a second lantern and handed it to Matthew. “It is not much, but this is my cache.”
“Right now, it is the most wonderfully-appointed place I ever did see,” Matthew breathed.
“I can’t disagree. Look at this place! It’s incredible.” Penelope blinked. “What is it?”
Shadows Fade stepped to the far end, where most of the crates were. All of modern design and materials. She produced a third lantern and lit it. Held one in each hand.
“Long before your people desecrated these lands, a great battle was fought here between the Huatacans and dark spirits of the Three. The men and women enshrined here gave their lives for that victory. When the war became silence, those warriors were buried where they triumphed. That valley outside is an unhealed scar and this tomb is in its walls. Though not directly.”
Matthew said, “Wait, our people? What do you mean?”
“People of Europe. The Irish, Spanish, Swedes. Your kind.”
“Why do you blame our people?”
Dust coughed and brought up phlegm. He swallowed it, not rude enough to spit in someone’s tomb. “Sad to say, the Badlands were raised by folk like us. Bought in slave and native blood.”
The young man blinked twice. “Damn, really? Well… damn.”
Penelope put a hand on his shoulder. “I know, it’s hard to take when you first hear it. But you get used to it. You’ve got to, really: the fact is, we brought Omnis over with us to the New World, along with all manner of diseases and depravity. Just… accept it.”
“Depravity? How would you know–?”
“We should get some rest,” Dust said to save Penelope’s blushes.
“Shadows Fade, do we need a watch in here?” Penelope asked, grateful to change the subject.
“No. Exit and entry only happens by my leave. Or that of another warrior who knows of this place, of which there are few. We are safe.”
“Glad to finally be safe,” Matthew said.
“Yup,” Penelope agreed. “Things are looking up.”
“Come on, let’s all hit the hay. It’s just going to be worse tomorrow.”
The joy drained from Penelope and Matthew. Dust wanted to take his words back, but he couldn’t without lying: without his Blanket, everything in Texas could see them. They would be lit up like fireworks. Worse, enough worshippers of the Three would’ve seen them fight today, twice, that the entire Badlands would be watched closely to find them and their cargo. Every inch of progress would have to be scrapped and bled for.
“Maybe we should eat first, though,” Shadows Fade said, approaching Dust. “I shall cook.”
“We’ll set up beds,” Penelope said, grabbing Matthew’s hand. “Come on.”
Off they went, to some folded up cots near the cache’s entrance.
Shadows Fade handed Dust a lantern and rustled through her cache for some rice and dried vegetables. She produced some battered pans and started boiling old water on a flat stone infused with magic. A simple meal, but you couldn’t expect much more on the trail.
Dust shook his head. He was watching her work. Making himself useful, he watered the horses, groomed them, and treated their wounds.
“You’ve been in the wars boy,” Dust said to Horse, who bled from multiple places.
Horse gave him a look as if to say exactly who he blamed for that.
“I know, I know.”
He caught Penelope’s voice as he worked: “That wasn’t the first time I’ve seen those things.”
“I wouldn’t have thought so: you seem to have fought a hundred battles.”
She waved him away. “Nonsense. I’m not that seasoned.”
“You could have fooled me with the way you fought. And you took down that creature which had Dustin on the ropes… You’re mighty impressive, Penelope.”
Penelope giggled like a schoolgirl.
Dust smiled. He’d not heard her that open and happy before. It must’ve been a while since she’d gotten to flirt. If she ever had in her buttoned-down life as a Senator’s daughter.
Senator Chalmers. Poor man. He’d probably arranged Joshua’s posse, desperate to find out what’d happened to his daughter. To the Senator, the Wanted Man was a kidnapper. Or a murderer. It’d take solid words from Penelope to convince him otherwise, words he’d never hear whilst Dust was free. William Naismith would make sure of that. Dust didn’t blame the Senator for organising such a posse: he would certainly move mountains in the Senator’s position.
“I didn’t mean that, though,” Penelope continued. “I meant I’ve seen those devil things before. They attacked a… convoy I was a part of. Evil little things. They can tear a man apart.”
Matthew shuddered. “Why are you telling me this?”
“To say that you did well, silly. I saw veterans lose their minds fighting a pack of those horrors. You barely blinked, even unarmed.”
Good point. He’d kept his cool even without a weapon. That took guts.
Matthew cleared his throat. “Why, thank you, Penelope.”
“You’re welcome, Matthew.”
“My friends call me Matty.”
“Very well. Then you’re welcome, Matty.”
Dust walked back to Shadows Fade when he was done. She had a rough broth going.
“It will be very hard on them,” Shadows Fade murmured.
“Their friendship, or more.” Penelope and Matthew laughed behind them. “We cannot take him further tomorrow. Making that decision, prioritising the Iron Warrior, will be hard on Penelope. And being abandoned once more will be hard on Matthew.”
“Let them have their dalliance. That’s a matter for tomorrow.”
Shadows Fade nodded, then lifted the spoon to her mouth. Tasted what she’d made.
“The food is ready.”
They ate heartily, almost not chewing, definitely not talking. Then they retired. Matthew and Penelope slept next to each other. Hands over their mouths, they whispered about their lives and their families, though Matthew didn’t talk much about either.
Dust listened in until they stopped, then stared at the ceiling until he fell asleep.