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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Dust and Decay – Chapter 22 – 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.

Sleep wouldn’t come. At most, Dust got ten minutes at a time. At most. His body wouldn’t shut off. Which was nothing new: before, when he was Dustin, he often got dog tired, yet he’d spend all evening staring at canvas, unable to escape the horrors to come for even an hour.

Insomnia was no stranger. No welcome guest, either.

Stretching his back and legs, he felt creaks and strains. Echoes of age. A new sensation for Dust. Something was wrong. During the day, his other gun’d felt heavy, spells and dodging took more energy. He doubted it was a holdover from that dream-controlling horror. No, something more fundamental was awry. Probably his tattoo. The damn thing’d controlled him, eschewed its ‘subtler’ interventions. His current state must be a toll for that.


Regardless, his tattoo sure felt… distant. There was something else too: the Dust it depicted was slumped, the chains that ripped through him now held him up, and his head was bowed so Dust could not see his expression. That was all new too.

Dust had to get to the bottom of this. Now. He stood, stepped away from his sleeping companions, and crept behind some dynamite crates. Crossing his legs, he found his tattoo’d already slid down his ribs. Like a bead of blood.

“It’s time you and me got reacquainted.”

Dust closed his eyes. Muted torchlight burned beyond them. Concentrating on the golden hue, he pleaded with his tattoo. Not for the power to achieve Resistance’s aims, but for a response. To engage as it had during his time with the Teotek. He’d tried this often at the Solution, but his relationship with Resistance was different now. Felt like it had been since he went for Penelope. He had to do more to avoid pain, but got more power when he asked. Healed a little quicker. That kind of thing. Dust’d taken to the new terms, but, now, he wasn’t so sure of them. Not if Resistance trusted him so little it’d take direct control of his body.

That was what really concerned him, that Resistance thought such stark interventions necessary. And it made him fearful of what else might happen whilst he slept…

He smiled. Well, that certainly explained his insomnia.

Dust refocussed on his tattoo. An age went by in mental prostration, prayer of a sort. Necessary discipline to commune with whatever his tattoo was. He’d mastered this wordless communication with the Teotek’s aid, growing an understanding with the thing inside his tattoo. And there was something there, a sort of intelligence. Alien but familiar somehow. Not a mind he could understand fully, but he didn’t need to in order to engage with it.

Normally, any road. This time, the communion failed outright. No wordless message, no emotional connection. A well of magic to use, yes, but no connection. Like the tattoo hadn’t understood him and just provided what it assumed he wanted. It should know he was in no danger and had no plan except to talk, so its dumb response made no damn sense.

Maybe he was at fault. He tried changing the tone of his thoughts. Then their directness. Sometimes, the tattoo needed to be courted. Wooed. But to no avail. Getting a mite frustrated, he hammered at the tattoo with his full attention. Iron will bending it. Still, it only responded with superfluous magic. Resistance was stonewalling him.

Dust tutted and gave up. Magic, useful as flies around a carcass, sizzled across his senses. Best to get rid. He concentrated it in his palm, a swirling ocean in a glass sphere, and slammed it back into the tattoo. This should’ve been simple too. Hell, his tattoo took far dirtier sources under far more trying circumstances. But the tattoo roared, wounded, angry. His hand was pushed away.

Frowning, Dust tensed his arm. Sought to overpower the tattoo. The magic tried to spill along the valleys of his ribs, but his wouldn’t let it. There was only one route the magic could use, but it was a locked door, a barrier.

“All right. Maybe I need to warm you up first.”

He pulled the magic back, steam rising from between his fingers, and activated the tattoo as though to feed it tainted magic. There was a… distant response, an echo from the far end of a mine. Tentative. Nervous. Words he’d never used for his tattoo before. He wasn’t some husband forcing himself on a virgin bride: they’d both done this plenty of times.

This time, his tattoo accepted the magic, but it was tough, like fitting five pounds of shit into a three pound bag. His tattoo was a damn glutton, a bottomless pit for leftover magic: some of the Nations held that Resistance thrived on those sacrifices, using them to help his chosen. Yet it struggled against accepting this offering right to the end.

“What the fuck is wrong with you? What’s wrong?”

His tattoo only crawled away like a scolded puppy in response.

Dust tutted. Maybe the tattoo’d over-exerted itself taking over his body. He hoped that was all.

This wasn’t the first time it’d acted all weird, but previously Dust had a Solution genius to talk it over with. Back then, these issues turned out to simply be part of being the Wanted Man, but at least he could appeal to an authority then. Now, he had no one: Penelope knew nothing of magic and Shadows Fade’s knowledge extended only to rituals and spells. Few in Texas had even an inkling of what the tattoo was and those who did were dead or thought Dust a murderer. Or an enemy.

He really was a twisted performer, wasn’t he? Like from those penny shows that sometimes wander through small towns. What’d Dick Ryman said? That people feared and hated him, thought him a part of the Dixie Problem? And yet they relied on him. Sounded a lot like a geek, a chicken’s head permanently stuck between his teeth.

What even was he? Nobody knew. What’d earned him this brand? What had brought him to Resistance’s attentions so?

He thought of Father Kilkenny. The padre had insisted that Dust should free his Word. Become whole. Only then would he be himself again. Maybe he could answer these questions then? What if some hint to his predicament was locked in the memories he used to fight the Three?

Ought he recover lost memories, lost wisdom… His lost self?

Dust stood, cutting off that thought. The padre was wrong. Sacrificing his weapon, his ability to fight the Three, for himself? Even assuming Resistance allowed it, it was too damn selfish. Too risky for everyone he might end up helping.

Besides, he must’ve had good reason to tear his soul apart and form a Word. No one would undertake such a horror show lightly. He had to assume that he’d made the right call back then. Trust in himself.

Time to think of the present. This sepulchre that saved them. The group snored loudly, a huddle of warm caterpillars on dusty sandstone. Shadows Fade was the loudest of the bunch, but Penelope gave her a run for her money. He grinned. They were an odd lot, but he wouldn’t have anyone else at his side. Except maybe swapping Matthew for Father Kilkenny.

That was a harsh thought, but there was no punishment. It’d damn well deserved one. What was happening to his damn tattoo?

Nope, not a good idea to waste time on that. There were no answers here. Instead, he looked around the cache for something to occupy him. Anything. There weren’t many undone chores: Shadows Fade’s supplies were neatly organised and the clean, well-fed horses slept soundly. Wasn’t much to look at either, only boxes, rock, and the ancient murals and statues.

The latter’d do.

It made him feel reverential to approach these graves, of a kind, despite their rough, featureless natures. Like cheap mannequins. In honouring the dead, the sculptors had cared more about displaying their skeletons. The housings for every bone carved with exacting precision. Each had suffered breaks during their final weeks, and these breaks had been accounted for too. Splinters and fractures housed as though folks’ skeletons ought to be cracked for an honourable death.

Symbols laced each statue, presumably names or tales of their exploits. Could Shadows Fade read them? Likely not with the Nations’ many languages. No one probably knew their names, or only knew them as legends in old songs. Yet here they were.

The murals honoured their deeds to outsiders like him who couldn’t read their stories. In the first, fierce and sexual creatures aligned beneath a giant, red raven. Various warriors in magical splendour opposed them, standing proudly across a wide plane. They were led by a warrior who soared above them like the raven on black wings growing from her shoulders.

The fight unfolded across the other murals. The duel between the winged warrior and the red raven was given primacy, the rest relegated to background detail. The raven transformed throughout, became a scorpion, a snake, a woman. In the latter form, she broke the winged warrior’s arm. For naught: the survivors of the secondary fight joined their wounded leader to riddling the red raven with arrows and blades. One even used a Spirit Snake, rendered at the raven’s throat in a faded blue.

The final picture showed the red raven, now ten times larger, the earth distending its throat. Wounded, defeated warriors bled atop it. This was their death, their moment of triumph, albeit their final moment.

Shadows Fade woke and slipped over silently. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” he said, glad of the company.

“The murals are fascinating. Did you notice it?”

“Notice what?” He realised he’d snapped. “Sorry, I’m not in the mood for games.”

“The crow-winged warrior? She had a tattoo like yours.”

Dust span to the mural. Sure enough, now he knew to look, there were small paintings on the winged warrior’s body. He squinted, but the tattoo was only a dark blob. It moved, which is why he hadn’t noticed it: appearing on her arm, ankle, and back. This was no mistake. The winged warrior had a tattoo like his.

Dust pointed to the statue with a broken arm. “What do you know about her?”

Shadows Fade shook her head. “Nothing. I am sorry. There are no records remaining of her exploits, and that written language on her statue means nothing to me.”

Dust sighed. Another dead end. Another mystery.

“Are you okay?”

Dust turned from the winged warrior’s remains. Reviewed her death. This testament to another linked to Resistance. How like him was she? Was she errant, punished, but ultimately there to help? And would he, like her, die fighting something tremendous?

Shadows Fade put an arm on his shoulder. A silent question. Dust nearly said something, nearly shared his concerns about his tattoo and his feeling of solitude. Nearly opened up, just a little, and sought some help.

But Penelope, bleary-eyed and dishevelled, stood up then. Blinking slowly, she struggled to say, “What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

Dust stepped away from Shadows Fade. Her hand dropped to her side.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “we’re just not tired. Happens when you get older.”

Grumbling, Penelope lay back down. Shadows Fade and Dust watched her, waiting for privacy. She tried for less than a minute before sighing. “I guess I’m awake. But I’ll lie down for a while longer. Rest up.”

Shadows Fade snapped her fingers to get his attention, then circled her hand for him to talk. Her eyes darted to a tall stack of boxes, somewhere they could have more privacy. She was here for him. Eager to help.

Dust shook his head: the moment had passed. It was nice to consider sharing, but gushing his woes wouldn’t help any. Not until they’d gotten this Word to the Iron Soul. Having even considered it made him feel stupid. He wasn’t some washerwoman sharing gossip. He was the Wanted Man. Time to start acting like it again.

“I was just curious, is all.”

“Are you sure? If you have anything to discuss…”

“I’m sure.”

Shadows Fade gestured for him to follow her but he waved her away. Damn it, he’d said no. She should leave him alone.

The warrior shrugged and gave up. Instead, they made breakfast together. In merciful silence.

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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