Dust and Decay – Chapter 23 – 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.
The nun and the Marshall were dead quiet. Joshua was glad for the peace, but unnerved by it: before their failed ambush, those two’d talked genially, gotten to know one another. It’d been annoying as sand in your britches, but at least they hadn’t been thinking too hard about the mission. Now, they looked to fill the silence with questions about their purpose. About whether they should fight to take the Wanted Man alive.
Whether they should take him at all.
It didn’t help that they couldn’t find the bastard: dozens of creatures had swarmed after him as he escaped, scuffing and erasing his posse’s tracks. With close attention and a whiff of magic, they found hints, enough to carry on with hope. But that’s it. Keeping up was a losing battle.
If they had a true course, those idiots would concentrate on the Wanted Man. Not their trivial worries.
Joshua scratched at his chest wounds, still healing from feeding his map earlier. Maybe he was guilty of that too. Why try to fathom the minds of a woman and a negro when he could plan how to take their prey down. He scratched harder. Nearly broke the skin, but pain brought focus.
The best tactic against Dust was using those around him. He often rose to meet an overwhelming force or unbeatable situation, as with that Omnis creature, but his own life didn’t matter when an innocent was at stake. That was a weakness, one he could exploit.
Yeah, they would need to threaten his posse. Give him no other option but to hand himself over. It wasn’t a perfect plan, had some assumptions, but Dust sure had risked everything for that Chalmers girl. Maybe he was giving her the rough poke. Joshua thought Dust had a taste for red meat but he didn’t bat an eyelid when that savage took a bullet. Younger women it was, then.
Joshua nodded to himself. Penelope was the weak link, even with her Collar. His little posse would hate targeting her, but he’d make them see it was right.
Or give them no other option either.
They damn well had to find Dust first. It wouldn’t be by tracking: the trail grew more polluted, hoofed feet heading in all directions. The map was his only option.
“We should stop for the night,” Joshua said. “We’re all tired and this trail is stone cold. I’ll report in to the Solution, find out if they know anything.”
Bass shook his head. “We’ll lose him if we rest.”
“Do you see a warm trail before you, Marshall?”
“A cold trail never stopped me before. To give in is to lose.”
“You’d be right if we just had our senses and wits.” Joshua didn’t know why Reeves was arguing: the man’s eyes were lidded, his cheeks sallow. “We don’t have to wreck ourselves, though: we have magics at our command. Remember, this is no normal manhunt, and we are no normal posse.”
The Sister finally said something he agreed with. “We should rest. This carriage will keep us safe, and a few hours’ sleep will put us in better stead for tomorrow.”
The Marshall sighed. “Fine. Guess we’re out of my depth here, so I’ll bow to your knowledge.”
Her knowledge. Not Joshua’s. He marked that.
Joshua led them from the trail and brought the horses to the base of a tall, dusty hill nearby. Clouds made the night warm and starless. Brought an endless dark. Nobody would find them unless they started screaming bloody murder. And it wasn’t time for that yet.
“Do you mind taking care of the horses?” Joshua asked. “I’ll check back in with the Solution while you do.”
“Of course,” Bass said. “I’ll take first watch.”
“That’s mighty kind of you, but I’ll be up for a bit after reporting in, thinking through whatever I get told. You two get your rest.”
“I assure you, we need as little rest as you,” the Sister chided.
“I meant no disrespect,” Joshua said. It wasn’t a lie: he didn’t want his disrespect to show. “Just stating the facts. I won’t be able to sleep for a bit after reporting in. Might as well use that.”
The Sister shrugged. “No disrespect was taken, Mister McManaman. We will rest once you have returned.”
Joshua nodded and headed into the carriage. Brought his glass orb outside. Best to do this in the open, cast away any suspicions they might have. At least whilst he wasn’t doing anything wrong.
The glass ball thrummed like a cricket as it connected to its twin. “Joshua McManaman reporting in,” he tapped out in ciphered Morse Code. “I require updates.”
“Joshua, this is William.”
He damn near dropped the thing. But the others were watching. He held his cool. “Mr Naismith? I wouldn’t expect you to handle trivial communications.”
“I happened to be nearby. Reinforcements were sent your way, per your request. However, I should have prepared you for their arrival. No blame is attached for the Dreamreaper’s failure.”
So, Omnis hadn’t intervened on his behalf. Not intentionally. For William to admit fault, something terrible had gone wrong. Not that he wasn’t man enough to accept when he made mistakes, but the Solution was so large it took a big fuck up for him to take one on the chin.
“Sir, don’t worry. The reinforcements prevented a counter-attack which might have killed us. This ‘Dreamreaper’ kept us alive.”
There was a long pause. “Omnis has mysterious plans.”
“May they all come to fruition. Are further reinforcements available?”
“Negative. All available support is out of reach.”
Joshua expected as much, but it never hurt to ask. “Is there any intelligence as to where the target is heading? Or what he intends to do?”
“Scrying picked him up near Wounded Valley, three hours ago. That’s all we have.”
Joshua would gather more from his map, but at least he could corroborate its results now.
“Any troubles with the posse?” William asked.
“They suspect the Wanted Man is not evil and favour capturing him. That won’t happen.”
“Agreed. Termination is recommended. Out.”
The glass sphere fell still. Joshua stared at its flawless form.
Was William in bed, unable to sleep after the Wanted Man bested his creation? Did he expect Joshua to check in? Foresee it? Or did he just happen to be nearby? If it was the former, Joshua hoped his report might grant William some peace.
He closed his eyes, thought the situation through. If the Wanted Man was at Wounded Valley, that meant he was zigzagging through the Badlands, moving broadly north-west. Dust had a purpose, then, and it wasn’t escaping the Badlands: there were easier routes out.
Rough fingers tapped his chin. Whatever Dust had planned was worth being caught over. Was big. That could be key in their next ambush. Hostages and hold-ups. Maybe they could offer to let his posse go on to their target if he handed himself in too?
Joshua sneered. Stooping to deal with a damn bastard like Dust. How low. If the Marshall and the nun weren’t so uptight, they could simply snipe him when he fought lesser creatures. Simple, clean. But no, he’d have to engineer the bastard’s death later, after a ‘fair’ capture.
Not that it required much engineering. Even the Wanted Man would fall with a dozen bullets in his skull. And that’s what he’d get the first chance Joshua had. No mercy for the man who killed Eleanor Naismith.
Joshua returned to the carriage and hid the glass sphere. Like the map, a Solution tool he used against a Solution ‘asset’. It’d be damn amusing if one was Dust’s downfall.
He stared closely at the sphere. Perfectly smooth, clear. Not a hint of the magic within. A marvel, if you thought about it, but mundane against Omnis’ great wonders.
Really, Joshua realised he was lucky to see this sphere at all after this Dreamreaper attacked them. Dust and his posse’d had him at their mercy. All of them. And they chose to leave. With most anyone else, he would’ve been a corpse. But here he was, free to act in Omnis’ name. He’d praise his god if his survival wasn’t down to Dust’s lack of guts.
He added to that Dust’s weaknesses: morals. Joshua would certainly never leave a manhunter alive after a capture attempt.
Outside, it was quiet. He heard a soft snore from above. Feminine. One of them was out. Reeves would be too wired to rest too, so he wouldn’t note if Joshua was away a bit longer.
It was safe to use his map.
Joshua withdrew the flesh square from his pack. Warm, quivering. He closed the carriage door softly, careful not to disturb the nun. Then retrieved the blade from his boot. After a deep breath, he cut along one of the symbols on his chest. Hissed in pain.
He dangled the soiled knife over the hungry map. Blood clung to the edge, fighting gravity. Whispering entreaties, he waited for the first drop to grace the map’s skin. A sacrifice to find the Wanted Man.
A crimson droplet plummeted. His strength, his essence. Food for the vicious thing within.
The door behind him flew open. Joshua turned. His blood missed the map.
Sister Irujo stood at the carriage entrance, eyes wide, brow raised. “What are you doing?”
Joshua held a magical blade covered in his own blood, his shirt open, over a tanned scrap of skin. A reply that explained this didn’t immediately come to mind.
“I asked, what are you doing?” the Sister repeated. She climbed inside. Livid.
No lies would come, none at all. He’d have to tell the truth. Parts of it, any road. “The Solution have no idea where the Wanted Man is, or where he’s heading.” Words shot from him like water from a geyser. “We thought that might happen. Hence this map. Damn thing is fed on blood. So, I was using it to try and find Dust again.”
“Blood magic is never acceptable. Never.” She frowned. “Let me see this ‘artefact’ again.”
“No,” Joshua said, placing himself between her and the map. “No, you can’t.”
“And why not?”
Joshua licked his lips. “It is proprietary Solution technology. I didn’t mind showing it to you before, when the magic was already complete, but I’m under orders not to share our technology with a representative of another country.”
“Another country? I’m an American, just like you.”
Joshua smiled a little, easing into the lie. “Not just like me.” And wasn’t that the truth. “The Vatican is a sovereign state, is it not? A foreign power that you have sworn fealty to. Not a part of the United States’ government. I’m sorry, but I cannot show this map to you.”
The Sister frowned, trying to get her head around this point
“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything about this before, but I couldn’t,” Joshua said, comfortable again. As he spoke, he slowly rolled up the map to slide into his jeans. “I was under orders. I confess, I don’t find it in good taste to use my own blood. Damn it but it hurts too, cutting myself open! However, we need it to find the Wanted Man again.”
The Sister looked around the carriage, as though she’d never seen it before. His explanation had pacified her for now, but doubt was blooming within her. She sought more secrets, other things she hadn’t known about the carriage.
“There’s nothing else here,” Joshua said. He took a risk by reaching into his hiding place and withdrawing the glass communicator. “You probably saw this earlier. This is how I speak with the Solution: I tap out a code and they receive it on this globe’s twin. In Morse Code. I swear by the Lord Jesus, this is all I have with me.”
That pulled her from her train of thought. “I do not approve of such swearing,” she snapped, “but I… I believe you, Mister McManaman.”
“Thank you. Come on, I’ll come out and take my watch.”
The Sister nodded and climbed out of the carriage. Joshua followed, thanking Omnis for his quick-thinking and the woman’s willingness to believe utter nonsense. A desirable trait amongst the Corpse God’s followers, no doubt.
He didn’t sleep that evening. Spent the whole night following the nun’s movements. She did nothing to alarm him, but that only made him more suspicious. Like she was being too careful.
Sister Irujo would have to die first. Maybe even during their ambush.