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Friday, May 24, 2024

Dust and Decay – Chapter 24 – 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.

They shared tinned beans and dried fruit in silence. Matthew was withdrawn, sullen. Deep bags pulled at his eyes. Penelope started out bright, but quietened when no one responded. Dust was in no mood to talk, and Shadows Fade rarely flapped her gums without cause. A tame, sombre meal. A wake, except the death was to come.

As they cleaned up after, Penelope approached Dust. “What are we going to do about Matthew?”

Dust continued scrubbing a plate, getting cold bean juice away with elbow grease. “What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean.” She lowered her voice. “He doesn’t know what we’re up to. I think he should. That way, he can decide what he wants to do. And we can take a measure of him. You know, whether to bring him along.”

Dust looked at the young man, who dried the cutlery and plates. Listless, pale, drawn.

“I’ve already got his measure.”

Penelope sighed. She didn’t look surprised. “Then we owe him an explanation if we’re to dump him in the Wastelands.”

Dust blinked twice, his eyes heavy. “You’re right. We owe him that much.”

They packed the tin plates and cutlery into rough wooden boxes. Shadows Fade hooked the pans back onto a holder screwed into the cavern wall. Home comforts in a sepulchre.

Where had Shadows Fade gotten all this equipment from? Scavenged from the wreckages of desperate convoys? Traded for dead men’s weapons? Either way, she’d brought them and crates out here without molestation or assault. Damn but she was resourceful.

Maybe he should’ve discussed his tattoo? Well, too late now.

When they were done, Dust gestured for everyone to gather. “Three of us here know what’s happening today. One doesn’t. Penelope said that we owe Matthew some honesty and I agree. So, listen up.”

Matthew tensed up. “Honesty about what?”

“Why we are here,” Penelope said. “And what we’re going to do today.”

“You are sure about this?” Shadows Fade asked.

Dust nodded. “I am. It’s your story, though, so do you want to start?”

“Very well.” Shadows Fade took a slow breath. “As I said before, your people created the Badlands by forming paths for the Three to enter through. One such portal – what my people call Wound in the Air – will appear today. In a cavern east of here. And we will try to enter it. If we miss this event, there will not be another opportunity for half a year.”

“Matthew, we’re gonna shut that portal. Kick one of the Triangle’s gods out of Texas,” Dust said. “The things belonging to her, they’ll give us everything they’ve got when they work out what we’re up to. Worse, the other gods want me dead. Want the artefact we’ll use to damage That Which Sins almost as badly. So we’ve gotta race across the Badlands. As we run, it’ll be Hell.

“Now, it’s unfair to take you. The Gift that ate your friends will be nothing compared to what’s coming for us. And that’s why we’re telling you this. So you understand.”

Matthew looked between them, confused. “But you three think you can stand up to this… This army that’s coming for you?”

“We do. There’s some things we need to explain. Like my real identity. You’ve probably heard of me: I’m the Wanted Man. Yeah, that one. And Shadows Fade is no bodyguard, but she has fought the Triangle since she was a teenager. Penelope… Well, she’s been trained for these fights. Also, she has an artefact which’ll protect her. With what we might face, even we may not survive.”

The boy took a step back. Eyes wide. “The Wanted Man? Really? You… you don’t look like that monster, Dustin.”

Dust sighed. “I hate when people call me that, but ‘monster’ is the right term. What else would you call something which can take a bullet and not be hurt? Something which can meet another monster head on without magic or artefacts? Something that doesn’t die?”

Penelope and Shadows Fade looked at Dust sharply. He frowned. That was a little despairing. Where’d that reaction come from? And where’d his filter, his self-control, gone to?

“Anyway, ignoring all that, we’re telling you this so you understand.”

“Understand what? Understand what?!”

Penelope took over. She’d deliver this news better. “Understand why we’re not taking you with us on our little raid. That’s not for any fault on your part. You’d just be another body. One who can’t pull his weight.”

Brow furrowed, jaw slack. Matthew’s bloodshot eyes searched for some comfort or sanity. Found none. The people who’d rescued him from a vicious evil were suddenly harsh, uncompromising, and unforgiving.

Dust felt for him: he’d been cast into a world he didn’t know, couldn’t really understand either, and the only stability he’d found since was the three of them. Now, that was being pulled away too.

“So, I’d just be a burden?” he asked in a whisper.

Penelope touched his shoulder. “No, you’d be an easy target. We can’t protect you, not whilst running and fighting to protect ourselves.”

Matthew turned away, though he didn’t shy from her touch. “What’s going to happen to me then? What’ll become of the weak burden?”

“Don’t talk like that,” Penelope said. “You’re stronger than most in your position would have been. That you’re still standing after facing a Gift, lawmen, and monsters of the Badlands says a lot about you. But you’re just not ready for what comes next.”

“As for what will happen to you,” Shadows Fade said, “we three shall be the sole focus for… everything when we step out of this cache. You can slip away then. We will give you a rough map and directions for you to leave the Badlands. Get to safety, to your people. Your family. And forget everything you experienced here.”

Shoulders slumped, Matthew asked, “Get out, huh? On my own?”

“We can’t spare the time to take you,” Dust said. “I’m sorry.”

“Will you at least give me a weapon, something to defend myself with?”

Dust looked to Shadows Fade. She shook her head slightly.

Penelope took a deep breath. “No, we don’t have any weapons to spare.”

Matthew’s head snapped up. He stared Dust in the eye. Tired eyes yellow in the torchlight, his lips pale. “You’re giving me a death sentence. Do you know that? The stories of the Wanted Man must be true if you’ll leave me so callously with no chance of surviving.”

“Matthew…” Penelope started.

“No, Penny, no. Don’t stand up for him. Or yourself. You know you’re leaving me to die. I’d rather you’d not picked me up now: I’ve had all this false hope built up by your ‘friendship’ and ‘protection’. At least if I’d been killed by that Gift, I couldn’t have named my executioner.”

Shadows Fade leant forward, examining Matthew closely. For what, Dust didn’t know.

“I’m sorry, Matthew, but you heard our reasons,” Dust said. “What else can we do?”

Matthew gripped Dust’s shoulders. “If you’re condemning me to death either way, let me come with you. Your horse is strong, it can take me without much issue.” He looked at his hands, then backed off. “Sorry. But I’d rather my clearly-inevitable death had some meaning, even if it was just to stop a bullet entering you.”

Penelope stepped beside him. “You won’t necessarily die leaving the Badlands: everything with any semblance of power or intelligence will be after the three of us.”

“And anything with an ounce of sense will see I was with you, right?” he asked, looking to Shadows Fade. The warrior still scrutinised him, but he didn’t care. “Isn’t it likely that a few of them might splinter off, see if I’m part of any plan you have?”

Dust nodded. The boy had a point, though one that could be countered. “We can shield you for a short time, make it so nothing will be able to make that link.”

“Still, I am likely going to die either way. I reckon I’ll have more chance of living if I’m with three folks as strong as you.”

Dust looked at Penelope – Penny, he thought with amusement – and Shadows Fade. The latter pulled her attention away from Matthew, looking a mite confused. Penelope silently pleaded with him to relent.

“We’ll just have a quick conversation, if you don’t mind.”

Matthew nodded and walked as discreet a distance as he could from them.

Dust gestured for Penelope and Shadows Fade to come in close. “Well?”

“He makes a good point about his fate,” Penelope said. “He’s not a fighter, he’s a runner. But he probably can’t outrun anything that finds him, not this time. I say we take him with us, give him more of a fighting chance.”

“And that’s got nothing to do with your affection for him, ‘Penny’?”

Penelope spluttered. “No, no, of course not. No, how could you even suggest such a thing?” She laughed nervously, looked around. Then her attention fell on Dust’s blank face. “Okay, yes, it’s probably got something to do with it. But he’s still right about his chances out there.”

Dust turned to Shadows Fade, who still stared at Matthew’s back. “Are you okay?” When she didn’t respond, he poked her with the tip of his boot. “Shadows Fade, are you okay?”

The warrior jumped, surprised out of wherever she was in her head. “Pardon?”

“What’s wrong? You’ve been somewhere else for a while now.”

“I do not know. I thought… I thought I sensed something in Matthew. Power. But I cannot pick up even a trace of it now. Brief as a match flaring in a hurricane, nothing to light and then nothing again. I do not know what it was.”

Dust to ran his own senses over the boy. He couldn’t find anything, or the echo of anything. As expected: his magic wasn’t a great deal better than Shadows Fade’s.

“Could it be some natural power?” Penelope asked. “An affinity for magic?”

“Perhaps. The flash was too short to tell anything more.”

“That seals it then. If he has some power he might use when backed into a corner, isn’t he at even more risk alone in the Badlands? A flash like that might bring more dark spirits to him. And wouldn’t it be better to have him as an unexpected last resort?”

Dust sucked on his teeth. She had a point. “Shadows Fade?”

Shadows Fade examined Matthew. “He would not last long alone in the Badlands. He does not have the strength of will. The fortitude. If he does have natural magic from his Christian upbringing – which I have seen happen, with the spells and sigils embedded in the faith – then using it without training will seal his fate.” She thought a moment longer. “Let us bring him with us.”

There was something more there, something she wasn’t saying. Perhaps she suspected more than she could prove. Dust couldn’t imagine what she withheld, but he trusted her judgement. After all, he couldn’t talk about openness and honesty.

“Matthew,” he called. “Come on over.”

He bounded over like a puppy. “Well?”

Dust checked with Shadows Fade again, who nodded slowly. “All right, you’re coming with us.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you. All three of you.” He grinned as he hugged Penelope. “I won’t slow you down, any of you, I promise.”

His grin was infectious, passing to Penelope first, and then to Dust. Even Shadows Fade was smiling, albeit a smile stained with whatever was on her mind.

“Enough. Let’s saddle up and get out. We can’t waste any more time. We’ve got a portal to get to, and a State to save from the Whore God.”

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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