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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Dust and Decay – Chapter 25 – 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.

General Ryman woke at old Lincoln’s crow. Rose slowly to consciousness. Warm, red light spilled into his bedroom, drenching a four-poster bed, oak desk, and crimson, leather seats before the fire place. Below, servants shuffled from their rooms to start their days. Something Richard should do.

But he didn’t move. Couldn’t. The will just wasn’t in him.

After some time, Bobby, his attendant, bustled in with hot towels for this morning’s shave. He frowned on seeing his master still in bed. “General Ryman, are you okay?”

“I am… fine,” the General said. He rose awkwardly, muscles stiff as boards.

Bobby shrugged and set up the General’s shaving equipment in his washroom. Laid out hot towels, water, and shaving foam with delicate reverence. The General watched, curious about a process he usually ignored. There was nothing odd or magical about how Bobby worked, but it was still fascinating.

Bobby jumped when he caught General Ryman watching him. “My word, General, you gave me a start. Are you feeling okay?”

“Of course,” the General lied. “Now, leave me to my ablutions.”

Bobby nodded, grateful to be back on normal terms, and shuffled out. The door clicked slowly shut, locking the General away from the world.

General Ryman watched the steaming towels, unsure exactly why. Rising, dancing steam. With a shake of his head, he went to shave before they cooled.

He examined himself as he shaved. Not physically – he still looked sprightly, with more grey hairs than he liked – but emotionally. Bobby’s reaction was understandable: the General was a man of discipline, routine, who demanded of others only what he expected of himself. To lay about was unlike him. Even when ill, he did squats and press-ups, tested how sick he truly was.

But not this morning. Why? He didn’t know, but a malaise at odds with his nature gripped him. The only analogous situation was bottle-ache, yet General Ryman had not touched a drop of alcohol yesterday. Though he’d had plenty of cause to…

He didn’t consider losing the Solution as a potential cause. Following orders came as naturally to him as breathing, he told himself.

With warm, soft cotton, he brushed his cheeks clean. Then used a solid, horsehair brush to cover his cheeks, chin, and neck in foam. Twice, he flicked bubbles into his eye.

His malaise soured. He took deep breaths through his nose, his lips essentially sealed, and lifted the blade to his skin.

General Ryman had shaved since he was fourteen. So, there was no excuse for the cuts he laced across himself. Even the simplest strokes missed their mark, like his hands were playing a childish prank. He looked like he’d been in a fight, one he only narrowly won.

Or lost.

He placed his pearl-handled razor onto his sink with a soft tink. Blood dripped from his chin. Onto cold porcelain. Tutting, he washed his face and applied rubbing alcohol to stem the bleeding. It stung like a parental rebuke, but such was the price of failure.

“Failure,” he said to his own grey eyes.

Maybe his off-hand lie to Bobby was right and he had endured a torrid night? He didn’t remember tossing and turning, but he must have. Unless he truly were afflicted with some malady and his lowered dexterity was a symptom. He resolved to observe his own behaviour closely.

After dressing in a pressed cotton suit, the General walked to his office. He stopped at the stairwell and listened to his staff. Heard the usual candour and sluggishness from people half-asleep or finishing their shifts. They said nothing suspect or unusual. That ruled out most supernatural influences on his mood, for no one professed to ill effects and servants love to complain.

The General continued. And was surprised to find Ernest Faversham, a Professor from the College of William and Mary and a Solution scientist, outside his office. The man held an envelope, wore crumpled, ragged clothes and a look of deep concern.

“Professor Faversham? Good morning. I must apologise for my surprise, and my staff’s rudeness in not advising me of your arrival. They will be suitably rebuked.”

The man jumped. His tan jacket and trousers flapped. “General, manners do not concern me. I have a matter of some import to discuss, you see, something which could not wait. So, I barged in. I couldn’t wait! Not with this evidence, anyway, with the photo fully developed so I can prove–”

“Shall we go into my office?” General Ryman interrupted, mostly to avoid a lecture. The man clearly needed a drink, and, foul mood or not, the General would not be found wanting for hospitality. “You can tell me more about this photo inside?”

Faversham looked around, the large envelope held to his chest like a child’s toy. His untended white whiskers wilted. “A good point. We don’t know who might be watching or listening. Not at all.”

General Ryman frowned. Faversham had always been eccentric, but his behaviour was downright crazed now. What could have wound him up so?

After unlocking his office, he led the Professor inside. Austere but subtly expensive furniture greeted them, a broad mahogany desk, and an impressive library. Faversham walked inside like a leper, not even blinking at his surroundings.

To help the man’s equilibrium, he locked the door behind them. “Sit.”

Faversham obeyed, landing in a plush leather chair.

“Why don’t you start at the beginning?”

“A wise place to start. This is why I always liked you, General Ryman, and why I know I can trust you with this. There are few people I can trust, after what I’ve found… But I digress. The beginning? It started… No, let me start with my suspicions. They bloomed with a pattern I noticed in living samples from the tainted lands, those ill-fated constructs of flesh and magic. You see, some started to go missing. Recorded as dead with no evidence of their passing. The causes of death were marked as a lack of feeding, either of fresh victims or of magic, but I didn’t agree: I worked with these constructs, General, took regular measures of their health. Despite my colleagues’ views, I felt their sudden deaths were perplexing and unexplained.”

The General nodded amiably, somewhat interested, and moved slowly toward his desk.

“And so, I took it upon myself to investigate. After all, it could have been environmental: perhaps they were allergic to whatever we clean their cages with or something in their food. Such information could have meant an advance for chemical weaponry. So, I pressed on, seeking evidence and accounts to support the endeavour. But I kept finding dead ends, lines of inquiry met with silence, empty records, bogus citations. If I hadn’t known better, if I hadn’t respected my colleagues so, I might have suspected they were hiding something. Oh, if only I had followed that suspicion through at the time…”

General Ryman wanted to intervene, to direct Faversham, but the man’s lips quivered between sentences. Tears adorned his eyes. One push might render him incapable. He instead sat gently at his desk and ran his fingers along the drawer containing some fine whiskey.

“I found a common link between the creatures that died suddenly: each belonged to Omnis. Other creatures of the Triangle died normally from experimental weapons, artefacts, and treatments, but the Omnis constructs had an alarmingly high mortality rate. They were, I believed, uniquely susceptible to something in the Solution. I thought it vital to discover what.

“But studying these constructs became more and more difficult. People I know and respected denied me access to subjects belonging Omnis: each time I asked, they were already booked, even if the logs did not bear that out. But I still did not suspect anything malicious, merely thought I had bad luck or had failed politically. Old fool that I am.

“It was only after what would become ‘the Dreamreaper’ came in that I finally awoke to the truth, General. It started as a Chinese child with a growth more akin to That Which Sins than Omnis in its spine. I was allowed brief access this time and determined the growth was indeed of Omnis. I suspect my fellows only allowed this access to keep me content, granting me soft tissue samples as they got on with their real work: feeding the Dreamreaper.”

The General leaned forward. “Feeding it? Feeding it how?”

“I don’t know exactly, for they kept the meals under velvet cloth. I once witnessed the Dreamreaper reach out the girl’s malnourished arms and pluck something from under the cloth which shone like burning copper. I found no records of the feeding process.”

Faversham took a deep sigh. Tears plummeted to thick carpeting. “It is time, then, that I explain why I’m here. The Dreamreaper went missing yesterday, but was not used in an experiment or killed. It was released, purposefully, by our scientific staff to do the Triangle’s bidding.”

The General punched his desk. “Get out. I cannot believe I wasted my time listening to your rambling. I ought to have you arrested for this slander as well as trespass. Get out now!”

Faversham’s whole body stilled, as though he had vibrated subtly before. He shook his head. “No. You must examine this photograph. It is the proof of what I say.”

“Hand it over, then. Though, I warn you, if this is not solid as the foundations of my home, you will be ruined in the academic community.”

Faversham placed the envelope on the desk. Steady hands, soft breathing. “I have already been effectively cast out of the Solution, so your threat is idle. Mayhap I am already ruined? My colleagues have left me and select others out of every great meeting, every endeavour, since I joined. All because I declined the invitation extended to me on arrival. That was the real beginning of this mess, but one I did not mention before for fear of your reaction.”

General Ryman took the envelope and opened it. “What do you mean? What invitation?”

“The day I joined the Solution, I was approached by William B. Naismith. He made me an offer: were I but willing to cast aside my beliefs and morals, I could be granted knowledge and learning beyond my imagining, rising in my field to the level of Plato or Socrates. Of course, it was an interesting offer, but the idea of abandoning my Methodism was abhorrent. I declined, politely. Naismith promised I would face no ill will provided I never mention the offer. And there was no ill will, true, but also no camaraderie: I was an outcast, never to be accepted by my peers.”

The General looked at the open envelope. Faversham accused not only the Solution’s scientific staff of collusion with the Triangle, but their benefactor. The man must have had some tremendous mental break to believe such a thing.

Unless what was within this envelope was so damning…

“Inside there,” the Professor said, more and more in control of himself, “are the slate for a photograph and a fully-processed image. A photograph I took of the crime against these United States. I knew something would happen after I was ordered to leave our laboratories. I had hid a camera aimed at the Dreamreaper’s cage in the laboratory when I first grew suspicious. So, instead of leaving, I secreted myself away with the camera, finger eager at the trigger.

“After some time, a ritual began, one aimed to free the beast. It was unsurprising and yet deeply shocking, seeing my colleagues perform such dark magics. I couldn’t take a photograph immediately, else I would have been discovered and most likely killed. So, I waited. Magic crackled around me. Pardon me, I should have mentioned that strangers led the ritual, all under his watchful eye. Anyway, I waited for an opportune moment, until the portal appeared amidst lightning and cracks of thunder, and disguised the camera’s flash amidst that magical torrent.

“Now, General Ryman, see what I captured. See what I hid for hours to protect. See what drives me to rudeness, libel, and charges of madness and heresy.”

The General withdrew the photo from alongside a camera slate covered in fine silk. A poorly-framed scene, as one would expect from a hurried shot, but it clearly displayed members of the Solution standing at a creature’s cage. The photo could not accurately render the beast due to the magic around it and its diaphanous nature, but its form suggested it had once been a child. A portal hung above it, yet the scientists were relaxed. Worse, people in dark hoods waved their arms to the heavens beside them. A ritual they approved of.

Without a doubt, this was taken in the Solution. He recognised many of those present. It had also been taken recently, judging by those in attendance. Faversham was no madman. There was something deeply rotten within the Solution. And the General knew exactly what it was.

For a figure stood at the centre of the shot. Their clothing was obscured by magic, but their face was clear. The General knew it well. William B. Naismith.

The General put down the photo and stared into the distance. He had been right this morning. Something was wrong, but it wasn’t with him. The world had gone mad as he slept.

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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