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Friday, February 23, 2024

Dust and Decay – Chapter 9 – 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 took to his heels and made a break for the tunnel he entered through. Through blackened fangs, shrieks filled the stinking air. He fired almost blindly into the heavens as he ran, taking only brief glances at the legions emerging from above. His aim was good, but he would’ve killed more if he’d stood still.

Carriers howled as they died far above him, but he was shaving by cutting one hair at a time. And he had maybe thirty seconds before claws hardened over centuries reached for him. Worse, these Carriers were taller than the others. Slenderer with multi-jointed limbs and teeth overflowing from their mouths, every trace of who they’d once been rotted away. The vanguard.

The Gift cackled. The damn thing was confident it had enough Carriers to crush Dust. Maybe just through sheer weight. He couldn’t say it was wrong.

Dust made it to the tunnel, grateful he’d had enough pace to get this far. Encompassing rock narrowed the field of battle, negating the Carriers’ aerial advantage. It was a small measure, but he now had nowhere to go if things went south.

“Better keep ’em facing north then.”

Dust turned and unleashed his fury. His hands danced as he fired into the swarm, rolling his other gun’s chamber to keep the Word primed. Scores of Carriers crumpled under his burning attentions, but more waited to take their place, stepping over burning remains to get just a little closer to him than the fallen.

The Gift shouted indistinct orders, a distant murmur. The Carriers spread out of his line of sight. Approached from above and either side. Dust caught his breath, reloaded his other gun, and stood ready to fire.

Another murmured set of orders. The Carriers advanced again. Instead of surging forward in clumps, they advanced in a staggered formation. Came toward him from different angles, at different times. A good strategy. Better, anyway.

Still, he fended them off. Old and powerful though the Carriers were, they were weak from decades of inactivity and hunger. This was no vanguard. Thankfully. A stern wind might’ve fought as well as Dust. He couldn’t figure out why the Gift wasted their forces with such a futile effort. One never that’d never win.

At least, until he saw the cavern’s many stalagmites also shift. Then he understood: the Gift was testing him, and perhaps its forces after so long ruling over an empty city, with a fraction of its troops. When it’d gauged his strength, and let him tire himself out, it would attack with a force large enough to take him down and not a Carrier more.

Damn good tactic, really, he admitted between jarring shots.

More Carriers shook off their rock coating in the distance, maybe a thousand lining up like eager children at dinner time. To survive, he’d have to try out his other gun’s new spells.

The Teotek’d taught him much since they’d taken him in. Hell, Dust could spend a lifetime amongst them and still learn every day. One such lesson included directions for forging a connection between his other gun and his tattoo, allowing Resistance to feed it power. Another one, which’d come mostly from Father Kilkenny but the Teotek had refined, was how to use the parts of his soul still connected to him for each shot.

He hadn’t tried that second one out yet. But he might die if he didn’t.

Dust touched the new spell markers carved into his other gun between shots, building the connection to his tattoo. He fired three more times as the runes warmed, killing five Carriers, and begged Resistance for power. Begged not to be an example to the Teotek.

There was no response. “Damn you, come on!”

Dust cursed but he understood Resistance wasn’t at his beck and call. Just like he wasn’t at its. In the meantime, he activated other runes and let his other gun draw upon his shredded soul. A wrenching drain followed, like how having your intestines slowly withdrawn might feel.

Discomfort was no excuse to relent. Dust pumped the reeking Carriers full of magic containing his soul. Burned them away, back to the ashes they should be. Each shot was far more powerful, but not yet strong enough to take out every shambling, silt-covered thing roaring toward him.

He begged Resistance again for magic. Still no response.

The foremost Carriers grew close enough to strike. To rake him with fingers that once stroked lovers, once wove clothes, once picked up babes. Melting Flesh had taken everything from them and left them at the Gift’s mercy. It infuriated Dust, seeing their degradation and abuse. But it also saddened him. None’d asked for or accepted this. They were victims. Rotting innocents.

That was when Resistance responded. A glut of magic that immediately flowed into his other gun to mixed with that of his Word and the power from his remaining soul. His gun vibrated like a wild horse galloped inside it, needing him to use both hands to aim.

The closest Carrier swiped a ragged claw at him.

“Sorry,” Dust said before he pulled the trigger.

The world went red, purest damn colour he’d ever seen. The nearest Carriers disintegrated before they could even react. Crimson power rolled past them, erasing their comrades. Escaping the passageway, the magic spread out, catching every Carrier in the cavern. They had enough time to hiss or squeal before the torrent of magic ripped through them.

Dust’s eyes watered at the growing stench of death and rot. Over his attack’s dull roar, he heard the rock ceiling and walls being ripped away by gale-strength force.

The redness passed. Silence followed. Peace.

His Word was a damn strong base to amplify, something which the rest of his soul had done gleefully. But his tattoo’d knocked the effect up to the stratosphere: alongside their destruction, all dark magic’d been cleared from the Carriers, leaving only their bones behind. A thousand skeletons littered the ground, like a graveyard had thrown up.

Dust sighed in relief. He was safe.

Time took its toll on the ribs, skulls, and femurs: they crumbled into choking clouds. At last, the people of Kehuadinune had some peace. He would have to let Chief Fighting Storm know. Well, once he’d properly cleared the place out.

Dust dropped the spells boosting his other gun and stepped into the cavern. He’d been wrong about his victory: a few Carriers remained, but they were fleeing, much to the Gift’s disgust. It shouted at them with all the futility of a defeated General, curses and wounded roars.

He grinned, enjoying its anguish. Then the floor rose to greet him. A jagged kiss to the chin which shook his whole body. Damn if he hadn’t fallen like a drunk on pay day! He didn’t have Father Kilkenny’s faith, or a complete soul, so drawing on that power’d drained him. Not in the normal way, like regenerating, but a soul tiredness, the weariness of a grandmother who’d outlived her grandchildren. It was a readiness for the end.

Dust sighed and rose on shaking feet. Blood dripped from his chin. There would be no end today for him. He was the Wanting Man. Much as he might desire release, he couldn’t get any, not whilst things like the Gift still roamed the world. Until then, he could want all he damn well pleased, but Resistance wasn’t done with him.

“You fought well,” the Gift whispered as Dust struggled forward. “Your ruse worked. I thought you were fleeing, but your power was greater than I imagined.”

Dust raised his other gun and fired at the Gift. The shot ricocheted back past him.

“You seek to kill me?”

Dust did want to kill the Gift. Really damn badly. And not just for petty reasons: the only way it could maintain and control that many Carriers was with a strong power source. One like the cage it lived in, built to solidly deflect the magic of the Three, else the Gift couldn’t have influenced the outside world. As such, the golden bowl must be in its cage.

Dust fired at a different point of the shielding. The bullet deflected again. Green flames became infernos. He followed the ripples of their power to analyse the trap’s layout. How it operated. It seemed the only way to get at the Gift was to destroy the torches. They fed the protection, burning the strength it expelled with each flex or tainted belch.

“Death may not be awful,” the Gift mused. “Death may be a blessing.”

“Then I’ll be damn glad to give you that blessing.”

Dust approached the nearest torch. Examined it properly. Ideally, he wanted to weaken the magic around the Gift without destroying it outright. Keep the thing caged long enough for him to take careful aim. Like shooting fish in a barrel. He didn’t immediately see a way to do that, but little was so simple you can understand it at first blush.

“You do not understand me: death may be a blessing for you, Man Who Wants.”

Dust stopped his examination. “How do you know my name?”

The Gift chuckled. “Hear me, thing of Resistance. You might be better dying here at my hand than experiencing what is ahead of you.”

“And what’s ahead of me?”

The Gift said something Dust didn’t understand. A word that didn’t seem like a name. It laughed afterwards, loud and happy, like it’d told a great joke.

Dust waited to see whether it’d say anything more. It didn’t seem ready to. Damn thing was probably just trying to put some fear in him. Force him to make a mistake. Fighting to the last, as anyone would.

Anyone. Yeah, the Gift’d once been a person, so it’d still behave like one. Maybe only at a base level after centuries of corruption by Melting Flesh, but human in some ways nonetheless. Much as he didn’t like being laughed at or toyed with, he understood it.

The biggest thing he’d been learning from Penelope and Shadows Fade was how to remove spite and anger from his duties. Most of it, any road. It was hard when people were involved, particularly innocents, but it was fair. As Penelope’d said, many things of the Three never asked for their corruption. Even the ones who did mightn’t have had a choice, either through desperation, torture, or idiocy. Better to be dispassionate but firm. To be just.

“I know what you’re doing. It ain’t gonna work.”

“You do what you must, Man Who Wants,” the Gift said with a chuckle.

The torches were too intricate to identify a weakness. Careful overkill, then. Dust shot the nearest fire four times. Two magics of Resistance flared, crackling lightning and low whistles. His shots won out and the torch’s wooden frame evaporated. Its green fire hung in the air a while before fading, taking the other six fires with it.

Dust used the moment before the cage fell to reload and aim. Then the magic barrier dissipated. A pale, bloated form rolled out like jelly, oozing, sliding. Before the Gift could enjoy its freedom, Dust unleashed six shots between its coffin-sized eyes. Each dug further into its spongy forehead until the final shot seared through the Gift’s brain.

The Gift howled. Dark magic spurted from its wound like a damn’d burst. Once more, Dust was bathed in corrupting taint. His teeth fell out and his tongue withered in his mouth. His newly-formed eyebrows fell like flour from a pierced bag. It hurt like nothing he’d ever known, with the pain of his recovery added, but these were the Gift’s death throes. It did not last long.

The Gift fell into laughter. It repeated that unidentifiable term as its vital magics sprayed out into the cavern. Then it collapsed, never to rise, and weakly dripped corrupted essence onto the rock floor.

Falling apart though he was, new teeth forcing their way through shrivelled gums, Dust made himself step forward. He had to drain the corpse, stop the surviving Carriers from returning to grow fat on it. The quicker he did, the fewer remnants there would be to tempt the creatures in. If he could leave Kehuadinune empty of the Three’s influence, the Teotek could reclaim it. That’d be a great victory, something that could help put Texas back on track.

For a moment, he gave credence to the Gift’s warnings: what could be coming for him? Could the Gift see into the future? Or even far in the present, some force coming for him he didn’t yet appreciate? Maybe. But there was nothing he could do about that.

Something golden glinted on the plinth the Gift’d fallen from. Limping forward, he saw a golden bowl. Barely four inches across, it pulsed with magic and power despite having supported a leach for a couple hundred years.

“Found you,” Dust said before working on the Gift’s corpse.

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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