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Shelly being cooperative was a welcome change in complications. "I'll be holding onto Lohr, I think," Gail said easily, giving her shotgun a gentle pat but she relaxed her hold to one hand so it swung more easily at her side. "After it, it seems like I'm at a bit of a disadvantage here."
And there went Leigh making a statement that at once unsettled Gail, and was also a sentiment she couldn't help approving the idea of how much better she'd feel once her growing flock of charges was patched up and scrubbed up.
In a spot of wisdom, Gail kept her mouth shut and instead let Leigh direct the discussion on loci. There were berries. Whether they were mistletoe as Sherry said, or not, was entirely beyond Gail's realm of knowledge. So Shelly was making the claim to be able to cast magic when touching these berries? Hard to come by or not, it hardly seemed fair that Gail was stuck with Roland, the living chimney. "nhy6utw ar" .
"Any chance of changing loci?" Gail asked. If Roland could switch to something like potatoes or grass he'd be a lot easier to keep clean.
Then the conversation went to the Sheriff. Gail had at first nodded along with Sherry but found herself becoming skeptical at the claims of being able to use the desert to cast magic. "Hang on, I heard of this Sheriff of yours but nothing quite so fantastical. Only rumours in New York, but I've got some leads I'm gonna use to track him down once Ro testifies. I don't know how you Loca folk regulate yourselves under the law, but this Sheriff fella is either fighting the good fight, or on some kind of ego-trip and I aim to find out."
If Shelly's neck, now exposed, was an alarming sight, Gail was downright enraged that when Roland spoke, suddenly at her side, she turned to see he had somehow collected even [b more] coal.
"What the blazes ya think you're doing, kid? You drop that mess right now, do you even need all that?" Gail stepped back and realized that, in contrast, Leigh and Missy seemed slightly less stained. Shelly remained right in some sort of medium between the two levels. On top of that, Roland looked half spooked to death. Gail let out an exasperated sigh.
"Ghosts and ghouls aside, I'm going to have to advise against carrying Missy that way on a horse. I'm going to commandeer a cart, and we'd best be getting on our way if we're going to save this girl in time to get you all baths before you end up looking that way forever."
Roland, already nodding to Leigh's demands before the list was complete, managed to drop the knife entirely when Leigh started walking away. He didn't want to get close, but dropping his hands into the coal dust still covering the ground he snagged at strings of their connection. "Come clean."
It was one of the spells he had been more often been called on to cast in the past. Matron never liked it when he stained the walls or floor with his passing and such it was a common order to clean up after himself. From this distance, and with the sheer amount of coal caked on them, it didn't wasn't entirely effective, but at least some of the coal came loose. If Leigh could stop moving for a moment, Roland could make it work better, but Roland didn't think his voice would get the request out in a way that would work. Especially if Roland was to stay away from Missy now, who Leigh was holding.
They were collectivly walking away, and the words Roland could catch of their conversation were clearly about these new words of magic. Roland wanted to hear them, and raced to retrieve Gail's knife and finally cut his hands free.
It was an exquisite agony, as his sense of feeling brought with it both pins and needles in his actual hands but also great stretches of pain across his shoulders and back at finally being able to move the limbs again.
Coal. Leigh said to get coal. Roland was already covered head to toe in the stuff, and filling the remainders of his pockets was a quick task after trotting back into the shed. He haphazardly shoved the first pieces he grabbed into his pocket then hurried to fun after the others, careful to braces his hands over his pockets to keep as much of the precious substance from falling out as possible.
He heard Leigh shout something else back to him as he approached, and Roland didn't have a response. He'd never hit someone before, and thus had no scale of how likely it was that Leigh was losing some of his looks. How well did faces heal?
Roland was careful to give Leigh a wide berth to edge around to stand on Gail's far side. If her presence had initially had a calming effect on his anxiety, it wasn't enough for the ensuing story and reveal that came to pass. A Locust Sheriff? A Judge? And the horrid scars on Shasta's neck, spared from Roland's coal by the scarf that was now clearly there intending to hide the grotesque skin.
Unconciously, Roland raised a hand to his own neck. A cold sweat had made the dust there itch but wasn't quite enough to wash any of the grime away and Roland found himself remembering the pain of the ropes binding his hands....and what would it feel like on your neck? And for using his loci to break laws...
Roland was suddenly, painfully, aware of their current location West of the Mississippi. "The desert?" Roland repeated, then decided to press his luck prying a little further. "H-how do they know? What you've done?"
"Lord knows they're all you have going for you," Shelly muttered. The man might have heard, or he might not have. Maybe he was just glaring indiscriminately at everyone except for the Inspector, whom he seemed to like. Shelly walked compliantly along with them. At this point, escaping was against her best interests whether she intended to continue with the job or not. She definitely did not want to rejoin the other hired men, now. They were more trouble than their extra hands were worth. Her best plan would be to continue working with these people and strike when their guard was lowered. Possibly once the locum man left with his daughter and the only people left to contend with were an inexperienced child and a locusless who was a full half of Shelly's size.
Louder, to the Inspector, "You can put the gun away, now. Take mine if you want. I'll help you find the girl. I can't heal, either, but I know one or two things that might help. I was one of the bounty hunters, yes, but this job has been one terrible thing after another. I'd wash my hands of it, if I could."
"I'd shoot somebody for a wash right now," the man put in, ostensibly in support. Shelly hesitated. She... wasn't sure how to respond to that. A joke? While he toted his semi-aware daughter through the streets, on his way to find a possibly-dead child? Was he an idiot, or did he just not care at all about other people? Before she'd formulated a response that wouldn't get her thrown out of the group at the end of a shotgun shell, he added, "You still haven't given us your locus, you know. Makes it hard to trust you. What is it? Metal? Plant? I don't see any critters around here. Insects seem unlikely but I've seen stranger."
This conversational track wasn't much better. Shelly grumbled, unhooked a pouch from her belt and passed it over to the Inspector. If opened, she'd see a mess of dried berries. "Mistletoe. Please be careful. It is very hard to get, around here."
"I know a bit about what that's like," the man agreed, noncommittally but cheerful. He didn't volunteer his own locus, even though that was the next logical step in this exchange. Shelly snorted. Fine, let him keep his secrets. Miserable pile of them that he was.
To the Inspector, "I'll tell you this much--a locum does magic through a locus, which is a material focus for their spells unique to each person. Beyond that, I should be quiet. I've already broken taboo by telling a non-locum about it, and by using magic against non-loci. I'm a locust. Any more, and the Locust Sheriff will find me and silence me."
By now, they'd reached the street. The man had been idling away from them, presumably to pick up his horse, but came back at full attention at her words. A mocking half-smile creased his face as he looked at her. "You've heard of him? In RUSSIA? And you believe it?"
"No, Russia has her own boogeyman. The Judge, a locusless man hanged for witchcraft, whose ghost now hunts down loci who openly do magic and hangs them for it. I think everywhere has stories like this. When I first came to America, I heard very quickly about the Locust Sheriff. They say he's a man as powerful as a God. If you harm a non-locum, or abuse the laws with magic, he will find you and scour you from the Earth. All of the desert is his locus. Even if you escape, the desert itself will come for you, and let him know always where you are. He walks slowly, but he will always find you, in the end." She'd been told this story by Dr. Lawrence, first. Before that, she'd had very few locum friends in America. He'd warned her the first time she'd used magic to help them complete a job, how her actions would bring mystical ruin down on them all. They were all technically in violation, for bringing Troy, Morris, and later Tooly in on it. Shelly had technically been in violation for her whole life prior to immigrating. She'd slept badly for days, until The Judge had let her know it wasn't America's boogeyman who had jurisdiction.
The man barked a laugh. "The desert is a new one on me! How's he punish people in New England, then?"
"I think he stays west of the Mississippi. Presumably, there is an Eastern sheriff on the other side," Shelly answered stiffly. "I wouldn't mock him. You'll find out the hard way, if you're careless, that these stories have truth to them."
"Really? You believe in a demigod who just goes around the countryside smiting evildoers, what, as a hobby? How's he make money to eat? Has anyone you know ever SEEN him?"
"I have seen The Judge." Shelly reached up to pull down her red scarf. Beneath it, along the column of her throat, were scars left behind by deep scrapes. A hanging rope would not normally leave scars, she knew. She didn't know if it was the magical nature of The Judge, or if it was simply the intense struggle that had gone on during their run-ins that had left Shelly wounded more deeply than most strangled people. Her exact memories of their fights were somewhat hazy with terror and adrenaline and lack of oxygen. "If he is real, I do not see why the Sheriff might not also be."
Oh, now he was all conciliatory, huh? He wasn't stopping to ask questions before he ambushed Leigh with a damn shovel. How did he think coal was going to fix a broken nose, anyway?
He followed the kid's gaze just past Leigh's face, to Missy limp on his shoulder. That made more sense. 'How can I help MISSY'. Not Leigh. Everywhere he went nowadays, he was running into friends of hers. Useful for her. Irritating for him. He was always the bad guy now, huh? Now among white people as well as native ones. She couldn't have even known this kid for longer than a few hours on the train before she ended up half-comatose like this, how deep a bond could they even have made?
Unless... He side-eyed the teenage boy looking at his daughter. "You can help by loading your pockets with this damn stuff before we go, so you're not deadweight, too. And by getting it off all of us so we can breathe. Finally, you can help by keeping your damn distance from my daughter. Understand?" He marched off, after where the Inspector was prodding their captured bandit along. He was really starting to feel a connection to Gail. She was abrasive and practical.
"Everyone's untied, but bleeding isn't my specialty," he reported. "Not much we can do except heal the normal way, this time. Unfortunately." Over his shoulder, he barked, "You'll have a lot to answer for if I lose my good looks thanks to you."
Priorities are a bitch, but Gail was going to keep to some.
First was Roland. Keep him safe. That was already proving to be an extensive task but seeing as the little shit wasn't dead yet she supposed it was a passing job for now.
Second, and this one had been more recently been up, was that Roland seemed to have found some tag alongs. For a kid with the social graces of a fish, and perhaps less experience, that was a wonder of on its own. The fact that they were just as much trouble as he was might have been what bonded them together for all she knew. Magic and Mayhem and Missy.
Third, learning more about this loci/locum business. They said its supposed to be secret, but there had to be some manner of regulation to this nonsense. Some manner of laws, protections, limits. Hell, it would be nice to know what sort capabilities Roland had, since the boy clearly had no clear concept of them.
Fourth, was making up her mind about what to do with Shelly Shasta. She was party to what might be the death of one, and then whatever fate had befallen the Miss. Pahana Roland got himself so worked up over.
Shelly wasn't starting on Gail's good side, but Gail wasn't above giving the woman a chance.
"If you'll come along, ma'am, I think we've got some talking to do and we'd best get it done quick. If you'll lead the way, I'd appreciate it if you'd elaborate a little more on this locum business."
Magic. People who do magic. Locus? Locum? Was that what he was? There was.... a name for it? Locus were a secret. That made sense.
Miss. Pahana- Pahana? Missy? Had she been casting something this whole time? And locum, locum was magic, but Missy's locum had been tossed off the train. Colette (Coal-ette?) Sutton was the girl who had been thrown off the side of the train. Finding Colette.
"I [b knew] there had to be more of you! You fuckers are hard to track down," Gail gave a triumphant squawk. "However, Shelly Shasta, did my ears deceive me, or are you one of these bounty hunters?"
It was hard to tell if Missy was looking any better or worse, covered as she was in coal. Coal. Locum. He could help, right? Didn't both of these strangers just confirm that whatever coal was to him, it was normal to be able to use magic?
Roland licked nervously at his lips. "Gail. Help them."
That brought Gail's attention back around. "Help what? Leigh? Kid, I plan on helping everyone here to a doctor or to a jail cell, depending on how this goes."
"Now see here, both of you boneheads, we're not charging anywhere until a) we're done bleeding and b) we're untied." When Roland glanced down at his own hands, confirming they were still there, though they had long gone numb. The disappointed glower on her face was clearly a comment on this blatantly absentminded action. "Ya'll can do something about that, right? With you whimsical spells or something? If you two can manage that, I'll get us some horses. I expect some answers later, but if we can do something to help these two young ladies we're at least going to put a little forethought into it. Honestly. [i Men.]"
Roland wasn't sure this man was going to want to let Roland anywhere near him anytime soon, but Gail didn't look in the mood to listen. She was pulling out one of her favourite knives and tossed it toward Roland's feet.
"Now I don't like how you seem to be playing into this, Shelly. You're going to come quietly, and once these idiots and I ride out of town, you're going to do your very damndest to make sure I never see you again for as long as we both shall live."
Gail had the situation under control. Taking charge was something Gail did and, even though Roland didn't think it was such a good idea to split at all, he didn't protest. Arguing with Gail was a waste of breath, which was something Roland had little to spare for the moment.
Dropping to his knees, Roland fished the knife out of the fine coal dust coating the earth and began carefully trying to saw away at the rope as he stumbled back up to his feet. He could hear Gail heading back out the alley, motioning with her shotgun for Shelly to lead the way.
Roland risked a glance for Missy, carefully avoiding looking at Leigh's face. They were still covered in coal, and that was something Roland might be able to start with correcting, but Leigh.... He'd given this man no reason to trust him.
But coal was his locum, apparently. His magic? His link to magic at the very least, and this was the most coal he'd ever been in contact with at one time in his life. He'd rarely been able to test what exactly he could do. Could he clean the coal away entirely? Could he fix what he broke? What did it mean to be a loci? Here was someone who would might have so many answers to questions, if only Roland could figure out how to say them. "Can I help?"
There was no hesitation before Leigh scooped Missy up onto his shoulders. She was stocky, yeah, but she didn't weigh more than a calf. It was no problem. Whatever that native boy might think, Leigh didn't have a problem touching Missy even now that he knew what her locus was. In fact, he'd be more than happy if she could use him to finish whatever this spell was and come back to her senses. He'd no sooner had this thought than he felt an itch pass over his arms like a shiver from wrist to shoulder. It felt a little like it did when he was casting a spell of his own, though it was unnerving to experience independent of his own will. Missy must be using him to fuel herself. Good.
He staggered out of the shed to find the breaking of a taboo in progress. A sheriff's work was never done, he thought wryly. "The locus thing is a SECRET, actually. We don't take kindly to people who break it, even if those people haven't already shot our daughter and thrown her locus off of a train in front of her." Though... it was possible the Inspector already knew? The boy was just using it willy-nilly in front of her, and she didn't seem alarmed. Was this to do with the crime he was supposedly a witness to? A magic crime?
She and Leigh were in the same business, apparently. Locust exterminators. He adjusted Missy to sit more comfortably. "Normally, I'd be extremely upset with all of those things I just mentioned, but for right now my priorities are a little different. I need to go find Colette Sutton before Missy drives herself insane doing whatever she's trying to do. I'll deal with all law-breakers just as soon as I get back from that."
He withdrew the compass from his shirt pocket, eyeing it critically. It was still locked onto Missy. He focused on the slide of magnetic fields through the air, invisible lines tracing a path to their point of convergence. Constantly around them, pulling at them, guiding them. "Colette is north," he told the device, conversationally. The needle twitched, spun in a spastic circle, then settled in one direction. The only question left was whether he had time to go fetch Della Rosa or if he'd have to hoof it into the damn desert himself? Surely whatever trouble Colette was in could wait the extra few minutes; the compass couldn't imply distance, but he was sure he wouldn't find her just a mile down the tracks.
Well this was some drama. Shelly eyed the flat-nosed man's frantic actions with distant pity. It was... strange. To feel shame. Normally, Shelly was inured to that emotion. Her time in the military was one reason, prolonged association with extremely embarrassing friends was another. If anything, Shelly more often found herself proud of the odd situations she routinely found herself in. This was not one of those. She'd kidnapped a kid, shot her, possibly crippled her mind somehow, and was now facing that kid's father. Who she'd just recently punched repeatedly in the kidneys. She felt like she was going to burn her face off. God, she couldn't even fight back if the man went to town on HER with a shovel next, could she? Even Sparrow had backed out, and Sparrow was nothing if not staunch in the face of insanity. She should have taken the hint when he'd turned on her that this job was not the kind of thing she could be proud of, not even for its results.
Fuck, it was like the whole world was pressuring Shelly to give up. She didn't understand! This was RIGHT, it was... evil, yes, but for a good cause! The best cause--the only friend Shelly had ever had. What was the point of turning away from him now? What else was there for her in America, now that Lawrence had left? Without Morris, there was no ragtag partnership of men, there was no adventure, no heroism and justice. If she stopped following orders now, dug in her heels and refused to be coerced, then she might as well have just stayed in Russia until it had squeezed every drop of life out of her.
But here, now, taking evil orders she didn't want to follow... was it really any better than staying in Russia, either?
"...Shelly Shasta," she said at last. "He said 'locus'. It's what people like us use to do magic." She assumed. She hadn't really tracked much of the last few minutes, but the man had definitely said 'locus', and the birth and death of that coal cloud seemed fairly magicky. Not to mention that if the girl was a locum her father was almost certainly one too. So current count put everyone present in the 'locum' category with the exception of the lady with the shotgun. Did it count as breaking taboo when you did it at the end of a double-barrel? "Pahana's been doing magic since her friend went over the side. Which, for the record, I did not do and did not condone. Look, I'm not out here trying to hurt anybody for the hell of it. Me and a few others were hired to bring in a missing locum kid, that's all. And I NEED this job."
The woman lowered her weapons, and Gail gave the courtesy of lowering her own shotgun but kept it safely in hand.
"Her what now?" Gail asked, but Leigh wasn't paying attention, and he wasn't sticking around to explain either. Was that some fancy name for her guns? She'd have preferred to trust her back to her unit and go check on Roland but she didn't have that luxury and she still didn't know exactly how this woman fit into this absolute train wreck of a day. "You got a name, ma'am?
There was a lurch, and she saw Leigh was making for the shed and Roland, frozen in place, wasn't moving. He still had that old shovel in hand and Gail was seeing enough blood coming from Leigh's face to get the gist of what happened. Shit.
"Let him through, Ro," Gail barked out, and the boy practically collapsed out of Leigh's way. For such a big kid he was practically cowering away from Leigh as he stumbled over his own feet to get out of the way. He came to stop just outside, bending half over to brace his hands on his knees in a violent coughing fit.
"Your kid in there? We can see if the town's got a doctor," Gail called out. "Ro? What kind of condition is your friend in?" Roland tried to speak, but cut off his own rasping to focus on sucking more air in. "Forget it, deep breaths, kid. Leigh?"
Gail had begun to edge to one side in hopes of getting a better view through the shed door. His next question didn't make sense.
"Girl? There was another girl? Ro?"
"Frain," Roland huffed out, before spitting, licking his lips and trying again. "Train. Threw 'er off."
"Ro, you better not be admitting to manslaughter," Gail growled at him.
"No, [i bandit]. They shot Miss Pahana, and threw another girl off the side."
At last, a stroke of good luck. The inspector was a tiny, shotgun-toting angel. At her command, the once-silver-haired bandit lowered both pistols towards the ground and simply stood in place, practically shaking with the force of her own anger. Leigh pushed himself into a seated position where he could lean forward and try to drain some of the damn blood out of the back of his throat. He kind of wished he could strip off his gloves; he probably couldn't prod the damn squishy nose stuff back into place right with them on. A few more coughs and he'd at least cleared his throat enough to say, "You'll wanna get... her locus, too." Who knew what type it was. It might be in contact with her body right now, depending. He'd thought she was white when he'd seen her before, but hell if he hadn't seen pale people of every geographical origin. And forget mixed heritage. Her locus could be anything.
Speaking of mixed heritage and mysterious providence of magic, Missy still hadn't come out of that shed. Leigh would have expected her to be right behind the boy with the shovel, nagging at Leigh and scowling as usual. It wasn't like her to be so quiet and still. It was...
Leigh wobbled to his feet. Forget what his blood was doing, he had to find out what was wrong with Missy. But the kid was blocking his way into the shed. He'd just said something about hurting Miss Pahana, hadn't he? Her needing help?
"S'wrong with Missy?" he demanded. "Move aside, let me see her. I'm her father." It still felt a lot like lying to say that, like he was just saying a phrase guaranteed to end all questions. She apparently hadn't started introducing herself with his surname yet, so the feeling was probably mutual. She had to know that if she was hurt she could come to him, though, right? They didn't agree about going to New Orleans, but he would help her if she'd been, say, hit in the face with a shovel. She wasn't just staying in there not talking to him out of pride, was she? He raised his voice. "Let me see it so I can see what I can do, little missy."
She didn't answer. At this point, no shovel on earth could stop Leigh from muscling past the gangly kid and into the dark, sooty interior of the shed. One of the dark lumps, as it turned out, was Missy, lying as if dropped in place. Her eyes were open and staring glassily ahead, one arm curled up as if cradling something.
His head was full of falling midwinter snow. His gut clenched as if a spike had been driven through it. Soyala, on the floor of her summer house, cradling their daughter in one arm. Impact death, no blood. No sound.
A whisper. "...live..."
Leigh's knees hit the floor instantly, gloved hands pushing at Missy's body. Her lips were moving. She was speaking! But her face was so horribly absent, her body limp as a lasso... The only part of her that he couldn't rearrange was her hand, fastened in a death gri--fastened VERY TIGHTLY over one of her own braids. Every few seconds, she would rasp, "...live..." to the dark air.
"Hell. What happened to the girl she was with?" It was dark. He had bigger problems right now than secrecy. He pulled off his long gloves, revealing pristine sleeves and skin which he immediately dirtied by feeling around his sooty face. It hurt like fire, but everything seemed molded into the proper shape, so he scrubbed his palms quickly across his face to remove the worst of the dust and then yanked the gloves back on. He didn't know exactly what was wrong with Missy, but it looked like magic gone wrong, somehow. Was she commanding her own damn self to live, somehow? She didn't look hurt. Leigh had no idea what she was even capable of. Could she do magic using her own self, anyway?
When Gail retired, it was going to be to a cushy desk job. On the bottom floor of a quiet building, with her own personal coffee machine. Maybe a whiskey bar. She wouldn't mind employing that one bartender down the street full time. At this point, she felt she deserved the eye candy and at the very least a stiff drink.
Before Gail retired, she was going to drag Roland to safety and give him a good clobbering herself. The damn brat didn't understand common decency, making her chase him half across the country then involving her in this clusterfuck.
He had, however, sent up this unearthly plumage of black smog into the sky that at least gave her an idea where he was, so she supposed she might get him a decent meal and a hot bath first. It was bigger than anything she'd seen him done in past, and she was impressed if this was the sort of power he was secretly hiding away.
By the time Gail made it into the alleys, she was bracing herself to have to grit her teeth against the coal cloud when it instead settled to the earth like rain in slow motion. That wasn't normal. Was that Roland again?
The actually alley was so thickly covered in coal it was hard to tell what exactly had happened. There were multiple shapes, ones who were probably people, and one had guns raised. Gail decided to follow suit, leveling her shotgun while trying to figure out exactly who was was looking at here.
"Inspector Gail McCarthy, lower your weapons!" Gail shouted instinctivly, but frozen when the figure in the doorway to a shed stumbled one step toward her at the sound of her voice. He was so caked in coal that even the whites of his eyes were cloudy with the stuff.
Then she realized there was a casualty on the ground.
"Roland, what the actual hell happened?" Gail demanded.
"I did," Roland admitted. "G-Gail I think I hurt him bad."
Him. Aw hell.
"Mr. Yond? You still with us?" He had in hand, but didn't look in any condition to be using it. Was Roland really responsible for all of this? "Ma'am, I asked you to lower your weapons, this is your final warning."
"No, Gail, Miss. Pahana, she needs help too," Roland whined.
"We'll get everyone help, and then I'm throwing you in the nearest river. Christ almighty if you aren't the messiest thing."
There was something to it. It wasn't so much a noise, and it wasn't so much a feeling. It was some immeasurable security to what had just happened even without having to see the damage. He might have killed someone.
Roland was ill, bent half over to dry heave while choking on the coal in the air and it was all too much. When he managed to stand straight again, it was to see the coal had somehow settled, brought back down to earth with an unnatural speed. But the man.
The man was [i breathing]. Breathing meant alive. Roland couldn't see an extent to the injuries, not blanketed in coal as we was.
[i Coal.] Roland could fix this. Or he could have tried, but Shasta was there, with guns drawn on Roland he just.... didn't feel anything. She was trying to give orders, but what exactly was she going to do with those little guns of hers? Gail carried a bigger one, and he's never seen her have to use it but imagined it must be a lot more painful.
He tried so very hard not to look at the man crumpled on the ground.
"I don't trust you," Roland said. It was a simple statement, dull from a mouth dried by too much coal. Fat lot of good sense he was making, raising his shovel even from this far away to be ready to swing. "You won't hurt Miss. Pahana again. I won't let you."
"Stop! Stand still! All of you!" Shelly roared. Everything was black now, as if they stood in the ruins of a burned building. The ground, the walls, the people--all black. She didn't give a shit who was doing what, at this point, if this was a successful spell or a failed one or who precisely this stupid man who was chasing her escaped prisoners was. She would have given up on this job long ago, if that was an option. But it [i wasn't,] damn it, not unless she was ready to give up on Morris along with the job.
She wasn't. Couldn't.
Through gritted teeth, down the barrel of her pistol, she spoke to the boy with the shovel. "Put it. Down. And step out here." The girl had to be in that shed behind him. Shelly couldn't imagine she'd gotten her second wind, stood up, and left in the couple-odd minutes since she'd last seen the kid. Visibly, though, all that could be seen past the boy was heaps of more bedamned coal. Not that it mattered, anymore. The boy had just exploded in coal dust. He had to be the one. Regardless of the girl's possible locus, his was DEFINITELY coal.
"As for you," she aimed a kick at the midsection of the coughing, choking man on the ground, "I don't know who the hell you are or why you're after these kids, but you are interfering with my job! Stay the hell down and you can get the girl one to a fucking doctor, there's a real asshole of one back at the Mule Ear Inn. The boy and I are leaving."
Around the time Leigh's face exploded with pain, he'd had enough. More than. Whoever he'd seen for a split second before they'd hit him, before choking dust had blasted across his face, it hadn't been Missy. He hit the ground on his back, blind and breathless, clutching his nose. The dust billowed, unstoppable. Too thick to see his assailant--either one of them, though neither could be more than a foot or two away. Leigh didn't even know which way to roll to save himself from another attack. He lay still instead, struggling to breathe through the sticky feeling of blood in his throat, exacerbated by the burning tickle of coal dust.
"Mnuh..." he tried to speak, but only ended up coughing and spluttering. All the shit in his throat... Plus the very act of speaking made his nose feel like he was jamming a poker up it.
No, this was the outside of enough, now. He was in the middle of a damn dust cloud; nobody would see him. Leigh drew out Firstborn and pressed the nickle-plated side of it into his own forehead. Even dust had weight. Stars were just dust held in place by gravity. He shut his streaming eyes and pictured a nebula cloud.
"Fall..." he said, more sigh than word.
With a hiss, the coal dust around him drifted in black snowflakes to coat Leigh and his entire surrounding area. Probably including the boy and the bandit, too. It had the unfortunate side-effect of absolutely caking Leigh's face in the stuff, making breathing even more of an issue at the moment. He couldn't even care about his poor gun getting gunked up with the stuff. He was too busy coughing and struggling onto his side, spitting up big globs of black-and-red-flecked saliva. He pried his eyes open despite how very little they liked being open with all this coal around, not to mention how the coughing was jostling his abused face, trying blearily to catch sight of the boy. He was the witness, the one who was leading them to Missy, he had to be. A locum? Maybe. Coming after Leigh with another swing? Alarmingly likely.
Instead of seeing the boy, he found himself getting a close-up view of the bandit he'd been wrestling with before. She looked like some kind of demon, now, covered head to foot in coal dust except for her pink-and-white snarl. As it turned out, she had not one but two .45s in her belt, and each was now trained on a target now that Leigh had cleared her line of sight for her.
The voices were approaching. Roland pressed a hand over his own mouth, trying to mask his laboured breathing for fear any sound at all would give away their location. They had to go by. They couldn't know where Roland had secreted them away. They needed to go.
They, of course, did not. A scuffle had started, so close they must have been just outside. Too close.
Whimpering at the movement, Roland pushed himself up to a kneeling position to shift so he was now entirely on the coal pile. He was going to have to fight. To lead them away, or a distraction. Something. Carrying Missy he wouldn't be able to lose them again. It wasn't cowardice, but an honest admittance to himself.
He remembered Gail. Gail fought. She had that baton she'd let Roland use in the past. Could he make a baton?
It turned out he didn't need to, as his next movement, starting to his feet as someone crashed into the side of the shed, found him kicking a shovel. He recognized Shasta's voice outside.
Frantically, Roland clawed at the coal, filling his pockets and just getting coated in the foul powder of it. When footsteps rounded toward the side of the shed with the door, Roland's numb fingers snatched up the shovel by its sanded wooden handle and managed to drive it shallowly down into the coal.
When the door opened, Roland swung with every bit of energy he could draw out of his body. It was his legs, his stance shifting with the turn. His back, contracting and his arms bringing the shovel around with a whipping motion. It was the heaping, intoxicating coal.
"Get [b away!]" Roland screamed as he swung, and he could feel the magic rushing about him with an energy the rest of him did not have. Coal dust was gushing up and out, filling the air and before the shovel even made contact with the assailant his own vision was being blacked out by the sudden dust storm of black powder that went rushing out of the door in a true cloud obscuring the alley.
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