Zeke vs. the Dust Devil




Zeke vs. the Dust Devil
By Angie Lofthouse

Z
eke Cummings pulled his cowboy hat down low against the sun and urged his horse forward. The mustang’s hooves kicked up dull, pinkish dust. A barren landscape stretched before him, broken only by the occasional butte or patch of tough, stunted sagebrush and a few desert fairies flitting here and there. The crackle of magic in the air stood all his hairs on end, but he was determined to ignore it. He had a mochila full of mail to deliver and miles to go until the River Bed waystation. The leather pouch hung heavily on either side of his saddle. He spurred his horse again.
The power inside him bucked and struggled to get out. It burned against his chest. Zeke kept it reigned in as tightly as his horse. If the casters with their magic-seeking spells caught him… He shuddered. He knew all too well what could happen to a wizard conscripted to fight in the Shaman War. Avoiding that fate was the reason he’d joined the Pony Express in the first place. So what if there were some magic or other out and about in the desert today? He wasn’t going to pay it no nevermind.
Zeke saw the dust devil from the corner of his eye, twisting and snaking across the horizon. That explained it. Most dust devils were nothing but wind and dirt, but a rare few lived up to their name and worse. He squeezed his power in even tighter to avoid attracting the thing, and pushed his horse on faster. He was lucky the little half-broke mustang couldn’t feel the effects of the magic in the air. The impish creature was hard enough to handle as it was.
Zeke leaned forward, chanting a prayer to keep himself together. His power ached to get out and touch the wild magic all around. He gritted his teeth and focused on the rhythm of the hooves, the dust of their passing, the hapless tumbleweed that rolled across their path. A raven circled overhead. Zeke couldn’t see the dust devil anymore, but the magical energy still buzzed all around him. That alone wouldn’t catch a caster’s attention, but a wizard’s magic would, even this far out west. The army wanted all the wizards they could find, seeing as how they lost them so fast. And the punishment for refusing to enlist—well, Zeke had seen that with his own eyes.
Out of nowhere, the dust devil swirled around him. The horse reared and screamed. The dust devil screamed louder. Zeke fought for control of his mount and control of the magic surging within him. A tempest of dust, rocks, and sticker weeds stung his face and ripped the hat from his head.
The malevolence of the creature seeped through Zeke’s skin like a dark cloud. The howling of the wind faded and voices rose around him, indistinct babbling that sent gooseflesh prickling over his body. Voices from every direction, crying, screaming, begging for mercy, pleading for death. He couldn’t make out any words, but their pain, fear, darkness, and chaos invaded his mind, overwhelming all his senses.
Images appeared, the voices of terror embodied in distorted figures that beckoned him to join their madness. One of them took the shape of Zeke’s grandfather, looking as he had the day the casters had come for him, his normally kind face hard and stoic. Zeke cried out for him, but the visage morphed into something bestial and devilish. Inhuman. Its mouth gaped open.
The horse bolted, and Zeke landed hard on his back. The impact brought him to his senses, though it knocked the wind out of him. A bit of magic zinged out of his chest before he could stop it. The dust devil howled at the touch of Zeke’s magic and dissipated as quickly as it had come.
Zeke lay on his back, blinking up at the sky and tried to breathe. He was lucky to have escaped. Usually a dust devil spat out the empty husk of its victims once it was done feeding. Some few people unfortunate enough to survive the experience lost possession of their minds and dwelt in unending nightmares until they mercifully passed. Zeke could only thank the Good Lord and a feisty horse that he’d managed to avoid such a fate. He grimaced. Of course, if the casters found him because of the magic, he’d be wishing the dust devil had taken him instead.
He pushed himself up. His horse was long gone, and the mochila with it. And all his water. His hat lay a few yards off, relatively unharmed. Zeke hobbled over to retrieve it, slapping the dust off against his thigh. He settled it on his head and tried to regain his sense of direction. The magic in the air had subsided. A few stray desert fairies fluttered back into their hiding places. Walking to River Bed Station looked to be his only option. He didn’t want to use magic to find his horse. Hopefully, it would find its own way home. If it didn’t, well, he reckoned he was out a job.
Before he could take a step, a raven landed in front of him, took two awkward hops forward, and transformed into a person.  The explosive release of magical energy left Zeke reeling and clutching his head. The desert fairies scattered, looking for quieter spots.
Shaman. And a sloppy one at that. Ignoring the pounding in his skull, Zeke drew his six-shooter as he looked up, and flinched when he realized the shaman was a girl. He didn’t lower the gun, though. Girl or not, a shaman was a shaman.
Her long hair was black as the raven she had just been. Miniature dust devils swirled around her feet—the ordinary variety, Lord be praised. The shaman stared at Zeke and his gun without twitching. Of course, the gun was only a bluff anyway. A bluff that wasn’t a bluff at the same time. A bullet wouldn’t harm a shaman. Not in the hands of an ordinary man, anyway. But Zeke was not an ordinary man. Of course, after her reckless transformation, she might be depleted enough to be hurt by an ordinary bullet, but if she feared, she didn’t show it. Bluffs all around, it seemed.
Zeke stood his ground. “You conjure up that dust devil, Raven?” It seemed as good a name for her as any. “‘Cause if you did, you just lost me my horse and my job, too.”
She didn’t answer. The mini-devils settled. The residual breeze lifted the bottom of Zeke’s duster. In her fringed dress Raven looked just like any other Indian girl, no older than he was. But then again, Zeke looked like any other cowboy, too.
“What’s your name?” she asked in passable English. She must have been using magic to accomplish that.
“Name’s Zeke,” he said warily.
“You are a light-bearer.” It wasn’t the bluff he’d expected her to call.
“What makes you say that?”
“You banished the dust devil.”
Zeke couldn’t tell if she was angry or pleased.
“I didn’t banish it,” Zeke said. “Probably just pissed it off real good. It’ll be back—you mark my words. Angrier and hungrier than ever.”
Raven wavered then, fear flitting through her eyes. That said something about her. Zeke holstered his gun. “I suggest you turn yourself into a bird and fly on back wherever you came from.” He tipped his hat. “As for me, I’d rather not end up on the wrong side of a war with you, so I’m going now.” He could only pray to God he could make it to the next station without tangling with the dust devil again. And that the casters weren’t looking out this way. And that he’d find his horse somewhere. Great. He kicked at a clump of sagebrush in his path.
“Wait.”
Zeke stopped mid-stride. Against his better judgment, he turned around. “What?”
Raven squared her shoulders. “I cannot go home. Not until I banish the dust devil.”
“I wish you luck with that, miss.” With another hat tip, he turned away again, but a guilty pit settled in his stomach. He ignored it. It wasn’t any of his business anyway.
“I cannot do it alone,” Raven said. Anger and desperation had crept into her voice.
Zeke was sure his grandpa—God rest his soul—would never forgive him if he walked away now. He faced Raven with a grumble. “Why are you so dadgummed much trouble, anyway?”
Raven lifted her chin. “I would prove myself to the poowu’hunt oong. He will not teach me, but I will show him I can use the power.”
Zeke groaned. “You mean you’re out here throwing around magic you don’t know how to use?” He should have guessed that from her explosive transformation. “You summoned a dust devil just to prove yourself? ‘Cause all that proves is that you’re a damned fool. I'll say it again. Go home. Forget your wounded pride. Maybe if you’re lucky, someone will teach you how to use magic. But if you’re even luckier, they won’t.” It hurt his stomach to say it. The power inside him didn’t like to be denied. But it was true. He’d seen with his own eyes back in Missouri the damage the Shaman War could do to a person. He cringed at the thought.
“I won’t go back.” Raven folded her arms.
“You can’t take on a dust devil. Neither can I.”
“But you did. I saw it.”
Zeke shook his head. “That was pure dumb luck. By all rights, I should be dead right now. Course, it’d been your fault if I was. Just get on home already.” For a second he wondered if she was stalling him so the dust devil could come finish him off. She was a shaman after all, and he a wizard. Technically, they were enemies.
Raven’s eyes widened. “Unoo’peets!
Zeke whipped around. Sure enough, there was the dust devil. The prickle of power raised gooseflesh on his arms. The dust devil undulated across the desert in a sinuous dance, twisting higher than any dust devil Zeke had ever seen, magic or not. Two more rose up to flank it as he watched. He shot Raven a sharp look. Her eyes were big as saucers. She looked as terrified as Zeke felt, and deep in his gut he knew this girl was not his enemy. He grabbed her hand and pulled her around. “Run!”
They sprinted across the desert with the devils close behind and gaining. Dust stung his eyes and the press of magic against his skin was almost unbearable. His power raged inside him, burning, twisting, begging for release. He wouldn’t let it out. He couldn’t. But the dust devils would be on him and Raven any moment, and he didn’t know how he’d survive, whether he used his magic or not.
Raven cried out in her native tongue, and Zeke pitched forward scrabbling for purchase on the sides of the crevice opening as he fell. “Raven, what are you doing? Stop!”
He hit bottom hard, getting the wind knocked out of him for the second time. Raven landed on top of him, and quickly pushed herself up.
“Are you hurt?” she asked.
“No,” Zeke gasped. “Are you?”
“No.”
Zeke pulled himself up to his hands and knees, and flipped into a sitting position. There was just enough room for the two of them to sit side by side with their knees pulled up. “What in tarnation did you just do?” Zeke asked, still trying to catch his breath. The loose soil dampened his back.
“We are hidden,” Raven said. She pointed to the top of the crevice, about ten feet overhead. Sure enough, the dust devils swirled around the edge, but couldn’t reach them so far down in the earth.
“Huh,” Zeke grunted. He wouldn’t have thought of that. Little mud goblins wriggled out of the sides of the crevice and blinked their glowing moon-eyes at the two of them. Raven held out her hand, and one of the little creatures jumped onto her palm. She scratched its head, smiling when it cooed and curled up into a little ball. She laughed softly.
Sitting this close, Zeke could feel the touch of her power, so different from the Old World magic he’d inherited from his grandfather. The sensation was enough to hinder his already labored breathing. He forced air into his lungs. “So, I reckon we can’t just stay down here and wait for them to go away.”
Raven shook her head. She shooed the mud goblin back into the dirt.
Zeke cocked his head back to look at the devils. “They’re liable to attack any other riders coming through.” At that size they might even travel far enough to threaten the waystations.”
Raven pulled her knees in tighter. “I did not know there were any men out here. I thought I would be alone.”
“Well, you ain’t alone.” Zeke sighed. “I still don’t get why you’d do something so danged idiotic as summon a dust devil.”
Poowu’hunt oong says a girl is too foolish and changeable to be a light-bearer.”
“So you came out here to prove his point?”
Raven glared at him. “If I can banish a dust devil, he’ll know I’m too powerful to ignore. That I deserve to be taught. To be respected.”
That was part of why her power felt so different. Because she was female. Witches were even more rare than wizards. And anyhow, the only other light-bearer, as Raven put it, that he’d been close too was his grandpa, whose magic had been indistinguishable from Zeke’s own—the only thing that had saved Zeke when the casters had taken his grandpa away.
Zeke shook off the memory. “Did you have a plan for banishing the thing once you summoned it?” It sounded harsher than he intended, with the image of his grandfather so fresh on his mind.
“Yes.” She lifted her chin and drew her knees in tighter. “As a raven, I am less susceptible to the unoo’peets’ mind sickness. If I could get inside, I could change back into my real form, and my light would banish its darkness.”
“Hmm.” It sounded like a pretty good plan, actually. She certainly had enough power for it. “What happened? Why didn’t you do it?”
“I could not get inside as a raven. The unoo’peets pushed me away.” She gestured with her hands. “Then it went after you.”
“Ah.” That made sense. Dust devils craved wizards. Shamans, too. Probably because they were more inclined to madness than most anyway. It was a dangerous game, though, since the magic could destroy the devil. Provided one could stay sane long enough to use it.
Zeke shifted to a slightly more comfortable position. It was a tight spot in more ways than one. They couldn’t leave a dust devil on the loose. Using his power to stop it meant bringing the casters down on him, but it didn’t feel right to let a girl take on the thing alone because he didn’t want to. No, that sounded downright cowardly.
“You stay here. I’ll try and get rid of it.”
“No!” She came to her feet. “I must banish the unoo’peets.” Her power swelled as if she were preparing to strike him with it.
“Whoa. Take it easy.” He stood too. In her state of irritation, he figured it would be a bad idea to bring up her lack of training and control. “Maybe—” He glanced up at the dust devils dancing impatiently above their heads. “Maybe we should work together.”
Her power settled down a little. She looked sideways at him. “You could get me inside,” she said. “In my raven form.”
“And you’ll banish the thing before it kills me?” It would give him a better chance than going in alone. “You’ll have to act quickly. Can you do that?”
Raven nodded.
“If your power doesn’t banish it, I will add mine. If I can.”
Raven nodded again. “I’m ready.” She held her arms out straight from her sides. Zeke felt the power building in her.
“Hold on,” he said. “Just a minute now. Before you blow us both up, try and transform using as little magic as possible.”
She gave him a quizzical look. “How?”
“Just—hold it all inside.” For Zeke it came as natural as breathing. His grandfather had made sure of that. “Pull it all tight inside you.”
Raven wrinkled up her forehead, and the brush of her power in the air faded away.
“Good. Now try to transform without releasing any of it.”
“What?”
“I know, I know. You can’t. But if you try it that way, you’ll only use as much as you need.”
Raven held out her arms again. She closed her eyes. Zeke held his breath. With an almost audible pop, the girl became a raven again. It wasn’t anywhere near as overwhelming as earlier. Zeke puffed out his cheeks.
“Okay. That was better. Course, when you get inside the dust devil just let it all out like you done before.”
The raven bobbed its head. He hoped she could still understand him. “Here we go.”
The raven flapped its wings once and perched on Zeke’s shoulder. Zeke wedged the toe of his boot into the sandy crevice wall and proceeded to climb. Finding hand and toe holds in the soil proved difficult. Numerous times he slid back almost as far as he’d come. The raven squawked impatiently in his ear. “I’m trying,” he snapped and scrambled for the top again.
He finally got a hand over the edge and pulled himself up with a grunt. But he hadn’t got his legs under him yet when the dust devil struck. Zeke threw his arms over his head instinctively, still dangling halfway in the hole. Detritus pelted him from every side. The raven lifted off his shoulder. Then the whispering, cursing, shrieking voices tugged at his consciousness and every other thought vanished into a haze of fear. Wicked laughter rose around him. He saw his grandpa’s corpse as it had looked after the casters had gotten through with him, all twisted and broken limbs bending the wrong direction, and glassy, lifeless eyes. It moved toward him in jerks like a puppet on a string, pointing, jeering, accusing.
Zeke opened his mouth in a soundless scream, and then it was gone. All of it. The apparition, the voices, the fear, the wind. He lay half-way out of the crevice, unable to stop trembling. Raven stood in front of him panting, but grinning.
“You did it,” Zeke said. “Thank the Lord above.” He hauled himself up onto his hands and knees, still shaking. Raven bent to help him up. But as he took her hand, the dust devil swirled up around her, more powerful than ever, and ripped her from his grasp.
Her scream cut off with chilling abruptness. The dust devil moved away. Zeke came to his feet running. He wished he had his horse, but it didn’t matter. He’d catch the dust devil one way or another. The two smaller devils were back too, moving his direction.
Zeke gathered all his power and let it fill him. He knew he couldn’t live with himself if he avoided the casters at the cost of Raven’s life. His grandpa would have a thing or two to say about that.
He enhanced his speed just enough to catch the dust devil at the same moment the other two reached him. He leaped into the whirlwind, feeling the smaller devils merge with the larger. He didn’t stop to ponder that, but released all his pent up magic in a glorious burst to rival Raven’s.
The dust devil retreated again with a furious roar. Zeke caught Raven as she fell, limp and unconscious, and ran again, back toward the crevice. He was spent, drained, but fear spurred him on. He clutched Raven tight against him and jumped into the crevice as the dust devil reformed right on his heels. The impact jarred all his bones, but he managed to protect Raven from harm—or further harm, anyway. For several minutes he sat with her cradled on his lap and waited for the pain to subside. The dust devil roared around the edge of the crevice, as large as the tornadoes he’d seen as a kid in Missouri.
Raven lay senseless in his arms. She was still breathing. That was good. But she didn’t wake up or respond to him in any way. Occasionally, she whimpered and cried out, and Zeke pitied the horror of her visions.
When his magic had built up in him again, he rested his hand on Raven’s forehead, hoping he’d gotten her out in time. That maybe he could do something to help her, though there wasn’t much hope of that. He’d never heard of anyone recovering from a dust devil attack, if they survived it at all.
The power flowed from his hand into her, seeking out the broken places in her mind. Yes. There and there and there. He let the magic wrap around the hurts and knit them back into wholeness. But the psychic wounds multiplied faster than he could heal them. He poured all of his magic into the effort, but it wasn’t enough. He was losing her. She cried out in agony.
Then Raven’s own magic surged through her and mingled with his. He could see it in his mind, the two magics intertwining and growing far stronger together than either was alone. The combination of their power encompassed Raven, mending all the wounds as if they’d never existed, faster than Zeke had imagined possible.
Raven’s eyes popped open. She sat up with a startled gasp and scrambled off Zeke’s lap.
“You all right?” he asked. She nodded without speaking and turned her eyes up to the dust devil raging above them. Her mouth dropped open. She came to her feet, a stream of what had to be curses pouring out of her mouth. She raged in her native tongue, shook her fists, and kicked at the sides of the crevice until she ran out of steam and sank down beside Zeke with her head on her knees, and sobbed. A few mud goblins crept out to sit on her shoulders and nestled in her hair, trying to comfort her, Zeke thought. He waited quietly until the crying stopped. Raven lifted her head and glared at him as if it were all his fault.
He didn’t pay her no mind. “I know how we can lick it,” he said. “But we have to work together.”
Raven’s eyes narrowed. “How?”
Zeke held out his hand. “Let me show you.”
* * *
R
aven hung on Zeke’s back with her arms around his neck as he climbed the crevice wall again. That was the best way they could think of to make sure they stayed in physical contact. She could have become a raven again, but that would use up power, and there was no guarantee she’d be able to transform without being pulled away from him. A climb that was awkward with a bird on his shoulder was even harder with a girl on his back. Zeke climbed as fast as he could manage in the hopes of being on solid ground when the dust devil struck.
As they reached the top, Raven scrambled off him, turned around, grabbed his hand, and hauled him up. Zeke took both of Raven’s hands in his own, and before he could blink, the dust devil took them.
His grip on Raven tightened reflexively. Her magic rushed into him, setting his skin to tingling. She was so powerful it almost took his breath away. Maybe that’s why her elders refused to train her. If she learned to use the magic properly, she’d be nearly unstoppable.
Like before, his magic met hers and blended into something new, something strong. Zeke focused on wrapping that power around them like a shield against the darkness of the dust devil. The madness tried to claim him again with its deep and primal fear. His grandfather began to materialize before him, and for a moment, he faltered. Raven cried out, though he felt more than heard it. Their power dimmed. The dust devil pressed in around them.
No. Zeke clenched his teeth and reached with all he had for the touch of Raven’s wild and beautiful magic. And found her doing the same. The vision of his grandfather faded. Together they poured strength into each other. Their power grew again, rising in a whirlwind of light.
The dust devil redoubled its onslaught. Voices and agonized laughter shrieked in his ears. Zeke shook with the effort of keeping the chaos at bay. He tightened his grip on Raven’s hands.
Their combined power braided itself together into something too big, too strong to contain. It burst forth from between them. The dust devil screamed. It could not flee as it had before, but shattered against the light Zeke and Raven had created.
In the sudden stillness, Zeke’s knees buckled. He didn’t even feel the impact as he fell onto the hard-packed dirt. It was good to lie there in the silence and contemplate the clear, blue sky.
After a minute he realized he still had hold of Raven’s hand. He turned his head to look at her on the ground beside him, breathing hard.
“Is it gone?” she asked.
“I reckon so.” He sat up and looked around for his hat, grateful to see it not far off. “I trust you’ll never do anything that stupid again?”
Raven sat up too and rested her chin on her knees. “I make no promises.”
Zeke chuckled. The power inside him felt different somehow—stronger and deeper. And more like Raven’s. He had a part of her entwined in his soul.
“Oh,” Raven breathed. She pressed her hand to her chest. She must have noticed it too. “We are part of each other,” she said. “Like family. We cannot be enemies now.”
“We never were enemies.” Zeke stood and helped Raven up. “My grandpa, he believed we magic folk shouldn’t be killin’ one another. See, a shaman saved his life when he was a boy. He refused to fight in the war against them. The casters went and killed him for it.” He scowled to keep the tears from forming.
“You have honored your grandfather’s name, Zeke,” Raven said. “I thank you for it.” She reached for his hand.
An unaccountable sadness came over him. This girl he’d just met had become a part of him, and she was about to fly off and never see him again.
“Perhaps you and I will show our people the path to peace one day,” Raven said.
“I surely hope so.”
Raven dropped his hand and threw her arms around him. Then almost before he could react, she transformed back into a bird and lifted into the bright, empty sky.
“Goodbye!” Zeke called after her. That was that, then.
He went to retrieve his hat, and used a bit more power to find his errant horse and draw it back to him. The casters were sure to investigate such a powerful disturbance as he and Raven had created, but he wasn’t quite so frightened of them anymore. He was stronger now. And with luck, he’d be halfway to Sacramento before they got here.
His horse trotted into view, looking ashamed. “All right, settle down,” Zeke said. He adjusted the mochila and swung into the saddle. “Git up, boy.” He kicked the horse into a gallop. They still had a lot of ground to cover.


Copyright 2015
Angella Lofthouse
All Rights Reserved