Wasteland king, p.10
Wasteland King, p.10Lilith Saintcrow
“Summer.” Gallow said it like a curse, pointed swiftly. “Up. Let’s get some height.”
Crenn nodded. “There were Unseelie.” Lamely, as if it would matter. “She escaped. That dog of hers.”
“Wonder where she got him.” Gallow hawked dryly, as if to spit, and a cool spring breeze ruffled past them. “So what does Summer want?” He plunged into a malodorous mortal alleyway, leaping lightly and catching a fire escape ladder with a muffled clatter. Crenn followed, the iron almost-burning as he reached the top and hopped over onto a flat roof. His mortal half insulated him, but—
Crack. He went down hard, rolling out of instinct, and when he shook the blow out of his head the lancepoint was there, glittering, an inch from his exposed throat.
That was one thing about Jeremiah. He was fast and ruthless when he made up his mind to be.
“I said,” Gallow repeated quietly, “what does Summer want? Since you’re her little errand boy now. You took word to the dwarves, didn’t you.”
Did he perhaps remember Crenn’s presence as he thrashed and burned from the poison on a small dwarven cot? It had taken some doing, to persuade them to let him in, let alone persuade them of Summer’s gratitude long enough to get Robin out of their clutches. “Wasn’t my idea.” Crenn lay very still, the damp rooftop slightly gritty underneath him. Stars peered through shredded rips in orangelit clouds, struggling through the veil of citylight and turning Gallow’s form into an indistinct bulk, underlit by the lance’s quivering moonfire. “I’m here to help, Jer!”
“Oh, sure. Help me right into a new trap.” A sneer lifted Gallow’s handsome lip. Either Findergast the dwarven healer had given him a hell of an antidote, or Unwinter had released him from the poison. Both prospects were equally disturbing. “What does she want, lapdog?”
Crenn shook his head, wished he hadn’t. His hair fell back, and the lancetip hovered closer to his skin. “I just saved your life, Gallow, and this is how you thank me?”
Gallow bent slightly, peering at him. “Looks like you’ve been paid for whatever you did,” he said, softly. “Look at you, all good as new. Is it a glamour?”
What? But the ghosts of his old scars flamed, and Crenn swallowed harshly, acutely aware of the hungry, humming sharpness so close to his Adam’s apple. “The Queen didn’t ask if I’d find this payment acceptable. You know how it is, Jer. She sends a bird, and we fall over ourselves to obey because she’s Summer. Not all of us are lucky enough to run away.”
“So she paid you for something. Since it wasn’t bringing me to Court, that leaves only one thing.” Jeremiah tensed. The lance gave a little eager quiver, a hunting dog scenting blood. “What did you do to Robin Ragged, Alastair? What did you do?”
Whatever Crenn might have said was lost as a thin ribboning ultrasonic cry lifted just a few blocks away. It keened on, and on, thrilling up and down a register mortal ears couldn’t precisely hear, felt more inside the skull than through the eardrums. It was the sound copied by the small Unseelie huntwhistles, all patterned on the nauseatingly beautiful curve of Unwinter’s Horn.
Prey sighted, prey sighted!
The salt had worn off. The sluagh in the parking lot cried out again, the sound fading into a cold, clutching, ringing emptiness before it was echoed from other places, some near, some far.
The dead, the Unseelie say, always find their own.
“I don’t want them to get you,” Crenn said. It sounded as if he’d just realized as much, and perhaps he had. “Even you don’t deserve that, you faithless bastard.”
Even with the edge to his throat, he couldn’t be conciliatory. How much of a simpleton was he to believe Robin would look upon any of this kindly?
I’m saving someone she… cares… for. That has to count for something.
“Why not? You think if I’d been with you when they were burning the Hooverville, you wouldn’t have been shot and set on fire? You blame me for coming back every day and trying to chantment the goddamn scars off you? You blame me for taking you over the Veil, too? For the Enforcers not taking you on? You wanted to be at Court, I brought you, and I did more than you know keeping the fullbloods’ mouths shut over your misfortune. It wasn’t my fault you got your goddamn feelings hurt and ran off to Marrowdowne!”
How long had Gallow been sitting on saying that? Crenn pushed the anger down, and for once, it went quietly. Go ahead, Gallow. Stab me if you want. “Maybe we should have this talk later, huh? Unless you really want to argue while they’re singing themselves closer and closer to your idiot self.”
“Now might be a good time to make sure you can’t do me—or Robin—any more fucking mischief.”
“She’s the reason I’m willing to save your worthless hide,” Crenn barked. In a few seconds he was going to slap the lanceblade away, maybe take a hit to the shoulder and maybe not, but definitely take out Gallow’s knee with a flicker of a kick. Then he might decide to turn around and leave the bastard to sit and simmer in his own dirty diaper, for God’s sake. He’d go back to tracking Robin; he was a fool for thinking Jeremiah would be anything but a raging jackass even while the worst nightmare possible under a sidhe or mortal sky bore down on him.
Gallow opened his mouth, maybe to tell him to go to hell or maybe to give a name before he plunged the lancetip downward, but a new sound intruded. A rushing and a clicking, little pebbles under a rolling spring tide in the Whispering Harbor, where the slim swan-ships lay at anchor, forgotten but not fading.
“Half, and Half,” a low male voice said, as a cloaked shape melded free of the darkness. “The vengeful spirits draw close, I suggest we repair elsewhere to have you exchange love-tokens.”
Gallow was already moving, the lance rising into middle guard; Crenn gained his feet in a rush and both his blades rang free. The Sluagh sent up its cries again, and now they were in a more definite circle.
The longer Gallow stayed in one place, the smaller that circle would become, and eventually it would draw choking-close and they would have him.
The Sluagh would feed.
“And just who are you, sir?” As usual, Gallow was quicker off the mark, while Crenn moved to the side a single step, to give both of them freedom to attack—and to back Jer up in case shooting his mouth off led to trouble.
It felt, again, familiar. So familiar he wanted to curse and kick something.
The sidhe-shape pushed his hood back, a head of dark, oddly spangled hair rising from the shadow. A long nose, and mailed shoulders under the draping velvet cloak, no betraying glimmer to give him away in the shade beneath the bulk of a silvershimmer HVAC unit.
“One who is willing to aid you, if you will allow it,” the newcomer said. “First, Gallow-glass—for you see, I know you—I ask you, politely, where is Puck Goodfellow? And,” he added magnanimously, flexing long gauntleted and gloved fingers as he stepped free of screening, rippling dark-glamour, “I suggest you tell me while we run.”
PROTECT AND SERVE
The radio squawked like a pimp caught between two different protection rackets, fuzzing so bad with static Adkins started swearing. Normally he was pretty mild-mouthed, but that sort of sound was enough to send anyone into a paroxysm of obscenity, and Officer Paco Melendez’s hands tightened on the steering wheel. Number 79, the most busted Rocinante ever ridden by a pair of Sanchos in blue, wheezed along with the defroster fan working at max.
It was a damp night.
“Motherfucker,” Adkins snarled, staring out the window. His collar was too tight, creasing the papery flesh of his chicken-shaven neck. “Even the goddamn radio’s busted. This is what I get for riding with you.”
“Likewise, I’m sure,” Melendez murmured. Sticking the rookie with the bad car and the bigot was classic. It didn’t even rate an eyeroll, by now. You learned to expect the worst, and going through Academy just put the bloodclot cherry on top of that particular shit-sundae. If you ended up with any optimism left, it was of the Murphy’s Law variety. Unless you w
Heavy fog always made things a little weird. The weather report hadn’t said anything, and Melendez hated that shit. Would it have been too much to ask that bleached blonde on Channel Six to give a word of warning?
“Shitfucking cocksucking piece of made-in-China shit,” Adkins kept going, tapping at the radio with one blunt finger in cockeyed time.
He was goddamn near a poet sometimes.
Later, Melendez would sometimes think about right before it happened. He would try to explain it to himself—maybe he’d seen a flicker in his peripheral, or maybe he’d heard something other than the burring of the car’s engine, or maybe it was a full-body shiver like you sometimes got. His mother used to call those brainshivers, saying it was your body pushing a button to get everything to shake and settle right. Just like flicking a pillowcase so she could fold it in thirds with her cripplequick work-roughened hands.
The truth was, he sometimes admitted if he was most of the way through a bottle and staring out his apartment window, there was no warning, nothing. His foot simply jammed down onto the brake without so much as informing the rest of him, the entire car shook and shimmied, Adkins almost hit the dash since the bigot bastard wouldn’t wear his seatbelt, and the radio sent up an unholy screech as the dark figures darted across Pallacola Avenue, one-two-three. Broad-shouldered male shapes, but the last one had something on his head—something like feathers nodding and waving, the outlines blurring as he moved with catlike grace.
“Whafuck?” Adkins spluttered, and Melendez gripped the wheel so hard his knuckles turned white. The radio went dead, the engine ticking along with its usual choppy rumble. The headlights dimmed, and all of a sudden, Melendez was very certain he didn’t want them to go out.
“Did you see that?” Adkins demanded. “Like the goddamn circus is in town.”
“I saw it.” Problem is, Melendez thought, I don’t know what exactly I saw.
“Wearing feathers. Think there’s something up?”
“Didn’t hear it on the radio.”
“Should we call it in?”
Melendez shrugged. “We’re not even getting static. We should go back to base and have them—”
A horrific squeal erupted from the radio and the car rocked on its indifferent shocks when Melendez leaned over to turn it down. The fog thickened, the headlights dimming further, and Adkins shifted uneasily, which made the car rock a little more.
“Kid?” Adkins almost-whispered. “I’ve got a bad feeling about—”
What happened next, Melendez didn’t care to think about, no matter how much alcohol he consumed.
Something hit the windshield with a soft thud. Adkins let out a little-girl screech, choking off halfway as the thing’s face smeared against the glass. It wasn’t precisely solid, though—the fog coated it in runnels, twisting and fluttering to show the edges of a ruined face leering at them both.
No. Not at them both. Leering at Adkins, who inhaled sharply. Almost as if he recognized it.
“Jesus Christ,” Melendez whispered. “You’re seeing this, right?”
The tongue came out, thick moist condensation spreading along the glass with a rasping hiss. The engine labored, burping along, and a sudden sharp stink wafted through the car’s interior. Somewhere between the sweet foulness of rotting flesh and the loose bowels of a junkie, along with an acrid yellow scent Melendez later found out was fear.
Adkins’s breathing rasped too. He sounded like he was running a hard mile, and all of a sudden Melendez had the idea that his partner might have a heart attack sitting in the passenger seat of Number 79.
That got him moving. He pressed the gas pedal, the tires chirped, and Adkins screamed again, a high hopeless noise, because it wasn’t just the one face.
The fog had turned to people, clustering the car, the sound of their queer sniff-chuffing breath blanketing both engine noise and Adkins’s yell that had somehow turned into words.
“I didn’t mean it!” he kept screaming, and Melendez had a sudden vivid mental image of the windshield shattering and the fog-things pouring in, wrapping around Adkins in thick cheesecloth veils—he mashed the accelerator against the floor, and Number 79 summoned up a deep coughing roar, belching black exhaust the fog-things crowded around, running their wasted, steam-cloaked fingers through the fringes and shuddering, hissing their displeasure.
He didn’t remember the rest of the wild screeching ride to the precinct, and when they got there it was to find confusion, everyone shouting about radios and weirdness, Dispatch screaming their heads off about their network going down, and Adkins blundered for the locker room without even double-signing the car in. Melendez did it for him, and waited for him to come back, but he never did.
No, Adkins went back to his own apartment in Falida and hung himself. The inquest wasn’t quite hurried, but Melendez wasn’t called upon to testify to more than “Yes, he was there that night the radios failed, no, he didn’t say anything, it was our first ride together, I don’t know.” Suicide rates being what they were in the force, the case was closed.
Six months later, Shorty Greggs in Vice told Melendez about Car 79—back when it was new, it had been Adkins and his old pal Harry Krjowiscz’s, and there was something about a perp not surviving the ride to lockup. Neither officer was charged, of course, but the whole thing had been…
I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it!
Well, Melendez didn’t want to think about it. The job went easier if he didn’t, and he was the first one in his family to finish high school, let alone get ahead. His mother was always so proud of her son the officer.
There was one thing, though.
Paco Melendez, for the rest of his career, never worked on a foggy night.
Summer’s orchard drowsed under a hot golden afternoon. Its fringes were fleecy with drifting blossom, flashes of round fruit crimson as the Queen’s lips and almost as delectable—or so the bards said—peeping through the fragrant cloud. Their trunks were still solid, their roots still holding fast, but on the edges something had changed. Instead of the deep-graven lines carving sleeping or contorted faces into the green-tinged bark, there were shallow slices, some of them oozing golden-red sap.
A black, smoking path cut through the trees, a blot on a trembling face. It was the remnant of Unwinter’s incursion, and the Unseelie had torn down branches and feasted on gushing sapblood, set torch to the deep grass and tree alike, and the pyre-breath from that treachery and later deaths still fumed in a solid column. The miasma hung straight, no breath of wind smearing at its edges. No pixies crawled among the blossoms or veered among the fallen fruit, drunk on heady ambrosial fumes. Early in the full flush of Summer’s renewal and reign, her slice of the sideways realms should have been throbbing with activity, growth and rejuvenation spreading into the mortal world as well. Nymphs should have been dancing, and music should have floated from the towers of Summerhome.
The pennants hung limply from those high green-and-white spires, and the castle had lost much of its welcoming quality. Its battlements were sharper now, noontide sun glittering from razor edges. The great Gate was still open—the Queen did not have a moat guarding her fastness.
Her beauty, the bards said, was enough. Who would wish any ill upon Summer?
In the center of the orchard’s blackened streak, a chunk of weathered blue stone crouched, curiously clean. No ash or dirt clung to its rough rectangle, and its solidity made the rest of the bleached, drained surroundings look even more faded.
A dark-green mantle brushed the withered grass. She swayed gracefully into sight, Summer’s brightest blossom, a high cage of fragile bones lifting from her shoulders and cupping her golden head. Golden hair had been coaxed through them, tied artfully with scented ribbons, and on her forehead the Jewel, Danu’s gift to Her chosen one, gave out a low stuttering glow.
The red scarf at he
Not old, certainly. Not quite haggard. Perhaps it was only the responsibility of ruling Danu’s folk that weighed upon her, giving her a gravity of step, of expression. Perhaps the matted snarls under the surface of her rippling golden hair needed the bone-fingers to keep them from forming afresh. Perhaps her weakening—for it was whispered in far and dark corners that Unwinter’s breaking of her boundaries had cost the Queen dearly—was temporary.
Her Armormaster Broghan the Black, Trollsbane himself, stepped proudly in her wake as well. If the foulness offended his aristocratic nostrils, he did not show it.
She halted at the altar-stone, her hands hidden in the mantle’s long sleeves. The robe was heavy, as if she felt a chill. Normally the first third of spring was a time for divesting oneself of layers, of showing the loveliness of ageless flesh and glamoured tints.
“Broghan,” Summer said softly, “where is it?”
He paused, then cleared his throat. “I… my Queen, I do not know. The call was sent forth.”
“I sense them, lurking. Come forth.” Her tone was icy. “And bring your charges.”
One moment empty, the next moment full—a space in the fabric of the Veil rippled, and a long thin gray form slid through. It rippled, heavy and oily, pouring itself along the ash-choked ground, and rose from a cloudy pool, its cloaked and hooded hunchback form firming as the pool shrank. Two gray glints showed from the darkness of its hood, and its long gloved fingers twitched.
“Hail, Danu’s chosen,” it murmured in a lovely, clear, fluting bell-voice. In the mortal realm it could wear many guises, all of them benign.
What else, indeed, would a childcatcher look like?
Wasteland King by Lilith Saintcrow / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes