Wasteland king, p.14
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       Wasteland King, p.14

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  Robin listened. A faint, faraway grumbling, like a mortal subway. It made her think of Parsifleur Pidge, the poor Twisted woodwight she’d thought to leave the cure with at the start of this whole mess.

  Dead, now. Stabbed by barrow-wights and turned to dust by Robin’s voice, just one more casualty. How many more would it take?

  The thudding grew closer, rippling through the Veil. Tiny dots of light began to sparkle around the small, ragged copse—the pixies, sensing a disturbance in the curled and clotted fabric of the mortal world? The building shimmered once, and Robin took a deep breath. Whatever was in there was likely to be nasty.

  Whether it was nastier than Unwinter, or Summer, remained to be seen.

  “Pepperbuckle,” she whispered. “Run them ragged, boy. And keep yourself safe.”

  “Safe.” Ilara’s soft laugh held an edge of ice, though not nearly as sharp as Unwinter’s. “There is no safe, little Half.”

  There had better be. Robin didn’t bother replying. She simply stepped through the bushes, twitching her black-velvet cape-coat’s long flow past clutching branches, and set off across the soggy field, chantment tingling along her calves as her shoes kept her from slipping.

  Because if I come back out and you’ve hurt my hound, you’re the first one I’m stabbing.

  NICELY JACKETED

  28

  Everyone was restless that night, both patients and staff. Wendy Campbell, the head nurse on D ward, checked once or twice to make sure it wasn’t a full moon. Normally she’d scoff at such an unscientific notion… but at Creslough Asylum, she’d learned not to laugh.

  First floor, A ward and cafeteria, second floor, B ward and therapy rooms; instead of low security, B and C were moderate. Third floor, C ward and the zapper, the basement, D ward—high security—and solitary. There were fewer patients down here, but they were the troublesome ones, like Hugo Planck who screamed about fire and wet himself when he got excited, or Sybil Almand who had to be tube-fed when she went catatonic. None of them were violent, really… but accidents happened, like the time a nurse somehow got locked in with the Medium all night. The Medium, semifamous Kelly Ashford, had once had a radio show about psychics but now only giggled and rocked and constantly spoke to invisible people. When morning came, the nurse was a heap of nerves, and Wendy had sometimes heard it told that the Medium had told her she’d die in Creslough.

  Said nurse quit that very day, but had a massive stroke when she came back to pick up her last paycheck.

  Wendy always shook her head, hearing this bit of the story. You’d think the dumbass would have had it mailed, but people were people.

  Like she did every night at eleven, Wendy went on her rounds. Her raspberry scrubs were ironed, their creases sharp enough to cut. Her stethoscope—you always had to have one on her shifts, because the tools made the nurse—was polished, glinting in the low light as she creaked down the faded-yellow linoleum. The pink walls, supposedly soothing, were cracked and pitted, and Nurse Wendy could point to a few of the dents or chips and tell stories of how they happened. Right there next to Hugo’s cell was a divot where a twisting, struggling anorexic had somehow managed to run into a gurney so hard it dented the crumbling concrete. It also ruptured the anorexic’s spleen, and the young man had been taken to the hospital, where he promptly threw himself through a seventh-story window.

  Wendy, her cap of dark curls cut close to her very round head, lumbered up to each door and slid the observation patch aside. She peered into each room, blinking like a disturbed turtle. Most of them were nicely jacketed for the night, because dinnertime had been a disaster. Or a series of separate disasters, since her patients didn’t eat in the cafeteria. Hugo had thrown his tray, the Medium began screaming about Judgment Day and not even the regular dose of sedatives could calm her, Henry the Happy Wanker had to have his safety mitts taped on, Pearl the Paranoid had begun throwing herself at the wall, and every single inhabitant of D ward caught the bug and began to be troublesome. Even Marcus the philosopher, who argued with invisible professors about someone named Nee-Chee but was otherwise mild as a kitten, had threatened the swing nurse Annie Diamotti with his spoon, saying he’d cut her heart out. He also leapt at her, but Annie was quick on her feet and dodged, screaming for an orderly.

  Creslough used to be a state-of-the-art facility, retrofitted in the forties with every amenity, but the slashes in federal funding rolled downhill, and by the time they reached county level they were gouges. The other floors were bursting at the seams, but down here you couldn’t put more than one patient to a room, that’s what solitary meant. They subdivided in the late eighties, before the tune became “redefine and get their asses off the beds and out onto the streets,” but you couldn’t magically make more space in the half basement, now, could you?

  Pearl the Paranoid snored softly, her face turned toward the observation slit. White hair in a halo, tonight she looked oddly young. With that much sedative in her, she probably felt young, too.

  Not like stolid Nurse Wendy, whose bulk swayed from side to side as she went from one door to the next. The patients belowstairs called her Ratchet when they thought she couldn’t hear, and that almost managed to hurt even her leathery feelings. She knew that movie, and the actors used swears and it wasn’t anything like a real ward, which she would tell them if she had time. But she did not, because she was busy. She was the keeper of the crazies, and their nurse.

  Tiptap. Tiptap. Tiptap.

  Wendy stopped, turning ponderously. Despite her size, she was capable of silence and quick lunges when the occasion called for it. The tiptapping came again, at the end of the hall, light and fast.

  Shoes. Footfalls. Someone was walking around in heels. The definite, mincing little sounds echoed, bouncing down the corridor. Nurses wore practical shoes, and even the admins on the fourth floor had learned flats were best. Nurse Wendy had her ways of discouraging bad behavior, and heels were slutshoes.

  They were disrespectful, and Wendy didn’t care for them. A galvanic jerk went through her once, twice, a fluttering sensation in her belly, as if mental illness were catching and her professional inoculation had just reached its limits.

  Another sound intruded. A soft chiming, and then a woman’s voice, low and throaty, echoed as well.

  “Why are you following me?”

  The words drew a golden thread through the entire ward. Nurse Wendy inhaled sharply, and had just enough time to wonder who was in her ward, before every patient, even those sedated for the night, awakened.

  Most of them began to scream.

  So did Nurse Wendy, as one of the guardians of Creslough found her body an acceptable sleeve and lunged to inhabit its warm mortal caverns.

  TO RIDE FOR BREAK

  29

  Gallow skidded to a stop; Crenn almost ran into him and halted just in time with a soft-whispered obscenity before stepping mincingly aside. Both of them were taking deep heaving breaths, and sweat prickled under Gallow’s arms and at the hollow of his lower back.

  Even a Half couldn’t run forever. Dawn was still hours away, and he wasn’t going to make it. The poison-weakness had receded, but he was still shaky.

  Braghn Moran’s cape fluttered as he glanced back, and that was something to worry about too. Why the fuck was Summer’s favorite dancing attendance? The Sluagh was nothing to play around with, a fullblood could fall to them just as easily as a mortal, or anything in between. Stepping between the ravening undead and their prey was a fool’s game, and many were the songs of betrayals by those who offered help against the Hunt… and those stupid enough to believe protestations of fidelity or aid.

  So Jeremiah had worked his way across the city to here, the roof of the Savoigh Limited, cracked with breakage and fluttering with yellow caution tape just like a sidhe girl’s graceful sleeves. “Right there.” He pointed, in case the Summer knight could possibly miss the scorchmark starred with opalescent weeping slime. Whoever came up here to cordon it off had to have wondered.
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  It made him think of Clyde the foreman, and Panko. They’d been in the bar that night when Robin first appeared, desperate to break her trail. Gallow had killed a plagued Unseelie, and that moment had led him here.

  Be honest, Jer. It was over the second you saw her. Just like with Daisy. He’d soaked Robin up like thirsty earth under a summer rain. Would probably never see her again.

  His ribs heaved, and he managed a few more words. “Puck Goodfellow’s deathblight, Moran. You can say you’ve seen it.”

  “Indeed.” The Summer knight drifted across the roof, picking his steps with care as if he expected a trap or ambush. Robin walked that way, too, and Crenn, as if they expected the ground to give way at any moment. Did it come from being of Summer, or from being a sidhe?

  Or, more simply, did it come from just being alive? Every world was treacherous, sideways or not.

  Braghn Moran studied the mark. “And you have no trophies, to bring proof of your great deed? The Fatherless carried a bauble or two.”

  “Ask Unwinter.” Jeremiah turned away. His breath was coming back. “I have other concerns.”

  “Indeed you do.” Moran bent to examine the blight more closely. He sniffed, once or twice, tasted the air. When he straightened, his expression had changed somewhat, and Crenn stepped sideways and back at once, giving Jeremiah freedom of movement and putting himself right in the blind spot.

  Gallow wanted to twitch, restrained himself with sheer will. Cold silver hunting-cries echoed a few streets behind him—the dead were drifting in his wake. Getting closer every time he stopped to catch his breath and gather his wits.

  What little of them remained.

  If he’d still been playing at being mortal, he might have been on the crew coming out to repair the damage to the roof. He’d look at the blight and take care to bring salt or silver to cleanse it, and be careful not to step in it, or even too close.

  “You are slowing, Half.” Braghn Moran’s white teeth showed, a snarling marring his sidhe beauty for a moment, and the dark metal in his hair click-clacked, a streamlet of dissatisfied sound. “You will not last another hour, let alone until dawn.”

  “My problem, not yours.” The marks on Gallow’s arms tingled. “Summer might even keep you as a favorite if you bring my head back to her instead of Puck’s.”

  “She did not send me to do so, though. If I cannot find the Goodfellow’s head, I may continue to search wherever I please for it.”

  Slippery little fuck, aren’t you. The marks prickled painfully now, aware of danger growing closer. Was Crenn drawing a knife? The bastard was acting like he actually cared what happened to Jer.

  And to Robin.

  That’s going to be really awkward, if you survive this.

  It was almost a relief to have a problem big enough to eclipse every other potential problem in his fucked-up life.

  “And right now, it pleases me to aid you.” Moran reached, carefully, into his cloak. He produced a long, slender silver whistle, white bone underneath the metal glimmering with its own moonlight. He pursed his lips, and blew.

  A long, trilling, thrilling tone echoed across the rooftop. The Veil quivered uneasily, clotting-thick, and Gallow found himself wondering what might happen if Puck Goodfellow’s ghost was one that decided to rise.

  Could a fullblood rise with the Sluagh? Nobody knew. In any case, he kept a careful distance from the blight, and heard, as if from far away down a train tunnel, a strange reverberating neigh.

  Braghn Moran lowered the whistle. “Come, my two Half. We ride for break of day, and many shall be the songs sung of our deeds this night.”

  “Let’s hope we’re alive to hear them,” Crenn muttered, and Jeremiah’s mouth twitched.

  Robin had called an elfhorse, once, and paid for it dearly. Braghn Moran was fullblood highborn, so the fleetfoot steeds would come just for the joy of answering the call and running under a night sky.

  It had been a long time since Gallow had been a-horse.

  The Veil shimmered, coruscating twinkles birthing pixies and their tiny globes of light, burning fiercely blue. The color reminded him of Robin’s eyes, and Gallow spared a glance at Crenn.

  Alastair’s hair was still shaken down over his face, and the twin gleams of his dark eyes were fever-bright. “Don’t bother looking at me like that,” the hunter of Marrowdowne snapped. “I’m here to help you for her sake, Jeremiah. That’s all.”

  “Suitors aplenty for one little bird,” Braghn Moran laughed as the Veil shimmered again, and the clopping of hooves drew closer.

  They melded out of a rip in the night, white horses broad in the chest and long-legged, their eyes full of stardust and their long manes seafoam-cream. Three of them, crowding warm and vital through the Veil’s sudden fraying, and Jeremiah blinked, seeing also chrome and high handlebars, sleek tubes and spinning wheels.

  Of course. In the mortal world, they could glamour themselves as they liked, and horses and motorcycles shared the same longing to run.

  Braghn Moran whistled again, and saddles bloomed on the wide white backs. One of the elfhorses pranced and sidled a bit, uneasy at the confinement, and settled as the Summer knight spoke a word in the Old Language, soft and crisp as a new-picked apple. The pixies darted about, almost drunk on the glamour exhaling from Moran’s cloak and hair; the knight made a sudden movement and the cloak vanished with the Veil, melting. His mailed foot caught a stirrup and he was up in a moment, then indicated the other two steeds with a brief, elegant motion. “Come, come, we must away.” The faint moonlight of the steeds poured strangely over his hair.

  Crenn’s eyes plainly said, Do you trust him?

  Jeremiah didn’t bother replying that he had no choice in the matter. He caught at a set of bell-jangling reins, and his own hobleaf boot caught a stirrup. The old grace hadn’t left him; he still mounted tolerably well. Crenn groaned, a short sharp exhalation, once he was settled in the seat.

  “I hate this,” he muttered.

  “Pretend it’s a motorcycle.” A fey delight filled Jeremiah to the brim, spilling out his mouth in a laugh that rivaled any fullblood’s for chill amusement. Riding. Great way to shake a few ideas loose. “Lead on, Braghn Moran, and let us ride for dawn’s breaking.”

  The Summer knight touched his heels to his elfhorse’s sides, and the steed leapt forward, winking out on one side of the street-abyss and appearing on the other. Moran whistled, a high piercing note, and the other two mounts shot after him.

  The Ride began.

  MORTAL PAIN

  30

  Of course Ilara couldn’t tell her precisely where the damn thing was. When you get close enough, you will know. And of course Ilara couldn’t come in.

  The sign on the building, Creslough Asylum, est. 1822, gave Robin a clue, and her first step inside gave her the answer.

  The place was a madhouse. Robin Ragged, bracing herself, decided the front door was preferable to getting lost in a tangle of passages.

  Bright spatters of imagination and terror splashed the walls, broken bits of the Old Language condensing well after they had been uttered by a mortal by chance or babble-truth. Long illness, or or some brands of insanity, could grant a mortal glimpses of the sideways realms. There were ballads of the mad being held in great honor by the sidhe, including prophets or poets, and also ballads of mortals driven into that nightmare country by a sidhe bored or vengeful.

  It was difficult to say which were more numerous.

  Splinters of the sideways realms glittered briefly and were gone, and unease pressed against Robin’s diaphragm. To brush against those splinters was to invite a chance breath of madness against one’s own brain and heart. Yes, mortal blood was an insurance against the contagion, but a tenuous one at best. There was no way the Feathersalt would have risked herself in here.

  The Veil twisted and ran in great streaks, the eddies cold, then warm against Robin’s skin even through the velvet. She might as well not be wearing it, since its value as cam
ouflage was gone, but with her head shorn and her neck missing its familiar gold locket she already felt…

  Well, a little naked. The sidhe didn’t believe in anything as mortal as modesty, but a girl growing up in a trailer might feel a twinge or two. The cold wasn’t physical, and neither was the cloying warmth, and the thought of Unwinter with his hands on a piece of truemetal Robin had worn at her throat for many a long year was not a comforting one.

  He could find her anywhere, following the tugging of the locket, even as its metal seared his Unwinter flesh.

  Tiny bits of blue light flickered in the deeper eddies. Pixies, no doubt, and Robin closed her eyes, listening. The thrum of blood in her ears, the soughing of her breath—four in, four out, did she dare to sing even if faced by something dreadful? Her voice seemed fine, a little huskier than usual. The shusweed should have worn completely off by now, and maybe she hadn’t broken anything in her throat, screaming as she fell into the sea.

  She penetrated the maze of corridors on the first floor, her shoes clicking time on worn blue linoleum. The front halls were brightly lit; an intake desk with a middle-aged woman in blue scrubs slumped in her chair, resting her chin on her hand as she struggled to stay awake. The dots of blue light around Robin strengthened, and the pixies began to chime, a muffled sleepy song. She halted, watching curiously from one hallway as the nurse behind the bulletproof glass at the intake desk closed her heavy eyelids and drooped further.

  Well, that’s useful. The intake space was carpeted with short faded nylon, which swallowed her footsteps as she edged quickly across the fluorescent-lit cavern. The elevators were ancient but not nearly as old as the walls, and her sensitive nose untangled several threads. Disinfectant, the unsmell of mortal pain, the chemical reek of medicine, a whiff of ozone. Her left hand twitched as if she would reach for Pepperbuckle’s ruff, then fell back to her side as she paused to examine the elevators. They had two doors, an outer shell and an inner grill, and she shuddered at the thought of being caged.

 
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