Wasteland king, p.15
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       Wasteland King, p.15

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  Where should I go? The pixies chattered, their tones soothing but no longer slumbrous. The Sundering was long ago, and this place had definitely been built afterward, maybe catching like a nail on the echo of a long-buried artifact. Maybe this place had been a countryside retreat before it turned into a suburban semiprison.

  Down, then. An antique sign pointed her toward stairs, and she knelt to whisper at the heavy industrial lock. A few syllables of the Old Language, their consonants echoing strangely and rippling in her mouth, and she pulled the handle. The door opened smoothly; pixies darted around her in a swarming cloud. They didn’t rush at her eyes or bare their tiny wicked teeth. Instead, they ringed her and made little gestures, tiny hands spread and patting at the very edge of her chantment-glow. When she stepped through a thick eddy of the Veil, they grew stronger, and their excited gabbling almost made sense.

  They’ve never done this before. Robin tried not to shiver, pulling the velvet closer as she tapped down the stairs.

  A painted sign proclaimed the next level down as WARD D, and she hesitated on the landing. There was one more level, true basement instead of half cellar, but the tugging of instinct made her bend and whisper the lock on this door open. Pinpricks ran down her back, and she tensed as she stepped through, finding herself at the end of a long, cold, dark hall, locked doors marching down on either side and only faint gleams from emergency lighting along the ceiling. Each door had a slit in it, some locked with small bars, others open.

  The reek of pain and astringent medication was thicker here. The Veil folded like a closed fan, and she had to almost push her way through, her pulse rising. The pixies crowded, one daring to flutter down and touch her shoulder, then another. Little movements told her they were also touching her hair, but again, their tiny hands were soft, and they caressed soothingly instead of biting or jabbing with tiny needle-blades.

  Another shadowy instinct drew her on, her heels making faint noises. The entire building was asleep, like an enchanted castle in a ballad. Like Fair Elsein, who sang an entire keep into slumber so she could escape with Barl the Huntsman, or Rothindyl the Pale slipping stealthily through Unwinter’s own halls searching for his lover and shield-bearer, Peris.

  Peris had been returned to the mortal world, and died on a moor pining, some said. One song held that Unwinter had hunted fair Peris, and that even now the shield-bearer was part of the Sluagh, cursing a faithless sidhe lover as many a mortal had done before.

  The pixies circled her, almost like a cloud of fireflies around Summer. They loved to flit about the Queen in a golden screen, especially in the orchard during a long, soft evening in her half of the year, the Gates open and her whims ascendant. Robin brushed them away and they followed the sweep of her hand, one darting down to land on her knuckles for a moment. It blew her a pert little kiss and tumbled off, giggling, only to be cuffed and buffeted by some of the others, whose faces were now pictures of dismay.

  “Why are you following me?” Robin asked, very softly. Perhaps in their scattered cacophony she could find another clue?

  A deathly hush fell, even the faint buzzing of the lights ceasing. Robin stiffened, a horrifying din broke out, and the entire building heaved and settled once over its foundations.

  Something was awake.

  DAMN’D SPOT

  31

  They crossed Summer’s border at dusk, winging swift and ungainly-graceful through soft air. Sharp, hooked beaks clacked, black feathers flutter-melted in the freshening breeze. Croaking their throatcut cries, they arrowed over the Fernbrakes and coasted up the long stretch of Silverdell, then flapped furiously to rise on the thermals above a ring of manses and sidhe keeps, the homes of fullblood highborns. Some structures crumbled artfully, others stood white-and-green and proud, swords in the gathering gloom. Still others flickered, pale for a few moments and regaining themselves with an effort, candleflames in a draft.

  In the distance Summerhome rose, its towers pitiless-sharp now and serried in ranks like a drow’s ever-growing dental frills. The cloud of beaks and wings arrowed toward it, and its shadow bled onto the green hills and the shell-white Road ribboning through Summer’s domain.

  The flying shadow divided around Summerhome like a river around a rock, curl-foaming on each side. The inksplash resolved into a circling coil, and the beaks opened and closed, clacking and screaming, the feathers dropping faster now. As they floated downward, they changed. Elongating, becoming liquid, and flashing once, each shed feather turned crimson and splatted against greenstone-and-porcelain sheathing. The bloodrain stank, a cold wet caustic smell, and would scar and pit any surface except crystalline-threaded thanstone. The harsh, hoarse yells reached a crescendo, and the curse-birds began to fall, plummeting and turning to thick crimson fluid in thin feathered sacks, bursting on impact.

  Drenched and dripping, Summer’s green banners flopped listlessly.

  One of the black bird-things did not melt as it plummeted. It flapped once, breaking the speed of its fall, and stretched its three-fingered lower feet. Its wings glinted, each black feather dipped in gold for a brief moment, and it settled above the massive front door, tapping once, twice, thrice with its beak on the carved stone frieze. A chip of greenstone flaked away from the figure of a stag garlanded with evergrape leaves, spattering on the quartz-veined steps below. Their edges were no longer sharp, those steps, and the bloodrain upon them smoked with tiny chortling hisses.

  The herald-bird laughed, a dismal, ratcheting sound. “Challenge!” it cried. Once, twice, thrice.

  No answer came from Summerhome, but the herald laughed again, its eyes lighting with brief bloody sparks. “The Field of Gold, at sundown. Bring your banners, bring your knights, and let us have an end.”

  It mantled, shaking away spatters of congealing crimson, and took flight again. Each wingbeat was a thunderclap, and it streaked for the edge of Summer’s country with the wind behind it, caw-laughing as it went.

  Inside the Home, empty passages twisted hither and yon. Some brughnies crept about the kitchens, tending low smoky fires. A few dryads attended the heart of Seelie, but the fullbloods had retired to their own homes, and the heart of Summer’s kingdom beat sluggish-erratic.

  Broghan the Black stirred slightly. His naked back, striped with long thin scrapes, flickered with muscle and mellifluous scales, each of them lined with silver iridescence. He lay tangled in the deep-green satin well of Summer’s most inward bower, perhaps asleep, perhaps feigning slumber. His dark hair spread across a spring-leaf pillow, and the lift of his ribs as he breathed was scarcely visible.

  A great oval mirror rose water-clear, held in a frame of oak roots coaxed from the walls and bearing tiny scalloped leaves and jewel-polished acorns now shriveled and withered. It held a shimmering reflection of the entire room. A white sword in the center, the glass eye’s pupil, was Summer’s loose dusky robe, open down her front. Her knee peeped out, a calf, a tiny foot.

  Two pallid birds were her hands, rubbing at each other as she tilted her golden head, the echoes of the challenge falling into the wells of her black eyes. Her hair fell in a mass, ratting into elflocks at the bottom. The hard boil on her wrist had spread down to her palm, and tiny pinpricks on her opposite fingertips showed the spreading as well. Livid branches traced nerve-channels up her left arm to the hollow of her elbow, no longer pearly and perfect. Without the draining glamour, her reflection showed fine lines at eye-corner and lip-edge. Sometimes she had played at a dame’s austere beauty, but always with the laughing promise of a youthful nymph beneath.

  Even the most cherished blood of all, that of small helpless mortals, had not halted the decline. Shapes and glamours trembled at the edge of her control, and she could not feel a full third of her domain. Marrowdowne was sliding deeper into the Dreaming Sea, salt rising through its green channels and the creatures entombed in its murky depths stirring restlessly. Harrow’s Dean, Flyhill, and the Sparn were all prickling-numb, nerves gone to sleep. The dagger of Cor’s Hear
t was insensate. The free sidhe had already begun to creep from the borders of the Low Counties into her demesne, hoping for a little bit of insurance against the plague’s ravages.

  Unwinter had issued a challenge.

  She lifted the tiny brocaded bag from the innermost pocket of her robe and drew out a single crystalline tube. It was well made, almost fine enough to seem dwarf-wrought; she held it up, peering at the coruscating liquid inside. Robin Ragged had thought to use this to bargain with Summer for a worthless mortal child, but Gallow had set her at naught. If only Gallow had ceased there, and not turned against his queen—but that was of little account. Soon Summer would be whole again, and lovely, and there were three more ampoules of cure for the plague a mortal scientist had unleashed for love of Summer herself.

  The heart of all Seelie frowned at the small ampoule, and a tiny crunching sound was a dart of her displeasure clean-shearing the top away. Her nails, crimson-curved talons now, clicked faintly against the glass. The liquid fizzed, and she lifted the ampoule to her pale lips. One or two of her fine teeth had discolored slightly—not enough to notice, surely, unless you remembered how snowy they had been before.

  She tossed the liquid far back into her throat and stood for a moment, her entire body stiffening. Her robe crackled like sap in a hot fire, and the sound brought Broghan Trollsbane out of his real or feigned slumber. He sat bolt upright, dark eyes wide, and saw the Queen of Seelie double over, retching.

  A rope of black filth dangled from her mouth, and her black eyes bugged. She heaved, again and again, and when she was finished, her screams rent the sky above Summerhome, darkening now as they had not done in many a year. Lightning stabbed, diamond-bright, and those who had slunk to their mansions or copses lifted their heads, shuddering.

  When the call came to ride against Unwinter, few of them would dare her displeasure now.

  That was of little comfort to Summer, who now knew she had been cheated. The vials Jeremiah Gallow had brought her did not hold the cure.

  No, Ragged Robin had paid the dwarves dearly to fill the glass with holy water filched from the cathedral of Saint Martin the Redeemer.

  The same church the Ragged’s mortal mother lay buried near, sleeping quietly under green turf.

  MUTE BY DEFAULT

  32

  The Ragged plunged clatterfoot down the hall, something behind her snorting heavily, its foul breath brushing her nape. It wore rags of raspberry cloth, and its horned turtle-head had been barely glimpsed before Robin fled its stamping approach. It wasn’t a true minotaur, of course, the survivors of those horned creatures were of Unseelie and rarely left their blackgrass pastures near the Great Howe. It had only one stubby horn, and that was on its chin, but its eerie darting speed reminded her of an illustration of the great bull-creatures from a vast leatherbound tome in Summer’s library, its painted lines moving with almost-animal grace.

  This thing bellowed in a deep agonized voice, its new-grown hooves stamping heavily, and the pixies darted before Robin, beckoning. Whether they knew what she was after or simply meant to help her escape she didn’t know, because the same tug of instinct that had brought her down into this nasty hole was shrieking at her to run, for the love of Stone and Throne, and not look back.

  It gibbered and slavered behind her, and the pixies lighted on Robin’s hair and arms, plucking at black velvet as if to help her along. She resisted the urge to put her head down—that was a good way to get trapped in a hall-end box or run straight into a wall and daze herself. The pixies pointed left and she took that turning, and there was a door at the end of the new hall. Screams echoed from either side, and one of the doors burst open, a small, frail woman with a shock of white hair staggering out. Long sleeves flapped at the end of her skinny arms, and for a moment Robin thought she had grown tentacles before she recognized a straitjacket.

  There was no time to wonder how the old woman had burst free; Robin almost knocked her over in her headlong rush. The woman’s face, distorted with a never-ending scream—did she even need to breathe?—flashed past and was gone, and Robin skidded, the light frantic tattoo of her footstops almost lost in the din.

  “NOT MAD!” the old woman yelled, and a bright violet flash filled the hall. Robin fumbled at the door, scraping her fingers on thick, cracked paint as she tried to push the lever down.

  “KEPT ME HERE, NOT MAD NOT MAD!” the woman yelled again, and the beast chasing Robin roared. There was a thump and a wet sticky snapping sound, and the pixies darted for the door-lock, chiming in the Old Language. The lock yielded happily, Robin yanked on the door—which still refused to budge before she figured out she had to push instead and tumbled into a dim, malodorous stairwell, slamming the door and fumbling at the lock from this side. She found the syllables she wanted, spat them, and a golden spark crackled from her lips.

  That’s never happened before either. She didn’t have time to worry about it, though.

  These stairs only went down, into the basement below.

  Robin let out a harsh half sob. A titanic impact on the other side of the door broke the safety glass in its narrow vertical window, and the thing’s bleeding snout jammed against the chickenwire that held the shards in. Robin flinched aside, groping for the banister. It was sticky, almost damp, and the stitch in her side was a vicious claw.

  Nowhere to go but down. The thing at the door scrabbled for purchase, its snorting and heaving eclipsing any other noise. Pixies, their indigo light-globes brightening to summersky blue, whirled around her sunwise-deosil, and she could see the end of the linoleum, the stairs turning to ancient, crumbling wood. Sweat poked and prickled under her arms, along her ribs.

  Robin pitched herself forward, hoping none of the stairs would break and force her to leap into the darkness, trusting the chantment on her heels.

  I shall give thee hooves that will not falter, Morische the Cobbler had said, and he’d wrought well. Still, they couldn’t grant her flight.

  The stairs turned and she turned with them, the pixies giving her enough light to avoid stumbling, hopping nimbly over the holes of missing steps. The almost-minotaur hit the door again, and dust pattered down, fine as sand.

  Let’s hope it holds. She followed the pixies’ urging, their tiny faces pictures of astonished excitement. They settled in her hair again, along her sleeves, darted before her, swirling above her head in a complicated almost-pattern.

  She found the bottom with a jolt, a cavern opening around her, and stumbled on sterile earth that had not seen sunlight in many a year before her shoes sent tingles up her calves, righting and steadying her. Pixies arrowed forward, pointing, and it was cold. Her breath didn’t plume in the freeze; it was a different branch of chill than Unwinter’s. Robin shivered, heard splintering overhead.

  The pixies halted over a piece of dirt, no different than the rest. Robin glanced around, the darkness pressing close. The mortals didn’t store anything down here, they’d simply built upward. Pixies darted down, shifting tiny handfuls of dirt, Robin fell to her knees and began to claw at the dry-crumbling powder. Small stones rattled aside, she spoke a word in the Old Language and flinched as another golden spark popped from her lips. It didn’t hurt, but it was downright disconcerting.

  Maybe, instead of breaking her voice, she’d just frayed whatever rein she had on it? She was able to speak without letting it loose, but how long would that last? Ending up mute by default, afraid to say anything because the massive destructive music might burst free—

  Worry about that later. Right now, dig. The dirt all but jumped away from her hands, chantment behaving with unaccustomed force, and her fingertips struck something strange.

  A wooden box, its top so rotten it crumbled to dust as she scrabbled around it. Inside, fraying gossamer silksheen wrapped around a thin curved shape, sidhe fabric of an unfamiliar pattern.

  The shape all but leapt toward her hands. Had it been rising from wherever Puck Goodfellow buried it? It had to have been deeper than this, and the a
ccretion of time and earth should have just shoved it down further with every passing mortal year. And yet, the mad mortals overhead might have worked their own chantment, and a piece of a great wyrm would be drawn to the hot scent of prey.

  Or—and this caused another shudder—maybe it rose through the dirt because the daughter of the one who had buried it was near?

  The cloth crumbled too, turning to cobwebs so old they lacked stickiness. Robin stared at a plain wooden hilt wrapped with age-darkened, oiled thongs. The sheath was of stamped leather too fine-grained to be animal or human hide.

  Sidhe-skin clothed this blade. She turned it in her hands, carefully, in case it wanted to slip loose. A small tug on the hilt, and an inch of crystalline glitter stung her dark-adapted eyes. Pixies cowered, chiming in alarm, and she hurriedly shoved the blade back into its home.

  Great. Now she just had to find a way out with her prize. The thumping from overhead had ominously ceased.

  “Out,” she whispered. “A way out.”

  Pixies scattered, then clustered her again, drawing her on. The only other sidhe she’d seen them display this amount of care for…

  … Had been Puck Goodfellow.

  Well, that answered that. Maybe, with the Fatherless dead or Twisted past recovery, they were paying attention to his bloodline now. Robin shuddered at the thought, following their soft urgings.

  Ah. The ground sloped up, and she glanced overhead. Almost tripped again, her toe striking something light but unexpected, and she sidled like a horse, staring at the black mass in front of her.

  Coal. This was a coal cellar. There’s a chute.

  The pixies pointed, jingling, and there was a final massive noise overhead, accompanied by splintering and cracking.

  Robin thrust the knife into one of her velvet robe’s larger pockets, and scrambled to climb the forgotten hill of black rock with fire in its heart.

 
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