Wasteland king, p.17
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       Wasteland King, p.17

           Lilith Saintcrow
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  Summer peered from the casement, as she had during the Harrowing. When her borders were permeable during that most awful time, Unwinter’s raids had pierced them, but the Home had never fallen. He was forced to make his own poor copy of the glorious hills, the woods full of birdsong, the white towers and the merriment that filled every corner of her land. His orchard was a thorn-tangle, and he was not even wise enough to feed his realm as she did. Had she not earned her little pleasures, ruling such a fickle, deadly, changeful, creeping, powerful folk?

  The dust whispered, whispered. Summer raised her right hand to her mouth, set her once-beautiful teeth against the inside of her wrist, and bit.

  What oozed forth was not a scarlet mortal ribbon, or the thick blue ichor of a drow. It was not the green thin sap of a dryad, or the blue splash of mer-singer or naiad. Not the brackish ooze of barrow-wight, or the thick golden swelling of a wounded gebrial, or the butterfly-birthing white spray of a heath-troll’s bleeding.

  No, this was a resin such as the trees in her orchard might ooze. It should have been golden-dark, like buckwheat-blossom honey, but instead it was threaded with tiny branching rivers of leprous-green foulness.

  Even a will to match Unwinter’s could not keep the plague at bay.

  She suckled at her wound, her eyes rolling back under fluttering golden lashes. The dustcloud over the Speaking Tower tightened, a tornado of sandpaper force.

  Summer ripped her mouth from the wound, and cried aloud.

  The sound belled out through the small arrowslit window with its simple stonework, and every particle of dust flashed bright white. On distant hills and in the moors, deep in the forests and in the wide glades, in the green stench-sinks of Marrowdowne and the clean rushing waters of Hob’s End, white jolts of lightning stabbed.

  The funnel over the Tower flapped and wheeled now, a storm of white birds with wicked crimson beaks. Their cloudshape collapsed, spreading over Summerhome with a rush of wings, and the birds arrowed forth to visit every corner of Summer’s realm, to remind her subjects that she was their Queen, their light, their love, and their font.

  And that their services were required.

  For Summer, for the first time since the Blood Morn that had put an end to the Harrowing, was riding to war.



  Emergency vehicles swarmed, their lights flashing fit to give you seizures. Walkie-talkies blatted, and for Chuck Tennington, it was just another day doing search-and-rescue for overtime pay. He’d been thinking more about the alimony he was going to owe than sleeping anyway, and Shep, knowing as much, had called him in to join the sweep for survivors. They were saying gas explosion, but there were no flames, and goddamn if it mattered to Chuck anyway, because Debbie wouldn’t even let him see little Mona, Debbie wouldn’t even talk to her husband of fifteen years on the phone.

  He pushed his baseball cap up a little further and stepped along as part of the human chain searching the grounds. Creslough didn’t really house any violent offenders, but if it was a slow news day there would be news copters out here as soon as it was light enough. So far they’d recovered four bodies from the rubble, and a whole bunch of terrified, screaming nutters. They’d even found half a nurse’s charred corpse in the hole blasted in the basement; the lifting smoke was from a smoldering pile of ancient coal probably left over from the Roaring Twenties, for Chrissake. The regular firefighters were dousing it, but the coal didn’t want to go out.

  A knot of bushes loomed in front of him, and he continued mouthing the standard words. “Anyone here? DFD Station Fifty-Three, emergency response.” He almost went around the damn greenery instead of poking into it, just out of sheer exhaustion. Pulling double shifts was brutal enough, but he was suspecting he’d have to pay Debbie’s damn shark of a lawyer, too. City and county budget cuts were also making it pretty goddamn likely that even firefighters with seniority and some muscle left would be out of luck real soon too.

  Well, it was just a cherry on top of a shit pie, as his granddad always used to say.

  The hell of it was, Chuck told himself as he stepped into the dew-heavy mess, he couldn’t even be sure any money would go to either Mona or Debbie instead of the lawyer. He wasn’t even sure what the fucking problem was, just that Debbie had told him out of the blue after an early Tuesday dinner I want a divorce, Chuck, and that was that. No explanation, nothing, just told him to pack something and get out.

  He almost stepped on the girl.

  She lay on her side, a punkrocker shock of coppergold hair slicked down with dampness. Some sort of long black trenchcoat puddled around her, and she was so pale and still that for a moment Chuck thought he’d have to radio in We’ve got a ten-eighty-seven here, paramedic in south quadrant, letting the brave guys with the stethoscopes and the slightly less brave ones with straitjackets come out and find out if she was breathing or not. Then he bent, the trained impulse to help overriding any such craven thoughts.

  Just as his knee hit the dirt, he heard a low thrumming growl, and looked up to see a golden retriever the size of a pony staring at him, its eyes flashing bright blue.

  The girl—she couldn’t be more than twenty, he’d card her for liquor—stirred, pushing at the air with one slim pale hand. Branches moved, showering her with heavy dewdrops, and she rolled over onto her back. Her eyes opened, dark blue as a summer sky at dusk, and the dog growled again, an I mean business sound that pushed Chuck’s center of gravity back. Squatter? Homeless? No, she looks too clean. The dog too. But—

  She stared at him for an endless moment, then inhaled as if to scream.

  “It’s all right.” He pitched it as soft as he could. “I’m a fireman, it’s all right. Search-and-rescue, I’m here to help you.”

  The dog twitched, Chuck almost fell on his ass, but the girl simply said, “No.” One soft, clear, lovely word.

  It reminded him of Debbie’s voice, actually, and if that dog came for him things were going to get ugly. He wasn’t wearing the protective gear that might keep him from being mauled. Just jeans, T-shirt, flannel shirt, and corduroy work jacket under his brightly colored vest, and he’d stupidly put his face right down at attack-me level.

  The dog subsided. More branches shook, as if the wind had risen. It probably had, at dawn there was pretty much always a breeze redolent of exhaust and despair.

  She stared at him, then put out her hand again, waving as if she had trouble seeing. He reached out, palms down, keeping a nervous eye on the dog, which sank back on its haunches and regarded him intently in return.

  Her warm fingers—maybe she was feverish?—clasped his wrist, touching skin since he’d folded his sleeves back and glove down so he could check his watch regularly. He pulled her up, settling her on her feet, and the dog made no move.

  He should have checked her for damage first, and when he thought about it later, that was only one of the things that bothered him. The branches rattled, rattled, and the yells of other searchers rose. He was breaking the chain.

  “It’ll be all right,” he told her numbly.

  So pretty, her high cheekbones and wide eyes, a faint tremulous smile touching her pale lips. That hair would be gorgeous if she grew it out, and her trenchcoat was actually velvet. He caught a breath of a wonderful perfume—greenness and spiced fruit, a golden thread underneath tying everything together, and it made him think of Debbie laughing after Homecoming that once when he fumbled with the condom and her throaty whisper It don’t matter none, Chuck, I love you.

  He cleared his throat again. “There’s emergency shelter, and something to eat. Doctors to look you over. You from the building?” He didn’t call it the asylum or the crankhouse or Crazyville, you didn’t want to remind them they might have a reason to go wandering away at high speed.

  She shook her head, and the gold hoops in her ears—yet another indication she wasn’t an indigent—swung lightly. “No.” Even softer, almost a whisper. She could be on TV with that voice. Or radio, if anyone bu
t right-wing gun-stroking cranks listened to radio anymore. “I am well enough. Many thanks, mortal.”

  Mortal? Afterward he wasn’t sure what she’d said, and figured he must have heard something else in place of Mister.

  She let go of his wrist, and a faint smear of gold remained on his skin. He opened his mouth to say something, but a big-ass bug darted at his face out of nowhere, and his involuntary flinch sent him stumbling back against a thin sapling that shook another cargo of moisture-drops pitter-pattering down. It buzzed angrily as he batted at it, his hand swiping nothing but empty air, and he almost yelled but that would give it a way into his mouth, good God he hated the creepy-crawlies.

  He blinked, rubbing his eyes, and breathed a surprised obscenity.

  She was gone. Just a faint blurred outline of her body in the leaf mould, it could have been anything. A tinkling sound, like sleighbells in those Christmas movies, echoed all around him, and he plunged out of the small bit of woods, looking around wildly.

  Empty grass stretched on every side of the small overgrown hollow. Whatever way she was running, someone would see her. Still, it bothered him, and he reached for his radio.

  He stopped, some clear instinct keeping his finger off the button. A vanishing girl and a dog? Escapees from Creslough, or… or what? What would he say? I let one get away? The warning in his guts churned, like that warehouse fire when something had warned him to pull his team out just before the whole structure suddenly collapsed.

  When that feeling spoke up, you damn well listened. If you wanted to survive, that is. Georgie Rankin, when he had one too many, would sometimes say he’d seen faces in the flames on that one. Mouths open like they were laughing.

  You saw a whole lot of shit that could make you wonder, working for the department. Chuck shook his head and hurried to catch up with the other searchers, looking nervously over his shoulder every few steps. He could chalk the whole thing up to imagination, especially the warmth spreading up his wrist. By the time he reached the search line again, his mortal brain had decided such questions were better buried.

  Buried deep.

  Later that afternoon, back at the station, there was a Post-it stuck to his locker. Debbie had called, and when he dialed the phone in Shep’s office his heart galloped and his palms were moist.

  She picked up. She didn’t sound angry. She wanted to talk, she said. Maybe things had been bad, but… well, Mona missed him, and Debbie guessed she did too. She’d thought he was fooling around, with all those late nights, but every single one of them was accounted for on his work schedule, and she supposed she could—

  “Baby,” Chuck cupped his hand tenderly around the mouthpiece, “you know there ain’t never been anyone else, and there never will be.” Maybe it was the rawness in his throat or the exhaustion, but Debbie started sniffling, and by the time they hung up they had a tentative meeting planned for the next day. To talk things over. Without the lawyer.

  He stood in the darkened office, listening to the din outside as his fellow firefighters changed, passed gossip and gas, cracked jokes, or cursed. He glanced at his watch—noting the time when something amazing happened was trained into every one of Shep’s firefighters—and discovered, to his annoyance, that it had stopped just after dawn.



  Maybe they could have kept running, had Braghn Moran not pointed them directly at the graveyard attached to Saint Martin the Redeemer’s glowering granite bulk. The knight may have been unfamiliar with the territory, since his horse leapt first—and dropped, screaming, melting in midair as the blessing of consecrated earth sent it back through the Veil.

  Gallow’s own mount might have balked, but they were going too quickly. He’d been waving desperately, trying to warn Braghn Moran—then the living, heaving weight under him vanished and he tumbled through free air, lightfoot chantment blooming along his legs and instinct pitching him sideways to avoid a half-felt, unseen obstacle. He hit gravel and rolled, sending up a spray of sharp pebbles and dirt, came to a jolting stop staring up at a high, thin headstone with a carved cross at its crown.

  The Sluagh-cries rose around them, the ends of a U closing to make a ring. No escape now, and thick mist boiled against the graveyard gate.

  A shadow reared over him. The lance sprang into being, jolting against his palm, the point glowing dull red and the butt socketed firmly against the gravestone behind him. It would cut down his range of motion, but the haft could shorten if necessary.

  The fullblood hissed, slapping at the haft just below the blade to push it aside, and Jeremiah almost, almost replied with a short sharp movement that would bury iron in the sidhe’s guts. Moran’s hands were empty, though, and his weight was too far back for him to attempt a lunge of any sort. In fact, the highborn shifted from foot to foot, a flicker of distaste crossing his sharp handsome features, his hair swinging.

  Of course. Consecrated ground would be uncomfortable at best for one of Summer’s fullbloods. And that heaviness in Moran’s hair was some kind of blackened metal, beads strung along the strands clacking with mellow sounds too heavy to be anything but gold.

  Jeremiah shook the ringing out of his head. “Crenn?” he croaked.

  “I do not know.” The hopping from foot to foot became more pronounced. “I did not see the spire, Gallow. I beg your pardon.”

  “Freely granted.” His mouth was dry. It was a cold day in Hell, when a knight of Moran’s station begged the pardon of a Half. “They’ll rise here soon. You’d best be gone.”

  “I promised you my aid.” His hopping should have made him look ridiculous. Instead, it was a cat’s flicking of water from disdainful paws. “I am not faithless, Armormaster.”

  You might be the only fullblood I’d believe that of, right now. Gallow opened his mouth to tell him it was pointless, that the Sluagh ringed this place and though they could not rise from the graves inside the consecration, it would not bar them from stepping over the border and finding him, once enough of them had gathered. Cold sweat oiled his forehead, his ribs heaved, but whatever he would have said next was lost when Moran stiffened, half turning.

  Jeremy heard it too. A low hopeless whisper, with the sonorous edge of a battle-cry.

  “Robin,” it said, a hoarse broken voice, and Jeremiah’s skin contracted in atavistic response.

  It was Crenn, and he sounded like he was in bad shape.

  Jeremiah lunged upright, and Braghn Moran caught his elbow. “Leave him. We may yet escape, if I may find a corner where their Pale God has weakened—”

  Yeah. Go ahead, Jer, leave him. It was probably good advice. Braghn Moran could help him survive past dawn. It was just barely possible, and if Crenn’s horse had melted before it leapt onto church grounds the next step was for the Sluagh to cluster him, sensing death creeping onto a being that had aided their prey.

  Alastair Crenn was already dead.

  The old familiar loathing swelled under Jeremiah’s skin, turning the hard prickling gooseflesh into more oily sweat. He pulled his arm free. “You are a just knight, and a fell one.” A standard way of making his gratefulness known, while avoiding the insult of thanking a fullblood.

  Braghn Moran looked ready to speak again, but Jeremiah pitched forward, bolting over gravel that shushed and scattered as lightfoot chantment brushed it. An ancient, lichen-stained wall with newer cement spreading in leprous patches here and there, it wasn’t a serious obstacle when you gathered enough speed.

  Leave Crenn, for God’s sake. He’d leave you!

  Except he hadn’t. And he said Robin’s name when death loomed. Why would a Half assassin fight in the Ragged’s honor?

  Well, really, what man wouldn’t?

  He leapt, grabbed the top, muscled himself up like a swimmer at the pool’s edge, and balanced for a single moment atop the suddenly thread-thin safety. Glancing down and to the right—Crenn had been flung against the wall, it looked like, and Jeremiah almost winced at the thought. He’d heal, but it would
still be painful.

  If the Sluagh didn’t get him first.

  Already the mist pressed in a ragged semicircle around him, thickening as they sensed Jeremiah’s presence as well. Scarves of vapor described shattered faces, mutilated limbs, the hitching ungainly movements of the furious, unforgiven—and unforgiving—dead. Crenn’s bloody fist held one of his slightly curved blades, its graceful shine trembling.

  Leave him. Escape. Do what he thinks you did that night in the Hooverville. You’re a faithless fucking sidhe, Jeremiah Gallow, so just do what you’re best at, and forget him. You’re good at that.

  He certainly was. Daisy’s face had become a cloudy apparition, replaced by Robin’s. The thought that maybe Daisy would rise with the Sluagh if he hadn’t laid her to rest in hallowed ground was a torment at best. Crenn and Robin both had cause to complain of him. He wasn’t kind, or particularly faithful, or even brave. He just did what he had to, moaning to himself about how hard it was.

  Mist-shrouded faces turned, and a peculiar deep sniffing echoed against the wall. One of the shapes darted forward, trailing a long shawl of greasy mist, and Crenn slashed, a slow futile movement, with his ineffectual blade.

  A soft rasping behind him was Braghn Moran, approaching to drag him away or simply to see the former Armormaster meet his end.

  Jeremiah Gallow leaned forward, just as he used to on construction sites, testing the idea of leaping out into thin air. Tasting it, using it like a whip on his own bitter-scarred soul.

  He shuffled sideways as Braghn Moran arrived on the wall, the fullblood stamping his armored feet as if they pained him. Then Gallow’s feet left the precarious safety, he was airborne, and he almost laughed at his own surprise.

  Even a Half could get tired of loathing himself, and decide to do something else.

  Something better.

  He landed, the lance springing into bright being, moonfire snapping off its tasseled end and the point lengthening into a sickle-shape. His front foot slid sideways, the fulcrum of his hip sweeping the blade through the contorted mist-clothed creature, whose empty eyesockets and nose-holes were tiny compared to its giant rotting mouth, crooked-sharp teeth gleaming with their own mad corpseglow.

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