Wasteland king, p.18
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       Wasteland King, p.18

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  “Back,” Jeremiah Gallow heard himself say. “Back, foulness. You shall not have him.” You might have me instead, but I’m tired of running.

  Especially from myself.

  It screamed as the blade tore, sparkling, through its midsection, and something yanked hard on the lance, trying to jerk it free of his grasp. Any other weapon would have gone clattering aside, but a dwarven-inked lance could not be wrenched away from its owner.

  Even if said owner wanted to be rid of it.

  The tattoos turned to fire, as if the ink itself was tree-roots pulled from groaning earth. Gallow set his heels, leaning back, and said the only thing he could.

  “Thou shalt not,” he repeated. “I am Jeremiah Gallow, I am Half, I do not serve, and thou shalt not take from me.”

  A wet ripping noise, a clanging, pavement cracking in an arc before him and more smokesteam boiling up, thick tentacles reaching for him…

  … And cringing away, the ruined semisolid shapes of the dead bowing as one like wheat before a hot wind. The clanging became a sound of horns. Not the high silver hunting-cries, but instruments of ruddy brass trumpeting as the mortal sun’s scalp crested the horizon.

  Dawn had risen.

  MOST DO NOT

  39

  Slipping free of the net of mortals around the cracked-open asylum was easier than she expected. The empty lots outside the asylum walls were full of mortal garbage—syringes, plastic bags, greasy food wrappers, and other urban effluvia—but they were also free earth, and Robin leaned against Pepperbuckle under an anemic maple lifting its green buds in defiance of wasteland. Her fingertips found the scab on the back of her head; but for chance, Ilara would have dashed her brains out.

  The plague made fullbloods strong before it killed them, and Robin thought it very likely the Feathersalt was infected. Leaving Court had not saved her, after all. She was also poisoned by Puck’s curved blade. There were enough stories about the wracking Goodfellow’s poison would cause its victims to assure Robin the Feathersalt’s end was not in doubt, and the only thing to worry about was whether or not she’d manage to strike at Summer before plague or poison felled her.

  Still… Summer was old, and powerful, and crafty. She might find a way to take the knife from Ilara, and Unwinter would have to step lively to evade the consequences of those snow-white hands holding a weapon that could kill the Queen… or Unwinter himself, come to think of it.

  Robin sighed, wincing as her fingers explored the scab. It would fade by nightfall, and the tension in her neck would too. Sooner, if she found some milk. It would have been nice, really, to let the whole matter reach its conclusion without her presence. Even Jeremiah Gallow’s fate was beyond Robin’s power to affect.

  The pixies echoed her sigh, their orbiting now slow and sedate. Strengthening morning sunlight bleached their blue orbs, but they showed no desire to slip back through the Veil or sparkle in a different color. Several settled on her head, a few on her shoulders, and when she lifted her cupped hands to look at her palms, they perched on her fingertips, bending to look as well. Maybe she would even grow used to the feeling of little bare feet and tiny warm hands tapping at her. The ones on her head took turns descending to her nape, smoothing the crusted blood with soft tiny touches.

  “Why are you doing this?” she whispered. For a moment she was unsure if she was asking them, or her very own self.

  There was no answer from either quarter. For some reason it pleased them to escort her. Sooner or later they might decide to leave her be, or betray her presence to someone else, but she didn’t have the heart to drive them off with iron. There was no point. Let them do what they liked.

  “You could at least be useful.” She listened to their babble in return, the Old Language salted with slang, mortal syllables, and their own strange twittering words, which changed daily, if not hourly.

  Pepperbuckle yawned. It wasn’t a show of weariness, he was waiting for Robin to set a direction. His left ear was pricked in her direction, and she again considered vanishing, leaving all the betrayals and fear behind.

  Except she’d always be looking over her shoulder, wouldn’t she? There was no way to know she was safe until she buried Glaoseacht into Summer’s flesh and hacked the Jewel free of its home on the Queen’s forehead. She could hand Danu’s Jewel to Unwinter—always assuming it didn’t strike her down for her impudence—along with the knife itself, and walk away.

  What’s to say he won’t use it on you, once you’ve served your purpose? There was no such thing as freedom for a Half.

  She smoothed the fur on Pepperbuckle’s glossy redgold neck. There was something else, too. She’d already killed once in Sean’s name, beating Puck past Twisting into a crippled hulk.

  The other half of her vengeance would come when she killed Summer, too, or at the very least witnessed the Queen of Seelie’s death with her own eyes. It wouldn’t bring him back—all she had of him was the changeling-hound, a monstrous sin she would be murdered for and alongside, without mercy, if Summer guessed how Robin had acquired him.

  “I would have lost him sooner or later,” she said, testing her voice. Smooth and low, some lingering huskiness remaining. The music under her thoughts was full of minor chords, not dissonant but somber. “Children grow up.”

  I should know. Daisy did.

  So did I.

  Those awful words, sooner or later. Would she lose Pepperbuckle, too?

  That was the trouble. Caring for anything caused it to wither. Perhaps Puck’s daughter had her own poisonous cloud. Gallow was dead by now, Sean too, Mama and Daisy, everything gone. Stupid Robin allowed a dog into her heart, too. She should drive him off just to save him from her.

  “Would you leave me, if I told you to?” She took her hand away from his sleek lovely fur, took two almost-drunken steps to the edge of the maple’s clutching roots. If the mortals did not cut it down, it might grow into a tree fine enough for a dryad to coalesce into.

  You know it won’t last that long, though. That’s what they do, mortal and sidhe alike. They destroy.

  Robin sighed. Pepperbuckle looked at her, and his expression was both questioning and long-suffering. His sides heaved with deep doggy breaths, and his pink tongue lolled a little. Don’t ask silly questions, that expression said. If he was weary, he didn’t show it.

  Her head gave one last throb of pain and settled into merely aching, which was a blessing indeed.

  She needed milk. There was no need to try to track Ilara, she would be returning to Summerhome with the knife. Perhaps there would be a third Summer rising from betrayal and murder, for however long the plague allowed Ilara Feathersalt to keep her prize.

  Robin headed away from the tree, her heels not sinking in spring-soft, muddy earth. Another thought halted her, and she swung around, regarding the tree. Pepperbuckle followed, halting at her side and staring at the ruddy light breaking over distant concrete spires and towers with interest, as if dawn fascinated him.

  Did her voice still work? She had to know, and she could destroy something as pointlessly as any mortal. As pointlessly and easily as Summer herself.

  What was it the Second Lay of Tregannon the Faithless said? Beware, beware, you become what you hate, And every combat turns the victor into a vanquished mirror.

  Mirror. Robin shuddered, her mouth opened, pixies scattered, and the song burst free.

  A wall of golden light whipcracked, throwing up chunks of sod and scorchmelted rock. The song throbbed, cutting earth and stone with equal ferocity, and it almost pushed Robin back. Her heels dug in, her eyes widened, and she cut the song off before it could reach its full volume. Her throat didn’t hurt, and her weapon was stronger than ever.

  Blinking against the smoke—the mortals might notice, the access road for the madhouse was not far away—she almost turned to leave again, but stopped, staring. For a moment, she almost forgot to breathe, and when she did it was a soft shuddering gasp.

  The song had divided around the maple
. For the first time, the music had obeyed her instead of sweeping away everything in its path as an indiscriminate wedge of destruction throwing dappled golden light everywhere. Not only that, but the buds weighing winter-naked branches unfurled, the tree standing a little straighter, looking much more solid. As if a dryad might open her eyes in the bark at any moment, stretching and yawning prettily as she stepped forth, moss-and-brown clothing her skin and her hair a long fall of exuberant green.

  Pepperbuckle, unimpressed, leaned to the side so he could lift his back leg, scratching, and finished the movement with a luxurious stretch.

  The pixies clustered to examine the tree and the smoking furrows laser-cut around it. When they lost interest, they returned to Robin, caressing her wet cheeks and crooning.

  The Ragged, wakened from a daze, turned and beckoned her dog.

  So things could change, after all.

  But, she told herself as she walked quickly away, breathing in for four counts and out for four, most did not.

  MAD PURPOSE

  40

  They called themselves the Wild Boys, and the Sevens were their little secret. Once, the town had sat in the middle of wheat-growing land, and in late summer some hollows or forgotten corners still held tasseled golden heads among weeds and the edges of forgotten irrigation ditches.

  Even the best of towns can metastasize into a city, sometimes almost overnight.

  During the big boom in the late seventies and early eighties, factory workers needed somewhere to live, so all the farmland was unceremoniously turned into cheap housing. When the inevitable crash came, a protracted strangling death visited the trailer parks and already-crumbling apartment complexes. The Sevens held one of each, squeezed together just on the edge of downtown, hidden by the freeway’s concrete tangle.

  If you knew how to do it, you could slip through the fence near the West 80 interchange and follow thin dusty paths through blackberries grown high enough to meet over your head. If you were lucky, or had a guide, or memorized the route—though Brat swore the paths changed sometimes—you would eventually come out in a belt of worn-out bushes with dispirited yellow tingeing their leaves, their branches full of shredded plastic bags the wind fingered with a whisper and their roots forcing through a jumble of assorted rubbish. You could spend your time heaving rocks through the few surviving unbroken windows. If you knew about the path under the blackberry tangle in the empty lot off Third and Falada, you could even get there from the strip of good panhandle territory, one of those urban slices full of unwashed vitality and cardboard flats on the sidewalk holding a dreadlocked kid strumming a guitar or tiny quirky stores selling “handmade” jewelry to boutique shoppers kidding themselves about social justice.

  Inside the Sevens, though, it was much quieter. Nothing but the wind and the drone of the freeway. There were squatters, sure, and one or two burned-out hulks where a spark or a stray cigarette had spread, growing like Godzilla and starving to death soon after. A few of the mobiles were shredded from the inside like tin cans, and the Boys stayed well away from those.

  Meth labs were dangerous, even after they’d burned.

  When Tomtom hit the streets at age thirteen, unable to deal with his foster father daily beating the crap out of him, he’d started panhandling on Llorona Avenue and wandering in the Sevens. Others followed, one by one. Juice was fourteen, Brat twelve, Popper relatively old at sixteen but as immature as any. Pinkie, Rom, Glue Clue, and a snotnosed kid who wanted to be called Tiger but was instead addressed as Kitten all made the regulars at one time or another, and there were a few affiliates—one or two slummers who were nevertheless accepted faces and some kids brought in because they had forties or weed to share, but not invited to stay.

  Other kids showed up sometimes, hoping to be christened with a name and allowed to roam through the overgrown trash, sidle along the cracked pavement, fire a rock or two at the lifeless streetlamps, maybe even climb up to the third floor of one of the abandoned apartment blocks, where the Wild Boys had their squat. A few stayed. Most didn’t. Sometimes you only saw a kid once, and stories grew up thick and rank as the blackberry brambles—the bushes ate him, or some gang kid had a knife, or the cops, man, the fucking cops. Once or twice an “adult”—one of the older homeless—made it past the tangle-paths, but the Wild Boys somehow seemed to know, and gathered around the intruders, white cells clustering a foreign particle. Sometimes a rock was thrown, sometimes a knife was flashed, and the foreigner was escorted back to the blackberries and driven away.

  A hazy late afternoon found all the old-timers in the squat, a sea of huddled bodies in manky sleeping bags and crusted blankets scrounged from who-knew-where. The boarded windows admitted small shafts of reddish sunshine. Tomtom woke and ambled, yawning, for the stairs; as he reached the door to the roof he scratched under his narrow ribs and yawned again.

  Pissing off the roof was a privilege only accorded to the Wild Boys themselves. Guests had to go downstairs.

  Lord of his tiny wasteland realm, Tomtom shook his matted hair back and stretched. He was about to do his morning yell off the roof, an ululating Tarzan call reaching every corner of his domain, but paused, dark eyes narrowed and his sharp nose twitching slightly.

  Something was different.

  Thick haze over the city made the sun a reddened sky-blister sliding wearily to the western horizon. Tomtom stared, his mouth ajar a little, and rubbed his eyes, luxuriating in clearing away the crust. When he opened his eyelids again, the sun was still the same, and he stared across the shell-pattern of mobile-home roofs below, each crack and hole and spindly tree familiar.

  He finally figured it out as the door behind him opened again. Brat shuffled out, and so did Kitten, his asthmatic wheeze not helped by the fact that the stupid kid was already sucking on a menthol.

  They reached the edge of the roof, Brat on his right and Kitten on his left, and Kit didn’t waste time with talking, just whipped it out and let loose.

  Brat stood for a few seconds, then slowly unzipped. “The shadows are wrong,” she said finally, flatly, as if she expected to be contradicted.

  Relieved that he wasn’t the only one to see it, Tomtom nodded. “Yeah.”

  “What?” Kitten blinked through the smoke. Menthols were nasty, but sometimes you could boil them and drink the liquid, and that gave you nice fucking hallucinations. Poor man’s acid, Glue Clue called it.

  “Don’t you feel it?” Brat’s blue eyes were wide and distrustful. She had a homemade Styrofoam pee cup, and she wasn’t about to let any of the guys piss off the roof when she couldn’t. They laughed at her until Tomtom said Kind of cool, right? Then Rom had piped up about how he read in a book somewhere that in some tribes the women peed standing up, and Popper said something about Kegels and keeled over hee-hawing until Tomtom gave him a smack on the head and told him to show some fucking respect. “Something’s gonna happen.”

  Tomtom sniffed the breeze. It smelled just like the Sevens usually did—garbage, exhaust, rotting insulation, and the raw green juicy reek of spring forcing its way up through cracks and vents. There was another burning tinge, one something in him recognized. A dormant longing almost, almost waking.

  “Shit’s gonna happen,” he agreed. “Maybe someone’s gonna attack.”

  It wasn’t out of the question, another gang could decide the Sevens was perfect and try to move in. It had happened before, the Bricks had tried twice and the Dragons once—Tomtom still had a scar from one of the knife-carrying bastards. They all three absorbed this. Brat’s urine splashed in a low arc, and when she was done she shook the cup with a flick of her fingers and zipped up.

  Tomtom’s pulse sped up, a rapid tattoo. It showed in his scrawny, dirt-ringed neck. “Kitten, go down and wake everyone up. Get Glue to take those kids from last night out, and send Popper up here, I’m gonna have him watch. We’re on war, bro.”

  Normally Kit would make some sort of stupid remark, but he was pale as he squinted down at their menaced terri
tory. “Okay.” Then he was gone, his footsteps pounding. That left Tomtom alone with Brat.

  Which was kind of what he wanted. “What do you think?”

  “I don’t think it’s another gang.” She scratched under her red bandanna, then used her teeth to clean her fingers, a sign of deep worry and concentration. “It feels big.”

  “Yeah. Run for the storehouse, take Rom with you. Did Juice come back?”

  “Yeah, at dawn. He brought Hot Pockets.”

  So there would be breakfast after all. The prospect made him feel a little better.

  Brat punched him lightly on the arm—her very own mark of affection just for him—and left.

  Tomtom, his brow furrowed, stared at their tiny world. Something was moving in the bushes, and there were odd… flashes, maybe? Hard to tell from up here, but something was happening down there. For a minute he considered calling Brat back, but she was fast and smart, and she’d know what to bring from the storehouse. Which was just an old broken-down shed attached to an even more broken-down mobile, nasty-sharp thistles crowding it on all sides.

  It was the inside that counted, though. You wanted to think the entire world worked like that, but the truth was, you could only make a little piece of it into the place where your outside didn’t matter. Once you had that place, you had to do whatever it took to keep it.

  If war was coming, the Wild Boys would be prepared.

  THRICE FALSE

  41

  The mortal sun, robbed of its destructive power by a deathly smoke-haze, peered down upon the Field. So did Summer’s brazen sky-coin, similarly cloaked; the choking screen was Unwinter’s doing. This was the only possible place, a level ground shared by the free sidhe, the Seelie, and the Unseelie, rubbing through the mortal world, the sharp edge of a knife under thick silk. Creasing, rubbing, wearing through, little bubbles of wild chantment spinning at the Veil’s ripples and eddies. Pixies sputtered briefly into being, shivered as they scented what was to come, and winked out. A few of the braver ones flittered in the depths of brambles, chiming excitedly. There was a hushed, feverish sound to their tinkling speeches, and once, as a skinny mortal girl with a red rag tied about her head scurried past a particularly ugly knot of thorn-laden suckers, they darted out to look after she’d passed. A perfume of almost hung on her, but instead of following curiously they scutter-flew back into the thorns, nervous at leaving their precarious shelter.

 
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