Wasteland king, p.19
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       Wasteland King, p.19

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  A hot wind arrived from nowhere, mouthing the fresh new green on bough, branch, and weed. Thick, pungent, unhealthy growth slipped through each plant. Thistles stretched before their time, their puffs turned a purplish maroon instead of blue-violet; blackberries leafed extravagantly, their thorns stretching to hand-long needles. Sickly saplings bulked out like gluttonous middle-aged mortals, dandelions stretched sunflower-large blossoms all at once, their leaves turning to leathery, blackening arms covering flashes of maggot-white taproot. Mobile homes groaned, sudden growth pressing against wall and foundation, door and overgrown window, vines sliding stealthily even across the poisonous blight of mortal chemicals in large burned patches. The cinderblock mass of the single apartment building trembled almost imperceptibly, and another pair of mortal children on the roof stared at each other. Did you feel that?

  Faint cries floated on the hot breeze. Clashing and jingling, and a haggard chorus of sprightly tunes played just a little wrongly, just a slight touch out of tune. The mortal sun sank, quickly, two fingerwidths above the horizon.

  With lengthening shadows, the cold came. Frost touched, at first lightly but then with more authority, blighting the unnatural vegetation. The cold rose from the ground itself, pavement exhaling a treacherous, shallow moan as it contracted. Blackberry suckers withered, their sap drunk dry, leaves on the fattened saplings shriveling. Along with the merry singing something else came—a killing silence, broken only by a vast soft sense of movement in the ink-black shadows. The flickers of almost-seen motion became more definite. Three mortal children broke from the concrete block and ran for the edge of the Sevens, pale and huge-eyed.

  “Idiots!” someone screamed. “Come back!”

  The blackberry tangle swallowed them. Thrashing vines woke to sudden frenzied life. After a short while there was a choked cry, lost in another sound—the music, breaking like a white ocean wave weighed down by filthy foam.

  The Seelie… appeared.

  The eastern end of the Sevens was suddenly alive with curdled golden light. First came the highborn fullbloods on white elfhorses, caparisoned in silver, gold, cobalt, viridian—a panoply of color and grace, high plumes floating from dwarven-wrought armor older than the cities of mortals. Behind them, a crowd—woodwights and dryads, satyrs piping and for once not chasing the treegirls or water maidens, selkies stamping and tossing their long seal-dark hair, shimmering in scale-armor, and behind them all, giants from the high moors stepping carefully, massive stone clubs on their shoulders. The dwarves came in phalanxes, drawn from their barred homes by some threat or blandishment.

  At their head she rode, a burning-thin, pallid Broghan the Black at her side. Summer’s golden hair was once again smooth, piled high atop her head in a cage of bone and piercing ebon pins, her moss-green dress sewn with the scales of selkie armor and reinforced by poisonous lara thorns pricking outward, the Jewel on her forehead crackling spark after spark as her palfrey walked. The elfhorse rolled its eyes, foam touching its graceful mouth as if it bore something too terrifying to flee upon its cringing back.

  Her Armormaster all but swayed in his saddle, and his eyes were dull. Summer straightened, tall and sleek, and he sagged. The glass badge flashed on his chest, but none of the other fullblood knights had leapt at the chance to challenge him and take it.

  The Seelie did not hang back, but neither did they hurry to follow. Fortunately Summer’s pace was slow, a sedate, stately walk.

  A fresh surge of chill poured over the Sevens, and for a moment it seemed the entire space had become a wheatfield again. Gold sparked on every surface, the shadows filling with coruscating silver, and in the west, a low crimson glow matched the last bloody gleams of the dying mortal sun.

  Stonetrolls and barrow-wights birthed from the shadows, cawing in amazed amusement as the mortal sun did not harm them. A rumble underfoot was the passage of wyrms, and the sky darkened with the shadow of vast wingbeats. The darker treefolk—elms, hollies, thorn and sloe, black willow and towering cedar, the tangled arms of upas and the slim tall yews, all had given up their wights. Kelpies stamped, flickering between horse and human, their long matted hair streaming with water salt or fresh.

  In their midst, the pale faces of Unwinter’s highborn fullbloods floated over blackened armor chased with the red of lava. Many of the dwarven Black tribes marched, carefully keeping the bulk of the army between them and the phalanxes of the Outcaste, the unclean of their kind. Drow and trow marched, some playing skirling pipes and others clapping time, a different pulsation than Summer’s limping music. The barrow-wights lifted their new-moon blades or clashed their flint daggers together, and a vast heterogenous mass of halfblood, outcast, Twisted, or simply unsightly marched as well, their faces of every hue and their limbs—hoof, claw, tentacle, knotted fingers, or any other shape—moving freely, with swaggering grace.

  Before the tilted concrete block of the apartment building was a wide space that had once been parking. Now, crazy-cracked both by mortal seasons and the tugging of the Veil, it yawned emptily until Unwinter kneed his mount forward. The scream of frozen air under its delicate clawed steps added another thread to the clashing, discordant music.

  Summer rode forward as well, Broghan’s elfhorse following a few paces behind. The Armormaster clutched at his pommel, but his chin lifted haughtily and his dark gaze was as proud as ever. The ragged rashbloom at his pale throat, a mark of dainty teeth, glared in the gloom.

  They regarded each other, Summer and Unwinter. His visor was open, but a shadow obscured his thin face except for two burning coals.

  Silence fell like a hawk stooping to prey. Each sidhe stilled, and even the pixies hiding in deep thornbrakes did not chatter.

  Finally, Summer moved as if she would speak, her carmine lips opening. But Unwinter did not let her.

  “Traitor,” he said, a terrible weight of condemnation in the word. “You loosed a plague upon every one of Danu’s Folk.”

  She laughed, a small movement of her head as if she wished to toss her hair. The sound was cold as any evening on the Ash Plains while the wind whips and even the well-furred moonlight hares do not venture forth.

  “Aye,” she said. “A mortal made it for me, to purge the corruption from the sidhe.”

  A rustle ran through the ranks of Seelie, stilling as her gloved hands tensed on the reins, her elfmount stamping one hoof.

  “Your crimes are many,” Unwinter continued, as if she had not spoken. “I name thee thrice false, Eaakaanthe.” The syllables dropped through the Old Language, Summer’s secret truename spoken before all assembled, and the sound caused no few of the sidhe to clap their hands over their ears or flinch. Unwinter’s fullblood knights lowered their visors, the small click of each securing ending the rumbling echoes. “False lover.” He paused. “False queen.” Another breathless pause, and Broghan the Black stirred as if he would intrude upon the conversation.

  “False Summer,” Unwinter said, his tone cold with unutterable loathing.

  She was very pale, very still. Her age showed in that stillness—nothing young can become so immovable.

  “You were a false knight, Haarhnhe of Unwinter,” she whispered, her carmine lips wet with a quick kittenish flicker of her pink, delectable tongue. She did not pronounce his truename, and perhaps a few among her army might have been forgiven for thinking there was, after all, something Summer did not know.

  “I went past the Veil for you, and brought you white berries. What use did you put them to, Eaakaanthe?” Her name was now a low hollow moan, its edges cold as Unseelie blackmetal blades.

  Another rustle went through the Seelie ranks. Brogan the Black slumped afresh. Did he seem even thinner now?

  The shrouded sun slipped further toward the rim of the earth.

  Who knows what Unwinter would have said next, had he not been interrupted?

  The Veil brushed back, and between the two, a single slim hooded shape appeared. Her cloak, of mist and cobweb lace applied in thick layers, was of
the finest the weavers of Hob’s End could make. When she pushed the hood back, a pale platinum head rose from it, and Ilara Feathersalt smiled at Summer.

  It was not a pleasant smile.

  “I know what she did,” she cried, and the sun sank completely.

  Summer’s expression changed slightly. Dawning comprehension made the Jewel flash again at her forehead, and Broghan the Black slid from atop his mount, crumpling in midair. Cracks raced through his falling frame, black dust puffing through, and the wind whisked at the drained husk of a Seelie knight, dead before he hit the mortal earth.

  In the distance, a thin silver hunting-cry rang. It was not one of Unwinter’s, and it sent a fresh chill ripping through the Sevens.

  The Sluagh had arrived.

  TWIN MOVEMENTS

  42

  At the very edge of the Sevens, between a small lot full of nodding heads of rotten grain and a listing, blasted shack, a golden smear slipped free of the Veil as well. The hound staggered a step or two, shaking its dangerous, graceful head, and on its back a shadow in a black velvet coat clung. Find her, boy, Robin had whispered in Pepperbuckle’s ear, and the hound had complied.

  As soon as she slid from his back, shaking her head to free it of a ringing din she didn’t quite realize was all around her, the pixies appeared too, clustering her with bright-blue glow. They darted at her, landing on shoulders, hair, hands, any part of her they could reach except her face. More spiraled around her, so agitated they shrieked loudly enough for mortal ears.

  “Stop!” she yelled, and they halted, wings humming so they could hover, staring at her with their little faces set in identical expressions of dismay.

  The ringing didn’t go away, but her ears adjusted, and she glanced about to orient herself.

  Ahead of her, a listing trailer with half its roof gone leered, all its windows broken and frost-rimed. For a moment a rushing filled her head and she almost staggered, thinking she was back in the tower with the heavy footsteps and the chorus of groaning, grinding voices, each one attached to a terrifying, lurching corpse.

  Look who’s come home!

  Pepperbuckle sneezed. The pixies were crawling over him, too, and he didn’t look as if he minded. They picked through his fur, taking turns scratching behind his ears and at the base of his tail, and when he shook he did so gently, not to dislodge them.

  It was, she finally decided, not a trailer she had ever lived in. She closed her eyes, listening intently, and under the pixie-babble there was another sound.

  Crashing. Metal clashing. Screams of bloodlust or death. Thin silver hunting-cries, thrilling up into the ultrasonic and sending ice-cube claws down the muscle in her arms and legs.

  The Sluagh was here. For a moment she contemplated grabbing Pepperbuckle’s ruff and fleeing. Somewhere, anywhere, was better than this place.

  Gallow.

  She could not help but hope that he’d managed the impossible, and lived through a night’s chase, through dawn and another dusk. If he had, he might need her help, and if not, well, there was the song, and whatever vengeance she could wreak after she was finished with Summer.

  If such a thing were possible. Her ears caught the ringing of Seelie metal, the battle-cries of barrow-wights, and the rock-scrubbing groan of giants. The Veil trembled, so thin she could walk through it just like a fullblood, her surroundings pulsing with stray chantment and spike-sharp bloodlust.

  She had heard songs of the great battles of the Sundering, and for a moment she thought she’d stepped into one of them, an echo trapped in the Veil’s many folds.

  There were no trailer parks in Seelie, though. Well, there was Marsdell and Crennaught, where the maimed and Twisted who did not care to hie to Unwinter eked out precarious existences. Or Marrowdowne, where Alastair Crenn retreated to. The swamp was a refuge of sorts, one that left green in your hair and moss on your teeth. None of them were this unglamorous, though.

  Well. Ilara Feathersalt was here, and the Veil reverberated with chaos. Had she struck Summer down already?

  A small form shot out of the trailer’s broken back door, angling across Robin’s field of vision toward another broken-down tin shack. A flash of camouflage pants and a filthy-stiff jacket, a bright crimson splotch and matted, elflock-tangled hair of indeterminate color. Pepperbuckle bolted, shaking pixies free, and only Robin’s sharp “No!” stopped him midsnap.

  It was a dirty mortal girl, her red kerchief knocked astray and the sharpness of sidhe on her pale face. Something in the slant of the cheekbones, the wide eyes, and the shape of her mouth, shouted it. Pepperbuckle held her by the scruff, eyeing Robin as if to ask for directions. See, I caught this! Every line of him, from tail to nose, expressed pride, and his tail was wagging hard enough to detach and fly free, boomerang-style.

  The girl stared at Robin, pixie-light casting knife-sharp shadows on her small kittenish face, and the past folded over into the present again. Was that what Robin had looked like, rising from skinnydipping in the pond to see Puck Goodfellow watching, frankly but somehow not lewdly, his high-pointed ears and strange clothing telling her in a flash that the world was much deeper and wider than adults ever suspected?

  A fully mortal child would have burst into tears. This little part-sidhe, though, stared at Robin defiantly, dark eyes full of fire and her filth looking like a conscious choice. The pride was an aching in Robin’s chest, because she remembered it herself, the determination to go hungry rather than beg for a scrap.

  The same ruthless, rotten, begging pride in Jeremiah Gallow’s gaze when he looked at her, as if he saw Daisy’s ghost in the flesh and wanted to get closer even if it was an evanescent phantom.

  A silver-frozen horn-call came again, and the girl flinched. Even then she didn’t look precisely afraid. Well, she looked too terrified to feel it, and Robin understood.

  Oh, God. An agonizing choice. Run to help or avenge Gallow, who probably needed every bit of aid he could scrape together if he was still breathing, or stop to reassure the girl, push her through a fold in the Veil so her sidhe side would awaken—though really, if it hadn’t by now, with all this chantment floating around, maybe even a dip in one of Summer’s streams wouldn’t do it.

  She settled for striding to Pepperbuckle, grabbing the girl by the back of her jacket, and hauling her free. “You can’t eat that.” She had to raise her voice to carry over the din. She let go of the girl, who whirled and stared at her, defiantly, the same sullen hunger turning her mouth down.

  The same thin shoulders, but her hair was dark under the dirt and grease turning it into a headful of elflocks.

  Robin caught the girl’s chin and exhaled in her face, the sparks falling from her lips splashing. It was an instinctive movement, and some hidden fire in the thin child’s chest woke, reflected far back in her eyes.

  Another sidhe. Another little girl caught between the worlds.

  She let go, and the child stumble-staggered away. Another dim form shot from the trailer’s back door, but it headed straight for the mass of blackberries, and Robin almost winced at the reception it would garner. Anyone with any sense wouldn’t run right into living brambles.

  They were always hungry.

  “Do you want to come with me?” The words left her unwillingly. Another responsibility, another potential failure, another small life turned to dust or shards because Robin Ragged could not stop caring. Could not stop trying, over and over, to save what little she could, to preserve something small and fragile that would otherwise be caught in the cyclone.

  The girl pulled at her jacket, settling it, shaking Robin’s fingers free. Another silver horn-call rose, and they both shuddered, a twin movement. Even Pepperbuckle whined, his ears folding back and his tail halting.

  Robin snapped a glance over her shoulder.

  Thick, greasy white mist was rising from the writhing blackberries. Their tendrils whipped, shaken into a fury, and when Robin turned back the girl was gone. Pepperbuckle was taut as a guitar string, obviously
wanting to chase her down, but Robin shook her head and pitched forward, running before she realized it.

  If there were Summer knights fighting and Ilara had come here, no doubt Summer herself was here too, glorying in the bloodbath.

  All other considerations aside, Robin Ragged had business with the Queen of Seelie. Now was the best time to conclude it.

  As she ran, Puck Goodfellow’s reluctant daughter plunged her hand below her black velvet coat, yanking free her sire’s short, curved dagger.

  THE DUSKEN RIDE

  43

  The worst wasn’t the shapes suggested under the rotting cheesecloth vapor-veils. It wasn’t the leering sideways glances, or the way the corpsehorse underneath him swayed as if bits of muscle were peeling off as it galloped. It wasn’t even the spooky skittering speed of the damn things, stuttering in and out of the visible with stomach-churning wrongness, so different from a fullblood’s appearing.

  It was Jeremiah’s eyes, milky pale now, no iris or pupil. Just… white, without even the tinge of yellow that was a mortal sclera. Without even the faint adumbration that tinted a sidhe’s.

  Alastair Crenn held miserably to the smoky mane of a corpsehorse, one that kept pace with Gallow’s own as the world spun and shivered around them, streaks of black oil on a greased, spinning plate. He’d been ready to die, honestly. Shattered against a graveyard wall and lifting his useless sword.

 
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