Wasteland king, p.20
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       Wasteland King, p.20

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  Then, Gallow dropping out of the sky like the avenging asshole he thought he was, and he told the Sluagh to back the fuck off.

  Then… things got hazy. Trying to remember only brought up a white-hot image, a streaming of eggwhite goop like the foaming borders of a Marrowdowne skirler’s nest, streaking for Gallow, webbing him from top to bottom. A contemptuous sidhe laugh, enough to make a fullblood proud, and Braghn Moran landing beside Crenn, his six-fingered hand closing on Alastair’s bleeding shoulder and a flood of healing-chantment scorch-wracking him with different agony.

  I do not serve, Jeremiah said, the words like brass gongs. The Sluagh had swallowed him… but they had not eaten.

  Now Alastair Crenn rode through a nightmare next to Gallow, and the only thing more uncomfortable than the corpsehorse trembling underneath his thighs was the thought that maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t dead, and Jeremiah had done the impossible.

  It would be, he told himself, just like the bastard.

  The automaton wearing Gallow’s face lifted the awful silver curving thing to his mouth, and the flaring of ribs under Gallow’s red armor—he wasn’t clothed in white steamsmoke, like the rest of them—was an awful reminder that he might still be living in there.

  The Horn sounded, and Crenn bent over the corpsehorse’s stinking neck, silver nails sinking through his eardrums. The sound was curiously distant, buffered perhaps by his place in the cavalcade, but it didn’t help. Everything in him twisted sideways at that horrific, inhuman call, and each time a little of the mortal in him died. Or maybe was torn away, added to the smoking, appalling mass behind him.

  On Gallow’s other side Braghn Moran rode, pale and fey, clutching the reins of his own shattered mount just as Crenn did. It was slight comfort to know that a highborn fullblood was just as deathly afraid as a Half, for once.

  They burst through a final suffocating black curtain made of screams of agony and despairing unbelief, the echoes of countless murders and betrayals, howls of inhuman rage and wails of all-too-mortal despair. Corpse-hooves thudded down against cracked concrete covered in juicy blackrotting weeds, and Crenn leaned over the side of his mount and heaved dryly. There was nothing left in his stomach, but his body still tried to rid itself of any superfluous weight. He couldn’t see if Moran was feeling the same way, but that was just as well—highbloods tended to hate those who had witnessed them in any less-than-graceful state.

  When he straightened, clinging to the saddle with more luck than skill, it was just in time to brace himself for the great clash. The Sluagh threaded through Unwinter’s assembled force, not even deigning to glance at the Unseelie who screamed and flinched aside from their thick white grease-ropes. Unwinter’s knights had already met Summer’s with a jolt, elfhorses and nightmare mounts both crying aloud, and the Sluagh curved forward on either flank, ready to swallow every sidhe who had ridden to war with the Seelie.

  The giants were the first to crack, howling as they fled, stamping and smashing woodwights and dryad archers alike with their heedless flight. The Red Clans melted away, dwarves deciding their alliance with Summer had not included holding fast against the ravening undead; great cracks widened in the floor of the battle as they retreated, earth swallowing them. Naiad, dryad, and selkie continued to fight, surging forward to protect the Queen, who sat upon her white palfrey and stared at the melee with a blank, avid expression.

  That’s not right. Crenn squinted. What the hell?

  Summer looked old.

  Summer had changed.

  Unwinter, atop his charger, had not; he lifted his gauntleted hands and crimson lightning crackled from thickening clouds.

  A slim cloaked figure stood before Summer, the two of them locked in a bubble of silence while the highborn fullblood on every side battled, clash of sickle and new-moon blades, their mounts screaming and rearing to fight with hoof and tooth. Trolls on either side of the conflict fled in every direction, knocking over friend and foe alike, and the dryads had almost reached Summer.

  Crenn’s heart almost stopped. He was tumbling from the corpsehorse’s back before he realized the cloaked female before Summer was too tall to be Robin, and had a shock of pale hair besides, not ruddy gold. Only a single glint of gold caught a dart of dying sunlight in her platinum mane.

  The cloaked sidhe girl lunged, and in her hand was an icy star-glimmer. Summer’s palfrey reared, sharp hooves thrashing, and fell. Summer rose from the tangle of white limbs and jets of crimson and silver, and the Seelie queen opened her red, crack-cornered mouth. Leprous green spots crawled up her cheeks, but the Jewel on her forehead flashed, and as the glittering dagger plunged into her stick-withered, upraised arm, Summer’s curse blasted the cloaked, pale-haired sidhe, who hopped aside.

  But not nimbly enough. She crumpled, and Summer shook her arm, flinging the glittering blade free.

  “ILARA!” Braghn Moran’s anguished cry split the battle-din. Crenn landed, breath driven out of him in an inelegant huff, and a streak of redgold bolted by, nose to the ground.

  Crenn ran. His own cry, with all the force of anguish behind it, pierced the noise as well, but he didn’t hear it. He was blind and deaf, save for one thing—a second sidhe-slim, sidhe-graceful female form, this one clothed in black velvet, moving with quick dodges, almost dancing through the fray, bearing down on Summer as well.

  “ROBIN!” he howled, jerking his twinblades from their back-sheaths. A knot of drow and selkies jolted across his path, the melee shrinking, and he flung himself into battle.

  A WELL-MADE CUR

  44

  Someone was calling her name, but the Ragged didn’t care. Besides, much care and dodging was needed to skirt the sidhe locked in death-dealing dance all around her. Seelie roused by desperation, Unwinter’s forces roused by bloodlust and the scent of certain victory, neither of them mattered.

  All that mattered was the wriggling paleness on ichor-soaked concrete, its once-golden hair fast knotting and turning to dishwater. The Jewel flashed over and over, a distress signal, and Robin bore down on the queen of all Seelie step by step.

  Pepperbuckle darted aside, his basso growl lost in the confusion. Summer contorted, gained her feet in a lunge, almost tripped as her feet caught in her long mantle. It was absurd, a skinny slattern-hag wearing the rich robe of royalty, and Robin’s mouth opened.

  A long furrow tore across the pavement, almost brushing Summer’s hem. The Queen whirled, darting to the other side, but the song curled on itself, a snake of deadly golden light, and flashed before her in a wall. The Jewel dimmed, its light no longer piercing-bright but mere glitters, rapidly clouding. More crimson lightning crackle-flashed among the Seelie lines, and the selkies shrieked, throwing down their arms. Defeat spread in concentric rings, naiads and dryads fleeing, pixies appearing, swarming Robin’s shoulders and head, lifting over her in a spiral, semaphore-blinking almost-patterns as if she were Summer now, watching some groveling thing in her orchard as fireflies veered overhead, drunk on her glow.

  Summer fell backward, her heel catching on her mantle again, and the crack of her body hitting the pavement was lost in the bloodcurdling yells of the Unseelie, realizing they had broken Summer’s lines. Robin kept walking, her pace unhurried now, there was no need to dodge. Fat ropes of oily white mist threaded through the combat, and Robin finally halted, staring down as Summer writhed supine, plagued madness shining in her black, black eyes. No sparks remained in Summer’s gaze; her face was simply bearing twin holes into nothingness.

  “You!” Summer moaned. “You did this!”

  Robin shook her head. Four in, four out, the song boiled under her conscious thoughts, ready. If she unleashed it on this plague-stricken skeleton, she might even break Danu’s Jewel.

  It had to be said, though. “You made the plague, Summer.” The sparks flew from her lips, momentarily stinging, pixies darting to catch them, their glow-globes flashing bright blue in the gathering dusk. “Now you may die of it.”

  “No!” Summer scr
eamed as she contorted. Black boils rose on her pasty skin now, great streaks of green threading down her breast, her legs turned to thrashing sticks flaying the mantle from the inside. “I will kill you first, you treacherous Half slut!”

  You already have. But I came back.

  The Jewel… cracked. It was only a hairline fissure at the top of its roundness, but the sound drilled through Robin’s head and halted the screaming chaos around her.

  Except for that voice, still calling Robin’s name. Pepperbuckle loped to Robin’s side, his nose flaring as he caught scent of Summer. His lip lifted and he growled, a steady dangerous thrum.

  “You… You made…” Summer’s black eyes widened, and Robin nodded. No use in denying it, and Pepperbuckle was a well-made cur, indeed.

  I should strike her down. I should. She should let the song loose, and cleanse the world of this sweet-rotting filth. For Daisy, for Sean, for all those Summer had killed, for the half-dozen mortal children who had died on her flint knife only a day ago.

  Was it only a day? It felt like a lifetime.

  Her decision surprised her. Robin’s lips parted.

  “You’re not worth killing.” A wondering tone, as if she had just realized it. Robin’s hand dropped to Pepperbuckle’s fur. He stopped growling, but his comforting warmth never faltered.

  TREACHEROUS TOO

  45

  A cracking, a groan, and Braghn Moran’s bright blade severed the life from the flapping curse. He dropped the hilt, metal chiming musical on frost-cracked concrete, and fell to his knees, gathering up the thin, shivering pale-haired sidhe woman. “Ilara,” he said, softly. “Hush. Hush, my love. All will be well.”

  The Feathersalt arched, wracked by poison and plague, the single golden bead in her hair tugging as it sensed the nearness of its kindred. “I… the Ragged… she poisoned…” She choked, and Bragh Moran cradled her closer.

  “Do not speak. I never swore my troth to another, though I was hard pressed to.” The words tumbled out of him, each one a promise. The glamour-ash fell from his hair, and bright golden dwarf-wrought starflowers bloomed among the dark strands. “We shall ride to the Dreaming Sea, my love, and—”

  Her right hand, curled into a fist, glittered as she drove Glaoseacht into her knight’s belly. He stiffened in shock, and black-laced blood dripped from the corners of Ilara’s mouth.

  “You… see,” she choked. “I… can be… treacherous too… my love.”

  Braghn Moran’s hand curled around hers. Tightened, with bruising force, as the final spasms wracked Ilara’s body. A jet of noisome wet tar burbled up her throat, out her mouth, and cracks spread through her now green-tinted skin. Dust raced, she convulsed again, and her flesh liquified, turning to sludge and rotting her cobweb-cloak and the dress underneath. Her free hand turned to dry sand, uncurling to drop a small, lost glimmer—a dwarven-wrought promise ring, landing in the flood of muck she had become. Such things were favors often given, knight to lady, lady to knight, and kept to the end of the affair.

  Or beyond.

  Braghn Moran, erstwhile favorite of Summer, found himself clasping the knife buried in his gut. He jerked it free, his arms empty at last, and flung back his head. His keening cry ribboned through a great silence falling over the battlefield, a private agony in the midst of catastrophe. The golden flowers in his hair blurred and ran together, shriveling, each a star of molten pain.

  He rose, his armor shedding plague-rot and shining like a hurtful star, and left his blade next to the bubbling caustic mass that had been his lady. Glaoseacht dripped in his left fist, and as he cast about the battlefield, his gaze lighted on a redgold head atop black velvet.

  Braghn Moran took a step, staggering as the pain struck him, and regained his balance. His dark eyes lit with ferocious pale sparks, the very color of Ilara’s hair, and he took another.

  A SINGLE CRACK

  46

  Jeremiah Gallow, film-eyed and spine-straight, clamped his knees tighter on the corpse-charger’s sides. He lifted a gloved hand, his armor running with that peculiar swirling foxfire glow of dead bodies exhaling in a swamp, much as the marks on his chest and arms were writhing underneath. A cold clarity settled on his shoulders, and the Sluagh… stilled.

  Every mist-described head turned unerringly in his direction, every shrouded ungainly beast-mount halted, a statue of terror in the middle of cringing, shivering Summer sidhe or grinning, victory-certain Unseelie.

  Summer was routed. Jeremiah, the ice-burning dream of revenge swirling around him, found he could think again. Running with the Sluagh was just as exhausting as running from them.

  Slowly, so slowly, he became aware of something else. A red flame, still and quiet, not far from him. No, not red. Gold. Or both, a sword of burning purity trembling at the edge of an abyss. The Sluagh hissed as one, jealous of its new master.

  Had it always been so simple? You just made up your mind, and did. No second-guessing, no self-loathing, all that vanished in the ice. He had simply decided that running was no use, he’d been doing it all his life, and if it was going to work it would have by now.

  It was, perhaps, the only way to master the unforgiven—and unforgiving—dead. No wonder Unwinter couldn’t have told him. It was one of the stupid-simple things you had to learn on your own, usually when you’d tried every other avenue and come up blank.

  He wanted to say her name, but if he did, they might descend upon her. So, instead, he filled his lungs, fighting the constriction of his ribs as the chill mailed fist of their expectation tightened around him.

  You will not have Crenn, you will not have me, and you will not have Robin Ragged.

  “You have hunted your fill,” he heard a distant, dreamy voice say. The edges of each syllable cut screaming mortal air, reverberated through the Veil, and he realized the words were his own.

  I sound like him. Like Unwinter.

  The Sluagh struggled against the pressure of his will, and it was hard to contain them. The final test, not just to master the Hunt and lead it but to send it away when he decided enough had been done. Gallow could let them run until they spent their fury, however long that took, traversing moonless nights with the cavalcade, more surely their slave with each death meted out.

  Well, what’s to stop me?

  Daisy’s pensive, worn, mortal face. You ain’t as bad as you think you are, Jer. Except he was, and hating himself for it would serve nothing. There wasn’t room in this fight for that luxury.

  Robin’s voice, a golden wall descending from nowhere, sweeping aside the Unseelie. His own words to Summer. A Half girl truer than cold iron itself, who makes you look the faithless hag you are.

  Last of all, Alastair Crenn, slumped wheezing against a graveyard wall, prepared to die alone. Would Jeremiah be half as brave in his position?

  Half of this, half of that. Time to see what I can make whole.

  “You have hunted your fill,” he repeated, now conscious of making his tongue move, his lips, his lungs forcing air through his throat to give the words to resisting air.

  The Sluagh roiled, restlessly, one or two slinking closer to his corpse-charger, stretching out their mutilated smoke-clad hands. Their aching roared through him, the sullen pointless rage at the indignity of everything, of life itself, and wasn’t that the heart of the joke?

  He could control them, because he had felt that rage. Was made of it, down to his very core.

  His breath crested at the top of the inhale, every mist-shrouded spirit straining against his control, and he spoke the final word.

  “Begone!” Jeremiah Gallow, once-Armormaster, now Lord of the Hunt, cried.

  NOT YOURS TO METE

  47

  A great silence hung over the smoking, misty battlefield. Crenn kept going in the direction he’d seen Robin take, nervously edging past motionless Sluagh and motionless sidhe, both side’s troops caught suspended as if in crystal. Stabbing drow and leering trow, fleeing dryad and falling troll, their blades flashed in th
e stillness.

  Everything had turned to very clear water, hard to force his way through, but something had ignited in him. It was very much like the kindling of his sidhe side, the first few breaths of a different air intoxicating and punishing at once.

  There were other flickers of movement. A green flash, as Summer’s Jewel threaded with more hair-fine cracks. A slinking shadow, dark-haired, with a strange reddish light filling the grooves in his armor, a hurtful glitter in his right fist and his hair full of fire.

  It was Braghn Moran, his face a mask of effort, none of the smiling sidhe beauty left. He was aiming for the same thing Crenn was—a black velvet cape-coat, a ragged mass of slightly curling redgold atop it starred with flash-frozen mist-moisture, a faint hint of her cheekbone sweet enough to make a man’s heart cry for mercy. She was turning her back on the shrieking scarecrow that had been Summer, and pixies hung around her, their blue globes clean and distinct. Pepperbuckle, caught in the act of glancing up at his mistress adoringly, looked sleepy, his blue eyes half-lidded.

  Braghn Moran lifted the glittering knife, and Crenn strained afresh against invisible bonds. No. NO!

  The stasis broke. Time snapped like the gut-strings of a lyrebird hung to dry and fingered by a harsh hand, and—

  Crunch. He hit Braghn Moran hard, and the glitterblade went flying. The knight hissed, staggering, and Crenn’s dual blades flashed, the left one laterally in the songstrike, meant to fold your opponent over like a just-finished minstrel bowing to his patron. His right blade halted, Crenn straining his entire body to the side, his much-abused mortal boots finally disintegrating under the strain and icy pavement burning his feet. That blade descended with as much muscle as he could put behind it at this angle, and he was vaguely aware of Pepperbuckle’s coughing growl and Robin’s short, surprised gasp.

 
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