Wasteland king, p.21
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       Wasteland King, p.21

           Lilith Saintcrow
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  The stroke was clean, and Braghn Moran’s flaming, severed head landed with a heavy thud. Rot flashed through his slumping body, a high jet of unstained blue ichor curving in a strangely perfect arc before splatting.

  Robin, paper white, whirled and dove for the painful-bright glitterblade. She almost reached it, but a great cold shadow fell over her, and Unwinter’s boot descended just before her seeking fingers.

  “Robin!” Crenn yelled again, and the thought that he was about to throw himself at Unwinter passed through him in a brief flash before burning into ash.

  The lord of the Unseelie bent. One gauntleted fist scraped slightly as his fingers closed around the hilt, and the other reached down… and offered itself, spreading, to Robin Ragged.

  “My lady,” he said, with cold solemnity, and Robin flinched. Crenn’s feet, flayed by the frozen-sandpaper concrete, left bloody marks; he almost fell.

  The Sluagh made a vast noise, a hot wind tonguing a wet cornfield. Rustling and rubbing, the sigh rose, and Crenn realized two things—Unwinter was drawing the Ragged to her feet, and the Sluagh were fading.

  And another thing made three. Bloody prints steamed on the concrete, and he winced as lightfoot chantment bloomed instinctively underfoot. It wouldn’t kill him, but the healing would be goddamn uncomfortable.

  Unwinter paused, glancing over Robin’s head at Alastair Crenn. The bloody sparks in the dark covering his face glinted, swelling with cruel amusement, and the darkness slid aside to reveal the haggard, weary visage of a sidhe lord. Fine black cracks spread up his left cheek, hard black pinprick-bumps at their intersections.


  Robin let out a sobbing noise. Pepperbuckle cowered behind her, and Crenn almost tripped over the hound as he reached them, his arm circling Robin’s waist, dragging her back.

  Unwinter smiled, more grim amusement stretching his thin mouth. “Be still, Hunter of Marrowdowne. I mean the Ragged no harm.”

  “My Lord—” Robin’s voice broke on something like a sob. The pixies buzzed angrily, one or two of the bravest darting for Crenn. She struggled in his grasp, but only briefly. “Unwinter…”

  “Peace, little bird. This death is not yours to mete.”

  Clanking, creaking, clattering, the sound of dropped weapons. Many of Summer’s sidhe took this opportunity to flee; Unwinter’s scurried in pursuit, silently or with bloodcurdling yells. The fullblood highborn of Summer, their fine golden armor spattered with all manner of ichor, blood, and foulness, mingled with the armed Unwinter knights who had ridden with their lord since the Sundering, his faithful few.

  They made no move to aid their mistress, those day-armored lords. Those who had not heard Ilara Feathersalt had been told in murmurs of that lady’s testimony, how Eaakaanthe of Summer had sent her lover through the Veil for white shadowberries, and how those berries, crushed, went into unsuspecting First Summer’s cup, filled by her favorite handmaiden.

  Summer’s twist-writhing faded as his shadow fell over her. She was as withered as any Twisted jennygreen now, and the Jewel cracked further as she shook her raddled head, great strings of cloudy hair spread over mortal concrete. She drew in tortuous, echoing breaths.

  Robin Ragged twisted in Crenn’s arms. She looked up, and the flash of surprise crossing her face tore at him.

  Who did she think was rescuing her? Gallow? Probably.

  Light bootsteps, a distinctive gait. Jeremiah Gallow appeared, walking slowly, as if his joints pained him. His dark hair held a pale streak over his left ear now, where the first Sluagh to reach him had hit. A silver medallion glinted against his red leather armor, and he halted, gazing at Robin. His irises had lightened, no longer green but almost colorless, his pupils dark wells in the middle.

  Even if he’d survived, the Hunt had marked him. That strange, light gaze rested on Crenn briefly, and comprehension filled Gallow’s features for a moment.

  Silent, Unwinter gazed down at his love, who had been so blithe and merry when the world was new and mortals only a bad future-dreaming. He sank down, one knee touching the concrete, and the Unseelie knights knelt with him. After a moment, the Summer knights did as well, paling as they realized what they were witnessing.

  “Eaakaanthe,” he breathed, and for a moment an appleblossom breeze touched the battlefield, whisking past the dead or dying, ruffling a flash of mortal red tucked in a tiny declivity shielded by frost-blackened bushes. “I loved you too well.”

  She reached up to him, and a faint ghost of her beauty returned, transparent. “My… love…” she whispered. “Mercy… mercy…” A kittenish expression on that ravaged, bruise-cracked face, and those who knew Summer’s fickleness held their breath, wondering if it would stay Haarhnhe of Unwinter’s hand.

  He smiled, wearily. It was a gentle expression, for all his gaze boiled with scarlet. A single thread of crimson touched his plague-blackened cheek, welling from his eye.

  She beckoned. “A… final… embrace?” A hungry glitter in her black, black eyes, and the Jewel made a high groaning noise, a pine in strong wind just before it shatters.

  “We already had one, Eaakaanthe.”

  And Unwinter’s arm flashed as he drove Glaoseacht, the Fang of old, into Summer’s chest. The Jewel shrilled, bursting free and rolling across the cold concrete, and Unwinter tipped his head back, his throat working.

  Summer’s black eyes closed. Dry dust crawled through her hair, cupped her scalp, raced up from her tender, bony feet, and the Fang, driven into the ground underneath, flashed once more.

  Alastair Crenn forced his arms to loosen, and he let Robin Ragged go.



  Jeremiah’s bones ached. Every other part of him did, too. He glanced at Robin again, Crenn glowering behind her like a watchful guardian angel, and the sweet pain the sight of her sent through him did more than anything else to restore him.

  Who knows what he would have said, then, if Summer’s decay had not become irrevocable?

  Robin’s hands, both clasped over her mouth, flew free as the ground quaked. A deep grinding noise began, and every Summer sidhe still on the battlefield felt it, a wrenching, welling pain. Pixies streamed away from Robin; Unwinter rose and rose, his full height even blacker and more massive. The grinding subsided, but all of Summer’s subjects knew what was happening.

  Summer itself, the land that sustained them, was fading.

  Robin bolted, her heels clattering on the concrete, after the pixies. Unwinter turned, unerringly, toward Jeremiah Gallow.

  “Gallow,” he said, two inexorable syllables. “You challenged me once.”

  The lance tingled, its familiar weight in his palms. It burned—the Sluagh had changed him, and the iron scorched until his mortal half could reassert itself. The struggle was brief but left him sweating, and Unwinter nodded. His helm’s visor dropped, and the clawing of Summer’s vitality leaching receded. Were they all free sidhe now, except Unwinter’s?

  He could see it, Summerhome crumbling, the proud towers shaking. The Dreaming Sea rising in towering, glassy waves, tearing at the white-sugar shore. Marrowdowne shrinking, Hob’s End fading and Cor’s Heart drying into dust, the fraying working inward, color seeping loose, the apple trees of Summer’s orchard turning translucent and another image rising behind them, dark thorn-tangles and the corpseglow lamps of drow burrows and trow towns peeking through the umbrous dusk. The white mountains grew taller, sharper, dells and copses spreading and twining with vines and vile, pale flowers.

  “I stand ready,” Gallow said formally. One last thing to do. “Provided you swear to Robin’s health, Unwinter.”

  Unwinter’s head dipped in a single nod. “I swear to you on my truename, Jeremiah Gallow, that the Ragged shall enjoy the protection of me and of mine. Forever.”

  That’s a whole lot less comforting than it should be. No time to pin him down, though. Unwinter reached for his side, and his greatsword rose, frost dripping from razor edges, the ruby in its hilt lighting
with its own bloodclot glow. The lance finished its burning, yanking Jeremiah aside, and the battle unfolded before him, already narrowing to one conclusion.

  Why? I’m Half, and barely standing, why does he—

  Unwinter blurred forward and Jeremiah danced aside, the lance’s head turning crimson and wicked-serrated. A clash and a slither, Unwinter stepping back almost mincingly to gain enough room for another strike. The lance could easily flick in, open him up under the ribs—why, in God’s name, was the bastard playing?

  Unwinter came at him again, with a darting rush far too quick for his blade to hope to arrive in time, a visible mistake. Jeremiah twisted, the lance slapping the greatsword aside…

  … And again, he fought the urge to cut the other sidhe down. He’s not fighting. What is this?

  “GALLOW!” Unwinter roared, lifting the chiming greatsword with both hands. “KILL ME!”

  Well, if Jeremiah could want a fair price for his exit, the lord of Unwinter would want no less. With both Summer and Unwinter dead, would the Sundering heal—or would all of them bleed out through the wound?

  Behind him, a shadow darted—it was Alastair Crenn, wrenching the glittering knife free of Summer’s scorched outline. How many eternities had she ruled, and now nothing was left but a stain on the pavement? Alastair hopped up lithely into a crouch, grimacing as if his torn feet pained him, and gathered himself.

  He was prepared to fall on Unwinter himself. For Jeremiah? Or for the Ragged?

  Probably for her, Jeremiah admitted, and faded backward, shuffling. The assembled sidhe stared, sensing something amiss, Summer knights grimacing as a high ringing sound pulled an emerald thread through the smoke-wracked battlefield.

  He’s trying to commit suicide by Half, Jeremiah realized, and might have laughed—except Unwinter halted, sword still upraised.

  And then, the unthinkable.

  Unwinter… fell. His armor crackled, glamour folding aside, and the leprous-green sheen clustering all up and down his left side, eating through black dwarven-wrought metal.

  From inside.

  A flash of russet, of cream, and of blue—Robin Ragged skidded to a stop next to Unwinter’s supine form, neatly dodging an uncoordinated blow as the lord of Unseelie convulsed.

  He was plagued, too.

  Robin had shed the black coat, carrying it in a wad. She dug frantically at her belt, and jerked free something strange—a small curved case, oddly familiar. Gallow straightened, the lance losing none of its solidity as every Unwinter knight started to his feet.

  Pipes. Gallow’s jaw threatened to drop. She has Puck’s pipes. How…

  She wrenched the biggest reed free, leaning back to dodge another of Unwinter’s queerly uncoordinated thrashings.

  No wonder he wanted a clean death, compared to this.

  A small glass tube turned in Robin’s quick, nimble fingers. Crenn glanced at Jeremiah, who shook his head slightly, and they both turned a fraction, facing Unwinter’s knights, who each laid hand to blade-hilt in an oddly synchronized movement as well.

  Robin cursed, a single sharp word that splintered glass, and she breathed another syllable or two in the Old Language. Realmaking sparked, and Jeremiah glanced at her again, hoping she knew what she was doing.

  The glass tube had become an old-fashioned syringe, glittering in her hands. She raised her fist, and the needle stretched, long and wicked enough to pierce armor.

  I have the cure, Unwinter!

  “Get back,” he warned the Unwinter fullbloods, and hoped they weren’t going to fight him. They might kill, where Unwinter had refused to. “She’s curing him, get back!”

  And Robin’s fist flashed down, stabbing.



  The world stopped. Her hands tingled with Realmaking, and the needle slowed, then quickened as it forced a way through the armor and into flesh beneath.

  Unwinter screamed, the massive noise passing by her ear like a freight train’s roar, wind stinging her eyes and yanking her hair. She hung on, grimly, and slapped her free hand over the plunger. Hope I remembered how a syringe is made clearly enough, she thought, and pushed, muscle standing out in her arms and shoulders as the thick sludge-material stirred inside the glass tube.

  And, I hope Puck didn’t hide the real cure elsewhere.

  Last of all, I hope Jeremiah and Crenn are all right.

  So much hope. Unwinter’s fist arrived out of nowhere, and she couldn’t dodge this one in time. Stars flashed, she flew, but she had pushed the plunger down all the way, she was sure of it, hadn’t she?

  Hadn’t she?

  She hit something hard with a crunch, it gave more resiliently than she expected, and she tumbled to the ground in a heap, Alastair Crenn’s limbs tangling with hers. Somehow he had his shoulder in the way, so her head bounced on him instead of on concrete. Stunned and breathless, she went limp, Unwinter’s howl blasting a crimson streak straight up into the clouded sky.

  The world turned sideways, and Robin Ragged surfaced a few moments later, her head ringing, her cheek bruised, and a long scrape up her arm from the concrete. Crenn lay crumpled underneath her, and Pepperbuckle’s claws scrabbled as he reached her, his long pink tongue frantically licking the side of her face, his wet cold nose and hot breath confusing her.

  Crenn’s dark eyes opened. This close, she could see the fine grain of his skin, the line between his pupil and iris, the exact sheen of his hair. The moss had crumbled away; the curls were black and springy, and looked very soft.

  They stared at each other, their noses a bare inch apart, and deep in his gaze, something familiar stirred.

  He had no right to look so lost. No right at all to look so hopeful, so despairing. He had gagged her with shusweed and brought her to Summer. Summer had taken his scars away.

  Yet he’d saved her life twice now.

  Robin. A deep, imperative voice. You’re not done yet.

  She rolled aside, wishing she hadn’t seen his vulnerability or his slight flinch as she pushed herself away. He probably thought she loathed him.

  Well, she did, didn’t she? Or she could have, just like she could have left Sean to his fate or Gallow to his, if only she didn’t care. If only their pain or sweetness did not strike an answer in her, if only she could have refused to see.

  Well, it didn’t matter. She grabbed a handful of Pepperbuckle’s fur, he made no noise as she hauled herself upright.

  “Don’t,” Jeremiah Gallow said behind her. “Don’t make me kill you.”

  She whirled, and saw Unwinter’s convulsions had quieted. Hopefully the cure was working.

  Jeremiah Gallow, the new white streak in his hair glaring in the dimness of what was only a mortal night now, stood with his glowing lance slanting slightly up, held across his body like a bar. It was a pikeman’s defense, and the mass of Unwinter’s fullbloods, their pale faces alight with bloodlust, pressed toward him.

  Her face hurt. Her heels clattered as she lunged for the wad of black velvet. Pixies crawled over it, piping at her in the stillness, and it seemed to take forever to reach the material, yank it up—

  A single green gleam fell into her palm, shrunk to the size of a marble, singing in distress. She closed her fingers gingerly over it and ran for Gallow, and her expression must have been wild, for the assembled fullbloods fell back.

  They remembered her voice, and were wary of it, at least.

  Behind her, Unwinter groaned. The sound wasn’t cold enough to hurt, but it was unmistakably his voice. He would probably live. And if he did, he was Unwinter, and there had to be something else.

  There had to be a Summer.

  Do it, Robin. Do it now.

  “Jer!” she yelled, and her voice wasn’t her own for a moment. It was lighter, and laughing, a timbre and cadence she knew as well as she knew her own. “Turn around!”

  It was Daisy’s voice, and she hated herself for using it even as Jeremiah turned, the lance slipping between his fingers and winking o

  And Robin Ragged rammed Danu’s Jewel against his armored chest as his arms closed around her. Realmaking sparked and oscillated around her fingers again, and Jeremiah was squeezing her hard enough to rob her of breath.

  Did he think she was Daisy, come back to him? Her heart and her face both ached.

  The Jewel stabbed through armor, through fine linen, and met flesh. Realmaking pierced, shone, spun, and Jeremiah Gallow stiffened. He screamed, a long trailing cry of anguish, and if he had not been slightly changed by the Sluagh he might well have died of shock in that instant alone.

  She caught him as he sagged. But he was so much heavier than she, especially in armor, and they both went down in a tangle, Robin’s knee barking the cold paving painfully. She bent over him, and a tremor passed through every Summer sidhe.

  Forgive me, Robin Ragged wanted to say. I can’t let all of Summer die, and you and me and Pepperbuckle with it.

  But she didn’t have the breath.



  Pain. The agony poured through Jeremiah Gallow, in channels still smoking-raw from the passage of the unforgiven dead. Summer trembled, and Danu’s Jewel screamed. Her folk were of the moonlight and the cold spring dawn, of glamour and cruelty, of dancing and making merry, of elfhorse and elflock.

  In some place beyond the Veil, did the goddess herself lift her head, sensing their cries? Did she peer into her fountain, and did her ageless brow wrinkle slightly as she saw a battlefield, blood spilled not in her honor but for vile selfishness? Did she regret, even for a moment, her creation, or the birthing of her second children, who even now swarmed the kingdom she had given them, poisoning it with filth and rubble?

  None were blameless, not even a goddess.

  Did Danu peer a little more closely, stirring just slightly in one direction? Did one gentle fingertip come down, touching the trembling surface of her fountain, rippling outward as one thing changed and another did not? Who could tell?

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