Wasteland king, p.23
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       Wasteland King, p.23

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  She lost track of time, standing there and swaying, and only roused when she heard something that didn’t belong in the Sevens.

  Click-click-click. Taptap. Click-click click. Tapping little footsteps, in the quiet.

  That was when Brat realized she couldn’t hear the traffic, even though the Sevens were right up against the freeway. Instead, there was only the wind, and that persistent movement at the edge of her vision, like the world wasn’t going to stay still. Like it was just waiting for her to blink so it could change into something else, maybe a deep dark forest like she used to have nightmares about, pale hands reaching through spikethorn branches and curving to catch at her…

  The clicking drew nearer, nearer, and finally she appeared.

  The redheaded woman.

  Brat might have turned to run, but her legs had frozen, and the woman wasn’t wearing black anymore. Instead, she wore a silken blue dress, its hem fluttering, and beside her a dog as big as a small horse pranced. He wasn’t like the mongrels other street kids had or the pampered Shit-Zoos one of her foster families had brushed and babytalked. He was redgold, the color of her hair, and he looked straight at Brat like he knew her, with bright-blue eyes more direct than a dog’s should ever be.

  The tapping footsteps slowed. The redheaded woman was so beautiful it hurt to look at her. At her throat, a locket gleamed, and set in it was a single bloody gem like an eye.

  Someone gave her that, Brat thought. Someone she maybe doesn’t like very much.

  The woman finally stopped, a reasonable distance away. She looked at Tomtom’s body, and Brat was suddenly sure she was going to sneer, like the ladies in high heels sometimes did when they passed Tomtom playing his guitar on the street. It was a swift expression, like he was a stain or a bad smell, and each time she saw it Brat’s eyes would narrow, and the hate would fill her like big red clouds.

  The lady didn’t sneer, though. She just studied him, and looked sad.

  She was so beautiful, from her tumblecurl crop of redgold hair to her creamy shoulders, to the folds of the blue silken dress, all the way down pale dancer-muscled legs to her black high heels. Maybe she’d known Tomtom, to look at him that way. Brat felt herself bulge like a punctured beachball. She hunched her shoulders.

  The woman’s gaze passed over her, and Brat tried not to straighten self-consciously. Tried not to feel the dirt on her skin—because if boys thought you were pretty they would do things to you, and even if you were ugly they sometimes would, but less often. Besides, Tomtom said the body would clean itself, modern detergents just got in the way and polluted the planet.

  The dog sat down, its tongue lolling, and its teeth were huge, too. Curiously, though, it didn’t seem like she had to be afraid of it. It was just so big.

  She and the woman watched each other. Little spatters of light bloomed around the redhead, and if Brat squinted she could see the crazy fluttering in the lights.

  It looked like little people with wings. Some wore whispers of frayed, cobwebby clothing, others were smooth and hairless-naked, unembarrassed.

  “His name was Tomtom.” Brat blushed, hotly, and the words spilled out, taking her by surprise. “The others are dead.” She knew it was true as soon as she said it.

  She was the last of the Wild Boys, and she wasn’t even a boy.

  The woman thought this over. Then she spoke.

  “I’m sorry.”

  Her voice was golden. Soft, and low, and honey-sweet, it spread soothing all the way down Brat’s aching little body. A dusting of golden freckles on the woman’s nose glowed. She was too perfect to be real, except…

  Brat frowned. The woman was real.

  Realer than real, even.

  Did that mean the craziness was real too?

  Amazingly, the woman folded down. She crouched, her blue skirt pooling around her, and studied Brat from below, her wide dark-blue eyes moving in unhurried arcs. The spatters of light brightened, and the heat in Brat’s chest intensified. The persistent coughing from cold and cigarettes, the deep gnawing never-fully-satisfied hunger, the pain from one of her baby teeth rotting in her head, had all vanished.

  Brat actually felt good.

  “You saw the battle.” The woman tilted her chin. “Right?”

  Brat nodded, digging her left toe into the concrete as if she was five and Called to the Carpet. That was what the Shit-Zoo woman had called it. You’re gonna be Called to the Carpet, you little brat.

  “And you see the pixies.” The woman indicated the flying blue glimmers. “We’re from Summer, little one. The more-than-real.”

  Hearing her own thoughts given voice was terrifying and comforting at once. Brat’s hands loosened at her sides.

  The honey-voice continued, soft and sure. “You’re… different. You’ve always seen things other people don’t. Known things they don’t.” It wasn’t a question. “I can take you with me, little one, or I can show you how to go somewhere else. Somewhere just as dangerous as this place, but… beautiful too.”

  “Why didn’t you stay there?” It sounded angry, but Brat was honestly just curious.

  The woman didn’t get angry in return, though. “I… I had to leave.” The sadness came back, flooding her face, and for a moment she looked tired. But still lovely. “That’s all.”

  Brat looked down at Tomtom’s empty shell. The police would come. There would be questions. The older homeless would flood into the Sevens, and Brat couldn’t hold them back by herself.

  She was, after all, only twelve, and dimly realized she was bargaining for something much bigger than her age would permit her to compass. Others like the woman might come, but they might not be… kind.

  Compassion, like hatred, can be sensed. A twelve-year-old’s bullshit detector sifted through everything else, and found the secret Robin Ragged kept even from herself.

  Brat felt for her red bandanna. It was Tomtom’s, actually, and she crouched next to his head, his raw oozing eyesockets staring past her. When she draped the red cloth over his face, she felt better. Lighter.

  When she looked up, the woman had stood. Brat searched for something to say, and she finally crept crabwise toward her, almost-cringing. The dog studied Brat intently, his bright warm tongue lolling. Pinker than pink, a color too vibrant for the pale savage nightmare Brat been born into.

  The woman offered her soft white hand. The little lights around her began to dart toward Brat too, chiming softly. They were saying something the child almost understood, but comprehension slipped away, and she reached up with her own dirty paw.

  “I’ll go with you,” she whispered, and the redheaded woman tugged gently on her hand.

  “Stand up, little one. Do you have a name? You can choose one, if you like.”

  “What’s yours?”

  “Robin. Robin Ragged.”

  “I’m Ell,” Brat mouthed, as if she could make it true by saying it. “Ell Wild.”

  “Ell Wild,” Robin repeated, and nodded. “I am very pleased to meet you, indeed.”

  As simply as that, she was no longer Brat, just like when she met Tomtom she was no longer Samantha but Brat, and when she fled the last foster home she was no longer Eleanor but Samantha.

  Maybe this name would stick. “Ch-charmed,” Ell stuttered, like she’d heard men do in movies.

  For some reason, that made Robin smile, a soft pained curve of her lips. “I can teach you that, too.” She looked up, glancing at the sun. Another spring storm was moving in, black clouds in the north gathering. The rain would wash the Sevens clean, and maybe it was the only shower Tomtom would have liked. “Come, little one. We’ve far to go before dark.”

  “Will it rain on us?” Ell clung to her warm hand, and was ready to trot to keep up with an adult’s long paces. But Robin shortened her stride, and on her other side the dog paced, glancing curiously at Ell every few steps. In a friendly way, like he could tell she liked dogs, and was ready to like her in return.

  “Sooner or later, it always does,”
Robin Ragged replied.

  ALMOST INDIRECT

  54

  Later, the Sevens sprawled exhausted and bleached, steaming damply. The sodden red rag over a boy’s corpse was the only blot of color in the graying landscape, the clouds turned to an oppressive stormlid. Lightning stabbed and thunder crackled, the battlefield warming and finding it was again, only, mortal ground.

  A shadow slipped along the roads, stepping over rotting bones and sponge-soft swellings, avoiding puddles of half-spent curses and the sharp stabbing fishbones of naiads and selkies. The mortals would see only branches and trash, shiny but worthless pebbles and melting gray cobwebs. To them, his almost-indirect route would seem an aimless amble through a junkyard, instead of a careful quartering of the cursed wasteland where False Summer—for so the Seelie sidhe now named her, eager to ingratiate themselves with their new lord, even though he was Half—fell. Ballads were being composed, and his own name featured in a few of them.

  Alastair Crenn could not care less.

  He found what he sought deep in the heart of the tangle, where a mortal corpse lay on its back, its face covered. The shape of the wet cloth describing the features made him shudder slightly, but he bent, keen dark eyes finding tiny traces. She’d stood here for quite some time, then…

  He lifted his head, sniffing. With his hair tied back, it was much easier.

  A thin thread of spiced fruit on the rainwashed breeze. Thunder muttered again, but the hunter closed his eyes, inhaling.

  Only a few hours old. There was Pepperbuckle’s trace, too, a long fine curling redgold hair.

  Crenn found the trail, and set off at a lope.

  PERHAPS, SURETY

  55

  Perhaps Alastair Crenn did find her. Perhaps she did not welcome his appearance; perhaps he said I am sorry and she replied It is not enough.

  Of a surety, though, is his answer, the only answer possible when retreat is not an option.

  Tell me what would be enough, and I will do it. I have no other choice.

  Oh, the sidhe whisper; oh, the sidhe gossip. But on this they all agree: Robin Ragged rambles, with a hound and a child.

  And wherever she goes, a hunter is not far behind.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  Thanks are due to my children, who were, as usual, very patient with their distracted mother living half in another world while finishing a book. They are also due to Devi Pillai, the best editor I could have; Miriam Kriss, who told me I could do it and was, as usual, right; and Mel Sanders, who kept me sane, as she is wont to do.

  A very large measure of gratitude must also go to Kelly O’Connor, who did not lose her temper with me even when I was very difficult during production.

  The Folk are merry, the Folk are fell, the Folk are bonny, and it’s just as well.

  As always, the final thank-you goes to you, my dear Readers. Come, make yourselves comfortable, pour yourself whatever drink you desire, and let me tell you another story…

  extras

  meet the author

  Photo credit: Daron Gildrow

  LILITH SAINTCROW was born in New Mexico, bounced around the world as an Air Force brat, and fell in love with writing when she was ten years old. She currently lives in Vancouver, Washington.

  introducing

  If you enjoyed

  WASTELAND KING

  look out for

  the next novel

  by Lilith Saintcrow

  It could have been aliens, it could have been a trans-dimensional rift, nobody knows for sure. What’s known is that there was an Event, the Rifts opened up, and everyone caught inside died.

  Since the Event, though, certain people have gone into the drift… and come back, bearing priceless bits of technology that are almost magical in their advancement. When Ashe—the best Rifter of her generation—dies, the authorities offer her student, Svinga, a choice: go in and bring out the thing that killed her, or rot in jail. But Svin, of course, has other plans…

  Maki screamed, letting off a burst of fire at the stand of spindly trees and thick underbrush. Tremaine vanished into its maw, and the Rifter grabbed the back of Barko’s jacket, hauling him backward again. The bald scientist went down hard, the sound of his teeth clicking together almost audible over the rifle’s barks—projectile instead of plasma, because you couldn’t ever tell what plasma would do in a Rift. It wasn’t worth it, so the plas-switches on the Currago5K rifles had been disabled. The pin on the Surya Naga submachine the demo man carried had been tripped, too.

  “He’s gone!” she yelled. “Fucking forget it!”

  Hicks, his knees digging into the grass, swore viciously. “Cease fire! Cease fire, you fuckbuckle motherfucker! Hold your fire!” Behind him, Brood had prudently hit the ground, and bullets plowed into the shrubs and shaking, spindly trees. They were plo-rounds, and anything flammable should have gone up in seconds. Certainly anything woodlike should have burst into flames.

  Instead, the trees writhed and the shrubs ran like ink on an oiled plate, extending long thorn-liquid runners up the hill. Dust puffed up, the serrated grass whipping wildly, and the Rifter uncoiled over Barko in an amazing leap. She hit Maki squarely, and even though she was much smaller, the unexpected impact threw the man sideways. Bullets spattered overhead, and Brood punched Hicks on the closest thing he could reach to get his commander’s attention.

  That just happened to be Hicks’s left buttock. Which cramped, viciously, because Brood had a helluva windup.

  “Motherfucker!” Hicks howled, but he knew exactly why the sonofabitch had done it.

  The thing was heading up the hill, sending out its shrub-tentacles, clawing against grass and earth. The Rifter screamed, a high hawklike cry, lost under the sound of crunching and gunfire. Maki stopped firing, and Brood was on his back, fumbling at his chest while the thing heaved itself another few feet up the slope.

  It looked angry, and it was making a sound. A low grumbling roar, gathering strength. The trees were less trees now, and more spinelike, leaves suddenly little fleshy pods with tabs crusting their edges. The “leaves” crawled over the spines, and as the thing scrabbled closer, Hicks could swear he saw them scurrying along, nuzzling at the scars bullets had torn. Lapping at them, swarming like white blood cells gathering to form an angry pus-filled pocket.

  Hicks lurched to his feet. Maki was no longer screaming. Barko was, a hoarse cry of despair. Eschkov, his backpack left behind, stumbled down the slope towards them, hands outstretched and his spectacles askew. A lonely flash jetted off one lens, and he almost ran into Hicks, his soft skinny hands closing with desperate strength on the officer’s pack straps. He bagan pulling, hauling Hicks up the hill.

  Brood’s hand finally came away from his chest, full of the sour metal apple of a concuss-grenade. “Clear!” he screamed, pulling the pin, and tossed it at the thing. He rolled over and scrabbled, getting his legs inelegantly but efficiently under him, and almost ran into Hicks, who stared at the goddamn thing as the grenade bounced once, vanishing into its quivering depths.

  “Get down!” the Rifter yelled, and kicked Senkin’s feet from under him. She threw herself on top of Barko, and Hicks had a brief second to wonder why before the grenade popped and the noise exploded outward.

  A gigantic warm hand cupped every inch of his back, legs, head, neck—everything. He flew, weightless for a moment, and the impact knocked all the sense out of him for a brief gentle second before the pain began.

  Crunch. The world spun away, came back on a greased leaf full of tearing edges. He hung between Senkin and Brood as they slid down the other side of the hill, and the Rifter was bellowing at them to move you cocksuckers move! She had something in her hands—one of those queer opalescent rocks, and as she ran she twisted at it, tendons standing out under pale skin. It cracked, a thin thread of darkness appearing at its heart. She had a snotrag, a faded red one, and popped the rock into it as she ran.

  Then she whirled, digging her heels in, and skidded to a stop, the twin furr
ows plowed by her boots glaring against the matted grass. The noise behind them spiraled up into a boulder-rubbing screech.

  The thing was fucking pissed.

  It crested the rise in a humpback wave, shedding those fleshy leaf-bits, whatever wet sound they made lost in the roaring. They fell, bloodsick knobs of tissue, and when they hit the grass, small puffs of caustic smoke belched up. The Rifter raised the fist with the red snotrag and began to whirl the trapped rock inside.

  The thing heaved itself fully over the rise. Brood was down on one knee, shooting at it, wasting ammo. Hicks tried to shake the noise out of his head, tried to think. The roar turned everything inside him to jelly, knocked his head back on the smallish stem his neck had become, and the pain came again, diamondtooth ants biting down his back and legs.

  The Rifter’s face was alive, bright color high on her cheeks. Her eyes weren’t bulging so much as shining, and she whirled the makeshift sling just like the illustration of King David Hicks could remember in one of his battered childhood books. His mother would read them to him, if she wasn’t too bone-tired after a long day of slinging other people’s wet laundry, and she would tell him the stories behind the stories—how David even then was a king, and his bloodline would bring the Messiah when it was time for God to call his chosen people home. How King Solomon had built his palace with demons as his slaves, the great ring glinting on his finger, how the wise rebbes made massive men of clay and breathed life into them to protect the ghetto.

  There were other stories, but all Hicks was seeing was the Goliath coming down the hill, gaining speed, and Brood was screaming as he emptied one clip, then another at it. The bullets tore into it without effect, and the Rifter let out another high, keening screech. A snap of her arm, and the white, faintly glowing rock described a high arc.

 
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