Wasteland king, p.7
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       Wasteland King, p.7

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  Jeremiah Gallow’s stride lengthened into a lope, and he plunged into the woods around the Keep, thornbranches shrinking from him, his breath a plume in the chill air. Around him, silvery huntwhistles lifted their chill cries, but these were not the thin copies Unwinter’s knights and huntmasters carried at their breasts.

  No, these were the horns of a skeleton army, its rotting host knowing neither pain nor fear, nor weariness, nor anything other than the imperative.

  To chase, and to catch.

  Movement boiled in Gallow’s wake, and his lope became a canter, then a run.

  Shh, the wiser sidhe said. I will whisper it, but only once.

  He had blown the Horn, and the one thing every sidhe without exception feared was on his heels.

  The Sluagh is rising.

  The Wild Hunt had begun.

  IN MORTAL DARKNESS

  14

  Pete Crespin worked dispatch, and it was a thankless fucking job even at the best of times. Some of the girls felt like they were helping, coordinating, they joked with the cops and EMTs and firemen. Our boys, they called them.

  Those motherfuckers, Paul would think, out there like cowboys.

  He should know. He’d been one of them. Then a rainy night had stuck him on deskwork, and he’d taken the dispatcher classes without much enthusiasm. It was a surprise to everyone, he suspected, when he passed the exams, and kind of an affirmative action when he was hired into the overwhelmingly female dispatch pool. Maybe they wanted a cripple to round out their compliance with federal laws.

  He settled back in his wheelchair, running a practiced eye over the screens. There was the usual crop of fender-benders and ditch-divers, the spring rains greasing everything up and driving everyone crazy. You’d think, with the melt happening every year and the storms following like clockwork, people would have gotten used to it by now. Instead, they had the attention span of gnats or something, because each turn in the seasons produced a massive fucking freakout. Snow? Freakout. Rain? Freakout. Hot weather? Freakout. Tornado watch? Extra-super-double freakout with sauce.

  Morons.

  Just before he was due to go on lunch, there was a brief flurry—a couple shootings on the west side, a possible jumper on the East Bridge, and a rash of skids turning into fender-taps. He worked through the first half of his break, even though you weren’t supposed to—hungry dispatchers made errors. Fatigue crept in on padded feet, poisoning the brain.

  At first he thought the silence was everyone listening to him. The last call was the jumper on the bridge—they had him safely talked down, ready to be wheeled to Mercy General and sedated. Tomorrow there would be the unpleasantness, since it wasn’t technically against the law to attempt to end your own life, but there could be a raft of charges like endangering others on the damn bridge. Adding legal, court, and ambulance fees was, in Crespin’s opinion, just a way to force the jumper to pick a less public and more efficient method next time, but what did he know? Once they were rolling to the hospital and traffic safety was cleared, his job was mostly done. Then he waited for the next call…

  … And waited some more, finally flicking the brake and pushing his chair back. A deathly hush had fallen over the entire 7A dispatch fishbowl.

  Wendy, her corkscrew curls hanging limp instead of artfully mussed, peered over the low, temporary cubicle wall. “Hey, Pete. Is your line live?”

  He toggled it, heard the tone in his headset. “Sounds fine. Yours?”

  “It sounds fine, but—”

  “Is anyone getting calls?” This from Christina of the mellow voice and ample hips. She had the flawless creamy skin some fat women were blessed with as well as a cheerful serenity, and if Pete had been ambulatory he might have asked her out on a date. He’d never liked the chubby ones before, but there was something about them that nowadays seemed like a good deal. Softer, less hungry than the thin ones. More forgiving.

  “Just a lull.” Jenna the Butch said, from her expansive desk in the middle. “They happen sometimes. Who’s up for break?” She’d been in the force too, maybe got tired of the unrelenting boy’s chatter in locker room, break room, duty room, roll call, over the airwaves. It soaked in, toxic testosterone, and there was only so far a woman could go to make herself one of “them.”

  The fact that Pete would give just about everything to swim in that poison again was beside the point. Jenna’s tight thin-lipped mouth spoke volumes, but she didn’t go out of her way to be Pete’s buddy the way some cops did. It had irked him at first—weren’t women supposed to care? But then he found out he liked being treated as if he was just another male intrusion into a female cloud.

  Treated, in short, as if he was normal.

  “Me,” Pete said, finally. “Unless someone else wants to go.”

  “Me too.” Rhonda, all the way over on the other side of the fishbowl, stood and stretched. You could hear her joints popping all through the room.

  That wasn’t normal, either.

  The silence turned thick. Pete ran his hands along his wheelchair’s hoops, a thoughtful motion. His nape crawled—what his old partner Darcy would have called hinky as hell.

  Darcy was a good ol’ boy, and some of the admins called him Mr. Darcy, and he’d never caught the joke. Pete hadn’t either until one of them patiently explained that there were books by a chick named Astin, and Darcy was a gentleman hero in one of them. It was funny because he was a slob, but it was the slob’s presence of mind that meant Pete was still here today and not six feet under like the slob himself.

  That night. The bullets, the rain, the coughing gasps as Darcy radioed for backup and ended up bleeding out halfway in the front seat of the cruiser, his bulk heaved up like a gigantic graceless fish—

  Creeeak. His wheelchair wheels squeaked a little. The silence was fucking unnerving.

  “This is bizarre.” Wendy leaned on the top of the half wall, blinking rapidly.

  “It happens.” Jenna had her supervisor hat on, and it made her goddamn insufferable.

  “It’s not just quiet here,” Pete found himself saying. “Outside, too.” Even the rain had stopped.

  More heads began popping up, women standing, some stretching, others tilting their heads to listen. Pete took an internal vote and decided he didn’t need to pee—he didn’t flood himself with coffee the way he used to on the force, and it had done wonders for his digestion—and found himself wishing he had his service revolver and two working legs instead of a concealed-carry permit and one and a quarter. Although “working” might be too generous a term for his right leg still receiving nerve impulses. You’re lucky, they kept saying. You can stand with a brace if you need to. For short periods. Lucky.

  Yeah. The bullet hadn’t done it, complications from the damn surgery when they fished it out had. At least he didn’t need a catheter, he had enough nerve feedback to know when he was about to piss himself.

  “Stay at your stations, ladies.” A thread of unease worked its way into Jenna’s tone. “We could get a rush.”

  Like at the grocery store. Pete suppressed the urge to open his big fat mouth, and stayed where he was. His lunch was in the breakroom fridge, the fussy little bento box he’d learned how to make from the book Sandy had left, all about rice and fish and arranging things neatly.

  Don’t think about Sandy, for fucksake. Brooding on his ex-wife was best done at home. But your brain jagged all over the place in situations like this.

  Situations like what? It was Darcy’s voice he heard in his head, the drawl turning it into a comedic slur. Like whuuuuuuuuuut? With a waggle of his bushy eyebrows, just before he belched or released a bomb from the other end.

  Situations, Pete Crespin thought, where you knew you were going to get shot at, but not soon enough to do any good.

  A faint beeping was a call coming in. Christina’s lovely, radio-quality voice purred through the standard greeting, then a pause that lasted too long.

  Pete realized he was holding his breath.

  Then
the entire place lit up. Every line, even the doubles and the silents and the shunts and the overflow. The squealing, ringing din made several women leap to their feet, tearing at their earpieces or headsets, and a chorus of salty language that wouldn’t be out of place in a precinct locker room at shift change rose. Pete half turned his chair, meaning to go back to his cubicle, and paused, staring down the hall leading past the breakroom door and the water fountain. The last stretch of said hall held printers on one side, cubicle half walls on the other, and terminated in a window looking out on the front of the building. An expanse of grass that had just begun growing again as the days got longer, a few ruthlessly trimmed shrubs, and the fountain in the middle of the paths, like a goddamn college campus. It had just been turned on for spring, and nobody had poured dish soap in it for the entire time Pete had worked here.

  Pete rubbed at his eyes. Stared, his jaw dropping.

  The fountain was glowing. More precisely, thin luminescent wisps of steam were thickening as they swelled upward, clotting and condensing around… what? Something held in steam, the vapor describing the borders of an object, nothing else.

  Pete rubbed at his eyes again. What the fuck?

  Just like after the accident, they found out he was allergic to one of the pain meds and the world became a sideways-sliding distortion of itself, nurses and doctors all vacant-eyed, gapmouthed rotting corpses bent on tormenting him. In his ravings, he’d only been able to kick his right leg, a crippled bug seesawing on its back, and they’d tied him down while he screamed himself hoarse.

  The mist rose from the grass now, too, instead of just the fountain. Pete opened his mouth to ask if anyone else saw it, shut it. There was no way.

  No way. They’d have him in the looney bin so fast, and it wouldn’t be just sidelong looks or having to use the handicapped shitter, he’d end up with an assful of meds and…

  He kept staring. The shapes coalesced. Humanoid. The mist stretched, became firmer, wrapped around them. They rose from fountain, lawn, garden, and concrete, and they just kept coming.

  “Holy shit,” someone whispered, and Pete realized it was him.

  They leapt forward, some running, some riding big bulky steam-animals, filthy droplets splatting the window as they passed, the mist describing just enough of their faces to turn his heart into a clot of senseless meat inside him and his throat into a pinhole. The phones were going nuts, but nobody could get a clear signal; Jenna was yelling for a reset, and Rhonda’s piercing scream from the other end of the room was a flash in the auditory pan.

  Rhonda’s cubicle had a window view. So did Sharon’s, and the other Jenna’s, the wispy just-out-of-college girl with her big stoned eyes and bad skin. Were they watching this shit go down like he was?

  It was, Pete decided, probably time to go home and take out that fifth of Wild Turkey he had stashed in the remodeled cupboard—for a rainy day, he thought, with enviable calm—except to do that, he’d have to wheel himself out into the parking lot, and those… those things…

  A sharp lancing numbness spread through his skull, down his left side, the hand turning into a claw and his withered leg twitching spasmodically. His heart pounded, pounded, and Pete Crespin closed his right eye—the left one had fallen shut on its own.

  The verdict pronounced a week later by the overworked coroner’s office was that he’d had a stroke, but Sarah Thornton, who had come around the corner from the breakroom to see what everyone was screaming about, always privately thought—though she would never dare to express this—that with his grizzled face twisted and his left side all scrunched up, it looked like the old guy had died, quite plainly, of fear.

  PART TWO

  VENGEANCE MINE

  15

  She stepped out of a disturbance in the Veil, head held high and the fringes of her feathered mask trembling just slightly. Her hair, a shade caught between platinum and gold, was looped, braided, and coiled with periwinkle ribbons; it made her at least a foot taller and her dress was not of the latest Seelie court fashion but of an older style.

  One might even call it ancient. One single braid of her beautiful hair held a single golden flower, a work of exquisite dwarven metalsmithing twisted into a bead by a fury-hot chantment.

  Her fan, held in the manner of a truce envoy, clattered slightly with pixie wings dipped in light, glittering metal and encrusted with spunsugar glitters—dewdrops frozen by chantment, requiring a fullblood’s numinous aura of glamours to keep them whole and unmelted. Her deep-blue mantle, the cloth figured with stylized maned creatures roaring silent-fierce, brushed the floor. Into the knife-edged chill of Unwinter’s throne room she stepped, eschewing the normal politeness of appearing in the entry hall so a steward, high-ranking of course but perhaps not the chief of them, could inquire of her business.

  The great blackstone hall rippled, ringing with the echoes of a horn-cry, and she flicked her fan once, precisely, and let her sleeves fall forward over her long, velvet-gloved hands, each with six phalanges. The graceful curve of her wrist had been accorded many plaudits at Summer’s Court.

  Perhaps too many, considering.

  In the center of the chamber, blue flames crawled over stonewood, slowly caressing the gray logs into ash. Around the firepit, runes etched into the floor shifted, their shape growing more angular as the chill deepened, steam rising from one of Summer’s creatures here, in the sanctum of a different power.

  The fullblood female looked toward the Throne, gasflame-blue eyes peering through the mask, and regarded its deeper shadows without a betraying flinch or shiver. Two red gleams were all that could be seen, the high curved spikes of the Throne damp with rusted red but not weeping.

  Not at the moment.

  The room was empty, yet it felt crowded, the air flirting uneasily over this new arrival, mouthing her with slow indignant brushes. No word of greeting or dismissal rose from the deep well of shadow in the Throne’s sharp embrace. Only the sense of presence and cold intent announced that Unwinter was, indeed, upon his throne.

  And listening.

  “Lord of Unwinter.” A light, feminine voice, smooth as silk and cloying as cream. “Lion of Danu, Favored of the great Wyrms. I greet you.”

  The flames crawling in the pit made a low sibilance, a dissatisfied sound.

  She waited, this metal-haired sidhe, and after the long pause of two creatures who measured age in geologic spans deciding whether the silence was thoughtful or simply because one considered the other unworthy of a reply, she drew in a sharp breath and spoke again. “I come bearing a gift.”

  That earned another long crackle-fire silence, but the shadow in the throne’s recesses gleamed as it shifted. Unwinter’s armor, dwarf-wrought and supple, nevertheless made the grinding of ice rubbing against itself as he leaned forward slightly. He wore no helm, and his pale hair was much lighter than hers, and finer besides.

  “And what gift,” he said, finally, “would one such as you bring me, Feathersalt?”

  Ilara Feathersalt drew the feathered mask aside with one elegant hand, let it drop to her side. The face revealed was drawn haggard-beautiful, as only a sidhe’s could be. The exhaustion graven on her features only made them finer, her cherry-red lips drawn tight and bruised love-hollows under her bright, bright blue eyes, their pupils acutely triangular instead of round. “Are you uninterested, my lord?”

  The small red sparks in the Throne’s deepest gloom winked out, and she drew in a sharp breath.

  “I know where it is,” she said in a rush. The words bounced around the cavernous hall, fell into the firepit, made the blue flames flare and the runes around the edge speed up, purple instead of blue spreading through them as if, like pixies’ glow-globes, they simply reflected. “Glaoseacht.”

  Her lips and tongue shaped the sound, the Old Language dripping through the syllables, and the word burned between them, expressing several things at once. The sound was a razor edge, a handle that cut the wielder, a humming made when a crystal cup-rim was stro
ked just right, the shiver passing through a windowpane—a reminder that it is still, essentially, liquid—before it shatters.

  A brisk breeze slid through the hall, the tendrils of heat rising from the sidhe woman turning visible before they froze, falling with little tinkles to the floor and vanishing.

  “Ah.” Unwinter’s tone was thoughtful, nothing more. “Have you come to curry favor, then? Or to mislead?”

  “Neither.” Her lips drew down again, bitterly, before her expression smoothed. “We are alike, my lord Unwinter.”

  He did not sound as if he would be easily convinced of any kinship. “In what way?”

  “She has stolen from both of us,” Ilara Feathersalt replied. “And we will both have our vengeance.”

  Unwinter considered this. “What is your price, my lady?”

  “I am no merchant, my lord. I do this because it will please me to see the Glass in your hands.”

  “Then why not bring it to me?”

  “I dare not attempt liberating such an item from its holding place alone, my lord.” A graceful shrugging movement, her mantle rippling. “As you would no doubt not trust me to approach you with it clasped before me.”

  A soundless shudder passed through the Keep, dungeon to spires, the floor rocking a few millimeters and stilling almost immediately. Unwinter leaned forward, and his own gaunt-beautiful face, his paleness tinted with the blue of a frozen corpse and even more wretchedly attractive because of it, swam into view. He examined the Summer fullblood from top to toe. “What did she steal from you, Feathersalt?”

  “That is my concern.”

  “Is it? I have heard there is a knight she has paid much attention to of late, a dark-haired lord among the merriment of her Court who used to star his locks with gold.”

 
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