Wasteland king, p.9
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       Wasteland King, p.9

           Lilith Saintcrow
 
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  “My lord?” If she spoke very quietly, her voice didn’t do anything strange. Time, and a little more milk, would heal her fully.

  He took two more steps, reaching the level floor of his thronehall. Another two long strides, straight toward her, and Robin braced herself. His spurs rang, icy rowels striking musical notes from the glassy floor, and the air under his feet flash-froze, crackling in agony. His hand lifted, and she saw a familiar gleam hanging from those armored fingers.

  “Have you come here for the Gallow, little bird?”

  No. I’m here to save my own miserable skin. Robin opened her mouth to tell him as much. But that glint of gold swung, stopped the breath in her for a long moment.

  It was her locket.

  The gold one, the one with six strands of mortal hair closed in it with the strongest chantment-lock a Realmaker could muster. Three of them were redgold, a faded copy of Robin’s own hair. The other three were pale floss, the numinous color only very young mortal children wear. Her gold locket, the one her fingers leapt to her throat to find, helplessly.

  The locket Jeremiah Gallow had taken.

  “Is he still alive?” She almost swayed, caught herself. Why did I just ask? Stupid, silly Half bitch, you can’t stop yourself from showing you care.

  Unwinter’s corpse-blue lips became a curve. He smiled, and she got the idea he was deliberately keeping his teeth behind them. “Would you plead with me, for his life? At the cost of your own?”

  She struggled with herself, briefly. “I have the cure,” she said, numbly. “I can trade it to you, for—”

  “He is beyond your saving, little dove.” The smiling grimace intensified. “He has used what he stole, and his fate is beyond either of us at the moment.”

  The noise, in the woods. It was the Horn. Oh, God. Robin swayed again. “You…” If Unwinter had called the Hunt on Gallow, why was he standing here instead of riding to lead it? “Then—”

  Unwinter held up his right hand, and she closed her mouth so quickly she almost clipped her tongue with her teeth. His lips skinned back, and she saw his teeth, the spaces between them veined with crimson. A bloody mouth to match a bloody gaze, one of the ballads said, and now she knew why.

  “Yet if you could aid him, little winged handmaiden that you are… Would you do so?”

  “Yes,” she heard herself say. “Yes, I would.”

  Unwinter’s smile widened. Robin stared, fascinated. He halted a respectable ten paces from her, and the cold was a living thing, an invisible current radiating from him. “You are Half,” he said, musingly. “You wish for vengeance.”

  There was only one possible answer to that.

  “Vengeance upon Summer.” Quiet, and very flat. The edges of her words flashed as they left her mouth. Her hand slipped free of Pepperbuckle’s ruff as the dog hunched further down, curling around the back of her legs as if to hide behind a single birch sapling facing a hurricane. The hound’s ice-starred coat was redgold, just like her hair.

  Just like shards of blood-edged amber scattered on a marble floor in Summerhome, a statue of a mortal boy broken into a thousand pieces.

  Had Sean still been alive and trying to draw breath inside that prison, before Puck tipped it over?

  Robin-mama, the little mortal had called her. She had taught him the names of the constellations in Summer’s fragrant night sky. All the stars of Summer’s dusk, and the hound cowering behind her now was all that remained of a laughing, chubby mortal boy who smelled of salt and dust and sweet perishable youth.

  “Yes.” Who’s using my voice? She sounds…

  Cold. And furious.

  The firepit creaked. The runes raced around its rim, the flames cupped inside grew rosy for a brief moment, and the stonewood logs underneath gave out a high note of stress, miniature tectonic plates shifting.

  “Yes,” Unwinter echoed, gazing down at her. Robin tipped her head back, unwilling to look away. If he wanted to strike her down, she’d at least stare him in the face while he did so.

  Any revenge he had planned had more chance of working than something Robin could attempt on her own. Was that why the fear fell away, and clarity took its place? If he wasn’t going to kill her, she might as well ask for details. “What do you have in mind?” For a lunatic moment, it was almost as if she were addressing Gallow, or another Half, a simple question between equals.

  “You shall fetch something for me,” Unwinter replied, in the very same tone. His right hand rose with slow, oiled grace, heavy, supple armor whispering as it shifted with him. He glided even closer; the cold made her eyes sting and her cheeks redden slightly as if just-slapped.

  “I shall?”

  “Yes.” One finger—the longest on his mailed hand—extended, and hovered a bare inch from Robin’s velvet-clad shoulder.

  So cold. So cold it burned, that almost-touch. “What might that be?” Ice fringed her lashes, was collecting cold and soft in her shorn hair. If he stayed this close she might become a statue herself, coated in freezing.

  Was this how it had been for Sean?

  “You,” the lord of the Unseelie told her, his frozen breath redolent of myrrh caressing her upturned face, “you, little dove, shall chip free Summer’s Jewel.”

  BETTER THAN TO TOUCH

  18

  Unwinter had entrances everywhere, and the exits were only marginally harder to find. Thrashing through the fringes of the Dak’r was more trouble than Gallow needed, even if every sidhe in that dark, thorny tangle was likely to be cowering instead of looking to cause one former Armormaster some grief.

  So he’d turned hard left—sinister, widdershins, against the sun—as soon as he left the bridge, plunging down a gorse-clad slope. Little flashes of crimson retreated as he passed, the flowers pulling back into themselves, shying away from a Summer sidhe… or from what he fled.

  He didn’t need to look to see the traceries of heavy white vapor rising along his tracks. He hit the bottom of the slope, hopping across a tiny rivulet of dead-white, foaming liquid that probably ran off the moat, and his body obeyed him without heaviness or weariness, without the dragging pain or fever. The lightfoot bloomed under his boots, the vivid wellness of a sidhe warrior beating in time to his heart and pounding footsteps, muscles waking and singing without weakness.

  It was goddamn good to be back.

  Still, he paced himself. Going flat-out would just tire him, and he needed time.

  After all, he had to figure out how to escape the Sluagh. Unwinter would hold the rest of the Unseelie from chasing him, but hadn’t given him any helpful hints. Just the one sentence. You must master what you wear, Half.

  Easy for him to say. On the other hand, Unwinter’s reputation for fairness was pretty well earned. Not many fullbloods would overlook what Gallow had done, between stealing from the lord of the Hunt, challenging him, and killing one of his boon companions.

  Unwinter, Jeremiah decided, was actually a pretty righteous sidhe.

  Jeremiah Gallow loped along the other side of the rivulet, instinct burning and buzzing under his skin. There was an exit very close, unless his memory misled him.

  There. Another slope rose sharply, the rivulet pooling at its foot, and set into the hillside, blending into the gray turf and choked by finger-thin bramble branches with long wicked rose-blushed thorns, was a door of weathered wood. It was already opening, sensing his need, and he splashed through runoff moat-water, ignoring the sudden knifing chill against his ankles. His hobleaf boots could handle whatever fluid the Watcher swam through, and to spare.

  He gritted his teeth and slip-scrambled up to the door’s lip. He had no time to brace himself, shouldering aside the wood and throwing himself into the darkness beyond.

  His stomach turned inside out, his armor ran with ice, his breath dropped out of him with a grunt before he landed, legs buckling and instinct tucking his shoulder so he could roll and make it upright, still running, on uneven concrete.

  Where am I? He slowed, his stomach dec
iding it wasn’t going to turn itself inside out just yet, and glanced about.

  A large rectangle of concrete, pieces heaving up here and there where the ground had swelled or buckled underneath. It looked familiar, and he realized it was a foundation pad for a doublewide. More flat pale spaces at regular intervals, and a few bulky, overgrown shadows were abandoned trailers that hadn’t been taken off their legs yet. Headlights flashed along the south corner, behind a chainlink fence woven with plastic strips, its top festooned with coils of razor wire.

  If it had been just-Unseelie hunting him, the cold iron in the fence might have been a comfort.

  He veered southward, toward the headlights. Crossing streets was like crossing rivers, it might slow his pursuers down. The air smelled familiar, a cold breath of river, engine exhaust, a damp spring wind a little warmer than it should have been.

  Huh. Now that’s weird.

  His feet beat the earth in a quickening tattoo, he leapt, hobleaf boots striking hissing sparks from the razorwire as the strands flexed, and it was a joy to feel his body responding with the cursed sidhe speed and grace again.

  Contemplating suicide was one thing. To have a poison crippling him, turning him into a worm-crawling idiot… that was something else, and the best way to describe it was unbearable. All sidhe had pride, and a mortal man might have some too. His own had been tormenting him ever since Daisy died. He should have been able to protect her. He should have been able to protect Robin, too, or at least somehow been less of a blundering idiot.

  He might be able to salvage this entire stupid tangle, if he could just figure out how to escape—or master—the Sluagh.

  Details, details. He landed hard, brakes squealing as he darted into traffic. This looked like a major artery, and he narrowly avoided being run over by a red Toyota, his knee kissing the fender with a metal-crunching sound. Up and over, the marks on his arms and shoulders and chest running with flame, and all he could think of was Robin, standing head high and shoulders back, facing down Unwinter for the sake of a stupid Half who had fallen for her pale copy and not the original.

  An alley opened up, he dove into it, bouncing back and forth between brick walls to gain height. A rooftop—he was over the side in a trice, skidding to a stop with his head upflung, his irises incandescent green for a moment before he shut his eyes, listening, his entire body a taut string.

  For a few moments, nothing but the soughing of tires on damp pavement, a string of curses from the well-bottom of the street he’d left behind. A familiar mortal song, and one that might have made him want to smile…

  … if a single clear, chill, ultrasonic note hadn’t sounded in the distance. West and south, maybe at the north edge of a graveyard or the middle of a potter’s field, maybe in a culvert or at the end of town where someone had dumped a body long ago. There were many places one of the unforgiven, angry dead could linger, and their rage at the manner of their deaths was surpassed only by their thirsting to run to ground their quarry, who had stirred them to a bastard simulation of life.

  Gallow checked the sky. It felt like 10 p.m. or thereabouts, if his internal clock hadn’t been knocked out of whack by almost-dying locked in Unwinter’s dungeon.

  Christ. I don’t even know what day it is. He couldn’t even tell how long he’d been trapped in that stone cube. It couldn’t have been very long, right?

  Now was a fine time to wish he’d asked a few more questions, but he doubted Unwinter knew or cared what year or month it was in the mortal world.

  There was one silver lining, he supposed. He finally recognized the city he’d landed in. Maybe Unwinter had something to do with it, guessing Gallow would choose the closest exit, or maybe Gallow himself had been thinking about it and turned the door to somewhere he was familiar with.

  In any case, this was home ground. It was Daisy’s city, the place he’d worked construction in, playing at a mortal life. He knew its alleys and geography, its secret places and its heights. He had a good chance of using the terrain to keep himself out of the Sluagh’s clutches until dawn, if he was lucky.

  After that, he was going to have to get creative.

  Midnight found him in the shadow of the Gaffney Bank Building downtown, a brick facade he remembered repairing about a decade ago still holding up fairly well. The gray bulk of the second-largest of the city’s cathedrals, Saint Ignatius’s, was a few blocks away, and the ultrasonic hunting-cries were circling.

  He skirted the pay-for lot behind the bank, pausing only to look at the anemic pine trapped in a concrete round near the attendant’s hut. It was a sorry, scrawny facsimile of a tree; he remembered its sapling newly planted when the lot had just been paved, level and black-sealed, the stripes fresh. Back then urban-renewal dollars had been flooding the city from the federal teat, and Gallow had been fresh from Summer, waiting until he could approach Daisy at the diner. Waiting a decent interval, to hopefully dissuade Summer from thinking Jeremy had left for a mortal, had been agonizing.

  In the end, it hadn’t mattered.

  His skin chilled, an atavistic shiver all the way up his back. The lance woke, tingling painfully, almost coalescing in his hands. Gallow turned, slowly, hobleaf soles sliding over pavement differently than his workboots full of the dust of mortal construction sites. The chill—and the lance’s danger-warning—rushed over him in a blinding sheet.

  Not even Unwinter was this cold.

  The pavement near the pine tree exhaled white vapor through its cracks. The veils rose, steam condensing on invisible surfaces, and in the flowing, flooding ribbons a female shape turned slowly, sniffing.

  The chuffing noise—invisible, rotting lungs making a mockery of breath—sent a bolt of loathing through Gallow’s belly.

  Sometime after the lot had been poured, someone had met a violent death here under the pine tree. Not every murder made for a restless spirit—but this one had.

  She turned, floating in the steam-veils as if caught in a water tank, the spirit exhaling from ground that remembered shed blood and pain.

  And rage.

  The ruin of the face was visible even through the shifting scarves. She’d been bludgeoned. Gallow’s gorge rose. The tales of the Sluagh were bad enough.

  This was somehow worse. He remembered when this lot was built, and someone had killed a woman right where he’d worked. Maybe right where he’d stood and ate lunch, or joked with one of the purely mortal workers.

  “Christ,” he muttered, and the thing cringed furiously, its blind eyes lighting like live coals, tumbling forward on shredded hands and knees toward his breathing, living warmth. Its head lifted in a mockery of human movement, and its queer sniffling turned into a sharp, singing inhale grinding past torn vocal chords.

  Next, it would throw back its almost-visible head and shriek, and the Sluagh would know he’d been sighted.

  A clatter, a familiar shout and a scattering flash, a snowdrift of crystalline glitters hanging in midair, bright as a photographer’s strobe. The lance sprang into being, its handle rasping against his calluses, and its blade swept harmlessly through the thing, Jeremiah dragged forward as the sluagh-spirit grabbed the blade and pulled it inward with her almost-visible hands. The sparkles pattered down, stinging, and her gutted face flushed red for a long awful second before collapsing, the lance’s keening choked off as it fled back into the marks with a jolt.

  Jeremiah, blinking, staggered backward. A horrid draining sensation filled his arms, and the new arrival grabbed his arms with strong, familiar fingers. His rescuer had flung a handful of salt through the dead woman, disrupting her hold for a few critical moments.

  A glitter of furious dark eyes, a shock of dark hair with moss dried and flaking away, and the ever-present pair of hilts rising over his broad shoulders. What the fuck?

  “Idiot,” Alastair Crenn greeted him, with a not-quite-unfriendly shove. “Don’t you know better than to touch, if you’re stupid enough to call for them? Come, Glass-gallow, let’s away before it screams.”
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  LOVE-TOKENS

  19

  Crenn had time to be thankful that he’d found a grocer’s and navigated its confusing fluorescent-lit aisles for a carton of salt; the blue paper canister was oddly familiar despite all the intervening mortal years. It wouldn’t hold a flood of them at bay, but a lone sluagh could be mazed for a short while. Gallow had almost been sucked into the steam-scarf embrace, stabbing at the thing with that pigsticker of his as if he expected it to do any good.

  They ran side by side, Gallow in red armor sidhe-light and silent, and Crenn himself glancing over his shoulder frequently to check their trail. If not for the armor, if not for the old, threadbare anger smoldering in Crenn’s chest, it could have been the long long ago, both of them in the flush of youth and invulnerable, running for the joy of it because they’d figured out how to work a few poor chantments, the best Half children could do before they were brought into the sideways realms and their sidhe blood kindled.

  The interesting thought that maybe they might have both been happier if they’d stayed in the goddamn orphanage, with its brutality and purely mortal cold, occurred to him, as it sometimes did, and was discarded just as quickly. Normally it made his scars ache…

  But Alastair Crenn was no longer scarred.

  He slowed Gallow’s headlong speed by the simple expedient of yanking on his arm, breath coming high and fast. “Easy, there. Don’t exhaust yourself yet.” It’s a long way until dawn.

  Gallow slowed, their footsteps brushing pavement in eerie unison. “Robin,” he said, hoarsely. “Have you—”

  Crenn swallowed, harshly. “She was alive, last I saw.” Go on. Tell him the rest.

  “Is she well?”

  Her gaunt wan face, her chopped-short hair, and her hoarse husky broken voice… Crenn struggled with a lie, opened his mouth to give it voice. What came out instead was closer to the truth than he liked. “I don’t know.”

 
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