Wasteland King – Lilith Saintcrow

Gray highway ribboned over tawny hills touched with dusty green smears of sagebrush clinging to any scrap of moisture it could find, heat-haze shimmering above sandy slope and concrete alike. The morning sun was a brazen coin, hanging above a bleached horizon as if it intended to stay in that spot forever, a bright nail to hang an endless weary day upon. The chill of a desert night whisked itself away, an escaping guest. Cars shimmered in the middle distance, announced their presence with a faint drone, and passed with a glare and blare of engine and tire-friction. Most didn’t stop, even though two signs, each leaning somewhere between ten and twenty-three degrees away from true, proclaimed LAST GAS FOR 80 MI. An ancient pair of gas pumps squatted under a rusting roof; they and the convenience store keeping watch over them had last been refurbished around twenty years ago. Tinny country music blatted from old loudspeakers on listing poles, the tired breeze dragged shackles made of paper cups, glittering dust, and a dry skunky whiff of weedsmoke through umber shade and gold-treacle sunshine. A burst of static cut through the music just as the thin slice of shade on the north side of the building rippled. A single point of brilliance, lost in the glare of day, dilated, and there was a flutter of russet, of indigo, of cream and black velvet. One moment empty, the next, full; a large dog winked into being a split second before a slim female shape appeared, clinging to the canine’s back as the Veil between real and more-than-real flexed. The dog staggered, its proud head hanging low, and slumped against the building. The girl slid from its broad back—the thing was huge—and her hair was a coppergold gleam, firing even in the shade. Tattered black velvet clung to her, swirling as it struggled to keep up with the transition, the hood not quite covering her bright, chopped-close curls. She heaved, dryly, a cricketwhisper cough under the tinpan cowboy beat. Robin Ragged’s stomach cramped, unhappy with the seawater she’d swallowed and the butter she’d filched.

The fuel from milkfat had already worn off, and her throat was on fire again. Her hands spread against dusty grit, there was a simmering reek from around the corner of the building that shouted Dumpster, and the music was a tinkling ballad about mothers not letting their children grow up to be cowboys. Good advice, maybe. But you had to grow up to be something, even if you were a Half, mortal and sidhe in equal measure. It was her mortal part that had trouble blinking through the Veil like this. It was much better to use a proper entrance, or some place where the lands of the free sidhe overlapped, rubbing through what mortals called “real” like a needle dragged along paper. Creasing, not quite breaking, almost-visible. Pepperbuckle made a low, unhappy noise. The dog had carried her away from the nighttime carnival, hauling her through folds and pockets, light and shade pressing against Robin’s closed eyes in strobe flashes. He’d be weary.

They’d run past dawn, the silver huntwhistles further and further behind them. Like any close escape, it made for nausea. Concentrate. Four in, four out. The discipline of breath returned. A lifetime’s worth of habit helped—if you couldn’t breathe, you couldn’t sing, and the song was her only defense. She might have broken her voice, though, by screaming with shusweed juice still coating her throat. The prospect was enough to bring a cold sweat out all over her, even though it was a scorching midmorning outside the small shade where she and Pepperbuckle cowered. Where are we? She sniffed, gulping down mortal air full of exhaust and the dry nasal rasp of baking metal and sand. A whiff of something green and leather-tough—sagebrush? No hint of anything sidhe except her and the dog, his sides heaving under glossy, red-tipped golden fur.

His fine tail drooped a bit, and he eyed her sidelong, his irises now a brighter blue and the pupils uneven ovoids. It gave his gaze an uncanny quality. He hadn’t left her behind. In for a penny, in for a pound, and all the old clichés. There was the large unsound of wind, and a drone that could have been traffic in the very far distance. The cowboy ballad wound down, and another song started. Someone was standing by her man. A wheezing noise was an ancient air-conditioning unit on the roof. Robin shuddered. She pushed herself upright, making her knees unbend because there was no other choice.

Pepperbuckle was depending on her, and while the mortal sun was up, they were safe enough from Unwinter’s hunt. It was some faint comfort that Summer would think Robin still trapped or dead, and wouldn’t be looking for her. Don’t think about that. Her lips cracked as she parted them. She wanted to say Pepperbuckle’s name, stopped herself. She had to shepherd her voice carefully. No more raving at that treacherous bastard Crenn when she had the breath to permit it, while the wind and the Veil snatched the curses from her lips as soon as she uttered them. You can’t hate me any more than I hate myself, he’d informed her, calmly enough, before stepping back so Pepperbuckle could bear her away. Why had he bothered to save her, after he’d delivered her to Summer’s not-so-tender mercies? Had he also betrayed Gallow? It was entirely likely. Not that it mattered, Unwinter’s poison had most likely finished off her dead sister’s husband.

Daisy. Shining surfaces holding broken reflections danced inside her head. Her sister’s teeth broken stumps, safety glass caught in corpsetangled hair… Don’t think about that either. Her head throbbed. She uncurled, one arm a bar across her midriff to hold her aching belly in. The night was a whirl of impressions, everything inside her skull fracturing like broken— Mirrors? She shook her head, violently. Glass, like broken glass. That word wasn’t as troubling as the other, the m-word, the terrifying idea of a reflection lurching for her while it wheezed, and choked, and cracked a leather belt in its bloody, too-big hands. Robin’s shoulder struck something solid, jolting her back into herself. She glanced around wildly, her shorn hair whipping—it stood out around her head now, a halo of coppery cowlicks.

The gold hoops in her ears swung, tapping her cheeks, and she forced herself to straighten again. She’d fetch up against the prefabricated concrete wall, either painted a dingy yellow or simply sandblasted to that color. The angle of the shade and the taste of the air said morning, and it was going to be a hot day. Pepperbuckle sat down, his sides heaving as he panted and his teeth gleamed bright-white. The scrubland here was full of small, empty hills, and if she peered around the corner she could see ancient cracked pavement and the two gas pumps. A little ding sounded, and her breath stopped as a lean dark-haired mortal boy with a certain sullen handsomeness to his sharp face stepped out into the sun. He hunched his shoulders, lit a cigarette, and ambled for the pumps. A red polyester vest proclaimed him as an employee of HAPPY HARRY’S STOP ’N’ SIP. Harry was apparently a cartoon beaver, even though such an animal had very likely never been sighted in this part of the country, let alone one wearing a yellow hat and a wide, unsettling bucktooth grin. Robin exhaled softly.

Pumps meant a convenience store. They would have a refrigerator. Very likely, there was milk. The burning in her throat increased a notch as she contemplated this. She glanced at Pepperbuckle, who hauled himself up wearily and followed as she edged for the back of the building. She didn’t think using the front door would be wise. PIXIES 2 Matt Grogan liked leaning against the gas pumps and having a smoke, even if the bossman would give him hell about safety. It wasn’t like anyone ever used the damn things, despite the fact that they were live. You had to walk inside to pay for your go-juice, and nobody wanted to do that. They wanted the pumps with the credit card readers, not ancient ones probably full of water and air bubbles, so they drove straight on to Barton to the shiny stop-and-robs there.

When he came back in, he thought he was dreaming. Nobody had driven up, but there was a redheaded punk girl in a long black velvet coat in front of the ancient cooler-case, the glass door open and letting out a sourish frigid breeze as she drank from a quart of milk, probably right at its sell-by date. Christ knew the tourists never bought anything here but cigarettes and Doritos, pity-buys really so they could use the small, filthy CUSTOMERS ONLY bathroom around the side. Her throat worked in long swallows, her weed-whacker-cut coppergold hair glowing under the fluorescents, and she was a stone fox even if she was drinking straight out of the carton. Skinny in all the right ways, but with nice tatas, and wearing a pair of black heels, too. The only problem was, she was drinking without paying, and right next to her was a huge reddish hound who stared at Matt with the sky-blue, intelligent eyes of a husky. A dog shouldn’t look that damn thoughtful, as if it was weighing you up. “Hey!” Matt’s voice broke, too. Cracked right in the middle. Bobby Grogan, the football savior of Barton High and Matt’s older brother, had a nice low baritone, but Matt’s had just fractured its way all through school, even though he would have given anything to sound tough just once.

Just that once, when it counted. Instead it was crybaby Matt, and the only thing worse was the pity on Bobby’s face in the parking lot. Lay of him, he’s my brother. She didn’t stop drinking, her eyes closed and her slim throat moving just like an actress’s. She finished off the whole damn quart, dropped it and gasped, then reached for another. “Hey!” Matt repeated. “You gonna pay for that?” Her eyes opened just a little. They were dark blue, and she gave him a single dismissive glance, tearing the top off the fresh carton in one movement. Milk splashed, and she bent like a ballerina to put the milk on the piss-yellow linoleum with little orange sparkles. The dog dipped his long snout in and began to drink as well.

Oh, man. “You can’t just do that, man! You gotta pay for it!” She reached into the case again, little curls of steam rising off her bare wrist as the cooler wheezed. Those two quarts were all the whole milk they had, so she grabbed the lone container of half-and-half—ordered weekly because the bossman said offering free coffee would make someone buy it—and bent back the cardboard wings to open it. The spout was formed with a neat little twist of her wrist, and she lifted it to her lips, all while the dog made a wet bubbling noise that was probably enjoyment. Oh, hell no. “You can’t do that!” He outright yelled. “Imma call the cops, lady! You’re gonna get arrested!” The instant he said it, he felt ridiculous. She drank all the half-and-half and dropped that carton too, wiping at her mouth with the back of her left hand. Then she stared at Matt, like he was some sort of bug crawling around in her Cheerios. Just like Cindy Parmentier, as a matter of fact, who let Matt feel her up behind the bleachers once but kept asking him to introduce her to Bobby.

Then she spread that goddamn rumor about him being a fag, and even Bobby looked at him like he thought it might be true. The woman’s mouth opened slightly. She still said nothing. The dog kept sucking at the opened quart on the floor, but one wary eye was half open now. “And you can’t have dogs in here! Service animals only!” He sounded ridiculous even to himself. She tipped her head back, and for a moment Matt thought she was going to scream. Instead, she laughed, deep rich chuckles spilling out and away, bright as the gold hoops in her ears. Matt flat-out stared, spellbound. When she finished laughing, the dog was licking the floor clean, its nose bumping the empty cartons with snorfling sounds. She wiped away crystal teardrops on her beautiful cheeks, and walked right past Matt.

She smelled like spice and fruit, something exotic, a warm draft that made him think of that day behind the bleachers, soft sloping breasts under his fumbling fingers and Cindy Parmentier’s quick, light breathing scented with Juicy Fruit gum. The dog passed, its tail whacking him a good one across the shins, way harder and bonier than a dog’s tail had any right to be. Matt staggered. The door opened, early-summer heat breathing into the store’s cave, and Matt ran after her. “You didn’t pay! ” he yelled, but he slipped on something a little weird underfoot, like the floor itself was moving to throw him off. He went down hard, almost cracking his skull on the racks of nudie mags they couldn’t sell inside the Barton city limits. That was the real reason this place held on, and once he started working here the kids at school started laughing even more. “Ow!” Matt rolled, thrashing to get back up. Something jabbed at his cheek, and something else poked his finger. Tiny, vicious little stings all over him.

The bell over the door tinkled again. “Stop that,” the voice said, low and sweet as warm caramel, with a hidden fierceness. Just those two words made the sweat spring out all over him. It was a good thing his eyes were closed, or he would have seen the tiny flying things, their faces set in scowling mutiny, their wings fluttering and a deep throbbing blue spreading through the glow surrounding each one of them, spheres of brilliance bleached by both day and fluorescent light but still bolder, richer than the colors of the tired mortal world. Some had gleaming, tiny sewing-needle blades, and their mouths opened to show sharp pearly teeth. A low, thunderous growl. It was the dog, and Matt rolled around some more, suddenly terrified of opening his eyes. His bladder let go in a warm gush, and the stinging continued. “I said, Stop it.” Everything inside the store rattled.

The floor heaved a little again, and that was when he opened his eyes and saw… them. The little people, some naked and others in tiny rags of fluttering clothing, their delicate insect-veined wings, their sharp noses and the wicked merriment of their sweet, chiming pinprick voices as they chorused. They darted at him, but the woman said, “No,” again, firmly, even as they piped indignantly at her. “Leave him alone. He’s just a kid.” They winked out. The door closed with a whoosh, and he lay there in his own urine, quivering. Her footsteps were light tiptaps on the tarmac outside before they were swallowed up by the hum of air-conditioning. And a faint, low, deadly chiming. Little pinpricks of light bloomed around him again, and he began to scream.

Not long afterward Matt Grogan got up, tiny teethmarks pressed into his flesh on his face and hands, bloody pinpricks decking every inch of exposed skin. He bolted through the door without waiting for it to open, shattering glass into the parking lot. He ran into the sagebrush wilderness, and nobody in Barton ever saw him again.


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