Authors: Lilith Saintcrow
Tags: #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #General, #Paranormal, #Fiction
To all the survivors.
Thanks are due first of all to Maddy and Nicky, my twin reasons for enduring. After that, my endless gratitude goes to Miriam Kriss and Devi Pillai, for believing in Jill—and in me—even when I did neither. Thanks are also due to the long-suffering Jennifer Flax, and to the usual suspects: Mel Sanders, my bestie; Christa Hickey, who teaches me how to be brave; and Sixten Zeiss, for love and coffee.
Last but not least, dear Reader, I shall continue to thank you in the way we both like best: by telling more stories. Come in, sit down. I hope you like this one…
An army that continues to fight on regardless of the outcome must be considered a well-trained army, whether it is well led or not.
The Blitzkrieg Myth
n the shifting wood of suicides that borders the cold rivers of Hell, what is one tree more or less?
They are a mosaic, those trees. Every shade of the rainbow, and hues humans cannot see. Every color except one, but that has changed.
There is one white tree, a slender birchlike shape. Instead of a screaming face hidden in the bark, there is a sleeping woman carved with swift strokes. Eyes closed, mouth relaxed, she is a peaceful pale pillar amid the cold shifting.
For Hell is frozen, a chill that burns. The trees shake their leaves, roaring filling their branches.
Under the spinning-nausea sky holding dry stars of alien geometry, something new may happen, might happen, will happen…
Pinpricks of light settle into the white tree’s naked branches. She has not been here long enough to grow the dark tumescent leaves every other tree shakes now. The screaming of their distress mounts, for these trees are conscious. Their bloodshot eyes are always open, their distended mouths always moving.
The pinpricks move like fireflies on a summer evening, each one a semaphore gracefully unconnected to the whole. They crown the tree with light, weaving tiny trails of phosphorescence in the gasping-cold fluid that passes for air. They tangle the streamers, and the storm is very close.
Hell has noticed this intrusion. And Hell is not pleased.
The trails of light form a complex net. The other trees thrash.
they scream, a rising chorus of the damned. Their roots hold fast, sunk deep in metallic ash. The river rises, white streaks of foam clutching its oilsheen surface. Leaves splatter, torn free, and their stinking blood makes great splotches on the dry ground. A cloud of buzzing black rises from each splotch, feeding greedily on the glistening fluid.
The net is almost complete. Almost. Hell’s skies are whipped with fury, the storm breaking over the first edge of the wood as screaming thunder. Maggot-white lightning scorches. The pale net over the white tree draws close, like a woman pulling her hair back.
Long dark curling hair, spangled with silver.
The storm descends, ripping trees apart. The souls of the damned explode with screams that would turn the world to bleeding ice, if the world heard. The ashes of their destruction will sink into the carpet of the woods, each separate particle growing another tree.
For there is always more agony in Hell.
The net collapses, silvery filaments winding themselves in. It shrinks to a point of brilliance, and the shadows this light casts are cleansed. They etch themselves on the ash, and under the wrack of the storm is a sound like a soft sigh.
The light winks out.
A few tiny, crystalline-white feathers fall, but they snuff themselves out before they reach the heaving ground.
The white tree no longer stands. It is gone.
And Hell itself shakes.
uzzing. In my head. All around me. Creeping in. A rattling roar, filling my skull. Crawling into my teeth, sticky little insect feet all over my face, feelers probing at my lips. They move, hot and pinprick-tiny, and that sound is enough to drag me screaming out of…
Dark. It was dark, and there was no air. Sand filled my mouth, but the little things crawling on me weren’t sand. They were
, and they were droning loud enough to drown out everything but the sounds I was making. Terrifying sounds. Suffocating, it was in my mouth and my nose too, lungs starved, heart a suddenly pounding drum.
Scrabbling through sand, dirt everywhere, the buzzing turning into a roar as they lifted off me. The insects didn’t sting, just made that horrible sound and flew in disturbed little circles.
I exploded out of the shallow grave, my screams barely piercing the rumbling roar. Little bits of flying things buzzed angrily, flashing lights struck me like hammers and I fell, scrabbling, the wasps still crawling and buzzing and trying to probe through my mouth and nose and ears and eyes and hands and feet and belly.
They were still eating, because flesh had rotted.
I scrubbed at myself as the train lumbered past. That was the light and the roaring. My back hit something solid and I jolted to a stop. The wasps crawled over me, and when I forced air out through my nose it blew slimy chunks of snot-laced sand away.
I collapsed against the low retaining wall, breath sobbing in and out. My head rang like a gong, I bent over and vomited up a mass of dark, writhing liquid.
The stench was awesome, titanic, a living thing. It crawled on the breeze, pressed against me, and I vomited again. This time it was long strands of gooey white, splatting. Coming from nowhere and passing through me, landing in twisting runnels.
Just like cotton candy!
a gleeful, hateful voice crowed inside my head. The eggwhite was all over me, loathsome slime turning the sand into rasping dampness.
I squeezed my knees together, bent over, and whooped in a deep breath. The wasps crawled, and other bits of insect life clung to me. Maggots. Other things. Of course—out in the desert, the bugs get to you. Especially in a shallow grave, when there’s been trauma to the tissues.
I grabbed my head. The sound was immense, filling me to the brim, the roaring swallowing my scream. Gobbets of rotting flesh fell away, the wasps angrily swarming, and the train rumbled away into the distance.
Leaving me alone. In the night.
I tore at the rotting flesh cloaking me. It peeled away in noisome strips, and under it I was whole, slick with slime. I retched again, a huge tearing coming all the way up from my toes, and produced an amazing gout of that slippery eggwhite stuff again.
The thought floated away as the pain came down on me, laid me open. Skull cracked wide, bones twisting, everything in me creaking and re-forming. My knees refused to give, my short-bitten nails dug through the cloak of rotting and found my own skin underneath.
I scrambled along the retaining wall. The grave yawned, leering, crawling with disturbed insect life. I fell on sand, grubbed up handfuls of it, and scrubbed at myself. I didn’t care if it stripped skin off and left me bleeding, didn’t care if it went down to bone, I just wanted the rot
Under the mess of decaying flesh was a torn T-shirt, rags of what had been leather pants. At least I had some clothes. I was barefoot.
I collapsed to my knees on the sand, looked up.
A full moon hung grinning in the sky, bloated cheese-yellow. The hard, clear points of stars glittered, and steam slid free of my skin.
Whole skin. Clear, unblemished, scraped in places. But not rotting.
The pain retreated abruptly. My questing fingers found filthy hair, stiff with sand and God knew what else. The wasps were sluggish—it gets cold out here at night. Everything else was burrowing to escape the chill.
It’s cold in Hell, too. So cold.
That thought threatened to tip me over into howling madness, so it vanished. Swept under the rug. Hey presto.
My skull was still there. Hard curves of bone, tender at the back. I let out a sob. Held my hands out, flipped them palm-up. They shook like palsied things.
Branches. Like branches.
But the image fled as soon as it arrived, mercifully. My forearms were pale under the screen of filth. On my right wrist, just above the softest part, something glittered. Hard, like a diamond. It caught the moonlight and sent back a dart of brilliance, straight through my aching skull. The sight filled me with unsteady loathing, and I shut my eyes.
Start with the obvious first. Who am I?
The train’s rumble receded.
Who am I?
I tilted my head back and screamed, a lonely curlew cry.
Because I didn’t know.
shivered, pushed the door open. My feet left bloody prints on faded blue-speckled linoleum.
The diner was deserted. Long white lunch counter with chrome napkin holders, pies under glass domes, and the smell of industrial coffee fought with the reek around me. The night wind had scrubbed the worst of the stink away, but I still felt it like a cloud breathing from my skin.
Why I was worried about that when I was dripping with sandy, crusted filth, bare- and bloody-footed, and wild-haired in the rags of leather pants and a T-shirt was beyond me. Still…it bothered me. Something about my hair bothered me, too. I felt completely naked, even though all my bits were mostly covered. I was too scrawny for there to be much to look at anyway. Pared down to scarecrow bone, muscle wasted away, my elbows bigger than my biceps, my knees knobs.
The diner sat alone off the highway, its windows glowing gold with warm electric light. Two ancient, spaceship-shaped gas pumps stood outside in a glare of buzzing fluorescents. No car was visible for miles in any direction. In the distance, the glow of a city rose, staining the night. I’d been heading for that glow for a slow, stumbling eternity, reeling drunkenly on the blacktop because the shoulder was full of pebbles and other things. Broken glass. Cigarette butts. Nameless, random trash.
I was just another piece of refuse, blowing along.
The booths marched away, all covered in blue vinyl. The tables were spotless, their chrome edges sharp-bright. The window booths even had sprays of artificial violets in tiny mass-produced white ceramic vases, the kinds with pebbled sides and wide mouths.
For a moment I had a memory, but it slipped away like a catfish in muddy water. I stood there on an industrial-grade rubber mat that used to say
in bright white paint. The
were scuffed into invisibility by God alone knew how many feet.
The place probably did a land-office business during the day. Maybe.
“Justaminnit!” someone yelled from the kitchen. There was a sizzle, and the heavy sound of a commercial freezer slamming shut. “Be right with ya!”
Yeah, great. I don’t even have any money.
There was a phone in a booth outside the front door, but who the hell would I call?
I didn’t even know my own name.
“Well, good eveni—gooood gravy
!” The man hove into sight, two hundred fifty pounds if he was an ounce, most of it straining to escape his white T-shirt and the stained apron slung loincloth-style below his considerable belly. Despite that, he looked hard, and the lightness of his step told me he could do some damage if he wanted to.
If he had to.
But he simply stopped and stared at me. “God
, girl, what happened to you?”
How the hell did I know? I’d just clawed my way out of a goddamn grave. I opened my mouth, shut it.
The door opened behind me. Instinct spiked under my skin; I jerked to the side. My bare, bleeding feet slapped down, braced for action. I ducked, my hand blurring up in a fist.
But broad, warm fingers closed around my filthy, naked upper arm.
He set me on my feet. Taller than me, stoop-shouldered and wiry, his dishwater hair laying close to the skull, and a shadow of acid-melt scarring over the lower half of his face. I stared, a sound like rushing water filling my head, and his ruined lips twitched. You could see where the scars had been really bad, but they were…were they?
Yes, they were retreating. I knew it because I’d seen him before. The black curtain over whatever had happened to me didn’t part, but I
“You,” I whispered.
“I’m about to call the Authority.” Apron Man crossed his beefy forearms. “What the
The scarred man looked up. His eyes were bright blue, and that was wrong, too. Something shifted under the skin of his face, and his mouth opened slightly. No sound came out on the slight, soft exhale, but the fat man shut up.
so?” he mumbled. “Nobody ever
me nothin’. Coffee, comin’ up.”
Blue Eyes looked down at me. Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, he raised his other hand, indicating the booths. Like he was asking me where I wanted to sit.
Those eyes. They’d been filmed before, gray cataracts hooding them. And the scarring had been much, much worse, in runnels and pleats like the flesh had been reshaped with acid. He’d worn gray coveralls, and the name tag had been a snarl of faded thread.
“I know you.” My voice cracked halfway through. “How do I know you?”
He shrugged a little, and indicated the booths again.
Well, there wasn’t anything else I was doing. I picked a booth along the wall, since the windows made my nape prickle and I needed to see the front door.
Why? Why do I need to see it?
I just did, that was all.
He let me choose my side, slid in across from me. Fine threads of gold glittered in his hair under the lights. There were fluorescents in here, too, but over the door and the window booths were incandescent bulbs. It made the light softer, actually—fluorescents are hell on everyone.
Sand fell off me. The scrim of eggwhite goop in my mouth tasted of ashes. My skin prickled with insect grime. Bloody footprints tracked in from the front door, and now that I was sitting I felt just how filthy and exhausted I was. Every part of me had been pulled apart and put back together by someone who had no fucking idea what they were doing.
I stared at Blue Eyes. He regarded me mildly, his ruined mouth curving up in what could have been a small smile. Strings of dirty hair fell in my face, and it seemed wrong. I tried again to think of what my hair
look like. Got exactly nowhere.
We sat like that for a while, until Apron Man brought two heavy, steaming china cups and plunked them down. He gave me an incurious glance and walked away, his heavy shoes blurring two of my footprints.
What the hell?
Blue Eyes cupped his hands around his mug. Looked at me.
I figured I could ask, at least. “Who am I?”
Blue Eyes shrugged. It was a very expressive shrug. Now that I was sitting down, the shaking started. It began in my feet and worked its way through my bones one at a time, until I was shivering like a junkie. The neon
sign in the window buzzed, and Apron Man began to sing as something sizzled on the grill. An old Johnny Cash tune, “Long Black Veil.”
How could I know that, and not know my own name?
My stomach cramped. “You know me,” I hazarded. “But you can’t talk?”
Another small shrug, this one different than the last.
This earned me a nod.
Well, great. “How am I…Jesus. You…I…” I looked down at myself. The trembling threatened to rob me of words. “I know you somehow.”
Another nod. Then he made a slow, deliberate movement, reaching under the table like he was digging in a pocket. Faint alarm ran through me, tasting like copper through the ashy sludge in my mouth.
He laid the gun on the tabletop, its barrel carefully pointed away from either of us. I stared, my mouth hanging open as he picked up his coffee mug, deliberately, and drank.
It was a .45, custom-built. A nice piece of hardware, dull black, a real cannon. I knew what it would feel like if I picked it up. I knew the heft and the pull, knew exactly how much pressure to apply on the trigger. I could
that the butt was reinforced as well for pistol-whipping.
“My gun.” I sounded like all the air had been punched out of me. “That’s mine. I have a gun.”
Or I had one. And you’re returning it.
Blue Eyes nodded. He set down his mug with a decisive little click, then edged the butt a little closer to me with one fingertip. A faint breeze touched my face. His mouth opened as if he would say something profound, but then he shut it tightly and shook his head.
Sorry, Charlie. No can speak.
“You’re going to have to help me here. Give me a verb, or something.” The shaking started tapering off. Sand slid off my clothes, pattered on the bench and the floor. The thought of a shower filled me with sudden longing. Maybe some food, too. A bed to sleep in, because I was so, so tired.
Nausea cramped under my breastbone again. Blue Eyes was fiddling around under the table once more. This time he came up with something very small. A tiny metallic sound as he laid it on the table, his palm covering it.
A gun, and something else. I looked up.
His face changed. With the cataracts over his eyes peeled away, those eyes spoke for him. Right now, they burned with pure agonizing sadness. The expression drew his mouth down, and I found out the scarring
retreating. It shrank on his face a little, the skin smoothing out. I blinked.
His hand lifted.
It was a ring. A simple circle of silver, and my heart leapt like a landed fish inside my chest. Scruffed up and obviously worn, I knew that if I picked it up I would see the etching on the inside. Tiny scratches of Cyrillic, the only thing I would ever know how to read in that alphabet, because someone had shown me a long time ago.
it said. “Go with God.”
The other meaning: “goodbye.”
Bile whipped the back of my throat. I picked up my mug with dream-slow fingers. It was too hot, but I took a searing gulp of the acrid coffee anyway. It tasted like it had been on a burner for a while, but it was better than the eggwhite crap.
Ectoplasm. It was ectoplasm. Something’s happened.
Hot water filled my eyes. A tear rolled down my cheek, and Blue Eyes nodded. He pointed at my right hand, and I knew without asking what he meant. I set my mug down and turned my hand over, looking at the thing embedded in my right wrist. Just in the softest part, above the pulse’s frantic tattoo.
It was fever-hot, a glittering, colorless, diamond-shaped gem set in my skin. Its edges frayed, like it had been surgically implanted and then pulled around a bit. It spasmed and settled like a shivering little animal. That tiny twitching tremble communicated itself up the bones of my arm, settling in my shoulder with a high hard hum.
Fear whipped through me, and a bald edge of anger like smoking insulation.
“What the fuck is
?” I whispered.
His lips moved slightly, and the flesh on his face crawled. Like there were bugs underneath. I pressed back into the booth, my torn heels sending up a shriek as I shoved them into the floor, my right hand darting for the gun with scary, instinctive speed. Fingers curling, my arm tensing, the barrel trained unerringly at his head.
Familiar. Done this before, too.
He pointed again at my right wrist. His lips moved slightly. The words slid into my head, interlocking puzzle pieces of meaning.
When you’re ready.
One moment he was there, solid and real. The next, there was a
of collapsing air, and the booth was empty. Another breeze feathered against my face, touching the crusted strings of my hair. I flinched, the gun lowering as I scanned the entire place.
Empty. Except for Apron Boy, who came shuffling out from the kitchen. Quick as a wink, I had the gun under the table. My left hand scooped up the ring, and the feel of cool metal sent a zing through me, like tinfoil against metal fillings.
Apron Boy held a steaming plate, which he plopped down in front of me along with silverware wrapped in a paper napkin. “Nice guy,” he said. “Paid for your breakfast, at least. You eat right on up, honey.” He looked expectantly at me, expecting some kind of conversational volley back.
I cleared my throat. “Yeah. Thanks.”
That seemed to satisfy him. He hove away, moving side to side like a walrus shouldering up onto a rocky beach, but lightly, his feet planted with care. The plate held ham, scrambled eggs, hash browns.
It looked good.
Eat while you can, Jill.
A klieg light went on inside my head. “Jill,” I whispered. “I’m Jill.”
I tucked the gun safely away. The ring fitted securely on my third left finger. Was I married?
A pair of dark eyes, silver-scarred hair, and fluid grace. He half-turned, reaching for something beside the stove, and the clean economy of motion made my heart skip a beat.
As soon as the image came, it vanished. I shook my head. More sand slipped free in a hissing rush, but none of it fell into the food. I was suddenly hungry. Not just hungry.
A gun. A ring. And whatever that thing was on my wrist. And vanishing blue-eyed mutes. Whoever I was, I was certainly
Well, as long as the food was here, I’d take it. I’d worry about what to do afterward.
I hunkered down, stripped the napkin off the stamped-metal knife and fork and spoon, and started shoveling it in.