Authors: Jeff Somers
I recited the spell. Nothing happened.
I’d been almost dead, but I’d still been alive—
it must matter
. I kept hold of the greasy flow of blood flowing from the kid and ran through everything again, every scrap of code I knew. It was all tricks. Tricks and death. Nothing
I sagged against the bars of his cage and shut my eyes. My heart thudded in my chest, pushing my eyes against their lids in rhythm. I would bleed for Mags. I’d open an artery and bleed out in a minute and a half if I could think of any fucking Words that would bring him back.
I didn’t know any. All I had was the useless Revival spell. Everything else in my head was designed to cheat at cards or make someone like me, or other short cons. A few decent war Cantrips. Nothing
. I was the Asshole General of the Asshole Army, but I was still just a Trickster.
I stared at Mags’s limp form. The way his hair was matted against his forehead. His comically big hands, slack and hanging. Tears dripped from my eyes. He hadn’t deserved this.
In a fucking
cage. I’d had one job: Keep Mags calm, make him happier. One fucking job.
With a grunt, I seized the gas and turned, shouting my Word and smacking it into the kid again. Billington screamed. I tore at my jacket, fumbling out my blade. I needed more, every drop of it. Every drop in the kid, every drop in Mel Billington, every drop in me, every drop in every whore and customer in the whole fucking place. I’d drag people in from the streets.
I slashed at my arm with the blade. Deep. Mortal, my old Trickster sense told me, if I didn’t do something about it. The old familiar burning felt good as the blood flowed, dark and rich, healthy after all this time of calm living.
Not enough. Not fast enough. I took the slick blade in my other hand, dragged it along the skin of my forearm, the pain icy cold.
I pushed my gushing arms through the bars and grabbed on to Mags. Closed my eyes. Started speaking the Words. The only spell I knew that had any chance. Because I was just a Trickster. I had nothing, no
no Bleeders, no—
I spoke the spell again. Felt the old familiar yellow weariness sweep through me as the universe absorbed my energy and came back for more.
I spoke the spell again. Anger welled up in me, balancing out the nauseating wave of power being sucked out of me. The Thin Fuck in the nice white suit. The Negotiator.
Mika Renar did not contract for you.
I spoke the spell again.
Someone was screaming behind me. More gas—Billington, I thought dimly, helping out. I was pulling from all three lines of gas, and pulling hard. I felt the energy drain from me, stared down at Mags through heavy, sweat-filled eyelids. Could feel the ground vibrating under me like a tiny, distant earthquake that was consuming cities miles away.
Everything was fading and shaky. Coming to me in bursts of data.
It had only been a minute. Just a minute. There was nothing, I told myself, nothing that couldn’t be undone in one fucking
I spoke the spell again. Felt Mags’s body under my bloody hands get warmer. My vision swam, my head pounded. The universe sucking me dry. Bleeding me white. The cage trapping Mags started to shake and rattle. It lifted slightly off the ground, and Billington stopped screaming. Everything images sounds and heartbeat beating beat beating—
The ground was shaking under me, the slightest shivery vibration worming up through my feet and knees. Like an earthquake, sailing in to mark Mag’s passing.
I spoke the spell again.
My vision swam, everything going wavy and indistinct.
Too soon to be bleeding out.
There was a roaring in my ears, like a train rushing towards me from somewhere in the next room. At
first I’d thought it was in my head, the rush of my own bleedout tricking my brain, but it wasn’t. It was external, and it was loud, and the whole room seemed to go blurry and indistinct as the noise rose in volume.
Pushing through mud in my throat, I spoke the spell again.
Everything snapped back into clarity, and it was just Billington’s scream in the air and I could feel
exhaustion coursed through me like a liquid
almost fell over and did, he was that Mags—I stared down at him blearily—had he, did he—a twitch—the stupid fuck, had he
I spoke the spell again.
IT WAS EASIER TO
a plane than it used to be. The world was broken. We had broken it.
We’d come loaded for bear. Six Bleeders and I’d been prepared to use them, but when we’d arrived at Teterboro there was no security to speak of. No one. The place abandoned, lit up and empty like a trap. Like someone had parked a couple of private jets and thousands of gallons of jet fuel and stepped back into the shadows to see what would happen, how many disasters could spring from this one epic moment of incompetence.
So we’d just walked up to the Grumman Albatross and climbed aboard. Neilsson, the drunk old bastard, had been a pilot lifetimes ago. At first he’d insisted on being sober for the flight, but seeing the old man trembling in the backseat of the limo gave me the shivers, so I’d gotten him a bottle of Mellow Corn and now he was his regular self, singing old Irish folk songs and telling me every five minutes that he’d been the one to tell me we needed to
back on Mad Day. Neilsson had decided it was his fiery speech to me that had caused the Army of Assholes to form in the first place. Since no one else wanted the honor, we let it be.
As we’d climbed aboard, I’d asked myself whether Neilsson looked like a man trained on modern equipment, if I cared much about possibly dying over the ocean in a few hours.
The seats were the sort of soft leather that molded itself to you but were the color of shit. The air smelled stale and processed, like it was artificial, made in a lab and pumped in for the rich folks.
My Bleeders sat down a few rows behind me, noisy and excited. Kids, all of them. Kids in nearly identical black suits. None of them had been on a plane before. I turned and leaned out into the aisle to glare back at them, and they shut up, elbowing each other and looking down at the carpet.
I settled in and took out the bottle of Ballantine’s I’d gotten. Two men in matching newsboy caps emerged from the cockpit, sweeping their heavy wool coats behind them as they straightened up and approached. One was young, maybe my age or a little younger. His partner was much older, stooped and white-haired, lined and wrinkled. They had the same face. Twins, save that one was forty years older. Two pairs of identical pale gray eyes scanned the cabin as they stopped next to me.
I waved and the younger one, Remy, nodded. Ducking into the galley, he emerged with a plastic cup. “The old man says buckle your seat belt, Mr. Vonnegan,” he said, dropping the cup onto my fold-down table. Remy’s black hair was shaggy, tufting out from under his ridiculous cap. I’d asked Mel where she’d found these two, and she’d just shrugged and told me not to worry, they were vetted. Mel was always fucking
“He says about six hours, Mr. Vonnegan,” Roman added. I’d asked the twins how they’d ended up this way. Remy had said they weren’t twins. Roman had said something about a Ritual that had gone wrong and
them. I’d asked him what that meant, and he’d shrugged and said he didn’t know. One minute he’d been home, the next he’d been
who’d fucked up had used that term and not bothered explaining.
The Twins creeped me out, but they were reliable.
I waved them off. Looking at those faces from opposite ends of time gave me a headache. And I was sick of being called
by everyone. Even the old-timers like Neilsson had started on that bullshit, and it was wearying. Roman and Remy were the first of the New Recruits. The first of the
who had started looking at me differently after we dragged our asses back from the debacle in Abdagnale’s church. Rumors had spread, fast—I was certain Melanie had started them all.
Recruitment had gone through the roof six months ago and continued to be strong. But I didn’t want to think about that.
I grabbed the cup Remy had left and set it right side up. Pouring a generous three fingers, I went to hand it over to the big dumb bear next to me.
White-knuckled in his seat, Mags started shaking his head.
“Don’t want it,” he said through clenched teeth.
I shrugged, holding the cup in front of him. “I could cast something on you, calm you down.”
He shook his head again.
I sighed. I could feel Mag’s heart beat. Literally. It pulsed distantly next to my own, somehow. His heartbeat was so slow, it always alarmed me. My own pounded all the time, thundering in my chest, but Mags’s just kept on, steady, deliberate. I stared at him. He had his miserable face on, reminding me of the time Hiram and I had tried to convince him to take cold medicine when he’d been sneezing huge green gobs of snot everywhere. It was the same face. It was Mags’s face. I sat and stared at that face for a few seconds, squinting. Trying to see . . . something. Anything I hadn’t noticed before. Anything that would prove he was really there.
Or that he wasn’t.
“Suit yourself,” I said, and placed the cup on my own table. I glanced out the window as we bit into the air and caught hold. Out in the distance, several huge fires were burning. I wondered if anyone was going to bother putting them out.
The world was broken.
had broken it.
IN THE DREAM, AS
always, Claire Mannice was in a cage, in a circus attraction, snarling and banging up against the bars.
I WOKE UP AND
looked out the window. I could feel us descending, the whiskey left in the bottle at a steep angle. I wondered, at that angle, whether it was insanely steep, if Neilsson knew what the fuck he was doing, or if I was going to end up in the drink. I imagined it: my last moment. A split second of alarm, maybe. Or silence. Would I feel the
impact before anything else? A tremor up through my legs and into my back, then blackness, then not even blackness.
I reminded myself that I would have to cast before we hit and the water cut off my voice.
I thought of Claire. I thought of Claire often. I pictured her, defiant and half crazy, the way all girls under the age of thirty ought to be. Skinny, tall, long legs, short hair. That way of looking at you that made you think she was memorizing you, really seeing every hair on your face and every scar on your arms. Like she would be able to describe you to the sketch artist later and get a perfect picture of you for her trouble.
I shut my eyes for a moment. I didn’t like thinking about Claire. It was actively dangerous to think about Claire. Claire, who was the key to the end of the world, or so I’d been told—and I had no reason not to believe it. I thought of a white apron on a pink skirt and the smell of bitter, overbrewed coffee. Then I shut it down, thinking about clouds, picturing them, white and fluffy and swirling, a time-lapse weather pattern.
The window was a square of total black, infinite, deep. I couldn’t see anything, which clarified for me that I’d let an old drunk pilot a small jet, and as a result we were about to crash in the middle of the fucking ocean. And so went Lem Vonnegan, General of the Assholes.
But then, in the distance, the faint blue-gray shine of a coastline.
I looked over at Mags to say something reassuring. He sat bolt upright in the seat, eyes clenched shut. He was whimpering. My gaze lingered again. When you stared at something long enough, it became unreal. But his every movement, every scowl, and every whimper was spot-on, exactly as I recalled.
The air was like a damp sock stuffed into your mouth. From the plane, we stepped onto a private airstrip, just a strip of blacktop and a small office that was dark and locked up tight. We crowded into a pair of gleaming, brand-new SUVs, black and shiny and smelling like the shipping containers they’d recently occupied. I didn’t know anything about the arrangements. Mel summoned us, and as I moved, things
just fell into place. All the assholes in the black suits knew where to take me, knew how to get there, knew better than to talk to me. Everyone around me knowing more than I did.
Me and Mags took the front car, the rest pushed their way into the second. I didn’t know any of their names. They’d come, months or weeks or days ago, and joined our little Army of Assholes, put on the uniform. Which was, apparently a cheap black suit. I didn’t want to learn their names.
I rolled down the window in the back, then immediately rolled it back up. At speed, the heavy, hot air became a fist punching into the car’s interior. Our destination had already been programmed in to the GPS by Melanie’s invisible fingers, and we headed into the fucking jungle. I lit a cigarette. The branches of huge, damp trees slapped at the SUV and we barreled onward, the car bouncing along on the best suspension money could buy. Or that
Eventually, a pool of white light welled up on the horizon and we aimed for it. Then there was a paved driveway, six other black SUVs parked haphazardly with their lights on, three with their engines humming.
The gas in the air was stale and dying off, the remnants of some serious shit. The heat and wet slapped down on me as I poured myself out of the car and had that sense of murmured conversations stopping. A group of kids hung around. Muscle. Assholes, mostly, the runts Mel had put on walking perimeters, guys and girls who could barely form a fucking sentence in a
language, much less the Words. They remained terrified of anyone with any actual ability. They’d heard stories about me—bullshit, mostly, but a grifter never pisses on a gift like that, so I let it ride. And they’d all heard
story about me. They all pissed their jammies and stared at their shoes as I walked towards the house, lighting a cigarette. Remy and Roman swaggering in front of me, my six personal Bleeders falling into line behind me. Strutting, I thought, because they were so fucking important that we’d chosen them to bleed out at the first sign of trouble.