Madhouse, page 28
Promise poured the acid in a steady stream over the remnants. They smoked and melted into the ground. It hadn’t taken an army after all.
He was gone.
The trip back through the bodies wasn’t any less terrible knowing the reason for all that death had been eliminated. The people were just as dead as they had been before. We killed the hooked revenants, but left them hanging. Cleanup on this scale wasn’t something we were set up to do even if we were inclined. Ken Nushi would have to deal with that or, with the way bodies were disappearing lately, he might not. Instead of cobbler elves, could be there were little mortuary elves that cleaned up the scene of the massacre with tiny mops. It made as much sense as anything else. Something had definitely been at work cleaning up Sawney’s first victims—the bodies in the park.
Right then I couldn’t have cared less. Good for whoever. Way to take initiative.
Niko had given and would continue to give me hell for breaking my word about the traveling. I had weeks of humiliating ass-kickings in our sparring future. I grinned to myself and spat a last mouthful of old blood. Nothing said family like having the Kung Fu King wipe the floor with your butt. It was better than a card any day.
“Zeus, kid, you look like a nonunion-sanctioned human sacrifice.” Once we made it through Sawney’s tunnel and up to the man-made one, Robin got a good look at the blood drying on my face and grimaced.
“Been to a lot of those?” The bleeding had stopped, and, although my head still hurt, the pain was bearable…more so than it had been in the museum. Much more so. That meant something. I thought I’d wait awhile to find out what.
“Human, no.” He still had his sword out to deal with stray revenants and used it to salute me with a happy leer. “But I had a virgin or two tossed my way.”
“That’s right, because you were a god,” I snorted, remembering his drunken rambling from the bar.
“Yes, because I was a god. Did you expect anything less?” The normally sly grin had abruptly turned into something tired and old.
I felt the same way. It had been one long night. My head ached, the multiple scythe slashes burned, and I wanted a shower. I wanted to sluice away the blood and the taint of the black water. I wanted to be clean again. Then I wanted to sleep, a nice utterly satisfied sleep.
But people in hell want a really good antiperspirant too, don’t they?
The stairs up to the basement rocked under my feet, from one side to the other. It took me a second to figure out it was exhaustion and not an earthquake. We didn’t get many of those in New York, but you never knew. I rested a hand against the wall and used it to brace myself every third step or so. Halfway up, I felt a small hand at the base of my back supporting me. I looked back to see Promise looking up at me with a finger held to her lips. As long as she had lived, she knew all about the male ego. I tried to pretend that I didn’t need the help, but I did get up the stairs quicker than I would have without it.
Ahead of us, Niko and Robin were already on the stairs to the first floor. Promise and I closed and padlocked the trapdoor. It would give Nushi the extra time he needed to get some sort of supernatural cleanup crew. It also gave me a chance to catch my second wind and make it up those stairs without Promise’s assistance. The lights were low in Buell Hall and it was silent, peaceful. I could’ve dozed as I walked, but I kept the lids up and tried to stay alert. There could still be revenants. There could be security doing a sweep. Nushi would speak up for us, but that would put him in a position he’d probably sooner avoid. So, as we hit the small lobby, a gloom-shrouded two-story affair, I was as sharp as I could manage under the circumstances.
It wasn’t enough.
I don’t know what it was. It could’ve been I couldn’t smell through the blood in my nose or that the smell was one that I expected here—just background. Cinnamon and spice and everything that was so nice about college girls. But it wasn’t only cinnamon. It was cinnamon and honey, a scent I’d caught several times before. When she walked out of the shadows I made the connection…way too goddamn late.
She wasn’t alone. She was flanked on one side by three men and on the other by two more men and a woman. They all had the same glossy black hair and dusky skin. They were of average size compared to her small stature, but other than that, they all had the same look to them. It was more than an ethnicity; they looked related. Family. They all had guns as well. Those weren’t matching, but what the hell?
“Seraglio.” It was Robin. He said her name with resignation, and as I looked over at him, I could see that he was expecting this. Not her, no, but this. Once a human had made one of the assassination attempts, he’d known who was behind it. All of our pressing hadn’t moved him to tell us, but he’d known. I didn’t think he’d known that it would come so soon, though, and with us in the crosshairs with him.
She inclined her head. “The Herdsman.” She bowed it again. “Tammuz.” Then again. “Pan.” Lifting her head, she smiled. “Our God. Our never forgotten, fleeing God. How we have missed you.”
The Georgia accent was long gone, as was the bold snap of her eyes. Now there was only cold. Cold voice, cold eyes, cold satisfaction.
“Tammuz? The Babylonian god?” Niko’s sword was up as was my gun, but we were thoroughly outnumbered in the weapons department.
Robin shrugged lightly. “Like you’ve never given anyone a fake name?” He settled back on his heels, dropping the point of his sword toward the floor. “What am I thinking? Of course you haven’t.” Cool and breezy. It was the Robin we’d first met, one who was so accustomed to hiding who he was and being exactly as his race was painted: shallow, thoughtless, full of uncaring conceit. It was easier to see your sins catch up to you if you didn’t care, right? But he did. If he hadn’t, he would’ve told us the truth. Whatever was going on…whatever this was, he felt guilty over it. He felt regret, and he cared a great deal.
“You really were a god?” I asked in disbelief. In the bar he’d told me so while drunk as a skunk, but who’d believe that he was telling the truth more or less?
“In vino veritas. If you drank more, you’d know that.” Then the facade fell and he rubbed his eyes wearily. “I’d ask what you want, Seraglio, but I think we already know that, don’t we?”
“The Banu Zadeh tribe does not forget slights, no matter how old. No matter how many thousands of years pass. And the slight of a god is a shame to a people that cannot be forgiven or forgotten.” Her finger tightened on the trigger until the knuckle paled to light gold against her darker skin. “Babylon is no more. Our tribe has dwindled to what you see before you, but we have you to thank for that. When you left us”—her voice became a hiss—“deserted us, the sickness came and the fury of the mightiest storm the desert had seen came. Within months, half the tribe was dead. You took your presence and you took your protection and now we are all but gone from the world. Because of you. All because of you. But”—her smile returned—“those ancestors that were spared have allowed their descendants to claim vengeance. We are all that is left of the Banu Zadeh, but we will be enough.”
Robin could have said it was coincidence, the disease and storm, that he’d never been a god, only an imposter, but I wondered if his “abandoning” them was all there was to it. Particularly when the remnants of the tribe had chased him for thousands of years bent on vengeance. I could see how easily whatever it was had happened. When we’d first met him, Goodfellow was the loneliest son of a bitch I’d seen. Pucks didn’t seem to stick around each other much. The ego seemed to be part of their genetic makeup from what I could tell from the two I’d met. No wonder they went their separate ways. The clash of narcissism would be explosive. And the majority of other nonhuman races hated and scorned pucks. Thieves, con men, egomaniacs, it was the accepted image. And, hell, it was true, but Robin had proven he was more than that. He stood with us and had since the beginning. He’d faced death with us more than once. It hadn’t been sheer loneliness
I didn’t think it would’ve been any different in the days of Babylon. I could see him coming across a desert tribe and being different enough that they were suspicious of him. But if he were a god, and I was sure he had a few Houdini-style tricks to dazzle ancient humans, then they’d welcome him. Embrace him. No contempt. No hatred. Just acceptance, friendship, worship. Who could turn down a little worship? Not your average person, and definitely no puck. Eventually Robin would bore and move on. It was his bad luck on the timing was all. Of course, if he’d still been there when disease and natural disaster reared their heads, it might not have gone any better for him than it was going now.
“You cursed us with your abandonment,” she continued. “As our tribe has died, so will you.”
“And you think you can kill a god?” Promise inquired with the perfect touch of dismissal. I didn’t think it would cast enough doubt in them to work, but it was worth a try.
“Even gods can die.” The dark eyes were unrelenting in their determination. “We’ve seen many things in our long search, my people. Generation after generation has seen wonders and horrors, and we’ve seen the deaths of gods. We have killed many ourselves. Your kind,” she said to Goodfellow with a righteous vindication curving her lips. “They were never the right god, never you, but we killed them nonetheless. They were not you, but they were like you. Uncaring and undeserving of existence.”
“Why didn’t you simply shoot me in my bed?” he asked. “It would’ve been easy enough for you.” Although it wouldn’t have been. Robin would’ve heard the slightest out-of-place noise. He hadn’t lived this long without picking up a thousand and one tricks of survival.
“First, we had to be sure you were the right one.” With her other hand she held up a gold armband with what looked like lion heads carved on the ends.
“One of the first things we learn as children. The one offering that you took with you. I searched your apartment and finally found it. You kept it all this time. The sentiment moves us.” Yeah, why was I not believing that?
She tossed it at his feet. “I could’ve tried at the apartment, ended you there, but no. You come and you go. The days you spend at work, or so you say. Six nights out of seven you are gone whoring, fooling others into believing you’ll never leave them as you left us. I never knew when you would grace me with your presence so that I and my brothers could be waiting. Besides, facing a god on his home territory where he is his strongest, we are more clever than that. And we’ve come to know through several other of your kind that you are all but impossible to poison. The sirrush proved that.” I thought of all the food she’d given me and felt my stomach roil. “So we tried several times to kill you with the sirrush, the Hameh, our brother.” Pain flickered behind her eyes. “I do not believe you deserve to see your death face-to-face, a warrior’s death, not one of treachery for you are a treacherous creature. But now I see we acted as you did, cowardly and without honor. The same death you chose to inflict on my people. You destroyed us as a people and now as the last of our people we must face you to do the same. And we will be more honorable than you.”
“There aren’t many who aren’t,” he replied matter-of-factly before dropping his sword. It hit the armband with the musical sound of a bell ringing. “So, you will let them go, then the others…as you are honorable, and they’ve done nothing to you.”
A self-sacrificing puck. The world would stop if it knew, but the world didn’t know Robin like we did. He had it in him. Until this moment maybe even he didn’t know, but it was there. What a hellacious way to find out.
“I sincerely doubt they would go, Almighty One. Even now they stand with you instead of shunning you as they should. They know what you have done now. Where is the shock and horror at your shame?” She shook her head. “No. They are not your kind, but they are like you. Take them as your servants into whatever afterlife a god claims.” The smile was reflected by those who stood beside her, her tribe. Not one of the smiles was a pleasant one.
“How’d you find us?” Niko asked abruptly. “And how did you find Robin at the subway? We weren’t followed.” And we hadn’t been. Any one of us would’ve picked up on that.
“A GPS tracker in his cell phone. The modern age is a marvel of technology. The following of a god becomes simplicity. A human outwits the divine. The world has come full circle.”
“But finding Robin to begin with had to be a bitch.” Kind of like her. “Over two thousand years. Way to hold a grudge.”
“It’s retribution. Only blood will answer the debt.” It was hard to believe this woman had once made me breakfast. She and the others were all the same unyielding stone. I guessed if you were going to be a hard-ass, seeing your living, breathing runaway god before you would be the time for it.
“If you give a damn, I am sorry,” Robin said quietly to them. “Whether you believe it or not, I truly am. Not for what you think, but I am sorry.” Sorry for what he’d done and sorry for what was coming.
There was no give, in their eyes or their faces, and I realized: We were going to have to kill them. All of them. Humans. It didn’t sit right. I didn’t think it ever would, but it was getting easier. After all, I’d been more than happy to kill that bastard in the subway. Of course, here we might not get the chance to. We were good, but we were facing seven guns. Promise could take a number of hits and stay on her feet. The same wasn’t true of the rest of us. At least one of us was going down; it was a fact, one that sat hard and undigested in my stomach. We were thoroughly fucked.
Unless I could get behind them. Get the drop on them. It might make the difference.
And that’s when I discovered another difference, the one Sawney had made, what he’d pushed me to. I guessed I owed that murdering bastard a favor, because the knot tied in my brain was gone as my mind got the second wind my body had. The effort to head him off, the mind-rending strain to be faster, the necessity of ripping reality time and time again had finally punched through the scar tissue that had held me back these past weeks. It was wide open. I was wide open.
And it was easy this time. It was so damn easy. There was no blood, no pain, and it was so right that I wondered how I’d survived this long without it. As Seraglio extended her gun with a “No, my god, we do not give a damn. Not for you or your apologies,” I was suddenly behind them, and I felt good, really good, and…predatory. Content and hungry for violence, with a blood that felt as if it scorched my veins. As if it were a heat that only killing could cool. Then the feeling was gone, because I had more important things to think about, or maybe it wasn’t gone. Maybe it just let me do what I had to.
Was it me? Was it not?
Who gave a rat’s ass?
It was definitely me, though, who shot the first two in the back before two others turned. No honor. The only thing honor got you was killed. I saw Nik roll and come up from the floor to impale the man on the far side of Seraglio. Promise, although she took two bullets first, took out the woman beside him with a quick snap of her neck. Goodfellow produced two daggers and two more fell with metal in their throat. I saw blood bloom on Robin’s neck, red dripping down Niko’s hand, I saw Seraglio begin to pull the trigger of the gun aimed at Robin’s head, and then I saw wings.
Wings, pale blond hair, and a blade moving as fast as he fell. Ishiah.
Seraglio’s gun flew to one side immediately followed by her head. As her small body crumpled, I could’ve staggered with relief that I hadn’t had to be the one to do it. She’d made me pancakes. She was a hunter and a psychotic killer, but she smelled like cinnamon and honey, and she’d made me pancakes.
Then I forgot about the pancakes and remembered the blood on Niko and Robin. I knelt beside my brother. Promise was there as well, ripping at his sleeve and getting blood on her hands in the process. “Later,” Nik ordered, voice controlled. No pain. No panic. “Security. Police. We have to go now.
Damn it. I shut my mouth and turned to Robin as Nik got to his feet and he and Promise moved quickly toward the door. Goodfellow was upright, hand pressed to his throat. He pulled it away to look at a palm wet and red. “Gods bleed.” He gave a liquid cough. “Seraglio would be pleased.” Then he dropped or he would have if I hadn’t caught him on one side and Ishiah on the other.
“Jesus.” He had blood on his lips and his eyes had gone unfocused and hazy. I slapped my hand over the torn flesh of his neck. “I thought you had a prior commitment,” I snapped at Ishiah. It was easier to snarl at him than concentrate on the warm wetness pouring through my fingers or the drowned gurgle to Robin’s ragged breathing. So much for the damn bulletproof vest.
“This was it.” If there was any regret over killing Seraglio, I didn’t hear it. I didn’t expect to. He’d done it to save Robin. If he hadn’t done it, I would’ve done it myself, and you wouldn’t have heard any regret in my voice either. It was pointless to show what you couldn’t change.
We dragged Goodfellow rapidly toward the door and out into the cool night air. “Nushi. We need to get him to Nushi to be healed. Promise?” I said with desperate demand.
“Hundred and ninetieth Street and Fort Washington, apartment number twelve-C,” she said swiftly as both she and Niko looked back at the limp puck with grim worry. They didn’t have long to look. Within a second he was gone, pulled upward and out of my hands. Ishiah took him. Powerful wings bunching with muscle, he lifted a now-unconscious Robin into the air and soared away. Going to Nushi. Right now he was the only one fast enough. And he would be.
He had to be.
“Did he let you in this time?”
“No. Stubborn bastard.” Two days later I was spreading out the supplies on the kitchen table and gesturing for Nik to strip off his long-sleeve gray T-shirt. The six-month-old circular scar on his chest was still a bright contrast against his olive skin. It wasn’t the best of memories and I looked away to the ugly furrow on the outer aspect of his biceps. It wasn’t bad, not nearly as bad as I’d thought when I’d seen the blood coating his arm and hand. Still, one more not-so-great memory. “He wouldn’t even answer this time.”
by Rob Thurman / Science Fiction & Fantasy / Mystery & Thrillers / Horror have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes