Madhouse, p.8

Madhouse, page 8

 

Madhouse
 



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  The tone was enough to let me know he’d found something interesting. My gun was already in my hand and had been since I’d entered the building. I loped after Nik, seeing what he’d found so intriguing the moment I rounded the crates. It was a van. With its side door open and dried blood within and without, we’d discovered how Sawney had transported the bodies. It was so mundane, not to mention inexplicable. “Okay, Cyrano, riddle me this,” I said. “How the hell does a Redcap from the fourteen hundreds know how to drive a goddamn van?”

  He frowned under his hawkish nose. “That is an excellent question.” As he clambered into the back, I opened the passenger door and leaned in the front for a whiff. Huh. Now, that was damned peculiar. “Revenant,” I announced aloud. Revenants weren’t what legend made them out to be…legend never got it right, but I could see how easily it had been to go wrong with these slimy pieces of shit. They weren’t the dead returned to life—unpleasant, rotting life—but they did give an amazing imitation. Revenants weren’t human and had never been, but they looked damn close to a man…if that man had been dug from a not-so-fresh grave. It wasn’t difficult to see how someone had made the mistake. With milky white eyes, clammy slick flesh, and a black tongue, they weren’t nature’s prettiest or proudest moment.

  “It seems Sawney is recruiting a new family.” Niko finished examining the van and vaulted back out.

  “Logical. There are no other Redcaps in New York, and revenants, like Sawney, do not particularly care if their meals are alive, dead, or decomposing.”

  “And revenants can drive.” They’d been around New York nearly as long as there had been people. With a coat and a hat or a hooded sweatshirt, they could pass to the casual glance through a car window. I’d seen them do it, and it was the last cab ride you were likely to take. Finding nothing in the front, I stepped back and shut the door. “I wonder why they didn’t stick around here. It’s not a cave, but it’s empty and there’s plenty of room to keep leftovers.” To keep more little girls and their mommies and daddies. “Even if the revenant knew it was Kin, I can’t see Sawney giving a shit. A few wolves would be a snack and rug combo to him. Dine and decorate in one shot.” Something glittered by my foot and I crouched to pick it up with my left hand. It was a barrette, gold and yellow. The little girl’s last touch of sun. It had the caustic humor lying like lead on my tongue.

  “The revenants may have known. And they would’ve known that if a few Kin wolves went missing here, the rest would come en masse,” Niko conjectured as he watched me put the barrette in my pocket.

  “Too much light.”

  It came from above. The words.

  “Where is soothing darkness?”

  In the shadows where the stray rays of sunlight didn’t penetrate.

  “Where are the sheltering arms of stone?”

  A bright slice of winter, sharp as ice and white as a fatal blizzard, bloomed.

  “Where is Sawney Beane’s home? Not here.”

  As my eyes adjusted I saw more…up in the rafters. An unnaturally wide killer grin. Tangled ropes of hair, white stained with red and brown. There was the impression of a sweeping bulk of a cloak or coat, but face and hands…they were nothing but blackness. Inky shadow come to life.

  The impossible stretch of smile widened. “I see you.” Tiny embers sparked to life, the cheery red of an autumn fire. “Travelers.”

  Travelers. And we knew what Sawney Beane did with travelers.

  I fired instantly. The bullets hit. I knew that although the monster didn’t move. There was no attempt at evasion, only the echo of gunfire and that ever-present leer. The bastard didn’t flinch, didn’t shift under the impact, didn’t register the blows at all. If I didn’t have the confidence of my aim, I would’ve wondered. But I hit him…. It simply didn’t matter one damn bit.

  “Educational,” Niko mused.

  “Glad you think so,” I grunted as I slammed another clip home. Just another day at the office…until the late afternoon sun chose that moment to shift to twilight, plunging the warehouse into a dusky purple gloom. What few lights had been on joined the sun in disappearing, deepening the gloom to the impenetrable.

  And then it began to rain blood.

  The color was impossible to discern in the thick murk, but I knew the smell, knew the slick consistency against my skin. “What the fuck?”

  There was the sound of rushing air and then a meaty thump inches from me. Another body, and from the sound as it hit, this one had most of its flesh intact. There was another thump and another as the charnel house above continued to fall. I didn’t know how Sawney had kept them up, and I didn’t care. I only wanted to get my hands on the son of a bitch.

  “I’m going up,” Nik said grimly. “You cover him here if he tries to escape.” There was no sound of departing footsteps—this was my brother after all—but he was gone.

  I moved my own foot a few inches to one side to place the first body. As my eyes adjusted I could make out a vague outline, a crumpled form…arms, legs, a mound. Pregnant. She’d been pregnant. I couldn’t make out any more than that and I didn’t want to. She’d been alive; now she wasn’t.

  When the next body fell, I thought I was ready for it. How much fucking worse could it be? Stupid goddamn question. Sawney was the stealer of mothers, children, and babies. The taker of lives, flesh, and hope, because in New York everyone was traveling. From place to place, everyone was on the move. And to someone who preyed on travelers, that meant everyone was fair game.

  Sawney hit me from above…the one body that wasn’t dead, but we weren’t done yet. Not by a long shot. He hit hard and with a weight I wouldn’t have guessed. He was an avalanche—not one of rock, but of ice. Cold, wherever he touched me. The burn of dry ice on my neck and jaw as he tasted me. I felt the slide of the tongue over my carotid artery as hands pinned my head. “Different, traveler. You taste different.”

  I struggled to pull breath back into my lungs that curled abused and beaten beneath bruised ribs. But I didn’t need to breathe to pull a trigger. I jammed the muzzle of the 9mm into the mass that squatted on top of me and emptied the clip I had just put in. Like before, I got jack shit for my trouble.

  “Full of sulfur spice and ancient earth and a world far from here.”

  Auphe, he was tasting it in me. That stuttered my lungs to painful life. I wheezed and used the oxygen to propel my body into motion under him. I tried to roll, dropping my gun and pulling a knife from the calf sheath. My fingers passed through the slit in the denim and fastened around the rubber hilt. My roll was less successful. Flickers of scarlet light still burned into mine. Hanks of knotted hair smelled like a slaughterhouse and felt like rope against my skin. And that grin, that goddamned grin, was still inches from me.

  Then it was in me.

  Teeth went through jacket and shirt, into my chest, and ripped a piece of me away. Sawney had succeeded where the Black Annis had failed, and he had done it so easily. Had made me food, and I hadn’t been able to do a damn thing about it. Food. There’s a special horror in that, a particular twisted terror in a part of you being eaten.

  It hurt, but not as badly as it should. The shock of it muffled the pain, wrapped it in cotton, and let me plunge the knife into his back without hesitation. What it could do that the gun couldn’t I didn’t know, and when his grin widened, I got my answer. And with that answer came other things. There was blood on my face—my own blood—and the sound of a purring swallow.

  “Soft and sweet, your flesh, traveler.” The cold tongue lapped blood from the wound. “Sweet and spiced with madness.” He laughed then. It wasn’t dark or deranged, deep or demonic. It was happy as a child with ice cream, and that was worse. So much fucking worse.

  If ever there were a time for a gate, promise or not, this was it. But even if I could have managed one the size I needed, and I had head-splitting doubts that I could, Sawney would only have gone with me. Eat me here, eat me somewhere else, I didn’t know the difference. I did know panic, thou
gh. Sheer, kick-in-the-gut panic, and I used it. I twisted the fear into energy and momentum and I tried again to throw the bastard off. This time, I did it. I didn’t take the time to get to my feet. It was time I didn’t have. I got to all fours and scrambled backward with all the speed I could muster. When you can smell your blood on someone’s breath, that’s pretty damn fast.

  He was fast too. Faster than I was. Faster than anyone I’d seen. He was ten feet away and he was directly in front of me, yanking me up with a hand on my throat. Up, not to my feet—my feet weren’t touching the floor and neither were his. We hung in the air, the goddamn air, three feet of empty space beneath us. He had two smiles now, one sheened with my blood and one the gleam of metal. It was the scythe from the museum. Sangrida had taken good care of it. It was as capable now of carving human flesh as it had been six hundred years ago. I’d seen that in Sawney’s recent victims and I was about to feel it as well.

  “Traveler, abide with me.” Red light blazed to bloody suns. “Abide in me. Special boy with the special taste. The taste of madness, the taste of me.” The cheer, the horrifically affectionate cheer, was the silken touch of a spider’s fatal web, and I wished he would shut the hell up. I wished I weren’t so sure it was Auphe madness he was tasting in me. I also wished I had brought my Desert Eagle with the explosive rounds. Wish in one hand and shit in the other and hope you aren’t facing Sawney fucking Beane when you do it.

  I was reaching for another blade, knowing it probably wouldn’t do any good, but doing it anyway. Because you don’t give up and you don’t give in. Niko taught me that. If they’re going to take you down, you make them pay. It was good advice. I’d been taken down before; I’d always made them sorry as hell. This bastard wasn’t going to be any different.

  And I wasn’t a boy—special or otherwise. I wasn’t a lost little girl or terrified pregnant woman either. When he sliced me up with his scythe, piece by piece, I would take the same from him. It might not kill him and it might not even hurt him, but I would take it anyway. I damn sure gave it my best shot. My knife punched through cloth that felt like flesh…could have been flesh for all I knew. This thing had come back from bone and ash. He remade himself; who knew the limits to that remaking? The blade slid into flesh, scraped bone, and kept going. This time I twisted it, viciously and with all the force I could manage. And he let me. Guests go first, right? It’s when you’re the guest and dinner all in one that you run into trouble.

  I twisted again. The bastard was cold, like ice, and I could feel cold creeping up the metal to the hilt and into my hand. My knuckles cramped, but I wrenched the blade one last time. Sawney’s patience had run out, however, and so had that of his scythe. It flashed toward me. They were like those paintings—Sawney and the scythe—the ones from the museum, the abstract kind. A metallic glitter of iron, scarlet light, a jet gloss of flesh, all fogged by thick darkness—a jumbled bit of art in motion as the scythe slashed. I couldn’t see the whole, but it could see me.

  Too bad it didn’t see Nik.

  The blade of the scythe missed my stomach by millimeters. It tore through my leather jacket as if it were no more substantial than an illusion as Niko hit Sawney from the side and carried him away from me. The icy clamp peeled from my throat and I fell. Landing in a crouch, I coughed against the air that had curdled in my frozen throat. Niko and Sawney had landed ten feet away: Niko on his feet and Sawney on his back with a sword pinning him to a wooden pallet. Dead center through his gut…or what I guessed to be his gut. The sword blade disappeared into the darkness that was Sawney, but Nik didn’t stop there. His hand a blur of motion, he slammed a dagger into the Redcap’s neck to pin him further. Then, because he was loaded for bear, he drew his second big blade. He’d seen how much effect my gun and my knife had had, but he swung the machete anyway. When I saw where he aimed, I knew what he was thinking. If you can’t kill it…

  Disassemble it.

  My brother in action; it was something to see. When he lifted his blade, he had the grace and elegance of Lancelot on the field of honor, and when he brought it down, he had the efficiency of the family butcher down the street. The metal bit through the shoulder joint of the arm that controlled the scythe and then Nik kicked it away. Not the weapon—the entire arm. Yeah, safe to say that when Niko disarmed someone, he didn’t fuck around. Proof positive was in the next blow. He’d seen how quick Sawney was with that scythe, and he’d taken care of that first. Now the second step was to end it. Sawney’s head was the next thing to be kicked across the floor or it should’ve been, but things were never that easy.

  Before Nik could take that next blow, Sawney exploded upward into the air above us, suddenly upright and with his feet at least three feet above the floor. The surge tossed Niko backward with the force of a vicious, storm-driven wave. Impaled by a sword and dagger, the legend hung suspended. Hung and gurgled. It was only when he pulled the dagger from his throat that I recognized the gurgle for what it was. Laughter.

  I lunged at him as his hand, the one he had left, moved to the hilt of Niko’s sword to pull it free. I reached him as the blade came loose and the wooden pallet clattered to the floor. “Pretty.” Sawney held the sword high. “A fetching blade. Bonny. Bonnybonnybonny.” The laughter ratcheted higher and higher into the crazed cackle of a hyena—bloody-mouthed, full-bellied, and happy. Two of a kind, because Sawney was that, through and through. When I jumped up and hit him, the laughter didn’t stop. It kept on and on, all I could hear.

  My tackle didn’t move him, not an inch. How he managed to float there, I didn’t know. Or care. I just wanted him dead, down, or both. With my arms wrapped around his torso, he and I hung suspended in the air, like flies in amber…until Niko joined us. He didn’t add the weight of his body, though. He was smarter there than I had been. He used a more effective weight, that of a baseball bat. At least that’s what it felt like, even from the other side of it. A massive blow was slammed across Sawney’s back. It did what I hadn’t. We tumbled through the air and hit the front of the van, the hood, and then the windshield. It cracked underneath us, but held—just barely. I grabbed for the sword in Sawney’s hand, but he was already gone, disappearing upward into the darkness. Niko was in his place almost instantly, a black metal rod in his hand. Telescoping and two feet long, it wasn’t a baseball bat. It was an illegal version of a police baton and a helluva lot more vicious than your average Louisville Slugger.

  “New toy?” I asked hoarsely.

  “I like to treat myself once in a while.” He held out a hand and pulled me out of the hollow my impact had formed in the safety glass. I made it to my knees, considered trying for my feet, and decided against it. Bracing myself on the hood of the van, I looked up and saw nothing. Not a damn thing.

  “Shit.” I had his smell now, up close and personal. Ice, bone, and insanity. I hadn’t known the latter had a specific scent. It did. “He’s gone.” It was true. The taint in the air had faded a fraction, from present to past.

  “I’m not surprised.” Nik slipped off the hood and away to return seconds later. “He took his arm and scythe with him.”

  “So much for souvenirs.” My chest was beginning to hurt, the cotton wool ache migrating to a raw acid sear. It burned so savagely that I didn’t want to look at the damage Sawney had left behind. Setting my teeth against the pain, I eased my way from the hood down to the floor. It wasn’t graceful, but it wasn’t a drunken stumble either. It didn’t matter; Niko spotted the hesitation immediately.

  He didn’t waste time asking if I was hurt; he went straight to the heart of the matter. “Where?”

  “He…” I gave a reluctant dark laugh as I laid the flat of my hand on my chest. It was too strange, too goddamn weird. And terrifying. It made it hard to find the words and harder to put them out there.

  “Jesus. He ate me.”

  Niko didn’t laugh in turn. He didn’t see the humor, dark or otherwise. Truthfully neither did I. With a pen flashlight from his pocket for the examination,
he pushed aside my hand and spread my jacket. He didn’t have to lift my shirt. I guessed the hole in it matched the one in me. Straight-shot viewing. For him…I didn’t bother to look, not yet. Nik’s face, calm, became even more so. It wasn’t a good sign. “I suppose I get to be the pretty one now,” he said lightly. Minutes later, I had a thick bulk of gauze taped to my upper chest. There wasn’t much blood soaking through and that didn’t necessarily seem a positive. And when Niko’s hand fastened onto the back of my jacket to urge me into a walk, that didn’t seem like one either.

  “I’m okay,” I insisted. I was. It hurt like hell, but I was all right. I certainly could walk. One foot in front of the other—it’s not that difficult.

  “I know,” he said agreeably. Far too agreeably, and he didn’t let go as we walked outside and hailed a cab.

  “You lost your sword.” He’d lost it only once before…to Hob. Hob the kidnapper. Hob the megalomaniac. Hob the shit-head. It wasn’t a good memory. The homicidal puck had nearly killed Nik, and I’d used Nik’s sword to return the favor. “You lost your sword,” I said again, oddly shook-up over it. More than I should’ve been. After all, Sawney wasn’t Hob and Niko was right here.

  “I’ll get it back or I’ll get a new one. It doesn’t matter.” His grip on me tightened as my legs went a little rubbery…developed a mind of their own. Yet one more thing to add to the “not good” list.

  “You know,” I said with a sudden dawning of truth, “Mr. Goldstein would’ve kicked Lancelot’s ass.”

  “The butcher?” He gave it the solemn consideration it deserved. “I believe you’re right.” Damn straight I was, but there was no denying I had a new empathy for the cows that Mr. Goldstein chopped into steaks and rump roasts.

  Being the cow wasn’t much fun.

  8

  We made it home in record time for New York traffic, which was nice. I liked home. Home was good. Sawney wasn’t there and massive painkillers were. It was a win-win.

 
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