Selected by guest editor Daniel José Older
They’d gone three days without seeing anything more than mesas and miles of bone-sand before Kade saw the newspaper. At first he took it for a haunt, gliding across the dunes, and he’d elbowed Marya before he realized his mistake. “Oberon’s balls,” he said as he watched the newsprint flutter and fall to the sand. “A sign of civilization at last.”
“Don’t get your hopes up,” Marya said, raising her flute and playing a minor scale with her good hand. As the last note faded, a dust devil lifted the newspaper and deposited it at Kade’s feet.
The newsprint was faded, gone brittle from age and exposure to the sun. While the articles were indecipherable smears, the paper’s headline was still legible: “Armistice Signed,” in block letters that took up all the space above the fold.
“Which armistice you think that was?” Marya asked.
“Last one,” Kade said. “Any earlier and the paper would be dust.”
“Hand it over,” Marya said. “I want to see where it came from.”
Kade passed it to her. Marya scooped up a fistful of bone fragments, the stumps of her ring and little finger twitching as flecks of bone slid past them. She drizzled the sand on the paper, then blew gently, making a low keening sound. The sand leapt from the paper, tumbling eagerly across the dunes.
“Looks like it’s close,” Marya said, sagging as Kade braced her elbow. “Maybe they have water there.”
“Water would be nice. I’m sick of being caked in bone grit.”
“You and me both,” Marya said.
The dust devil led them past a dozen dunes before dissolving, and by then the newspaper’s source was obvious. A handful of buildings stood in the lee of a mesa, their broken windows patched with sheets of newsprint. Railroad tracks looped around the town’s single platform, and a spur line ran west through the bone hills towards the blasted moonscape of the Front.
“Looks abandoned,” Kade said. “Hand tell you different?”
Marya frowned, flexing truncated fingers. “Doesn’t feel haunted. Be careful, though. I didn’t sense the tendon spiders at the arroyo.”
Kade shuddered, recalling how the constructs’ legs had been strung with vertebrae. He and Marya had taken them down, but he’d died once, and his mouth had tasted of kittens for days. Even worse, the necropotence engine in his chest was running on fumes. If they stumbled across more abandoned war machines, his survival was far from certain.
Kade drew his Dirge .45 and advanced on the buildings, the revolver’s grip cool against his palm. Neither hex rounds nor hot lead leapt from the buildings’ windows, and the only movement was paper shifting in the wind. The town square was empty, save for a well.
“Anyone there?” Kade called.
The whisper of sand was the only reply.
“Looks clear,” Kade told Marya.
Marya nodded, slipping her mask back into her bag. “Let’s see if that well’s gone dry.”
Kade peered into it. “Black as a pureblood’s heart down there,” he said, dropping a bucket into its depths. There was a splash, and he worked the winch, bringing the bucket back up.
A particulate haze hung suspended in the well water. Kade let it settle before scooping some into a battered tin cup. “Ah, that’s heaven,” he said, reveling in the feel of liquid on his lips. “Marya, get yours before I drink it all!”
No answer came, and Kade found Marya standing in a saloon’s door, her back to him. The tattoos covering her manskin coat seemed to writhe as sand blew past her feet. “We’ve got trouble,” she said, studying something on the floor.
“What sort of trouble?” Kade asked, abandoning the bucket. He froze as he saw what had caught Marya’s attention: a desiccated corpse, with an elaborate sigil carved into its chest. “Shit. I hate Sidhe.”
“That’s not baby-stealer work,” Marya said.
“Nah. It’s a Seelie mark. Tir Tanegral Raiders.” Kade nudged the corpse with his boot. “Fought them in the war.”
“Thought there weren’t any purebloods left.”
“I thought so too,” Kade said. “Guess we were wrong.”
Marya nodded, and fitted her mask to her face. Strings of fangs and human teeth hung from its skeletal domino, and her eyes seemed to glow within its sockets.
“Go drink more water, Kade,” Marya said, her words a chorus of whispers as they passed through the veil of teeth. “The corpse and I need to talk.”
After drinking his fill, Kade filled his canteens, trying to ignore the low keening coming from the saloon. Marya was the best necromancer he knew, but even she couldn’t summon the dead without side effects.
A shuffling sound made Kade’s hand go to his Dirge. A gaunt silhouette stood at the far end of town, and though Kade couldn’t see the Sidhe’s features, his imagination filled them in: Emerald eyes with dual pupils, vulpine cheeks and chin, and rows of razor-sharp teeth.
For a heartbeat, Kade wished he’d loaded the Dirge with iron slugs, then he was in motion, firing as he dove for cover.
His first shot screamed over the figure’s head, the spirit bound into the bullet wailing as it flew. The second clipped Kade’s target in the shoulder, but though the hex round couldn’t have hurt it, the Sidhe turned and ran, ducking for cover behind a building.
“The thrice-damned Sidhe’s still here!” Kade shouted as he dumped spent brass and live rounds on the street. He thumbed iron slugs into his revolver, scanning the street for movement.
“Save the iron, Kade,” Marya said as the corpse’s keening faded to a whimper. “That’s not a Sidhe.”
“You sure?” Kade asked, still loading.
“They came and went a week ago,” Marya said, crossing the square to kneel beside him. “That was a corpse-picker. A sloppy one. He didn’t close the dead man’s eyes.”
Kade replaced the iron slug he held in his bandolier. “Amateur,” he said. Every veteran knew a necromancer could make a corpse show her everything it’d seen since its demise.
Marya closed her eyes, humming an eerie tune. “He’s gone,” she said at length. “Looks like the hex rounds scared him off. Still. Maybe he wasn’t so stupid.”
“Why’s that?” Kade asked, as he slotted the final hex round into his Dirge and slammed the cylinder closed.
“This town’s dead weren’t shipped to the Front,” Marya said. “They buried them round back.”
The graveyard sprawled behind the town, and though half the graves were already open, Kade could tell its contents were worth a tidy sum. “I don’t like it,” he said, raising a hand to shade his eyes.
“The more battlefields we scavenge and graveyards we exhume, the fewer people will die to fill the bone-mongers’ stalls,” Marya said.
“You’re just a bundle of joy, aren’t you?”
“They’re just bones, Kade,” Marya said, gazing over the dunes which stretched off towards the Front. “Once our spirits are gone and our flesh has rotted, that’s what we’ll be too. Who are we hurting by digging them up? Everyone who lived here is dead.”
Kade grunted, unwilling to continue the argument. Marya tossed him the shovel from the town’s general store, and unfolded their entrenching tool. “Start digging.”
Kade obeyed. As he dug, he asked, “What happened to this place?”
“A handful of Sidhe harried the town for a month,” Marya said. “The townsfolk were waiting for a train when the Sidhe came back and sucked the life out of our witness.”
“Think they’re still around?” Kade asked.
Marya shrugged. “They took a lot of captives for nomads. Come on. We’re burning daylight.”
Kade dug, pausing only to mop his brow and check on Marya. Whatever crucible she’d gone through before they met had made her even more callous than he was, and that worried him. Still, it was easy to drop into the rhythm of digging; to press, lift, and fling. By dusk he’d uncovered five intact skeletons and scores of extra bones.
Kade was halfway out of an open grave when Marya motioned for him to stay where he was. “What is it?” Kade asked, only to have Marya shush him as she scanned the horizon.
The sound of a bugle echoed off a cliff, making Kade shiver in his boots. “The Seelie,” he said.
“They’re on the hunt,” Marya said as another horn answered the call.
The two of them exchanged glances, and Kade scrambled out of his excavation, emptying hex rounds out of his Dirge again. His fingers were sweaty as he replaced them with iron.
“How many are we talking?” Kade asked as he slapped the revolver’s cylinder into place.
Marya’s eyes glazed over as she hummed an eerie melody, exhaling wisps of plasm that floated off on the wind. “Three,” she said. “All mounted.”
Kade shivered as the scream of a sliver-gun carried across the waste. “What mounts?”
“Spine serpents made from giants’ vertebrae,” Marya said, blinking and focusing on him.
“Got any kittens you can drown?”
Marya tossed him a tiny skull. “Here.”
It didn’t look like any cat skull Kade had ever seen. “The hell is this?”
“A charge for your engine. You want it or not?”
Kade pressed his palms against the distorted skull. Black lightning surged through his limbs, locking his jaw in place. His heart skipped a beat as his necropotence engine spun up, drinking in the power the skull contained and dropping Kade to his knees, retching. His palms felt burnt, and his mouth tasted of guano and tail feathers.
“You’re making me eat crow?” he managed.
“Pigeons, actually,” Marya replied. “It wasn’t easy to find twenty and wring their necks.”
Kade coughed as he felt the engine in his chest spin, pulsing faster than his heart. “Every time we do this,” he croaked, “I swear it’s the last time.”
“Then you should stop getting killed,” Marya said, helping him up. Once Kade was upright, she fitted her mask to her face.
“Ready?” she asked, her voice a chorus of whispers.
“Ready,” Kade said, and followed her into town.
The Sidhe rode in as the moon rose, spine serpents undulating over the dunes like gargantuan worms. Their clothing and tack had seen better days; cloaks of gossamer and velvet hung from their shoulders like tattered shrouds. The lead Sidhe had the corpse-picker thrown across his saddle bow, and his sliver-gun rested atop his captive’s head, its ammunition maw worrying a tibia inches from the man’s eyes.
“Bastards,” Kade muttered as the captive’s face was limned by moonlight. He’d gone catatonic.
“Harken, my brothers,” the lead Sidhe cried as he reined in his mount. “Can you smell that? Our noble blood, polluted by miscegenation!”
“The odor is offensive,” a second Sidhe said. “It reeks of iron and the dust of earth.”
“Let us cleanse this taint from our fair land!” the leader proclaimed. “Unseelie scum, reveal yourselves, and face the Knights of Tir Tanegral!”
“They are craven,” the third Sidhe remarked, flourishing his weapon. “They dare not look upon your visage, lest they be struck blind by its beauty.”
Marya began to hum beneath her breath. An instant later, threads of plasm joined beside the well to take on her form.
The first Sidhe stiffened in his seat. “‘Tis worse than I thought, brothers! We hunt a quarter-blood!”
“Seelie lords,” Marya’s image said as the Sidhe recoiled, “your court is fallen and your cause is lost. Keep a civil tongue in your mouths, or die the death of iron.”
“Do not think to command warriors of the Sidhe, twice-polluted trollop!” the Sidhe leader snarled. “May your blood rejoin the dust from which it came!”
“I gave you a chance,” Marya’s image said.
“Kill the necromancer!” the leader shouted. He dispersed the projection with a hail of bone shards.
Kade squeezed off a shot at the leader. The iron slug tore through the Sidhe’s cheeks, leaving smoking wounds and rows of splintered teeth in its wake. As the Sidhe cried out, a torrent of bone slivers made Kade duck.
“Now what?” he asked Marya as the building’s paper windows became a sieve.
Marya nodded at the corpse on the floor, and played a note on her flute. The dead man rose and stumbled to the door, where the Sidhe turned their weapons on him. As their weapons ran dry, Kade took three more shots, striking a second Sidhe in the shoulder and the forehead.
The Sidhe opened fire again, and Kade grunted as half a dozen bone slivers struck his legs. The engine in his chest pulsed, and the slivers were annihilated, leaving bloodless punctures behind.
Marya played a minor chord, and as the notes reached the riderless spine serpent, it charged the Sidhe leader, whose sliver-gun spat bone into the sky as he spurred his mount sideways. Kade emptied his Dirge at the third Sidhe and ducked into cover to reload.
Before he was done reloading, Kade heard the crunch of approaching vertebrae. “Incoming!” he said, and rolled aside as a spine serpent ripped through the roof and sent furniture flying. While Marya ducked beneath a table, Kade fired upwards until the Dirge’s hammer fell on an empty chamber.
There was a strangled cry, and the Sidhe toppled from his seat. Dropping the Dirge, Kade grabbed a stirrup with one hand and climbed into the serpent’s saddle.
He’d struck his target in the knee. Steam coiled up from the wound, as iron turned glamor into mist. “Ape,” the Sidhe said, clutching a mangled hand to his chest. “You animals may best us, but we—”
Kade tapped the spine serpent’s flank and rode over him. The Sidhe was still moving, so Kade ran him over twice more before dismounting.
There were nails hammered into Kade’s boots. One stomp, and the Sidhe’s chest was jelly.
Kade took stock. Marya stood by the well, facing off against the Sidhe leader, with bone and plasm swirling around her. The teeth hanging from her mask rattled as she played her flute, and Kade thought he could hear a ghostly choir.
“Filthy necromancer,” the Sidhe said as Kade limped to Marya’s side. “This was a fair land once, and will be again, once you and your forebears are wiped from existence.”
“The war is over, Seelie,” Marya replied, lowering her flute as the ghostly choir sang on. “Everyone lost.”
The Sidhe’s reply was a storm of bone slivers. As they reached Marya, the chorus of ghosts matched the shriek of the sliver-gun, and the air was seeded with sand and splintered bone.
When Kade lowered his arm, the Sidhe’s face was a ruin. Bone shards bristled from his cheeks, and his missing lips revealed a mouth full of broken shark teeth. The Sidhe spat aquamarine ichor on the sand and spurred his mount forward.
“These wounds are nothing,” the Sidhe slurred as he bore down on Marya. “The detritus of mortality cannot undo the eternal.”
“True,” Marya agreed as Kade tried to pull her out of the way, only to have his legs fold under him. “But this can.”
As Kade lay on the ground, watching the spine serpent barrel toward Marya, he felt blood seeping down his back, spilling from needles he hadn’t noticed and which his engine hadn’t destroyed. “Careless,” he whispered his vision narrowed to a tunnel. Marya was right. He’d gotten too used to dying.
The last thing he heard before death claimed him was the boom of Marya’s revolver.
Kade felt as if every nerve in his body was afire, as if he was drowning in tar and choking on razorblades. As he gasped for breath and air ripped down his throat to fill his lungs, he forced his eyes open and found Marya holding his hand, crooning a lullaby. Kade rolled to his side and retched, trying to clear his mouth of the taste of burnt feathers.
Resurrection was worse than dying.
“You all right?” Marya asked him.
“I feel like every spine serpent in a cavalry regiment just rode over me.”
Marya shrugged. “Well, you’re alive. I wasn’t sure the pigeons would be enough.”
“You get that bastard?”
“Would we be talking if I hadn’t?”
Kade forced himself upright. The moon limned the world in soft light, and as his eyes adjusted, he could make out three spine serpents hitched in front of one of the buildings, Sidhe corpses steaming beside them. By morning, they would be dust.
“What happened to the corpse-picker?”
“Put him down,” Marya said. “Got a Bonemonger’s license off of him first, though. There’s some blood on it, but we should be able to use it in Highest Lorn.”
“That’s mighty cold,” Kade said, stretching his neck. “Didn’t it have his name on it?”
“Nope,” Marya replied, offering the stained license to Kade. “Probably wasn’t his to begin with. Everyone’s a scavenger these days.”
Kade waved it aside as he stood, fighting to keep his balance. “What’d you do with their guns?”
“Burned them. I don’t like weapons that see me as a snack.” Marya paused as Kade inspected the spine-serpents, then asked, “You want to empty out the graveyard?”
“Nah,” Kade said, patting one of the serpents. “These will fetch a better price, and I’m sick of this town.”
It was cool and clear when they set out the next morning. As they rode across the dunes, Marya turned to Kade. “You know what day it is?” Her hair trailed her like a pennon, whipped and tousled by the wind of their passage.
“No,” Kade said. “What day is it?”
“Armistice day,” Marya said, gazing at the sliver of the sun visible in the east. “Isn’t peace grand?”
The sun stabbed at Kade’s eyes as it breached the horizon, and after a heartbeat, he turned away. “Go ask the dead,” he told her. “They’re the only ones who’d know.”
About the author
Alec Austin is a game designer with a tendency to ask questions like “What would Total War look like in Faerie?”. He holds a Masters in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, and is an alumnus of the Clarion West and Viable Paradise writing workshops. Alec’s fiction has appeared in Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and other venues. He lives in Los Angeles.