By K. D. McENTIRE
Copyright © 2012 K. D. McEntire
All right reserved.
Night in the Never fell slowly, a flag of silver-tinged darkness uncurling in a steadily rising dusk. Before meeting Wendy it had been centuries—no, more—since Piotr had seen real, living twilight. Most of his memories had been eaten by time and by death-workers like Wendy's mother, but he could still remember the way the stars would emerge in the fading light one by one, mysterious pinpricks dotting the sky. All else had been swallowed by vast stretches of time where the years piled up like cobwebbed shadows in the corners of his mind.
Then he'd met Wendy.
Now? Now he could catch the light of hazy twilight between flickers, though it wasn't nearly the same thing. Concentrating on the light did no good—he'd gaze out into the Never if he actively attempted to see the living lands—but when Piotr relaxed and went with the flow, sometimes the quality of the light would shift and change: brief, powerful flickers allowed him to see the world as Wendy must, in all its solid, living glory.
Though it had been only a little time since the White Lady's demise, Piotr had already realized that he'd been permanently altered by the encounter. The changes in his vision were one thing, the urge to strike out and discover his own origins another. The real question had become what to do next, how to live his afterlife, or if he even wanted to do anything special at all. Before, he'd had the Lost to protect, his duty as a defunct Rider to keep, but now he had nothing but Lily and Elle and his own ambition to guide him.
It wasn't enough.
Out of habit, Piotr wandered the familiar span of turf between San Francisco and Mountain View, killing time by catching rides in the back of taxis and trucks and keeping a lookout for spirits in danger. Dark things wandered the city at night—Walkers and worse, who'd traded their humanity for the certainty of continued existence, even if it cost them their very souls—and Piotr had spent too many years as a protector, as a Rider, to willingly walk away from another ghost in trouble, be they Shade or Lost or anything else.
It was late though, past midnight, and rides were starting to grow scarce. He could have taken Caltrain, but by doing so he would have run the risk of being brushed by a passenger. Living heat burned fiercely and, after the explosion of Light that burned away most of the White Lady's army but left him intact, Piotr was finding himself far more susceptible to the touch of the living than he had been previously.
Without one of the Lost to help speed the healing process, it now took weeks to heal a burn from straying too near one of the living; for something as basic as an aimless train ride from point A to point B, Piotr was unwilling to risk the pain. Daring the unknown backseats of random cars, with the potential for infants in bucket seats or teenagers stretched out in the back, was risk enough.
Flashing red-blue-red stuttered through the darkness, and the SUV he'd hopped into at the last on-ramp slowed and changed lanes in deference to the sirens and light. Piotr, spotting the pile-up up ahead, rolled neatly out of the car through the side door and came to his feet in the breakdown lane. Glass was everywhere—some had even crossed over into the Never—and Piotr stepped over the glittering mess and made his way to the pile-up.
A child, no more than six, huddled on the side of the road. He was small and blond and sported a plain white tee over grass-stained jeans. He worried a baseball cap between his hands and rocked back and forth, forehead pressed to his knees. Piotr knelt beside him.
"I like that comic," he said gently, referencing the emblem emblazoned across the front of the cap, a large stylized A. "The hero is very quick, da? What I would give for a shield like a Frisbee. You see a bad guy and whoosh!" He made a grand swooping gesture with one hand, miming taking off an enemy's head with a flick of a wrist.
The kid snorted but didn't look up. His fingers clutched the cap tighter.
Piotr was familiar with this give and take. "I am Piotr," he said kindly, trying again. He waited.
Several minutes passed before the boy turned his face in Piotr's direction and looked him up and down. "Jamie," the boy said. "And you talk weird."
"To me, Jamie," Piotr said, grinning broadly now that he had the little boy's attention, "perhaps it is you who talks weird, da?"
"What does da mean?" Jamie straightened.
"Ah. It means 'yes,' yes?"
"Da." Piotr flopped onto the ground beside the boy, stretching his legs so that his knees popped. "You know, Jamie, I think your name, it does not suit you. Heroes always have secret identities; I think we should pick out a hero name for you, hmm? Would you like that?"
Jamie's answering smile was tentative but sweet. He crossed his legs underneath him; his frightened rocking ceased. "Yeah? Like what?"
"Oh, I do not know. Perhaps Cap?" Piotr nudged the cap in Jamie's hand. "It is a good name. We could find you a matching star-spangled shield for your enemies."
Jamie shook his head so that his hair drooped over his eyes. He'd needed a trim before he'd died. "I can't do that, Cap's already taken!"
"Ah, so, true enough." Piotr positioned himself between the boy and the tiny twisted body the EMTs were now lifting out of the back of the car. A small, grimy hand, still clutching a Captain America baseball cap, flopped over the edge of the gurney before an EMT considerately tucked it and the cap back beneath the sheet.
"They took my mommy away," Jamie informed Piotr, leaning past him to watch as the EMTs loaded his body into the back of the ambulance. "The airbag went poof and she bounced all around. She's got a broken head and arm but I think the rest of her's gonna be okay."
"That happens," Piotr said, nodding. He glanced around for Jamie's Light but the telltale rays were nowhere to be seen. "You weren't buckled in?"
"I was," Jamie said and then blushed. "I dropped my cap," he confessed. "Mommy turned to yell at me for unbuckling my belt and crash! Bash! Boom!" He made a series of drawn-out grinding and crinkling noises to outline exactly what had happened to the rusted Mustang he and his mother had been riding in. Then he frowned. "It was loud."
"I see," Piotr said, and he did. This wasn't his first time sitting at the side of the road while the police cleaned up glass and oil. It wasn't even his thousandth.
"Well," Piotr said, realizing with quiet relief that he was on Rider duty once again, "I know a very nice place we can stay for a while until your Light appears. Will you come with me?" He rose to his feet and offered Jamie a hand. It was nice to be doing good work again, he mused as the first of the police cars drove away. It was wonderful to not feel so aimless and lost.
"My Light?" Jamie hopped to his feet and tucked the bill of his cap into the back pocket of his jeans before resting cool fingers in Piotr's open palm.
"I'll explain on the way," Piotr promised. As he walked and talked he saw Jamie's steps grow more confident, and his pace sped up. The after-death double vision must be fading, he realized. The living land was receding for Jamie, the Never pressing to the front. Soon Jamie would only see the grey and brooding Never as the bulk of the bright living world entirely faded away.
Piotr explained how sometimes, if you concentrated, you could faintly hear the shrillest, loudest living noises through the bulk of years, but they were muted, hardly more than faint whispers in the Never. He spoke of phasing through walls, thin in the Never, that were solid in the living lands, or how if a building or object were witness to enough powerful emotion, even after it had been destroyed in the living world a solid wall could remain in the Never, blocking passage.
The trip toward the abandoned steel mill Piotr's old clan had dubbed "the Treehouse" was much shorter than he remembered. Underfoot the road shimmered and shifted between buckled concrete and warped bricks, the striation of the roads that had existed before being layered on top of one another like packed sand on the beach.
They were almost to the Treehouse when he heard the scrape of stone on stone, the tumbledown sound of gravel shifting nearby. Immediately on edge, Piotr grabbed Jamie's wrist and yanked the boy behind him. When Jamie began to protest Piotr shushed him sharply, shoving a finger against his lips so hard he knew he'd bruise the next day.
"Walker," Piotr whispered, realizing only then that while he'd explained what Jamie would have to expect from being dead in the Never, he hadn't had the time to explain about the bogeymen that were the Walkers. Now was an inopportune time to learn.
"Stay back," he murmured, and fumbled at his hip, unsheathing the old bone dagger one-handed. Jamie hissed in surprise but Piotr didn't turn around. Just ahead, a few feet past a copse of skeletal oaks, Piotr watched the shadows shift.
Moving forward in the sliding hunter stalk Lily had taught him ages ago, Piotr balanced on the balls of his feet and shifted his toes under the crackling debris of the street. This slow stride made no noise and the relaxed stance of the shadow at the edge of the alley left Piotr confident that his presence had not yet been noted; he would easily be able to sneak up on the unwelcome visitor.
Rounding the corner, Piotr found himself face to rotting face with a black-robed Walker. The beast was, like all Walkers, grotesquely tall, slim, and bone white. Sections of its face were beginning to stretch against its bones, the desiccated flesh pulling taut against the ridge of cheekbone and jaw. Yellowing teeth clicked in a rough staccato as Piotr leapt forward, knife thrust outward, and stabbed the Walker in the shoulder.
"It dares!" hissed the Walker, swatting Piotr aside as if he weighed nothing. "The useless Rider flesh tries to sneak up on me!"
Unable to catch his balance, Piotr slapped hard against the side of the building, and cursed as the jagged bricks of the corner cut his left cheek in an irregular swath from nose to ear. He swiped the back of his hand against the wet spill of essence that sluiced down his chin and soaked his collar. Luckily his short flight and abrupt landing hadn't jarred the knife out of his hand. The bone blade wasn't even nicked.
"Ny ti i svoloch'," Piotr ground out, tightening his grip on the dagger, feeling the well-worn heft of it shift perfectly in his palm. "Of course, you must excuse me, but I just have this thing about foul dogs dropping in uninvited."
"You left this territory, flesh." The Walker stretched to its full height and swayed above Piotr menacingly. The hem of its robe fluttered about the yellow-bone shins, dangling hunks of rotting flesh slapping against its calves as it swayed left and right, left and right. "Riders are all gone. This land belongs to Walkers now."
"Over my dead body," Piotr snapped and dove for the Walker again. This time the once-man didn't even bother flinging him off—it merely let out a sound like grinding glass over asphalt, the best its stripped vocal cords could make of a laugh, and stood there while Piotr stabbed and stabbed and stabbed. Then it lifted its arms to reveal the swiss cheese he'd made of its cloak ... and the skeletal frame beneath. None of his swipes had broken the taut, stretched flesh.
Piotr fell back a step to analyze the situation. This Walker was far tougher than he was accustomed to, and smarter. Usually a solitary Walker would run rather than risk its precious skin in a fight. So why was this one staying, mocking him? Since there were no Lost nearby, there was no reason to ...
Stilling, Piotr went cold all over. It'd been weeks since he'd had a child, a Lost, to protect, and he'd forgotten all about Jamie in the heat of the fight! Spinning on his heel, Piotr rushed back around the corner to where he'd left the boy.
Jamie was gone. Only his cap, rapidly fading, remained.
Growling, Piotr scooped up the cap and scanned the area, hoping against hope that he'd hear a distant scream that would lead him in the right direction. The last of the cap, the tiny bit of Jamie's spiritual essence remaining, lost coherence. His fingers pressed together, and it was gone.
Jamie was gone.
Sick to his stomach with guilt, Piotr staggered a few steps away from the building, paying distant attention to the shadow at his back. The Walker was still laughing as it turned the corner and rested against the wall, the edges of its frayed hood trembling with glee.
"Rider loses something? So sad!" crooned the Walker. "Perhaps he is waylaid. It happens." The Walker was too nonchalant. It wasn't afraid of him in the least, which meant it had either recently fed well or it wasn't alone—or both.
"You are working in pairs," Piotr said, fingers clenching for the handle of his knife. Anger pulsed in a hard, steady beat behind his eyes, giving the clearing a stutter-flash look similar to what he saw when he let the visions of the living world sneak up on him. His fury felt like it was lighting up the night. "You haven't gone back to your old ways."
While the ghosts of adults and those of younger people, like the ones the Riders gathered in large, protective groups, tended to congregate where they'd had the most fun while alive, the Walkers had shed their silver cords and their souls in order to ensure their own sort of hideous half-life. For centuries they had been solitary, mistrusting creatures that avoided not only the light and heat of the living but also the other dead.
Until the White Lady came.
"Hunting alone?" The Walker waved a negligent hand as if to say that is so yesterday. "Why should we do so when it is so easy to draw foolish Riders away from prey?"
"Not all Riders are like me." Piotr put his back to the closest wall. "Most Riders go in packs. They're strong in will. Much stronger than a beast like you."
"Yes, we learn from the flesh!" The Walker cried, clapping its bony hands together. "She healed us, made us stronger, and taught us well! Many good lessons from the White Lady, yes! She says for us to work together, like flesh, like Riders do, like the other spirits do. It is hard at first but the White Lady had ways of making us follow her orders."
It touched its face, where the taut skin beneath the hollow eyes was crisscrossed with twisted ropes of scars and crosshatched brands burned into the flesh.
Despite his hatred of the once-man before him, Piotr winced in sympathy. He'd been well acquainted with the White Lady's persuasive methods. She'd been a master of healing the Walkers with a kiss or, if they angered her, stripping them to bare bones with a swipe.
It was no mystery why the Walkers had flocked to the White Lady, while they willingly subjected themselves to all sorts of agony in her employ. Living in the Never required a constant influx of willpower, the ability to keep slogging through the dim, gray days of eternity without looking too hard at the shadow of the world around you. The younger a person was when they died, the easier it was to keep going on in the Never. The young seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of willpower and hope.
Not so for souls who'd lived a longer life before passing into the Never. It was often a struggle just to keep going, and adult spirits who found their will weakening had a limited number of choices—they could allow themselves to fade away, as the Shades did, or they could follow the path of the Walkers.
Being a Walker was to willingly become a monster; Walkers chose to cannibalize the essence, the unlived years, of other spirits. Those unlived years were most plentiful in the ghosts of children, the Lost. They could get nothing from the Riders, but the Lost were like ripe peaches, sweet and juicy and filled with life.
No one could remember when it had all begun, but it had been this way for eons. The Riders grouped together and protected the Lost from the Walkers, the Walkers did everything in their power to steal away the child-spirits every chance they got.
Then the White Lady—Wendy's mother—had come into the Never and everything had grown further twisted and wrong. The Walkers, normally untrusting and near feral, began to work together. And the Riders, normally a tight-knit group dedicated to the Lost's cause, had fallen apart.
Excerpted from REAPER by K. D. McENTIRE Copyright © 2012 by K. D. McEntire. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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