"We'll reach the city by mid-day tomorrow, if we get moving by dawn," sai_ount Non.
"Good news," said Primo. "We need to reach the Kasla Mountains by the ful_oon. A shadow cast through a certain rocky promontory is the only way to fin_he entrance to Hell. If we miss the moon, we'll have to wait a month unti_he next one." He made a face and rubbed the shoulder where his arm wa_issing. Spyder felt for the guy. His side was hurting after the all-day hike.
"Fuck that," said Lulu. "Fuck that with Michael Jackson's pet monkey."
"Full moon's just a few days off. Think we can make it?" Spyder asked Shrike.
Shrike was smoking Spyder's last cigarette, puffing, then passing the butt t_im. Spyder took a drag, then passed the precious smoke to Lulu, who opene_er mouth to accept it like a communion Host. She smoked and passed the but_o Shrike, who leaned on her cane, lost in thought.
"We have to make it," Shrike said. "We can't hide out here like bugs in th_and for a month. We're lucky to have made it this far."
They sat in the entrance of a shallow cave, which served as cover for th_mall fire they had going to ward off the cold desert night. Earlier in th_vening, they'd stacked brush at the cave entrance to diminish the glow of th_ire, hoping not to be spotted by any scouts from the Seraphic Brotherhood, the Erragal prince or any of the other far too interested parties who might b_ooking for them. Spyder wasn't sure if "lucky" was the word he'd have used t_escribe their situation, but they were alive, and he had to admit that tha_ounted big time in the luck department. But his gratitude lessened with ever_tab of hunger and throb of his injured ribs.
"I wonder what Rubi's doing right now," said Lulu.
"Missing you," Spyder said. "Cursing me."
"Blue moon, you saw me standing alone, without a dream in my heart, without _ove of my own… ," Lulu sang softly. "Elvis should have stopped right there, you know? He never did fuck all to match those early Sun records."
"If he'd a stopped there, he wouldn't ever have recorded `Suspicious Minds.'
You got to suffer through some white Vegas jumpsuits to make it to `Suspiciou_inds.'"
"Was it worth dying on the shitter for?"
"For `Suspicious Minds'? Most definitely."
"I'm going to have to give you the benefit of the doubt on that one."
Spyder was sorry that Lulu had bought up Rubi. It made him think of Jenny, whom he no longer really missed, but who remained a kind of sick ache in hi_tomach. He couldn't even describe the sensation, but it was compounded o_egret and the sense that he'd failed as a human in some fundamental way an_hat her desertion was the most stark proof of that. On the simplest level, though, it just made him gloomy to think that someone he'd been so connecte_o was walking around hating him. He gave Shrike the last of the cigarette, went to the cave entrance, and sat down, letting the night breeze blow ove_im. The cold made him stop thinking.
He heard someone coming up behind him and saw Shrike settling down.
"You're quiet tonight," she said.
"It's a quiet night."
"You're thinking about home."
"I'm not thinking about anything right now."
"I liked your France story today."
"Would you like to hear one of mine?"
"Not right now. I mean, I want to, but I'm hurting and tired and won't be abl_o listen right."
"All right," she said. She held up her face to the wind as it blew into th_ave. Spyder thought she looked like a young wolf when she stretched her hea_p like that. She was beautiful.
"Tell me about being blind," Spyder said. "About how there's `blind and the_here's blind.'"
Shrike poked at the sand with her cane. "You probably sensed that I hav_oments where I can sort of see things."
"From the beginning."
"It's not really sight. It's low rent magic, which is the only kind I know. _ever had any formal magic training and just picked things along on the road.
Traded for spells. Bought them. Stole them, too. There has always been _ittle magic in my family, but my mother had that knowledge and she was dead.
I studied weapons because it made my father happy.
"When our kingdom was scattered and I was on the road, I only had th_ossessions I could grab from my bed side. A few family heirlooms. One o_hese was a kind of bracelet with a casting of a bird on top. A shrike. that'_y family's totem animal.
"We also had family gods which we prayed and made offerings to. All the roya_amilies have household gods. You need a deity or two on your side to kee_ther Houses from taking what's yours. Those who knew how could petition th_ods for favors. I didn't have that knowledge. But I got it.
"I'd run off some bandits from the property of an odd little man, Cosim_eisenberg, a kind of mechanical wizard. He made machines that were lik_eople. `Karakuri,' he called them. Little wind up men and women who coul_ing an aria or write a sonnet or sew a wedding gown.
"He wanted to pay me with a new set of eyes, but I didn't like the notion o_epending on mechanical, wind-up sight. So, he helped me use the gifts _lready had better. He made this cane for me, which, as you've seen, is mor_han a cane. He also examined my heirlooms to see if there was anything o_alue. He was the first person I'd trusted since leaving home.
"He checked out the bracelet with the bird and figured out what it was for.
You see, it made no sense as jewelry. The maker had cast the bird's claws fro_azor sharp steel and fitted them to the underside of the piece, so that the_ere in contact with the skin of the person wearing the bracelet. There wa_lso a spring mechanism to rake the claws down the wearer's arm. What us_ould there be for something like that?"
"Cutting. Blood," said Spyder, who'd seen his share of bloodletting an_carring rituals among the üer-hipster modern primitive crowd in Sa_rancisco.
"Exactly. The bracelet was an instrument of sacrifice, a device for making _lood offering to my family gods. Say the right incantation and release th_pring on the silver shrike. The blades would take your blood and help you ge_hat you want. On a small scale. It's not much of a sacrifice. Only good fo_mall favors. Like a second or two of sight."
"What do you see? Is it like normal vision?"
"Nothing at all. It's like I'm floating above the scene, looking down o_verything happening. I can see myself and my opponent, plus the nearb_andscape. The visions never last for long. Just long enough for me to get m_earings and a sense of an opponent. I can't do it too often. The gods ge_ired of these dime store sacrifices. I have to be careful not to ask fo_heir help too often."
Spyder frowned. "I wondered why you kept that coat on, even in the heat.
You're hiding the bracelet."
"And my arm," said Shrike. "It's not something to see."
"How many times have you used the bracelet?"
"I don't know. Sometimes you make a blood offering without asking for anythin_n return. Sometimes, when you're boxed in, say, you use it more than once.
More blood sometimes mean more sight. Sometimes not. I've been using it fo_en years."
Spyder reached over and pushed up the sleeve of Shrike's coat. The bracele_as on her right forearm. It was a beautiful object. Like something tha_elonged in a museum, he thought. He turned Shrike's arm over and worked th_racelet's clasp, sliding the thing off her arm. Shrike's skin was streake_ith years of ragged scar tissue. The back of her arm was red with new scars, still in the healing process. She'd used it on the airship, Spyder thought.
He set the bracelet over his own arm. It was too small to go all the wa_round, so he held it in place and pushed the metal shrike back until he fel_t catch. Feeling around the bird's wings, he found the release button an_ushed it. The bird raked down his arm, sending an electric pain all the wa_p to his shoulder. When Shrike heard the bracelet snap, she started a littl_nd felt for him.
"What did you do?" she asked.
"I wanted to know what it was like," Spyder said. He leaned down and kisse_er scars before putting the bracelet back on Shrike's arm. She leaned int_im and he put his bloody arm around her.
"Where I come from, this isn't your standard dating scenario," Spyder said.
Shrike laughed at little. "But I guess it's one way to get to know eac_ther."
Spyder looked up. Primo was standing over them.
"I hate to intrude, but I need to speak to madame Butcher Bird."
"Meaning you want me to take off?" asked Spyder.
Primo was silent.
"It's all right, Primo. Spyder is part of this and can hear anything you hav_o say."
"Yes, ma'am," Primo said. He groaned as he sat down. "There's something Madam_inders didn't tell you, afraid that you might not agree to perform th_ervice she requires."
"She wanted you to tell me when we were on the road and in too deep to tur_ack."
"Yes, ma'am. I'm sorry. I would have preferred not to do things this way."
"It's all right. I understand that it wasn't your choice. What is it that wa_oo awful for me to know?"
"The mutinous spirits in hell, the confusion that is to be our cover?"
"Some say that it is led by the Golden Bull, Xero Abrasax."
Shrike was silent. She stabbed the ground with her cane.
"Shrike?" said Spyder. "You know this guy?"
"He's the… "
"Yes, he's the bastard traitor who fucked me, took my father, my sight and m_ingdom."
"There's more, I'm afraid," said Primo.
"Fuck that sick bitch," Spyder said.
"Be quiet," said Shrike. "Tell me the rest, Primo."
"The key that Madame put into your body. You know that it was forged in Hell.
It is not an object that is compatible with life. If you fail to reach th_age in which the book rests, the key will move through your body, as it i_oing even now, and pierce your heart. You will die."
"We should turn around right now," said Spyder. "We've got the Count with us.
She'd never expect an ambush. We'll kick her chair over, pull out her tube_nd stand on her fucking throat until she takes that thing out of you."
"I can't do that. Loyalty is all people in my profession have."
"Excuse me, ma'am, but Mr. Spyder has a point. Whatever you decide, this I'_elling you as a friend and a Gytrash: Madame Cinders does not always hono_er bargains gracefully. When this is over, you must be wary."
"Swell," said Spyder. "If we fail we're screwed and if we succeed we'r_ucked."
"Thank you for telling me. You're a true friend," said Shrike. She reached ou_nd squeezed the little man's hand.
"What are you going to do?" he asked.
"We have to go forward. Without the book, we have nothing to bargain with.
With it, we have a chance."
"We can cut and run," said Spyder. "Disappear into that city ahead. Or trad_or a ship and go somewhere."
"There are too many people looking for us," said Shrike. "There's no ship tha_an sail us away from this mess. And I need to get this key out of my body.
The only way to do that is to get to Hell and succeed."
"I'm going with you," said Spyder.
"You can't. One glimpse of the underworld and you'll be trapped ther_orever."
"I'm not going to sit by the door reading the funnies, wondering what tim_ou're getting home from work."
"This is just stupid and dangerous. Why are you doing this?"
Spyder kissed Shrike's cheek. "Didn't you get the memo? Heroes are comin_maller this year."
They went and sat back down at the fire with Count Non and Lulu. The Count ha_is long legs propped against the far wall of the cave. Spyder watched as _arantula worked its way down from the ceiling, stepped onto to Count's boo_nd crept up his leg. When it reached his hip, Non grabbed the tarantula an_ossed it into the fire, where it writhed and sizzled. Spyder looked at th_an.
"When you cut out the poison sac, tarantula tastes a lot like crab," the Coun_aid.
"There must be some seriously fucked up Boy Scouts where you come from," sai_pyder.
Lulu was making shadow animals on the wall. She wiggled her fingers to creat_ giant spider.
"The Count and I were having a chat, and we agree on the whole Elvis thing.
`Suspicious Minds' is a fine song, but Tom-fucking-Jones could've sung it jus_s well. Probably did, too. I'd know, only I don't have any Tom Jones CDs."
"I have a bootleg of Elvis doing `Suspicious Minds' live that I'll play fo_ou when we get back," said Spyder. "You'll see that the song is wort_nduring a few white leather jumpsuits. For the truly great moments in thi_ife, you've got to take the good with the bad."