Authors: K.D. McEntire
A steady pace brought them just inside Elle's territory by midmorning. The idea of leaving the kids so close to the haunts of the living bothered Piotr deeply, but Elle was particular about her space, and likely wouldn't stand for another Rider on her turf for long—especially if that Rider were Piotr.
As if sensing his thoughts, an arrow speared the road inches from his toes, shooting shards of brick shrapnel in every direction. Piotr raised his hands high as the arrow quivered in the street, testament to Elle's skill. Raising his voice, Piotr glanced left and right, trying to determine from which direction the missile had flown. “
, Elle!” he called, striving to keep his tone light, cheerful. “Good morning!”
“How many times have I told you to stop with that foreign jibber-jabber?” echoed a reply, sounding both close and far all at once. Elle had picked her hiding spot well. “A simple ‘Hi, Elle’ will do me just fine.”
Piotr bowed at the waist, struggling to keep his senses attuned to their surroundings, attempting to assess which direction the arrow had come from. “My apologies! Good morning, Elle. I see that you've gotten better at hiding.”
“You haven't.” There was a light tread behind him and Elle's hand firmly cupped the back of his neck, the strength in her fingers daring him to try something. Knowing the power of those hands and the muscles behind them, Piotr held still.
“Elle!” cried Dora, dropping her bags and flinging her arms around the slight girl holding him hostage. “I missed you!”
The hand squeezed sharply once, pinching, before dropping away. Elle turned to embrace the child. Freed, Piotr swiveled and dropped his hands cautiously to his pockets, hooking his thumbs just inside.
Dora had always adored Elle and the feeling was mutual. Watching them hug was like watching a rainbow appear from the mist—all the darkness fell away and they were momentarily awash in happiness and light. Where the two of them touched, crackles of blue essence hummed, the years traveling from Dora into Elle and back to Dora in a circuit of joy. Dora was so pleased Piotr could taste her energy on the air itself.
Keeping her tone easy, Elle glanced up from rubbing her cheek along the top of Dora's head, and said, “I never'a thought a palooka like you'd show your mug around here. Didn't I give you the bum's rush last time?”
“Yes, well, times change.” Piotr scratched his chin and glanced up at the brilliant silver sky. The sun shone with fiery white light, basking them in its dim warmth and faded glory, but in the distance thick black clouds churned above the sea. “The weather's looking foul. May we move this elsewhere?”
Elle rose from her crouch, muscles rippling. Her short, fringed tunic and thigh-high skirt left nothing to the imagination and Piotr politely turned his face away. Noticing his discomfort, Elle smirked. “Fine, ya wet blanket. What's eating you?”
“A Walker was poking around the mill last night.”
Elle stilled and her blonde waves, silvery pale and close-cropped, trembled. “It sussed you out.”
“Yes. And it escaped.” Piotr shoved his hands deep into his pockets and hunched over slightly. “So I was wondering if you'd—”
“Of course.” Elle turned fluidly, taking Dora's hand in her left hand and Specs' hand in her right. “This way.”
Once, when they had been on better terms, Elle had confided in Piotr and shared some of her living memories like the jewels they were. She'd been a gymnast once, and rich, spoiled by parents with too much money and not enough time for their wild daughter. Archery, horseback riding, a separate tutor for every fancy. In the Never, these skills made her a handy ally but a terrible enemy. Piotr struggled to keep up as Elle sped through walls and past throngs of living men, their heat momentarily searing but fading the further they traveled. Confidently athletic, Elle raced along, never turning to note his pace behind.
It was early afternoon when they neared the pier and Elle's home. Unlike the mill, one derelict building among many where few humans bothered wandering, Elle's tribe squatted in an abandoned bookshop just off the main strip of Pier 39, the walls papered with droppings and overrun with nesting rats.
If he squinted, Piotr could just make out the words “Coming Soon” above the door. The letters were pink with age, however, and the floor inside was littered with the ghostly living shapes of sleeping rats huddled beneath overturned bookshelves and gently decaying easy chairs. Termites chewed the stairs, seagulls cooed in the eaves, and the floor was white and pebbled with decades of dried droppings. The living animal heat was mild however, easy to stand, and Piotr passed the rats with no problem.
The third floor of the bookstore was empty of furniture but sectioned into offices, the areas claimed by Elle's dozen or so Lost clearly marked with bundles of possessions and sectioned apart with piles of books that reached the warped and splintered ceiling. Elle led them here, leaving the kids to pick spaces of their own while she unstrung her bow and checked the arrows in her quiver.
Piotr, at a loss for what to do in this room once familiar but now alien, hovered near the door as Tubs explored the cupboard underneath the stairs and Specs unpacked in a relatively clean hollow in a far corner lined with the ghostly original copies of Yeats, Dickenson, and Blake.
Without pausing from her work, Elle said, “I have to hand it to you, Pete, you've done a good job with those kids. They kept pace pretty well.”
Piotr crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the doorway. He was surprised to realize that he was relieved. Elle was a good fighter, and smart. She'd keep his Lost safe. “That wasn't me. I still don't train them the way you do.”
She snorted. “You oughta.”
Well, I say let kids be kids.” Piotr rubbed the bridge of his nose. It was warm up here, and close. He felt as if he could barely breathe. “As long as they want to be, that is.”
“Whatever. You staying, too?” Elle glanced up from her task. Her voice was pitched low. “I don't see that excuse you call a bag.”
“Have you forgiven me?”
“Never will.” Elle returned to her task, her fingers flying nimbly over the arch of the bow, smoothing and polishing the grain of the wood. “But maybe I can forget for a bit. We can be copasetic for an emergency.”
“Then I'm not going to impose.” Ignoring the bittersweet pang at her words, Piotr sketched a shallow bow. “I owe you that courtesy.” Glad to have the current state of their animosity sorted out, Piotr stepped away from the door and raised his voice. “I'm leaving.”
“What?” Dora appeared at the door of a far office, pale-faced and scowling. “You ain't staying too?”
“Sorry, I can't.” Piotr knelt down and opened his arms. Tubs trundled willingly in for a hug but Specs and Dora hung back, both frowning. “I need to go get the lay of the land.”
Dora tried again. “But it ain't safe—”
“For you.” Passing Tubs to Elle's waiting arms, Piotr rose and dusted his knees. “Walkers usually don't eat Riders, remember?” he teased, poking his bicep. “Our meat's too tough.”
“Technically, you aren't a Rider anymore,” Specs pointed out, pushing his glasses up his nose. When Piotr wouldn't drop his arms, Specs reluctantly stepped to Piotr's side and hugged him. When he squeezed, Piotr could feel Specs' ribs and the steady thrum of the years unlived just beneath his skin. “You quit, remember?”
“Teenagers, then.” Specs stepped away and Piotr held out his arms. “Dora, please? I don't know when I'll be back this way again.” He glanced out the window as he pleaded, noting the swiftly rising fog rolling in from the bay and the dappled clouds covering the shining silver sun. The storm was rolling in.
“I changed my mind.” Hurrying across the room, Dora dropped her backpack at his feet and flung herself at Piotr. Clinging powerfully to his waist she cried, “I ain't stayin' here without you.”
“Geeze, thanks,” Elle muttered under her breath, and Piotr hid a smile.
“It's safer here for you.” Piotr knelt down and embraced Dora tightly. “Elle is amazing at this. You know how good she is with her bow. She'll keep you safe.”
“But you ain't comin' back if I stay!”
Piotr groaned. He hugged her tighter. “I promise. I promise that when I can guarantee there aren't any more Walkers sniffing around the mill, I'll come back for you three, yes? We'll go back home as soon as it's safe.
She sniffled, drawing back slightly. “You promise?”
“Cross my heart.”
“'Kay.” Pulling away, Dora knelt down and sorted through her bag until she had her sketchbook in hand. She flipped to the last page and ripped the tree sketch free. “Take it. You promised.”
“I promise,” he agreed, taking her sketch and tucking it away before dropping a final kiss on her tousled curls.
Elle, balancing Tubs easily on her hip, followed Piotr down the stairs. One-handed, she loosened a dagger from her hip and slapped the flat of the blade against his upper arm until Piotr took the gift and tied it at his side. Like all Elle's weapons, the dagger was honed to a razor-sharp edge and curved cruelly.
“Offer's still open if you change your mind.” Elle jiggled Tubs until he giggled. “Isn't that right? Isn't it?” Tubs babbled happily and the warm haze of his energy surrounded them in a sweetly scented mist.
“Keep them safe.” Piotr momentarily considered kissing Elle's cheek but thought better of it. Dagger or not, she was still pissed at him.
In the distance a trolley bell dinged, faint and faraway. The fog was starting to really move now, rolling across the streets in swift and steady waves, already up to Piotr's knees. Up the street the living thronged together, ignoring the fog and the dank smell of rotting fish rising from the sea. Nearby a woman screamed laughter; for the living it would be piercing, but Elle and Piotr were cushioned by the years of empty silence and could barely hear the cry.
“You keep yourself safe,” Elle retorted. “Just cuz I hate you don't mean I want you pushin' up daisies. Again, I mean.” She smirked.
“I'll try to do my best,” he replied gravely and left, moving swiftly towards the shifting, eddying crowd.
“You always do,” Elle sighed, waiting at the door until Piotr had vanished into fog and humanity. Then, fondly, she added, “Jackass.”
he rising wind whipped flurries of debris about Piotr's ankles, lifting discarded shopping bags and candy wrappers into drifts like piles of autumn leaves. The brick streets beneath his shoes, warped into strange and twisted shapes by age and tectonic activity, were only the fading memories of the meticulously laid brick roads that had been before. Soon the remainder would crumble away, revealing concrete buckled by the California heat, already warped into rolling hills in the center, collecting water and spiritual debris with every summer storm.
Drifting along, letting the wind guide him as if he were as light as the trash spinning by, Piotr concentrated on the journey home rather than brood on what he'd just lost. It took all his will not to turn around and go back, to accept Elle's generous sanctuary and learn to move among the living like a shadow. He couldn't though, even if he wanted to. The sky had opened above him, rain poured down, and there were Walkers abroad.
Night was falling, brought in with the storm, and Piotr sped his pace, skidding down Highway 101's embankment, kicking aside flattened disks of soda cans and sodden cardboard boxes in his wake. The steel mill, their treehouse sanctuary, was still many miles distant, hidden amid the sprawl of industrial buildings and businesses that once thrived at the edge of the city, near the humid stink of the canal. Carefully maintaining his balance on the rain-slick grass, Piotr almost missed the sharp cry of pain amid the drubbing of rain and cracks of blue lightning across the sky.
He paused and it came again, a brief shout from the tangle of buildings just south of the highway, articulate with fear. Stepping up his pace, Piotr followed the scream, heart thudding in his chest and breath coming in short, harsh bursts.
Just south of the water treatment plant three figures fought, sliding through the fog and reflected highway halogens like skaters across ice. Two were long and lean and white-clad— Walkers—but the third, Piotr was surprised to note, was a short, dark figure he recognized: Lily.
What is she doing here, so far away from her own turf?
Piotr thought, but then he spotted moonlit steel. Lily was backed against the building, left thigh torn open clear to the bone and leaking silver essence in rivulets like blood; despite her wounds, Lily gave as good as she got, twin daggers flashing.
“Lily,” he cried, sprinting now, “hang on!”
Hearing him, Lily's attention wavered for a critical instant. One Walker was attacking her face-on, but the moment she paused the other swooped in from the side, clawing her deeply across the hip.
“LILY!” Reaching her side, Piotr slammed the second Walker into the wall. Up close he could see a line of jaw beneath the white hood, and the teeth of the Walker where they poked through the rotting holes in its cheek. Coarse black stubble rasped against his hand as Piotr slapped the Walker's head against the wall over and over again, curling one hand in the white cloak for purchase. A stench puffed out at him from the fabric, rot and wet decay, moist with a black stink like old sour dirt and albino, crawling things.
Then it laid hands on him, gripping him at the wrists, and Piotr was filled with cold.
The Walker's icy touch sapped him almost immediately, drawing the strength from Piotr's arms and chilling his fury away. He could still hear Lily's raspy cries of pain but they were distant, unimportant, and slowly, under the Walker's insistent pressure, Piotr's fist loosened and fell away.
Laying a palm flat against Piotr's chest, the Walker hissed in a slow and ragged language. Piotr felt a tug deep inside, a slow painful tearing like a hangnail peeling skin and nail away from the quick. He gasped for air but the pull lasted only a moment before the Walker drew his hand away in disgust.
“Too old,” the Walker snarled, taking Piotr by the back of his neck and shaking him like a naughty kitten. “No years from you!”
“Sorry ’bout that,” Piotr slurred and the Walker flung him away. Once outside the range of that intractable cold, Piotr could feel his will returning with the thawing of his limbs. Crawling on hands and knees, he made his way towards Lily, who'd collapsed in a heap only a few yards away. She appeared unconscious.
“No use,” hissed Piotr's Walker. “No souls here. No life here. Only Rider filth.”
“The White Lady will shriek,” the other said, ignoring Piotr and nudging Lily with the toe of one white boot. “We should lick their bones in retribution.”
“Poshyel k chyertu,”
Piotr cursed, reaching Lily's side and blocking her protectively. “And you can rot there, for all I care!” Forgetting Elle's dagger entirely, Piotr fumbled for Lily's bone knives, still clutched in her fists.
His hand was kicked away. Piotr stubbornly stretched for the knives again but the Walker's foot thrust down, grinding his wrist against the dirt. Skeletal fingers clad in loose gloves of their own rotting flesh pressed on his shoulders, pinning him to the ground. Behind him Lily moaned, eyes fluttering open.
he gasped, trying not to breathe through his nose. The nauseating stench was all around them now, the cold seeping again into Piotr's bones and thoughts, slowing his reaction time to a crawl, and trapping him like a fly in molasses. Frigid molasses.
Her voice came at him from a million miles away. “Piotr? What's that light?”
Flush against his teeth Piotr's tongue felt numb and dumb, his lips frozen shut, forming garbled words in slow motion. “What…light?”
But he could feel it now, the odd warmth that tickled his skin, melting the cold of the Watchers away in rivulets of sharp white light. The pinning hands and foot were abruptly gone, stripped away, and Piotr took advantage of their absence, staggering to his feet. The area lit up in a corona, spilling around corners and through windows, shining with a fierce insistence across the dusty, hardpan yard. It stretched impossibly far, illuminating even the distant highway with bright, clean light.
“Whatever it is, it began glowing and they perked up like hounds scenting a bitch. They followed it.” Lily's voice trembled. Groaning, she pointed in the direction of the southernmost building. “The Walkers left.”
Puzzled, Piotr turned and squinted in the direction she pointed. She spoke the truth. “Maybe they weren't hungry after all?”
“Impossible.” She lapsed into her native tongue, querying. When Piotr, uncomprehending, didn't reply, she switched to English with a frown. “The fox does not relinquish the hare so easily when the kill is moments away. Why would they leave like that?”
Piotr leaned down and scooped Lily into his arms. Though corded with muscle, his old mentor was still light as thistledown, slight, and easy to lift. “Who cares? Let's leave before they change their minds.” Thankfully her leg was already beginning to mend, layers of effervescent tissue bubbling forth over the bone. Healing for their kind was slow without the touch of one of the Lost. Still, he was glad it had been just the two of them. A Walker scenting the Lost often went into berserker frenzy. Piotr couldn't imagine having to protect both Lily and a child against one Walker, much less against two of them.
They had to get out of there, NOW.
“Piotr, wait.” Lily struggled in his grip. “I cannot leave. For many nights I have walked with the moon to track those monsters here.”
“You…Lily, why? You're still camped out in San Jose,
Why would you chase a pair of Walkers all this way?”
“The death dealers took Dunn. I will not leave without learning his fate.” Her eyes were bright with tears that did not fall.
Sympathy welled in Piotr, coupled with abject horror. Losing one of your Lost was a horrible feeling, one no Rider should ever have to go through, but losing a child to the Walkers was worse. He ached for her loss. “Oh,” he murmured.
, Lily. I'm so sorry.”
“There is no sorry,” she snapped, sloe eyes flashing. “Put me down.”
, I cannot.” Piotr shook his head and started towards the highway. “They almost killed you and were going to chew on us to round out the evening. I won't let you serve yourself up for a second helping.”
“Let me go!”
Firmly, he tightened his grip, careful of her wounded leg. “No, Lily,” he said, careful to emphasize the English word. “I will not.”
“I hope you rot, Piotr.” Then, viper-quick, she punched him in the nose.
Without meaning to, Piotr dropped her, clapping his hands to his face as the tears streamed down. Piotr heard her limping quickly away, the scrape of her boots loud in the strange, still brilliance filling the courtyard.
By the time the dots had quit dancing in front of his eyes, Piotr had lost sight of Lily, but, unwilling to let her face the Walkers alone, he raced after, toward the light. Within moments crossing the distance grew difficult; the air had grown thick and syrupy, yet still comfortably warm, like wading through the midsummer surf, tidal in its intensity.
Just ahead Lily knelt, hands resting on knees, eyes cast forward. Further on by quite a distance the two Walkers cut their way through the air, moving rapidly toward a shining figure, lit from within. Even at this distance, Piotr could feel the heat the creature gave off, and the prismatic fire at its core was near blinding.
“Lily?” Piotr knelt beside her. “What is it? What's wrong? Are you hurt further?”
“Piotr,” she breathed, “do you see her? Do you see
“Who?” Piotr touched Lily's shoulder. She was trembling.
, Piotr. The bringer of light.” Tears coursed down her cheeks, wetting the curtain of her thick black hair. “I've been here so many years, Piotr. So many years, almost as many as…” She hesitated then forged on. “My people, my shaman, I thought they were all mistaken. They weren't.
Shameless with joy, Lily cried and rocked back and forth on her heels, humming under her breath between words. Passionate and vivid, lit by the light, her voice had taken on a lyrical, musical quality, almost a chanting tone. “I had heard rumors of a creature made of light…but I never believed them. Yet here, now, in this forsaken place, in these grey lands, I've finally found the Lightbringer.”
Dazzled and confused, Piotr turned to look again. The figure was small, but brilliant, lit up from within by the intensity of the light pouring from every pore. As he watched it raised two arms outward, seemingly embracing the oncoming Walkers. The faster one reached the figure, only the outline of its cloak setting it apart from the light.
Something about the sluggish way they moved struck Piotr as strange and wrong. The deadly grace of the two Walkers was stripped away, leaving only wooden puppets lurching toward the light like moths…like moths flying straight at candlelight.
“Lily,” Piotr whispered harshly, scooping the young woman again in his arms, “it's time to leave,
If that…thing…is a god, I don't know about you, but I don't want to be around when—”
Suddenly, from the depths of the creature, tentacles of light shot out, spearing the Walker through the chest, arms, and legs. They were horrific to look at—unnaturally long and quick, the fluidly shifting tentacles were spiky with light and energy, pulsing around the edges in a purple nimbus.
One after another more tentacles, over a dozen in all, burst from the Lightbringer's chest, stretched, and wrapped around the other Walker, downing it in a moment and dragging it kicking and shrieking forward. It fought, kicking and lashing with the sharpened finger bones, but the Lightbringer only shuddered under the onslaught, barely budging.
A smoky stench, sickly sweet and cloying, drifted downwind as the creature lifted the Walkers up, each impaled on the end of the long and thick tentacles. The scent was like leaves burning; the screams painfully shrill.
Then the first Walker started to flake apart before their eyes, cinders of its essence peeling from the core and floating in the light before burning crisply away. The second Walker doubled its shrieking but the tentacles never wavered, the screaming never stopped.
“No. No-no-no—” Lily gasped and, turning her face daintily aside, retched on Piotr's shoes. In the distance, after long moments, the shrieks finally wound down and the rich, thick smell of burning began to fade away.
Slowly the creature turned towards them and Piotr could feel a sinuous urge seep into him—he wanted to get closer to the light.
“I think,” Lily said, wiping her hand across her mouth, “that perhaps that may not be
“The Lightbringer,” Piotr whispered, using all the willpower he had to take one stumbling backward step and then another. Turning his back on the creature, he closed his eyes to the light and concentrated on putting one foot before the other until they reached the highway and the urge to leap into the light miraculously subsided.
There, worn and weary, he sank to the earth, and it was Lily's turn to watch over him.