Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Willful Weapon

The torch of the Statue of Liberty blazed with an unearthly light. The steamship lumbered through the retina-stinging nimbus which draped the colossal lady and her fortress pedestal in a luminescent haze. Cellach mac Rath crowded with the rest of the bedraggled masses on the deck and watched his destiny loom ever closer: the towers of Manhattan, garlanded with gargoyles and lit with the fires of a million lanterns. Turgid clouds of dragon-towed airships docked at skyscrapers’ spires. It was like being slowly ejected from a golden womb of dreams, comforting but vague, into a stark, unknown reality.

He wondered if Ma and Da’s generation had experienced the same feeling, when the Awakening blew the tops off the Hollow Hills, expelling the Tuatha de Danaan from the gleaming paragon cities of the Otherworld into damp, drab Eiru. And now, as a result of an injustice so unspeakable his mind recoiled from the thought of it, he had escaped from Eiru for freedom on an even farther shore.

The steamship docked at Ellis Island and the newcomers surged into a spired sandstone castle and its cavernous Registry Room. From the ceiling hung a pair of enormous American flags that could have been used as topsails. A healer with a white robe and impossibly cold hands made him open his mouth so she could send her familiars inside. The luminescent insect-sprites flitted into his insides and danced around his eyeballs, then flew to their mistress’s ear and proclaimed him in good health in their whispery cant, or at least they must have, because the healer’s thumb jerked him toward the line for the immigration clerks. A hulking ogre from Brest behind him was not so lucky, and struggled with the guards as they hauled him toward Quarantine, accused of some sort of fungal infection.

“Next! C’mon, Irish, voyage not long enough for you? Let’s go.” A clerk with grey muttonchops urged him forward with a hand.

His golden eyes flashed. “Not Irish. Sidhe.”

“Oh? Take the hat off, let me see the ears.” The clerk groaned when he saw the tips sticking out from Cellach’s long flaxen hair. “Great, another one.”

“What does that mean?” The familiar fire ignited in him, the one that he was old enough to recognize but too young to control.

“Nothing.” The clerk turned his bifocals to the processing card on the lectern before him. “Name?”

“Cellach mac Rath.”

“Kellogg?”

“Cell. Lack.”

“Age?”

“I have counted one hundred and thirty-seven summers.”

“A spring chicken. Good for you. Destination?”

“The Glass Castle, it is in—”

“Five Points.” The clerk peered meaningfully at Cellach over his glasses in a way the Sidhe did not understand. “I have heard of it. I won’t bother asking ‘Occupation,’ then.”

He stamped the card and handed it back to Cellach. “Okey-doke, welcome to America, Kellogg. Santa’s Workshop is three thousand miles that way. Better start walking now, or you’ll never make it.”

“What? Who is this Santa?”

“Next?” The clerk waved forward the Peloponnesian kobold in line behind him. “Let’s go, scaly.”

The surge of newcomers dismissed from other lines and moving toward the wide, inviting doors beyond caught up Cellach in their mass and carried him toward the exit. But he looked down at the transit card and saw the name registered at top: “Kellogg McRoss.” He turned and pushed his way through the horde back to the clerk, his broad shoulders and sinewy arms knocking down an arriving Russian grandmother by accident. He grabbed the clerk by the shoulder of his uniform and shook.

“This is not my name,” he said.

“So?” the clerk said, eyes flashing in anger the way landlord Sliney’s had when he caught Cellach in his daughter’s room, between his daughter’s legs.

“Clan mac Rath of shining Gorias has nobly served the High King Bres against the Fomor since the Second Battle of Moytura. It is an honorable name and by the oldest tree in oldest wood, you will not take it from me.

Cellach’s voice became a growl and his eyes turned the color of molten steel and the clerk’s face now looked like Sliney’s after the landlord struck him with an iron shovel from the hearth and the familiar fire burned away every tether on his self control and he walked across the room bare-ass naked and tore Sliney’s windpipe out through the front of his throat.

“Kinsman!” A Sidhe he had never seen before suddenly interposed himself between Cellach and the clerk, pulling him away just as his hand reached for the man’s neck. Turning to the pale, saucer-eyed human he said, “Forgive me, I know visitors are supposed to wait outside, but I could not resist, as soon as I saw him—it’s been almost a century since he laid eyes on me last! Cousin!”

He embraced Cellach with both arms, then stuffed a wad of folded-up bills into the front pocket of the petrified clerk’s uniform. “Thank you so much for your assistance in arranging this happy reunion, my friend.”

The Sidhe took Cellach by the arm and steered him to the exit. “I do not know you,” Cellach said.

“My name is Annwn, nice to meet you, now shut the fuck up.” His thin, stringy hair barely covered his pate, which barely reached to Cellach’s shoulder. He had a potbelly. It occurred to Cellach that he had never seen a fat Sidhe before. “Per arrangement with your kin in Eiru, I am taking you to the chieftain of the Glass Castle.”

“Is that Santa?”

Annwn stopped and looked at him.

“No,” he said. “It’s not Santa.”

• • •

Glass castles were common enough in the Otherworld, but the one on the Lower East Side was the only of its kind in North America. Its smoky green bulk could be seen oppressing the skyline anywhere in the city, rising out of the vortex of Five Points, the central orifice into which all human refuse and refuse humanity of New York poured.

Much to Cellach’s surprise, its chieftain was a twelve-foot tall Fomor, red-eyed and wattle-skinned, wearing pin-striped pants and a lanyard. At a table at the far end of the Glass Castle’s uppermost common room he sat devouring what appeared to have been a calf, back when it had skin. Instead of a left hand, a thick bone jutted from the stump at his wrist; this he used to spear the calf squishily in the ribs and hold it in place while his right hand sawed off strips of moist flesh with a cleaver. Cellach could not tell if the bone spear was an old injury made practicable or the singular deformity unique to each member of the Fomor race.

When Annwn presented the new arrival to his boss, the half-dozen Sidhe and Fomor youths lounging around with whores in their laps roused from lethargy into something not quite resembling interest. Dalbor og Fomor swiveled one eye up at him for half a second before returning it to his butchery.

“That doe-like look of surprise on your face?” he said, circling the air with the cleaver. “In New York it will be lethal to you. Learn to hide it if you cannot banish it entirely, which is better. In the Otherworld, you were Sidhe and I was Fomor, and we were always at war.

“Here? You are an elf. And I am a troll. These American cunts cannot be bothered to learn the right name for anything. They still call their own natives ‘Indians,’ for Mab’s sake.”

He upended a fifth of whiskey into his razor-lined maw and slammed the empty bottle down on the table. “And most importantly, you only war with who I tell you to. Because I own you now.”

Dalbor og Fomor nodded at Annwn, who underhanded Cellach’s rucksack at the gang. He had thought the fat elf had taken it from him in a show of hospitality; now his face burned with shame at his naïveté as the greasy youths pulled it apart like wolves on a rabbit, parceling away his fine clothes and the wooden flute he had amused himself with on the long voyage. They fell to fighting over the golden torc his mother had given him, with five fine small emeralds set in each rosebud point.

Annwn managed to hold him back from the redistribution of his possessions until the torc appeared, but at the sight of it, Cellach broke free and knocked the others down in a whirlwind of fury until he held the neck ring in his hands. “This is a clan heirloom and none but I have the right to—”

“Right?” Dalbor closed his pincers around the ring and yanked him off the ground so violently his grip loosened and he dropped to his knees on the floor. “I give rights. I take them away. You killed a human. All County Cork was mad for your blood. We wanted nothing to do with you. You were too hot. But your mother begged. She begged. The things she said she would do . . .” He clucked his purple tongue. “We almost took her up on a few of them, but no. Instead, we took pity. Got you false papers. Booked you passage. These things cost money. Money you now owe. One hundred dollars.”

“This?” He admired the torc and its green stones. “This has maybe . . . five dollars’ worth of gold-plating. But see? It has five points. I am the chieftain of Five Points.”

He shoved the ring down the front of his trousers. “And it fits so nice and snug around my cock.” His underlings bayed with laughter.

No sooner had Cellach staggered to his feet than Dalbor began pushing him back with the tip of his bone-spear hand. “How shall you pay me back, that is the question.” His footsteps made the tankards tremble on the tabletops. “Trials will determine this, as is the ancient custom of our people.”

Cellach bumped up against a waist-high railing. He looked down into a pit of blood-streaked mud.

“Killers, them I can use. They get paid the best and take the least shit. But killing an old man because you can’t keep your dick out of the local humans? You’re going to have to do better than that, me boyo.”

“He wasn’t old,” Cellach said.

“What?”

“Landlord Sliney was in the—the prime of his life.”

“My fucking hero,” Dalbor sneered. “Then you shouldn’t have a thing to worry about.”

Cellach glanced down into the pit, then at the Fomor. “Am I to be unarmed?”

Dalbor grunted, strode back to his table, picked up the empty whiskey bottle by its neck and underhanded it into Cellach’s arms.

“Congratulations,” he said, “you’re armed.”

He then slammed the flat of his great-nailed rhinoceros foot into the middle of Cellach’s chest, shattering the bottle against it and sending the Sidhe spinning head over heels into the pit.

He landed with a crash and a splash of mud, knocking the wind out of him. On the far end of the pit, a wooden gate rattled open and out rushed a naked creature with a spiked mace raised high over his helmet. Cellach just managed to roll to the side before the blow landed. A shard of the bottle glass that had fallen with him jammed deep in his hip, and his blood spilled freely.

Agony seared through the wound as he tried to stand up. The wild man screamed his awful piercing scream and swung the mace up right below Cellach’s ribs, the spikes digging into his ribs and lifting him off his feet. He crashed into the wooden bars of the cage that encircled them and the assembled whores and killers bellowed out a single cry on impact, drowning out his own.

On his back, he could see his assailant was a human, near-purple with old scars and an elaborate eagle tattoo with a wingspan touching his nipples. It marked him as a member of the White League, a nativist, anti-immigrant society that specialized in terrorizing nonhumans. Dalbor’s gang must have captured him and impressed him into gladiatorial service as his one slim chance for survival. A bullet-shaped helmet had been screwed around his head and through its faceplate all Cellach could see was hair and madness.

The White Leaguer swung the mace over his head with two hands and brought it down with another piercing war cry, but the Triple Goddesses took pity on Cellach: The wild man had misjudged his swing and slammed the spikes into the wood of the cage directly above.

The Sidhe kicked forward with his one good leg and knocked the White Leaguer back. Then he launched to his feet and removed the mace with a single hand and swung it at the human’s head. The blow glanced off the dented helmet and rang through the Glass Castle like a church bell that for a moment drowned out the bloodlust of the crowd. The White Leaguer simply spun around and showed Cellach his smile, and then he was under Cellach’s next swing, driving the elf to the ground.

The mace flew out of Cellach’s hand and the man’s hands closed around the Sidhe’s throat and he was stronger, much stronger than he looked and Cellach couldn’t get any purchase to thrust back in the sucking mud and just as the darkness began to creep in at the edge of his vision, he remembered the glass shard in his hip and he yanked it out and jammed it upward and into the man’s armpit.

He would never know if he struck the vital artery there by luck or subconscious design, but the hot spray of the White Leaguer’s blood jetting in his face let him know it was there. The Leaguer himself instantly knew the wound was mortal. He fumbled off Cellach and staggered from one side of the cage to the other, begging and moaning for help without words—for his tongue had long since been cut out—but the mob just heaped their final curses of contempt on him as he fell to his knees, then to his side, then expired before their eyes.

The gate rattled open again, this time admitting Dalbor, who strode over and hauled Cellach, muddy and bloody, to his feet.

“Ladies and scum,” he crowed, thrusting Cellach’s hand skyward, “I give you the next member of our noble brotherhood! I give you—the next Willful Weapon!”

The crowd nearly knocked him down again with its roar.

• • •

And so Cellach had a roof over his head, an ample supply of food and spirits, and a reason to wake every day, which was more than he could have said for the better part of the past year. It rankled his pride, if not his conscience, to earn his keep as a low-level thug, marauding the alleys and grog shops and oyster cellars, putting the fear of Dalbor in the various pimps, opium pushers, and cut-purses: Goblins who worked as Panel Boys, hiding below the floorboards of brothels and scurrying in unseen to relieve men’s pockets of their valuables with their pants hung around their ankles. The cantrippers who put tourists to sleep with minor magery and literally stole the shirt off their backs. The wisps who slipped through the cracks of locked second story windows and walked out the front door with whatever valuables they could carry. They all paid a tax on their take to the Willful Weapons for the freedom of operating freely in Five Points, and every penny squeezed beyond his required collections dripped into the easing of his own debt. Desperate for his parents to be free of Dalbor’s agents back home, Cellach performed his duties with aplomb.

He also had comrades, if not friends, with which to drink grog in the shade of the enormous ash tree that twisted out of the ground in the center of the Glass Castle’s public room and reached its gnarled branches towards the dingy sunlight that glommed through the translucent walls.

“Will you look at that?” Annwn said one day, head cocked at a table beneath one branch. An old human in tattered robes gripped a half-full stein with both hands and rested his forehead in a puddle of beer on the tabletop. “He thinks we’re a flophouse.”

Cellach felt all eyes fall on him, the newcomer. Everything was still a test for him. Maybe this was the final time he had to prove himself. He sauntered over with a sigh.

“Hey. You. Human.” Cellach kicked the legs of the drunk’s chair, jarring his face off the tabletop. “This place became an elf and troll bar while you were asleep. Maybe it’s time to be moving on to a place where your kind are more welcome, eh?”

He looked back at Annwn and the others. The Willful Weapons raised their steins and laughed, but not, he realized, to his benefit, but more in his general direction. His suspicions aroused, he turned back to the old man, but not soon enough to escape when the drunk suddenly lashed out and grabbed the Sidhe’s wrist. Despite his superior strength, Cellach could not pull away from the man’s “eyes”—really, the sockets where his eyes would be—and saw the twisting tendrils of an infant tree growing out each of them.

Cellach mac Rath,” the human said, somehow, even though his lips did not move in the correct shapes to form his name, his true name, which he had not heard since the Ellis Island clerk had robbed him of it.

“Let—let go of me,” he said, struggling to free himself, his mouth so dry he could barely get the words out. His pulse throbbed in terror, almost drowning out the laughter of Annwn and his dogs behind him.

Cellach mac Rath will only be killed by the woman who loves him, and whom he loves in return.” Again, he heard the words, the old man’s mouth moved, but the one did not match the other.

The rummy let go of his wrist, and he stumbled back flat on his ass. The Willful Weapons laughingly hauled Cellach to his feet, but their japes and insults were lost on him. All he could think about were the drunk’s words: “Cellach mac Rath will only be killed by the woman who loves him, and whom he loves in return.” He knew exactly what they meant: This was his geis, a prophecy and an omen and a taboo all wrapped into one, a commandment of his fate woven into the fabric of the universe. The great warrior Cúchulainn, whom some whispered was half-Sidhe, was told never to eat food offered by a woman; the Scottish usurper Mac Beth was told he would never be killed by a man born of woman. But the rules of hospitality forced Cúchulainn to accept dog meat offered by a hag, and Mac Beth was besieged by a man prematurely cut from his mother’s womb: Both met their untimely ends, high princes though they were. Cellach mac Rath shivered with the chill of looking into his own grave.

“Sorry about that, Kellogg, that was a nasty trick,” Annwn said with what appeared to be genuine remorse when he saw how ashen Cellach’s face was. He watched the old man grab the stein and dump it down his hairy maw before dropping his nose into his crossed arms once more.

“Who—what is that creature?”

Annwn shrugged. “Not so sure. He just showed up one day. And I mean, ‘just showed up.’ Dalbor threw him out, and he’d reappear every time. Funny thing is, no one’s seen him enter. We walk in and he’s slumped at that table. Even after Dalbor had his head cut off and smashed to little pieces and fed to Rhys’s hogs down on Baxter. When he came back after that, Dalbor decided to leave well enough alone. He’s connected to the tree in the middle of the castle, I’ll wager you that.”

“What’s his name?”

“Never asked.” Annwn downed his own stein. “We call him the Drunk Druid.”

• • •

The Drunk Druid’s words cast a shadow over Cellach’s heart. Whenever other thoughts did not command his immediate attention, the despair of never truly loving without fear of death fell over his mind and stubbornly refused to be moved.

He first staved off fatality by giving up on any genuine emotion and throwing himself whole-heartedly into sex. Prostitutes were everywhere in Five Points, and the uppermost levels of the Glass Castle offered Sidhe, human, and, for the outré taste, Fomor wenches in various states of undress, bosoms heaving out of their corsets, laced-stocking legs easily stretched languidly over their heads.

“Humans prefer Sidhe and Sidhe prefer mirrors,” so the cynical American saying went—it did not take Cellach long to understand that that was where much of the immigration clerk’s hostility came from, human men’s inability to compete with elves for their own women—and many of the human whores welcomed Cellach into their beds in off-hours for free, entranced by his long blond hair, his perfect tush, his corded chest, his ample cock, like he had been crafted by an artist just for their specific pleasure. He loved them for hours, and never tired, and never refused them a thing, and never left them anything but gasping and satisfied.

Once, emerging from a pleasantly shagged-out doxy’s crib buttoning his trousers, he came upon a lovely vision in a peach-colored gown struggling with a man he had seen malingering around the Glass Castle before. He was a drunk and a villain, half Sidhe, who whored out his own mongrel daughter from time to time, a girl no older than ten who now cowered behind the woman’s skirt. The woman he knew as a reformer from the House of Charitable Healing overlooking Paradise Square, a rich uptown lass with high cheekbones and almond eyes and skin the color of coffee to which a spoonful of milk had been added.

The pimp father was about to lay hands on her when Cellach spun him around and slapped him hard across the face.

“If you were a man, I’d punch you like man,” he said. “But you’re a cunt. Cunts get slapped.”

The half-breed wasn’t sufficiently impressed. He lunged for Cellach with a growl, so the purebred Sidhe grabbed him by the neck and swung him over the nearby railing, dangling him over the table and chairs below, kicking and gasping.

“You like to fight women, do you?” the pureblooded Sidhe snarled. “That was just practice for me.”

“That—that meddling bitch is trying to take me own flesh and blood!” he sputtered.

Cellach looked to the reformer, chest still out and chin still up, who said, “This man just broke a glass on this child’s head because he thought she was holding out on him. I have been seeing him treat her like this for months and I have had enough of it, sir! I’ve had enough of it, I don’t care what you or anyone else in this filthy place has to say about it! I am taking her where she can get a hot meal and a warm bed and regain at least some small part of her innocence.”

The Willing Weapon looked to the struggling man. “She was holding out on me!” the pimp roared. “She’s taken to bed six times, and there’s only five rolls’ worth in her pocket!”

“You fight little girls, too? I was wrong—you’re not quite ready for me.” Cellach let the man drop. He splintered the wood of a table and the bones in his legs with a crash that even made the Drunk Druid look up from his stupor to see what was going on. “Once you’ve beat a few of your fellow cripples come back to me!”

“Thank you for your help, sir.” There was a glow in her eyes that warmed him in a way he had not known for some time. Maybe in forever.

“It was nothing. That one—got on my nerves anyway. I am Cellach.” He doffed his hat. “At your service.”

“My name is Dominique. There is a nobility in you not often found in the Glass Castle, Cellach.” His name. She said his name correctly. “Please—call on me at the House of Charity some time.”

“I may at that. Thank you, miss.”

She smiled and led the child away by a hand, the crowd of tarts and ruffians parting for her like an angelic visitation. As he watched her go, Cellach felt the sting of the Drunk Druid’s geis ease, and thought here, at last, was one he could love from afar, deep in his heart, and if he never spoke the feeling aloud, perhaps he could keep it a secret, even from Fate.

Annwn broke the spell with a hard stare. “What do you think you’re doing, me boyo? Huh? That there was Sean. Sean and his girl were good earners. For me.

“You saw how he was acting, that piece of shit—”

“Look around you!” Annwn hissed. “If we ran off every piece of shit in this place, there’d be no one left but the fucking tree. The do-gooder? Her I have to tolerate because of who her father is. You? Oh, me boyo, you are a different story. You’re gonna be paying the missing cut of what Sean owes me, to me, every week on top of the debt to Dalbor you already got.” He jabbed Annwn repeatedly in the chest. “You hear me?”

Cellach shrugged defiantly. “Sure. What do I care? I’ll pay whatever pennies the girl brings in.”

“Idiot.” Annwn slapped him upside the head. “The uptown reformers, they’re living off fortunes stolen before they were born. If you wanna play the hero, you’re gonna have to pay for the privilege.”

“All right! I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry. Just use your fucking head once in a while. Goddesses!”

“Kellogg? Annwn? Put your dicks away. I need a word.” It was Dalbor, who had just arrived and Cellach realized with relief, had missed the incident with Dominique and Sean’s daughter. Every month or so the Fomor chieftain made himself look ridiculous by brushing his few strands of hair across his callused scalp and squeezing himself into a three-piece suit and beaver top hat and heading uptown to meet with swells and high-talkers. Cellach gathered that the Willful Weapons kept agents of The Book and the municipal coppers at bay by delivering a solid Five Points block of Know-Nothing votes every election and cudgeling anyone who dared speak up for the Progressive Party. He didn’t ask for too many details because he had so little interest in politics he could barely finish saying the word without falling into a coma.

Dalbor didn’t bother to change out of his monkey suit before guiding Annwn and Cellach to a secluded booth in the corner of the bar’s second floor.

He pushed a scrying locket at Cellach. When he opened it, the image of a gray-haired Nibelung—dwarves, as the Americans called them—floated out and implanted itself on his mind.

“Name’s Gundobad,” Dalbor said, “foremen of the sandhogs on the new subway line they’re sinking in Second Avenue. Word is, he’s trying to unionize the dig.”

Annwn sucked air through his front teeth. “Not good, not good. That’s a city dig. The ward bosses, they don’t like unions so much.”

“Meeting’s tonight and you’re going, Kellogg. You’re the only one of our guys the bolshies can’t make, you’re too green. They use mostly dwarves and gnomes and kobolds on the dig, you know, the Underfolk, but there’s an elf or five on the job so nobody’ll question it. We got a pile of work cards over there, you’ll go as a steel-smith—”

“I don’t know the first thing about smithing.”

“Shut up. You don’t need to. It’s just to get you in the door. The day shift boys will think you’re on the night shift, the night shift will think you’re day. Look, listen, take the scryer, note the faces. Talk up the bolshies. Find if any of them like dice or whores, and even better, where they like to get them.”

“Don’t the bosses usually use Pinkertons for this?” Annwn asked.

“Yeah, but the bolshies have gotten wise to the Neversleeps’ guising. Wherever the meeting’s held will be wall-to-wall detection spells. Best to do it clean. You got that, Kellogg? Bring whatever you get on ’em to me, I’ll run it up the flagpole, then we’ll see when and where we need to bust heads.”

Dalbor patted Cellach on the shoulder and kicked his seat back. “Now I’ve got to get out of this monkey suit before I kill somebody for the sport of it.”

Once he was gone Cellach turned to Annwn. “Dwarves . . . I don’t know from them.”

“Well, whatever you do, don’t pick one up.” Annwn shook his head gravely when Cellach started to smile. “No, I’m serious, troll, human, elf, ogre, I don’t give a fuck. You pick up a dwarf like he’s a teatime doll, and he will make it his life’s sacred mission to show you your own heart. Their sense of humor is absolutely fucking lacking in that regard.”

• • •

The union meeting took place in a vaulted underground beer hall in Kleindeutschland, and as Dalbor predicted, no one questioned Cellach’s presence. Gundobad was the most stirring speaker. Some whispered he had a ring from an enchanted hoard that bent wills toward his own, but from what Cellach saw his powers resided wholly in his oratory, which he delivered first in German, then in English. He proclaimed that all workers were one, but especially the nonhumans, the bosses encouraging differences between elf and dwarf and goblin and troll when really they were all fingers from the same hand. Once they closed in a single fist, none could stand in their way. “If we follow the simple rule, ‘an injury to one is an injury to all,’ this city will be ours, brothers!” the Nibelung concluded to cheers.

Cellach stayed long after the meeting ended and bought drinks with money Annwn had given him for that purpose. Once the gnome matron who ran the beer hall was putting chairs up on tables and shooed them out, only he and Gundobad were left.

The Sidhe helped the weaving Nibelung out of the cellar and across Avenue B, or “German Broadway,” as it was known. Snow fell in a silent shroud across the city and they cut through Tompkins Square Park, the bare elms lonely and beautiful in the lamplight.

“How do you think they do it, elf? Hanh?” Cellach did not know how Gundobad’s watery, swollen eyes could see anything in the darkness.

“Who?”

“The humans. You Sidhe are prettier, the Fomor stronger, we Nibelung are more industrious, our cousins der Heinzelmännchen faster still. Still they rule us. Does that make any sense to you? They are all the lesser parts of us put together, the average, the mean, yet we toil and bow and scrape to them. How is that possible?”

The Sidhe shrugged. “Perhaps it is because they are the average. The medium is also the most moderate—”

“Nein. Nein, nein, nein.” The dwarf wagged a drunken finger at him. “I have another theory. I know down to the very marrow of my bones that it is truth. Everyone thinks I am mad when I say these things, but you, I can see you are a lad of exceptional insight, Kellogg. Come here, come here, schnell, so I can tell you.”

Six-foot-five Cellach had to put his hands on his knees so he could crane one pointed ear down close enough to Gundobad’s sour ale-breath to hear:

“They aren’t lesser parts of us, we are exaggerated parts of them. How they see different aspects of themselves, labor and looks, speed and power. You and me? We’re not real, Kellogg. We are fairy tales. Dreams. Someone, out there, has conjured us up in his mind. And when that sleeper wakes?” He mimed a puff of smoke with his fingers and spittle. “We’ll be gone—just like that.”

Cellach scowled. “I know I’m real.”

“No. You don’t. You go to sleep, and the world goes away. You wake up, and there it is—back again! You have no way of knowing whether you created it or it created you.”

The Sidhe shook his head. The mobs in Cork, searching every haystack and trough for him; the grim passage to America; the humiliation at Immigration; the death-struggle in the Glass Castle; he could not believe all that blood and fury was for nothing, no, he could not believe it. At the very thought, the black raging fire inside him stirred like a watchdog awakened by a snapping twig in the distance.

“It’s all a joke. Our lives are a punchline to a jest we can never understand—”

Speak for yourself,” Cellach all-but growled, hoisting Gundobad up almost six feet off the ground by the front of his jacket, then sending him sprawling backward beneath a small marble canopy in the middle of the park.

Gundobad picked himself up off the pavement by steadying himself on the small fountain between the columns. Very slowly. Not because he was injured.

“You know why Ymir made Sidhe and Nibelung exactly the size that He did?”

Lamplight flashed on the dirk in his hand.

“So you’re just tall enough for me to harvest your balls.”

Cellach remembered, too late, what Annwn said about picking up dwarves.

Gundobad lunged forward with a Teutonic cry, but he was drunk and sloppy, and Cellach had only had a few beers all night. He grabbed the dwarf’s forehead and slammed him back into the rim of the fountain. The first impact sounded like a wet slap on pavement, and so did the second, and so did the third, but by the fourth it became a deep, fleshy crunching sound, and Cellach didn’t stop slamming Gundobad into the marble until the Nibelung’s skull had all but come apart in his hand.

The black fire fled, as it always did, that coward, leaving Cellach alone, panting and baffled, like he had walked in late to the middle of a play. He looked around and saw nothing moving but the falling snow. With handfuls of sleet he wiped the gory smear off the fountain and the floor of the pavilion, then gathered up the corpse and largest bits of skull and managed to wrap it convincingly up in his own coat. He looked up and saw atop the canopy the small marble statue of a cup-bearing goddess peering down on him. Etched into the stone at her feet was the word “TEMPERANCE.”

At the five-story-deep Second Avenue Subway excavation site was a wide, muddy pit where the water sprayed to cool the grinding parts of machinery ran off and collected. No one bothered to guard the area and so no one saw Cellach tie the broken half of a cinder block to Gundobad’s ankles and pitch him into the slurry. The surface of the brown water bubbled and rippled after the dwarf sank, but soon reverted to unbroken flatness like an amnesiac mind.

• • •

He did not sleep that night.

The following morning he was at the Glass Castle’s doors when they opened, and stood shifting his feet at Dalbor’s usual corner booth until the Fomor at last made an appearance near noon. After spending the whole night debating its wisdom back and forth, in the end he told his chieftain everything, from the beginning of the dwarf’s speech to where Gundobad’s body lay.

For some reason, he found it even more terrifying that the head of the Willful Weapons did not yell or scowl or say a thing, neither during the tale nor after its completion.

All he did say was, “Go on to your collections” and Cellach went to the day’s work wondering if swimming across the river to New Jersey and running until he reached the Pacific might have been the wiser strategy.

Later that night, he returned to the Glass Castle to drown himself in whiskey and batted away Annwn’s inquiries about how the night before went. Dalbor appeared, in his top hat and suit again, called Cellach over, and put a slip of paper in his hand.

“He’s expecting you in an hour,” the Fomor said, and walked away with the air of one who just spent the last bedside visit to a dying friend.

The address on the paper was for The Dakota, a grim tri-gabled fortress overlooking the Sheep Meadow in Central Park; so named, it was said, for being so far from the heart of Manhattan it might as well be in Dakota Territory. The maid who answered the door was a Sidhe, six and a half feet tall if she was an inch, mostly legs in fishnets that he followed up a side stair into a library as big as the Glass Castle’s common room.

The maid said something to him when they entered that he didn’t hear. When he frowned at her, she jabbed a finger at the golden bun on her head.

Hat.

He quickly removed his hat and moved to sit on the nearest armchair.

Stand,” the maid barked, and upon making sure he saw the contempt in her eyes, left the room.

He stood halfway between the wall and the furniture for what seemed like a long time, never more acutely aware of his dirty hair and soot-stained suit, wrists and ankles jutting awkwardly from too-short cuffs. A child in a corner, awaiting punishment.

He looked around. Any wall space not taken up by tome-laden bookcases was dominated by four massive paintings showing the rise, then fall of civilization: The first painting was all forested pastoral; the second a pillared and porticoed center of commerce and learning; the third a besieged metropolis lit with the flames and brimstone of war; the fourth a crumbling ruin already beginning to be reclaimed by vines and weeds.

At last the door opened and the man of the house entered, a bald African in a three-piece suit and an easy grin, broad shoulders unencumbered by conscience. “Why are you standing? Please, Mr. McRoss, sit down.”

Cellach did not move an inch. “No thank you, sir.” Later, he would recognize his resistance as good instinct: This one makes you feel bad for sitting, this other makes you feel bad for standing. It was a tactic to keep him off-balance, and he would have none of it. He would take his lumps like a Mac Rath, even if these American cunts refused to address him as one.

The human did not break stride across the room to the wet bar. “Wherever you’re comfortable. Drink?”

“I’ll take whiskey, if you have it.”

“I would be a poor host if I didn’t.” He poured a glass far too shallow for Cellach’s taste, but he accepted it with a smile. “Do you know who I am?”

“You are Mister Morgan Ash,” Cellach said. He had seen his face in the Illustrated Police News. “You are Boss of the First Ward.”

Ash winced. “I really don’t like that word—‘boss.’ Makes me sound like I’m the foreman of a chain gang. Technically, my elected post is city councilman. Each of my colleagues and I have specific spheres of responsibility. Do you mind if I sit? No?

“The Third Ward is The Book—the inscribers of Enchantment. Its agents enforce the laws adjudicated by the Second Ward, The Flesh—the practitioners of ceremonial magics. We are the First Ward. The sorcerers. We are The Will. It is through us that laws are made.”

“And you sit above the law,” Cellach said.

Ash just smiled. “In cultures past, of course, that phrase, ‘above the law,’ was considered a condemnation of tyranny and corruption. In our system, it is just . . . practical. In order to make a thing, one must be able to comprehend it from all sides. I would submit to you that the best vantage point for that is height.”

Cellach had no response for that.

“As the force that gives life and animation to society’s codes, the First Ward obliges itself from time to time to employ agents of its own. To work in the shadows, nameless even in the light, to be The Will’s will . . . if you will. You have not been in this country long. Have you heard of the Neversleeps?”

“Neversleeps?”

“Detectives. For what used to be called the Pinkerton Agency.”

“You mean like what The Book does?”

“No. I do not.” For the first time in his presence, Morgan Ash had stopped smiling. “The Book stops crimes. The Neversleeps prevent chaos.” He got up and walked towards the Sidhe. “Out in the Sierra Madre the other night, well . . . I don’t have time to relate the whole sordid tale, but suffice it to say, the Pinkertons have suffered massive casualties. Our ongoing war with the atomists in the White City requires me to replenish their numbers immediately, particularly here in the city. Your resolution of the Gundobad labor problem—well above and beyond the call of duty, I might add—recommends you highly.”

Cellach blinked. He assumed he had been summoned here to be reprimanded, or worse. It finally began to dawn on him that he was being offered a promotion. Pride swelled in him. He would have to write his parents. He would have to tell Annwn he did not have to pay for the privilege of helping the city, they were going to pay him.

But reality crashed down on him again. He shifted his feet. “I’d love to, sir. Truly I would. But my family and I still owe a debt to the Glass Castle—”

Ash’s smile instantly returned. He laughed. “Please, that is no obstacle. The First Ward will make sure Dalbor og Fomor will be amply rewarded for letting you go. As you will be for going, Kellogg McRoss.”

“This fine young man’s name is Cellach, Father.”

A beautiful young woman passing in the hallway entered the room and he was surprised to find himself looking at the lovely reformer. “Dominique?”

“Cellach has already done me a fine service, in the Glass Castle. Is he coming to work for us here?”

Morgan Ash could not entirely hide his surprise, or his displeasure. “You have met my daughter?”

He knew the look in the First Ward Boss’s eye. It was the same look in landlord Sliney’s when he saw the Sidhe with his daughter. And the Drunk Druid’s words rang in his ears and he knew then that he had not escaped anything by fleeing Eiru. Whether he was a criminal thug or a respectable one, it did not matter. His geis was written in stone, and it was tied around his neck, and he could not remove it. He saw the black fire rise up inside him again, and it said, you are not a projection of the humans. You are a projection of me. I will never leave you, I will follow you like a shadow, except it is you that is cast by my light. And it was at that moment he saw, for the first time, that the fire had his very own face.

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Fred Van Lente

Fred Van Lente

Fred Van Lente is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Marvel ZombiesIncredible Hercules (with Greg Pak), Odd Is On Our Side (with Dean R. Koontz), as well as the American Library Association award-winning Action Philosophers.  His original graphic novel Cowboys & Aliens (co-written with Andrew Foley) is the basis for the major motion picture starring Daniel Craig and Harrison Ford.  Van Lente’s other comics include The Comic Book History of ComicsTaskmasterArcher & ArmstrongAmazing Spider-Man and Hulk: Season One.  Fred loves hearing from readers at [email protected].