He descended on the town like a saint sent from Dark Heaven six-guns shining like twin torches in his hands, down to the border where we had our battle on. Summers are always the worst in Sunblooders Stand, as the scale-folk grow riled earlier in the bright days.
We’d been fighting the scale-folk off for an hour when the stranger threw himself into the fray. One moment I was shoving a pitchfork into the belly of a croc-man, and next I knew, the flashing of the stranger’s salamanders blinded me, sea-foam flame belching hot lead as natural as rainfall. He danced between us sunblooders like a phantom. Not a one of us knew who he was, but when help arrives, you don’t ask from whence it came. He helped us drive back the line, the gator-kin and the croc-men screeching, the snake-touched and the iggies squirming; their shattered teeth and scorched scales left behind in the swamp as they dove into the murky water and made for the heart of their Scaled Nation.
Many of the towns inland would have taken to whooping and celebrating, but the thirty or so sunblooders on the swampy shore only sighed with temporary relief; here, at the fringe of civilization, the scale-folk were as consistent as the sunset.
The mystery man made a show of looking over each dead scale-folk at his feet, before turning his spring-green eyes on me. He had scars across his face and throat, pale against his dark skin, but I didn’t bat an eye; anyone hugging the coast ended up with a souvenir sooner or later. Holstering his salamanders, which hissed and spat like grease on a skillet, he put his hands on his hips, and said, “Looks like y’all could use some help around here,” his voice singing like a rusty six-stringer.
Something sour settled into the back of my throat, and I spat into the mud. Plenty of fancy folk had come through the town of Sunblooder’s Stand, hoping to make a name for themselves in the last living border town abutting the Scaled Nation. Plenty of other folks had drawn inland, away from the diseased coast of swampwater where creatures became people and hunted us normals like food, but not us. Some said it was the stubborn nature of those in the South, but I’d like to think it was a certain amount of sick pride, too; when you got good at protecting your home, you didn’t give it up easy for the illusion of safer ground.
I wiped my hair out of my eyes, too long again and as red as my name, and fixed him with the look I gave every stranger with boots that shone too much. “We been doing fine without you, stranger. Reckon we’ll be just as fine with you.”
He smirked, and I knew I disliked him, like a fish knows it hates the sky. “Sugar,” he said, “You’ll be finer than you ever been with me around.”
My hands curled into fists, and I bit down the urge to snarl. “Sugar is for horses, stranger. You call me Copper or you call me nothing.”
The volume of my vitriol took him by surprise. After a moment’s consideration, he took his hat off, and crinkled his fingers around its edges like all the children do with their songbooks come High Dark. “Begging forgiveness, Copper, sir. A man travels a lonely, dangerous road for a long time, and well, he tends to leave his manners at every crossroad, waystone and mile marker he puts behind him, if it means he lives a little longer. Coming back to society, I’ve neglected to bring my manners along with me.”
I saw the other sunblooders looking for my reaction. Ever since Momma took a claw to the gut and got sent to the bottom of the swamp, they watched for her leadership in me. So I snorted, and stabbed a finger in his direction. “Gather ’em up quick then, stranger, or you’re no better than the scale-folk, understand?”
He looked like I’d slapped him. Figured I’d hit him where his pride lived, but after helping us, I supposed he didn’t deserve all scorn and no sweet. I scratched the back of my head. “Manners or none, you did us a good service today. If you could help bring back the wounded, might be a bed you could hunker down in for the night, but I can’t make any promises.”
He smiled, bowed at the waist, called me sir again, and began to gather up the injured. Saw him carry Old Kearney back, singing “Take Me Down To Starry Town,” to keep the poor fool’s mind from his missing leg; a clean rip was better than a bloody bite. One bite, and you may as well sink into the swamp or blow your brains out.
Walking back, we cleaned our weapons with rags, and began to murmur amongst ourselves. I watched him go, this stranger, watched him smile and laugh in a cluster of shocked, scared people, and found myself even more distrustful of him. What right had he to smile so? Easy enough for a stranger to pick up such habits inland, away from the Scaled Nation and the cancerous holes in the sky that hovered over the coast. But bringing those habits right to the edge of civilization, mocking the people who lived there without a second thought? Made me uneasy.
But I tried, I really did. I tried not to judge too quickly, tried to be the best person I could under the eyes of Shadow Matron, shades keep her. A person is made of nothing but show and bluster, a hurricane wrapped in a shirt and pants, and sooner or later, they’ll blow themselves apart, or quiet down. I had to wait and see what this man would do.
Except he walked into my town like he’d lived there all his life, and I felt like the only one who remembered he’d only shown up an hour before. The people of Sunblooder’s Stand were fascinated with him, his Northern drawl, his green eyes, the way his black coat seemed to bend the light; he seemed to be a long-lost relative, not a random gun newly arrived. Only thing he didn’t seem to show off was the fancy silver chain around his neck, but I figured he was saving that for a rainy day.
He sauntered around town like a rooster, clucking and crowing at every person who fawned over him. Bunch of bright-eyed toad-lickers, to be taken in, to not see him for the threat he was. I fumed to see him chat up every man, woman, and child he happened to walk by. Respect had to be earned, and they were just giving it to him. Looking back, I can see why I fumed so: took me years to gain the same level of respect, and here he was doing it as easy as breathing. Not my proudest moment, no.
Come New Dark, as the sun slipped beneath the world, he smoked scales, the air burning magenta, steel, emerald, depending on the variety stuffed into the pipe. Children gathered around him, asking for stories from the safe world, and he delivered. Four people offered their homes to him, and before I knew it, he was a stranger no longer. The Mayor was here to stay, it seemed, and some furious and hurt part of me settled to the bottom of my heart like a stone in the sea.
Ah, right. His name.
A week or so after his arrival, folks started calling him Mayor. I said to them, “We didn’t have a mayor before, why we need one now? Even Momma didn’t have such a title and you all looked to her like she was Shadow Matron come High Dark to bless!”
People shrugged with moony eyes, and glanced at him, sitting on the barstool, talking and talking and talking, like words were water and these people hadn’t been rained on in quite some time.
So they named him Mayor. What was his name before? Doesn’t matter, I don’t think; he slid into the role like a knife into a heart. It fit him.
He tricked the town into loving him, and not a one of them could see the strings he was pulling within them. Day after day, he taught them that the scale-folk were nothing to be afraid of. He’d lay his supernatural six-guns into the coals of fires to warm their guts, tell stories over their crackling, stories that gave every sunblooder a sense that there was more to life than survival. There was another world out there, he said, one free of scale-folk, where a body could live a day doing whatever they wanted, not always having to rush into battle come the clarion call of the bell.
He was going to get everyone killed. Every single person who drank in his poisonous stories became a little less cautious, a little more reckless. He was inspiring them at the wrong angle. The truth was, there’s no part of the world that’s safe anymore; only lands that the swampwater hasn’t touched yet.
It finally hit him when Fennel got his throat ripped out by a pyth-person, on account of he was too busy singing “Guts, Gators, and Glory” to notice the alabaster fangs snapping for his throat.
The Mayor had taught him the song the night before, said how it would lull a new baby to sleep in a moment. The young lad had blushed, his wedding band bright and clean, and the Mayor had roared with joy to see his cheeks redden.
It was the Mayor that put a bullet through Fennel’s brain. If it was because of the snake poison that swept through his blood, or the scales that had begun to boil down his neck, I never found out. Mayor carried him home, silent like the sea.
No more songs were sung at the border after that day.
But no matter who fell, the Mayor was loved and I found myself alone. They’d trail after him, asking about this song or that, and everywhere they went, in the opposite direction I’d go, dragging along a bottle of whiskey, swallowing shots like bitter medicine. The town didn’t ignore me, but they didn’t love me like they loved him and it hurt like the oldest wound known to this world.
He tried to include me, invited me to meetings, to drinks at the saloon, but every time I saw that damned smirk of his, I hated him a little more, even if I didn’t want to; it had been nearly a whole month of bluster, and it pushed me to an edge I didn’t think I’d see again.
And if I said it didn’t bother me, would you forgive me for lying? After Momma died and Da ran, taking up the town was the only thing that let me ignore the pain in my gut, made feel important, loved even. Mayor had taken that from me, taken them all from me, and now I couldn’t do anything but sit beneath the stars and scratch at that terrible itch in my heart.
I went looking for him one night, and I had been at the bottle a little more than usual when I shoved him. He fell back against the wooden fence atop the only grassy knoll in town; folks said you could see clear to Coaltown from there. His six-guns were sitting in the dying embers of a fire, drinking their fill, some scale-folk magic in their hot hearts lapping up the heat.
He adjusted his coat, and coughed. “Something on your mind, Copper?”
I felt the whiskey in my blood urging me to say something mean, something that’d cut him down. But I was still my Momma’s son and I wouldn’t let liquor get the best of my decorum. “Just expressing my feelings as to your new position within the Stand, Mr. Mayor.” Was there venom in my voice? Aye, a little.
He took it all with grace, though. “Told Duncan to quit it with that damn title, but that boy has a mouth bigger than a full-grown croc, and twice as loud.” He looked back at me, must have seen something that made him stoop a little lower, pull the collar of his coat up. “Right sorry, Copper. Didn’t mean to take anything away from you. This is your town, and I have no right to be making calls on it.”
A wind cut through me, the wet of the swamplands settling into my bones, the night chill making me hold myself, the bottle dangling limp in my hand; relief and paranoia warred within me at his words. “Why are you here anyway, Mayor? What’s a body to find in the Stand but death? We don’t leave because there’s nowhere in this world we can go. Too many of us are poor, and lack in all things but heart; what else is out there in the safe world for us? That’s our excuse, weak as it is. So what in the Bright Hell is yours?”
He pulled out his pipe, nestled a fresh ball of tobacco and scales into the end of it, and lit it with a salamander shell, tamping its metallic end down until it caught. “Looking for someone.”
The way his voice went frosty, the way his eyes cast down into the swamplands with a searing heat, made me take a step closer to him. He was reeling me in, telling another of his damn stories, and I fought hard to shake off its magic. “If you got business here, let us help so you can be on with it. You’ve been tearing through scale-folk for a month, but never once ask for anything in return. Let this be it. Let us get you what you need and get you out of this nightmare. You came here by choice, and you can make the choice to leave, too.”
He took a long drag. The smoky, flesh-like stench of the scales burning in his pipe filled my nose, made me feel drunker than I was. To smoke of the scale-folk was said to be elixir before it killed you. How long had he been at it?
He huffed out a noxious cloud smoke, red at the edges, and smiled through its dissipation. “Kind offer of you. But what business I got would get a body killed for its doing. And I’m not the kind of man to throw people on the Red Coal Trail, just so I have something cool to walk over on my way to Bright Hell.” He smirked with sad eyes. “But as I said, mighty kind of you.”
I threw my fist into his side, the cold in my gut making way for the red-hot rage I loved so. “Toads take you! Don’t go playing that card, Mayor. I’ve heard enough dramas on the crank to know a foolish line when I hear it. You’ve been giving and giving to this town without a single receipt for bullets. You’re aiming for something and I want to know what it is!”
I wasn’t backing down. I wouldn’t let this town become beholden to the stranger in the dark coat with pistols of flame and a past that swallowed him like thorns. This close, he smelled like dying fires and hot lead. His eyes shone through the red smoke like evergreens bowing beneath a volcano’s weeping.
And if our lips were only inches apart, wasn’t it because I was trying to shout through the scent of him? If I was lonely and a little out of touch with the world, wasn’t that to blame on the whiskey in my blood and the scale-smoke in my nose and Momma passing without a goodbye and Da leaving me to die and my lovers packing up in the night, afraid of being singed by the hurt in my heart?
Wasn’t it enough to want a man who wasn’t afraid of getting burned?
His hand went around my wrist then, his other on my shoulder; he pressed me back down to the earth, quiet as a tomb.
“You afraid of a little fire?” I said, my throat dry and rough, knowing it to sound petty and small. I hated him and I wanted him at the same time.
His voice came out raw; he seemed older than I’d ever thought of him. “It’s just not a good idea.” Around his neck, the shine of his silver chain blinded me.
I wrenched my arm from him, and walked away right quick; didn’t want him to see me with my eyes leaking. Couldn’t give a body the idea that fire could be quenched.
The next week, we lost a half a mile to the scale-folk. The bodies of their family had floated downstream, right to Momma Scales. They came surging out of the swamp, urged on by their mother, voices ululating and screeching with anger.
I was only a boy when the sky opened up. I’ll always remember the swath of emerald light I saw on the other side, always remember the screaming wings that fell out of the hole in Dark Heaven. I remember the shaking of the earth, quake upon quake as beasts not of our world crashed, seeding themselves along the coast. From my vantage then, I could see two, maybe three, but as reports came in, more than twenty of the monsters fell from their world into ours.
That’s when the scaled things of the swamps and jungles and deserts started up and moving, becoming more man than beast. The wings from beyond the sky were urging them up the food chain with an awful rapidity. But they weren’t the worst.
Like any good infection, it started small. A scratch is sometimes all it took, though it could vary. “If the skin starts turning, you better get to burning,” is something Da used to say before he left for lands inland, lands unscaled.
I think seeing his brothers rise out of the swamp, reptilian armor flying up their necks, their brown eyes going gold . . . I think it broke him to see his family become their family.
I’ll always forgive him that, at least.
But if you didn’t defend what family you had left with all you had, what were you?
I hadn’t seen such a number of the scale-folk as I did the day we lost that half mile, surging forward, snapping jaws and stronger claws with a swiftness to make wind balk. Our toes dug into the swampy earth as we battered scaled ribs with plunging knives and pikes. But really, we were a shield for the Mayor, who fought like a man haunted.
White-hot bullets flew with such speed as to shatter skulls, two, three in a row. The air was alive with the screams of his salamanders. He was an artist that made death.
They were gunning for him. Momma Scales urged them on with her grief, and soon enough, we had fallen back. If I looked out of the corner of my eye, I could see the outskirts of town.
But I couldn’t look away from the battle for fear I’d die if I did. So I didn’t miss the moment when the Mayor went down under a pile of snapping jaws.
For a heart-wrenching moment, I forgot how to breathe.
But in the next, he threw them off, pulling strength from where, only Bright Hell knew. Scale-folk scattered in the air, fell to the ground, and we were there to thrust steel through their bellies.
I turned to smile at the Mayor, glad to see him alive despite any awkwardness that had come of my stupidity a few days before. Despite my hurt, he was a part of this town now; it would kill everyone to see him kiss the bottom of the swamp.
We locked eyes from across the murky water and I lost my breath again.
His green eyes were gone. In their place were thin pupils, vertical, bright as molten sunflowers, and his teeth had taken on a sharper edge than any man I’d ever seen.
Years of combat instinct surged through me and had I a gun in my hand and not a pike, I would’ve shot a bullet right through him, faster than you can say “Gator-man gonna get ya.”
He staggered to his knees in the water, and yowled like a cat whose tail had found the rocker. When he looked up, pale and shaking, he had recovered his green eyes; he looked at me, ashamed and exhausted.
That night, I grabbed his hand after dinner, and steered him to my cabin. Some of the others threw whistles and whoops after us, but I paid them no mind. Upon entering, I threw him into a chair, and kicked him hard back into it when he tried to stand. I didn’t know if I was angry or frightened or both.
Mayor stared up at me, grim. “You don’t want to see this, Copper.”
I stared him down, arms crossed and feet wide, trying to channel my Momma as much as I could. Finally, he began to undo his shirt.
The mossy green and bark brown scales that mottled his chest glistened as they caught the moonlight. They trailed up to his chest from a terribly sewn gash in his side, divots of teeth marks and puncture wounds running around the edges.
I felt my muscles go hot, my throat tight. “How? Most men would be tearing out their lover’s throats after a day with a bite that big.”
He fixed me with a gaze, hung up on my words. He fingered the necklace he wore, rubbing a silver feather. He winced as he buttoned up his shirt. “Smoking the scale seems to trick a body into thinking you’ve already turned. Slowed it down somewhat. But a body can’t be tricked forever.”
“What in the world made you think to do such a reckless thing?”
His eyes went glassy and the moonlight seemed to pass through them and illuminate some memory held in the back of his skull. “A lover, a . . . companion. Name of Adam. He was bit when we were crossing the Brollins Canal looking for mercenary work. Gator-gal snagged him off the side of the boat, tried to drown him, but we were able to kill her and drag him back on deck. Old healer onboard stuffed the pipe into Adam’s mouth, lit the scales, and said it would help. It did for a time. Adam held on, but—” and here’s where the glass of his eyes went dark, and he stopped straying down memory’s path, “After a few months, Adam couldn’t fight anymore. He liked the voice in his head, he said. He liked being a good son to Momma Scales, liked how it made him feel. So he let it happen, and dumb toad I am, I let him live. Thought I could appeal to him, my sandy-locked lover. But all that happened was he took a bite out of me and fled into the water. I been tracking him ever since, and well—”
“He’s here. He’s come to the heart of the Nation.” I finished the thought for him, though by no means did it give me pleasure to deduce his intentions, nor did I feel superior knowing the full measure of his pain. My eyes roved the landscape of his body, its lean curves cutting the night to ribbons. My mouth wanted to taste his, but all I could do was imagine the pain racing through him like a panting hound. “Can you last long enough to find him?”
Mayor had sunk into the high backed chair, refused to meet my gaze. “I’ll find him, that’s for sure. But living? Well, shit. If I’m as good a liar as I hope, then next year, a year after, if I’m careful. But—” he laughed then, his eyes getting fever-bright, almost yellow in the dark room. “I can . . . hear her, Copper. When I’m down at the border, pushing back my would-be brothers and sisters, I can hear her, right here.” He tapped his temple. “She whispers to me in verses of fire and smoke, seduces me with the promise of family, of living forever, I—” He stopped, put a shaking hand to his eyes. His breath rushed out of him, ragged and low. “She’s a compelling Momma, Copper. Broke my Adam like a piece of driftwood, and he was a saint compared to me. Whatever she’s doing to drive the scale-folk, it’s leaking into me, and I don’t know when I’ll be too full up of her to resist.”
It’s a hard thing, watching the strong at their weakest moments. Saw it with Da when he wept at his brothers’ empty graves, saw it with my own Momma clutching her gut, trying to keep her insides on the inside. How do you build someone back up when they’ve gone as low as they can go?
In my experience, you either kick ’em in the ass or let ’em work it out. And the Mayor? He needed a kick. “Well, you’re just going to have to hang on a little while longer, mister,” I said, with as much authority as I could muster, “because you still have work to do, and no lizard bitch momma is going to keep you from doing it. In fact, I say we kill two crocs with one bullet, if you catch my meaning.”
When he looked back up, his smirk was wide, his evergreen eyes bright.
We rode out the next day, our packs stuffed with as many knives, bullets, and pikes as we could shove into their confines. Mayor followed the pressure in his mind south and east, and we marched out behind him.
A few bodies from the town had joined us, folk who found the idea of a suicide mission to rid Sunblooder’s Stand of the biggest progenitor of scaly bastards appealing. No use in telling them the story of Adam. Mayor would kill me if I revealed his secrets, and so I kept my mouth shut.
Was it a dumb plan? Sure as the sun is bright. But Mayor was dying and I was lost. And if we had a way to find Momma Scales in the tangled heart of the Scaled Nation, well, we were just desperate enough to try to put her to rest.
The mood was light as we crept past the border and through the swamp, with Felbrem and Ko betting on who would win themselves the heart of Momma Scales herself. Jocularity on the road to Bright Hell; who’d have thought it?
Mayor walked in the front, sullen and gaunt. If he was smoking scale, he could have been fine. But every scale-folk in a mile would be drawn us to like gators to guts, and so he couldn’t stymie it.
With every step, he fought the infection through sheer will.
And with every step, he lost a little more.
We passed through pools of murk and forests of reeds, keeping our eyes split for any scale-folk that may have been lingering. Mayor said we’d be fine for a few miles more.
When pressed for answers, he tapped his temple with a pained look, turned back to the front, and shaded his eyes. Were they golden just then? Or was that the light being tricky with me?
At night, Mayor and I shared a tent, where he went to the farthest corner, and wouldn’t look me in the eye. Did he think I’d hate him, to see those yellow eyes in the night?
I awoke to guttural coughs, hissing whispers. Wrenching myself up, I saw Mayor curled around himself in the corner, shaking like a rattlesnake in the brush. He was covered in a cold sweat, and on his neck I saw scales creeping up behind his ear, brushing the back of his neck.
He was all motion then, sprang at me, hands clamping down on my shoulders. His eyes were a totality of gold and they were never going to change back.
“She was never meant to be here, Copper.” His voice was high, and shook like a willow in the wind. “Her, her brothers and sisters, they were thrown from their lands through a rent between spaces, denied any succor, say, or justice. Their enemies threw them through the sky and gifted them to us.”
I tried to shake myself from his grip. “Damn it, Mayor, snap out of it!” His fingers dug deeper, the nails longer, his eyes twitching.
“They’re changing us, Copper. She’s making us family, an army.” His gaze snapped up, and it was as though he could see through the tent top, into the sky and beyond. “Someday, they’re going to go back, and take back what’s theirs. And we’re going to go with them.”
I slammed my fist into his gut as hard as I could and he let go, fell to the damp earth, lay there, sobbing and sobbing.
Should I have gone close to sit with him, be there to lend him a little humanity, which was dying in his chest like a timid cinder caught in a storm? Should I have put my hand on his hand, and shown him he wasn’t alone, not even here, at the end of his life? Should I have kissed his brow, and promised that he still had a chance to live?
Aye, maybe I should have.
But I stayed in the corner, terrified, and watched him sob himself to awful sleep, remembering that iron grip on my shoulders, that piercing golden light in his eyes, the scales that were marching across his skin. To this day, it churns my gut to think of how I failed him in that moment.
It wouldn’t have stopped what happened next, but Bright Hell burning, what in all this terrible world do I know?
The next morning, Mayor wore a cloth around his eyes. When Ko asked him why, all Mayor did was smirk and say, “So those scale-folk see what I really think of them.”
The group laughed at that. I shivered.
It was no matter, because everyone forgot about his eyes when we entered the Scaled Nation proper. In the morning light, scattered across the thin reeds and fuzzy bulrushes and angular black trees of the swamp, there were scale-folk of every kind.
They had taken a cue from their ancestors, and lounged along the banks of the swamps, letting the sunlight flood through them like liquor, making them drunk and sleepy. Some of the croc-folk had their mouths open, nestled in the cattails, jaws working against empty air, while pyth-people rubbed and coiled their long necks together, splashing in the muck. Gator-folk lay on their stomachs in the water among pink-flowered lily pads, nostrils just above the surface, while the iggies draped themselves across branches of heavy bald cypress trees.
Mayor put a gloved finger to his lips, motioned for us to get close. When he started walking, I felt a pressure in the air, slight, and wondered if Mayor was keeping us safe, trying to hide us and disguise us with the other scale-folk.
We walked slower than slow; slow enough that time could miss us if it wasn’t looking.
Up ahead, through the density of green palm fronds and low-hanging cypress leaves, I spied a mighty crater deep into the earth, and saw something enormous shift in the shadows. I turned to confirm with Mayor it was Momma Scales, only to see he wasn’t there.
The whole group stopped dead. I couldn’t feel the ripple in the air. The nearest gator-man’s nostrils flared. Icicles pierced my heart, eyes searching for the Mayor. I looked back the way we’d come.
Mayor was standing over a gator-man.
He had his gun drawn, aimed at the gator-man’s heart. His hand was smoking, he was holding the six-gun so tight. His arm was shaking, fresh tears rolling down his cheeks, staining the bandage around his eyes. His mouth opened, and it looked he was trying to say something, but his mouth would not obey.
I read his lips, best I could: Adam, he said, over and over again.
How does a body run as slow as they can? I moved as through spiderwebs, inching my body forward in the water, going to Mayor as slow and as fast as I could.
I stood a foot from him, glanced at the sleeping croc on the ground, Adam, who had a silver chain around his neck, a feather at the end glinting in the light. Around the Mayor’s neck hung its twin.
Mayor worked his mouth at me, unable to talk for the grief that blocked his throat. I shook my head at him, lips shut.
Mayor thrust the gun out at the sleeping gator. The Mayor’s eyes were pleading with me, bleeding water like a stuck cactus.
I pointed back at the group of frightened sunblooders, to the stirring figures scattered around us, at the viper’s nest we had walked into.
I’ll never forget that moment, when he ripped the band of cloth from his eyes, turned his golden lights on me and mouthed, I’m so sorry, Copper.
His arm went limp.
He dropped the gun into the water.
The sleeping gator-man, Adam, opened his eyes.
As other scale-folk began to wake at the sound, Adam rose and seemed to see the Mayor, really see him.
And then Adam remembered what he’d become, and did the only thing he knew how to do, did to the Mayor what he had tried to do so many years ago when he had first turned.
His jaws clamped around the Mayor and then he dragged him under the water, blood already staining the air.
I swear I saw Mayor smile, a smile as wide and sad and starless as Dark Heaven.
It didn’t matter if I screamed at that point or not, because the air had become nothing but sound, nothing but motion and pain and teeth, as the scale-folk sprang from sleeping and saw how we had slipped past them.
We pulled out our pikes and our steel and our guns.
I screamed to move onward, toward the crater.
The scale-folk were still groggy from sleep, but there were so many of them. How do you fight off a world of hate? I sent a pike through the neck of a pyth-person, and sidestepped the swipe of a gator-gal, whose needle teeth were flecked with blood and grime. Her tail sent me flailing, splashing down into the water. I could feel her moving towards me.
I had never contemplated my death, only figured it would come when stupidity got the best of me. Never figured it on someone else’s stupidity, but that’s life, I guess.
Then I noticed how the water near me was boiling. I plunged my hands into the mud, and found the scorching handle of one of Mayor’s salamander six-guns.
I whipped the weapon skyward and fired. A lance of flame blew through the gator-gal in front of me, rocketed across the sky, and exploded over the crater.
The echo of the gun caused the scale-folk to stop their attacks, and quirk their heads as though they heard something far off. Fine, let ’em listen. I searched the mud for the other shooter, found its hot handle and lifted it out of the water, steaming.
In that pause, my heart broke to see Mayor’s silver necklace shine up from the muck. I snatched it up and put it in my pocket. Someone had to carry his ghost home.
I turned just in time to see Momma Scales rise.
Her shadow could’ve shrouded the town proper, and I had to put my arms up against the windstorm her wings whipped up, though I caught glimpses of scales the color of deep fire, a belly as white as fresh sand. She shrieked in a language of a land astride ours, and I didn’t have time to think as from her great jaws erupted a hurricane of heat.
The spear of flame made for me and mine like an arrow. With no time, and no place to run to, I thrust the six-guns into the air, remembering how Mayor would nestle them in the coals to charge them, and praying to Shadow Matron, oh, how I prayed it would be enough.
The fire slammed down on us, and arced around the guns in my hands. I could feel the salamanders drinking, deeper and deeper and deeper still, learning that their guts were not meant for so much power.
The salamander in my left hand exploded. The worst pain I’ve ever known washed through me and took my hand away in a burst of blood and bone. I screamed.
The other six-gun barely held. The wash of flame from above subsided, and in my remaining hand, the salamander glowed as if born from Bright Hell’s forge. The scale-folk screeched and roared, cheering on their Momma who’d come to protect them. In the sky, she wheeled, circled back to me, to the sunblooders behind me.
At my feet, Ko and Felbrem were dead and smoking.
I stood, letting my stump of a hand drip blood onto the scorched and glassy swamp. Raising the salamander, so hot I could smell my hand roasting, I leveled it at the great Momma from another world, whose jaws snapped the air, screaming for her fallen babies.
I was ready to die, I suppose.
I mean, the Mayor was dead. Ko and Felbrem were dead. The rest of the sunblooders huddled around me, bloody and scorched and beaten. I wanted to die because it honestly seemed the easiest thing to do.
But if you didn’t protect your family with all you had, what were you?
Momma Scales fell like a comet from Dark Heaven. Her jaws opened and I saw behind her teeth a great, bubbling heat. Her and I, our hands were on the triggers.
The universe yelled, “Draw!”
I was faster.
The bullet ascended like a star from Bright Hell, cutting through the flames of her jaw, and out the back of her mighty skull.
She didn’t scream as she fell, but her babies did. They cried and wept as she landed into the swamp behind us, dead as dead as dead.
Last thing I remembered was dropping the six-gun to the water, sizzling, and staring at my lost hand, the bloody stump, and smiling like a fool before I fell with her.
What happened to the scale-folk after their Momma died? Well, I imagine they did what we all have to do: they learned to live on without her.
There’ve been raids every so often, but they’re few. Without her, they’re lost, as lost as the sunblooders without the Mayor. But we all learn to make do with loss; life is just learning how to lose things with grace.
Would the Mayor have been proud of us, to see us fight back so? Did he even care for us? Or was he just a broken body searching for a ghost, before he could let himself die?
He may have been poisoned, and he may have been foolish, but he was right about one thing: The world is larger than the Stand, and to sit still in a world going down in flames without trying to help douse the inferno is just as bad as being the one to start the fire.
So I’m headed out. I’ve got a horse. I’ve got his last six-gun, battered and busted as it is. Even got his silver chain around my neck; maybe his ghost can help keep my feet on this earth. Momma Scales is dead by my horrific, scarred hand, and if I can do that to one, I can teach others how to do it to the remaining lizard lords that still dot the coast, biding their time until they bring their war back through the skies. I’ll see if we can’t drive those bastards back to their world without taking ours with them.
One of these days, I’ll die. I’ll be dragged under or poisoned or turned to their family. But not before teaching every person I meet that the world can only survive if you help it to, and fear is just a rope holding you back.
I don’t know if it’s what he would’ve wanted, but hope is all I’ve got left to give.
I gave it up, once upon a time and a hand ago. I don’t intend to again.
Martin Cahill is a writer working in Manhattan and living in Astoria, Queens. He is a graduate of the 2014 Clarion Writers’ Workshop and a member of the New York City based writing group, Altered Fluid. He has had fiction published in Fireside Fiction, Nightmare Magazine, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, with work forthcoming in Lightspeed Magazine. Martin also writes non-fiction reviews and essays for Book Riot, Tor.com, the Barnes & Noble Sci-fi and Fantasy Blog, and Strange Horizons. This one goes out to the gunslingers; keep giving ’em hell.
Extinctions, by Lina Rather – After your mother went to prison, you stayed with your grandmother, and after she died in her sleep, you went to the city. Odd girls on their own in the city come to bad ends, but you come from a long line of people who made their livings fixing and killing, and that sort of work never goes out of style. These days you have work that suits you better, in a tattoo shop in the low-rent part of the city where you spend most of your days doing flash and sweethearts’ names.
Palingenesis, by Megan Arkenberg – The painting is still there, hanging at the top of the main staircase in the county art museum. The landing makes a shallow triangle between the main collection, the American Indian gallery, and the eternally empty corridor labeled “Special Exhibits” on the map. You can use up all the fingers on one hand counting the number of times I’ve gone to that museum in the last year, and I find myself pausing in that tight and windowless space every time, hoping to see something different. I’m always disappointed.
Red Mask, by Jessica May Lin – Before she jumped, Feng Guniang used to tell me about her suicide, during our cigarette breaks when we danced at the Green Dream, her white-lacquered nails trailing against the web of her fishnet tights. We smoked in the shadowy corners behind the opium dens on Jiameng Street, where the lights from the neon advertising boards couldn’t touch us. The new opium dens are all styled like the old red mansions of the Ming Dynasty, complete with heavy doors twice as tall as we were.