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Blind Shrike Page 12

"I'm guessing this is the tuk-tuk we were waiting for?" said Shrike.

"It would seem so," replied Primo. "Hmm. I don't believe this was a motor accident. There appears to be an arrow in the driver's eye. I wonder who could have put that there?"

"That would be us," came a croaking voice from the roof of the passage.

Four men (and the gender of the intruders was just a guess on Spyder's part) dropped to the floor. The men weren't holding anything, so Spyder wasn't sure how they'd been holding on to the ceiling. But what seemed more important to him now was the men's elongated faces and crocodilian skin. Each was dressed differently-one in a firefighter's rubber overcoat, another in priestly vestments, the third wore shorts and an I LUV LA t-shirt and the fourth was wearing a high school letter jacket. Spyder didn't want to think about where the lizard men might have acquired their clothes, but the rust-colored stains in the LA t-shirt gave him some idea.

"Excuse me, gentlemen," said Primo and he gave the lizards a bow. "I am Primo Kosinski and I am conducting these guests to the abode of Madame Cinders. The Madame has negotiated safe passage through the Blegeld Passage for herself and all her guests."

"She didn't negotiate with us," said the lizard priest in a gravelly, hissing voice.

"That's because the compact is universal. No one may ignore or prevent…," Primo began. Shrike cut him off.

"What will it cost us to get through?" she asked.

"The pretty green. Piles of it. Do you have that?"

"You know we don't," Shrike said.

"Good," hissed the lizard in the letter jacket. He took a step toward Shrike. Just as she was bringing her sword up, Spyder saw Primo ram his shoulder into the lizard's mid-section, smashing him against the wall in an explosion of bone, blood and dry skin. Next, Primo rounded on the priest and back-fisted him, ripping off a good portion of the beast's face. Spyder was pulling Shrike back from the carnage. As awful as it was, he couldn't turn away. The first thing he noticed, aside from the fact that Primo had the last two lizards by the throat and was slowly choking the life from them, was that the little man's clothes were not longer loose on him. In fact, they seemed a little tight. His skin had turned a bright crimson and long, thorned hooks protruded from every part of his body, ripping through the fabric of his suit. Primo growled with animal fury as he crushed the throats of the lizards until their heads hung at odd angles on limp flesh. Dropping the attackers' bodies, Primo turned to Spyder and Shrike -asking, "Are you both all right?"

"We're fine," Shrike said. "Thank you."

The little man, for he was already shrinking back to his original size, approached them, cleaning his hands on the T-shirt he ripped from the body of one dead lizard. "Forgive me, please," he said. "You were under my protection and should never have had to even raise your weapon. You may ask Madame for my life, if you like."

"Don't be silly," said Shrike. "You protected us and we're grateful."

"I'm happy to be of service."

"You're of the Gytrash race, aren't you?"

"Yes, ma'am. Members of my family have been guides for Madame Cinders and her friends for over a thousand years."

"Your family should be very proud of you, Primo."

"Thank you. I believe they are. At least, they sit well with me."

Spyder felt Shrike's hand on his arm, quieting him until Primo had moved away to inspect the lizard men's bodies. When he was out of ear shot, Shrike whispered quickly. "The Gytrash are nomads and escorts for travelers. They are a very practical race. They eat their dead for nourishment, but also as ritual. It's their highest act of love and praise."

"We're almost there," said Primo. "Shall we continue?"

"Let's," said Shrike. Spyder walked beside her trying to decide which member of his family, in a pinch, he could eat.


The Birth of Monsters

When the world began, there were no such things as monsters. Demons were just fallen angels who, booted out of heaven and bored with Hell, wandered the Earth sticking little girls' pigtails in inkwells and sinking the occasional continent.

The word monster didn't really exist until the Spheres separated and the humans and beasts in the first Sphere forgot about their brethren in the other Earth realms.

In fact, most of what people call monsters are at least partly human. Many are the offspring of Romeo and Juliet encounters between mortals and races from the other Spheres. The first monster was the offspring of a man, Chrysaor, and Nyx, the snake queen. Their daughter, Lilith, was the first of the Lamia race. When she fell in love with another human, Umashi, and created the long-nosed Tengus. It wasn't just humans coupling with the older races. Earth was a romantic free-fire zone before the Spheres split. Old races mated with the new ones, which created still newer races, new cultures, new myths and new possibilities. Later, when mortals only saw the other races of the Earth in their dreams, they called these long-forgotten siblings monsters.

Of course, mortals weren't always tops on the invitation list for parties, either. A number of animal races, especially the ones in the oceans and air, didn't regard humans as truly sentient beings and considered mating with them to be the grossest kind of bestiality. This generally low opinion of humanity was widespread in the outer Spheres and didn't change for thousands of years, until certain mortal stories trickled out to the hinterlands. Gilgamesh, for instance, was quite a hit with the swamp kings and lords of the air. Other stories of reluctant heroes and re-born champions, characters such as Prometheus and the trickster Painted Man, elevated humanity in the eyes of the other races because in all those stories the heroes die or give up some core part of their being for their people. That humans could grasp the idea of self-sacrifice was big news in the outer Spheres. Humanity was cut some sorely needed slack from races that previously regarded them as a kind of chatty land krill.

Of course, while the creatures of the outer Spheres no longer thought of humans as vermin, they didn't really want to live next door to one, either.


Cannibal Orchids

They emerged from the tunnel into what looked and felt like noon light. After the darkness and relative quiet of the sub-terranean passages, the city was -overwhelming.

The first thing that hit Spyder was the heat, then the din of car horns and the heavy reek of exhaust fumes. They had emerged from a storage room in the back of a small open-air café where bearded men in long while garments sipped mint tea and smoked unfiltered Winstons.

Spyder had a hard time focussing on individual objects in the dazzling light. Shrike looped her arm through his and they followed Primo through narrow, unfamiliar back streets that smelled equally of raw sewage and cumin. Shielding his eyes with his free hand, Spyder was able to focus better and realized that the reason he couldn't read the signs on the shops was that they weren't in English, or even Roman letters.

"Where are we?" he asked, knowing it violated his promise not to speak, but not caring.

"Alexandria," said Primo. "The Medina. The old city."

"How far are we from Madame Cinder's?" asked Shrike.

"Very close. Just a few blocks, ma'am."

Spyder had always wanted to go to Egypt, though he'd always imagined going there by a more conventional means. Still, he told himself, he was there with a cute girl on his arm and a guide who knew his way around. For being utterly lost and nearly crazy from confusion and fear, it could have been worse.

They turned a corner and were surrounded by the ruins of a burial and temple complex that looked as if it were left over from the time of the Pharaohs. Sandstone blocks the size of SUVs lay at odd angles amidst a litter of columns and statues of animal-headed gods. Silent children watched them from the tops of the shattered temples. Whole families were living in the necropolis, Spyder realized, though he couldn't say if they were from his time, some antediluvian past or some weird future. The temple inhabitants wore stiff, bulky robes the colors of the stones they walked on. In their odd garments, they looked almost like living stones themselves. The men were butchering the carcass of some large buffalo-like animal and dragging bloody slabs of it off to their families.

Just past the necropolis was an old walled fortress. Over the outer wall, Spyder could just see the top of a golden onion dome and a tall minaret. Primo picked up his pace, breaking into a stiff legged trot that made him look like an oversize wind-up toy. Even though it hadn't been more than an hour or so since the fight in the tunnel, Spyder was having a hard time picturing Primo as a killer. Which might have been the little man's greatest strength, he thought. He looked at Shrike. She was lean and exuded confidence, but if he hadn't seen her in action with her sword he wouldn't have imagined her strength, either.

As Primo worked the stiff lock on the gates of the fortress, Spyder shielded his eyes from the sun. Frowning to himself, he remembered his first tattoo: barbed wire around his neck. It was a traditional prison tat. Spyder had told people that the tat was a memorial to his friend Gus who had died in the San Luis Obispo county jail in a fight with a member of a rival bike gang. And that was half true. It had genuinely broken Spyder up when Gus died during what should have been nothing more than a weekend in the drunk tank. But Spyder knew enough about tattoos to know how people would back off when they saw what they took to be a symbol of his having survived serious jail time. Thinking about it now, in the company of two genuine killers who looked anything but dangerous, Spyder saw much of his early ink less as a tribute to the art and more to his own neuroses. He wore his fear on his skin for everyone to see. Spyder had avoided thoughts like these his whole life and, as Primo wrestled the gates of the fortress open, they came down on him hard. Fear and covering up fear had probably been his primary motivator since childhood. Oddly, now that he had real monsters to deal with and not just the neurotic shadows that he'd dragged with him from childhood, none of it was as bad as he'd imagined it would be. Maybe because he wasn't alone. Shrike's arm was solid against him. If he wasn't really brave, maybe he could watch her and learn to act bravely. A line he used more than once to sell tattoos to uncertain customers popped into his head, "Sometimes changing the outside is the first step to changing the inside."

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