Authors: Caitlin Kittredge
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Everything tastes like ashes. The air above London is black no matter the time of day, smoke billowing from the burning districts south of the Thames. Sirens scream, echoing from building to building. People scream as hungry things chase them through the street, now the graveyard of cars long abandoned.
Not all people are victims. Some roam the darker, narrower parts of the city in packs, falling on man and creature alike.
Jack Winter watches the fires as they flourish and die. He watches the wraiths flit out over the water. He watches the zombies and the gangs alike feast on the flesh of men.
He tastes the ashes, the only thing that remains of a world that was once daylight and free of the knowledge that things like this existed, nearly close enough to touch.
But that wall fell, like all walls do, victims of time or pressure or circumstance. Now there is no division, no dark and daylight. There is just this world, burning and broken, and in it Jack Winter is alone.
* * *
Jack hated waking up. At times, he would keep his eyes pressed shut and imagine that when he opened them he’d see the ceiling of his old flat, stained and blank. That instead of a car fire or raw sewage, he’d smell coffee and a fry up. That instead of the constant sirens and blared announcements from the Territorial Army tanks roaming the streets, he’d hear his daughter and his wife laughing.
He opened his eyes. He could see straight through to the sky. It was as black as the rest of the place, and he sat up and looked around at the hundreds of other bodies scattered across the floor of King’s Cross. Some slept, some smoked or ate tinned food with furtive expressions.
A few aid workers walked among them, and one started toward him with a vile meal-replacement bar that was quickly becoming the only thing you could reliably find to eat in London, if you weren’t into roasting stray cats or cannibalism.
Jack waved her off. The other poor bastards in this place needed food a lot more than he did. King’s Cross was one of the last safe zones in London, surrounded by holdouts from the army who hadn’t cut and run when they started getting ripped apart by lycanthropes and zombies.
He hated the safe zones. Nothing but sad civilians, dirty and battered, always with fear in their eyes as they scoured each individual face for signs that it did, in fact, belong to a human.
The psychic frequencies in King’s Cross were calm, though, and it was the only place he could get any sleep. Whitechapel used to blank out his second sight with the sheer volume of static from the many bad deeds wrought on its earth, but now it was alive with ghosts, poltergeists, and wraiths—guaranteed high-octane nightmare fuel for someone like Jack.
Besides, he didn’t want to go back there. Lily and Pete had been there. And now …
“Are you sure you’re not hungry?” The nurse held out the wrapped bar to him. Jack caught a whiff and wrinkled his nose.
“Food’s not really a priority these days, luv.”
She shoved the bar against his chest, until he was forced to take it or let it drop and shatter. He had to hand it to the civilians—they’d figured it out pretty quickly. Chop the head off a zombie, ward your safe spaces against the dead, and don’t make skin-to-skin contact with anyone. Magic, especially black magic, used touch as a contact point, and everyone in the city had taken to swaddling up.
“Try to keep your strength up,” the nurse said, and moved on.
They all believed in it so quickly,
Jack thought, watching a little girl sitting next to her sleeping parents, reading a coverless book with burnt edges.
In magic, in the people who used it, in the creatures it spawned.
Sure, it had caused a mass panic and destroyed London as they knew it, but they all believed.
He could never have imagined such a thing when he was the girl’s age, still realizing that seeing and speaking to the dead wasn’t something every snot-nosed brat could do.
She caught his eye. She and her parents were Indian, but he could see Lily in her face.
Who am I kidding,
Jack thought. He saw Lily in
little girl’s face.
“Here.” He gave her the protein bar. She frowned at him.
“Don’t you need this?”
Jack stood up and shouldered his kit, the stuff he’d managed to grab from his flat before they had to run. Before …
“No, darling,” he told the girl. “Not where I’m going.”
The safe zone extended from King’s Cross to the Ice Wharf on the canal, and down to Clerkenwell Road. A tiny slice of what had once been the most alive city in all the world, at least as far as Jack was concerned. London had so many layers of magic and death and blood and sex all piled on top of one another, you could never plumb the depths. That city, the one kept safely out of civilian gaze, and the daylight London, made it a place he’d never wanted to leave.
leave, because from all reports the rest of England was just as fucked.
Just shy of the barrier, Jack slipped through the wire and down the boarded-up steps to the Angel tube station. He could take the tunnels to Blackfriars and from there one of the ferry gangs would take him across the Thames.
He thought about the last meeting he’d had with Ian Mosswood, a Fae creature who was one of the few not to abandon London for their own realm, the Courts. Mosswood, usually a chap who could pose for billboards, looked ragged, wrapped in a black coat, his salt-and-pepper hair mostly white. Fae didn’t last long in the Black or the daylight world unless they were ancient and strong, which Mosswood was.
When they’d met, Jack had had the unpleasant realization that the world was a lot more buggered than he’d let himself believe.
“You know you can’t possibly succeed, right?” Mosswood had asked, keeping a close eye out for both the scavenger gangs and the menagerie of flesh-ripping creatures that roamed outside the safe zones.
“Cheers, Ian,” Jack said. “Always like to hear that I’m doomed from the start.”
Mosswood handed him a scrap of vellum on which was both a liberal spatter of blood and an address.
“I’m dying,” Mosswood said. “Do you realize how absurd that is? I am eternal and yet I am dying.”
Jack glanced at the paper now, then shoved it back in his pocket. The address was south of the river, deep in Elemental territory, and he remembered the sinking sensation in his gut that he’d been careful not to let Mosswood see.
“We all have to go sometime, mate,” he’d told Mosswood.
“You’d do well to remember that,” the Green Man replied. “I won’t see you again, Jack. This world has only a little time before there’s nothing left but the ashes and the demons.”
“And the cockroaches,” Jack had said, with a levity he didn’t feel. His sense of humor had abandoned him on the day he’d left Whitechapel.
“Like I said,” Mosswood muttered, and then turned and limped away.
Jack shook off his memories and forced himself to focus. The tunnels to the river were populated with nasty monsters, of course. Jack had a light, his hexing abilities, and a liberal spray of iron-and-salt packed shotgun rounds for anything that made it past the first line. Pete had had her old service weapon, which he was glad of when things went pear shaped, but the shotgun was better if you weren’t a former crack-shot police inspector like his wife. Point and shoot, no skill required.
The things north of the river were mostly scavengers, wraiths and the like that would rather feed on the dead than the living. Then there were the mole people, as Pete had called them, the humans who’d taken to the underground when it all kicked off.
And the ghosts. Thick, packed, like commuters waiting for a train. Many of them had been, when they’d died, and most were so new they didn’t even realize they were dead.
Jack sighed, doing his best to avoid brushing against the silent, staring spirits that packed the tunnel. His head throbbed.
He had to get to the south side of the river before dark. He’d been chasing his daughter for months, ever since
had ripped Lily out of Pete’s arms.
Some of those months, the ones after Pete, had been wasted crawling inside any bottle he could find. He would have gone back to being a dirty smack addict if anyone in the greater London area had any drugs left.
Then he’d picked himself up, and set about getting Lily back. Jack had spent his life on the shadow side, so he learned how to sneak in and out of the safe zones, learned who dealt information and who just played at it, learned the names of all the big hard men who controlled South London now, and he decided that he’d either get Lily back or he’d be dead soon enough.
These days, either option was acceptable.
Of course Jack knew
was only keeping Lily alive to torment him. That Jack was being batted around like a cat toy. Jack had decided it didn’t matter. All of this had happened. He’d started life in shit; he’d clawed his way into a filthy, miserable existence as a psychic too strong to shut off his own visions, and when he’d finally found a bit of happiness, that was when it really hit the fan.
Jack was acutely aware as he climbed the broken escalator at Blackfriars that if he’d just stayed in his tip and continued shooting up, none of this would ever have happened.
That was the sting of hindsight. Jack couldn’t imagine being happy, and then he was. He couldn’t imagine his happiness being ripped away from him, and it was, every last bit. And looking back, it was so fucking obvious that it hurt just as much as a boot to the gut. He wasn’t supposed to be happy and live his life and kick off as an old man with a bunch of grandkids. Jack had only ever existed to burn the world, whether he wanted to or not.
The demons and the old gods and everyone with sense who’d ever met him saw it. He was the only one who had thought things might turn out differently.
Breaking glass, screams, and bootfalls reached his ears as he exited the station, and Jack sighed again. Riots were practically an hourly occurance now, but he didn’t have time to waste on avoiding this one. The sun—what little could be seen through the constant haze of soot and smoke—was already perilously low.
A broken brick whizzed past his ear, and he saw a human gang—the Front Street Boys out of Twickenham, judging by their colors—converging and beating on a zombie. The thing already had one leg off and its face stove in, thrashing as it struggled to scream through its mouth sewn up with red thread.
The Stygian Brothers were turning out zombies with the regularity of a biscuit factory, some half-arsed gibberish about giving the dead of London a second chance. All they gave the rest of the city was a great big fucking pest problem, by Jack’s reckoning, but that was a Stygian for you. Corpse-botherers with no damn sense at all.