The Cruelest Team Will Win
by Mike Allen
A spider with a leg span wider than my outstretched hand squeezed out from the space behind the light switch, and spread its wings.
I froze, my finger still on the toggle. Behind me the dust-draped ceiling fan hummed to life, the light bulb beneath it flicking on to paint the monster with my shadow.
The marks on its body formed a single staring eye above a screaming mouth. Two more false eyes glared red across its dragonfly wings. Another hideous little soul turned demonic, yearning to grow into something far worse.
I showed it my own spirit form.
It made good on its threat and lifted into the air, but its terrifying modification only made my task easier and my beak closed around it. The poison leaking from its crushed body spread warmth as it slid down my gullet.
The first time I ate one of its kind that poison made me quite sick. I underestimated how sick. I told my sweet neighbor across the hall that her three year old wouldn’t wake up screaming any more, her apartment was safe again. Then I drove to work at the fabric store, nearly crashed my car just trying to park, staggered inside and barely made it to the bathroom stall, dry heaving over the toilet while my manager clucked behind me, Leeanne, are you okay? You need the hospital?
But when you eat a ghost, there’s nothing to throw up. And the kind of poison a tainted soul puts in you, no doctor can help with that.
So I told her I’d be fine, it was just food poisoning, I’d be over it soon. I couldn’t go home, I needed the money too much. So I sucked it up and went to work. And then I found out something else about that poison. When the nausea subsided, a euphoria kicked in, not far removed from the time I mixed Flexiril and peach schnapps, a lava lamp glow oozing through me. All day I fought the urge to take my blue jay form right there in the store. My wings, slices of sky, would stretch longer than the fabric tables, and then I’d fly right through the ceiling like a ghost gone giant-size, meld my blue with the blue above.
I did that once, a couple years ago when I was less weighted with sad knowledge of the world: quit a job at a print shop by going blue jay right in front of my skeevy boss and flapping away through the cinderblock wall into the shimmering heavens of the spirit world. But when I returned to earth again, I still needed to pay for my classes, to cover my rent, to eat.
That sad weight kept me grounded that first delirious day of spider poisoning, but the sensation was addictive. The very next time I was asked to cleanse a house, I found another spiderling. It was strange that I found another right away, and not a run-of-the-mill, perfectly-human-looking haint, but it shot out at me from under a closet door, its mutation a second set of legs tipped with pincers, and I didn’t hesitate to eat it. And the next one I found, and the next one, and the next and many nexts since. And this time too.
The urge hit my brain straight away, to stay as I was, shift completely into the spirit world and rise up through the floors and ceilings of this rambling house as if it were mere mirage, and soar at the noonday sky like an ocean dive in defiance of gravity.
But I had already collected my upfront fee from the charming elderly couple that lived there, and now I needed to collect the rest of it. Classes, rent, normal non-ghosty food. I didn’t charge a lot, but it would at least give the debt dog a bone to run off with and chew on.
Emma Manderley was a frequent customer at the fabric store who knew about my specialty in clearing malevolent influences—the word gets around, you know, among those who care about such things—and the Manderleys had just enough sensitivity between them that they would know the thing that had bedeviled their sleep was gone without my even saying so.
They were waiting in their station wagon, sitting in the driveway with the radio playing. I had told them I only needed a few minutes. My magic never took more than a few minutes. I looked forward to their relieved smiles.
I climbed the spiral stairs out of the musty basement, traipsed through the slightly-less-musty ground floor and glanced out the front window as I crossed the living room.
The station wagon was completely blanketed by a substance like dense strands of shimmering gauze. A slender woman in slate gray business attire, knee-length skirt and matching jacket, was striding up the front walk.
I didn’t slow, didn’t want to linger in the window where she could spot me. I leaned to spy through the front door peephole.
I’ve known since I was a little girl that there are other people like me. My parents weren’t spirit folk but my father’s sister was, not a blue jay like me but a raven. She taught me how to be who I am, and to be wary of others who do what I do.
See, you might wonder why I don’t spend all my time as a bird, and this is why: our world of meat, metal and bone is a dangerous place, but the spirit world is a hundred times worse. Filled with predators. No laws, no one to make the cruel reign in their appetites. Ghosts are our natural prey in our animal forms and they can be dangerous enough (though before I started finding the spiderlings, it used to be that if I rooted out a ghost, I could just order it to leave and it would flee, because it knew what I was and what I could do.) But there’s many out there don’t limit themselves to just ghosts.
I could tell right away this woman had a spirit shadow. It loomed dark around her in my second sight, even though the day was bright. Grey flared from the temples of her pageboy to frame a narrow face split by sensuous, disproportionately wide lips. She could have been twenty or sixty, her features smooth but not youthful. Behind her a single strand of blue spiderweb rose straight into the sky, and behind that I recognized the same webbing, cocooning the station wagon and the poor couple inside it. The driver’s side door was ajar, bound that way by the webbing.
I wasn’t going to get my paycheck.
The woman stepped onto the porch, raising her fist as if she intended to knock. Then her dark eyes narrowed and I had a second to realize she was staring right at me through the door. I leaped back and stretched my wings. She changed, too, her fangs missing my head by less than an inch as she phased right through the wood.
A spider large as a minibus, legs longer than my wings, glared at me with eight eyes like black pearls embedded in coal-shiny hide. Her form flowed straight through the walls of the house as if they weren’t there, just like mine did as I beat my wings in thunderous panic, shoving as much air between us as I could, my heart shrieking with fear.
I flapped fully into the land of spirits, leaving behind the world of flesh. Surrounded by the sourceless silver light of the spirit realm, I risked a look back and discovered the spider had followed me, clambering after me at terrifying speed on her single strand of blue thread.
I should have easily left her far behind, but the thread moved of its own accord. Its anchor point, somewhere out of sight high in the heavens, kept pace with me as I flew, matching my maneuvers.
I risked a plunge right at it, meaning to snip it in half with my beak. It dodged me, then sprang back, and I bet if I hadn’t ducked so quickly myself it would have looped around me. And worse, the spider picked up her already impossible pace.
She called after me in a shockingly honey-sweet voice, “Birds eat spiders, but spiders eat birds, too.”
She didn’t have to run anymore. She was level with me, merely had to ride her magic thread until I tired out.
I knew what was hunting me, who she was. My Aunt Audra told me stories about the Night Queen in the Silver City, who savors drawn-out death, who only ever pretends to show mercy because she loves to watch her victims’ hopes die before their final agonies begin. “She calls herself Lilith,” my auntie said, “but she’s not _that_ Lilith. They say a couple hundred years ago she was human. But no one calls her one now.”
And a few months ago I met a couple like me, good people like Audra. They were passing through Hagerstown, stopped in the coffee house across the street from my store. An odd pair: Kori’s a bird person like me, a killdeer; Nathan, though, he’s a panther. But one without claws: he had two prosthetic hands. I thought at first he’d fought in Iraq. They were both friendly, super-friendly, but they never told me what did that to him. I mentioned Audra’s stories of Lilith, though, and they both went pale. “She’s not a story,” Nathan said, and they warned me to stay away from her. Nathan, it was like the words got stuck in his throat, but Kori told me what she looked like. And now I remembered her description, narrow face, hair white at the temples. “A black widow as big as a house. I hope you never look on her.”
I would not live to tell Kori her hopes had come to naught.
Because I couldn’t get away. Not just because I couldn’t shake Lilith’s magic thread but because out there in the ceaseless silver light, here and there and there, I started to see shadows suspended in the air. Things with too many legs, moving along the physics-defying passages that, in the spirit world, are as numerous a mile in the air as they are a mile underground. More creatures like Lilith, at least a dozen, not as big as her, but bigger than me. Not close. Not yet. It was just a matter of time before my constant swooping to keep out of reach of the Night Queen put me in range of one of her clan.
I could only think of one thing to do. I didn’t have to fake the quaver in my voice. “Your Highness, what have I done to upset you?”
“How droll that you know me,” she said. “Someone of your kind should stick to acorns. You keep murdering my pets.”
Pets? The spiderlings? Those strange mutant ghosts-things that invade the homes of the mundanes and drive them crazy with nightmares? My stomach lurched at the thought of killing anyone’s pet, a terrible guilt twisting through me the instant before my rational side tamped it down. Lilith could not mean that term of endearment the same way as you or I would mean it. The Night Queen grieves for no one.
I continued to avoid her, though as the old joke goes, boy, were my arms tired. “Those weird little ghosts? Why would you care about them?”
“My dear, those weren’t ghosts. Surely you could tell by the taste?”
But I had never eaten a ghost, before that spiderling across the hall attacked me. How many ghosts had Lilith devoured over her long lifetime? I couldn’t imagine. I gave her a version of the truth. “I thought it was their mutation. I’ve heard of spirits changing themselves, mutilating themselves, trying to become demons.”
Lilith laughed, the sound grotesquely emphasized with a waving of her fangs. “Stupid child. It’s our kind who does that. Chooses to modify the forms we’re born with. Ghosts have no such power.” And surely Lilith knew what she was talking about, as the living, breathing, supreme example. “Tasty as ghosts are, though, I have found that the little human flies make for finer dining while they’re still alive. I’ve been experimenting, indulging my culinary skills, hunting the best method to sup from many of them all at once.”
I couldn’t help myself. “Oh, no.”
Her voice brightened with mirth. “You have been eating tiny little pieces…of me.”
I might then have simply folded my wings together, dropped like Icarus and hoped quick death on jagged rocks waited below.
I was so, so fucked.
I said, “Your Highness, I didn’t know. I am so sorry.”
“I am sure you are sorry,” she said. “But perhaps you can make it up to me. Let me take you to the Silver City.” Her pearl eyes glinted. “You are what you eat, you know. Let me study you, and see how your diet has affected you. I bet you’ve already changed in ways that will surprise you.”
“I’ve never been to the Silver City,” I said, vapid as a Kardashian. “I’m honored.” More of her kind crawled through the air about me, awaiting the right moment to spring. “I’d like to go.”
She stretched out her long, sleek forelegs in the most disturbing offer of embrace I have ever seen. “You’ll have to let me bind you, I’m afraid. I promise I won’t bite.”
I flapped away again. I was starting to wheeze, my spirit form unable to stave off the sensation of swimming a marathon. “You don’t need to,” I gasped. “I’ll go willingly.”
“My promise only comes with cooperation.” She said it so soothingly. I knew I would be better off forcing her to kill me quickly.
“Okay then.” I panted the words, flapped my wings in a short, painful burst, then stilled them, let that thread drift closer. Easily within her reach.
She continued her ruse, reaching for me gently rather than snatching me from the air. It bought me the time I needed to pull my wings close and dart straight for her face.
Those of us whose spirit forms take an animal’s shape can all do the things that animal does best, without need for a second’s thought. Lilith proved herself learned when she taunted me with that “acorn” crack. Blue jays like to pin acorns with their feet and break them open with a single peck. We have very strong beaks.
Except my talons closed over her two largest eyes and my beak struck her hard as a jackhammer in the closest thing a spider has to a brow. Her oversized exoskeleton was thick as a brick wall and I split it wide open.
I dropped away but I still wasn’t quick enough. No way could I ever have been quick enough. She didn’t try to grab me—she was in too much pain, I think—but she struck out of sheer instinct, sheer hate, sheer vengeance. The daggers of her fangs pierced my stomach, and pain exploded through me, like she’d pumped magma into the wounds. I screeched as I fell, flapping my wings to escape the agony, but it was inside me, fire worming through every vein.
Lilith’s magic thread came loose from its mooring in the heavens, and she dropped from the sky, vanishing the next second. I didn’t notice where her followers went. I was being flayed from the inside out. The shrill, pathetic shrieks, that echoed through all corners of the spirit realm? I was making those noises, so out of my mind with pain I didn’t even know those sounds were coming from my own throat.
But the very thing that got me in so much trouble also saved me.
After untold miles, the pain began to fade. Before I had attacked Lilith I had played at being more worn out than I actually was. Now I really was that tired, probably a hundred times worse, and I had no idea where I’d flown.
But I didn’t care.
All those exorcisms I performed, unknowingly chowing down on extensions of pure undiluted Night Queen, had built up my tolerance to her venom. Enough that even though a direct bite felt like flinging myself on hot pokers, it didn’t kill me.
And when the agony faded, bliss took its place. A euphoria like no earthly drug could ever induce.
Thoughts of disgust crawled across my mind, that the substance I found so addictive was the venom of the Night Queen herself. But that realization made not a scratch on the joy I felt. Nor did any worries about where I would land, or how I would rebuild my life. Nor did the certainty that I would spend the rest of my days a marked woman. I regarded my cares like an airplane passenger watching farmlands scroll by below. I was a piece of the sky, pure sun-painted blue, invincible.
I flew to the east, away from the encroaching dusk, and I didn’t look back.
About the Author
Mike Allen edits the acclaimed anthology series Clockwork Phoenix and the long-running magazine Mythic Delirium. His books include post-apocalyptic dark fantasy novel The Black Fire Concerto, steampunk western The Sky-Riders (co-written with MG novelist Paul Dellinger), career-spanning poetry collection Hungry Constellations, and short fiction collections Unseaming and The Spider Tapestries. His poetry has won the Rhysling Award three times, and his fiction has been nominated for the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. He lives in Roanoke, Virginia, with his wife Anita and two quirky cats.
About the Narrator
Summer Fletcher loves impractical things like fancy pastries and shooting arrows from horseback. When they are not writing, Summer is the host and assistant editor of PodCastle.