Youth Narth hawked and spat, the glob of spittle landing on the cracked, dusty ground and quickly being sucked down into the earth without leaving a trace. The sky above was a pitiless blue, devoid of clouds, and the earth below the boy's bare, callused feet was dead white earth and dead white dust that puffed up with each step that he took alongside his father.
Old Narth looked much the same as his son, with a gaunt and unsmiling face, and a pair of pale eyes peering out at the world from beneath the frayed edge of a flat-brimmed leather hat. Their clothes were a motley assortment of rags and leathers secured by yellowed bone toggles and buttons. Bright colors had faded into paltry imitations of former splendor, and the leather was cracked and drying from the efforts of the sun and the never-ceasing wind. It creaked as they moved, two humanoid figures in a land of white dust, leading a donkey that was on the edge of death, the animal living only because it was a habit.
The boy worked the mud in his mouth to the tip of his tongue, then spat again in an attempt to clear it of muck. The dust was everywhere: coating the exposed skin of his face like flour, turning the blond hair that stuck out from under his hat white, powdering his garments and the hide of the donkey until its black skin looked pale grey. It was grit in his eyes that also crunched beneath his teeth, despite the faded red kerchief that covered half the boy's sun-darkened, weathered face.
" 'Ow much farther?" the lad asked his father.
"Two suns," Old Narth rasped in answer. Two days to Craddle, the tiny settlement in the Waste where the goods on the back of their packbeast could be sold in exchange for a dusty, lice-ridden bed to sleep in, bad food that would just as likely make them sick as feed them, and sulfur-tasting water—the best fare to be had for a hundred miles in any direction.
Young Narth nodded to show he had heard what his sire had said, and the desolate trio plodded onwards toward their destination.
That night, the donkey died.
Dawn painted the white landscape with vivid hues of scarlet and crimson and lavender, coating the trunks of the leafless dead trees with blood and the skies with tongues of flame. The air was cool and dry, and the breeze stirred the long plait of unwashed yellow hair that hung down Old Narth's scarred back. The corpse of the mule had been butchered for the tough, stringy meat that it could offer, as well as the hide, and then the bags and packs had been unloaded and strapped onto the backs of Young Narth and his father. The first ravens had been pecking at the donkey's glassy, unseeing eyes as Old Narth and his son had continued their journey to Craddle.
On the third day, footsore and with aching backs, they arrived in the settlement. It was only a collection of dingy, low, one-room houses, the smoke issuing forth from their crazily-tilting chimneys staining the ruddy dawn sky. There was a corral built of dead white wood for livestock and riding beasts, with a half-filled trough of cloudy water for the animals to drink from. Currently there was a single scrawny cow, two goats, and a rail-thin pig. A quartet of starved chickens pecked in the dust. Dirty children, wearing the same sort of garb as Young Narth and his sire, stopped their play and watched the travelers with wary, mistrustful eyes. A toddler, naked save for an off-white loincloth, wailed from its mother's arms.
"Wot be yer bes'ness 'ere?" the woman asked in a sharp, suspicious voice, squinting at Old Narth and his son with flinty dark eyes. The two traders pulled down the threadbare kerchiefs covering their faces before answering, then the man licked his dry, chapped lips with a sandpaper tongue and answered: "Tradin'. We got goods from the west. From Cardolan, ye kennit, and Gamüt-in-the-south."
The woman was clad in a faded, layered cotton skirt of indistinguishable color, along with a leather apron and a man's shirt with the sleeves rolled up to her elbows. She absentmindedly bounced the toddler on her hip to quiet it, looking at the trader and his son with narrowed, suspicious eyes set deep in a careworn face. Then the woman twisted her head suddenly to one side, and spat in the dust to avoid ill luck before her hawk's gaze returned to the twain. "Ye best show me wot ye brought, an' we'll mebbe talk o' tradin' sech and sech withee," she said.
"I'll talk with yer man," Old Narth said, not making any move to display his and his son's trade-goods. He had never trusted women.
"He ain't here," the woman replied without so much as blinking. "Talk t'me, or be along with ye."
Old Narth hesitated for a moment, then grimaced and made a quick, impatient gesture with one hand. Young Narth obediently pulled his pack from his back, setting it on the ground and extracting a slab of intricately carved ivory, a necklace of pale pink shells, and a trio of steel cooking knives for the woman's inspection. The woman's eyes swept over the goods being offered, lingering longest on the knives—good steel was hard to come by these days. Most people in these parts used bronze, or else flint or obsidian.
"Meager," she snapped, feigning disinterest. Bending down, the woman appraised the knives critically for several long moments. The two traders stood with callused hands clasped behind their backs, the wind stirring their hair and clothing, saying nothing. The cow in the corral lowed once. Two boys no more than five began a fight behind one of the hovels, heard rather than seen. An older sister waded into their brawl with a stick and doled out bruises until they separated.
When the woman was finished looking at the knives she glared up at Old Narth with her dark eyes. "Thez 'ere looks like somethin' offa a thief's corpse tha' ye stole fra' some shanty-town ye ben an' passed through," she said. There was a pause. "Wot d'ye ask fer 'em, as they are?"
"I ain't gonna talk coins and scales and sech with ye," Old Narth rasped. "Speak, an' tell where yer man ez be found, so's I kin do the bes'ness I came t'do."
The woman pursed her lips in anger for a moment as she debated what and what not to tell the strangers. Then she jerked her head beyond one of the two hills that Craddle lay at the base of. "On t'other side," she said curtly. "Ye know o' the trader Creb?" Her voice was sullen.
"Yar, so's I do," Old Narth replied.
" 'E brought some devil-'orse t'sell 'ere. Alla the men-lads went t'go an' eyeball et."
"Thankee, mistress," Young Narth said.
"Yar, an' alla the devils above an' below lay curses on ye."
The two spotted bitches sat at Creb's feet, pink tongues lolling, displaying their yellowed, broken fangs to the world. Creb himself, the old madman, cackled as he watched the three young men pull the mutant to the ground, its six clawed feet kicking up great clouds of dust as the men shouted and sweated, using ropes tied to the creature's legs to eventually pull its feet out from under it, and then tying the ropes to stout poles that had been set deep in the ground.
The beast was about the size of a horse, with deep pink eyes set in the forefront of its skull and a hide that was as white as the snowcaps on the mountains that rimmed the horizon. The sound coming from its gaping, fanged mouth was a scream of primal, all-encompassing rage as it thrashed on the dusty ground and strained at its bonds.
" 'Ow in the God's name did ye bring it 'ere, Creb?" one of the men demanded, using his kerchief to mop the sweat from his brow as he eyed the animal. Dust had coated his face like flour, and the runnels of sweat across his skin had made tracks in the grime.
Creb cackled again, displaying his brown teeth. "The thang 'ates dogs, so it does!" the madman laughed. "Tha' be the secret, so 'tis!" Sticking two fingers in his mouth, Creb whistled, and the hounds lazing at his feet came suddenly to life, springing to their paws and dashing to the devil horse. When it saw the approach of the curs the demon beast screamed at them, more horribly than it had ever screamed before, and fought its bonds even harder. The posts shivered in the ground, but held. The dogs barked and snarled, just out of the mutant's reach, and darted forward to nip the mutant's legs and flanks. Blood stained the short white fur.
The two legs that had been left untied kicked outwards. There was a yelp, and then one of the bitches crawled back to Creb to pant at his feet, nursing a broken rib. The other mutt snarled, baring her fangs, and danced closer in an attempt to get at the devil horse's jugular. The mutant hissed at the hound, snapping its jaws forward, narrowly missing. Its tail lashed the ground in anger. Creb whistled again, and the bitch snarled one last time and returned to her master, glaring balefully at the albino.
Young Narth and his father waded into this scene, staring at the mutant with wide, amazed eyes. Such a thing could only come from deep within the Waste, where only the jewel-colored poisonwater flowed, ready to eat a man from the inside out with its toxins where it didn't burn him to death from its heat. Only Creb, mad old Creb with his two spotted bitches, would ever dare to venture so far in. Men weren't made to live in that Hell of white dust and poisonwater and mutants. All the preachers and pastors said so.
But Creb and his spotted bitches somehow survived there, bringing back cages of flightless birds with feathers as brightly colored as the poisonwater, or more drably-colored avians that could imitate and remember human speech better than any parrot from the southern islands, or nuggets of gold and raw amethysts, as well as agates that he claimed were simply lying in streambeds for the taking. And sparkrocks. Strange, round stones that looked like a translucent yellow, orange, or red pebbles... which would glow like torches as soon as they were subjected to heat. They were so valuable that three sparkrocks could pay a king's ransom. Creb claimed that he found one or two every year.
" 'Ow deep didja go?" Young Narth asked in amazement, all thoughts of sparkrocks and birds driven from his mind by the sight of the white-skinned mutant.
"Deep, cully, real deep," Creb cackled. "Deep 'nuff to see moun'ains o' fire an' cats as big as 'orses wi' gol'en stripes 'own their sides an' fangs long as knives. O' course, that 'un there et 'ee cats like they t'were naught bu' mice." The mad trader jerked his thumb over his shoulder at the devil horse with a brown-toothed grin. Young Narth went back to staring at the beast in amazement, squatting down on the ground to get a better look.
Old Narth found the husband of the woman that he had spoken to, and began bartering. The people of Craddle, now that the devil horse was tied down and no longer a threat, gazed at it for a short while and then wandered over to look at the knives and pewter utensils that the father and son had brought with them from outside of the Waste.
Young Narth watched the mutant. The albino, now that there wasn't a crowd around, sat up as much as it could. Before, it had been a mad, blood-crazed, wild, thrashing beast. Now, it was still a mad, blood-crazed, wild beast. But it had stopped thrashing. That long, flexible neck reached around began gnawing on the rope that bound one of its front legs. It was facing the pillar that Young Narth was squatting beside, and those deep pink eyes, like a pair of red sparkrocks, fixed themselves on the boy.
The gaze wasn't malevolent. It wasn't angry. But the animal that those eyes belonged to was more intelligent than it looked, and it knew all about cunning and cruelty and vendettas—and it also knew many, many ways to kill. The devil horse stopped gnawing the rope when it was halfway severed and leered at the boy, displaying a mouthful of white fangs as big as the blade of the clasp knife in the lad's pocket. Young Narth felt a shiver drag its way up his spine with icy fingers. He moved back a bit, his rag-wrapped feet leaving tracks in the dust. The mutant went back to gnawing.
After a few minutes, the rope parted. The albino moved to chew on the rope that bound its other foreleg.
Young Narth hesitated. His emotions roiled. He was a child of the Waste—a child born into poverty, who would surely die in poverty, who had once heard his mother crying because she had gone hungry for two nights so that her children could have bare mouthfuls of food to eat. His mother had died, his sister had died, and even his sister's scrawny kitten had died. When the boy pulled up his shirt, he could count ribs. Hunger, fatigue, and pain had been his constant companions. He didn't know childhood. He had gone from infant to worker, with no playtime in between. Water and food and money were scrimped and saved. How can you be so fierce if you come from so deep in the Waste? It beat me down. It made me into a machine. It enslaved me.
Young Narth rose to his feet and moved to the other posts, picking at the knots in the rope that were wound about the weathered wood. Slowly, they loosened. The boy wasn't quite sure what he was doing, or why. It was as though a type of madness had engulfed him: a defiance of the land, of this dead land that still leeched all it could from the people who had to live in it. Narth had never hated before. He had been too tired, too beaten-down, too wearied, to hate. But now he did, and he found himself furiously loosening the knots in the rope that bound Creb's captive, a fierce scowl on his gaunt face. This land would not have another victim! It would not suck the life from this creature!
Then, suddenly, the rope was jerked out of the boy's hands. The mutant, its ties either severed or undone, rose to its six feet with a scream, plunging into the crowd of traders, goods, and buyers and heading straight for Creb. One of the dogs leaped at the white-skinned horror and had her belly ripped open by a clawed foot, loops of wetly glistening intestines spilling out onto the dusty ground. The other cur had its head kicked in. And Creb, Creb died in agony, trying desperately to flee as the mutant bore down on him and dragged him back, placing two legs on the madman's body and taking a huge chunk of flesh from the trader's thigh—eating the man as he screamed and thrashed on the ground, bleeding his life away into the hungry soil.
Old Narth and the people of Craddle took one look, and ran over the hill to their village, their feet kicking up a cloud of bone-white dust that drifted with the wind to the west. Doubtless they went for weapons, ancient flint- and wheel-locks that they would load with shaking hands, and then either return to try and kill the red-eyed demon or else guard their homes and families.
The mutant continued eating, Creb's screams fading into gurgles and then nothing at all as he died. It was plain that the devil horse knew it had little time, and it rose from its kill and swung its bloody muzzle towards Young Narth, looking at him with those deep pink eyes. The boy wished he could run. It felt like his legs had turned to jelly, and he could barely even stand as the six-legged monster turned and slowly paced towards him. Young Narth squeezed his eyes shut, waiting for the end, hoping against hope that it would be quick.
Hot breath that smelled like carrion blew into his face. A snout covered with short white fur shoved against the side of the lad's face, leaving a smear of blood across the boy's cheek. Slowly, slowly, Young Narth opened one eye, peering into a deep pink one that was only inches away from his own. His other eye opened.
The mutant made a weird, rasping, growling noise that sounded like faraway thunder, and licked the boy's face, leaving a smear of bloody saliva there. Young Narth gagged at the smell of the demon horse's breath and wiped at his face with his sleeve. The mutant made that weird noise again. The boy wondered whether the animal was purring or laughing. He was also wondering if the devil horse was tasting him.
There was the sharp crack of a gunshot, and the albino jumped away from Young Narth as the ground pocked close to its fifth leg. It screamed at its attacker and reared away and to one side, with the boy falling backwards onto his rump to avoid the flailing, clawed feet. And then the mutant was running, back to the poisoned heartland of the Waste, its six legs allowing it to move at an incredible speed. The dust it kicked up soon obscured it from view, and the made further shooting impossible.
Young Narth lay there on the ground for a moment, then slowly got to his feet. He could see Old Narth standing on the hilltop between Craddle and the four posts where the mutant had been tied, an ancient revolver in his hand. His legs feeling shaky, the boy slowly walked to where the packs and merchandise had been scattered in the panicked retreat of the townsfolk. Moving as if in a dream, the boy's callused hands slowly repackaged the shards of a broken china plate, sheathing the steel knives, tucking the jewelry into a leather pouch and the gospel book into its oilcloth sack.
Thanks to where the slaughter had taken place, Young Narth had a very good view of the half-eaten corpse of Creb, and the two spotted bitches. The one that had had its stomach ripped open was still whining piteously, its forelimbs pathetically clawing at the ground. Young Narth pulled out the bronze clasp knife from his belt and walked over to it, doing the creature mercy and slitting its throat. As he walked back to his father's goods, the boy glanced down. Shining between Creb's bloody fingers was a stone that blazed like a live coal. Stooping down, the young trader quickly moved the dead hand away and saw the little thumbnail-sized pebble that glowed like a sliver of the heart of a star.
Young Narth picked it up. The heat of his palm as well as the heat of the day made the sparkrock fairly burn with light, but the little pebble emitted no heat. A small smile cracked the skin of his face, and the boy tucked his treasure away into a deep pocket. The stone burned with a bloody red light there, like the winking light of a deep pink eye.