Shad took his hands off the steering wheel long enough to buckle his gun belt back on. Even as he sat in the worn driver’s seat, his revolver’s weight on his hip comforted him. The vehicle could drive itself if necessary. It had a sophisticated computerized brain--a technological miracle out of the pre-Hell days. It was something like the magic those long-ago raining nuclear missiles had woken in the world.
But the self-piloting function used up more of the power that the armored military car stored up from the sun. Besides, Shad liked having the wheel in his rawhide-gloved hands and the sense of control and strength it gave him.
He needed that right now, when he felt less in control of things than he liked.
The image of Harc that the White Whisper had conjured still shimmered in his mind, tantalizing and arousing. It made him wonder if there was some witchery in that. Maybe she had put this desire into him to make him take the job she wanted done. It was possible. Witches had powers. They could influence others. Even the fake ones could do that through psychological trickery.
Patting the pistol at his side and gripping the steering wheel tighter in his other hand, Shad told himself he wasn’t susceptible to that kind of manipulation. A good gunslinger knew when he was being duped. It was one of the skills you had to develop if you wanted to survive in this business.
Still, the image persisted--Harc, such a blond, manly beauty...
The desert yawned wide and bleak beyond the windshield. The screen was bulletproof, tinted so dark no one could see in. It gave Shad a feeling of privacy, even snugness, when he was in here. He glanced around the vehicle’s piloting cabin at the shabby but comfortable seats, the array of controls, some rubbed bare of markings from years of use. A few trinkets dangled, keepsakes from past adventures.
Here a tarnished, nine-pointed bronze star swayed on a leather string. There a knucklebone decorated with gemstones swung, suspended from the roof.
Behind this cozy cabin lay a bed-sized nest stuffed with blankets. Over it were cabinets stocked with food and even some scraps of printed matter. Shad knew how to read. It was something he liked to do, a talent most people never learned.
Around him the vehicle hummed, accelerating across the nearly featureless wasteland. Without a compass or stars to guide them, many sorry souls would be lost out here. But Shad knew these lands and many more just like them, and anyway the car knew where he was taking it. He’d told it their destination.
They were making for Scarlet Fires Oasis. Shad didn’t know what the vehicle thought about that, but entering the Oasis unsettled him some, he had to admit. Scarlet Fires was an infamous place even among the Oases. He had gone in there before and counted himself lucky to have come out again with all his parts.
But that was the job. A simple rescue, though work like this rarely stayed simple
. Complications arose. One thing led to another. It was why the world was littered with the bones of wannabe mercenaries. Every smart-ass kid with a gun thought he or she could make a living this way. The naive ones dreamed of adventure. They thought heroics meant something.
Shad Juke knew better. When he needed time--when the hourglass sands of his life were running out--he put himself up for hire to somebody who could procure that precious time for him. There wasn’t anything inherently heroic in that.
The lingering poisons of the Hell had touched him. He should have been dead years ago. But that same Hell had brought forth unnatural magic, and he had made use of it, buying up extra increments of living every time his death threatened. In this way he achieved a kind of stasis. It wasn’t quite life. Rather, it was survival.
The White Whisper had told him about her rival, the one responsible for Harc’s abduction. The wizard Capricorn, mighty and merciless, ruled a slave temple in Scarlet Fires Oasis. The thought of Harc suffering in a place like that curdled Shad’s insides, but he wouldn’t let personal feelings affect his performance on this mission.
Anyway, what feelings could he possibly have for the White Whisper’s wayward plaything? He found the blond-haired male attractive. So what? Harc was just an object, the goods Shad had to deliver to complete this job. Nothing more.
He grunted, knowing what bullshit that was, and squeezed even more acceleration out of his vehicle, racing through arid emptiness toward the Oasis.
But Harc wasn’t the whole deal here, Shad cautioned himself. There was that freakish business of the White Whisper’s stolen heart. Somehow Harc had literally torn that organ from the witch’s chest, or else the White Whisper had in some way given it to him, and he’d been in possession of it when he was kidnapped from the witch’s household. It was bizarre, even in a post-Hell world as ghoulish and outlandish as this one.
That absent heart did answer one question, though. The White Whisper had true magical powers. Normal humans didn’t go around walking and talking without hearts beating in their chests.
All this was shaping up to be a weird and dangerous venture. But he needed the six months of life the witch had promised as payment. So he really didn’t have any choice, did he?
* * * *
He wouldn’t take his vehicle into Scarlet Fires Oasis. The car was well armored and able to defend itself to some extent, but was still too valuable to risk, what with all the thieves and scavengers one found in even the more civilized Oases, much less this savage rat hole.
So Shad halted a few miles outside the site, climbed out with all the gear he needed, patted the car’s scoured metal flank, and sent it on its way. The vehicle turned about and shot off on its own. It would stay away from any trouble on those blastlands and would return when Shad needed it.
He set out at a steady pace through the gritty heat of midday.
Soon enough, features began to appear on the stark plains. Outcroppings of rock thrust upward. Some of these stones had curiously symmetric shapes to them. Now and then Shad saw one that stood atop another. The ground hardened underfoot. At one time this whole area had probably been inhabited, back in those days when humankind had teemed, when millions--billions
--of people had existed, occupying all the corners of the world. Even for Shad, who read old texts and was intelligent and imaginative, it was difficult to fully picture that pre-Hell age.
What a wonder it all must have been. Those great and wise people had tamed this entire planet, raising cities, engaging in industry and agriculture on an unimaginable scale. Those ancients had reached the moon somehow.
But as Shad’s gaze fell on a pyramid of weathered metal beams poking up out of the ground, he grunted. Great and wise people my ass, he thought. Those maniacs had destroyed everything. They’d gone to war with themselves and had hurled nuclear bombs willy-nilly all around the globe. Now Earth was a sad ruin, a scorched and dying remnant of its former glory.
Still, he thought as his worn boot heels crunched across the turf, there were pleasures to be had. Images of past lovers flitted through his head, male faces twisted in ecstasy, bodies entwined with his. Even under these conditions there were reasons to live, to go on, moments of joy to anticipate.
Inevitably, Harc came into his thoughts. Already the blond man had made a place for himself in Shad’s mind. Again Shad’s mental fingers raked through that hair. His mouth crushed down on the other man’s. He could see the two of them naked, grappling, rolling, mauling each other. It was a sweet, eager fantasy.
More ruins cropped up, the skeletonized remains of buildings, but past these Shad caught his first glimpse of the Oasis ahead. The Oasis was just that--a place where life still existed in this massive, virtually lifeless desert. It wasn’t only that human beings--and other organisms--had holed up here; the site managed to support plant life and had a water source.
A number of these havens littered the endless continental plain. Here the pervasive poisons hadn’t saturated the soil. The background radiation had stayed at tolerable levels. Of course, such places were fought over, and every so often some warlord rose and tried to subjugate an Oasis, or, having already done that, sent armies to attack a neighboring refuge in a mad parody of the ancient warfare that had ruined the planet. But those military ventures were usually short-lived, just like the leaders of those same wars.
Most Oases operated like Scarlet Fires did--without a government, without a head of state, a kind of semicontrolled free-for-all where strongmen and -women and wizards and warlocks and peasants all tried to carve out some kind of survival for themselves. These were rough places, quite dangerous. But Scarlet Fires Oasis was a special case.
Shad wended his way through the outlying rubble, all of it scrubbed by the winds, nothing left but the bones of ancient civilization. Ahead, the Oasis’s walls seemed to rise with every step. The place was a fortress, like they all were. The inhabitants couldn’t just let any wasteland trash come wandering in. There was a price. Everything came with a price, Shad had learned long ago.
The walls had been constructed out of materials salvaged from the very ruins. Stone and steel had been raised into a mighty barrier that loomed far up into the unhealthy-looking yellow sky. The site was big, probably the size of a modest town in pre-Hell days. Standing out here squarely in the midst of all this nothingness, however, it looked huge, monstrous, frightening in its scope.
As he approached, it seemed these walls might just tumble over onto him, squashing him with callous nonchalance. He looked up and up, gray hat tipping back, and saw above the top of the wall where the red flames danced. They leaped high from some central location within the Oasis. It was the peak of the day, the time when Scarlet Fires were most lively.
The display moved with a coruscating energy. An inferno lit the sky above the Oasis, tongues of power hopping and cavorting. The blaze was silent yet seemed to emit a subliminal buzz. It was the sort of sight that struck terror into primitive minds. Even Shadow, who prided himself on his immunity to such effects, felt an involuntary shiver move through him.
Scarlet Fires Oasis appeared to burn here in the middle of the desert.
Shad pulled his gaze away. He had more important matters to consider. Chief of all was which gate to choose. There were numerous ways in and out of Scarlet Fires, and each threshold offered its own challenge. Gangs fought constantly for control of these openings, knowing how lucrative an enterprise they could be. People paid to get in. Everything had its price.
He passed the end of the ruins, reaching the wide-cleared margin that circled the whole of the Oasis. He saw other people, most sitting on the ground, some standing about listlessly. Some ragged tents had been pitched, and scraggly figures lay inside, keeping out of the sun. These were the truly luckless, the ones who couldn’t afford to get inside the infamous and dangerous Oasis. They were wanderers who lived short, miserable lives.
Mindful of his every step, Shad followed the walls. None of the stragglers came near him, though many threw him envious looks. Despite being dusty and unshaven and dressed in worn clothing, he didn’t look like the others--half-starved, hollow eyed, defeated. He had a bearing. He carried a gun on his hip.
He passed several gates, some of the openings wide enough to admit a vehicle twice the size of his, a few little more than narrow rifts in the ramshackle barricade. There was usually someone on watch outside these gates.
At last Shad halted. He settled his dark-eyed gaze on one portal, about half again his height and broad enough to allow sizable goods in and out. Some of the more civilized Oases traded with each other. But no one had ever called Scarlet Fires civilized
in Shad’s lifetime.
A scrawny boy sat in the sand just outside this barred entrance. His hands rested on bony knees. The instant Shad stopped walking, the boy’s head turned sharply toward him. Even at a distance Shad could see the alert tension in his body. When Shad took a first step toward the gate, the boy sprang up and ducked inside with the speed of a rodent. Shad continued to approach, then stopped again, waiting, watching, ten strides from the doorway. His hand, gloved in rawhide, hung near his holster.
The gate didn’t swing wide open, but a grown figure emerged after a minute. His hair was shorn down to stubble, and a scar crossed his forehead above his left eye, but he had a brutish handsomeness about him. He wore a loose, colorless tunic and leggings. In his hand he balanced a throwing knife. Shad saw how it bounced in his light grip.
Shad was a fast draw with his revolver, but this man might be his equal with that blade. It was a contest he didn’t want to enter into.
“I’m looking to get in,” Shad announced, since this was how he liked his deals--up front, no tricks.
The man studied him. A shrewd light shone in his eyes. Maybe there was more than simple calculation in that gaze.
Finally the gatekeeper said, “We can talk about that. Come ahead.”
Shad stepped forward. Far above, the red flames of Scarlet Fires Oasis continued to frolic and rage.
Eric Del Carlo