Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 65
Stories
Coachwhip and Wade, Hex-tamers for Hire
by Tony Pi and K.G. Jewell
Gods of War
by Steve Pantazis
'Til Devil Do Us Part
by Jamie Gilman Kress
IGMS Audio
'Til Devil Do Us Part
Read by Alethea Kontis
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
Yuca and Dominoes
by José Pablo Iriarte
Bonus Material
The Story Behind the Stories
by Tony Pi and K.G. Jewell
The Story Behind the Stories
by Jonathan Edelstein

Coachwhip and Wade, Hex-tamers for Hire
    by Tony Pi and K.G. Jewell

Coachwhip and Wade, Hex-tamers for Hire
Artwork by Nick Greenwood

The paddle steamer The Eagle churned through brown waters to the center of the Great Miss River, out of the morning shade. Standing on the back deck, Lily Calazans stretched to welcome the sun, her serpentine hair stirring in celebration of its warmth. She rolled up the sleeves on her workdress, her reptilian skin yearning for every inch of heat.

Were she human, it would be a lovely voyage. But she was Serpentlock and the gambling boat crew were not. Though they said nothing, their stares and sneers told her they wouldn't have welcomed her aboard if they didn't need her to remove the River-Bride's hex.

The fairy hex was limned with fish blood onto the side of the riverboat. A mystic thrum rose from the hull, drumming a siren song into the waters and rattling Lily's bones alongside every beat of the boat's great paddle. Though the enchantment was meant to lure alligators into the River-Bride's court, Lily's Serpentlock nature was kin enough to the gators' to feel the call.

She'd been drawn by the song to The Eagle at the port of N'Orlyonesse. Upon seeing the hex on the hull, her human partner, Wade Merritt, who had history with the River-Bride, had argued that no good could come from letting the fairy's call abide. As they had business in Memfes, they could kill two birds with one stone by exchanging their services as hex-tamers for passage upriver.

"Hey Coachwhip, look at this!" Wade yelled up from his precarious perch on the side of the hull. He was an almost comical sight, having refused to remove his ten-gallon hat or his gator-skinned boots for this task. With a pointed boot jammed into a looped rope hanging from the deck railing, he pointed at the ship's window with a bristled wash brush. "Cracks, in the glass." He blinked, shaking his head. "And not natural ones, either." No-Look Wade Merritt had the uncanny ability to see magic with his mind's eye and to peer into the otherworld. It was what made them formidable as The Pair, her with her family's lore of magic and him with his ability to see it.

Lily snaked her longest coachwhip coil over the side. An advantage to having coachwhip snakes for hair was that her longest lock was six feet long, and that gave her perspective without movement. She saw the sun reflecting off the clean glass, the image marred by lines through the bottom corner. At first she thought Wade had been too rough with the brush and damaged the pane, but all the windows she saw bore exactly the same cracks, from the concentration in a small area, to the angles and lengths of the x-shaped fracture.

"Those weren't there when we left N'Orlyonesse," Lily said. "Something uncanny's afoot." Magic ignored is magic that burns, her Aunt June liked to say.

Verner, the Bos'n that had hired them, emerged from the engine room door. He hesitated when he saw Lily, and instead leaned over the rail to speak to Wade. "Merritt. We need the worst of that off before we stop at Big Blood. We've important guests boarding and The Eagle needs to looks her best. But watch out for alligators at the waterline--they've been seen circling."

Lily held back a scowl at Verner's snub. "Trust us. We will have it done." Verner hadn't spoken a word straight to her face since they met the man in the bar, always addressing only Wade. Likely he'd been raised to fear her kind. Perhaps it might have gone smoother if Wade were on his own, but it took her partner's dogged persistence to convince Verner that they'd only work as a pair.

Still, she had the sense Verner's love for The Eagle was more than just his job. In discussing their hire, he'd waxed poetic about the boat's lines and history but complained of the pit boss spending more on a new roulette wheel than his entire annual maintenance budget.

Wade clambered back on deck. "Listen to her, Verner. We're the best hex-tamers west of the Great Miss. We broke the curse on Coffin Gulch and wrangled the Skeersome Buffaloes on the range. We won't let any varmint get the better of us, least of all a bunch of gators in love with the River-Bride." He hefted Blue Lightning, his hex gun, as punctuation.

"Well, you ain't west of the Great Miss, you're on it. Don't forget you're in the Bride's Court." Verner made a sign with his left hand, acknowledging the fairy power.

Lily knew Wade was itching to insult the Bride, but he didn't need to push the Bos'n's buttons. She nodded with her serpent-heads. "We don't underestimate any being's power. But you hired The Pair, and The Pair gets things done."

Verner eyed her Medusan tresses with typical human unease. "You've an hour. Make sure you get the windows clear--the guests will be touring the casino as soon as they board, and the pit boss is proud of that view."

Wade gave his fake I-ain't-a-good-gambler smile, but kept quiet.

Verner nodded, and chased after someone carrying a ladder into the kitchen.

"The Great Miss River-Bride's a washed up re-incarnation of the piss smell of a real river spirit. To say it politely." Wade checked his pocket watch. "Dammit, that crack's found my lucky watch, too."

"We'll sort out the cause," Lily said. "Come on, we've more scrubbing to do."

In the hour it took The Eagle to paddle up to the dock of the Big Blood River Plantation, they got the hull looking respectable again, although the cracks remained. Lily and Wade stood at the crew deck railing, taking in the Big Blood Plantation House. The mansion overlooked the river, wrapped in green lawn and grand trees. This oasis of shade rested in fields of cotton. A decade after legal emancipation, somehow the sun-burned fields remained full of black skin, sharecropping the same soil still. Lily's hair hissed at the injustice of humans; chains--iron or economic--were anathema to serpentlockian culture.

Wade suddenly dropped to the decking, turning his back against the rail and shifting his hat to his chest. "Hells. Did he see me?"

"Who?" The high-rolling guests were coming down from the plantation house, lining up at the wharf to board.

"That Serpentlock. Horseshoe Broon."

Hard to miss the Serpentlock and his red corn snakes, worn in tight coils. A striking fellow in a dapper three-piece suit, she noted, the mimicry patterns of his hair suggesting his family hailed from the Florid Glades. Broon stepped aside so that a haughty woman with a parasol could board The Eagle ahead of him. "Let me guess. He's another you owe money to, or he beat you on some ridiculous bet that you haven't settled yet."

"It's not settled or ridiculous, and he can't have my damn pocketwatch, even if it's cracked." Wade said, defiant.

"Nevermind that. I've been thinking about those cracks. It ain't the siren song causing 'em. That affects only blood and marrow, not glass," Lily said. "We'll need your second sight again."

"Can't it wait till Broon's off the dock?" Wade still huddled behind the metal railing.

The passenger boarding didn't appear ending any time soon. A late arrival, a dapper young man struggling with a heavy case, ran up the boarding ramp and almost knocked the parasol woman into the water. The woman brandished her parasol and chased the man back down the ramp. From the jeering crowd, it appeared she was challenging the young man to a fight. Broon stood back and watched in distaste, arms crossed and snakes unrolled.

"Could take a while."

Wade sighed, and stood to lean back over the railing, holding the hat to shield his face from Broon. "The magic's more chaotic and powerful down there than ever. It's coming from inside the Gambling Pit, I reckon."

She thought back to Aunt June's teachings. The identical cracks recalled the repeating patterns common in sympathetic magic. Perhaps something magical nearby was cracking, and it was being sympathetically mirrored in the windows and the watch. Had a seer's crystal ball been broken on the ship? Or could it be an egg, pipping? If so, bird, snake, lizard or demon?

Lily crossed the deck to go down to the casino pit. Wade would follow, eventually.

She was blocked at the staircase door by a large woman in an even larger bustle, wearing a bonnet and a scowl. She must be the pit boss, Carolina Denman, that Verner had told them about. Carolina was also married to the captain, in what Verner referred to as a match forged in hell.

"What are you doing here?" Carolina asked. "Git, before the guests come."

"Coachwhip Lily, at your service, Ma'am." Lily curtsied to the woman, laying it on thick. "We've been hired to clean up the River-Bride's mark, and are investigating a possible hex in the pit."

"I know who you are, snake lover. You ain't tracking mud in here. No hex hangs in my pit, be sure of that. Git out." Carolina yelled over her shoulder, "Bat, bring your metal knuckles up here and earn your keep."

Lily backed off. Forcing a confrontation wouldn't help. She returned to the deck and shooed Wade, still sitting under the railing, towards the crew quarters. If Bat came up, she wouldn't be able to keep him from starting something they'd be better off not finishing. Wade had many talents, but pacifism in the face of conflict was not one of them.

"Can't get in. Pit Boss wants to keep the riffraff out." she told him. "And we're riffraff. Something's slimy aboard the Eagle, methinks."

Wade nodded. "What do we do, then?"

"We wait for sundown. Stay sober."

Wade stayed mostly sober, winning a couple of drinks in a poker game with a steward that "would be impolite to turn down." Lily spent the game at another table shuffling her tarots, trying to get a feel for what was hexing the ship. The clarion call of the River-Bride's graffiti was gone, but Lily still felt uneasy.

She tried both the Ourobouros spread and the Celtic Cross, to read the signs of both traditions. The same three cards dominated her readings: The Wheel of Fortune, the Five of Caducei, and the Queen of Goblets. The rise and fall of destiny? Conflict? And did the Queen signify the River-Bride? She was the ruling fey in these parts, a soul-reaper with a hatred of humans and serpentlocks alike. Her powers were tied to the Great Miss River, and she used them to plague all who dwelled near or toiled upon the river. The lesser fey made mischief at her bidding, while the Bride herself could limn hexes and pour her essence into creatures, possessing them.

That had been the fate of Wade's lost love, ever so long ago.

Moreover, no matter how long she shuffled, the third card was always a Three of Caducei. A new enterprise?

When Wade's game ended, well after dark, Wade and Lily went back out to the crew deck. Lights flowed out of the casino windows below them, reflecting off the river. The slow churn of the paddle filled the humid air, the beat of the engine ever-present.

"This is one of your crazier plans, Lil," Wade grumbled as they tied a rope onto the railing.

"Just peek inside," Lily said. "Grab hold."

Wade went first, climbing down the rope so he could peer through the window at the Gambling Pit. Lily tested the strength of the rope before she also climbed over the rail, but she didn't need to go as far down as Wade, just enough to position her snake's eyes at the top of the same window that Wade now peered through.

The pit was abustle with a mix of gambler's emotions, be it laughing over the dice at the Crapaud table or shouting misery at the roulette wheel. But the real action was at the poker table, where Horseshoe Broon was staring down his two opponents: the parasol woman and the dapper kid. Broon's corn snake hair was wrapped tightly around his head, lest he be accused of cheating with a loose snake eye.

Broon grinned and pushed a stack of chips to the center, making the woman throw down her cards in disgust. But the kid, scoffing at the parasol woman's exit, stayed in.

"Second sight on everything," Lily said. "Some creatures burrow into other magics or wear them like camouflage."

Wade scanned the room. "Strange. Lots of the guests have knick-knacks from the fairy realm, lucky charms I'd guess. But the fairy glows seem to be flowin' not to them but to that roulette table. That thing's glowin' like a bonfire."

Lily focused on the roulette table. She couldn't see the mystic auras that Wade could. Her Serpentlock nature let her sense the vibrations of nearby magic, but it was nowhere as good as Wade's second sight. Nonetheless, oft times there were clues to what might be plaguing the occasion. She couldn't see the wheel in all its glorious details, but parts of it bore eagle imagery, just as the room did from stem to stern. That reminded Lily of one of Aunt June's campfire stories.

"Birds of Ill-Omen," she whispered to Wade. "They lay eggs in fortune magics, stealing luck to hatch. Bet you that roulette wheel is at the center of it all." Lily recalled her suspicions about sympathetic magic. "It fits with the pipping in the glass, if a clutch of ill-omen eggs is about to hatch."

"I don't see no eggs," Wade replied. "You'd think they'd be obvious, rollin' around a roulette wheel."

"Well, no. They're creatures of magic, just across the skin of the otherworld. You sure you see nothing, even across the veil? Maybe the mother's using the eagle symbol on the roulette to incubate her eggs."

He squinted. "Hang on. There is somethin' akin to eyes in that mess of auras. Damn, it's seen me--"

He ducked as something large and black exploded out the window, shattering the glass. Lily's snakes had membranes that protected their eyes, but she ducked to protect her face.

"It's coming back around!" she shouted, as the shadow of the bird, or whatever it was, swooped back towards them. She could barely see it, flickering back and forth from this reality to the otherworld, sized between an osprey and an albatross.

Wade drew his hex-gun, aimed it at the incoming shadow with his eyes closed, and squeezed the trigger.

Nothing happened. Wade cursed and tried to fire again, but the bird slammed into him. On impact, it seemed fully in this reality, screeching with talons stretched out at Wade's face. Batting at the bird, Wade swore something about bird and gods, then fell into the water with a resounding splash.

The bird ghosted out of this reality. Lily pulled herself back up to the deck, wary that it would claw her next. "Man overboard!" she yelled. Wade was flailing about in the water. He'd never been much of a swimmer.

Then she saw two small, beady eyes in the water reflecting the lights from the ship. "Alligator, aft!" she shouted.

Wade stopped flailing, and then sank from view. The beady eyes disappeared under the water a moment later.

The water roiled.

"Gorgon's Eye!" Lily started running. By the time she made it down the crew ladder to the rear deck, someone had thrown a ring buoy and line over the railing. It was the Serpentlock gambler, Horseshoe Broon.

Wade burst onto the surface and grabbed the ring buoy, coughing up river water. Broon pulled Wade towards the maintenance ladder on the boat's side, but Wade had to swim hard to avoid being pulled into the churn of the paddle, which could well have sucked him to his death.

Broon half-pulled Wade up the ladder. "Well look what I just landed. If it ain't Wade Merritt, bet-breaker. Looks like you owe me your life now, too," he shouted over the overwhelming noise of the paddle.

Wade looked like a pummeled peach, covered in blood and water and mud, but seemed triumphant even as he coughed, clutching the ring buoy in his elbow. "Can't avoid you, can I? Damn your luck, Horsesh--" Wade burst into a fit of coughs.

Lily checked Wade for wounds. No cuts. "Nothing broken?"

"Nope. Can't say the same for the Bride's lackey." Wade grinned, flashing a knife in one hand, as he slumped against the deck, blood dripping from his nose.

The paddle engine roared. She couldn't hear herself think down here. "Sir, thank you," she shouted to the Serpentlock.

"No need for you to thank me, Ma'am. And a second Great Flood will come before Merritt thanks me. Dennis Broon at your service," he yelled back.

Lily introduced herself. "Lily Calazans, or Coachwhip Lily. And you know Wade. Would you mind helping me get him somewhere he can rest?" She thought of Verner connecting the sight of a bloody Wade to the shattering of his precious window. "Someplace private?"

Wade set the ring buoy aside, sheathed his knife back in his wet boots, and struggled to his feet. "I don't need Horseshoe's help. He'll just imagine up more debt to claim." He took one step, and collapsed on the deck again. Lily lunged forward to slow his fall, catching his shoulder just before his head hit the wooden deck.

"Please, help me," Lily asked. Wade's dead weight was more than she could lift.

"Ma'am, I hate to decline a request for assistance, but you heard the man." Horseshoe flicked his tongue. "If the oathbreaker doesn't want my help, he can die on the deck with his debts unpaid."

Lily's hair raised to its full height, her coachwhips dancing in anger. "Take the pocketwatch, you bastard, just help me get him inside."

Broon seemed surprised at her vehemence, but his snakes nodded in acquiescence.

She worked the watch out of Wade's pocket and tossed it to Broon. He slipped it into a pocket of his vest, and positioned himself under Wade's shoulder opposite Lily. She rolled up her sleeves, then together with Broon hoisted Wade vertical and started carrying him away from the churning paddle.

She gestured at the ladder to the crew deck, but Broon hissed at the sight of the insurmountable barrier. "Easier to use the staircase to my quarters," he suggested.

The passenger level, on the top tier of the three-story boat, was quiet, the thrum of the paddle a distant and relaxing beat. Broon had a port-side stateroom. By the standards of The Eagle, it was clean and well-appointed. They dumped Wade onto Broon's bed, soaking wet. He groaned and rolled over.

"What in tarnation is a fine 'lock girl like you doing consorting with the likes of Wade Merritt?" Broon asked, pulling towels down from the wardrobe. "Your mama not teach you better?"

"Wade has a habit of getting himself into trouble, as do I. But it seems we've a knack in solving each other's problems, ever since the dancing bones dust-up in Coffin Gulch." Lily wrung water from her clothes and took a towel from Broon to dry herself. "Where did you and Wade have your run-in? He told me you make a claim to his watch."

Broon tossed a towel onto the bed next to Wade.

"Wade and I were in Santa Vibora, waiting for a train that was clock's face late. After our fourth bottle of whiskey, he challenged me to a blindfold shooting contest. I accepted, putting my lucky horseshoe on the line against his watch." Broon's snake hair parted, showing an iron horseshoe matted in the base of tails.

"We lined the empty bottles on the fence. First shot, we both made it. Second shot, both made it. Out of bottles, we made a tiebreaker--who could throw a bullet the farthest. Wade threw his, and it landed in a puff of dirt beside the tracks. I threw my bullet, and the kicked up dirt showed I'd won by a horse-length. But a pair of damned pixies made off with the bullets before we could check. We argued about the bet the whole way to Mountain City, but he jumped train in Fountain Springs before I could collect."

"Fountain Springs? Was that in Sixty-Five? Wade got kidnapped by a Were-Jackal in Fountain Springs. He still tells the story of waking up in a den of salivating pups. He got himself out of that with bare hands and a shoelace. That's where he got Blue Lightning, from a body in the den."

"Jackal or no jackal, the devil knew that watch was mine, and he still skipped out on his debt. Like Humans do. You be careful, or you'll be mixed up in that." His snake tresses rose to stare her down.

Lily flashed a mouth of teeth at him, but didn't rise to take the bait. She knew some humans were lying bastards, but didn't paint them all with the same brush. "You've got the watch. Let bygones be bygones."

Broon pulled the watch from his pocket and looked over. "I finally have the dang thing, but it's cracked. Figures."

Lily motioned to the small mirror over the washbasin in the corner. "There's a bit of that going around." The mirror had the same X crack as the watch and the gambling pit windows.

Broon raised a corn snake head quizzically. "Is something afoot? You feel a touch of the magics?"

"No more than you, I reckon. My family keeps the lore, but we don't have more power than the average 'lock. But Wade and I saw a Bird of Ill-Omen, down in the pit. We think the bird's laid eggs on the roulette wheel." She wiped her face one last time with the towel, and tossed it on the floor beside the bed. "Is the wheel magical?"

"A charm-eater, all the rage in Europs. It draws in the magic of lucky charms so that gamblers can't cheat by bending their luck. Makes my horseshoe just a namesake." He flashed a smile.

Lily snapped her fingers. "That's why the Bird of Ill-Omen chose the roulette. They eat luck. And if the stories are to be believed, their hatchlings devour so much good luck from those around them that people actually die from their misfortunes."

Suddenly, there was a great quiet. Lily realized that the ship's paddle had come to a halt.

Wade moaned into the bedding. "Great. Now we're stuck in the middle of the Great Miss, with gators and birds that jinx you to death. On top of that, Blue Lightning won't fire."

"We have to speak to the captain, get him to steer back to shore and get the people off the ship before those eggs hatch," Lily said. "It's not going to be a pretty sight when we have a momma luck-demon looking to feed her hatchlings."

"My fellow gamblers won't like running. It was a hell of a buy-in to come onboard for the poker tournament, and they won't want to forfeit the prize money. It's a small fortune," Broon said.

"A big fortune or small fortune is all the same for a dead man," Wade said, sitting up.

"Would you mind lending Wade some dry clothing, Mister Broon?" Lily asked.

Broon tossed Wade a pair of long undergarments and another towel. "All I'll spare. We'll wait for you outside."

"I hate you, Horseshoe."

Lily and Broon stepped out. A single oil lantern in the hallway flickered in the eerie silence. Lily hadn't realized how accustomed she'd become to the paddlewheel's beat.

Broon's corn snake tresses danced in the silence. Lily felt akin to the Serpentlock. Traveling among humans was not always easy. He might hold a grudge against Wade, but he'd helped when she'd asked and paid. He hadn't had to. She found her coachwhips dancing back to Broon's silent pattern.

"What if we ditch the roulette wheel overboard?" Broon asked. "Our poker game can go on, and the River-Bride can deal with the bird. The captain ain't going to abandon ship."

Lily shook her head. "To do that, we'd still have to get past the mama and keep the eggs from cracking early. The captain's welcome to try--once the rest of us get off this ship."

Lily and Broon pondered the situation. A valet walked by glancing sidewise at the pair. Did he recognize Lily as crew? Carolina Denman would have her head.

The door swung open. A red-faced Wade stood in the doorway. Bruises still covered his face, but at least he was dry, even though he wore only the long undergarment and his gunbelt. He held his hat low and front, shielding his crotch. He smelled slightly of river water.

Lily stifled a laugh. "You clean up real nice, Wade."

"Har-har," Wade said. "Where's my watch? You lift it, Broon?"

"I gave it to him to get your sorry ass off the deck before Verner threw you back in the river for breaking the pit window," Lily said. "You said yourself he'd won it."

Wade glared at her, his serious look in humorous contrast to his half-dressed state. "I said he claimed he'd won it. We never measured the lay of the throw, and I think my shot was a good gunstock past his. Those fairies were throwing dust to mess with his head."

"Well, I have the watch now, dear sir. The bet is settled in my book." Broon said, sticking his hand in the pocket where the watch lay, but wisely not pulling it out to taunt Wade.

"Got any hex bullets left?" Lily asked. "We have magical problems at hand that are bigger than cracked timepieces."

Wade checked Blue Lightning. "Four. But she's failed me once tonight. I don't know what's afoot. It's not like her."

"Is your gun lucky?" asked Broon. "It was probably sucked dry by the wheel. Or that bird. Or both."

Wade groaned again. "Lightning has always had a touch of favor. Gillysmack."

"We'll find you something to shoot. Blue Lightnin' ain't the only gun on this barge," Lily said. "Wade and I must find the captain. Mister Broon, would you mind warning your competitors?"

Broon turned back towards the staircase. "I suppose, ma'am. There's more than a few who owe me money."

Lily and Wade made their way silently down the hallway, dropping down the front staircase to the captain's deck. Strangely, her bones started to rattle again, the uncomfortable vibration she associated with the River-Bride's call getting stronger with each step to towards the captain's room. But why? The hull was clean, the glyph's call removed.

A turn from the captain's doorway, Lily heard the voice of a woman hissing at someone. The captain's wife? Footsteps approaching, Lily pulled Wade into an alcove, a small curtained room where servants prepared the drinks for room service. She didn't want to deal with Carolina Denman right now.

Wade wasn't usually one to avoid conflict without a scowl, but he followed her without complaint. Maybe he was more injured than she thought.

Slipping a coachwhip eye discreetly out the curtain near the ceiling, Lily was surprised to see Carolina chastising her husband. Lily's bones rattled as the woman neared. Carolina's hair and face were strangely wet and glistening.

"You promised me their souls, Jere Denman," said Carolina in a gurgling voice.

"And you will have them, River-Bride," Captain Denman said. "But Verner hired them hex-tamers without telling me and ruined your spell. I need those gators to eat the survivors when this hunk of junk sinks. Will that still happen?"

The River-Bride! Lily tensed and held Wade from rushing out recklessly.

"With the glyph cleaned, I've come to lure them here myself," the River-Bride said. "It won't be long before the eggs hatch. If you still wish to start a new life with your ill-gotten wealth, best you and your men escape before the feasting starts."

So this was all orchestrated, Lily realized. Take the gamblers' buy-ins, then let the Birds of Ill-Omen kill them and sink the boat. With the bodies and survivors eaten by the gators, no one would be looking for the captain. Everyone would assume him dead.

"What about Carolina? Will you return her to me?" the captain asked.

The River-Bride smirked. "'Lina's willful and strong. She and I get along--she may not want me to leave."

A dangerous plan came to mind, and Lily acted on it. Grabbing Blue Lightning from Wade's holster, she stepped out from behind the curtains. "Hands up."

Surprised, Wade fumbled with the curtains and stumbled out. "Yeah, what she said." He spat at the River-Bride's feet. "So we meet again, River Bitch."

The captain backed up, raising his hands and staring at Wade's get-up incredulously. "We've a dress code onboard, sir."

"What will you do, No-Look Merritt?" The River-Bride spread her arms. "Let your partner kill Carolina Denman? I'll just find another, like I found your sweet Faye, all those springs ago."

Lily held an angry Wade back with a coachwhip. "These are hex bullets, Bride. They'll end your life before hers. Wade, see if the captain's got a gun."

Wade stepped around Lily, but as he did so, the Bride spewed a torrent of muddy riverwater at The Pair. Lily, ducked, squeezing the trigger on Blue Lightning, but the hammer fell dead.

"I bid adieu," the River-Bride howled through her spew. She sprang towards Lily, throwing Carolina's bulk against her. Lily spun against the wall, but Carolina landed on her back, forcing her to the corridor floor. From her coachwhips, Lily saw river water dripping from Carolina's ears and mouth, a look of bewilderment overtaking the woman's face as Lily's coachwhip's struck Carolina's hair, biting only useless, muddy strands. The instinctive counter attack didn't stop Carolina from completing her arm's arc, and she punched Lily on the side of her head.

A wet, slimy, blackness enveloped Lily.

When she awakened, she found herself on the Gambling Pit floor, her head in Broon's lap. "Are you all right, Lily?" Broon asked, great concern in his voice. His Cornsnakes rubbed her Coachwhips, gently bringing them awake.

She was groggy with pain, and there was shouting, pounding, and the siren song was still shaking her bones. "What happened?"

Wade knelt beside her. "Sorry, Lil, I didn't watch my back. The captain pulled his gun. They've chained us in here with the others."

Lily sat up with Broon's help, and looked around. Gamblers stood in small clusters, panic in their faces. The parasol woman banged on the door with her parasol, swearing up a storm.

"We need to get out before them birds hatch." Lily struggled to her feet.

Wade showed her his watch. "The cracks are worse. We ain't got much time."

"The windows?" The shutters were still open, blackness and water outside. The window earlier shattered by the bird was still surrounded by shards of jagged glass, sprinkled with blood.

"Last guy who tried slipped, bled a lot, then was pushed out into the water by the mama bird. The gators are waiting. Got him right quick." Broon said.

"I tried to tell them about the eggs and the roulette wheel, but they laughed and called it a far-fetched tale. Then they locked us in." Wade shook his head.

Verner was listening in behind them. He marched up to the roulette wheel. "This overpriced thing's the source of our trouble? I can fix that!" He said, putting his thick shoulder under the enormous solid-oak base, and starting to heave it sideways.

"Don't do that!" Lily shouted, flicking a coachwhip between him and the wheel. "You'll break the eggs!"

But she noticed half-seen wings on the table, and realized it was too late. Some eggs had already hatched. Beaks pecked at Verner as he lifted, his footing gave out as the table flipped, and he sprawled sideways, hitting his head against a chair, hard. He fell unconscious, bleeding from a wound on his head.

"Everyone, back away from the roulette table," Lily shouted. "If you think you see something on the floor, don't let it touch you. The Birds of Ill-Omen might be creatures of magic but they're still birds, baby birds. They won't be able to fly yet, but they will feed on your luck. Don't give it to them, unless you want to end up like that man."

People raced for the edge of the room. The parasol lady backed against the door, hiding behind her parasol, as if a Bird of Ill-Omen was a summer rain she could ward off with waxed cotton.

"And there's still Mama Bird. She'll still rip your throat out," Wade warned. "What now, Lil?"

A gambler chewing tobacco suddenly started choking, turning purple. Folk shouted and scrambled away from him, even as he reached for help. Everyone was out to protect themselves. One woman beside him shrieked and jumped up onto a chair, but the chair legs gave out and she tumbled to the floor. "My ankle, my ankle!" she screamed.

All hell was breaking loose, and Lily had to stop things from spinning further out of control. She cast about the room for options. Blue Lightning was gone, stolen by the Bride or the captain. But the gambler who choked and fell unconscious had packed two pistols. She stuck her fingers into the gambler's mouth and fished out a wad of tobacco to let him breathe. With two serpents, she snaked the guns from the man's side and tossed one to Wade.

"Not much use across the veil," Wade said, checking the cylinder.

"We have to force them across." Lily pointed at the mirrors behind the oil lamps on the wall. "They feed on good luck, so maybe they'll choke on the bad."

Wade brightened. "Seven years' worth from breaking a mirror."

"Also, mirrors are natural portals to the other world. Shattering it should breach the skin between the worlds, allowing these bullets to reach them."

"But will the hole between the worlds last? We've only twelve bullets. There are thirteen hatchlings, by my count. And the mama," said Wade.

"We'll have to shoot fast and smart, then." She wrestled the parasol from the lady, and used its handle to smash the first mirror. A bird flickered into view, waddling towards a poker player. She shot at it, but missed and almost hit the player instead, scaring the man half to death. She wasn't a gunslinger.

Wade shot at the bird that appeared near the woman who broke her ankle, but even he missed, the shot burying itself in the wooden wall. "They're too small, and I ain't got my lucky gun. Of all the damned luck!"

Violence didn't solve more than it stirred, Aunt June would say. What would she do? June was a hex-tamer, not a hex-killer. She remembered her aunt herding bumble fairies by Rouge Creek with a magnolia flower. Use nature and use lore.

"Everyone, toss your lucky charms in front of that open window," she instructed. "That's what's attracting these monsters."

The gamblers fumbled in their pockets, and a small cascade of charms and fetishes fell by the window.

"Wade, where do you see the hatchlings?"

"They're moving towards the charms, all of them."

"Good." She turned to Broon. "We'll need your horseshoe, and Wade's lucky watch too."

Broon's serpent-hair parted, and the horseshoe slid along the length of a corn snake. Lily smiled as Broon flung his lucky charm with a perfect serpent-flick to land on top of the pile of fetishes. Wade's watch followed a moment later.

All she needed now was some bad luck. "Everyone, what brings bad luck on a boat?" she asked.

"What?" replied a mate who had been locked in with them. "Cutting your hair, passing the salt shaker, opening an umbrella, whistling--"

"That'll do. Everyone whistle," Lily instructed. "That bad luck ought to keep the hatchlings at bay."

The gamblers started a chorus of odd, mismatched whistles, soon converging on "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow."

Lily took a deep breath. She opened the parasol and closed it, several times in succession. Here's hoping it was bad enough luck. "Guide me towards them, Wade." Lily wielded the open parasol near to the ground, to push the invisible hatchlings closer and closer to the window.

Wade talked her through the steps. "Not to your left, Lil, there's one underfoot."

"Wade, you'll need to do this part 'cause you can see them. Scoop them up with the parasol, all of them at once, and pour them out the window into the river. Gently."

"Gillysmack, Lil. Mama Bird will attack me."

"It's our only chance," Lily said. "Close and open the parasol before you do, to make more bad luck."

Despite his grumblings, Wade followed her instructions. With a scoop with the canopy of the parasol, he lifted the invisible hatchlings and tilted it.

The Mama Bird screeched and flew towards Wade, flickering into this world.

With a cry, Wade forced a steeper angle and poured the hatchlings out the window into the water, then shielded himself with the parasol.

But the attack didn't come. Mama Bird flew through the window to see to her hatchlings.

Lily breathed a sigh of relief. There was a commotion in the water.

"Are we safe?" asked Broon.

"For now. Gators have luck too, which ought to give the hatchlings something to eat," Lily said.

Wade climbed out the window and up. They heard him shoot off the lock from outside, and the door opened. Wade stepped back in and pointed at a commotion out the window, a grin coming to his face. "Well. Mama Bird's mad at the River-Bride, knowing it's the Bride's gators threat'nin' her chicks. I'd bet the Bride's luck is about to turn. The captain got away, but someone is their due."

Lily nodded. She didn't feel the drumming beat anymore, and blood roiled in the water, the gators snapping at each other in a frenzy. The Bride had a new enemy to deal with.

The commotion drifted away with the current.

Horseshoe Broon joined them, putting Wade's watch in a pocket and his lucky horseshoe back among his corn snake coils. "What now? We ain't got no money and people are dead."

"Well, we're still headin' to Memfes, and we got ourselves a ship without a captain," Wade said. There was a twinkle in his eye. "And a gambling pit that could use a new boss. What say we take ownership of this boat, Lil? Collect a lien for services rendered, ridding it of the bird's hex?"

Lily smiled. "Why not? And if you don't mind, I think we ought to ditch the name Eagle and pick something luckier."

"Like?"

"Parasol."

"Hold on. It's damn unlucky to rename a boat," said Broon. "And you're only here 'cause I saved your life, Merritt. I'm owed a share."

Wade grumbled, but then his eye fixed on the pocket where Broon stowed his watch, and he gave a wicked grin. "Tell you what. Why don't we settle it with a bet? My share of the ship for the horseshoe and watch."

"Sounds swell," Broon said. "Prepare to lose again."

Lily sighed. Wade would gamble away all their gains if he thought he might win, but that was just the way he was. And Broon might be just as bad as Wade, but he intrigued her. It might be pleasant to know him better. If she had to choose. . . .

"Tell you what, the both of you," she said. "Count me in too. My share in the line. But if I win, I get the watch, the horseshoe, and you guys will have to earn them back."

Broon and Wade nodded, both smirking.

She smiled. "Now, here's the bet: who can guess the third card in my Tarot deal?"


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