Skip groaned weakly and opened his eyes just a slit, hastily closing them again as pain speared through his skull.
Déjà vu. Didn't I just do this?
Horrifically aching head: the same. Battered aching body: the same. Horrible nausea: the same. Utter disorientation: the same. Now add foul taste in mouth; Skip had the disgusted suspicion that he'd puked on himself. Add fever, too. Shit, must've caught a cold lying around in that alley.
This time, though, there were differences. He was lying on something soft instead of the ground. The foul smells were gone; now he could smell hmm. Burning wood. No sounds of drunken men this time; all he could hear was the crackling of a fire, crickets, tree frogs night noises.
Reluctantly he opened his eyes; he didn't need any more nasty surprises. Moon, stars overhead, seen through a fringe of leaves from trees all around them; glow of a fire off to his right. Skip let his head roll that way despite the new wave of dizziness the motion brought. There was a fire. Built outdoors on the ground, no less; the park ranger would surely be by in a while to scream at them. Them? There was one man squatting by the fire. His rescuer, probably.
Was I delirious or did some guy probably this guy kill four or five drunks? Delirious. Surely delirious, probably from the concussion. But he's there, so am I still dreaming? Well, Jesus, Skip, what the hell do you think? We've gone from Dallas to a forest.
Skip took advantage of the firelight to study his rescuer? captor? hallucination? only a few feet away. It was a man, all right, the sort of man who, in better times, would have set Skip's mouth to watering. He was tall, with straight black hair that fell past his waist, presently confined to a thick braid. Skip couldn't see his face because of the way he was turned, but his body was sleek, lithe, a dancer's body clad in, yes indeedy boys and girls, supple black leather. At the present he was attending to something in an iron pot on the fire, dipping some liquid substance out into a wooden cup.
"You're awake." No question there, so Skip didn't feel it necessary to muster the energy to answer. The man was only an hallucination, after all, if a mouthwateringly gorgeous one. And thank you, God, he turned, letting Skip enjoy the sight of the rest of him.
The front was as gorgeous and lithe as the back. Skip's hallucination had an angel's face rather narrow, high cheekbones, straight nose, rich emerald green eyes abundantly framed by dark lashes, straight brows, beautifully curved lips that showed no inclination to smile. Discounting that fabulous body, the man looked surprisingly young, almost jailbait young, until you looked at those eyes. You could fall into those eyes like some bottomless mossy pool and never remember to come up for air again until you drowned in them. They were quiet eyes, eyes that knew secrets and didn't choose to tell. If the eyes were the windows to the soul, these windows looked into a dark and silent cathedral where only shadows lived.
"Here," the man said. "Drink up." He raised Skip's shoulders slightly, supporting him and holding the wooden cup to his lips. Skip drank something that tasted herbal and unpleasantly medicinal, no sugar to blunt the taste. He grimaced and drank it anyway. The way he was feeling, he'd have drunk pureed cockroaches if there was a remote possibility they might either cure or kill him.
When he'd finished the contents of the cup, the man eased him back to what appeared to be a rough blanket on the ground, but didn't retreat, continuing to stare at Skip.
"'Tis uncanny," he murmured, shaking his head, a strange expression on his handsome features.
"What?" Skip murmured a little irritatedly. Whether he'd just drunk poison or medicine, he hoped it would start working soon.
"Your face, of course." The man shook his head again.
That sounded alarming, and Skip forced his hands up, running his fingers over his skin. He could feel plenty of abrasions, he had a fat lip, and other sensitive spots spoke of bruises, but there was nothing too terrible. He wondered how he'd taken such a pounding. The rest of his aches and pains felt almost more like a fall than a good beating.
"What about my face?" he said worriedly. Maybe there was something he couldn't feel.
The handsome face tilted thoughtfully, as if the man was surprised.
"You don't know?" he asked softly. "Then why've you come, puisín?"
"My name's Skip," Skip said defensively. "Well, actually it's Spencer Lawrence Thomas, but you can call me Skip, everybody does."
The man rocked back on his heels, shock plain in his expression.
"You tell me your Truename?" he whispered as if stunned.
"Well you saved my life," Skip said awkwardly. At least he'd hallucinated that this fellow had saved his life. Did one have any obligation to be nice to an hallucination?
"I won't presume Skip," the man said gravely, dipping his head as if in thanks. "I'm Dante."
"Thanks, uh, Dante," Skip said. He grimaced. "What's that you called me before? Poosin?"
"Puisín." Dante smiled briefly. "It's 'kitten.'"
"Kitten?" Skip scowled as fiercely as he could the aches and pains helped, and his headache helped a lot. "You called me 'kitten'?"
Again the brief smile.
"I think it praise, little one," Dante said, his eyes twinkling. "Ever startle a young kitten? Eyes not even open, still wet from its mother's womb, still it'll hiss and bare its wee teeth, strike out with claws too small and soft to do any harm, but you can't fault it for courage, eh?"
Skip might have made a witty sarcastic comeback on misplaced humor if his stomach hadn't chosen that moment to rebel against whatever it was he'd drunk. He barely mustered the strength to roll to the side before his stomach emptied itself, then dry-heaved until he thought he'd suffocate. Dante immediately moved to steady him, brushing his hair back out of the way, and wiped Skip's face with a damp cloth when he'd finished, apparently unperturbed by the expulsion of the brew.
"'Tis as I thought," Dante said, shaking his head sympathetically. "Threshold sickness. When I saw your strange clothes I thought you were perhaps a crossover." He gave Skip an enigmatic, rather probing look. "The Vizier speaks of such things happening now and again."
Confused, exhausted and physically miserable, Skip was at the end of his patience.
"Look, cat-boy," he exploded. "I don't care what you think of my fashion sense. I appreciate the help back there, okay? I do. And I'm sure your intentions were good giving me whatever New Age crap you just poured down my throat. But what I'd really appreciate, okay, is if you'd just drop me off at the ER door of the nearest hospital, or clinic, or Quik-Med, I don't give a shit, okay? But I need a doctor, not roots and shoots, a real MD."
Dante hunkered down on his heels, a frown furrowing his brow.
"Your words mean nothing to me," he said.
"A doctor, damn it!" Skip shouted. "You know, a quack in a white coat, medicine man, whatever!"
Comprehension dawned in the other man's eyes.
"Ah, a healer, eh?" Dante said, nodding. He sighed. "A fine idea if we'd not had to flee town. I hid the bodies of the men you met, but still I thought it wise to leave and not risk the city guard." He shook his head again. "But 'tis true, you need care warmth and rest and medicine, and most of all a mage. But I cannot chance another seeing you, not with the face you wear."
"Look, my face isn't the problem," Skip snapped, groaning as cramps seized his stomach again. "Right now my face is the happiest part of my body, which is really saying something."
Dante frowned worriedly and reached out, laying a cool hand on Skip's brow.
"Fevered," he said unhappily. "Not a good sign. Your crossing must have been terrible."
"Yeah, well, let me put it this way, the first doctor who sees me's going to give me a one-way ticket to the methadone clinic," Skip said. He was trembling already, and he knew it was going to get worse very quickly. Whether all this was withdrawal alone, or a concussion, or whether he'd picked up some horrific bug while he was passed out in the street, he didn't know, but either way it looked like he'd only just boarded the train for a long, bad trip.
And this idiot Dante still showed no signs of getting him to a doctor. Instead he bent over Skip, gently pressing an eyelid up to look at the white of his eye (he supposed), then feeling Skip's pulse and looking distinctly worried.
"Look, I appreciate the amateur first aid, okay?" Skip rasped, worried now himself. He'd heard of people going into convulsions during withdrawal and dying. "But I need some real help here. I could die from this, you know?"
"Aye, 'tis true," Dante said unhappily, shaking his head. "But even if I could find a healer who's treated threshold sickness and knows the way of it and doubtful I could, not in time once he'd seen you I'd likely have to kill him . . . " Dante grimaced sympathetically as another cramp seized Skip's muscles; then the dark man sighed resignedly as if coming to a decision.
"I can give you something that will help," he said quietly. "It won't cure you, but it will . . . forestall what ails you for a time. But even that's not without a price. It can create a hunger of its own "
"Jesus, whatever it is, I don't give a fuck," Skip groaned, shivering helplessly as another wave of nausea washed over him. "Just give it to me, all right? Help me or kill me, one or the other!"
For a moment Dante hesitated as if he was actually weighing both choices; then he nodded and turned away. Skip was too sick to see or care what he was doing, but it seemed an eternity before Dante half-lifted him again, pressing a cup that smelled of wine to his lips.
"Drink, and try to keep it down," Dante said quietly. "It will take only a moment to ease you."
Skip drank. The wine was good, but whatever drug the other man had mixed in added a strange taste, not unpleasant salty and sweet and elusive, electric. Skip shuddered as the stuff seemed to burn its way through him, and a new wave of pain and dizziness built
-- then abruptly vanished.
Skip blinked in astonishment, swallowed experimentally, then bravely attempted sitting up. He sat, his eyes widening.
"Wow," he said, blinking again. "Whatever that stuff was, man, I want to know where to buy it!"
Dante snorted, half amusedly, half bitterly.
"Sorry," he said. "I fear my source is unique." He helped Skip to his feet. "Come, we'd best ride on while you can sit a horse. There may be pursuit."
Jesus Christ, I'd forgot we're talking multiple homicide here. Then the rest of Dante's comments registered.
"Ride a what?" Skip said blankly.
"I hadn't time to steal you a mount," Dante said, kicking dirt over the fire and grabbing the blanket Skip had been lying on. "You'll have to ride with me, puisín. You're such a tiny thing, I misdoubt Díoltas will even notice."
"Ride a what?" Skip repeated, staring. There was a horse standing nearby, lipping leaves from the undergrowth. Coal black and large, saddled with black leather. Then the horse turned to face Skip and Skip revised his estimate. Right, this was all an hallucination, and this horse-creature was obviously part of it. That would explain why the horse-thing had clawed, padded feet on its front legs instead of hooves and a jet-black horn protruding from between its yellow eyes. Skip altered his question slightly. "What the fuck is that thing?"
Dante chuckled drily, patting the bizarre creature.
"He's a Tyrean battlesteed, born of sorcery and careful breeding," Dante said, finger-combing the flowing black mane. "Don't fear, he's not fond of strangers but he's wise enough to know you're in my keeping."
"I'm not fond of him either," he muttered to himself. This just kept getting stranger and stranger, but what the hell, at least he was creative in his insanity. "I've never ridden a horse," he said, more loudly.
Dante looked incredulous, shaking his head wonderingly.
"A crossover for certain," he said with a sigh. "Well, no matter. You'll have to ride before me anyway. I never allow a stranger at my back. Here, mount up and let's be gone."
It was a struggle, but at last Skip managed to boost himself awkwardly into the saddle, clinging uncomfortably to whatever he could reach. Dante swung up easily behind him, wrapping one arm casually around Skip's waist.
"Never fear we'd let you fall," Dante promised. "Díoltas is a fearsome lad, but never has he dropped what he set out to carry. You're safe for now, at least."
Skip was about to demand that Dante explain what he meant by that last disclaimer, but at that moment Dante nudged the horse-thing gently with his knees, and suddenly Skip was clinging for dear life while the world flashed by.