Valiant. Part 5

The image of the goat-footed woman moved uneasily behind Val's eyes. "I know what you're going to say, but I don't think it was a faerie."

"So what do you think it was?"

"I don't know. Maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me." Val sat down on an overturned wood tangelo box. It made a cracking sound, but supported her weight. "That doesn't make any sense."

"Believe what you can handle believing."

"But, I mean-faeries? Like 'clap if you believe in faeries'?"

Lolli snorted. "You saw one. You tell me."

"I did tell you. I told you I don't know what I saw. A woman with goat feet? You shooting something weird in your arm? Paper that dances around? Is that supposed to add up?"

Lolli scowled.

"How do you know it's real?" Val demanded.

"The troll tunnel," Lolli said. "You won't be able to explain that away."

"Troll?"

"Luis made a deal with him. It was when Dave and their mom got shot. Their mother was dead when the ambulance came, but Dave was in the hospital for a while. Luis promised the troll he would serve him for a year if he saved Dave's life."

"That's who Dave was doing the delivery for?" Val asked.

"He took you on one of those?" Lolli blew out a breath that might have been a laugh. "Wow, he really is the worst spy in the world."

"What is the big deal about telling me? Why does Luis care what I know? Like you said to Dave, no one is going to believe me."

"Luis says none of us are supposed to know, not even Dave. They'd be mad, he says. But since he started doing deliveries for Ravus, some of the other faeries have him doing errands for them. Dave does some of the troll's jobs."

"My friend Ruth used to make up things. She said she had a boyfriend named Zachary that lived in England. She showed me letters full of angsty poetry. Basically, the truth was that Ruth wrote herself letters, printed them out, and lied about it. I know all about liars," Val said. "It's not like I don't believe what you're saying, but what if Luis is lying to you?"

"What if he is?" asked Lolli.

Val felt a burst of anger, the worse because it was directionless. "Whatever. Where's the troll tunnel? We'll find out for ourselves."

"I know the way," Lolli said. "I followed Luis to the entrance."

"But you didn't go inside?" Val stood up.

"No." Lolli stood, too, dusting off her skirt. "I didn't want to go alone and Dave wouldn't come with me."

"What do you think a troll is?" Val asked as Lolli scrounged through the cloth and bags on the platform. Val thought of the story of the three goats, thought of the game WarCraft and the little green trolls that carried axes and said, "Wanna buy a cigar?" and "Say h.e.l.lo to my little friend" when you clicked on them enough times. None of that seemed real, but the world would certainly be cooler with something so unreal in it.

"Got it," Lolli said, holding up a flashlight that gave off a dim and inconstant glow. "This isn't going to last."

Val jumped off onto the track level. "We'll be quick."

With a sigh, Lolli climbed down after her.

As they walked through the subway tunnel, the failing flashlight washed the black walls amber, highlighting the soot and the miles of electrical cording that threaded through the tunnel. It was like moving through the veins of the city.

They pa.s.sed a live platform, where people waited for a train. Lolli waved to them as they stared, but Val reached down and picked up the discarded batteries of a dozen CD players. As they moved on, she tried each battery in turn, until she found two that strengthened the beam of the flashlight.

Now it lit piles of garbage, catching the green reflection of rat eyes and the moving walls of roaches that throve in the heat and the dark. Val heard a thin whistle.

"Train," Val yelled, pus.h.i.+ng Lolli against the gap in the wall, a shallow crevice thick with grime. Dust gusted through the air a moment before the train barreled past on another track. Lolli cackled and pressed her face close to Val's.

"One fine day in the middle of the night," she intoned. "Two dead boys got up to fight."

"Stop it," Val said, pulling away.

"Back to back they faced each other, pulled out their swords and shot one another. The deaf cop on the beat heard the noise and came and shot the two dead boys." Lolli laughed. "What? It's a rhyme my mother used to tell me. You never heard it before?"

"It's creepy as s.h.i.+t."

Val's knees were shaky as they resumed walking through the endless twisting tunnels. Finally, Lolli pointed to an opening that looked as if it had been bashed through the cement blocks. "Through there," she said.

Val took a step, but Lolli made a noise. "Val," she started, but she didn't continue.

"If you're scared, you can wait here. I'll go in and come right back out."

"I'm not scared," Lolli said.

"Okay." Val stepped through the rough concrete doorway.

There was a corridor, murky with water, with calcium deposits hanging down in brittle, chalky stalact.i.tes. She took a few more steps, cold water soaking her sneakers and the hem of her jeans. The light from the flashlight lit torn, ragged strips of plastic sheeting directly ahead of her. They s.h.i.+fted with the slight wind, like gauzy draperies or ghosts. The movement was unnerving. Splas.h.i.+ng along, she ducked through the plastic and into a large chamber choked with roots. They dangled everywhere, long feathery tendrils dragging in the deeper water, thick root trunks cracking through the concrete ceiling to thin and spread. But the strangest part was that fruit hung from them as from branches. Pale globes grew from the hairy coils, warmed by no sun and fed by no soil. Val walked closer. The skin of each was milky and translucent, showing a rose blush beneath it, as though their centers might be red.

Lolli touched one. "They're warm," she said.

It was then that Val noticed rusted stairs, their railing wrapped with sodden cloth.

She hesitated at the bottom of them. Glancing at the inverted tree again, she tried to tell herself that it was just weird, not supernatural. It didn't matter. It was too late to turn back.

Val started up the steps. Each one echoed and she could see a diffuse light. As trains rumbled above them, a thin, powdery dust fell like rain, catching and streaking the weeping walls. The girls spiraled up, higher and higher until they came to a large cas.e.m.e.nt window shrouded by old blankets hung with nails. Val leaned over the railing and pushed aside the cloth. She was surprised to see a basketball court, apartment buildings, the highway, and the river beyond, sparkling like a necklace of lights. She was inside the Manhattan Bridge.

She kept walking, finally coming to a large open room with pipes and thick cords running along the ceiling and heavy wooden ladders along both sides of the wall. It looked as if it was meant for maintenance workers. Books were piled up on the makes.h.i.+ft shelves and in dusty stacks on the floor. Old volumes, tattered and worn. A sheet of plywood rested atop several dozen cinderblocks near the doorway, creating a makes.h.i.+ft desk. Jam jars lined one edge, and resting against it was a sword that looked as though it was made of gla.s.s.

Val took a step closer, reaching out her hand, when something fell on her. It was cold and formless, like a heavy wet blanket, and it stretched to cover her. It blocked out her sight and choked her. She threw up her hands, clawing at the slightly damp stuff, feeling it give under her sharp, short nails. Dimly, she could hear Lolli shrieking as if from very far away. Spots started to form in front of Val's eyes and she reached blindly for the sword. Her hand slid over the blade, cutting her fingers shallowly, but letting her blindly find the hilt.

She braced and swung at her own shoulder. The thing slipped from her, and for a dizzying moment she could breathe again. Hefting the sword of gla.s.s as much as she could like a lacrosse stick, she chopped at the white, boneless thing that rippled toward her, its stretched face and flat features making it appear like a pallid, fleshy paper doll. It writhed on the ground and went limp.

Val's hands shook. She tried to still them, but they wouldn't stop trembling, even when she clenched them into fists and dug her fingernails into the heels of her hands.

"What was that thing?" Lolli asked.

Val shook her head. "How the f.u.c.k would I know?"

"We should be quick." Lolli walked over to the desk and dumped several jars into her bag.

"What are you doing?" Val asked. "Let's get out of here."

"Okay, okay," Lolli said, rummaging through some bottles. "I'm coming."

Herbs were bound into bundles in one of the jamjars. Another was full of dead wasps, but a third was filled with what looked like knots of red licorice shoelaces. Some had labels on their lids: chokecherry, hyssop, wormwood, poppy. At the center of the plywood was a marble cutting board with spiky green b.a.l.l.s waiting to be chopped by the tin half-moon of a knife that rested beside them.

On the wall were a series of pinned objects-a candy wrapper, a gray wad of chewing gum, the burned-out stub of a cigarette. Hanging in front of each was a magnifying gla.s.s, enlarging not only the items but also the handwritten notes surrounding each. "Breath," read one. "Love," read another.

Lolli gasped sharply. Val spun around without thinking, lifting the sword automatically. Someone loomed in the doorway, tall and lean as a basketball player, bending to duck under the doorframe. As he straightened up, lank hair, black as ink, framed the grayish-green skin of his face. Two undershot incisors jutted from his jaw, their tips sinking into the soft flesh of his upper lip. His eyes went wide with something that might have been fear or even fury, but she found herself transfixed by the way the black irises were dusted around the edges with gold, like the eyes of a frog.

"Well." The troll's voice was a deep growl. "What have we here? A pair of filthy street girls." He took two steps toward Val and she stumbled backward, tripping over her own feet, her mind filled only with panic.

With one booted foot, the troll nudged the boneless thing. "I see you've gotten past my guardian. How unlikely." He wore a b.u.t.toned black coat that covered him from neck to calf, with black trousers underneath that seemed to emphasize the shock of green at the frayed cuffs and nape where cloth met flesh. His skin was the same horrible color that you might find underneath a band of copper you'd worn for too long. "And you've helped yourself to something else of mine as well."

Fear closed up Val's throat and held her in place. She watched the milky blood run down the sword and felt her hands start to shake again.

"There is only one human who knows this place. So what did Luis tell you?" The troll took another step toward them, his voice soft and furious. "Did he dare you to go inside? Did he say there was a monster?"

Val looked at Lolli, but she was stunned and silent.

The troll ran the point of his tongue over an incisor. "But what did Luis intend, that's the real question. To give you a good scare? To give me a good scare? A good meal? It is entirely possible Luis might think I would want to eat you." He paused, as if waiting for one of them to deny it. "Do you think I want to eat you?"

Val raised the blade of the sword.

"Really? You don't say?" But then his voice deepened to a bellow. "Of course, perhaps you are merely a pair of unlucky thieves."

Val's instincts took over. She ran toward the exit, toward the troll. As he reached for her, she ducked, pa.s.sing under his arm and hitting the strips of plastic. She was halfway down the stairs when she heard Lolli scream.

Standing there, trains rattling on the bridge overhead, still holding the gla.s.s sword, she hesitated. She was the reason Lolli was inside this place. It was Val's own dumb idea to try to prove to herself that faeries were real. She should have gone back when she saw the tree. She shouldn't have come here at all. Taking a deep breath, she ran back up the stairs.

Lolli was sprawled out on the ground, tears running down her face, her body gone weirdly lax. The troll held her by the wrist and seemed to be in the middle of demanding something from her.

"Let her go," Val said. Her voice sounded like someone else's. Someone brave.

"I think not." Leaning down, he ripped Lolli's messenger bag off her shoulder and tipped it upside down. Several coins bounced on the wood floor, rolling next to bottles filled with black sand, needles, a rusted knife, sticks of gum, cigarette b.u.t.ts, and a compact that cracked as it hit the wood, spilling powder across the floor. He reached down for one of the bottles, long fingers nearly touching the neck. "Why would you want-"

"We don't have anything else of yours." Val stepped forward and raised the blade. "Please."

"Really?" He snorted. "Then what have you got in your hands?"

Val looked at the sword, gleaming like an icicle under the fluorescent lights, and was surprised. She'd forgotten that it was his. Turning the point toward the floor, she considered dropping it, but was afraid to be wholly unarmed. "Take it. Take it and we'll go."

"You are in no position to command me," said the troll. "Put down the sword. Carefully. It is a thing more precious than you."

Val hesitated, bending as if she was going to set down the gla.s.s blade. Not placing it on the ground, she still watched him.

He twisted Lolli's finger abruptly and she shrieked. "May it pain her each time she itches to reach for a thing that isn't hers." He grasped a second finger. "And may it pain you to think you're the cause of her pain."

"Stop!" Val shouted, dropping the sword onto the wood planks of the floor. "I'll stay if you let her go."

"What?" His eyes narrowed, then one black eyebrow rose. "Aren't you the gallant?"

"She's my friend," Val said.

He paused and his face went curiously blank. "Your friend?" he repeated tonelessly. "Very well. You will pay for her foolishness as well as your own. That is the burden of friends.h.i.+p."

Val must have looked relieved, because a small, cruel smile crept onto his face. "How much time is she worth? A month of service? A year?" Lolli's eyes sparkled with tears.

Val nodded. Sure. Anything. Whatever. Just let them leave and then it wouldn't matter what she'd promised.

He sighed. "You will serve me for a month, one week for each item stolen." Pausing for a moment, he added, "In whatever way that I need."

She flinched and he smiled.

"Each dusk you will go to Seward Park. There, you will find a note under the wolf's paw. If you do not do what it says, things will go hard with you. Do you understand?"

Val nodded. He dropped Lolli's hand. She scrambled to shove her things back into her bag.

The troll pointed with one long finger. "Go over to that table. On it, there is a tincture, marked 'Straw.' Bring it to me."

Val fumbled with the jars, reading the looping handwriting: toadflax, knotweed, rue, bloodroot, mugwort. She held up a solution, its contents thick and cloudy.

He nodded. "Yes, that. Bring it here."

She did so, walking close to him, close enough to notice that the cloth of his coat was wool, tattered and full of moth holes. Small, curved horns grew through the top of each ear, making the tips seem like they were hardening to bone.

He took the jar, opened it, and scooped up some of the contents. She flinched away from him; the solution smelled like rotten leaves.

"Stay," he said, as though she were a dog brought to heel.

Angry at her own terror but hopeless against it, she remained motionless. He ran the pads of his fingers over her mouth, slicking them with the stuff. She had braced herself for his skin to feel oily or horrible, but it was merely warm.

Then, when he looked into her face, his gaze was so intent that she shuddered. "Repeat the conditions of your promise."

She did.

People said that video games were bad because they made you numb to death, made you register entrails spattering across a screen as a sign of success. In that moment, Val thought that the real problem with games was that the player was supposed to try everything. If there was a cave, you went in it. If there was a mysterious stranger, you talked to him. If there was a map, you followed it. But in games, you had a hundred million billion lives and Val only had this one.

Chapter 5.

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