We hope you enjoy this excerpt from “Hexmas,” a new short story in Gemma Files’s Hexslinger universe! The Hexslinger Omnibus collects the entire horror-fantasy saga in a single downloadable ebook, available now from ChiZine Publications.
It’s 1867, and the Civil War is over. But the blood has just begun to flow. For Asher Rook, Chess Pargeter, and Ed Morrow, the war has left its mark in tangled lines of association and cataclysmic love, woken hexslinger magic, and the terrible attentions of a dead god.
“Reverend” Asher Rook is the unwilling gateway for the Mayan goddess Ixchel to birth her pantheon back into the world of the living, and to do it she’ll force Rook to sacrifice his lover and fellow outlaw Chess Pargeter. But being dead won’t bar Chess from taking vengeance, and Pargeter will claw his way back out of Hell, teaming with undercover-Pinkerton- agent-turned-outlaw Ed Morrow to wreak it…
December 22, 1875
Given who she was, Yancey Colder Kloves dreamed more often than not of the dead. Which meant the hammering at her and Ed Morrow’s front door took longer to wake her fully than it otherwise might; seeing how it might just as well’ve heralded entrance for one of a score of old ghosts. Still, when she did finally start up, realizing the knocker was probably flesh rather than spirit, her hand went automatically to the closest of her guns—one of Chess Pargeter’s notorious pair, in past times, and a much-appreciated gift left behind after the Hex War, in that small-made tornado of a man’s wake.
“Who is it?” she called out, cocking back the hammer.
“Sheriff!” a vaguely familiar voice replied, muffled somewhat behind wood.
Ed was on his feet too by then, jolting from sleep and bed alike with a grunt. For once only mainly unclothed (he seldom wore small-clothes at night, under normal circumstances, to save on time when they two got frisky), but with his shotgun at the ready. Yancey pulled the latch, ginger, gun held hidden behind her back. “Yes?” she asked, sweetly, as she did.
And—there stood the former god himself, grimy from the road, red hair even more grey-touched than last time, and momentarily alone. But otherwise unchanged: Chess damn Pargeter, in the very flesh. He grinned when he saw her face, charmingly mean as ever… then let his eyes drop further, taking in her belly, whereupon he goggled outright.
“Jesus Christ Almighty,” he said, “you’re lookin’ fit to pop. When’d that happen?”
“Oh, nigh on nine months ago, now. Same as usual.”
“Well, sure…” Chess glared at her, surprised, off-put—maybe even a tad fearful. “Ed’s?”
“Goddamn right it is,” Ed growled, from behind them, his barrel dropping.
Now it was Chess’s turn to flush, which almost never happened. “’Course,” he replied, blustering. “Given how the two’ve you been—together and all, this long; bound to happen, ’less you started horning in on my territory now ’n’ then, to save yourselves the trouble of buyin’ French Letters. Hell, I knew that.…”
“Then why’d you ask?”
“Aw, keep your pants on! I just—”
“Have t’have ’em on in the first place, to do that.”
Chess snorted, eyes flicking up and down Ed’s mainly exposed frame. “Yeah, well… that part I don’t mind, so much.”
Ed, no longer in any way as easily off-put by queer frolics as he’d once been, just rolled his eyes and bent to lean the weapon back against the wall, completely uncaring how he might be extending the show. Yancey just sighed, tucking her gun away again, then braced both hands in the small of her back, to stretch out what pained her. “Ed, go poke the fire up and put a kettle on,” she told him. Adding, to Chess: “And as for you—take a seat, calm down, in that order. Since I’m curious to hear what brings you out our way, given I don’t really suppose you had the entirety of Hex City light itself down nearby just to inadvertently insult two broke-down vets turned ranchers, Sheriff.”
Ed turned at this, obviously not having quite caught the honorific when Chess’d first mentioned it, back before he made his entrance. “Wait up: somebody elected you Sheriff?”
Chess preened himself a tad. “Of Hex City, yeah—since April, ’case you’re wonderin’. Sheriff, police chief… representative, emissary, goddamn message-running errand boy…”
“You. A Sheriff.”
“Who the hell else?”
Ed shook his head, wonderingly. “Wasn’t for the fact the world almost ruined itself once already this decade, I’d have to say these truly are the End Times.”
“Go soak your head, Pinkerton Man,” Chess snapped back, and smiled again.
Half an hour on, the sun was finally fully up, hovering low in a sky whose milky opacity promised snow to come, fit to match the light scattering of such that already dusted the desert like powdered sugar. The air had a snap to it, and Ed was forced to break a skin of ice, formed in between his trip to the well and back, off the bucket to boil fresh water for the day’s cooking, laundry and bathwater. In the meantime, Yancey fried some bacon and cooked a mess of oatmeal, serving it all up at the same time, along with black coffee and preserves from town. Afterwards, she poured most of the grease into a pot kept for that purpose, used the rest to re-grease the pan and scraped the plates onto the compost, then tucked them into the sand-barrel to set awhile before cleaning.
Chess sat there watching, which was different—he usually didn’t spend much attention on how things got done, in terms of food arriving on a table or some-such, let alone seem as though he was seriously considering asking what he could do to help. Though it wasn’t as though he’d changed so much as to actually do so. But he did at least think to kick her chair out for her as she lurched back over, balance well and shot, now she’d swollen to the size of a parade-wagon.
“How much longer you got?” he asked.
“That’s a sad way to put it.” Lightly enough said, yet it brought that unfamiliar twist of worry back to his face, so she hurried past: “Uh… last time Doc Jenks was out here, he said might be New Year’s I get brought to bed, or just past. So could be anytime now, I guess.”
“Shouldn’t be up on your feet, then, maybe. I mean, you got Ed t’take up the slack for you ’round here, now you need ’im—”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.…”
“That’s right, you don’t, never havin’ done it before—or been ’round a birthing room neither, I’ll bet, ’specially when something goes wrong enough they gotta throw sand on the floor, to sop up the blood. But I do, ’cause I have.”
Like a slap across the chops, enough so to make her recoil slightly—and he seemed to know it, too; shut up fast in its wake, any road, swearing under his breath into his neat red beard, like he was mad at himself for having blurted it out so bluntly. But of course Yancey understood, having had more than her share of sudden glimpses into the man’s memories: all those sour whorehouse years, clutching at his mother’s skirts and dodging her sharp tongue, ’til he grew calcified enough to meet it halfway and knife-twist those harsh words back with interest, yet deeper. The various stews of San Francisco, hazed with opium-smoke and alcohol-cured, where sex was a weapon that could kill equal-sure in both directions—could breed weeping syph or the clap, spread consumption and cholera, end a once-fresh girl on the “hospital’s” shelf, the abortionist’s stool, or the red-soaked sheets of the self-same bed she’d first caught pregnant in.…
“That really what you see for me, Chess?” Yancey asked him, gently, keeping her eyes steady on his. “That why you came by—to warn me? ’Cause, far as I know, we’re all born to die sometime; knew that when I felt this life in me catch hold, and let it.”
Chess shot her a death-green glare, uncharacteristically wet at its edges, then shook his head, baffled. “Hell, I don’t know. Ain’t too gifted like that; never was. But I felt—something, enough to wake me up, even in Hexicas’s midst, halfway ’cross the state. Sharp and cold, like Mictlan-Xibalba’s own nethers. So’s it just seemed like it was right for me to look you both up, and peep in.”
“And I’m right glad you did. But I do think you’re being somewhat precipitate.”
“You ain’t heard any rumblings of the same sort, then, I s’pose. From them below.”
“No, Chess, I haven’t.” He looked away, lip between his teeth, so she changed the subject, hoping to lighten the air. “Anyhow… what’s the news with Hexicas, or can you tell me? Songbird still in charge, or just think she is?”
After a second, Chess laughed, apparently glad to be thus distracted. “Six of one, mostly—plus the rest of the Council still ain’t acclaimed her little white bitch-Empress of Shit Hill, so that’s somewhat of a gall to her. But otherwise—she’s queen. Yiska’s king, and every once in a while Yiska reminds her there’s other people involved. It’s a regular hootenanny.”
“And Charlie? Why’s he not with you?”
“Guess he just… grew out of it, is all, I s’pose. Probably off breedin’ spiders with some brand-new fancy-man, by now.”
“You have my sympathies.” Chess shrugged. “That’s ’cause I remember he loved you, Chess. You did know that, right?”
“In his way, sure. And me too, in mine. But—” Here he made as though to shrug again, then sighed instead, thinking better. “It’s like it is.”
“Chess Pargeter, celibate. That’s a sad story.”
“Oh, I ain’t lookin’ to give up all my recreations just yet! I do okay. More queers than him and me in this world, y’know.” Here he shot another look at Ed, who’d just come in—paused by the door, breath still visible, clumping dirty snow off his boots while blowing on his hands—and smiled, evilly.
Yancey raised a brow, over-playing disapproval, for comedic purposes. “Need to keep those wandering eyes of yours off my man, Pistoleer,” she suggested, “you want us to stay sociable. I have friends in low places, remember—haunting friends, if you press me.”
“Uh huh. And I been to Hell, plenty of times. Your ghosts don’t impress me, missy.”
“Oh? We’ll see.”
“P’raps we will. Any rate—shouldn’t you ’n’ him be looking into gettin’ hitched, considering? Thought good simple folks like them ’roundabouts mainly frowned on cohabitation without the benefit of matrimonial bonds, let alone the pumpin’ out of bastards.”
“I’m… fairly sure a lot of ’em just assume we are married, actually,” Yancey replied, avoiding Ed’s seeking gaze. But: “Not like I ain’t asked her,” he told Chess, taking his place at the table, refusing to be cut out, “and far more’n just the once. Still, you know how she is.”
“You two do got that in common, yeah. Along with all the rest.”
Yancey glanced down at her hands, trying not to think about the last wedding she’d been to: hers, when she’d added “Kloves” to her name, beginning as it had in filial duty and likings he’d hoped might, one day, turn to love—yet ending in full-out horror, a storm of salt and Red Weed, with dead Sheriff Mesach Love its motor and his attempted vengeance on Chess its fatal centrepiece. By day’s end, her home-town had been denuded utterly, she herself set adrift; father and new-made husband both dead, the hotel she’d thought to inherit destroyed. Two months on, she’d put one of Chess’s guns to Love’s resurrected head and fired, separating one side of his skull from the other.
“I consider myself your wife, Ed,” she said, carefully. “But, with every respect in the world—you may very well have to make do with that, for now. Or forever.”
Ed sighed. “I understand, honey. We both do—don’t we, Chess?”
“Sure. Anybody’s to blame for you feelin’ uncharitable towards the institution, that’d be me—so how could I not?”
Yancey shook her head. “Oh Chess, no; that’s enough of that, really. I don’t blame you for Hoffstedt’s Hoard.…”
This last leaked out between them without her in any way wanting it to, resonating through two brain-pans at once, and Yancey saw Chess wince. But then he nodded, accepting her forgiveness at face-value, without the addendum—and why not, after all? If something truly mattered, it should be voiced outwardly; all else was dross, a whisper on the wind. These were the rules those who could hear each other’s thoughts had to keep to, or face a life even more lonely than their abilities conspired to render it, by going without friendship of any real kind.
“And I thank you for it,” he told her, gruffly; she saw his throat move as he did, perhaps swallowing something bitter. “You two… you’re the only ones I have who still know me like I am, not how they think I’ll be: Chess damn Pargeter, the one who lives and breathes. Ed, who knew me ’fore I changed, ’fore Ash Rook made me—this. And you, who kept on after me, all the way down through the dark; sent one dead person after another to find me, just so’s that old bitch Grandma and her crew could draw me up from death. I’ll never forget what you did for me. Do anything I can for you, either of you, in return.”
Yancey felt Ed’s hand find hers, under the table, and squeezed it, hard. Suddenly, she found it difficult to see; squinted hard, sniffing back tears. Damn this ridiculous propensity to weep at the slightest impulse! Jenks had warned her it would build as the day approached, but this was truly embarrassing. The old Chess would have snickered, unmercifully, to see her overcome so womanishly.…
Not this one, however. Not the one who reached out himself, hesitating just a bit, and patted her other hand where it lay on the tablecloth: two firm taps, like he was checking fruit. Saying, as he did—
“Ain’t gonna cry full out, are you?”
Yancey screwed up her face, huffing. Replied, tart: “No. Are you?”
At this, Ed guffawed, deflating the moment, and a moment on, the others joined him. They laughed until tears really did come, then let their mirth trail away, into companionable silence.
“Damn, it’s good to be back together, all three,” said Ed, eventually. “And it’s good to know you do feel like that, Chess, ’cause God knows, we feel the same. I mean, if anyone was threatenin’ you, the way—”
“Ed,” Yancey said, warningly; he shot her an apologetic look. But Chess was already sitting up, one hand on his hip, where his gun should be.
“The way what?” he demanded. Then added, as she hesitated: “Better just to tell me straight out, don’t you think? Seein’ how I can get it one way or t’other, I just dig hard enough.”
Yancey sighed, knowing it was true. “Fine, then.”
It’d begun early that year, long before Yancey knew she was with child. “When you first made the farm for us, there was nobody out here, and nobody likely to be,” she told Chess, “and that’s stayed true… mostly.”
“But then this old lady moved up onto the land next to us,” Ed supplied. “Her and her son. They’re from Europe, someplace—Scandinavia. Norway, maybe.”
“Iceland,” Yancey corrected him. “Where the Northern Lights are. That’s what her boy, Freyr, said, when I asked him.”
The woman—Yrsa Garmirsdottir was her name, but most (including Ed) just called her “Missus Daughter”—was younger than she looked, but older than Yancey or Ed. Freyr Ragnarsson was her last living child, a pleasant, rugged-looking young man who spoke fairly good English, so ended up most-times translating for his mother, who spoke none. People unacquainted with the ways of hexation could easily have wondered how Missus Daughter ever could’ve managed to literally work her way from New York (her initial port of landing) across to New Mexico, but for those in the know, the methods didn’t much matter—spells and conjurings, charms and glamours, etcetera. Every trick a wandering witch would be likely to pick up on her travels, while trying to out-run both persecution from the mundane world and the unslakeable hunger of every fellow hex she might also trip across, in the effort.
It’d cost her, regardless. Freyr had had sisters, a brother; all gone, now. Along with poor Mister Ragnar, who Missus Daughter—same as so many female hexes before her—hadn’t even known she was draining the life out of with every kiss, every touch, even when she was sponging sweat off his brow in his final dolour, weeping and praying the whole time. Not until later, and long after it could possibly do her any good.
In Iceland, being a volva—a practitioner of seiðr, of Viking magic—was a charge, a tradition. It linked you with other women, but also with Odin All-Father and his get, those pagan deities of ancient times who Missus Daughter’s violent ancestors had worshipped. Things had grown less sure since Christianity’s advent, of course, but seiðr continued to be respected, andthere were always those who wanted a curse of a blessing spun, a ghost laid, the future told from the stars. In the wake of her husband’s death, however, she had made the decision to distance herself from the cold land she somewhat blamed for his passing—she’d come to America, her children in tow, only to find herself less respected than feared, or hunted after. And as the cost of that took its toll, she herself had also begun to change.
In many ways, Missus Daughter’s hexation reminded Yancey most of the ghost of Grandma, Yiska’s old teacher, with her constant harping on the Balance between hataalii Medicine and the dreaded Witchery Way.If we behave as the anaye, we become anaye, she’d said, more times than Yancey could count: monsters, bad gods, Enemies.
New York, as Hank Fennig and his wives had proven, was full of gangs using hexes like combination mascots and weapons. One such had called Missus Daughter out, sparking a duel that ripped her firstborn from her, collateral damage in a fight which only ended when she consumed the challenger utterly. Her daughters, on the other hand, had died in subtler attacks—one as a result of directed plague, the other from being stolen and tested according to Doctor Asbury’s methods, only to express with such force her kidnappers were “forced” to drain her dry. In both instances, Missus Daughter had taken such terrible revenge that she’d had to flee the scene while still in mourning, never achieving true peace.
So at last she had come here, hoping to be alone—away from anyone who could hurt her, or who she might be tempted to hurt. Only to look across the ridge separating one acreage from another and glimpse Yancey standing there, waving back at her in welcome: another potential rival, another potential predator. Someone to be disposed of before she could do the same as every other American hex, if only to make sure Freyr, at least, would manage to outlive both his siblings and his mother.
“How is it you know all this?” Chess asked, only to find himself served with Yancey’s most withering look. “How d’you think?” she inquired, in return.
When the Icelandic family first moved in, Ed and Yancey had gone over to welcome them, and the boy—young man, really, not that Missus Daughter seemed like to ever recognize that fact—had been civil enough. The old lady, however, had sat there staring poison at Yancey, blue eyes so light they almost seemed blind, until finally muttering the one word in her repertoire both of them recognized: “Hexe.”
“No ma’am,” Yancey’d replied, politely as she could. “You’re mistaken, but it’s an easy error. I’m… something else.”
There’d been a brief, sharp confab between Missus Daughter and Freyr, complete with gesticulation, pointing; the woman wouldn’t let it go, or let her son do so, either. “My Momma says,” he’d eventually begun, reluctantly, “she sees draugr at your back. Ah… geisten?” Yancey’d nodded. “Says she knows you ain’t, uh, ‘blind’, like most. Which makes you how she is.”
“Well, not quite…”
No matter how Yancey tried to explain herself, it didn’t matter—Missus Daughter knew better, or thought she did. And from that moment on, there was an ill-wishing blown her and Ed’s way, a tangible bad feeling, so palpable that things around ’em began to sour. Animals died, crops failed; they felt watched at night, and otherwise. Someone slammed doors, broke window-glass, stole pans, made candles melt and turn, the tallow itself rotting. A sickening smell pervaded the house, no matter how spick and span she kept it, and as the weather turned cold, Yancey knew there was only worse to come.
“Can’t she tell you ain’t a hex?” Chess asked. “I mean, I knew straight off when we met there was something different, not that I could put it into words.”
“Like I said, she doesn’t speak English, and Freyr can’t seem to explain the difference between a dead-speaker and a hex. For one thing, I think hexes do talk to ghosts and walk the Dead Road, over where she’s from. And then I guess I went and made it even worse, just by trying to put what I meant straight into her, the one time.…” Yancey looked down, shaking her head in disbelief over her own idiocy. “Bad idea. Now she won’t let me anywhere near, and she’s been sending these—creatures of hers against us, all through October, November… right ’til now.”
Chess frowned. “‘Creatures’?”
“Yule Lads, Freyr calls ’em,” Ed put in. “Got something to do with Christmas, these days, though I guess they’re probably a hold-over from beforehand—back when her folk used to worship earthquakes, volcanos and one-eyed wolves, or what-have-you. Sort of like elves gone bad, or that fella old Kees Hosteen used to talk about; you recall, the one who leaves coal in the stockings and hauls the naughty kids away, to boil up for Christmas dinner?”
“Krampus, that’d be. Black man with horns and a tail, like Old Scratch, but hairier.”
“Yeah, well: Yule Lads are thirteen little Krampuses, and instead of makin’ toys, they raise hell. But they do have a boss of their own, far away from Saint Nick as you can get—this horrible old hag called Gerda. Or was it Gilla?”
“Grýla,” Yancey corrected, quietly. “Her name’s Grýla, and she loves eating other folks’ children too, boiled or raw; never goes hungry, or so Freyr says. His mother told him—”
But there she stopped, clearly unwilling to elaborate, while Ed—cast unhappy eyes her way as he might—seemed similarly loath to ask. Chess, however, heard the echo of it without even trying, the same way Yancey’d learned Missus Daughter’s sad history:
—told him how she would come at the end, borne on the storm, when all her Lads’d already been and gone… come knocking Christmas morning and kick the damn door down, Jesus or no, just in time to bite my baby’s head off when it comes sliding out.
It was a hell of an image, one he was happy enough to keep out of Ed’s head. So Chess simply shook his, to clear it, and demanded of her, instead—
“What-all made you think it wasn’t the best idea to call on me to deal with this, gal?”
“’Cause…” Yancey looked away, though not down. “. . . I thought I could do it, is all. And how was I to know what you’d want?”
“Not what you’re thinkin’, I’ll take a bet. Hell, this is my job; whole city trusts me to do it, by the book, believe it or not. There’s a mess of protocols, and I ain’t broke one yet.”
Now it was Chess’s turn to sigh, angrily. “Scout for such as her long-distance, then set down right near her, catch her off-guard. Approach her all together. Make her Oath up, or my lot move in, power her down, and we go on from there. Don’t have to kill nobody anymore, we don’t want to, and plain fact is, we don’t—not most of us. That’s the gift old Doc Hex gave us when he made the damn Manifolds, and the Thiels shored it up when they got government permission to kick Songbird a crap-load of ’em, long’s she promised we’d only use ’em on each other.” He turned to Ed. “Come to think of, where’s yours, anyhow? Don’t tell me you chucked it down a well, just ’cause the Hex War’s over and done with.”
Ed shrugged, helpless. “Government property, Chess—Thiel took it, right after we confabbed. I’m not Agency, not anymore.”
“Hell, we ain’t Agency!”
“Never said you were. But you keep the peace, right?”
Chess nodded. “‘Naturals’ to use ’em, hexes to make sure they don’t get overused—it’s some system, that’s for sure. Never would’ve thought it’d work, I hadn’t seen it myself.”
“Sounds peachy. But see, Chess—it’s not like that, out here. You know as well as I do that’s why hexes go to Hexicas, in the first place.”
“I didn’t, though,” Chess shot back. “Did I? No, not for years. Kept to myself, did for myself…” He shook his head. “Well, fact is, I can’t call ’em back, not at the moment—they’re on some mission got Songbird all in a tizzy, so much so even Yiska’s off her game. So… Christ, I don’t know. One old woman, huh? And she’s that hard t’deal with?”
“Not at first,” Yancey replied, “which is why it grew on me—slow, soft, like a bad cut turns septic. And now… now, she’s so damn certain I mean to harm her, I have no idea how to persuade her otherwise, short of letting her kill me.”
“She should be scared of you, then, that’s really what she thinks.”
“And she is, Chess: so damn scared! It hurts just to think about it. But that doesn’t help me any.”
“Don’t see why not…”
Yancey turned in her seat, then, fixing him again, almost as sharp—but more sad than anything else, this time. “’Course you don’t,” she said, unsurprised, unjudgemental. “How could you? ’Cause in all the time I’ve known you, you’ve kept yourself far too angry to really be afraid, Chess, even when you had good cause—the best, by any standards. And that’s just who you are.”
The Hexslinger Omnibus © Gemma Files, 2013