Millennia-old Jane was Qayna in her youth, before she resisted the will of Heaven and became the Marked Woman. Now she only wants to die, and the Legate has offered her a deal—recover an item stolen from Heaven, and in exchange her curse of immortality will be lifted.
Can Jane steal back Azazel's hoof? Will the fairy folk of the Mirror Queendom stop her? And what exactly is the Legate's game?
Crow Jane is the third installment of Rock Band Fights Evil, a pulp fiction serial by D.J. Butler. Read more about D.J. Butler's books at http://davidjohnbutler.com.
Humour and hellhounds, killer guitar riffs and lost souls. Oh yeah, and laughs, lots of laughs. Who doesn’t love laughing at a hero in that much trouble? Okay, maybe I’m just mean… – Steven Savile
Jane looked with eyes that had seen many things. She had watched the Holy League sink the Turk at Lepanto. She had seen Spartacus and his six thousand revolutionaries nailed to crosses on the Appian Way. She had witnessed the falls of Troy, Ugarit, Ebla, and Babel, when she had still been recognized by the children of men, and known by the name her mother had given her. It had been a long, long time since anything had truly delighted Jane's eyes.
This rock and roll band certainly didn't. They tried to make up in enthusiasm what they lacked in finesse, but their efforts left her unsatisfied. Time was infinite, mankind was a huge, flowing river, and Jane had heard it all before. Still, she had followed them all the way from New Mexico, and this was her first actual glance at them, so she paid close attention.
"Ten thousand miles of motorway tar," the singer roared.
Maori girl and a Japanese car,
Picking a living on this old guitar,
I gotta go.
I gotta go."
He was tall and lean, with the broad-shouldered, muscular physique of a rugby player or a Myrmidon. He looked the part of a rock and roller, pale and intense, with eyes like ice and black hair to his shoulders. There was something familiar about him too, something Jane could not quite place. His wide mouth nearly swallowed the microphone, and his booming voice threatened to shake the brick walls of the bar.
"I loved you well but from afar,
Picadilly or Zanzibar?
I gotta go."
The crow flapped directly over the players on the tiny stage, mocking her with its enormous black wings. She couldn't avoid seeing it, but she resolutely avoided paying it any conscious attention.
"Enjoyin' the music?" a voice asked at her elbow.
Jane turned and saw that it had come from the man behind the bar. "Layers of sound piled on top of each other do not necessarily become music," she told him, "just as a series of events is not necessarily a story."
"You don't follow the band, then?"
"Too bad," he said, "I'se hopin' maybe you could tell me their names. I coulda swore when we booked them yesterday they were The Racket Club, but tonight they're callin' themselves Laughing Jack and the Sons of Bitches."
"Maybe they're on the lam."
The bartender chuckled deferentially. "If they are, I reckon they're not the only ones in the room. That's quite the set of tattoos you're sportin'," he said.
Jane looked at him more closely. She didn't particularly care for the bartender, and it had been centuries since she'd had a conversation with a human being that was anything other than dry dust and hollow words, but she wanted a distraction from the crow. Also, the fact that he had noticed her at all caused a tiny spark of surprise to flash in her mind—he must be a keen observer, and she must have let herself drift too close. "And you have quite an accent, barkeep. You're not from here."
"I ain't from Kansas," the bartender agreed. He was a tallish man with a shock of silver hair and a twinkle in his eye. He wore jeans and a checked shirt, and Jane could see in the Wild Turkey-branded mirror behind him that he stood within easy reach of a sawed-off, double-barreled shotgun under the bar. "I wandered the hills of North Carolina in my youth, and I reckon in my old age I jest started wanderin' a bit further. Name's John," he grinned. "What're you drinkin'?"
Jane was already bored. No amount of wandering could compete with hers. She looked back at the stage again and saw the crow perched on the guitar player's amplifier. He was a wiry thin black man in torn blue jeans and a green military jacket, bristling with pocket flaps, the sleeves of which had been crudely ripped off. He played a worn red guitar and stared down at it with intense focus. Behind him lurked the bass player, a tall, slightly paunchy man with thick black hair. If any of the band was a real musician it was him—he threw improvised little flourishes into the turnarounds like he too was bored with the song, and was trying to liven it up—but he looked shaky, and barely under control. Drugs, Jane thought, or some deep-seated fear.
The burning sands of the hippodrome,
Slick my hair back, polish my chrome,
One final battle, one final poem,
I gotta go.
I gotta go.
"Call me Jane," she said. "And pour me rum."
"Got a bit of an accent yourself, don't you?" John asked, pouring black liquid out of a bottle with sea monsters inked on the label.
"I was young in another time and place," she said. "I only learned English as an adult." When she was a child, no human foot had yet trod upon the forested knob of land that would one day become England.
"I wouldn't want you to feel I'se pryin', but I'm guessin' the South Pacific… am I right?" John asked.
Jane threw back the rum. She'd learned to like the drink while sailing Spanish treasure galleons, centuries ago now. It seemed like yesterday to her, but a yesterday from which she was separated by a yawning gulf of infinite tedium.
"I mean, from the tattoos. Ain't a lot of people get tattoos like those, are there? Big swirlin' patterns on the face and all? That's distinctive."
"They were put on me as a mark," Jane said, the word mark bitter in her mouth. "They were meant to be distinctive."
"Plus your complexion's that nice caramel color," John said. "I don't mean nothin' rude by it—chalk it up to my age if you're offended, or the hits to the head I took in Nam—and I think you're pretty. I'm jest sayin' you look Polynesian. Or Latina, maybe, or some kind of mix. Am I right?"
I know I told you I was born to roam,
But now I'm burning to get back home.
I gotta go.
At the back of the stage with the bass player were the electric organ and the drums. The organ player was a boxy little mesomorph with brown hair, a thin black tie and a neat blue suit, tight at the wrists and ankles. He was nearly invisible under piles of electronic devices and cable and his sound was huge, but patchy.
The drummer, by contrast, sat at a very spare drum kit and played with two wooden sticks that looked like fighting clubs. She wore spiked leather from head to toe and had the androgynous facial features and animal tail that marked her as one of Mab's folk. That, Jane thought, was almost interesting. What was one of the fey doing playing in a crummy rock and roll band in Dodge City, Kansas? The Legate hadn't said anything about that, and it made her take a second look at the other members of the band. What were they hiding?
"Men have always found me pretty," Jane agreed. "That's the root of the problem."
The song ended in a predictable clash of cymbals and some modest scattered applause. The guitar player shuffled over to the singer and took the microphone. Jane noticed their footgear—the singer's looked like what a horseman might wear to ride, and the guitar player had combat boots.
"We'll take a break now," the guitarist announced, "but we'll be back on the stage in a few minutes."
"Another?" John asked cheerfully.
"I've had enough," Jane said. She slapped a bill onto the bar and stepped away into the crowd, her spurs jingling slightly.
Her wards of dissembling made her hard to notice, and she let the sweaty, alcohol-breathed herd swallow her. Wellman's wasn't full, but it was full enough to give her space in which to be inconspicuous, despite the ankle-length black duster she wore and the black broad-brimmed hat, the knives strapped to her belt and boots and forearms and the swirling tattoos that covered her entire face as they covered her entire body. She had given up cursing those angels who had held her down and marked her millennia ago, but only because her curses were pointless. If she ever saw one of them, she'd kill him.
That was why she'd come to Kansas.
Not that her knives would work on an angel. Of course, the knives weren't her only weapons. Deliberately, she brushed the pistol holstered on her hip, the Horn. And that was why the Legate had come looking for her.
That, and the fact that he had something to offer her that she couldn't refuse.
The crow flapped slowly in circles in the high space above the bar. The drinkers, primarily college kids but including a few self-consciously hip-looking older people, went about their business and mostly ignored the band that stepped off the stage into their midst. The big handsome singer got offered a few beers and took one, nodding and smiling as three college girls asked for the blessing of his presence, but saying nothing. Was he shy? The others were left to their own devices. Three of them headed for the bar, the heavy bass player in the lead and walking fast.
The fairy moved off alone.
Wellman's had been built in a structure that had once housed a railroad station. Its walls were two stories tall and made of brick, and its windows and ceiling had a Gothic look about their arched apices. Bare light bulbs hung in straight rows from very long wires, and the crow wheeled slowly around them. A length of track still ran along one wall in a bed of gravel, terminating at either end in blank brick. The restrooms squatted off a short hall tunneling out perpendicularly from the bar, over a bridge of planks that had been nailed into place to limit the tripping opportunities for drunk patrons with urgently pressing bladders.
The fairy skipped over the bridge and headed into the restrooms.
Jane followed. She prepared as she went, slipping an iron knife—not steel, iron—into her right hand and a digging a small glass vial from the pocket of her duster with her left. She checked the vial visually as she passed under a light bulb to be sure she'd grabbed the right one—the glob of quicksilver inside slid back and forth and she smiled without pleasure.
The wards of dissembling were her general travel disguise because they were so simple to erect and so costless to maintain and they did the job—mostly Jane didn't bother people. She just didn't want to be noticed. Unfortunately, the wards of dissembling would lose effectiveness if she walked directly up to the fairy. As the drummer stepped into the mouth of the restroom's hall, she cast a long, pale shadow by the hallway's lights. Jane stepped firmly onto the shadow and spoke a few words.
If anyone in the hall had heard the words, they would have been unable to decipher them, or even remember the sounds, two seconds later. She had spoken in the tongue of her birth, a language that hadn't been spoken on earth for millennia, and which most humans were no longer able, by divine fiat, to understand. The language was Adamic, and Jane understood it because she had been born before the Great Tower, the Confusion of the Tongues, and the First Scattering. She was subject to the Fall of Adam—indeed, she was its firstfruits—but not to the Curse of Babel.
She spoke her spells in Adamic because it was one of the Primals, and a powerful language for magic. As soon as she had spoken this one, and willed some of the force of her ka into it, some of the fire and energy that was the power-component of the collection of spiritual things most mortals knew as their soul, she became invisible. Everything looked the same to her, but she knew that to any other observer who had been able to see her at that moment, she would have vanished into the fairy's shadow.
The shadow pulled her now and she walked faster, padding behind the long silver hair and silver horse's tail of the drummer. The fairy pushed at the GENTLEMEN door first, found it shut, and then opened LADIES. Jane followed her in, nimbly slipping through before the door thudded shut.
The fairy latched the door and Jane drifted out of the way, tightening her grip on her weapons. She wanted the creature fully distracted when she made her move, and she could afford to wait.
Then the drummer turned to the mirror over the sink, looked into it with a fierce eye and spat on the glass. That move piqued Jane's curiosity, and as the fairy filled her hands with blue-foaming soap from the dispenser over the sink and then smeared it all across the mirror, she considered. Was the fairy an outcast? A criminal? An exile?
What was she doing here? Jane wondered.
And could she still enter the Mirror Queendom?
She had been waiting for the fairy to be distracted, she realized, and instead she had distracted herself. Jane whispered several more words of Adamic and willed into place wards of silence. As the silver-haired drummer shook foam from her hands, splattering it on the broken red tile of the floor, Jane attacked.
She struck with the iron knife first. She didn't stab, because she wanted the fairy alive, at least for the moment. Instead, she leaned forward with her elbows and forearm, leading with the blunt edge of the blade. The first notice that the fairy had of the attack was Jane's iron knife suddenly pressing into the back of her neck.
The iron burned her at the touch. Smoke and a burning smell—not the bitter stink of burning flesh, but a woody odor, like that of a tree on fire—filled Jane's nostrils.
"Aaaaaaaaagh!" the fairy howled. Jane heard her perfectly well, but she knew that as long as she kept physical contact with the creature, no one else would be able to hear her. The fairy jerked and twisted, but the pain sapped all the bite out of her resistance. Jane fell forward with the creature, slamming her face into the soapy mirror and then pinning her to the sink.
"Who are you?" the drummer shrieked, kicking back wildly. Jane cracked her forehead against the white porcelain of the sink and then spun her around, keeping the blade pressed to her white flesh.
"I'm the Marked Woman," Jane growled. "Don't your people teach their cubs and kits about me anymore?"
She said it to instill fear, and because it couldn't hurt her that the fairy knew. Then she slammed her other hand against the drummer's exposed clavicle, shattering the glass of the vial and grinding the quicksilver into the fairy's pale skin.
Wings sprouted from the side of the fairy's head like ears, flapped once and disappeared. A horse's legs exploded out of the leather-bar-style clothing the drummer worse, and then her face became a horse's long, bony phiz, and then a falcon's. She exploded into a shrieking, flailing, formless and many-formed abundance of shapes. She kicked and writhed and twisted but she didn't escape, because Jane didn't let her.
All the while, Jane pressed down with the iron knife and smelled smoke.
And all the while, the elusive, ever-present crow of her death perched on top of the paper-towel dispenser and stared down at her with a sour yellow eye.
Then the animal forms were gone, and the man and woman shapes, too, and Jane held the fairy against the sink in her true form.
She was a female, two feet high, with leathery gray skin and eyes that were completely yellow. Her belly and her dugs sagged, her cat-like ears and whiskers trembled. The one remnant of her more beautiful self, her silver horse's tail, flapped soggily in the running water of the sink.
"What shall I call you?" Jane pulled the knife away, keeping it still in her hand and visible, but she held the quicksilver pressed to the fairy's flesh. It would keep her from changing shape, or attempting to use her Glamour.
"I'm a fairy," she croaked back. "I don't have a true name, sorceress."
Jane stared coldly down at the creature and flared her nostrils. "Don't repeat the mistake of thinking I'm stupid, child of Mab," she said. "I will happily release you from your exile with my iron blade."
The fairy hissed through gapped yellow teeth. "How…?" she wrinkled her nose, looked at her own handiwork on the mirror, and slumped in defeat. "Twitch," she said. "Call me Twitch."
"Very good, Twitch," Jane gave her prisoner positive reinforcement. "Now listen to me closely. I'm going to ask questions. You're going to be tempted to evade them, or to lie. The first time you choose not to answer fully and honestly, I'll cut you." She held the iron knife in front of the fairy's eyes as a reminder. "The second time you do so, I'll kill you. Do you understand?"
The fairy nodded.
"Use words, Twitch." Jane smiled.
"I understand," the drummer agreed.
"Several days ago," Jane began, "something was stolen in New Mexico. Something that Heaven considers very valuable, that had been in its keeping and hidden for thousands of years. The keeper fled." No point identifying the keeper as the angel Raphael, or Jane's real errand, or the bitterness of her feelings. "The thieves escaped. I have tracked them here." No point explaining about the Mare, either. "Are you following me so far, Twitch?"
"Yes," Twitch nodded.
"Now," Jane said slowly. "I'm going to ask you the question that you are going to try to lie about. Remember this, child of Mab. The first time, I'll only cut you."
"Where is the hoof, fairy?" Jane asked.
Twitch hesitated. "I… I don't know," she ventured in her bullfrog voice.
Jane nodded, affecting a sad face, and stabbed the drummer in her arm.
"Aaaaaaaagh!" Twitch shrieked again, a horrendous, piteous cry. She thrashed and wiggled on the sink, but Jane held her pinned, and kept the quicksilver firmly pressed to her chest.
Smoke billowed from the wound rather than blood, and stung Jane's eyes.
"Stop! Please, stop!"
Jane pulled the knife back and regarded the fairy with stern eyes.
"I told you," she reminded the ugly creature, "the first time I would cut you. Do you remember what I'm going to do the second time you choose not to answer me?"
The fairy's eyes rolled desperately in her head. "Kill me," she hissed through chapped and shuddering lips.
"Kill you," Jane agreed. She turned the knife so that its sharp edge now faced the fairy, and gently touched the blade to her neck. She heard a sizzle and smelled faint burning. "Now, are you ready to try again?"
Twitch said nothing, only shivered. The crow stared down impassively. After thousands of years and thousands of failed attempts, Jane still had to suppress the urge to throw the knife at the crow instead, to make a heroic lunge and grab the bird with its terrible, joyous burden, tearing into its flesh and feathers with her teeth and devouring it whole, drawing it into her body's permanent embrace.
She blinked and exhaled, driving away the thought.
"I know that you and your friends stole Azazel's hoof from the well in Dudael," Jane said. "Understand me clearly: I know it was you. Unless you are content to die here and now, Twitch, child of Mab, tell me where the hoof is."
Twitch swallowed hard and stared into Jane's eyes. "Jim has it," she said.
Good. Once the stone started rolling down the mountain, the fairy would be hard pressed to stop it. "Which one is Jim?"
"The singer," Twitch said, and closed her eyes pathetically.
"Where does he keep it?" Jane asked.
"On his body," the fairy admitted. "He keeps it taped… taped to his belly."
Jane nodded. She wouldn't have let it away from her person, either. "Is that where the hoof is now?" she asked.
Twitch hesitated, but only for a second. "He hasn't let go of it since we got it," she said. "It's his."
"What do you mean, it's his?" Jane asked. "Is he your leader?"
"Yes," Twitch said instantly. "The hoof belongs to his family. Really, his father." Now that she had started talking, she couldn't stop. "Jim is Azazel's son."
This thoroughly mediocre dive-bar band was quickly becoming the most interesting thing Jane had seen in a century. "What are you doing with the hoof?" she asked. She rationalized the question easily: she needed to gauge how much resistance would be put up when she took it, and whether Jim would try to take it back and thereby interfere with her plans. Really, though, she was curious.
"We're going to Chicago," Twitch said. Tears leaked from her yellow eyes and streamed onto the bathroom porcelain. "Eddie knows a hoodoo woman there, and we're going to contact the Infernal powers and make a deal."
"The guitar player. He sold his soul and he wants it back."
"And what does Jim want?"
Twitch sobbed openly now. "He wants to be… he wants peace, I think."
"And you want back?" Jane nodded at the foam-covered mirror. It felt strange to indulge pure curiosity. Strange and sort of pleasant. "Somehow, you can strike a bargain with Azazel that will let you back into the Shadowless Palace."
Twitch nodded and shuddered. "I need his forgiveness," she wept.
That was a queer thing to say and prompted more questions, but Jane shook herself mentally; enough games. Time to take quick action. "Do you know who I am?" she prompted the creature.
"You're the Marked Woman," Twitch nodded. "You're Qayna, the one the humans call Cain."
Jane raised the iron knife to plunge it into the fairy's body.
Bam! Bam! Bam! came a hammering at the boor.
"Twitch?" called a man's voice.