Kiki Hernández, rock legend of the Southwest, had seven devils on her tail.
They scurried through the roadside scrub, not even trying to sneak. She could hear their scrabble-claws and clacker-tails, their dripping maws and teeth. If they were trying to round her up for crossroad deal-making, they were going about it all wrong.
That’s what happened when devils got hungry. They made mistakes.
Kiki hummed as she walked, watching eddies of dust form tornadoes on the road ahead. It was a swagger of a walk, born of a perfect record: Kiki 72, Devils 0. She would have been bored if she hadn’t been so eager for an encore.
“Come on out!” she hollered.
They tumbled forth in a gray-green tangle of many-jointed limbs, an acrid smell preceding them: sulfur and grave dirt and candy apples stuffed with razorblades. Their voices tangled like a nest of snakes: Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Are you vengeful? Are you sad?
For a moment she felt it—the thirst like three weeks eating salted pork, the grief that could only end in retaliation—and then Kiki popped open her molded-plastic carrying case and pulled out her guitar: Mona Lisa.
Mona Lisa was fierce. She was raw. She was a fine-tuned devil-killing music monster.
They never stood a chance.
Kiki laughed, high and wild, as her fingers danced through “Voodoo Child”—acoustic, sadly, but that was the state of the world these days. In Kiki’s head she was rocking steel strings and a hundred watts. She was playing to a crowd of twenty thousand and crushing it.
The first trio of devils hit a solid wall of sound and crumpled, bloody and squealing, to the earth. The others skittered away, and she chased after them, shouting, “Come back, you cowards!”
She needn’t have worried. They raced for the crossroad, so desperate they didn’t even notice what was waiting for them there.
He was short and squat, with the jowls of a Neapolitan Mastiff and the blue-black coat of a Friesian horse. He had curling horns for ears and deep pits of flame for eyes, and he swallowed those devils in two bites apiece.
“Ozzy!” Kiki scolded. “What did I say about wandering off?”
He slumped hard against her leg, whining, and she pulled out a spare bone pick to loosen the gristle from his fangs. He let out a particularly un-hellish yip when she accidentally jabbed his gum.
“Well next time don’t chomp them around the ribs!” she said. “Honestly, Ozzy…”
He tilted his head for scratches, and Kiki complied. She was still flush with the high of performing, the heart-fluttering, head-buzzing, loose-muscle happiness that only came from a good tune. It didn’t matter if there was no audience. She had Ozzy.
And then a voice like rotting garbage slithered down the breeze: “Isn’t that just too sweet to stomach?”
Kiki spun, guitar drawn against her belly. An enormous toad-like devil was sitting on top of an overturned city bus, wide and squat and green, with a short, sharp horn protruding from the center of its forehead. A nasty wall of cacti stood between them, holding the beast out of guitar range.
That bit of foresight was alarming. The devil should have been all riled up by the scents of blood and bone. It should have been slavering at her heels, stripped bare by hunger. But it only watched her with narrow-eyed satisfaction.
Like it approved of what it saw.
“Are you hungry?” it croaked. “Are you weary?”
Ozzy growled, and the devil chuckled wetly. Kiki snapped, “There is nothing on this earth I’m willing to trade you, devil, and not a thing in hell you have to offer me, so either go home or come closer and hear me play.”
It tapped one soggy foot against the glass of an upturned window. “I left a gift inside.”
“I just told you—”
“I’ll see you on Luna Mesa,” the devil said, and it vanished in a burst of tar bubbles.
Kiki staggered back from the stench. “Can you believe that?” she coughed. “Can you believe it talking to me like that? Me?”
But Ozzy ran off chasing tar bubbles and vanished from sight. Kiki was left alone, staring at the bus.
The smart thing to do was walk away. Whatever the devil had left behind could only mean trouble, and it would be a waste of precious daylight to hike around the cactus, climb the bus, deal with whatever foul prank waited within…
A hand emerged from a broken window, and Kiki shouted, “Back, foul beast!” But the hand was followed by a head, and it was no many-fanged beast but a tousle-haired kid, and the kid shouted, “Oh my god, you’re Kiki Hernández!!”
Kiki sighed. She could never resist a fan.
Kiki marched the Kid two miles past the crossroad before letting her speak. These conversations were best had away from a thin spot.
“All right, fess up. What are you?” Kiki demanded.
“I’m Lucy Sepúlveda,” the Kid squeaked. “I’m from—”
“That’s not what I asked and you know it.”
Kiki circled her warily. The Kid was five foot nothing, with more hair than head. A construct, maybe. A bit of devil trickery manifested as a big-haired, gangly-legged preteen with a grungy guitar case and an even grungier homemade band t-shirt for The Exorcists.
Kiki poked her joints with a stick: elbows, knees, wrists, ankles. She checked the girl’s reflection in a compact mirror and shone a flashlight down her throat for signs of the black spot. There were no infernal birthmarks on her neck, no tattoos on her spine, no hooks in her collarbones.
The Kid chattered breathlessly throughout. “Is it true you played at Greenwich Rock? And Blakely Hall? And the steps of the capitol? I heard you banished twenty devils in one encore! I heard you defeated a blood queen with only three strings on your guitar! I heard—”
“Everything you’ve heard about me is true,” Kiki said loftily. “So don’t try anything. If you’re some kind of monstrous changeling possessed devil child I will find out. Now, what fake reason do you have for being in that bus?”
“It’s not fake!” the Kid protested. “I was cornered by that devil on my way to El Sabueso.”
“You were going to walk all that way?” Kiki demanded. “By yourself?”
“I need an exorcist, and I heard they get together there.” The Kid clasped her hands together. “But now I’ve met you! You have to help me, Kiki! My whole town is overrun. Please? Please? It isn’t much farther. I came from just up the hill, from—”
“Luna Mesa,” Kiki sighed.
“Luna Mesa!” the Kid finished.
Kiki brooded. The sun was dipping low toward the hill in question. Not much farther was twenty miles, but it was three times that to double back to El Sabueso, and the Kid wasn’t going to find any help there.
“What happened?” Kiki asked.
“It was the wells,” the Kid said quickly. “They were going dry. The mayor made a deal to fill them up again, but the water was bad. So there was another deal. And folks who’d gotten sick made deals, too, to get better. And one thing led to another…”
Kiki grunted. She’d heard it all before. “How many?” she asked.
“Not too many,” the Kid hedged. “But there’s a ringleader, a devil giving orders from a human body. I think if you banish that one, the rest’ll go feral and hit the road. Will you come?”
Kiki grimaced. It was a trap, all right, and she didn’t like the idea of a devil getting ahead of her. But when had she ever run from a gig?
“I’ll come,” she said slowly. “But not before dawn. We’ll camp at the base of the hill tonight.”
The Kid bounced on her toes, about to start squealing again, and Kiki held up a hand to stop her. “One more thing! I’m not convinced you’re clean, so understand that if you make one wrong move…” Kiki pointed toward the scrub, where Ozzy finally appeared, his mouth thoroughly covered in tar. “…then my dog will tear you to pieces.”
The Kid spun around, pressed both hands to her cheeks, and screamed.
The nice thing about a hellhound was you hardly needed a campfire for warmth. Kiki settled down at Ozzy’s side and let his chunky furnace of a body ease her aches.
It would have been downright relaxing, if the Kid ever stopped babbling.
“A hellhound, an actual real-life honest-to-goodness hellhound!” she enthused. “Does it talk? Does it cross worlds? Do you have to trade it, like, treats to do what you want?”
Kiki glowered. She did, in fact, keep Ozzy well supplied in treats, but it wasn’t transactional. She didn’t think.
“I found him,” she said curtly. “He was a runt, abandoned by his pack. Can’t seem to get rid of him now.”
Ozzy vibrated with discontent, and she patted his back—a reassurance, and a warning. This girl wasn’t to be trusted.
“My daddy makes guitars,” the Kid said suddenly. She popped open her case, revealing the saddest, plainest, palest bit of carved wood that Kiki had ever seen, and gushed, “He’s teaching me to play! I’m going to go on tour after this—not too far in case I need help—maybe you can give me a suggestion—”
“Hey!” Kiki barked. “Hey! Absolutely not.”
The Kid drew back, shocked. “But I can play…”
Kiki waved dismissively at the homemade guitar. “That’s trash, Kid. You haven’t even got a humidifier. You know what the air’ll do to that thing on the road?”
Before the Kid could argue, Kiki unsnapped her own guitar case and said, forcefully, “Look. What do you see?”
Mona Lisa was a Hummingbird. Gibson. And as far as Kiki knew, the last of her line. That was handcrafted mahogany! Mother-of-pearl inlays! A cherryburst finish! Kiki had found her in a ransacked mall, in a condition so immaculate she knew it was fate.
But she’d made some changes since then, and those were what she pointed out now.
“Anyone can learn to play,” Kiki said, “but out here a guitar needs to fight, and devils are fought best by other devils. My girl’s got a thighbone saddle, hellhound hair strings, a devilhide pickguard. Mona Lisa’s half-beast, baby!”
Tears welled up in the Kid’s eyes, but Kiki forced herself to stay firm. She said, “When we get up there, I’ll do what I do, and you’ll go inside and lock your door. Got it?”
The Kid lowered her gaze.
“Got it?” Kiki repeated.
The Kid nodded, forlorn, and thank holy hell, that was the end of that.
They entered Luna Mesa after dawn. They walked past silent roads, shuttered houses, overgrown yards—and everywhere, the scent of stagnation. This town had been holding its breath so long, it forgot how to stop.
Even Ozzy was quiet.
The Kid led them down an old, decrepit road, to an old, decrepit house. The yard was full of debris: broken electronics and broken bones, all of it fractured and blanched by the sun.
Kiki strummed her guitar once, twice, satisfying herself that it was in tune. Ozzy circled warily, his flaming gaze fixed tight to the house, and Kiki murmured, “Stay close to the Kid on this one, Ozz.”
The Kid found a rusted pipe in the weeds and banged it against an abandoned car door. Bang, bang, like a summoning gong. The sounds peaked and faded, and the screen door swung open, hinges screaming.
A man stood there. Or something like a man. His skin was waxy and smooth, taut, and his eyes were sunken pits only lacking a flame.
“Lucy,” he growled. He stomped down the porch steps, and the Kid skittered back as though burned.
Kiki started playing immediately, before he could think up an offer. She threw a little Slash at him, a little Page, letting her whims decide the set. The devil’s host body hit her wall of sound—
And pushed right through. Kiki slipped, surprised, and Mona Lisa let out a note like strangling. He broke into a run.
Kiki doubled-down, playing harder, playing faster, going full “Eruption” now, see how the bastard liked Van Halen. The host body slowed, face contorting with strain as he grasped at air gone thick as molasses.
He fell to his knees.
Kiki advanced, feeling the sweat prickle her forehead and spine, feeling the music like lightning in her joints. She switched to a bit of Bonnie Raitt, high and sweet and just the thing to rid a man of his personal demons.
The host body slumped over.
Kiki laughed. After all that bluster and bite, he’d gone down like a baby devil three days from its first crossroad. She turned, gloating, “You promised me a fight, Kid!”
But the street was still silent. The doors still shut. And the Kid was crouched behind some debris with Ozzy at her side, looking even more fearful than when they’d arrived.
Before Kiki could move, the man started howling. His body convulsed, tapping a terrible beat against the asphalt and his howls turned to gargles. His mouth cracked as wide as a snake’s, and devils started pouring out.
The Kid had led her into a trap all right: a trap called legion.
Kiki did the only thing a person could do: run. She grabbed the Kid by the shirtsleeve as she tore by, and they skidded into the house together, Ozzy close on their heels.
Devils climbed out by the dozens behind them, chattering and screaming and whipping up the wind like a hurricane, and Kiki slammed the door hard against the first wave, shouting, “This was you, wasn’t it?”
“No, no, no,” the girl groaned. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Can’t you do something?”
Kiki barked a laugh. “I can’t do a thing till they’re out—or do you want a devil exploding halfway down his throat?”
The girl burst into tears, and Ozzy whined, and Kiki finally got a clear look at the room they were in. Battered old couch, battered old TV, piles of trash—and guitars. Dozens of them, stomped and chewed and smashed to pieces by something with particular cause to hate the sight.
Kiki sighed, letting the inevitability of the thing wash over her. “So,” she said, “that’s your daddy outside, huh?”
And the whole damn story spilled out, for real this time.
“It was all like I said,” the Kid sobbed. “The mayor, the wells. My daddy tried to fight them, but I got water-sick, and he made a deal, and then what was I supposed to do?” Her voice cracked even higher. “It was that toad. He said bring an exorcist and they’d let my daddy go, and I couldn’t pass up a deal that good. I know there’s always something they aren’t saying, I’m not a fool, but then I met you on the road, and I thought yes, Kiki Hernández can beat them at their own game! But I swear I only thought there was one devil in there.”
Kiki sighed. “They always make it sound good, Kid. It’s one little thing, and then another little thing, and then you wake up one day with a hell portal in your town and you all cry how’d we get here.”
Kiki had always been stubborn. A devil said be afraid, and she got angry instead. Because that was how they got you, when you didn’t have a real need. They filled your head with fears, and convinced you something was wrong in your life, and convinced you somebody else was to blame, and also hey, would you look at that, here they were with the cure.
The Kid cried, “It wasn’t one little thing, it was my dad! What was I supposed to do?”
Another devil hit hard, almost throwing Kiki from the door. “Nothing!” she snapped. “Not when it’s your dad versus the Pacific Southwest. We’re in a different world now, Kid. If you want to survive it, you’ve got to keep to yourself. As soon as they catch on that you love something, they take it away.”
The Kid stared at Kiki like she was a complete stranger. “Is that it?” she whispered. “The great Kiki Hernández has never lost a fight because she’s never even been tempted in the first place?”
Kiki drew back, frowning. “I–that isn’t what I meant…”
The Kid’s voice rose. “Tell somebody whose dying that they shouldn’t want a cure! Tell somebody who’s starving that they shouldn’t want food! Tell somebody—”
“Don’t yell at me,” Kiki warned.
“You’re not strong!” the Kid shouted. “You just have nothing to resist!”
The door went still. The devils stopped screaming. It was just Kiki and the Kid staring at each other, in a silence louder than the maelstrom had been.
And a voice like a death rattle called, “Kiki. Oh, Kiiikiiii. Might we have a word?”
An urge gripped her then, like nothing she’d felt before: Kiki wanted to bail. From the legion, from the toad, from this girl calling her out on a lifestyle that had kept her alive and unsullied this long, thank you very much.
But she thought of every town she’d ever played, cheerfully raining chords like holy water and then leaving everyone else to clean up the mess.
This army had been a long time coming. Maybe it was Kiki’s turn to face the music.
“Okay,” Kiki breathed. “Okay. This is what we’re going to do.”
A hot breeze whistled over the road, carrying with it the stale scent of the underworld.
Kiki stood on the porch with Mona Lisa against her belly and Ozzy at her side.
A devil army waited in the street, lined up in rows by the dozen. They were many-jointed and bulging-eyed and shimmering all the colors of putrescence. They dripped tar and saliva and sulfurous gas, and every one had a pair of flames for eyes, burning just for you-know-who.
They all broke into motion at once.
Kiki launched into an aggressive rendition of “Crossroads,” because hell yeah Clapton, and the devils split left and right, coordinated and loud as a swarm of bees. Ozzy waded in, ripping off two heads before Kiki had hardly hit her stride. The Kid made a break for her dad.
Kiki’s blood was pumping, her ears ringing, her entire body electrifying. A shield formed in front of her, sparking with light, and wherever she advanced, she brought devils down in waves. They tried circling her. They tried leaping over her. They tried popping out of potholes and leaping out of trees.
She got them all.
“To your left!” the Kid shouted, as she dragged her father back toward the house—and there it was, in all its split-faced, green-globby rot: the toad.
It sat on a neighboring rooftop, watching its army explode against her music with perfect serenity. The bastard smiled, long as a knife wound, and what it had to say was so simple even mindless, blood-lusting devil drones could follow along: “Go for the pup.”
Suddenly, Kiki was fighting empty air. The devils swarmed away, and Kiki ran, her notes wobbling and her heart clutched in panic, because they were fast, so fast. They were going for her dog, and she wasn’t going to reach him in time.
“Ozzy!” Kiki screamed.
They crashed over him in a wave, a mad tangle of limbs and tails writhing like a rat king, and Ozzy howled beneath the assault at a pitch she’d never heard before.
“Enough,” said the toad.
Kiki was frozen in place. Mona Lisa was dead in her arms. The street had gone silent, or maybe it was just the ringing in her ears. Ozzy lay limp on the asphalt.
The devils started peeling away, awaiting the word to attack. The Kid was mouthing something from the porch, or maybe she was shouting, but either way it was Kiki’s absolute lowest priority at the moment, because Ozzy was down.
Ozzy was down.
She’d lied to the Kid, the night before.
The truth was, Ozzy had found her, deep in the wreckage of an epic rock battle. She’d banished a theater full of incubi and got herself trapped beneath a fallen beam, without a friend in the world to come looking for her.
For the first time ever, she thought: I can’t do this alone.
And then a little doughball of a hellhound had sidled up, its eyes like tea lights, and she’d thought for sure this was it, she was a goner, the great Kiki Hernández was about to have her face eaten off by a pile of fluff with a waggy tail—
Except he’d only been interested in the jerky in her pocket. And when he’d polished that off, and she had nothing left to offer but her own flesh, he’d nibbled and scorched his way through the beam to set her free, careful not to cause a single scratch.
He’d been her one and only companion since then, through lean times and flush, from his little tail-chasing days to his much larger tail-chasing days, and Kiki loved his big ugly face more than anything in the world.
But she hadn’t been willing to explain that to a possibly corrupt, possibly ignorant pawn of a devil.
Because she’d feared exactly this would come to pass.
Sound rushed back to Kiki’s world. First it was her own pounding heart and then it was the Kid yelling, “What are you doing? Keep playing!” and then it was the vile squelch-thump of the toad leaping from the roof.
Kiki’s heart was heavy, and it wasn’t just the fight, it was the Kid’s voice in her head, scoffing you have nothing to resist, because that wasn’t true. It’d never been true. Kiki had just spent a long time hiding.
In a voice like honey botulism, the toad said, “Oh, how terrible. How unfortunate. If only there were a way to revive a wounded hellhound. Oh, if only.”
Kiki glared, her eyes hot and wet. She didn’t have to ask the question out loud. It was always the same. What do you want in return?
“I want your guitar,” it said.
Kiki recoiled. She’d expected something ridiculous: free reign in Luna Mesa, or one of her limbs, or even her life—but oh, this was far more insidious. She could refuse a deal for the sake of the town, for the sake of her own body.
But for a guitar?
She stared at Ozzy, struck down in her defense. She thought of him warm by her side every night and quick at her side every morning. She thought of him chasing tar bubbles and whuffling for jerky and catching the absolute wrong stuff for dinner, like toxic wrong, but so pleased with himself anyway that sometimes she pretended to eat it.
She remembered a rolly-polly abandoned pup, snuffling through the wreckage for a bit of food and finding her instead.
Ozzy’s leg twitched.
Kiki whispered, “I have terms.”
The Kid cried out, and the toad grinned, and Kiki forged ahead before either one of them could change her mind.
“We both walk out of here today,” Kiki said, gesturing at the Kid. “None of you can touch us.”
“Give me your guitar,” the toad said slowly, “and in exchange, I will revive your mutt, and neither you nor the girl Lucy Sepúlveda shall be harmed in Luna Mesa today.”
It was only a delay, of course, a ticking clock instead of instant annihilation. Without a hell-boldened guitar, they’d be defenseless. Kiki and the Kid would be dead by morning.
The toad took one dragging step toward Ozzy, and Kiki snapped, “Don’t touch him.”
The first flicker of irritation crossed the toad’s face. “Your beast is mortally wounded. He needs blood freely given.”
“Then give it,” Kiki said tightly. She held out her hand and said, “I’ll take your horn.”
The toad’s face contorted with such fury that Kiki feared she’d gone too far, it was over, her dog was about to get eaten and she’d still have half an army of devils to fight. But she hoisted Mona Lisa once, a simple threat, and the toad’s greed overrode its anger.
The flesh surrounding its horn was thick with callus, grown up and around the pale thrust of bone like armor. The toad growled as it pulled, yanking harder and harder, until with an ugly crack it came loose.
It looked up, panting with pain and hatred both, black blood running thick between its eyes. “We have a deal,” it said, and threw the bleeding stump at her feet.
It was done. Kiki thought she should have felt something at this, the first deal of her life, but her heart was unchanged.
She whispered, “It’s been a good ride, Mona Lisa,” and kissed the neck of the greatest guitar she’d ever own. She lifted the strap over her head—fifty inches of supple goat hide, custom branded with her name—and slowly, reverently, tearfully laid her guitar on the road.
Kiki refused to cry, not when the toad broke into a gleeful dance, not when he cackled with vicious joy, not even when he began to eat Mona Lisa, strap and strings and body and all.
Kiki grabbed the horn and ran to Ozzy. She rubbed the stump of the horn over the worst of his wounds, and then pried open his jaws for good measure to smear the last of the blood over his gums.
“Come on,” she muttered. “Come on.”
Wood cracked and strings snapped and the toad continued to eat. The rest of the devils gnashed their teeth, jealous and itching to finish the feast the toad had just bartered away from them.
Ozzy’s eyes snapped open, and he nearly bowled her over in his haste to crowd her lap. Kiki let out a choked sob of a laugh. “Come on, you dingus,” she said. “You owe me.”
She turned in time to see the last inch of the headstock go down the toad’s throat. Its belly was swollen with hard lumps and its tail snapped a contented rhythm against the road.
Kiki took a steadying breath…
And broke into a run, shouting, “Kid! Kid! Now!”
The toad lurched after her, but it was slow and clumsy, dragged down by a belly full of wood. Its minions scattered, uncertain of their parameters. They couldn’t harm her, not by the letter of the deal, but they could take the horn, and the toad knew it. He only had to say the word.
The Kid held out her guitar, that joke of a homemade axe, plain and unfinished, no style, no battle scars, no hellish adaptations, just simple and solid and willing to help—
Kiki’s hand closed around the neck.
She brought the horn down on the strings.
That devil was stupid-hungry after all. It should have known better. Rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t just about the instrument.
It was about the attitude.
When Kiki brought that horn down, she brought down a decade of fight. She brought down all the hopes and dreams of every poor sucker in every town she’d ever played, before their best intentions went sour courtesy of a subterranean snake oil salesman. She brought down Ozzy limp in the road and the Kid doing right by her dad and an old man who just wanted clean water for his town, and she turned that old toad’s blood and bone against him.
Kiki brought the house down.
Afterward, she strode through the dust storm of dissipating devils, tip-tap-tripping through “Freebird” because it was her stage, and she could do whatever she wanted. And oh, it was bright, it was fast, it was a million dollars and a cold drink on a hot day. And if the tune was a little rough on her commandeered instrument, so what? It was a tune with a message, and the message was: don’t fuck with Kiki Hernández.
She stopped three feet from the toad. It was half-crushed into the road, bottom legs shorn clean off, belly spilling over with rotten food and bits of Mona Lisa (may she rest in peace), and it panted up at her, full of hate.
“It’s not your fault,” Kiki said. “You didn’t realize you were playing against the queen.”
She hit the last note, and the show was over.
Kiki let the last of the music fade away, breathing deep. Ozzy nudged her hand, still moving warily but moving by god, her pup was going to be okay. The Kid had helped her dazed dad into a sitting position, and all the neighbors’ windows had flung open, letting a sea of hopeful faces peer out.
The Kid jumped up as Kiki approached. “Oh thank you, Kiki,” she said. She bit her lip, hesitating, and then she nodded tightly at the guitar in Kiki’s hands. “Keep her. I know she’s not nearly so good as Mona Lisa was, but she’ll keep you safe till you find something better.”
Kiki hefted the guitar. “I don’t know,” she said slowly. “I’ve got a lot of work to do to bring her up to fighting standard. And it does get lonely on the road.” She paused and looked at Ozzy. He was wagging his tail, pleased as punch, like he hadn’t just nearly died and been resurrected.
But he was an old softie, he’d have said okay to anybody.
Kiki laughed, embarrassed. “I guess what I’m saying is: you ever thought of being a roadie?”
The Kid’s hands flew to her cheeks. She screamed.
Samantha Mills lives in Southern California, in a house on a hill that is hopefully not a haunted hill house. Her short fiction has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, and Escape Pod, among others. She blogs at www.samtasticbooks.com and makes jokes on Twitter @samtasticbooks.