I was still lying in the snow when the Knights found me. I’d called them, they’d answered.
Headlights shone through the wire fence. They didn’t want to get closer. I heard the truck’s doors slam, followed by the murmur of conversation. Men and at least one woman.
I dug in my pocket with my free hand to get a mirror.
“I’m here, Blake.”
“You got out in one piece?”
“Okay,” I said. “You maybe want to say hi to the Knights, then?”
“Give me a minute and I’ll see if I can stand,” I said. “But we need to make the most of the time we have, so maybe if you could get us started?”
“Sure. Be right back.”
I made myself move, and it was harder because I was cold, harder still because I’d spent just about everything I had. My first course of action was to cover the demon’s arm, which had joined the rest of me in sinking into the snow. Harder to do than it should have been, because I wasn’t willing to look directly at it.
The Barber was evidence that demons could be tricky.
I managed to get my jacket off and wrapped it around the arm. It was only then that I felt confident enough to try to stand.
Movements happened in fits and starts, every part of my body either numb with exhaustion or tight with pain. I turned over, then got on my hands and knees, then rose to a kneeling position. From there, it was a matter of getting from a kneeling position to a standing position. I’d maybe taken a solid minute to get this far in the process.
“Need help?” Evan asked.
I nodded. I wasn’t quite sure how useful he would be, but I wasn’t about to turn down help.
One foot under me, good. Another under me, using the demon’s severed arm as a cane, and I still lost my balance. Evan tried to catch me and failed.
I landed face first in the snow, arms to my sides. Every single one of my injuries felt like they’d just inflicted on me a second time. I felt Evan land between my shoulderblades. He said something, but I couldn’t hear with the snow muffling the sound.
I lay there, trying to sum up the strength for a hands-and-knee crawl through foot-deep snow, my exhausted brain somewhere else entirely, trying to piece together a plan using the tools I had.
I heard footsteps shuffling through the snow. I raised myself up a fraction.
A woman. Someone I didn’t recognize. Not old, but not young either. She looked like the sort who would have been the really cute girl next door, but some lines had reached her eyes.
She bent down, offering me a hand. I took it, grabbing her upper arm while she grabbed mine. More leverage and help than I’d get simply by holding her hand.
She straightened, offering me the strength of her legs and arm both. She caught me when I stumbled into her, one hand on my shoulder.
I stiffened at the physical contact, but I didn’t have the ability to do anything about it. We settled into a position where she held one of my arms with both of hers, steadying me while still holding me up a little.
Her expression throughout was grim, a little sad.
“They said you failed?” she finally asked.
“I’m the Knight’s blackguard. Priss. A lot of groups have a member like me in them.”
“The designated liar,” she said. “Sometimes you need someone with the protections ordinary people have, or you need a person who can bend the truth or lie, when questions start getting asked.”
Ah. I’d read about witch hunters and the like. Priss would be the same thing, minus the witch hunting part.
“It was you in the police station?” I asked.
“Time got turned back, and in a previous timeline, a member of the Knights stopped by the police station to give me an alibi.”
“Oh. That would have been me.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I didn’t do anything in this timeline.”
“Thank you all the same. The only reason you didn’t was because a police officer intervened the second time around.”
“Someone stopped us.”
“What did he say?”
“That there were wards and runes in place for a specific purpose, and if we entered, it would be as good as a declaration of war against him and his people.”
“I take it you guys weren’t willing to fight that war,” I said.
“It’s not just that. We asked if he was on the local Lord’s side, and he said no. We briefly talked it over, and we thought we’d play it safe.”
“I get it,” I said.
“We didn’t want to interfere if you were doing something convoluted, and no, we didn’t want to pick a fight without knowing what we were getting into.”
“You really don’t have to explain,” I said. “I’m not… I guess I’m not expecting or demanding anyone to go against their nature or take risks. I get it if you’re shy of getting into any more messes. I just had a taste of what you guys went through, way back when.”
“My husband said you failed?”
I nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“Looking at you, I don’t think we can say you didn’t try.”
I huffed out a bit of a laugh.
Evan alighted on my shoulder.
“Hi there, bird,” Priss said.
“Hi,” Evan said.
Priss didn’t even flinch. But it wasn’t the non-flinch of being unsurprised by the unusual. It was obliviousness. She hadn’t heard.
“He’s Evan,” I said.
“Same name as the boy you were accused of murdering?” Priss asked.
“Yep,” I said. I didn’t volunteer anything more. I wasn’t sure what the rules were.
We reached the door in the chain-link fence.
We reached their truck. Nick, who I’d dubbed ‘Shotgun’, was standing by the truck, his overweight, one-footed buddy beside him. Both had their guns, and were talking in murmurs to the truck’s side view mirror.
When I got close enough, I let go of Priss and hobbled forward until I could lean against the front of the truck. My leg briefly blocked the headlight, and the sudden darkness made my heart jump.
“What’s in the jacket?” Nick asked.
“Demon arm,” I said.
“You got a piece of it?” Nick asked me.
“For what it’s worth,” I said.
“I was just telling them we had to run,” Rose said. “We went in with ideas, only one really worked.”
“Fire,” I said. “When we do this again, we use more fire.”
“Huh?” Priss said. “I’m missing something.”
She doesn’t see the girl in the mirror.
I pointed at Rose.
Priss turned, bending over. “Oh. Huh.”
She squinted some.
“Huh,” she said, again.
“You’re going back?” Nick asked, stepping forward to wrap one arm around Priss. Priss wrapped one arm around him in turn.
“It needs to be bound or eliminated,” I said. “But it won’t be tonight, I don’t think. Probably not even tomorrow. We figure out how to trap it inside, we burn it out. Or we burn it until it’s small enough to bind.”
“I can’t believe you want to do this again,” he said. “God.”
“To be fair, I’m sort of thinking the same thing,” Rose added.
“I don’t want to go back in,” I said. “But I’m more sure than ever that that thing needs to be stopped.”
“I wouldn’t object,” Nick’s male friend said. If I’d been given his name, I’d forgotten it. “But getting this close is about as much as I can manage. Scares the everloving shit out of me.”
“Yeah,” Nick said.
I nodded. My eye roved over the jacket-wrapped demon’s arm. I’d seen it with my peripheral vision, and my impression had been of a human-sized arm with clawed fingertips that managed to be brutish, fat, and disproportionately long at the same time. The end of the limb where the teeth had bitten things off, had been bitten off at an angle. The cut had been more or less clean. I flexed it as well as I could, and found it rigid. I suspected it could cut anything a butter knife could.
“We’re not ready,” I said. “We need to deal with the Lord of the city, but we don’t have the assets. It’s ugly, and it’s about to get uglier.”
“When you say ‘we’-” Nick started.
“I’m saying Rose and I. Evan. You said you weren’t willing to do more than offer token assistance, low risk assistance.”
He nodded. He’d only wanted to stress the particulars.
“I’d hoped to win you over and get you on our side by stopping this demon. Getting a kind of revenge on your behalf. I’m sorry I couldn’t. But circumstances allowing, I’m hoping to try again.”
Nick nodded. “That’s something.”
“I’m not asking you to fight, or to do anything. But can I hitch one more ride?”
“It’s why you called, isn’t it?”
“Then let’s get the fuck out of this godforsaken place,” he said. “You take the back seat. Bit of a squeeze, but my front seat doesn’t really slide anymore.”
The heavyset man gave me an unsolicited hand in climbing into the truck, then walked around to the far side to climb in.
A moment later, we were moving.
I leaned my head back, wanting nothing more than to sleep.
“I have books on hand,” Rose said. “Incarnations, binding Greater Others…”
“Is he a greater other?” I asked.
“He’s Conquest,” Rose said.
“That’s a name we don’t want to be throwing around willy-nilly, Rose,” I said. “Sorry. I sort of picked up on that during my last big conversation with the Knights.”
“He’s not the C-word,” I said. “He’s a C-word.”
“Well put,” Nick said, from the driver’s seat.
“He’s an incarnation,” Rose said. “A being tied to the intrinsic workings of the world, at least on an abstract level. They have no technical beginning or end. They just are. What we see is kind of a crystallization of that essence. Some jackass decided to invoke a force and absorb the force in question into themselves and fucked up, they gave themselves over to the force for some reason or another, or a big event helped it come into being. Now it’s autonomous. You can weaken it, but you can’t really kill it. He’s… major enough to count, I think.”
“Right,” I said. “Can you bind something like him?”
“Can I? Probably not. But binding anything is theoretically possible.”
“Right. That’s vague.”
“It’s all I’ve got, until I can get more reading done.”
“Then let’s talk plan of attack,” I said. “The Imp’s binding-”
I couldn’t say too much around the Knights
“-won’t hold,” I finished.
“Yeah,” Rose said. “I really sort of hoped for us to have more of a plan of attack by this point, so it could serve as a distraction.”
“But we don’t have a plan,” I said. “C-word has few friends, and a good few enemies. Except none of them want to play ball with us. Which means we’re doing what we can with the very limited resources we have. Two bound ghosts, Evan, you, me, maybe the Knights giving us another ride if they’re feeling particularly generous, and a few small tools.”
“That’s essentially it,” Rose said. “We do have other allies, but-”
“But they’re allies who ask a heavy price,” I said.
Nick spoke up, “Do we know these allies you’re talking about?”
“Lawyers,” I said.
“An association of diabolists in suits,” I clarified. “I think they want me to join. They kind of offered me a get out of jail free card.”
I could see him glance at his wife, a look that probably conveyed an awful lot I wasn’t privy to.
“I’m not particularly keen on accepting said deal,” I said. “There’s that saying, out of the frying pan, into the fire? We could easily be talking about the hottest fire there is.”
I pointed straight down for emphasis.
“You really are a diabolist, then,” Priss said.
“I know names I shouldn’t,” I said. “Names I don’t want to know. Yeah, I guess, on a technical level. Not at heart, though.”
Priss turned around to look over one shoulder. “You kind of look like what I expected of a diabolist. Kind of. In two very different ways, put together. But you don’t act like one.”
“I’m not quite sure what a diabolist is supposed to look like,” I said.
“Sunken eyes, gaunt, lanky, thinning hair, clearly not taking care of yourself, with a crimson and black robe and hood, and some flesh-bound tome in your hands…”
“I look like that?”
“Dark circles around your eyes, your hair is greasy-”
I touched my hair. “I spent the night in a prison cell, no showers offered.”
I touched the hood of the sweatshirt I wore under my jacket. “That’s reaching.”
“The other image I had was some goth teenager who was in over their head. You’re kind of a middle ground between the two.”
“Between an old, deranged man in a wizard robe and a clueless goth teenager?” I asked.
“A slightly deranged, clueless young adult?” Rose chimed in.
I leaned back, sighing. “Well, this clueless, deranged-looking twenty year old needs to figure out a way to defeat a centuries-old entity, because time’s running out.”
Rose spoke up, “When time’s up, there’re three eventualities that are liable to come up, without us stepping in. The Imp finds a way to manipulate the Lord, and we’ve got a deranged, dangerous, warped Incarnation in the area. The Lord finds a way to leverage the Imp, and he’s stronger, or there isn’t a problem, and we’re forced to obey C- Toronto’s Lord as he demands access to all our family’s power and knowledge. That last one being our worst case scenario,” Rose said.
“I’m not so sure,” I said. “Just about every time someone says ‘worst case scenario’, I immediately think of a bunch of ways that things could get even worse.”
“Pessimism?” Priss asked.
“I like to think it’s the creative side of me more than pessimism,” I said.
“It’s a very fucking bad scenario, if he gets what he wants,” Rose said.
“Yeah,” I agreed. Getting back on track.
“We could fight fire with fire,” Rose said. “I mean, we bring out the big guns by, well, calling in the big guns. Summon and bind something from one of Grandmother’s books.”
“How is that any better than calling the lawyers?” I asked.
“It’s cleaner. The demons are technically safe to use, if we make absolutely no mistakes.”
“There will always be mistakes,” I said. “Human nature.”
“What’s messier in the end?” Rose asked. “We risk Toronto’s Lord getting what he wants, and he unleashes uncontrolled demons on the world, we give him what he wants and he uses controlled demons to achieve the aims and ends that he exists to pursue…”
“…Or we use controlled demons to achieve our aims, for the good of everyone in this city?”
“I think that’s a pretty slippery slope,” I said.
“I think you’re exactly right,” Nick said.
Priss glanced at him, confused.
I glanced up at Rose while Nick gave the ‘twenty words or less’ explanation to Priss.
Rose had a counter-argument waiting, “We only have… two and a half hours to get something in place. I’m not hearing anyone come up with better.”
“Demons don’t make anything better, as far as I can tell,” I replied.
“Then make up a plan. Give me any plan. You talked about the Hyena, I talked about how we’d sic our enemies on each other…”
“And we have a demon’s severed arm,” I said.
“What are we going to do with a demon’s severed arm?”
I looked over the coat-wrapped arm. The tapered edge…
I’d thought of a knife, but the shape, it invoked another sort of thought.
“It’s like a chisel, a wedge. A doorstop?”
“A doorstop?” Rose asked.
“Let’s work backwards,” I said, leaning forward, the demon’s arm in my hands. “Evan’s good at escaping, yes?”
“That’s the last step of our plan. Escape. Getting away intact. The step before that… let’s say we find a way to bar the door to the C-word’s personal realm. We’ve never seen him outside of it, and we can safely assume he’s going to be there when he calls us. I think he’s setting a stage, almost, in that tower of his. We get in, do our thing, whatever we need to do to distract him…”
“Imp gets loose, and we release the Hyena, too,” I said. “There are more than enough ghosts in there for it to use against C-word, and it’ll weaken him.”
“The plan was to strengthen him.”
“If you have ideas on how, I’m open to them. For the time being, I’m thinking maximum distraction, a broad-strokes plan to throw him off balance. We use or make the opportunity to escape and wedge the door shut behind us. Maybe, if we can find a way to do it, we tap the demon’s abilities and make it so there’s no door at all. We contain the damage, we contain the threats…”
“And me?” Rose asked.
“Evan can break locks.”
“Normal locks. No guarantee on this sort of lock.”
“Yeah,” I said. “So we have two things that could break the lock. Maybe if we can get enough muscle behind it, we could use this demon arm to break the chain.”
“Muscle. You’re as weak as a baby, Evan weighs, what, an ounce?”
“I’m stronger than I look,” Evan said.
“You are,” Rose said, sighing, “But I’m not so confident that you’re strong enough that it’s worth this risk.”
“You have a material form in there,” I said. “You could do it.”
“If you’re close enough to see me while you’re in there, he’s close enough to take the arm from you,” Rose said. “Maybe Evan could slip close enough to break a lock, but taking the time to chip at the chain with one end of an arm?”
“We could teach you a rune or two,” Nick said.
“No power to supply to said rune,” I answered. “And we’d need a lot to counteract his stores of power.”
“That’s a bit of a problem.”
“Sure. So this is your friend that you said was in trouble.”
“His nearly useless friend,” Rose said. “I can read, and I can argue, and I can’t do much else.”
“You can give awfully frightening suggestions,” Nick said.
“That too,” Rose said. “For all it’s worth.”
She sounded so much like me sometimes.
“This part of things sucks,” Priss said. “Not hearing a good bit of the conversation.”
Nick leaned over and began updating her again
“Let’s not forget, you got shackled in the first place for my sake,” I told Rose.
“He was gunning for it from the beginning,” Rose said. “To get me in chains.”
“Was he?” I asked.
“Yeah. I’d bet on it.”
“Fuck,” I said. I hadn’t realized how badly we’d walked into that one. I’d thought it was a lose-lose situation at worst, and we’d picked the lesser of two losses. Rose could be freed, but I couldn’t be put back together if Conquest tore my mind, body or heart apart. Hearing that he’d wanted this particular end result sucked.
“If you’d like,” Priss said, “I could pay visits to a few locals.”
“Priss.” Nick said, with a warning tone.
“Not taking sides. More like I’m doing my job as a good citizen of the community and conscientiously informing the locals of exactly what’s going on. Of course, I’ll probably only be able to visit a few over the course of the evening.”
Visiting only the ones she thinks she can convince.
“I don’t like this,” Nick said. “You never wanted to get into all this. You were probably right, too.”
“I want to get into it here and now,” Priss said. “I’ll be careful.”
“I can call in the others, too,” Priss said.
“I’m not sure I agree with that either, for other reasons,” Nick said.
“It’s a moot point, if the kid doesn’t want us to,” Priss said. “Might mean word leaks.”
“I appreciate the offer,” I said. “Thank you. Please do, if it’s possible.”
The words didn’t feel like enough. It was a note of hope, when I was feeling pretty hopeless.
Priss glanced back at me, offering me a small half-smile. Nick said something I couldn’t make out, and they started a whispered conversation.
Two hours, twenty minutes and change, to try to figure out how to unseat a ruler who’d been in charge of this city for a very long time. One who’d made a lot of enemies, yet still sat atop his metaphorical throne.
But that wasn’t the sum of the problem. He was a stubborn, single-minded entity. He…
“He isn’t human,” I thought aloud, interrupting the conversation between husband and wife. “He follows a set of rules. There are things he can do, but there are an awful lot of things he can’t.”
“Yes,” Rose said. “But any Incarnation will tap the ranks of humanity for fitting subjects and sacrifices, to give themselves a reservoir to draw from. Pride might be able to perform actions that don’t raise its standing or gain the ability to bow to others in a pinch. If they go too long without sacrifices, they start to become more… I don’t know how to phrase it…”
“Mechanical,” I said. “They become more mechanical.”
“Basically. Parts of the overarching machine of reality.”
“Well,” I said, “That’s a weak point. How often do they need sacrifices?”
“Depends how often they break their own internal rules. Once every thousand years? Once every hundred years? Daily?”
Time, again. “It’s too bad we can’t tap the Behaims for help on that front. I could do with that number having less zeroes on it. What other weaknesses do Incarnations have?”
“They’re fairly rigid. Something like the sphinx could theoretically learn some magic to a degree. Like, shamanism, the source might differ, but she could learn the runes, still appeal to the spirits, and make an offering, hoping to achieve a small effect. But Incarnations… basically are what they are. No more, no less. One that’s absorbed a lot of people might be flexible enough to bend the rules, and a human that’s absorbed an Incarnation successfully could, too, but they’re mostly just going to do what they’ll do. For the Toronto Lord, he has a narrow repertoire.”
“Okay,” I said.
“The book says that within that repertoire, well, an Incarnation can approach a god in terms of sheer power,” Rose said.
“Right,” I said.
Of course, I knew that Conquest wasn’t quite that powerful. He was a dying incarnation, and his power as a local lord wasn’t real so much as it was feigned.
If he was killable, I might try my luck at killing him. But he wasn’t.
“Alright,” I said. “What about binding, then?”
There was a pause.
Priss glanced over her shoulder. I, for my part, looked up.
Rose wasn’t in the mirror.
“Nick? Pull over,” I said.
Nick pulled over.
I rose from my seat, looking in the mirror.
Rose wasn’t there, even as I looked at a different angle.
I stood up in the back of the truck, until my head touched the roof of the truck. The book was there. Lying on the street, dropped.
She’d been abducted.
I settled back down into a sitting position.
“Fuck,” I said.
“I’m not following,” Priss said.
“She’s gone,” Evan said, though Priss couldn’t hear him.
“My friend has just been abducted,” I said, feeling very weary and a little afraid.
“Do you need to run to the rescue?” Priss asked.
“We should,” Evan said.
“No,” I said. “I… I don’t know what to do, exactly. But this is the second time. He has a habit of taking her and keeping her, and she was someone I really needed at my side. The last time he held onto her, she was unconscious. I… he likes threatening people. He threatened me. I don’t like the idea that he’s putting the screws to Rose like he threatened to do with me.”
“If he has that strong a hold on her,” Nick said, “Might not be pretty.”
“It won’t be,” I agreed, “And it isn’t. Fuck.”
“What are you going to do? If you want a ride to the Lord’s place…”
“No,” I said. “I’m not really capable of doing anything if I go there.”
“I need to… arm myself, somehow. Build up my strength, in more ways than one.”
“Weightlifting,” Evan said.
“Not fast enough.”
“You got a familiar between the time we dropped you off at the woods and today,” Nick said.
“It’s too soon to get an implement, I don’t have Rose to talk me through it, and I don’t know what I’d take. Demesnes, same thing. I don’t think there are any other shortcuts out there that would give me a concrete enough power boost.”
“We have a few basic texts, if you need them,” Nick said.
“Though we’re pretty fucked if you borrow them and lose them,” the other guy said.
“Maybe,” I said. “I dunno what I’d do. But I appreciate anything I can get, really truly.”
“We can’t drive you around all night. Gas is expensive, and I’m not sure that it’s going to get you anywhere,” Nick said. “Where can we drop you off? We can hang out a bit, if you need a bit of company.”
“My place. Near the University, you’re close. You don’t have to stick around. You’ve helped a lot already.”
“Not a problem. What’s your next step after you get home?”
“I don’t know,” I said, again. “You asked me where I wanted you to drop me off. That’s where I want. I have no ideas when it comes to need.”
“You’re aware that the local Lord controls people, yeah?”
“Yeah,” I said. “He’s got some sway over… F-word.”
“I wouldn’t worry about throwing his name around,” Nick said.
“He got ticked the first time I called for a ride, repeating his name,” I said. “But yeah. He also told me he’s sort of under C-word’s sway.”
“Your friend might be too.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“If I’d connected the dots right off the bat,” Nick said, “I might have warned you. But he might know what she knows.”
I let my head drop forward until my forehead rested on the back of Nick’s headrest.
Very gently, he asked, “You’re not going crazy or flipping out. Was this all part of the plan?”
Without moving my head, my eyes still closed, I said, “The plan was scary, flimsy and incomplete enough that I’m not devastated to realize our enemy knows what it is.”
“I’m more spooked at the idea that he might think to ask Rose if she can access the books he wants. If she can bring mirror-world variants to C-word, then it’s all over.”
“How long would it take to set something up?” Nick asked.
“I honestly don’t know,” I said. “He’ll want sufficient protections. Protections would take a little while, especially if they were thorough. The summoning itself requires calling out a name.”
“So you have time. The situation isn’t too much different.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Might be twenty minutes, might be hours. The only constants here are that I’m pretty much powerless, and C-word pretty much has to follow his rules.”
“Wish I had ideas,” Nick said.
“What happens if he doesn’t follow his rules?” Priss asked.
“He loses ground, I imagine,” I said. “Maybe it’s like Monopoly. You lose money you don’t have, so you give up assets you’ve claimed until you’ve paid up.”
“That’s something,” she said.
“I’m not sure it matters. There’s no way to compel something like him, so at best I’m putting him in a situation where he either follows his nature and conquers others, or he suffers a small loss.”
“I don’t really get it,” Evan said. “Who’s he conquering?”
“Rose,” I said. “Very probably. He’ll be breaking her down, making her miserable, making her obey him by exercising force and being scary. He ruins stuff, takes…”
“Can we make him take something he shouldn’t?” Evan asked.
“Maybe,” I said. “I’m not sure what that would be, and that’s probably the sort of circmstance where he draws from his reservoir of humanity and bends the rules.”
“I like the line of thinking, though,” I said. I made a mental note.
There was another rule, but I wasn’t eager to say it out loud, because it was the sort of information that was very dangerous to have. Conquest was weak, but he had to look strong.
“When he’s done with Rose, he’ll turn his attention on anyone he can, with the exception of the people he promised he wouldn’t. He told the Drunk he wouldn’t,” I said. “Toronto, the Drunk and the Drunk’s acquaintances are safe, if I remember right.”
“The Drunk is on his side?” Nick asked.
“The Drunk is on the sidelines.”
“He’ll come after me at some point. Doing whatever it is he does. Conquering, subjugating, sowing despair, taking control,” I said, thinking aloud.
I turned that idea around in my head.
“Which isn’t a bad thing,” I added.
“Huh?” Evan asked.
“He’ll bring us to heel. He won’t kill us. It might be he can’t kill us. He can only set us up to die by other hands.”
“‘Might be’ is pretty thin,” Nick said.
Pretty thin was at least something.
These were the rules of the game, so to speak.
“There are a lot of one-way streets around my place. Take a right, then a left,” I said. “Or if it’s too much hassle, just drop me here, and I’ll walk.”
“I’ll stagger forward like a zombie,” I said.
He took the right-hand turn.
I wasn’t much of a planner. It wasn’t in me. When I’d worked, I’d outlined the stage layouts, display cabinets and mounts for the various pieces, but I’d improvised throughout, bent and adjusted my outlines. I was good at that.
Thinking ten steps forward wasn’t in me. Rose had proposed that she’d be the long-term thinker in all of this, and she’d leave the moment to moment strategy to me.
It had almost worked against the abstract demon. Ur. It was very possible that I might not have made it out without our synergy on that front.
That situation could have gone worse.
Except maybe it had gone worse. Fuck.
Now Rose was in Conquest’s clutches, and she was no doubt working overtime to try and convince him not to hurt, torture or get the wrong info out of her. If he found out she could get the books, or if she divulged any other telling secrets, then this might all be over. If she didn’t, or if Conquest proved suitably distracted, then we maybe had time. It depended on how well Rose could improvise and if she could use those distractions.
On my part, the planning was left to me.
We arrived in my neighborhood.
Home. It felt awfully far away, considering the fact that I was there.
“Right here,” I said.
There was no room with the long row of parked cars, so he stopped in the middle of the street.
“Want us to drop by? I’ll bring our books, we’ll check on you, maybe get you somewhere you need to be?”
“Please,” I said.
“Maybe an hour, then,” Nick said.
“Right,” I replied. “Thank you.”
“You going to be okay?”
“Honestly? Probably not.”
“Figured as much.”
He opened the truck door for me, climbing out so I could get out, giving me a hand.
I still didn’t like the feeling of hands seizing me so firmly, as well intentioned as it was.
I managed a smile of thanks all the same.
Evan landed on my shoulder.
It was all I could do to keep my balance, so I didn’t turn when I waved my free hand in a farewell to the Knights. The other hand held my coat-wrapped demon arm.
I used my key to get through the door at the front, but stopped in the lobby.
I made a sharp left, then headed through the hallway.
The garage adjoined the building. Joel’s car, the same one I’d borrowed, was there. That meant he was home.
My bike was also there.
I really wanted to go for a ride. It would be suicidal, given the local weather, but I really wanted to go.
I ran my hand along it. “Put a wind rune on you, maybe? Or maybe I can dig up something like a balance rune?”
“You’re talking to the motorcycle?” Evan asked.
I’d nearly forgotten about him.
“Yeah,” I said. “My motorcycle.”
“You have a motorcycle?” he asked. The enthusiasm was so clear I couldn’t help but smile a little. It was like a perfect reflection of the little boy inside me who had first given me the push to consider the thing.
“I guess I’m introducing you to my life,” I said. “This is my bike, and this building is my home. I count many people in here as family.”
“Not by blood. But we’re good friends. Family supports, back each other up. Accept the inconveniences. Sometimes that means a mom wipes a baby’s ass, even though it’s gross and boring. Sometimes it means you give a brother-in-law a place to stay. Sometimes it’s just a listening ear you wouldn’t give to a friend, but you have to give to them because the bonds are that tight.”
“Yeah,” Evan said.
Fuck me. I was rambling, and I was probably making him miserable. He was whatever the opposite of an orphan was.
“Sorry,” I said.
“It doesn’t bother you?”
“It does. But it’s okay. It’s interesting to think about, and it makes me miss my parents. But not in a bad way.”
“That’s sort of what family is, isn’t it? It doesn’t always feel great, but that feeling of connection kind of helps fill a hole, doesn’t it?”
“Well, these guys backed me up when I needed it. They’re more family than my family-by-blood were.”
“Can they back you up now?”
“Maybe a little. But I can’t tell them about magic without putting them in danger.”
“Yeah,” I said. “The tour… apartment lobby. My landlord and good friend Joel’s apartment is down here on the ground floor.”
I limped to the elevator.
I’d come here for a reason. It was only dawning on me now what that reason was.
I needed more strength to go up against Conquest. This was it. Nourishing me. Building up the reserves I’d spent when I’d spilled my own blood and sacrificed a part of myself to revive Rose.
“Third floor, my apartment. A friend helped me get set up-”
I stopped short.
Said friend was there, sitting by my apartment door, back to the wall, legs crossed, phone in her lap.
“Stay out of sight a bit?” I asked.
A light flutter of wings, transformation into a ghost while midair, and Evan disappeared through the wall.
The flutter seemed to get her attention.
“Blake,” Alexis said. “Holy shit.”
“Hey,” I said. “What are you doing here?”
“Where the hell have you been?”
“The police arrested me. I thought they quizzed everyone I know.”
“I know,” she said. She climbed to her feet. “You’re bleeding?”
I looked down. I’d taken off my coat to wrap the arm, and my sweatshirt sleeves were brown and crusty with blood.
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I only kept looking down.
“Let me text Joel,” she said. “He’s been worried sick.”
I nodded. I wanted to say no, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak around the lump in my throat.
A part of me had believed that I’d come back to find only an eviction notice. That radiation of some sort might have caused me to lose my ties to friends and home.
“There. Are you okay?”
I shook my head a little. My voice came out hoarse with sudden emotion. “No.”
“You didn’t tell me it was that serious. Holy fuck. They framed you for murdering some kid?”
No doubt in her mind?
I’d been playing subtle mind-games with myself, falling into Duncan’s trap, believing that my friends might abandon me.
“Yeah,” I said. “They tried, anyway.”
She was closer now, looking me over.
“But your arms,” she said. She reached out, as if compelled, then stopped. “Can- can I see?”
I knew that the images wouldn’t line up, that they wouldn’t fit.
But I couldn’t say no. Not really.
She stuck her hands in her back pockets while I rolled up one sleeve. My right arm’s sleeve, so I could hold the jacket and demon arm without making the locket too obvious.
“Oh no,” she whispered.
I looked. The heads were attached, the images distorted, and the blood that had crusted over masked the colors.
But long cuts still marked the backs of each arm, and some, despite my efforts with glamour, intersected my tattoos.
“We can fix that,” she said.
“Was it police brutality?” she asked.
“It was just one of them that was a real bastard.”
She glanced at me, then at my apartment door. “Your apartment, they totaled it.”
“We put what we could back in place.”
I nodded again. “Thank you.”
I heard the elevator ding. Joel.
“Where have you been?” he asked.
Where had I been?
I’d had thoughts on want and need earlier. This was the flipside. I needed this, but I didn’t want it. The genuine caring about how I was doing.
I wasn’t sure how to answer the question.
“Trying to survive,” I said.
“People do crazy things for money,” Alexis said.
“Power more than money,” I said.
She nodded. Taking it at face value.
Taking me at face value.
“You look like hell,” Joel said. “Why are you bleeding?”
“Police did it,” Alexis said.
While Alexis got Joel up to speed, I stepped to one side and opened my apartment door.
Sure enough, I could see things out of place. Damage. My sanctuary disturbed. One of the closet doors had been taken off the roller mount, set to one side. Things in the closet were out of place. There were stacks of paper on the coffee table that were supposed to be in a box in the other room. Scattered by the police, no doubt, and set in place by my friends.
I needed to plan, to prepare, to get my ducks in a row and my weapons out and loaded. Whatever those weapons were supposed to be.
I needed to recharge my personal batteries.
I needed the emotional support, at a point when I felt lower than ever, and damn hopeless.
I needed to act, to help Rose, to help myself.
There wasn’t any clear path in front of me.
I thought of what I’d just been saying to Evan.
“Before, you were telling me that friendships didn’t have to be even. That sometimes they were lopsided.”
“Yeah. I was being hard on you. I didn’t realize you were in the middle of something this messy.”
“How do you know which side the scales should tip? When it’s lopsided, how do I know if I’m serving the friendship or serving myself at the expense of the friendship?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, but… trust your gut?”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“I need help,” I said.
“What kind of help?”
I leaned against the wall. I couldn’t look at them, so I looked the same way I had with the demon. “The selfish sort.”
“Be selfish if you need to,” he said.
The silence lingered.
“I’m in a bad place. So much worse than you can imagine. So I’ll start you off slow.”
“Evan!” I called out.
Evan appeared. Sparrow form, alighting on my reaching finger.
“Blake?” Alexis asked.
“This is the kid I was accused of murdering,” I said.
“Sure?” she said, sounding very unsure.
“The diagram taped around the apartment is a really shitty magic diagram, for protection,” I said.
“You’re worrying me.”
“You’ll be more worried when I’m done,” I said. “Can you call some of the others? I’ll explain what’s going on, I’ll suffer the consequences, but I’ll explain. Then, when some of my other friends arrive, you can decide if you want in.”