My senses were consumed by images of fire, the sound of screaming, and a six-foot-something brute of a man that looked more at home walking through the flames and wreckage than he had outside of it. The rags that bound him together were dark, the rest of him burned like it was made to, skin sizzling and popping like meat in the frying pan, but not being consumed.
The big hulking threats in the movies didn’t move fast. When the main characters were up against the three-hundred pound chainsaw-wielding maniacs, they could at least scramble away and outrun the motherfuckers. The Eye didn’t move that slow. Longer legs meant longer strides, he was standing and I was on the ground, and I was a very tired human, while he was some kind of otherworldly abomination.
Evan swooped low, between the Eye’s legs. Without looking, the Eye reached back, grabbing blindly at Evan. Evan was in the process of ascending, avoiding the burning wreck, and managed to escape both the grasping hand and the flames.
It was a horrible risk for a negligible effect, nearly getting caught, which would toast Evan and me, and the bird passing by while the Eye was mid-step didn’t even make the thing stumble. The grab at Evan was more of a delay than anything.
It was a delay I could use. My progress was impeded by the silhouettes of the rescuers and fleeing bystanders. They were only partially there, and the further I got from the Eye, the easier it was to fight through them.
I was able to get to my motorcycle. Getting it up off the ground was another thing. It wasn’t a big bike, but I wasn’t strong.
Evan appeared, giving the bike a bit of a nudge as he settled on the handlebars. It was the helping hand I needed.
I could feel the stinging warmth of the Eye on the back of my head and neck as he got closer.
Gunshots rang out. I could see the flashes. Fell stood by his car, driver’s door open, gun in hand. He emptied it at the Eye, and all but one shot hit.
Buying me a chance to get away.
I climbed on the bike.
Normally when riding a motorcycle, the engine needed to warm up first. Fuck up and move too soon, and the engine could sputter or die. With the Eye closing on me, the consequence would be me dying a sputtering death. I couldn’t even trust the temperature gauge.
Staying meant the same thing. Death.
I could only hope that the engine was still warm from the earlier ride, and that the ambient temperature wasn’t taking hold on the thing.
I was moving a moment later, stopping only long enough to give Tiff a chance to climb on. While she got in position, I looked back.
The Eye had shrugged off the bullets, but wasn’t giving chase. It remained near the flames. Reality continued to distort around it, alternating between showing glimpses of reality and the spirit world.
Distant sirens filtered into this world from the other, moving to the scene. The Eye was quick, but not fast enough to follow on foot.
He thinned out the border between our world and this one, freeing him to affect both.
But how had he found us?
As I rounded the corner, putting the Eye behind us, I saw more ghosts accumulating. Maybe it was better to say that I saw them more clearly. There were no silhouettes, no dark, faceless figures representing the people in the real world. These were ghosts, wisps, apparitions and specters. Where the silhouettes were faceless, the expressions on the faces of these guys were exaggerated, their features taken a step too far.
The ones who smiled smiled too wide, the angry expressions twisted their faces into something monstrous. The wounds that marked how they died were taken a step too far. A woman with black veins stretching around lower half of the face and throat. A man with a tumor grown wild, emaciated but for the fleshy lump that stood out from his sternum.
The Shepherd’s servants. Was he doing something to bring out their more unusual qualities?
Was he the one that was tracking us?
Each of these ghosts could be reporting back to him.
The car caught up to me. Fell was driving as recklessly as he had when he’d dropped me off with the Knights.
The ghosts all watched us as we streaked down the carless road. Macabre faces turned as we passed.
How many years had the Shepherd been active? How many people had died in Toronto in that span of time? How many of those deaths had been violent or painful enough to make an imprint in reality?
Did he have a mechanism to handle it, or did he simply do it full time? Collecting the echoes?
The number of ghosts didn’t decrease, even as minutes passed. If anything, they only got more numerous. I saw the same ghost twice, then three times. As if they were being moved ahead of us as we left them behind.
He was with us, even if we couldn’t see him.
I looked for a connection and didn’t find one. I couldn’t take my eyes off the road or the ghosts nearby to look up or behind us.
Fell drove in the incoming lane, pulling up to my left. I could see Alexis in the passenger seat. She was talking, saying something to Fell. Reporting on my condition, maybe.
The car abruptly slowed, dropping back from my left.
I could see why. Ghosts were streaking across the street, more like flashes of light than people. All towards one central point.
They congealed into a form. The Shepherd.
As the other ghosts had, he watched us, his head turning to track us.
He raised his staff-
We passed him. He disappeared behind us.
I turned a corner, and Fell turned to follow. Break from the pattern, maybe catch him off guard-
No such luck. More ghosts. More streaking lights. One or two passed through me. I could feel it, cold, flickers of emotion so brief I couldn’t pin them down or even react.
I wobbled a bit before righting myself. I heard Tiff yelp, a brief sound that the rush of wind tore from us.
I moved away from the point where the ghosts were converging.
It wasn’t the Shepherd making another fleeting appearance. It was a ghost.
A man, older. I couldn’t make out anything else.
We approached, then passed it. My focus went to the road, watching for potholes.
An explosion rocked the space behind us. My heart skipped a beat as the shockwave swept past us. I experienced a brief, paralyzing terror, a sense of something unfinished.
I wobbled more violently than before in the wake of it. I slowed, focusing on getting control.
There weren’t half as many ghosts on the sidewalks now. They watched as I steered the bike around. I checked over my shoulder, and I saw smoke rising from the point of detonation. It had images etched in it, the man’s face, repeated over and over.
Fell’s car slowed, continued forward in neutral, then stopped.
I huffed out a breath. I’d had moments where I’d worked so hard I’d been out of breath, and I’d tried to suppress it instead of make a lot of noise panting and recovering.
This was like that. It came with a general feeling of unpleasantness, almost but not quite nausea. Throughout my entire body.
When I felt it starting to concentrate in my left hand, I fumbled with the clutch and slowed.
It got worse fast. Strength going out of my hand and arm. More nausea. A cold sweat.
My heart had skipped a beat, and it hadn’t started up again. Not properly.
I managed to stop the bike, but I didn’t get the kickstand down. We wobbled, and Tiff had to brace us with one leg to keep all three of us from tipping over. I leaned over the handlebars, gasping like a fish out of water.
Fuck me, this hurt. I felt like something heavy was sitting on my chest. Big and dense enough that the force of the crushing was enough to take the strength out of the rest of my body. The limbs couldn’t work if the core didn’t.
“Blake,” Tiff said. “The Eye, it’s at the end of the road.”
I closed my eyes, because absolute darkness was better than seeing spots and sparks across my field of vision.
“It hurts,” Evan said.
I forced my eyes open. I was breaking out in a sweat. All the little things your body did that pointed to something being very, very wrong. Evan was on the headlight, looking up at me. He was lopsided, and his little hop to one side was clumsy, obviously debilitated.
“That really sucked, whatever it was,” Tiff said. “Did it get you harder than it got us, little guy?”
“Got Blake most of all,” Evan said. “He’s really hurting.”
“Blake,” Tiff said. She got off the bike, holding it and me up, fumbled for far too long to get the kickstand down.
The ghosts around us were drawing closer. I heard the report of Fell’s gun. Shooting ghosts?
No. The Eye.
“They aren’t coming to help. I don’t know what to do.”
“I can’t leave him. If he falls over- can you go?”
“Can’t fly like this.”
“Hey!” Tiffany yelled. More sparks exploded across my field of vision at the loud noise.
I was deflating, getting weaker and more numb from moment to moment. My hands, head, and feet felt heavy. I’d bled myself out, but this was my heart giving out. When you died, the doctors used the moment the heart stopped to mark the time of death. This was… kind of backward. The heart had stopped, and now the rest of me was swiftly moving from ‘okay’ to ‘dead’.
“They’re occupied,” I heard Rose say. “Trying to stall the Eye and ward it off so it can’t follow.”
“Should I give him CPR?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. But CPR isn’t a fix. It’s something you do until better help comes along, and I don’t like the look of those things I’m sensing over there.”
“Ghosts,” Tiff said.
“We need a fast fix. Do you have something to cut yourself with?”
“Do it. Hold Blake’s hand… his right hand. Put the blood in his palm.”
Such an ignoble, anticlimactic way to go out.
“Yes, like that. In his palm.” Rose said. “This is my fault,”
I was only peripherally aware that she was touching my hand.
“I told Conquest that Blake was weak. That he’d been giving up too much blood, and he was tired. I didn’t know he’d bleed himself out in the prison, to get me back.”
“I think anyone could look at Blake and tell that he had problems,” Tiff said.
I could feel the moisture in my palm. It was surprisingly warm, when my hand felt so cold.
“I still hate that he’s using information I gave him against us. Blake’s fragile, and if we lose him, we lose this.”
“We lose, period.”
“Yeah,” Rose said. “That’s enough. Cover the cut. Close his hand. Ball it up…”
Tiff closed my hand into a fist. There wasn’t a lot of blood, but with my hand clenched as tight as it would go, it squeezed between my fingers. More warmth. When my hand felt nearly normal, it made its way up my arm.
“The ghosts are getting closer. The salt on the road is hampering them, but they’re finding their way through. He’s probably burning power to make it happen. You’re going to need to take action.”
“I’m not good with fighting,” Tiff said.
“Don’t look at it as fighting. Look, position his hand so it won’t open…”
I managed to raise my hand, clenching the fist, to show I could manage it on my own. The warmth was spreading through my upper arm to my shoulder, but my feet were almost completely gone, and my vision was going black, lost in a sea of sparks and blots.
“He can hold it up. Good. In his bag, there’s-”
“A book, some tools, twine-”
“Box of salt?”
“Get it out. Use the salt. Don’t worry about wasting it. Just dash it out.”
“Don’t worry. They’re more a force of nature than people. It’s like taking shelter from the rain. Or throwing salt on the sidewalk to prevent people from getting hurt later on.”
“Good. Like that. Stall, keep it up. I’m going to go help the others.”
The warmth in my arm and shoulder reached my heart, and things quickly returned to normal. I gasped, and this time the gasp was more like a breath of air after being underwater.
As my vision cleared, I could see how close the ghosts were getting. They staggered, left and then right, trying to find patches where the salt wasn’t as thick.
When they did stagger through, they visibly weakened, flickering and fraying.
Each one radiated a particular emotion or idea. If I didn’t feel one hundred percent yet, it was because they were radiating sickness and malaise, weakness and general pain. Even with the salt as a barrier, it was noticeable.
“I feel better. You feel better?” Evan asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks to Tiffany.”
Tiffany glanced back at me. Her smile was fleeting.
I fixed the kickstand, then stood.
Fell’s gun went off a few more times. The Eye was closing in.
I took the box of salt from Tiff. She stepped back until she was behind me.
“Evan, fly closer to the ground. Stir the salt into the air. Loop by the others, report back.”
A ghost with needles sticking out of it drew closer. I cast salt out. It was weak, crossing the salt already on the road, and the salt I used was enough to banish it. It wasn’t gone, but it was dissolved into its constituent echoes. Wisps, ectoplasm, flickers. Whatever snips and snails went into making a ghost on the fundamental level.
I dealt with another. I could feel how light the box was. This wasn’t a permanent solution. I glanced over my shoulder.
Especially not with him around.
“Evan just asked me to come back?”
“What’s holding us up?” I asked.
“Alexis had the same symptoms you did,” Rose said, from the motorcycle’s side mirror. “Ty’s helping her. Fell’s stalling.”
“Why her?” Tiff asked. “Blake’s weak, but Alexis…”
“I don’t know,” Rose said.
“I do,” I said. “Her dad had a heart problem. She used to always complain about the food she had to eat as a kid, because her mom made super healthy food with zero cholesterol.”
I threw salt to deal with another ghost. The needle ghost was already starting to reform, complete with transmitted bursts of desperation that was really fucking with my ability to stay calm and assess the situation.
“She always liked eating crap,” Tiff said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“And she smokes.”
“Yeah,” I said, again. “Shit, I hope she’s okay.”
“Even if she makes it through this…”
“She will,” Rose said.
Evan returned, flying close to the ground. He wasn’t flying fast, but snow and salt were stirred in his wake, and the ghosts retreated.
I took the chance to get on the bike. Tiff climbed on behind me.
I headed back to the others.
The Shepherd wasn’t far from the Eye, standing by a corner, ready to duck behind cover if Fell pointed the gun his way.
The Eye had stopped.
Fell, with his focus on the targets and the encroaching ghosts, wasn’t seeing what the Eye was doing while it was stopped.
The hood of his car was smoking.
Ty and Alexis were in the vehicle, Alexis lying on the back seat, Ty squeezed in between the two front seats, holding her hand.
I knew why. I knew what they were doing, but I still felt a little uncomfortable seeing it.
“Fell!” I shouted.
“What!?” he called out. He didn’t even turn. He changed targets, aiming at the Shepherd.
The Shepherd ducked out of the way. By some unseen signal, the ghosts around us drew closer.
I shook the box, using the last of the salt to drive some ghosts back.
The nearest were half a block away, but I could still feel them, and it was only a matter of a minute or two before they got close enough.
“You’re okay?” Fell called out.
“Fake heart attacks suck balls, but they’re still fake, I’m feeling better every second,” I said. “The Eye is cooking your car.”
He looked. “Motherfucker.”
“Alexis seems okay. We should go.”
When he turned, though, the ghosts took that as a cue. They approached, a little more quick and intense than before.
“Out of salt,” I said, as Fell climbed into the car. Ty moved out of the way, climbing into the passenger seat.
“Me too,” Fell said. “Used most of the stuff I had in the back to make a barrier, keep the Eye back.”
“There’s a fuckton of salt on the road,” I said. “It’s not stopping the ghosts like it should.”
“Shepherd’s implement is the shepherd’s crook. Guides things,” Fell said. “Normal rules don’t apply for his ghosts.”
“Why is the Eye not approaching?”
“I bound it, kind of. It won’t hold.”
He slammed the car door. I saw the headlights flare as the engine started, then stopped short. Smoke billowed from the hood.
The ghosts were getting closer.
Fell rolled the window down. The car was old, and he had to manually crank a handle to roll it down.
“Slow them down,” he ordered.
“How? No salt.”
“Figure it out!”
He scrawled something on the dash in chalk, tried the car again. It didn’t start up.
Evan swooped by the ghosts. More snow and salt moved, a delay.
“I need something more,” I said.
“I’m trying to concentrate, Thorburn,” Fell said.
“This isn’t working. We need a tool. Do you have anything?”
“Can’t help you,” he barked out. He adjusted the rune, another failure to start.
“The Eye is making it worse faster than you’re making it better,” Rose said. “Leave the car?”
“I don’t need one of you fucking up my concentration, let alone the two!” Fell shouted. “Without the car, we won’t all be able to keep running! They will catch us! They don’t ever stop.”
I looked at the Eye of the Storm. It stood there, still, still burning in places from the fire earlier, eye glowing.
“Give me that powder?” I asked.
Fell glanced at me, annoyed, then grabbed a handful from his coat. He slapped it down into my hand.
I turned the bike around and accelerated, lurching as Tiff moved the wrong way and we went less than gracefully into the turn. I looped around the back of the car, towards the Eye, and I let the powder trail from my hand as I went. A thin cloud of Fell’s dust between the car and the Eye.
Trying to break the connection. A line of power to block the flow of things.
The effect was negligible. The car didn’t suddenly start, the smoke still billowed.
I used what remained to bar the path of the nearest group of ghosts. It was weak at best.
A woman-ghost screamed at me. Not the usual sort of scream, but the kind of howl that threw all caution and social grace to the wind. The kind that usually preceded an accident.
Fell’s powder seemed to dampen the effect. Pain still rocked through me, and Tiff slipped, hurling herself forward, her chin driving into my shoulder.
This was messy, stupid, and we were dealing with nigh-on inevitable forces. An immortal abomination and a whole lot of things intrinsically linked to death, which was about as inevitable as it got.
The spirits were crowded at the sidewalk, to the point that they were shoulder to shoulder. Only the strongest seemed able to make it over what was very hostile terrain to them. It was good we only had a few to deal with, it sucked that they were as potent as they were.
“Didn’t work!” I called out, as I pulled up to the passenger window.
“I know it didn’t work!” Fell shouted.
It was Rose who spoke, “How’s he doing this? The Shepherd?”
“I asked myself the same question,” I said.
“Still concentrating!” Fell said. His rune was now sprawled almost all the way across the dash. Interconnecting images.
“He’s got to have a weakness,” Rose said. “You don’t control this many Others this easily, even if they’re weak ghosts.”
The ghosts drew nearer, and as they did, they lowered our level of functioning. Distraction, disorientation, pain, panic, all flashing through our minds. It only ratcheted up the level of panic.
I could see Fell struggling, his hand shaking as he drew one line, licked his thumb to erase it, and drew it again.
“Uneasy departed!” Rose called out. She spoke from the car and bike mirrors. “In the name of the Thorburn Bloodline, with all the respect and history that name commands, I order you to cease!”
The ghosts around us stopped in their tracks, no longer drifting left and right to navigate a path. They were still, and the area was silent.
One even disappeared, frayed and worn enough that it couldn’t stand up to simple words.
“Was worth a try,” Rose said.
“It worked,” I said.
“It was still worth a try,” Ty said. “Keep going!”
But the Shepherd did something, eliciting a loud clack, and the ghosts resumed their movement.
“Stop!” Rose commanded.
They didn’t listen this time.
“Almost,” Fell said. “Almost done.”
I looked at the engine. If someone had raised the hood to reveal that the engine block was literally on fire, I wouldn’t have been surprised.
What the fuck was he doing?
“By the name of the Thorburns, by my ancestors, greater than me, I order to to be still!” Rose cried out.
I could see the momentary hesitation, as if the spirits were people who’d stepped out of an air conditioned house into oppressive heat, but they resumed movement all the same.
“Different tack,” I said.
“Okay,’ Rose said.
“What you did when you tried to bind the Abstract-”
“I know!” she said.
The vibration of my bike shifted. I looked down.
The temperature gauge was rising.
The Eye had set his sights on me.
“Four times, I will bid you to throw off the shackles your master has used to bind you!” Rose called out. “Let this be the first, spirits! I, Rose Thorburn, urge you to rebuke him!”
The Shepherd wasted no time. He dismissed the spirits. One by one, each ghost that that might have been in earshot disappeared. It only left one.
An apparent cancer victim. Bald, shirtless, with only pyjama bottoms on, staring at the ground.
Light began to streak towards it. Ghosts all being used to supercharge this one. To get it to explode, and visit us with it’s essence and means of death.
“For the second time, I rebuke you! Let my words have more power for the repeating!”
It’s not going to work fast enough.
The effect the spirits had on us was ratcheting up. I was hurting everywhere, but they were phantom pains. I felt like shit, but it was phantom feelings at play.
I knew because my feelings tended to hit me harder, a little more unforgiving.
I’d wanted to experience the kind of anger I could fight through and use it to fight harder.
This was as close as I’d get.
“Ty,” I said. “Sword.”
“Yeah,” I said.
He had to twist around and reach down to the floor of the car behind the driver’s seat to grab it. He maneuvered it through the window.
“Tiff, off. Ride in the car.”
I pulled off my backpack and turned it around. Sword lying across my lap, salt-box over the handle so I didn’t gouge my thigh, my backpack at my chest instead of my back, pressing the flat of the blade down against my thighs as I leaned forward, hands on the handlebars.
“Look after Alexis,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
The moment she was off, I revved up and peeled out. I suspected Alexis had been in the middle of saying something when I left. If she had, I didn’t hear it.
It was cold as fuck, the snow had soaked my coat and clothes from the outside in, cold sweat had soaked them from the inside out, and the wind just cut straight through it to bite deep into me.
I passed the line that Fell had described. Salt plus snow to make something approximating water. Water to oppose the Eye of the Storm, or so I supposed. Salt plus water?
The moment I passed the line, my bike kicked. More smoke, more complaints from the engine.
“Evan!” I shouted. “Guide me!”
“Yeah!” he cried out, a small voice lost in the rush of wind.
I turned, steep, and steered right for the alley where the Shepherd was taking cover.
I shifted the position of the sword with one hand, steered with the other, and sailed within a hair of the Shepherd, blade’s point sticking out.
A jouster’s run, in a way.
I stopped at the far end of the alley and turned around. I nearly lost the sword as it came close to slipping from my lap in the midst of my using the clutch, but I caught it and fixed the position.
The Shepherd had turned into a ghost. Or adopted ghostly defenses for himself. Untouched, untouchable in the conventional sense.
Ghosts were emerging from the walls. Slower ones, less material.
The Eye was closer to the mouth of the alley, and a newspaper box was blazing nearby. I suspected that it could and would combust at the worst possible time.
It was narrow, as escape routes went.
Rose made her third bid, and the ghosts hesitated. The Shepherd struck the wall with his staff, and the ghosts surged forward again.
Low quality, high quantity bindings, it seemed.
“Another go. Help keep the way clear,” I said.
“Yep!” Evan said.
My engine popped. More smoke.
The Eye would pay for messing with my bike.
But first, the Shepherd would pay for fucking with my friends.
I left the sword the way it was, shifted gears, then raced for the mouth of the alley.
One hand on the sword, again, and another jousting run. This time with the Shepherd to my left, the blade’s point to my right. I didn’t look at him. My eyes were on the exit.
He moved his crook, apparently planning something. To catch me around the throat as I passed, possibly.
He wasn’t watching for the sword’s pommel. It was only when I stuck it out that he saw what I was doing. I’d focused on the exit only to mislead.
There was magic, and there were magic tricks. Sleight of hand.
He turned ghostly. It didn’t help that much. I still had the box of salt over the handle, and even largely empty, there were trace amounts of salt inside. Enough to fuck with a ghost.
Enough to fuck with him.
I felt the impact this time, and came very close to both crashing the bike or having the sword’s blade lever over to cut me in the side. I managed to just barely avoid both.
He felt it too, and he folded over. A punch in the gut at thirty kilometers an hour.
Ghosts disappeared, one by one. Ones on and around the car, on the sidewalk, and elsewhere. I couldn’t say whether it was Rose’s words or my actions that had done it, but we’d banished them.
Rather than risk trying to slip by the Eye and the burning box, I hurried to turn around, riding over and past the fallen Shepherd’s spectral body, hoping there was salt on the tires.
No such luck, as far as I could tell. He was dissolving much as the other banished ghosts had. He, too, would reappear somehow. If I’d had more salt, and if the Eye hadn’t been in the immediate area, I might have tried to bind or disrupt him. But I didn’t, and the Eye was close enough to get in the way.
I rode through the alley, exiting the far end.
“They’re going,” Rose said. She was on the back of my bike, looking at me through the side-view mirror.
How did that even work? Was there someone on the bike in her version of the world, or was it moving without a rider?
I put the questions out of my mind.
“Yeah, ghosts are gone,” I said, raising my voice to be heard over the wind. Easier than it might have been, because I was slowing down to turn the corner.
“I meant Fell and your cabal. They’re moving. The Eye is following you, but it’s slow.”
“Good. Good job,” I said.
There was no response. She’d already moved on.
I rode down the empty street, parallel with the others. Evan moved forward to the headlight, perched there, but with his wings spread.
Had we been able to hear each other, I might have asked if he was lending his abilities to our escape from the Eye, or if he was just doing it because he enjoyed it.
I hadn’t been exercising, exactly, but I was still exhausted when we finally managed to stop.
Fell did what he could to break the connections between us and the others. He set up a few more stick figures and partially masked them, to confuse the trail.
In the end, we pulled into a garage, because Fell loved his car and I loved my bike, and we wouldn’t be able to get by if either one broke down.
Rust, frayed wires, melted insulation…
I’d taken extensive classes on maintaining a car or a bike. When I set to work repairing some of the damage, I sensed a grudging respect from him.
“You’re an asshole, Thorburn, for dragging me into this,” Fell said, banishing the idea from my head.
“I’m sorry,” I said. My eyes fell on Alexis. “I really am.”
“Guess that’s a wake up call,” Alexis said. “I can’t keep ignoring my heart, if I’m as vulnerable to a heart attack as Blake is when he’s this weak.”
“Not entirely a bad thing,” Ty said.
“No, it isn’t,” Alexis said. But she looked a little shaken.
“It isn’t, but… it kind of sucks when you have to grow up,” I said.
“Yeah,” Alexis said. “No more garbage food for me, I guess.”
I looked at Tiff. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not the type that can deal with pain or anger, or being scared,” she said, quiet.
“You did good,” I told her.
“I don’t, um, I don’t want to be good at it?”
“You mean you don’t want to fight?”
“Yeah,” I said. I sighed.
“The original plan stands?” Fell asked.
“She should stay here, then. Secure building, I can secure it further, and if we need to fall back to a location, we fall back here.”
“I don’t want to be alone in the middle of all of this,” Tiff said. “I’ll go crazy, thinking every sound is something dangerous.”
“Rose and I will stay here for the time being,” I said. “Take it easy, rest, catch your breath, and we’ll fix up the vehicles. Fell, Ty and Alexis can secure another area to retreat to.”
“Then what?” Rose asked.
“Then… well, we’re going to need to hash out a plan of attack.”
“If we run into the Eye and the Shepherd again, we’ll need firepower,” she said.
“Yeah,” I agreed.
“We could let Pauz loose. I know we couldn’t do it back there, but…”
“But it’s dangerous,” I said. “I’m not saying no. I’m saying… we need to be careful. Let’s talk it over when I don’t have my hands full.”
“Yeah,” Rose said.
I applied electrical tape to the wires I could salvage. Or spirit-world electrical tape, as it happened.
I had so many questions about the relation between this world and that one, but the only person present who might have been able to answer was Fell, and Fell was being a grouch, more than the usual.
When I crossed to the workbench to see what might be available, Evan was there, perched on the toolbox lid, looking down at the Hyena’s sword.
“It’s smiling,” he said.
I looked. Sure enough, the engraved face was leering in a fanged smile at the hilt.
“It liked the violence, probably,” I said.
“I hate it,” he said. “I hate it and I can’t do anything to it. I can’t hurt it or make it stop smiling.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.”
“If I could crap on it, I would. See if it smiled when I dropped a big white and black blob on its face. But I can’t crap.”
“You probably could if you ate something,” I said.
“Really?” he said, with a note of hope. Then he changed moods, “That would take too long.”
“If it’s any consolation, goblins are messed up enough that they would probably enjoy it.”
He made a small, frustrated sound, fluttered down to the sword, and pecked at its eye a few times. When that didn’t do anything, he muttered, “Whatever,” and flew away.
“You’re so blasé,” Alexis commented.
“You, yeah. You’ve totally adapted to this.”
“Barely, if at all,” I said. I found the wire snips and started stripping the most damaged wires of insulation.
“You’re talking to a bird about a smiling sword not twenty minutes after we almost died.“
“Numb more than blasé, I think.”
“You’re rolling with this in a way I couldn’t imagine myself doing if I had a year.”
“Are you regretting the choice? Getting on board?”
“You don’t have to answer. Having to tell the truth doesn’t mean you have to respond to every question.”
“Yes?” she said, as if unsure. “Yes, I regret getting into this. I’m scared, and I’ve sort of made a point of not being scared for my own welfare, the past few years.”
“Yeah,” I said. Alexis had always focused more on the welfare of others than on herself. She had been thrown into the deep end of an awfully big, deep pool, and it didn’t help that she was out of her element, being scared on her own behalf.
“But I don’t regret helping you,” she said. “Or, I don’t regret doing this to help you… even if I’m not sure what I’m doing, yet.”
“It’ll take time,” I said. “Get grounded. Fell will take you somewhere, you do what he says, set up defenses.”
“I’m not a strategist,” she said, “But you don’t win fights just by running away and defending.”
I saw a motion out of the corner of my eye. Ty, bobbing his head in agreement. Tiff sat on the bumper of Fell’s car, just beside him, watching Alexis and me, listening.
“Not normally,” I said. “This fight? I think we can. In fact, I’m more confident than I was.”
That had their attention. Fell shifted position, still ducked under the hood of his car, but keeping an eye on me too.
“The Lord of Toronto is an incarnation. He’s… I don’t want to say his name, but you know what it is. C-word. He’s… the occupying tyrant, ruin, subjugation, the victor ruling over the defeated. Look at the word, at what it means. There’s the past tense and the present. He’s drawing power from past victories where he utterly trampled the loser. We can’t do much about that, except to take away the trophies and subvert the win.”
“My father wrote a great deal on this subject,” Fell said.
“Yeah. Well, there’s the present tense too. C-word in progress. So long as we’re defying him, keeping our spirits up, staying focused, we’re winning. We’re making it so he can’t be that. He can’t be C-word in progress if we’re even or if we’re winning. We can ride this out. I’m betting that if we do, it’ll make him hurt, on some fundamental level. He’ll react to it, and he’ll get impatient.”
“Even if he does,” Fell said, “We don’t have the forces to capitalize on any mistakes.”
“We can get them. Or we work out a situation where we don’t need them,” I said.
“It sounds thin,” Fell said. “Too many enemies on the board here.”
“It is thin,” I said. “But it’s a way through. More importantly, it’s a way through that we can pursue, with the people and forces we have here. We seize territories, just like this. We keep moving. Maybe after Alexis and Ty take over some other spot, we leave this behind, some big fuck you bit of graffiti on the wall to lay claim to the space. Take territory from under his nose.”
“Not much territory,” Ty said.
“No,” I said, “It’s very little in the grand scheme of it all. Thing is… Laird there once compared himself to America, and Conquest isn’t so different. If someone invaded the States and seized a small town, it wouldn’t be much in terms of square footage or overall population, but you can bet the Americans would be pissed.”
“Tell you what,” Fell said. “You’re thinking along the same lines my dad did. Why don’t I grab some of his work while I drop these guys off.”
“Sure,” I said. “I’m actually kind of itching to read something, so to speak. Rose is the only one with free access to our library right now.”
“Right,” he said. “You have wire cutters? My battery’s fucked.”
“Wire cutters,” I said, “Yeah.”
From planning to the practical.
Movement stirred me from sleep. I wasn’t sure when I’d drifted off, or even when I’d taken a seat by the wall, but I had.
Alexis was standing, and in the doing, she was jostling Tiff, who sat next to me.
I could dimly remember the bit from before we’d fallen asleep. I’d finished fixing up the bike as much as I could, and Fell had been only partially done, giving me only a glare in answer when I offered help. I’d seated myself against the wall, offering some murmured words of reassurance to Tiff, who had been uneasy even in sleep. When Tiff had leaned over, resting her head on my shoulder, I’d stayed where I was.
There were things I’d wanted to do, preparations to make, but… fuck it, I hadn’t wanted to disturb her sleep. I’d fucked up her life enough as it was.
Joel had told me to be selfish sometimes, and I’d listened. I kind of regretted that now.
Somewhere along the line, sitting still, exhausted enough to not care about the immediate presence of another person in my personal space, I’d joined her in dozing off.
Now Alexis was heading out. Ty and Fell were already in the car.
Alexis raised her hand in a wave. I raised mine.
The car moved on, leaving on Tiff and I in the dark garage.
A good ten minutes passed, my mind whirling, trying to piece together events.
Tiff stirred, then mumbled, “sorry.”
“It’s okay,” I said.
“‘Lexis said you don’t like touching,” she mumbled, barely understandable.
She moved her head away.
I took that as my cue to rise.
Evan was on the workbench, looking down at the sword. He looked up at me as I passed.
“Tell her where I am if she wakes up?”
I headed into the back office, searching the space.
I found Rose in the women’s bathroom.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
She was silent.
“Are we still… in a bad place?”
“No. Yes. Kind of.”
“Aren’t you guaranteed to lie if you answer like that?”
“I’m telling the truth. All three are true.”
“Blake… I’m scared as fuck. I’m paralyzed, trapped, and being caught by Conquest, made to talk, you constantly doing stuff when I’m not there… I’m helpless.”
“I know,” I said.
“I know more than you think,” I said.
“Blake… you need me strong, and I need me strong.”
She moved a book so I could see it through the mirror. A black cover.
“I want to summon something.”