Dinner simmered on the stove, the pot lid didn’t match the pot a hundred percent, and the rattling was a constant background noise.
Everyone was gathered in my living room, waiting for me to speak.
I had an impulse to drive them out. It was dumb, running contrary to things I’d decided, said, and done before.
I was tired, and a part of me was used to being alone, even as I paradoxically craved companionship. I still felt raw where the memories had brought memories back to the surface. The discrepancies and false notes in the memories Conquest had subjected me to made it worse, if anything, as my mind itched to resolve and compare notes, even as my heart didn’t want to go anywhere near that stuff.
“So,” I said, “Alexis, Ty, maybe even Tiff, this might a moment that your entire life has been leading up to.”
“All moments are moments our entire life has been leading up to,” Ty said.
“I know,” I said. I had to suppress a sigh. “But I wanted to be dramatic and clever, and there aren’t many ways to do that without lying.”
“Keep going, Blake,” Alexis urged me.
“You’ve gone to a lot of galleries, you’ve done your own art. You’ve offered the critiques for good ideas and bad ones, and you’ve trained yourself to interpret.”
“You need the power of bullshit interpretations?” Ty asked.
“Yeah, that’s basically it,” I said. I picked up the Hyena by the pommel, then stabbed it into the coffee table, one finger resting on it to keep it from falling over and gouging the surface further. “You’ve each read the basics regarding implements. Symbolic meanings and interpretations go a long way. Here, I have the Hyena’s corpse. I’m considering it for an implement. Anything you could say, positive or negative, would be a help.”
“It’s metal,” Alexis said.
Ty groaned. “No puns.”
“No pun intended. You could put this on an album cover for some rock band or other, and it wouldn’t look out of place at all. If I had to say… I don’t think it suits you from an aesthetic perspective.”
I nodded. “Thanks, that’s the kind of thing I need to hear. That’s not as minor as it sounds.”
“Maggie knows about goblins, doesn’t she?” Tiff asked.
“I do. Goblin sects have traditions,” Maggie said. “Taking the form of a weapon started off, if I remember right, when goblin warlords dueled the toughest bastards on the battlefield, and offered a choice between servitude or death. But even bound goblins wanted a chance at shedding some blood and furthering their reputation, especially when the binding was short-term. Becoming a weapon became a way to achieve that, while the conquering goblin got a symbol of victory, something he could hold in the air to convince the defeated goblin’s followers to follow him.”
I’d already read something on the subject when I’d been considering the sword as an implement. I waited while my friends quizzed her.
“Why the spikes on the handle?”
“That’s kind of a fudge-you,” Maggie said. “Except with more colorful language. A grudging sort of surrender, where using your power and reputation costs the victor something. Failing to acknowledge the grudging surrender means bleeding yourself, the goblin drinks the blood, and can, given a few decades, drink up enough to buck the bondage and get free.”
“Is that a risk now?” Tiff asked.
“No,” Maggie said. “The goblin is dead. The artifact remains, and it’s, I guess, pretty mundane now. Want to file off the spikes? Might lose authenticity, but you could.”
“Maybe,” I said.
Alexis leaned forward, looking closer at the sword. “What does it mean, then, if you’re carrying something that has a metaphorical ‘fuck you’ as part of the design?”
“Could mean something bad,” I said. “Could mean I don’t give a damn what others think, I’m moving forward all the same.”
“Could mean both,” Alexis said.
“What do you want it to mean?” Alexis asked.
“That’s a loaded question,” I said, “One I was hoping to answer later, so I didn’t color your impressions.”
“Trust us and say it anyway.”
“I look at it, and I think of one time when I acted to better the world and I did. Undeniably, even. I think of victory, and I think I could maybe achieve more victories. But it’s not just about me,” I said.
“Other people will have their own impressions,” Alexis said.
“Implements are supposed to be badges,” I said. “When I talked to the lawyers, I was told that the various choices we make here represent broader questions. The familiar question is about who we want to associate with, our sphere. In the books, the case studies and examples tell us about practitioners who decided to live among Others, eschewing human contact and relationships. There were people who fucked up, and cut themselves off from everything, outside of the master-familiar bond. Laird picked something that could be largely hidden, that wouldn’t interfere with family or career – a familiar that was content to be a watch a good portion of the time.”
There were a few nods.
I looked down. “The lawyer strongly suggested I take something powerful as a familiar, something ugly, and ignore the fact that I’d have to live with its company for the rest of my life. I took Evan instead.”
“Damn straight,” Evan said.
“Felt right,” I said.
“What about this?” Alexis asked. “Does this feel right?”
I grabbed the sword, positioning my fingers not so I could wield it, but so I could hold it, each finger resting between spikes.
“I’m not as sure,” I said.
“Maybe this isn’t the path you want to take?” she prodded.
“I think the lawyer was wrong about my choice of familiar. I’ve walked a fine line, getting further away from being me, and having a good companion, having you guys, it’s a way to hold on to myself. Connections. But I’m not so sure she’s wrong about my need to grab power sooner than later.”
“Do you want to compromise?” Alexis asked.
“Yes,” Rose said, before I could answer.
She was reflected in the window, and it was dark enough out that the image was clear. She sat in the mirror-world version of my living room, alone, surrounded by stacks of books.
“That’s not your call,” Alexis said.
“Yeah, actually, it is,” Rose replied. “I’m attached to him, and his decisions affect me.”
“Let’s not get into this,” I said. “Let’s just say that Rose’s opinion counts for an awful lot here, and she thinks I should compromise.”
“Thank you,” Rose said. “That’s all I wanted to put out there.”
“I think you shouldn’t,” Alexis said. “Something about this feels… wrong.”
“What I was saying before, about the familiar and the meaning of the decision? It applies here. Choosing an implement means deciding the one tool you’ll define yourself by for the rest of your life. That adage, ‘if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail?’ I think that holds true with implements. This is a kind of commitment to a path in life, so maybe that’s what feels wrong. I’m committing to something… less than pleasant.”
“You’re committing to breaking swords?” Ty asked.
“I’m committing to stopping things like the Hyena. You don’t take an implement like this if you don’t plan on fighting, and continuing to fight for a long time.”
“One of the example implements in the book was a sword, wasn’t it?” Tiff asked.
“Yeah,” I said. I kept my mouth shut, rather than volunteer more that could color their impressions.
“This isn’t a sword though,” Ty said. “It’s a broken sword. The handle is almost longer than the remaining bit of blade.”
I nodded. He’d basically said what I was going to say before I stopped myself.
“An icon or symbol,” Tiff said.
“Yeah,” Ty replied. “I’m not sure if I like the implications. A sword’s a phallic symbol, right? The equivalent of great gleaming steel penis. The bigger the sword, the more they think you’re overcompensating. And a broken sword? I’ll be blunt. You shouldn’t define yourself like that.”
It wasn’t that he was being hurtful. He was, but it was the kind of hurt I had to trust to those close to me to provide. That any of us did. The sort of truth that one didn’t want to hear. The sort of truth, even, that one might not immediately appreciate, that could test the friendship.
“What are you thinking?” Alexis asked.
“It would be a lot easier if this was the answer,” I said.
“But it’s feeling less like that’s the case,” I said.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Can I butt in?” Rose asked.
I glanced her way.
“Books on shamans talk about the value of trophies. Powerful shamans wear the furs of defeated enemies, to retain a share of that enemy’s power. You can go pretty dark-side with that, wearing finger bones or dismembered body parts, on top of everything else, but you could also find some use in a trophy like the Hyena’s blade.”
“That bit that the Elder Sister said about you being tainted by Conquest?” I asked. “Talking about abusing your defeated enemies doesn’t help matters.”
“Using the Hyena was your idea before it was mine,” Rose retorted.
“Fair point,” I said.
“Some shamans specifically hunt monsters to get materials to make items with, infusing those items like you infused June’s hatchet. Right here, you’ve got something that could be powerful. Tricky, yes, but powerful. Tap into what the Hyena could do. Strength, durability, inspiring fear…”
“There’s the Conquest bit again,” Alexis commented.
Rose shot Alexis a glare, but Alexis was staring at the table, where the blade had gouged it.
“She’s not wrong. This is about me committing to a path,” I said. I touched a spike on the handle, “Putting myself in harm’s way… taking a violent path.”
“You said you wanted to stop monsters like that,” Evan said.
“I do,” I said. “Maybe we could do it without resorting to direct violence.”
“Oh,” Evan said. “Maybe. How?”
“Traps,” I said. “Thinking things through, being methodical…”
“How well has that gone in the past?” Rose asked.
“I trapped the Hyena,” I said, the words slipping out of my mouth before I realized the irony of the statement.
I was talking about not taking the Hyena. Taking a different path.
The problem with Rose and I being so similar was that we thought in similar ways. I could see her level stare, as if she were seeing straight through to what I was thinking.
“I guess I’ve got a choice,” I said, before she could make a point of it. “Do I want to take this path, or do I want to leave it for a future date?”
Assuming I have a future.
The thought butted its way into my mind. I very nearly said it out loud, but I didn’t want to drive that home for my friends.
“The Hyena wounded spirits,” Rose said. “It left scars on them. If you tap into that, you could do the same with your workings.”
I shook my head.
Not selling me there.
“Okay,” Rose said, “Fine. Let’s assume you don’t want to go down this route. When and where do you make your next grab for power? Do you want to establish a demesne?”
“No,” I said. “No, it’s… god, I hate that idea.”
“Why?” Rose asked.
“Because… the big life decisions. A familiar represents the people you want to be around, choosing an implement is like choosing a career, and a demesne is where you want to be. I can’t even articulate it, but I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to be in Jacob’s bell. Following through on what I promised Evan? That’s something else. I can do that in, I dunno, Nova Scotia, or British Columbia, or New Zealand, you know? But even talking about this, I feel-”
I touched my heart.
“-I feel like I could panic. Like I’m making some decision and I’ll never get away from this, if I confine myself to one place.”
“Like I’m confined?” Rose asked.
“You know what I mean,” I said. “You can still explore. I know it’s not ideal, it’s fucked, and it’s even unpleasant, being shackled to me and the house, but we have leeway… but maybe, yeah, maybe like you’re confined.”
“You can understand my problem?” she asked. “This isn’t smart, throwing away ideas out of hand. Getting me out of here happens in one of two ways. Either you get power, which a demesnes or a strong implement would help with…”
“…Or I die,” I said.
There was a chill in the room.
“No dying,” Evan said.
“We’re going to do our best to avoid dying,” I echoed him. “I raised the question of using the Hyena because I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea. The negatives are adding up, and together they’re outweighing the potential positives.”
“Do you have other ideas for implements?” Rose asked.
I shook my head. “I’ve thought about tools, something like the hatchet, but a mallet or something. I’m looking for something that… how did you put it, Maggie?”
“When I asked about your implement?”
She drew and flourished her athame with a measure of skill that suggested an easy sort of familiarity with the tool. “It’s not a weapon, exactly, it’s something that you use to deliver the coup de grace once you’ve got your opponent.”
“Not that,” I said.
“It fits me? It resonates with me?”
She tossed the stylized knife into the air, then caught the handle, sheathing it in the same motion.
“I might feel different if I had my hands on stuff, but I don’t. All I can say is that the ideas don’t resonate with me.”
“This does, or did?” Ty asked.
“A bit,” I said. “It fits, but handcuffs can fit too, and they aren’t necessarily something I’d want to wear every day.”
“I know a few people who would disagree,” Ty said.
“So we’re settled, then?” Alexis asked.
I ran my finger along the Hyena’s handle.
“I’ll do without,” I decided. “I’m not making the call when I feel this ambivalent, and not wanting this as an implement doesn’t mean I can’t get some use out of it. It’s still a possible trophy, and I could get something out of it.”
“Wait, Maggie, you don’t have any commentary?” Rose asked Maggie. “I thought you’d push for the Hyena.”
“Nah,” Maggie said. “I’ve dealt with goblins for a while. I’ve seen how bad they get when they’re bad. If he wanted to go for it, I’d back him up. If he wanted to go for it. But I’m not a dumb- I’m not stupid. I’m not going to force the issue. I recommend you do the same.”
“Okay,” I said, grabbing the broken blade. “That’s off the table.”
Rose spoke, quiet, “It’d be nice if we weren’t waiting for all hell to break loose before making the tough calls on this sort of thing.”
“We discussed it,” I said. “It’s good. In the heat of the moment, I might have gone ahead with it.”
“I still want us to be stronger,” Rose said. “You get that, right?
I nodded slowly. “Can you find that book on shamanism? We have other stuff to get to in the next few hours, but I’d like to see how to draw out some power from this thing. Might even be useful if I get something like the Stonehenge bracelet, again.”
“Sure,” Rose said.
“Everyone has something to read?” I asked. “You guys know what your jobs are in the next, uh, sixteen hours?”
There were nods. I looked at Maggie, “And you’re okay for now? You don’t need to get back?”
“I’m putting it off,” she said.
“Can you?” I asked. “If I remember right, you promised your parents you’d attend school…”
“School’s out,” Ty said.
I slapped my forehead. “Right.”
“I’ve got elbow room,” Maggie said. “I want to make the most of it.”
“If you say so,” I said. “You helped out, I owe you.”
“Let’s eat, then,” I said. “Sleep, then break away, do what you need to do. We’re all in top condition tomorrow, or we don’t do this. Above all, we do this smart.”
“With a lot of light and fire,” Ty said.
I had to wonder if the first hunters felt this kind of trepidation. How often did a person experience this quiet kind of terror?
The hunter knew where the wild beast rested, though he would be flying blind when he crossed the threshold and entered the lion’s den. The hunter knew that he was outclassed in strength, in toughness, and in size.
All the hunter had were the piecemeal tools they’d been able to put together.
Floor plans loosely sketched out, displayed on Ty’s laptop. We’d checked the compass points and the point and time of sunrise and sunset, to judge when we’d have the most light filtering through the windows.
Rose had Corvidae with her, which I wasn’t so happy with, but Corvidae was another body on her side, and the demon had already attacked her there.
The other Others were broken and slain. If the energies that drove them were strong enough, they might recuperate and make themselves available to the next summoner, to fulfill the terms of the bindings that had been placed on them, or happy to have a chance to feast on whatever energies it was that drove them. The Tallowman was one likely possibility for resurrection. Coming back was his schtick. The Bloody Mary? Maybe less certain.
The laptop sat on the dashboard, and the car was off. Three of us gathered nearby to get a sense of what was where, and to discuss placement.
The Knights had brought two trucks, and Ty was helping Nick unload gear. Halogen lights on stands, a generator, and red plastic gas jugs.
I wanted to say it was being carried out with a military precision, but it wasn’t. We were disciplined, entirely serious and focused, but we were less than efficient. In too many cases, I saw people standing around looking for something to do, while there was stuff to be unloaded or set in place.
One halogen light for each ground floor window. The sun would be pouring in through several windows and the hole in the roof.
Nick’s son approached me, handing me a plastic bag with a smiling worm wrapped around a hook.
I fished out three flare guns, cast in bright orange plastic, vacuum-wrapped in plastic.
I slipped one into the leather package I’d made for June. Not exactly a good fit, but it would stay in place.
“Lights are clean,” Rose said. “Not reflective enough for me to go inside the glass.”
I frowned, “That’ll have to do. I wish there were more definite points in the midst of all this.”
“Nothing’s definite in life,” Nick said, behind me. He was rummaging through bags. Bottles of water, thick gloves, and a mask.
“That’s right,” Maggie said. She was standing with her back to the car and the factory both, bundled up, not even willing to look in the general direction of the factory. She kept talking, injecting false confidence into her voice. “If it was easy to puzzle them out, humans would have worked it all out a long time ago. But no, you wind up with stuff like this.”
Stuff like this.
“Not doing a lot to help my confidence,” I said.
“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Maggie said. “Maybe you should reconsider.”
“But what happens then?” I asked. “How many years or decades is it before someone else makes a genuine attempt at stopping this thing? Everything I’ve read on demons suggests they’re a rot that eats at reality. Things become worse. A bite here and there, a chunk elsewhere, a major loss somewhere else entirely.”
“I like you, Thorburn,” she said. “Not like-like, though I wouldn’t mind, if you didn’t-“
She paused long enough to leave me thoroughly startled, but continued on, casual, like she was talking about the weather, “But I think you’re interesting, at the very least. The world might even be a better place with you in it, and there isn’t enough of that these days.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“So why is it your job? Why are you going in there alone?”
“Isn’t it my job because I’m the only person stupid enough to do it?” I asked.
Another car pulled up, stopping between Nick’s truck and Joel’s car. The trees blocked the view of the factory from here.
“I can’t stay for this,” she said.
“Okay,” I said.
“I’m not going to wish you good luck. I don’t see the point. I don’t have anything to give you that would make a difference, that I’m willing to give up. I don’t even know why I came.”
“I appreciate the company,” I said.
She nodded. “This isn’t my thing. Being on the sidelines, being the side character.”
“I envy you, that you can,” I said.
She smiled just a little.
The people at the third car were unloading. Sisters.
I stared at the map, trying to reconcile the layout with what I was able to make out when I’d been there the other night.
I reached for the trackpad and made a note. Fallen rubble. Rounding that corner would mean taking a detour around the rubble, or maybe hurdling it.
No, hurdling was a bad idea. Even if Evan was accompanying me, giving me a periodic boost.
Rubble cast shadows. It could hold something.
Maggie, my friends, Rose, the possibility of interference, and a careful strategy with too many possibilities against a threat that I didn’t fully understand.
The ideas filled my head, and despite the fact that there were a dozen solutions waiting to be discovered, the resulting traffic jam meant I couldn’t think of a single one.
I shut my eyes, trying to focus.
One thing at a time, starting with the girl next to me.
“Maggie?” I asked.
“What’s up? I didn’t weird you out before, did I?”
“No,” I said, “Just… are you okay?”
“You haven’t explained what you have going on with your parents, you’re acting strange, different. Little things have come up, maybe a big thing. I know you’re not sleeping. I get the impression something’s wrong.”
She was silent.
“You helped me before. If something’s come up, if you need help, if you’ve done something or made a bad deal, we can put this on hold and back you up.”
She jammed her hands into her pockets, staring at the ground.
“I was telling the others before, maybe you let something in and you got possessed?”
She shrugged. “Thanks for worrying about me. But you should focus on this right now.”
“Should I?” I asked, making it a pointed question.
“You’ve got help here that you might not have if you wait a few days. The Sisters, the Knights, you can’t back out now, or this won’t work.”
“So you do need help?” I asked.
“Don’t we all?”
“Don’t dodge my damn questions,” I said, more harsh in tone than I’d wanted. Nervousness seeping through.
“Sorry. I’ll try to be more direct.”
“You were among the first people that were decent to me when all this started.”
“And you came here to back me up, you made a difference.”
“I did,” she said.
“I’m allowed to show concern for you,” I said. “Even if there’s something going on that I don’t fully understand.”
She gave me a look, and there was a bit of sadness in her eyes.
“What?” I asked.
“I really want to give you a kiss on the cheek,” she said. “But I can’t, can I?”
I shook my head.
“Give him heck,” she said.
The conversation was over, and I wasn’t accomplishing anything meaningful looking at the map. There were more important points to cover.
Slowly but surely, things were settling into place. Objects and people.
A few ghosts had arrived, observers.
“Blake,” Ty said.
“Ghost dropped these off.”
He extended a hand, and he dropped two objects into my outstretched palm. A box of matches and what looked like a piece of burned pillow?
No, a stuffed animal’s limb.
I could feel the ghosts within.
The Shepherd was volunteering aid?
My eyes roved over the area. I didn’t see the Shepherd. I did see the Sphinx. Isadora was lying down on the far end of a wide gap in the trees, the same spot where I’d grabbed the branches for the wreath. She stared, oblivious to the light dusting of snow that had settled on her black fur and wings.
Put more pressure on me, why don’t you?
People were gravitating toward me. Isadora didn’t budge. Maggie, on the other side of the
My nervousness only intensified.
“It’s about time,” I said.
It was good that we had a designated time for this to begin. It was harder to jump off that diving board when you had all the time in the world. Better to be thrust into a situation where you had no choice to jump, if jumping was absolutely necessary.
It was almost a relief, knowing.
I just couldn’t let myself entertain the slightest thought of being able or willing to retreat from this. To run.
One of my legs jittered, the knee wiggling from left to right, as if I was as unsteady on that leg as a newborn fawn.
I shifted my weight to make it less pronounced.
“You don’t enter. If something goes wrong, if things turn sour, we back off. If something happens to me, well, you won’t know. So don’t make it matter.”
“This sounds insane,” Ty said.
I ignored him.
“You guys have one job. Approach from an angle where the sun hits the windows. See if the windows have paint on them. If they do, it might be part of the binding, and we can’t break that. Find open windows. Toss in the gas cans, toss in the rubbing alcohol, toss in the kerosene. If you can reach, dump it in, but don’t put your hands inside the building”
There were nods.
“Knights, you’re manning the halogen lights. If this works, those lights should give me a clear path. If it works really well, then they’re going to cross in a way that makes a protective diagram. Bad alignment and the sun mean that might be a bit of a pipe dream. Just give me the extra light you can, shine it through, I’ll figure out what to do from there.”
Nods from the Knights.
“I keep track of the time. I’ve got notes in front of me. Whatever happens, when the time runs out, we burn the building.”
“My job… I’ve just got to get to the door to the basement. Going over the rubble might make sense, but there’s an awful lot of cracks and darkness in that rubble, and if my foot disappears into a gap, I’m gone.”
I sounded so much calmer than I felt.
“…That means going in the front door, same place I entered before, I head to the back, turn a hard left. I toss what I carried down there, I use any cans I can that you guys passed through the window, then set it on fire. I leave, and we scour the ground floor, using what you guys put through the window. With luck, we’ll gain some ground against the thing, and we can hold that ground by keeping the fires lit and the lights on. We figure out where to go from there. If the boiler room or basement or whatever is down there is too big to burn by tossing stuff down the stairs, we use a similar strategy there.”
I took a bit of a breath. “But what we’re really hoping, is that it’s one lifeform, and if anything’s lurking downstairs, we can cut off everything above from what’s below, with a strong blaze in the right place.”
I checked the time. Ten seconds past the mark where we’d guessed the sun would be in the optimal location.
I couldn’t even think about not hesitating.
I turned toward the factory. “Let’s go. Question me while we move.”
There were no questions. Even Evan had dropped the firebird topic. I didn’t tell him I’d researched it and found it too dangerous. Shamans keen on the dramatic had tried riding fire spirits, and by and large, they’d self-immolated.
The silence yawned, and for a moment, I felt utterly alone.
But Evan settled on my shoulder.
It only dawned on me when I couldn’t see them, that they were almost as afraid as I was.
I held two gas cans this time, I had the Hyena in my back pocket, and the flare gun at one hip.
“Hey,” Evan said.
“What’s up?” I replied.
“Thanks for letting me come.”
“Didn’t want to go in alone,” I admitted.
“We have company,” Evan said.
I looked. Four dolls.
“I’m not sure they count.”
“They count if you let them count,” Evan said, in a tone that suggested he thought he was being wise.
“I’ll try,” I said.
Without breaking stride, I grabbed the matchbook and lit a match from within.
A wraith flared into being as the match touched snow. A man, too burned to make out features. A husk, made uglier by the wraithmaking process.
The arm of the stuffed animal…
I gave it a squeeze. Smoke puffed out.
A little girl emerged from the smoke. When she looked at me, her eye sockets were empty, with only glowing cinders around the rim. Her nose and tongue nearly gone, glowing in the same way, like some cigarette butt.
“Inside,” I said.
She ran, frantic, panicked, straight into the doorframe, unable to see, half-spinning as she reeled, then tore through the open door, casting a dim light as she went. Moving all the while like she had two speeds – paralysis and pell-mell.
The burned man glowed brighter as the area got darker.
It wasn’t dark within, ghosts or no, but it was dim. Already, I could imagine seeing things in the spots of shadow. Something snaking out there, or boiling forth like some swarm of bugs from a disturbed hive.
I exhaled slowly.
When I looked again, I didn’t see anything.
“Now!” I hollered the word. I was afraid to stop, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to start again.
The halogen lights flickered on.
One opposite me cast a light almost straight to the door. A path of light to the very back of the factory. Others crossed it, drawing circles on the walls, highlighting cracks in deeper shadow.
“Ghosts, draw circles in the floor with fire!” I shouted.
Burning footprints drew circles in the darkness. Places where I was safe.
They were obedient.
This was easier than spending the gas from my cans to do the same. I still wouldn’t give them all my trust.
It was like being a chess piece, moving between the triangles of light and circles of dim flame. Watching for attacks from odd angles, without really looking.
Can’t step off the path. Can’t step outside the circles.
“You okay?” someone asked. It might have been Nick’s son.
“Light’s good!” I called out.
The gas cans were ready, resting in my hands.
Looking where I was going was something of an art form. The lights were brilliant, threatening to blind, and looking at darkness threatened to let the demon leap into my eyes.
The ghost of the little girl ran a zig-zag through the space, giving light where I’d had none.
My footsteps were hollow on the hard floor, as I moved as fast as I could. Like a tightrope, it was easier if I crossed it faster than slower.
Not too fast, but fast enough.
The dolls trudged behind me.
They would be the heat-seeking dolls, tuned so they wouldn’t target me.
When the fires started to burn, they’d make the fires bigger. I just had to keep my distance, control the blaze.
I reached the end of the hallway, passing the scorch marks where I’d drawn the circles.
“Ghosts, stop!” I shouted.
Both the cinder-girl and the burned man stopped where they were.
Circles marked the area.
“Guys, drop the gas!” I shouted.
My voice was eerily loud in the near-silence. There were no trees rustling here. The people outside were too spread out to really be communicating. There was only the footsteps, and there was me.
Windows here and there shattered. Thumps marked the arrival of the bright orange gas jugs. I saw fluid spilling out. In two spots, people were pouring gas through the window. I watched to make sure there was no danger.
No noise, no threats.
The way the lights shone through the window, the light that extended toward the door to the sub-level passed over the rubble I’d remembered seeing.
I needed to cross it, but that meant stepping into shadow.
I noted where everything was, as carefully and systematically as I could.
Flares were too risky. Flares went out, and I actually didn’t know how long that took.
Fires went out too, but I had a sense of how long that took.
I sloshed gas over the rubble.
“Hey,” I said. “Girl, I don’t know your name, but-”
The ghost stopped in her tracks.
“Right over there, light a fire. Only over there.”
She ran, that full-blast panicked run, stumbled, and landed belly-first on the rubble.
It ignited, and I squinted against the force of the flame.
Squinting, I almost missed it.
The demon, fleeing from the safety of the shadows that the rubble created. Slithering out in every direction, like a carpet seeking to cover every available expanse that the light didn’t already claim. I saw bits of it creep into areas where the light touched, and I saw those same parts fray and decay, crumbling away. Glimpses of limbs and other things, all a mucus-covered black, scrabbling for a grip on the hard surface.
“Holy jebus,” Evan whispered.
“Don’t look straight at it,” I warned.
Trying to be stern for Evan somehow allowed me to sum up some confidence. I splashed out with the gas, trying to catch the wall and the flame both.
It recoiled, and whole chunks broke away as they burned violently. None fell remotely close to the waiting gas cans.
I didn’t do it again, all the same.
Move forward, but keep moving, be careful…
The light from the burning rubble meant the hallway to the side was clearer.
I drew a loose circle with splashes of gasoline on the floor, then leaped from the long triangle of light to the burning circle.
I nearly lost my balance and stumbled straight through. I heard flapping wings at the same moment I managed to right myself.
I couldn’t find the words to thank Evan.
I was calculating my next move when I heard it.
When I saw, I felt something go tight in my chest.
The demon, slithering alongside the wall.
A tiny hand held a piece of rebar, dragging it against the concrete at a speed faster than I could run.
No, it doesn’t make sense.
Sparks made contact with gasoline. A fire erupted, and before I could even find my footing, the fire found the nearest gas can.
The demon immolated itself, vast amounts of flesh tearing away from the wall as it burned.
The dolls found the flames, and they exploded in turn. Small, accelerant-boosted flames turned into bonfires, reaching three-quarters of the way from floor to ceiling.
I turned to the window. Escape only feet away.
But I could see the arms and tendrils reaching out from the dark spaces between the glowing rectangles where sun shone through glass. They lurked in the cracks in the glass, where the light refracted away. A spiderweb ready to catch me.
He’d slithered around.
Another gas can exploded, closer, and rubble fell alongside great swathes of flaming demon flesh.
“What?” Evan managed.
“Fly, Evan,” I said.
“What?” he asked, this time directing the question at me.
“Fly for the opening in the roof,” I said.
“The rules, Evan! If something happens, you’re supposed to go!”
I grabbed him and threw him.
He caught himself, flapping his wings.
I saw the tendrils snap out, arms reaching, burning as sunlight touched them.
I saw just how dangerous the escape route was.
The window was worse. There was still a path to the front door, lines and circles.
I ran, opting for speed over self-preservation. Moving through flames, letting my legs burn.
Smoke was already heavy in the air.
I didn’t make it halfway to the door before I stopped in my tracks.
Smoke, in its way, held darkness.
He was in the smoke, roiling, twisting, thriving.
I had no escape routes.
I drew the flare gun.
I could hold out. Wait for help.
The demon, Ur, was asking the same question, it seemed.
The demon had an answer.
It tore not through me, but through the ribbons and cords that extended between me and the individuals just outside the buildings.
I saw what was happening, and felt only stark horror at the realization of just what it meant.
The back window. Through the spiderweb. With the flare gun, I could break the web.
I ran for it, giving it my all.
I didn’t make it.
“Stop, Alexis!” Ty shouted. He grabbed at her arm, pulling hard.
Alexis stopped dead in her tracks.
“You remember what we agreed to, right?” he asked.
She was panting, she looked bewildered.
“Abandon the mission,” Rose said.
“But-” she started.
“Wait for the fires to die down, abandon the mission,” Rose said.
“But-” Alexis said.
She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.
She wasn’t even sure what she was supposed to say.
The others joined them. The Knights and Tiff. Watching the smoke rise. Watching a sparrow travel a confused path through the sky.
Rose settled a hand on Alexis’ shoulder. “We can’t do anything more here.”