Eva panted, head hanging, while her brother stood between her and Roxanne’s bloody form. He was breathing hard too, though he’d put in only a fraction of the effort in stopping Eva than Eva had put into thrashing Roxanne.
Andy continued to hold one hand up, as if warning Eva off, while he dropped to a kneeling position. His hand went straight to Roxanne’s. She didn’t move or offer any fight as he plucked the blade out of her hand. He slid it into a pocket, then checked her pulse, holding her hand.
“No more than three, and the mirror creature?” Eva asked.
“Shh,” he said.
Eva put her hands on her hips, bristling a little.
“Okay. She’s alive,” he said.
“I know she’s alive,” Eva said. “If I’d wanted to kill her, she’d be dead. I didn’t want her dead, so obviously…”
“Okay, Eva,” he said. “Okay. We did that alright,” Eva said.
“Yeah,” Andy said.
“We should move. You just said something about upstairs?”
“The hard part can wait, we need to secure things. Help?” More metal jingled. I saw a glimpse of handcuffs before the ratchet sound of handcuffs marked Roxanne being handcuffed to the radiator.
Eva bent down and with one hand on Callan’s collar, one hand on his belt, she slid Callan toward the radiator that Roxanne had been handcuffed to. I heard the ratchet of the cuffs closing on Callan’s wrists.
Ellie proved more problematic.
“Please,” my cousin managed.
“Do what I say, you’ll probably live,” Andy said, his voice calm, “I promise you, there’s pretty much nothing you can say that’s going to convince me to do anything different from what I’m doing, and if you try, you might tick off Eva. You’re better off being quiet.”
Ellie turned her head slightly in Eva’s direction. It was like she wasn’t willing to look directly at Eva, but probably had more to do with soreness and burns.
He grabbed her hand, and she struggled up until the taser appeared. The fight went out of her. He ordered, “Crawl. Cuff yourself next to your cousin.”
It didn’t take long for Ellie to obey, using the offered handcuffs. Andy checked the cuffs.
Eva was busy sliding Kathryn’s limp form over to the radiator as well. One of Kathryn’s eyes was already swelling, and I suspected I could make out blood in the corner.
It made for pretty cruel and unusual punishment. A collection of Thorburns stuck in close proximity to one another? Damn.
“How’s the…” Eva paused, eyeing the still-conscious and semi-conscious Thorburns. “..Thingy?”
“The thingy is…” he started, fishing in one pocket. He retrieved an emerald-colored ball, somewhere between a baseball and a softball in size, holding at an angle so none of the defeated Thorburns could see. “Basically unchanged?”
She frowned. “I thought she said it wouldn’t last very long.”
“It’s not supposed to,” he said. “It’s gone a little darker.”
“Uh huh. It’s gotta be a scam.”
“They know better than that,” Andy said. “Either it worked more efficiently than we thought, or it didn’t work much at all.”
“I didn’t notice anything,” Roxanne said.
“You’re not supposed to. You’re a witch hunter.”
She stuck her tongue out at him.
“They’re not going to be able to work together to tear the radiator away from the wall, are they?” Andy asked.
“You want me to break their arms, so we don’t need to worry about it?”
“No,” Andy said. “Just wondering aloud. I guess the worst case scenario is that they run. Don’t get the vibe that they’d come after us. Speaking of which, what kind of kid carries a knife?”
“Says the guy who wears armor under his clothes,” Eva replied.
“The civilians are supposed to be normal.”
“I don’t believe in normal,” Eva replied. Rather than attach another person to the radiator, she cuffed Christoff to Callan’s right leg and Kathryn’s left. “Should we check for phones? Wait, nevermind, the jammer.”
“I’ll check just to be safe. You go get the guy we left outside. As soon as he’s locked up, we’re going upstairs.”
I heard Eva humming as she headed for the back door. She paused, peered over one stack of books, them kicked it aside, using the toe of her boot to mess up a diagram in chalk. She turned on the spot to resume her previous path.
I slipped back upstairs before she could see me in the toaster.
One option was to send Evan after the captive Thorburns. If he could open the door to a jail cell, could he open cuffs?
But half of the captive Thorburns were unconcious or hurt enough they might as well be unconscious. Short of me pulling some stunt like trying to infuse them with my spirits, which was a bad idea, they wouldn’t be escaping, even if they were technically free.
I entered the mirror upstairs, and found myself face to face with Alexis, Tiff, and Ty. They had a group of bogeymen and goblins in their company.
“The others are captured,” I said. “They’ve been beaten up and restrained. Evan’s waiting downstairs.”
“We’re safe here, right?” Ty asked.
“Probably not,” I admitted. “I don’t know what they’re planning, but if a hiding spot like this was all it took to stay safe from a witch hunter, I don’t think witch hunters would be that big of a concern.”
“Damn it,” Ty said.
“Is there any reason we can’t try to overpower them?” Alexis asked. “We’ve got resources.”
I looked at the gathered ‘resources’. A gaggle of Others.
A teenaged girl in slightly old fashioned clothes who was hugging what looked to be a diary with a cover and lock made of stitched-together flesh to her chest. Her hair covered her eyes.
A knight in rusty armor.
A tall man who was swaddled in furs, with dead eyes.
An older woman with three malnourished, feral children standing at the end of thin chains. Each had the rag-clad children, two boys and one girl, had chains wound around their necks, like choke collars attack dogs. Their teeth were brown at the gums, snaggle teeth. I wouldn’t have wanted to get bitten by one of them.
Rounding out the group were two goblins. One was fat and squat, neckless, with a severe underbite and eyes like burning coals beneath a neanderthal brow. The second was genderless, with wings in place of arms, its head hunched forward, as if the weight of all its countless teeth made it impossible to sit straight. Its hair was lanky and greasy, with one charm worked into the end: a trio of mouse skulls.
“I feel like they probably have an answer for an en-masse attack,” I said. “But they could have an answer to anything.”
“Yeah,” Alexis said. “There’s no right answers here.”
“There are, I think, but they aren’t obvious or easy,” I told her. “We’ve got a few hours until night falls. We need to somehow get our defenses up and ready or we’ll be curbstomped when the sun sets and all bets are off. We should do something about the Thorburns downstairs. That’s all ignoring the very immediate problem of the witch hunters, who are bound to try something.”
“Getting our defenses in order was a problem even before any of this started,” Alexis said. It seemed like she was taking point among the three. “I don’t know if it’s even possible.”
“Especially since the witch hunters are removing defenses as they see them,” I said.
“Fuck,” Ty said.
“Do you guys have any tricks up your sleeve I don’t know about?” I asked. “Implements, familiars, demesnes?”
“No,” Tiff said. “We went through a phase where we were trying to scry a way out, use the practice to see if there was a path, test all the major decisions. Every time we raised the question of whether we should make a major binding deal like that, especially with familiars and especially in relation to Rose or Evan, we kept turning up the same results, with scary frequency. All signs pointed to soulmates being separated, a person being lost.”
“The natural conclusion was that the enchantresses had something planned to cut us off or mess with us, like Corvidae’s trick,” Alexis said.
I nodded, but as much as I agreed with the logic, I wasn’t happy with the result. “We need a wider variety of monsters to throw at the witch hunters. Put them on their heels, buy time.”
“I can do that,” Ty said. “Variety, I mean. I might need help.”
“I’ll help,” Tiff said.
“What’s going on with the Thorburns downstairs?” Alexis asked.
“They’re hurt, some are out of it, and most would be pretty useless in an outright brawl. Some are awake, and that means we have to be careful about collateral damage. If they see the wrong thing and cross that event horizon where they can’t ignore this world anymore-”
“They become our responsibility,” Ty said. “Right. Sorry for saying so, but I do not want a Thorburn to be my responsibility. It’s like taking charge of a ship with a hole in the hull. You know it’s bound to sink, and you know you’ll get blamed when it does.”
“Not to mention, extending your analogy,” I said, “The ship is liable to be a total asshole. You don’t want to take responsibility for an asshole you don’t know.”
“Yeah,” Ty said. “I didn’t want to say that either, but yeah.”
“Variety of threats, keep them busy,” I said. “It’ll buy us time to think.”
“Okay,” Ty said. He sprung to his feet, moving out of my field of vision. “Elemental? Ghosts?”
“Wind elemental,” Alexis said. “Anything else is going to be awfully hard to explain.”
“I’ll get the supplies,” Tiff said. “Myrrh?”
“Myrrh works,” Ty replied.
“We’re low on myrrh,” Alexis said, adding her two cents. “Incense works too.”
“Got both,” Tiff said.
Alexis turned her attention from the other two to me. She didn’t say anything.
“I’m thinking,” I said.
“Me too,” she told me, “I’m not liking any of the options. There’s too many unknowns.”
“The plus side,” I said, “Is the enemy has a lot of unknowns too.”
“The witch hunters?”
“The council,” I replied.
“Ahh. The enemy behind the enemy.”
“The root of our problems,” I said.
“Okay,” Alexis said. “I’m being a bit of a tattoo geek, here, but I’ve had a few sessions with clients who couldn’t articulate what they wanted. Let’s block this out, start from scratch.”
“Okay,” I said.
“You just said the key things. We need the witch hunters stopped and defenses in place for tonight. We need to buy time until Rose comes back.”
“Bonus points if we can free the other Thorburns and get them out of harms way,” I said. “I don’t like them, but…”
“But?” Ty chimed in from the other side of the room.
“I just really don’t like them,” I finished. “All the same, they’re a resource.”
“Okay,” Alexis said. “Those are the broad strokes, the notes we have to hit. We can’t do much about the witch hunters, agreed? Their whole schtick is that they’re really hard for a practitioner to work around. We can send a mob at them and hope it keeps them distracted until we can make another move.”
“Witch hunters on the backburner,” I said. “Leaving… the council?”
“The council,” Alexis said.
I nodded slowly. The source of both the nighttime attacks, or the bulk of them anyway, and the witch hunters.
“A starting point,” I said.
A distant explosion made me sit up.
I stepped out of the patch of light and crossed to the hallway outside.
Smoke rose from a black scorch mark on the floor, at the end of the hall opposite the stairs. Andy and Eva were at the opposite end. The explosion, whatever it had been, had knocked a picture frame off the wall.
There was so very little space left to me. From one end of the second floor hallway, I could see how one window had been spray painted. Some of the paint marked the curtains.
The girl grinned as her eyes met mine. She reached the top of the stairs, striding forward. She raised a gun-
I didn’t bother to watch. There were too many possibilities. Silver bullets, in the metaphorical sense, that could have hurt me. I threw myself to one side.
The sound of the gun was muted, the hiss of an air compressor more than any gun I’d ever heard. The window broke into a thousand fragments.
They were cutting me off from the house.
I disappeared back inside the hidden library.
“They’re in the hallway,” I said.
“Fuck,” Ty said.
“Tiff,” Alexis said, “Open the third floor door, leave the ground floor door closed. Send the ‘help’ to deal with the witch hunters.”
“Right,” Tiff said. Her hands were hidden inside long sleeves, and hidden further as she kept her arms folded. It almost looked as if she was wearing a straightjacket. Wool, but a straightjacket all the same. She looked grim. She climbed the little ladder to the second tier of the library.
“I assume I’m the one going after the council?” I asked, resuming our former conversation.
“You’ll have to be,” Alexis said. “You and Evan.”
“Okay,” I told her. “But there’s a limit to what we can do before dark.”
“Yeah. Breaking the rule wouldn’t help. Law of retribution,” Alexis said.
“The practice and Others get stronger if you do it for a just reason,” she said. “I punch you or treat you more horribly than you deserve, your workings are going to affect me more.”
“Break the local rules, and you’re not just fighting against all those other practitioners. You’re fighting against society. Against the tide of civilization.”
“Aren’t they breaking their own rule, sending the witch hunters?”
“They’re keeping the letter of the law,” Tiff called out from upstairs, “If not the spirit. Ready Ty?”
“Five seconds… four, three, two…”
He finished drawing with chalk, and spoke, “Sylph Elatus.”
The air distorted, a slight fog, a movement of dust, tracing the vague outline of a young boy.
The boy darted forward as Tiff opened the library door by hand. She left it open only for a few seconds, allowing the gathered Others to pass through.
“Next summoning,” Ty said. “I think we’re out of usable ghosts.”
“Minor incarnation or spirit,” Tiff suggested. “Um, can’t remember which types were in the books.”
“Any insights?” Alexis asked. “Things we can use against the attackers?”
“They’re kind of fucked up. Andy’s ok, but his sister’s a bit of a lunatic. Trigger happy, kicked a kid to the point of near-unconsciousness.”
“Choleric!” Alexis called up to Tiff.
“If you can, order it to turn them on each other!” I called up.
“Dunno if I can!”
It wasn’t fast, the hunting down of the book. I watched, waiting, trying to figure out a good strategy for going after the council.
“Deck’s pretty stacked against us,” Alexis said.
I startled a bit at the tone of her words more than the suddenness of them or the words themselves.
“We’ll manage,” I said.
“Be careful you don’t lie,” she warned me.
“We’ll manage,” I said. “Do I need to say it a third time?”
“No,” she said. She smiled a little. “But if we don’t manage… If it comes down to you…”
She trailed off.
“If it comes down to me, then that’s it,” I said. “I’m responsible for you. I’m pretty sure that if you die, then I take on a bit of that misfortune. I go too.”
“No,” she said. “Your connections moved to Rose, right? Rose is responsible for us.”
What did it say that that bothered me? I wanted to be responsible for them. I wanted to have that tie to people I cared about.
“I’ve been thinking about it. If we die, or if something bad happens to us, Rose is probably going to suffer, because she adopted that responsibility. The council members might have even figured it out,” Alexis said. “It could be the advantage they need to get control over her, to defuse the dead man’s switch. Or they call it a win and rely on the karma swing to screw up Rose’s plan. The dead man’s switch might not wind up working at all.”
Hearing Alexis talking about dying was making my skin crawl. Branches and feathers inched forward, taking millimeters of ground on the surface of my body.
“No,” I said.
“Blake, we need to plan. If something happens to us, it’s going to set off a chain reaction. Something could happen to Rose. You need to do what you can to help her, even-”
“Even what?” I asked, my voice low.
Ty was watching us intently.
“Do what you can to help her,” Alexis repeated herself, instead of answering my question. “The enchantresses wanted the Thorburns here. If she dies, if the dead man’s switch doesn’t stall things, then the Thorburns are going to run out of people really quickly. The next three heirs are here. One bullet for each, in turn. Then it’s Ivy? How does that work? How does Paige work, being in Isadora’s grip?”
“Let’s go back to the part where you mentioned dying, and assume it’s not going to happen. Because it can’t. You’re making it clear it can’t.”
“Blake. Witch hunters. They’re the one thing Rose was most worried about, the reason she finally caved and did the dead man’s switch. Even if we manage to beat them, the house is going to get raided at nightfall. We-”
“Trouble!” Tiff called out.
Paper was pouring in through the gap in the door on the second floor. Reams of it, yellowed and old, moving through the space as if it had a life of it’s own, and coming through in piles. Hundreds of pages, with writing scrawled on them.
The influx of paper stopped.
“Shit! Don’t let her form!” Ty called out.
Tiff went from deer-in-the-headlights to action. She didn’t cross the distance in time.
The pile of scattered papers rose off the ground. A human figure was standing from beneath it all, and as the papers slid left, right, forward and backward off the pile, the air caught them and shuffled them together.
The end result was a girl in old fashioned clothes, carrying a diary bound in skin, complete with ugly black stitches. Her head hung, her hair in her eyes. Her lips were painted crimson.
One of the bogeymen they’d sent out the door only a minute ago.
“It’s a bounce!” Alexis called out, springing to her feet. “They blocked her somehow! She’s after the nearest available target!”
Return to sender.
A very good reason many practitioners were very careful before they sent a curse or a demon stomping over to their enemies. If they fucked up, or if the enemy was clever or strong enough, that same curse or demon or whatever could come back, stronger.
Clutching her diary to her chest, the girl advanced on Tiff, hard shoes click-clacking on the ground.
Tiff had only just managed to get both hands and both feet onto the ladder when she saw how close the diary girl was. A step away.
“Jump!” Ty called out.
Tiff did, shoving herself away from both the diary girl and ladder.
Ty caught her awkwardly. Both fell to the ground.
Alexis was already at the cabinet behind the big wooden desk when the diary girl stepped off the ledge above the ladder. Alexis turned her back on the girl, throwing open the cabinet doors to look at the contents.
Rather than fall as a body, the diary girl turned into pages again. They filled the lower half of the room.
I heard cries of pain as the pages blocked my view of the others.
“Blake,” Alexis said. “Look after -ow, god!- After Rose. Don’t trust your instincts when it comes to her. Go do what you can, but go!”
She knocked something over or pulled it out of the cabinet. I heard a clatter. “Go!”
The pages coalesced into the diary girl’s body again. Seeing her up close, I could make out how her flesh was just carefully cut pieces of paper, stacked atop one another, some pieces with blood on the edges. Her old fashioned 40’s dress was made of more paper, yellowed and scribbled on in places. Her eyes, now that I could see them, were the only thing that was real.
A book of flesh, a body of paper.
Alexis, Tiff, and Ty were each bleeding from a thousand papercuts. Not enough to make blood gush or pour, but enough to make beads of blood appear at different points along the lines.
“Bounce her back,” I said.
“Antique box,” Alexis said, standing just to my left. She held a box a human might have been able to fit inside, but only if they really contorted themselves. “Not sure how to get her in it, but once we do, we can push her outside the library and remove the lid.”
The paper girl tilted her head. Her hair shuffled to a more appropriate position, considering the angle and gravity.
A moment later, the paper girl attacked, becoming a flurry of papers, blowing past Alexis as if she were a simple stack of paper in the midst of a very small tornado.
“Alexis!” Tiff shrieked.
Alexis did what she could, pushing against the headwind, box held up. Not a single paper found its way inside.
The box fell, cracking on the floor.
Each return-to-sender makes the summoning stronger, I thought.
Alexis was bleeding more openly now, little rivers of blood leaking out of wounds. As she moved her hands to her face, some slits opened a little wider, allowing a bit more blood out.
“Got another box?” Ty asked.
“In the bedroom upstairs,” Alexis said. “Ow. Oh god, this hurts.”
I felt my heart pounding in my chest. What to do? There wasn’t anything inside the room that I could use, even if I could afford the spiritual energy I needed.
I couldn’t break the mirror without losing all access to the library.
“Diary girl,” I called out.
“Mirror boy,” diary girl whispered back. When she turned her head, her neck didn’t bend so much as the individual papers turned. She could have turned her head three-hundred and sixty degrees around.
She smiled, the paper of her face reshuffling, her expression changing in the wake of the rearrangement. “Paper and wood. Affinity. A-F-F-I-N-I-T-Y. I’ll let you free when I’m done. If they bring you up and out and you manage to kill them, you’re free.”
“I don’t want you to kill them,” I said.
“E-X-S-A-N-G-U-I-N-A-T-E,” she spelled out the word. “The blood loss will kill them, not me. Then I’ll have their skin, and I’ll make a new book with a new cover and fill it with new words.”
“Leave them alive,” I said.
“Ohh,” she said, her voice almost sing-song, amid the whispers. “We can sup on the fear. Cut them in the sensitive parts of the flesh. In the meat between each tooth, the corners of the mouth, the eyelids and the eyes themselves. The webbing of the fingers and toes. The achilles tendon. Then, when we have them just how we want them, the soft flesh of the stomach… The armpit… the thigh.”
If I hadn’t known better, I’d have almost thought she was trying to be seductive. She breathed those last few words.
My thoughts weren’t really focused on that at all, outside of how I might use it.
No, my concern was on how I could argue for my companion’s lives. Or, more precisely, how I couldn’t.
She’s too far gone. There’s no human left inside.
“Blake,” Ty said. “I need you to do something for me.”
“I’m going to deal with this. Then I’m going to help you figure out how to keep the witch hunters out, and you guys are going to be safe.”
The paper girl hugged her diary to her chest, hard.
“After all this is said and done, I need you to look after that obnoxious, glorious little bird of ours, okay?”
“Tyler, no, that’s-” I started.
“Blake, shut up,” Alexis said, with more ferocity than I’d heard from her in a long, long time. “They bounced one back at us. They can bounce more. We don’t have food in here, we don’t have water. We don’t have time. There are enemies at the metaphorical gates, we’re outnumbered, we’re being overrun, and we’re in no shape to weather a siege.”
“You’re giving up? They only sent one back. The others are doing something. They have to be.”
“No,” she said, not raising her head. There was a bit of blood slowly making its way down a lock of hair at the side of her head, flowing from a scalp wound. “I’m accepting facts. We’re novices. There’s at least three, four major players aligned against us. If we have a chance, it’s in you leaving, right now. Cut off the serpent’s head, and maybe the body will follow. And in case it doesn’t work out that way… let us say our damn goodbyes.”
I opened my mouth, but I couldn’t find words.
“Oh, I can feel their fear,” the diary girl said, hugging herself as much as she hugged the diary.
“It was nice to meet you,” Tiff said. “And if that sounds really lame, it’s because I’m a bit lame. But when you showed up stuff started making sense. I… wish I’d gotten to know you better, since our second meeting, and that I could have returned the favor, helping you make sense of stuff.”
I very nearly opened my mouth to tell her she could. To ask for the hint, the tidbit of information that would help me fill in the blanks.
But doing that would be like admitting that their situation was this dire.
“…But I can’t,” she said. “I really like your tattoos, you know? Not the scary bit but… I wish I could’ve known the you that you would’ve been, and that I could’ve been that you, too.”
Ty had said his piece, in his roundabout way. Asking me to look after Evan. Tiff had spoken from the heart. And Alexis…
Alexis’ head hung. She didn’t move. Blood pooled on the floor where her chin hung forward, dripping off the tip of her nose and chin, and off the one lock of hair beneath the open cut.
“Alexis?” Ty said.
“The lady isn’t dead,” the diary girl said. “I can feel her fear. It’s sharper now.”
The diary girl crossed the library, heading straight for Alexis. Tyler tensed, taking a half-step forward, and the diary girl flared, paper shuffling rapidly, the edges all facing him.
She did the same thing as she drew closer to Alexis than she was to Ty. I had a close-up of the trick, the individual pages moving with a will of their own.
I didn’t have time to think about it.
I lunged through the mirror, glass breaking and cutting my flesh. Fragments danced off my skin on their way to the ground. A short-lived body in the real world, blind, with only seconds to act.
With the Hyena, I gutted the diary girl. Unable to see, I still felt her collapse against me, her form holding for only a second before the papers began to slide apart.
Would she reform?
I couldn’t let her.
The blade of the Hyena pointed down, I thrust down, aiming for her back.
She muttered something incomprehensible as I destroyed her spine.
I was losing my footing, and there was little that remained in the house. No mirrors, no reflections.
I reached out, grasping, and I found the book.
The Hyena, gripped by my other hand, speared the cover of still-supple flesh. Stabbed right through the middle.
“That’ll do,” I heard Alexis, sounding stronger than before.
A feint? I felt a surge of relief.
Then she said the heaviest words I’d heard yet. “Goodbye, Blake.”
I found myself a distance away from the house. Every window that wasn’t broken was painted over. There weren’t any surfaces that remained.
I stood in a cold place without experiencing cold. My alien, bogeyman, vestige, something-Other body couldn’t process the emotions I felt, except as pain. I felt the branches and tattoos gain more ground, and it didn’t stop.
I was abandoning them.
Finally, the loss of my human body slowed.
My arms were more wood than anything resembling flesh, now. I could see through gaps between the branches at my wrists.
I felt lighter, stronger, and far more fragile.
“Evan!” I called out the name, at the top of my lungs.
I didn’t like how my voice sounded. I wanted to believe it was cracking with emotion, and not just cracking, like dead wood might do under stress.
The bird flew out a destroyed window at the side of the house.
He found me, descending.
“You didn’t come,” he said.
“I didn’t have the opportunity,” I said.
“Are the others okay?” he asked.
I wanted so much to lie to him, to lie to myself.
When my mouth opened, the words didn’t come.
I finally told him the truth. “No.”
I wasn’t sure how a bird without facial expressions could look devastated, but Evan managed it.
“They’re scared, they’re cornered, they’re hurt, and they don’t see many options.”
“Okay,” Evan said, his voice firm. “Let’s fix that.”
Let’s fix that.
I drew in a deep breath, to try and get centered again.
The air I drew in through my mouth just wheezed through the holes in my sides, a perpetual intake of breath, wind rustling through the branches, ruffling feathers. No maximum lung capacity, no minimum either.
“Let’s go,” I told him.
The various Behaim properties were locked up tight.
Johannes territory was verboten. Too dangerous to enter.
The Hospital, not that far from Johannes’ territory, was firmly warded.
Evan and I circled Sandra’s place.
“Dark,” I said.
“Damn,” Evan said. “I don’t see much. I don’t think she’s here. That troll’s a jerk, too. She’s tried to eat me five times, just while I’ve been flying around. She’d probably try to eat me now if she was around.”
“They anticipated retaliation,” I said.
“Maybe,” Evan replied. “That seems kind of cowardly.”
“It is,” I said, turning the idea over in my head. “The spirits like fairness.”
“Don’t we all?” Evan asked.
“No,” I said. “I think deep down inside, we all like things to be a little bit unfair in our favor.”
“Hm,” Evan said. “Like when I totally cheat at poker and cheese Ty off?”
“Yeah,” I said, smiling. “Like that.”
“Alexis cheats worse, you know.”
“Well,” I said. “I hope she finds a way to cheat her way through whatever’s happening in the house right now. If the witch hunters found a way into the room, that’s bad. If they didn’t, that’s less bad, but the clock is still ticking toward nightfall.”
“Uh huh,” Evan said. With far too much assurance, he said, “They’ll be okay.”
If they aren’t, it’s on Rose, I thought. She left. She gambled on this. She wanted the enemy to realize the dead man’s switch was still a problem, and to concede defeat to her.
She’d put Alexis, Tiff, and Ty on the line, just like the Drains had suggested in the vision.
I felt anger boil up, with too many targets to name. Where other emotions were muddled, anger was a crystal clear feeling inside me.
It’s on me, too, I thought. I brought them into this world.
If the anger had been a fire within me, the note of guilt made it a smoky, black, toxic sort of fire, not the type of fire one used to keep themselves warm.
I remembered Alexis’ words.
Don’t trust your instincts.
I drew in another wind-whistling-through-the-woods breath, then exhaled.
Alexis had a reason for saying what she’d said.
“Okay, so I’m busy thinking, even if my brain is only the size of the eraser on the end of a pencil,” Evan said.
“Your brain is not that small,” I told him.
“My bird brain is about that small. But whatever size my brain is, I gotta know, what do we do if we find one of the council members?” Evan asked.
“We catch them by surprise,” I said. If I could find Sandra while she was driving somewhere, break the windshield at an opportune moment…
Everyone had moments where they were weak or vulnerable. A moment where someone was hurtling down the road at sixty kilometers an hour qualified.
“You can’t catch Sandra by surprise, or Alister. She can sense connections and he can see the future. And with Johannes it doesn’t matter if you catch him by surprise because he’s so strong he can wipe his butt with your face,” Evan said.
“Wipe his butt with my face?”
“I dunno,” Evan said. “I wanted something better than ‘mop the floor with you’. I tried. Geez.”
“There’s always a way,” I said. It’s why I haven’t completely given up hope about my friends and crumbled. I just feel like utter shit that there’s nothing I can do to help them now.
The anger flared.
“So we just gotta find a way,” Evan said. “I’m ninety-five percent sure there’s nobody home, wait, wait, shit, don’t wanna lie, it’s not really exactly ninety-five, but whatever the word is for when you’re talking in specifics… Um.”
“I think you’re safe,” I said. “Damn it, though.”
Every second that passed was a second that the house remained under attack.
“What now?” Evan asked.
“Extension of the same plan,” I said. “They’re united against us, right?”
“It would be great if we could handicap Sandra or make her look weak, and get the other two to capitalize on that weakness, distracting them all from Hillsglade, but we might have to go after another viable target,” I said.
“Maybe breaking the rules and attacking during daytime?” Evan asked.
“Maybe,” I said, “With all the dangers involved, we might have to. I really wanted to go after the head of the serpent.”
“The serpent’s a hydra, isn’t it?” Evan asked. “Cut off one head, another pops up. Laird, Duncan, now Alister?”
“It is,” Evan said. “I came up with that all by myself, I’ve been doing my reading. So ha.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“Damn straight. Wait, why am I happy about it? That sucks. We’ll never get past all of them if they keep getting new leaders.”
“We can if we destabilize things, or somehow deal with Johannes, who isn’t the succession sort… but it is a problem,” I said.
“Pooh,” Evan said.
“Unless we turn things around,” I said. “Do the opposite of going after the head of the serpent.”
“Go for the feet!” Evan said.
I was currently within a car window, parked by the side of the road, and gave him a look, where he was perched on the side view mirror of the vehicle.
“Some snakes have feet,” he said, “probably, somewhere.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” I said, checking the time by looking inside the car. “We’ve got a plan.”
“Sweet! Operation’s Snake’s Foot is a go!”
“Sure,” I said. “In thirty minutes.”
“In thirty minutes!”
If I couldn’t go after the head of the serpent…
The bell tolled in the background, joined by a shrill ring.
I lurked, waiting, one hand on the Hyena.
The school day was over.
I watched as the children filtered out of the school. The elementary and high schools were close to one another.
My eye watched every student in turn, looking for details. Behaim? Duchamp?
I saw the Briar Girl.
From my vantage point in the window of an empty storefront, I whistled.
The Briar Girl approached a short distance, saw me, and stopped.
“Your like has come for me before,” she said.
“I doubt that,” I said. “I’d like to think I’m one of a kind.”
“Ah, you’re not enforcing the laws?”
I shook my head.
“Good. Because I hold to the laws, as I’ve said again and again. Hi bird.”
“Hi,” Evan said.
“Prey bird,” her rabbit spoke.
Evan shuffled a bit further away.
“We’ve actually talked before,” I told her. “Back when I was human…ish.”
She frowned. “Should I be more bothered by the idea that you’re lying, or that you’re telling the truth and I’ve somehow forgotten?”
“It’s not that important. I’m not here for you.”
“Of course not. I’m a bystander, this time around.”
“I want you to do me a favor” I asked.
“I’m not committing to anything.”
“You might like the idea,” I said. “I need you to convene the young Behaims and Duchamps. Get the junior council together. Things need to change, the status quo needs to be challenged, and I think I’m not the only person who might feel that way.”