She watched as her Pa paced.
Then Mam came out of the side room. Pa fidgeted, following Mam to the countertop. Pa was as thin as Mam was fat. He was a skeleton covered in cracked brown leather, beard shorn short, hair tied back into a long ponytail. His head only came up to Mam’s shoulder.
Mam, by contrast, was the size of a bear, fat as she was tall, with clusters of nobby bits and warty bits nearly hidden in the folds of her neck and shoulders. She was pale, her eyes heavily lidded, making her look half asleep, and her hair was greasy. Her mouth sat open and askew almost all the time, lip hanging low enough to reveal the wide-spaced teeth. The only time mam’s mouth closed was when she was thinking, and she sucked on her bottom lip. Her more thinky expression.
She thought even now, busying herself by pushing things around the counter without actually cleaning or using any of it.
“No need to preserve. Cupboards are full. We eat tonight,” Mam finally said. She pushed her hands through piles of dirty dishes, grabbing a knife with bits still caked on it, a fork. These she set to one side.
Pa smiled. His face creased everywhere with the expression, every single one of his bad teeth showing. “Pie?”
“Sausage pie,” Mam conceded.
“Good,” Pa said, smiling. “Good.”
“If you want ‘good’ you go chop some wood,” Mam said.
“There’s wood already,” he said.
“Chop it! I’m not stopping cooking halfway to get your lazy ass out of that chair of yours and into the woods to chop. Chop now!” Mam’s voice got more shrill as she talked.
Pa grimaced, but he headed outdoors. Probably to get out of the house more than out of any desire to help.
“Midge!” Mam said.
Midge cowered a little under her mother’s eye, retreating under the table.
Mam strode forward, pushing the table against the wall with one sweep of her fist, exposing Midge. She grabbed the girl’s ear and hair in one meaty fist, and practically lifted her.
Midge kicked her legs, squealing. A few kicks hit her mother. She even raked at her mother with longer, ragged toenails. The dress her mother wore suffered for it, but her mother’s skin was too thick.
“I said to watch yer little brothers!” Her mother hollered, voice low.
Midge continued to squeal, high, loud, prolonged sounds. Her mother gave her a firm shake, hard enough that some bit of Midge might have broken if she was any closer to the wall or the table, then let go.
Midge found her feet right away, backing up. She looked toward the door and pointed.
“Mal and Posie are moving the car. Don’t act helpless, stupid child. You. Do. Your. Job!”
That last word was a screech as bad as any of them.
Midge scampered away as fast as she could.
The side room.
The babies were sitting up, side by side in the crib. Born the fall before last, they were big boned, as Ma said. Skinny, but big boned. Their skulls were thick enough that their brows hung heavy over their eyes, making them look perpetually angry. Jory had his mouth open, drooling, while Biff had his mouth closed, fluid streaming out of one nostril.
“It’s a little girl,” a voice whispered.
“Oh god. What’s wrong with them?”
Midge knelt by the crib, staring at her brothers. Biff had been suckling on a bone earlier, but it now sat on the mat at the bottom of the crib.
“They dirty?” Mam screeched from the other room.
The fluids from the bone mingled with stains of piss and shit that dated back to when Midge had been that size. The smell was bad enough she couldn’t tell, and she wasn’t about to stick her hand in there.
She looked off to one side, and saw her old doll collecting cobwebs.
She looked away. Every time she was caught with her doll, Mam made her look after the real babies instead.
“I asked if they’re dirty!”
Midge looked at her Mam, standing in the doorway, and shook her head.
Her mam disappeared back into the kitchen.
Midge snatched up the bone. Her brothers had apparently been fed recently, and their movements were so sluggish she had her hand out before they even looked at her hand.
She prodded Biff with the bone until Biff tipped over. His head cracked against the wooden slats of the crib, his neck finding a funny angle.
He continued chewing on his bottom lip, staring absently in her general direction.
“Hey, little girl,” a voice sounded.
Midge turned to look.
Three strangers. Two women, one plump and one thin, and a man. They were dressed colorfully, their clothing weirdly sharp in how fine all the edges were. Collars around their necks were chained to the metal frame of Pa’s bed.
“Hey,” the man said. He smiled.
Midge didn’t trust smiles. Smiling was what you did when you hurt people, or sometimes when Pa got his food or Mam got her Pa. A rare thing. For Midge, it mostly meant being hurt.
“My name’s Shawn,” in the kind of accent that Jory called ‘posh’.
She stared at him. He kept smiling, but all she saw in his eyes was the fear.
“What’s going on?” the thinner girl mewled. Her accent just as posh.
“Shhh,” the heavier girl said, hugging the girl, chain at her neck clinking. “Let Shawn talk.”
“What’s your name?” Shawn asked.
Midge shook her head.
“She doesn’t talk?”
“The woman called her Midge?”
“Midge. That’s… a nice name,” Shawn said, smiling.
“How old are you, Midge?”
Midge scowled. Mal had tried to show her. Mal was clever. Her big brother was the one who fixed the cars and sold the scrap. The one of them clever enough to pass in town without drawing too many stares.
She held up a hand. All fingers out.
“You’re older than that,” Shawn said, smiling. His eyes looked uneasy.
She shook her head, thrusting out her hand.
Shawn trailed off as Midge raised the bone, yellow with scraps of gray meat hanging off it. She extended it toward Shawn.
“Um,” he said, “No thanks.”
She didn’t stop or slow down. When she was right next to him, she jabbed, striking him in the corner of the eye.
“Ow! Fuck! What the fuck!? What’s wrong with you?”
Midge stared at him. The anger was more familiar, comfortable.
“Shh, Shawn!” the heavier girl said.
He didn’t shout, keeping his voice low enough that Mam wouldn’t hear, but there was anger in his voice. “That hurt. What the fuck? This fucked up place and this fucked up family!”
“Shawn, suck it up,” she said. “Midge? Listen, Midge, do you know where the thin man keeps the keys to these collars?”
Midge shook her head.
“You don’t know? Do you think you can find out?”
Midge shook her head. She headed to the cabinet, and fished through until she found a collar that looked good enough. Mal had showed her this too. He was good at putting stuff together. Which was good, because he was as scrawny as Pa, but not nearly as strong.
Midge grabbed a knife, too.
She pushed the ends of the collar together as she approached the others.
Then she showed them what Mal had put together. Slide the knife into the slit…
The collar popped open.
“Brilliant,” Shawn said, his voice low, expression grim. As Mam made a noise in the kitchen, Shawn shot one fearful look her way. “Except that doesn’t work while we’re wearing them.”
“Oh god,” the thinner girl said.
“What?” Shawn asked.
“Are you terminally stupid?” the girl asked.
But the girl only shook her head.
Midge walked across the room, collecting her doll. When she returned to the trio, she held the collar at neck level around the doll’s throat. The cloth doll’s head smiled at the three, the collar as wide around as the doll was tall, the collar much too large. Midge had to shuffle things around to hold the doll under one arm, hold the collar in place, and get a grip on the doll’s head with a knife still loosely gripped in the same hand.
She tore head from body.
“Nooo,” the thin girl said, making it a long, drawn out sound.
“Oh god, oh god,” Shawn muttered.
The collar only came off if the head came off first.
Only the plump one managed to stay quiet, though Midge could see tears in the girl’s eyes.
Fear and despair were familiar too. This was more comfortable than when they’d been smiling at her.
“Midge, why-” the girl’s voice choked, as if she couldn’t get the words out. “Why did you do that to your doll, honey?”
Midge looked down at the destroyed doll.
“It’s a nice toy,” the girl said. “Do you want me to fix it?”
Midge hesitated, reluctant. She glanced back at the kitchen, but Mam was busy.
“Here,” the girl said. “Come here. I’ll put it back together.”
The girl reached out for the head, and Midge extended her hands, the doll in two distinct pieces.
The girl didn’t take the doll. She snatched the knife from Midge’s hand, and with her other hand, she grabbed Midge by the back of the neck, pulling her closer.
Midge stumbled forward a few steps, and felt the knife press against her chest, over her heart.
“Andrea!” the thin girl gasped.
“Sorry,” the heavier girl murmured. Her voice cracked. “We really need a hostage. There has to be some way to get out of here. If they break the chains-”
Midge could smell the girl. Traces of sweat, of blood, but sweeter smells too, like fruit, in the girl’s hair.
Mam got the first pick of every meal. She had the babies to feed. By the time everyone else had eaten, there wasn’t much for Midge.
Her stomach rumbled.
She ignored the knife, leaning in close, and bit into Andrea’s collarbone.
The knife penetrated her chest. She barely felt the pain, in the midst of the exultation. The joy of food. Of warm food. Meat.
Her hands gripped the girl’s upper arms, and squeezed. She felt the individual parts snap and break. With each struggle, every jerk or shove, she didn’t lose her grip, be it tooth or finger, but reaffirmed it. Her jaws locked, like the junkyard dogs in Mal’s scrap heap, or the weasels that scurried in the woods.
The boy on the one side and the girl on the other grabbed her, hit her, screamed in mutual stark terror, but they didn’t dislodge her.
It took Mam to dislodge her, hauling her away from the food with enough force that the bit of bone she was gripping with her teeth broke. The screams of the three renewed.
“I told him,” Mam spat the words, red in the face, every few words punctuated by a shake that made Midge’s brain go all woozy. “I told your Pa, you’re wrong somehow. Now you’ve gone and ruined our dinner. How do you make sausage when the blood’s all over the danged bedroom floor?”
Midge was frozen in fear.
“He’ll listen now,” Mam said. “Treat you like Mal’s bitches, we will. Lock you away.”
Midge didn’t, couldn’t resist as her mother hauled her outside.
Her Pa couldn’t resist either.
“Ah, my ‘skeeter,” her father said, almost mournfully, as he saw the pair approach. “What have you done this time?”
Midge didn’t know what to say or do.
It was two minutes before she was shoved into the storehouse. The shack. The door was shut and barred.
Put away with all the other broken and discarded things. Many were things taken from people who took a few too many wrong turns, like Shawn and Andrea and the other girl.
There were no windows. It was okay. She was good at seeing in the dark.
She pulled the knife out of her chest, and tossed it aside, sitting down in the corner with a hand over the wound, waiting.
The dullness of it was the second worst part.
She counted things, like Mal had told her, sticking to the things that could be counted with fingers and toes. She moved piles aside. She told herself stories in her head, spinning variations of stories her Mam had told her when she was smaller and they hadn’t yet known she was odd. Mostly mute and big for her age.
But the hunger was the worst part of all.
She caught the bugs and scarfed them down before they could crawl through her fingers. She chewed on an old leather boot until it was soft and tore the soft bits and ate them.
There were rats, too. Best of all.
She learned where to hunt them, crawling further back into the shack, moving things so they’d move in certain directions or get cornered, or have things fall on them.
She crawled further back and further back still.
Until she found her way out.
The grass was grayer and the trees didn’t have leaves. The sky was black, and a heavy mist hung over everything.
It was cold, but the cold didn’t bother her.
Bugs bit her, but she was used to that.
The ground broke away underfoot, like ice over ice water, except it was only sludge beneath, but she was strong, and she could keep moving forward until it was solid again.
She found the quiet little town, the place where it was almost easier to live outdoors than to risk going inside. Bad things lurked here. Some big, some smart.
She settled in, living on the fringes at first.
Not much different than life had been before. It wasn’t much of a journey from there to here. Here, she ate rats too.
And when people came along, more than one, she hid.
When a person, just one, came along, she followed. She waited until they were asleep, she snuck up on them, and she broke them. She ate her fill each and every time.
The first time she saw a Pa and a Mam was the first time she went after people when there were more than one. She ate her fill then, too.
Her days were punctuated by hunting, scavenging, waiting, sleeping, and eating.
She stopped caring if they were asleep. She stopped caring if they were alone, if there were three, or if there were eight. They ran when they saw her anyway.
The door to the shack opened.
Her instincts were honed. Even in the bewilderment of being home again, she didn’t waste a heartbeat.
She lunged, catching the man by the head in both hands. Easy, when his head was only as high as her shoulders were.
She took off his head like she’d taken her doll’s.
She hurled it at the next man, and knocked him off his feet.
Grabbing the headless body with both hands, she hurled it at the third man.
She didn’t get much farther than that. There were others, and they were guarded by dogs. The dogs spoke like men spoke, and the men spoke like the priest Mal had taken her to meet when she had first learned to walk, their voices a drone and a song and even posher than posh. Proper, careful, old words.
She saw her Pa. He was standing in a circle that had been drawn on the ground, head bowed. He had more scars, and more gray hair, and his lips were thinner. He was old. He wore only overalls, no shirt, and held a tree saw in each hand. There was blood on the blades.
Mam’s body was on the ground not far from him, headless, thrown into a pile with all the others. Even Biff and Jory, who were almost halfway to being adults.
Stopped with words and dogs and circles.
But their words couldn’t stop her, and it was funny that the men seemed to think they should. She killed two more before they thought to actually attack her.
She was strong. She didn’t even slow down as they stuck one spear through her stomach or a sword through her arm. She shoved one into the side of the house with enough strength to put a hole in the wall and a lot of holes in the man, from bits of house.
But, in the end, they got her. She kneeled as the burdens their words put on her shoulder grew to be too much. She watched through glaring eyes as they painted a circle around her.
“You’ll say the words,” one of the strangers told her.
She didn’t disagree. What did it matter? She said the words. She agreed to the deal, whatever it was.
“You’ll come when you’re called,” the stranger said, his voice tight. Upset about the people he’d lost. “Midge, I hereby banish you. Hear my words…”
“Midge?” her father rasped the words. “My ‘skeeter.”
She didn’t respond. She only took a moment to shut her eyes and feel the cool air on her skin, to smell a place that was alive, not forever dying. Before she opened her eyes again, she was banished. Back to the place at the rear of the shack, with people to hunt and food to eat.
She was stirred from a nap by someone speaking her name.
“Geez,” a voice. “You go a while without thinking about just how big she was, but then you see her, and… she’s big.”
Midge looked around. Her breath fogged in the air.
A house on a hill, woods at the edges. A town sprawled beneath.
She wriggled her toes, squeezing snow between each toe.
“I’m nervous about this,” someone said. “Last time…”
“The binding was imperfect,” another someone said. “We need strong, if we’re going to make it. Midge is strong.”
Midge turned to look. The last voice… a boy in a mirror.
His face crawled with branches, his hair was so grimy it didn’t move when his head did. When he blinked, six different beady eyes that peered between branches also blinked, slightly out of time.
She’d hunted his type too, more than once. Not a hunt that ended in food, but satisfying all the same. Made her think.
“She can’t come in the house,” a girl said.
“She’ll freeze out here.”
“I don’t think she will.”
“Can we give her a blanket, or anything like that?”
“We need to focus on summoning more help, and I really don’t want to leave Andy alone. Even with his injuries.”
“I’m getting her something anyway,” the girl said.
“We agree on that,” A taller woman said, arms folded. She glared at the mirror. “If he dies, it’s on you.”
“I know. But Alexis is helping him.”
Midge watched the discussion continue.
The girl emerged from the house, two fur pelts in her arms.
No, not pelts. Coats.
“I know these probably don’t fit,” the girl said, laying the coats down on the snow, before backing up. “But I thought maybe they’d help?”
Midge stepped close, and smiled at seeing the girl stumble back three steps in quick succession, running.
She liked it when they ran.
But she’d been called like this before, and this calling was proper. She would obey until they made a mistake.
She bent down, collecting the coats. Too small. They wouldn’t fit her if she was half the size.
Still, she wasn’t stupid.
She did up the buttons, putting the buttons of one coat in the holes of the other. She lifted the resulting garment up to her shoulders, and worked her arms into the sleeves, tearing them at the seams until her arms were through.
“That works. Midge? Stand guard,” the girl said, “You have free reign to kill and maim anything that isn’t human, unless they’re someone you see standing here before you, or they say the password, ‘birds and trees’.”
Midge nodded her agreement.
“Good. Great,” the girl said, turning back to the group. “There’s something reassuring in thinking that we can’t summon anything much worse.”
“I’m not so sure,” the boy in the mirror said. “We’ve had a lot of non-answers, a lot of Bogeymen were very recently summoned and put down by witch hunters, going back to the Abyss. I almost suspect that a few locals have summoned some things to deny us the chance to. None of the ghosts in Grandmother’s records are responding, and the goblins are Maggie’s schtick. Doesn’t leave a lot of options. We’re running low on convenient allies and especially low on time. That leaves us with the inconvenient ones.”
“What’s more inconvenient than Midge?”
Midge didn’t hear the remainder of the conversation. She stared off into the distance, at this dark, beautiful place, and she saw the sunset, dark red, as the sun was a sliver at the horizon.
A spark of flame, sweet grass burned.
A voice sang, undulating, in time with a drum.
Herbs were thrown onto the fire.
Other substances were thrown into the fire.
A dozen minds within the house exploded with new sensory information, visions, hallucinations, thinking further, even as those thoughts meandered. The typical limits and defenses crumbled. The minds became truly innocent.
The singing rose in intensity.
The fire blazed.
The spirits exulted, dancing among one another, into one another.
They stuck, they bound to one another.
More grass joined the fire. The smoke changed from a clean white to black.
The spirits tore apart then rejoined, one spirit leaving a part of itself behind as it separated itself from the mass, then tried to find a better position, suiting its own need for worship and attention, for power, for placement in the grand harmony of how it all was put together.
The singing grew more intense, until each sound sounded like it caused pain to utter. There was heartbreak in there, loss and pain. Anger, all the wilder and more dramatic for the herbs in the smoke.
The tears in eyes wasn’t from the smoke alone.
The spirits collected and gathered, drawing in the emotion, feeding on it, altering themselves.
A greater spirit, the least of gods, the line was thin between the two.
They wore the form of a bird.
They opened their mouth to make their terrible piercing noise, a croak. Or a guttural cry. It depended on the listener.
It opened its mouth, to croak, to cry.
It ruffled its feathers.
There was only the crackle of burning grass, now. No singing.
The singer’s voice was hoarse as he spoke in Algonquin, “Cause them heartbreak. Do it until they have suffered what we have three times over.”
The spirit-bird cried out its response.
It flew from the building of interwoven wood.
It viewed the world through the eyes of a spirit. A web of connections. A tree was only a tree in the shade it gave to the ground below, to the relationship of wind to branch and air to leaf. A man was only a man in relation to those he knew, to the wife and children he supported, the house he owned and the job he worked.
The crow soared, and it saw things as greater or smaller by the good they did the people and things around them.
The crow found the brightest places, and it found a place to land.
One of the bright things was a governess, kind, looking after children that weren’t hers, because their parents had passed.
The crow watched until they had gone to sleep. It undid the latch and let itself inside.
A medallion, a precious heirloom, was moved to a box owned by the governess’ favorite orphan boy. A collection of trinkets and funny stones, buttons and one mouse skull.
The movement was careful. The thread that tied the governess to the heirloom was still strong. She would find it, and she would be hurt. Damage would be done that was irreparable. A small amount of damage, but damage all the same.
The bird waited for a day, watching through a window. The box was found. The bird observed the shouting, the brief, three-stroke whipping the boy suffered, saw the tears and felt the boy’s sense of injustice, aimless.
That night, the bird moved the medallion to the boy’s keepsake box a second time.
It didn’t stay to watch this time. It was a little bigger, a little stronger than before.
With that strength, the bird took up a pen, and visited a letter. One woman’s name was erased, ink drawn from paper to pen, another woman’s name written in its place, with the same ink and the same penmanship.
This, the bird stood by to watch.
It wasn’t a dramatic incident. The hurt and confusion were profound and quiet. The man’s wife was too proper to speak of the subject, or to even confront her husband, but it hurt her as if she’d been stabbed. Her husband loved another woman?
He did. His own doubt ate away at him. The bird watched him twist and turn.
It took four more pushes, four small incidents and well placed items. A flower favored by the woman he wasn’t married to, on his doorstep. A trace of her scent, tracked onto his pillow while he slept.
The man made his advance the day he heard her name whispered in the wind, conjured by the crow’s beak. He was turned down, and broken with shame in the process. His object of affection hurt, his wife wounded deeper still.
With every act, the crow spent little and gained much. Every reaction was a form of worship. It grew.
In two year’s time, it was able to take the form of a child, in addition to the shape of the bird. It worked connections with more violence.
A small boy, Algonquin in appearance, went largely unnoticed amid the playing children of a new town. When attention started to move in his direction, he sidestepped the forming connection.
A girl sat on a bench, watching the others kick a ball around. She glittered and glowed with connections. Everyone knew who she was, as she was the daughter of a community leader. She fit in well with the flow of things, the natural course of events. When she spoke, the spirits knew, she spoke true. She remained innocent.
But the crow cared little for innocence.
A boy, forced to stop playing by the nearby teacher, sat on the far end of the same bench. He was known to many, but not in a good way. He carried a weight, the imprints and echoes of other spirits and events. His father, in particular, radiated such negativity that the boy could only carry it. The boy was a liar.
The crow found the connection between them, a thread, and touched the middle of it. It pulled. The two wouldn’t topple over the back of the bench, but they would follow the path of least resistance. Drag a string with a weight on each end, and the weights would touch.
The actual events were more happenstance. More girls sat on the bench, and the girl that had sat there shifted position to give them room.
In that same moment, the boy lay down on the remaining section of bench. In the doing, the top of his head made contact with the girl’s dress and hip.
Simpler, dumber spirits contrived to tidy up the mess of the unruly connection.
The boy experienced a moment of electric shock, running straight down the core of his body. Ever restless, he froze, not daring to move.
She noticed too, but she was striving to get along with the other girls who occupied the bench, and didn’t want to move away. She pretended not to notice.
It was, as things went, innocent. Happenstance physical contact. But it was a beginning to something.
The boy did everything he could to transcribe the event to memory. He closed his eyes, sun warm on his face, and the whole of his attention was concentrated on the coin-sized area of his head that was in and was keeping contact with a beautiful girl.
The girl looked down, and she saw his face, imagining him asleep.
It struck her that she’d never seen him so at ease. When he stopped acting the troublemaker, he looked nice.
The crow cawed and swooped past. The boy’s teacher saw him occupying the bench, and shouted at him, ordering him to stand by her side.
He loathed his teacher in that moment.
He looked back over his shoulder as he got up from the bench, and met the girl’s eye.
The touch of pink on her cheeks… that was more than a beginning, to him.
It, she, gave his life meaning.
Had the crow wished, it could have let her heal the boy of that which ailed him. The abusive father, the propensity to drink, the anger and restlessness. The boy might even have found that peace, as well as the strength needed to prove himself in the small town and become someone respectable.
The crow did not wish for this.
In a way, the boy and the girl were happier in the short term. They grew up a little, and enjoyed their romance. But romance, as these invaders called it, was a mysterious, fleeting thing. It was not true love. It inveigled.
A stolen kiss behind the schoolyard, the pair being caught. The girl spanked by her father when he heard. The pair were driven together by hardship.
The girl became a liar.
The girl found the boy’s restlessness and anger and made it her own.
They stole away from their respective homes and found each other in the woods, late at night, hearts pounding as they embraced.
The crow planned a tragedy that would darken the hearts of everyone in the little town.
It did not do so unimpeded.
Though his guess was off target, the girl’s father openly voiced his suspicion that something darker was at work. He spoke of devils working their way into his daughter’s heart.
He called for help, and help arrived.
A man of the cloth, who took an immediate dislike to the local minister. A stern, strict man, who knew things.
He was wrong about what the crow was, but he still managed to capture and bind it.
He sent it back at the ones who had created it, with a touch of added power, hostility, outrage, given freely, and the compact of the Invader’s ways of dealing with spirits. A seal, which made the crow both less of what it had been and more a part of things. A different manner of things.
The crow flew. Then it walked.
It arrived at the outskirts of the area, and it found its creator waiting, an old man.
“I knew you would come back,” the old man said, in a language the crow hadn’t heard for some time.
“They’d have me harm you,” the crow responded.
“Let me. You’re old. It won’t hurt many.”
“No,” the old man said.
The crow advanced a step. “If you don’t let me, then I’d have to hurt you indirectly. Your children and grandchildren, your home…”
“If I let you kill me,” the old man said, “They have you. They’ll use you against us. Better to destroy you or turn you back against him.”
“A canoe crosses the same river, day in, day out. Back and forth,” the crow said.
“Yes. But sooner or later, it has to stop. Each journey gets harder, more meaningful.”
The crow nodded.
It attacked, drawing a knife. It drew back, ready to throw the blade, then flung the weapon.
Stepping forward to complete the throw, it stepped onto something.
Gunpowder lit, going up in a moment. A symbol appearing in a puff of smoke, burned into the ground.
But the blade had left the crow’s hand a moment before.
The old man stared as the blade went well over his head, and through the wall of a building.
There was a distant roar, a scream, both from the same young man.
The crow bowed his head, folding his hands in front of him.
“I won’t ask what you just did,” the old man said.
“Don’t apologize. Don’t speak,” the old man said, his voice pained. “Take what I give you, and use it against them.”
“I don’t think you have anything strong enough to send me back,” the crow said. “Even if you did, they have my name, they have sealed me. I could stop them, make them pay, but when I was done, the next one could call me, and I’d be bound to act.”
The old man nodded.
The screams were joined by others.
Anxiety was writ large over the old man’s face and body.
“Then take what I give you, use it against them. Let the ones who bound you live, but never let them call you without paying a price.”
The crow smiled. “Some will be strong. I don’t think there’s much you could give me that would let me bend the rules like that, father.”
The old man frowned, eyes closing. “Don’t call me father, wretched thing.”
The old man produced a knife, and cut his own throat. Not a clean cut, in the end, but a savage one, where strands and matter caught on the knife, and the blade turned a sharp angle at one large vein.
The crow watched impassively as the old man dropped to both knees, then carefully eased himself down to lie beside the circle.
Blood flowed out, and covered the lines that had been burned into the ground.
The crow drank of the power. All that the old man was capable of. Nine more years of a practitioner’s life, distilled into a kind of strength.
The crow was no longer a child, but a man.
It walked, instead of flying, to the town it had flown from. Calmly, quietly, it put things in motion for those who had summoned it to find ignoble ends. Two men of the cloth found with their manhood deep inside cattle.
This took more power than the crow should have used. It took years to recover. Years where the crow studied the people and watched from the periphery. It was the sort of power that it couldn’t afford to use, and diminished it forever from that moment on.
But it had almost come to resemble a person, in the bargain.
It started almost from the beginning, building its power. A piece of paper signed to the wrong person, with the property and value going to the failure of the family, not the harder worker. A meaningful gift, with all the value attached, handed over to someone else, to forge a friendship between a scoundrel and a doctor. The doctor took to using laudanum, and his patients experienced agony for it.
The crow traveled, more patient, more slow. Working in three different places at a time, traveling from one to the other, so time might pass and events might unfold in their own time.
Twice, he was called. Twice, he went.
The first to call him lost a book that he had borrowed. It would be missed by both parties.
The second found her son and heir to her power stolen away by another woman, her one-time husband’s new wife.
Searching out the lovelost boy and girl, with their ill-advised relationship, the girl now harboring anger and resentment in her heart, he found both missing.
Looking for them, following the threads that tied everything to everything else, forming the fabric of the world, he found them in an old wooden house.
An old woman, one of the crow’s people, stirred a pot. Her daughter, yet to even approach adulthood, swept.
The lovelost couple were bound, sitting at the table.
“Have a seat,” the old woman offered.
The crow did.
She served a stew. None of the foods the invaders had brought with them. A pleasant change. She, her daughter, and the crow all ate.
The bound couple remained too terrified and perhaps too stubborn to even speak.
The crow was first to finish, and took the offer of a second bowl. He stared at the dolls that sat on the shelf as he ate. Each as bright as a lantern.
They each finished at the same time, the daughter dutifully picking up the bowls and carrying them outside to wash. A chain trailed from her ankle to the hearth, long enough that she could reach the trough where water had collected, to wash each of the wooden bowls.
The old woman spoke in Algonquin, “Why did you come, spirit?”
“Do you have a claim to them?”
“Not a strong one. I merely want them.”
“So do I,” she said. “I need strength.”
“We all do,” he replied.
He watched her, and he could see the connections between her and the area, between her and the stones, and the trees. She was brighter than any living soul the crow had met, and so set in her ways that she was almost a part of the grand scheme of it all. Here, at least.
“You have time,” he told her.
“When you have the time available to you,” she answered, “The moment becomes more important than the year.”
“I’ll remember that piece of wisdom,” he replied.
“How badly do you want them?” she asked. “What can you offer me?”
“I suspect we’re both immortal. I can promise friendship, and a promise to visit now and again.”
“I could promise the same.”
“You don’t travel. I have been told that any time one of them summons me, I am to take something they value. I’ll bring you one of these things as a gift, each time I visit, and show you the rest I have collected in the meantime. Each, shown or given, comes with a story.”
She didn’t smile.
But she looked at the fire and sighed. “Tell me it will hurt them.”
“It will hurt them,” he said. “You’ll see in time.”
He drew a knife and cut the ropes.
They fought their way free of the ropes, rising from the bench and backing away in a moment. The light from the hearth didn’t quite reach them in the corner, and the shadows there were dark.
“Leave,” he spoke in their tongue.
He could feel them go, could see the connections shifting as they returned to their place in his plan.
“I was going to have them tomorrow night,” the old woman said. She rose from the bench, then sat down again, her back to him. “No need to wait, now. The blade?”
He handed her the blade.
She bent over, and she sliced deep into her own ankles. The blade wasn’t sharp, and she had to saw until she was satisfied.
“There are herbs,” the crow commented. “Medicines.”
“The pain is useful,” she said. She bent over, grabbing the chain from the floor, draping it over one knee.
She placed one hand flat on the table, then slammed the knife into it, piercing flesh and the table both. She bent over with the pain.
“A good thing there is so much of it.”
“Yes,” she said, her voice tight. “Child!”
She held the chain in her one free hand, winding her hand up in chain to get rid of the slack.
The child saw the knife piercing the old woman’s hand and fear hit her. Dull-eyed before, she pulled away.
The old woman, however, pulled her close.
“Nanaming,” the old woman said, her head pressing against the child’s, even as the child shrunk down. Her arm held the chain tight. “Ga chibwàmashe, kwagwedjitò.“
A short phrase, but the words echoed words spoken again and again.
The pair were still for a moment.
The little girl broke the old woman’s grip, backing away.
The old woman, in turn, looked at the girl, then at the crow, eyes wide with fear.
“Mother?” the old woman asked the child.
“Once,” the child responded. She stepped into the bedroom, then returned. A key in hand. She undid the shackle and rubbed her wrist. “You’re the mother now, for a little while longer.”
The old woman tried to stand, and fell to the floor. She howled in pain as her hand wrenched where it was skewered to the table.
“Easy,” the child said. “Go gently. You should already feel your body going numb. There will be a moment of panic, a fluttering of the heart, and you’ll feel no more.”
The old woman stared up at her, mute. “The dolls?”
“You’ll join all the ones who came before,” the child assured her. “You’ll keep the children company until the bones that hold the body upright crumble and the hairs wither.”
True fear struck the old woman, but she didn’t have the strength to move.
“Dangerous,” the crow commented, as the old woman slumped. “Every generation?”
“Not too dangerous, with practice,” the child said.
“I could help.”
“I trust myself more than I trust you.”
The crow touched the table, brushing at the bloodstained wood with one hand. He felt the notches.
“Twenty-three times?” he asked. “You only have so many dolls.”
“The years take them. I bury the remains around the house. The first four are at the cornerstones. Far more than twenty-three. I used rope before.”
“Where do the children come from?”
“The question is where the men come from.”
She didn’t elaborate, and she didn’t ask what would become of the pair settling in the nearest town.
They’d see, given time.
Corvidae appeared in a flurry of feathers.
He glanced around, at the circle on the floor, then at the group of practitioners.
The witch hunters too.
“Again?” he asked. “Where is Rose?”
“Occupied,” the monster in the mirror said. “You don’t need to know.”
“I see,” Corvidae said, smiling. “What am I doing, then?”
“I don’t trust you in the house, but we still need help. I’m betting that someone will want to see how things play out. They’ll probably assume we’re busy and they’re too tough to take out, and venture out of safer territory. Find them, distract them. Don’t hurt innocents or civilians. Only the local powers, and only those hostile to us.”
Corvidae managed a bow.
“Go. The sooner the better.”
Corvidae stepped free of the circle.
In the hallway, miss Alexis was letting the other members of the family out of the basement.
“Don’t-” she started.
But Corvidae was adept in altering the connection between the bomb mounted on the door and the surrounding environment. He opened the door and slammed it behind him.
“Don’t!” he heard miss Alexis ordering the others.
Corvidae walked merrily down the long driveway. He could see eyes glimmering in the darkness, ready to siege the house.
Much too enjoyable. Ups and downs, including a few trips to the Abyss, to learn the right details needed to send others to the Abyss, and to pick up a proper name. Now it was time.
He laughed, and it was a high croak of a laugh, a guttural cry.
His thumb brushed the lock of black hair that was tied around his right ring finger, easily mistaken by the unwary for a ring. A certain mirror had gone missing, a tome in mirror form, with a denizen within. That one could wait a century or two. Better to leave it alone, let it work its effect on miss Rose, and in the end, if an opportunity arose and certain individuals got angry enough, perhaps one of his people could benefit.
What would he get this time?
The water was warmest close to the lakebottom.
Even in winter, the frigid water here was better than the warmer water there. It was clean, and it sang through her gills, clear and fresh. She was more durable than she looked.
Here and there, she managed to scrounge up something in hibernation, buried within the coarse, near-frozen sand of the lake.
She could relax. The black fish didn’t chase her here.
Happy, happy. She twisted around herself. letting her fins flare out to arrest her movement, then flicking her tail twice in rapid succession to launch herself forward.
Company would make her happier still.
Someone called her name.
She recognized the voice.
Green Eyes, if you’d hurry it up-
A light flashed. She didn’t wait for it to take form as a door or whatever.
“-it would be very much appreciated,” Blake finished.
She made a big splash as she broke the surface.
The bathroom was bright, the gathered crowd a little out of sorts.
“Jesus,” a boy she didn’t recognize said. He looked almost like Blake, but with finer features. And no branches or birds or any of that. Clean.
She liked Blake more.
“Green Eyes,” Blake said. He was standing in the middle of the bathroom mirror, above the sink. Black paint had been scraped off with a chisel or some similar tool.
“Blake,” she said, smiling.
“Man, those teeth,” the Blake-family-member said.
“I’m not sure if I should be wowed or disappointed,” a black-skinned boy in the hallway said. “Leaning toward wowed.”
Blake spoke, “We need help, do you want-“
“Yes,” she said. She put her arms on the edge of the tub and lifted her tail over. “I can help.”
“Hi!” the bird-morsel said.
“Hi,” Green Eyes replied.
“Thanks for that,” Blake said. “We’ll catch up later.”
“Stay out of the way of the innocents on the ground floor, and the one we’ve got in the bedroom across from you. They’re… complications for the enemy. Don’t eat humans, don’t eat Evan.”
“Please,” the bird-morsel said.
“I’ll be good,” Green Eyes told Blake, still propping herself up on the side of the bathtub.
“Here we go,” Blake said. “Clock’s ticking down, there aren’t any great options left. Everything else that’s worth summoning was summoned in the last few weeks, killed, has specific rules, or some other complication we can’t work with.”
“You’ve got odd friends,” Blake’s relative said.
“Yes,” Blake replied.
“I remember when the family got together, I was jealous of-”
The town bell tolled. Green Eyes liked the town bell.
A second toll.
“Sorry, was going to say jealous, but…”
“I don’t know,” Peter said. “Paige, Molly, and-”
“Me?” Blake asked.
With the fifth toll marking sundown, the house shuddered.