I’d perched on the edge of a rooftop, and I watched through curtains of falling snow as the Duchamps shifted positions. The tolling of the bell in the background had returned to normal, or as normal as a ghostly knell could get.
Green Eyes slithered away from me, her tail scraping against my wounded lower back and the back pockets of my jeans, as she approached the roof’s edge. She gripped the edge, and leaned over, elbows bent at right angles, watching.
Evan, sitting on my shoulder, was a little less dramatic. But he watched all the same.
Some of the Duchamps saw me, I knew. They could see the fact that I was looking, and trace it back to me.
But even with the bell going quiet, they were focused on their immediate safety. They maintained a fighting retreat, abandoning their position by the beach as they headed Northwest. Given how the beach here sat at the east end of downtown, their direction was toward the city proper. They were moving quickly, getting protections back in order, and communicating with the others around them.
I saw how the group moved as they came around the edge of the park. There were groups that had broken into threes – the pyromancer was part of one group, and there were two more groups that were composed entirely of Duchamp women and girls. As an Other approached, it was set on fire, left to scream and roll around in the snow. Another approached from a different direction, only to get rooted in place by a trio of Duchamps. Binding it to the ground. They gave it a wide berth, casting glances over their shoulders to make sure that the rear group was holding off pursuers.
A portion of the crowd passed them, giving a similar berth to the immobilized Other. But it only took moments. They moved on at a quick walk, and the Other fell in step just behind them.
“We’ll have to watch out for that,” I said. “They’re operating in threes. That group seems to be more offensive, given how the pyromancer is there. That’s one of the guys we’re after.”
“I see him,” Evan said.
“The other group is binding and capturing. That’s almost scarier. Once we’re bound, we’re relying on Evan to break it. Being hurt is… almost temporary.”
I saw it happen again, and I pointed. “There. Can you see what they’re doing to pull that off?”
Green Eyes tilted her head, her temple resting on my forearm, to better follow the line of my arm and finger.
“No. They’re holding up their tools and saying something,” she said. She raised her head.
The Duchamp woman nearest the group turned her head. More than one other Duchamp did the same, until most of the women who weren’t actively retreating were looking in our direction.
“I think they see us,” Evan said.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“They could do something to us, couldn’t they?”
“Be ready,” I said, but I didn’t move.
The Duchamps, in turn, didn’t come after me.
“What are they doing?” Green Eyes asked.
“Maybe they don’t see us after all,” I said. “They can’t see that well in the dark?”
“Maybe,” Evan said. “Most of them aren’t looking directly at us. Sandra is, though.”
“Sandra,” I said.
I could almost make her out in the crowd. There were an awful lot of women in winter coats and hats with long blonde hair draped behind them.
There were no cars on the street, and the Duchamp contingent made for a crowd. Like oil and water separating, the men formed one group, the women another. Not entirely, but noticeable all the same.
I saw some of the men talking. Muttering, maybe. It seemed the High Priest was a focal point in the group’s conversation. The one that they were turning to.
“Wouldn’t mind knowing what they’re talking about,” I said.
“Us. You. This,” Evan said.
“You killing people,” Evan said.
“More specifically,” I said.
Green Eyes jerked her head around, startling.
“Hi Molly,” I said, without turning.
“Expanding your senses?” Molly asked.
“No,” I said. “Evan didn’t freak out, and Green Eyes didn’t lunge. Not many people it could be.”
She approached the edge of the roof, standing just by my right shoulder.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I’m not sure what I expected,” she said. “But you promised to go after the Duchamps.”
“I did,” I said. “I am.”
“I heard you tell the bird-”
“Evan,” Evan said.
“-To save the Duchamps. The enemy.”
I nodded slowly.
She changed. I wasn’t looking at her, so I couldn’t see the full extent of it, but I was aware of her altering, to become something a little darker, a little sharper around the edges. She spoke in her less human voice. “I’m not wrong? I thought the enchantresses could be working against me.”
“No,” I said. “You heard right.”
She was silent.
Green Eyes tensed beside me. She was more focused on Molly than the Duchamp group that was passing through a downtown without cars, people, or proper light.
“If you want evil, Molly, pure unadulterated slaughter, you’re looking in the wrong place. That wasn’t the plan.”
“You convinced me to expend power.”
“For good reason,” I said. “Look. They’re already talking amongst themselves. Worrying. This isn’t about wiping them out. It’s not about familicide.”
“The hell it isn’t,” Molly said. “They want familicide.”
“If we’re lucky, they’ll fail,” I said. “If we’re lucky, we can keep hitting the weak points. Take out their power base. The Duchamps depend on their marriages to other families. If we break those, if we introduce cracks, we can break the family.”
“Cracks. By going out of your way to save them?”
“Our weapons aren’t numbers,” I said. “Not blades or guns or bindings or fire. It’s doubt.”
“And fear,” Green Eyes said. “In the middle of all that, even while you were being shot, you looked like you were standing an inch taller.”
“Fear and doubt, yeah,” I said. “They aren’t much different.”
I stood straight, testing my back. It had healed, but not completely. I couldn’t carry Green Eyes properly until it was better.
“Our enemy in all of this is complacency. The faith that everything will all work out okay. We need to shake them,” I said. “Do the unexpected, hit them where they’re weak. And these people, the Benevolent, the dabbler brothers, the Pyromancer, and the Spellbinder? They’re weak points.”
I looked at Evan.
“They’re, as far as I can tell, monsters.”
“I know,” Evan said. “Because you wouldn’t, if they weren’t.”
“Thanks,” I said.
The two groups, of husbands and wives, I noted, hadn’t quite reunited. Men on one side of the street, women on the other, walking right down the center of the car-less road, where they were free to move as a crowd rather than a line that could be attacked at different points.
I was surprised Sandra wasn’t mending the divide. I had every expectation she could…
I smiled a little.
The men who’d married into the family did too.
Sandra was paralyzed, just a little, by the fact that she was almost perfectly equipped to handle the situation. They knew what she was capable of. They were watching for it. If she tried to manipulate them, she’d lose them.
“You do this, only attacking the husbands, the Duchamps get away scott-free,” Molly said.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think so.”
I signaled, then made my way down the face of the building. My hand caught window ledge, then drainpipe, then a roof that hung over the steps. Being lightweight helped. The landing was soft in the snow, marked by the crunch through a layer or two of ice.
By the time I crossed the front yard, Green Eyes a few feet behind me, Molly was waiting. She hadn’t traveled the distance between points A and B.
She was glaring. It looked pretty intense.
“We’re declawing the cat, Molly,” I said. “Removing the horns from the bull.”
Evan perched on my shoulder.
“Cats still have teeth. Bulls still have muscle,” Molly said.
Molly disappeared, joining the shadows and the snowflakes.
“Damn articulate for a ghost,” I muttered. “What the hell is going on with her?”
“I know, right?” Evan asked. “Artakulate. She talks goodish.”
“Goodish,” Green Eyes echoed him.
“No way she’s becoming a god,” I said. “So fast? So easily?”
“I know, right? Crazy. It’d be like a ghost becoming the best bird ever.”
“Your tail okay, Green?” I asked.
“You’ve still got holes in you, though.”
“There’ll be some trees along the way,” I said. “I can grab some fallen branches.”
Evan hopped down, perching on one of the gaping hole in my side. “You’ve got some broken bones, too.”
“Don’t do that,” I said, sticking my finger under his bird feet to pry him free of his perch. He hopped from my finger to my shoulder. “And with luck, we’ll have our hands on some bones soon enough.”
They’d rigged things. They knew who I was, and they knew I was after them. With luck, I’d already planted seeds of doubt, and some of them were wondering about the fact that I’d declared that Duchamps had sent me.
Hiding from them was nearly impossible, now that they were watching. With that in mind, I stayed in plain sight.
They were moving down the street. Now that I’d caught up, I remained one block over, moving parallel with the group.
As I passed through an intersection, I turned my head, watching them.
Here and there, there were traces of fear. I could sense it, clarifying me. All the same, all put together, they weren’t that scared. Safety in numbers. They were armed with a half-dozen to a dozen different forms of practice, and they were aware of me.
I needed to create doubt. To shatter their confidence. For now, I was content to match their speed.
Green Eyes trailed a bit behind, watching my back. Evan worked to watch both of us, circling me a few times, when the Duchamps had a better sense of where I was, then looping back to check on Green Eyes when there was enough raw architecture between me and the practitioners to offer an illusion of security.
With each time we came into each other’s view, I noted my opposition. The pyromancer was in the group. I’d noted him earlier, and it was a question of keeping tabs on where he was.
Mason Hall-McCullough the Benevolent was there as well. Spry for an old man, he had white hair that was neatly cut, combed straight back from his face, and he had a trimmed white beard with a pencil mustache. Prayer beads were hung from his neck, folded over so that they formed two loops. Each bead was the size of a fist, solid wood, alternating from red to brown, and was engraved with a symbol. A smiley face, a sun, a four-leaf clover. He walked with his hands in his pockets, but his jacket was open, and he didn’t seem to be bowing to the cold of the wind, even without a hat on his head.
I reminded myself that he could be a trap. A name given because he was one of the hardest to touch.
The two brothers were somewhere in the crowd too, but being dabblers, they lacked any discerning marks, and were hard to pick out. I looked for men who could be brothers, but didn’t see anything. I didn’t want to ask Evan, because I needed him focused, and I wasn’t sure how easily his gaze could be identified with attention to connections.
The spellbinder, as far as I could tell, wasn’t here.
As next targets went, I kind of liked the Pyromancer. Career criminal, he’d gotten his wife hooked on drugs. ‘Ruined her’.
I was already pretty goddamn jealous of anyone who had someone. Knowing that he’d had it and he’d ruined it? That he’d perverted it and made it something ugly? I wasn’t a fan.
I tried not to pay too much attention to him, lest I give something away.
Sandra, I noted, was watching me. The Troll loped beside her. Big, with braided white hair clasped in place with heavy workings of iron, and an animal gleam in its eyes. Sandra moved through the group, meeting the High Priest of Dionysus near the divide between man and woman. They spoke, but were much too far away to be heard.
The wind picked up a bit. It barely bothered me now. The only flesh I had was at my face. I finished crossing the street. The back of a laundromat blocked my view of the group.
Only a half block until the next intersection, if it deserved being called that. Almost an alleyway.
Evan was lingering. Communicating something to Green Eyes.
I quickened my step as I reached the gap, to minimize how much time they had to draw a bead on me, in a mystical sense, and saw straight down the alley.
Only a moment, only a sliver of the group visible.
Something had changed.
Eyes forward, now, I searched my recollection. What I’d seen of the group before, what I’d seen after. Not quite a ‘spot the differences’ puzzle, given how the group had shuffled and some people had walked further ahead or back, but… there was something.
Troll, the thought crossed my mind, an instant before Evan whistled.
I was already moving. Picking up speed.
It came down from above, and the general sensation of its arrival was akin to a car being thrown from the rooftop. A crash, the very ground shuddering, and sudden, violent movement, as it rebounded from the landing.
Unlike the allegorical car, Sandra’s troll didn’t come to a stop after hitting ground. Without a heartbeat’s pause, it came for me.
Faster than it looked. Enough that I wasn’t absolutely positive that I was going to be able to put distance between us.
There was an eerie kind of grace to her, in the same general sense that I imagined a train going off rails was probably pretty amazing to look at. Everything about the the movements made sense in the general ‘A leads to B’ sense, and everything about her advance made me pretty damn certain I didn’t want to be near her.
She pulled a water meter off the back of the building in passing without slowing down even a fraction, tearing it free of thick metal pipes and fasteners. It was one of the bigger meters, nearly as large as a microwave, but with the general aesthetic of a parking meter.
I glanced back again, just in time to see her throw it. Again, without slowing. She simply used the forward movement to drop into a four-limbed forward lope, moving like a gorilla might.
I moved a bit to the right, still heading full-bore away from her. The water meter struck the ground to my left, hard enough that it bit through ice and snow and hit pavement with force enough to spark.
“Dodge!” I heard Evan’s voice, distant behind me.
I did. Heading left, to where there was more snow and less ice on the ground.
A trash can hit the ground, and skidded on the ice, contents spraying out in front and around me.
Hardware stuff. Boxes of paper and plastic containing individual parts, gears, and splinters of wood from crates or pallets.
As nice as it would have been to arm myself or collect something, I couldn’t afford to slow down. I couldn’t afford to lose my focus, as I risked slipping on one bit of trash or another.
Commercial stuff. Commercial buildings.
Benefit of being downtown.
I was approaching the next intersection. I didn’t get tired, but I doubted the troll did either. My focus was on watching where I stepped, trying to make my movements more efficient as I ran.
I eyed the building at the corner. A new age store of some kind. Women’s clothing, visible in the display. Cheap looking, from the security fence on the exterior windows and door to the sign posted in the window.
Evan passed me, then circled.
I extended a hand, then a finger, and beckoned.
He set down on my finger.
In the moment I wasn’t looking, just as I reached the sidewalk before the intersection in question, a satyr came at me. A headbutt.
Evan jerked. I sidestepped. I narrowly missed being hit. He grabbed at me, but fingernails failed to catch on my sweatshirt.
I switched course, heading for the Duchamps.
I saw them stop. I saw implements come out.
Enchantment was all about changing the relationship between A and B. Influencing it with spirit or general effect.
If I misled as to what ‘B’ was, the basic plan fell apart.
I switched course a second time, heading for the display window.
“Unlock!” I shouted, flinging Evan. “Then back!”
He found his bearings, and flew past the loose chickenwire fence that had been lowered around the shop window. I saw the lock pop, the security fence automatically raise.
I’d meant the door, but that worked too.
Enchantment started to settle around me. One of the teams of three. Same practice they’d employed earlier. If the relationship was between me and the ground, well, there wasn’t a lot I could do to get away from ground.
Evan returned just in time. I caught him out of the air, then gripped him, sweeping him between me and the Duchamps, much as I’d once painted lines of blood to break a connection that was being used to track me.
I heard a sound of annoyance from him. But the effect fell away. I wasn’t attached to the ground.
My first thought was that maybe someone was living in the building after all, or the rules weren’t what I thought they were, and it was every building that was barred to passage.
But the glass did break, alongside my momentum. Either the building used damn thick glass, or someone had influenced things, because hitting the glass was like hitting a brick wall.
In the moment I realized what had happened, my mind flashed to Sandra.
She’d be quick enough with that kind of enchantment, I imagined.
I caught my balance, then started off again, expecting troll hands to close around me any moment.
The troll had stopped, too, and was only just breaking into her loping gallop. Duchamps were shouting.
Had Sandra ordered a halt, out of suspicion that I’d do what I’d done earlier, leading the Other in a blind charge into the Duchamp front lines? Communicating something else?
The clothing on the racks caught on the exposed wood of my body. I used Evan to club my way free. The moment I rounded a corner, blocking line of sight, the clothing stopped trying to snag me.
The only meager light in the store came from outside, and that light dimmed as the troll’s large frame entered the building through the same window I had.
I headed for the door behind the cash. Employee entrance.
There was a crash. The Troll was destroying a clothing rack.
She hefted the remaining section, leaning back as though she were getting ready to throw a javelin.
I dodged right, but the ‘javelin’ wasn’t aimed at me.
It speared the floor, just in front of the employee’s door to the back.
On reaching it, I settled one hand on the thing, and pulled.
It didn’t budge.
I pulled on the door handle, touching it with the hand that still held Evan, and found it only opened about a half-foot.
Could I break it?
Looking back, to check the troll’s proximity to me, I could see past the Troll’s left elbow to make out Sandra, standing out in the street, golden chalice in her hands.
I doubted I could break it. If I tried anything, it would likely be hampered.
The troll was smarter than she looked, and she had Sandra to back her up.
I turned left, but the Troll moved, ready to block my exit.
I turned right, and the Troll did the same.
If I made a break for it, the troll could cut me off.
Staying put wasn’t an option, either.
I was pretty damn sure I’d lose in a fight.
She was closing the distance. her braids swayed, like flails, kept in place by locks of metal that could brain someone.
I let go of Evan.
“Did you just tinkerbell me?”
“You tinkerbelled me. Like in the movie-”
“When they shake and spank the fairy for her fairy dust. You spanked me!”
“Evan! Focus on the troll.”
“Okay. Damn troll. She’s hunted me before. Jerk.”
“Well she’s hunting me, and she’s not a weasel anymore.”
“Stoat, I think. Stoat. I asked, and she’s a stoat as a-”
“Familiar. We should run.”
“Well, let’s go,” Evan said, clearly nervous with the Troll’s approach.
The troll was getting closer.
“Up!” Evan said.
I looked up.
Cheap store. Cheap ceiling. It was a drop ceiling. Foam or drywall panels.
I lunged in the Troll’s direction. She planted her feet, hands ready.
I put one foot on the corner of the counter by the cash register, then twisted, leaping for one of the panels.
I got about halfway on the initial lunge-and-claw-forward movement. I pulled myself the rest of the way before any troll hands could grab my foot.
The moment I was entirely up and inside the ceiling, the panel beneath me broke. I tumbled to the ground, on the far side of the wall.
The troll emerged, devastating both door and doorframe, simply striding past.
I scrambled, with Evan’s help, for the emergency exit, past an office and a storage room. Evan reached the door a moment before I did. No lock stopped me.
The heavier metal door and exterior gave the troll pause.
I rounded the corner, and headed up the fire escape.
I was halfway up before Sandra’s familiar found me. The troll leaped, gripping the exterior of the fire escape, but bolts came free of the wall. She dropped down as the lower section of the fire escape broke away. I saw her head back in Sandra’s direction.
Glancing at Evan, I gestured. He flew in a lazy circle around me.
Hopefully breaking connections the Duchamps were trying to form to track me.
I leaped between buildings, enjoying the moment I was in the air, cold wind singing through me.
“You tinkerbell-spanked me,” Evan said, petulantly, ruining the moment.
“I did not spank you,” I said, looking around. “And I needed to make sure you were clear.”
“Of harm, for one thing,” I said.
“Right. Sure. Except I’m slippery and quick, so nyeh.”
“I know,” I said, stepping closer to the rooftop, glancing down to get a glimpse of the group before backing off. “But… I think it’s good if you don’t waste that slipperyness.”
The Duchamps were moving again.
Heading in the direction of houses. Sandra’s place, among others.
Once they got there, this would be doubly hard. I’d be sieging them.
“If I don’t waste- How come?”
“Because you’re going to deliver death from above, if all this goes right.”
“Death from above?”
“Exactly,” I said.
“I don’t get it. I don’t hate it, but I don’t get it.”
“It would be easier if the rooftops weren’t so covered in ice,” I said. “I mean, ice works, but…”
“But it’s not very elegant, or it’s too elegant. I’m not sure,” I said.
I checked around one heating vent, where the exhaust had melted snow, but turned more snow around it into ice. I traced it with my hand, finding more chunks that had broken away and then joined the frozen crust.
There was a path, leading from it to a nearby door into the building. There had been foot traffic here, more than a little, maybe even shoveled away, but it had since been buried under a layer of snow.
Someone had broken up the ice.
They’d broken it up with something.
“Evan,” I said. “Here.”
He unlocked the door.
Pulling it open, I could barely see inside.
But I could make out the shovel and pick, as well as a bag of salt. A notice board was posted on the wall, with dates and names. Breaking ice, the shit job for some employee downstairs who’d done something to offend the boss.
A small trash can sat in the corner, filled with food scraps and wrappers from fast food places. Breakfasts and lunches, enjoyed during breaks from the ice breaking.
Here we were, then.
I pulled the lid and plastic bag of trash clear of the can, then filled the now-empty bucket with packed salt and snow. I held it upside down to verify it wouldn’t simply fall out, even if the lid came off, then packed it more.
“Making something,” I said. I put the lid back on.
Using the pencil from the notice board, I scrawled a message on the side of the plastic can.
“A parcel,” I said, doubling down on how thick the lines were, to make them obvious.
“A parcel. Huh.”
I showed him the message on the side.
“Per request, for treatment of wife,” Evan said. “Huh?”
“Maybe it’s better to call it a missile,” I said.
“Come on outside,” I said. I looked at the pick, but decided against it. Theft was bad, karma-wise.
Standing on the roof, trying to get a peek of Duchamps, or even better, the men that were moving with the pack, men who couldn’t use enchantment to find me, I heard a scrape.
I wheeled around, expecting to see the troll.
I only saw Green Eyes.
“Leaving me behind? I can’t move that fast!”
“Sorry,” I said.
“Almost every time. If I don’t jump into the fray, I get left behind,” she said. She accepted my offer of a hand to climb over the lip of the roof.
“How’d you find us?”
“I never left the one street. I saw you go over to one side, then come out the back of the building, then go up the side. I was worried you’d kept going.
“No,” I said.
I heard another scrape.
“Shit,” I said. “Wait, did any of them see you?”
Evan looked up at me, cocking his head.
“They let you go,” I said. “So you’d lead them to me. Evan, circle-”
I heard another scrape. Something heavier.
“Around,” I said, belatedly.
Something, quite probably the troll, was climbing the side of the building.
Evan did a loop.
“Listen,” I said. “Same idea as with the big thing you guided to the Duchamps before. Just keep it on course. If you can make it slippery, and guide it to the target… do you know the targets?”
“The pyromancer,” I said. I touched the salt, checking it was still packed.
“I know him.”
“Then guide it, delay as long as you can,” I said, “Stay out of sight, catch up with us after.”
I heaved the bucket, over the building, in the direction of the Duchamps.
Tempting as it was to watch, I couldn’t afford to. I ran, Green Eyes following.
Okay, that was a lie.
On landing, feet sinking into snow, settling on my hands and knees on the snow that had accumulated on the roof, I allowed myself a glance.
The bucket was pale, but not bright. Not obvious.
Evan had spread his wings, breaking his speed. He was at the apex point of the bucket’s trajectory, but the bucket had already passed that point.
He lost it. Or was he distracted?
Neither. He dove, and veered sharply, passing the bucket, swerving. Accelerating its descent, adjusting its course.
I heard the impact, the scream.
I felt the fear.
Those two things were very different, in how they affected me. The scream was a reminder that I was dealing with humans. That I was dealing with real people with real feelings, who could somehow be grossed out and alarmed.
The fear, that was something else.
I didn’t enjoy the fear, but I did feed off it.
A part of me itched to simply leap from the building, to go after them.
A reckless, bogeyman part, hungry to take advantage of the chaos and confusion.
The troll reached the top of the adjoining building before I’d found my feet.
Green Eyes and I were already moving, leaping down to a building that was only one story tall. Then to the snow-covered roof of a truck parked in the alleyway.
The fear of the group stayed with me. I’d alarmed more than a few people, this time. The alarm persisted, and they were worried. A whole group, moving away from the rooftop in case I sent any more packages.
Evan joined us. Without my asking, he circled us, confounding connections.
I pointed, and silently, we reversed directions, hugging the base of the building.
I could sense the fear, and I could sense their general locations.
We circled around back, until we were following them.
I saw a satyr turn back, looking my way.
Evan flapped his wings.
The satyr shook its head, frowning.
His sense of smell had turned his head, most likely, but he wasn’t confident enough about it to raise a voice.
They’d come after me, and I’d still picked off one of their number.
They had started a fight, I was responding in kind.
It wasn’t right, it wasn’t good, and it didn’t qualify as justice, but in a way, it was almost just. Fitting with the way this world worked.
I didn’t like it, but I disliked it less than fighting the way this world worked and getting my ass kicked for it, losing everything I loved.
But this wasn’t a road that was set in stone.
I’d been looking for a goal, and I had it, meager as it was. Not a grandiose dream, like being normal again, or riding my bike, or fixing things.
I was going to do what I could to steer things towards a better path, and I was going to try to stay true to myself. I’d veer one way or another, along the karmic path or against it.
But I was going to be Blake, when all this was said and done.
Even if Blake was less than half a person.
I set my eyes on my next target, and gave the signal to move on.