“Here!” Green Eyes called out. “Found one!”
Wood popped, snapped, and creaked as I approached. I started to duck low, beneath the lowest branches of the trees that clustered in the corner of one back yard, but changed my mind. Closing my eyes, I walked through the tangle. Where ice-laden branches bent to the point of breaking, they hooked themselves on the holes in my body. I could feel the wood shift, much as it had when it had been gaining footholds in my flesh, crawling, shifting position, the little pieces I took in finding places at the edges of the gouges, holes, and other wounds.
“Goblins, probably,” Green Eyes observed.
“Safe bet,” I said.
“Huh?” Evan asked. He started to make his way through my body, and started to poke his head out, when I covered his eyes.
It quickly turned into a game of whack-a-mole, as he shifted position, poked his head out, and was blocked before he could take in the image. “You’re not letting me see this? You know the kind of horrible gunk I’ve seen? Old gobby Mcnailface back there? People dying? I bit a man’s eye. You going to tell me this is-”
He managed to worm his head out and around the edge of my hand.
“-blegh,” he said, before retreating back inside.
The body was arranged in the tree, more akin to an octopus than a human being, if it had even been human to begin with. Every limb was broken in multiple places, joints popped out of sockets, skin a bruised purple-black where it had been stretched, wrapped around the thorny tree branches. Fingers and feet had been broken and bent backward, wrapped around and nailed in place, not with any precision, but more ‘nail until it stays where it is’. Branches behind the body had been broken off, the points of wood penetrating back and buttocks to hold up the corpse.
The least broken arm had come free, and dangled at the side, long since frozen. Bits of bark and splinters under the nails marked where the dying individual had tried to claw free. Fresher than the blood under the nails, marking it as one of the last things the individual had attempted.
Maybe it was better that Evan hadn’t looked long enough to see the smaller details.
“They didn’t even eat him,” Green Eyes said.
“Wasn’t the point,” I replied.
“What was the point?”
“I guess they wanted people to stumble onto it,” I said. “Sunrise is soon, and goblins can be stupid. Maybe their desire to horrify and alarm overrode their desire to avoid karmic backlash.”
“Hm. It’s more than that, isn’t it?” Green Eyes asked.
I glanced at her.
“If they were that stupid, they wouldn’t have lasted this long.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Well, it’s a crazy night. Or do you think there’s more going on?”
“There was this one place near the cistern, back in the dark waters, this one place that I could swim to where the bodies sometimes collected, a bunch of goblins made displays like this. I could get food there if I was quick enough to grab the bodies before they fished them out. But the reason they did the displays, I think, is they were marking territory.”
“You think that’s what these goblins are doing?” I asked. “Staking a claim?”
I cut one branch with the Hyena, and bent another until it snapped. The body was stiff with cold, but it still flopped forward, mangled head on my shoulder, skin cracking and breaking as much as it bent, where the joints weren’t connected. Like a child’s oversized stuffed animal, or a macabre dance partner.
“Going by what I know?” Green Eyes asked. “Sure.”
“Meaning they’re planning to stay a while,” I said.
She didn’t reply to that.
I moved through the thicket, carrying the body, and laid it out on the road.
The road, at least, was black. If any blood flowed, it wouldn’t raise suspicion.
I glanced at the satyrs, who were hanging a distance away. Keeping watch, supposedly. Mostly talking.
Kneeling, I unzipped the remains of the corpse’s jacket, then tore off a strip.
I laid the strip across the eyes.
“How come?” Green Eyes asked.
When I looked up, she was lying atop a snowbank, looking down at me and the body.
“It’s not intact enough for me to do the polite thing and close the eyes,” I said.
“Doesn’t work anyway,” Green Eyes said. “The body keeps them open. It gets weird if you try, and they keep opening their eyes. I learned pretty fast, you have to look at them as meat. Once they’re dead they’re gone.”
I cut, using the Hyena.
Green Eyes kept talking, settling her chin on the back of one hand. “Gotta look for the light in people’s eyes, instead. That’s where the person is. Not always good, but still people.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Might be a little biased, given my situation, but I like the idea that the person is inside. Not the body.”
“Why do you think I like you, you knob-head?”
Evan made a sound, like he was suppressing a laugh.
I found that several ribs were cracked. I cut away flesh, fat and connective tissue, a cut along one spot, moving on after the initial incision. By the time I returned to the first spot, the Hyena’s tendency to twist and exaggerate the wounds had pulled flesh away for another slice.
Once the broken ribs were exposed enough, I pried them free. I inserted the new ones in alongside the old, broken ribs.
“You don’t want to eat?” I asked.
Green Eyes made a face. “Remember that cistern I just mentioned?”
“Yeah, I learned my lesson. The goblins threw some back in the water, after fishing them out and doing things to them.”
“Glass shoved into the skin, twists of metal, rusty razor wire jammed down the throat. Worse. Not stuff you want to bite into.”
“Ah,” I said. The arm was too broken to salvage. I turned my attention to the lower spine.
“When you get hungry enough, you’ll eat anything. I kept going back. They had a net, with fishhooks and other things at the places where it was knotted. I think they made it out of hair. Now I smell goblin stink and I lose my appetite.”
“Gosh,” Evan said. “Making you lose your appetite? Goblins are amazing.”
“Shush, you,” she said.
“Gosh,” he said, for emphasis.
“Save your energy for healing, so you can come out and I can swat you.”
I pulled the section of spine free. “Evan, I might not be around forever. I’d work on making friends with Green Eyes, just in case. And heads up, coming in.”
I maneuvered the spine in through the gap in my side that I’d originally opened to access the spirits within me.
“Oh,” he said. “And pshh. Green Eyes and I are buddies, right?”
“Yeah,” Green Eyes said. “We’re buddies. You promised me chicken nuggets and that’s almost as good as saying I can eat you after you die. I kind of want to see how you do it. Get the nuggets.”
“Exactly. See?” Evan asked. He mocked a laugh, speaking in a monotone. “Ha ha. Nuggets. So funny, now that I get the joke.”
I waited, holding the spine in position while the wood worked its way around it, much like roots might grow around stones.
I let go.
“You’ve been grouchier,” Green Eyes said. “Ever since you ducked in there.”
“I wanna fly!” Evan said. “Flying is great, then that goblin butt had to go and shoot me. I’m useless.”
“You’re not useless,” I said. “You think I would’ve walked away from the end of that fight with the goblin without your company?”
“Okay. In the interest of giving you something to do… I want you to visualize.”
“We’re near the faerie house. It’s at eleven o’clock. Hillsglade is at two o’clock, maybe five blocks to the northeast. I know you mostly looked from overhead, but can you remember the layout of the city? I know Rose had you scouting Behaim houses, and we need to find some Behaims.”
Evan squirmed his way free of my body, poking his head out at the collarbone. He still had a red gouge running along the back of his head, feathers sticking up around the wound. “Um. This is the street with the bad Christmas decorations? There’s a Rudolph with a hole in it?”
“Over there,” I pointed. “A bit worse for wear after the goblins passed by.”
“Ew. Is that a real-”
“Which way, Evan? This detour cost us time, but I don’t think Green Eyes would have left me alone if I missed the chance to shore myself up.”
“Nope,” Green Eyes commented. She hadn’t moved from her resting position atop the snowbank.
“That way,” he said, pointing due West.
Seeing me stand and brush snow off me, the satyrs seemed to recognize that I was ready to move, and headed over to join us.
“We’re going to Hillsglade House, then we’re heading that way. Next part of the plan is to work against the Behaims. Go communicate with Jeremy. Tell him what we’re doing. Sandra’s done, but if we’re going to balance the scales and get things so we can all deal with Johannes, we’re going to need to hit the Behaims where it hurts. We don’t have long, so… let’s do what we can. We’ll meet you over there, if all goes well.”
The two satyrs nodded.
They made good time, running off.
“Trust me,” I said. I picked up the body, and draped it across my shoulders.
Couldn’t leave it for people to find. Not outside a random house.
Who was cleaning up? At a certain point, things had crossed a line. This wasn’t a mess that could be cleaned up before dawn, even with a concerted effort. Even if every genie, practitioner and even goblin chipped in to help.
Corpses. Monsters. The most prominent house in the entire town, Hillsglade House, had broken windows, bodies, and debris littering the area around it.
“Um,” Evan said. “So, you said Hillsglade House? Isn’t that the wrong way?”
The bell continued tolling.
I noticed movement. A dark figure at the periphery, shrouded by the general blur of darkness, stalking me much as I’d stalked the Duchamps.
Evan and Green Eyes’ heads turned at roughly the same moment mine did.
Problem was, they were focusing on other imminent threats. I, standing to Green Eyes’ left, looked right. Green Eyes and Evan looked left.
Evan noticed, looking between me, Green Eyes, and the two directions.
“Aw, crap,” he said.
“Surrounded,” Green Eyes observed.
I kept moving, as the Others approached from our left and right. Crossing the street at a brisk pace.
By the time I had entered the street opposite, they had reached the corners of the intersection. They started walking along the sidewalk, thirty meters back.
“We know those guys,” Evan said.
Why did that fill me with more concern than if they were utter strangers?
An Other dropped out of the sky, landing in front of me.
Not a bogeyman, to all appearances. Where a bogeyman generally looked like something had been exaggerated, twisted, cut away and patched up until something had come together, in an extreme or in a single way, this thing looked like an artist’s work, and it was colorful, clean. The feathers were more ornamental than functional, like a headdress from one of the First Nations, but they extended to wings, as well as a general mane. His face was covered by a stylized wooden mask with a beak, painted gold and white.
If it weren’t for the taloned bird-feet that extended from knee down, I might have pegged him as an archetypical angel that just so happened to have red-and-gold feathers.
His hands, as he drew his wings back to reveal his torso, complete with a painted wooden breastplate, were taloned as well.
He drew a short sword from his belt.
“This one isn’t familiar,” I remarked.
“Along for the ride,” one of the Others spoke, behind me.
I turned, moving to one side to keep the feathered Other in my field of view as I did so.
The faceless woman and her companion, who had a head like a burn victim, lips and nose burned away, teeth and eyeballs exposed, almost too white. His face was almost exaggerated with the burn, his flesh red and raw where it wasn’t black. The Revenant. The dead man that had returned.
“And now I’m hungry again,” Green Eyes said.
There were more Others approaching.
“I don’t have time for this,” I said.
“I know,” the Revenant responded. He was surprisingly articulate for someone without lips. “Why do you think we’re here?”
“Revenge?” I asked. Our last encounter had ended with Alexis and Eva setting his head on fire. He’d been trying to kill my extended family members and friends.
He shook his head, taking his time.
“Don’t keep us in suspense,” I said.
He turned, comfortable enough in the here and now to let his guard down, exposing his back to me.
“We’ve been manipulated. Sent this way and that by the bell, and by practitioners. My friend here was driven halfway up the wall by the tension here. The bell let up, and I thought we had a moment to think for ourselves. Some of the others have been noticing that they’re an awful lot stronger tonight. There’s something going on.”
“Sure,” I said. “There’s a lot going on.”
“Something specific,” he said. “We went to go find answers, and we were headed off by the young Alister Behaim. He sent us here, suggesting that we could get the answers we wanted if we ran into you.”
I closed my eyes. “Right. Of course.”
“We’ve been here for a little while, understand, my friend and I. We know how this works. We know Alister. And, I’d like to think, we know when we’re being manipulated. He knew what you were doing, and he decided we’d make a good obstacle.”
“I can see that,” I said. “I expected him to intervene later. When we were actually squaring off against the Behaims.”
He couldn’t quite smile in the conventional sense, given how his burned face exposed most of his teeth in that ‘smile’ that all skeletons seemed to have, but the change in his expression did reach his cheekbones, which rose up toward his exposed eyeballs.
“I went after your kin, your kin took my face off. No permanent damage done either way,” the Revenant said. “Let’s spite little Alister, yeah? He thinks he can manipulate us, I say fuck him. Let bygones be bygones?”
When bygones consisted of attempted familicide and mutilation?
“Sure,” I said. “I’ll swear on it if you do. To be a decent ally.”
“I swear we’ll be allies to you, or to leave you be. Can’t promise to be with you through thick and thin, but you won’t have me champing at your heels during the thin.”
“Good enough,” I said. “I swear the same.”
He did that smiling-despite-lacking-a-face thing again, and gestured.
All in all, eight Others joined us, before we’d crossed one block. I moved briskly.
“We going to assassinate Behaims?” Evan asked. “That’ll be a little weirder than anything else tonight, I think. Strangers, okay. But I’ve been watching Behaims and I know their faces. It’s like in a video game, you know how you play, like, Fray, and-”
“What’s Fray?” Green Eyes asked.
“Fighting game?” Evan asked.
“I know Fray,” the Revenant said.
“I don’t know what Fray or fighting games are,” Green Eyes said.
“Okay, well, you’re brawling with these other characters, and you fight them and when you win two rounds you win, right?”
“Well, what I’m saying is it’s like, when you play for way too long, you get to this point where you’ve fought Bat a hundred times and you see him and he’s kinda easy if you know how to deal with him so you feel almost fond of him? You know anything like that?”
“Yeah,” the Revenant said.
“No,” I said.
“Not really,” Green Eyes said. “But it reminds me of something?”
“Pshh,” Evan said.
“Oh, wait, now I remember!”
“I kind of liked the pregnant sewer rats, before. The ones that are the size of a dog? They were slower. Easier.”
“Well,” Evan said. There was a lengthy pause. “There you go. Take what I can get. That’s how I sort of feel about the Behaims. They’re the bad guys, but do I really want to go after them like that?”
“Don’t worry,” I told him. “We’re not after the Behaims, exactly.”
“If one presents themselves, and they’re one of the sketchier ones, backing the wrong system, being more of a problem than they could ever be a solution… then maybe. But that’s not what we’re after.”
“What are we after?” Evan asked.
“I’m quite interested in the answer to this question, myself,” the Revenant said.
“We need to knock their legs out from under them,” I said. “For the Duchamps, it was the husbands. For the Behaims, it’s their well of power. To access that, we’re going to need information, and we’re going to need something else. With luck, we’ll find it at Hillsglade House.”
We were two blocks away, if that. Very few of the Others that were with us were the types to get tired. Being dead, Bogeyman, or winged had a way of helping when it came to prompt travel.
“You may find that we have a problem on that front,” the Revenant said. “For one thing, when we ran into Alister…”
He trailed off. I picked up the statement. “…It was at Hillsglade House.”
“Got it in one.”
“You know he’s engaged to miss Rose?”
“I know,” I said.
“They’re getting their ducks in a row. You’re a concern for them.”
“I know,” I said, again.
The wind stirred. Picking up. The cold was sharper.
I looked east, and I couldn’t make out the sun itself, but I saw light at the horizon.
“I like your mermaid,” he said.
I gave him a curious look.
“Interesting,” he said. “That’s all.”
“Well, I like her too,” I said.
Green Eyes looked up at me.
“Fashion choice, a little more curious,” he added.
When I glanced at him, he pointed to the body I still carried.
“Not sure where to put it,” I said. “Moment I harvested bits from it, it became my responsibility, I think. Couldn’t leave it where it was. Body on a rooftop, it’s different. This is harder. ”
“Yeah,” he said. “There’s a reason your traditional bogeyman picks on campers, or people on vacation. Cleanup is easier. Urban city center? Gets harder. Have to get creative, or have certain talents.”
I glanced at the faceless woman.
As if to answer the question I hadn’t asked, he said, “If it’s not recognizable as human, after the fact, and you can leave it by the side of the road for a cleanup crew, there’s something to be said for that.”
Four satyrs in total joined up with us. “Jeremy’s coming.”
Hillsglade House loomed before us, as we rounded a corner, approaching the street just beyond the property’s railing-topped walls. Hollow, dark, with scarcely any light within. Plywood boards had been put up against windows, and only slivers of light escaped through the cracks.
As we drew closer, I could make out people around the house. I couldn’t look at one section of roof or set of windows without seeing something broken. Siding was gouged and torn, there was a suspicious dark brown or crimson stain on one outside wall, and more suspicious stains in the snow, where bodies had been dragged away.
The collected individuals were all Behaims.
Alister, other Behaims, including close relative of about Alister’s age standing close by. The timeless armor, Alister’s weapon. Rose.
Did Rose count as a Behaim, now?
What would I have thought, weeks ago, when all this started, if I’d known I’d ask myself that question?
Couldn’t pick a fight, not with Alister potentially being involved. He’d know, and all the trouble I went to in order to attack from another angle would be wasted. Turned on me, even.
I bit my tongue and continued my approach by the most direct means.
Up the driveway. Much as I’d approached, back when it all started, for grandmother’s inheritance.
All of this was a dark inversion of what had been.
My friends were there, on the porch, behind Rose.
The family was together, for lack of a better word. Our parents weren’t here, but I couldn’t imagine they would be. Peter, Christoff, Roxanne, Ellie, and Kathryn were there, all the same.
“Your timing is inconvenient,” Alister declared.
I spread my arms. “That’s just who I am.”
“Yes,” he said. “And look at you. You’ve made friends.”
I glanced back at the other Others.
When I looked back at the group, without meaning to, I met Rose’s eyes.
Her expression was stone cold, but I saw the lights that Green Eyes had talked about. I could sense the fear.
“We just happened to cross paths. Thanks to you,” I said.
“I only had a small role in it,” Alister replied. “Satyrs and neutral monsters. Odd, how they’re gravitating toward you, isn’t it? How you’re doing so well, and how some Others have noticed they’re stronger?”
“You’re not taking credit, are you?” I asked.
He scoffed a little.
“Trust me,” he replied, his voice quiet, but carrying. “I wouldn’t be laughing if I were responsible.”
Was he killing time? Trying to bide time until sunrise?
I glanced at my cousins.
How was I supposed to get them away from the rest of the group?
Hey, get away from that safe, secure shelter, and come with us monsters.
Alister toyed with his deck of cards.
Off to the side, the faceless woman reached down to Green Eyes’ head.
I tensed, turning.
But it was only a stroke of the hair. Green Eyes looked shocked at first, then looked up and smiled.
The faceless woman dropped down to a crouch, and withdrew a comb. She used it to get the one bad tangle from earlier out of Green Eyes’ hair.
I wasn’t happy, given the proximity between Green Eyes and the faceless woman, but what was I supposed to do about it? It wasn’t like I could make the faceless woman swear to something, given how she didn’t have a mouth. I couldn’t shake her hand, either. That was a trap unto itself.
Be careful, I willed Green Eyes.
I turned my attention back to Alister.
“You’re battle hardened, driven by the bell. I can see the wariness in your eyes, the tension in your body.” Alister said. “Rose told me just about everything. You were made to be a warrior. You settled into the role with remarkable ease.”
“I’m not sure what you’re insinuating. Because you’re doing an awful lot of insinuating right now,” I said.
“You’re inclined toward action. Right now, you’re itching to move, to carry out the next goal. It’s like a workaholic that keeps moving because if he stops, he realizes how empty he truly is. You can’t afford self reflection. But try to relax, all the same. I’m not going to fight you, unless you start a fight.”
I didn’t move a muscle.
“It’s like when you get caught in an undertow,” he remarked. “You can’t swim for shore. The current has too much pull. The tides favor you, right this minute. Sandra tried to go against you, I won’t make that same mistake. I’d rather go laterally.”
“You came here with a goal in mind,” Alister said.
I nodded. He could have guessed that much without being able to see the future.
“To move this along, I’d like to ask what the goal was. I can find out, but we’ve only got a few minutes before sunrise starts, and I’d rather act before then.”
“Destroying the reserve of power the Behaims set aside. What you accumulated over generations,” I said.
He smiled. “Well, that’s good.”
I frowned a little.
“No,” Evan piped up. “That’s not good at all. You’ve gone screwy in the head. Rose, he’s gone screwy in the head. You’ve married a lunatic.”
“Alister and I talked about this,” Rose said, her expression grim. “Hear him out.”
Every part of me was wanting to respond. To confront them, to ask why Rose was being so reserved, so scared. Ask why Alister was so smug. To talk to my friends. To make a plea to my cousins.
Even if I wasn’t sure how I’d word any of it.
“Sure,” I said, instead.
Alister held up one hand. A ring gleamed there, and it was the wrong hand to be his engagement ring.
“Behaim family crest. Knight’s helm above a kite shield bearing the Fleur-de-Lis. The ring isn’t the well of power we’ve accumulated, but it’s the key to accessing that well. If it’s destroyed, the Behaims won’t be able to access the well for a few generations, until we figure out a way to undo the damage or get at the reserve from a different angle. It’s also the symbol of my office as the leader.”
“Fancy that,” I said.
“It’s funny, but I’m the first person that’s been able to wear the damn thing on anything but a pinky finger, for a long time. My predecessors tended to wear it on a chain around their neck. Thick fingers. But I digress. The benefit of being a very old, important object is that it has very strong ties to the family. If the owner dies and is lost, the ring has its way of finding us again. Only a very powerful being or a specific scenario would be able to keep the ring from making a migration to the display case in Laird’s old house. The power of connections, connections strong enough that the Duchamps would have a hard time gaming this little system here.”
He pulled it from his finger, then held it up, peering at me through the hole.
“What are you doing, Alister?” I asked.
“Not fighting against the current,” he responded. “Sorry for all the water analogies, but you would not believe how many times I heard the ‘time is a river’ thing, growing up.”
He handed the ring to Rose.
“Connections,” Alister said.
Rose gripped the ring hard, her knuckles going white.
“Rose,” he said, nudging her. “We talked about this. If you don’t… I’ll look silly.”
“You trust him more than I do,” she said, her voice low. I wasn’t sure, but I suspected she didn’t realize I could hear her from where I stood.
He shot her a look.
She scowled a bit.
Then she threw the ring.
I had to take a step back, which was hard considering that I was standing on a slight incline, and reach out to catch the thing.
“There,” Alister said. He smiled.
“I’m imagining about twenty different ways Laird would kill you right now,” the female relative standing beside him commented.
I looked down at the ring.
“A trick?” I asked.
Alister shook his head.
“You already depleted the reserve of power?”
“It’s brimming, the well is. What’s more, we need the damn power.”
“You’re going to tell me that if I don’t play ball, my friends are going to get hurt?”
“Closer,” he said. “But I’m betting they’d come out of it okay. Their karma isn’t so bad. Your family members, a little less so. But that’s not my angle.”
I turned the ring over in my hand.
“What’s the angle?” I asked.
“In giving you the ring? To get you listening. Get you to stop, and maybe get you to relax. The power’s in your hand.”
“Okay. I won’t deny that.”
“Now that I have you listening. The plan. In six minutes, the sun rises. I have a circle and a preparation rigged, which will only take me a moment to put into effect. I can’t stop the sunrise itself, but I can alter perceptions, and I can bend the rules. Doing it will cost my family quite a bit. It’s almost as good as what you’re going for. But it’ll delay Johannes’ plan. Or you can destroy the ring, and break our power base, and deal with Johannes as you wish. There’s a chance you’d even succeed. The cards favor you. The tide favors you. Water analogy again.”
He held up a card. I couldn’t make out the face at a distance.
“Do you know the import of the tower card, in the major arcana of the tarot deck?”
“Disaster, revolution. Revelation, even. We’re due an omen in about…” he checked his watch, “…forty seconds, and that should make it all clear.”
I glanced at Green Eyes, then at my extended family members.
He paused, waiting.
The bell tolled, out of sync, making counting hard. I didn’t try to count.
I looked at my friends instead.
At Alexis, and Tiff, and Ty.
Alexis mouthed words. I suspected I knew what they were.
Alister checked his watch, then drew in a breath.
The ground shuddered violently. Everyone standing was forced to shift position. Only those by the railing, my friends, and Alister, who could lean against his knight, were able to avoid it.
The rest of Jacob’s Bell seemed to rise, as the shuddering increased.
Snow all around Hillsglade House seemed to fold, then rolled and cascaded down the hill.
It all went still.
“There we go,” Alister said.
“What the hell was it?” I asked.
“Our omen. Hillsglade House just dropped a few feet toward sea level. It borders marshland, so that might be the official explanation.”
“And the unofficial, practitioner explanation?” I asked.
“You’re due a third visit to the Abyss,” he said. “Except this time, Hillsglade House seems inclined to go with you.”
“And,” he said, “Sorry, but time is getting short. You need to realize just why the rest of the town isn’t dropping too.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Jacob’s Bell is on the way down. The only thing keeping it here are the innocents, snug in their beds. No innocents in this house, so nothing to keep it up. Now, if I don’t keep the locals from suddenly deciding to evacuate this town, which they will, shortly after waking up, Jacob’s Bell is going to become a new attraction in the Abyss, complete with a spiteful lesser god and a perpetually tolling bell. Johannes takes over, by virtue of being in charge of all that’s left of the city, and we… go down to stay, quite possibly on a permanent basis.”
He paused to let the words sink in.
“Damn it,” I said. “You win. Take your damn ring back and stop this, then.”