The furniture in the living room of Hillsglade House had been moved out into the adjoining kitchen and back hallway, and fairly tidily stacked on the ledge where the window jutted out at the front of the house. The floor had been cleared, and a diagram drawn out. Clear alcohol burned in little braziers that had been set on the floor, producing blue flame. With no power in the house, the little flames were the only source of light; low to the ground.
Green Eyes’ eyes were among the only things in the room that weren’t painted in vivid shades of black and electric blue. She lurked beside me, her head at my waist level, upper body propped up by her arms, peering through her hair, much of which draped in front of her face. The green of her eyes looked out of place here.
Different Behaims stood at different points at the periphery of the octagon. Adults. Elders. I recognized Ben, and the one that had sent the clockwork soldiers after us, killing Callan. He was the one I’d failed to kill.
Alister’s demeanor was an interesting thing to see. He looked poised, supremely confident, and utterly at ease in this setting. When he walked across the diagram to the center, he didn’t miss a beat, walking over and between the lines.
He placed the ring in the center, standing on end, then flicked it, spinning it like a top.
“That’s not part of the ritual,” Rose observed.
“Theatrics,” Alister and I spoke in the same moment.
Alister smiled. I didn’t.
“By their presence, the family elders agree to draw from the well,” Alister said. “Let this ritual be completed.”
The fires went out, but the manner in which they went out was unique. It was as if they were opened at the bottom, the burning liquid emptying along the lines of the diagram.
It animated, the individual components moving. Everything rotated, circles spinning, individual components aligning.
I heard a ticking sound. A cosmic clock, slowing down.
The components of the diagram all gathered together. Like a great piece of machinery settling into place, everything came to an abrupt, town-wide halt. My heart might have skipped a beat, if I’d had one.
The blue light that ran along the lines of the diagram traced its way to the center of the circle, leaving only darkness in its wake, and then used itself up, the fuse of an old fashioned bomb sparkling its way down to the base… then nothing.
“There,” Alister said. “That buys us a day.”
“Good,” Rose replied. “Ty?”
“Be right back,” Ty said.
He shot me a glance as he exited the living room and headed down into the basement.
Flashlights were flickering on, as we collectively stood in the front of the bottom floor.
It was a fairly pointless endeavor. The breaker was thrown, and the lights came on, all at once.
Tiff shrieked. At some point between the ritual and the lights going on, Green Eyes had climbed off me and crawled over to Tiff’s side, at the far end of the room. Tiff had seated herself on the arm of the couch that had been dragged into the kitchen, Alexis sitting on the couch cushion itself. Green Eyes was on the other side, her face six inches from Tiff’s, at about the same level. Unmoving.
“Shit on me,” Peter said. “I did not need to flashback to the mermaid melting the giant man to death. Burned into my retinas.”
“Please don’t give her ideas,” Tiff said, not breaking eye contact with Green Eyes.
Green Eyes smiled, showing her teeth, then dropped to the ground, moving easily through, under, and around the pieces of furniture that had effectively blocked off the entire kitchen and back hallway.
“Try to behave,” Alister said. “Things are touchy enough as it is.”
“As the frog said to the scorpion?” a Behaim asked.
“Said me, to you,” Alister said, his voice stern. “What I’m saying isn’t for just the bogeymen and Others. It goes for you too. Don’t pick fights.”
I could tell, at a glance, that the older Behaims were not keen on being told off by an eighteen year old.
Had they expected to have a pawn they could control, who would be a more obvious target to any enemies? He’d been a more obvious target to me. Had things played out a little differently, I might have wounded him, bankrupted him of power by forcing him to undo the damage the Hyena had inflicted.
Green Eyes returned to my side. I offered her a hand, and she used it to climb up my back. She settled, her upper arms and chin resting on my shoulders, hands sticking out in front.
Better to keep her close, just in case.
“How’s your pet demon?” Alister asked Rose.
“Bound. I should check on it in two hours.”
Alister didn’t respond. Instead, he raised one hand, showing Rose his watch.
“Stopped? All clocks?”
“All clocks in Jacob’s Bell. The real power comes in when we need to smooth things over. We’re borrowing against tomorrow, adding to today. Except, as you’re well aware, given how you broke through my uncle’s barrier around this house, there’s more to some Chronomancy than simply altering time.”
“Or less to Chronomancy than altering time,” I observed.
“Ah…” Alister said. He glanced at some of the other Others in the house. The faceless woman and burned Revenant weren’t standing that far from me, and could see into the living room. “Yes. Both are true, depending on your perspective. Right now, however, our focus is on the consequences. We effectively skip a Tuesday. Certain important mail isn’t delivered. Errands are skipped. We put everything out of order. The real cost is in smoothing out the wrinkles, paying our debt to the universe for leaving things a bit out of order, and giving this enough backbone that it won’t fall apart the second it’s tampered with.”
Rose frowned. “Does that mean the time-delayed effect around the demon’s circle is paused, or is that exempt?”
“Don’t know,” Alister said. “What’s the timer?”
“Three hours. I should check it in two.”
“I’ll remind you,” Alister said. “If I can’t, someone should?”
A few older Behaims nodded in agreement.
“We expect you to hold to your end of the deal,” Alister said. “It’s not just for our sake. It’s common sense.”
Rose glanced over at Tiff, Alexis and Ty.
“Yeah,” she said. “We’ll arrange it before we move on to the next steps.”
He cut the deck, glanced at the card, then pocketed it. “Blake. A word?”
I raised my eyebrows a little.
He gestured toward the front door.
I led the way out, walking past the faceless man and burned revenant.
I didn’t like him. I didn’t trust him. It wasn’t that he could lie to me. It was a question of loyalties.
Stepping outside, I could see the sky.
The clouds had frozen overhead. It wasn’t that they were that bright or easy to see to begin with, given the oppressive darkness and the lack of light from the city itself, but they formed a tableau now. Like a cave roof overhead.
The longer I stared, the more artificial it looked. Like an oil painting.
And it was so quiet.
Green Eyes reached out and touched a snowflake that had frozen in position in mid-air. The snowflake drifted away from her touch, melting away.
“Perception,” Rose said. “Neat to see, but it’s only a trick of the mind, a great many spirits playing along. Pay too much attention to it, and you’ll start to see holes in it.”
“If it was a weaker effect, I’d urge you not to poke too many holes in it, but I didn’t make it weak,” Alister explained. “I’m half expecting Johannes to send a genie or two to start trying to undo it and speed things along.”
Rose and Alister stepped down from the front steps to the driveway, joining Evan, Green Eyes and I. Alister was in the process of pulling on a coat, Rose hadn’t taken hers off while in the house.
I expected Alister to tell my companions to leave. He didn’t.
Rose studied me, her eye taking in every bit. Including Green Eyes.
Finally, as if she’d come to a decision, she said, “Before we discussed the marriage in detail, Alister told me that he thinks someone’s pulling strings behind the scenes.”
“This abyss thing?”
“That’s part of it. We can’t be sure without the full cooperation of Sandra and Johannes, but we think there might be more going on with the number of Others in town,” Rose said. “Goblins without masters. Many of your new acquaintances.”
“Gravity,” Alister said. “As if we’re at the center of a whirlpool, and things are being drawn in. Summoning is easier, control is harder, and thanks to the involvement of the Abyss, bogeymen like you and the faceless woman are thriving, recuperating faster, hitting harder.”
“Me too,” Green Eyes said. “And the bird.”
“The bird?” Rose asked.
“Here,” Evan said. He climbed up and settled at my shoulder.
“He got a small blood transfusion earlier,” I said. “Back when the High Priest had us under siege.”
“Trying to rest. Want to fly again as soon as possible,” Evan commented.
“Mm,” she said. She pursed her lips.
Alister tilted his head to one side, then held up a hand, as if warning me or warding me off, even as he stepped closer. I didn’t move as he approached.
“May I?” Alister asked. He held up the ring.
Before I could voice my thoughts, Rose spoke up. “Go ahead.”
Evan shied away from Alister’s hand. Green Eyes moved one arm, half-cupping Evan, to shield him.
“You’re not going going to ask me my permission?” Evan asked.
“Do you want to fly again?” Alister asked.
“This is me being nice. Offering valuable power to give you flight. Pure goodwill,” Alister said. “Believe it or not, manipulating spirits is a talent of mine. I can patch you up and stall the problem of you running out of energy. I promise.”
Evan looked up at me, obviously unsure.
“Up to you,” I said. “But it’d be good to have you flying again.”
“And it would be good to keep the Abyss from getting too much of a grip on him,” Rose said. “The element of time should fit with his spiritual makeup, and that’s a void that the Abyss isn’t filling.”
“Okay,” Evan said. He shifted position and hopped up.
The wound had healed in the interim, while Evan lurked within me, but not by much.
His ring just around the end of the finger, at the base of the fingernail, Alister ran the loop of metal along the length of the wound.
Putting feathers back in order, wound closed. Evan stretched, testing, and his feathers stood on end in the process. When he settled down, he looked more like a proper sparrow than he had since before I’d left for the Drains.
“Heck yeah!” Evan said, checking out his wings. “Could do with more blood and fire for decoration, but-”
As if he couldn’t wait long enough to finish his sentence, he took to the air. A faint trail moved in his wake as he disturbed snowflakes that were no longer falling.
“See? I’m not hostile,” Alister said, backing away from me, showing me his hands, ring included. “We’re not your enemies.”
“I know,” I said. Even as I said it, I was thinking strategically. Warily.
Twice now, he’d used the ring and a favor to pacify me.
With the third, what advantage could he glean?
I spoke up, “Believe me, that thing Rose is worried about, the hostility between severed halves? It’s a double-edged sword. Her paranoia over it is one edge. Seeing me as more of a monster than I am. She’s already tainted your thinking.”
Rose narrowed her eyes.
“You’re an Other that is racking up a notable body count overnight,” Alister commented, eminently calm. “Can you name everything you’ve killed tonight? Others included? I’m betting you can’t.”
“If I could,” I retorted, “I think that would be a point against me. Counting kills would be a little obsessive, a perfect recall almost more monstrous.”
“Okay, okay,” Alister said, raising his hands. “Right. That came out as being more combative than I meant it to. I’m just saying-”
“I protected those people in there when Rose was taken away. Are you going to fault me for the Others I killed while I did that? It’s a war, Alister, and I’ve been fighting the only way the smaller force can fight. I’ve been trying to do it in a way that leaves the right people alive. So I’m pruning for future growth, rather than simply destroying.”
“Is that why you destroyed the-” Rose started.
Alister stepped between me and her, a hand raised in front of each one of us.
Green Eyes bared her teeth. Because it was easier, I shifted position, turning back so one shoulder and the mermaid head that was resting on it were both further from Alister’s hand and ungloved fingers.
“Back to what we were saying before,” Alister said. “The abyss, and our mysterious player. We all thought the wraith of Molly Walker was a little too strong for what she was. She’s only a vehicle for larger events. A gateway between here and the Abyss.”
“And me?” I asked. “Are you implying that I’m a vehicle? Did I enable this?”
I extended an arm, as if to encompass Jacob’s Bell.
“No,” Rose said. “Believe me, I wish I could pin it on you. It would make things far, far easier, if I could simply point to you as the source of the problem. Put the karmic weight for recent events on your shoulders, then get others to remove you.”
“You’re merely a player,” Alister said. “You simply happened to be a well-positioned player. The Abyss wants one thing. You gave it what it wanted, at a time and in a place where the abyss maintains a great deal of sway. In exchange, you got more of what you wanted. Fuel to keep going. Momentum. You should recognize and take advantage of that, if you’re going to keep up the same string of successes, tonight. What’s happening with the Abyss isn’t a good thing, but you gain little by rejecting it wholesale.”
“I gain more than you’re implying,” I said. “Earlier, I told myself that I’d be me, in the midst of all this. Not trying to be human, not trying to be bogeyman. I’ve got to make that call when the situation calls for it.”
“Damn shame,” Rose said.
I shot her a look.
“You’d be easier to predict if you stuck to one course,” Rose said.
I tensed a little. Green Eyes did too.
“I think what Rose means,” Alister said, interjecting himself again, “Is that you’re an ally. Our goals are the same. We want to stop people we care about from getting hurt, yes?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Yes,” Rose said.
“That means we want to find whoever is behind this chaos and stop them.”
“Yeah,” I said. Rose was nodding.
“It’s easier for us to work in concert with you if we can predict you. But you’re inherently unpredictable,” Alister said.
“Basically,” Rose said.
“You’re unwilling to take on the seal of Solomon,” Alister said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Which would make you easier to keep track of and form deals with. It would nail you down in shape, form and demeanor, stop the Abyss from getting as much traction with you, and quite possibly slow down the rate at which the rift between yourself and Rose widens,” Alister said. “If you want to maintain the balance of your Other and your human selves, this is a damn good way to do it.”
“Didn’t know all that. The answer is still no,” I said.
“Why?” he asked, with uncharacteristic emotion in his voice.
“Because of who and what I am. I’d be giving up an integral part of myself. Maybe I’d seal myself into one shape or one mindset, but I’m pretty sure I’d be insane, or I’d lose it fast. I’d be closing a door.”
“Some doors need to be closed,” Rose said.
I grit my teeth, frustrated.
“Christ,” Alister said. “Let’s… not have you two talk to each other, okay? Make it a rule. Blake doesn’t want to make the oath. Fine. We’ll go with that.”
“We can’t cater-”
“We’ll go with it,” Alister said.
“Okay,” Rose answered. “Well go with it.”
“We’re standing at the center of an intricate spider web. One wrong step, and we hit a snarl,” Alister said. “Right at the center, right here, we’ve got people at each other’s throats. You two. My family against me. The demon, poised to get loose. More people, ready to go after Rose and me the moment the demon isn’t a concern.”
“The lawyers,” I said. I hesitated.
“I explained,” Rose said, answering the question I hadn’t yet asked.
I nodded. “The state of the house… we’re supposed to take care of it.”
“Okay. If that even counts as a problem at ‘home’,” Alister said.
I could remember my last interaction with Ms. Lewis. “I’m laying odds that the next time we see them, they’re going to be a problem.”
“Should we call them?” Alister asked. “Head off the problem at the gates?”
“No,” Rose and I said, in the same moment.
“They agree, for once,” Green Eyes commented.
“Which is either a very good sign or a bad one,” Alister said. “I’m not sure how to interpret it. Damn it. Okay. There’s still Sandra to deal with. The family is in shambles.”
He gave me a pointed look, as he said that.
I nodded. Leadership broken. Power base broken. We’d still have their help.
Shaking his head, he said, “And Johannes is… quite likely gearing up to respond to this problem. If he wants to throw muscle at it, we can hold out. If he wants to get creative, I might have to be ready to respond. More likely, he’s going to do both.”
“He’s not going to be able to tear down the time effect, you don’t think, but he might work around it, or pervert it to his ends?” I asked.
“I forgot for a moment that you were a practitioner, once,” Alister said. “You’ve grasped the problem.”
“It takes you out of the picture, Alister,” Rose said. “Me too, if I’m going to stick by you.”
“You’re not,” Alister said. “It just doesn’t make sense. We need to do what we can.”
“What, then?” Rose asked.
I could see the pained expression on his face. The fleeting eye contact with Green Eyes.
“Something to do with me,” I spoke my suspicions aloud. “Wait. You want us to team up?”
“No, not exactly that,” Alister said. He extended a hand, palm up, and Rose placed hers in his. He extended a hand to me.
I wasn’t comfortable with giving him my hand. not when he had that ring on his finger.
He plowed ahead, ignoring my reluctance, indicating me with his empty hand. “You’re close, though. Imagine, if you will, the scales. Blake on one side, Rose on the other. Stick Blake on the Rose side of the scale, things go full-tilt, stick Rose on the Blake side of the scale, same problem. Let one get too big, the other small, the scales tilt, and we get problems. More of a rift. Actions of the one hurting the other. We need to keep you on a level playing field.”
When he looked at us, he didn’t seem to have the response he’d wanted. He finished, “You two need to coordinate.”
“Shit,” Rose said, and Alister nodded in agreement.
I nodded my agreement, suddenly getting what Alister had been saying, about not being sure if agreement between us was a good thing or a bad thing.
The city was a frozen tableau, utterly silent. Clouds of snow had been stirred by the wind and frozen in the shape of claws and twists in the air.
In the midst of it all, Others lurked. A fleeting shadow here and there. The snow stirred in their wake, belatedly. Out of sync with reality.
The scrape and squeak of footsteps was incredibly loud. The periodic huff of breath surprising in its intensity.
Coordination. Balancing the scales.
Halves of wholes.
I had Tiff. Rose had Alexis.
I had Peter and Roxanne. Rose had Ellie and Kathryn.
Christoff was staying behind. At least, Alister wouldn’t be a worse role model than the rest of the Thorburns had been for Christoff already.
I had the Faceless Woman. Rose had the Revenant. I had the feathered Other, a brute of a man that might have been ogre or part ogre, and an Other in fine clothing, complete with a hood and a mask, no skin showing. Rose had three of the ones that remained. The leftovers stayed at Hillsglade.
I had Evan and Green Eyes. Because they were mine. Rose had the backing of the young Behaims, with Alister staying behind, staying in contact. Hers.
“Johannes makes his move soon,” I said. “Alister says it’s a big one. Be ready.”
“That’s not encouraging,” Tiff said, her voice small.
“We got you,” Green Eyes said, with a smile. “Got your back.”
Tiff turned, and offered Green Eyes a smile that was about as far from reassured as one could manage, while still being a smile.
The negotiation had been fast, swift, and fairly brutal. Ty had too big a tie to Evan, so him coming with me was a problem. Alexis and I were a problem on a number of levels. Too strong a tie, in my mind. Too much of a breach of trust, in my heart. I couldn’t look her in the eye, or coordinate with her.
Rose’s tie to Alexis was milder.
All down the line. We’d hammered it out. Taking the Faceless Woman had been a call I’d made with Green Eyes’ brief interaction with the woman. Rose could at least communicate with the Revenant.
The High Priest was waiting at the far side of the street, after we crossed the road at the base of the property.
“Well?” he asked. He reached out to touch a snowflake that was trapped in mid-air.
“Change of plans,” I said.
“That seems to be a trend when young Alister is involved,” he said.
“I need you to divvy up your minions. Give us some, but make it an even number. Half to me, half to Rose. The rest, yourself included, should go talk to Alister. He’s waiting at Hillsglade House, he knew you were waiting here, and he told me to tell you he promises no harm will be done to you.”
Jeremy the High Drunk gave me a level stare. Thoroughly unimpressed.
“You had a plan,” he said.
“Break one family, then break the other. Pick up the pieces of each, go after Johannes. I give you the backing of my god, so our motley army can break through and reach the man himself.”
“Yes. The Behaims spent their power, doing this. The plan stands.”
“But there’s someone pulling strings. The rumble earlier?”
“Yeah. The abyss is claiming the city, and it’s going to claim everything here with it. The real problem is that something or someone is helping it along.”
I thought back to the tail end of the conversation with Rose and Alister. After the discussion of coordination.
“Rose and I are splitting up. Checking the obvious suspects. It’s not Johannes, according to Alister. He’s taking advantage, and if it happens it happens. Jacob’s Bell disappears, along with all his enemies and Hillsglade House, he drains the marsh and expands east, ignoring whatever’s left to the south. But the cards suggest it’s not him. That means we need to look to the other practitioners and Others. Ones with territories that wouldn’t necessarily be part enough of Jacob’s Bell to get drawn into the abyss with the rest of the town.”
The man frowned.
“We gather who we can on the way, the junior council if nobody else, and investigate the possible threats behind the scene.”
“The Briar Girl lives nearby,” he observed.
“Rose is tracking her down, with her group. We’re after the Hag. Or the remaining Duchamps, then the Hag. We’re better equipped to travel a longer distance.”
“Speak for yourself,” Roxanne muttered. “Short legs, I hurt all over, and-”
“You’re hunting an experienced Other and practitioner in her own domain?” the High Priest asked, interrupting her. “And you want my devotees to help?”
“You have one Satyr and one Maenad. I’ll send the same to miss Rose. You don’t involve them in a fight if you can help it. If you get the Duchamps on board, they’ll act as bodyguards to those Duchamps.”
“Fine,” he said. He turned and looked. “About a twenty-minute walk from this end of the town to the other.”
“Half an hour, with Tiff, Peter and Roxanne along.”
He nodded. “You’ve seen Johannes’ play?”
“You will,” he said. He touched a Maenad and a Satyr on the shoulders, then pointed at me. They nodded.
Not the most trustworthy allies, but I’d take what I could get.
He turned to go, heading toward Hillsglade House.
“You, what?” Peter asked. “Hey! You can’t do that! You’ve gotta tell us!”
Jeremy turned, and I saw a gleam in his eyes. A mean one, just a little wicked. More than a little mad.
I flashed back to when he’d betrayed me to Conquest. Starting the whole event, complete with a war in the city.
Peel away the surface, and you see what lies beneath. Remove him from Sandra…
…Or remove Sandra from him.
This was what he was, before.
“Take it from someone who works for a god,” he said, spreading his arms, still walking, albeit backwards. “Some things just can’t be described with mere words. Don’t get my followers killed, or you’ll lose what little grace I’ve given you.”
“Shit,” Peter said. “Aw shit, what?”
“Calm down,” Roxanne said.
“Dirty pool,” Peter said, sounding annoyed.
We didn’t make it a block before we saw what the High Priest had been talking about.
If the area had been unchanged, the snow still falling, I might never have noticed.
But I saw the snow move at one rooftop of a very old building downtown.
A lot of snow moved, as a matter of fact.
Wings unfurled, briefly highlighted.
Red eyes opened, gazing at us from a distance.
A toothed mouth opened, and roared. A screech.
I saw a flicker of flame, and brief illumination of a scaled body. The noise of the screech was enough to disturb the snow, pushing it away from the rooftop. To highlight other shapes.
A man. Larger than the Astrologer’s creation, craggy in features, with a heavy beard. Tall enough I could see him head and shoulders on the far side of a two-story building.
“Johannes is going full mythic on us,” Tiff said.
“Helping us on our way to the Abyss,” I said.
“Huh? I don’t get,” Roxanne said, backing away a step. I could see the marks in her skin, standing out with how pale she was.
“If you want to sink people, you gotta drop something big on them.”