Category Archives: 10.01

Mala Fide 10.1

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“Evan,” Rose said.  “Step away from the mirror.”

“Why?” Evan asked.

“Because stranger danger,” Ty said.

“But he’s got sparrows on him.  Sparrows like me,” Evan said.

“Johannes likes dogs, you don’t want to be a dog around him,” Rose said.

“No, but…” Alexis said.  Her gaze was fixed on me.  It was clear that she didn’t recognize me, and that wounded me as sure as anything.

Even if I knew she was a stranger, a false friend that had been propped up somehow to make me a part of this world… it hurt.  I knew myself for what I was, but I was still Blake.  My memories were still in my head, they impacted who I was.

I still felt a bit of an ache when I looked at Alexis, a whole mess of complicated feelings.

I stood in the midst of the light that leaked through the window and into this mirror realm.  Where the mirror’s field of view didn’t reach, there was only darkness.

I’d known from the moment I’d seen the graffiti, reversed.  From the moment I’d exited the drains, I’d been in the mirror world.

But, Alexis?” Rose asked.  “You’re going to need to elaborate.”

“The bird tattoos… that looks like my work.”

“It is,” my voice came out a little hollow, a little rough at the edges.

“But I don’t do projects that, uh, extensiveNever work on the face.”

“You didn’t,” I said, staring down at the tattoos.  “It sort of got away from me.  Took on a life of its own.  Technically, you didn’t even do these, I don’t think, but it is your work, all the same.”

“Who are you?” Rose asked.

“That’s a very good question,” I said.

“It’s a question that I’m wanting an answer for,” she said, “I don’t want evasion.”

“Oh?” I asked.  “But you’re so very good at it.”

Stupid, I thought.

But somehow, I couldn’t bring myself to take back the words, or to go on talking.  With a kind of hunger, I studied her expression, to see if her betrayal ran so deep that I could somehow see a tell or clue in her eyes or the tilt of her frown.

She’d lied to me from the start, risked my life.  She’d stonewalled me and frustrated me at every other turn, and why?  Because I wasn’t real, and she’d known.  Now she was risking the lives of my friends.

Yeah, not quite my friends, but people that I wanted to protect all the same.

She was talking about dealing with Demons.  Using them.

I watched the others exchange glances.  Rose didn’t turn away from me, always keeping me in the corner of her vision, but she did give the others sidelong looks.

“You have me at a disadvantage,” she said, turning her gaze away from my friends, back to me.  “You seem to think you know me, but I don’t know you.”

That I.  I smiled a little, then walked off the edge of the patch of light and over to the nearest reflective surface.  The television screen.  I watched them collectively turn, a little too fast, even alarmed.

“Once upon a time,” I said, “You got quite upset with me for that use of ‘I’.  You’re part of a team, Rose, remember?  Try rephrasing it to ‘You seem to know us, but we don’t know you.”

“Let’s skip the quibbling and cut right to the part where you tell us who you are?”

I touched the television’s surface.  The surface vibrated at the touch, like a plucked guitar string.  The other’s reactions suggested they didn’t see it.

I sighed.  “I’m Blake Thorburn.  I was second in line to get custody of the Thorburn household.”

Rose arched her eyebrows.  “There’s a few big holes in that idea.”

“I know,” I said.  “I’m missing a bit of chromosome.  People that stand up to pee aren’t supposed to inherit the house.”

“Yeah,” Rose said, “that’s one.”

“I was your metaphorical stunt double, Rose,” I said. “Metaphysical?  Both?”

I paced back to the other patch of light.  Transition from one patch of light to the other was near-instantaneous.  There was no space between but what my mind needed to piece together to make sense of the relation of this space to the real world.

I continued, “I was the second custodian, but that doesn’t mean I was the second heir.  You were.  Grandmother apparently wanted someone with an unhealthy amount of paranoia and tenacity to weather the initial attention.  You got stuck in the mirror, and you got the time you needed to read up and figure stuff out while I fought the faerie and the chronomancers, and the Hyena and all the others.  Then I get taken out of the picture, and you get to hit the ground running.”

“That sort of fills in the gaps,” Ty said.

“Yeah,” Alexis and Tiff agreed.

Rose was silent, frowning a little.

“You stopped the Hyena?” Evan asked, a small note of awe in his voice.

“Yeah,” I said.  I held up the remains of the sword, then realized that the particular details weren’t even visible anymore.  The image of the Hyena’s head on the guard, the pommel… it had been worn down too much by the drains.  “This was him, after he was bound.  Maggie said something about that, and there might be something about goblins becoming weapons in the books…”

I trailed off.  Evan was still looking up at me.  He was falling apart, feathers coming out in clumps, sticking up where they were starting to come out.

I gripped the top of the mirror, hanging from it as I leaned forward.

“…We were allies, Evan,” I said.  “You were my familiar.  A soul with a bit of freedom spirits and wind spirits and spirits of escape and whatever else.  Then Ur ate that connection, that bond, and maybe a little bit of you is falling to pieces and a little bit of me is falling to pieces, because that connection is now some gaping wound.”

“Were we friends?”

“Yeah.  We got along quite well,” I said.  “I think… I dunno, a familiar and his practitioner are supposed to have a connection, and we had that.  Mutual admiration, maybe, if that’s not making too much of an assumption.”

“You admired me?”

“Damn straight I admired you,” I said.  “You survived, you endured, you escaped.”

I let my arm fall from the mirror’s frame on my side of things.  My finger brushed the border.  A bar on my extensive cell.

“I died, though.  I’m dead, you know,” Evan said.

“I know.  It’s not like I did that fantastically myself.  Look at me.”

“So we know who you profess to be…” Rose said.

Profess?  I was glad I didn’t have a proper beating heart.  With blood pounding in my veins, I might have flipped out on her.  Instead, anger stewed inside of me without hormones or adrenaline or whatever other chemicals my body should have been using to manifest it.  Raw, cold fury.

“…What do you profess to be?”

“An Other,” I said, my words terse.

“Sounds like you’re dodging the question.”

“I’m being honest,” I said.  “I made something of a pronouncement earlier, and the words had power.  I don’t think I can lie, even if I’m not technically a practitioner anymore.  I’m an Other, and trying to stick another label on myself just gives me more room to be wrong.”

Try,” she said.

She was being so hostile, and I was already having trouble staying civil.

“I’m your reflection,” I said.  “I remember growing up as the child that your mom and dad might have had if they’d had a boy, instead.  I have memories of making friends with these guys, of leaving home because I couldn’t deal with the family thing, and ending up homeless.  Meeting Alexis on the streets.  Running into her again at Carl’s place…”

Alexis’ eyes widened.  “I… I remember leaving.  The vibe was wrong.  The pregnant girl, the attitude around the place…”

“I warned you, as I remember it.”

“I got back to Toronto, and stuck out the winter at the shelter-”

“-That was where you saved me from Carl, in my version,” I said, my voice quiet.

“-And Carl was there, in the shelter, looking for more recruits, and I got freaked out.  I hit him with a chair.  Which isn’t like me.  I always hated that I did that, that I couldn’t find the courage or the words to warn people verbally and spread the word.  Just a stupid sneak attack that could have gotten me in trouble.  One of my big regrets, now that I think about it.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I didn’t tell her that I’d seen some image of Carl, active today.  Maybe still doing what he’d been doing then, better.

Was that the way things went, when Ur removed memories?  Took away the good, left the bad?  Or were those regrets a reality that she’d never shared with me?

Both kind of sucked.

“I… remember all that,” I said, “But I’m just a fake.  An image, cobbled together from somebody’s memories, or multiple people’s, I don’t even know.  Something convincing to draw fire while Rose figured things out.  I’m, if I had to stick a label on myself, a Vestige.  Except that demon in the factory ate my connections to people, and I wound up…”

I trailed off, not even sure how to articulate it.

“What?” Ty asked.

“I fell through the cracks,” I said.  “And I clawed my way back up.  Not entirely in one piece.  So I’m a-”

“Bogeyman?” Rose asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Bogeymen tend to be angry,” she said, her gaze fixed on my own.  “Or they tend to be self-destructive, going out in a blaze of ruin and violence.  Are you angry, Blake, or are you the other type?”

“Yeah,” I said, without breaking eye contact.  “I’m angry.”

“I guess I don’t need to ask who you’re angry at?”

I slowly shook my head.

“Yeah,” she said.

But,” I said, “I’m not your enemy.”

“And we’re back to me not believing you again,” Rose said.

“Huh?” Evan asked.

I clenched my teeth, staring at her.

“I believe you when you say you’re angry.  That you’re angry at me.  Or the world, even.  You look like a bogeyman, and I’ve dealt with a few lately.  That fits too, so I could maybe even believe you when you say what you are.”

With one hand, she gestured at Corvidae, who stood in the corner, watching all this with dark eyes.

“But as far as who you are, or that you’re a friend?  There isn’t much to go on except your say-so.  If you were going to lie, you’d do something like that.  Mix in truths with the fiction.”

“What about the individual pieces that fit?” I asked.

“Our enemies include connection manipulators and augurs and Faerie.  Johannes has contact with Others from all around the world.  Can you give us proof of your identity that couldn’t be falsified using one of those things?”

Anything can theoretically be falsified,” I said.  “I can’t lie.  You can’t take my word for it?”

“No, because there’s no guarantee you’re telling the truth about your inability to lie.”

I suppressed a groan.

“That’s a no, then?  You can’t prove your identity?”  She asked.

“That’s a no, but you’re suggesting there’s no way for me to gain your trust?”

“That’s exactly what I’m suggesting.  We’re not in a position to be extending blind trust to anyone or anything,” Rose said, emphasizing the ‘thing’ part of that last word.  “There are any number of Others who could pretend to be a Thorburn, gather the information, make up a story.”

“I’m of the opinion that if your choices are making a leap of faith and making allies and failing to make that leap of faith and being utterly alone, you should make the one exceptionally short leap.

“Says the would-be ally,” Ty said.

The look I gave him must have been something, because he flinched, almost in sympathy.

“Sorry man,” he said.  “But, well, she’s not entirely wrong.  We’ve only been in this for a few weeks-”

Weeks?

“-And the prevailing idea seems to be that you can’t rule anything out.”

“Weeks,” I said, a little stunned.  “How long ago was the incident at the factory?”

“Almost a month ago,” Alexis said.

I didn’t have a response to that.

I’d spent so long down in the Drains.  It had only felt like a day or two at most.  Maybe three, four, or five at the very post, if I counted the blurry time spent visiting my memories.

Rose, however, seemed to take my lack of response as a weakness to pounce on.  She went on the offensive, “Enchantresses have connection manipulation, strong ties to Faerie, glamour.  They could dig up details, figure out what fit, and prepare an assassin with a prepared story.  The chronomancers could rig up a trap and keep trying until their tailor-made assassin figured out a way past our defenses.  Johannes could leverage… whatever he’s got.  I don’t know.  The only guarantee against any of it is absolutes.  If the chronomancers want to try the brute-force approach and hammer us in simulated timelines until we say yes, then the only answer is to make it so the answer is always no.  If the enchantresses are going to try to trick us, then we need to counter subtlety with bluntness, because that’s the textbook way to counteract an enchantress or a Faerie glamour.”

“Absolutes are pretty fucking damning,” I said.

“Then I’ll be damned,” Rose told me.  “Because the alternative is worse.  There’s a war going on, and there’s no room for mistakes.”

“What if turning me down is the mistake?”

“What if accepting you is the mistake?” she countered.  “Given the choice, I’d rather do without.  At least then the situation is clearer cut.  I’m dealing with known quantities on one front, at headquarters.  With these guys, with Mags when we need a liason or a message passed on.  No others.”

I bristled, but there was nothing I could do.

I couldn’t reach out and act on that anger.  Maybe a good thing.

“Alexis…”  I started.  I wasn’t sure how to finish.

“I’m sorry,” Alexis said.  “I don’t know you.”

I flinched.

“I- I’m resisting every nurturing instinct I have, to care for the wounded and help those in need, because you’re definitely making me want to,” she said.  “I dunno if knowing that helps.”

I shook my head.  Definitely doesn’t.

You were the most important person in the world to me, before this started.  But that wasn’t even real.

“What was I, here?” Tiff asked.

“A very recent leap of faith,” I said, glad for the chance to turn away from Alexis, to abandon that conversation before Alexis could unwittingly cut me too deep with her words.

“I’m not sure I get it,” Tiff said.

“If I’m not real, then you’re the first real friend I made, not some connection that got thrown together.  You’re… not that different from me, in some ways.  You’re the me I remember being a year and a bit ago, when Alexis helped me, and a part of me felt like helping her help you was a step on my personal road to fixing myself up.  I trusted you like I’m asking Rose to trust me right now.  I made that leap of faith.”

Rose didn’t say a thing, only watching.

I hated her in that moment.

Nobody was moving, or speaking in my defense.

I didn’t know what else to say to Tiff.  I didn’t want to peter out or lose steam or lose heart now.  I pushed forward, changing targets.

“Ty.  I’m… I didn’t love you like I did Alexis, but I loved you as a friend.”

“I believe you,” he said.  “Everything you say makes sense, and maybe it doesn’t count for a lot, but I feel like you’re genuine, even if I’m not exactly an astute reader of people.  I’ve been burned in the past…

“I remember,” I said.  He’d had very good art stolen or plagiarized in the past.  He’d been cheated out of money he was rightly due, his art sold for pennies rather than dollars.

“I don’t have a reason to doubt you,” Ty told me.

I nodded.  A flare of hope in my heart.  “Then-”

“But Rose is right.  There’s too many unknowns.  Too many ways they can get to us.  And a bogeyman showing up with a good story is possible, too.”

The hope was dashed.  “Anything’s-”

“-possible.  I heard you before.  Instead of us trusting you, can you trust us, instead?  Rose has a plan, and if you’re a copy of her or she’s a copy of you or whatever it is, can’t you trust that the plan is a good one?”

It’s not that simple.  She’s a threat.  Conquest tainted her.  The Behaims or Duchamps drew the connection between Conquest’s card and her left hand.  She’s ten times the danger to you that I am.

But I couldn’t say it, or I’d be actively fighting her.  It would sound like I was making stuff up.  I would only be putting my friends at risk, because they wouldn’t leave, no matter what I said, they couldn’t, but the doubt and hesitation would only distract them.

“No,” I said, “No, I don’t know that I can trust that her plan’s a good one.  Not with what I glimpsed, while I was away.”

“You might have to,” he said.

I shrugged, noncommittal.

“Sorry I can’t give you any more,” Ty told me.

“Me too,” I said.  Changing tacks again.  “Evan?”

“No,” Rose cut in.  “Evan’s impressionable, and he’s weak right now.”

“Evan’s stronger than that,” I said.

Duncan Behaim could theoretically walk in here and talk to Evan, and win Evan over with talk of flaming sparrows and video games,” Rose said.  “Evan’s too trusting, and hasn’t been burned enough times to know to stay away from the fire.”

“I’m not that stupid,” Evan said.

“He’s not stupid at all,” I said.

“All the same, if you’re going to try to turn him,” Rose said, her voice quiet but sure, “We’re going to have a problem.”

“I’m not your enemy,” I told her.

She spread her arms a little.  “There’s no guarantees.”

“Alright,” I said.  “What I said holds true, no matter what.  I’m not your enemy.  Even if you won’t be my ally in all this.  I clawed my way out of the Drains to help you guys, and I’m going to do exactly that.  Even without your help.”

“Just so long as you don’t actively interfere with us,” Rose said, “You can do whatever you want, more or less.”

“Then I only have one, no, two more things to say, because I have to get it out there,” I told her.  “Then I’m going to get to work.”

Rose folded her arms.

“First off, Ur.  The demon.  I know how to beat him, and it isn’t fire.  It’s creation.  Art.  The graffiti might hide words, but it’s an art of its own, and that has value.  If something happens to me, do me a favor and wipe out that motherfucker.  Let this tip and the circle I started be my contributions.  I sort of promised Evan I’d do what I could to stop the real monsters.”

“Okay,” Rose said.  “Thank you, but that could be a trap.  You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t jump at the idea.”

“I guess I do have to, don’t I?” I asked.  “Consider it.  Try it, if you think it’s safe.  If you look in the windows, you might be able to see my work, through the reflection.  A diagram on the floor, in the mirror version of the factory.”

She nodded.  “Okay.  I’ll consider it.”

“Thank you,” I said, even though I felt far from thankful.  “Second thing?  I want you to look at me.  I’m fragile.  With every injury, I lose a bit of my human appearance.  A lot of this was from the Drains, but not all of it, understand?”

“They’ve been spreading a little bit while we’ve been talking,” Ty said, his voice quiet.

“Really?” Tiff asked.

“I have a good eye for detail,” Ty said.

“They’ve been spreading because this damn conversation has been killing me,” I said.  A note of emotion made my voice hitch the tiniest bit at the end.  I wasn’t even sure if they were able to catch it.

I saw concern, maybe doubt, but nothing resembling advocacy, no help from any corner.

“Literally killing me,” I said.  “There’s only so much me, and I guess emotional damage wears that away just as sure as any wound.  And some of this damage to my body is because you took something from me, Rose.  Inadvertently, maybe, but you took it all the same.  Tore it from me.  These people are not your friends, Rose.  They’re the fake friends of a fake man.  If you hurt them?  Or if you gamble them and get them hurt?  You will answer for it.”

“You’re a lot easier to believe when you’re talking about how angry and pissed off you are,” Rose said.

She sounded so damnably calm.

“That’s all I needed to say,” I told her.  “I’ve got to walk away from this, because I can’t take it any more.  I’ve got reading to do.”

I turned to go.  I need to read those damn diaries that Grandmother wrote, and about shoring up a spirit, and power sources and-

“Maybe,” Rose said, and something in her tone made me hesitate.  “But you’re not going to do your reading here.  This discussion was never going to end with you staying.  It seems we’re going to need to shore up our defenses to prevent intrusions from more oblique angles.”

I turned back, staring at her through that tiny window that was the mirror.

“As heir and custodian of the Thorburn estate, granddaughter of Rose D. Thorburn-”

“Rose, stop,” I said.

“-I hereby expel you from Hillsglade House, until further notice.”

The mirror in front of me winked out of existence, as did the television screen, the window, and the oblong patch of light somewhere above me that was the mirror in the library went black as well.

I couldn’t occupy a space that didn’t exist.  It wasn’t darkness.  It wasn’t vacuum.  Only utter nothingness.

I was thrust into the nearest available space.  Into snow that wasn’t really that cold and outdoors that had no fresh air.  Powdery snow flew around me, but the impact still hurt.  Being shunted from one location to another hurt more.

Tossed aside, cast out of the house.

I stood in the reflection of the house’s front windows, beyond the house, and I could see through to perceive Rose and the others, gathered in the living room.

The interior was dark.  No path stood available for me.

She can do that?  I thought, I could have done that?

Fuck.

Numb, aching, feeling the wood creep across my skin by millimeters, gaining more ground in the wake of the betrayal and abandonment, I made my way to my feet.

It touched the window.

When I’d exited the factory, I’d gone from one side of the window to the other.  The glass I’d carried with me had broken with the landing.

There was no passage through this window.

Fuck.

I stared around me.

Darkness, and patches of scenery.  Most of the city was reflected in some fashion or another, from front windows and car mirrors.  Some patches were clearer and stronger than others.

The interiors of houses weren’t lit anymore than Hillsglade House was, and not every roof was reflected in a surface.

The end result was a piecemeal city, artificial and empty.  Buildings stood, but not every face of the building existed.  Stretches between these cardboard cut out sections of street were cast in opaque darkness.  I was reminded of the towns in old westerns, where buildings were only building fronts, held up by stilts.

Rose had been limited to my presence and places I’d been.  Was this all ground that Rose had covered, or were the rules different?  I was the true vestige, after all.

I set off, taking long strides.

Rose was tainted.  I had no doubt about it now.  The Rose I’d talked to in there had been off.  Not quite right.  Closed off, controlling, a course in mind and no willingness to be swayed.

They were holing up.  Protecting the house with barriers.

The mad despot in her tower, challenged on all fronts.

Was she going to get worse?  The others weren’t, as far as I could tell, arguing against her.  Maybe that was some influence of hers, maybe it was genuine trust.  Maybe it was that they were newbies to this world, and Rose took point as a matter of course, having a week or two more experience than they did.

Either way, they weren’t going to call her on her shit.  She was going to keep going until someone confronted her on an equal level.  As a peer.

When I’d been real and Rose the person in the mirror, she’d taken that role, questioning me, keeping me level.

Now that the roles were reversed, she’d cast me out.

I needed help.  Help, ideally, that could smack some sense into my alter ego.

Maggie, I thought.

If it had been a month since the factory thing, which would have been in the last week of December…

Could she be in school?

Maggie could be the peer I needed.

It helped that the driveway was long.  I’d been able to start walking first and decide on a destination second, without having to change course.

My path degraded as I walked, the reflections less clear.

When it had effectively disintegrated, I simply stepped across, skipping ahead a third of a city block.

I covered ground fast.  My body was light, my bones felt more like sticks than stone.

There was a definite time lag between the real world and this one.  Snow, smoke from chimneys, they existed as still images, catching up to reality only every two or three seconds.

Goal number one.  Find Maggie.  Once I had at least one ally, I had some ability to affect the real world, to get something done.

Number two, I needed a real body.  I’d promised it to Rose, but, well, this wasn’t how I’d wanted to give it to her.  Getting a body was a high priority, but only because it would make other things doable.  Not necessarily the second step, but something I’d have to keep my eye open for.

Priority number three, I needed information.  Books would be great.  Knowing what my enemies were doing was greater still.  It would help me, it would help my friends.  It would even help Rose.  Then, as part of that same line of thinking, I had to figure out what Rose was up to.

The further I got from Rose, the clearer my own reflection became.

“Hello hello,” I heard a female voice, melodic and sing-song.  “Did I spy…?”

Fuck no.

“You did spy,” a man said, his voice with the same melody to it.

“A shadow without a person to cast it, in the window.  My eyes are sharp, you know.”

“I’ve complemented your eyes before, my dear lady.  I’d make a work of art out of them, if you weren’t so attached to them.”

“Or if they weren’t so attached to me?”

“Mmm hmm.”

The voices weren’t getting quieter as I walked away.  They were following.

Faerie.

“It looks like a rose, it walks like a rose…”

“Not interested guys, you might not remember, but we’ve done this before,” I called out.

Sounds like a rose.”

“Roses don’t have sounds,” I said.

Challenge subtlety with bluntness.

They’d barely been a block away.  Random luck I’d run into them, or something else?

Rose was shoring up her defenses, holing up.

Was this entire town a minefield of hostile Others and practitioner traps?

“A rose can rustle,” Ev’s voice followed me, reaching into and through the nearby panes of glass.  Cars were parked along the length of this street, and the rearview mirrors and side windows reflected the surroundings for me to tread in.  “A brush of wind through leaf, stem and thorn.  A sound that only the most gifted beings might claim to know.”

“Shall we be your breath of wind?” the man asked.  “We can treat you to the faintest of breaths on your skin, until your skin has prickled from head to toe, and phantom sensations caress you.”

“Not interested,” I said.  “Go away.”

“So rude,” Ev said.

My eyes were on a patch of darkness.  If memory served, the area was a stretch of parkland.  Too marshy to do much with, maybe, being so close to Hillsglade, they’d put a shack on it, and there was a sports field.  Behind both were trees, and highway.

If I reached that point, I’d skip ahead, create some distance.

I quickened my pace.

“Don’t be in such a rush, handsome rose,” Ev said.  “We’ll accompany you.  Watch.”

I glanced back.

A scraping sound, a flash of orange-yellow light.

A lighter?

The light was strongest around one side-view mirror.

Ev moved the lighter until it was behind her, impossibly bright, the only light available, casting her in silhouette.

“Lighters don’t work that way,” I said, challenging any glamour she was using.

But the shadow was now something that extended the opposite way, until it came to rest on the side view mirror.  If I followed the head of the shadow to the shoulders, now cast on the side of the car, the torso, stretching long across the ground, and finally the legs, attached to a Faerie…

She’d gone from silhouette to shadow, and the shadow extended to her, on my side of the mirror.

I heard footsteps, and realized they belonged to Keller.

Also on my side of the mirror.

Ev wore a long jacket with a shawl that hid her arms when they weren’t straight down at her sides, her straight black hair looked liquid, like the post-effects in a shampoo commercial.  Her eye was as dead as a doll’s.

“Neat trick with the lighter,” I told Ev.  “I don’t suppose you could teach it to me?”

“I could,” she said.  “Will you give me your company for twenty year’s time?”

I pretended to consider, then shook my head.

“You’re falling to pieces, artificial flower,” Keller said, behind me.  He was so fine boned he looked like he’d had a bird skeleton before his flesh had been put on.  His jacket was short, the collar fluffy, and he had a choker on his neck.  I could see his belt, glittering with tools that were discreetly concealed, but not entirely hidden.

My heart pounded.

I wasn’t a practitioner anymore.  I knew stuff, but there would be no drawing runes on the ground and commanding spirits.  It didn’t help that the spirits didn’t follow the same rules here.

I drew the Hyena from the holster I’d once made for June.

What I wouldn’t do for your company, June, I thought.

“Well,” Ev said, “That’s as hideous as weapons get.”

“Yeah,” I said.

The shawl fluttered, moved by a wind that wasn’t here, and I saw her holding a short knife.  It was curved like a bird’s talon.

Then the shawl moved back into place, and I couldn’t see it.

“I thought a Faerie would have something fancier,” I said.  “A twelve foot sword or something.”

Letita?  Pah,” Ev said.  “Her sword broke, she’ll settle on something else.  Last I heard, she was making a trident that could come apart in a cat o’ nine.”

“Crude, as torture devices go,” Keller said.

He was two steps closer than he had been a moment ago.  I hadn’t noticed him draw closer.

I shifted position to try and keep them both in my sight, and saw that Ev was closer still, an iron thread stretched between hands, knife clamped in her teeth.

Keller held the other end of the thread.  The thread then extended from him to… the mirror Ev had used to enter.  I had little doubt it was sharp enough to cut to bone, if I happened to walk into it.

Magicians used sleight of hand.  Move one hand, while the other took your watch.  Then while you looked at the watch, they’d palm a card.  One thing after another, and while you were watching their hands, somewhere along the line, they changed their clothes.

Faerie, as I understood it, could do something very similar, but in this case, they were moving people, not individual hands.

These two were a working pair, they’d spent centuries together, learning tricks that had nothing at all to do with glamour, and they’d tested those tricks against Faerie who’d been watching out for those same tricks for just as long.

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

“Rather than a whip,” Ev said -she held the knife-, “We’ve caged you in with finer string.  No slipping away, artificial flower.”

Not wanting to move, I tilted my head instead.  I could see light from the mirrors touch the string, making it glow.

“You can run,” she said.  “But you’d get caught by a thread you can’t even see. It’d cut deep, at just the right place to avoid killing.  Most keep running at that point, thread scraping bone, and they keep going even after they realize it’s a maze, and they’re carving themselves to pieces on the walls.”

“If it goes that far,” Keller said, three paces behind me, “I’ll use the thread to sew you back together.  There won’t even be a scar.  Promise.

“What’s the alternative?” I asked, “To the wire?”

Ev revealed her knife again.  “I can cut your skin and lift your nerves free.  Play them with the knife’s edge as a musician might plays his fiddle.”

“She’s really very good,” Keller murmured, “The very first time I met her, she was conducting a melody with a Faerie’s gasping cries.  Music made by pain and pleasure alone.  Ethereal.

I hate Faerie so fucking much.

“The real challenge,” Ev said, “The art, is to make the music something special for the instrument.  Something so beautiful that it trumps the pain and wins the instrument’s heart over to me.”

“I believe she’s only managed it twice,” Keller said.

“Practice makes perfect,” Ev admitted.

I looked between them.  The way they alternated off one another was almost hypnotic.  On a level, I suspected I knew how this went.  They drew my focus, taking turns.  Ev, Keller, Ev, Keller, Ev, Keller, captivating my attention with the horrible stuff they’d do to me, and when I was used to the pattern, they’d change it up.  I’d turn my attention to the next, expecting the next explanation, but no, I’d have a Faerie enacting the horrible things, while my attention wasn’t all there.

“What do you think?” Keller asked, “Where to start?”

“There’s something beautiful about a man on his knees, face turned skyward, suspended like a puppet by the strings that are meant to be inside that face.”

“A pious sort of beautiful.”

I needed to do something to take control of this, but if I attacked, I’d be leaving myself open.

I thought of Hillsglade House.  The wounds that had been delivered to me hadn’t been physical, not entirely.

Words hurt.

“That’s the fucking stupidest thing I’ve ever heard of,” I said.

I saw Ev’s expression go cold.

“Nerves don’t work that way.  They work by ion channels or something like that.  And music of moans and groans?  The only way you’d make that work in the slightest is if you caked it full of glamour.  That’s not beautiful, that sounds like a five year old getting into her mom’s makeup kit for the first time.”

Okay, from cold to pissed off.  Her anger distorted her expression.

Good.  Nice to finally get a rise out of someone, after Rose being all smug and condescending.

“Don’t fuck with me,” I said.  “Not today.  You don’t want to cross me.  I’ve got very few reasons to hold back, and an awful lot of negativity to vent.  What I wind up doing probably won’t be anything near some nervous violin-playing or whatever that garbage you were spitting out was.”

I saw them exchange a glance.  How many signals and tricks had they exchanged over the past few centuries, to communicate complicated strategies with but a look?

“As you wish,” Ev said.  She sheathed her weapon.  Her metal threads uncoiled, returning to their spool, sparks flying where some flicked cars or light posts.

Keller smiled, bowing slightly.

The two Faerie walked away.

Ev shot me one teasing look before drawing her lighter, disappearing through the side view mirror of her car.  There was a gleam of mischief in her eye.

Then they were gone, back in the real world.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.  They were pissed at me.

This was worse.

Things were bad and getting worse fast, and I had nowhere to go for sanctuary.

I headed for Maggie, walking faster than before.

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