Category Archives: 10.02

Mala Fide 10.2

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The school, as it happened, was protected ground.

Disguised as childish scribbles, chalk drawings or graffiti, there were symbols arranged in a circle on the streets around the school.  To my eye, a loose ring cutting through the utterly black nothingness that stretched between mirror places, masking everything within.

I waited, and in the waiting, I realized that there were stationed guards as well.  A regal old lady with her grandson in her lap.  Seen in a different light, seen with a note of doubt, wondering just how she could stay there for twenty minutes to an hour, not actually doing anything, I was able to peer past the veil.

A faerie, older than Ev or Keller, if her silver hair was any indication, with a carving knife.  She carved up her ‘grandchild’, an idol of wood, adding fine details.

A wrecked car, a police officer and the car’s driver, a tableau.

Time, however, helped to identify them for what they were.  A singular entity, I was pretty sure.  The scene repeated over and over again, a six minute loop.  If I had to guess, they might have been ghosts, or less than ghosts, shored up with a spirit of time.  A zeitgeist.

The Behaims protecting their kids in the school.

I wasn’t sure how that worked in execution, but time shenanigans spooked me as much as a Faerie did.

I had no idea of how long I had to wait, and I didn’t exactly want to stay put for Ev and Keller to find.  I paced the perimeter of the school, exploring the streets and kept moving.

I found more Others, but they weren’t guardians.  They were predators.  Two goblins in plain sight, hiding near the dumpsters outside a grocery store.  They disappeared when an employee stepped outside to throw out a box of produce.  They piled the most rotten, moldy stuff into bags, then scampered off, sticking to shadows.

A trashy looking woman with a jacket of short black fur was perusing store fronts.  She passed right in front of me, looking through the reflections, and her eyes settled on me.  Cat eyes.  She traced the window with her nails as she passed.  Talons disguised as overlong painted nails.  They made a noise like nails on a blackboard as she scraped the glass.

It seemed like every other time I looked through the windows and mirrors to the real world, I saw something.  A bit of diagram, a man that was overly tall, with a neanderthal brow and a thick beard.  A ghost.  A pair of Duchamps who appeared to be out shopping with their infant daughter.  I stayed out of their sight and out of their way.

Likening it to a game of checkers or chess would be unfair.  Yes, they were putting pieces on the board.  Calling in favors, apparently, and deciding what needed to be where.  The Behaims were very obviously tapping into their supply of magic that they’d been holding in reserve.  These were the opening moves of the game.  Threatening, building something, maybe testing the water here and there, if Rose calling it a ‘war’ meant something, but as far as I knew, pieces had yet to be taken off the board.  There hadn’t been any attacks.

Unlike a game of chess, though, the pieces here were very much alive, or as alive as Others got.  They moved constantly, forcing everyone that was native to Jacob’s Bell to constantly adapt.

If I went with my gut, and the general atmosphere, I didn’t think anyone had made an explicit, overt move yet.  There was tension.  Seeing just how many Others, diagrams and practitioners there were around here, I had the distinct impression that all it would take was one mistake.  One member of one side failing to watch their backs, or underestimating one of the other side’s players.

One mistake, and this would all turn ugly.

Why the emphasis on the school?  A means of pressuring the opposition?

I watched the faceless woman walk down the street, phone in one hand, a cigarette in the other, never actually making its way to her nonexistent mouth.  Her eyes and mouth were smudges, like they’d been drawn with thick black pencil and wiped away with a cheap pencil eraser.  The angle of her head and the hair that fell down around either side hid the true nature of her face from random passerbys.

How often did one actually look at strangers on the street?

Wait.  The faceless woman was making a beeline for another Other.  The woman with the garish makeup, cat eyes and claws.  The cat woman was staring into a shop window, the faceless woman staring down at her phone.

I wasn’t the only one who saw it happening.  Three sets of goblin eyes peered out from darkness, watching.  Two Others, pretending not to see one another, a game of chicken, of all things.  Seeing who would move first.

I had to almost press myself against the display window of the store to see the Duchamps further down the street.  One was holding something, but the other held her wrist, stopping her from acting.

I contemplated breaking a window, but I wasn’t sure if it would make things worse.

The scene was still, except for the faceless woman, continuing her walk, boots hard on the sidewalk.  Snow blew around her, but the wind wasn’t strong enough to reveal her face.

On the far side of the street, a woman and her male friend walked with coffees in hand, oblivious.  Jacob’s Bell residents, going by the style of dress.  Not ugly or cheap, but… small town more than Toronto.

The faceless woman drew closer, not veering.

The cat woman flexed her claws.

The door of one store opened, and I saw light stretch and cover different ground as the glass of the door caught and reflected it, expanding my mirror domain.

A man stepped out onto the street.  Vaguely familiar looking, he practically tackled the faceless woman.  Arm thrown around her shoulder, he intercepted her and used forward momentum to steer her way.

The cat woman turned, smirking, before she left, turning in the opposite direction.

The guy and the faceless woman drew closer to me.

They stopped right in front of the window I was residing within.

They didn’t talk.

I didn’t move, out of concern that they would somehow identify me.

“Such a hassle,” the man said, removing his arm from the faceless woman’s shoulders.  She shrugged her way free, jabbing her cigarette in his general direction as he backed off.  She looked nice, if a little plain, with a hat, scarf, and long jacket.  He looked painfully average, though very thin and rather rumpled.  His voice was almost a drawl, not accented so much as very fatigued.  It was the perfectly wrong voice for him to say, “Don’t get pissy now.  You’re the one that keeps trying to make a point.”

The faceless woman backed off.  Her left hand dropped to her side.  The phone wasn’t on, or even functional.  The screen had a spiderweb of cracks radiating across it, and it looked a few generations old.  She still held one arm up perpetually, cigarette between two fingers.

“If you’d done anything, she’d have gutted you,” he said.

The faceless woman turned his way, incredulity clear in her body language.

“She would have.  I hate to break it to you, darling, but circumstances have changed.  You might have held third or fourth place as one of the scarier free locals before, but I would be very surprised if you were one of the top twenty-five right now.”

The faceless woman turned and started pacing.

The man sighed.  His mumble of a voice was so quiet I was surprised she could even hear him.  “We have the disadvantage and the advantage of being new.  That thing?  That’s an old thing.  Don’t let appearances deceive.  If I had to guess, going by what little I’ve been able to pick up, I’d think that woman was a harbinger of Bast or a Lamia or something in that vein.  Maybe demonspawn.  What do you think?”

The woman didn’t react, still pacing.  Prowling, even.

There was a pause before the man spoke again.  “Powerful, smart, willing to play by the rules.  Pick two, or be prepared to have a very short existence, understand?”

She turned his way for a moment, before she resumed pacing.  She tried to go still for a moment, but after a short period of tapping her foot, tapping one finger on her cigarette, she started moving again.

The interplay between the two was fascinating, on a level.  He did the talking, while she emoted.  It wasn’t the same sort of coordination that happened with Faerie, honed over centuries of keeping one another’s company.  It was very natural, very easy, and almost enviable.

He spoke like he was very tired.  “Wait a little bit longer, and there’ll be enough chaos and bloodshed for all of us,” he commented.  “It’s not the most noble thing, but we’ll be able to make our way around the battlefields and take our pick of the leavings.  How does that suit you, being a scavenger bird?”

The faceless woman turned at the far end of the street, paused, and tapped on her cigarette a few times.  Ash fell, but the cigarette didn’t grow shorter.

“What a shame,” the mumbling man said, “I’d hoped to have a conversation partner, but it looks like I’m the lone speaker in this group of mutes.”

I startled at that.

“You were talking to me,” I said, as it dawned on me.

“Oh, you do talk,” he said, managing to avoid any trace of sardony or condescension in his tone.

“I, uh, to belatedly answer your question, I don’t really see myself as a scavenger bird at all.”

“Was I overstepping?” he asked.  “You never know, with you types.  There’s so often a theme with your kind, but sometimes that theme is something you embrace, and sometimes it’s a sore point.  Sometimes both.”

I was a little too off balance to properly wrap my head around the conversation.  Rather than keep mumbling and struggling through, I tried to pull back and get my head in order.

“No,” I said.  “Birds aren’t a sore point.  A theme?  Maybe, but it was more accidental than anything.”

“Then I won’t make a point of it.  I recognize you.  From the Thorburn house?”

“Yeah?” I answered.

“I delivered the pizza,” he said.

Ah.  My mind flashed back to that scene.  Goblins had impaled him on the fence, and the faceless woman had taken his face, all in an attempt to bait me outside.  I hadn’t fallen for it, and he’d mocked me after the fact.

I ventured, “Can I ask what you are?”

“I don’t know so much, not really.  I died, and I kicked and screamed so much that they wouldn’t take me,” he said.

The wan smile and relaxed attitude he offered me did not look like the expression of someone who’d clawed their way back from the afterlife.

“A revenant,” I said.

“Oh?  A label.  Good word, too.  Better than being a wibbabog or boggart or banderscratch or momo or whatever name some of us wind up with.  It’s like the practitioners who think up the names are giving the job to their children, instead of doing it themselves.”

“That’s more international influences than silliness,” I said.

“Eh,” he said.  A pause.  “Are you safe to look at?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He turned around, giving me a more thorough look.  “You came from the same place as her?”

I glanced at the faceless woman.  She’d stopped pacing, though she still fidgeted.  She held her hand straight up, fingers splayed, but for the two that held the cigarette, and grabbed her arm at the base.

“Forest?” the quiet man asked.

“No,” I said.

“Same general place, then,” he said, and the words were barely comprehensible.

“I suppose,” I said.

“Fought your way back from someplace ugly,” he said.  “Brought the ugly with you, if you don’t mind my putting it that way?”

“Something like that,” I said.  “What’s her name?”

“Funny thing,” the mumbling guy said.  “She hasn’t said.”

“Ha ha,” I said, humorless.

But he smiled a little.  “She’s only my friend, you don’t need many names when you have only one person to talk to.  You need other things, though.  I had to ask around some to get details on her type.”

“Bogeymen,” I said.

“Yes.  Bogeymen.  Wherever you came from, the place probably has a hold on you.  It’ll take either of you back if it gets the chance, you know.”

“I had that impression,” I said.

“She didn’t do so well at first.  Too reckless, hard to rein in for Ottawa’s Lord, Toronto kicked her out.”

“How do you know that, if she can’t talk?”

“I wound up looking for answers after we crossed paths, because she really wasn’t doing well, found out some things about her.  Did some traveling.  We got to talking, so to speak, and here we are, a few years in, a few years wiser.”

“Scaring people,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.  “Killing the occasional one if we can get away with it, just to drive a point home.”

Killing.  He said it so matter-of-factly.

“You don’t approve?” he asked.

“I’m not big on the killing thing,” I said.

“You’ve never killed?”

I thought of Laird, bleeding out.

“I’ve killed,” I said, I left it at that.

The faceless woman moved her hand, the orange light at the end of the cigarette tracing a line across my field of view.  Almost a wave.

“She wants details.”

My gut reaction was to say no.

But they’d find out all the same, if they kept an ear out.

“Laird.  Self defense, in large part.”

“Ah.  That was you.”

“That was me,” I said.

Apparently satisfied, the faceless woman resumed her old position, leaning against a wall, cigarette held up, between two fingers, one boot tapping on the ground.

“I’m not a big fan of murder myself, but when Death comes calling, as he might do for me, or when the world wants to swallow you up and digest you, as it might be in your case, sometimes you’ll do what you have to.  Get the power you need to stay here, clock the hours you need to clock, do your part to keep the universe running.”

Clock my hours.  I’d left the Drains, but I’d brought the drains with me.

I frowned.  Rather than argue the point, I tried a different tack.  “Slim pickings here, even if I did want to kill someone.”

“Like I said, it won’t be for long.  It makes for a pretty tableau, doesn’t it?  The practitioners fight, and a man is left ruined, bloody, broken or powerless, utterly alone.  Then figures step out of the shadows, and the practitioner realizes that they’re facing down the likes of you, or me, or my friend there.”

I could imagine it.

Problem was, I could very well imagine it being Alexis, Tiff, or Ty.

My mind ticked over possibilities.

Rather than let the silence hang for a half-second longer, I opened my mouth, a half-formed argument in my head.

“You’ve done me a favor here, sharing this info on bogeymen, being friendly,” I said, speaking slower so I might have more time to think.  “Can I share a tidbit of info, as thanks?”

“Wouldn’t object,” he said.

The faceless woman had stopped moving.  Those smears where her eyes and mouth should be, they moved like ink in water, as if promising to reveal some detail if I stared long enough.

I turned my head away.  The benefit of knowing that not all knowledge was good knowledge to have.

“Hillsglade House, you know it?”

“Sure,” he said.

“They’ve got a demon there.  Summoned on the top floor.”

“The Thorburns have a reputation,” he said.

“Well, this is the reason for that reputation.  It’s bound, but it might not stay that way.”  I paused, and paused longer, as I realized there wasn’t a graceful way to say the next part.  “I would advise keeping your distance from that place and the people there.”

“A tidbit of knowledge,” he said.  “Well, I’ll gratefully accept it.”

I nodded.

He smiled, “You’re so transparent.  How ironic, for a man that dwells in mirrors.”

I didn’t feel fear in any natural way, no more than I did joy or anger.  Less so than anger, even.  I’d conquered one of the metaphorical demons that had haunted me, and by recognizing my past for the false thing it was, I’d given fear far less of a hold on me.

But that simple sentence did unnerve me some.  I felt a swell of deep concern in my chest.

When I didn’t answer, he relented, saying, “Don’t worry.  If you want to murder them yourself, I won’t stand in your way.”

“That’s not what I-” I said, stopping myself.

“Not what you meant?  You don’t want to kill them?  None of them?”

“I don’t.  But-”  I thought of Rose.  “If I had to, I would like to think I wouldn’t hesitate.”

“Ah, well, it’s your business all the same.  The man I came back to murder was dead by the time I clawed my way out of my grave.  I wouldn’t do you the same disservice by interfering.”

If my brain was a book, I would have spent the next several seconds flipping pages, trying to find that section where the bit on revenants pointed to subtypes.  Varieties.

Most had a mission.  When the mission was done, the revenant ceased to be.  He hadn’t.  A mother might return from the dead to rescue her daughter and trap the kidnapper in her stead.  A murder victim would murder the murderers, a man might return to maintain his business for one or two more nights, so his legacy would be sure to keep running.

He didn’t have a mission.  There was a bug in the system that had brought him back.

I’d forgotten to respond, and now that I had a sense of who and what he might be, I was sort of stuck.

“How did you manage to stay?” I asked.

“Like I said, you’ve got to find power where you can get it.”

“You also said you weren’t that keen on killing.”

“I did.  The trick is to realize your strengths.  We’re newcomers.  The Solomon whatsit doesn’t apply.  We have access to anyone we want to go after, innocent or otherwise, see?”

“It’s a little more complicated than that.”

“Far more,” he said.  “Far, far more.  Usual protections might not apply, but the universe will protect innocents in a roundabout way.

“Something like that,” I said.

“You can make power by leaving an impact.  By giving us attention, giving us time and effort, giving us a moment’s thought, they’re still giving us something.  There’s power to be had in that.  Take that power.  Thrive.  Get even the ones who know about us, when they think they’re safe.  Innocents have some protections, the universe will contrive to shield them, but if you can leave a lasting mark, that’s worth a fair bit.”

I thought of the bogeymen I’d read about.  The monsters.  Was there a method to the madness?

By creating fear, they left a lasting impression.  Pain, of course, but also fostering doubts.  A glimpse of a faceless woman, not enough to make them certain, but to leave them thinking about that one night for years or decades to come.  Maybe committing the occasional murder, to remind the universe that they were present, and they had no intention to go elsewhere.  Fewer things made an impact so much as removing one individual from the ranks of the living.

There was more, too.  I’d left the Drains, but I’d brought some of the Drains with me when I’d left.  I was a manifestation of the Drains, and these same actions -scaring people, making an impression, hurting and killing- they were all actions the Drains wanted me to undertake.

So I hadn’t really escaped at all.  I was only serving the ends of the Drains in this space.

I really wished I had access to books on bogeymen and things that went bump in the night.  Especially now that I was one.

“You should work on it,” he said, filling my contemplative silence.  “Whatever ugly got in you while you were stuck in that world, it’s getting more of a hold.”

I touched my face, and I saw how some parts of my tattoos were standing out from the skin, raised in places, like something thin had been slipped beneath them.

That was more than a little spooky.

I glanced around, and I saw a kid walking down the street, backpack slung over one shoulder.  He kicked a snowbank.

The mumbling man seemed to notice too, because he glanced at me.

“I should go,” I said.  I didn’t give details on why.

“I should get my friend out of the way,” he said.  Then, as if he were reading my mind, he added, “Be careful, the children are being escorted by family.”

The word family had an emphasis that left little doubt in my mind as to which families he was referring to.

“By the by, if you ever feel like hunting…”

He wasn’t talking about hunting animals.

“Maybe,” I said.

“This will be something to behold,” he said.  “It’s just a question of when, and we’ll have more victims than we can imagine.”

“Human victims?” I asked.

“Practitioner victims, but they’re more or less the same thing” he said.  “There’s a gentleman’s agreement of sorts about touching or killing the humans, or giving them reason to worry.  Anything’s fair game, so long as it’s covert.

“You talk about it so casually, killing people,” I said.

“There’s enough of them,” he said, a little coldly, though none of that cold seeped into his placid expression or tone of voice.

I was starting to wonder if he was always middle of the road in appearance and action.  It forced me to start second guessing his earlier responses, and whether he’d been masking a complete other attitude.

“You were one of them,” I said.

But the faceless woman shook her head at me.

“Was I?” he asked.  “Most of us weren’t very good at being human when we were alive.  She wasn’t.  I wasn’t.  Were you?”

“I… wasn’t,” I said.  Wasn’t alive.

“I wasn’t one of them, not really.  Are you walking this way?”

“Yeah,” I said.

He gestured.  We walked alongside each other.  Where the sidewalks didn’t have room for more than two people to walk side by side, I was on the other side of the display windows and car mirrors.

My progress staggered somewhat, with me periodically leaping from the light shed from one surface to the light from the next.  There was a pause as we crossed one set of traffic lights.  I waited on the other side for him.

He spoke, “Sandra wants to preserve tradition.  Johannes wants a new world, where Others exist in ghettos, eating phantom sustenance.  The Behaims seem to think that they can make everything better if they’re in charge.  I don’t know what the Thorburns want.”

“I wish I knew, myself.”

“If you do find out, let me know.”

I saw the tall Other from earlier cross the street to avoid this particular pair.

“Where can I find you?”  I asked.

“Under someone’s bed,” he said.  “Wandering dark alleys, sitting in the backseats of cars.  I’m not easy to find.  You might go looking for her, but she only picks out a target once in a blue moon.  Hm, hm, hm, how to arrange it?”

The faceless woman touched her scarf.

“Ah, of course.  The Ambassador.”

“Ambassador?”

“Short black hair, unruly, goblins, short checked scarf?”

Maggie?”

“Not quite.  I’d say her name, but that calls her.  She’s taken on certain responsibilities.”

I remembered my vision.  She’d raised her hand as a neutral party.

Ambassador, though?

“She’s the person I’m looking for,” I said.

“Oh?  Oh!  Well, she isn’t at the school.”

I gave him a concerned look.

“Complicated.  Best to let her explain.  Mags Holt, Ambassador.  An Other in a mirror requests your company.

“Mags?” I asked.

“She’s busy, so I don’t know how long she might be, but-”

He was looking just over his shoulder.  A problem?

He stepped back out of the way, putting his shoulders to the display window of the pharmacy.

I ducked out of sight, sticking to the light.

A group of Behaim women, ushering their teenage and elementary-school aged kids along.

The faceless woman made a move, like she was going to follow or act somehow, and the revenant seized her arm.  “Don’t.  Stop being so damned territorial.  Patience.”

She pulled it free, and she seemed pissed.

However close their relationship, he backed up even further, pressed against the window, clearly trying to keep his distance.

I spoke up, “The person who makes the first move loses.”

She didn’t let up, still crowding the revenant’s personal space, but she tilted her head, one smear of an eye peering at me.

“You reach out to hurt one of them, and they’ll protect themselves.  Then someone else will hurt you while you’re occupied with your focus elsewhere.  It’s why this balance exists.  There are creatures that are stronger, prouder, and more dangerous than any of us, and they’re holding back for now because they recognize this.”

She relaxed a little.

“Well said,” ‘Mags’ said.

She stepped into view.

“My cue to go,” my new friend said.  “The offer to go hunting stands.”

“Thank you for the discussion,” I said, as diplomatically as I could.  I suddenly felt very on the spot, caught between my association with these… things and Mags here.

Between being the monster and being the man.

She was in the company of two goblins who were all wrapped up in snowsuits, only eyes peering out.  One had mismatched eyes.  Not just color, but size and species.  She looked rougher than I’d seen her before, hair tousled, clothes a little tattered.  Her hand was at one side, near what I assumed to be a weapon.

She looked like she’d grown up a year overnight.  It had only been a month.  Not even.

“I’ve heard that you held onto your connection to me somehow,” I said.  “You remember me?”

“You’re not entirely wrong,” she said.  “It doesn’t look like you held onto yourself all that well, though.”

“Came to pieces,” I said.  “Had to fill the gaps with something, I guess.”

“Yeah, guess so.  I’m sorry I wasn’t able to help more,” she said.

I shrugged.  “You helped all the same.”

“I didn’t, not like you’re thinking.  But let’s drop that topic.  I feel like I’d have to go into it and explain, and that’s not what either of us need right now.”

That only made me want to ask more, but I didn’t.

The problem with dropping a topic was that it didn’t mean there was more to say.

I looked past her at the street beyond.  There were reams of kids on the streets now.  Stores and coffee shops littered the area around here, sometimes with a few houses separating them, or a dentists office or vet’s office that had been set up in what had once been an old fashioned home.  A little strange to see a dinky little house with a big metal sign bolted to the front, or a lit up sign on the lawn outside.

I turned my attention to her.  “Sorry.  I’m… a little unfocused right now.”

“I know the feeling.  Being untethered.”

“What’s this about you being an ambassador?”

“I realized what they wanted, and what they didn’t want.  They saw this coming.  Experienced, powerful practitioners, they want to play this out very carefully, very slowly.  Means they can fold their hand if they need to, and maybe make a play in Toronto, or back up the side they think is going to win.  But the wild cards… you, me, Rose?  We could upset that peace.  Turn it all into a big blaze of fuckery.”

I blinked.  “You can swear?”

“Yeah.  Long story, don’t ask.”

I didn’t.  “Well, I guess I can see that, the wildcards thing,” I said.  “That Other we just passed?  Seems to fall into the same grouping.”

“Maybe.  There’s probably more to it if they’ve left her alone.”

Bore thinking about.

“I tried to downplay my status as a wild card.  Made myself a part of things.  I just don’t want to be the cause of all this going sour… I have reason to believe that if I was, it would somehow be worse.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Rose is a threat to the balance too, but she’s holed up in the house, and there are very few entities present who can siege that house.”

“And even those entities are reluctant to make a move,” I said.  “Because that’s possibly leaving a gap in some defense or a lack of eyes in one place, and that could imbalance things.”

“Exactly,” Mags said.

“It’s a cold war,” I said.

“It won’t stay cold,” she said.  “They have to test the waters to gauge the strength of the enemy, posture, and with so many different powers gathered in one place, it’s a matter of time before someone does something.  Those parents aren’t watching those kids just to keep the kids safe.  They’re-”

“To keep us safe from things the kids might start.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Makes me wonder what the junior council is up to.”

“Junior council?”

“At the school, it’s… ah, nevermind.”

“What’s this about you not being at school?  I thought you promised your dad.”

“I did.  But I don’t have my dads either.  Not quite.”

There it was.  That thing that made her seem so much older.  Not the effects of age so much as the weight of experience.

“I know them,” she went on, “I meet them from time to time, we can talk, and it’s mostly like the good old days, but I lost them- a large part of them, and, well, yeah.  I don’t get it all back unless I take it back.”

“What are you doing, then?”

“There’s a space at the town center, kind of a guest house, for visiting dignitaries or celebrities for major events or something, I dunno.  I’m there.  I read, I patrol and work on keeping the local goblins under control, I visit people when called, deliver messages, negotiate meetings, and I wait.”

“Wait?”

“When all of this is over, I’ll get back what I lost,” she said.  “I’m going to blood and fire and darkness that Faerie bastard.”

She smiled, and in that smile, for a moment, she was Maggie again.

I needed Maggie.

“I need your help,” I said.

“Ah man,” she said.

The smile was gone.

“Please,” I said.  “I don’t think I’d be asking for much, it doesn’t have to be major.  But if you recognize me, can you talk to the others?”

“I can’t,” she said.

“Please,” I said, with more emphasis.

“I’m a neutral party,” she said.  “I can’t negotiate deals, not like that.  I definitely can’t give a helping hand to the most volatile of the four local players.”

“Mags,” I said, “Rose is- she’s going off the deep end.”

“The bound Incarnation,” Mags said.

“Yeah.  You were there-”

“I wasn’t.  But I know.  I haven’t been sitting on my hands these past few weeks.  She used her own hair to bind it, and the binding isn’t perfect.  Where the essence of the bound Incarnation leaks out, it seeps into the hair, and through the hair, it touches on the connection to taint the-”

“Girl,” I said.  “Rose.”

She nodded.

“I get the book, she goes back to normal?”

“No guarantees.”

“And you can tell me this?”

“It’s an ongoing topic of discussion.  If anyone challenges me on it, well, I don’t think you’re about to turn around and help Rose or tip her off that we know.”

I frowned.

“I’ve got something to do.  Walk with me?”

She gestured.  There was an awful lot of darkness in that direction.  Stretches of grass, sidewalk and bike path, if I remembered right.

“I can’t exactly…”

“Cumnugget,” she said.  “Mirror.”

One of the snowsuit goblins grumbled, but it pulled off its backpack and rummaged within.

A hand mirror.

“This isn’t a trap?” I asked.  “Your responsibilities as ambassador don’t obligate you to bind me if you get the chance?”

“No,” she said.  “But I’d like to get moving, and I don’t want to prematurely end this conversation.  I’m actually glad to have you back, even if…”

“I’m a monster?  I’m a wild card that threatens to upset the balance?”

“No,” she said.  “Not that.  Well, yes that.  But you being a friend balances that out.”

Friend.

A genuine friend, not one that had been made for me, or however it worked.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’m glad to have you as a friend too.”

I hopped across the nothingness, snapping to the patch of light that passed through the hand mirror she held.

She gave it to the goblin, “Hold it steady, don’t waggle it around.”

The goblin groaned, but it did as she ordered.

“The thing that gets me here,” Mags said, “Is that I feel like I have to do this, but I’m not liking it either.”

I tensed.  “It is a trap, then?”

“No.  Not at all.  Just come.  Showing is easier.”

I joined her.

It was nice, not having to skip across nothingness to pass between patches of light.  It was hard to shake the impression that I might one day make that jump and fall.

“I have another favor I kind of want to ask,” I said.

“Favors are tricky,” she said.

“When I was, uh, gone, I met someone.  I was hoping I could maybe get her from there to here.  She doesn’t exactly have a name, but-”

“Blake, that’s more than just tricky.”

“She’s a non-threat, as far as I can tell.  And she’s a mermaid, kind of, so it’s not like she’s going to turn Jacob’s Bell upside down.  But she helped me, and a part of me wants to repay that somehow.”

“I don’t know.  That’s… a pretty big deal.  Adding another person to this picture.”

“I had to ask,” I said.  “I won’t be upset if you say no.”

“Okay,” she said.  “I’ll think about it.  You’re a jerk, asking now.”

“Now?”

She took the mirror from the goblin.  “Over here.  Down the hill, watch your step.”

The sidewalk had been veering uphill, and now we stepped off it, onto the sloping hill.  We both made halting progress down the hill, more a controlled fall than a walk or a climb.

Standing in knee deep snow that I could barely feel, I saw the person in the mirror come into view.

Ah.

My heart did its herky-jerky flutter in my chest.

She’d been feeling guilty, and here I was, asking a favor she probably shouldn’t give me.

Molly’s ghost, standing amid snow-dusted decorations and mementos.

Molly had never been so popular when she’d been alive.

I watched as Maggie pricked her finger with a blade that wasn’t her athame, and very carefully let three drops fall.

“Three?” I asked, quiet, unsure if I was breaching something by speaking.

“Felt right.  Making a bit of a ritual of it.  I try for the same time every day, same thing.  I talk to her.  Tell her how sorry I am.  Keep the ghost alive.”

“Thank you,” I said.

She shrugged.

“I don’t know if I count, so maybe I’ll just say, one and a half of us down, five more to go,” I said.  “Hi Molly.”

“Hi,” Molly said.

Maggie’s expression suggested she was as surprised as I was.

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