Category Archives: 10.03

Mala Fide 10.3

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“Crap,” Mags said.  “Crap, crap, crap.”

“She’s not just a ghost, she’s an aware ghost?”

“She’s not supposed to be.  Look, Blake, I meant for this to be the equivalent of visiting a grave, but I can’t do this like this,” she said.  She sounded a little frazzled.

Having the girl you’d helped murder speak could do that to you, really.

“Can’t do what?”

“I can’t connect you with this ghost, if she’s maybe going to give you some advantage.  Shit.  Look, we gotta go.”

“I-” I started, but she was already moving the mirror, turning me away, so I couldn’t see Molly’s ghost.  “What’s going on?”

“The Maggie you met in Toronto wasn’t me.  It was Padraic.  He took my name and screwed me over.  This ambassador thing isn’t just a job.  It’s a necessity.  If I lose it, I’m a goner,” she said.

“It wasn’t you?”

“It was Maggie but it wasn’t me.  I’m shoring myself up with the label of ‘neutral party‘ just as much as you’re shoring yourself up with whatever the fuck that is,” she said.  Her voice sounded strained as she made the awkward climb up the snowy slope.  I could see the goblins up above.

“I get it,” I said.  My mind ticked over every scene, every doubt I’d had.

Not a possessed human, but a human mask stretched over an Other.

“Nothing against you, Blake,” she told me, “You’re cool, whatever you are right now.  But I’m on pretty unsteady footing right now.  If one person gets ticked at me and calls me on it, they can move to take away my title and then I don’t know what happens.”

“You’ve been interacting with Molly all this time?”

“There’s been no interaction, damn it.  She’s just… there.  She doesn’t respond, she doesn’t move.  I do the ritual thing, just as penance and to keep the ghost around, and that’s it.

She crested the top of the hill, stepping up onto the sidewalk.  She wasn’t watching the hand mirror, and my available footing swiftly shrunk as she bent down to shake her pants legs and get the clumped snow off.

When she stood, I had a better view of the two snowsuit goblins through the window of the hand mirror.

“…I don’t know what this means, but like I said, I really don’t want to start anything, and…

One was pointing.

“Mags,” I said, interrupting.

“…Connecting the wild card to a friendly ghost seems like a bad idea, so could you maybe just not-

“Mags,” I said, louder.

“What?”

“Goblin is trying to tell you something.”

“Right, I told them to shut up.  They… Fuck!”

She turned, and I had to move fast to stay inside the patch of light from the mirror.

It was Molly.  She’d followed us, but her back was now to us, facing the site of the little memorial.

“Fuck me, fuck, fuck, fuck,” Mags said.

I looked at my cousin’s ghost.  “Why are you following us, Molly?”

“I’m so alone,” she said, a whisper. “Everyone’s against me.”

There was a flicker, suggesting that she wasn’t quite so autonomous as Evan had been.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’ve been there.”

“I can’t sleep.  I think they’ve been getting inside the house.  I hear stuff in the living room, or upstairs, and they were getting to me in my dreams, before I figured out the circles to stop that, except now I don’t dream at all.”

“No refuge in sleep, huh?” I asked.

“I can’t even go to my family, because if I do, then someone might target them, I had to drive them away.”

“You should have called me,” I said.  “…Except you couldn’t.  I didn’t exist, before you died.  Shit.”

“Now they’re coming for me,” she said.  “Goblins and spells to trip me up.”

“Molly,” I said, “Did you have a reflection?  Or were you a reflection?  A person in the mirror, one way or another?”

“All alone,” she said, in an exact repeat of her earlier statement.

“Guess not,” I said.  “Well, that clarifies something, and leaves more questions.”

“Can you not be so crazy calm about this?” Mags said.  “One Thorburn has them all talking in concerned voices.  Two will have them taking decisive action.  Three fucking functioning or semifunctional Thorburns, each with serious fucking issues?  The rest of those guys are going to be doing one of two things.  Some are going to be flying around in a mad panic, propelled here and there by the sheer violence with which they’re shitting their pants, and the rest are going to be getting organized to murder you and pointing the finger at me!”

“I’ve noticed you’re swearing again.”

Fuck, yeah I am!”  She said.  She was pacing, but she at least held the mirror in the same general direction, so I didn’t have to pace with her.  “Alright, number one goal here is to keep this from steamrolling into a serious problem.”

“I’ve dealt with ghosts before,” I said.  “It’s not as big a thing as you’re making it out to be.  She’s an echo, not a proper Thorburn, and there’s a limit to what she can really do.”

“She’s making me a little panicky just by being here and being outside that circle, and I was already feeling pretty crummy about the whole shebang here, and now it’s like, all of it’s coming together, past, present, and prophecy.”

“Prophecy?”

“Damn it,” Mags said.  She pulled off her hairband, ran her fingers through her hair, and then put it back on, “Okay, look, I showed you Molly because I wanted to make it clear that I’m not against you, right?  And I feel like human garbage for having to say no when you were pretty cool before, but those are the circumstances.  I thought I’d make it up to you by pointing you to Molly, so you don’t get the wrong idea.”

“Appreciated,” I said.

“Well, this wasn’t something I was all that keen on explaining, because it’s not something I enjoy thinking about.  But if I’m responsible for stuff going down a bad road, then chances are pretty damn good that it’s going to turn out a hell of a lot worse than it otherwise might.  I’m supposed to help bring about three incidents of blood, fire and darkness.”

“You or ‘Maggie‘?” I asked.

“Me.  And with everything going on, this looks like a ripe opportunity, okay?  I’m a little freaked.”

A lot freaked, I thought, but I didn’t say so.

“Alright,” I told her.  “Alright, fine.”

“Fine?”

“I believe you.  I’m game, whatever the game is.  What do you need?”

“She’s… I’m pretty sure she’s following you, because she didn’t follow me before.  Can you stay put?  I’ve gotta go get something to bind Molly with, so she stays where she’s at.”

I looked at Molly.  She still stared at the depression of land below the slope.  Now and then she flickered, turning to stare at where the hill led to the North End.  An echo of her Self in the time before she’d died, debating which way to go.

“Salt,” I said.

“There’s salt on the road.”

“Salt holds power because it’s pure,” I said.  “It was used to preserve.  It held off rot and it stopped the emergence of life, if you salted the earth with it.  It flavors food.  Life, consumption, death, it fits into a niche in the cycle of life and death.  Dirty, gritty salt, I don’t know how effective that’d be.  Probably enough for something as weak as Molly is, but…”

Probably isn’t a hundred percent.” Mags said.  “Got it.  Good tip.  A box of salt, then.  There’s a convenience store just a minute away.  Goblins, stay, keep him company, keep the mirror available for Blake, uhhh… Blake, can you promise not to use it against me if I tell them to listen to you?”

“I promise to do my best,” I said.

“Good.  Listen to him,” she ordered them.  “You can occupy yourselves but don’t cause problems for anyone or anything.  No lasting damage to any human, plant, animal, or human-made object, nothing that would cause suspicion.”

The one she’d called Cumnugget groaned for the Nth time.  The other one only bobbed its head in a nod.

Mags sprinted off.  I could hear her retreating footsteps.

Cumnugget stuck the handle of the hand mirror into the snowbank, then plopped down in the snow.  The other goblin did the same a short distance away.

A snowball went flying, hitting Cumnugget hard in the head.

Cumnugget packed up a snowball, squeezing it hard to compact it, and sent it back

Neither goblin tried to move out of the way, they were so focused on the attack.  Making more snowballs, harder snowballs, rubbing snowballs in the salt and gravel at the edge of the road, and generally holding nothing back in weaponizing the snowball fight.

Cumnugget was enduring a hail of snowballs to the back and the back of the head, hunched over, while busily sticking one snowball full of twigs so they radiated out in every direction.  Sharp teeth chewed off the end of one twig, sharpening it where it had been blunt before.

I could have ordered them to stop, but it was kind of amusing, in a slapstick Saturday morning cartoon sort of way.

“Stop that,” I heard a woman say.

She stepped into my field of view, and plucked the snowball from Cumnugget’s hands.  Cumnugget watched, eyes gleaming like forlorn puppy dog eyes, nose bleeding freely from a hurled chunk of ice earlier in the snowball fight, the blood leaking past the buttoned up collar of the jacket, which covered the goblin’s mouth.

The woman bent low, and I had a view of her face as she pulled a kleenex out of a coat pocket and handed it to the snowsuit-clad goblin.  “Use this to stop the bleeding.”

Aunt Irene, joined by Callan, my second-oldest cousin.

Molly’s older brother.

“I had to drive them away,” Molly said, without moving her lips.  An internal thought brought to life.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’m sorry.”

A snowball smacked into the back of Cumnugget’s head.  The goblin whirled, snarling.  A second snowball smacked into the goblin’s face.

“Goblins,” I said, my voice low.  I didn’t think Aunt Irene and Callan could hear me, but I stayed quiet to be sure, “Give them a little space.  Stay in my sight until Mags is back.”

Cumnugget seem to interpret that as permission to go after her fellow snowsuit goblin, who ran.

When they got far enough away that they couldn’t move much further without technically staying in sight, the fleeing goblin wasn’t able to flee anymore.  Cumnugget tackled him.

“Almost covered by the snow,” Callan said.

Aunt Irene made a face.

“You okay?  It’s not the first time we’ve had to dust off the snow.”

“Comes in waves, doesn’t it?” Aunt Irene asked.  “Were you there when I was talking to Christoff?”

“I caught the tail end of that talk, I think.”

“Grief hits you in waves, and sometimes it’s a bigger wave than you’d expect, it catches you off guard.”

“Yeah.  You feeling a big wave right now?”

“Oh, it’s in the top five.”

My eyes fell on Molly’s ghost.  She was right there, and they weren’t aware.

Not consciously.  The pointed grief my aunt was describing could easily have something to do with the ghost’s presence.

“Phew,” Aunt Irene said, fanning herself with her hand, blinking rapidly.  “Don’t want to get upset right here.”

“I don’t think anyone would blame you, mom.”

“I’d blame myself.  We have things to do.  Mrs. Duchamp said-”

“I’m pretty sure Mrs. Duchamp didn’t have to deal with anything like this.  Look, why don’t you stay here?  I’ll go down and clean up, and that way, only one of us gets snow in our boots.”

“No, on our way back.  That way you’re not standing around with wet socks for however long it takes us to follow up on what Mrs. Duchamp said.”

I raised my eyebrows at that.

“Sounds like a plan.”

He put a hand on his mother’s shoulder as they headed down the road in the direction of Hillsglade House.  They walked past the snowsuit-clad goblins.  Cumnugget was mashing the other goblin’s face into a snowbank.

Molly followed them.

“Molly,” I said.

She didn’t change course.

“Molly!”

As Mags had so eloquently put it, fuck.

The timing had been too specific.  Was this the Duchamps at work, manipulating connections to put Aunt Irene and Callan in my way again?  Probably not.  I wasn’t sure that many people even knew I was around, or were in a position to recognize me if they did.

Mags had talked about a prophecy.  Was this her personal version of bad karma, reality going off-rails in the most inconvenient way?

The Rube Goldberg machine of the universe, ticking forward toward Mags’ blood, fire and darkness, or whatever it was.

As the group had passed, Cumnugget had let the other goblin up, only so it would be possible to stuff its mouth full of snow.  Cumnugget was currently in the process of packing the snow into the goblin’s open mouth, both hands driving handfuls of it down and in.

“Goblins!” I shouted.  “Go stop that ghost!  Grab salt off the street and throw it across her path.  Do not throw it on her!”

Cumnugget let go of the other goblin, backing off.  The goblin wobbled a little as it stood, using its mittened hands to work whole fistfuls of snow out, along with thick tendrils of drool and some blood.  It followed about ten paces behind Cumnugget.

“Frick,” I said.

I could have told them to pick me up, but Mags was coming, and I much preferred to have Mags filled in and on board than to be shouting at goblins.

It took two full minutes for Mags to arrive.  She was halfway up the hill when she realized something was wrong.

“Go,” I said.  “Hillsglade House, I’m pretty sure.  Something about Sandra.”

She started to go for the hand mirror.  I didn’t wait for her.  “I’m going ahead.”

“You want?” she asked, still reaching for the mirror.

“Might be useful,” I said.

Then I skipped over the darkness.

I didn’t have the motorcycle anymore.  That sucked.  But I was light and I didn’t get tired.  I covered ground quickly.

A trio of fat men were reflected in the lights generated by car windows and windshields, half a street up.  A little too similar, a little too childish in their dress.  Golfer’s clothes, almost, with matching hats with flaps over red hair, red noses, matching sweaters under plaid coats, and pants belted a touch too high at the waist.

They noticed me as I ran, heads turning.

The two in the back glanced in different directions, almost as if they’d communicated with a thought.  I slowed, checking for a way around.

The one in front, without a word from the others, deemed it okay to reach out, smashing a car’s windshield, a side mirror, and then kicking a display window.

The light available to me disappeared.  Had I kept going at the same speed, I might have been shunted off in one direction or another.

Waiting for me?  Prepared for me, even?

I prepared to jump across the darkness, but something made me hesitate.

In the midst of the darkness, a kind of light blossomed, like a glowing smoke.  Three figures emerged into the nothingness between patches of mirror-space.  They were utterly bald, naked, looked more like metal statues than people, and had the same proportions as the three men I’d seen.  The same faces, minus the hair peeking around the edges of the cap.  Each had a pecker that looked like it belonged on a baby, not a grown man.  They half-floated, half-waddled, and only glimmers of the landscape they walked on were visible in this space.  Red stone that fit together without the use of mortar, highlighted by gold, and I thought I saw a glimpse of a carving of a dragon or a dog.

This trio of Others could apparently understand and navigate this mirror space more easily than I did.

“Let me past,” I said.

They shook their heads in perfect unison.

“I’ll rephrase then,” I said, anger leaking into my voice,  “Let me past, or I might decide to carve one of you up so badly he’ll never be mistaken for a member of your trio again.”

They didn’t budge.

I ducked right, skipping over the largest tract of darkness available.  I crossed a block or two of residential buildings, touched on a patch of light shed from a car’s side-view mirror, and then turned a hard left to continue in the direction I’d been going.

I was just touching on solid ground again when I felt hands seize me by the shoulders.

I stared up at a face.  The head was broad and fat, the face almost cherubic, but the two together, they made for a face that was too small in proportion with the head.

I felt a momentary panic at the body contact.  In the instant I remembered that those memories were false, that I didn’t need to be paralyzed by them, he reminded me that body contact could still be a very bad thing, hurling me.

I passed through one patch of light, and by through, I meant through.  Glass shattered as I entered the area with too much force, another window breaking somewhere in the real world, and I was shunted straight into the nearest mirror realm, still moving fast enough that I broke the glass there with the force of my entry.

I hit ground, tumbling, and managed to put my hand and arm out to stop myself from rolling over into the next patch of darkness and accidentally skipping over to the next patch of mirrorverse.  I could feel the spirits patching up the damage to my body as I stood.  The drawbacks of having hollow bird bones or a skeleton of dry twigs.  I broke easily.

Slippery slope.

The three had already caught up to me, standing on or just outside this space.

I might as well have been a swimmer in shark infested waters.  This was their element.  Except the sharks were bald fat men with the smallest dicks I’d ever seen.

First Aunt Irene, now this.

Maybe Mags’ reaction to hearing Molly speak had been on target after all.

This sucked.

They paced in a circle around me.  I held the Hyena ready to retaliate if they tried to grab me again.

“I clawed my way back up from the Drains,” I said.  “I’ve faced off against demons.  I’ve killed a goblin, I’ve killed a man.  Do you really want to do this?”

They did.

One of them came at me from the left, hands reaching out.

With the broken Hyena, edge very possibly dulled from scratching a damn picture series into the floor of the factory, I slashed out at the closest reaching hand.

Though it looked like these guys had been cast from some dull metal, the blade still managed to cut.  Sparks flew where metal met metal, joined by a spray of blood.

In recoiling, he lost forward momentum.  In an action that was simultaneously flailing his arms for balance and reaching for me, he threw his other arm my way.

I ducked under it, and I was quick.  Much as I’d ridden past the Shepherd, I dragged the ragged edge of the broken sword against the side of the Other’s belly, moving behind it.

I could see the others advancing.  Their faces were contorted into matching expressions of utter rage.  I’d have called their faces demonic, if I hadn’t met actual demons before.

I wasn’t experiencing the same kind of rage.  I didn’t feel much at all.  Even the fluttering in my chest had a certain slow rhythm to it.

Just as I’d opened him up along the side of the belly, exposing guts that looked as real as any human’s, I brought the sword across the back of his knees.

The Drains had ground away everything I didn’t need, and had left me equipped with only what I needed to bring about entropy.

“Blake!” Mags’ shout brought me back to reality.

The Other dropped to his knees.  His buddies were making their moves, one moving away, no doubt aiming to get to the black void they could swim though as quickly as they did.

I brought the broken sword to the Other’s throat.

His brothers stopped.

“Blake!” Mags said, closer.

“I’m here,” I said.

It took her another twelve seconds to find the reflective surface, even though she hadn’t sounded like she’d been far away.

“What the fuck?” I heard her say.

“They got in my way.”

“What are they?”

“Tweedle Dee, Tweedle Dum, and Bleeding Profusely?” I suggested.

“Shit.  Okay, don’t do anything if you don’t have to,” she said.  “This is getting out of control fast.  Johannes!  I need you or a representative, asap!”

“You realize this could out me?” I asked.  “He might know my face.”

“Killing one of his guests does too,” she said.  “Unless you plan on killing all the damn witnesses?”

I looked at the other two.  I wasn’t sure I had it in me.

Light flashed, brilliant, and for a moment, the patch of light I stood in extended two or three times as far in every direction.

“Ambassador,” a male voice spoke, rich with an accent.

“Faysal.  We’ve got a situation.  I need a decision on this that doesn’t lead to outright war.”

“We’ll see.  This would be…”

The dog with the long white fur hopped up, front paws resting on the ledge beneath the window of the house.  “…Ah.”

“They’re yours, right?” she asked.

He leaped up and over, jumping into this mirrorverse.  Much as the fat men had, the dog walked on the nothingness.  Each footstep created ripples that moved too fast, rings of light that seemed to stretch on to infinity in every direction.  His fur seemed too white, here, considering the fact that light didn’t reach him while he stood in the darkness.

He spoke, “They are Johannes’ guests, yes.  Should I recognize the swordbearer?  I’d think I’d recognize these markings, but man’s kind all look so similar.”

“I’m not sure you’d recognize these markings,” I said.

“Ah, very well,” Faysal said.  He looked back at where Mags peered in.  “You seem agitated, ambassador.”

“Go, Mags,” I said.  “Handle it.”

“I have somewhere I should be,” she said, looking between me and the dog.

“Then please go,” Faysal Anwar told her.  “Be where you should be.”

Mags ran.

The dog looked at me, sitting.  “Good afternoon.  Will you tell me who you are?”

“No, sir,” I said.

The outright refusal felt heavy in the air, as if it had a very tangible quality to it.  I wasn’t sure why I’d added the sir, but it felt right.

I was left wondering how often something like a Gatekeeper heard the word no, and just what the response would be.

“Good afternoon to you too, by the way.  I don’t mean to be rude,” I said.

“I forgive you, abyss-borne.  I’m sorry to say so, but you smell of goblins and worse things.  Demons, even.  The threads that are supposed to tie you to the world are either cut, never to heal, or they were torn during a recent fall, and are only now mending.  If I had to guess, I would say you’re walking a very short, violent road.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” I answered.  “I’d like it if the short, violent road involved helping people along the way, turning that violence against ugly things.”

“Even when that description might include you?”

Uglier things, then,” I said.

“If you grow ever uglier, then what will you do when there is nothing uglier than you that you’re able to fight?”

“I’ll have reached the end of my short, violent road, I suppose,” I said.

The Other I was holding hostage moved.  I moved the sword in warning, and I inadvertently nicked it.

Faysal seemed to take it all in stride.  “That will do, then, in place of an introduction.  I now know you, and I can present myself as Faysal Anwar, familiar to Johannes the North End Sorcerer of Jacob’s Bell.”

“Well met, sir,” I said, without irony.

“Once upon a time, after I had finished working, I would perch on the tallest mountaintops with two or more of my cousins,” the dog told me.  “I would watch.  Centuries would pass before I had cause to move again.  When I worked, I forged paths.  Natural concourses for rivers to flow, for beasts to find water and for feet to tread freely.  I helped open up the world like a flower might unfold.  I opened doors, and earned the title of gatekeeper.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

“Do you have an allegiance?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“To whom?”

“I’d rather not say.”

“I understand, but I’ll also warn you: Refuse me one more time, and I’ll declare that this is no longer a discussion, for it isn’t conducted on even footing.”

“What would it be?” I asked.

“Hostile negotiations,” he said.

I didn’t budge.  My heart fluttered in my chest like a blind bird in a cage, but I managed to stay utterly still.

“I’ll make my offer,” he told me.  “I am a gatekeeper.  You, as it appears, are enclosed.  Join Johannes in his cause, and I’ll conduct you from your current enclosure.”

The fluttery beat in my chest took on a different note.  Freedom.

“I remember making a promise, once, that I wouldn’t accept someone else’s idea of freedom.  Only my own.”

“I would open the door, I would not dictate the freedom that lies beyond it, but to ask that you work alongside Johannes,” Faysal Anwar told me.  “Should you wish it, I can release the hold that the abyss maintains on you, and nurture the regrowth of your Self, or I can help you open a clear way between here and the abyss.  The former would make you as close to mortal as you could be.”

Not only free, or close to free, but alive?

“And the latter?”

“When the abyss-borne are slain, they return to the abyss.  If they are strong enough, they can return again and again.”

“At the cost of needing to making an impact,” I said.  “To scratch out footing so they can’t be dragged back to the Abyss without being slain.”

“Yes.  You aren’t strong enough to return, if you fall, looking at you.  The Abyss would break and consume you on your next visit.  If I were to open a way, however, a path just for you, it would take but a fraction of the strength to return.”

“You’re doing this for Johannes’ Others?”

“For one or two.  For others, I’m doing other things, or negotiating a favor offered by one to buy the loyalty of another.”

Holy shit.

A choice between being alive again or staying like I was and being effectively immortal.

Free of the mirrorverse, either way.

I could have my damn motorcycle back.  I could ride it.

But… I’d be on Johannes’ side.  I couldn’t help my friends, probably.

False friends, really, I told myself.

But there wasn’t any heart in the thought.  I could tell it to myself, but I couldn’t feel it.

My hope crumbled, and crumbled hope became frustration and anger.  I hung my head a little, gritting my teeth.

Damn it.  Trust a damned angel to use hope to hit me where it hurt.

“No,” I said, and the word was strangled.

“Ah,” he said.  “I’ll trust you have your reasons.”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice still strangled.

“As one who has watched over the world for centuries, I know things.  I know, for example, that right this moment, your relative is confronting Rose at Hillsglade House.  The ghost grows agitated, for it harbors many unpleasant memories of the building.  Meanwhile, I know that you’re here, having just eviscerated one of these Iaiah.”

“I like how the sound of its name sounds like some brief, agonized cry,” I said.  “Is it supposed to be the cry of the victim, or is it the sound this guy makes after I cut his throat?”

“Neither.  Curious.  It should have healed by now, but it hasn’t, which suggests a quality unique to you or that blade.”

“Fancy that,” I said.

“Joining Johannes is off the table.  Would you be open to compromise?”

Sure,” I said.  “Considering that they were the ones that attacked first, I might be in my rights to demand a little more here, no?”

“You are in your rights.  To explain, these Iaiah were invited, and we have a certain responsibility to look after them as a result.  They are territorial as creatures created to be guardians so often are, but when placed as guardians, they are more commonly tasked with warding off more abstract things.  It seems they react on instinct even when visiting strange places.”

“I understand,” I said.  “If you want forgiveness, I’ll drop my grudges, as best as I’m able, in exchange for moving this along, and getting a guarantee this won’t happen again.”

I gotta go, before something happens.

“Deal tendered and accepted,” Faysal Anwar said.  “The Iaiah won’t interrupt you again.”

“I need all of Johannes’ guys to stay out of my way.”

“I would be reluctant to offer that even if I knew your full identity and harbored absolutely no doubts,” Faysal Anwar told me.

“Right,” I said.  “Damn.”

“I told you I would move this along.  I offer free, unmolested passage through Johannes’ realm, in and out, within the next day.  We will have a discussion, I will nourish you, and we’ll agree on one favor.  I promise no tricks or manipulations, no attacks or subterfuge.  You and I will agree on a favor for me or my practitioner to perform for you, in exchange for your release of the wounded Iaiah.  You will leave Johannes’ realm in a frame of time reasonable to you, and you will do so happier, healthier and better than you were when you entered, in a way that the you of the present would deem agreeable.”

“Yeah?” I asked.

“This I pledge, in exchange for the release of this guardian entity.”

I removed the sword from Tweedle-Bleeding’s neck.  “Deal.”

“Fare well,” Faysal Anwar told me.  “I must remove the wounded to where he may be helped.  Excuse me.”

“You fare well too,” I said.

I leaped across darkness.

A flash of light ripped across the darkness behind me.  Surprised, I very nearly missed my step, stepping into the nothingness, rather than leaping across it.  Not such a problem -I still moved across instantaneously-, but when the footing differed in angle or I stepped onto snow, it could make me stumble.

I reached the foot of Hillsglade House, reflected in the windows of the houses across the street from the spike-topped wall.

My next step took me to the spot where the house’s windows faced the surrounding property.  The window jutted out over the porch, two windows sitting at diagonals and another facing straight out.  I had a view of the front door.

Molly, Rose, Aunt Irene and Callan were all present.

Mags…

Ah, there.  A patch of light further down the driveway.  She held the hand mirror, but it didn’t face her.

“-Going to come with me right this instant.”

“You do not get to order me around, Aunt Irene,” Rose said.  “If you keep trying, I am going to slam this door in your face.”

“You have no right to sell this property.”

“I agree!  I don’t know where you got it in your head-”

“Reliable sources,” Aunt Irene cut in.

Wrong sources,” Rose said.  “I swear I have no intention of getting rid of this place.  Believe me, I wish I was in a position to, but-”

“But you’ve got people with you right now, looking at the property.”

“Looking only in the vaguest sense of the word, they aren’t looking to buy.  They’re… acquaintances from Toronto.  That’s it.”

“Could you word that in a less convincing way?”

“Probably!  But I’m being honest.  Whoever told you that is just trying to mess with me, just like they messed with Moll-”

Callan’s hand hit the door so hard and so fast that I swear even the ghost jumped.  Flat of the hand on hard wood, making windows rattle.

Molly had gravitated closer to me, back to the wall, eyes downcast.  Rose a few feet to her left, me a few feet to her right.  “They won’t stop making noise.  I haven’t been able to sleep right for days.”

“Stressful, huh?” I murmured.

“Try that again?” Callan asked, speaking low and slow, with menace in every syllable.  “You’re a chronic liar, Rose.  That’s as good as fact.  You won’t convince us of anything, got it?  Don’t ever try using my sister’s name again, because I’m going to hear it as a lie and I won’t be able to hold back.”

“You’re going to hit me?” Rose asked.  “Do it.  I’d be worth it, just to have you out of my hair.”

“We’ve got the backing of the local police,” Irene said.  “We, not you.  Callan would get away with it.”

“Well then,” Rose said, without hesitation in her voice, “Hit me just to vindicate my very, very low opinion of you, please.”

Callan didn’t move.

“The police are on our side, the local bigwigs are putting their weight behind us-”

“If by weight, you mean some old-school cannon with the barrel planted between your shoulderblades, the metaphor works.”

“-and most of the family is in town.  You’re alone in this.”

“Alone,” Molly’s ghost echoed her mother.

“It’s okay,” I said.  “I’m here.”

The ghost raised her head, looking straight through me.

“Yeah,” I said.

“…an idea that is?” Rose was asking.  “There’s a reason they brought the family here, and it’s not to help you or hurt me.  It’s to ruin all of us.  How can you even live in this city this long without picking up on how much they detest the Thorburns?”

They’ve set it up so they can take us all out in one go.

These were the plays the other sides were making.  Irene being here, bringing the family in.  Optimal ways to root Rose out.

“They might dislike us but they hate you,” Aunt Irene said.  “The enemy of my enemy-”

“Is still a damned enemy!” Rose said.  “The sooner you realize there is no such thing as a true ally, the better off we’ll be.”

“I suppose we’ll have to prove you wrong by working together.  We’ve got Molly’s version of the contract, and we’ve got multiple eyes going over it.”

“I’m stuck,” Molly’s ghost murmured, not moving her lips.

“You won’t find a thing,” Rose said, just a little smug.  “Believe me, Grandmother’s lawyers are very capable.”

“I advise you call them.”

“They’re the sort of capable that makes them a little too costly to call on a whim,” Rose said, her voice level.  “I’m tempted, though, and not because I’m worried about what you’re trying to pull.  I just want to see the looks on your faces when you see just how badly you’ve been misunderstanding this whole situation.”

“There’s a monster in the attic,” Molly thought aloud.

“Well put,” I said.

“…Advising you call them,” Aunt Irene was saying, “Because we’re making our first argument.  The contract stipulates you’re supposed to maintain the property, but for the last two weeks of December and the first week of January, the driveway wasn’t plowed.”

“Oh my god,” Rose said.  “They really know how to fuck with me.  They gave you an excuse to be pedantic.”

“We’re challenging you for custodianship,” Aunt Irene said.  “You’ll be hearing from us shortly.”

Fine,” Rose replied.  “Please go fuck yourselves on the way out.”

Aunt Irene turned to leave, Callan following.

I could see Mags glance down at the ground.  She muttered something at Aunt Irene as the woman passed.  From Aunt Irene’s body language, I didn’t think she’d responded or even acted like she’d heard.

Molly’s ghost started, as if to follow, then stopped.  She looked at Rose, then at me, then her mother.  “I don’t know what to do.”

“Just relax,” I said.

Rose stepped out onto the porch, arms folded.  Her face was a little flushed, short hair damp.  “What are you doing here?”

“Keeping the ghost calm,” I said.

“Trying to stay calm,” Molly said, echoing me.

Mags came up the steps.  She didn’t approach, but leaned against the railing of the porch instead.

“Ambassador,” Rose said.

“Hey Mags,” I said.

“Hey,” Mags said, a little glum.  “You work things out with Johannes’ familiar?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Man, he makes tempting offers.”

Rose shot me a look.

“Why do people ever deal with demons when they could deal with angels?” I asked.

“I’d think there’s probably a very good answer to that question,” Rose said.

“Don’t worry,” I said, “I didn’t join Johannes.”

“I’m not worried,” she said.  “I’m just saying.”

“Well so am I,” I said, a little testily.  “I’m backing you up here, seriously.  Stop fighting me and let me, and we could actually make it through.”

“Ahem,” Mags cut in.  When I looked at her, she gestured a little at the ghost.

Molly’s ghost was twitching, flickering a little more.

“Right,” I said, sighing.  “This enigma.  Our runaway ghost.  We can hardly bind her here.”

“No,” Mags said.  “You look worse.”

I looked down, touching my side where I’d careened into the ground.

What I felt alarmed me.

I unzipped my sweatshirt.

My lowest right ribs were exposed, and they were a little more narrow and crooked than ribs should be.  Branches climbed out from the skin to entwine them.  Feathers stuck out here and there, half tattoo and half feather.

“Bleh,” I said.  “I don’t suppose you could look up Iaiah, Rose?”

“I’ve got enough to do,” she said.  “What Auntie was talking about?  She could probably pull it off… it’s almost precisely what I’d try to do if the tables were turned.  I could deal with it, but I can’t deal with it and this war at the same time.  Things are going to explode any day now.”

“Let me try, then,” I said.  “I’ll see what I can do about those guys, and Molly here.”

“You’re implying I trust you.”

“I’m implying you have no other choice,” I told her.

“Fine,” Rose said.  “You’re probably right.  Go to town.  Just don’t expect it to change anything if you succeed, and you will lose what little tolerance you’re getting from me if you screw this up.”

That said, she returned to the house.  The door wasn’t slammed, but it shut with enough force to make the window shudder.

I frowned.  “I’m annoyed with myself for ever entertaining the idea that she could be a female version of me.”

“We should go,” Mags said.

“Right,” I said.  “Let’s get this situation under control.  No blood, fire and darkness for us.”

“God, don’t even say that,” Mags told me.

“I’ll come with you to the spot where you can bind her,” I said, “Then skip over to Johannes domain.  If they’re going to owe me a favor and if it’s going to make a difference, I’d rather make that difference sooner than later.”

“Fair,” Mags said.

“You bind Molly here, then maybe we touch base and confirm everything’s cool before I see what a vestige like me can do about the legal issue with the family?”

“I think that sounds like the safest activity you could undertake,” Mags said.

“Don’t say that,” I told her.  “That’s a bad omen.”

“There are bad omens everywhere,” Molly said.  “I want to see the family.  I have to warn them.”

There was a clarity to her voice that made me very concerned.  A degree of focus.

She was developing a little too quickly for my liking.

“Change of plans,” I said.  “I’ll help you with the binding, first priority.”

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