Category Archives: 10.04

Mala Fide 10.4

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“They’re trying to get me out of the house.  They succeeded.”

“They’re trying with Rose now,” I told Molly.

“Don’t talk to the ghost,” Mags said.  Her eyes were forward.  She held the mirror so it included me, held on the far side of her body.  I could make her out, the ghost beside her.  “Shit, people want my help.  They’re calling my name.  I don’t think it’s urgent, but I really can’t futz around too long here.”

“I don’t think I could ever do that,” I said.

“Huh?”

“It’s not in me.  If I were in your shoes, I’d lose my mind.  It’d probably kill me.”

“Yeah well, it’s not all cupcakes and rainbows for me.”

“But you can do it,” I said.  “I couldn’t, even without the question of what it’d mean to be unable to help my friends.”

“Is that supposed to be a dig at me?” she asked, raising one eyebrow.

“No.  I- I didn’t even realize it could be taken as one.  Sorry.”

She sighed audibly.

“Any idea how we’re going to bind her?” I asked.

“I’ve got an idea,” she said, “But in terms of timing, I dunno, if I get called away and it’s urgent?”

“What’s the idea?”

“I got some rope, I got a bucket, some bottled water, and a box of salt.  Soak the rope in salt water?”

“Worth a shot,” I said.

“I don’t want to be trapped,” Molly said.  “I left the house to get away…”

“I’m sorry,” Mags said, contradicting herself by replying to the ghost, encouraging it.  “Salt in the wound, isn’t it?  I wish I was in a position to treat you better, honest.”

“I have to warn the others, but I can’t, because that puts them in more danger.  Rose is next in line, and…”

I winced at that statement.

Confirmation, of a sort.  Molly-ghost’s memories were of Rose being her cousin, not me.

But she’d stopped talking.

“And what?” I asked.

“Rose is next in line, and we didn’t get along.  And she lied about me to get me in trouble.  And Kathryn ruined my first car… I wasn’t able to get the insurance.  That really pissed me off.  I’m not proud of the things I did, either.”

“You’re remembering the past, you’re worrying about the future, you’re a little too three-dimensional there, Molly,” I said.  “You’re worrying me.”

“You…” she looked at me, peering into the mirror, before trailing off.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’m not sure I’m okay with this,” Mags said.  “Let’s keep it all nice and quiet and calm for our ghost friend here, without bending her fragile brain or feeding her whatever it is about you that’s making her more alert.”

“I don’t recognize you,” Molly said, “But you’re family.  Family’s the most important thing right now.  Has to be.”

“With that kind of attitude, I can see why grandmother would pick you for first heir and custodian,” I said.

“She didn’t,” Molly said.

I looked at her.  “She didn’t?”

“Fuck her, most of all!” Molly said.

“Molly,” I said, “Focus.  Grandmother picked you first.  Why?”

“Fuck her, most of all!” Molly repeated, with the same inflection as before.  “God!  I didn’t want any of this!  They’re… they’re going to kill me in some horrible way, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Nobody- nobody’s going to help me.”

“Blake, let’s maybe not continue this line of questioning.”

“It’s important,” I said.  “It’s-”

Molly flickered, skipping to a different point in time, some different line of thought.  Moving, it seemed, not by the three dimensions of up, down, left, right, forward and back, but some other plane.  Still in the same physical spot, but at some other point in time.

“Agendas,” she said, her voice low.  Her voice had a gravelly tone that suggested extreme fatigue.  “Everyone has an agenda.”

“What was grandmother’s agenda?” I asked.

“Can’t make an omelete without breaking a few eggs, right?” she asked, but there was no mirth in her expression.  I could see dark circles under her eyes.  She glared at me.  “Enjoy your fucking omelete.”

Then, in the next moment, she flickered and disappeared.

Mags stopped walking.  Between that and my staring at the spot that Molly had occupied, I nearly walked out of the patch of light.

In my world, everything was utterly still.  In Mags’s, the real world, the wind made snow-laden tree branches sway.

“Ummmmmm,” Mags said.

I tried to remember what I’d read about ghosts.  I’d read something after taking Evan as a familiar, or Rose had said something.  The sheer mass of information I’d taken in was a bit of a jumble.

“She’s returned to her haunt,” I said.  “Some place where her echo is strongest.”

“Where?  The place she died?  The memorial?”

“Has to be,” I said.

“Running,” she said.

“Running with,” I told her.

The patch of light the hand mirror cast wasn’t a big one, only four paces long and two or three paces across when we were running.  With every movement of her arm, it swayed, moving forward and back, a little side-to-side.  With the snow on the sidewalk, and the inability to see far enough to anticipate potential obstacles, I was on unsteady ground.

I managed to keep up without fucking up.  I wasn’t even breathing hard when we reached the hill that overlooked the memorial.

Aunt Irene and Callan were cleaning off the snow, shaking a bouquet of fake flowers free of moisture.

Molly stood near them.

Her hair blew in the wind, and she hugged her arms to her body.

The look on her face, though.  Hollow, angry, despairing.  It was like the expression I might have imagined on the face of a parent who had lost their child.

What did it mean for a parent to lose their child?  They’d lost someone who lit up their life, who they’d invested countless hours into, who was supposed to carry on their legacy.  By passing a piece of ourselves and our teachings on to our children, we achieve a kind of immortality.

But Molly hadn’t lost a child.  She’d lost someone she’d invested eighteen years into.  The person who had a hand in every bit of joy she’d experienced in life.  The one who was supposed to create her legacy.  Herself.

She was face to face with her own death, her own mortality, too late to do anything about it.

“It’s not fair,” she said.

I could see Aunt Irene flinch, looking away, as if she’d heard the words.  Her hand clenched.

“I’ve had nightmares like this,” Mags said, her voice barely audible.

“We can’t just stand by and let this happen.”

“Whatever’s happening,” Mags said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I’d do something if I could but…”

“This is on me,” she said.  “I’m the one who gave her too much of my personal power.  How was I supposed to know she’d hoard it or whatever it was?”

She looked down at the ghost and the two family members of the girl she’d helped kill.

Balls,” Mags said.

She started down the slope.  I went with her, because it was the only route available.

“Why me?” Molly asked.  Her voice carried.

Callan moved one little wreath with a band of paper extending across it, shaking it with a touch too much force.  He looked angry.

The ghost was affecting the pair.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting, but-”

“You are interrupting,” Aunt Irene said.

It was a sharp change of tone from her earlier discussion with Callan.  If I hadn’t known anything about Molly’s presence, I might have dismissed it as lingering emotion from her ‘discussion’ with Rose.  With the context…

Fuck, I could only assume Molly was pissed.

“I come down here regularly,” Mags said.

“Yeah, I know,” Aunt Irene told her.  “I’ve seen you.  I wondered, you know, why you’d have any interest.  I feel pretty damn sure you’re not one of Molly’s friends.”

“I wish I had been.”

“I bet you do,” Aunt Irene said.  “But I’d drive by, and I’d look at you standing there, most of the days after school, and I’d be curious.  Then I saw you at Hillsglade House, standing in the driveway, and it clicked.”

“Whatever your assumption is, I’m pretty sure it’s wrong.”

“You’re an opportunist.  Get close to the heir of the house, win them over, and then when the house is sold, you’re the person who’s helped them out all along, so naturally they offer you something.”

“No- that’s not what I was doing.”

“Are you trying to manipulate me too?  Or did Rose think she could use you to mess with me?”

“No!”

“Then what?  You categorically deny it all?”

“I deny some of it?”

“Only some?” Callan asked.

“Please,” Mags said.  “I just wanted to…”

“To what?” Callan asked, almost snapping, his answer was so quick.  “Why did you feel like you had to interrupt us?  My mother is clearly upset, and you’re upsetting her more.  Clearly you must have had a good reason.”

His gaze was hard, almost glittering with anger.

When Mags didn’t answer, he said, “You had a reason for visiting too.  Morbid fascination?”

“No!  That’s-”

“Were you in love with her or something?”

“No!”

“You had some motivation for showing up every day.  It’s not like my mother and I aren’t going to pay attention to it.  Even Christoff asked about the strange girl that was visiting, and he really didn’t need more stuff to worry about in the aftermath of all this.  I think we deserve an answer.  What’s going on?  Was my mom right?  Was it greed?”

“N-”

She didn’t get a full word out, because he kept talking, “Are you here because of opportunism?”

“That’s…” Mags floundered for a word.  “It’s not like you’re thinking.”

“That’s not a no,” he said.  His voice had a note of triumph in it, but there was absolutely zero joy in it.  “I think it’s exactly like my mom theorized.”

“It isn’t, honest,” Mags said.

She’d said she’d had nightmares about something like this.  She’d had a role in murdering Molly, and on a level, she’d gotten away without a hitch.  Only now it was coming back to bite her, almost in the worst way possible.

“Then convince me.  Explain,” Callan said, and his voice was loud and sharp enough that it was only a half-step away from him yelling at Mags.

“I can’t,” Mags said.  “Listen, I’ll go, and I’ll come back when you’re done.”

“Maybe, if you can’t look us in the eye and explain why you’re so invested in this, you shouldn’t come back,” Aunt Irene said.

“Maybe,” Mags said, quiet, “But I will.”

“Pisses me off,” Callan said, looking away, very aggressively shaking snow from a card that was inside a sealable freezer bag.  He wiped the moisture from the outside of the card on his pant leg.

Mags had turned her back, starting to leave.

I heard Molly speak, as Mags put her foot on the slope.

You ordered the goblins to kill me.

Callan moved, as if a thought had just happened to come to him.  With the angle of the mirror, I could only see a slice of him, but everything in his tone of voice made it very easy to imagine his expression.  Incredulity.

“Is it guilt, that brings you back here?”

His voice carried.

The angle of the hand mirror changed slightly.  I could imagine Mags clenching her hand around the handle.

Molly was doing her own thing, now.

That,” Callan said, and he put a special kind of emphasis on the word, “Is even less of a no than your response to the greed thing.”

“It was clutching at opportunity, not greed,” Mags said, her voice so quiet that Callan didn’t have a chance at making out the words.

“If you’re going to say something, say it loud enough for us to hear!” Callan called out.  “Start with why the fuck you’re so guilty about my sister dying!”

Mags wasn’t functioning at her best.  She wasn’t even functioning by halves.

This wasn’t her.  Not the her I knew from here, and not the Maggie that Padriac had been pretending to be.

“Mags,” I said, keeping my voice low.

“They killed me and they took me to pieces!”  Molly raised her voice.  “They used corkscrews.  They used needles!”

Mags didn’t budge.

“Mags,” I said, a little more forceful.

“Fuck you!” Callan shouted.  “You come here?  You make us more miserable, bringing shit up like this?  Why?  Why the fuck can’t you just give us some damn peace?  So you can relieve the guilt a little?  Fuck you!”

“Mags, get a grip.  Callan feels guilty too, it’s part of why he’s seizing on this so forcefully,” I said.  “Repeat after me.  ‘Don’t you wish you could have done something more?'”

Mags spoke, as if she was very far away.  “Don’t you wish you had done something different, too?”

“Fuck you,” Callan said.

But there wasn’t even half the heat in the words that there had been earlier.

“Fuck you too,” Mags said.  She turned around, and she faced the pair.  Molly’s ghost hovered a little higher off the ground.  Mags’s voice was just a little choked.  “Fuck all of us.  This… this situation sucked.  It was fucked up, and a lot of people weren’t able to see just why.  I hate that.”

“You want to philosophize?” Callan asked.  “Do it somewhere else.”

“Yeah,” Mags said.  “Right.”

She made her way up the hill, taking a few steps at a time before pausing to look back and check on the scene.

“That didn’t work so well,” I said.  “The family’s emotionally charged, and-”

“-And that right there is my frigging kryptonite,” Mags said.  She injected false cheer into her voice, “But hey, bright side!  When things go that shitty, the nightmares have gotta pale in comparison, right?”

“I think this is your prophecy at work,” I said.  “It feels just a bit too contrived, pieces falling down in a very specific way.  A leading to B leading to C…”

“We need to head it off,” she said.

“We do,” I said.  “Listen, you might need to engage with Molly.  If we can get a rapport going between you two, we can buy you time to do the thing.  Do you think you can push through?  I can talk to you, if you think you can focus on my voice.”

“Yeah,” she said.  The mirror jerked, and the angle shifted vertically.  She was bending down.  I heard something crunch.

“Setting up?”

“I can have the rope soaking.  I don’t know how well it’s going to hold moisture, but I figure we can pour the rest of the salt so it’s bordered by the rope, and the rope should freeze in place, at least a little… ah, they’re leaving.”

“Ready?” I asked.

“No,” she said.  “Molly’s coming to us, she’s not following her family.”

“That’s good,” I said.

“That’s-”

The perspective shifted.  I had to shift over to avoid being caught outside of the light.

I had a view of the slope and of the little memorial, the latter of which was now clean and free of snow.

Molly held a position at the base of the slope.

“Frick,” Mags said.

“That’s where you stood when you watched,” Molly said.

Mags was frozen.  Her eyes were fixed on Molly’s, and Molly’s stare was hard, still hollow with loss.

“Respond,” I urged Mags.  Whatever my feelings were toward Molly, as one of my few good family members, the priority was keeping this situation from graduating from ‘shitstorm’ to ‘prophecy of fire and whatever else coming true’.

“Yeah,” Mags said.  “This is where I stood.”

“I don’t know why I remember this,” Molly said, “But when they found me, they thought I was a mauled animal at first.”

“I told you that,” Mags said.  “One of the first times I came to that memorial there.”

“You told me you were sorry,” Molly said.

“A lot of times.”

“Tell her you weren’t the only one responsible,” I said.  “Laird played a part, and you were manipulated when you were weak and scared.”

Mags shook her head.

“No?” I asked.

“I’m not going to make excuses,” she said, not taking her eyes off Molly.

“I wouldn’t accept them anyway,” Molly said, with venom in her voice.  She’d apparently heard.

That venom…

“Yeah,” Mags said.  “I didn’t think so.  What would it take?”

“You took my life, didn’t you?”

“Kind of.”

“Mags,” I said.

“Give me yours,” Molly said.  “Give me that body.  It doesn’t make up for it, but it’s close.”

Mags shook her head.  “I can’t do that.”

“She’s a wraith,” I said, my voice low.  “She’s… fuck.  She absorbed the negativity from me, and the Thorburns, because they’re connected to her.  And-”

“-She probably absorbed it from me too,” Mags said, without flinching.  “Stupid of me.  Selfish.”

“I don’t think it was selfish at all,” I said.  “It was a sacrifice, the blood you gave her, to keep that memory alive.”

“Sacrifices can be selfish,” Mags said.

“Callan wasn’t wrong, was he?” Molly asked.  She drew closer.

“He wasn’t a hundred percent right either,” Mags answered.

Molly changed course, toes barely touching the ground as she moved to keep about two arm lengths away from Mags and me.

Her hand took hold of the same branch that one of the goblins had been plucking twigs off of.

She lifted it.

“Fuck me,” I said.  “How much power did you give her?”

“It’s not just me!”

“Molly,” I said, cutting in. “Listen, I know you don’t remember, but I have memories of us being close.  You, me, and Paige, okay?  If we could back down for five seconds-”

She talked over me.  “This is between me and her.

I fell silent.

Then I saw her moving the stick.  The broken end dragged on the ground-

Drawing.

“Mags!” I said.

Mags moved, reaching for the stick.

Too late.  Whatever Molly had been drawing, it was already finished.  A rune.

The wraith swung the branch at Mags, who caught it relatively easily.  Molly had strength, but that didn’t mean she was necessarily strong.

Molly let go, and raised her hand.

A gaping hole in the middle, one finger broken.

A dribble of ghost-blood fell on the rune.

“No way,” I heard Mags, as if she were barely in earshot.

Wind stirred, and blew at my hair.  I felt feathers at my side shift.

“I think I need some space,” Molly said.

The wind picked up.  But instead of shifting gears, so to speak, and cranking up to the next level of force, the wind kept getting stronger.  A steady, constant speed.

There wasn’t supposed to be wind in my mirror domain.

“Get the rune,” I said.

I didn’t have a good view of what happened next.  My attention was on fighting the wind.  I dropped to all fours, to have more points of contact with the ground, my sweatshirt fluttering.  Snow and ice swept over me.

I heard Molly speak.

“You’re sorryKneel.”

I half expected the wind to get stronger until I was forced out of the patch of light.  That wasn’t what happened.

The rune managed to gather all the power it needed, and then it simply turned out the lights.

My mirror window into the real world started to go dark, taking my footing with it.

“You gave me your blood as penance?  You gave me your power.  This is me using it the way I think it should be used.  Go against that, and you’re invalidating every act of contrition you made there.”

“Mags!” I said, raising my voice to be heard, in case this fading window wouldn’t carry sounds as well into the real world.  “That isn’t her!  You can go against it!”

Before the light could go out and maybe take me with it, I skipped to the next real bit of solid footing, about a five minute walk from the slope, Mags and Molly.

Once there, I collapsed, back to the wall.

Damn it.

We did not need this right now.

I turned over my options in my head, while double checking I was still in one piece.  No substantial damage, beyond what I’d suffered fighting the three guardians of the mirror space.  Ribs damaged in the tumble, now exposed.  Feathers stuck out from the side of my stomach, where I’d scraped the skin, and poked out where and when my sweatshirt rode up.

I still had the Hyena, but that didn’t feel like an answer in dealing with Molly.

Just when I was preparing to go, Mags turned up.  She held the backpack with the salt and rope in it in one hand, the adjustment straps dragging on the ground.

“What happened?”

“Ugh,” she said.  “She tapped my power for the rune there.  She’s right.  I can’t fight her, not really.  I’m getting more calls.  Same people, and it’s getting more insistent.  If they accuse me of not doing my job…”

It would bode ill.

“Bad day,” I said.

“Putting it lightly,” she said.  “She disappeared again.  She didn’t go to the memorial either.  I’m assuming it’s the house.”

Not to the memorial?

“I don’t know if a ghost can have multiple haunts,” I said.  “I sort of skimmed, when I read up on ghosts.”

“Right.  Fuck.  Okay.  Next destination, Hillsglade House?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “She’s a wraith, she’s shoring herself up and storing strength by feeding on negativity.  It’s going to twist her into something else.”

“How do you stop a wraith?”

“Mostly, I think, wraiths stop themselves.  They burn through whatever power made them.  Maybe if a practitioner is skilled, they can infuse it with more spirits, and shape it, like the Shepherd in Toronto did.”

“I wasn’t in Toronto, remember?”

“Yeah, I remember.  Uh, the other way they stop is the way any ghost can theoretically be put to rest.”

“Yeah?”

“Help them resolve the issue that made the echo in the first place.”

“Great.  How do we resolve hers?”

I paused.

“What?”

“For a wraith, that’s usually venting all that negativity at a person or a group of people.  Getting revenge.”

Balls,” Mags said.  She leaned against the window, bringing her head back hard enough to make the glass rattle.  “She’s a practitioner, but any power she draws on is going to be mine, because I established a connection.”

“She’s still growing.  She’s finding her strength, but by all accounts, she was never a very offensive practitioner.”

“She banished you pretty well.”

“Her focus was on defense.  Knowing that, we’ve got a sense of how she’ll operate.  She wants to make you miserable.”

“She wants me to experience the same pain she did.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I believe that.  But there’s a reason she disappeared and didn’t go right after you.  You think she went to Hillsglade, but I’m not certain.  What’s her agenda?  How does that fit in?”

“Getting access to books?”

“If she tries, she won’t succeed.  Rose put up barriers.  I can’t get inside.  I doubt an obvious threat like a ghost or a wraith could.”

“Another haunt, then?”

“Maybe,” I said.

Mags pulled a notebook out of the bag.  She opened it to the first blank page.

Wraith of Molly Walker in the middle, circled.

Thorburn, defensive caster, middle child, first heir and custodian.  Mags wrote the words inside the bubble.

Around the edge, she wrote more words inside bubbles.  Hillsglade House.  Molly’s Home.  School.

“Places she could be?” I asked.

“Things she has a connection to, but mostly places.”

“Her little brother,” I said.  “Her mom and Callan, who should be in the same place.  Um.  The goblins that killed her.  Extended family.  Laird.  Sandra.  Grandmother.”

Mags scribbled each idea down.

She switched to a different pen.

A line from Molly’s bubble in the middle to each of the bubbles ringing it.

Each line came out with a different strength.

The strongest, oddly enough, was ‘extended family’.

“More negativity to feed on,” I said.  “More connections to her soul and her Self.”

“Right.  I know where they are.  Your aunt said when she was talking to Rose.”

She swiftly packed everything back into the bag.

I could see her nervousness, the agitation that made paper flutter as she seized it.  Even the pens, when she put each one into a pocket for that pen alone- they wobbled.

I hated to have to tell her, but…

“I’m not coming,” I told her.

She froze, shifted position to look at me in the window.

“I’m not as useful here,” I said.  “We can’t chase her.  We’ve got to head her off, like we said before.  We should split up.  I’m… I’ll figure something out, and you give chase and distract her as well as you can, alright?”

“Damn it,” she said.

“You going to be okay without the bogeyman around for moral support?”  I asked.

“I’m going to have to be,” she said.  “Ugh.”

As if she wouldn’t have the courage if she didn’t set off right there, she sprinted out of my field of view, the backpack not even over her shoulders.

I headed in the opposite direction.

I felt trepidation of my own.

I walked over until I was at the very edge of the light shed by this row of houses.

I couldn’t make out the light, but I did have an open invitation.

I leaped, and I prayed I wouldn’t be intercepted, or wind up somewhere where I could get in trouble.

My feet came down on solid road.

Here, the wind blew.  The sun shone, a sky overhead.

Faysal Anwar was sitting in the middle of the road, gleaming white.

“As per our arrangement?” he asked.

“Please,” I said.

“Will you walk with me?” he asked.  “I rather like walks, and I would like to stretch my legs.”

I raised my eyebrows.

“Because of my role as a Gatekeeper and a being that supervises travelers and forges paths, not because of my canine body.”

“Oh.  Sure,” I said.  Given the choice, I might have preferred to stay, so I might make a faster exit when the dealing was done, but I wasn’t about to fight for trivialities with a guy like him.

“You were in the midst of a crisis, the last I saw.”

“The crisis is ongoing,” I said.

“Ah.  Then let me please see to my end of the bargain here first.  I promised nourishment.”

“I don’t know that I really eat anymore,” I said.

“You do,” he told me.  “You devour.  There is a yawning emptiness inside of you that craves sustenance, but you do not yet know how to feed it.”

Buildings parted before us, sliding out of the way, creating a narrow road for us to walk.

“I’ll take your word for it,” I said.

“You’ll do more than that,” Faysal told me.

We rounded a corner, and walls pulled away, revealing me.

Not only me, but a me that, on a level, I hadn’t ever really seen.  Discount my false memories, and account for the fact that Rose had taken my place in the mirrors every time I’d looked, up until I’d become a bogeyman, and I’d never really looked at myself.

Average height, longer hair that had a way of getting in his eyes, hands in his sweatshirt pockets, with winter boots… he looked just a little tired.

“What the hell?” I asked.

“An image.  Nothing more.”

“An image.”

“As you are now, you’re a starving giant, Blake Thorburn.”

I raised my head a little at that, eyes widening.

“Yes, I know your name now.  I know who and what you are.  It did take some doing.  You have the appetite of a giant, and you aren’t aware of it, but you are devouring everything you can get your hands on.  Spirits flood to fill the emptiness inside you.  When Blake Thorburn became something Other, a great many connections were broken.  You came undone, in a great many ways.  You were broken, and now you are a shattered vessel.  The drains filled you and transformed you, the spirits are finding surer footing in you, stronger ones supplanting weaker ones, while your psyche and your body render them into something familiar and comfortable to you.”

“Birds and sticks?” I asked.

“Something in that vein.  Once I knew what to look for, and once I had the details I needed, I was able to ask my practitioner for permission to follow the loose threads in his consciousness.  Connections were broken, and some are already mending.  His weren’t, not really.  It was a tenuous relationship to begin with, and it’s easy for the mind to lose its grip on those who they have only met once or twice.”

I nodded slowly.

“The memories are still there.  They weren’t erased, only lost.  This is your image, as Johannes had it.  I found two Others who caught glimpses of you, and strengthened that image.  Without ready access to those memories, they won’t suffer unduly.  Take it.  The difference is meager, but it will make a difference.”

“No trick?” I asked.

“No.  This is my hospitality.”

I reached out, not quite sure how I was supposed to eat myself.

The image blurred, and it folded itself around me.

I breathed in, almost as if I were testing the skin that wrapped around me.

It felt different.  More human, almost.

The tattoos, as I looked at my arm, weren’t quite so stark.  I couldn’t pick anything out that was different, but it seemed somehow better.

I checked my ribs, and the feathers didn’t stick out so much, the ribs weren’t so exposed.

“Thank you,” I said.

“You’re very welcome.  The hungry chasm in your being shouldn’t be quite as open as it was.  You’ll recover faster”

He’d started walking, and I walked alongside him.

“Thank you,” I said, again.

“We have had our discussion, in a way, though I am open to more.  That leaves only the favor.”

I started to speak, then hesitated.

“Yes?”

“I have two favors to ask,” I said.  “I’m hoping that since Mag- the ambassador is working for all of our interests, you’ll help with this without making too big a fuss of it.”

“I agreed to grant one favor.”

“You didn’t agree to grant only one,” I said.  “Trust me, this is helpful to all of us.”

“What is the favor?”

“The ambassador is chasing a wraith.  The wraith, I’m pretty sure, is going to keep running, moving from haunt to haunt.  Can you capture it?”

“Capture it?  I would be reluctant but willing.  If I displayed power to bind, kill, or alter the wraith, I might draw unwanted attention, disturbing a tenuous peace.”

And the prophecy of blood, fire and darkness would come to fruition.

“I would be willing, but I would prefer to choose a specific time and place, so my practitioner isn’t too disadvantaged.”

“No, scratch that,” I said.  “What about… if you have a control over paths, can you bar the wraith’s path, keep it from running?”

“I cannot close paths, I can only open them.  But I could open paths that would lead the wraith to a dead end, and arrange it so the only exit would be through you and the ambassador.  I could do this discreetly, and if the wraith didn’t harm you, there would be no cost to you or the ambassador.”

“Sounds like an option,” I said.  “That’s fair.”

“Would you deem it satisfactory, per the terms I offered?  I would want the past you and the present you to be happy with this favor.”

“There’s the second favor,” I said.

“Ah.”

“I have an acquaintance, from the Drains.  She helped me, I thought I should get her out if I can, and I know she’s not a warrior.”

“She’s an ally, nonetheless,” the dog told me.

“Yeah,” I said.  “And that’s why I can’t ask the ambassador to do it for me, and right now I don’t really have anyone else to turn to.  I can’t imagine she’d be the turning point in this war for the Lordship… I just owe her, on a level.”

“A greedy thing, asking for two favors, when one is generous enough.”

“I had to ask, to keep my word,” I said.

“I understand.  I can’t grant it to you as it stands, unless you have something to offer me.”

I frowned.

The wind was cold, which was strange to me, and the landscape alien, twisted, a little too inclined to move as Faysal needed.

The Sorcerer’s domain, but it was also the dog’s.

I was pretty damn sure I didn’t want to fight either of them here, if they had this much say over just how things were laid out and put together.

It was just a dog, but here, seeing the whole landscape change around it, I felt like I was getting more of a glimpse of the metaphorical iceberg beneath the water’s surface.

“I don’t have anything significant to barter,” I said.  “But… the reason I ended up in the drains was that I was fighting a demon.  Given a chance, I’ll fight it a fourth time and I think I have the tools to win, this time around.  The knowledge.  It’s a demon of the first choir, and I can bind it with art.  I know how to trap it, I know how to kill it, and I fully intend to do both.”

“Given the opportunity.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Maybe that counts for something, if it’s a demon and you’re an angel?”

“In the colloquial sense.  Yes.  That does count for something, and it does answer questions.  In an even match, my kind will inevitably lose to one of their kind.  Entropy will have its way in the end, but I can hope that end is in the far-flung future.  A demon of the first choir… entropy distilled.  Brave or ignorant, to challenge it.”

I didn’t speak.

“You’ll have your two favors,” he said.  “The second in payment for what you have lost in the fighting of demons.  Is that agreeable?  You should be leaving my domain happier, healthier, and better.”

“It’s agreeable,” I said.

“Then for the release of the Iaiah that you gave me, I grant your terms.  I have some traveling to do before I can find your abyss-dwelling companion, and it seems… a very unexpected group has just passed into this realm.”

“Unexpected?”

“Don’t concern yourself for now.  Your companion I’m to recover, what is their name?”

“Green Eyes.”

“So be it.  I will be in touch before long.  Turn around.”

I did.

A door stood in front of me.

“It will take you where you need to be.”

I stepped through.

The cafe in the ‘downtown’ of Jacob’s Bell.

My family.

Mom, dad, Ivy, Uncle, Uncle’s current and ex-wives, Jessica and Steph, respectively, and my cousins Kathryn, Ellie, Paige’s twin Peter, Irene’s youngest Christoff, James, and Roxanne, in descending order.

No Paige, no Aunt Irene or Callan, though they could easily be heading this way, if they’d left Christoff with family.

Molly was there, at the back of the cafe.

Mags was outside, looking in the window.

I moved to Mags’ side.

“Well?” she asked.

“It’s done.  If we can get her to move, we should be able to corner her.  Then we can bind her or whatever else.”

I stared inside.  They were agitated.  Half the parents were busy watching the kids, Ivy was dumping food on the floor and nobody was cleaning it up, and the one other occupied booth had two very annoyed looking patrons inside.

Short of grandmother dying a second time, getting the inheritance out of the hands of the current custodian and heir was apparently the only thing that would bring this group together.

It didn’t look like they could exchange two words without looking aggravated, annoyed, or smug.  But all the same, Uncle, Aunt Jessica, and dad each had stacks of paper in front of them, highlighters, pens and sticky notes in hand, ignoring the chaos of the younger teenagers and children, Ivy’s squalling, and the aggrieved looks of the cafe’s staff.

There was something to be said for Thorburn bullheadedness.

“We need Molly out of there,” I said.

“We also need a plan,” Mags said.  “I’ve got the salt-soaked rope, but she’s not weak, and she’s aware enough to know we’re trying something, and even to grasp exactly what we’re trying to do.

“She knows about bindings,” I said, “Yeah.”

“She shouldn’t be this clever,” Mags said.

“Molly is absorbing paranoia, anger, and all the trace thoughts that come with the feelings,” I said.  “Ghosts are made of that kind of emotional picture.”

“I feel like we’re being tampered with.  More than just a prophecy coming to pass.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Second guessing yourself?”

“Just a little,” she said.  “Frig.”

“Molly’s going to be prepared,” I said.  “You’ll need to be careful.”

Fuck being careful,” Mags said.  “We’re doing this my way.”

“Your-”

“Who’s the biggest shit disturber in there, among all your cousins that’ve lived here?”

“Um.  Probably Ellie.  Poor impulse control, property damage, petty theft, slept around.  Woman with tattoos.  Looks like a human weasel.”

Mags was winding a strap around her hand.

“Why?”  I asked.

“Need a story.”

I thought of what I’d told Rose.  “Can that story involve interrupting what they’re doing?”

“Naturally,” she said.

Naturally?” I asked.  “How’re-

But Mags was already moving, opening the door.

I had to remind myself that the Maggie I’d gotten to know in Toronto wasn’t this person.  It was a fake.

And the real person was apparently the type that had to move and act.  When push came to shove, and she wasn’t facing down a regret bigger than maybe losing her name, she didn’t give herself a chance to hesitate.

She didn’t hold anything back, either.

“Hey, bitch!”  Mags practically bellowed.

Ellie turned.  She’d been taking up a booth all by herself, not helping with paperwork or managing kids, lounging.

“What the fuck are you doing back here?”  Mags asked.

“I don’t know you,” Ellie said.

“You know me.  My bike?”

“I’ve seen a lot of bikes.”

“Wasn’t it you that stole my bike, years back?  You bitch.”

“Kid, if you want to get on my bad side…” Ellie warned.

“What?  What are you going to do?”  Mags asked.

“I’ve fought girls twice your size,” Ellie said.

Mags didn’t hesitate.  She stalked forward, Ellie raised her hands defensively-

And Mags shoved her.

It wasn’t the kind of strong that screamed magic.  It was the kind of strong where Ellie teetered backward and crashed hard into the wall, just beneath Molly’s ghost.

“And lost?” Mags taunted Ellie.

Molly seemed almost delighted.  She hadn’t been fond of Ellie, and the negativity latent in the whole scene… yeah, that wasn’t helping the wraith problem.

Before anyone could stop her, Mags grabbed one of the fat glass salt shakers from the table.  She tossed it into the air, caught it with the hand she’d wound the strap around, and hurled it at the wall like she might’ve thrown a fastball.

Molly’s ghost disappeared an instant before the shaker shattered explosively.

The staff had reached Mags, who backed away, pulling her hand away from one grip.

“Let go of me,” Mags said, “Seriously, let go!”

When she was released, she straightened her jacket.  She reached into her coat, and pulled out her wallet.  “For the damage, and the inconvenience.”

She removed bills, slapping them down onto the raised border between two booths.  “Say when.”

She’d slapped out five bills before the manager or cook or whatever had his bearings, stopping her.

“I understand if you want to ban me from the premises,” Mags said.  “Sorry for the trouble.”

The cook looked between Mags and Ellie, then at the family, which had undoubtedly caused him no small amount of grief.  He pitched his voice low.  “No trouble.  You can come back, but not while they’re here.  For now, out, out.”

Mags nodded.

“And the rest of you, out.  Too many headaches, this is my final straw.  You stay, but you are not eating?  Enough.  Come back tomorrow, you can stay so long as you eat.”

Mags strode out with an air of victory.  I moved to the exterior, where the window looked out on the street.  “There.”

“‘Your way’ involves more violence and destruction than I would’ve thought,” I commented.

“You don’t know the half of it.  I’ve used frigging plastic explosive.  It’s a casualty of spending too much time around goblins, you get to think like they do.”

“That’s a little scary.”

“Which part?”

“All of it.”

“I like doing things directly, and I did get the ghost to scram.”

“That you did,” I said.  “Now we’ve got to find her.”

She pulled a paper from her pocket.  The bubble map.

She shoved it in the nearest bit of snow.

When it came out, the lines were washed out, the ink running.

“That’s the strongest line,” she said, with confidence.  “The house.”

Maybe this was what it was like to be Rose-in-the-Mirror, dealing with Blake.

Trusting someone’s gut instincts.

“Cool,” was all I said.

It wasn’t a long walk, and where I could have skipped ahead, I stuck by Mags.

Rose was standing on the porch with Alexis.  She pointed at the side of the house.

We went in the direction she’d pointed.

The back of Hillsglade House, where the hills and the glades mingled.  I’d met and bound June here, and traveling a little further, I’d negotiated somewhat unsuccessfully with the Briar Girl.

Molly was here.

She lunged.  Mags threw down a  line of salt.

The wraith retreated.

“You can’t even look me in the eye,” Molly said.

“It’s tough,” Mags said.  She raised her head, though, and did meet Molly’s eyes.

“You killed me.”

“I had a hand in it,” Mags said.

“I didn’t want any of this.”

“I know that now,” Mags replied.

“I’m filled with so much awfulness, and there’s more every minute.  I know it’s not me.  Every instinct I have is telling me that the awfulness is for you.  That I should make you feel it.  Make you hurt and angry and frustrated and hopeless.”

“That’s an option,” Mags said.  “I might even deserve it.”

“You do!” Molly raised her voice.

“But it’s not the only option,” Mags said.  “I’d like to make a deal.”

“Why would I ever want to deal with you?”

Mags shifted her weight, removing her backpack and tossing it to one side.

She dropped to her knees, eyes on the ground.

“Molly Walker, I can’t ever give you what I took from you, I can’t make proper restitution.  But even if I can’t give you your life back, and I can’t give you my life in exchange, because of other debts I owe… I can give you a life.”

She cast a sidelong glance at me, “Sorry, Blake.”

“It’s okay,” I said.

“What’s this?” Molly asked.

“I’m asking you to be my familiar,” Mags said.  “And I’ll make things up to you where and when I can.  Damn the consequences.”

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