My tattered shoes found little traction on the ice, but the ice was reflective all the same, and it thrummed as I walked on it. I ventured out further, and each footstep seemed to echo.
People had cleaned the ice and hosed it down, washing away the rougher frost and the accumulated snow. Only the smallest portion of shore was visible, but I could make out floodlights on tripods. They stood on the snow-covered area that would be a thin strip of beach after the thaw, waiting to be set up.
For now, it was a hockey rink, rigged out on the lake with the help of planks and simple tools, reflective enough to be a big mirror. Partially dismantled for repair, cleaning, or something in that vein.
I stood in the center, hands in my pockets, and enjoyed the quiet.
It was peaceful here, if nothing else. No others were lurking nearby, that I could tell. This wasn’t the sort of area that a typical Other would lurk, and I was in the mirror world besides.
Mags needed to hash things out with Molly, and my presence wasn’t helping. I was tainting the ghost, even if it was by small amounts, and the discussion was a private one, with very real, raw feelings on both sides. Mags had her own metaphorical demons to confront, and Molly was dealing with a whole mess of negative emotions, some legitimate, others from being a wraith and absorbing the emotions and impressions around her.
It was better for me to step away. I’d checked on my family, verified they’d stopped reading through the paperwork as a group, checked if any of my friends were hanging outside the house, and then retreated to the least confined area I could find.
Well, the second least confined. Johannes’ domain was open, and the dog had been pretty decent to me, all things considered… but couldn’t that be a trap? It would be a good trick, luring me in, making promises, and then when I trusted him and waltzed blindly into the Sorcerer’s demesne, they’d pounce on me and destroy me. I didn’t want to worry, even in my downtime.
Here, I was away from it all. Things were quiet, tranquil and eerily still.
With no other sounds, no wind, no noise, no stirring of leaves or animals creeping forth, even the sounds from the other side of the reflective ice gone quiet, I was keenly aware of my own body.
I didn’t breathe. My heart didn’t beat until I willed it to. The smallest of movements made me rustle and creak, even snap like so many broken twigs, if I went too long without moving.
I turned. Faysal Anwar sat by the lake, on my side. His tail swished behind him.
“I’m sorry I took so long to get back to you,” he said. “We had an unexpected guest. A certain amount of posturing and positioning was needed.”
“I imagine it’s tough, keeping control of a domain that large,” I said.
“Yes, but the end goal is hopefully worthwhile.”
“You’re an angel, colloquially speaking. Are the motives here angelic? Supporting Johannes?”
“Considering my earlier offer?”
“No. Just curious.”
“My motives aren’t angelic. I do believe our actions are necessary.”
“I’ve heard it described as a ghetto for Others.”
“I don’t agree with the choice of word, ‘ghetto’, but yes, a place for Others. Humans are winning, Others are being forced to the fringes, and something is liable to happen, given time.”
I nodded, “Humans are winning. That’s nice to know, and a little difficult to grasp.”
“A long story. Why is it so hard to believe?”
“You said it yourself. Demons beat angels-”
“All other things being equal,” Faysal Anwar said. “A greater angel can defeat lesser demons, but while a greater angel occupies themselves with that, what is the greater demon doing?”
“They’re equivalents?” I asked.
“To be honest,” Faysal said, “I don’t know. But I’m inclined to say no.”
I nodded. “I’m surprised you don’t know.”
“My kind don’t have a network of communication. The greatest so-called ‘angels’ do, yes, but I only know what I’ve picked up through thousands of years of observation, patience, and periodically crossing paths with others of my kind who deign to speak to me.”
“Ah,” I said.
“You were saying, before I interrupted? Demons beat angels, and this makes it hard to believe man would succeed?”
“Yeah,” I said. I pulled my hands from my pockets and spread my arms. Look at me. Entropy wins. I’ve been to the Drains, but I haven’t come across anything suggesting that there’s a force of creation that’s working just as hard.”
“There are two possible answers,” Faysal Anwar told me. “The first is that such a place exists, but creation spews forth, it does not take in.”
“Maybe,” I said. “Gods come from somewhere, don’t they?”
“Maybe,” he echoed me.
“The second possibility?”
He swished his tail. The long fur and the movement of snow behind him made it look more dramatic. “That the drains are not annihilating anything, only changing. Change provokes change, much as you continue to spread the effect of the ‘Drains’, as you call the abyss. That change might be uncomfortable, even unpleasant or ugly when that change affects the things you find comfortable, but not intrinsically bad.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But that brings me back to my initial question. If humans are succeeding here, and the forces of annihilation and Wrong are supposed to win over the forces of creation and Right, are humans simply beating the Others back because we’re somehow prevailing over Wrong? The demonic choirs include a choir of human depravities… can that mean that we’re a divine creation, that we’re naturally opposed to demons, and somehow we’re one of the only choirs that’s winning, against all odds?”
He tilted his head a little.
I swallowed hard. My mouth was dry.
“It sounds less like you’re trying to ask me a question and more like you’re trying to convince yourself,” he said.
I shrugged, sticking my hands back in my pockets, more for a place to put them than a need for warmth or anything like that.
“It also sounds,” he said, very delicately, “like you aren’t doing a very good job of convincing yourself.”
Not the answer I’d wanted.
I looked down at the surface of the ice. I moved my foot, and it thrummed.
“I really don’t like the other answers,” I finally said. If we aren’t Right…
“I can imagine you don’t. I can’t tell you that humankind is innately Good, Blake Thorburn, but take solace in the fact that I can’t tell you that humans are innately Wrong either. I don’t know.”
“Damn it,” I said.
“If it helps,” he replied, “You’re making good strides forward. Most wouldn’t go to the efforts you have.”
“I’m not human,” I said.
“No,” he said. He stood and stretched. “But for something only one or two steps removed from humanity, you’re doing well enough to count, as I see it.”
He turned to leave, walking past the point where the shore was visible, treading across the nothingness between my present patch of light and the light of downtown, what would be a ten minute walk away.
I averted my eyes as he blossomed with light.
When the light faded, I saw what he’d left behind.
Three rusty pipes, each connected to the others. A triangle, though one of the pipes was bent, making it closer to a skewed square. The bend made it possible to stand up, almost like a door.
My limbs snapped and creaked as I started walking. How long had I been standing there before Faysal Anwar approached me?
My back snapped more as I bent to pick up the connected loop of pipes and picked it up. One of the bits of pipe swung, screeching a metal-on-metal screech as it came partially unscrewed at the end. Still connected, but one section pointed to the ice below me.
Unwieldy. As a loop, it was maybe four feet across at the widest point. I had to hold it at an awkward angle to keep it from dragging on the ground and maybe even coming to pieces in the process.
More importantly, I didn’t want to hold it too high and risk enclosing myself in a ‘circle’. I couldn’t imagine anything more humiliating and problematic.
My arms didn’t get tired, but they did get stiff. I couldn’t raise it higher, and I couldn’t let go, so I simply brought it down, so one side could touch the surface at my feet.
Though the pipe wasn’t hot to the touch, ice turned to water and then boiled into plumes of steam as the rust-coated metal made contact. Rust flecks and grime made the frothing bubbles a red-black.
I laid it down, and it continued to boil and steam, sinking into and beyond the reflective surface. The ice that had been sectioned off melted. Not so different from a hole for ice fishing. The reflections it cast were those of a still pool of water. The ring of pipes floated, but it didn’t float in water.
A light flickered in those depths. A dim, old lightbulb crackling to life for a moment.
In the darkness, I saw a figure appear, large round eyes glowing the faintest of greens, hands reaching for the pipe, holding the loop much as I had.
“Hi, Green Eyes,” I said. “Blake here.”
She was silent, but talking wasn’t easy when one was underwater. I wondered if she could hear me.
“You gave me guidance when I needed it. I offered you a way out, if I got the chance. If you want company, and a bit of a break-”
The ring of pipes came apart. Bubbles hit the surface, distorting the view.
The bubbles faded. I had a glimpse of her narrow, pale body, before she swam up and through the lopsided pool of of melted ice, breaking the surface.
She didn’t emerge on my side.
The water was disturbed twice more before she let it be still.
She stayed on the far side, hands pressed against the ice on either side of the portal, frowning.
Her mouth was stretched in a permanent macabre grin, triangular teeth as long and narrow as any of my fingers meshed together seamlessly. In the relative light, I could make out the individual transparent scales, the veins that webbed beneath her skin’s surface, even the shadows of organs.
“Not too cold?” I asked.
She shook her head. Pale hair floated around her head.
“I wasn’t sure if it would be okay, but once that whole thing started, I couldn’t interrupt it. The portal might have come apart if I tried. I can’t go inside most houses anyway, and I didn’t want you to have a small body of water…”
I trailed off.
She took a second to enjoy her full range of movement, contorting herself as she turned two quick figure-eights in the water, chasing her tail for a moment, then doing another couple of looser figure-eights at the lake’s bottom, where the ice overhead didn’t hamper her movements. She gave me a thumbs up.
“Try talking?” I asked.
She did, raising her voice. Her voice came out muffled, obscured by the water. I couldn’t make out the words.
“You can hear me, but I can’t hear you?”
She touched one hand to her ear, then swam another figure-eight. I could see the vague shadows of her lips. She was smiling.
Better hearing, maybe, by virtue of a longer stay. Necessary for both predator and prey.
“We’ll need to work out some means of communication before too long,” I said.
While I was thinking about that…
There was an eerie double vision when I looked at her in contrast to the overcast sky that was reflected in the surface, as if both were transparent.
“Are you able to swim freely?” I asked. “Or is there a lot of strange darkness around?
She looked around.
She swam well out of my field of view. Her movements stirred the sand at the bottom of the lake, raising murky clouds. The time she took to return seemed reasonable.
Good. We’d verified she was in the real world.
“I’m stuck where I’m at, Green Eyes,” I told her. “I travel across reflective surfaces. You’re limited to water. Or can you climb up onto land if you have to?”
She shook her head.
“Right,” I said. “I, uh, hope this is better than your prior circumstances were.”
She nodded. She blew me a kiss.
“No killing, please” I said. “No maiming, though I don’t think you’re the type. You should have plenty of food at the lakebottom, and if you need to nourish your nature, you can always scare the wits out of people. Anything else, and you might bring unwanted attention down on your head, you’d get sent back there, to the Drains, and I’d feel guilty.”
She drew a little ‘x’ over her heart.
“I’ve got stuff to do,” I said. “Enjoy… this. Call my name a few times if you need something. I’ll be by to visit sometime soon.”
Fins at her elbows, spine, and the end of her tail fanned open wide, the membrane stretching thin enough to show the veins between the narrow bones. She swam low enough to have some freedom, and did more underwater acrobatics, enjoying the freedom, basking in the light that filtered past an overcast sky and the water around her.
I thought I might have heard the muffled sound of her yelling, through the water and ice.
I hoped I’d just done a good thing.
Hands in my pockets, I walked away.
I went the way Faysal had gone, but I didn’t disappear into any great, brilliant light. I hit the downtown area, passing by the cafe and various storefronts.
I spotted Peter and Aunt Steph in one store, buying clothes.
As far as I was aware, the vast majority of the hotels were in the North End. Prior to Johannes’ expansion, there hadn’t been much reason to stay. I thought I’d maybe seen a motel, but I knew my uncle and parents, and they wouldn’t be the types to take a motel over a hotel.
Out of my reach.
I could check in with Mags, but I didn’t want to intrude.
Let them hash out what they needed to hash out.
I’d made other promises. Stalling the family in their attempt to oust Rose was only one part of it, the Molly situation was on hold, and Rose was still cornered, with a lot of major players out for her head.
On a level, I was one of those players. She was toying with my friends, and she was tainted by Conquest.
I didn’t want her head so much as I wanted to clear it. To remove Conquest’s crown, so to speak, and give her the ability to think straight.
In an ideal world, I wanted her thinking straight before this situation in Jacob’s Bell devolved into utter chaos.
By process of elimination, there were only a few people I could go after.
I knew where Laird’s house was. I’d infiltrated it.
Working off memory and instinct, I skipped across patches of darkness and moved in the general direction of the house, hoping to spot landmarks I could use to close the distance.
In the end, it was easy to spot the house, even from a distance away.
Rather than skip across the patch of darkness in the middle of the street, a ten foot gap at most, I moved diagonally. Zig-zagging, I made my way down the length of the street, until the mass of parked cars and the countless reflections from side and rear-view mirrors gave me more than enough light to work with.
Windows were two-way, as reflections went. When I’d jumped through the factory window, I’d passed through the factory window. The only glass that had broken had been the glass I’d carried.
The interior of the house, however, was pitch black. The only thing I could see was the faint reflection of my surroundings and my own face.
I paced the perimeter, not watching where I was going so much as I looked at the windows, trying to see if there was anything I could make out about the surroundings.
One rune on the gate to the backyard. I steered clear, even though it wasn’t replicated on my end.
By the time I’d circled back to the front, someone was stepping outside.
Two Behaims, older than Laird had been, but still possessed of the Behaim’s characteristic stockiness and ruddy complexions, heavy eyebrows, dark hair and dark eyes.
They got in their car. I double-checked which car it was, then got in the back seat of the same car, behind the driver. I had to lean to one side to see the driver’s door move, and quickly pulled my door shut at the same time.
Slightly off. It was three doors that closed, nearly in sync but not quite there.
I waited, tense, my eye on the one-quarter I could see of their faces in the rear-view mirror. My hand was on the Hyena’s hilt, though I couldn’t really do much with it.
“What’s wrong?” the woman asked. She seemed like the type that might be called a dowager, the sort of woman who’d have been called handsome more than pretty, back before age had taken its toll with wrinkles and sagging skin.
The man didn’t reply straight away.
“Nothing,” he said.
“Duncan urged us to be paranoid.”
“Don’t badger me,” he said, gruff. “It’s nothing.”
I let out a silent sigh of relief, more out of a desire to do it than any particular need to breathe. I shut my eyes, listening to the car.
I wasn’t entirely sure what dictated how things operated in my mirror world as opposed to the real world – I didn’t see cars traveling up and down the streets, for example. Sometimes things remained the same and sometimes they changed. A part of it seemed to have something to do with my own actions, and the force and effort I put into them. Stuff I put down tended to persist in the mirrorverse, but only if I did it while being mindful of the task, doing it purposefully.
Even so, I did what I could to allow the car to sweep me up, to not resist in any way as it started moving.
I opened my eyes again. Looking in the mirror, I could see only a portion of each of their faces.
The man’s hair was just starting to go gray at the sides, and he had a thick mustache. He was also the type, I noted as he started the engine, who wore a hat while driving. He wore a plaid flat cap with a brim, that made his hair stick out a bit on the side I could see.
In my memories of riding my bike, being aware of my surroundings had been key. Looking inside cars to see who the drivers were and what they were doing, so I could adjust accordingly.
Cell phone? Cause to be wary.
Wearing a hat while driving? Almost as bad.
Why? I couldn’t say, but the rule held true.
“Liam’s looking healthy.”
“Yeah. Good kid,” the man said.
Come on, I thought. Give me something more than talk about family.
But silence was what reigned here.
I looked out the window, hunching down a bit so I’d be harder to see in the rear-view mirror, and looked out the window.
An older couple, comfortable in their own company, long since out of things to talk about.
“Crawford was looking well,” he said.
“Lets her kids play too much with those games. Five years ago, you could expect them to be playing, running around, popping up every half hour to show us what they were doing. Now they’re little zombies, eyes on tiny screens you could cover with your hand.”
“Hm,” he said. “I kind of like it.”
She elbowed him.
“Let them have their distractions, Glo,” he said. “We don’t know how this is going to go. There’s a chance some of them will be orphans, by the time this is all over.”
“You know there’s a chance.”
“You don’t have to say it like that!”
“If things were different, I’d volunteer to step up in someone’s place, make someone younger stand down and sit this one out. But things aren’t that convenient, Gloria. All hands on deck. Duncan all but said it.”
“Yours and mine included.”
“The parents too. Every child old enough to be awakened.”
“I don’t like it,” she said.
“Neither do I, but we agreed to put up a united front.”
“He wants to go after the Diabolist. There’s some things that shouldn’t be included in that united front. It’s playing with fire, and he’s so intense about it,” she’d lowered her voice an octave, as if afraid she’d be overheard.
“He went head to head with the younger Rose in Toronto, he knows the personality we’re up against.”
“He says he did, but he can’t give details.”
“That’s scary in itself,” ‘Ben’ said.
“Yeah,” Gloria responded.
“Yeah,” the old man said, again.
A minute of silence.
“You were pretty quiet, when people were taking sides,” Gloria said.
“Not sure about sides.”
“I had that impression,” she said.
“Duncan seems to favor the younger one.”
“Yeah, Alister. Can’t keep the grandchildren straight anymore.”
“He’s only eighteen.”
“So’s the Thorburn girl.”
“Twenty. Molly Walker was eighteen.”
“Close enough. He’s…”
He trailed off.
I checked the rear-view mirror, and I saw the older man looking straight at me.
I didn’t move, staying where I was, meeting his stare with a level one of my own.
“We got a problem here,” he muttered. I wasn’t sure if it was a question for me or a statement for Gloria.
“Do we?” I asked.
Gloria whipped her head around, but didn’t see me. Ben reached up and re-angled the rear-view mirror.
“Don’t recognize you,” Ben said.
“Might be for the best,” I said.
“Don’t recognize your type, either. Male Bloody Mary of some kind?”
“No,” I said.
“Can’t imagine you’re an elemental.”
“No,” I said. “I’m complicated.”
“You can use words longer than two syllables,” he observed. “Try using words to explain what it is you’re doing in my car.”
“I was curious about how the Behaims were doing, so I decided to ride along.”
“One of Johannes’?”
“No. I mostly belong to me. Some people or places might have tenuous claims to me, but I’d venture to say I’m as free as you are.”
“Who’re you siding with?”
“Nobody,” I said. “Everybody.”
“That might sound good to you, but the free agents around here are like wild animals, hunting, scavenging.”
I thought of the revenant and the faceless woman.
“That’s not my style,” I said.
“You’re just sating your curiosity,” he said.
“Mostly,” I said.
“To what ends?”
I thought for a second. “Bringing change.”
“I’ll say it again, as good as that idea sounds to you, you’re not convincing me here.”
“I’m not concerned with convincing you,” I said.
“I’m a practitioner, Gloria too. You don’t think we don’t have tricks up our sleeves? Be concerned.”
“I know how the practice works,” I said. “You need a good idea about what I am to really come after me. Without a nice label to put on this eerie stranger in your backseat, you’re forced to try a scattershot approach. To guess, or cover as many bases as possible.”
“While you only have the one thing you need to do,” he said.
I could see the faintest shift in his brow. The gleam of sweat beneath that cap of his.
If I kept this up, I’d give the man a heart attack.
“I’m assuming Duncan doesn’t want to be leader?” I asked.
“Fishing for information?”
“A little bit,” I said. “But I’m more interested in giving it. There’s a reason Duncan isn’t confident in his own abilities, and it has nothing to do with the wounds on his wrists.”
“Those wounds healed a long time ago,” Gloria said.
Ben’s eye was studying me, taking in every little detail.
“Ben,” I said. “You don’t strike me as someone who’s only dabbled. You’ve been involved with the game, probably with Aimon, before Laird was put in charge. You’re confident, sitting there.”
“You know an awful lot about us for a face I don’t recognize,” he said.
“You know an awful lot too,” I said. “You know how this plays out. You probably have even more tricks up your sleeve than you’re letting on. Above all else, you know how important and how dangerous information is.”
“I want to give you information about the people you’ve put in charge. Laird was reckless. Duncan doubly so. Duncan lost a great deal of his personal power because he lied. Think twice about putting stock in his opinion.”
“I’m already thinking twice. You learn to, or you do very poorly as a practitioner.”
“Were you the one to kill Laird?”
I turned my attention his way, just a little too fast. Gloria reacted much as I had, but looked sideways instead, then back to me.
“Yeah,” he said. “Like you said, I’ve got tricks up my sleeve.”
“I won’t confirm or deny,” I said.
“But it’s as good as a confirmation. Was the killing just?”
Just, he asked me.
I could say yes and feel reasonably confident I was telling the truth. I might even sway the man.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted. “It was desperate.”
“I can’t tell if you don’t seem like the desperate sort at all, sitting in a stranger’s car with no sign of hesitation, or if you’re made of little but.”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
“I believe you all the same. I’ll think on it,” he said.
“Okay,” I said.
This fact-finding mission had turned into something else entirely. I still wasn’t too worried. Whatever tools he had at his disposal, I only had to scramble to one side and I should be able to make it to safety.
“Laird has- had children,” Gloria said.
“I know,” I told her.
“Are you affiliated with the Thorburns?” Ben asked.
I looked at him, but I was fairly confident in my poker face.
“I’m only asking,” he elaborated, “Because the time and place of the death suggest one conclusion.”
“I’m my own man,” I said. “But there are three people and one bird in the Thorburn faction I’d very much like to save. I haven’t decided what needs to be done in the heir’s case.”
“If it helps,” I ventured, “I would very much like for your grandchildren to walk away safe as well. Same for the Duchamp’s grandchildren.”
“And the rest of us?”
“Let the cards fall where they may,” I told him. “For you and me both. War is war, and if you guys are participating, I won’t rule anything out. You wanted to know what I am? I’m tenacious. I don’t give a damn about the old guard or tradition or anything like that. So long as the innocents are still standing at the end, I don’t care what happens to the rest of us.”
Gloria spoke up, “You’re not counting yourself among the innocents?”
“No. But those three people, that one bird, the youngest Behaims and Duchamps?”
“Is that what you want then?” Ben asked. “Those four for the grandchildren? An implicit threat that if one of those four is harmed, the children might be too?”
“No,” I said. “I want you guys to get the point. I want all of us to stop smashing our heads against the wall, failing to learn as we repeat cycles over and over. I want change, I want us to do this one thing Right. That includes leaving those four and the grandchildren out of it. It means paying more attention to who you’re putting in charge, because Laird was arrogant, Duncan was stupid, and you can’t afford to make a bad call on the third go-around.”
“Uh huh,” he said.
I waited for more of an answer.
I didn’t get it.
“You getting out of my car anytime soon? I’m not driving you to our house.”
“Sure,” I said.
I opened the car door. There was mostly darkness beyond.
“I’ll turn around, tell the others back at the house, as diplomatically as I can,” Ben said. “You try this spiel on Sandra yet?”
“No,” I said.
“You’ll find it a harder sell. The Duchamps are a little more wrapped up in keeping things the same.”
“We’ll see how it goes,” I said.
I stepped out and over.
The next swatch of available reflections was lower, and I got to enjoy a moment’s ‘flight’ before I landed. I felt things snap in my legs, and I felt things alter just a little in the process, crawling in tighter.
Sandra, I thought.
Rose had spoken out against terms of war. There was probably a reason for it, but there was a reason for the terms of war too.
I wasn’t sure how this was going to play out, but I liked having a hand in things, guiding them.
I liked knowing that the Behaims weren’t arrogant scumbags across the board, even if the one legit Behaim I’d talked to thus far was a dopey older guy who wore a hat while driving.
If I was a little obsessive on that particular accessory, it was because I had too many memories of nearly being blindsided while on my motorcycle.
Talking on a cell phone while driving? I fantasized about reaching in through an open window, snatching it, and dashing it to pieces on the road before accelerating off.
I was fairly certain my ability to practice was cut off, now that I was more Other than practitioner. Some ideas held true across the board. Connections, certain means of offense and defense…
But I didn’t have the Sight. I couldn’t call Sandra’s name and find her, nor could I catch her name when Ben said it, and follow that thread to its source.
Still, the idea went both ways. If I tried to find her that way, she could find me, and I preferred to stay under the radar. That Ben had connected dots was a hassle, but I didn’t feel too exposed.
I moved. I was more comfortable in my skin now, riding the high of three minor victories. Molly caught, Green Eyes released, and now a successful contact with a Behaim.
I crossed tracts of darkness, scouting. There was no shortage of possible threats to note and keep track of.
A collection of ghosts at one point. No June or Leonard in that small crowd. They’d been spent, their echoes erased.
A man and a woman who seemed to notice me the moment I looked their way. The man was black, and had thick dreadlocks under a toque, the woman very prim and proper, blonde. A Duchamp.
I ducked out of their way before anything came of it.
Still, it inspired a line of thinking. Johannes had a hand in many of the visiting Others. Sandra, by way of her connections to the Duchamps, had a mess of contacts to draw from, apparently.
As far as searches went, it was haphazard, unreliable. I simply navigated, and tried to find the highest concentrations of practitioner.
In the end, it came down to sheer luck. Good or bad, I wasn’t sure.
I found Sandra.
I found the High Drunk, too, and his coterie of Others that looked like overactive teenagers and college students.
Fuck. Was Toronto leaking? A part of me had hoped the issues I’d left behind would at least keep the locals there busy.
Sandra and the Drunk were walking side by side, talking, the group following a few paces behind, crowding together, jostling and messing around as they walked three or four abreast on a sidewalk that comfortably let two people walk side by side. They were playful, like enthusiastic kids.
I skipped ahead to a car.
No eye contact. I faced away. I wanted to create as few points of contact as possible.
I only listened.
“…don’t know the particulars,” Sandra said.
“I’m good at improvisation,” Jeremy Meath replied.
“The benefit of working with a god.”
“Exactly,” he said. He smiled. “Don’t fret.”
“I’m not fretting.”
“I know your tells. Your thumbs. Your hands are in your pockets, but you have restless thumbs.”
“There. Tell hidden.”
“And your shoulders, Sandra. No, not like that. You square them and raise your chin just an angle when you’re challenged by something. I think it’s the troll influencing you. Hildr has the same body language.”
“Ah, if something challenges a troll, they traditionally respond by fighting, breaking bones.”
“Hildr doesn’t do that. She’s a little more clever.”
“Is that because that’s how she survived this long, or is it because you’re influencing her in turn?”
“Good question. When I think back to the hunting of the troll, being hunted in turn… hmm.”
“I’m only telling you so you can fix it,” he said.
She reached up to squeeze his arm as they passed me. I only saw it in my peripheral vision, but I still tensed. Every connection mattered.
I skipped ahead, to stay away from the crowd, who looked a little too inquisitive, and had too many pairs of eyes for my liking. I’d already been spotted by an old man. These guys seemed like an even bigger threat.
I waited in a car, eyes still forward. I could make out the Satyrs, well behind, peering at the car I’d just left. I’d made a small noise or something.
“…Fret,” Jeremy said, again. “You and I, we make a good team. You do well so long as things are under control, while I-”
“Thrive in the midst of madness. Don’t upset things. No chaos for now.”
“I agree, no chaos for now,” he said. “Only enough pressure to get the results we need.”
“Good,” Sandra replied. “Keep an eye out for the mirror dweller. We still don’t know enough, and he is a priority.”
I felt my heart pound in my chest, more a head against a wall pounding than a throb. Alarming on several levels. It was a connection between me and her, threatening my cover, she knew, and it made Jeremy’s objective here pretty damn clear.
“Wouldn’t mind more details,” Jeremy said.
“Then barter with the Sorcerer and Faysal, see what else they’re willing to divulge. You have more access to them than I do.”
Ah. What else they’re willing to divulge.
My greatest asset in all this was quickly being stripped away because my enemies were talking.
“I’ll make do. Whatever happens, I’ve got protection,” Jeremy said, offering Sandra a wry smile. “I’d rather act in concert. This may be our only window to deal with the Thorburns.”
“It won’t, but it’s the first one, and it’s the best window, before anything is underway between us and our other enemies. This is win-win,” Sandra said, “Provided we act decisively, we can safely clear one problem from the board. Pity. I really didn’t want to do this, but, well, we each choose our paths. Hopefully the girl hasn’t committed.”
“Speaking of,” Jeremy said. “This would be where we part ways.”
Something in his tone… I dared to look.
That tall, rumpled, faintly wrinkled, plain looking man with too much beard and circles under his eyes, perpetually weary, looked down at the woman who looked like a PTA bitch, too fastidious, too cold and hard-nosed.
But Sandra didn’t look cold. She looked sad.
She reached out, putting one hand over Jeremy’s heart. “We both do what we do best. No apologies.”
“No apologies,” he said.
She gave him a light push, and he turned away in the same motion, raising one hand, snapping. “Hey, you hooligans. Get a move on!”
His enthusiasm and call for action seemed somehow false.
“What are we doing?” a man asked as he caught up. I caught a glimpse of his features as he moved across patches of light. Curled horns, a curl of beard, and hooves, not steel-toed boots.
“What are we doing?” another voice chimed in, excited.
“We’re crashing a party,” Jeremy said. “Barriers or no, when you ask a god to open a door, that door gets opened.”
The direction they were traveling. Hillsglade House. My friends.
I snapped my head around, no longer concerned with the idea of being caught. She had a sense of who I was. Faysal Anwar had told her.
What was Sandra doing?
Only one idea stood out.
Acting against the Thorburn wraith while the Drunk kept Rose occupied.
Mags might have lost her neutral standing after all.
And I was left having to choose.