Category Archives:  Arc 10 (Mala Fide)

Mala Fide 10.5

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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.

“Ahem.”

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.

Hm.

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-”

She lunged.

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.

Change.

“We’ll need to work out some means of communication before too long,” I said.

She nodded.

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 nodded.

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.

Multiple cars.

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.

Damn.

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.”

“Ben!”

“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.”

“Alister.”

“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.”

“And?”

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.”

“I see.”

“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.”

“Exactly.”

“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.

Damn it.

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.

A satyr.

“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.

And Sandra?

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.

Molly.  Mags.

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.

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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.”

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

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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