Category Archives:  Arc 11 (Malfeasance)

Histories (Arc 11)

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She watched as her Pa paced.

Then Mam came out of the side room.  Pa fidgeted, following Mam to the countertop.  Pa was as thin as Mam was fat.  He was a skeleton covered in cracked brown leather, beard shorn short, hair tied back into a long ponytail.  His head only came up to Mam’s shoulder.

Mam, by contrast, was the size of a bear, fat as she was tall, with clusters of nobby bits and warty bits nearly hidden in the folds of her neck and shoulders.  She was pale, her eyes heavily lidded, making her look half asleep, and her hair was greasy.  Her mouth sat open and askew almost all the time, lip hanging low enough to reveal the wide-spaced teeth.  The only time mam’s mouth closed was when she was thinking, and she sucked on her bottom lip.  Her more thinky expression.

She thought even now, busying herself by pushing things around the counter without actually cleaning or using any of it.

“No need to preserve.  Cupboards are full.  We eat tonight,” Mam finally said.  She pushed her hands through piles of dirty dishes, grabbing a knife with bits still caked on it, a fork.  These she set to one side.

Pa smiled.  His face creased everywhere with the expression, every single one of his bad teeth showing.  “Pie?”

“Sausage pie,” Mam conceded.

“Good,” Pa said, smiling.  “Good.”

“If you want ‘good’ you go chop some wood,” Mam said.

“There’s wood already,” he said.

“Chop it!  I’m not stopping cooking halfway to get your lazy ass out of that chair of yours and into the woods to chop.  Chop now!”  Mam’s voice got more shrill as she talked.

Pa grimaced, but he headed outdoors.  Probably to get out of the house more than out of any desire to help.

“Midge!” Mam said.

Midge cowered a little under her mother’s eye, retreating under the table.

Mam strode forward, pushing the table against the wall with one sweep of her fist, exposing Midge.  She grabbed the girl’s ear and hair in one meaty fist, and practically lifted her.

Midge kicked her legs, squealing.  A few kicks hit her mother.  She even raked at her mother with longer, ragged toenails.  The dress her mother wore suffered for it, but her mother’s skin was too thick.

“I said to watch yer little brothers!”  Her mother hollered, voice low.

Midge continued to squeal, high, loud, prolonged sounds.  Her mother gave her a firm shake, hard enough that some bit of Midge might have broken if she was any closer to the wall or the table, then let go.

Midge found her feet right away, backing up.  She looked toward the door and pointed.

“Mal and Posie are moving the car.  Don’t act helpless, stupid child.  You.  Do.  Your.  Job!

That last word was a screech as bad as any of them.

Midge scampered away as fast as she could.

The side room.

The babies were sitting up, side by side in the crib.  Born the fall before last, they were big boned, as Ma said.  Skinny, but big boned.  Their skulls were thick enough that their brows hung heavy over their eyes, making them look perpetually angry.  Jory had his mouth open, drooling, while Biff had his mouth closed, fluid streaming out of one nostril.

“It’s a little girl,” a voice whispered.

“Shh.”

“Oh god.  What’s wrong with them?

“Shh!”

Midge knelt by the crib, staring at her brothers.  Biff had been suckling on a bone earlier, but it now sat on the mat at the bottom of the crib.

“They dirty?” Mam screeched from the other room.

The fluids from the bone mingled with stains of piss and shit that dated back to when Midge had been that size.  The smell was bad enough she couldn’t tell, and she wasn’t about to stick her hand in there.

She looked off to one side, and saw her old doll collecting cobwebs.

She looked away.  Every time she was caught with her doll, Mam made her look after the real babies instead.

“I asked if they’re dirty!”

Midge looked at her Mam, standing in the doorway, and shook her head.

Her mam disappeared back into the kitchen.

Midge snatched up the bone.  Her brothers had apparently been fed recently, and their movements were so sluggish she had her hand out before they even looked at her hand.

She prodded Biff with the bone until Biff tipped over.  His head cracked against the wooden slats of the crib, his neck finding a funny angle.

He continued chewing on his bottom lip, staring absently in her general direction.

So boring.

“Hey, little girl,” a voice sounded.

Midge turned to look.

Three strangers.  Two women, one plump and one thin, and a man.  They were dressed colorfully, their clothing weirdly sharp in how fine all the edges were.  Collars around their necks were chained to the metal frame of Pa’s bed.

“Hey,” the man said.  He smiled.

Midge didn’t trust smiles.  Smiling was what you did when you hurt people, or sometimes when Pa got his food or Mam got her Pa.  A rare thing.  For Midge, it mostly meant being hurt.

“My name’s Shawn,” in the kind of accent that Jory called ‘posh’.

She stared at him.  He kept smiling, but all she saw in his eyes was the fear.

“What’s going on?” the thinner girl mewled.  Her accent just as posh.

“Shhh,” the heavier girl said, hugging the girl, chain at her neck clinking.  “Let Shawn talk.”

“What’s your name?” Shawn asked.

Midge shook her head.

“She doesn’t talk?”

“The woman called her Midge?”

“Midge.  That’s… a nice name,” Shawn said, smiling.

Midge shrugged.

“How old are you, Midge?”

Midge scowled.  Mal had tried to show her.  Mal was clever.  Her big brother was the one who fixed the cars and sold the scrap.  The one of them clever enough to pass in town without drawing too many stares.

She held up a hand.  All fingers out.

“You’re older than that,” Shawn said, smiling.  His eyes looked uneasy.

She shook her head, thrusting out her hand.

“Seriously?  Five?”

“Shawn, focus.

“Midge, I…”

Shawn trailed off as Midge raised the bone, yellow with scraps of gray meat hanging off it.  She extended it toward Shawn.

“Um,” he said, “No thanks.”

She didn’t stop or slow down.  When she was right next to him, she jabbed, striking him in the corner of the eye.

“Ow!  Fuck!  What the fuck!?  What’s wrong with you?”

Midge stared at him.  The anger was more familiar, comfortable.

“Shh, Shawn!” the heavier girl said.

He didn’t shout, keeping his voice low enough that Mam wouldn’t hear, but there was anger in his voice.  “That hurt.  What the fuck?  This fucked up place and this fucked up family!”

“Shawn, suck it up,” she said.  “Midge?  Listen, Midge, do you know where the thin man keeps the keys to these collars?”

Midge shook her head.

“You don’t know?  Do you think you can find out?”

Midge shook her head.  She headed to the cabinet, and fished through until she found a collar that looked good enough.  Mal had showed her this too.  He was good at putting stuff together.  Which was good, because he was as scrawny as Pa, but not nearly as strong.

Midge grabbed a knife, too.

She pushed the ends of the collar together as she approached the others.

Then she showed them what Mal had put together.  Slide the knife into the slit…

The collar popped open.

“Brilliant,” Shawn said, his voice low, expression grim.  As Mam made a noise in the kitchen, Shawn shot one fearful look her way.  “Except that doesn’t work while we’re wearing them.”

“Oh god,” the thinner girl said.

“What?” Shawn asked.

“Are you terminally stupid?” the girl asked.

What?

But the girl only shook her head.

Midge walked across the room, collecting her doll.  When she returned to the trio, she held the collar at neck level around the doll’s throat.  The cloth doll’s head smiled at the three, the collar as wide around as the doll was tall, the collar much too large.  Midge had to shuffle things around to hold the doll under one arm, hold the collar in place, and get a grip on the doll’s head with a knife still loosely gripped in the same hand.

She tore head from body.

Nooo,” the thin girl said, making it a long, drawn out sound.

“Oh god, oh god,” Shawn muttered.

The collar only came off if the head came off first.

Only the plump one managed to stay quiet, though Midge could see tears in the girl’s eyes.

Fear and despair were familiar too.  This was more comfortable than when they’d been smiling at her.

“Midge, why-” the girl’s voice choked, as if she couldn’t get the words out.  “Why did you do that to your doll, honey?”

Midge looked down at the destroyed doll.

“It’s a nice toy,” the girl said.  “Do you want me to fix it?”

Midge hesitated, reluctant.  She glanced back at the kitchen, but Mam was busy.

She nodded.

“Here,” the girl said.  “Come here.  I’ll put it back together.”

Midge approached.

The girl reached out for the head, and Midge extended her hands, the doll in two distinct pieces.

The girl didn’t take the doll.  She snatched the knife from Midge’s hand, and with her other hand, she grabbed Midge by the back of the neck, pulling her closer.

Midge stumbled forward a few steps, and felt the knife press against her chest, over her heart.

“Andrea!” the thin girl gasped.

“Sorry,” the heavier girl murmured.  Her voice cracked.  “We really need a hostage.  There has to be some way to get out of here.  If they break the chains-”

Midge could smell the girl.  Traces of sweat, of blood, but sweeter smells too, like fruit, in the girl’s hair.

Mam got the first pick of every meal.  She had the babies to feed.  By the time everyone else had eaten, there wasn’t much for Midge.

Her stomach rumbled.

She ignored the knife, leaning in close, and bit into Andrea’s collarbone.

The knife penetrated her chest.  She barely felt the pain, in the midst of the exultation.  The joy of food.  Of warm food.  Meat.

Her hands gripped the girl’s upper arms, and squeezed.  She felt the individual parts snap and break.  With each struggle, every jerk or shove, she didn’t lose her grip, be it tooth or finger, but reaffirmed it.  Her jaws locked, like the junkyard dogs in Mal’s scrap heap, or the weasels that scurried in the woods.

The boy on the one side and the girl on the other grabbed her, hit her, screamed in mutual stark terror, but they didn’t dislodge her.

It took Mam to dislodge her, hauling her away from the food with enough force that the bit of bone she was gripping with her teeth broke.  The screams of the three renewed.

“I told him,” Mam spat the words, red in the face, every few words punctuated by a shake that made Midge’s brain go all woozy.  “I told your Pa, you’re wrong somehow.  Now you’ve gone and ruined our dinner.  How do you make sausage when the blood’s all over the danged bedroom floor?”

Midge was frozen in fear.

“He’ll listen now,” Mam said.  “Treat you like Mal’s bitches, we will.  Lock you away.”

Midge didn’t, couldn’t resist as her mother hauled her outside.

Her Pa couldn’t resist either.

“Ah, my ‘skeeter,” her father said, almost mournfully, as he saw the pair approach.  “What have you done this time?”

Midge didn’t know what to say or do.

It was two minutes before she was shoved into the storehouse.  The shack.  The door was shut and barred.

Put away with all the other broken and discarded things.  Many were things taken from people who took a few too many wrong turns, like Shawn and Andrea and the other girl.

There were no windows.  It was okay.  She was good at seeing in the dark.

She pulled the knife out of her chest, and tossed it aside, sitting down in the corner with a hand over the wound, waiting.

The dullness of it was the second worst part.

She counted things, like Mal had told her, sticking to the things that could be counted with fingers and toes.  She moved piles aside.  She told herself stories in her head, spinning variations of stories her Mam had told her when she was smaller and they hadn’t yet known she was odd.  Mostly mute and big for her age.

But the hunger was the worst part of all.

She caught the bugs and scarfed them down before they could crawl through her fingers.  She chewed on an old leather boot until it was soft and tore the soft bits and ate them.

There were rats, too.  Best of all.

She learned where to hunt them, crawling further back into the shack, moving things so they’d move in certain directions or get cornered, or have things fall on them.

She crawled further back and further back still.

Until she found her way out.

The grass was grayer and the trees didn’t have leaves.  The sky was black, and a heavy mist hung over everything.

It was cold, but the cold didn’t bother her.

Bugs bit her, but she was used to that.

The ground broke away underfoot, like ice over ice water, except it was only sludge beneath, but she was strong, and she could keep moving forward until it was solid again.

She found the quiet little town, the place where it was almost easier to live outdoors than to risk going inside.  Bad things lurked here.  Some big, some smart.

She settled in, living on the fringes at first.

Not much different than life had been before.  It wasn’t much of a journey from there to here.  Here, she ate rats too.

And when people came along, more than one, she hid.

When a person, just one, came along, she followed.  She waited until they were asleep, she snuck up on them, and she broke them.  She ate her fill each and every time.

The first time she saw a Pa and a Mam was the first time she went after people when there were more than one.  She ate her fill then, too.

Her days were punctuated by hunting, scavenging, waiting, sleeping, and eating.

She stopped caring if they were asleep.  She stopped caring if they were alone, if there were three, or if there were eight.  They ran when they saw her anyway.

The door to the shack opened.

Her instincts were honed.  Even in the bewilderment of being home again, she didn’t waste a heartbeat.

Stranger?  Attack.

She lunged, catching the man by the head in both hands.  Easy, when his head was only as high as her shoulders were.

She took off his head like she’d taken her doll’s.

She hurled it at the next man, and knocked him off his feet.

Grabbing the headless body with both hands, she hurled it at the third man.

She didn’t get much farther than that.  There were others, and they were guarded by dogs.  The dogs spoke like men spoke, and the men spoke like the priest Mal had taken her to meet when she had first learned to walk, their voices a drone and a song and even posher than posh.  Proper, careful, old words.

She saw her Pa.  He was standing in a circle that had been drawn on the ground, head bowed.  He had more scars, and more gray hair, and his lips were thinner.  He was old.  He wore only overalls, no shirt, and held a tree saw in each hand.  There was blood on the blades.

Mam’s body was on the ground not far from him, headless, thrown into a pile with all the others.  Even Biff and Jory, who were almost halfway to being adults.

Stopped with words and dogs and circles.

But their words couldn’t stop her, and it was funny that the men seemed to think they should.  She killed two more before they thought to actually attack her.

She was strong.  She didn’t even slow down as they stuck one spear through her stomach or a sword through her arm.  She shoved one into the side of the house with enough strength to put a hole in the wall and a lot of holes in the man, from bits of house.

But, in the end, they got her.  She kneeled as the burdens their words put on her shoulder grew to be too much.  She watched through glaring eyes as they painted a circle around her.

“You’ll say the words,” one of the strangers told her.

She didn’t disagree.  What did it matter?  She said the words.  She agreed to the deal, whatever it was.

“You’ll come when you’re called,” the stranger said, his voice tight.  Upset about the people he’d lost.  “Midge, I hereby banish you.  Hear my words…”

“Midge?”  her father rasped the words.  “My ‘skeeter.”

She didn’t respond.  She only took a moment to shut her eyes and feel the cool air on her skin, to smell a place that was alive, not forever dying.  Before she opened her eyes again, she was banished.  Back to the place at the rear of the shack, with people to hunt and food to eat.

She was stirred from a nap by someone speaking her name.

“Geez,” a voice.  “You go a while without thinking about just how big she was, but then you see her, and… she’s big.”

Midge looked around.  Her breath fogged in the air.

A house on a hill, woods at the edges.  A town sprawled beneath.

She wriggled her toes, squeezing snow between each toe.

“I’m nervous about this,” someone said.  “Last time…”

“The binding was imperfect,” another someone said.  “We need strong, if we’re going to make it.  Midge is strong.”

Midge turned to look.  The last voice… a boy in a mirror.

His face crawled with branches, his hair was so grimy it didn’t move when his head did.  When he blinked, six different beady eyes that peered between branches also blinked, slightly out of time.

She’d hunted his type too, more than once.  Not a hunt that ended in food, but satisfying all the same.  Made her think.

“She can’t come in the house,” a girl said.

“No.”

“She’ll freeze out here.”

“I don’t think she will.”

“Can we give her a blanket, or anything like that?”

“We need to focus on summoning more help, and I really don’t want to leave Andy alone.  Even with his injuries.”

“I’m getting her something anyway,” the girl said.

“We agree on that,” A taller woman said, arms folded.  She glared at the mirror.  “If he dies, it’s on you.”

“I know.  But Alexis is helping him.”

Midge watched the discussion continue.

The girl emerged from the house, two fur pelts in her arms.

No, not pelts.  Coats.

“I know these probably don’t fit,” the girl said, laying the coats down on the snow, before backing up.  “But I thought maybe they’d help?”

Midge stepped close, and smiled at seeing the girl stumble back three steps in quick succession, running.

She liked it when they ran.

But she’d been called like this before, and this calling was proper.  She would obey until they made a mistake.

She bent down, collecting the coats.  Too small.  They wouldn’t fit her if she was half the size.

Still, she wasn’t stupid.

She did up the buttons, putting the buttons of one coat in the holes of the other.  She lifted the resulting garment up to her shoulders, and worked her arms into the sleeves, tearing them at the seams until her arms were through.

“That works.  Midge?  Stand guard,” the girl said, “You have free reign to kill and maim anything that isn’t human, unless they’re someone you see standing here before you, or they say the password, ‘birds and trees’.”

Midge nodded her agreement.

“Good.  Great,” the girl said, turning back to the group.  “There’s something reassuring in thinking that we can’t summon anything much worse.”

“I’m not so sure,” the boy in the mirror said.  “We’ve had a lot of non-answers, a lot of Bogeymen were very recently summoned and put down by witch hunters, going back to the Abyss.  I almost suspect that a few locals have summoned some things to deny us the chance to.  None of the ghosts in Grandmother’s records are responding, and the goblins are Maggie’s schtick.  Doesn’t leave a lot of options.  We’re running low on convenient allies and especially low on time.  That leaves us with the inconvenient ones.”

“What’s more inconvenient than Midge?

Midge didn’t hear the remainder of the conversation.  She stared off into the distance, at this dark, beautiful place, and she saw the sunset, dark red, as the sun was a sliver at the horizon.

She smiled.

A spark of flame, sweet grass burned.

A voice sang, undulating, in time with a drum.

Herbs were thrown onto the fire.

Other substances were thrown into the fire.

A dozen minds within the house exploded with new sensory information, visions, hallucinations, thinking further, even as those thoughts meandered.  The typical limits and defenses crumbled.  The minds became truly innocent.

The singing rose in intensity.

The fire blazed.

The spirits exulted, dancing among one another, into one another.

They stuck, they bound to one another.

More grass joined the fire.  The smoke changed from a clean white to black.

The spirits tore apart then rejoined, one spirit leaving a part of itself behind as it separated itself from the mass, then tried to find a better position, suiting its own need for worship and attention, for power, for placement in the grand harmony of how it all was put together.

The singing grew more intense, until each sound sounded like it caused pain to utter.  There was heartbreak in there, loss and pain.  Anger, all the wilder and more dramatic for the herbs in the smoke.

The tears in eyes wasn’t from the smoke alone.

The spirits collected and gathered, drawing in the emotion, feeding on it, altering themselves.

They congealed.

A greater spirit, the least of gods, the line was thin between the two.

They wore the form of a bird.

They opened their mouth to make their terrible piercing noise, a croak.  Or a guttural cry.  It depended on the listener.

It opened its mouth, to croak, to cry.

It ruffled its feathers.

There was only the crackle of burning grass, now.  No singing.

The singer’s voice was hoarse as he spoke in Algonquin, “Cause them heartbreak.  Do it until they have suffered what we have three times over.”

The spirit-bird cried out its response.

It flew from the building of interwoven wood.

It viewed the world through the eyes of a spirit.  A web of connections.  A tree was only a tree in the shade it gave to the ground below, to the relationship of wind to branch and air to leaf.  A man was only a man in relation to those he knew, to the wife and children he supported, the house he owned and the job he worked.

The crow soared, and it saw things as greater or smaller by the good they did the people and things around them.

The crow found the brightest places, and it found a place to land.

One of the bright things was a governess, kind, looking after children that weren’t hers, because their parents had passed.

The crow watched until they had gone to sleep.  It undid the latch and let itself inside.

A medallion, a precious heirloom, was moved to a box owned by the governess’ favorite orphan boy.  A collection of trinkets and funny stones, buttons and one mouse skull.

The movement was careful.  The thread that tied the governess to the heirloom was still strong.  She would find it, and she would be hurt.  Damage would be done that was irreparable.  A small amount of damage, but damage all the same.

The bird waited for a day, watching through a window.  The box was found.  The bird observed the shouting, the brief, three-stroke whipping the boy suffered, saw the tears and felt the boy’s sense of injustice, aimless.

That night, the bird moved the medallion to the boy’s keepsake box a second time.

It didn’t stay to watch this time.  It was a little bigger, a little stronger than before.

With that strength, the bird took up a pen, and visited a letter.  One woman’s name was erased, ink drawn from paper to pen, another woman’s name written in its place, with the same ink and the same penmanship.

This, the bird stood by to watch.

It wasn’t a dramatic incident.  The hurt and confusion were profound and quiet.  The man’s wife was too proper to speak of the subject, or to even confront her husband, but it hurt her as if she’d been stabbed.  Her husband loved another woman?

He did.  His own doubt ate away at him.  The bird watched him twist and turn.

It took four more pushes, four small incidents and well placed items.  A flower favored by the woman he wasn’t married to, on his doorstep.  A trace of her scent, tracked onto his pillow while he slept.

The man made his advance the day he heard her name whispered in the wind, conjured by the crow’s beak.  He was turned down, and broken with shame in the process.  His object of affection hurt, his wife wounded deeper still.

With every act, the crow spent little and gained much.  Every reaction was a form of worship.  It grew.

In two year’s time, it was able to take the form of a child, in addition to the shape of the bird.  It worked connections with more violence.

A small boy, Algonquin in appearance, went largely unnoticed amid the playing children of a new town.  When attention started to move in his direction, he sidestepped the forming connection.

A girl sat on a bench, watching the others kick a ball around.  She glittered and glowed with connections.  Everyone knew who she was, as she was the daughter of a community leader.  She fit in well with the flow of things, the natural course of events.  When she spoke, the spirits knew, she spoke true.  She remained innocent.

But the crow cared little for innocence.

A boy, forced to stop playing by the nearby teacher, sat on the far end of the same bench.  He was known to many, but not in a good way.  He carried a weight, the imprints and echoes of other spirits and events.  His father, in particular, radiated such negativity that the boy could only carry it.  The boy was a liar.

The crow found the connection between them, a thread, and touched the middle of it.  It pulled.  The two wouldn’t topple over the back of the bench, but they would follow the path of least resistance.  Drag a string with a weight on each end, and the weights would touch.

The actual events were more happenstance.  More girls sat on the bench, and the girl that had sat there shifted position to give them room.

In that same moment, the boy lay down on the remaining section of bench.  In the doing, the top of his head made contact with the girl’s dress and hip.

Simpler, dumber spirits contrived to tidy up the mess of the unruly connection.

The boy experienced a moment of electric shock, running straight down the core of his body.  Ever restless, he froze, not daring to move.

She noticed too, but she was striving to get along with the other girls who occupied the bench, and didn’t want to move away.  She pretended not to notice.

It was, as things went, innocent.  Happenstance physical contact.  But it was a beginning to something.

The boy did everything he could to transcribe the event to memory.  He closed his eyes, sun warm on his face, and the whole of his attention was concentrated on the coin-sized area of his head that was in and was keeping contact with a beautiful girl.

The girl looked down, and she saw his face, imagining him asleep.

It struck her that she’d never seen him so at ease.  When he stopped acting the troublemaker, he looked nice.

The crow cawed and swooped past.  The boy’s teacher saw him occupying the bench, and shouted at him, ordering him to stand by her side.

He loathed his teacher in that moment.

He looked back over his shoulder as he got up from the bench, and met the girl’s eye.

The touch of pink on her cheeks… that was more than a beginning, to him.

It, she, gave his life meaning.

Had the crow wished, it could have let her heal the boy of that which ailed him.  The abusive father, the propensity to drink, the anger and restlessness.  The boy might even have found that peace, as well as the strength needed to prove himself in the small town and become someone respectable.

The crow did not wish for this.

In a way, the boy and the girl were happier in the short term.  They grew up a little, and enjoyed their romance.  But romance, as these invaders called it, was a mysterious, fleeting thing.  It was not true love.  It inveigled.

A stolen kiss behind the schoolyard, the pair being caught.  The girl spanked by her father when he heard.  The pair were driven together by hardship.

The girl became a liar.

The girl found the boy’s restlessness and anger and made it her own.

They stole away from their respective homes and found each other in the woods, late at night, hearts pounding as they embraced.

The crow planned a tragedy that would darken the hearts of everyone in the little town.

It did not do so unimpeded.

Though his guess was off target, the girl’s father openly voiced his suspicion that something darker was at work.  He spoke of devils working their way into his daughter’s heart.

He called for help, and help arrived.

A man of the cloth, who took an immediate dislike to the local minister.  A stern, strict man, who knew things.

He was wrong about what the crow was, but he still managed to capture and bind it.

He sent it back at the ones who had created it, with a touch of added power, hostility, outrage, given freely, and the compact of the Invader’s ways of dealing with spirits.  A seal, which made the crow both less of what it had been and more a part of things.  A different manner of things.

The crow flew.  Then it walked.

It arrived at the outskirts of the area, and it found its creator waiting, an old man.

“I knew you would come back,” the old man said, in a language the crow hadn’t heard for some time.

“They’d have me harm you,” the crow responded.

“Yes.”

“Let me.  You’re old.  It won’t hurt many.”

“No,” the old man said.

The crow advanced a step.  “If you don’t let me, then I’d have to hurt you indirectly.  Your children and grandchildren, your home…”

“If I let you kill me,” the old man said, “They have you.  They’ll use you against us.  Better to destroy you or turn you back against him.”

“A canoe crosses the same river, day in, day out.  Back and forth,” the crow said.

“Yes.  But sooner or later, it has to stop.  Each journey gets harder, more meaningful.”

The crow nodded.

It attacked, drawing a knife.  It drew back, ready to throw the blade, then flung the weapon.

Stepping forward to complete the throw, it stepped onto something.

Gunpowder lit, going up in a moment.  A symbol appearing in a puff of smoke, burned into the ground.

But the blade had left the crow’s hand a moment before.

The old man stared as the blade went well over his head, and through the wall of a building.

There was a distant roar, a scream, both from the same young man.

The crow bowed his head, folding his hands in front of him.

“I won’t ask what you just did,” the old man said.

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t apologize.  Don’t speak,” the old man said, his voice pained.  “Take what I give you, and use it against them.”

“I don’t think you have anything strong enough to send me back,” the crow said.  “Even if you did, they have my name, they have sealed me.  I could stop them, make them pay, but when I was done, the next one could call me, and I’d be bound to act.”

The old man nodded.

The screams were joined by others.

Anxiety was writ large over the old man’s face and body.

“Then take what I give you, use it against them.  Let the ones who bound you live, but never let them call you without paying a price.”

The crow smiled.  “Some will be strong.  I don’t think there’s much you could give me that would let me bend the rules like that, father.”

The old man frowned, eyes closing.  “Don’t call me father, wretched thing.”

The old man produced a knife, and cut his own throat.  Not a clean cut, in the end, but a savage one, where strands and matter caught on the knife, and the blade turned a sharp angle at one large vein.

The crow watched impassively as the old man dropped to both knees, then carefully eased himself down to lie beside the circle.

Blood flowed out, and covered the lines that had been burned into the ground.

The crow drank of the power.  All that the old man was capable of.  Nine more years of a practitioner’s life, distilled into a kind of strength.

The crow was no longer a child, but a man.

It walked, instead of flying, to the town it had flown from.  Calmly, quietly, it put things in motion for those who had summoned it to find ignoble ends.  Two men of the cloth found with their manhood deep inside cattle.

This took more power than the crow should have used.  It took years to recover.  Years where the crow studied the people and watched from the periphery.  It was the sort of power that it couldn’t afford to use, and diminished it forever from that moment on.

But it had almost come to resemble a person, in the bargain.

It started almost from the beginning, building its power.  A piece of paper signed to the wrong person, with the property and value going to the failure of the family, not the harder worker.  A meaningful gift, with all the value attached, handed over to someone else, to forge a friendship between a scoundrel and a doctor.  The doctor took to using laudanum, and his patients experienced agony for it.

The crow traveled, more patient, more slow.  Working in three different places at a time, traveling from one to the other, so time might pass and events might unfold in their own time.

Twice, he was called.  Twice, he went.

The first to call him lost a book that he had borrowed.  It would be missed by both parties.

The second found her son and heir to her power stolen away by another woman, her one-time husband’s new wife.

Neither suspected.

Searching out the lovelost boy and girl, with their ill-advised relationship, the girl now harboring anger and resentment in her heart, he found both missing.

Looking for them, following the threads that tied everything to everything else, forming the fabric of the world, he found them in an old wooden house.

An old woman, one of the crow’s people, stirred a pot.  Her daughter, yet to even approach adulthood, swept.

The lovelost couple were bound, sitting at the table.

“Have a seat,” the old woman offered.

The crow did.

She served a stew.  None of the foods the invaders had brought with them.  A pleasant change.  She, her daughter, and the crow all ate.

The bound couple remained too terrified and perhaps too stubborn to even speak.

The crow was first to finish, and took the offer of a second bowl.  He stared at the dolls that sat on the shelf as he ate.  Each as bright as a lantern.

They each finished at the same time, the daughter dutifully picking up the bowls and carrying them outside to wash.  A chain trailed from her ankle to the hearth, long enough that she could reach the trough where water had collected, to wash each of the wooden bowls.

The old woman spoke in Algonquin, “Why did you come, spirit?”

“Them.”

“Do you have a claim to them?”

“Not a strong one.  I merely want them.”

“So do I,” she said.  “I need strength.”

“We all do,” he replied.

He watched her, and he could see the connections between her and the area, between her and the stones, and the trees.  She was brighter than any living soul the crow had met, and so set in her ways that she was almost a part of the grand scheme of it all.  Here, at least.

“You have time,” he told her.

“When you have the time available to you,” she answered, “The moment becomes more important than the year.”

“I’ll remember that piece of wisdom,” he replied.

“How badly do you want them?” she asked.  “What can you offer me?”

“I suspect we’re both immortal.  I can promise friendship, and a promise to visit now and again.”

“I could promise the same.”

“You don’t travel.  I have been told that any time one of them summons me, I am to take something they value.  I’ll bring you one of these things as a gift, each time I visit, and show you the rest I have collected in the meantime.  Each, shown or given, comes with a story.”

She didn’t smile.

But she looked at the fire and sighed.  “Tell me it will hurt them.”

“It will hurt them,” he said.  “You’ll see in time.”

“Very well.”

He drew a knife and cut the ropes.

They fought their way free of the ropes, rising from the bench and backing away in a moment.  The light from the hearth didn’t quite reach them in the corner, and the shadows there were dark.

Leave,” he spoke in their tongue.

They fled.

He could feel them go, could see the connections shifting as they returned to their place in his plan.

“I was going to have them tomorrow night,” the old woman said.  She rose from the bench, then sat down again, her back to him.  “No need to wait, now.  The blade?”

He handed her the blade.

She bent over, and she sliced deep into her own ankles.  The blade wasn’t sharp, and she had to saw until she was satisfied.

“There are herbs,” the crow commented.  “Medicines.”

“Their medicines?”

“Among others.”

“The pain is useful,” she said. She bent over, grabbing the chain from the floor, draping it over one knee.

She placed one hand flat on the table, then slammed the knife into it, piercing flesh and the table both.  She bent over with the pain.

“A good thing there is so much of it.”

“Yes,” she said, her voice tight.  “Child!”

She held the chain in her one free hand, winding her hand up in chain to get rid of the slack.

The child saw the knife piercing the old woman’s hand and fear hit her.  Dull-eyed before, she pulled away.

The old woman, however, pulled her close.

Nanaming,” the old woman said, her head pressing against the child’s, even as the child shrunk down.  Her arm held the chain tight.  “Ga chibwàmashe,  kwagwedjitò.

A short phrase, but the words echoed words spoken again and again.

The pair were still for a moment.

The little girl broke the old woman’s grip, backing away.

The old woman, in turn, looked at the girl, then at the crow, eyes wide with fear.

“Mother?” the old woman asked the child.

“Once,” the child responded.  She stepped into the bedroom, then returned.  A key in hand.  She undid the shackle and rubbed her wrist.  “You’re the mother now, for a little while longer.”

The old woman tried to stand, and fell to the floor.  She howled in pain as her hand wrenched where it was skewered to the table.

“Easy,” the child said.  “Go gently.  You should already feel your body going numb.  There will be a moment of panic, a fluttering of the heart, and you’ll feel no more.”

The old woman stared up at her, mute.  “The dolls?”

“You’ll join all the ones who came before,” the child assured her.  “You’ll keep the children company until the bones that hold the body upright crumble and the hairs wither.”

True fear struck the old woman, but she didn’t have the strength to move.

“Dangerous,” the crow commented, as the old woman slumped.  “Every generation?”

“Not too dangerous, with practice,” the child said.

“I could help.”

“I trust myself more than I trust you.”

The crow touched the table, brushing at the bloodstained wood with one hand.  He felt the notches.

“Twenty-three times?” he asked.  “You only have so many dolls.”

“The years take them.  I bury the remains around the house.  The first four are at the cornerstones.  Far more than twenty-three.  I used rope before.”

“Where do the children come from?”

“The question is where the men come from.”

“I see.”

She didn’t elaborate, and she didn’t ask what would become of the pair settling in the nearest town.

They’d see, given time.

Corvidae appeared in a flurry of feathers.

He glanced around, at the circle on the floor, then at the group of practitioners.

The witch hunters too.

“Again?” he asked.  “Where is Rose?”

“Occupied,” the monster in the mirror said.  “You don’t need to know.”

“I see,” Corvidae said, smiling.  “What am I doing, then?”

“I don’t trust you in the house, but we still need help.  I’m betting that someone will want to see how things play out.  They’ll probably assume we’re busy and they’re too tough to take out, and venture out of safer territory.  Find them, distract them.  Don’t hurt innocents or civilians.  Only the local powers, and only those hostile to us.”

Corvidae managed a bow.

“Go.  The sooner the better.”

Corvidae stepped free of the circle.

In the hallway, miss Alexis was letting the other members of the family out of the basement.

“Don’t-” she started.

But Corvidae was adept in altering the connection between the bomb mounted on the door and the surrounding environment.  He opened the door and slammed it behind him.

“Don’t!” he heard miss Alexis ordering the others.

Corvidae walked merrily down the long driveway.  He could see eyes glimmering in the darkness, ready to siege the house.

Much too enjoyable.  Ups and downs, including a few trips to the Abyss, to learn the right details needed to send others to the Abyss, and to pick up a proper name.  Now it was time.

He laughed, and it was a high croak of a laugh, a guttural cry.

His thumb brushed the lock of black hair that was tied around his right ring finger, easily mistaken by the unwary for a ring.  A certain mirror had gone missing, a tome in mirror form, with a denizen within.  That one could wait a century or two.  Better to leave it alone, let it work its effect on miss Rose, and in the end, if an opportunity arose and certain individuals got angry enough, perhaps one of his people could benefit.

What would he get this time?

The water was warmest close to the lakebottom.

Even in winter, the frigid water here was better than the warmer water there.  It was clean, and it sang through her gills, clear and fresh.  She was more durable than she looked.

Here and there, she managed to scrounge up something in hibernation, buried within the coarse, near-frozen sand of the lake.

She could relax.  The black fish didn’t chase her here.

Happy, happy.  She twisted around herself. letting her fins flare out to arrest her movement, then flicking her tail twice in rapid succession to launch herself forward.

Company would make her happier still.

Company-

Green Eyes.

Someone called her name.

Green Eyes.

She recognized the voice.

Green Eyes, if you’d hurry it up-

A light flashed.  She didn’t wait for it to take form as a door or whatever.

Blake!

“-it would be very much appreciated,” Blake finished.

She made a big splash as she broke the surface.

The bathroom was bright, the gathered crowd a little out of sorts.

Jesus,” a boy she didn’t recognize said.  He looked almost like Blake, but with finer features.  And no branches or birds or any of that.  Clean.

She liked Blake more.

“Green Eyes,” Blake said.  He was standing in the middle of the bathroom mirror, above the sink.  Black paint had been scraped off with a chisel or some similar tool.

“Blake,” she said, smiling.

“Man, those teeth,” the Blake-family-member said.

“I’m not sure if I should be wowed or disappointed,” a black-skinned boy in the hallway said.  “Leaning toward wowed.”

Blake spoke, “We need help, do you want-“

“Yes.”

“Can you-“

“Yes,” she said.  She put her arms on the edge of the tub and lifted her tail over.  “I can help.”

“Hi!” the bird-morsel said.

“Hi,” Green Eyes replied.

“Thanks for that,” Blake said.  “We’ll catch up later.”

“Great!”

“Stay out of the way of the innocents on the ground floor, and the one we’ve got in the bedroom across from you.  They’re… complications for the enemy.  Don’t eat humans, don’t eat Evan.”

“Please,” the bird-morsel said.

“I’ll be good,” Green Eyes told Blake, still propping herself up on the side of the bathtub.

“Here we go,” Blake said.  “Clock’s ticking down, there aren’t any great options left.  Everything else that’s worth summoning was summoned in the last few weeks, killed, has specific rules, or some other complication we can’t work with.”

“You’ve got odd friends,” Blake’s relative said.

“Yes,” Blake replied.

“I remember when the family got together, I was jealous of-”

 

The town bell tolled.  Green Eyes liked the town bell.

“Being?”

A second toll.

“Sorry, was going to say jealous, but…”

“Of?”

Third toll.

“I don’t know,” Peter said.  “Paige, Molly, and-”

Fourth toll.

Me?” Blake asked.

With the fifth toll marking sundown, the house shuddered.

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Malfeasance 11.11

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When mom and dad come home, they’re going to be soooo mad.

Flooding house, oil and broken glass at the base of the stairs, shattered back windows, at least three people in need of a hospital visit, one of whom was folded into the couch.

Oh, and the bombs.

If they showed up at the wrong time and tried to force their way in…

I shook my head.  Too many ifs.  If we took too long, if Andy got to my friends, if Alexis wasn’t okay, if one of my friends were hurt, dying, or dead

I didn’t like the feeling that took hold of me as I thought on that subject.

I relocated myself to the kitchen floor.  There were places where the residue from the extinguisher made the water too muddy to reflect anything.

The mirror Peter had been holding was gone.  Covered, broken, or cast aside to a place where it couldn’t reflect anything I could use.  Peter, too, was missing.  From the water or whatever else that was on the stairs, I suspected he was already up there.

“Evan,” I called out.

Evan came flying to me from the bookshelves.  He started to land on the edge of the counter, but shied away and landed on the toaster instead.

“Water,” he noted.  “And, oh poop, witch hunter.”

I didn’t have a good angle to see Eva.

“Clever, Bloody Marv,” I heard Eva speak.

“Wasn’t quite my idea,” I said.  “Also, Bloody Marv?  Really?”

“Gotta call you something.”

I considered reminding her about my name, then reconsidered.

I’d given it freely in the past, just talking to the junior council, but there was a sense of danger about Eva.  Her willingness to harm, her sheer resourcefulness.

“Thorburn Bogeyman,” I said.

“T.B.?”

“Whatever,” I said.

I moved to the one intact picture frame by Eva, watched her pace a little.  A restless tiger in its cage.  She kicked the doormat until it blocked off the water that creeped closer to her.  Her body was dusted white from the fire extinguisher’s spray.

She had the machete in one hand, the dark green orb cupped in the other, and the fanny pack with the grenades slung over one shoulder, apparently collected when she’d run past the pool of oil.

It was, in an odd twist, a reversal of the situation they’d had with us.

One more pressing threat upstairs, a lesser, hobbled threat downstairs.  Couldn’t ignore them both.

If I went upstairs to help Peter deal with Andy, I risked letting Eva run rampant.  Much as they’d done with us.

If I stayed here with Eva, well, Andy wasn’t quite the threat Eva was in a fight, but I suspected he could deal with Peter rather easily.  Neither was a fighter by nature, but Andy, I imagined, at least had practice.  Armor, too.

The water on the stairs was coming from the second floor bathroom.  Andy would have heard.

“Only one more to go,” Eva said, unaware that I was close to her, ready to strike if her pacing brought her too close to the frame.  “Pretty sure.”

One more?

“One more what?” Evan called out.

“T.B.?” the witch hunter called, almost taunting.  “I’m talking to you.”

I could see her body tense.  She approached the doormat, putting one foot on it.

Ready to make a break for it?

I switched locations.  “I’m listening, I’m just not sure why I’m supposed to take the bait.”

She chuckled to herself.

“Evan,” I whispered, “Go check, help if you can, don’t get shot.”

Evan took flight, wings flapping as he headed upstairs.

“I’m asking,” the witch hunter said, “Because I want to know if you’re there.”

“I’m here,” I said.

By asking periodically, opening a dialogue, she kept me here, watching her, keeping her from making a break for it

She thought time was on her side.

Yet the house was flooding.  Water crept on a variety of surfaces.

“You’re a new bogeyman, aren’t you?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Damn,” she said.  “I always wanted to know if it sucked, being bound.  Stuck inside some old antique until someone releases you.”

“Yeah, I wouldn’t know,” I said, glancing back.  Nobody in the stairwell.  Light covered much of the second floor hallway.  Where footsteps landed, the reflection was disrupted.  I couldn’t tell where the footsteps were, only the cadence.

“Andy said it’s hard, being a bogeyman.  You spend a while in the Abyss, or Limbo, or whatever name you want to slap onto the ground level of reality, and it chews you up and spits a monster out, right?”

“Something like that.  Haven’t heard it called the ground level before.  Doesn’t seem much like reality.”

“Yeah, I bet,” she said.  “You want Andy for that explanation.  Mayans or someone thinking that all reality was basically chaos and void before the first gods set it straight.  Humans following after, smoothing off the rough edges.  I’m getting bits wrong already.”

“Sure,” I said.  The entire world was essentially like the Drains, in another time?

“Let’s say I whip out a thing and use it to bind you.  Nice old fashioned thing with a lot of weight and power to it.  Do you just stay inside?  Or is it more that you go back to the place you came from, Limbo or wherever, steadily getting worse, and you pop out when the container gets opened?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“Which of the two is worse?” she asked.  “Stuck inside some container or another, all dark, just waiting for a few decades or centuries, or going back to the place that made you a monster?”

“I don’t know,” I said.

“When we capture an Other, there’s a guy we call.  Specializes in disposal.  All the little whatsits and doodads get relocated somewhere proper.”

“That’s a spooky idea,” I said.  “A warehouse full of boxes with monsters inside.”

She snorted.  “Fuck that.  Hole in the ground and poured cement, way out in the middle of the scads of protected land we’ve got here in the great white north.  Nobody’s going to dig much in permafrost, except our guy that’s sticking cursed items and bound monsters in the ground.”

“If you’re trying to scare me,” I commented, “I don’t feel fear in the same way, anymore.”

“Ahh.  That’s no fun,” she said.  “So if I just happened to tell you that one of the people upstairs has a bomb glued to them, that wouldn’t affect you at all?”

I glanced upstairs.

“Hard to picture something like that,” I said.

She made a sound, not quite vocal enough to be a chuckle.  “I had my bushwhacker to her throat, Andy rigged the bomb.  Level on the top.  Tube with water in it, big fat bubble?  Fluid is conductive, right?  If the bubble moves to intersect one of the wires, the current can’t conduct, the bomb blows, and you get diabolist all over the walls and floor.”

“Telling the enemy how to defuse your bomb?”

“Not quite.  I saw Andy build it, or I was in the same room watching TV while he built it, same thing, but I couldn’t defuse it if you gave me twenty tries.  I’m just saying.  Last I saw, other two were cornered, afraid to even get close.  Rune of exile on the thing to keep it from being tampered with by other spirits, keep the boom muted.  She’s shaking, trying not to shake too much, or she’ll go out with a bang.  You can’t feel fear, or you don’t feel it the same way.  How do you feel, hearing that?”

“Not good,” I admitted.  “Angry.”

She sounded like she was enjoying herself as she spoke, “How would you feel if I told you that while we were putting the bomb on her, I watched your other friends, safe inside their circle?  Every time they moved, I gave her a little tap.  Right at the collarbone.  She bled.  She screamed lots.  If it was wood and not bone, I’d have left notches.  Maybe I still did.”

“If you’re trying to get me angry,” I said, my voice low, “That works.”

I heard her chuckle.  Or cackle.  One or both of the two.

I moved back to the window behind her.

She had the cabinet by the back door open.  There were brooms and mops inside.

She spoke while she worked.  “They’re all bleeding, one’s probably dead, by the way, and the other one can’t move with the bomb strapped to her.  Forty minutes to half an hour, and none of that’s going to be different.  The boggarts and shit come crawling in through the woodwork and they’re going to do horrible things to those people, to the Thorburns you identify with, to all the others.”

She can lie, I told myself.  The self-assurance wasn’t very effective.

I watched, unbeknownst to her, while she propped two mops up against the window.  She hooked an old towel from the closet over them, so it covered the shattered mini-window.

“You there?” she asked.

I had to relocate to answer from the kitchen at the end of the hall, so my nearby voice wouldn’t tip her off that I had a little window.  “I’m here.”

“Are you really that much of a monster already?  You don’t give a damn?”

“Believe me,” I said, “I look forward to showing you just how much of a damn I give.”

She offered me that cackle-chuckle again.

When I returned to the spot nearest her, I saw that she’d moved on from the window.  Stopping the draft?

No.

She was working to set up the same thing with the window to the right, propping up brooms, not using a towel this time, but coats that had been hung up by the door.  Alexis’ was one.  She drew the billowing, shifting curtains over the coats.

She hit the light switches a few times.  The hall light and kitchen lights alternated on and off until both were off.

I was shunted.  Back to the puddle, still growing as the sink overflowed.

The end of the hallway was dark.  In the gloom, the reflections might as well have been covered by fabric.  I didn’t have a view of a surface I could stand on.

Damn it.

“Don’t mind me,” she said.  “I always liked the dark more than the light.”

“Somehow,” I replied, my eyes on the ground I stood on and the kitchen that was reflected beyond it.  “That doesn’t surprise me.”

“S.O.P. against any Others who are reliant on a certain environment.  You deny them their environment of choice.  In your case…”

She trailed off.

Looking down, I could see the kitchen ceiling below me.  Water flowed, and the surface rippled as the water made waves.

A small, dark object sailed high, flying from the patch of darkness, diagonally across the kitchen, and into the living room.

I saw smoke.

My first thought was what Andy had mentioned about an incendiary grenade.  Setting the house on fire.

My second thought that even Eva wasn’t that heartless.  She cared about her brother, and he was on the second floor.

It was only smoke.

With the kitchen light off, the light that currently reached the reflective surface of the water was the little light that came in from the living room, the overhead light in the center of the ceiling, and the slices of light that escaped around the edges of the plywood that had been boarded up over windows.

The smoke obscured that light.  A lot of it was low to the ground, maybe only waist height, if I was judging it right, but that was still high enough to block a lot of the light from the water.

I backed away before I could get shunted again.

I heard footsteps splash, and couldn’t do anything about it.

“You think you have a clever answer?  The water?” she taunted me.  “It doesn’t make a difference, Thorburn Bogeyman.  The sun is setting, and all I need to do is cut the power, and you’re outta here!

God damn, she was enjoying herself.

Why was it that only the really crazy types enjoyed themselves in situations like this?

I didn’t take the bait.  I remained silent.

“Hello?” she asked.

I didn’t respond.

“Huh,” she said.

A second later, she was running.

It caught me off guard, and my reaction was slow.

She passed me, easily.

She leaped over the puddle of olive oil, now in the process of being diluted by water, ironically impassible to me, water mixing with oil to create a mess of small reflections instead of one big one.

She was faster than me.  Or maybe she was the same speed, with the benefit of having the head start and experience.

I, however, had the opportunity to take shortcuts.

I went up.

Second floor.

Eva was cresting the top of the stairs, cradling the fire extinguisher against her body.

Hyena in hand, I cut.  She, in the same moment, saw me and leaped.

The blade grazed her boot.  Nothing more.

She landed on her side, squeezing the trigger on the fire extinguisher, carpeting the water at the top of the stairs, and many of the stairs besides.

I was forced downstairs.

I wasn’t sure why it was downstairs, when the closest position would have been just behind where she’d landed.  I didn’t have time to think about it.

I headed upstairs, putting myself in the bathroom.

Peter was inside, sitting on the counter by the sink, feet on the lid of the toilet.  One of his hands was pressed into his armpit.  The shower was on, the shower head removed, and the hose leading to the shower head dangling over the edge of the tub, gushing water onto the floor outside the tub.

“Peter.”

He jumped.  “Geez!”

“You’re hurt.”

“Ah, yep.  Guy out there got my hand.  Pretty sure I have a broken finger.”

“Guy and the girl are both out there,” I said.

“Hm.”

“She’s mucking up the water.”

“They blocked the underside of the door, too, not much water getting out,” he said.  “This was as far as I could get without getting beaten up or zapped.”

“It was good,” I said.  “Only a step in the right direction, but nice work.”

“Uh huh,” he said.  “Keep talking like that, and I’ll start thinking you’re not really some long-lost Thorburn cousin.”

“Hold that thought,” I said, absently.

I ducked back outside. The hallway was obscured, but the water had leaked across the hallway and into the room opposite the bathroom.  Rose’s.

I waited in there, listening without the noise of the shower or the distraction of Peter.

“Should have grabbed something from the kitchen cupboards,” Eva said.  “Sprinkle it here and there.”

“Wouldn’t go that far,” Andy replied.  “There’s a simpler option.  Linen cupboard.”

Yeah!

“I already checked these cupboards.  You could hunt around upstairs.”

“Fuck.  Don’t want to do chores when I might miss the fun stuff.  We could strip the bed.”

“Bedrooms are a little flooded.  Upstairs is dry and safe.  I like keeping things simple.”

“Right.”

“I’ll stay here, keep an eye on the bathroom, staircases, and watch for the practitioners.”

“You can’t just blow the bathroom door away?”

“I used all the bombs on the exterior windows and doors.”

“Shit… and on the kid upstairs?  Before they locked themselves up again?”

“…Yeah.  Look, Eva, stop stalling.  Go get the sheets.  It’ll take a minute, two minutes tops.  Almost less time than you’ve spent complaining just now.”

“Ugh.”

“I’ve never known you to prefer waiting to doing something.”

“Uh huh.”

“Am I wrong?”

“I’m supposed to be calling the shots,” she said.  “You do it off-the-job, I do it on-the-job.”

“Then call the shots, Eva,” Andy said, sounding exasperated.

“You stay put, I’m getting some stuff to throw on the ground and block the reflection.”

“Sure, Eva,” he said.  “If you say so.”

And,” she said, sounding a little more excited, “do you think you can kill the power?”

“The breaker box is probably in the basement.  With the rest of the Thorburns and the tear gas.”

“Fuck!  And they rigged the stairs, covering it with oil.  I’ll break a leg going down there.”

There was a note of interest in his voice, “Did they?  It’s fine.  Look, Eva, you want to hurt them for whatever reason?  Just make them stay put.  They’ll hurt more than anything you can do.  Right now?  They’re staying put.  We keep the Bloody Marv out of the way for thirty more minutes, and we’re free and clear.”

“Kill the power, and the Thorburn Bogeyman won’t be able to protect them when it gets dark.  Helps us now, and helps us later.  It’s part of the plan.”

“Hm.”

“No?  Yes?”

“I’ll figure something out.  Go.  Sheets.  Please.”

“Going!  Turn out the lights you don’t need!”

I heard her footsteps and the light splashes of her footfalls.  The water was probably less than an inch deep, it wasn’t much.

The light in the hallway flicked off, and the light that reached under the door disappeared.  I still had light from the bedroom window.

Before I could raise my eyes, I saw a movement.

Tiny.

“Evan,” I said.

“Blake!  I couldn’t get to Peter and I couldn’t go outside, so I came here.  You said to wait here, before.”

By the vanity mirror atop the dresser.  Right.  I hadn’t even thought about that.

Andy was possibly shutting off the power.  Eva was getting sheets to cover the hallway.

“Are you ready to kick some ass?” I asked.

“Always.”

I thought for a second.

“You can open doors.  Can you… open a way for me?”

“Huh?”

“There’s crud from the fire extinguisher in the water.  Can you get rid of it?”

He leaned over the dresser, tilting his head as he looked at the water.

“In the hallway?” I asked.

“Oh.  I can try!”

“Good man.  Hold tight.”

Had to stall Andy and Eva.

Andy first.

He worried me more than Eva did, frankly.

How to stop him from futzing with the power?

I closed my eyes for a second, visualizing the house.

Was there a chance?

I headed downstairs, dropping straight down.

The first floor was pretty flooded.  Water reached into the hallway and living room, while Eva’s doormat barricade had, somewhat ironically, helped me.  By blocking the water, she’d freed it to take the path of least resistance.

And the best path of least resistance was down.

I headed down.

The basement was flooding.  Trickles of water streamed down the walls and pooled on the floor, much of it too dusty to see.

The basement windows were small enough that even Roxanne would find them a squeeze.  The lightbulbs were old and orange.  The water made for a reflective surface, and there was light.

The gathered Thorburns were still coughing, making sounds of pain.

Tear gas, apparently, wasn’t something you bounced back from in a matter of five or ten minutes.

“Hit the breaker switches,” I said.  “Then turn everything back on in… five minutes.”

“Who?  The guy from the mirror?  Where are you?”

“Now,” I said.

I didn’t wait for a response.  My gut told me that if I tried to convince them, they’d argue.

With nobody to argue against, they’d only be able to obey.  Hopefully.

I headed back upstairs.  I moved to the bathroom.

“You locked in?”

Fuck me!” Peter exclaimed.

“Not if I can help it,” I said.

“I’m- no.  Yes?  I locked myself in.”

“Thirty seconds, open the door, head into the hallway.”

He was silent.

I had to trust my knowledge of who he was.  Problem was, Peter was both an opportunist and a coward.  Either way, he’d convince himself it would all work out in the end, whether he was avoiding a reality or taking a risk.  I wasn’t sure which of the two ideas would win out.

“You should get a chance to beat that guy’s face in,” I told the Opportunist.

The lights went off. I was shunted out the door, back downstairs.

Again.  The closest location should have been Evan, across the hall.  Annoying.

I headed back to Evan.  “Door.”

He hopped onto the doorknob.  It was faux crystal, probably made of plastic, like an oversized diamond with rounded edges.  He gripped it with his talons and let his body weight turn it.  He fell, catching himself with a flutter of his wings.

I reached through the puddle, and gave the bottom of the door a push.  Light streamed into the bedroom from the hallway.

Evan wheeled around, then flew down the length of the hallway, feathered body just tracing the water.  The grit on top of the water parted like grease in a dramatized soap commercial.

I followed after him, footsteps splashing, as a glowing road, lit by the purples and oranges that streamed through the window, opened before me.

Andy was kneeling in the water, holding a twisted length of metal in pliers, a coarse glove on the hand with the tool.  He was looking up at the light, confused.

No reason to cut the power when it was already cut.

It also served as a distraction, putting him off balance.

He turned his head as Evan passed by.

I bent down, reaching through the path that was now open to me.

I wrapped my arms around Andy’s shoulders and throat, pulling him down.

The Hyena, still in my hand, always in my hand at this point, in these circumstances, touched his neck.

E-!” he started.

“Shut!” I spat the word in his ear.  Not even a full ‘shut up’.

I didn’t have long.  My footing was destroyed.  I could only cling to him, and hope to bide time until-

Peter approached, holding the ceramic top of the toilet under one arm.  His right hand was messy with blood, especially around the fingertip.

At the last second, he swapped it to a two-handed grip, holding it at the middle.  A chunk of old, age-stained ceramic that had to weigh twenty pounds.

“Jesus, Peter,” I started.  “Don’t-”

I was relocated to the end of the hallway.  The disruption to the water’s surface too much for me to stay.

From the end of the hallway, by where Evan had perched on the windowsill, I saw Peter bring the end of the lid down on Andy’s head, Andy’s hands going up to stop it, but lacking the strength of leverage to accomplish anything.

I could hear it.  The sound of the impact.

“You’re really making me doubt your family credentials, cousin,” he murmured, slumping against a wall for leverage as he got to his feet, not out of any weakness or disability, but because he didn’t have a hand free, and it was easier than letting go of the toilet top.

I couldn’t appeal to his goodness, to mercy.

“Part of the strategy,” I told him.  “We need them alive.”

“He’s alive.  I might have broken his jaw and cheekbone, but he’s alive,” Peter said, straightening.  “Lesson numero uno for Thorburns.  Go for the jugular.  They’re trying to kill us.”

Eva appeared at the end of the hall.

I’d seen her angry, after Roxanne had tried to hurt her brother and failed.

She only stared, chin at an odd angle, a little too high, her head tilted slightly, hands behind her back.  No sheets, that I could tell.  The light from the window behind Evan didn’t quite reach her, so she was lit by the light above the stairwell, behind her.  Silhouetted.  Cold air blew in through the broken window, making her hair stir.

“Great,” Peter said.

Her voice was quiet.  “Is he dead?”

“He could be,” Peter answered.  “You take one step, I aim for his throat with the next swing.”

“Doesn’t work that way,” she said, shaking her head a little.  “He’s the one who keeps the mad dog, me, on a leash.  Taking him out of the picture is a pretty fucking stupid thing to do.  He’s the one who listens to reason, not me.”

“You refer to yourself as a mad dog?” Peter asked.  “Man, I thought my family had the lion’s share of ‘fucked up’.”

“You want to see ‘fucked up’?” she asked.  She raised her hand.

Grenade.

“Tear gas?” Peter asked.

“No.  Incendiary grenade, with the pin out.  My hand on the lever is the only thing keeping it from going off.  This house is largely made of wood.  Do the math.”

I could see Peter tense.

“If I don’t think I can carry him out,” she said, “I’ll cremate him.”

“Along with the house and its occupants?”

She didn’t respond, her eyes on Andy.

Without warning, she approached, taking long strides.

I could see Peter start to raise the lid, ready to take Andy out of action.

This time, the coward won out.  He backed away.

I moved to meet her.

She kicked the water, the resulting spray disrupted the reflection.

It bought her two paces.

Evan, though, flew past her.  The momentum of his passing, eerily out of sync with his tiny amount of actual mass, forced her to stop moving forward and put one foot out to the side to maintain her balance.

It was all the time I needed.  I twisted around, then bent, reaching through the reflection.

I seized one foot, arresting her forward movement.

She fell onto her side, then lifted her leg away from the ground.  My arm was extended, until the whole arm was sticking out of the pool of water.

I didn’t see it coming until it was too late.  She levered herself around, leg still high, and used her other leg to sweep my arm, water spraying as it skidded in the water.  A full-force kick right at my elbow.

Wood splintered and snapped.  Bone, if I had any, broke.

I barely felt the pain.  It was secondary.

I was relocated downstairs.  It cost me precious seconds, as I got my bearings again.  My arm sat at a skewed angle, and the wound crawled.  It was as if the branches were fingers, and they were scrabbling for purchase, blindly groping.

I had to put the Hyena down for a moment while I twisted my arm around into the right position.  The fingers wrapped around the wound, meshing together and mingling into a great ugly, horned knot of wood.  Feathers and bits of bone stood out from one portion as if a bird had been crushed and killed as the wood had come together.  I flexed my hand.

Back up to the hallway.

The witch hunter had drawn her machete from some sheath inside her jacket or pants or some other hidden place, and was advancing on Peter, weapon held high.

Evan flew past, trying to put her off balance.  She moved the blade but missed him.

“Evan, back off!” I ordered.  “Peter-”

Peter raised the piece of ceramic as a sort of shield, moving it right as he watched the weapon.

She punched him, hitting him from the opposite direction.

She punched him with the grenade.  Hand still gripping the grenade and the lever, she hit him full-force in the face with the chunk of metal.

The second hit came from the opposite direction, a backhand.  Peter lost his grip on the lid, balance clearly gone.  It broke as it hit the ground.

She drove a knee into his middle, knocking him over.

I bent down, catching her foot with one of my own, and pulled them out from under her.  Stupid, to knock her over when she held the grenade, but what other option was there?

We didn’t all go up in flame, which was nice.

I even managed to grab the machete, pushing it away.  It practically hydroplaned on the thin layer of water that covered the hallway.

All three of us brought down, fighting at its ugliest, in a heap, scrabbling, fighting dirty.

I had to step away, waiting for the water to settle.

Peter wasn’t putting up much of a fight, but I might have said he’d lost the fight from the second he took that first punch unprepared.

Getting on top of him, she hit him over and over again.  Right, left, right, right, right, left.  Whichever fist and direction would hit better in the moment.

Evan hovered around her, out of reach.

He can do his thing twice.  But every time he goes for a third try, they get him.  It had happened with Ur, during the fights with Conquest, with Duncan…

Seeing the opportunity to act again, I reached through the water.  My arms encircled Eva’s head and shoulders in a full Nelson, pulling her backward and off Peter.

“I’m letting go of the grenade in five, four, three-”

I switched my grip, seizing the hand that had the grenade.  I was losing my grip on reality, sinking back into the mirror realm.  As she twisted her wrist around, preventing me from getting her, I found my hand on only metal.

“Heh,” she said.

She let go, then rolled away, twisting out of my grip.

If I’d been one to experience true fear, that might have been the moment I’d lost it.

Instead, I found myself shunted, no place to go but the nearest reflection, a live incendiary grenade in one hand and a body made largely of wood and feathers.

I didn’t let myself experience paralyzing fear or panic.  I hurled the grenade into the great expanse of darkness between patches of light.  It found a patch of light far away from Hillsglade House, instead, skipping across darkness much as I might have.

I headed back upstairs.

I’d expected to see her taking Peter to pieces.  Instead, she was kneeling by her brother.  Peter was limp on the ground.

“I hear you,” she said, without looking my way.

“Hi Eva.”

“Survived?  Damn.

“Survived.”

The fury had gone quiet again.

What was going through her head?

“There goes my trump card,” she said.  “Other trump card didn’t do much.”

Other?”

She held up the green orb as her answer.

“Can I ask?” I asked.

Her voice was low, almost menacing.  “You can ask, I’m not saying.  I’m going to give it back to the owner on my way to the hospital.  I’m proposing an exchange of prisoners.  I walk out with my brother, you look after your… numerous wounded.”

I didn’t answer.

“Right,” she said.  “Taking that as a yes.”

“Eva,” I told her.  “The claymore or whatever by the back door, the bombs on the windows, the bomb on the front door… double edged sword right now.”

“Seems like one edge,” she replied.

“If you try to leave,” I told her, “I’ll throw something at those bombs.  At the door, the claymore, whichever.  I’ll take out you and your brother.”

“Not smart,” she said.

“Doing what I have to,” I replied.

“Your beaten up buddy there-”

“Isn’t a buddy.  But if you go after him, I’ll fight you.  We can continue to lock horns until the sun goes down.”

“Ahhh.  That’s your plan.”

“Yeah.”

“You don’t expect me to help.”

“I expect you to try to survive the night,” I said.  “Correct me if I’m wrong, but what’s coming is pretty damn indiscriminate, isn’t it?”

“Nah,” she said.  She smiled at me.  “You’re pretty boned.”

I stared at her, long and hard.

I am a Thorburn, in one way or another.  I know deceit when I see it.

This wasn’t the first lie she’d told me.

“Evan,” I said.  “Go upstairs.  Unlock and open the door.  Talk to the others.  So long as Andy’s hurt, Eva’s mostly a non-threat.  She won’t leave him so long as I could go after him.”

She scowled at me.

“There’s no bomb on any of them.  See how they’re doing.  We have only a few minutes to prepare for sundown.”

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Malfeasance 11.10

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This goes against every instinct I have, I thought.

But what good was my argument, if I told the members of other families to take a different path, to step away from the status quo, if I didn’t do the same?

Roxanne, Callan, and Kathryn were pretty beaten up.  One of Kathryn’s eyes was so swollen she couldn’t open it.  Callan wasn’t moving at all, even in response to the voice.

Roxanne looked like she’d taken it hardest, which she had.  I could hear her hoarse breathing from a few feet away, and her right hand and wrist were black and purple with bruises, her upper lip was crusted with blood, and her ear was swollen enough to look like it belonged in a cartoon, puffy and overlarge.  She was more lively than Callan, though.

Ellie, Peter, and Christoff, by contrast, looked mostly okay.  Peter was slow to move, and had dark circles under his eyes that hadn’t been there an hour ago.  Christoff looked spooked.

Evan continued to pick the locks, one after the other.  I wished I could see more.  The footsteps I’d heard earlier suggested the witch hunters were upstairs, but there were no guarantees.

I strained my ears, to hear if there was trouble incoming.

“…I have a concussion,” Kathryn said, setting her head down on the hard ground.  “I’m hearing things.”

“You’re not imagining this,” I said.  “Which of you can move?”

“Who are you?” Ellie asked.

“If I had to come up with something serviceable,” I said, “I’d say I’m your cousin that was never born.”

“My head,” Kathryn groaned.

“Fuck this shit,” Ellie muttered.  I saw her move toward the hallway.

Careful!” I spoke.  In trying to convey intensity without actually screaming at her, I found my voice in a weird middle ground that I probably wouldn’t have reached if I were human.  Hollow, broken.

It served to stop Ellie in her tracks, though.

“What?” she asked.

“They rigged traps at the doors,” I said.  “Probably in other places.”

“I know,” she replied, her voice a whisper.  “I heard them, I saw the stuff.  I was looking to see if they’re around.  Which they aren’t.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Do not go running off.  Things are volatile, and not just in the bomb sense.  They have other tricks.”

“Like the flashbang,” Kathryn said, not lifting her head off the ground.  “Why am I talking to the voice in the bike mirror?”

“Bike mirror?” Ellie asked.  “I figured it was a small camera and microphone with a bit of video.  Shitty resolution.”

The sound of voices from upstairs made everyone stiffen.  Eva and Andy.

“Focus,” I said.  “Who’s capable of moving?”

“I am,” Ellie said.

Christoff nodded, “Me.”

“I can,” Roxanne mumbled.  She sounded like her mouth was full.  Her jaw was probably swelling.

Peter nodded, too, but he didn’t speak.  He was staring intently at me.

That made me nervous.

“Kathryn?”

“I feel dizzy.”

“Short distance?” I asked.

“Yeah.”

“Evan, hiding places?”

“Um.”

Ellie raised a hand.  “Sh.”

Footsteps.

“Cuffs back on,” I said, “Resume position.”

Peter was quick to obey.  Kathryn, however, resisted, starting to rise, then tilted and stopped.  The two kids were frozen.

“Shit,” Ellie whispered, but she hurried to the radiator, following her brother’s lead.

The kids obeyed, leaving only Kathryn.

She glanced down at me, then collapsed heavily onto her side.  She reached for the handcuff that was still partially attached to the radiator and missed it by a foot.

Ellie helped cuff her.

“The mirror,” I said.

Evan flew down, grabbed the mirror, then flew to the kitchen.  As the space between kitchen and the living room was fairly open, we had a good view.  Evan squeezed back into the space between the spray painted toaster and the row of tattered cookbooks, holding the mirror in one foot.

Ten seconds passed, and Eva passed by the cuffed Thorburns, heading to the front door.

“Hey,” Ellie called out.

Don’t be stupid, I thought.

“Please let me go?” Ellie asked, her voice a little rough, “Please?  My throat hurts.”

Eva stepped into the room.

“Please,” my cousin pleaded.  “I don’t care about these assholes.  Just please let me go?”

The witch hunter kicked her, hard, in the side.

“Please!” Ellie said, louder.

Eva kicked her again.

“I’m not a part of this!”

Another kick, sharp.  Roxanne shied back from Ellie and the kicking foot, wincing even though she wasn’t the one hit.

Eva spoke, “There’s a pattern here.  I’ll explain: you speak, you get kicked.”

Ellie shut her mouth.  She didn’t speak again.

The witch hunter used her toe to nudge each individual set of hand cuffs, shoving hands and feet around until the chains went taut.  Roxanne made a small noise when her badly bruised hand was moved.

“Be quiet,” Eva said.  “You don’t know when I’m coming back.  You’re not my concern here, you’re just in the way.  Stay put, be quiet, and you’ll never have to see or hear from us again.  Make yourself a concern, and we’ll remove you as a concern.”

She waited a moment, then strode out of the room.

“Fuck you,” Ellie said, and her voice was a complete change of tone from before.

She’d baited the kicks.  For some reason.

I didn’t presume to know how her warped mind operated.

Evan relocated us to our old position, against the wall, right of the radiator.  He nudged the mirror until he was sure it wouldn’t fall over.

“Good job, Evan,” I whispered.

“Of course,” he said, feigning arrogance.

“Who’s Evan?” Ellie asked.  She couldn’t hear him.  “Who names a fucking bird Evan?  So lame.”

“You’re lame!”

I ignored her, speaking calmly, my voice almost but not quite a whisper, “We need a good hiding spot for the others, or the witch hunters might take someone as a hostage.”

“Let them,” she said.  “I don’t give a shit about Kathy or Callan.”

“Fuck you,” Kathryn said

I refused to get caught up in the debate.  I hated this.  The stupidity.  I remembered it being a large part of my frustration, part of the reason I’d fled.

Rather than make ourselves collectively better, the family had a way of dragging the successful down.

I could remember thinking how I’d never be the person I wanted to be, so long as I stuck around.

“Check the bench underneath the front window,” I said.  “There’s a sort of hidden lid.”

Kathryn gave Roxanne a light push, and Roxanne moved to obey.

“Oh yeah!”  Evan said, taking flight.  He startled Roxanne, who froze in place.

“Carefully!” I told Evan, now that Roxanne had stopped.

Evan landed on the lid.  Where the front window jutted out a little, two windows set at diagonals, the middle window facing straight out, the window was built in a way that someone could sit inside it.  The resulting bench, also a lid, had cushions sitting on it.  Broken glass, too.

“Um, there’s something on the two windows,” Evan said, extending one wing, then the other.  Pointing.

“Get back,” I told him.  “Those would be explosives.  Unlock the cuffs again.”

Evan flew back to the others and began freeing them.

“That’s one smart bird,” Roxanne mumbled, peering over with one eye open, the other shut.  “It won’t peck us?”

“Not if you’re good,” Evan said.

“No,” I said, “he won’t bite.  If you’re good.”

“This doesn’t make sense,” Ellie said.  “Birds aren’t like that, and if you’re not using a camera-”

“Ellie,” Kathryn whispered, checking Callan’s pulse.  “Shut up.  You’re smarter than that.  Look at what Peter’s doing.  Copy him.”

“Peter?  He’s not doing anything.  He’s just sitting there.”

Emulate him,” Kathryn hissed, with an intensity that made me suspect she’d practiced it on a daily or weekly basis for a long time.  “Shut the fuck up and sit still.  Figure it out without asking stupid questions.  Our concern is those two kids who just thrashed us and started talking about bombs.”

Ellie glanced at Peter, who shrugged.

She scowled, but she didn’t say anything further.

“Getting you guys out of the house would be a start,” I said, “But it won’t fix anything.  They know who you are, you’re their mission.  If you leave the house and somehow avoid the traps they rigged at each door, they’ll probably come after you to remove the witnesses.  If you leave town, they’ll come after you, or they’ll reach out to someone else who’ll come after you.”

I watched their expressions, saw Ellie’s furtive glances to the hallway, and then to the kitchen, the direction of the back door.

“You don’t know me, but I know you,” I said.  “More than you might suspect.  I know, Ellie, that you’re wanting to slip away.  That you test limits, try to claim what you think you deserve, until it all goes wrong, and then you run.  I know, Peter, that your automatic assumption is that you’ll get away with it, whatever it is, and so far you’ve been damn lucky, and part of that is that you’re way smarter than most people think.”

Ellie glanced at Peter, who remained impassive.

How was he processing this?  I’d once likened Ty’s art to the sort of musician that picked up every instrument for a while, gaining a general knowledge, rather than specializing in any one thing.  Peter could be said to be the same, but with an emphasis on people.  He got how people worked, he found weaknesses, he preyed on them, and he coasted through life.  I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if I learned one day that he’d conned an old woman out of her retirement savings, or started a shady company, collected the money and disappeared.

But how did someone who understood people process a situation where he was missing a huge chunk of the puzzle?

He spooked me most of all, because I wasn’t sure how he’d act or react in the midst of whatever happened next.

“Kathryn,” I said.  “You’re a tyrant.  I wasn’t there, but I suspect you got to where you are by relentlessly applying pressure to everyone who got in your way or threatened to get in your way, crushing them under your heel.  Roxanne, I don’t think a lot of people outside the family truly get what you’re capable of.”

“Do you?” Roxanne asked.  Her one open eye was bloodshot.

“More than most,” I said.  “Listen, I’m not going to appeal to teamwork, or to your inner goodness, and I’m not going to try to be your friend.  I’m just going to say this.  If they win, if they get what they want?  You’ll never get your chance to sell the house and get the money you’ve been expecting for most of your lives.  You’ll probably die.”

None of them responded.

“I’ll get trouble for introducing myself to you,” I said.  “I know you aren’t the types to thank me for any of this.  But you were raised to be horrible people, and I was too, in a small way.  Right here, right now, you need to be your own particular sort of horrible to them.  If you’re willing to work together to do it, all the better.”

Still no responses.

Kathryn was woozy, and Ellie had been told to shut up, and was complying.  Roxanne, it seemed, wasn’t going to speak before anyone else did.  The brat, much as I’d suggested, was the sort to stay quiet and hang back until she saw an opportunity.  Taking the lead ran contrary to that.

Damn it.  They couldn’t even shut up and listen without being problematic.

“Mirror, mirror, on the wall,” Peter murmured.  “Who’s the fairest of them all?”

“He has mild hypothermia,” Kathryn said.  She reached for his hand.

He pulled it back.

“…A fever, probably, I’d know if he let me check his temperature,” she added.  “He’s not making any sense.”

“You’re a wizard, Pete,” he said.  “How does the line go?”

“Great,” Ellie said.  “It’s up to me and the kids.”

“Blue pill, red pill?  Tumbling, tumbling, down the rabbit hole, except instead of a grinning cat, it’s kids from film Tarantino,” Peter spoke, drawing out the ‘o’ of ‘hole’ and ‘Tarantino’.

His vision didn’t waver in the slightest, his eyes fixed on me.  His voice wasn’t slurred.

He knew.  He knew about the diagrams on the floor, he’d connected dots and pieced things together enough to know in generalities.

I spoke, ignoring him, “If you’re wanting-”

More voices from upstairs.  A sharp crack.

We fell silent, ears peeled.

I resumed speaking, a little faster, “-to do your own thing, go with Evan.  Let the bird point you to possible traps.  Downstairs should be safe, though I wouldn’t trust the window.  There’s a cellar, and tools.  Breaker box should be down there too.  Upstairs, it’s a gamble.  You might run into them.”

“And they’re armed,” Ellie said.  “Yeah, no.  Hiding in the cellar sounds good.”

“If you hide, they’ll probably find you,” I said.

“If I hide, I have a chance to find them first, while they’re looking for me,” Ellie said.  “Safest, smartest plan, far as I’m concerned.”

“Safest, smartest plan,” Peter said, looking up at his sister, sounding eerily lucid compared to his momentary wackiness a bit ago, “Would be to repurpose a bomb.  It’s not the movies, you can probably pull out wires until it stops working.”

“You want to fuck with a bomb?” Kathryn asked.  “Fuck me, and fuck you.”

“Ellie,” he said, extending a hand up to his sister, who was standing.

She didn’t take his hand.

“Help?” he asked, hand still extended.

“Not if you’re tampering with bombs,” she said.

“I’m looking,” he said, struggling to his feet without any help, using the arm of the couch.  He looked a little weak.

“Careful,” I said.

He wobbled, then looked down at me, before offering me a wan smile.  His eyes were sharp, pupils dilated to points.  He was focused.

Reminded me of me, a little, back when I’d been human and bled out.

He was suitably cautious as he found and peered at the bombs Evan had pointed out, his hands in his pockets as he very carefully maneuvered his head around.

“Damn,” he said.  “Nevermind.  Shit.”

“What?” Ellie asked.

“Not touching this shit.  There’s a fucking level on the top, with wires in both sides.  You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out how this works.  Too big a bump or tilt it, and boom.  Shit.  Would’ve been nice to move something to the staircase, bait them down…”

“Whatever,” Ellie said.  I’m sticking with my plan.”

She sprung to her feet, peeling off her shoes, and kicked then under the sofa.  She glanced up and down the hallway, at the staircase leading upstairs.  “Where’s the basement?”

“Cellar,” I said.  “Door beside the hall closet.”

She disappeared around the corner, nearly silent.

She reappeared.  “Tripwire, top of the stairs.  Just so you know.  Almost got me.”

Then she disappeared again.

There was a moment’s pause.

“Who are those kids?” Kathryn asked.  “Bombs?  Tripwires?  They’re good.”

“Hit men,” Roxanne mumbled, her head hanging as she shuffled around to a sitting position, one eye on the hallway.  “I think I want to be them.  Then I want to find them, and pay them back.”

“Focus,” I said.  “We don’t have time.”

“I’m not hiding beneath those bombs,” Kathryn said.  “Can’t leave through the door, right?”

“Claymore or something at the back door.  I suspect there’s something at the front,” I explained.

“Can we detonate it on purpose, from a distance?” Peter asked.  “It’d bring the locals running.”

“I’m not so sure,” I said.

He smiled a little, a knowing smile.

“You’re the boss,” he said.

I looked around.

Callan, Kathryn, Peter, Roxanne, and mute Christoff.

“Move Callan, help Kathryn to a hiding spot.  If you or the kids can figure out places to lay traps while you’re at it, great.”

“And you?” Peter asked, arching an eybrow.

There wasn’t anything I could say without cluing him in further.

A part of me felt like Kathryn, Ellie and the kids were at the point where they could maybe explain away what had happened to date.  Kathryn was sharper, but maybe less willing to let go of her grip on the real world.  Ellie wasn’t as sharp, not in this respect.  The kids were kids.

But Peter…

Fuck.

“There’s a reason they spray painted and broke the mirrors and pictures in the house,” I said.  “If you can find anything that’s been put on the ground or covered, prop it up, that helps.”

“Uh huh.  Just like the movies?  The eyes in the pictures move to follow you.  The house is rigged,” he said, smiling.

“You’re on the right track, ish,” I said.

“I don’t follow,” Kathryn said, quiet, “But moving sounds like a great idea.”

They decided on the simplest plan, in the end.  Callan and Kathryn were the biggest liabilities.  Peter and the two kids helped support Kathryn to the front hallway, helping her to the stairs.  Peter backed off, presumably letting Kathryn use the railing while the two younger children helped.

Just an unconscious Callan and Peter, now.

“So?” Peter asked me.

“So what?” I asked, in response.

He moved the couch cushions, then moved the coffee table back.  “So… how does this work?  What are the rules?”

“The less you know, the better,” I said.

“For who?” he asked.  “Way I see it, the more I know, the more I can help.  It’s not just the windows and mirrors here.  At the cafe, when that girl with the scarf picked a fight with Ellie?  That was odd, and I didn’t get the feeling it had anything to do with the people who goaded us to come here.  You wanted a look at the contract, somehow.  It’s how Rose knew we’d be coming for her.”

“Not quite right,” I said.

“But I’m close?” he whispered.

He leaned over Callan, and slapped Callan, hard.  He flicked one finger at Callan’s closed eyelid.

Callan moaned, but didn’t wake up.

“You’re close,” I said.  “What are you doing?”

“Hiding Callan,” he said.  He reached into the couch and unfolded a cot that was built into the bottom portion.  “I’m a little too weak to pull it off myself.”

He picked up the poker Callan had dropped and sat down on the edge of the bed.  “That bird isn’t an ordinary bird.  It’s not a trained bird.  And I have a really hard time believing a guy who would somehow get his hands on a lockpicking, bomb-detecting bird would call it something as dumb as Evan.

“Evan is the best name.”

“That’s not important,” I said.

“Which brings me…” he trailed off, half-rising to his feet, tense.  Footsteps.

Roxanne and Christoff.

“Lift him,” Peter said, grabbing one of Callan’s arms.

Roxanne had only one hand available, leaving Christoff to deal with the bulk of the weight.  They raised Callan up until he was half-sitting, half-lying on the bad.  Springs as old as I was creaked and popped with the sudden weight.

We all went still.

Whatever the witch hunters were doing upstairs, they didn’t hear.  Chances were good they were on the third floor.

Peter dragged Callan’s feet around until Callan was lying down, head by one of the arms of the couch, feet by the other.  Arranging Callan’s arms and legs so he fit on the mattress without anything dangling, he folded the couch back up, with Callan inside.  Metal and springs protested loudly.

“Cal won’t be able to breathe,” Christoff spoke.

“As fun as rolling him down the stairs to the cellar would be,” Peter said, “It would be loud.  And leaving him in the open gets him cut or shot.”

Christoff didn’t look happy.

Peter looked my way.  “The bird isn’t important.  What is?  I asked you what the rules were, here.  What can you share?”

Peter was a people person.  I thought about that.

“Andy is the trap and bomb guy.”

“Noticed.”

“Eva the fighter.  They’re working for the people who run things behind the scenes.  Eva’s a little bit crazy, a loose cannon.  Andy reels her in.”

“The bitch,” Roxanne muttered.  “I need a better knife.”

She held up the letter opener.  It looked old fashioned.  Pretty clearly one of grandmother’s things.  Probably snatched from a nearby surface.

I thought of Ellie’s bag.

No, too awkward to get, especially when I didn’t have access to upstairs.

“If-” I started.  I paused, frowning, thinking in more depth.

“Think fast,” Peter said.

“I need access to the rest of the house.  The others are in, kind of a makeshift panic room.  If Andy and Eva are still up there, that means they probably don’t have access.  They’re upping the pressure, or guarding things.  In maybe about an hour, things get really ugly.”

Peter nodded slowly.  Roxanne, still keeping one eye closed, frowned, but she looked at Peter and decided to take his lead.

“Ugly in the sense of…” Peter started.

“If I don’t have access to my friends upstairs, it’s probably over,” I said.  “That’s all those two are doing up there.  Just before the clock hits five or so, they’ll probably pack up and leave.  Because those two pale in comparison to what’s coming.”

“The machete wielder who stomps on a twelve year old and the kid with the bombs are pale?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“I’ll take your word for it.  We have a time limit then?”

“Yes.”

Peter approached me.  Evan ruffled his feathers and opened his beak, but Peter ignored him, picking up the mirror.

“Careful,” I said.

“You’re not heavy.  I’m not going to drop it.”

“I’m not that worried about you breaking it.  Point it at the ground more than the ceiling, and hold it steady.”

He did.

“Roxanne, Christoff, go look for picture frames and mirrors.  Stay on the ground floor, be ready to run or hide.  Move slowly and carefully.”

“Evan,” I said, “go with.”

The other three left, nearly silent.  I could see how Roxanne held her one arm off to one side, trying not to swing it around.

“You’re really not going to share the real dirt?” Peter asked.  “Because you, right here, not technology.  If you could somehow bestow some of that on me?  It’d help.”

He smiled wide.  It was more genuine emotion than I’d seen from him… ever.

“It’s not technology,” I said.  “I can’t give you it.  Those guys up there?  They’re witch hunters.  You’re almost stronger against them like you are, than with anything I could bestow.”

He nodded slowly.  “Right now, I’m thinking I could run.  I could probably defuse the bomb on the plywood, even if I couldn’t re-arm it.  I’ve got this poker.  If there was a commotion, I could probably get the nails out, slip outside.”

“They’d be able to find you,” I said.

“Maybe.”

“They have ways,” I said.

Maybe,” he said.  “It doesn’t matter.  All I need from you is a promise.  Because I feel like this is what I’ve been waiting for for half my life.”

I bit my lip, looking away.

Further away, I saw a patch of light open up.

“Lie to me,” he said.  “Tell me you’ll do it, break the promise later.”

“Why would it matter if I was lying?” I asked.

He remained silent.

Time was too short.

“I’ll tell you more later, but it takes time, on a lot of levels.”

“Uh huh,” he said.  “That works.”

“What works?” I asked.

“The way you phrased it, and I’m pretty good at reading people.  That sounded genuine.  Which tells me a lot.  I don’t know if you’re telling the truth or not, but I believe you when you say it takes time.  And that tells me a lot more.  Time… is really important, in a lot of ways.”

“Sure,” I said, impatient.  The way he was acting, he’d ask questions until Eva decided to make another trip to check on the prisoners.

“The fastest route to victory,” he said.  “Taking out those two?”

“They’ll beat you in a fight, and whatever you’re thinking about, they’ve probably run into it before, and they handled it before.  They’ve been doing this for a while, against people far more hardcore than you.”

“What, then?  Time is of the essence, how do we win?”

“Get the bird and the mirror into the hallway, with the witch hunters elsewhere.”

“Hm.  Hard to do without-”

Heavy footsteps upstairs, getting louder as they approached the staircase.  They stopped, then resumed again, getting quieter.

Another patch of light appeared.  The bathroom in the hallway.  Fuzzy, oddly distant, like any patch that wasn’t continguous to a patch I was in could be.

With a number of fits and starts, the light reoriented, and extended.  The angle had changed to have more coverage, the little picture frame pointing out into the hallway.

Maybe it was Evan doing his part.

“Hard to do without a distraction, and if they find any of us, they have a hostage.”

“Just need more windows or mirrors,” I said.  “Reflective surfaces.”

“Uh huh.  Which does what?”

Roxanne appeared, Christoff following, Evan perched on Christoff’s head.

“Need knives,” she said.

“Not objecting,” Peter replied.

When Roxanne was gone, he commented, “Man, dad wasted Roxy, using her like he did.  Jessica’s fault, probably.  All that time spent doing stupid shit?  Horseback riding and dance classes and music?”

“I don’t follow,” I said.

Roxanne passed beneath me, carrying a cleaver and a dusty bottle of olive oil.

“Oil?” Peter murmured.

“Basement stairs,” she said.  She disappeared from view.

Such a waste,” Peter commented, more to himself than me.

Christoff, delayed, headed in Roxanne’s direction, holding one knife in both hands, pointed at the ground as if it were ten times as heavy as it really was.

“Her!” he said, too loud.

Eva.

Peter moved immediately, back pressed against the wall by the door, poker in one hand.

“Andy!” Eva called up.  “They escaped!”

I didn’t catch his response.

I could hear her footsteps.  I relocated myself to the bathroom.

I had the Hyena.  I just didn’t have the opportunity to use it.  If I could get her close to a reflection…

She stalked forward.

She easily sidestepped the thrown bottle of olive oil.  Glass crashed against the floor at the base of the steps that led upstairs.

A patch of light opened up.  The glossy olive oil reflected.

A door slammed.

There was a pause, and then she headed back the direction she’d come.  Where her footsteps had been audible earlier, they were virtually silent now, heel-toe.

She’d accepted that the kids had disappeared downstairs, or that they were cowering at the end of the hall.  Her focus was on the living room and kitchen.

I heard flapping wings.

“Ahhh,” she said.  “The bird?  Oh, that’s messy.  That raises questions, Thorburn!”

Talking to me.

I moved to Peter’s mirror.  Evan was working his way into the spot between the bookshelves and the ceiling.  From Eva’s lack of reaction or response, she hadn’t seen it.

“Andy!” she called out.

“I’m standing watch!” he responded.  “How bad?”

“They’re hiding!”

“Let them hide!  Forty minutes!  Keep the plan simple!”

“Fuck that,” she said, no longer shouting.

I relocated, switching between mirrors.  I saw her head for the living room.  Peter was in the corner, hallway to his left, kitchen to his right.

“She’s coming from the left,” I whispered.

Peter moved, hugging the wall as he moved to the kitchen.

“Andy!” Eva called out, not three feet from us, going by volume.  “Throw me one of the fanny packs!”

“Which one?”

“Obviously not the one that’s going to set the house on fire!”

Peter started to edge left.

“Watch your step,” Eva said.

“Catch,” Andy offered.

I heard a slight clink as she caught what he’d thrown.

“Cover your ears,” he said.  “Even with the closed door and all, it can do permanent damage.”

“I’m not using the flashbang.  They’re in the basement.  All of them, I think, holed up like rats.  The bird guided them.”

“If not the flashbang… the tear gas?” he asked.  “Come on, Eva.”

“It’ll be hilarious.  We need them out of our hair, anyway.”

“Keep it simple, Eva,” he said, sounding more tolerant than anything.

“If you’d let me break their arms, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”

“I’ll be upstairs.  Come up soon, I don’t like being unable to watch both doors at once.”

“Sitting and waiting is boring.”

“It’s smart.  Don’t take too long.”

“Whatever.  Watch for the bird.  It’s around.  The mirror dweller too, probably.”

“Right.”

I moved to the bathroom, and had a glimpe of Eva holding a bulky fanny pack in one hand, a canister of some sort in the other.  She was heading to the basement door.

“Get ready,” I whispered.  “When she’s focused on the basement, you can head upstairs.”

“Hold on, I don’t move that fast,” Peter told me.  “I need a better distraction.  If I leave you here, you can-”

He was already reaching to put the mirror down.

Don’t,” I whispered, annoyed.  “There’s a mirror in the other room.  I can use that.  Keep this mirror with you.”

The door slammed, and Peter moved straight back to his prior spot, back to the wall, partially sheltered by the open kitchen door.  Eva moved something that scraped against the floor, somewhere in the living room.

The coffee table.  Trapping the door shut, no doubt.

Our window of opportunity was gone.

What was Peter doing?

Clever as he was, he wasn’t moving that fast, and he wasn’t, it seemed, used to a conflict, where timing might matter a great deal.

He didn’t trust me.

Which put us back at square one.  Eva on the ground floor, Andy upstairs, Evan too far away to reach out to.

I moved between the three available reflections, trying to find the right vector or angle to mount an attack.  Back door, useless.  Bathroom, only showed me the bathroom and a bit of the hallway.  The mirror Peter held showed me the kitchen.

I could hear Eva walking, humming merrily.

The pool of olive oil…

I relocated myself to that part of the hallway.  My surroundings were vague, dark, my footing uneven in a way that wasn’t just a floor slick with oil.  My side of things was dry, in fact.

When I looked down, I could see the real hallway.

Much like the ice had been.

“When she goes back upstairs,” I whispered.  “I’ll stop her.  I’ll shout to you, you attack.”

“Sure,” he said.

A full minute passed, and Eva didn’t head upstairs.  Twice, I had to whisper to Peter to tell him to relocate back to the living room, then back to the kitchen.  Eva was pacing, hanging around the door she’d blockaded.

I could distantly hear the Thorburns’ reactions.

Then Eva approached.

I moved to the pool of olive oil and broken glass, kneeling.

She passed above me, my hand reached out of the pool, Hyena extended, slashing at the bottom of her foot.

A weird angle to attack from, and she was fast, adroit.  She hopped from one side of the pool to the second stair.  Too high for me to even reach.

Peter, not waiting for my signal, had stepped into the doorway.  He saw the extended arm and sword.

Eva, in turn, saw him, alongside both the arm and the sword.

“Bastard!” she shouted.  She threw the fanny pack at my hand.

My footing was already disappearing.  The solid mass of the fanny pack disrupted the pool, breaking up the olive oil and making it less of a cohesive reflection.

I found myself in the bathroom.  Eva hopped over the pool, landing right in front of me.  Living room to our left, kitchen with Peter inside to our right.

She started moving right.

“Go left!” I shouted.

She stopped.

“Stop!”

“You motherfucker,” she said, turning my way.

“Run!  Back hall!”

She kicked the picture, almost an absent gesture, as she spun on her heels.

Peter hadn’t run.  I found myself in the mirror he held.

I’d known he was tired.  More than that, I’d known that he wouldn’t listen.

He stepped from the living room to the kitchen.

Run,” I whispered.  He had only seconds.

He turned on the taps at the sink, full blast.  Then leaned back, and kicked the tap.

“Fucker,” I heard Eva.

Ducking under the sink, he grabbed the fire extinguisher.  He pulled the pin, and then sprayed it in the direction of the hallway.

When he was done there, he directed it at the sink.

The mirror was covered, I was shunted somewhere behind Eva.

A minute passed.  I heard her cursing, holding her shirt to her mouth.

Slowly, patches of light began to appear on the stairs.

Pools of some liquid or another.

The sink, too, started to overflow.  Clogged.  Another reflection appeared and slowly expanded, creeping along the floor.

I smiled, feeling a kind of relief.  That brilliant asshole.

He was flooding the house.

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