Category Archives:  Arc 12 (Duress)

Histories (Arc 12)

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“I don’t think you’ll be surprised by anything here.  If you’ve been paying attention in class and doing your homework, you won’t have a problem here.”

Alister took the sheet, placing it face down on his desk.

“This is knowledge you’re going to need for just about everything you learn from here on out.  If you don’t know this by the time you’re in high school, you’re going to fall behind.”

When the teacher had progressed far enough down the aisle, Alister reached into a pocket.

The pocketwatch was old, chipped, and the clasp sometimes took a few tries to work.  Some of the damage was his fault.

In the corner of his eye, he could see his cousin.  Ainsley was moving her hand, trying to get his attention.  This, in turn, got the interest of a few more of their classmates.

No,” she hissed.

Now people were staring at him.  Lola Duchamp was among them, craning her neck from her spot at the very front of the classroom.  Attention made the next part harder, which was probably intentional on Ainsley’s part.

She was such a pain.

He turned his head, glaring at her.  Her hair was in braids, which didn’t suit her, and she wore glasses that he knew she hated.  She wore a shirt with a frilly collar underneath overalls, and he knew she hated the clothes too.

Sad thing was, he thought, Behaim girls didn’t tend to age well.  They were healthy, but healthy was not a label most girls liked to have stuck on them.  Ainsley would be one of those most.

Going by their older cousins, she’d be pretty as a teen, and then she’d get… blocky.  But the sad fact was, she was stuck with her parents while she was a teen, and her parents were dead set on making her a dork.

Tragic.

The two of them were as different as night and day.  If it weren’t for their last names, nobody would even guess they were cousins.  Much less that they were even friends.

Ah, Ainsley.  You always play by the rulesWe’d all be happier if you didn’t.

He span the pocketwatch like it was a top.  It wasn’t, however, and it rattled as it turned onto one side, metal clicking against the cheap plastic cover of the school desk.

He stopped it with his hand.  It clacked, hard, against the surface of the desk.

“Alister,” the teacher said, stopping midway through his process of handing out the quiz papers.  “Do I need to confiscate whatever toy you’re playing with?”

“I don’t think so,” Alister said.

“I hope you’re right.  No more noise, please.”

Alister grinned.

The moment the teacher’s back was turned, he pressed the button at the top of the pocketwatch.  The door came away, revealing the face and hands below.  The only peculiarity was the existence of two hour hands and two minute hands.  One set in black, one set in red.

It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t well made.  But it kept time.

In more way than one.

Alister turned the dial that encircled the button at the top of the watch.  The red hands moved.

One hour and fifteen minutes.

Ainsley made a firm gesture, glaring at him, but was forced to relent as her classmates got distracted, and the teacher reached the last desk, handing the last test paper to Lola Duchamp.

“Eyes forward, please,” the teacher spoke.

Lola reluctantly looked away from Alister to turn her attention to the paper.  Ainsley, too, focused on her test paper, though Alister could see her watching him out of the corner of one eye.  When their eyes met, she sighed visibly, and raised her hand to block her vision of him.

Deliberately looking away.

“And… start.

Alister hit the button on the top.  Simple mechanics made the clasp that held the lid of the pocket watch open move, but the lid was already open.  The bent section of wire shifted position, and completed a diagram.

The diagram, in turn, housed a lesser zeitgeist, the smallest form of time spirit that could be tracked and bound.

The hour and minute hands moved, an almost instantaneous shift to where the red hands were.

“…translate between fractions, percents, and decimals,” the teacher was saying.

The test papers were gone.  His books were open, and his own handwriting was in the notebook.  The last section had a list of homework questions.

“And finally, let’s do five questions from section B.  We’ve got some equations to solve, with percents in there.  This is not hard.  Let’s see… questions one, three, seven, and twelve.”

Alister marked down the questions.

Class ran for a few more minutes before the bell rang.

He dragged out the process of packing up his bag, hoping that it would give Ainsley an excuse to leave.  Putting books away, pens, papers.  He glanced back at the pages to see what he’d missed.  He hadn’t actually disappeared, only giving up his perception of time.

But time was relative, and understanding that meant one understood a lot of the Chronomancy stuff.

He watched Molly Walker exit the classroom.  She glanced at him, then glanced away.  Lola Duchamp stepped back to get out of Molly’s way, though Molly wasn’t walking that fast.

Lola had a bit of a hard look in her eye, as she watched the Walker girl disappear down the hall.

Lola understood.  Most of the family did.  Molly was a Thorburn, whatever her last name, and the Thorburns were dangerous.  Instinctively, Lola had cleared out of Molly’s way.

What did Molly make of it?  Did she catch the look Lola had given her?  Or was it something that she only caught once or twice a day?  A cumulative pressure?

He realized he was still staring at the door… and Ainsley was waiting at the door.  He couldn’t be too obvious that he was stalling for time.

“Dick,” he said.

“Hm?” A classmate asked.

“What’d you think?  The test?”

Dick made a so-so gesture with his hand.  “You?”

“I feel pretty good about it,” Alister said.

“Nerd.  You’ve been wrong before.  You’ve been hilariously wrong.”

Alister smiled and shrugged.

He caught a glimpse of Ainsley, who was standing by the classroom door, arms folded.

Ugh.

“Want to come over this afternoon?” Dick asked.

“Can’t.  Got a thing.”

“You have lots of ‘things’ these days.  I was talking to Tom about it.  He thinks there’s something you’re doing and you’re too chicken to say.”

“Oh?  Really?” Alister asked.  “What sort of thing would I be chicken about?”

He was joking around and saying it was something gay like ballet or cheerleading.”

Alister’s smile was cold and humorless.  It clearly made Dick uncomfortable.  “What do you think?”

“I dunno,” Dick said.  “We were just joking around.”

“So you did have a guess?”

“Nah,” Dick lied, shrugging.

Doesn’t sound like Tom.  

“I wonder where he got that idea in his head,” Alister said, his eyes tracking Lola as she headed across the front of the room, glancing briefly at him as she passed through the door.

Wouldn’t be the first time.  Lola had awakened a full year younger than he had.  It didn’t sound like much, but she had twice the experience with all this that he did.

“Dunno,” Dick said.  “I gotta go get my lunch from my locker, and I’m gonna get something from the vending machine, want to come with?”

Alister measured the intensity of Ainsley’s glare, trying to judge her mood.

No, she was too annoyed to mess with.  He couldn’t stick with Dick and dodge her.

“I might meet up with you later.  Ainsley’s pissed at me, I think.”

“Why?”

Alister drew the pocket watch out of his pocket, showing it to Dick.

“You steal that from your dad or something?”

“Something,” Alister said.  He clasped a hand on Dick’s shoulder, then broke away, the two of them going in different directions.

Ainsley fell in step beside him.

She’s going to nag me, Alister thought, suppressing an out-loud groan in favor of a mental one.

“What are you doing?” Ainsley nagged him, the moment they were out of earshot of anyone.

“I’m going to go get lunch.”

“With the timekeep,” she said.

“What do you think?”

“I think you’re gaming the system.”

“Of course I’m gaming the system,” he said.

“Skipping class?”

“I’m not- I’m… I guess I’m skipping class.  Literally.  But-”

“But your parents and my parents and our aunts and our uncles and our grandparents have all gone over the rules, talking about the risks and the dangers.  Time isn’t something you mess with.”

“It’s made to be messed with,” Alister said.

“We’ve only been practicing for the last year.”

“It’s fine.”

“It’s not fine.  You’re going to get hurt, or you’re going to get in trouble.”

“I’m not going to get in trouble if you don’t tell.”

“You’re going to get hurt, you jackass.”

“Keep saying it,” he replied, annoyed, “and you’ll probably make it true.”

“How many times do I have to say it before I get it through your thick skull?  You can’t be reckless about this.”

“Can too,” he said.

“Can’t.”

“Can,” he said, “and will.”

She punched him hard in the arm.

“Geez!”

“Watch what you’re saying,” she said.

“I am.  Look at this.  Where are we?”

“School?”

“A training ground,” he said.  “Lola’s messing with me, I think.”

“You think.

“Feels that way.  Thread-wise.  Planting seeds.”

Magic seeds?  There are rules.”

“Rules, rules, rules.  You think Lola’s playing by the rules?  Do you think our parents are?”

“That’s not what I’m saying.”

“Say it clearer then,” he retorted.

Ainsley spoke through grit teeth, “You can break rules, but only after you’ve learned them.”

“I’m a fast learner.”

“Yeah?  That’s why you’re skipping classes?  How much are you putting in the bank there, Alister?  Because I’m pretty sure we’re only required to fill one timekeeper a month.  I’m almost positive they keep track of this stuff.”

She had her own pocketwatch in her hand.  Hers had a proper chain, and wasn’t quite as beat up.

“They do,” he said.  “But Old Will keeps the books over at his place, and Timothy has the log in the library.  They don’t really communicate that much.”

“They don’t- what are you doing, Alister?  We avoid giving up too much time.  Every single Behaim in the family gives up only what they have to, and you’re… what?  Giving up twice as much time?”

He didn’t respond.

“…More than twice as much time?”

“Old Will is, well, old, for all intents and purposes.  So if I give up as much as the other adults, he doesn’t notice.”

“A device every week?  Plus the one you’re giving Tim?  Five times what you’re supposed to be giving up?”

More than five times, he thought, but he didn’t volunteer that.  Tim accepted more if he gave more.

Why?” Ainsley asked.

“If I said, it might be a problem,” he said.

“Oh, it might?  It’s already a problem.  You’re wasting your time.  It can’t be as simple as you wanting to skip school.”

“I’m doing what I want to do with my time,” he said.  “It’s none of your business.”

“Alister,” Ainsley said, grabbing his wrist before he could walk away.  “That’s can’t be it.  Tell me why.”

“Tell me why,” Laird said.

Alister seethed.  Ainsley stood a bit behind Laird, and their moms and dads.  She looked a little spooked.

“I don’t think Ainsley was lying,” Laird said, “I don’t think you were lying when you told her what you did.  There’s a chance you were manipulated into doing this.  Motivation matters.”

“I wasn’t manipulated.”

“You can’t make that judgement call yourself.  Poisoning the well would be a key play for the Duchamps.  Poisoning you and compelling you to feed that poison into the supply could destroy the family.”

“That’s not it,” Alister said.

“No,” Laird replied, “Probably not.”

Laird had this calm, assured manner of speaking, as if nothing could faze him.  When he said something, it was hard to argue against it.  Some of it was leadership, maybe, but some was just Laird’s natural way.  Alister wondered if his uncle could talk a bad guy into a confession, just laying out the facts, and getting the guy to agree, until the guy was spilling his guts.

Uncle Laird continued, “We haven’t detected anything.  But until you give us answers, we may have to take countermeasures.  No more lessons, no more practicing, no access to the well, to give or take.”

“That’s not-“

“-Fair?”  Laird finished.  “Nothing is fair.”

It took a moment for the words to sink in.  Alister was dimly aware of the adults exchanging looks of surprise.

Dangerous words, for a man that couldn’t lie.

“Nothing is fair,” Laird repeated himself, his words filling the silence.

Alister swallowed hard.

Uncle Laird was a hard man to face down.  Especially when he was all serious like this.

“What were you doing?”  Laird asked, his voice serious.  “Missing school-”

“My grades are good!”  Alister blurted.  He could see how irritated his parents were.  His dad was pursing his lips, like he could barely restrain himself from shouting.

But right here, right now, they were deferring to Uncle Laird.

“School is about more than grades.”

“It is, which is why I’m doing this.  I want to be a good practitioner.”

“You need to know how to study if you’re ever going to get a grasp on chronomancy.”

“I am,” Alister said, feeling more in control.  “I’m studying harder than anyone.  But I don’t want to ever have a desk job.  I want to be a full time chronomancer.  Hours upon hours of time in class is… it’s not what I want.”

“The quality of time you put into the timekeeper is important,” Laird said.

“Weren’t you just saying school was important?”

Alister’s father cut in, “Don’t be a smart alec.”

“I’m not trying to.  I’m…”

There was a pause.

“What?” Laird asked.

“I’m… trying to be smart.  That’s all.”

Laird leaned back in his seat.  “So you think time spent in school is the best time for you to give up?”

Alister sensed a trap, but nodded all the same.

“Speak,” Laird said.  “I want to know you’re not lying.”

“I do think so.  Sir.”

“It would be one thing if you did it to put in the minimum, but Ainsley said you put in several times that.  I checked with Old Will and Tim.  There are logs.”

Ugh.

Laird spoke softly, “You had to know you’d get caught.”

“Yes, sir.”

“We check the books-”

“-Every year,” Alister finished.

“Yes.  You’re aware, then.”

“I thought I’d be able to do it for another four months or so.”

“You picked the time you started this… operation, and you did it very deliberately, it seems.  You knew when you’d finish.  Putting nearly thirty hours a week into the well.  Almost fifteen hundred hours, by the year’s end.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m going to need you to tell me why.”

Alister glanced –glared– at his cousin.

“Please leave us alone,” Laird said.

“But-” Ainsley said.

“Please,” Laird spoke.

All of the others began to leave.

Alister met his cousin’s eyes.

“Narc,” he said, under his breath.

“Stop, Ainsley,” Laird said.

Ainsley stopped in her tracks.

“Your family member, your cousin, just did what she did out of genuine worry for your well being.  For the family’s sake, because she feared something very similar to the poisoning of the well I described earlier.”

Alister shrugged.  “Sure.”

“I refuse to let you hold a grudge against her.  Forgive her.”

“I… what?”

Laird looked imposing.  Where Alister and Ainsley were still growing, taller than their peers, but not yet as big as their grown family members, Laird was tall and wide and sturdily built.  Heavy eyebrows made his glare all the more ominous.

“Forgive your cousin.”

“But I can’t lie, and I don’t forgive her.”

“You’re going to try.  Promise,” Laird ordered, “to try.”

“Alister,” Laird said, “What you’ve been doing, I don’t think you’d keep it secret from family unless it potentially hurt members of this family.  If you can’t forgive your cousin for acting in your best interests, I can’t trust you to be a part of the Behaim circle.”

Meaning being forbidden from practicing.  Or worse.

Alister swallowed.

Ainsley was taller than him, her shoulders broader.  She looked so silly, dressed up like a kid from ten or fifteen years ago.  Overalls.

But… she’d always had his back, before.

Most of the cousins had.  Ainsley was just closest to him in age.

“I’ll try to look past this,” he said.  “I don’t want this to end our friendship.”

Ainsley nodded, stiff. “Me either.”

“Go,” Laird said.  “I’d like to have a word in private with Alister.  I don’t think he’ll share if others are listening.”

Ainsley and the assorted adults left.

Laird stood, crossed his living room to the kitchen, and grabbed a beer.  He checked the time, prompting Alister to look and see for himself.

“Five,” Laird said.  “Good enough.  Now talk, because if you don’t, I’m going to assume the worst.”

“Control,” Alister said.

“Control?”

“Of… the well.  Kind of.  I’m thinking, for all the generations before, you couldn’t get to be head of the family or member of the council without being here.  Without paying your fair share.  The guys in Ottawa and Montreal and Toronto, they don’t really have a shot at being head of the family, right?  I don’t think it’s ever happened.”

Laird arched an eyebrow.  “You want to supplant me?”

“No,” Alister said, dead serious.  “I want to be next in line.”

Laird sat down, bottle of beer in hand.  He took a drink, then leaned back once more.  “What makes you think this works?”

“It makes sense.  Some people don’t pay in as much.  But… you pay in more, and you’re in charge of the family.  I’m pretty sure Aimon paid a fair bit of time into the well, before you.”

“He did, but we didn’t do it for the reasons you did.  We did it for the family.”

“I know.  But I can do it for the family and I can do it for my own goals too.  Even if it doesn’t work, if I give up a piece of myself, something has to fill the gap, right?  Time is fundamental.  Take some away, and it deals collateral damage.  I’m not sure, but I think people around me lose time too.  If I’m doing it in school, where I’m surrounded by other practitioners, and borrow a bit of power, a bit of spirit from everything around me.”

“Including Ainsley, and your other cousins.”

“What I take from them, I can give back,” Alister said.  More serious, he said, “If I become great, I will give back.  I believe that.  But I’m also taking from the Duchamps.  I can see it.  Chipping away at them.  I become a little more Other, giving something as precious as time away, and they… have to adjust.  They’re adjusting because of me, and that gives me a certain kind of power, doesn’t it?”

“You imagine that you’re influencing things in a subtle way, doing what you’re doing.  Incremental advantages for you, disadvantages for your enemies.”

“Yes.”

“You’re probably right,” Laird said.  “You’re sacrificing your childhood for something else.  Investing more.”

Alister didn’t dare respond.  Everything hinged on this.

“You think the invested time will favor you because you’ve given more of yourself to it.”

“Yes.”

“Pretty cocky, for a boy who isn’t even in high school yet.”

“I’m smart,” Alister said.  “I’m good.  Better than Ainsley or Owen or Gavin.  And Owen and Gavin-”

“Are older,” Laird said.

“Yeah.”

“Yes.  They aren’t half as good as you.  It seems the cards don’t lie.”

“Cards?”

Laird turned around in his chair, and reached to the shelf.  Boxes were lined up.

He seemed to decide, then picked one.  He picked a book from the far end of the same shelf.  Both box and book were placed on the coffee table between them.

Alister opened the box, lifting off the lid.  Cards were stacked within.

“Keep those.  You’re going to want to study the subject material, and study it fast.  Given what you’ve talked about, I think it’ll be a natural fit.”

“Divination?”

“Your future was read a long time ago.  Decisions were made.”

“Decisions?”

“To arrange a different binding for you, alongside your awakening.  So you wouldn’t be constrained in the same ways.”

“I don’t remember anything like that.”

“We were subtle,” Laird said.  “Just as Aimon was more subtle with me, just in case things didn’t work out.  We decided you had potential, and paved the way.  We didn’t, however, expect you to be quite as quick as you were to start being inventive.”

“I’m not sure I get it.”

“Things are moving towards a crisis point,” Laird said.  “The question of who leads the Behaim family is secondary to the question of who leads Jacob’s Bell.  We’re anticipating conflict, Aimon anticipated conflict, and we can’t have every member of the family fettered by rules.  A select few have been vetted, cleared to tap into the well and use that power as they see fit.  I was one, you’re another.”

Alister’s eyes went wider.

“I expected to wait another few years for you to get your bearings, but seeing as you’re already walking the path, we might as well get underway.”

Laird stood, setting the bottle on the short table by the chair.  “Come.”

All this time, he’d thought he was walking his own path, and now… Alister shook his head.  “What’s going on?  Where are we going?”

“I know you have a lot of questions, but try to save them.  You’ll have most of the answers soon enough, and you might find yourself wishing you hadn’t wasted all your questions on the simpler things.”

“I have limited questions?”

“You’re proud, Alister, and a proud person can only ask so many questions before they exhaust that pride.  We’re very different people, but I think we’re similar in that.”

Alister nodded.

They passed Ainsley and the assorted adults, heading outside.

“What’s going on?” Ainsley asked, a concerned look on her face.

Well, if he got in trouble, she’d be at fault.

“Private lessons,” Laird said.  “We’re stepping up his training.”

“He’s getting rewarded?” Alister’s father asked.

Laird didn’t answer, except to say, “He’ll be back home by dinner, Jonathan.”

Alister hurried into the car, before his parents could tear into him.

Ainsley was staring at him.

He shut the car door, and pulled on the seatbelt, but Laird was already pulling out.

A proud person could ask only so many questions.  It made sense.

He had to pick the questions carefully, so the asking elevated.

Alister picked his question carefully.  “You keep saying we.  But I don’t think you’re talking about the family.”

“Not the Behaim circle, no.”

“Who’s we, then?”

Rose was intimidating, considering she was thin and old.  Her clothes looked fragile too, starched, or lacey, or just old, though certainly not worn or threadbare.  They were a statement.  She was just a bit aristocratic.

There were words she could say that would overturn Alister’s entire world.  If she had something summoned, a simple snap of her fingers…

Laird stood on the far side of the living room.  It put Alister right in the old woman’s sights.

For the better part of his life, Alister had been told that you didn’t speak to the Thorburn diabolist, you didn’t look at her, you didn’t even think about messing with her or anything of hers.

Even Molly, Christoff, or Callan Walker were supposed to be off limits.  Some did mess with them, especially the younger kids.  They sensed the vibe, maybe, and they acted on it, but even then, it was uncommon.

“Sit,” she said.

He had to tear his eyes way to find an appropriate chair.

He took a seat, closer to Laird.

The room went dark.  It wasn’t the lights – the lights and lamps weren’t on.

“Um,” he said, turning.

Laird was shutting the curtains.

“Eyes forward,” the old woman said.

When Alister looked, she had chalk in hand.

“I never believed in mollycoddling,” she said.

Oh.  Oh shit.  Oh shit.

She dropped to one knee, surprisingly easily for someone her age.

The chalk touched floorboard.

Alister started to rise from his seat.  Laird’s hands pushed him down.

“You need to know what you’re dealing with,” Laird said.

Dealing with?  I’m not and never planning on-“

“Pay attention,” Laird said.  “If you miss something, you’ll need to sit through this again.  Take it from me, you don’t want to.”

Those words sent a chill through Alister.

“You-“

“-Sat where you sit, in a manner of speaking.  I had that seat over there, I think.”

“You did,” the old woman said.

“Why?  What’s going on?”

“An introductory lesson, one of several.  You’ll need to know how to defend yourself, and this is the first step.  Knowledge is power, and practice,” the old woman said, “makes perfect.”

“Why do I need to know how to defend myself?”

“First choir.  Darkness,” she said, not answering his question.

Or maybe she was.

“I call on Ouhim,” she said.

Alister’s heart leaped into his throat when he saw the diagram.  A simple circle, without ornamentation.

He saw the space within the circle turn black.

A head, or a face, pale, rose from the pool of darkness.  The silhouette was sleek, like a person with long black hair, plastered to their head with water, and a long black dress that covered the hands, clinging to their form.  Genderless.  Human shaped, but not humanoid.

Two eyes, no nose, mouth or ears.  The eye sockets were only dark pits, utterly black within.

Laird wasn’t holding him down anymore.  He found himself rising out of his seat, despite himself, staring at the twin pools of darkness.

Shaking his head, he looked away.

Ouhim smiled.

With a sound like a mountain splitting in half, a black crack spread across its face, as if the mask had splintered.

The crack swiftly spread beyond its face, onto the walls, across bookshelves, a foot above old woman Thorburn’s head, where she sat in the armchair opposite Alister.  Destroyed novels and pieces of wood fell to the floor.

There wasn’t a muscle in Alister’s body that wasn’t seized tight.

“It’s not…” Alister couldn’t form words.  “Bound properly.”

“It’s sufficiently bound for our needs,” the old woman said.  “I have an established relationship with it.  It won’t do permanent damage, provided we don’t let it.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but the words weren’t there.  He looked back at Laird.

Laird’s expression was grim.

“Go, Ouhim,” the old woman said.

The smile faded, the crack closing, until there wasn’t the slightest seam or scar.

Ouhim disappeared the way it had come, faster, dropping into the circle as though it were dropping into a hole.

In the aftermath of Ouhim’s visit, the bit of fallen wood from the bookshelf and two books that had been split in half remained ruined.

“I thought you said it wouldn’t do permanent damage,” Alister said, pointing.

“That’s not the kind of permanent damage she’s talking about,” Laird spoke.

That Laird knew… it sent a fresh lance of fear into Alister’s heart.

“The second choir,” the old woman said.

“Wait, stop, please.  Why are you showing me?”

“It’s a mnemonic tool,” she said.  “You’ll see one member of each choir.  You’ll remember until the day you die.  It’s a good foundation to build from.  After this, after I’ve instructed you in what they’re capable of, you’ll want to learn the necessary protections.”

“I want to learn already, I don’t need demonstrations.  I don’t want this foundation.  Tell me why you’re doing this.  Why am I getting these lessons?”

Laird sighed, just behind him.

The old woman was looking at Laird, too, as if they were sharing some unspoken communication.

“You, Laird, or the both of you are likely to find yourself opposite my descendants.  We face a unique situation.”

Unique how? he wondered, but he didn’t voice the thoughts aloud.  As Laird had said, questions had to be reserved.

She walked around the circle.  “Morax.”

It felt like being plunged into ice water.  The air was thick.  The light, too, seemed as if it was weighed down, pressed down into just blacks and reds, without shade or hue.

But when he looked, the circle was empty.

“Second choir, madness.  Don’t panic.”

Alister felt a hand settle on his shoulder.

In this sharply contrasted world of black and red, the old woman’s wrinkles were like scars on her face, jagged lines of black, too sharp.  “The situation is that we’re looking to enact revolution.  Aimon was on the same page as me.  Laird is… less so.”

“Yet I remain open minded,” Laird said.  “Provided my family benefits.”

Laird’s voice and the existence of the hand on Alister’s shoulder didn’t jibe.

Alister glanced a little to the left, and saw just how large the hand was.

Deep red.

“The problem with revolution is that it involves conflict, and the various sides in this conflict wield too much firepower.  My side most of all.”

Alister could barely hear her.  The hand… it was attached to a muscular arm.

The arm was attached to a hairy man’s body.

The man, in turn, had a high forehead, and at the corners of the forehead, the skin twisted into a gnarled sort of halo, like a crown of thorns that was embedded in the demon’s head.

But the demon’s expression was placid, a light smile on his face.  It might have been the forehead, but something about his appearance, somehow, evoked the idea of a scholar.  A scholar, perhaps, that existed in an era long past, when scholars could have long hair, beards, bare genitals hanging free, and coarse hair on their chests.

His eyes, in this world of black and red, were a pale sky blue.

“My heir, whichever I select, may call things like this to use against you and your family, Alister.  Wheels have been turning for a long, long time, and try as I might, I’m not in a position to stop them.  They have too much momentum.  Go, Morax.”

“Momentum,” Alister said, as the surroundings returned to normal colors, each color arriving in its own time.

The sensation of the hand’s weight on his shoulder didn’t leave.

“I shoulder a heavy weight of karma.  I’ve managed it by being careful.  Every action I take is deliberate.  Whatever you might see, here, I’m being exceptionally careful, calling names I know I can trust.  But careful doesn’t encourage change.  Not when the entire universe is struggling to heal from grave wounds.”

“Wounds?”  He asked, before realizing what he’d just left himself open to.

“Avert your eyes.  Third choir, ruin.  Zapan.

Alister looked away just in time.

The demon manifested within the circle like a rolling thunderclap, a storm of images, each one demanding his attention, like a charging bull, a thrown object, all outlined and augmented by fire and lightning and other light shows.  The assaults weren’t reserved for him, but at everything.  Every mote of dust and book and person in the room.

“My understanding of things is simple, Alister.  Every Other is, if you trace things back far enough, the fault of demons.  Every practitioner is the fault of Others, or, for a rare few, the fault of demons.  All of these things, in their way, guide all of existence slowly toward its end.  The unlucky few who get in too deep fall into their clutches.”

Zapan screeched, an eerie, broken sound just at the bounds of his ability to hear, making Alister feel like things inside him were breaking and would never feel okay again.

“Even chronomancy-“

“Virtually all practices, Alister.  Call it a diabolist’s bias, but I would posit that the only difference between Laird and I is the level of self-delusion.”

“For the record,” Laird said, “I don’t agree.”

Go, Zapan.”

The roaring, thundering, broken noise came to an end, and the moments of silence that followed were almost worse, they were so raw.

“You’re doing this so easily.”

“Given excuse or predilection my heir may, too.  These were three very different types of demon, from the three primary choirs.  Can you see yourself, five years from now, defending yourself from this?  If the circle hadn’t been here, and I was your enemy?”

“No.  Not at all.”

“With time and training, we’ll hopefully develop that into a maybeMaybe, in the right circumstances, you could defend yourself.”

“You’re neutering your own side?”

The old woman pressed thin lips together.  “You’re on my side more than those things are.  Sandra is, too, even if she loathes me.  You’ll understand that too, in time.”

“I don’t understand my role.  What do you want from me?”

“I’ll explain,” she said.  “I believe that the ability to practice comes from demons.  I believe the world’s attempts to balance itself are a response to this.  A response to us.  We practice, the spirits judge as a proxy for all of existence, and the spirits right the wrong.  But much like a spinning top, the world is teetering out of balance, Alister.  The jerks this way and that will get only more severe.  Push, and the world pushes back.”

“Or you topple it,” Alister said.  “The top tips over, and goes flying across the table, and it stops spinning altogether.”

The old woman nodded.  “I can’t hope to fix things. The universe seeks to maintain its balance, but this makes it hard to change things.  As I said, it pushes back.  Sandra’s family has done what it has done for nearly five hundred years.  The Behaims have done what they’ve done for three hundred.  Crone Mara existed before the Algonquins.  History has weight, and that much weight is difficult to move.”

“The leadership of Jacob’s Bell may be a movement,” Laird said.  “Or an opportunity to bring it about.  A brief window of time, where we can change the status quo.”

“But this remains difficult,” the old woman said.  “Even fixing my own family is… I’m not equipped for it.  Getting involved, it only exposes them to this.  And I decided long ago that we need better foundations, if we’re to build something solid enough.”

“I’m not sure I get it.”

“A nudge, Alister,” the old woman said.  “Timed right, in the right direction, in the right amount, as things teeter to one side, and the top may well spin faster, in the right direction.”

“You’ll learn to use the cards, and you’ll learn your chronomancy,” Laird said.  “I’ll be doing the same.  With luck, one of the two of us will be able to time things appropriately.”

“Doubling our chances?” Alister asked.

“I don’t think so,” Laird said.  “The penchant of the Behaims, I’m sure you’ve heard, is to stubbornly pummel the opposition into submission, then while they’re off balance, hit them with the finishing blow.  I do the pummeling…”

He left the sentence unfinished.

“Okay,” Alister said, clenching his fists.  It helped – his hands were still shaking a bit from the visitors earlier.  “Okay.”

“Things are going to get much messier before they get better,” the old woman said.  “But it’s much easier to affect things with a nudge when they’re already moving.”

“We have a lot to do,” Laird said.  “You’ll need to learn to protect yourself and protect others.  You’ll also have to get things in position, and

“And the nudge?” Alister asked.  “What sort of nudge am I giving?”

“Stay here,” he said.

Ainsley gave him a concerned look.  The timeless armor only obeyed.

Please, Ainsley,” Alister said.

She relented, nodding.  She looked around, as if she didn’t quite trust that the timing was right.  Her candle was in one hand, pins in the other.  Weapons at the ready.

Her nervousness was contagious.  He used his implement, sorting through the cards.

Two of cups.  Connection.

Good enough.

Rose was sitting on the cot as Alister opened the door.  He’d expected her to be wearing a hospital gown, but she still wore her normal clothes.  She hadn’t been drugged.  In the worst case scenario, they would have needed her alert and capable.

Her clothes, he noted, were very, very similar to the ones the old woman had worn, the first time he’d seen her.

But Rose wasn’t the old woman.  The atmosphere was the same, the sense of power, even here, where she should have been powerless.  But Rose was something and someone entirely different.

All the same, he had no doubt that she was ready, able, and capable of speaking a word, using a gesture, and summoning something.  The difference, a difference, was that she wouldn’t.

He smirked a little.  You could only be told so many times that you were brilliant, that everything rested on your shoulders, without getting a little bit full of oneself.  It was a shield, a buffer.  The alternative was to crumble.  In this critical moment, he had to choose one or the other.

“They just let you walk in here?” she asked.

“Nudged the shift schedules a bit,” he said.  “There is a bit of a gap, right now.”

“I was hoping one of you would come to talk to me,” she said.

“You didn’t care which?”

“I have things I’d like to say to Sandra, and things I could say to Johannes…”

He checked the cards.

“They’re not coming for a while yet.  It looks like it’s down to me,” he said.

She nodded.

“I assume something you’d say to me?

She nodded, a tight motion.

“This sounds crazy, but…”

He drew the little box out of his pocket, opening it.

There was no joy on her face, but he did manage to get a small expression of surprise out of her.

“I had arguments, I was willing to threaten, it was even a long shot, but…”

“But why?” he asked.

She nodded.

“Getting things in position,” he said.  “The junior council is on our side.  The Behaims are backing me, even if they aren’t happy.  Your people are… mostly okay.”

He saw the relief in her.

“They’ll be as close to safe as they can get, soon enough.  I’m having the family call their creatures back in a minute.  I expect Johannes and Sandra will follow suit.  It’ll upset their tempo.  Your friends will have time.  We can use that time.”

“Well,” she said, “You’re looking like a knight in shining armor, here.”

“A good portion of this was Laird,” he said, “Not me.”

He could see the surprise on her face.

“This is going to get far worse before it gets better,” he said.

“It’s… pretty damn bad.”

He held up the deck, fanning out cards.  “Greek to you, I imagine, but believe me.  It’s going to get a lot worse, very fast.  We’ve got company.”

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Duress 12.8

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Time to be the monster from the monster movies, I thought.

Dozens of practitioners, each and every one capable of binding me, or calling in help.

The advantage, conversely, was that they thought I was trapped in the mirror.  At least, they did until Johanes elected to share that pertinent detail, or at least until one of the Others or Witch Hunters we’d just dealt with reported in.

The advantage of surprise.  With luck, the fire would suggest that they had won.  With better luck, they’d be misled into thinking they’d won by too much.  That someone had made a mistake and now the house burned, threatening to let a demon loose.

As I looked back over my shoulder, Hillsglade House was backed by a pitch black sky, the overcast sky blocking out even the moon and the stars.  The smoke, the snow on the ground and the clouds nearest the house on the hill were lit up by the orange glow of the two fires.  It was hard to ignore.

Evan’s underbelly was pale as he relocated to the roof of a nearby house.  Green Eyes crawled through the snow, blending into the pale snow.

Then there was me.  When I resumed walking, the house to my back, the branches of my arms, legs, neck and body all snapped and cracked, more like I was a man moving through a thick tangle of branches than a man made of branches.

Once I found my momentum, though, my body remained pliable.  Only movements that broke from the flow elicited the noises of breaking and creaking wood, or scrapes of wood against bone.

My feet were bare, and the snow muffled my footsteps further.  I was virtually silent as I moved between houses, avoiding the open streets where practitioners were gathering in clusters.

I headed between two houses, along a shoveled path that led to two gates, each opening into backyards.

I was approaching the group that had been nearest the house.  A fence enclosed the backyard, separating me from them.

“-did it?” a woman was saying.

“I’m suspicious it was the Behaims.  Every time the topic of demons has come up, the Behaim leadership are so blasé.  You don’t act that way around demons unless you’re very confident you’re safe or you’re stupid,” another woman suggested.

A man spoke, “Couldn’t it be stupidity?  The stories I’ve heard of their misadventures here and in Toronto… I’m not sure how to put it politely.”

“It’s easier to let yourself make mistakes when a fix is often a turn of the clock away,” another man said.

“They’ve been doing more,” the woman said.  A Duchamp, had to be.  “They went to Toronto and made a play there.  They dealt with the Thorburns on several occasions here.”

“Saying they failed only because they tried more doesn’t elevate them in my eyes.”

“I’m not trying to elevate them, dear,” the woman replied, making it the least affectionate ‘dear’ I’d ever heard.  “But they’re stubborn, and in our little spars in past decades, they’ve managed to hold their own.”

“How?”

“Big guns,” another man said.  “Chronomancy, you’re tampering with one of the fundamental aspects of reality.  Put up a fight, scrap, trade blows, and wait until you have an opportunity to deliver the knockout blow.”

“Essentially,” the woman said.

“What if it’s the Sorcerer?”

“Johannes?”

I hurdled the fence, using my empty hand on the top of the fence to make it possible, enjoying just how light my body was.  The action required ‘muscles’ I hadn’t exercised, and the resulting crack of wood made their fear spike.  I could feel it.  Alarm, attention.

A small bird flew across the street.

They relaxed.  I could feel the fear fading.

“If the Thorburns have dropped out of the running-”

“Rose is at the hospital, she might not have heirs, but we have to kill her to end the line.”

“We should get our bearings first.  The moment she dies, we have no reason to play nice with the Behaims or Johannes.”

“More importantly, they have no reason to play nice with us.”

I drew closer to the corner behind them.  Five people were gathered together, two women and three men.  I avoided looking at them.

Safety in numbers?

The other member of the group was a distance away, talking on the phone.

I could hear her, too.

“-inside.  I already talked to her about the snowballs she put in the freezer last night.  She went to get them after dark, and if the lecture- yes.  Snowballs.  I don’t know why.  Either she wants them to become ice balls or she’s saving them until spring.  Yes.  No, I don’t care what the reasons are.  I don’t want your cousin going out tonight, for any reason.  It’s dangerous.”

The group of five were facing the house, allowing me to approach the Duchamp woman that was on the phone.  Standing just far enough away that she wouldn’t be heard.

My eyes and thoughts remained elsewhere, as I approached.  No use giving her a cue.  If she was looking for connections and saw one appear with great haste, it would be a giveaway.

My footsteps were silent.  I didn’t breathe or have a heartbeat.

I pressed the Hyena to her throat.

I heard her breath catch.

One finger touched her lips, shushing her.  She nodded slowly.

I was close enough that my ribs touched her shoulderblades.  I could make out the artificial voice on the phone.

“It’s two in the morning and she’s still up.  She doesn’t listen to me, mom.  I can tell her and it makes things worse.  It’s like every time I tell her to do something and she doesn’t listen, there isn’t anything I can do to punish her, so she gets more bold…”

I moved my finger away, but I held it up as a warning.  She started to turn her head toward the group, but the Hyena’s blade pressed tighter against her throat, my hand moving over her mouth, arresting the movement.  I could feel the blood that was drawn as the rougher and sharper bits of my wooden fingers dug into skin.

I wouldn’t let her force a connection, even one as simple as eye contact.

I want to be out there with you.  Helping,” the voice on the phone said.

“You’re helping right now,” the Duchamp woman said.

“I want to help more.”

“Please believe me, Lola, it’s better you’re not out here right now.”

Mom, I’m not some kid anymore, and if things are serious enough, I should be there.  I’m engaged, which you okayed.”

“Lola, I really don’t want to fight-”

Mom.  I’m not picking a fight.  I’m saying if you think I’m mature enough to get married, I’m mature enough to participate.  You might need my eyes…”

The voice on the phone trailed off.

“Lola?”

I used gentle pressure to urge her to retreat, until she’d retreated to the corner I’d peered past.  Almost leaning against the fence, with me obscured by the surrounding shadows and the fence.

“Your thread looks wonky.”

“You shouldn’t be able to see my thread from the house, sweetie.”

“Your voice sounds funny too.  Tight.”

“Lola, please.”

“What’s- what’s going on?”

“There… there are some treats in the cupboard with the pots, toward the back.  I was planning on sharing them with you two later, if you were up.  If you want to bribe your cousin into obedience, so tonight is easier, you can.  Whatever makes tonight easier.”

“Mom?”

“It’s…” her voice cracked a little.  “…Not looking like it’s going to be a good night.  That’s all.  Don’t worry.  I don’t think you’re in any danger?”

I shook my head slowly.  The woman watched me out of the corner of her eye.  After a moment, she nodded.

“You sound different, mom.”

“I love you, Lola.  Whatever our differences have been, I love you.”

I pressed the Hyena against her throat, with just a little more force.

 

“I love you too, mom?” Lola made it sound like a question.  I wasn’t sure if it was that she wasn’t sure about the love, or if she was just unsure in general, given circumstances she didn’t totally grasp.

“I need to look after the situation here.  I’m going to say goodbye now.”

“Bye, mom.”

Reaching across her chest, I pressed one fingertip to the phone she still held up with one hand, touching the red button on the smartphone’s screen.

Call ended.

I heard her sigh, long, but silent.  Something wet touched my hand, and for a second, I thought I’d cut her.

Looking across the street, I could see Evan, perched on a car.  Green Eyes was lurking in the snowbank, much as a crocodile might lurk beneath water, only the upper half of her head and face visible.  Her eyes reflected a green light, as if they glowed from within.

I saw Evan move, cocking his head.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Joyce,” she said, barely audible.

“Joyce,” I said.

The name hung in the air.

“I-” she started.  “What are you planning?”

“Shh,” I interrupted.  “I’m disposing of the rot.  Culling.”

I could feel the effect that last word had on her.

More silence.

“Your family attacked me and mine.  This is wholly within my rights,” I said.

She only nodded.

“Swear me an oath,” I said.  “If I have any doubts, any suspicion at all…”

I left the latter half of the sentence unfinished.

Phone still held to one ear, she let out a shuddering breath, inhaled, and then spoke, her voice a near-whisper.

“I, Joyce Anne Duchamp, swear… I will return straight home, I will sit on my hands and refrain from practicing until sunrise.  I will not intentionally communicate with anyone until sunrise, unless I would be unquestionably assisting you, or if the words, sentence and intent are neutral.  I- I swear I will not act or interfere against you or yours in any way from here on out.  I hereby pronounce myself removed as a threat to you and your allies.”

“That’s a damn good oath,” I whispered, “But you need to give it weight.”

“I swear all this- on my name, on my blood, on my daughter… for my daughter,” she said.

I wasn’t sure I liked that she’d sworn on her daughter.  That didn’t sit comfortably, considering just how affected I’d been by Grandmother Rose throwing around her metaphysical weight to use and abuse her grandchildren for her own gain.

But maybe Joyce was only listing the things that sprung to mind, things she valued.  She was doing it for her daughter.

She was spooked.

I moved the Hyena, and I gave her a push forward.

“Joyce?”

One of the guys in the group had focused on her, as she stumbled a bit, back into the light.  Under the streetlamp, the tracks of tears on her cheeks glistened.

“What’s wrong?” one of the women asked.

“Gail…” Joyce said, opening her mouth.

By the terms of the oath, she wasn’t supposed to speak except to help me.

“What’s wrong?  Is it Jessie?  Lola?”

Joyce was frozen.

What the hell was she doing?

“Come, Gail,” Joyce said.

I’d thought the Duchamps were good actresses, natural manipulators, trained to lie from a young age.  Joyce was proving the exception, unless I was missing something.

“Joyce, I’m not-”

Come,” Joyce said.

Gail went.  I retreated further into the shadows as the woman crossed the distance from the group to Joyce.  Joyce seized her hand like someone grasping at a life preserver.

“Do you need help?” the other woman in the group asked.  “Did something happen to one of your girls?  What’s going on?”

I could see Joyce hesitate.  “Just Gail.  You… stay where you are, Jan.  We’ll come back this way later.”

“You’re not making any sense,” one of the men said, sounding particularly annoyed.

“I know,” Joyce said.

That said, tugging on Gail’s hand, she strode away.

“It’s that damn bell,” one of the other men said.  “Makes everyone batty.  I’m surprised they haven’t shut it down, yet.”

The bell?

I could barely hear it.

Why?

I watched as Joyce and Gail disappeared out of sight.

What was the logic there?  Why did I have a vague feeling that Joyce had just played me?

No, not played, I realized, as I saw the situation.  The oath was real, the terms were real, but before she’d even finished speaking, she had decided that things would play out like this.

She’d told me she wouldn’t interfere.  I’d told her that I was cutting out the rot.

Did this mean that, in her estimation, Gail didn’t constitute rot?  That the ones who remained did?

I looked at the four who remained, my eyes averted from the blonde woman who was almost definitely a Duchamp and almost certainly an enchantress.  All the same, she might have sensed something, because she turned back to look over her shoulder twice as I examined the other members of the group.  I was forced to step silently back.

No, that was it.  One member of the group.  He wore a wedding ring.  He was connected to her.

Once I knew the rules, I could take a closer look, avoiding looking at the husband and wife pair.  Off to the side was one man, not fat but solidly built, with a leather jacket that made him look even bulkier, and a dark, wiry beard that didn’t go with the close-cropped hair on his scalp.  He resembled the husband in the pair.  A brother, perhaps.

The other man looked out of place compared to the two guys, who looked very much like bikers who had cleaned themselves up but couldn’t give up the general trappings.  He had neatly parted brown hair, sharp eyes, and a cleft chin that might have been attractive if it wasn’t so pointed.  He wore a scarf and a stylish, form-fitting jacket with four brass buttons arranged in a square, his pants cut to a slim fit, and he carried…

I saw his implement.  A crystal ball with a skull in the center, tucked in the crook of his arm.

Looking at it, I was immediately reminded of the Bane.  The undead thing with scythe-arms.  A tormented soul.

Gail’s husband.  Joyce had separated wife from husband.  She’d done it very deliberately.

It was a leap in logic, but it somehow felt right.

“The tree looks like it’s going out.  Something’s cutting down branches,” one of the large, bearded men said.

“The fire in the back, though,” Jan commented.

I hoped the fire hadn’t raged out of control.  It shouldn’t have, but stranger things had happened.

My eye passed over Jan as she spoke.  Once more, she looked back over her shoulder.

“Janice?”

“Something’s there.”

“Sandra said the Apple of Discord would concentrate attention on the house.”

“She did,” Janice said.  “But the hairs on the back of my neck keep standing up.  Something is there.”

Collectively, they turned.

“Was it something that affected Joyce?”

“Maybe,” Jan said, peering, as if she could make me out.  “Maybe you were right.  If the Thorburn situation is resolved…”

“The Sorcerer?” her husband asked.

I stepped further back into shadow.

Still, as the men fanned out in front, they kept moving in my general direction.  I’d hopped the fence into a little bike path or a narrow road that was only a car’s length wide, and short of hopping over the fence, which would certainly get me spotted, I had nowhere to go but back, further down the unlit path.

I saw Jan draw an athame.  Hers wasn’t wavy like Mags’ was, but curved like a crescent, the blade on the wrong side.

Images of faces flickered between the orb-encased skull and the necromancer’s fingertips, as he caressed his implement.

The two bearded men simply looked as though they might be able to kick my ass without the benefit of being practitioners.

As they shifted position to enter the alley, I saw Green Eyes behind them, crawling across the street.

Jan’s keen awareness alerted her.  She turned.

I switched immediately from retreat to attack, striding forward.

They stopped in their tracks as they saw me.

The two bearded brothers broke into grins, the one in the lead first, then the one just behind his left shoulder.

Before I’d even finished thinking out the word ‘ominous’, Green Eyes had lunged.  Jan caught her before the mermaid could bite, hands on Green Eyes’ upper arms, pulling her head back before the mermaid opened her mouth impossibly wide and then slammed her teeth together, a matter of an inch or two from her face.

Jan’s husband, beaded guy number one, was distracted by the noise, looking back.

Just in time to see Green Eyes bring her tail up and around Jan’s waist, encircling most of it, pushing shirt and jacket up, tail touching skin.

There was a term for what happened next.  Working as a handyman, learning my trade, I’d heard the stories.  Wear a ring while operating a lathe, or wear a watch when you miss a step on a ladder and get it hooked on a surface, well, sometimes you wound up degloving yourself.  The angle and hardness of the ring or the watch trumped the tensile strength of skin, and the skin just… slid right off.

I’d never, however, heard of someone having most of their midsection degloved.  The tail was strong, the hooked scales barbed, and Jan simply fell over, like she couldn’t process what had happened.

The necromancer reached out, and the images of faces danced out, much like a flash of electricity.  Green Eyes took one to the collarbone, reeled, and then disentangled herself, ducking under a fence, a canvas of bloody skin still hooked to her tail.

The two black-bearded men were still caught off guard by what had happened.  The one in the lead headed back to rescue his wife, while the one behind him focused on me.  They almost collided with each other, in their attempt to deal with the issue.

My new opponent shouted something guttural, almost musical in single syllables, bringing his hand back as if he was going to swing a punch.  “Moc, zlo, bru!

I stepped back, expecting him to fling something my way.  I didn’t expect an actual punch.  His fist accelerated, and he covered far more ground than I would have expected, slamming his hand into the middle of my chest.

“Zlo, bru, ohenn!”

I hadn’t yet caught my balance when flame appeared, a roiling explosion a screaming face at the front of the forefront of it.

Rather than get burned, I let myself fall.  The flame passed overhead.

“Ohenn, dolhu!”

The fire seemed to slow in the air, as if the explosion was suddenly happening in slow motion.  The dark parts and the bright parts seemed to become more distinct.

The flame dropped, almost liquid, congealed.  Napalm-like.  Burning oil.

I rolled to one side.  It splashed into the ice and snow where I’d been lying a moment before.

But in rolling, I found myself lying between fire and fence, my heels almost touching the wing-tipped toes of the Necromancer’s boots.

He hit me with distilled echoes, every single one of them a dying memory.

What I experienced was very similar to having my vision go dark, darkness creeping in around the edges, the vision that remained getting spotty.  Thing was, it happened all at once.  I might as well have been hurled into a deep, dark well, with only meager light at the top.

I could hear the Drains, the wind whistling out of sync with the creaking of unstable architecture in the Tenements, distant howling and screaming, the gnashing of machinery, faint songs or tunes that might have been a carnival.  Disconnected from it all, I was aware of the existence of some monstrous bird-bat-thing, only partially formed of a dozen fluttering spirit-hearts.  A shadow of a very dark thing, making itself known.

I didn’t deal with demons when it would have been a hundred times fucking easier.  I didn’t deal with the lawyers.  Why do you think I’d deal with you?

I had to claw my way back to reality.  Out of the well, past the darkness that creeped in around the edges of my vision.

I was out and up for about one second before the Necromancer hit me again.

Back into the well, now with visions and sensations to go with all the fleeting images.  A small village, desolate, in the midst of a dense forest, with a screen door attached by only one hinge, caught by the wind so it slammed incessantly against the doorframe.  Every sensation was raw, as if the place laid every last nerve bare.  Something, I was pretty sure, lurked in the woods.

A festival.  A crowd of Others and lost souls, bumping and jostling, leering, cheering, screaming.  Here and there, the screams were real, as someone failed to keep up, lost strength and showed vulnerability near the wrong partygoer.  The buildings that framed the narrow street had no windows, entrances or exits, more like tombstones than any place people lived.

I fought my way free.

My fingers caught the wire fence, and I heaved myself forward and to one side, almost bouncing off the fence in my haste to move to one side before he could hit me again.  Not the sort of movement I might have been able to do if my strength wasn’t disproportionate to how light my body was.  Not that I was that strong, but moving around was easier than when I had first arrived.

The benefit of causing fear?  Feeding, for lack of a better word?

I stepped close, faster than he might have expected.

He stuck his implement out, trying to touch me with the crystal-encased skull, and I thrust the Hyena at him.

I was just a little more adroit than he was.  The Hyena went into his chin, stabbing upward, through the bottom of his mouth.

I grabbed his wrist before he could stick the ball in my direction again.  Using the leverage of the broken sword through his chin, I twisted him around, forcing him to stumble to my right, acting as a living shield between me and Bearded Guy Two.

Leaning closer, I murmured, “I wonder why Joyce thought you deserved to die?”

I saw his eyes widen a bit.

“Did you say or do something, that she needed to save Gail from you?  She was willing to betray her family to get rid of you.”

The eyes widened further.

I twisted the weapon, then dragged it out of his neck, not pulling it free, but cutting out to one side, off to the corner of his chin.

As he staggered, I kicked him.

“Dolhu, vbreg!”

As the Necromancer went down, something caught him, and he was thrust in my direction, through the flames that still burned atop ice, clothes igniting on contact, carrying the fire forward.

I hopped up and back, my thighs resting on top of the fence.  In the doing, I just barely avoided having a burning body fly through my kneecaps.  The bleeding Necromancer crashed into the fence, instead.

I went backward, put my feet under me, and ran, putting a shed between me and him before I went over a fence and into another backyard.

That damned beard guy.  He was chaining effects, there was a rhythm there.  Something like something-fist, fist-fire, fire-something, something-fling.  I didn’t know the language, and I didn’t know the rules.  There were particulars, but I didn’t know how to exploit them or combat it.

Almost like a dance, one step leading to the next.  I could imagine that practice and care were making each word act like a rune, invoking spirits.  Speaking a private language they shared with spirits, utilizing momentum.

With the cover of a wood-slat fence, I was able to circle around.  They were standing shoulder to shoulder, one facing in my general direction, the other facing the other side of the narrow alley-street, where Green Eyes lurked.

If we pounced, I had little doubt they would catch us in the air.  Strike us down.

They’d known I was weak to fire.  Or they’d guessed.

I suppose it was a pretty easy conclusion to draw.

Couldn’t close the distance before they could blurt out two syllables or so.

Next best thing…

I stood, appearing on one side of the fence, and I threw the Hyena at the one with his back turned to me.  It turned over, pommel over blade, spinning through the air.

The guard hit him, not the blade, but the spin brought the blade into the back of his head.  Not hard enough to pierce skull to brain, but enough to stay in place.

“Vbreg, b-”

Seeing his brother with what seemed to be a sword embedded in his head gave him a half-second’s pause.

Evan descended, taking advantage of the delay.  A lone sparrow, going for the eyes, giving the man more than a half-second’s pause.

Green Eyes, for her part, came over the fence, taking advantage of the chaos, right for the face of the other brother, biting, her teeth scraping more than they severed.  Her tail swung around, bludgeoning the one Evan was attacking.

Almost casually, I hopped the fence.

“Tell me,” I said.  “Would an impartial observer call you monsters?”

“Fuck you!” the one said, clawing Evan away from his face.  He flung the sparrow to one side.

Not quite a confirmation.  Mr. Rogers might have been a little flustered, in such circumstances.

He looked like he was about to do something, until I pressed the blade too his brother’s side, careful to avoid Green Eyes.

“Have you hurt innocents?  Have you struck your wife or child?  Taken pleasure in the pain of others?”

“Tell her to leave my brother be.  You already took his wife from him.  She’s taken his face.”

“Tell me, first.  Would I see you as monsters, if I got to know the two of you?  By standard Canadian values?”

“We follow traditions and practices handed down through our family.  Given to us by the ogre shamans of the cold mountains.”

“That’s not a no,” I said.  “All you have to do is say no, and I’ll leave you be, with apologies.”

He didn’t answer.  Instead, he started another short chant, “Vbreg, Jisk, R-“

From the moment he’d opened his mouth, I was already turning.  The Hyena pierced his solar plexus, and it was like the air had gone out of his lungs.  The ‘r’ sound became a growl, then a moan.

Belatedly, the one Green Eyes was fighting fell clumsily to the ground.  She scrunched up her bloody face, then worked to pull her tail out from beneath the man’s mass, before she resumed eating, biting into the softer meat at the front of the neck.

“Let’s not be so hasty next time,” I said.  “I wasn’t sure Jan over there deserved that.  We need to be careful, moving forward.”

Green Eyes had to gulp three or four times to get the full mouthful down, her gills flaring with each gulp.

“Smelling her brought back memories,” Green Eyes said.  “Bad ones.”

I approached Jan’s degloved body.  She’d already bled out, and her eyes stared skyward.

Bending down, I sniffed.

I didn’t have superhuman senses, but even beyond the reek of blood and other bodily fluids that came with a grisly end, I could smell the distinct reek of alcohol.

“Being a drinker isn’t grounds for executing someone,” I said.

“No,” Green Eyes agreed.  She looked a little sullen.  “But she wasn’t a someone anymore.”

“I’m not sure that-”

“She wasn’t,” Green Eyes said.  “I promised I’d be good and I was good here.  I followed the rules you gave me.  I smelled it on her.”

“Okay,” I said.

I looked at Evan, who gave me his best bird shrug.

I dragged the bodies together, and as I reached the Necromancer, he fought me, weak.

He had what appeared to be a doll in one hand, fashioned of some soft material.  It wore another man’s face, hyper-realistic, distorted in agony.  In moving the necromancer, I’d broken a black ribbon that stretched from his neck to the doll’s.

I watched as he struggled to wind the ribbon around his own neck with hands that grew steadily weaker and clumsier.  Once the connection was formed, he touched his thumb to his bloody wound, running it along the ribbon, from himself to the doll.

A hyper-realistic wound started to open on the doll’s throat.  His own wound started to close.

He stopped, his hands trembling, and the transfer reversed.

The Hyena’s effect taking hold?

I watched him try and fail again.  Using ghosts as some sort of repository or sympathetic replica, to take his pain.

No, a ghost wouldn’t be enough.  Just like with the Bane, something like this might well require a soul.

Very gently, I pulled the doll from his grip.  The ribbon came undone again.  Weak hands reached for and failed to grab the doll.

“Be free, soul,” I said, before cracking the doll down the middle.

The agonized face separated, and a moment later, the doll’s face was only two depressions for eyes, a bump for the nose, and a line for the mouth.

I put the halves of the doll on the ground.

There was enough blood on hand.  I couldn’t see the spirits, but I could imagine the same rules held true.  Blood had power.

Right now, we had to be discreet.

Using the available blood, I drew a circle around the four bodies.  Hopefully breaking connections.

I left the Necromancer behind, bleeding out in the circle, and hoped there was karma in that.

“Come on, Green,” I said, “It might be better to be a little hungry, as we keep this up.  There’s more troublemakers around.”

She nodded, grinning.

“There are Behaims,” Evan said.  “Just a block over.  I think they heard stuff, but they decided not to come.”

I nodded.

We moved as a group, much as we had before.  Green Eyes was bloody enough that she didn’t quite blend in, but that was negligible at best.

Behaims.

I didn’t expect what I saw.

They’d called back their Others.  Clockwork men, children and old men shrouded in rags that hid their faces.  A giant surrounded by sand.  A bogeyman that aged with every step, before giving birth to herself in about two seconds flat, her placenta becoming a red dress by then time she’d aged to five.  I saw another technicolor Other, too.

“We’ll need to do readings,” a man was saying.  He had an abrasive tone to his voice, vaguely irritating.  “Figure out where Johannes and the Duchamps stand.  This is going to get very messy, very quickly.”

“Especially when they see what we just did,” one of the youngest Behaims present spoke up.  I wasn’t sure, given the winter clothes he was swaddled in, but he might have been Owen, one of the Behaims to show up in Toronto.

The abrasive-voiced guy spoke again, “It’s not the right way to do this.”

“No,” Alister said, “Probably not.”

I’d heard the abrasive voiced guy before.  He was one of the ones who had argued on behalf of Alister.  Against peace.

Good enough.

The Behaims were dispersing, moving in groups.  I saw the guy with the voice rounding up his Others.  Clockwork men.

There was a power to be had in attacking the unassailable.

Strike, then run.

“Green Eyes, head back the way we came, ambush anyone who comes after, that’s older than twenty,” I whispered.  “Evan, give me my escape route.”

“Will do, chief,” Evan said, wing-saluting me.

Easy enough, as the Behaims split up.  They were individually vulnerable, but they felt like they were safe.  I could strike and I could run.  I knew how the time magic worked.  Barring some major intervention, they wouldn’t catch me.

And if they were doing readings on the other major players… they wouldn’t be doing readings on me, necessarily.

I slipped close to the clockwork-man wrangler.  Again, I put the blade to his throat.

I cut.  Blood showered onto the snow.  I turned to slip away, ready to attack another group from another angle.

Reality wrenched.

I was back where I’d started.

The clockwork wrangler was unhurt.

I noticed that Ben, the decent-ish guy, was now staring me down, a few paces away.

Had he done it?  No, that wasn’t a perception trick.  Something bigger.

I frowned, ready to back away.

Something barred my path, the broad side of a lance.

A suit of armor, clockwork.  A knight, about eight feet tall.

But unlike any of the other things, it was inlaid with gold.

It vibrated with power, as if an immense heat came off it.

I felt a little bit like I had around the djinn.

“Blake,” Alister said, behind me.

I turned.

I saw Alister.

“Meet my new weapon,” he said.

The weapon barely concerned me.  If he was even talking about the suit of armor.  The thing the Behaims had said would put them back on the map.  A secondary issue at best.

Alister had company, standing next to him.

Rose.  Holding his hand.  They almost matched in height and sheer pretentiousness, standing side by side.  Rose wearing grandmother’s old clothes, Alister being just a little too stylish and fashionably dressed for a guy in his late teens or early twenties, hanging around Jacob’s Bell.

She’d had a plan, apparently.  Obvious enough.  She’d wanted an opportunity to chat with certain people.

The plan, as it turned out, involved an engagement ring on her finger.

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Duress 12.7

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Visions of violence danced through my head as I donned my armor, so to speak.  Being slapped by my dad.  Carl.  Smashing Letita with the rusty pipe.  Fighting the Shepherd.  Fighting Conquest.  Hacking at Duncan’s arms.  Killing Laird.  The fight in the hallway.  Tearing my heart out of my chest.  In the darkness between visions, I saw Ur.

It was a mess, disconnected, disparate thoughts, and noise.

Do this, the thoughts seemed to promise, and it would all start to make sense.  The jumble would start to be something that pointed to a conclusion.  A reality that made sense, if only to a me that thought about those sorts of things.

Another part of me almost wanted Alexis to come up behind me, grabbing me, stopping me.

They’d been a big part of why I’d even bothered to fight my way out of the Drains.  Why I’d let go of my humanity, and admitted my existence as a Vestige.  Faced down Carl.

For what?  To have them turn around and plot behind my back.

It made sense.  I didn’t agree with it, I didn’t like it, but it made sense.  Deciding what they decided.  Doing what they did.

Yet there was a small, tiny, diminished part of me that craved for them to do something that didn’t make sense.  To come after me.

That part of me was soon drowned out by the noise.  I could see the house, and I could visualize the Barber, as I’d seen him in the corner of my vision.

The shears, which he had used to carve a man up, producing Rose the heir and Blake the custodian.

I wondered what our name had been, before.

I started to zip my sweatshirt up partway, found what remained of the zipper so ruined as to be useless, and tore away the zipper instead, leaving only the cloth, my chest and stomach exposed to the cold.  The fabric of the sweatshirt had been wool, but stuff of the Drains and the Abyss and the blood of a number of homunculi and other creatures caked it, long since dried and frozen.  A part of me suspected it could have withstood a knife thrust without giving way.

My pants weren’t in much better condition.  Where the damp snow touched the fabric of the pants leg, the snow came away darker, like the gray slush on a city street, after snow and ice had mingled with crud from the road and tires.  The pants didn’t get cleaner in the process.

We were halfway up the hill to the back of the house when Green Eyes handed me the Hyena.

Half-buried in the snow, she didn’t look much like a mermaid.  Snow clung to her hair, and her skin was a pale white-blue, masking how transparent it looked.  As I took the Hyena, she ducked beneath the snow, traveling four feet before emerging again, slightly ahead of me.  Her eyes flashed as she looked around.  Pale hair, pale skin, pale snow.  She was hard to make out.

“Hurts to hold, especially when I’m crawling on my hands,” she said, even though I hadn’t asked a question.

“Thanks for bringing it this far,” I said.

It was easier, putting the others behind me.  I felt a tension in my new body ease, and I’d barely recognized it had been there.

The anger, too, was there.  Tearing myself to pieces and plucking my still-moving heart out of my chest hadn’t done anything to abate it, either.  An effect of being what I was, quite probably.

My thoughts were a scattered black noise when they even touched on the subject of my friends.  Staying focused on the now helped.  What I was wearing, and what I was capable of.

We didn’t slow.  Green Eyes kept up her forward progress, I walked, taking long strides, and Evan flew from branch to branch, stopping to let us catch up.

Three Others on the hill had noticed us.  Not the worst thing in the world.  There were easily twelve to fifteen Others in the backyard, and in approaching from a direction they weren’t expecting, we had time to cover ground.  The three that had noticed weren’t shouting warnings or reacting.  It was very possible that they didn’t recognize us as the people from inside the house.

Three women, in various winter clothes, much like a college girl would wear.  Jackets, tight-fitting yoga pants, and those boots with fur at the top.  Two were Asian, the third white, and the only unusual thing was the heavy ornamentation around the neck.  Chokers, loops of jewelry…

“Okay, since nobody else is asking, what’s the plan?” Evan asked.

“Grab the box with the log stacked up inside it, drag it away from the house, and set it on fire,” I said.  “Then we run before everything in the house comes after us.”

“I meant for dealing with them.”

“We’ll see,” I said.

“I can see right now,” he said.  “Birds have great eyes, for reals.  We’re outnumbered.  A lot outnumbered.”

Very outnumbered,” Green Eyes said.  I wasn’t sure if she was agreeing or correcting him.

“A lot outnumbered,” he said, apparently deciding that she was correcting him.  “Outnumbered enough that you gotta be grammatically wrong to say how bad it is.  Like holy angel poop we so dead outnumbered.”

“You don’t have to fight,” I told him.  “You’ve done good tonight.”

“I want to do more good.  I gotta act my most awesome, and the spirits can recognize it and make me more awesome.  I’ve already worked it out.  I gotta be honest and true to myself and I have a game plan that I’ve declared a lot of times.  I gotta stick to the plan and the spirits will reward me with sweet, sweet karma.”

“You’ve ‘gotta’ be alive to do it,” I said.  “Green Eyes and I can theoretically come back.  I’m not sure you can.  You can help without putting yourself in danger.”

The three female Others were heading down the slope of the hill, picking their steps carefully in snow that ranged from mid-calf to knee height.

Not strong, by the look of them.  Strong Others would have plowed through it.

Yet something about them told me they weren’t practitioners.  It was as if their breath didn’t fog in the cold winter air, except their breath did.  As if there was a clue I was missing.

As they descended from the top of the hill and we climbed from the bottom, it looked like we’d meet halfway.

“Okay,” Evan said.  “Instead of that, why don’t we all survive and avoid the crazy stuff?  Because I think you’re great, and I like Green Eyes too, and I like the other guys and what’s the point of running away if I’m not going to be around all the people I like?”

“You’re a survivor,” I said.  “You survived the Hyena.  I want you to survive this, too.”

“Uh huh, and what happens if I’m all alone, huh?  I’m falling apart and I’ve been dying since just after Christmas.  I need Ty and Alexis and Tiff and Rose if I’m going to get the spirits stuck in me to keep me going, and I need you to help me figure out a way to stop needing the spirits, since you know the full story.”

“And me?”  Green Eyes asked.

“I need you to, uh, tell me how great I am.”

“I can do that,” Green Eyes said.  “I’d be very eager to find out just how good you are.”

“Great!  See, Blake?  So cheer up.  I need you and you need us and we need each other and we’re good.  But we gotta get through this okay.  And I’m saying okay only because I’m not sure how alive some of us are anymore.  But we gotta get through this.”

I didn’t have a good refutation for his argument.  We were only a fifth of the way up the hill.  The women toward the top had stopped, apparently deciding it was too much hassle to come after us, when we were ascending.

“What’s the long-term plan, Evan?” I asked, changing the subject and hoping he’d let up on the pressure.  I was accepting that he was with me through thick or through thin, here.

“Long-term plan?”

“When we’re done?”

“Oh.  Like you were saying back there.”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve got some video games to finish with Ty, and I obviously want to work with the others and get myself fixed so I’m not falling apart anymore, and I want to have a moment of ultimate power so I can shove it in people’s faces when they groaned and moaned at me for bringing it up.  Besides, you and me are supposed to go monster hunting, right?”

“Yeah, that was the plan,” I said.  “Stop the worst of the monsters, if we can.”

“Right.”

“Everything you just mentioned, you need others around.  What if some of us don’t make it?” I asked.

“Then that sucks monkey beans.  Ruins my plans.  We’ve all got to make it.  Which was my whole point, before.  We’ve got to make it, and that means you, too.”

“But what if some of us don’t make it?  Hypothetically?  What do you do?”

“Fly until I can’t fly anymore,” he said.  “I’d want to ride a motorcycle again, but I dunno if that’s possible.  But, but but but, I can fly and maybe ride motorcycles if everyone does make it, right?  So that’s best.  Let’s aim for that.”

Fly, ride motorcycles, everyone lives.

“Hey Green Eyes.”

“Yeah?”

“I’m really lucky I met this bird, here.”

“Damn right,” the bird said.

“Sounds right,” Green Eyes said.

“He’s starting to convince me not to do the headlong rush.”

“I’ll do what you want to do,” she said, looking up.  “But I’d rather make it through this.  I really don’t want to go back.”

“The headlong rush is easy,” I said, and raw violence would go a long way towards settling the unease I feel deep inside.  Or distract from it, anyway.  “…If we’re all going to prioritize survival, that’s hard.”

There was no reply.  Evan was flying, and Green Eyes didn’t have anything to volunteer.

“I’m not good at planning,” I said, but the words felt like they were more for myself.

Rose and I were two parts of a greater puzzle.  Two flawed, incomplete people.  We’d both, in our ways, filled in the gaps.  Made ourselves more complete in different ways.  Rose had Conquest, and I had… this.  Ideas, symbols, spirits.

Take away the magical stuff, like the Drains had shown me when Eva had attacked me and cast me down into the dark space below the basement, and I was only a part of a man.  Whole sections missing.  Other sections damaged by things that had happened since all of this began.

If I didn’t cling to the monster

We were drawing nearer to the three women.

“What about you, Green?” Evan asked, perching on my shoulder.  “What’s your big goal?”

“The warmth of food in my belly.  Being safe.”

“But that’s a now goal.  What about tomorrow?  Blake was just saying we shouldn’t be constrained in our thinking, right?”

Not up to talking, still trying to think of how to approach this situation, I only nodded.

“Warm food inside me, not having to worry, maybe talking with friends or watching television.”

“You gotta think bigger.”

“You mean your ‘blaze of glory’ sort of big?”

Yeah!

Green Eyes changed how she was moving through the snow.  She was a bit ahead, and rather than crawl, elbows bent, she walked forward with her arms extended straight down, dragging her lower body behind her.  She was a little slower, but not so much that she’d fall well behind in a minute.  “I’m not like that.  Can’t remember what I was before, but I don’t think I ever had dreams.  I would’ve held on to them.  It was always about getting through the day.  Then, in the dark waters, it was about getting through the hour.  Every hour.”

“But you can change.

“I have.  I will.  But I’ll probably always be okay with having clean water, company, and food that’s warm and panicked.  That’s good enough.”

“Is it?” the woman at the center of the three asked.  “Think carefully about where you’re getting your food.”

Still holding the Hyena, I spread my arms.  The universal gesture of nonaggression.  Green Eyes, for her part, relaxed her arms, dropping into the snow, only barely peering above it.

“Whose are you?” the lead woman asked me.  She looked like a Japanese student.

Not who, but whose.

“My own,” I said.

“You’re not wanted here,” she said.  “Not by us.”

I knew for a fact that neutral parties had been a part of the attack on the house.

“You’re probably right.  We’re here all the same.”

Some of those present,” she said, “Appear to be territorial.  Go around to the front door, it’s better.”

Trying to get rid of us?

I had to wonder why.

“I became what I am, right here, because I didn’t want to do what others told me,” I said.  “I have to walk my own path.  Right now, you’re standing on that path.”

She moved her hands at her sides, not raising her arms, only bending her wrists.

I tensed.

The girls on either side of her acted, following orders made with the smallest of gestures.

Their necks unspooled from within their body cavity, guts, bands of muscle and viscera trailing from a spine that coiled as a serpent’s might.  Twenty feet of neck, poised in the air.  The bodies remained as they were, hands in pockets.

Serpentine as the necks were, the girl’s faces were scowls, nothing more.  No apparent fangs, no weapons.

Intimidating, but I couldn’t see obvious danger in it.  What was the worst they could do?  Strangle me?

I touched my hip with my thumb to remind myself that the Hyena was there, just in case.

“I smell meat,” Green Eyes murmured.

Meat?

“The necks,” Evan said.  “Meaty giblet necks.”

The two girls with elongated necks looked at him, but they didn’t act.  Their focus was on me.

“No, behind them.  Lots of blood,” Green Eyes said.

Our meat, our blood,” the woman with the yet-unextended neck said.  “We already divided it fairly.  Divided into sevens twice.  The extra piece goes to the one who finally kills her.  If any of us try and die, our shares go to the one who succeeds.  Pot’s growing.  It’s not a deal we’re sharing.  It took too long to find rules we all agreed on, and if we have to adjust for every new arrival…”

Kills it?

“Midge,” Evan said.  “I got a glimpse.”

Ah.

Also: Damn it, Evan.

“You know it?”

“You don’t?” Evan asked.

Taking advantage of his question, I added, “Midge popped up in Toronto for a very short time.”

“We wouldn’t know.  We’re visiting,” the woman said.

Think, Blake, I told myself.  My thoughts were all noise.  They weren’t all cooperating.  It would be so easy to just kill this one, stab her with the Hyena, catching her off guard.  Green Eyes could take one of the snake-necked women, I could take the other.  Three down, eleven to go, and when those eleven weren’t cooperating, it would be possible to take advantage of the chaos.

But if I suppressed my ‘slasher movie’ instincts…

They weren’t part of the assault on the house.  Not fighting, not eager to be on the front lines.  They didn’t look strong.

‘Visiting’ meant they were very possibly Johannes’.  Especially if they didn’t know Toronto.

“We’re not looking for a share of the meat,” I said.

“I wouldn’t mind a share-” Green Eyes started.  She shrank down into the snow a little as I turned my head her way.  “-But I can do without.”

“Then why are you here?” she asked.  “A late arrival.”

“I’ll tell you why I’m here if you tell me your role, lurking at the back, arguing about meat.  I’m assuming whoever called you had reasons for asking you to come here.”

“They didn’t ask,” she said.

Rather than speak, I kept my mouth shut.  I’d already made the offer.

She relented.  “He put out an open offer.  He’ll host us again if we can bring back any information he can use, that nobody else brought.  We’re not participating so much as-”

“Scouting,” I finished.

She offered a nod.  The angle of it seemed off.  The other two women weren’t the only ones with horrendously long necks.

Host.  A free admissions pass to Johannes’ wonderland for Others, in exchange for intel.  Probably smart, giving up so very little in exchange for potentially huge gains.  I was gratified to find that she was summoned by Johannes.  One of his assorted Others.

She was, I realized, not a fighter.  A scout, an observer, maybe a bit of a scavenger, to pick the bones clean after all was said and done.

Now to fulfill my end of the bargain.  She’d elaborated on her motives.  As to mine…

“I’m looking for that,” I said, pointing at the wood pile.

“Why?”

“Because I want to start a fire,” I said.

“There are rules.  Set out when we were sent here,” she said.

“Not for me,” I said.

“But the rules are there for a reason,” she said.

“They are,” I agreed.  “The demon, in one of the rooms of the house.  Step carelessly, and we might let it free.”

She nodded that odd nod of hers again.  The angle of her chin didn’t change in the slightest.  Her head merely rose and fell.  Then, just when I thought I had her agreement, she asked.  “Why fire?  Why were you headed here, long before you were close enough to see the wood?”

It would be so easy to stab her.  To attack the others, create the chaos I could take advantage of.  Maybe even use Midge, to get another body on my side.

I’d largely abandoned my humanity, leaving the others behind.  What was I clinging to?

I’d asked myself a similar question, back in the Drains, before I’d decided on my way out.

I was mired, right now.

If I pushed forward, if I was a true monster, I might lose some of Evan’s faith.

If I didn’t… there was the dim chance that we might fly, in the metaphorical sense.  Escape and be free.  We could strive to get everyone through this alive.

But this wasn’t in my nature, as a broken human being, and it wasn’t in my nature as a monster.

I touched one of the few sections of true skin I had left.  My face.

“Tattoos,” I said.

“Yes?”

“I wanted to be an artist, once.  But I guess I wasn’t made to have it.  I was made to be resourceful, to be strong.”  And maybe a bit desperate.  “Rather than be the artist, I was content to be a canvas, to make art happen.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“Fire… it’s dramatic,” I said.  “It’s me, and it’s everything here, and it’s an ideal capstone to the evening.  It’s going to make people look.”

“You burn,” she says.

“Not if I can help it,” I said.

“But you’re the type to burn.  I can see it.  Playing with fire is insanity.”

“Well,” I said, “It looks like I’m that kind of Other.”

“If we let you past, You don’t interfere.”

“Not making any promises,” I said.

She scowled.

“To be entirely honest,” I said, staring at her, “I don’t think you’re strong enough to stop us.  Even if you’re the kind of Other that can see weak points and vulnerabilities.”

Her gaze, as she met mine, was fierce.  A staredown between alpha dogs, to decide who had supremacy.

Ane,” one of the long-necked girls said.  “I think they got her.”

The woman snarled, but she turned her back to me.

Going to claim her share.

I headed up the hill, all too aware that if the wrong person arrived, if we made the slightest mistake, or if Evan was seen…

“Evan,” I said. “Hide in my hood.”

He hopped across my shoulder and into the recess of my sweatshirt’s hood.

The backyard, such as it was, was flat, a nice change after the steep incline, where footing had been so unsteady.

I moved with purpose, ignoring the rest, placing myself so that the three long-necked women partially concealed me.  They were all clustering around Midge, who lay on her back, surrounded by bloodstained snow.

I headed straight to the wood pile.

I grabbed wood and threw it toward the center of the porch.  It didn’t make noise, except to punch through the light crust of ice atop the snow.  There was no thud, no clack or crack as wood landed amid snow.

The Others, such as they were, weren’t fighters.  Scavengers, living off of the scraps, luxuriating in the raw destruction and the sheer negativity that surrounded Hillsglade House, gathering information in hopes of earning the goodwill of their masters.

When the rack of stacked wood was partially empty, I tested my strength.

I wasn’t as strong as I had been in the mirror, but I was still strong.

I dragged it.

“Need fire,” I said.

“I could-” Evan started.

“No,” I said.  The Others that were attacking the house were on the lookout for a bogeyman in a mirror, a Thorburn, one of Rose’s cabal, or a sparrow.

“I’ll get it,” Green Eyes said.

“Kitchen drawer,” I said, in a voice that was pitched to a low whisper, “Far left of the kitchen.”

“Got it,” she said.

She disappeared inside, through the door that had already taken a blast from a claymore.

I heard a thud.  An Other in the collection of scavengers was shoved back.

Those that hadn’t been pushed back pressed in.

Midge, apparently, was fighting back, even in defeat.

That she’d lasted this long, well, that was something.

Green Eyes emerged.  The Others reacted, defensive, overly alert.

As if they were afraid something bigger and stronger was going to come and take their meal away.

Green Eyes’ tail was wrapped around a chair leg.  She dragged it outside with her.  I saw the industrial size box of waterproof matches in one hand, a barbecue lighter in the other.

I grabbed the chair as soon as it was in reach, placing it atop the pile.

More furniture…

I spotted wooden crates that had once held dirt and flowers, now nearly invisible beneath a heavy layer of snow.

I dumped out the dirt and placed the crates with the split logs, wood rack, and chair.

It was looking more like it would be a small bonfire.

By the time I’d emptied a fourth crate, Green Eyes was returning with another chair.

Some of the Others had chunks of meat in their mouths, their portions of food, and were stepping away from the huddled mass, watching.

None had recognized me yet.  Those who might have made the connection were falling prey to group psychology.  The others accepted me, so they suppressed their suspicions.  With food available, they had other things to focus on.  Food was power, to many, many Others.

Starting the fire, as it turned out, was more difficult.

A lack of kindling.  Only wood, and the crates were still damp wood.

I debated setting the box of matches on fire, but I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t explode and set me on fire, and I didn’t want to exhaust my firestarting materials.

Green Eyes ducked inside, and by the time she’d returned, I’d failed to get the fire going.

She provided a package of napkins.

From there, the fire was easy enough to start.  Napkins crammed into holes, where the wind couldn’t reach them, set alight.  They caught the drier, flakier wood and bark, which caught the denser wood.

All without picking a fight, first.

Thank you, Evan.

“May I?” a muffled voice asked.

I turned.

A man in a stainless steel mask, with heavy-duty handcuffs at his wrists.  He wore nice clothes, all things considered.  His hands were bloody, holding a tattered mass of flesh and fat.

“May you…?”

“Use your fire, please?  We must be civilized, and a civilized person cooks their meat.”

“You can use it, but only if you add wood to it,” I said.  “Make it bigger.”

“I promise.  May I cook the meat first?”

“You may.”  I stepped away as I gestured at the bonfire, inviting him to take my spot.  It was still in the process of igniting, fire jumping from one piece of wood to another.

More were claiming their meat.  Five or six of the thirteen or so Others had ‘food’ in hand.

As they scattered, my eyes met Midge’s.  Her lower body wasn’t intact, already largely stripped of flesh.  A safer area to start when her arms threatened to grab or bludgeon.

Following my gaze, Green Eyes commented, “I’m hungry.”

Then Midge blinked.

An ugly smile spread across her face.

Then she started to laugh, to snigger, an ugly, snorting, mean sort of laughter, drawn out over long seconds.

She didn’t take her eyes off me.

Heads turned.

“What’s she laughing about?”

Ane,” one of the long-necked women said.  “I can almost see-”

“I see,” Ane said.

Seeing vulnerability.  Made obvious by Midge.  Damn it.

“He’s-”

I ran.

Part of the plan in the first place.

The man in the steel mask didn’t follow.  Several did.

I wasn’t as strong as I’d been in the mirror world, but with room to stretch my legs, I was reminded of what I’d experienced in the drains, and during my brief skirmish with Ur.

A body of dry twigs and old bone was surprisingly light.  Once I got moving, I was able to move fast.

Green Eyes, for her part, started to fall behind.

“Here!” I shouted.

She pounced on me, arms wrapping around my shoulders.  Barbed scales caught on my clothes, and scratched at my flesh where her wrists grazed my collarbone.

Once she wrapped her tail around my stomach, I felt more flesh catch, but the tail wasn’t battering my legs as I continued to run.  It was easier.  Running with a heavy backpack.

Even with the burden, I wasn’t slow by any measure.  Only a handful could match me in speed.

One woman, bronze-skinned, statuesque, pulled into the lead, winter coat unbuttoned, long coattails flapping behind her.  She had eyes like a hawk, with bright yellow irises.  Another, a gaunt man with long hair, eyes bugging out, leaped onto the side of the house, crawling at a speed that matched my running speed.

Something whizzed by my head.  I heard Green Eyes cry out in pain.  It had grazed her.

I couldn’t turn to look with the burden on my back.  I had to trust Green Eyes to.

“Sling,” she said.  “Like from David against Goliath.”

The bronze-skinned woman.

We were leaving some of the Others behind, but the woman and the wall-crawling man weren’t ones I was about to simply outpace, even considering that I didn’t get tired.

“Evan,” I said.  “If she misses you twice, come back.”

He crawled out from where the hood was pressed down by Green Eyes’ arms, then took flight.

It wouldn’t be enough.  He could slow them down, but I needed to make them stop.

I still had the Hyena in one hand, the long-nozzled lighter in the other.

“Take,” I said, raising the Hyena’s handle up to my collarbone.  “Don’t stab me.”

Green Eyes grabbed it.

I reached into my pocket for the box of matches.

Time to do something stupid.

My eye fell on the trees.  Old, overgrown trees that now shrouded the house.

This one was too close, I decided, as I ran past it.

Green Eyes yelped something, and I half-turned to see the wall-crawling man flying in my direction.

I twisted my foot around, pushing myself in another direction.

Plumes of snow exploded from the impact of old man and deep snow.

He leaped onto a nearby tree, then leaped for me again.  I was forced to give up momentum to dodge again.

Chances were that if he got me, he’d get Green Eyes.  He’d lose the ensuing fight, but we’d lose our chance to slip away.

There.

A tree that sat on the edge of the hill.  It grew at an angle, curved like a bow, the branches reaching toward Hillsglade House.

Far enough away.

I ran, changing direction.  My footsteps fell on the wood where the base of the tree had grown away from the slope.

“Green,” I said.  “Off.”

She grabbed a branch, unwinding herself from my midsection.

Where her tail stripped flesh, left to right, I was almost spun, a footstep veering off in almost the complete wrong direction.

But my arm hooked a branch.  Box of matches in one hand, lighter in the other, I still managed to scale the tree, resting occupied hands on branches that stuck out.

Twigs, here and there, broke off.  They snagged in my hair, and they snagged in the vacant spaces of my arms and chest.  Rather than make the climbing hard, it almost facilitated it.

I reached the point where the tree started bending on the general direction of the house.  My eyes met Green Eyes’, where she was holding onto a branch, climbing up by virtue of arm strength alone.

The leaping man prowled below.  Waiting for us to come down, or waiting for us to reach a point where the branches didn’t obscure us and he could leap onto us.  Getting us on the way down.

With the tip of the lighter, I prodded the box open.

Placing it in a crook in the tree, I set the cardboard alight.

One match was combustible.  A tiny sort of ignition and explosion, but combustible all the same.  Fifty match-heads in an enclosed space?  A hundred?  A hundred and fifty?

I reached out for her hand.

She grabbed it, and swung, the branch I rested on bowing and protesting with the sudden addition of weight, as she returned to a piggyback position behind me.

It was a long way down, landing on a snow-covered slope.

But, as the long-necked woman had suggested, fire was a bigger danger.

I leaped.

For four or five long seconds, I got to enjoy the sensation of flight.

Then a small bird named Evan flew through me, between the branches that made up my midsection, and buoyed me up for a moment.  I experienced the briefest moment of weightlessness, an arrest in downward momentum.

When that sensation passed, I fell the rest of the way.  It was a heavy landing, intervention aside.

Wood cracked and splintered.  Green Eyes and I came apart, rolling down the slope.  We came to a stop at the base of the hill, not far from the wall around the property, topped by its spiked railing.

Above us, in the tree, we could see the flare of light, the starting fire, and the orange droplets that were burning matches, falling free, dancing off branches on their way down.  As fireworks went, it was pretty measly.

“You have a mark on your cheek,” Green Eyes said.

“Hm?”

“Where I kissed you.  The birds are all close together, three tiny eyes, at the corner of your real eye.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I like it,” she said.

Why?”  Evan asked.  He’d perched on the railing.  “Also, we’re not home free yet.”

I raised myself up.

There were Others coming down the slope.  One or two had stopped to look up at the tree and the dots of orange that were dropping from the matchbox.

The woman with the sling, however, was too far in the lead.

I raised a hand, pointing.

She turned her head to look, then stopped.

At the fire in the tree, then at the house.  The fire behind the house was already sending up smoke, the flames lighting the smoke here and there, framing the house just a little.

As the long-necked woman had said, they’d promised to leave the house intact.  They knew the stakes.

The woman’s eyes narrowed.

But she turned.  She headed for the tree.

Reckless?  Maybe.  But I knew there was a djinn on the premises.  There were powers at play.

There was no chance, I was sure, that the locals would plan an attack on the house and not have measures in place to stop a fire or avert disaster.

The tree was far enough away the fire could be stopped, but close enough it couldn’t be ignored.

Or not ignored by most.

The snake-necked women were approaching.  So was the leaping man, and a woman in old-fashioned clothing.

I’d tried.  Not to avoid bloodshed, but to use my head, when my emotions were riding high.

Maybe there was a time for bloodshed, all the same.

“My name is Blake Thorburn,” I said.  “If you fight me, I will retaliate, and I will most likely destroy you.”

The leaping man leaped.

Evan flew between me and him.  I rolled, the man veered off course.  He landed a foot to my left.

I staked him with the Hyena in the process of getting to my feet.

“Stand down, and I have no grievance with you,” I said.  “I’m only interested in killing monsters.

“How do you define a monster?” the woman in old-fashioned clothing asked, in a cutesy, ‘Miss America’ voice.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But if you have the sense to stand down, to back away from a fight that hurts both of us, and probably ends one of us, I can leave you alone for the time being.”

“Oh,” she said.  She flashed me a winning smile.  “I don’t have that much sense.”

She reached behind her back, drawing a beater of a Tommy-gun.

But I was faster.  Lighter than lightweight.

The Hyena speared her heart.

I pulled it free, then slashed at the hand that held the gun for good measure.

She faded out.  From color to black and white.  The ‘film’ turned spotty, burning up, with holes appearing in her, inky black tar bubbling where her insides were revealed.

I turned my attention to the long-necked women.

“I’ll offer a deal,” I said.

“A deal?” she asked.

“Go talk to Johannes.  Tell him not to worry about the fire.  I’m using it to draw the others out.  It’s information you can use to barter for another stay in Johannes’ domain.”

I saw her eyebrow quirk.

“No risk involved,” I said.

“Unless he thinks I disappointed him.”

“You’re not a fighter, right?” I asked.  “You did what you were supposed to.  I accomplished what I wanted.”

She glanced up at the tree.  An Other was cutting away burning branches, but more of the tree was catching fire.

A moment passed.  They changed tacks, not trying to cut away what burned, but cut away the branches that could give the fire access to the house.

“We should go,” Green Eyes said.

“Yes,” Ane said.  “We should.”

“Then-”

“Give me plausible deniability,” she said.  “Kill the body.”

That said, she vacated her host.  Her head pulled free, flying, with only organs trailing beneath it.

Her underlings, whatever they were, followed behind her, as they left the property.

There were Others who’d noticed the fire, or noticed the activity.

Green Eyes was right.

We needed to go.

Green Eyes and I went over the fence, towards the city proper.

I saw activity.  People standing outside houses.

Virtually every Other that counted was at the House.

These were Practitioners.  Worried, watching, eminently distracted.

I held the Hyena in a firm grip.

Easy pickings.  Killing more monsters.

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