Category Archives: 12.03

Duress 12.3

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“Keep your eyes closed,” Alexis told the Thorburns, uselessly.

Silly.  The Thorburns that hadn’t yet collectively opened their eyes and looked around.

To be fair, it was kind of a miracle they’d obeyed this much.  Fear, it seemed, went a long way.  Not all the way, necessarily, but when the entire house probably reeked of blood and other noxious smells, I imagined it helped win over those fight or flight instincts that were so warped in this particular family, and get them back to their more primitive roots.

At the second floor entrance to the library, the clockwork man was straining to push the doors apart.  Ty held one of the sliding bookcases that formed the door, Alexis and Tiff were at the other, and despite their efforts, the clockwork man was holding his own.

Callan left Christoff behind, nearly slipping on a bloody footprint on the floor of the library as he headed to the door.  He added his strength to Ty’s.

The automaton lost a little bit of ground, fingers almost touching.  Tiny gears were at each knuckle, and as its hands drew closer together, the gears came close to touching.

Green Eyes twisted around to face the door.  I could see Kathryn and Roxanne step back as the mermaid moved across the floor using her arms, the natural moisture of her body reducing the friction as she moved forward.

I wasn’t sure if her sudden approach was a factor, if someone reacted with a bit of fear and lost their grip, but the automaton managed to push the doors apart.

Two little toothy guys came crawling through – one above the automaton’s head,  scaling the surface to cling to the underside of the second stage of the library, while another crawled between the clockwork man’s legs.

Green Eyes got the second, pouncing on it.  The first crawled up and around to the railing, then onto the second floor, lurking, before it made eye contact with Eva, kneeling at her brother’s side.  Ellie was a short distance away, having crawled back from Andy.

“Get them,” Eva said, “I’m not going to stop you.”

It scampered away on all fours, circling above us, fingernails and toenails making faint clicking and shuffling sounds as it disappeared from my field of view, lurking somewhere above.

I was stuck in the larger of the two mirrors, slowly recovering from a dozen scratches, and a gaping hole in the center of my body.  I could step outside, but the shutting of the door meant even I didn’t have passage.  I could step to the mirror Alexis wore, but the window was small, and she was active.  The risk of being locked out, unable to stop the problems inside the library from coming to pass, kept me from leaping behind the clockwork man and trying to interfere with it.

A brave little sparrow flew down, sweeping past the clockwork man.  Making some attempt to push, to drive him back or put him on his heels.

Nothing.  He only narrowly missed being torn to shreds by the group waiting behind the man.

Something clipped him, and he struggled to fly as he came back.  He landed at the edge of the desk, a short distance from me, his head jerking this way and that as he tried to take it all in.

The group was making more headway on the door.

There was a loud click, another k-chunk, and the automaton lost most of the ground it had gained, the bookcase doors sliding within an inch of being closed.  Sparks flew as spinning gears on different knuckles touched.

But in that click and shifting of gears, it had gained new strength.  The assembled group couldn’t stop it from pushing the doors apart, until its arms were outstretched to either side, the bookcases held apart as far as the automaton could manage.

The skeletal thing with great bone praying-mantis limbs ducked its head under the automaton’s outstretched arm, stepping into the library.  Three more homonculi passed under the mechanical man’s other arm.

Ty and Alexis’ paper tags touched the skeletal thing, and the papers stuck, a mixture of two very different handwriting styles.

“Nope,” I heard Eva say from upstairs.

The thing brushed at itself with one of its scythe limbs, and the papers came free.

She knew.  Is it an anti-practitioner measure?  Something special made for coming after people and creatures like us?

Green Eyes pounced on the scythe-armed thing, teeth gnashing as she bit into the bones of its shoulder and neck.

But it was only bone and tattered cloth.

There was refuge in simplicity, it seemed.

“Shit,” Callan said, watching the various measures fail, “Shit, shit, shit.”

Largely ignoring her, it turned toward Callan.

“Shit!” Callan said, his voice higher pitched at the end.

Like a fencer with a foil in hand, the thing stepped forward.  From the elbow on, its limb was like a great rib, sharpened at one side and drawn to a point.  It moved faster than I would have expected.

Callan’s throat opened up, blood welling.  He clasped one hand to his throat, eyes going wide.

Shit.

Black veins opened up around the wound site.  Where they traced the faint blue and red lines at his skin, the skin cracked.  The wound yawned open.

I could see his expression. The fear. The thought crossing his mind, the expression of agony, as he opened his mouth and tried to scream, but only burbled blood.

“Callan!” Christoff shrieked.

Christoff was just at the cusp of being a teenager and being a child.  In that cry, he was a little boy again.  Callan was his role model, old enough to be his father figure.

Maybe ignoble of me to think so, not so different from thinking ill of the dead, but he really could have done with better.

The black veins of poison, venom, or magic-induced necrosis were reaching Callan’s face now.  As the skin cracked, blood fell out in spurts or trickles, before the necrosis turned it black.  The skin between the dark tracks in his flesh was turning gray.

He half-coughed, half-spat blood, as if he could somehow clear his throat enough to say something, and failed.  Bowed over, face pointed at the ground, he charged.

He barreled right past Green Eyes and the reaper-thing.

“Callan!”  Christoff shouted, louder than before, a little more desperate.

Without even looking, Callan barreled into the left arm of the clockwork man.

The arm didn’t budge.  Metal, held firm by resistance, like a piece of the building. Had we been more coordinated, maybe Ty, Tiff, and Alexis might have been able to ease up the pressure and stop trying to push the doors closed, giving the clockwork man less bookcase to leverage himself against, but we weren’t, and they couldn’t.  If they eased up, there was nothing to stop him from simply striding inside, the remaining Others following.

Callan sprawled at the automaton’s feet, and one of the homonculi seized the opportunity to bite deep into his thigh.

More of the homonculi swarmed him, burying him beneath their collective mass.

The rest of the people in the room backed up until their backs were to walls or furniture, as the reaper-thing ventured to the room’s center.

I couldn’t do anything.  Even if I were there, I couldn’t save him, and I wasn’t in a position to use the distraction.

I was here.  With all the others.

“Kathryn,” I said, addressing my oldest cousin.  “Peter.”

Kathryn looked shell shocked.  She’d cursed Ellie out for being too slow on the draw, but now that they were confronted with the entirety of this reality, Kathy was the one having trouble getting a grip.

She’d dressed business casual, and it seemed to accentuate how very out of place she was.  She might have wanted to look more like a lawyer, more imposing than her two hundred pound build would suggest.  She was tall, her dirty blonde hair dyed brown and tied back into a severe ponytail, and her suit jacket made her broad shoulders look broader, while masking her stomach.  In a courtroom or business meeting, she would have been a tyrant.  Now she was the second tallest person in the room next to Callan, who was in the process of losing a few feet of height to tooth and claw, and probably the heaviest.

Help him,” I told her.

Ten or twenty minutes ago, I might have added, ‘Or you all die.

But Kathryn looked at me.  She could see all of me, not just a face with lines across it.  A body that was more branch than flesh, with only skin and bone and muscle down the center of my face, the sides of the neck, and down the center of my torso.  My sweatshirt hung open, so I could reach into the side of my chest, and the shirt beneath was tattered enough to show the damage.  There was more flesh at the legs and buttocks, out of sight, and I hadn’t yet seen my groin turn to wood and bird, but I assumed it was a matter of time.

I still had a gaping hole in the middle of my chest.  It had narrowly missed my ‘heart’.

It was, perhaps, the final piece she needed to grasp all of this.  I was pretty sure I didn’t need to belabor the obvious.  The Thorburns were fucked up, but they weren’t stupid.  Mostly.

I think she got it.  She took the lead, grabbing the chair by the desk.  Holding it by the backrest, she swung it at a homonculus, killing the thing.

The reaper-thing moved its arm-scythe, raising it a fraction, and Kathryn threw herself to the side, almost falling in her haste to back off.

Only a slight movement of the bone scythe, but Kathryn had reacted severely.

Callan was still struggling as he was eaten alive by both the toxin and the homonculi.  Alexis, Tiff and Ty were a dangerously short distance from the reaper, still doing what they could with the bookshelf, keeping the clockwork man in place.

Peter was circling around, and the reaper seemed particularly interested in him.

Kathryn had a clear path to the bookshelf, automaton and just behind the automaton, Callan.

She didn’t take it.

“I’m a mom,” Kathryn said.

“So?” Peter asked.

The reaper was still tracking him, turning as Peter walked around.

“I’ve got people to look after.”

So?  Do something, then,” he said.

I couldn’t understand how she even had to think about it.  That such a line of thinking was even possible.  Self preservation, yes, but she was trying to rationalize her way through this.  Invent some way through it.

Did she expect us all to tell her she should hang back?  We’d handle it on our own?

She had, I suspected, spent the entirety of her life with someone else available and ready to take the fall for her or cover for her.  Where others might have gotten spoiled or indolent, Kathryn had flourished under the combination of Uncle Paul and Aunt Steph and found some ambition.  She had a desire to be something more from Uncle Paul, knowledge on how to game the system from Aunt Steph, and unlike Callan, Kathryn hadn’t suffered the crushing disappointment of realizing she might never inherit the house.  She’d found her own path.  A path with a lot of victims and scapegoats left in her wake, but a path nonetheless.

This, right here, was Kathryn in a situation that was utterly alien to her.  The murder-reaper-thing, the clockwork man, the homonculi, a hallway drenched in blood and a long-lost cousin in a mirror weren’t the things she was having a hard time dealing with.

I suspected it had more to do with the fact that she was, for maybe the first time in her life, the only one truly accountable for her actions and their consequences.

More homonculi slipped into the room. Kathryn swung the chair, striking two, and the remainder backed away, unwilling to venture further.

There was a larger crowd outside.

Do something!” she cried out.  I wasn’t sure who she was saying it to.  Everyone was already doing something, or were too injured or incapacitated to.  Unless she wanted Roxanne and Christoff to leap into the fight.

What she was saying didn’t matter so much as why.  Why was she demanding help?  Because she just couldn’t compute that this was on her.

Damn it, I hated my family.

“Go, Kathryn!” I said.  “Just go!”

She moved.  Failure to compute or not, she’d been on the verge of action, and my words propelled her forward.

With the sound of her footsteps, the reaper-thing turned, arm raising.  Green Eyes used her tail to try and bind the arm down, as if she was tying the skeleton thing down.  One more contortion among many that kept her on the offensive, her full body weight piled on it without making it so much as bend, doing her best to stay out of the way of those twin scythes.  Even as she worked to entwine it, the reaper still twisted its arm around, upper arm pressed against its body, the bit past the elbow jutting out.  It walked toward Kathryn, spike of bone sticking forth.

Peter threw a tome at it, striking it in the back of the head.  Same mistake that Green Eyes had made, trying to fight it or bite.  It didn’t function along those lines.  It didn’t have flesh to wound.  The only hurt that probably mattered was a bone-breaking level of hurt.

Even if he’d hoped to only distract it, it was a futile gesture.  It wasn’t human, and it wasn’t bogeyman.  It operated under different rules.  Seek out one target, dispatch.  I wasn’t sure how it defined what qualified as a target, but it seemed to like going after people, especially moving people.

I could see how close the fully-pinned-down arm was from the end of Green Eyes’ tail.

“Green Eyes!” I said.  “Back!”

She flung herself back, more snake than fish, and the force of the movement did serve to put the reaper off balance.

It was the distraction Kathryn needed to run past Tiff and Alexis, still holding the bookcase, and reach the automaton.

The old wooden chair crashed into the automaton’s legs.

The legs didn’t budge.

A man made of metal, it seemed, was pretty damn dense.

Where Kathryn’s strategy differed from Callan’s however, was that she wasn’t aiming to just hit the thing.

The chair remained where it was.  Gears and moving parts at the joints caught on the cross-shaped piece of wood that the individual wheels were attached to.  Something hitched, and the metal man’s leg jerked.  It took a step back with the one leg, repositioning.

The reaper drew its arm back, its attention on Kathryn.

“Kathryn!”  I shouted.

She turned to look, and belatedly brought the chair up.  It was a miracle more than anything that kept her from getting stabbed – the back of the chair she was holding caught the bone spike that was being stabbed at her, and by bringing up the rest of the chair, she knocked away the thing’s arm with the seat.

I could see the fear in her eyes.

Trust your instincts, I thought.

If nothing else, we Thorburns had a streak of stubbornness running through us.

She swung the chair at the reaper, and the legs caught in the spaces between the reaper’s bones.

But the arms weren’t bound anymore, and the thing could easily reach around the chair to attack Kathryn.

She pulled away, backing up, and the reaper decided to hit the old wooden chair instead, cleaving the seat from the section with the wheels.

It said a lot about just how shitty the homonculi were in a fight that Ty, Alexis and Tiff were fending them off pretty damn well with periodic kicks, while still holding the bookcase-doors in place.  So long as they kept their weight against the shelves, the automaton was frozen, unable to reposition itself.

Green Eyes approached the reaper, but it wheeled on her, no pun intended, and she stopped where she was.  Using her tail, she knocked the seat of the chair in Kathryn’s general direction.

She did the same thing she’d done before.  The seat of the chair was shoved into the clockwork man’s knee, and moving parts caught the wood.  The already damaged wood splintered, breaking, and was swept up in the mechanisms.

Unlike the prior leg, this one simply moved back as far as it would go, unresponsive.

Losing its grip, it moved its other leg forward.

The leg jerked.

Callan’s hand gripped the heel, keeping it from moving forward.

He couldn’t possibly be alive.  Not for much longer, anyway.

He’d grabbed it earlier, and held it even now.

Kathryn brought the chair down on the clockwork man’s arm, and the entire clockwork man went down, collapsing.  The library doors moved along their rollers, shutting as yet other Others tried to push forward, making their way over fallen bodies and swarming homonculi.

I could make out the click as the doors shut.

I could hear the pounding and scratching as the Others tore at the bookcases.

The defenses weren’t just physical, though.  I couldn’t enter, and the doors had held up to even the smiting of a god, when the defenses across the rest of the house had failed to.

But that was a sword that cut two ways.  The things battering on the door took any number of forms, and some, invariably, could be forms that could break into the library.  If the library was a section of folded space, there were attackers that didn’t care about space to begin with.  It was only a matter of time before they made their way into the library.

Or, as I noted the reaper’s presence, they could break out, and let others inside in the process.

Looking up at the second tier of the library, I could see Eva at the railing.  She was standing by her brother, who was still limp, leaning over, apparently content to watch.

With the section of floor ringing us above, it was like we were in a gladiatorial arena, all of us against the monster, me trapped in the mirror, the rest in various states of injury, awe, or confusion.

“My brother,” Christoff said, focus on the closed door, and not on the reaper.  He didn’t cry, his face didn’t crumple.  I would have thought he looked stunned, but his eyes were too alert, albeit moist.

“Was dead already,” Peter commented.  “He tried to sacrifice himself heroically and he fucked it up.”

“No,” I said.  “He held the machine’s ankle.”

“If you want to make shit up for the kid, that’s cool, but trust me, Callan’s not worth it,” Peter said.

“I can’t lie,” I told him.  “Pretty damn sure I can’t lie.  One of the rules.  So if I say I saw Callan hold that thing back enough for us to close the door-”

“Okay,” Christoff said, cutting me off.  “Okay.”

I kept talking anyway.  “He did good, Christoff.  I’m not his biggest fan either, but he did good.”

Christoff set his jaw.

With the door closed, the group that had been keeping the door in place was now free to spread out, giving a wide berth to the reaper.

Or whatever it was.

Touch of death, skeleton body, scythe arms, and tattered rags.

I was also aware that there were a few homonculi lurking about.  One or two that had apparently collapsed as Kathy had hit them with chairs or one of my friends had kicked them were gone now.  Slipping away while our collective attention was elsewhere.

Ominous.

The mortals ringed it, while I watched from the mirror.  Now and again, I moved to the mirror Alexis wore, trying to get a better view of the reaper.

No, I wasn’t helpless.  I was loathe to spend power if my connection to this world was as tenuous as it had seemed to be earlier, and I didn’t feel like I should imbue an object and attack the reaper or Eva.  It would be too easy for me to take too much, or for them to retaliate and cast me out.

If I couldn’t get in while the doors were shut, what did that say about my ability to get out?  What happened if the mirror broke?

There was only one place that would take me.

Okay, maybe two, but I really hoped I wasn’t due a visit to hell.

No, I wasn’t limited to just standing here.

I broke into a run, heading for the shelves, climbing the ladder to the second floor.

I found the bookshelf on types of Other.

Risen: a treatise on the animate deceased.

Morte Vilify: Perversions of Death.

I began flipping through.  I cheated, looking only for the pictures.

Nothing in the first book.  I set it aside.

Perversions of Death, then.

All of the pictures were in the middle.

Wood cut images.  I found something damn close to the reaper in one picture, joined by two others.  The reaper-alike had a long jaw and fingers stretched out to the same length as its forearm, the tips sharpened.  It had one brother with flesh attached, bloated fat, spiked orbs hooked to a swollen, distended tongue, from dangling genitals and from the intestine that protruded from its middle.  The third was gaunt, but had skin draped over it, heavy iron rings causing the skin to stretch down.  Her lower teeth were exposed, while the skin formed a dress around her lower half, the skin of her breasts wrapped around her chest and hooked in front with a large metal ring on the upper.  The skin of her hands was joined together and folded around, so her arms formed a permanent loop.

The Bane is form’d of one with a blight of body, already within the grasp of Death, they yet hold a breath of life.  The Dark Necromagus must be at the bedside of the deceased as they cross over, to catch the breath in a prepared vessel.  Thrice must the blighted man be bestowed that foul breath that escapes the mouth of the long dead, as airs and humors bloat the corpse, the soul released at death introduced between each to accept and accommodate those airs most foul.  During these times the body will be well restrained, as the soul will be in the worst of agonies and the body will not be limited to their normal strength.

“Tell me how to kill it,” I said.  “Come on…”

Those Magi who practise with the dead in ways most profane take some time to prepare the Bane, according to the nature of the blights that claimed them.  For a blight of bone, the skeleton will be stripped, softened and re-hardened by alchemic admixtures.  For a blight of the lower stomach, the intestines will be dragged out and repurposed

Skipping ahead.

Peter had protected himself from one of the scythe-claws with a book that he was now holding in front of him with both hands, but the scythe was eating away at the paper, and the point was drawing closer to him.

The others had a chain wrapped around the other scythe and were trying to hold it back.  Tug of war, against one individual.

I kept reading.

The Bane is oft used as a devise against those who practise, for death has already taken them thrice over, while their spirit and soul are inured to the worst torments and agonies.  Barriers will serve their purpose, but hexes and deleterious magics will often glance off the Bane, rendering them a potent devise against the unwary.  Without expecting their workings to go awry and come back to them, such a Magus might find themselves dealing with their own practises and the Bane both.

The creator must deliver their instructions to the Bane with gravest care, as the Bane is obedient to a fault, the soul broken many times over.  Once destroyed, the Bane will never return.  

Still nothing about how to destroy it.

When defending oneself against a Bane…

Here we were.

…care must be taken, as the Bane is a thing of blight, and will blight all it touches.  Many will alter their Banes to make this contact easier.  Fire will serve if the Bane was carelessly wrought, but many will be coated or painted to protect their flesh.  One might surmise that the Nosferatu are a natural variation of the Bane, insofar as they are natural.  The Nosferatu, if this theory were correct, would incubate spirits of death within them, and depositing them within a victim, inviting them to and from the veil of death.  The blight, both pre-existing and given, would be one of the blood.

As such, consider the same methods that function on the Nosferatu.  A length of green wood will serve as a conduit for the living energies to vacate the dead prison that confine them.  Natural energies, too, will suffice, with daylight, running water from a natural source, lightning strikes, clean fire if the Bane is not pre-treated, a spike of crystal, or a stalagmite with a history of attachment to the ground serving to provide this conduit of natural forces.  Like the Nosferatu, the Bane is a wretched thing, and death should be seen as a mercy.

The Bane was partially wrapped in chain.  It hacked at the chain with one of its bone scythes, and Ty intentionally dropped the chain, making it too slack to cut.

The chain around the undead creation was starting to look a little worse for wear.

“It’s called a Bane.  Green wood is supposed to kill it,” I said.

“Nope,” Ty said, snatching up the chain off the ground.  The two different ends of chain were being held at opposite ends of the Bane, “All out, unless that wood you’re made of is green.”

“No,” I said.

The chain snapped, a link breaking.  Ty nearly lost his balance as the sudden slack in the chain loosed.

The chain had caught on bone.  It was still caught, only one arm somewhat free.

“Running water,” I said.

“Opening the door is a bad idea.”

“Wouldn’t work.  Needs to be from a natural source.  Lightning.  Not sure of that needs to be natural either.”

“Lights in here are spiritual, not connected to the house,” Alexis said.

“Column of stone?” I said.

“No go.”

“Crystal spike.”

“I’ve been in every nook and cranny of these cabinets,” Tiff said.  “I’d have noticed that.”

I nodded.

I saw Peter’s head raise.  “Bitch.

We collectively looked.  I had to step to Alexis’ mirror and then back to the larger mirror to move down to the lower level and see.

Eva had a stake in her hand.  She was leaning on the railing, and tossed the stake in the air, catching it.  One mistake away from dropping it and letting it fall to the floor below.

“Green wood?” I asked.

“Cut earlier tonight.”

“Give it here!”  Ty called out.

“You can go fuck yourselves,” Eva said.  “This is my insurance against that thing, but I don’t have any reason to save you.”

More links broke.

I saw Evan take to the air, sparrow wings flapping.  Whatever hit he’d taken earlier, he was still in one piece.

The witch hunter caught the stake, and didn’t toss it again.

“If you try, little bird,” she said, “I will stake you.  Your tricks won’t work.”

Evan was a soul in a different form, just like the Bane was.

I wasn’t entirely sure the method of soul extraction wouldn’t work on him too.

“Evan,” I said.  “No.”

“Dang,” he said, before settling on the railing opposite Eva, the furthest point in the room from her.

My eye fell on Ellie.

It would have been perfect if Ellie had been willing to play ball, to steal the stake and make her way downstairs.

But this wasn’t that kind of scene.  Ellie wasn’t that type.

If she had the stake, I could trust her to run away and maybe get it to us.

“What else did the book say?” Eva asked.  “There’s one obvious option, but it doesn’t get mentioned that often.”

One obvious option?

“Daylight?” I asked.  The only thing I hadn’t mentioned.

“I bet you wish the sun was rising anytime soon,” she said.  “Think twice.”

I felt like it was on the tip of my tongue.  I’d read something not so dissimilar, once upon a time.

“She wants us to do it,” Peter commented.

She wanted us to do it.

Right.  I had to look at her through the lens I used to view the Thorburns.  Through the twisted, fucked up viewpoint.

She wanted us to hurt.  To suffer.

Ah.

“Bone,” I said.  “Like a green stake is living wood, a fresh bone…”

Exactly,” Eva said.

“Christoff,” Peter said.  “You’ve been useless so far.  You’ve-”

“You’re not serious,” Alexis said.  “He’s a child.”

The last essential links broke.  Kathryn and Alexis fell as their end of the chain lost its tension.

“Someone better volunteer an arm,” Eva said, “Or everyone here volunteers their life.”

The noble Roman above the gladiator pit where lives were being fought for.  She was reveling in this.  Sadistic enjoyment.

Except, if I remembered right, things had never been like they were in the movies.  It was all for sport, and few lives were lost.

Which made Eva worse than some of the more decadent and corrupt emperors in Rome.

Fuck.

The Bane turned on Peter.

“Why me?” Peter asked.  “Third fucking time.  The fuck?”

“Karma,” I said.  “Apparently you’ve racked up more bad karma than any of us, except maybe me, and I’m inside a mirror.”

“Karma?” Kathryn asked.

“Lies,” I said.  “Lies are one.  Even if you’re not a part of all this, it adds up.  Wronging people, breaking your word…”

“I’m fuuuuucked,” Peter said, backing away from the Bane.  “Fuck me.  Kicking myself for ever thinking this stuff was cool.  Even with the scary stuff… if there’s karma, I’m so completely and utterly fucked.”

“More than you know,” I said.  “You inherit the house, you inherit all the bad karma dating back generations.  We weren’t good wizards, in case you weren’t aware.”

“Shit,” he said.  He tried to feint to the left, then dodge right, but the thing wasn’t fooled.  “Ah fuck.  Fuck me.”

Was I willing to do something with sympathetic magic?

What could I do that they couldn’t?  My bones weren’t necessarily alive.

Breaking through the mirror?  I hadn’t been able to hurt the faceless woman.  What if I tried to use the Hyena and failed here? I’d have one mirror left and the problem would still be here.

The Hyena was almost the opposite of what we needed here.

“Ah no.  Shit,” Peter said, as his options for escape started to run out.  The room was circular, but there was furniture at the edges, and as fast as he could duck to one side, the Bane could follow him.

“Chop off your arm,” Eva taunted.  “Stab it through the heart or face.  You seem resourceful.  I give you one in four chances you’ll manage it.  One in ten you’ll survive the attempt.  It’s delicious.”

“Ellie,” Peter said.  “I… wish I had something clever or meaningful to say.”

Ellie moved to the railing, gripping it and peering over.  “You’re an asshole, Peter.  Don’t you dare die.”

“Seeing what happened to Callan-”

“I didn’t see.”

“It’s gonna be a bad one.  Um.  If you make it out of this, you can have my stuff.”

“Fuck you, I don’t want your stuff,” Ellie said.

“Alright,” he said.  There was a note of finality in his voice.  “Right.  Cool.”

Ellie scrambled to the side.

Charging Eva.

She took the kick hard, crashing into the railing.

“Please,” she begged.  “Please.  He’s my brother.”

“I don’t give a fuck,” Eva said.

Ellie crawled forward a bit.

“I’ll do anything,” Ellie said.

“I don’t want anything you have.”

It was, perhaps, a meeting of polar opposites.

Eva was the alpha dog, the one who won fights.  The snarling bitch that commanded respect by virtue of how badly she could kick your ass.

Ellie wasn’t.  Ellie was a coward, the type to hang her head and slink off out of sight.  She broke the rules and stole the scraps.  Alone, she begged and wheedled and cheated to forge her way.  As part of a group, she thrived, she mooched.  She was the omega.

It was common to think of the Alpha as the superior, to imagine that if we were wolves, we would want to be Alpha.

Ellie, I imagined, had never wanted that.  She’d learned to take her licks.  Even when she’d taunted the witch hunter earlier, baiting kicks, she’d been cultivating an impression.

Now, crawling forward, taking more hits, distracting, taking advantage of the fact that the witch hunter was watching out for the sparrow that might try to steal the wooden stake, she managed to throw herself forward four or five feet, taking another hard kick in the process.

She held a hypodermic syringe to Andy’s throat.  I could see the expression on her face.  Taut, like every muscle was drawn tight.

One momentary look, a meeting of eyes, eyes glittering with righteous anger, and she slammed the plunger down.

Eva kicked my cousin hard in the face.

“What was it!?”

“Save him!”

“What was it!?” Eva kicked Ellie again.

But Ellie had been to juvie and she’d been to prison, and she’d been the omega there too.  A thief, living on the bottom rung.  She was… easy to hate.  She’d taken beatings there too.

She wouldn’t break with this much.

“Save him,” she said, her voice in a different tone.

Rather than take the ladder, Eva leaped down, landing two paces behind the Bane.

Peter had opened a cabinet door and was using it as a meager shield.

Eva staked the thing through the back.

It crumbled into its constituent parts.  I saw a wisp of something person-shaped flow out of the base of the stake.

“There,” Eva said, standing back.  She turned to glare at us.  “Done.  Now you’re going to tell me what you gave him, or I’m going to kill you.  If you gave him drugs-”

“Poison,” Ellie said.  “There’s stuff in the cupboards.  I grabbed some while we were in here.  I filled the syringes.”

I glanced at our resident sparrow.

“She was rummaging.  She did something in the cupboards, until I told her she might let a monster out,” Evan said.

I nodded.

“Fuck,” Eva said.  “Poison isn’t some magical shit where you give the antidote and he gets all better.  If he’s dying and something is getting to him…”

“You’re going to help for the next few hours,” Ellie said, gripping the bars of the railing, her face pressed between them, glaring down.  “You’re going to have to trust us.”

“Trust you?” Eva asked, looking around.  “You’re some of the saddest, most disgusting excuses for humans I’ve ever met.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed.

Fuck, we were sad.  We were disgusting.  But Callan’s dying action, and Ellie stepping in to save her brother…

“Thanks,” Peter said, looking up at his sister.

Don’t,” she spat the word.  “Don’t you dare.  When this is done, I’m going to hit you five times for every time she’s hit me.”

“Sure, Ellie,” Peter said, smiling.

The pounding and the scratching continued on the doors, upstairs and downstairs both.  I could see dust fall from the edges of the shelves, and I wasn’t sure that there weren’t cracks on the backs of the bookshelf doors that hadn’t been there before.

They would find their way inside.

Worse, I wasn’t sure what the Thorburns would do if they stayed cooped up here.  Kathryn, Christoff and Roxanne were all glancing around the room.  Ellie was focused on us – she’d already looked around.

Peter, the idiot, was using the edge of his sweatshirt to hold the fallen scythe-bone from the Bane.

Evan landed on the corner of the desk beside me.

“Sorry,” he said.  “Letting them in-”

“Was smart,” I finished for him.  “It’s good.  We’re mostly safe.  Except for Callan.”

Christoff’s eyes went to the floor.

“These doors won’t hold,” I said, mainly to distract the remaining Thorburns from looking too intently at the books and trinkets around us.

“No,” Alexis said.  “Tiff, you’re the best one at the protective stuff.  Can you do something?”

Tiff nodded.

“We need a plan,” I said.

“I’m open to hearing any plans,” Ty said.

“If this continues, we’ll have only one place to go,” I said.  “The fourth floor, maybe.”

“That’s the worst idea I’ve heard out of your mouth,” Alexis said.

“I know,” I said.  “But I’m about to trump it.”

“Oh boy,” Peter said.  “This should be good.”

I was thinking of the number of times that fire had been referenced since we’d come inside.  Eva and her incendiary grenade, Alexis and her Ofuda.

The trick was figuring out how to phrase the plan so I didn’t sound like a complete lunatic.

A good minute passed, while I turned the words over in my head.

No good way to phrase it.

Leaving me no choice but to tell them, knowing I sounded utterly insane.

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