“I feel like I aged ten years, going through that,” Peter commented.
“Kathryn did most of it with one working hand,” Roxanne said. “Not even a hurt hand. One of her arms is broken or something.”
Eyes turned to Kathryn.
“Dislocated,” Kathryn said.
Alexis approached her, which meant she came closer to me in the process.
I found myself stepping back and away. Not entirely because I wanted to give Kathryn and Alexis some space.
Alexis gave Kathryn’s arm some attention, moving it and prodding the joint. Evan was perched on Kathy’s other shoulder, and leaned forward to watch.
“Eva’s gone,” Ty commented. “Moment I opened the portal, she just charged through, her brother over her shoulders.”
“Probably thinking she can get a practitioner to figure out what poison it was,” Alexis said.
“Bezoar treatment,” Tiff said.
“Something like that. We’ve lost our witch hunter. We’re going it alone.”
I was hearing the words, but only just putting them together into proper thoughts, before the next sentences came.
My head was full of the fluttering and noise and chaos and general heatless fury that had followed the vision.
“I really want out of here soon,” Tiff said. “One of those windows we passed, the room inside looked like my house, growing up. The people inside looked familiar, too.”
“I don’t remember seeing any room with people,” Ty said, looking away from the gate.
I wanted to open my mouth, but I was having trouble dealing. They’d looked me in the eye, talked to me, pretended to be my allies, and all the while, they’d been secretly nursing the idea that, hey, if I got too hostile with Rose, they’d have to kill or bind me.
I looked down at Alexis and Kathrn. Alexis had told me not to trust my instincts… because my instincts were going to tell me to go after Rose?
“Maybe they’re your Black Fish,” Green Eyes said. She had passed through the gate and was lying in the snow, almost submerged, her chin at the bottom of the circle.
“Yeah,” Green Eyes said. “It’s more like an eel than a fish, but it follows me, and it has for a long time. Even here, I can hear it whispering through the cracks in the walls.”
“Um,” Peter said. “That sucks, I guess?”
She might have sounded a little crazy, to someone without context.
“You okay, Blake?” Alexis asked.
I’d been lost in thought, and she’d caught me staring.
Her look of concern seemed genuine. Was that the case, or was she better at lying to me than I’d thought?
I couldn’t really feel the thread of spiritual connection to her anymore.
Evan looked back at me, then flew from Kathy’s shoulder to mine.
The movement caught our resident sewer-mermaid’s eye.
“Look at you,” Green Eyes told me. Her tail was limp on the ground, and her arms were now propping her upper body up, wrists together, upper arms incidentally covering her breasts. As multiple lights flickered within the hallway, there were periods where her skin appeared almost normal, then translucent as she was lit only by the moonlight above. Now and again, when a cloud was over the moon and the lights flickered out, only the orbs of her namesake eyes were visible.
“Look at me?” I managed.
I could still feel the birds stirring inside me, agitated and angry.
“I haven’t seen you since we first met. It’s too bad you need to stay in the mirrors,” she said.
“Um, about that,” Alexis said.
My ‘friend’ turned her body my way. She reached to her throat and raised the twine that was attached to the mirror.
The mirror was broken.
The fluttering inside me became more agitated.
“That’s inconvenient,” I said, very simply. My voice and tone were badly out of sync with how I felt. I wasn’t going to betray what I knew. Not here, not now.
“It makes sense that this place would try to keep us from leaving,” Tiff said.
Except it’s only affecting me.
Alexis nodded slowly, staring down at the mirror. She spoke after a delay. “I don’t know what to say. I’m sorry.”
Each of the three statements were statements that could be entirely true while not ruling out that she or they had damaged the mirror on purpose.
And, god, I hated thinking that way about people who were so damn important to me.
It was all I could do to stay still when it felt like every bird that had once been content to roost on the branches was now actively moving within me. If I’d been holding a jar with this much activity inside it, I probably would have dropped it as it shook itself free of my grip.
Yet somehow I managed to keep my body in place.
“It’s not a problem,” I said. “The last time I left, I was able to just walk out. It sent me to the mirror as a matter of course.”
“Oh,” Tiff said. “Oh, that’s great!”
“Yeah,” Ty added.
Was it all in my head, that they sounded less than genuine? Alexis was only staring up at me.
“Then what are we waiting for?” Roxanne asked. She couldn’t make eye contact with anyone, and her arms still hugged her body. “Let’s go.”
“Waiting until the coast is reasonably clear,” Ty said. He stepped closer to the gate, then stepped back, sticking his hands into his sweatshirt pockets. “And I just realized that there’s a critical flaw in our plan.”
“Which is?” Peter asked.
“Clothing,” Ty said. “We weren’t exactly in a position to grab our coats, hats, and gloves.”
I looked at the others. Sweaters, sweatshirts, long-sleeved shirts and blouses, jeans… everyone had boots on, but a sweater and boots weren’t so useful when the temperature was at minus ten.
“No way,” Ellie said. “We don’t have… I thought we were going back to the library?”
“Are we going to head back to the library?” Peter asked.
“It was broken into,” Ty said. “The ward should do something, and hopefully they won’t keep trying if we aren’t in there.”
“Hopefully,” Tiff said.
“It’d be nice if the books were there when all of this was done with. The books are supposed to be protected, so…” Ty finished his sentence with a shrug.
“So where are we going?” Peter asked. “Church? Ask for sanctuary?”
“The local church is a major meeting place for them,” Tiff said. “The enemy.”
“Where are we going?” Peter asked. “Where do we go when we’ve set whatever fire and they come after us? This is a really simple question, and if we can’t answer it…”
“We can’t answer it,” I said, “not easily, not well. There’s no real safe haven, unless we get clever, lucky, or fight like hell to make one.”
“That’s not reassuring,” Peter replied. “But hey, since we don’t have a place to go, and we don’t have any winter clothes, we can start a fire and maybe stand around warming our hands until the monsters get us and tear us to pieces. I’ve heard being torn to pieces by ghosts and goblins is one of the better ways to go. Or, maybe if they decide to make the ‘killing us’ part take a while, the cold will get us. Maybe not a quick death, but a medium-length death, at least. That’s something.”
Christoff put his hands up to his ears, “Stop.”
Peter snapped his fingers. “Unless they drag us inside. Then it could take hours, if they even let us die at all.”
“Stop!” Christoff said. “Shut up! My brother died and you’re making jokes like this is something to joke about!”
He shoved Peter, two-handed.
Peter, stone-faced, took a step back, catching his balance. “Be more pathetic, Christoff, it’s a great look for you. Talk to me when you aren’t so fucking useless!”
He shoved Christoff back, far harder. Christoff, only barely a teenager, was still small, closer to his mom and sister in build than Callan had been. Christoff fell hard.
I caught the cloth around Christoff’s stomach before the floor gave way completely, lifting him up by his shirt.
“Woah,” Evan said. “Not cool.”
Mice teemed in the space between the floor and the ceiling below, moving through the area like water in a river, no empty space between them.
“Even less cool!”
Some, as the tide of rodents flowed, managed to scrabble up the wall or up a broken floorboard, running toward feet, or toward Alexis and Kathy, who were kneeling and sitting, respectively. They both kicked and swatted at the things, sending the mangy vermin running off to nearby holes in the wall and floor.
The floor continued falling through, emptying down into the floor below. The sheer amount of them didn’t abate.
Had he fallen through, would that tide just have poured down on his head? Were bugs and rodents literally filling the walls and floors around us?
I set Christoff down, walking around the hole in the floor, toward Peter.
He looked far more afraid than I might have anticipated, backing away several steps before stopping with his back to the wall.
“Calm down,” I said.
“Calm,” he said, both hands raised.
I was closer to the portal, and turned my head to look out.
The lights in the house had died. Every window and door was shattered, and dark figures ringed the property, some human, some human-shaped, and some most definitely monstrous.
There were too many between us and the place we needed to be. Setting fire to the glades at the very edge of the property wouldn’t work. Nobody would be fooled, and it wouldn’t drive away the Others.
“Can you back off?” Peter asked.
I met his eyes.
“I’m not going to mess with the kid anymore. I was pissed, I was frustrated, that’s it. I’m cool.”
I didn’t move.
“My brother said back off,” Ellie said.
Ganging up on me.
“Blake,” Alexis said. “Come help?”
I turned away from Peter.
She was still looking after Kathryn’s shoulder.
I couldn’t look at Alexis without feeling that ugly stirring inside me. I kept my attention on the shoulder.
“Is this okay?” Alexis asked. Talking to Kathryn.
“Fix my arm and I don’t care,” my cousin said.
“Good. Blake, we need the arm at this angle. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to push it into the socket, so if you could do it?”
I nodded, mute.
“Don’t like being here, huh?” she asked.
“Does anyone?” I replied, despite myself.
“I guess not,” she said. “Position it like this. You’re going to want to shove the arm in this direction, firmly. Like-”
She touched my arm, part of the demonstration. Fingers touching wood and skin both.
I shied back, flinching.
“Sorry,” she said, quickly. “I’m sorry.”
Why had I flinched?
I felt anger more than fear.
Anger more than like. An agitated, alien sort of anger had ripped out so many of the good things and found its way into the resulting voids.
I wanted to blame the Tenements, the Drains, the Abyss, but I couldn’t.
Damn me, damn them, damn it all.
I shut my eyes.
I didn’t want to be that person. That angry, wounded person.
A second passed.
“What’s wrong?” Evan asked.
I shook my head. I couldn’t really sigh anymore, which was weird. I couldn’t stretch, or groan, or do any of the normal things I had used to do, to let the little stresses go. I couldn’t ride my motorcycle or seek comfort in my friends.
“I don’t know what I’m doing anymore,” I said.
“That’s this place speaking,” Alexis said. “It’s getting to you.”
“It’s this place, yeah,” I said. “More than you know.”
“You can’t get bogged down. Staying in one place is probably a mistake. You were saying you don’t know what you’re doing? Let’s do what we can to keep moving forward. We’ll help Kathy, then we’ll work out a plan, then we should leave.”
“That wasn’t what I was saying,” I said. “I wasn’t talking strategy.”
I slammed the arm into the socket. Kathy screamed, a short sound.
Followed by a groan of pain.
It hadn’t worked.
“You did that right,” Alexis said. “I had the training, while volunteering. It could be broken, but that’d be a strange break.”
“This place inflicted the wound, in a roundabout way,” I said. “We might need more extraordinary measures to fix it. If it’s fixable.”
I saw the look on Kathryn’s face. A bit of horror.
“Sucks to be you,” Ellie said.
“Blake,” Alexis started.
I didn’t want to hear what she had to say.
“Alexis,” I cut her off. Talking was easier than listening. If I listened, I might start thinking about the validity of her words. “What I was saying before. I don’t know what I’m doing… it isn’t just the short term. It’s the long term, above all else, really.”
“You don’t need to dwell on the long term,” she said.
Oh man, that word choice. From someone who could well be conspiring to put me down the moment I stopped being useful.
I shut my eyes, focusing on being still, not punching the wall or saying the wrong thing.
“I do need to dwell on the long term,” I said. “I need to have something to aim for, after today is done. Something more to fight for.”
Something selfish, I thought.
I could remember what Rose had said. The sooner you realize that there’s no such thing as a true ally…
My friends were still my friends, but they were the furthest thing from true allies right now.
“You’ve got us,” Evan said.
I opened my eyes.
“I’ve got you,” I said. Not agreeing with him. You in the singular. Evan had been pressured into keeping silent. He’d tried to help me escape the binding circle, and he’d backed me up on nothing but instinct and hearsay.
I stood straight. “We’ll have to do something about your arm later, Kathryn.”
“Green Eyes, you’re obviously okay with the cold.” She was in snow right now, and she’d managed well in the frozen-over lake.
“You two are with me,” I said. “We’re going to start that fire.”
“With you?” Evan asked. “We’re not staying here, are we?”
“No,” I replied.
“Then how? We don’t have a mirror.”
“I’m hoping,” I said, “That I don’t need a mirror.”
“Ty,” I said, “Or anyone that’s feeling particularly spry… can you borrow some sweaters and sweatshirts? Layer?”
“Going out into the cold?” Ty asked. “Alone?”
“With Green Eyes. Evan too.”
“I guess I could, if Alexis thinks she could open another portal if this one breaks down?”
“Good,” I said.
“What am I going out into the cold for?” Ty asked. “Winter clothes?”
I shook my head, “But clothes might be a good start. The real trick, I think, will be the body.”
“The body?” Ty asked.
“Dead branches,” I said, “Ideally. I wouldn’t mind bones, too.”
“I think I’m starting to get a mental picture of what you’re wanting to do.”
“Hurry and do it, then,” Kathryn said. “I hear scratching in the walls and it’s getting louder.”
And, from the tension in her neck and face, her shoulder probably hurt like murder.
“What if he doesn’t come back?” Peter asked. “Then we’ve got even less clothes, and we’re in the same situation.”
“I can bring the clothes back,” Green Eyes said.
“That’s, uh,” Ty said. “Let’s try assuming I won’t die?”
“Okay,” Green Eyes said. “I’ll protect you.”
“But if I protect you and you do die, can I eat you, before I bring the clothes back here?”
Ty stared down at her.
“Please may I eat you?” Green Eyes corrected herself.
“Sure? I guess I won’t care that much?”
“I’m game,” Green Eyes said.
It took a minute for Ty to collect the offered sweatshirt and sweater. He declared himself warm enough, and stepped through the gate, joining Green Eyes. He trudged on through, while Green Eyes moved like a mole through the earth, surprisingly fast, with a hump of broken snow left in her trail.
“Now we play the waiting game,” Peter commented, fiercely kicking one rat that had managed to climb out of the hole in the floor.
I walked to the end of the hallway, opposite the portal.
I could see the life in the Tenements. The Others patrolling along their individual territories, the occasional lost soul, like the old man who apparently lived between two floors, crawling with wood and concrete scraping at his back and belly simultaneously.
I smelled smoke, and I turned my head. Alexis was taking a puff.
“How do I get to be what you are?” Christoff asked Tiff.
Tiff, probably the most approachable one in the group.
“You do a ritual. You make an offering to major kinds of Other, to central elements, and there’s a lot more involved. You’re agreeing to a deal, to be a little less human and a bit more Other. Making a compact to obey certain laws in exchange for being recognized and for being allowed to see.”
“That’s where you agree not to lie?” Peter asked.
Roxanne had stressed that question. When I looked, Roxanne was sitting against the wall, drifting asleep, her head nodding, then jerking as it moved too fast.
Tiff nodded. “That’s right.”
“And it’s tied to this karma bullshit.”
“Yeah. It’s tied to the karma bullshit,” Tiff said, her voice soft.
“Ugh,” Peter said.
“I want to,” Christoff said.
“For Callan?” Tiff asked.
“No. I just… want to. Being a little less human sounds good.”
“I don’t think that’s right,” Alexis commented.
“Christoff is a coward,” Peter said. “Callan’s old enough he got his chance at thinking he had a shot at the inheritance. Molly actually got the inheritance-”
“Don’t talk about Molly,” Christoff said.
“Fine. I won’t. You’re a chickenshit, Chris.”
“Fine, fine. But I wouldn’t jump on the first out you’re given, just because real life hasn’t been kind. I thought being an adult, or almost an adult, would be my way out. Away from the pettiness, away from the idiocy, constantly feeling like I was clawing my way out of some quicksand made of stupidity. But no. That’s reality. Think seriously before you make a call one way or the other, because I don’t think you’re going to get what you want.”
Was that almost a pep talk? Advice?
“Chris,” I said.
Christoff looked at me.
“Molly told me, once, that you were picked on at school?”
“Here, in Jacob’s Bell.”
“Were any of them Behaims or Duchamps?”
“Um. A Behaim.”
“The clockwork man who tried to pry the doors open back at the library? Pretty sure that was a gift from the Behaims.”
I saw his eyes widen.
“It’s more of the same, Chris,” I said, turning my eyes back out the window. “More of the same family against family shit, on the schoolyard and here. Think about it.”
“Let’s not talk about the magic,” Tiff said. “Something nicer. What do you do, when you’re not in school, Chris?”
I tuned out the ensuing discussion.
A handful of minutes passed.
Then the lights started going out.
I thought it was an isolated incident at first, looking up as the lightbulb almost popped in its hurry to go black. Not a flickering death, like it was struggling to stay lit, but sudden blackness.
But the pop was actually thousands of other lightbulbs doing much the same thing, throughout the building, and the building opposite this one.
Everything went dark. The hallway was only lit by the moonlight that streamed in through the open gate. Here and there, there were open fires in other apartments, a section of building that perpetually burned, and a scattered handful of apartments where residents had put together makeshift campfires.
Like an almost starless night out there.
The empty void of space.
“What’s going on?” Evan asked. He was whispering so quiet that I could barely hear him.
All the same, I only responded with a, “Shh.”
The rush of wind grew more intense. I felt the building sway.
It was, in the midst of all that dark, something moved.
Not between the two buildings, but on the far side of the building opposite us. Where there were hallways like this one, with windows on either end, rooms with a great many windows, or giant holes in the face of the building, like a room had been clean torn out, I could see through to the other side.
The building opposite was so tall that I couldn’t see the terminus, so wide and so deep that the edges disappeared into utter darkness.
I could only see the head and shoulders of the thing that walked by, a pale silhouette, almost but not quite obscured by the oppressive darkness, slivers visible at a time, lit by the fires here and there.
When things were this dark, a little light apparently went a long way.
A fierce wind followed it, stirred by the movement of something so vast that its head took up almost my entire field of vision.
The building shook like a boat on stormy water. Rats scurried and screamed. Windows rattled.
I thought I maybe even saw bodies fall from the sides of the building opposite.
It took a solid five minutes for things to stop moving.
The lights came back on, in a matter of speaking. The same weak, maddening flickering and buzzing of old lightbulbs and wiring. The lights maybe a little more intermittent and dimmer than before.
Half of the others had actually stepped outside. Kathryn hadn’t moved, and Roxanne hadn’t woken.
Roxanne was on her side, whimpering. She got more agitated by the second, almost thrashing.
“The skin-crawling bugs?” Ellie asked. She was outside, despite the cold.
“Nightmare or a terror dream, more likely,” Alexis said. “Roxanne, wake up.”
I thought of the nightmares I’d experienced while I was in the Drains.
“Wait, Alexis,” I said.
But she was already touching Roxanne.
Roxanne startled awake, but she didn’t shake off the nightmare.
“Bugs,” she said.
She dug her fingernails into the skin of her forearms.
“Give her space, this place is getting to her!” I raised my voice, but the noise and the shouts and the voices of others almost drowned me out. Some heard me, looking at me, but Alexis wasn’t one of them.
Or, more likely, Alexis was the type to look after the wounded birds. Like she’d looked after me, or looked after Tiff.
“Roxy!” Kathy shouted, starting to rise to her feet, then failing. Uneven floorboards and one arm that hung limp at her side.
Roxanne managed to drag her fingernails through two or three inches of her own skin before Alexis got to her.
Alexis seized Roxanne’s wrists.
Roxanne reacted about as badly as I might have feared. She tore free of Alexis’ grip, and reached behind her.
“Knife!” I shouted, already running forward, hopping over Kathryn.
Roxanne struck out, kitchen knife held the wrong way, blade pointing down, the weapon too large for her frame and a one-handed grip.
But, all the same, Alexis shielded her face with her hands. The action meant the knife only cut the tip of her nose, but it also meant that her palms were sliced open.
I reached Roxanne, and seized the knife.
Alexis, for her part, lunged, throwing her arms around Roxanne. Pinning her arms to her side with a hug, hands held away so the cuts didn’t touch Roxanne.
“Stop,” Alexis said. “Stop.”
Roxanne was panting, head jerking, fighting to escape, for long seconds.
“Stop,” Alexis said, calmer. Calming.
“I’m never going to be okay again,” Roxanne said. Almost mournful.
“Shhh,” Alexis said. “Relax.”
“If it’s any consolation,” Peter commented, “You’re a Thorburn. You were never going to be okay in the first place.”
The look that Tiff shot him was one of utter appalment. Not an oft-used word, but it wasn’t an expression that was often seen, either.
“Oh,” Roxanne said. “Yeah.”
She might have sounded a little bit calmer, saying that.
When I looked back at the window, I saw a familiar face. Or half of one. The man with the ill-fitting suit was just outside the window, peering in, his eyes over the windowsill like a crocodile’s over the water’s surface.
“No,” I told him. “If you want one of us, you can think again.”
One arm reached over the windowsill, and it pointed.
At the open window.
I looked back, then looked to him.
“Want out?” I asked. “We can talk.”
Green Eyes was the first to appear. Her eyes glowed in the darkness of the night sky, the lower half of her face covered by snow.
“Mission successful?” I asked.
Ty emerged as well, trudging through snow.
“That, right there, is the biggest faggot I’ve ever seen,” Peter commented.
“Faggot as in bundle of sticks, I get it,” Ty said, not even cracking a smile as he deposited the sticks outside the gate. “I bet you think you’re brilliant. You know, there was a time when I wondered what the Thorburns actually did that made people hate them so much.”
“Good work,” I said.
Ty nodded, then stopped as he stood in the doorframe. “And that is?”
The man in the ill-fitting suit sat in a binding circle. Alexis’ hands were bound in makeshift bandage, but the dust here was making me worry. Tiff knelt by the binding circle, with Christoff at full attention, watching the process.
“Company,” I volunteered.
Rather than answer, Tiff turned to the man.
“Should you be willing to accept and bound to the strictures of the proposed agreement, you’re free to leave and make use of our gate,” Tiff said. “Behaims, Duchamps, or the North End Sorcerer only, and only if they practice, only if they’re twenty or older.”
The man in the ill-fitting suit nodded, stood, took a tentative step toward the edge of the circle, then broke into full stride.
Green Eyes made a noise at him as he passed. Almost a snarl, but not quite. Asserting dominance.
“Down, girl,” Peter said.
She made the noise at him.
“We got the sticks,” Ty said, “Lots of branches falling off trees, with the cold. And, do you want to show him, Green?”
Green Eyes propped herself up.
She had a bone clamped in her teeth. She opened her mouth and let it fall into the snow with the sticks, then wiped away the copious amounts of drool with her forearm.
She raised a hand, holding herself up with only the other, and I saw three more bones held within. She switched hands, raising the other. Her fingers were wrapped around a spine and a ribcage that lacked a few ribs.
“Wow, that’s…” I wasn’t sure what to say.
“Did you kill a freaking deer?” Peter asked.
“Too clean to be a fresh kill,” Kathryn said.
“That’s human bone,” Green Eyes said.
I don’t think she could have said that with less confidence, I thought. I didn’t volunteer that observation.
“Where did you get human bone?” Alexis asked.
“The Briar Girl,” Ty said. “We ran into her, I asked permission and gave a gift to get permission to keep exploring, collecting branches. We chatted, and, well, the way she phrased it, she was getting annoyed with the Others that were attacking the house traipsing through her territory. On a completely unrelated note-”
“She was making dolls with bird skulls, and there was one that she couldn’t be bothered to finish making,” Green Eyes finished for him. “She was so frustrated, what was it she said?”
“She gave up and declared it trash, a project never to be picked up again,” Ty said. “I’m hoping that means what I think it means.”
“That she doesn’t own it,” Alexis concluded. Ty nodded.
“Huh?” Christoff asked.
“Police can look through your trash, because by throwing it out, you’ve given up all ownership of it,” Ellie said.
Ty nodded. “So we got sticks, we got bone…”
Here was the test.
“Feel like an art project?” I asked. It was the hardest thing in the world to do, to act normal. To make this leap of faith. “Do you need me to strike a pose, to get you inspired?”
I saw them exchange looks, and it killed me.
Checking with one another.
I knew, now. The Tenements might have been showing me the worst possible thing, but the vision hadn’t been lying.
I managed to stay still, even as my degree of agitation stepped up a notch.
If I moved, it would be to hit a wall, or to scream.
I managed a light smile, so my body language wouldn’t fail to match the levity of the question.
“How are we doing this?” Ty asked.
Bundle it together,” I said. “Bones in the center of each faggot. If the wood bends, try to wrap it around. Match the shape of the body.”
“We might need a few more trips for sticks,” Ty said.
“Maybe,” I agreed. “Let’s see.”
Unsure whether to build it on the outside or in the Tenements, we used loose electrical wire from the tenements to hang an ‘x’ across the portal. Building it at the threshold.
It was, as it happened, like being crucified in reverse. The body came together on the ‘x’, bone, then sticks, bound in place with string. Ty’s stock, for the nails with Ofuda attached.
Somewhere distant, a resident of the Tenements screamed, a feral sound.
Out in the real world, there was a distant crash, and a cheer taken up by dozens.
Whatever their feelings, my friends gave their full attention to the project, rubbing cold hands, then resuming work. Alexis’ hands were hurt, but she gave direction to Ellie, Roxanne, and Christoff, who seemed happier with something to do. Ellie and Roxanne traded off, which amounted to them doing nothing about half the time, but Christoff remained hard at work.
“Take a break,” Ty told him. “I’m actually capable of doing the magic thing, and I’m all-in with this stuff, and I’m taking some breaks.”
“You’re really into this magic stuff, huh?”
“Not sure anymore,” Christoff said.
“Then take a break. I don’t want anyone losing fingers to frostbite. We’ve got enough damaged hands and arms right now.”
“Nah,” Christoff said.
“Revenge,” Christoff said. “Shut up and let me do this.”
Ty sighed, and resumed his own work.
It was… vaguely human shaped. More empty space than branch and bone. As the others turned to putting the twigs that had broken off and shoving them into the empty spaces, I stepped forward.
“I’m fucking done with mirrors,” I said.
I tore off a section of branch-entwined rib, and stuck it through the thing, to where the ribcage was missing some.
“I’m done standing back and letting them come after us.”
I used Roxanne’s kitchen knife to shave the larger, gnarliest branches from my arm, and put them in place. I wasn’t sure if they clutched or if the wood merely settled in a different way with the weight of the wood on top.
I didn’t look at my friends. I didn’t want to see the look they would be sharing, as if they weren’t sure they’d made the right call.
“I made promises. I’m keeping them.”
Tearing, loose bones, branches and feathers from my gut. My stomach was empty inside, the wood plentiful. I hadn’t nourished that human side of me in a long, long time.
“I’m moving forward for my friends,” I said.
When I tore more away from my chest, slashing at myself with the knife when the branches and bones snagged, it was maybe more violent than it had been before.
“I’m doing this for Evan, because I believe in the promise I made him,” I said. “I’m going to kill the monsters.”
I continued to tear at my chest. I was losing steam, feeling weaker. There was flesh there, and I didn’t hesitate to add it.
“I’m sufficiently convinced,” I said. “That those bastards out there are monstrous enough to qualify.”
I grabbed at spirits, and shoved them into the effigy. I couldn’t speak, too weak, lacking energy.
There was only the innumerable, violent, chaotic noises of the Tenements and Hillsglade house, in the silence, as I grabbed spirits that no longer had body cavities to hide within.
Last of all, I found my heart, struggling to evade my grip. Larger than any spirit yet.
Tearing it free, I lost my strength. I felt Evan at my collarbone, gripping me with tiny talons, flapping, as if his tiny bird body could somehow hold me up.
But I was like a puppet with most of my strings cut.
My friends didn’t step forward to help. Maybe they were afraid, maybe they didn’t want to interfere, maybe they had other reasons. But they didn’t step forward to help.
Green Eyes, still on the other side, reached around, embracing the body, and put a hand to my chest, stopping me from crashing into the thing.
Her other hand touched my wrist, and raised my hand and my heart up to the other body’s chest.
With my knife, I used the last of my strength, fueled by the one or two spirits that lingered within my body, and I cut one of the wires. The body tumbled backward, almost see-sawing on the remaining wire, and I tumbled with it.
My body crumbled to dust.
The effigy-body landed in snow.
I curled new fingers, and I felt the wood crawl. Flesh, too, sought purchase on the new body. Not much, but it was some. I felt my face grow in. I wound the loose wire around the looser parts of my body as it consolidated.
“Thank you,” I spoke, as my tongue emerged.
I stood, wobbling on limbs that were a little weaker.
Without looking back at the humans, I headed in the direction of the house, Evan flying alongisde me, Green Eyes crawling through the snow.