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.
“When we’re done?”
“Oh. Like you were saying back there.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
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.
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.
“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…”
“Midge,” Evan said. “I got a glimpse.”
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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.