Category Archives: 12.08

Duress 12.8

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“-did it?” a woman was saying.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How?”

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

“Essentially,” the woman said.

“What if it’s the Sorcerer?”

“Johannes?”

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

A small bird flew across the street.

They relaxed.  I could feel the fear fading.

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

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

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

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

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

Safety in numbers?

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

I could hear her, too.

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

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

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

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

I pressed the Hyena to her throat.

I heard her breath catch.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want to help more.”

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

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

“Lola, I really don’t want to fight-”

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

The voice on the phone trailed off.

“Lola?”

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

“Your thread looks wonky.”

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

“Your voice sounds funny too.  Tight.”

“Lola, please.”

“What’s- what’s going on?”

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

“Mom?”

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

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

“You sound different, mom.”

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

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

 

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

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

“Bye, mom.”

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

Call ended.

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

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

I saw Evan move, cocking his head.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Joyce,” she said, barely audible.

“Joyce,” I said.

The name hung in the air.

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

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

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

More silence.

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

She only nodded.

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

I left the latter half of the sentence unfinished.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was spooked.

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

“Joyce?”

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

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

“Gail…” Joyce said, opening her mouth.

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

“What’s wrong?  Is it Jessie?  Lola?”

Joyce was frozen.

What the hell was she doing?

“Come, Gail,” Joyce said.

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

“Joyce, I’m not-”

Come,” Joyce said.

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

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

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

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

“I know,” Joyce said.

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

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

The bell?

I could barely hear it.

Why?

I watched as Joyce and Gail disappeared out of sight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Janice?”

“Something’s there.”

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

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

Collectively, they turned.

“Was it something that affected Joyce?”

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

“The Sorcerer?” her husband asked.

I stepped further back into shadow.

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

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

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

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

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

Jan’s keen awareness alerted her.  She turned.

I switched immediately from retreat to attack, striding forward.

They stopped in their tracks as they saw me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Zlo, bru, ohenn!”

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

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

“Ohenn, dolhu!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I fought my way free.

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

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

I stepped close, faster than he might have expected.

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

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

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

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

I saw his eyes widen a bit.

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

The eyes widened further.

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

As he staggered, I kicked him.

“Dolhu, vbreg!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I suppose it was a pretty easy conclusion to draw.

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

Next best thing…

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

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

“Vbreg, b-”

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

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

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

Almost casually, I hopped the fence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bending down, I sniffed.

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

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

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

“I’m not sure that-”

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

“Okay,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hyena’s effect taking hold?

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

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

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

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

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

I put the halves of the doll on the ground.

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

Right now, we had to be discreet.

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

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

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

She nodded, grinning.

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

I nodded.

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

Behaims.

I didn’t expect what I saw.

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

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

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

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

“No,” Alister said, “Probably not.”

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

Good enough.

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

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

Strike, then run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality wrenched.

I was back where I’d started.

The clockwork wrangler was unhurt.

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

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

I frowned, ready to back away.

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

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

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

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

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

“Blake,” Alister said, behind me.

I turned.

I saw Alister.

“Meet my new weapon,” he said.

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

Alister had company, standing next to him.

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

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

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

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