Category Archives:  Arc 12 (Duress)

Duress 12.6

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“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.

“Black fish?”

“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.

Floorboards broke.

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.”

Great.

“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.

“Yes.”

“Evan?”

“Um, sorta?”

“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.”

“But-”

“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?”

“I can.”

“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.”

“Thank 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.

Standing guard.

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.

He shrugged.

“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.”

“Shut up.”

“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 talkAdvice?

“Chris,” I said.

Christoff looked at me.

“Molly told me, once, that you were picked on at school?”

“Yeah.”

“Here, in Jacob’s Bell.”

“Yeah.”

“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.

Roxanne stopped.

“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.

Ellie sniggered.

“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.

“Company?”

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.”

“Nah.”

“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.

“But-”

“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.

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Duress 12.5

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The holes in the bookshelf were widening as claws and weapons pierced the wood.  With each thrust, each chunk that was torn away, there were books that fell from the shelves, the railing and ladder-stairs popped and creaked as metal strained.

“Should that be happening?” Peter asked, looking around.

“The doors have only held up this long because they’re part of a distortion in reality,” Tiff said.  She was drawing in chalk on and around the bookshelf, while Ty was drawing on the floor.  Alexis had a book open.

“I’m asking again, should that be happening?

“In an ideal world?  No,” Tiff said, her attention on the diagram she was drawing out.

I could recognize bits and pieces here and there.  I recognized one of the symbols in the dead center, writ large, as an elemental ward, one of the more elementary ones we’d learned from Fundamentals.  Not containing, but pointed outward, with fractal-like lines extending out from the four points of the diamond.

Ty, on the other hand, was drawing a diagram on the floor.  The diagram was more of a wheel or Ouroboros.  The snake eating its own tail, the diagram fed into itself.  Not facing outward, not facing in.

“A gate,” I observed.

“I’m hoping so,” he said.  “Alexis?”

“We need to sacrifice something of value, destroy it irrevocably, and say a few words.”

“Define ‘value’,” Peter said.

“If you have to ask, it’s probably not valuable enough,” Alexis said.

“I’m starting to hate this whole thing,” Peter said.  “Karma, which apparently means you can’t lie, but when you want details, you can’t get a damn straight answer either.”

“You’ve basically summed up the last few weeks of my life,” I said.

“That’s reality,” Ellie said.  “Everyone tells you to do this, do that, there are rules and they fuck you in the ass if you obey them, and if you don’t obey them, then they fuck you in the ass.”

“There’s a lot of ass-fucking going on in your worldview, huh?” Peter asked.

“Fuck you,” she said.

“I think,” Tiff said, “that just like real life, you can be kind, honest, and decent, and it’s something that helps you, even if it’s in subtle ways.”

“Says Tiffany,” Ellie said, “Happy go lucky, smile and it’ll all be alright!”

“Shut up,” Alexis said, looking up from her book.  “You don’t know anything.”

“I know that I got dealt a bad hand.  Shitty family, get diagnosed with a learning disorder finally, and it all makes sense.  But it’s when I’ve already decided to drop out.  But oh, hey, mom and dad didn’t notice I had problems because they were too busy divorcing.  I drop out, dad mostly disowns me, mom helps me get by only if I do favors for her.  I figured it all out pretty damn quickly, how everything works.  If I want something, I have to deal with others to get it, and everyone I deal with wants to take advantage.  The only way I’ve figured I can make it is if I lose well, or if I don’t play their fucking game.  Be a good little loser.  But oh, hey, if I’d actually just smiled and been a good girl, it’d all have worked out fine.”

The sarcasm was thick with that last line.

“I’m not getting into this,” Tiff said, hunched over her diagram.  Alexis came to her side, book in one hand, a wooden box in the other.  Tiff took the wooden box and set it on a shelf, as part of the diagram.

That Tiff was hearing Ellie at all was kind of amazing, considering the variety of claws and other limbs that were starting to reach through the holes that had been opened in the door.

“You’re not getting into it because you admit what you said is stupid?”

“Ellie,” Alexis snapped, “Shut up.”

“I can speak for myself, Alexis.  Ellie, I’m not interested in discussing it,” Tiff said, her voice tense, “because I think you’re wrong.  You guys don’t have a monopoly on shitty families, and you don’t have a monopoly on shitty circumstances.  My family’s personalities were worse, I’m pretty sure my upbringing sucked more than yours, and I still believe what I believe.  Keep your chin up and persevere and there is a way through all this.”

“Your family was worse?  How?”

“Their personalities were.  If you go outside just personalities, you get the whole ‘dark magic’ thing going on in the background, and yeah, your family wins.  But for personality, a lack of basic human decency, my family trumps yours.  They weren’t fancy or complex or even varied in their horribleness, but they were bad, and bad enough that I’m not interested in discussing it or elaborating.”

Ellie opened her mouth to answer that, but the death glares from a few others and an increase in the intensity of the pounding on the doors kept her from actually speaking.

“Valuable thing,” Alexis said.

Ellie reached into her vest pocket and pulled out a trinket.  There was a woman’s face cut in ivory, against a tarnished silver background.  It swung on a silver chain.

“I thought I stopped you from looting the house,” I said.  “I didn’t see you pocket that one.”

“That was you?”

Alexis took the brooch.  “Works.”

The brooch was placed in the center of the gate.

The scratching and pounding had stopped.

There was only silence outside.  No growling, no footsteps or splashes, no laborious destruction of the wall.

It was not a good silence.

“Hurry,” Christoff said.

“Having the thing isn’t enough, we need to destroy the valuable object,” Alexis said.  She still held the book.

“I don’t have a sledgehammer, sorry,” Evan commented.

As if the word sledgehammer had invoked something, a heavy mass slammed into the bookshelf doors.  Several of us stumbled.  Books all across the library fell from their shelves, and even the floorboards shifted position so they didn’t all lay flat, before they resettled into their old positions.  Approximately.

The damage to the doors had spread, every hole almost twice as big, every crack three times as long or twice as wide.

The doors wouldn’t take many more hits on that level.

“Holy shit,” Peter said.

“What was that?”

“Fuck,” Alexis said, eyes back on the diagram, “We need to annihilate this pendant now, and get out of here.  Think.

More silence from outside.

“Biggest, heaviest thing in the room?” Peter asked.  “Desk?”

Our eyes collectively fell on the old writing desk.  Old fashioned, it probably had as much overall mass as a grand piano.  I’d tried to move it alone, when Rose had trapped me in the mirror, and I’d failed.

“All together,” Alexis said.

Everyone, Eva and me excepted, gathered around the writing desk.  A collective effort to lift it-

Another slam on the door.

The cracks and holes opened further.  The mirror I was dwelling in rocked side by side violently enough that I thought it might fall over.  Peter caught it.

Metal yawned, and dust fell from the ceiling in plumes, every joint and joist, nail and screw in the room straining and popping as reality found itself at odds with the configuration of things.

I could see a figure on the far side of the doors.  Deep brown skin, eyes like  liquid gold, hips wrapped in wispy white cloth that was gossamer-fine.  Genderless.

“Djinn,” Alexis said, breathless.  “Lift.

The Djinn turned his back, walking away.  It was going to come back, most likely, and it was going to act.

Fuck.

Big and bad enough that the brainless little homunculi were afraid to approach while it was taking point.  The scariest Others that rational individuals steered clear of were steering clear of this thing.

The group waddled over toward the diagram, table held between them.

“Careful,” Alexis said, voice strained with the burden. “If we mess up the lines, we won’t get another chance.”

I knelt, my face almost pressed against the mirror.  “Left.  Alexis, Ty, swing your half left a half step…”

They moved.

If all four legs came down…

I saw Roxanne step away, more in the way than helping.  “Roxanne, move the tome to your right, put it under the back leg, furthest from the pendant.”

“Why-”

Do it!” Kathy hissed.

Roxanne did.

“A little bit right,” I directed.  I saw Roxanne back away.  Now!”

They dropped the desk, hard.  A leg that was a three-quarter foot by a three-quarter foot in solid, laminated wood came down.  With the books on the far end, the one leg came down independent of the rest.

It broke the pendant.  It also punched through abused floorboards.  As the other leg on the same end came down, it did much the same, if rather less seriously.

“Shit,” Ty said.

“It didn’t work?” Tiff asked.

“It didn’t work,” Alexis said.  “It was supposed to open up the gateway in the moment of-”

The Djinn hit the doors again.

Third time’s a charm.

The door broke.  Tiff’s ward went off.

Snow.

Even without the ability to see connections, I could make out how the sudden formation of snow followed certain patterns.  Cold air flowed into the room from outside, and where it did, snow appeared, growing in size and intensity as it did.  It followed the same general outline as the fractal pattern, causing snow to build up and spread across the shattered door, reinforcing it.

The floor continued to crack and break, something giving way.

The writing desk had punched a hole in the floor, and the hole widened as the pressure of the desk’s weight overwhelmed the integrity of the floor.  The desk went onto its side, and then down.

It seemed the pendant wasn’t an acceptable valuable object, but the writing desk served.

I hoped there wasn’t anything too valuable in the drawers, because we weren’t getting it back.

Not from there.  The space below was hostile.

“Oh god,” Green Eyes said.

She recognized it too.

Not the Drains.  But not the house either.

Some other part of the Abyss.

The Djinn had disappeared as the snow had appeared.  Maybe it didn’t like cold.  Maybe it had done its task and decided to go.  But other Others were now making their way forward, some having more difficulty than others against the miniature snowstorm.

Eva was making her way down the ladder, her brother’s wrists bound together, his arms wrapped around her shoulders.  Strong as she was, she was struggling with the burden.

I hated to say it, but if she was going there with that sort of burden, it would probably kill her.  I’d hoped to have time to hammer out the rules, to give them some idea of what to anticipate, and how to prepare themselves.

“Grab what you need and go!” I shouted.

I moved to the mirror Alexis was wearing.

We descended together, as Alexis leaped to the nearest available platform.

If I’d had time to warn them, I would have told them not to trust any footing.

It gave way.

The fall was, as falls went, pretty damn rough.

I managed to catch Alexis partway, wrapping my arms around her, and absorbed the worst of the impact.  Bent nails, broken glass, and spikes of wood tore at my back and sides.

One of my hands found a handhold.  I latched on, feeling my shoulder nearly jerk free of the socket as the sum total of her weight and mine hung from the one arm.

There was no footing beneath us.  As the fixture collapsed, it fell.  Fragments of wood and chunks of rubble hit the wall and bounced off, or hit other pieces of falling debris and bounced off that.  It disappeared into oblivion, far, far below us.

Joining the writing desk, I imagined.

A steep vertical surface, air thick with choking dust, fog, and darkness.  As far left as I could see, vertical surface.  As far right as I could see… more vertical surface.  Up and down… the same.  Disappearing into darkness and fog, a good kilometer or five.  There was far more light than there had been in the drains, but it was almost more hostile.  Red and orange, flickering violently.

The nooks and crannies that dotted the surface, irregular, were windows.  Spaced too far apart, or clustered, they took different forms.  As if sections of building had fallen and somehow jammed together, like a game of Tetris.

Several hundred feet away, running parallel, there was another building of the same composition.

As the lights in one building died, the lights in the other made up for it, or happened to go out at similar times.  A fluorescent light hung half-off the ceiling in the room opposite me, and it made the shadows of handholds dance deceptively.  In other places, dirty and burned lightbulbs cast a mottled, dappled light onto the wall, suggesting handholds where there were none.

Apartments.  The surface Alexis had aimed for had been something like a flimsy fire escape or a window washer’s platform.  Or, more accurately, it was a trap, rigged by some local resident or another.

“Fuck!” I heard Ty hiss.

When I looked up, I saw that he’d found a handhold, only to discover that it was serrated with broken glass.  He fought for a foothold and failed to find it, as his fingers bent into a clawed position, trying to avoid the worst of the glass.  Blood ran down his hand and arm.

Peter had wrapped his arm around a piece of wood that stuck out from an area of the building where things had simply blown out.  His bad hand was now fighting for traction, as the wood creaked.

I couldn’t quite make out the others, due to angle or the like.

My arm strained, creaked and popped as I raised Alexis up, lifting her.  She huffed out a small breath, halfway between a gasp and a whimper, as her hands found purchase in a gap where brick became wooden slats.  Her arm jerked as silverfish came boiling out.

“Got it?” I asked.

“Not really that good,” she said, her voice strained.

“You won’t find good here,” I said.

“Got it,” she said, her eyes scanning me.  I wasn’t sure whether she was answering my question or statement.  “You’re out.”

I looked around.

“I’m home, I guess,” I said.

She didn’t have a response to that.

I abandoned her.

Climbing, I ignored the rats that lurked just out of sight, ready to bite as I found a handhold.  I held firm when I tested a foothold and it proved to be only rubble, crumbling and falling.

Christoff was struggling to climb up to a ledge.  There was a note of panic in the movement.

“Christoff,” I said, my voice as low and soothing as I could get it.

I could see him tense.

He tensed more as he looked down and saw me.  Rather than freeze, he started to climb faster.  Not out of fear, but because it was the only thing he could do.  Up there was a horizontal surface.

My branch-covered fingers dug into stone, oblivious to the scratches and scrapes they endured.  I clawed out a position and climbed up.

“Help,” he said.

“Focus on finding a place to hold on,” I said.

“Up there-”

“It’s a trap,” I said.  “I guarantee you, it’s a trap.”

He was breathing harder with every passing second.  Fear was winning.

“Find a place to hold on,” I said.

He nodded, a tight gesture.

Roxanne, a short distance away, had wrapped herself around a section of wall.  The part of her that was more indoors was serving as a platform for innumerable earwigs to flow over her and through her hair.  She shook her head, and made small sounds, digging her longer fingernails into her ear, speared and dead bugs scooped out in the curve of her nail, along with blood.  I wasn’t sure if it was the bugs making her bleed, or if the panic of having bugs crawling beneath her clothes and into her hair, eyes, and ears was driving her to dig into her own flesh.

Evan flew up to me, wings flapping.

“Help her,” I said.

“What?  Man, bugs are not a part of my diet.  Except for that one time I was trying to fix my power running out and that was bad and ick and-”

Help her,” I said.  “And save your energy.  There aren’t a lot of safe places to roost and rest those wings.”

“On it.”

He flew to Roxanne’s shoulder.  I saw a glimpse of him pecking at the bugs that were making steady progress towards her ear canal.

By the time I reached Peter, Green Eyes was there.  Her tail wrapped around the wood, and her arms strained as she held it up.

Tiff, Eva, and Ellie were all in the same place.  Ellie was managing the burden of her brother and still managing to keep Ellie from slipping, her shoulder offered as a foothold.

Kathryn… I was pretty sure I could make out Kathryn further below, standing on a window ledge, about two floors below me.

“Kathy,” I said.

She looked up at me.

“There are good odds that monsters will lunge out of those windows to grab you,” I said.

She started making her way to the side.

I headed to Ty, who was still struggling.

His breath fogged from the cold as he panted, accepting my help to drop down to a position about five feet lower than he’d been.  There were wooden slats with spaces between, and a light shone from within.

The lights were on inside, some old fashioned, almost torches in sconces, the  others were fluorescent, flickering constantly.

Ty found a position, holding onto slats that wobbled when he moved his arm, only one side nailed in.

“Is everyone stable?” I spoke, trusting my voice to carry in the near-silence.

I didn’t get much in the way of responses, but nobody said no.  Their focus was on not falling, and the seemingly endless drop below us.

“There’s no relief here,” I said.  “No respite.  We need to move fast, get out of here before it gets to be too much.”

“Inside?” Peter asked.

I moved over, peering into a window.

It looked like a bad motel.  A television was on, but showed mostly static, the image flipping over and over, flickering.  There was a threadbare armchair, a wall with paint missing, and paint chips littering the floor.

Too easy.

I didn’t know what this place was, but the rules had to hold true.

“Let’s limit how much time we spend inside,” I said.  “This place is meant to ruin us.  Break us down and spit us out.  If you see something that looks safe, assume its a trap.”

“We need to head northwest,” Alexis said, “Only two hundred feet.  Cardinal directions should hold true.”

Only.

“Which direction was northwest?” I asked.

She held one arm out away from the wall, so she could point off to one angle, off to one side.

We’d have to go over and inside.

“Green Eyes?” I asked.

“What?”

Oh, she sounded pissed.  She didn’t like having to come back.

“How are you managing?”

“Considering that I don’t have feet, and there’s only so many handholds?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Considering that.”

“I’m fine.

“I think… we’re mostly okay, by virtue of being bogeymen,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“We’ll help you guys out where we can.  Slow and steady is better than rushing.  We just need to head a bit to the right, then we need to find a way in.  Ask if you need help or if you can’t find a way.  Okay?”

I heard one okay from elsewhere.  I really hoped it was someone I knew, and not a stranger’s voice.

“This place is going to get to you,” I said.  “Tiff, Ellie, all that stuff you were mentioning?  Alexis?  Your time on the streets?  The longer you stay, the more you let down your guard, the more it’s going to dredge up that stuff.  It’s going to put ideas in your head…”

“Let’s just climb,” Alexis said.  “And hope we get out before we run into that.”

I wanted to say more, to prepare them, to explain the different things, but my arms didn’t get tired like theirs did.

“Okay, go,” I said.

I felt an almost genuine fear for the welfare of my friends, watching as they climbed.  The building was so pitted and worn that there were spaces to hold on or stand on, but they were treacherous.

“My hands are tired already,” Christoff said.

“Callan died to buy us time,” I said, turning to check on him. “If there’s strength to be found, find it there.

He nodded tightly.

Behind him, something slithered out of a window.  A man with a centipede body from the waist down, long hair and beard, homeless guy chic, pale and skeletally thin, he had pale, rainbow-hued eyes like a bug’s to be found between eyelids that were stretched taut, unable to fully close over the orbs.

Ignoring us, he climbed the side of the building, and his upper body disappeared into a crack in the wall.

The lower body continued to climb and crawl after him, almost unending.

Six or so seconds later, the tail end of the lower body, bearing an earwig-like set of pincers, disappeared the way the upper body had gone.

When I looked from my oblivious younger cousin to Ty, I could see the alarm on his face.  The fear at what Christoff had completely missed seeing.

How easy it would have been for the centipede man to just grab Christoff.  A tug, a pull, and Christoff would be falling.  Holding Christoff, he could have carried him off, and there was little Christoff could have done.

“Oh god,” Peter said, under his breath.  “Oh god, this sucks.  This sucks, this sucks…”

Roxanne shrieked, loud.

“Roxanne!” Kathy called.

“They’re crawling under my clothes.  I…”

She screamed louder, a different sort of scream.

“Roxy!” Kathy said.  “Pay attention!”

“They’re under my skin,” Roxanne said, almost like it was the least reassuring mantra in the world.  “They’re under my skin, they’re under my skin, they’re under my skin.

Her voice grew higher pitched and edged with pain, her body tenser, with every utterance.

They’re in my skin.  They’re inside me.  They’re under my skin.”

When I looked, I could see the red lines tracing maze-like paths across her body.  Here and there, something popped out, a tiny black wriggling form, traveled an inch or two over the outside of her skin, then burrowed again, blood welling at the entry and exit sites.

“There’s nothing there,” Peter said, flat out lying to her face.  “Whatever you think you’re feeling, there’s nothing there.

“This place is psychological,” Alexis said.  “The book said as much.”

Roxanne shook her head, tightly.  She wasn’t moving.

“I don’t know what to do,” Evan said, before pecking at one bug that had emerged, spitting it out.  “She can’t hear me.”

“I can hear you,” Roxanne said, in a small voice.

The others were making forward progress.  Roxanne was dead last, only just behind Kathy, who was struggling with the climb, and Peter, who wasn’t functioning well with one hurt hand.

“You can hear me?” Evan asked.

“Different rules,” I told Evan.  “Less layers separating you and them.  Besides, I don’t know how much innocence you hold onto, here.”

“Oh.  Hi, Roxanne!”

She made a sound, whimpering.  She shook her head, and bugs flew free, but her hand very nearly slipped.

“I said hi!  I’ve been grabbing bugs off you, least you can do is-”

“Hi,” she said, her voice tiny.  “Please stop talking.”

“It’s like Tiff said,” Evan told her.  “Chin up, persevere, and you can make it through.”

She shook her head, a small gesture, as if even a normal shaking of the head threatened to unseat her from her precarious position on the wall.

I edged closer to her.  The bugs, and one hurt hand, and all the rest of the abuse from Eva’s beating earlier, and she was the youngest one here, Evan excepted.  She needed the most help.  Green Eyes was with the main pack, further ahead, and I’d have to trust them to the wall-scaling mermaid.

“I can’t move,” she said.

“You can do it,” Evan said.

“I can’t move!  My… I keep getting shooting pains down my arms.  The bugs are eating me, they’re eating me!

Going shrill again.

“Channel that fear,” Evan said.  “Keep moving.”

“Fucking bird!  I will grab you and I will take you down with me if you don’t shut up!”  Roxanne shrieked.

Evan looked up at me, helpless.

I was only about fifteen feet away.

“I’m going inside,” she said.  “I can’t-  I can’t-”

Evan flew away as she reached a window, climbing in past broken glass with enough panic fueling her actions that she wasn’t careful.

Evan landed on my shoulder.

“It’s okay,’ I said.  “You tried.  Help Kathryn.”

It took me ten long seconds to reach that same window.

“Roxanne,” I said, peering inside.

The interior was haphazard, the floor tilted so the left side was lower on the left, the right too high.  At the other end of the hallway, maybe twenty feet away, it was the opposite.  A window marked the exit onto the other side of the building.

Impossibly tall and broad, it was only twenty or so feet thick, here.  One room thick.

My cousin was sitting on the floor at the base of the window, head buried in her arms.

“Roxanne,” I said.  “If we don’t go, we’re going to get separated.  There’s no going back home if that happens.  We need Ty to draw the circle.”

“It hurts.  I’ll… I’ll walk inside.  It’s not as cold in here.”

“The place will mess with your head, and it’ll lead you away from them.  There’ll be places, I’m sure, that won’t have routes, understand?  This place is under no obligation to be convenient.  Just the opposite.  It’ll let you think you can follow them, and then you’ll hit a dead end, and you’ll have to go outside, on the wrong side of the building.  This is what it wants.”

“Roxanne… what would your dad say?”

“Dad?”

“Uncle Paul.”

“He’d say… I don’t know.”

“Then I’ll take a stab at it,” I said.  “He might tell you that all the others are coping.  They’re dealing.”

“Bugs aren’t eating them!”

She looked up at me as she said it.  The rents in her flesh, the scars, were reminiscent of how Callan had died, the poison eating along the paths his veins marked in his skin.

“They’ve got their own stuff to deal with.  But the place is going to try to scatter us.  It’s going to fuck with everyone, in turn.  Do you want to be the one who failed and got lost, when everyone else succeeded?”

“That’s stupid,” she said.  “I’m not some stupid idiot that can be convinced like that.”

“Roxanne,” I said, my voice quiet.  “Man the fuck up.  You don’t get to give up here.  For once in your life, you don’t get a second chance.”

Oh god.  I had so many memories of my dad and Uncle Paul talking in just that tone.

I didn’t stop.  “This place, it has a kind of intelligence.  Think of it as a person, doing its utmost to fuck with you.  Okay?  Fuck with it back.  Win.  Get out of here.

It was a language she spoke.  It struck home.

Mute, nodding, she found her feet.  I offered her a hand and she took it.

She startled.

Three feet away from us was a man in a rumpled business suit, tie too tight at his neck.  His hair was mussed up, like he’d just woken up.  His sleeves barely reached past the halfway point on his forearms, and he wore no socks or shoes.  Hands and feet both were covered in deep gouges that disappeared beneath the fabric of his suit.  His face pulled into a wide grimace, not quite a frown, not quite a smile, just pain and ugliness, every one of his teeth visible, even the molars and wisdom teeth.

There had been zero sign of his approach.  Not a sound.

“No,” I told him, firm.

His lips moved too fluidly as he closed his mouth, licking his lips for a moment.  The mouth closed, lips moist, but it was almost out of place on his face, like it wasn’t centered.

“Okay,” he said, barely opening his mouth.

I kept a wary eye on him as Roxanne eased her way out of the window.

He didn’t move.

“My hand,” she said.  “It’s hard.”

I watched the man in the ill-fitting suit as I followed her out, straddling the window and finding a foothold.

“Climb onto my back,” I told her.  “Focus on holding on.”

The man didn’t budge an inch.  He didn’t shift his weight, barely breathed…

Roxanne found handholds in the branches at my left shoulder and the open hole at my right side.  Her legs wrapped around my midsection.

I inched away, getting as far as I could from the window before I turned to look for the next handhold.

“You stink,” she said.  “Like gutterstuff.”

“Cope,” I told her.

The main group was so far away.  Three-quarters of the way to where we needed to be.  Kathy was still below, but she was halfway or so.

We’d almost backtracked.

I wanted to be there before they went inside, because all signs pointed to these apartments being occupied.

I looked back toward the window just in time to see the man’s head emerge.  Slower and more fluidly than a person should be able to move, his head at an angle that would have only worked if he were lying down or standing on a wall, it was more like a puppeteer was extending a cardboard cut-out through the open window.  His bloody, cut-up hands emerged, a bit too late, gripping the windowsill firmly.

His expression was neutral as he stared.

I edged away, and against my better judgment, I took risks, reaching further, testing things less carefully.  My body was strong and it didn’t get tired, allowing me to rely more on one grip.

I saw one Other emerge, then another, poking their heads out of windows three floors above Kathryn.

Clowns, female, their paint smeared on so thick that it made their flesh look like paper mache.  The colored-in parts looked half-done, like it was smeared on in crayon, pastels, or charcoal.

The noose fell, missing Kathryn.

I redoubled my efforts, striving to cover more ground.

They reeled it in double-time, until the noose was halfway between them and Kathryn, and let it drop again.

Evan flew up, wings flapping, and the noose moved aside before it could settle around her neck.

The lights around Kathryn went out, and the next attempt was conducted in near-pitch darkness.

When the lights came on, Kathryn was struggling to keep upright while removing the noose from around her wrist.

I felt Roxanne’s arms tighten around my neck.

Evan hopped down to help her, working on undoing the knot.

One of the silent clowns jumped from the window.  The other end of the rope was wound around her arm.

I hurried to close the distance, but there were no handholds in the brick.  I was forced to backtrack, paying for rushing with a loss of time.

The rope went taut.  It was connected to something in the clown’s room, which made the falling clown a counterweight.  It went down, and Kathy’s arm was hauled up.  She lost her footing, and was forced to catch at the top of a windowsill with the elbow of her free arm.  When the initial momentum was gone, she dropped again, and caught herself again, legs dangling for a few seconds before she found the previous footholds once more.

She weighed more than the clown did.  That meant she wasn’t pulled up endlessly.  She was, however, suspended in place.

Evan continued working on the knot, and I continued heading over to her location.

A peek backward showed that the man with the ill-fitting suit was still in the window, staring.

A peek downward indicated that the clown was fumbling around its person.

Drawing a knife, it clamped the knife in its teeth.  It began walking up the side of the building, reeling itself in as it went.  Towards Kathryn.

Twenty feet away, fifteen, ten…

The knot came undone.

The clown fell about ten feet before its counterpart caught the rope, stalling its fall.

Faster, I thought.

We were equidistant from Kathy now, but I was burdened, and the clown acrobat had clearly done this before.  Her face was determined, though her eyes were literally empty – there were only black spaces rimmed with red where the eyelids had been cut out.  She had a light smile on her over-painted face.

“Roxanne, if I leave you behind,” I said, “I’ll be able-”

“No,” Kathryn said.  Her voice was strained.

“You’ll-”

“My arm is dislocated,” she said.  “There’s no point.  There’s nothing you can do for me.”

Ah.

“Focus on Roxanne,” she said, “And when you’re done getting her to safety, go to fucking hell.  Bringing us here?”

I didn’t have a response.

Hooking one arm inside a windowsill for leverage, Kathryn stuck out one foot in the direction of the taut rope.  She wound the rope around her leg, and then swung it.

The clown was forced to dance to the right as her rope moved.

Kathryn did the same thing in the other direction.

The clown moved like a pendulum, back and forth.  Its forward progress had slowed.

Kathryn met my eyes.

I edged downward, aiming for the rope.

If I could get between them…  I did have the Hyena.

The clown danced left, then danced a bit right, and clawed her way a few feet higher up the rope, until she was fifteen feet below Kathryn.

Another dance to the left, playing along with the momentum, within two feet of me.  A dance to the right-

A window shattered.  A large hand seized the clown by the throat.

The rope fell loose, still swinging as the clown girl let go.

The clown’s arms went limp at her sides as the hand continued to squeeze.

The hand let go, and the clown dropped.  Tumbling down much as the debris had.

I passed under Kathryn, then climbed up, to give a wide berth to the window the hand had reached from.

The lights went out, then came back on again.

Something dropped.  It might have been a sink, or part of a toilet.  But Evan was in flight, and gave Kathy a push.  She swayed, and was forced to catch at antoher handhold with her sole good hand, in order to stop from falling.  The chunk of porcelain disappeared into the void below us.

“Don’t,” Kathryn said.

“I just saved your life!”

“Save it better!” she snapped.

She was panting, and I could see the shine of sweat on her brow, despite the fact that it was cold enough for our breath to fog up.

She looked up, wary for more ‘slapstick’ falling objects, and then edged along to another spot, finding another handhold.

“Kathy,” Roxanne said.

“Get going,” Kathryn said.

“But-”

“Get going, you little idiot!”

Roxanne was the one being told to go, but I was the one doing the work.

I continued following the others.

Kathryn, in turn, followed me.  With only one arm that functioned at all, she had to be doubly sure of footholds, and sometimes there was only one, one place to put her foot down while she lunged for the next surface to grab, with swaying, flickering, and misleading maps of light and shadow.

She followed the route I forged, and remained silent as I mentioned the various handholds and footholds, what was good, what to watch out for.  No breath for a thank-you.

Rose let the book drop onto the coffee table.  She stood there, staring down at it, another two books stuck under one arm.

Her expression was grim.

“What happened?” Ty asked.

“One second,” Rose said.  She scrawled a symbol on the coffee table in chalk, looked around, then circled it.  “Need to make sure we have privacy.”

“What’s going on?” Evan asked, flying closer.

“The benefits of doing research,” Rose commented.  “I found him.”

“Him?”

“Our recent visitor,” Rose said.  “Blake.”

“Oh,” Ty said.  “Shit.”

Shit indeed,” Rose said.

“He’s in the books?” Tiff asked.

“In a manner of speaking.”

“Is he for real?” Alexis asked.

“He thinks he’s telling the truth.  For the most part, he is,” Rose said.

“Then that’s… not a bad thing, right?”  Tiff said, a bit of cheer in her voice.

Alexis picked up the dropped book.  She turned it over, then opened it.

Evan hopped up, cocking his head as he read over Alexis’ shoulder.

“No title?” Ty asked.

“It’s not a text,” Rose said.  “It’s a diary.”

“Oh.  Your grandmothers.”

“There’s a lot to be said for what gets left out,” Rose said.

“Left out?”  Evan asked.

“In the diary, she talks about binding the Barber.  I was doing some fact checking, so I could be sure there were no surprises with the dead man’s switch, and I noticed the discrepancy.

“What is it?” Alexis asked.

“A power the Barber has.  Blake is a vestige.  It’s a question of how it was made.  And why.  The Barber is a demon of ruin.  It ruins by way of reflections.”

“Reflections?” Evan asked.

“Cut right down the middle.  Or, more likely, cut out a quarter.  Let them get filled in and shored up as vestiges are prone to do.  One gets the friends.  One gets memories of school.  Another gets the ability to study.  Another gets the ability to fight.  Trauma to one, repressed memories to another, and all down the line.  Where there’s overlap, there’s enough memories to spare, or the spirits are filling it in.  Things get exaggerated in vacuum, expanding to fill the empty spaces.”

“You’re both vestiges?”

“I’m pretty sure we aren’t,” Rose said.  “We’re both more vulnerable to possession, but that’s not the point.  The bigger part gets to be real, the smaller part is the vestige.  But the way it’s done, there’s always conflict.  Which is the point.  The Barber makes his victim destroy themselves.  Fight tooth and nail for everything.  If one side survives, well, there’s nothing saying the Barber can’t cut away more of them.  Do it again, until all you’ve got is a ruined, mad, pathetic husk.”

“But Blake wasn’t-“

“The hostility was raw,” Rose said.  “It’s supposed to be subtle, but… coming from  where he did, I’m betting the subtleties have been ground away.  The way this works, one of us is destined to destroy the other.  Believe me, I definitely want to get rid of him, especially now that I know.  If he finds out about this…”

“He’ll want to destroy you.”

“He was telling the truth, when he said you were his friends.  If he finds out,” Rose said, speaking very carefully, “that he could get you back, get all of his old life back, simply by defeating me, that he could make headway by diminishing me, even, that we’re in a tug of war for every aspect of the existence, that we’re being driven to the point where one kills the other…”

She was rambling, and had lost the thread of her own statement.

“Rose-” Alexis said.  “What he said, it matches up with this.”

“He’s not real,” Rose said, “The diary says as much.  When a man is cut in twain by the shears, the part that retains the heart and soul is female.  He’s… I’m going to need your help.  I’m going to need promises, because we can’t fly blind here.”

“But I like him,” Evan said.  “He’s got birds on him, and birds are awesome.”

“Then- fuck it,” Rose said, “Like him all you want.  But I’m going to have to ask that you stay quiet.  I’m genuinely frightened.  The stories that go with the Barber…  it’s usually a build-up, regular interactions with someone who overlaps too much with you.  Then conflict comes up, and the damage is… as bad as it gets.  Life-destroying.  And neither of us are complete people.  It’s pretty easy to do damage to each other.”

“It’s different here, though,” Ty said.

“But the pattern is still holding.  Grandmother used it, but it’s still the same thing.”

“Why?” Alexis interjected.

“Because she wanted a tailor-made heir.  Cut away all the bits she doesn’t like… like my having friends and ties to another city, or interests.  Retain the parts she does.  Then, when all’s said and done, if I can’t beat my reflection, maybe I don’t deserve to be her heir.”

“You want to lie?

“We have to,” Rose said

She injected a bit of Conquest into her voice.

Continuing, she said, “We can’t afford to be weak right now, or to have to watch my back for an attack from a fragment of my reflection.  I’m not denying it’s going to be messy, but we need to stand together.”

The others accepted.  Influenced, but not forced.  They made the call of their own accord.

It was only after the others had fallen that Evan finally relented to the pressure and promised to stay silent.

I felt the birdlike flutter in my chest jerk, twitch, then splinter, as if it were multiplying.

My entire body shuddered with the ensuing vibrations, as if I had a flock of birds within me.

“Blake,” Roxanne said.  She was slipping.

It took me long seconds to go still again.  I caught her wrist and pulled her up.

My chest heaved.

I’d stopped climbing.

But only just.  I’d been moving while the Tenements showed me a glimpse of the past.  We were nearly at the place the others had gone inside.  Ellie was looking out the window.

I looked back, and saw Kathryn making slow progress behind me, hugging the wall, oblivious to the damage she was doing to her one good hand, fingertips, cheek, and knees bloody where they’d been scraped raw.

I climbed up enough to hand Roxanne over, then headed down, giving Kathryn some support.  She wound up needing it, climbing up to the window.

I was last to ascend.

Ty was already opening the way.  A gate to the foot of the hill, outside Hillsglade House, near the trees.

Alexis glanced back and smiled.

I couldn’t smile back in return.

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Duress 12.4

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“I’m thinking we should start a fire in or near the house,” I explained.

I studied the expressions on their faces.  Concern was a pretty big one.

“That sounds like a bad idea,” Green Eyes said.  She had crawled part of the way up the desk, using one hand to prop up her upper body, and the fingernails of her other hand to comb gore out of her hair.

“Start a fire in the house… while we’re in it?” Ty said.

“Just enough of a fire that they notice,” I answered.

“Not even a small fire, then,” he said.  “Not a table or a piece of furniture.”

“No,” I said.  “The flames would need to cover at least a section of the house.  But we won’t be… the location isn’t important.  We can work out the details.”

“I’m almost on board with that,” Peter said.  “Burn down the house, put an end to this lunacy, house has to be sold if it’s flooded and burned, with the sale, money gets out there, and because we’ve all been helpful, we each get a cut.”

“No,” Kathryn said.  “That’s idiotic, and nothing in the contract supports it.  The law firm would take over the property.”

“Which would be messy,” Peter said, “Considering everything that’s involved, and the sheer amount of blood in the hallway.”

Tiff, Alexis, Ty and I were already shaking our heads.  Evan saw us and started shaking his head too.

“No?  Because… they’re in on it.  They’re a part of it,” Peter voiced his thoughts aloud.

“There you go,” Ty said.

“How much a part of it?” Kathryn asked.

“On a level,” I said, “They’re a bigger part of this than Rose or I.  They made this possible, and they’re perpetuating it.”

“Why?” Peter asked.

“That’s an answer too long and complicated for me to give,” I said.  “Our focus right now needs to be on getting through the rest of tonight.  It’s what, seven o’clock?  Not even?”

“Not even,” Ty said.

“Thirteen plus hours until all of this is over,” I said.  “We need a new angle.”

“And somehow this new angle leads us to burning the house down?”

“Part of it.  Maybe,” I said.

“Part of it maybe,” Ty said.

I could see Ty, Tiff, and Alexis exchange a look.

The look was about me.

The pounding on the doors changed in timbre.  Different hands and tools were smashing at the barrier, now.

“What are you guys not saying?” I asked.

“They’re worried that, your jokes aside, you’re legitimately insane,” Peter said.

“You’ve known them for all of one and a half hours, give or take, and you feel qualified to judge what my friends are thinking?” I asked.

“He’s… not wrong,” Ty said.

I didn’t have a response for that.

I could see their eyes, the lack of eye contact as they refused to look right at me.

“Blake isn’t crazy,” Evan said.  “He’s as sane as I am.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I appreciate that.”

“Um,” Peter said.

“The bird is talking,” Ty clarified.  “We can hear it, you can’t.”

“Sucks to be them,” Evan said, “What I was saying, before I was rudely interrupted, is since I’m very level headed and very sane, and I’ve done so much, saved the day a few times, I’m pretty sure…”

“You can’t set yourself on fire, Evan,” I said.

No,” he said, exasperated.  “I want you guys to set me on fire.  Or turn me into fire.  Duh.  I’m too young to play with matches.”

Us setting you on fire is a bad idea too,” I said.

“Listen,” Peter said, pausing to wince at one particularly loud slam on the door, “I get that the bird supposedly talks, but this isn’t doing a lot to make things sound less crazy.”

“The… bird,” Green Eyes said, “wants to go out in a blaze of glory, I think.”

As a blaze of glory,” Evan corrected.  “I want to go out there as a blaze of glory.  Flaming bird, wings spread, trail of smoke behind me, all my enemies fleeing at the sight of me.”

“Sorry,” she said.  “As a blaze of glory.  That does sound pretty cool.”

“I know, right?”  If Evan could have smiled, he’d have been beaming at Green Eyes at that point.  She was propped up, leaning over him, half-sitting on the desk, now, with Evan on the corner beneath her.

Green Eyes raised her head to look at me, “If we’re going to stay here, we’ll need food at some point.”

“Holy shit, you didn’t eat enough?”  Peter asked.

“We’re not staying here,” I said.  “They wouldn’t have attacked if they didn’t think they could finish off everyone in the house.  The whole point is to leave Rose without any supports.”

Which started almost everyone talking.  Too many things to be said, no organization, and even the people I was closest to had only a couple days of memories of association with me.

Alexis, Tiff, and Ty wanted to talk about tactics, or how much they didn’t like mine.  Peter was focused on me and Green Eyes and all the rest of the strangeness, almost being cheery or humorous in a weird way that might or might not have had to do with his near-death experience.  Kathryn was trying to clarify just how all of this worked, with a focus on the sensibility of it, which wasn’t constructive in the here and now.

Only Roxanne, Christoff, and Eva were silent, observing.

There was too much in the way of nervous energy, too many differing motives and points of focus.  The levels of experience, comfort and familiarity with this world varied by years, months, weeks, and hours.

Quiet!” I shouted.

People fell silent.

I could see how agitated they were.  Peter’s hands almost fidgeted before he stuck them into his pockets, leaning against a bookcase.  Kathy somehow looked furious, as if trying to be heard and failing had somehow offended her on a fundamental level.  Ellie was incapable of staying in one place, and Eva’s constant glare only made her more prone to nervous pacing.

“Please,” I said, as I glanced at Christoff.  “We’ve already lost Callan.  Some of you nearly died out there.  Things are bad.  Focus.  Let’s take thirty seconds to think.  Silence.  Then, when those thirty seconds are up, we’re going to go around the group.  Each person can say one thing, or ask one question for, let’s say, one answer.  Think about what you need to say and what doesn’t matter.”

There were a few nods.  Some reluctant.

“If you’re all going to be silent,” Eva said, “I might as well say-”

“Shut the fuck up,” Ellie said, glaring.  She was still bleeding here and there from the kicks she’d taken.  “I’ll forget what poison it was, and your brother can die, if you don’t shut the fuck up and play the good doggie.”

“Doggie?” Eva asked, eyebrows going up.

“Sit, stay, sic ’em if we give the order,” Ellie said.

“If you think-”

“I think,” Ellie interrupted.

Shut up!”  I said.

They shut up.  Eva didn’t pipe up, though she glared at Ellie, and the rest were content to keep their mouths closed.

The pounding and scratching continued, and I could almost see the nervousness of the others ratchet up in the quiet.  They felt the need to do something.

Trouble was, we needed to be on the same page.

I took more than the required thirty seconds.  It was only when most of the others had started looking around and acting like they were about to talk that I spoke up.

“We’re going by seniority here,” I said. “We-”

“Define seniority,” Peter cut in.

I had to resist the urge to reach through the mirror and throttle him.

“In order of seniority,” I said, my voice firm, “From the first people to be introduced to the Hillsglade House situation to the most recent, we each take our turn.  Hopefully the new people, like Kathy and the kids, will be able to pick up some details here or there, or amend their questions.  Everyone else stays quiet, unless you have something to add.”

There were a few nods.

“My name is Blake, I’m, as far as I can tell, a fakery that grandmother Thorburn put in place to take the hits while Rose figured out how all of this works.  Because our family has enemies.  As you’ve all seen.  Things have hit a climax, all of those enemies have mustered forces, and now that Jacob’s Bell is starting to grow, they want to fight to decide who gets to be in charge.  Just about the only thing they can all agree on is that they hate the Thorburns.”

“Because of bad karma?” Peter asked

I gave him a look, but judged it was a good thing to help clear up with the others.

“It’s complicated, but that’s it in a nutshell,” I said.  “Telling people about this stuff is a fast track to getting more bad karma.  Getting involved with the sort of things Grandmother got involved with is a faster track.  The lawyers are a part of that.  Those are the bullet points for what you need to know about why this is happening.  Rose is gone, and you guys are… like I said, nobody wants to be the one to tell you ‘hey, magic is real‘, so you’re-”

“Human shields,” Kathryn said.

“Basically,” I answered.

She nodded.

“Cat’s out of the bag,” I said, “We’re trapped, and honestly, we don’t have a lot of options.  We could wait until sunrise, but I don’t think we’ll get that far, playing the defensive game.  If we fought, well, I don’t think all of us are going to beat all of them, because there’s an awful lot of them.”

I saw a few nods, fatalistic glares, and tension running through people’s bodies.

That’s why I’m proposing the fire,” I said.  “Fire gets people’s attention.  Rose wanted to play a game of chicken.  She’s betting on the fact that the people out there are too scared of the monster on the fourth floor to keep her in a straightjacket and padded room somewhere, or whatever they’re doing with her.  By setting a fire, we’re escalating the game of chicken and take away the sense that they’re in control.  That’s one advantage of the strategy.”

“There are disadvantages,” Alexis said, her voice still a little odd from the spiritual infusion.

I held up a hand.  “Hold on.  Hear me out.  There’s more to it.  Look at the big picture.  We’re holed up in here, and the monsters and friends of the major groups in the area are hounding us, pounding on the door.  Meanwhile, the others should be holed up in their individual homes and demesnes, watching, waiting, and keeping their metaphorical doors locked.”

“Ahh,” Peter said.  “I like this kind of thinking.”

“I thought you would,” I answered.

“Clarify?” Kathryn asked.

“The ones who aren’t monsters are, for the most part, people.  They have their own worries and concerns,” I said.

“What’s going to happen if we lose this game of chicken?” Peter asked. “What’s my enemy planning right this second?  Are we ready to make the next move?  Am I safe?  We’re fighting for our lives, but they’re tense.  They’re… are they singular or plural?  The powers?”

“Mostly families,” I said.  “One mostly-singular guy with a talking angel-dog and a lot of favors he’s just called in.”

“Yeah.  So they’ve got their own drama to handle, then.  Tension in the ranks?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“With the fire, we add to the tension.  See what snaps.  Number one way?  You see it every day.  ‘This deal expires!  Stock is running out!  Hurry!  Don’t think, just act!‘  Take away their time.”

“That’s more subtle than what I was considering, and some of these people manipulate time, so…” I shook my head a little.  “We’ve got help out there.  Not a lot, but Rose is there, so is Corvidae.  I’m… flexible in terms of how I can move around.  If we can draw them out, we can target them.”

“While the house is on fire,” Alexis said.

“While the house is on fire,” I agreed.  “It might scare some of the Others-”

“It scares me!”  Ty raised his voice.

I held up my hands.  “Hold on.  In order.  Alexis.”

Alexis glanced over the room.

“I have concerns,” she said, her voice still a little odd, “and by their nature, they’re concerns I can’t share.”

“That’s bullshit,” Ellie said, still upstairs, watching us through the railing.

“No, it’s not,” Tiff said, “Seconding that statement.”

“I’ll back it too,” Ty said.

I resisted the urge to snarl with frustration.  “That’s really not helping.”

“It’s the truth,” Alexis said.  “My turn to talk, right?”

I could still sense the spirits within her.  Her voice was eerily clear, almost clearer than anything I’d ever heard.

“Go ahead,” I said, though I couldn’t meet her eyes.

She might have thought it was out of anger or frustration.  It wasn’t.

“There are other factors at play.  You can’t go with your gut because you’re not entirely you.  You… put a spirit inside of me to give me the energy to keep going.  That you can even do that should be a clue that there are forces at play inside you that aren’t purely Blake.”

I’d unconsciously shut my eyes, following her words.

The word that stood out to me, oddly enough, was entirely.  A few hundredths of a second’s hesitation partway through speaking the word.

Not entirely myself.

“Stop,” I told her.

“She’s supposed to say her piece,” Peter said.  “You laid down the rules, don’t break them right away.”

“I’m not,” I said.  “Just… I can’t stand here and let her keep saying what she wants to say without full disclosure.  The spirit I gave you, it’s giving me an in.  A way to see what you’re saying or feeling.  I don’t know.”

I managed to meet Alexis’ eyes.

“If you keep talking, I might be able to figure out something I shouldn’t.  I may already have an inkling from what you just said.  I don’t… I can’t convey how badly I want to figure out what’s going on.  I feel like it’s a matter of life or death, a question of my existence.  But I want to play fair with you more.”

In the seconds of near-silence that followed, with only the pounding on the door, Alexis folded her arms.  I saw her turn her hand over, as if she was studying it for changes.  She clenched her fist.

‘Kay,” she replied.

Just like before, I was able to read her tone, getting a sense of her attitude.

Pretty fucking powerful implications for a damn one-letter response.

They weren’t implications I could wrap my head around, but the general sentiment was clear.

I’d done more harm to our relationship than good, confessing that much.  A breach of trust that I might never recover entirely from.

“I guess I’m next?” Tiff broke the silence.  Ty shrugged.

“Sure,” I said.

“I studied some divination, mainly because I studied a lot of the defensive stuff,” she said.  “I’ve always been pretty lame.”

“Passive,” Alexis said.  “We were working on that before all this started.”

Tiff shrugged.  “Passive.  Focusing on the protection stuff seemed like the thing to do.  Figure out what they’re going to do by telling the future or remote-viewing them and prevent it.  Keep things intact and let Rose be the heavy hitter.”

I nodded.

Her voice was quiet.  “If we’re going to set fire to the house and try to draw them out, I can do a reading.  It might give us better odds if I do it right.  But I agree with Alexis.  I don’t know if you’re saying we should do this because it’s you or if it’s the… less pleasant things inside you that are saying it.”

“Less pleasant?”

“You were sent to the Abyss, and that’s why Rose was able to take your place.  You were supposed to die, but you didn’t.  You came back…”

“You don’t have to be nice, Tiff,” I said.

“Dirty.  Darker.  I- I-”  She stuttered, obviously uncomfortable with the number of eyes on her.  She made a conscious effort to get her thoughts in order.  “-don’t know how you were before, but you’re a little twisted now.  Your arms bend funny inside the sleeves of your sweatshirt, and there are places I can see through the branches that are covering you, and I just see…”

“Darkness,” Ty said.

Tiff nodded.  “You brought a bit of that place with you.  And maybe that place wants you to burn the house because it’s a place that chews things up and it wants to chew up this world too.”

“You’ve done your reading,” I said.

“Yeah.  Rose has summoned a lot of bogeymen.  I wanted to know how to deal if another one of them went wrong.”

I nodded.

“So… I guess if I have to finish saying my thing… maybe we should let the others chime in.  If the fire seems like a good idea, without your saying anything to make it happen, then maybe we do it.”

She shrugged, obviously unhappy with the compromise.

I wasn’t too happy with it either, but I could shut my mouth and let the others have their say.

“Alexis and Tiff think you’re the problem,” Ty said.  He was holding one of the nails with tags attached – the ones jammed into the mountain man hadn’t done anything.  “I’m just not sure it’s a good idea.  How do we fight past that group outside the doors?  How do we start the fires?”

“Ahem,” Evan said.

“More importantly,” Ty said, “how do we put it out?”

“We could decide on the plan and then work out the details,” I said.

“We could,” he said, “But should we?  I’ve had moments where I had to wonder whether I should move forward with a project or abandon it.”

“Shitty tags that didn’t do anything are a clue you should abandon more shit,” Eva commented.

“Probably,” he said.  “Wasn’t talking about the magic.  There’s stuff in the books we haven’t read yet.  If we get everyone reading, we could come up with something, a summoning, or a ward…”

“That you haven’t found and bookmarked in the last few weeks?” I asked.

“Found, bookmarked, summoned and lost,” Tiff said.  “We burned a few bridges, just trying to get by.  Others that can only be summoned once every so often, because the Abyss holds on too hard.”

I nodded.  I felt a little uneasy talking about just how short the collective resources here were getting, with Eva listening.

“There’s not a lot,” Ty said.  “But it beats the alternative.”

“What’s the alternative?”  Peter asked.

Ty shook his head, “Ask if you’ve gotta ask, but ask on your turn.  Let me finish.  Blake, I’m willing to be convinced, but if everyone’s getting their say, it’s going to take a while.  I don’t think we have that long.”

“Like Peter said before, about pressure and lack of time messing with your ability to think critically,” I said.

“Goes both ways,” Ty said.  “It might be affecting you as much as it’s affecting me.”

“Yeah,” I answered.

Ty shrugged.

“My turn?”  Evan asked.

“I suppose it is,” I said.

“I should have had my turn before, you know.  Because I was your familiar before Alexis and Tiff and Ty did the ritual.”

“Yeah,” I said, “You were one of the first to get clued in, but Alexis knew about the general family circumstances before, and… yeah.”

“Technically,” the witch hunter said, “I’m the most senior one here.  I’ve known about how fucked up the Thorburns were since I was four.”

Alexis spoke in a low voice.  “Technically, I don’t expect you to have anything to add.  You’re just a problem, until there’s something to be killed.”

“Story of my life,” the witch hunter said, sounding far too casual.  With a little more bite in her tone, she added,  “Hurry up so I can unpoison my brother.”

“Okay,” Evan said.  “Right.  Ahem.  So.”

“So,” I said, echoing him for the benefit of those who couldn’t hear him.

“Fire.  Awesome.”

“Fire, awesome.  I think I see where you’re going with this,” I said.

“Ty was saying we need strategy.  So… we gotta get out of here, right?”

Not where I’d anticipated him going.

“We do need out of here.  That would be step one.”

“We open the door and there’s a buttload of monsters out there.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “The monsters pose a problem.”

“And we want to come back.  Because we gotta go somewhere after the fire is started, and if we leave the house, we’re not going to do very well.  This-”

“This library is our starting point and our ending point,” I said.  “Nowhere else to go, as sanctuaries work out.”

“With monsters filling the space between here and the far side of the house.  In the hallways.”

“Yeah.”

“Rooftop,” he said.

“Rooftop?”

“I’ve flown over this house a bunch of times.  I know how the outside is.  Instead of going through the hallway, down the stairs, all the way to the ground floor, then alllll the way to the back hallway, we go out, then duck right.  Out the window, or through the bedroom and out the bedroom window, then we’re on the roof.”

“There are gargoyle-things outside,” Ty said.

“But probably less than there are things inside!” Evan said.

“True.”

“Sum up?” Peter asked.

“If we decided to start a fire, we could head out a window and make a break for it along the roof.”

“Slick,” Peter said.

“Snow could help or it could hurt,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.  “Would we even make it to the window?”

“No guarantee,” Ty said.  “And those gargoyle shits were vicious.  Just saying.”

It’s not the answer.

“Food for thought,” I said.  “Thank you, Evan.”

“Is it worth a brownie point?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Because I’m saving up my brownie points, to call in a favor,” he said.  “I want-”

“I know,” I said.  “I know.”

My eyes fell on the Other who was sitting with Evan.

“Me?” Green Eyes asked.

“Thoughts?”

“Um.”

“No pressure,” I said.

“No,” she said.  “I’ll help.  But if things go bad, and I get killed, I’ll probably wind up back at the Drains.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Bring me back?” she asked.  “Please?”

“First real chance I get,” I said.

She nodded.  “Thanks.”

That cleared up the practitioners and Others in the group.

Leaving me to deal with the Thorburns.

“Peter,” I said.  “Anything to say?”

“Alternative,” he said.

“Hm?”

“Before, you mentioned an alternative.  You implied it was bad.”

“Demons,” I said.

His eyebrows went up.

“Not nearly as good an idea as you’re imagining,” I said.

Actually, I’m thinking that’s probably bad,” he said.

“I can virtually guarantee you that it’s worse than you’re thinking,” I said, thinking about Rose’s theory that demons of the first choir were the reason the universe was as empty as it was.

“Okay,” he said.  “It’s bad enough that being killed like Callan was is a pleasant alternative.  How much worse?”

“In December, you and I would have resembled each other.  Different builds, I’m taller, but I was human, to all appearances.  One demon, and it sent me to the same place that she came from.”

“Yeah,” Green Eyes said.  “It’s where we met.”

“I lost everything,” I said.  “My humanity, fake as it might’ve been, my home, my motorcycle, my friends, my familiar, my ability to feel properly, my identity.  It… I think it hurt my friends here, took something from each of them, because affecting me was enough to affect them too, as collateral damage, by association.”

I was careful to meet each of the Thorburn’s eyes.

I had to communicate just what the danger was, here.

“You being inside a mirror, that a part of the demon or something else?”

“Little bit of column A, demon, little bit of column B, Grandmother.”

“Right,” he said.

“And the kicker?” I asked.

“There’s a kicker?”

“It didn’t get me.  It almost got me, and it did all that.  I was lucky.  It missed, and it ruined the very fragile image of Blake Thorburn and left only Blake the Bogeyman.  That demon is still alive, still active, within a kind of binding circle.  It’s not even a major demon, as far as I know.”

“A not-major demon turned you into a monster.  What does a major one do?”

“You’re asking too many questions,” Kathryn said.

“If this goes south,” I said, “and they enter the room on the fourth floor and look at the occupant wrong, we may well find out,” I said.

“Ah,” Peter said, with a nuance that suggested the pieces were falling into place.

I hope he doesn’t make me regret this.

Then, with with all the sarcasm he could muster, he added, “Great.

“Kathryn,” I said.

She shook her head.

“No?”

“This is your fault.  You… set this up.”

“Rose did,” I said.

“Ok, then what is Rose doing?  Aside from using us as human shields and playing chicken?”

“I imagine,” I said, “That Rose is talking to people.”

Alexis added, “She’s playing chicken, she’s got to look brave.  She’s got to scare the other guy.”

“Rose?  Scary?” Peter asked.

“She’s read up on pretty terrifying things,” Tiff said.  “Demons, bogeymen, real monsters.  Stuff we couldn’t summon if we had a few months to prepare.  Right now, she’s got an incarnation in her head.  Conquest personified, leaking into her brain and behaviors.”

“She might not be able to back down,” I said.

I could see Alexis’ expression change as I said that.  I was too aware of it.

Why?  Why had she reacted?

In the interest of not using this knowledge to my gain, I looked away.

Stupid, maybe, but I wasn’t about to tell Alexis I wouldn’t use illegitimate knowledge and then turn around and read her body language.

“Head games, then,” Peter said.

I nodded.  “Same way she could stay levelheaded when she was dealing with our family.

“Wow,” I heard Roxanne mutter.

“She didn’t have a lot of time to prepare,” I said.  “What I’m wondering is how much power the locals have over her.  Did they have her drugged, or explicitly avoid drugging her?  Could they deny her a mirror?”

“You’re thinking of paying her a visit?” Ty asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  “There’s a lot of things I’m thinking of.  But too many start with us opening these doors, and we don’t have a lot of options once that happens.  Any thoughts, Ellie?”

She shook her head.

“No comment or questions?”

She shook her head again.  “This is fucked.  Comment made.”

“Roxanne?” Tiff asked, talking to Roxanne like she was a normal kid.  “Do you have any questions?”

“The lying thing,” Roxanne said.  “That’s for real?  He can’t lie?”

“I can’t either.  Ty can’t either.”

“Uh huh.  If I became like you, I wouldn’t be able to?”

“No.”

“Uh huh.  Alright.  That’s all I needed to know.”

Why did that bother me more?

“Callan,” Christoff said, the moment he’d realized it was his turn.  “Can I bring him back?”

“Probably not,” Tiff said.

“Not like he was,” Alexis corrected.  “There are other ways.”

“I came back, kind of!”  Evan said.

“The bird mo- he came back,” Green Eyes translated from ‘can’t be heard by innocents’.

“I never left, really, but I got to live again.”

“There are ways to call spirits and put them in vessels,” Alexis said.  “There’s… probably very good reasons that practitioners don’t generally bring back their loved ones.”

“But I could,” Christoff said.  “If I became a wizard?”

“If you became a practitioner, maybe,” she said.

“Can I, now?”

“Not now,” she answered.  “We don’t have the things needed to do the ritual.”

Christoff nodded.

Peter was rubbing his chin.

“What?” I asked.

“Seems wrong, that the dead could be brought back from being dead, but our whole problem is we’re in a bad place and we can’t get out of it.  The dead can go from one circumstance to another, violating the natural laws of the universe, but we can’t get from A to B?”

“Bringing back the dead requires certain circumstances,” Alexis said.  “Like with Evan, he never quite left.

“But it’s possible.”

“A lot of things are possible,” Alexis said, sounding annoyed.

“Okay,” Peter said.  “Cool.  So, knowing absolutely nothing about this world, I’ll just put it out there.  We’ve got a fish on dry land, a bird without room to fly, a bogeyman in a mirror, and a ton of people crammed into a library, waiting for the doors to get kicked down.  In the interest of thinking outside of the box… how do we get out of this… box?”

It wasn’t a question with an immediate answer.

Ty walked along the perimeter of the library, looking at book spines as if he could find something to spark an idea.

Alexis and Tiff talked in low voices.

A chunk of wood fell, dancing along the floor.

A hole in the bookcase.

One red eye peered through the hole.

That was it for our sole sanctuary.

They’d die and I’d…

I looked at Green Eyes.

The thought sparked an idea.

“Ty,” I said.

“‘Sup?” he answered.  He was up on the floor above, still looking at spines.

“You’d probably be the one to know.  We can bring Others here.  Summoning them.  Like we did with Green Eyes.”

“Yeah.  Varying amounts of resistance, demands, obligations…”

“Can we go the other way?” I asked.  “Visit… there?”

“Another exit,” Peter said.  “While they think we’re here…

“Where do you want to visit?” Ty asked.

“Anywhere but here,” I said.  “But I’m thinking the most obvious, familiar territory for two of us…”

“No,” Green Eyes said.  “Aw, no.”

“Just for a short time,” I said.

“It’s doable,” Ty said.  “Question is, do we want to do it?”

“If we can get around to the back of the house,” I said, “There’s a stone porch and some furniture.  It’s where Rose and I summoned June.”

“Okay?”

“If we can approach from an angle they don’t expect, we could probably get a bit of fire and smoke there without risking the house.  From the town below, it’d look like the house was burning.  If the situation called for it, we could be more ambitious with the firestarting.”

“We never agreed-”

“Ty,” I said, “This wouldn’t just be hoping that Corvidae could do something with the opportunity.  We would be able to flank them.  All of us.  At least make a couple of moves.  Set a fire, get their attention, and attack, while everything and everyone’s looking at the house.”

He, Alexis, and Tiff exchanged looks.

“You’d know better than us how bad these ‘Drains’ are,” he said.

“They’re bad,” I stated.

“Better or worse than what’s out in that hallway, making their way in?”

Something wispy was starting to creep into the library.  Tiff stepped forward to banish it with a dash of salt.

“Can I get back to you on that?” I asked.

Tiff pursed her lips.

“But at least that way, there’s hope,” I said.  “A short trip.”

“You don’t come out in one piece,” Green Eyes contradicted me, her voice quiet.  “It’s almost a rule.”

I could see Alexis’ reaction, much as I’d caught certain words and bits of body language.  I wished I hadn’t.

Not in one piece.

That meant something.

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