Rose and Alister, side by side. Behaims all around me, a clockwork knight of some sort barring my escape route.
Now I could hear the bell. It tolled in sync with the pounding movement inside my chest, my arms, my legs.
I had to move, shifting my feet, hand clenched at my side, other hand gripping the Hyena. I saw them react, tensing, securing their own footing on the snowy street.
Alister let out a long breath, a plume of cold breath in front of his face.
The bell was Working in concert with the bogeyman part of me to urge me to attack, to go all out. Solve a dozen problems at once. I could surprise Alister and Rose by lunging, moving faster than they expected, or by throwing the Hyena.
Alister was young, though. Eighteen, I was pretty sure? When I’d told the man in the ill-fitting suit he had free reign around here, I’d told him to steer clear of anyone under twenty.
It had been a spur of the moment call, but my gut feeling had been that anyone under twenty wasn’t necessarily free of their parents’ influence.
Alister, though… I had little doubt he was independent. Did my own rules apply?
Or, I thought, maybe I can stop thinking about Alister in terms of how easily I could kill him.
“Hi, Rose,” I said.
“Does the armor talk, Alister?”
“No. It’s a construct.”
“Okay, that makes it simpler,” I said. “I can just greet you. Hi, Alister.”
“You could greet Will, too. He’s the guy who you just tried to murder.”
I nodded slowly, looking at the guy who I’d just cut. Time had rewound. Probably chronomancy trickery, messing with my perceptions, rather than an actual reversal of time.
“Heya, Will,” I said.
“Right,” I said. Couldn’t blame him.
“Do me a favor, and give us some space?”
“If the council wants, we can replace you,” Will said.
“I know. I know I don’t have your full trust, but… we need privacy here.”
Will didn’t look too happy, stalking off with his mechanical soldiers. He didn’t leave so much as walk away until he was more or less out of earshot.
Many of the other Behaims were lurking nearby too. Keeping watch.
Alister let go of Rose’s hand, sticking his hands into his pockets, instead. “I should ask, Blake, is the murderous spree because things went wrong, or because they went right? Either the others are safe, or they’re gone. I can’t imagine you’d be here otherwise.”
“There’s a third possibility,” Rose said, her voice quiet. “He might not have trusted himself to be around them.”
“That wasn’t it,” I said. “Not quite.”
“I see,” she said. “Is my guess closer or further from the truth than Alister’s?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Depends how you interpret the sentence.”
“It doesn’t really matter,” she said.
Some of the Behaims were still backing off. Every set of eyes was on us. It was, if I wound up in a fight, a lot of firepower leveled my way.
“Ah, there’s a bit of pressure,” Alister said, his voice just a bit quieter than before. “They nominated me to be the guy in charge, after a hell of a lot of debating. This is my first publicly visible act as leader of the family. How do I deal with the Thorburn bogeyman, when I have the Thorburn heir at my side?”
Rose was studying me. Emotionally cold, detached, disconnected. Beneath the old fashioned coat, I could see her knee-length dress and the lace-patterned hose on her legs. Her boots had brassy buckles on the straps, with snow in some old scuff marks at the toe. She’d fixed her hair recently.
My antithesis, in a way.
“Any opinions, Rose?” Alister asked. “Have to admit, this gets a lot easier if you give me the okay.”
“If I tell you you can deal with him with extreme prejudice?”
But she didn’t give the okay.
“How is the house, Blake?” she asked.
“Flooded, there are some areas that are virtually painted in gore and bodies, holes in the floors, broken taps, the inner library was broken into, last I saw, before access was barred, which might cause further problems. Then there’s the fire, and… glancing over that way, I can tell that it’s still burning, despite the efforts of the attacking Others.”
“And my friends and family?” she asked.
My, she’d said, not our.
Not wrong, but misleading.
“Callan died,” I said.
“Shit. I almost liked Callan.”
“Roxanne’s in bad shape, Kathy’s arm might not ever recover, and Peter’s… he’s okay, but he’s figured far too much out.”
“Whose head is that on?”
“It was chaotic enough I can’t quite remember. Local bogeymen, I think. Partially on my head.”
Is she asking me this because she wants to know what’s up after she kills me? I wondered.
“I’m glad most of our people came out of it okay,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Did you happen to kill anyone noteworthy before you came after Will, there?”
“No, nobody noteworthy, as far as I know,” I answered. “But I wasn’t idle, either.”
“Well,” she said. She sounded so calm. How much was she using Conquest, here? “Alister and I just had a long conversation about you.”
“I… see,” I said.
“Would you believe I was actually arguing to keep you alive?” she asked.
No, I thought, automatically, quietly furious. My survival was my call, not hers, and I didn’t believe her in the first place. It was unfair, maybe, and maybe it was fueled by the natural opposition to Rose, but when I heard something phrased as a question, my natural reaction was to assume it was a falsehood or misdirection.
Rose went on, “Alister kind of has a grudge, after you tried to kill him-”
“Maim,” I said.
“Well then,” Alister said. “That’s something.”
“-Maim him, then,” Rose said. “I, on the other hand-”
“Don’t have a grudge?” I cut in.
Immature, maybe, but I wasn’t sure I trusted the Abyss any more than I trusted Rose. I could give her a chance to clear the air.
“-I, on the other hand,” she repeated herself, “feel like we’re too short on allies. Johannes has a lot of Others on his side, and the Duchamps have a lot of practitioners.”
She hadn’t confirmed or denied my point.
“Yeah, the Duchamps have a lot of practitioners. Equates to an awful lot of homonculi, apparently,” I said.
“I believe you on that count,” Rose said. “Ty thought about making some a week or so ago. But my point is, I hope you can understand if I say I’m not about to turn down help.”
“Even if that help is me?” I asked. “With all the mystery and stuff you won’t tell me about who and what I am?”
“It’s complicated,” she said.
Sure. She wasn’t entirely wrong.
“How about I make it very simple?” I asked.
The bell tolled louder.
I saw Alister glance skyward for a moment. “Maybe you should steer clear of phrases like that? In the movies and on TV, they tend to precede the big action hero moments where the big guy pulls a dumb stunt. There’s no guarantee you’ll be as lucky as the hero.”
“Okay,” I said. “Rose, I know.”
Alister glanced at her. “Know?”
“You didn’t tell him?”
“We just discussed it,” Rose said.
“Right,” Alister said. “Now it clicks. Been a long night.”
I glanced at him. “You have no idea how sarcastic I want to be right now. I’m surprised you told him.”
Rose cleared her throat. “Before one of us gives away a vital detail in the dumbest way possible, can you clarify what you know?”
“I know where I came from, or I know about as much as you do, I think. Two parts of a whole.”
She nodded slowly. “You read the diaries?”
“Diaries?” I asked.
“Grandmother’s. Leaving the house all of a sudden, like I had to, knowing you had free reign, I figured that would be the way you’d find out, if you found out.”
I shook my head. “Didn’t have time to sit down and read. We’ve kind of been fighting for our lives. Or existences, in any event.”
Evan set down on the edge of a nearby roof, at my three o’clock. He cocked his head to one side.
I’d told him I’d be heading back his way, and that he should cover my retreat. No doubt he’d been wondering what was up.
I shook my head, fairly emphatically. For Evan, primarily. “It was bad. Witch hunters, Others…”
“But the point is that you know,” Rose said. “Somehow.”
“Yeah, the Abyss told me,” I said. To drive in a point, I added, “I’m being honest here. Up front.”
“I had reasons for keeping it a secret,” she said.
You turned my friends against me, I thought. The thought was angry, a growl.
“I know,” I said, in a very normal voice. “I don’t agree with the reasons, but hey… I’m pretty biased.”
“Yeah. Me too,” Rose agreed. “There’s a more obscure principle at work, here, called validity. By saying it, you make it so.”
“I’ve run into that one,” I said.
“A prophecy gets more traction with those who are supposed to carry it out if it’s known. If it has more people who carry a piece of it with them.”
“Much like the threads between us three,” Alister said.
Rose nodded. “This is… almost a prophecy. Fated, might be the right word.”
“I was fated to die,” I said. “I’m still here.”
“Fated to move on from this world,” Rose said. “You did. You came back. Bending the rules here.”
“We can’t bend this rule?” I asked. “Take the idea that one half is supposed to destroy the other and turn it on its head?”
“How?” Rose asked, with a little more force than was necessary, as if it was an accusation or a demand.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m still processing. You’ve had most of a day and a night to think on it. I’ve had less than an hour, probably. But if I had to suggest something… can’t we unite the two halves by forging something like the master-familiar bond?”
“You already have a familiar,” Rose said. “Limits options.”
“Had,” I said. “Which doesn’t necessarily limit anything.”
I noted that Evan was still on the rooftop, waiting. Watching.
Wanting me to ask for help, maybe?
“There’s something between you two, even if the connection is broken. Nevermind. If I had to put it bluntly, I don’t like you, Blake. I’ve seen you change in the remarkably short time I’ve known you, and I don’t think I like what I’d be attaching myself to. To top it all off, being master and familiar doesn’t mean we’d be getting along.”
“Just an idea,” I said.
“Not to mention,” she said, “That the big issue here, between you and me, is we aren’t static. With you in this… state, Blake, you’re nebulous. Evan went to me after you left us, but you reclaimed him, just like that. Dealing with the others, I can see my grip on them weakening. It’s going to get worse. More abstract concepts might start coming loose. Actually forming a master-familiar bond, that’s opening a conduit, letting things flow freely. There’s no damming that river when it starts flowing, one way or the other. It leads to a point where one of us destroys the other, to recoup maybe ninety percent of what we are, minus whatever was lost forever between the blades of the Barber’s shears.”
“Okay,” I said. “And you’re afraid it’s going to flow to me?”
“No,” Rose said. “I’m concerned about how you’ll react if the human parts of you flow to me, and all that’s left on your end is an apparently murderous bogeyman with a hate-on for me.”
“The alternative is that you could cooperate with me. Listen to me.”
“Or you listen to me,” she said. “I’m the original. The heart, the soul, the core. The books were pretty unambiguous. I checked multiple texts. Go back to the basics, the raw stuff of humans and humankind, birth and death, and you’ll find it starts with the woman, ends with the woman. Cut away and you’ll wind up with a female at the heart of it.”
“Maybe,” I said, remembering her saying something very similar in my vision in the Tenements. Her arrogance was grating, and it was making me feel agitated again. I had to be very deliberate as I spoke, to keep my tone under control, “But I’m not sure that means what you think it means.”
“We were someone, and that person is gone now, never to be whole again, because that’s the issue with demons.”
“Yep. They destroy. Even the worst Others out there, what they do is just a change of states,” I said. “Pretty much everything non-demon is in agreement that it’s a very bad thing in the long run: what a demon destroys is forever broken.”
“I get chills when you phrase it like that,” Alister said.
“I don’t know who we were,” Rose said, “But she would have-”
“He,” I cut in.
Rose frowned at me.
“Common sense,” I told her. I plucked at the fabric of my sweatshirt. It had an importance, and I’d just realized what it was. It was even possible that the Drains had made sure to give it to me, because of that. “The guy had an apartment, a bike, clothes. You’re wearing grandmother’s hand-me-downs. What makes more sense? Girl gets cut in two, universe rearranges itself, and her clothes became a guy’s clothes, somehow-”
“A demon or a spell could have done it.”
“Add or remove demons as needed,” I said. “Or, second option, we were a guy in the first place. The simplest answer is often the correct one.”
“Names,” Rose said. “Names hold more weight. Names are fucking important, when you look at what happened to Mags. Why would Ivy be called Ivy? If we were a guy, then she’d be Rose. For the same reason I-”
“Ross,” I said, the moment the thought came to me.
I saw Rose’s mouth open and close.
I saw a crack in her facade. A moment of true concern. Almost a kind of fear.
A part of me wanted to capitalize on it. A screaming, angry part that remembered how she’d turned my friends against me, made this so much more complicated, out of fear and arrogance.
Kill her while she’s off guard.
Alister seemed to recognize her distress, and the knight’s lance was suddenly pressed more firmly against my throat, threatening, warning. The angry thoughts went quiet all of a sudden, as that simple touch brought me back to reality.
I noticed that Alister hadn’t even moved or spoken, yet the clockwork knight had obeyed.
I spoke, calm, “We were probably Ross, or Russ, or Russel, or something that was the male equivalent of Rose. Mom and dad wouldn’t name their second kid Rose, if they’d already named their firstborn something equivalent. They aren’t that tacky.”
A part of me didn’t want to enjoy seeing Rose put on her heels. Realizing just how egocentric she’d been. She’d been arrogant, because she’d been made that way. She’d jumped to conclusions and she’d acted on them, and I couldn’t fault her for that any more than she should fault me for being an incomplete human.
“We were a guy, and we were cut in half. And the feminine side, the heart, the soul, they went to you, whatever a heart and soul are without friends. You got the name. I got… blackness, or white, or whatever you use to represent nothingness, maybe. I got the trauma, the defining experiences, the desire to fight, and you got… ambition and attachment to family. Your memories of high school are probably fuzzy, and pretty damn empty, because reality had to stretch what you had to fill in the blanks.”
“Blake…” she started.
I waited for her to finish, but she didn’t.
“I’m not denying that you might have the heart, the soul, the core, or whatever. I’m definitely not denying that you got the name, or something damn close to it. I don’t, however, think you’re a shoe-in to win any tug-of-wars. I’m not trying to be hostile as I say it, but I’ve got an awful lot of important memories. Unpleasant ones, but we were just talking about traction. Connections forming. Years of homelessness, intense emotional turmoil, being in a cult, Carl… Alexis. Our friends. That adds up to a lot of traction. I’m not sure what the barber left you, that weighs on your side of the scale.”
I left the last bit unsaid. The conclusion to my argument.
Rose had been left as a blank slate. Only the parts grandmother needed and wanted in an heir were kept.
From the look in her eyes, she knew.
I glanced at Alister, who was standing just a bit to Rose’s right.
Maybe it was bad to air all this in front of a potential enemy.
But there were no good times. It was the reality of our existence, if I waited until things were calm and everything was right, I’d never have a chance to speak frankly with Rose.
Putting it all out there, even though I knew it put me in a worse spot. Rose knew I knew, now, and that made her more frightened of me.
“Don’t mind me,” Alister commented.
“I don’t,” I said. “Not too much, anyway. Your thing might be holding a lance to my throat, but you’re giving me and Rose a chance to talk.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good thing,” Alister said, glancing at Rose. “My fiancée doesn’t look happy.”
“I’m not,” Rose said. “But I don’t think I’m going to be happy until all of this is over, if we even make it through this.”
“That sounds like an excellent change of topic,” Alister said. “This. The discussion has been an eye opener, but you did try to kill poor old Will over there, and you were going to maim me not so long ago, and all signs point to things between you and my fiancée ending in tears. The house is burning, and we’ve got you at, er, lancepoint.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“We’re going to need to resolve this one way or another. Again, Rose, as per the terms of our arrangement…”
“Yes,” Alister said.
“I was thinking that sounded like a good thing, before. Getting to decide. Now it’s having to decide. Do I leave Blake alone, and risk having him come after me, or do I have you kill him, and risk that I might infect myself with whatever spirits or abyssal stuff flows through him?”
“No intention of coming after you, unless you give me reason,” I said.
“I’ll give you reason, in a manner of speaking,” she said, raising her chin a notch. “Whatever’s happening to you, the spirits in you, the degradation of your Self, the growth of the Abyss within you, your head will get twisted around, and you’ll convince yourself you have a reason.”
That struck a chord.
Green Eyes, and her insistence that the woman she’d killed wasn’t human any more.
Twisting her thoughts around? Contriving a way around a basic, simple deal?
Fuzzy logic, but did the loss of karma matter, if it was counterbalanced by the Abyss feeding her or feeding me with more strength?
“I can’t say I won’t ever come after you,” I said. “That puts me at the disadvantage.”
“According to the bogeyman with the lance pressed to his neck, two seconds way from possible decapitation?” Alister asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Says me.”
“There aren’t many good answers, Blake,” Rose said. “We need to compromise, but by dint of circumstance, any compromise from one of us two means giving the other half leverage.”
“Dint?” I asked.
“Been reading lots of old books,” Rose said. “My point stands.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that just about sums it up,” I said.
“Like you said,” Rose told me. “The simplest answer is often the correct one. Alister was right, too, saying this is easiest. Right now, the simplest and easiest answer looks to be ‘get rid of the bogeyman’.”
My heart sank.
“I’ve tried to be genuine,” I said.
“You have been,” Rose told me. “I respect that. I bet it even went somewhat against your nature.”
“Some,” I said.
She spoke softly, “But I’m not seeing any good answers. With my relationship with the Behaims being what it is… I can’t afford to make enemies. Alexis, Tiff, and Ty will probably understand if I tell them you were being reckless.”
“Evan?” I asked.
“Wasn’t mine, really. I tried to look after him, I really did, but… I get the impression he was a much better fit alongside you than he was alongside me.”
“Yeah,” I said.
Evan was still watching. He perked up as I met his eyes.
I shook my head a little.
“No?” Alister asked.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said.
“Simplicity and ease, right? I’ll agree to be bound. It’s not simple or easy for me, but… it’s an answer.”
I saw them exchange glances.
“Really,” Alister said. “By me or by Rose or-”
“Not by either of you,” I said. “I don’t trust you. I’m not sure I trust my friends, but… if you forsake all holds on Alexis, and free her of all former pacts and deals you’ve made with her, and if you agree not to influence her and let her make decisions of her own accord, I’ll agree to be bound by her. You’d be able to trust me as much as you trust her.”
Rose shook her head. “Able? Maybe, but not willing. I have to think of Midge and what happened in Toronto. A reckless, stubborn bogeyman?”
“She’s more than a simple bogeyman.”
“As are you,” Alister said.
“I’m guessing you were being misleading before, when you were talking about how you need help, but you need help. We were willing to use Midge to defend the house, and I’m thinking you might need to use me. Even if you’re relying on Alexis, to keep a handle on me.”
“But I’d be giving up Alexis,” Rose said. “And I’d potentially be giving up my grip on her, to hand her over.”
“I’d be giving up my grip on me,” I said. “Being bound… it goes against everything about me.”
Rose and Alister exchanged glances.
Alister spoke, “We’d have your friends, the Thorburns, most of the junior council, the Behaims…”
“Evan,” I added.
“The sparrow,” Alister said. “It puts us on a good footing.”
“A better footing,” Rose said.
“A good footing, relatively speaking.”
“Yeah,” Rose said.
“On the other hand, speaking as the chronomancer of this group… I have to wonder if he’s buying time.”
“Not my intention, except in the abstract,” I said. “I don’t want to be destroyed.”
Rose and Alister exchanged looks.
“What,” Rose said, “If I come after you?”
“I reserve the right to defend myself,” I said. “Including defensive measures set up in advance. We can let Alexis decide what’s reasonable.”
Rose’s eyebrows went up.
I could see her eyes move as she thought intensely, turning over possibilities in her head.
It’s… odd. I’m more nervous about the idea of talking about this with Alexis than I am about talking to Rose, or to Alister.
Even though I trusted Alexis, on a level.
Alister drew his deck out of his pocket. He glanced at the card, then showed it to Rose.
“Yeah?” Alister said. “It’s… most definitely a compromise. Balance of some sort.”
“Definitely a compromise,” Rose said. “Leaves both parties more or less equally unhappy. Unless we’re missing something.”
The silence was almost palpable. The snow muffled everything, and there was no wind. The only motion was the smoke and the dancing light from behind Hillsglade House.
I shifted my weight, and branches and twigs popped and cracked. I could hear the fluttering of spirits within me.
I extended my hand for Alister to shake.
He extended his own hand.
The silence was broken. Where the bell had pealed and tolled before, this was a knell, a crashing of thunder, the noise a church bell might make as it came free, striking hard ground.
Spiritually, it was like a gust of wind. Every spirit within me was thrown aside the walls of the cage, against the walls of my body.
Something else took residence.
Maggie Holt stood on the top of the slope, where the sidewalk reached over to the bridge. Her hair blew in a strong wind, and her hands were shoved into her pockets, for warmth and to shove her jacket down so her skirt wouldn’t blow up.
Her eyes, though, were wide, welling with too many ideas and feelings for me to even process. She moved her lips, but no words came out. The wind took some of them, horror took the rest.
The goblins clambered over me.
I didn’t feel pain. Only the knowledge that I was being taken apart. They were chaotic, different in behavior, in appearance, in size and shape and smell. But they were terrifying. I felt like I hadn’t experienced real, genuine fear in months.
And in figuring out the order to use in breaking someone down without killing them, they were awfully, horribly organized.
One hand raised, reaching out.
A silent, wordless plea.
A fat goblin caught it. Nail files at the ready.
My vision was streaked, blurry.
But I could see the words on Maggie’s lips.
A distant, primal, subconscious part of my mind processed the words.
Laird told me to.
Not an excuse. But a fact all the same.
Never forgive the Behaims.
I closed my eyes. When I opened them, I was standing before Rose and Alister again.
The bell tolled, an echo of an echo of an echo, one rolling over the other, a cacophony.
Sandra had tried to control it, Molly’s Bell, using that Apple of Discord I’d heard about. Centering the conflict on the house.
In slow motion, almost, trying to get centered, and place myself in reality, I withdrew the Hyena from Alister’s outstretched right hand. Blood oozed from the hole in his palm.
I saw him stare down at it.
To his credit, when he raised his eyes to me, there wasn’t a trace of surprise in his expression.
“The bell,” I said.
“Your cousin,” he said. “I know. Grudges die hard, and history is a hard thing to ignore.”
“I didn’t,” I said. Not even a complete sentence. But the meaning was clear.
“Fuck me,” he said, backing away a step, left hand gripping the wrist of his right. “This really hurts.”
The card was right, I thought. Balance. Both sides equally unhappy.
Wait. If it was balance, or whatever the drawn card was-
“Sorry, Blake,” Alister said. “But my family is watching.”
“Your family-” I turned to look. To see staring eyes.
In that same moment. The suit of armor with the lance moved.
It didn’t move from A to B with a handful of steps. Its arm didn’t move fluidly.
It went from A to B as if it were two completely different photographs, switching from one to the next faster than the blink of an eye. In the darkness, with the armor gleaming here and there, spots on my vision made it seem to linger in the spot where it had stood before.
Where it stood now, the lance was sticking through my abdomen.
Bits of broken wood fell to the ground. Other bits got tangled in my legs and on my pants, and gripped to hold their spot.
I worked to back way, heaving myself backward, along the length of the lance.
In the process, I glimpsed Rose and Alister, grim expressions on their faces.
My eye fell on the knight as I pulled myself free. I staggered, adjusting to the fact that I had a hole someone could have fit a leg through in my stomach, and consequently very little abdominal strength.
I saw the clock on the knight’s chest. Ticking counterclockwise.
A timer. Five, four-
Too late, I started to run. I was fast, I was light. Even injured, I could cover a fair amount of ground.
It hit me harder than a sledgehammer. The lance piercing my shoulder. My arm hanging on only by the scraps and fragments of the armpit. I caught my arm and held it-
Eleven, ten, nine-
I raised my injured arm to my mouth, and I bit onto the cloth. My hand still operated, and I was able to pass the Hyena to my free hand.
I twisted and stabbed the knight.
Not even a scratch.
Five, four, three–
The bell continued to tolled, out of sync, messing up my ability to count and predict. It seemed to be getting worse, moment by moment.
By siding with the Behaims, we’d betrayed Molly.
I backed away. There was no winning. No making everyone happy.
The lance pierced my chest. Dead center. Grazing my heart, breaking a part of my spine.
But I was still moving backward. I slid free, landing on all fours.
A small bird flew past me, helping me get my balance and my bearings.
Circles were appearing in the snow. The snowflakes within bright and slow and glittering.
The watching Behaims.
With Evan’s help, I could navigate the traps that were unfolding around me. Break free of the snares. I practically staggered.
The Knight moved, but it could only move so far in the space between seconds. It only grazed me.
I saw Will, struggling with his mechanical people. They weren’t obeying. Weren’t coming after me. He had to duck as one nearly hit him, twisting around.
Evan and I ducked around a corner. Putting a building between us and the Behaims.
We were on a main street.
All of the Others who’d been at the house, and many of the Others that had been held in reserve, they were active. Reacting to the bell.
I found the nearest dark spot, and let myself collapse.