I watched the chat continue to scroll by, new messages pushing old ones past the top of the screen.
Peter, Ellie, and Christoff were still there. It gave me a measure of hope, seeing that. Whatever the feelings of Penelope or the others, they at least had enough self-awareness to realize that kicking Thorburns out of the chatroom would be an act of great hypocrisy.
On a level, Penelope might have cornered herself, trying to censor the chatroom. Now she was in a position where exercising her powers over the chat could cost her. Until another mod came on, maybe a Behaim representative, the Thorburns would have access.
Or, perhaps, they’d have access until their phone batteries ran out, and then they’d get locked out.
Manipulating the system was something of a Thorburn specialty. If I didn’t benefit, it was because of my unique nature. I was only part Thorburn. Literally.
In giving them access to the chat, more specifically giving them access to the younger members of the community who might be more willing to listen, I was hoping they could achieve something, even mild.
I was doing a lot of that. Opening doors to possibilities. Sending Corvidae out there to hunt for practitioners, sending the man in the ill fitting suit out there from the tenements, in much the same manner, then filling in the Thorburns. Now I was putting the Thorburns in the same room as the junior practitioners, in a manner of speaking.
I tapped the table, hard wooden fingers rapping on wood, then double checked the piece of paper where I’d written the names. My wooden hands had made my already abysmal handwriting into a scrawl, for the last four entries. The first three had been done in Joyce’s.
Carter Duchamp, PyromancerLandon Michaelsson, Spellbinder
Crooked Hat, Scourge
Eric Ritchie, Dabbler
Stan Ritchie, Dabbler
Mason Hall-McCullough the Benevolent
I switched my status from ‘appear offline’ to legitimately offline. Computers and phones weren’t my thing, but I wasn’t ignorant either. I’d had enough exposure in my teens. There was a lot one could do when they’d figured out how to use a computer to get information, or the sorts of places one needed to look to find the features they wanted. These days, if there was a feature one wanted, it was just a question of finding it.
Knowing that much was the only thing that kept me from being in the same group of computer illiterates as the struggling sixty-somethings and elderly.
“What do I need to know?” I asked. “In brief. You know who these guys are?”
Joyce raised her head as I handed her the sheet. “Yes. I remarried. I’ve gotten to know people from the extended family, then I came back here.”
“Please,” I said.
“Um. Carter is young. He’s a criminal, and we knew he was a criminal. He was in bad shape, the deal was supposed to help him get his feet and help us get access to his resources and information network.”
“It worked. His being a pyromancer is… almost negligible, in terms of what we wanted from him. Not so much in terms of what he can do. We wanted someone willing and able to do some less legitimate business, we married off one of our own to him, and he got her into that life.”
“And for that, he deserves to die?”
“When child protective services came to take the daughter away, the child’s mother was insensate. He dealt, and she’d gotten into it. She’s never recovered.”
I thought of the alcohol Green Eyes had smelled on the one woman.
“A form of escape?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Joyce said. “But he ruined her, and a lot of members of the family were pretty unhappy with him. There was a lot of talk about whether to welcome him here, but…”
“I don’t need the full story,” I said. “Only what’s relevant.”
“…We thought we needed the manpower. Okay.”
“Landon,” I said.
Lola, a few feet away, looked pretty unhappy with this conversation. She still had her phone, which she’d taken back from me as soon as I’d reached out to Alexis with information on how to get the Thorburns online. She was still using it to follow what was going on in the chatroom, while keeping an eye on me.
“Spellbinder,” Joyce said. When I looked a bit confused, she added, “An enchanter, but specialized in control. He keeps three or four Others with him at all times. I named him because he broke the rules. He’s paranoid, and doesn’t really associate with people. Only Others. We’d hoped to use her as a way to bring him back to society, to get him involved. But we underestimated his paranoia.”
“He bound his wife. To keep her from passing information on to us. Bound her mind and bound her bodies, so she only does what he says.”
“Hypnosis?” I asked.
“The binding is as solid as hypnosis is soft and vague. He’s… scary. In a lot of ways. I don’t think the family would miss him if he was gone, but we invested in him, we lost a family member to connect to him, and I guess Sandra decided that if we’d paid the price, we might as well…”
“Use what you paid for?” I finished for her, as it didn’t seem like she’d continue speaking.
“I didn’t know that whole story,” Lola said, quiet.
“It was a long time ago,” Gail said.
Joyce nodded. “It’s not the kind of story we share, especially to someone engaged, or yet to be engaged.”
“You could have told me. Holy shit. We condone that?”
“He’s strong,” Joyce said. “And we play a long game. Sandra promised we’d act against him, and that the revenge would be dramatic enough that others would know we weren’t to be trifled with.”
“But only if we got the Lordship?” Lola guessed. “Only if we had that clout?”
“Excuse me,” I said. “There isn’t a lot of time.”
Joyce frowned. “If anyone needs to die, it’s him. Nobody will associate with him, given circumstances and the danger that he might use them. He protects himself with puppet Others. Any other practitioner you go after, you’ll find webs of safeguards. You can’t hurt them or target them without our enchantresses knowing. But Landon stands more or less alone.”
I nodded. “Okay. The Spellbinder is strong. I’ll put him off until later, then.”
“Put him off?” Lola asked.
“It makes sense,” Gail said, eyes on the ground. I could practically read shame radiating off of her, as she betrayed her family. “If he’s going to alert others no matter what he does, he might as well pick off the strongest first.”
“Gudbrand,” Joyce said, looking down at the list.
“Valk-something?” I asked.
“Valkalla,” Joyce spoke.
“He didn’t do anything,” Gail spoke.
“That’s the problem, isn’t it?” Joyce asked, looking up at her sister. She looked at me. “I said I wouldn’t speak unless it helps you. I’m helping you by explaining, giving context.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“He’s not married to one of ours. His father remarried, and married one of ours.”
“He was unhappy with the fact that she only bore girls. Valkyries and the various offshoots, they work with spirits and souls. Rather than have girls, he used his newborn daughters.”
“As fuel,” I said, just a little spooked at the thought.
I only got a tight nod from Joyce in response.
“That was him,” Gail said. “That was at a different time, for the Duchamp family. Thirty-five years ago. Before Sandra was in charge.”
“But the metaphorical apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” Joyce said. “I’ve met Gudbrand. I feel confident in saying he’s no different from his father.”
“Holy fuck,” I said. “How have you not turned against the family heads for this? You marry these guys?”
“No,” Joyce said, shaking her head. “No, it’s not like that. It’s… once or twice a generation. A lot of pairings. Divorces are hard, and sometimes not even allowed. Things go wrong.”
“Who are the others?”
“I can barely read your handwriting. Crooked Hat… he deals with your kind.”
“His Demesne overlaps with a section of the Abyss. He’s trying to learn to manipulate the Abyss to his own ends. The elder Duchamps thought it was enough of a prospect that we could, how to phrase it, metaphorically buy stock in the venture?”
“He went there willingly?” I asked. “Long term?”
“Yes. I don’t know what he did that made someone think he deserves to die, I haven’t even heard that he’s a bad person.”
“He’s married, though?”
“Seems fine enough… as arranged marriages go. They have four daughters, three young, if I’m remembering right. He gave his daughters odd names, but that’s not anything worthy of execution.”
I frowned. “Eric and Stan.”
“Eric is Stan’s brother. They’re not major practitioners. But they had an extensive library with texts we needed access to. If it was a little bit larger, we might call them something more impressive than dabblers. But it isn’t. They’re collectors.”
“Someone thinks they deserve to die.”
“I don’t know,” Joyce said.
“Looking at the people in chat,” Lola said, “Manon?”
“No comment,” I said.
“She’s the only one I can think of that would know them, besides me. And Manon knows Laurine, Stan’s daughter. They gave the names in this order? Eric, then Stan?”
“If I’m guessing right, connecting dots… they deserve it.”
“That’s all you’re giving me?” I asked.
“If you don’t give them a chance to call home and network, they’re not a threat,” she said. “You don’t need to know more.”
I didn’t like that, but time was short. “What about the guy with the title?”
“The Benevolent,” Joyce said. “I can guess. He’s old. Got married to Clara before Rose Thorburn the senior was a practitioner, if I remember right.”
“Old. He’s been around a while, obviously.”
“Longevity goes hand-in-hand with good karma,” Joyce said. “Which he has. In abundance.”
“He practices using Karma?”
“Yes. I can see why people would be unhappy with him. He made his wife miserable. Tricked our family, even. Neglected to mention that he already had three wives, making his Duchamp wife the fourth. Likeable in person, but less so from a distance, and those of us who realized that kept our distance, myself included. We never had an angle or clear excuse to retaliate for his deception, but that’s how he operates.”
“If I didn’t feel like that was a pretty vague justification for attacking someone,” I muttered, “I almost suspect I’d enjoy hurting him.”
“Almost. Almost. It sounds like he’s a personification of everything I hate about all of this.”
“If it helps,” Lola said, “He’s probably done far worse than what we just described. But events play out in a way that supports him. There’s rarely enough people in the same place, talking about him in a way that would let them put the pieces together, at a time that we’d be free to do something about it. If someone named him, maybe they have a stronger suspicion, but aren’t in a position to voice it?”
I drummed my fingers against my leg.
I couldn’t help but think of Carl.
Carl, who I’d last seen in a nice apartment, enjoying himself as he talked to people.
Sometimes bad people slipped the noose.
Sometimes good people suffered.
“I’ll take that under consideration,” I said. Then, with more emphasis than the comment warranted, speaking to all of them, I said, “Thank you.”
“You’re really doing this?” Lola asked. “Cold blooded murder?”
“I’m not sure that you’d find blood, exactly, if you tapped one of my veins and put the fluid under a microscope,” I said.
“You should know what I mean.”
“Yeah,” I said. I took the paper from Joyce. I looked down at it. “Yeah.”
That said, I turned to go. I pushed the door open, stepping outside.
Did I trust them? No.
Did I trust that there weren’t any traps in here? No. The Benevolent Polygamist was the most obvious potential trap. Old enough that it wasn’t a true loss to the family if he died, and if he was as fortunate as I hadn’t been, back when I’d been custodian of the house, I could be running headlong into disaster, if I challenged him.
I mentally crossed him off the list.
“You were gone a while,” Green Eyes said, from within a snowbank. Snow partially piled on top of her, and she was largely camouflaged. Only the glow of her eyes gave her away, as I walked to a point where the light from the nearby streetlamps met the right angle, lighting the orbs up.
“If we coulda gone in after you, we woulda,” Evan said.
“I got what I needed,” I said. “A list of names.”
I showed him the sheet. “These names. Targets. This next part is going to be tricky. Do you two know the basics of evading Enchantment?”
Sandra’s camp was effectively dealing with what we’d faced at Hillsglade House, except they were outdoors, with the benefits and drawbacks of that, and they had an awful lot more people. I wasn’t sure, but I suspected the enchantresses were doing something to interfere with the attacking forces. Turning one against the other. There were points in the conflict where I wasn’t really sure about sides.
But if I had to guess, the Duchamps were winning.
Given a chance, everything defaults back to ‘normal’.
Without something to tip the balance, the Duchamps would recover. They’d fight their war with the other major powers until someone did something dramatic.
I estimated twenty to thirty Duchamps, spread across four generations, from the elderly to the young, and maybe twenty male practitioners. Exact numbers were hard for the men, as many of the Others around them were humanoid or humanish, and a good number of them were odd enough in style that they became harder to distinguish from the monsters.
The little spot by the water had a one-story building with an ice cream shop and a convenience store at the front, the signs and windows dark, as well as bathrooms and change rooms for those visiting the beach or using the park, apparently open, with practitioners using the raised walls that blocked off the view to the interior as a defensive position, defensive runes painted on the walls. Far off to the right was a stage, separated from the building by a gap and archways, and Sandra was using the elevated position to command. Most of Sandra’s contingent were standing on the raised platform that surrounded the shops, building and stage, behind the wrought railing. Sandra was on the edge of the stage, flanked by her troll and some tougher looking Others, a higher vantage point, to overlook things.
I was careful not to look too hard or too intently, especially at the women.
There. Fire. Carter. Drug dealing pyromancer. I wasn’t sure how that worked in execution, if he took out competition by burning them alive, or if he only used the pyromancy for the ‘light a joint with a burning fingertip’ gimmick, but I had trouble wrapping my head around who he was and how he functioned.
Too minor a player, yet simultaneously too dangerous for me to risk dealing with, considering the dry wood I was made of.
I didn’t fuss with looking for the brothers Stan and Eric. Yes, I had Lola’s assurance that they deserved what was coming to them, but they were minor. Not a threat.
The Spellbinder was supposed to stand alone, but I couldn’t make him out. Was it possible that he was isolated enough that he wasn’t even here? He was vulnerable enough to pick off as opportunity permitted, but going after him too early would be giving away the show, when I could pick off someone who was networked, before the Enchantress network started working against me.
That left two options.
The valkyrie man who had turned his own children into fodder for his practice, and the scourge, who dealt specifically with Bogeymen and the Abyss.
Looking for them, I found Crooked Hat. The scourge. Identified, surely enough, by the worn, bent top hat he wore. He wore a tattered trench coat that looked like my sweatshirt did, albeit dustier than mucky, buttoned over a vest and a dress shirt with a tie, and he carried a bent cane.
The items didn’t match, not quite, despite his generally neutral color scheme.
The various articles of clothing had been collected. Trophies.
“There,” I said. “If you look at the sign above the ice cream shop, under the far right corner, in the-”
“Top hat,” Evan said.
“And the man’s head engraved on the top of the cane,” Green Eyes said.
I squinted. I could barely make out that the top of the cane was engraved at all. “Really?”
“Well, there we go. There’s one.”
I was little different from the Others that were attacking. I wasn’t particularly strong. I wasn’t smart, and I didn’t have any powers that broke the rules in any meaningful way. I was tough, I was fast, and I was stronger than one might assume, given my frame.
“What do we do?” Evan asked.
“Watch,” I said, “Wait. Make opportunities.”
My eyes scanned the park and beach.
A movement caught my attention.
Pointing, a gleam of something gold.
Not quite at me. At something close to me.
An Other just behind me lunged forward, breaking into a run. Seven feet tall, oddly proportioned with a narrow body, a large head, and larger extremities, it had too many teeth crammed into its mouth, forcing a perpetual grin, and eyes that were too recessed in the sockets to make out in the dark. It looked almost fake, like it had a carved pumpkin for a head, topped by a long-haired wig, made surreal by the addition of very real teeth.
I realized what had happened as the Other pushed his way past me. I raised my hand, but his palm slid down my arm. He raked himself on the chain and barbed wire I’d wound around the forearm.
I saw him react, obviously feeling the pain. He spun on me. I saw the gleam of his eyes in the sockets, where slivers of light had found the eyeballs.
“They’re manipulating you,” I said. “Manipulating us. Trying to contrive a fight.”
It responded with a guttural, wordless noise, drawn out.
It didn’t speak. Or understand, quite probably.
It looked down at its hand. When it clenched one oversized fist, blood oozed between meaty fingers.
While I was looking, it hit me with the other hand. Not justifiably worth calling a jab, it was so heavy a blow, but he didn’t bring his fast back before swinging. I felt bones and wood break, and sprawled in the snow.
Direction and redirection. The Enchantress’ stock in trade.
Two can play that game.
Green Eyes was tensed, forearms perpendicular to the ground, ready to pounce.
“No, Green!” I said. “Evan, help!”
It was maybe a mistake to decide on a game plan before seeing how intact I was. Part of my chest had been crushed, folded in like a car door might be dented.
But I was intact enough to move.
I flipped over onto my stomach, and I scrambled forward until I could switch from a crawl to a run.
Like many predators, when prey ran, this thing chased.
I went from moving barely as fast as I might have walked when I was human as I shifted from crawl to run, and then found my feet as I figured out how best to run in snow. As Evan joined me, I found it even easier. A push here and there, as I almost lost my footing or when the snow underfoot didn’t just compact, but collapsed.
The big thing was barely slowed down in the knee-deep snow. It was tall, and its clawed feet were broad. There was less avenue for his feet to sink in, or for him to happen on areas where the snow underfoot wasn’t solid. Weight distribution.
“You’re getting away,” Evan said.
And, I thought, I’m getting closer to the Duchamps.
I was closing the distance to their defensive lines, to the squat building with its ice cream shop and convenience store.
“Don’t help me,” I said, before redoubling my efforts. “Keep it on course until-”
I very nearly fell. I didn’t bother speaking again. Evan was already gone.
My approach was noticed. Two Duchamp women and Crooked Hat laid eyes on me and my pursuer. One of the women, by the looks of it, was his wife.
Here it was.
They were talking to one another, deciding who would handle what.
I could see as one woman focused on me.
How did one fight an Enchantress?
Same way one fought a Faerie, presumably. Directness, to counteract subtlety.
In that, the charging Other behind me was a point on our side.
Focus on the plan, I thought. Focus, focus–
She held a golden chain, something dangling from it. I saw her swipe it hard, left to right.
She seemed to move in slow motion as she finished, the medallion moving slowly in the air.
I averted my eyes, but I averted them in the wrong direction.
I caught sight of the Valkyrie-man.
Unlike Crooked Hat, the Valkalla was undeniably bad.
An easy target.
But, I thought, there’s no reason I can’t go after both.
I didn’t change course. The snow was easier going as I drew near the building. The stage with its overhang and the building had blocked some of the snowfall.
Beside her, the other Enchantress was doing something else. Not aimed at me.
I heard a snarl, the footsteps slowing behind me.
“Suck it!” I heard Evan say.
The thudding footsteps resumed, a matter of five or ten feet behind me.
Her movements were sharp. With one hand, she wrapped the gold chain around her hand. Arm out straight in front of her, she clasped it, fingers hooking around the edges of the medallion..
I had a momentary glimpse of my reflection.
A catch-twenty-two. The maneuver was clearly defensive. The question was, was it the sort of defense where what I did was reflected back at me, a u-turn in my attempt to connect my fist to her? Something similar, a simple ward against harm, where I might as well be punching a stone wall, destroying my fist or damaging the Hyena? Or was it the sort of defense where I second guessed the attack by thinking it was a trap, and she consequently stopped me?
It didn’t matter.
I leaped. My feet settled on the railing. For a moment, I perched.
My knees bent, and I leaped. Up, not into them.
I stabbed the roof of the squat building with the Hyena.
An enchantress did something. I jerked, my grip suddenly giving. The blade skittered against ice. I slid further down the roof’s edge, feet dangling at the head-level of the practitioners I’d just leaped over.
Right. Of course there was a connection between me and the ground.
And if that could be strengthened-
Again, with no justification, no reason, I felt the connection between me and the roof break. I landed on my feet, back to the wall, Duchamps and other practitioners lined up facing me.
Around that same moment, the Other that had been chasing me collided with the railing and the practitioners manning it.
Evan had steered the thing where the Enchantresses manning the railing here had tried to deter it.
It tried to lean forward, swiping its hand in Crooked Hat’s direction, but the railing gave. It landed with its forearm braced against the ground, head roughly at the level of my collarbone.
More manipulation, I suspected.
I bolted for the nearest gap, off to the right, toward the stage.
“Fast,” I heard a voice, somewhere off to one side, behind me.
When I wasn’t running through snow, sure.
I caught a glimpse of Crooked Hat, moving in the same direction I was, just to my right, barely out of the large Other’s reach.
His stick extended, touching the railing. Tapping.
The railing broke down the middle, as if someone had driven a motorcycle into the midpoint. The wooden slats formed a triangle, broken halves. The broken pieces were longer than they should have been, and they braced one another, touching the wall of the building.
I hurdled it, jumping.
He touched one of the broken sections of fence.
It too, broke. The pieces extended beneath me as they flew away from the point of the bent cane.
Shattered, fragile boards and bits of metal broke further as I landed atop them. Points dug into my body of wood, jamming themselves into the holes in my arms and torso.
“Sorry,” Evan said. “Should’ve-”
“It’s okay,” I said. I didn’t like the unusual number of sharp wooden points and splinters surrounding him. I gripped him in one hand for protection.
Behind Crooked Hat, the monstrous Other was being brought low. The railing, though wooden, had wound around its wrists, and the Duchamps were starting to bind it. It tried to twist its head away as one Duchamp woman reached out to place a paper charm on its forehead.
I lifted my feet up, and brought them sharply down to earth, leveraging my body up and away from the broken fence.
Crooked Hat was gripping the cane near the bottom. He held it upright, and let it slide down, until his hand gripped the top.
The bottom end of the cane, in that same moment, tapped the ice-crusted boards that formed the path beneath us, between railing and building.
The boards that were still supporting me broke and shattered. More points jabbed me, pierced me, and stuck through me.
“Here isn’t so different from there,” Crooked Hat told me. “Sometimes, all we need is a push.”
I pulled my right arm away, breaking the spears and points of wood that were sticking through it, freeing to move. I froze when I saw him move his cane.
This world wasn’t so different from the Abyss?
Yeah, sure, I’d mused something similar before. But no way was I falling into that trap.
On a lot of levels, I wasn’t falling into that trap.
The amount of shit people could pull because others bought into the idea that it was just so. Mystically and in real life.
It wasn’t just so.
I wasn’t going to fall into that trap. I hadn’t, when Carl had tried to make me buy his worldview, trapping me in his way of thinking.
“Bullshit,” I said, “Bullshit, bullshit, bullshit.”
“Things wouldn’t get lost in the dark corners so easily if it wasn’t close,” he said.
“There’s proper love here, and beauty without it being a trick. There’s harmony, and I’m not talking about Balance.”
“There are traps everywhere, and harmony is an illusion,” he said, with quiet confidence.
He believed it.
Shit on me, he truly believed that this world and the Abyss were close.
Fuck me, that took pessimism to a whole new level. To only see ugliness everywhere, to see danger?
“How do you know so little, for someone who studies the Abyss?” I asked.
“I can hardly claim to be of the Abyss, like you can, but I think you’d be surprised at just how much I know,” he said.
He raised one hand to tip his hat.
The surroundings skewed, just a little. As if everything was slightly ajar.
I could see things between the cracks. A dry, dusty, place, not so different from here. The buildings on the other side were all askew, more abstract than real. The place was bright, but it was the kind of bright that killed. That made paint peel and skin burn and plant life die. The kind of bright that bowed and broke, that left people swaddled in rags and hunched over, crawling. A radiation sun.
Was his hat his implement? Joyce had mentioned his demesne. Maybe the hat was his ticket to the abyss.
This guy was no small potatoes.
“You know stuff, huh?” I asked. “About the Abyss?”
“And this world.”
“Yeah? Do you know why your family asked me to kill you?” I asked. “Because they did.”
I saw his eyes widen a fraction.
His head turned, toward the Duchamps that were throwing out paper charms to bind the larger Other.
At his wife.
I wasn’t free to rise and go after him. In large part, I was still impaled.
But I had freed one hand.
I cast my hand out. Flinging the small body I held in one hand.
Evan flew past him.
Crooked Hat took a step or two back, and bumped into one of the Duchamp’s husbands behind him.
“Free it!” I shouted.
Focused on me, rather than Evan.
Evan flew past the Other. Its arms rattled against the wooden manacles, while papers flew free.
There were exceptional people in this world, people who found their niche, something they were good at, who put their all into it. Some became great scientists, others became artists, or architects.
Crooked Hat had become a great cynic, it seemed, and if he was the type to carry the Abyss around with him, very literally, then did he take it home with him? Did he subject his daughters to it? Did they live in the Abyss?
Maybe someone in the chatroom had thought so, and thought they needed a way out.
Evan, I suspected, was another great sort of person. In the moment I saw him fly free of the reach of others, papers trailing in his wake, I wished I could have seen what he might have grown up to be. He’d survived the Hyena, only to get claimed by the elements. He’d found talents in that, in sheer tenacity, and resourcefulness. He’d been good enough at escaping that spirits had found a connection to him.
What could he have been, if he’d been allowed to grow up?
“Again!” I said, seeing more papers going out. The thing had broken one hand free of the railing, and swiped at the practitioners, only to get tagged by one swift Duchamp woman.
He flew by again, stripping the papers away.
The Other gripped the railing and tore it loose from its moorings. It pressed in, shoving the practitioners toward the building.
The railing flew out of its grip, slapping the ice and snow, and the Other lost its footing.
Twice freed. Each time would likely be harder than the last.
I realized it, and my ability to realize it was one of my few advantages in all this. I straddled both worlds.
The Duchamp-side Practitioners, however, realized it too. The practitioners who weren’t dealing with the now-free Other were focusing on Evan. Avoiding the third attempt.
He could slip away. It was what he did. But as a general rule, he couldn’t slip away three times in short order.
With a crowd focused on him, he was vulnerable.
If I hadn’t been thinking about his better points just a moment ago, I might not have considered our next step from the same angle. Maybe I would have fought, and trusted him to handle himself, or called him to me, so I could protect him and take the brunt of it all.
“Go, bird, save the Duchamps!” I called out, pointing at the Duchamps. I tore my upper body free of the trap of wooden spikes.
My words made for hesitation. Practitioners heard my words and didn’t attack Evan.
But Evan listened, no question.
As the Other found its bearings and pressed forward, Evan swept by. Getting the Duchamps on course. Helping them slip away.
But it was another nudge against Crooked Hat. He had to catch the railing to steady himself.
But Evan had driven him back, and he hadn’t been that far from the Other before.
I tore my lower body free as I pulled myself to my feet, and kicked Crooked Hat squarely in the side.
The Other caught his head in one hand, enclosing it.
Both the head and the namesake hat were utterly crushed.
The Other smiled its too-toothy smile, raising Crooked Hat until his feet didn’t touch the ground, then shaking him, so his limp legs wobbled.
While it was distracted, I ran past.
We’d made a break of sorts in the Duchamp defensive line.
I drew the cleaver as I saw the Valkalla that the enchantress had shown me earlier. The bait. Gudbrand.
But still another target.
I flung it.
Almost automatically, without the man even looking, his shortsword came up, and knocked the cleaver aside.
The thrown weapon broke in two with the impact.
He’d infused his weapons and gear. Beneath a heavy leather winter coat with a fur ruff at the collar, he wore a breastplate. He had a gun strapped to one thigh, another gun in hand, and a shortsword in the other hand. His beard and hair were thick, his eyes dark beneath a furrowed brow.
His eyes were on me, now, as people behind him backed up.
I saw green eyes flash just behind him.
“No!” I called out.
“Yes!” he said.
Why didn’t she listen?
Green Eyes lunged.
His sword came around. Automatic. Always parrying any incoming strike.
Green Eyes saw, and her tail moved, heading down, touching the railing. She managed to knock herself off course, hooking the railing, wounding her tail, and throwing herself down.
But distractions were distractions. Enough for me to close three or four feet, and build up speed.
Shots clipped bone and branch. They made holes the size of softballs on their way out.
“Your father’s weapons?” I asked.
Confidence. I knew this much.
“Some,” he said.
“You know where they came from?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said.
I set my jaw.
Theatrics. I had to appeal to the spirits, and the spirits liked a show.
When it all came down to it, I was an preternaturally tough Other with a broken sword. I had to close the distance. Be a little reckless.
I swatted with the Hyena, as I drew close enough. Sure enough, his sword parried automatically. It left him open.
Maybe he expected me to try and cut him, or hit him. But I didn’t. I embraced him, hugging his sword arm to his side, gripping his gun arm, forcing it down.
Gripping the tail end of the barbed-wire encrusted chain, I caught the back of his throat, pulling him even closer.
“For your brothers and sisters,” I said, loud enough for nearby Duchamps to hear. I saw them stop, turning to see, if not fast enough to act.
A bit more, in the way of theatrics.
Maybe, I hoped, if the universe had any justice at all, a bit of karma. A bit more strength.
He pulled the trigger, and a bit of the wood at my back blew away. Sections of ribs.
But people were scared.
That, at least, was enough to keep me going. To balance it out.
Even with a bad angle, I was close enough to be able to use the sword to cut him near the spine. Nothing vital. I shifted angle, then gripped the handle with both hands, and pulled it close.
That had been vital.
I pulled myself free.
I saw the tension. Felt the fear.
I saw Green Eyes slip under the railing. Intact enough.
“No quarrel with you,” I said, turning my back on them. “I killed the ones I was asked to kill.”
The inevitable question came. “Rose?”
“Duchamps,” I said.
I passed the Other who had chased me. I saw it watch me.
I only heard a chuckle.
A part of me felt like it was mocking me.
Taking advantage of the very same thing that had plagued me from the beginning of all this. In a sense, killing a son for the crimes of the father.