“Jerry?” one of the Satyrs asked.
“Don’t worry, Itys,” the High Priest said. He sighed, and I could see the cloud of cold breath in front of his face.
Sandra put her hands in her pockets. I saw her gaze move past the High Priest to me. Her eyes were half-lidded, as if even this eventuality hadn’t truly startled her. She remained poised.
“Can you explain?” one of the Maenads asked.
“Yeah,” the High Priest said. “I can explain, but it’ll be after. For now, form ranks. No permanent damage or killing of any of the Duchamps… but we are dealing with them. Get ready.”
I saw Sandra shaking her head a little.
“That right, Blake?” the High Priest asked. “No hurting or killing the Duchamps. I’m laying out my terms, here.”
“I’m not making any promises,” I said.
He turned his head, so his face was in profile, only one eye turned my way. He gave me a disapproving look.
“I’m not stupid,” I said. “You haven’t promised anything. You’ve alluded, but that means nothing, in this world.”
“Uh huh,” he said. “I promise, then, to aid you in your efforts against the Duchamp family, provided you promise to refrain from doing permanent harm or killing the individual members.”
“If they don’t give me cause. I’ll exercise self defense.”
“Agreed,” the Drunk said, turning his head back to face Sandra.
“But I like Sandra,” one of the Bacchae said.
“I’m with Thais,” another said.
There were less committal murmurs of agreement, with that.
Sandra smiled a little, but it wasn’t a happy one. It looked more apologetic, sad.
“I guess karma comes back to bite me in the ass sooner than later,” the Drunk said. “Dissension in the ranks.”
I saw the one Maenad glaring at me.
She elbowed one of the women next to her, a Bacchae or Maenad, I couldn’t see the details, and muttered something.
Enemies. Blaming me for acting in self defense.
Green Eyes emerged from the snow next to me. I’d been so focused on the Drunk and Sandra that I hadn’t noticed her retreat. Evan shook off more snow. He wasn’t in any shape to fly, being as damp as he was, so I had to bend down a little to pick him up and lift him onto my shoulder.
“I won’t lie,” Sandra was saying. “I anticipated something along these lines. For years, I thought you’d suddenly show up, after finding the right kind of power, or the right contact, and you’d react. Take action. Fix what was broken. I didn’t anticipate it in the here or now. Your timing sucks.”
“If the timing was more convenient, I wouldn’t be doing this,” he said. “I’m capable, I have resources, but I’m not about to tackle your family when you’re having a good day.”
“Yeah,” she said.
I saw the plume of breath as she sighed. “Damn it. How are we doing this? Are you going to sic all of your followers on me?”
“That would be rude,” he said. “Not very fair.
She didn’t respond.
“Can’t help but notice that Hildr isn’t here.”
“Standing watch over the men that he was attacking.”
“You’re going to tell Hildr to attack, aren’t you?” he asked. “First chance you get?”
The Drunk winced. I was looking at his back, but I could tell. He spoke, “We’ll let you walk away without taking you hostage if you promise to call her off. Keep her out of this.”
Sandra looked at the five or so Satyrs, the four Bacchae and the three remaining Maenads, at me, Green Eyes, Evan, and then back at the Drunk.
“You get a one-minute head start,” Sandra said.
“Starting from the time you meet with the other Duchamps,” he said.
“From the time you let me go. I’m not joking around, Jeremy. The stakes are high, here.”
“No,” he agreed. “Not joking around. I let you barter me down to three minutes of head start, let me decide when the timer starts.”
She didn’t move.
The frantic screaming continued in the background. The Other I’d loosed was still active, recently freed by Evan.
“Remember how we put it back then?” she asked. “No asking for forgiveness.”
“I think,” he said, “We meant there was no need. ‘We do what we must’, remember?”
“Because that worked so well for us, you think?” Sandra asked. Another small sigh. “I’m being a bitch. It got us halfway, at least.”
“Yes,” he said. “Goodbye, Sandra.”
The word held a kind of weight to it. Finality.
“Then you realize this is goodbye,” she said.
He only offered a curt nod.
She turned to leave.
I could see the tension in the Drunk’s minions. The stares that were directed his way.
“I don’t get it,” I said.
“Oh, God, that’s good,” Evan said. “Means it’s not just me.”
“The context doesn’t matter too much,” the Drunk said. “What matters is that we have limited time before Hildr comes barreling our way. All of my followers together could stop her, I’m almost certain, but Sandra knows that.”
“It won’t be alone,” I said.
“No, she won’t,” he said. “Your bird can’t possibly keep her from tracking all of us. We’ll need to move. Now. She’s faster than she looks, I’m sure you know.”
“We’ll split up, then,” I said. “I’m not done here.”
“What do you have left to do? You wanted to weaken the Duchamps.”
“I have three more targets here. A fourth elsewhere.”
“Names given to you by Duchamps, if I heard right? Your announcement, after killing Crooked Hat and Gudbrand?”
“Who are you after?”
“Mason Hall-McCullough, the Ritchie brothers.”
“Ah,” he said. “If I’d known you were after the old man, I might have decided differently.”
“There are some individuals you don’t want to cross,” he said. “You can deal with him on your own. The Ritchie Brothers… if it’s them you’ve got me on board.”
“Just like that?”
“Are you complaining?”
“No. But I don’t trust events when they work in my favor.”
“My god is, in some respects, a god of fertility, madness, and beasts, among many other things. In some respects, in a narrow, particular fashion, Those two could be said to fall within my god’s domain. I still despise everything they stand for, and that’s all I’ll say on the subject.”
I don’t mind a vote of confidence on the ‘they deserve killing’ front, I thought. On the other hand, I didn’t like ‘that’s all I’ll say‘, either.
“Can you give any tips on their appearance? I’ll need to find them in the crowd.”
“Red-blond hair, red-blond beards. Green jacket, for the one, black jacket for the other. One of them has a book.”
I nodded. “And Mason? You’re okay with going after the brothers, but are you saying Mason doesn’t deserve to die?”
“He might. He might not. I don’t know him well. If he did do something worth being killed for, I doubt anyone would be in a position to find out.”
“That was my understanding,” I said. “I was thinking he could be a trap. A name given to throw me off, a situation where I’d almost definitely lose.”
“As opposed to a genuine target?” the Drunk asked.
“A genuine target, yeah. Maybe one of the Duchamps named him because they know something none of the rest of us do.”
“And maybe,” the Drunk said, “He’s both a genuine target and a fight you’re bound to lose.”
The Drunk gave a signal. His Satyrs and Maenads began to move out, away from the main group. His own feet crunched in snow as he headed to the side of the backyard, toward the neighbor’s yard.
When I didn’t join the general retreat, he paused.
“What are you thinking?” the Drunk asked. “You’ve faced down the troll once. If you stay here, you’ll endure a round two.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“But you’re not running. I know you’re quick, elusive, but…”
“I’m thinking,” I said, “That this may be my last chance to get to the Ritchie brothers and Mason the Benevolent.”
The Drunk stared at me. His stubble was almost at the point of being a beard, and his eyes looked damn tired.
“You don’t have to follow,” I said. I offered a hand to Green Eyes. She climbed up onto my back. “But I can’t let them go.”
“Word is you were human, not long ago. Did you forget that mortals like me get tired, after hours of tension and stumbling around in the cold and darkness?”
“No,” I said. “I’m counting on the fact that mortals like them get tired.”
I headed up to the porch the Maenad had jumped off, then hopped up to the roof, landing knee-deep in snow. A small avalanche of snow occurred beneath my feet, but I maintained my position. I scaled the roof.
I saw Sandra rejoining the group.
Snow crunched around me.
Two Satyrs. They were surprisingly adroit, on the steep, ice-and-snow laden roof. But then again, they were goat men. They wore only sweaters and gloves, despite the cold, no jackets, one with a scarf, the other with a hat. All despite the fact that the weather really demanded a hat, scarf, gloves, and coat.
One prowled forward, crouching at the apex of the roof.
“You need more allies like this,” Green Eyes murmured, looking down at him.
“Hm?” I asked.
She shook her head.
“She said-” Evan started. Green Eyes swatted at him, and he managed a brief flight before landing on my shoulder again.
“I see the Ritchie brothers,” she said, pointing.
The Duchamps were gathering at the house where snow had fallen, blocking the front of the house. Some were moving around to the back. Others were facing Sandra, where she was talking to a group of ten individuals that was about eighty-percent male.
The husbands. Maybe one or two of the people in the group might have been female family members or allies of husbands.
The Ritchie Brothers were there. At this distance, given the circumstances, I couldn’t quite judge color, as the gloom turned everything into shades of gray. But they were standing side by side, and I thought I saw the book.
“Red-blond beards?” I asked.
“Yes,” Green Eyes and the Satyr to our right said, at the same time.
She leaned forward, hugging me more, chin over one of my shoulders, my head effectively blocking her view of the Satyr, but I did catch a glimpse of her face, a suppressed smile.
“Your eyes suck, Blake,” Evan said “You need animal eyes. Or monster eyes.”
“Diagrams on the ground,” Green Eyes said, pointing. “There, there, and there. Like the one before, kind of.”
“Thank you,” I said. I could almost make them out. Spaced out at even intervals.
That made the approach harder.
“Maybe if you plucked out your eyes and let them regrow?” Evan asked. As if the question wasn’t horrifying enough, he managed to ask it in a way that sounded innocent. As if this was the most normal thing in the world.
“I think tampering with my perceptions is a bad idea,” I said. “And I kind of want to keep whatever I’ve got left, fleshwise.”
“You don’t got much,” he said.
“Hey, yeah,” Green Eyes said. “How much do you have, even?”
I declined to comment.
Just by being here, not even talking, the Satyrs were bad influences.
Still, it was manpower.
And, I thought, it was symbolism.
A more experienced practitioner like Jeremy wouldn’t have missed that.
I crossed the roof, and hopped down. The landing was harder than I might have liked, with the added weight of Green Eyes on my back, but I still landed on two feet, and managed to avoid falling.
The Satyrs landed almost gracefully.
We hadn’t been noticed.
What did it mean for practitioners like the Enchantresses, so used to being aware, to tracking connections and more, to have to deal with an enemy they couldn’t track?
If I was targeting them, I imagined, it might have been entirely different.
I was aware of the Ritchie brothers. Standing off to one side, talking with another bearded guy. The diagram-drawer.
Mason the Benevolent was talking to Sandra.
I saw her check her watch. Her stoat perched on her shoulder, leaning forward to look as well.
Tense, ready to act.
We’d spent a couple minutes talking. In less than a minute, the troll would be loosed again.
“Attack?” Green Eyes whispered.
I could hear the toll of the bell. Faint, but there.
“No,” I said. “Attacking is suicide.”
Especially with Mason the Benevolent there.
I glanced at the Satyrs.
Both were staring at me. Glaring.
Because I’d killed the Maenad? Or because we’d been enemies only minutes ago?
They nodded, small gestures.
I led them around.
Avoiding the diagrams. Avoiding the route the troll was most likely to take.
Off to one side.
“Diagrams?” I asked.
Green Eyes craned her neck, twisting her body, scanning.
“For trapping the living curse,” one Satyr said. His hooves were making a steady chipping sound against the ice and snow, as he ran alongside me. He was close enough to a mortal in how he operated that he did get tired, it seemed, as he was breathing harder, but I was guessing he had more stamina.
“Would they work against me?” I asked.
“Diagrams?” I asked again, after passing a house.
“No,” Green Eyes replied.
I pointed, then led the way.
Between two houses. The Satyrs, like me, were fairly quick, and adroit enough to land atop one section of fence, where the back yard was walled off.
I pointed again.
Taking the long way around. Half a block to the right, forward, and now half a block to the left.
“Thing,” Green Eyes hissed.
I saw it a half-second later, as I came to a halt.
More animal than person, it had a jutting jaw and hair that was carved out of stone. Its eyes glowed. It had horns, claws, and wings, with spikes down its spine.
It was perched on the edge of the roof, above the back door where Duchamps were filing into the house. Its head swept from one side to another, moving like a security camera might. Except this security camera was attached to something the size of a small car.
The men had been airing grievances with Sandra, or asking for more information.
With luck, they were reacting to the loss of the High Priest. The Drunk had been, going by what I’d seen earlier, a representative of their side, in the Duchamp contingent. Powerful, somehow a leadership figure, and someone with Sandra’s ear.
I drew closer, using mounds of snow that had accumulated over a tarp-covered air conditioner and barbecue as cover.
“It smells like bad meat,” Green Eyes said.
The thing’s ear twitched. Its head turned, quicker eliciting a grinding noise, like the roll of a tire over gravel, yet audible from two hundred feet or so away.
I let myself drop to my knees, closer to the ground, harder to see behind the lump of snow.
When I looked again, the thing’s head was roving, scanning the surroundings. A share of its attention was pointed our way. Diagrams to cover from one angle, gargoyle from another. If I’d circled the other way around, would I be running into a another form of defense?
“It-” Green Eyes tried, testing, her voice even quieter. When it didn’t react, she whispered, “Smells like the little things back at the house.”
I looked again. This time, I saw the first of the men heading around to the back door.
Any second now, the brothers or Mason the Benevolent would disappear through the doorway.
“Evan,” I said. “With me.”
I’d looked at them as I asked the question, and I saw the glances they exchanged, the dark looks on their faces.
“Nevermind,” I said. “Just stay quiet.”
There was no time to waste, no room for planning or biding time.
I peeked, checked it was looking, then moved the second its head turned away, a full run. In the doing, I underestimated how deep the snow was in the one yard, and my progress slowed.
I wasn’t going to make it to the shed that was supposed to be my next bit of cover before the thing looked my way again.
I saw its head turning, and simply let myself fall. Arms spread, face down, landing in the snow, three-quarters of the way across someone’s backyard.
“Wait,” Green Eyes whispered, her voice breaking due to the smallness of her words, the individual components so faint they used parts that weren’t practiced much.
“Go,” she said, and she was off me. Slithering away. Or swimming.
I went, no longer burdened by my passenger.
To the shed, then the fence beyond.
I tensed as I saw her in the snow, freezing almost right under the thing’s nose.
It didn’t notice.
She was camouflaged.
She’d maybe even camouflaged me, being on my back, helping to offer just a bit more white to join the reams of snow.
I waited, now close enough I had to be careful of the humans seeing, making sure I wasn’t letting the Ritchie brothers or the Benevolent slip my noose.
I hopped the fence, landing in a crouch in snow, then moved to the side of the porch. Snow had piled up and between rails in the railing, making it a simple wall.
Green Eyes approached me. She extended a hand.
I started to reach for her hand, but she shook her head.
She pointed. At Evan.
I didn’t dare speak, with the guardian homunculus so close. I could only pass Evan to her, and in absence of words, will a message to her.
Don’t eat Evan.
She moved with glacial slowness, scaling the side of the house.
If I looked, I could see some of the homunculus. Its flesh looked like it was ninety percent callus, the worst sort of callus that appeared on the feet, as dirt and sweat colored it yellow and gray. Being homeless, working for a farmer, living at Carl’s commune, I’d had chances to build up some pretty gruesome calluses.
But it went a step beyond. Large patches of its flesh had almost ossified, or calcified, or something. It, in simple terms, looked as tough as dammit.
Makes me think of those biopunk movies, I thought.
Green Eyes reached the roof. Helped in being silent and unnoticed by Evan’s presence.
As she moved through the snow, though, a lump of snow fell from the roof. A miniature avalanche, much like the one I’d created earlier.
Green Eyes pounced on the gargoyle, setting her teeth into its neck. Her tail scraped and stripped flesh from one wing, rendering it to tatters, and one layer of flesh from the thing’s side. She made a screeching noise, and the thing howled at her, in return.
It was my cue.
I was nearly silent as I went around the railing. The stairs had been shoveled clear, as had the porch, but there was enough snow to dampen my foosteps, and the noise of the fight was a distraction from the sound of broken branches.
My eyes were on the practitioners. Their focus was distracted. I could flank the group, hit them hard, and there were a half-dozen places I could escape to if I needed to. Over the edge of the porch and into the neighbor’s yard, onto the roof, onto the neighbor’s roof, back to the backyard I’d just approached from…
The porch had two sets of stairs. One leading into the backyard proper, the other had a gate at the bottom that opened to the driveway. The gate was open, and the practitioners were there.
The Ritchie brothers, there. Mason Hall-McCullough the Benevolent was there, too, but he was halfway down the driveway, at the side of the house.
Until the Satyrs behind me screamed. Battlecry screams.
Eyes fell on them. Standing behind me, still in the backyard.
My own eyes found them. I saw the glares. The anger.
It was Jeremy’s bad karma, quite possibly, that was bleeding over to me. The Satyrs were upset. They had loyalties to Sandra, and I’d killed one of their kin.
They were following the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
They’d revealed me. Ruined the element of surprise.
I broke into a run, leaped into their midst.
Practitioners needed opportunity to practice. To say words, to draw symbols, or use the right item in the right way on the right thing.
I faced a cluster, a pack.
“Deus-” one started.
I smacked him in the mouth with my forearm, goblin-chain-and-barbed-wire included.
I saw another drawing sheets of paper from his pocket.
I simply struck them out of his hand with the butt-end of the Hyena.
Throwing my weight against the group, I shoved the closest practitioners back into the ones behind. They were a group, on or at the base of the stairs, without much room with the house, fence, and railing all in close proximity.
“I was asked to kill specific individuals,” I said. It was easy to speak while I fought, as I didn’t really need to breathe. My words came out strange, wind whistling past trees, albeit with force behind them. “By Duchamps. For Duchamps.”
Green Eyes and the gargoyle fell from the roof, in a heap. She was covered in blood, and I had no idea how much of it was hers.
“Eric Ritchie, Stan Ritchie,” I said. “You’re next on the list.”
I saw heads turn.
Stan and Eric. A green jacket and a black jacket. One had a thick mustache, but his beard was scarcely more than stubble, a step behind in growing in. The other had thick glasses, a book in one hand.
“I’m on the list too!” Mason Hall-McCullough called out, almost cheerful.
“Wait your turn!” Evan shouted.
Some had fallen, being pushed back, or finding that snow, ice, and other’s people feet made for lousy footing. I walked on them, pushing my way forward, keeping the rest on the defensive, retreating in a space that was almost painfully confined.
I was almost surrounding myself, leaving barely injured practitioners behind me, and there was nothing saying the Duchamps in the house couldn’t come out.
Except the Satyrs.
Even though they’d given me away, they were staying true to their role. One had headbutted a practitioner, knocking him down, and the other was standing by the door.
In the time I’d looked, one practitioner had found opportunity to grab a fine chain from their coat.
I stabbed to one side with the Hyena. The chain was struck against the wall, falling loose from the practitioner’s grasp, the blade piercing brick, millimeters from cutting the webbing between the practitioner’s fingers.
In this, like this, Karma was on my side.
Declare my opponents, stick to the plan. Be what I was supposed to be.
Using one hand to help, I grabbed the side of the gate, and I hauled myself up, perching on one corner post, Hyena held out as a warning, my eyes quickly moving between the various practitioners, searching for any more telltale signs, for lips that might be moving in an incantation.
Higher ground, albeit precarious. I held the Hyena out, broken blade visible. Light from a nearby streetlamp shone through the tangle of wood and bone that was my arm.
A bit of theatrics.
“I’m only interested in them. Stay, and I’ll deal with them and leave,” I spoke.
For a long moment, I thought they were going to listen.
Then one practitioner in motley garb flung an arm out.
A toad. A large toad.
Perceptions seemed to warp, the thing moving too fast toward me.
Thing was, it wasn’t foreshortening at play. Not a thing growing bigger because it was closer.
It was getting bigger because it was getting bigger.
Evan took flight, and gave me a push as he did it.
I hopped back off the side of the gate and onto the end of the driveway, in front of the garage.
The goblin landed where I’d just been. Its fingers had had iron worked into them, twisted into and under flesh, a pair of permanent gauntlets with pointed tips, permanent claws.
Those claws bit into the wood of the gate door.
The thing’s face had nails in it. All inserted vertically, just under the skin. Red, raw spaces between the individual nails, and around the spots where the nail had pierced or scraped skin on the way through. Four nails surrounded each eye socket, a diamond shape, points nailing the eyelids into permanently open positions.
Its mouth was closed, its lipless grin literally ear to ear.
It wore armor, damn it, and it was hard to tell where armor ended and flesh began. Much of it had been inserted through and beneath flesh. I saw bits where muscle was hooked around or over spikes of dark iron.
It looked at my weapon, and the grin somehow got more intense. Not wider, but it looked like it could barely keep its mouth closed.
It drew it’s weapons.
Two bound-goblin weapons. A sword with so many spikes jutting out the side that I doubted it could cut. An axe with a face etched into it, so much decoration I suspected it would get stuck if it was actually swung at something.
The goblin was showing off its stuff. The weapons it was holding weren’t the only weapons it had. More dangled from its waist. A trophy collection.
The weapons, if I had to guess, were what the Hyena might have been if it hadn’t been insistent on taking an inconvenient form. And if it were unbroken. Goblins, quite possibly, of the Hyena’s general caliber.
I looked in the direction of the goblin king.
Was it pencildick or whatever the guy had been called?
The goblin came at me.
Fast, considering the armor it wore.
I backed away. I only barely deflected the serrated sword with the chain and barbed wire around one forearm.
A practitioner beside me kicked me. I bounced against the wall of the neighbor’s house, then twisted aside before the axe could hit me.
The face on the axe screamed on contact with the wall.
Brick shattered violently, with copious amounts of gore, torn intestines spilling from the open wound. The air filled with the iron-rich scent of bloody feces.
Cosmetic effect? Or something else?
On the off chance that it was ‘something else’, I made very sure to stay out of the axe’s way.
“They’re monsters,” I said. “Monster enough their own family wants them dead.”
The goblin stabbed. Wind rushed past me.
I felt blood well from the flesh around my face. It filled my mouth.
The goblin looked at it sword, expression eerily neutral with the nails in the skin and around the eyes, then slipped it into a loop of chain at its back. It drew another weapon in the same motion. Another goblin weapon. A knife.
“They want them dead, even knowing the stakes, knowing the fight for the Lordship is happening right now,” I said. “Knowing I have no interest in you, why defend them? More than a few members of the family want blood and justice more than they want the Lordship.”
I backed up further as the goblin advanced.
It stabbed the hood of the car with the dagger, and dragged the blade down the side.
The metal on either side turned rusty, and sagged, more like old leather than car.
Smaller goblins began crawling out of the tear. Being birthed by it, almost. Naked, wet, and covered in blood.
I could see the dagger. A female goblin was engraved on it.
The goblin slashed at the wall of the house, as we reached the midway point of the driveway.
“Diagram,” Evan said.
I’d almost forgotten he was with me.
Yeah. If I kept walking back, I risked walking into the three or four diagrams I’d taken the long route around to circumvent.
I’d really, really wanted to do this subtly. To do it clever, targeting the people I needed to target and then run.
“Or are you defending them because you’re monsters too?” I asked, edging to the right, circling around, hoping to avoid the diagrams.
The tolling of the bell seemed to get louder.
The smaller goblins had finished accumulating. Each slash of the dagger was only good for two or three, it seemed.
They gave the larger goblin familiar a wider berth.
“Monster?” Mason the Benevolent asked, behind me. “Tch.”
I ignored him.
The goblin pointed its dagger.
The smaller goblins moved as a group. Charging me.
In that same moment, I felt the tug of enchantment.
I didn’t even need to look at the living room window to know there were enchantresses there.
The enchantment burdened me. Evan fluttered, a short flight to one side, breaking the snare before it took hold, but it was a pivotal move at a critical time. The smaller goblins pounced on me. Ten to thirty pounds each, clawing at me and my clothes. One reached my face, digging fingers into my mouth, hooking sharp nails over my teeth.
It tasted like butt smelled.
With eerie, easy confidence, the goblin strode forward, sheathing the dagger.
With a two-handed grip, it swung the axe.
I couldn’t react the way I wanted to, burdened by smaller goblins, but I managed to catch the handle with the blade of the Hyena. When that didn’t stop it, I was forced to raise one hand, and press my palm against the flat of the Hyena’s blade.
The goblin was stronger than I was. The axe inched closer.
I felt the snare taking hold again.
The axe blade touched the goblin on my face.
“Urp,” it said.
It screamed as it blew up, into gore amounting about three times its own body mass.
Evan flew by, and the axe slipped free, and the goblin familiar staggered.
It grabbed onto me for balance. It switched around, changing positioning, and lifted me clean off my feet.
Strong. Strong enough, as it happened, to heave me.
I didn’t move far, but I still moved. I landed roughly, staggering backward, fighting to keep my feet.
I knew what I was in for. Why the goblin had thrown me.
The diagram was expanding around me.
I reached out for Evan, and he flew into my hand.
I looked, and I saw the diagram, the shape of it.
I’d spent weeks of my life staring at the books, poring over them. Seeing them out of the corner of my eye, or glancing over covers on my way to finding what I needed. I’d seen them in Rose’s mirrors. I’d seen my fair share of circles, of diagrams.
Only twenty or so minutes ago, I’d seen the diagram that had housed the box. I’d carefully studied and examined the diagram there. I’d used my analysis to hack it, for lack of a better term. Understanding and circumventing it.
The bell tolled twice in the time it took me to catch my feet. In those two tolls, I was forced to draw on instinct borne of that manner of study. To guess, and guess well, and figure out where to put my feet and my body, with Evan’s help to guide my positioning.
Something flew past me in the moment before I came to a stop, and I heard glass crash on the far side of the street. I went utterly still, and watched as the diagram snapped into a completed shape.
Nothing flared to life. Nothing went off.
“Sorry,” I said to Evan, releasing my deathgrip on him.
“S’okay. Watch your step.”
I did. I made my way out of the diagram, staring the Goblin down. The practitioners were all behind it, watching from a distance.
For a third time, I felt the snare start to settle around me.
Evan stirred, and it broke, more easily than before.
I didn’t feel the binding resume.
“I think I’m good,” I said. “Go help Green Eyes if she needs it.”
“You sure?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
He flew off.
I saw the goblin familiar watch Evan fly off toward the house, over the roof to where Green Eyes and the Satyrs had been dealing with the homunculus sentinel.
I saw its eyes narrow.
I ran for it.
The goblin didn’t turn away from watching Evan as it glanced at me sidelong.
It opened its mouth.
It wore braces, in a manner of speaking. Machinery wired into teeth, into mouth, and down its throat.
That machinery consisted of three barrels. One was empty. One had an arrowhead sticking out of it, and the other had a dozen needles bristling from the end.
He held the axe out to ward me off as it fired the crossbow bolt, moving head and mouth as if it were speaking. Except it was firing a weapon, with the snap of machinery kicking into motion and a crack of gunpowder.
But the Hyena and the full bearing of my body struck his axe arm. He proved too strong, too heavy with armor and too big for me to really move. All my effort and I only nudged.
I didn’t even make out the crossbow bolt striking Evan. I saw only the bird fall, with a scattering of feathers that fell much, much slower.
I dragged the Hyena down the shaft of the axe, twisting my body out of the way of the axe, cutting the back of metal-clad fingers. In the doing, I found some flesh. He loosened his grip, and I tore the axe from his hand.
He backed off fairly quickly after that.
Rage told me to press the attack. I wasn’t sure if it was rage borne of the monster part of me or the human part.
I turned my head to check on Evan. Which was perhaps the only thing that saved my eyes. I’d almost thought the goblin had retreated out of fear. He’d retreated to have room to fire, at optimal range. The goblin familiar opened his mouth.
The needles, as it happened, were a kind of shotgun spray.
They tore into my shoulder, into my head, and the side of my neck, but they didn’t strike the flesh of my face. Branches as thick as a finger were shattered by needles as thick as, well, needles. The sort one put threads through.
I staggered back, until I was at Evan’s side, where he’d landed in deep snow. Feathers lay not so far away.
I cupped him in one hand.
“Ow,” he said. “Ow.”
The mad fluttering inside my body stirred, as I touched him.
He had a gash running down the length of his body, head to tail.
“Can’t fly,” he said.
Wordless, not trusting myself to speak, I grabbed him. I lifted him into a cage of safety within my own body.
I touched bloody and feather-strewn snow, then crushed it in my fist.
The monster demanded revenge for daring to hurt Evan, and it was hungry, angry, violent.
The human wanted revenge for different reasons, in different ways, but it wanted it all the same, just as much.
All together, though? The human and the monster together? What that wanted, what I wanted, was different.
Absently, I drew a streak of blood and snow and the occasional scattered feather across my chest. To clean my hands, because my clothes were grimy enough with Drainstuff it hardly mattered.
The brothers were there, in my peripheral vision.
The goblin had drawn a flail of some sort. A weight on a chain. It came for me, the weight tracing a lazy circle around it. I retreated rapidly, closer to the brothers, to the other practitioners.
Twisting, I charged them.
My focus here, the problem I was trying to fix, it was them. The real monsters. The monsters who made worse things possible.
“Only them!” I called out, as I saw the practitioners reacting. “At the request of a child!”
I could only wonder if those words had an impact. If it slowed the response.
I saw a diagram expanding.
Their buddy. He’d been busy while I fought.
I touched the trace of sparrow blood at my chest with knuckles that gripped one weapon, and held out the one hand in the direction of the diagram. Moving around as the diagram grew, like an explosion in slow motion.
I swung the axe underhand, catching the one in the groin.
Reaching over, I pulled the looser chain and barbed wire away from my arm. I only managed a half-foot of length.
But the goblin was giving chase, slowing as light erupted from the growing diagram. Blinded, it turned its head to one side.
I hooked my arm over the brother’s head, and pulled the chain against his neck. A human shield, between me and goblin.
The weight came around, and struck the top of his head clean off, meat and only meat striking the side of my face. Several practitioners dropped to the ground as they avoided the flying sphere.
“Back,” Needledick said. “Back. No collateral damage this time, please.”
The goblin stopped, letting the weight strike ground, then car, before it stopped.
There was a moment of silence, me still holding the body upright against my own.
“Only them,” I said. “And him.”
I looked at Mason Hall-McCullough, and I let the body drop.
“I can handle this,” the practitioner spoke.
The old man smirked, looking down at me.
“Can you?” I asked.
I advanced, and approached him. He stood by the trunk of the car.
I saw no trap. No diagrams.
He spread his arms wide.
“If you think it’s right,” he said. “Strike me true.”
I stabbed him in the chest with the Hyena.
Turning back toward the house, I saw the Satyrs and Green Eyes, covered in blood, Green Eyes cradling one arm.
I pointed. I got a nod in response.
I wiped the blood off the Hyena and onto my pant leg as I moved on.