The wind blew, pulling dry bits of vegetation from the low, rust-colored shrubs and sending them dancing over the rocky floor of the tundra. Snowless, but frozen. When the wind didn’t blow, it was nearly silent. The only noise would be the shifting of the earth, reacting to the pull of gravity, the noise of dirt stirring beneath nearly still water.
The vantage point the angel had chosen wasn’t a high one, but there weren’t many options for high vantage points.
Shape wasn’t a mandatory thing for him. He could be all things, if he needed to be, but no one form completely fit. He wore three at the same time. A great white bear on his hind feet, a shaggy-haired wolf, and a man, neither young nor old, with hair and beard that had never been cut. The white of the hair and fur were so pure as to be shining.
He thrummed, though utterly still, a part of all he interacted with. The motes of sun that touched the tundra made it reverberate like a skin stretched tight, and that reverberation reached all the way to him.
Once, he had built. He had been a theme, spelling out a thousand narratives simply by being, like so many pens touched to an endless scroll of paper. He inked out paths and behaviors on the broadest scale.
When man had come about, he had been reflected in man’s thoughts and behavior. As man became intelligent, so had the angel. He had guided man and been guided in turn, a symbiotic relationship.
Man, however, created its own demons. Some were obvious, while others stirred in the midst of the noise and chaos and took form. Sentiments became figures, fears took form, and in some cases, man abandoned his kind to join the storm of thoughts and ideas. To become the monster.
The creating ended, and man took the center stage, bringing change to that steady, stable creation. Born from chaos and noise like anything else, a chance configuration of molecules, man carried that change and chance with him. Each movement brought change, like a stirring of dust swelling and spreading out from underfoot.
As man’s power waxed, the creators’ power waned.
Soon, man’s power would wane, and it seemed ruin would follow.
Once the angel had created. Now, he only maintained. He mended that which had been destroyed, and he watched as the world spiraled to an end. A distant end, yes, but an inevitable one.
A great distance away, glaciers cracked and erupted, and they fell into the oceans.
Here, in a small inlet, the local fauna was suffering, as the salinity of the water rose.
He left the area behind, but he traveled a specific path as he did. The creeks feeding into the inlet changed.
The fix would be slow, but it would mend itself. A small change, compared to the damage that was being done. At this stage, it was only man. Only change, carrying the world from one state to another. In time, there would be more to be done, and the changes would not be so easy. He would go to war and he would die.
His day had passed. Things would change, they would find ruin, and the ruins would settle.
There was no emotion at this, no concern, no anxiety. It simply was.
People milled through the streets. Every one different, every one a harbinger of change, given the opportunity.
Collectively, more powerful than he was.
He counted the individual faces he saw. Four hundred and twenty thousand, two hundred and eleven unique individuals had passed along the busy street since his arrival. Brightly dressed, drab, young, old, male, female, happy, sad. There were the locals, their skin a rich brown, and there were the foreigners and tourists, with skin and hair covering every natural human variation, and some colors that weren’t natural.
Most moved with purpose. All but a small few moved in straight lines, once he corrected for the small changes, moving around people or letting people move around them.
In other places, the very light of the sun striking earth and the response of the earth to the pull of sun and moon could be deafening.
Here, amid so many footsteps, a storm of being, he wondered if mankind could take him to pieces simply by going about their day.
The wind stirred his fur. He sat on a balcony, the railing around him rusting, the paint that had once covered it now peeling. A woman sat in the shade of an umbrella, hands in her lap, mouth wide open. Sleeping on a warm day, oblivious to the roar of the milling humanity below her.
If she woke up, she would only see a disheveled white cat perched on the little table at one corner of the balcony. Dirty, but with enough white fur visible to suggest it could be beautiful, if left pristine.
A small child, riding on her father’s shoulders, happened to spy him looking over the railing, and waved.
Four hundred and twenty thousand, two hundred and ninety-six unique individuals, now.
He began adjusting paths. Alterations to space, to placement. One change, willed into being. A car moved one inch this way. More room for a car to park forward, making it harder for the men coming down the street in their great garbage collection truck to enter the alley and pick up the cans there.
Some trash should remain behind, but it wouldn’t be much. The longer-term effect would be greater. He could return in a week and do a similar thing. The same men were liable to keep coming for the same patrol.
The rodent population would increase, and the monsters that lurked beneath the city would be encouraged to come up for the food and the comforting presence of the rats and filth.
There was an ecosystem here that needed balancing, too. The monsters would run aground with the local goblin population. Both would be weak when the practitioners at the nearby church stepped in, they would be ruined, but not entirely destroyed.
In a year, the angel could return. If the practitioners were too strong, their direction dangerous, the angel could tease them into action by stirring the pot. Distract and weaken.
A subtle change to the pathway slowed the movement along one street, to benefit one store, and subtly alter the course of business throughout this section of the city.
A growing date tree was guided so it might grow into the surroundings, fixing it in place, a curiosity that might inspire, and perhaps lead to the tree being allowed to flourish in its unique fashion.
More small changes were made. To enhance growth, to rein in destructive elements, and sow seeds for future possibilities.
A figure appeared, standing opposite the angel, at the mouth of an alleyway. His skin was a deep brown, his eyes dark but gentle, but his face worn. He wore a dress shirt with the collar unbuttoned, and had a suit jacket folded over one arm.
The angel atop the balcony hopped down, just as the old woman beside him awoke. She startled, trying to follow him despite the disorientation of recent sleep, but he was already gone.
Already at the side of the man at the mouth of the alley. His brother’s side.
“Harith,” the angel greeted the man.
“Faysal.” Harith took his hand. They walked together, hand in hand. “What news?”
Faysal shook his head. He used the fingers of his free hand to brush hair away from his face, then smoothed his shirt as he dropped his hand to his side. “No news. The world turns.”
“We’ll encourage it to continue doing so,” Harith said.
They were in the midst of the crowd now. People milled around them. Each one a contained storm of events, of history, and untapped potential.
It was heady, distracting, to be in the midst of this. Harith was a source of calm in the midst of a storm.
“Humanity surges in strength,” Harith observed. “It surprises me at times.”
“Me as well. I’ve wondered for some time if I should encourage it or discourage it.”
“Makes little difference.”
“It makes all the difference in the world,” Faysal said. “Assuming we want to stave off the end of things, supporting humanity could make all the difference.”
“Or we could only be adding fuel to the fire, giving them the strength they need to speed along their way to the end of their road.”
“Yes. I’ve wondered which it might be. This would all be so much easier if we knew.”
“It makes little difference, because we can’t and don’t know. We must ignore humans and look to balance. Stability. If the demon’s destruction is analogue to our creation, then stability is the balm to mankind’s change. The humans are strong, and have seized the reins, taken to taming wild things. Including us. With a little help, they’ve willingly taken to engineering their own balance. They are best left to their own devices.”
“The demons are strong too. They lurk in the background of things, and perhaps they always have. When the age of humans ends, they will be best positioned to bring about an age of their own. I feel we shouldn’t leave them to their own devices, as we mean to do with man.”
“Yes,” Faysal said. He laid a hand on a child’s head as she ran by.
“Two problems have arisen in one place. I’m otherwise occupied, and you’re not. I thought to ask your help.”
“One is a demon. It is freshly bound and may not be bound forever, as the bloodline that did the binding may now be disintegrating. It has been called a few times, and in answering the call, it is traveling a path. Wearing down the road, if you will. I know paths are your specialty, gatekeeper.”
“The other problem?”
“A man. A practitioner. He is building something.”
“Building? Buildings are your specialty, Harith. The third choir’s.”
“But the building is a subtle one, and subtlety is your specialty. He is laying the groundwork for something big, that much is clear, but here we stand, off to one side, watching and wondering how he can build so very quietly. Or why.”
“No sound of hammers, nor sawing wood?”
“In a sense.”
Johannes glanced over his shoulder.
Two bogeymen, a foo dog guardian, a ghost, and a faerie with a great rat pelt drawn over her shoulders stood ready.
Help, borrowed, bought, and coerced.
“Now or never,” he murmured to himself. He glanced at his followers. “Be ready.”
There were a few nods.
He turned forward once again. His finger tapped. His eye reread the page on Demesnes for the thousandth time.
Drawing in a deep breath, he spoke with confidence. “I, Johannes the piper, the sorcerer, the vagabond, hereby-”
“-Stop,” a voice spoke out, soft, almost as if it were completing the sentence for him.
The man that stood in the doorway was beautiful, slight in build, white hair and beard cut short. He wore a gently rumpled shirt and khaki pants, and his feet were bare.
Looking at the man with the sight, Johannes could see how the man fed into everything around him. Where other connections were straight lines, the man shimmered, as if connections tied him to every speck of dust, every splinter of wood. When he looked, he could see connections to more distant things. To himself. There was no tension, no rigidity to the lines. The rules, very plainly, were different, where this man was involved.
The gleam of the countless individual connections made the man appear to shine, in the lobby of this partially built apartment complex. He made everything around him radiate with something just as fundamental as light.
Johannes found his pipes in hand when he reached down.
His minions stirred, tense.
“I was expecting challenges and interruptions, but not before I started the ritual.”
“The ritual starting is what concerns me. It’s very possible you’ve made a mistake,” the shining man spoke.
“No,” Johannes said, “I don’t think I did.”
“I can see it from here. I’m not quite aware how, and I can’t say whether it’s to your benefit or detriment, but you’re about to act, and your actions will upset the balance. That’s enough for me to take notice.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Johannes said.
“In this case, it may well be,” the shining man told him.
Johannes spread his arms. “I’ve invested a lot into this. Even the timing is pretty important. A good few of the neighbors are off on summer vacation, or off in Toronto. First weekend of summer, after all. Unsporting, but what are you going to do?”
The shining man made the step from the doorway into the room. He glanced around, then paced the perimeter, studying the circle and the boy.
Johannes was only fifteen, but his demeanor was one of someone older. His long hair was tied back into a ponytail, flush with the nape of his neck, and his face had yet to grow scruff. A gun, a laptop, and a set of papers sat on the top of the bar. A cheap construction of wood that put everything at chest level, without Johannes having to sit down. The laptop screen glowed, showing the same text that appeared in the book.
“The practice is about dealing,” Johannes said. “Everything has a price. The trick is to skew the deal in your favor. I don’t see how this is different.”
“It defies convention.”
“To hell with convention!” Johannes said, raising his voice. “Who or what the hell are you to come here and dictate what I can and can’t do?”
“One of the architects of convention,” the shining man spoke.
Johannes frowned. “Ah.”
“And, it likely goes without saying, one of the protectors of convention.”
“Not if you put this matter to rest,” the stranger said. “I could destroy you, I’m being gracious enough to offer you safety instead.”
“Thank you,” Johannes said.
He grabbed the book, then threw it to the nearest Other. The childlike bogeyman caught it.
Johannes collected his laptop and gun.
“You’re taking this opportunity to leave,” the shining man said.
“Yeah, seems like the best option,” Johannes commented.
“I’m not oblivious to the fact that you intend to resume the ritual as soon as you get a chance.”
Johannes paused mid-stride.
“Fuck,” he said.
“Attack,” Johannes said. “Arthild.”
His pet Faerie went on the attack. Her features distorted, and she swelled in size. A rat, big enough to fill a smaller room, hair sparse, flesh purple with the veins just beneath the surface, stomach bloated and writhing.
One of the darker faerie, a lucky find, his ace in the hole. He’d spent four months screwing with the rat population until something took notice. He’d expected a spirit, he’d picked up the faerie instead. One from the winter court, the sunless court.
The shining man dodged her charge. She was mad, frenzied, and there was a deeper instinct driving her actions. On colliding with the wall, her bloated stomach was compressed. Fluids and rodents spewed from her nether regions, flooding much of the room.
Johannes was already heading to the door. He turned, laptop held to his chest, and managed to grasp at the pipes while still holding his gun. He paused for only a fraction of a second to make sure he wouldn’t accidentally shoot himself in the head before he raised the pipes to his mouth and blew. A tune.
He’d had to learn the pipes to use the artifact’s power. With the tune, he was able to sway the otherwise senseless swarm of rats. What might have been a distraction or psychological weapon became a tool. The rats swarmed the shining man.
He pushed on the door with his shoulder blades, spun, and ran.
His Sight told him that the combined collection of faerie and rats didn’t last any longer than it took him to run the length of a city block. The connection between the pipes and the controlled was cut by the simplest, most inevitable means. Death.
Johannes startled as the shining man entered the lobby of the hotel that was still in construction. He had his laptop open, and a cable stretched behind the front desk he was sitting on.
He tapped the top of his screen. “Architect of convention? You wouldn’t be an angel, would you?”
“I am. You’re trying my patience.”
“You have other things to look after?”
“Things of structure? The construction of elements, convention, I imagine?”
The angel shook his head.
“Okay, well, with that in mind-“
Johannes swung his legs over the front desk and shouldered his way through the door behind it.
A short hallway, a turn, passing through some double doors-
There was a flash from the room behind as the door swung closed.
A flash in front, as he passed through the double doors.
The angel waited for him in the convention room of the hotel.
“Ah,” Johannes said.
Before he or the angel could say another word, he raised the gun and fired.
The angel stepped back. Blood welled from a hole in the abdomen.
“Your weapons of war don’t work against me,” the angel said.
“Okay,” Johannes said, backing up. “Angels… opposite elements are strongest. You create, bullets destroy.”
“Bullets change, they affect structure, even if that is tearing down blood, muscle, and bone,” the angel said.
“Right. Interesting! Learn something every day,” Johannes said. He continued to retreat, not to the door, but to the wall.
“You’re edging toward the light switch. I assure you, whatever you intend, it’s not going to stop me.”
“I only need to delay,” Johannes said.
He hit the light switch, one light on, one light off.
The blacklight lit up the room.
It was now lit up lines and diagrams, words in script and spots of bodily fluids that had been given to power the working.
The angel stopped, taking it all in.
Johannes ran, sprinting from the blacklit room into the hallway.
He’d set up traps and tools all around. He’d worked it so he had this entire section of town to play around and prepare in. At least until tomorrow.
Trouble was, he hadn’t known who or what he was up against. If he planned too broadly, he risked something powerful simply striding through and ignoring the effect. If he was too narrow in having certain traps for certain foes, he risked having the wrong weapon at the wrong time, or simply not having an answer to a given threat.
He’d plotted that room and that trap with that in mind.
The binding wasn’t for the enemy. It was for the bullet, which he had gone to great trouble to give a name.
The angel was free. Nine brief meetings to date, nine skirmishes. He hesitated to assign labels to beings as powerful and abstract as this angel was, but he was pretty sure that it was pretty close to getting pissed.
Around the fourth encounter, he’d stopped trying to start up the ritual and resigned himself to being chased. His pursuer could travel anywhere instantaneously and couldn’t be delayed for long. It was very possible the pursuer simply knew where he was.
But with that knowledge and the dogged pursuit, Johannes had formed a hunter-hunted connection with the angel. He had a sense of where the angel was, and what tricks were working better than others.
Most were inducted into the practice as they entered puberty. Johannes had been a part of it since birth. He’d inherited it, and he’d inherited very little else.
He’d seen the good, he’d seen the bad, and he’d seen the ugly.
He’d done practitioners and others an awful lot of favors, and collected scraps of knowledge in pay.
He had, in a roundabout fashion, grown to loathe the status quo. He’d found his mission, and very recently, he’d reached the point where he couldn’t postpone it any longer.
Now the status quo was coming for him in the form of an angel.
He was nearly out of tricks to use. His pockets were light.
Time for the old standbys, he thought. Back to basics.
Blood was power.
He drew slips of paper from his back pocket, and scattered them into the air.
Each was inscribed with a name. Vestiges of people. Each one appeared in turn. Imperfect. His work in this field was better than most, but it was still crude.
Vestiges were fragile. There was a chance this wouldn’t work.
He cut the back of his hand, and he touched the blood to each vestige’s forehead.
Of the seven, only two shattered on contact with the blood. The rest at least looked more or less human, albeit with an eye or other feature slightly askew.
Blood was power, and if the angel was following the most obvious source…
Let them be distractions. He only needed a minute to get set up again.
“Scatter,” he said.
“I, Johannes the bard, the sorcerer, the miscreant, hereby make a statement. Let this be my claim.”
There was a flash of light. The angel appeared opposite Johannes.
“I claim only those places and spirits as far as the reach of my voice,” he said. “I claim this space and only this space. I claim the connections here and only those connections.”
He watched the angel, tense, waiting for the attack.
The angel remained where it was.
“I name this space my demesnes, a place where convention doesn’t hold, beyond those conventions which I openly decide to be fair and right. I claim this alone, with no bloodline of note behind me, and no intend to mark a bloodline after me. This demesne is forfeit when I have passed from this mortal coil.”
He exhaled slowly.
“I claim this space as mine, as I dislike that which lies elsewhere. I would return to old times, stable times, and let this place be a sanctuary, both for Others that would come here, and for myself. For I do not like where things are going elsewhere, and I would hope to change the destination.”
“Or delay it?” the angel asked.
“…Or delay it,” he said, eyeing the angel warily. “Let this be my challenge. All who would deny me this demesne, declare your right to challenge me, and find me here.”
The words were ominous, and they held power.
But so very few heard, and many of the ones who did were slow to grasp their import.
Johannes had retreated to a broom closet, lit only by the glow of his laptop. The angel was only a few feet away, looming over him.
“The device?” Faysal asked.
Johannes nodded slowly.
He worked his way to a standing position, facing the angel.
The angel reached out to touch the microphone.
Johannes spoke, “Why didn’t you stop me?”
“You’d already begun. It was done.”
“Ah. If you wanted to protect convention, mauling the person who tried to pull a stupid stunt is a good way to discourage others.”
“Martyring you? I could be discreet, but I couldn’t be sure. I’ll see this to its conclusion, first. Some powerful beings did hear you.”
“What? Who, where?”
“The bridge. It’s a place where local goblins dwell. They’re on their way now.”
Johannes grit his teeth. He’d used up too many tools evading the angel. He’d been forced to start earlier, rush it. He’d wanted to be more careful with wording.
“There are others,” the angel said. “Many will challenge you for even a small, closet-sized space. Some Others do not want neighbors.”
“I made the speakers quiet,” Johannes said. “Had to make it my voice, all the same. Needed the quality to be top notch. Should’ve been whispers, but it’s hard to test, spur of the moment.”
“Your voice was quiet, but they heard all the same.”
Johannes nodded, already weary. The battle hadn’t started yet, and he was exhausted.
“I liked the declaration,” the angel said. “The sanctuary. Returning to old ways. So much of humanity is focused on rushing forward. Shall we discuss in the moments between your challenges?”
“Sure,” Johannes said. “Sure. But can we do it while moving? Let’s get out of this closet, first. If it’s goblins, I have things I can do.”
Johannes’ breaths were ragged. He coughed, and he felt how one tooth didn’t quite sit right. Probably loose, knocked ajar.
He struggled to stand, but one leg was in ruins.
His eye had been given away to one powerful goblin, a goblin queen turned partially into a goblin.
His arm was a ragged mess, and might have to be amputated.
He sat there, the entirety of his being focused on maintaining consciousness.
“Will you stop me?” Johannes managed to ask.
“I’ll leave you be, provided you don’t disclose how you did this.”
“Yeah,” Johannes said.
“Make your claim, and then take me for your familiar. We’ll see this happen,” Faysal said.
Johannes didn’t act surprised. He simply sat there, a heap, bleeding. His voice was a croak. “Deal.”
“Finish,” Faysal pushed him.
Johannes couldn’t even nod in response.
“My last challenge met,” the sorcerer spoke, and his voice was just as raw as before, even as he found a surge of strength. “I claim territory as far as my voice reached to the west, to the large stone tree…
“I claim territory as far as my voice reached to the southwest, to the base of the condo sign…
“I claim territory as far as my voice reached to the south, the bridge, goblin’s bridge…
The bell tolled. Faysal watched from above.
The beings that dwelled in the abyss were emerging. Areas were shifting. Quite interesting to watch, given his vocation. One who created paths.
He studied the practitioners. Studied Johannes.
He felt no fondness for the man. No fear, anxiety or worry.
But Johannes was crafty, and had been irritating enough with scraps of knowledge and meager amounts of power. Now he had a great deal of power, and he hadn’t let his guard down, nor abandoned his canniness.
Faysal wasn’t a warrior. He was a planner. So long ago, he’d anticipated Johannes’ failure, and steered events so he might take advantage of it. To deal with the demon, among other things.
As familiar, one part of a whole, he could exert his power, stretch his wings and lay claim simply by being more.
For the time being, he seized all that Johannes was, in body, mind, and spirit.
None of Johannes’ temporary companions noticed his brief falter, the stagger, the hand that went to his head, as he fought and failed to resist.
The fallen house on the hill continued to sink, nearly as fast as they climbed. If they slowed or faltered in the slightest, they might lose their chance to escape. He was a gatekeeper, and he sat so he blocked the place that bridged the sinking house and the rest of the city.
“Stay,” he said, and the idea communicated along the loose, waving threads that bound Johannes to him.
Johannes accepted the order, and at Faysal’s bidding, passed it on to the others.