Category Archives:  Arc 14 (Sine Die)

Histories (Arc 14)

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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.”

Faysal nodded.

“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.”

“What problems?”

“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.

Johannes turned.

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.”

“That’s problematic.”

“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.

“Now please-”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Things of structure?  The construction of elements, convention, I imagine?”

The angel shook his head.

“Damn.”

“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.

Damn goblins.

He struggled to stand, but one leg was in ruins.

Lost.

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.

There.

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.

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Sine Die 14.10

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I met everyone’s eyes in turn.  Rose, the High Priest, Alister, my friends.

Then Johannes’.

I wasn’t getting resounding support.  No voices echoing my suspicions.

“Proof?” Johannes asked.

I only shook my head.

“What I can’t decide,” Johannes finally said, “Is if you think you’re right, or if you’re just stirring up trouble, by your nature.”

“I’ve been through the metaphorical grinder since this all began,” I said, my voice low.  “Virtually everyone here has been my enemy at one time or another.  I’ve seen alliances form and be broken, marriages and families shattered and united.  It keeps hitting the same notes.  The line between enemy and ally is never as clearly defined as we think it is.  I’m a pretty good example of how labels don’t always apply in nice, clean-cut ways.  I can’t believe that, given all the time they’ve been around, that angels and demons haven’t found a way to cross wires or cross paths at some points.”

“You really believe what you’re saying,” Johannes said.  “You think my familiar is allied with demons?”

“I’m saying that he’s probably working with demons or a demon.  Different interests, but right now, right here, with so much at stake on a greater scale, I don’t think you can have entities like that in close proximity without having things get sucked into their orbit.  There’s just no way to deal with powers that vast in a safe manner.”

Johannes put two fingers to the bridge of his nose.  “Are you really going to dismantle what we’re trying to build here, out of sheer paranoia?”

“I might try,” I said.  “Is it paranoia if it’s justified?  I’ve faced down demons.  I’ve seen a demon working its way into the Abyss.  I’ve seen a man destroyed, the hierarchy of beasts and man overturned.  I’ve had my life taken from me by the fallout of two different demons doing their work.  Angels are apparently, according to an angel, only a step down from that.  I don’t know how much involvement your pet had in your decision to do this, but I do know that, according to the book that serves as Familiars 101, powerful familiars can eclipse the practitioner.”

“You may be underestimating how strong I am,” Johannes said.

“You don’t even factor in, Johannes,” I said, my voice hard.  “They operate beyond the bounds we do.  They destroy, and they create.  Those of us here, the humans, the faerie, the goblins, and whatever else, we’re only changing what they’ve left us to work with.  There’s very little we can do to even compete on their level.  A major, if forgotten god was only just keeping an even ground with what I was told was a moderate demon.  You want to tamper with the Barber, and you think anything is going to stop it?”

“Grandmother said that binding Barbatorem was one of her greatest accomplishments,” Rose said.  “Seeing other demons in action, if only briefly, just being around the Barber, I think I understand why.”

“I was hoping that you would get the Thorburn monster on a metaphorical leash, rather than agree with him,” Johannes said.

“I don’t,” Rose said.  “I’m not about to bind him in any manner, but I’m not going to agree with him automatically, either.  The deal sounds good.  There’s a lot more that’s at play, and, honestly, the deal fits in well with that stuff.”

Too well?” I asked.

I saw Rose’s expression change for just a moment.

“I don’t know,” she said, a little less confidently.

I turned away.  Couldn’t push her too hard.  I had to think my way through this.  Argue with my head more than my gut.  In the meantime, I had to hope that Rose could do the opposite.

If we could both find our way to the right answer, at the same time, maybe the shattered whole that was the sixth Thorburn grandchild, Rusty, Russel, Ross, whatever his name was, maybe he could figure out this situation.  He, we.

It wasn’t quite Mara’s words, but her sentiments lingered, the warnings, the mockery, the observations.

Rose and I were at odds with one another.  Not enemies, but still at odds.

If we could cooperate, so could the angel and demon.

I’d found my way to one part of the answer.

But there had to be more to it.

My eyes fell on one stack of books.  Grandmother’s diaries.

Had Rose read them?  How much knowledge had she gleamed?

Was her knowledge of grandmother’s plan or greater agenda influencing her decision here?

Alister spoke, “Jacob’s Bell is so damaged that I’m not even sure I’d want it anymore.  There’s too much mess to clean up.  I can’t speak for the others, but I helped build the junior council based on the idea that we didn’t want to wait until our parents vacated their seats before being able to take a hand in things.”

“Ironic,” the Drunk said.  “Coming from the new leader of the Behaim family.”

Alister flashed what he probably thought was a winning smile.  To people who didn’t like him in the first place, though, it was only annoying.

“Honestly,” Alister said, “If you want to make a deal of nonaggression, help us on our way?  I’m not sure I care what you do.”

“You’re marrying Rose,” I said.  “And Rose-”

“Will be protected,” Alister said.  “As best as we can.”

I clenched my fist.  “You’re not grasping what you’re up against.”

“I’m not stupid,” Rose said.  “I’ve met grandmother’s lawyers more times than you have.  I’ve put a lot of thought into them and how to deal with them.  I just faced them down, on my way here.  The barrier that Mara talked about?  That would delay my arrival?  It was them.  More than a little upset about the state of the house.”

I kept my mouth shut.

“If it weren’t for my engagement with Alister, I don’t think they would have left me alone.  They’re a big part of what I’m trying to figure out, moving forward.  Striking a balance, keeping them dealt with.  I honestly feel a lot more confident giving up the house, keeping the books, or as many as I can take, and moving forward with Johannes’ contacts and Alister’s family backing me.  I think I can get the lawyers to agree to it.  They just want the Thorburn family to keep going.”

She paused.

“What’s the alternative, Blake?” she asked.  “You say this deal is a trap, some great conspiracy by an angel, but what’s the alternative?  What do you propose?”

I clenched my teeth.

“Right,” she said.  “Maybe an unfair question to ask you.”

“By your own admission, you’ve been through a lot,” Johannes said.  “But don’t underestimate us.  If worst comes to worst, we’re not incapable.”

Trust me,” Rose told me.

There was an insistence in her tone.

I was almost instantly reminded of my own line of thinking.  The thoughts I’d had about how to communicate to Rose without influencing her instincts.

Was Rose doing the same thing?

Did she have knowledge that she was forced to hold back?  Putting her in the awkward position of having to communicate with me, getting me to play ball?

I looked back to grandmother’s diaries.

I stared at them.

Mara had talked about grandmother.  Grandmother’s plan and motivations were still a great big unknown for me.

“The good thing is that there’s no rush,” Johannes said.  “The bad thing is that I don’t think there’s an easy way to resolve this, and a deadlock is as bad as an inability to get everyone involved to cooperate.”

“We’re not about to get deadlocked,” the High Priest said.  His tone was serious, grave.

I didn’t participate in the discussion.  My thoughts were on grandmother.

Her plan.

What Rose wanted, or didn’t want, did it fit into Grandmother’s scheme?  Or did it subvert that scheme?

I glanced around.

Sandra wasn’t here.  Neither was Mags.  Faysal Anwar, too, was absent.

“Where’s Mags?” I asked.

“With the Duchamps,” the High Priest said.  “Who, thanks to your summoned crow, are in dire straits.  Sandra was very nearly killed by the backlash from her own contingent.”

“We simply set it loose,” Alexis said.  “We didn’t have time to give it more concrete instructions.  Things were rather serious here.”

“All the same,” the High Priest said.

“They have dibs on the Ambassador,” Alister elaborated.

“And your familiar?” I asked Johannes.

“Faysal is managing my domain,” Johannes said.  “Too many powerful agents that can’t be given too much free reign.”

I nodded slowly.

“Victory is in my grasp,” Johannes told me.  “The Behaims are strong, but not unbreakable. The Duchamps have fallen.  I’ve shown you all my strength.  If this were a court case, you could consider this my offer of a plea bargain.  If it were war, which it is, I’m offering peace.  There is no longer anyone in play that cares to have Jacob’s Bell.  Let me have it, let the others be, free to relocate if they see fit, and even if we are not creating or destroying as angels or demons might, we’re still creating a great work of change.  That has to count for something.”

“A new order,” I said, only speaking so I wouldn’t be left behind or ignored as the conversation moved forward.  My mind was still elsewhere.  “One of the other locals told me you wanted to create a realm where Others could reside.”

“Power,” Johannes said.  “But I would want that power to be untainted, and to attract the right types of Other.  I need this house gone.  Give me that, and I’ll share the power with each of you.  Even at one hundredth of the total share, you stand to gain much.  I can offer you that deal, Blake, but I think you’d appreciate having life again.”

“It makes sense,” Rose said.  “All that Faysal has asked for has been to be allowed to guide the demon to the Abyss, still within its circle, where it can most easily be dealt with.  Presumably by a greater power like a god.”

“Or an angel?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Rose said.

“An angel named Faysal Anwar?”

Johannes sighed.  “Paranoia.”

My attention fell on the diaries again.

I’d only read the opening.  I had only glimmers of an insight into who Grandmother was, otherwise.  A snippet here, mentioning Barbatorem, a detail here, from memory of dealing with family or visiting the house as a very young child, the brief conversation over the inheritance.

A child born into the Thorburn family, who swore never to teach her own children the practice.  A young woman who made a mistake, and saw innocents hurt for it.  A bitter, sly, arrogant old woman who derided her family as failures, and arranged her grandchildren in the wrong order.  Catching one by surprise, barbering the second, slighting Paige because she wouldn’t necessarily bear a daughter for the family.

“If you don’t have any more arguments,” Johannes said, “Perhaps you should stand back.  We can finish this discussion and deal without your input.  But you can’t filibuster our decision without actually saying something.  Not in a civilized process.”

“I’m not sure,” Alister said.  “The suspicions about your familiar’s motives might be a bit much, but… I’m wondering if we should bring him here to say his piece.  If only to reassure us.”

“He might complicate things,” the High Drunk said.

“He might,” Alister conceded.  I’d expected a rebuttal, a counterpoint.  He didn’t give one.  He’d been telling the truth when he’d said he wasn’t sure.

I made eye contact with Rose.  Willing her to somehow express or transmit her thoughts to me.  To share what she might know of grandmother or the larger plan.

Assumptions.  Thinking that enemies were going to stay enemies was dangerous.

But if I turned it around, looking at Rose, knowing that I’d once considered her a lonely ally when I had so many enemies, was the opposite true?

Grandmother.  The Lawyers.

Ostensibly allies, or at least willing to cooperate.  In practice?  Was Grandmother subverting them?

If I banished all assumptions, dismissed the obvious as a ploy, a trick to keep the lawyers pacified…

All power had a price.  Practice was akin to a currency, and we were in so, so much debt.

We could work for lifetimes, and possibly never be rid of it all.

In the beginning I’d wondered, very briefly, why we couldn’t game the system to get rid of the debt.  Spread it out among countless children, stagger it out, or figure out other means of breaking it down.

The lawyers were keeping us in this position.

Just desperate enough that we might take their deal, take an out, join their firm.

Putting ourselves in a position where we were contributing to a greater cosmic decline.

Was Grandmother working against that?  Was Rose?

How?

By looking like they were cooperating on the surface level, but…

But.  That was the key thought.

“I suppose silence is as good an answer as any,” Johannes said.  “Only speculation.  If everyone else-”

“Rose,” I interrupted him.  “I think I’m starting to get it.”

“Yeah?” she asked.

But I was only on the brink of putting it together.  The others were on the brink of making the deal.

It was a good thing fear wasn’t an emotion I really experienced anymore.  Panic could easily have taken hold of me, dashed the thoughts from my head.

How did one deal with an impossible amount of debt, when the debtors were striving to claim the funds?

Declare bankruptcy.

We, the children, were the assets.

Except bankruptcy didn’t work.  Didn’t make sense.

My eyes didn’t leave Rose’s.

“Rose?  We can do this without your permission, but I’d really rather not,” Johannes spoke, his voice calm.

Rose didn’t glance away from me.

“Rose?” he tried, again.

Not bankruptcy, but something simpler.  Something older.

Controlled failure?

“What gender is Kathryn’s child?” I asked.

“Male,” Rose said, without a moment’s hesitation.

“What does that have to do with anything?” Johannes asked.

I saw Rose’s expression change, just a fraction.

Everything, I thought, and I knew Rose was thinking something very similar.

Her chin rose.  Confidence?  Something else, maybe.

“Alister,” Rose said, still not breaking eye contact.  “A word?  In private?”

“You’re delaying,” Johannes said, exasperated.

“As you said, there’s no rush,” Rose said.

Alister glanced at Johannes, shrugged, then headed to Rose’s side.  The pair of them stepped past the people collected at the doorway and headed down into the hallway.

Buying me time?

I did what I could to use it.

Grandmother wasn’t a hero.  She wasn’t a good person.  She had sacrificed us, she’d set us up for failure.

But she’d done it with purpose.  A game of something like chess, giving up set pieces in a set order, to play a long game and hide the fact that she was intentionally losing.

Molly, the sacrificial pawn.  Rightly angry about it.  Too easily broken or swayed, perhaps.  Thrown to the wolves without time to prepare, absorbing the initial assault, forcing enemies to show their hands.

Rusty was second.  The division into Blake and Rose serving multiple purposes.  Intended to do just what it had, warning us, forcing us to confront the new reality immediately.  Catch the enemies by surprise.  Positioning us with the warrior buying time, while the true heir found her footing.

But… there was something more to it.

If Rose won, earned her survival, secured her position in this world, how was that a win for Grandmother?

Very simple.  Something the lawyers couldn’t act on until it was far too late.  If Rose carried on her position, kept going as the Thorburn heir, marrying Alister, settling into Jacob’s Bell, or leaving the house to fall and moving elsewhere with her new husband as leader of the junior council… time could pass.

Until no heir was produced.

One individual, cut in twain.  One given the desire, but not the ability.  The other left with the ability, but all of the trauma that would discourage the desire.

To the point of turning down the offer from the girl he loved, for a three-way.

I couldn’t guess what had been arranged for if we failed, if we died.  Kathryn was next.  And Kathryn had a little boy.  Again, not an heir.

Would Kathryn be cut in two, by the same sort of deal?  Or was the expectation, from the evaluation we’d been subjected to, that Kathryn would die or fail by some other measure?

Maybe the line of thinking was that Kathryn and Ellie would fail in a similar way to how Molly had.  Maybe, as she’d prepared other individuals with knowledge of how to deal with demons, she’d anticipated that they would destroy themselves, attacking Laird or Alister or someone and having the demon rebuffed, sent back to the summoner.  A demon, ready at hand, that was capable of bypassing the typical defenses.

Leaving the impulsive, stubborn, aggressive Kathryn and Ellie ill prepared for the rebound.

Rose probably knew the particulars.  She’d studied up, read between lines.

Rose would have, much as I was doing in this moment, come to the conclusion that she agreed with grandmother.  That we could let the debt rest with one individual, who couldn’t produce an heir.

There was more to it, I was sure.

Grandmother had had a plan, and she’d deemed that plan worth working with a demon, worth sacrificing one child.

Weighing the odds, she might well have thought that clearing the slate, in whole or in large part, even committing those wrongs to do it, was worth the many, many Thorburns who might die further down the road, or deal with demons as many of her predecessors had.

Damning herself in the process.

A full minute passed, after my thoughts came to rest.

Rose and Alister re-entered the room.

She and Alister both glanced at me, side-long, as she returned.  A fractional glance.

I gave her a quick nod.

I gestured toward Evan, who had come to rest on Ty’s shoulder.  Talking to Tiff, Ty and Alexis in whispers and murmurs.

Evan flew to me.

Some might say that calling your familiar in the middle of a meeting is like drawing your sword,” Johannes commented.

“I’m pretty harmless,” Evan said.  “Look at me.  I’m a bird, I’m a kid.  I’m dead.”

“All the same,” Johannes said.

Now who’s being paranoid?” Evan retorted.

“Shh,” I said.  I cupped my hand around him and lifted him to my left shoulder.

“Well?” Johannes asked.  “Your discussion with Alister…”

“Was about wedding arrangements,” Rose said.  “Wasting time.”

“Why?” Johannes asked.

“Blake?” Rose asked.  “We’re on the same page?”

“No,” I said.  “That may never happen.  But I think we’re thinking along the same lines.”

“Convince me,” she said, her voice quiet.

I glanced at Johannes.  He was rigid, jaw set.

He, I remembered, had a dragon and a giant at his beck and call.  He had genies.

If we upset him, if and when we disrupted his plan for a deal, we might be dealing with those soldiers of his.

“Do you remember what happened, why I went to the Abyss in the first place?”

“Ur.”

“But why, specifically?”

“The ties were cut.”

“Nothing to hold me up,” I said.  “Jacob’s Bell is the same.  This house is the same.  Connections matter.  Everything we’ve dealt with to this point, they’ve proven how much those connections matter.”

I glanced at my friends.  My hand still at my shoulder from where I’d lifted Evan up, I gave him a poke.

He pecked at my finger just before I let my hand drop to my side.

“Yes,” she said.  “And the lack thereof.”

“The whole reason the house was worth money, is it’s connected to other things.  Briar Girl’s forest, the marsh, the town.  It’s tied to our family.  You want to sink it?  I’m thinking it’s going to get pulled into the Abyss, and as if it’s tied to everything around it, it’s going to drag other things with it.  One of those things might well be me.  If I took the deal, it would be me, minus the Otherness.  Just a human in the Abyss.”

“Me too?” Rose asked.

I spread my arm and my partially-folded wing.  “And Alister, because he’s tied to you?  Drawn into a dark place, where there is only unrest, never a moment’s peace?  It could pull in every prominent figure that’s tied to this city.  That’s why Mara was so terrified that her house was gone.”

Alister turned to stare at Johannes.

The High Priest did as well.  Sandra had strong ties to the city.

“With your collective consent?” I asked.  “Johannes could empty the city of everyone and everything prominent, and leave the remainder of Jacob’s Bell intact.  All he would need to do to expand his reach into what remained.”

Johannes shook his head slowly.

“All I’ve ever wanted was to better the relationship between man and Other, as Solomon did.  Even with all the ugliness, I believe this world is better with magic in it.  I swear to you, none of what he says was ever my intent, or more than an inkling in my mind.”

“But,” a voice spoke from the hallway, “It was mine.”

The dog strode into the room.

People gave it a wider berth than a simple white-haired dog might have merited.

“The demon would have had its way with all of you, freed of its confines, able to prey on you, until the Abyss caught it once more.  A firmer, longer-lasting binding than any that man could achieve,” Faysal said.  “The Seventh Choir of angels exists in abstract.  We cannot and do not typically win direct confrontations.  The demon gets what it desires, to undo the working that binds it to man’s word by taking the Thorburn family and associated individuals to pieces, and I achieve what I desire, stopping it in the longer term.  Worth cooperation in the short term.”

The room was still.

“Well,” Faysal said, “That plan is spoiled.  How unfortunate.  It would be much tidier than this.  Still, with most relevant parties here, we can get started.”

“Faysal,” Johannes said.  “By these pipes-”

There was a distortion.  A folding of space, complete with brilliant light.  Faysal disappeared.

“Damn,” Johannes said.

The entire structure distorted, the walls sucking in, as if by an immense pressure, then ballooning outward.  Glass and wood cracked.  As floorboards and sections of ceiling twisted, light shone through.

The light was soon marred and masked by the smell of putrid meat.

I could smell burning hair.

“Run!  Out of the house!”  Alister cried out.

A small grace that the wall around the door had been blown open.  The crush of bodies might have jammed all traffic, trapping us within.  We were able to make our way to the hallway.

“Metal objects,” Rose cried out.  “Anything reflective.  Hide it!  Don’t look directly at it!”

“How are we supposed to fight it!?”

“You don’t!  It will destroy you!” she said, her voice high, imperious, altered by Conquest.

The smell was growing thicker.

I saw Ty hold his hand to his mouth.  He’d thrown up, caught it, and now blocked his mouth.  Rounding the stairs, he spit the mouthful to one side.

A fraction of a second later, the stairway and the rest of the house collapsed.

The noise was akin to an entire city folding in on itself.  There wasn’t a sensation that wasn’t amplified a million times over, every inch of me that vibrated was shaking like it would simply tear into splinters and sawdust.  Bone threatened to crack.

All light went out.

When everything stopped moving, we were in a heap.

The stairs that had led up now led down, haphazard, some only attached on the one side, others broken, some three feet below the stair that had sat next to it.

The house had distorted, and now sat warped.  Bookshelves lay along every wall, largely empty, and even as I watched, script appeared on the spines, as the words were being penned in on the blank spines of books.

Water and dirt flowed in along the sides, streaming along the surfaces, turning what had been conventional novels into sodden messes.

A library? I thought.

We had light.

I stared up.

I hadn’t expected this.

We were at the bottom of a great depression.  But there was sky above us.  Clouds swirled, dark, but not quite pitch darkness.  Somewhere off to the side, a light was shining, lighting up the falling snow.

Lying on her side, Rose reached a hand up, and caught one of the first snowflakes to reach all the way down to us, a hundred or more feet deep.

There was a rumble, as if responding to the thought.

We dropped by another twenty feet.

“Snow,” Rose spoke in a whisper, as the snowflake melted against her palm.  “That means-”

“The time effect,” Alister said.  “The floorboards broke.”

The bell started to ring again.  Violent, discordant, never with a pattern.  It, Molly was angry.

At the edges of the darkness, shapes began to move.

Called in from nearby sections of the Abyss by the peal of the bell.

As the snow had reached us from above, the smell reached us from below.

Even with my inhuman nature, it was almost enough to steal all sense from my head, to leave me reeling helplessly.

I heard a scrape.  Metal against wood.

Footsteps, heavy.

“It’s coming.  On your feet!” Rose said.

“We’ve been in the abyss before,” Ty said.  “Blake too!  Listen to what he has to say!  He knows how this place works!”

One snowflake, however, didn’t move.

Distant, at the edge of the Abyss, I could see it.  But it was humanoid.  Impossible to look straight at, as space distorted around it.

The dog.  The angel.

“Faysal,” Johannes said.  He’d collapsed onto his back, and he looked hurt.

Between a rock and a hard place, I thought.  With monsters all between.

“He says ‘stay’,” Johannes said.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Sine Die 14.9

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The hag and the house.  Whichever one we left behind, we were screwed.

“Peter and Roxanne,” Rose said.

“It doesn’t matter,” the crone said.

“Evan’s getting them,” I told Rose.  “They’re headed this way.”

“We can’t leave Mara here,” I said.  “If you stay, I can go-”

“I would like a word with you, monster,” Mara said.  “Perhaps-”

“Well fuck you,” I said.  I turned back to Rose, “I can fly, I can get there faster.”

“You also carry a share of the darkest places with you,” Mara said.  “For a location teetering on a precipice, what would it mean, for you to be there, as something significant occurs, while your counterpart remains behind?”

Rose and I exchanged glances.

“You would work against your own agenda, tilting the city at a delicate point,” Mara said.

“I go,” Rose said.  “You wrap up?  Or we go together.”

“I’ll wrap this up, then I’ll follow,” I told her.  “I’m pretty sure I can catch up.”

“We can stick around here if we need to,” Alister’s female relative said.  “If we’re balancing the groups, like Alister recommended-”

“No,” I said.  “That’s a trap.  We don’t need manpower here, and if there’s something going on, you’ll need all the help you can get.”

“Okay then, just you Ainsley,” Rose said, even as she was backing away from the scene.  “Look after Blake.”

“Will do.”

Look after, or keep an eye on?

“Where do you want me?” Tiff asked.

“Come,” was Rose’s response.  As if she were talking to a dog.  “Knights, all but one of you with me.”

Tiff nodded.  Shotgun Nick communicated briefly with the others, then joined Rose.  Only one knight remained behind, a woman.

“Come on, Ellie, Kathy,” Rose said.  She paused.  “Satyr, Maenad, Ainsley, Sarah, stay behind, and he’ll have Green Eyes, Peter, Roxanne, and Evan.  I think that’s everyone we can afford to give up.”

I glanced at the Knight who was staying behind.  Sarah, by process of elimination.  She looked like someone I might have seen at one of the shelters.  Not homeless, but living at a point where she was perpetually down on her luck.  Thirty five or so, a puffy jacket with a plaid felt exterior, a hat that didn’t match, and stringy hair.  I respected her gun though.  It was a fairly large rifle.  A club hung at her hip, inscribed with something.

“I’m still exhausted from getting here,” Ellie said.  “We’re leaving again?”

“You wanted to come,” Rose said.

I raised an eyebrow at that.

“Except I’m turning out to be useless.  Peter went off and-”

Ellie’s voice stopped as Rose’s expression changed.

And set the fireWhich Mara doesn’t know about.

Ellie had an impulsive streak.  I was glad she’d reined it in.

“I’m not even doing anything,” Ellie said, and her tone was resigned.

“You’re staying alive,” Rose answered.  “And you’re helping, through your presence alone.”

“You’re telling me I can’t slip into a house where some family is playing sleeping beauty, grab a set of keys and take their car out of town?”

“You could,” Rose said, “But I don’t think it would go well, and neither Christoff or Peter seem willing to go.  They’re interested in this, in different ways.”

Ellie glanced over her shoulder, in the direction of the smoke.

“Ugh,” she said, but it was a ‘yes, I’ll go’ sort of ugh.  “The shit I put up with for my little brother.”

The bonds of family.  We’d all been through so much, and through all of the pressure, I was seeing glimmers of the real ties, beneath all of the hostility and ugliness that had been ingrained into us.

It wasn’t just them.  We were working with the extended family and the Behaims.  A few weeks ago, could I have imagined it?

Probably.

It still felt strange.

Rose and her contingent headed across the clearing, striding across and through the deeper snow.

Our forces were divided once more.  Rose didn’t pay attention to the balancing of the scales.  We’d moved past that.

Without stating it out loud, without locking it in with oaths and promises, we’d agreed that I would cede the fight to Rose.  In our tug of war over existence, I would let go of the rope.

They made agonizingly slow progress.  I knew I could fly faster, glide faster, especially now that the sun was up.

How ironic, to be a bogeyman, a creature of darkness and night, and yet to be limited in this way.

A taunt of sorts, after all.  I could only glide, and I was reminded constantly that I had to stay out of the light, away from civilization.

I’d told Evan that I didn’t see much of a future for myself.  That was a part of it.  Yes, I could fly with him, and we could travel over water so Green Eyes might join us.  But it would be at night, furtive.  I would always be flying with Evan as a crutch.

It wasn’t true freedom.

When I looked, Rose and her group were only just disappearing into the trees.  I would catch up.

Wouldn’t I?  I’d leave later, but I’d arrive around the time that they did?

I paced a little.

“If I went after them, would I be letting you go?” I asked.

Mara shook her head.  “I’m caught.  You’d be straining the limits of your own oaths, but I’m caught.  I’m ruined.  You would be giving up something greater.”

There was no sign of a lie.

Head games?

“Something greater?” I asked.

“Look at the pair of you.  Rose and Blake Thorburn.  Your heart sits at the center of your being, Rose’s head rests at the center of hers.  But the darkest places have taken your heart, and a working of the universe has taken your others head.”

“Riddles,” I said.

“If you pay attention, there’s more to it,” Mara said, “I hope you’ll be desperate enough to offer my release in exchange for a prompt answer.  If you wait, I’ll still give you the information and the lies you want, but you may well be late to arrive.”

I felt so restless.  A lose-lose.

“In this moment, bereft of a sound heart, your mind is the critical tool.”

“And the inverse is true for Rose?”

The young girl smiled at me.  Sly, humorless, almost mocking.

“You reached a truce,” the crone observed.

“Don’t want to hear it,” I said.

“Two spirits, two bodies,” she said.  “A ragged cut, so the twain shall never meet again.  Any connection that forms between you will be twisted and warped.”

If I’d made Rose into my familiar, or vice versa…

Just lie, Mara, I thought.  End this.  A few more lies, and we’ll be done.

But she knew it as well as I did.  She knew how anxious I was.  She insisted on stretching out as much as she could.

“You are what you are, creature,” Mara said.  “She is what she is.  By nature of your dissonant existence, you would not like what she does, once she has won.”

“You don’t know her,” I said, “and you don’t know me.”

“I have watched the Thorburn family since it set roots in Jacob’s Bell.  Since your ancestor first experimented with the darkest practices, and did great wrongs to her enemies, securing a place to live, a husband, wealth, and all things she wanted in life.  The cost of these things she bought was passed on to her daughter, who did much the same.  You have been bred to clutch, to grasp.  For existence, for material gain, for power.  It runs through your bloodline as hair or eye color might.  From daughter to daughter, the sons tainted by association.  Even as a distant bystander, there are only so many times you can watch things play out before you start to see the patterns.”

Patterns.  Reminded me of what Peter had said.

“And?”

“Think.  Why?  What does your grandmother gain?  What motivates her?  She should know what comes of dealing with dark powers as well as anyone in this town does.  The permanent damage done.  To let a demon free and give it the freedom to act?  All but the smallest and most elusive have been bound, now.  Some escape their confines, but they are soon bound again.  Were it not for your kind, we would be in little danger.”

I glanced at Alister’s relative.  Ainsley.

She looked tense.

“Your kind, diabolist.  Your bloodline and family.  The first diabolists did away with demons, bound and chronicled them, and they thought long and hard before exercising the power they had bound.  Yet the promise of power corrupted all.  Your grandmother knew all of this, and yet she made use of that power to make you.  Why?”

I saw the young crone smile just a little.

“Just tell me,” I told her.

“You know the answer.  Any who understand the practice do.  What is the practice, at it’s core?  The previous generations hold to their ways of managing it, but when you strip away the bark, the veneer, the skin-”

“This again?” I asked.

“When you strip away the surface elements, child, what is it?  The most fundamental rule.”

“Everything has a price,” Ainsley said.

“Yes.  It is a currency.  Your family saves it, Ainsley Behaim.  The Duchamps whore themselves out for it.  The Thorburns commit crimes for it.  The goblins make others bleed for it.  The Faerie recognize the way we give it a value it shouldn’t have, altering our own perceptions of it, and they take that a step further, extending it into all things.  I work for it.  Till the land for it.  I have endured for it, and have let it accrue over time, until there is no place to store it but all around me.  I spend less than I accrue, and I extend my existence.”

“At the cost of others,” I said.

“Cost?” the young crone asked.  “By seeking to end my existence, you have deprived this world of more than you have given it.  What cost, for all the knowledge I harbor?  For the stability I bring?  If all lived as I did, the world would never stop turning.”

I almost laughed.

“What cost?  Everything,” I said.  “You want to talk about the practice as currency?  What value is it, if it’s never spent?  You lock it away here, when a child brings possibility.  Potential.”

Mara smiled, a cruel, mocking expression.

I almost showed her the fire right then.

“You have no life, Crone Mara,” I said.  “You’re nothing, and you’re throwing away lives for nothing.”

“And who are you to throw stones?”

I shook my head, turning away.

“Currency, monster.  What was your grandmother doing?  What did she trade in?  What does she gain by taking an asset and throwing it away?  Going against everything she stands for to create you?”

“I don’t know.  You’re wasting my time.”

“No.”

The ground rumbled.  All around us, snow resettled.  A branch on a nearby tree dropped to the ground.

“I thought I was only skirting a lie,” she said.  “Not something I have experience with.  Hm.  Yes, I am wasting your time, Blake Thorburn, but there are answers to be found in what I am saying.”

I glanced at Ainsley Behaim.  Ainsley shook her head.  “I didn’t know your grandmother.  I couldn’t guess.”

“Neither did I,” I said.  “There were her diaries, but Rose discouraged me from reading them.”

Sarah turned, gun raised, and I followed her line of sight.

Green Eyes, Evan, Peter and Roxanne.

“Hey!” Green Eyes smiled.  “We did it!”

I smiled back.

Can’t tell her.

Can’t let her know that I’ve agreed to let Rose destroy me, forfeiting the deal.

Green Eyes practically tackled me.  She crawled on me until she’d found a perch, her chin resting on top of my head.

“My previous argument isn’t hitting home, let me try another path,” the crone said.  “Tell me, what do you want?”

“Peace,” I said.  “Freedom.  Change for a broken system.”

“What does she want?  Your counterpart?”

“Security, answers, solutions.”

“And, going back full circle to our earlier discussion, your grandmother?  What did she want?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “A legacy?  Continuing the family line?”

“She didn’t train her own children, did she?”

I shook my head.

“Hardly the actions of one who wants a legacy, to be so neglectful.  She threw you to the wolves.  She placed you in a specific order, why?  What was to be gained or lost?”

“I don’t know,” I said, again.

Peter and Roxanne finally caught up with the rest of us.  Sarah started recapping what had happened, off to one side, while Evan joined me, landing on my shoulder.

“Do you think your other knows your grandmother’s plan?” Crone Mara asked.  “These diaries you mentioned?”

I bristled.  “You’re trying to set us against each other.”

Evan roughed up his own feathers, sticking them up, as if to join me.  It would have been a nice touch, had he not been so adorable.

Mara shook her head.  “You’re not listening.  You’re against each other by nature.  Do you think it’s just a simple curse?  A compulsion to dislike one another?  I’m only informing you of what is already fact.”

“I can put feelings aside,” I said.  “I can’t believe that Rose is going to become the worst sort of diabolist.  She’s not going to summon demons.  She’s not a bad person at heart.”

“Does she have to be a bad person for her to do the antithesis of what you desire, deep down inside?” the crone asked.

She began working her way to her feet.  I tensed.  Sarah aimed a gun at Mara.  Green Eyes hopped down to the ground, tense, ready to pounce.

But Mara was only standing, wobbling a little with her ankles bound.

“Careful,” I said.

“I’ll take no physical action against you.  I can no longer practice.  All I have is knowledge and words.”

“Knowledge and words can be dangerous,” I said.

“Yes.  The point I was working to lead you to,” Mara said.  “The power of words.  They have a currency.  When we use the practice, practitioner or other, we use words and language to communicate to other parties, to barter and exchange that power.  You reached an accord with your other using words.  I watched it, and I sensed it, I saw the power that decision held.  Now, where do you imagine the danger lies, now?  Do you imagine a great melee?  Johannes and his gatekeeper against your companions?  Bringing their allies to bear?”

“That would be awesome,” Evan said.  “Bad with people getting hurt, but awesome.”

“No,” Ainsley said.  “Going by what you were saying, Mara… the danger lies in Johannes’ words?  Not a fight?”

“Picture it,” Mara said.  “The monster’s other half gets the security and answers she desires.  Johannes gets power.  The High Priest gets his lover, without her family or duty as part of the bargain.  The lesser members of the Thorburn cabal get to leave, to put this all behind them.  The junior council can start anew with Alister at the helm, without the burdens of the generations that came before, and even your grandmother may get what she sought.  A victory for all involved.”

At that last statement, there was a tremor, a reaction from the environment at the lie.

Far milder than before.

A milder lie, or…

No.

“Mara, that was a lie, wasn’t it?”

“A victory for all involved,” Mara said, again.

Our environment reacted, but it was almost imperceptible.  The same statement.  It wasn’t that it was no longer a lie… she’d burned herself out.

Our ability to use the environment as a lie detector had failed us, just as she’d dropped the critical detail.

Where did the lie rest?

“Tell me,” I said.

Bargain with me,” she hissed the words.

She was too calm, too collected.

I reached across the circle, and I grabbed Mara by the collar.

I saw the smallest glimmer of fear in her eyes at the contact.

She felt just a little bit more mortal than she had.

One arm extended in straight in front of me, still gripping the collar of her coat, I marched her away.  Further from the trees.

I let her turn around.

Behind me, the smoke still rose from her ruined home.

I could see the facade crack.  The genuine fear.

“No,” she said.  “No, no!”

Her hands clutched at my wrist, trying to pull away, to move toward the fire.  “What did you do!?”

“Arson!”  Evan said.  “The house, and all the little dolls, burning!”

He sounded so cheery.  I suspected he was trying to feign a good mood after the earlier discussion.  Faking it, so Green Eyes wouldn’t suspect anything.

“I need to-” Mara said.

“There’s nothing you can do,” Peter declared.  “Something in your kitchen burned like lighter fluid once the fire got that far.”

“It’s been burning for a while,” I said.  “If you want to go there, to try to salvage something, you’ll tell me.  I imagine every second counts.”

The fear that seemed to cross over her features was almost inhuman, her eyes too wide, cords standing out at her throat, where it was visible just above the collar of her jacket.

I almost thought she’d die right there, from the shock.

“Mara,” I said.  “If you want to salvage anything there, you’re going to need to give me fast answers.”

“No,” she said, and her voice was hollow.  “There’s no salvaging this.  My tie to it is broken, the land’s tie to me is broken.  Without my claim, my power, there’s nothing to stop this place from joining your city in being claimed.”

“Except me,” I said.

She shot me a look.  For a moment, I thought there was a gleam of hope.  She saw a distant way out.

Then it faded.  Dashed away.

She laughed.  It sounded just a touch unhinged.

“Mara.  Who loses?  Who is this targeting?  What’s the plan?”

If Rose can stall, or get control of things, if I can arrive with the right knowledge…

“Wrong questions,” Mara said, watching the smoke, breathing hard, halfway between a pant and a laugh.  She met my eyes.

Her expression had changed.  Seething hatred.  No longer the cold, patient rage we’d been treated to before.

She spoke, “But I’ll answer the question, all the same.  Everyone I mentioned gets their wish, except you.  Everyone, I believe, will come to quickly regret it.  Even the Sorcerer.  They’ll only get a mockery of what they sought.”

Mockery.

Everyone.  Rose included.  My friends.  No solutions or security for Rose.  No escape for my friends, nor a chance for them to return to their lives.  Johannes would lose power, and Alister’s junior council, what, would fail?  Be subverted in purpose?

She continued, getting more agitated with each passing second.  “You, monster, you won’t even get a mockery of a wish.  Nothing in the outcome will resemble anything you desire!  You want freedom?  Change?  I can’t see any way this unfolds where you have either.  You’ll endure a monotonous, broken, endless existence, without a moment’s peace.  You come on my land, you intrude on my life, and demand answers of me?  Let this be your penalty, the suffering you are due!  Pray for death!  Pray for an untidy end, because nothing more awaits you than a bottomless well of misery!”

She was moving, and with her ankles bound, she fell into the snow.

I let her, and watched her laying there.

“How can she know all this?” Peter asked.

“She’s been around for a very, very long time,” Ainsley told him.  “I wouldn’t put anything past her.”

“But,” I said, and it was very possible my words were informed by my hopes, that this was a manipulation, a trick.  “Mara can lie.  She might pay a consequence, but there’s no guarantee that we’d be able to tell.  Any of this could be misleading, or an outright fib, to send us running down the wrong path.”

I looked down at Mara.

She’s different from the Faerie.  They revel in social games, they revel in the ability to manipulate, the schemes, the distractions.  Lying and social games are as natural to them as breathing.

But Mara… her immortality had been spent on routine, on doing the same thing over and over again, rarely interacting with people.  Even the vision I’d had of her interaction with the little girl she’d replaced, it had been cold, distant.

Mara could technically lie, she could work around the practice.  There would be bad karma involved, but she had the ability to spout lies.

But as a liar, well, it wasn’t one of her strengths.

“Shit,” I said.  “Scratch that statement.”

She was telling the truth.

“Satyr, maenad, watch the crone,” I said, raising my voice.  I was already turning to run.  “Peter, Roxanne, Sarah, Ainsley, Green Eyes, move!”

“What?” Peter asked.  “We just came all this way, and that’s after-”

“No time!” I said.

Just like his sister.

My wings extended straight behind me as I ran, taking the harder path.  Over rocks, between trees, ignoring the clearings.

It was easier to go out than to come in.

I saw a rock, leaped up to it, then jumped.  Evan carried me up.

The others were following, lagging behind.  They didn’t move as quickly as I did.

The crone had said that Rose needed to follow her heart.  This was the pivotal moment.

Johannes wasn’t going to Hillsglade House to fight.  He was going to offer a deal.

Logically, rationally, everyone present could well find it an enticing deal.  Everyone gained something.  Those that didn’t stand to gain anything had been dealt with in various ways during the day.

Logically, rationally.

Rising above the trees with Evan’s help, I flew in a lazy circle, eyes on the ground, searching for Rose and her group.

They weren’t in any place the sunlight touched.

They were already inside.

What did it mean to be too late, when this was a battle fought with words?

The crone had told me that I needed to use my head to get through this.  Rose needed to follow her heart.  To put calculation aside and trust her instincts.

Rose’s end of things seemed to make sense.  She had to put the compelling arguments aside.

Me?

I needed to figure this out.  To think forward, to think backward.  To exist beyond the now.

Almost experimentally, high enough off the ground that a fall might have dashed me to pieces, I turned over.  A sharp bend of each wing, catching the air, a barrel roll of sorts.

Turning my face and chest skyward, facing the sun.  Wings spread, Taking in the warmth.

One last time.

Evan caught me, nudged me, and I righted myself, stomach again facing the ground.

A twist of my body, a fold of the wings, and I plunged into the darkness and the night, wooden feet scraping on ice, salt, and pavement.

I heard a yowl, not so far away.

Distractions.  The barrier Mara had talked about?

No, I was still too combative in mindset.  What danger was a monster, compared to the right words in the wrong ear?

My allies hurried to follow, entering the darkness behind and below me.  Roxanne, a bit shorter than the rest, was slowing us down.

I dropped out of the sky and landed.

My hand pulled free of my wing just in time to block the barrel of Sarah’s rifle, before it could point at me.

“Shit,” Peter said.  “Scary, you dropping in like that, just after it all suddenly turns back to night.”

He leaned over, panting a bit.  Sarah seemed even more out of shape, despite being the gun-toting ‘Knight’.

“Gotta catch my breath,” Peter said.

“I’ve got to go,” I told him.  “Timing matters.  I’ve got to get ahead of this deal, convince them not to take it.  If I head out leaving you guys behind, our chances should get better.”

“Not far from where we ran from a dragon and a giant,” Roxanne said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “But-”

“Go,” Peter said.  “You told me to ditch you before, you were dead weight.  Now we’re the dead weight.  Fly.

“I can spend power,” Ainsley said.  She wasn’t breathing as hard as Peter was.  “We’ll be right behind you.”

I turned and flew.

A dark form against a dark, unlit sky, joined by a small bird.  The wind sang through the gaps in my body.

A deal.  One that encapsulated all of the ones in attendance.  A trap.

It was as I glanced back at the trio that it started to click.

A path they might take, in striking the deal.

Green Eyes had been a threat to me, once upon a time.  Polite, conversing openly, she’d nonetheless lurked and hoped to catch me and eat me.

Peter and Roxanne were relatives, but they weren’t family.  Not until tonight, when they were making sacrifices, taking risks.  Prior to all of this, they had been the primary antagonists in my life.

Fell, the Hyena, June, the Duchamps, the Behaims, the High Drunk, they’d all had their tries at killing or maiming me.

The line between enemy and ally grew so blurred.

When I thought of classic enemies and allies…

Gears started turning in my head.

Enemies became allies…

Hillsglade House seemed to appear from the darkness.  I shifted the angle of my flight, reoriented.

My feet skidded on the ice of the short path that lead from the long driveway to the front door.  Coarse salt scraped between my feet and the wood of the steps.

The texture of the doormat felt strange underfoot.  I didn’t wear shoes or boots.  My feet were wood, a rough approximation of the individual components of the foot, all worked into one another.  The coarse mat was almost pleasant, scraping salt and accumulated snow from the gaps and the cracks.

R.D.T.  Stenciled images of thorny vines.

The door was unlocked.  I pushed it open.

The ground floor was empty, but tracks of moisture, sand, and salt marked the hallway, distorting the bloodstains that painted the floor and surrounding walls.  They led up the stairs.

“Where are the bodies?” Evan asked.

“Fed to something, maybe,” I said.  “Or thrown into the basement to be cleaned up later.”

“Not it!” Evan said.

“Shh,” I said.

The landing of the stairs was even worse.  I saw bits that hadn’t quite been cleaned up.  Ends of fingers or ears or little blobs of gristle, worked into the space between the floorboards and the wall.

When I reached the second floor, I saw that the doors to the inner library were open.  Floorboards had been torn out and splintered, set ajar so they fanned up and out like so many spikes.  The space around the gap twisted, and a hole in the ceiling and the floor above us suggested that it had all been torn open.  A glimmer of funhouse mirror architecture.

People had gathered.  Eyes turned my way.

A maenad glared.  The High Drunk, just to her right, gave me a dispassive look.

I could hear voices in the next room.

Rose had been too late.  Not in terms of a great fight, some trap, or other issue.

Johannes had talked to the Drunk.  Won the man over to his side, or at least set the tone.  Dictated all that came after.  Rose could hardly arrive and attack when the High Drunk was standing by, having a civilized discussion.

I moved through the crowd, and saw the library, devastated, every book knocked from its respective shelf.  They had been salvaged, moved into stacked piles, but it was so little, so late.

Rose, Johannes and Alister were all present.  Ellie, Christoff and Kathryn stood off to one side with Ty, Alexis, Tiff, and the Knights.

Alexis met my eyes.  I could see her as she’d been when she’d died.  Corvidae’s glamour.

I could see the betrayal, the agreement to keep my nature a secret from me.

I loved her and I couldn’t bear to look at her.  I wasn’t sure that would ever change.

“Blake,” Rose said.

If I told Rose, would that ruin the intent?  Did she have to reject this deal by her heart, not by logic and argument?

“Johannes explained what he’s doing,” Rose said.

“Mara kind of told me,” I said.  “She thinks this is a mistake.  I don’t even know what it is, but she thinks this is a monkey’s paw”

“Mara isn’t the most trustworthy source,” Johannes said.

“Her home is burned, her power base destroyed, and she’ll live out the rest of her natural life without being able to draw  on her hag powers,” I said.  “She wanted to taunt me, told me that I couldn’t stop this from happening.  Please.  Rose.  Anyone.  Help me prove her wrong.”

“It works,” Alister said.  “It’s a solution.”

“Blake,” Johannes said.  His voice was low, smooth, calm.  “It’s been a long road, getting this far.  In a way, you helped bring it to bear.  You fought long and hard, and now it’s time to stop fighting.  Put the sword away for good.”

I touched the Hyena at my hip, just to remind myself it was there.

“My familiar can give you a body again,” Johannes said.  “There’s nothing tying you here.  All you need to do is stand down.  Leave your weapon in its sheath.”

“And then?” I asked.

“A controlled sink.  We transplant a portion of the town to the Abyss.  We send the demon upstairs with that section of the town.”

“Or,” I said, “Rose can banish the demon.  There’s no need to give up the town.”

“If banished, it can be summoned by another diabolist,” Alister said.

“If we send it elsewhere,” Johannes spoke, “My familiar can strike at the demon.  There are old, forgotten gods in the Abyss.  He can put this demon right in front of those gods, and they can kill it.”

His familiar.  I noticed Faysal Anwar wasn’t in the room.

“I know about the gods in the Abyss,” I said.  “I met one.”

Johannes smiled.

“It was losing,” I said.  “Slowly, but surely.”

The smile faltered.

“Gods range in power,” he said.  Picking up right where he’d left off.

“I can’t say for sure,” I said, “But the one I saw was maybe the same size as the moon.  Or his head was.  I don’t think you can pull that off, resting in the Abyss, unless you have plenty of power.”

I closed my eyes.

This was the pivotal moment.  The argument.  I needed to figure it out, challenge the idea.  Break it down.

The idea from earlier had sat with me.  A niggling suspicion, an ugly idea.

How many times had I seen enemies turn into fast friends or allies?

Expectations were the enemy.  My instincts were the problem.  Assumptions and simple labels were ruinous here.

I spoke the words, knowing that being wrong could ruin me, at this most critical point in time, but I had to show confidence and state it clearly, or it just wouldn’t do.

“Faysal the angel and the Barber aren’t adversaries in this,” I said.  “We’re playing right into Faysal’s hands.  He’s the threat.”

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