“There,” Evan said.
He flew over and beneath me, until he was just beneath my chin. He angled himself differently, and I followed. I could look straight between his wings and follow the line of his back and beak to the hag’s place.
I peered forward, but I only saw trees and shadow. My eyelashes were frozen, and I didn’t have the hands with which to rub at them.
“I’ve been over here, but I haven’t visited her,” Evan said. “Get too close and you run into hawks and other things in the trees. Apparently there are some huge spiderwebs in the summer. Big enough to catch a sparrow or a cat. Aaaand now that I say it out loud, I’m pretty sure they were making fun of me.”
“Who?” I asked. I had to speak louder to be heard, even with proximity. I wasn’t sure if Evan had the same issue with the wind rushing past his ears.
“The locals!” he said, matching my volume. “Lesser spirits and junk! Like those two cats at the Behaimses place. I’ve been busy, trying to figure out what’s what and what’s up. Only so much you can find out while flying around, you know?”
We were close enough that I thought I could make out the building. There were no lights on, so to speak. There was smoke coming from the chimney, but the branches of the trees seemed to catch the smoke, and keep it from reaching the sky.
It wasn’t frozen in time. Were we approaching the point where we were outside of the town?
Or was she there, stoking the fire, keeping it active by being active?
“It’s like the movies. You got the awesome badass cop, that’s me, here, and he has to fork over the dough to get the deets, right? Except I’m giving real dough, or french fries, or whatever. Token worship or sustenance. And they fib to me? Jerks!”
“I wouldn’t rule out anything,” I said.
“We’re getting close,” he said. “Might want to go lower.”
But he was already descending. The air ran past him and off him like he was much larger, buoying me up, but with him disappearing, I naturally lost altitude. I didn’t flap to stay up, but dove down just a bit, following.
“Closer, closer…” Evan said.
“To?” I asked.
A shrill cry cut through the air.
Dark forms lifted from the woods.
“That,” Evan said. “Hawks, I think.”
“That wasn’t a hawk cry.”
“You’re such a bird nerd!”
“It wasn’t,” I said.
“Okay, well, whatever they are, they pop up whenever you fly too close.”
I could count twelve, and my vision wasn’t that good in the dark. I could only guess at how many there were total.
Croaking bird calls. Crows, too?
I could make out distinct silhouettes beneath us. Dark winged shapes rising from the woods. They didn’t flap, but kept their wings spread, gradually rising, much as I was gradually dropping.
“Turkey vultures,” I said. “Turkey vultures and crows.”
“Vultures? Okay, whatever. They’ve come after me a few times. Sucks. Sucks more if I’m so high up I can’t dodge through trees. But I have you, now.”
“Right,” I said. I carefully looked back and down, in the direction of the others.
“Going to be freaking awesome to have someone to fly with,” he said. “Someone to keep the monsters off my back. I mean, what’s the worst they can throw at us? You beat a dragon!”
“I didn’t beat it,” I said. “I grazed it. A light scrape on the wing, to discourage, if nothing else. It might have come after us, if the giant had let it.”
“Uh uh uh!” Evan said, “Theatrics! Words are important! You beat a dragon! And now-”
More buzzard cries joined the others. Shrill, piercing. I couldn’t blame Evan for likening them to hawk cries.
With every few seconds, the number of cries increased in number.
“Okay,” Evan said. “Lots of them.”
There was practice involved here. Demesne, perhaps, or whatever the old woman did that fell in that ballpark.
I dropped lower, while Evan stayed just beneath me, shielded from above by my size, wingspan, and mass.
The cries of birds were picking up, one starting before the last had finished its croak or shrill scream.
The first ones to take to the air were now starting to get closer to us.
“Turning back,” I warned him, as I dipped my left wing lower. “Left turn.”
Wouldn’t do to turn and leave Evan to continue soaring forward, without help or protection.
By the time I’d pulled a u-turn, the birds were at eye level with me. Crows flapped, while the vultures simply kept their wings spread. Not coming straight at me, but still rising. Each turkey vulture had a featherless head. It looked like their heads had been skinned alive. Red, grisly, without much flesh stretched over the bone.
“Eugh,” Evan said.
An entirely different problem from the dragon, this.
Evan seemed far more confident in my ability to handle this problem than I was.
He hadn’t been there when I’d been swarmed by Pauz’s collected animals.
Being swarmed was bad. Being swarmed while still in the air was worse.
“Back to the others,” was all I said.
It took about a minute before the birds reached the right altitude.
They descended on me. Five pounds each at most, they hit me in twos and threes. Landing on me, or flying just over me and pecking, scratching, gouging.
“Fuck!” I spat out the word.
They picked at the fabric.
Attacking me like I’d attacked the dragon.
“Um,” Evan said.
One pecked at my leg. I steered myself upward, ascending and slowing down at the same time, and kicked the bird before it could react.
There wasn’t much I could do about the others.
“Into the trees!” Evan said.
“Can you help me dodge?”
“I can try!”
I dove. Evan shifted, swerved, and landed somewhere inside my chest cavity.
Who hadn’t dreamed of flying, once? Peril aside, being able to just drop from seventy-five feet up in the air to the point where I was very nearly touching the ground?
But that was peril aside. Peril included? Bittersweet.
“Flying here sucks!” Evan cried out.
I quickly discovered why. A clear path opened up, I took it, and found a copse of trees just in front of me. A virtual wall.
A bird’s beak stabbed at my hairline, and came away with a chunk of flesh.
I angled myself to the left, aiming for a thicket of branches, and flew straight into it.
I paid for it in buckets, with the loss of balance and momentum, but wood stuck to my back and my wings, and the birds were scraped off.
A large snow-covered boulder seemed to rush at me, twice as fast as everything else. An optical illusion, helped by the deeper shadows and layers of snow that suggested it was a part of the background.
Still off-balance, I was too slow to move entirely out of the way. I felt my wing clip it, but only the tip broke away.
Birds descended from the thicker collections of branches, scattering snow and ice as they lunged, snapping beaks at me as we crossed paths.
Doing their best to go for the wings, and the eyes.
They almost bordered on the suicidal, as they collided with me in attempts to hit my wings or spear me through the face. I had to twist my face away to save my right eye. Each action I took and each collision served to put me even more off balance, costing me precious fractions of a second I needed to raise one wing, to flap, to descend.
I was supernaturally tough. What might have happened if I were flesh? If these beaks and talons were digging more than mere millimeters into my flesh?
Picked to pieces until I couldn’t fly anymore?
An area opened up. I could make out shapes in the distance.
I headed toward them.
“No!” Evan cried out.
As fast as I’d turned their way, I steered clear.
Into branches, some as thick around as my wing was. Some grew together, as if they’d meshed together, to better break my speed.
Around the time that the last of my forward momentum was gone, I folded my wings, and let the weight of my body carry me to the ground. I dropped five feet, snagged on more branches, and stopped partway.
I moved my arm free of my wing, and the lack of support meant that the wing stopped holding me up. I dropped the remainder of the way, landing knee-deep in snow.
Two seconds after I’d stopped, a buzzard came right for my face. I caught it, holding it, with its wings pounding in my direction, talons scratching.
When I let go, it flew away.
“Yeah,” Evan said. He climbed out of my chest cavity, “So… that happens.”
“Can’t fly and defend myself at the same time,” I said.
“You can, you just need practice. Barrel roll roundhouse kicks, maybe.”
“I can’t do a roundhouse kick to start with. Why would I be able to do one while flying?”
“You just need practice,” Evan said. “You’re good at fighting.”
“I’m good at scrapping, if I’m good at anything,” I said. “That’s not the same thing as fighting.”
I started picking my way through the snow on foot.
“Scrapping,” Evan said.
“Fighting when the chips are down. Keep going when I’m missing an arm and a leg, when I’ve lost my self, or my enemies force me to relive my worst memories. You were there for that last one, I know.”
I blinked. “Yeah. Sorry. Forgot that just about everything prior to Rose taking over got erased. Yeah, you helped me through it. Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Evan said, with a kind of sage gravity, as if he knew what I was talking about.
“Why did you steer me clear of the others?”
“Trap,” Evan said. “Definite trap.”
“Right. What sort of trap?”
“Not sure. But something felt wrong.”
“Well, keep an eye out,” I said.
We headed to the others, moving around a collection of trees. At a glance, they were ordinary evergreens. When I examined them, or tried to figure out how to climb them, or move through them, I saw how dense they were. The way branches crossed one another in twos and threes, the way that the openings between branches were never in the same place that the footing was solid. Sloped rocks and dips in the snow that suggested small pits.
Then, again, the clearing. The one I’d very nearly flown over. Twenty feet across, maybe a hundred feet to reach the others. Snow, flat but for the periodic animal track, blemished only by a small few fallen branches.
Hard to tell in the dark, if there was anything more going on.
The others were trudging through the snow. I could hear them from here, their boots, hands, and legs tearing past the icy crust just on top of the fluffy white snow. Peter, Roxanne, Tiff, the satyr, the maenad, and Green Eyes.
My eyes roved over the snowy expanse.
If I were to go around, loop to the right of the impassable cluster of trees…
No. It might well have been a dead end.
I looked the other way. Moving across the clearing, perpendicular to the direction I’d need to go to meet up with the others, disappearing off to the left…
I was pretty sure that path fed back into the clearing.
Evan had picked up on it in an instant. Now that I wasn’t trying to fly, I was getting the same vibe.
I raised a hand for others to stop.
Gloomy figures in darkness, they peered at me, cold and waiting.
My eyes roved over the snow.
Tracks. Something small that might have been a rabbit, something slightly larger, like a fox or wolf…
And something larger.
I approached the other tracks.
Masked, well hidden under a fresh snowfall, but not quite right for deer. Definitely not big enough for moose. It wasn’t that I was any expert in this sort of thing, but the tracks were close together.
“What are you thinking?” Evan asked.
“Someone passed through here earlier tonight,” I said.
The tracks had been covered by a layer of snowfall. They were now a slight trench, where the snow was fractionally lower.
I followed it. Moving diagonally across the clearing.
The tracks stopped at a group of trees. A rock jutted up.
I examined the surroundings.
No runes, no markings, no wires.
Evan peered down.
“The rock,” he said.
“The rock. Less snow on top.”
“Trees,” I said. “Cover overhead.”
In the distance, Peter muttered something to the satyr that I couldn’t make out, and got a response.
“Hey!” Peter called out. “I know you’re made of wood, but it’s cold! Colder when we’re not moving! Can we get a move on?”
“Compared to the lower branches?” Evan asked. “Look. There’s enough snow on that branch to bury me, but on top of the rock…”
Not much snow at all.
“Good eye,” I said.
I dusted snow off the rock, very carefully.
Again, no runes or ropes or wires. A triangular rock.
Tall and triangular, shaped like a doorstop.
Was there passage here?
Or was the wedge serving another purpose?
I used one foot to push snow aside.
A lot of loose dirt had mixed in with the snow.
“Ah,” I said.
“Digging?” Evan asked.
“Moving the stone,” I said.
“Hello!?” Peter called out.
“Trap!” I replied. “Back up!”
They did. It took a good thirty seconds for them to trudge back through snow.
“More!” I said.
They backed up a little more.
I put my one hand on the tree, and gave it a light push.
With only that gentle pressure, something higher up cracked, something below cracked.
Snow broke free of the spell of frozen time. An entire section of forest seemed to come to life in small ways, with drifting snow and movement from a faint wind. The tree I’d touched broke free, tilting. Ice and snow rained down on top of Evan and I as branches were torn from where ice had frozen them in place.
With the one tree came two others, like one domino hauling the rest behind it. Dirt and snow were kicked up as roots pulled free of the earth, and with the housing lost, a fourth tree toppled.
Trees that had grown for more than a hundred years now fell. Their branches were meager, and did nothing to slow the fall.
The landing broke two of the four trees right in the middle, the upper ends striking hills, the midsections bowing until they broke. Where they touched the middle of the clearing, dirt, roots, and thin branches stuck out, kicked to life where they had been arranged in rows.
Part of the trap mechanism, buried just beneath the earth.
Three trees, falling, parallel with one another, across the middle of the clearing.
The fourth fell diagonally. Poised to strike down anyone or anything fast enough to move clear of the initial deadfall. A dead tree, the branches long since fallen or broken, reduced to spiky protrusions jutting out from the trunk.
The sound of splintering, shattering wood echoed through the crone’s glade.
Had we been approaching from the other direction, we wouldn’t have seen the track, I wasn’t sure we would have escaped.
Not all of us. Maybe I would have, with Evan’s help. I suspected the satyr and maenad were spry enough. Green Eyes… maybe.
But not all of us. Which wasn’t good enough.
Snow that had shaken free of branches across the entire forest now came to a stop, halfway through to falling to the ground.
I could hear crows and vultures cawing in the background.
The others headed in my direction, walking across the fallen trees.
“Magic?” Green Eyes asked.
I frowned, looking at the fallen trees, and the poles that had been part of the mechanism.
“Not sure,” I said.
“No,” Tiff said. “That’s not how she operates.”
“Oh, great,” Peter said. “Innocents are protected, they say. It’s good to have some innocents along. Innocents are harder to affect with magic. You aren’t entirely magical, but you should go along. You’ll help the group just by being there, an extra set of skills. What happens in the first half hour? Dragon, giant, now falling trees. Are we protected? Noooo.”
“This is natural,” Tiff said. “But it’s hers, in a way that very few things are anyone’s nowadays.”
“When you say hers, you mean the woman who hates whitey?” Peter asked.
“That’s not how I’d phrase it,” Tiff said.
“Just trying to keep it all straight.”
“It’s not straight,” Roxanne said, staring down at the fallen tree she was standing on. It was a non-sequitur, an out of place line, and it made me worry a bit about her mental state.
“You okay?” Tiff asked. She placed a gloved hand on Roxanne’s shoulder, on the crimson coat.
Roxanne twisted away, scowling, as if she’d been burned.
“I see,” Tiff said.
“No you don’t,” Roxanne said. “You don’t.”
I winced. Meeting Tiff’s eyes, I could see she was thinking along the same lines.
Being called on a lie was bad, for a practitioner. Even if it was superficial. Not the best word choice by Tiff, but it was rare to get that kind of attack from inside one’s own camp.
“Roxanne,” I said. “Don’t do that. That kind of arguing is disastrous, here.”
She tensed. “You stop doing that first. Taking charge. Telling us what to do. Being condescending.”
“They’re not being condescending,” Peter said. “They really are superior. They’re better than us, and they’re acting like it.”
Peter raised a hand, then glanced at me. “You want to lead the way, or do you want to use us as cannon fodder?”
I glanced in the direction of the hut.
The others followed behind me as I led the way.
“The problem, Roxie,” Peter said, “is that you’re used to being superior. Everyone has a way of dealing. Kathy? Attack, attack, attack. That’s her pattern. When the attacks fail? Undermine, sabotage the competition in less direct ways. Paige? Act better than she is, raise herself up, place herself on a pedestal. When that fails? She breaks down, and she breaks down hard. Recognize the pattern, and you know how to play someone. All that emotion gets turned inward.”
“I don’t care,” Roxanne said. “Stop talking?”
“Gotta talk, part of how I deal. You and me? We’re manipulators. Different environments, but we play the same game. Where we differ is in how we deal when the manipulations fail. I’m not so different from Ellie. I retreat. But where she changes things up, I retreat to study. I come back better, smarter.”
“I think you might be a little biased in your interpretation of yourself,” I commented.
Peter shrugged. He stepped closer to Roxanne, who only glared at him, one of her eyes still bloodshot. “You, little Roxie, go right for the jugular. Or with a letter opener aimed at the crotch, it seems.”
“Don’t call me Roxie,” Roxanne said. But she didn’t move as Peter extended one hand, taking hold of her jacket, and lifted it up until the bottom edge was up around Roxanne’s armpits. She didn’t resist, and she didn’t flinch like she had with Tiff.
I looked back over my shoulder.
Knives in sheaths. Nice looking sheaths. Oiled leather. A leather harness was strapped around her body, with twist ties holding some excess straps in place, and ultimately was set up to hold a glass bottle over her bellybutton, and two pouches at either side. There was more just under the jacket that I couldn’t make out, and maybe more behind her back.
Tiff stared. “Did she always have those knives? That harness-”
“The witch hunter’s,” Peter said. “From the big bag they left behind, before Rose’s friends went through it. When she went to the bathroom, after we got back to the house. Our attention was on the Behaims. Hers was on preparing in case she needed to get cutthroat. That’s another little difference between us. She plans for failure. I like thinking I won’t fail, and still manage to deal if I do.”
Roxanne didn’t react. She kept walking, jacket lifted up to expose her sweater and myriad weapons.
“Armor, I’m presuming,” Peter said. He flicked at her stomach, fingernail tapping something hard.
“I used a book,” Roxanne said. “There were pieces in there but it was more to protect bottles.”
Peter commented, “That bottle there, that’s alcohol, Blake. She has matches too. Strips of cloth, if you didn’t see.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Okay? You do realize that she was planning for the eventuality that she might need to go after you?”
Green Eyes growled.
Roxanne only shot the mermaid a dirty look.
“I do realize it,” I said. “I’m okay with it. Not happy, but okay. I’d rather she was preparing to deal with the monsters. Even if that includes me. It didn’t look like she was about to use the thing.”
“She was on that road,” Peter said. Peter let go of the jacket. Roxanne pulled it down straight, unflinching. “Kathryn was told to make herself successful, and she did it the way she saw fit. Dad never forgave her for setting her sights as low as she did.”
He continued, “Paige was told how to be successful. She set herself on that path. The family very nearly tore her down. She handled it badly. James was more coddled. They’re breaking him down, making him into a puppet, to try and get the best of both worlds, doing what they say when they say, studying what they want him to study, because that’s what he’s good at. They’ll shape the personality later, they’ll do a terrible job at it, and they’ll ultimately break him like they break everyone else they interacted with.”
“They didn’t break me,” Roxanne said.
“They haven’t started with you, you twit,” Peter said. “The wizards and whatsits get started at thirteen or so, or so we’ve been told. That’s when Dad lays down the law. Starts exerting pressure. Shaping you like he thinks you should be shaped. Which is so stupid it makes me want to spit.”
“I wouldn’t have let him ‘shape’ me,” Roxanne said. She sounded a touch defensive.
“Maybe not,” Peter said. “But he should’ve recognized what you’re capable of as is. You’ve got that same aspiration that Paige and Kathy have. A desire to be better, but without Dad’s interference, and with natural intelligence and viciousness, you could be as scary a monster as anything here.”
“That’s not true!” Evan piped up. “Blake’s a great monster!”
“No,” Peter said. “That’s-”
“He took on a dragon without flinching! You didn’t even see him killing people earlier tonight! He was brutal!”
“Evan,” I said. “Stop defending me.”
“Hmph,” Evan grunted. “Green Eyes is a good monster too.”
“Thank you,” Green Eyes replied.
“What I’m saying,” Peter said, “Is that Roxanne has all that aspiration, and when she gets forced into a corner, taken down a peg, forced to get mean, she immediately slips into the best role that she can emulate, from all those around her. She did it easily.”
“Slipping into the role of the witch hunter,” Roxanne said.
“Most capable person we’ve seen that didn’t have the benefit of weeks of studying the right books or having the right tools,” Peter said.
“It almost sounds like you respect me.”
Peter barked out a laugh.
“Fuck that. You’re a spoiled little shit, and Dad pretty much ruined you. But this?” He gestured at her midsection, where all the weapons were. “I can respect this. Pretty much the best the Thorburns have to offer.”
“Mm,” Roxanne murmured.
“What I don’t respect, what I think is downright pathetic, and what you need to stop fucking doing, is going after us. Because you’re doing it. You’re scared and I’m scared and I bet even the bloody mermaid is a little scared. But that fear is making you fall back on your emergency measure. Going for the wrong jugulars. Pay attention. Do this smart. Come on.”
I suspected the message could have done without the biting tone he’d given those last two words. Like the worst of a disappointed parent’s rebuke.
Which might have been the language Roxanne recognized most easily, now that I was thinking thought on it.
Roxanne had fallen silent.
The wind stirred.
I could see the reaction of the others, as I turned my head. That momentary discomfort, followed by the realization that the wind shouldn’t be moving at all.
I might have picked up on it sooner, simply because of the fact that I’d been flying, when there had been air but no proper wind, the rising thermals there when I brought my wings to them, immediately responsive, but the skies remaining still.
There was something there.
“Guardian,” the maenad said.
“Is that a thing?” I asked. “A label we need explained?”
“Sure,” the satyr commented. “We don’t know what it is, but it’s guarding these woods. Making it a guardian.”
Not helpful, I thought.
The shape moved through the trees.
Narrow, tall, naked and simultaneously sexless, with only dark pubes at the nether regions. Its flesh was mottled like that of a corpse, or maybe a baby fresh from childbirth, it had spidery fingers that each had two or three joints too many. It moved like it floated, leaving no tracks behind it, legs only periodically moving to propel it forward. The front of its head looked exactly like the back of its head did. A tangle of hair, blowing in wind that wasn’t there.
Each hand touched the trees it passed, bony fingers almost clicking as they wrapped around branches and trunks.
“Shit,” Tiff said. “Wraith, maybe?”
“Assuming she’s covering her bases,” Peter said. “Maybe something that could handle what falling trees couldn’t?”
“That makes sense,” Tiff said.
“Green Eyes,” I said. “Ideas?”
“Not really,” she said. “It doesn’t feel like most things I saw in the dark waters.”
The thing continued to move across our field of vision, at a jogging pace that nobody mortal could maintain in the deeper snow. The snow didn’t stir on contact with it.
It felt ominous. Like a pressure on my chest. As if it were digging fingers into my gut and twisting up the contents, just by being there.
“Like most? What does it feel like?” I asked her.
“The black fish,” she said.
“Mm,” I said. “Like Carl. Yeah.”
Like it was something that, instinctually, I should run away from.
“English?” Peter asked.
“Like it’s the worst possible thing, made manifest,” I said. “Except… maybe less personal.”
“Yeah,” Green Eyes said. “I couldn’t have said it that well, but yeah.”
I watched it with a wary eye as it passed through a thicket of trees.
And, in the span of an eyeblink, where the terrain blocked it from view, it stopped. The eye carried forward, expecting it to continue, and saw only the usual darkness.
The maenad spun in place.
The thing was there. A matter of five or so feet from us. It floated the rest of the way, covering the distance before I could step back.
I hacked with the Hyena, only for the blade to pass through it.
Spidery fingers wrapped around my neck. Very solid. The fingers wrapped around my neck twice over, more like rope or ribbons than actual digits, and some wood immediately gave way under the thing’s grip.
The fingers naturally constricted, each finger encircling what remained of my neck two and a half or three times.
I stabbed in the general region of its head, and I touched nothing.
Tiff threw something at us. I thought it was snow, at first.
“Ah, ow,” I said. Almost hurts. “Salt in eye.”
“Not a wraith,” Tiff muttered to herself, already digging through pockets
I could make out Green Eyes swiping her claws at the thing. Touching only air.
“Astral,” I said. Actually breathing wasn’t hard, my voice didn’t wheeze, but my words were affected as my throat was damaged. But-
More wood cracked.
-But I remained very invested in keeping my neck intact.
Evan was fluttering into activity, but his focus was on evading the thing. The thing swiped for the bird twice, and Evan dodged both times. The fact it was now only using one hand for me was definitely slowing the damage it did to me.
“Go-” I started.
The thing caught Evan, lurching to one side, so its arms were fully extended to either side. Bird in one hand, me in the other.
“Damn it!” Evan said.
He slipped free of the grip, veered closer to me, only to get caught again.
“Don’t,” I said. “Just go!”
Evan slipped free again, as if he were wet soap in hand, and flew back out of reach.
This is so stupid, I thought.
Was there a trick to it?”
Astral, astral, astral. Um. Shit!” Tiff said, more agitated. “Astral workings are harder to protect against. Um. You need stuff prepared in advance, ideally.”
“Hurry,” I said. I couldn’t move from where I stood, with the thing holding me. I couldn’t touch it.
“Nightmare? No. Um. Doom. Curse made manifest? Roxanne, when you looted the bag, did you collect anything that looked like a dreamcatcher? A necklace, pendant, rosaries?”
“Why the fuck would I?”
More wood cracked.
I was pretty sure the thing had fingers wrapped around my spine and the remaining threads and splinters of wood.
.”Damn it,” I muttered. “They keep coming for me.”
“I would,” Peter said, helpfully. “If I were against us, I’d go after you first, easy.”
I heard the croaking of crows, the shrill cry of a turkey vulture.
Movement through the woods.
“Okay, wait,” Tiff said. “Don’t move.”
“Not moving,” I said. “Might want to hurry.”
She was already pulling off a glove, fishing in a pocket. Her hand shook.
“Um, was hoping for a bigger coin,” she said.
In the time that it took her to extend her hand toward my shoulder, Peter reached into his pocket and retrieved another, larger, coin. A toonie.
“Great,” Tiff said. She dropped the quarter she was holding and placed the toonie on my shoulder.I felt my neck strain. Bone cracking.
I liked my spine. It was mine. Or the upper part was. Borrowing one from a corpse just wasn’t the same. I suspected that if I lost my spine, I might be a goner.
“Heads, I compel-” Tiff started.
The sound of cawing crows increased in volume.
A small object collided with me. A crow.
The coin fell into the snow.
“Shit!” Tiff said, again.
The small crow unfolded into a larger man.
Corvidae. Our crow spirit, wearing a worn suit with a long jacket and tattered scarf.
He unfurled into his full human form between me and the strangler. He pushed out, and drove the spirit back.
A proper spirit to battle the astral thing.
The fight was brief, as Corvidae slipped past Roxanne, reached into her jacket with an almost casual ease to grab the knife, and stabbed at the projection, succeeding where none of the rest of us had been able to.
He sliced at it, and it dissipated into a thick cold fog, fading into the air.I stared at Corvidae.
He handed the blade back to Roxanne. In an instant, it was all quiet.
“There you are,” Tiff said.
“Here I am,” Corvidae said. “Tasks completed. I was to return to you at dawn, or when I failed, but you weren’t where I expected. I’ve found you.”
“You’ve found us,” I said, terse.
He smiled at me, gaze level.
“One more body on our side,” Peter said, rubbing his hands together for warmth. “Great. And it’s someone that can fight off things like that? Better yet. Don’t want to get strangled.”
I reached out to the nearest tree branch to collect some wood, touching it to my throat. Before I could reach a second time, Green Eyes was proffering a broken branch from the ground. I smiled at her. She smiled back, slightly lopsided. Half of her face was still covered.
“Cold,” Peter said.
Without speaking, I led the way, giving Corvidae only a moment’s glance. “Thanks.”
“I live to serve,” Corvidae said.
“Yeah?” I said, having already turned my back on him. “That sounds like it sucks.”
Navigation proved hard, as we moved deeper into the woods. Where it wasn’t slow going, it felt like the path was too winding. Too easy to get turned aside. The cold was wearing on our mortals, and we were losing precious time on the nuisance of simply having to get from A to B.
But the same was true for travel by air.
A part of the reason I wasn’t too vocal was that I was trying to keep my thoughts focused on the location of the hut. We’d scouted, we’d been unable to press forward, and the air seemed to be protected.
But there was more concerning me, and I wasn’t sure how to handle it. The Abyss had given me the information I’d needed, thus far. The visions I’d glimpsed had been awfully helpful.
And in the vision I’d had of the meeting, back when Rose rejected the truce the others were discussing, I could remember Corvidae’s conspiratorial smile with Mara.
Mara, it just so happened, who we were about to face down.
“Mara, was it?” Roxanne asked. “You called her a crone?”
“Mara, yeah,” Tiff said.
I glanced back, and I took it as a chance to look at what Corvidae was doing. He was at the very rear of the group, trailing behind. Ostensibly watching our backs.
“I like that you’re asking,” Peter encouraged Roxanne.
Roxanne shrugged. “Don’t know what to ask, though. Um. Important things first. She can be stabbed?”
“Think so,” Tiff said. “Like any of us. Except maybe that thing.”
“She’s sort of human, right?” Peter asked.
“More or less,” Tiff said. “Crone Mara was human a long time ago, according to Dramatis Personae.”
“I can deal with more or less human. Can’t say that about damn dragons,” Peter said. “What could someone like Roxanne or me do against a dragon?”
“I’d think twice before deciding there’s something you can do about the crone,” I said.
“If you’re going to think twice, you’d better do it fast,” the maenad said.
We collectively turned to the side.
She wasn’t old. She was young. Thirteen or so, not far off from Roxanne’s age.
The young crone’s breath fogged in the air. She didn’t watch us, but fiddled with a branch, snapping off a twig, casting it aside.
“A comb?” the satyr asked.
“No,” the maenad responded. “Don’t think so.”
“Huh?” Roxanne asked.
“Terminology,” the satyr murmured.
Tiff explained, her eyes focused on Mara, voice just as low. “Means an item charged with power. Drop a stone, it becomes a hill. Drop a comb, it becomes a river. Innocuous items, spent for a single use.”
“But sometimes a twig is just a twig?” Peter said. “I can get behind that.”
“Tending to her woods,” Tiff said, under her breath. “Her woods. This is her battlefield. We should avoid making it a battle.”
I glanced back at Corvidae.
I was all too aware that Corvidae had taken up the spot at the very rear of the group. Putting us between a crone in the guise of a child and a wolf in crow’s clothing.
Couldn’t tip off the others without tipping him off. If I called his bluff as I had with Mags, would that be in my favor? Or, conversely, had he been watching us? Had there been a reason, other than his natural talents, that he knew that Roxanne had the blades under her jacket? Had he been watching earlier?
Was I being paranoid? Was this the ultimate conclusion the Abyss had been leading me toward, from the time it plotted that vision? Would I ruin a good thing, sabotaging myself?
I thought back to Peter’s words.
My pattern, my last-ditch measure. Fight, scrap, push forward. My last ditch measure, every step of the way, had been to sacrifice a little bit of myself, on the course to winning the fight.
I wouldn’t make it to the end of this if I kept it up.
I saw the satyr and maenad drop a little, tensing, as if poised for a fight, they’d seen some cue I hadn’t.
I brought the one wing in front of me, a shield, and because holding it to one side made me a bigger target.
Mara turned on the spot, facing us head on.