The words carried. They had an impact that went beyond sound and language.
It was as though the very forest reacted. Drawing closer. A pressure weighing on us. The satyr shifted his footing, uncomfortable, and the weight on the snow made it compact. He only dropped by an inch, but it was a surprise, and it caught all of us off guard.
I had little doubt that everyone that had a heart could feel it pounding, while they wondered just how dangerous this particular patch of woods was.
Would the ground swallow us up?
Could we do anything if it did?
We’d come here for a reason, and we might as well focus on it. Dragons and giants aside, our big concern here was what happened to the town.
Might as well get straight to the point. “Jacob’s Bell is being drawn into the Abyss.”
“I know. Good,” the crone told us.
“How do you know?” Tiff asked.
“The small warband on my doorstep, blood fresh on their hands, claws, and breath, darkness in their eyes. They demand answers of me? Presumptuous.”
I spread my wings and arm, bowing a bit. “Mara Agnakak.”
“Don’t bow to me, Atawateecim. I’ll see it as mockery.”
“Um,” Tiff started.
The crone didn’t let her finish. “You betray custom. One should give notice before trespass. The laws are with me in this. The laws are with me in any and all retribution I take.”
Her words took on a heavier accent and a fair degree of force as she said retribution.
“How were we supposed to give notice?” Tiff asked. “There’s nothing in the books, and in the past few weeks I’ve been here-”
“I am not at your beck and call,” the crone said. “I would not give out my name or share a means of finding me.”
She was articulate, even if her voice was accented, and awfully good at putting emphasis to words. Not unlike certain members of my family in that. I glanced at Roxanne and Peter. But in her case, she’d had a lot of practice. She’d been around for a while, even if she hadn’t done much talking in that time.
I really wished I had a better idea of how she operated. I was in the dark about her particular talents and abilities, or how to counter those talents and abilities. I might as well have been back on day one. In the cold, freezing woods, dealing with the Briar Girl’s specialized zombies.
There were differences, though. Rose wasn’t here, and it was a good thing, rather than the inverse, I had allies, and I was… different.
Very very different.
“Should we have contacted the ambassador?” I asked.
“That stupid little child? I would not have answered.”
“Meaning we should have called before answering, but you… had no intention of answering the call?” Tiff asked.
“Yes,” the young crone said.
“That seems like a pretty big flaw in these rules,” Evan muttered under his breath.
“Shh,” I said.
“You can’t complain if we had no other avenue,” Tiff said.
She was trying to sound firm, which wasn’t her usual pattern, and she was almost succeeding. I was a little surprised to see that she had it in her. She’d come a long way from the person I’d first met, who’d stuck to Alexis like glue, mouth shut.
“You had avenues,” the crone replied. “Not coming was one.”
“Mara,” I said. “I don’t want to start something here. We’re not approaching with hostile intent. I don’t want to be enemies.”
“No you don’t,” Mara replied. “But enemyship is as much my choice as it is yours. I choose to be enemies.”
I drew the Hyena.
I saw the crone’s expression change. Not a smile. She wouldn’t give me that much. But amusement. Almost relaxed, more comfortable with this than she’d been with my blade in a sheath.
“Blake,” Tiff murmured. “Rose told me about Mara. She might be more dangerous than the dragon.”
“I know,” I said.
“Then… let’s not pick a fight?”
“We’re not,” I said. “I’m speaking her language.”
“Indian?” Evan asked.
“Algonquin,” Tiff corrected, gently. “And I don’t think that’s what Blake means.”
My eyes were fixed on the crone’s. The snow was frozen around her, but her breath billowed out in front of her face, expanding, and here and there, it touched a snowflake, stirring it into motion.
“If I strike at you,” Mara told me, “I’m backed by laws.”
“If I fight back, I am too,” I said.
“I’ve been here for a very long time,” she said. “This place is mine, and it’s been mine for more years than I can count. It will serve me.”
“I’ve only technically existed for a few months,” I replied. “I don’t think I’m long for this world. It sounds like you have a lot more at stake than I do. I can’t imagine you really want to pick a fight against someone with so little to lose.”
She didn’t respond.
I took that as a cue to elaborate, “It doesn’t fit what we know of you. You don’t get to be as old as you are by picking fights or being reckless. Assuming we each killed the other, I’d be ending something like, what, a few hundred years of history? What do you gain by destroying me?”
“You understand so little,” she said.
It was a little weird, being condescended to by someone who looked just over half my age.
She went on, “Gain, loss, love, fairness, right, rights.”
Mara put an emphasis on the s at the end of the second statement.
I spread my arms a little.
“Meaningless,” she said. “The town will fall, just as it rose, two hundred and fifteen years ago. Before that, I was here. I watched people come and go. Settlements rose and fell. Not many, not large, but a number. Before that, I was here.”
“Been here a while,” I said.
Her eyes narrowed. “The man and woman who brought me into this world came to this place on a raft of reeds, and I was so small I had to be carried. We traveled from the west to here over my lifetime, following the deer and the hunt. When my parents passed, I stayed. I was one of the first to lay claim here, and I have never given it up.”
“Over the water to the west?” Peter murmured. “The lake?”
“Ocean,” Tiff said, her voice almost a whisper.
“I nurtured those who followed after me or passed through, offered them my hand and my amassed knowledge, so they could be communities, a people. Many are mine. Hundreds of years of work. I saw things follow in our wake, things stirred into existence by our being. Your Others, echoing our intelligence, echoing our pride and fear and pain, to join those Others that were here before the first people. I am familiar with them all. I know what man is, and I know that your love and law and fairness are invention. Invention younger than I am.”
These words had a power that went beyond a simple explanation. It was a declaration, and she was gaining a kind of power through it. I could feel it.
I could see how tense the satyr and maenad were. Green Eyes was hunkered down.
“What do you have, if you take all that away?” I asked. “That’s not humanity.”
“It is everything humans are, distilled. Your culture, your ideas, they pollute it. Weaken you.”
“We might have to agree to disagree,” I said.
“No,” she said, and she said it with conviction. “You know the power of your repetition. Three times, you do something. Three times you bind it to make it so. Agreed?”
“That’s the gist of it.”
“Invention. But at the core, there is truth. I have not counted, but I can still be utterly confident in saying that I have woken up in the same place for more than nine million of your days. I have gathered, hunted, cooked and eaten the same foods on those same days. I have been born, bled for the first time, and been reborn on more than one thousand occasions. The wheel of life and death turns forward and I am an indelible part of it, especially here. This is a pattern, this is my ritual. Now tell me, what is the truth of this. What does it make me?”
“A hag,” Tiff murmured. “A blood hag.”
“The dullest person alive?” Peter muttered.
“Powerful,” I said, before she could respond to him. “A hell of a lot scarier than a dragon.”
“Man, you must be really glad to have visitors,” Evan said.
Mara’s eyes narrowed, face hardening. “You don’t understand.”
“Guess not,” he said.
“Boredom is a newer invention,” she said. “Loneliness a luxury. For most of humanity’s time on this earth, the only desire was to exist. Food, shelter, water, health. When our lives ran short, we carried our existence forward through our offspring.”
“Mara,” I said. “We’re not here to debate the definition of humanity.”
“You’re here to ask if I had anything to do with your town’s descent into darkness, chaos, and ruin.”
“Did you really expect me to give you an answer?” she asked.
“You’ve already pointed out that we came with something of a warband. Is that not answer enough?” I asked.
Again, that almost relaxed, easy sort of acceptance of the open threat.
“Okay, Blake,” Tiff said. “This is part of the reason why Rose wanted me along for the ride, here. You’re a little prone to pick fights, the way you are now. Stop.”
“Mara,” I called out. “Tell me, is there any way we could have done this fairly? Gotten a straight answer out of you?”
“No,” the crone said.
“There’s no way we’re going to get out of here without a confrontation of some kind?” I said.
“No,” Mara said. “There isn’t.”
I nodded slowly.
“Shit,” Tiff swore, under her breath.
“Had that vibe right from the start,” I said. “Which brings us here. Talking.”
Buying time, I thought, though I didn’t dare say it.
Mara was, if nothing else, endlessly patient.
If I said that I was taking advantage of that patience, she might revoke it.
I just had to pray my allies got the message without the message being too obvious. If one of them lost nerve or pushed things the wrong way, this could all be for naught.
“Mara,” I said. “You’ve been talking about what lies at the root of humanity.”
“Yes.” She rubbed her hands together for warmth.
“Trade, barter, that’s at the root of humanity. You’ve done it.”
“I think,” she said, “I’ve seen it go sour enough times to have little interest in it.”
“Sure,” I said. “One sided bargains. That’s at the root of mankind too, isn’t it? Well, if it’s in your favor…”
“You’re assuming I want anything you have,” she said.
“You said it yourself. I have blood on my hands. I suspect you want that, if it’s the right blood. The lives I’ve taken already tonight have to count for something, given your agenda.”
“Killing is a service, more than deaths are a product,” Mara said.
“Okay,” Tiff said, quiet enough to not be heard by Mara. “Conversation taking a turn for the creepy.”
“You want deaths, then?” I asked. “In exchange for the lives of those here, I could promise-”
Mara was already shaking her head.
“No?” I asked her.
“No,” she said. She pointed a finger at the group, finger extended to point just over my shoulder. “I want those lives. One can leave my woods for every one you kill. For doing the deed and getting blood on that broken blade of yours, I’ll give you your life at no cost, and I’ll give you the answer you want.”
I glanced back over my shoulder.
I could see Evan, Green Eyes, Tiff, Peter, Roxanne, the satyr, the maenad.
The maenad tensed as I made eye contact.
Did she think I thought she was expendable?
Eight of us. Four would have to die to satisfy the crone.
“Decide,” Mara said.
She didn’t sound happy. She didn’t sound satisfied.
She didn’t sound sincere.
Weapon in hand, I turned to the group.
“Sorry about this,” I said.
“Um,” Evan said. “Um, no, Blake. No.”
Roxanne swiftly backed out of my way, bumping up against Peter.
I saw her put one hand on the front of his coat, clutching it, as if in unconscious fear.
I couldn’t, I realized, see her other hand. I stopped in my tracks.
“Put it away,” I said.
“Put what way?” she asked.
“Step away from Peter.”
“So I’m first?” she asked.
“Roxanne,” I said, firm.
“What are you doing?”
Answering every statement with a question. Evading, dodging.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” I told her.
“Then why are you paying this much attention to me?” she asked.
“Because I know you’re armed and I don’t want you to attack me from behind.”
“Show me your hands.”
“Why should I?”
I touched the Hyena to her throat.
Slowly, gradually, she lifted up her hands.
I reached past her and into her pocket, and retrieved a small bottle with a scrap of gauze sticking through the neck, loosely corked.
He didn’t move.
I jogged my arm while holding the blade steady at Roxanne’s throat, making it clear that I would attack her.
He raised his hands. Empty.
Why did they have to make this so hard?
I gently pushed Roxanne aside and pulled down his sleeves. I gave a light pat to each jacket pocket, then checked the ground.
He’d dropped it out of sight. A box of waterproof matches.
Held by Roxanne to be lit by him.
Once I had both match and bottle, I planted them in the snow. “Leave them. Trust me. I’m not going to hurt family.”
The two were mute as I turned toward the three less familiar Others in our retinue. I wasn’t counting Green Eyes among them. She was familiar.
The satyr and maenad were ready for a fight, spoiling.
I warded the satyr off with one wing, folded around half of my body, and held out the Hyena, pointing it at the maenad, ready if she lashed out. I knew how fast they could be.
I gave her a slight shake of my head.
She backed away, keeping a certain distance from me, and I walked between the two of the Drunk’s followers.
I reached Corvidae, at the rear of the group. Corvidae, who had hidden himself out of sight, sheltered by the crowd.
“You didn’t consider that I would take it as an insult if your first target was an Other so similar to my people?” Mara called out.
I considered a few things, I thought. Wanting to see Mara’s reaction was one.
Subtlety wasn’t one of her stronger points.
Which inspired a similar thought. I extended the sword toward Corvidae. He backed up, holding up his hand, two fingers touching the flat of the blade, as if he could hold it back with just that.
“Aren’t insults an invented thing?” I asked. “For you to be insulted…”
A distance behind me, she didn’t react.
“Hi Crow,” Evan said.
“Hello, Sparrow,” Corvidae said. “Will you just watch this?”
“We’ve flown together,” Corvidae said.
“We flew together, and then you flew off, and then you lured an owl to come after me.”
“Mischief is in my nature. I didn’t let it harm you.”
“Scared the poo out of me,” Evan said. “I think meanness is in your nature. Rose said so, sorta kinda in a way.”
“She’s not wrong,” Corvidae said, quiet. Louder, he said, “Why me? Why walk past the others and come for me?”
Calling me on the fact that I was calling his bluff?
The tone and the cadence of the reply reminded me of when I’d turned on Padraic, just an hour or two ago. I didn’t feel it was a coincidence.
Had he been there? Was he teasing me in the same breath he was asking me to justify myself?
“You’re a bogeyman, you come back after you’re eliminated.”
“Not,” he said, “If you kill me with that. Probably.”
“Blake,” Tiff said. “What are you doing? Do you expect us to just stand here while you pick and choose four members of our group to just kill?”
“Yes, Blake,” Corvidae said. “Do you?”
“I’d like you to just stay back,” I said.
“If you’re justifying attacking him, because he can come back after being slain,” Mara spoke, her voice carrying across the clearing. “Kill the one on the ground.”
I looked down at Green Eyes.
“Or both?” I asked.
“Her first, to avoid insulting me,” Mara said.
And then when she’s eliminated, you renege on the deal?
Or keep to the terms on a technical level alone?
I returned the Hyena to the point that I was holding Corvidae at bay.
“No?” Mara asked.
“No,” I said.
Mara didn’t move. Didn’t do anything, not even exhaling, but the effect broke. Time resumed.
Snow started falling again. First by Mara, then as far as we could see.
The wind stirred, and the noise of it was disconcerting, branches touching branches, ice-heavy pine needles rattling like so many wind chimes, wood creaking.
It was the quietest things had been all night without being silent. Deafening us with a normal level of noise.
An entire forest came to life around us, and the puppeteer Mara Agnakak was pulling the strings.
Subtlety wasn’t her strong suit, she couldn’t keep a secret as simple as Corvidae, but she didn’t have to.
She existed as a static entity. A closed circle, not unlike the dragon.
“She didn’t just break the effect that the Behaim asshole Rose is marrying said was supposed to remain unbreakable, did she?” Peter asked.
“No,” Tiff said. “Not exactly. I’m pretty sure it’s only broken here.”
“In her domain,” I said. I tried to keep Corvidae within range of a lunge, in case I needed to stab him, while keeping one eye on Mara.
We’d nearly run out of time. I could stall, buy time, but her ultimatum had forced me to make a call.
“Mara!” Peter called out.
“Whelp,” she responded, voice almost drowned out by the noise of the forest and the wind in our ears.
“You’re doing it all wrong,” he said.
“I am not interested in your perspective.”
“Blake had the right idea. You want to get revenge? Bloodshed? Letting Blake live is the best way to do it! He’s a maniac!”
“One that is fighting to salvage this town,” Mara said. “I’ll stop that here.”
“Wake up!” Peter said, raising his voice. “One town? Have you not paid the slightest bit of attention to the Thorburn family? We’re fucked up. How does someone as immortal as you are not see the long term implications of letting us live? We’re the worst, most artificial, broken human beings you’ll find around here!”
“You’re asking for clemency, based on the fact that you’re everything I despise?”
“Yes! Exactly yes!”
Refuge in audacity?
Refuge in repugnancy?
“I wish I’d gone with Rose’s group,” Tiff said, under her breath.
“If you really hate modern humanity, if you hate everything we represent, you should be encouraging us to spread, to do our screwed-up thing to this cancerous non-humanity that’s filling the world. Do you know how many lives Roxanne here is going to ruin as she grows up?”
Roxanne shot him a dirty look.
“Roxanne and I legitimately thought Blake was going to murder us in cold blood. That’s how fucked up we are, as a family. Let us live, we continue to fuck up the other families, screw with or kill Johannes, and Jacob’s Bell becomes worse for all the people you hate. You win, and it’s easy, and it poses no risk at all to you.”
“If I let this argument sway me, I would become what I despise.”
“Artificial? The wrong kind of humanity?” Peter asked. “Fuck that. You’d be exemplifying what you are. Continuing to exist, working against humanity. Even if it’s by letting certain humans live to poison the rest.”
“Mm,” Mara said. “You’ve challenged your own argument.”
“Hm?” Peter asked, his stride broken.
“You call humanity a cancer. But poison, applied carefully, can kill cancer.”
Peter recovered instantly. “Hate to break it to you, but we’re not careful in the slightest. We’re a reckless, fractious, senseless, sad family, and as far as I can tell, it’s a miracle we haven’t destroyed ourselves yet.”
“It’s due to your grandmother that you haven’t destroyed yourselves,” Mara spoke. “She is the careful element I do not trust, in all this. By killing and slaying each of you, I will work against whatever plan she has set.”
“Fuck,” Peter said, on his heels. He glanced at me, then Roxanne, and bounced right back. “Fuck you. You’re wrong. You lose power when someone calls you on bullshit, don’t you? Well you’re wrong, you old bitch. Humans exist to evolve, to adapt, to improve, and sitting here like some wart on a dick, doing the same thing every day? You’re less human than the sparrow, or the flesh-eating mermaid!”
Crone Mara remained where she was. She reached out and touched a branch.
A crack and the branch she’d been tending before our conversation now broke.
The crack seemed to echo through the woods, in the same moment the wind died.
Like a gunshot, almost, reaching across her territory, the sound bouncing off trees that happened to be in the right place, against stones, skipping over the surface of water like flat, balanced stones.
The sound reached its intended audience. The birds returned.
Rising from the trees in the distance, they were a vague fog of black against an overcast black, speckled with stars and black-gray clouds.
Their cries filled the air. More noise, joining the wind and the movement of the trees.
The effect was subtle, but it quickly became apparent what she was doing.
The snow reflected what light there was back toward the sky, giving us something to go by in this dim light, but as the sky was swallowed by a mass of birds, even that light disappeared.
“Roxanne,” Peter’s voice sounded so terribly far away, as acoustics failed. His voice sounded even further away as he finished his statement, his request. “Help.”
A bird tore past me, striking me. I folded my wings back, to reduce the chance that they might get torn.
“Practice,” Tiff said. “Simple actions, made into powerful ones with tens of thousands of years of repetition. Train a bird, tune a sound…”
“This is how she operates?” Evan asked.
“No,” Tiff said. Her voice came from another space, as if she were moving. I hadn’t heard the footsteps. “She’s a blood hag. She’ll have Other powers, and practitioner powers. This is just what someone can pull off if they just happen to be immortal and very patient.”
A match flared to life. I could see Peter and Roxanne, together, Peter holding his jacket up as a shield.
A bird flying by snuffed the light.
“Shit!” I heard a voice.
The match fire appeared once more. I wasn’t looking at the pair so much as I was looking out for trouble.
I could see Green Eyes, raised up off the ground, one arm against a tree, cheek bulging, eye wide, mouth filled with crow, straight hair draped over the other half of her face.
Behind her, I saw Corvidae, holding a knife.
I moved faster than I’d ever moved, wings stirring to life, thrusting me forward even as my legs shoved off the ground. Not flying, not running, but a lunge, covering ten or so feet.
The light went out, snuffed out by another moving bird. I heard a cry of pain, and suspected someone had tried to shield against the birds with their body, and been hurt for their trouble.
I was forced to move against Corvidae with no light at all.
“Down, Green!” I shouted.
She went down. In the doing, she placed herself where I very nearly tripped over her.
My wing struck at the knife. The Hyena stabbed at where Corvidae stood. Where he had to stand, given the direction of the thrust.
A hand on my wrist arrested my swing. An iron grip, from a very small figure.
Forward momentum kept me moving, and I’d been moving fast. The perils of being a lightweight, a man of twigs, branches, hollow bones and feathers. I landed on my back in snow, and the hand released me.
The cawing of crows filled the air now. The buzzards were larger, but not nearly so noisy. There were other birds, too.
The flame came on and went in a fraction of a second.
I heard someone curse at the failure.
But the image I’d seen was burned into my mind’s eye. Corvidae and Crone Mara, standing practically shoulder to shoulder.
She’d saved him. He hadn’t even moved from the point I was stabbing at. Another inch or two, and I’d have cut him.
A boot settled on my wrist.
“Corvidae’s working for Mara!” I hollered the words.
“Working for Mara?” Corvidae murmured. His voice went perfectly with the noises of the scavenger birds. “No, no. I couldn’t do that, see? Our deal stipulated that I was to assist you. Work against lone enemies. So. In the interest of doing that…”
A blade stabbed at my fingers.
Not to injure, but to pry.
Had I been able to see, or intuit direction, I might have been able to stop him. It would have helped, too, to have another hand. I could thank the Abyss for that.
But he found the right grip, and he slipped the Hyena from my grip, the spikes dragging against my fingers.
I reached for it, and found only cloth, with brittle bone within. The smell of thick dust filled the air.
“There you go,” he said. “To weaken your enemy, and promote chaos…”
The fourth match or so flickered to life.
It hardly mattered. The opaque cloud of birds was dissipating. We had light, if it could even be called that.
Crone Mara was on the far side of the clearing, sitting on one of the fallen trees, gingerly holding the Hyena.
“Three times, you have disgraced yourself. You have intruded on my territory without due notice. You have stolen that which is mine, without declaration of war. You have refused my offer of safe passage.”
“I call bullshit on all three counts!” I shouted.
“Bullshit!” Roxanne joined the cry. Evan was only a step behind her.
We managed to make Mara look annoyed.
“I have been here for a long time,” Mara said. “My day is a ritual. My existence is ritual. The spirits that dwell here are mine. They will side with me.”
Her face was cloaked in shadow, framed by her hair, shrouded by the canopy, and something told me it was intentional, as if she instinctively knew where the light fell, here. The only light there, in her silhouetted form, was a gleam at one eye, like the edge of a knife.
She held out the Hyena, balancing it on one hand, so it teetered slightly. “Enact your judgement. I am life, birth, death. By this token, give the monster a heart, and return his weapon to him, impaling-”
A gunshot rang out. Mara leaned back, swift. The vague light of the moon and the city reached her face, illuminating it.
I could see the darker spot of blood moving, dripping, at her eyebrow, touching her cheekbone. The Hyena had fallen to the snow.
I wasn’t sure it was a good thing, given what the cavalry entailed.
Rose strode from the woods, butt of a hunting rifle touching one shoulder.
Mara didn’t move an inch.
A shot rang off.
Others followed Rose. The remainder of the contingent.
It wasn’t just that it was Rose that had come. That was a problem, considering our dynamic, but it wasn’t a surprise.
Her group outnumbered mine by a significant margin.
That was… annoying. A relief, considering present circumstance, but to have me balance the scales, then go out of her way to unbalance them?
Help had arrived.
The Knights of the Basement, armed with guns, joined Rose, Kathryn, Ellie, the Others, and the Behaims.
She’d called in help. Probably before we’d banded together.
But that wasn’t the focus here.
The crone was. The immortal.
I sensed the glimmer of fear from Rose as she acted. I knew Mara had seen some cue too, because Mara was shifting her weight. Moving.
Before she could, without even glancing to see what I held, I took the object that Corvidae had given me, and I dashed it against a tree.
Mara moved in the same moment, away from the bullet, simultaneously turning to glance at me. To see a small cloth doll with a weird leathery face being dashed to pieces.
The bullet didn’t strike home, but I was pretty sure that she’d been grazed. Clipped in an ear. One hand went to the side of her head.
“I thought you said this gun made me accurate.”
“Benefits you,” the man I’d nicknamed ‘Shotgun’ spoke, holding his trademark weapon. “Can’t help you if the target can dodge bullets.”
Mara stood straighter, taking us all in, hand still to her ear.
“I have done nothing to warrant tonight’s intrusion.”
“Living as long as you have, I’m sure you’ve done something,” I said.
“Acting directly against you?” Mara asked. “Not so.”
“Well,” Rose said, gun still aimed. “We’re assholes like that. Did she say, Blake? Whether she was involved?”
“No,” I said.
“I won’t,” Mara said.
“And… she made it a promise, in a roundabout way,” Rose said. “Damn it. That makes things complicated.”
“Corvidae can comment,” I said, glancing toward where Corvidae stood. Green Eyes was in a tree, braced against branches, and he was standing clear of her lunging range.
“I can,” Corvidae spoke. “Allow me to consult my notes.”
I’d faced way too many smug motherfuckers to let that slide.
“Shoot him!” I shouted.
But Corvidae was already drawing something from his jacket.
A hand mirror. Bound in paper.
“Don’t shoot him!” I shouted.