Category Archives: 14.07

Sine Die 14.7

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“He’s not ours?” Rose asked.  “Corvidae?”

“No,” I said.  “If ‘shoot him’ didn’t make it clear.”

“In the interest of good faith, I’ll assist you, as you requested earlier,” Corvidae said.  “You’ll need to be stronger, miss Rose, if you’re going to face Mara Angnakak.  This is the best way I know how.”

“No!” Rose said, her voice joined by Alexis’, too late.

He’d thrown the thing.  Hurled it at the nearest collection of trees.

A fair part of my introduction to this new reality, to the community, to the dynamic, the expectations, had come from Laird.  He’d described what diabolists did as tampering with nukes.  Radiation.

Conquest wasn’t a nuke.  He was a volatile element in a very fragile container.

The mirror wrapped in paper, bound in place with hair, lazily arcing through the air, might as well have been a bomb.

The white of the paper around the mirror momentarily caught some of the light from the gray-black clouds overhead.  As if Conquest was reaching through.  Exulting.

The mirror changed course, curving in the air.  It landed in soft snow, handle sticking up.

I wasn’t the only one to turn to look at Rose, a distance away from Corvidae, fist held out to one side, expression grim.

Her expression broke, head bowing a bit, eyes closing, hand going to the side of her head.

“Wow,” one Behaim commented.  The girl that had been with Alister.  “Wow.  I don’t think I could have done that, and I have more hair to get a grip on.”

“Yeah.  Ow,” Rose said.  “That hurt more than I thought it would.”

It was too dark to make out, but she’d pulled out her own hair, and used sympathetic magic to connect to the hair that bound the paper to the mirror, also hers.

She’d probably pulled out a fair amount, in her haste.

“Why interfere?”  Corvidae spoke.  “I was helping,”

“You are the worst helper!” Evan said.

“As you were summoned,” Tiff intoned, “We bind you.  Bow down, take no action, speak no words, until you are asked.”

Corvidae stopped, smiled, and bowed.

He dropped to a sitting position in the snow, back to a tree, one leg propped up.

Leaving just us and Mara.

She stared at us, and at the guns.

How would this have looked, to an outside observer?  A mob, including several monsters, several guns, all mustered against a single young woman, almost a child.

“Man,” Alister’s relative said.  “Mara’s place.  Growing up, we were warned about it.  Scary stories, cautionary tales.  Don’t go into the woods, or you might never come out.  If you get caught in those woods, stay put, wait until you hear the bell in the woods and then follow it home.”

“Take the wrong path,” the other Behaim said.  “Or you’ll get turned aside.”

“I know these Behaim children,” Mara said.  “But the ones pointing guns at me?  Who are you?”

“No names,” Nick, otherwise known as ‘shotgun’ in my internal narrative, told his Knights.  To Mara, he said, “We’re help.”

The Knights paid little attention to appearances.  Most had long hair, one or two had mullets, their facial hair was either too short to matter or mountain man style.  Their clothes that looked like the sort one wore to work in a gas station or do outside labor.  Farmer clothes, handyman clothes.  Coats and jackets made to be durable, jeans, and work boots stained with oil and who knew what else.  Several had toolbelts on, but the tools they had in the belts weren’t for construction or repair.  Practitioner tools.

I didn’t like that they were here as Rose’s, but if I could put that aside, damn, were they ever beautiful people.  I respected them, I even trusted them.

“The cavalry,” I said.

He smiled.  “I like that.”

“We’ve met before,” I said.  “You probably don’t remember.”

“Nope.”

“I wasn’t a monster, then, but… Ur just about got me.  I got away.”

His eyebrows went up.

“Not to give you false hope,” I said.  “There were extenuating circumstances.”

He frowned, then nodded.  “Right.  Too bad.”

Mara stared.

“How are we doing this, Mara?” Rose called out.  “If Corvidae agrees to share the information we need, you can expect us to disappear post-haste.  We have no reason to stay, and no reason to fight.  You shouldn’t expect any visits from us in the near future.  I don’t know about you, but it sounds awfully nice to me.”

“No, you got it all wrong,” Peter said.  He adopted a tone, “Nice is a construct, a human invention.  Humans are not, when you strip it all away, ‘nice’.”

Mara narrowed her eyes.

“Can we not upset her?” Tiff asked.  “Pretty please?”

“She’s the type that’s pissed off by nature,” Peter said.  “Remember what I said about patterns?  Right here, we have quiet rage, stewing rage, insanely patient rage.  Then when she hits her limit, bam.  Black out the sun with carrion birds.  Doesn’t matter what I say.  She hates me anyway, I promise.”

“Benefit of being a Thorburn, I guess,” Alister’s peer remarked, “Used to being hated.”

Peter smirked at her.

“I do hate you,” Mara said.  “I would rather your summoning didn’t divulge any information, Kàgàgi.”

Corvidae didn’t make a movement or sound in response, but I knew he’d heard.

“We have to reach a resolution of some sort,” Rose said.  Her gun leveled at Mara, Rose moved slowly through snow, waiting until one foot was firmly in place atop the heaping snow before she moved the other.  “Compromise, even.”

“No compromise.  I intend to kill each of you in turn,” Mara spoke.  “One by one.  I can ward off the spirits and powers that would carry your companion’s souls to their eternal rest.  Bind soul to dying body, so that their self can endure the moment of death for centuries.  The act of rotting and being ripped apart by carrion birds, a dim, broken awareness.”

I joined Rose in pacing around Mara.  Part of the reason was to keep Mara roughly between us, though I was closer to the two o’clock position, while Rose was nearer to six.  The other reason was to keep at a distance from Rose.  The reason I wasn’t slowing or picking up my pace to be exactly opposite was that I didn’t want to have that accurate gun of Rose’s pointed at me.

I didn’t think Rose would shoot me, but I could trust her common sense while respecting the gun.

In a way, we were balancing the scale, each of us maintaining an equivalent distance from Mara.  If the scale was slightly askew, well, that was the way things were.

Our movement meant that we alternated between being in light and shadow, where ‘light’ was purely subjective.  In the gloom, ‘light’ wasn’t even moonlight.  Only the lights of the city bouncing down off the clouds, helped just a bit by the moonlight that could seep through.

Rose seemed to notice me.  Without moving her gun from Mara, she took in the wings.  Her forehead creased with the frown that followed.

She turned her attention back to Mara as Mara continued her speech.

“…When the flesh is gone, the feeling of being trapped and immobile will persist.  The panic, the despair… but I won’t give you that, Rose Thorburn,” Mara said.  “You alone, I’ll give over to Death.  Worse things wait for you than confinement in a slowly rotting corpse.”

“You’re talking, but all I’m hearing are threats,” Rose said.  “Threats are meaningless unto themselves.”

Hoo boy.  I was pretty sure she was channeling some Conquest as she said that.  Dipping into the old reserve of power to find poise and natural arrogance.  Banishing the fear.

Not that it was necessarily a bad move.  Challenging Mara had to count for something.  Take away from her sway over the local spirits.

“Threats are largely meaningless until they’re carried out or someone responds to them,” Mara said.  “The question is how you respond to them.  If you were smart, you would ask for mercy.”

“You wouldn’t give it,” Rose said.

“But you’d ask, all the same,” Mara said.  “What else is there, for you?”

Uh,” Ellie spoke up, from the midst of the Knights.  “I’m not smart at all, and I’m asking.  Can she even do that?”

Peter had talked about people’s patterns.  I’d seen Ellie’s.  Grovel, be the omega to the enemy’s alpha, be the coward.  Break the pattern, and she lashed out.  Taking a beating from Eva, only to turn around and poison Andy.

I wasn’t sure I liked the idea that Ellie had a gun, all things considered.

“What I’ve learned,” a heavyset Knight beside Ellie said. “Is if you have to ask, they probably can do it.”

Ellie gripped her gun tighter.  “Great.”

“Assume they’re more dangerous than you’ve heard,” I could hear him saying.  “That assumption has kept an awful lot of us alive for a few years now.  If it means we don’t pick certain fights, all the better.”

“Oh?” Mara asked.  “What a shame you picked this one.”

Several of the veteran practitioners and Others in the group tensed, myself included.  A few people with guns focused on their aim.

But they weren’t ready for a word.

Die,” Mara said.

The heavyset man reacted to the word like he’d been slapped.  A step backward, gun pulled back and pointed away, as if he were afraid he’d reflexively pull the trigger.

He dropped to his knees.  I could, now that his face was no longer in such utter shadow, make him out as one of the individuals that had been in the room when I’d first met the Knights.  Was he the one with the artificial leg?

Teddy?

The import of the word had become clear.  Shots rang off.  Mara dropped, and she did it fast enough that I suspected the first bullet and most of the others had flown over her.

Birds were scared into the air by the ringing shots.  The noise of the gunfire was so raucous, so powerful, that snow and ice fell from branches.  Had we been on a mountainside, it might have stirred the snow and brought on an avalanche.

I chased Mara, careful not to put myself between the people with guns and her.

More darkness, more shadow.  Mara was running, one eye on the gunmen, and she was moving faster than I did.  As light as I was, my feet still stabbed through the snow, five steps in six sinking me to mid-calf or knee level.  Mara’s footsteps didn’t.  She moved easily over the crust of snow, and when her feet did punch through it, she found something solid beneath.

Peter backed away, hands on Roxanne’s shoulders, drawing out of Mara’s way.

Mara was creating too much distance, and the light was swiftly dwindling.

“Evan!”  I called out.

Evan took flight.

I, too, spread my wings, walking forward to try and find a point where I wouldn’t be fighting the grasp of the snow as I tried to ascend.

Green Eyes was about as fast as Mara, crawling forward, weight distributed evenly on snow, fingers hooking at the crust of ice on top.

She moved to intercept, as I took to the air, kicking free of the snow.  The light was going quickly now, and I did what I could to memorize the most open areas.  The space of the clearing, the branches I couldn’t afford to run into.

“Don’t let her touch you!” Rose called out.

Green Eyes hesitated, stopping at a ridge.

“She only needs to touch you to kill you!”  Rose elaborated.

“Take the harder path!  The obvious path is a trap, here!” another voice said.  It might have been the male Behaim.  He was grunting as the birds assaulted him.  “Paths will turn you around and send you back into her clutches!”

“She didn’t touch Teddy!” another voice shouted.  “And he’s having a heart attack!”

“Slowing him down, but we’re not equipped for this,” the female Behaim called out.

“I don’t know!” Rose said, raising her voice as the bird cries intensified.  She grunted as one bird attacked her.  “But she’s not doing it again, she might need something more concrete to off the rest of us, some possession of ours, some point of reference!  Touch is the most obvious.  Each kill should be easier than the last!  Don’t-”

I didn’t hear the words that followed, as the birds started hissing, croaking, and calling, drowning us out.

As I found the footing to kick myself free of the snow around me, flapping my wings, the last of the light and voices were drowned out.

Even my ability to sense fear was gone, as the birds and their frenzy made for a thick soup of negative emotions.  It was bad enough that I couldn’t tell where the others were, scared as they were.

Her territory, her battlefield, her darkness.

The birds were hers, but there was no bloodthirst to them.  I’d been attacked earlier, but I’d crossed some barrier.  Roxanne and Peter had been attacked, but they’d been lighting the matches, and maybe it had something to do with them working against the Crone.

When I’d flown over, testing the limits, part of the reason had been to gauge her.  To see how she protected herself.  I’d hoped for clear sailing, but hadn’t been surprised to find a defensive measure.  It was the nature of that measure that had been so useful to know.  Not a barrier, or a natural wall, not even a hiding place, exactly.  More passive than that.  Reactive.

Mara was a survivor, more than a fighter.  She had sway over life and death, as evidenced by her attempt to give me a heart that she could stab, and her ability to kill with a touch or a word, but her actions, her approach, had largely been to deter.

Increasing the response of the birds, so they got more intense the closer we got?  The traps?  All of it had been to keep us at arm’s length, allowing her to dispatch us as she saw fit.

Now we were at arm’s length.  She was moving, I was blind and giving chase, and the others were trying to organize.  Was this where she worked to dispatch us?

If Rose was right, Mara would try to achieve a sequence.  Kill someone who was close to death already with a word.  Use a touch to kill a second person.  By the rule of three, would she be able to kill someone who wasn’t close to death with a mere word?  Rose?

In her darkness, the shadows of the birds adding to the darkness of night, she could be going after anyone, and they wouldn’t know until she had her hands on them.

“Raise your hoods- protect your faces!” one of the Knights was hollering the words, top-of-his-lungs shouting to be heard over the birds.  “Flash- fucking birds– Flashlights!”

They’d come prepared.  Beautiful, beautiful people.

I’d have liked to think that if we hadn’t been coming from a ruined house, if circumstances were reversed, we’d be just the same.

Flashlights flared on.  Too little light for me to spot Mara.

Even that little amount of light was soon quenched.  Just as they’d gone after the matches, the birds attacked the people holding the flashlights.

One flashlight dropped to the snow, and was attacked there.  The birds that dogpiled the little device drove it down deeper into snow.  Snow lit from beneath, a glowing blob of light, with the dark silhouettes of birds moving over top of it, diving at it, walking over it, pecking.

“They’re attacking the light sources!  And anyone who tries to communicate!”

Stimuli, response.

Light?  Attack.  Noise?  Attack.

I had to holler the words.  The good thing was, I technically had no lung capacity.

“Don’t move!  Silence!  Lights out!  Freeze!”  I called out.  “Help Teddy, but stay quiet!”

It took time for them to accept it, to play along.  Long seconds.  I didn’t flap, but chose instead to glide.  I let the wings catch the air currents, let Evan buoy me up, and traced a lazy circle around the clearing.  I let myself rise, to break my momentum, then dove, to maintain it.  A slow, steady spiral.  I only hoped that I’d hit ground before I hit a tree.

The voices and shouts stopped, after the lights were off and we were no longer crunching through snow.  Not silence, but I could hear one set of footsteps now that the only bird cries were distant ones.  A shuffling sound.

I turned, dropping one wing while raising the other.

A fair bit of noise.  A good pace?

The only people in that direction were my cousins.  Maybe the satyr or maenad.

Picking off the weakest first?  Going after Peter because he’d taunted her?  Or going after the combatants?

Her cabin was in that direction.  Retreating to a place where she was stronger?  Picking up a weapon?

Too many questions.

The biggest was the question as to where she was, precisely.

My senses were strained to their limits, hoping for a glimmer, a shadow moving against a background of shadow, a clearer noise.

Well, when in doubt-

“Mara!” I screamed the word.

“Not Mara!” Peter shouted back.

“Not Mara!” Roxanne echoed him.

“No Mara!” I heard another voice nearby.  Green Eyes.  “She’s not here!  I don’t smell her!”

I turned, as the crows descended to punish us for shouting.

I heard the others trudging away.

“Guard them,” I told Green Eyes.  “Keep them safe?”

“Yeah,” she said.

I heard Peter mutter something under his breath.  Foxes and henhouses.

Fuck.  They’d been the only ones moving, after I’d shouted the warning.

That meant Mara had to have frozen, along with everyone else.  Waiting until she had clearance to move, taking full advantage of the darkness and her intimate knowledge of the terrain.

But where?  Why?  I was losing track of it all.

Mara had, last I’d seen, been in the middle of the clearing, near the fallen trees.  That was her starting point, moving initially under the cover of darkness and the noise the birds were making, responding to our lights and voices.

I tried to draw a mental picture.  Rose had come in at the Easternmost edge of the clearing, near where I’d had the others stop.  To Mara’s right.  Her contingent would be thereabouts.  Rose had circled the crone, and was a distance from the rest.  Isolated.

Nothing I could do about that.

My group had moved across the clearing, and was opposite the other group, to Mara’s left.  My cousins and Green Eyes had broken away and moved further away, further from Rose and the others. They’d covered a lot of ground, but Peter wasn’t shy about running from situations where he couldn’t fight.

The satyr and maenad, going by what I’d glimpsed earlier, had started to approach Mara up until the warning had been given about her ability to kill with a touch.  They were further behind.  I wasn’t sure if they’d continued to approach or started to retreat, but I had to place them somewhere between my cousins and the center of the clearing.

Corvidae was further still.  He’d been told to stay still and he had.  He’d already been at the rear of the group.

Corvidae as her first target?

I felt a chill.

Trust your instincts, I thought.

I’d been warned about it, but it had been tainted advice.

My chest ached when I thought about that.  The lie, the danger in that lie.  Not to trust my instincts.

In terms of being both Blake and the monster, my instincts were my best bet, here.  They were all I had to go on, my senses stripped away from me.

I felt angry, and used that anger to bolster my strength as I flapped my wings, rising, then dropped.  Corvidae wasn’t the obvious choice, but he had a way of complicating things.  In terms of tools an exceptionally experienced individual like Mara might use, Corvidae… he felt like the worst possibility.

I landed in deeper snow.  My legs protested, and wood creaked and snapped.  Still, all in all, the rough landing in snow made less noise than I might have thought.

Blind, I moved forward.  I had only the light that had fallen into the snow to go by, but I had always been fairly good at judging distances, whether I was noticing a hallway with wonky dimensions, or building displays for my friends.

I’d intentionally dropped to the ground early.  Birds attacked me as I crunched through the snow, more with every few steps, as I was one of the only sources of sound.

“No!” I heard someone cry out, off in the direction of the others.

Teddy, I thought.

I hesitated, waiting for confirmation, for warning that it might be Mara.

The birds that had been harassing me flew off in the direction of the scream, the summary sobbing.

Insult to injury.

I resumed moving, my wings held out, the tips tracing the snow.

We were collectively blind.  I had to feel my way.

I reached a point close to where Corvidae had been, and I found tracks with one wingtip, disturbed snow.

Mara could have appeared before me in an instant.  Touched me.

What could a hag as old as humanity’s presence in North America be doing, with all of her opponents blind and unwitting?

I thought of the guardian we’d run into, and quickened my pace, my footsteps falling in the tracks she’d left in snow, taking me away from the center of the clearing, toward the woods at the edge.

Blood,” Evan whispered.  He’d perched on my shoulder.  “I smell blood.

I sniffed.

I could smell something.  I hesitated to call it blood.

I felt out with one wingtip, until I touched something small.  My first thought was that it was fluffy, some small animal.

Bending down, pulling my arm free so it was no longer a component of my wing, I touched it, stroking feathers.

Wings splayed, legs in the air.  My hand traveled the length of its body, getting slick with blood, traced the line of the beak.

Corvidae?  She had killed him?

Or was it a decoy?

If it wasn’t, he’d moved by some other mechanism.  Becoming a crow, getting carried?

Then why this?  To mislead?

Bait?

I grabbed my wing, and swept it in front of me.

Nobody there.

She might be Other, but she’s a practitioner too.

The cawing continued in the distance, mocking, ugly sounds.

Her flock of carrion birds didn’t have much of a presence here, not while we were making so little noise.

“Corvidae might be dead!” I called out.  “That would mean she needs one more to make three!  Don’t broadcast your location!”

The rule of three was an invention, maybe, but she’d said enough things to suggest she didn’t eschew all human inventions.

I wasn’t as afraid of being touched as the others had reason to be.  No heart with which to suffer a heart attack.

I was just about the only one who could move freely.

If she wanted to target me, how would she do it?  Fire wasn’t her style.  She had to do something if she wanted to do a lot of damage to me in a short span of time.

The mirror.

Was she after the mirror?

I picked up my pace.

Assuming Corvidae hadn’t moved, the direction he’d thrown…

I made more noise as I ran, wings extended, tips tracing the snow.

I found Mara’s tracks.

I ran, charging along the tracks, trusting her to have chosen the path with the best footing.  My feet didn’t sink into deep snow, and they didn’t break the icy crust.  I covered ground fast, almost without noise.

If I happened to run headlong into her, then all the better.

She could kill with a word or a touch, but I had to hope she couldn’t kill me without giving me life first.

Same for Evan.

As he was so fond of saying, he was already dead.

When the path turned and I didn’t notice by the change in footing, the wingtips that traced the snow were able to feel the bumps and broken snow to one side.

I ran headlong into a flying bird.  It cawed at me, beating its wings against me, until its struggles let it break free, flying away.

“Stop,” Mara spoke.

I stopped.

The opaque cloud of birds above us parted.  A circle, ever-widening.

I saw the light.  Passing down through the opening, not bright, but compared to the darkness before, bright enough.  A warm light.  A sliver of dawn.

That light came down as a diffuse shaft.  The others were vague figures in the distance, at various points at the periphery of the clearing, barely visible, still shrouded by the flock of birds and the trees overhead.

It served as a spotlight, illuminating only Crone Mara, me, and her hostage.  The rest weren’t included in this.

Time moved normally, since she’d banished the effect.  We were outside of Jacob’s Bell.  The sun had started to rise, while we fumbled about in darkness.

I took in Mara’s hostage.  Alexis knelt in the snow.  A circle of blood and black feathers surrounded them.  Only five or so feet across.

Had Rose sent them around to flank?  For another purpose?

The crone stroked Alexis’ throat, but her expression was cold.  A glare.

“What do you want?” I asked.

“Blake!” Rose screamed my name, from the opposite end of the clearing.  Closer to her group.

“Alexis?” Evan asked.

“If you speak,” Mara said, leaning close to Alexis’ ear, “It will be for the last time.”

Alexis nodded slightly.

A tear welled in her eye.

“What do you want, Mara?” I asked.

Mara glanced to one side.

I followed her gaze.

The Hyena, retrieved and brought here, left with the blade impaling the earth beyond the circle that surrounded her.

“One slain by that won’t return,” she said.  “You can end her existence, and damn her to misery and darkness.  You know what would await her, there, where you came from, but it’s better than what awaits her here.  ”

Alexis was shaking her head.  Mara gripped her jaw, hard, and Alexis froze.

“You could also end your own,” Mara said.  “I could be convinced to offer the previous deal once again.  One life, for one being freed to leave.”

I no longer had blood that churned in my veins, no stomach to turn food into calories, into energy.

All of this was clear to me, as I realized just how cold I was.  No different from my surroundings.

I found myself looking back at the others.

“They can’t help you,” Mara said.  “The circle will protect me from workings.  If a gun is pointed at me, I’ll know.  I’ll hear the gunshot and move before the bullet hits me.”

“Why… this?  The display?” I asked.  “You could have just…”

I paused.

Then I answered my own question.  “You wanted to see me react.”

“Yes.”

I met Alexis’ eyes.  Wanting her to signal.  To blink, to look in a direction.

She only stared into my eyes.

“Alexis,” I said.

“No goodbyes,” the crone cut me off.  “It would be my pleasure to deny you that much.”

I clenched my teeth.

I turned, and bent down to pick up the Hyena.

“Blake,” Evan said.  “You can’t.”

“I can,” I said.  “It’s kind of a rule for me.  Paying people back.”

“You mean-”

I heard a muffled thud.

Spinning on the spot, I saw the Crone standing over Alexis’ body.

“The last thing she saw was you turning your back on her,” the crone said, looking down at the body.  “Were you close?”

I lunged for her.  My hand hit the barrier, a wall of air.  I stabbed it, and achieved nothing.

“I feel like tonight wasn’t a complete waste,” the crone spoke, her voice matter of fact, words unrushed, “That expression of yours is a good one.”

Quiet, patient rage, I thought.  Peter’s words.

I stabbed at the barrier again.

Extending a hand, the crone made a swirling gesture, skyward.

The cloud of birds overhead began to close.

Darkness began to overtake us again.

She would slip out of the circle.  Pick another to attack.

Taunt us, prey on us.

“Behaims!” I shouted.  “Turn back the clock!”

Empty words.

If the lesser Behaims had that much power, I wouldn’t be standing here.

I extended my wings, reaching out, encircling her small circle.  But I couldn’t reach all of the way around.  There was an opening, a doorway.

In the growing darkness, I saw her turn her head, as if noting that very same fact.

I moved, but every movement came with cues.  The crunch of snow.  With years of experience, she would know, she’d intuit exactly where I was in respect to her.

Above all else, she was patient.  I had little doubt she could wait in there for an hour, before I gave some cue and she saw a chance to exit.

I had to do something.  To let her kill Alexis and then get away unscathed?  It would be the worst kind of loss for me.  Exactly what she wanted.

Evan was shouting something, rude words, but I didn’t hear it.  My focus was elsewhere.

On Mara.

She was as blind as we were, but she knew the environment, and had years of experience.

But she was as blind as we were.  She couldn’t figure it all out.

Reaching up, I took hold of my weaker wing.  The one with the section that needed my arm to support it.

With all of my strength, pulling, tearing, I ripped it from its socket.

My head hung, forehead touching the barrier as I leaned forward, one wing outstretched to the left, my arm outstretched to the right, gripping the base of the wing, so it could extend around to the far side of Mara’s circle.

Just a bit more reach.

I was nearly blind, staring down at the ground, panting for air with lungs that had a hundred holes in them.  Staring down at the circle of blood and black feathers.

“Evan,” I said.

“Wicked old bitch!  Alexis was cool!”

“Evan!” I said.

“What!?”

“The corpse of the crow,” I said.  “Bring it here.”

“The corpse-”

Mara moved.

I’d guessed right.  The dead crow was critical.  Somehow.

Mara moved, and kicked the wing I’d torn free of my back.  I raised it, and she tripped on it.  Staggered just a bit.

I moved around.  Two long strides.  Evan was still on my shoulder.

I caught hold of Mara’s hair.  The Hyena touched her throat.

I’d won.  I didn’t feel like I’d won, but I’d won.

It was over.

Hollow victory.

“Do you still want me to get the dead crow?” Evan asked.

The dead crow.

Part of the reason it felt so hollow.  There were things I didn’t get.  Why had she killed the bird?  Corvidae?

“I can, if you want,” Evan said.

That little body, so far from this one.

To deny us the chance to ask him?

Why, if she’d expected to win?

A decoy?

Corvidae couldn’t move.  Not until he was freed.

Or no longer bound.

“I-” Evan started, speaking to the silence for a third time.

I moved.

Stabbing.

Striking at open air.

I found flesh.

Kàgàgi,” Mara said.

Above us, the birds started to clear.

Light filled the area.  More than a sliver of dawn this time.

Corvidae stood before me.  Hand extended, an inch or two from Evan.  His arm went limp, and he dropped to his knees.  He broke up into feathers.  I saw only a glimpse of a lock of hair in one hand before the hand disappeared.  Letita’s hair.  Glamour.

I checked.  Alexis was no longer in the circle.

The second time I’d nearly been fooled, tonight.

A second breach of trust.

To make use of him like that, she’d killed him.  That much was true.

But she was a practitioner.

She’d called him right back.

Disguised him.

“You’ve won,” she told me.  “You killed him.  You’ve caught me.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Kill me, then,” she said.

I could see the others gathering.  Some were turning their heads, shielding eyes as they looked skyward.

One was pointing.

I looked.

Off to the west.  Smoke.

And where there was smoke, there was fire.

Peter and his cousin.

When she realized…

“No,” I said.  “I’m not that kind.  Now come on.  You have some questions to answer.”

My eyes were on Rose, as she hurried over, her priority finding the mirror, not Mara.

Twice tonight, an ally in the guise of a friend had turned on me.

Would it happen a third time?  An important time?

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