I managed to keep Crone Mara from seeing the smoke while we worked on binding her hands behind her back. The wire was a little more brutal than I might have liked, but it was what the Knights had on hand.
When that was done, I stepped away.
I’d spent so very long in darkness. Ever since the fight with Ur, really. The Drains, the mirror world, where small patches of light were surrounded by vast tracts of shadow.
While I’d watched ‘Alexis’ die, I’d become aware of how very cold I was. Not necessarily emotionally cold, but in terms of my humanity. There was a lot to be said for having that warmth emanating from within one’s own body. It meant that no matter what happened, no matter what emotions or events we experienced, we at least had that simple aspect of humanity.
I couldn’t quite phrase it right, put words to the idea.
But something swelled deep within me, as the sunlight touched my body, reached past gaps to touch things within, and touched the exterior, that little sliver of flesh I still retained, down the center of my face. The light was warm, and it approximated the sort of warmth I’d been missing, existing in such cold, dark places.
A quiet, simple sort of joy. The same kind that came with a hot meal, or sitting by a fire.
Holy hell, had it ever been a long night.
I turned my head, looking past the trees. I could see the town, and I could see the darkness that still lingered within. The sun was rising over it, but the light didn’t touch the town.
We had to go back. Plunge past the surface and into the darkness.
I wasn’t in a rush. I stood there, the sun shining on my face, letting the others deal with Mara, looking after the injured and the dead. Teddy.
I felt the lightest of weights settle on one shoulder, tiny feet shuffling on one thicker branch that extended from what would have been my collarbone to my shoulder. Opening one eye, peeking, I could see Evan there, wings slightly spread, face turned to the sun, same as mine was, both his inner and outer eyelids closed.
“It’s nice,” I said. “Sunlight.”
“Yeah,” he said. He opened his eyes, saw me looking, and hopped around, looking up at me. “You broke your wing.”
“Yeah. I can fix it. If I’d used the Hyena to cut it off, it would be another story.”
“How are Peter, Roxanne, and Green Eyes?”
“Warming their hands by the fire,” Evan said. “I could go get them. It’s okay so long as we stay beneath the tops of the trees.”
“Okay,” I said.
“Is that an okay I should go or an okay I understand?”
“I get it. I’m… not rushing, right now. There’s so much to do, but right this moment, I don’t think we’re going to get attacked and killed if we let our guard down. Just for the moment, maybe, let’s let our guard down.”
I didn’t resume my previous position, face turned to the light, enjoying that it had no qualifiers, here. That it wasn’t flickering bulbs that only reminded me of how dark everything else was, a confusing strobe or angle to hide handholds, or something that filtered through from a world I didn’t belong to.
I did watch the others, semi-consciously sticking to the light in the center of the clearing.
The Behaims and Knights were seeing that Mara was confined, and were drawing a circle around her. If Mara had been talking, I would have wandered over to that end of the clearing, but her mouth was closed. The treeline blocked her view of the plume of smoke.
Only a matter of time. I wasn’t sure what her reaction would be to the burning of her house.
Rose watched over it, but didn’t participate, gloved hands clasped behind her back, holding the mirror. The satyr and maenad sat on the fallen trees, talking, the satyr drinking from a flask, handing it over for the maenad to sample.
A younger Knight wandered over, and the maenad offered up the flask. The guy drank, sputtered, and coughed.
Mara was forced to sit in the little circle they’d drawn, almost a parallel to the one she’d drawn around herself, to ward me off. They backed off, standing guard around her.
I saw Rose say something, holding up a hand, then she turned to spot me and head my way.
Old fashioned Rose, in old fashioned clothes, hair tied back into a short braid, with two lengths framing her face. Her expression was serious, unsmiling. She held her arms out to either side for balance as she made her way through the deeper patches of snow, mirror in one hand, her rifle slung over one shoulder with a strap.
I waited a few seconds, then moved forward. I still managed to meet her halfway, even though I’d given her the headstart.
We met each other’s eyes.
She shifted her hands so they were both in front of her, holding the mirror in both. I saw her glance at Evan, then meet my eyes again.
“Being around you is terrifying,” Rose broke the silence.
“I can imagine, knowing what you know now.”
“It’s not the ‘doomed to kill each other’ thing. I imagine you have that same sort of fear.”
“No,” I said. “Not exactly.”
She frowned at me.
“I don’t really feel afraid in the conventional sense, anymore,” I told her. “One of the first things that came with this transformation. I conquered my fears and they just… went away.”
“Don’t have to worry about them anymore. I still worry, I have concerns for the welfare of Evan, and Green Eyes, and for… our friends. But I don’t succumb to the grip of terror and panic like I should.”
“How nice for you,” Rose said. She looked at the wing I was holding. “Is it fixable?”
“Yeah. Just need someone to stick it in place.”
“You could have asked me,” Evan said.
“You’re not strong enough,” I said.
Evan coughed. “You still could have asked. Some might feel insulted, being ignored like that.”
Rose stepped forward, putting her hands on the wing.
I flinched, but, after a moment’s delay, I let go.
She held the wing, maneuvering it as she brought the stump to the hole at my back.
Rose flinched as the wood at my back shifted, working to take in the wing. Where I’d been hesitant, even protective of the wing, her reaction was more one of fear.
“You were calling me terrifying,” I said. “I guess this is part of it?”
“Not like you’re thinking,” she said. “You’re hard to predict. Every time I look away, you’ve changed. A monster in the mirror, then by the next time I see you, I’ve done my research, I know you’re a threat to me, and you’re invading the house I’d warded you out of. Then, before I know it, you’re functioning, working despite the confines of the mirror world, striking down your enemies.”
“After which point I’m outside of the mirror, attacking the Behaims.”
She frowned. “Killing, not just attacking. It got rewound, but… very easy to imagine myself at the end of your blade, having seen that. Now it seems you’re transcending normal human limits.”
“He flies!” Evan said. “He transcends with style.”
I tested my wing, putting my hand into the available spot, stretching it to its full length, and then with drew my hand out, folding my wings. Lopsided as they were without my arm as part of it, I was most comfortable folding one in front of my body, touching the ‘hand’ of the larger wing to my right shoulder.
“Do you keep going?” Rose asked. “Is this one step in a journey to becoming something else altogether?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Is Mara ready to talk?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said, echoing me.
“Okay,” I said.
She’d come here for a reason. I didn’t ask her what it was.
I had the sense that the both of us were being exceptionally careful about what we said.
I didn’t want to disturb this small peace I’d found here in the clearing and the sunlight, and Rose-
“Alister was bothered, I think, seeing how the two of us interacted,” Rose said.
“I’m marrying him. It’s not a game or a gimmick or anything of the sort. There’s strategy and power plays involved with it, but it’s not like I can or will back down or stab him in the back or anything.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“He made this quip, and it cut me pretty deep. Commented that he wondered if what he saw in our interaction was what he had to look forward to in the marriage.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Ouch,” Evan said.
Rose shrugged, looking away. “If I can show that I can function like a decent human being in the company of the vestige-cum-bogeyman that’s destined to destroy or be destroyed by me, well, maybe that counts for something.”
I bristled a little at the emphasis on my being a monster, but grit my teeth. I managed to sound civil as I said, “Yeah. I can respect that.”
“I’ve got to lay groundwork. It makes no sense if we survive the remainder of the night, save the city from the abyss, and the consequences of everything we’ve done catch up with us and destroy us all the same.”
“Laying the groundwork for the future.”
“I’m trying to.”
“I’m glad,” I said. “For too much of tonight, especially since I found out about where we really come from, from Russel, I haven’t felt like I’ve had much of a future.”
“Don’t say that!” Evan said.
“What do you mean?”
“Don’t answer, don’t clarify. You’re talking crazy!”
“Like I won’t survive the night,” I said. “Or I won’t be me anymore. If I lose my eyes or my mind, they’re the only part of me that are still Blake. If they go, then it isn’t much different from being killed by a dragon or a crone or whatever else. I’m having a really hard time picturing life as it’ll be in two weeks. A few errands I should run, favors I owe. Ur, the witch in the Drains, the Abyss. But when those errands are done…”
I reached for the word, the phrasing.
I couldn’t figure out Rose’s expression as she stared at me, which made it even harder to finish.
“Flying together!” Evan finished for me. He pecked me in the side of the head. “I knew you were being too reckless, going after that dragon! You sound like you’ve already lost your mind, you lunatic! We’re supposed to go flying!”
I reached up and cupped him in my one hand. I closed my fingers gently around him, until only his head poked out.
“Flying! Adventures! You, me, and maybe Green Eyes if she has to come along and if she promises to stop calling me a chicken nugget! Winging through the air without a care, dang it! Over water so Green Eyes can do the dolphin thing and jump out of the waves! And then we’re supposed to fight monsters, and I go full throttle firebird Evan and raaaaaaaagagargh!”
The incoherent sound he made as he finished was a little more emotional and raw than he might have intended. More like he was screaming at me than finishing his sentence.
He sat there, panting hard, tiny body swelling against the confines of my hand with each huff.
“Raaaaaaaaagh!” he tried again, just as raw.
“Evan,” I could just barely hear Rose speak.
“I want that,” I said, meeting his eyes. “Believe me, I want it. Maybe not the fighting monsters part. Maybe a bit more quiet instead, sitting around, enjoying each other’s company, but I want it. Really really truly. The problem is that I’ve come this far by trusting my gut, and my gut isn’t telling me very good things.”
I looked from Evan to Rose.
“I didn’t know,” Rose said.
“Until I said it out loud, I’m not sure I did, either,” I said. “I don’t know if I can stop anymore. I don’t know if I like what might happen if I keep going.”
“All this time, I’ve been so frightened about the possibilities, that you could turn on me at any moment, that everything I am could be consumed and subsumed, a monster taking my place, and you don’t even care?”
“I care!” I said, wings spreading, advancing a step.
I became aware that Knights who’d been standing on the other side of the clearing were now pointing guns at me.
Rose’s expression, the fact that she now had one hand on her gun, which was still around behind her back.
“I care,” I said, relaxing my posture. “I want to ride a damn motorcycle again, I want to hang with Evan and my other friends and fail at art and try my best at being a broken human being, helping people. I want it so bad it aches.”
“I want it too,” Rose said. “But when I looked at the two of us, I can’t help but feel you burn brighter, or darker, or colder, I don’t know, it doesn’t make sense. I don’t like what happens when you burn, Blake, when you go after things you wanted, and I couldn’t help but feel you wanted it more, somehow. Enough that you’d tear yourself to pieces, even as you fought me over this life. Destroy us both. And there was this feeling, this belief, that I was the only one who could win and not destroy us both in the process.”
“That’s how we are, isn’t it?” I asked. “I have the desire, the want. You have capability, without…”
I tried to find the word.
“Instability? The ability to do without changing in the process?” Rose suggested.
“Fragility, more than instability,” I said. “I see it more as loss, taking damage to something fundamental. Ties back to the mirror thing, the vestige.”
“I think I remember that from the book, actually.”
I shrugged. “Probably. You got the artsy-fartsy creativity, damn it. Harder for me to be original when waxing poetic.”
Rose sighed. “Shit.”
“Shit,” I said.
‘Where do we go from here?”
“When I look at where we stand, if I face the fact that one of us is bound to kill the other if we keep up this senseless tug of war over Russel Thorburn’s fractured life…”
I trailed off, gestured inarticulately.
Evan struggled, and I realized I was still holding him. I let go of him and he flew around, settling on Rose’s head, at the hairline.
“…I don’t want to be the sort of person who wins that fight, I guess,” I said. “Because I can’t help but feel like I can’t do that without becoming the monster I’m afraid I’d have to become.”
There was a long pause, as if the both of us were afraid to say anything.
Rose glanced around, as if remembering where she was. She turned, saw the guns, and gestured to the others. Telling them to stand down. The guns that had been pointed at me were lowered.
Evan seemed to consider, then flew over to my shoulder.
“Nincompoop,” he said.
“I’m a bit of a nincompoop,” I said.
“A huge nincompoop. A massive butt.”
“Yeah,” he said.
There was another silence.
I realized Rose couldn’t talk. Not without risking saying something that would challenge my resolution.
“Rose,” I said.
I saw her swallow hard.
“If I try to win this tiny war of ours, over Russel Thorburn’s life, or Ross’s life or whatever his name was, and you or your husband haven’t crossed some line? Assume I’m too far gone. Evan, that goes for you too. You can both tell the others without lying.”
“I’ll exercise my own judgment, thank you very much,” Evan said.
“That’s a good idea,” Rose told him. “I’m biased, kind of comes with having your life on the line”
I glanced up at the sun, filtered by heavy clouds and the branches at the edge of the clearing. “The errands I needed to run.”
“I already made promises to deal with Ur. I could do it in your name. The final stroke.”
“It’s art,” I said. “I wouldn’t mind leaving some kind of mark behind.”
“I can do that,” she said. “The Abyss… that’s a little trickier.”
“I’ll do what I can to look after the Abyss tonight,” I said. “There’s also the witch in the drains… I made a promise to her. I don’t know if it counts if it’s on my behalf or if you’ve destroyed me and taken on some of my essence, but it’s more complicated, a flower to the grave of a Zoey Artana, I’m not sure exactly where, but-”
“Write it down?” Rose asked.
She fished in her pocket for paper.
Working the pen proved difficult with wooden hands.
“Your writing is worse than mine, and I don’t even have hands,” Evan commented.
“You can write?” I asked. “With what? A pencil nub?
“Stylus. Gotta have it for some of the handheld games,” he said.
Rose took the piece of paper. Her eyebrows went up. “That’s a bit of a trip.”
“Maybe on the honeymoon,” I said. “Considering that I’m giving you-”
She raised a hand. “If this works out, then I promise. Even if it means going to Wisconsin for my honeymoon with Alister.”
I nodded, smiling just a little.
“Okay?” she asked.
“Okay,” I said. “Yeah. There’s tonight still to do, and this is contingent on you looking after the others, Evan in particular, and-”
“With regular purchases of video games,” Evan cut in, more than a little sullen.
“Even if it means regular purchases of-”
“Blake,” Rose said, cutting me off.
“It’s okay,” she said.
She lied to your face so many times. She didn’t take the oath just so she could.
I dismissed the thoughts that whispered through my mind, sowing doubt.
She made your friends keep your identity and your origins a secret from you. Subverting people you genuinely loved.
“You’ll probably need to use the Hyena to destroy me,” I said. “Otherwise, I’ll just come back, and you can’t taint our existence with Conquest, so you need to be doubly careful, if you’re going to-”
“Blake. I’ll do what you need me to do. Whatever our differences, we both want the same sort of things.”
She made you weaker, when you needed to be strong.
The voice of doubt in the back of my mind had taken on a different quality. Gravely, deeper, a more fundamental sort of doubt. Where the initial suspicion might be to worry they weren’t my own thoughts, I had no doubt they were. They were thoughts welling from a deeper part of me, one that didn’t do a lot of talking.
“You’ll do it, then?” I asked.
“Yes,” Rose said. “I’ll do it.”
There were rules, expectations. Everything we’d done up to this point had emphasized the need for carefully worded deals. Our deal here was… pretty godawful, in terms of terminology. There were too many holes to exploit.
Rose, perhaps, wasn’t willing to test what we’d made, here. I wasn’t willing to reflect too deeply on it.
“We should get moving,” I said, to forestall the voice of doubt. Worrying that it might say something I couldn’t simply ignore. “None of this is much good unless the town survives, and if the universe really is conspiring against us-”
“Me,” Rose said. “Conspiring against me.”
“Then it goes double. We’re racing against a lot of tilting dominoes if we’re going to keep the universe from dismantling our little truce.”
Rose nodded, then hesitated.
“I have one thing I need to ask for.”
I went still.
“I know I’m already asking for and taking so much, but… can we please not call him Russel? I really can’t picture us as a Russel.”
“Ross?” I asked. “Russ?”
“Ugh. Awful,” she said, but she smiled a little.
I managed the smallest smile back.
“Rusty?” I offered.
“Forgive me! I give up!” Rose said. “I yield!”
She raised her hands, and held them up as she turned to go make her way toward Mara.
Her hands dropped after the first few steps, as she worked her way across the one patch of deeper snow. Slower going. She was heavier than I was, but not as strong, nor quite as tall. She sank in deeper into the snow, worked harder to move despite that fact. She had more substance.
She turned her head to one side, glancing at the smoke, and I caught a glimpse of her expression.
I was frozen in place as I watched her continue onward.
The tension, anger, and stillness eased out of me as I saw her raise a hand to wipe at one eye, then the other.
Not a smirk. Just overwhelmingly relieved.
“Are you okay?” Evan asked.
“I think we’ve long since established that that is one of the worst questions to ask a person who can’t lie.”
“You’re not okay, are you?”
I looked at Evan, “Are you?”
He ruffled his feathers.
I couldn’t put words to what I was feeling, to describe how I felt.
“I’m going for Peter and Roxanne and Green Eyes,” Evan said.
“Shit,” I said. “Green Eyes. We can’t tell her, or at least, we really, really shouldn’t. We need to figure out what to do about her, because I can’t see her being okay with it.”
“Yeah,” Evan said. “Oh wow, yeah.”
“Mum’s the word,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said.
He took off. I watched him go, turn, as if to check on me, then go again.
I turned my face skyward, and for just a moment, enjoyed the sun.
The others were talking in the background. I heard Tiff say something about Mara, then my name, a question.
I heard Rose say something. I was pretty sure it was, “Leave him.”
Ironic as it might have been, I let my head turn away, and I started my way toward the others. Faster than Rose.
Rose, arms folded, stood off to one side. She was giving me the opportunity to confront the monster I’d defeated.
“Mara,” I said.
“Monster,” she replied.
“You’re going to break your word,” I told her. “I’m not picky, but I want you to start by telling us what, if any, involvement you have in Jacob’s Bell being swallowed up by the abyss.”
“Start?” the young crone asked me.
“Start. Because when you’ve told us that, you’re going to swear oaths and you’re going to break them. Over and over, until we have no doubt that you’ve relinquished all relationships with spirits and the practice.”
She squared her shoulders, raising her chin. “You think so, do you?”
“I know it,” I said.
I could somehow breathe easier now, even though I didn’t breathe.
A burden had lifted from me. I felt taller.
“You know so very little,” she said.
“Oh, for sure,” I answered. “But I know this. All that you’ve built, all that you are, the cycle that you’ve built your power on, it’s one has been turning for a very, very long time, and that counts for something. You asked me if I was going to kill you. I told you I wasn’t so merciful. I intend to make you kill yourself, in a roundabout fashion, and there’s nothing you can do to stop me.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“If you don’t swear never to practice or take action against another intelligent being again, on your blood, on your power, on all that you are and were, I’m sure one or two of these guys would be willing to finish you off with the Hyena,” I said.
Mara didn’t respond.
“You started the wheel turning, Mara,” I said. “If you refuse to swear, then you’re killing yourself, in a way. You’re stopping the wheel from turning. I don’t think you’re capable. You have no choice but to swear it, because if you swear that oath, you get to live to the end of this lifespan. You have to live, given the choice. You don’t avoid death for as long as you have, if there’s any question.”
She hung her head. I saw her hands move. They’d changed color, the wire cutting in. The binding hadn’t been cruel, but she was twisting it up, doing it to herself.
I wondered momentarily if she was doing something. A plan, a working of some sort.
“I could trade you information,” she said, looking up at me.
“You could,” I said.
“If I can keep my power,” she said.
“Then I guess we’ll have to do without,” I said.
“You have little idea what you’re about to walk into. One small piece of knowledge stands between everything here and ruin. If you wish to talk about a lack of choice, then you should know you have little choice but to take my offer. You must spare me.”
“Blood Hags survive for as long as they do by taking the lives of others,” Tiff said. “Not to be confused with sanguine hags, like Bathory. From what Mara said, she took an immense number of young lives to live as long as she has. Stepping into their shoes. I don’t know about you guys, um, I’m really not feeling the mercy.”
Pretty strong words and sentiment, coming from Tiff. There were a number of murmurs and mutters of agreement. More to the point, nobody disagreed.
Mara bowed her head once more.
“Power,” she said. “I can offer you power, then.”
“It’s not going to work, Mara,” I said. “I know you’re pretty much compelled to strive for survival, and I’m guessing you’re numb to the sheer number of lives you’ve taken, but it’s kind of a big deal. We’re not interested in bargaining. We’re giving you one path if you want to live out the rest of that stolen lifespan of yours.”
“As I see fit?” She asked. “At my home, unmolested?”
I didn’t glance at the smoke. Let her realize on her own. Face a life with fear of onrushing death. Let her do it without her creature comforts, or the routine she’d maintained for countless generations.
I didn’t give her an answer to her question. “Take the first step on that path by telling us whether you’re involved.”
“I was the architect of it all,” she said. “I’ve been striving to these ends since the township was established.”
There was a dull rumble. Cracks sounded elsewhere in the forest. Birds took to the air.
“Peter?” Ellie asked, alarmed.
“No,” Rose said. “Peter’s fine, as far as I can tell. He’s over that way. The trees fell… elsewhere.”
“She lied,” Alister’s female relative said. “She’s losing her hold on this place.”
“That means she has no involvement,” Rose said. “Do you know who is involved, Mara?”
“Laird Behaim lives with a dark thing, one of the demons your kind deals with, living in his corpse, peering from the wound,” Mara said.
More trees fell. More birds took to the air.
I saw Alister’s relative breathe a sigh of relief.
“Try again,” I said. She knows more than she lets on, about goings-on in Jacob’s Bell, to know that that was even a possibility.
“Yes, I know who is responsible,” Mara said.
Not a single tree fell.
“Rose Thorburn,” Mara said.
I could hear something rumble. As if the very earth was cracking.
Here, however, we were safe.
“Ah well,” Mara said.
“Straight answers,” Rose said, stern. “Who’s sinking Jacob’s Bell?”
“He’s been safe in his demesne all this time,” Mara answered. “Sometimes the most obvious answer is the right one.”
“Johannes?” Rose asked.
“Yes,” Mara said. “In the time you’ve wasted here with me, he has left his demesne. Until I forswore myself, I was watching. Paying attention to my surroundings. If you leave now, and your path isn’t barred, you should get there in time. But your path will be barred. You’ve lost, for your arrogance.”
The trees were silent, spelling out the truth to her words.
“Hillsglade House,” Rose said.