Category Archives: 14.09

Sine Die 14.9

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

“Peter and Roxanne,” Rose said.

“It doesn’t matter,” the crone said.

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

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

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

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

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

Rose and I exchanged glances.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will do.”

Look after, or keep an eye on?

“Where do you want me?” Tiff asked.

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

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

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

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

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

“You wanted to come,” Rose said.

I raised an eyebrow at that.

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

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

And set the fireWhich Mara doesn’t know about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Probably.

It still felt strange.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It wasn’t true freedom.

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

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

I paced a little.

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

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

There was no sign of a lie.

Head games?

“Something greater?” I asked.

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

“Riddles,” I said.

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

I felt so restless.  A lose-lose.

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

“And the inverse is true for Rose?”

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

“You reached a truce,” the crone observed.

“Don’t want to hear it,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patterns.  Reminded me of what Peter had said.

“And?”

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

I glanced at Alister’s relative.  Ainsley.

She looked tense.

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

I saw the young crone smile just a little.

“Just tell me,” I told her.

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

“This again?” I asked.

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

“Everything has a price,” Ainsley said.

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

“At the cost of others,” I said.

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

I almost laughed.

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

Mara smiled, a cruel, mocking expression.

I almost showed her the fire right then.

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

“And who are you to throw stones?”

I shook my head, turning away.

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

Green Eyes, Evan, Peter and Roxanne.

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

I smiled back.

Can’t tell her.

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

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

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

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

“What does she want?  Your counterpart?”

“Security, answers, solutions.”

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

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

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

I shook my head.

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

“I don’t know,” I said, again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Careful,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Far milder than before.

A milder lie, or…

No.

“Mara, that was a lie, wasn’t it?”

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

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

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

Where did the lie rest?

“Tell me,” I said.

Bargain with me,” she hissed the words.

She was too calm, too collected.

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

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

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

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

I let her turn around.

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

I could see the facade crack.  The genuine fear.

“No,” she said.  “No, no!”

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

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

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

“I need to-” Mara said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Except me,” I said.

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

Then it faded.  Dashed away.

She laughed.  It sounded just a touch unhinged.

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

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

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

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

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

Mockery.

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

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

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

I let her, and watched her laying there.

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

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

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

I looked down at Mara.

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

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

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

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

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

She was telling the truth.

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

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

“No time!” I said.

Just like his sister.

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

It was easier to go out than to come in.

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

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

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

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

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

Logically, rationally.

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

They weren’t in any place the sunlight touched.

They were already inside.

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

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

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

Me?

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

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

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

One last time.

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

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

I heard a yowl, not so far away.

Distractions.  The barrier Mara had talked about?

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

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

I dropped out of the sky and landed.

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

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

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

“Gotta catch my breath,” Peter said.

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

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

“Yeah,” I agreed.  “But-”

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

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

I turned and flew.

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

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

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

A path they might take, in striking the deal.

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

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

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

The line between enemy and ally grew so blurred.

When I thought of classic enemies and allies…

Gears started turning in my head.

Enemies became allies…

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

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

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

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

The door was unlocked.  I pushed it open.

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

“Where are the bodies?” Evan asked.

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

“Not it!” Evan said.

“Shh,” I said.

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

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

People had gathered.  Eyes turned my way.

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

I could hear voices in the next room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blake,” Rose said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And then?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Johannes smiled.

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

The smile faltered.

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

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

I closed my eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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