Category Archives:  Arc 15 (Possession)

Histories (Arc 15)

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His hands closed into fists.  They were covered in so many unhealed cuts and scratches that the simple action was a shuddering one, his fingers and thumb twitching with the pain.

The lights in his apartment flickered.  The kitchen was clean, but far from tidy.  Bags were filled with trash he hadn’t been able or willing to take out.  Days spent active, nights spent reading, accumulating the garbage.  He couldn’t even begin to guess how many days there were until the garbage was next picked up.

“You told me to tell you if I saw it,” Fisher murmured.

The practitioner nodded.

“I belabor the obvious, but it’s sitting in your kitchen,” Fisher said, only his eyes peering out and above the top of the practitioner’s coat pocket.

The practitioner nodded once more.

He had a simple table in the corner of his kitchen, with room for two stools.  The table was piled with books, candles, and an ashtray piled high with ash.  Many cigarettes had been smoked down to the filters.  Many of the others had been loose tobacco and rolling papers, with no filters at all.  Smoked until they’d threatened to burn his lips.  He tended to smoke those when pacing, so he could spit them into the sink, to be swept up later.

A figure occupied one of the stools.  Manlike, but far from being a man.  He was clothed, and the clothes were nice, with a black sweater that had yet to fade from washing or wear, a lambskin jacket, and straight-leg jeans tucked into calf-length boots.  His eyes, eyebrows, nose, cheekbones and chin were each so very carefully constructed and shaped.  The figure’s white hair, curly, too long, only accented the appearance.

But his teeth, as he smiled, were oddly brutish.  Not inhuman, but not straight, angled so that they suggested sharpness, or the idea of fangs.  They were too large for how delicate his features were, and they were white.

The figure could have passed for one of the practitioner’s friends.  Probably had, already.  He looked like the sort that traveled in the same circle, where being in a failed band and recreational drug use were not uncommon.

But the smile, here, with the lights flickering, was just a little too white, too feral, suggesting teeth meant for tearing.  The smile caught the eye and held it.

Cause enough for fear.  Maybe even terror and panic.

But two things served to push matters well past fear and into the realms of despair.  For one thing, there was context.  Weeks of the hunt, the chase.

For another, there was the shadow.  Though it wore the shape of a man, the shadow it cast was a shadow of something far, far bigger.  Something that shouldn’t have fit into the apartment.

Fisher ducked lower into the practitioner’s pocket.

As the figure breathed, the shadow mimed the movement, swelling, deflating.  Spices in the spice rack, many cannibalized for hasty and haphazard rituals, moved in time with the breathing.  The shadow swelled, and it pushed out, past the confines that shadows should be limited to.  The spices were tilted, touching the metal bar of the rack, then left to return to a normal position.  Tilted again…

The figure reached out to sweep up the rolling papers and box of loose tobacco with one hand, and the shadow moved simultaneously, on the far side of the room.  Bags of trash were gutted, torn open.

The smell of the trash filled the room.  More musty than rotten.  Wet paper and cigarette ash, old coffee grounds.

But there was rot in there, too.  There were maggots, freed to spill out like grains of rice from a bag, crawling for the nearest spot of darkness.

The practitioner didn’t care.  Even if he somehow survived, he rationalized, he’d never be able to return here.

The idea was borne of the same sort of sentiment that made people uncomfortable with living where murders had happened.  He couldn’t imagine willingly coming back to a place where he knew this thing had been.

It busied itself, hands moving in a practiced way as it rolled up the cigarette.

It picked up a matchbook from beside one candle, folded the match around back behind the book, and scratched it against the strip, all with one hand.

It drew in a deep breath, and exhaled slowly.

Without even thinking about it, the practitioner held his breath, as the smoke reached his way.

Not that it truly mattered.

The entire apartment, even parts behind him, in the hallway adjacent to the kitchen, was moving in response to the spirit.  The thing that wore the appearance of a man breathed, the shadow that revealed what was behind the mask also served to hint at the truth, and blinds, spice bottles, trash bags and more all moved in response.

As though the kitchen were alive, the flesh of a living thing, an extension of the figure.

Making the practitioner the man that had unwittingly entered the belly of the beast.

“Sit?” the man at the table asked.

The practitioner shook his head.

Sit,” the man at the table said, firmer.

Outside, something crashed.  A dog started barking violently.

“I prefer to die standing,” the practitioner said.

The man at the table took a long drag on his rolled cigarette.  “Did I suggest I care what you prefer?”

“No, but I’m going to fight for it if I have to.”

“To die on your feet?  All of the things you could fight for, things you could beg for or actions you could take, and you choose this.”

“Have to take a stand somewhere.”

“If you say so,” the figure said.

Where one ankle rested on his knee, the figure let his foot fall to the floor, toe pointed at the practitioner.

It was pain in the same way that a tsunami was water.  Pain had flavors, and in one moment, the practitioner tasted all kinds.  Sharp sorts of pain.  Broken, crushing, burning, and loud sorts of pain.  An agony that defied description.  He hit the ground, hard, and the feeling of his chin hitting the tile from a five foot, five inch height, without arms moving to break the fall?  Only a drop in the bucket.

And underlying it all was the idea that it was a wrong sort of pain.  That something wasn’t operating like the practitioner’s past thirty years of experience had told him it should.

While he became aware of the welling tide of blood, his hands fumbled for traction.

One hand touched his leg, which was closer to his shoulder than his knee.  The flesh beneath the pants leg was oddly cool, and the stump leaked an awful lot of blood.  More than he would have thought fit inside.

He tried to get his bearings, struggling to operate before the shock set in.  When he opened his mouth, however, all that came out were huffs of pain.

A tiny part of him wanted to believe that this was retribution.  That it was karma in the vernacular form, eye for an eye justice.  A whipping for the criminal.  But that part of him wasn’t satisfied.  He couldn’t feel it.  As much as he wanted to, he couldn’t bring himself to feel sorry.

The figure wasn’t even looking at him.  The end of the cigarette glowed orange as the body perched on the stool inhaled.  Smoke leaked out between large white teeth.

The practitioner moved his hand, and the numerous scratches and cuts made themselves known, though the sensation of pain was so far removed from what he experienced now that it felt almost alien.

The practitioner reached out, and he touched one finger to the blood.

He started to draw lines.

“No,” the figure at the table said, still not looking.

The practitioner stopped.  It wasn’t that the words had power, per se.  Only that he knew the actions were fruitless.  He was only undertaking them because the past several days had made it habit.  Already, he was so weak that a word was enough to stop him mid-action.

The man who was now sprawled on the floor, bleeding out, didn’t reply or move.  By some reflex, he gripped one of his dismembered legs, clawed from his body by the movement of a shadow too substantial to simply drape itself against the wall.  A white-knuckle grip, as if he physically clung to life.

The figure glanced down at the man on the floor.

The smile widened.

“Mann, Levin, Lewis,” the man on the floor said.

The smile faded.

“Mann, Lev- Levin, Lewis,” the man managed, once more.

The figure that was perched on the stool took another drag of the rolled cigarette.

“Mann, Levin, Lewis.”

The front door opened.  The man who let himself in, unlike the figure in the chair, did not look like he belonged, nor did he look like he had any association with the dying man that lay on a floor covered in blood and crawling maggots.  He was thin, handsome but for a scar at the corner of his lip, his hair carefully cut, and he wore a suit.

The shined black shoes stopped before crossing the threshold to the kitchen, normally meant to bridge the gap between hardwood and tile, a cross-piece of wood now served to block the ever-spreading filth.

“Good evening, Mr. Mahoun,” the lawyer said.

“Good evening, Mr. Mann,” the demon on the stool said.

“What is a noble of your stature doing here?”

“I was called,” the demon noble replied.

“By him?”

“By our acquaintance here, yes.”

“He overstepped.”

“If the greatest free diabolist in the field were to summon the least of my kind, it would be overstepping,” Mahoun said.

“In a relative sense, then, he overstepped.”

“Yes.  In a relative sense,” the demon agreed.

Mann hiked up the pants of his suit, freeing the fabric enough that he could bend down, sitting on his heels, to get a better view of the limp form.  “I know of him, the face is familiar, but I don’t truly know him.  What possessed him to try to summon you?”

“The greatest of sins.”

“Hm. What for?”

“He summoned lesser demons to amass a small fortune.  A friend of his tried to take the money.”

“Angry, and arrogant.  A story I’ve heard often enough.  Though to go to such an extreme, that’s unusual.”

“Extreme anger, extreme arrogance.  He was quick to realize what he’d done.”

“At which point it was too late to undo it.”

The demon smiled.  It lit the second rolled cigarette.

“I have some of my own, if you have a taste for those.  It helps to get clients to calm down.”

“This is fine,” Mahoun said, through teeth that bit hard on the cigarette.  He leaned over, looking at the fallen practitioner.  “You’re aware that he’s dying?”

“Yet not permitted to die.  We can leave him as he is for now.  I’m not in a particular rush.”

Mahoun shrugged, an easy, casual gesture.

Mann spoke, “I have to wonder… how?”

“That answer is more complicated,” the demon said.  “Greater agendas.”

“When I hear responses like that, I can’t help but think of the choir of unrest.”

Mahoun smiled.

“We make a practice of keeping tabs on active diabolists.  A number of new clients have been in possession of texts written by individuals who we don’t have tabs on.”

“I’m not of the choir of unrest, Mr. Mann,” the demon said.

“But you turn men, women and children into monsters, savage spree killers.  You work over days, weeks, months, and years to prey on diabolists and turn them into crazed killers with a bloodthirst.  Ones that are liberal in using their knowledge to do their deeds.  Or, failing that, you find practitioners, and make them into the sort of depraved individual that wouldn’t hesitate to practice diabolism.”

Mahoun’s expression didn’t change.

Mann continued, “It’s a similar pattern to members of the Choir of Unrest, writing tomes themselves, under the guise of being diabolists.  A hard thing to ignore, when new diabolists crop up every other month.  Or when we’re being asked to distribute books.”

“You’d almost think you had me in the wrong choir,” Mahoun said.

“Almost,” Mr. Mann replied.

The demon took another long pull on the cigarette.  The entire kitchen reacted, as if an invisible beast was within, pushing against every surface.  The shadows were darker than before.

“Don’t concern yourself with what I do,” Mahoun said, staring at Mann with pale eyes.  “There’s nothing you can do about it.”

The words had weight.  Even if the demon noble wasn’t bound, there was a certainty to the words that gave them power.

“None of my business,” Mann said.  If he was scared or intimidated, he didn’t betray it.  “He is.  Will this be a problem?”

Mahoun gave him a dismissive wave.  “The end result is the same.”

“I have your permission?”

“Yes.”

Mann turned, saw a long rug in the hallway, and stepped aside, gesturing.  It moved, sliding into the kitchen.  A bridge over blood and maggots.

A simple trick, but not an easy one.  To simply order spirits about required a longstanding relationship with those spirits, or something similar.  One could do it readily in a demesne they owned, building a familiarity with the spirits there, but to do it anywhere meant that one had to be recognizable anywhere.  The equivalent of being a household name or brand among humans.

He crossed until he stood over the limp body.  He grabbed the man’s jacket and forced him over onto his back.  He slapped the man in the face.

The practitioner stirred.

“You’re not dead.  Barring extraordinary luck on your part, you won’t get to die for a long, long time.  Either I get you, or Mahoun does.  The best thing you can do here is force yourself to pay attention.”

The name seemed to force a surge of adrenaline.  The man’s eyes opened wider, alarm touching every aspect of his features.

“There we go,” Mann said.  “Now.  You called me.  You only have my attention for thirty minutes total, and you spent several minutes wallowing in your suffering.  Do you have a request, or did you summon me for another purpose?”

The man looked at the demon, then the lawyer.  “Save me.

“You are well beyond saving,” Mann told the practitioner.

“Get me away from him.  I’ve seen what he does.  My brother, my mother, my kid cousin… he used them.”

“That’s the least of what he does,” Mann said.  He glanced up at the demon.  “He was going easy on you.  Likely aiming to gradually step up what he did, keep it up long enough that you’d eventually realize, it was always going to get worse.  Break you with terror of everything your future held in store for you.”

“No,” the practitioner said.  He shook his head.  “He went after them, he made them wrong, let them find my books.  They let other demons inside.  Accepted them.  Other people stopped being able to even see them.”

Mann sighed.  The demon noble only watched.

“You want away?”

“Yes.”

“You’ll join my firm.  You’ll assist other diabolists, in large part.”

“Okay.  Please.”

“You’ll do this for, if I had to guess, somewhere between five and six hundred years.  We’d hash out the specific numbers at a later point.”

“Five-”

“As I said, you won’t get to die for a long, long time.”

The practitioner screwed his eyes closed, bracing himself against a fresh wave of the pain, but adrenaline still kept him conscious enough.  It wouldn’t last forever.

“Before you answer,” Mann warned, “There’s another cost.  That which is yours is forfeit.”

“Have… nothing.”

“You have a familiar.”

The practitioner’s eyes went wide.

“It would become ours, to use or give away as we saw fit.”

Fisher creeped out of the practitioner’s pocket, no longer caring about blood or maggots.  In the body of a toad, he hopped forward.  He spoke, however, with a more cultured accent.  “No.  We have a partnership, I have a say.  No.”

“You have a say, but you do not have the final word.”

Fisher turned to the practitioner.  “No.  Just say no.”

“Yes,” the practitioner said.  “I agree.  Whatever the time involved.”

Fisher froze.  “No, please-”

“I agree,” the practitioner said, again.

“I’ll draft up the papers,” Mann said.  “For now, let’s get out of here.”

He seized the practitioner, one arm around the man’s armpits, and lifted him easily.

The familiar stared.

“Another time, then, Mahoun.”

“As you say, Mr. Mann,” the demon said.

The familiar gave chase, if only to escape the presence of the demon.

Mahoun was still sitting at the table when the front door closed behind the lawyer and his new employee.

“There is a difference,” Mann said, “Between the various tiers of demon.  Imps, least, lesser, moderate, all the way up the hierarchy.  The simplest way to mark the distinction is capability.”

The new employee nodded.  He was dressed in a fine suit, now, and he had legs again.

“Speech is one such thing.  It’s an inverse of men.  We’re speechless at birth, we gain the ability, with increasing faculties, then if we live long enough, the ability to speak gradually leaves us.  Imps can speak because they borrow from men, they sup from the collective unconscious, and they sup from victims.  Demons of the noble tier can speak because they are… broad.  If they’re neither and they can still communicate, they may well have something of man.  A token.”

The new employee nodded.  He was trying to listen.  He had a new lease on life, now.  They walked down the street, and despite the fact that they wore nicer clothes than the people they passed, nobody paid them a second mind.

“Keep these things in mind.  We can’t have you making a mistake while you work for us.  Certainly not a mistake like the summoning of Mahoun.”

“I’ll try.”

“You’ll learn quickly or you’ll die,” Mann said.  “Come.  On the good days, you’ll be an errand boy.  This is a good day.”

The new employee hurried to keep up.

“The primary work we do is to help write contracts, and to handle certain summonings or arrangements.  You’re not going to do either for the first few hundred years.  The goal is to achieve these things safely, with minimal risk.  You can’t do safe, not yet.”

“I learned my lesson.”

“In a few centuries, you should look back on today, and you’ll realize how very little you’ve learned.”

“Yes sir.”

Mann frowned.  “Don’t think I didn’t see that in your eyes.  You think I’m an asshole?”

“No, sir.”

“I have been around for a very long time.  I’m aware of much more than you might think.”

“Yes sir.”

Mann shook his head a little.  “As you do good work, you’ll have less in the way of good days, but more opportunity.  You don’t need to eat or sleep anymore, we removed that need.  You would be well advised to study.  If you were to get an opportunity, you wouldn’t want to squander it, because it may be decades before you got another chance.”

“When you say opportunity, sir?”

“Early exit,” a woman spoke up.

The woman wore a suit, though with a short dress rather than pants, and her blonde hair was in a ponytail, a lock draped over one eyebrow with a strategic sort of care.

“Early exit is one opportunity that you’re competing for,” Mann said.  “You may not need to indulge in normal eating and sleeping, but if you ever think you might want to slack off in your duties, keep in mind that we have a number of other employees who don’t need to indulge either, and many are hungrier to get out than you are.”

“You’ll find that hunger,” the blonde woman said.  “After enough bad days, you’ll find it.”

The new employee glanced over his shoulder.  “You heard-”

“I’ve heard others get the same speech more times than you’d like to think,” the woman said.  “I’ve even heard a number ask the question you just asked.”

“She leads the pack, in terms of the next employee to take a name and a position at the head of the firm,” Mann explained.  “Like myself.  You would do well to listen to her.”

“Yes sir,” he replied.

“Look after him,” Mann ordered.  “I have things to do.”

With that, he was gone.

The blonde woman gestured, and they fell in step, side by side, walking down the street.

“Scared?” the woman asked.

“Slightly?”

“If you’re not terrified, you haven’t realized what you’re in for,” the woman said.

“I have a sense of it.”

“You did this to get out of a bad situation?” she asked.

“Yeah.  Yes.”

“How bad?”

“Noble demon.”

“Which?”

“Mahoun.  Mr. Mann said it went easy on me, but it really didn’t.”

She nodded.  “It didn’t.”

“I-”

“It didn’t,” she said, placing a hand on his arm.

“Okay,” he said, frowning.

“You escaped a noble demon.  The worst sort of end.  Now that it’s too late for you to realize, I’m free to tell you, you’ve jumped from the frying pan to the fire.”

“The fire.”

“How long do you have?”

“Five hundred and seventy-some years.”

She raised her eyebrows.

“I know.”

“Not much time at all.  You could have paid off that karmic debt in a lifetime.”

“Not if I died.”

She shook her head.  “I have a lot to teach you.  How many demonic nobles do you think you’ll run into in the next five hundred and seventy-ish years?”

His eyes went wide.  “What?”

“I’m asking you to guess.  Because you will be crossing paths with them.”

He couldn’t speak.  Horror had stolen his words.

“Well, stay quiet like that while we’re here, and you’ll be in good shape.”

They reached the gate.  The blonde woman opened it.  She led the way up the winding driveway.

An old woman was already standing on the porch.  Rose bushes grew across the property, and trees hung over the older house.  She looked so normal.

It sent his perceptions and expectations in the complete other direction from the horror he’d experienced prior.  He found his words slipping from his mouth.  “I- You told me to be quiet, but is she…”

“A diabolist?  Yes.  She’s a respected diabolist, in many circles,” the blonde woman said.  “We would very much like to recruit her.  If you were to cost us the chance, you could give up hope of ever having a good day with us again.  I’m sorry, I have to warn you, so you aren’t surprised.”

The woman on the porch suddenly seemed a hundred times more ominous.

“She has five lifetimes worth of karmic debt,” the blonde woman said, “To put things into perspective.”

“So, at five hundred and seventy-five years per…”

“More than that,” the woman said.  “Much, much more.  But she wouldn’t ever join us.  Too canny, to ever think it was a good deal, or to put herself in a situation where she would need to ask for the help.  With luck, however, we could reach out to her grandchildren.  Now hush.”

They’d reached the porch.

“New one,” the old woman said.

“I’m consistently surprised by how much attention you pay to us, for someone who is so set against joining,” the blonde woman said.

“No secret knowledge here,” the old woman said.  “He has that look about him.”

“He does.”

“Scared, but not scared enough.”

“I’m trying to go easy on him,” the blonde woman said.

“Oh?  That isn’t necessarily doing him a favor.”

It felt so strange to be talked about.

“Mann is going to send him into the deep end soon, I imagine.”

“I imagine,” the old woman agreed.  “Can I offer you two anything?”

“No thank you,” the blonde woman said.

“Come in.  You brought the book?”

The blonde woman produced a tome with a black leather cover, but no markings on the front or side.

“Good workmanship.  Would you place it in the library?  The door is open.”

“I’d have to bring him.”

“You would not,” the old woman sounded indignant.  “I intend to grill him for information while you’re gone.”

The newcomer opened his mouth, then closed it, a little surprised.

“I think that would be frowned upon.”

“It would,” the old woman said.  “But you’re going to let me do it all the same.  If I’m ever going to join-”

“Which you won’t.”

“Which I most likely won’t, I would do it with my eyes wide open, and all available information at my fingertips.  You’re going to do it because it means there is a chance.”

The blonde woman frowned.  “You have a few minutes.  I’ll take a moment to peruse your library, if I may?”

“Please do.”

The younger woman disappeared inside.

The old woman’s face took on a stern cast.  “You will not waste my time, understand?”

The newcomer blinked.  “Yes?”

“You’re going to tell me everything about the people you’re working for.  If you don’t, or if you don’t produce anything satisfactory, then I’m going to say you displeased me.  They’ll hear you out as to why, little will happen to me as a consequence, and you’ll be punished all the same.  These people you work for?  Their punishments are dire.  Understand?”

“I… think so.”

“In exchange, I’ll give you some advice.  It will go a long, long way toward making the next few centuries or thousands of years more tolerable.”

He nodded.

“Talk.”

“Um.  I don’t even know where to start.  That woman, she’s-”

“Soon to become one of the named members of the firm.  ‘Partner’, if you want to buy into the lawyer theme.  Describe her.”

“Describe- she’s nice?  Strict, but she’s helping me out.  It’s hard to see why she’s a diabolist.”

The old woman frowned.  “Ah.  I see.”

“She was saying I picked the wrong path.  I probably did, but I don’t see why.”

“You’ve condemned yourself to… how long?”

“Five hundred and seventy-ish years.”

“You should try to forget the number.  You won’t be able to, it’s one of the few things you have, now, but you should try.  Listen to me, I want you to pay attention, you stupid little man.  Whatever you were escaping?  You’ve condemned yourself to five hundred and seventy-ish more years of it.”

“I was escaping a demon noble,” he said.

“And you’ll see a number more before your time is up,” she said.  She sighed.  “You’re useless to me.  Everyone around me is useless.”

“Useless, ma’am?”

“You don’t know nearly enough.  That you even think that woman is anything resembling nice or good?  She’s about to become your absolute superior, second only to the powers they serve.  She didn’t get there by being kind or nice.  She didn’t do good things when she was a diabolist, before.”

“Neither did I.”

“It’s an entirely different scale,” the old woman said.  “I’ve never heard of you.  Contrast that to her… for history to reconcile the kinds of things she did, it might well have had to invent something akin to the Black Death, to sweep it all beneath the rug.”

“I don’t understand.  The Black Death?”

“Something like the Black Death.  I suspect she’s older.  She’s not insane, which means one thing.  She very likely enjoyed it.  Her politeness, the veneer on the surface, it’s a mask she’s trained herself to wear, for this role.  Don’t give her cause to remove it.”

He nodded, mute.

“I’ll tell them to send you my way again.  They’ll know why I’m doing it, in large part, that I want to dig for information, but they won’t care.  They’re too big, and I’m only one cog in the machine.  When we see one another again, you’re going to give me better information.”

He nodded.

“Now,” she said, “One of your next few tasks will be grim.  I know that they sent the last two to the apartments in Hamburg.  The place was taken by demons, a transfer of property, demesne, to demons.  The diabolist is still inside, and will be for a long time.  When you go, it will be bad.  It will continue to be bad, each time.  They want to use this place as a whip, the threat of it will make you work harder…”

Levin straightened his tie.  Several other junior partners and employees of the firm joined them.

Lewis was there, past the fence, at the border of the hole to the Abyss.

Looking past her, the practitioner could see the Thorburn girl from the mirror.  Looking inside her, at the mess of connections, he could see something rattling around inside.  Years with the firm had given him cause to learn to quickly identify possession with his Sight.

Barely even connected them to the old woman, he thought.  But here, standing where I did six years ago, so close to where I talked to the old lady, hard to shake it.

“Motes,” Levin said, just to his left.  The old man’s voice was gravelly.

“Looks like, sir,” the practitioner responded.

“Her sadism will be the end of her,” Levin said.  “She’s even holding them back.”

The words were reminiscent of the description of Mahoun.  Ramping up.

The collected group backed up a touch as they approached the scene.

“What a grotesque lot,” the sphinx spoke.

“Petty insults?” Levin asked.

“You seem poised for a war,” a woman spoke.  Her ring burned when viewed with the Sight.

“You seem to be under the impression that this will be anything but one sided,” Levin said.  “Lewis?  Please.  There are things to look after.”

Lewis nodded.

“Murr,” she said.  “Please.”

The skull-headed imp acted.

Figures stepped out of the shadows, one after another.

Each one provoked a reaction.

A man in white, carrying pistols.

“Malcolm,” the little girl of the group said.

A tall man, thirty-something.  It got a reaction from the Thorburns.

A man with a policeman’s jacket, square-jawed.

Others joined the ranks, one-by-one.  Four figures were utterly black, head to toe, without features.

“Tricks,” Rose Thorburn the younger said.

“No,” the one the child had called Malcolm said.  “I’m sorry.”

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Possession 15.7

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“When you say pests, or ‘help’, you wouldn’t mean, say, those imp things being pests and you helping us?” Peter asked.

“No,” Faysal said.

“Then you’re a complete and utter bastard,” Peter said.  “What the hell right do you have, calling yourself an angel?”

“That would be a label others applied to me,” Faysal said.  “Human invention.”

“I was under the impression that all Others of any given classification were of human invention, to some degree, conscious or unconscious,” Rose said.  “Influenced, at the very least.”

The lead imp, Murr, growled at her.

“What?” Rose asked the imp.  It was all she could do to keep her voice steady, without the benefit of Conquest.  “Don’t like that idea, imp?”

“Did you want something, Rose?” Faysal asked. “At this point, I’m quite prepared to help Lewis wrap this up so these creatures can be put away properly.  It’s less damage in the end.  You went to considerable trouble summoning me; if you had a reason to do it, this would be the time to share.”

“Right this moment, I’m curious as to why you’re changing the subject from the topic of others being human-made.  Or why you’re even asking when you could just help her and be done with it,” Rose said.

Faysal cocked his head to the side.  “This isn’t making me more inclined to help you.”

Not thinking straight, Rose admitted to herself.  To me.

I maneuvered through memories.  It wasn’t hard to find the memories in question, as Rose was calling up the very same ones.

Two minds in one body, two minds free to pore over Rose’s memories and experiences.

I’d given her a portion of myself, an attachment to Tiff, Ty, Alexis, and to Toronto, with the idea that maybe, just maybe, she might be able to engage in actual teamwork.  Not simply giving orders, but working with others.

If I had to, if I could figure out what she was striving to do, here, I could give her something else.

I saw grandmother.  I saw Rose at the house, reading.  Rose talking to the lawyers.

I entered one scene, and I could make out Rose, sitting in the armchair of the living room.  It was empty, quiet, tracts of darkness surrounded her, but the scene that unfolded from the window was that of a complete city.

Rose in the mirror.  Before I’d been eaten by Ur.

I looked over her shoulder, in a manner of speaking.  I peered through her eyes, to read what she was reading.

Grandmother’s diary.  One of many.  A stack of no less than twenty stood beside her.  Where anyone else might be concerned about a stray breeze or bystander knocking over the books, Rose paid it no mind.  In her mirror world, reading while I was active in the real world, there were no external influences.

Here, in this memory, she was utterly and completely alone.

It made me wonder.  Her new sense of friendship, how did it combine with her ability to hold it together here, without anything resembling human contact?

Or was that why there was so much damage, when two pieces tried to fit together?

She read with a dogged sort of determination.  Now and again, she reached over and made a note with her pen.  I looked over her notes as she did.

A textual silence, Rose had noted.  The text spells it all out, regular updates.  Undeniable, safe.

But, she wrote, and she stabbed the paper with the tip of the pen a few times, letting the ink blot out in vaguely circular shapes, it’s too convenient.  R.D.T. the good little diabolist.  She brings up thoughts of rebellion in abstract, then abandons them.  Except they aren’t truly abandoned.

Textual silence.  What isn’t written?  What subjects, ideas and plans came up, but went unwritten, in case her enemies read her work?

She wages a subversive war against the lawyers.  I may have to, if they keep up their pressure.

Who are my enemies?  What rules do they operate by?

I turned away.  I abandoned the scene.  I suspected I could skim the memories, rush through them, pick across several in a fraction of the time that seconds and minutes passed in the real world.  All the same, there was little to be gained by reviewing memories where Rose was only just beginning to pull ideas and strategies together.

I latched on to the idea of the list, Rose’s notes.

I followed it through several successive scenes.  Some were fleeting, Rose picking up the sheet, reading it, putting it away.  Others were longer.  Rose doing more reading while I slept, or while I was busy with other things.

Only a few seconds had passed in reality.

“I did call you for a reason,” Rose said.

“Of course,” Faysal replied.

Rose’s mind flashed over a scene.  Distinct and separate from what I was looking through.

The list.  Rose writing a note.

There must be a reason the lawyers haven’t seized control of everything.  They aren’t all powerful.  What is their vulnerability?

Same vulnerability as any diabolist.  Everyone loathes them.

Rose reached for Conquest.  There was something sure about the action, a kind of confidence to it that wasn’t artificial.  The same sort of confidence needed to leap off a one hundred foot cliff.

The confidence required for an action of scale.

I got the hell out of the way, as Rose fed her power and self into Conquest, allowing the incarnation to have a greater hold on her.

Focused on self preservation as I was, I saw Rose seize some of the ties I’d given her.  To friends.  It was unlike her usual Conquest-afflicted self.  A strange side of Rose.  Reaching to that for reassurance?  For a different kind of power?

When she spoke, it was with power, without hesitation.  “In joint partnership with Alister Behaim, I would hereby like to declare, to your ears, and all who would hear it, that we hereby claim ourselves as sovereign Lord and Lady in Jacob’s Bell, with all associated rights and powers.”

The words vibrated, carrying.

Rose could see the connections forming, the connections breaking.  Some were major in scale, while others were to very distant places and things.

Faysal’s head turned as he watched the aftermath of the statement, disappearing into the distance.

Rose noted Tiff glancing at Ty, wide eyed.  The two were huddled together.  Tiff mouthed words.  They might have been ‘what the fuck?’

“Let it be known,” Alister said, giving his support to Rose’s statement.

Rose could see that where some connections had been flailing, grasping, like so many tendrils or reaching arms, they held tight after that.

“Though,” Alister said, just under his breath, “I wouldn’t have minded knowing about this beforehand.”

“I’m sorry,” Rose said.

“You’re aware this is suicide?  The basic, fundamental idea behind this whole scene was that one side wins, consolidates its power, gets everyone else under their thumb, and then makes the declaration.  Not, you know, declaring lordship when we’re down, out, and just a few steps from dying in five different, horrible ways.”

“I’m aware,” Rose said, barely moving her lips.  Her eye fell on the nearest imp.

Even with Faysal suggesting an alliance, the imps were afraid to approach.

“You should be aware,” Lewis said, “That the only power you have as Lord is the power others give you.”

“Yes,” Rose said.  “But Johannes is dead, and Sandra knows she’s lost.  How many people out there are utterly unsurprised to be hearing this declaration right now, resigning themselves to the fact that the war is over?  Is Briar Girl?  Maggie?  The hag?  Are the goblins nodding themselves and remarking that they expected the side with demons and diabolism to come out on top?  There should be enough people in Jacob’s Bell who can believe Alister and I have become Lord and Lady that the belief holds some weight.”

“Enough weight to matter?” Faysal asked.  “You have no realm, your soldiers are few in number.  The spirits, as an extension of the world as a whole, can see you and evaluate you.  They know that you aren’t much of a Lord at all, and that counts for a great deal more.”

Rose didn’t flinch.

Theatrics, I observed.

Faysal sat a little straighter.  “As bids go, this counts for very little.  You strike me as one who will have a reign spanning minutes.”

“There’s more to it,” Lewis concluded, as an extension to Faysal’s thought.

“Yes,” Rose said.

“Not merely buying time,” Lewis said.  “I can look at you and I can tell, your demeanor would be different if you were still racing to piece together a plan.”

Rose smiled.

“So tell me,” Lewis said.  “Why shouldn’t I order the imps to attack you now?”

“Ask Faysal,” Rose said.  “If he thinks about it, he should realize why it isn’t in his interests to let it happen.”

Lewis glanced at the angel, leaning slightly to one side to look through gaps in our amassed group.

“I’m so goddamn confused,” Peter said, under his breath.

Rose reached out and put a hand on his shoulder, giving it a slight rub.  Reassuring.

“And creeped out now, too,” he said.

“You put power into your declaration,” Faysal said.  “You made it known.”

Rose nodded.

“You manipulated connections.  Ones tying you to Toronto.”

“Yes,” Rose said.

“You let them know,” Faysal concluded.  “The residents of Toronto.”

Rose smiled.

Faysal met Ms. Lewis’ eyes.

“Oh,” Alister said, under his breath.  He turned and let his forehead rest on Rose’s shoulder, the only available surface he was comfortable using, without a wall available.  “Peter?  Given that we don’t have a proper blackguard with us, could you do me a favor and-”

“I don’t know what that is,” Peter said, interrupting.

Rose reached up to put a hand on the back of Alister’s head, patting it.

“Just- just do me a favor,” Alister said.  “I can’t be sarcastic.  In my place, give me a good one?  Let me live vicariously through you?”

“I still don’t get what it is she just did,” Peter said.

“Faysal wants things neat and tidy,” Rose said, staring down the angel.  “He wants us swept under the rug, so the demons can go back in their box and he can go back to angel business as per usual.  In the interest of making that very hard to do, I’ve-”

“Declared yourself to be someone very important, to Toronto, for some reason,” Peter concluded.  “Making things very messy, for Faysal.”

“And us,” Ainsley added.

Rose didn’t flinch, and didn’t take her eyes off Faysal.

Brilliant,” Peter said, with every drip of sarcasm he could muster.

“Thank you,” Alister said, without raising his head.  “I really appreciate it.”

“What are in-laws for?” Peter asked.

Alister raised his head to shoot Peter a look, just in time for Peter to clarify, “Cousin-in-law, anyway.”

Alister sighed.

Digging through memories, I’d found Rose musing on the last chapters of grandmother’s work.

Tonight I summon the demon Barbatorem.  I have been the diabolist I was expected to be.  In a week’s time, I summon my grandchildren.  My children are useless, and it is largely my own fault.  The grandchildren, left alone, will meet miserable ends, many claimed by dark powers.  I have never liked using the demons, but I suspect few do.  All the same, I hope that one set of Wrongs on my part will better this bloodline.  I summon the first demon I bound myself, the first true step I took on this journey, and I use it to close this chapter.

Should it be used as a weapon, it may well be in pursuit of the likes of Laird Behaim, who I have never liked, even if I respect the man.  We have talked so little, outside of council business.

If it should act as a deterrent, all the better.

But chances are slim to none that I have a grandchild that serves my exact purposes.  Should it come down to it, I’ll be forced to create one.

Except the shears of the Barber, as is the case with any demon, cannot truly create.  They only strategically destroy.

“Rose,” my own voice spoke up, but not from my lips.  From memory.

Rose looked up suddenly, a little startled.

Looking through the gateway of the mirror, she saw Blake.  Me.

Except it was Conquest, wearing my face.  A face that hadn’t been mine since I’d become a bogeyman.  Blake-as-human.  A force that, from Rose’s perspective, was akin to Conquest, seizing her life, taking it over, perverting it.

Conquest hadn’t ever left.  He was still here.  Powerful, with Rose leaning so heavily on it.  Now it was watching me.

“Conquest,” I said.

The scene around me had gone still.

“Not going to come after me?” I asked.  I dared to turn away, poring over memories.  Conquest followed.

“She’s the Lord of Jacob’s Bell, and I have my presence here,” Conquest said, in a voice that wasn’t mine.  “I have what I want.”

I nodded.  “You’re easy to please.”

“I’ll be more pleased by what follows,” Conquest said.  “Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself and falls on the other.

“Rose is more a reader than I am,” I said.  “But that strikes me as laughably hypocritical, if it means what I think it means.”

“I don’t deny that I am pride and suffering,” Conquest said.  “I’m well positioned to know that a crown hastily donned makes for a reign of misery.”

“She’s not planning to reign for long,” I said.  Minutes?

What can she do with minutes?

“More suffering, then, in a shorter span of time,” Conquest said.

“For her or for everyone else?”

“What do you think?” Conquest asked.

I looked up from the collection of memories to assess Conquest, but he was gone.  Retreated elsewhere, to help Rose in his own way.

I turned my attention back to the task at hand.

Changing tacks.  Rose apparently had the current situation in hand.  We had to tackle the others.

Rose had read everything she could, helped by the fact that she hadn’t needed to sleep.  If I looked at it that way, I had access to the Thorburn library, as it had once existed.

I, in turn, was free to search out what she needed, while her mind focused on other things.

Trouble was, how did I identify just what she needed?

“Do you suppose we can wrap this up before the ones she called arrive?” Faysal asked.

“We can try,” Ms. Lewis said.

“Wait-” Rose started.

Attack,” Ms. Lewis ordered, ignoring her.

As one, the imps screeched and howled.  Voices of hell, madness, ruin, and worse things, guttural and high, they put everyone within the diagram off their guard.  They launched themselves toward the opening in the diagram, where Surbas had fallen and scuffed the lines of salt and the scratches in the frozen dirt.

Alister reached out and caught Christoff by the neck, hauling him back toward the center of the diagram, before Christoff could walk on more lines.

Two-headed Hauri, speaking with two voices that overlapped to the point of making no sense, distorted.  The imp broke into two parts, and the distortion touched all things near it.  The trees, the shrubs, everything shattered, splitting right down the middle.  All present could see that when these things were broken in the right way, the insides could be seen.

Inside of every thing, there was darkness, yawning, so black and complete that it threatened to consume everything.

People in the group were screaming.

Rose realized she was among them.  Her arms hugged her body, as she felt the distortion touch her, threatening to break her in two.

Even with Conquest shoring her up, it was a terrifying prospect.

I’m broken already, she thought.  It’s easier for me to break apart than it is for the others.

“Hauri, I order you to cease!” she screamed out the word, and with Conquest touching her voice, she managed to make it sound authoritarian.

But the imp didn’t listen.

Ms. Lewis held more sway.

The Knights were working together to fend of fanged Surbas and the two halves of Hauri, the former of which was taking an aggressive stance, lunging, snapping, while they struggled with Hauri’s distortion.  Murr lurked, waiting, while stretched-skin Naph and Obach, cancer of the land, paced behind, ready to fill the gap as soon as Hauri or Surbas moved.

Hauri was the concern here.

If the lawyers had access to these imps, they were bound in some fashion.

Were they in books?

I darted through Rose’s memories, searching, hunting.

I found the memories of Rose perusing the tomes.  Her expression was grim.

Paging through, trying to memorize, to study the enemy.

A part of me was gratified that she saw them that way.

Another part of me less gratified that one thought that had kept returning to her mind, then, was what to do about me, if there was anything she could use here.

Her eye passed over Hauri’s entry.  The memory was there, ready to be summoned with the right prompt.

She gave him a moment’s more attention than she had given the others, because Hauri, get of Flavros, was a mote of duality, associated with Flavros’ triality.  Where its master confused the establishments of one individual’s past, present, and future, crafting prophecies that tangled up lives, Hauri was not yet fully developed.  It could only create dissonance.  A conflict between what was perceived and what was, the notes speculated, or between what was and what wasn’t.

I needed to give this to Rose, except it was already hers.  Buried, lost beneath panic and pain and dissonance.

Power has a price.  Through payment, power.

I only needed a little, enough to let this one set of memories rise to the surface.  But I also needed Rose to know to grasp it, to use it.

Instinct.  Gut.  That which had allowed me to survive while homeless.  To get away from Carl.  To fight.

Just a little.

“Hauri!” Rose called out, through the pain.  “Get of Flavros!  Imp of the second choir!  Bound by Marissa De Roust!  I name you and I order you be bound again!  Stand down!”

Hauri hesitated, frozen.

The Knight’s machete cut one of his heads from his shoulders.  The body fell, and Peter hurried to kick it well past the circle.  The head landed out of Peter’s reach – he couldn’t kick it without pushing past other people, and he wasn’t about to put himself out there with the other imps still there.

Fanged Surbas lunged.

Tiff struck it out of the air with her bag, bludgeoning it and sending it flying well past the diagram.

The two imps in the background ran forward, ready to take over.  Tumorous Obach and stretched-skin Naph.  One with too much flesh, the other with too little, stretched tight over a tiny body.

The Behaims, Ainsley leading the pack, worked to bog them down, slowing their approach.

“The head!” Ty shouted.  “Give!”

Nick stepped forward, piercing the head with the machete’s tip, then stepped back, head skewered at the point.

“Tiff,” Ty said, grabbing the head atop the sword.  “Hand!”

Tiff shoved her hand at Ty with enough force she might have knocked the wind out of him.

Huddled together, while the distractions had been ongoing, Ty and Tiff hadn’t been idle.

Scratched out in pen on the back of Tiff’s hand was a diagram.

Holding the head in one hand, Tiff’s hand in the other, Ty murmured something.

Where Hauri’s blood had spilled, the blood flowed out into lines.  A sympathetic effect.

The two imps that had been lurking at the back reached the diagram, and they slammed into it.  Slow motion, but not hurting themselves any less as a consequence.

Surbas snarled, and seized Naph, swallowing the imp.

We collectively watched in quiet horror as Surbas swelled.  Though Naph had only weighed eight or ten pounds, Surbas grew by forty or fifty.  His oily black skin failed to grow at the same rate, and started to split at the scenes.  Blood leaked out from these fresh wounds.

Tatters came to hang from his mouth, as his fangs tore the skin that was trying to stretch over his mouth.

He cackled, a sound with sharp edges that threatened to slit eardrums.

Rose looked down.

Holding Alister’s hand, she led him over to the center of the diagram, and she used her feet to scuff the lines of the diagram there, where the seal of Solomon was marked down.

Surbas attacked once more.

It took three people, this time, just to stop his charge, each person stepping forward carefully, so as not to interfere with the lines that had been redrawn.

Claws flashed, swinging, and the High Priest blocked him with a gesture.  Nick stabbed Surbas’ other claw, while the other Knight went for the throat, only for Surbas to bite the blade and hold it in place instead.

Rose drew a small knife from her pocket, and pricked her hand.  She handed it to Alister as she let the blood drip.

Alister added his blood to the mix.

Replacing the sigil of solomon with the power of a Lord.  Even a small, temporary Lord.

The choir of the feral reverse the natural order.  Here, we reclaim it.

The diagram flared, and the imp was cast out.

“You did offer your help,” Lewis stated.

Rose turned her head.

“I did,” Faysal Anwar replied.  “We didn’t finalize it.”

“In all our past encounters,” Lewis stated, “We never finalized it.  I’ve almost forgotten why.”

“Call it bad luck,” Faysal said.

He rose to a standing position.

There was a flicker, like an image between two frames of a film, too fast for the eye to grasp.

Rose saw only the afterimage, a great wheel, with lesser wheels within it, a figure with seven arms, a motif of wings.  Far larger than this dog that stood before her.

“Faysal,” she said.  “Others are coming.  If you let this follow it’s natural course, they’ll arrive one by one.  You’ve seen what happens, when things are staggered like that.  Just before you brought down Hillsglade House, Johannes did it to me.  People arrive one by one, precedent is established, someone tries to take power, or there’s conflict.  If you want stability, all of the individuals who are coming here need to arrive at once.”

“My kind,” Faysal said, “Is rather misunderstood.  I am not good.  I’m not even right.  Order is-”

Rose’s thoughts flickered through notes.

Grandmother’s theories.  Notes on other powers, on the structure of things.

“Order is the antithesis of mankind,” Rose said, interrupting.  “Johannes and you tried to establish it, to weaken man’s dominion.  A different rule of law.”

“Not because I am of Order,” Faysal said.  “But because the alternative is to let man careen down his course, right into the growing dominion of demons.”

Ms. Lewis cleared her throat.  Rose looked the woman’s way, but Ms. Lewis wasn’t trying to voice her own piece.

“If you attack, right now, if you wipe us out, they’re going to arrive.  They’re going to see this carnage.  They’re going to try and address this carnage.  They’re going to investigate it.  Maybe even go down there.  What’s to say they won’t find the library, choice tomes, or the Barber?”

“What’s to say they will?” Faysal asked.  “The world is full of possibilities.”

“It is,” Rose said.  “But I have only one question for you.”

Faysal quirked his ears up.

“Why the hell are you still a dog?” she asked.

“I could be a gatekeeper, if it pleased you.”

“You could,” Rose said, “But that doesn’t answer my question.  Give me a straight response.”

“They’re buying time,” Ms. Lewis said.  “Shall I step in?”

“No,” Faysal said.  “Please don’t.”

“As you wish.”

“Tell me, Faysal,” Rose said.

“You ask, but you already know the answer.”

“Yes.”

“Because I am still a familiar.”

“You had to know this was possible.”

“That Johannes wouldn’t die?  Or that he would die, but the connection would be maintained?” Faysal asked.

“Yeah,” Rose said.  “I’m pretty sure he died, but he had an immortal thing inhabiting his body.”

“Yes,” Faysal said.  “The demon has his flesh and being, and the Abyss has the demon, in turn.”

“Both abyss and demon have the pipes, which allow the piper to command children, rats, and dogs, among other things,” Rose said.  “I imagine you want this situation resolved.”

“And you believe you can give me this resolution?”

“Fuck no,” Rose said.  “But I think they can.  Bring them here.  Let me bargain with them.  I swear, I truly believe this will create a better opportunity than letting this become a site of conflict.”

Faysal nodded.

One by one, they appeared in flashes.

The Shepherd.  The Astrologer.  The Eye.  A man I didn’t recognize.  A little girl in white.  Isadora the Sphinx, with Paige in tow.  Paige was dressed nice, though her dress looked a little bit too much like a toga, what with the flowing white drapery, beneath her heavy coat.  Her shoes didn’t look like outdoor wear.

PaigeBullshit!” Peter said.

Paige raised a hand in a short wave.

“Bullshit,” Peter said, quieter.

“If she’s alive, she’s okay,” Rose said.

“What the fuck do I care, about her being okay?” Peter asked.

A mite too defensively.

The Sisters were last to arrive.

Something about the tone of their arrival…

The Elder Sister smiled in acknowledgement at Rose, as if reading Rose’s mind. The new Lord of Toronto.

It wasn’t a pleasant smile.

The smile faltered as she eyed the imps, counting their number.

The four remaining imps were tense, and lurked, eyes on the new arrivals, moving through shadow, drawing closer as they searched for opportunity to attack.

Rose noted that Murr had yet to do anything.  It made her uneasy.

It made me go search for Murr in Rose’s memories.

“It’s not a trap,” Rose said.  “Only a bad situation.”

“I see.  One you were in a great hurry to summon us to.”

“Yes,” Rose said.

“After the state you left Toronto in over the course of several days, I’m somehow not surprised this is what Jacob’s Bell looks like after a week,” the Elder Sister said.

“Thank you for saying so,” Rose said.

“You’re thanking me.”

“It leads straight into my next big statement,” Rose said.  “We would like to abdicate my Lordship.  Given the state of things, I no longer feel that Jacob’s Bell should stand as is.  It’s not salvageable, and I would like to turn it over for Toronto to condemn.  Remove the roads leading into here.  Ward it from the eyes of the unawakened.  Let it be lost and forgotten.”

“Yet, by turning it over to us, you make your problems our problems,” Isadora commented.  “I can’t help but notice that you have… immediate, infernal problems at hand.”

“It talks?” Peter asked, under his breath.

Our problems would include me, ideally,” Rose said. “I’ve agreed to be a scourge for the Abyss.  Help me deal with things here, including securing the fate of this angel, Faysal Anwar, and you’ll have all the assistance I can render.”

“And if we refuse?” the Elder Sister asked.

“These problems might become big enough problems to be Toronto’s problems,” Rose said, gesturing at Ms. Lewis.

“You’re aware of what this means,” Ms. Lewis said.  “My partners won’t simply accept a diabolist slipping our grasp.”

“I know,” Rose said.

“You’re bringing all of these others into it.”

Rose shrugged, unflinching.  “They were always a part of it.  They just turned a blind eye.”

“It’s not as simple as that,” the Astrologer said.

“It wasn’t.  Now I’ve made it that simple,” Rose said.

I’m such a bitch, she thought.

I privately agreed, but I wasn’t sure I’d ever liked her more.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Possession 15.6

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“Murr-” Ms. Lewis started.

Rose’s rifle swung around.  She slapped it against her left hand.  At the butt end, her right thumb ran along the inscribed rune.  The tip of the gun jerked, the aim correcting.  Centered on Ms. Lewis’s heart.  Rose’s eye looked down the sights.

With Conquest’s confidence surging through her, her hand didn’t waver.  Her breathing came easily, as she exhaled slowly, simultaneously pulling the trigger.

“Answer-” Ms. Lewis continued.

Rose fired.

Ms. Lewis dropped.

“You still had bullets?” Alister exclaimed.

“Always save one bullet,” Rose said, and her voice sounded disconnected, even to her.  “Rule of thumbs for diabolists.  Goblin queens and scourges too.”

“Chronomancers would do well to hold to that rule as well,” Ainsley murmured, not taking her eye off Ms. Lewis.  “There are horror stories, people caught in endless loops, or cornering themselves.  Immortality is scary when you might outlive the sun.”

“Let’s say it’s a good rule for most,” Alister said.  “Speaking of, was it- is she dead?”

Rose slowly shook her head.

Ms. Lewis arched her back a little, made a pained sound.

“What do we do?” Tiff asked.

Rose’s heartbeat was steady, not even agitated.  A part of her might have stirred at seeing someone in abject pain, but that part of her was pushed down, far and away.

Her thoughts moved easily, without panic or fear.  She pulled off the rifle and tossed it to Nick.  “Nothing.  There isn’t a lot we can do.  When and if she gets up, shoot her again.  In the meantime, just let me think.”

Ty spoke, “We can-”

“We can’t,” Rose cut him off.  “I can guess what you’re going to say.  Don’t say it.  Trust me here.”

Her mind was turning over the situation, coldly, calmly, methodically.

They could gag Ms. Lewis, but another one of the lawyers would appear to resolve the situation, the moment it looked like Ms. Lewis no longer had it in hand.  There was no guarantee they’d regain control of the situation if and when that happened.

If someone suggested the gag, and the lawyers realized she was stalling, putting off that option, they might simply cut to the chase.

The ‘chase’ being a measure of overwhelming force, brought to bear.  Making an example of the diabolist bloodline that reneged on the deal, so all the others might know not to make the same mistake.

This wasn’t a new problem.  She’d known for a long time that it might come to this.  Blake had been focused on the problems now, the fighting, the wars.  Rose had been looking to the future.  Researching, hoping to find the answers needed, the key to making it through this.

What if she sacrificed Ty?  Or Alexis?  What if she gave up the house?  What if she accepted the deal?  Her thoughts moving all of the various permutations, like so many different sequences of chess moves.

Every new piece of information, every new person or person removed was a new factor to be considered.

Even just in the past hour, within the Library, her thoughts had been turning over the possibilities.  What if a given opponent could be made an ally?  Could she use their strengths?

So much of what she had done had been to buy time.  Keep Blake at bay, because he was so very dangerous, and the time he cost her was just one of the dangers.  She’d used the Barber to stall future attacks.

All to put off this moment, or one like it.

They had only a few moments.  Minutes if they were lucky, seconds if they weren’t.  Until the end of Ms. Lewis’ next sentence.

Rose had to find an answer before it was all over.

Conquest gave her a measure of control over the others.  It kept things in their places.

Conquest gave her the ability to face this moment head on, to remain steady and unflinching, akin to how a mild tranquilizer might allow a sniper to keep themselves still.

“Where’s the witch hunter we left with you?” Rose asked.

“Didn’t want to get closer,” Peter said.

“Ellie, go get her,” Rose gave the order.  “Leave Christoff.  If you run into anyone, anything… if it’s hostile, whatever it is, tell them the diabolists are here.  It’s open season.”

Best way to get them here.  If things get that far, and if things get ugly, I can maybe point them at Lewis.

Ellie was staring.  She finally managed to get the words out, a protest.  “Why me?”

“You’re still here?  Go!” Rose shouted, and she pushed some Conquest into her voice.

Ellie ran, heading over toward the city.

Ellie was a scrapper, she was fast, and above anyone else here, she could probably squirm her way out of a bad situation.  Peter might have been better if that situation involved words, but Rose put better odds on Ellie surviving something like the manticore Rose’s contingent had run into earlier, or a gang of goblins.  Ellie could beg.  Ellie was most likely to listen.

Ellie was expendable.

Rose’s eye fell on the lawyer.  Rose was certain she’d landed a bullet where the heart should have been, but the lawyer wasn’t dying.  Hurt, but not dying.

The trick here was to balance things.  If she tried for a solution, it had to be a good one, because it was very possible that the lawyers or a collection of underlings might simply appear.  Better to set out the contingencies.  To open the door for a little bit of hope.

If anyone or anything was waiting in the wings, watching, that someone or something would be happy to allow her that hope, then extinguish it.

This was only about buying time.

“Alister,” Rose said.  “You got actual training in dealing with demons.”

“Which choirs do you want me to ward against?”

All of them,” Rose said.  “Tiff, Ty, Behaims, Jeremy, help him.  Knights, watch Lewis.”

“What do I do?” Evan asked.

“You and Green Eyes be ready.  When or if things get ugly, they’re going to get very ugly,” Rose said.

Alister started speaking, outlining what they needed to do, in terms of drawing diagrams.

“Given how fragile this area is, we protect against Ruin first,” Alister said.  “Chaos second, madness third… Fractal grid, outward pointing.  That covers the first and last.  We need a crest for the center, for fending off chaos.”

“What sort of crest?” the High Priest asked.

“Against madness?  I’d say the seal of solomon would work, but… that rules out too many other things,” Alister said.  “We need to cover more bases, if there’s a possibility of other Choirs.”

He drew his deck out of his pocket, one-handed.  He divided it into two halves, then merged the two halves, still with one hand, tapping it against his chest to get everything flush once again.

“Well?” Rose asked.

“We need a Lord,” Alister said.  “Natural order.  Animals serve man, man serves his king, and the king serve the gods.  A good king, or a good lord, well, they serve order, they provide structure, and they serve man.

“And a bad king?”  Rose asked.

“Is worse than no king at all,” Alister said.  “Thing is, it’s not even worth discussing.  There is no Lord, and there’s no way we can officially declare one before the shit hits the fan.”

Ms. Lewis spoke, and every single pair of eyes and ears present turned her way.  “Someone taught you.”

“Yeah,” Alister said.

“Mm.  Rose senior,” Ms. Lewis said.  She touched her chest.  “It’s been a few long months since I felt proper agony.

“It would be very convenient if you died,” Jeremy commented.

“My continued employment supercedes death.  It’s a… consequence of dealing with beings that operate in the very deepest workings of reality.” Ms. Lewis said.  “Now, if I may call in a favor, Mur-”

Nick raised his arm.

The Knight to his right aimed and fired, cutting off Ms. Lewis before she could finish.

“Guns are underrated,” Evan said, brightly.  “Bang!”

“Learning to rate the bullets we have left pretty damn highly,” Nick said.  “Unless Sarah or some other help arrives, we’re down to only a few bullets.”

He raised his hand behind his back, out of Ms. Lewis’ sight.  He held up two fingers.

“Good to know,” Rose said.  Her mind was ticking over the options.

All the ways this could play out.

She sighed.

“Faysal,” she said.  “I humbly request your presence.”

The wind stirred.  Over in Jacob’s Bell proper, snow formed spirals and clouds as it was blown free of rooftops.

No answer.

“You complete and utter asshole,” Rose said.  “Faysal, I request your presence once more.”

She wasn’t surprised in the least when her request wasn’t answered.

“Faysal,” she said, and she allowed Conquest to take a greater hold, putting all of her authority as a practitioner of some heritage and the power derived from Conquest into her voice.  “For the third time, I ask for an audience!”

Her voice rang out over the city.

Before the echo even faded, she was thinking about the other options that were available to her.

“Murr, I ask your-” Ms. Lewis tried once more, still lying on the ground.

A gunshot rang out.

One shot left.

One side free to ask, with nobody of import willing to listen.  Another side trying to ask, held at bay with agony.

“We could run,” Evan said.  “Escape?  Or we could-”

“Evan,” Rose said.  “Please.  You have to let me think this through, without interruption.”

They have only so many resources, but one lawyer we can’t kill is enough for this problem, Rose thought.  We push it too far, or start proposing the wrong suggestions, and they might head us off the pass, and devote another lawyer or two.

Even the discussion of retreat was dangerous.

“How’s Blake doing in there?” Evan asked.

Green Eyes turned to look, glaring.

“Not good,” Rose admitted.

Not good.

Understatement, that.

The pessimism was a counterpoint to the fact that Evan cared.

The church was gone.  Conquest liked to frame things, to draw out the battlefields, so every scene we entered took its own unique form, tangential to what Rose was thinking about, and to what she was doing.

Not long ago, Conquest had been weaker, but better versed in this battlefield, and with far more experience in how these fights were fought.

Now that Rose was drawing on Conquest for power, that ‘weaker’ part was no longer a consideration.

More skilled, more experienced, more knowledgeable, and stronger.

Two dimensional, more inclined to wound and lord over the suffering than to go for the jugular, Conquest had weaknesses, but they weren’t weaknesses I could leverage right now.

If this landscape was a mosaic, each individual element meshing roughly with the others, cracks running through it, Rose’s side of the mosaic somehow felt brighter than mine did.

She’d never been homeless.  I’d spent long nights under the stars, or in shelters that turned the lights off at eight.  I’d spent time with Carl, in cabins I and others at the commune had built with our own hands.  Cabins that hadn’t had power.  Even then, toward the end, it had only been a few.

Conquest held me, forcing me to be the bludgeon that she used to knock down barriers, and they were darker barriers than Rose’s.  She tore down my superstructures, and my confidence with them.  She hurled me, and did it with enough force that she could collect me again before I’d recovered.  Forced me to fail at getting to my metaphorical feet, as scenes unfolded around me.

No speech, no taunting.

I had no throat that could be ripped out, no heart that could be punctured.  I was my heart.  There was no way to finish me off, except to grind me down.

Conquest, as it happened, was very, very good at grinding people down.

I struggled and was battered through scenes of pain, of seeing the others suffering at my behalf.  Evan’s rage at the idea of losing me, the pained looks of my friends, at realizing that they couldn’t share themselves with me.  That they had to keep me at arm’s length, and hide the most important things from me.

Rose’s suspicion, her anger, her hatred.  Her fear, above all else.

Me attacking people, me being bloody, me cutting down those I called monsters.

A me I hardly recognized, now that the Abyss had so little in the way of a grip on me.

I was stripped down, pure, defenseless, weak.

All of me was out here, exposed and raw.  An open book.

Conquest insisted on wearing my grandmother’s face.  A face I had seen in the course of two short meetings and a handful of encounters when I was a very small child.

The root of all evil I had dealt with.

The woman who had made me, set me up as a distraction, a pin to be bowled over.  Now Conquest drove that point home, setting me up, dragging me to my feet, though I didn’t quite have any, and then knocked me down again.

Conquest paused.  Letting me lie there.

I realized which memories and elements of my personality surrounded me here.

My friends, my old life.

Joel.  Joseph.  Goosh.  Tiff.  Ty.  Alexis.

It wasn’t the sights that surrounded me that made the scene bad, though they didn’t help.  People I cared about giving me looks.  Looking afraid.  Looking concerned.  Helpless.

No.  What spooked me was the fracture.

A thick black line, running through a whole tract of my life.  Scenes removed, or broken into pieces too small to make out.

Half of my memories and experiences with my friends had been cut away.

Not given to Rose.  Just… removed.

Lost to some dark place that only demons knew.

Useless to the creation of Rose, grandmother’s perfect heir, made for the destruction of the Thorburn line.  Too dangerous to give to me, because it might tie me too tightly to Toronto, or alter my priorities.

A simple savage cut, and yet so much finesse, so much care and precision into the systematic ruin of one human being’s life.

“I’m a spirit too,” Evan was saying.  “Why don’t you eat me, too, and then I can go help Blake?”

“There’s only so much room in me for spirits,” Rose said.  “I’ve already got Conquest and Blake bumping shoulders in there.  Too many more and I might split at the seams.”

“Hmph.”

If I split at the seams… Rose thought, but it wasn’t a thought that led to other ideas.

Rose could hear Ms. Lewis sigh.

The woman found her feet, slowly, halting, and then brushed snow and dirt off her pants leg and jacket.

Rose glanced at Nick.

Nick shook his head.

“Thanks for coming, Nick,” Rose said.  “If you wanted to run, now, I wouldn’t blame you.”

“A demon took people from me,” Nick said.  “In every sense of the word, they’re gone.  You were right, when you said an entire town might suffer the same fate.  You want us to run when there’s a chance we might be able to do something against some other demons?  Or some immortal bitch that thinks it’s a good idea to traffic with them?  I’m almost insulted.”

“I wouldn’t be insulted at all,” Peter said.  “Can I run?”

“You can,” Rose said.  “I don’t know how much good it would do.  If she gets me, she gets all the rest of you.”

Peter nodded.

He didn’t budge.

“Charge her?” Ainsley asked.

Rose shook her head.

“Murr,” Ms. Lewis said.  “As we agreed, please obey my summons.  I summon you to punish others for reneging on a longstanding deal.”

The air seemed to vibrate.  Things seemed to cross over, double images, and Murr crawled forth from the gap between images.

It was a mote.  The head was reminiscent of a skull, and the lower body looked as though entrails were spilling out, with an excess of bone splinters, and the hands were riddled with bone splinters until they’d become talons, but the general proportions were those of a baby.

Murr unfolded feathered wings and took to flying, a jerking, halting flight.

The images they wear are borne of our fears and thoughts.  They rise from the stew of mankind’s psyche, Rose thought, thinking back to the books.

A part of her had hoped the next demon they faced would be a major one.  That the lawyers might summon something that owed grandmother a favor.  An enemy turned back on the summoner was all the more dangerous.

Faint hope, that.  But she’d memorized pages.

“Surbas, as we’ve agreed, you will come to do as I bid,” Ms. Lewis spoke.

Surbas emerged.  Another mote, wingless.  Moving too fast to be seen, it disappeared into the shadows.

“Hauri,” Ms. Lewis said.  “Come.”

Hauri was larger than other motes, with a second head forming at one shoulder.  Wet, gruesome, bloody.

My friends present gathered together, stepping carefully over the lines of the diagram that had been outlined in salt, snow shoved back to clear the ground, leaving only driveway.  It formed a grid of squares, the lines marked down so some went over, some appearing to go under.  Symbols marked smaller spaces at set intervals.  The way it unfolded, a greater pattern outlined, the thing formed a kind of flower shape.  Maybe fifteen feet across.

Rose –and I– noted that the lines at one side were a little less consistent.  Too late to do anything about it.

“Naph,” Lewis said.  “Come, join the others.”

Naph was skeletal in a different way.  More a slimy skin drawn over a baby’s skeleton, there were no openings.  The eye sockets were simply skin sucked into a void, dull and empty, the mouth yawned open, skin straining tight enough to reveal individual teeth, just a hair away from splitting in a hundred ways.

Naph landed on a branch with batlike wings, then crawled along the length of the branch, slowly, each movement eliciting sounds.

The sounds were wet, sucking noises to the ear, but they elicited sympathetic feelings from Rose’s skin, as if each sound was a brush of sandpaper against her flesh, coarse, rough enough to leave her raw.

Rose had drawn on Conquest for strength, for courage, and for focus.

Each mote that appeared was testing even that resolve.

“This diagram,” Rose murmured.  “Which choirs does it protect against?”

“Ruin, Chaos, Madness,” Alister said.  “Should protect against the choir of Unrest, but-”

“That’s never guaranteed,” Rose finished.

“Obach,” the lawyer announced another name.  “Come!”

“Oh god,” Tiff said.  “Oh god no.”

The snow swelled, and it bubbled, each bubble lasting just long enough to freeze before the swelling of another bubble pushed past and broke it.  It made the snow look like it was ulcerating, some infected, cancerous thing.  The oily black sheen to some of the bubbles only helped the illusion, as if it were a cancer in the landscape.

Obach leaped out of the snow, jumping to the nearest tree.  Bug eyed, small mouthed, with flesh like that of a toad.  Fly wings flapped at its back, almost too fast to be visible, before stopping.

The wood, too, bubbled in an ugly way, only these bubbles were more like cancer.  Boils, cysts, manifesting with every second of contact, spreading.

The snow continued to boil, a spreading infection.

Surbas lunged in the shadows.  It ate and mid-leap, devoured a small animal that dashed out of cover, disturbed from slumber.  A small rabbit, perhaps, or a squirrel.

Bigger, moving faster, bounding just as the rodent had.

It squealed, and Rose was among the people in the circle who raised their hands to their ears.

Surbas disappeared into low foliage.  What might have been part of the house’s garden, before the hill inverted, dropping into the Abyss.

Something screamed, a strangely human scream, and Surbas leaped forth, snapping at air.

The imp, twice as large as it had originally been, bounded into a tree, and lunged at a place where the largest branch met the trunk.

It scarfed down a third meal.

Winged, it fluttered over to a larger branch, near Murr.  Mottled, sleek, with an infant’s face stretched into an inhuman shape with far too many teeth, a permanent smile.  With each blink, it wore a different set of eyes, the left eye not matching the right.

Shall I devour you?” it whispered, and the sound carried, the sharper sounds too sharp, like nails on blackboards.  “You can watch from the inside, while I use the best parts to devour all the rest.  Volunteer, throw yourself to me.  I’ll eat the first ones quick.  The ones later, I’ll eat from the fingers to shoulders, the toes to the crotch, I’ll eat the skin and then the juicier bits, I’ll make it slowwwwww.”

Each word was like a razor blade sliding along a sensitive place.

“The one you eat first has to watch.  Maybe it’s better to go later,” Murr spoke, and the voice was more feminine, smoother, out of sorts with the jagged bone appearance.

“Who knows how the mere mortals think?” Hauri asked, bobbing in the air, flapping periodically to stay aloft.  The smaller head sniggered.

“These mere mortals are trained in dealing with your kind,” Ms. Lewis said.  “You would do well to not give them a chance to think.  If I’m reading the diagram right from where I stand, it protects against the choirs of Unrest, Chaos, Madness and Ruin, though I think the mote of Ruin could push through the section to the left, right there.”

Hauri sniggered, both heads, not synchronized.  It made for a hard to place, uncomfortable feeling.  Hauri dropped out of the air, wings folded, and began to pace around, to just the point in question.  It hobbled a little, working to keep it so that both the normal head and the conjoined sub-head could keep the group within the diagram in sight.

“Nothing to stop the choir Feral?” Surbas asked.

“No,” Lewis said.  She turned her attention to Rose.  “I’ll replace them as they die or get bound.  I’m sorry.  You would have been better served by sticking to your one-bullet policy.”

“Probably,” Rose said.

There was relatively little cover, beyond the ridge.  Some shrubs, some stones, and pieces of the house that had fallen down the hill rather than into the Abyss, before the hill ceased being a hill at all.  Chunks of driveway stood out now and again, and there were a few scattered trees.

Now the imps were pacing, moving without rhyme or rhythm, only looking for openings.  Some paced clockwise, some counterclockwise, while others hovered.

Surbas disappeared behind one piece of cover.  He didn’t re-emerge.  The fanged imp from the feral choir, taking essential qualities from everything it devoured, casting away the rest into nothingness.

Quantity over quality, Rose thought.  But still enough.  Every imp a different miserable end, waiting for us.

For others.

“Evan,” Rose said.  “I need you to make a break for it.”

“Oh,” Evan said.  “A break for it.  Past fangs and skull-bits, and two-heads, and mister tumor and stretchy-skins?”

“If we don’t catch up with you, then you need to assume we’re gone.  Let others know what happened.  The lawyers will like that, and I’m hoping they’ll like it enough to let you do it unmolested.”

“You want me to leave you to die,” Evan said.  “To these guys.”

“No,” Ty said, under his breath, his voice cracking a little.

“Yes,” Rose said.

“Well I’m not going to,” Evan said.

“If Ellie met up with Sarah,” Rose said, “Then we need to warn her off.  They were too slow.”

“Really?” Evan asked.  “Tell me you’re not making stuff up to convince me.  Because if they’re not here yet and Sarah wasn’t that far away, I’m thinking they aren’t coming at all.”

“Evan,” Rose said.  “Go.

She pushed a little Conquest into her voice.

Conquest, in the meanwhile, smiled.

“You lose too,” I told Conquest, as Conquest strode toward me.  Seizing me, and picking me up from a landscape built piecemeal from sections of my apartment, from the art installations I’d worked on, and the places of my friends.

Memories of people who might well die in the worst way.

“If Rose dies, you die,” I said.

“I’m only a sliver,” Conquest said, simply.  Wearing grandmother’s face, speaking in that infuriating way grandmother once had.

“No!” Evan’s cry reached out.  “No!  I’m not just going to do it because you say so!  That’s now how this works!”

Conquest frowned.

Evan.

Ur had severed my connection to Evan, so he was no longer my familiar.  A bond still remained.

I’d taken Evan into myself, and I’d smeared Evan’s blood on my chest, while fighting the goblin king and his weapon-collecting goblin pet.

Evan had stuck by me.

If any Abyss-stuff had seeped into me, I had to hope some Evan had too.

I took advantage of the moment of weakness on Conquest’s part, and I fought back.  I tore free of Conquest’s grip, and staggered.

Then, opting to attack before Conquest could regain her footing, I lunged.  In the doing, I very nearly forgot that I lacked arms.  I imagined for a second that I had my wings again.

Odd, that wings I’d had for part of one very long night were more connected to me than my arms.

But I was a mess of spiritstuff, a fragment of a person.

Just like Conquest was a sliver of something greater.

I lunged, I shoved Conquest back, and then I tried to fly.

In practice, as things ceased to have any geography to them, I merely kept my distance.  I backed away from Conquest, and I worked on regaining my footage.

Conquest pursued, but now that I wasn’t so battered, reduced to something small, I could put everything into scale.  I removed myself from Conquest, flowed away from her grip.

The incarnation was stronger than me, occupied more space than me.  We warred for our share of a space inside Rose’s being.

I’d drawn strength from Evan just being there.

Now I touched on other things.  Memories of my bike.  Of warm moments with friends.  All the things that made me Blake.  I consciously willed those things to become part of my identity again.

And, swelling just a bit, I began to push Conquest back and out.

“You said you needed a chance to think,” Peter snapped.  “Well?  Where are the fruits of that labor!?”

“Not now, Peter,” Rose said.  Her eyes scanned the surroundings.

“When, then?  After we get torn to chunks or worse by hell babies!?  Or-”

Ainsley put a hand on Peter’s arm.

Peter clammed up.

“If you’re doing something, you’d better do it fast, Blake,” Rose said.  “Because I don’t know how long we can hold up.”

How long I can hold up, Rose thought.

As if to give voice to that thought, Surbas leaped from the shadows.  Nick twisted around, swinging his machete at the imp.

A flap of wings, and Surbas changed direction midway through the air.  He landed on the diagram, and intentionally smeared the lines.

Two-headed Hauri approached, waddling, squirming, hauling itself forward with its front limbs, rather than walking.  Ty, hand bloody, used his finger to draw signs in the air.  Matching lines appeared in the earth.  Hauri collided with the edge of the diagram, the lines pulled together just in time.

Rose wanted to send Evan away.  Evan resisted, and Rose couldn’t fathom why.

I had to tell her why, and I couldn’t quite speak.

I had to pay a price, in the end.

I stared down at the sprawl of memories, individual facets that made up me, facets that made up Rose.

Reaching out, I seized cherished experiences.  Cherished parts of me.

Tiff, Ty.  Goosh, Joseph, Joel.

Alexis.

Far too few in number, as experiences went, half of them simply gone.

Rose had surmised that I’d been built to gather others around me.  Rose had been built to sit lonely in the tower, whiling away the years.  But everything had gone to shit, and now Rose was incapable of dealing with this current problem without a crutch.  Without Conquest.

Handling the memories made me even more in tune with myself.  Reaching out to Rose’s memories of them, to the small, few, scattered experiences she had with friendship, they helped too, showed me glimmers of smiles or gut feelings of being in a group and feeling included.  She had so few.  Only enough to tell her what it was, in abstract.  Not to give her any true experience.

I couldn’t hold on to any, if I wanted this to work.

Not of human camaraderie, anyway.  I held on to Evan, and to Green Eyes.

I gave her the rest.  Pushed them onto her side.  Dumped them.  Hit Rose with it all at once.

All while squeezing Conquest out of her head.

A hundred memories might have flooded into her head, in that instant.  Gentle ones, angry ones, helpless ones.  Warm ones.

I very much felt the lack, giving them up.

I saw a full third of the memories fall by the wayside.  Consumed by the fracture, the damage.

I felt the loss there, too.  I could remember having the experiences and emotions, even if they no longer had a place in my heart.

Rose’s hands shook as they went to her shirt.  She clutched her coat there.  “Can’t.”

“What?” Alister asked her.

“I can’t do it,” she said, under her breath.

He put an arm around her shoulders, hugging her close.

There were tears in her eyes.  “Fuck, Blake!  He’s…giving me a taste of what I never had.  I can’t do it alone.”

“What do you need?” he asked.

“What I tried to do before.  I need the group.”

“What did you try before?”

“Faysal,” she said.  “Faysal…”

“Faysal,” Alister said, joining in.

Nick swung his machete at the feral imp as it crept closer to the lines, clearly intent on messing them up.  It took to the air, going over the machete.

The high priest clubbed it out of the air.

Again, the imp steered itself to land on the diagram.

“Faysal!” Alister said, joined by his cousin this time.

Others picked up the cry.

Summoning an enemy.

The imps moved toward the gap in the diagram, a failure in the protective symbol.

There was a flash of light, and the imps scattered, retreating a solid twenty feet.

Faysal, wearing his dog form, sat at one side of the circle.  Opposite Ms. Lewis, who stood on a shattered section of driveway.

“You can stop,” Faysal said.  “I’m here.  Hello, Lewis.”

“Faysal Anwar,” Ms. Lewis said.  “You don’t mean to interfere, I hope?”

The dog shook his head.  “If anything, I’m willing to help, if you’ll agree to dispose of these pests.

Ms. Lewis smiled.

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