Category Archives: 15.06

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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