Category Archives: Arc 2 (Damages)

Histories (Arc 2)

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Friday

The bell tolled.

End of a day.

Metal on metal as locker doors banged shut.  Textbooks making surprisingly loud bangs, as they were closed.  Zippers whisked open and closed.  Voices babbled.

Maggie shut it all out, putting her earbuds in.  The various sounds were muted.  Fiddle, violin and drums stepped in to drown out the world.

The earbud was tugged from her ear.

“Mags!” Heather greeted her.  “Friend.”

Heather was smiling.  She was round-faced, but not fat, freckled, with hair dyed black.  The girl was one year younger than Maggie, in an earlier grade.  Sometimes good company, sometimes annoying.  Maggie’s gut reaction was that Heather was leaning towards the annoying side today.

“What’s up?” Maggie asked.

“That’s what I was going to ask you.  Got plans this weekend?”

“Going into the city to shop for clothes with my mom.”

“Aw, I’m jealous.  And I wanted to hang out.”

“Sorry.”

“Another day?  Tonight?”

“Maybe tonight,” Maggie conceded.

Heather smiled.

They made their way outside.  Two schools were placed side by side, grades one through eight at one building, grades nine through twelve at the other.  It was usual to see the kids from the younger school meeting up with parents in waiting cars.  The older high school students would be retreating to one of the areas out of sight of the school office to congregate and smoke.

That was usual.  Today wasn’t usual.

Parents were ushering the children away, getting out of cars to use their bodies and hands to keep the children moving in one direction, keep children from looking.

Some teenagers had lit up cigarettes as they left the school, fairly usual, but the usual spots at one end of the high school were empty and unoccupied, free of the curling smoke.

She turned around, approaching the end of the elementary school where people were alternately clustering and herding children away.

It was an art piece.  Grotesque, vile, violent.  At first glance, she saw it was a fat man, adult and naked, leaning against the fence, ass on the ground, legs crossed.  Torn to pieces, rigged up with chains, boards and nails, mouth yawning open as though his jaw were broken or something huge had been rammed through his mouth and throat to open it wide.  He smelled like shit and blood that had been sitting in the sun for ten minutes at a minimum, maybe as much as an hour.

At second glance, she could see it wasn’t really a man.  Meat, bone and other bits had been fixed together in a crude semblance of a person.  Nails, wire, and other boards held bits in places, and strips of meat had been wrapped to bind other strips in place.  A haphazard grid of wires and woven strips of meat held the intestines in place, where they had been balled up and left at the midsection.  Bits of the organs bulged through the gaps.

At third glance, she saw the maggots that were already starting to festoon the thing.  Whoever had worked on it had done so without the benefit of refrigeration.

She turned away, her stomach twisting.

It’s only art.  Just something for show, she told herself.

It didn’t really help to convince her.  It didn’t help with the children, the smallest of which were openly crying.

Maggie carefully kept her eye off the thing as she watched teachers and janitors emerge from the school, many carrying black garbage bags.  They hesitated a moment before closing the distance, to cover the thing.  One or two backed away, recoiling bodily from the smell of it.

The crowd shrieked, and the alarm on the teacher’s part scared the children, prompting a spate of crying and some screaming.

Maggie looked, and she could see the mock thing moving, the chest moving in, out, side to side.  Flies took flight from it as it jerked.

It was making noises.  High pitched squeals, more like those of a baby than a person.  Maggie’s hand flew to her mouth, clamped down over it in case she puked.

One teacher, an older, heavyset man, leaped forward, even as everyone else was backing away.  He clawed at the mass of meat, using his fingers.

A medium sized dog, it had been stirred awake by the first physical contact.  Bound in the middle of the meat thing, still alive, wire wound around its throat, propping it up to a standing position, the ends tying it to the fence.  It still wore a collar, the tags jingling against the fence as it struggled.  Blind, caked in filth, it fought against the man who was trying to free it.

Maggie turned away.  She didn’t want to see any more.

The location had to have been strategically chosen.  Out of sight of any of the windows, but in plain sight once the school had finished for the day.  That was all it was.  Art, aimed at scaring the most vulnerable people the sickos could find.

She wasn’t the only one leaving.  Parents were fleeing the scene with their children in cars.

She could see the expressions.  The anger on parent’s faces, the fear on the faces of children.

As she looked, she could make out one car.  A man, bedraggled, more like a homeless person than a lower-middle-class parent, was waiting to pull out onto the street.

The only person parked outside of the school who hadn’t picked up a child.

She pulled her phone from her pocket, bending down, and she took his photo.  No flash, no noise, but his head still whipped around.  He made eye contact with her.  No older than thirty, his eyes were heavily lined.  More like Maggie’s mental picture of someone who’d gone to war or someone who hadn’t slept in days than a parent.  Any suspicion she’d had were confirmed in that moment she made eye contact with the man.

He pulled out, almost as if he was in a hurry to get away, and she took another picture of his license plate.

He disappeared, leaving her with only suspicions.

Sunday

“What did you talk about?”

“Stuff,” Maggie said.  She shifted position so her legs were stretched out across the back seat.  “Dreams, her idea of family, my idea of family.  Careers.  Stuff I might do after school.”

“What are you thinking you might do after school?” her dad asked.

“I’m thinking I might have no idea.  I’ve been telling myself, you know, a few months left until the end of the year, then a year left until I graduate.  Then I’m done.  Now it’s like… wait, I’m going to University?  Three to six more years of studying?  I’m not that keen.”

“We’ve talked about the role High School plays in life, remember?”

Maggie sighed a bit.  “I remember.”

“The things you learn are a very, very small part of it.  You’re learning how to learn, and you’re learning how to socialize, how to deal with people and problems.  University is the same way.  Studying is a very, very small part of it.”

“I know.  I get that.  The rest of it is partying.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know, dad.  It’s a few years off.”

“It’s the sort of thing you need to think about in advance.  What do you want to study?”

“What’s easiest?”

Maggie.

The conversation was cut off as the ads stopped playing on the radio.  Her father turned up the volume on the car radio.

“…believed to be the work of a group of high school seniors, celebrating the end of their final year, taking the pranks and activities several steps too far.  When we inquired, the police stated they have no leads on culprits, but will be talking with schools in the area.  The police chief stated, ‘It would be fitting and appropriate, if we did prove it was the work of out-of-control students, to hold back their diplomas until restitution could be made.’  Other sources speculate that the spate of attacks has to do with the changes in environmental policy, which prompted the Ontario government to rehouse nearly two thousand residents…”

He turned off the radio.  “We’re into speculation.  Nothing more worth hearing tonight.”

“Still going on, huh?” Maggie asked.

“What a shame.  Cruelty to animals, attacking the elderly, scaring children…  when you told me about what happened a few days ago, I’d hoped it would be one isolated incident, that they would realize what they did went a step too far, and leave things be.  Or if it is people angry about losing their homes and workplaces, maybe that anger could get burned off.”

“But they’re getting more riled up,” Maggie said.

“They are.  Which means I want you staying close to home.  I’ll drop you off.  I’ll talk to some parents.  Maybe we can arrange a system, where you come and go in groups, each group can spend the afternoon at someone’s house, doing homework-“

“Oh god.”

“What?”  Her father asked.  She could see his smile in the rearview mirror.  “Social suicide?”

“You can’t kill that which does not live,” Maggie said.

“You have friends.”

“I don’t like my friends.”

“Doesn’t that defeat the purpose?”

“You were just reminding me how high school is meant to instill lessons in all of us.  ‘People suck’ is lesson number one.  Weren’t you paying attention, way back then?”

“I was too busy being miserable,” he said.  “Way back then.”

“How to be abjectly miserable is lesson two,” she answered.

“Ahh.  See, I must have missed a lesson along the way.”

Maggie smiled.

“But, you know, one of the first lessons that University hammers into you is that you have to let go of the past.  Let go of who you were, and let yourself be who you need to be.  Let go of being miserable, let go of hating people.”

“Yeah.  I can see that.  Getting sloppy drunk, getting high, partying.  Artificial happiness and friendships.  It’s kind of like the inverse of the high school lessons, but it’s kind of messed up in its own way.  A good way.”

“I’m kind of hoping you find genuine happiness and friendship, Maggie.  I’m hoping you can unlearn all of the less happy lessons and retain the good stuff.  But yes, maybe you’ll need to unteach yourself some of the more cynical lessons you’re learning now.”

Maggie grinned.  “Lesson ten of High School is ‘sex is horribly overrated.’  I’m gonna look forward to unteaching myself that one.”

“Is that so?”

Maggie’s grin dropped off her face.

“Chris and I promised each other and promised you that we’d have an open dialogue about these things.”

Maggie flopped back in her seat, hitting her head against the car window.  “Regretting saying it already.”

“We want you to be happy and safe, and we have focus on steering you clear of any mistakes that are going to follow you for the rest of your life.”

“Oh god.  I haven’t done anything, and I most definitely haven’t had sex so awful it’s going to haunt me for the rest of my life.”

“I meant pregnancy, or illnesses, or-“

“Oh god,” Maggie said, again.  She looked to the passenger seat, where her father’s husband was unconscious, reeking of too much wine.  He and her mother had been borderline competing, towards the end of the night.  “Chris, wake up and rescue me.”

Her father continued, “If you’d like, we could make an appointment to get you some birth control-“

“Nope,” Maggie said.  She shifted position so she could cover her ears with both hands.  “Nope, nope, nope.  Done with this topic.”

In the rear view mirror, she could see her father’s smile.

“You jerk.  You’re totally messing with me.”

“If you want to almost give me a heart attack, making me believe you’ve been up to something, I can pay you back three times over.”

“Shouldn’t be allowed.”

“Oh, believe me, I’m not done.  Maybe I will call the other parents to arrange groups for safety.”

“You’re evil.”

“And we can see how badly we can embarrass you.”

“Oh god.”

“Pyjama pants with hearts on them, and dorky old-person music…”

“Mercy.”

“We have the power, baby girl.  Whatever you do to us, we can repay three times over.”

“That’ll change.  One day, I’ll be all-powerful.”

“You will be, when Chris, your mom and I are pushing seventy and rotting away in some old folks home.  By then, you’ll pity us too much to do anything too bad, and you’ll have kids of your own to lord over.”

“Mebbe,” Maggie said.  “You guys and mom in the same old folks home, huh?”

“Why not?  I can’t think of anything better, being with loved ones and friends, making peace with a life well lived…”

“Unlearning the last of the not-so-fun lessons life taught you,” Maggie said, closing her eyes.

“That’s a nice thought.  What sort of lessons are those?”

“I dunno.  Maybe some of the first lessons we learned are the last ones we unlearn?” Maggie asked, half asleep.  “Bashfulness, caring about what others think?  Being angry at people?  Worrying about what comes tomorrow?  Holding on to yesterdays?”

“Keep that up, and I’m going to second guess your angry teenager facade.  That sounds dangerously like faith in the inherent goodness of people.”

“Oops,” Maggie mumbled.

A piercing scream stirred her from the twilight of near sleep.  Sirens.

As her father pulled over, fire trucks and ambulances raced past them, the pitch and tone of the sirens shifting as they started moving away instead of coming closer.

Chris had been stirred awake.  The three of them didn’t make a noise as they pulled back onto the road and made their way down the main street.

Rubberneckers had slowed traffic to a crawl by the time they approached the scene.  Several homes were ablaze in a single fire, but in the chaos, she could only make out one of the families, standing on the other side of the street, huddled together in a group.

Three houses ablaze, one family of survivors.

Tuesday

“This sucks, this sucks, this sucks,” Ben said.

“Chill out,” Jeremy responded.

“It sucks,” Ben said, for emphasis.

“We know it sucks,” Maggie said.  “Doesn’t need to be said out loud.”

“At least we’re going to your house,” Jeremy said.  “I’ve got a game I’m itching to finish, and now I won’t get home for another hour or two.”

“If you think you’re going to play my games, you need to get real,” Ben said.  “My save files are sacrosanct.”

“I can tell this is going to be fun,” Maggie said.

“Your dad’s idea,” Heather said.

Maggie whipped her head around, glaring at her ‘friend’.

“What?” Heather asked, confused and wounded.

“Utter lies,” Maggie said.  “Complete and utter lies.”

“We know it was your dad,” Lor said.  “We don’t blame you.”

“Speak for yourself, Holy Lor,” Ben said.  “I blame her.”

“Yeah, just a bit,” Jeremy said.

“I like you, but this is kind of annoying, and your dad suggested it,” Heather said.

“You guys suck,” Maggie retorted.

“Yeah,” Ben said, “But we suck in private.  We don’t let our suckage leak out and mess up other people’s plans.  Like poor Jeremy, and his games, and my house being my house and not some random meeting place for a bunch of kids, like we’re six years old and on a stupid little field trip.”

“Yeah?” Maggie asked.  “I gotta ask, do you make sucking in private a regular thing, Ben?”

There were a few chuckles from the group.  ‘Holy Lor’ included.  Maggie allowed herself a smile, while Ben gave her the finger.

“I’ll take your silence for a yes.”

“Take my silence for a fuck you, Maggie.  Any time I’m not talking, you can pretend I’m saying ‘fuck you’ every few seconds.”

“I’ll give that a try.  Ought to lighten things up.  I can’t help but notice you’re dodging the question about the sucking-in-private thing.”

“Fuck you,” Ben said.

“Now you’re being repetitive.”

“Fuck you and we’re turning right up ahead,” Ben said.  “Into the cul-de-sac.  My house is at the end.”

“Fancy words,” Maggie said.  “Is Ben Meredith getting uppity?”

“It’s a fucking cul-de-sac.  Do you know a better term for it?”

“A street?” Maggie asked.  “A dead end street, if you want to be extra specific?”

Or,” Ben said, “You can go fuck yourself, and I’ll call it what I want in the meantime.  Jesus Christ.  This whole ‘go everywhere in groups’ bullshit is annoying enough.”

Maggie only grinned.  The group turned right.

And Maggie found herself looking at the same car as before.  A blue beater she might have completely missed if it weren’t for the recognizable dent on the door.

Without thinking, she drew her phone from her pocket and took another picture.

The car door opened.

He was as she’d seen him before.  Thirtyish, with lines of weariness around his eyes, a dead stare, and scruff on his face.  He was wearing a v-neck t-shirt, gray, with a few smudges here or there, nothing blatant, but signs of dirt or something like that.  His jeans, by contrast, had even more stains.

“Oh shit,” Jeremy said, when he saw the man striding towards them.

Ben put himself to Jeremy’s left, interposing himself between the man and the three girls of the group.

“Girl,” the man said.  His voice was ragged.  “Who said you should take my picture?”

“God damn it, Maggie,” Ben muttered.

“Who said I couldn’t?” Maggie called out.

Why are you taking my picture?”

“I take pictures of lots of stuff?”

“You’re lying,” the man accused her..

“Okay, maybe I took pictures of you because you looked kind of creepy and you were just hanging around where someone hung some rotting sculpture off a fence outside a school?”

“Delete those photos.”

“You heard the nice man, Maggie,” Ben said.  “Delete the photos.”

“Why should I delete them?” Maggie asked.

“I’m asking you to delete the photos.”

“That’s not answering my question,” Maggie said.  “That’s restating the thing you just said in a different way.”

“Hey, Maggie, you ever wonder why nobody likes you?” Ben asked.  “This is why.  He doesn’t like you because you’re not deleting the photos while he’s still asking nicely, and we don’t like you because you’re not deleting the photos while the guy is asking nicely.  Seeing what I’m hinting at?”

“I like Maggie,” Heather said.

Ben scowled, glancing back.  “You like everyone.  You’re like a dog with no conception of strangers.  But let’s not get off topic.  Maggie was about to delete the photos.”

“I was doing no such thing, you lying liar,” Maggie said, not taking her eyes off the man.

“If you don’t delete those photos,” the man said, “There is going to be an issue.”

“if I do delete those photos,” Maggie asked, “Am I deleting evidence of someone who’s involved in this whole mess?”

The man glared at her.

Answer enough.

“Oh… oh no,” Holy Lor said.  “Really?  Oh no.”

“Give me the camera, and your life goes back to a semblance of normal,” the man said.

“Oh, see, now you’re negotiating,” Maggie said.  “I like negotiating.  Let’s hear a better offer, though.  I’m not convinced.”

“Give the nice man the camera,” Ben said, through clenched teeth.

The man spoke.  “If you’re smart, you give me the camera and leave.  Leave this town.  This is a dying place, and soon it will become a place of dying, of fire and violence and darkness.”

“Give the nice lunatic the camera,” Ben said, quieter, through clenched teeth.

“I’m still waiting to hear a better offer,” Maggie said.  “He’s awfully insistent, he’s got to have something to offer if he wants it that bad.  I want to hear the offer soon.  Going once…  Going twice…”

“This is not the way you want to play this,” the stranger said.

“Hey, Ben!”

A voice, from the nearest house.

An older man, wearing a plaid shirt and suspenders, was leaning over his railing.

“Hi, Mr. Richmond,” Ben called out, eyes darting from the stranger to his neighbor.

“You got a problem there?”

Maggie kept her eyes fixed on the weary looking man.

“Maybe,” Ben said.

“Hey!” Mr. Richmond called out.  “Step away from the kids!”

The strange man did no such thing.  He stepped toward Maggie and the kids.

Toward Maggie.

He grabbed for her arm, gripping it hard, and reached for the phone.

Collectively, the group fought him.  Collectively, they found him oddly strong.  He bodily shoved Ben and Jeremy away, then pushed Lor to the ground with enough force that she shrieked on impact.

Maggie kicked in his general crotchular region, but failed to land any hit that mattered.

When Mr. Richmond made his way down the driveway, however, and Ben stood up, ready to rejoin the fray, the man backed away, hands raised.

“Stay put,” Mr. Richmond said.  “I’ve already called the police.”

“You’re lying,” the man said.  “Phone lines are down.”

“Yeah,” Ben said.  “You do that?”

“No.”

“You stay,” Mr. Richmond said, stern.  “These kids are going wherever they were going, and you and me are going to stay put until we can have a chat with someone.”

“No,” the stranger said.  “No we aren’t.”

He turned to leave, striding away.  Mr. Richmond didn’t even try to stop him.

But the stranger puased and looked back.  His eyes met Maggie’s.  “You’re going to regret this, little girl.”

“I’m kind of a teenager,” Maggie said.  “Big girl, at the very least.  Little lady would do, too.”

“You’re a child,” the stranger answered.  He turned, walking back to his car.

He said something else under his breath.

“Wait, what did he say?” Maggie asked.

“He said you’re a child,” Lor answered.

“I heard that bit.”

“And you’re going to bleed, was the second bit.”

“Oh,” Maggie said.  “I’d thank you for clarifying-“

She paused, as the man’s car door slammed.  He pulled into the street, then disappeared around the corner.

“-But I’m not sure I’m that thankful.”

“We need to get in contact with the police,” Mr. Richmond said.  “Attacking a child, that can’t go unanswered.”

“Maggie thinks he’s one of the bad guys from recently,” Heather said.

“Then we definitely need to talk to the police.  Where were you going?” Mr. Richmond asked.

“My house,” Ben said.  “My mom’s waiting.”

“Good.  Go.  Stay there.  I’m going to see if I can find someone.”

“I love how everyone’s pretending we aren’t all one to three years off from being adults,” Maggie said.  “We can fend for ourselves.”

“I dunno about you,” Heather said, “But I’m kind of glad to have someone’s mom around, after something like this.”

“He hurt me,” Lor said.  She showed her hands, skinned and bloody.

Maggie frowned.  “Whatever.”

“Shouldn’t be hard to find a cop,” Ben told his neighbor.  “Sirens are going by every ten minutes, it feels like.”

Mr. Richmond nodded, glancing towards the street where the stranger had left.  “You kids take care.  I’m standing right here until you’re safe inside.  You lock the doors, now.”

“Yessir,” Ben said.

“Big Bad Ben, being all nice to the adults,” Jeremy commented, when they were out of earshot.

“It’s ‘Big Ben’, what people call me.  You added the ‘bad’ part.  And Mr. Richmond is boss.  He gives me money, just ’cause he doesn’t have grandkids to spend it on.”

“That sounds more like a pedo thing than anything else,” Maggie said, under her breath.

Ben shoved her.  “Hey.

What?

“You don’t fucking joke about shit like that.  Ruins people’s lives.”

“I didn’t say it to anyone who’d care.”

“You don’t ever,” Ben said.  “And you don’t say it about guys who just saved our asses from a crazy person.  A crazy person that might be setting fires and torturing animals.  I’ve known Mr. Richmond my whole life.  He’s nice, and he went out of his way to help.  You want to give me a hard time?  Fine.  But you don’t talk shit about my neighbors behind their backs.”

“Fine.  That’s fair.  You’re the guy that’s sucking in private.”

“That was funny once, Maggie.  You can’t milk it any more.”

“Milking it,” Lor commented, straight faced.

The entire group burst into laughter.  Some of it was nervous laughter, after the close call.

“The most prudish girl in school just made a funny!  A naughty funny!”

“I’m not the most prudish.”

“You’re close.”

Ben opened the door to his house, locking the door behind him.  “Mom!”

“Upstairs!”

“Group’s come by.  What can I feed them?”

“Anything but the carrot cake in the fridge!”

“Kitchen,” Ben pointed to each place in turn.  “Dining room, if you want to do homework.  Bathroom, if you need to-“

“Milk it?” Heather cut in.

There were a few chuckles, but she was forcing it just a bit.

“-And living room.  Consoles are off limits.  But you can watch the TV.”

“Great host,” Jeremy commented.

“When I invite you, you can do whatever.  But when Maggie’s dad invites you over to my house, you get only the… nuts and bolts.”

“Bare minimum,” Maggie said.

“That’s the words I was looking for.  I’m going upstairs.  I’ll be down in a bit.”

The group migrated over to the dining and living room.  Heather and Jeremy took the couch, while Lor and Maggie sat opposite each other at the table.

“Never thought we’d be sitting together like this,” Lor said.

“Yeah?  Why’s that?”

“Your parents?”

“My parents have no issue with you,” Maggie said.

“I meant, who your parents are, they’re… our families are very different, don’t you think?”

“I think I know what you’re getting at,” Maggie said.  “Are you wanting to make this a problem?”

“No.  I’m just-“

“Because we can make this about doing homework, fighting off crazy people, and passing the time as fast as we can before we can get back to our everyday lives, or we can make it about your family having an issue with my family.  Note how I’m stressing that.  Because my family has no issue with yours.  It’s one sided.  And if you want to keep pretending you’re all about tolerance and goodness, you’re going to have to reconcile that sort of thinking with this sort of acting.”

“I can get over it, Maggie.  I can look past what your parents are.”

“That’s great.  Good.  Grand.  Speaking of, I’m going to need to give them a call, let them know I made it okay.  Maybe scare my dad to death, if I mention a crazy man attacked me and then hang up before he can get details.   Because I’m so going to get back at him for this ‘going places in groups’ garbage he set up.”

“Phone lines are dead in this area,” Jeremy said.  “Asshats knocked down a telephone pole.”

Fuck,” Maggie said.  “Fuck.  Internet, maybe?”

“No phone, no internet,”

“Fiber?  Cable?” she prodded.

“No idea,” Jeremy said.  “I’m here because I live near-ish by, not because I’m friends with Ben.”

“We’re all here because of that,” Maggie said.  “Fuckballs.  I’m going to ask.”

She stood, then made her way back to the front hall and up the way Ben had gone.

Ben’s door, clearly marked with road signs, was closed.  She made her way to the end of the upstairs hallway.

Ben and Mrs. Ben were lying on the bed, face down.

A man was standing in the room.

Maggie felt her heart leap into her throat.  Didn’t fit.  Wasn’t right.  Could be an older brother, but why would they be like that?  Why would Ben and his mom be lying so still, there?

She backed away, then nearly jumped out of her skin as a hand pressed beneath her shoulderblades, an immovable object, stopping her progress.

A person, not much older than her, judging by the style of dress.  The face was hidden by a hood and the poor lighting in the upstairs hallway, but she could see some of the mouth, snaggle teeth.

The knife.  It moved, pointing it at her pelvic region.

Her front pocket.  The phone.

“So he’s your ringleader?” she asked.  “And he wants me to delete the photos?”

No escape.  The only routes she had available to her were a hard right into the bathroom, forward into the knife guy, or a retreat into the bedroom with the other guy.

“Phone,” the figure said.  She couldn’t peg the gender, but it sounded like a heavy smoker.

“Right.  I’d argue, but knife wins arguments.”

“Mm hmmm,” the figure said.  Drawing it out a fraction too long.  Somehow, for some reason, she pegged it as a boy.

“Are… Ben and his mom okay?”

“As okay as you are,” he said.  He sounded so normal.

“…That doesn’t answer my question.”

He stepped closer.  She could smell him now.  Like the meaty thing on the school fence had smelled.  “Tell me.  What’s the worst thing I could do to you, using this knife?  I do want you to think, then I want you to describe it to me.”

A dozen ideas flickered through Maggie’s mind.

She managed to keep her voice from tremoring.  “Cut something off?  Cut off a finger?  My nose?”

He shook his head.  “I’m talking about the bad thing that appeared in your mind’s eye, that you didn’t let yourself think about, not completely.  The real worst thing you imagined.”

Maggie shivered.

“What I’m going to do is worse than that,” he said.  “Something you can’t imagine.  Not yet.”

She moved, ducking into the bathroom.  He lunged, following, knife in hand, and she reached out to grab the bathroom door, slamming it into his body.

She reached for the only thing she could.  A drawer from the cabinet under the sink.  She pulled, and it came free.  Nothing inside but combs and hairbrushes.

Maggie hit him, swinging the drawer into his hand, into the knife that was sticking out, that he couldn’t move while she was pressing her weight against the door.

He didn’t let go, didn’t grunt or give any indication he was in pain as she swung a wooden bludgeon at him.

His weight shifted, and the door moved with enough force that she stumbled back.  Stronger than he looked.  On something?

She searched the area, looking for something she could use as a weapon.  A towel rack… but if she pulled, would it come free?

She lifted the lid off the top of the toilet, nearly dropping it.

It wasn’t a fight like on TV or in the movies or in the books about superheroes.  Not an exchange, no trade-off, nothing like that.  It was ugly, stupid, nonsensical.  One of them would swing.  The person they swung at would be seriously, maybe even lethally wounded, or the swing would miss.  If the swing missed, they’d be leaving themselves open for one equally serious, equally fatal wound.  A skull cracked open, a knife in the belly.

She had to alert the others.  A noise?

Two thoughts connected.  She hurled the toilet lid through the bathroom window, a crash, a noise that might give the others some clue something was wrong.  She jumped, feeling a hot flare of pain where the plate glass cut her side on the way through.

A one story fall was less scary than a knife.  Glass was less scary than the knife.

A thousand people with knives was less scary than the knife, when it was that guy holding it.

The landing hurt, but it didn’t hurt in a way that kept her from finding her feet, running.  She held her side.

Dead end street was a more appropriate label, she thought.  Praying that he wasn’t coming after her, that she wouldn’t get a knife in the back in broad daylight.

She reached the main street, waving, trying to get the attention of a car.  Removing one hand from her side, she used her bloody hands to get someone’s attention.

The rest was a blur.  Shock winning out over anything rational.

Thursday

No school.  No phone.  The sirens seemed more frequent now.

It didn’t fit.  Nobody seemed willing to admit it, that it was bad.

Two days of intermittent visits to the police station.  Giving them the photos, getting the sense they didn’t care, that they were filing it away in the same folders and drawers they stuck all the ‘old crank’ stuff.

There was only fear.  Concern that their place would be the next one.  Chris was worried, and it was why Chris didn’t want to leave.  Didn’t want to rent a car and leave with what they could pack up, like so many people were.  The houses that were left unattended were soon occupied by others.  By the drug gangs or the crazed seniors or whoever those people were.  When the parties and general vandalism were done, the houses were torched, and oftentimes neighboring houses were caught in the blazes.

She hadn’t had any clarification on what had happened to the others.  To Ben and his mom, to Lor, to Jeremy and Heather.  She’d tried calling them while her neighborhood still had working phone lines, but all she got were dial tones.  Her dad reassured her, told her they had to be okay, or they would have heard something.  Chris said they had probably packed up and left to be safe.

Were others joining in?  Was it a cult thing?  Was it out of towners?  There were more grotesque decorations in places.

It was getting worse, and nobody seemed to be connecting the dots.

They always heard sirens, but the police weren’t doing anything.  They hadn’t done anything about what had happened at Ben’s place.

It was the worst.  Being powerless, not knowing.

She felt physically sick, wallowing in it.

Doubly so when she let herself slip.  She never stopped that constant, internal mantra, that Ben and his mom were okay, that the other kids had escaped the house.  But sometimes she slipped, and she didn’t believe what she was saying.

“Do you know how long we looked for this house?  How long we took to find just the right place?  A place the three of us could live?  If we leave it behind, we’re not going to get it back.”

“If we don’t leave, we’re just being penned in, waiting for another kind of disaster.  Have you looked at Maggie?  I don’t know what to tell her.”

“Tell her to be strong.”

The voices continued, from the other side of the wall.

Not so long ago, they’d talked about dreams.  About possibilities, passions, about what could be.

All she knew now was that she had a direction, not one borne of any of that passion or possibility, but of the process of elimination.  She could never, would never let herself feel like this again.

Monday

“Don’t go,” Maggie said.

“Someone has to,” her dad said.

“You go on this neighborhood watch thing, and you’ll disappear.  Something will happen, and you won’t come home tonight.  People will tell themselves things.  We’ll tell ourselves things, but we won’t believe it,” Maggie said.  She was pleading now.  “Dad.  You know what’s going on.  People are blocking off streets, and we tell ourselves it’s to protect ourselves from them, but you know they’re the ones doing it.  They’re blocking any path we could take to drive out.”

“It’s hysteria,” her dad said.  “People overreacting, and a lack of communication.  That’s why tonight will be good.  A big group, talking with one another, figuring out how things stand, what the priorities are.”

“Convincing each other of the lies,” Maggie said.  “Reassuring, when we need to be doing the opposite.  Digging for the truth at the heart of all this.”

“Maggie, calm down.”

“I’m not going to calm down.  Not when you’re going to go out there and you’re not going to come freaking home!”

She had tears in the corners of her eyes.

“Then bring me with you,” she said.  “Bring me with you, and bring Chris, and we go, together.”

“No,” Chris said.  “If we leave the house empty-”

“Chris,” Maggie said, wheeling around.  “Come on.  Please?”

“It’s dangerous, leaving the place unoccupied.  It’s like they’re watching.”

“I’d rather lose the house than leave you alone, Chris.  Please?  Pretty please?”

“Maggie-”

Please, papa?”

“Now you’re playing dirty,” Chris said.  “I haven’t heard that one in a long time.”

She couldn’t bring herself to speak around the lump in her throat.

“We go to the meeting, then go for a short patrol?  Make sure there’s no fires nearby?  All together?”

She nodded, relieved enough she let out a bit of a sob.

They left the house as a group.

The meeting was at one house in the neighborhood.

The first set of speeches were very much what she’d expected.

“Lock your doors,” one of them was saying.

Ben had locked his doors. 

“Leave lights on.”  

If you have power.

“Stay in touch with your neighbors, and let them know where you’re going and if you’re leaving.”

And brush it off with excuses and justifications if they disappear and don’t leave a message.

“We think they’re lurking in the area where all the occupants were displaced.  Angry locals who didn’t want to leave, who had all of their services shut off.  Teenagers and drunks, who got carried away once they got started.  Any day now, the police should have a handle on this.”

“Where are they now?” someone asked.

The discussions went on.

No real answers.  Nothing definitive.

Maggie looked back just in time to see a man make his way in through the front doors.

The ringleader?  The stranger with the blue car and the weary eyes.

She clutched the two hands she was holding as hard as she could, ducking her head down.

Her dads looked, and she indicated with a tilt of her head.

“It’s him.  The crazy guy who attacked me.  Who sent those guys to Ben’s house.”

“This will all blow over,” the guy at the stage was saying.

Every time the man had shown up, there had been something.  The grotesque art show, the invaders at Ben’s house…

“You’re sure?”

Yes, I’m sure.”

She looked, and she saw him staring right at her.

She watched as he beckoned.

With her dads, she stood from her seat, and they left the meeting.  By the time they reached the front door of the house, the man had stepped out.

Outside, it was dark, and it was quiet.

“Delete the photos,” the man said.  “Now.

“What are you doing here?” Maggie’s dad asked.

“Damage control,” the man responded.  “Please.  The sooner you do it, the better for both of us.”

Uncertain, Maggie said, “I can’t tell if that’s a threat, or-”

“It’s reality.  If I explain, I endanger you.  I could tell you I’m not your enemy, but I suspect-”

“I wouldn’t believe you,” Maggie said.

“I know,” the man said.  “I got that sense.  What I can tell you is that you’re nearly out of time.  As it stands, you may not make it out alive, even if you delete the photos and leave this city now.”

“It’s dangerous out there,” her father said.

“Very soon, it’s going to be dangerous here,” the stranger said.  “Within minutes.  You should leave now, on foot. The cars are sabotaged and you can’t use the roads.”

Maggie withdrew the phone from her pocket.  She set to deleting the photos.

“Good.  That buys you time.”

“What are you doing here?” she asked.  “If you’re not the bad guy?”

“Helping.  Failing to help, too.  Right now, I’m trying to decide.  Do I let things hit rock bottom, or do I fight now?”

“What’s the difference?” Maggie asked.

“If I wait until a handful survive,” he said, “Then try to save them, when I know they’ll believe the truth, I might save more than if I go in front of that house full of people and lie.”

“That doesn’t make any sense.”

“If you’re lucky, it never will,” he said.  “Go.  Take nothing, keep nothing.  But go.  And pray they haven’t ferreted you out.”

“Why were the photos so important?”

Go.

Chris was the one to jerk into motion, driven to move by the force in the stranger’s tone.

With every block they walked, taking shortcuts between houses, they saw how bad it was.  Cars had been taken apart and left dismantled in the road.  Houses were burned husks.  There were pools of blood on the streets, largely dried, flies clustered on them, flying into the air when they drew near.

“Psychological tactics,” Chris muttered, at the cars.  At the pools of blood, he said, “Animal blood.  There are farms nearby.”

Maggie wondered if he believed it.

She wondered why she couldn’t believe it.

It all came back to those photos.  To the stranger…

Her thoughts were interrupted.  Figures stepping out of the shadows.

They hadn’t made it.

When she looked, she found they were surrounded.

How could so many of them be so sneaky?  How could they walk in near silence for minutes, and not hear a single scrape of a footstep?

The people formed a ring around them.

Too many were too short, too young, too fat, too tall.  Almost none were normal… and those ones looked the most wrong when she looked too close.

She settled for staring down at the road at her feet.

“What… what’s going on?” Chris asked.

“I think you know,” her father said.  “It’s… not normal.”

Which summed it up.  Normal rules didn’t apply.

Maggie clenched her hands.

“Wee birds,” a woman’s voice.

Maggie turned her head.

“You had him a moment ago, the slippery man,” the voice continued.

Maggie looked, and she saw the figure in the crowd.  Some of the people parted to give her a better look.

The woman’s teeth had been filed down to points.  She wore contact lenses that reflected funny in the light.  Her entire facial structure… implants?  The shape of her ears?  The too-pugnacious nose  Surgery?

Maggie couldn’t come up with excuses as fast as she noticed all the things that didn’t fit.  Too much, all together, that made the buxom woman look wrong in a way that simple makeup and cosmetics couldn’t manage.

Her feet were a big part of that.  More like a lizard’s.  The fingers on her hands were too long.  But the most noticeable thing was her hair.  It was wet, soaked crimson, and only a blood-soaked headband kept it out of her face.

She toyed with a skull.  Not a bleached skull.  It was dark, with bits on it.

All of the illusions and self-delusions fell away.

“Oh.  God,” Maggie muttered.

“You had a tie,” the woman said.  “To him.  You know the one I’m talking about.”

Maggie thought of the man.

“Yes.  Him,” the woman said.  “You met recently, he confided in you, you know what he looks like.  That is enough points of reference.”

“Who is he?” her father asked.  “What’s going on?”

“He’s slippery one,” the woman said.  “He’s lurking, trying to spoil our fun.  Hunting me.  Because I found a way to cross through your cities.  Bridges of bones.”

“I don’t understand,” Maggie said.

A man’s voice cut in.  “Her kind can’t walk easily inside modern cities.  She found a way, and she’s been waiting for a chance to use it.”

The stranger.

“I was just about to look for you.”

“I know,” he said.  “I’m sparing you the trouble.  You’re letting them go.”

“Giving yourself up.  Are you worth so little?”

“I warned them.  The largest group I could find.  I told them how to fight you, and they’ll think I’m mad, but maybe they’re scared enough to listen.  But some of their sins and their mistakes are my sins and my mistakes too.”

“Ah.  You’ve given them all your luck and fortune.  All of your slipperiness.”

“I’ve tried.  And now I’m hoping you’ll let this family go, and promise to stop for three days and three nights.”

“You’re worth so little now.  Luckless, feckless, sad little wretch.”

“Blood is power, and I do have some power.  You’ll bathe in it, you’ll make some of that power yours, as you have with Faerie and Hags and all manner of other things, and you’ll be even more fearsome, when next you attack.”

The woman smiled, showing her pointed teeth,  “Or we could keep doing what we’re doing.  I’ll find others like you in time.”

“Others like me will come after you.  Stronger people.  This is the best option you’re getting.”

She considered, head turning this way and that, as if she thought differently with her head at different angles.

“Break him,” she said.

Her subordinates attacked, grabbing the practitioner, pulling his arms out to to either side, making him kneel.  Maggie turned her head before the makeshift weapons came down on his arms.

She still heard the sounds, the strangled scream.

The bloody-haired woman prowled forward, bending down near the broken stranger.  Deftly, she pulled things from his pockets.  A short wand, a set of large, fat gold coins, a piece of chalk, a book, falling apart, with symbols on the cover.  Each fell to the ground, pages of the book coming free with the impact, the coins ringing impossibly loud in the scene.

The woman turned her attention to Maggie and her family.

“Which one?”

“No,” Maggie said.  “All of us.  Let all of us go.”

“If I were to let two of you go, which two?”

“Them,” her father said.  “My daughter, my husband.  She… Chris will give her better support.”

“No,” Chris said.  “N-no.”

“You can take her to her mom.”

“Let them go,” Maggie said.  “Please.  I- you can’t take my family.”

The voices overlapped.

The bloody-haired woman approached, placing her hand on the cheek of Maggie’s father.  “You argue best.  I believe you, when you say you’d sacrifice yourself for them.  You love them that much.”

He shuddered, bowing his head, unable to maintain eye contact.

“You, I’ll let live, then.  You’ll feel the lost most.”

“No!”  Maggie cried out.  “No!”

And, somehow, it was that idea, her dad, alone, that fed the emotion into her shouts, more than any self preservation.

“Take them to pieces, slowly.”

“No!”  Maggie shrieked.  “No!  All of us live!  All of us!”

“Her first.  So the adults can watch.”

Maggie had to raise her voice to be heard over her fathers.  Her voice was so loud and high it was ragged.  “I’ll do anything!  Just let us go!”

“Anything?”

“Just- just let us go.”

“Agree…  Let me think.  You’ll experience what you experienced here, twice more.  The rule of three, to make this stronger.  Perhaps it will be me again.  Perhaps no.  But you will experience blood and darkness and fire, like you experienced it here.  If you agree, it will be so.”

This?  Again?  Maggie hesitated.

“Yes?  No?  I am impatient.”

“I said anything,” Maggie said, defeated.  “I- I think I meant it.”

“Then keep walking, child.  Walk with your parents, and wait.  Twice more.”

Maggie stepped forward, and she saw the goblins part, stepping out of the way.

Then she stopped, and she walked over to the stranger.

“Fool,” he muttered, through the pain.  “Fool.  She was to rest.  She had to agree, or she had to finish here, and once she rested for three days, three nights, she would have to sleep centuries before acting again.  Now she can keep going, come back with your oath.”

Numb, Maggie picked through the things the woman had taken from the stranger.  Coins.  The wand.

“The wand- no.  Won’t help you.”

She picked up the book.  Symbols, magic circles, script.

“No.  Walk blindly, pay no attention to this, forget.  It’ll make things easier, when the blood and darkness come, next time.  Your power is the oath’s power.”

“I’m not looking away,” Maggie said.

She picked up the book.  She’d need a way to stick it all together.  She hugged it to her chest.

Nothing stopped her or her family as they walked free of their town, leaving it all behind.

Two months ago

“Yes, I do actually know a thing about prophecies,” Laird said.

Maggie frowned.  Her ice cream was melting.  She licked the biggest dribble from her hand.  “And?”

“And it’s up to you.  We can manage this, or we can leave it be.  It could be bloodier, darker, more dangerous, with each repetition of the three, or it could be quieter, a controlled chaos we can both benefit from.”

“What do I have to do?”  Maggie asked.

“Her name is Molly Walker.  That will be the first part.  The only part of any importance, to you.  You can leave the remainder to me.”

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Damages 2.7

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Maggie glanced over the books.  First Famulus, then Implementum, Demesnes, and then Famulus again.

Rose was watching Maggie, but I had still taken the time to collect the medicine kit and a damp towel and bring everything into the living room with me.  More stuff in the way, a more crowded space.

I took my time disinfecting my hand, cleaning it up where I’d stabbed it.  The blood had trickled out and into the palm, collecting with the bits of rust and dirt where I’d reached into the trash can.

“Alright,” Maggie said.  “You’ve got good stuff, and I admit you’ve got me hooked.  You want me to be an unofficial ally, in exchange for free access to your books?  I’d be down.”

I glanced at Rose.  “Did you do any negotiating in the twenty seconds I was in the bathroom?”

“No negotiating.”

“We didn’t propose anything like that,” I told Maggie.

“Are you trying to pull a fast one on us, Maggie?” Rose asked.

“Nah.  I just figured I’d put it out there.  See if it got any traction.”

“You said you wouldn’t try anything,” I said.

“No bad intentions in my heart, really, but I’ve gotta get the best deal I can for me.”

I sat there, glaring at her, but she only smiled.

“This is exhausting,” Rose said.  “Watching every word you say, watching every word others say…”

I nodded.  I felt a bit weary myself.  Maybe having company when I was this worn out was a problem.

But an ally was an ally, so to speak.  Even if that ally was grubbing for any advantage she could get.

“I guess it’s not so bad when everyone’s not trying to take you out of the picture,” Maggie said.

“Guess not,” I responded. I looked my hand over, and then set to bandaging it.  I was collecting a lot of small wounds.  The cuts from the bird-skull things hadn’t yet healed, and I had sliced at my fingers once or twice to draw blood.

“You’ve got something I want, I’ve got something you want.  So… I can propose another deal.  You loan me out some reading material, and I promise not to kill you.”

There was a pause.  Maggie looked at me and Rose with a kind of expectant look on her face.

“You still have no bad intentions?” Rose asked.

“Huh?”

“Threatening to kill us if we don’t comply?” Rose asked.

“No!  No.  I worded that badly.  I mean, I’ll take the deal.  Agree to the ceasefire you proposed at the meeting.”

“Meaning that on top of the gift of reading material, we’d be giving you the other parts of that deal, with protection from whatever might come out of our grandmother’s books.”

“Darn straight.”

“That doesn’t seem very even,” Rose said.

“Supply and demand, my dear friend in the mirror.  You have a demand for not being murdered.  I can supply that demand.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works,” I said.

“Why not?  Look, you want lots of a product I’m offering, called ‘not being horribly killed’.  You want it badly enough that I can raise the price.  You benefit, because you get lots of ‘not being horribly killed’, I benefit because, hey, I get stuff.”

“No,” Rose said, “I’m pretty sure the two of us understood that.”

“And, on the plus side, if you’re wanting to put the squeeze on the other guys, then you can get them to panic just a little when you tell them there are only two deals left before they’re outta luck.”

“Three,” Rose said.  “If someone wants to take the deal where they can still come after us if they tell us who killed Molly.”

“I forgot about that,” Maggie said.  “You won’t have much luck.  Couple of the Behaim kids met me at school, told me that they’re going around, talking to everyone and making sure that they weren’t giving you information that might start something none of us want to start.  Most people are sworn to secrecy, at this point.”

“Most?  What about the others?” Rose asked.

I was sitting on the edge of the couch, elbows on my knees, hunched over.  I  met Maggie’s eyes.  “What about you?”

“The ones who swore to secrecy also agreed to go after the people who blabbed,” she said.

“Did you agree?” I asked.  I was getting damn tired of people who didn’t answer the questions they were being asked.

She shook her head.  “No.  But it doesn’t matter, now, does it?  I could tell you what happened, but then I’m probably going to wind up with some rather angry people coming after me.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I get it.”

“We’d do something similar in her shoes,” Rose said.

I grunted noncommittally.

“That’s her stuff, there?” Maggie asked.

I had to raise myself up off the couch a bit to see where she was pointing.  The duffel bag and pile of clothes was still on the floor just beneath the arm of the couch.

I collapsed back onto the cushions.  “Yep.”

“Didn’t really know her that well.  Saw her a few times.  She didn’t show at the council meetings until the last month, and I don’t think she was game.  Took her longer than it took you guys to realize you can go out and maybe not die.”

“We’ve had escorts, and promises of protection in one way or another,” Rose said.

“Still.”

“Still,” Rose said.  “It’s dangerous.  We’ve gotten hurt every time.”

“I’ve gotten hurt, you mean,” I said.

“Yes.”

“More than your predecessor did, oddly enough,” Maggie did.

“Did she do any of the practitioner stuff?”  Rose asked.

“She did.  Yeah.  She knew some tricks.  Mostly defensive.  Warding things off.  Knew the essentials of how to deal with every one of the creepy crawlies out there.  But knowing what you’re doing doesn’t make life easier when the Others scare the wits out of you, y’know?  You don’t think straight, you make mistakes…”

“I suppose,” I said.  I was trying to visualize it.

“Did you talk to her?” Rose asked.

“Once or twice.  She was kind of freaked out,” Maggie said.

“You didn’t try to help?” Rose asked.

“That’s… I dunno.  I’m not sure how I would’ve or could’ve,” Maggie said.

“I’ve been trying to put myself in the heads of the other locals,” Rose said.  “Yourself included.  I understand that they are scared.  I understand that our family has a history of meddling in pretty dangerous things.  But then I look at the difference between the Duchamp kids and the Duchamp parents, like we saw earlier…”

“Maybe better to not say anything there,” I commented.

“What do you mean?” Rose asked.

I rubbed at my eyes.  “Might be they don’t want their actions broadcasted or gossiped about.”

“I’m sworn to secrecy about anything I discover inside this house, aren’t I?” Maggie asked.

“You are,” I said.  “But betraying confidence, implicitly or otherwise, it seems messy.  Bad karma, maybe.”

“Point,” Maggie said.  “Change of topic then.  I don’t get a lot of what’s going on, politically.  I have to trade for every tidbit of information I get.  Even about the obvious stuff you read about in those books.  I’m kind of new here, though.  New to this, to everything.  I’ve only been at this for half a year.”

I nodded.  My stomach was burbling just a bit.  Maybe a factor in why I felt so drained.  I’d given up blood, skipped meals, missed sleep.  Those things had to be fundamental to personal power.

I stood up.

“I’m going to get something.  You want anything?”  I asked.

“Beer?”

“Something I can legally give you.”

“Nah.  I’m alright.”

I made my way to the kitchen.  “Can I ask, Maggie?  What’s your story?”

“My story?” she asked, calling out from the living room.  I glanced, and saw she had picked up Famulus again.

“You got started somewhere.”

“Didn’t we all?”

“No games, please,” Rose’s voice came from the living room.  “If you don’t want to say, you don’t have to say, but I’m on the same page with Blake about being horribly fed up with this doubletalk.”

Maggie didn’t respond to that.

Searching the kitchen for foodstuffs, I found some bread in the freezer.  A little freezer burned, and showing signs of what might be mold.

Well, no use wasting it.

I cut the mold off, buttered it, cut up the remaining chunk of cheddar and layered it between the two slices before throwing it in a frying pan.

Maggie appeared in the doorway, leaning against it with her arms folded, so she had both me and Rose in her line of sight.  “What do you know about goblins?”

“Ugly,” I said.  “Brutish, warlike, twisted, brimming with all sorts of emotional negativity.”

“That’s essentially it.  You know their weak point?”

“Iron,” I said.  “They’re creatures of nature?”

“Iron.  But they’re warriors, understand?  They use iron.  They make weapons.  They’re of nature, but so is snake venom, so is cancer, understand?  They’re the ugly bits.  The savage, primitive, visceral, neanderthal bits.  Once upon a time, it was pretty standard for goblins to give humans a hard time.  Steal unattended objects, suck a cow’s udders dry before the farmer could milk them, spread plague, tangle hair, gobble up anyone who got turned around in the woods and passed by the same place three times…”

I nodded.  I used a fork to lift the corner of the bread and see how it was browning.

“A few reasons they stopped.  The first is that practitioners started going after their leaders.  The dumbest, meanest, most savage of them got snapped up and jammed into objects or they got sealed, stuck in holes and covered up with rocks, yadda yadda.  And there aren’t many powerful goblins who aren’t kind of stupid and savage.”

Rose asked something I couldn’t make out.

Maggie nodded.  “Yeah.  There are some scary ones out there.  Even now.  Real monsters.  But I’m getting off topic.  The second big reason that the goblins stopped picking on humanity was that we went and got ourselves modern plumbing.  You know that bit, about how vampires can’t cross running water?  Water is life, it’s natural, and it naturally draws out the deathly energies.  Well, for goblins, metal does the same thing, and it takes a bit out of them when they pass over a place where metals are buried.  More so if that metal is charged with any power.”

“Pipes under the streets?” I asked.

“The flowing water gives it some basic elemental power.  They don’t like it, saps their energy when they do a little hop, skip or jump over the barrier.  So they lurk around the city instead of inside it.  In rural areas, other places where water service is more inconsistent.  Or smaller towns, where the local infrastructure taxes them a little less for getting from A to B.”

“Like Jacob’s Bell,” I could hear Rose.

“Yep.  Among other places.  Redneck scumholes are sort of scumholes because goblins hang around there, you know?  The little twits have their fun making paint peel prematurely, stealing a little money here or there, pulling stuff apart, making it so cars break down, and so on and so on.  People who wind up in slums and scumholes find it just a little bit harder to get out, when things refuse to pick up and run smoothly.”

Rose said something.  I only caught the tail end, “…fair game.”

“Open season,” Maggie agreed.  “Once you fall far enough through the cracks, you start losing the protections most of humanity enjoys.  The kid that locks himself in his room and never comes out, the antisocial couple, the poor schmo who loses his house and business.  If the goblins manage to help someone down that path, drag them down a little further, and some other Other doesn’t go after the unfortunate soul, they get to enjoy the reward.  Goblin SOP.  Standard operating protocol.  Making everyone’s bad days a little worse”

A memory crossed my mind.  Being woken from my sleep by a beating.  The mocking laughter.  Never seeing their faces, because I had to cover my head, because I had blood in my eyes.

One of them had called it off.  Let me limp away, crawl away when the limping proved too difficult.

They let me think I could maybe get to a busier street where I could beg for help, then kicked me one last time, hard enough to prove me wrong.

And another memory, one I had told Rose about, not long ago.  Being shot with BB guns.  The bruises, the way my arm had changed colors, and the fear I’d felt, wondering if I needed to go to the hospital.

There had been no laughter that time.  They had lurked in the shadows, firing until they had no more ammunition, watched me struggle, then feigned like they’d reloaded and were going to shoot me again, just to see me flinch.  I’d gone still for a time, and they had moved on when I looked up again.

Both memories had distorted.  Spend too long without revisiting memories, and they had a way of twisting.  When I remembered the laughter being a little too much, a little too high pitched from some, too deep from others, I’d told myself it was just my memory playing tricks on me.

When I remembered the mix of heights and body types of the ones with the BB guns, just one half-step outside the bounds of what one would expect from a typical crowd of people, I’d told myself the same.

Tricks of memory.  Easy to believe, especially when you didn’t want to think about it.

I didn’t like it.  I was already feeling like half a person, using the wrong soaps, being in an unfamiliar place, acting like someone entirely different in the heat of a fight, beating a woman -a something– to the point that she couldn’t move.  This was one more straw on the camel’s back, and I wasn’t sure what was going to give.

I grabbed my sandwich.

“…aren’t immortal,” Maggie was saying.  “They die like you or me.  But they breed.  I’d be really interested in reading a book about goblins, to see how that’s linked to their personal power, or see what keeps that in check.  I’ve become something of a goblin queen.”

“A what?” I asked.

“Someone works with spirits almost exclusively?  Shaman.  Work with time, you’re a chronomancer.  Fire?  Pyromancer.  The future?  Augur, predictomancer, something like that.  Work with demons, you’re a diabolist.  Work with goblins?  Goblin queen.”

“Johannes would be a goblin king, then?” Rose asked.

“Johannes is Johannes.  He works with anything and everything.  Others call him a sorceror, so that’s what I’m gonna call him.”

“Making you the resident goblin queen.  Is that by choice or happenstance?” Rose asked.

“Yes,” Maggie said.  “Former and/or latter.  You wanted to know where I come from?  I came from a place that was falling through the cracks.  And just like goblins might go after someone who’s slipped through civilization’s secure embrace, they’ll go after a location.  And it was bad.  Bad enough that not all of us made it out.”

“And even though goblins did this sort of thing to you, you’ll keep their company?  Work with them?” I asked.  My food sat on my plate, untouched.  I wasn’t that hungry anymore.

“Seal them, bind them, enslave them,” Maggie said.  “You gotta own the past, don’t you?  Own the bad parts as well as the good.  Let it make you stronger.”

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger?” I asked.

“Yes.  Exactly.”

“I always hated that phrase,” I said.  “No.  What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”

“Weren’t you telling me the other day that you survived some bad stuff, and so you’ve got keener instincts?” Rose asked.

“I said something like that,” I said.  “I’m not sure I’m stronger as a whole, though.”

My eyes darted in Maggie’s direction.

I added, “Maybe we can have this conversation another time.”

Rose nodded.

As if it was some way of fixing the unease I felt, I picked up the almost forgotten sandwich and took a bite.

“I dunno why,” Maggie said, “But it’s kind of eerie seeing you two disagreeing.  I thought somehow that mirror girl was some sort of subservient vestige thing, but she’s got a real personality?”

“We’re not giving up too much information on that front, either,” Rose said.  “It’s kind of a sore point.  Sorry.”

Sore point?

“No prob.  I’m not going to tell you guys my whole story, you don’t have to tell me yours.  I gotta go soon, though.  School, promises.  If we’re going to hash something out, we shouldn’t waste time.”

“We could invite you back,” I said.  “Same rules.”

“I could accept,” she said, matching me in terms of how noncommittal I was being.  “We sort of dropped the first bit of conversation we were having.  Figuring out what sort of deal we were negotiating.  It’s not so bad.  Apply a little pressure, get one person on board.”

I really wasn’t up to negotiating.

Rose, however, jumped into it, “We’re giving you a fair bit.  Not to be rude, but you seem to have an awful lot of demand too.  For knowledge, for books.”

“I’ll live if the deal doesn’t go through,” Maggie said.  She left the other half of her statement unsaid.  We might not.

“You’re really big on the unreasonable bargain,” Rose said.

“I would say I’m really big on not getting the short end of the stick.  Had enough of that, thank you,” Maggie said.

“Throw us a bone,” Rose said.

“What sort of bone?”

“You’re taking knowledge out of our hands every time you walk off with a book, and you’re putting us at risk and some small inconvenience every time we accept you in, assuming you might want to do your reading here.”

“I was kind of hoping we could be friendly-ish,” Maggie said.  “Give and take, in terms of enjoyment of one another’s company.”

“I’m flattered,” I said.  I hadn’t meant it to sound as morose as it did.  I was tired.  Not functioning.

The food might have been helping, though.  I felt a fraction better, having eaten.  Even if it was stale bread and a bit of cheese.

“Let’s not count on friendship,” Rose said.  “Take the friendship out of the equation, and we’re the ones with the short end of the stick.  Having someone show up unexpectedly, occupying our time when we could be focusing on something else…”

“We need allies, Rose,” I said.

“We do,” she agreed.  “But let’s call this what it is.  Maggie wouldn’t be here if she didn’t think she could get something.  She’s going to take a bit of our hospitality, she’s going to make use of our books.  I’m thinking we ask for a little something each time.”

“A little something?” Maggie asked.  She raised an eyebrow, giving me a very deliberate head-to-toe once-over look.

“A small favor, a token gift, a bit of power, some knowledge…” Rose said, trailing off.

“As what?  Payment for access to a given book?”

“Essentially,” Rose said.  “Everything has a price, doesn’t it?”

Maggie nodded.  “It does.  So.  You get someone accepting your deal.  Nonaggression from me.  You get a little something any time I get your book.”

“Or visit,” Rose cut in.

Maggie made a face.  “You don’t like me very much, do you?”

“I like you fine,” Rose said, in what were maybe the least friendly sounding words I’d heard out of her mouth.

“Uh huh.  So you get the ceasefire from me, a gift of some small to moderate value for allowing me access to this house or access to your stuff.  Unless you waive it?  Like, if I have something really good, and you decide it’s worth a bit more than usual?”

“I think that’s fair,” Rose said.

“Good.  Um.  I get access to knowledge, as you permit, though I get something.  I get a guarantee, too, that you’re going to do something to keep your demons from hurting me.”

“To be frank,” I said, “I dunno how.”

“What Blake means is we’ll find a way.  You’ll have definite, distinct protections against anything we contract with.”

“Good enough.  You’re not planning on summoning anything bad, are you?”

“No,” Rose said.  “If we do anything, it’s going to be accidental.”

“You swear?”

Rose glanced at me.  I nodded.

“I so swear that we have no intention of summoning anything of the nature you’re talking about,” Rose said.

“Then promise you’ll protect me when and where you’re able, using the knowledge and tools you’ve got,” Maggie said.  “I’ll settle for that.”

Vague.  I wouldn’t have settled for that sort of protection.

I was too tired to look up, so I only gave a thumbs up.

“Should the deal go through, I promise that will be the case,” Rose said, again.

“Good enough for me.  Yeah.  That sounds pretty good.  Is a verbal contract okay?”

“No,” I said.

No?”  Maggie asked.

“No,” I repeated myself.  “No verbal contract.  We can hash it out in writing.”

“Written contract.  Isn’t that more dangerous?  Room for traps and loopholes?” Maggie asked.

“Not if we keep it simple,” I said.  “Which we can.  After I get a good night’s sleep and talk things over with Rose.  But the interior of my skull is feeling a bit slow, I’m tired, and I’m not focused.  Tomorrow, or the day after.”

Maggie groaned, flopping back in her chair.  “Yeah.  Except it never works out that smoothly.”

“I don’t think anything is going to change in the next day or two,” Rose said.  “I’m sorry, but I sort of agree with Blake.  We should be careful and deliberate in anything we do.”

“You don’t think anything is going to change.  What?  You want a chance to spy on me?  Run a background check on the local?”

“Are we going to start fighting?” Rose asked.  “Because that’s a bad sign, if we descend into animosity so readily.”

“Animosity?” I asked.  “Readily?”

“I’ve been reading too many of these old books,” Rose said.

“I don’t want to be animostic,” Maggie said.  “I just want power.  And everyone’s keeping it to themselves and making me pay out of the nose for it.  I get teased with it, and it never gets delivered in full.  Padraic, the North End Sorcerer…”

“Dangerous guys to be associating with,” I said.

Maggie was up and out of her seat in an instant.  “I don’t have a choice!”

Wrong thing to say, wrong time.  I hadn’t realized how upset she was, how its barely restrained.

“Not if I want to do something!  And I don’t not want to do something because I did that when I had to watch my old neighborhood go up in blood and fire!”

“Calm down,” Rose said.

Maggie switched to a more sarcastic tone.  “Oh, yeah, How often does that work?  Tell someone to calm down and they chill out?”

“I don’t know,” Rose said.  “But I think, given that this is Blake’s house, and he can ask you to leave at any time, and we do want to work with you, we’ll all be happier if this conversation doesn’t escalate into something ugly.”

Maggie deflated a little.  “Crumbs.”

“Well put,” I said.  “Do me a favor?  Take a minute, we can enjoy a bit of silence, I’ll try not to fall asleep, and we start again when we all have our thoughts in order?”

“I gotta head to school in a few minutes,” Maggie said.  “Don’t have a lot of time.”

“Please?” I asked.

“I’m really not a patient type, but sure.”

“Thank you,” Rose murmured.

Maggie collapsed into her chair.  I took my time getting up, cleaning off the plate and putting it away in the drying rack.

I debated coffee, checking the tin.  Just enough grounds to tantalize me with the possibility, but leave me short of a decent brew.

I settled for tap water, instead, and felt suitably depressed over it.

I set a glass in front of Maggie before taking my spot on the couch.

“Cool?” I asked.

“I’m alright.”

“Alright,” I said.  “You understand that we have to be careful?”

“Yeah.  And… I did use the moment of silence to think.  As apology for my outburst, and maybe a bit of incentive to get you on board…”

She reached behind her back, and she put a piece of intricately folded paper on the table.  She used a flick of her index finger to send it sliding across the table.

I didn’t touch it.  “What is it?”

One tidbit I was able to pick up these past few months was about Eastern styles.  India, some of Japan.  See, they aren’t big on familiars and implements and demesnes.  Well, the Western-influenced ones are.  But they prefer to remain hands off, delineate pretty severely.  Their preference is to contain, bind, leash.”

“Okay,” I said.

“We walk around with the metaphorical equivalent of a canine companion.  They work with us, they help us hunt or they get our food, they get the benefits of cozy mortal living, we get the benefit of their talents.  In the East, in the places I’m talking about, they prefer to leash the things.  They tie their dogs to trees.  Or keep them behind fences.  You get my meaning?”

“I think so,” I said.

“That right there is an ofuda.  Your metaphorical dog in a cage, and it’s not a big dog, but it’s still a dog.  It barks, it bites.”

“A goblin.”

“A little bundle of mean.  He’ll come out gnashing and snarling, so point him away from you and at whoever you want to hurt.”

I picked it up.  “Amassing a bit of a collection of trinkets today.  Hatchet with a ghost inside, a lock of a faerie’s hair, now this.”

“Yeah?”

I had to stand to move my sweatshirt and draw the hatchet from where I’d jammed the handle in by my hip.  I needed a better way of holding it close to me.

I put it on the table beside the slip of paper.  Still standing, I removed the lock of hair from my back pocket.  It was only after I’d withdrawn it that I realized I’d managed to get it all in and out of my pocket without losing any.  If it had been my hair, I’d be finding hair in my back pocket for weeks.

“May I see the axe?”  Maggie asked.

“Look, but don’t touch,” I said.  “And it’s a hatchet, not an axe.”

“Semantics.”

“Do you not live in this world?” Rose asked.  “Semantics are important.”

The phrasing made me think of Paige.

God damn, I needed to interact with a familiar face so badly right now.  Heck, even an unfamiliar face… it would make a world of difference to ground me, to give me a solid injection of reality and sanity.

“Admittedly true,” Maggie was saying.  “They are important.  And people who argue over semantics are still a pain in the bum.”

“You’ve got to explain how you lost the ability to swear,” Rose said.

“I don’t got to do anything,” Maggie said.  “Unless we arrange that deal, and you agree that tidbit of knowledge is worth the loan of a book.”

I could follow the conversation, but wasn’t quite feeling up to joining in.  I looked at the piece of folded paper with letters scrawled on it in ink, then slipped it into the little mini-pocket of my right jeans pocket.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.

“Gotcha,” Rose said.  To Maggie, she said, “That sets a bad precedent.  You’ll be more inclined to hold details back just so you can sell them to us.”

I didn’t hear the rest, as I headed up the stairs.

I entered my grandmother’s room and paused, taking it in.

Nothing had changed since our conversation.  The bed was made, maybe a little dusty, everything was in order.  As though she had just left yesterday.

I could feel her presence here.  Not in a ghostly way, but in a general way.

I looked over the top of one dresser, where her old jewelry was arranged in boxes and on stands.  Modest stuff, not ostentatious.  Relatively little jewelry, all things considered.

My plan was to grab a fine chain, if I had to settle for the bare minimum.  Something stronger than cord or thread.  I didn’t have to settle.

A locket dangled from one of the racks.  Simple, unembellished.  Only a rectangle with rounded-off edges.  I had to move other necklaces to grab it.  When I popped it open, I found a sprig of some herb, dried up long, long ago, inside.

I sniffed it.

Lavender?  I could see my grandmother wearing it as a precaution against something specific.

I could also see her wearing it for the smell alone.

Very carefully, without touching it, I tapped it against the side of the dresser.  It wouldn’t do to poison myself with something I was misidentifying.

I made my way back downstairs, open locket in hand.  A classic container for a lock of hair.

When I reached the door to the living room, however, I found both girls looking in one direction.

The front door?

I went, then peered through the window.  A moment later, I opened the door.

It was Laird, in plainclothes.

“Hello, Officer Behaim.”

“Did you think I wouldn’t realize it was you?”

“I thought you might,” I answered.

“A declaration of war, Mr. Thorburn?”

“Call it what you will.  Retaliation?”

He sighed.  The lines in his face seemed a little deeper.  A tell?  Was he hiding anger or other sadness?  Or was he not a morning person?

“I’m disappointed,” he said.

“You sound like my dad used to, when you say that.”

“I’d hoped you would accept the temporary peace I was offering.  We didn’t have to be enemies in the strictest sense.”

“But I can be the dimwitted buffoon that you can abandon for the Others to get, after you’d promised me safe passage?” I asked.  “You can conspire against me at the meetings?  You want me to accept the meager kindness and peace you offer?”

“It would be smarter,” he said.

“That’s called shaking the hand you’re offering in friendship, while knowing your other hand is balled up into a fist and you can’t wait to use it to punch me in the balls.”

“Very colorful, Mr. Thorburn.  I’m not, I should stress, in a joking mood.”

“Oh?” I asked.  “Did I inconvenience you?”

“Marginally.  I’m more inconvenienced by the knowledge that we now have an ongoing dispute.”

“It doesn’t have to be,” I said.  “You fucked with me, I fucked with you.  We can leave it at that.”

“Leaving things be fails to resolve anything.  You’re dangerous.  Your continued existence puts my family at risk.  I no longer believe you’re going to abstain from the darker subject matters your grandmother freely dabbled in.  I have no reason to expect you’ll be as discreet or careful as she was.  Finally, we do need things settled before the paradigm here changes.”

It might have helped that I was as tired as I was.  I was disconnected enough that I was able to look like I didn’t give the slightest shit.

I saw his expression change a fraction, the lines deepening some.  “I’m forced to take action.”

“Action?” I asked.  The super-apathetic no-shit-giving attitude was still going strong.  “You put yourself in an awkward position, setting the bar at ‘killing me’ with our first meeting.  Now you’ve got to top that, which means jumping straight to fates worse than death.  But where do you go after that?  I mean, it’s hard enough threatening fates worse than death without sounding like a deranged fuckwit.”

“You’re not taking this seriously.”

“I’m tired,” I said.  “I’m not talking tired in the sense that I’m exhausted because I’m fighting for my life.  I’m tired in the sense that I want to go take a nap.  I woke up early to deliver that letter, and I spent some power along the way.”

I’d very nearly mentioned the fight with the Duchamp girl’s familiar, but I’d decided against mentioning that in case it got around and bit her in the ass, then bit me back on the karma front.

“Well,” he said.  “Far be it from me to keep you from your nap.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Is that all, then?”

“Two or so things, if I may?  First of all, you can expect me to respond.  It should be tomorrow, and you’ll notice it, even if the impact isn’t immediately clear.  I’m rather confident you’ll regret getting on my bad side.”

And here we went.

“That’s a shame,” I said.

“Second, I see you have a guest.  That would be… hm.”  He tilted his head a little, then spoke loud enough to be heard in the living room, “Maggie Holt.”

I heard noise.  Footsteps followed, with Maggie coming to stand beside me, hands jammed in her pockets to ward off the cold that was blowing in from outside.

“I wasn’t sure if it was clear,” Laird said, “But when my nephews met with you, they were supposed to hint that you should abstain from any contact with Mr. Thorburn and his vestige.”

“They hinted.  You could say I didn’t get it.”

“You’re playing a dangerous game, Ms. Holt.”

“I seem to,” she responded.

He took that in, taking his time with it, as he might digest a very profound statement.  His eyes found mine.  “Mr. Thorburn.”

“Can we wrap this up?  Unless your big plot to remove me from this world involves running up my heating bill.”

“I tell you this with no expectations.  I do not want or desire what you have offered in any deals you’ve proposed, and I have sworn not to accept any such offers.”

The words had a bit of substance to them, a care that woke me up a little from my general exhaustion.

“Yeah?” I asked.

“Maggie Holt is the one who orchestrated the attack on your cousin, Molly Walker.  She had command of several goblins and ordered them to strike her and leave her alive.  She did it at our behest, in exchange for small favors, gifts of power and offers of knowledge.”

I was glad for that exhaustion.  It kept me from doing anything.

Maggie had gone very still.  Eyes wide.

“I see,” I said.

“You swore you wouldn’t tell,” Maggie said.  “Everyone did.”

“We swore we wouldn’t take his deal and give him that influence.  I’m keeping my word,” he told her.  To me, he said, “When it went as poorly as it did, we were upset.  The public had taken notice, and they had alerted authorities.  We fulfilled the letter of the deal, but did so by offering Ms. Holt the bare minimum we could.”

“Including a lesson on how to use… what is it, paper seals?  Japanese name or something.”

Ofuda would be along the lines of what Sandra Duchamp might know,” Laird said.  “I think that was what she offered Maggie for the murder of Molly Walker.”

“Thank you for clarifying that detail.”  I reached into the little pocket and retrieved the bit of paper.  “With all due respect, Maggie, I’ll be returning this.”

“It was a gift, freely given,” she said, not making eye contact.

“It’s a gift with my cousin’s blood on it.  Maybe in it, if the goblin in here is one of the ones who participated in the attack.”

She didn’t respond, which was answer enough.

“Take it, or I’m going to free it.  Hospitality be damned.”

She hesitated, and then she seemed to realize I’d just made a statement.  No maybes, no ‘I thinks’, no hedging.  I was going to follow through.

She took the paper.

“It’s complicated,” Maggie said.  “If I could have a minute to explain-”

“You can have five,” I said.  “Ten minutes, if you need them.  I’m-”

I stumbled over my words a bit.  A bit of emotion, slipping through the exhaustion, and a bit of exhaustion, winning out over my body.

I drew in a little breath, composed myself, then said, clearer, “-I’m eager to hear this.”

She stood there, silent, staring up at me.

“Okay,” she said.  “I thought I’d say that and you’d say no, but I could think it over and say something convincing later, but I can’t explain.  Not on the spur of the moment.  Like I said, it’s complicated, there was more going on.  I-”

“Maggie,” I interrupted her.  “You should be off to school.”

“I promised I’d go, I didn’t promise I’d be there the whole day.  I can stay, we can talk this over, hammer it out.  I don’t dislike you.  I meant it when I said I was entering with no ill will.”

“No shame?”  I asked.  “No guilt?”

“Not then,” she said.  “Some now, that I’ve gotten to know you.”

“You lied to my face,” I said.

“I can’t lie.  I’m a practitioner.”

“A lie by omission.”

“Doesn’t count, or we’d be lying every passing second.  Blake, she wasn’t even a person to me.  They talked her up, big bad diabolist who didn’t know what she was doing.  I only really talked to her after I ordered the attack, saw how she wasn’t doing anything except defending herself, and I realized what I’d done.  I tried to call it off, but it doesn’t work that way.”

I could remember being beaten, the people kicking me, using weapons… and the connection to what had happened to Molly made it feel doubly real.

Maggie chose that moment to reach out, and I grabbed her hand, crushing it inside mine, hard enough to hurt her.  I could see her reaction run through her entire body.  Pain, fear.

“I’m sorry,” she said, despite whatever else she was experiencing.  “That moment was when I decided I was done working with these guys.  I sorta kinda wanted to be your ally, make it up to your family, somehow.”

I shifted my grip on her hand, so I held only the fingers.

Karma, hospitality…

I raised her hand to my mouth, and I kissed the knuckles.

“Thank you for visiting, Maggie,” I said.  “I appreciated your company, even if I don’t, right this second.  I appreciate the information you shared, and the gift you offered.”

“I want to make this better,” she said, quiet.  “I’d really like a chance.  If not now, then later.”

“I’ll take that under advisement,” I said.  “But first, I’d like you to look me in the eye and tell me that your visit here was more about making genuine amends than getting your hands on some more knowledge or power.”

She met me in the eye, then looked down.

“Can I say it was fifty-fiftyish?  That that’s an awful lot of wanting to make amends, when you’re as power hungry an idiot as I am?”

“I don’t think so, Maggie.  That’s not good enough.”

“Ff-f-f,” she struggled.  “Fluffernutter.”

“Fluffernutter,” I said.  “Please leave now, before I do something I’ll regret.”

“Yep,” she mumbled.  I waited while she stepped into her boots, zipped them up, and made her way out onto the porch.

“You two have a good day,” I said, monotone.

“You too,” Laird said, smiling just a bit.

I slammed the door.

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Famulus: The Familiar

Chapter One: Preface and Introduction

Famulus is a result of many years’ teaching in private circles.  As it became vogue to hire tutors around the year 1785, powerful members of the community gained a certain prominence, not-insignificant profits, and found themselves wrestling with a great deal of frustration.  This frustration stemmed from the fact that one tutor would teach one thing, which the next tutor would have to correct or account for.  They exchanged correspondence, to find out what had been taught and why, and opened discussions on how things might be done better.

No subject had quite held much importance or drove more heated discussions than the familiar ritual.  A lifelong bond between a human and a spirit, a connection forged between them and fed with power to be made permanent.

The word familiar comes from the Latin famulus, meaning servant.  It came to refer to household and family, and over time, transitioning to the French familier, it came to mean ‘intimate, on a family footing’.  In all of these meanings, description, ritual and word are linked.  The familiar becomes family, the bond is intimate, and there is an implication of servitude.

Even after two hundred years of discussion and refining of this material, several ideologies and approaches stand out.  These details are discussed in separate chapters.  Each chapter that follows is preceded by a set of case studies.

In chapter two, we discuss the familiar itself.  What it is.  The limitations.  The diversity in approaches, which will be expanded on in subsequent chapters.

In chapter three, we discuss the bond.  The key points, early approaches, modern approaches, universal constants in the human-Other relationship, and the shape of the relationship before and after the ritual is enacted.

In chapter four, we look at the social contexts and environment.  Differences in familiars by region, microsocial factors, macrosocial factors, and cultural factors.  Both the practitioner-familiar relationship to the outside world and the outside world’s relationship to the practitioner-familiar relationship will be discussed.

In chapter five, we look at the familiars themselves.  Corporeal and non-corporeal beings, beings from a delineated subtype with a pedigree or subcuture and Others who are unique and standalone.

Case Study for Chapter Two: Annabelle and Tromos, Steed of Enyo.

The penthouse apartment is dark and quiet.  The rain traces streams down the windows, and despite the gloom, neither occupant has made an effort to turn on the lights or ignite one of the lanterns that seem so prevalent in the space.  There are no walls in the apartment, and everything from the bed to the kitchen is visible, decorated in a clear, distinctive style.  In other homes, there are signs of things that don’t fit; gifts that were received which do not match the owner’s style, or things that were bought because they were inexpensive.  Annabelle has made no such concessions, and everything in the space matches, with a motif of wrought iron, crisp linen and very solid oak fixtures for the furniture.  Chains are visible, hanging from the bedframe, and there are various instruments of war mounted on racks and walls, both typical spears and swords, shields, and the less typical meteor hammer, Eastern weapons and a wicked mancatcher that sits just above the chair she has chosen to sit in for our interview.  Viewed under the Sight, every one of these objects vibrate with power.

Annabelle herself is stately and elegant, wearing a simple black dress that wouldn’t be out of place in a business setting, her hair styled upward, but her feet are bare.  As she sits in her chair, Tromos lies under her feet, his head just under one of Annabelle’s bare feet, which moves periodically to stroke him.  The familiar wears the guise of a great black battle-scarred tibetan mastiff, with three different spiked collars ringing its neck.

Interviewer M. Saville (S):  The tape recorder is on.  Good evening.  Thank you for agreeing to this.

Anabelle (A):  Your offering was adequate.

[Note:  The Interviewer brought a Macallan 1949 Single Single highland malt as payment for the hospitality and interview.]

S:  I’m glad.  Shall we start with the basics?  Who are you?  Do you have any focus to your craft?

A:  I am Lord of this city.  Conventional wisdom calls me a Valkyrie.

S:  A shaman, imbuing objects with power and incorporeal Others.

A:  Yes.

S:  And Tromos, Steed of Enyo?  I know who and what you are, but I’d like to have it on the record for the benefit of our readers.

Tromos, Steed of Enyo (T):  You may call me Tromos, we can do without the title to hurry this along.  I was the steed of a goddess of war and ruin.  The gods I served, fought beside, and fought against have grown weaker in recent years.  While my gods withered and grew small, their worshipers few, I turned to creating dreams of utter terror, and I have survived the centuries.

A:  Conventional wisdom would call my Tromos a Nightmare.

S:  How did you meet?

A:  An enemy of mine sent him against me, to deny me sleep and weaken my position before negotiations.  It worked.  An unfamiliar battlefield, a powerful foe.  Terror dreams so bad that they gave me nightmares for weeks after the fact.  My enemy took the upper hand.  They decided to use Tromos again.  I suspect to weaken my position, because I was a contender at the time for Lord of the city.

S: And?

A: It worked the second time, but I held my seat.  On the third time… you do know the rule of three, don’t you?  Third time’s a charm, so to speak.  There’s a bit more power in it.  That third victory matters more than the first two put together.

S: In some areas.  It has power because we give it power.

A: My opponent gave it power, then.  On the third attempt, I beat Tromos, and there was an advantage in that, more than I might have had if I’d won on the first or second time.  I turned Tromos against the one who set him on me, then I turned him on the co-conspirators, and I directed him to a handful of the people who tried to take advantage of my diminished faculties.  We came to like each other.

T:  She has something of the poise of the gods I used to serve.  She was ruthless in dealing with her enemies, which is good.  When she showed that she could become Lord by her own merit, I accepted the deal.

S:  Can I ask what the balance of power is between you?

A:  I take power from Tromos.  He shores up my weaknesses, as I’m focused on physical applications.  Objects I can hold.  His power lies in emotion, in dreams, and he is a divine being.  When I need strength against something I can’t chain down or impale with a spear, I borrow power from my familiar.  He herds the spirits so I might bind them into objects.  Through my connection to him, everything I do and touch conveys a trace of fear to others.

S: What does Tromos get out of the bargain?

T:  Were I to ask you if you could take four years without having to eat, if you did not feel like it?  Four years where you did not suffer any if you did not sleep?  That is what this is to me.  I am anchored in this world.  So long as I am bound to her, I will not degrade, I will not hunger.  Any power I take can make me stronger, and so long as she does not fritter it away, which she will not, I will be in a better place than I was before.

S:  What happens after?  Annabelle isn’t immortal, I presume.

A:  We’ve talked about that.

T:  I enjoy her company.  If she is strong enough, she will join me in the dreams.  When I visit nightmares unto others, I ride them down.  The great black wolf, the bull, the horse, the brutish man.  They flee, tripping and injuring themselves, climbing to their feet, only to trip again, until they are too battered to stand.  Or they run out of strength and hear my footfalls as they lie there, panting, and then they feel the injuries.  They feel pain, they know terror.  I could see Annabelle there.  A rider astride me, a taunting voice, someone to trip them up one final time, to bar their way.  When we were not riding down our prey, we might roam, visit realms, domains and demesnes freely open to Others.

A:  That sounds like a fun way to spend a few decades or centuries.

S:  She would be subordinate to you, then, Tromos?  A passenger you carry with you through the world of dreams?

A:  As much as Tromos is subordinate to me now, by which I mean not at all, not in practice.

T:  I would not have it.

S:  Regrets?  Things you didn’t expect?

T:  You learn a great deal about humans, being mortal, spending so much time around them.  I’ve grown better at what I do.  Knowing the physical responses, what it feels like to have a heart thudding in the chests.

A:  It opened up a whole world for me.  Dream, fear, a bit of the divine.  I’ve taken a more old-school path, Valkyrie-wise, with a little bit of worship in there.

S: No regrets, then?

A:  None worth speaking of.  I mean, I probably won’t ever marry.  Or have friends.  Anyone who interacts with me too much has bad dreams.  But I’m at peace with that.

S:  Anything else to add?

A:  We’re wrapping up already?  No.  Nothing else.

Implementum

Chapter Five: Symbol of Office

This chapter, like previous chapters, has a dual purpose.  The first is on a new subject: the effects on personal presentation and the status afforded by one’s implement.  Second, by examining the role of the implement on a symbolic, social level, we can review the major elements of the implement covered already in this text and view these things in another light.

When addressing the relationship between the implement and the context we find it in, we aren’t interested in the implement that just so happens to be found in a particular context.  Rather, we are concerned with how implements of a particular type form trends and patterns as they find their ways to certain types of individual, and the status and ideas they present to others.

To these ends, we will be using some of the twenty-one example implements we used in previous chapters to illustrate.

The Stone is, of course, not an implement anyone would choose.  It is empty, base, simple and unrefined.  However, as in previous chapters, the stone can serve to introduce and illustrate ideas.  Fitting, perhaps, given the stone’s already stated nature as the ‘zero’ of implements.

What is the stone’s relation to others?  There are three dimensions we can study:

The Declarative.  What does the stone convey to others, in terms of what it is and what it says about you?  In every case, every obvious aspect about the object itself will say something about the wielder.  If the stone is rough, it may convey the wielder is rough.  An ornate object might convey the wielder has a certain prestige.  When you read the second chapter and imagined the type of individual who might wield a stone as an implement, did you think of a cave man or thug?  Someone earthy?  Someone crude?  Someone stupid?  Certainly possible, if the stone is so heavy it cannot be readily carried, and the practitioner still chose it.  This is the implement’s declarative aspect.  From the manner that the object must be transported or carried, displayed or hidden, we can determine certain things about a practitioner.

The Authoritative.  What does the stone convey to others when it is used?  In chapter three, we discussed the effect of the implement on the practice.  This is a related element, but our concern is on others, and others will find the stone and any workings utilizing the stone to be blunt, direct, unrefined, and hard to ignore once it comes to bear.

Socio-cultural. What groups use this implement?  Why?  What is their focus?  From here, we draw statistics from communities around the world where implements are used.  We don’t have hard data on who might have used the stone as an implement or where, as it isn’t in common or uncommon use.

The remainder of the implements, Declarative, Authoritative and Socio-Cultural:

The Wand

Declarative – The wand is not in common use in the world, barring stage shows.  However, it is easily hidden, indicating a balance between the two worlds.  It can easily be decorated or high quality, and is distinctly of practitioners and the practice.  As such, the wielder can be assumed to be focused on practitioners and their workings.  The result might be an ease with altering or adjusting the work of others, defense against workings, and especially offense against workings (see the notes on the Authoritative, below).

Authoritative – The Wand is short and readily hidden.  It is adroit, easily flourished, stylish and not without some small versatility.  It lends itself to creativity and movement, but is phallic and direct in demeanor, implying conviction and a more aggressive nature when brandished in seriousness.

Socio-Cultural – The Wand is predominantly used in London, with a surveyed sixty-three percent of practitioners carrying wands there.  In the practitioner schools in the United Kingdom, wands are provided to the students by default, for their convenience, easy portability, and a prevailing sentiment that the wand is the strongest implement of choice for practitioner dealings against hostile practitioners.

The Talisman

Declarative – The talisman indicates an idea or object of importance to the wearer.  It can be readily worn in plain sight, but indicates a manner of symbolism and power that isn’t evident at first sight.  The wearer might be assumed to be more intuitive than direct, more wise or focused on the abstract than brash or real.  The nature of the talisman, once it is recognized as an implement, might indicate a great deal about the wearer, leading to fast conclusions.

Authoritative.  The talisman is subtle and readily hidden, but unlike the wand or knife, it isn’t inherently threatening.  The emphasis might be on symbols and depictions, secrets and bindings, but not necessarily traps, as well as elements of larger fixtures.  As something worn, it tends to relate to the practitioner and their being, and to the practitioner and things they can touch or touch the talisman to.

Socio-Cultural.  Talismans used to be worn by sects in what would become Ireland, but they have fallen out of favor, given their naturally passive nature.  It is interesting to note the recurring rise and fall of talismans as implements in sisterhoods, with some appearing in small covens, even in modern times.

The Scepter

Declarative.  The scepter is bold, brilliant, almost always dramatic in appearance, and is impossible to ignore.  It is not readily hidden, and with its natural link to presence, station, and organization, suggests a kind of personal power and aspiration on the part of the wielder.  Despite the phallic shape, the scepter is rarely pointed, but is instead held, prominent and visible.

Authoritative.  The focus of the scepter is not necessarily on striking, nor does it flourish so well as the wand.  The scepter is focused, instead, on presentation.  The wielder of a classic scepter might be more focused on the manner of things, not alteration, but on granting and lending effects to things.  As the king wields a scepter to represent the royal family, the scepter wielder’s reach may also extend to their organization or family.

Socio-Cultural.  Few organizations make use of scepters en masse.  Instead, the scepter is chosen in isolated cases as a statement, a subtle challenge that indicates a desire for power or station in some form, or one’s representation of their family.  The largest group that might be said to make regular use of the scepter would be the Anglo-influenced Japanese families of practitioners, who have taken on the Western traditions of choosing implement, familiar, and demesnes for their personal power.  The proposed head of a household of practitioners bears a symbol of office that resembles the scepter in execution, though it is typically a blade that never leaves its sheath.

The Sword

Declarative.  Few implements are so obvious as the sword in their declarative purpose.  Phallic in every respect, direct, obvious, impossible to hide, it is a declaration of war while drawn and implies a readiness for battle while kept on one’s person.

Authoritative.  The sword is used to attack above all else, and can puncture all but the strongest defenses, and it lends the same to the workings its practitioner uses.  Better at deflecting than defending, the sword remains predominantly concerned with war and offensive and defensive uses.

Socio-cultural.  In the United States and England, the Sword as an implement has an unfortunate tendency to come about when young men decide what their implement will be.  At this time in their lives, their hormones are at the highest point and their ‘maleness’ is most pronounced.  Nearly nine percent of male practitioners under the age of eighteen pick the sword, only to find it serves less of a purpose as they reach adulthood.  Some have suggested that this is linked to the same trend where youths are introduced to the practice and largely abandon it later in life.

The Chalice

Declarative.  The chalice is a hard item to carry about day to day, though it can be kept in a purse or bag.  At the same time, it is not explicitly out of place in the world.  More often, however, the chalice is ornamental, found in a home or on a table or desk rather than outside that home or room.  The chalice is explicitly female, in shape (note the profile of the chalice itself), in the link to water and wine, and the passive, receptive nature of the piece.  The chalice is not the province of women alone any more than the sword belongs to men alone, but a man wielding a chalice might be viewed in a light very similar to a woman holding a sword, especially by the more traditional.  As a drink is rarely taken alone, the chalice might be declare something on a social level.

Authoritative.  The chalice is a container, and as such, can be used to hoard a measure of power, but unlike the box, it does not contain or store it long-term.  Many will use the chalice to hold blood from a sacrificed individual or being, and as such it becomes a battery for power.  As the chalice holds liquid, the implement allows the wielder to hold or sustain effects, using the aforementioned battery.

Socio-Cultural.  The use of the chalice wanes in almost perfect accordance with the rise of women’s rights and female independence.  Once a traditional and even expected implement for woman practitioners, the chalice is being replaced by things more personal, dropping from a fifty-nine percent usage in Europe to an eleven percent usage at the time of this text’s publication.

Exercises for the Novice

Take time to consider how the other fifteen iconic implements might be viewed and exercised in a declarative, authoritative or socio-cultural light:  Tome, Ring, Chakram, Plate, Staff, Coin, Emblem, Chain, Skull, Knife, Standard, Lens, Mask, Lantern, Trumpet, and Coffer.

Demesnes

Chapter Nine: First Steps in one’s Place of Power

In chapter nine, we introduce a new example.  Fionna is one of the Draoidh, a priestess, alone.  She has blood, family and the woman as her personal totems, a drinking vessel crafted of her brother’s freely given skull as her implement, and no familiar.

She bought the building her apartment is in, made her claim, fought for the property, and won it.  After weeks of effort and days of challenges, she has a place of power.

For so many practitioners, the question is simple: ‘now what’?

It is easy to be caught up in the hectic and thought-consuming task of staking one’s claim, making the claim and dealing with the challengers.  In Fionna’s case, she incurred several debts, but lost nothing of substance in negotiating matters when the challenge was lost.

In the quiet that follows the storm, it is easy to make the simple, damning mistake of thinking one must maintain that pace.  Practitioners must remember that once the final challenge is past, they have a lifetime to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

Fionna forces herself to step away from the demesne for a time, to better ensure her perspective is fresh and unsullied by recent events.  She sees to the small debts she can in the practitioner community, works at her day job as a nurse in obstetrics, and takes the time to meet with friends she has neglected while seeing to her side project.

Remember that the demesne is a reflection and an extension of the self.  The practitioner should remind themselves of who they are and reacquaint themselves with forgotten interests, hobbies, connections, and matters of taste and style.

When Fionna does return to her place of power, she finds herself disappointed.  There is little doubt this is her place of power, but the effect is minor at best.  The spirits and entities that have not been driven away by the challenge are few in number, and she finds herself less powerful in her domain than she is elsewhere.

After the monumental investment in time and effort, and the debts incurred, initial reactions can be devastating.  This, in itself, can be damaging, because one’s mood and ideas can influence the demesne, and the demesne at this point in time is in a fledgling state.

Fionna is more or less at ease, thanks in large part to the time she took to herself.  She focuses on the details.  She sees how the very air in her demesne cooperates.  It tastes cleaner, it does not bar her movement, but buoys her.  The ground accommodates her footfalls.  She tries to manipulate the environment, by combinations of touch, word, and will, and finds it easy.  The aesthetics are the easiest part of it to change, and she takes her time altering her surroundings.

Fionna makes wall and floor into flesh, the place of power becoming a womb of sorts.  All things in her place of power are moist, and the ticking of a clock becomes the dull, distant thud of a heart.  Veins on every surface throb in time with the sound.

There are no wrong answers with how one customizes their place of power, but one should keep in mind that they may want to invite another into the area, and make the necessary arrangements.

The area is very easy to influence, and this can prove problematic, if one has other power sources in play.  The biggest and most obvious issue is when the familiar enters the picture.  As an extension of the practitioner, they have a claim to some of the place of power.  If the practitioner and familiar are in accord, the issue is a minor one.  If they are not, it can be a source of friction that compromises the demesne. In any event, the familiar’s nature, background, mentality and power will affect the demesne.

In other cases, the practitioner may be drawing personal power from another source.  To use a metaphor, this may add a dollop of color to the paintbrush, leaving streaks on the demesne as the practitioner paints.  If they draw power from death and decay, they might find these elements alter the surroundings.

A typical solution is to focus this power.  If the familiar cannot be reconciled with, the practitioner can focus this other power into an area.  The familiar can be given a dedicated space, so that their power does not bleed throughout the remainder of the demesne.  These hypothetical powers of death and decay could be focused into a single ornament or object decorating the area.

The draoidh briefly laments the mess caused by the blood in her demesne, pools of sanguine humor and warm trickles from the roof.  As she cleans, she discovers that she can remove the mess while retaining the blood.  A small contradiction, but possible nonetheless.

With testing, she finds she can alter the other rules of her surroundings.  Even a small demesne can be larger inside than it was on the outside.  Laws of gravity, physics, rules of magic and more can be bent or broken entirely.

Any rule can theoretically be broken within the demesne.  Should every rule be broken?  No.  Everything in moderation.

Stories abound of practitioners who never left their demesnes.  A place that is entirely theirs, where they are a step below a god, and a place where they are safe.  The issue arises when the practitioner loses their connection to the outside world.  With nothing tying them to people or things, they stagnate, growing weaker, and as they grow weaker, so does the place of power.

The effect is a cyclical one, prompting some desperate practitioners to devote more time and attention to rescuing their domain, failing to see the problem at the root of the issue.  In other cases, the practitioner is so attached to their demesne that they become a part of it.  When it fades from the world, so do they.

When the practitioner’s demise coincides with that of their place of power, the end result is typically a ghost, and/or a location saturated with power.

When Fionna leaves her domain, she finds more time than expected has passed.

This is a typical thing.  Intentionally or instinctively, a practitioner often manipulates time within their realm.  When they leave, however, time hurries to catch up with them.  The end result is often not intuitive, and can lead to some confusion.  Adapting to this eventuality is a part of learning to use one’s place of power.

Whilst outside of her place of power, Fionna finds the connection to the location remains strong, wherever she is.  She can deposit power there and rest assured it is untouched.  She can also use the location to transmute power, turning personal power into karmic assets, draw from one kind of power to better influence a connection.

As one can determine the rules within their realm, they can use the place as a form of esoteric moneychanger, changing one kind of power for another.  Some find that they can draw on their continual connection to their place of power to access it from remote locations.  This typically requires a fair amount of power, and may be rooted in certain rules or restrictions.  One might use a key in any appropriate lock to access their demesne, for example.  Others might draw a door in chalk, or step through a pool of blood left around a slain enemy.

As she’s made her place her own, Fionna finds that she can use power more readily in the area.  She notes, in a matter of fact way, that simply holding a demesne generates good karma, bettering her position in the world so long as she tends to the space.  The problem, however, remains, she isn’t stronger there than she is in the outside world.

Having driven away spirits in the course of the challenge, our example case finds that the spirits and beings that remain are conciliatory.  How, then, does the practitioner build up a power base?

Fionna finds that as she draws and manipulates power in and around the demesne, its power extends into the real world and vice versa.  Spirits in alignment with her draw like spirits with them, and on a more complicated level, intelligent beings who visit her demesne and find it to their liking may contact others.  Word of mouth spreads, for lack of a better term.

Herein lies the heart of the demesne dilemma.  The greater the claim, the greater the power that is reaped.  But an area where there are no beings to challenge the practitioner will have few beings of any import occupying or neighboring it, almost strictly by definition.  It proves useless to the practitioner.  Worse, it is stagnant, refusing to grow, for one needs power to gain power, and such spaces have no inherent power to start with.

It is a canvas to be painted, but nothing more.

She settles into her new role as ruler of this demesne.  As she forms contacts with Others, the demesne becomes a meeting place and even a home to some beings, who give her tribute in turn, by way of power, gifts, or service.

A subject that leads us into our next chapter, on the rules and dealings of others within the demesne.

Famulus: The Familiar

Case Study for Chapter Two: Lacey and Vic.

Vic is clearly nervous.  He fidgets, and in the minute before the interview begins, downs a beer, gets up to get another, and nearly downs the second.  His clothes have stains that indicate they haven’t been washed in some time, and his beard growth and the state of his hair suggest the same.  His hygiene and condition excepted, the only remarkable trait about him is his height.

Lacey, by contrast, is motionless, staring at the interviewer.  She wears only a sleeveless t-shirt and underwear as she sits beside Vic on the couch.  Her hand never leaves her weapon.  An engraved gun.

The house is very similar to the couple that own it.  As they haven’t taken much care of themselves, they’ve let the house languor.  The front yard is overgrown, mess litters every surface inside, and bottles are predominant in that clutter.  There are children’s toys, but no sound or sign of a child in the house.

Interviewer U. Roike (R):  You’re sure this is alright?  You don’t look very at ease.

Lacey (L):  We’re never at ease.  You have that?

R:  Yes.  I’ll give it to you when the interview is done.

L:  Fine.  Then get us started.

R:  You’re the practitioner.  Vic is the Familiar?

L:  That’s right.

R:  We decided the interview questions in advance, so we could compare and contrast for the book.  If we deviate, it’s only going to be a little.  Can I ask?  Who are you?  What’s your background?

L:  I’m [insert pause] I don’t know.  A girl.  A woman, I guess, even if I don’t feel like a grown-up, and I’m almost thirty.  Grew up in the next town over.  Went to school, had friends.  I guess the only thing that set me apart was that my mom and dad knew some of this magic stuff.  They taught me it, told me they wanted me to gain an edge.

R:  Did you?

L:  Yes.  Popular, did okay in my classes.  Cheated every step of the way, using the tricks I’d been taught, but yeah.  Someone made a problem for me, I’d put them down hard.  Ended up on top of the heap.  Dated the captain of the local basketball team.

[Note:  Lacey pauses to indicate Vic, beside her.]

R:  And you, Vic?  Who are you?

Vic (V):  I was on top of the heap, like Lacey, but I didn’t cheat to get there.  Natural talent and hard work.  Met Lacey, she introduced me to this stuff.

R:  You’re getting ahead of me.  Can I confirm?  You’re human?

V:  Am I?  I was.

R:  You were human when you met Lacey.

V:  Yes.

R:  Alright.  You were telling me how you two met.

V:  She was there.  At a party.  I said hi, she said hi back.  The longest we’ve been apart since is when we slept.  Phone calls, meetings before school, meeting between classes, meeting after school.  Parties.  She was there for the games.

R:  You were successful?

V:  Yes.  I mean, not like I was going to be going to the top school in the country on a sports scholarship, but there was a damn good chance a college was going to invite me to play for them, you know?

R:  You use the past tense.

V:  It’s an old story, isn’t it?  Stupid kid starts using performance enhancers, only it goes bad.  Side effects take over.  Except they weren’t drugs.  Not steroids or any of that.  Lacey had another way.  Warpaint, a few words.  Some of the other guys on the team got into it.

L:  My mom always called it riding.

R:  Possession.

L:  Controlled possession.  A spirit of something fierce, to make him move a little faster, make him a little stronger, give him that edge he needs to spook the other guys for a second when he looks them in the eye.  Surface deep stuff.  Stuff that can be explained away by placebo effect and some cosmetic stuff for the team.

R:  What happened?  It went wrong?

V:  We’re not sure what happened.  The stars aligned wrong, or it was a full moon, or whatever it was got a foothold somewhere along the way.  I put on the war paint and I wasn’t me anymore.  I came to, and I was violently ill, soaked in blood.  Someone else’s.  Adam Chelt.  Kid we’d picked on in school.  While I was out of it, I’d gone after him.  Ate my fill of him, threw up, ate more, woke up while throwing up.  I slip in and out, now.  The wind blows the wrong way, and I’m not me.  Even when the wind isn’t blowing, though, I’m not the me I used to be.  I breathe different.  React different when stressed.  I don’t get sick, barely eat.

L:  It’s a nature spirit.  A predatory one.  The hawk, the wolf, the fox, the wild cat, all bundled up into one thing.  I baited it, I leashed it, and I contained it.  There was no way it should have become as strong as it was.  No way the boundary between Vic and the spirit should have broken down like it did.  But they’re one and the same, now.

R: I note that Vic wears human form.

L:  Most deals allow familiars to go back to their regular form.  Human form is Vic’s regular shape.  We modified the deal, so there wouldn’t be any changing one way or another.  Way we figured it, we’re trying to get Vic to be less like a spirit and more like a person.  Turning him into a mouse or cat or whatever doesn’t help things on that end.

R:  Taking a small form helps to conserve power, but I suppose that wasn’t a concern.  No reason to believe he is slowly losing power?

L: No.  Maybe he is, but not like that.  No.  Stuff like his eyes and hair change back and forth day by day, depending on how much of a hold the spirit has.  His behavior too.  The bond stabilizes things, anchors it all in place, but the spirit is still getting more leverage.  Creeping in around the edges.

R:  Which gives me an excuse to get back on topic.  You say it stabilized him.  Was that the reasoning behind forming the bond in the first place?

L:  No.  We didn’t even realize it was a problem, back then.  We did know he was a little more Other than he should be, which gave us the idea.

V:  I went to court.  I mean, I’d murdered someone, and nobody was backing me up.  Lacey went to the local practitioners, but they told her I was shit outta luck.  Police said it was drugs, and I couldn’t argue, not without saying something that’d get me sent to a psychiatric hospital.

L:  He got out on bail, which kind of didn’t surprise me.  Local sports star, you know?  We tried to remove the spirit, might have succeeded if he hadn’t spent the days and night he did in jail, in the meantime.  Too long, too much chance for the spirit to get its claws in.  Came down to it, and we decided we needed to resort to other means.

V:  Getting ourselves in deeper.

L:  The thing with familiars, it’s like, you’ve got a cord between you and the familiar.  A tether, or a channel with stuff flowing both ways.  And you’ve locked it in.  You always know where the familiar is, and they know where you are.  It’s a hard thing to break.  Your familiar won’t die like they otherwise might, but they might borrow a chunk from you to keep themselves going, if they want.  Part of any connection between things is proximity.  Not many situations where a master is going to get separated from their familiar.  So we did the bond, sealed it, whole shebang.  That bond’s a leash, tying him to me and vice versa.  But if you keep a grip on things, that leash isn’t going to stretch any.  The distance between us is set.  No way he was going off to prison if I didn’t.  We’re one unit, right?

V: One unit.

[note: at this point, Victor leaves to get another beer.]

L:  Once we had the bond, the system couldn’t get hooks into him.  It tried.  People pointed fingers at me, but since we weren’t going to be going to the same prison, that didn’t get much traction.  There was a pregnancy scare.  I imagine the world was contriving to put me in some shitty hick town just outside the prison, regular visits.  I dunno.  Once I fixed that, things settled down.  Probation.  We moved in together.  So it worked, I guess.

R:  What is the balance of power is between you two?

L:  What do you mean?

V:  She wants to know who wears the pants in this relationship.

R:  More nuanced than that.

L:  Yeah, no, I get it.  Thing is, it isn’t just us two.  You’ve got the spirit in there.  You want to know who wears the pants?  It’s the spirit.  It’s the spirit that makes Vic restless, so he can’t be in a car or a city without feeling like he’s in the wrong place.  Spirit that’s made it so he can’t touch metal without it hurting him somehow.  Knives go out of their way to cut him, scuffed patches on metal catch at his skin to make him bleed, cars won’t start if he’s inside.  So we’re here.  Middle of fuck all nowhere.  Fifteen minute drive to the nearest shitty convenience store where I can buy cigarettes, beer, and bread.

R:  In terms of power, do you draw power from him?

L:  Nah.  No, I tried.  Tried to siphon as much as I could, every way I thought I could.  See if I couldn’t weaken the spirit so he could beat it.

V:  Like radiation, shrinking a tumor before surgery.

L:  He was always clever like that.  Yeah.  Like radiation.  Except radiation’s bad for you, right?  We pushed, the spirit pushed back, and the spirit won in the end.  That’s when we had to move out of the city.  It got a foothold in there, and he’s restless all the time, now.  So I back him up.  He takes power from me.  Because he is losing his Self, in a way.  Capital S.  Takes a chunk out of me, but I try to back him up, so he stays Vic and doesn’t become something halfway between Vic and the spirit.

V:  Or the spirit eats me.  Because that’s what predators do.  They tear chunks out of their prey and they eat them.

R:  I suppose that answers my question.  What happens after.

L:  Been a long, long time since I gave any thought to ‘after’.

[Note: Victor nods at this.]

R:  Were there any elements you didn’t expect?  Regrets?

L:  What kind of question is that?

R:  The last question, before I give you the talisman.  Same question we’re asking all of the interviewees we’re considering for this chapter.

L:  Do I have to answer?  Will you not give us the talisman if I don’t want to respond?

R:  I think you’ve already answered.  Thank you for your time.

L:  Not like we’re going anywhere.

[Note:  The talisman, intended to help Vic manage his control over his Other half, was given to the couple, and the interview ended there].

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