Category Archives: 2.01

Damages 2.1

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

The pen scribbled across the paper.

Weapons.  A knife, a larger weapon if I could manage it.  A gun would be ideal but hard to find.  Different Others had different drawbacks and weaknesses.  Ideally I’d be able to pick up an assortment of weapons in a variety of materials.  The problem was, I wasn’t sure where I could get those things.

That raised several more questions.  I needed a better way to get information.  Internet.  I needed a way to buy supplies, if my cash reserve ran out.  Money.

I switched to another piece of paper, this one headed with the word ‘Needs’.  Beneath clothes and a brief shopping list of food staples that would last me a while, I added the two new points about internet access and needing to contact the lawyers.  I hesitated, then added other points.  Joel’s car and keys, which I had borrowed, needed to be returned, if they weren’t already.  Rose needed assistance.  I needed allies.

The council meeting was this afternoon.  Three hours before sunset and three hours after, I would be free from interference.  I needed a way to get some control over this situation.  Enemies at the gates, I’d phrased it.

I tried to write down everything I could possibly need or need to do.  Stumped, stalled, I put the pen down and stood from the couch, stretching my back where I’d been hunched over the coffee table.

The mirror beside me was empty.  My reflection was absent, as was Rose’s.  I saw only a living room where the books weren’t quite so scattered, where the shelves were full and no cardboard boxes sat beneath.  There wasn’t a pile of dishes in the corner where I’d left them on my side of things.  Oatmeal, again.  If I didn’t manage a good shopping run, I’d be moving on to wild rice and cans of black beans.

The house felt a little more claustrophobic than it had, before.  As large as the house was, it was old fashioned with a very closed concept, every room separated from other rooms by walls and doors.  Were it the furniture and furniture alone, I wouldn’t have a problem.  But Molly had made a long series of messes in packing up grandmother’s things, leaving the job half done, and her things were still here, untouched.  Navigating between furniture and over the boxes and piles of books made me constantly aware of the space around me.

When I had some time, I could do some tidying up.  For the time being, though, I had too much to do.  I settled for a breather.

I stood in the window, my back against the windowframe, helping to hold the curtains and sheers out of the way.

With my newly acquired second sight, I could make out the spirits that infused everything.  Just as I might focus my eyes, I could focus this sight.  I could train it.  According to Essentials, some practitioners would train their sight to focus on things better suited to their talents.  Imagery would take hold.

Spirits were the most basic and oldest option when it came to manipulating the physical world through the esoteric.  One object as simple as a pencil could have a host of spirits inside it, representations of the purposes the object had, its nature, its elemental makeup, ownership, and many, many other qualities.

Shamans, then, were practitioners who worked more or less exclusively with spirits.  They would be able to find and interact with more powerful spirits.  Not simply the spirit of one particular stone, but the spirit of all stones for an area.

I was thinking along those lines because I couldn’t help but wonder if what I saw was one of those shamans at work.

A boiling cloud of what might have been vapor, a haze, sat over the city.  It was as though stormclouds were rolling in, and they were doing it at ground level.  At times there was a fluidity to it, as though the nearby lake had swelled and swamped the area, waves rising and falling, only periodically allowing buildings to be seen, where they dipped low enough.

This wasn’t water or water vapor.  It was spirits.

I shut off the sight.

The scene I saw without magical aid was an ordinary one, a simple snowfall, with clouds in the proper places.  My view of the buildings was still limited, periodically obscured, but only by snow.

There were things outside, as there had been last night.  Daylight wasn’t safety.  It only meant that the Others without human forms had to stay out of the public eye.

I sighed.  I wasn’t big on plans.  I wasn’t the type to use lists or keep to them.  It helped to frame what I was doing in my head, but it wasn’t me.

Better if I figured out the high points I needed to hit and then winged it.  I’d figure out what I needed to shop for when the time came.

I sat down with what I saw as the little black book.  I filled myself in on the local practitioners.

When I got to the Others, however, I found the entries got a little more complicated and short form.  Latin classifications, short form that necessitated I look it up, measures and linking to reference material instead of explaining them outright.

Grandmother, it seemed, was more interested in Others than people.

“Rose!”  I called out.

There was no reply.

I made my way through the house, searching each of the mirrors.  I found her in the library.

“Rose,” I said.

She sat on the floor.  Her hair had pulled free of the brooch, and she was surrounded by books.  Damn, she looked worn out.  Not tired, per se, but like she’d been through the wringer.

“What do you want, Blake?”

“First of all, I want to make sure you’re okay.”

“Let’s say I’m not,” she said.  She carefully set books aside and climbed to her feet.  She didn’t seem willing to meet my eyes, biting her lip, thoughts clearly elsewhere.

“What can I do?”

It wasn’t a hard question, but it seemed to bother her.  “Survive the meeting?  We survive, there’s always room for things to get better.”

“I’m on board with that,” I said.

Why did it look like I was upsetting her more?

“Listen,” I said.  “I’ve done the reading.  The sections on the Others in the little black book are kind of dense, but I got the gist of it, and I think I can put names to most of the important faces.  I know the practitioners I’m up against.”

“That’s good,” she said.  “I read through all of that too.”

“I’ve also memorized a few of the basic sigils.  Driving people away, like Laird Behaim did in the coffee shop, moving things like I did with the mug, and protecting objects.  I’ve got salt and chalk if I need it.”

“I wouldn’t rely on that, if I was in your shoes,” she said.

I frowned, “Why?”

“The books say that generally, spirits aren’t that smart.  They’re more like small animals, in terms of their capacity to understand things.  Like animals, you can train or bait them.  In an area trafficked by people who use spirits a great deal, you can trust they’re going to listen.”

“This is that type of area.”

“But who are they listening to?  Remember how Laird said the spirits of community listen to him because of his role?  Out there, they aren’t just listening to you.  Their loyalties are divided.”

“I think I follow,” I said.  “What’s the end result?  What happens if they aren’t all in the same camp?”

“I think it’ll be slower, or fuzzier.  You might get nothing, or it might backfire.”

That took some of the wind out of my sails.  “I’m still powerless?”

“Powerless until you get enough clout to bully them or convince them to play along.  It might be that grandmother’s name gives you some of the oomph you need.  But if you reach for their help in a bind,” Rose said, “It’s going to be-”

“-a crapshoot,” I said, in the same instant Rose did.

I smiled a bit, but Rose didn’t.  Her eyes dropped to the ground.

I sighed.  I could hardly blame her for not being in a smiling mood.  Rose had her own concerns.  Ones I couldn’t even wrap my head around.  We didn’t have enough information on what she was or why grandmother had gone to the trouble of creating her.

Problem was, I didn’t know how to fix this.  When in doubt, the strategy was to empathize.  As a rule, people wanted their feelings recognized more than they wanted fixes.

“I can’t imagine how you feel,” I said.  It was the truth.  “You’ve been put in a horrible situation, with-”

“Don’t do that,” she said.  “Not if you’re using it like they taught it to you.”

“Huh?”

“Dad taught us that.  How to get on people’s good side.  Which may be something he picked up from grandmother.”

“Grandfather,” I said.  “It fits what we know of him.”

“Don’t manipulate me, Blake.  Don’t use strategies to deal with me.  I was raised the same way you were, up to a point, I know the tricks.”

“I do care, Rose.  I want to help you.  If I’m drawing from what I know to try-”

“Blake,” Rose said.  “It’s fine.  It’s done, you’re in charge, I’m the backup.  You want me to keep the criticisms to the most vital points?  Fine.  You want me to do the research and supplement what you’re doing, fine.  You win.”

“I don’t want to win.  I want us to be on the same page.”

“The same page?  You got the power, I got… this.  How do you have a partnership if things are this unequal?  Let’s face it.  Look at what happened to Molly.  Grandmother is willing to use us as expendable assets.  I’m nothing more than a piece in a greater puzzle.  I’ll serve my role, and the road ends there.  I’m the most expendable one of us.”

“I don’t think she made you as some expendable asset,” I said.

“I’ve been reading.  Everything referencing diabolists says they’re dangerous lunatics, except for the stuff that was written by grandmother and other diabolists.  The temptation to offer pieces of yourself for obvious gains sucks all of them in eventually.  The guys who unleash some of the worst stuff out there?  The guys who meet the worst ends?  They’re in the same category as her.  Our grandmother.  Over and over, they become monsters.  Literally, or generally monstrous people that might use their kids or grandkids as sacrificial pawns to get what they need.”

“I don’t deny that they’re fucked up.  But grandmother lived.  She hit the ripe old age of eighty-five, and I doubt you do that while messing with stuff like this if you’re dumb.  Besides, dumb people aren’t the type to spend the kind of power it takes to make a sapient being, only to throw it away like you’re talking about.”

That actually seemed to help.  Not that she looked happy, but maybe the way didn’t look so dark.

“There isn’t a book we can read to figure out why I was created,” Rose said.  Her eyes were still downcast.  “I looked at the earliest diary entries, and the most recent.”

“Anything useful in the most recent?”  I asked.

She shook her head.  “No.  Nothing.  The early ones… I sort of skipped past the earliest diaries, because a child’s writing is hard to read in big doses.  Some stuff on the relationships between the different groups here.  But if you’re looking for tips on where to focus our studies, we may have to look a bit further.”

“Relationships,” I said.

“It wasn’t all friendly or peaceful, though it sounds like there was more of an equilibrium a while back.”

“Like Laird said,” I thought aloud, “It’s starting to change.  If the house sells, Jacob’s Bell grows past a threshold.  It’s thrown things a bit out of balance.”

“You’ve got the two big circles joining in marriage, maybe rebuilding that balance.”

“Status quo for the Duchamp family, it sounds like,” I said.  Which was a reminder of the matter at hand.  “Listen, The council meeting starts in three and a half hours.  I wanted to check you were up for it.”

“I’m up for it,” she said.  She met my eyes, but that only made it clearer how worn out she was.

“Be careful,” I said.  “If you lie-”

“I know,” she said.  Nervously, she started fiddling with her hair, trying to get it sorted out.  “I might lose my powers, or be forsworn.  And I don’t want to lose any protections I might have, if things like Padraic can reach in here to get me.  Not that I have much else to lose.”

I nodded.

“Don’t worry about me if you’re not going to worry about yourself,” Rose said.  “You look as tired as I feel, and since you’re the one making the big decisions, like when to go out and-”

“Woah,” I said.  “Woah, woah.  You’re talking about this?”

“About going out with Laird.”

“I thought we weren’t fighting.”

I could see her expression change.  Barely restrained frustration, slowly but surely being covered up, hidden behind a mask.  “We’re not.  Nevermind.  I got carried away.  I’ll meet you downstairs in a bit, and then we’ll go?”

A big part of me wanted to argue.  To press the issue.  To air grievances and get things on a more even keel.  To convince her that I didn’t want her as a slave or a servant.

Except we had more pressing matters.  Better to find a way to show it to her rather than tell her.

“Sure,” I said.

The spirits parted.  I knew when it was time, because of the way the surroundings changed.  A moment of rest, where the snow wasn’t so hard, the spirits were settled, and an entire area was almost clear, in magical terms.  In regular terms, the snowstorm let up a touch.  It was dark, but that was more to do with cloud cover than time of day.

I was on the move the moment the coast was clear, but I didn’t go to the meeting.

I headed for the downtown area, backpack empty, pockets full.  Everything I could think I might need on hand.

Fireplaces and stoves.  No.  Dollar store?  No.  An old-school ice-cream shop complete with the benches and the tall glasses for fondues and ice cream floats.

I settled on a general mens store.

Knives were on sale, but I didn’t like the idea of using them.  Too short a reach, against the sorts of things I would be fighting.

I did like the look of the ice picks and hatchets.  Prices on the picks hit the hundreds, while I could manage a hatchet for as little as forty.

Wooden baseball bat, a touch less expensive.

I added the weight of a loop of chain to the cart as well.

Then I stepped into the corner of the shop where they handled bicycle stuff.

Cheap side-mirrors were about four dollars for a pair, round mirrors about six inches across.  I checked that I could see Rose inside and grabbed twenty.

I think she might have actually smiled, when I glimpsed her.

I did another circuit of the store.  There were rifles and guns, but those started at a hundred and fifty dollars, and I had little doubt they’d stop working in a pinch.  Many Others would be immune or too hard to kill with a regular gun.  In terms of cost benefit, I’d rather have more mirrors.

If I couldn’t get a gun at this point, the bow and arrow set stood out as a tempting alternative.  It helped that there were Others who were vulnerable to wood and not metal.  There were problems in terms of cost, though.  At ninety dollars minimum, it was just outside of the range I was willing to pay.

And, when I thought about it, it would be hell to practice if my movements were limited to the interior of Hillsglade House.  It would take too long to learn.

I had basic weapons for self defense, plus a few tools, which would have to tide me over until I got further in my studies over the magic stuff.

When I approached the counter to pay, I got stares.  It made me wonder if the process of awakening had changed anything about me.  Or if they were enemies.

I made my way to the next store.  A general catch-all bargain shop, a little better than the dollar store I had passed.  Expanding beyond the one pair of jeans would go a long way for my sanity.  So would having decent soap and shampoo.  Even different laundry detergent would help.  I grabbed all of the toiletries, a few spare t-shirts, a sweatshirt and added a thirty dollar pair of jeans, just so I had something besides underwear to wear in a pinch.

It made me feel better, knowing I had the stuff, feeling the weight of it in the shopping basket.  It left me roughly twenty bucks to get food, but I could stretch a little money a long way on that front.  I was happier having permanent things, new things.  Even if they were cheap shirts for 75% off.  If I had more money in general, I would be a shopaholic or a hoarder.

When I headed to the front of the store, a young boy got in my way.  Just past the brink of entering adolescence, pale and brown haired.

My first thought was Other.  The memories of the things that had attacked the fake delivery man were fresh in my mind.  It wasn’t.  Very much human.

“You’re Blake, aren’t you?”

I nodded.

“Do you recognize me?”

I nodded again.  Molly’s younger brother.

When he didn’t say anything, giving me a death glare, I said, “Christoff.  Hey, listen.  I’m sorry about your sister.”

“Why are you sorry?” he asked.  “Did you do it?”

God damn, the way he could say it as if I had…  with a hardness in his voice?  That had to have been something that the family had imbued in him over the years of fighting.  Something he would have picked up.  It was the kind of accusation that had enough weight to it that even an innocent target could be put off balance and made to consider the question.

“No, Christoff.  The police already cleared me.”

“That doesn’t mean anything.  Did you kill my sister?”

“No,” I said.  Not unless murder by omission is possible.  “I didn’t.”

I could see Callan approaching, giving me a bit of a wary look.  His mother wasn’t far behind.

Callan was almost thirty.  His mother was forty and looked ten years older, by the condition of her skin and hair, her arms full with a bundle of shirts with superheroes on them.  I couldn’t help but see Aunt Irene as the type of person who had faced hardships every day and had emerged just a fraction weaker from each crisis.  Worrying about money and work and all of that tended to eat you up inside.  I knew, even if I had lived it for only a short time, what that was like.

All that said, it didn’t mean I was a fan of her as a person.

Callan frowned as stopped behind Christoff, putting his hands on his little brother’s shoulders.

“I was just saying to Christoff,” I said, “I’m sorry about Molly.  You have my condolences.”

“But you still didn’t waste any time in taking the house,” Callan said.  His glare matched those of Christoff and my aunt.

“Ah, someone told you?”

“It’s in the papers,” he said.  “Every day, talking about Molly, talking about you.  Who’s the new heir, that sort of thing.”

“I didn’t have much of a choice in any of it,” I said.  “I don’t want the house or the baggage that comes with it.  At this point, I’d be pretty happy give up all the money and walk away from all of this… without anyone getting hurt.”

“But you’re living there,” Callan said.  “So you must want some part of it.”

“It’s complicated,” I said.

“Your parents said you were homeless.  I bet you fucked up, and this is the only place you have to live.  Squatting in my sister’s house before her body’s even cold.”

I expected his mother to rebuke him, to respond to the callous comment about Molly.

She was cold before she died, I thought.

What I said was, “She was one of the very few family members I ever liked, honestly.  She was a friend to me.  I meant it when I said I’m sorry.”

“She wasn’t your friend,” Aunt Irene said, and her voice had that accusatory hardness that Christoff had picked  up.  Her eyes narrowed, an expression to match her tone, “Every other second I look at you, I wonder how you’re responsible.”

How, not if.

“You keep saying you’re sorry, and I believe it a little less each time,” Callan said.  “Tell you what.  Go.  Don’t ever fucking talk about my sister again, just go, and we won’t have a problem.”

I didn’t say anything, out of concern it would be taken as binding.  Instead, I circled around to walk past him.

He took a step to the side, getting in my way.  “I didn’t say pay and leave.  I said leave.”

“You said go,” I said.  “I’m going.”

“Not this way,” he said.  “Not with this shit you need to keep squatting in my sister’s house.”

Heads were turning.  We had the attention of every shopper and employee in the store, now.

I thought of Rose’s recent surrender.  I didn’t agree with it.  It wasn’t what I wanted… but I didn’t want an issue here, either.

“Fine,” I said.  “Let me give the basket to the cashier-”

“Don’t be an asshole,” Callan said.  “Go put it all back on the shelves and racks.”

I dropped the basket.  “No.  But I’ll leave, without buying, without incident.  You win, Callan.”

He smirked, but when I turned to go around him, he reached out and put his hand on my shoulder, maybe to slow me down so he could get in my way again.

I shoved him, hard enough he stumbled three steps back.

Before anything further could happen, I headed for the doors.  More for his sake than mine.  I wasn’t forgetting the consequences of missing the council meeting, as I thought that.  I was-

The sound of running footsteps made me stop.  The expressions of the cashiers to my right clued me in.

I reacted, half-turning, bringing my arm up.  The arm wasn’t in position to deflect the worst of the hit, but I was more or less ready as Callan did his damndest to sucker-punch me.  It hurt, but it was only pain.  No disorientation, no loss of consciousness.

My retaliation was automatic.  I hit him, fist to face.  He reeled, bending over to the point that I thought he was going to do a somersault.  But I was already swinging the follow-up strike, waist-level.

He hit the ground, rolled onto his back, and he didn’t get up.  His mouth was open, lip split, and he stared, blinking hard, looking in a different direction each time he opened his eyes.

Fuck, my hands hurt like a bitch.

Employees came running, as well as one or two male customers.  I backed away, hands raised.

But when they reached us, two employees dropped to their knees beside Callan, and the rest of the intervening bystanders put themselves between us, forming a protective half-circle around Callan.  Six of them, and another fourteen or so bystanders.

“He hit me first,” I said.

“You shoved him,” a man said.  He looked fifty or so, but had a walker, oddly out of tune with his age.

“That’s not how it happened and you know it,” I said.

The man said, “I know you’re that guy in the Hillsglade place right now.  You selling it anytime soon?”

“No, the contract-”

“Then I think I know what we’re telling the police,” he said.  He looked around, and slowly, each other member of the small crowd started nodding in agreement.

Too coincidental.  Too much fuckery, for this to happen now.  I switched to my other way of seeing.

Nothing stood out, no strange glows or images that weren’t supposed to be here.  No Others were in the area.

When I turned to more basic elements, I could see how active the spirits were.  Nothing too unusual, though this was my first opportunity seeing how the spirits traveled back and forth between people, maintaining relationships.  If I unfocused a bit, they almost looked like ribbons or cords, connecting people throughout the area.

Three of the ribbons stood out from the rest.  Too straight, too narrow.  They were like spears that had penetrated Callan, Aunt Irene and Christoff and plunged into me.

Forced connections between us.  Too direct to be natural.  Someone had aimed them at me.

Fuckery.

There were rules, though.  No interfering with or attacking anyone else in the time leading up to, during, or after the meeting.

Had this been done beforehand?  Had things been set up so that they’d get in my way at the first available opportunity?

Or had someone found a loophole?

I wasn’t sure I had a chance to debate it.  A cashier was dialing on the phone, her eyes on me.

In that moment, I saw Laird enter the store, not in uniform, but wearing a long coat, cheeks red from the cold.  He surveyed the situation.

“Mr. Thorburn,” he said.

“Officer,” I said.  “Pretty prompt response to a call that hasn’t been made yet.”

“Are you getting smart with me?” he asked.

I shook my head.  “Only stating the truth.”

He gave me an appraising look.  “Yes.  I imagine you are.  Katie, you can put the phone down.  He’s right, there isn’t a point.”

“He had a few harsh words for the fellow there,” the guy with the walker said, “Then shoved him, they exchanged blows.”

“That so?” Laird asked.  He surveyed the room very slowly.  His eyes settled on Katie.  “I’m asking.  Is it, Katie?”

She looked at the crowd.

“Katie?”

“No, sir.”

“No.  I didn’t think so.  I’ll tell you what.  You guys go on about your business, and I’ll see that Mr. Thorburn gets to his destination.  Deal?”

“Yes sir,” a few nearby people mumbled.

“Mr. Thorburn?” he asked, giving me a sharp look.

“Sounds good,” I said.

“I don’t think I heard that clearly enough,” he said.  His stare was a level one.

Right.  He wanted to play this game.

I wouldn’t be buying clothes, toiletries or groceries, it seemed.

“I’ll go with you,” I said.

“Good,” he responded, smiling.

We went on our way.  I hadn’t turned off my second sight, and I saw how the spirits were shifting.  People were milling around the area, which was more like an extended strip mall than a true downtown, but the spirits diverted them from taking one side street.

We turned down that street, and were soon joined by Andy and Eva.  The witch hunters.

“I assume they aren’t bound by any neutrality rules,” I said.

“No,” Laird said.  “But if they wanted to kill you, they could enter your home and murder you in their sleep.”

The girl smiled, giving me a look.  Confident, brash, if I remembered right from the vision.  Her brother kept his eyes straight forward, watching the ground for slick patches and lumps of snow he might stumble on.  He was burdened down with bags of stuff, while she strutted.

I’d read up on the locals.  What had the little black book said?  They were witch hunters in service to Jacob’s Bell.  Killing or punishing any Other or practitioner who strayed too far from the rules and made life inconvenient.  Half of their payment came in the form of hard cash.  Half was in either trinkets they could use on their job or knowledge.

We approached a church.  The area was desolate.

I saw the woman with a blur for a face pause outside, waiting for a man to hold the door open.  She was the one who’d molded the other who’d pretended to be a delivery driver.  I saw her deliberately put the little ever-lit cigarette out before entering.

A church wasn’t my first guess for a meeting place.

Inside, Laird walked me to the front, where his family sat in the front row of pews.  He paused, bending down to talk to his wife, and I walked on, my eyes taking it in.

All eyes were on me, in turn.  It made for a kind of pressure.  Like all of the bad parts of public speaking without the ability to say something and give off a better impression.

Behaim Circle, chronomancers.  Demesnes situated in scattered residences across the city.  I was familiar enough with them.

Sitting in the aisles opposite the Behaims was the Duchamp Coven.  According to the little black book, their line was purely female, and their craft was taught to women only.  Easy enough, when any Duchamp woman would give birth girls only.  A large family with strong ties to many of the surrounding areas, the family had earned a measure of prestige and power by marrying off their daughters and cousins to others in Ontario, Quebec, and the Northeastern States.  Enchantresses.

What were enchantresses?  Essentials had filled me in on the basics.  They would be focused on altering relationships.  Influencing people, influencing things.  An object could have its owner reassigned, so it might find its way into someone else’s hands, or be tethered to a location, so it would continually end up there.  On the higher end of things, people could be altered, with an enchantress literally stealing someone’s love.  On the very high end of things, familiars could be claimed by an enchantress that didn’t already have one, among other general bends and twists in more fundamental rules.

In short, they were the most likely culprits for sending Aunt Irene’s family my way.

A middle-aged aboriginal woman sat alone, and nobody sat near her.  Mara Angnakak.  She straddled the line between practitioner and Other.  When Jacob’s Bell was first settled by colonists, she was already here.  The notes had marked that she was very reserved, but she harbored a horrendous amount of hatred for the rest of us.  Grandmother had written out suspicions that she was illiterate; arguing it would explain why her talents seem to be limited to what she could teach herself.  Centuries of such teaching and experimentation, but limited nonetheless.

Being a practitioner inevitably meant losing a bit of your humanity and becoming a bit more Other.  My new eyesight was a part of that, one step along what could be a long journey.  Mara Angnakak had nearly finished that journey before stopping.  Or she had to have, if she was that old.

She was here before Europeans came to Canada and chances were good that she intended to be here well after we were gone.

A girl slouched in a seat.  Her familiar wasn’t in its mortal form, but was ethereal, with all of the mass of a grizzly on the front end, and a tail end that looked like that of a fish, the features an incoherent blend of different animals and plants, different features being emphasized as I looked longer.  Her stick tapped the floor with no rhythm at all.  She’d seated herself nearer the Others at the back than the two big families.  I recognized her as the one who’d been shouting at the rabbit.

She would be the Briar Girl.  No other name.  A recent addition to the local population, as of six years ago.  She apparently lived full-time in the woods and marshes behind Hillsglade House.  Grandmother’s suspicion?  She had contracted with a familiar too powerful for her to handle, creating something that was less a partnership than a practitioner dominated by the spirit.  The bear-thing would be the familiar, the stick her implement.

Johannes, the sorcerer from the north end, was already sitting, but he’d chosen to sit among the Others, near the back, rather than anywhere near the two families.  His dog sat beside him, a breed that could easily look silly, given the chance, but it managed to look noble.

It helped that the lights behind the dog seemed somehow brighter, the rest of the room darker by contrast.

Others continued to appear, and it seemed as though they had been arriving for a while.  They avoided the pews and stood around the edges.  Where they clustered, their bodies blocked the wall-mounted lights behind them, and the room darkened.

I found an empty row and sat.  I put the backpack down on the pew beside me and fished out a pair of bike mirrors.  I adjusted the zipper, and zipped up around the prong where the mirror was supposed to fit into the bike handle.  It stuck up, facing forward.

Easily an hour passed before the influx of Others started to taper off.  My mouth was dry, my heart pounding, my face hurt where I’d been hit, and my hands hurt more.

Above all else, I was realizing what I was up against.  These weren’t pages in the little black book.  They were enemies of mine.  Virtually all of them.

A lot of them would kill me.

A good few would probably do worse things than kill me.

This wasn’t quite what I had expected.  I’d expected a few practitioners.  Not everyone.

“Blake,” Rose whispered.

“What?” I asked, leaning closer.

“Don’t tell anyone that I did the ritual,” she said.

I nodded.

Keep cards up our sleeves.  That was how we needed to think.

But we couldn’t be wilting flowers, bowing over if someone so much as looked at us the wrong way.  I could do that for Callan, but not here.

A woman from the Duchamp family was talking to Laird, off to the side.  She might have been the one who was talking in the vision I’d had.  Not the oldest Duchamp woman here, but she had a kind of presence.  They both cast glances my way as they talked, making me the obvious topic of conversation.

I went out of my way to look like I wasn’t terrified.

All of these people were my enemies.

Beautiful Rose,” Padraic purred.  “Both of them, here.  A good night, I’m sure.”

He’d entered alongside his two regular companions, two other companions of similar attractiveness, and Maggie Holt, the girl with the checkered scarf.  She was a teenager, making her slightly younger than the Briar Girl, and her eyebrows made her look perpetually angry, helped by a swift, graceless manner of walking.

She sat to my right, across the aisle.  Padraic and his group sat around her, instantly and automatically settling into comfortable seating positions that could have doubled for poses.

“Padraic, as usual, is the last to enter,” Laird said.  “We can begin a little early tonight.  Please, Mr. Thorburn.  You’re at the center of attention.  Would you please step up to the front and introduce yourself?”

Every set of eyes in the room

“Say no,” Rose said.

“I said I’d run impulsive plans by you, right?” I asked.

“Blake?”

“Mr. Thorburn?” Laird asked, his voice ringing down the length of the church.

“If I had a way to divert our enemies from us and to each other?” I asked.  “Yes or no?”

“Blake, you can’t expect me to-”

“Blake Thorburn, grandson of Mrs. Rose D. Thorburn, Diabolist of Hillsglade House,” Laird said.  “I would like a response.”

Making someone repeat themselves, in some cases, would make them look weaker.  Laird was getting more intimidating each time he spoke.

“Yes,” she said.

I stood.

There was no murmur of conversation as I walked down the aisle.  There were hundreds here, but most were Others, and they were all exceptionally good at being quiet.  Goblins, disgusting to look at, as though they were distilled versions of human ugliness, squat and all of them armed with weapons forged together from scrap.  Ghosts, etheral and exaggerated in appearance, forever marked with their causes of death, twisted by an imperfect recollection of what they looked like and who they were, before.  Faerie, in myriad shapes and forms, and spirits.  The other half of the Others were impossible to identify.

Funny, how many others with the appearances of children were around Johannes.

Andy and Eva sat on the stairs to the right of the stage, facing down everyone.  Like bailiffs or guards, a reminder to keep the peace.  The other set of stairs was blocked by the crowd.  I stood at the very end of the aisle, and gripped the railing.

In the midst of the faces, of the twenty or so members of the Duchamp coven and thirty-ish members of Laird’s family, all of the Others, I had to search to find the tiny round mirror that Rose would be peering out of.

“I’m Blake Thorburn,” I said.  “I doubt you really care about that, or about who I am.  I imagine Molly Walker did her own speech here.  I can’t even guess how she handled it, or what she said.  I’m an obstacle for you to remove, to get power.  I know this.  I know you might see me as one number on a countdown clock, with prosperity waiting when there’s nothing left.  When there are no successors.  But you need to know, that thing so many of you are terrified of?  That I might learn enough to summon something problematic?  It’s already summoned.”

I could see Laird react to that.  A shift in the crowd.  Some of the kids went pale, in the Duchamp family.

Johannes smiled.  Mara the immortal, for her part, didn’t say or do anything.  Most Others didn’t seem to care one way or another.

“Not my choice.  I also didn’t choose the arrangements my grandmother put in place,” I said.

I was thinking of Rose, but I didn’t need to elaborate on that.

“Some of you have been baiting me, trying to get me to retaliate.  I don’t know why, but I imagine there’s something at play.  I’m not going to do what they want.  I’m going to make you guys a deal.  I’ll make three deals.  If you approach me and offer a ceasefire, an agreement you won’t attack me or help anyone who might, if you make a good offer, I’ll take the demon off the table for you and yours.”

I could see people exchanging glances.

That was a maxim, right?  A rule of war?

Divide and conquer.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Advertisements