“You took your time,” I said.
“We were prompt,” the older man said. Unlike my grandmother, he had the roughness of old age in his voice. Somehow more human than she’d been. “But if it helps, we can start the timer from the moment we made eye contact.”
The brown-haired young man, good looking enough to be an actor, but for the tiniest scar on his lip, looked at his watch. “Twenty nine minutes and forty seconds left on the clock. For that period of time, you have the benefit of our advice and knowledge, and you can make requests, though we can’t promise we’ll grant them.”
“If you want,” the woman lawyer said, “We can cut it short, and save the time for later this month. Once the month is over, we’ll be limited to short conversations for each month thereafter.”
“Are you devils?” I asked. “Demons?”
The older man chuckled. With the coarser voice, he did sound a little sinister in that moment. “Some would say that.”
“What would the rest say?” I asked. I looked at Rose, praying for some backup, but she still seemed out of sorts.
“The remainder would call us practitioners,” the woman lawyer told me. “Practitioners like you, even.”
“Well, we’re a fair bit different from him,” the older man said. He arched one thick eyebrow. “Question is, does it matter?”
I glanced at Rose, but she didn’t volunteer an argument. “I think it does. When I know what you’re doing, I can adapt. Why are you here?”
“Your grandmother willed it,” the young man said.
“Why?” I asked.
The blonde woman responded, “Because matters were too complex for her to handle on her own, it was an economical route to take, she needed power that she wasn’t willing to spare, and we offered.”
“Why?” I asked, again.
“Because we’re in the business of dealing with diabolists,” the older man said.
“Why?” I asked, once again. There wasn’t any sign that I was bothering them with this particular line of questioning.
“Because we are and were diabolists, ourselves,” the young man said. “Once upon a time. We were offered a contract. Call it bankruptcy. It fits on more than one level. Which brings us to you.”
“How?” I asked.
“We’re hoping to include the heir of the Thorburn estate in our number,” the old man told me.
“You want me to work for you? Did my grandmother take the deal?” I asked.
“Madam Thorburn didn’t, bless her,” the older man said. He smiled, as if he was acknowledging how odd it was for him to say that. “She took a harder road. She needed power, as we said. I can’t say what for, but I’m sure you could figure it out.”
“I probably could,” I said.
She’d needed the power to create my alter ego. To bend the rules enough to let me inherit the estate.
The woman leaned forward. “More to the point, if she had taken the offer, you wouldn’t be here. At least, not in the same capacity.”
My hand was hurting, the hatchet pulsing cold that was reaching through my clothing.
The pain and discomfort might have made my tone a little more pointed than I’d meant it to be. “The world would be swallowed up in a sea of hellfire and brimstone?”
“Nothing of the sort. Before our firm existed, it was an Otherworldly entity that reached out to our forebearers. The deal was simple. Our slates would be cleared, in every respect. We would assume a new role, new names, new responsibilities. Our old lives and every part of those lives would be left behind. Perhaps most importantly, most relevant to this discussion, our debts would be cleared.”
“Karmic debt?” Rose asked, suddenly paying attention, jumping into the conversation.
“Karmic debt,” the older man said. “Have you done your reading?”
Rose said, “I started, but…”
I was already shaking my head.
The old man continued, “I’ll explain, then, so there are no mistaken assumptions. The world seeks balance in all respects. Whenever a practitioner works, they pay a price. Sometimes the price is overt. A soul for someone’s love. An eye for the service of a powerful spirit. The life of a companion to triumph over one’s enemies. Sometimes the price is less of a direct transaction. A favor to be paid later. Conversely, an oath given, with nothing expected.”
“Which raises problems, hm?” the young man said.
The old man met my eyes. “What happens when a debt isn’t paid? If you take, then die before you can give? Or the inverse?”
“You pass it on to your kids?”
“In some cases, yes. But those children might incur more of a debt. Over time, the debt accumulates. Perhaps two generations improve matters, working it off, and then the third undoes their hard work and adds more to the burden.”
“The problem is never resolved?” I asked. “Until some lawyer-practitioners show up and offer a deal, something that wipes all debts clear?”
“That is one option,” the woman said. “But I wouldn’t say the problem is never resolved. The universe rights itself.”
“How?” I asked. Why was the axe acting up? It was almost as bad as it had been outside, now.
The old man answered, “The cogs that operate in the background take to grinding you up instead. Funds, treasured belongings, friendships, love, they are all harder to find and easier to lose. Enemies, danger, chaos, and disruption find you more readily. In looser terms, all Others, spirits and practitioners get the sense, innate or otherwise, that they can and should work against your interests. Things start to fall apart, and the pieces fall down in the least convenient arragements for you.”
“The universe,” the young man said, “conspires against you.”
“Ah, hell,” I said. “That would explain a few things.”
The old man continued with the explanation, “It would cause as many problems as it solve if the universe did it in an obvious manner. It would raise suspicion and disrupt the smooth operation of things if every coin you flipped turned up with the unwanted side, if every corner held an enemy.”
The young man said, “It’s a stopgap measure. Sufficient for the non-practitioners who stumble on ways to give themselves bad karma.”
“But,” the old man said, “In cases where the debt continues to accumulate, or it reaches a size that one person can’t pay off, we sometimes see survivors carry on.”
“Survivors?” Rose asked.
“Some dynasties manage to thrive despite the ill fortunes that are visiting them. There are individuals who are reclusive enough or tenacious enough to carry on. The universe doesn’t like to act overtly, so it might give you the coin flip that serves you the least, until you start counting the number of times the coin turns up head versus the times it turns up tails. In any case, the practitioner can live if they’re attentive and clever, and the debt can keep growing. This is when we start running into problems.”
“Problems being?” I asked.
“Being the dice all turning up snake eyes, or enemies appearing behind every corner. Once or twice, generally, but that’s all things typically need. The universe is elastic. If you push, it bounces back. If you pull, it pulls against you. If you pull too hard, too long, and it snaps, with violent consequence.”
He seemed content to stop there, letting that sink in.
“Okay,” I said. “I might have a general sense of the problem. But what do we do about it?”
“Well,” the woman said. She offered me a smile. “Option one is the simplest, easiest and most obvious.”
“Joining you?” I asked.
“That’s option two. Option one is that you die. Violently,” she said. The smile didn’t even flicker. “The elastic snaps, and you two find yourself in an ugly situation. If you’re lucky, you can find the time and opportunity to call us, and we’d arrange a prompt solution.”
“I’m not lucky, though,” I said. “And Molly wasn’t lucky either… She…”
I trailed off. They waited, apparently content to wait while the gears fit together in my head and started turning.
I finished my sentence, along a different line. “…Eats a bit of the karmic backlash, pays a bit of the price for the universe not getting what it was supposed to, and the baton gets passed to me. If I die, the same thing happens. Each of us absorbs a bit of the brunt of it, until one of us finds our footing and carries on.”
“Very likely to be a factor in her reasoning,” the young male lawyer said. “She was clever. But the danger in this plan is that the backlash you face could wipe out your family altogether. It would be more a backup or a side benefit than a true plan.”
“And,” Rose said, “like you said before, there’s no way she would spend that much power to put me here for that.”
“Right,” I said.
“Karma has very little to do with good and evil,” the blonde woman said. “It has a great deal to do with right and wrong.”
“Can you have a surplus?” I asked.
“You can. It’s equally problematic, in many ways,” the woman said. “Such individuals have good fortune, find life conspires to do them well, all leading up to a moment where an opportunistic Other manages to work around this good fortune and brings about their downfall.”
“Okay,” I said, thinking. “And… if it has to do with right and wrong… then can you get bad mojo for, say, going after a local practitioner’s livelihood?”
“How?” the young man asked.
I started to reach for the note, then realized I couldn’t without moving the hatchet. I did it awkwardly with my other hand, handing it to them.
While he read, the woman asked, “Has he acted against you? Done unprovoked harm to you?”
“Directly? No. Indirectly? He tricked me and left me for the monsters to eat. We’d only just met. Unless the whole history of my family counts as a provocation.”
“You’d be secure. It would even benefit you. You should be able to find all of this information in the textbooks of the library.”
“I looked,” I said. “We looked. There was nothing about what justifies an execution.”
“Executions are a formalization of what we just talked about. You’ll find more on them in books relating to karmic debt and the manipulation thereof.”
I groaned a bit. Looking in the wrong place.
“Damn it,” I heard Rose muttering.
“You offend the community, the community retaliates, and the balance is maintained. If the community acts against you and it’s unjust, then there is imbalance, and this weighs heavier than matters between individuals. Clever individuals with some knowledge on how to use and manipulate karma could theoretically survive and ride the backlash to a position at the top.”
I rubbed my chin. “And if I contrived to get them to punish me for a crime I didn’t commit? Get an order of execution against myself?”
“Blake!” Rose said.
“Theoretically,” I said.
“There are any number of factors to consider,” the older man said. “If they offer you a chance to speak for yourself and you don’t, they would face little backlash. Are they brash? Too stupid to do so?”
I didn’t even have to think about it. The way they’d shut down my attempt to divide them was still fresh in my memory from last night. “No.”
“There is also the matter of the debt weighing on you,” he said. “Nearly seven lifetimes worth of unpaid karmic balance. You could work hard your entire life and only make up one of those. Devote yourself wholly and singularly to that one task, and you could maybe make up a second lifetime’s worth. Reality is not of a mind to assist you in ascending to greatness. Far easier to help the execution along and take what it can from the aftermath.”
“The universe sounds a bit like some kind of asshole loan shark,” I said.
“Make of it what you will,” he said.
The hatchet wasn’t as cold as it had been, but with the chill it emanated, my hand couldn’t warm up.
I was distracted by the pain, stumbling as I tried to find what I was trying to say, “And… I haven’t read anything explicit about the reason this is all secret. There are rules Others follow, with stiff penalties, and they generally keep to hunting what they’re allowed to hunt… but what’s to keep me from appearing on TV tomorrow and showing off my magic?”
“Responsibility,” the old man said. “It started as an ethic; you don’t initiate someone into this world without teaching them the proper way things are done. That ethic became a rule, and the rule became a part of the fabric of things. If you introduce someone to all of this and they make a mistake, then some of that karma weighs on you.”
I nodded slowly.
“These are the sorts of things Rose should have taught you. Any more questions?”
“I’ve probably spent way too long asking about stuff I could read in books,” I said. “But this is useful grounding to have.”
“And we probably wouldn’t have gotten around to those books for another few weeks,” Rose said.
“Right. But I should to ask about other stuff. I’ll start with an obvious one. Can I trust you guys?”
“No,” the woman lawyer said. “But you can trust that we won’t sabotage you. Our interest is in bringing more people under our wing. We can achieve that by offering you good service.”
“And by helping maneuver me into a corner,” I said. “So I end up saying your names three times and using the escape clause?”
“We could use those tactics,” she said. “For the time being, we won’t.”
“That’s vague,” I said.
“Then I’ll be specific. We’ll tell you before we maneuver you into a corner.”
“Explicitly?” Rose asked.
“Beg pardon?” the woman lawyer asked.
“Tell us explicitly, please.”
“If you wish. I or one of my partners will look one of you in the eyes and inform you exactly what we’re doing, when it comes up.”
“Why do you want me?”
“We don’t. Quite frankly, you’re useless to us at this point,” the young man said. “But things do change.”
“And… the cost is a few thousand years of servitude? To clear my entire family’s debt?”
“That is part of the cost,” he said. “Any true mark you made on the world is painted over. If you want to rise in the ranks and become partner, you’ll need to give up your name, possibly aspects of your identity. Easier than it sounds, after a few decades or centuries of long days, your past life well behind you.”
“I see,” I said.
“Any other questions?” the old man asked.
Something was bothering me. I had doubts, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
Okay, I had a lot of doubts, but there was one that seemed fresher in my mind, elusive.
“The money?” Rose asked. “Our allowance?”
“If I may suggest we deduct the necessary expenses for the upkeep of the property?” the young lawyer asked.
“No trick?” Rose asked. “If it’s not a trap, then yes.”
“No,” he said. “No trick.”
He pulled two envelopes from his suit pocket, checked them, and then tossed one onto the table.
Okay, that was handled. Good. I picked up the envelope and pocketed it.
“Um. Important point number two. Going outside,” Rose said. “How do we do it?”
“Know how to defend yourself,” the old man said. “If you wish, we can arrange for an errand boy, to handle groceries and purchases. You’d be limited to the house all the same.”
Rose glanced at me. She still looked out of sorts, but she was thinking now. Which was good, because I was preoccupied.
I nodded absently. I couldn’t quite figure out what had bothered me. Something elusive one of them had just said.
“Yes,” she said.
“Then we’ll take out the cost for the errand boy from next month’s allowance,” the young lawyer said. “If that’s all right?”
“Yes,” Rose said. “If it isn’t a trap or a trick.”
“We’ll see to it.”
“And the question of marriage, in the instructions?” Rose asked.
That got my full attention. I’d nearly forgotten.
“What of it?” the lawyer asked.
“Blake has to marry a man?” Rose asked.
“Mr. Thorburn has to do no such thing,” the older man said. “It has been left up to our discretion, to evaluate Mr. Thorburn’s progress and evaluate him regularly, keeping the intentions of the departed Mrs. Thorburn in mind all the while.”
“That seems too easy,” I said.
“It isn’t easy at all,” he replied, “Rest assured. I do recommend you marry, and I’d even recommend you marry a man, because fulfilling an obligation is an advantage that can help you survive. Still, I can’t imagine it’s at the forefront of your mind right now?”
I shook my head.
“Then we can leave it for another meeting at another time. Speaking of…”
“Fourteen minutes remain,” the younger lawyer said.
“Two more questions,” I said. “Then I think we’re done, unless Rose has something to say. You said the cost of working for your firm… a few hundred to a few tens of thousands of years of service? A loss of identity, a loss of a name?”
“If you rise through the ranks, you might even take the name of Mann, Lewis or Levinn,” the young man said. Distracting me.
“And what happens to you?” Rose asked.
I bit my tongue before I snapped at her. She was interrupting my line of questioning.
“We’re done,” the young lawyer said. “Early. Not easy, I assure you, but it’s an option.”
“Which is why you want to recruit,” she said.
“A part of it,” he said.
“But there’s something else, isn’t there?” I asked, before I could get interrupted again. “Hundreds or thousands of years of employment, a loss of identity, a loss of our name. But you didn’t say that’s everything.”
“No. We didn’t,” the blonde lawyer said.
“What’s the catch?” I asked.
She frowned. “In the process of signing the contract, you agree to give them a foothold.”
“Them?” Rose asked.
“Them. You should know who I mean. You hand over things of value, and they take them. Footholds. To help them climb forth from where they’ve been banished or bound, or give them a foundation to better leverage their strength. A room, a house, a pen, a sword, a companion.”
A pair of shears.
“I could go into detail about the benefits, the why of it, but I would be frittering away your time. There is more on the subject in the library.”
“I think I get it, even without the books,” Rose said. Quiet. “We make that deal, to save our hide, and they get stronger, making life harder on the rest of humanity.”
“Theoretically,” I asked, “what would happen if I swore, right here and right now, that I was never going to take the deal?”
“We would conduct business as the contract with Rose D. Thorburn mandates,” the older lawyer said, “But you would find that we, like the universe, had far less goodwill towards you.”
She shifted position. Her tone somewhat softer than it had been, she said, “I can’t speak for the others, but I would respect you for it, I would understand. In the end, however, business is business, and we have our obligations.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Is there more you would like to ask along those lines?” she asked.
I shook my head. “No. But I’d like to ask if you could deliver this letter. Unless there’s a flaw in this plan I’m overlooking.”
“There are complications,” the young lawyer said, “But there will be complications with any route you take.”
“If you were to take it yourself,” the woman lawyer said, “Or have a more direct hand in it, you reap a greater reward.”
“Personally restoring balance to the grand scheme of things… I can’t help but feel like this is dangerous. Karmic retribution. Promoting eye-for-an eye thinking. How do you know if things are balanced?”
“You pay attention,” the old man said.
“Right,” I said. I frowned. To have the lawyers deliver the letter or go myself?
“I think I might have to ask you to deliver the letter,” I said. I couldn’t ignore the hatchet, or my hand. “I’ve got something else to take care of.”
“If I may suggest a compromise,” the young woman said. “I’ve been working for several days, and I’m due a break. I could spare an hour, if you can see to that something else and find time for the errand.”
“The escort didn’t work out so hot for us the first time,” Rose murmured. I could see from movement of the lawyer’s eyes that she’d heard, but the woman gave no other sign.
I shook my head a little. “It’s-”
“The object under your coat demands your attention. May I?”
I withdrew the hatchet, but I didn’t hand it over.
“I’ll help,” she said. “No trickery or sabotage. I can guarantee you’ll be better off than if you saw to it yourself.”
“You’ll see us safely the entire way there and back?” I asked. “And while we’re there?”
“As safely as you allow,” the lawyer said.
Rose chimed in. “You promise not to carry out any tricks or traps at least until the next time we meet?”
“Yes,” she said.
“This won’t count against our time?” I asked.
“No cost, insofar as something can have no cost.”
The other lawyers were standing. The younger one looked at his watch. “Then we’re done, with just over ten minutes remaining on the clock. Thank you for the hospitality.”
“You’re welcome,” I said, feeling wary.
The older lawyer extended a hand. I hesitated, then shook it with my numb hand. He didn’t react.
“You should only be seeing one of us at a time, now that introductions are done,” the older lawyer said, letting my hand go. “Barring exceptional circumstance, or a request to join the company.”
“We’ll see you later in the day, Ms. Lewis,” he said.
“You will,” the blonde lawyer said.
I’d expected the two men to disappear, but they left through the front door, collecting outdoor jackets along the way and pulling them on as they made their way down the front steps.
Leaving me in the company of Ms. Lewis.
“May I see it?” she asked. “The imbued object?”
“I promised it I’d keep it warm,” I said.
“Not exactly true, is that?” she asked me.
“I’m fairly well versed in seeing the nuances of karma at work. You’ve come very close to lying a few times in a short span of time, and you’ve each outright lied at least once in the half hour prior to our arrival.”
“Oh hell,” I said.
“It’s easy to slip, at first,” she said. “In this case, you’re bordering on a lie, but you’re still telling the truth. Rose here promised you’d keep it warm. Your promise was implicit, and because Rose is an extension of you…”
“It’s borderline,” I said.
“Being more honest means you stock up more goodwill with the universe and any others you meet. Borderline dishonesty is useful, lying by omission is better yet, and unvarnished honesty is better still. I can’t quite interpret it, but perhaps you were joking? Sarcasm?”
I thought back.
“Shit,” I said. “So… what? I lose my power?”
“You lose some. And a mere ghost gains more influence over you, even through a circle, or when bound into an object. It’ll take at least a week to wear off. Luckily, there aren’t many things in this house to hear, hm?”
“And me?” Rose asked.
“It matters for you too,” Ms. Lewis said. “For the time being, you are connected to Blake. Tell me, Blake, did you feel weaker? More vulnerable?”
“I felt tired,” I said. “I wondered for a moment if Rose had done something.”
“A vestige is fragile. Defy the natural order, and the vestige suffers.”
“And a damaged vestige drains energy,” I said, glancing at Rose.
“I’d kind of expected a… clap of thunder?” I said.
“Barring the exceptional moments of idiocy, such as the breaking of an oath, you typically only discover what you’ve done when you reach for power and find it gone.”
“So stupid of us,” Rose said.
Ms. Lewis smiled and shook her head. “I will keep the ghost contained. To do otherwise would put a client at risk. May I?”
She extended a hand.
I handed the hatchet over. She didn’t flinch as the handle touched her hand.
“You’ve worked with tools before,” she said.
“Your hands have that look about them, and you handed the hatchet to me handle first. It’s the sort of thing you learn on the job, or you’re taught it as a matter of course, becoming a gentleman.”
“Blake, not a gentleman?” Rose asked.
“That is the sort of sarcasm you can get away with,” Ms. Lewis said. “A gentleman would have offered guests something to drink. As would a lady, Ms. Thorburn. Shall we go see to your errands? I can attend to this tool in the meantime.”
A little unsure, I still nodded.
She’d left a winter coat folded over a chair in the front hallway. She draped it over her shoulders without putting her arms through the sleeves.
I, for my part, did what I could to warm my hands by rubbing them against one another, before we stepped outside.
“Ground rules,” Ms. Lewis said. “This isn’t business. Anything I say or do should be taken in the capacity of an acquaintance or teacher. I won’t give you answers I think you should pay for”
“I understand,” I said.
“Good response,” she said. “Not committing to anything. All that said, I’d like to help you if I see the chance.”
“Somehow I anticipated you guys would be scarier,” I said. “Or, and I hope I’m not being offensive, more professional.”
“We adapt to the client,” she said. She didn’t flinch at the cold as we made our way down the driveway. Something a little more Other about her, like the old man’s laugh.
“You’re being awfully helpful, running this errand with me for no benefit. Or is there something I’m missing?”
“Let’s just say it’s me establishing a relationship with a potential new client.”
“We can say that,” Rose said, speaking from the mirror I wore in the open ‘v’ of my jacket collar, “But what is it really?”
“It’s largely selfish,” Ms. Lewis said. She drew in a deep breath, then sighed. “As clients go, you’re quite endearing, compared to our usual.”
She withdrew a spool from an inside pocket of her jacket. Thin silver wire. “And this is not something I usually get to do, in the course of my duties. Nostalgic.”
Ms. Lewis unwound the wire, then began winding it loosely around the foam handle as she walked.
“Who are your regular clients?” Rose asked.
“They vary, and they are confidential,” Ms. Lewis said. “Speaking in general terms, a rare few are like your grandmother. A great many aren’t.”
“And what are they like?” I asked.
“You’ve met the barber. They are the sorts who would use him and sleep that night.”
“Ah,” I said. “You’re using your sight to see the connection between me and it?”
“Yes. I would recommend using it more. Try it now?”
I switched to my sight. The connections weren’t very clear.
“Look to your three o’clock without turning your head,” she said.
Something that might have been a raccoon scampered down from the top of the garage to the far side. It probably wasn’t a raccoon.
“It’s gone,” I said.
“It’s there, it’s just out of sight. Keep looking.”
I did. I searched for the connection, but I couldn’t make out much. The world was buried under a haze, and the wind was blowing in too many directions at once.
“Trace your eyes along the paths that things run in parallel, the straightest lines. Good place to start, and good places to avoid if you think someone’s searching for you.”
I looked harder. The saturation and contrast seemed exaggerated, the world painted in a impasto style with coarse brush strokes, animated with life and constant motion. I followed the areas where the strokes and lines met, so I could see the flow of it, not stopping at a dead end but naturally sweeping my eyes along the straighter paths where the particles danced.
I caught it a second or two faster than I might have if I wasn’t already focused on the area. It looked like the slop that you dug out of a gutter after a rain. Leaves, branches, twigs, and a bit or two of trash. There were only shadows where eyes were supposed to be, and a few pieces of stone, some teeth, and a bird’s beak where it was supposed to have teeth.
It stopped in its tracks, seemingly startled, as if my vision had transfixed it.
A moment later, it bolted, disappearing around the corner at edge of Hillsglade House.
“You looked too hard,” she said. “You made a connection, and it noticed. A lesser elemental. Now keep looking. Softer. Relax, and try to see where the longest lines are. If you don’t focus too hard, it’s easier to see them.”
I looked, relaxing my focus on the spirits.
It very deliberately avoided the railing of the fence as it perched on the stone of the wall, glancing my way. It seemed bothered that I’d spotted it again. Leaves and twigs stood up like an irritated cat or a dog with the hackles up.
My eye traveled over the splash of minor spirits that danced around it, seeking out the areas where they were traveling in the straightest lines.
One, blocked by the house. I eyeballed it, figured out the direction, found it on the other side of the house, faint, disappearing into the woods and glades.
The Briar Girl, I thought. The Others I’d seen before June showed up… I suspected they were hers.
“She wants your attention, and very possibly wants your help.”
“You know her?” I asked, looking at Ms. Lewis.
“No. But I can tell. What does she want?”
“The woods and marshes.”
“She can’t have the woods and marshes, Mr. Thorburn. She’ll be upset when you tell her.”
“Probably,” I said.
She took a moment to wind the wire around, hooking it through one loop, then adjusting the tightness of each segment in turn. It was biting into the foam grip, but not so much it was ugly or unnatural. The end result was more like something between a Celtic knot and a chain-link fence.
“You’ll have some confrontations soon. You’ll need to be stronger.”
“I know,” I said.
“Are you aware enough to know you’re in danger right now?”
I raised an eyebrow.
“How? Who?” Rose asked.
“A car, behind us. Ignore it. We’ll take an alley the car can’t pass through, forcing them to circle around. We can stop partway, forcing them to turn around again or stop and wait for us to emerge. We’ll decide what we do then.”
“This is more passive than I expected of you,” I said.
“I have my hands full, for one thing,” Ms. Lewis said. “And there are other reasons. Consider this a lesson. The first step is getting a bead on them. As we turn to enter the alley, you’ll have a glimpse of them. Look for the connection and hold on to it. Fixate on it without identifying yourself.”
“Sure,” I said. “You make it sound so easy.”
“It’s moving. A straight line. It’s also isolated. There are few cars on the road. It’s too early in the morning, and the city sees little traffic. It’s easier to spot a car alone than a car in the crowd, with your sight just as much as with your eyes.”
“Holding on is going to be harder than finding it. Now.”
We turned. The car passed behind me. I had only a glimpse of the electric blue sedan. Stuffed animals on the ledge by the rear-view window.
Sure enough, I found the connection, thin. Holding on… I wasn’t even sure how. I focused my attention on it.
“It’s turning, and turning again, going around the block,” she said.
“We stop?” I asked.
Ms. Lewis nodded.
We stopped in the middle of the alleyway.
I could see as the car slowed, then stopped. The connection became far less focused. Diffuse on one end, tighter on the other.
“There are options, now” Ms. Lewis said. “The first step would be identifying them. I’m not going to give you the answer. Find it yourself.”
I had only the clues to go by, the color and make of the car, the fact that it had been a bit dingy. Not new by any stretch of the imagination, the stuffed animals…
The wrong track. Not enough to put any name to it.
The connection itself… I examined it in more detail, as the end closest to me got more and more broken up. If I had a better eye for this sort of thing, I might have been able to see where they were focusing their attention.
That would be a useful tool. To know where your enemies senses were directed and to act elsewhere.
I wondered if the Others I’d seen darting out of sight of people had been doing the same.
The spirits that made up the connection took all sorts of shapes. I couldn’t focus enough to make them out. They seemed to dart out of my view when I tried to look at them, like the dust that settled on the surface of the eye.
“I’m not sure I can,” I said.
“You would have more focus if you hadn’t lied,” she said. “Be glad you were in the house and it wasn’t more severe. Try harder.”
I tried. Interpreting what the spirits were supposed to be was hard. They often had arms and legs, sometimes in vague human shapes, sometimes not, and most were transparent. The shape, the colors, the aesthetics, they all pointed to the ideas and elements these things supported.
I couldn’t decipher them before I felt something shift. The connection solidified on the one end. In a heartbeat, they had both focused on me.
Yet they hadn’t moved.
A second later, they were taking some sort of action, moving, and very deliberately, they scattered my perception of where they were. Disappearing somewhere. I could tell they had a bead on me, but I had no idea where they were.
They had deftly flipped the tables on me.
“Duchamps,” I said.
Ms. Lewis nodded. Her attention was on the hatchet, as she scratched at the metal with what looked like a needle. “Details?”
“Enchantresses,” I said. “A coven.”
“One of them is calling family,” she said. “She hasn’t gotten through, probably because it’s so early in the day. But she’s using an implement to focus the connection. She will get through, given another minute or two, and you’ll have more enemies to deal with. Very possibly the entire coven.”
“This is the point where the whole ‘escorting us safely there’ thing comes into play.”
“It is,” she said. She kept scratching at the hatchet. When she saw me looking, she said, “Oh. This will be another minute.”
“You’re not going to fight them? Or stop the call?”
“No. I’m not permitted.”
“I can only make explicit use of my power while I’m working. As I said before, I’m nothing more than a teacher and an acquaintance while I’m taking this break.”
“You misled us,” Rose said.
“I was very clear. Don’t start crying now. We’ve made it this far. Now face them head-on. Can you see it? One coming right now.”
I looked, and I saw something.
A bird made its way into the alley. Not a hawk or anything like that, but one of the tiny ones that tended to bob up and down in the air more than it actually glided or flew. A chickadee or sparrow or some such.
It unfolded, feathers sweeping across a space five feet long, a momentary curtain.
Putting me face to face with a woman so beautiful she looked artificial. Her ears had a slight point to them, and she had an eerie sort of confidence to her step. Snow settled on platinum-colored hair and bare shoulders, exposed by clothing that seemed more ornamental than anything else. Something between a revealing variant on a Japanese yukata and a high-fashion dress I might expect to see on a runway in France or Italy, inspired by a flower in bloom. Any time I thought it might belong to one culture, some aspect of it dismissed the notion.
Her eyes were pale from corner to corner, the eyelashes long and dark in a way a makeup artist would struggle to achieve. When she smiled, she showed a bit of her teeth.
She drew a sword slowly, with second after second of the clean sound of the weapon leaving the scabbard. I wasn’t sure what kind of sword it was.
The damned weapon was easily twelve feet long. Her arms outstretched in front and behind her, she bent the metal until it bowed in a ‘u’. When it came free, it did so in a shower of sparks, the blade practically dancing as it recoiled, returning to its straight length. The sound of metal singing filled the air.
She held it pointing straight up until it stilled, then lowered it so the point was aimed straight at my heart, her position very much like a fencer’s. If I looked past the movement of the wind that made the length of thin metal sway, the blade didn’t shake or waver in the slightest.
Ms Lewis placed a hand on my shoulder, making me jump a little. When she spoke, it was a murmur in my ear. “Now, shoulders square, chin up. Take a deep breath. Get some oxygen to that brain of yours.”
“What- why are you saying that?” I asked.
“I’m going to walk you through this, and I’m going to hope that you follow my instructions to the letter. Now pay attention. The less guidance you demand from me, the faster I can hand this hatchet to you.”