The swordswoman wasted no time, stepping forward. Bare foot on snow-crusted pavement. I backed away; to do otherwise would mean standing still while the point of that giant sword would simply slide into my heart.
Ms. Lewis, however, stepped into the space I had just vacated. She put her hand out, and as the blade approached her chest, she pushed it to one side.
“I’m supposing your master told you to kill or harm him,” Ms. Lewis said.
“What of it?” the swordswoman asked. She had a strange accent. Less like a person who had grown up fluent in one language and was carrying things over into the next, and more like a French, Russian, and one or two other accents were all layered onto one another, compounding each other.
“You shouldn’t harm me without her orders,” Ms. Lewis said.
The Other narrowed her eyes. “I can do as I please.”
“Go ask,” Ms. Lewis said. “Ask your master who I am, and whether you should carry through.”
The Other didn’t budge. Instead, she made a face, and then quickly came to a decision. She drew her hand back, ready to plunge the weapon through Ms. Lewis’ chest.
Ms. Lewis didn’t move.
The Other sniffed and transformed, wings unfolding and enclosing her in the span of a second. She disappeared down the far end of the alley.
“Familiars can’t go outside their master’s orders?” I asked.
“Master feels young,” Ms. Lewis said, taking hold of my arm. She led me in the opposite direction the Other had gone. “No older than thirteen. You generally don’t get inducted into this world until you’re about that age, these days. It means the familiar is new.”
“So you misled it.”
“Yes and no. It shouldn’t attack me, but that’s independent of everything else. Can you open locks?”
“Not a trick I know,” I said.
She drew a small notebook from her pocket. She drew out an image. An hourglass shape with a circle in the middle. She drew a small pad of sticky notes from another inside pocket. “Draw something like this, put it on the doorknob, and empower it.”
I did. I copied it out, stuck it against the doorknob, and then stabbed the back of my hand with the pen.
“Fuck,” I said. “Ow. That hurt more than I thought it would.”
Still, I used the blood that welled around the injury site and smeared it across the image.
“You need a power source,” Ms. Lewis said. “Blood won’t do for the long term.”
“I know,” I said.
The knob was rattling, internal mechanisms moving with excruciating slowness.
“I’d hoped for something quicker and more effective. You’re weak, and that is going to hold us back, Blake Thorburn,” Ms. Lewis told me. “Tell me, can you identify the Other we just saw?”
“Name it? No. Stick a label on it? I could maybe say it’s a Faerie, but that’s only a guess.”
“It’s an accurate guess.”
“My grandmother didn’t like putting labels on Others, or so she wrote. She wrote it was dangerous to do it, because they could lie or blur the lines, and making assumptions could get you killed.”
“Very true. In this case, I think it’s a safe assumption. You’ve read Essentials, I assume? Standard reading for most new practitioners.”
“I have,” I said.
“Then you know what Faerie are weak against?”
I thought, but I couldn’t connect it. “Something about raw iron, but…”
“Crude elements,” Rose cut in. “Things that have been worked, refined, or crafted are less effective against them.”
“Which puts us in an awkward position,” Ms. Lewis said. She was leaning against the wall by the door, scratching symbols into the metal with the needle. “In a city, they thrive, because just about everything is worked and refined. They find us interesting, and ennui is to them what death is to us.”
I was busy scribbling down another symbol. I looked up to ask, “Is that something we can use?”
The doorknob clicked. Ms. Lewis opened the door, leading the way inside.
When we were inside, I removed the paper from the one side, closed the door, locked it, and then stuck the other sticky note to the inside. Again, I smeared it with a thumbprint of blood.
“Protection?” Ms. Lewis asked.
“I figured it might help,” I said.
“It might,” Ms. Lewis said. “This way.”
We made our way down the hallway.
It was a residential building. Maybe an bottom-of-the-barrel old folks home, judging by the smell.
“Sorry, but I gotta ask, is it really going to help?” Rose asked. “He doesn’t have much power. It might have been more useful to spend the time running.”
“Probably,” Ms. Lewis said. “It also expended power. A small drop of blood, but there’s a larger share of personal power invested in that than you might think. Doing that too often is dangerous.”
I felt a sting of annoyance. “Then tell me that.”
“It doesn’t really matter, and I want you to be confident more than I want you to be entirely accurate and efficient in what you’re doing. You’ll be safer if you familiarize yourself with the tools at your disposal and act with conviction.”
“Okay,” Rose said.
“I want you to tell me if I do something wrong,” I said. “Please.”
“Then I’ll tell you we should be talking strategies and tricks. The first… have you learned to strengthen and break connections?”
“Yes,” Rose said. “Some of it. We did it to lure in the ghost.”
“And breaking connections?” Ms. Lewis asked. “Case in point, they’re tracking your every step.”
They were. I could feel their eyes on the back of my head. The connections were there, too, fuzzy on one end, to the point that I couldn’t trace it back to them, but unerringly focused on me. The Other was making its way back to the alley, meandering. No doubt looking for a trace of us.
“No, I don’t know how to break connections,” I said.
“Clench and unclench your injured hand. Get the blood flowing from the wound. Now, instead of supplying power to the conduit, you want to block it.”
If I’d had to draw a line parallel to the connection I was feeding, then to block it…
“I draw the line sideways?”
“Perpendicular. Think of it as a wall or a dam to block or divert the river.”
I stopped, ready to bend down and draw the line.
But Ms. Lewis took my arm, pulling me along and keeping me moving.
“What?” I asked.
“Wait one moment. This is about symbolism and effect. A great deal of what any practitioner does is draw on the power of Others. Connections, pacts, bonds, borrowed power. You can be dull and methodical about it, but that’s only going to impress a specific kind of Other. If you use presentation, however, timing, flair, showmanship…”
“You do have an audience, after all. It’s marginal as benefits go, but if I’m going to teach you, I’m going to teach you to do it right. Gesture and statement can go along with power. Saying the right thing, doing the right thing, they can add a modicum of power to anything you do, for very little cost. Understand?”
“I… think so,” I said.
“Draw the line of blood a moment before we round the corner. Take the stairwell, downstairs.”
There was a bang on the door, loud enough to carry down the hallway.
“We’re on the ground floor,” I said.
“We’d be cornering ourselves, going into the basement.”
“Not if this works.”
“And if it doesn’t?”
“Then I’ll find another way to keep you safe as I’d promised. Now.”
There was a bang on the door, and the sword speared through the wood. It cut down in one swift stroke, severing the top three-quarters of the door from the lower hinge.
I bent down, using the blob of blood on the back of my hand as a palette, to draw one thick smear of blood across the top of the stairs, between us, the other, and where the two Duchamps were.
In that same movement, as I drew my arm left to right, I took a step down to the right, heading down the stairs.
“Good,” Ms. Lewis said. “Everything you do has meaning, and informs your practice.”
Getting further away hurt the connection, as did rounding the corner. Evasive actions. Was it confusing the spirits, and thus making us harder to track, or was it the other way around, with the spirits recognizing that we were trying to slip away and acting in accord with it?
Whatever the case was, the effect was pronounced. I didn’t feel their eyes on me any more.
I heard the door coming to pieces in the hallway above us, as we quickly and quietly descended the flight of stairs.
The basement. The paint was old and the plaster on the drywall was still visible in spots. There were no doors. We passed by a room with washing machines and dryers inside.
I stopped at the foot of the stairs, reached into my back pocket, and withdrew one of the small bike mirrors. I propped it up in the corner. “Keep an eye on things?”
“Padraic could reach through to get me,” Rose whispered.
“I don’t think a hand is going to reach through there,” I said.
“The sword could.”
I heard a faint scrape. Was the sword dragging along the floor? I hurried down the hall to catch up to Ms. Lewis.
“No obligation, Rose,” I said. “But it’d be handy.”
Rose said, “I’ll keep an eye out. I can pop in and look, then come back.”
I nodded, realized she couldn’t see me from her angle, and said, “Thanks.”
To Ms. Lewis, I asked, “What are we doing down here?”
Ms. Lewis said, “For now, I’m hoping you’re learning. Now, Faerie often use glamour,” Ms. Lewis said. “Do you know what that is?”
“Like mirages,” I said. “Things that aren’t really there?”
We passed a room filled with large, bulky equipment. Vacuums, a pressure washer, steam cleaner…
“You’re wrong,” she said. “The things they conjure up are there. They’re fabricated, and it’s this affinity for things that have been crafted that helps the Faerie avoid being touched so easily by fabricated things. With glamour, the Faerie might create an image of a flower. It’s an image. But as they put power into it, it gains substance. As people see it and recognize it, they feed power into it. Plant that flower in a garden, leave it be, and it will grow as any flower might. It becomes a part of the garden, and the garden adapts. It adapts to the viewers, becoming what they want and expect to see. A two way street. Given opportunity, it becomes as much of a part of things as if it was always there.”
“Could you-” Rose started. She stopped as we did – Ms. Lewis had peered into a room and stopped in her tracks. “Could you do something like that to fuel a vestige? To make the false copy more real?”
Ms. Lewis smiled a little. “Theoretically. But there is a fragility to it. An idea is an idea, after all, and if you dismiss it or if you challenge the lie and win, then it is liable to fall apart. This is in addition to the fragility a vestige already has. I can say with conviction that this would do you more harm than good.”
“Oh,” Rose said. A little disheartened.
Ms. Lewis didn’t hold back, “Glamour thrives on attention, on interacting with our senses and being validated. A vestige is like gossamer, and any interaction does damage to it. It’s a contradiction, and that makes for an exceedingly dangerous balance to strike. Damage one element and it all might collapse.”
We had stopped at one doorway. Ms. Lewis led the way inside.
It was a workshop, complete with a massive box of breakers, tools hanging on the wall, water heaters, and an old trash can filled with bits of concrete and plumbing.
I bent down and drew out a line of blood to break the connection again. Their focus wasn’t anywhere near us, at this point.
Ms. Lewis continued. “A glamour is most effective if it can insinuate itself into your subconscious. The Faerie manipulate things to distract, to addle your senses so you aren’t paying attention to the fact that it doesn’t fit with reality. You’re more afraid for your life than you are concerned with the ridiculous length of her blade, and the fact that she couldn’t possibly be strong enough to hold it.”
“You challenged her.”
“As your partner Rose already said, they’re weak against the unrefined, against crude things. That includes attitudes. Their court is one of dancing around subjects, allusions, games, masquerades, and complex plots that unfold over decades and centuries. They shore themselves and their reality up with glamour, and they use these illusions-made reality to fool even themselves. It catches them off guard when you are blunt. It offends them on a fundamental level, because they thrive off of belief, real or otherwise, and they don’t like for those beliefs to be challenged.”
“And this one?” I asked. “Any clues on what she’s about?”
“The swordswoman. The Faerie go through trends, fashions of a sort. Mixing notions, styles, and past ideas into new forms until they’ve run completely out of ideas. Then they rebel, they overthrow the court, and a new season begins with a different foundation. Light faerie versus the dark, for example, or a court with a true king and queen and a dynasty that they’ve glamoured up to extend back through the centuries. The ‘duelist’ would be one idea that might have caught their fancy, as of late.”
“I’m not sure I get it,” I said. “They’re just playing?”
Ms. Lewis used the tools to finish the hatchet. “It’s a very serious sort of play, when you get down to it. Dress it up in the glamour of possible true death, using a rapier can kill even Faerie. Build up stories of an unbeatable duelist, fights for pride, fights for the idea of romance. See what ideas and adventures emerge. Something as brutal, violent and sudden as this is far more dramatic and interesting when the ‘death’ of one individual in a duel might throw two hundred plots into disarray. A Faerie cannot afford not to watch.”
“She’s dangerous, then,” I said. My eyes roved over the tools. Anything I could use? Crude, unrefined…
“She’s dangerous, though I should stress that she’s here. She wasn’t so good she could become part of the story they were telling in the court. It’s very possible she lost an important fight and walked away. Or she broke a rule for this particular set of games and was exiled for her trouble. It is very telling when a Faerie becomes a familiar. Going out of her way to experience mortality, to form a bond with a person for decades, doesn’t it seem like a desperate grasp at occupying herself or filling her time?”
“She’s staving off boredom?” I asked.
“She’s most likely clinging to the last few scraps available to her. It’s hard to say where this leads. Some lose their minds, others throw away their minds, carving away their personalities and memories so they might start fresh.. Some defy the court and try to change the game in another way, trying to bring about a larger change, and they get banished when they fail. The question is, why is this information important to you?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“That was an awfully fast answer,” she said, sounding a touch annoyed. She handed me the hatchet, handle first. “I explained a great deal. Surely one of you two can pull something out of it.”
The pattern of the silver wire continued on with the pattern scratched into the metal. Faint, but noticeable where the light caught the rough patches versus the smooth patches. The silver wire in the grip didn’t dig into my hand.
It wasn’t nearly so cold as it had been.
“She’s trapped,” Rose said. “At the end of her rope. It’s… a weak point?”
“You’re thinking along the right lines. Beg pardon, but Mr. Thorburn, I recommend you keep your third eye open. Train that sense of yours. They’re still looking for us.”
They were? This wasn’t a hiding place?
I reached for a connection.
I couldn’t feel much at all.
“Not feeling it. Might be that she’s gone, or I’m not doing fantastic, or my power’s weaker than it was. Rose?”
“I’ll check,” Rose said.
I thought maybe I could feel her absence. Another connection? That was useful, in a way.
I could feel some connection to the Faerie. I went out of my way to avoid feeding it in any way, lest I strengthen the bond. I’d seen with the ghost June, that sympathy, saying the wrong thing, or anything of the sort could strengthen the connection in the smallest ways.
“Why did we come down here?” I asked. “You haven’t really explained. We’ve cornered ourselves.”
“Isolated places are almost always better for a practitioner. Places where people don’t tread, where delicate things like ghosts and vestiges aren’t torn apart by passing people and their perceptions, and where you can bend rules and there are less people to see and challenge it.”
“But we’ve cornered ourselves,” I said, repeating myself for emphasis.
“If it comes down to it, I will give you a name, and you can call it.”
“A name that I wouldn’t regret calling?” I asked.
“I would take on the cost,” she said. “I swore to keep you as safe as you allow me to. Subjective as ‘safe’ might be, I would take the cost.”
“And would this thing I called then go on a rampage, murdering people or setting Jacob’s Bell on fire?”
“Some could, if you were of a mood for that sort of thing,” she said.
“Right,” I said.
As if to echo my thought, Rose reappeared, saying, “The Faerie just started coming down the stairs.”
“Our next few actions will need to be decisive,” Ms. Lewis said. “I’ve told you what you need to know, I can answer questions. Have I taught you how to fish, or do you need me to give you a fish?”
“I kind of wouldn’t mind just getting the answer,” Rose said.
“It would be more accurate to say I gave you the answer, and I’m waiting to see if you need me to walk you through it as well.”
“You gave us the clue?” I asked.
“I gave you several. It’s up to you to decide what to do. Or ask me for help. Get in the habit of thinking out loud.”
“She’s faerie, she’s weak to crude things,” I said. I was aware that talking about her was increasing the strength of the connection, but she was going to find us down here anyways. To keep the ideas flowing, I threw out another comment, “She’s all dressed up in illusions. Or illusions made real, anyways.”
“She’s arrogant, dressed up like a duelist-” Rose said, as if my ideas had spurred her own.
“-And she failed,” I added. “She hooked up with this kid in a familiar deal to stave off boredom. She’s been cooped up in this bird form, and I doubt there’s a lot of opportunity to do her thing. She’ll be eager. Rushed. Impatient. She wants drama, and this is probably her best chance she’s had at it since she agreed to become a familiar.”
“Can you capitalize on it?” Ms. Lewis asked. “Or leverage it?”
“We could challenge her to a duel,” Rose said.
I could see Ms. Lewis’ eyebrows raise a fraction at that.
“You mean you want me to duel her,” I said.
“She’s going to try and kill you anyways. Might as well set some ground rules.”
I could hear the scrape of the sword against the floor. When I spoke, I whispered, “Why?”
Rose hissed her words, “It’s an idea. I don’t know why. She’s proud, she wants something interesting. Let’s give it to her and see what you get.”
We had only seconds left.
My eyes looked over the room. The tools…
No. I was looking in the wrong place. The tools were things that had been made.
I looked to the trash can. Filled with debris and broken things, yet to be hauled away and thrown out. I started to reach into it, and saw how my hand was caked in the blood that had welled out from the wound.
Probably giving myself tetanus.
I reached inside, tried to find something, and came up with a handful of bent, rusty nails, rocks and splinters.
I kicked it over.
I made my way over the stuff I’d scattered along the floor, checking each thing I was stepping over while making sure I didn’t step onto a nail or a piece of metal that might pierce my boot. I kicked some stuff out into the hall. Two gross-looking pipes of different lengths, a pile of rust-caked nails, bits of crushed concrete and a shaft of rotted wood.
Hatchet in hand, I stepped into the hallway. The Other had stopped at the sound of the impact. A short distance up the hallway.
“Found you,” the Faerie said. She held her sword so it dragged behind her. “Slippery prey. Hiding from prying eyes.”
Ms. Lewis stepped into the hallway as well. She stepped around me, stopping just behind my shoulder.
“Three to kill,” the Faerie said. She smiled, and the smile touched her pale eyes.
She still didn’t look real. There were less wrinkles than I’d expect to see on a child.
“We challenge you to a duel,” Rose called out.
The Faerie stopped. “I would sully my blade.”
I held out the hatchet, ready to use.
Her expression didn’t change in the least. Did she not know how ineffective the hatchet would be against her, or did she know and was she exceptional at hiding her tells?
If she had spent centuries in some court of lies and illusion, I could buy that she was a good liar.
But she was impatient, proud…
“Are you reluctant because you’re scared of me?” I asked. Direct attacks, I thought. “I think you’re a coward.”
“Never,” the Faerie said. There was a flair of the dramatic to the word. As if she’d timed the statement to play off mine, that her earlier reluctance was solely to enable this interplay. “I’ll see you pay for that insult.”
A small oath. I felt my heart skip a beat, hearing that.
But I was dead if I failed, whatever happened. What did it matter if I raised the stakes?
Okay, dumb question. There were plenty of things worse than death. But everything had a price, didn’t it? You couldn’t win something if you didn’t stake something.
“Then,” I said. “How about a wager?”
“A prize to the winner?” she asked, in that strange accent of hers. She smiled. “I don’t think you know how good a swordsman I am.”
“You say that, but aren’t all Faerie liars?” I asked. “I mean, lying is at the core of your being. You’re just really good fakers.”
“I was going to humiliate you, mortal, but now I’m going to make it bad. And believe me, I can make it bad. I was the consort and protector to the High Queen’s Torturer. The woman taught me a great deal.”
“So sayeth the liar,” I said. I slapped the upper half of the hatchet’s handle into my other palm. My heart was pounding, but that hardly mattered. “I think you’re all just a bunch of idiot practitioners who started deluding yourselves so you could lie despite the rules.”
“Changing how you look at the world so the subjective changes?” Rose asked. “It makes an awful lot of sense.”
“And it would make just as much sense if you made the fucking stupid mistake of using that glamour trick of yours to convince reality you can’t die. Look young, be young. Look like you can’t get sick, you can’t get sick.”
Look like no weapon forged by man can kill you, no weapon forged by man can kill you.
“You insult me, you insult my people. Shall I take you to my Queen and tell her what you said, so she can devise an appropriate punishment?”
“I think you should take the offer for a duel,” I said. “Or you might just be a sad, pathetic little excuse for an Other who’s more bluff than anything else, you’re hiding behind that ridiculous, flimsy looking sword, and the only way you can prove you aren’t is by accepting the duel and winning.”
If they thrive on belief and perception, can I attack her on that front?
She cocked her head a little, a birdlike gesture. I saw her glance momentarily over one shoulder.
“I’m not trying to distract you from something else or throw some big plot at you,” I said, “As hard as that is to believe. What I’m saying is what I mean. I want a duel because I think I could win.”
“Enough. What are the terms?” she asked.
“We duel you,” Rose said. “Winner gets to claim a prize.”
“Careful,” Ms. Lewis murmured.
“Too late. I accept. For my prize, I will have your obedience, for one year, one month, one week and one day,” the Faerie said. She smiled. “I am sworn to Mademoiselle Duchamp, but I would still like to keep you in a place just outside this world, and with my spare moments, I could amuse myself with you. Perhaps I could make the first day you spend with me worse than any day you’ve experienced. I could challenge myself to see if I could do the same each day thereafter.”
“I think,” I said, “I might take some of your power.”
“Good,” she said. She leaped back a solid fifteen feet, her feet skidding on the floor. “Let us begin.”
“Ms. Lewis,” I said. “Would you happen to know the name of that something nasty that might come if I called it?”
“Yes,” she said. “Ornias. He once placed stars in the firmament, but he now calls them down to earth. Say his name seven times.”
“Perfect. Ornias,” I said.
“Jesus penis fuck, Blake, no,” Rose said.
I saw the Faerie’s eyes go wide.
When a fucking Other who had lived and breathed deception for thousands of years was still provoked into giving away a tell, I knew I’d struck home.
“Ornias,” I said again.
She dashed towards me.
Trying to stop me before I finished.
I clenched my fist. I still held the nails, rocks and splinters I’d grabbed from the barrel.
Words and gestures had power, right?
“Take this!” I shouted, hurling the fistful at her as if I were throwing a baseball. A left-handed throw, but still.
The sharp, heavy, coarse bits of debris were coated in my blood, from the wound I’d made with my knife. Was there maybe a bit of extra power in there? Was that expenditure of power why I staggered a little, as I released them from my hand?
I didn’t even get to see if it inflicted any damage or if it simply bounced off of her. When I stood straight again, she had stopped.
Raising my hatchet, gripping it in both hands, I met her eyes. It was too much to hope that I could see a glimmer of fear, a hint that my instincts were right. Her face was unreadable. She used one hand to brush gingerly at the tops of her breasts.
“Ornias,” I said.
She went on the offensive. Sword still behind her, narrow space, she still brought it forward, letting it gouge and scrape the wall, bending like it had when she’d pulled it from the scabbard.
I could envision it springing free, flexing back to its normal straight length, simultaneously piercing me. Every bit of her body language pointed to that same conclusion.
Glamour would help things to that conclusion.
I hurled the hatchet at her, overhead, two handed.
She wasn’t in a position to hit it with her blade. She was in a position to strike it out of the air with the butt-end of her sword.
I saw a flash of a smile on her face. I’d disarmed myself. She had her victory.
My focus, however, was on grabbing the longest bit of pipe that I’d kicked out into the hallway. Moving towards her, bending low to grab it.
The thing was so rusty and grimy that the actual pipe itself was hard to make out.
The hatchet couldn’t be my weapon. Ghost inside it or no.
She’d stopped moving to strike at the thrown hatchet. I had the pipe. I tried to read her expression, to see if there was any glimmer of fear, any sign that this weapon could hurt her.
Nothing. Her expression still held that faint smile that suggested she was utterly confident of her victory. She started approaching me.
“Yes, Mr. Thorburn,” I could hear Ms. Lewis from behind me. “I think that’ll suffice.”
With those words, the Faerie stepped back. Her sword had somehow found its way in front of her.
The point leveled my way.
No reason to play fair.
“Ornias,” I said. “Ornias.”
She lunged, and I ducked into the room we’d vacated, hopping over the mess. I landed awkwardly, stupid for such a little jump.
“Ornias!” I called out, in her direction.
Damn me, I could feel it now. Once more, and he’d come.
The Faerie entered the room, sword first.
“Blake! What are you doing?”
“Ambush,” I said. There was a bit of a waver in my voice.
“Draw a line, then!”
I didn’t even think. I ducked low, scraping the back of my bloody, gritty hand against the concrete floor. Blocking the connection.
I immediately regretted it. Would it matter, when we were this close? Would it help obscure her perception of me? I had to climb to my feet-
I staggered, dropping onto all fours instead.
Dizzy. Drained. I’d given too much of myself, for too little.
She’d entered the room. Through my peripheral vision, I could see her hesitate, losing her forward momentum.
The stuff from the barrel I’d kicked to the floor. I’d almost forgotten.
Before she could get her bearings, I managed to find my feet.
She would be harder to hit. She was nimble, already setting her weight to spring back.
“Stupid, fucking, impractical sword!” I hit the weapon instead. As she leaped back, she couldn’t move it out of the doorframe. One downward swing, and the pipe struck the blade.
It broke in four different places along the length.
Nevermind, I thought, that it had withstood worse impacts over the course of this skirmish alone.
I looked at her, saw her staring at the short stump of a sword that still stuck out from the hilt.
She moved her free hand over, and I could see the blade growing, repairing itself.
I struck out at it. Not fancy, no style. If she was the stylish, fighter, I was the brute, the barbarian, the madman. Swinging with little caution or sense. Picking a target, then swinging at it with all the strength I could spare.
I hit the weapon, and I hit her hand.
She dissolved, breaking down into sparkles, specks, and dust.
A trick? An illusion?
When? Where? How?
No, it didn’t matter. I needed to bring her out of hiding, and I knew I had only one thing that would get her to.
“Orn-” I started.
A hand reached around me, fingers jammed into my mouth. Stopping me from speaking in the most base, simple way possible.
I bit, turning so I could see her. In the doing, I wrenched the fingers I was biting, forcing her to partially bend over, arm twisting. She still felt pain, apparently. Quick and nimble as she was, there wasn’t a lot she could do once I had my teeth in her.
She still held the sword, and was drawing it back to thrust into my gut, delayed by the pain and imbalance I was causing with my teeth on her fingers.
I still held the pipe. Except I was already bringing it around, driving it into the side of her stomach.
The weight of her falling down pulled her fingers out of my mouth. I hit her prone body with the club.
I did it a few more times for good measure. Hitting her sword-hand, head, shoulder, leg. Meaty sounds.
“-nament,” I finished. “Ornament.”
No fucking way was I ever saying that name a seventh time.
I dropped the club, staggering away. When I dropped to all fours to throw up, it was equal measure exhaustion and revulsion.
Too many bad memories. Fights that had gone very much like that one had, at the end. Base, violent, ugly.
“I think I see why she might have picked you,” Ms. Lewis said.
“Blake was picked, then?” Rose asked. “It’s not just him being the second heir?”
“I already said too much. Take your prize, Blake.”
I looked up at her. She held a box in her hands.
“What’s that box you’re holding?” I asked. I wiped at my mouth with my clean hand.
“Safety measure. For your sake. I did promise you would walk away unharmed, but for harm you brought on yourself, and that little brawl of yours could have gone either way.”
I closed my eyes. Opening them took some effort. Not because I was that tired, but because the way my head was swimming made me feel like I would like to keep my eyes closed and be still and quiet for the next few hours.
“I would hurry,” Ms. Lewis said. “The others are outside, there is another familiar there. They’ve called help, and the help will arrive within the next few minutes. We’ll start running into the first of them as we leave the area, and if we get slowed down, the rest are going to catch up.”
I mumbled a reply. I wasn’t even sure what I was saying.
“You okay, Blake?” Rose asked.
I could still hear that meaty sound of pipe hitting flesh. I looked at the Faerie.
She was breathing, still.
“She’s not dead?” I asked.
“No,” Ms. Lewis said. “Like most Others, the Faerie are very resilient, and she’s drawing a kind of power from her master as well. Take your prize.”
“What? What do I take?”
“Go with your instincts. I might take the heart, in your shoes, but I’m not in your shoes.”
“Just carving the damn thing out?” I asked. “To do what?”
“Eat it. But it hardly matters. Let’s hurry on our way.”
“No,” Rose said. “The agreement was that we would duel the Faerie. What if I challenged her now?”
“She’s not able to accept,” I said.
“She already did,” Rose said. “So… if I declare it’s my turn… can I take a prize?”
“That’s sketchy,” I said, “And it feels like it’s begging for heaps of bad karma.”
“Some,” Ms. Lewis said. “But you reaped some as well. The question would be whether you could defeat someone who is already defeated.”
“Oh,” Rose said. “Right.”
“I’m not saying it’s impossible. It’s very doable, actually, but it requires time, and it requires you to come up with other ways of defeating her than physical.”
“I don’t understand,” Rose said.
I ran my hand through my hair. “She’s talking about torture, Rose. Torture the Other I just bashed until you beat her on some mental or emotional level, then claim a prize.”
“I don’t- how can I even, being inside the mirror?”
I ignored her. I grabbed a piece of the broken sword, weighing it in my hand.
Sharp edge. Good enough.
“If the Faerie can reach you, we could theoretically pass her hand or arm into your realm,” Ms. Lewis said. “A tight fit, but if we broke the hand first…”
“No,” I said. “Sorry, Rose, but no.”
“I don’t- I don’t want to. I’m bothered we’re even talking about this. I didn’t think I’d have to do something.”
“S’alright,” I mumbled. I squatted beside the fallen Faerie.
“What are you thinking, Mr. Thorburn?”
“I’m thinking we give her back. Is it doable?”
“It is. Invoke the duel, make an argument, give off the right impression, a degree of fear…”
“Maybe,” I said. “If it’s alright, can I use you to scare them? I’m kind of done with that for right now.”
“As you wish.”
I nodded. I reached down and cut away a lock of hair, then jammed it into my back pocket. I tossed the piece of broken sword aside.
“Hey, Faerie. If you’re paying any attention, turn into a bird, and I’ll see about giving you back.”
There was a long pause.
A broken flutter of wings, and the Other was a chickadee.
I picked her up as gently as I could. I headed for the exit, stopping to get the hatchet and stowing it away in my jacket.
“Sorry, June,” I murmured. “Thanks for the distraction.”
As I passed the line I’d drawn at the top of the stairs, I could feel connections unfolding around me. Not between me and the practitioners, but between me and everyone else in the building.
A door slammed somewhere. I could hear footsteps.
I used the Faerie’s blood to break the connection and buy myself time.
Emerging outside, I headed to the end of the alley. I had to break more connections that were attaching to me from every direction.
Two girls. One eleven or twelve or so, was sitting on the car hood, bundled up in a winter jacket, hat and blanket.
The other, twenty, was leaning against the driver’s side door. Smoking. But for the age gap, they were very similar in appearance.
They recognized me, and the older one stepped away from the car. A canary sat on her shoulder, spreading it’s wings.
“Letita!” the younger girl called out. Recognizing her familiar. She moved the blanket. What the fuck was she wearing? Shiny skintight leggings?
I could see the fear in her expression. Her hands clutched a golden plate that had been sitting in her lap.
No. A small shield? What did you call a shield like that? Her implement.
She’d barely hit puberty, and she already had an implement and a familiar?
The older one didn’t attack. She was staring at me.
“We dueled,” I said. My voice sounded a little hoarse. I wondered if I’d fall again here. “Your… Letita and I did. I won, I took my prize.”
“And?” the older girl asked. “My turn?”
She didn’t look eager. But she looked like she might be willing.
“It could be,” I said, but I raised my good hand, to stop her before she could do anything. “But I want you to know two things, before you make that judgement call.”
“What two things?”
“First off, this woman with me is one of my grandmother’s lawyers. She’s staying hands off, but she probably will intervene if it comes down to it. She would have, if Letita here had taken the upper hand. You get my meaning?”
“I felt something,” the little one said. “Building up in fits and starts.”
“I called out a name,” I said. “Letita might tell you that. Six times out of the seven times I needed.”
“It felt bad,” she said. Her eyes didn’t leave Letita.
“I’m telling you right now. I had no intention of saying the name the seventh time. I so swear. I only needed to push Letita to act, use her impatience against her.”
The two nodded.
“The second thing I want you to know, is that we had every right to challenge her two more times and take two more prizes. We didn’t. We fought, I won, and I took what I’d earned. Now, if you’ll allow me…” I said. I very slowly approached. I extended my hand, the little bird inside. “…I’m giving her back.”
Once she took the Other from my hand, I backed away.
“You didn’t have to do that,” the older girl said.
I ignored her. “Now, my question is, are you going to cause me more fucking problems, or are you going to let me get on with my day?”
“We were told to stop you,” the little girl said. “You’re dangerous. You don’t even realize how dangerous you all are. We’re supposed to do anything and everything we can.”
“Hush, Joanna,” the older girl said.
“Well?” I asked.
“I should give my life to stop you,” the girl said. “Joanna doesn’t know everything, but she’s essentially right.”
“I’m not talking about the past, or any of that,” I said. “I’m talking about this, right here, right now. Are we going to have a problem? Do I need to handle you so I can deal with your family too?”
I must have looked less threatening than I had since I was little Joanna’s height. Haggard, swaying on my feet, a little roughed up and dusty, hair a mess.
She reached into her pocket, and I tightened my grip on my hatchet. On June.
She retrieved a phone. She dialed and raised it to her ear.
“I know. I see them. But look at where he is. He’s right in front of me and Jo right now.”
The connections around me were filling with power. A spider web of interactions, waiting for something to start drawing the snare inward.
“Let him go, mom. Tell Auntie to pass on the message to the cousins as well.”
“Thank you,” I said.
She raised a hand, one finger extended.
“I’ll explain later,” she said.
“No, you won’t like the explanation. Call it a favor to me. Call it- fuck, mom, listen- mom!”
Another pause. She shut her eyes in frustration. Her breath billowed out in a white fog as she sighed.
“Mom! Fine! Stop- stop and listen, don’t call it a favor, then. Call it a repayment of the favor you owe me for taking Jo to her six-in-the-damn-morning dance lessons for the last half a year.”
I could hear her mother’s voice this time, faintly emerging from the phone, three paces away from me.
“Yes mom, I know that means I can’t whine about having to take her anymore.”
“I need to get back home before Ms. Lewis’ break ends,” I said.
“No, I don’t think that hell on earth is balanced out by six months of early morning car trips and boring waits in the gym. But maybe ask me in half an hour. Unless you want to take her today? Since you already happen to be up?”
She smiled a little, as her mother responded, then hung up. Her cheeks were flushed red with victory and the cold as she looked me in the eye. “We’re even.”
“Thank you,” I said, again. Weren’t thank-yous dangerous? Or was that just with barber demons?
“I’m Penelope, by the way,” she said. “My friends and family call me Penny.”
I felt something wet on my lip. I thought it was maybe a snowflake, but when I rubbed it off, my finger came away crimson.
Blood. Not mine. The Faerie’s.
I spat it on the ground. Spit and trace amounts of blood.
I looked up to see her looking a bit disgusted. “Okay.”
I left Jo and Penelope behind as I went to go deliver the letter, Ms. Lewis one step behind me.