Category Archives: Arc 3 (Breach)

Histories (Arc 3)

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

“Back straight.  And for the love of god, stop sweating.”

“I’m sorry, Auntie,” Sandra murmured.

Her aunt stalked around her, fingers prodding, adjusting.  Raising the chin a fraction, moving the shoulders back.  When Sandra allowed her chin to drop again, the second adjustment was made using fingernails, in the soft flesh just behind the jawline.  She barely flinched, but she could sense her familiar bristling.

Sandra had a view of her auntie as the woman took a step back to look Sandra over.  They were all dressed elaborately in forest green, their outfit appropriate for a dinner party more than a formal dance or cocktail party.  Her auntie’s age had been obfuscated by a touch of glamour, so she might appear to be a woman in her late twenties.  Carefully masked.  Long term use and overuse with glamour led to complications.  As in all things.

Sandra herself didn’t have the benefit of any glamour.  She remained stock still as her aunt stepped close and adjusted her neckline.  Redistributing flesh at the top of the corset as if she were fluffing a pillow, until she was satisfied with the presentation.

It’s the eighties, and I’m wearing a corset.  There’s something wrong with this picture.

Nevermind the fact that her aunt was adjusting her assets as if it was the most normal thing in the world.

Her aunt met her eyes.

“Don’t look so angry, Sandra,” the woman said.  She adjusted a strand of Sandra’s hair, tucking it behind Sandra’s ear.

“I’m not.”

“You look angry.  Missy, tell me, what expression does your cousin have on her face?  Tell the truth.”

It’s not like we have a choice.

Missy stepped away from the door to take a look.  Missy wasn’t nearly as made up as her mother or Sandra were, but that was intentional.  A very non-magical effect and tactic at play.

Missy took her time studying Sandra.  When Sandra shifted her weight in impatience, the movement prompted another half-dozen small corrections from her auntie.

Now, Missy.”

“You look pissed, baby sister,” Missy said.

Language.  We are guests,” the rebuke was sharp.

Missy looked suitably chastised.  Then again, she’d always been the best actress in the family.  Everyone found freedom where they could, and Missy had found hers in doing one thing while pretending to do another.

“I’m not angry,” Sandra said, as diplomatically as she could.  “This is the expression my face naturally settles into.”

“My sister should have corrected that,” her aunt said.  “No reason you can’t teach yourself to hold a different expression.  I hope this won’t be a problem.”

Sandra nodded, glancing down to one side before she reached out for Hildr.  In the form of a stoat, a short tailed weasel, her familiar hopped up to her hand and climbed up to her shoulders, clawed toes pricking her bare skin there.  She could see Auntie raise a hand, ready to adjust her posture and with fingernails, and quickly resumed the ‘perfect’ posture, now with her familiar draped over one shoulder.

Her aunt paused, verified that Sandra had found the appropriate position, and lowered her hand.

“There’s only so much I can do.  Give you a proper first impression,” her aunt said.

“Yes Auntie.”

There was a noise on the other side of the double doors.  Three heads turned.

No, he wasn’t coming through.  The connections weren’t there.

“Can I ask?” Sandra murmured.

“About?” her auntie responded.

“Him.”

“What about him?  We’ve told you who he is.”

“A hermit?” Sandra said.

“Inaccurate.  A hermit doesn’t live in the big city, with a coterie close at hand.”

“He doesn’t have any human contact with the outside world.”

“Nonetheless.  Try to think of him in a better light.”

“Why him?”

“It’s a gamble, Sandra dear.  A gamble.”

The three of them turned their heads as the connection strengthened.  This time, there was clarity, direction, a thrust to it.  Motive.

They were ready as the door opened.  Sandra smiled.

He arrived, but he didn’t arrive alone.

The bottle was the first thing to catch her eye.  His clothes were the second.  Rumpled, a gray flannel shirt over another shirt, jeans with the bottoms of the pant legs in tatters, over brown boots with gray dirt layered over the badly scuffed toe.  His dark hair was unwashed and long, his face unshaven, and not unshaven in a calculated way.  His neck was hairy.

His contingent followed.  Men and women, all appearing roughly ten years younger than him.  She might have described them as hippies, but there was nothing peaceful or hopeful about them.  Many were tattooed, dressed in blacks, browns and grays, with only a splash of color here and there.  Three women to every man, most attractive, but not always in a conventional way.

Not in the Duchamp’s way.

Under the artificial lights, the trickeries and shaping slipped, here and there.  A hairpin appeared to be a leaf in the false light, before the woman stepped into the light that beamed in through the uncovered window.  A curl of brown hair at the forehead showed itself to be a curved horn.  A woman paused, while one of her female companions caught up to her, leaping up to throw an arm around her shoulders, and Sandra could see eyes with red irises, clawed fingers, and a mouth filled with jagged teeth, dark red stains in the flesh around the woman’s mouth.

They collectively smelled like sex.  Not that Sandra knew from experience, but she had little doubt, and she could infer from context.  There was a thicker, skunky smell that she couldn’t pin down or infer from context.  They also smelled like warm hay, wine, fur, grass after a rain, and faintly, lingering in the background, they smelled like blood.

They were here, in so many senses.  Assaulting the senses, even.  The smells were so thick and varied she could taste them on the back of her tongue.  There was the view of them, their languid movements, the occasional flicker of their real forms that she could see in certain lights, if she was using the Sight.  There were the sounds they made, whispering and giggling amongst one another.

He was backed by his people, a contingent, very much alive and active.  Almost defined by activity.  They moved from one side of the group to the other, jostled one another, touched, surreptitiously groped.  Their every action and reaction amongst one another was an invitation or a response to an invitation.

Her auntie had gone to so much effort to present her body just so, but what did it matter?  He clearly didn’t care for appearances.  Why would he care for a nice set of breasts, modestly and carefully presented, when he clearly had all he could ask for?

Dominus Autem Ebrius,” Auntie said, smiling  “Forgive me.  I’d say it in Greek, but my pronunciation is atrocious.”

“Your Latin pronunciation is atrocious too,” he said.  “But I’ll forgive you your failings.”

There wasn’t a smile on his face.  Even as his group leered and smirked, offered sly smiles and teasing glances, he was stone-faced, very still.

“Very gracious of you,” Auntie said.  Her smile, Sandra noted, managed to stay in place, but the note of warmth was gone from her voice.

“I won’t pretend to be gracious,” he said.  “I’m not that guy.  But holding grudges and holding things over people isn’t worth my time.”

“I see,” Auntie responded.  “A wise way of looking at things.”

“Not many people who’d call me wise,” he said.

Auntie composed herself.  “I’m Nicole Duchamp.  This is Sandra and Missy Duchamp.”

“Jeremy Meath.  My friends call me Jerry, you can call me Jeremy.”

“I… yes.  Thank you for agreeing to the meeting.”

“Welcome,” he said, almost automatically.  “Only one of them I’m interested in looking at, isn’t there?  Waste of time to bring two, unless you’re not that confident in what you’re selling.”

“I’m confident she’ll do.”

“I’m not putting any stock in that confidence.  You’ll have to tell me which one am I’m looking at, by the by, unless we’re just going to stand here dicking about.”

Auntie used her hand to point to Sandra.  Apparently she’d decided to stop speaking, given how intent he seemed on arguing every point.

Jeremy looked at Sandra.  Nothing held back, no reticence.  His eye looked over everything from head to toe, taking his time.

A man in the crowd stepped forward a bit, with shaggy dark curls and a broad aquiline nose.  “She looks-”

“Shh,” Jeremy’s rebuke was quiet.

The other man stopped.  His eyes, however, didn’t leave Sandra.

When Jeremy met her eyes, Sandra smiled, just as she’d been instructed.

“Young,” he said.

“Nineteen,” Auntie said.

“Not really my type,” he said.  “Either of them.”

“If it’s about appearance, appearances can change.  The Faerie give us donations of glamour as payment for our services as ambassadors.  There would be more than enough, if you’d prefer a different body type, hair color, bone structure…”

Sandra felt her heart beat a little faster at that.

It was scary in a way that the red-eyed women with the sharp teeth weren’t.

“That’s not the kind of ‘type’ I meant,” he said.

“Is it a matter of style?  She’s adaptable, knows a little something about everything, she’s capable of holding her own in any situation, smart, and well learned.”

Jeremy tilted his head to one side, then the other, as if trying to see her in a different light.  “Yet you’re offering her to me?”

“We’re introducing the two of you.  The family will discuss it with Sandra later, but if you take a liking to each other, or if you don’t actively dislike each other, we could arrange something.”

“There aren’t many people I dislike,” he said.

“Perfect,” Auntie said.

“Which doesn’t mean I’m accepting.  Educated, you said?”

“She’s-”

“I’d like to hear from her.  Assuming the blonde has enough brains to speak.”

“I can speak,” Sandra said, biting back her temper.

“And?” he asked.  He’d asked it in a way that made it feel like he was making a point.

“And I completed a degree.”

In?” he managed the same tone.

She managed to avoid stuttering or stumbling.  It would only play into his hands.  He was shaping the conversation to put her off balance and reinforce the ‘brainless blonde’ idea.  “I majored in English, minored in theology.”

“At nineteen?”

“At nineteen.”

“Why English and Theology?”

“If you’re destined to grow up to be a scientist, you study sciences.  If you’re going to go all-in as a practitioner, you have to focus on the esoteric.  Symbolism, myth, ideas, and structure, among other things.”

“You’re not the only girl they’re marrying off, are you?”

She glanced at her aunt, but didn’t get any cues.

She met his eyes, then said, “No.  No I’m not.”

He stared into her eyes.  No glancing around for connections.  His way of looking at things sought out something else altogether.  “You didn’t choose those degrees, did you?”

“No.  The family set out several options, saying they would pay for my education and work harder to find a good match for me if I followed their plan.”

“Meaning you’re interchangeable.  If I wanted it, I could pursue this other one.  Which is it, Missy or Sandra?”

“That’s Missy, I’m Sandra.”

“So?” he addressed Auntie.  “If I asked, could I have Missy instead?”

“Missy’s my eldest daughter, my first choice for taking over the household.  A different case.”

“Ahh… a hierarchy.  One girl worth more than another.”

“I wouldn’t put it so crudely.”

He snorted, “I don’t care how you’d put it.  That’s the way it is, isn’t it?”

Auntie paused.  “Yes.  I suppose it is.”

“Where do we stand, little Sandra?” he asked.  “How do I rate?  How do you rate?  I take it you aren’t the smartest, most beautiful, most talented of them?”

“No.  But I have my strengths.”

“Don’t we all?  Meaningless words.  Don’t waste your time on them.  More importantly, you shouldn’t waste mine.  I’m not one for patience or delayed gratification.”

“Fine,” she said.

“Where do you stand?  Your family is whoring it’s daughters out in bids for power-”

Stung by the choice of words, Sandra glanced at her aunt.  The woman hadn’t flinched in the slightest.

“-and I’m asking, what am I worth, and what are you worth, do you think?”

Sandra collected herself.  “There are a lot of practitioners we could have contacted.  Out of all of them, my aunt chose you.”

“Very diplomatic wording,” he said.  “Still ambiguous.”

“Do the other practitioners you deal with speak so honestly?  I’m surprised,” Sandra said.

“I don’t speak with many, and no, they aren’t entirely honest,” Jeremy said.  “But I’m not being asked if I want to marry any of them.”

The word marry hit Sandra harder than she might have expected.  She’d grown up with it, had known it was in the cards a decade ago.

Her stride broken in the simplest, most minor way, she found she was further put off by the animal gazes, the smiles and smirks and the pacing movements that framed Jeremy Meath.

She looked to her aunt for reassurance and didn’t find it.

“The honest truth,” Sandra replied, “Is you’re seen as a gamble.”

He smirked.  “A gamble.  An incarnation of Conquest, with no conquest to be had, our Lord of Toronto is dying.”

“That’s a large part of it.”

“And you want to tie yourself to me, in hopes I’ll take the seat.”

“No,” Sandra said.  “My family wants me to tie myself to you, in hopes you’ll take the seat.  I don’t play so big a role.  This is between you and them.”

He tilted his head, looking between her and her aunt.

“You wanted honesty,” she said.

“Okay,” he said.  He turned to her aunt.  “Why should I bother?”

“Because you might have reasons to pursue power,” the woman said.  “Maybe you want it for yourself.  Maybe your god wants you to.  It could be your way out of a bad situation, should you be in one or find your way to one.  Every powerful man has had a great woman behind him.”

Jeremy scoffed.

“Platitudes aside,” Sandra cut in, “If our husband proves to be a natural manipulator, a player of that game, we can play to their strengths.  We make them stronger.  If they aren’t, and you don’t strike me as someone who is, we can account for the weakness.  Shore you up where you don’t have the knowledge or experience.”

“Ah.  You would help me wage war against my peers, should the opportunity arise?”

“My family would help you win any wars against your peers,” Sandra said.

“Dangerously close to being a promise,” he said, “I didn’t miss the other meaning.  You might argue you have no part in the losses, instead of being indebted to help find the victories.  Nevermind.  What do you get?”

Auntie spoke, “Any daughters are ours.  We teach them our way, in addition to anything you teach them as you raise them.  We swear them to our manner of doing things.  We also get a share of your power.  One token offering, every three years.”

“You play a long game.”

“That is the nature of dynasties, Jeremy Meath,” the woman said.

“I didn’t plan to marry, nor did I plan to have children.”

“Plans can change.  You would dictate the nature of your marriage with Sandra Duchamp.  We know practitioners have different demands, and we can adapt.  If you don’t want to raise children, then don’t raise them.  You could sire them and involve yourself only as much as you wish.”

“Children and a small offering from time to time?”

“You could say that.  If you had no plans for leaving a legacy-”

“I do have plans, a shrine, and establishing a place for the subjects my god in slumber placed into my service and care.”

“But no legacy as far as a bloodline.”

He shook his head.

“Then you lose nothing.  You could raise one of your children to look after your shrine and subjects.  We have familial ties to Japan and the shrines there, resources you could draw on.  Through us, you stand to gain a great deal.”

“Assuming I care so much about what happens after I’m gone.  Earlier, I think I said I wasn’t much for patience or delayed gratification?”

“You did.”

“There you have it.  What does this cost me in the now?  A dreary, carbon-copy Barbie doll tied to me for life?”

He took advantage of the shocked silence to take a drink from the bottle, then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“You insult me,” Sandra said.

“Yes.  I believe I did.”

“You insult us,” Sandra said.  “My family.  My sisters and cousins, my mother and aunt, who are doing the same thing I am now.”

He scratched at the back of his neck, and one of the women behind him reached out to scratch the spot with her clawed fingernails.  He stretched his neck out to one side to give her more room.  “Yeah.  Just a little.  You’re boring, and I hate boredom.”

Boring.

Hildr,” Sandra said, reaching out.

Her familiar darted along the length of her arm, four legged.  It sprung from her hand.

While it was still in the air, she brought her chalice from the pile of spring jackets to her hand.

Hildr touched ground, eliciting a rumble, sending Jeremy Meath stumbling back.

Sandra dipped fingertips into her chalice, wetting them, and then drew her fingertips vertically down.

Putting stored power into connections, feeding that power through Hildr for the added strength and connection to the earth.

The impact of Hildr’s landing and the added help of the manipulated connections served to bowl over the entire group of Others.  Jeremy Meath’s bottle crashed against the floor, the remaining contents and shards of glass spreading out from the point of impact.

“Sandra!” Auntie rebuked her.

“It’s fine, so long as she doesn’t attack,” Jeremy said.  He took his time finding his feet.  He had to half-walk, half-crawl to get back from Hildr, who loomed above him, breath visibly steaming.  “Point taken.  That was a three hundred dollar bottle, but I suppose good lessons should be expensive.”

Dark skinned, white furred, Hildr was more wart and scar than clean flesh where flesh was visible, her hair and fur were long and tied into braids as thick around as Sandra’s arm, the longest braids locked into place with iron shackles that could be used to dash a man’s skull to pieces.  Her arms were disproportionately long, with lines and cords of muscle visible even beneath the long, brushed fur.  All in all, she was of a size and bulk that suggested she could catch a charging rhino and wrestle it to the ground.

He looked the thing over.  “An ogre?  No.  Not an ogre of any type I’ve read about.”

“No,” Sandra said.  “A troll.  Scandinavian.  My family offered to pay for a trip, to reward me for completing my degree early.  I took the time to go looking.”

It took eight months, two more to successfully bind her.”

“There aren’t many trolls nowadays,” he said.  “They don’t hide themselves well.”

“Most have been hunted or bound already.  The ones who have remained are either exceptionally strong, or they are very strong and very cunning.  Hildr is more the latter.”

“I see.  And it takes an exceptionally strong and cunning individual to bind one that has survived alone these last few centuries.  I didn’t expect that of you.”

“There’s more to me, more to us, than you might see on the surface.”

“And a… stoat?”

“More fitting a form for a troll than you might think.  Foul smelling, tied to the earth due to their inclination to live underground, large for their species, predatory, with a voracious appetite.  Surprisingly vicious in a fight.  Not well liked.”

“I see.  Well, count me corrected.”

Sandra gestured, and even though her back was turned, Hildr obeyed, sensing the connection and moving aside.  She came to stand beside Sandra, who rubbed at the fur on her arm.

He dusted himself off, gesturing for his coterie to relax and back away.

Sandra stood facing him, cup in one hand, other hand on Hildr’s arm.

“With your main cause for complaint already covered, I assume you would be open to further negotiations?” Auntie asked.

“Send her to my place in a week.”

Sandra felt her heart skip a beat.  In her fit of pique, her pride and anger, she’d nearly forgotten what she was negotiating for, what she was proving.

Jeremy Meath would be her husband.

The three watched Jeremy Meath and his coterie retreat from the room, leaving them to show themselves out.

They gathered their coats, folding them over arms rather than donning them, and left the apartment.

“It’s your choice,” Auntie said, quiet.

Sandra looked at the woman in surprise.  “I didn’t think it was.  I swore oaths.”

“You did.  When you were twelve, when we’d built up your excitement for power enough that you weren’t looking to the future. It was the same for Missy, for me, your mother.”

Sandra exchanged a glance with Missy.  This was out of character, and it sounded like a dangerous admission.

Her aunt continued, “We deceive, and we tell ourselves it’s so our daughters can learn a lesson that will weigh on them all their lives, make them more cunning by necessity.  But what we’re really doing is manipulating them to get them into our power, and hoping they’ll come to learn the same thing we did.”

“Which is?” Missy asked.

“This is the only way we’ll survive as a family.”

“As a dynasty,” Sandra said.

“You get a choice, Sandra.  Do you want to marry him?”

No, not at all.

“You’ll marry me to someone worse as punishment if I don’t.”

“We reserve that for the girls who turn down good matches.  Jeremy Meath is… what he is.  It worries me that he wasn’t more willing to pick apart the deal or define terms.  Seeing you in there, I think we can find you better, if you want it.”

“But the family wants him?” Sandra asked.  “They want to take the gamble?”

“Yes,” her aunt said, and it was said in a way that suggested she already knew the answer she’d get.

Twelve years doing this, and she still felt out of sorts.  It was worse, if anything.  Which was the point, she supposed.

The landscape had been sculpted.  More a painting come to life than a real place.  Every tree and stone had been strategically placed, with the whole in mind.  The placement of every branch… it was art.  Sandra could stand virtually anywhere and see how the elements complemented each other, find hidden images and decorations in the layout of things.  She had taken art classes as her electives, she knew what to look for.

But it was hollow.  The beauty was forced.

Sandra sat patiently as her goblet was overfilled.  Wine spilled out, flowing along the outside of the goblet, down the stem and onto the gold-inlaid table, where it found grooves and drew a brief image before filtering out through holes in the surface.  The candlelight, even, seemed to play off the image.  A nude woman with her back arched.  Suggestive, heavy with implication and accusation.  No doubt entirely intentional, directed purely at her.

The Faerie at the table shifted position, their expressions placid and slightly interested.  She couldn’t help but feel as though they were silently mocking her for the spill.  Which they were.

But it was a fairly important rule, that one didn’t eat or drink here.  Even if it meant being mocked, pressured from every direction.

The entire place was a kind of pressure.  She knew the techniques at play.  Get someone hungry, get them tired, get them stimulated.  Create a need and then fulfill it, to build a kind of dependence.  Cults did it.  The Faerie did it better.

There was no reprieve, in the short term or the long term.  Everywhere she looked, everything she smelled or touched was art.  Everything she heard was music to distract the attention, or were exceedingly dangerous words that demanded it.  The simple scene of a patio with wine, crackers and cheese served in the center, a short ruined wall and numerous statues was a complicated piece of machinery, where every single thing around her was working against her or working for the ambassador.

One mistake was all it took.  Being here was a horror and an honor, because of it.  She was trusted to handle matters.

She pushed the goblet to one side, and Hildr grasped it and tossed it back with one singular motion.  The goblet crunched between teeth.

One of the Faerie in attendance managed to look horrified.

Another cleared its throat, saying, “Then, if we shall sum up the first part of our bargain, Aifric, Lachtna, and Gearalt will accompany you and guarantee safe passage to you and your Hildr, guiding you out of the Faerie and into your city and your world.  There, you’ll be able to pair them up with the young ladies you described, and they’ll enjoy an adventure in mortal form.”

“So we hope,” she said.  The wind was making its way through the grove of trees, and the rustling formed almost-words, as if a slight change in direction might make sense of it all.

Had one of the Faerie given a subtle signal to the trained wind spirits to cue the distraction?  Was it meant to distract her from something?

“We’ll need confirmation,” the Faerie ambassador spoke.  “Do you agree?”

Did she?

“Let us talk about that in a moment,” she said, deflecting the promise.  “There is another subject I must raise, and it’s hard to do so in a polite way.”

“Rest assured,” the Faerie to her left told her, “Mavourneen and I are some of the least polite Faerie you’ll ever meet.”

She was all too aware.  Riordan and Mavourneen were mercenaries in the court, known for their uncharacteristically brutal natures.  If the Faerie were all playing a complicated, multilayered and interconnected game of chess, then Riordan and Mavourneen made themselves out to be knights that any side could use to make plays.  Which wasn’t to say they weren’t making plays of their own, when nobody was looking.

They’d befriended her, offering her their services, which she had taken, because the wildernesses that stood between any Faerie-inhabited space tended to be dangerous, and she wanted Hildr in tip-top shape in case something happened.  She had already uncovered one planned betrayal, and she was already betting that this wasn’t only a cover-up for a deeper, more subtle betrayal that she wouldn’t uncover, but that the whole interplay with Riordan and Mavourneen and the ambassador was part of a greater scheme.  Each of the three could have practiced this play in various forms until it became second nature, and she was the latest fly to step into the web.

“My husband.  Four of his satyrs seem to have gone missing.”

“You’d like our help in locating them?”

“I’ve located them already.  I’ve been led to believe they’re in your employ, ambassador.”

“Are they?  My staff will have to answer for this.”

“I’ve heard tales that you were the one that expressed interest in it.  To have a different kind of danger lurking in the labyrinthine corridors around your tower, and a decoration at your evening parties.”

“Mad,” he said.

She sat back.  Hildr leaned forward, planting one meaty hand on either side of the surface, leaning over Sandra.

Sandra reached out to toy with one of the dangling braids and metal shackles.  “Mad indeed.”

“You asked me if you could come here, expressing good faith.  If you do violence-“

“I asked you to visit Toronto in good faith.  My husband and I didn’t expect to find ourselves missing four satyrs.”

She could see the weave of connections at play, she could pluck, pull and break connections if the situation demanded it, but some connections were false ones.  Others were bait, strands that were sticky enough she wouldn’t be able to free herself if she tampered with them.

“You act above your station,” he said.

She couldn’t help but feel she was following a script.  No doubt the Faerie ambassador had stolen people before, had played out dozens of permutations of the same scene, learning to account for all the possible variables.

She gestured, and saw the Faerie’s eyes go wide.

Hildr lifted the metal patio table, tearing it from the ground, where it had been worked into brick and tile, alternating patches of grass and flower, in a very strategic and stylized ‘ruin’ layout.

The female troll pushed the table’s edge against the ambassador’s throat, toppling him backward in his chair.  The table was held down, pinning him.  It was large enough and heavy enough that if the troll saw fit to let go, it would pass through the Faerie’s neck and likely sink a short distance into the ground.

‘Her’ mercenaries were standing, now, a distance away, hands on their weapons.  One with a sword, one with a handgun.  They seemed a little out of sorts.

“They were not yours to take,” she said.

“He had no claim to them,” the ambassador said, voice strangled.

“His god did.  Dionysus gave a contingent of his servants to my husband for looking after.  If those satyr are not returned, the god will be very upset.”

“We can bargain.  I’ll pay you generously for the creatures.  My generosity is worth more than a dead god’s wrath.”

“Not dead.  Some still worship him.  My husband included.  Dionysus remains a god who can make his displeasure known.  You crossed us.  Me, my husband, my husband’s god.”

And here was the conundrum.  The tangled weave.  Killing the ambassador was easy, relatively speaking.  But even a low-ranked Faerie like this ambassador was embroiled in a thousand different schemes.  The Faerie were very invested in their houses of cards, and they felt a genuine kind of upset when they couldn’t see things through to the epic moments that had been decades in the planning.

That upset had a way of finding the individual who upset the house of cards.  Worse, it fed into what the Faerie really wanted.  A break from the pattern.

When that happened, they tended to get creative.

“Arms and legs only,” she said.  “He lives.”

“Wait!” the ambassador cried out.  “I can-“

The table came down like a chef might use a knife to dice a vegetable.  Wrist, elbow, shoulder, ankle, knee, hip.  The impacts were heavy enough to toss the Ambassador into the air like a rag doll, but the table still struck unerringly at the key points.

The Faerie screamed.

Touching her implement, she found and extinguished the torches and candles around the patio.

“We’re here to protect you,” Mavourneen said.  “There’s no need to extinguish any fire.”

They were so good at lying.  It took her a few seconds to figure out how they might be misleading her.

“The satyr,” she said.

The ambassador, huffing for breath between screams, turned his head.  She saw the connection he’d previously masked.

“I suppose that concludes our second piece of business,” she said.  “Returning to the first subject… the three Faerie I was going to introduce to the Duchamp children.  I assume I have permission to invite them?”

“I…” he huffed, he paused to grimace and grunt.  “Hereby grant you and your troll safe passage… along with Gearalt, Aifric… and Lachtna, to exit my realm uncontested.  Those who sat at this table and those named, will face no trial, tribulation or trickery by my hands.  I promise”

“Include the satyrs,” Riordan said, growling the words.

“…I name the satyrs… unf… to be included… in the deal,” the ambassador reluctantly added.  He was red-faced now, and sweating bullets from pain alone.

“Let’s go,” Riordan said.

Sandra didn’t budge.

“A problem?” Mavourneen asked.

Too easy.

What was the trick?

“No,” Sandra said.  “Not good enough.”

“Your way is clear,” Riordan said.

“Yes,” Sandra said.  “So is Hildr’s.  So are the Satyrs, and the Faerie who are going to see the children…”

The Faerie had been very clear about who was free to leave.

Why?  Why be so specific?

Was there anyone who was ready to leave, who hadn’t been named?

Someone here, who mattered on some level, who, by the wording, hadn’t been sitting at the table?  Had her husband sent someone or something to keep an eye on her?

It took a few long moments of heavy consideration before the answer dawned on her.

It wasn’t a good answer, the sort that made things make sense.  Just the opposite.

When she spoke, however, it was with the practiced ease that the Duchamp family had instilled in her.  “No… let’s be more general.  Promise me that, until sunrise, everyone is free to depart unmolested.”

The ambassador stared up at her.

Hildr hefted the table.  It didn’t seem to be enough, so she stepped on the Faerie’s sternum.  The added pressure made his arms shift, which renewed the pain of the shattered joints.

He had to huff for breath before he could speak.  “I so promise.”

“Promise you won’t artificially manipulate the sun’s rise or fall,” she said.  “It’s your little kingdom here, I don’t know what rules you can make or break.  We get at least twelve regular Earth hours, without tricks.”

“I would have to disable too many-” he was cut off as she shifted her weight, jostling him.  He screamed again.

“Try again?”

“Yes.”

She turned to leave.  The mercenaries fell into step on either side of her.

Of course, they were a problem unto themselves.

“I’d appreciate it if my words could find their way to certain ears,” she said, to one of them, or both of them.  She wasn’t entirely sure.  “The Duchamps bring a lot of benefit to certain groups in the Faerie.  We have longstanding relationships, and it would be a shame to end it because the ambassador was careless.  If another Faerie of rank were to reach out to fill the void the ambassador has left, it would be very much appreciated.”

“We can get word out,” Riordan said.

“Thank you,” she said.

She spread her arms, then swept them together.

Hildr did the same, reaching out to either side, then drawing her hands together.  Except she seized the two mercenaries’ heads along the way and cracked them together.

Sandra paused to examine the fallen mercenaries.  “They’re alive?”

Hildr nodded.  She could speak, but it was often easier and clearer to gesture.

“Then let’s go.”

She found the connections to the Faerie and tugged.  Easy enough; they were waiting for her.

She manipulated the connections between herself and the lost satyrs.  A standard connection formed a straight line.  She loosed it, giving it slack, and let the currents the spirits and other forces of the world were traveling carry it out.

Ariadne’s thread.

Once she found the right elements, she gave it more structure.  The line formed a path.  A guiding line between her and the Satyrs in the labyrinth.  A traditional maze was little problem, but this was a maze meant to confound intruders who might surreptitiously explore the ambassador’s realm for a few hours every week for centuries.  There were twists, turns, down stairs, up stairs, Escher devices and portals that could lead to entirely different areas.  There were also denizens.

Some would kill you.  Others would be like the satyrs.  Creatures of sexuality, fertility, and animal instincts.  Satyrs could take in these traits to be lighthearted and simple, warm sources of raw affection.

That hadn’t, Sandra knew well enough, been what the ambassador had wanted them for, as creatures lurking in the maze.

All things had their darker sides.

The three Faerie and the satyrs found her at roughly the same time that she found the exit.  They had been twisted by glamour, the uglier aspects of their nature exaggerated.  They smelled bad, now, had hunched backs, twisted, furtive faces.  Their horns were far larger, wicked.  Natural weapons.

They would go back to normal, given time.

“Any others I should know about?” she asked.  “Stolen property?”

“No,” one replied.

“That’s no ma’am.”

“No, ma’am,” he said.  He didn’t look happy about it.  He looked angry.  Slighted.

As creations went, they were simple.  Two dimensional.  It was so easy to change them.

She led them through.  From a holly-encrusted gate to the big city.  No heads turned at her sudden appearance.

In downtown Toronto, the satyrs took different shapes.  Even there, they were different from their usual.  Where they might be handsome, flirty young men in their teens and twenties, unabashed in their attraction to any woman they saw on the street, they now looked like the sorts one might cross the street to avoid.  Not because they were large, but because of the menace they radiated.

It wasn’t a long walk to the condo.  She let herself in.

The statue was easily two stories tall, sitting in the center of a pond of deep red wine.  Food, fresh, sat at its feet.

Littered around that pond were the various servants of Dionysus, gathered in heaps and piles, using each other for pillows, where there weren’t enough blankets and cushions strewn on the floor.

“Stay,” she ordered the satyrs.  Without checking to see if they’d obeyed, she picked her way carefully through the assorted servants.

Satyrs, boys and men, smiled up at her, some reaching out, as if she’d fall into their arms.  The fur on their legs was soft, the curls of chest hair and chin-scruff inviting.

Fifteen years, and they still tried.  Fifteen years, and she still imagined herself giving in.

The nymphs were what the satyrs were, in a way, holding to an ancient ideal of womanhood and female sexuality as the satyrs held to manhood and male sexuality. There were differences, but the simple description served.

She’d discovered a maternal affection towards the nymphs over the last decade, but there were more uncomfortable implications in their makeup that still rubbed her the wrong way.  The fact that they ‘played’ with her husband wasn’t one of them.  Such was a partnership with a cultist of Dionysus.  No, it was the fact that the ideal beauty as of 200 BC was… younger than was appropriate.  Or legal.  Not distressingly so, but still true.

But appearances were only that.  She knew as much.  Technically, most of them predated the bible.

The bacchae, on the other hand, were living allegory, the dangers of drink given form.  Alluring on the surface, they had adapted better to modern convention and ideas of attractiveness, and they had changed in terms of the dangers they posed as well.  She wasn’t fond of them the same way she harbored a reluctant fondness for the other beasts, but she understood their place in things.

Her husband sat at the top of the stairs leading up to the burgundy pond, a bottle sitting on a step between his knees.

“You’re back,” Jerry said.  He slurred his words slightly.  “Any trouble?”

She sat down beside him.  “Some violence, was nearly killed three times over just before I left, that I could tell.  I cut right through any other murder attempts by dealing with all Faerie I could get Hildr’s hands on.  That, and all of the trouble that comes with stepping into the Faerie’s realm.”

“Did they have the satyrs?”

“They did,” she said.  “I’ve brought them back.  They’ll take time to recuperate and return to normal.  Right now, they’re hazards more than anything else.  They’ll need to be kept separate from the rest.”

Jerry nodded.  “Thank you.  It’s appreciated.”

“How was the council meeting?”

“I’m very nearly drunk and physically spent,” he said.  He gestured at the servants.  “They’re drunk and spent, and you know how much effort that takes.  Make of that what you will.”

“Yes,” she said, her voice soft.  She felt her heart sinking.  A slow drop, as she took in the magnitude of the statement.

Jerry Meath walked a fine line as a cultist of Dionysus.  To be inebriated was a part of his worship, but to be drunk senseless, it was the sort of vulnerability that the bacchae preyed on.

For him to be ‘very nearly drunk’ was the equivalent of another man being in the hospital for alcohol poisoning.  Treading a dangerous line.  He usually played things safer, smoking and eating things he couldn’t overdose on, things that wouldn’t rob him of too much in the way of faculties.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Ah, right.  You haven’t heard.”

“Heard?”

“Some men in service to a far less entertaining god have done something very ugly,” he said.  “Just a year and nine months into the new millenium, our Lord of Conquest gets his second wind.  Our city and our nation has already committed forces.”

“No,” she gasped.  “Every time.  We were close.”

“I don’t know what will come of it, but for the time being, he’s keeping his throne.  I’m sorry.  I don’t think your gamble paid off.”

“We’re fifteen years into our marriage,” she said, “And you still haven’t learned to distinguish between my family’s interests and my own.”

“You’re not interested?”

“I am, but not so much as you like to imagine,” she said.  She reached out and put a hand on his knee.

Odd, that a man who worshipped a god like he did could never allow himself to be drunk, and the only physical contact between them would be perfunctory and strangely disappointing on both ends.

But then, that was the trap, wasn’t it?  The price?  She’d known right from the start that she would never be able to live up to what he enjoyed daily.  She was only human.

They played different roles in each other’s lives.

His hand settled on hers, gripped it.  It was the smallest contact, but she could see how his body language changed.  Easing.

That was what she offered, such as it was.  To be a man was a lonely existence.  Friends, family, they couldn’t reach out to share feelings or find refuge.  Even with the chilled and complicated relationship between her and her family, she had always been able to seek out a measure of support from them.

Not so with men, with Jerry.  It was only with a girlfriend, with a wife, that they could invest themselves.

He had all of the nubile, willing women he could ask for.  An abundance, even, but he had no validation, and for a long time, he had been in freefall.  He had allowed himself to believe he didn’t need anyone.

That was where their marriage had begun.  In the end, she’d found that all he really needed was a touchstone.  Once she’d centered him and given him an outlet, he’d come into his own.  From there, they’d worked their strategies, divided tasks between them.

Now he believed it was all for nothing.

“I’m here,” she said.

“I’m not sure what that means,” he said.  “We were going to make a play.”

“We still can, sometime, somewhere.  But I’m okay with things as they are.”

He looked out at the landscape of white tile strewn with burgundy blankets, pale flesh and body hair.  “Really?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I won’t ask if you love me,” he said.  “I don’t think there’s a point.”

“We work well together.  Balance each other out,” she said.  They’d never had infatuation, but again, how could he?  How could she offer intoxication of emotion and spirit that his god couldn’t?  “We’re better together than we are apart.”

“This… it’s not what a marriage is supposed to be.”

“So?”

“It’s fragile.”

“Let it be fragile, then,” she said.  “Weren’t you always the one who lived more for the present than the future?”

“Fifteen years spent plotting demands a kind of vision for the future,” he said, glowering a little.

“Even so,” she said.”

He seemed to deliberate for a few long moments before he asked, “What’s the point?”

She didn’t have a ready answer for that.  She had an answer, but it was a hard one to bring up.

She sat with him, instead.  A distance separating them, but the simple holding of hands more meaningful than all of the joys that his servants could bring him.

Sandra was almost certain.

Still, that one note of uncertainty was enough to make her nervous.

“Something came up, while I was tracking down your Satyrs,” she said.

“A good something or a bad something?” he asked.

“That’s the question,” she said.  “But you asked what the point of us was, didn’t you?”

That sort of something?” he asked.

“The Faerie figured it out before any of us did, I think,” she said.  “They wanted to let a select few individuals leave their domain.”

“And?”

“I think there was one more member of the group I wasn’t aware of at first, they wanted me to leave her behind.”

Her?

She touched her stomach.

He looked, then his eyes widened.

“Those bastards,” she said.  “I might have a bit of mother bear instinct in me after all.  I was more vicious than I should have been.”

He smiled a little.

“I’ll handle the child as I have everything else,” she said.  “But there’s meaning in bringing life to the world.  I have no idea how they might react.”

“The nymphs and satyrs should be kind to innocents,” he said.  “The bacchae won’t be, but I can make arrangements.”

“I can’t imagine bringing a little girl up in this environment.

“If it is a little girl,” he said.

She went quiet.

“I do know the trick your family employs,” he said.

She frowned.  “Sorry.”

“It’s fairly common knowledge now.  Even as disconnected from things as I am, I know that much.  Ask for custodianship of the girls, ignoring the fact that you intend to bear nothing but.”

“I might have mentioned it, but-”

“No,” he said.  “There was no need.  That’s not what we have.”

“Openness and honesty?”

“Having to ask for forgiveness,” he said.  “I trust you do what you have to, and I think you trust me the same way.”

Sandra nodded.  She fidgeted.  “Gods, the idea of childbirth scares me.”

“I can imagine,” he said.  “If it helps, a blessing from my god can allow you to enjoy drink throughout, with no harm to the child.”

“Through the labor too?” she asked, smiling.

“Of course,” he said.

“We’ll need to make space,” she said.  “As nice as your… personal temple is, we’ll need a more suitable location for a baby.”

“That can be arranged,” he said.  He stood.

He took her hand, and led her down the shallow steps.  Together, they stepped over and around the piles of naked bodies.

“What about names?” Sandra asked.

A whisper.  “A boy’s name.”

Sandra stopped cold.  She turned and saw a nymph reclining, a lazy, sleepy smile on her face.

“What?”

“A baby boy,” the nymph said.  “Swimming in warm darkness.”

“Not possible,” Sandra said.

But when she looked, Jerry wouldn’t meet her eyes.  He stared down at the floor.  Not guilty, but lost in deep thought.

She let go of his hand.

“How?” she asked.

“My god is a god of drink, of madness, of hedonism and sex,” he said.  “And he is a god of fertility, in his way.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I suppose that wins out over the working your family has crafted,” he said.

“No,” she said.  She reached out, clutching him.  “Undo it.”

“It’s done,” he said.  “And it will no doubt be done over and over again, should we make the attempt.  My god’s will, it seems.”

“You know they won’t let me keep it.  One boy, and the line is broken, the working unravels.”

He nodded.  When he stepped away, she could feel the gulf between them widening.

“I don’t-” she said.

“My god and his brethren are fond of their tragedies,” he said.

“Hello?”

“I wasn’t sure if your cell phone would still be in service.”

“Always.  It’s been a long time, Sandra.  Five years?”

“Seven.”

“Seven years.  You only call when you need something, these days.”

“I wish it were different, but-“

“But it’s what it is,” he said.  “No asking for forgiveness.  We do what we must.  It was a fragile connection, and it broke.”

There was a long pause, as the two of them wrestled with the irony of their reality.

“Someone’s coming your way.  You’ll know him when you see him.”

“What do you want done?”

“I need him to not come back.”

“I’ll see to it.”

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Advertisements

Breach 3.5

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

The rubber boots weren’t well insulated against the cold.  It was fine at first, but the cold gradually seeped in.  Or, perhaps, the warmth gradually seeped out.  Unjustly snatched up from where they belonged, in the wrong environment, while I tried to figure out the fastest, tidiest way of getting rid of them.

They were a good metaphor for me, really.  Or for me and Rose.

It said a lot that I was thinking in crazy, abstract metaphors like this.  I was tired, wrung-out, and emotionally drained.  Just as the warmth had seeped out of the boots, something had been leeched out of me, leaving me… not cold, but whatever was left behind when personality, identity and one’s position in the world were taken away.

I was a little cold, too.  I’d weathered worse temperatures, sleeping outdoors at this time of year, or in the late fall, I knew I was better than some when it came to enduring the cold.  But even then, I’d been bundled up.  Keep the heat in your hands, feet, and keep a hat on, and a little warmth could be stretched a long way.

As I made my way across the city, my footsteps a little clunky in the inflexible, ill-fitting boots, I had a hood, but no hat, no gloves, and only the boots.  The torso was the least important part of the body to keep warm, really, but even there, I had only the sweatshirt.

Parts of me ached, alternately from the cold and the recent transition back to becoming Blake Thorburn.  I felt stiff, and I didn’t have much confidence that I’d be able to handle myself in a more serious situation.  Couldn’t run that fast, wasn’t sure I could throw a punch, and I’d suffer more than any opponent would if I tried to buy time.

When a short, shadowy figure got in my way, all of that meant I was a little more concerned than I might usually be.  Given that it was an Other, the usual added up to ‘pretty damn concerned’.

Fuck.

I tensed as it drew closer.

“Dickswizzle,” I said, as I realized what it was.

It unceremoniously dumped a pile of stuff onto the sidewalk.

“Carefully!” I heard Rose.  “Ugh, Too late.”

Dickswizzle stepped back and scratched at its dangling genitals, looking very unconcerned with Rose’s frustration.

I rummaged through the things.  A scarf, a hat that passed for unisex, two pairs of gloves, June’s hatchet, Leonard’s bottle, one of the bike mirror pendants, and a pair of socks.

Thanks in large part to being hugged against Dickswizzle’s body, the things had a smell to them, not unlike garbage.  But I still pulled my feet out of my boots and donned the second pair of socks.

“Back in the whistle you go,” Rose said.

I dropped the gloves to get the little whistle out in time for the dark-furred goblin to climb back into it.

“How did you lose your boots and jacket?  You didn’t leave them behind, did you?”

“No,” I said.  I looked at the tatter of glamour that still remained.  “I think my glamour soaked into them and I lost them when I changed shape… I tore them up when I shed the glamour.”

“Inconvenient.”

“I didn’t even think about it,” I said, “Which, I suppose, was the problem.”

I bundled myself up as best as I could.  It helped, but bundling up when you were already cold didn’t do so much.

“Speaking of problems, I’m starting to see how you can fall into a trap, dealing with goblins,” Rose said.  “They’re so naturally unpleasant they make you unpleasant by association.  You can’t deal with them without sounding like a vicious lunatic.  No, Dickswizzle, you can’t wipe your ass with those pages.  No, Dickswizzle, no vomiting or depositing any bodily fluids.  Stop that, Dickswizzle, don’t shove that hourglass up your rear end.  Fuck it, Dickswizzle, no fire.  Listen to me, you little motherfucker, you can’t shove that wand up any orifices, understand?  It was all I could do to keep from screaming, and that was in the span of five or six minutes.”

Up… orifices?  His nose?  There weren’t many that you could shove something up.

I didn’t ask.  I didn’t want Rose to tell me it wasn’t the nose.

I was too focused on that to think before I asked, “Why was he shoving things up places?  He was supposed to destroy the books and implements.”

“He did.  He’d get something lodged in, then break it in half.  I’m really not keen to replay the scene in my head.”

I let the image appear in my mind’s eye, despite myself.  Damn it.

“You got away without being seen?”

“Yeah.  She might have heard me, but she came downstairs, and Dickswizzle scampered off.  I left.”

I nodded.

“I still don’t feel so happy about it.”

“I know,” I said.  “But she did take part in trying to ruin us and kill me.”

“Leanne didn’t do anything, and you betrayed her and invaded her home, where she’s supposed to be safe.”

“I know,” I said, again.  “But if I can get roped into this because I’m of Thorburn blood, maybe Leanne falls into the same purview.  I don’t know.  As far as I know, we don’t have a way of measuring that karma in concrete terms.  It’s something to read up on.”

“Noted,” Rose said.

“Did Dickswizzle wind up listening to me, or did you-”

“I told him to do what you’d said, except for the part about going back to the whistle.  I had him go back to the house, gave him one-time permission to enter, and got him to collect some things for you.”

I nodded.  “We need to get you a servant.  Something better than a goblin.  A homonculus, a bound Other, or something, so you can do more in this world.”

“So I can back you up?” Rose asked.

“That’d be nice,” I said.  “But I was thinking more like, well, it’s the only damn thing I can think of that would convey how goddamn thankful I am right this second.  For these clothes, for the sentiment, all that.  And I don’t like leaving debts unpaid, even before all the rest of this got started.”

“I’m not going to object.  You okay?  You’re shaking.”

“A bit cold,” I said.  “Gloves and socks help.”

“It’s just the cold?  Or are you doing that half-truth to dodge telling the whole-truth?”

I started heading towards Hillsglade House.

“I’m worn out,” I admitted.  “As bad as I was after spending my blood.  Maybe worse.”

“Erosion of self via. glamour,” Rose said.  “Imagine pouring water over a rock.  It seems into the cracks, the rough bits, and the pores, covering it.  It changes states, from water to mist to ice and back to water again.  It expands or contracts, shifts and generates friction…”

“And I changed states a few times,” I said.

“Tear away the ice while it’s set deep into the rock, you might take away some rock with it, or see some bits splinter off.  And when that rock isn’t very sturdy to begin with…”

“I’d rather say the rock’s integrity has been weakened by recent abuse,” I said.

“We can say that,” Rose agreed.

“Good explanation, by the way,” I said.  I picked my way carefully past an icy patch of sidewalk.

“I cheated.  Borrowed that explanation from the book on glamour.”

“Ah.  Fuck,” I said, “Briar Girl didn’t say anything about this.”

“She might not have known, or she might have been speaking about a more general case.”

“I’m so fucking tired of deception and lies,” I said.  “And I am aware of how hypocritical that sounds.”

“Did it work?” Rose asked.  “Getting into Laird’s house?”

“I think so.  They said the ritual was interrupted.  They’re having another gathering in a week… which leaves me the task of figuring out how to fuck with that plan.”

“Leaves us.  I’m on your side here, Blake.”

“Right.  Yeah.  We’ve got to figure this one out.  I have a sense of what they were trying to do.  Targeting the property the house is on, but not the house itself.  Something time based, a vortex of some kind.  Powerful, requiring nine or so practitioners to shape.  Drawing, I think, from some sort of store of energy that Laird’s zeitgeist familiar was managing.”

“I glanced through a reference book on Chronomancy.  It’s pretty standard practice to bank time,” Rose said.  “Give up an hour of your day, hold on to it, make use of that time elsewhere.”

“That sounds insanely powerful,” I said.

“The rate of return is pretty abysmal.  Give up an hour, gain a minute.  But I guess you can get better results if you have more hands on deck, a whole circle handling the working.”

“And a lot of power stored up?” I asked.  “I wonder if any of that power was spent… I mean, the circle was glowing and stuff was moving.  I could feel power.  Did that drain Laird’s reserves?  If we stop the ritual again, or a third time, will he or will they run out of stored power?”

“That’d be nice,” Rose said.  “But he’s going to be on guard.  He’ll be wary.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Meaning we need to get more tricks.”

“Trick number one is figuring out when and how to recuperate, Blake.  You keep on tapping this well of personal power when it’s nearly dry.”

I nodded.

“You’re actually listening to me?”

“It’s sage advice.  I need a goddamn power source.  Not just a bit of hair.”

“You need a demesnes.  Or a tool that can make any use of power more efficient,” Rose said.  “Or a familiar.”

“It all comes back to that,” I said.

“At least now we know you have a talent,” Rose said.  “Glamour.  Maybe it would be a good idea to have a Faerie as a familiar.”

“Maybe it would be a terrible idea,” I said.  “Because we know how easily glamour can fuck with me, and that would be leverage the familiar could use to take me over.  And we know how shoddy my defenses against this magic stuff are.  Look at the Briar Girl.  Can you not see some familiar getting a hold on me?  Fucking me over worse?”

I tapped my connection to the house and used it to find the general direction I needed to go.

“I can see that, yeah,” Rose said.  “So?  What do we do about it?”

“We make the familiar less of a thing,” I said.  “If we’re going to stagger this, use one of the three rituals to get leverage on the next, and use the two established power bases to get leverage for the third ritual, maybe I do the familiar first, after all.  An Other that isn’t so strong that she’d be able to mess with me, one that might be able to get us some outside knowledge or power.  From there, we start looking at implements, which we’ve already agreed was the easiest call to make.”

“You’re not going to be able to get a Faerie familiar,” I heard a voice behind me.

I turned around, startled.

I didn’t feel a connection.  My initial impression was that it was a disembodied voice, a ghost or something in that vein.  But he wasn’t.  He was very much real.  Very alive.  Very human.

“Andy, was it?” I asked the witch hunter.

He nodded.  “Yes.”

He was unassuming.  Bigger than average, but the way he was bundled up in his coat and scarf made me think he wasn’t good at the cold.  Hardly a ‘tough guy’.  Thick eyebrows, dark brown hair under a hat with earflaps, and a large backpack that seemed stuffed to the brim.  He kept shifting his shoulders to adjust the weight distribution of the straps.

No weapon in hand.

I glanced around.  I couldn’t feel any connection to anyone nearby, but I still didn’t feel any connection to Andy.

“Eva’s not around,” Andy said.  He stared at me, his gaze level.  Cold without being harsh or unkind.  It was more like he was uncaring.

“Laird sent you?” I asked.

“I’m not trying to reap any extra karma by sharing details with you,” Andy said.  “Those other guys are doing the whole ‘play fair’, ‘see the whites of your enemy’s eyes before you doom them forever’, and that ‘announce your intentions before seeing them through’ garbage.  If and when I come after you, Thorburn, I’m not doing any of that.”

“What,” I said.  “You’ll shoot me in the back?”

He shook his head.  “I’m a terrible shot.  If there was a magic bullet with your name on it, Eva would be the one to shoot it.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

“She’d also be the type to molotov your house, or shiv you from behind while you’re walking down the street.  I mean, if I can sneak up on you…”

“She’s a little more talented in that department, huh?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Yeah, she is.”

He stayed there, silent, not volunteering any more information.

“How did you even find me?”

“Trinkets and some very, very basic investigation techniques.”

“And how are you going to take me out?” I asked.  I was tense, and all too aware that even this guy was liable to give me a run for my money.  He didn’t seem like a fighter.  “More trinkets?”

“Right now?  I’m not aiming to take you out,” Andy said.  “Take that for what it’s worth.  If I was here to kill you I wouldn’t say so.  I can lie, after all.”

Another brief pause, as I waited for him to elaborate.

“What do you want, if you’re not here to kill me?”

“Right now, I’m keeping an eye on you.  Don’t worry, nobody else is coming.”

“Keeping an eye on me?  You going to report on me to Laird?”

He shrugged.  “Does it matter what I tell you?  I’m just going to lie.”

“You’re clearly not interested in talking,” I said.

“I can talk, if it helps,” he said.  “You were talking about Faerie.  Court Faerie deal with prominent families and powers.  Around here, you’re not getting a Faerie familiar unless you’re a member of the Duchamp family.  You could get a fairy, that’s F-A-I-R-Y, but then you’re talking about the witless, minor denizens of their realm.  Foot high things with butterfly wings.  Going that route would be dumb.”

“You’re helping me, now?” I asked.

“This is more self serving.  You’ve already dealt with a head-on attack.  If they called Eva and me in to deal with you, I’d probably take point.  And I don’t want to kill someone with a fairy -that’s with an R-Y at the end- for a familiar.  I’d feel like I was picking on the vulnerable.  In this case, it would be the equivalent of murdering the mentally handicapped.”

“People keep going on about that sort of thing.  I’m supposedly Blake the fool, the unsturdy rock, the guy that’s going to die within the next five years, no questions asked.  Now there’s some implications that I could fit in the same box as the mentally handicapped.”

“If you pick a fairy for a familiar,” he said.  “Just to clarify.”

“I was just comparing myself to a rubber boot in my head.  But the moment it comes time to decide how dangerous I am, oh, I’m the biggest threat that Jacob’s Bell has ever seen.”

“You can be an idiot and a threat at the same time,” Andy said.  “When you’re dealing with these kinds of forces, an idiot is the bigger threat.”

“Unless they’re exceptionally smart,” Rose cut in.

“Oh, it’s the vestige.  Hello vestige.”

“Hello Andy.”

“The geniuses are an even bigger threat, yes,” Andy conceded.  “And the geniuses are so few and far between they don’t really warrant mentioning.  Your grandmother was good.  Scary good, but she wasn’t a genius.”

“Is there a middle ground, here?” I asked.  “Can I at least build up enough respect for people to start saying, ‘hey, that guy isn’t so dumb and reckless after all’?  ‘Maybe he isn’t the bombastic idiot that’s going to retaliate and accidentally plunge Jacob’s Bell into sulfur and hellfire?'”

“If you stand by and let them kill you, you’re clearly crazy,” Andy said.  “Maybe dangerously so.”

“If I fight it, I’m reckless,” I retorted.  “That’s a catch-22.”

“It sounds like you’ve answered your own question,” Andy said.  “About finding the middle ground.”

Not a hint of condescension in his tone.

“Who do you serve?” I asked him.

“The council.”

“Laird and Sandra, primarily, then?”

“Essentially.  But if Johannes had a job for me and there weren’t any conflicting orders from the real powers, then I’d obey those orders.”

“Would you obey me?” I asked.

“You’re not on the council, not technically.  When Molly turned up, or when she moved into the house, sometime around then, the council held a meeting, and they agreed to remove the Thorburns from the list of affiliated powers.”

“Johannes is feared and despised, isn’t he?”

“Johannes is strong enough to have some sway despite the fear and hatred,” Andy replied.  “You aren’t.  Maggie isn’t.  The rules apply to you, but you don’t get to decide what those rules are.”

“Theoretically,” I told him, “I could be in charge of you one day, couldn’t I?”

“No, you’re not going to make it that far,” Andy responded.  “Sorry.”

“I’m getting really sick of people telling me I’m going to die,” I said.  “That decision’s up to me.”

“I’d put more of the choice in your would-be murderer’s hands,” he said.

“Who?  You?”

“It’s very possible.”

“Your sister is the one with the killer instinct,” I said.  “The itchy trigger finger, almost eager to shoot someone.  She’s the killer, and you’re the bookish guy who keeps her on track and on target, researching the target, right?”

He nodded.  Not even an iota of surprise that I might know this.

“And you’re the one who’s afraid, who doesn’t want to hurt a human being.  Well fuck that.  I have a mother, a father, a little sister.  And we’re not close, I admit, but that’s because I’m too fucking human to tolerate the monstrous shit my family was doing to each other.  I did okay in school, and had the craziest crush on a girl in grade seven.  I dated girls and fumbled my way through it all, and some of it was so fucking poorly handled that I cringe when I think about it, even five years after.”

“You’re trying to humanize yourself.”

“Damn straight!” I said.  “I lived on the street for a while, because all of the fighting and conflict over fucking Hillsglade House and the money we’d get from selling it.  I didn’t want it then.  I don’t want it now.  The stress from it ate me up inside.”

“I hear you.  We could probably compare histories on that front.  Though there weren’t millions of dollars at stake for me.”

He was deflecting, or something.  It was eerie, that he was going out of his way to compare us.  Was he distracting me after all?

I glanced over my shoulders, checking the darker streets around us.

“Eva’s at home, I promise,” he said.  “There’s a chance she followed me, but I’m honestly not trying to set you up to have your throat slit or to get you shot, and neither of us are about to murder someone without the council to cover it up after the fact.  I don’t have any other help, no big plots at work.  You would probably be able to tell if anyone but me or Eva came.”

“Assuming I believe you.”

“Assuming you believe me, yes.”

I sighed, “Listen, I’m a regular, average guy who loves art but can’t draw, who’s still figuring out how to be a friendly, decent human being, because his parents never bothered to teach him that stuff.  That thing you were saying to your sister, not wanting to hurt someone?  She told you it was fine because we’re practitioners, we’re not really people, right?  Something like that?  Well, at this stage, I think I’m still more person than practitioner.”

“I hear you,” Andy said.  “Yeah, I even believe you.”

God damn it, I wanted him to argue.  At least then I’d feel more right than if he agreed with me.  The guy who could potentially come after me with his sister and some plan to execute me shouldn’t be on the same page as me.

It was fully possible that my annoyance and frustration was part of his game plan, but he didn’t seem to have that guile to him.

“I just want to be left alone,” I said.  “I want to deal with this, kick Laird in the metaphorical ass until he stops coming after me, get Rose into a position where she’s free, happy and healthy so I can fulfill my oath to her, and handle the crap I’ve got to handle, like a stupid pair of promises I made to a little girl, and a deal I made with someone else.  I want it all to stop, because the only thing that’s keeping life from going back to normal is them.”

“I understand,” Andy said.  “But it doesn’t work that way.  You’re the threat, and you’re an obstacle to this town evolving to a different state and reaching a new kind of stability.  I’m the guy who takes care of threats.  When and if the order comes down, I’m going to remove you from the picture.”

He said it so easily.  Remove me from the picture.

“Without guns or fire or any of that?” I asked.  “Because that’s Eva’s job, apparently.”

“I find a little distance helps.”

“Right.  When removing me,” I said.  “Come on.  At least have the balls to say what you mean.  You’re talking in this quiet, calm, monotone because you’re trying to detach yourself from this shit.”

“Killing you.  Executing you.  Putting you down,” he said.  His eyes dropped at that last bit, then raised up to meet mine again. “Yeah.  I don’t use the guns or knives or any of that, because even when it is a monster?  One of the bad ones I shouldn’t be able to sympathize with at all?  I can’t help but feel like shit after, and looking in your eyes as I do it makes it ten times worse.  The detachment does help me deal with it.  Sorry if it’s frustrating.”

“I’d accept your apology, but it’s kind of hard to when we’re talking about me being murdered at your hands.”

“You?  If we get that far?  If it helps, I’ll feel horrible.  I’ll remember all that stuff about you having a crush on some girl and I’ll lose sleep.  I’ll remember the look in your eye, I’ll think about how much this all sucks.  But I’m still going to do what I need to do.”

“Why?  If this is all some big, fucked up situation, why not change it?  You aren’t sworn into anything, and the rules don’t bind you.”

“Because I made promises, and even if I’m not in a position to be forsworn, I still can’t break them.”

“Despite the sleepless nights?  The fear that eats at you?  The fact that you’re killing innocent people?”  I asked.  My voice was low, and anger was seeping in even when I wasn’t raising my voice.  “I have a hard time buying that.”

“Despite all of that.”

“Family, is it?” I asked.

“A little bit of family.  Obviously, or I wouldn’t be working with Eva.”

“Because family isn’t all it’s cracked up to be,” I said.  “It isn’t fucking half of what it’s supposed to be.  See, there’s a big, big fucking difference between someone being your relative and someone being family.”

“Then I guess I’d say Eva is my relative,” Andy said.  “And ‘family’ plays a very small part in this.”

“What’s the rest?” I asked.

“The rest is private.  It wouldn’t matter, would it?  There’s nothing I could say that would reach you and your specific perspective.  Because we come from very different places.  Having people you owe everything to, who you could never ever pay back.”

“It sounds a hell of a lot like we come from similar places,” I said.

“These people you owe?  Are they dead?” he asked.

“No.  Very much alive.”

He nodded.  “You’re lucky.”

I frowned.  “Am I?  Because it’s a quiet sort of hell, knowing you owe someone everything, and once in a while you have to look them in the eye.”

He nodded.  His expression didn’t change.

I shivered.  “Well, this was fun.  Another death threat onto the pile, and I can’t even bring myself to hate you.”

“I appreciate that,” he said.

“Don’t,” I responded.

He didn’t flinch.

I wanted him to retaliate, to fight back.  I didn’t want to fight, but I needed goddamn cues to find my way through the conversation.

In a way, he seemed just as inhuman as some of the Fae I’d encountered.  The swordswoman had been more animated, had at least had an iota of passion.

Andy wasn’t even pretending.

“I’m cold,” I said.  “I’m leaving.”

I turned to go.  I heard his footstep behind me.

Following me.

“Yeah, I don’t think you’re hearing me,” I said.  “I’m going this way.  I’m not keen on having you tag along.”

“I’ve been asked to keep an eye on you.”

“Why?”

“Because Laird Behaim and Sandra Duchamp are interested.”

“Is he trying something?” I asked.

“He’s preoccupied,” Andy responded.

I reached for my hatchet, touching the handle.

“Bound spirit?” he asked.  “Wraith?  Ghost?  Elemental?  I’m actually pretty good at dealing with those.  I’m kind of shit when it comes to fighting, but if you try using that, then you’re going to be down one trinket, and that looks like pretty intricate work.”

“Blake,” Rose said.  “No fighting.  It’s not the time, and we can’t lose June when we haven’t even used her.”

“Assuming he’s not just lying to our faces,” I said.  I can’t fight even if I have to, I thought.  I wasn’t entirely sure, but I felt almost like I’d retained some of the negative qualities of the six year old.  I didn’t feel strong.

“I’m not a threat,” Andy said.  “Take this for what it’s worth.  Laird sent me to keep an eye on you.  I only do so many favors for him a month… and doing this harmless favor means I’m not taking a job to kill you.”

“But you’re still reporting back to Laird,” I said, as I turned and started walking.  I tried to keep my stride going, despite the fatigue I felt.  He was shorter than me, burdened with that backpack, and I didn’t remember him being particularly fit.

If I could leave him behind, all the better.

“Keep an eye on him,” I told Rose.  I flipped the mirror pendant around so it hung between my shoulders.

“How log have you been doing this?” Rose asked.  It took me a second to realize she wasn’t talking to me.

“Two years,” I heard Andy behind me.

“Not long.”

“Feels like a while,” he replied.

“Can we not talk to the assassin in the funny hat?” I asked.

Rose ignored me.  “What gets someone like you working for someone like Laird?”

There was no answer.

“Power?  Wealth?”

“Responsibility, I already said.”

“Is there a finite amount of responsibility, Andy?  Is there a point where you’ve paid your dues and you’re free of all this?”

“That’s the second question you’ve asked that I already answered.  No.  I could go my entire life and not pay them back.”

“That’s a hell of a burden,” Rose said.

“Yeah.  I’m not dumb, you know.  I’ve faced down worse manipulators than you.”

“I’m not trying to manipulate you.  I’m trying to figure you out.  Do you think your departed acquaintances would want you to do this?  To spend your life indentured to them?”

“I know they wanted it.  They said so.  That they needed me to handle it, for their sakes.”

“Uh huh,” Rose said.

I trudged along, doing my best to leave him behind.  My leg was already raw where the boot was rubbing my jeans against my leg.

“If the tables were turned, knowing what you know, would you ask them to don the mantle?  Kill people and feel horrible about it?  Have nightmares?”  Rose asked.

“No,” Andy said.  “But that’s me, my personality.”

“If they’re asking you to commit your life to something you couldn’t imagine yourself asking someone to do… it doesn’t sound like they were really your friends.  It sounds like they were using you.”

“Hey, Thorburn,” Andy called out.  “Your pet is starting to irritate me.”

“Good,” I said.

“What I’m thinking,” Rose said, “And I don’t know enough about Blake’s situation to say for his case, but if you’re that indebted to someone, and you devote your life to staking vampires and burning witches-”

“You’re oversimplifying,” Andy said.

“Simple is good.  That stuff isn’t the point.  You’re devoting your life to this stuff… what if you die?  I mean, it’s inevitable, right?  What if you die, and you find yourself in the afterlife.  You meet these people again.  You obviously didn’t pay them back for whatever they did for you.  Do they look at you with disappointment?”

“Probably,” Andy said.

“That’s sad,” Rose said.  “Do you have Eva’s support?”

I thought of the vision.

“No,” I said, automatically.

“No,” he agreed.

“Is anyone backing you up?” Rose asked.  “Do you have a listening ear?  A confidant?”

“No,” Andy said.

I glanced back.  His eyes were downcast, his expression serious.  Was he bothered, or was he more focused on not stepping on ice and losing his footing?

“That’s awfully hard,” Rose said.

“Spare me the false sympathy,” Andy said.  “I’ve said it before, I’ve gone up against better manipulators.”

“And none of them have tried to see what’s going on in your head?”

“Some have.  Some have looked.  Doesn’t matter in the end.”

“Did any offer to be that listening ear?  The confidant?”

“Hm?”

“Hey, Rose,” I said.  “Don’t you think befriending the dorky witch-hunting kid should be a collaborative decision?”

“You can make friends and decide who you do and don’t want to forgive,” Rose said.  “But I’m still a free being, more or less, and I can decide who I do and don’t want to interact with.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” I said.  My legs were burning now.  I wondered if he was getting tired.

“I’m not looking to make friends,” Andy said.

“I’m not looking to be your friend either,” Rose responded.  “I am offering to hear you out, if you need it.  There have to be points where you’re feeling lower than low, Andy.  Where you want to cry or go crazy or something.  Now, instead of getting to that point and having nowhere to turn, you can turn to me.”

“And I have one more reason to feel bad when and if I have to kill your master, removing you from the picture as well?”

Ahem,” Rose said.  “I’m a free being.  Present stuck-in-a-mirror circumstances excepted.  And if you feel horrible, then good.  You deserve to.  I said I’d hear you out, I didn’t say I’d lie to you or go easy on you.”

Andy shrugged.  “I can’t and won’t take the deal.”

“Okay,” Rose said.  “But the offer’s out there.”

Andy didn’t respond.

The remaining fifteen minutes of our slow and not-so-steady walk over snow and ice were undertaken in blissful silence.

We made our way to the neighborhood, the dark structure of Hillsglade House looming against the pale evening sky.  The light from the moon and city lights was reflected off of white snow, cast onto the overcast sky above, making it seem almost as bright as it was during the day.

I heard a jostling, and turned to see Andy hurrying to catch up.  My hand flew to my weapon.

“I’m not a threat,” he said.  He wasn’t really out of breath.  Was he more fit than he looked?  Simply uncoordinated?

“You keep saying that, as if saying it over and over makes it true.”

“It is.  And it doesn’t matter.  You’re home.”

We’d nearly reached the block the house was on.  My eyes flew over the premises, then went back to Andy.

“This feels like a trap,” I said.

“It is and it isn’t,” he said.  “It wasn’t really explained to me, so I don’t really know.  My focus is supposed to be on you.”

“Why?” I asked, glancing away to look back at the house.

“To pass on word to Laird,” he responded.

There was an eerie conviction in his gaze.  An intensity that I hadn’t sensed moments ago.

“Blake,” Rose said, “This is going nowhere.  Let’s get you back in the house and resting.  We still need to plan and do some reading.”

“Doesn’t it feel wrong?” I asked.  “Why not send Fargo here to kill us?  He’s only here to gather info and take it back to Laird.  Why?”

“It’s trivial,” Rose said.  “Our priority is getting you in fighting shape, and I wouldn’t mind that servant.  There’s a thousand things we could dwell on, outside of the head games the witch hunter is playing with us.  No offense, Andy.”

“None taken.”

“Come on, Rose,” I said, my eyes fixed on Andy.  “You and I aren’t so different.  Reach deep, dig for those instincts, and tell me you don’t feel this is something serious.”

There was a pause.  “I can’t tell if it’s because you’ve psyched me out or if you’re right.”

“I’m right,” I said.  “Laird’s pulled something.”

There was a pause.

The something?” Rose asked, quiet.  Her question was partly a statement.

My head snapped around, looking over the house.

The ritual?

No.

A kind of horror settled in me.

No, no, no.

Where was it?  The symbols I’d seen drawn on the floor… they would have covered a certain area, here in the real world.

My leg stung where the boot was rubbing it as I strode around, moving closer to the gate.

A circle, like the one I’d seen as part of the diagram, barely perceptible.  The spirits on and above it were brighter.

I could hear the tick and tock sounds I’d heard in the room, now.  I wasn’t sure if it was real or imagination.

“We stopped the ritual,” I said.

“You did,” Andy responded.  “You called the police, and both Laird and Sandra were carted off, I hear.  But sending Sandra with Laird was a mistake.  I doubt they even made it to the police station before she was able to get the leverage she needed.”

“Just like that,” I said, absently.

“When dealing with people without defenses, enchantment is incredibly potent, and Sandra is very good at what she does.  People are like playing pieces on the board for her, to be moved as she pulls the right strings, puts power in the right connections.  The two of them would have stopped at the station only to get the incriminating evidence and start to piece together what happened and the approach you used.”

“But… they finished already?”

“I expect he started right away, as soon as he got back,” Andy said, “And you’ve been walking for a while.  You might have earned yourself a reduced effect, but I’m not sure what that amounts to.”

Now that I knew what to look for, I could see signs of the circle stretching around the house.

No, not a circle.  A ring.

“What does it do?” Rose asked.

“It makes accessing and using your resources in Hillsglade House so inconvenient it’s pointless,” Andy answered.  “The unawakened might notice something when they walk down this sidewalk, but nobody does, do they?  Surely you’ve noticed how the locals avoid the property.  Mail doesn’t come here, restaurants won’t deliver food to this address.  You’re isolated.  They can’t target the house, as it was once a demesne, so they target the space around it.”

“To do what?” I asked.

“Waste your time,” he answered.  “Something you already have in short supply.”

I reached into my pocket and found a quarter.  I flicked it over the circle.

It slowed as it flipped over the line, growing slower with every passing second.

It looked like it would take minutes to hit the ground.

I looked at Andy, trying to read his expression.  It was as placid as ever.

“I’m not sure what you’re seeing, Blake,” Rose said.

I looked, and I saw the quarter in the air, spinning in slow motion.  When I looked without the benefit of the sight, I saw it on the ground.  Different views for the awakened versus the unawakened.  Different effects.

The Duchamps had been a part of the ritual.  Had it been more than targeting it at this particular neighborhood?

“Slowing time,” I said.  “The quarter is still in the air, to my eyes.”

“The long driveway,” Rose said.  “How long do you think that walk would take?”

“Weeks?” I asked, quiet. “A month?”

“Meaning we’d miss council meetings,” Rose said.

“Yeah.  The wedding would go ahead, and so would the plans for establishing a Lord for the city, while we make the excruciatingly slow walk up to the house.  Tying us up until some time when Laird’s ready to deal with us,” I said.

“And that,” Andy said, “Mostly wraps up my end of things.”

I snapped my head around.  “Your end of things?”

This is what he wanted a report on,” Andy said.  “A description of your face and actions as you realized, making sure you got the full message.  He hired me to observe, to make sure he wouldn’t have to wait months for you to come after him.  Assuming you might only realize when the season changes.  He’d like you to know that for now, he’s hands off, until you give him an excuse.”

“And the rest?” Rose asked.

“Remains to be seen.  I know there’s a bounty on your head, a prize of three favors to any Other that catches you.  That might take a few days to revoke, if they decide to go that route.  If an Other kills you, though, and the new heir heads for the house, they’ll lose a great deal of time, and they’ll find a trap waiting for them when they next leave the property.  It’s done.”

“He won,” I said.

“Oh, you did win,” Andy told me.  “You embarrassed him, you counted coup, you probably cost the Behaims more than you know, when you damaged those books, and it would have cost Sandra to tidy up that mess.  But…”

“He won more?” I asked.

“He won more decisively,” Rose murmured.  “A more targeted, devastating strike.  But then again, he’s the guy with the big guns, the power, the soldiers…”

I shook my head a little.  What the hell were we supposed to do now?

“It’s not a kid’s television show,” Andy told me, “Where the antagonist makes the Machiavellian plan and then abandons that plan completely the first time it fails.  People fail, they revise, they adjust parameters, they you achieve victory through persistence and hard work.”

I turned to stare at the house.

“It was nice meeting you,” Andy said.  “I hope I don’t have to kill you.”

Our sanctuary is sealed off, I thought.  We might not be around long enough to give you the chance.

“Hey,” I said.  “Do me a favor, Andy?”

“Maybe.”

I pulled off the rain boots, then stood on the sidewalk with two socks on each foot.  “Take those boots back to their owner?”

“Will do.”

I could hear him walking away.

“Rose?” I asked.

“What is it?”

“Do me a favor, and call the lawyers?  Like you did before?”

“I’d say that’s only for emergencies, but I think this counts.”

“Yeah.”

I barely even heard her reciting the names.

I didn’t turn my head as a man came to stand behind my left shoulder.

“What can we do for you, Mr. Thorburn?”

“Can you undo this?”

“I think you know the answer,” he said.  He wasn’t one of the ones I’d met before.

“Is it a price I’m willing to pay?” I asked.

“Most likely not, given Ms. Lewis’ notes.”

“Okay,” I said.

“Anything else?”

“What about safe passage to Toronto?” I asked.  “There’s no reason to stay here.”

“That can be arranged for a very small cost,” he said.

“Putting me in contact with the local Lord, so I don’t step on toes?  I’ll need some things, as well.”

“Clothes and supplies.  Yes.  Shall we negotiate?”

“I think we have to,” I said.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Breach 3.4

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

The steady ‘tock, tock, tock’ of the diagram was joined by confident voices, speaking in time with the ritual.  Each jerking movement of the ‘hand’ of the diagram was accompanied by a ‘tock’.  Less a sound, I realized, than a vibration, reaching through the floor and house.

I needed to know more.  What was the ritual, what was the goal, and how the hell was I supposed to disrupt this without revealing myself or getting them to hunt for a culprit?

I searched the room.  All eyes were riveted to the scene.  As I circled around, pretending to be in search of a better look at what was going on, I looked at tables, cabinets and shelves.

One glass case had an assortment of trinkets, wands, a staff and a spike-studded scepter.  Primarily, though, there were watches, hourglasses, and other timepieces within.

Al mamlakah,” Sandra Duchamp spoke, startling me a bit.  A loud, clear woman’s voice in the midst of the more baritone chanting.

Al mamlakah,” the other Duchamps inside the circle replied, in unison.

Past the gaps in between people and in between legs, I could see the diagram shifting, as if it were an intricate device, tumblers falling into place, gears turning, components interlocking.  A ‘tick’ joined the ‘tock’.  Higher, faster, jarring my concentration.  I could see the connection Sandra Duchamp had made.  One word, an agreement or affirmation, leveraging some tie she already had to the grand scheme of things.  She’d been the ‘crown’.

If each of the Duchamps had a part to play, that meant they were one fifth of the way through already.  If I was lucky, there would be more tacked on at the end, or the Behaims might have their pieces to add.

If I was lucky.  I didn’t want to stretch my luck.  Not with this much on the line.  My well being, the family…

How to deal with this?  Priorities were information, tools I could employ, and getting out with my skin intact.

I looked up at all of the adults who held the pads of paper outlining the ritual.

The simplest solution was often the most effective.

I selected my position carefully, so I could be sure to be out of sight of anyone who saw the two kids playing under the foosball table, and I walked up to one of the Behaims.  I tugged on her sleeve, insistent.  She looked down at me.

“I wanna see the paper,” I said, loud enough to be annoying.  One of the Behaims and two of the Duchamps in the circle gave me a dirty look.  Apparently they didn’t appreciate the interruption.

The woman shushed me, simultaneously dropping down to a crouching position.  She held out the paper so I could see.  It was already turned to the second page.  Words were written out like a sermon, written out in what I presumed was Arabic, with a phonetic transcription.

Being a child, I was allowed to be a little graceless.  I moved the first page, very deliberately rustling it, and held it straight up so I could read it with my head tilted to one side.

An illustration of the diagram, minus the clutter in between the key parts, with lines drawn out from each section to the respective labels.  Crown, coin, tome, sword, and cup.  There were points of power on the outer rim, where the Behaims stood.  Other labels marked the diagram as sectors and rings.

Further down, there was elaboration.  The rings were marked with terms like ‘clockwise’, ‘counterclockwise’, ‘influx’, and ‘corridor’.

I could get the gist of it.  Power of a particular type, directed inward, given direction by the inner circle.  Astrological symbols on the outer rim, and then, as Laird had said, the realm, the space.  Community at the center.

The picture of the circle didn’t have all of the details.  When I looked, however, I could see a grid of lines, each with words running along them.

Sydenham.  Glade.  McArthur Crescent.

Street names.  The ones around the house.

Temporal distortion, centered on the house?  No.  Not the house, exactly.

The rings alternated from clockwise to counterclockwise, counterclockwise again, then clockwise.  Feeding into other diagrams, with the endpoint forming a ring-

“Where’s Leanne?” the woman whispered in my ear, interrupting my thoughts.

Leanne?

Oh.  ‘My’ cousin?

I couldn’t lie, but I was pretty sure there weren’t any rules about gestures.  I shrugged and pointed at the far side of the circle.

She turned the page, and in the doing, pulled the page I was holding up out of my grasp.  I couldn’t read the page with the details and the opening of the ritual without looking strange.  At my age, I wasn’t even supposed to be able to read it.

Husam,” one of the Duchamps spoke.  The first word at the top of the new page.

Husam,” came the chorus, from the other four.

The vibrations that were emanating from the circle took on a harder, harsher quality.  Where I’d felt it against my body before, like a speaker with the bass turned up, I could feel it running through me, now, resonating in my bones.

Laird’s chant continued, a background noise, intense and constant.

The lights above us were more intense, but that light didn’t reach nearly so far.  The room grew dimmer, but the lines of the circle remained as bright as they had been, effectively standing out.

The ticks and tocks continued incessantly, shuddering their way through me, resonating in my bones for the one and a half seconds it took before the next one hit me.  I was left just a bit breathless.  The woman next to me had to shift her position to keep from falling.  I had the advantage of a lower center of gravity.

But, at the same time, I was smaller, and that informed my perspective.

Okay.  More than a little unnerved, now.

I played the part, wringing my hands in front of me.  I was a little boy, insecure, and without filters or guile.  It seemed like the thing to do.

A hand settled over mine.  The woman next to me.  She leaned closer, whispering.  “Go and stay with Leanne, okay?”

She shifted the paper to one hand and started to rise to her feet.

I acted without thinking.  An opportunity sighted, a weak point I could target.

“But I’m scared!” I cried out.  Loud, again, to distract.  To justify the other thing I was doing.

I threw myself bodily at one of her knees, wrapping my arms around her thigh.

She teetered, struggling to catch her balance or stand upright, center of gravity thrown.

I released my hold, just as she tipped toward the circle’s perimeter.

A Duchamp woman standing next to her caught her by the upper arm, holding it high.  They very nearly fell into the circle together, but the Duchamp woman was taller, strong, and managed to plant one foot in front of her, not a half-inch from the edge of the animated circle.  Swinging from her rescuer’s grip, the Behaim woman very deliberately pulled her hand back and away from the circle, avoiding contact.

One strong jerk back on her arm sent her falling back onto her rear end, safely away from the circle.  The Duchamp woman straightened, and remained there, stone-faced, vaguely condemning of her rescuee and me both, not offering anything further in the way of a helping hand.

The chanting continued, Laird doing the lion’s share, but all of the occupants of the diagram were directing dirty looks this way, now.  Those looks, however, were focused on the woman who’d very nearly fallen.  She climbed to her feet, successfully this time, her face red with some mix of anger and humiliation.

Before eyes could turn to me, I put my hands to my mouth, my eyes wide, and scampered from the room.  The kid who knew full well he was in deep trouble.

Damn.

I’d failed.  If I got up to more shenanigans, they might get curious about the errant little boy who’d interfered with the ritual a second time.

I found myself in the living room, still littered with empty wine glasses and plates.  Nobody was hurrying to follow, which was good.  I wondered if they’d be making whispered excuses to one another, that the little boy was scared, it was an accident…

It didn’t matter.  I didn’t have long.

I felt like a weight had been lifted from me, now that I was clear of the room.  Every step away from the circle had diminished the volume of the ticking as if I’d taken ten.  Being in the living room, I could barely feel it.  With the second sight, I could make out the movements of the spirits, as if they were caught up in a current, fighting a headwind.

Okay.  Interruptions were bad.  The ritual was relatively delicate.  The participants could be distracted, and the diagram could be interfered with.

Which didn’t make this easy.  It was an exercise in problem solving.  The problem being that I couldn’t interfere directly.  Even being one step removed from the interference would be dangerous.

What was S.O.P. for being a guest?  If I couldn’t poison them, what was I allowed to do when they were trying to fuck with me?

I might have to bite the karma bullet, I thought.

Fire alarm?  No.  Breaker?  No.

I needed help.

I had the goblins, but… they were a dangerous kind of help.  Help I couldn’t count on as being untraceable.

Rose couldn’t act.

Couldn’t get Maggie involved.

My eyes traveled over the room.

I spotted the phone in the front hallway.

With a child’s fingers, I hit the numbers.  Nine, one, one.

“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?”

The cordless phone in hand, I made my way up the stairs and out of earshot.  I nearly tripped on the stairs.  Nearly tripped, mentally, trying to figure out how I was supposed to tackle this.  “I- um-“

“Honey, did you mean to call nine-one-one?”

“Yes.  It’s where I’m supposed to call when there’s something bad happening?”

“Yes it is.  Are you in any danger right now?”

“Not unless they find me.  I’m scared.”  Which was truth, if I admitted it to myself.

“Where are you?”

Where was I?

I kept my voice quiet, sitting at the L-bend in the stairs where I could see downstairs, while remaining mostly out of sight.  “I don’t know the address.  But I’m in Laird Behaim’s house.  He’s in charge of the Jacob’s Bell police.”

“I know, honey.  What has you this scared?”

“I don’t know who else to call.  I came for this family party and a lot of people left, but the people who are still here are talking about getting rid of somebody, and I think it has a lot to do with the girl who got murdered.”

“At Laird Behaim’s house?”

“Please send police,” I said, injecting some emotion into my voice.  “Please?  With sirens on?  I want them to stop now.  I don’t want to listen to any more-

Dahab,” one voice spoke out from the back room, just loud enough for me to hear.

Dahab,” four other voices answered, muffled by the intervening walls.

“-any more of this,” I finished.  Balls.  What was that?  Three out of five?

“What’s your name, honey?”

Double balls.

“If I tell you, I’ll get in trouble.  You can’t tell them I called, or they’ll hurt me.  Please send police.  Or fire trucks, ambulances?  Anything loud?”

“They’re already on their way.”

“If they knock, and people don’t answer, it’s because everyone’s in the back room.  It’s Laird Behaim and Sandra Duchamp, and other family members…” I thought for a second.  “And one of them was saying… he said Mister Laird was talking about killing somebody.  Murder.  And now they’re all being grim and scary.”

“I understand, honey.  Help is on the way, don’t worry.  Why do you think they would hurt you?”

“Because…” I paused.  What to even say?

“Honey?  It’s okay.”

“Before, a few days ago, he said he’d get rid of me.  He… said he wouldn’t enjoy it, but I was dead already.”

A fractional pause.  “Are you somewhere safe?”

“No.  But if I hide, won’t they realize I called?”

“Maybe, honey.  But if you wait until the police come, they can make sure you go someplace safe.”

Problematic, in a way, but a good escape option.

“Some man was saying they make some of their kids get married to people they don’t want to marry, for favors and to get in good with the right people.  Maybe- maybe if the policemen come, they can ask the girls?”

“Maybe,” the woman said.  I wondered how she was parsing all of this.

“And the room they’re in is weird.  It’s at the back of the house, and…” I thought for a second.  “It’s got this glass case with all these sticks and things inside.  One of them had spikes on it.  I know he’s going to try to keep the policemen away from the room and convince them it’s not important, I’ve seen him do it before.”

“What happened before?”

Restless, I stood.  I made my way to the bathroom, and I saw Rose in the mirror.  “…He took me out and then he threatened me a little and left me to walk home in the dark.  Some Other people stopped me and they would have hurt me, but a friend of mine made them leave me alone.”

What the hell did it say, that even with the oaths we’d made, the one thing I’d told the emergency dispatcher that felt closest to lying was the bit where I called Rose a friend?

“This is Laird Behaim?”

“The head policeman,” I said.

I could hear the sirens.

“They’re coming,” I said.

“Stay near the door.  When the policemen answer, I want you to go to them, okay?”

“If you ever let them know I called,” I said. “They’re going to try and do bad things to me.  Please.  I’m safer so long as you stop them and you don’t say there was a call from this house.”

“We need to get you somewhere-“

“-If they find out I called and something happens to me,” I said, injecting a bit more emotion into my voice.  “It’ll be your fault.  Make them hurry.  There’s no time.  Hurry.”

That said, I hung up.

My heart pounded, even in the aftermath of the call.  I could hear the sirens drawing closer.

“Hell of a gamble,” Rose said.  “You never said you could act.”

“I-” I started.  My voice hitched with emotion.

A moment passed, Rose and I both silent.

“You’re not acting.”

“I’m… I don’t know,” I said.  I did what I could to get my voice under control.  Fuck, fuck… couldn’t afford to let something slip, to show my distress to the Behaims and Duchamps.

“You’re drowning in glamour,” Rose said.  “The act is becoming real.”

“O-okay,” I said.  I was unnerved at how much I sounded like a little boy, when I wasn’t putting on the act.

“Hey, you wanted a partnership?  This is your partner telling you to get out.”

“I can’t leave right away,” I said.  I cleared my throat, then said  “As soon as I’m able.”

I wasn’t able to keep the full tremor out of my voice.

“Soon, Blake.  If it’s rooted deep enough in you to sway your emotions, it’s going to be hard to change.  If the glamour breaks it’s going to hurt.”

“Okay,” I said.

“And don’t layer anything on top of it, or you’ll have to dig deeper to get to ‘Blake’.”

“O- okay,” I said.  “No more changing?”

I turned my head.  I could hear the siren, trace it back to the cars… and see the cars arriving.

“That look on your face.  They’re here?” Rose said.

“The ritual might have finished,” I said, whispering the words.  “That took too long.  It’s still taking too long.”

“Did you feel the ritual finish?”

“No.  But I’m not feeling much of anything, outside of that room.  Is Granny’s- grandmother’s house safe?”

“Let me get back to you on that.”

Then Rose was gone.

I left the phone where it was, covering up the connection with glamour.  That wasn’t using glamour on me, right?  I descended downstairs.

There was no chanting.

The quiet was eerie.

There was a pounding knock on the door.  I jumped.

I was physically shaking.  I felt nauseous.

Why the fuck did it feel like I was vulnerable to everything?  Giving too much blood had spent far too much of myself, June had chilled me even through the protection of the circle, I’d totally fallen for Laird’s trap…

The knock came again.  I could see police officers circling around the house through the bay window in the living room.

A moment later, there was a knock on a window at the side of the house.

Behaims and Duchamps emerged from the back room as a group.

I still had the hair.  Where had I put it?  The boy’s hair…  I’d had it in my hand.

I found it in one pocket, with the paper goblins, sensed the connection, and found the boy.

He was taking the same path I had.  Back room to kitchen to living room.  I ducked into the hallway and headed towards the dining room, so we were at opposite ends of the house.  Being seen at the same time and place as him would be disastrous.  More than just about anything else.

At the same time, however, it meant I was moving in the general direction of the incoming Behaim and Duchamp family members, I was shaking, I was about five seconds from bursting into tears, and I looked guilty as fuck.  Try as I might, I couldn’t tap into the stuff I was supposed to know, about hiding guilt and acting normal.

Worse, I still couldn’t lie.

I came face to face with the woman I’d nearly shoved into the circle.

Well, face to bellybutton, but the point stood.

They loomed around me.  Doubly imposing for the size difference.

Think, Blake Thorburn, I thought.  Fucking think.

“Are you mad?” I asked, in a hushed whisper.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“The police came, and it’s because of me,” I said.  I felt the tears welling out.  “I almost knocked you over and ruined everything.”

Both statements true, but not as connected as I was implying.

“Police?” Laird asked.

“I saw them outside the window,” I said.

He brushed past me, his wife and Sandra Duchamp in tow.

I very honestly thought I might throw up, I was so…

What the fuck label did I stick on this hot mess of emotions that were filling my six year old frame?

So discombobulated?

“The police aren’t your fault,” the woman said.

I nodded.

I stepped back to get out of their line of sight as Laird opened the door.

“Mark,” he said.  “What’s going on?”

“Chief Behaim, sir.  Listen, something’s come up.  It’s awkward.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t want to make a fuss, especially not with your family here, but-“

“There’s been another accusation?” Laird asked.

“No, sir.  Not exactly.  It’s more serious than that.  If you come with me, I can explain.”

“Explain now.”

“We’ve been led to believe that a crime was or is in progress.”

“Where?”

“Here, sir.  Please understand, we’ve got to do this by the book.  All indicators suggested we needed to act immediately, which is why you got us.”

His own police officers, arresting him?

I suppressed my smile, best I could.

“I think I see,” Laird said.  “Can I ask-“

“Sir?  If you could please come with me right away, without any questions?  The RCMP has been called, but I need to bring you into the station, without delay.”

“No delays,” Laird said.  “Alright.”

“We’ll also need to see… Sandra Duchamp?”

Peeking, I saw Sandra momentarily purse her lips, then nod.  “I’ll come.”

“And, with permission, Nathan and Ed are going to take a look through the property and talk to a handful of your guests.”

“Mark, we were having an engagement celebration.”

“I understand, sir.  But…”

Mark trailed off.

“But you’ve got to treat me like a suspect,” Laird said.  “I’ll be very interested to hear the background to this when it’s all cleared up.”

It took a minute for Laird and Sandra to get ready.  Two officers came into the house as they got jackets and boots on.

I caught Sandra gesturing at people I couldn’t make out in the living room.  A moment later, I could see the spirits around the cops being manipulated.  Distracting the cops.

Two girls, roughly my age, or the age I was supposed to be, passed through the kitchen to the back room.

There was no way to control this.  No way to really counteract the cover-up.

I watched Laird and Sandra leave, saw the cops head in the direction of the room with the circle.

A murmur ran through the collected group.

“The Thorburn boy?” a man asked.

“Very likely,” another Behaim practitioner commented.

“Is it okay?  The circle?”

“They’re the best of the new generation, when it comes to glamour,” a Duchamp matron said.  “Not to worry.”

“So… does that make this two points for Thorburn?” I heard someone ask.

“I think it’s safe to say it’s two points.  Another point in this department, and he’s earned three.  A great deal more profound.”

A point for me… but the ritual?

The murmurs quieted as the door opened.  Another officer.

“Mrs. Behaim?” he asked.  “I’ll need you to write down every guest you have here.  Sort them by family unit?”

Identifying the children?  Trying to find the caller.

My counterpart was at the front of the house.  I slipped back towards the kitchen, peeking to see how things were going in there.

The diagram was gone.  There was faint music playing.

Glamour?  So fast?  Masking an area like that?

It’s not real, I thought.  It’s fake, it’s a trick.  There’s a circle under there.

I could have blown things up, shattered the glamour, with just a few words.  I could have gotten away with it.  Theoretically.

But I couldn’t get over the fear that had seized me.

Fake fear.  Glamoured fear that I didn’t dare mess with, lest the entire thing fall to pieces.

I watched Penelope and Jo talking.  Low voices, looking concerned.

“The RCMP is going to need to talk to some people,” the officer said, “Quite a few, really.”

“We won’t be able to continue with the party?” someone asked.

“The evidence we received was serious,” the officer said.  “We could do this by sending people home as we scratch them off the list, or we could bring the family units in question to the station, so those who remain could carry on.”

I backed away, sticking close to the woman from before.

“It depends on how many people you’ll want to talk to?”

“The families of Layton, Peter, Donald, John, Andrew, and Annabelle, please.”

I saw heads turn.  Connections forming.  The people at the center that I could make out…

All families with little boys.

“It sounds like you need to go with your mom and dad, okay?” the woman told me.

Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.  Fuck.

I headed towards the kitchen, rounded the corner, and stopped.

Wait… wait… catch my breath.

I needed to figure out what the fuck I was doing next.

A girl my height came to a stop right in front of me.  Auburn curls, a nice satin dress with a lace collar…

Leanne.

It took a second for something to click, for the mental gears to shift and click.

When they did, when she met my eyes, I felt like someone had taken a sledgehammer to my face.

Couldn’t see. My vision was distorted, as though I needed glasses to see and they’d shattered.

The rest of me…

Unchanged.

“Huh?” I heard her say.

“Shh,” I shushed her.  “If you keep it a secret, I’ll show you later.”

I saw her head move.  I could only assume it was a nod.

Stupid, stupidPromising.  I reached out, fumbling, and grabbed her hand.  I pulled her in the direction of her waiting mother.

I was pretty sure it was her waiting mother.  What had just happened?

“Back already?” she asked.

“Can I spend the night?” I asked.

“The night?”

“Sleepover,” I said.  My heart was in my throat.  Still couldn’t see.  “Everyone might have a long wait at the station with lots and lots of questions.”

I stopped there.  I was speaking too excitedly, not breathing in enough.  I was a hair way from hyperventilating.

I could see the doubt on her face.

“Please,” I panted.  “Please, can I come?”

“Please?” Leanne joined in.  “Please can he?”

This is a mess,” she said, to the nearest Behaim.  She looked at me.  “I’ll need to talk to your mom.”

I can go ask,” I said.

“Go ask, then.”

I headed for the kitchen, rubbing at my eyes.

I felt the glamour rub away, instead of shifting into place.

I could see, but I was seeing out of a different set of eyes.

My own.  Were they the wrong color?

Were they too old, as eyes went?  Did I have bags under my eyes from recent nights with no sleep?

I touched the hair, found the boy.  Through him, I found the parents.  All in a tight group, two parents, son and older sister, the dad’s hands on the son’s shoulders.

“We’ve decided what we’re doing!” Laird’s wife called out.  “I’m sorry, but we’re wrapping things up for tonight.  If your name wasn’t called, we’ll have to bid you farewell.  We’ll have another event, sometime next week.”

What did that mean?  Had I bought myself a week?

Had I stopped the ritual?

People were heading for the front hall, to collect boots and jackets.  When the mass formed a kind of traffic jam, the various families broke into clusters, to have hushed, intense discussions, eyes on the police and the front door.

I waded through the traffic jam, head down.

I was no less than ten feet from my double, the view of the two of us obscured by only a thin collection of people.

Through the connection, I could see that ‘Mom’ was more preoccupied, talking to another, heavy woman from the Behaim family.  I wrapped my arms around her leg, and her hand settled on my head.

“Do you love me?” I piped up.  One child’s voice in the din of conversation.

“Yes, of course,” she said, without even looking down.

With that done, I half-ran, half-skipped away, ducking between people’s legs to get back to Leanne and her mom.

“She said yes,” I said.

I received a tolerant smile in exchange.  “Alright.  We’ll make do.  Come on, let’s get you ready.”

It was slow going, wading through the crowd, staying out of sight, but I reached the piles of boots and shoes at the front door.

Through the boy’s connections to his belongings, I found the right stuff and got myself ready.

I could feel something else break as I tested the glamour.  Suspicion?

It dawned on me: I’d been too quick.  Too competent in getting myself ready.  I’d even done up my shoelaces with the kind of ease that came with twenty years of practice.

Reaching for my gloves, I saw the other telltale issues.

Cuts.  Scrapes.  A wound from a pen-stab to the soft bit beside my thumb on my left hand.  A strategic cut where I’d drawn blood.

And there… a dark hair, and then another, near my wrist.  Then five.

Dark, thick, adult body hairs on my hands and arms.

Time was up, it was all coming to pieces.  Rose had warned me it would be ugly.  Painful or drawn out.

I wasn’t sure how that would work in execution.  I’d been momentarily blind, and in rubbing it away, I may well have accelerated the breakdown.  What was next?  What did I face, in being disabled, inconvenienced or hurt, as the glamour fell apart?

I reached into my pocket and grabbed a paper goblin, then pulled on mitten with the paper nestled against my palm, ready in case something came up.  I yanked my hat down to help hide my eyes.

“I might have to duck inside,” Leanne’s mother said.  “Ask your parents if one of them can get your car seat out of their car.  Darn it, that’s going to take a while.”

“I don’t need a car seat,” I said.

“I think you do.”

“I was in a car a few days ago, and I didn’t have a car seat,” I said.  Pretending to be proud as punch.

I fucking drove a car a few days ago and I didn’t have a car seat.

“Your parent’s rules aren’t my rules.  And with my brother being chief of police…”

Was I going to be done in by fucking car seat laws?

“What if you drive real careful?” I asked.  “It’s not far.”

I saw her frown.

“It’s going to take a long time, with everyone there,” I said.  “If we have to go back in there and ask, we’re never going to get to your house.”

I saw her hemming and hawing for a moment.

“You look bigger.  Have you grown?”

I managed to stay stock still as I felt another hit to the glamour.  Another crack.

Bigger?

“He is!” Leanne said.  “It’s the first time he’s ever been taller than me!”

Ah, frick frack fuck.

“Yep!” I said, plastering a proud smile on my face.  “I’m all grown up!”

“You’re getting there,” she said.

“I’m a big boy,” I added, for good measure.  “I don’t need a car seat.”

“Okay.  Let’s get you two going, or you’re liable to be intolerable tomorrow.”

“Yay!” I cheered.

“Yay!” Leanne joined me.

As we climbed into the car, I could feel my shoulders straining against the stolen winter jacket.

I could feel the growing pains, now.  The extension of my limbs, the shifting of my spine.

It was like the Glamour had soaked into me, and the change back was affecting me from head to toe.

I was sweating bullets, and this time, I could feel the sweat wiping away the glamour as I sat there in the back seat, behind Leanne’s mom.

“Did the thing work?” I dared to ask.

“The ritual was stopped,” I heard.

There was nothing else volunteered.  We drove in silence for a few long seconds.  I tried to keep from smiling.

“I’m going to show you the house I made for Elsabelle,” Leanne told me.

“What did you make it out of?” I asked.

Magic, of course,” Leanne told me.

“No fibbing,” her mom called out.  “You know the rules.”

“…cardboard boxes, mostly.” Leanne amended.  “And I put all of my favorite music in there, and I put up pictures I drew, and I’m going to learn to sew and do dresses, so it’s all ready when she comes.”

Oh man, this was starting to hurt.

“When… when does she come?” I asked.  Keep her talking, keep her excited with her focus elsewhere.

Or she might notice that I had stubble on my face.

“You know when I get to meet Elsabelle.  I told you!”

Thwack.  Another hit to the glamour.

“In six years, four if I’m extra super good, I get to have a magical friend like Donny and Ian and Heather, and she’s going to be a fairy princess, and I don’t know who she is or what she’s a princess of, and I’m only calling her Elsabelle because I don’t know her name yet, but she’s going to be perfect and nice and sweet and beautiful and she’ll be my best friend forever.  Because all Faerie are noble and pure and Faerie princesses are extra special in all those departments.”

“Four years only if you learn not to fib,” her mother said.  “Even a little.  And you need to read the books.  And she might not be noble, unless you work hard enough to earn the attention of someone special.”

“Yes!  I will!”  Leanne pronounced.

“And no making promises!” her mother rebuked her.

It was all I could do to sit still, to avoid groaning.  This sucked.

Not everything was fixing itself in the right order.  My stomach was twisting, and my breath was short because my lungs felt too large for my ribcage.

I didn’t dare speak, because I was pretty sure it would be my voice that came out.

“Are you okay?” Leanne asked.

What did I even say to that?

“Need to…” I strained the words, to mask my voice.  “get to your bathroom.”

“I’ll hurry,” her mother said.

She was a practitioner, I knew.

If I fell to pieces here, I was screwed.  I’d be incapable of moving, and I’d have an angry practitioner looming over me.

We stopped, and I had my seatbelt off in seconds.  I yanked on the door handle.

Childproof.

A solid fifteen seconds passed, with me waiting for Leanne’s mother to get herself untangled and open the door.

I nearly fell as I climbed out of the car.  One leg shorter than the other.

She glanced left, then right, looking down the length of the neighborhood.

“House!” she said, in a stern voice.  “Open!”

I saw the connection, straight to the front door.

A demesne?

“Do you need help?”

I shook my head.  “I can go in?”

“Of course you can go in.  We’ll be right after you.”

I hobbled for the front door, praying she wouldn’t notice how my pants legs were two inches two short for one leg, a good four inches short for the other, or how I’d kicked off the small boots and I was walking through the slush in socks.

But her focus was on getting Leanne out of the car.

I went inside, searched the rooms, and found the bathroom.  I could barely move my arms, with the jacket being so small.

In the end, I tore off my shirt, sweater, and the jacket, pulling from the bottom of each and turning them inside out.

I dug my fingernails into the edges of my tattoos, and scraped.

Slowly, systematically, I clawed off the remainder of the crumbling glamour.  I could only hope it would be easier if it was deliberately removed rather than crumbling.

It wasn’t.  I spasmed, felt more things shift into their natural places.  Muscles tensing and stretching out.  Bones, too.

Connections appeared.  My connections.  And a prying eye would be able to see them, identifying me.

As I’d done with the line of blood to ward off Jo’s connection to me before and after fighting the Faerie swordswoman, I used the nearest power at hand to ward off the connections that emanated from me.  With palsied, twitching fingers, I surrounded myself with a loose ring of the shed glamour skin and glamour infused clothes.

When I was done, I collapsed onto my side, twitching, dry heaving, doing all I could to avoid pissing myself.

All I could think was about whether I’d fucking overdosed on the stuff.

I just needed to bounce back.  To get over this, and get out of the house.

Dimly, I heard a knocking on the door.

Leanne’s higher voice.  “Are you okay?”

No?

I gasped.

“Do you want me to get my mom?”

“N- no.” I managed, trying to keep my voice higher.  “Out soon.”

Another damn promise, in a moment of desperation.

Shit.  I’d even told her I’d show her what was up, if she kept my secret.

I waited.  Praying that the mother wouldn’t come in and find me.  Could she use a command to open the bathroom door, like she’d done with the front door?

I’d traded one dangerous prison for another.

It was a little while before I felt strong enough to stand.  I gripped the sides of the sink and used it to pull myself up.

Fuck me.  I looked even more drained.

I’d pushed this too far.

I reached out and grabbed the two toothbrushes from beside the sink.  One small one, pink, with a fairy on it.  One larger one, purple.

The circle I’d drawn out blocked the connections.

Tentatively, I stepped out.

The mother was upstairs with Leanne.

Reaching down, I grabbed my shirt and sweatshirt and pulled them on.  I grabbed the tatters of glamour and dragged it behind me like a limp jumping rope, keeping it between me and them.

I didn’t have much strength as I walked down the length of the hallway.  Not the front door.  Too much risk they would hear or see.  The side of the house… a sliding door.

I stopped halfway there.

Bookshelves, this time without glass doors.  Another glass case, showcasing trinkets and instruments.  From the look of them, they were from past generations.

“Blake,” Rose said.  A whisper.

Rose looked at me from a mirror over the fireplace.

“Dangerous here,” I responded, my voice matching hers in quiet.  “Demesnes.”

“Only the front of the ground floor, I think.  Just like it was only the ground floor of Laird’s house.  They section them off, so different family members can have different areas for their demesnes.  I can’t enter the mirrors there.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Right.”

“You look fucking terrible,” she told me.

“Feel worse than fucking terrible.”

“Just leave, Blake.”

“They attacked us,” I said.  “They attacked our home.”

“I know.  But you can’t fight.  The woman who owns this house, you know she’s strong.”

“She’s Laird’s sister,” I said.  “I guess each member of the family gets a little trove like this.”

“I guess.  Why are we even discussing this?  Get out of here.”

“They attacked us,” I said, again.  “Tell me, do you think any of these books are originals, or are they all copies?”

“I… some look old.”

“Some look old,” I agreed.

I drew the whistle from my pants pocket.

I blew.

Rather than a high pitched noise, there was only a low wet sputter, and Dickswizzle was spat out onto the floor.

“Destroy the books,” I said.  “Destroy the treasures.  Do it quietly, and you’ll manage more destruction.  Start with the oldest things, you’ll hurt them more.  Run if she takes notice.  Under no circumstances are you to harm anyone before returning to the flute,” I said.

Dickswizzle eyed me warily.

“Blake.  If you’re inside her house, because of hospitality-“

“I’m repaying their hospitality by sparing them.  They were… not unkind,” I said.  “But their family attacked our house and possessions.  We can attack theirs.  Eye for an eye.”

“If we took some of it, we could ransom it back?”

“It’s not quite an eye for an eye, and I don’t want them using it to track me.”

“This feels wrong.”

“But it’s fucking right.  Two very different things,” I said, my voice a harsh whisper.

I let Rose deliberate while I headed for the side door.  There was a boot rack, complete with a set of rubber boots.  I managed to squeeze them on.

I heard a tearing sound behind me as I unlocked the door.  I could see Rose’s reflection, faint, in the glass.

I walked out, dragging the tattered skin behind me.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter