“Your name is Leonard Harlan. Come.”
I had a small iron mortar and pestle in front of me. I tipped it over, very carefully depositing the contents so they formed a straight line in front of me.
Two fires burned, one on either side of me. Running through each fire, I had a ring of salt and a loop of chain. I was grateful for the warmth of the flame.
“You made a mistake, Leonard. The memory has faded to the point that nobody necessarily remembers, it was so long ago. The doctors and nurses who witnessed it have left the world or left the city, your family all deceased.”
I picked up the folded page I’d laid across my lap. I read it, taking my time.
Others were lurking around the area, but they hung back in groups.
The Briar Girl’s spies, more than an attacker of any sort. There weren’t many Others who would be wandering the back of the property, and the circles I’d set out would help ward against them.
Even so, I was glad to have Rose watching my back.
I looked at the page. My grandmother’s description of what had happened. Outside of a microfiche of some newspaper article from years ago, this would be one of the last memories of what had happened to Leonard.
“I summon you, Leonard. I know who you are, I remember your story. I don’t know where you rest, but that place will have changed and moved on. It will have forgotten. The memories are here. Let go and answer me.”
There was a long pause.
“You knew it would be a long shot,” Rose murmured. “The last ghost you tried to call didn’t come.”
“Because it was closer to the North End. It probably got swallowed up by Johannes. This one shouldn’t be far.”
“There isn’t much tying Leonard down,” Rose said. “Maybe he’s gone. Reabsorbed into the ether, or whatever place memories go when they’re gone.”
“Maybe,” I said.
“We’re zero for three, Blake. One ghost that’s apparently a slave to someone else…”
“One of the Duchamps, probably. Or someone with a solid ability to manipulate connections, judging by the feelers they sent back in my direction.”
“Another that probably got swallowed up by Johannes’ Demesne.”
“Something like that.”
“And now another no-show.”
This one was a ghost grandmother had captured. Leonard Harlan. She’d bound him for a ritual, hence the notes, and he’d returned to his former haunting grounds when the ritual was done.
“Maybe you could stop? Take a break, eat?” Rose suggested.
“Soon. I’ll eat to build up my strength, but I’m not feeling too hungry.”
“You’re not feeling tired either,” Rose said. “That’s not a good thing. That’s you being in such bad shape that you’re not registering your basic needs anymore.”
“I know. I get it. I’ll eat a full meal in just a few minutes. I refuse to believe there aren’t any damn ghosts left in this town.”
“Lots of practitioners.”
“Who aren’t supposed to find ghosts of any worth,” I said. “Too short lived, with a permanent expenditure of power.”
“That’s what the book said. Maybe they’re gathering power in preparation for the shift of power.”
“Maybe. But these last two weren’t connected to anyone or anything. Hm.”
“Maybe strengthen the connection?” Rose asked.
“I think I’d have to. I don’t want to overdo it, though.”
“Yeah. Don’t use blood. You’ve done too much of that already.”
I removed my left glove. The locket was wound around my hand, the chain running between fingers and across my hand, holding the locket itself more or less in place. It was uncomfortable, and the chain rubbed against the bandage I’d put over the self-inflicted stab wound, and the thing required constant adjustment so the chain wouldn’t rub the skin between my fingers raw. Which was sort of the point; it ensured I couldn’t forget the thing.
It was, I was almost certain, a big factor in why the faerie hair I’d so neatly packed into the locket was growing enough to start slipping out, winding around the chain like climbing ivy.
I doubted it was as powerful as blood, but still, I used a small swiss army knife to snip the hair free, cut it up, and then put it into the small iron pot. I grabbed some snow and squeezed it until the warmth and friction produced water, and ground up the moist hair with the mortar and pestle.
Some powdered herbs joined the mixture, and I crushed it up until I had a thin black-brown liquid.
I reached beyond the confines of the circle I’d created and I wiped away a section of the line I’d made. I drew out a circle with the hair-ink, then placed the paper with Leonard’s history within the circle.
After some consideration, I put an empty wine bottle atop the folded paper.
The general idea was the same I’d used to set things up for the awakening ritual. Adding something to the diagram. In this case, an accounting of what had happened to poor Leonard.
“Fire’s getting low,” Rose said.
I reached for the firewood I’d stacked behind me and put a fresh log inside each ring of bricks.
“Leonard Harlan. Father of Nathan Harlan. Factory worker. An unassuming man. Leonard Harlan.”
How many reference points could I name, to give the connection more grounding?
“Leonard Harlan. Killing himself with drink.”
I felt the connection appear.
“There we go. Leonard Harlan, murderer.”
It strengthened. I had something, and I could feel it growing in intensity.
He didn’t seem as strong as June had been. That said a lot, because I’d used blood for power and weakened myself a fair bit in the time since I’d talked to June. If June had been strong enough to penetrate the salt circle before, and I could barely feel Leonard, he was little more than a wisp.
An overgrown beard that splayed out, a receding hairline, a very tall face with a brow creased by worry. He’d distorted quite a bit since his demise, I assumed. Bug eyed, neck too thin, facial features out of proportion. He had a bad slouch, and he carried a bottle, even as a ghost.
His eyes, when he met mine, were dead in a way that went beyond his current status. The only thing I could make out in them was pain.
“It was a mistake anyone could make,” I said.
I felt the connection weakening.
“But you don’t want to hear it. You don’t believe it, and it isn’t a part of what you’ve brought with you to… wherever you are now. If I want a stronger connection, I need to validate you. I’d have to call you a murderer, a thoughtless idiot, a drunk, a loser.”
Sure enough, those words alone were strong enough to clarify the connection. I could see the spirits running along the ink I’d drawn out.
“I can’t do that, so I’m only going to say the truth. You were a single father, without much help, without advice or support. You worked and did what you could to ensure that your baby son was okay. You cooked, did laundry, worked, washed him, and cleaned. It was when you were cleaning that you killed your son. Caustic fumes, maybe a mix of chemicals, and he was a baby that wasn’t even old enough sit upright. He suffocated, right there, on your kitchen counter. You damaged your own lungs, too, and some said that was why you never said another word. But my grandmother wrote that it was more likely to be grief.”
I could smell something in the air, now. Stringent, like strong urine or bitter vinegar. The wind was still, but we were outdoors, and that helped, but I knew something was getting past the salt circle.
Where June had flickered from form to form as we’d walked her through her story, Leonard wasn’t capable.
All that was left of his ghost was a single drawn out moment. Standing there, mute, staring off into space, lost inside his own head.
He coughed, a small, painful sound, then resumed his former position.
“Come with me, Leo,” I said.
He didn’t move. I could see him fading, and I could see how disconnected he was from the rest of the world. If I lost him, he’d be gone.
“Leonard,” I said. His identity is tied to the full name, not any short form.
It helped, but not much. The connection was weaker than it had been when he’d first appeared. Leonard was too.
“I’m losing him, Rose.”
“Leonard,” she said.
I could feel her connection to him. Was it stronger than mine, or was she piggybacking off of what I’d set up?
“Help me out,” I said. “I can help you find peace.”
Leonard looked at me. I felt like I was being drawn out, as if his eyes were a well that could suck me into it. He was fading, but the smell he’d brought with him was getting more pungent.
“Leonard, come,” Rose said.
The smell momentarily tripled in intensity, and then Leonard was gone.
The bottle wobbled precariously. I reached across the circle to catch it before it fell and cracked open on the patio.
Lacking a stopper, I put the folded paper in the neck of the bottle, jamming it in with one finger.
“There we go,” Rose said, very quiet.
“Welcome back to the family, Leonard,” I said.
I kept one thumb over the end of the bottle while I picked up the various items that now littered the inside of the circle. Bags and bottles of herbs, the mortar and pestle, the swiss army knife, some scraps of paper and three books.
I left the cord of wood, chain, and the two small fires, making my way into the kitchen.
The rest of our stuff was laid out on the small table below the window, the Valkyrie book open already to a relevant page.
With black painter’s tape, I began encircling the bottle, using the tape to draw out lines and patterns. I watched the fires from the window.
“You don’t look good, Blake,” Rose said.
“You don’t know how close I just came to a sarcastic response,” I said. “I know I don’t look good. Why does this need constant restating?”
“I’m noticing it more. You look bleached. Even the clothes you wear, they look washed out somehow, faded. Your hair and eyes are lighter, you don’t have the dark circles under your eyes…”
I ducked down to get a look at myself in the side of the toaster, the remembered I couldn’t. I pulled some hair down in front of my eyes to see. Was my hair lighter? It had been blond to begin with, but more the sort of blond that was tending towards brownish with adulthood. Now… less so? I might not have noticed if I hadn’t been looking for it. If I had noticed, I might have dismissed it as a result of odd lighting.
I glanced back at the fires, my hands working with the black tape. “Maybe.”
“You gave up a lot of yourself, when you gave up blood. That power, it comes from somewhere. From your substance.”
“Lesson learned,” I said. “I’ll finish binding Leonard into the bottle, put out the fires, and then eat.”
“The fires seem like they’re more hassle than they’re worth.”
“I wasn’t about to freeze to death a second time,” I said. “And I don’t mind having a nice barrier of iron, on top of that.”
“Maggie,” Rose said.
“Yes, Maggie,” I confirmed. “Metal fed with power by way of the elements, to protect against goblins. I’m assuming conducted heat counts.”
“I can’t imagine her attacking you.”
“Wasn’t long ago you were being the voice of reason, telling me to be careful in dealing with her,” I said.
“We talked to her though. I’m more comfortable dealing with people when I know what they’re gunning for. I spent a long time dealing with our family, with the schemes and plots. Figuring out the why of it, you figure out their weak points.”
“Were you the type to attack weak points?” I asked. I continued with the tape, glancing up at the fires.
“Only when I had to. Mostly, I tried to scare family away when they were getting too bloodthirsty.”
“Yeah? What were you doing, outside of that ‘mostly’?”
“Panicking. Lashing out. You know what they say about a cornered rat, right?”
I thought of my brawl against the Faerie swordswoman, yesterday morning. “Yeah. I guess we’re the same, mostly, in that respect. I don’t like confrontation, but I’ll do it when my hand is forced.”
Rose seemed to pick up on my line of thought. “You handled it pretty well. Both times, Faerie and the bird zombie things.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“I couldn’t do that. I mean, not in an up-and-up fight.”
“How would you handle yourself outside of an up-and-up fight?” I asked.
“I did okay, before. Now? I dunno. Not many chances to get into confrontations, in my private little mirror world.”
“It might be worth getting yourself prepared,” I said. “We know some Others can reach you in there. Padraic did. Get yourself a weapon or two, to start with.”
“And we need to figure out what your capabilities are. What can you do, what does it cost you? You awakened, right?”
“Why does it feel like you’re preparing for a fight, more than you’re preparing for fights in general?”
“Because I am? Because we know Laird is making a move later today? A kind of revenge?”
“Okay. But Maggie was a concern, when you were setting up your circles? With the chain? Are you sure this isn’t a response to her? To the betrayal?”
“It isn’t. Not directly.”
“But there’s a connection.”
“Maybe,” I said. I was about to rub my eyes, then stopped. I still had spatters of faerie-hair juice on my fingers. And my hands. And on my wrists, beneath the cuffs of my sleeves.
The hair was my go-to power source for the moment, so I didn’t have to use my blood, but I’d splashed some when using the mortar and pestle. Not something I had a lot of experience using.
Was there a book out there with a list of expected side effects from this sort of thing? What happened if you got faerie ink in your eyes?
I set to washing my hands, pulling off my jacket and shirt, removing the hatchet from where I’d hooked it into my belt so it wouldn’t cut me. I was careful to get all of the ink off with soap and hot water. “Yeah. Maybe there is a connection. It feels more real than it did. Rooted in what we were doing. It’s not like I’ve seen Molly’s body, the idea of her being murdered was abstract. Real, but abstract. Now I know I’ve looked in the eyes of the person who ordered it.”
“Yeah,” Rose said. “I get that. But are you talking about looking Maggie in the eyes, or Laird?”
“I was thinking of Maggie when I said it.”
“Maggie’s the middleman. She didn’t commit the murder herself. And she did it because Laird pushed her to.”
I glared at Rose. “Are you defending her?”
“No. I’m not,” Rose said.
“It sounded like you were.”
“I’m trying to put it all in perspective. It was goblins who did the deed. Laird who put everything in motion. Can you honestly say, seeing what Laird has pulled already, that you couldn’t have ever made a mistake like that? If Grandmother hadn’t warned you what was out there? If you weren’t vulnerable, with Laird going all-out?”
I finished washing my hands, drying them by running them through my hair. “I don’t want to forgive her. I think that’s fucked up, kind of, if I’m dismissing the death of someone I cared about so easily. For what? For an ally? A bargaining chip? Is it really worth surviving, if that survival requires that kind of compromise?”
“Okay. I’m not going to ask you…”
Rose trailed off.
I’d moved into her field of view. I looked, turning my arms over.
It took me a second to realize what she was talking about. I was so used to them, my attention didn’t tend to linger on them. The tattoos.
The birds and the background colors were more vivid and distinct than they’d been the day they’d been finished. Which was worse? Rose being right when she had said I was fading in color, with the tattoos being that much more colorful by contrast? Or the tattoos being infused with color by some outside means?
“You bit a Faerie. Maybe you caught something?”
I moved my hand, so the chain and locket rattled a fraction. “Faerie thrive on attention. Why would there be any glamour affecting the tattoos?”
I could see Rose’s frown.
I looked, using the sight, and I could see the innumerable connections that spread out from me to the outside world.
Friendships… thin, barely perceptible. I’d neglected them, I supposed. Family bonds, some local, some not. Magical bonds, and bonds of ownership, of home and emotional attachment.
Nothing that suggested a big, complicated working. No conduit of power that could be feeding this strangeness into me.
“I don’t think it’s anything Laird did,” I said, my voice low, talking more to myself than Rose. “The Duchamps… it’s more their style, maybe, and they’d be subtle about it, but I don’t think so.”
“No. Doesn’t seem like something he’d do.”
Numb, I said, “Back when I first awakened, I saw my tattoos moving. They were almost alive, then.”
“I don’t know, Blake. I can start reading some stuff, but… I don’t know.”
“Fuck,” I muttered.
“If I had to guess?”
“I’ll take a guess,” I said. I didn’t take my eyes off the birds and branches that marked my arms.
“Maybe it’s just an extension of the idea before? You’re drained. You gave too much of yourself, at a time not long after we’d sort of fudged the truth? Something could have filled that void.”
My blood ran cold. “I’m possessed?”
“I don’t know. I’m guessing. We know any practitioner becomes a bit more Otherlike when they get into anything more than the surface level magics. You’ve-”
“I’ve barely waded in the damned pool. If it was that easy, every practitioner would be freakish. Grandmother got into hairier stuff, and I didn’t see much that was unusual about her.”
My hands were shaking, as much a response to the thudding of my heart that rocked through my entire body as anything else. My body was… it was supposed to be sacrosanct, in a way. I was twenty; I was hardly expecting any big changes. A scar here, a wrinkle there. Not my tattoos turning against me. They were supposed to be mine. Good things, things I liked looking at, things that invoked memories of my friendships.
“I don’t know what to tell you, Blake. Except-”
I looked at Rose. She’d stopped.
“Except what, Rose?”
“Except… if you think of all of the things that set you apart from the typical practitioner…”
“The thing I almost summoned, the one the lawyer told me to call. I almost called it. I can still feel the connection now. Weaker. I probably wouldn’t have to call it seven times to get it to come… but maybe I’d have to call it more than the once.”
“Let’s not gamble on that.”
“Of course not,” I said. That would be something. Accidentally summoning a horrible demon into the world.
“And… that wasn’t what I was getting at, Blake. There’s an Other you do have a strong connection to.”
“Me. We’re connected. Maybe… maybe you filled that void with some of the vestige.”
“I’m not sure I like that,” I said.
“No,” Rose said. “That’s bad on a lot of levels.”
“A lot of levels,” I agreed.
“A vestige is like a house of cards. You take out one piece, and it folds into itself.”
“And if you didn’t fold,” I said.
“No,” Rose said. “And I get what it could mean. Us being enemies. You fighting me, because I’m moving in? Taking over?”
“Involuntarily,” I said. I very nearly made it a question.
I looked down at the tattoos. I had to admit, I was relieved to hear her say it.
“Let’s not pretend this is a surprise. Grandmother wanted a female heir.”
“I guess it isn’t a surprise,” Rose said. “If this is what’s happening.”
I gripped the edge of the table, staring at the surface. Cognitively, I knew I should be finishing the bottle, that I should be preparing against Laird.
“Rose,” I said. “We’ve been cooperating more, haven’t we? We’re more or less on the same page?”
“More or less.”
“Tell me, straight up, that you aren’t my enemy.”
“I- I’m not your enemy, Blake. But please, can we not do this? Demanding proof, I don’t want to get into something this emotional and sensitive if you’re like this.”
“Fragile? No, that’s the wrong word. You’re… perched in a precarious spot. Where a push or a pull could send you over the edge.”
“I’m… feeling more grounded, actually,” I said. “Can I trust you?”
“I don’t like this, Blake. You’re implying you don’t trust me, if you have to ask. I’m not so weak that my feelings would be hurt, but this is the sort of attitude that builds resentment.”
“Please get the fuck over it,” I said. Still staring down at the table. “This is how this stuff is played, isn’t it? Oaths and truths.”
“But if you start second guessing me until I start making statements, it’s only one small step to second guessing those statements, thinking about the wording…”
“Can I trust you, Rose?”
“Yes, Blake. We’re connected, maybe to a dangerous degree. Your survival is mine. Like Maggie said, I harbor no ill will against you. I’m your ally.”
“And you’ve never harbored ill-will against me in the past?”
“I’ve… I’ve hated you, honestly. I’ve been angry at you. I can’t answer that question.”
“Have you ever conspired against me? Sabotaged me?”
“No more than you have against me.”
“That is not an answer,” I growled the words. “Fuck, Rose, that’s the sort of non-answer that makes me paranoid.”
I heard her take a deep breath, sighing audibly. When she met my eyes, she looked angry. “No, Blake. I have not sabotaged you or conspired against you in any meaningful way. No way except the little things you’re already aware of, like trying to get you to read that dull ledger of deaths.”
“Okay. Thank you. That’s what I needed to hear.”
“Why, Blake? I thought we’ve established this stuff. What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking the stakes are high and they’re getting higher. Laird’s about to mess with us, and he seemed confident that it would be a real problem. I know, now, that there’s no way I can be strong enough to tackle all of this alone. That’s part of the reason I was quizzing you. I need to know for absolute sure that you’re in my camp.”
“I just wish you hadn’t had to ask,” she said.
“That’s not a reflection of you. It’s this situation. I’d be a fool if I trusted anyone. Maggie proved that.”
“You can’t harbor resentment like that. We have enough problems without grudges.”
“No. Not resentment. Just… caution. Listen, Rose. I hereby swear-”
“Stop,” she interrupted me.
“No. I hereby swear that I’m going to help you, in exchange for your loyalty and support. We’re going to find a way to get you out of that mirror world. I will make sacrifices if I have to, short of actually standing by to let any transition happen. I so swear, to you, and to anything that hears.”
I could feel a connection forming.
“You did not need to say that,” she said. She looked visibly upset.
“I’ve already said something similar. But I need you to feel, in your heart, that I’ve got your back, that I’m an ally. I won’t expect reciprocation.”
“Damn you, Blake. How am I supposed to not say something? Yes. I will help you. I will do what I can to protect you from whatever’s going on with you, good or bad. I swear.”
“If you can’t, if this is really a one way street, can you do me a favor?”
“I think I could.”
“Pass on word to my friends. Let them know I’m gone, and that I was thinking about them. They’re really the only family I’ve ever had, and I kind of owe them a great deal. Not in a mystic way, but a very mundane, very important way.”
“I so swear,” she said.
It sounded a hell of a lot more like a heartfelt oath than the one she’d just made. I exhaled slowly. The relief I felt was palpable.
There were some horrifying things out there, but the thing that had weighed on me, lurked in the back of my mind, was the fear that I wouldn’t be able to cover that one base.
In a way, the threat of being replaced was less scary than death, however torturous the transition might be. Because if I were replaced, at the very least I’d be remembered by Rose.
I picked up the bottle, and started getting the tape down.
When I finally broke the silence, “This ‘cannot lie’ thing is a weakness, it’s a drawback, a complication, a mess of traps. But it’s also a tool. You can achieve a lot with just words. Swaying people, making an alliance stronger.”
“Yeah,” Rose said.
Odd, that she seemed so diminished, when I felt more energized. Was there something to that?
I continued, “…and even for ourselves, knowing the words have a certain weight, an oath is a constant reminder. It shapes how we think and how we’re going to handle things. Heck, oaths have held a lot of weight in the past, when they weren’t arbitrarily magically binding.”
“You’re wanting to shape how we think?”
“I’ve made an oath. I’m going to hold to that, because I have to. We need the goodwill it gets us with the universe, for one thing, and I can’t afford what it costs me if I don’t follow through. Anything I read, now, I’m going to view in the light of your situation. Maybe, hopefully, you’ll do the same for me.”
“This isn’t how I would have done things,” Rose said.
“The time for being careful is done,” I said. “We tried doing what you’ve done in the past. Lashing out, trying to scare them off. It’s not working. I’ve gotta tell you, there weren’t many times where it came up, but I’ve been here. Dealing with some freak who wanted to rob me, when I was on the street, dealing with the family. There’s a point where you have a chance to act, and it’s a choice between fight or flight. Experience has taught me that the only real way out is to absolutely destroy the other motherfucker.”
Rose didn’t have a response to that.
My hand hurt where the locket’s chain was rubbing against the skin, as I made the repetitive loops and tears in the tape.
I finished, and then grabbed a can of spray paint I’d liberated from the cabinet in the library. I sprayed the bottle, top to bottom, and then stripped away the tape.
“There you go, Leonard,” I said. I moved the hatchet next to the bottle, and pulled my shirt and jacket back on. “Leonard, June. June, meet Leonard. You two should know we’re going to war.”
“War,” Rose said. “Absolutely destroying our opponent?”
“Best we can,” I said. “And we start by making the proverbial deals with devils.”
“We promised we wouldn’t.”
“Proverbial, Rose,” I said. “Proverbial deals with devils.”
“I don’t follow.”
I pulled the chain tight around my hand, securing the locket in place. Was the hair just a fraction of an inch longer than it had been when I’d cut it from around the chain? I pulled my glove on over it. Uncomfortable. Perfect.
Bottle in one had, hatchet in the other, I opened the door, stepping outside.
The last logs I’d thrown onto the fires had burned down into coals. I’d neglected to pay attention to them. Nothing too serious. I kicked snow over the smouldering logs until they were fully quenched.
I picked up the chain, gingerly avoiding the bits that had been in the fire, as I gathered it into a loop.
“Blake? Please don’t tell me you’re going to call out a name you shouldn’t call out. Because I can’t think of a good reason for you to be outside, after saying what you did.”
“I am going to say a name I probably shouldn’t,” I said, “But not like you think.”
“Does this run against the oath you just made to me?”
“No,” I said. “Not so much. But I think maybe, just a little, you can hold to your oath, by trusting me here.”
“Do you trust yourself?” she asked.
“Eighty percent, maybe?” I asked.
“Then I’ll strive to match you with eighty percent trust,” she said. Her tone was deadly serious.
I stretched my arms out to the sides, then shouted at the top of my lungs, “Briar Girl!”
My voice rang through the area.
“Briar Girl!” I screamed, again. I could feel the connection, now.
The Others at the periphery of the area reacted. Some retreating, some drawing closer. Messengers and warriors. Plant and animal spirits, elementals, and dark, gnarled animal things with an overabundance of teeth and claws. I couldn’t help but think of the poem Jabberwocky or the hunting one. Bandersnatches and whatevers. I only knew about it through acquaintances. No doubt I’d run into references in my grandmother’s books.
A bird landed in front of me, a storm of wings and feathers.
Black and white, instead of a beak, it had a very human face on a tall head, pale, with features reminiscent of one of the statues on Easter Island. Exaggerated, stern, any eyes hidden beneath the shadows of a heavy brow.
“Thank you for answering,” I said.
“What are you doing, calling me?” the thing asked, speaking in her voice.
“I want to deal,” I said. “I know what you want, you know what I want. We’re going to talk sooner or later, so let’s talk.”
“Follow the homunculus,” she replied. The bird-thing turned to prepare to fly away.
“I’d like a promise of protection,” I called out.
“Too bad,” the thing replied.
“Blake, this doesn’t strike me as the wisest course of action.”
I set off after the homunculus-bird. “You want to play this safe, to be cautious, to deliberate and pick the best course of action.”
“Then we’re in complete and total agreement.”
The Others around us parted to let us through. I didn’t miss the fact that they were closing ranks behind me.
“You’re not making sense, and you’ve got me genuinely worried.”
“We’re in agreement. I would love to be logical and rational about all of this. But so long as we’re playing this safe and making steady, deliberate, smart moves, we’re never going to catch up. We’ve established this.”
“And even in controlled attempts to change things up, put Laird in a bad spot, we’re still in a disadvantageous situation.”
“I know. Yes, I agree. I don’t understand this, though.”
“Let’s say you’re playing chess against someone who’s got more pieces on the board and decades more experience than we do. How do you win?”
“You don’t,” Rose said. “Unless you cheat.”
“We already tried cheating,” I said. “Getting him in trouble, risking his job. He’s apparently planning a response tonight.”
“Change the game, then,” Rose said.
“Again, we tried that. There’s no winning. Not really. So what I’m proposing is pretty simple.”
“Do tell,” Rose said. “Also, you do know that we’re being followed?”
“We’re surrounded,” I said. “But she wants to deal badly enough that she’ll hear us out before she murders us. Nevermind that. Our analogy here. I’m proposing the pigeon strategy. Knock over all of the pieces, shit on the board, and then strut around like we’re the victors.”
A brief period passed. I could hear something growling nearby, fighting another member of its kind. Already fighting over who would get first dibs, no doubt.
“Can I ask you a genuine question, Blake?”
“Have you lost your mind? I don’t mean that in a funny way. I mean it in the sense that being really truly crazy is really truly sad. Have you, I don’t even know how to phrase it…”
“Am I lost?” I asked.
“Lost… maybe. Like being six and getting separated from mom and dad in a crowded place, experiencing that stark horror of not knowing where you are or that you might not be able to ever go home?”
“Yeah. I get what you mean. Aren’t we both lost, in that sense? Hasn’t it been that way for a little while?”
“I guess it has,” Rose said.
“We can’t rise to their level, not like this,” I said. “We have to bring them down to ours.”
I trudged through the snow, while the homunculus-bird circled back to keep me in sight, allowing me to follow. The cold was so brutal it went straight through my boots, and made my skin physically ache where it was exposed. My hands were getting cooler, too, where I had them out of my pockets, holding bottle and hatchet.
The Others were following. Just out of sight, as we moved through trees. We reached a downhill slope and our progress slowed by half, my legs plunging knee-deep into snow.
“That happened to you too, huh?” I asked, to distract myself.
“Being six, getting lost in a crowded place.”
“Oh. Yeah. We do have some shared memories, huh?”
I nodded. “Apparently. Maybe because mom and dad were careless enough they had to screw up a few times before they started keeping better track of us?”
There was a pause.
“Once,” Rose said, quiet. “They only lost me the once.”
I gnawed on my lip for a moment. “Fuck them. They lost me three times. That I can remember.”
I could hear Rose laughing, on the other side of the mirror I wore. A kind of nervous laughter, or a laughter borne of relief.
Could she see them? The Others that were lurking in the very fringes? If she could only see what came through the mirror, they wouldn’t be in her field of view. Taller than most, moving effortlessly through the snow.
We reached a clearing. I thought I maybe recognized it from the vision I’d had.
The Briar Girl sat on a fallen tree with branches still sticking up from what had once been the upper end. Her feet were buried in snow, and she was sitting in snow, but she didn’t show the slightest sign of discomfort.
“Bad manners,” Briar Girl said, “Coming into someone’s space with a weapon drawn. Two weapons.”
“We’ll put our weapons away if you put yours away,” Rose said.
The Briar Girl let go of her rabbit to raise her hands, showing them empty. Her fingers were exposed in fingerless gloves. The rabbit remained in her lap.
Rose continued, “The homunculus, I recognize that word. Manufactured life. You made it. A lot of these Others are tools, aren’t they? Hand crafted Others? They’re weapons as much as that hatchet is.”
“Well said,” Briar Girl responded. “Fine. I’ll send my creations away if you put away your weapons.”
“With all due respect,” I said. “I’m not putting my weapons away until you’ve dismissed every Other here, creation or not, and you’re not about to do that. Can we skip the niceties and accept that you’re not being very hospitable, so I’m going to be a terrible guest?”
I could see the Briar Girl deliberating. She stroked her rabbit. Her familiar.
The thing was whispering. Not speaking, per se, but I could see it communicating, speaking a language only it and its master could understand.
The Others that had been flanking Rose and I while I trudged through the snow were drawing into the clearing, gathering around the Briar Girl, her court and congregation.
I heard a sound from Rose, as one collection of the Others arrived. Dressed in layered, bleached skins, each wearing an oversized bird skull atop its head. They stood in a neat row behind the Briar Girl, one shorter one perching on a larger branch of the fallen tree, legs bent.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“To offer you a deal. You want property.”
“I can’t offer this to you. Not yet. It’s not mine.”
“I know this,” the Briar Girl said. “You’re useless to me.”
“I’m more useful to you than any of the ones who come after me are liable to be,” I said. “You want a share of this land, you can’t establish a demesne because it’s technically owned by another person. Can’t stake out the territory to even begin making the claim.”
“I know all this,” she responded.
“In a few years, I could give you a share of land.”
I bent down, drawing out a square, one and a half feet by one and a half feet. “I’ll give you that much land, for letting us leave alive, if I live that long.”
“You insult me.”
“No,” I said. “I’m opening negotiations. We’re going to work together. You’ll do favors for me, and I’ll give you parcels of land, so you can expand that square. I’ll do favors for you, and you’ll give me things I need.”
“I could kill you,” she said. “Kill the next one, and the next one, until your line ends, and nobody has claim.”
“Devils have claim,” I said. “If our line ends, lawyers could take it over, since the have partial or complete custody even now, and that means it probably passes into the hands of immortal Others. Devils could get a foothold into the world, and it’s a big foothold. You probably won’t even recognize this place.”
I saw her eyes narrow.
“This is your only option. Best deal you’ll get. Any chunk I give you is a chunk they can’t take.”
“And what do you want?” she asked. “To live?”
“Living is nice,” I said. “But right now, I want to utterly destroy the Behaim and Duchamp families.”