Category Archives: Arc 3 (Breach)

Breach 3.3

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Now

The neighborhood was a nice one, as the local neighborhoods went.  Big houses, old-fashioned, with large yards.  Many, including the house in front of me, had additions or garages that came close to a small house in size.  It wasn’t up to par with the two million dollar homes in the better areas of Toronto, but it was the sort of place I could see myself living, somewhere down the road.

If I got that far.

It had always been a sort of ‘if I got that far’ thing, but it had been about money, before.  Now it was more the living part that was under question.

Cars were parked along the length of the street.  Families were leaving the vehicles.  The Behaims, with brown and black hair, leaning towards the stockier side, with a few who were fat.  The Duchamps, men and women, all blonde.

I looked at the card in my hand, then at the point where the people were converging.  A meeting at Laird’s house, it seemed.  I could see the spirits moving.  A rune was being used to ward off curious civilians, which meant I had to look otherwise occupied.

I stayed where I was, out of sight, trying not to focus too hard on them, while doing what I could to pick up details and information.  The connections that spread out from around them were ties of family, of home, of friendship.  Rays of light radiating out from each of them.  Connections to this town.  Others had connections to another, distant place, matching some of my connections, the ones I’d covered up with glamour.

They were from Toronto, I realized.  Others, those connections might be to Ottawa.  Out of town members of the Duchamp clan?

Huh.

I turned to leave, heading around the corner.  More guests had parked further up the street.  Two Behaim womenfolk helping an old man to make his way down the frozen sidewalk, supporting him from either side, and further up, a cluster of blonde kids milled around a mother and father.

Right now, I was the unassuming neighbor.  Brown hair, middle aged, unremarkable in every respect.

With my eyes on the map of connections between people, I could tell when I was relatively free of scrutiny, then bent down, as if I were fixing my boot.

Still bent over, I moved my hand under my hat to run it along my hair.  From dirty blond to platinum blond that had been lightened by age.  Another pass, to change it from wavy to straight.

I rubbed at my face, and worked in wrinkles, a ruddy complexion to go with the light hair.  Beneath the scarf I’d wrapped around myself, I added a mustache for good measure.  Bushy and blond.

I didn’t dare glamour up any connections to better the disguise.  Not with so many Duchamps around.  Not without some help or a tool of some sort.

I straightened, leaving the card on the ground.  Wouldn’t do to have a suspicious connection active.  The family with the kids passed me by.  I could see another car pulling into a spot at the side of the road, more Duchamps climbing out.  Teenagers this time.  Three girls.  Enchantresses, I had little doubt.

I couldn’t panic.  I had glamour, they shouldn’t see anything strange.

Where the other car had been small children, the process of getting out long and arduous, the three teenage girls wasted no time.  I fell into stride between the two groups, where I could be easily mistaken as a member of one or the other.

Somehow this fit me.  I could tap into my memories or my history, being a face in the crowd, and I could figure this out.  It was instincts, it was building, it was an art of a sort, and those were things I did pretty well.

There was a bit of recklessness in it too, which fit well with my current mental state.  What was one more thing where I didn’t have all of the information?  One more thing where I had to wing it, sink or swim?

I was quietly terrified, but I’d promised myself I’d do this.  Take control, act.

All of that, the quiet terror, the leap of faith, relying on instincts, it was what I’d been doing since meeting Rose.  I followed the family up the front steps, the teenagers right behind me.

“Hi, come in, welcome, welcome, hi Beth, come in,” Laird’s wife was talking to each new guest.  She gave me a polite, distracted smile as I passed through the threshold and into Laird’s house.

If I didn’t feel as panicked as I should, I told myself it was because I was going with the flow, adapting to circumstance.  I didn’t want to believe it was some deeper flaw.  Another, deeper element at play.

Earlier

“What the fuck are you talking about?”  I asked Rose.

Maggie and her father exchanged a glance.

“You haven’t noticed?” she asked.  “Both times, the ghosts reacted to my voice, not yours.”

“This is kind of important,” I said.

“It is.  I know.  But I wasn’t sure if I was imagining it.”

“When did you figure it out?”

“The lawyers.  They came when I said their names.  You were in the kitchen, and I said it, and boom, there they were.”

“I tried, I failed, and you succeeded,” I said.  “You just succeeded in calling…”

“Dickswizzle,” Rose said.

I glanced down at the goblin.  The size of a chimp, maybe, but generally flabby.  He was hard to make out, because his bristly black fur tended to blend into the area between the car and the snowbank.  His eyes stood out, widening as he heard his name.

I shivered a little.  I wanted him to stop looking at me, but I knew he’d react if I gave him any leverage.  He would be pieced together with the worst parts of animals and humans, including a predatory, maladjusted personality.  That made him somewhat more predictable.

“Dickswizzle,” I said.  Who the hell names these bastards?  “Fuck me, it wasn’t just the ghosts, was it?  When I went up to the room, the barber turned his back to me.  Rejecting me.”

“Barber?” Maggie asked.

“It’s a female line,” Rose said.  “That’s how Others see the Thorburn practitioner.  The simplest Others, the ones who can’t really think, or who think in an alien way, I think they look for the female part of it.  Ones like Padraic, they can maybe work their head around it.”

“If they even realize what genders we are,” I said.

“I think it’s more basic than that.  Something like Dickswizzle or the Barber looks at us, and they see something completely different from what we see.  Gender’s tied up in something intrinsic about our being.  I think.”

“Gender’s a mutable thing,” Maggie said.

“It is today, but Others are old fashioned,” Rose said.

“I’m still trying to work my head around this,” I said, shaking my head a little.

“You gave the goblin an order, but you don’t have the whistle,” Maggie said.

“No,” Rose said.  “But he does.  And we’re sort of one and the same.  By the letter of the law, the Thorburn practitioner is holding the whistle, and the Thorburn practitioner is giving the orders.”

“Yeah?” Maggie asked.  She lowered her voice as a group of kids approached from the direction of the school.  “That’s… complicated.”

She pointed, and we collectively moved away from the street.

“Am I even me right now?” I asked.  “As far as the whistle is concerned?”

“I hope you are, at your core, at least,” Rose said.  “There’s one possibility, that you’re the body and I’m the voice.  You can obviously do some material things.  Drawing circles, some shamanism.  Glamour, obviously.”

“Obviously,” I said.

“But our line’s supposed to have some power, some history, and maybe I got that,” Rose said.  “Maybe that’s why I’m here?”

“You’ve got the clout?” I asked.

“Maybe,” she said.

Which raised questions about the idea that she might be tapping me for strength or merging with me.  Would she gain clout, or borrow from my abilities over time?  Until she had all of the power?

“We have a lot to talk about, it seems,” I said.  “But not with company around.  Not when we only have a few hours to get ready.”

“You were making a move against Laird?” Maggie asked.

“Before anything else happens, I’m going to need answers,” her father said.

I met Maggie’s eyes.  She shook her head a fraction.

What was that ‘no’ for?

“I’m in trouble,” I told him.  I touched the pendant, “We’re in trouble.  A lot of that trouble has to do with some locals.  Laird Behaim among them.”

“The police chief,” her father said.

“Yes.”

He glanced at Maggie.  “You said this place was safe.”

“Relatively… relative to home,” Maggie said.  She smiled.

He gave her a very good ‘I am not amused in the slightest’ look.

I’m the one who’s really in danger, sir,” I said.  “I’m hoping Maggie is going to help me.  That’s all this is.”

“I don’t want her getting embroiled in fights.  She told me that she’d do this for defensive purposes, to protect herself and protect me.”

“I did agree to something like that,” Maggie said.

“I don’t want to get Maggie into a bad situation.  I only needed some help, and there aren’t many people to ask.”

“And… uncontrolled goblins are an appropriate sort of ‘help’?”  He asked.  He looked at his daughter, speaking to her.  “We’ve talked about what you’re doing with the goblins, we didn’t talk about lending them out to others.  You’re containing, trapping and controlling, so you can stop things before they start.”

“Right now, sir,” I cut in, “I’m trying to stop something.  It’s probably big, it might be ugly, and even though it’s directed at me, I’m not sure it won’t do any collateral damage.”

He looked genuinely upset.  One hand flew up to the zipper on his jacket, stopped, and then dropped to his side.  Fidgeting.  “This place was supposed to be safer.  More stable.”

“It is, dad.”

“I’ll rephrase.  It was supposed to be saferStable.”

“The more I think about it,” I said.  “I’m not sure any place is.  You find out about stuff like this, and… I guess normalcy is beyond your reach.”

“I refuse to believe that.”

“If there’s a way to get things back to normal for you guys,” Maggie told him, “I want to find it.”

“And you?” he asked.

“I don’t know.  I like it,” Maggie said.  “I like being able to protect myself against bumps in the night, see the underpinnings of things.”

“Even if those underpinnings aren’t pretty?” I asked.

“They are,” Maggie said.  Her face brightened a bit.  “It’s like looking at the workings of the human body.  It’s messy and gross and bloody and mucked up and imperfect, but there’s an art there.”

As if to punctuate the statement, Dickswizzle made a loud, wet, sputtering sound.

“You look at the cells through a microscope, it’s beautiful,” Maggie said.  “It’s the same with the balance of things, karma, and spirits.  Even if that balance and those spirits like to mess with us more than they help us out.”

“I feel like I’m going to lose you if you continue down this road,” her father said.

“I don’t ever want to lose you, or have you lose me,” Maggie said, sincerely.  “But I think stopping me from helping Blake is going to do more hurt than help, as far as us going down that road.”

Her father frowned.

“What do you need?” he finally asked me.

“I needed the goblins, which I just got,” I said.  “And now all I need is to know where Laird is.”

Maggie reached into her pocket and withdrew a business card.  “Like this?”

I could see the connection to Laird.

“That’ll do, thank you.”

Now

“Hey!”

The barked word startled me, as did the connection I felt.  The certainty that it was aimed at me.

I turned.

A cluster of men had gathered at one end of an expansive living room.  There was a minibar there, as well as a stylish wood-paneled cooler filled with ice cubes, beers standing within.

Kids milled around, some running, chasing others.  Adults were in clusters, with couches and chairs given to the elderly.

The men at the alcohol station waved me over.

I mentally prepared my story, best as I could.

Fuck me, getting into a situation like this when I couldn’t lie.

“What’s your preference?” one asked me.

I could see the connections that so many of them had to the alcohol.  Drinkers?

All six of them, I noted, were from the Duchamp family.

“I’ll take a beer,” I said.

“You’re new here, aren’t you?” the guy who’d waved me over asked.  “First time?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“We’ve got a selection,” one of the other men said.  “Dark?  Light?  Lager?  Wheat beer?  Stout?”

“Lager,” I said.

“Ah, let’s see here… here.  One from England,” he said.  He glanced at me, bottle held up in the air, and I gave a nod of consent.

He cracked the top off and handed me the beer.  I tipped the bottle up, but controlled the amount that actually made it to my mouth.

“Only reason I tolerate these things,” the first guy confided.

“What finally got you to come?” one of them asked me.

I had had an answer ready, but I’d only just let my guard down a fraction.  The answer I managed was a neutral, “Seemed like something was going on, tonight.”

I drank, then rubbed a bit of moisture from my mustache.  Fun.  I’d never had a mustache before.

“Wedding thing,” one of the other guys said.

“Wedding thing,” I said.  I shrugged.  “I dunno much about it.  I’ve only been paying attention to things for a few days now.”

“Yeah?  You new to the family?”

“Sort of,” I said.  If you mean being here, disguised, included in the group.

“Wife?  Kids?”

“Neither,” I answered.  “I went my separate way from my particular family unit, not long ago.  Stuff came up with a cousin of mine, I came into town for her sake.  I thought tonight was a good occasion to see how all this works.”

“Eh,” one guy said.  “With the wedding coming up, it’s going to be a lot of awful speeches.  Not such a good occasion.”

“You know the drill for these things?” one of the guys asked me.

“I don’t know much of anything,” I admitted.

He leaned closer, lowering his voice, “They’ve got some secret society bullshit or whatever going on here.  Keeps things lively in a town this small, I think.  So we get good drink, good food, good drink-“

Good drink,” another guy chimed in.

“-And some long winded speeches, before they kick us out or stick us somewhere and see to their own business.  We’re nonentities, so the only real rule is you don’t get so drunk you cause a fuss, and you don’t poke your nose where it doesn’t belong.  If you aren’t attached, which you aren’t, you might even get some not-so-subtle hints about marrying in.”

“Marrying me?” I asked.  I affected a tone of voice and demeanor much like his.  “Nah.  I have an apartment.  I barely made a living wage, these past few months.  I don’t even know if my job’s going to be there when I go back.”

“You’d be surprised,” one of the guys said.  “Listen, ah, this is hard to say gracefully, knowing your cousin might be one of these girls.”

“What Adam’s getting at,” one of the other men cut in, “Is these kids get a metric fuckton of pressure from their family to marry certain people, walk a certain line.  Make connections, improve the family’s collective lot in life.  You get me?”

“Suppose I do,” I said.

“Well, some want out.  And the easiest way out is to get married before their folks marry them off.  Even if that guy’s twice their age, living in an apartment, with a cruddy maybe in the way of employment prospects, some prefer that choice to the alternative.”

“Yeah?” I asked.  I tried to put myself in the headspace of the character I was playing.  The lonely, estranged, less-than-successful uncle of some far-flung Duchamp connection.  “Twenty year old, wanting me, you’re saying?”

“Not unheard of,” Adam told me.  “But don’t fall for it.  They reel the kids back in when the grandkids come around, or your loving wife decides to come back on her own, and then you’re stuck coming to these godawful meetings and whatnot, stuck on the fringes.”

“And,” one guy groused, “It’s not like they’re your kids, you know?”

“Hear hear,” a few of the guys echoed.  There were some clinks of beer bottles and glasses of stronger spirits.  A few women glanced back at us, giving us annoyed looks.  Not so happy their husbands were openly drinking, it seemed.

“It’s a trap,” Adam said.  “Just do what you need to do for your cousin, but you walk away as fast as you can.”

“But… some twenty year old, and me?” I asked, again.

There were some chuckles.

“You keep saying girls,” I said.  “Do the boys run into the same thing?”

“You’re really new,” one replied.  “Yeah, the boys do run into some of the same pressures, but you tell me, how many boys are in this room, compared to the girls?”

I glanced around.  In the Behaim family, it was a fifty-fifty split, but the little Duchamps were all girls.

“I think I get it,” I said.

“More likely,” another one of the men said, “One of the widows is going to make a play.  Get their hands on you before one of the younger girls do, to remove you from the picture.”

“Or grill you,” Adam said.  “Get all the dirt they can, to make sure you’re a viable candidate for their daughters.  Descend on you like a flock of harpies if you aren’t, humiliating you.  And they’re good at the harpy thing.”

“Now I’m worried,” I said.  If they start questioning me in detail, I’m fucked.  This conversation is hard enough.  “Wondering what I got myself into, coming here.”

“Tell you what.  We’ll run interference,” Adam said.  “Buy you time to run.”

I smiled, then clinked my bottle against his.  “A fraction less worried now.  But it’s best if you don’t try to look like you’re running interference.  Maybe you could promise to step in if I can’t dislodge ’em?”

“I think we could do that… What’s your name, by the by?” he asked.

That gave me pause.

“Less I tell you guys, the less anyone can get out of you when they start asking the questions,” I said, quirking one eyebrow.  “I mean, you don’t really care, do you?”

He laughed.  “Not really.  Well said, well said.”

The conversation switched away from me, outside of the periodic question about smartphones or hockey.

It afforded me the chance to look around the room.  There were certain lines drawn in the sand.  The very young children of the two different families seemed to mingle, but as the ages rose, they seemed to segregate more into groups.  Very few of the adult Behaims were talking to adult Duchamps.  Outside of a few out-of-towners, the only real intermingled group in open discussion was…  Laird’s.

I’d spotted him, in a group with Sandra Duchamp and a few other members of the family.

How was I going to play this?  I couldn’t do anything if I was kicked out.  But if the group shrank down to only the practitioners…

How were they going to play this?  Did this family reunion factor into what he was going to pull against me?  An order of execution?  A massed army?

No, it didn’t fit their styles.  They weren’t aggressive.  They weren’t vicious, per se.

What, then, could a few dozen practitioners pull?

I saw Sandra Duchamp break away from the group.

I saw, too, the connections that formed between her and anyone.  She smiled, and did a somewhat poor job of smiling in a genuine way, greeting this person and that.

Heading in our general direction.

I could see it in the connection strength.  She was connected to people.  The one who sent out the invitations, or the orders.  If she focused her attention on me, there would be questions.  If I was lucky.  If I was unlucky, she’d tear right through the glamour as if it were tissue paper.

No.  I had to believe in the glamour.  Confidence.  The glamour was stronger.  Having an audience helped.  I’m stronger, I’m not that easy to break.  She won’t see through it.

I wasn’t entirely able to convince myself.

I took a drink.  Because the man I was pretending to be would drink, and I deliberately looked away, so she wouldn’t see that I knew her.  I definitely didn’t want her to see any connection.

She looked right past us.  No recognition, not even an attempt at recognition.  She paused to shoo one cluster of kids away from the fireplace, which was burning with a low flame.

No, her focus was shifting elsewhere as she moved towards our end of the room.  To the front hall-

The door opened.

There was a cry, a cheer that built in volume as more people caught on and joined in.

A boy in a suit, a girl in a knee-length dress and tights, each about twenty-five.  Holding hands.

“Hey!”  Adam called out, joining the cheer.  The other men joined in, and I joined in with them.

The bride-to-be smiled, but it was a polite smile, very small.  The groom didn’t change his expression in the slightest.

I allowed myself to relax as the evening progressed.  With so many unwitting bystanders around, there wasn’t much to be done.  There was no fucking way I was going near Laird.

Dinner was served, buffet style, and the various rooms of the house were soon filled with people eating. Most of the little ones sat at the table, the elderly ate in the living room, and the adults without children to feed ate standing up, holding their plates with one hand and using forks with the other, putting wine glasses, beer bottles, and glasses of soda on any available surface.

Ordinary.

I took it for what it was, eating genuinely good food for the first time in a week or so, and going back for seconds, just so I could take a different route across the ground floor and get a sense of what was where.

When I didn’t get a good enough sense of things doing that, I stopped by the kitchen for some salt.

Behind the kitchen, I noted, there were a set of double doors.    Closed, no doubt locked, with a sign taped down.  ‘No Entry’.  From the spirits that flowed through and around the paper, I had little doubt there was a rune there.  Less a deterrence rune, I suspected, than a rune that would punish prying Duchamps.

Or a prying Blake Thorburn, for that matter.

A space they didn’t want the ungifted to see was a space I very much wanted to access.

I had the goblins, stowed away in one pocket in paper and whistle form, and I had other tricks, but I doubted the glamour would hold up if I tried something and they started looking.

No.  This wasn’t an occasion for brute force.  I couldn’t put Maggie at risk, in any case.  The goblins were a last resort.

I needed to get inside that room, but Laird was the gatekeeper.

If I left the house, could I get in another way?

I thought of how Laird’s wife had been inviting people in.  Was invitation required?  If I left, would I be able to get back in?

Probably, but I didn’t like the other complications that were liable to pop up.  Were they alerted when someone passed the threshold?  Like the bell on the door of a twenty-four-seven convenience store?

Dressing up like Sandra Duchamp seemed like a horrible, horrible idea.

Even Laird’s wife… no.

I reluctantly left the kitchen.

Maybe if I found a mirror and had a discussion with Rose?

In a way, I was glad to be striking out on my own.  She wouldn’t be popping her head in, out of fear of being seen, and it was something of a relief to not have her second guessing me.  We’d hammered this out, agreed that infiltration would be the only way to stop Laird, and settled on this.

She was probably going crazy, waiting for a report or confirmation that things were okay.

I made my way back into the living room in time to hear the close of a toast.

“…for the betterment of our families, putting old grudges aside.”

“Hear hear!”

Uniting the two groups.

Oh man, it would be nice if I could split up that couple.

If some of the Duchamp girls were that desperate for a way out, could I dress up like the groom and get them somewhere secluded?

No.  Because the Duchamp girls weren’t pawns.

The problem here was that pretty much anyone and everyone who was a practitioner here was a stronger practitioner than me.  They would be on the lookout for shenanigans, especially if the groom was reported to be in two places at once.

Besides, they weren’t getting more than a few feet apart.  There was a connection between them, I noticed.  A crimson line of spirits stretched between ring fingers.

Was it like I’d read about in one of the books?  A tether?  A leash of some fixed length, keeping them together?

I felt my skin crawl a bit at that, and the crawling of my skin made my blood run cold, in turn.  I could almost let myself think that it was the glamour fading or breaking apart.

But the glamour was strong.

Desserts came out.

I knew I was running out of time.

Time, ironically, being Laird’s weapon of choice.  He and his family were chronomancers.

What were my options at this point?

Sticking a paperclip in a light socket, to blow the power?

It would only stall the inevitable, and it could still get them looking for me.

No.  There was no grand stroke I could employ.  Not until I knew more.

As dessert wrapped up, I saw the spirits shift.

The rune that had been drawn to keep neighbors from coming in had changed somewhat.

Adam’s wife approached him, their two kids following her.  “Can you take the kids out for a movie?  It’s going to be a big group thing.”

One of the men in the group gave me a telling look.  This was it.  The non-members were getting driven out, both overtly and subtly.

Adam glanced at me.  “Coming?”

Direct questions were so hard to answer.  “I’m not in the mood for a movie,” I said.

“Understandable.”

“But thank you for the company,” I said.

He gave me a little salute, and then ushered his kids off.

The small handful of people who were leaving were, with the help of the rune gently urging people to leave, starting to clear the house.

“Am I going, mom?” one six year old asked.

“Nope.  We’re staying.”

“But I want to see a movie.”

She had to hold him to keep him from joining the steady flow of people leaving.  He wasn’t immune to the rune.  “Stay and play with Leanne, alright?  We’ll see a movie this weekend.  We’re doing some important things tonight.”

“Aw,” he said.

“Go find your cousin and play.”

“Pee first,” he said.

“Alright,” she said.  “Go.”

He ran upstairs.

As the crowd thinned, I could make out Penelope and Jo.  The ones who’d tried to kill me, just yesterday.  The practitioners were the ones who remained.

I was lagging behind, and that meant more eyes that might start wondering about me.

But I couldn’t leave.  Not knowing that something was happening.

I waited until the general focus shifted to some more boisterous farewells for the bride and groom, and ducked upstairs.

Nobody followed me or objected.  That bothered me some.  Unmarried middle aged guy who lived in an apartment, waiting outside the bathroom for a young boy.  I even had the ‘stache.

What the hell was wrong with me and the choices I was making, for glamours?

More concerning was the fact that this was a gamble, and I didn’t like my odds.  There were too many things that might not work, here.

“Hey,” I mumbled.  “Fate gods, karma gods, whoever.  I’ve been trying to play fair, be nice.  I cut Mags some slack.  Can I cash in some of my chips?  Or at least buy some relief from the bad luck my family is due?”

There was no answer.  Obviously.

I heard the toilet flush, inhaled slowly, and then exhaled.

The door popped open, and I saw a chance.  He stopped in his tracks as he saw me standing outside the door.

“Did you wash your hands?” I asked, knowing the answer.

He looked momentarily guilty.

I put my hand on top of his head, moving it so his head turned toward the sink.  He obediently turned and went to wash his hands.

I plucked a hair from his head.

He stopped, looking at me.  “What?”

“Soap and water,” I ordered.  Playing up the authority figure role.  “And hurry, please.  I’d like my turn.”

He gave his hands the shortest, most perfunctory scrub he could, and then zipped downstairs.

I took my turn in the bathroom, closing and locking the door.  I leaned over the sink.  No reflection faced me.

“Rose,” I said.  “Rose, Rose.”

A moment passed, and Rose appeared in the pane.

“Are you sure you should call me?” she asked.

“No,” I said.  “But this is your chance to tell me if I’m being an idiot.”

“Are you being an idiot?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “I crashed the party, no problem, but very little gain, outside of seeing the family units at work.”

I placed my fist against the wall, and pushed hard.

“What’s next?” she asked.

“Being a face in a smaller crowd,” I said.  I looked at the hair, and I could see the connection to its owner, like a vague shaft of sunlight filtered through the air in a dusty room.  Moving downstairs, slowing as he entered the living room.

Good.  It worked like I’d hoped.  I now knew I had a minute.

I grabbed my elbow, pushing harder.

“I sense… something,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“It’s like when I saw the… Feorgbolds or whatever they’re called?  There’s only darkness where the mirrors don’t let me see through, and I don’t dare show my face when they could look back at me.”

“No,” I said.  “Definitely don’t take that risk.”

“But I see something, almost.  I feel them.”

“The familiars are probably coming out,” I said.  “Maybe they’re doing some tricks to clean the dishes, I dunno.”

I pushed harder one last time, then changed hands to do the same for the other.

“Set the house on fire?” she suggested.

“There’s a thought,” I said.  “But no.  This many practitioners, this being their territory, the fire would go out if they asked politely.  I don’t think there’s anything I can pull, outside of poisoning them, that would do any serious damage.”

“Don’t poison,” she said.  “Being a guest means there are rules.  Even if the host has expressed an intent to murder you.”

“I know,” I said.  “And there are kids here.”

“Yeah.  Definitely don’t kill kids.”

I shifted my stance, bracing my knee against the sink.  I bent down to grab my foot with both hands, forcing my knee against the sink.

“What in the fuck are you doing?” she asked.

I stepped back, and I fell.  I reached for the towel rack for balance, then stopped before grabbing it, covering my head instead.  I didn’t want to make a racket by pulling it out of the wall.

I hit the ground, my head coming within an inch of the toilet.  If I hadn’t fallen at an angle, I might have knocked myself out.

I stretched my legs out in front of me.  One was almost a foot shorter than the other.

“You… look genuinely disturbing,” she said.

I turned myself ninety degrees and braced myself against the wall, pushing out with my longer leg.  With the exertion, I managed to squeeze it down to a matching length with the other leg.

“Blake… you need to go back to your regular ‘Blake’ shape.  It’ll root you better in this shape.  If you aren’t careful, it’s going to be time consuming or painful to go back to normal.”

“No time,” I said.  “I can deal with problems later.  Right now is what I want to focus on.”

I stood, and found the sink was at a level with my collarbone.

Bracing my feet against the floor, my head against the edge of the sink, I squeezed myself down just a little more.

I looked up to see Rose in the mirror, practically climbing over the sink on her side to look down at me.

I ran my hands over my hair.  Dark brown hair with just a tiny bit of curling to it.

“Your face,” she said.

“I know.”

I ran my hands over the face.  Away with the lines, away with the age, the larger nose and ears, the mustache.  I handled my throat, then my body and arms.

“Eerie,” she said.

I pushed up my sleeves.  Tattoos still there.  But the clothes…

The clothes had shrunk with me.  I hadn’t even thought about it, which would be a benefit of sorts.

My sweat, I realized, would be permeating the clothes.  Sweat with glamour-ointment on it.

Would that dilute it?  Make the glamour weaker?

No.  If the glamour was weaker, I wouldn’t have been able to compress myself down to a height of three and a half feet.

My hands were damp with the sweat of my exertion.  If I…

I brushed them off on the clothes.  It took a few tries to get the colors right.

“I’m done commenting on this,” Rose said.  “I have no words.”

I turned around, arms out to my sides  “Convincing?”

“Yes.  Definitely convincing.  If I hadn’t watched it happen, I wouldn’t have known.  I’m having trouble reconciling it even now.”

“Perfect,” I said.

“You realize, if you let this break, it’s going to recoil like crazy?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “I realize.  Wish me luck.”

“Oh, believe me, I’m praying you have good luck,” she said.  “Please don’t get us killed.”

“Will try,” I said, smiling, an abundance of exuberance in my voice and expression.  “You keep an ear out, in case there’s trouble.”

As a six year old boy, I descended the stairs.

The hair pointed me to the boy I was replacing.  I spotted him from the other side of the room, playing with his cousin.

I ducked into the hallway, where the others were filing through the kitchen into the extension on the back of the house.  A few familiars had come out, and cats stood on owner’s shoulders, the air alight with various birds.

One accusatory birdcall, and I was done for.

Someone mussed my hair in passing.  I looked up and smiled wide, then ducked between legs to get away.  I didn’t want anyone keeping track of me, human or familiar.

Nearly sixty people in all made their way into the back room.  I was more focused on getting lost in the group than on the room itself, until people started settling on positions.

“I’m impressed, Laird,” a woman’s voice.

A whistle.

“Beatrice helped,” Laird said, on the other side of the room.

“Derivative, or-”

“My own invention,” Laird said.

“You used paint?”

“For the permanence of it,” Laird answered.

I could see bookshelves, each protected by a pane of glass with hinges and a lock.  The locks, I noted, each had a rune on them.

Nothing I could mess with.

As I made my way to the back corner, I found a foosball table covered by a tablecloth and shoved into a corner, the telltale handles sticking out.  A pool table sat a short distance away, similarly covered.

The crowd started to settle, and I dared a look at the room proper, peeking between legs.

A magic circle, if that was even the term.

Fifteen feet across, it was complex.  Diagrams inside diagrams, mathematical notation towards the center, astrological symbols at the outermost edges.

The hair told me that my counterpart was heading my way.  I reversed direction, keeping the crowd between us.

His cousin with him, they ducked under the foosball table, watching events from their new hiding spot.

Hopefully they wouldn’t cause a commotion and let someone realize that there were two little boys with the same face and clothes.

“Let’s talk about Blake Thorburn,” Laird said.

“The diabolist,” someone else said.

“You each have some idea of what the Thorburns involve.  Just yesterday, Blake Thorburn attacked my reputation, putting me and my family in awkward positions.  Sandra Duchamp was able to pull some strings, and things look like they will settle, but it’s clear Blake Thorburn isn’t on the same page as us.  He poses a grave risk to our families, to our place in things, and to this town.”

“He’s a novice,” Sandra Duchamp said.  “He’s new to this, and he’s finding his way.  Laird told me he was dealing with Maggie Holt, no doubt exchanging knowledge.  Laird did what he could to put an end to it, but the young man is desperate.  I wouldn’t bet on anything right now.”

“What can you tell us about him?”  one of the out-of-towners asked.

“The situation warrants delicate handling,” Laird said.  “He’s the equivalent to a keg of nitroglycerin.  Too much of a jostle, and he blows up, and he takes us with him.  I’ve made some initial forays into dealing with him.  Maximizing the karmic balance, in the hopes that any explosions are destructive to the Thorburn line than to us.  In every interaction, I perform an augury to ensure that it won’t lead to disaster, but the window for seeing these things is narrow, and I’m primarily looking out for the worst case scenarios.”

“Fire and brimstone,” an older woman from the Behaim family spoke.

“Exactly,” Laird agreed.  “Thus far, I’ve aimed to push him out of his comfort zone without pushing him too far.  Keep him off-balance.  Others made some forays, but nothing came of it.  I think we’ll need to stop that, to be safe.  Limit it to certain powerful Others, increase the bounty we’re offering for any killed Thorburn, and step very carefully with a plan in mind the entire way.”

There were nods around the room.

“Answering the question from earlier,” Sandra cut in.  “We did some readings.  A reading of Blake Thorburn drew the Fool card with the right hand, the High Priestess with the left.  A reading of his vestige companion drew the Hanged Man and Chariot, respectively.”

First of all, I resented that.

Second of all, ominous.

“We can assume that with his removal, the other Thorburn descendants will each have a turn as heir.  We’re already doing background checks on everyone involved,” Sandra Duchamp said.  “It would be interesting to possibly remove one individual from the line of succession before we get that far, to see if we can’t throw a wrench in the works.”

“But our paramount concern,” Laird said, “Is him.  He’s not as passive as his predecessor was.  We’ll all sleep easier when he’s dealt with.”

“Let’s not mince words,” a man said.  “You’re talking about his death.  About murdering him.”

“I was mincing words, as we do have children in the room,” Laird said.  “But no, I do not want either option.  Particularly now.  This is my proposed solution.”

Various people looked down at the diagram.

“You’d better explain,” Sandra Duchamp said.

“Of course,” Laird said.  “Bertram, would you?”

I heard rustling papers.

In the narrow segment of the crowd that I could make out, I saw people passing a pile of stapled papers around.  Each took one and handed it to the next person.

“I’m not sure I follow.  It’s been a long time since I studied any of this.  There’s no risk of backlash?”

“No.  We’re not targeting him,” Sandra said.  “He’s not even in our sights.  He spends much of his time ensconced within the house, where every demesnes has been turned inward.”

“If you’d each clear away from the diagram?” Laird asked.  “There should be room.  We’ll get prepared while you each look over my notes.”

As one, the crowd backed away to the edges of the room.  I found myself with my back to the glass cabinets.  I also had a better view of what was going on.

“Timothy, here,” Laird said.  He indicated an empty circle within the diagram.  “Rhea, here, please.  Grace, here.  Talbot, yes, right there.”

Fuck me.  This wasn’t just Laird pulling something with people looking in.  He was involving them.  A coven -a circle-, getting involved.

“Sandra, I need you at the ‘crown’ point.  Isabelle, the ‘sword’.”

Two circles, I thought.  I was frozen.  What could I do?

“Clustered so close together,” Sandra commented.  She was almost shoulder to shoulder with Isabelle.

“That’s the realm.  The space.  See page four.  If you could stand with your backs to each other, please… yes, good.  Cordelia, you’re the cup.  Anne, the coin.  Gail?”

“Tome.”

“Yes.  And, almost done, we have Layton, Donald, and myself, for the stations here, here, and… here.”

He stepped deliberately into the last open space.

The Behaims arranged around the edge, the Duchamps in a tight circle in the middle.

There was a respectful silence.

Fuck me.

Maybe I should set the house on fire.

“Finally,” Laird said, dropping to one knee.  He drew his pocketwatch out, then tapped it gently on the circle, like someone might if they were cracking an egg.  “I’ll need your help, my friend.”

Light flared, reflected off the open ‘door’ of the watch, and when it passed, a stooped, sun-wizened old man stood before Laird, practically wrapped around the staff that was keeping him standing.  Hair slicked back, no beard, his eyes pinched to slits by the wrinkles and folds of his face.

The old man advanced, teetering, using the staff for balance.

When he reached the center of the circle, he tapped his staff’s end against it.

In the doing, the old man folded like a house of cards, collapsing into the space where the staff met the circle.  Reflected rays of sunlight flashed out, much as it had with the lid, racing around the length of the circle at different speeds, and he plunged into the space.

I felt a shudder.

Heard a thud.

Another thud, then another.  The vibrations continued, in time.

The diagram was moving.  An ellipse, pointed at either end, whatever I was supposed to call that, was making its way around the edge.  The various people standing on the circle began moving, glacially slowly, but moving.

I saw the movement of another ellipse.  Like the hands of a clock.

The thuds were a ticking, as if we were in a great clocktower.

“With one stroke,” Laird said.  “We can remove the entire Thorburn family as a threat.  I’ll get us started.”

He began chanting.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Breach 3.2

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The words were barely out of my mouth when the rabbit Briar Girl held leaped from her arms.  By the time it hit the ground, it was ten times the size.  A wolf, almost as large as a horse, but with feathers instead of fur.  The patterns, length, and direction of the feathers were reminiscent of flames curling in the air.

Rather than the wolf’s ferocious snarl, however, the demeanor was more fitting for a bird of prey or a reptile.  Cold, still, and emotionless.

When I looked at the individual details, they weren’t fitting, either.  The wolf’s claws were more like talons.  The teeth too narrow and clean to belong to a real wolf.

“Saying that was a mistake,” the Briar Girl said.  “My companion thinks we should kill you now.”

“Let’s talk it out first, and then we can mutually decide one way or the other,” I said.

She looked at her familiar, and then seemed to come to a decision.  “Perhaps.”

“Behaim is the local powerhouse, with the Duchamps not far behind.  You, Johannes, Maggie and I, maybe even Mara, we’re stuck on the fringes.  Conservation of ninjitsu isn’t in effect here.  Those families are big.  Lots of practitioners, who’ve grown up into power, who have been handed everything they have.  They’re scary.  A fucking kid, half my age, give or take a couple years, tried to off me, just yesterday.  I get it, if you’re too scared to go up against them.”

The Briar Girl smiled.  “You’re so transparent.  Appealing to my pride?  I have little.  Look at me.  I forage in the snow for edible plants.  I hunt for my food, and I clean it myself.”

She thrust her hands at me.

“With these hands, I’ve cleaned a deer.  Hung it, bled it, removed its hide.  I washed the shit from its guts with my hands and freezing water from a creek, so I could use them.”

She gestured towards the bird-mask things.

“For the feorgbold, I had to dig up and barter for the corpses no one would claim.  I walked from here to Toronto and back, a full day and night to get there, longer to get back, dragging the body in a suitcase behind me.  I purified them, I washed them utterly clean, I decorated them with care, and I gave of myself to bring them forth.  Are you so power hungry that you imagine all of us are itching to depose the current powers?”

I didn’t really have a response to that.

Rose did.  “More accurate to say every practitioner we’ve seen has been power hungry.  Laird may have misled us on that front.”

“You’re bargaining from a position of stupidity. Ignorance.  That does not bode well for you, Thorburns.”

“Thorburns, plural?” I asked.

“I know who she is.”

“How?” Rose asked, without hesitation.

For an instant, I thought maybe she’d given it away.  Then I remembered that the Briar Girl couldn’t lie.  That was one obvious trick from the playbook that didn’t work in this world.

“I live here?” Briar Girl asked.  “In these woods.  I’ve watched the Thorburn family for almost six years.  Hoping, waiting.  I can see the ties that bind you to the house.  If you are not one of the Thorburns, you’re of the Thorburns.”

“I’m guessing she can probably smell it on you, too,” I said.

The Briar Girl smiled again.  I noticed her teeth weren’t stellar, and there might have been one missing among the back molars.  “Now it’s my turn to ask how you might know that.”

“If I were living in the woods, hunting and foraging for my food, probably selling what I could to buy creature comforts like clothes, I might try to wrangle the same thing,” I said.  “I can’t help but notice the cold doesn’t bother you, either, so you’re doing some things to make life easier for you.”

Not to mention that your familiar might demand something along those lines.  I glanced at the thing, and it huffed hot breath into the air, where it fogged around the snout and the intense yellow bird’s eyes.

If I didn’t have experience through Rose, I might not have even considered that the hot breath was purely for show.  A spirit didn’t need to breathe any more than a vestige did.

“I’ve made a good few changes,” the Briar Girl said.  Her attention flickered to her familiar, as well.  “Not enough, it seems.”

“Your… partner, wants you to be stronger?” I asked.

“You’re back to discussing power,” Briar Girl said.  She spread her arms.  “Look at me, Thorburn.  I gave up my power for this.  What are you going to tell me that might change my mind?”

I don’t know, but I’d better figure it out before you decide to have me torn limb from limb.

“What’s ‘this’?” Rose asked.  “What did you give your power up for?”

“A place in the world,” Briar Girl said.  “This place, specifically.”

“Why this place?” Rose asked.

“Because this is where my friends are.  When I left civilization, I came here first, and this is my home, this is where they are.”

“What if we moved them?” I asked.  “Hypothetically.  Would you and I be able to get along?”

“Try it.  Try to move every spirit, elemental and Other to another forest.  I would like to see it.”

Rose said, “To move the spirits, you’d have to move every single one of the trees and animals here, that the spirits are attached to.  You’d lose ground if the animals returned to their old habitats or if trees started sprouting from the ground.  I don’t even know you’d begin to move the elementals.  You’d probably have to bargain with the Others on a one-on-one basis… it would be a lifetime of work, if it was even possible.”

“The voice is clever,” Briar Girl said.  “And she’s right.”

“Would it help?” I asked.  “You seem poised to treat us as enemies so long as we own this land.  Would we be able to get along if this wasn’t an issue?”

“No,” Briar Girl said.

I sighed.

“Your kind is dangerous.  Even you… you stink of something foul.  I can smell it and they can smell it.”

“When I’ve barely interacted with anything?” I asked.

“Yeah,” Briar Girl said.  “Can’t you see it?  The animals don’t like you.”

I looked over the crowd of spirits that had surrounded me.  The animal spirits… they were bristling, alternately retreating and advancing, trying to look aggressive.  Their snarls were small, barely audible, but constant.

“Once upon a time, when humans weren’t much more than animals, we relied on our dogs to scare off the Others who wanted to prey on us and do mischief.  Cats hunted and fought with the lesser Goblins, returning to owners with torn ears or small injuries.  They still have those instincts.  To destroy things of darkness, foulness and blight, before rot can set in.”

“Rot?” I asked.

“The way I was told it,” Briar Girl said, “Many of the worst of them were architects.  Call them spirits, or divine servants of the god or gods who put the world together, or lesser gods.  Doesn’t matter.  They put things together.  Stars in the sky, mountains, oceans, they gathered the animals and gave them the instincts that each species would pass on to others of their kind, and to the species that came about, later on.  But things reached a certain mass, and a counterweight was needed.”

“Some of these builders switched roles,” Rose said.  “Doing the inverse of what they’d done before.”

“Like the one the lawyer mentioned to us,” I said.  “Put the stars in the sky, now calls them down.”

“Meteor showers or something,” Rose said.

“Meteors?”  Briar Girl asked.  “No.  The stars are sources of light and energy.  A being like you describe would be powerful.  A leader of others of its kind.  Meteors?  With one action, he might bring fiery death down on your enemies, but the world would pay a cost.  Every light humanity uses might be dimmer.  Every source of fuel and energy might be a fraction less effective.  Food, fuel, electricity.”

“People would notice,” I said.

“Never when they were looking,” she said.  “No.  A general or a duke, whatever he might be, this being you speak of, he should be a commander.  Imps, you might call them.  If he brought a darkness to the world, he would do it by scattering imps across the world.  These imps would work as spirits do, but with intelligence.  Ensuring that a flashlight grew dim when it might reveal a murderer or rabid animal.  That a car ran out of gas where it might carry a sick man to a hospital, spelling his death.  One action on your part, fire and devastation, but you never see what comes out of it. Hundreds of incidents a year, for decades or a century, before the imps are dealt with or spent of their power.”

“The rot sets in, so to speak,” Rose said.  “Humanity fights back, maybe unknowingly, by having dogs beside us, or good luck charms, or other things.”

“Which is why your kind is dangerous,” Briar Girl said.

“The books went into some detail about the origins you just talked about,” Rose said.  “They also said that particular story was disproved.”

The Briar Girl shrugged.  “It’s what I was taught.”

“And some of the things that are in the books aren’t devils and demons, or anything that devours the world.  Some are particularly nasty goblins, or other things we don’t have labels for.”

Another shrug.  “Close enough.  It’s about taint, about rot.  Once those things get hooks in the world, the world starts coming apart at the seams.””

I frowned.  “Says the girl who takes homeless people’s bodies and turns them into…”

Feorgbold, life vessels,” the Briar Girl said.  “Recycling.  Death, consumption and rebirth are parts of the cycle of nature.  Some of my favorite parts.  I could do what I do a hundred thousand times over, and there would still be balance.  Your things, they are not balanced, not in any way we want to deal with.  Never simple death, but oblivion, annihilation.  Helping the universe to reach zero, with screams, darkness and pain every step of the way.”

The nature spirit bristled.

“Which is why,” Briar Girl added, as if she were translating, “You should give me this territory.  If someone will use it to give them a foothold, don’t give them the chance.  Give it away, at least the parts you haven’t already tainted by association.  Curl up into a ball, make yourself insignificant, and don’t touch a thing.”

“Laird said something similar.”

“Laird isn’t wrong,” Briar Girl told me.

I frowned.  “Those aren’t words I want to hear out of anyone’s mouth.  Negotiation has to be possible between us, or you wouldn’t have agreed to hear us out.”

“Agree to give me the territory, and I won’t kill you right now.  There.  Negotiations done.”

“You know it’s not that simple.  I’ve already gone into why.  I don’t own the property yet.”

“You want flexibility from us, you flex on that,” the Briar Girl said.  “We can start with you signing an oath by bloodline.  If you die, one of your line gives me territory here.”

“That’s asking for a lot,” Rose said.  “I don’t think anyone is pretending Blake is long for this world.  Giving you a guarantee?  Or as close to a guarantee as you can hope for?  That’s big.  Making a promise that might not get fulfilled, one that could easily be beyond our power to fulfill?  That’s bad karma we’re taking unto ourselves and giving to our family.  Not to mention the biggest thing, which is that we’re removing any incentive for you to help keep Blake alive.”

I’m pretending I’m long for this world,” I protested.

“We need guarantees,” the Briar Girl said, “If we’re going to put ourselves out in the open and risk retaliation from Laird.”

“Okay,” Rose said.  “Let’s turn this around.  Blake, tell her what you want.”

I could see what Rose was doing.  I silently approved.

“I want a helping hand,” I said.  “Some specific knowledge, some power.  You’re at no risk, and it shouldn’t really point back to you, so long as we cover our tracks.”

“What knowledge?  What power?”

“To start with,” I said, “perhaps some information about the bonds between Others and practitioners.  Controlling it, using it.  You have a close connection to your familiar.  I’d like to use your expertise and example to prevent dangerous connections to Others.”

“Ah.  Keeping the rot out?”

“Among other things,” I said.

The Briar Girl was an example, to be sure, but she was a bad example.  I wanted to figure out what not to do, among other things.  Like I’d told Rose, I believed the Briar Girl might have some sort of information we could use.  Information that might be invaluable, if Rose was infecting me somehow, taking me over or transforming me.

By phrasing it this way, I hoped to make it hard for her to refuse without admitting weakness.

“What else, Blake?  Let’s lay it all on the table,” Rose said.

“I’d want some tricks, and I don’t see myself making these Feogrund things.”

Feorgbold,” the Briar Girl said.

“The Vessels,” I corrected myself.  “But a lesson or two, or a gift I could use more than a few times, I think that’s S.O.P. for practitioner dealings?”

“It’s how most have traditionally gathered knowledge,” the Briar Girl said.  “Apprenticeship, servitude, favors, or being born into the right family.”

“Gotcha,” I said.  “We already talked about you changing yourself, but I’m leery of that.  I don’t want to weaken myself if some rot sets in and starts changing me.”

Or if this change with the tattoos continues.

“Depending on the effort you put in,” she said, “It could make you stronger.  Learn to control your body’s shape, and you can flex that muscle when something else tries to.”

“That so?” I asked.  “Thanks for the info.  It could weaken me, too, I presume?”

“Anything could,” the Briar Girl responded.  “It looks like something or a lot of somethings already have.”

“It’s been a rough few days,” I admitted.

“My partner thinks we should let you die, or help you along on your journey,” the Briar Girl said.  “No deal is going to see fruition, when you’re this weak.  You have very little power, for the most recent member of a very long, very learned lineage.”

It kept coming back to that.

“The ones who come after me aren’t going to be any better,” I said.  “Do you want to know why?  Let me think.  What was the order?  Kathy was next.”

“Kathy’s the oldest of the possible heirs.  She’s hard as nails, mean, ruthless and greedy.  A chef in a restaurant, ex-businesswoman, a parent of one, best described as a ‘mother bear’, with helicopter tendencies,” Rose said.

“That’s pretty much it,” I said.

“I don’t see the problem,” the Briar Girl said.

“If she were here instead of me,” I said.  “I think the home would have been turned over to the lawyers already, or she would have struck some deal to try and return to her everyday life.  The only way it wouldn’t work out that way would be if my grandmother put some measures in place to twist her arm.  In which case she’d be stubborn, mean, and she’d never give up the territory.”

“I agree,” Rose said.  “I know her better than Blake does, and it’s true.  Briar Girl, if you got five words out of Kathryn that weren’t insults, I’d be surprised.”

I waited.  Let the Briar Girl sit on that.

“So we kill her before she gets a chance to sell the place.  Move on to the next.”

She was so casual about it.  She’d raised her hand to vote for Maggie’s execution, hadn’t she?

“Probably,” I said.  “Which brings us to…”

“Ellie,” Rose said.

“Career criminal, and not in an impressive way.  Never worked a day in her life, she was staking everything on getting the house, I figure, because it was the only way she’d be able to get by.  Zero impulse control, hates everyone, especially those who give any clue they’re smarter or better than her, which winds up being pretty much everyone,” I said.  “Not because she’s dumb, but because she interprets anything as an attack.”

“She’s not dumb,” Rose said.  “I remember her getting up to an awful lot.  Surviving on schemes, jobs.  There’s a certain cunning that comes with living the life she’s lived.”

“Right,” I said.  “But I don’t know if she’d need a good excuse to send demons after people.  She’d need any excuse, even one she made up.”

“She’d be one of the scary kinds of diabolists you hear about,” Rose said.  “Bringing us to Roxanne…”

“I actually don’t know her that well,” I said.  “Only that she’s spoiled, she’s twelve or so, and comes with all of the problems that entails.”

“When Callan’s girlfriend wound up in her classroom as part of getting her teaching certificate, Roxanne made accusations that ended the woman’s career,” Rose said.  “No telling if her mom and dad put her up to it, but she doesn’t strike me as the moral and conscientious character who’d be polite and reasonable in dealing with devils, or neighbors.”

I could only imagine Rose’s face in the mirror that hung around my neck, giving the Briar Girl a pointed look.

“My sister,” I said.  “Is two.  Good luck with that.  You want to wait for access to the territory so you can get the Demesne?  Waiting for Ivy could mean a seventeen year wait, if not longer.”

“And Paige would be your last chance,” Rose said.

“Another amoral person, to help me build a picture of who you are?” the Briar Girl asked.  “All set to call demons into this town on a whim?”

“No,” I said.  “She was my friend, I respect and trust her.  And I honestly think you’d have a harder time negotiating with her than you would with me.  She’d see the long line of deaths that preceded her, and she’d play it smarter than I could, I think.  I don’t think she’d give you anything, especially when you tried to kill me.”

“But you’ll cooperate with me?”

“I’m not in a position to hold grudges,” I said.  “I meant what I said.  I want to remove Laird and the Duchamps from their positions of power.  I want to hit them in their powerbase, I want to scare them, I want them to suffer for Molly’s death.  I’ll hurt them physically, if I have to.”

“That doesn’t matter to me,” the Briar Girl said.

“What if, theoretically, I could remove them from power, and I could move away?  If I could shift my powerbase to another location.  I could try and see if it’s possible to move the house or the essential contents to another location.”

I could see the interest, even as she tried to hide it.  “Not possible.”

“Who knows?” I asked.  “Let’s open negotiations with that.  You agree to help me against Laird, I agree to take the time to verify whether it’s possible to move away.  It’s information you want, and it’s something you could use against any of the ones who come after me.  Trick them, deal with them, whatever.”

“I let you walk away alive, you agree to take the time to investigate,” the Briar Girl said.

“I walk away alive and unharmed,” I clarified.

“With no deleterious magics, workings or malfeasance at play,” Rose added.  “We leave freely and unaccompanied, unmolested in body, mind, possession or emotion.”

The Briar Girl thought, then nodded.

“Deal,” I said.

“Deal,” she said.

I felt a wave of relief.  With those simple words of agreement between us, the Others seemed to react, dropping away from the vantage points where they’d been poised to attack me.

“Give me some tools or knowledge I might use,” I said, “Instructions on how to perform shapechanging, or give me a power source, and I’ll cede you this square of territory right here, if and when I’m able.”

“Double the size,” the Briar Girl said.  “And promise to double it again if Laird discovers my involvement.  I don’t want any trouble from him.  He’s a bastard.”

“If he discovers your involvement and it’s because I made a mistake,” I say.  “Nothing from you.”

“Or yours,” Rose added, quickly.  “No summoning or orders to a minion to tell him so he finds out.

“Nothing from me or mine,” the Briar Girl said, frowning a little.

She was totally planning something like that.

“And if you can’t give me the territory?” she asked.

“I’d promise a good faith effort to give some other form of repayment for the gift,” I said.

“There’s only one form of payment I want,” she answered me.

“Take it or leave it,” I said.  “This is the closest you’ve gotten in a long time, I’m betting.”

She considered, then looked at her familiar.  “Okay.”

“Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Okay,” I said.  “So… what can you give me?”

“Before we get into that, I want to suggest something else,” the Briar Girl said.

“What?” I asked.

“In exchange for me not alerting Laird about what you’re planning… double the territory, to start with.”

I stared at her.  She smiled, her teeth just slightly yellow, strands of hair having escaped her hood to brush against her face.  In that instant, she looked more animal than her familiar.

I didn’t have a ready answer to that.  I was already short on bargaining chips.

“What do you think, Rose?” I asked.

“I’m thinking about Demesnes, the book.  The rules.  Since it’s related to what the Briar Girl wants.”

I thought about the book, my mind running through everything it had said.

“We should claim the forest,” Rose said.  “Or part of it.”

I could see the Briar Girl visibly tensing.  The familiar bristled.

No rush.  We’d been promised safety.  I allowed myself a smile.  “We could take something smack dab in the middle of it.  Once it’s taken, it’s taken, right?  You can’t have something for your demesnes if someone else has already claimed that ground.”

“It’s the most convenient location.  Close to the house.  Secluded…

Briar Girl’s familiar growled.

“If you keep talking like that, there won’t ever be another negotiation between us,” the Briar Girl said.

The words had a power to them.  It was damn close to being an oath.  It was a statement.

I shut my mouth, stood straight, and waited.

It was good to let the idea hang there, terrifying to her, a way to interrupt her plans.  We could take a part of her territory from her forever.

The wait extended.  I could see the Briar Girl shifting her weight.  Periodically glancing at her familiar.  No doubt communicating by some means.

“Agree to rescind the threat,” she said, “and I won’t tell Laird.”

“Excellent,” I said.  “Deal.  It’s good to do these things in threes, isn’t it?  Makes it more powerful?”

“Close enough.  So I’ve got to teach you to change your form.”

“Yes,” I said.

“Get the still-warm blood of an animal, as much as possible.  Strip yourself of all clothes.  Douse yourself, slowly, to allow yourself to feel the power instead of having your wits dashed from you.  Put power into the parts of it you want to keep.  Gorge the spirit, and draw the spirit into you.  Fail to exert enough will and focus, and the power inherent in the blood will bleed over into other parts of you, you might physically change, you might experience other side effects, or your mind might slip away until it fades.  If you don’t exert enough power, you’ll get far less effect for what you have spent.  With practice, you learn how much to put in, and where your attention needs to go.”

That was… somewhat more perfunctory than I’d expected.

“Where do I draw the power from?” I asked.

“There are hundreds of possibilities.”

“How do I apply it to the shapechanging rite?” I asked.

“Depends on where you draw the power from,” she said.

“Can you give me an example?” I asked.

“Yes,” she answered, “But I’ll demand other things before I do.”

Meaning she considered her end of the bargain met.  She’d told me what to do.  Given me instructions.

“That’s unsporting,” Rose said.

“No,” I said.  “Nevermind that.  Look, Briar Girl…”

I pulled off my glove.  I held up my hand, showing her the locket.

I could feel the attention the locket got.  As the eyes of a number of Others and the Briar Girl fell on it, the hair extended, winding around the chain and pulling it tighter.

It’s fragile, I reminded myself.

“Can you at least tell me if I power it with glamour?”  I asked.

She frowned a little.  “Glamour isn’t the province of humans.  It must be freely given.  It is too fragile to handle otherwise.  Too personal to each Faerie.”

“That so?” I asked.  “Huh.”

“Who gave it to you?  The only unbound Faerie here are the exiles.”

“Answer my question first.  Can I use it?”

She frowned.  “Give me the power, and I’ll give you another power source.”

“I’m partial enough to this that I can’t see myself giving it away,” I said.  “Answer my questions, I’ll answer yours.  Otherwise, I think I’ll be leaving to go plan against Laird.”

“Yes, you can use it to power the shaping, but you shouldn’t.”

“Why not?” I asked, momentarily concerned.

“If you want to change your form, using the glamour itself is enough.  More flexible.  More fragile, but I don’t see you fighting each and every member of Laird’s family, and if you’re in a position to have a glamour broken, you’re also in a position to have your shape stolen from you, leaving you in your ordinary form, helpless and naked.  I would use glamour by itself, in your shoes.”

“I don’t have much of the glamour,” I said.  “It grows, but not fast.”

It’s growing now, though.

“Use all you can.  Layer it on thick.  Render it into a form you can handle, dilute it, powder or paint yourself with it, mold yourself, and avoid letting that mold break. It’ll wear over time, as it’s challenged.  Every doubt is a crack, and you can repair the cracks with power.  Good illusionists can wear the same glamour for years, if they attach it to some power source.  Some never change their clothes, only changing the glamour.”

I made a mental note of that.

“Who gave it to you?”

“It was fairly taken, after a duel.”

“What would it take for you to give the original piece to me?”

“I want to ask a question, before I answer that.  What are the limitations?”

“There are few.  My teacher told me many Faerie take refuge in audacity.  Keep the rules of the change simple, without too many twists and turns, and you can paint any sort of picture.  Your power and the glamour’s power is only truly expended if the glamour breaks.  Cracks, frays, fades, peels, or breaks entirely.  You’re deceiving reality, and reality can only make you pay for the sheer difference in forms when it finds out.”

“Okay,” I said.  “That sounds far more workable.  Can someone look at the connections, break it that way?”

“Not if you’re careful to mold those as well.”

“Okay.  Opposite question, then.  What if I deceive reality too well?”

“You don’t.  You leave a tell.  A key, if you will.  Something deliberately wrong, often something that calls back to you, specifically.  Anyone who notices it will see through the glamour, but you can notice it to do the same.”

“Like?”

“Eyes the wrong color, or you’re flipped left to right, like an image in a mirror, or you keep an old scar.”

I nodded.  “To answer your question, it would take a hell of a lot for me to hand this over, but ask me later, and we could maybe negotiate.  I have ideas on what I want to do with it, right now.  That is, assuming we can negotiate in the future?”

“Don’t threaten me, and it’s possible,” the Briar Girl said.

“Excellent,” I said.  But no promises.  “On the subject of questions and answers… can I ask who or what your teacher was?”

There was a reaction to that.  Surprise.  Annoyance.

“No,” she said.

“Okay,” I said.  “Do you have another question you’d like to ask?”

“None that I’d be willing to exchange an answer for.  We’re done,” she said.  She waved her hand, and the remaining Others began leaving.  She paused.  “I hope you fail.  But I hope you don’t fail so badly you die.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’m going to aim for one of those two.”

She frowned a little, but she walked off.  I turned to trudge through the deep snow to get back to the house, pulling my glove back on.

When we were well out of earshot, I groaned.  “I can’t believe I washed that ink off my hands.”

“You didn’t know what to do with it.  It could have been dangerous.”

“But it was useful.  Fuck me, I left the mortar and pestle sitting on the bottom of the sink while I washed my hands, I rinsed away the remaining ink.  I could have used that.  Maybe done my hands.”

“Why?  What are you thinking?  And please don’t make this one of those things where you only explain things at the last second, in general terms, and leave it up to me to say yes or no.”

“I’ve only done that once, haven’t I?”

“Just now, you mean?  Or when you were dealing with the bird-skulls and you threw the stone onto the ice?  Or when you went up to the front of the church and announced your deals?”

“Damn it,” I said.

“Given the state you’re in, I’m betting you want to swear you won’t do it again.  Don’t.  But keep it in mind, especially if something comes up, and the tables are turned?”

“I think I could do that,” I said, speaking slowly and carefully.  “Why do I feel like you already know what that something is?”

“Because I do.”

“That’s ominous,” I said.

“How does it feel, Blake?  Not fun, is it?”

“When I do it, it’s not intentional,” I said.

“This was.  But we’re aiming to trust each other more, and this is one step in that.  It’s something we need to test, and that test might distract from whatever you’ve got going on in your head right now.”

“It might,” I said.

“So let’s hammer this out, first.  No more sudden announcements about what we’re doing.  Where does all this lead?”

“We’ve got Briar Girl on our side, pretty much.  She doesn’t want to kill us.  We could probably negotiate for a vote against execution, in a pinch.  The door’s open.”

“Yes.”

“In terms of Laird, well, I’m thinking we need to pay a visit to Maggie next.  You’re right.  She was the middleman.  Talking to Briar Girl was a bit of a test, as it wound up.  Dealing with the girl who tried to kill me.  Kill us.  I’d like to think I handled that pretty amicably.”

“Better than I might have,” Rose said.  “I never had many friends.”

“Well, now we can deal with another person who’s done a reprehensible act against us, only this one deceived us to our faces.  We’re going to get Maggie’s help.  Then maybe we talk to Mara or Johannes, if we can wrangle it.  I don’t know where they are or how we could get in contact with them, and I’m not sure they’re the types where I want to shout their name and see if they answer.  My gut tells me that’s the wrong way to go about it.”

“You’re talking to the outliers.  Why?  Where does this lead?”

“Laird said he was aiming to do something tonight.  I’m aiming to stop him.”

“Stop him?”

“Somehow.  Interrupt the ritual, distract him, I don’t know.  But this glamour thing is useful, because it’s a way we could maybe navigate the city.  No connections tracking us, a different face… maybe I get closer to Laird.”

“Oh boy,” Rose said.  “There are so many ways this can go wrong.”

“Which is why the next step is getting my face on,” I said.  “Then we talk to Maggie.  We need soldiers, and those paper goblins are sounding awfully good right now.”

“You’re expecting a fight?”

“I don’t know what to expect.  How does a guy like Laird get revenge?”

“He doesn’t seem like the type for violence,” Rose said.  “Is violence the answer?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “But I wouldn’t mind dealing with him outside of his element.  He probably knows his way around most of the scary stuff we could throw at him, but you don’t try to out-scheme the schemer.  You do something like send twisted midget psychopaths to stab the schemer and leave him unable to think straight.”

Midget is offensive.”

“I don’t think political correctness matters when you’re talking about goblins.”

“Point,” she admitted.  “You really want to murder Laird?”

“Something like sending goblins to kill him.  I’d settle for a little bloodletting.  Or something to remove him from play.  But we need him out of the picture.  We need to destroy him, on some level, and we need to do the same for his family.  You get that, right?  We’re on the same page?”

“I hate the word ‘destroy’.  But yes.  It’s destroy or be destroyed.”

“Well said.”

“Hm,” Rose answered.  “While you’re figuring out the glamour stuff, I might get to reading a book on it.  Go in with our eyes open.”

“Good idea,” I said.  I opened the door, and, without thinking, I held it open for Rose.

Nevermind that she wasn’t here.

“You keeping up with the reading?” she asked, apparently oblivious.

“Pretty well.  I’ll need to sit down tonight to get more done, or devote a full day to it tomorrow.”

“Good,” she said.

Back in the kitchen, I went through all of the tools, getting the mortar and pestle, and emptying the residual, very diluted ink over my hands.  I rubbed it into my arms.

I cut off all of the hair that had reached beyond the confines of the locket itself, and ground it up before creating a fresh batch of ink, but I balanced it out with more hair, rendering it thicker.  I rubbed it into my face and rolled up my sleeves to get it along the length of my arms and get full coverage on my hands.

“I just realized I’m going to need your help on this, Rose,” I said.  “I can’t see myself in the mirror.”

She was gone.  Finding the book, no doubt.

I ran my hand along my arm, so the skin that stretched between thumb and index finger dragged along the surface.

I willed it to change.

The effect was minimal at best.

What had Ms. Lewis told me about the Faerie?

Self delusion.

I did it again.  This time, I relaxed and let myself believe it would change.  A leap of faith.  I visualized my hand peeling away the paler skin, revealing my normal skin tone beneath.

It was eerie, seeing it take hold.  My tattoos as they’d been before, less beautiful, but still gorgeous and entirely mine.

I’d heard two things from two people.  The Briar Girl had told me I could use shaping to teach myself to deal with any hostile incursion or infection.  Ms. Lewis had said something else, warning Rose about the fragile nature of glamours.

If this broke apart, would I lose ground in this war against whatever was going on with my body?  Some spirits or some part of Rose that was bleeding into me, taking advantage of the personal power I’d spent?

I ran my hands along my face and over my hair.  I couldn’t see the change, but I didn’t doubt it had worked.

That doubt could be dangerous and costly.

I checked the closet, and started rooting through it for anything I could wear.  My grandmother’s coats, spring jackets, rain jackets, umbrellas…

Nothing.

I was debating wearing my winter jacket when I heard Rose.  A yelp.

“What?”

“You startled me.”

“I look different?”

“About ten years older, dark haired?  Yeah.”

“Good stuff,” I said.

“It’s supposed to be harder than that,” she said.  “Pretty sure.”

“Good thing you didn’t tell me before I tried anything,” I said.

I ran my hands along my arms.  The skin color changed to black.  I left the tattoos intact.

I did my face and head.  When I ran my hands along the top of my head a second time, I found my head shaved as I’d imagined it.  I scratched it and found all of the nerve endings responded.  I could feel the stubble, the tiniest details.

“Crazy,” I commented.  I ran my hands down the length of my throat.  Then said, in a different voice, “Crazy.”

Definitely supposed to be harder than that,” Rose said.

“Stop saying that,” I said.  “If I believe it, it might become true.  Ignorance is power, in this case.”

I could see her frowning at me in the reflective side of the toaster.

“Maybe it’s an advantage,” I said.  “I’ve expended personal power, there’s more spaces for it to get traction?  There’s less of me to modify?”

“I don’t buy it,” she said.  “Remember, all power has a price.  What’s the price for that little tidbit?”

“I’d like to think nearly getting killed by the faerie swordswoman and beating her in a duel was a pretty fair cost,” I said.

Rose seemed to internally debate the idea, before saying, “Maybe.  Point taken.”

I started spreading the stuff over the rest of my neck, shoulders, and beneath my shirt.  “But if this proves to be more useful than that duel was dangerous, I agree, we should be suspicious.”

The glamour was really fucking useful, as it turned out.  Damn it.

I waited outside of the school as the students filed out.  All grades, kindergarten through twelve, were present.  Children who still wet their pants and young adults who were working their first jobs, all in the same general mob.

Behaims and Duchamps of various ages passed me without a first glance, let alone a second.

I joined the parents who were waiting for their kids.  An ordinary, unassuming guy.

Maggie came out, headphones on, a bag slung over one shoulder.  The checkered scarf was in place.

I walked over to the exit and fell into step beside her.

She stopped right away.

“Sorry,” I said, in a stranger’s voice.

“No need to be sorry, Mr. Stranger Danger.  Why don’t you walk away?” Maggie suggested.  “Go find a nice middle aged woman to sleaze on.”

She was so casual, so everyday.  I wondered if she’d lost any sleep after ordering her goblins to tear Molly to pieces.

“You don’t hold back,” I observed, burying the surge of emotion.

She jammed her hands into her jacket pockets, shoulders hunched forward, defensive, one glance going over her shoulder, as if she were checking her escape routes.

I knew full well that she was getting her hands on a weapon of some sort.  The glance would be to see if people were looking, which they were.  Kids and teenagers still milled around us and between us.

“I mean you no harm,” I said.  “Please don’t stab me.  Or throw a goblin at me.”

I could see her studying me.  Was she identifying flaws or tells in the disguise, picking it apart with her eyes?  Or was she reinforcing it, feeding into it?

“Who the drat are you?” she asked.

Yay, I thought.

There was a freedom to this, a high, almost.

Her eyes moved to something or someone behind me.

I turned before they could touch me.  A man, dark haired, heavyset, wearing a flannel button-up shirt.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

I looked and I saw the connection between him and Maggie.  For someone who’d just moved to this city, for that connection to be that strong…

“You’re Maggie’s father?” I asked.

“Yes, and you know my daughter how?”

“We have a mutual friend,” I said.  “I believe Maggie knows of a girl with a thing regarding mirrors?”

I saw Maggie go still, surprised, confused.  Her eyes darted over me.

Trying to find connections?

“This is funny business, isn’t it?” her father asked.

“Yeah,” Maggie said.  “Funny.

I glanced at her dad.  He knows.

That made things simultaneously easier and more tricky.

“I have a message for you,” I said.  “Forgiveness won’t be particularly easy, nor fast, not for either of us, but help is needed.”

“No need to be impossibly cryptic,” she said.  “I tell my dads almost everything.”

“Almost?” her dad asked.

“So dish,” she said.  “You want to mess with the Thorburns?”

I hesitated.

“What if I did?”

“I’d tell you I’m done with that.  Fool me once, and all that jazz.”

“If you’re trying to embroil Maggie in something else like-”

“No,” I said.  “No.  Because I have… I won’t say I have no quarrel with the Thorburns, but I’m looking to help the family.  If Maggie wanted to make amends for what happened to Molly Walker, I could use a hand.  A loan of resources.”

“The dead girl?” her father asked.

So he didn’t know.  I could see concern on her face.

I decided to pull her ass out of the fire, here.  Karma, if nothing else.  Or did it not count if I recognized it?  “More about what happened yesterday, when we last talked.”

I saw a glimmer of a connection.  She was figuring it out.  Only so many people I could be.  Maybe she suspected me of being the lawyer in another guise?  Easier to figure out, easier to explain?

“This would be a hell of a lot easier if you told us who you were,” her father said.

“Can I walk you to your car?” I asked.  “I could explain there.”

“You can explain right here,” her father said.  “Or you can walk away.”

I sighed.

Hopefully I’d reinforced the glamour enough it could take a hit.  If not, I could derail all of my plans.

Glancing around, I verified nobody was looking, and then unzipped my jacket.  I revealed the bike mirror pendant I wore.

Maggie’s eyes went wide.  “Blake?

“A mirror?” her father asked.

“It’s Blake,” she whispered.  “Blake Thorburn.

Each time she said my name, I could see the connection striving to appear, hammering at my glamour, like a battering ram slamming into a heavy door.

Her father’s continued confusion helped.

“Stop,” I said.  “Enough.  Can I walk you to your car?”

Maggie nodded, pulling on her dad’s sleeve.

As we walked in silence to the car, I tried to gauge the damage to the glamour.  I could use blood to fix it, but that was suicidal, at this point.

Better to let it mend on its own.

“Don’t say my name,” I said.  “Do let me know if I can borrow some goblins.”

“They’re work to get under control,” she said.  “Not easy.”

“I’ll settle for goblins in paper prisons I can’t control,” I said.  “I’m making a move against Laird.  Soon.”

I saw her chew her lip.

“Maggie?  I’ll need you to explain,” her father said.

“I’ll try, I promise,” she said.

I felt the impact of that statement, saw the connection form.

I blinked to clear my field of vision.  Couldn’t rely on it too much.

“Three paper goblins,” she said.  She pulled her hands from her pockets, depositing three folded papers in my hand.  “And a whistle.”

“A whistle for who or what?”

“He’s called something I’m not allowed to say,” Maggie said.  “It’s written on the whistle.”

Dickswizzle.

“Here,” she said.  She took the whistle back, then blew.

Something hit the car.  Heavy.

A goblin.  Hairy, bearded, lurking in the shadows.

“He obeys the holder of the whistle,” Maggie said.  “Try.”

“Crud,” Rose said, a murmur.  I could see Maggie’s father react.

“Dickswizzle, come,” I said.

He didn’t budge a muscle.

“Dickswizzle, come,” Rose said.

Dickswizzle approached a few paces.

“That thing I wanted to talk to you about…” Rose murmured.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Breach 3.1

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“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.

I coughed.

“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.”

“Blake-”

“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.

“What?”

“Your arms.”

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.”

“Which?”

“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.

“Yes.  Involuntarily.”

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.

Emotionally, though…

“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.”

“Like what?”

“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.

“Briar-”

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.”

“Ideally.”

“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.”

“Yes.”

“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?”

“Of course.”

“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.

“Hm?

“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.”

“Yes.”

“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.”

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