Category Archives: 4.08

Collateral 4.8

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No sudden movements.

June was in my hand.  With my other hand, I reached out for Pauz.  I hooked my fingers into the cords that bound the outside of the book, my thumb encircling the spine.

In other circumstances, I might have tried to make a circle like I did with the rabbit guts, but these were these circumstances.  I needed to make this special delivery before midnight.  I couldn’t stall.

Animals were faster than me.  Couldn’t run.

Fighting them?  If it came down to pure numbers, they won.  A hatchet and a heavy book could only deal with so many at a time, and even a withered, diseased, half-dressed guy could catch one of my arms.

I glanced at Dowght, moving my head slowly so I didn’t provoke anything.

I saw him picking up a steak knife from the table.  There was still food crusted on the blade.

Okay, he could do worse things than catch one of my arms.

“Dowght,” I spoke, my voice low, calm, soothing.

He didn’t respond.  He didn’t seem certain about his grip on the knife, so he shifted position, holding it in two hands.

“It’s done.  You’re free,” I said.  “All the things that have been hurting you, the confusion, all the parts where you feel horrible, they can stop.  Work with me, leave this house behind, get healthy again, stop being so cold and hungry…”

He was already shaking his head.

“I’ve been there,” I said.  “I know what it’s like.  The-”

“Mine,” he rasped.  His expression was twisted in anger and fear.

I hadn’t really thought it would work.  But I’d had to offer.

“I have to take care of them.  You want me to leave?”

He transitioned to more fear than anger, from the point he started the sentence to the point he ended it.

“Hard to imagine, huh?” I asked.  “I’ve been there too…”

The animals were creeping closer, where my back was turned.  I shuffled around, changing position, so the animals were to my right, Dowght to my left, table behind me.

“…a shitty status quo seems awfully damn good, when life has conditioned you to think that nothing better might ever come your way.”

The new perspective didn’t help.  I could hear papers rustling as things started approaching under the table.

“You want to take them away?” Dowght said.  “They’re all I have.  You… bastard.”

He sounded more plaintive than accusatory.  His hands shook as he held the knife.

“I’m sorry, Dowght,” I said.  “I don’t think there’s a way that this plays out, where it all works out okay.”

“I’ll kill you,” he said, unwittingly offering some truth my statement.  “They can eat you and they’ll be happy and fat, and everything goes back to the way it was.”

There was no way he’d come back from this.

“You won’t be happy, if things go back to the way they were,” I said.

“I’ll have them,” he responded, his voice not even a whisper.

Which wasn’t a rebuttal.

I had nothing to say in response, and silence lingered in the ensuing moment of quiet.

Quiet?  The rustling behind me had stopped.

I couldn’t shake the notion that something was poised, ready to pounce-

I threw myself backwards, onto the table, hauling my legs up and out of the way.

My coat, my nice coat, was mussed up by the leftover plates and garbage on the table.  It was sticky, meaning I didn’t slide as much as I’d expected to.  I was left with my legs in the air, nowhere to put them that didn’t mean dropping back to a standing position.

A rather large cat leaped onto the table, making a low snarling sound as it lunged straight for my face.

I hit it with the edge of the book.  It had to weigh twenty pounds at most, but forward momentum on its part and an awkward angle on mine meant I wasn’t able to knock it from the table.

The animal went on the offensive, scratching, clawing at the book.

Bad.  If it cut the twine-

I dropped the book, caught the far end of the table with my hand, and swung my legs around.  With the leverage, I was able to stab the very end of the hatchet at it.  No awkward angle there.  I struck it, knocking it to the ground.

A cur of a dog lunged up at one corner of the table, but didn’t succeed in getting up.  It stayed there, huffing out barks, snapping even though I was several feet away, two legs on the table’s surface, chest pressed against the side, with one leg coming up, failing to get high enough to find purchase.

I was so busy watching it that I nearly missed Dowght.  The only hint that he’d moved was the shift in the light and shadow of the room.

I turned my head, to see him rounding the table.  The dingy light from the sliding glass door lit him up, highlighting how pale he was, reflecting his pallid skin, the thin hair on his head, his open eyes focused solely on the knife and where he intended to stab it.

He didn’t bring down the knife in a two handed motion, nothing dramatic.  Knife held in both hands, he simply pointed it at the side of my stomach and pushed out.

I still held the edge of the table, and I hauled on it, half-turning, half-rolling, to get away from Dowght and the knife.

My feet touched ground, my shoulder hit the sliding glass door, and my balance was thrown.  I felt a delayed burst of pain as my body informed me that Dowght hadn’t missed.  Not completely.

I was now, as it happened, on the same side of the table as the cur.

It dropped, all four legs on the ground, hackles up, pacing a little left, a little right-

Something under the table bit me.  Just like Dowght had, subtle, no forewarning.  Teeth sinking into my calf.

No protection from the outfit here.

I buckled, involuntary, and the cur took that as a cue to attack.

In my head, the course of action seemed simple.  Swing down with the hatchet, to stop whatever was biting me, then a backhand swing to hit the dog.

One-two.

Except, as it turned out, a fatal blow to a squirrel that had its teeth buried deep in your leg made the head move, twisted head and jaw, shifted teeth.

I buckled more, gasping out a sound that might have been a swear if I’d had a full breath of air in my lungs.  Reflex, or simply not having the strength in one leg to support myself, I bent over.

All it took was one impact to knock me over.  The cur was on top of me, jaws on the space between my shoulder and neck.  Crushing more than piercing.  Leaving me on my back, without purchase on the trash-littered ground.

With the dog so close to me, hampering the movement of my shoulder, I couldn’t get a good swing in.  The pain made it all too easy to imagine my shoulder was being pulverized, sent rays of pain shooting down my arm, until I wasn’t even sure I’d be able to hold on to the hatchet.

One small movement, a leap of faith.  To release my deathgrip on June, shift my grip up-

I punched more than I swung, driving the metal head of the hatchet into the cur’s face.  Once, twice-

Something bit my ear, hard.

More claws scrabbled at my scalp.

Mice.  Rats.  Something in that vein.  I felt pain, and the pain intensified with further contact, joined by other sensations.  Blood welling.

The fear I’d felt even before I’d entered this house, that had built up as I’d written the contract, it now took on a note of panic.

These things were diseased.  Filthy.

Covered in fleas.  Lice.  Other things.

I ‘punched’ the dog again, hard, and it released its grip.  Not because it had chosen to- the axe’s tip had cracked something in its jaw.  It withdrew a fraction.

This time I swung, taking advantage of the animal’s retreat, the added distance, the fact that I could reach.

Blade met flesh, and the cur died.

More animals were collecting on me.  Cat’s claws pricked through my slacks, and mice scampered across me, biting at flesh where my t-shirt and dress shirt had pulled up to reveal a strip of skin above my waistline.

I used my hand to knock them away, felt pain flare where I’d torn my own flesh, forcibly separating them.

I was halfway to climbing to my feet when the one-eyed cat pounced, scratching at the back of my neck.  A small weight, but the footing was absolute shit, some literal, some just trash.

I struck it with June, a backwards swing, hitting with the blunt end.

Blood hit the sliding glass door behind me and froze on contact, frost curling out from the spatter.

I used my free hand to strike the mice from my scalp, shook my head for good measure.

“No,” Dowghty said.  “My dog, no.  Oh no, no.”

I very deliberately avoided looking at him.

“No, no, no.  He was a good boy.”

If I could get through the sliding glass door… it was cracked open.

But the footing would be worse.  The movement through the snow in the backyard slow.  I’d still have to get past the fenced-in area, over the fence or through a gate.

I wasn’t sure I’d be in a better position.

The animals were closer now, shoulder to shoulder.

Hm.

Scratch that.  There weren’t many positions worse than this.

I reached out, ready to push on the door, where it was cracked open.

Cue enough for the animals to attack.

I kicked at the largest ones.  Cats, dogs.  But that did nothing against the rest.  Squirrels, mice, rabbits.

Teeth like inch-long blades, more, smaller teeth, half an inch, a quarter inch long.  Biting.  Scratching.

I did not know that rabbits had claws.

“No, the dog, no!”  Dowght cried out.

I kicked swinging the hatchet to dislodge one of the larger rabbits and scare off a cat that was getting braver.

“No!  Stop, you bastard!”

I could barely stand.  I was one good bite away from losing all strength in my legs.  My back against the glass door, I swung the hatchet at Dowght’s hands.

I’d expected him to recoil, to draw back or protect himself.  He didn’t.

The hatchet’s blade clubbed its way through flesh more than it cut, forming more depth between the middle two fingers, and frost sealed the wound.  The knife dropped, forgotten, and Dowght stumbled forward, raising his hands to flail blindly at me.

Reflexive, not wanting to be touched, my mind still lingering on ideas of disease as I saw his blood, I caught his injured hand with my free hand mid-swing.  I could feel how cold the wound was, beneath my fingers.

With that alone, the pain of the wound being crushed in my grip, he crumpled.  Strength had gone out of him.

The larger animals attacked him.

Biting the hand that feeds.

I batted away the smaller ones, shoved at the sliding door.

Accumulated snow and ice made it simply tilt to one side, the top moving while the bottom remained in place, rather than slide.

The door made a crunching sound as it settled back in its previous position.

With the noise, every animal looked up at me, going still.  Some had their mouths on or teeth in Dowght, muzzles bloodied, as their focus moved to me.  Whole clusters of them were on or immediately behind the table.  The light from the window made their eyes seem brighter than they were.

Dowght, for his part, wasn’t even fighting in self defense.

I was panting, and each beat of my heart was soon followed by a throb of pain from the various cuts and bites across my body.  The mauled shoulder was a different kind of pain.  Not throbbing, not stabbing, but a dull, grating sensation, like something wasn’t working on a mechanical level.  Shifting my posture made something mechanical go very wrong, and I was nearly blinded by the pain that followed.

Two or three dozen animals still staring up at me.

Angry, frustrated, scared, I dug into a deeper, animal part of myself.

I bellowed at them, arms spread, weapon in hand, looking big.  As intimidating as I could manage.

They dogpiled me.  All attacking, all at once.

I swung the hatchet, three, four times, hitting multiple animals with each swing.  Their mass making every action harder, more tiring.

Animals I hit and injured recovered and rejoined the swarm.

One swing clipped a little too close to my leg, and I felt my shin freeze.

The animal smell, the weight of them, the lack of any personal space, to the point that I could scarcely breathe without risking that a mouse would find its way into my mouth, it all built up to one moment, the connections forming.

Not good connections, not a good moment.  Only the sort of moment that made me turn down an offer like Alexis’.  Like the moments where I turned down an offer for a hug from Joel, who I trusted as much as I trusted anyone.

I dug deeper, for something more primal, drawing from reserves I shouldn’t.  Blind, furious swings.  I threw them off, kicked, struggled, wasted far too much energy shaking off animals that weren’t even there.

In the midst of it, they backed off.

I didn’t stop.  I fought to get rid of the littlest things that swarmed me, first, then swung the hatchet at the glass door, blunt back end first.

It bounced off.

Again.

Fuck!”  I swore, as if the heat and the ferocity of the utterance could somehow empower the hatchet to shatter the thick glass.

Why couldn’t glass break like it did in the movies?

A smaller dog was drawing closer, ready to take advantage of the distraction.  I swung at it, knowing I’d miss.  It backed away a step.

I panted, but I couldn’t breathe.  The air was so filthy, it was like there was no oxygen left.  My head swam, and I felt like I might throw up, from mingled revulsion, panic, and exhaustion.

So few of the animals were truly dead.  I’d injured a great many, but their bloodthirst was apparently overpowering it.

I backed up until I stood in a corner, a large cabinet to my left, hatchet held out and ready.

I was shaking like Dowght had, holding the axe much like he had his knife.  Except my left hand was injured, a scratch along the back that had only been interrupted by the locket.  I couldn’t close the hand with enough force to hold onto the weapon.  Instead, I used it to hold the weapon steady.

The sensations of the animals crawling over me, the presence, invading my space, it flashed through my mind.

I gagged, coughed to try and clear my throat.

I was bleeding from a hundred small wounds, and maybe a dozen bigger ones.

My head nodded, a bow, a dip.  A sudden and unexpected exhaustion, trying its hand at getting a hold on me.

My head still bent, eyes on the ground between me and the animals, I felt a single tear roll down my cheek, stinging as it ran across scratches and bites.

I was, I realized, standing about three feet away from where Dowght had been sitting, at the head of the table.

This was it.  There was nobody coming to my rescue.  Even Rose, if she happened to show, could do nothing.

Pauz had made his play, and it had been a clever one.  Short sighted, but clever.  Distracting me at pivotal moments, keeping my eyes off his prize.

I had no idea how the property transfer worked.  If Rose would disappear when I did, if Pauz could get the property through her, or if the next Thorburn would inherit the debt, as I’d inherited Molly’s, and Molly had inherited Grandmother’s.

Or, perhaps, if Pauz was simply content to have me here, a ghost he could manipulate and use, infect, so a piece of me could relive this end for a few decades or centuries.

I looked at the animals.  The dogs had their heads low, ears down, the cats were slinking away, avoiding eye contact.

I almost smiled, as I turned my eyes back to the ground.

As ends went, I supposed, being torn apart, piece by tiny piece, by various wild animals, it wasn’t the worst possible end I could face, given the way my life was going.  Kind of funny really.

Except for the part where there was anything remotely humorous about this.

All I had to do was relax.  Let my guard down.  Stop fighting.

There would be pain.  Or more pain, and then… whatever end I had in store.

I sank, my legs relaxing, my back sliding down the wall.  Half-inch by half-inch.

Easing myself down gently.  Feeling every hole and scrape on my body send its insistent, signal to my brain, a signal that peaked, vying with the others for the whole of my attention.

Halfway down, I stopped.

Forearms had come to rest on knees as I lowered the weapon, lowered myself.

The hatchet still sat in my hand.

June.

I blinked, slowly.

June had gone out like this.

Hurting.

Hopeless.

Letting herself relax and accept oblivion.

As if I were moving in slow motion, my eyes moved to the ice, the blood that had frozen in place on the window.

Then I looked at the animals.

Heads down, ears down, afraid.  Subdued.  Not even attacking as I let down my guard.

Ahh.

So ice and cold hadn’t been the only thing I’d been dashing all over the place as I’d fought.

There was the emotion that June carried with her, too.

Double-edged sword, that.

I didn’t raise myself, but I did brace my feet against the floor so I wouldn’t sink any further.

Whatever state the animals were in, I didn’t believe they’d let me walk out.  I didn’t believe they’d let me take one step out of my corner before they resumed tearing me to shreds.

Fuck, the pain wasn’t letting up.  I could imagine sensations as the wet spread of blood, but when I looked at my legs, I saw there was blood in places I hadn’t felt it, and places that had felt wet were dry.

I was able to push through the encroaching despair, now that I recognized it for what it was.

I dug for the things that drove me.  Rose.  Promises.  Molly.  My friends.  Even the rest of the world, as abstract as that seemed.  Or my fucked up extended family, which was very not abstract but simultaneously hard to justify on a rational level.

God damn it, I’d been lower than this before, and I’d fought my way back.  I was not going to diminish my past triumphs before by giving up now.

Maybe that was a lie.  Low in a different way, maybe.

Yeah.  Low in a different way.

Right.

Which brought me back to the question of what the hell I was supposed to do.

Call the lawyers?

No.

Maybe I would have, if I’d thought about it before, while in the throes of despair, but right now it felt too much like admitting defeat.  Giving up.

I could reach out to Briar Girl, knowing she was watching me, but for what?  She couldn’t really help.

I could call Ornias, but… that would only worsen the situation overall.

I had small options, and I had the disastrously strong options, but very little in between.

Getting from here to Conquest seemed insurmountable.  Stepping outside meant facing down all the animals out there.  Crows.  Bigger things.  I was working with a time limit, and I still had to get there.  Knowing my luck, I’d get refused access to the subway for looking like a murder scene.

Too much.  Too hard to form a plan.  Too much to do, too many obstacles to overcome.

Discouragement loomed, despair, and this time it wasn’t June.

How?  Any one of these things was doable, but knowing the obstacle that came after, it was hard to figure out a direction, a way to connect ideas into a plan.

I could see the animals building their courage.

“June,” I said.  “I need your help.  Come forth.”

No luck.  That was Rose’s power, not mine.

But… right there, I felt like I was on the brink of something.

Ideas.  I raised my head some.

First of all, I was thinking in the wrong direction.  I needed to work backwards.  I realized it as soon as I worked out the second point: that there were names I could call.

Technically, I could call any name to forge a tenuous connection.  I could use those connections.

Third of all, a completely unrelated idea… I had the means to cheat.

“Fell, servant of Conquest, servant of the Lord of Toronto.  I summon you,” I said.

I shifted my weight, planting my feet to raise myself up some.

“Fell, you creepy-ass gun-toting bitch of Conquest, I summon you,” I said.

A mongrel growled at me.

“Fuck you too, dog,” I said.  My heart was pounding.  It hadn’t really calmed down, but I was acutely aware of my fear.  I could see a way out.  I just needed to not die right now.

“Fell, I call you again, errand boy, connection manipulator, the practitioner with no name.  Get the fuck over here.”

I reached into my pocket.  With two fingers, so I didn’t need to bend down and dig deeper, I drew the jar free.

I couldn’t unscrew it without dropping the hatchet, and I couldn’t drop the hatchet without opening myself up to attack.

The animals were feral, acting well outside their normal rules, but they weren’t stupid, and I had a bit of an edge as long as June’s presence affected them.

Paint jar still held between my index and middle fingers, held there more by the traction of my gloves and the shape of the fingers than the strength of my hand, I held it out against the cabinet, lid facing forward.

I swung the hatchet.

Jar shattered.

The animals were moving.  I moved too, lunging forward.

Kicking, hard enough to send one of the larger dogs sliding into other animals, making each injury on and in my leg sing with hot agony.

Not using the hatchet.  Not June.  With my injured left hand, I touched fingertips to the mingled ink and blood on the blade.  It hadn’t all frozen.

I drew a line of the liquid across my throat, as if I were slitting it.

There was no room for doubt or hesitation.

“June!” I cried out.  Not in my voice.  Not in Rose’s either.  The Thorburn voice.  “Come!”

I nearly lost my grip on the hatchet as she leaped forth.

Cold.  A pulse of despair.

A tattered, frostbitten woman, head bowed.

She seemed fainter.

I touched the blood and ink still on the hatchet, and spread it across the blade, visualizing the effect I wanted.

Glamour filling the scratched-in inscription.  Sinking in.

When I looked at June, she seemed less faint than she had.

Still faint, though.  The animals seemed vaguely wary of her.  They weren’t looking at her, but they were a little less eager to advance on me on the

“Remember the cabin, June?” I asked.

“So cold.”

“It is.  Did you think about food, while you got the fire ready?” I asked.

“I’m hungry,” she whispered.

“A feast,” I said.  “Are you dreaming of a feast?”

“I’m hungry,” she said, with the exact same inflection as before.  “But there isn’t much food in the cupboards.”

“There isn’t much food in the cupboards because…” I prompted her.  My eyes didn’t leave the animals.

“There isn’t much food in the cupboards.  It’s winter.  It’s hard to make it to the market, and hunting is slow.”

“Hunting,” I said.  “Did you hunt?”

“It’s cold,” she said.

Defaulting to pattern.  Nothing to connect to, to answer the question.

“Why is hunting slow?” I asked.

I needed an in.  A connection.

“The animals sleep during the winter.  I’m so tired.”

“It’s cold,” I prompted her.  “The animals are asleep for the winter.  It’s winter.”

She echoed me.  Caught up in the words.

“It’s cold,” I repeated.  “The animals are asleep for the winter…”

It became a chant.

“Walk down the path, June,” I said.  “Walk home.”

She advanced, still repeating the words, her physical form jerking between the times she’d said or thought each phrase.  But she walked.

“Fell,” I said, as she got into the flow of it, a rhythm.  The temperature in the room was dipping precipitously.  “I summon you.”

I could feel the connection to Fell.  I touched the residual blood on the hatchet, and found only what was frozen there.  I scraped off what I could with my gloved fingertips and cast it out, at the connection between Fell and me.

“Come, Fell,” I said.  “I fucking order you to come.”

I advanced further, following in June’s wake.  Animals backed away, circling around, looking for an avenue of attack.

The cold affected me too, and it was all the more intense where I was hurt, where teeth had pierced clothing.

I saw Dowght, in far worse shape than me, almost mangled, cringing in the face of the freezing temperature.  He would be feeling it ten times over.

I wasn’t strong enough to carry him, even if he was malnourished.

I touched the hatchet to his face until he moved his head.  His eyes fell on me.

“Bastard,’ he mewled the word.

I didn’t have time for this… he’d rejected my earlier offer for help.  He’d had to, but he’d rejected it.  In moments, June would advance out of my reach, and I didn’t quite have breath to shout out orders.  The animals would finish circling around and attack us from behind.

That was if they didn’t decide to brave the cold and attack regardless.

“Look,” I said.  I used the cold of the hatchet’s metal to make him move his head, then touched it to his temple.  “Eyes forward.  Look at your animals.”

I could see his eyes open.  One was nearly unable to open, with the way his eyelid had torn.

I spoke, “They’re going.  Follow them.”

“But…”  He started to turn his head, looking down.  Looking towards the animals that were circling around.

I touched the cold hatchet to his chin again.  He raised his chin out of the way, looking more in June’s direction, looking in the direction of the animals that were in front of June, steadily retreating as she advanced, uncomfortable.

“They’re leaving,” I repeated.  “Come on.”

I offered the handle of the hatchet for him to hold.

“They’re going,” I said.  “Hurry.”

Hurry because the animals will get us if you don’t.

“Bastard,” he whispered the word.

But he took hold of it.  I hauled him to his feet.

He was lighter than I’d thought.

More unstable, too.  He stumbled.  I used my left forearm instead of my arm to stop him from outright colliding with me.

I didn’t like touching.  Especially someone I didn’t trust.  But… this was what it was.

I took a half-step in June’s direction.  Without the pressure of my forearm, he nearly fell, stopped as he came to rest against the arm again.  I tried again, praying he wouldn’t fall.  I didn’t have the power to haul him to a standing position a second time.

Once he found his stride, though, he only needed my forearm to steady him, not to support him.

I’d nearly forgotten, in the chaos.

I switched arms, bracing him with my hatchet-arm, and I reached for the table, struggling to reach without dropping my charge.

I hooked my baby finger through the twine that bound Black Lamb’s Blood.

Half-blind, tattered, Dowght followed June and his animals.

“Turn in the path, June,” I managed.  Easier, without the burden of a man’s weight, malnourished or no.

She veered towards the room to her left.

“Cabin door, June,” I said.

She paused, recognized the front door for what it was, and approached it.

We emerged into the outdoors.  Animals scattered as we passed through the door.

The cold that June emanated was intense.  My breath was freezing as it left my lips, crusting around my nose and mouth.  I couldn’t feel much of anything, which was almost a blessing, given my injuries.

“Come on, Fell,” I said.

Birds filled the air.  No longer Pauz’s eyes in the sky, they winged this way and that.  A storm in motion, unpredictable.

A larger animal slowly paced into the middle of the street.

Ominous as fuck.

A deer, antlers fully grown, a dozen points that could pierce a heart or an organ.  A crown of points.  Promising danger more than it promised self defense.

There was blood around its mouth and nose.  Tatters of flesh and fur hung from the blunt teeth I could see.

“What the fuck happened to Bambi?” I asked.

“He’s beautiful,” Dowght said.  “Majestic.  A tyrant, a despot.  My third favorite.”

“You’re going to a mental asylum,” I said.  “Just to be clear.  I don’t think you’re fit for ordinary society any more.”

“Handsome.  Noble,” Dowght muttered.  Oblivious.

I couldn’t run without abandoning Dowght, couldn’t deal with three hundred fucking pounds of muscle with more speed, strength and weapons than I had.

“Fell,” I said, using the Thorburn voice.  “Come on.”

The deer shifted position.  Mouth slightly agape, teeth showing, it lowered its head.  Points aimed at me and Dowght.

Not a mating thing.  Not self defense.  Just murdering me with its freaking horns because it could.

“June,” I said.  “Turn left.”

She veered closer to the deer.  It didn’t seem to care.

It scuffed the snow-covered road with its hoof.

Preparing to charge.

I would shove Dowght in the way, if it came down to it.  I just didn’t think it would make a big difference.

“June,” I said.  “Remember the end.  When the pain went away.  Slipping into the deepest sleep you’ve ever experienced.”

She flickered, and she was curled up on the ground, a blanket around her.

“Deep sleep,” I intoned.

She flickered, then disappeared.

No.

The impact I felt to the hatchet was feeble at best.  Almost imperceptible.

The cold still swirled around me, but I could feel its effect weakening with every passing second.

Not what I’d meant for her to do.  Experiencing her death so deeply that she died a little.

But it hadn’t been for nothing.  The deer staggered.  It shook its head.

I let go of Dowght, letting him fall.  With quick, hurried strides, I crossed the distance.

The deer began to rouse.  I broke into a run.  The bite in my leg seized up, I stumbled, slipped-

I could see the deer recovering.

I found my feet, closing the last few feet, just as the deer lowered its antlers, points aimed at me.

I blocked the points of the antlers with the book that dangled from my hand, huffed out a gasp at the impact.  Stupid, I knew, to use the book like this, but accidentally freeing the imp from his bondage was still better than dying.  I was pretty sure.

I was able to stop the deer for just one instant.  Any longer, he’d rear up, kick, trample me, or just try again and succeed in stabbing me.

I planted the hatchet in his neck, blade grinding against bone.

The deer collapsed like a puppet without strings.

“No!” Dowght hollered.  “No!  No!”

He crawled more than anything, closing the distance.

I only backed away.  The temperature was normalizing, going from ‘cold’ to ‘still pretty damn cold’.

The animals were closing in.

Not just the animals that had managed to get inside the house.  Every single damn creature in the neighborhood.

Dowght reached the deer, and he embraced the corpse.  Openly weeping.

My hand throbbed where I’d used it to brace against the antlers.  My leg throbbed from the running, and the various injuries.

All of me hurt.

The protection the ghost afforded was fading.

I looked around, at the animals that were poised on snowbanks, beneath cars, slinking forward.

In the houses themselves, I saw only drawn curtains, the lights on…

No.  One person was watching.  A boy.  Eyes wide.

He’d probably seen the deer murdering scene, from the shock I could make out.  I looked, taking in the scene, imagining how he might see it in the gloom.

Oh.  Maybe that’s why he seemed so alarmed.  There was a bear in the shadows between two houses.  Hard to make out, but most definitely there.

“Fell,” I said, again.  “Fell.  Fell.  Fell.  Fell…”

I saw headlights at the far end of the street.

“Fell, Fell, Fell…”

The car approached.  Stopped.

The door opened.

Fell stepped out, glancing around.  I saw him throw a handful of sand around himself.

He drew his gun, pointing it at me.  He paused.

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” I said.

“I’d shoot you right here, but you look bad enough it might be a waste of a bullet.”

“Thank you for coming,” I said.

“In many circles,” Fell said, “Calling a practitioner that way is considered terminally poor manners.”

“Noted,” I said, eyeing the encroaching animals.  “I’m new to this, I’ll keep it in mind.”

He didn’t lower the gun.

“I have the imp,” I said.

“Do you know what it’s like?  When someone calls you like that?”

“Not so much.”

The bear was emerging from the alley.

“A jerk at your very being.  Small jerks, but jerks all the same.”

“But you can’t shut off the connection because your master ordered you to help me.”

“I can’t use that connection that’s being formed against you, either, no.  But if you think I’m his slave, you’re making a very dangerous assumption.”

“Slave, servant, lieutenant, I don’t know,” I said, my voice low.  “All I know is I’m bleeding, I need a ride, and he wants this imp.  I’m not sure what time it is, but-”

“Ten twenty.”

I’d thought it was approaching midnight.

“It’s ten thirty, he wants this imp by midnight.  Give me a ride, and we can both enjoy the rest of our evenings.  You go back to… watching late night TV, I don’t know.  I go tend to my wounds and prepare for tomorrow.”

“Not my responsibility.”

“It makes it look like you went above the call of duty,” I said.  “Show Conquest-”

“This base sort of manipulation is beneath even you.”

“Fair,” I said.  My voice had a roughness to it.

Okay, the animals were dangerously close right now.  If he got back in his car, I wasn’t sure there was anything I could do.

“I’m going to deliver you to Conquest,” Fell told me.  “But I need you to understand one thing.  The slight?  Abusing my name?  I can take my revenge, when all is said and done.”

I nodded.  Too weary to speak.

“Come.”

“Him too,” I said.  I pointed the hatchet at Dowght.

“Him?”

“Leaving him here means he dies.”

Fell looked at the broken man.  “We won’t bring him, but we’ll secure his safety.”

I watched as Fell approached Dowght.

“Fucker,” Dowght said, sobbing.  “Fuckers!  Bastards!”

Fell cast sand around the man.

“Ahh!  Fuck you!  In my eyes!  Fuck you, you crab-dicked fucker!”

Fell turned and left.  He passed right by me, returning to the car.

I hurried to follow.

“He’s safe?” I asked.

“He will be,” Fell said.  He tapped his phone, mounted on the dashboard.  “Car.  Dial nine-one-one.”

“The imp is deterring all emergency response,” I said.

“Stop talking,” Fell told me.  “Unless you’re talking about your diabolism, I either know already, or I don’t care what you have to say.  This is what I do.  I clean up and handle details.”

The voice came through on the other end of the phone.  “Toronto emergency services.  What is the nature of your emergency?”

Not one word from Fell, the entire trip to Conquest’s lair.  Which was nice in a way.  It let me shut my eyes.

Fell led the way through the front door.  I clutched the tome to my stomach, partially for the security.  Partially to stem any ongoing bleeding there.

“Am I putting myself in danger?” I asked.  “Bleeding out onto his rug?  Can he use my blood against me?”

“It isn’t blood given.  Could he take it?  Yes.  But he could do that regardless of your wishes, if he had a mind to.”

“Gotcha,” I said.

We ascended to the second floor.  The decor was different.

A continuation of what he’d been doing before.  A tower, white, as if hewn from a single, gargantuan piece of bone.  Floors alternated between ones open to the outside world, ringed by pillars, and ones that were entirely closed in.

Conquest was in a half-human, half-monster form, when we reached the top.

A green crab sat in his hand, its legs perched on his splayed fingertips.  He had three slaves at his feet, now.  None of them were Rose.

I threw the tome to the ground between us.

I need that back, I thought.

No use dwelling on it right now, though.

“Hm,” Conquest said.  “You appear to be worse for wear, Diabolist.”

“I do,” I replied.

“And that task could have been handled much more gracefully.”

“Not when you give the job to me,” I said.  “That was handled exactly the way it was going to be handled, with Blake Thorburn on point.  Don’t you like chaos and conflict?”

“I have no feelings either way.  I am an entity of conquest, a very distinct thing.  My ends were not furthered by any significant measure, there.”

If he was complaining, did it mean he lost power?

“I understand, Lord of Toronto,” I said.  I bowed my head a little.  “I’ll aim to keep your interests in mind for the future.”

When I raised my head, though, he was looking right at me.  Right through me.

Maybe I wasn’t being as subtle as I should have been.  Fuck it.  I was too tired, too hurt.

“You’re free to take your leave,” He said.  “I will see you before midnight tomorrow.”

No thank you, no acknowledgement.  Just that.

Dick.

“I need contact information for the Knights,” I said.  “Research for the Hyena.”

Conquest signaled Fell, who handed me a pad of paper.

“There’s also the astrologer,” I said.

“Why her?” Fell asked.

Can’t you just agree and make life easier?

“I’m going to have to deal with an abstract entity in the next two days.  I’m thinking the astrologer could be useful.”

Anyone could be useful, given how little I know and how little I have.

“Still not seeing it,” Fell said.

“Make do for the time being,” Conquest ordered me.

Fuck.

I nodded slowly.

“I said you could take your leave,” Conquest said.  “If you would like to stay the evening, we could see to the torture I mentioned the other night.”

“One more thing,” I said.  “A request, Lord of Toronto.  It… very much relates to my ability to handle these tasks.”

“What request?”

“Rose.  You chained her?”

“I did.”

“Can you bring her here?  Gently?  I’m… somewhat concerned about her.”

“I’m not inclined to obey the requests of underlings.”

“Even when those requests serve your interests?” I asked.  I dropped to one knee, grunting in pain as injuries opened.  “Please, Lord of Toronto.  I ask this, knowing you are among the only ones who can help me like this, knowing it puts me in your debt.”

He took his time.  I didn’t budge.  Head bowed, body aching, kneeling.

“Diabolist,” he said.

I looked up.

Rose dangled from the chain.

Unconscious.

“She’s sleeping,” Fell observed.

“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.

Conquest spoke, “Your previous worries have been resolved.  You may have new ones, but I will not stoop to answering every single concern you have.  You will be handling tomorrow’s task without her help, it seems.”

“What’s wrong with her?” I asked, again.  To Fell, this time.

He smiled a little.  “Consider my silence a fair repayment for the summonings.  And, perhaps, the blood on my car’s upholstery.”

“And the fleas, I imagine,” I answered him.  “And the lice.”

I saw his expression twist.  “You’re not doing yourself favors, diabolist.”

Still kneeling, I stared at the three of them in grim silence.  Conquest, Fell, and Rose.

Neither volunteered anything more.  They seemed to be waiting for me to do something.

“Thank you, Lord of Toronto, for bringing Rose here,” I finally said.  Conquest didn’t seem like the sort to cave and break the silence.  Like Pauz said, being immortal made you patient.

“Your presence grows tiresome, Diabolist.  Your stench doubly so.  Take your leave, before I become irritated.”

I stood.

“Lord,” I added.  “In terms of the imp I’ve delivered to you-”

“If I have not been clear enough, we can return to the subject of torture.”

“Will you be giving him to another?”

“I do not readily release my hold on that which I have claimed.”

I nodded, turning to leave.

Contract terms met.  Making some attempt to ensure that Conquest kept Pauz.

Hurting, sore, worried, and above all else, pissed, I made my way back to the real world.

A little worrisome that I didn’t have Rose’s advice on what to do next.  I’d finished one big step in her scheme.  I had Pauz and Conquest in one place.

For better or worse.

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