Category Archives: 4.09

Collateral 4.9

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Nobody was waiting for me when I got back to my apartment, which was probably a good thing.

I didn’t want any questions.

Not about the countless lacerations, scratches and scrapes.  Not about my general level of exhaustion, or the countless things I just couldn’t shed light on.

No people.  There was, however, a note on the door.

Food is in the fridge.  Your cousin stopped by.
-Joel

P.S. Your cousin came by again, 10:30pm.  I checked for you, you weren’t back.  Left her number inside.

I owed Joel something.  I wasn’t good at this.  Taking without giving back.  He’d been upset when I’d insisted, but I didn’t like this imbalance.

No information on which cousin it was, and no phone number.

I opened the door, standing there as it swung open, feeling all of the cuts and scrapes making themselves known, the bruise at my shoulders, and the bruise on my stomach, where I’d only barely avoided being gutted by the deer.  All of me hurt.

Worse, I felt filthy.  I could still feel the little claws scrabbling on my skin.

I checked the length of the hallway, then pulled my clothes off at the door, leaving them outside my apartment.

I headed straight for the shower and cranked it on hot.

The water that ran off me was pink-brown, and it wasn’t the lines I’d drawn on myself that made it brown.

When I bent down, I saw that the brown was composed of specks.

Bugs.  Thousands, so small I could barely make them out with the naked eye.

I shivered, even under the near-scalding water.

I turned it up hotter.

Soap, shampoo, rinse.

More soap, shampoo.  As if I could simply drown them in chemicals.

The hot water ran out long before I was absolutely sure that I wasn’t seeing any more fleas in the runoff.

I stepped out of the shower to dig through the cabinet.

Pills, pills…

Antibiotics I’d been given by Ty after a bad bout of coughing.  I hadn’t taken them because it was a fucking stupid idea to take antibiotics when you didn’t have to.  Good.  I popped one in my mouth.

As for cleaning myself…

There was paint thinner, which I used sometimes after work, but I suspected it would be a bad idea to pour it on myself with the number of open wounds I had.

Rubbing alcohol… same issue.

Hydrogen peroxide?

Fuck it.  It should kill the fleas, and I needed to disinfect the wounds.

A minute later, I was standing in the shower, hissing through my teeth as each of the minor wounds bubbled.  I made sure to brace myself before pouring it on the more severe gouge in my leg.

I patted myself dry with my shittiest handtowel, then stepped out of the shower, still damp.

I had no idea how bad I looked as a whole.  I did know I was covered in marks.  Enough that I’d draw attention in public.  Enough that I might even scare people.

One of my eyelids was torn, and was promising to swell up.  My ear was tattered at the edge, going by touch.  The bruise at my shoulder was ugly, already purple in spots.

I’d suffered harm on another level, too.  The tattoos.  My best gauge to more metaphysical harm I’d sustained.

The birds were… somehow better than they’d been.  A few less feathers sticking up, less hostile, feral, less beady.  But the birds were vivid in color and definition, the branches seemed a little more wicked, more angular and sharp, and the watercolor was a darker cloud, more like the bruise at my shoulder than the lighter hues I’d had before.

I had the eerie sensation that the cloud of watercolor behind the birds was shifting, like clouds moving across the sky.  But when I looked, I couldn’t see it.

A little disconcerting.

I’d need to touch myself up.

I reached for the locket, and paused.

Bit of a problem.

The hair was more like wire.  Augmenting the chain, adding to it, mimicking it.  Where it cut into my hand, the glamour was giving the chain a sharper edge at the seams where metal had joined metal.  Spurs and barbs.

The imp’s influence, or was the glamour simply adapting to circumstance?

I used a nail file, and scraped, clipped or gouged away what I could.

Once I’d brewed together a bit of ink, I began touching up the worst of the damage.  Face.  Ear.  Hands.  The gouge on my leg.

I hesitated, my hand still wet with ink, poised over another set of scars.  Narrow ones, years old now.

There was only so much ink to spare, and there were dangers.  But the idea that I could cover them up, remove one more reminder of the bad old days…

I wiped it away.  Photoediting real life.

I couldn’t say what the backlash would be, but I told myself the alternative to the glamour was me not being able to function or show my face to my friends.

Or my family, as it happened.  I thought of the note.

I found the number inside.  No doubt he hadn’t wanted to leave it on a paper visible for all the others to see.  Respecting privacy.  There was only a Toronto number.

It was one in the morning.  The hour told me I shouldn’t call, but he or she had come by twice.  I questioned whether it was urgent, or if more repeated visits would prompt more questions from the people around me.

In the end, I was too tired to really care about social norms.  I wanted answers, not more things hanging over my head.

I called.

“Hm?  Hello?”

A girl’s voice.  I narrowed it down to Ellie and Paige.

I almost thought Molly, but Molly was gone.

“You dropped by?” I asked.

I heard a hushed, “Blake,” followed by a rustling sound.

“Yes.  Unless you dropped by to talk to someone else?” I asked.

“No.  One sec.”

I heard clumping noises over the phone, more rustling, and then the sound of a door closing.

“I didn’t want to bother my roommate.  Late call.”

“I was out late,” I said.

“The police were asking around, looking for you,” she said.  “They got in touch with everyone.”

Fuck.

“Oh?” I asked.  “Any particular reason?”

“Molly died, then you disappear?  It raises questions.”

“Ah,” I said.

Was Laird trying something?

“What’s going on?” she asked.  “You have the house now?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Fuck that,” she said.  “Why?  What did you pull?  Did you strongarm Molly?”

“No.”

“God, I haven’t been able to think straight, I’m so fucked up over this, and I’ve got exams coming up.”

“When you say you’re fucked up, you mean you’re fucked up over Molly’s death?” I asked.

“Over this.  All of it.  You.  The inheritance.  Molly.  I thought that I’d look into it, get in touch with you, get some concrete answers, settle my thoughts.  Then you weren’t there, which made things worse.  I wound up going back, and you still weren’t there.  Your landlord said he’d seen you…  I need answers, Blake.  None of this makes sense.”

While she talked on the phone, I got the meal Joel had prepared from the fridge.  Lasagna.  I put it in the microwave with a small glass of water.

“You don’t know the half of it,” I said.  “I don’t know what answers I can give.”

“Why you?”

“That’s an awfully good question,” I told her.  “I wish I knew the full answer.”

“Things were just settling down, then something happens to Molly, and that’s bad enough, but you get the house?  Molly just decides to give it to you?”

“Grandmother decided.”

“She did?”

“It’s already set up.  If something happens to me, then it goes to the next person in line.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“Do I- Do I want to know where I stand on that list?”

I sighed.

“You’re not jumping to give me an answer.”

“No,” I told her.  “You don’t want to know.”

The silence was painful to listen to.  “Do you know how hard I’ve worked?  To get where I am?  You ran away.  Molly… I don’t even know what happened, but she apparently fell apart before she even had the inheritance, then got worse after.  Ellie and Roxanne never deserved that money, too spoiled, in very different ways.  Your little sister is obviously too young, and Kathryn was the worst of us when it came to tearing down everyone else to get her hands on it.”

“And you?” I asked.

The microwave beeped.  I left it alone.

“I… damn it, I worked for it!  I did some stuff I’m not proud of, but not against Molly or Ivy.  Only against my sisters, who were already playing dirty.  But I didn’t make it an obsession.  I made myself my own person, worked hard at school, and I made it something that could be.  Not something that had to be.”

Except somewhere along the line, it sounds like, you let yourself believe you were the only one who deserved it, and you pinned too many hopes on it.

I didn’t say that, though.  “When she asked, you know, I said you should get it.”

There was a pause.

“I’m sure you understand if I say I don’t believe you,” Paige told me.

She was wrong.  I didn’t understand in the slightest.  I asked, “Why not?”

“Why would I?  We don’t know each other.  You don’t know me.”

“We did, we were friends.”

“We were family who saw each other because we had to.”

That stung.  More than it should have.

“We were friends,” I said, again.  Firmer.  “Back when we were kids.  Then we got along at the inheritance meeting.  We ran into each other at school.  Talked in passing.”

“In passing.  Nothing more.”

“Why are you so dead set on denying any connection we had?”  I asked.

“Because we didn’t.  We weren’t friends, Blake.  We just moved in some of the same circles, and you’re pretending the past has more significance than it does.”

I opened my mouth to respond, but then I thought about the scars I’d erased.

I couldn’t deny that I gave history an awful lot of weight.

“I think you’re a genuinely good person, Paige,” I said.  “So I’m going to assume that it’s the late hour and pressure that are making you obsessing more over the inheritance than Molly’s murder.”

“Murder?” she asked.  Seizing on entirely the wrong point.

Hadn’t she said-

No.  Fuck.

I was too tired.

“That’s how I understand it,” I said.

“The police didn’t say anything about murder.  If anything, it was apparently an accident.”

Someone was revising history, just as Paige was accusing me of doing.  Washing over the murder, turning it into an ‘accident’.  However they managed that.

“I don’t know exactly who said what,” I said.  “What did they say?”

“If you’re looking to get your story straight-”

Paige,” I said.

“…The police said it looked like she shut herself in, because she was scared of backlash from the locals, Aunt Laura seemed to back that up.  She supposedly got cabin fever, fled, and got a little too far out into the cold.  But you said murder.  Which isn’t an idea you throw around lightly.”

Laird’s work?

“Paige-”

She steamrolled over me.  “It’s a little fucked, Blake.  Either you know something you’re not sharing, or you’re fucking with me, or-”

“It was damn suspicious,” I said.  Which it was.  “And clues were dropped.”

“Is that why they’re looking for you?  I thought they wanted to find you because you’d be the second person to disappear.”

“I don’t know why they’re looking for me.”

“But you thought that there was a murder, and you left the area?  Even if you’re a suspect?”

“As I understand it, one of them confirmed my alibi.”

“Did they?  Which is it, Blake?  Were they looking for a murderer or not?”

This was Paige.  She’d always been sharp.

She was a problem, and if she kept along this line of questioning, then it was very possible she’d get the wrong idea and take that wrong idea to legitimate authorities.

I needed to look at her as the threat she was, and that meant treating her as I’d treated Conquest and Pauz.  Figuring out what she wanted and utilizing that knowledge.

What she wanted was knowledge.  Understanding.

“What I know,” I said, speaking very slowly and carefully, “Is that grandmother was involved in something pretty messed up.  Some of that relates to the police chief back in Jacob’s Bell.  Some of it ties to what happened to Molly.  Molly died, I got a message saying as much, I walked right into the middle of it, and the whole reason I’m here is because I can’t do anything there.  I need to wrangle some help from above if I’m going to deal with this, before anyone else in the family gets wrapped up in it all.”

“That’s a little hard to swallow.”

“Is it?” I asked.  “Tell me that, with all the stories we shared between us about the family, that it isn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that they were caught up in some hinky town council secret society bullshit.”

She didn’t reply immediately.  I took a forkful of lasagna.

“…Is that what it was?”

“A small few people with too much power, trying to get more power.  It relates to the house, to the whole inheritance thing, and a lot of the stuff Molly was talking about, when she sounded as paranoid as she did.”

“I’m trying to remember what she said.”

“Don’t.  Don’t worry about it, don’t get involved.”

“How am I not supposed to get involved?  Either you’re lying to me, telling me something convenient… or you’re telling the truth, and this does make sense, and I’m supposed to do nothing?”

“Do nothing,” I said.  “Okay?  You’re furthest away from this, out of all of us possible heirs.  You’re, aside from the little ones, the cousin with the best shot of coming out of this okay.  Take your exams.  Spend time with friends.  Enjoy life.  And if this does come-”

I stopped myself.

“If it what?”

“Nevermind.”

“If it does come…”

I frowned.  I was too tired.  Saying things I shouldn’t.  “I’ll see about leaving you a few notes.  The stuff I’ve figured out, tips.  Maybe make sure that Ellie and Kathy can add to it, if they move fast enough.”

“You’re not making a lot of sense, here.  You’re saying you’re in danger too?  That Ellie and Kathy might go the same way?”

“I’m saying… it’s complicated.”

“That’s a pretty terrible answer.”

“I guess so,” I said.

“Why not tell us what’s going on, if I’m going to have to wait until three of my cousins are dead before getting some big surprise about murderous cults or something?”

“Because it’s the sort of complicated that messes up everything it touches.”

“What’s to stop them from coming after us now?  Before we’re in the know?”

“Ros- Paige.  I can’t get into it.”

“Who’s that  Ro-something?”

Rose.  “Someone with a voice that sounds like yours.  I’m really tired, Paige.  I’ve had a long day, I’ve got another one in front of me.”

“Can you guarantee that we’re safe?” she asked.  “Somehow I don’t think you can.”

“No,” I admitted.  “I can’t guarantee it.  But the threats that are involved here, they’re more interested in using the Thorburn family than they are in hurting us.”

“You’re being useful to the people who killed Molly?”

“Yes and no.  Not the way you’re imagining.  But it’s complicated.”

“Blake,” she said.

“Paige.

Why not tell the police?  Oh, wait, you said the police chief was a problem.”

“And there’s more going on,” I said.  I was too tired to navigate this conversation.  “Go take your exams.  Ignore me, ignore all this.”

“What if I don’t believe you?  What if I say this is too implausible, and I tell the police everything?”

“Then I forgive you,” I said.  I crossed the room to get a glass, and filled it at the sink.

“Forgive me?”

“I get it.  It does seem implausible.  Whatever happens, after you spread the word?  I forgive you if your conscience tells you to talk to the police instead of listening to me.”

“You sound odd.”

“I’m just really, really tired, Paige.  I have to go to bed.  Big day tomorrow, stuff to deal with.  Thank you for telling me about the police.  I’m sorry I can’t give you more concrete answers to your questions.”

“…Sure?”

“Good night, Paige.  Good luck with your exams.”

“Blake?”

“What?”

“Is there anything I can do?”

Was there?

“Just the fact that you’d ask helps,” I told her.

“Okay.”

I hung up.

I could have handled that better, probably.

My eyes roved over the tattoos, the locket, the scrapes and bites I hadn’t covered up.  The pain was fresher, now.

I felt very, very mortal.

I collected the glass and lasagna, and I moved over to the dining table.  I almost never ate at the table, preferring to stand, but I needed a surface to work with.

I grabbed the same pad of paper I’d used to sketch out the lines I’d drawn on myself and began writing.

Rose.   Kathryn.  Ellie.  Roxanne.  Ivy.  Paige.  Whichever of you is left at the time you read this.

Blake here.  I’m liable to be dead if you’re reading this.  Pretty much everyone I’ve talked to has given me a life expectancy in the single-digits.

You’re in for a rude awakening.  You’re going to find out some stuff.  What I’m going to do here is try to ease you into it.  Warn you about some of the pitfalls.  I’m going to try to do it in a way that doesn’t screw you over:

Don’t stress over the name ‘Rose’ being up there.  It’s a just-in-case.  Consider her an illegitimate grandchild.  But mainly don’t stress about it.  There are enough other things to worry about.

Don’t go past the wall around the house unless a mark is painted at the foot of the driveway, or you see someone walk up there first.  It’s a trap, and it would be too easy for each of you to walk into it one by one.

Laird Behaim is the enemy.  He’s the one directing the Jacob’s Bell contingent.

Sandra Duchamp will surprise you and spoil anything you set in motion.

As enemies go, neither of them even come close to comparing to the real danger.  You’ll realize what that danger is when you see the books on the shelf to the right of the desk.  Resist the temptation.  I’ve had to interact with things in that domain, and nothing good comes of it.

The lawyers count as part of this real danger.

Maggie is an ally.  This doesn’t necessarily make her trustworthy.

Johannes isn’t an ally or trustworthy, according to grandmother and my gut, but you know what they say about the enemy of your enemy.  Tread carefully.

Sarcasm is tempting, don’t.  You’ll understand what I mean.

Those are the bullet points.  Get somewhere safe, then read on.  I’ll explain what’s happened thus far, to put it into context…

Fell was waiting outside when I emerged, standing on the driver’s side of the car.

“Thank you for coming,” I said.

“I take it you’re acting a little more civil this morning,” he commented.

“Trying,” I said.  “No promises I’ll stay that way.  I wound up falling asleep at my dining room table.  I’m tired, and you’re working for Conquest, who is trying to enslave me and fling a small share of humanity into infernal ruin… I might get grumpy.”

“Passenger door is open,” he said.  “Upholstery is clean.  Fleas exterminated.”

I pulled open the door.  Sure enough, it looked like I hadn’t been in it the night prior.

Taking my bag off, I settled it on my lap as I sat down.  Fell climbed in and set us on our way.

“The goblin?” he asked.  “Or the demon?”

“Goblin should be easier than an abstract demon,” I said.  “Goblin first.”

“Mm,” he grunted.  Not a confirmation, not a refutation either.

“Kind of hoping Rose wakes up so she can help me with the demon,” I added.

“No comment,” Fell said.  “And I won’t comment.  Don’t even try to weasel it out of me.”

I almost responded, then I stopped short.  When he said he wouldn’t comment, he’d effectively made a promise.

Bastard.

“So noted,” I said.  I watched as a faint patter of wet snowflakes hit the windshield, melting almost immediately.  The worst aspects of rain and snow both.

He drove just a little fast, for my comfort.

“You expressed interest in meeting the Knights.  Conquest reached out to them,” Fell said.

“That so?”

“It’s your choice.  I’m to take you to each location.  Would you like to see the Knights first?”

I thought of how Rose and I had handled things yesterday.  We’d checked out what was going on, figured out what we’d needed, handled other stuff, and then returned.

Or I’d returned, in any event.  Garbed in magical diagrams.

My clothes were so filthy I hadn’t been able to bring myself to wear them, and I had fallen asleep before I’d thought to launder them.

For now, I was in clothes with pure utility purposes.

“Can we swing by?  I’d like to see what it’s like, then see the Knights, so I can think about the oblivion demon while I work on the goblin problem.”

“They aren’t too far from one another,” he said.  “That’s doable.”

“Thank you,” I told him.

It took a few minutes before we passed onto a road with barely any cars at all.  It had been plowed, but snow had layered on the pavement since.  As confident as he was in his driving, Fell was compelled to slow down some.

“What gets a guy like you to serve a guy like Conquest?” I asked.

“Why would I share that?” he asked.

I started to say something that might have been construed as rude or provoking, insinuating that Conquest might have something to offer someone who had trouble with sexual conquests, and shut myself up instead.  I couldn’t think of a quippy way to word it, in any event.

“I don’t really know what would motivate you,” I said.  “But silence sucks, and you haven’t cranked up the radio, so…”

“You expect me to share details with you, diabolist?  For nothing?”

I almost protested against the label, but it was accurate.  “An alternative is that I share my life story, filling the endless minutes or hours in the car with personal details, either boring you to tears or getting you to sympathize with me.”

“It might be amusing to see you try and fail,” he said.

“It might,” I acknowledged.

“But you’re right.  It’s more liable to be irritating, and there’s an aura around you.  Infecting everything you have contact with.  I want nothing of it.”

“Aura?”  I looked down at my hand.

“The imp’s ambiance.  A light, a pattern, a smell.  The form it takes depends on the individual, and how they choose to see these things.  Right now, you are passing on traces to everything you touch.  Depending on the distance, the infection may be stronger or weaker.  But you always leave traces.  My car will stink when you are gone, cleaning or no.  You leave fingerprints behind, infect people, who infect other things in turn, until the energy is used up, fueling things that should not be.

Radiation.

“Right,” I said.  “So…”

“Don’t talk to me, Diabolist.  Do not interact with me.”

“Are you cool with what Conquest is doing?”

“You’re talking to me,” he said.

“I’m just saying.  For someone so touchy about imp ambiance, you seem remarkably cool with your lord and master doing what he’s doing.”

“No,” he said.  “No, ‘cool’ has nothing to do with it.”

“That so?” I asked.  “Huh.”

“You’re prying,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Knowledge is power, and it’s a kind of security too.”

“A novice mistake,” Fell commented.

“Hm?”

“Are you really more secure than you were before you learned about how this world works?”

“Depends what you mean,” I said.  “I was more secure before I learned about magic and demons existing, sure.  But the moment I began to teach myself stuff, well, whole different ball game.  Yeah, I’m more secure.”

“That same knowledge led to this issue with the ambiance, diabolist.  Had you known nothing, then Conquest would have had nothing to demand of you.”

“So being ignorant is the way to go, huh?” I asked.

“For billions of people on this Earth, yes,” Fell said.  “It affords a kind of protection.  Not immunity.  But on the whole, the average person is better off for being unaware.”

The car briefly fishtailed on ice.  He corrected it.

Still driving a little too fast, all things considered.

“I’d delineate,” I said.  “Break it down into awareness and knowledge.  There are a lot of things where being aware is shitty.  Being aware of how many kids die in Africa is one thing.  Being knowledgeable about it implies you know enough to do something about it.”

“Or,” Fell said, “Your knowledge empowers you to make others aware, and you make their existence a less happy one.”

“Somehow,” I said, “I’m getting the vibe that you’re speaking from experience.  Did knowledge not do you any favors?”

He was speeding up on a long, straight stretch.

“No,” he said.  “Neither knowledge nor awareness did me favors.  Both were snares, of a sort.”

“Snares?”

“Given your circumstances, I’d think you know, diabolist.  No sooner do they tell you, than the shackles slip around your neck, your wrists and ankles.  You’re bound.

“By circumstance?” I asked.

“Or other means,” he said.  “You’ve seen the connections that surround us.  They appear as threads.  Can you name one that couldn’t be used to bind you?”

Familial ties, ties to a place, ties to a thing, to ideas, even.

“Rose wears a chain,” I said.  “Another kind of connection being used to bind?”

Obviously,” Fell said.  “You’re here, aren’t you?”

Here in the car.  Seeing to task number two.

He still wasn’t slowing down.

We zipped past an isolated car.  The shift of wind in the other car’s wake made us wobble.

“You’re talking about Conquest,” I said.

“My father served him, as did his father, and his father before him.  As did my brothers and sister.  On our twelfth birthday, we each received a gift.  Knowledge.  But it isn’t a gift we can return, and it’s a gift that burdens.  The Lord of Toronto acts according to a certain pattern.  He takes, and he doesn’t let go.  I notice you didn’t fight to take your companion with you when you left.”

“She’s already his, isn’t she?”

“Shackled.  Much as I am.  It is perhaps a good thing that she sleeps.”

“You have to obey him,” I said.  “I suspected you’d sworn to serve, I used that against you, forced your hand, even.  But I didn’t think…”

“That my father would have been forced to lure his sons and daughter into the trap, as his father was before him?”

I didn’t miss the slight acceleration as he spoke.

“You’re kept from acting against him.  From hurting yourself or breaking the terms of the agreement?”

“Yes.”

“But not, I gather, from taking certain risks?”

“It is the only rebellion afforded to us.  I didn’t take the out that my family did.  I have only a sister, who ranges far afield in Conquest’s service, and an uncle who watches over the neighboring areas.  My brother died at the hands of goblins, trying to save a small town.  My other brother went after one of Conquest’s enemies, who took mercy on him and killed him.”

“And you just drive fast,” I said.

“That’s less a rebellion than a freedom.  Different things.”

I nodded.

“I’m sorry, Fell,” I told him.

“Hm?”

“Being a dick, before.  Toying with you.”

“We’re not friends, Thorburn.  I’m hoping you die quickly, sometime in the next two days.  It would make a lot of things simpler.”

And if I defeat Conquest?  Where does that put you?

But I couldn’t ask, because he was no doubt sworn to obey Conquest.

I could feel the car shudder as he accelerated.  Tires grinding down ice and snow.

I leaned back and closed my eyes.

“You aren’t worried?”

Not giving you the satisfaction.  I said.  “I ride a motorcycle, and I’ve ridden it in rain and snow when I’ve had to.  Four points of contact with the ground?  A steel cage all around me?  Air bags?  Hardly safe, but I’m used to worse.”

I felt the engine ease up as he took his foot off the accelerator.

He’d wanted to make me uneasy.  He might as well have admitted as such aloud.

“He was bad enough before,” Fell said.  “Since you came here, he’s worse.”

“Conquest?  Yeah.”

“He’s not built to stop when he’s on a course like this.  To steer clear of something like this.”

“Kind of a bad choice for a Lord,” I said.

“A long story.”

“It doesn’t fix anything, you know, if I die,” I said.  “There are more following me.  I’ve taken a small measure to ensure they won’t fall into the same traps, but that’s hardly a guarantee, and I can think of one or two of them who are liable to make some godawful mistakes along the way, even with my warnings.  The sort of mistake that concerns people like you, perhaps.”

“My family has long dealt with major threats.  We serve in a role similar to witch hunters, evading attention, disarming and misdirecting the greatest Others.  If my family hadn’t lost to Conquest and been subsumed, then I might be hunting down the remaining members of your family right now.”

“Yeah?” I asked.  “That’s kind of shitty.”

“Do you not see the kind of damage a mere mote causes?  An imp?  What happens when something greater follows?  Do you think you’re going to come out of your dealings with the abstract devil in one piece?”

“Given that I didn’t come out of the thing with the imp in one piece, no,” I said.  “I admit, I’m a little spooked about what I’m in for.  Feeling woefully underequipped.”

“You should be.”

“You know, my little sister’s two?”

“Oh?”

“She’s one of the followers.  Does that mean you’d kill her?” I asked.

“Personally?  No.  Easier to interrupt her before she sets foot on the path.  Kill her parents, burn any resources your family holds, manipulate her destiny.  If that failed, then I’d wait until she came of a certain age, six at a minimum, where she’s self-aware, or twelve, when she’s about to be indoctrinated, I would likely kill her then.”

“Oh?” I mused.  I considered.  “Pretty shitty, still, but that’s… fairer than many alternatives.”

“Oh?  Have I met your standards, diabolist?”

Fell slowed.  He turned down a side road.  There were only trees on either side of us now.

A woman stood in the middle of the road.  She turned to face us.

I caught a glimpse of the damage that had been done to her.  One shoulder and most of her chest torn away.  The meat around the wound glistened with blood.

Fell drove right through her, and she dissipated.

I craned my head around to see her reforming behind us.  Walking awkwardly in our direction, before disappearing into the drift of snow.

“Ghost?” I asked.

“Close enough.  Term, I think, is a spectre.  Damage or disrupt a ghost like that, you break its pattern.  It spirals out, unbalanced, unable to maintain continuity, and tends to drag a few people with it before it’s spent.  Normally only seen around an area with another presence at work, or if it’s tightly bound to something and you destroy the focus.”

“Huh,” I said.  “I didn’t read anything like that in the book about binding ghosts.”

“Too volatile to bind,” Fell said.  “Just like you don’t handle old explosives.”

I nodded.

We passed a stretch of dead trees.  Skeletal, pale.

I saw a group of tall men and women standing in the midst of the trees.  Half again as tall as normal people, naked, their skin mottled, they were almost camouflaged.  They simply stood there, arms at their sides.

Each one had been wounded the same way.  Their heads had been bitten off, leaving only the neck and a lopsided lower jaw with teeth pointed skyward, tongue lolling.  One of the men had a very small erection.

“What were those?” I asked.

Fell shrugged.

We passed another cluster of ghosts.  All standing stock still.  All maimed.

As we passed, a few of them took tentative steps or crawled in our direction.  They gave up after we were gone.  Responding more to our presence than anything.  Like they were magnetic, but it wasn’t magnetism that had pulled them to us.

“Why so many ghosts?”

“I suppose his victims can’t go on while a piece of them rests in his stomach,” Fell said.  “He’s been around a few centuries, moved over this way when people began to settle the new world.  The spectres follow after him when he moves on.”

We passed a burning tree, half the branches torn away.  It only dawned on me a moment after we’d passed that it was another Other.

A bloodstained patch of snow.

A tree with gore strewn around the branches like streamers, an animal that had no right to be alive at the heart of it.  Another Other.

I drew out the objects I’d been given, for finding the hyena and the abstract devil.

“He’s more to the right,” I said.

“I know,” Fell said.  “I’m not taking you to him.  I’m moving around the perimeter.  You wanted a view of the area.  An idea of what to expect?  This is it.”

“The Others are maddened by pain, insensate, out of place and out of sync,” I said.

“Yes.”

“How do I even protect myself against them?”

“Not my concern.  As I said-”

“You’re happy enough if I die.”

“It means Conquest isn’t able to use you.  At least not to the same extent.  With the hold on your companion, he’ll likely have possession of your ghost, but the impact isn’t as strong.”

“Huh,” I said.

My eyes passed over a rock with snow layered on top of it.

In the same instant I saw a flash of blood and realized it wasn’t a rock, but something big, we’d passed it.

What in the fuck was that?

More ghosts.  A smattering of children, all wounded.

Centuries.

Maybe one to three people a year?

“Would the ghosts collect nearer to roads?  They’re bound within a certain proximity of him,” I said, “But…”

“Most would be on roads when they were killed.  They would gravitate towards the road in death.  Familiar ground,” Fell said.

“Then what’s deeper in the woods?”

“Things that don’t linger near roads,” Fell said.  He made it sound so obvious.

“Alright,” I said.  “I think I’ve got the gist of it.”

Fell turned, letting the car spin out, then turned the wheel into the spin.  It fishtailed more, then settled on its new course, going in the opposite direction.

Okay, it wasn’t a bike, but that was a touch nerve wracking.

“That was more reckless than ‘free’, I think,” I said, as diplomatically as I could.

“You don’t want to stop moving in a place like this,” Fell said.  “Too many things in too much pain, no longer aware of the rules and treaties.  They invite disaster, breaking oaths in blind attempts to distract themselves from their agony, and the malign spirits cluster around them as a consequence.  Everything spirals down to ruin, here.”

“And nobody’s stopped it?”

“The gain isn’t worth the risk.  Too many ask why they should risk getting bitten, if it only gets them a mad dog on a leash.  Leave that mad dog in the wilderness.  Mark trees and stones with wards, to keep people away.  More runes to keep the roads intact.  Let it have the woods for itself.”

“But Conquest wants it.”

“Conquest wants everything.  But yes, Conquest wants this in particular.”

“Why?”

“I would be betraying my master if I answered that.  Simply see to your task.  You have until midnight.”

“Right,” I said.

Again, my eye caught a glimpse of another spirit in the Hyena’s woods.

A ghost, I was pretty sure.  A child in a long hooded jacket, running between the trees.

I wasn’t sure, but I hadn’t seen any wounds.

I shivered, settling in for the drive to visit the Knights of the Basement.

Things settled down when we hit the proper road, without the crust of ice.  I was left with only my thoughts.  The items I’d need, the precautions I’d need to take…

I’d torn the front off a pad of paper, and I pulled the folded paper from my pocket.  I began taking notes.

Time flew.  Fell didn’t volunteer anything.

“Here,” he said.

A convenience store, with far too many cars parked out front.  I was put in mind of a biker gang in some pitifully small town.

With no empty spaces, Fell had to block one car in as he parked.

“Would you like me to wait, or would you prefer I pick you up at a later time?” he asked.

I debated, then said, “Wait, please.”

“They’re expecting you,” he said, gesturing.

I got out.

Not two seconds later, Fell peeled out, tires crunching on snow.  He revved as he disappeared down the road.

He’d asked what I preferred, but… hadn’t committed to it.

And he’d promised to deliver me to each location in turn, but… hadn’t promised to bring me home.

Well, at least he hadn’t left me in the goblin’s woods.

I wasn’t halfway to the front of the convenience store when a man sauntered out.  A large cat leaped onto the snow-covered railing, then the top of the ice box.

I could see the connection between them.

“Diabolist?” he asked.

“I prefer Blake,” I said.

His saunter had hid the object in his other hand.

He leveled a shotgun at me.

“You have two seconds to keep me from shooting,” he said.

“Stop Conquest?” I asked.  No hesitation.

Which amounted to half a second.

He deliberated for a long second.

The shotgun dropped back to his side.

“Come in.”

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