The Knights weren’t quite what I’d expected, as far as practitioners went.
I wasn’t sure what I did expect, or why my expectations were high. Laird was… a cop. Sandra was a well dressed, prim woman. Maggie wouldn’t draw any particular attention.
Maybe when I started looking at the likes of Briar Girl or Fell, I could start pointing out odd stuff, but that was more along the lines of Briar Girl not wearing clothes a hundred percent suited to winter, or Fell’s penchant for wearing white. Not something that would turn heads, but it raised an eyebrow if one paid too much attention.
These guys… they were pretty much exactly the sort you’d imagine would be spending their time in a no-name convenience store on a side road in the middle of nowhere. Four of them. Three guys and a woman. Very casual, slouching and entirely at home in their individual seats, a young man behind the counter, man and woman at a table beneath the front window, and Mr. Shotgun standing beside me at the door.
“Blake Thorburn,” I introduced myself.
“Not interested in pleasantries,” Shotgun said. He was thirty-something, with a scraggly mustache and beard, longer hair, jeans, misshapen sweater and lumpy jacket. The large cat lurked near him.
The others were similar. Large t-shirts, jeans, a little tattered. More comfortable than fashionable. The guy sitting by the window was rather heavy, and unshaven, wearing a baseball cap even though it was winter.
“Names make things easier,” I said.
“Names have a kind of power, don’t they?” the youngest of them said. A boy, about fourteen, with a resemblance to Shotgun. No mustache or beard, though, a t-shirt instead of a sweater.
“As far as I’m aware,” I said. “But I suspect there’s a difference between having power and having power over something.”
“How does that work?” Shotgun’s son asked.
“Hush,” Shotgun said. “You’re the enemy of… not an enemy, but a problem. That fair to say?”
“I suppose it is,” I said.
“That doesn’t mean you’re trustworthy. I can’t say I know much about demons or diabolism or any of that, but I’ve got a good eye and a good gut instinct, and one or both are telling me there’s a reason I really wanted to pull the trigger on you, back there.”
“I’m not sure.”
“You’re lucky I’m a level headed guy, Blake. Able to check myself, question what I’m feeling and why. But if I had to describe it, I’d say I feel like my wife acts when she has P.M.S., being around you.”
“Lovely,” the woman by the window said, rolling her eyes. I took it that she wasn’t his wife, from the tone and attitude. “Does she pull a gun on you?”
“She’d be tempted to pull the trigger,” Shotgun said.
“You’re irritable, twitchy?” I asked.
“I bound an imp yesterday. He was making animals and people feel that way. Act in ways they normally wouldn’t. Now… well, now he’s not affecting them anymore, though traces linger.”
“You stopped it?”
“For now,” I hedged, “I’m not sure what tomorrow will bring.”
“Ah. Like I said, I don’t know much about diabolism.”
“I don’t either,” I said. “I wouldn’t be too surprised if you knew about as much as I did.”
“If you’re binding imps, then you know more than we do. I’m afraid we’re not sharing names. Call it paranoia, if you must.”
“I might have to,” I said.
“Can we trust you, Blake? I think that’s the bigger question right now.”
“I can’t lie,” I said.
“That doesn’t answer my question.”
“I’m going to be blunt and honest here,” I said. “And I’m going to hope you don’t all fuck me over too badly, as a result. Conquest is twisting my arm, metaphorically speaking, to get me to clean up some of the local messes, and he’s sent me your way to get some answers on one of those messes.”
“We know this, Fell said as much,” Shotgun said. “Skip ahead to what you said to me outside.”
“Well, that’s only a small part of why I’m here. I’m thinking you probably don’t have a lot of answers about that demon in the factory. The real reason I’m here is that I’m looking for some allies. Because I’m not sure anyone wants Conquest to finish sending me on errands and start using me for something more serious.”
“Demon stuff,” Shotgun said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“What if I shot you?” he offered. “You could stop worrying about being used. You’d be dead.”
He said it in such a friendly, casual way. Like he was offering me a ride.
“Conquest wouldn’t be too happy with you.”
“He’s sending you after that demon,” the guy sitting under the window said. “I don’t think he cares a whole lot about your well being.”
“Point taken,” I said. “But there’s a difference between me dying because I wasn’t able to hack it, and his subordinates interfering.”
“You’re big on making distinctions, aren’t you?” Shotgun asked.
“Don’t we have to be?” I asked.
“You know… dealing with Others? Avoiding getting snared in a verbal trap?”
He shrugged. “Or you can just minimize contact with the things.”
I frowned a bit. “I’m going to need a few more details on who you guys are. And names would really help.”
“We’re the Knights,” Shotgun said. “Can’t call ourselves just ‘knights’, or we’d be treading on toes, so our full title is ‘Knights of the Basement’, kind of an in-joke.”
“Makes me think of board gamers or something.”
“And?” I asked. “You focus in? You do…”
“We dabble. All of us dabble. We’re with the council, because it means we don’t get blindsided if something comes up or changes, easier access if we want to check it’s okay to grab a certain demesne or get a familiar. Maybe once in a while we can do a favor for a bit of knowledge or a trinket.”
“You’re dabblers,” I said, “As in… you don’t have much firepower?”
He glanced down at his gun.
“Firepower that’s going to matter to someone or something like Conquest?” I clarified.
“Not so much,” Shotgun said. “Not against someone like… that.”
The way he’d avoided Conquest’s name made me think it was maybe better to not keep saying it. I could call Fell, just by establishing that connection, and maybe I didn’t want Conquest to know I was talking about him.
Damn it. I couldn’t help but feel a profound disappointment, with a hint of panic. I’d found an in, possible help, and they didn’t have any muscle. I was running out of time, and I didn’t have any meaningful allies. I was actually losing progress in terms of allies, if I counted losing Rose.
“But you have a grudge against the man in charge?” I asked.
“Grudge?” Shotgun asked. “Not so much. But, well, he’s… what he is. Not exactly looking out for anyone’s interests. Has a way of demanding things and not giving anything back.”
He glanced at his buddies, as if looking for confirmation. I saw some nods.
Mostly, I just saw glares leveled my way.
Shotgun continued, “Part of why we attend the meetings, from time to time. Gives us a chance to see how he’s acting, if we need to clear out for a bit, keep our heads down. Sometimes all it takes is a periodic visit to bow our heads, show proper respect.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Then… I’m guessing you’re not exactly willing to put your lives on the line? He’s an inconvenience, as you said, not an enemy.”
That got me a slow shake of the head, and a very casual, “You’re pretty much on the mark there.”
I sighed, leaning against the counter.
“Can I offer you anything?” Shotgun asked. “Very possible we don’t have anything to offer, but I can offer food and water. Tuna and egg sandwiches aren’t bad, in the fridge over there. Or candy bars and coke, if you’re wanting a snack.”
“A sandwich would be great,” I said. “And a coke, sure.”
The guy sitting by the window got up from the table to walk over to the fridge and grabbed the stuff.
“On the house,” Shotgun said.
“The hospitality is recognized for what it is, thank you.”
He nodded a little, circling around the counter to take a seat by the register. He glanced up at the television on the wall. Sports news.
Not many straight answers to be had here, as far as names or capabilities went. They were small fry. Dabbling practitioners.
“Is it normal, to be…” I searched for a word.
“Low level?” the kid asked.
“To work within such a small scope,” I said, a little more diplomatically.
“Not sure,” Shotgun said. “We only have the locals to compare ourselves to.”
“Can you tell me about them? It might help me figure out where to concentrate my efforts.”
“We’re new, so I don’t know much of the history. Sisters of the Torch, as I understand it, they were a sorority or club at the University, got their hands on something. Built themselves up. Each new year the group would select a few worthy members of their club or whatever to join the core group. Nine parts secret society to one part practitioner. They’re more likely to give you a special discount on real estate or help you ask for a favor in local government than do anything fancy, if you get me?”
I nodded. “Any specialty?”
“Elementals. Most basic kind of spirits you get, dealing with nature. Rain, sun, fire, harvest…”
“Where do they stand with Conquest?”
“They don’t. They’re in the council in name only. They’ve maybe struck a deal with Conquest, because they only send one representative a year with a gift.”
I made mental note of that.
“I’ve met the Sphinx, the Drunk, and the Astrologer. And Fell.”
“Sphinx wasn’t a big fan of me,” I admitted. “Not big on the diabolism thing.”
“To be honest, neither are we,” Shotgun told me. “But you don’t seem to be an immediate problem, and we’re not really types to pick fights.”
“Except when it comes to pulling a shotgun on a complete stranger.”
“That’s called being ready when the fight comes to you. Not knowing anything about you… hearing only casual mention of what a diabolist does?”
“Fair,” I said. I tore into the sandwich wrapper and took a bite.
“Sphinx is old, and maybe it’s more personal for old things. Teaches at the University. Periodically goes for the kids who can’t hack it. Once every decade or so, maybe. Failing grades, depression, panic, a downward spiral everyone recognizes, and then their rooms are cleared out one night and they’ve up and disappeared.”
“Didn’t know that last part,” I said.
“She is what she is. She occasionally takes a student under her not-so-proverbial wing. We’ve talked it over, and the general consensus is she finds the stragglers and tests them. Winners get mentored. Get a natural glow about ’em, you know what I mean?”
“No, not so much.”
“Stuff starts going their way. Lucky. The right people start gravitating towards them. Things falling into place.”
“Good karma,” I said.
“Yeah. That. Girls stick around for two or three years and then take their leave, wiser, talented, brimming with confidence. We’ve seen, what, two?”
“One left a few weeks after we first joined the council,” the woman sitting under the window said. “Another one wrapped up earlier this year. Left before Summer.”
“I could do with some of that good karma,” I said. “But I don’t think even the Sphinx’s ministrations are about to help me with the massive debt my family’s incurred.”
“If she doesn’t like you, I can’t imagine she’s going to change her mind. Old dogs and new tricks, you know?”
“Um, who else? You mentioned the Drunk?”
“Yeah. He’s, again, not a big fan of me.”
“Cultist of Dionysus. Orgies, parties, and a collection of satyrs, nymphs and other beings with a connection to fertility, hedonism or both.”
“Any story there?”
“Lots. Word is he was trying to make a play, some time back. Offered favors here and there. One of the Sisters wanted a baby, he delivered. Baited the Astrologer into falling in lust with something more spirit than person, and she wasn’t happy when that spell was broken. Even started collecting more vicious things to keep in reserve, we’ve heard. Then it all fell apart around the start of the ‘oughts. He’s mostly flying solo now, a little more inebriated a little more often. We’ve mostly steered clear. He and we march to the beats of very different drums, so to speak.”
I took a swig of coke to clear my throat. “You dabble, you’re interested, but you don’t want to stick your neck out for anyone to swing the axe at.”
Shotgun nodded. “Astrologer? Powerful. Doing a succession thing. Every time they get old, they find an apprentice, teach them, and pass on the title and the knowledge. I never really got what she did. Future sight, sure. Connections? Yeah. Summoning things from the sky? Yep. But never directly, there’s some underlying system of rules and relationships she has to navigate.”
“She’s not a fan of the… guy in charge.”
“Nope. Her old mentor offered himself up, to be one of those tragic ghosts in the Lord of Toronto’s manor, buying her safety with his afterlife. She doesn’t pay any tithe, and she mostly has free reign, so long as she attends enough meetings and doesn’t act directly against him.”
“Does that mean she’s not on my side? I can’t get her to do something?”
“No. I think she’s eager to stop Conquest, and she’s been looking for a chance for some time. I’m not sure if she can’t or if there’s a reason she won’t, but it is what it is.”
“Shepherd, not of much use to you. Guides the dead. Deals with ghosts, cleaning up the bad and collecting the good. Tends to stay away, but is on pretty good terms with Conquest when he’s around.”
“That sounds like a problem.”
“It’s the local landscape. Nothing more.”
“Landscape matters lot when you’re talking battle,” the woman under the window said. “Terrain? Strategy?”
“True,” Shotgun said. “Fine, we can agree it’s a problem. Who else?”
“Eye of the Storm,” Shotgun’s son said. “Queen’s Man.”
“Queen’s Man isn’t a concern. Goes between here and England. Serving a spirit of Crown and kingdom,” Shotgun says. “Not here now.”
“Good to know.”
“Eye of the Storm isn’t human. And it is a servant of our local Lord. One you’ll need to worry about. Our Lord needs something done, he asks Fell. He needs something destroyed, he gives an order to the Eye.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“A fire alarm going off at midnight,” Shotgun said. “All the exits blocked by flame.”
“I meant, more, what type of Other is it?”
“Don’t know. We’re not the people to ask if you want clear answers about that sort of thing. But mankind and fire have a long working relationship. A relationship that extends to times when you sacrificed things to gods and spirits. Most big cities have at least one bad fire in its past, and in cities that do, you can usually find something like the Eye, a memory of that fire and sacrifice.”
“That explanation is a bit too vague for my tastes,” I said.
“What I do know, and I’m welcoming any of the rest of you to jump in and correct me, is it’s a thing that tends to change as humanity does. We start to use wires and electricity, and the Eye became less fire and more storm, you know? It’s a living reminder that whatever we were given, whatever we took or learned, energy-wise, there’s still a danger there, if we don’t show proper respect.”
“And it serves at the whim of the Lord of Toronto?”
“Arms, legs, torso, head, but nobody’s going to look at it and think it’s human. Keeps to its own until it’s called. If you’re going up against the Lord of Toronto, don’t give him a chance to call.”
I nodded, even as I was thinking about how Conquest had brought Rose to his domain. How could I prevent him from doing the same with this ‘eye’?
“Sounds like I need to get in touch with the Astrologer,” I said.
“And if I do want help going up against the Lord of Toronto,” I said, speaking very carefully, “Can I offer you anything in exchange for a hand?”
Shotgun exchanged looks with everyone else that was present. “Probably not.”
“He’s wanting to use my knowledge for something ugly,” I said. “You kill me now, he’ll be mad enough to do something to you. Leave me alone, and I might be forced to do what he wants, and that could mean issues for you.”
A very, very small ‘could’, given the deal the Drunk had struck, but still theoretically possible.
“So we have to help you, is that it?” Shotgun asked.
“No,” I said. “But helping me would do us both a world of good. I can even sweeten the deal.”
“We don’t set our sights all that high,” he said.
“I’ve got something in the works,” I said. “Tomorrow night, at midnight, it comes to a head. You help me, and I’ll give you access to my family’s resources, minus the… troubling books. The books I don’t particularly want to read.”
“Meaning we wouldn’t be dabblers,” he said. “We could be…”
“A lot of things,” I said. “I don’t know for sure, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t at least one good book on every major subject and discipline.”
“I can see the appeal,” Shotgun said.
“It’s an option,” I said.
“But, and I’d have to talk to the other Knights for their opinions, I’m quite comfortable being a dabbler. A group of low-key people who lucked into more mysterious things.” He glanced at his familiar. “Don’t have to stick our noses in too deep, don’t have any pressure. No enemies, not a whole lot to fear, outside of our one big fuckup to date. We get to be excited if, a couple of times a year, we get a new book, a new doo-dad, and we can explore it together.”
“Then…” I said, reaching for an answer. “You want less? Not access to a whole library, but maybe a guarantee of a book once in a blue moon?”
Shotgun looked at the others. I saw one or two shrugs and some nods.
“You’re speaking closer to our language now,” he said. “But the risk is still too high.”
“The risk is already high,” I said.
He slowly shook his head. “We walked into a bad situation once, thinking we had no choice. It didn’t go well.”
“I was aiming to get around to that topic,” I said.
“Makes for an awful lot of wondering, you know? Oblivion. Knowing we maybe had friends or family, people we had as friends, people we loved, and they were devoured. Eaten so completely that we can’t even remember them.”
I nodded. I put the coke down on the nearest shelf. “I’m sorry for your losses, whoever they might have been.”
“If you have any thoughts, or if you can let me know what precautions you used that didn’t work, it would help a great deal,” I said.
“Precautions? Half the ones we used, it ate. We can’t remember if we tried something and it didn’t work. Can’t remember what the others tried doing that didn’t work out. We tried circles, I know, but maybe it never got far enough to try eating those.”
“What kind of circle?”
“Same type you usually see. Lines and reinforcing shapes, all of us at the center.”
The same kind that had been used on the Barber. That had worked, ostensibly, because he was abstract, just like this oblivion demon.
That would have been my first guess and one of the few educated guesses I could make, and it was wrong.
How did one ward against a being of nothingness?
“Anything else?” I asked.
“We went in armed. We do okay, at trinkets. Swords, knives, wands. Whatever the others brought, it didn’t work. That’s… just about all I can tell you, on the weapon and self-defense front.”
“Better than nothing,” I said. But not by much. I didn’t have the resources to research and figure out a good path to take, and the fact that the evidence and memories had been ‘eaten’ meant I couldn’t even work by process of elimination.
“I lie awake thinking about it,” Shotgun’s son said. “The thing. The near-miss.”
“We shouldn’t have brought you,” Shotgun said.
“I’d lie awake thinking about it even if you hadn’t. Who did we lose? What place did they have in our lives? Then you think about what happened to Marcie…”
Shotgun glanced at me. “My son’s ex-girlfriend.”
“She’s still my girlfriend, I think,” the young man said. “At least, that’s what I think she was.”
“Yeah,” his father said.
“You’re going to have to fill me in,” I said.
“She disappeared,” Shotgun said. “Few days after that afternoon. We’ve talked about it, tried to figure it out, actively tried to find her. But there was nothing. She wasn’t eaten, or we wouldn’t even know, but…”
“I can’t really remember her face,” the son said. “Or her last name.”
“I think,” Shotgun said, “The people around her were eaten. Mother, father, maybe a sibling or two, a friend. There wasn’t enough connecting her to this world, so she just…”
“Went,” the son said.
“Went away,” the father echoed him. “To wherever people go when they fall through the cracks in this world. Makes you wonder. Were we something different, before? Did we have more dreams? More aspirations? Did we lose important people that were supposed to prop us up, and settle into a different position when we tipped over, without them?”
“As in, maybe you weren’t all a bunch of dabblers working within a small scope, before?” I asked.
“I look back at the places we were investigating,” Shotgun said, “And they were big. A factory? An old farmstead? Far too big for our sad little group. Too big for a group twice our size.”
The guy sitting under the window spoke, “It eats away at you. Wondering what we had, before it was taken away as thoroughly as something can be taken. We can’t do it again. Can’t go up against something big and lose.”
“Can’t take the risk,” Shotgun said.
I finished off the sandwich I’d been nibbling on, thinking. Nobody volunteered anything further.
“You’ll back me against the Lord of Toronto, if there’s a zero-risk way of doing it?” I asked.
“Yes,” Shotgun said.
“Will you take on a small risk, if I offer a book, once in a blue moon?”
“Not sure yet,” I said. “Still trying to pull pieces together and form a game plan.”
“Then we’re not sure either,” he replied.
“Fair,” I said. “Will you hear me out if I want to contact you with a request?”
“Number’s on the phone,” he said. He gestured, and his son reached over to grab the phone on the counter, turning it my way.
I wrote it down.
“Dealing with that thing is tomorrow, so I should have time to talk to the Astrologer before then,” I said. “Today, I’ve got to deal with this goblin called the Hyena.”
“We’ve heard of it in passing.”
“Give me a hand in dealing with this thing, any tips, trinkets, knowledge, it means I’m in better shape for dealing with the Lord of Toronto.”
“You’ll need a small army,” Shotgun said.
“I’m going in alone.”
“Then you’re probably going to die. Too many nasty, angry things in those woods, I’d give you low odds even if the Hyena wasn’t there, if you just had to go in and out, dealing with the flora and fauna in there.”
“And the Hyena?” I asked.
“The Hyena caught and mutilated each and every one of them. Think about that. Think about how long it’s been around, the number of fights it’s been in.”
“It’s a fighter, then?”
“It’s a goblin, so yeah.”
“Then why name it after a scavenger?”
Shotgun shrugged. “Wasn’t us that named it. Might be the association with death and carrion, might be the fact that it’s closer to being a beast than a man.”
“Quadruped, then?” I asked.
“Yep. Fast, big, strong, and about as mean as you get.”
“Don’t suppose I could borrow one of those weapons you were talking about?”
“If you get into a fight in there, chances are pretty good that whatever you’re fighting is going to make noise. Noise brings other ones down on your head. After that, it’s a matter of time before you’re dealing with a crowd. I don’t imagine there’s any weapon I could give you that would let you do that. If you were good enough at fighting, I think you’d have a proper weapon already.”
I nodded slowly. “So fighting isn’t really an option.”
“It’s an option. It’s just a damn shitty option.”
“Stealth, then,” I said. “More my style, maybe.”
“You do know that a lot of Others have different senses than we do?” Shotgun’s son said. “Not just sight and hearing and smell, but other ways of detecting people?”
“I assume so,” I replied.
The son shook his head a little. “You’re just… what, you’re going to sneak in and do what?”
“Try to bind the Hyena,” I said, “or die in the process.”
“You know what happens when he kills you, right?”
“I know,” I said.
“I don’t think your chances would be that much worse going up against the Lord of Toronto on your own,” the son said.
“They’d be a great deal worse,” the fat guy by the window said. “The Lord is an Incarnation, and the goblin is still a mid-tier goblin. Mid-tier or not, it’s still a bad idea to go up against the Hyena.”
“Yeah,” Shotgun said. “I’m thinking the same thing.
I took a deep breath. “I don’t have a choice.”
“Run. Whatever the Lord sends after you, I can’t imagine it’ll be as bad,” the son said.
“I’ve got someone who I can’t leave behind,” I said. “Conquest shackled her, and… yeah.”
“How attached are you to her?” the son asked me. “Do you love her?”
That was a good question. Did I love Rose? Was it borderline narcissism if I did? Familial love?
“I don’t have a lot of experience with love,” I said. “There are people I think I love, who I owe for what they’ve done on my behalf, the support they’ve given me, and maybe she fits in that same category, kind of, but…”
I trailed off. I couldn’t put words to the thoughts.
“If you have to think about it, maybe it’s best to just walk away,” the son said.
“Can’t,” I said.
“You swore an oath?” Shotgun asked.
It hadn’t even crossed my mind. But it was an easy answer to give. “Yeah, well, I made promises to her that I can’t fulfill unless she’s free.”
“Fair. We all do stupid things from time to time,” Shotgun said. “What do you need?”
“Chain,” I said.
“How much chain?”
“How much chain do I want to bring, or how much chain do I need for this situation?” I asked. “Two different things.”
“There you go again, with your distinctions.”
“I want miles of chain,” I said. “But I can probably only bring a few loops, before it slows me down too much.”
“Should work,” I said.
Shotgun glanced at his fat friend by the window.
“We have more than twenty feet there,” the guy said.
“Use the bolt cutters, trim it down to size. But leave the lock connected to the end.”
“Sure,” the guy said. He heaved himself out of the chair. His gait was funny, not quite a limp so much as stumping.
I realized he had only half a foot.
Shotgun looked at his son. “Go find the bolt cutters and help out.”
His son left. No injuries there.
“Thank you,” I said.
“You don’t seem like a bad sort, whatever you’re doing with the demons.”
“Like I said, it’s not by choice. I inherited the title, entirely against my will, and the Lord of Toronto wants to use me for access to my family’s reputation and power.”
“Then, given the chance, you’re not going to touch the things?”
“I can’t promise that,” I said.
“I read some propaganda, just yesterday. Justifying what diabolists do. It wasn’t… completely wrong.”
“I’m not sure I want to know.”
“You have to ask, if the diabolists don’t bind the demons, who will?” I asked.
“The powers that be band together to deal with them.”
“Do they? Look at what’s happening here. Three minor threats, too much trouble to deal with. They get ignored until they can’t be ignored. Then what happens? Yeah, maybe the local powers do gather together. And all of them suffer like your Knights did? Lots of damage? Powerful figures brought low or infected with taint?”
“What’s the alternative?”
“I’m not sure it is an alternative, but maybe people like me and my grandmother deal with them. Shouldering the cost ourselves. Dealing with the karmic burden, the more abstract costs, too.”
“So nobody else has to?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I don’t know how much of it was legit or not. Maybe it means taking on a burden that sinks us, and we inevitably take other people down with us. That it’s too messy for anything else to be possible.”
“If that’s true,” the woman who now sat alone by the window spoke, “Then I worry about us being involved.”
“I wouldn’t blame you. But I don’t know. Maybe it’s possible to shoulder the cost and live an otherwise good life that makes up for it, and leave the world better in the end… if our children don’t get greedy and try to use it or take on more debt for short term gains, leaving certain grandchildren with catastrophic amounts of debt.”
“You’re talking about your family, I take it?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Or maybe it’s all just a lie, and there’s no way out from under this.”
“What if that’s true?” Shotgun asked me. “Maybe we should keep our distance.”
“That seems to be the safe bet everyone else is making,” I told him. “I wouldn’t blame you much.”
“You’d still be retreating at a time I think the locals really need to be mustering their forces. Conquest is fucking dangerous. I’d blame you for ignoring that.”
Shotgun didn’t respond.
I polished off the sandwich and coke. “Can?”
I dropped both wrapper and coke bottle in the can.
“What do you know about shamanism?” Shotgun asked me.
“I know… maybe three symbols, off the top of my head. Dealing with the smallest spirits.”
“I’m going to show you two more. One for quiet, for the chain.”
“Quiet is good,” I said. “And the other one?”
He showed me the shotgun. The butt-end of the weapon had a symbol inscribed in the wood, so it sprawled all over the wooden surface, curving around to the other side. I turned to look, but my view was obscured as he pushed it closer to me. Against my chest, into my hands.
He didn’t let go of the weapon, though, holding it with one hand.
“I thought you said a weapon was a bad idea,” I said.
“It’s a bad plan. As contingencies go, it’s something. Consider it a loaner, not a keeper. You don’t use this on my family, and you don’t use it in any way that leads our local Lord to think we’re against him.”
I could have argued, pressed for better terms, quibbled over intent to hit his family, to cover for the slim circumstance where I accidentally clipped one.
Not worth it.
“I swear I’ll do my best to get it back to you,” I said. “I swear I won’t use it in a way that harms your family or informs the Lord where your allegiances lie.”
He nodded, letting go.
“That symbol is one for wind.”
He shrugged. “Mess with other elemental forces, and you risk disrupting the mechanism. Weapon is maybe a little lighter, pushes a little harder.”
The other two returned with the chain. They laid it out on the counter.
Shotgun grabbed the lock, turning it over so the side opposite the dial faced us.
“Your blood will work best,” he said. He began sketching out the symbol.
My blood. I was leery, but I had only so much of the glamour to spare after I’d touched up my injuries.
A noisy chain could lead to far more blood being spilled.
I pricked my finger and began drawing out the mark he indicated.
“You gave me your gun,” I said, while carefully copying it.
“Don’t suppose you’ll give me your name?”
“Nick,” he told me.
“Thank you, Nick.”
“That thing in the factory fucked us up so bad we can never even fathom what it did to us,” he said, his voice low. I could see him glancing over at his son, at the other end of the room, as if verifying the guy was out of earshot. “I think we had actual lives before.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“If you want to stop it? Or something like it? I’m not getting in your way.”
The truck pulled to a stop.
I shifted the chain’s position at my shoulder. Coils looped over one shoulder and across the body, held close by my jacket. It barely made a noise as I adjusted it.
Hatchet at one hip, flare gun at the other, shotgun at my back, strap cross-wise with the chain. I had a box knife in one pocket, pens and twine in the other. Nails and other construction stuff in one cargo pocket, a small paint jar with far too little glamour inside in the other.
I was painted in the glamour-ink, but I’d had only so much to spare, not nearly enough for full coverage. I’d gone for a hodgepodge job on skin and clothing both, instead. Streaks, that I might match the colors of it to the background.
“I’d drop you further in, but…” the fat man, Teddy, trailed off. He had an explanation, he just didn’t want to give it.
He was scared.
So was I, frankly.
“Wish me luck,” I said.
I made my exit.
Ghosts were already emerging from the trees. Some ethereal, some so real I had to look twice to see where they weren’t quite real. Feet a little hard to make out, or faces a touch too contorted. All bore ghastly wounds where the goblin had bitten them.
Some veered my way. I backed away at the same time the car pulled a ‘u’ turn, and the ghosts chose to follow after the car rather than me.
That wouldn’t remain the case.
I’d inscribed my boots with quieting runes, and the crunching of snow and branches were muted. More blood spent. I could have used glamour, but I valued the versatility the small tin offered me over the cost that the blood payment involved. Being a little bit more me wouldn’t keep me alive in a pinch. Being able to change my voice or features could.
Overhanging pine branches had caught the snow, meaning it wasn’t so deep that I was sinking in knee-deep, as I’d feared. With the quiet the runes afforded, I could move reasonably quickly. Not running, but not walking either. I had to conserve strength. This was a hike, a marathon, and chances were good that I’d need to run at some point.
A glance behind me indicated that a ghost from that initial pack had followed me. A man, missing an arm, a mess of gore around his knees, floating as much as he staggered. He didn’t care too much about the intervening obstacles. Slow, steady progress.
I sped up a fraction.
Another being a distance away. Something bigger and Other. Huffing, panting in what sounded like quiet agony. I couldn’t make it out beyond the intervening branches and the shadows that the overhanging needles and snow afforded.
It didn’t notice me, and my steady forward progress left it behind soon enough.
In a slow moment where I needed to find a way past a fence of crossing branches, the pursuing ghost drew a little closer to me.
I could hear him speaking. “It hurts. Why does it hurt so much? The car…”
I scanned the area. I had a choice of either pushing through the branches in front of me or going around. Pushing through the branches meant noise. Going around meant looping closer to the pursuing ghost.
“I’m… my arm wasn’t crushed. What happened to my arm, Day? Day?”
I circled around. Couldn’t waste time debating, or I’d only corner myself.
He grew more agitated as the distance between us closed.
“Day! It’s- the car hit your side, Day! It’s supposed to be your arm!”
We were no more than fifteen feet apart. I rounded the thicket of trees and started to make more distance between us.
“Your arm, Day!”
With the surge of anger, the irrationality, I could feel the distance between us closing faster. He was running, or whatever the equivalent was when one floated.
I picked up my own pace. Get far enough away, and he’d calm down. He was only reacting to proximity.
“Your arm, my legs!”
His legs. The idea and the words carried a certain power with them. Pain.
Someone might as well have hit me across the knees with a baseball bat.
“Your arm, my legs! You don’t get to do this to me, Day! You never played fair!”
Talking more as he drew ever closer.
I crawled, fighting past the pain.
It’s an illusion. Pretend.
Nice words, but it was hard to convince my body.
I hauled myself forward. My eyes fell on a tree with low branches.
I wasn’t silent as I ascended, hauling myself up with arm strength more than my legs. It didn’t help that the ghost was still screaming.
Something reacted to the noise.
When I did get high enough to tentatively try using my feet to climb, I found I moved quieter. Climbing, seizing higher branches, climbing the tree.
Cornering myself already.
I was scarcely ten feet above the ground as I brought my legs up out of reach.
The ghost approached, stopping right beneath me.
“Day! Fuck you, Day!“
The other thing approached. Big, shadowy, lumbering. It left a trail of blood in its wake, a wound that never stopped bleeding.
One great hand settled on the trunk of the tree, not two feet from my foot.
It was blind, face savaged. Such was the wound.
And it wasn’t moving. Fuck.
“He knows. He’s coming.“
I looked, and I saw a ghost perched in the branches. A little boy with a hooded coat.
No blood, no bleeding.
“Who knows?” I whispered back.
“The wolf-thing. The worst of them. He knows. Run. Have to run if I’m going to get home. Keep running, keep hiding, and I’ll be able to go home.”
With that, he leaped down. Both ghost and lumbering Other turned, but both were too slow.
He disappeared, like the wind.
I was stuck where I was.