Category Archives: 4.12

Collateral 4.12

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By and large, asking an American how far away something was tended to get an answer in terms of miles.  The gas station is a quarter mile that way.  Ask a Canadian?  Time.  The highway is a ten minute drive thataway.  Or so the idea went, with exemptions for more civilized areas of the States and less civilized parts of Canada.

When I tried to parse how big the park was, the number of Others present, I thought in terms of time.  Time to get away.  The amount of time that had passed between each encounter with a ghost or some other Other.

I’d passed maybe one spirit every two to five minutes.

Judging by the number of spirits I could sense by way of connection, now, extrapolating?  This park was as big as fuck.  A good hour or two on foot, if I didn’t backtrack to where I’d started out.

The net was drawing closed.  Not a circle, enclosing me, but a general shape that followed the contours of terrain, streams, hills, cliffs and other stuff that might impede travel.

Not that I could extrapolate anything from the patterns I saw.  I wasn’t that smart, for one thing, and there were too many different kinds, following different rules.

Not to mention that the trees were thick enough that I couldn’t make out much twenty feet ahead of me.

I ran, shotgun in hand, branches of holly held to my back by both the coils of chain and my jacket, pricking at my shoulder, neck, and ear.

The first ones to reach me weren’t ghosts, but Faerie.  Mangled, savage Faerie, who had made themselves beautiful, used Glamour to change their shape and conform to ideals of beauty, only to find themselves in the Goblin’s clutches, maimed and somehow trapped in his realm.  Hair grown long, dirty, clothes in tatters, where years of abuse and survival in the woods hadn’t removed them entirely.  Eyes stared at me from behind long greasy hair, the faces and forms I could make out were attractive.

Were it not for the look in their eyes, the fact that they’d been harrowed by years of pain and degradation, the resentment and hate, I might have dismissed them as Hollywood savages.  Actors playing roles.

I turned to take a different route, and one broke away from the group, blocking my path.

I remembered what Fell had said.  This was a bad place to stop moving.

“The tree people,” Evan said, his eyes on the Faerie.

“Yeah?” I asked.  I almost reached out for his hand, then stopped.  I took a hard right, pushing through the branches.

“There weren’t many who bothered to climb the trees and come after me in my treehouse,” he said.

“These guys?”  I glanced back.  Only one chased, now, but she was running.  Faster than I was.  Closing the distance.

“I climbed out onto a branch that wouldn’t hold them.  They tried and fell.  I went out onto another branch…”

He trailed off.

“Evan?”

“Stop trying.  Please.  I just want to sleep.”

There it was.  The cadence that suggested I was talking to the echo, not the consciousness that had somehow remained.

I looked to confirm, but the act of looking meant I ran headlong into a branch.  Not a thick one, but something that could scrape against my face.

The glamour was torn away, where I’d covered up the bites from the vermin.  A light scrape on the cheek was matched by a smattering of gouges and scratches, just as raw and painful as they’d been when I’d covered them up.  One glamour taken away.

Not just that glamour.  The branches scraped against my coat, my pants, and the stripes of glamour I’d painted all over myself were snatched away.  Very easily.  Dangerously so.

Something told me it was by design, not bad luck.

I turned and aimed behind me as I ran, and saw a glimpse of the savage Faerie, one long-nailed hand pressed to the bloodstained strips of cloth that bound her stomach, the other clutching at a branch.  She caught a gossamer strip of something, and the stuff flowed over, across, and into her hand and arm like smoke or water.

Was it imagination that she seemed a fraction faster, a little more Faerie and a little less savage and broken?

I raised the shotgun with one hand and fired back at her.  The blast knocked her clear off her feet.

I turned my attention forward, trusting my ears to catch the sound of body hitting snow.

Instead, I heard the continued sounds of her footsteps behind me.  Not as close, but still there.

I might have wondered if she’d landed on both feet or all fours like a cat, only to resume running, but I didn’t have the luxury.

Two more Faerie were flanking me, running just a matter of feet to my left, shoulder to shoulder with one another.  Both men.

I shifted my shotgun to a two-handed grip and winced as another branch whipped my face, punishing me for not paying enough attention.  A little less glamour, and a taste of blood where my lip had been cut.

I didn’t remember blood in my mouth when I’d been attacked by the imp’s animals.  Was the universe charging me interest?  Making the wounds just a little worse?

The distraction interrupted me from aiming at the pair and hitting both with the shotgun.  A waste of bullets, maybe, but they were too close for comfort, and I didn’t have a wealth of options when it came to shaking them off.

Instead, I reacted a little too slowly as I moved the shotgun.  One hand settled on the barrel, catching it before I could aim it.  He pushed it away with a deceptive ease.

His hand was broken, but not bleeding.  Where index and middle finger had been shattered rather than broken, reduced to spears of splintered fingerbone, he jabbed the hand at my face, aiming to thrust them into my eyes.

I pulled back, still holding the heavier end of the shotgun in both hands, and my forward momentum was interrupted by the thick branches of a large tree.

I was no longer moving.  Not a good thing.

I was cornered with someone pressed up against me, clearly intent on hurting me.

Less good thing.  Worse thing.

I pulled the trigger, fully aware I wasn’t about to hit him, much less anything else.  The savage Faerie barely reacted.

He reached back, then stabbed at me again with the shattered ruins of his hand.

I caught his hand, more out of fear and reflex than anything clever or skilled.  Because putting my hand in front of the stabbing wound was better than leaving my face in the way.  The splinter of bone tore through the webbing between two fingers.  Blood flowed freely down my hand and into my sleeve.

I felt stabs of pain on my injured hand.  Where the blood flow from the cut webbing didn’t obscure it, I could see my hand changing.  Once-covered wounds opening up, the holes appearing in my gloves.  As if the interest I was paying extended to what I wore and carried, indiscriminate.

“Evan,” I managed.

But Evan was backing away.  “I’m lighter than they are.  Perch on a branch.”

I wasted precious seconds fighting with the Faerie, struggling to keep those bone points from reaching my eye sockets, while my mind turned over his statement, tried to figure out the trick.

No trick involved.  In his ghostly little head, he was retreating to the thinnest branches that wouldn’t support the Faerie’s weight.

The other Faerie arrived, stopping a short distance away.  The woman Faerie with the gut wound and a male Faerie with his arms cut up into ribbons.

Others drew a little closer.  Ghosts.  Everything else.  The net closing tighter around me.

“The wolf’s watching me,” Evan said.

Watching us.

“Hope it’s a good… fucking show,” I grunted, pushing against the Faerie’s hand.  It was all I could do to avoid losing it and letting myself drop to the ground.

The fabric of the glove gave way, tearing away.  Turning to rags.  The flesh that was revealed was dirty, stained, riddled with scrapes and wounds.  Only a few were from the animals.  Some was interest, and a lot of it was…

I felt stabbing pains in my fingers.

Saw his fingers changing, in kind.

Lesson learned.  Trying to use glamour was a bad idea, if I was going toe to toe with Faerie.  It was like opposing like, and they were too well versed in glamour and trickery to lose this tug-of-war.

He was transferring the wounds to me, along a medium he was very well versed in.

Blood flowed from the wound, a little thicker now.

Drenching chain and locket.

His eyes moved down to our joined hands.  There was a glimmer of confusion on his face, or curiosity, or something else entirely, as he noticed the thin chain that criss-crossed my hand, the locket that was pinned to the back of it.

Had I been of sound mind, less paralyzed by the sudden contact, I might have been able to use the distraction.  As it was, I fumbled for purchase and failed, my mind filled with steel wool and white noise, putting me on the defensive and keeping me there.

Comhroinn liom,” the woman rasped.

The male Faerie didn’t respond.

Comhroinn le linn,” the other male Faerie echoed.

The pain in my fingers intensified, until I felt like it was reaching a crescendo.  A critical point where it felt like they would explode or be torn away, leaving only slivers of bone.

This wasn’t the pretend sort of pain that ghosts caused, either.

I groaned, and the groan transformed into a scream as the pain built up.

I raised a foot, kicking at his hand, where he gripped the shotgun.  Then, rather stupidly, I swung it at his head like a club.  It moved a little faster than it should have, and wind stirred his hair as the barrel hit his ear.

But he was Faerie, and this wasn’t the sort of thing that was useful.  He caught the barrel with his good hand, his eyes staring into mine.  His ear wasn’t even bleeding.

“Evan,” I said, but it was only a whisper.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said.

“Need… useful…” I grunted and gasped the words, hating how small my voice sounded. “input.”

The pain built again, faster, harder.

A crack sounded through the area, like a gunshot, and my fingers leaped into the next category of agony.

Lesson learned, I thought, which was ironic, because I could barely think.  How was I supposed to learn when I couldn’t think?

Comhroinn!” the woman shouted, over my scream.

Angry.  The thought barely connected.

She was angry.

Not at me, either.

So I did the second-least intuitive thing I could do, here.  Short of actually letting him stab me in the eyes, I moved my face closer to said stabbing implements, where my hand gripped his.

I could feel his breath on me, feel the weight of his body.  As with the Imp, when I’d stepped outside the rabbit-gut circle, I felt like every iota of movement in his direction came with a corresponding loss of sanity and courage.

But, just as I’d pushed through that with one singular goal, I acted with a goal here.

I kissed the back of my hand, getting a very up-close view of the way his hand was regenerating, piecing itself together with the glamour he was taking, and all of the bits of my hand that he was scraping up along the way.

Then I spat.

Blood from the back of my hand, where it flowed from the stabbed webbing, sprayed onto and over his shoulder, in the direction of the Faerie woman.

She reacted, angry, no longer willing to hold back.  Her face contorted with anger, glamour helping to twist her features a step further.  For a moment, she resembled the sort of faerie that cursed newborns to die from a pricked finger.

She didn’t attack me, though.  She attacked my assailant, blood feeding the connection between them, leading to the natural conclusion.  Jealousy, anger, frustration, a desire to have some of the relief he was finding.

I was free, as they tumbled to the ground.  Flight instincts took over.

I didn’t make it one step.  My flight was interrupted by a minor snag.  Literally.  The branches of holly that stuck out of the back of my jacket caught on the tree branches.  A velcro attachment of hook to hook, in a dozen places.

I tore free with a roar.

Without the Faerie in my face, I was able to take in my surroundings.

A little ghost boy with a hooded jacket.  Two fighting Faerie.  Another Faerie lunging for me, getting pulled into the fight instead.  Trees.  And a whole lot of Others.

They came with a kind of fog, standing behind and between trees, surrounded by the moisture and the rolling snowflakes.  Not zombies, despite the glistening, angry wounds that each sported, the sometimes shambling gaits.  As with the Faerie, I saw resentment here and there, glares, anger, hope.  A mix of emotions, a wariness about the Others they stood next to.

Many heaved and panted for breath, some whimpered or moaned.

It wasn’t so much that they were on the same side, as the fact that I was on the side of the healthy, the unwounded.  That made me something to be torn down, in their twisted perspective.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said.

“I don’t object,” I said, trying to take in the numbers and find a gap, failing.  “What squeeze?  What are you talking about?”

“Just over there,” he said, very quest.  “Just- just- through the squeeze.”

I had an eerie sensation of someone with a stutter, trying and failing to communicate.

Was he lucid-ish, right now, but forced to communicate through riddles?

He was looking in one direction.

“Over there,” he said.  “Just over there.”

On the other side of the ring of Others.

This wasn’t a situation where I could deliberate.  Standing still was bad.

I charged.

Red rover, red rover.  Send the stupid-ass diabolist over.

I jammed my hand into my pocket as I broke into the all-or-nothing run, intent on getting ammo, and I felt the agony explode in my hand.  I was mid-stride, and very nearly forgot to bring my left foot forward again.  As it was, I stumbled, lost momentum.

Broken finger, at the very least.

I pulled my hand out of my pocket, my index finger bent in a place it wasn’t supposed to bend, a single shot clutched between ring and pinky fingers.

I had a better sense of what I was doing this time around, as I popped the shotgun open and fumbled a shot inside, butt of the weapon jammed under my armpit.

The ghost ran alongside me.  Flickering, keeping pace, showing different images of him standing still as he paused mid-stride to let me keep up, let me forge the way.

Too many big Others in the way, here.  Not as big as the Hyena, not as big as the blind brute I’d run into before.  Still… big enough.

I wasn’t about to be pinned down again.  I fired off to one side, aiming to catch them off guard, then made a sharp change of direction, springing off of one toe.  I swung the shotgun like club at the one I’d hit hardest with the shot.  Not a big one.  A smaller thing, with wood armor or wood skin or something.  A bit more wind power, a bit of an impact.

He stumbled back into others, and I hurried through the gap.

Finding myself face to face with others.  Five feet away, ten feet away, twenty feet away.  Still approaching the source of the Hyena’s cry.

Were they obedient, or had they come to attack the thing that had hurt them so badly?

Both?

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said.

Through the squeeze.  I looked to see him, and he was gone.

Trouble was drawing closer, and I didn’t trust myself to reload.

Scanning the surroundings, I found myself making eye contact with a woman.

Blonde, with one eye that sort of bugged out, the other joining three quarters of her face in being covered by blood-stained bandage.  The bandage bound her tightly enough that I could tell her face wasn’t the normal shape, or she’d had a lower jaw and she didn’t anymore.  The damage to her neck meant her head hung at a cocked angle.

I’d made eye contact, and I couldn’t break it.  I could see the connection, hard, unyielding.

I staggered to the left, blind, and I had to turn my head to keep my eyes fixed on hers.  I had little doubt that if I’d been moving, or driving, the connection would have held fast enough that I might have snapped my neck turning my head as I passed her.

She had to fight the others to get closer to me, while I blindly ran to one side, unable to look where I was going.  I hit branches, trees.

I had only seconds before I got surrounded and swamped by bodies.  The idea terrified me.  Even with everything I’d seen, it rated as one of the worst ways to go.  For me, anyhow.

She wasn’t a ghost.  Something else.  One of the unique sorts that urban legends were based around, like the hook-handed murderer who scratched at car handles or the murderess who appeared in mirrors in dark rooms.  She was simply Other.  A siren call for the eye alone.

I tried to move my hand in the way, to block the eye contact.  My wrist bounced off the connection as if it were something solid, and my various injuries made their displeasure known as the impact rattled each of them.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said, a little to my left.

I headed his way, stumbling, my feet sinking into a deeper patch of snow, hitting a rock.  I was hoping that some other bastard would get far enough ahead of the eye-woman that they might block the view.

They weren’t being so generous.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said, again.

I followed the sound of his voice, Marco-Polo style.

My foot moved over, and I hit nothing at all.  Open air.

I fell.  My back hit more solid ground.  I was left with one leg down a hole, arms splayed out, shotgun in one hand, my head wrenched at a dangerous angle as my eyes insisted on holding contact with that woman-Other’s single orb.

If I’d fallen in a different manner… snap?

I swept my good hand forward, through snow, bringing the shotgun with it.  An augmentation to the wind, a push…

The connection was strong enough to push snow out of the way.

But not all of it.

For a brief moment, the link was broken.  I turned my head, looking away.

Only to become aware of how close the rest of the Others were.  Lying on my back, I could see them creeping around my peripheral vision.  Some closer than five feet.

Evan was among them, standing through my leg.

He flickered, looking concerned, then jumped.

Jumping right into my stomach.

Through my stomach.

My ass and left leg weren’t touching solid ground.  I drew my right foot back…

Gravity had its way with me, dragging me into the same hole that the little ghost had slipped into.

I landed on my back, and was momentarily blinded by the snow that had followed me down.  My heart pounded, and my hand throbbed in time with each beat.

Others would be following.  Pain aside, I needed to move.

I flopped over onto my stomach.  There was barely any light, which somehow made it easier to make out my little companion.

It was… not a cave, but a collection of stones and roots that had made a kind of tunnel.  The ground beneath might have eroded away, or it had simply grown like this.

“Through the squeeze,” Evan said.

“You’re a little less lucid,” I said.  “How come?”

“Through the squeeze,” he said.  He passed through me on his way to the tunnel.

I wasted no time in following, crawling after him.  Was it weird that I was less bothered by the fact that he passed through me than the alternative?  Probably.

I crawled on my elbows, shotgun in my right hand, barrel resting in the crook of my other arm, unable to even rise up enough to put weight on my knees.  Every brush against the overhanging roots brought puffs of snow down.

“Squeeze for a, what, an eight year old?” I muttered.  “What’s this to me?”

There was no response.  I was talking to Evan the projection, the echo, the replay.

I stopped as the branches on my back snagged.  I had to crawl backwards a distance, then shift them around so they were pressed between my body and the ground.

I pressed forward again, and I made it about two feet further as the chain caught.  A quick check suggested it wasn’t the chain itself, but the bulge it made where my jacket covered it.  More snow filtered through the overhang as I jerked to a stop.

The space didn’t look like it got any more open from here on out.

I backed up again, tried shifting my coat around, pulling it tight against my body, holding it like that with the shotgun-

I heard a growl behind me.  A very inhuman growl.  It was too cramped a space for me to turn around, to even look behind myself.

No time to waste, I tried again.

I stopped short at the exact same place, for the exact same reason.

Fuck,” I swore, under my breath.

A snarl was followed by rustling, and snow raining down on me yet again, in larger clumps.

Whatever was behind me was strong enough to move the roots and stones, to push past them.

Fuck,” I said again.  Was an understatement like that bad enough to count as a lie?

Had I already wondered that?

What did it say that I even had to ask that last question?

I heard another snarl, felt another lunge shudder through Evan’s ‘squeeze’.  Snow fell down on top of me, making my job harder.  Some even landed in the crook between my face and arms, atop the holly branches I was squishing down with my body.  For a second, between fear, snow, holly and the confined space around my body, I couldn’t breathe.

“I don’t want to die like this,” Evan said.  He was sitting further up the tunnel, hugging his arms to his body, legs propped up.  “Not like this.  Not here.”

“Thank you,” I muttered, “For the commentary.  I’d say it was doing lots for my morale…”

I struggled to make headway, failed.

I huffed out a breath, because the struggles were making me hold my breath to the point I might pass out.  “…But I’m not allowed to be sarcastic anymore.”

I heard whatever it was behind me scrabbling for purchase on stones.  Claws or something scraping.

Another movement of the roots overhead and more snow suggested it was succeeding where I was failing.

I didn’t have many options.  June?  No use.  Too slow, maybe counterintuitive, with the ice thing.  Loading and firing the shotgun?  I could clear the snow out of the tunnel, maybe, but I could also kill myself with ricochet, and I’d have an audience if and when I made it to the other side.

I reached down, squeezing to one side, until I couldn’t breathe, to get my bad hand down past my pelvis, past my pocket.

Cargo pants pocket, reaching in while trying to keep from bumping my broken finger, failing.

A little jar.

I had to move closer to the thing that was behind me in order to get the room.  The contents of the jar were cold as I jammed my three good fingers into it.  I smeared the stuff along the chain, pulled on it until it rotated around my body, smeared more on, squeezing it down flat.

Not enough of a covering to be as meaningful as I maybe hoped.

The thing behind me pushed forward again, and I heard wood splintering and breaking.  Snow rained down, twice as much as before.  I could feel hot, fetid air waft past me.

Not the Hyena.  The Hyena’s breath would smell worse.

Still not a good thing.

I heaved myself forward.  A third attempt at that same snag that kept catching on the chain.

A little bit of metaphorical butter made the difference.  I squeezed through, squeezed through the next bit, which was every bit as bad.

I was holding my breath, because I couldn’t afford to take up any more space.  I forced myself forward, jamming my hand against something hard beneath the stone, and I very nearly gasped.

If I had, I might have expanded enough that I wouldn’t get back through.  I might have lost the scarce forward momentum.

My vision was starting to act up, my head pounding, from the lack of air.

Last leg.  I used my elbows rather than my hands to get leverage on the roots and stones, pistoning myself forward.

To freedom.  An open area.  Snow, trees, and a surprising lack of Others.

They wouldn’t be that far away.  I was glad for the silence effect on boots and chain both as I ran over the snow, joined by my companion.

“Thanks,” I said.

He flickered.

Not the usual flicker, where he jumped to another part of the script, then jumped back.

Flickering as in a flame that was dying or going out.

“No,” I said.  “No way.  Stop.”

He stopped.

“I’m so tired,” he said.  “They won’t let me sleep.  I’m so hungry.  I can’t stop to eat, and the only things I can find are things I know I’m not supposed to have.”

He sounded faint, in both senses of the word.  Or were those two sides of the same sense?

“I just… I need to sleep.”

I knew I was hearing the words he’d spoken before he died.

“A little nap.  To save up energy for when it’s brighter out.”

A nap, to conserve energy?

I thought of Rose.

I felt a chill that had nothing to do with the fact that I’d just crawled through piles of snow, or the fact that I was drenched head to toe in sweat in the dead of winter.

Was Rose out of energy?

No.  It had to be more complicated than that.  Pauz had expressed a kind of glee.

He’d wanted to see my face, when I found out.

Why?

Rose had spent energy to break the mirror and the ice, back when we’d first met.  She’d taken her time recuperating.

Just yesterday, she’d broken the windows.  Same thing, closer together.

She was in a coma of sorts.

Conserving energy.

What was different?

I was asking myself the question, but I knew the answer.  Ergo, the chill.

Me.

I was different.

I was stronger.  I was able to talk to ghosts like Evan.

Why?  What was the dark, sick joke that Pauz would find funny?

He was an imp that subverted the natural order.  He’d affected me.  Instead of me feeding power to Rose…

Rose was feeding power to me.

I could imagine the imp’s laughter, mocking me.  His glee, if he could see me now, deep in the woods, knowing that every second I was operating like this, I was taking from Rose, helpless to do anything about it.

I shivered again.

“Thanks, Evan,” I said.  I looked down at the ghost.  “Good tip.”

“A little nap,” he said.

He was in pure echo mode, now.

Which was a riddle unto itself.

“Come on,” I said.

I led him forward, taking the time to very carefully reload the shotgun without hitting my finger.

He flickered again.

“This way, then” I said.

Every interaction was alerting the monster, the goblin-beast.  But I could live with that.  This was a hunt.

Moving at a right angle to the direction we’d been going didn’t elicit any more flickers until we’d walked for about a minute.

Right.  It was a question of territory, then.

Well, this could be a staging ground, then.  I would have liked to get further away from the other Others, but this would do.

I drew the holly branches from where they were tucked against my chest by jacket an chain, and I tossed them to the ground.

The chain was my other tool.  Still slick with glamour.

“Thing to keep in mind, Evan,” I said, talking to him as I threaded the end of the chain through the loop of the dial lock at the far end, “Is humans have been hunting things bigger than them for a very long time.  We’re built for it.  Most of us have pretty good brains in our heads, we’ve got a natural endurance, and the ability to use tools.  We can hold water, and in a sheer endurance run, we can cover more distance than a deer, a gazelle, or a mammoth.”

“I don’t think anyone’s ever going to come,” he whispered, eyes down on the ground.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” I said, affecting fake cheer.  “I came.  And so long as we keep talking, our guest should come too.”

I jammed a twig through the chain, then checked my handiwork.

“A little nap,” he said.  Hearing it for the Nth time, I wondered if he was trying to convince himself.

“No time for napping,” I said.  “I need you alert.  I know you’re not up to a lot of thinking like this, but I’m relying on you for a hint that he’s coming.”

Hard to climb a tree with one hand, but I did it, just to get to a better vantage point.  I made it up as high as I could, then wound the end of the chain around a thick section of trunk, higher up.

“By the way,” I said.  “Introductions may be in order.  June, meet Evan,” I said.

I drew the hatchet, then buried it in the trunk.  I wound the end of the chain around the handle and blade.

I hopped down more than I climbed down, crossed a short distance, then climbed a nearby tree.

“The wolf,” Evan said.

“Fuck,” I said.  “Excuse my language.  Probably not appropriate around an eight-year old.  How close?”

No response.  But when I looked, Evan didn’t look like he was afraid.  More an observation.

Close-ish, then?

I didn’t say it aloud.  If every word I said reeled the Other in closer, I’d have to control it.

I  used the tip of the shotgun to catch the dangling chain and dragged it over my way until I could hook it with my thumb.  I hooked it around a branch.

Before I climbed down, I ran my hand along the chain I could reach.

ColdConductivityHidden.

I tried to push ideas into it.  To change what it was.

For now, it was simply a very elaborate clothesline, about twelve or fifteen feet above the ground.  A metal clothesline charged with the cold from the hatchet.

I hopped down.

This time, I didn’t interact with Evan.  No use bringing the goblin closer.  Not yet.

I tramped in the snow, stomping.  Following a set path.  Here and there, I glanced at Evan, who was curled up and trying to stay warm.  Replaying a memory.  I suspected it was from that same night he’d failed to stay warm, or he’d been too dehydrated, or something else had happened.

Sorry, little man, I thought.  You didn’t deserve this.

Let’s fuck up that wolf.

I tore the bluish holly leaves from the branches, depositing them into the circle I’d stomped into the snow.  I was careful to layer them so the leaves all touched.  The little red berries were spaced out at even intervals.

I was so engrossed in the task I nearly forgot about the other thing I was supposed to be paying attention to.

Or was it more accurate to say the Other thing?

“The wolf… have to run,” Evan said, more agitated.

It was here.  The circle wasn’t a circle.  It was a ‘c’.

Which was by design, more or less.

I cocked the shotgun, winced in pain at the pain that caused my finger.

Such a little thing, so much pain.

He appeared in the woods, almost as if the shadows were binding together to give him a shape.  One caked in filth and blood, but a shape all the same.

“No, no, have to run,” Evan said.  He turned.

“Evan,” I said, sounding as authoritarian as I could.  “Come to me.”

“Have to run,” he said, but he didn’t move.

“Safety, right?  Think about safety.  The treehouse?  The hedge.  The stream.  I’m a kind of safety for you.  Come here.”

“I-”

“Evan.  Surviving ghost.  I swear to you, I will help you.”

The words had power.

Evan listened.  He came to my side.  I reached out for him, and my hand passed through.  I would have wanted to hold him, to crouch by his side, and protect him, or simply rest my hands on his shoulders.

What did it say, that I was willing to have contact with him?

I saw a leer on the wolf’s face as it paced around the clearing.  Mocking me.

I kept Evan with me, walking around the edge of the circle of holly.  Keeping the opening in mind.

He was a bully.  He taunted.  He’d charged Evan earlier just to see the ghost cower.  He couldn’t speak, so he taunted with actions.

Would he do the same here?

Yes.

But not the way I’d planned, not the way I’d hoped.

He charged, but he did it at an oblique angle, bypassing the clothesline entirely.

Great, filthy paws stopped short of the barrier.

He didn’t step through the opening in the circle either.

Instead, using his paw, he struck at the snow.  Snow and the dirt and grass from the ground below were cast atop one of the branches I’d left by the opening.  Branches with holly still on them, that I could maybe throw across the opening once he’d passed inside.

The other branch wouldn’t cover the whole opening, either.

He wasn’t stupid.

The Other’s toothy grin widened, showing teeth.  It would have seemed cartoonish if… well, if he wasn’t fucking terrifying.

“Stay close, Evan,” I said, as I circled the incomplete ring of holly.  My voice shook a little as I said it.

“I don’t want to be eaten,” he said, and his voice shook a lot more.  A replay of something he’d said to himself, once.

“Neither do I,” I said, without taking my eyes off the Other.

He was faster than Evan and I.  Covered more ground.  I tried to keep the ring of holly between him and us, but it was futile.  If he really wanted, he might have lunged, changed direction and lunged again.  I wasn’t sure I would have been able to move fast enough.

But he didn’t.  One ear twitched every time Evan made a sound.

I reached the point where I’d left the other holly branch.  Not enough to close the circle, if I wanted to hide within.  Which I didn’t.  I bent down to pick it up, not taking my eyes or the shotgun off the goblin.

I didn’t want to let go of the shotgun, or take my finger off the trigger, so I hooked my good fingers into the crooks of the branches and bit.  Tore.

Giving me a mess of holly leaves in my mouth.

“Run!” I screamed, around the leaves in my mouth.

I bolted.

The Hyena chased.  Silent, but I could feel the impact as his great paws hit solid ground.

I cast the branch down between him and myself.  There was blood on it from my wounded hand.  I hoped that counted for something.

It did.  The Hyena dodged, leaped off to one side, then corrected course, closing in on me.

No.  On Evan.  On the ghost of the child that had eluded him.  The ghost who had eluded him.

For one second I couldn’t afford to spare, I took in the scene, tore the holly from my mouth.

“Evan!  Come!”

I screamed the words, as if volume could impart some measure of power, commanding the ghost.

Evan came.

Not fast enough.  Not far enough to get away.

I jammed the bloody holly into the end of the shotgun, aimed, and fired, haphazard.

A distraction, repelling the Hyena for one precious moment.

Evan ran past me, flickered, and disappeared.

The Hyena shook its head, looked at me, and lunged.

Into the chain-clothesline I’d rigged.

The branches holding it taut broke like they were nothing.

There was only slack.

I fired a second time, without holly this time.

The Hyena pounced.

A tiny something snapped.

It was like time stood still, as I lost my balance, and landed on my ass in the snow.  The Hyena loomed over me, forelimbs outstretched, claws ready to tear into me.

Back legs on the ground.

I panted for breath, saw the Hyena there, its legs struggling, futile, in an attempt to touch ground.  It did a short tip-toe dance on the ground, rear limbs only.

The tree swayed, where I’d tied the chain up higher.

As nooses went, it wasn’t a conventional knot.  A simple loop, prevented from drawing closed by a twig jammed in the intersection.  The twig broke when enough force was exerted on it, force the Hyena was definitely capable of bringing to bear.  Simple forward momentum pulled the loop closed around the Hyena’s neck.

A choke-collar of metal charged with glamour, with blood, and power.

He snarled, lunging again.  The tree shook, and snow drifted down on us.

“Fuck you too,” I said.

Still sitting in the snow, I pulled my legs around into a cross-legged position.  “Now, I think, we can have a chat.”

He retreated until he could have all four legs on the ground and growled, a long, low sound.

“This is the point where you’re supposed to call all the spirits and ghosts you have at your command, isn’t it?” I asked.  “When you realize you can’t win on your own, you call them, and you cower like the miserable little fuck you are, hiding until your prey is worn down or dead.  So why don’t you call them?  Do that howl thing again.”

He growled, quieter this time.

“No?” I asked.  “You’re not going to call them, huh?  Could it be that you’re scared?  Are you worried that they might want to take back what you took from them?”

He didn’t make a sound, this time.

“Yeah, fuck you,” I said.  “Look, it’s not even sunset.  How many do you think I could call here before the sun’s down?  How are they going to take it back?  Do they just carve pieces out of you, eye for an eye style?  Or would they actually try to recover what you have in your stomach?  Cut you open like the woodcutter did for little red riding hood?  Sew you back up with stones inside you, and toss you into a river?”

No reply.

“I’ll be right back,” I said.  “Which one do you think I’ll find first?”

Still no reply.  Only a malevolent glare.

I left him behind, watching out for Evan.

Hoping he wasn’t gone forever.

He’d been a help.  I felt like I owed him.

I did owe him.  I wasn’t sure I’d fulfilled that oath I’d made, back there.

I probably had, but-

I heard a crunch.

Realized what it was.

I ran back the way I’d come.  Back towards the Hyena.

I saw him biting the trunk of the tree, splintering the wood.

Fuck, fuck, fuuuuuck.

I dashed past him.

He let go of the trunk, lunged for me instead.

I rolled, he kept going.  I heard a choking sound.

But my focus was only on the branch I’d thrown to the ground.

No sooner did I have it than I was heading back for the Hyena.

When I’d left his reach, he’d turned back to the tree.  Biting again.

I threw the branch, and he recoiled.

As with the circle of holly, I kept the branch between us, drawing closer to it.

I tore off bits of holly and distributed them in a wide circle around the trunk.

Cast off more bits and the remaining berries in his direction, until I was sure he wasn’t about to approach the tree again.

“Fucker,” I said.  “Fuck you, you fucker.”

I was learning all sorts of useful lessons.  Like not leaving a haphazardly-bound Other unattended.

“Now, what do you say?” I asked.  “Should I go find your pets?  Tell them that you’re not in good shape?  Or should I find some holly?  Surround you until you have nowhere to go?  Until you have to sit still while they take you to pieces?”

He growled, very different from before.  Head as low as he could get it.

“Or do I use a bit of power?  I can see the connections radiating from you.  Wouldn’t take much.”

I drew out a line in the snow.  “There’s one.”

I drew out another line.  “There’s another.  There’s a lot of blood on my hands.  I don’t imagine it takes much to bring them running.  They’re probably pissed.”

Another growl, head low.

“The alternative,” I said.  “Is that you agree to be bound.  Which is probably loads better than you deserve.”

He didn’t move or make a sound.

“If I don’t get an agreement of some sort, I’m going to bring the others.  I’ll protect myself and watch.  I’d tell you how that kid you just tried to get?  He was actually pretty awesome.  He in no way deserved this… but you don’t care, do you?  It’s not what you are.”

There was no grin on his face.  He was only a mangy cur, now.  Big, but still a mangy cur.

“Ten,” I said.  “Nine.  Eight.  Seven.  Six.  Five-”

He spoke.  A language I couldn’t understand.  Something guttural, with more sense in the silences than in the utterances.

It was, I suspected, a language so basic that most could understand it.

I submit.

The tree, no longer bent by the weight pulling down on it, rose to its full height, casting the remaining snow into the sky.

And somehow, with just the movement of that one tree, it seemed like the sun was able to reach the area around me, making everything brighter.

A sword hung from a point partway up the tree, the chain looped around blade and handle.  It swung from the movement of the tree, blade ringing each time it banged against trunk and branch.

My entire body protested as I climbed the tree, but I made it up to where I’d tied the chain, collected June, and unbound the chain.

I was careful to bind the sword in chain before I headed for the ground.

The thing was ornate, but in a very odd, unpleasant way.  An ugly face of the Hyena’s head in profile, a ragged claw at the pommel, and the blade itself was uneven, with terrible weight.  I didn’t miss the fact that the grip had spikes sticking out from it, so anyone who held it would gouge their palms and fingers.

A pretty fucking reluctant binding.

I looked to connections, and found the way I needed to go to reach civilization.  Trudging through the snow, shotgun slung over one shoulder, chain-wrapped sword in hand, resting on one shoulder.  Uncomfortable and heavy.

But I wasn’t in a rush.

The forest was peaceful, bright.

Here and there, I saw ghosts flickering out of existence.  Their wounds widening, tearing them into pieces, leaving fragments to drift out of existence.

The remaining Others were already gone.  Finally healing, maybe.  Or something.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, if it was something.

I was nearly to the wood’s edge when I saw him.

“Evan,” I said.

He wasn’t fading.  Wasn’t disappearing.

He was the Hyena’s, but not in the same way the others were.

“The wolf is defeated,” I said.  “He shouldn’t bother you anymore.”

“The wolf leaves,” he said.  He flickered.  He had that tone that ghosts did when they were repeating scenes from the past.  Part of a riddle I hadn’t answered, though I had a pretty good idea now.

“The wolf leaves,” I said.  “Yeah.  I’m taking him away now.”

“The wolf leaves,” Evan said.  “But the wolf will come back.  I have to keep running, until help comes.”

He looked over one shoulder, a flicker of fear on his face, and then bolted.  Running, faster than I could follow.

“Yeah,” I said.  I rattled the sword.  “Fuck you, goblin.”

There was no response

I approached the roadside.

“Nick of the Knights,” I said.  “Because Fell will kill me if I call him like this.  Nick of the Knights.  Nick of the Knights.  Shotgun guy.”

I felt the connection appear.

“Great,” I said.

I sat back and waited.

“You look a little worse for wear,” Fell said.

I didn’t comment.  I only waited.  I ached, I was scabbed over in a dozen places.  People stared when I passed them.  At least I’d had a good container for the sword.  A cylindrical case for holding posters and artwork.

It was fucking heavy, which didn’t help the weight of it.

Conquest’s manse loomed before me.  Not too bad a walk from the subway stop.

“You’re quiet, too,” Fell said.  “Don’t tell me you traded away something like your voice.”

“Was a pretty unilateral deal,” I replied.  “I think I scared him into submission.”

“All with hours to spare,” Fell smirked.  “I thought you’d have another last-minute finish.”

“I hurried this one, because I need time to plan and prepare for the next.  It’s the ugliest one, far as I can figure.”

“Probably.  Come on, then.  Let’s get this over with so you can keep preparing.”

I followed him inside.

There was no illusion of a ground floor when we entered.  Only a vast open space, and a tower.  Lopsided, elaborate, so impossible to ignore that it commanded attention, reminding me of the Other with the eye.  There were decorative features that would have been impossible on another structure.  Gravity would have torn it to pieces.  Spires jutting off like blades in scabbards at a man’s hip, points facing skyward.  A pale white halo surrounded the top floor, reminiscent of a crown.

I did not appreciate the long walk up to the top.  Floor after floor, with screams of the tortured muffled by closed doors, dark, facing scene after scene where Conquest paid homage to himself.

I reached the top, where Conquest waited.  But I supposed he didn’t sleep.  He just was.

He was still in his halfway-form, half man, half monster, flesh stretched, beard, the eyes more whites than anything, wearing clothes that were part skin, part coat, part robe.  He held no animal, but I saw that the rooftop was bordered by a moat, where large silver fish swam in perpetual rings.  The only light was a pale reflection from Conquest himself, and from the halo-crown that surrounded the tower.

There were five points of interest around the tower top, besides Conquest himself.  Rose was one.  Asleep, her back to the wall, with a short chain trailing from her to Conquest’s hand.

I looked, and I saw the connection between us.

Suspicions confirmed.  Something was wrong with the flow of it.  Too much coming my way.  It was twisted, never straight.

There were also three altars, behind and to either side of Conquest.  The book sat on one.  The other two were empty.

“You have one more day,” Conquest said.  “Then we get to business.”

“I understand,” I said.

I drew the sword from the container, then laid it on one altar, chain and all.

“I assume I can’t take Rose with me?” I asked.

“No,” Conquest said.

“With your permission, I would like to leave now,” I said.

“Leave?  To prepare for your next task?”

“No,” I said.  “Yes.  Both.”

“Both,” he said, with a tone that suggested he was pointing out the inconsistency.  The almost-lie.

But all three answers were true.

“There’s something I need to do,” I said.  “With your permission?”

“Granted,” he said. “You’ve done well, servant, being so prompt, bearing scars from service to me.”

I could have argued, but I was too emotionally weary.

And I needed his cooperation.

“Fell,” I said.  “Do you have a phone?”

“You don’t?”

“I’m poor,” I said.  “Please?”

Conquest gestured, and Fell frowned a little.  He stepped forward and handed me the phone.

One search.

Another.  For a map.

I stared at it for a while.

“Thank you,” I said.  “I’ll see you tomorrow night.”

When all of this comes crashing down.  I hope.

Peaceful.

I luxuriated in the quiet, the isolation.

Time to myself, in a way.

To put thoughts in order, plan, strategize.

I was functioning on a higher level because I was more me.  Because I was borrowing from Rose.

I couldn’t even feel proud of what I was doing, knowing that it wasn’t all my success.  I had to figure out a way to repair the connection, before I took too much.

But that didn’t mean I couldn’t do good.  I… I was glad, for what I’d managed to do, clearing out the woods.  Not proud, but glad.

It was as if a deep-seated worry had less of a hold on me.  I could do good.

I would do good.

Snow crunched underfoot with each footstep.  Periodically it squeaked.  I couldn’t make out much, but the moonlight reflected off the snow, and it let me see the essentials.  Ground, tree.

I’d tended to my wounds, and I’d seen the tattoos.  I’d given a lot of blood, and I’d suffered for it.  I was paler.  but the tattoos weren’t more vivid.

Things were starting to make sense.

The pattern of my boots crunching through snow stopped as I came to a halt.

I saw the ghost.  Evan.  Running from something that was no longer chasing him.

“Evan,” I said.  I thought of the internet search.  “Evan Matthieu.  Stop.”

He stopped.

“Can we talk for a bit?” I said.  “I promise I’ll do what I can to keep you safe.”

He looked over his shoulder.  A flicker.

Something of an echo.

“Come on,” I said.  “I know where we need to go.”

He nodded.

I would have held his hand, if I could have.

But I just walked alongside him.

I saw how furtive he was.  There was nothing left in him that could really relax.  It had been easy to miss when we were together, because there had been no reason to relax.  But now that there was peace of sorts in these woods… it stood out.

“Your mom and dad looked for you,” I said.  “It was in the news.”

He looked up at me.

“You were trying to go home?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“You said you tried the road, but that didn’t work.  Did you figure out the direction you needed to go, to go home?”

“I have figured it out,” he said.

“Present tense,” I said.

“”I… I almost forgot?  But yeah, I saw an airplane!” he said, with a note of excitement.  “I saw… and I know it’s going to the airport, which means home is… that way!”

He pointed.

“Were you in the treehouse?” I asked.

He frowned, then nodded.

“That makes it easier,” I said.  “You saw the plane, and left the safe area behind.  The treehouse, the hedge, the stream…”

“Uh huh.”

“And you thought you could just find hiding places along the way, right?  You didn’t need the hedge and stream if you knew where you were going.”

“I think, not thought.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Come on, we’ll be able to tell when we’re closer, because you’re a little more you, I think.”

“More me?”

“Yeah.  Come on.”

We walked together.  It wasn’t a fast walk.  I knew the minutes and hours were ticking on.  I knew this was an imperfect science.  Time I should be sleeping, preparing for something that was pretty fucking scary.

But like I’d said, I had something to do.

“Do you remember my name?” I asked.

“Blake?”

“Yeah,” I said.  We’re closer.

Somewhere between his home and the treehouse.

It was an hour before we got far enough.

He flickered.

“I… I need a nap,” he said.  “I’m so tired.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “And… I don’t think you were here.  But we’re close.  Come on.  Let’s look.  Look for good hiding places.”

He nodded.

It didn’t take that long to find, now that we were close.  He started to break up when we reached places he never had, and places where he was too far away, like he had when I’d fought the Hyena.

We wound up by a series of rocks.  I had to crawl to get far enough in.

Evan’s expression was solemn.

I was careful, brushing away the snow.

I touched something that wasn’t earth.  Not snow, not dirt, not wood.

Gently, I dusted off his face with the back of my good hand.  Cold to the touch.

When I looked at Evan, he was crying.

“You found me,” he said.

“Yeah.  I’m sorry it had to be like this.”

He shook his head.  “I- I-“

He stopped, crying openly.  He hiccuped.

I waited, patient.

When he could finally speak again, he did so through more hiccups.  “I wanted someone to find me.  So I could go home.  But I can’t go home, can I?”

“Not like this,” I said, my eyes on the ground.

He took another moment, a brief wail cut short, a whimper.

I saw a flicker in my vision.  But when I looked, there was only darkness.

“It’s your choice, Evan,” I said.  “If you want to move on, go wherever you’re supposed to go, I can try to help.  I don’t think it’ll take much.”

He shook his head.

“Whatever’s supposed to help you on to the afterlife, I think the Hyena scared it off.  It’s why you’re so… whole.”

“I don’t… I can’t.”

“There’s another option,” I said.  “I… I think you’re pretty amazing, lasting as long as you did.  And, I think there’s something to you, that maybe resonates with me.  Being scared, being alone.  I had a long series of bad days, too.  We’re similar, kind of.”

“Yeah?”

“You don’t have to answer right away, but… well, it’s maybe not the best idea, it would mean you’d have to help me in some pretty ugly stuff.  But would you want to be my familiar?”

“What?”

“Like the witch has her black cat, kind of.  You could be alive again.  And I think you’d be you, because you’d take a little bit from me to stay whole.  I’d… I’d like to think I’d take from you too.  Because helping you, like someone once helped me?  It might nourish my soul, my being, if that makes any sense.”

“Not really.”

“Is that a no?  You’re totally allowed to say no.”

“You… you stopped the wolf, didn’t you?”

“The Hyena.  A goblin.  Yes.”

“I don’t know what I could really do.”

“Show me escape routes,” I said.  “Help me move faster.  We’d figure it out.  But I’ve dealt with a lot of ghosts and goblins, and…  it sort of feels right?  To be honest, this thing I have to deal with next?  I could really use help.  But please, don’t feel pressured to say yes.  I would… hate myself forever if you did.”

He nodded slowly.

But he didn’t get a chance to give me an answer.

Lights flickered on, all around me.  Dots.  Beams.

Flashlights.

“Toronto PD!  Slowly raise your hands over your head!”

I looked at the corpse, then at Evan.

Police?

Of fucking course.

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