Category Archives: Arc 4 (Collateral)

Collateral 4.10

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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.

“A bit.”

“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.

“How’s that?”

“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.”

“Close enough.”

“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’swhat 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.

“The Sphinx-”

“I’ve met the Sphinx, the Drunk, and the Astrologer.  And Fell.”

“Ah.  Okay.”

“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?”

“Suppose so.”

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.”

Cryptic.

“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.

“Could be.”

“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.”

“Thank you.”

“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.

Huh.

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?”

“What risk?”

“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.”

“Twenty feet?”

“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.

“Oh?”

“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.”

“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?”

Shotgun pointed.

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.”

“Wind?”

He shrugged.  “Mess with other elemental forces, and you risk disrupting the mechanism.  Weapon is maybe a little lighter, pushes a little harder.”

I nodded.

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.

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Right on.”

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.

“Good luck.”

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.

Incapacitation.

Someone might as well have hit me across the knees with a baseball bat.

I collapsed.

“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.

Fuck.

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.

A whisper.

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.

Little fucker.

I was stuck where I was.

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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.”

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Collateral 4.8

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No sudden movements.

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

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

Animals were faster than me.  Couldn’t run.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He was already shaking his head.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which wasn’t a rebuttal.

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

Quiet?  The rustling behind me had stopped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad.  If it cut the twine-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No protection from the outfit here.

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

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

One-two.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Something bit my ear, hard.

More claws scrabbled at my scalp.

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

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

These things were diseased.  Filthy.

Covered in fleas.  Lice.  Other things.

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

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

Blade met flesh, and the cur died.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I very deliberately avoided looking at him.

“No, no, no.  He was a good boy.”

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

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

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

The animals were closer now, shoulder to shoulder.

Hm.

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

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

Cue enough for the animals to attack.

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

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

I did not know that rabbits had claws.

“No, the dog, no!”  Dowght cried out.

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

“No!  Stop, you bastard!”

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

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

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

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

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

The larger animals attacked him.

Biting the hand that feeds.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two or three dozen animals still staring up at me.

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

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

They dogpiled me.  All attacking, all at once.

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

Animals I hit and injured recovered and rejoined the swarm.

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

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

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

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

In the midst of it, they backed off.

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

It bounced off.

Again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I gagged, coughed to try and clear my throat.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halfway down, I stopped.

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

The hatchet still sat in my hand.

June.

I blinked, slowly.

June had gone out like this.

Hurting.

Hopeless.

Letting herself relax and accept oblivion.

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

Then I looked at the animals.

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

Ahh.

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

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

Double-edged sword, that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.  Low in a different way.

Right.

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

Call the lawyers?

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could see the animals building their courage.

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

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

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

Ideas.  I raised my head some.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A mongrel growled at me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I swung the hatchet.

Jar shattered.

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

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

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

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

There was no room for doubt or hesitation.

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

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

Cold.  A pulse of despair.

A tattered, frostbitten woman, head bowed.

She seemed fainter.

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

Glamour filling the scratched-in inscription.  Sinking in.

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

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

“Remember the cabin, June?” I asked.

“So cold.”

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

“I’m hungry,” she whispered.

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

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

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

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

“Hunting,” I said.  “Did you hunt?”

“It’s cold,” she said.

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

“Why is hunting slow?” I asked.

I needed an in.  A connection.

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

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

She echoed me.  Caught up in the words.

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

It became a chant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bastard,’ he mewled the word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They’re going,” I said.  “Hurry.”

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

“Bastard,” he whispered the word.

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

He was lighter than I’d thought.

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

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

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

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

I’d nearly forgotten, in the chaos.

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

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

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

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

She veered towards the room to her left.

“Cabin door, June,” I said.

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

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

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

“Come on, Fell,” I said.

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

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

Ominous as fuck.

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

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

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

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

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

“Handsome.  Noble,” Dowght muttered.  Oblivious.

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

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

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

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

“June,” I said.  “Turn left.”

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

It scuffed the snow-covered road with its hoof.

Preparing to charge.

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

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

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

“Deep sleep,” I intoned.

She flickered, then disappeared.

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I could see the deer recovering.

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

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

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

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

The deer collapsed like a puppet without strings.

“No!” Dowght hollered.  “No!  No!”

He crawled more than anything, closing the distance.

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

The animals were closing in.

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

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

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

All of me hurt.

The protection the ghost afforded was fading.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I saw headlights at the far end of the street.

“Fell, Fell, Fell…”

The car approached.  Stopped.

The door opened.

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

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

“Welcome to the neighborhood,” I said.

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

“Thank you for coming,” I said.

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

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

He didn’t lower the gun.

“I have the imp,” I said.

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

“Not so much.”

The bear was emerging from the alley.

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

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

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

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

“Ten twenty.”

I’d thought it was approaching midnight.

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

“Not my responsibility.”

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

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

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

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

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

I nodded.  Too weary to speak.

“Come.”

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

“Him?”

“Leaving him here means he dies.”

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

I watched as Fell approached Dowght.

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

Fell cast sand around the man.

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

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

I hurried to follow.

“He’s safe?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Gotcha,” I said.

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

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

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

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

I threw the tome to the ground between us.

I need that back, I thought.

No use dwelling on it right now, though.

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

“I do,” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No thank you, no acknowledgement.  Just that.

Dick.

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

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

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

“Why her?” Fell asked.

Can’t you just agree and make life easier?

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

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

“Still not seeing it,” Fell said.

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

Fuck.

I nodded slowly.

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

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

“What request?”

“Rose.  You chained her?”

“I did.”

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

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

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

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

“Diabolist,” he said.

I looked up.

Rose dangled from the chain.

Unconscious.

“She’s sleeping,” Fell observed.

“What’s wrong with her?” I asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I stood.

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

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

“Will you be giving him to another?”

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

I nodded, turning to leave.

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

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

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

For better or worse.

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