Category Archives: 5.03

Conviction 5.3

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Who was Blake Thorburn?

Who was I, in the grand scheme of it all?  What did I amount to?  When I bled the essence of Blake Thorburn onto the concrete floor of a jail cell, what was I giving up?

Presence.  I couldn’t communicate effectively with Evan.  The loss of presence was part of the aim, though.  To put myself in a situation where maybe I could slip the metaphorical noose.

Strength.  I couldn’t stand straight.  Kind of a problem when I needed to be running.  I didn’t have balance.  When I pushed on a door to let myself into the next section of the building, I found it hard to do.  Hard to say how much was blood loss, how much was a loss of personal power, and how much was my disconnection from reality.

My awareness of the world was fuzzier.  Flickers appeared and lingered at my peripheral vision, like radio static, rain, or falling leaves.  I was hearing phantom sounds, only to realize they were real sounds, badly filtered.  I couldn’t pick out what I was supposed to hear and the background noise of the police station.

My thoughts, too, were fuzzier, disconnected from events.  Which was why, really, I was dwelling on what was happening to me more than on my surroundings.

“-Have to go that way,” Evan said.  He said it to Rose.

“Okay,” Rose said, before glancing at me.

She was clear enough.  So was Evan.

They were easy to focus on.

We headed down the hallway to the stairs.  I missed the first step and came down hard on the next.

Feathers rose into the air, touched with blood.

I looked down for the source of the feathers, and I saw my tattoos.  Three of the birds were beheaded or partially beheaded, the cuts intersecting their faces and necks, the other parts of their bodies already gone.  The blood that still bled out from the wound was thicker around the stumps, and the matted blood where I’d pressed my arms against the mattress to staunch the flow was caked around their bodies more than anywhere else.

Huh.

“Blake,” Rose shouted, from somewhere far away.  “Pay attention!”

I’d stopped.  I looked around for her.  I wasn’t carrying a mirror, and if I had been, it would have been confiscated along with my various tools.

“Don’t look for me, move!”

Move.  Right.

I headed down the stairs.

“They’re coming,” Evan said.

They?  Who were they?

“Blake!”  Rose said, trying to snap me to reality, maybe doing the opposite.

But I focused.  Bloody feathers on the stairs and the landing before the next flight…

Again, I used my toe to draw a line.  Residual blood from standing in the pool of it made it easier to do.

Officers and a man with a first aid kit came running up the stairs, running right past the disoriented guy with sliced up arms.

I smirked.

“Get moving.”

I wasn’t sure if it was Evan or Rose saying that.  I listened all the same.

As I set foot on the landing, I saw golden diagrams spiral out from scribbles on the wall.  I’d mistaken them for gang tags, but they were runes.

One connection fixated on me, all the more noticeable because my connections to everything else were so thin.

An alarm.  Duncan Behaim was on his way to intercept me.

“The front door is one floor down,” Evan said.  “Very close.  But you have to pass through a gate to get there.  If you go that way, there’s a back door to the parking lot.”

He was more lucid.  Because we were closer to his body?

“The parking lot has a fence, but you can climb on a car to go over.”

If I’m strong enough.

“Okay,” I said.  “Did you find the objects I told you to hunt for?”

No response.

“Objects?” Rose asked.  I saw her face reflected in the glass of a framed award, hanging in the stairwell.  Odd, that it was as easy to make out as it was.

“Duncan Behaim.  Nephew.  He’s borrowing spirits or something,” I said.  “Chronomancy tricks.  Reset my day to keep me here until I’m out of time.  I sent Evan out to see if he could find it.”

“Did you find the things Blake asked you to find?” Rose asked.

“It’s in the basement, I think.  Behind a fence, a man sits there.”

I rounded the end of the stairs, and made my way down the next flight.

“Evidence lockup,” Rose said.  “That’s kind of clever.  We can’t get to the stuff without drawing attention.”

Her voice got further away as I got away from the nearest reflective surface only to jump in volume as I got to the next spot.

“I could do with going to evidence,” I said.  “They have June’s hatchet and supplies.  I think.”

“I still don’t know what’s going on,” Rose said.

“I’m being framed, I said.  “For murder.  Laird’s aiming to win round three, and he’s set his nephew on me…”

More feathers, as I hit the ground a little too fast.  I was moving a little quicker, talking a little more coherently, yet something else was giving way.  It was my focus that was narrowing, a kind of tunnel vision, but it seemed like a damn good deal.  Being able to function, just a little more, for some loss of peripheral vision?

“…backed by all the power the Behaim circle can provide at range,” I said.  I caught some feathers out of the air, jamming them in a pocket.

I had no idea if they were useful or abstract, but I liked having something on hand.  I felt naked without my tools and trinkets.  Exposed, oddly enough.

“Okay,” Rose said.  “Let’s think rationally about this.  Is the hatchet really that useful, worthy of the time and effort?”

Duncan Behaim was closer now.  I was still making my way downstairs.  Time.  That was the question.  If I made my way to the basement, I could very well run into him.  Maybe before I found my things, maybe after, as I made my exit.  It depended on how easily I could find my way through the area, get past the man at the gate, and all the rest.

“What did you bind Evan to?”

“I didn’t,” I said.

“He died in the police station?”

“He died in the woods, where the goblin-Hyena-wolf-thing was.  He survived it.  Escaped,” I said.

“Are the woods close?”

“Evan came with- with his body,” I said.  “Cops brought it.”

“That still doesn’t make sense, Blake.  He’s apparently aware.”

“I know,” I said.

“He’s not a ghost, then?”

“I don’t know what he is.  But he’s a help, and I’m not about to second guess that,” I said.  More feathers came loose as I made my way down to the next landing, taking stairs two at a time and hopping down.

“It kind of matters.”

“Getting out of Duncan’s way matters more,” I said.  “I… tell me what I should do.  I’m compromised.  Not thinking straight.  Do I go for the exit or-”

Duncan turned.  No longer making his way to me.

“-nevermind.  Okay.  Evan.  He… he’s still there.  The echo, yes, but there’s the consciousness, and he’s still got the consciousness.  It never moved on.  He doesn’t want to move on.”

“He’s a soul?”

I winced.  “Don’t know.”

“Actually using and leveraging a soul is a little different than using a ghost, Blake.”

As before, Rose’s voice fell away as I made my way down the steps, then resumed at full volume as I passed another frame.

I stopped in my tracks, quickly enough that more bloody feathers stirred.

“Blake?”

The cadence, the timing of it… something was wrong.  I said as much.

“Something’s fucked up,” I said.  I was slurring my words a bit.

“What something?”

Rose, too close?  Too clear?

I stopped to focus on my environment, and I felt other things slipping away.

I was incomplete, broken up.  Focusing in one area meant sacrificing in others.

I felt that tunnel vision focus begin to fall away, but I also felt weaker, as if I was feeling all of the exhaustion of the last day and all of the effects of the blood loss hitting me at once.

The recovery of my overall awareness was slower, going this way.  I was losing strength and gaining awareness at less than half the speed things had changed, going the opposite way.

Was there some prevailing wind, metaphorically speaking?  Was I working against some general effect that was meant to confound me?

“You’re giving me a really screwed up read, Blake.  I can’t really make things out, especially as they get further from you and the mirrors.  I’m supposed to use you as an anchor, and I don’t think there’s nearly enough tying you down.”

Or holding me up. 

The stairwell looked just a little bit distorted, and it wasn’t my perceptions being twisted.

“Something’s wrong with the stairwell,” I said.

“I don’t think- ever get home,” Evan whispered, agreeing.

“Yeah.  It’s a trap,” I said.

“You’ve been heading downstairs for way too long,” Rose said.  “What floor were you on?”

“Third,” I said.

“I thought it was the sixth or something,” she said.  “Shit.”

My progress down the stairs was slower, this time.  I tracked my location relative to Duncan’s…

One section of stairwell, connected Escher style, top to bottom.

“Find-” I winced at the pain in my arms.  That pain joined my hearing and eyesight among the things that were getting muddled, hard to compartmentalize or stop focusing on.  “Find the rune.”

I was dimly aware of the feathers in the air.  All the ones I’d loosed, while repeating the same descent down the stairs, so disconnected from reality that I wasn’t realizing what was happening.

“There,” Rose said.  “On the other side of the wall.  It’s… glowing in the darkness, kind of.”

I pressed my hand against the wall.

Unreachable.

Unreachable by humans.

“Evan,” I said.  “Go find it, see if you can do something?”

Rose repeated my instruction for Evan, pointing.

He was back in four seconds.  “Can’t.”

“Why not?” Rose asked.

He shook his head.  “Can’t.”

“This isn’t the time to start acting more like a ghost.  Why can’t you?” Rose asked.

“F-frostbite?” Evan asked.

He held up one hand, showing us fingers that were frayed at the tip.  More ghostly than they might otherwise be.

“Salt,” I said.  “This is all very deliberate.”

I was aware of Duncan Behaim making his way across the building.  “Rose?  I guess this is connections 101, for you.  Look.  Can you sense Duncan Behaim?”

“Oh god,” Rose said.  “Blake-”

I winced, and shut my eyes.  Firm, I asked, “Can you?”

“No.”

My heart sank.

“Blake-”

“If I give you more power, then-”

“If you give me more, you’ll die.  Don’t.  I didn’t ever imagine you’d try to do something like this.  Or… get stuck in prison.  Or any of this.  But I’m not capable, even with a bit of a boost.  You shouldn’t have assumed like this.”

“Was going with my instincts,” I said.

“You really shouldn’t trust your instincts if they’re telling you to carve yourself up.”

“I needed backup,” I said  “This kills two birds with one -ow- stone, so to speak.  Bringing you back, and reducing my profile.  This is serious.  We’re in trouble if we can’t deal with Duncan here.  Right now, I think he’s busy setting up more traps.  Sealing us inside the building.”

“Okay,” Rose said.  “I’m trying to think.”

“Good,” I said.  “We need it to come together.  Because I just gave up almost everything I have to bring you back and give you some muscle, and apparently you can’t get muscle.  I need you doing what you can, because I’m not up for more than getting from A to B, and mid-level problem solving.”

“I think you’re putting an unfair burden on me,” Rose said.  “I don’t have the ability to do much of anything, here.  I can’t affect the world.”

“You couldn’t, but that was before,” I said.  “That doesn’t mean you can’t now.  You might be able to talk to people, or distract them, at least.  Figure something out.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” she said.

With that, she was gone from the frame.

I wandered down the stairs, then up a few flights.  There was no ‘snap’ when I passed the boundary.  Duncan remained one floor below me at all times.

Rigging traps at the exits, binding me in place.

He hadn’t hurt me, though.  Laird hadn’t either.

That was a good thing to keep in mind.

What were the other options?

Thinking outside the box… I could theoretically break the rune by taking the most direct route.  Rather than walk around to the other side, I could try attacking it from here.

Punch through the wall until I could break the section of wall the rune was painted on?  Even if I had the raw strength, I didn’t want to do that to myself, and I wasn’t sure it would work.  Tearing the railing from the wall somehow and using it as a battering ram?  Same problem.

Besides, my ability to easily alter and affect the world was apparently one of the things I’d lost when I’d spilled my own blood.

I looked down at Evan.  “It looks like we’re stuck here until Rose figures something out.  Unless you can figure out some kind of escape route.”

He turned around.

I followed his line of sight.

“Very funny,” I said.

Much of the light in the stairwell came from a single large window, just above one landing.

He shrugged.

“We’re still on the third floor,” I said.

He shrugged again.

“Right,” I said.  I glanced around.

No other brilliant ideas were presenting themselves.

Staring at the bright window, turned gold by the sunlight, it disoriented.

When I looked away, I couldn’t help but feel that the stairwell was a little more crooked than it had been.

“Fair enough,” I said.  “We’ll do it your way.”

I kicked the window and it didn’t break.  Not a huge surprise; I’d controlled my kick so my leg wouldn’t keep going, only to get sliced up by the remaining glass, but I’d held back in the process… not that strong.

I tried again, moving back so my position would keep my leg from going too far, kicking harder.

Nothing.

Rose returned, her silhouette dark, the light shining from behind her.  “Duncan’s drawing runes by the front entrance.  We need to use the other exit if we’re going to run for it.”

“Any progress on getting me out of here?” I asked.

“I can get reactions from people, speaking, but there’s nothing I can use anywhere near the rune on the wall.”

“Can you break this window?”

I saw her look, craning her head around to take it in.

“Even a little,” I said.  “You have a lot more power to devote to the task.”

“I also lost almost two days of time,” Rose said.

I kicked the window again, to no effect.  I hurt more than the window did.  My arms, my head, my general disorientation…

Fuck.

But that time, I noticed Duncan reacting.

A connection.  Between him and the window?

Of course.  It was an obvious way out.  I hopped up to search the surface.

There.  On the surface of the window, a rune.  I recognized it as one that enhanced durability.

This was the Behaim style, apparently.  Big chronomancy, using the family and the circle, bits of shamanism, enchantment and other tools here and there.  Binding, augmenting, distracting…

I scratched at it.  Permanent marker.

Nothing in the stairwell to scratch at it, my pockets had been cleaned out.

“I can’t think of another way out,” I said.  “I can’t force you, but… well, look at it this way.  It’ll take something out of you, but it’s going to exact a price from him too.  Quite possibly a greater price.  He said he’d keep me here.  Let’s make him lie.”

“And if I spend something and I can’t deal with the abstract demon?”

“Spent or not, we can’t do anything about the abstract demon until we’ve dealt with Duncan here,” I said.

Rose heaved out enough of a sigh that I could see her shoulders move.

“Get back,” she said.

I nodded, retreating partway up the stairs.

I heard a heavy thud, a shuddering of the window within the frame.

“Fuck,” she said.  “Ow.”

Duncan had noticed.  He was approaching now, running.

“A crack… and it didn’t take that much out of me.  One more try…”

The window shattered.  I saw glass fly.

Then Rose’s voice from further up the stairs.  “I am stronger.”

I heard footsteps.  Duncan approaching.

I wasn’t interested in a direct confrontation.  I took a moment, touching my sliced right arm, raised my shirt, and drew a symbol on my chest.

I hoped I had it right.

I got a running start, one hand on the wall for balance, and I jumped.

Tired as I was , the jump still gave me enough air that I could clear the row of jagged glass points at the bottom of the frame.

I didn’t touch the glass, but I didn’t land on the row of parked cars beneath the window, either.

The wind rune I’d inscribed on my chest was one part of it.

The other rune Duncan had drawn on the windowframe, hidden, was the other.

The same kind of rune, apparently, that connected one part of the stairwell to the other.

The sun flashed in my eyes, and I was back in the stairwell, ten feet above the ground.

Ten feet above stairs, rather.

My landing was a rough one.  I was lighter, but not so much that I made it past the entire flight of stairs.  I hit the stairwell, and I didn’t have the balance or wherewithal to catch myself.  I tumbled, and I hit the ground hard.  Pain lanced across my arms, following the tracks of the cuts, reopening them.  My elbow hit floor hard.

“That’ll do,” Duncan Behaim said.

I flopped over, still lying on the ground, a matter of feet from the broken window.

He stood at the top of the flight that led up from my current position.  He leaned forward to correct the angle of a framed plaque on the wall.  “I think we can count this one as a second win for me.  In a moment, we can move on to round three.”

“What if I surrender now?” I asked.

“What if you do?” he asked, sounding very unimpressed.

I spoke, coughed partway through.

“It would help if you were a little clearer,” he said.

I repeated myself, about as loud, then rested my forehead on the ground.  My arms hurt.

“Shall I get a little closer?’ he asked.  “I’ll need to watch my step, lots of glass to slip on…”

A moment passed.  I looked up.

He hadn’t moved one tenth of an inch.

“Uncle told me about your mirror-dwelling companion,” He said.  He touched the frame in front of him, moving it so it was askew.  “I’m not an idiot.  You’re going to need to try a little harder than that.”

The frame exploded, all the same.  A hand thrust out with the glass, faint, feminine, with nails poised to strike like claws.  It grasped blindly for Duncan’s face.

Duncan caught Rose’s wrist.  Already, that faint hand was fading.

Before it could, he twisted it, and drove it hard against the side of the frame, where ragged glass still jutted out.

Rose screamed.  Duncan let go, and the hand became smoke.

Glass around me shifted as if something was moving through it, until Rose appeared in a larger fragment that rested against the wall, clutching her wrist.

Duncan held up a taser.  A spark danced around one of the two prongs at the end.  “Need to get a few things in order before I can turn back the clock again.  I can’t have you running around while I get ready, so I’m going to have you take a short nap.  Your choice.  This or I throw down the cuffs and you put them on.”

“How do I know you won’t use both to be safe?  You guys like your overkill,” I said.  “Looping areas, turning back the clock, slowing time around an entire property…”

“I guess it’s just the taser, then.  As for your observation, it’s hard to dedicate your time to appreciating and studying something as vast and powerful as time, without feeling a need to throw your metaphorical weight around,” he replied.  “I’m sure you understand that, this in mind, we’re rather concerned about you wielding something approximately as vast and powerful, and rather more dangerous.”

I shifted position, trying to back up some, but apparently an inability to bounce back easily was a consequence bleeding myself out.

He was halfway down the flight.  He lifted a picture frame off the wall and tossed it further up the flight of stairs, in my general direction, before Rose could make use of it.

“I have nothing against you, Evan,” he said.  “What happened to you was a tragedy.  I’m genuinely sorry it happened.  But I will banish you if you get in the way, here.  Send you to your final rest by force.”

“I wanted someone to find me,” Evan said.  “I wanted- help.”

“I know,” Duncan said.

“Evan-” I said.

He was summing up his strength, to break pattern.  “He came.”

“I know,” Duncan said.

“Evan,” I said, again.  “Rose, please tell him.  He shouldn’t make it for nothing, here.”

“Kid,” Rose said.  “Blake doesn’t want you to get banished for his sake.”

Evan turned.  Duncan paused partway up the stairs, waiting.

“Tell him to go.  That I said he should.”

“You should leave, Evan,” Rose said.

“But-” Evan said.  He clenched small, immaterial fists.

“Go!” I said.

I saw Evan react, just a fraction.

“He insists,” Rose said, as calm and quiet as I’d been loud.

Evan ran, disappearing down the stairs.

“Thank you,” Duncan said.  He resumed his approach, kicking glass off each stair before setting his foot firmly down on top of it.  “That was decent of you.  If it helps, I don’t have any hard feelings.

“But you’ll pull out all the stops, huh?” I asked.

“I’m not evil,” he said.  “I’m not doing evil.  I’m only doing what I can to keep this situation contained, and quite frankly, it’s kind of a rush to do it with the family’s backing.  I go years without doing anything on even half this scale.”

Evan reappeared, at the top of the stairs.

Following the circuit, from the bottom stair to the top.

I averted my eyes, and started to struggle to my feet.

“Stay put,” Duncan said.

Evan descended to a stair two steps above Duncan.

Then Evan screamed.  Blood-curdling terror distilled, an echo of a memory.  All without warning, in the ear of a man who’d thought he was alone with me and Rose.

A man standing on stairs.

Duncan half-turned and tipped over in the process.

He fell down the stairs much as I had.

I moved, reaching for the taser.

Duncan moved faster.  He hadn’t spent his blood.  He didn’t have gashes running from wrist to elbow.  He was athletic, and in peak fighting shape, recent fall excepted.

I caught his wrist, stopping him from jabbing me, but he got one hand around my right arm, and he dug his fingers into the cut there.

I bit back the scream, groaning instead, doing what I could to put up a fight.  Which didn’t amount to much.

He pinned me, and panic started to win out.  I craned my neck away from the encroaching taser.

Having Evan close helped, somehow.  It was hard to define why.  He’d fought so hard, and he was counting on me, on a level.  I didn’t want him to erode away into becoming another haunt.

I managed to gather up enough presence of mind to twist my head away and scream, “Rose!”

One pane of glass that still jutted out from the window shattered.  Duncan let go, and I pushed him off me, scrambling back.

I briefly considered grabbing a large piece of glass and slashing the man while he was distracted.  But Evan was close, and my right arm throbbed badly enough that I wasn’t willing to let go with my left.

That one took something out of me,’ Rose said, from somewhere nearby.  She sounded weaker.

Duncan was holding one side of his face.  He had a dark look in his eyes when he looked over at me.  He wiped one hand at his eye, and it came away with blood on it.

He lunged, taser in hand, and I threw myself back.  Weak as I was, I moved a little too far, a little too fast, and I hit the wall hard enough that it hurt, cracking my head on it.

My hair was waving like I was in the midst of a strong breeze.

The wind rune.

He was fueling the runes with something on his person.  I’d seen the connection earlier.

I’d already given so much.  A little more…

I let go of my right arm, and my hand was so sticky it pulled at the open wound.  With my bloody hand, I reached over to the window, planted my hand down on the second rune, smeared until I broke the connection, and vaulted over.

This time I made it through.

Something, a lot of somethings, broke, all through the building.

My exit was followed by an spray of glass, bloodstained feathers, and dust.  The wind rune’s wake, perhaps, or the change in pressure that came with the breaking of the effect in the stairwell, releasing the pent up energy and whatever else.

I hit the ground.  I was lighter, buoyed by the wind, but it still wasn’t the most graceful landing.

I gripped my right arm and staggered to my feet.

Not in Kansas anymore.

I hadn’t landed in the parking lot.  Not exactly.

There, in the distance, I could see Conquest’s tower.

The buildings around me were subtly distorted, the streets largely empty.  Where there were people, they were far away, more twisted than the buildings.

Evan jumped down from the shattered window, landing on the roof of a car with an audible thud.

“Um,” I said.

“Blake?” Rose spoke up.  Reflected in the rear window of a parked car.  The car looked like it had been sitting there for years.  Other cars were only partially there.  Derelicts.

“Something’s wrong,” I said.  Did Conquest make a move?

“You look like hell,” Rose said.  “Does that count?”

“Maybe,” I said, my voice low.  “I’m… seeing things.”

“What things?”

“Conquest’s tower-”

I had to stop.  I hurt.

“-A world that’s sort of like Johannes’ demesne.”  I turned my head, looking around.

“You’re sinking,” Rose said.  “Something like that.  There are different terms for it in different books.”

“Sinking?”

“Losing your footing.  I can’t say, since I don’t really see it, I can’t see much at all, frankly, but it could be you have one foot in the spirit world and one in the real world.  Maybe it’s both feet.”

Losing touch with reality.

Too much me given away.

“What… what happens?” I ask.

“You go where anyone goes, if they slip through the cracks.”

“Vague,” I said.  My heard hurt.  My body hurt more.

“It changes from place to place, urban area to rural.  But it’s the spiritual equivalent of rock bottom.  It’s where people like Dowght might go or be chased off to by locals when the imp is done with him, or where things like the goblin you fought might dwell, if they weren’t quite strong enough to hold a territory.  Dark places, dog-eat-dog, unpredictable, hard to navigate.  The spirit analogue to the deep wilderness.”

“No shit?” I asked.

“Sometimes there’s shit,” she said.  “Sometimes fire, sometimes a garbage dump or a lightless pit or it’s a frozen wasteland without any light to go by… like I said, it varies from place to place.  It’s a place defined by the misery and self loathing and desperation of those who dwell in it.”

My arms were throbbing, and I was cold.

“I already had a taste of rock bottom before,” I said.  “Before this.  I don’t want to experience the practitioner-hell version of it.”

“Then don’t use more blood for power,” she said.  “Because I don’t want you to go there, especially if it means you drag me there with you.”

I nodded.

“He’ll come after us if we don’t run,” Rose said.  “That Duncan guy will.”

“Probably,” I said.

“Half the day has passed already,” Rose told me.  “We need to get moving, start planning.”

“We do,” I said.  “But we also need to be ready.”

“You want to go back in?”

“I… think we have to,” I said.

“For June?  For the locket, I presume?”

I ran the edge of my thumb along one of the sore spots where the locket’s chain had rubbed me raw.  “Those things too.”

I turned and headed for the side door that Evan had mentioned.

Duncan was making his way down.

Evan led the way.  Passing through the door.

I couldn’t move it.  Either it was locked, or I was just that weak, now.

I saw Rose’s face in the small, chicken-wire covered window.

The window shattered, glass scattering into the building.  I saw a glimpse of her arm, reaching inside-

I heard a click.  I pulled on the door.

I didn’t have the strength to open it, not completely.  It might as well have been ten times the size.  I had to leverage all my strength to haul it open enough to fit my body between it and the frame, the cuts on my arms screaming with pain.

The walls were stark, cracked to the point that I could see through them.  The stairs were too steep, and I had to catch one railing with both hands to keep from falling.  Every door was barred.  Ghosts… if they could even be called ghosts, lurked in places I couldn’t access.  Shadows of high emotion and desperation, despair and rage.  It was an exaggeration.  A police station as drawn by spirits that were drawing from memory.

“I want to see you, Evan,” I said.

He didn’t react.

“Are you sure, Blake?”

“Do you really want to second guess me, with Duncan bearing down on us?”

She made a face.  “Where’s your body, Evan?”

He didn’t respond, but he turned.  A sharp left.

I saw staff members, police officers, but they were as abstract in this world as some Others were in ours.  Blurry, indistinct.

I’d dug myself in too deep.

That boded ill.

“Rose-” I started.

Him?”

“Feels right,” I said.

“It feels wrong to me,” she said.  “He’s a soul.  A person.  For real.”

“He’s a person that’s said he wants to stick around,” I said.

“You don’t have to like it,” I said.  I was too tired, too insubstantial, to pick my words carefully.  “-have to decide.  Either call him back, tell him to take us to the inventory lockup, or go get the book.”

“This is something huge for both of us.  I’m attached to you, and I’m attached to him by association.”

“Are you saying you don’t like him?”

“That’s not what I’m saying.  I don’t know him.  This is something that takes time.

“Time’s a luxury we don’t have,” I said.  My voice was ragged, came off harsher than it otherwise could.  “I just carried out your plan, binding the imp, giving it to Conquest.  I fought the Hyena, and that was a bitch in its own way.  I’m spent.  Say no, say yes, but don’t fucking dither when every second counts!”

“You can be a real asshole sometimes, Blake.”

“If it helps,” I said, my voice still ragged, worse for having shouted, “I’m not really me right now.”

“Is that it?  Or is it the opposite?  Is this Blake Thorburn with all the flesh and mortal warmth bled away?

She was gone a heartbeat later.

Shaking with exhaustion and anger, I joined Evan in the morgue.  Dozens of ghosts, so insubstantial that many didn’t have faces, faded in and out of existence, lighting the otherwise dark room like so many dying candles.

Evan stood by the wall, brighter and clearer than all of the rest put together.  I didn’t even need to ask.  The connection was clear enough.

I opened the hatch and pulled on the drawer.  It took me three good tugs to get it out, and it was on rollers.

“Did you decide, Evan?” I asked.  “The answer to my offer.”

“To be your partner?”

“Yeah.”

“Why not that girl?”

“It doesn’t feel right,” I said.  “I don’t want to pick her because she’s there.  I want to pick someone who feels like they fit.”

Duncan was in the basement, but he didn’t come for me.  He went to another room, then stopped.

He couldn’t see me, nor could he see the connection between us.

“What do I do?”

“You only have to agree,” I said.  “I… I’ve heard this described as a kind of marriage, which is kind of creepy when I think too hard about it.  But I suppose some principles apply.  If I had to make vows, if I wanted to extend a promise to you while letting you know what you were in for, I couldn’t say that it’d all be happy, or safe.  I could give you a taste of being alive again, but there would be a lot of scary stuff.”

“I’m not a happy person anymore,” he said.  “I don’t think I’ll ever feel safe again.”

“I think you could, if you moved on.”

“I can’t do that most of all,” he said.  Nonsensical, but I got the gist of it.

“I can say that I’m probably going to go up against some scary things.  Things like your wolf.  I’m going to try my damndest to stop them.  To catch them or kill them.  I want to be a force for good in the world, and helping you, stopping the Hyena?  That’s the first time I felt like I was doing that.”

“I want to help people too.  It’s not so complicated when I think about it.  I don’t want people to feel like I did.”

I nodded.  “So… as far as vows go… I’m going to say that if you agree, and you don’t have to agree, really, I’m going to try and be the kind of practitioner that you can be proud of helping.”

“I’m supposed to say something too?”

“If you want.”

“I don’t know what to promise.  I want to help.  I want to stop the bad things, and you’re saying I can help that happen.”

“I can think of a good promise,” I said.  “When this is done… when I fail, somewhere along the line, and something stops me instead of me stopping it?  When I die and the bond between us is broken?  I want you to promise that you’ll say you’re okay.  That you did help.  That you did what you were supposed to and you can move on.”

I saw him stiffen.

“The promises aren’t supposed to be easy,” I said.  “If you really want to stick around, hanging around me might not be the best way to do it.”

“I’ll… I’ll stay.  I promise I’ll go when you do.”

I glanced to my right.  Rose was there, reflected on the inside of the door.  She looked pensive.  Not quite like she was reconsidering her former stance, but… pensive.

“He needs to agree to the Other’s oaths,” Rose said.  “Then we can do the ritual.”

Duncan was still in the basement.

I saw a man enter the room, indistinct and dark, pick up some things at a table, then stride out.  Faceless ghosts watched his every move.

“Can you read?” Rose asked.

Evan nodded.

“You’ll need to read this.  I can’t have you repeat after me, or I might bind myself,” she said, holding the book where he could see.  “The words will be backwards, but try to hurry.”

“I…”

“Your name.”

“I, Evan, agree… to… be… bound… by… the…”

“Strictures,” Rose said.

“Strictures…”

He continued.

Breathing hard, hurting all over, leaning on the drawer, I stared down at the body that sat between us.  The centerpiece for our little ritual here.  A portion of my attention rested with our adversary, the remainder was split between Evan’s recitation and trying to figure out what time it was, how much time I had left

Duncan Behaim would get his round three after all.

With luck, he’d also get something of a surprise.

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