Category Archives: Arc 6 (Subordination)

Histories (Arc 6)

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He roused, scrunching up his face.  That simple movement made him hurt in five different ways.  His lip had been bitten, he’d hit his head, his nose had taken a beating and was probably bleeding, his forehead was maybe cut, and he’d smacked his chin.

His wrist throbbed, but it needed no excuse to do that.  He’d made too much use of his hand, and the bone wasn’t fully healed.  He gingerly flexed his fingers, and felt his arm throb within the cast.

“You’re awake,” she said.  She laid her pen down across the spine of her book.

It dawned on him what he’d done.  Weeks, months of frustration, fear, pain, and worry, it had all boiled forth, and he’d done just about the worst thing he could possibly do.

The collar of her dress was ripped, her hands and knees scuffed.  Leaves and dry grass stuck to the fabric.  Straight blonde hair had been combed into a semblance of order with her fingernails.  A book sat on her lap.  Nothing dangerous – the clasp suggested it was a diary.

She sat next to him, staring out at the lake.  She looked oddly at peace.  That fact, if he let himself believe it, bordered on the terrifying.

“This was a mistake,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.  She smiled a little, looking down at the water that lapped against the dirt and the reaching roots that were no longer anchored in earth.  “I’m making a lot of mistakes these days.”

He rubbed his face, which brought back all of the pain he’d noted earlier and even found new sorts.  The implications dawned on him.  “Oh, gods help me, this was a mistake.”

“We might have to wait a few more months to see how grave a mistake we made here,” she said.

He froze.  His blood ran cold.

“I-”  he struggled to recall.  He’d been an animal, and she’d been an animal in return.  What exactly had he done?”

“You pulled free before you finished,” she said.  “I was toying with you, Aimon.”

He exhaled a shuddering breath.  “Oh, this was such a mistake.”

“You sound like a skipping record,” she said.  “Where’s the acerbic wit from before?  Insulting my family?  My blood?”

“Are you trying to pick a fight?”

“Finally, he breaks pattern!  A cause for celebration!” she said.  “Should I have Arsepint fetch a bottle to mark the occasion?”

He looked, twisting around, feeling sore in several places, before he saw the blasted goblin.

It watched?

In that same thought, he realized how close they were to the footpath that ran along the edge of the lake, overlooking the small rocky beaches and the water.  “Keep your voice down.”

“Arsepint?  Go distract any passerbys until I order you to do otherwise.  Scare or lead them away without showing yourself.  Have fun.”

The goblin glared, then disappeared.

“Stop talking so loud,” he said, “Whisper instead.  If we get caught-”

“Do not order me,” she said, and she managed to sound like she was twice her age, practically royalty.  Then, in the next breath, she averted her eyes, stumbling over her words a bit, “That’s, I don’t think it’s how our relationship works.”

Relationship?

“Not romantic, I don’t think, but there’s a connection here,” Rose noted, touching the snaking trail of golden dust that stretched between them.  “Two people with a connection between them, enemy, ally, it’s a relationship.”

“I’m not in the mood for this insanity.  My head hurts.”

“I can imagine.  You were clearly in the mood for something else,” she said.  “My something-else hurts.”

“Don’t be disgusting.”

She stared out over the water, silent.

“Sorry,” he said.  “I’m ordering you around, when you asked me not to.”

“A Behaim, apologizing to the diabolist in training?” she asked, archly.

“I’ve… I feel like I’ve had people telling me what to do for years now,” he said.  “The one time I break form, I…”

“Do this?” she asked.  “Or are you less concerned about this and more concerned that it involved me?”

“If I’m being honest, yes, it has more to do with you.  Though I’m not proud of this, either.  Other lads might be, but…”

“But you’re a gentleman, is that it?  A gentleman that just so happens to kiss the most hated girl in Jacob’s Bell, unprovoked, and then goes on to ravish her,” she said, putting a breathy kind of emphasis on ‘ravish’.

“You’re needling me again.”

Yes,” she said.  “You don’t know how good you have it, to have people telling you what to do.  But you have direction, you have the backing of your family-”

“I have the pressures of my family, the disappointment when I fail to live up to those pressures.”

“You’re whining again,” she said.  “You want to know why I needle you?  Because I like the Aimon that’s angry more than I like the Aimon who acts like a weakling.”

He seized her wrist, quick enough to startle her, hard enough to be painful.

She didn’t even flinch.  She stared him in the eye, the faintest smile on her face.

“Witch,” he said, letting her wrist go.

She rubbed it, then clasped her diary with both hands, holding the closed, leather-bound book against her knees.  She still had the pen in hand, and poked at her knee, thinking.

“If my company is so unpleasant,” she said, “you could leave.”

“How do I explain this?” he asked, indicating his face.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“I can work it out, but I need time to think,” he said.

“What’s the trouble?” she asked.  “Are you trying to find a way to explain that you assaulted a young lady?  Or to admit that you were assaulted by a young lady?”

He shot her an ugly look.

“You can gloss over the, how shall I put it, the aftermath?  You’re free to tell them it was me.  Nobody will fault you for coming after me.”

“I’m more concerned that they’ll fault you,” he said.  “Say what you will about me, I don’t want my family organizing a lynch mob or going to war against you and your family.”

“That’s almost gentlemanly, Aimon Behaim.  And I’m flattered that you’d think I’d put up any kind of fight.”

“I saw your goblin.”

One goblin, yes.  Are the Behaims so weak that one or two goblins would give them any difficulty?”

“Except it’s not just you, is it?  There’s your father?”

“Who doesn’t practice,” she cut in.

“And weren’t you just taunting me over the fact that your mother was home?”

Rose Thorburn reacted as if she’d forgotten that detail.

“My family will think you contrived this.  Your mother…”

“Is a hard person to understand,” Rose finished the thought.  “A scary person, scarier because you can’t anticipate what she might do.”

He nodded.

“This wasn’t a scheme, was it?” he asked.  “A trick, to influence my emotions, to capitalize on my failings as a man?”

“You didn’t fail, Aimon Behaim” she said.  “Your malehood isn’t in question here.  Not that I particularly enjoyed it, I’m almost relieved that it wasn’t so grand as-”

“Don’t,” he said, pressing the heels of his hands into his eye sockets.  “Please, don’t be lewd.”

“-But the release?  I needed that.  So did you, I think.”

“Don’t talk about it.  It’s not ladylike.”

She made a small amused noise in response.

“I’m trying to decide if it’s better or easier to loathe you or respect you, and you’re making that decision difficult every time you open your mouth.”

She sighed audibly.  “There was no trick.  No imp of the sixth choir to hound you and tempt you to me, nor any imp to give me the courage.”

“I’m oddly disappointed.  To think I did that of my own volition…  I’d hoped the Imp-”

“Don’t.  The imp would be worse.”

“I don’t want to know,” he said.  “This… this mess of a thing, it gets worse the longer I think on it and try to come up with an explanation that doesn’t complicate matters.”

“The alternative,” she said, “Is that you don’t give any answer at all.  Keep mum, refuse to open your mouth on the subject.  I can do the same.”

“A pact of secrecy?”

“It’ll have to be.”

“I think you underestimate the pressure that three sisters, two aunts and a mother can exert,” Aimon said.

She stood, dusting herself off.  He looked away as she fixed up her skirt and undergarments.

She spoke to the back of his head.  “You keep complaining about having people make demands of you, the people leaning on you, the family, and what that family might do to you.”

“So?” he asked.

“I experience all the judgement and expectations too,” she said.  “My father, he’s a harsh disciplinarian, but he’s fair.  He’ll hit me when I get back.”

He turned to look at her.  She stood there, in a short sleeved dress with kerchief collar, diary and pen each held tight in both hands.

“Kind of strange to think of that,” he said.  “The Thorburn diabolist and her husband lecturing their daughter, the stern gaze, the belt…”

“Oh, no need to feel strange,” Rose said.  “My mother doesn’t lecture me.  All she’ll ever do is give me a look.  She’ll leave me to wonder what she thinks.  To guess at something when she’s never let me know what she really thought, not once in my life. ”

She shifted the diary to one hand to put the pen inside the hollow of the spine.  Her hand trembled a bit.

“You’re shaking.”

“Am I?  I am.  That’s not like me.  I suppose I’m afraid of what her response will finally be.”

“Her response?  I thought you weren’t going to tell her about this.”

“I wasn’t and I don’t plan to.  I said it before, I’ve made a lot of mistakes lately.  I made an oath earlier tonight, said things in anger and haste, and it may well affect the family.”

“She’ll be upset?”

“I’m,” Rose stopped short.  When she exhaled it came out as a huff of a laugh.  She blinked a little, as if to hide the tears.  “I’m frankly terrified.  My carelessness ruined three or four lives, and she didn’t bat an eye.  But this?  I don’t think upset is the word.”

“I don’t envy you,” he said.

“Who would ever envy me?” Rose asked.

“Would you stop arguing every other question or statement I make?  You make being kind a challenge.”

Rose seemed caught off guard by that.  She fidgeted, avoiding eye contact.  “I didn’t ask you to be kind.”

“I’m giving what I can, all the same.  It feels feeble, giving only a listening ear when you might face the unrestrained anger of a diabolist, but I’m giving- what?”

She was laughing, scoffing, even.

“What?” he asked, again.

“That isn’t what worries me.  My mother’s unrestrained anger.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’m worried she won’t care.”

It was four days before he crossed paths with Rose Thorburn again.

The main street of Jacob’s Bell took no more than five minutes to cross.  Many of the shops were closed; the ice cream parlor was among them.  A hand-drawn sign in the window urged would-be ice cream buyers to support the troops instead.

Aimon worked in a squat building that had been crammed between the now-empty ice cream parlor and a small bank.  Young women passed by with regularity, to and from the factories and small shops on the main street.

He quietly considered it a sort of hell.

His wrist was mangled, set firmly in place with a plaster cast.  Most people still in town were women and the elderly, and a few odds and ends like Rose Thorburn’s father, who were looking after local businesses and factories.  Every curious look he got felt like an admonition, a criticism.  It didn’t help that he still had marks on his face and hand from the altercation with Rose.

He’d been bad at numbers as a child, but grueling lessons from the family had remedied that.  A chronomancer couldn’t be bad at numbers, of all things.

Still, he’d never loved numbers, and now he lived them.  He was forced to write with his left hand, to scrawl down and total the amounts, to note times and dates when he handed letters and parcels over, or when he accepted them.

He wanted to spend power to make the days pass faster, but the family kept a close eye on that sort of thing.

He almost didn’t notice when Rose Thorburn appeared at the entrance to the small, narrow office.

She stepped outside, looked both ways, then returned.

“You aren’t using the Sight?”

“I don’t trust the Sight, not completely,” she said.  She handed over an envelope.

“Montreal… the Academy?”

“Yes.  I agreed to send a letter when I returned home.  I had to go back for court, the Lord of Montreal had words with me… a mess, all-in-all.”

“I admit, I was sweating a fair bit, worrying that you’d let your mother know what we’d done.  Jumping at bumps in the night.”

“I said I’d keep silent,” she said, sounding offended.  “Few things annoy me more than being called a liar.”

“Already, you’re on the defensive.”

She frowned.

“Was it as bad as you’d feared?”

“Nearly,” she said.  She turned around, leaning against the counter with her back to him.

“I’m sorry.”

She glanced over her shoulder, eyebrows raised.

“I am.

Her expression softened a bit.  “Thank you.”

“My sisters still hound me, asking how I got these cuts and scrapes.  My aunt keeps suggesting that the light beating was punishment for coming home, when others are still waiting for brothers and sons.  I think she’s trying to bait an answer from me.  My mother has been suspiciously quiet on the subject.”

“It sounds lively.”

He made a face.

“I’ve been thinking, ever since that night,” Rose said.  “One sprawling idea, unfolding.”

“A diabolist, deep in thought.  That’s cause for concern.”

“What’s going on elsewhere in the world, it feels like a premonition.  Old systems are fixed in place, and they’re starting to wear out.  Too many layers, too many patch jobs, too much stress placed on the wrong things.”

“How unexpectedly philosophical of you.”

“Our families are the same way,” she said.  “Bound to old systems, degrading, winding down like an unwound clock.”

“I wouldn’t argue with you there.”

“They’re like great, old works of machinery that are coming to pieces.  You said your family’s expectations weigh on you?”

He frowned.

“Are we not so close as we were that night?” she asked.  She turned to lean over the counter.  “Divulging our weaknesses?”

“It gnaws at me,” he admitted, his voice low.  “Even my own expectations for myself.  Especially my own expectations for myself.”

“What if I suggested a small kind of revolution?  A way to respond to those expectations?”

“Revolution?”

“You’re trapped in a box.  I can imagine you the clockwork soldier with a ruined arm.  Your father would have you marching in step, doing what?  The Behaim family hasn’t made any grandiose moves in some time.  The entire family pays in, as far as I can tell, but nobody claims the prize.”

“You want it?”

“No.  That’s not what I’m saying.  I’m telling you that, in my eyes, you live a disappointed existence.  A responsible one, but responsibility doesn’t nourish the soul, does it?”

“For some, it might.”

Rose seemed to consider that for a moment.

“Maybe you’re right.  But for us?  I don’t think it does.”

“What are you suggesting?”

“I’m suggesting that we could gamble.  Strive to change the system, to put something in place and capitalize on it.”

“How?”

“I’m not entirely sure, but whatever we end up doing has to be better than this, doesn’t it?”

“You’re a diabolist.  I’m not so sure you’re right.  You could fill libraries with stories of how things could be worse.”

“Weigh the potential gains against the potential losses,” she said.

“What do we stand to gain?”

“You’re the broken clockwork soldier, going through the motions.  Deviate from the path, and every living soul around you will work to get you back on track, so you’re following that set path of yours.  Eventually, should you follow that path, you might be the leader of the Behaim family.  If you were lucky, you might get ten or twenty years to lead the family as you wish.  Am I wrong?  Or has someone suggested a different path?”

“I’ve thought about the fact that I’m next in line, but it won’t be until my father dies… too far away to think about.”

“Think about it now.  Think about the moment you’re sixty or so years old and you take that chair, a leadership position in the council… you’re finally free, in a sense, but you’ve forgotten how to act.  What do you do?”

“You tell me.  What do I do?”

“You default to what you know.  You do what your father did and his grandfather did before him.  You inject a small personal touch, a bit of your personality and preferences.  Things change, but they change by inches over the course of generations.  The cycle perpetuates itself.  Those pressures you feel now?  You take that path, clockwork soldier, and you may never escape them, not until you’re dead.”

“I’m starting to realize why we habitually avoid the Thorburns.”

“Tell me I’m wrong.  That this doesn’t strike a chord and sound very much like the little voice of doubt in the back of your head.”

“I’m not saying you’re wrong.”

She smiled.

“I am saying that I’d be a lot more eager to continue this conversation if you weren’t sounding an awful lot like a certain snake in a certain garden.”

“I’m offering you freedom.  I’m offering you power.  A chance to break that pattern.  I won’t say it’s free of consequence, but the costs aren’t as high as you’d think.”

“How?  And what do you get out of this?”

“The how is something I can explain soon.  Me?  I’m your inverse.  I have no boundaries.  I have rules I must obey, same as any practitioner, but I’m like a sheep without a pen, without a dog to bark at me and send me back to safety.  I’m wandering without guidance, and periodically I run into trouble.  I can weather my father’s anger.  I can deal with my mother.  But I can’t be alone any longer.”

“You want friendship?  Or more like the other night?”

“I want both, or either.  I want to make you an offer, where I shoulder the majority of the cost and the risk.”

He stared at the girl.  She wore a jacket over her dress, with a satchel to hold her diary and quite possibly supplies.  Blonde, very nearly pretty but not quite there, an intense expression on her face.

He had to remind himself of what she was.

“You’re a diabolist.  Bargaining with you is one step removed from bargaining with them.”

“Yes,” she said.  “But I think it’s worth it.”

“What is?  Where does this go?”

“Changing the status quo.  Breaking up the system.”

“How?” he asked, before he could regret voicing the question and giving any merit to this mad idea of hers.

“Meet me tonight,” she said.

She didn’t say where.  He didn’t need to ask.

It was cooler than the other night, and Rose Thorburn wore a sweater over her dress, a row of buttons left undone.  Her hair blew in the wind.  The water crashed against dirt and roots.  A short distance away, there was beach, and the crashes were even more dramatic.

“I want to possess you,” Rose Thorburn said.

It was a sentence with two interpretations, but the emphasis on possess made the meaning clear.

What?

“A light possession.  It wouldn’t be anything too dangerous, not a demon.  But I can use the material from my books… some of the best bindings you could hope to find.”

Why?

“Because it gives you the freedom you crave.  It would be another spirit in your body, allowing you to shrug off the burdens your family would put on you.  You could be stronger, faster to react.  You could heal faster,” she said.  She eyed his hand.

He grabbed the cast with his good hand.  “You sound utterly insane.”

“I’m not.  I’m very sane.  Look, if you’re possessed, there’s nothing stopping you from working alongside me.  A light possession, something that won’t make decisions for you, but if you get caught, then you blame the possession.  You return to ordinary life.”

“And you?”

“I know the risk I’m taking.  I was just in Montreal.  I went to a school that had an Inquisitor on the staff.  The risk I’m taking is bigger than anything you’d have to face.”

“Rose,” he said.  He had to stop to take a breath, composing himself, picking his words and tone carefully.  “I’m not even sure I like you.  Respect?  Maybe.  Maybe I even understand you, on a basic level.  But we’re too different.”

He could see how still she’d gotten.  She held the tome against her chest, hugging it hard.

“You’re dangerous,” he said.  “You’re… I’m not sure why you’d even reach out to me.  Why me?  Do you like me?”

“No.  Yes, but not… not in the important way,” Rose said.  “I’m desperate.”

“Desperate?  Rose-”

“Not… not like that.”

Why?  Can’t you do what I’m going to do, and just grit your teeth through the bad parts of life?”

“Where to begin?” she asked.  “God!  I feel like I owe my family something.  I feel like I need direction, a goal, but it’s impossible to go for it alone.  I’m so scared that if I do something, try to make a change, then people are going to get hurt.  I can’t lean on family, and a diabolist doesn’t get the luxury of friends, not unless they’re the kind of monster who can take it in stride when the bad stuff trickles down and starts to fall on those friends.”

“I’m not the solution you want or need,” he protested.

“I need a voice in my ear.  Every great man has a great woman at his back, but the inverse is true.  Isn’t it?”

“I’m not so sure.”

“Sometimes all you need is someone to tell you you’re doing the right thing, or the wrong thing.  To bounce ideas off of.  That’s the way it is in the books.  The Watson, the Sam, the Friday, the Horatio.””You can’t base real life off of books.”

“I don’t have anything else to work with,” she said.

“I’m sorry, but no.  I can’t.”

She nodded.

“There’s no rush,” he said.

She didn’t nod in response to that.

“Talk to me,” she said.  “Change the subject, please.  I’m embarrassed.”

She couldn’t know it, but the only other time she’d looked as human as she did right then was when they’d been trading insults, getting riled up, a prelude to the event of four nights ago.

“When I talked about expectations, there were things I didn’t say.  When I was on the ground, in the trenches, I had certain responsibilities.  Because the Germans have practitioners, you know what I mean?”

Rose nodded.

“I want to say that there was a great fantastical secret mission, that we knew the Germans were getting involved in the occult, but it wasn’t like that.  He’s an ordinary man, and he has no idea, outside of a few books he has no idea how to use.  There are people under him that know, but they’re keeping their mouths shut.  They’re protecting him, but they’re keeping their mouths shut.”

“They could be afraid of what we could do in response.”

“Maybe.  But that blade cuts both ways.  If one side realizes their losing and decides to tap into resources like your family has, what happens?  The only solution is for the war to keep going.”

“It could wind down.  Forces unrelated to practitioners started it, those same forces could end it.”

“It’s so much worse than you think, Rose.  The things that happen over there, the state of things in the trenches, and having to guard my unit at all hours?  I changed, I got fit, I changed the way I think, how I sleep and eat, so I can be on guard, always watching for tricks.  For rats that are a little too smart, or phantoms that would whisper panic into men’s ears while they sleep?  For ghouls that… well, they pretend to be soldiers that die like anyone might, but when you let your guard down and search the body, they bite you and get a hungry kind of death into the wound?”

He raised his hand, showing off the cast.

Rose nodded.

“If it weren’t for that, the idea that I have to go back, to keep fighting on that second, secret battlefield?  I might think about your offer.  But I can’t.  Not really.  I can’t commit to anything, and I can’t be your ally in whatever it is you’re trying to do.”

“Okay,” she said.

She wiped at her face, but he couldn’t see enough to tell if she’d been wiping at a tear or moving her hair out of the way.

“We can stay in touch,” he said, “At least until I go back to active duty.  If I go back to active duty.”

“Don’t pity me,” she said, with a note of anger.  “Don’t condescend.”

“I’d like to think I wouldn’t.”

“Like or don’t like all you want, you would condescend, Aimon,” she said.

A bit more anger than before.

“What are you going to do?” he asked.

Change things,” she said.  “It would be easier if I had help.  A voice to say yes, or to say no.  But I’ll move forward.  Maybe I’ll lend a hand to the war effort.”

“A hand?  You?”

“I only have so much time before my hands are tied.  You’re dreading this eternal war, but I’m worrying about the clock running out, and a chronomancer could be so useful in that department.”

“The clock?”

“Diabolists bear a heavy burden.  My family passes that burden down from parent to child.  When my mother dies, I’ll adopt the burden.  A shadow will fall over me and it will linger there thereafter.  My mistakes will cost me more, bad luck will find me, my enemies will prosper more easily.  I have to do more with my life before that can happen.”

“Could that be why your mother is keeping her distance?” Aimon asked.  “Giving you that freedom?  Or protecting you from the shadow that lingers over her?”

Rose looked at him, momentarily bewildered.

“Maybe you’re not so alone as you imagine,” he said.  “I won’t give myself over to possession to cheat the rules, but if you need a dissenting voice… I can ignore the pestering of my sisters and aunt for a little while longer.”

Thirty-five years later

The rain poured down, torrential.  The bad weather made Aimon’s hand and wrist hurt.

The ghoul’s bite had never healed completely.  Flesh had necrotized, turning black, and even now, bone was visible in places.  He could cut at the rot with a knife, and it would be a red hot agony, or he could let it linger, and he would feel his strength slipping.  It didn’t get worse, it didn’t get better, but the dilemma remained.

Aimon was aware of his father’s eyes on him.  There had been suspicion, but he had covered his tracks.  To admit that they knew would mean his family would have to admit that they’d spent valuable power to spy on him using their craft.

His father watched as he stepped forward, and he felt the resistance of the small hand that gripped his own.  He relented.

Laird fought to catch up, black rain boots splashing in the flooded grass.

Rose was already there.  Regal, water ran off her wide-brimmed cap.  Avoided by virtually every other council member in attendance.  She couldn’t have looked less motherly, holding the swaddled child.

More for the child’s benefit than for Rose, Aimon offered the shelter of his umbrella.

Aimon could feel the weight of his father’s disapproval, but he could ignore it.

He looked down at the babe, and almost as clear as day, he could recall the scene.

Rose, standing before a pile of pig carcasses, her child held overhead.  It had been pouring then too.

Bonfires had burned, and Aimon had worried that one would go out in the face of the torrential rain.  That one of the seven jars filled with a mixture of wax and hair might tilt over and roll away.

He’d been there, a bystander.

A friend.

He’d been there when the demon appeared.  Fat, decaying in some mockery of what had happened to Aimon’s hand, with a horse’s skull fixed over his head, it had carried a sickle.

And Rose-

Rose had never seemed more alive, facing the worst kind of end, the potential loss of her firstborn.

That moment had left a wound as bad as the ghoul’s bite.  Her expression, the intensity.  They’d loved each other, but never at the same time.  They’d been allies, confidantes, they’d slipped away to have secret meetings, to talk about what the council was doing, and how they might do it differently.

“The day is finally here,” Rose murmured.

Aimon nodded.

“You’re free,” she said.

Aimon looked down at the tombstone.

Malcom Behaim.

His father stood near it, a mere echo, watching in disapproval.  Was the horror in his father’s eyes real, a ghost’s realization of things that had occurred that it was now powerless to change?  Or was it an imagining, a reflection?

“I should be free, yes,” Aimon said.

“Are you?”  Rose asked.

Aimon didn’t answer.

“Free?” Laird piped up, his voice high.

“He’s in charge of the family now,” Rose said.

“Oh,” Laird replied.

“I spent a long time wondering what your father would do when he was in charge.”

It was hard to look at Rose.

Aimon could imagine the scene.  See the binding circles coming to life.  He’d had to look away, because looking directly at the demon had been too dangerous.

The demon had cut into the pile of pigs, compulsive, furious.

The sickle cut away the names.

The name had fallen from Aimon’s recollection, piece by piece.

Rose, meanwhile, had done what she could to close the circles.

Whatever else she said, he could imagine all of the different ways that things could have played out.  If he’d accepted the possession, if he’d been closer, if they’d happened to love each other at the same time, one of them brave enough to make a move…

Would he have ended up right next to her, sharing in her sheer excitement?

Charles squawked in Rose’s arms.

Aimon looked.  He could see his wife looking on, clearly uncomfortable at his proximity to the diabolist.

“It’s been some time since we talked about it,” he said.  When we married, we couldn’t meet so easily.  “Your goals, your dream.”

“It’s been some time since I gave it serious consideration.”

“You’ve abandoned it then?” he asked.

“No.  Most definitely not.  Have you?”

He couldn’t answer.

“I’ll ask you outright,” she said.  “Will you do to Laird what your father did to you?  Impose the same rules and restrictions?”

“Time has a way of changing one’s mind.”

“You can alter time, can’t you?  Change your mind.”

He smiled sadly.

“Is that a yes, then?” she asked.  “Tradition continues its ceaseless march through the generations?”

He flexed the fingers of his bad hand.

Pain every day, to remind him of the war.

On the other hand…  the demon.  The monstrosity.  Rose, her eyes wide.

She’d done it for a good reason.  She’d done it well.

She had embraced diabolism as a way to protect others.

“No,” he said.  “No, I think we can take a different road.”

He saw the dawning realization, the smile on her face.

“But,” he said, “I need certain concessions.”

“Concessions?”

“This can’t come back on my family.  I swore oaths.  To preserve the stores of power my family has amassed over generations.  I won’t make Laird swear those same oaths.  If he needs to bring about change, he’ll have the power to do so.”

Rose turned appraising eyes on Laird, still bearing his baby fat.  She didn’t answer right away.

“Go to your mom,” Aimon said.

Laird let go, then ran, getting away from tombstone and boring adults, arms flailing at his sides in his childish run.

“Will he be up to it?” Rose asked.

“If you want to bring about change, it has to start with the next generation.  If we succumb to fear…”

“…We’ll be just as bad as the ones who came before us,” she finished.

“Yes.  Another thing.  You’ll have to teach Laird.”

“Teach him?”

“Diabolism.  Enough to protect himself and the rest of the Behaim family.  We can’t move forward if I have to watch my back.  Laird either.”

She considered, then seemed to come to a decision.  “Yes.  I think we can arrange that.”

“Good,” he said.

“It won’t be pretty,” she said.

“No.  But did you ever think it would be?”

“When I was young and naive.”

Aimon nodded.  “What do you need?”

“Time,” she said.  She smiled a bit.  “Charles, any children that come after him… I can’t teach them.  My grandchildren… I need time, to see them grow up.”

“Costly.  To stave off death?  That’s something else altogether.”

“Yes, I know.”

“I’ll see what I can do.  I hate to suggest it, but I’m not sure I can offer much more.  I can’t promise protection against Laird the same way you’re promising protection against the diabolism.”

She nodded.  “That’s fine.”

He felt a bit of a chill.  “I can’t imagine it is.  I can do what I can to raise Laird and my other children well, but-”

“Don’t lie.  You’ll spoil him rotten.  I know you well enough, and you’ll be too generous rather than risk walkng in your father’s footsteps.  If conflict is due, then conflict will happen.”

“You’d leave your heirs defenseless?”

“No.  No, not at all.  Do you remember the Barber’s summoning?”

“I have nightmares about it.  Scars.  I don’t think I could forget if I tried.”

“Do you remember the boons he can grant?”

“Medical skill, in exchange for leaving a big enough hole for something else to occupy.  Extend one’s life…”

He gave Rose a look.

She shook her head.  “Considered and decided against it.  I trust you more than I trust the texts.”

“Hmm, there were two more.  Sharp blades, I can’t imagine a good use for that.  To carve out a reflection?  I wasn’t so clear on that one.”

“I am.  As protection for my heir goes, it’ll serve.”

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Subordination 6.12

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I’d faced more than a few situations that left me bewildered, scrabbling for mental footing before I could be killed or caught in a trap.

This situation, as it turned out, was more bewildering than most, the imminent death or trap a little more questionable.

The Behaim kids had caught me, I realized.  They’d surrounded me.

That wasn’t so hard to understand.

But I was in the spirit world, where I’d been in the real world not so long ago.

A touch more concerning.

I was also in a foreign place.  The far end of the spirit world version of the police station’s parking lot.  Everything was fenced in, except for the dilapidated gate at the end, where an old Father Time figure was lurking, bearded, old, and robed, with golden chains draped over the ground around him like a squid’s limp tentacles.

Three on the side of me closest to the building, sunglasses and Father time on the other side.

Their expressions were stern, distorted by the influences of the spirit world and the fact that my vision was out of focus.

I just dealt with you.

The girl who Mary had sliced was there, cut arts covered by her sleeves.  Either the situation had had a particularly fast resolution or… or what?

I’d seen the Behaim ritual and the aftermath of accelerated time around the house, I’d seen Duncan turn back time, and now this.

Had they rewound themselves?  How did that explain my being here?  Had they stopped time and moved things in the interim?

I didn’t have my backpack or the hammer that was engraved with the rune, but my pockets were still full.

Evan fluttered, landing on my shoulder.

“Hey, kid,” I said, murmuring.

“Heya.”

The Behaims were staring at me but not moving.  That damn little kid with his pad of sticky notes was riffing through the pad with his thumb.

“Are you as confused as I am?” I muttered.

“We’re not where we’re supposed to be,” Evan commented.

“Yeah,” I said.

The Behaim guy with the sunglasses might have heard, because he smiled a little.

“Where’s Rose?” Evan asked.

I looked around.  My eye traveled over the back windows of the cars.

No sign of our resident girl in the mirror or her knife wielding Other.

“Good question,” I said.

This was too eerie, too out of place.

Something was wrong.

“Gut feeling on an escape route?” I murmured, a little quieter than before.

Evan turned his head.

I glanced without turning my head.  He was looking at a police van, fairly nondescript, but for a red and blue stripe at the side and a coat of arms on the side.  The nose pointed at me, rear bumper facing the chain-link fence.

Good enough.

I bolted, and Evan took off in the same moment.

I stepped up onto the bumper of the van, then the hood, slipped, and climbed onto the roof on all fours.

One of them was doing something, because my legs were moving more sluggishly than my upper body, as if I were wading through water.  My shoulder ached something fierce, and I couldn’t think back to any incident that might have caused it.

Evan’s passing flight helped me shift my legs into position, and helped dismiss whatever effect was accumulating there.

The top of the van was slick with wet snow, but I managed to find my balance.

The top of the chain-link fence was just about level with my collarbone.  A short jump, easy enough to make, even with me in a less than stellar physical state.

I didn’t make it.

Evan was the reason.  He flew past me, and he altered my trajectory.

I wound up stepping right off the side of the van.  I dropped and crashed onto the trunk of the police car parked next to it.

The kid with the sticky pads had bolted to the fence.  He touched one sticky note to one of the posts with three fingers extended.

I could smell the burning air.  No flickers of lightning or anything of the sort, but the smell was thick and pronounced enough to suggest that I might not have survived contact with the fence.

I groaned as I rolled off the back of the car, careful not to touch the fence.

“Sorry,” Evan said, as he landed on my shoulder.

I groaned again, quieter, while rotating my shoulder.

The other three kids were closing in on me.  The younger girl, the older girl I’d seen the Bloody Mary cut, and Sunglasses.

“Laird’s sending his nieces and nephews to do his dirty work, huh?” I asked.

“Not just nieces and nephews,” the kid with the sticky notes said.

The older girl Mary had attacked spoke up.  “We volunteered.  We take you out, the family fortunes improve, and because we had a hand in it, our fortunes improve too.”

I had to bite off the urge to make a sarcastic retort.

“I see,” I said.  “Where does this go?  Killing me?”

“Binding you,” Sunglasses told me.  He looked at the younger boy.  “Craig?”

Craig tore off a sticky note.  The one on top that I’d seen earlier.  Like a piece of clockwork.

Why was I here?  What was going on?

I’d beat them.  Slipped away.

The old man Other was still looming, cutting off my escape.

The other escape routes included the fence, which was awkward, especially now that they expected it, or making my way back into the building.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to go there, but with very few alternatives…

Slowly, I climbed up onto the trunk of the car next to me.  The kids maneuvered themselves to stay an even distance away from me.

“Again, Ainsley,” Sunglasses said, speaking to the girl that Mary had sliced.

Ainsley drew a striped candle from her purse with one hand, and it lit itself.  She already had needles in her other hand.

I couldn’t imagine many situations where one of my enemies using needles was a good thing.

I pointed.

Evan darted straight for Ainsley and the candle.

He stopped a foot in front of Ainsley, and I felt as though I’d been hit by a car.  I tumbled, landing with my back to the fence.

Or, more to the point, I felt like I were a bird that had just flown into a solid surface.

“That never gets old,” Craig said, still holding his sticky notes.

“Shh,” Sunglasses told him.

Ansley slid a needle into the candle, right at the base.

“Zero hour,” she murmured, “Let us begin.”

This pain is an illusion, only a matter of perception, I told myself.

I tried to struggle to my feet, and found the strength wasn’t there.

They’d turned things around on us, and they had me in the worst position possible.

I just wish I knew how.

“Hour one,” Ainsley said, sliding a needle in at the first stripe.  “I bind your legs, Blake Thorburn.  I bind the pigeontoed that first held you up.  I bind the legs you wear as a man, now, and the crooked weary hips that will be yours when you’re old.”

I could feel my legs getting heavier again.

“I reject your binding,” I spat the words, “Because I have sources telling me I won’t fucking make it to old age.  Your third point doesn’t stick.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Sunglasses said.

Ainsley nodded, grave.

“Fuck,” I muttered.

She found another needle.  “Hour two.  I bind your legs with the folly of childhood, the trials of adulthood, and the frailty of age.”

My legs grew heavier, as if she’d laid something heavy across them.

I started to get my bearings, grabbing the side of the car for support, but my legs felt three times as heavy as the rest of me.

Evan fluttered, trying to put distance between himself and the kids.

Sunglasses kicked him.

Only the fact that I was leaning heavily on the cop car kept me from collapsing.

“Hour three,” Ainsley said,  “I bind you in place, the cradle with its bars.  The career with its trappings.  The cage of the body, the deathbed, the coffin.”

“I reject your binding,” I gasped, as I slumped down.  “I rejected it once, I reject it again.  I was never going to be able to hold a career, I can’t now, as a diabolist and a target for just about fucking everyone.  I’m probably not going to die an old man, either.  I reject it, I reject it, I reject it!”

“This isn’t about you,” Sunglasses said.  “It’s about saying things that other forces understand.  But by all means, please keep going.”

“Hour five…” she said.

“You skipped one,” I said, as she worked a needle into the soft wax.  She didn’t flinch as hot wax dripped past her fingertips, catching on the needles.

She shook her head.  She was almost a quarter up the way of the candle, skipping several stripes.  “…I bind you to remain in place until such a time as you’re released by my word or the breaking of this small totem.  I root you where you now kneel.”

I needed Evan to break the spell as he had before.

“Then I want to fly,” I said.  “Evan, I name you.  We’re kin in our desire for freedom, our desire to keep moving.  You and me are bound, what’s mine is yours and what’s yours is mine.  Lend me your power, give me your wings.”

Evan started to move, but a tap of someone’s boot sent him sprawling, and left me on my hands and knees on the ground, grunting at the pain in between gasps for air.

“You’re just guessing, aren’t you?” Sunglasses asked.

“Doing my damndest,” I panted.

“Might have worked if you didn’t-”

Evan, having faked how hurt he was, took off, flying under the nearest car before he could be kicked again.

I caught him.

The effect didn’t break.

“Lay it on thicker, Ains.  Craig?  Go get your dad.  Watch the barrier at the doors, we don’t want the others coming through to rescue him.”

Sticky Note Kid glanced at us as a whole, then bolted for the doors to the police department.

“Hour eight,” Ainsley said.  Another needle in the candle.  She held it in such a way that the needles stuck out through the gaps between her fingers, wax running over the backs of her hands.  “I take the freedom you cherish, Blake Thorburn.  I take your wings, I take your claws, I take your ability to crawl, to slither, to leap and trawl.  I take this freedom from you as time takes all things.”

The pressure that had weighed me down before now pressed in from all directions.

“Rhymes,” I said, in an effort to fight past my frustration.  “Cute.”

“I try,” she said.

“Evan,” I said.

Sunglasses stepped closer.  I saw a golden disc in his hand.  Like a saucer, almost.

Ready to beat on my familiar?

“Get help,” I said.

I flung him, back and away from the others.

Sunglasses stepped forward, disc raised, but Evan was already gone, up and over the fence, then down, so he could take cover behind it, flying around the building.

Sunglasses relaxed.

“One,” I said, “Two, three, four, five…”

“Hour-” Ainsley started.

“…six, seven, eight…”

“Ainsley,” Sunglasses said.

“…nine, ten, eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen…”

It was childish, but I was going to disrupt her concentration any way I could.  The numbers were important, no doubt, I had no idea why or how, and I was going to throw as many numbers out there as I could.

When kids did it, they did it with random numbers.  Ty had shown me the truth, once upon a time, when I was measuring things for a display.  Count in order, and you could more effectively disrupt someone’s ability to recall numbers.  Their minds would get caught up in the flow of numbers, and they’d lose track.

“…eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty-one, twenty-two…”

“Cover my ears,” she said.

Sunglasses covered her ears with his hands.

She ran her free hand up the candle, counting the needles.

“Hour thirteen…”

I stopped.  No point in continuing.

Sunglasses and the youngest girl turned their heads at the same moment.

“Trouble,” Sunglasses said.

“Someone stepped into the snare,” the youngest of the two girls said.  “They won’t make it much further.”

“Yeah.  Be careful, keep an eye out.”

She nodded.

“…I bind that which I have already bound…” Ainsley continued.

I grit my teeth.

What to do?

I didn’t know enough to free myself, and I didn’t know enough to bind them faster or better than they were binding me.

Attacks?  I had no weapons.

The practice?

No.

I could sense Laird drawing closer.  His kid was Craig, the sticky note kid?

“…bind you thrice over.”  Ainsley said, finishing.

My heart was pounding, my mouth dry.  I was cold, being crouched down against the freezing pavement and snow, moisture soaking through my jeans.

“Kind of overkill, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Not after what I saw in that bathroom,” she said.  She reached into her pocket, winced, then pulled out another needle.

“Kind of sheltered, aren’t you?  That wasn’t even remotely diabolic.”

“It was barbaric.  Using something like that on me?

“People haven’t really held back in dealing with me,” I said.

I’m holding back,” she said, glaring down at me.  “You know what Craig would have done?  He would have stuck you in an old man’s body.  Aged you by ninety years, until you were so old and demented you couldn’t speak.  My uncle?  He would have had Craig leave you like that.”

“Taken down by a sticky note?” I asked.

My supposed savior was stuck, trapped in one place, and Evan was stuck with them.

I could only stall.

“Craig’s good.  He started earlier than most of us, and…” she stops as Sunglasses elbows her.  “Hour twenty-one.”

Very near the top of the candle.

“Does it hurt?  The wax?”

“I bind-” she started.

The nearest car shuddered, then tilted.  The tires on one side had been punctured.

I heard rattling.  the fence was swaying.

“Get your silvered chains,” Sunglasses said.

“We used them to bind the exit.”

“Not all of them.  Tandie?”

The younger of the two girls pulled one of the gleaming chains from her bag.

“Some well-off families get their kids fancy cars,” I said.  “I guess your family gives you… what?  Protective chains?”

Sunglasses ignored me.

“Where do I put it?” Tandie asked.  “Around him?”

“No.  Ainsley, finish the binding, so he can’t be moved by others.  Tandie, protect us.”

“We won’t fit all in the circle.”

“Me and Ainsley, then.”

“And me?”

“Give me the chain and run.  Go inside!”

Tandie hesitated, then did just that, practically throwing the chain at him before bolting.

I heard a loud crash.  The car closest to the door moved.  It didn’t move fast, but it still moved, rolling between Tandie and the door.

“No, please, no,” Tandie said.  “No horror movie stuff please, no.”

Another crash followed.  The car next to the other one began rolling forward.

One by one, the cars began moving, brakes cut, somehow shifted into neutral.

“I bind you one final time,” Ainsley said.  “I bind-”

The one to my left shuddered, and the crash was painfully loud.  It began rolling.

Safe within the circle, Sunglasses and Ainsley stayed stock still as it approached.

She tried again.  “I bind-”

The car to my right shifted into motion with a bang.

The car door swung open.  Nobody inside.

As the car moved forward at perhaps five miles an hour, Sunglasses watched the door approach, threatening to bump into him and Ainsley.

When it was close enough, he kicked it, vicious.  It slammed shut.

Tandy shrieked.  She’d been climbing over the car hood to get to the door, but now she fell, landing on the snow-covered pavement, two hands wrapped around her ankle.

Her screams turned more frantic as she got a look under the car.  She began to crawl away on three limbs.

“Come, Tandy!” Sunglasses called out.

He wasn’t looking as a small figure crawled over the open car door.

It was the size of a chimp, roughly as hairy, but less consistently hairy, with a receding hairline and thick body hair.  Its feet and hands were clawed, and it had no tail.  The macabre overbite showed off an uneven row of fangs.

What was eerie was how it had decorated itself.  It wore a makeshift monocle that wasn’t round, but held in place by points of glass that punctured its eye socket.  Its genitalia was decorated, pushed through a series of washers and wound up by wires that bent it into some grotesque art piece.

It grinned as it saw me.  It then winked, catching hold of the handle above the door, weighed-down genitals swinging madly for a moment, then swung itself into the car.

Sunglasses was fixated on the other of the two little monsters, which was assaulting the youngest of the two girls.  That one was female, potbellied, just as hairy, but similarly decorated.  It carried a makeshift backpack and wore a collar and a self-inflicted two-way wedgie with a single length of rusty chain welded to a collar.

Eugh.

Sunglasses’ composure broke, and he bolted to the side of his cousin or sister.  “Bind him, Ainsley!” he shouted.

Ainsley looked down at me.

“I bind you, Blake Thorburn, as I mark the twenty-first hour.  I bind you for the eighth time, I fix you in place by the cardinal and intercardinal directions…”

The car behind her, the one with the male goblin within, started up, rear lights glowing.

Move,” I said.

“I bind you-”

Ainsley,” I said.  “I bind myself, until you’ve released me.  Get out of the fucking way!”

The car’s wheels spun before it got traction.  That bought Ainsley enough time to look at me, eyes wide, then to move.

The car came within an inch of her as a creature four feet tall somehow managed to work both gas and steering wheel.  It turned as it reversed at full speed.

It veered in a ‘u’, skidding on ice-slick pavement, tail end swinging four feet in front of me like some great sledgehammer before it violently collided with the other car that had been parked next to me.

Untouched by the crash, almost invigorated, if sheer excitement and activity were any suggestion, the male gremlin crawled up onto the roof of the police car.

The female was currently dancing circles around Sunglasses, who was kicking at it while hugging Tandy close with one arm.  He had the golden disc in one hand, and was periodically angling it at the gremlin, trying to catch it with a reflected beam of light.

Ainsley was backing away, putting her at the furthest point from Sunglasses.  All of the cars in the long, rectangular lot were now stopped at one side of the fence.  She wasn’t on that side, and it left her with very little cover.

“Screwloose,” I called out, remembering the thing’s name.  “Return to the one who summoned you.”

He hopped down, then approached me.  Swaggering.  Strutting, chest out, arms swinging to his side and behind him.

I saw tools appear in his hands at some point they swung out of view.  Makeshift tools, things that might serve triple-purpose as lockpicks, swiss-army tools and/or weapons.

There was only malice in his eyes.

Right.  What was it Maggie had said?  She dealt with mad dogs.  Best let off leash on very short spans of time.

Except she wasn’t here to stop it or call it back.

I glanced over, and I saw Ainsley’s abandoned silver chain.

I reached, and found it maybe three or four feet beyond where my hand could touch pavement.

My legs might as well have been welded in place.  I was paralyzed from the waist down, fixed in place by some sevenfold curse.

I glanced at Ainsley.  She still held the candle.

She looked down at the candle, then back at me.

She shook her head.

I deflated a little.

No use wasting my breath arguing.

I pulled off my jacket, then threw it out, so it might drape over the chain.

It might have worked, if the snow and slush didn’t hurt the traction

I flung it out again, hoping for a better snag on the chain.

A small explosion startled me out of my wits, cutting past my jacket.

The goblin carried a length of pipe with a strap that could go over one shoulder.  No, it was two lengths of pipe that were connected, Some kind of crude, makeshift shotgun?

He dismantled his makeshift weapon, shook a shell out, then reached behind him, digging for something.

I took note of the fact that he wasn’t digging in his satchel… and he wasn’t wearing pants.

He retrieved what must have been a gremlin-made shotgun shell, still striding forward.  Shell into the small pipe, large pipe slid over both.

I covered my face.

He slammed the large pipe against the small one.  It fired.

I screamed.

Shallow damage from a crude contraption, but it was still me getting shot.

“Fucker!” I shouted, lowering my hands.  I was openly bleeding from the gouges.  A twisted paperclip stuck out of my arm at one spot.  Glass in another.

I heard him cackling.

“Little fucker,” I said.  “I swear, if and when I get out of this-”

There was a clatter and a bang.

I looked in the direction of the others.

Douchegargler, the female goblin, was perched beneath the open hood of one car, hand holding the hood up.  Smoke was billowing from the engine block.

Sunglasses lunged for her.

The goblin ducked into the engine block, letting the hood slam on his hand.

Little fuckers.

I wasn’t about to complain, except they were being indiscriminate, I was included in the indiscriminate part of it, and Laird was almost-

The door opened.  It stopped short, banging against the side of the car that had stopped in front of the doorway.

Craig squeezed through the gap.  He took in the scene.  A parking lot thrown into disarray, his cousins in peril.  “What the hell?”

“Gremlins!” Ainsley shouted from the far end of the lot.

I used my jacket to try to catch the chain again.

I managed to get some traction.  Not pulling it toward me so much as bunching it up.

Holding both sleeves, I managed to fling the jacket out and get the collar around the chain.  I dragged it closer.

Screwloose was apparently out of shotgun shells.  He came at me with a blade.

Still kneeling and immobile, I whipped out the chain.

The chain struck him across the face.  Shocked more than hurt, he staggered.

I whipped it out again.  I caught him around the throat and forearm.

I hauled him close.  When he struggled, I bound him further with the chain.

“Drop the weapon!” I shouted.

He didn’t.

Pulling chain tight enough to cut off circulation, I bashed one tiny, gnarled hand against the pavement until he let go of the blade.

“I forbid you from biting or harming me,” I growled.

“Nuh, we’re lovey-dovey,” he growled the words with a distinct English accent. “Bugger me, diabolist, and bugger me well.  I’ve got sharp stuff stowed back there.  I’ll bite you all I want.”

I held him fast.  There was one gremlin, and it was perched on the hood of the car that had trapped Sunglasses’ hand.  Laird or Craig were doing something to the door, eroding it by aging it, but it was a metal door, and the process was slow.

Craig and Tandy had backed away from Sunglasses and the gremlin, a little too unnerved to get close.

“Ainsley,” I said.  “Release me, and I’ll help Sunglasses over there.”

“I can’t,” she said.  “I made promises.  To take this seriously.”

“This is serious.”

“-I can’t,” she said, so fast I doubted she’d even heard what I said.

“You can.  Sunglasses over there-”

“Owen.”

“Owen’s going to get hurt if that engine explodes.  I bound myself to save your life.  You-”

“You were bound,” she said, still responding too fast.  She was shaking her head, as if trying to deny the situation.  “You didn’t have to.”

“I saved your life!” I shouted.  “Are you willing to trade away his for some better fortune in the family!?”

“I-”

“Because if you are, then I’m fucking better than you!” I shouted.

“You’re never going to be better than me!” she said, a note of hysteria in her voice.  “I could let a hundred people die and I still wouldn’t be as bad as you are when you’re just existing!

I growled with frustration.  Tried to ignore the goblin that was rhythmically thrusting its pelvis skyward in its struggles to escape.

I couldn’t convince her.

“Owen!” I shouted.  “Sunglasses guy!  You talk sense into her!”

“I’ll be okay!” he shouted.

“Gargler!” Screwloose cried out, as if mocking my tone, “Fucken Drive!

The female gremlin looked at him, then grinned.

She kicked the windshield, cracking it, then threw herself through it.

“Fuck!”  Owen said.  He hauled on the hood, but it didn’t move even with the gremlin gone. “It’s snagged!”

“You morons!  You’re willing to die for this?”

“To stop you?” he asked.

The car started up.

“Yeah,” he finished.

Fucking kids drank Laird’s kool aid.

“I’ll let you go if you stop her,” I told Screwloose.

“Eat me!”

The door was still coming to pieces.

“I’ll let you go if you go after Laird Behaim.  I can sense the connection on the other side of the door.”

Screwloose looked up at me.

“Agree to hurt only him, tell me you’ll leave Toronto and leave people alone for a decade, and you’re as free as Maggie’s binding will leave you.”

“One-of,” he said.  “Totally free?”

“Free, but you leave humanity alone.”

I saw indecision on his face.

Yeah!

I might have been missing something, but my gut said this little bastard was just a short-term thinker.

Whatever.

I unraveled the chain.

One problem dealt with.

The car’s wheels shifted, the front swerving slightly as it fought for traction.  I saw Owen’s eyes go wide.

He tried to shift position, getting his legs up, crawling onto the hood, so he wouldn’t be in front of the car.

He didn’t succeed.  Not really.

One shin was caught between the bumper of the car and the side of another.

He screamed.

“Evan,” I said, bowing my head.  “Evan, I call you by name.  I call you by the ties that bind us…”

I felt the connection appear.

“Evan, we’re connected.  Nothing can keep us apart.  Let’s use that.”

I felt something click.

Thirty seconds later, Evan descended from the sky.

Finally,” I said.

“You’re bleeding.”

“Got shot,” I said.  “Nothing too bad, don’t think.  What held you up?”

“Trap.  Got Maggie.  I tried to help her out, but I’m not as good at helping her as you.”

I nodded.

“Felt you call,” he continued, “I decided to come.  I tried to find help,” he said.  “She’s all I could find.”

“Well,” I replied.  “I think that’s our help, then.”

We looked at the scene.

‘Gargler had managed to reverse back into the fence, and was in the midst of switching gears and preparing for another forward rush.

Ainsley had another candle out, no doubt working on one of the goblins.

The other two had disappeared inside as Screwloose had appeared.  Under the protection of Uncle Laird.

Screwloose was lurking under a vehicle.  I had no idea what he was doing.

Utter chaos.

“I can’t help you,” Evan said.  “I could before but I can’t now.”

“I know,” I said.  “You couldn’t find the others?”

“There was Maggie, and Fell’s busy in front of the police station.”

Busy?  With what?

I didn’t want to know.  Saying he was ‘busy’ was enough.

“Rose is inside, and I think her monsters are too.  She can’t get out.”

What the fuck was going on?

Did I miss something?

“Evan,” I said, my eyes on the ground.  “We need backup.”

“Backup?”

“Either the imp or the sword.  Fell has both?”

“They’re in the car, and he’s close to the car.”

I nodded.

“You want the imp, then?” Evan asked, with a note of hope.

“The imp… it’s dangerous.  It’s a bad precedent.”

“You want the Hyena,” he said, with a note of disappointment.

Disappointment in me?

“Yeah, Evan.”

“Do we really have to?”

“People might die if we don’t.”

“People might die if we do.”

“No,” I said.  “No, I don’t think so.  Not if we’re careful.”

“You can’t be careful with something like that.”

“We can try,” I said.  “Listen.  Find the sword.  Tell it… fuck me, I’m guessing again.  But it bound itself as much as I bound it.  It surrendered to my will, and you’re an extension of my will.  Tell it that it’s free for ten minutes, provided it accepts the conditions and it agrees to be thoroughly and equally bound after those ten minutes are up, no matter what happens to me or to it.   Tell it that it can’t hurt anyone or anything without our express permission.  Tell it that it has to do everything I- no, everything you say.”

“Me?”

“Yeah, Evan.  Does that make you feel any better?”

“Not much.”

I nodded.

“What else?”

“Tell it that if it accepts, then it gets a chance at sanctioned bloodshed-”

“Sanctioned?”

“It gets a chance to draw blood that it wouldn’t get otherwise.  It gets a chance to be scary, to be something other than a sword.  Maybe that’s enough.  Come back to me if it isn’t.”

“Okay,” Evan said.  I detected a slight tremor in his voice.

“Will you remember all that?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Will you forgive me, Evan?”

Yes,” he said, decisively.  “Because your heart’s in the right place, even if this is stupid.”

Then Evan took off.

The car’s wheels were spinning, but it wasn’t moving.  More of an effort than simple wheels on slick pavement.

Ainsley had four needles in her second candle, but the wax was melting in streams and rivulets that were running down to her elbow, inside and outside her sleeve.  It was apparently hot and intense enough that she was flinching, even as she fought to recite her words and stick more needles into it.

It had already melted enough that there was no twenty-first line to stick her needle into.

The door to the station fell into roughly five pieces, little more than rust filigree at this point.

Laird, followed by the two younger kids.  My sense of the connection had been accurate.

He glanced over the situation.

He drew and fired his gun into the door of the police car with spinning wheels.

The acceleration stopped.

Laird helped Owen -Sunglasses- open the hood, and he dragged the boy back, until his back was to the wall of the station.

I heard murmured words, thought I maybe saw a nod from Owen.

Laird stood straight.  His eyes fell briefly on me, then he approached the car, reaching in through the shattered windshield to turn the wheel.  He nodded at Ainslee.

She broke the binding, and the car rolled forward.  The wheels were still spinning, so it was a little faster than five miles an hour.

It bumped into the pile-up of cars on the one side of the parking lot.

“There’s a gremlin under the car!” Ainsley called out.

Laird looked.

I saw the gremlin scamper away.

Afraid of the stranger, maybe somehow recognizing that Laird wasn’t a novice practitioner.

Laird strode forward, approaching me.

Something tripped, and a device launched out from under the car.  Like a hockey puck, it skidded out beneath Laird’s outstretched foot.

Laird stopped, foot suspended in mid-step.

He moved it out of the way, bent down, and carefully picked up the object.

It looked like some sort of small bear trap.

“Maggie, I presume,” Laird said.

I nodded.

“Your other friends are occupied or caught in traps by Duncan and his sons, Rose is bound indoors, and I’ve broken most of the available and useful reflective surfaces in the spirit world.  Things are going to find an excuse to break in the real world in the coming days and weeks, but we can cross that bridge when it comes.”

“Sounds like bad karma,” I said.  “Giving the universe a lot of menial work to do to keep everything coordinated.”

“Well,” Laird said, “I’m hoping to make it up to the universe.”

“Borrowing against the future for the sake of the present?” I asked.

“I would say it’s just the opposite,” Laird said.  His eye roved, searching for the gremlin.

“I seem to have a gap in my memory,” I said.

Laird smiled.  “Your, uh, Rose?  She does too, it seems.”

“What did you do?”

“I’m particularly fond of the saying, what is it?  ‘Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it?  It’s very useful when we can use the same tricks a second time around without you being any the wiser.”

“I’m asking what you did.”

“You can ask.  I’m not saying anything more on the subject.”

“You’re far from being my favorite person in the world, you know that?”

“I do.  I’ll live, basking in the irony that I’m really doing you a service.”

“A service.”

“Most of the others want to see you dead.  I want to see you live, ideally as a non-threat, for at least a little while longer.”

“As a withered, helpless old man?”

“Better than being dead, considering where you’re going.”

He stopped in front of me.

He was imposing, especially when I was hunkered down on the ground, shivering and bent, while he was standing tall above me, with his heavy jacket, barrel chest, and square jaw, glaring.

Not exactly my mental image of a practitioner.

“Conquest is coming,” Laird said.  “He’s smart enough to stay out of the thick of things until the opposing king is in check.”

“How nice for him,” I said.

“I may be your biggest ally here,” Laird said.  “Conquest wants you dead, I want you bound.  The sooner you offer your surrender, the better off we all are.”

“You’re lying,” I said.

“Some consider that kind of accusation a grave insult,” he said.

“Good,” I said.  “Add ‘fuck you sideways‘ to the insults you’re due.  You’re not my biggest ally.  He is.”

Laird turned.

The Hyena prowled forward.  Evan was perched on one tattered ear, wings spread.

“Ah, we expected that one,” Laird said.  “Craig, take Owen and Tandy inside!”

“You expected it?” I asked.

“Yes, and you’ve made a bit of a mistake,” he said.

I looked.

The Hyena stopped short of the fence.

“Go, whelp!” Evan ordered.  “Obey me, mutt!”

The Hyena snarled in frustration, but stopped short of the fence.

An enclosure around the parking lot.

A ring of metal, to keep a proper goblin at bay.

“I don’t know whether to respect your integrity for leaving the imp be, or to pity your lack of foresight.”

“Take it from me and Evan,” I said.  “That thing’s no small potatoes, fence or not.  Evan!”

Laird seemed to read something in my posture and tone, because he didn’t give me a chance to finish.  He crossed the distance between us, and he kicked me, heel to face.

I landed on my back, stomach arched skyward, knees still fused to the ground by Ainsley’s binding.

“Hurghf and burgfh!” I managed, one finger extended.

“What?” Laird asked.

“Huff and puff!” Evan shouted.  “Do it, ugly!  Huff and puff, there!”

The Hyena blew.

“Ainsley!” Laird shouted.

Ainsley shielded the needle-punctured candle with her body.  Successfully blocking the Hyena’s breath from the lit wick.

She, however, wasn’t prepared for the other effect of the Hyena’s breath.

I could smell it from halfway down the parking lot.

She staggered, doubled over, and vomited.

In the doing, she wasn’t able to maintain her focus and keep the candle close enough to stay out of the way, but far enough that she didn’t stab or burn herself.

Somewhere along the line, the candle went out.

I toppled, landing on my back.

“Don’t move,” Laird said.

I heard the cock of a gun.

Ainsley approached, staggering.  Her eyes were watering, and she had a hand pressed to nose and mouth.

“I’m sorry, uncle,” she said.

“It’s okay.  Keep an eye out for the gremlin.”

“I see it,” she said.

Their eyes -and mine- traveled to the fence.

The goblin was there, arms spread, gripping the chain-link, legs bent as clawed toes found purchase on the fencing.

“Shoot it,” she said.

“I’m not taking my gun off the diabolist.  Bind it.”

“Okay,” Ainsley said.

She drew out a candle.

The goblin extinguished it with a stream of foul smelling urine.  Much as one might hold one thumb over the end of a tap or garden hose to concentrate the stream, the workings of wire and more made for a surprising long-distance spray.

Laird shifted position, turning sideways, raising his coat with his free hand to block the stream.  “I hate goblins.”

“If they keep this up, I may start to like them,” I said.

“It doesn’t matter,’ Laird said.  “Conquest will be here in a moment…”

The gremlin let go of the fence.  It raised one hand.  I saw what it held.

“…and this will all be settled.”

A sticky note with a rune on it.

The goblin managed to activate it.

This time there was an arc of electricity.

Ainsley shrieked and Laird wobbled before dropping like a rock.  The gremlin dropped from the fence like a stone.

Ainsle went for the gun.  I beat her to it.  I pointed it at her.

“All things considered, I think I played pretty fair,” I said.

She set her jaw, lips tight.  She still had a fleck of vomit at the corner of her mouth.

“You’re going to let Rose out of the building now,” I said.  “Or I may do something to your Uncle Laird that you’ll regret.”

She didn’t move.

“You don’t care what happens to them?” I asked.  “That kind of makes sense to me.  I’m not very fond of your family either.”

“Ha ha,” she said, without humor.

Did that count as a lie?

If not, I’d have to remember that one.  Some situations mandated sarcasm.

I checked Laird’s pulse.  It was there.

“You won’t hurt him?” she asked.

“If I was going to hurt one of you, I would have let that car hit you.

He was even semiconscious, it seemed.

Good enough.

I did what I could to drag Laird back while keeping the gun available.

Things picked up a moment later when the door opened and the Tallowman came striding out with Bloody Mary a step behind.

Ainsley backed away from Bloody Mary, giving her as wide a berth as was possible without climbing over the cars that were piled up in the parking lot.

“The Tallowman has your bag,” Rose said, from one car windshield.

The wax-crusted man handed me my backpack.

“We save Maggie from the trap first, we rescue the others from Duncan, and then we scram,” I said.

“Sounds like a plan,” Rose said.  “Tallowman, go around to the front of the building.  You recognize our friend?”

“Yes mistress,” the Tallowman said, his voice meek.

“Go help him.”

“Yes, mistress,” the Tallowman said.

A little creepy.

“That went screwy fast,” Rose said.  “I blacked out for a good half hour.  Amnesia.”

“Some trick,” I said.  “Evan and I did too.  They used it to split us up, separated us, we still came out ahead.”

“Be careful about lying.  We’re not sure how this went while we were out.”

“I’m pretty certain,” I said.  Maggie was in sight, looking very impatient inside a rectangular magic circle that was bound to the pavement by golden chains.

“You’re certain we came out ahead?”

“We got Laird,” I said, pointing to Laird’s limp body, dangling from the Hyena’s mouth.  There was a white smear drooping from the side of the Hyena’s nose to Laird’s shoulder.  “And I think I’ve figured out the trick.”

“Trick?  To?”

“The Behaim’s power.”

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Subordination 6.10

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I stopped, and Isadora was content to let the words sink in.

I glanced inside.  Inside the vacant apartment, Alexis and Ty were drawing on the floor in chalk.  Deadly serious.  Rose appeared here and there, her distorted reflection appearing in the door of the oven and the glass light fixture.  She was no doubt giving directions, and I was pretty sure she had a book held in her hands.

Evan was simply watching from his perch.  Maybe talking – it was hard to tell when he opened his beak.

Rose appeared in the window beside me, and the angle allowed her to get a clear view of Isadora.

I met her eyes and indicated she should go back with a little jerk of my head.

A frown creased Rose’s face, but she left.  I saw her rejoin the others.

She must have said something, because they all tensed a bit.  I held up a hand, telling them to stay back.

Isadora, in the midst of this, stood there, calm and regal.  Her chin was raised just a touch too high, as if she couldn’t quite shake the guise of the noblewoman, even when she’d long since abandoned it to become the stern college professor.  Her dress was fashionable if simple, white, and there weren’t many places where she would have stuck out while wearing it, her coat had a ruff that might have been fur and might have been feathers.

Her breath fogged in the air, which I found somewhat interesting, on a basic level.

But I was focusing on these things to distract myself from reality.

“Fated,” I finally said.

“You are not long for this world.  When you are gone, your partner will take your place.  Things will reorder themselves in the aftermath, and she will adopt the ties that you have abandoned.  Depending on her nature and the internal logic of things, it’s very possible that minor people in your life will become major people in hers, in the transition.  It will be disorienting, for her, for those you two know, and for your enemies.  There’s a kind of strategy to it.  Rose will be able to dispatch whoever killed you in the chaos that follows.  In the days, weeks and months that follow, things will reach an equilibrium.”

“Just like that?” I asked, feeling numb.

“As I’ve said, your death at my hands would make for the cleanest ending.  The transition would be naturally smooth.”

“I mean, my grandmother did this?  So easily?”

“I don’t imagine it was easy.  All things have a cost to them.”

“She’s murdering me.  And Rose is… what, Rose was made, unknowingly complicit?  Set up to take advantage of my passing?”

“It may be that you two already sense it on an instinctual level, that there is only place for one of you in the world.”

“I’m getting really tired of people telling me I’m going to die.  Laird at first, then more powerful individuals, and now you, saying it like it’s a certainty.”

“That, too, might be instinctual, the others taking notice.”

I was distracted by the rather dark thoughts of death.  I looked up at her.  “Hm?”

“Practitioners and Others can see the ways of things, the ties that bind, and just as a mortal might learn to intuit the weather, we learn to intuit other things.  Some of us have a background that lends itself to seeing these things, as the farmer’s attention falls on the weather.  Some only have a small sense of things, only when the prevailing winds are especially strong.”

“And the prevailing winds are suggesting I’m going to bite it?”

“Yes.”

“I have to ask, then, what’s the point of you coming after me if my death is inevitable?”

“All deaths are inevitable.  Even immortal things will perish eventually.  Why would you ever murder someone, knowing they’ll die eventually?  That’s a rhetorical question, no need for an answer.”

I rubbed my hands together for warmth, then folded them into my armpits.  I leaned against the railing of the balcony, facing the others, the city at my back.  “I think your point is clear enough.”

“Good.  If it helps, I don’t think you’ll need to concern yourself with me until you’ve cleared up your business at the police station.  I’m more comfortable leaving you be for this little exercise, given how disruptive the antics were yesterday morning.”

“Antics?”

“We talked about spinning plates.  Where a dragon is said to make a bed of gold coin, I find I’m more comfortable on a bed of these metaphorical spinning plates.”

“Everything in balance?” I asked.

“Yes.  I’m as sensitive to changes in the balance of things as a common man might be to changes in the light or to noise.  I’d struggle to explain this to you as much as I would struggle to explain color to the absolutely blind, but I would say that power touched across a great many individuals and places, like a vast stroke of lightning, followed by a thunderclap forceful enough to shift each of those things from their positions.”

“Shift?  Tossing stuff around?”

“In part, but it primarily moved people somewhen else.”

“Ahhh.  That wasn’t me.”

“I know.  It was the younger Behaim that was at fault, who earned my ire here.  Time distorted, and everyone that you and the younger Behaim had talked with moved backwards.  Reality wobbled quite a bit until you each caught up with the rest of the world.  The metaphorical plates fell, and my rest was disturbed.”

“In the late hours of the morning?”

“Not that it matters, but I sleep eighteen hours a day.  A useful thing for my mother, created as a sentry and sentinel over holy sites, a nuisance of a thing for me.”

“Ah,” I said.

She was grouchy because of the little time reversal that Duncan had pulled, and she was giving me a free shot at them first.

Was this what it was like being on the other side of the fence?  Duncan and Laird had lost the three times, and they’d broken their word, and now other people and things were conspiring to help me screw them over.

I wasn’t about to complain.

“If that’s all, I’ll leave now.”

“Wait, please,” I said.  “Two things, if that’s alright?”

“Perfectly alright, Mr. Thorburn.  I declared war, I’m obligated to hear you out.”

I paused.  “Can I filibuster you?  Hypothetically?”

“If you can hold me here by discussing relevant things.  I don’t believe you can, and even if you tried, the Lord of the City would find you and catch you before then.”

I nodded.

“What did you want to ask?”

“I’ve been led to believe that the Lord of this city is merely a figurehead.  That you’re keeping him in place.”

“Fell would be the one who told you.”

“Yeah.”

“Yes.  Essentially true.”

“You could have told me.”

“When?  By the time I had a sense of you, I knew you were a diabolist, and nobody is going to associate with diabolists that easily.  It’s easier and safer to remove you, given the precedent history has set.  Even now, after you’ve proven your mettle.”

“Is the figurehead thing why you’re coming after me?”

“Yes.  We can’t have you unseating the Lord of the City.  Your background makes things worse.  You’re upsetting things, and while it isn’t so dramatic as what the Behaims did, it’s a problem across the board.  You can see what’s happening in the city.”

Screwed twice over by things I couldn’t control.

“Alright,” I said.  I didn’t want to argue.  Not about that.  “What if I said that I don’t expect to win?”

She arched an eyebrow.

“Just asking,” I said.

“If you lose, you’re just as dangerous.”

“Things aren’t that binary,” I said.  “Existence isn’t black and white.”

“Existence is very much binary,” she said.  “You exist, or you do not.”

“I think you know what I meant.  I don’t think you can paint all of reality with strokes of ‘right and wrong’.”

“I would argue that everything can be broken down to right and wrong,” Isadora said.  “Case in point, I can ask, ‘Do you disagree?'”

I stayed silent.

She smiled a touch.  “You don’t give me an answer, because you’re afraid of giving the wrong answer.  I just condensed a great many possible answers into two.  Right, wrong.  You can do the same with all of existence, if you wish.”

“I see.  I’m not sure I like that view of reality.  If there’s one right answer and nearly infinite possible wrong answers, aren’t there an awful lot of wrong answers in existence?  Isn’t reality made up of a great deal of wrongness?”

“Break it down, Mr. Thorburn, examine the densest material at the most fundamental level, and you’ll find a lot of empty space between the components of each molecule.  A great deal of empty space between molecules.  Look at the universe itself, and take note of exactly how much of the void occupies the solar system, compared to the objects, and I think it’s a strong representation of reality.”

“You’re linking right and wrong to existence and nonexistence.”

“I’m the very manifestation of that link, aren’t I?  Rhetorical question, once more.”

“Point taken.”

“Look at the very fact that we are alive in the here and now.  How likely are we as individuals, how likely are we in this exact state at this exact time?  Right is being a point of light in an infinite darkness, and that holds power, because it brings vast complexities into being.  Even small decisions or changes in wording might lead you to different courses in life, to meet different people.

My friends inside were noticing I was talking to someone.  Were they seeing the connections?

It was good if they were getting practice.  I shifted position, trying to convey that I was at ease.

There was virtually no way the Sphinx would come after me right now.  It wasn’t in her nature.

“I have to admit, it’s eerie to hear a being such as yourself talking about the universe and molecules.”

“Then I’ll give you the sort of answer I might have given when I was young, instead.  Everything is reducible.”

“Even your argument, apparently.”

She smiled.

“There’s a problem with that, though,” I said.  “When you asked me if I disagreed, I stayed silent.  You reduced it to two possible answers, but I took a third option.”

“Silence.”

“Yes.  Before this discussion began, you reduced another question to two possible answers.  Will I defeat the Lord of the city and destabilize things enough to justify your murdering me, or will I lose and surrender myself to him, justifying you murdering me?”

“You’re proposing a third option?”

“Would I be offending your intrinsic nature if I said I’m proposing a third, fourth and maybe fifth option?”

She smiled, “Not at all.  My favorite answers to riddles are the ones I could never anticipate.”

I nodded.

“Anything else?”

“My friends,” I told Isadora, while staring at Alexis.  “When you come after me, please leave them alone.  Ty is pretty awestruck by you, Alexis is maybe the most right person-”

“Thorburn.  There’s no need to justify why I should leave your friends alone.  If they remain out of it, I will leave them be.”

I nodded.

“I wish you luck, diabolist.  I will try to find you later in the day.”

“Thanks for being fair,” I said.

She nodded, then hopped up to the railing, then stepping off.  The flapping fabric of her dress, coat and hair spilled out into something bigger, and she was full size before she was halfway to the ground.

I sighed.

I’m going to die.

The realization was a heavy one.

But I couldn’t dwell.  The others were getting more restless, and I needed to move.

I stepped back inside, rubbing my hands.  Evan lighted on my shoulder.

Three circles, each distinct.  Geometric shapes, symbols, and words scrawled out in remarkably good handwriting.  That would be Alexis.

As I progressed further into the room, the bathroom came into sight, a large mirror facing the door.  I could see Rose standing in the doorway of the bathroom.  The best reflective surface in the empty apartment.

She moved, and I could see the summonings.  Three, in circles on the other side of the mirror.  The others had drawn the circles, they’d appeared in the mirror world, and Rose had enlisted their help in summoning the things, using her voice to summon them to her mirror reality.

From there, I suspected, they could be bound into more convenient packages, as Maggie had bound Dickswizzle into the flute or the whistle or whatever it was.

The circle closest to me held a woman.  She was dressed in brown homespun clothes that were spattered with dark brown patches that I suspected were dried blood, holding a kitchen knife that seemed disproportionately large, all things considered.  Her facial features seemed slightly offset, as if they weren’t quite anchored in place, and the longer I stared, the more the eyes, cheekbones, eye brows, nose and mouth seemed to drift from their starting point.

A man with an apron and vest, wild orange hair, and slashes of dull ashy yellow wax crusting his skin here and there.  One of his eyes was missing, and the orb within was more wax, set with a tiny black dot in the middle, slipped into place.

The other circle was empty.

I wasn’t an expert, but there was only one Other we had discussed summoning.  I’d vetoed the choice.

Rose was tense.  Braced for an argument.

Was there more to the inherent hostility?  Was the sphinx right?  Were we instinctually aware that there was a game of musical chairs in progress, the two of us dancing in circles, and only one chair?

Fuck that.  Fuck the hostility, fuck the arguments wasting time, fuck the game of musical chairs.

I’d take the third route.

Starting by forestalling whatever argument she was prepared to make.

I tried to keep my voice level, but a kind of hoarseness found its way in despite my efforts.  “In the interest of full disclosure, the Sphinx has informed me I’m fated to die.  It won’t be too long.  It’s… sounding pretty damn certain, and it fits with what some others have been telling me.  Fated, was the word she used.”

Evan spoke up, “There’s gotta be a way to stop it.”

“This isn’t the movies, Evan.  Yeah, I’ll fight it if the chances comes up, but something like Isadora would be pretty screwed if she lied that blatantly.  If she tells me something straight up, I’m inclined to believe her.”

I saw Tiffany’s hands go to her mouth in shock, as she took it in.  She was the first to react, oddly enough.  Our relationship was the newest, the shallowest.  Was that why?  did it take longer for others to grasp the full import?

Alexis’ expression was one of shock, but it kept going, distorting, until it hit some breaking point.  Her face crumpled a little, and tears appeared in her eyes.

She reached up, as if to hug me, then thought again about it a moment later.

I felt like an utter asshole for not just hugging her anyway.  That was what happened in the movies, right?

But I wasn’t sure I wanted to admit how shaky I felt.  Standing still, being stoic, it was all I could do.

I looked at Rose, and I could see the alarm on her face.  She’d been waiting, probably, with words prepared to argue for the summoning of the Corvidae spirit, and I’d left her speechless.  But it was more than the shock that Alexis was demonstrating so well.

Was she worried about her own existence?

Good.

“I’m sorry Rose,” I told her, and my voice was a little hoarser than before.

I didn’t tell her why I was sorry.  I’d lie to let her keep worrying.  If we were caught up in some dance we weren’t aware of, then maybe mutual self preservation would push her to cooperate where she wouldn’t otherwise.

“I’m sorry Evan,” I said.  “We made a deal, though, and I’m going to try to make the most of the time we have left, to follow through.”

He didn’t respond, but he hopped over a bit and settled closer to my neck, leaning on me.

Ty hugged Alexis in my place.

Fell finished painting the posterboard, then stepped back to examine his work.

My eyes moved from the board to the circle that was drawn on the floor of the apartment, checking over every detail.

“This is your escape hatch,” he said.  “While in the spirit world, things take on a different dimension.  The workings of practitioners are more physical, the workings of man are more fragile.  You’ve already seen hints of this, how easily neglected things fall to ruin in that world.”

I nodded, and Rose nodded with me.

We’d talked briefly, running through the various stages of grief in our own way and our own individual orders.  I’d gone in with acceptance of a sort, and it helped that my recent brushes with death had acclimatized me to the idea.  Rose still seemed to be in denial.  But she’d dropped the pretense of a fight and she seemed to be in my court, now.

I wished it hadn’t affected Alexis as much as it had.  Ty, too, seemed to have switched to a very introspective mode.

We’d agreed not to tell Fell and Maggie, when we heard them at the door and realized our time for mourning was over.  Not telling them meant putting on our best game faces.  Some of us were doing better than others.

“With luck, the defenses they’ve set in place are going to be geared towards stopping us in the spirit world.  If they are expecting us, they have to expect that Blake will make a personal appearance in the real world.  If he couldn’t, he wouldn’t be able to follow through on the agreement he made with the local police chief.  They’ll be prepared in other ways.”

I drummed my fingers on the kitchen counter that divided the kitchen from the living room.  “We hit them from multiple directions, and we hit them hard.  I’m inside the building with Evan and Rose.”

“Will you be okay?” Alexis asked.

She was maybe having the hardest time dealing with what I’d told her.  It surprised me, because she was often so strong.

But people worked to leave legacies, and while my ambitions were pretty damn low, merely on leaving the world a better place than I’d left it, Alexis was having to face the fact that the legacy she was leaving was in jeopardy.  One of the people she’d saved and helped rehabilitate was potentially going to die.

“No idea,” I said.  “But Rose has the firepower, Evan can hopefully help me work around the traps.  We have Alexis and Ty as eyes on the scene, and Fell guarding the perimeter to distract further trouble.  In an ideal world, this is our chance to take out one of Conquest’s champions.”

“Perception and misdirection are my stock in trade,” Fell said.  “I’ll set your friends up so they’re hard to spot and capable of tracking whatever is going on.  If trouble heads your way, I’ll try to turn it aside or stall it.  If I can’t, Maggie will step in.”

“The goblin catching expedition was a wash,” she said.  “I have my gremlins, and some Faerie tricks I’ve picked up, but that’s it.”

“Faerie and Goblins are usually opposing,” Fell said.  “Allying or borrowing the help of one usually scares off the other.  A feud dating back thousands of years, even.  It’s surprising you’re able to balance the two.”

“I know,” Maggie said.  “But I hate goblins, and that counts for something for at least one Faerie.”

I nodded.  “Whatever you can do helps.  We’ll try to be fast, hit them hard, do what I need to do, and get out.  I just don’t want to get cornered again.”

Rose spoke up.  “Saying ‘we’re going to do this fast’ feels like you’re tempting fate when we’re talking about chronomancers.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Definitely,” she said.  “But since we know who we’re up against, I did some reading.  Time is a fundamental force.  It’s hard to find a valid counterpoint to it.  But it’s a heavier thing to manipulate.  The restrictions are bigger, and the costs are stricter.  Physical space is one of the big restrictions.  You mess with time, you have to work within certain boundaries.  The house is a pretty clear example of that.”

“Very strict focus on the area affected,” I said.

“Turning back the clock, if the sphinx was right, is probably limited to degrees of separation and connections.  Only people that are three degrees of separation from the target, you, and from Duncan, or something like that.  If there were ripples that extended beyond that third degree of separation, then there would be incongruities.”

“Stuff not adding up?” I asked.

She nodded.  “And that costs, when dealing with a magic that’s very costly to start with.  It’s not a cost you can anticipate, either.  Chronomancers either have to build up a safe buffer to protect themselves in case they wind up having to pay a penalty fee, or they suffer consequences.”

“Like?” I asked.

“Years off their lives, premature aging, distorted perceptions, stolen memories.”

I nodded.

How was I supposed to process this?  On the shallow level, we were talking about employing monsters to stop Laird and Duncan, very dangerous creatures.

On the other hand, I was hearing about those penalties, and my knee-jerk reaction was to think that I wouldn’t make my worst enemy face something like that.

To be rushed to their demise?

Maybe it hit closer to home than it might have before my conversation with Isadora.

“That’s essentially it,” I said.  “If ghosts or vessels start to show up, Ty and Alexis do what they can to warn us so we can clear out, or Fell and Maggie go after the Shepherd.  If we end up facing the Astrologer, Fell tries to bend the paths the light is following and distort the picture.”

“She’s stronger at night,” Fell said.  “Less of a concern.”

“We have strategies for everyone.  Either stall and warn us or go on the offensive, depending,” I told them.  “Stay alive above all.”

“Let’s go,” Fell said.

I bent down to pick up the posterboard and wobbled a little, stopping halfway only to catch my balance.

Still not entirely recovered.  Not even halfway there, even.

It was hard to tell if I felt better because I was getting better, or if I was getting used to being a weakling.

I folded the posterboard along the pre-cut marks, until it was a quarter of the usual size.  I slid it into my backpack.

Fell, Maggie, Rose and Alexis used the gate to cross over, and they became vague silhouettes, pale.  Rose was even harder to make out than usual, but she was brighter than the rest.

Two overlapping realities.

I had to wonder if this kind of vague form was what Others made out when they looked at us.

I focused on them until I could make them out, as if I were adjusting the dial on a microscope.

Alexis stared back at me, her eyes lacking irises or pupils.  As it had after the awakening ritual, her hair shifted as if in a breeze.

Her clothes were transparent, and her tattoos stood out.  On her back, on either side of her body, on her leg, including a few small ones on the side of her foot, practice sketches, visible through the foot, as if it were more real than her flesh was.  Three molars were visible through her cheek, like some faintly glowing mark on her cheek.

I glanced away before I saw anything too rude.

Fell was also wearing an astral body, and his clothing had changed in a way that left me no doubt he’d inscribed it like I had my suit.  I could still peer through it, seeing the holster of his gun and the powder that now stirred as if it were alive.  I deliberately avoided looking below the belt.

Maggie – Maggie was just as problematic, but for different reasons.  A touch too young for my conscience.  What I could see of her without looking right at her was surprising.  She was second only to Rose, and Rose was pretty much an astral body made solid, Maggie was the most intense to look at.  She was something wild and restless, her hair tangled and bristled like a briar bush, eyes dark, slightly thinner than she was in reality, her fingertips and ear tips were pointed.

I couldn’t tell without looking, but I thought there might have been blood spatters.

Had she stepped a bit too far into that world?

Or, maybe, was she right?  Had she really dealt with an ‘eight’ on a scale of one to ten?

Fundamentals had warned about using the sight too much, going too deep.  I was starting to understand how that worked.  When we crossed over, our sight had adjusted.  If I peered hard enough or long enough, I suspected, I might not be able to readjust my vision to view the normal world at all.  Go too deep, exploring permutations and distant perspectives of things, and perhaps you couldn’t resurface.

I could see the problem with that.  Being in the real world, but only able to view the spirit world version of it?  It would be like going mad, except the monsters and things in the shadows could very well be real, and there could be no hope of maintaining normal relationships, when you saw normal people through the eyes of an Other.

There was probably more to this, what I was seeing, and what it meant to look at things out of focus and see the spiritual side of people, but we didn’t have time to explore it.

I adjusted my vision until they were blurry enough that I could look at them without being embarrassed, and signaled the go-ahead, carrying the posterboard.

We moved as a unit, though Rose moved from mirror to mirror, and Evan flew, taking to the air to view the area around us.

Interesting, to see how some pedestrians walked through Fell and Alexis, while others stepped around him, as if unconsciously acknowledging his presence.

One by one, we split off.  Taking our stations.  Ty, still real, found a table at the window of a big book store, while Alexis stopped on a street corner.  Fell and Maggie waited on the same block the police station was on.  An impressive red brick structure.  Some police officers and a fair number of cars were situated just outside, the cars parked along the length of the street.

Evan approached, flying low to the ground, flying recklessly enough to disturb some of the brave pigeons that had lingered for the winter.  He rose just in time to land on my shoulder, and I flipped up the hood of my sweatshirt.  He took refuge beneath as I set the hood down flat, Evan peeking out from beneath.

Wouldn’t do to have a bird flying around the police station.

Here we go.

Through the doors.

I used the sight to search for traps, a brief sweep.

“Move!” a heavyset woman ordered me, when I opened the door but didn’t rush through.  Nothing on the frame.

“Old man,” Rose whispered.  “Over the staircase.  Crucified by gold chains.  Sand leaking from the areas where the chains bite into the walls.”

I nodded.

They were here.  I turned, heading off to find another, less direct route to the chief’s office.

“Stop,” Rose said.

I stopped.

“Four.”

“Four?”

“Four Behaims.  Very close.  Younger.”

Bastard isn’t one for half-measures.

I reached over to push up my sleeve.  I touched the Stonehenge charm.

I could feel connections of varying intensity.  Bonds between the charm bracelet and the other people around me.  People paying fines, staff, police…

Two to my right.  A teenage girl and a younger boy who was maybe just on the cusp of teenhood.  The boy had what looked like a pad of yellow sticky notes held between index and middle finger, and was periodically flipping through it with his thumb, a practiced gesture.  There was something drawn on the top one, and it looked complicated.

Another to my left, older, maybe older than me, a man in sunglasses.  Another in front, the same age, standing to one side, fiddling with her phone.  It wasn’t a smartphone, some brick phone, the durable sort.

All of them had the standard Behaim look.  Dark hair, square faces, heavy builds that weren’t necessarily fat.  Well, the youngest boy and the older girl looked like they might be, but that wasn’t the concern.

None had noticed me quite yet, but I was stirring interest by way of the charm.

I stopped using it, trying to duck out of sight.

Off to one side.

They were searching for me, and I paid attention to the roving connections, trying to hide.

Maybe that was a mistake, because the guy with the sunglasses noticed.  The others saw his reaction and took that as their cue.

I wouldn’t be slipping by.  It was a shame Fell wasn’t willing to teach me his illusion, because I’d really like having it.

“How do we handle this?” Rose asked.

“Gently, I said, as the teenage girl and sticky-note boy made a beeline for me.

“I think Laird is counting on you being gentle.”

“Maybe,” I said.

I turned a hard right.  Heading for a long hallway that would let me put distance between us.

They followed, except for phone girl, who remained where she was.

“Another Other lying in wait toward the end of the hall, keeping you from rounding the corner.  The giant with the hidden face.  He’s powering a circle that was drawn on the wall there, hidden in the midst of some graffiti.”

Fuck me.

“Tell me when you want me to stop,” I said.

“Twenty paces.”

For now, the number of people in our immediate proximity was an advantage.  Cover, and they couldn’t do anything obvious without drawing attention.

“You wanted me to be your firepower, Blake,” Rose interrupted my thoughts.

“Not against kids,” I muttered.

“You think they’ll play nice?” she asked.  “They’ve been practicing longer than you have.”

“Not with those things, and what happened last time.”

I drew looks for talking to myself.  People seemed surprisingly okay with it, all things considered.

“I was more careful.  The restrictions are tight.  No killing.  No harming me or you.”

Mail and reception, bathrooms…

Bathroom could be a dead end.

Another stairwell.

I bit my lip, thinking.

“Three paces.”

I stopped.  Those were my options.

I could see runes laid out, making it a dangerous proposition.

They’d trapped the building.

Pretty fitting, given Duncan’s previous M.O.

Alright then.

If there was anyone inside the bathroom, they were in the stalls.  I walked to the far end of the bathroom, using the sinks to steady myself as I ducked low to see if any feet were visible.  I was alone.

Rose was already waiting when I turned to the bathroom mirror.

“I need you to stall them.  Going to duck into the spirit world.  With luck, their sight isn’t that good, I can slip by.”

“Relying on luck already?” she asked.

I dug through my backpack, pulling out the posterboard.  “They didn’t see the connections as well as I did.  Their sight isn’t that well trained.”

“At least one of them saw.”

“Maybe one of them is competent then, but it’s better than being followed by four.  Go.  We’ll figure this out.”

She went, traveling from one mirror to the next on her way to the door.

I could see her walking.  Raising a hand as she passed one mirror, then it was lowered when she passed the other, her mouth open as she said something I couldn’t make out.

When she’d reached the mirror closest to the door, she had company.

Mary, the woman with the kitchen knife.

Wouldn’t have been my first choice.

I’m losing control of all this, I thought.

Losing control of Rose, no longer having my friends compartmentalized…

The door swung open.

The boy with the sticky notes, the girl I assumed to be his sister.

“Laird uses children to fight on his behalf?” I asked.

“We volunteered,” the girl said.  “Those books you ruined?  Those were valuable.  That was fucked up.”

If theft of property that belonged in a certain place had repercussions, then destruction had to be the same.

“You shit on them?” the boy asked.  “In our aunt’s house?”

“To be fair, I only let a goblin loose,” I said.

“It wasn’t fair at all,” he said.  He held up the stickies so I could see the inscription.  It looked like a complex piece of clockwork more than a magic circle.  “You probably deserve this.”

“Your family killed my cousin, and tried to get me killed.  I’m not supposed to fight back?”

“I-” he started.  He stopped when something clinked against the mirror.

Rose was standing beside me, but something else was tapping the mirror, with steady, sharp sounds.

He and his sister looked at the mirror.

“Go get Gav,” she said, her eyes wide, her voice a hush.  “Get him in here, tell him to use protection.”

He fled the room.

“That was a mistake,” I said.

“No,” she said.  She looked at the mirror.  “That was.”

She reached into her pocket, and she withdrew a chain.  Not steel.  Some other material.

She tossed it to the ground, then kicked it twice, until it made a rough oval shape.  She stood within.

The glass shattered.  A knife point stuck through.

Mary came through a moment later, with a crash of glass.  She collapsed on entry.

The man with sunglasses, ‘Gav’, appeared in the door.  He also had a chain in hand.  He tossed it to the ground at the doorway, then used his toe to move it so it was secure.

Mary staggered to her feet.

I could see the fear on the girl’s face as she remained within her small circle, arms tight against her side, chin raised.

Mary stalked around them.

Raised her knife, ready to stab, but didn’t swing.

The girl reached into her pocket, careful not to let her elbow move beyond the boundary of the circle.  She unrolled a small scroll.  “I hereby bespell you, Blake Thorburn, by the-”

I snapped my fingers and pointed.

Evan flew.

The circles didn’t stop him.

Gav’s chain did move in his passage.

Gav stumbled back, his fear visible even with the sunglasses hiding his eyes.

The door swung shut.

He didn’t know that Mary only attacked women.

The girl’s fear was palpable.  She shrieked as Evan flew by again, and the scroll tumbled to the ground.

“My uncle-”

“-can come,” Rose said.  “We’re dealing with him anyway.”

Evan flew by a third time.  She kicked the chain to make it a rough circle again, and she managed to hit him with her knee.

Enough bullshit.

I strode forward.

I saw her expression as she realized what I was doing.

“No,” she said.

I pushed her to one side on my way to the door.  I kicked the chain under the nearest stall.

Mary swung her knife.

“Scare, no permanent damage,” Rose ordered, stressing permanent.

Which was probably scary enough when you were disarmed and had a knife-wielding Other on you.

Mary seemed to listen, all the same.  The cut across the backs of the girl’s forearms were as shallow as cuts could be.

The Other hung back as the girl retreated into a corner.  Staring, bristling with latent hostility.

I snapped my fingers and pointed at the window.

“Mary,” Rose’s whisper was barely audible over the shrieks and screams, “Come back.”

I was dimly aware of the Other making her way to safety.

I headed out the door, leaving them.

“Officer!” I shouted at the nearest cop, before the other Behaims could ambush me.

The officer turned my way.

“There’s a girl in there with slashed wrists,”  I told him.

His reaction was immediate, calling for help, shoving his way inside.  More officers came running, and the area was chaotic.

Blocking the young Behaims from their sister or cousin.

I used the chaos to my advantage to leave them behind.  I was dimly aware of one running up the staircase that was warded against passage.

As I passed the pictures mounted on the wall, Rose walked in step with me, and the Bloody Mary walked in step with her.

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