I was too tired to be surprised. I’d managed to grab some rest, and I was feeling more together, more connected to me. Having my bike and my friends at hand made all the difference. I didn’t want to let this sudden piece of what-the-fuckery screw that up and leave me confused and frustrated.
I made my way to a chair and sat.
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll hear you out.”
“You told me that when you got a familiar, it would open doors for me. That I’d have the ability to affect the real world, and it would be something for the two of us. It didn’t really work out that way, did it? Evan’s yours.”
“I suppose he is.”
“I don’t have agency, Blake. I can make a difference, but it’s always filtered. I can break glass, and I can maybe stall a crowd of ghosts, but I’m… I’m just so frustrated, because I can’t take action A to achieve result B.”
“You want to summon something from one of Grandmother’s books, to give yourself that agency? To have hands in this world?”
“While Tiff and I were napping, you’ve been… what, pacing? Reading?”
“Both. And talking to Evan. I can’t ever sleep, he can’t either, I guess we’ll keep each other company when the rest of the world rests,” Rose said. She touched her head, seemed to notice hair that had pulled free of the braid, and started to unwind it, starting over from scratch. A nervous habit.
So she’d been talking to Evan, getting an idea in her head, seeing my familiar, wanting an approximation for herself.
“You were able to check on the others while you did all that?”
“Kind of? It eats away at me, to be away from ‘safe’ sources like you or the house. But I can move more easily here.”
“Are you changing the subject?”
I shook my head.
“Well, I can sort of follow your line of thinking,” I said.
“I’m not saying I like this idea, but I want to do it,” Rose said.
“One very careful summoning and ritual,” I said, “And you have a pair of hands in this world, and you have some muscle.”
“That’s the idea.”
I nodded slowly.
“I didn’t expect you to actually hear me out. Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” I said. “I’m hearing you, but I don’t know that I agree. This sounds like fucking lunacy.”
“It’s crazy, but you picked me as a champion. You’ve got two champions you’re afraid to let loose, and probably with good reason.”
“Leery of, not so much afraid, and I’m leery with definite good reason,” I said.
“You need firepower.”
“Nukes, you mean?” I asked.
“No! No, look, listen!” Rose was more agitated. She flipped the book open. “Grandmother wrote some stuff saying that back in the day, before studies in diabolism had come so far, people had a bad habit of chalking up any particularly nasty Other as a demon or something infernal. There was a whole period of history where almost every bad Other was thought to be a demon or demonic, and the classification was harder for some to shake than others. So I’ve been researching, and looking at the criteria.”
“For what I need, for what we need. The summoning would need to have a physical form. I know Evan’s… he’s a good kid. He wouldn’t have been my first pick, or even my second, but he’s served you well, and I can see the fit. But he can’t move a book or turn a mirror if I need him to.”
“He can, sort of.”
“Without risking breaking it and leaving me high and dry? Blake-”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, I admit it. He’s not a good manservant. But is there anything in that book that’s going to fit?”
“We’re biding time, Rose, waiting this out, hoping that Conquest gets reckless enough to make a mistake. If you want to talk this out with me, I’m game. But please understand that’s not a yes. I just want to know what direction you’re thinking of going.”
“Then, um, let me see here, I’ve got it in one of these books, I color coded the bookmarks. Except I didn’t have a bookmark for the sixth, so I used a sprig of herb. Here. First option. She’s Mary Frances Troxler. Origin unknown, but she may have been a wraith, a ghost that took on other qualities. Mediums used to call on her to help women find their husband to be. The ritual was tainted, too much negativity, maybe it got blamed when the marriages didn’t work out. Calling her a demon or a thing of darkness, and the label starts to become true, in a roundabout way. She started showing up when she wasn’t called, was eventually bound, and she remained a minor tool of diabolists for some time.”
“What kind of tool? Finding husbands?”
“The ritual used a mirror. She’s been summoned in ways since before zero A.D., and she only went bad recently, a hundred and twenty years ago, about. When she did go bad, she started crawling out of mirrors and carving up the women who inadvertently summoned her.”
“I can see why she piqued your interest. The mirror theme.”
“Yeah. She’s one of something like nine different entities that are related to the whole ‘Bloody Mary’ urban legend. Even has the name right. All stemming from the same roots: vanity, mirrors, and women.”
I nodded. “She’s the sort of Other you’d want on our side? Keeping us company for however long?”
“Don’t think I don’t hear the tone there. No, I don’t know if I’d want to have her around long-term, but she has uses. Pros: she’s tied to the mirror thing, and if there’s a complex answer to be had with my… I guess current predicament, maybe we learn something from her. She’s dangerous, a killer, capable of striking at our opponents from an unexpected place.”
“You want to kill our enemies?” I asked.
“They want to kill you, Blake. Killing me by proxy.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m… I guess I’m okay with going after the Eye, or the demons, or any of that. But when you think that it might be the Sisters of the Torch?”
“What about Laird?” Rose asked.
“I… I don’t understand Laird, I don’t even remotely like him. I even hate him, because he’s every inch the kind of holier than thou motherfucker that’s made my life miserable since day one. But no, I don’t want to kill him.”
“He might really be holier than us, if we’re diabolists, Blake.”
“Fuck that, and fuck you for saying so,” I said.
“He’s dangerous, and he’s not going to stop. Okay? Listen, I’m not proposing outright murder. I’m saying we should use something that can murder, so they know we aren’t playing around. We then rein it in, to keep it manageable.”
“That sounds slippery,” I said. “I’m not going to use the words ‘slippery slope’, but I think it sounds like there’s a lot of room for something ugly to happen.”
“Yeah,” Rose said. I heard a book close. “I won’t say you’re completely wrong. I was about to get to the cons, and it’s a longer list. She’s evolving, and just like you don’t want to mess with a virus that’s constantly changing, I don’t know if we want her around if we can’t predict her exactly. Besides, my suspicion is she’d only target women, even under orders, and that’s limiting her to going after the Sisters. And maybe it’s a bit selfish of me to say so, but I don’t like the idea of utilizing something like Mary Francis Troxler if she’s going to bounce off the protections they have in place and come after me. In my mirror world, even.”
I nodded. “Starting to get a better idea of what you’re wanting to do, though. Other options?”
“Tallowman. Originally thought to be possessed, modern thought points to him being a revenant. Died, or suffered some gruesome injury, but didn’t go down. Soul couldn’t rest, too hungry for revenge, basically a serial killer zombie. The spirit didn’t leave the body, and the body came back for unfinished business.”
“How’d he die?”
“Loner, as the story goes, a talented candlemaker who scrimped and saved to buy a woman’s love. He was betrayed by greedy brothers and their families who wanted the savings. Multiple stab wounds, left to die, he filled them all with candle wax, then lurched to his feet and kept going. He got a few of the peripheral family members, others severed his head, then left it be. His body kept going, as the story says, driven by hate, it separated the body fat of the ones he’d killed to make more wax, stuck his head back in place and patched the other wounds.”
“Resourceful fellow,” I commented. “Would have helped if the family didn’t keep leaving the body behind.”
“Yeah, well, that was the pattern. Multiple attempts at stopping him, bludgeoning, trapping him, severing limbs, and each time, he got a few of them, used the fat to fix himself, patching up the wounds and replacing the missing parts, and he kept going, until it came to the brothers. He was stopped when the brothers took refuge in a church, repenting. Coincidence or no, the church candles melted some of the wax holding him together, and he burned up. The priest had heard them repenting the murder and theft, they went to jail, yadda yadda.”
“Weak to fire as the big con?”
“Something like that.”
I nodded. “That’s a problem, when we’re talking about the Eye. Pros?”
“He’s described as diligent, before he went all monster. The book that records his history suggests he’s been summoned with some regularity, and not just by diabolists. Maybe he’s the kind of guy we can keep on hand to do some of the mundane stuff for my sake, and if trouble comes up, we light his wick and point him in their direction.”
“I’m not entirely sold. If we’re going to dig into the sketchy stuff, I’d rather get something of value. Again, presuming we even do this.”
“Sure,” Rose said. She smiled. “Next option… well, you like your birds. What does it mean to you if I say James Corvidae?”
“Corvidae… crows, mockingbirds, ravens, rooks. Do I want to know?”
“Long thought to be a member of the seventh choir, chances are good he perpetuated the myth himself, to make himself scary even to the practitioners who had some idea what was up.”
“Oh, so this is a clever one. Fits, with the corvidae motif.”
“Yeah. Aside from deciding what he isn’t, nobody’s really stepped forward to say what he is. I guess, if you had to stick a label on this one, I’d say ‘Bogeyman’. Which seems to be a convenient practitioner label for ‘loner Other with a penchant for terror or murder’.”
“With a bird theme?”
“Peripheral. Names tend to find him. James Crow, Jamie the Rook, Jay Chough, and so on.”
“I’m seeing the theme.”
“Always the same general appearance. Slouch, black hair slicked back, hook nose, nice clothes that have seen too much use. Word is he came to the New World with the settlers, but there’s no record of him in the old world. There’s been theorizing that he was a curse bestowed on us from the First Nations, over some slight.”
“What does he do?”
“He forges connections between things. Very inconvenient connections.”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“He takes that which people most love, then gives it to another. Your favorite possession finds its way irrevocably to the hands of your best friend. You can’t fault him for having it, but resentment builds. In a year or two, you’re mortal enemies, and you’ve lost both your favorite thing in the world and your friend. Except it’s not always an object. It could be your soulmate. Your mother or child.”
“That would suck.”
“Putting it mildly.”
“It would suck a lot,” I amended.
“I’ve thought about it, and I’ve read some of the side stories… I can’t help but feel it’s almost worse than what the Barber or the demon in the factory could do. If you go mad, or if you get erased, that’s… it’s horrible, but you’re still gone. James Corvidae, he leaves you completely and totally intact, but missing that one thing or person that gives it meaning and purpose.”
“I’m having a hard time picturing him helping you out. In fact, I’m having a hard time picturing us using him at all.”
“I’m not. He fits into a middle ground where he’s too scary to summon when he’s almost too weak to use. But I think we could use him.”
“We talked about setting our enemies against one another. Corvidae is a tool we could use.”
I tilted my head to one side, then the other. “What about ‘too scary to summon’?”
Rose shook her head. “Grandmother had a note in her book. She summoned him once, and he was grateful enough to finally see some of the outside world that he was willing to play along with her needs.”
“Grandmother was good at what she did. We’re novices. If other people think this guy is too scary to fuck around with, I’m thinking that’s a pretty good indication to go by.”
Evan fluttered as he entered the room. I reached out a hand and he settled on the back of it, tiny bird feet hooking on the locket chain.
His head and mine turned to the door in the same moment.
Trouble? I tensed.
“Hey, Blake. Do you maybe want to tell your friend here to drop their weapon?”
She came into view. Jeans under a skirt, mismatched top under a long navy blue coat, a checkered scarf and wind-tousled black hair. Tiffany was behind her, holding a set of bolt cutters like a club, two-handed.
“Maggie,” I said.
She grinned wide enough to show her teeth.
“She’s Maggie?” Tiff asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Are you Maggie?”
“Oh boo on you, Blake. You do not want to hear the trouble I went through to be here. Yes, I am Maggie Holt.”
I relaxed some. “Are you compelled? Otherwise enchanted?”
“No and yes. I’m dressed up in my finery, so to speak. Ready to fight in your war.”
“I honestly didn’t expect you to come fight,” I said. “I though maybe a phone call, you could share your expertise on goblins, and if you felt particularly adventurous, you might do something to force Laird to head back to Jacob’s Bell.”
“Well, I’m here. Very curious for details. Starting with whatever the heck you were just talking about. Too scary to fudge around with?”
“Don’t worry, we haven’t gone off the deep end. We were talking about enlisting the aid of a bogeyman.”
“You’ve been big on the recruitment drive since I last saw you. Some underlings, a familiar, even…”
“Hi,” Evan said. “I’m Evan.”
“Not a very imposing name. I was hoping for Blake’s familiar to have a name like Melmoth the Skull-Fu-”
She stopped short, then frowned. “Melmoth.”
“Nope. Just Evan. I’m dead.”
“A ghost, Blake?”
“An exceptional ghost,” I said.
“A ghost. Bit of a bummer, but it’s better than the other extreme. You haven’t gone over the deep end?”
“Our local opposition twisted my arm, I wound up binding a demon,” I said. “Technically, I can’t say I’m not a diabolist anymore.”
“Ohhh man,” Maggie said.
“Is that going to be a problem?”
“Makes me look bad for associating with you. But I’m here, and that ship has sailed already. Our usual deal is still on the table?”
“You help me, I give you access to material at a later date.”
She nodded. “Everything has a price. Doing it this way, it’s more polite, and it’s safer. Like selling something for one dollar. Maybe you’d normally give it away, but doing it like this means you have a receipt. Generosity doesn’t stretch too far in this world.”
My eyes met Tiffany’s.
Should I have arranged for more of a transaction with my friends?
“Come on in, Tiffany,” I said. I glanced at Maggie. “Maggie’s an ally I made in Jacob’s Bell. I had a library of books and a need of backup, Maggie was willing to give me backup for some knowledge.”
“Serendipitous,” Maggie said.
“Tiffany’s a recent friend of mine. Another friend introduced us, and Tiffany got on board with the whole magic thing.”
Maggie extended a hand. Tiffany shook it.
“A champion?” Maggie asked.
“No,” I said. “Supporting cast.”
“I met one of your champions at the bus station. Guy in white with a handgun?”
“He pointed me this way. He told me to tell you they’ve set up in two more locations, and we should distribute our firepower, emphasizing escape routes. He’s going to go check on the others, then try to steal some rest before things get hairy.”
I nodded. “Right now, we’re using guerrilla tactics. We’ve got the entire spirit-world version of the city to hide inside, and our opponent gets weaker so long as he’s being opposed by equal or superior opponents. Rose and I were just discussing additional options.”
“Summoning something non-diabolic,” Rose said.
“Just the one something?” Maggie asked.
“When we’re talking about things this nasty?” I replied. “It makes sense to limit it to one.”
“Well,” Maggie said. She grinned. “Speaking as the resident expert in the nast-”
She stopped short.
“Really!?” she asked. “I did not mean anything rude! Not even close! And how does that count!?”
Tiff looked at me, eyebrow raised.
I shook my head. “I’ll try to explain later.”
Maggie took a deep breath. “Rephrasing, I deal with goblins. Not so far removed from bogeymen and bandersnatches, or whatever it is you’re dealing with. Guy in white-”
“Fell,” I said, again. “At least I hope it was Fell. The alternative is that he’s the Lord of the City, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.”
“Fell, right. He said he was Fell. He described the situation. We’re outnumbered and outgunned? You got me, your enemy got Mister Behaim?”
“That’s the gist of it,” I said.
“Then we need raw power.”
“It wouldn’t hurt,” I said. “But I’m leaning towards a more defensive strategy. It means my friends don’t get killed. You included.”
“Aw,” she said. She reached up toward my cheek. I flinched.
“Oh, oops?” Maggie said, her hand still in the air.
I shook my head.
“You were calling me a friend? That makes me feel things. I don’t have many flesh and blood buddies, you know.”
Maggie belatedly lowered her hand. I glanced at Tiff and saw an alarmed look on her face. From the familiarity?
“Well, don’t like to break it to you,” Maggie said. “But Maggie Holt doesn’t have a history of doing things halfways. You asked for me, you got me, and you got someone who knows their way around this sort of thing. Dealing with the ugly things. Tell me more about them?”
Down to business?
“We’ve got a Bloody Mary,” Rose said.
“A boggart or a wraith, not sure. A ghost loaded with enough negativity that it went off rails. Built with echoes that aren’t its own. Lurks in mirrors, carves up women if they spend too long looking.”
“I don’t think I’m ever going to sleep right again,” Tiff said, her voice quiet.
“You know how to summon and bind it?”
“Yes and sort of. But it’s unpredictable.”
“I can deal with the unpredictable. What else?”
“I didn’t tell Blake about this one, it was a subhuman, before.”
“Elaborate? I don’t know the fancy terminology you people with the books have.”
“What you get when a collection of feral children grow up and breed for a few generations, or when you have that small branch of the population that lives off in the middle of nowhere or on some mountaintop, left with nobody but their own family. Less human trappings to tie them down to reality, a lot of energy, lust, or bloodlust to stir up the spirits, and you wind up with whole families of inbred, messed up almost-humans.”
“You can summon something like that?”
“If they become Other enough, and certain conditions are met. This one is called Midge.”
“Midge,” I said.
“She’s the sort of thing you call on when you need to knock a house down. Not subtle, but not so inhuman that the authorities can’t explain her away.”
“That’s one more,” Maggie said.
“Tallowman,” Rose said. “Told Blake about him. Revenant.”
Maggie nodded. “Zombie?”
“Zombie with a theme and a grudge.”
“Cool. And the one you were too scared to deal with?
“Yeah,” I said. “I think I might have to put my foot down on that one.”
“Some ghost, an inbred human-turned Other, and a candle man. Sounds like a way of evening the odds, if we’re clever,” Maggie said.
“Someone recently accused me of being the equivalent of playing with fire,” I said. “This sounds more dangerous than fire.”
“Have to be dangerous if we’re going to win,” Maggie said.
I glanced at the others. Evan’s expression was unreadable, Tiffany looked spooked, and Rose…
“Blake,” Rose said. “Please.”
“I’ve dealt with goblins, I’ve seen what they’re capable of,” Maggie said. “You don’t get much more intractable or unpleasant than goblins.”
“I’m kind of surprised that you’re okay with this,” I said. “The danger, the fact that Rose is talking about monsters that are bad enough they were almost classified as demons, not so long ago…”
“A lot of things about me would surprise you,” Maggie said. “I’m here, I’m helping for the time being, and I’m raring to go.”
“You’re excited,” I said.
“For this? Yeah,” she said, smiling.
I couldn’t wrap my head around it. “Why?”
“Because this? The contest? Predefined rules, boundaries, minimized damage, a lot to gain? I’ve been hoping for something like this for a long time now.”
I nodded slowly. I wasn’t sure how to take that.
“Don’t suppose you could give me more details?” I asked.
“Right now, with the possibility that something could kick the door in and come after us? I think we should get ready. Help me help you,” she said.
I didn’t respond.
“There’s as many holes in the ‘be patient’ plan as there are in this one,” Rose said.
“I suspect that comes perilously close to being a lie,” I said.
“I said it, I stand by it. I’m asking for this, Blake.”
“Alright,” I said. “You two handle it on your own. Better if I’m not directly involved, since I swore not to use any magic for the duration of this contest.”
“Alright!” Maggie said.
“Do whatever you’re doing quickly. If Fell thinks the others need backup, let’s not delay too much.”
“Quickly then. Now, my dear mirror-dweller-”
“Yeah. Let’s talk methodology. Can you follow me over this way? We’ll need open space.”
“The idea is simple. If you’ve got a mad dog, you want to minimize contact with it. Keep it in a cage until you need someone mauled.”
“Like you stored the paper goblins, and the goblin in the instrument.”
I watched them make their exit, Rose shifting between the various reflections in the windows looking from the office to the garage.
“I need fresh air,” I said. “Or… whatever we have in this version of Toronto.”
“Alone?” Tiff asked. She looked fidgety.
I glanced at Maggie and Rose’s retreating forms, then shook my head a little. “No.”
When I was sure Maggie and Rose weren’t looking, I grabbed the bag with the book and the sword, carrying both.
Tiff, Evan and I made our way outside.
“Why are you bringing the sword?” Evan asked.
“Because I feel like I should,” I said.
“That doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said.
“Would make less sense if I felt like I should and I didn’t.”
“Yeah, but it would make more sense if you had a good reason,” Evan said.
The street was dark. It was technically nighttime, but time passed in a funny way here. The sky overhead was dark, hard to make out with the falling snow. The only light from the sky came from above Conquest’s tower. Pale light, as if the moon were only feet above the tower, hidden by the clouds. It made the contours of the clouds stand out, and it illuminated the tower, as if it were declaring Conquest the ruler of the city.
There was other light. Red-orange flames, elsewhere in the city. The Eye was doing what it could to root us out.
How did the regular people see it? How had they interpreted the Eye’s activity when he’d caused the crash? A freak accident? A slick patch of road and driver reactions causing a three-car pileup? Ugly happenstance leading to the explosion thereafter?
When fires started up across the city, did they invent an excuse to keep it convenient? People could convince themselves of extreme things when threatened with dissonance; reality challenging their fundamental understanding of the world.
It bothered me a little that people were going to those extremes, twisting their minds around things to sell the idea that there was a flaw in the power grid or an arsonist at work. That they’d sleep a little less easy at night because of what was happening tonight.
It bothered me a lot that people had died. That Conquest had let the Eye loose specifically because of my challenge, and I hadn’t been able to save those people.
Alexis was naturally heroic. I wasn’t. I wanted to be a good person, but being a hero wasn’t really in my makeup. At the end of the day, I was more focused on just trying to repay the debts I owed and make sure that I left the world better than it was when I’d come into it.
Even before the whole magic thing had come up, that had been my philosophy. Nothing grandiose, but if everyone could keep to that idea, then maybe we’d all be in a better spot.
I could, if I listened to the wind, hear the explosion and the screams. I couldn’t say if it was because of the way this spirit world worked, carrying impressions more easily, or if it was just in my head.
Flames, low in the car, not even merciful enough to burn away the oxygen before it burned the person, as was more common in house fires and the like.
I blinked hard as a snowflake flew into my eye, with enough force to sting.
“I thought you were going to give the sword to Maggie,” Evan said. “Didn’t Fell say something like that? She’s a goblin wizard or something?”
“We were,” I told him. “Fell did suggest that, and yeah, Maggie is the sort of practitioner who deals with goblins, and who, if she were very good, would deal with goblins like the Hyena.”
“But you’re not giving her the sword?”
“No,” I said. “I’m suspicious that may be a bad idea.”
“Why?” Tiff breathed the question, as if afraid to ask it. “You asked her to be one of your champions, but you don’t trust her?”
I had to double check to make sure Maggie wasn’t in earshot. “I trusted her about as much as you can trust a relative stranger, facing a situation like I was.”
“You just used the past tense,” Tiff said.
“Why? What changed?”
“She did,” I said. “Maggie did. Something’s happened since I left Jacob’s Bell.”
“But you’re letting them go ahead with it?” Tiff asked.
I looked in the direction of Rose and Maggie.
“Right now, I’m focusing on preserving my relationship with Rose,” I answered. “I don’t think she’d forgive me if I shot her down now.”
“I know I shouldn’t say stuff like this, but that’s really not a very good reason,” Tiff said.
“It really isn’t,” I agreed.
Fell came to get us, not running into a soul on the way from Alexis’ hideout to the garage. On the way back, however, we did run into problems.
The Sisters had mobilized, making a play. In retrospect, we maybe should have moved earlier, before they had time to prepare.
They’d built an army.
Dolls, lifesize models, and a variety of mannequins, staggered through the streets. Some had faces, others were blank. Many were undressed. Ten or so were gathered around Fell’s car en-masse, hugging it, standing on it, or steadily bashing it with hard plastic hands.
Each one had a rune inscribed on their forehead.
Our cover was poor at best – a short fence around a patio for some place called ‘Miss Panda’s’, but the things were largely blind to us. Ones without line of sight moved as steadily toward us as the ones who should have been able to spot us.
“Vessels,” Fell said, with a note of annoyance. “This isn’t my specialty.”
“I thought you said that direct attacks like the Eye’s weren’t your specialty,” Rose said.
“Those either, if I’m on the defensive.”
They were breaking away, spreading out a bit. Mostly in our direction.
“I’ve seen something like this,” I murmured. “Dead bodies, infused with those who’d died to the elements.”
“The good news is they have a weak point,” Fell said.
“Glowing runes?” I asked.
“Yes. Even a scratch or a smudge will disable them. The bad news is that it isn’t sensible to go after them individually. The very bad news is that the Sisters are elementalists. They specialize in natural forces. Not every rune there is the same. Pay careful attention.”
The dolls and mannequins moved as their individual joints allowed, many clustering around Fell’s car, which was idling a block away from the garage. Some moved on all four limbs, like spiders, some facing the ground, others facing the sky. It was hard to keep track of ones I’d looked over and ones that were just moving in particularly awkward ways.
I was more than a little put off by the fact that they seemed to be moving steadily in our general direction, in fits and starts. It made me feel like taking the ten seconds to look over the things would cost me somehow.
Sure enough, though, the runes differed here and there. Each was outlined in the same way; they were drawn inside a circle with rays extending outward. What was in the middle fell into four or five different sub-groups.
“The one in the red dress, that looks like it walked out of a display case? The rune in the center of its face is a variant of the fire rune. I would not be surprised if it happened to violently blow up if you got too close to it. There are a lot of them around the car. There are others with breeze runes… they move a little faster in general.”
“Can I use presence to try to stall them?” Rose asked. “If I had enough power behind my words, could I order them to blow up, all the way over there?”
“Maybe,” Fell said. “I doubt it. They aren’t being controlled by anything except some very basic impulse. Not words.”
“What then?” I asked. “Does it have something to do with that sun shape the runes are drawn inside?”
“Ah. Yes. Reaching out,” Fell said. “You make something warm and you drive it to seek out other warm things. In this spirit world, there aren’t many things that are truly warm. It’s only a reflection of the physical world.”
“Breeze runes,” I said. “Could that also mean breath?”
Fell glanced at me.
Silently, we turned to look at the mannequin-vessels.
Only a handful were moving with any meaningful velocity. Slowly and steadily. The detonation runes.
“What is it?” Tiff asked.
I watched as the things staggered and crawled forward.
I held my finger to my lips.
We watched as they gradually slowed, until they were moving at a glacial pace.
“Shhh,” I said.
The vessels roused once more. A few seconds of movement.
Fell gestured, and we took a collective step back.
Another subset of dolls moved toward us as a mass, faster than any of the rest.
Easily twenty steps for, what, five of ours in total?
I took one step back, independent of the rest of the group, and each of the dolls and mannequins from that group moved four or five steps in our direction.
How long ago had they deployed?
Why hadn’t they segregated more?
Much like the elements that had been used in the awakening ritual. Breath, explosion, ground… air, fire and earth.
Air-imbued vessels to pursue us by a half-step for every breath we took, two or three steps for every word we spoke.
Fire imbued vessels to steadily seek out our warmth. Slow, inexorable, and Fell suspected they would blow up if they got too close.
Earth-imbued vessels to track us by our footsteps.
There were two other kinds.
The ritual had used a representation for water.
I could make them out, now. They were limp, arms dangling at their sides. When the wind blew harder, they shifted slightly, willows bending in the breeze.
It was ominous. As a general rule, the ones that more often didn’t move so far.
When those ones moved, how far would they go?
There was also the fifth group. They moved steadily, but not toward us, as a rule.
“Metal or wood?” I asked, pointing.
The question bought us a moment’s pursuit. Had the vessels been uniform in size and shape, I imagined it would be a march, a dozen hard feet hitting ground at the same moment. But they weren’t. It was a shuffle.
“Metal,” Fell said, quiet, “Never wood, post-industrialization. Dying element.”
Did Rose notice? Had she drawn the same parallel?
Her attention was elsewhere. Focused on Maggie.
What was going on there?
“Move carefully,” I said, keenly aware of how much ground each word cost us. “Strategically.“
“Drat that,” Maggie said. “Cut the Gordian knot.”
I glanced at Fell.
“How hard can you cut?” he asked.
“Pretty fucking hard,” Rose said. “Ready?”
Each word was another three feet of lost ground.
It sucked, but this was the closest thing we had to training wheels, to see just what she and Maggie had put together.
“Go,” I said.
Rose went. She released Midge with a loud cracking sound. A breaking window.
Three hundred pounds of inbred muscle and fat appeared on the street, amid the shower of shards.
And with the act of magic, the water vessels woke, closing the distance to us in heartbeats