Category Archives: 6.08

Subordination 6.8

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

My gut told me that Evan was a good fit for me.  We meshed, we worked together, we complimented one another’s strengths.  Even on an aesthetic level, maybe, we didn’t look out of place, Evan perched on my hand.  Maybe that was vanity, my self-image, my liking of birds and Evan’s given form.

Maggie, too.  I could picture her with goblins standing in a small group around her.  It was like the way pets came to resemble their owners.  Maggie’s hair stuck up in places, her clothes were slightly mismatched, and her forward attitude was one that could leverage goblins.

I could see Rose, reflected in a cracked window, and I could see Midge, meeting the water-runed dolls head on.

Whatever it was, that same gut feeling told me that Midge wasn’t a good fit for Rose.

I had a suspicion as to why Rose had gravitated towards Midge as a summoning, but it wasn’t a suspicion I was free to think through.  We had more pressing problems.

Tiff and Fell did what they could to stop the two that reached us.  Fell kicked the one, while Tiff swung her bag like a flail at one that was only waist high.  All things considered, the dolls went down easy.  Fell planted his foot on the neck of the one he’d kicked over, stomping hard enough to sever head from body.  No more avenues for the mystic energies to flow through the thing’s body.

Of the rest, Midge grabbed the two vessels closest to her and used them as bludgeons to strike down the next three to pass within ten feet of her.  They weren’t really for fighting.  Plastic, and many were hollow plastic.  They couldn’t deliver many hits, but they could latch on, smother, or simply deliver their relatively weak hits over and over again.  It enraged her more than it hurt her.

She took a step forward, oblivious to the fact that it would bring the earth dolls closer.

Midge was easily a few hundred pounds, more reminiscent of a Neanderthal than Homo Erectus.  She smelled, she had bad teeth, and her dress was some old fashioned thing that dated to an era when very few people had been obese, or nourished enough to grow above six feet in height, a draping of cloth with a too-small flower print that looked like bargain bin curtain material, her large, misshapen nipples standing out like golf balls beneath the thin fabric.  She walked through snow on dirty, bare feet.

Her hair was thin, coarse, and lanky.  But her eyes… yeah.  I could see where the ‘subhuman’ label had been applied.  Or even where people might have thought of her as a demon.  Not only a glare, but a hard stare that held hatred for every last thing in the world, shifting to suggest a nuance to that hatred, for each and every thing she looked at.  Resentment, disgust, loathing.

It was very possible that someone or something like her might have been called an ogre, once upon a time.  Fix the hair and clothes and keep her eyes hidden, and she might not turn many heads on the street.  Leave her as she was, and she fit among the monsters just as easily.

She was big, red in the face, and her blood had been practically boiling from the moment she’d arrived.  She grunted with every swing of meaty fists, breathing hard, roaring wordlessly.  She didn’t walk, but stomped.  She was magical by virtue of the fact that she’d been summoned here.

She was hitting all the marks to draw the attention of the dolls and mannequins.

Even swamped, bogged down under their combined weight, she was managing.

But even if they were thrown off or torn in half, they came back.  Not putting themselves together, but crawling, lurching, or otherwise flailing in an attempt to close the distance.

They were drawing closer to us.

“She’s not hitting the runes,” I said.  “Rose, tell her.”

“Midge!” Rose called out.  “Get the-”

Barely even sparing a glance, Midge caught one by the middle and hurled it.

“-Symbols-”

The thrown doll sailed through the Rose-occupied window.  We collectively flinched as shattered glass flew past us.

Our retreat and our gasps had brought more of the dolls toward us.  Many included the ones that Midge had broken.

“Might be better to leave her alone,” Maggie commented.

An explosion erupted as one of the dolls got too close to Midge.  I saw two more twisting, contorting, their limbs bending in impossible ways as they turned their ‘faces’ skyward.

I shielded my face in anticipation of the explosions.

Two more.  Not as bad as I might expect from a grenade, but still enough, I imagined, to leave a serious injury.

Midge lowered her arm, where she was covering her face.  Her other hand was outstretched, reaching.

Fire had scorched her, leaving the skin discolored and split, angry black-red scorch marks visible on the flesh, even from a short distance away.  Two meaty fingers dangled backward, waggling from the thin bits of tissue that attached them to her hand.

She used the damaged hand to cave in one hard plastic head.  A finger came loose as she did.

The elbow of that same arm drove another back into the crowd.

Not even slowing down.

Her face was burned, I saw, as she turned to one side.  The pain seemed to encourage her.  It made sense in a way, if raw anger and hate were the only things that fueled her, then pain would motivate, not debilitate.

It reminded me of my own train of thoughts, not so long ago.  Pain and emotions and the impact they had on us.

“Talk some,” Fell said.  “She’s got their attention, we can drag a few of the least dangerous ones away and deal with them.”

“Right,” Maggie said.

“She’s not listening to Rose?” I asked.

“Experience tells me you gotta wait for the right moment” Maggie said.

“Blake said you were a novice,” Fell said.

“I’m a firm believer in making up for a lack of quantity in experience with quality.  Quality experience says that you either get the bad Others who-”

She stopped as the next batch of dolls arrived.

I participated this time, guarding Fell’s left side.  I had the sword wrapped up, to keep Maggie from noticing the particulars, and I’d paid particular attention to binding up the handle, where the three-quarter inch spikes were just dense enough that I couldn’t comfortably hold the thing.

Even though it was wrapped in cloth, the top end far too heavy, I managed to jab one with the sword, driving it back.  I hit it in the leg, aiming for the joint, and belatedly realized it was the most durable part of the mannequin.

Fell kicked it in the chest in the same way someone might try to kick in a door.  The chest caved in and weight did the rest.  The mannequin folded in half, pulled down by the weight of arms and its head.

There were only a scattered few left.

“I hope the right moment comes soon,” I said.  “This is one metaphorical genie that needs to go back in her bottle.”

Maggie nodded.  Her eyes were on Midge.

More explosions, doing more damage to the other mannequins than they did to Rose’s new pet.

“This is how the sisters operate?” I asked.

“No,” Fell said.

“Then how?”

“The Lord of a City often imposes rules of conduct.  In Toronto, as you’ll find in many places, the very first time you go to ask the Lord of the City for something, you’ll be asked to agree to certain terms.  One of those terms is that you need to be ready to stand in defense of the city.  These vessels would be the token offering from the Sisters of the Torch.”

“In case some aspiring Lord comes and decides to unseat Conquest?” I asked.

“More or less.”

I nodded.

The snow made it hard to tell which ones had which rune.  The metal-runes had barely moved from their meandering circuit through the area, and the others were largely engaged with Midge.

Two, I saw, were twisting and shriveling like ants underneath the microscope.  Fire runes.

“Heads up!”  I called out.

But Midge grabbed them, one in each hand.

The left-hand one was shoved right into the midst of the other vessels.

The right-hand one was a doll, the same size as a five year old child, but hairless.  Midge turned, heaving it like someone might throw a shot-put.

In our general direction.

“Shit!” I shouted.

“Crumbs!”

We turned, putting distance between us and the flying doll.

Midge wasn’t throwing at us.

Not at the mortal humans, no.

At Rose.  The doll was flying toward the same building where Midge had thrown the doll through the window.

I looked at Rose.  “Move!”

She moved, darting off to the right side of the window.  I didn’t see her in any of the adjacent windows in the half-second before I covered my face and eyes.

The explosion shattered a series of windows on the ground floor, and cracked a few on the second floor.

The explosion went off a few feet from Midge, too.  She stumbled, but didn’t lose her footing.

Midge was in the process of going after the ‘metal’ vessels.  They didn’t fight back as she tore them to pieces.

When they started to go down, the struggling remains of the other vessels ceased.

The metal ones had been, what, transmitting a signal?  Providing structure?

Maybe a factor in why they had all arrived around the same time.  The ‘metal’ vessels were the generals.  Vulnerable on their own.

Well, the others hadn’t put up a big fight.

In the midst of the half-circle of flames and burning plastic limbs around her, Midge glared at us.

She was bruised, bleeding from a dozen cuts and scrapes, and she was burned.  Here and there, wounds overlapped.  In places where she’d been burned and then punched, the skin was more messed up.

Had it been us in the thick of that, even as a group, I didn’t think we would have been standing.  But as far as Midge was concerned, the vessels hadn’t served any purpose except to help her demonstrate just how good she was at hurting and killing human-shaped things.

And now, with the vessels taken care of, the only human-shaped things around were us.

Midge smiled, reaching up to bite off a chunk of skin that hung off the side of her hand, like someone else might bite off a hangnail. She rubbed the resulting ruin of a hand on her dress, leaving a zig-zag of brown-red blood on the fabric.  She didn’t even flinch.

This is some horror movie shit right here.

“How do you get her bound again?” I asked.

Maggie said, “If they’re tightly bound and sworn to oaths, you don’t need to, they stick to the rules that were laid out.”

“Midge isn’t sworn to oaths, is she?”

“Nope,” Maggie said.  “She has to follow the instructions given.”

“I think we need a few more details here.”

“I talked Rose through a basic release.  Rose didn’t think she’d be able to leverage any power, so I drew out the diagrams, she used the Thorburn voice, I did the physical side of the binding, and then passed ownership of it to Rose.  Rose says the word, Midge gets released, Midge goes after the target, then she comes back and is either bound again or banished.”

Fell nodded, as if that made all the sense in the world to him.

“Target’s gone, why isn’t Midge coming back?” I asked.

“You’d have to ask Rose.  Something went wrong.”

“How do we get her to come back, then?”

“Rose has to order it.”

“Midge doesn’t seem interested in giving her the chance,” I said.

“Nope.”

Fell drew his gun.  I doubted it would put Midge down.

This was a mistake.

It was a dangerous mistake.  Something Maggie had pushed for, a little reckless and unprepared, and now we were reaping the consequences.  We’d traded one problem for another.

It wasn’t out of the ordinary for Maggie – I suspected her inability to swear pointed to a mistake in her past.  She was new to this.

It was out of the ordinary for Rose.  Over the past couple of years, I’d spent a lot of time dissecting myself.  How I dealt with problems, what my limits were.  What I needed and why.

How did Rose deal, when backed into a corner?  I knew her to be more disciplined and liable to think to the future on the whole.  But here she was, feeling the effect of almost two weeks of confinement in the mirror world.  Her only contact with others had been a hug and brief handholding with me and some contact with Others, manhandling from Conquest and a quick kiss from Padraic.  She’d been interrogated, and that had only compounded how very vulnerable she felt.

Was this Rose as she was when pushed to her limit?  Reckless?  Just as indiscriminate as I’d been described?

“If Rose hides somewhere out of sight, maybe?” Tiff suggested.

“Theatrics are important,” I said.  “When and how you say something can impact the strength of the words.  Cowering, hiding and asking her to go back is less likely to work than a stern order.”

Midge looked around, turning glaring eyes on everything in the environment.

She bent down to pick up an inert vessel, then grabbed another.  Both mannequins, the heavier sort, damaged from the beating Midge had delivered.  She held them under one arm, then started striding towards us.

Somewhere between an approaching rhino and an infant girl absently carrying a toy around with her.

“Rose,” I said, with a tone and sharpness that carried through the empty street.

“A few kinks to iron out in this whole ‘mirror-girl summons stuff’ concept,” Maggie commented.

“Rose!”  I said, louder.

Midge’s momentum and direction suggested she didn’t plan on slowing down.  She slipped briefly on a slippery bit of road, but it didn’t make her seem less threatening.  Just the opposite.  She stumbled and slipped towards us much like a boulder might take a careening path down a hill.

There was no doubt in my mind that she was gunning right for Fell, planning on plowing through.

Fell seemed to have the same impression.  He raised his gun, aiming.

“I don’t think that’s going to do much,” I said.

“I’m open to ideas, Thorburn,” Fell said, a mite testily.

“Goblins?” I asked.

“That might be like throwing fuel on the fire,” Maggie said.

Fuel on the fire.  Goblin and gun wouldn’t work, too aggressive, too direct.

Counter with opposites.

In terms of our indirect assets…

Not quite how the idea was meant to be applied.  Not every Other fell into neat categories, and Midge was hardly some incarnation of aggression, but it was a starting point when I needed to brainstorm, and the train of thought led me straight to one option.

“Evan,” I said, touching my hand to my shoulder.  Evan made the two-inch hop to my finger.

I flung out my hand.  Evan flew in the direction I’d cast him.

I was secretly happy that had worked.  Theatrics.

Good kid.

Evan used the same maneuver he’d used against the Eye.  Through the legs.  A little more force than a sparrow should have had.

Midge fell, landing on all fours.

It bought us time to retreat, backing up a step, while she stood up, grabbing the vessel she was carrying.

“That’ll do,” Maggie said.

“Rose!” I shouted, again.

“Midge!” Rose called out.  Finally stepping in.  I couldn’t tell where she was.  “Your task is done!  Return!”

Midge shouted something incoherent, tearing the head off the mannequin she carried with her.  When she threw it, it moved like an arrow shot from a bow.  It passed through the thick, graffiti-covered glass that encircled a bus stop bench and hit a shop window.  I saw only a flicker of movement to suggest that Rose was fleeing.

She’d sought cover behind another transparent surface, and it hadn’t worked.

The glass around the bus stop shattered into tiny fragments in the wake of the mannequin part.  The shop window broke into large triangles, several feet long, then broke again as they hit the sidewalk.

Midge twisted another piece free of the mannequin.  A club-like hand and forearm.  She was breathing hard, her eyes scanning the area.

“I order you-” Rose started.

Midge turned on the spot, flinging the hand.

Another shattered window.

It was a really good thing that Rose wasn’t a real person.  If the inbred monster from the back-country was something I’d summoned, I wasn’t sure I’d be dodging these chucked objects so well.

“Maggie,” I said.  “Rose happen to give you any more details on Midge here?”

“They fall into categories.  Natural, they get twisted by their environment.  Built for cold, desert, for living in ravines or deep caves, inhospitable places.  Social, they form tribes.  Cannibal families or that sort of thing.  Then there’s the loners.  Break from the pack, their pack dies, or they’re exceptional members of a family unit, too crazy or brutal to be allowed to mingle.”

Rose started to speak again.  Midge turned to throw another hunk of mannequin, but Evan swooped close, screwing up her aim.

“I bind you, Midge!  I bind you as your pa was bound!”

Midge reacted to that.  She said something I couldn’t make out.

“You were his precious, his only gir-”

Midge threw another hunk of mannequin.  Evan’s interference wasn’t well timed enough.

“Midge was part of a family,” I said.

“She might have been on her way to becoming a special one, but vigilantes came after them all before things progressed.  Whoever claims the dead didn’t want her.  Rose said, what was it?  They think Midge dwells in the darker patches of limbo.  The hands that catch the fallen have gaps between the fingers, and nothing caught her.  Those who know the name can haul her up for a time, before the depths claim her again.”

“Can we cut whatever connection is holding her here?” I asked.

“Your pa called you his mosquito.  His skeeter!” Rose called out.  “I tie you to your father, and I bid you to return to him!”

Another broken window.  Further from Midge.

Rose was being strategic in the surfaces she moved between.

Except I felt my connection to Rose shift and break.  Something had happened.

Had she not moved out of the way?

She was still there, but she’d retreated to somewhere distant.  Maybe the house.  Catching her breath?

Midge turned in a tight circle, holding the lower half of a torso.  Watching and listening.  Patient.

Evan flew by.  She swatted him, a glancing hit, and I felt the impact.

My familiar found his senses and flew away before she could step on him.

When Rose didn’t appear, Midge turned her attention to us, hefting the mannequin part.

It wasn’t just that she was big, six feet tall and four feet wide.  It was how she was constructed.  If the bus stop was any indication, it’d tear past us like a cannonball.  Fell shot her.

When Midge didn’t fall down, he shot her three more times.  The brutish woman took a step back.

Midge had stopped, her damaged hand pressed to two of the bullet holes.  She looked up at us and smiled.  As if she relished this, or she felt something other than pain when wounded.

“You could spell up that gun,” Maggie said.

“I’ve been working under the Lord of the City since I was twelve,” Fell said.  “If he needs a practitioner taken care of, a bullet works.  If he needs something bigger taken care of, he doesn’t send the illusionist-enchanter.”

Midge wasn’t throwing.  She was waiting.

Evan swooped.  Muscles stood out in Midge’s legs.

“Back!” I barked out the word.  Too fast and sudden to be a proper shout.Evan veered off with a flutter of wings.  Midge’s swing seemed lazy and horribly timed when she hit only open air.  I suspected it would have pulverized him, had it connected.She was baiting him in.

“Why can’t she be dumber?” I asked.  “Why did Rose have to pick something that could be so fucking problematic when it slips the leash?”

“Subhumans aren’t stupid, they’re socially backward,” Maggie said.  She thought for a second.  “Really socially backward.  And they’re good with improvised tools and weapons.  Supernaturally good.”

“Ah.  Put a broken chair in their hands, they’re going to be better at murdering you with it than if you gave them a proper gun or knife?” Fell asked.

“Yep,” Maggie said.  “And the ones who do get some crazy weapon like a jackhammer or a machete become the subhuman exemplars Rose described.  Ones with actual personality, trademarks, and rituals.”

I sighed, not taking my eyes off Midge, watching for any possible sign.Fell’s phone rang.  Midge was moving, drawing her hand back.

“Heads up!” I called out.

But Fell was already reacting, and it wasn’t to waste air on warnings.  He threw a handful of powder into the air with one free hand.

The hurled piece of torso missed by a considerable distance.

“Couldn’t have done that sooner?” I asked.  “Spare us the tension?”

“Shhh, Thorburn.  You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Illuminate me,” I said.Midge threw again.  To the same distant spot.I saw confusion on her features.

The phone rang for a fourth time.  Fell finally answered.

He paused for a moment.

“Okay,” he said.  He hung up.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Your friends are nervous.  There’s activity near them.  Either our opposition tracked down the effigies I secreted around the city, and they just happen to be in the neighborhood, or the very temporary protections I put down are faltering.  The Astrologer is very good at navigating and finding things, and that could include your friends.”

“They aren’t tied to this, they aren’t my Champions,” I said, then quickly added, to be safe, “in the sense of this contest.”

“They’re involved.  There’s a massive gap between not wanting them to be tied to this and them not being a part of it.  You know it.”

I glanced at Tiff and bit my lip.

Midge paced.  She approached the bus stop, then tore the bench loose.  Stainless steel or something approximate, cut into a wavy shape so it wouldn’t be comfortable to sleep on.

She bent it, twisted it, and tore it in two pieces.

She threw them blind.Hoping to hit something.

The post that held up the roof of the bus stop was the next casualty.  She threw it so it flipped end over end.

Uncomfortably close to us.  Tiff made a noise.

Midge made a few more indiscriminate attacks, dismantling the bus stop.  None came as close as the post did.

She found and threw the largest blades of glass that had come down from the shop display window.  Each one thrown like a throwing knife or Frisbee.

Useful pieces of glass exhausted, she paced, searching, constantly on the lookout for us or for Rose.

Her eye settled on something else.

Fell’s car.  Battered, with one broken window.

“No,” Fell said.

She stalked toward it, slipping briefly on ice.

“No, no, no!” Fell said.

He moved, and I took that as my cue to move.

We had our differences.  If it came down to saving my friends and the lengths I would go, I suspected he would be caught off guard.  He was a loner, by all appearances.  He’d mentioned family, but he functioned alone.  I didn’t.

But the car?  I had my bike.  I could understand his attachment to the car.

We’d fucking rescue that car.

Evan flew around me.  Where he’d made Midge stumble, the push he gave me helped steady me where I felt unsteady.  Just as it was easier to slip when I was already slipping, it was easier to move forward with balance when I was upright and on firmer footing to start with.

“Evan,” I said.  I reached out.  “Hold up!”

He turned in the air, then landed on my hand.

“That part before, where you stuck your arm out and I took off?” he asked.  “That was great!”

It had been, but I didn’t have time to agree.  “Part two right now.  Fake out.  Watch for my signal.  Don’t stop watching.  Go.

“Yeah!” he said, saying it as he took off, so his voice faded slightly as the distance increased.

Midge had noticed us, meaning that Fell’s protection wasn’t sticking with us any longer.

She maintained her course to the car.  Did she think someone was inside?

I actually managed to arrive before Fell, putting myself between Midge and the car.

Unarmed, no magic, and a sword I could barely hold, even if I was in a position to use it as a weapon.

“Evan!” I called out, looking over Midge’s shoulder  “Now!”

Midge turned, faster than I might have expected, arm drawn back.

I raised one hand, gesturing ‘stop’.

Evan flapped hard, steering himself away, reversing direction.

A momentary stall and fake-out.

Midge’s expression when she faced me again was something to behold.  Her face was burned, the whites stood out, her pupils narrowed to points, and brown nubs of teeth were bared.

She apparently didn’t like being deceived.

When she struck out, it was from fifteen or so feet away.  Far enough away that I hadn’t anticipated an attack.  Close enough that I couldn’t move out of the way.

Fell was already throwing the powder into the air.

Midge released the blade of glass, an underhand throw, quick and accurate.

I could see the powder taking form.  Another me standing two feet to the left, catching the glass in the stomach.  Impossibly, it went all the way through with a wet sound, made a louder thunk sound as it hit the car, and then belatedly shattered.  Leaving illusion-me with a morass of glass shards in his midsection.

Fell, just to my right, raised his gun.

She caught his hand and crushed it, gun and all.

Then she pulled.

One arm came free of the socket.

She caught the other hand before he could stagger away.  One hand on his chest, another on his wrist, another pull.

This time, due to angle and the force with which she gripped his hand, it came apart at the wrist.  She had to try a second time to tear the arm from the socket.

He spun to the ground from the force of the maneuver, and landed in just the right position for her to step on both of his kneecaps, pulverizing them.

Leaving him to bleed out, she reached for the car.

The real Fell threw out a handful of powder, directly at her maimed reaching hand.

She closed it into a fist, then turned toward Tiff and Maggie, car forgotten.

“Protecting the car,” Fell said.  “Your friends will need to manage, but if we lose the car-”

“I get it,” I said.

Superficially, if we lost the car, we were limited in how we could get around.  The guerrilla strategy wouldn’t work.

Sentimentally, he was attached to his car, and while I’d never put my bike before my friends, I could sort of understand him putting his car before relative strangers.

Besides, berating him for being selfish wouldn’t achieve anything.  Focus number one had to be on stopping this rogue summon.

We’d tried to fix one problem and we’d created a bigger one.

“I’m back,” Rose said.

Speaking of.

I looked.  She was in the car’s side-view mirror.

A dark red line crossed her white blouse, and blood had spread from it, seeping into the cloth around it.  It forked like a lightning bolt might.  Or a crack in glass.  From one shoulder to the other.

“You’re hurt.”  Putting it lightly.  A few inches higher and it could have been her throat.

“I’ll cope.  I found the solution, but I need a distraction.”

I glanced at the others.

Maggie had the flute in hand, and Dickswizzle was dancing circles around Midge.

We had a second.

“Okay,” I said.  “Fell, can you do this again?”

“No,” he said.

“Why not?”

“If illusion like I use is going to fail, it’s going to fail on the third try.  Deceptions work that way.  Besides, I need to have her attention before I can redirect it.”

As he’d caught her fist with the powder, or the thrown object.

I nodded.

I signaled Evan.

He swooped low, Midge fell, and Dickswizzle leaped, biting at her throat.

Too many double chins to get through before he could reach anything vital.

Midge caught the goblin and tore it in half.

In the distance, I saw Maggie tossing the flute aside.

Rose intoned, “Midge, daughter of Rackham Thin, daughter of Fat Mam, drinker of blood…”

Midge found her footing, grabbed at the road where there was a pothole, and tore a chunk out.

Fell shot her until she dropped it.

“…Bound by the sixth seal, the second point of the star, marked Gula, marked Forente…”

Crawling on all fours, Midge found a storm drain grate beneath the snow, lifting it up.

Evan flew close.

She swung as she stood.  He dodged.

“I bind you once more by this imperfect sealing.  Until it is repudiated by the blood that forged it, you may never be perfectly bound.  Let this suffice.  By the Thorburn blood, return to the morass from which I called you!”

Midge dropped the grate.

A trick of the light, like a shadow passing over the sun, and the darkness was molasses thick as it collected her.  When it passed, she was gone.

“Fuck me,” I said.

“No time to rest just yet.  Trouble incoming,” Fell said.  “I can sense it.  More dolls, I think they’re making more batches.  They’re going to be more clever about what they do next, especially if Conquest has a hand in it.  And the Eye…”

I looked.

I could almost sense the Eye.

“It’s moving slower than before,” I said, as we rejoined the others.

“The big thing?” Maggie asked.  “The monster that’s not even trying to hide itself?”

“That thing,” I said.

Tiff had gone silent.  She was hugging herself, as much as she could while keeping one hand on my bike, as if it might tip over if she let go of it.

I didn’t ask if she was okay.

At moments like this, when we were least okay, the compulsion to go with automatic responses was a dangerous one for a person who couldn’t lie.

“We should move,” Fell said.

My eyes hadn’t left Tiff.  She flinched a little as he said it.

“The dolls, the vessels, whatever you call them.  Can we block them?  A protective circle of some kind?”

“Yes,” Fell said.

“We saved your car, we can make a little distance with it.  Let’s use the time we do have to set up the garage.  Backtrack a bit, shore up our defenses, make sure he isn’t going to win a battle of attrition.  If this keeps up, we’ll need all the safe havens we can get.”

He followed my gaze to look at Tiff.  “Her?”

“Yeah.  It’s why they’re on board, and it would be a help.”

He nodded.

“Okay?” I asked Tiff.

She looked rather relieved to have the option.

“Yeah,” she said.

We were down one ally, for all intents and purposes.  Tiff was gone.

But we had Alexis, and we had Ty.

We also had Maggie.  I wasn’t sure why, but when I took a headcount, trying to weigh the options and assets we had on hand, I had trouble counting her among our assets.

It was a hell of a lot easier to blame Rose for the lapse in judgment and control.

But I found myself paying attention to Maggie instead.

I looked through the window at a city that was burning.  No less than six fires or glows of fire that I could make out from the balcony.

The apartment we occupied was one in a new construction.  It looked better than a lot of the structures we’d seen around.  The spirit world hadn’t had a chance to intervene.  It gleamed with hope.

It was a good choice, symbolically.

“They’re going to change up their tactics,” Fell said.  “The Sisters… I think those vessels were something of a one-size-fits-all solution.  Something they could calibrate to send at virtually any threat.  Whatever they send next, it’ll be more specialized.”

I nodded.  It fit.

“If I could say so,” Fell said, “I would say that summoning was a clusterfuck.

“I realized what we did wrong,” Rose said.  “The terminology of the binding Maggie and I set up when we primed Midge to come when I gave the word, it was too narrow.  She was supposed to defeat all enemies we had in the immediate area, then return… but when we defeated some of the enemies-“

“She couldn’t follow through,” I said.  “Freeing her of the contract.”

“I thought, since I only had to ask to bind her and banish her, that it’d be a cinch.  But it was hard, and by interrupting me, she took the power out of my words, forcing me to find stronger wording.”

I wanted more than anything to ask her just how much involvement Maggie had had in the choice of wording, but I couldn’t with Maggie present.

Forcing me to make a mental note of the possible sabotage and move on.

“Let’s forget what happened, past tense, and focus on what will or could happen.  Future tense,” I said.

“Okay,” Rose said.  “Fine by me.”

“I’m short my best goblin,” Maggie said.  “The ones I do have are the most minor sort of gremlin.”

“Just add water?” I asked.

“No.  Dismantlers, trapmakers,” she said.  She showed me the folded paper slips.  Each one had what I might have assumed was a sun scrawled on it, along with goblin names and basic labels.  I belatedly realized the suns were supposed to be mechanical gears.

Screwloose and Douchegargler.  Labeled junkyard dog one and junkyard dog two, respectively.

“Traps are good,” I said.  “Can we put them to work?”

“They’re kind of what you might call ‘mad dog’ goblins.  See?  Written right there.  Junkyard dogs.  In practice, they’re sort of like the subhuman we just dealt with.  You sic them on something, they do their work, then they’re gone.  You don’t rein them back in without a lot of trouble.”

I nodded.  “That’s all you’ve got?”

“All I can use, yeah.”

“Okay,” I said.

“What about the goblin sword?” Fell asked.

“The what now?” Maggie asked.

I hadn’t had a chance to tell him to keep it on the down-low.

Fuck.

I got the sword and unwrapped it.

“Geeeeez.  I’ve heard about this sort of thing.  Faerie used to enslave and bind goblins, during an era when the courts were changing over.  Mixed up relationship between the two.  Many powerful goblins agreed to take up certain forms, as part of treaties.  This thing isn’t small potatoes.”

“It’s not the biggest potato either,” I said.  “Middle of the road, though it’s hard to believe that after seeing it in action.”

“I want this,” she said.

“And you can’t have it,” I said, suddenly very glad for the promise I’d made to Evan.  “Not without us jumping through some hoops first.  Let’s table that for now.”

She frowned, looking genuinely disappointed.

I changed the subject.  “If we’re going to hammer this out, we need to find a way to hold on to any victories and avoid future conflict.  The longer we stretch this out, the better.”

“If we can hold out two days,” Fell said, “The weekend will be over.  The Sisters will either have or want to return to work.  Conquest will lose that resource, on a morale front or in manpower.”

I nodded.  “I didn’t even consider that.”

“Defensively, we can set up walls and wards,” Fell said.  “We can misdirect, and we can cross our fingers.  Problem is, I’m not confident it’ll work long-term.  They’re going to change things up, and the Lord of the City has generations of experience dealing with my family and our magic.  He’ll know how to deal with me.”

“We need another way to duck out of sight,” I said.

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Rose said.  “When I was looking at the notion of limbo, the stuff that was going on with Midge, I had something of an idea.”

“What sort of idea?”

“Guerrilla defense, right?  We need to be petty, strike from a location where they don’t expect us.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Is there anything saying we have to stay here?”

“In this building?”

“In the spirit world.”

I glanced at Fell and Maggie, then Alexis and Ty, who were sitting off to one side.

“Morals,” I said.  “We’ve already done a lot of incidental damage.  I’m not sure how this world is reflected by the real world, or vice-versa, but…”

“But Conquest picked this battlefield because it keeps his subjects out of the line of fire,” Fell said.

“And because it probably gives him an advantage,” Rose cut in.

“That too,” Fell admitted.  “It’s more his medium.  More yours, too.  You’re more flexible, Rose Thorburn, but you’re also more vulnerable.”

Rose touched the cut on her chest.  “It’s shallow.”

“It’s meaningful.  You’ll need to be aware of your strengths and weaknesses.  You’re stronger here, but you’re safer over there.  Decide.”

“I take it you’re saying we need to decide where we want to set up camp,” I said.

“I’m saying exactly that.”

My friend piped up for the first time since we’d entered the apartment and recapped him on what was going on.

“Why not both?” Ty asked.

Why not both?

Doorways.  Passage from one world to the next.  Not easy to set up, but we had time, and Rose had access to grandmother’s books.

My friends would stay on the other side, keeping the defenses up and tend to the gates.  At least for now.  If they needed sleep, we could take shifts.

We would roam the free world.

Back in the city.  Among the regular civilians, who were oblivious to what was going on.

Or so I thought.

There were sirens.

As a group, Fell, Rose, Maggie and I stopped by a store display.  Televisions played, showing surveillance camera footage and cell phone video.  A crazy obese woman in the middle of a city street, flinging glass at fleeing shoppers.  The news caption on the bottom read ‘Drug-fueled rampage?’

The pattern was the same, the path she took, amid cars that had stopped in the middle of the street.

Until she was gunned down.  In the same spot where Rose had banished Midge.

We watched as the screen changed over.  Changing topics.  Arson, fires throughout the city.  Car accidents.  Property damage.  Deaths.

Conquest was applying his own pressure to us, in his own particular way.  He didn’t actually care about the residents of Toronto.  He knew this would bother us more than it bothered him and his people, with the possible exception of the Astrologer and the Sisters.

I wondered what he thought, after seeing Midge’s rampage.  I hated to think it, but he could almost think we were shoving it back in his face, showing we could do just as much incidental damage.

This changed things, and it made our strategy that much harder to follow.

I turned away.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Advertisements