Category Archives: 6.09

Subordination 6.9

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The television that Joel had brought into my apartment showed an endless series of reports on what was going on around the city.  Blackouts, fires, raised tensions and overcrowded hospital rooms.  Looking at it from a distance, ignorant, I might assume it was just another night of typical sensationalist news reporting.  Worse than most nights, but there was a natural ebb and flow, right?  Some nights, you’d have more stories and more ugliness than there’d been in the past two weeks.  Unusual but not alarming.  Nothing that would shift the average Joe out of his comfort zone.

Except I had outside knowledge.  I could place many of the events and deduce more.  The Eye, and ghosts were active, which was influencing people in subtle ways.  Maybe, just like Alexis and I had experienced our own simulated heart attacks, a few people who were in line to have one experienced some.  How many ghosts were active, and how many negative emotions, diseases or other issues were being triggered prematurely?

Magic has a price, but it’s not always the practitioner that pays it.

I leaned back on my futon.

Joel was here, more or less filled in, and more than a little concerned that Alexis, Tiff, and Ty weren’t with us.  Goosh was at her place.

Fell patrolled the perimeter of my apartment, his attention on the taped-down diagram that protected the edge.

“This is a mess,” I said.

“I agree,” Fell said.  “As perimeter defenses go, this is pretty sad.”

“I was talking about the general situation.”

“Oh.  What did you expect, Thorburn?”

“I hoped that he’d stick to the deal he made with the High Drunk and leave the city alone.”

“He is,” Fell said.  “An omission to protect the city from his underlings isn’t the same thing as targeting the city.  If that tests the truth, the power he gleans from the ambient misery makes up for it.”

“Fuck,” I said.

“Keep in mind, too, that this is his city.  There are quite a few reasons why practitioners and Others often want to be Lord over a city.  There are mundane reasons, wanting to protect one’s interests, or keep the riffraff out, cultivating a certain flavor of Other and practitioner to occupy your domain.”

“If you were to become a Lord,” Rose said, “It’d mean keeping out the likes of Laird, and putting your friends in better positions.”

“I do not want to become a Lord,” I said.  “No way, no how.  I already have enough people gunning for me as it stands.”

“If they’re already gunning for you, what does it change?” Maggie asked.

“You’re not seriously suggesting it.”

“Not even remotely,” Maggie said.  “You’d die, first of all.”

“And there’s nothing remotely redeeming about it,” I said.  “I mean, I can see the broader appeal.  When you claim a demesne, you make a challenge.  If there’s less in the way of individuals to reject that challenge…”

Rose finished my sentence, “…You can be bolder about the claim.  More power for you, more power for the people under you.”

Fell nodded.  “That’s another reason.  Respect is one kind of power, and it’s a power you can use as fuel or currency.  Few things command respect like being Lord of a city.”

“But like all things, that comes at a price,” Rose said.  “Thus the figureheading of Conquest.”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Too many knives aimed at your back.”

Fell went on, “Getting back to my original point, outside of mundane or common sense reasons, there’s something to be said for the fact that the city is yours.  When you own something, it’s a one-sided relationship, and that means an uneven exchange of power.  One way or another, you influence that which you possess.  If you are the Lord of a city, then your substance runs through that city.  This isn’t something you control, but is more incidental.  When Conquest is passive, biding his time and building his strength, then the city is too.  When he is at war, then so is the city.”

When the city is at war, then there’s fire, people in the hospital, and a general ambiance of fear.

“I wish I’d known more about that, going in,” I said.

“I wish you had too.  I thought you might have some idea, and the plan to bide our time was with the knowledge that the city might suffer in the meantime.  I’m of two minds, now.”

“Two minds?”

“I’m glad you’re not heartless, Thorburn.  It helps when I have to work alongside you.  But at the same time… it’s obvious you’re bothered by what you’re seeing in the news, and the effects your contest are having on the public.  You’re wringing your hands-”

I looked down.  I was unconsciously toying with the locket chain, hooking my fingers beneath it.

I put my hands down flat.

“-and I’d be able to tell if it weren’t just that.  It’s not bad that you care, but strategy-wise?  From a purely rational perspective?  You being heartless would help.”

“Not too heartless,” Maggie said.  “That would mean demons, and I don’t think anyone here wants demons.”

“Right,” Fell said.  “A little bit of heartlessness could help.  Accept that what you’re doing helps everyone in the long run, if you depose Conquest, accept that some people are going to get hurt incidentally, and make do.”

“That sort of runs against my personal philosophy,” I said.  “I want to leave the world in better shape than it was when I arrived.”

“Says the diabolist,” Fell said.

“Yeah,” I said, dead serious, “Says the diabolist.”

He nodded.  “Well, decide how you’re going to handle this.  I’m going to try to patch up your defenses here.”

“Out of curiosity, how?” Rose asked.

“His champions are the Sisters, Astrologer, Chronomancy, the Eye and the Shepherd.  He picked a variety of talents, but we should be able to establish this as a refuge if we can distinguish it from the spirit world version of the apartment.  I can target human frailties and distract attention from the location, and I can ward off ghosts.  We’ll have to cross our fingers that the Eye doesn’t show up here, because my talents aren’t the type you use to stop him.”

I nodded.  “Thank you.  I’ll cross my fingers, so to speak.”

“I feel the need to stress that this isn’t a long-term protection.  We’re better off constantly moving.”

“I know, I get it.”

I’d had brief words with the others before we’d settled on my apartment.  Rose was a factor in the decision; she’d wanted company in visiting the apartment, in case something or someone was waiting for us when we arrived.  Some books were here.

I wanted to be here because I wanted to sleep in my own bed, stupid as it sounded.

With experience and the various ups and downs we’d faced, I was becoming aware of just how much my personal strength, power, and vulnerability was linked to my existence as Blake Thorburn.  Having my bike had done wonders.  Having my friends was nourishing on a spiritual level.

Was there a flip side to that?  Was I weakening myself if I thrust myself into unfamiliar situations?

Was I weakened by the fact that Maggie was here, in my apartment, making me distinctly uncomfortable?

Maggie had taken her time examining the Hyena’s sword, then explored my place.  I already had my doubts about her, but being under her scrutiny didn’t help.

I’d picked up art here and there.  A piece of wood that had been sat in the water of some lake or river long enough to be smoothed over, dried, painted and varnished.  A little white dog, a little abstract in shape, but recognizable enough.  A black and white series of images of women with their shirts off, backs turned or chests covered with arms, showing off their tattoos.

Maggie’s attention turned to my bookshelf, which was only half-filled with books.  The rest was trinkets and odds and ends, and admittedly two shelves of junk like screws, bill notices and change that I had stuck up there because I couldn’t be bothered to put them away where they belonged.

I wasn’t the only one looking.  Joel was studying her too.  He saw me seeing him looking.

“Where’s she sleeping?” Joel asked.  “Or are you not sleeping tonight?”

“I spent last night in a jail cell.  I’m definitely going to try to sleep tonight,” I said.  “Maggie?  Any preference?  Do you need to get home at some point?”

She considered.  “It might get complicated if I’m gone long enough for someone to notice how long I’ve been gone.”

“How did you arrange things with your dads?”

She shrugged.  “My parents and I don’t always see eye to eye when it comes to what I’m doing here.  It’s been worse since the change of location, coming to Jacob’s Bell.”

“Please tell me you told them you were coming.  I don’t want to get arrested for kidnapping a minor.  I was just in jail for being accused of murdering one.”

“For murdering me,” Evan clarified, sagely.

“I took measures.  There shouldn’t be trouble,” Maggie said.  “If there is, it shouldn’t inconvenience you.  But if I explain now, it will inconvenience you.”

“How does that work?” I asked.

She shrugged.  “I can tell you, if you want.  But maybe it’s better to focus on other things?”

“Maybe,” I said.  I met her eyes.  “You understand where I might be a little concerned by the fact that you’re dodging my question?  Unknowns are bad.”

“If I hadn’t taken measures to get out of Jacob’s Bell, I wouldn’t be standing here.  You wouldn’t have my particular brand of help.  I didn’t have many options, and the option I did find was pretty dratting fragile.  You could be grateful I’m even here, helping-”

“I am bribing you with access to magical tomes.”

“Something you were offering before.  I’m not complaining, I’m only saying.”

“You’re here, you’re helping.  It’s… it’s great.  Really.  But I think it’s a dumb move to let our guard slip, so I gotta ask.  Are you doing anything nefarious here?”

“There’s no real malice or hostility in my heart, honest.  I’m here because it’s a way to improve my personal situation, because I don’t like guys like the Lord of the City, or even the idea of Lords in general.  Besides, it’s a heck of a lot more interesting than sitting in podunk nowhereville and going to high school.”

“People have been hurt.  You’re putting your life at risk, and it’s interesting?” Joel asked.

Yes.  Believe me, I’ve seen stuff that makes this seem pretty tame,” Maggie said.  “This gives me a chance to explore.  It’s great.”

Joel latched on to the first part of her statement.  “Stuff that makes this seem tame?  I’m not sure I want to know.”

“You don’t.  You want to know why I can stand beside your buddy right now, when most won’t?  I’ve seen things that might rate an eight on the cosmic scale of bad.”

“You might be overestimating that,” Fell commented.

“I’m not,” Maggie said.

“I second what Fell said,” I added.  “Rose, Evan and I have squared off against a small demon.  Knowing what I know, putting it in context, I might rate it a six, and we almost didn’t make it out.”

“I’ve seen an eight,” Maggie said, a little firmer, “I’ve seen a lot of stuff.  Take my word for it.  A lot more suffered, and a lot more didn’t make it out.”

She sounded so calm about it.  From my perspective, when I thought about the demon in the factory, I felt vaguely sick to my stomach, or I felt like I could start seeing things in the darker corners of my apartment.  Could she really be talking about an eight without any sign of distress?

I sighed.  “I guess I’ll take your word for it, then.”

She nodded.

“This is going to take a while,” Fell said.  When I looked, he was pouring powder onto the floor, then using one of my tools to scrape it into shapes and patterns, building on and inside the diagram we’d taped out.  “In a minute, I’ll have to cover other rooms, and then I’ll go.  If we’re going to figure out what we’re doing tomorrow, we should do it now.”

I nodded.

Fell said, “I’m going to leave you guys when I’m done, so I can look after my family.”

“I wasn’t aware you had one,” Rose said.

“He told me he has siblings, and his parents and uncle were involved, if I remember right?” I suggested.

“I do have a family,” Fell told Rose.  “Conquest might try to use them against me as leverage.”

Family.  Did that mean allies?  “Can I ask who they are, or is it too personal?”

“You can ask.  My niece hasn’t been inducted into this world yet.  She benefits from the protections of innocence, and she’s in capable hands, but I’d still like to be sure.”

The niece couldn’t be another ally.  A shame.”Not going to stop you,” I said.  “You’ve helped me protect people close to me, it’d be hypocritical to deny you the chance to do the same for yourself.”

“Thank you,” Fell said.  “Frankly, you can’t stop me if I do want to leave, I don’t need your permission.”

“That too.”

“What’s the plan, as it stands?” Fell asked.  “We’ll need to set up somewhere else at some point tomorrow.”

“The plan,” I said, “Is to sleep, eat, and then I visit the police station.  If I don’t, they might start thinking I look a little guiltier.  Besides, I need to collect June.”

“Who?” Joel asked.”Ghost in a hatchet.  I left her behind.”

He nodded.

“The same police station where you ran into the Behaims?” Fell asked me.

“Yeah.”

“That sounds like a potential problem.  Do they know you’re coming?”

“They’re chronomancers who dabble in augury,” I said.  “Divining the future.  I wouldn’t be too surprised.”

“Can you avoid going?” he asked.

“I could,” I said.  “I’m wondering if I should.  I mean, for reasons beyond the charges against me and getting the hatchet.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean I’m thinking of going after Laird.  I’ve had three wins against him, I’m not sure what that means in the grand scheme of things, but I can’t help but feel I’ve got the advantage and I should use it.”

“He’ll have help,” Maggie said.

“Yes,” I said.  “Almost definitely.  But I don’t think that help will include the heaviest hitters.  Not the Eye, probably not the Shepherd.”

“The Astrologer,” Fell said.  “Heavy enough.”

“She’s possible.  So are the Sisters,” I said.

“Walking right into the lion’s den?” Maggie asked.

“If I’m going to walk into the den,” I said, “I might as well go in prepared to deal with the motherfucking lion, so to speak.”

She smiled.

“If I’m going to help, I’ll need to know more about the Behaims,” Fell said.

“Alright.  Well, they’re arrogant and well-learned,” I said.  “They tend to prefer big, devastating effects, and the entire circle is supporting whoever they’ve got in play.  Laird had the entire circle helping to power his ritual, back in Jacob’s Bell.  Duncan had trinkets infused with power.”

I retrieved the little stonehenge charm bracelet and held it up.  “Credit goes to Evan, for collecting this.”

“You stole it?” Fell asked.

“Evan did.  So yeah, I guess we did?”

“Bad karma, depending on how you do it,” Fell told me.  “Especially if the possession has power.”

“We were fighting,” I said.  “Going head to head.”

“Even if you’re fighting, certain objects belong in certain hands.  The universe doesn’t like that kind of disruption.”

“The Universe is awfully nitpicky when being nitpicky would inconvenience me,” I said.

Fell shrugged.  He resumed working on the powder diagram.  It looked like a strong wind would muss it up, but it was remaining in place.  “Look.  If that’s the case, then how come Duncan didn’t get bitten by karma when he took June, my hatchet?”

“Ah,” Fell said.  “If he did, then it’s only fair if you took something of his in return.”

Hm.

Alright, then.  Not complaining.  I leaned forward as I spoke, “Look, the Behaims are making a bid for power.  Taking me out of the picture is a part of that.  They’re collectively handing power to Laird and Duncan, probably under the belief that they’re going to get paid back tenfold when Laird becomes Lord of Jacob’s Bell.”

“A shame they’re a whole city away,” Fell said.  “With that kind of power structure, it can be good to hit them on the ground level.  Put the guys on the top of the pyramid off-balance.”

“Definitely a shame,” I said.  “That’s essentially it.  I can’t guess what they’re going to try to pull, but I think my having Evan on hand might help if I need to slip out of a trap.”

“You’ll have us for company,” Rose said.

“If Laird has allies and I have allies, they cancel each other out at best.  He’s liable to have more, and they’re bound to be stronger.”

“True,” she admitted.

I had challenged Conquest to a duel of sorts.  This was the duel.  We each had our respective groups, and we each had given up our abilities.If this was a challenge involving leadership, I’d have to exercise some.

I tapped my fingers on the coffee table in front of the futon.  “Consider all the factors at play, be ready, be prepared, and brainstorm.  We don’t need a solution right this minute, but I do think we need a strategy, and I’m confident we can come up with something if we put our heads together.”

There were a few nods, more unconscious than not, as they silently agreed with me.

Conquest drew power from grinding others under his heel.  Physically, mentally, and emotionally.  We needed to keep our spirits up.

“Fell,” I said.  “I need to know about the Astrologer.  I know she was an apprentice, her master passed the buck to her.  She was apparently sympathetic to us, but Conquest tapped her as his champion.  I know she apparently summons things, but I don’t know much else.”

“She does summon things.  Those things are more manufactured than produced.  Drawing spirits from the area, then cobbling them together under an impression.  If a ghost is a psychic imprint on the fabric of the world, then the Astrologer makes the imprints and then fills them in with the available resources.”

“Making ghosts?” I asked.”The candle that burns twice as hot burns half as long.  Her summonings burn bright, and they don’t last for very long.”

I nodded.

“Power has a price.  She and her predecessors have paid a literal price for their power.  To make her impressions, she uses machines at the outer rim of the city.  Lights, lasers, and properties she controls throughout Toronto.  Not as organized as you might imagine.  They’re points of light on a dark canvas, and she uses them to draw pictures.”

“Constellations?” Rose asked.

“Essentially.  Nobody in Toronto has a firm grounding on what the exact rules are.  Those of us who do have books on astrology are working with ideas that are often a hundred years old, if not older.  What she’s doing is larger in scale than what the books propose, but it’s also limited to certain things appearing in certain places, after certain preparations are made.”

I frowned.  “I want to say we don’t have to worry about her unless she lures us to a specific location, but that’s no guarantee, is it?  We could wander right into an ideal spot for her.”

“Or she could find our location, use a computer to turn certain lights on and off, and align her metaphorical ‘stars’ to drop something minor in our midst,” Fell said.  “As a practitioner, she’s no particular threat to Conquest.  Too conditional.  As a strategic asset, she’s a problem.”

Fuck,” I said. “But didn’t her master make a sacrifice to earn her protection from being pressured by Conquest?”

“Yes,” Fell said.  “On the proviso that she wouldn’t oppose him.  She did, and that protection defaulted.  I don’t know what else Conquest has done to seize her.”

I nodded slowly.

“Anything else you need to know?”

“A few things,” I said.  “But they can wait until the morning.  Minor stuff.”

“Alright.  Let me wrap up the other rooms,” Fell said.  “Nobody’s going to be forcing their way through from the spirit world apartment to your real apartment.  I think it’s subtle enough it’ll hold up to a cursory examination.”

“Excellent,” I said.  “Thanks again.”

“If you want to make it up to me, let’s not make this contest of yours a complete disaster.  Suck it up, turn off the news, and focus on the steps we need to take to win the challenge and stop Conquest.”

“I think I can do that,” I said.

“Good,” he said.  “Because there’s a loophole in this contest of yours.  Nothing says I have to be loyal or obedient, and as far as I’m concerned, the best way to stop Conquest or his champions from killing you or forcing your surrender is to kill you myself.”

“The fuck?” Joel asked.

“No,” I told him, “It’s okay.”

“Is it really, hon?” Joel asked.  “Did someone change the meaning of ‘okay’ while they were stirring up all this crazy?”

“Yes, it’s really okay,” I told Joel.

“You agree, then?” Fell asked.

“Yeah.  Can you keep my soul or whatever it is out of his grasp?  Killing my mortal body won’t be enough.”

“I can try.  I might need to make a container.”

“Good,” I said.

“I’ll go wrap up.”

I nodded.  I turned my attention to Maggie.  “Futon okay?”

My hands were paralyzed, one wrapped around the handle of the Hyena’s sword, spikes sticking through the flesh and out the back of hand, thumb and fingers, too painful for me to let go of it.  The other hand was tangled by the locket and the cord that surrounded the imp’s book, fingers bent back out of position.  When I moved, it had been a jerky, frustrated movement, the length of the sword, the pain, and the weight of the sword and book all frustrating my attempts to interact with the world.

My arms were cracked open like a hard plastic doll, and all that was within were feathers of mixed, dull colors, sticking to one another.

I couldn’t move fast enough to catch up to anyone.  I was too tired, too gaunt, an old man in a young-looking body, and the objects bound to my hands were too awkward to allow me to open doors easily or even walk through a crowded area without banging them on something.

I couldn’t close my eyes, because something black and monstrous slithered beneath the surface every time I did.

When I breathed, it was like I was having the heart attack again.  The air I spent was air that I couldn’t replenish by any means.  I was deflating, losing substance.

There was nothing to do but stand there, too tired to move, arms spread like I was crucified, or a bird in mid-flight, staring at Rose and her gathered summonings, with Pauz perched on her shoulder.

I somehow knew that words would cost me more of that vital substance than I could afford to spare.  I knew, too, that nobody would listen.

I stared until my eyes watered, because the idea of blinking was too terrifying…

The water in my eyes became welling moisture, and the resulting tear that fell from my right eye was black and heavy.  I could feel the tendrils and tiny clawed feet reaching out from the tear, rasping against my cheekbone.

I stirred, and for a moment, the feeling of the blankets around my legs was reminiscent of the tendrils.  I kicked at them, frantic.

I gasped like I was coming up for air, or bouncing back from another ghost-induced heart attack.

Holy fuck, fuck me, fuck.  I’d had more nightmares than I could hope to count over the years.  I couldn’t recall any that were more horrifying in the light of day.

A small sound escaped my lips as I lay there, panting, trying to convince myself that the infinite space that lurked just outside my field of view wasn’t some vast residence for the sliver of abstract demon that had found its way into my eye.

Blake.

I startled at the sound.

“Are you okay?” Rose asked.

Her voice, quiet, was eerie, in this time and place.  I could see her as she’d been in the nightmare.

When I’d seen Midge, I’d known Midge was a bad fit for Rose.

There was more to it, though.  I’d also had a suspicion that Rose had picked Midge for a reason.  She’d taken my place in the world in the dream.  I was the monstrosity there, not her.

I was the doer of our pair, the warrior even, by necessity more than because I was suited to it.  Rose was the thinker, the scholar with access to the books.

Midge… Midge would maybe have been be Rose’s warrior in my place.  Making her less reliant on me.  Supplanting me.

Not quite so extreme as it had been in the dream, but supplanting me all the same.

It wasn’t a comfortable thought.

“You were watching me sleep?”  I asked.  I’d tried to sound like I wasn’t suspicious, but I was pretty sure I’d failed.

“Evan said you were having a bad dream.  I came to make sure you were okay.”

I followed Rose’s gaze.  Evan was perched on my headboard.

Silent, I sat up.  The idea of sleeping any further was a dim fantasy now.  I sat on the edge of the bed in only pyjama bottoms, breathing hard.

The light outside my window suggested we were on the cusp of dawn.  I could hear the street.  Life, activity, people going about their day.

“Do you want a hug?” Evan asked.

Evan was one of the only people who didn’t make me feel slightly panicky when he touched me.  But then again… “I don’t think you can hug me, can you?”

He hopped up onto my shoulder, and I did everything I could to keep from picturing his taloned feet as some eerie parallel to the claws I’d felt scraping against my cheekbone.

He reached his wings forward to touch the front and back of my neck.

“This doesn’t work,” he said, sounding a little frustrated.

“Sorry,” I murmured.

He hopped down with a brief flutter, then resumed ghost form.

He hugged me with arms that couldn’t touch, just putting his arms in the right place.

I looked at Rose and saw her looking away.

This scene, a little boy hugging a half-dressed adult, might have looked a little weird.

The oddness of the situation put a small smile on my face.  It was a distraction from the odd, dark pressure of the dream, and that did a lot to help.

“Thanks, Evan,” I said.

“I don’t know what else to say or do,” he said.  “It doesn’t seem right that you don’t get a hug or reassurance when you’ve had bad dreams.”

“Part of being an adult, I guess,” I said.

“It shouldn’t be.”

“Maybe you’re right.  Don’t worry about it.  I’m not a huggy person.”

“Okay,” he said.  He sounded doubtful.

I stood and approached the window.  Evan, returned to bird form, settled on my shoulder.

“I’m glad you got a chance to sleep,” Rose said.  “I think maybe I feel less tension now that you’re in a better place.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.  Like there’s less question of where power is needed, so it can just flow.”

I nodded.  “How’s your chest?”

She touched the place where she’d been cut.  She’d changed tops, and wore something with a collar more like a dress shirt, a cameo pinned over her heart.  “Healing.  Or… not even healing.  Healing implies a natural process.  This isn’t natural.”

I nodded.

I stared down at the city streets, watching the first people coming and going, heading off to work and school.  Most people in this neighborhood were students.

“Mom and dad never hugged me much,” Rose said.

“No,” I said.

“I’m kind of angry at them.  Or at fake-them, if you will.  That they didn’t prepare us better for the world.”

“There’s hardship that leaves you stronger, and there’s hardship that leaves you weaker.”

“Yeah,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said, more to fill the silence than anything.

“There are good things too,” Evan said.  “Good things that make you weaker, and good things that make you stronger.”

“True,” I said.

“Um.  So maybe instead of standing here in the dark, we could do one of the good things that make you stronger?”

“Evan’s bored,” Rose said.  “He woke Maggie up to turn on the television so he could watch something.”

“Makes sense,” I said.  “Yeah, we could do something like that, maybe.  Just let me get my bearings here.  The quiet is nice, and it’s going to be a scary day, I think.”

“Yeah,” Evan said.  He hopped over to my other shoulder.  After a moment he moved up to the top of my head.

“Evan,” I said.  “That’s not quiet.  Is there a problem?”

“Nope.  Sorry.”

He took off, flying through my open bedroom door.

I heard Maggie, and briefly shut my eyes.

“She’s awake,” I said.

“She slept even less than you did, if she slept at all.  I’m not sure, but I think something might be bothering her.”

So much for peace and quiet, getting my bearings.

“Rose…” I started.

“What?”

“Have you noticed anything about Maggie?”

“Noticed?  No.  Why, have you?”

“Gut feeling.  Something’s off.”

“You paid more attention to her than I did.  Why?”

“Just,” I said, lowering my voice to be sure that Maggie wouldn’t overhear, even if she happened to appear in the doorway.  “How much of the wording in Midge’s ritual was Maggie’s?”

“You think she sabotaged us?”

“I don’t know,” I said.  “There’s nothing I can put my finger on.  But maybe… be wary?  In case?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I couldn’t ask for anything more, because I wasn’t sure what to ask for or how to figure it out.

I pulled on a black t-shirt.  I crossed over to my bathroom, with the shattered mirror.  I glimpsed Maggie sitting on the futon.  She’d taken off her jeans, sleeping in shirt and underwear, and while she was too far away for me to make out, I saw her adjusting her blanket to cover her lap.

Rose was talking.  “I spent the night working on the rules for the summonings.  Wordings, covering more bases.  It’s more thought out.  I’m confident moving forward.”

I took a deep breath.  I found myself at a loss for what to say or do.

How could I say I didn’t want to take the risk again, without essentially telling Rose that I wanted to strip her of one of the only resources she had in the midst of all this.

How could I describe what I’d seen in the nightmare?

I took my time answering, washing my face more carefully and thoroughly than I otherwise might.  I ran my damp hands through my hair, to get it out of my eyes for at least a little while.

“Yeah,” I said, when I’d finished.  “We can go over that in a little bit.”

I made my way to the living room.

Maggie had pulled on her jeans while I’d washed my face.  She said, “Evan’s saying he wants to go for a motorcycle ride.”

Oh.  When he’d wanted to do something good and healthy, that’s what he meant.

“Plenty of time for that later,” I said.  “We’ll be spending a while on the bike, I think.

Aw.

“Aw,” Rose echoed him.  “Maybe you are heartless after all, Blake Thorburn.”

I ignored her.  “Evan, why are you so into the motorcycle when you can fly?”

“Because it’s a motorcycle?

“Hard to argue with that kind of reasoning,” Rose commented.

“It’s easy to argue with that kind of reasoning,” I said, without any hostility.  This normalcy of this was like a breath of fresh air.  “Be careful about lying, we don’t need a hit to our power now, in the middle of all this.”

“I’m not lying.  I’m not talking about the reasoning.  I’m saying the kind of reasoning, that of a young boy, is hard to deal with.”

“Nuh uh,” Evan said.

I offered a noncommittal groan by way of response.  Too early in the morning.

“Did you have any luck brainstorming while you lay there all night, or did you actually sleep?” Maggie asked.

“I didn’t have as much trouble falling asleep as you’d think.  It was waking up that sucked.  Did you sleep?”

“No.  I spent the night thinking.  Big day ahead of us.”

I nodded.  “You want food?”

In the end, we hadn’t ended up eating at the apartment.  Fell had reached out to us, and we’d agreed to get started.

All forces assembled.  We’d collected Ty, Alexis, and Tiff from their camps in the spirit world, Tiff taking watch near the real-world side of the gateway in the garage, stopped for donuts, breakfast sandwiches, and coffee, and got ourselves sorted out before we split up again.

Maggie and Fell headed out for a brief visit to the junkyard, in the hopes of catching goblins.

Rose started her refining of the summons, and we took it as a learning experience for the new recruits.  They did the diagrams and physical work, Rose did the actual invocation.

I stood watch, standing on the balcony outside the apartment.

A figure landed on the next balcony over.  So massive she might have knocked it to the ground, if she hadn’t become human in the process of landing.

Theatrics.

I was tense, but the approach hadn’t been hostile.  Had she wanted to pounce on me, she might have been able to.

Even now, I was reasonably confident I could duck into the apartment behind me.

“Hello, Isadora,” I said.

“Thorburn.  You look better than you did last night.”

“Thank you,” I said.  “Is there a particular reason for the visit?”

“I’m thinking of the trick that circus performers do, spinning plates balanced on fingers and sticks.”

“I know what you mean.”

“Not quite so hard as it looks, to keep them spinning in place.  But when something sets things off balance, the fallout is dramatic, even catastrophic.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“You seem very intent on upsetting a balance we have been working to maintain for some time.”

“Maybe the balance needs upsetting?” I asked.

“Who are you to say what should or shouldn’t be disturbed?”

I hesitated.

She seemed put off by that.  “I relieve you of the consequences of my riddle.  You’re free to answer.”

“I’m a mortal man,” I said.  “Isn’t it our prerogative to screw with the status quo?”

“Just as it’s your prerogative to establish it?” she asked.  “I’m not making that a riddle either.  It’s a rhetorical question.  I will say that in the myths of my time and birthplace, it was traditionally those with divine blood who had the power to affect change.  All were at least somewhat Other.”

“I was under the impression that all practitioners were at least a little bit Other,” I said.

“You’re not entirely wrong.”

“I don’t like the idea that the ignorant, non-practitioner mortals are powerless, though.”

“Mere mortals are among the most powerful, in a sense.  But we could debate that for days or weeks on end, and that’s not why I’m here.”

I shrugged.  “Why are you here?”

“Two reasons.  One hostile, that may inadvertently help, one helpful reason that may lead to disaster for you.”

“Oh,” I said.  “I’m going to say ‘Great‘, with all the sarcasm I can muster.”

“Hostile:  I’m making a formal declaration of war, in fairness.  I will attack you in the next day.”

I exhaled slowly.  “You couldn’t put it off?”

“No.  Not really.”

I nodded.

“The helpful.  You should know that when you perish, Rose will be the next Thorburn heir.”

“Wait, what?  Really?”

Really, Mr. Thorburn.  It’s fated.”

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