Category Archives: Arc 6 (Subordination)

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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Subordination 6.8

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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

Subordination 6.7

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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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

“Okay, good.”

“Are you changing the subject?”

I shook my head.

“Well?”

“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.”

“What 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?”

“Maybe?”

“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.”

“How?”

“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?”

“Fell.”

“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.

“What’s that?”

“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.”

I nodded.

“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?

“Corvidae.”

“Bogeyman?”

“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-”

“Rose.”

“Yeah.  Let’s talk methodology.  Can you follow me over this way?  We’ll need open space.”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

Exactly.”

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.

I nodded.

“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.”

I looked.

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

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