Category Archives: Arc 7 (Void)

Histories (Arc 7)

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Demons of the First Choir are the counterpoint to the forces that brought the universe into being.  There is no telling the damage they have done, but Bartholemew Peck’s Abyssian suggests a dark possibility, that the universe as we know it might be the leftovers of something far vaster.  That the materials and elements that gathered to form stars and planetoids are merely the crumbs of a feast.

If this were true, it would be the demons of the First Choir that did the feasting.

Though it’s scarcely more than speculative fiction, it illustrates the nature of the First Choir for the seventh of our nine chapters here.  They devour.  They take.  The vectors by which they act take all forms that we know to destroy things – tooth, claw, bludgeon, coil, frost, and even forces such as lightning and flame, which might well seem ironic for the Choir of Darkness.

The thing to note, however, is that these beings annihilate.  In this, they are distinct from the other choirs.  In this chapter, you will read of Caacrinolaas’ venom, which slowly but surely eradicate a man’s entire being.  You will read about Shabriri’s lantern, which scours one’s sight away, and her bell, which peals with such force that it irrevocably destroys one’s hearing.

Above all, you will read about the consequences.  The aforementioned venom forces the victim to destroy all relationships to others by unforgivable means if he does not wish them to be inflicted with the secondary effect after he is entirely removed from the world, this effect being a pining so intense that they will never move of their own volition again, only staring into the distance.  Shabriri’s blindness and deafness ultimately leaves one so unable to see or hear that they will perceive absolutely everything that doesn’t exist in that space and time, as their eyes and ears are opened ever wider to true void.

The focus of this text remains the identification of that fine line that separates demons from those Others which are foul but not true fiends.  In this, I must stress key points.

Unless otherwise noted (as in the Lonely Man’s subsection), that which is destroyed can be replaced, but it cannot be retrieved.  While the demon itself might appear to grow, spawn, create, or manifest, I would posit that this is an illusion.  The things that might appear to come to pass are a casualty of other damage, some of which might be beyond our scope of understanding.

Effects, connections, ideas, hallucinations, ideas, and whatever else might seem to be created by the demons of this choir are, I would suggest, purely the effect of reality or other forces distorting to fill the void.

A ‘statue’ left in the place of a destroyed man (See Bazuili, below) is not created by the demon, nor by transmutation, but other forces filling the resulting vacuum.  In this case, it is the nearest available force of substance -the ground- seeking to repair the damage, at reality’s behest.

The cacophonous aria that follows the victims of the mote Tobu-Bōkyaku is not the demon’s cry, nor a signature, but the only sounds that remain to the victim after the being has made its passage through the victim’s ear canals.

A chaotic and tumultuous morass of connections remain after Coronzon destroys a group of people by addressing them thrice, but again, these connections should be said to be the fallout.  Remove a stone from a wall, and the stones around it will fall to a new configuration.  Those stones may face undue stresses, and the gaps will exist between them, but the gap nonetheless exists.

We’re predisposed to finding patterns in chaos.  That is all this is.

This idea forms the basis for the rule I propose on distinguishing these demons from those which are merely destructive fiends, and on understanding and managing the aftermath.

When the First Choir takes away from existence, nothing is created to replace it.  At best, we find a pattern in the chaos that is left behind.

– Excerpt from ‘Classifying Others: Fiends and Darker Beings’, by R.D.T.

Isadora – 2:41 PM

Smoke billowed.

Even being here was hard for her.  The wrongness of the being within the factory made her very being ache.

Still, it was best if she was sure to witness this.

He was trying so hard.

She’d gutted him to buy him time.  Inversely, she’d given him karma to support him, and it had led him here.  Would it take away his remaining time?

Riddles.

She had yet to fully grasp the way the world worked.

She could only support the world, to ensure that things kept working, that the clock was wound, and efficiently deal with those forces that would stop things from operating as they ought to.  Some was natural to her, an instinctual drive to attack the ignorant.  Other parts were her personal character at work.  She wanted to learn, to understand.

As a result, she existed wholly for the riddle.  Puzzling out reality as reality was understood, framing it, supporting it.  When she asked someone a question, she challenged them to either justify their relationship to this fathomed reality, or to die.

Everything in the context of the asked and the answered.

The demon within the factory, by contrast, was unanswerable.

And the Thorburn diabolist?

He begged the question, so to speak.

The Fool in the Tarot deck frequently depicted a boy with a dog at his heels, staring at the sky while he walked blithely off a cliff, burdened only by a bundle on a stick.  The diabolist had admitted a relationship to the card.

No single detail was quite right, but much as something might appear similar if one were to unfocus their vision…

The young diabolist walked with the sparrow at his shoulder, eyes on the windows without looking through the windows, walking forward as if he were afraid to stop.  His burden here was the gas containers.

No, he was burdened not just by the gas containers, but by some notion of responsibility.

A man, when facing death, aspires to finish what he started.

What had the custodian of the Thorburn estate started?  What drove him?

She knew he sought to do good and to vanquish evil, and she could surmise that both good acts and the existence of evil had touched him deeply.

The Fool card was akin to the ace.  Depending on the game being played, it was often the lowest card or the highest.  Valueless or highly valued.  Powerless or powerful.

It all depended on context.  He sought to kill the demon, and he would either catastrophically fail or succeed.

This Fool sought to slay the metaphorical dragon.  He felt his own mortality, which was quite possibly her fault, in part, and now he rushed to finish the task he’d set for himself.  To better the world.

The Fool was wrought with air – the clouds he gazed at, the void beyond the cliff, the feather in his cap, even the dog could often be found mid-step, bounding, just above the ground.

He was a Fool wrought with a different element.  The familiar didn’t quite fit for the departure from the air, but the traditional dog didn’t conjure ideas of air right off the bat either.

What was he wrought with?  That was another question that begged an answer.

He sent his servant dolls and ghosts inside, then passed through the threshold.

Others wished people luck, she gave it to him, transferring it from reserves she’d saved for special events.

The demon roused, and she could feel it, even through the boundary.  She stood, and retreated as the demon made its true dimensions known, flexing within the factory, seeping into cracks and through rubble.

Halogen lights cast bright shafts through open windows.

People passed jugs of gasoline through open windows and the tallest of Blake’s companions emptied one jug just below the window.

Isadora was tense.  Her muscles were akin to cables, stretched tight by some immense weight, legs spread for more balance, as if she instinctively expected some great collapse.

Fire flared within, a rolling explosion followed, a jug of gasoline being caught by fire.

Too early.

The demon was growing faster than it was being destroyed.

It was as though the cables had been cut.  She dropped to the ground hard, wings still partially extended at her sides, then folded one front leg over the other, trying to find some poise.

Poise was important in moments like this.

The ones outside were scrambling, running.

Isadora could hear the mirror-bound diabolist shouting.  Ordering one of the other girls, Alexis, to the front door, to provide Blake an escape route.

Too slow, moving around the periphery of the building.

The ache she felt yawned wide.  There were no English words for the idea.  Chásma.  The closest she could manage to an explanation would be to say she felt fractures in her bones.

Except the fractures were tested, the wrongness sharper, and when the cracks opened, a hollowness was revealed.

She moved her head, stretching her neck.

Getting closer would be dangerous.  At worst, she’d disturb the binding around the exterior of the building.  She’d hurt herself much as someone like Blake might hurt himself while standing too close to open flame.

At best?  There was no best.  There wasn’t much she could accomplish here.

Ironically, given how her mother had been created to be sentry to a holy site, Isadora wasn’t inclined to prayer.

The chasm of wrongness widened, and she suppressed a shiver.  Every sense was jarred, now.

How could it be so vast, while staying within the factory’s bounds?

Rather than try to avoid the grating impressions of this misshapen thing straining against its bonds, she let herself feel them.

It was only then that she realized how apt her earlier metaphor had been.

The factory stood there, not tall, but still largely intact, part of the roof collapsed.  To use her comparison to bones, it wasn’t so different from a fractured shinbone, the only thing keeping it from crumbling to pieces was the band that encircled it.

The marrow had been devoured, and there was only infection within.

This shinbone extended deep into the earth.

Deep, deep into the earth.

A great shaft of darkness, a pit.

All the gasoline in the world might not make a fire great enough to bring light to the bottom of that pit.

Did the young diabolist comprehend that the floor he stood on might as well have been paper thin, given the distance that the pit extended below?

Did it matter?

Questions.  These ones didn’t require answers.

She felt the moment he ceased to be.

The wrongness reached through each and every one of them.

It lanced through Isadora, and she did what she could to distribute it, to break it up so that it would damage every part of her a little, rather than deal a grievous wound.  It didn’t wound her awareness as it did the others.

She remembered, at least in part.  One of her duties was to remember, and here she could retain the fragments she’d held on to, the ideas she’d established.

It helped that she hadn’t maintained a close connection, that she hadn’t been on a first name basis with him, and that the impact she had made on him had already been partially erased, the scars filled, then smoothed away.  The ripples that extended outward had less foundation to travel across, and were easily shored up.  She no longer had his name, but she knew who he was, and she could identify him as Thorburn, as the diabolist, and put the rest of the pieces in place.

Isadora looked for Maggie, but Maggie was gone, and had been for some time.

Those that were running kept running, as the pieces fell into their new configuration, sitting askew.  One by one, they stopped running, no longer pulled along by the connection that was supposed to bind them to Rose’s counterpart.

Paige would need to know, which was a complicated thing.  Akin to telling an Alzheimer’s patient that they had a relative, and their relative had passed in one of the worst ways possible.

What a shame, really.

She’d tried to tell him that a clean death was the best path available to him, but it seemed he wasn’t built to go down quietly.  She’d called him the little warrior, and the idea fit.

Isadora remained where she was as the demon shifted position, searching for new prey.

More of reality resettled.  Unpleasant, grating, as if the demon was everywhere in the city, in Jacob’s Bell, in Toronto, and in places in between, for just a moment.  Exercising his power.

The binding held.  The demon remained where it was.

With the resettling of reality, Rose appeared.

A damned shame, quite literally.  This wasn’t clean at all, as exits went.

Rose, not even aware that she’d crossed over, reached out to stop Alexis, who was still running, caught up with emotion, even though that emotion no longer had a target.

The familiar was coming to pieces.  A deal forgotten, it stubbornly refused to move on.  There was no power to feed it but the spirits that had impregnated the ghost prior to the familiar deal.  Nothing powerful, only spirits of freedom, air, yearning.  These spirits would be spent in a matter of minutes, and the familiar would cease to be.

Others were dealing with a sadness they couldn’t explain.  One girl, Isadora forgot the name, was rubbing at her eye, looking at the moisture as if confused.

The young man, Ty, who’d called Isadora beautiful, was standing stock still, caught between confusion and a desire to give strength.  He was caught in a mental loop, akin to obsessive compulsive disorder, or a dream where one repeated an action over and over again, getting the same result, dozens, hundreds of times over.  She could see him reaching out for a connection, finding the wrong one.  Trying to think of a friend, thinking of someone who’d recently left the group instead.  Not that person.  Someone else.  Reaching out, trying to think of the right person… and so the repetition continued.

Humans were not machines, however.  He would find his way out, maybe a little worse for wear.  It depended on whether he was rescued by his friends, or if he was allowed to stew in this recursive loop of thoughts for a time.

Each of them would either invent memories, as some were inclined to do, to fill the void, or they would live with the void, and it would rub them raw from time to time, something unexplained.

If they needed it, Isadora would explain what she could and help them fill that void.  But if they decided to fill it themselves, she wouldn’t be able to.

For now… She stretched her wings out.  It remains to be seen what damage is done.

The Eye – 2:46 PM

The crackling of flame was a mask, just barely covering an ocean of screaming heads, arms and bodies thrashing in pain.  Raw-throat screaming, the kind of screaming that hurt, that happened because there was no other choice.

Burning to death hurt.

The Eye of the Storm remained where it was, hunched over a metal barrel, hands extended over the burning contents.

One eye stared down and saw visions.  Memories and echoes, brief stories of human struggles ending in failure.

In the brighter parts of the flame the Eye saw lightning.  In the snap and pop, the bang as the can’s contents shifted and touched the metal, the Eye heard thunder.  The Eye heard ruin, mankind’s endeavors ending in disaster.

A crunch, as something burned enough that it broke.  A car crash, bones breaking.

Symphony.

In time, humanity as a whole would succumb to this kind of fate.  It was inevitable.  With every creation came a destruction.  A new scientific achievement, a new weapon.

War would erupt, and war would see man destroy himself.  Bombs would fall.

These were the thoughts that ran through the Eye’s head as it held hands over the flames.  The elemental remembered the thousands who he had burned, thousands who had burned of their own accord.  Those who had been electrocuted, who had been ground to pulp by metal of their own making.

Right now, right here, he would wait as he’d been instructed.

Conquest would deal with Blake Thorburn.  When that was done, he would signal the Eye, and the Eye would attack once more, and people would burn.

A chill wind passed, something unnatural.

Conquest would deal with…

With what?

Conquest would… …Done, he would signal the Eye, and the Eye would attack, and people would burn.

The Eye shifted position, uncomfortable.  The thoughts didn’t connect.

Simplify.

Reduce.

Remove the damaged bits.

The words resonated with some century-old part of him, and he shifted from discomfort to ire.

Simplifying…

The Eye would attack once more, and people would burn.

He touched the edge of the barrel.  The contents shifted position and the fire erupted forth, touching the trash that a small grocery had left beside the building.  Cardboard boxes and vegetables.

The fire found its way to the necessary places in that pile of material.

The wire attaching the battery to the smoke detector inside shorted.

The Eye was already leaving the alleyway when the fire started to reach toward the dumpster.

Emanating heat enough to touch nearby patches of ice.  They would melt and re-harden in the course of a minute.

The next car to find the ice would find zero traction available.

It didn’t matter whether that car was a fire truck or a chance accident blocking access to the blaze.  The Eye knew it would serve.

People avoided him, avoiding eye contact, but he didn’t truly care if he was seen.  The orders were to attack.  The timing and consequences of this were for his master to worry about.

He’d given up worrying a hundred years ago.

The screams of the burning were the only thing familiar and natural to him, now.  The electrocuted, the crushed.

A gauge in the nearby traffic light shorted out.  People would later blame it on the blackouts that had afflicted the city earlier.

That’s how they operate.  Blame.

The Eye felt uncomfortable.  Old memories were stirring, and it didn’t know why.

All the same.

The traffic light fed information back to a main computer.

The main computer would give the wrong instructions to the system.

A subtle change.

Change enough that the Eye would hear the sounds it needed to hear.

The Astrologer – 2:47 PM

Diana shifted position, head smooshed against the pillow.

Why was it so hard to sleep now that she finally had an opportunity?  There was a limited truce in effect, she was safe…

Safe…

Her eyes began to drift shut.

It hit her like a niggling worry, but swiftly spread.

Sleep became uneasy sleep.

Uneasiness woke her up.

When her eyes opened, she felt a kind of horror over the fact that she’d almost let herself drift off.

Her labs were in danger.

His labs were in danger.

Doug’s.

She bit her lip hard enough that it hurt, in efforts to keep herself awake.

Her hand shook as she turned the kettle around to check how much water was inside, then flicked the switch to turn it on.

She was running on caffeine and willpower right now.

Monitors were off, which bothered her.  She’d gone through all of her pre-nap motions.

Napping was impossible.

Fuck, this sucked.

What happened next?

Either she finally did drift off, and she lost something precious to her, or she took action.

She checked the cupboard for a mug and found it empty.  Another little heart stopping moment.  There should be one mug in there.

She didn’t keep many.  If she did, she was liable to let it slide and let dishes pile up.

With less, she was forced to wash them regularly.

She checked the sink.

She’d had guests, right.  She was getting forgetful, she was so tired.

The bags and types of tea helped her piece it together.

Except there was one mug too many.

Right.  They’d been going to the factory.

Oh.

She filled the sink without looking, and pulled each mug out in turn, washing with exaggerated care.

A few grew in her heart.

One last mug.

Doug’s mug.

She didn’t know who it had belonged to.

She wouldn’t have given up the mug if she hadn’t liked the person.  It was how she operated.  She was sentimental like that, she knew.

That same uneasiness that had woken her up settled into a feeling of loss, and the only face that fit the feeling was Doug’s.  Her mentor’s.

She sat down on a box, the dirty mug in hand, and she thought of Doug.

With an edge of desperation to the thoughts, she started thinking about how she would protect Doug’s legacy.

Behaims – 2:45 PM

“Are we fighting?” Owen asked.

“Maybe,” Duncan said.  “It depends on who needs help and why, and if we can do what we need to do to deal with Blake.”

“Whatever you need,” Owen said.

“Call Moira, get her to email the scanned books.  I don’t want you kids in the thick of it,” Duncan said.  “We approach this indirectly, unless a reading says we need another direct confrontation.  A spell to help things along, at most.  You, Gav, and the girls.”

“Okay.  Shouldn’t be a problem.  Speaking of… how are your hands?”

Duncan’s arms rested on his knees, hands limp and relaxed.  He didn’t try to move them.  Every time he tried, it hurt.  “The painkillers help.”

“That isn’t answering the question.”

“An incomplete answer is still an answer.  Be careful.”

“Yes, sir.”

He shut his eyes briefly.  There was a dreamlike edge to his thoughts, with the codeine, and, in an amusing way, his perception of time was distorted.

The clocks around him ticked, many salvaged from his fiancee’s house.

It was soothing, the sound of his childhood home.  It had driven her crazy.

Now things were on hold.  They couldn’t stay at the house, and she didn’t want to stay with him.

He suspected he knew where things were going.

Tick.  Tick.  Tick.  Tick.

He smiled.

Tick.  Tick.        .   Tick.

His eyes opened.

Owen was walking down the hallway.

“Owen,” he said.

“Yes, uncle?”

“Get everyone packed up.  We’re going back.”

“Back?”

“To Jacob’s Bell.  It’s done, I’m fairly certain.”

Not without casualties.

“I, uh, okay,” Owen said.

“I’ll need help packing,” Duncan said, working his way to a standing position.  “You and your twin can get some driving practice in, I suppose.”

“You’re coming?”

“I’m coming.”

The Sisters – 2:40 PM

“Yes,” the Elder Sister said.  “I’ll do you one better.  If you can give me the bill for a retrofit, new paint and logos on your trucks, I’ll pass it on to the city, and I will sell you to them.”

Her office overlooked the hallway, just above the altar where she could address the lesser Sisters.  Candles burned around the window, making the aperture look like a gate lined by flame.

The other Sisters were making their way here and there downstairs.  Guiding the initiates.  Not a large number, but enough.  Girls with good grades, good positions, who either weren’t going home for Christmas, or who were willing to stay if it meant getting an edge elsewhere.

They would be eased into this.  The blindfolds would come off.  Later they would see a practitioner at work.  Later still, they would be awoken, then the rings would be granted.

Hopefully they would have the torch spirit back before then.  It would be embarrassing if they didn’t.

The guy on the other end of the phone was talking.  She listened to the tail end only, then cut in.  “I can make this really simple.  Cut twenty percent of your active staff.  Pay particular attention to the guys who make mistakes.  Who hit mailboxes, or consistently miss days.  Set money aside.  Call friends with garages, and be prepared to tell them you’ll pay extra for a fast job.”

Protests.

“Don’t commit wholesale or rush ahead, but do trust me.  You can start looking at files and talking to a trusted employee about who you can cut.  You should hear from me before you need to start with the actual layoffs.”

More protests.  He was on the fence, but this was the biggest protest yet.

Why should I trust you?

Success or failure hinged on her reply.

“I’m on your side, Mac,” she said.  “If I disappoint you, I hurt myself, and I hurt my own employees.  I’m speaking to you from the heart, and I’m going to help you, if you give me the chance.  T.O. Plow will become part of the city services, and they really need better plow services after this last storm.  Nobody else in Toronto is positioned to deploy in numbers like you can.  You stand to make a small fortune.”

The arguments were more feeble this time.  Less a resistance and more the unease of anyone facing a major change in their life.

“Mac,” she said.  “What’s my reputation?  I don’t lie.  You’ve doubled in size in the time I’ve been lobbying for you.  Subtract what you’re paying me from what I’ve saved you, and you’ve earned tens of thousands.  If you want to more than double in earnings now, you need to do two things for me.  Say yes, and then follow through.”

Agreement.

“Thank you, Mac.  Do me a favor and don’t fret.  Focus on taking advantage of the snowstorm and the heavy demand, take the employee files with you tonight and read them in bed.  No rush, no pressure.  I suspect a little voice in the back of your head has been telling you you really should be more ruthless with the employees.  It’s natural for a company that’s grown as fast as you have.”

A one-syllable response.

She reached out to the blazing urn on her desk and extended a finger for the fire sprite that lurked within.

A small woman emerged, keeping just far enough away from the Elder Sister’s hand to avoid burning her.

“It’s very simple,” she said.  “All those thoughts you’ve had but haven’t followed through on?  That you’ve grown too fast, and it’s crazy to lay people off when you’re growing as fast as you are?  The employees are thinking it too.  The worst employees are thinking it and taking advantage of it.  You’re going to look at the books and see the problems pop up almost straight away, I think.  It’ll be a relief.”

Another one-syllable response.

“I’ll reach out to you in a few days, Mac, if I can make the call, way things have been going.”

He would be thinking of dropped phone and power lines.

She was wondering about mortality.

All the same…

She hung up.

Mortality.  Success and failure.  It reminded her… it was about time.

Her phone had a text on it from one of her subordinates.

The dolls had been delivered.

Thorburn was dealing with the demon.

It was win-win, wasn’t it?

Either they didn’t have the diabolist to worry about, or the demon was dealt with.

It wasn’t that she disliked him.  But he was more trouble than he was worth.  The fact that he was going to try to mediate the issue with the Torch the Astrologer had stolen went a long way.  It meant things were quiet for now, and the Sisters could focus on other things.

Problem was, the concerns about taint and the general fact that she couldn’t predict him went further the other way.  Unpredictability was scary when someone could tap the kind of power he could.

It was easier when things were predictable.

So long as things stayed predictable, she saw a fairly clear, straight road to the Lordship of the city, temporarily or long term.

Build up ties with local business, expand her powerbase here, deal with Conquest’s remaining subordinates – which amounted to the Shepherd and the Eye right now – and ally with others.  Isadora should back her if she made enough headway to sell the idea, and as for Emily, Fell’s successor… well, Fell’s family would accept an option that kept Conquest from regaining power, and the Sisters could arrange a scholarship for Emily, resources…

This would work.

The candles across the entire great hall flickered, as if a draft with no substance had passed through.  The shockwave from a distant event.

She shook her head.

A disconnect, a momentary lapse.

It unsettled, left her nerves on edge.

It reminded her of the nightmares she’d had for years after leaving University, the idea of something critical that had been forgotten.  A major exam or assignment that her entire degree hinged on, except it was a little more profound.

In her work with the Sisters to date, she’d avoided putting them in life or death situations.  It wasn’t something she’d been prepared to do.  Their focus lay elsewhere.  They only went to war when they had to.

Right now, there was only one war that demanded her attention.

She stepped out of her room, turning to the first Sister she saw.  “Sharon.”

“Yes, Elder Sister?”

“How many dolls do we have?”

“I have no earthly idea.”

“Find out and get back to me.  We need to handle this business with the astrologer before we do anything else.”

“Yes, Elder Sister.”

The Shepherd – 2:47 PM

The Shepherd felt the recoil, reality reacting.

He was sensitive to such things.  A silenced scream.  If the universe worked as it was supposed to, such a scream would be heard across the city.

He felt it every now and again.  Sometimes in clusters, a few at a time.

This time it was just the one.  He had a vague sense of who.  Two of his ghosts were nearby, even.

It always made him think of Bennie, and Laurel, and Andrew.

If the feeling behind a scream was what determined how loud that scream could be, his scream would be heard across the world.

He called for his steed, footsteps shuffling as he made his way down the dilapidated stairwell.

It was good that he didn’t speak.  He told himself he’d look for the children until it was dark.  If he’d said it aloud, it would have been a lie.  Every time, he lied to himself.

Rose – 2:47 PM

Rose’s heart was pounding.  She felt like she was on the verge of a panic attack, and she couldn’t make sense of why.

Once upon a time, she’d gone on a camping trip with the school, her parents had hoped it would help her make friends.  They’d hoped, too, that making friends would help her build up her social skills.  Rhetoric and understanding people would only help with the inheritance.

She’d gotten dirty, her hair greasy.  Everyone had.  They’d been proud of how dirty they’d gotten.  Sharing in that was the closest she got to making friends there.

When she’d returned home, she’d hopped in the shower.

The hot water had felt alien, painful.

Everything felt that way now.

The fresh air was so rich she felt like she was getting high off it.  She was cold, and it almost hurt to breathe. The sun on her skin helped with the cold, and she felt like she’d just woken up on a Saturday morning with the sun shining on her.

It was too much.  Too intense.

It jarred with… with this.  The smoke, the fire, the fact that someone had just died and she had no idea who, why, or how.

The others were similarly lost, similarly distraught.

Reeling.

She felt no particular connection to them.  They were, what, one step removed from her?

Feeling a chill, Rose put her hands in her pockets for warmth, and found a note there.

She read it over five times before it sank in.

“Throw the rest of the jugs in,” she said.  “Hurry.  It was part of the plan, and we should follow through.”

“You want us to get close to that?” Ty asked.

“Not too close,” she said.  She looked at the note again, as if it might have changed in the meantime.

I wrote this to myself, and I was supposed to explain things, so I wouldn’t be too lost if it goes wrong.

Except it’s better if we don’t know.

Burn what you can.  We promised we would.

We have a connection to those people.  I’m not positive about what’s going to happen if it goes bad.  Either way, they should be yours.  You can manipulate them using that, using the chaos that’s going to unfold now.  That doesn’t mean you should.

If nothing happens, well, there’s no need for this note, and I’ll look stupid.  Ha ha.

There’s nothing here for us.  You know what the next step is.

I’m such a bitch.

“I’m going back to Jacob’s Bell,” she said.

The others turned.  Ty was hurling the jugs of gas at windows with a two-handed grip, a barely-repressed anger he didn’t understand.

“What?” Alexis asked.

“I’m going back to Jacob’s Bell.  You can come, that’s fine, or you can stay.”

She saw the expressions on their faces.

Feathers were falling.

The feathers almost reminded her of something.

Was that a clue?  A cue?

“Hey!” she screamed.  “Bird!”

The bird descended.

She held out both hands, cupped.

The landing was clumsy, her catching of the bird doubly so.

“Hey,” she said.

Just like the others, it felt like it was hers, but not hers.  One step removed.

“Hey,” the bird said.  “I’m not sure what’s going on.”

“None of us are,” she said.  “Why don’t you stick with me?”

“I think I’m dying,” the bird said.

“We can fix that,” she said.

Ur – 3:17 PM

The humans were leaving now.

As if they were some magnetic force that had hauled him up from darkness, now absent, Ur settled back into the shadows, contracting himself.  Here and there, pieces of rubble were dragged into place.  Things were propped up.

One section of wall was cracked, and in time, the wall would break free.

With more time, the binding that encircled the building would be broken.

With care, Ur moved a metal beam, winding around it, manifesting limbs to grasp at it, tongues to encircle it, until it had the leverage needed to lift it clear off the ground.

It placed the beam so it sat diagonally against the wall, reducing the stress that would be placed on it.

A few more years would pass before the section of wall broke free.

A decade more would pass before the binding broke.

Everything in place.

Everything, in time.

As if provoked by the idle thought of consuming, a mouth on the side of one wormlike section of body reached out and snatched at a largely dismembered hand.  The hand crunched.

Ur retreated into the shadows of the rubble, and into the chasm that dwelt beneath the factory.

A piece of rebar dragged against the ground, held by a tiny hand, retreating with the rest of Ur as he disappeared into the shadows.

A tiny hand attached to a tiny form, three-quarters of the way complete, eyes shut.  Two more were pressed against it, part of the same growth, the three compacted so tightly together that the shape of them distorted.  All in the form of human babes, with jet black skin.  One with horns, one with tufts of spiky fur, the other smooth and bald.

The binding would break in time.

Ur would bear its motes first.

The hand dropped the rebar, and the metal sang as it clattered.

Ur was already gone.  The factory still.

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Void 7.11

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Dinner simmered on the stove, the pot lid didn’t match the pot a hundred percent, and the rattling was a constant background noise.

Everyone was gathered in my living room, waiting for me to speak.

I had an impulse to drive them out.  It was dumb, running contrary to things I’d decided, said, and done before.

I was tired, and a part of me was used to being alone, even as I paradoxically craved companionship.  I still felt raw where the memories had brought memories back to the surface.  The discrepancies and false notes in the memories Conquest had subjected me to made it worse, if anything, as my mind itched to resolve and compare notes, even as my heart didn’t want to go anywhere near that stuff.

“So,” I said, “Alexis, Ty, maybe even Tiff, this might a moment that your entire life has been leading up to.”

“All moments are moments our entire life has been leading up to,” Ty said.

“I know,” I said.  I had to suppress a sigh.  “But I wanted to be dramatic and clever, and there aren’t many ways to do that without lying.”

“Keep going, Blake,” Alexis urged me.

“You’ve gone to a lot of galleries, you’ve done your own art.  You’ve offered the critiques for good ideas and bad ones, and you’ve trained yourself to interpret.”

“You need the power of bullshit interpretations?” Ty asked.

“Yeah, that’s basically it,” I said.  I picked up the Hyena by the pommel, then stabbed it into the coffee table, one finger resting on it to keep it from falling over and gouging the surface further.  “You’ve each read the basics regarding implements.  Symbolic meanings and interpretations go a long way.  Here, I have the Hyena’s corpse.  I’m considering it for an implement.  Anything you could say, positive or negative, would be a help.”

“It’s metal,” Alexis said.

Ty groaned.  “No puns.”

“No pun intended.  You could put this on an album cover for some rock band or other, and it wouldn’t look out of place at all.  If I had to say… I don’t think it suits you from an aesthetic perspective.”

I nodded.  “Thanks, that’s the kind of thing I need to hear.  That’s not as minor as it sounds.”

“Maggie knows about goblins, doesn’t she?” Tiff asked.

“I do.  Goblin sects have traditions,” Maggie said.  “Taking the form of a weapon started off, if I remember right, when goblin warlords dueled the toughest bastards on the battlefield, and offered a choice between servitude or death.  But even bound goblins wanted a chance at shedding some blood and furthering their reputation, especially when the binding was short-term.  Becoming a weapon became a way to achieve that, while the conquering goblin got a symbol of victory, something he could hold in the air to convince the defeated goblin’s followers to follow him.”

I’d already read something on the subject when I’d been considering the sword as an implement.  I waited while my friends quizzed her.

“Why the spikes on the handle?”

“That’s kind of a fudge-you,” Maggie said.  “Except with more colorful language.  A grudging sort of surrender, where using your power and reputation costs the victor something.  Failing to acknowledge the grudging surrender means bleeding yourself, the goblin drinks the blood, and can, given a few decades, drink up enough to buck the bondage and get free.”

I nodded.

“Is that a risk now?”  Tiff asked.

“No,” Maggie said.  “The goblin is dead.  The artifact remains, and it’s, I guess, pretty mundane now.  Want to file off the spikes?  Might lose authenticity, but you could.”

“Maybe,” I said.

She shrugged.

Alexis leaned forward, looking closer at the sword.  “What does it mean, then, if you’re carrying something that has a metaphorical ‘fuck you’ as part of the design?”

“Could mean something bad,” I said.  “Could mean I don’t give a damn what others think, I’m moving forward all the same.”

“Could mean both,” Alexis said.

I nodded.

“What do you want it to mean?” Alexis asked.

“That’s a loaded question,” I said, “One I was hoping to answer later, so I didn’t color your impressions.”

“Trust us and say it anyway.”

“I look at it, and I think of one time when I acted to better the world and I did.  Undeniably, even.  I think of victory, and I think I could maybe achieve more victories.  But it’s not just about me,” I said.

“Other people will have their own impressions,” Alexis said.

“Implements are supposed to be badges,” I said.  “When I talked to the lawyers, I was told that the various choices we make here represent broader questions.  The familiar question is about who we want to associate with, our sphere.  In the books, the case studies and examples tell us about practitioners who decided to live among Others, eschewing human contact and relationships.  There were people who fucked up, and cut themselves off from everything, outside of the master-familiar bond.  Laird picked something that could be largely hidden, that wouldn’t interfere with family or career – a familiar that was content to be a watch a good portion of the time.”

There were a few nods.

I looked down.  “The lawyer strongly suggested I take something powerful as a familiar, something ugly, and ignore the fact that I’d have to live with its company for the rest of my life.  I took Evan instead.”

“Damn straight,” Evan said.

“Felt right,” I said.

“What about this?” Alexis asked.  “Does this feel right?”

I grabbed the sword, positioning my fingers not so I could wield it, but so I could hold it, each finger resting between spikes.

“I’m not as sure,” I said.

“Maybe this isn’t the path you want to take?” she prodded.

“I think the lawyer was wrong about my choice of familiar.  I’ve walked a fine line, getting further away from being me, and having a good companion, having you guys, it’s a way to hold on to myself.  Connections.  But I’m not so sure she’s wrong about my need to grab power sooner than later.”

“Do you want to compromise?” Alexis asked.

“Yes,” Rose said, before I could answer.

She was reflected in the window, and it was dark enough out that the image was clear.  She sat in the mirror-world version of my living room, alone, surrounded by stacks of books.

“That’s not your call,” Alexis said.

“Yeah, actually, it is,” Rose replied.  “I’m attached to him, and his decisions affect me.”

“Let’s not get into this,” I said.  “Let’s just say that Rose’s opinion counts for an awful lot here, and she thinks I should compromise.”

“Thank you,” Rose said.  “That’s all I wanted to put out there.”

“I think you shouldn’t,” Alexis said.  “Something about this feels… wrong.”

“What I was saying before, about the familiar and the meaning of the decision?  It applies here.  Choosing an implement means deciding the one tool you’ll define yourself by for the rest of your life.  That adage, ‘if all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail?’  I think that holds true with implements.  This is a kind of commitment to a path in life, so maybe that’s what feels wrong.  I’m committing to something… less than pleasant.”

“You’re committing to breaking swords?” Ty asked.

“I’m committing to stopping things like the Hyena.  You don’t take an implement like this if you don’t plan on fighting, and continuing to fight for a long time.”

“One of the example implements in the book was a sword, wasn’t it?” Tiff asked.

“Yeah,” I said.  I kept my mouth shut, rather than volunteer more that could color their impressions.

“This isn’t a sword though,” Ty said.  “It’s a broken sword.  The handle is almost longer than the remaining bit of blade.”

I nodded.  He’d basically said what I was going to say before I stopped myself.

“An icon or symbol,” Tiff said.

“Yeah,” Ty replied.  “I’m not sure if I like the implications.  A sword’s a phallic symbol, right?  The equivalent of great gleaming steel penis.  The bigger the sword, the more they think you’re overcompensating.  And a broken sword?  I’ll be blunt.  You shouldn’t define yourself like that.”

Ouch.

It wasn’t that he was being hurtful.  He was, but it was the kind of hurt I had to trust to those close to me to provide.  That any of us did.  The sort of truth that one didn’t want to hear.  The sort of truth, even, that one might not immediately appreciate, that could test the friendship.

“What are you thinking?” Alexis asked.

“It would be a lot easier if this was the answer,” I said.

“But?”

“But it’s feeling less like that’s the case,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.

“Can I butt in?” Rose asked.

I glanced her way.

“Books on shamans talk about the value of trophies.  Powerful shamans wear the furs of defeated enemies, to retain a share of that enemy’s power.  You can go pretty dark-side with that, wearing finger bones or dismembered body parts, on top of everything else, but you could also find some use in a trophy like the Hyena’s blade.”

“That bit that the Elder Sister said about you being tainted by Conquest?” I asked.  “Talking about abusing your defeated enemies doesn’t help matters.”

“Using the Hyena was your idea before it was mine,” Rose retorted.

“Fair point,” I said.

“Some shamans specifically hunt monsters to get materials to make items with, infusing those items like you infused June’s hatchet.  Right here, you’ve got something that could be powerful.  Tricky, yes, but powerful.  Tap into what the Hyena could do.  Strength, durability, inspiring fear…”

“There’s the Conquest bit again,” Alexis commented.

Rose shot Alexis a glare, but Alexis was staring at the table, where the blade had gouged it.

“She’s not wrong.  This is about me committing to a path,” I said.  I touched a spike on the handle, “Putting myself in harm’s way… taking a violent path.”

“You said you wanted to stop monsters like that,” Evan said.

“I do,” I said.  “Maybe we could do it without resorting to direct violence.”

“Oh,” Evan said.  “Maybe.  How?”

“Traps,” I said.  “Thinking things through, being methodical…”

“How well has that gone in the past?” Rose asked.

“I trapped the Hyena,” I said, the words slipping out of my mouth before I realized the irony of the statement.

I was talking about not taking the Hyena.  Taking a different path.

The problem with Rose and I being so similar was that we thought in similar ways.  I could see her level stare, as if she were seeing straight through to what I was thinking.

“I guess I’ve got a choice,” I said, before she could make a point of it.  “Do I want to take this path, or do I want to leave it for a future date?”

Assuming I have a future.

The thought butted its way into my mind.  I very nearly said it out loud, but I didn’t want to drive that home for my friends.

“The Hyena wounded spirits,” Rose said.  “It left scars on them.  If you tap into that, you could do the same with your workings.”

I shook my head.

Not selling me there.

“Okay,” Rose said, “Fine.  Let’s assume you don’t want to go down this route.  When and where do you make your next grab for power?  Do you want to establish a demesne?”

“No,” I said.  “No, it’s… god, I hate that idea.”

“Why?” Rose asked.

“Because… the big life decisions.  A familiar represents the people you want to be around, choosing an implement is like choosing a career, and a demesne is where you want to be.  I can’t even articulate it, but I don’t want to be here.  I don’t want to be in Jacob’s bell.  Following through on what I promised Evan?  That’s something else.  I can do that in, I dunno, Nova Scotia, or British Columbia, or New Zealand, you know?  But even talking about this, I feel-”

I touched my heart.

“-I feel like I could panic.  Like I’m making some decision and I’ll never get away from this, if I confine myself to one place.”

“Like I’m confined?” Rose asked.

“You know what I mean,” I said.  “You can still explore.  I know it’s not ideal, it’s fucked, and it’s even unpleasant, being shackled to me and the house, but we have leeway… but maybe, yeah, maybe like you’re confined.”

“You can understand my problem?” she asked.  “This isn’t smart, throwing away ideas out of hand.  Getting me out of here happens in one of two ways.  Either you get power, which a demesnes or a strong implement would help with…”

“…Or I die,” I said.

There was a chill in the room.

“No dying,” Evan said.

“We’re going to do our best to avoid dying,” I echoed him.  “I raised the question of using the Hyena because I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea.  The negatives are adding up, and together they’re outweighing the potential positives.”

“Do you have other ideas for implements?”  Rose asked.

I shook my head.  “I’ve thought about tools, something like the hatchet, but a mallet or something.  I’m looking for something that… how did you put it, Maggie?”

“Hm?”

“When I asked about your implement?”

She drew and flourished her athame with a measure of skill that suggested an easy sort of familiarity with the tool.  “It’s not a weapon, exactly, it’s something that you use to deliver the coup de grace once you’ve got your opponent.”

“Not that,” I said.

“It fits me?  It resonates with me?”

“That.  Resonate.”

She tossed the stylized knife into the air, then caught the handle, sheathing it in the same motion.

“I might feel different if I had my hands on stuff, but I don’t.  All I can say is that the ideas don’t resonate with me.”

“This does, or did?” Ty asked.

“A bit,” I said.  “It fits, but handcuffs can fit too, and they aren’t necessarily something I’d want to wear every day.”

“I know a few people who would disagree,” Ty said.

“So we’re settled, then?” Alexis asked.

I ran my finger along the Hyena’s handle.

“I’ll do without,” I decided.  “I’m not making the call when I feel this ambivalent, and not wanting this as an implement doesn’t mean I can’t get some use out of it.  It’s still a possible trophy, and I could get something out of it.”

“Wait, Maggie, you don’t have any commentary?” Rose asked Maggie.  “I thought you’d push for the Hyena.”

“Nah,” Maggie said.  “I’ve dealt with goblins for a while.  I’ve seen how bad they get when they’re bad.  If he wanted to go for it, I’d back him up.  If he wanted to go for it.  But I’m not a dumb- I’m not stupid.  I’m not going to force the issue.  I recommend you do the same.”

Rose frowned.

“Okay,” I said, grabbing the broken blade.  “That’s off the table.”

Rose spoke, quiet, “It’d be nice if we weren’t waiting for all hell to break loose before making the tough calls on this sort of thing.”

“We discussed it,” I said.  “It’s good.  In the heat of the moment, I might have gone ahead with it.”

“I still want us to be stronger,” Rose said.  “You get that, right?

I nodded slowly.  “Can you find that book on shamanism?  We have other stuff to get to in the next few hours, but I’d like to see how to draw out some power from this thing.  Might even be useful if I get something like the Stonehenge bracelet, again.”

“Sure,” Rose said.

“Everyone has something to read?” I asked.  “You guys know what your jobs are in the next, uh, sixteen hours?”

There were nods.  I looked at Maggie, “And you’re okay for now?  You don’t need to get back?”

“I’m putting it off,” she said.

“Can you?” I asked.  “If I remember right, you promised your parents you’d attend school…”

“School’s out,” Ty said.

I slapped my forehead.  “Right.”

“I’ve got elbow room,” Maggie said.  “I want to make the most of it.”

“If you say so,” I said.  “You helped out, I owe you.”

She smiled.

“Let’s eat, then,” I said.  “Sleep, then break away, do what you need to do.  We’re all in top condition tomorrow, or we don’t do this.  Above all, we do this smart.

“With a lot of light and fire,” Ty said.

I had to wonder if the first hunters felt this kind of trepidation.  How often did a person experience this quiet kind of terror?

The hunter knew where the wild beast rested, though he would be flying blind when he crossed the threshold and entered the lion’s den.  The hunter knew that he was outclassed in strength, in toughness, and in size.

All the hunter had were the piecemeal tools they’d been able to put together.

Floor plans loosely sketched out, displayed on Ty’s laptop.  We’d checked the compass points and the point and time of sunrise and sunset, to judge when we’d have the most light filtering through the windows.

Rose had Corvidae with her, which I wasn’t so happy with, but Corvidae was another body on her side, and the demon had already attacked her there.

The other Others were broken and slain.  If the energies that drove them were strong enough, they might recuperate and make themselves available to the next summoner, to fulfill the terms of the bindings that had been placed on them, or happy to have a chance to feast on whatever energies it was that drove them.  The Tallowman was one likely possibility for resurrection.  Coming back was his schtick.  The Bloody Mary?  Maybe less certain.

The laptop sat on the dashboard, and the car was off.  Three of us gathered nearby to get a sense of what was where, and to discuss placement.

The Knights had brought two trucks, and Ty was helping Nick unload gear.  Halogen lights on stands, a generator, and red plastic gas jugs.

I wanted to say it was being carried out with a military precision, but it wasn’t.  We were disciplined, entirely serious and focused, but we were less than efficient.  In too many cases, I saw people standing around looking for something to do, while there was stuff to be unloaded or set in place.

One halogen light for each ground floor window.  The sun would be pouring in through several windows and the hole in the roof.

Nick’s son approached me, handing me a plastic bag with a smiling worm wrapped around a hook.

I fished out three flare guns, cast in bright orange plastic, vacuum-wrapped in plastic.

I slipped one into the leather package I’d made for June.  Not exactly a good fit, but it would stay in place.

“Lights are clean,” Rose said.  “Not reflective enough for me to go inside the glass.”

I frowned, “That’ll have to do.  I wish there were more definite points in the midst of all this.”

“Nothing’s definite in life,” Nick said, behind me.  He was rummaging through bags.  Bottles of water, thick gloves, and a mask.

“That’s right,” Maggie said.  She was standing with her back to the car and the factory both, bundled up, not even willing to look in the general direction of the factory.  She kept talking, injecting false confidence into her voice.  “If it was easy to puzzle them out, humans would have worked it all out a long time ago.  But no, you wind up with stuff like this.”

Stuff like this.

“Not doing a lot to help my confidence,” I said.

“Maybe that’s a good thing,” Maggie said.  “Maybe you should reconsider.”

“But what happens then?” I asked.  “How many years or decades is it before someone else makes a genuine attempt at stopping this thing?  Everything I’ve read on demons suggests they’re a rot that eats at reality.  Things become worse.  A bite here and there, a chunk elsewhere, a major loss somewhere else entirely.”

“I like you, Thorburn,” she said.  “Not like-like, though I wouldn’t mind, if you didn’t-“

She paused long enough to leave me thoroughly startled, but continued on, casual, like she was talking about the weather, “But I think you’re interesting, at the very least.  The world might even be a better place with you in it, and there isn’t enough of that these days.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“So why is it your job?  Why are you going in there alone?”

“Isn’t it my job because I’m the only person stupid enough to do it?” I asked.

Another car pulled up, stopping between Nick’s truck and Joel’s car.  The trees blocked the view of the factory from here.

“I can’t stay for this,” she said.

“Okay,” I said.

“I’m not going to wish you good luck.  I don’t see the point.  I don’t have anything to give you that would make a difference, that I’m willing to give up.  I don’t even know why I came.”

“I appreciate the company,” I said.

She nodded.  “This isn’t my thing.  Being on the sidelines, being the side character.”

“I envy you, that you can,” I said.

She smiled just a little.

The people at the third car were unloading.  Sisters.

Dolls.

I stared at the map, trying to reconcile the layout with what I was able to make out when I’d been there the other night.

I reached for the trackpad and made a note.  Fallen rubble.  Rounding that corner would mean taking a detour around the rubble, or maybe hurdling it.

No, hurdling was a bad idea.  Even if Evan was accompanying me, giving me a periodic boost.

Rubble cast shadows.  It could hold something.

Maggie, my friends, Rose, the possibility of interference, and a careful strategy with too many possibilities against a threat that I didn’t fully understand.

The ideas filled my head, and despite the fact that there were a dozen solutions waiting to be discovered, the resulting traffic jam meant I couldn’t think of a single one.

I shut my eyes, trying to focus.

One thing at a time, starting with the girl next to me.

“Maggie?” I asked.

“What’s up?  I didn’t weird you out before, did I?”

“No,” I said, “Just… are you okay?”

“Okay?”

“You haven’t explained what you have going on with your parents, you’re acting strange, different.  Little things have come up, maybe a big thing.  I know you’re not sleeping.  I get the impression something’s wrong.”

She was silent.

“You helped me before.  If something’s come up, if you need help, if you’ve done something or made a bad deal, we can put this on hold and back you up.”

She jammed her hands into her pockets, staring at the ground.

“I was telling the others before, maybe you let something in and you got possessed?”

She shrugged.  “Thanks for worrying about me.  But you should focus on this right now.”

“Should I?” I asked, making it a pointed question.

“You’ve got help here that you might not have if you wait a few days.  The Sisters, the Knights, you can’t back out now, or this won’t work.”

“So you do need help?” I asked.

“Don’t we all?”

“Don’t dodge my damn questions,” I said, more harsh in tone than I’d wanted.  Nervousness seeping through.

“Sorry.  I’ll try to be more direct.”

“You were among the first people that were decent to me when all this started.”

“I was.”

“And you came here to back me up, you made a difference.”

“I did,” she said.

“I’m allowed to show concern for you,” I said.  “Even if there’s something going on that I don’t fully understand.”

She gave me a look, and there was a bit of sadness in her eyes.

“What?” I asked.

“I really want to give you a kiss on the cheek,” she said.  “But I can’t, can I?”

I shook my head.

“Give him heck,” she said.

I smiled.

The conversation was over, and I wasn’t accomplishing anything meaningful looking at the map.  There were more important points to cover.

Slowly but surely, things were settling into place.  Objects and people.

A few ghosts had arrived, observers.

“Blake,” Ty said.

“Yeah?”

“Ghost dropped these off.”

He extended a hand, and he dropped two objects into my outstretched palm.  A box of matches and what looked like a piece of burned pillow?

No, a stuffed animal’s limb.

I could feel the ghosts within.

The Shepherd was volunteering aid?

My eyes roved over the area.  I didn’t see the Shepherd.  I did see the Sphinx.  Isadora was lying down on the far end of a wide gap in the trees, the same spot where I’d grabbed the branches for the wreath.  She stared, oblivious to the light dusting of snow that had settled on her black fur and wings.

Put more pressure on me, why don’t you?

People were gravitating toward me.  Isadora didn’t budge.  Maggie, on the other side of the

My nervousness only intensified.

“It’s about time,” I said.

It was good that we had a designated time for this to begin.  It was harder to jump off that diving board when you had all the time in the world.  Better to be thrust into a situation where you had no choice to jump, if jumping was absolutely necessary.

It was almost a relief, knowing.

I just couldn’t let myself entertain the slightest thought of being able or willing to retreat from this.  To run.

One of my legs jittered, the knee wiggling from left to right, as if I was as unsteady on that leg as a newborn fawn.

I shifted my weight to make it less pronounced.

“You don’t enter.  If something goes wrong, if things turn sour, we back off.  If something happens to me, well, you won’t know.  So don’t make it matter.”

“This sounds insane,” Ty said.

I ignored him.

“You guys have one job.  Approach from an angle where the sun hits the windows.  See if the windows have paint on them.  If they do, it might be part of the binding, and we can’t break that.  Find open windows.  Toss in the gas cans, toss in the rubbing alcohol, toss in the kerosene.  If you can reach, dump it in, but don’t put your hands inside the building”

There were nods.

“Knights, you’re manning the halogen lights.  If this works, those lights should give me a clear path.  If it works really well, then they’re going to cross in a way that makes a protective diagram.  Bad alignment and the sun mean that might be a bit of a pipe dream.  Just give me the extra light you can, shine it through, I’ll figure out what to do from there.”

Nods from the Knights.

“Rose?”

“I keep track of the time.  I’ve got notes in front of me.  Whatever happens, when the time runs out, we burn the building.”

I nodded.

My job… I’ve just got to get to the door to the basement.  Going over the rubble might make sense, but there’s an awful lot of cracks and darkness in that rubble, and if my foot disappears into a gap, I’m gone.”

I sounded so much calmer than I felt.

“…That means going in the front door, same place I entered before, I head to the back, turn a hard left.  I toss what I carried down there, I use any cans I can that you guys passed through the window, then set it on fire.  I leave, and we scour the ground floor, using what you guys put through the window.  With luck, we’ll gain some ground against the thing, and we can hold that ground by keeping the fires lit and the lights on.  We figure out where to go from there.  If the boiler room or basement or whatever is down there is too big to burn by tossing stuff down the stairs, we use a similar strategy there.”

I took a bit of a breath.  “But what we’re really hoping, is that it’s one lifeform, and if anything’s lurking downstairs, we can cut off everything above from what’s below, with a strong blaze in the right place.”

I checked the time.  Ten seconds past the mark where we’d guessed the sun would be in the optimal location.

I couldn’t even think about not hesitating.

I turned toward the factory.  “Let’s go.  Question me while we move.”

There were no questions.  Even Evan had dropped the firebird topic.  I didn’t tell him I’d researched it and found it too dangerous.  Shamans keen on the dramatic had tried riding fire spirits, and by and large, they’d self-immolated.

The silence yawned, and for a moment, I felt utterly alone.

But Evan settled on my shoulder.

It only dawned on me when I couldn’t see them, that they were almost as afraid as I was.

I held two gas cans this time, I had the Hyena in my back pocket, and the flare gun at one hip.

“Hey,” Evan said.

“What’s up?” I replied.

“Thanks for letting me come.”

“Didn’t want to go in alone,” I admitted.

“We have company,” Evan said.

I looked.  Four dolls.

“I’m not sure they count.”

“They count if you let them count,” Evan said, in a tone that suggested he thought he was being wise.

“I’ll try,” I said.

Without breaking stride, I grabbed the matchbook and lit a match from within.

A wraith flared into being as the match touched snow.  A man, too burned to make out features.  A husk, made uglier by the wraithmaking process.

The arm of the stuffed animal…

I gave it a squeeze.  Smoke puffed out.

A little girl emerged from the smoke.  When she looked at me, her eye sockets were empty, with only glowing cinders around the rim.  Her nose and tongue nearly gone, glowing in the same way, like some cigarette butt.

“Inside,” I said.

She ran, frantic, panicked, straight into the doorframe, unable to see, half-spinning as she reeled, then tore through the open door, casting a dim light as she went.  Moving all the while like she had two speeds – paralysis and pell-mell.

The burned man glowed brighter as the area got darker.

It wasn’t dark within, ghosts or no, but it was dim.  Already, I could imagine seeing things in the spots of shadow.  Something snaking out there, or boiling forth like some swarm of bugs from a disturbed hive.

I exhaled slowly.

When I looked again, I didn’t see anything.

“Now!” I hollered the word.  I was afraid to stop, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to start again.

The halogen lights flickered on.

One opposite me cast a light almost straight to the door.  A path of light to the very back of the factory.  Others crossed it, drawing circles on the walls, highlighting cracks in deeper shadow.

“Ghosts, draw circles in the floor with fire!”  I shouted.

Burning footprints drew circles in the darkness.  Places where I was safe.

They were obedient.

This was easier than spending the gas from my cans to do the same.  I still wouldn’t give them all my trust.

It was like being a chess piece, moving between the triangles of light and circles of dim flame.  Watching for attacks from odd angles, without really looking.

Can’t step off the path.  Can’t step outside the circles.

“You okay?” someone asked.  It might have been Nick’s son.

“Light’s good!” I called out.

The gas cans were ready, resting in my hands.

Looking where I was going was something of an art form.  The lights were brilliant, threatening to blind, and looking at darkness threatened to let the demon leap into my eyes.

The ghost of the little girl ran a zig-zag through the space, giving light where I’d had none.

My footsteps were hollow on the hard floor, as I moved as fast as I could.  Like a tightrope, it was easier if I crossed it faster than slower.

Not too fast, but fast enough.

The dolls trudged behind me.

They would be the heat-seeking dolls, tuned so they wouldn’t target me.

When the fires started to burn, they’d make the fires bigger.  I just had to keep my distance, control the blaze.

I reached the end of the hallway, passing the scorch marks where I’d drawn the circles.

“Ghosts, stop!” I shouted.

Both the cinder-girl and the burned man stopped where they were.

Circles marked the area.

“Guys, drop the gas!”  I shouted.

My voice was eerily loud in the near-silence.  There were no trees rustling here.  The people outside were too spread out to really be communicating.  There was only the footsteps, and there was me.

Windows here and there shattered.  Thumps marked the arrival of the bright orange gas jugs.  I saw fluid spilling out.  In two spots, people were pouring gas through the window.  I watched to make sure there was no danger.

Zero movement.

No noise, no threats.

The way the lights shone through the window, the light that extended toward the door to the sub-level passed over the rubble I’d remembered seeing.

I needed to cross it, but that meant stepping into shadow.

Careful, Blake.

I noted where everything was, as carefully and systematically as I could.

Gas jugs.

Flares were too risky.  Flares went out, and I actually didn’t know how long that took.

Fires went out too, but I had a sense of how long that took.

I sloshed gas over the rubble.

“Hey,” I said.  “Girl, I don’t know your name, but-”

The ghost stopped in her tracks.

“Right over there, light a fire.  Only over there.”

She ran, that full-blast panicked run, stumbled, and landed belly-first on the rubble.

It ignited, and I squinted against the force of the flame.

Squinting, I almost missed it.

The demon, fleeing from the safety of the shadows that the rubble created.  Slithering out in every direction, like a carpet seeking to cover every available expanse that the light didn’t already claim.  I saw bits of it creep into areas where the light touched, and I saw those same parts fray and decay, crumbling away.  Glimpses of limbs and other things, all a mucus-covered black, scrabbling for a grip on the hard surface.

“Holy jebus,” Evan whispered.

“Don’t look straight at it,” I warned.

“I’m not!”

Trying to be stern for Evan somehow allowed me to sum up some confidence.  I splashed out with the gas, trying to catch the wall and the flame both.

It recoiled, and whole chunks broke away as they burned violently.  None fell remotely close to the waiting gas cans.

I didn’t do it again, all the same.

Move forward, but keep moving, be careful…

The light from the burning rubble meant the hallway to the side was clearer.

I drew a loose circle with splashes of gasoline on the floor, then leaped from the long triangle of light to the burning circle.

I nearly lost my balance and stumbled straight through.  I heard flapping wings at the same moment I managed to right myself.

I couldn’t find the words to thank Evan.

I was calculating my next move when I heard it.

Something dragging.

When I saw, I felt something go tight in my chest.

The demon, slithering alongside the wall.

A tiny hand held a piece of rebar, dragging it against the concrete at a speed faster than I could run.

No, it doesn’t make sense.

Sparks flew.

Sparks made contact with gasoline.  A fire erupted, and before I could even find my footing, the fire found the nearest gas can.

The demon immolated itself, vast amounts of flesh tearing away from the wall as it burned.

The dolls found the flames, and they exploded in turn.  Small, accelerant-boosted flames turned into bonfires, reaching three-quarters of the way from floor to ceiling.

I turned to the window.  Escape only feet away.

But I could see the arms and tendrils reaching out from the dark spaces between the glowing rectangles where sun shone through glass.  They lurked in the cracks in the glass, where the light refracted away.  A spiderweb ready to catch me.

He’d slithered around.

Another gas can exploded, closer, and rubble fell alongside great swathes of flaming demon flesh.

“What?” Evan managed.

“Fly, Evan,” I said.

“What?” he asked, this time directing the question at me.

“Fly for the opening in the roof,” I said.

“But-”

“The rules, Evan!  If something happens, you’re supposed to go!

I grabbed him and threw him.

He caught himself, flapping his wings.

I saw the tendrils snap out, arms reaching, burning as sunlight touched them.

I saw just how dangerous the escape route was.

The window was worse.  There was still a path to the front door, lines and circles.

I ran, opting for speed over self-preservation.  Moving through flames, letting my legs burn.

Smoke was already heavy in the air.

I didn’t make it halfway to the door before I stopped in my tracks.

Smoke, in its way, held darkness.

He was in the smoke, roiling, twisting, thriving.

No.

I had no escape routes.

I drew the flare gun.

I could hold out.  Wait for help.

Couldn’t I?

The demon, Ur, was asking the same question, it seemed.

The demon had an answer.

It bit.

It tore not through me, but through the ribbons and cords that extended between me and the individuals just outside the buildings.

I saw what was happening, and felt only stark horror at the realization of just what it meant.

The back window.  Through the spiderweb.  With the flare gun, I could break the web.

I ran for it, giving it my all.

I didn’t make it.

“Stop, Alexis!”  Ty shouted.  He grabbed at her arm, pulling hard.

Alexis stopped dead in her tracks.

“You remember what we agreed to, right?” he asked.

She was panting, she looked bewildered.

“Abandon the mission,” Rose said.

“But-” she started.

“Wait for the fires to die down, abandon the mission,” Rose said.

“But-” Alexis said.

She couldn’t bring herself to finish the sentence.

She wasn’t even sure what she was supposed to say.

The others joined them.  The Knights and Tiff.  Watching the smoke rise.  Watching a sparrow travel a confused path through the sky.

Rose settled a hand on Alexis’ shoulder.  “We can’t do anything more here.”

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Void 7.10

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The sudden shifts in weather had made for some spectacular changes in the environment.  Ice had melted and refrozen into spiky groupings on branches, tree branches hung low, and a mist hung over much of the area.

The factory loomed before us.

“This is it?” Ty asked, as if we hadn’t been staring at it in silence for several minutes.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I don’t expect or want you guys to go inside.  It’s as bad or worse than anything we’ve run into so far.”

“Brr,” Tiff said, rubbing her arms through her coat.  “I get a bad feeling, standing here.”

“That’s not a bad thing,” I said.  “You should, and that’s the kind of instinct I feel like you should hone.”

“Uh huh,” she said.

“How do we do this?” Alexis asked.

“Carefully,” I said.

Ty smirked.  “I think I was five the first and last time I found a line like that funny.”

“It’s not supposed to be funny,” Rose said.

“That’s good then,” Ty said.  “Because it wasn’t.”

“It eats existence?” Alexis asked.

“It eats your hand,” I said, “Then as far as you and the rest of the world are concerned, you don’t have a hand, and you never did.  The past doesn’t get rewritten, but your brain will do its best to make sense of it, filling in the gaps.”

“What if it can’t?” Tiff asked.  “Make sense of it, I mean.”

“Might be that you just don’t make sense of it.  It eats away at you, this thing that’s wrong in your understanding of the world.  You might go crazy,” I said.

“No offense,” Tiff said, “But I’m not going to argue over you not wanting us to go inside.”

I don’t want to go inside,” I said, “But this needs doing, and I said I would.”

“I like seeing you with more conviction in what you’re doing,” Alexis said.  “I just wish it wasn’t with something this dangerous.”

“You and me both,” I said.

She fidgeted, then tossed her cigarette aside and started on another.

Alexis was smoking far more than she had before my bathroom mirror had broken and I’d made my trip to Jacob’s Bell.

I didn’t begrudge her the vice.  Smoking was ugly to me, but sometimes I liked a bit of ugliness for contrast.  Ty had a set of knives that he’d made together with a friend some time before I’d met him, reforging them out of scrap metal – the blades themselves were nice enough, but the backs of the knives, the parts furthest from the blades, hadn’t been polished.  They still had a gritty and raw sort of texture from whatever chunk of car frame or furniture they’d been taken from.

I liked those knives.  They were crap for actual use, apparently, an early experiment on Ty’s part with too low a concentration of something or other, but they were beautiful.

Alexis was the same way, kind of.  Not in terms of being crappy.  The other part.

My hands clenched the spine of Black Lamb’s Blood.  The pages we’d torn out were now set in place, corners sticking out where the angle didn’t fit a hundred percent.  I’d finished it on the drive over, after an evening and morning spent reading it off and on, going between it and a few books Rose had picked out and propped up by a mirror.  I might have gotten even more reading done, but we’d started feeling restless, electing to move out and get something concrete done, and Black Lamb’s Blood was the only physical text I could read in the car.

Too much to do.

Pauz was out there.  I fully intended to find and recapture him.

Things were moving behind the scenes, factions moving against one another, and I was staying largely out of it, hands off, while the locals decided what they’d do.

There was still Jacob’s Bell to handle, the inheritance, the families there, and the resentment.  Laird was dead, and he’d died by my hand.

Then there was this.  One was the simplest and most pressing tasks of them all.  All the more important because of how easy it was to convince myself to ignore it.  The oblivion demon.  We were scouting the location, considering what needed to be done.

“I’m thinking,” Rose said, very carefully, “That the graffiti surrounding the building is important.”

I looked at the graffiti that extended around the base of the building.  There was a lot of it, covering every surface that was in reach, or in reach of something that could be climbed.  Some was simple, letters spelling out some acronym or slang word I didn’t know.  Some was elaborate, with stylized letters, gradients and sharp edges.

“A binding?” Alexis asked.

“Maybe,” Rose said.  “Maybe there is graffiti largely hidden in the midst of all that.  But that might be a reason the demon is staying inside the building, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the demon’s origin point or egg or whatever it is.”

“Hey,” Ty said, “That’s fantastic.  We can just ignore it, and it’s stuck there, right?”

“People are going inside,” I said.  “Someone drew the binding and they aren’t around anymore, so they might have gone inside, only to be eaten.  The building was built in 1910, and it’s only been vacant for forty years or so, but if you compare it to other buildings that have been abandoned just as long, it looks like it’s in worse shape.  It’s degrading.  You can’t see it from here, but a portion of the roof has already collapsed.”

“The binding isn’t perfect,” Rose said.  “It’s radiating out, eating at its environment.”

I nodded.

Tiff craned her head.  “It’s not as isolated as I thought it would be.  There’s a park nearby.”

“Ergo, the fence,” Alexis commented.  She was hunched over a little, her gloved hands folded inside her sleeves, except when she wanted to remove her cigarette from her mouth to talk.  Each hand got its turn in venturing out into the cold.

Her nose was red from the cold, I noticed.  She saw me looking and smiled.

“Fence for the mundane, and practitioners put up wards to shoo people away,” I said, forcing myself to avoid staring.  “Runes that would make people more inclined to take detours, or just avoid or ignore the area altogether.  They had it for the parkland where the Hyena was lurking.  Except here, I don’t think it’s working.”

“Might be because of the radiation,” Rose said.  “Eating away at the protections, so they don’t last as long as they should.  Windows of opportunity are created.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Or maybe it’s the metaphysical equivalent of a vacuum.  Nature abhors a vacuum, or something like that?  He eats reality, stuff gets drawn in as a matter of course.  Or it’s just a failing of the modern age.  The era of the internet.  You can divert people who might happen across the place, but when it’s featured on ‘abandoned building’ websites and the practitioners aren’t invested or savvy enough to take down the website or stick a big fat rune on the site’s homepage…”

“We can’t and probably won’t ever know just how many people have been caught by that demon,” Rose said.

“Any number is too many,” I said.  “This isn’t today’s project, but it’s a project.  Rose has access to the books.  We can prop one mirror up by another to read them through the surface.”

“Provided I’m willing to keep going from person to person, turning pages on demand,” Rose said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “It’s good these guys have a chance to wrap their heads around this, and I like having a chance to look at it from a distance without rushing.”

We stood there, watching.  Our breath fogged in the air, joining the heavy mist and Alexis’ cigarette smoke.

Evan returned from the air.  I held my hand over my head to give him an easier landing spot.

“Good flight?” I asked, holding him out in front.

“Yep!  I still like the motorcycle more, though.”

“That’s weird,” I told him.

“Nuh uh.”

“Flying has to be better.”

“No it doesn’t.  I’m small.  Imagine riding on top of a motorcycle the size of a train.  Makes my bones shudder and the wind blows through my feathers, and-

I shook my head a little as he went on.

“Did you see anything interesting while you were up there?”  Tiffany asked.

“A big bird screamed at me.  I think it might have been a hawk.  I screamed back, and he left me alone.”

My hand found its way to my face.  “Yeah, don’t get caught by a hawk.”

I couldn’t shake the mental image of the hawk taking Evan to pieces, and the effect that might have on me.

“Actually, it wasn’t so much me screaming back.  More just me screaming.  You don’t expect something to come after you like that when you’re all the way up there.  I was surprised, and then I realized what it was before I’d finished the first scream, and I kept screaming, and I didn’t stop until he went away.”

“Be careful,” I said.  “Be aware, and don’t get caught by a hawk.  Or a cat for that matter.”

“I think a cat would stop if I screamed at the top of my lungs.”

“If a hawk or a cat hit you full-strength, you might not be in any shape to scream,” I said.

“Huh,” he said.  “You know, this is just one more argument in favor of giving me special powers.”

“That’s already on the metaphorical to-do list,” I said.  As I’ve said a dozen times now.  “Blood sparrow, box yet to be ticked off.”

“Maybe you should put it on a real to-do list,” Evan said.

“You know what could be even better than a blood sparrow?” Ty asked.  “Considering the demon your practitioner wants to fight?”

“No, Ty,” I said, before he could say anything.

Ty ignored me.  “A fire sparrow.”

Yes.

“Fuck you, Ty,” I said.

“Blake, Blake, Blake!”  Evan hopped around on my outstretched hand.  I let my hand drop, and he caught himself with a few flaps of his wings, full-intensity flying until he’d circled around to land on my shoulder.  He hopped in place there.  “Blake!”

“What?”

Fire sparrow.  Ty thinks it’s a good idea!”

“I heard it, just as you did.”

“Maybe you didn’t, because you’re not even half as excited as I am about the idea!  Imagine me doing everything I’ve been doing already, except I’m on fire.”

“Great, Ty,” I said.  “Now he’s not going to let this go.”

“It’s like all this stuff I’ve been doing with moving around and epic dodges and biting that guy’s eye, except I’m like a daredevil.  Being on fire while flying through a flaming hoop or something.”

“He’s a kid, on top of everything else,” Ty said.  “He gets bored, and he needs to get excited about stuff.  You’ve got to give him that.”

“Devil-bird?  No, that might give people the wrong idea.”

“Yeah, probably would, Evan,” Rose commented.

I briefly considered making Evan ride on Ty’s shoulder for the ride back, then thought twice about it.  Ty was liable to stir him up further.

I sighed.

“What about those flaming birds?”  Evan asked.

“Phoenixes,” Rose said.

“Yes.  I could be like one of those!”

I ignored him.  I looked over at Tiff and Alexis, only to see that Tiff was smiling.

“Don’t,” I said, under my breath.  “If he thinks you approve, it’ll only egg him on further.  He’ll get on your case until you get on my case.”

Tiff did a terrible job of wiping the smile off her face, and settled for looking away, off in the direction of the ice-laden trees.

Alexis rubbed her hands together.

“Cold?” I asked.

“Yeah.  You?”

I touched my coat.  It was hideous, a thrift-store buy, a down-filled brown corduroy coat with a folded-down collar, but it had deep pockets, it was warm, and it had only been eighteen dollars.

“I’m warm enough,” I had to admit.  “All the same, if we’re not getting anything more out of this, we maybe should head back soon, get a move on with something more concrete.”

“Sounds like a plan,” she said.  “I’ve been reading about protective spells.  I was just thinking that if I got a picture of the graffiti-”

She patted her coat.  “Forgot my notebook in the car.”

“No prob,” Ty said.  He drew his phone out of his pocket.

I saw it, made a mental connection, and moved my hand to stop him from raising it.  In the process, I very nearly slapped the phone out of his hand.

“What the hell?” he asked, as he caught it with the other hand, stopping the phone from dropping into the snow.

“You remember the rules that Rose and I outlined before we arrived?”

“If something comes up, it’s vulnerable to fire, very possibly vulnerable to other things of creation and light.  No looking in or at the windows.  If something goes down and we’re at any risk at all, we’re not supposed to try and save each other.  We save ourselves first.”

“Remember why we’re not supposed to look in the windows?”

“Try being more patronizing, why don’t you?”

“No jokes.  Not with this.”

Ty frowned.  “Because it doesn’t follow typical rules.  If it’s reflected in our eyes, it’s in our eyes?”

“And if its image is captured in your phone?”  I asked.

He looked down at his phone, his forehead creased as he frowned.

“Oh,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Chances are low,” Rose said.  “If it was that easy, and if I’m right about there being bindings hidden among the graffiti, it would probably have escaped already.”

“Probably,” I said.  “But low chances or not…”

“Yeah,” Ty said.  “It’s a bad idea.  Unless I can get a shot that doesn’t include the windows?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “That.”

He moved the phone by milimeters at a time, until he had a shot.  I heard the artificial camera sounds as he took the pictures.

“We should meet up with Maggie, then start working on the plan to free up your ability to use magic,” Rose said.  “If we can’t come up with a plan A, we’re going to have to go with her plan B.”

“You know a plan sucks when it’s the plan B before you even have a plan A,” Alexis said.

“Give me a better one,” I said.  “Please.”

She shrugged.

“Yeah,” I said.

Ty finished taking the photos and put his phone away.

“Speaking of the one member of our group who seemed most uncomfortable with the idea of stopping by the factory…” I said, as we collectively turned to head in the direction of the car.  I paused long enough to make sure everyone was listening, “…Anyone else have concerns?”

“Don’t know her,” Alexis said.  “I don’t get a good vibe.”

“You get ‘vibes’?” I asked.

“Not really.  Not usually.  But I got one with you, I think, and I got one with her.  Good vibe with you, but she gives me a bad one.”

I nodded.

“Why?” Rose asked.

“Something’s legitimately Other about her,” I said.  “Duncan hurt her, and I saw something beneath the surface.  When I looked at her with the Sight, she looked like she had more power than she’s been displaying.  Little things haven’t been adding up.  My first thought was possession.”

“That would explain a lot,” Rose said.  “She hasn’t been sleeping.”

“Insomnia?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Rose said.  “I see her sometimes and she’s lying there, just breathing… but then she gets restless and she starts moving around.  Like she’s trying to pretend to sleep, but she can’t bring herself to do it for eight hours straight.”

“Okay,” I said.  “This is the sort of thing where it’s really useful to compare notes.  We’ve read about cases where someone lets something in and it takes over.  Or a familiar overwhelms the master.”

“You still trusted her with the binding circle.”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

“Because nothing’s suggested she’s not on our side,” I said, “I like to give people the benefit of a doubt until they give me reason to do otherwise.”

“Noble,” Rose said.  “Stupid as fuck, but noble.”

“Not arguing that,” I said.  I’m the fool, after all.

“What are we supposed to do, then?” Tiff asked.

“Just keep an eye out.  Note anything unusual, report it when she’s not nearby.  For now, we’re going to meet with some dangerous people, enact our plan B, and maybe if there’s any spare time to let our minds idle, we need to think about a way to produce as much fire as is humanly or inhumanly possible.”

“Oh,” Evan said, hopping around on my shoulder.  “Blake, blake!  I know, I know!”

Our first stop put us outside a little building on the outskirts of Toronto.  Between picking up Maggie and then making the trip, we had a long enough drive that we had to stop for lunch on the way.

The drive was somewhat uncomfortable with Maggie in the passenger seat, the other three crammed in the back, but there wasn’t another configuration that would have worked.  The roads had yet to be cleared, so I couldn’t ride my bike.  I wasn’t one for being crammed anyplace, and I didn’t want to make the others sit with Maggie when we’d just been voicing our concerns over her.

Then, to top it off, she got in a long discussion with Evan about how one could theoretically pull off the ‘fire bird’ thing.  Certain kinds of goblin and elemental, and how shamans could manipulate spirits into war paint to wear them, and other inane ideas that would be floating through Evan’s head for days to come.

The building was only one floor, squat, with a sloped roof.  The snow heaped over it had greater dimensions than the building did.

I knocked.

The Astrologer answered.

“You don’t have any errant spirits on your person?  Nothing electrical or technical?”  she looked at Maggie, “No gremlins?”

“No,” I said.

“No,” Maggie said.

“Good.  Come in.  Tea?” she asked.  “I’m drinking a lot of tea right now.  I ran out of milk a good few hours ago, so you’d have to choose between green and black.”

“Sure,” I said.  “Wouldn’t complain.  Green.”

“Going to be a bit of a squeeze, but you guys should come in.”

The others gave their orders as I made my way inside.

It kind of baffled, boggled the mind even, that we were in the great white north, a place with a freakishly low population density of about four people per square kilometer, and yet I kept finding myself in places without enough room.

I took a fraction too long to decide where I could sit where I’d have enough room, prompting a, “Blake?” from Alexis behind me.

We sat, in chairs or on the edges of desks, where we could find the room.  The room wasn’t much larger than my parents’ one-car garage had been when I’d been growing up, and it was chock full of computer towers, shelves and boxes.  Where those things alone didn’t take up enough space, the place was further littered with errant books and stacks piles of paper, a lot of it from some old fashioned printer where the paper connected as a series of sheets, end to end in one long feed with holes at the side so the machine could manipulate it better.  The printouts themselves were faded, featuring reams of calculations, and many piles had words written on the sides in marker.

Diana looked so mellow and laid back, compared to the put-together way she’d looked when I’d first seen her.  Skirt over tights, slippers, and a loose woolen sweatshirt, her hair tied back in a ponytail.  She flicked on her kettle, which rested on a shelf.

“My humble abode,” Diana said.  “I do have a house, but I spend most of my time here.”

The computer monitors, even, were old CRTs, some black and green.  The place smelled like tea, ozone and mold.  The whole setup, including the vaguely rounded pile of snow above the building, struck me as being a kind of high tech hobbit hole.

Not what I might have assumed.

Maggie smirked, “This is where the magic happens, huh?”

Ty groaned.

 “I like it,” I said.  I wasn’t lying.

“I do too.  Aesthetically.  In terms of usability, though, a lot of it’s grandfathered in.  My mentor was cutting edge, but cutting edge then is archaic today.  I’m not sure if it’s easier to let go of the sentimental attachment or wizard up some kind of power up to the equipment.”

“You were close,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said.  “By the way, I really am sorry for shooting you.”

“It was nonlethal, you were trying to help,” Alexis said.

“Did you talk to Fell’s family?” I asked.  I wasn’t sure if the old woman counted, but ‘family’ could just as easily refer to the little girl alone.

“I did.  They aren’t as forgiving as miss Alexis is.”

I nodded.  “Trouble?”

Diana frowned, taking her seat.  “A lot of trouble these days.”

“Not so different from my life,” I told her.

“Maybe not.  I felt some empathy for you when I realized just how much you’d gone out of your way to stop the Hyena, imp and the demon in the machine.”

“Machine?” Rose asked.  “I don’t think there were any machines in there.  The factory was stripped bare.”

“That’s not the kind of machine I’m talking about.  I’m talking about reality.”

“Ah,” I said.

“I haven’t been sleeping, and I’m prone to go off on tangents when I’m on my own.  The sisters are attacking in shifts, and the problem with my setup is that things are spread out.  I won’t share details, I hope you understand why.”

She didn’t trust us one hundred percent.  I nodded.

“I can protect my things if I’m paying attention.  But I can’t pay attention while I’m sleeping, and they attack every two to four hours.  I’m making mistakes, and I can’t afford to.”

“You have sentimental attachments to those other places?” I guessed.

“Yeah.  He made all this fun, you know?  Geeking out, hanging on every word while this fantastic, funny, geeky man described what he was doing.  Tapping into greater things, experimenting on my own… I can remember the day I surprised him, came up with an answer he hadn’t.”  Diana had a fond smile on her face.  “Then push came to shove, reality settled in, and he cut his life short for my freedom.  Freedom I frittered away.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I know how important precious people can be.”

Alexis glanced at me.  I kept my eyes fixed on a stack of paper between me and Diana, refusing to meet hers.

“You asked us to come here for more than a second apology and some company,” Rose said.  “You want help.”

“I’m not twisting your arm,” Diana said, quiet, “I’ll totally understand if you refuse, and I promise no vendetta or meaningful grudges, so long as it ends at just a polite refusal.  Or even a refusal punctuated with swear words, if you decide me shooting your friend there deserves it.  But I’m very tired, the Sisters think that if they keep messing with me, they’re either going to break the machinery that their spirit is dwelling in, or they’ll break me, and I’ll find a way to return it to them.”

“They aren’t fond of me either,” I said.

“Can you try?”

“I’ll trade a favor for a favor,” I said.

“I’m listening.”

“We’re meeting the Sisters,” I said.  “If the opportunity arises, and if we can do it without undue risk or harm either way, I’ll see what I can do to alleviate the strain they’re putting on you.”

“I’d complain about how vague you’re being, but I’m happy to hear this much.  What are you asking for?”

“Permission.  I want freedom from the rules of the contest, to practice as I need to practice, to deal with the demon in the factory, and maybe the imp if the opportunity arises.”

“I don’t think I can give you that permission.”

Maggie was the one who spoke, “You’re Conquest’s champions, you’re his hands.  In his absence, I’m thinking you could collectively be his voice.  Blake would be acting outside the bounds of the contest, but this would give it tacit weight.”

Diana nodded slowly.  “Swear you won’t use any power directly gained or granted during these excursions should the contest resume.”

“Hey,” Ty said.  “We’re offering help, no need to play hardball.”

“No,” I said.  “That’s fine.  It’s in my interests to do it.  More weight, as Maggie said.  I hereby swear that I’ll put all power and weapons aside, to the best of my ability, should Conquest be freed and this contest resume.”

Diana nodded. “Tea stopped boiling, and I didn’t even notice.”

She was halfway to her feet when she saw our expectant stares.  “You have my permission, by the way.”

I relaxed a little.  I wasn’t the only one.

She bustled with cups and teabags for a moment, re-confirming a few people’s choices of tea.

“Earlier, we were talking about websites and cameras,” Ty said, with the next available moment of quiet.  “Seems like you’d be the person to ask for clarification.”

“If you’re looking for a fast power grab, this isn’t the way to do it,” the Astrologer said, without turning around.  “What I do took generations to put together, and it has its weaknesses.”

“I’m not looking for a fast power grab.”

“This is niche, unperfected, pretty out there by practitioner standards.”

“It’s like you’re speaking my language,” Ty said.

“You really are speaking his language,” Alexis said.

“I can almost guarantee that I’d bore you if you let me get going,” the Astrologer said.

“Bet you wouldn’t,” Ty said.

“You probably wouldn’t be able to bore him,” I said.  “As for the rest of us, why don’t we say we’ll stay until the tea’s done, and then we have to go?  So we have an excuse to leave if we need it?”

Diana smiled.  “You don’t know what you’re doing, giving me a chance to talk about this stuff.”

“Give me your worst geek-out,” Ty said.  “And I wouldn’t mind your email, so I don’t forget.”

Diana reached backward and grabbed a scrap of paper, scribbling her email down. “Don’t feel offended if I take a few days to reply.  My modem only does twenty-eight kilobits a second, and I only have so much patience.”

I don’t think anyone present wasn’t horribly affronted by the idea.

“Like I said, grandfathered technology and sentimental attachments,” Diana said.  “On to explanations.  It’s about math, at the most basic level.  Space, not the out-there space, but space in general.  Proportions, lines, and really big diagrams.  With this computer, I program the lasers…”

It was, in the end, not quite as boring as she’d said it would be, though it was pretty bad.

All the same, Ty hung on every word.

While I was thinking about implements, I couldn’t help but wonder what kind of implement a guy got when his defining trait was an inability to commit to a path.

The Sisters had a place that was as spacious as Diana’s place had been cramped.  Diana hadn’t made her place a demesne, and I suspected I knew why.  So long as she didn’t, the building was still partially his.  Her mentor’s.

The Sisters had no such delusions, and the architecture seemed like a pointed statement to that end.  Not a homage to the past, whatever their traditions.  Only present and future, here, in a church without religion, cherry wood with traces of gold, water running along gutters on either side of the hallway, almost gold as it reflected candlelight.

Every one of the Sisters wore a deep burgundy robe with one sleeve longer than the other, their faces largely hidden, but for their lips, which were painted red.

A group of what I presumed to be initiates were in less ornate robes, sleeveless and ringless, kneeling before the altar where the Elder sister and her immediate subordinates were gathered.  All initiates were twenty-something, attractive, and wore hoods that covered their eyes.

The Sisters had welcomed us in, but they mustered against us as an army now that we were in their territory.  Their dolls were markedly better than they’d been just a few days ago.  A step up in quality that suggested they were a hair more serious.  They were more uniform in size and shape, suggesting they were being hand made or printed from some mold, and stood about as tall as an ordinary man, all with runes on their foreheads.

I remembered what they’d said about being looked down on, before.  That they were more powerful than most assumed?  Seeing this, it was easier to buy.

I wanted to think that the simple and restrained elegance of it seemed more imposing than Conquest’s alien realm, but that wasn’t quite true.

I felt like, if the Elder Sister somehow became Lord, like she’d planned, then it would be.

It was hard to breathe in here, and that had nothing to do with the ridiculous number of candles that made it seem almost brighter than daylight.

“I can’t tell if you’re brave or stupid,” the Elder Sister said.

“The two are so related you could say they’re inbred,” I said.  “Desperation is a close cousin, but I wouldn’t say I’m desperate, either.”

“What would you say, then?” she asked.

“That you’ve declared you want to rule the city as Lord or Lady or however it works.  I harbor…” I tried to think of how Diana had put it, “…no meaningful grudge.  I can cooperate, I’m willing to let bygones be bygones and act toward the greater good.”

“Define ‘greater good.’  Because we’ve had anonymous threats to our families.  Others are settling in the city, and you’ve brought nothing but pain and chaos with your arrival in the city.  To me, that kind of endemic problem suggests demonic influence.”

Radiation.

I glanced at my friends.  “You think I’m tainted?”

“I think it’s inevitable, and I really don’t like considering what that means in the big picture.  Even having you here, I feel like we’re hurting ourselves.”

“But?” I asked.

“But your grandmother has visited from time to time, and I can’t refuse you and yours an invitation, now that her titles have passed on to you, along with the according rights.”

I nodded slowly.

“I don’t think it’s taint,” I said.  “Just karma.”

“Karma is more directed.”

“Some of the crazy stuff that’s happened feels pretty directed.”

“We’re predisposed to see patterns.  One of the first things our initiates learn is how to tell the difference between a glimpse of a spirit in fire, smoke or running water, and the pattern we want to see.  Even before they awaken, we want them to have that much.”

“So, what, the universe’s vendetta against me is just a pattern I’m imagining?”

“I wonder.”

“Look,” I said.  “You want to rule.  I’m offering an exchange of favors.”

“No.  Not with you, I’m sorry.”

“I back off for as long as you allow me, and give you one less person to worry about while you consolidate power and make your play.  You just give me permission to-”

“No means no,” the Elder Sister intoned.

Her voice rang through the chamber.

Excellent acoustics, if nothing else.

“With me, then,” Rose said.

“You’re tainted too,” the Elder Sister said.

“Everyone’s tainted, if you’re going to be that general,” Rose said.

“Not by the demons.  By Conquest.”

That gave us pause.

“You spent some time in his company, he’s bled out into you.  You think it’s coincidence that you up and decided to form a killing squad of horrors?”

“What do you want?” I asked the Elder Sister.  “If we’re all tainted by something or other-”

“The new ones.”

I looked over my shoulder at Alexis and Tiff.

“Yes, them.  They’ll vouch for you.”

“Not interested,” I said.  “Been down that road, and it’s looking an awful lot like a metaphorical rabbit hole, if we keep layering conditions like these on top of one another.”

“I’m not asking for servitude.  The girl answers three questions, on top of the usual penalties, should you break the terms.  No questions that would harm them or anyone they care about if they answer, and the questions are answerable at the time we ask.”

“Deal,” Alexis said, “if and only if you back off the Astrologer, on top of the conditions Blake wants to name.”

“The Astrologer has-”

“We know what the Astrologer has,” Rose said.  “I can’t make promises, but we could see what it would take to undo the process.  If you’re willing to hear out someone who’s tainted by Conquest.”

The Elder Sister considered.  “Let’s discuss, then.”

Tainted by Conquest.

Note to self:  Keep Rose away from the mirror.

My chest was still wax, and I wasn’t the only one who was less human than when all this started.  Even Rose, who had arguably been inhuman to begin with, was traveling that road.

The sensation had been lingering since the first time I’d been told I’d die, like some sword dangling over my head, but it was growing more concrete now.  A vague, nebulous idea of impending doom.

I closed my eyes for a few seconds, blanking my mind, then turned my attention to the discussion of terms.

“It’s clear how badly you want that spirit back,” I said.  “Let me start off by asking for something you should be giving for free anyway.  We should get rid of that demon in the factory, and to those ends, we need fire.”

“A lot of fire,” Maggie said.

The Shepherd took ten hours to find, even with the ability to follow connections.

In the end, we split up, each of us picking a different hospital.  Then we waited for people to die horribly.

Once the Shepherd showed up, Maggie and Ty tailed him, and we collectively headed his way.

I was just glad that Alexis had a phone.  The lack was an inconvenience sometimes.

He was waiting for us when we arrived.

How did one negotiate with something that didn’t speak?

“Whatever you’re doing,” I said, “I presume you’re loyal to Conquest.  But… there’s a story behind all that, isn’t there?”

He didn’t move.

“You deal with memories.  Echoes, permanent impressions.  The creature we’re talking about, it eats memories.  It eats everything about a person, including the connections.  So if you had someone die, driving you to-”

He was shaking his head.

“No?” I asked.

He shook his head again.

“All the same, if it keeps doing what it’s doing, it means less ghosts, less power to you.”

He shook his head again.

How the fuck was I supposed to argue with this bastard?

“Conquest wanted to stop it, I want to stop it.  Are you telling me you want it to keep doing what it’s doing?”

He didn’t move.

This weary man, restless in his pursuit of ghosts, willing to torture and mutilate those ghosts to make wraiths… I couldn’t appeal to empathy.  I apparently couldn’t appeal to power, when death was the most abundant, endless resource around.

What leverage did I have?

“You’re the guy that didn’t collect me,” Evan said.  “You just left me there.”

The Shepherd didn’t answer.

“You’re a pretty shitty person,” Evan said.  “And you know what?  You didn’t get me.  You won’t.  I’m an undead sparrow, I’m awesome, and you suck.  You’ll keep sucking unless you listen to Blake, because he’s kinda awesome in his own way.”

The Shepherd didn’t budge.

Too much to ask for?

“I won’t come after you,” I said.  “I won’t do anything direct, unless you give me reason or excuse to.  But so long as I’m around, so long as you’re stonewalling me?  I’m going to screw with you.  I’ll take your ghosts out from under you.  You’ll have competition, which is something I’m thinking Conquest was helping you with, giving you a monopoly.  And if there’s a ghost you’re looking for, if there’s something you want?  You’ll have to worry now.  Maybe there’ll be other Evans…”

He stared.

“Or you can give me permission to use magic outside of the bounds of the contest, and I won’t.  And there’s even the chance that I could die and be erased…”

I trailed off.

He was already writing.  Using his stick in the snow.

I barely recognized it as a signature.

He walked away.

“Can we use that?” I asked.

“We’ll have to,” Rose said.

The Hyena’s hilt was a weight at my side.

We have a majority opinion, no use asking the Eye.

“Let’s get me my implement,” I said.  “And then we’ll get in touch with the Knights and talk about the attack on the factory.  No holds barred.”

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