Category Archives: 7.03

Void 7.3

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In the movies and on TV, being aware of imminent harm is a good thing.  You can brace yourself, dodge, do little things to minimize the impact of it.

In the movies and on TV, being in shock bought you time to function before the pain kicked in.

Wrong and wrong.

I was lucky that I wasn’t able to process what she was doing before it happened.  I didn’t stand firm or go stiff, I bent.  I went, even, as the claws hooked into fabric and skin, hurling me off to one side.  I felt the scrape of claw-tip against bone.  Going limp, it meant I’d been pushed, rather than stay there to let the claw carry through more flesh.

I’d been stabbed, once upon a time.  I’d been hurt.

This was still something foreign.  Too much to process.  In the moment, I took it in as something wrong, like Pauz and the abstract demon were wrong.

Alarm.

Mindblowing pain, well beyond the point I could understand or frame it.

A stray thought, nonsensical, wondering for a moment if she sharpened her claws herself, more than realizing that the claws were hitting me.

And devastation, as I was torn away from Alexis, thrown against the nearest building like a rag doll, my ankle striking the corner of the window frame, my heel cracking against a window.

Because I was supposed to be helping Alexis, and she was hurt.  She wasn’t supposed to be in the line of fire like this.

I hit ground, and the only thing that stopped me from rolling forward onto my stomach was the position of my arm beneath me, stretched out in front.  In an impulse movement, some confused attempt to make sure I wasn’t dead, I moved the arm, and managed to leverage myself back, so I rolled onto my back instead.

The shock of landing and the pain in my leg seemed to wake up the rest of my body.

I only got the benefit of maybe two seconds of being in shock, if that.

Looking down, I couldn’t tell the difference between my gore-covered clothing and jacket and the gore itself.  Tattered flaps and layers.  Blood flowed out and ran along the side of my body down to my back, not nearly as warm as I’d expected it to be.

I raised my hands, convinced I should do something, apply pressure, staunch the flow of blood, but it was too much, too broad an area.  I wasn’t sure if I’d be infecting myself by getting dirty coat sleeves in the wound.

My arms flopped limp to my sides, because I didn’t have the focus or the strength to keep them raised.  I suspected something was wrong with my pectoral muscle.

Ty appeared in my field of vision, standing at a funny angle, bent over, arms outstretched, but his attention turned skyward, his posture overly shy.

Evan descended, his flying a little shaky, as if he’d almost forgotten how.  He settled on my forehead, and I couldn’t bring myself to tell him to move.

His focus was on the same location as Ty’s.

They were focused on the sphinx.

“Can I help him?”  Ty asked.

“No,” the sphinx said.

“Please,” Tiff said.  “Let him help.”

“I would advise helping the young lady with the arrow through her midsection, or you could help Mr. Fell, if you wanted to put connections aside for the smarter option.  You’ll need two people to save one, and the one you ignore is likely to die.  I’d say Maggie there should help so you can have a chance at saving both, but I somehow doubt she will.”

“But Blake-”

“It’s easier to help them than Blake.  Don’t pull it out.  Put pressure around the entry and exit wounds, if you can.”

“I need to help Blake.  He needs it more than them,” Ty said.

“I made a declaration of war, challenging him to a fight.  My concern is with him and him alone.  If you step in, I’ll include you in the challenge and I’ll deal with you the same way.”

She moved, stepping forward in a strangely graceful, steady movement, and it took me a second to make sense of it, she was so large.  My perspective so warped by my position on the ground and my general disorientation.

Ty turned, keeping the Sphinx in front of him, keeping himself between the Sphinx and me.  I wasn’t quite sure what he planned to do if she did go after either of us.

“It hurts,” Evan whispered.

I tried to respond, but I only managed a small sound, inflicting a whole lot of pain on myself.

“It really hurts,” he said.  “But it’s all in my head, right?  It looks really really bad.”

Don’t need the details.

“Out of my way, please,” the sphinx said.

“What if I say no?” Maggie replied.

“I could say you’re suicidal and stupid.  Letting me by is better for the both of us.”

“That so?  I could say things about you being a hypocrite, a supposed paragon of order and balance, pulling a dirty move like this.”

“Are you such an expert on sphinxes, stranger?”

I’m bleeding to death, and you’re arguing.

“As far as I can tell, you aren’t much of a sphinx.”

“My only answer is this: look.”

I couldn’t see what she was referring to.

Fuck me.  Speaking wasn’t in the cards, but how was I even supposed to breathe like this?  I felt pain in places where the claws hadn’t even touched me, as if the force of the swipe had torn my skin in other places, not just where I’d been scratched.  Every little breath I managed prompted shuddering huffs of pain.  More going out than in.

I felt lightheaded, and I wasn’t sure how much of that was the breathing and how much was blood.

“What are you doing?” Ty asked.

It was more inquisitive than accusatory.

“Only following through on my promise, now move,” Isadora said.

I heard a small grunt.  I suspected that Maggie had been made to move.

Then, loud enough to make my vision go out of focus, louder than she should have been able to manage, even considering her size, she boomed, “Astrologer!  Reconsider.

I closed my eyes rather than try to recover from the sound.  I twisted around, craning my head up to try to make out what was going on.

If my eyes weren’t playing tricks on me, the Astrologer’s creation was aiming skyward, almost straight up in the air.

Aiming over the sphinx?

Trying to hit me?  I could almost imagine the arrow disappearing into the atmosphere, only to plunge down and catch me in the heart.

Too much all at once.

“Ev-” I managed.

“What- what do I do?  What can I do?”

I shook my head.  That much I could do.  I tried to speak, and the pain was too bad, the air too short.  If I’d known what to say, maybe I could have forced it, but I didn’t have an answer for him.  I only screwed up my face in an expression of frustration.

I was so cold.  It had been bad enough before, but lying on the ground, being like this?  I was shivering uncontrollably, and with everything else that was wrong, I’d barely even noticed.

“I could try the Hyena again.  He could carry you, and we could get help.”

“Eh-” I started.  “Ev.  Sor- sorry.”

“No!  Don’t say that!”

“Pro-mised, try to, stop more- stop bad things,” I said.  “Did- didn’t last- not long enough.”

Maggie, the Sphinx and Ty were exchanging words, but I was too focused on putting sounds together and trying to make them into words.  Half of them stopped short before I got the whole word out, my breath catching in my throat as I huffed in pain.  I had to use shorter words.

“Doesn’t matter,” Evan said.

“Mat… ters,” I said.

“Doesn’t!  I… Can’t I say or do something?” Evan asked.  “I don’t know the right words.  You don’t have to do what you said.  You don’t have to stop the bad things to keep your promise to me.  You tried.”

I shook my head.

“I swear, I swear I free you,” Evan said.  “Okay?  So you don’t need to worry about that.  Worry about other stuff.”

Other stuff.

Evan had to hop to a new location, settling on my stomach as I tried to look, turning my head all the way to the right, then all the way to the left, straining my eyes to look as far to the sides as I could, reaching for some possible combination of angles that would let me see into the blind spot where Alexis lay.

Ty was crouched at her side, I was pretty sure.  Maggie was backed up to the wall, her dagger in hand, facing the sphinx.

“Blake,” Evan said.  “My promise… there are strings.  That’s how people do it, right?”

Still trying to catch my breath, feeling like I’d lost far too much ground for a mere handful of sentences, I was left only to shut my eyes and listen.

Please, Evan, you were one of the good ones.  Don’t learn from them.  Don’t learn from meDon’t learn from them.

Evan represented everything I wanted out of life.  Something uncomplicated with moments of fun, getting by, surviving.  Leaving the bad stuff behind to build something better.

If he started scheming, then I felt like I’d already lost.  I’d failed to leave a better impression, the world better off than it had been before I’d gotten involved.

I managed to sum up the breath.  “What?”

“Keep fighting.  Do something.  But you gotta try.”

I didn’t have words to sum up exactly what I felt, right there, looking at him, on the other side of the gory mess that was my chest.

Frustration at the fact that I couldn’t, anger at him for not understanding even when he could feel some measure of the pain I did, confusion over everything, and abject relief, because he was still Evan.  No scheming, no underhandedness.

Only the core shared trait that had drawn us together.  We’d press on.

“Help,” I said.  “Give… strength.”

“You need a push?”

“No.  Need-” I stopped, grunting, eyes screwed shut.  “-ten… acity.”

“I don’t know how to give you that.”

I didn’t have the words to respond.

I needed whatever had driven him to survive and escape for those days or weeks in the woods.

Scared, cold, hungry, alone.

My left shoulder wasn’t working a hundred percent.  I simply clenched the hand, so the chain of the locket bit deeper.  I used my right arm to try to stand, resting my weight on my forearm, then trying to shift it so I could use my hand instead.  Every movement redoubled the pain.  I was acutely aware that things weren’t in the right place, that the pain was out of sync with what was actually there.  Flesh had parted, and yet my brain could only map stuff to what it understood as the way I’d been put together.

I felt pain in my chest, but it traveled a funny route as it throbbed, and my eyes told me that my skin was hanging loose.

Four deep gouges, from the left of my chest to the right.  At least one claw had gone deep enough to have raked along the bone.  My skin was in strips, two of the three still attached at both sides.

When I propped myself up, the skin moved, the weight of my flesh pulling on the injury site in a different way.

I very nearly hurled as I felt it.  More wrongness.

Blood ran down my front, over my stomach toward my lap.  Lukewarm, but still warmer than my skin.

Evan settled on my shoulder.

The Hyena had slipped away, and lay against the snowbank.  Shifting forward to the point that I could crawl forward on three limbs made my tattered skin hang away from me.  I didn’t hurl, but I did feel like half the strength went out of me as blood started trailing down in thick streams.

I grabbed the Hyena with my good hand, already numbed fingers plunging into cold snow.  I gripped it by the handle.  The Hyena had studded it with spikes sharp enough to pierce through my gloves and stab into the flesh, and I let it.  I made my reaction to the pain -outside of the reflexive pulling away- to be to grab harder.

“H-” I started.  I had to stop, because I gagged.  The pain was intense, and the signals were scrambled.

“What?”  Evan asked,.

“Help,” I said.

I tried to use the snowbank to get to my feet, but snow crumbled under the hand, and my weight only pressed the snow down.  I was using the hand to hold the sword, and came within a foot of falling onto the blade.

Evan hopped back, grabbed my collar and pulled up, flapping.  It was about as effective as one could expect.

“No,” I said.  My vision swam.  I still couldn’t breathe well, and talking meant drawing on a precious resource.  “Help… swing.”

“Huh?”

“When it’s,” I winced, “Time.”

I moved further forward to reach a part of the snowbank where ice and general traffic had made it harder.  A more stable surface to lean on.

I very nearly blacked out.  I’d found my feet and had no memory of doing it.

My gaze fell on the others.  Ty was pressing down on the outside of Alexis’ wound, around the shaft of the giant arrow.

It was this spectral thing.  Would it fade away?  What happened then?  Removing an object from a wound just gave everything a chance to bleed.

If she bled like that… she’d wind up like me.  Due to bleed out in a matter of seconds.

“I don’t know how to give you strength,” Evan said, sounding as if he were confiding or confessing.

I think you already are.

If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t be standing, I was ninety percent sure.

I couldn’t move my left shoulder, but I could move my elbow.  I grabbed at my coat where it was intact, clutched it tight, bunching it up.  I was trying to draw cloth tighter against the wound, for all the good it did, and I was pretty sure I was failing.  Blood was running from the slice in my shoulder to my elbow and down to my wrist.  It dripped from the opening in my glove.

We’d been doing okay, Isadora had stopped us.

She’d stopped everything.  The giant archer constellation thing was still, no arrow nocked.  The wraiths and everything else stood where they were.

The sphinx’s arrival had frozen the fight.  Nobody wanted to be the one to move and upset her.

Even Maggie had moved a little closer to me, edging away.

“-know what’s going to happen, Rose?” Isadora was asking.

“I’m positive,” Rose said.

“That makes things harder.”

You’re making things harder,” Rose said.  “What’s the idea?  Doing Wrong for the sake of balancing out all the Right in the world?”

“No.  That’s not what I do, and it’s not how I operate.”

“How do you operate?”

“If the scales are tilted one way, sometimes drastic action is needed to restore things.  They may wobble in the aftermath, but equilibrium will be reached.”

“Then this looks like a whole fuckload of balance coming further down the road.”

“That’s an accurate assessment.”

Ty looked up at me as I passed, trudging forward.  The blade of the sword dragged through the snowbank, and I used it like a clumsy sort of cane, thrusting it back to stab it into deeper, more solid snow and ice, to have something to press against.  It slid free when I resumed moving forward.

It felt oddly squishy, but that was largely blood welling up to fill the fingertips of my gloves.  The spikes were just deep enough to make wielding the thing painful, but not so deep that it was impossible.  My arm throbbed up to the elbow, but I already had endorphins flooding my system, trying to counteract the pain elsewhere, my hand was cold.

Tiff’s head was bowed, and she was shaking, holding her hands to Alexis’ wound, but something Ty did or a sound he made seemed to clue her in.  She looked up and her eyes went wide as she saw me.

Ty started to stand, to stop me, but something about my expression gave him pause.

I couldn’t talk, so I willed them to stay instead.

It was a distance to the Sphinx.  Six paces.  She was facing the window, and her own wing blocked her view of me.

I wasn’t sure I’d make it that far.

“Spirits,” I muttered, my words barely coherent, I was speaking so quietly.  I made each breath a word, wheezed and whispered out past my lips.  “Gods.  Elementals.  Goblins.  Faerie.  Take morsels from me.  Take power.  But give strength.  Give me… what I need.  Give it first.”

If there was a difference, I wasn’t sure I could tell.

“Hyena,” I said.  “You… if you decide… break binding… attack sphinx… feel free…”

I focused on the sphinx.  Her back leg, closest to me.  The leg alone was almost as large as I was.

“Why wait?” Rose was saying.

“Because asking is akin to groveling.  It sets one on the wrong foot, to be the supplicant, the power is handed off to another.”

“Fell, Blake, and someone very close to Blake are bleeding to death,” Rose said.  “And you’re concerned about power?”

“You don’t deal with the lord of Toronto without being concerned about power.  If Blake dies, it isn’t a great loss.  Fell?  He serves the lord of the city, and as much as he’s a thorn in his master’s side now, he won’t remain there.”

“I thought you wanted Con-”

“Careful,” Isadora cut in, wasting no time.

Her claws had come out.

“I thought you wanted the lord of the city to stay in place.  Why let Fell die?”

“Because he won’t return to being a servant.  He’d continue fighting.  This way, his niece will be pressed to take over.  Unfortunate, given how very young she is, but it maintains the balance.”

“And Alexis?”

“Your friends should be able to save her if left alone.  I will strive to make sure that happens.”

“They’re not my friends.  They’re Blake’s.”

Fell’s niece?

Fell hadn’t said anything about that.

Fell and I were disposable?  We would be replaced, so the universe could do without us?

Fuck that.

Another blackout moment.  I was close enough.

The sword clinked as I pulled it out of the snowbank and it touched sidewalk.

I moved my head, nudging Evan from my shoulder.

He knew what he was doing.

I was swinging one-handed, but Evan flew past, to give it a bit more force, a bit of a push.

I wasn’t strong enough to lift it clear off the ground, so the point scraped against the sidewalk, carving an arc.

I aimed for her hamstrings, for lack of a better word.

She moved in that same moment, and I saw her legs move out of reach.

She turned around in a moment.  Her front paw, claws sheathed, lifted off the ground, blocking my swinging arm from moving any further.  The blade’s tip passed harmlessly under the raised claw.

“No, little warrior,” she said.  “Better monster slayers than you have tried.”

I gazed at her with eyes that might have been dull, unfocused.

The lion, the bird of prey, neither suggested slow reflexes.  Her mother had been made to be a warden, a guardian of a holy place.

Yeah, she was right.  If it was that easy, it would have been accomplished long ago.

Isadora’s paw pushed me back.  Already off balance from the swing, I was out of strength.  I landed hard, my head hitting snowbank.

Tiff shrieked.  Or at least, I was pretty sure it was Tiff.

I heard Ty say something.  I only caught the tail end.  “-he’d want you to stay and help Alexis.”

The only person who stood by me here was Evan, landing on my forehead.  Even the Hyena was gone, having fallen free of my grip.

I suspected black spots were passing across my field of vision, but it was hard to tell.  There was only dark sky above, and endless amounts of falling snow.  I wasn’t sure how to tell what was a black spot and what was simply black.

“I thought he’d passed out,” Isadora said.

“So did I,” Rose said.

I closed my eyes.  The white of the snow was too bright against the darkness.

“He’s not showing,” Rose said.

“I know,” Isadora commented.  “I’m not in a particular hurry.  Haste makes waste, after all.”

“He doesn’t think you have it in you.”

“Fuck you, Rose,” Ty said.  “Don’t encourage her to kill him.”

“I’m not,” Rose said.  “Isadora, the stakes aren’t high enough, and they won’t get high enough.  The lord of the city won’t show to ask you not to kill Blake because that shows that he’s weak.  Now you won’t back down because it makes you look weak, and I don’t think you want Conquest to move forward with this.  It’s a stalemate, and every second that passes, decent people are bleeding to death.”

“I’ll assume you aren’t counting Fell among these decent people,” Isadora said.  “You’re right, but neither Conquest nor I lose anything substantial if these people bleed to death.  If I hold you hostage, after the fact…”

Rose knows, I realized.  Isadora told her, or she’d already figured it out.  She knows that if I die, she gets to live.  She’s not worried because she knows, and the people who are dying aren’t her friends?

“Blake put up a fight,” Rose said.  “You’re going to let him die after that?”

“Are you implying it’s wrong?”

“No.  I’m saying it’s… ignoble,” Rose said.

My back was wet with sweat and blood, and the chill crept up through the moisture, seeping into the core of my body.

I felt like my strength was being drawn out by the ground, along with blood and warmth.  I couldn’t shake the lingering image of my body melding or melting into the surface of the sidewalk, becoming a part of it.

Into the streets of Toronto, no less.  I’d been fucking told that I was going to Hell, or some place equivalent to it.

“Ignoble,” Isadora said.

“I think so,” Rose replied.

I heard Isadora sigh, and it was another sound that was big.

Then I heard her speak.  “Conquest, I request your presence, and swear no harm to you or yours so long as no harm is meant for me in turn.”

I could feel him arrive.

It was like a weight on my chest, being deep enough underwater to feel the water pressing in on me, knowing full well how far away the surface was.

“I take it this isn’t a gift?” Conquest asked.

“No,” Isadora said.

Rose spoke up, “As gifts go, it would be a weak one.  Finishing him off, when the victory is undeserved, it would look bad, wouldn’t it?”

“Be careful, Rose Thorburn,” Conquest intoned.  “You aren’t as safe as you think you are.  Curb the undeserved arrogance.”

“She’s right,” Isadora said.  “This isn’t your victory.”

“It would be if you were acting out of fear or loyalty to me.  The power I exert by sheer presence is still power.”

“It’s neither.  My only motivation was the balance.  This isn’t your victory.”

“No need to say it a third time,” Conquest said.  “You’re helping them.”

“I am.”

“How unusually shortsighted, Isadora.”

“I’m helping you as well, Conquest.”

“Playing both sides,” Maggie said, from the periphery.

“But she’s not playing them against the other,” Rose said.  “As I see it, if I can speak for Blake, there’s no grudge to be had.”

I didn’t see or hear the response to that.  There was only silence and the darkness beneath my eyelids.

Rose was cornering Conquest.  If she absolved Isadora of guilt, Conquest could only look petty if he sought retribution.

“Your role here is done, Isadora,” Conquest said.  “You’ll answer for any further interference.”

“I understand.”

“That was not the answer I wanted to hear, daughter of Phix.  The appropriate response would have been a promise to refrain from anything further.”

“I can’t, and you know I can’t.”

That you will answer for.”

“Yes, I probably will.”

He’d wanted retribution, and he’d forced answers out of her until he had one he could punish her for.

I supposed Rose’s manipulations weren’t that effective.

I felt Conquest approach.  My eyes remained closed.

“I could end him now,” Conquest mused, “And the situation would be handled.”

“Two-” Rose started to speak.

Silence,” Conquest intoned.

I was aware that the other foes were drawing nearer.  The wraiths, the Eye… only the astrologer’s construct remained in place.

“I’m not under your sway,” Rose said.  “You can’t use the chain to stop me, I-”

“You can do as humans have done since they grubbed in dirt and wore furs,” Conquest said.  His words had a danger to them, an implicit threat.  “Recognize that I have the power to destroy something you value, and be silent.”

Nobody spoke in the silence that followed.

“Blake Thorburn,” Conquest said.  “I grow tired of this.  One of your champions has been claimed by Death, someone precious to you is on the way there, and the younger Rose Thorburn has informed me that you have nothing good waiting for you on the other side.”

I didn’t move.

He continued, “Do you wish to keep fighting, or shall I save them and save you?  Those close to you can resume their ordinary lives.  I can allow you to visit them when you’ve served me well.  Your familiar, even, can carry on.  Servitude under me might be unpleasant, but it stands far and above what waits for you and your family on the other side.”

If my body wasn’t already nearly frozen, I might have felt my blood run cold at that.

Alexis.  My family.  Rose.  Even Evan.

“If you can’t bend the knee and form the words, look up at me from that sidewalk, meet my eyes, and blink once.  I will take it as communication of surrender.”

If he killed me, he was only finishing the job.

If I surrendered, he could take more credit for that, it was power to him.

It was the easiest way out.

I raised my eyes to look at him.  He wore a monstrous guise, his skin stretched into a macabre expression, his white beard short beneath bared teeth, a false halo mounted to his shoulderblades, his skin folded and stretched to form an elaborate coat or robe with a high collar, inlaid with piercings that doubled as embroidery.

His eyes were white from corner to corner, but there was a sheen to them that made his gaze look more dangerous than blind.

His rictus grin stretched just a fraction wider.

I didn’t blink.

“Three…” I said.  “Three days.”

“Three days?”

“And I hope… to be well enough… to fight you,” I said.  “Three days recovery… you can say killing me was your doing.”

I didn’t get any further.  Darkness crawled in around the edges of my vision.

The bridge stood unfinished.  A massive construction, aimed at nowhere.  Rebar and girders stuck out of concrete, spearing out toward water and sky.

Evan flew by, rising, turning, then plunging.

Falling as far as he could before he had to pull up and turn away from the ground.

The sun shone through intermittent dark clouds, casting the world in patches of bright light and deep shadow.  The rain that came down was a light drizzle, warm on my skin.  The handlebar of my bike was warm to the touch, heated by the sun.

My arms were bare, my tattoos free of scarring, but the branches and birds had doubled in number.

The landscape behind the bridge was cliff and hill, thick with trees and roads, reminiscent of a puzzle with some of the wrong pieces in spots, where the clouds created swathes of shadow.  The cliffs were high enough and the clouds low enough that the tops of the cliffs disappeared into the haze.

Evan rose again.  “It’s like a rollercoaster!  Watch!”

I watched.  I could even reach out and experience what he experienced, the rush.

I didn’t flinch as he careened within an inch of the water’s surface, barely a speck, he was so far below me.  If he had hit, I might have suffered the same pain, and I might have fallen from the bridge.

But he didn’t, I hadn’t, and I smiled a bit at his excitement as he took an inefficient, winding route back up.

When I drew in a breath, the air was oxygenated in a way you never had in the city.  All these trees, the fresh air, the lack of pollution… the simple act of breathing invigorated.  I felt at ease in a way I’d sought for a long, long time.

Just a touch lonely, but I’d reconciled myself to the fact that I might never have human company and really feel comfortable at the same time.  Even before I’d been homeless, that possibility had been taken from me by the endless bickering and hostility that was home and family.  I cherished Alexis and my friends, but as much as they nourished and validated me, even they took as much as they gave.

It was one of the reasons I could never really imagine myself with someone.

This was… it was about the best I could hope for.  True peace.

That peace was shattered by the sound of footsteps.

Mrs. Lewis came to stand on the edge of the unfinished bridge, a few feet to my left, hands clasped behind her.

“I get the feeling,” she murmured, “That my arrival isn’t entirely unexpected.”

“Not entirely,” I said.

“I don’t know whether to admire your stubbornness or condemn it.”

“Why not both?” I asked.

“By invoking our names, you could have cleanly resolved the situation and handled Conquest.  Laird Behaim would be weaker for it, your friends could be saved… you’re shaking your head.”

I was.

“Are you that afraid of the slippery slope?”

“It sounds like a generous offer you guys made,” I said.  “I call you, and all I have to do is the one errand?  Well, that sounds like it might be worth holding on to.”

“Does it?  Or do you intend to die without invoking us again?”

“I thought I might save it for a really bad situation.”

“As opposed to being on the brink of death, surrounded by enemies, people you cherish dying?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “The way things are going, I’m going to be up against worse.  Might need to hold on to that.”

“If we do get the impression you don’t intend to call on us, you might lose our goodwill.”

“What happens then?”

“You and Rose are both aware that when you cease to exist, she takes your place.”

“Yeah,” I said.

“We could, how do I put it, hasten the process?”

I nodded.  I looked up as the shadows seemed to grow deeper.  The clouds were moving in.  “I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Do.”

Evan flew by, circling around us, then took off.

“Where are we?”

“Right now, you are lying in the same bed you’ve occupied for the last two days and twenty-three hours.  They’re taking measures to get you in fighting shape.”

“Fuck,” I said.  “I can imagine what some of those measures are.”

“Yes.”

“You know what I meant, though.”

“As for me, I’m occupying a space in your psyche you’ve retreated to.  Even the most war-weary soldier needs something to retreat to.”

I looked around.

“Hope?” I asked.

“Yes,” Ms. Lewis said.  “Or close enough.  I hope you realize that this three day detour of yours has lost you much of the advantage you gained.  He’s been reveling in his victory, after a fashion, recouping power.”

“Fuck,” I said.

“Your allies are weakened.  His aren’t.  This is largely on your shoulders.”

Fuck,” I muttered.

“This is the last chance.  Strike fast, strike hard, and call on help if you need it, Blake Thorburn.”

I clenched by teeth, trying not to let her see.

“Now, I recommend that you wake up.”

I did.

The first thing I saw, as it turned out, was Rose, standing beside a man who had to be J. Corvidae.

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