Category Archives: 7.05

Void 7.5

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The snowstorm raged all around us.  Progress was slow, hampered by weather and the increasingly inconsistent rules of the city’s layout.  We could somehow still get turned around by walking in a straight line, and there were threats everywhere.  Many minor.

We waited while one threat lingered.  It wasn’t one of the minor ones.

A fat man, with two women and a man in his company, occupying a bus shelter when the buses had stopped traveling their routes days ago.  All four wore winter clothes, but they had a demeanor like some of the sketchier homeless I’d run into, once upon a time.  Little details that made me think of meth-zombies, cokeheads, or anorexic people.  There was a kind of look in their eyes, as far as I could make them out, a dark gleam that had a way of working its way into people’s eyes when one single idea dominated their existence.

Except these things were Others.  Their purpose was simple enough.

The fat one carried a dismembered arm, raising it to his mouth periodically to take a bite.

“Ghouls are supposed to be thin,” Rose said.

I heard pages turning.

“I played a video game with ghouls in it once,” Evan said.  “They were a level up from the regular zombies.”

“That’s not what this is,” Rose said.

“It’s just an idea,” Evan said.

“It’s not… damn it, ghouls are supposed to be thin.  The three hanging around him are thin.  Why is that one fat?”

The fat one turned, eyes scanning the curtains of snow that were falling.

“Maybe it isn’t a ghoul,” I said.

“All the other signs are there.  It fits.”

“It’s really not the focus right now.  Assuming it’s a ghoul or it’s ghoul-like, what do we do?  I’d really rather not take the long way around, get lost and run into something else.”

“Ghouls are individuals who’ve interrupted the circle of life and death, usually by eating the dead, coming back from near-death one too many times, or practicing necromancy.”

“Black magic?” I asked.

“Yeah.  Maybe I should amend that to say ‘practicing necromancy badly‘.  Using terms we’re mostly familiar with, they’re individuals who are out of balance.  They’re the spinning plates that are only just hanging on, and that means they need a fine touch to keep going.  They do that with periods of convalescence, like hibernation, and bursts of… hunger is the wrong word.  Life or death voraciousness.  Maddened with a need for sustenance.  More like a rabid dog than human.”

“So they are basically super-zombies,” Evan said.

I heard Rose sigh.

“Sustenance?  Feasting on human flesh,” Maggie added.

“The go-to way, yeah,” Rose replied.  “If they have their wits about them, then they can use the necromancy they knew in life, or they just move between areas with an awful lot of death or life energy.”

“But they mostly manage by eating human flesh,” Maggie said.  “Right?”

“Essentially.  No warning, three hour window to find food or perish, rest for months or years.  Depending on where their personal balance is sitting, they eat either corpses or they scarf down bits of still-living victims they’ve found in isolated spots.”

“Can we not be the still-living victims?” Evan asked.  “I don’t have much meat on me.  Look at me…”

He got out from under my scarf and puffed up.

“I weigh as much as the battery from the remote control, and a lot of that is feathers.”

“I don’t know if that’s a concern.  These guys don’t look maddened with hunger,” I commented.

“The contraction of the city is pushing locals out of their usual haunts,” Rose said.  “They’re probably trying to find their way back, maybe grabbing some food to keep nearby while they’re at it.”

“If that’s the case, shouldn’t they pass?” I asked.

“They’re dead.  They don’t feel the cold, they don’t get tired, the only thing that drives them is a need to gorge themselves with flesh.  They aren’t going to move until they have a reason to move.”

I stared across the road.  My leg was cramping from crouching behind the snowbank.

“We can’t afford to go around,” I said.  “We need to hurry this along, before the window of opportunity disappears.  How do you stop ghouls?”

“Conventional wisdom is that you stave them off by reintroducing them to the cycle of life.”

“Meaning?” I asked.

“The go-to answer is menstrual fluids,” Rose said.  “Drawn on their forehead, fed to them, ‘poison’ a weapon with it.

“Huh?” Evan asked.

I glanced at Maggie before I realized what I was doing.

“No sir,” Maggie said, deadpan.

“Damn,” I said.

“There’s one benefit to being a vestige,” Rose said.  “My body doesn’t change.”

“I don’t get it,” Evan said.

“You don’t want to know,” I said.

“I helped against that black demon in the factory.  What could be worse than that?”

“Other options, Rose?”  I asked, ignoring him.

“Some plants are tied to the cycle of death and rebirth.  Holly.”

“We used holly against the Hyena,” Evan said.  “See?  I know stuff.  You can tell me stuff.  No need to leave me out because I’m a kid.”

“No holly near here, as far as I can tell,” I said.  “Not sure how that would work, either.”

“Funereal icons,” Rose said.  I heard her turning a page.  “Either done over the ghoul’s prone body or you can do it from a distance if you have the full name of the ghoul.  Not going to work.  Don’t have any of that.”

“Just tellll me,” Evan said.

Maggie glanced at me.

“I’m not going there,” I said.  “‘You don’t want to know‘ is generally something you should take at face value in this world, he needs to learn that, but he’s not going to learn from me.”

“Coward,” Rose said.  “Come here, Evan.”

Yes!

He strutted, wagging his tail-feathers in the general direction of my face before flying down to my hand, which I was holding next to the mirror pendant.

Rose murmured her explanation.

No.”  Evan said.  “My mom told me about that!  No!  Don’t- What’s wrong with you?”

“Shh,” I said.  “Let’s not get their attention.”

“You make the super zombies drink it?”

“Shh,” I said, again, a little sharper than before.

“There aren’t any other options listed,” Rose said.  “They’re apparently hard to put down, I wouldn’t want to pick a fight.  I think these books assume you’re not a matter of minutes away from dealing with the monster in question.  They figure you’ll be able to ask around or call favors.”

“Damn it,” I said.

“Ugh,” Evan said, then before I could reprimand him, he said, “What about eggs?”

“What?” I asked.

“When my mom told me about that stuff, I remember not getting it, and she said something about it being like chickens laying eggs.  It confused me more.

“Rose?” I asked.

“You want to egg the cannibalistic monsters?”

“I never liked eggs after that,” Evan added.

“We need to move before they do,” I said.  “We backtrack to the nearest convenience store, grab supplies, then we egg the cannibal super-zombies, including our mysterious obese cadaver, and if that fails, we use weapons instead.  We have your summonings.”

“We do,” Rose said.  “Go.”

It was a ten minute round-trip, extended to fifteen minutes when one tall, slow-moving Other rounded a corner, trudging along, taking its time in disappearing from view.

Cartons of eggs collected, we made our way back, ducking low to hide behind the snowbank as we got near.

Aside from devouring the dismembered limb, the ghouls hadn’t budged.  They sat in the bus stop, not talking, only their heads turning slowly as they searched the area.

I drew June, and used her blade to crack an egg, smearing her with it.  The whites froze in a heartbeat.  Maggie did the same with the Hyena.

I didn’t like her having it, but taking the thing back would mean leaving her unarmed, and I didn’t like that either.

We moved as a pair.

The ghouls noticed us, stirring.  The fat one had been gnawing on the arm, and when he turned his attention to us, I saw the gleam of white fangs stained with blood.  The bone of the arm had been gnawed, a little more pointed.  Maggie wouldn’t necessarily have a problem, but the makeshift knife coupled with his natural reach threatened to let him fight me with more reach.

Moment of truth.

I whipped an egg at the first one to step outside of the bus shelter.  I missed, hitting the edge of the glass enclosure.

The ghoul stopped in its tracks, and the one behind it collided with it.

It was hard to say whether it had worked.

Maggie landed a dead-on hit.

It seemed to startle them more than anything.  Part of it might have been our relative lack of fear.  I imagined ghouls had decades or centuries of experience dealing with prey who were isolated, scared, and more focused on escape than confrontation.  People ran, the ghouls didn’t get tired, and they eventually caught up.

This was unfamiliar territory.

The skinnier male ghoul grasped in my direction, trying to get a grip on my coat, baring his fangs.  I leaned out of the way.  He stumbled forward, and I caught his neck with June.

The wound froze as I cut through flesh.

Maggie took a moment longer with the other ghoul.  Her arm must have been getting tired, I realized.  She circled it, waiting for it to make a mistake, then deftly cut through its knees.

The four glass walls of the bus shelter shattered as Rose’s minions appeared.  The Tallowman, Mary, and ‘J.P.’ Corvidae.

The fat one struck the Tallowman and Mary aside.

Mary didn’t hit the ground.  Somewhere in transit, she became muddled, as if all of her features existed as one amorphous mass, and then she shifted to another form, slipping away from reality, unable to hold herself together.

The fat one stalked toward us.  J.P. Corvidae didn’t get in its way.  Our bogeyman companion stepped back, arms raised, clearly not intending to fight.

Bastard.

I would have done the same, arguably, but it didn’t help matters.

Maggie egged the thing, holding three eggs in one hand and whipping them at him one after the other.

“It’s not really working,” I said.

“I think it’s working a little,” Maggie told me.  She flashed a grin, not taking her eyes off the Other.  “He doesn’t like it.”

The Other stopped in its tracks.

It drew a charm from its pocket.  A necklace or macabre rosary, dangling with finger bones.

It pointed at the ghoul lying on the ground, the one I’d cut with June.

The body moved.

Maggie stepped forward, swinging the sword, taking the head of the ghoul before the undead necromancer could do anything with the corpse.

Without waiting, she swung again, the blade biting hard into the pavement, and she took the ghoul’s head.

The braver of the two remaining creatures stared at us.  The fat one, still bearing stubble on its face.

“If you attack,” I said, “We take you to pieces.  If you run, I’ll come after you and take you to pieces.  Can you communicate?”

It nodded.

“Do you know any critical names, here?”

It shook its head.

A rumble caught me off guard.  My head turned.

A car approached.  I felt a tertiary sort of connection to the occupant.

The thing hadn’t taken advantage of my distraction.  Maggie still had it at swordpoint, an egg held in her free hand.

“Your choice,” I said, one eye on the car that was struggling to make it through snow that was piled higher than the car’s underside.  “Can’t let you continue like this.  Going after people.  You choose.  You go after one of the enemies I designate and then return to me for further instructions and possible binding and execution, you agree never to harm another living soul, or you die.”

“Bound for future use,” Maggie murmured.

“Or you take on a convenient form for later deployment, I do you a favor in turn, and we negotiate terms of your release after the fact.”

It held up two fingers.

“Second choice?” I asked.  “Agree never to harm another living soul?”

“I swear,” it managed.  Even from ten feet away in the blistering cold, I could smell the breath.  It was the aroma I might expect from a coffin being opened.

I couldn’t help but feel disappointed.  It was the least advantageous to me.

All the same…

“Go,” I said.

“Don’t feel bad,” Evan told the ghoul.  “This is a lot better than the other idea they were talking about.”

It turned and left, half-running, half-jogging.

The fourth ghoul turned to go.  Maggie stepped forward, swinging the sword with both hands.  She took its head.

I met her eyes.

“It was a danger too, and weaker ghouls can’t communicate on that level.”

“What was that thing I just talked to?” I asked.

“Process of elimination says it was a greater ghoul.”

I sighed.

My eye was on the car that was struggling to make its way down the road.

“The eggs totally worked, didn’t they?” Evan asked.

I wasn’t so sure they had, but it was hard to say.  Maybe the other stuff worked because it was human, and the ghouls were closer to humans than not.  Were eggs too far removed?

“Maybe,” I said.  “Come on.”

Ty, Tiff, Alexis and Fell were out of commission, out of commission, injured and dead, respectively.  If there was any benefit to that, it was that it was easier to operate as a group.  Me and Maggie.  Evan was easily hidden, and Rose existed on a different plane, easily brought along with a mirror.

I approached the car, which was struggling more and more.  The snow here was higher than it had been on the major streets.  I didn’t recognize the woman within the vehicle, even if I could make a guess about the connections.

“Can you see it?” I asked.

“I can,” Maggie said.  “She knows him.”

Maggie was holding the sword at the ready.

“No,” I said.

A small smile crossed my face.

This was ideal.

We approached the car from the side, and somewhere along the line, Maggie managed to hide the sword altogether.

Sure beat a poster tube.

The woman startled a bit as I knocked on the window.

She stared at me.  Did I have blood on my face?  Had she picked up on what happened with the ghouls?

The window rolled down.

“Hello?” she asked.

“Stuck?”  I asked.

“I don’t need to go far,” she said.  “Just that house over there.  If I could get into the garage, I’d be in the clear.  I don’t want to be on the street if the plow comes.”

“We can give you a bit of a push,” I said.  “Do you have a shovel?”

A smile crossed the woman’s face.  “In my trunk!  Let me do it-”

“No,” I said.  “You stay behind the wheel, get ready to hit the gas.  We can handle it.”

We walked around to the back of the car while she rolled her window up.

“Volunteering me?” Maggie asked.

“Objections?”

“If I wanted to do work, I’d be doing something different with my life.”

“Five minutes of work,” I said.

She rolled her eyes.

I beckoned the Tallowman.

Between hat and scarf, his freakish nature was largely hidden.  Only his face – a waxy orb where he should have had an eyeball, and tallow filling the scar around the eye socket, where something broad and crude had been used to destroy the contents.

He moved slowly.  I could understand that, feeling how hard the wax in my chest was.  I used the shovel to get the worst of the snow away from under the front bumper.

Three of us pushing, one inhumanly strong, and we managed to get the car moving.

She’d already opened the garage, and used her momentum to glide straight in.

She was beaming when she stepped out.

“Oh my god, thank you,” she said.  “Whoo, I should not have gone out.  Nothing in the stores.”

“Pretty brave,” I said.

“Are you in a rush, or do you want to come inside and have a bite, or warm up, at least?”

“I can’t speak for my companion here, but I’d love to take you up on that,” I said.

“Yeah,” Maggie said.  “Please.”

“I’m Joanna, by the way.”

“Hi Joanna,” Maggie said.  “I’m Maggie.”

“Blake,” I said.

A moment’s concerns were banished when Joanna smiled and led the way inside.

We were led into the garage.  I lagged behind.

“Ev,” I murmured.

He squirmed his way out from my scarf, flying to my hand.  I positioned myself so I wasn’t in anyone’s line of sight, standing by the garage door.

“You know the drill,” I said.

“What if-”

The others were already at the door.  A moment’s delay and I’d look suspicious.

“Improvise,” I cut him off.  I moved my hand, and Evan took flight.

When I’d drawn close enough, Joanna closed the garage.

In the dwindling light that passed beneath the garage door, I could see the ward carved into the doorframe.  A stylish pattern, made clearer by the stain that had been applied to the wood.

Craning my head, I took it all in, examining the connections.

Nothing too strong in the house itself.  It wasn’t a demesne.

“Alarm rune,” Maggie murmured in my ear.

Perfect.

I stepped across it, and I felt the connection pop into being.

He knew, now.

There were a variety of clocks on the wall in the bent hallway that extended between the garage door and the front door.

I saw a picture of the woman with Duncan Behaim.

“Are you married?” I asked.

“He’s my fiancé.”

The fiancé was on his way.

“Police officer,” I observed.

“A damn good one,” Joanna said.

“With an obsession over clocks,” I said.

“Yes.  Everyone notices.  Everyone has their eccentricities,” she said.  “Can I offer you anything?”

“No thank you,” I said.

Maggie shook her head.

“Any idea why he has that particular eccentricity?” I asked.

“None at all.  I think it’s cute,” she said.  “Where were you two going?”

“We’re looking for someone,” I said.  “Not a hundred percent sure where to look.  He’s proving hard to track down.  He’s the police chief in the town I recently moved to.”

“No,” she said.

“You know who I’m talking about?  Is your fiancé Laird Behaim?”

“Laird is his uncle.  A whole contingent of my Duncan’s family just showed up a few days ago.  It got to be too much, so they changed over to a hotel room.”

I resisted asking where.

“Family can be hard,” I said.

“I’m glad to deal with family,” she said.  “Makes me feel connected to him, if that makes any sense.”

“I can sort of understand that,” I said.

Joanna smiled.  “Do you mind?  I’m going to make some malted hot chocolate.  Offer stands, if you want anything.”

“I don’t mind,” I said.

She rounded the corner to the kitchen, leaving me feeling very out of place in Duncan Behaim’s living room.

Maggie seemed to be adapting better.

“What are you doing?” Rose asked.

“Testing the hypothesis,” I said.

“Dangerous way to go about it,” Rose said, just under her breath.

“Have to take risks,” Maggie said.  “Keeps things exciting, if nothing else.”

“That’s not exactly my perspective,” I said.

“Nor mine,” Rose said.

“I do think that everything has a price…” I said.

I saw a connection flash.  Our hostess was talking to Duncan.

“…And a bit of risk can be the price of opportunity,” I said.  “She-”

“She just contacted him,” Maggie finished for me.

I nodded.

“What now?” Rose asked.

“Think.  Laird slipped away a bit ago, using his pocketwatch.  Duncan isn’t using the same means to get here faster, when someone he cares about is at risk.”

The phone call finished.

“He’s forsworn, isn’t he?” Rose asked.

“That could be it,” I said.  “Could be I’m right.”

Joanna stepped into the room.  “This is embarrassing, but I just realized I forgot I promised to mail something to my work as soon as I got home.  Are you okay right there while I go handle that?  I’ll be right back.”

Running.  Duncan had told her to scram.

“I’d feel a little strange, being in your house when you’re not around,” I said.  “Should we go?”

“No, please, stay as long as you like.”

She’d been told to keep us here.  Now she was caught between two instructions.  Had he communicated the severity of the situation?

“It’s fine,” I said.  “If it’s an inconvenience having us, we could head out and get in touch with Laird another time.  We did our good deed for the day.”

“It’s no inconvenience, really.  Duncan’s going to be back any minute-”

“Oh, I definitely don’t want to be sitting in your living room without you there,” I said.  “He might be surprised and shoot me.”

True on both counts.

“It’s fine.  Really.”

Maggie chimed in, “How long have you been together?”

“I really should go-”

“It’s fine, Joanna,” Duncan commented, from the direction of the garage.

Duncan entered the living room.

I stood from the couch.  “Hi, Duncan.”

“Mr. Thorburn.  I can’t say how surprised I am to see you here.”

“I’m here all the same,” I said.  “Enjoying Joanna’s hospitality.”

I saw him frown a little.  “You offered them something to eat or drink?”

“I did.”

A light smile touched my face as I met Duncan’s eyes.  He was frowning just a little as he heard that.

Hospitality.

Few sins were as egregious as a breach of genuine hospitality.  To harm a guest in one’s own home, or for the guest to harm the host.

“Can I ask you to go upstairs, Joanna?”  Duncan asked.

“I want to know what’s going on, first.”

Duncan met my eyes.

“You have my permission to tell her,” I said.

He started to open his mouth.

“-But I’d reserve the right to tell her about you in return,” I said.

His mouth closed.

“Duncan?”

Go upstairs, Joanna.”

She didn’t move.

“I want to see Laird,” I said.  “Call him.  This can be resolved neatly.  No mess, no collateral damage.”

His hand moved over to his gun.

His other hand toward his pocket.

“Duncan?” Joanna asked.

“As far as I’m concerned,” I said, “We’re even.  You want to spoil that, draw that gun, I’m going to have to balance the scales again.”

He didn’t budge.

I continued, “I’m not even with Laird.  Not with my cousin’s blood on his hands.”

I could see Joanna react to that, visibly paling over the seconds the silence stretched on.

He lowered his hand to his gun.

“Stop,” Maggie said, before he could draw it.  She stepped out from behind me, holding a gun in her right hand, already raised and pointed at Duncan.  Fell’s gun.

I wondered if Joanna would say anything about the gauntlet, but I supposed the gun had her attention.

“Oh god,” she said.

“Two fingers, draw it, place it on the ground,” Maggie told Duncan.

Duncan placed his handgun on the floor.

“I don’t suppose you want this gun, Blake?”

“I don’t know how to use it,” I said.  “He does.  I’d rather not give him the chance to use the thing against me.”

“Whatever.  Kick it toward me, Dunc.”

Duncan did.

Maggie kicked the gun under an armchair.

I spoke, “Duncan, we have more firepower, right this moment, right here, than you do.  You can make the first move, break this tentative truce we’re both benefiting from, and I’m betting we’ll still beat you.  I’m offering to let you balance the scales.  Call in help.  Call Laird out of hiding.  Call your backup.”

“This was a damn shitty way to handle this,” Duncan said.  “Involving my fiancee?”

“She’s not involved yet,” I said.  “Not in that particular sense.”

“I’d say I’m pretty involved,” Joanna said, her eyes fixated on the barrel.

“Exactly my point.  You don’t have a damn clue what’s going on, do you?” I asked.

“Barely.”

“If that,” I said.  “Duncan… I’m trying to be civil.  I’m trying to be fair.  I did Joanna a favor, she invited me in.  Maggie didn’t threaten anyone until you touched your gun.  If you play ball, call Laird, and stay out of things, I won’t touch you or your fiancee.  You walk away from this, you can concoct some misdirection to reassure her…”

I could see her expression change.

“You know it’s not that simple,” Duncan told me.

“It isn’t,” I said.  “It’s your choice.”

He bowed his head a little, staring down at the ground.  Maggie’s gun didn’t even seem to concern him.

“Okay.”

“Good man,” I said.

“I’ll need to step into the kitchen.”

I nodded.

He rounded the corner to head to the kitchen, a cramped space with dark wood cabinets and clocks above each door, each clock a painted plate with clockwork built into it.  I followed to keep him in my line of sight.

I was watching.  I didn’t miss it.

The egg timer disappeared as he walked past it.  A little sleight of hand magic to go along with the practice.

A part of me wondered if he’d used that same sleight of hand to slip a potential criminal something more incriminating.

I wasn’t concerned.  We all had our roles to play here.

“Use the egg timer,” I said.  “Why don’t you pull the same trick Laird did to slip out of the circle we had him in?  Can’t you stop time?”

He glared at me.

But he didn’t stop time.

“Why, Duncan?” I asked, my voice low.  “That kind of magic only affects you.  It’s far from doing something negative to me and breaching hospitality, if you slip away.  Joanna isn’t watching.  You could grab her and get her to safety…”

“Shut up, Thorburn,” he said.

“Tell me it’s because you’re forsworn, even.”

“I think you and I both know it isn’t that,” he said.

“Ah,” I said.  “Then get rid of the timer and make the call.”

He did, tossing the egg timer into the sink.  He dialed.  “Uncle?”

I waited.  Duncan gave directions.

“Blake, Maggie,” Duncan added, in the midst of the stream of instructions, “Plus the mirror and-”

I hung up the phone, jabbing the button on the receiver to hang up the corresponding cordless phone.

“Back to the living room,” I said.

The gradual compression of the city was more intense than I’d imagined.  Laird made good time.

Good enough time that I was left with doubts, even after the near-confirmation from Duncan.

This was it.  Two big steps to walk away from all of this in essentially one piece.  Step one.

Laird.

The man arrived in the neighborhood, and he brought the cavalry.

No sooner had he arrived than a dozen dolls did too.  Each squad with a Behaim kid at the helm.  I watched out the window, staying close to the curtain so I wasn’t visible.  Seventeen or eighteen individuals in all, nearly impossible to make out in the heavy snow.

“If you promise to stay out of this and do me no harm, I’ll let you and Joanna go,” I said.

“If you have to hold on to us, it’s harder for you.”

“Your call,” I said.

He pursed his lips.

“Come on, Duncan.”

“Can you let Joanna and only Joanna go?  She can go upstairs, out of harm’s way.”

I glanced at Joanna.  She sat on the arm of the armchair, both hands around her mug.  She looked up and nodded.

I couldn’t trust ordinary humans.

Then again, she liked Duncan, of all people.  How normal could she be?

But it was a kindness, and I was starting to think I needed to be more kind, especially after my last visit with Mrs. Lewis.

“Go, Joanna.”

She fled, running up the stairs.

Laird was approaching.

First Laird, then Conquest.

The dolls were a complication.

Here we went.  Laird was drawing closer-

And in the moment my attention was on the world outside the window, Duncan moved.

Grabbing the cup of hot chocolate, flinging it at Maggie, all before she could shoot.

She barely flinched.

But Duncan’s hand reached forward, across the gap, his wrist catching the very edge of the barrel, pushing the gun to one side.

He turned it into a grip, grabbing Maggie by the wrist and waistband and heaving her into the air.  Before she had her bearings, he was flinging her, hurling her into the armchair.

The armchair titled, and he was reaching for his gun.

I closed my eyes.

Stepped on his hand, walking, the position of things fixed in my mind.

I kicked the gun further out of reach, sending it skittering along hardwood

My balance was gone in the next moment as I was tackled at the knees.  I fell hard.

Duncan hit me, two clean hits to the face before I could bring my arms up.  Then he was on top of me.

I had a moment to wonder if Conquest had passed on that tidbit.  The weakness, the fear.

Fight or flight kicked in at full force, and it was all the wrong instincts at the wrong moments.  Freezing up, recoiling when I should be attacking.  He was bigger, stronger.

“Duncan!” Maggie shouted.

Duncan whirled, and he hauled me around to serve as a human shield.

I fought, rather ineffectually.

“Blake!  Stop squirming!  I can hit him if you stop!”

I couldn’t, not really.

An awful lot of bad memories, inarticulate.

I did go limp, so Duncan had to fight to keep me upright and serving as a shield.

I could see Laird outside the window, looking in.  The golden pocketwatch raised…

Evan fluttered past me a heartbeat later, followed by a blast of cold air.

The scene had changed.  The main window at the front of the house had been shattered.  Two monsters advanced on Laird.  The tallowman and the black oil strangler.

Duncan wasn’t holding me.  He was a step away, pistol in hand.  Maggie was on the ground, disarmed, holding one both hands to her face.

I felt a surge of victory.

I’d been right.

Perception.

The Behaims didn’t alter time itself.  That would be insane.  It would require more power than they could feasibly manipulate, to alter reality on a fundamental, core level.

They manipulated other people’s perceptions of time.

The coffee shop, I hadn’t been frozen.  I’d considered it odd, had wondered why the staff hadn’t noticed me.  But they’d been included in the midst of it too.  Bending perceptions, tweaking details, so I could sit there in a kind of unwitting stasis, completely tuned out.

The circle around the house, it was a trick, a vast, complex trick.  I’d seen two very different images when viewing it in the real world and with my Sight.

The way Duncan had turned back time at the station… I’d sat there in my cell, thinking I was waiting for events to play out, for rescue from the Knights to come, but I was really just revising memories to experience the morning all over again, while catching up to the real present day.

Had he turned back time once more, I might have done the same thing, or something close to it, not taking any action until the mid- or late afternoon.

A third time?  Maybe not until the late evening.  I would have run out of time, passed my midnight deadline without any attempts at capturing the eraser demon.

I had little doubt they could really manipulate time, but it was undoubtedly expensive, a real investment.

Shutting my eyes and being oblivious helped against the little tricks.

Against the big ones?  Laird’s use of the golden pocketwatch?  Keeping Evan out of the way, ready to break the spell with his natural inclination to freedom and escape, Rose prepared to break the window and let my favorite bird in the world in.

Laird was fending off the Others, falling back and preparing something while the dolls stepped forward.

Duncan had his back to me.

I drew June.

I struck him in the hip, hard, with June reversed, so I was striking with the blunt end.

He screamed.

I struck his hand, knocking the gun free.

He stopped struggling when I moved the hatchet blade to his throat.

Maggie, still holding her face, blood seeping through the segments of the gauntlet, struggled to her feet.

“Grab the gun,” I said, my voice low.

Her head was bowed, and I saw a glimpse of something inhuman in her expression when she changed hands, shaking the blood free of her gauntlet.

She was possessed?  Was that what was going on with her?

She’d let something in?

A moment later, she had the Hyena in hand.  She held the point to Duncan’s throat.

“Or I’ll take the gun,” I said.  “That works too.”

I grabbed the gun from the floor.

Laird saw me.

Golden pocketwatch raised…

Theatrics, show.  Rose and I had drawn those conclusions at the start.

I lowered my eyes, closing them.  I heard Evan fly past me.  I’d lost no more than three seconds.  Laird had moved.

I heard Evan pass by twice in close succession.

I knew it was costing Laird more than it was costing Evan and me.

I moved, putting my back to the wall by the window.

“Rose,” I said, hoping there was a large enough pane of glass for her to speak through.

“Yeah?”

“We should wrap this  up.  Where’s Corvidae?”

“I told him to stop Duncan.”

“Did you tell him how?

“No.”

I thought for a second.  “Go upstairs, now.  Stop him.”

I heard a faint footstep from Rose.

The wind whistled into the house through the open window.

“Are you okay, Maggie?” I asked.

“He hit me.  He pistolwhipped me.”

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, all things considered.”

“Good,” I said.  “Stay alert.  Time to end this.  Laird!”

My holler carried.

“Thorburn!” he answered.

“I’m under the impression that Rose is upstairs with Duncan Behaim’s wife-to-be and a particular Other.  I didn’t want this, but it’s happening!  Stop fighting!”

There was only silence.  Everything had gone still.

Had Rose’s Others listened to me?

Handy.

“What Other?” Laird asked.

“I don’t think you’d know him,” I said.  “Let me reduce this to a very simple question.  What are your priorities!?”

“Priorities?”

“If this goes any further, people will get hurt.  Duncan Behaim might lose someone precious to him!”

I heard a sound from Duncan.

“Shh,” Maggie said.

“Not death,” I said.  “Something worse.  She’ll be lost to him forever, in a particularly twisted way.  The Other that does this… it’s been mistaken for a demon from time to time.”

“Corvidae,” Laird said.

I felt a chill.

Well, he had access to the same books.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Your call.  Do you want to carry out this favor for Conquest and watch your nephew lose everything precious to him, or do you want to worm out of it, do me one favor, and let all this end?”

“One doesn’t disappoint Lords,” Laird said.  “I think you’re framing that in a pretty skewed way.”

“What does it come down to, Laird?  A grab at power, or family?  Your kid, nieces and nephew are here.  Are you going to tell them that when the chips are down, you’re going to choose-”

Evan fluttered by.

I’d barely lost a half-second there.  I couldn’t see the watch, and the trick was losing cachet.  I grinned.

“…status and the power grab?  You can stop trying, Laird.  It’s not working anymore.  Not really.”

“I think I’ll do what I can,” he said.

“It’s a simple choice.  Family or power?”

“Family is power,” Laird said.  “And corrupt powers make for a broken family, as the Thorburn line has demonstrated so well.”

“Sounds like you’re dodging the question.  I guess you can’t admit to your kid that you don’t give a damn about him.”

“No, Thorburn, that isn’t it at all.  I’m buying time.  Even-”

Evan fluttered by.

I heard gunshots and flinched.

“…Damn.  Even small amounts for exorbitant prices, like that.”

“Pretty stupid, firing a gun with Duncan at swordpoint here.”

“Don’t hurry to use up your bargaining chips, Thorburn,” Laird called out.  “Your situation isn’t as favorable as you think.”

I remained silent.

“If you want to peek your head out and see, you’ll get the picture.  I swear no harm will come to you from us.”

I did.

My heart sank.

The plan was fucked.  Laird was right.  Even knowing how to deal with it, I’d let him buy time.  Reinforcements had arrived.

Conquest stood in the swirling snow, tall among the various dolls and young Behaims, triumphant over the crumpled bodies of Rose’s summonings.

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