“I do believe this will end here,” Conquest said. His voice, inhuman as it was, carried.
“I’m hoping it won’t!” I had to raise my own voice to be heard over the wind and distance. It was hard to tell with the snow covering everything and the confusing effect of the snowfall itself, but I was pretty sure they were standing in the middle of the street. Half the street, a lawn, and a bit of house separated us.
“I offered you a peek,” Laird called out. “You might want to duck back behind cover before you’re no longer peeking and you’re staring.”
“Conquest is here?” Maggie asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
We could say his name now. We wouldn’t be forming any connection and cluing him into anything he didn’t already know.
“Okay, well, we knew he might come,” Maggie said.
“I’d hoped for more time,” I said. “We need to take down Laird first. This mixes things up.”
“Just a bit.”
Rose appeared in the glass window of a cabinet. “Corvidae didn’t get a chance to do anything. He was ready to, but it didn’t go that far.”
I nodded. “Conquest is here.”
“We don’t have Laird?”
“Well put,” I said.
I felt connections shift, heard the muffled crunch of footsteps on snow, and called out, “Stay put, Laird!”
Silence and stillness followed.
“Seems we have a bit of a standoff,” Laird said.
“Seems so,” I answered. “A bit like bank robbers with hostages, isn’t it?”
“I was thinking something along those lines,” Laird said.
Cold air flowed into the room through the shattered window. Duncan’s house thrummed with the furnace working in overdrive.
“Does that make you the hostage negotiator, Laird?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Laird said.
Meaning no. I’d called him out on whether he’d choose power or family first. He had his kid, nieces and nephew with him, and everything he said mattered. Being careless and throwing away Duncan’s life could look careless. But he couldn’t commit to anything either. Not with the lord of Toronto looming just behind him.
He’d cornered himself in a way. Us too, but the situation he’d put himself in was the leverage I was most interested in.
If he decided on the full-on offensive, then he risked Duncan dying, he risked losing the trust of his family. They’d probably get me in the process and win the fight, but would he do something?
He’d come to Toronto to bail Duncan out. He was willing to use his family as pawns, but he hadn’t done anything to make me believe he didn’t care about them on some level.
When the chips were down, did he value reputation and power more, or did he value family?
I had to be strategic here, use what I had.
How did this play out?
Laird could give up, too cold and unable to take action, Conquest could lose patience.
The former put Conquest at the helm, the latter put Conquest and Laird at odds. They might even fight.
It was more likely that they had tricks up their sleeves.
I heard more snow crunching.
“Stay put, Laird!” Maggie called out. “I will put a sword through this man’s throat!”
“I’m not moving,” Laird said. “Sending the kids around to watch the exits. I’ve ordered them not to enter or try anything.”
“Call them back,” I said.
“Too late,” he told me.
“I know how that goes,” I said. “You can tell them that, but you signal another, or you write it down.”
“No,” Laird replied. “I don’t want them trying and screwing it up. I’d rather have control over how this plays out.”
“Okay,” I said, I couldn’t peek out, so I looked at Duncan instead. “Makes sense. It’s also a convenient way to get rid of them so you can pull something they wouldn’t like, isn’t it?”
“You’re so invested in finding something evil in what I’m doing. Have you considered, Thorburn, that I might be right? That you and your family are a stain on this world and we’re all better off without you?”
“So you want to hand us over to Conquest and let him sic demons on the world? How is that better?”
“You tell me, Thorburn. You started this contest, and Conquest has bent the city to its knees as a result, innumerable people have been hurt or killed, you’ve set two peaceful groups of practitioners against one another, assaulted a police station, and led this city into at atmosphere of fear, violence and confusion.”
“It’s got to be better than what happens if he gets what he wants.”
“You had a plan, didn’t you? You weighed the risks, you made a gamble, there are elements you haven’t broadcasted to the rest of us?” Laird asked. “Is it so hard to believe that I could do the same thing?”
“A scheme?” I asked. “You’re admitting you’re scheming against Conquest with him standing right there?”
“Not a scheme. A deal. I came here to arrange for Duncan’s safety. That wasn’t my sole reason for coming. I was and remain interested in the long-term safety of Jacob’s Bell and Toronto. I had a discussion with the Lord of the City, and we made arrangements for just about everyone’s long-term benefit.”
“Except mine, I assume,” I said.
“That’s why I said ‘just about’. I don’t know what would happen to you. You’re a bit of an enigma, you and Rose.”
“Surrender, Blake,” Laird said. “Just… give up. Stop making things worse.”
I stared down at the ground.
“I’ve stopped some pretty fucked up monsters,” I said. “Tried with some others.”
“Maybe, but you’ve dragged your friends into this. You dragged Fell into it, and he died as a result. You dragged that little ghost boy into this, and I don’t think he deserves to face down the kind of ugliness we both know your family deals in.”
“Like you’re better? You sent those kids after me at the police station.”
“I won’t say I haven’t made mistakes here and there, but I’m looking after my family in the long term.”
“Putting yourself in charge of Jacob’s Bell in the process.”
“Trying to, yes. You’re trying to make this a choice between one or the other. Save Duncan or take power. I think they’re one and the same. Intertwined. Can you confidently tell me you’re bettering the lives of your friends and acquaintances here?”
Laird was building on his dream, striving for some distant goal, becoming Lord, putting his family on the map. My dream? My goal? When I floundered, trying to put my thumb on it, I kept coming back to a mental picture of the place I’d dreamed about. The place Ms. Lewis had called my refuge, my hope. It was the place I wanted to be, the place I wanted to reach when all this was said and done. I fought, in part, because I wanted to get to the point where I could do that.
Get on my bike, get away from it all. Find a place where I had peace and a nice view.
My friends hadn’t been there.
“You aren’t answering me,” Laird called out. “Is it because you can’t answer? Or are you pulling something?”
“Does it matter?” I called out.
“No,” he said. I thought I heard a note of amusement in his tone. “It doesn’t. I’ll be right here, our metaphorical hostage negotiator.”
Conquest was quiet. The dolls were still. Maggie still held Duncan at sword-point, and Rose occupied the shard of window beside me.
My friends hadn’t been there, was that because I felt, deep down, that Laird was right? That I wasn’t a positive force in their lives?
“Rose,” I said, lowering my voice so Laird wouldn’t “How much did you tell Conquest?”
“You’re wondering if he told Laird this?”
“Or overheard or something.”
“Nothing this specific. I told him about your hangups, and some observations about your character. He came to this on his own, I think.”
“Okay,” I said.
“He’s not getting to you, is he? This garbage isn’t hitting the mark?”
“It is,” I said. “He’s partially right.”
“The diabolist sees the light,” Duncan commented, his voice low. “Could it be a miracle?”
“Shh,” Maggie said. “This thing isn’t easy to hold.”
I looked at Maggie and Duncan. She still covered part of her face, and the sword did look hard to hold with one hand.
Rose spoke, her voice gentle, “Focus, Blake. We went into this with a plan.”
“The plan is out,” Maggie said. “It was simple. We get Laird, we use Laird to screw over Conquest. Now Conquest is here.”
“We have options,” Rose said. “We came into this with a strategy. So did they. Let’s be smart about it, plan, counterplan. You can’t get fucking down in the dumps because they’re attacking your character and Evan isn’t around to stand up for you.”
I grit my teeth.
“Isadora called you a warrior,” Rose said. “Your friends bled to get you back in the game. Don’t just sit there and take Laird’s word for it. Fight. You made promises to a lot of people. All the people you respect in the midst of this, Fell, Evan, Maggie, hopefully me, you gotta keep going for our sakes.”
“That wasn’t a question,” I said. “I can fight and do justice while feeling crappy for letting things get to this point.”
“I don’t think you can,” she said. “Dealing with the family, I learned how distracting feeling horrible could be.”
“Take it from me, if you frame it right, feeling like shit can be a good motivator,” I said. Before she could argue further, I asked, “Corvidae is upstairs?”
“Got anything else to summon?”
“Not really. A few of the ones I tried to summon were off on other errands. A few more felt like Midges, or the text was iffy enough I wasn’t sure if they were real demons or not.”
We needed to win with the assets we had right here.
“How does Corvidae work?” I asked.
“Strictly physical objects or people. Switches the connections around. Things and people find their way to new owners, but old attachments linger. Emotional ties…”
“We need Laird, we have Duncan. Is it possible Corvidae could swap one for the other?”
“I don’t think it works that way, and there’s a conspicuous lack of information in the book about practitioners using Corvidae to their own benefit.”
“Radiation?” I asked.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something like radiation,” Rose said. “There has to be a reason people don’t use Corvidae to hook them up with their crushes and unattainable loves. Besides, I don’t think anyone owns Laird, and it’s a transfer of ownership, even with loved ones.”
I nodded. No using the magpie man to trade one hostage for another.
“I’m glad you’re thinking, Blake,” Rose said, “But I don’t think the answer is as easy as that.”
“We have the Hyena,” Maggie said.
“If I release it, I think Evan will have command of it,” I said.
“I know how goblins operate,” Maggie said. “Asking me to be your champion and then giving the goblin beast to Evan isn’t good strategy.”
“Let me rephrase. If I release it, Evan will have command of it, circumstances allowing,” I told her.
“Cold,” Maggie said.
“I made promises,” I said.
“Still cold. You sortaowe me one, after I’ve come all this way.”
“Maybe,” I said. “If I was certain I knew who you were.”
She snapped her head around, staring at me. “Huh?”
I met her eye, the other one covered by her hand, blood leaking down her arm. It looked like it hurt.
I could have asked her to lower her hand, to give me a better look at her eye, where Duncan had clocked her, but there was a very good chance that doing so might mean I had one less ally here and one more enemy.
“Nevermind. I’m getting distracted from the subject at hand,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”
“No kidding,” Maggie said. “Are you losing it?”
The question sounded so natural, but the fact that it was a question and not a statement only added to my doubt.
“You’re only now starting to doubt him?” Duncan asked.
“Hush,” Maggie said. She rested the tip of the sword on Duncan’s collarbone, the sword’s point pushing against his skin to create a faint depression. The smallest push could break the skin and a more serious push could slide the blade right into windpipe, artery or jugular.
“Laird’s an augur,” I said. “He can see the future. Now that we know the time magic is mostly bullshit and bullshitting, I’m suspicious that the ‘seeing the future’ thing is one of their more costly activities. I’m not sure how it works, but he might be working out the best plans of attack.”
I watched Duncan as I said it, and I saw his expression change just a bit. Not a smile, not a frown, but a very neutral tug of the corner of the lips, out to either side.
I wished I knew why, but it was good to know that I’d provoked some reaction from him. I made a mental note.
“While I’m brainstorming, we have another option,” Rose said. “Well, we have two, but one you’re more likely to consider.”
“Let’s hear it.”
“June. We can use June.”
“Let her go. It’s her medium.”
“You mean we…”
“Same we did with Leonard. One last expenditure of power.”
“Leaves Blake unarmed,” Maggie commented.
“Yeah,” I said. “But I see where Rose is coming from. If we don’t get out of this in one piece, then there’s no point to holding on to June.”
I felt the weight of June in my hand.
Neither Rose nor Maggie said anything.
Out there, in the midst of the snow, I heard Laird talking. From the one-sided nature of the conversation, I suspected he was on the phone.
“What’s the second idea?” I asked.
“We let Pauz free.”
I didn’t move.
“I’m waiting for you to elaborate,” I said. “You wouldn’t just suggest this out of nowhere. You probably considered the objections I’d raise and came up with answers. What’s-”
Loud, throbbing music cutting through the whistle of the wind. The bass was turned up too high, the entire thing undercut by the hiss of static, a radio station that was tuned slightly off.
“Car stereo,” I said.
We’d taken too long to deliberate, and they were making their first move.
The music stopped. It was only eerie silence.
I glanced over my shoulder, and saw the same scene as before, but Laird wasn’t there, and the car on the street had its headlights on.
“Maggie, draw the gun,” I said. “I need the Hyena.”
“It’s just over there. Pass it to me,” she said, “Take the sword.”
I glanced over my shoulder again, making sure I wasn’t putting myself in the line of fire, then hurried over.
I grabbed the gun from the ground and reversed it for her, as was my habit, learned over many hours of handyman work. Our attention split between Duncan and the possible threat outside, we fumbled a bit, but Duncan didn’t try anything.
Then Laird’s soundtrack started playing.
Words in Arabic, punctuated by a soundtrack of ticks, tocks, and audible gear shifts.
“Fucker,” I said. I raised my voice to be heard. “Laird!”
He didn’t respond.
“Laird, you fucker! This isn’t in Duncan’s interests!”
“You said it yourself,” Rose commented. “The Behaim family peeks at the future. You’re dealing with a hostage negotiator who can see the outcomes of his actions.”
“Or make an educated guess, at the very least,” Duncan said.
“Quiet,” Maggie said.
“Or what? You can cut me a little with the sword, but the gun is either fired or it isn’t. There isn’t a lot of middle ground.”
Maggie kicked him in the head. Duncan toppled from his kneeling position, hard.
“Or that,” she said.
Duncan didn’t move, hand to his mouth.
The music was ongoing, building in tempo.
I covered my ears with one hand and the wrist of the hand that held June.
As defenses went, it was weak.
“Rose,” I said. “Let the Hyena loose. Order it to obey Evan and us. Hit the car.”
“Hyena!” Rose raised her voice. “The seventh-youngest Thorburn bound you, and the seventh-youngest Thorburn bids you to listen! Accept our order, obey Evan Matthieu, the ghost and the bird, agree to do us no harm. Do this and you may step forth, wreak havoc, strike down our enemies!”
The sword began to come undone, twisting in my grip.
I heaved it through the window, spinning hilt over blade.
I could only see bits in my peripheral vision as I ducked back behind cover. I could see the lighting in the living room change, as though a heavy cloud had passed over the sun on a sunny day, but it was overcast, and the shadow was thicker, deeper, and harbored a fair bit of darkness inside it.
“Corvidae,” I said. “Stall for now, try to find a good opportunity to use him if you can.”
Rose didn’t respond. She shouted something I couldn’t make out. A line in another language.
Glass broke somewhere upstairs.
A body landed in the front yard. Corvidae, almost the same as I’d seen him earlier, but he wore a coat.
“Corvidae, guard us!” Rose ordered.
“Not where my talents lie,” Corvidae commented.
“Deal with it!” Rose called out.
The Sister’s dolls advanced across the front yard. I saw a glimpse of the Hyena assaulting them, biting and tossing them free, before he changed direction, moving for another target.
I could see the wounds, the elemental energy bleeding forth.
Conquest passed into my field of view as he stepped back, both hands on his old fashioned bayonet rifle.
When Conquest’s eyes fell on me, I ducked behind cover. I had only a fleeting glimpse of him raising his weapon to his shoulder, the barrel pointed at me.
“Down!” I shouted.
Maggie threw herself to one side, landing on her side so she wouldn’t take the gun off Duncan.
I dropped to the base of the wall.
Conquest was big, the rifle disproportionately large. The shot blew a chunk out of the wall by where my arm had been. Another hole appeared in the wall on the far end of the room.
Rose was saying something, but my ears were covered.
“What?” I asked, lowering my hand.
The music was almost drowned out by the sound of the Hyena tearing into the car.
“Corvidae is down,” Rose commented, sounding very calm. “Wait, nevermind, he’s back up.”
“Duck, Rose!” I said. “Those bullets could hit you! Conquest has done it before.”
“I am,” Rose said. “But he’s trying to stop you, you know?”
I did know.
He wanted to take me out so Rose was easy pickings.
But he’d aimed for a spot that would have hit my arm. Assuming supernaturally good aim, was he shooting to wound? Did he want to break me?
Another shot passed through a spot slightly higher than the last.
Maybe not. That seemed aimed at hitting head or neck.
It all seemed to be playing out in slow motion. The way the splinters and plaster flew through the air, the chunks of brick arcing toward the floor.
Everything mattered, missing something vital could ruin us.
But my perceptions were the key thing here, and I was perceiving things in an odd way.
The music? The individual elements were piling on one another now, building up to something.
I could cover my ears to stop that bit of perception alteration from getting to me.
Maggie couldn’t, not with a gun in one hand. Not if she wanted to aim at Duncan.
This wasn’t a glamour, not exactly. It wasn’t countered by someone recognizing it for what it was.
I’d argued with Rose before, saying that magic was an art form, not a science. That it was about symbols and interpretation, and just as we focused ideas through words and images, the rules of this world could be altered by way of incantations, rituals and symbols.
Time as we recorded and tracked it was a construct, attitudes toward it changed from culture to culture, person to person.
He was altering that attitude.
Things were slowing down, in action and thought, and it was getting worse. I knew my actions were slowed, but my thoughts were gradually catching up.
What did he gain, slowing everyone down? What did it do except give us more time to think as trouble arrived?
Duncan shifted his weight, back away from Maggie at first. Innocuous.
“Touch your ears…” Maggie said, and the words were slightly drawn out, distorted by the music, “…I shoot!”
Maggie didn’t see how he was getting his feet under him.
The music shifted, the effect doubling down. Duncan moved as if he’d expected it, choosing that moment to spring forward.
Maggie stepped back, adjusting the angle of the gun, gauntleted hand closing on the trigger. Excruciatingly slow.
Duncan moved faster.
His hands moved faster.
The runes he’d drawn on his wrists in marker.
I could remember when I’d tested the slow time field around Hillsglade house. Dropping something, watching it move slower in my perceptions as compared to reality.
I moved, not drawing my arm back -there was no time- but simply hurling it forward.
I threw June.
The music could affect my body, convince it to move slower, it would have a harder time doing the same to a hurled hatchet.
Duncan’s hands reached the gun. Maggie managed to pull the trigger, but Duncan was already turning the gun around, one hand on the back of it, the other on the side of the barrel.
The gun shot passed over one of his shoulders.
He twisted the gun around until it was pointed at Maggie, her finger sliding out of the trigger-guard as the gun rotated.
The hatchet hurtled past him, handle striking his elbow.
He moved, holding the gun with one hand. His body was as affected as mine was, but his hands and his arms weren’t. He looked at me out of the corner of one eye, aiming-
-and there was nothing I could do about it. Even covering my ears wasn’t making a whole lot of difference.
Rose was saying something, but her voice was distorted.
Then I heard fluttering right in my ear, and the entire world shifted into focus, in the chronological sense.
I threw myself to one side, and Evan gave me a push to help. In the doing, I put myself behind Duncan, where it was physically impossible to aim at me. The shoulder couldn’t bend that far back.
“Good job,” I said, putting my feet under me.
“Hyena’s down!” Rose said. I put two and two together and realized she was repeating her line from earlier. “Corvidae is gone!”
The music still played.
Conquest moved, stepping to a point where he and his rifle were visible through the window. Basic logic said that if I could see him, he could see me.
Evan’s wings sounded I lunged to one side, trying to use Duncan as cover, hoping Conquest had made some deal-
No such luck. Shots rang out. The damage was exaggerated as it hit various objects and surfaces within the house, causing plaster to rain down, loud and violent enough to make my vision distort. He didn’t need to reload.
He was the assailant, I was the civilian, or the man on the battlefield who was out of ammo and praying not to get hit. That was the aura he had, the atmosphere that he carried with him when he was on the offensive. It stripped away rational thought, shifted the ‘fight or flight’ decision making into pure ‘flight’.
It was like being the kid in the classroom, homework unfinished, praying the teacher wouldn’t pick you to answer the question. That was the closest comparison I could make, tying it to reality, except being ‘picked’ was being hit by the bullet.
And you knew the fucking teacher had it in for you.
I found the hatchet in my scramble.
Time seemed to slow as I ducked low, grabbing the handle, and put inadvertently distance between myself and Evan.
I thought of moments I regretted. Moments where I looked back on them and wished I’d done something different. Moments I’d been attacked.
I found something there. Anger, a need to not feel like that again.
I’d fight back, lash out blindly if I had to.
Evan found me again, no doubt trying to help me avoid the next bullet. In the moment I found the regular flow of time, I swung the hatchet, aiming for Duncan’s wrists.
It was about as grisly as one might expect.
Blood, a scraping that felt incongruous with everything else.
I’d only hit one wrist, but that was enough.
I pulled it free, expecting resistance, found none, and let the hatchet fly into the air.
Rose was watching, waiting.
“June!” she shouted. “We release you from your binding! All at once now! The snow! Nothing but snow!”
Conquest shielded his face as the hatchet detonated, the ghost appearing as she’d been the first time I’d seen her, clear as day.
Snow filled the room, thicker than any snowfall.
I ran, and by the third step, my feet were padding on snow.
The house was filling with it.
Russian winter to stall the Conqueror, I could only hope.
I ran around to the side of the house, the exit in the garage.
I stopped, caught between Conquest, who might be following, and Laird, who would be near the car at the front.
Maggie had slipped out the front. I could feel the connection moving. I wasn’t sure why Laird wasn’t going after her, but she had slipped out, which was all I could ask for.
“You okay?” Evan asked.
“You’re a hero,” I told him. “I’m unhurt.”
“Because in the movies, people get shot and they don’t realize, and it’s all-”
“Evan. I’m okay.”
“For now. We can’t stay here,” Rose said. “Go for Laird.”
“Don’t have any weapons,” I said.
“We do,” Rose said. “It’s the last big option you have, but…”
I heard a crash from the direction of the kitchen.
Conquest was making his way to us, too big for the room.
It seemed Duncan wouldn’t have a house when all of this was done.
“Do it,” I said. “Clean and fast as you can.”
I heaved the garage door open, then slipped under.
I came face-to-face with a Behaim kid. The older teenager.
He held a golden disc like he might hold a weapon. He was looking around, searching for something.
Did the disc need a vehicle? A power source? A target?
It didn’t matter.
“Duncan is inside,” I said, my voice low. “He’s bleeding badly, maybe to death. Get inside, stop the blood flow.”
I could see the horror on his face.
“Please,” I said. “I promise I won’t hurt your Uncle Laird too badly. I won’t kill him, if I can help it. But Duncan may well die without help.”
He wasn’t moving.
“Go!” I shouted.
He went, running.
I didn’t move as fast. Snow still billowed out from the living room, like smoke from a fire, thicker than the snowfall that still plagued the city. Even on the driveway, which had been shoveled in the not-so-distant past, pushed down by the passage of Joanna’s car and tires, it was nearly knee-deep.
The Hyena lay on its side at the end of the driveway, collapsed, snow already thick in its fur. It didn’t breathe. Blood pooled around it.
The dolls the Hyena had gotten its teeth and claws on were acting erratic, conflicting with other dolls or staggering in Laird’s general direction.
One staggered in mine, making slow and uneven progress through the deeper snow of the yard itself. Evan circled it, and it spun in place, trying to clutch him, before it lost its balance and collapsed.
A moment later, it erupted in a small explosion. Evan was clear.
Laird was standing just outside his car, surrounded by four more injured dolls.
He fired his gun, and one staggered back before breaking into individual pieces.
If I could get my hands on him…
But I couldn’t get past those dolls without risking it. Couldn’t risk getting shot. For now, he was prioritizing
The garage door opened.
The snow didn’t even impede him, out here.
“This has gone on long enough,” Conquest said.
I didn’t open my mouth.
If he shot me-
The butt of his gun struck the snow beside him, barrel pointed skyward. He held it like he might a cane.
“We’re not fighting?” I asked.
“Fighting implies a kind of equality, doesn’t it?” he asked. “One person fighting, the other fighting back? I’m not so fond of level playing fields.”
I nodded slowly.
I had a very bad feeling.
“I saw your Rose preparing to call the imp. She won’t be finishing the task anytime soon. Laird is occupied. This is between you and me.”
“And me!” Evan said.
I wasn’t sure if it was the contrast to Conquest’s voice or fear, but Evan’s voice was a squeak, it was so high-pitched.
“Ah, of course. You have support. Shall I call mine?”
The Shepherd? The Eye?
Conquest spread his arms. As if stepping out from behind the curtains on either side of the stage, two figures emerged.
Two men, a bit of scruff on their cheeks, they wore utilitarian clothes, dirty, one suited more for spring or fall, the other for winter. Heavy layers. They had wavy blond hair of different lengths. One was slightly shorter than the other. Fractionally.
“Blake?” Evan asked. he looked up at me, then over at them, confused.
“Yeah,” I said, as I stared at them. “He found them.”
My heart pounded. I knew exactly what was coming.
They were me.
“Echoes,” Conquest said. “Images, memories and emotions that left a mark on the surface of reality, on the spiritual plane. Much like yourself, little bird.”
“Fuck you,” I told him, and my voice was strangled.
“Allow me to reintroduce you,” Conquest said.
The younger one rushed at me.
There was no avoiding it. In a way, it was mine.
The rain fell hard.
It wasn’t one of the nights where sleep came easy. Most nights, I could get five hours, in the right place, if I’d eaten, if everything was okay.
But I itched. I suspected I knew why, and shame gnawed at me.
One night in the shelter, when the rain had been worse, I might have caught them from the cot. Lice, bed bugs, fleas, something.
There was no getting rid of them. I had a hundred tiny bites on me, and all I could do was suffer in silence. I’d known sleep was going to be hard to come by, so I had picked a less desirable spot, where I had more of a view, where the rain only fell on me when the direction changed.
I was fully prepared to spend the night awake, enduring discomfort on a number of levels, lost in thought and introspection.
I was almost ready to go back. To just duck my head down and see my parents. To bite the bullet.
I didn’t expect sympathy. If they had any to spare, they would have found me already. I’d stayed with friends for a while, couch surfing, then the periodic night on the streets when I’d been unable to find a couch became the typical night on the streets.
I didn’t even expect blame, exactly.
When I contemplated the situation, I was trying to find arguments that I could make, that would keep my parents from shoving me right out the door again. I wasn’t young enough to demand they take me back. They weren’t required to by law.
I seethed as I recalled memories, trying to think of every major wrong they’d done me, so I could tell them they owed me a few nights of a bed to sleep on, a shower, some food.
By the time I heard the footsteps, it was too late.
This isn’t the worst one. Or even the second-worst one. Not the one where I was shot and beaten.
Kids with makeshift clubs. Sticks, something that might have been a ski pole without the plastic bit on the bottom.
Of course, ‘kid’ was relative.
Teenagers, big enough to be almost-adults, little enough to lack the full-sized brain that let someone make the right judgement calls.
In a way, it’s why I don’t blame Maggie more than I do. Because I’ve spent too long trying to frame this.
The first hits were aimed at knocking me out, or at least leaving me senseless. Aimed at the temple, hitting my ear instead, cutting it.
Another blow, aimed at the same spot, maybe by the same person, hitting the edge of my eye socket.
A jab at my ass with something long and sharp, raucous laughter.
I fought, lashing out, hurled the first thing my hand could find.
They fought back, focusing mostly on my head, until they saw a chance to grab my arms, holding me down, my legs kicking.
It didn’t matter, the struggling. They took turns. Aiming at the head, aiming at the stomach, legs, groin, knees.
End it. Please. I can feel it all. How much experience can an echo cover?
The emotions- hatred, confusion, mindless animal terror.
It was like each hit beat me down a little more. Pushed me further back. Put me in the mindset I’d had when I was just a little younger. Being a teenager, so frustrated, hurting in ways I couldn’t put words to.
Being a small child, wanting his mom.
They were slowing down.
I was left with only the hurt. Feeling like I had as a kid, in some after school activity, after some older kids had mocked me in the changing room, chanting at me “you suck, you suck!” Just as unable to comprehend how people could do something so cruel. Making the connection between things I’d read about and the fact that it could really happen in reality.
I wasn’t even a four or five year old, in terms of where I was mentally or emotionally.
Four or five year olds could move of their own volition.
I was left to lie there, in a spot that most people wouldn’t go to, beside the road, overlooking the water.
They must have seen me take the path down.
My eyes fell on a sparrow, sitting on a short sign.
“I can’t do anything here,” Evan said.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “I’m really sorry.”
I wasn’t sure what he was apologizing for. For being unable to help?
For having seen it?
The echo didn’t stop.
The scene became fractured, skipping across the highlight reel. What I had anticipated as one night of mild discomfort would be a few days. The highlight real treated me to all of the most emotional moments in those days that followed.
I’d been considering going home, before that. Stupidly, stubbornly, I’d told myself I would wait until the cuts and bruises were gone.
I inhaled as if I were coming up from underwater. I took a step back, forgetting that there was snow blocking my range of movement, and I stumbled.
“You and I both know what this next one entails,” Conquest said.
“Fuck you,” I gasped out the words. “Fuck you, Conquest. You shitstain! You think this makes you look strong? Your worst doesn’t even compare to what petty humans do to each other!”
“Are you sincerely asking me to do my worst to you?” Conquest asked. There was fucking amusement in his voice.
“I’d ask you to fuck yourself, but I doubt you’re that well endowed, if you’re pulling this petty fucking shit!”
“It seems to be having an effect on you,” he said.
I shook my head. The scene was replaying in my head.
“It wasn’t real,” I said. “It… that wasn’t exactly how it happened.”
“Close enough to matter,” he said. “Holes had to be filled in, gaps covered.”
“Fuck you,” I said.
“Let’s see how accurate this next one turned out,” he said.
The echo didn’t rush.
Just looking at it was as bad as everything else Conquest had put me through.
I backed up. Even in the snow, I was faster.
Until hands gripped my upper arms.
For a moment, I thought it had me. Fear overtook me.
“This is for the best,” Laird said, in my ear.
I tried to retort, but the words didn’t find their way to my mouth.
I struggled, and he held me fast.
Evan flew between us, breaking Laird’s hold, and I heard him fluttering in my ear as Laird screamed all of a sudden.
I was free.
But the echo was too close now.
I turned, thinking I could move away faster if I wasn’t walking backward, and I felt it seize my wrist.
One man, this time.
His features were distorted, but I’d been messed up enough after the fact that it might have muddled the memories, distorted the echo.
No, no, no.
“What’s-” Evan started.
“What can I do?” Evan cried out.
Nothing. It’s a scene, it wants to play out. Just talk to me, distract me, okay?
“It can’t be that simple!”
It is. It’s as simple as it gets.
“What about your friends? Your friends don’t suck! Ty is cool!”
And Alexis, and Tiff, and Joel, yeah. But I really don’t want to associate them with this. Something else.
“This thing is a ghost? The echo?”
“Then, like me? Are there ghost weaknesses?”
Not like you. It’s a replay.
“Fast forward! Stop! Pretend it’s a video, like it’s art, and change it like you would the video, right?”
Like June? Calling events to mind?
Skip to the end.
Alexis sat in front of me as I woke.
“Shh,” she said. “I’m here. I’m not doing anything, I’m not going anywhere. Just rest. Feel better.”
I let my head down to the ground.
“If you need anything, no matter how minor, stupid or hard to get? Ask. I’ll figure it out,” she said.
“Just stick around,” I muttered.
“I can do that.”
A burst of gratitude, big enough to leave a mark, alongside all the other crazy, mixed-up emotions.
I stirred, but this time I didn’t gasp. Laird had backed off a little.
Silently, quickly, I grabbed the splinter of wood I’d been given to find the eraser demon.
I stabbed it into Laird’s neck.