I sat there, cold, hurting in too many ways to count, enjoying the fact that I had just a few minutes before someone tried to kill me or do worse.
It was like waking up, and feeling a kind of tranquility where I was warm, comfortable, and all of the negativity of the past and responsibilities of the future had yet to spring to mind.
There was just the moment.
Evan’s body expanded and contracted by the smallest discernible fraction as he inhaled and exhaled in my cupped hands. He was healing fast, and seemed to have largely shut down or fallen asleep while he put himself back together.
I stared down, half at him, half at the ground.
Not victory, but success.
As was always the case with this sort of thing, reality began to sink in. I remembered Duncan and the kids. The effect that had kept people indoors would be fading, and it was only a matter of time before Toronto woke up and resumed business as usual.
My eyes roved over the street. Houses stood like tombstones, blasted with snow to the point that brick and siding were dusted white, and the space between the houses was an uneven plain of snow, rising and falling, with a vague trench in the middle where the snow had piled on the road, rising where snow had been shoveled onto lawns or pushed there by the plows.
“Are you okay, Rose?” I asked.
Not supposed to ask that, I remembered. But I didn’t feel very verbose. Talking was the last thing I wanted to do, because it only served to banish the lingering calm.
“He was focused on me, I was focused on making him lose his bearings.”
I searched around until I found where she was speaking from. A larger piece of my pendant-mirror, lying in front of me. I couldn’t imagine it gave her much room to stand. Maybe all the pendant-shards together?
“You’re okay, though?” I asked.
“Yeah. You? How are you managing after all that?”
I couldn’t sum up the words needed to explain it. How did I convey how not okay I was, without inviting pity or giving her the wrong impression?
“I killed Laird, I think,” I said. “Fuck, I said I wouldn’t hurt him too badly if I could help it, and- fuck.”
“You broke a vow?”
“I’m not sure,” I said.
She didn’t respond, I didn’t volunteer anything, and a few moments passed. The momentary tranquility of earlier was swiftly giving way to anxiety. I’d known it would, I just didn’t like how firm a hold that anxiety had on me.
Evan began to pull himself together. He was still bloody, but he seemed largely intact. He experimentally fluffed himself up, relaxed, then fluffed up again.
“Problem?” I asked.
“Blood in my feathers. Feels weird.”
“A bath might fix it,” I said, glad for the change of subject, the simple, implicit question I could actually answer. I was doubly glad that Evan was talking more or less normally to me. “That is, if being magical doesn’t fix it before then.”
“That’d be weird,” Evan said. I raised my hand to my shoulder, and he hopped onto his perch there. I moved my scarf so he could take shelter. “Can I give myself a bath?”
“Probably,” I said. “Not sure if it’ll come off, might have to wait until you molt. Again, allowing for being magical.”
“Uh huh,” he said. “Or it could be my thing. Evan Matthieu, blood sparrow, biting out chunks of eyeball and fighting monsters!”
Thinking of blood made me think of Maggie, odd as it was. I looked in her direction, and saw her sitting on the tire that was mounted on the back of the sports utility vehicle, a matter of feet from the circle.
“Chances are good that you’d influence your natural properties, if you made a habit of getting that bloody,” Rose said.
“Huh?” Evan asked.
“Soak yourself in blood probably would give you power of a sort.”
“I think some Others and practitioners do that sort of thing… but if I’m remembering right,” Rose said, “There are drawbacks.”
“I’m going to vote against the blood-bath strategy,” I told Evan.
“To be safe. And because we need to wrap this chat up and get down to business.”
“Aw-” Evan started. He cut himself off as I angled my head, bumping him with my jaw.
“I’m not objecting,” Rose said. “But are you alright to move?”
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I need a second opinion. I swore… fuck, I can’t remember the exact wording. I wouldn’t move until this was decided.”
“I think you’d be lying if he broke free and the fight continued,” Rose said. “I’d say this is pretty decided, but if you want to sit there and wait-”
“No,” I said. “I feel like if I don’t get moving as soon as humanly possible, I’m just going to stop.”
“Suit yourself,” she said. “I’ll be over by Maggie.”
“Sure,” I said.
She was gone before I even started pulling myself back up to a standing position.
Too many close calls, situations where I was potentially breaking vows.
This whole dynamic, it was perfectly suited to the cool customer, to the men and women, boys, girls and Others who were coldly calculating, unflinching, with strong memories and keen attention to detail.
That wasn’t me.
“Hey,” Evan said.
We were alone. A quick check verified that none of the Behaim kids had approached.
“Hey,” I said.
“About before?” Evan asked.
I felt the emotion like a weight on my chest.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Is that a serious rule against me doing the blood sparrow thing or is there wiggle room?”
I let out a small half-laugh. “No rules. I said it was a vote, because it is. We’re partners. You make the choice, ideally with my input in mind.”
“Uh huh,” he said, his tone suddenly cheery, “So… that means I can do it? Or I go do it and then say sorry after?”
I sighed. “Rose and I are rubbing off on you.”
“Seriously though,” he said, his tone changing. I knew exactly what he was referring to. He didn’t finish the thought.
“Seriously,” I said, “You’re… putting me in a tough spot. I want you to enjoy the stuff you should be enjoying, as a kid-”
“Who’s a magic bird.”
“Yeah. My point stands. I-”
“A magic bird who could be a terrifying blood sparrow,” Evan said.
“Evan,” I said, and my tone was harsher than I meant it to be. Sharper than it should have been.
I kind of regretted doing that. I might have sworn I wouldn’t do it again, just to give myself a serious reminder, but I wasn’t sure I wouldn’t slip in the heat of a moment, and the heat of the moment was the only time it was liable to come up.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m nervous and I don’t know how to act, so I’m trying to be me, but I guess I’m being a nervous me.”
“I’m sorry too,” I said. “I’m- I guess I’m trying to be careful about what I say and how, and the interruptions aren’t helping.”
“Okay, I’ll shut up, then. You, um, you know I wasn’t really asking about the blood thing, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I wasn’t talking about it either. I want you to enjoy being a kid, whether you’re a bird or a kid or whatever else. You’re doing an awesome job so far. A ridiculously good job. But there’s stuff we’re dealing with that isn’t pretty, and that-”
Memories flashed through my mind’s eye.
“-That-,” I stumbled, my train of thought interrupted. “was some of them. The stuff we’re not exactly talking about.”
Not what I’d been meaning to wrap up with, but I’d rather finish the thought somehow than keep stumbling.
I was purposefully taking my time trudging through the snow to Maggie and Rose, watching my back in case the kids emerged. My jeans were soaked up to the knee already, and the cold just passed right through it.
“I’m kind of glad I didn’t have to grow up if that’s the sort of thing you have to deal with,” Evan said.
I let out another small laugh, more as a response than out of any genuine humor. I didn’t feel up to saying anything in response, and the alternative to laughing was letting the floodgates open, and I needed to stay functional.
Unhealthy, maybe, to bottle it up and slap a thin veneer of cheer over it, but I wasn’t sure there was a healthy way to deal with stuff of this caliber.
“I don’t think you should assume my life was typical in any way,” I said. “And you really shouldn’t say that.”
“I got stuck in the woods because a giant monster and his ghost chew toys trapped me there. I’m not typical either. Life can suck, and mine sucked toward the end, and I’m sorta glad it stopped sucking. Not totally glad but sorta glad.”
“No, nuh-uh. You said I shouldn’t interrupt you while you’re all borked. You also said we were partners, so that goes both ways.”
I sighed a little. “Fine. Say what you want to say.”
“You told me I shouldn’t say that I’m kind of glad. But I have to because I’m supposed to tell the truth. I miss my parents and I miss parts of my old life, the video games I never got to finish playing, and sometimes I do something awesome and I think I should tell my friends, and then I remember I can’t. Because dead.”
True to my word, I didn’t interrupt his spiel.
“But I am glad that I get to do stuff now instead of being alive and waiting for the next crummy thing to happen, or being dead and not getting to do much at all…”
I’d arrived at the end of the driveway by Maggie and Rose. Maggie sat on the back of the car. She held a mirror, presumably from the side-view mirror.
Rather than approach them, I cast a glance backward, making sure there weren’t pursuers, then held up a finger for their benefit. I walked a short distance away from them, keeping them out of earshot of Evan.
“…I’m a freaking kick-ass magic bird. Most of the time the worst that can happen is you go kaput and I gotta go head off to the land of the dead. I don’t have to worry about stuff the usual way. Only thing I gotta worry about is helping you with the stuff that you worry about.”
“The way you phrased that makes me feel kind of conflicted,” I said.
“It’s true! That’s the deal, isn’t it? You make my life better, you stop monsters with my help, and I help you through stuff.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s essentially it, I guess.”
“So,” he said, and his tone shifted. More careful. “That stuff.”
“I’m not majorly comfortable talking about it,” I said. I stuck my hands in my pockets for warmth. “It was what it was, and I can’t shake the feeling that people think less of me when they know, and I’d much rather be the guy with the cool friends and the motorcycle than… what you saw. And don’t tell me it didn’t change how you think of me, because it had to, and you can’t lie.”
“I can’t,” he said. “And even if I really want to tell you I think you’re more amazing…”
He trailed off.
It hurt. I had to admit it. It hurt.
I respected him for being mature enough to say it, but it hurt.
“That one vision-”
“Evan,” I said. Interrupting him, despite myself. Reflexive.
“Being beat up? Seeing you sleeping on the streets, all dirty? Not so amazing. I don’t blame you, but it’s not so amazing. I do think those guys suck for being cowardly and attacking you by surprise, all as a group. I thought I should say that.”
“Okay,” I said. “As much as you want to comment-”
“I need to comment,” he said. “Because we’re stuck together. If I don’t say something, then it becomes this thing we don’t talk about, like the time my mom and my dad separated for a while when I was really young, and my mom had a boyfriend right away after my dad left, and my parents got back together and nobody ever talks about the guy that was around back then, like they think- thought I didn’t remember.”
“You want to keep channels of communication open,” I said.
“Okay,” I said. “Channels of communication are open. Thank you for being honest. We should really hurry to the others and do what we can-”
“Not yet. That other one, the second vision memory thing?”
“Evan,” I said.
“I didn’t understand it. I mean, I got it, sort of. I- I can pick up on how unhappy it made you. I can put the pieces together.”
“This is one of those things where talking about it doesn’t always make it better,” I said.
“I’m- okay. Right. But if you ever do want to talk abut it, we can, and the channels are open.”
“I don’t think I ever will,” I said, “But thanks.”
“And-” he said.
I tensed. Please stop talking.
“-I sorta get why Alexis is extra important to you. If something happens, and if I can, I’ll look out for her.”
I let out a breath I’d inadvertently been holding in, and a small part of it was relief.
“That’s it,” Evan said.
I headed back to Rose and Maggie. While I did it, I adjusted my scarf, making sure Evan had enough coverage that cold air wouldn’t leak around him.
“That was good wording, by the way,” I said. “That promise? I’m happier hearing you be careful like that than I am hearing a straight-up oath. Thank you.”
We reached the circle.
The Behaims were moving around more, according to the connections, but not in our direction.
“What was that about?” Maggie asked.
“Needed to finish a discussion,” I said. “Nothing that should negatively affect you guys.”
“If you say so. He’s inside. I can see him moving around. Now what?”
“Now for the hard part,” Rose murmured.
I could make her out, and it was my first real clear view of her since this skirmish had started. Her hair had been cut short enough that it hung only to the nape of her neck, and it wasn’t an even cut. Styled, it might look good, but it wasn’t. The bits at the back were shorter than the bits closer to the front of her face.
In a way, it made me think of a bird’s wings.
“Well,” I said, shaking my head until I was more focused, “Not the hard part quite yet. We just need to bind him without his cooperation, and without letting him go. Then we get to the hard part.”
“I meant ‘now’ as in the next leg of this. I’m open to suggestions on how to do this binding.”
“Let me try,” Maggie said.
Maggie reached into her bag. She pulled out Black Lamb’s Blood, and the remains of the cord that had bound the text.
Using her athame, she held the cord out, so only the blade extended past the edge of the circle. She deposited the string within, then rearranged it with the blade, walking around it and poking the cord into place.
When the cord formed a circle, the ends overlapping, she stuck her athame in the ring of crimson snow, cutting it in half.
“The hair?” Rose asked.
“I should be able to use what’s here,” Maggie said. “If I can’t, you do have more on your head.”
“I’d rather not,” Rose said.
“You could use hair from elsewhere,” Maggie said, arching an eyebrow, athame raised.
I shuddered a bit.
“Couldn’t resist,” Maggie said, as she got back to work. “That really bothers you?”
“She’s me. It’s like you’re talking about doing something rude to my sister.”
Maggie began pushing the crimson snow into a tighter ring, one small enough to just encircle the mirror.
She began moving the pages, each of which had snow on it, the snow pushed down into a trench-like depression, with the hair within. The process was slower. She did three, adjusting the trench as she went, then circled around to do the opposite three, keeping it relatively symmetrical, moving each page as far as it would go without breaking contact with the ones on either side.
On the other side of the street, two houses down, the Behaim kids emerged. Duncan was leaning on the tallest one, his arms wrapped in bandages that were already crimson with blood where they had been cut to the bone, his hands dangling limp.
I was frozen as I watched them make their way over the snow, their attention on the snow immediately underfoot.
I could practically count down, their pace was so measured.
They reached the end of the path, stopping at the foot of the driveway.
Laird lay face down in the snow.
I swallowed hard.
“Blake,” Rose said.
“About what you said before, theatrics are important. I don’t know for sure, but if the spirits are on the fence, and if I’m not sabotaging you by telling you this, well, it seems like they would be more inclined to take your side if you acted like you were right.”
I nodded slowly.
Maggie was still going, the papers halfway to the inner circle of blood.
“Can we leave you to it?” I asked.
“You can. Should you? Don’t know. Those kids are going to be upset.”
I crossed the street, approaching the kids.
They hadn’t budged from where Laird lay, Duncan now standing between the two teenagers, who worked together to support him. The younger ones stood on either side of Laird.
One was one of his sons, if I remembered right.
The younger girl was crying, hands to her mouth.
They tensed as I drew near. I raised my hands.
“It’s over,” I said. “Please don’t make this any worse than it’s been. I’m… pretty fucked up, but you guys have Duncan to look after, I…”
I was having trouble articulating why they shouldn’t hit me with their worst.
Seeing the expressions on their faces, I wasn’t fully convinced, myself.
They looked to the oldest teenager for guidance.
Eyes lowered, still propping Duncan up with one arm, he very deliberately let go of his implement, letting it drop into one pocket.
The others relaxed, or they didn’t look poised to jump me.
“You know what gets me?” he asked, tone dull. “English. The language doesn’t do us justice in situations like this, does it?”
He met my eyes.
Being so close to where I’d relived the memories, I felt like my mind was some sort of minefield. If I thought the wrong thing, or thought in the wrong direction, I might crack, or snap, or get pulled back into recollections.
People suck, my own words to Evan, in my head.
“You’re right, sometimes there aren’t the words to say what you really want to say,” I said.
“There are a lot of things I could call you,” he said. “But I couldn’t call you a motherfucker without lying, and it doesn’t feel like the word has enough force to it, does it?”
“I promised you I’d avoid hurting him too much,” I said. “Not to kill him if- I think I said I wouldn’t kill him if I could help it.”
“My uncle is dead. It doesn’t look like it was clean,” he said. “I could call you forsworn. The spirits will get around to it if it’s deserved, but I could call you on it right here, decide how it plays out.”
I nodded slowly.
The older girl said, “Nothing to say? No words in your own defense?”
“If you’d name me forsworn,” I said, “I’d challenge you to walk through the last ten minutes in my shoes. See what I saw, feel what I felt, and then decide I was out of line and that I didn’t try.”
“The wording was, with minor differences, that you’d avoid hurting him too much, full stop. You’d avoid killing him if you could, circumstances allowing, full stop.”
I did what I could to avoid flinching or showing doubt.
I even did what I could to avoid thinking about my doubts.
I needed to sell this, not just to them, but to the spirits that were observing.
“In terms of quantity of blows, it was only the one,” I said. “In terms of the pain inflicted… I think it was a very low number on a scale of one to ten. I offered him some help after the fact.”
The teenage girl beside Duncan spat on me. I was pretty sure she was aiming at my face, but she hit the coat I’d borrowed from Ty instead.
I didn’t move. I held their gaze, steady.
The spitting, the seconds of silence that passed, it was a tacit acknowledgement that I wasn’t entirely wrong.
“Go,” I said. “Get Duncan there some help. Do what you need to do, family-wise. I’m guessing I’ll see some of you soon.”
The teenagers led Duncan off, the little girl following.
The youngest boy stayed, staring at me. His face was drawn, his features tight.
“Trying to remember what your face looks like,” he said.
“I don’t think it’s worth the effort,” I said. “A whole lot of Others and powers that be who can see the future are telling me I’m due to bite it sometime soon.”
“The Faerie told my father that one of his sons had only one year of life remaining,” the boy said. “And he was told he had thirty more years. Things can always be fudged. I’d rather be safe than sorry.”
“How does that work?” I asked. “How were things fudged?”
“Use of real time magic, just to be safe,” the kid said. “The family held a meeting, they voted and signed off on it. My father wrote terms into his will and sealed them with the appropriate magics. He and mom are giving us their remaining years if they die, half to me, half to my brother. Or my dad is going to try to.”
It looked like it was getting harder for him to speak. He was very deliberately avoiding looking at his dad.
It struck a chord in me, how I didn’t want to think of the wrong thing.
“I’m glad you’ve got that,” I said.
“Fuck you. You shouldn’t be,” he said. “We were enemies before, because of what you are and the family you come from. Now, after this? Like my cousin said, English doesn’t give good enough words, sometimes. What’s worse than enemy?”
I didn’t answer the question. “He knew what he was getting into, he knew what he was getting you into.”
“You killed my dad.”
“He pushed me into the worst sort of corner,” I said.
My tone was eerily flat. It sounded disconnected, unconvincing even to myself.
“You killed my dad,” he repeated himself.
“He was setting me up for a fate that could be worse than death.”
“You killed-” he stopped himself.
It was an eerie parallel to Evan. The singlemindedness.
“Maybe I can’t call you forsworn,” he said. His voice was small, and it sounded like it might break. “Don’t want that backlash. But I can say I wish you suffer everything bad that’s coming to you. I can appeal to the greater powers and the least powers, and tell them that if you have upset things, if you’ve got something bad coming your way, then they should make you lose whatever it is that made you feel happy and- and safe.”
With that last word, his voice finally cracked.
“Fuck you,” he said, as soon as he could speak straight, punctuating his statement.
Spat on, sworn at on two different levels…
“We can’t take him with us. Don’t you dare touch the body,” he said.
“I won’t,” I said.
“If you’re wrong, and you don’t die soon, then I’m going to come after you.”
“No fancy comeback? No threats?”
I swallowed hard. “I don’t blame you. I blame him, because I think he’s given you a pretty one sided version of things, but I don’t blame you.”
“Fuck you,” he said. “Just… whatever you killed him to avoid? I hope you get worse.”
There was nothing more to be gained here.
I turned to go.
“Fuck you!” he shouted at my back, and his voice cracked again, worse than before.
I rejoined Maggie, avoiding looking their way. Evan perched on my shoulder, watching my back for me.
Maggie had the circle closed, now, and was rearranging the cord yet again. “I need something else. Can you bring the Hyena?”
I glanced at the monster’s corpse. It was easy to miss, half-buried in snow.
I started to speak, but my throat was tight.
It was Rose who spoke. “Hyena, you’re done. I, um, bid you to collapse and be bound again, for it is a simpler form, and one you’ve committed to.”
Then, after seconds had passed, the Hyena moved. The snow fell, covering the remains of the body. When it settled, close to the street, the sword stuck out of the thickest part of it, broken.
“What the hell books have you been reading?” I asked.
“I pulled that one out of my ass,” Rose said, “so to speak. Borrowing from you, really.”
I extended the handle of the sword in Maggie’s direction, but she shook her head. “Much as I want it, best you do it. You have a role here, since you freed the people.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “What do I do?”
“I’m going to hold the paper down, and try to angle things so I can use the point of the athame. Use the sharpest point of the broken blade. We’re going to use two blades and work together to tie a very simple knot. Don’t put your hand inside the circle, or you might not get it back.”
“You’re kidding,” I said.
She shook her head.
I didn’t touch the handle, instead resting my right hand on the distorted wolf-skull emblem on the hilt, and my left on the cluster of bone at the pommel.
It was harder than it sounded, and it sounded very, very hard.
I almost didn’t mind. Ten failures, then twenty.
I’d heard stories about how scientists gave games like Tetris to the recently traumatized, to force a change in brain patterns and keep the trauma from getting its claws in the psyche.
I suspected I wasn’t so fortunate as that, but it was almost meditative. Not at all bad. I didn’t have the energy for impatience.
By the time we got it done, the sky was growing darker, and paradoxically, the city was waking up.
We finished about ten seconds before my hands and knees started to go completely numb, one minute before someone happened to walk outside and see us kneeling in the driveway.
My ears were ringing, my eyes had been so focused the rest of the world looked distorted, and I was cold and hurting.
I didn’t even hear the questions the bystander asked.
We’d tied the knot, Maggie reached in to cinch it tight, and we pulled the mirror from the circle, bound in bloodstained paper and cords that had been soaked in blood. Maggie tied the knots with locks of Rose’s hair.
We hadn’t conversed while our focus was on the knot, and I wasn’t even sure if Rose was even around, or if she had sought refuge somewhere where there were books and modern conveniences. Evan was resting, his thoughts elsewhere.
Even with the mirror bound, we were silent as we headed off. We didn’t have a specific reason to be silent, but we didn’t have anything more to say either.
I wanted food, I wanted sleep, and I doubted I’d have time for both.
The hard part came next.
The mirror clattered on the dining room table.
My apartment, as it happened. No reason to hide anymore. Not exactly.
Something had changed. The connections around the city, the tone of things. It was like the world had been cast in a stark contrast before, and it was only now letting up.
Even the connections that radiated from and to me were less intense.
Conquest’s champions knew he was bound, and they weren’t acting.
Goosh and Joel arrived, Joel carrying food. Freezer pizza.
Freezer pizza sounded damn good, frankly.
Alexis, Ty and Tiff arrived not long after we did. I had the kitchen sink filled with warm water and a drop of dish soap, and Evan was doing his best to give himself a bird bath.
“Hey,” Ty said. “Hey little bird. I’ve got my console and some games in my backpack. Blake said that this next stretch might involve waiting?”
“It might,” I said, “It could just as easily arrive in the next minute. A Sphinx crashing through my window, or an arrow, or the building burning down…”
“I’m… not sure I want to hear this,” Joel said.
I nodded. “Sorry.”
“Do you have Salv?” Evan asked.
“I do, as a matter of fact, have Salv,” Ty responded.
“Do you have a save file at the crash?”
“Are- are you willing to watch a bird struggle to use gamestation thumbsticks and press buttons when he says?”
“Willing? I don’t think you could convince me not to.”
Maggie had settled in at the end of the table, her arms folded.
I had questions, but… even now, was it time to ask?
Beyond her, practically everyone I trusted was here.
Which made it very concerning when I heard a knock at the door.
Only the people I didn’t trust were left.
I opened the door.
“Paige,” I said.
“Hi, Blake,” she said.
I looked at the woman behind her.
The Sphinx nodded. “Everyone else will be on their way soon. May I?”
Too speechless to respond, confused, I nodded and stepped out of their way.