Category Archives: 7.10

Void 7.10

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

The factory loomed before us.

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

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

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

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

“Uh huh,” she said.

“How do we do this?” Alexis asked.

“Carefully,” I said.

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

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

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

“It eats existence?” Alexis asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You and me both,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Too much to do.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A binding?” Alexis asked.

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

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

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s weird,” I told him.

“Nuh uh.”

“Flying has to be better.”

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

I shook my head a little as he went on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ty ignored me.  “A fire sparrow.”

Yes.

“Fuck you, Ty,” I said.

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

“What?”

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

“I heard it, just as you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed.

“What about those flaming birds?”  Evan asked.

“Phoenixes,” Rose said.

“Yes.  I could be like one of those!”

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

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

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

Alexis rubbed her hands together.

“Cold?” I asked.

“Yeah.  You?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No jokes.  Not with this.”

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

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

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

“Oh,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” I said.  “That.”

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

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

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

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

She shrugged.

“Yeah,” I said.

Ty finished taking the photos and put his phone away.

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

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

“You get ‘vibes’?” I asked.

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

I nodded.

“Why?” Rose asked.

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

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

“Insomnia?” I asked.

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

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

“You still trusted her with the binding circle.”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knocked.

The Astrologer answered.

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

“No,” I said.

“No,” Maggie said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not what I might have assumed.

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

Ty groaned.

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

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

“You were close,” I said.

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

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

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

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

I nodded.  “Trouble?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Ah,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Can you try?”

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

“I’m listening.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bet you wouldn’t,” Ty said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the same, Ty hung on every word.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Radiation.

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

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

“But?” I asked.

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

I nodded slowly.

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

“Karma is more directed.”

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

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

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

“I wonder.”

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

“No.  Not with you, I’m sorry.”

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

“No means no,” the Elder Sister intoned.

Her voice rang through the chamber.

Excellent acoustics, if nothing else.

“With me, then,” Rose said.

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

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

“Not by the demons.  By Conquest.”

That gave us pause.

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

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

“The new ones.”

I looked over my shoulder at Alexis and Tiff.

“Yes, them.  They’ll vouch for you.”

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

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

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

“The Astrologer has-”

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

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

Tainted by Conquest.

Note to self:  Keep Rose away from the mirror.

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

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

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

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

“A lot of fire,” Maggie said.

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

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

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

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

He was waiting for us when we arrived.

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

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

He didn’t move.

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

He was shaking his head.

“No?” I asked.

He shook his head again.

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

He shook his head again.

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

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

He didn’t move.

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

What leverage did I have?

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

The Shepherd didn’t answer.

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

The Shepherd didn’t budge.

Too much to ask for?

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

He stared.

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

I trailed off.

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

I barely recognized it as a signature.

He walked away.

“Can we use that?” I asked.

“We’ll have to,” Rose said.

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

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

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

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