Category Archives: Arc 7 (Void)

Void 7.9

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Isadora looked much as she had when I’d seen her on the balcony, but she’d taken more measures to make it look more like she was human.  More of the winter clothing including scarf and hat, fashionable in a way that suggested she wasn’t paying that much, but still had an uncanny awareness of what would suit her and go well together.

Paige was different from the last time I’d seen her.  The clothes weren’t a new style, but I had the uncanny impression that she’d taken one step along the road to being more like Isadora.  Same thing with the clothes.  Her hair was styled differently.  She stood straighter, more poised.

They stopped at the entrance to the living room.  Paige’s eyes roved over everything.  Ty and Evan were sitting on the floor, Ty unwinding cables he’d neatly bound with twist ties, and Evan perched on the game controller that had been set on the ground, one foot on each thumbstick, wings extended for balance.

The others were on the couch or in the dining room.

“Your T.V. sucks,” Evan said.  “My mom and dad have a better T.V. in their kitchen, and it’s as old as I am and it’s smaller than the…”

He trailed off as he saw Isadora and Paige.

“…microwave.”

The appearance of strangers changed the tone of things right away.  Only some of my friends had seen and met Isadora.

“I remember you,” Joel said.

“Yeah,” Paige said.  “Thank you for being so patient with me and pointing me in the right direction.”

“Not a problem,” Joel said.

Others, including Alexis, Ty, Tiff and Evan, were looking at me for a cue.

“I suppose introductions are in order,” I said.  “But before I launch into those… I have to ask, Isadora, does she know?”

“She knows some,” Isadora said.  “Almost enough.”

“That’s pretty vague,” I said.  “Dangerous, even.”

“I know,” Isadora said.  Then, after a pause, she prompted me, “Introductions?”

“Most of you know Isadora.  Joel, Goosh, this is the woman who cut me open the other night, nearly killing me.”

I saw Paige’s eyebrows go up.  She glanced at Isadora.

Isadora didn’t offer an explanation.

“Beside Isadora, we have Paige.  My cousin.  Last in line to be heir to the Thorburn property and all its misfortunes.  No, I don’t know why she’s with Isadora.  Isadora, Paige, these are my friends and allies.  Alexis, Tiffany, Joel, Goosh, Maggie, Ty, and Evan.”

I pointed to each in turn.  Evan flew up to my extended finger as I finally reached him.  I moved him to my shoulder.

“Isadora told me ‘there are no coincidences’,” Paige said.  “Evan?  As in the kid you were accused of murdering?”

“Your cousin is sharp,” Ty said.

“That means I’m right?  It’s not a coincidence?” Paige said.

“Not helping, Ty,” I said.

I looked between Paige and Isadora, hoping to make the connection.  I settled on speaking to Isadora.  “What’s this about?  Is she a hostage?”

“No.”

“Why is she here?”

“I chose to come,” Paige said.

Alexis spoke up, “You couldn’t choose to come unless she gave you the choice in the first place.  I think he’s asking why Isadora gave you the choice.”

“Yeah,” I said.

Having someone speak up and help clarify this situation and help me feel a little less off-balance made a world of difference.

Isadora spoke up.  “We were talking, I said I had something to do, she asked if it had to do with this world.  I said yes.  She asked if she could observe, as per our prior agreement, made a few days ago.  I said she could do more than observe.”

“What are you doing?” I asked.  “She knows some, but not enough?  She’s a danger to herself, to the innocent, and to the rest of us, if the wrong thing gets said.  She’s a walking minefield.”

“You just asked a question and answered it in the next breath,” Isadora said.

That took me a second to wrap my head around.  “You want her to act as a walking hazard?”

“The sorority, the astrologer, your friends from the convenience store and the drunk, among others, will be arriving within the next twenty minutes, by my best estimate.  Tensions are liable to be high.”

“Yeah,” I said.  I’d said something only a few bit ago about possibly being shot through the window.  No surprises with that pronouncement.

“This will go more smoothly with her here.  Everyone will have to carefully choose their words, and nobody will pull out weapons with a relative innocent in the way.  Peace, after a fashion.”

Because cluing her into the world behind the curtain means taking on some responsibility for whatever happens to her.  I looked at Paige.  She’s here because it means possibly finding answers.

This was a disaster waiting to happen.

“Did you find her, or did-”

Paige cut me off.  “I found her.”

“She investigated on her own,” Isadora said.  “Word was getting around about the altercation at the University, you and the drunkard’s friends.  She heard, discovered it was you, and asked around.  I was one of the people that she asked.”

“That seems like an awfully contrived series of events for someone who was just saying there are no coincidences,” I said.

Isadora smiled.  “It illustrates my point, as a matter of fact.  Paige?  Remember what we talked about earlier?  Rephrase it in your own terms, show me you understood the idea.”

Paige blinked a few times.  Then she took the challenge.  “Imagine a stone, the stone is tied to other stones, all arranged around the edge of a pond, or on the side of a bridge.  Throw it in, and what happens?”

Maggie answered, “That’s a stupid hypothetical.  It depends on the strength of the rope.  The size of the stones, the number of stones…”

“And the strength of the throw,” Paige said.  “Exactly.  The stone could dangle, safely suspended above the depths, all other things being standard.  If the stone is particularly heavy, however-”

She paused a half-second to glance at me.

“-Then the ropes could break, if the ties are weak enough, or, conversely, it could drag the other stones down with it,” Paige finished.  “Our hypothetical stone had momentum, a stone was already gently rolling in that general direction, and-”

“-That stone, named Paige, followed the path of least resistance,” Isadora finished.  “Good.  Eerily accurate, as a matter of fact.”

Paige smiled, and that response bothered me more than I cared to admit.

I bit my lip.  “I told you not to press, Paige.  To let this be.”

“I did.  For two days.  I wrapped up all but one of my exams, but I hate leaving things unfinished.  Our cousin died, and you had something to do with it, you were related to at least two murders, and I’m supposed to drop it on your say-so?”

“Yeah,” I said, and I sounded angrier than I should have.  “Now you’re all wrapped up in this, and the S- Isadora is trying to convince you it’s ultimately my fault.”

“A great deal of this is,” Isadora said.

“Fuck that,” I said.

“A lot of what comes next will depend on your ability to accept that fact and pay attention to what’s happening and why.  Tell me, Mr. Thorburn, why are the connections between you and the people close to you so strong?”

I glanced at Alexis and Tiff.

“I don’t know if they are.”

“If the connections were weaker, then they would break, and you’d spiral headlong into the murk, almost entirely alone,” Isadora said.

I thought of Joseph, who’d left rather than stay.

A weaker connection?

“Wow,” Ty said.  “That’s fucked.”

“As I’ve been repeatedly trying to inform Mr. Thorburn, as ‘fucked’ as that might be, the alternative is uglier,” Isadora said.  “In terms of how it involves those he’s tied to, and how it involves everything and everyone else.”

“I don’t want to plunge into any ponds,” I said.

“Yes,” Isadora said.  Her gaze was level and intimidating.  “You wanted to avoid the plunge, to avoid being stripped of everyone you hold dear, Evan excepted.  Which, I presume, is why you murdered a man earlier?”

I didn’t flinch, but I could feel the attention of everyone else on me.

Murder.  Not fancy, not explainable by saying he was an Other.  It was just a splinter of wood to the throat, an awful lot of bleeding, and a slow death of blood in the lungs or blood loss.

I wasn’t proud, and I couldn’t explain without getting into stuff I was even less proud of.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I guess so.”

“Holy fuck,” Paige said.  “Really?

The oven beeped.  Joel looked startled.

He still made his way over.  My oven’s door, the racks and the warped baking sheet made for a fair bit of noise as he got the frozen pizza out.

I approached him, then stopped halfway.

“Can I offer you anything to eat, Isadora, Paige?” I asked.

“It’ll be a minute before it’s cool enough,” Joel said.

“You’re talking about pizza not two breaths after we were talking about murder?” Paige asked.

“In this instance, Pizza could well be more important than one man’s life,” Maggie commented.

Paige spun on her, giving the girl an incredulous look.

“To answer your question, I’m rather particular about my diet,” Isadora answered.  “And I ate recently enough.  Just alcohol, if you have any?”

“Beer,” I said.  I still had some in my fridge from a week ago.

“Now you’re putting me in an awkward position,” Isadora said.  “If I act picky, I’m being rude, but if I accept blindly, I run the risk of being offered the swill that the students at my University call ‘beer’.”

“It’s decent enough,” I said.  “Not swill.”

“Then I’ll gladly accept, thank you.”

“Can we get back to the topic of murder?” Paige asked.  “Is this hypothetical murder, or-”

“Paige,” Isadora said.  “Everything in its proper order.  You were asked a question.  Do you want anything to eat or drink?  Be honest.”

Paige frowned, as if this were some kind of moral quandary.

“A little bit of pizza and some water?” she finally asked.

I nodded.

These unexpected, uninvited guests were going to eat the pizza Joel had brought.  I put the water on the stove for oatmeal, resigning myself to a less than exciting meal, to be sure I had enough to offer.

I could hear them in the living room.  Alexis was talking.

“…Hurts, I can’t really stand up or bend over without help, but it didn’t hit anything vital.”

“I’m not surprised.  A shame that Malcolm Fell wasn’t rescued as well.”

I looked over my shoulder at Maggie.

Was the Sphinx sowing doubt, or was that a subtle reminder?

Joel leaned close, “Should I go?  I’m not much different from Paige.  I know some, but not nearly enough.”

“You know to not ask questions,” I murmured, as I opened the silverware drawer and found a serrated knife to cut the pizza with.  “She’s more dangerous, because she’s unprepared and she’s still walking headlong into this.  Because that thing is leading her headlong into this.”

Thing?

“Nevermind.  Go if you need to, but I don’t know if anything’s going to get mentioned in front of Paige that would be a problem for you too.”

He nodded.  “I’ll stay then, for moral support.”

Doubling down on Isadora’s gambit.  Our meeting would take place with innocents in the room.  Say the wrong thing, or use powers in an obvious, aggressive way, and we risked becoming responsible for those same innocents.

I brought Paige’s pizza and water over.  Isadora was sitting in the armchair that Ty had been planning to sit on while gaming, and Paige leaned against the wall to Isadora’s right, arms folded, expression troubled.

“Isadora, glass for the beer?”  I asked.

“No need.”

I removed the cap from the beer and handed it over.  She took a drink and smiled.

“Laird Behaim is dead,” Isadora said.  “The Behaims will claim and cremate him, I expect.  I wouldn’t anticipate legal problems.”

I nodded.

“Casualties are to be expected.  It’s not part of my makeup to mourn the dead, even the deaths of children or the deaths of thousands.  So long as it happens at the right place and time, cleanly.”

She looked directly at me as she said that last word.

“I can guess what your concern is,” I said.

“Yes.  The weather cleared up, and virtually everyone knows you’re all here.  All of you, including him.  You can imagine our collective curiosity and concern.”

Including him.  She meant ‘including Conquest’.

Conquest, who was in an ignoble location, in the bottom half of my double-decker toolbox, not five feet from me.  Anyone who tried to get him out would have to undo the clasps, discovering the lock I’d worked into the clasp at the back, unlocking and removing it, and then lift off the upper section with all the attendant tools, bits, and pieces.

Virtually every step would be a noisy one, somewhat time consuming.

One clasp had a piece of paper with a rune on it hidden just beneath.  The inside of the box, too, had a rune set in place.  The runes, too, would delay anyone from trying to steal the mirror with the incarnation bound within.

“Explanations will have to wait until everyone’s arrived,” I said.

“Of course.  I already suspect I know what unfolded.”

“Can I trust our other guests to not blow up the building or kick the door down and attack on sight?”

“They can’t kick the door down if you leave it open,” Isadora said.

I started to head for the door, but Joel was already going.

Weird, that there was more security in an open, unlocked door.

Isadora leaned back, relaxing, beer held in both hands.  On a level, it made sense, the reclining cat, on another, it didn’t fit the noble sphinx’s image.  “The little bird is doing well, I see.”

“I’m doing pretty awesome,” Evan said.

“He’s been a huge help,” I said.  My hands were jammed in my pockets.

Paige was observing everything, watching, silent, trying to put two and two together.  She spoke, “How?”

“You could say I’ve been kicking ass and taking names,” Evan said.

Paige didn’t react.  Evan’s voice went in one ear and out the other.

“Moral support,” I said.  “Backup.”

“A bird?

“We egged super-zombies,” Evan said.

“A bird,” I said.  “I thought you said you had been filled in.”

“In abstracts,” Paige said.  “Metaphors about masks and icebergs, and the progression of man from being heavily confined by their own limitations and driven by base needs to being driven primarily by ideas, and how everything casts a shadow.  Even man and what man is doing at the time he casts a shadow.”

“Ah,” I said.  “So you haven’t been filled in.  Just the opposite.”

Her gaze was intense.  “I have almost no details.  I want any you can give me.”

“I don’t think you would, if you had a better sense of things,” I said.  I looked to Isadora.  “Please forgive me for saying so, but I have a hard time believing this isn’t you trying to extort me, or hurt me in some backhanded way.”

“I don’t blame you for feeling that way,” Isadora said.  “It’s neither.  Think back to Paige’s metaphor of the rock, lashed to other rocks by the pond.”

“I’m thinking,” I said.

She raised a hand, and in the moment she turned it over, the light in the hallway formed a backlight against her hand, and I saw a flicker of what might have been claws in her long fingernails and the position of her hand.  “Imagine that I’m holding firmly to a rock named Paige.  When your stone tumbles into the water, dragging all the rest with it, Paige remains firmly in my hand.  Maybe the other rocks dangle.  Maybe the rope breaks, and they all fall.  In both cases, there’s less of a splash, less upheaval, one less stone in the water.”

“You’re laying claim to her,” I said.

Paige shifted position, clearly uncomfortable, even though she was getting what she wanted.  She wanted information, but the moment I dropped a hint, she couldn’t make eye contact?

“Close enough,” Isadora said.  “A strong connection that won’t be easily broken.”

“What, then?  This becomes some partnership?  Master and apprentice?  Something like I have with Rose?”

“Rose?” Paige asked.

“Or Evan?” I asked.

“That’s twice now you’ve-”

“Shush,” Isadora said.  “I can’t stand interruptions.”

“Right,” Paige said.  “I’m sorry.”

“I believe you,” Isadora said.  “Mr. Thorburn, the closest parallel would be to you and Evan, yes.”

I could see it.  Paige as a practitioner, with a freaking powerful familiar.

But wasn’t there a danger there?

“So she’s going to be-”

“Before you go further and inadvertently insult me,” Isadora told me, “Paige would be the ‘Evan’ in the partnership.”

I blinked.

“Huh?” Paige asked, forgetting her promise not to interrupt.

“A pet?” Tiff asked.

“Kinky,” Alexis said.

I could see Paige going stiff, clearly uncomfortable, entirely off guard for the first time I’d seen her in… since she’d fled Grandmother’s room after their private interview, now that I thought about it.

“I’m not a freaking pet!”  Evan piped up.  “I’m a kick-ass, eye-biting, giant-tripping, life-saving familiar.”

“Not entirely inaccurate,” Isadora said.  She seemed too happy, smiling, relaxed.

“I don’t get a vote here?” Paige asked.

“You do,” Isadora said.  “But I think you’ll accept the offer.”

Paige was flushed red.

As things went, it was affecting her too much.  She was too bewildered, too upset, given her usual composure.

Unless…

Right.

Right.

“This is why grandmother refused you the inheritance,” I said.  “Put you dead last?”

Paige’s head snapped around, and she stared at me in shock.

“I’m not following,” Evan said.

“You’re gay, Paige?” I asked.

“Ohhh,” Evan said.  “Wait, nope, still not following.”

“You can’t or won’t have kids, so you can’t or won’t continue the family line?” I asked.  “Peter found out and told her?  Or did he find out part of it, and grandmother figured out the rest with questions and an eerily accurate ability to tell if you were lying?”

I could see the pain on Paige’s face as she averted her eyes.  “You’re an asshole, just bringing it up like that.  Show some damn class, Blake.”

“You caught me on a bad day.  I’d be more gentle, otherwise,” I said.  “Isadora, I’m pretty sure, wants you as a kind of slave.  You’ve wandered into this mess, and you still have room to back out now.  Get the fuck away from the pond, so I can’t drag you in, no matter how deep I sink.  Leave all this behind.  Fucking run.  Be glad you can’t get the house and all the enemies it comes with.”

Paige stared at me.

“Paige,” Alexis said.

“What?” Paige asked.

“Do what he says.  Blake’s been sliced, cut open, beaten, frozen, and nearly killed.  All of us pulling together have had to fight and make huge sacrifices to keep him going-”

Don’t put it like that, I thought.

“-and I know he cares about you.  He’s told me about his childhood.  Time spent with his cousins.  When he tells you this, I’m convinced he’s getting the words from a good, well-meaning place, okay?”

Those words seemed to reach Paige where mine hadn’t.

She looked at Isadora, and I could see a hint of doubt in her expression.  “Slavery?”

“No,” Isadora said.  “No, not really.  But it’s a kind of relationship that’s just as old, dating back to the earliest days of mankind.”

“Prostitution?” Paige asked.

“Again, the same era.  You have the pieces necessary to figure it out, if you really want to.”

“You’ve… you’ve hinted you’re older than you look.  Blake’s reaction before, the way he thought you’d be like Evan… you’re more special than you look, too.  You’re not human.”

“You’re thinking along the right track,” Isadora said.  “Assuming you’re right, what sort of relationship would harken back to humanity’s earliest days?  Think about how you’re feeling.”

“Feeling?”

Isadora took a drink of her beer.

“I’m… the first place my mind is going is to a very confused neanderthal man making an appeal to the gods, in an effort to make sense of it all.”

“Very, very close to the conclusion I was hoping you’d reach,” Isadora said.  “You’ve got a keen mind for logic and details.  This calls for you to tap into something else entirely.”

“Faith,” Paige said.

“Close enough.  You can make that leap, or can you summon the courage to leave.  But you should decide one way or the other soon.  I’d remind you of the proverb of the ass, who died hungry and thirsty because it couldn’t choose between the water and the grain.  If you don’t decide in, oh, the next three minutes, the decision will be made for you.”

“I either stay with you and worship you?  Serve you as a pet?”

“Both right and not right.  People like you once bowed and scraped for favors from sorts like me.  Something between the master-slave relationship, the master-apprentice relationship, and the stricter rules of hospitality.  A form of sheltering, if you will.  I’ll point you to the right reading material when the opportunity arises, if you choose to accept.”

“Oh gee whiz,” Paige said.  “Because it sounds so tempting.”

Sarcasm was so refreshing, I had to admit.  Lowest form of wit or no.

“Chances are good that you’d be happy, in the long term, I’ve done this with a great many of my students, and every single one of them that you might track down and ask would tell you they’re happier as a result.  I could feed your natural curiosity with more knowledge than you could get by conventional means, raise you up to be someone stellar, and even break the ties to your family, so you can leave them and the problems they pose well behind you.  You might find yourself at odds with Blake, Rose, and their allies, but I don’t sense a great deal of connection between you and them.”

“You keep mentioning Rose.”

“It doesn’t matter,” I said.  “Stop focusing on the details.  Go back to normal life.  Isadora isn’t mentioning that she kills the people who don’t work out.  That’s why all her past subordinates are all happy.  The unhappy ones get swallowed, they’re dead, they don’t exist anymore.”

Paige was frozen.

I could sense the other connections converging on our position, and I realized what it meant.

I saw Rose in the window.

She stepped into the TV, appearing on the unlit, concave screen.

She looked at me, and I nodded.

The TV broke.  Not an explosive shattering, but a crack, loud, with the sound of glass falling.

Paige startled.

Rose and I had both hoped for the same thing.  That Paige would run.  That she needed only a push to go.

We’d misjudged where she stood.

She spun around, instead, reaching for Isadora’s hand, half protecting her, half seeking reassurance.

I could feel it, as we passed the point of no return.  The other connections were drawing nearer.

“I’m sorry, Paige,” I said.

“Sorry?”

“Looks like you made your choice.”

“I suppose I’ll be taking responsibility for you,” Isadora said.  She squeezed Paige’s hand, then let go.  “If we aren’t lucky enough for some dumb soul to do so before the night is over.”

The Shepherd entered the apartment, and my focus shifted away from Paige.

He looked older than the last time I’d seen him, but that might have been the dark clothing and the better lighting.  He didn’t have his crook-staff, and wore only a navy-blue sweater and black jeans beneath a black coat.  His face was a little red from the cold, his eyes narrowed.  He smelled like horses.

“There are innocents present,” Isadora said.  “Talk only.”

The Shepherd, who didn’t talk at all, as far as I knew, nodded and entered.

I held out pizza and a glass of water.  He shook his head, refusing both.

I moved one of my dining room chairs to the living room.  The Shepherd sat with his arms folded across his stomach, back straight, hair tousled by the weather.  He looked intense, and somehow a little mad, in the less-than-sane sense.

“With that TV cracking all of a sudden like that, I’m thinking I should go,” Joel said.

“Okay,” I said.  “Thank you for the pizza.”

Joel smiled, but the expression was tight.

Goosh followed him out, wordless.

Diana the Astrologer was the next to enter, pausing momentarily as she saw me standing at the end of the entryway.  Silent, she removed her shoes and entered.

“Hungry?” I asked, “Thirsty?”

“Something hot,” she said.

“Coffee?  Tea?”

“Tea, please.”

I prepped the coffee at the same time I put my oatmeal together.  By the time I’d scraped the bowl clean, the tea was steeped.

She lingered in the doorway of the kitchen even after I handed it to her.

“I’m sorry I shot at your side,” she said.

“I believe you,” I said.

“My arm was twisted, so to speak.  But… I told my Perseus to avoid killing if he could help it.”

“Okay,” I said.  “Thanks, I guess, for trying.  I’m trying not to hold onto grudges, so I consider you absolved, as far as I can do that.  There’s a girl in the other room, on the couch.  It would be more appropriate to apologize to her.”

“I’ll find her.”

“There’s also Fell…”

“He told me to kill someone, or else, and I did.  I made a call, and Fell was the one I knew best.  The most disposable.”

I nodded.

She didn’t seem to have anything else to say.  Silent, awkward, she backed out of the kitchen and made her way around to the living room.

I wondered if she’d just needed to justify what she’d done to someone.  If I remembered right, she didn’t have a coven or a circle.  She had only her master, and he’d died for her sake.

Lonely.

Three of the Sisters arrived at the same time the Astrologer disappeared from view, their Elder Sister first among them.  All dressed up, looking like they were ready for a day at the office.  They refused both food and drink.

They were followed by the Drunk, and I felt a measure of trepidation.

All enemies, so far.

He’d brought four people with him, with very much the same vibe as I’d seen in my run-in at the University.

Food, drink, a warning about the innocents.

The sidelong glance he offered me gave me chills.  The creatures he had with him doubly so, now that I had an idea of what they were.

The drunk’s underlings, I noticed, went straight for the shittier beer in the fridge.  Maybe they had good manners as party guests, maybe they didn’t care.

Almost immediately behind them were the Knights.  Nick reached out to clap one hand on my shoulder, but I ducked out of the way.

“Um, sorry.  Just a little gunshy, after the last twenty four hours.  Beer in the fridge,” I said.  “Beer from a party at the front, good beer for friends, and people I don’t want to offend at the back.  Don’t have much else to drink except questionable milk and tap water.  Pizza is on the counter.”

“First thing you say is about beer and pizza?” Nick asked, giving me a hard look.  “You don’t think we have other, more serious concerns?”

“My gut told me beer and pizza first,” I said.

“No kidding?”  He asked.  He gave me a funny look.  “Fuck, if only you were born a woman, I’d trade in my wife for you.  I’m still trying to get her to think like that.”

His wife elbowed him, but she didn’t look too annoyed.

I neglected to mention my real female alter ego, and focused on staying out of their way as they moved through the kitchen.

The Behaims were among the last to arrive.

Duncan led the pack, looking grim, fresh bandages visible underneath his sleeves as the older teenager helped him take his coat off.

“Hospitality has to be observed,” I said.  “Food and drink in the kitchen, help yourselves.  Make yourselves comfortable.  I have no grudge against the kids, and no reason to act against you, Duncan.  Everyone’s meeting in the living room, past the kitchen.”

There were no answers as they walked past me.

I was ready to shut the door and return to the others when I saw a woman walking down the hall.  Older, with a kid in tow, like a grandmother and child.  I assumed they were neighbors.

But she met my eyes, and something convinced me they weren’t.

“Can I ask who you are?”

“This is Emily, and she’ll be standing in for Malcolm Fell,” the old woman said.  “I’m her bodyguard, and that’s all you need to know right now.”

I looked at the little girl.  “I’m sorry about Fell.”

Her expression was stark, without warmth or softness, as she stared up at me.

“Maybe you should be,” the old woman said.  “We’ll see how this situation is handled before I hand down any verdict.”

I glanced in the kitchen to verify that I wouldn’t be lying.  “There’s pizza and tap water.  I’m afraid I don’t have much else.”

“We’ve eaten,” the old woman said.

She stalked off to the living room.

By the time I rejoined everyone, the tension in the air was palpable.  Sisters and Diana, and the Corvidae-inspired issues there.  The Shepherd and the old woman stared me down.

In fact, it was easier to point out those who weren’t on edge.

Alexis and Tiff still occupied the couch, most likely because Alexis couldn’t move so easily.  Had they been able, I could imagine we would have set up at my dining room table, which wasn’t big enough for everyone.  As it was, we were lined up against the wall, Maggie by the toolbox at the dining room table, with one eye on the kitchen, Alexis and Tiff at the couch, and me between them.  Ty had taken a seat at the end of the table, perched there like he was ready to spring off and leap to my defense, or the defense of Alexis.  That was sort of how he always was.  Restless, eager.

“For those who don’t know,” I said, “The Lord of the City is bound and securely in my possession, but not beaten or broken.”

There was virtually no reaction.  Most already knew, it seemed.  For others, it was only clarification.

The Knights, though, seemed a little surprised at the declaration.  Paige’s attention was on the rest of the room, trying to decipher what was going on with the locals, their attitudes.

My friends weren’t so different.

“What we have now is a stalemate,” I said.  “One I aimed for, almost from the beginning of this contest.  I didn’t want to win, not explicitly, I didn’t want to lose either, obviously.  Both involve ugly consequences.”

“This won’t?” the Elder Sister said.

“It might,” I said, “But it seemed safest.”

Isadora spoke, “Do you know why he holds the position he does?”

Is this a softball question?  Is this Isadora ‘helping’ me again?

“He’s a figurehead,” I said.  “He’s disposable, but tough enough he doesn’t get disposed of.  He’s easy to manipulate, and that means you can generally get what you want without having to stick your neck out and draw attention.”

“Let me take your question from earlier and turn it around on you.  Are you extorting something from us, Mr. Thorburn?”

“No,” I said.  “I don’t think I’d get out of that alive.”

“Do you want to depose him?”

I glanced at the old woman with Fell’s relative in tow.

“I wouldn’t mind,” I said.  “I think he’s pretty toxic, pretty damn ugly, in terms of how he operates.”

“As opposed to working with what are very nearly the worst sorts of ally?  Leveraging them as tools?”

“You know what I mean,” I said.

“I think I do, but perspectives will vary,” Isadora said.  “Do you want to rule, then?”

I almost laughed.  “No.  Definitely not.”

If looks could kill, I might die ten times over from the various glares that were directed my way.  It jarred with the ridiculousness of the question.  What kind of lunatic would I have to be to want to be in charge?

“What do you want?” Isadora asked.

“I want to be left alone,” I said.  “This needs to end, but I’m not the person to end it.  People have made that clear.  I’m too… too questionable.  So I’m leaving it up to you.  I would hope that you decide on a new leader, someone who wants to be in charge badly enough to stick their neck out and risk getting hurt, but whatever you decide, I’ll hear you out.”

“Will you do what we ask without hesitation or objection?” the Elder Sister asked.

“No,” I said.  “Because that takes me back to square one.  I’m sitting this one out.  I’ve earned a break.  I’m going to use that break to do some reading I’ve fallen behind on, I’m going to look after my circle, and when that’s done, when I feel ready, I’m going back to the factory.”

There were a few exchanged glances, murmurs.

Paige looked a little bewildered.

“That could be construed as a threat,” the old woman said.

“It could be,” I said. “But it’s not intended as such.  If I have to capture, I will.  I’d rather eliminate the problem altogether.  Scour the buillding.  I’d appreciate help, but I’m not going to expect it.”

“We’ll do what we can,” Nick spoke up.  “From a distance.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“That’s it?” Duncan asked.  “You throw everything into disarray, lure us all here, and then announce that you’re shirking the responsibilities that come with victory?”

“I take it you don’t have any conception of what’s in that factory,” Nick said.  “He’s not shirking responsibilities at all.  He’s picking his battles.”

“If it was so easy to put in someone disposable as Lord,” Isadora said, “We would have done it already.  People have tried, and I was among the people who helped shut them down.  Wasn’t I, Jeremy?”

Eyes moved to the Drunk.

He didn’t answer.

“Rhetorical question,” she said.

Yes, then,” the drunk said.

“Nothing more to say?  I thought you would be making a bid for power here.”

“No.  Not like this.  I know how things function, I am interested.  In my own way, in my own time,” Jeremy said.

“One contender,” Isadora said.

“If you can call it that,” Jeremy said.  He had a beer bottle in hand, and stared down the neck at the liquid within, rather than at the room.  “And no, I’m not implying I’m weak.  Only that I’m not joining the fight just yet.”

He took a drink.

“We can’t have someone who’s just going to die five minutes after he takes power,” Isadora said.  “Or we would have let Jeremy take the position when he last tried for it.  We need people who will secure the city, maintain an equilibrium.  Even one that’s latently unpleasant.  Because chaos and upheaval are worse.  Anything new demands that it be tested by outsiders, and we can’t weather that sort of test.”

“Allow me to disagree,” the old woman said.  “You’re the most comfortable person in this room, lounging.  Drinking without a care in the world, because you know you’re just about untouchable.  You haven’t been on the unpleasant end of the lord’s attentions.”

Isadora smiled, “No, I suppose not.”

“Emily will be assisting anyone who looks like they can securely take the position,” the old woman said.

“We’ll be making a bid,” the Elder sister said.

There was no surprise on her subordinate’s faces.

“I’d say it’s been nice knowing you,” Nick commented, “But… well, no.”

“Behaims?” Isadora asked.

“No bid,” Duncan said.  “I’m not insane.  But we could provide assistance, for a favor in turn.”

His eye moved, then he shut them, stopping short, as if he’d only started to look at me, then cut himself off.

“The Shepherd, I presume, will be backing the Lord himself,” Isadora said.  “Opposing Thorburn and attempting to wrangle the Lord’s release or kill Thorburn?”

The Shepherd nodded.

He’s a champion of Conquest, and the contest isn’t technically over.

Fuck.

“I may do the same, we’ll see,” Isadora said.

Fuck!

I remained still.  It helped that I was tired.

The questions went around the room.

Nobody else was willing to say whether they were making a play for the Lordship or not.

“Outsiders will turn up,” Isadora said.  “It’s the way of things.  But I suppose that doesn’t concern you, does it, Thorburn?”

I shook my head a little.

“Then I suppose that’s enough for now.  We’ll cease intruding.”

Just like that, they did.

They were gone in a fraction of the time they’d taken to arrive.  Only the Knights didn’t leave right off the bat.

“Sorry to leave you out of it,” I told Rose.

“It’s fine,” she said.

“See anything interesting from the glass?”

“Not so much.  I was mostly watching for trouble.”

I nodded.

“The factory demon is next?”

“Maybe,” I said.  “There’s stuff to wrangle.”

“Like?”

“Like working around the no-magic limitation, for one thing, in case this stalemate lingers,” I said.

I turned my attention to the Hyena’s broken sword.

The Hyena was dead, the face on the hilt a skull now.

“And,” I added, “If I can manage it, I could really do with an implement.”

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Void 7.8

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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.

Success.

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.”

Cool.

“I think some Others and practitioners do that sort of thing… but if I’m remembering right,” Rose said, “There are drawbacks.”

“Aww.”

“I’m going to vote against the blood-bath strategy,” I told Evan.

Awww.  Why?

“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-”

Dead kid.”

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Evan-”

“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.

“Yeah, that.”

“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 nodded.

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.”

“You’re welcome.”

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.

They see.

Laird lay face down in the snow.

I swallowed hard.

“Blake,” Rose said.

“Hm?”

“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 nodded.

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.

“What?”

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.”

I nodded.

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.”

Nothing happened.

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 nodded.

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?”

“I do.”

“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.”

Sweet!

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.

“And Isadora?”

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.

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Void 7.7

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The splinter found its way to a spot just below Laird’s Adam’s apple.  When I pulled it away, it broke, the narrow end of the splinter disappearing beneath welling blood.

Laird dropped to his knees, holding his hands to the wound.  I met his eyes as he stared up at me – one was almost crimson, with a bead of red on it.  Not from the splinter – something else.

I felt like I wanted to throw up, scream, swing punches and curl up into a ball, all at once.  I felt betrayed, if you can even feel betrayed by your enemies.

All of the emotions were at odds with one another, and I was left there, shaking, trying to put the pieces together and remind myself of where I stood.

My thoughts ran backward.  From the stabbing to the visions, Evan, Laird grabbing me, Conquest speaking, then I began to wrap my head around the whole situation.

Rose was summoning Pauz.  Maggie was… I didn’t know where Maggie was.  Somewhere outside.

“Even something so small as a rat can bite, when sufficiently cornered,” Conquest said.  “You might want to step forward and help Mr. Behaim.  Certain deals were made, and those deals are void if he passes.”

I stared down at Laird.  He was covering the wound.  I wasn’t sure how you could put pressure on your own throat without strangling yourself, but he seemed to be doing okay.

Until he coughed, hacking out, and a cloud of blood sprayed out with the spit and air.

Not so long ago, Fell had told us to move the bodies of the fallen Sisters so they wouldn’t suffocate on their own vomit.

Once vomit or foreign matter got into the lungs, finding its way past the little valve that decided whether stuff made it to the lungs or the stomach, it became a problem.  People could manage fine, or they could die a rapid death.

If he was coughing up blood like that, there was a good bit of blood leaking from the wound, straight to the windpipe.

I bent down.

“Blake,” Evan said.

“Turn over, Laird,” I said.  “Face down, better it flows out and up, than inside and down.”

He didn’t move.  He stared at me with one bloodshot eye.

“I’ll help,” I said.

I hated touching him.  Touching people wasn’t my thing, and touching people who were bigger and stronger than me…

My hand shook as if I’d been electrocuted, as the thought ran through me, clenching even though I hadn’t instructed it to.

“Okay,” I muttered, and I wasn’t even sure Laird heard me.  “I can’t help that way… just promised.  I’ll…  Evan?  Help him.”

“Um,” Evan said.

“Please,” I said, quiet.

I half-turned, watching Conquest.

Laird grunted, then started coughing violently as he flopped over, the sparrow playing a role with a bit of a push.

He was face-down, now.

The blood flowed more freely, and leaked between fingers as he clamped his hands to his throat, forming tendrils as it dribbled onto snow.

I reached out, stopping just shy of touching his gloved hands with my own.

It would have made sense, to do it, but I couldn’t bring myself to.

“If I grant you another stay of execution,” Conquest said, “It would be the third.  I would be in my rights to demand a favor of you.”

I shook my head, not really in any headspace to form the words.  No stay of execution.

I wasn’t in any shape to fight.  Physically, I was fine.  But every non-physical part of me was in a bad place.

I was shaking, and it had nothing to do with the cold.

Not in any shape to fight, but I didn’t really have a choice.

He held his bayonet rifle like a spear.

My instincts were all wrong.  When I’d dealt with Pauz, I’d thought about how skewed my impulses were, especially when by boundaries were breached.  This was the same, but it was far more pointed.

My instincts were telling me to go after Conquest, to throw myself at him in an effort to hurt him like I had Laird.  To get rid of all of the negative feelings, venting the outward-pointed ones on Conquest, silencing the inward-pointed ones by taking that bayonet to the chest or throat.

It was the simplest, easiest way to make it all stop.

He was approaching, and I was frozen in place, trying to get my mental bearings, to convince myself to move.

Thinking of everything I had to fight for.

But all I really wanted was peace.

The two ideas conflicted.

Conquest took a step forward.  Steady, no hesitation, but not rushing either.

A war was going on in my head already as I tried to sort out my thoughts, reaching for some idea that wouldn’t fall apart as soon as it was fully formed.

Alexis, Tiff, Ty, Goosh, Joel.  No, I’d done more harm than good.

“Um,” Evan said.

Evan?  I couldn’t find a way to complete the thought.

Molly?  I’d just avenged her in a way, maybe.  There was more to be done, but I’d done something.  If I ran into her after I moved on, I could say that much.

No, wrong train of thought.

Conquest drew closer, snow forming clouds around the base of his feet as his weight came down.  He was three times my height.

I wouldn’t be able to fight like this, not with my head and heart all mixed up.  I couldn’t convince myself to do this smart, instead of doing it reckless.

Rose?  I didn’t trust Rose.

Family?  No.

The next thought outside family was the lawyers, the nebulous idea of dying and going straight to some miserable afterlife, simply because of the karma that dragged me down.

That was a bit more of a push.  The concrete idea that I wouldn’t find peace, going down that road.

I took a step back, slowing the rate at which Conquest closed in.

I didn’t want to go to hell, or whatever equivalent I was due.

Even simpler than that… I didn’t want to die.

That was the idea I needed to move, to act.

He was still closing faster than I could retreat.  Only natural.

He drew his weapon back to thrust.  I cast my arm out.

I was almost too slow.

Laird’s blood, caught in my cupped hand, spattered the snow.  I held my hand out, more blood dripping from the fingertips.

Conquest stopped, weapon poised.  The blood formed a line between us.

Blood of a free man.  I thought, still backing away.  Once captured, rescued and given liberty.  By you, no less.

This is why you wanted to find Behaim?” Conquest asked.

I was silent as I continued backing away.

“Freedom may run contrary to my nature, but blood doesn’t,” Conquest said.  His deep, eerie voice felt like it could carry across the neighborhood, over a good portion of the city, even.  “Suffering doesn’t.  Death and dying don’t.”

He stepped over the line of blood.

I was too messed up in the heart and in my head to even swear or feel panic.

He stabbed with the blade at the end of his gun, and I threw myself out of the way.

One action, one response, and it basically illustrated how the fight would go.

He barely had to try, while it took everything I had to get out of the way in time.  I hit the snow, and had to fight to get the right position and find traction so I could move fast enough to avoid a second thrust.

The blade raked along my shoulder.  I felt pain as blade parted flesh, then felt the cold seep in, swift.  The two things put together were pretty indicative of there being something terribly wrong.

I stumbled.  Evan caught me, a bit of a push at the right moment.  I found my balance and stumbled a few more steps.

It was only a scratch, I realized, the cold air leaking in through a tear in the fabric.

“Um,” Evan said.  He took to the air, circling me, drawing higher.

I looked to see why he was agitated, and saw Conquest lowering his gun, barrel pointed at me.

“Wait,” I said.

Evan flew past me, giving me a bump, as Conquest pulled the trigger.  I didn’t move a muscle of my own volition, but Evan pushed me out of the way.  I felt the wind move as the bullet whistled past my arm.  Even through my coat, I felt it.  I caught my balance, a couple of paces to the left of where I’d been standing.

Wait?  If you want another stay of execution,” Conquest said, “I’ve already said what that entails.  A favor.”

I didn’t respond.  Maintaining eye contact and speaking felt like a foreign concept, and I wasn’t about to take a submissive action like lowering my gaze.

“Beg me,” he said.  “Kneel.”

Beg?

I realized I was hugging my arms against my chest.  I hadn’t been aware.  It made me look weak, but I felt weak.  I’d been scraped raw, and all I wanted to do was break down.  Shut the world away.

There was a chasm between where I stood and where I wanted to be.  I’d just dealt with one person who was responsible.

Dealing with Conquest, though?

I’d known from early on that winning wasn’t really in the cards.  Even if I did win this battle, I’d lose in the long run.

I was so sick of all this.

When the words came out, they came out as a torrent.  I couldn’t stop once I started, so I put my focus on forming the words properly.

“Why the fuck would I beg?” I asked, and there was venom in my tone.  “You’re petty, Conquest, you’re small in every way that matters, you’re a fucking pretender, trying to cover up for the fact that you don’t have as much power as you’re pretending.  Practically everyone in this city that matters knows, they look down their noses at you.  You’re a fucking joke!  The metaphorical small-dicked, overcompensating, pathetic joke of Toronto.”

The wind blew hard, stirring more snow.

Conquest raised a hand.

The wind shifted, abrupt and strong enough to nearly lift me off my feet.  I was left momentarily blind as snow found its way to my eyes, my weight no longer solidly on hard ground.

I caught myself and shielded Evan.

As quickly as it came, the wind stopped.

A cracking sound marked a tree reaching the breaking point, and a large branch crashed to the snowbank beneath it, crunching ice.

The houses and cars along the street were painted with snow and frost that crusted the windows.  I had little doubt the same was true across the city.

It was quiet.

“Empty words,” Conquest said, “When you insist on retreating and running.”

Had I pushed him to his breaking point?

Had I challenged his authority enough?

It was impossible to keep it all in my head.  Conquest, the fight for survival, the absolutely black well of emotion that had boiled over when he’d shoved the echoes at me.  There was no way to wrangle it all, to keep it in mind, so some of it was bleeding out.

That odd feeling of betrayal had become indignance.  It felt like such a small word to be labeling my feelings with, but how was I supposed to parse it, otherwise?  I wanted justice.

This world had been unfair to me from the beginning.  I’d paid for my victories thus far.

He stabbed.  Evan helped me avoid it this time.

Two near-misses that only Evan had saved me from.

I hadn’t missed the pattern.  I’d sensed it when we’d fought the oblivion demon, and Fell had put words to the idea.  Evan’s ability to help me escape harm had its limits.  Illusions had a way of cracking on the third attempt.  Evan’s ability to save me from harm had a way of failing on the third try.

There was an underlying logic to this world.

“Go check on Rose,” I murmured.

“Are you sure?”

Not answering, I touched him, he hopped to my finger, and I flung him out.

Evan gave Conquest a wide berth on his way to the open garage door.

“Doing away with your familiar?”

I opened my mouth to speak, found the words out of reach.  He took that moment of bewilderment to advance, swinging the spear.

I stumbled back out of reach.

He aimed, to shoot, and I let myself lose my balance.  The shot passed over me.

I flipped over and half-crawled, half ran to the nearest parked car.

A car wouldn’t actually stop a bullet, as I understood it, but the engine block was dense enough.

“Still running,” he commented.

I found that spark of anger again.  “Are you that weak, Conquest?  That you’re bitching about someone keeping his distance?  You sound like the sort of kid I used to play with in elementary school.

“You twist my words.”

I did.  I could interpret most things he said or did to attack him.

It was something I’d learned to do long ago, when I still lived at home.  When the fight over the inheritance and the general atmosphere was still ongoing, toxic and unpleasant.

I said, “They’re coming out of your mouth.  You’re an incarnation of Conquest in a country and city that barely has any!  I almost pity you.”

My words came out a little ragged.  There had been too many bursts of action, too many bits of running and fighting, moments of high adrenaline.  My head was pounding from the stress of emotion running too high for too long.  I needed to maintain my attack.

“Perhaps the mental strain is getting to you?” he asked.

“You sound scared,” I said, raising my voice.  “No flourish, no stylish finish.  You’re down to the point of stabbing and shooting, waiting until I get tired and can’t stay out of reach.  You just pulled out your trump card, and I’m still fucking here!

“Not a trump card.  Merely a card among many,” Conquest said.

He raised his gun, but he didn’t aim at me.

It was Maggie, on the far side of the street, crouched by a snowbank.  She was more exposed, now that the snow had stopped.  Her face was intact, now.  The same healing she’d granted to me?  Faster, clearly, with no scarring.

He fired, and Maggie moved her hand.  The bullet hit snow.

He fired again, but she was already moving her hand in the other direction.  The bullet hit snow on the other side.

Goblin magic?  They work with and against metals.

Maggie ran for cover, hiding at a spot I couldn’t see.

Cowardly, I thought.  I said, “I thought this was between you and me.”

“Then you’re an imbecile.  The contest was for us to battle with the aid of champions.  She remains yours.  I’ve disabled your Rose, killed young master Fell, slain your Hyena.  Without your Rose, you can’t use the imp.”

“And yours?” I asked.  “Somehow I don’t think it’s confidence that has you here alone.”

“The Eye was working the storm, drawing on shifts in climate, and twists this city up to build my tower, as man disrupts his environment to fuel the growth of cities.  He’s active, but indisposed.  You’ve weakened my Shepherd, set the Sisters of the Torch and the Astrologer against one another.  Laird bleeds to death as we speak.  This is the natural conclusion.  Once I’ve dealt with the goblin queen that lacks any goblins, it’ll be only you or me, and you can only run for so long.”

As if to punctuate his statement, he stepped closer.  He thrust around the side of the car, I backed off, and he reversed the weapon, swinging it like a club, hitting the car so it rocked into me.  Both car and the snow that layered the top of the car hit me.

Wind knocked out of me, momentarily blind, my movements limited as more snow fell.  I was between the parked car and the snowbank, and was knee deep, with snow having fallen around my feet.

I saw Evan fly forth from the garage, and my spirits lifted.

But Evan wasn’t coming to my rescue.

He flew to Maggie.

Conquest struck the car again.  It slid, sandwiching me between fiberglass and snowbank, momentarily squeezing the air out of me.  I stood at a diagonal, half buried, pinned.

“A beheading, do you think?” Conquest asked.

I looked to Maggie and Evan.

No help there.  Maggie held her funny little dagger, but she was staring at me, and she wasn’t doing anything.

I had my locket, but no glamour, no spell I could rely on.

The hatchet was broken.

I was almost out of tricks.

But Duncan had been too, not so long ago, and he’d put up a fight.

Duncan.

The thoughts that reached me were fragmented ones.  Theatrics, object-

He drew his weapon back behind his right shoulder.

“Fuck you!”  I shouted.

His distorted expression showed only a permanent leer of contempt.

He swung.

I reached up and across, with my right arm, fist clenched.

Stop!” I bellowed, pulling my sleeve down, exposing the skin between glove and coat.

The blade of the bayonet, practically a sword, given our scale, struck my arm.

The arm wasn’t enough to stop it, obviously enough.  Much less my wrist.

But the Stonehenge charm bracelet was the first thing in the line of fire.

The blade cut the bracelet.  It stopped.

Everything stopped.

Maggie and Evan remained in place.  The snow had stopped falling when Conquest had ordered it, but even the snow from inside the house and the snow that fell from rooftops like a frozen waterfall had stopped in place.

When I looked with the Sight, I saw that most spirits had stopped altogether.

The movement of my arm stirred the spirits, as if simply reminding them to start moving again.

Two simple elements.

Theatrics, for one.  A good, clear shout, acting at the right moment.

Duncan had been given the bracelet as a power reserve.  I’d spent that power, rightfully taken, much as I’d spent June.

Chronomancy might be a farce, at least in part, but this had worked.  Nothing Conquest had done had suggested he was immune to the flaws of perceptions.

There had been nothing certain about it, only gut feeling.  If there hadn’t been a spirit inside, or if there hadn’t been enough power, or if Conquest had been immune…

I sank back, gasping for air.

My head touched the snowbank, and found it hard.

In the next moment, I was moving.  My arms stretched out, finding leverage on the snowbank, and I managed to pull my legs up and free.

I climbed over the back of the car.

I found secure footing.

Lines circled my wrist, like the rings of Saturn led astray, dust swirling in a corkscrew orbit.

Breaking apart, showing just how much time I had.  One or two minutes, if that.

Couldn’t hurt Conquest.  He was an incarnation, vulnerable.

I made a beeline to Laird.

The cut on my shoulderblade made itself known as I pulled off my jacket.

I rolled Laird, surprised at how easy it was.

Using my jacket as a bundle, holding the bottom corners and the sleeves, I scooped up the blood-soaked snow.

I slung the bundle over one shoulder, hurrying toward Evan and Maggie.

The line was running out.

I bent down, and began shaking the bundle, controlling the gap in the bottom-

The effect ended.  Wind blew, fierce, from the point where sword had touched bracelet, stirring snow and creating clouds of loose snow that reached as high as the houses around us.

I squinted against the wind, glancing up at Conquest, as he followed through.  The blade bit into the car’s frame.

He looked up at me.

I kept letting the bloody snow out of the jacket, drawing a thicker, clearer line.

“Blake?” Evan asked.

“Plan?” I asked.

“Rose won’t wake up.  She got shot, inside the mirror-world.  I thought Maggie could give blood, but-”

“There isn’t a strong connection,” Maggie said.  “Among other reasons.”

Like whatever it is that’s lurking just under your skin?

Arm extended, I peeked around the snowbank.  A bullet clipped the space inches from my head.

“Use mine,” I said.  “Just… don’t grab me.  Stab only.”

Maggie wasted no time in listening.  I was glad for that.  I even respected it.  After so long fighting with Rose, arguing over every last thing, it was awfully nice to have a friend that’d stab me when stabbing was necessary.

The dagger punched into the back of my hand, almost exactly where I’d stabbed myself when I’d fought the faerie swordswoman.  I bled.  Maggie drew out a line in Rose’s direction, matching the direction to the connection that stretched between us.

Maggie said, “Rose, we give you Blake’s blood and bid you to rouse.”

I added,  “We need you as we needed Laird.  This may be our last chance.  Take as much as you need.  I don’t know if I trust you, but I trust you to do that much.”

I felt the strength go out of me, as I sank to my knees.

Here we were.

He’s only about as strong as the Hyena.  I took on the Hyena with only a little help from Evan and June.

Still bent over, I resumed drawing with the bloody snow, a thicker, stronger line.

“He’s coming,” Maggie commented.

I nodded.  My hand hurt,  and holding the coat was hard, but it got lighter as I deposited more snow.

Conquest appeared, drawing close, as I had the circle three-quarters of the way done.  Maggie and Evan remained at my side.

I felt stronger with allies close.

“Blood of a free man,” I said.  “I claim his defeat for myself.  It’s blood I drew, suffering I own, my victory, my conquest.”

“It’s incomplete,” Conquest said, circling around.

I turned, ready to pour more snow, but it took him only two steps to circle around.

The bayonet blade stabbed the earth just beside the opening in the circle.

Maggie’s backpack was bloating and twisting.

She threw it at Conquest.  He swatted it aside.

Rose is back.

The imp clawed his way forth from the backpack.  He hurled the bag and its remaining contents to one side, then hopped up, placing himself on the tire mounted on the back of an S.U.V.

“Cheat me once, diabolist, shame on you.  Cheat me twice?  Shame on me,” Pauz growled, in his too-deep, gravelly voice.

“Yet you accepted Rose’s offer,” I said.

“Yes.”

Conquest glanced at me.  “What have you done?”

“Then, Pauz,” I said.  “Follow through, and you’re free.”

That last word was a heavy one.

All that trouble.

All of the danger he posed.

But I was letting him go.

I knew what was coming.

Pauz screeched.

It was that same terrible noise as before.  A rotten, venomous sound that penetrated to the bone marrow and distorted vision.

Radiation.

But it worked, distracting Conquest.

I threw the last of the bloody snow down, on and beside the blade of the bayonet.

The bayonet was a part of him, as were the bullets, apparently.  He apparently counted the snow a barrier, when it was .  He couldn’t swing over or through the snow.

He could only pull it free.  Crimson snow fell into place, closing the circle, complete.

Conquest opened fire on the imp.  The imp scrambled away.

“Blake-” Rose said, speaking through the pendant.  “Corvidae is on his way.  He couldn’t find anything good, apparently.”

I nodded, then realized she might not be able to see me.  My throat was tight.

“Blake?

“Sorry,” she said.

“Me too.  This went poorly.”

“We’re alive,” Maggie said.  “Drat worrying about how.”

“Drat it indeed,” I said.

The imp slid over the front of the vehicle, disappearing beneath the underbelly.

Conquest stabbed the car with his bayonet.  I saw him tense, and felt alarm sing through me.

“Fuck,” I said, the word escaping as a gasp.

I ran clear of the circle, and Maggie was a step behind me.  Evan fluttered, giving us a nudge.

The S.U.V. hit the dead center of the circle, then rolled clear.  The snow was largely untouched, the line mostly unbroken.

We backed into the middle of the street, while Conquest dealt with having the imp in front of him and us behind.

It’s not safe inside the circle.  Our refuge.

Conquest turned his attention to us.

Pauz attacked, leaping to the small of Conquest’s back.

A rabbit leaped from the midst of the snow to claw and bite Conquest’s arm, failing to get far with the white, leathery skin-fabric covering in the way.

I couldn’t say for sure, but a part of me wondered if a being like Conquest remained as afraid of demons as the rest of us.  He was immortal, few things could touch him on a fundamental level, but when you lived by a concept, and you faced down a being that could subvert that concept…

Conquest was twisted to begin with.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was still there in that alley, or in a room of the hostel-turned shelter for young homeless.  To let him become more twisted?  I didn’t like it.

I especially didn’t like giving the demons ground, but the alternative was losing the fight or turning to the lawyers.

The lawyers were an unknown quantity.  The deal they wanted to make with me sounded too good to be true, so I could only assume it was.

Pauz was more of a known quantity.

Conquest shook both imp and rabbit off.  He stabbed a raccoon that was making its way through the snow, then shot something in the distance I couldn’t see.

I could see the connections between imp and animal.  He was reeling them in, calling them in from elsewhere.  Rats by the hundreds.

I wondered if this neighborhood would be okay, after all was said and done, or if the vermin and mad animals would follow Pauz to his next destination.

Neither was necessarily good.

But we didn’t have much in the way of options.  The Hyena was out of commission, and I’d made promises as far as the Hyena went.

I could see Corvidae.

Empty handed, damn.

We had the numbers advantage, but things weren’t coming together.

Pauz wasn’t winning or bringing Conquest to his knees.  Corvidae hadn’t been able to find what we needed…

We moved as a group, putting distance between us and the fight, using the car that Conquest had smashed for cover.

“Check another house,” Rose told Corvidae, “tear something from the wall if you have to!”

Corvidae smiled.

It wasn’t a pretty smile.  His features were alien.

It wasn’t a nice smile either, or a respectful one.

I was reminded of Midge, the inbred redneck Other.

Contempt.

Corvidae disappeared, moving too quickly through the snow.  I looked away before he could distort in my field of vision again.

“He’s no help,” I said.

“We need him,” Rose said.

“Not much help to go around,” Maggie said.

All of the bodies on this battlefield had been nearly buried by fallen snow.  Laird was the only person who wasn’t covered.

I’d spent the past week building up allies, drawing people together, and now…

Just us.

“This grows tiresome,” Conquest said.  He held his weapon out, pointed at Pauz.  The imp moved through the snow like a crab, not taking its eyes off Conquest.

It leered, its entire body tense.

“Surrendering?” Rose asked.

“No,” he replied.

He aimed at me.

I ducked, and the bullet hit the hood of the car.

He kept firing.

We ran as a pair, Rose within my pendant.

But there wasn’t much cover to go around, outside of a handful of cars buried in snow and some frozen snowbanks.

We picked a snowbank, and Conquest fired anyway.

Evan tried to give us a nudge, putting us out of the bullet’s way.  Conquest shot him instead.

One crippling blow, removing Evan from the picture, knocking me down.

Maggie grabbed my arm before I could fall, and I fought her, struggling free.

Stupid, reflexive action.

I landed face down in a driveway, feeling like a bullet the size of a beachball had just passed through my chest.  My thoughts turned to slush.

I’d just given energy to Rose, and now Evan was claiming his rightful share.

“Luck stretches thin,” Conquest said.  He held out his rifle, pointing it at Pauz.  “The universe makes its demands.  You can only gamble so many times before the universe sees fit to give me my due.  Back away, goblin queen.”

Maggie backed away from me.  I wouldn’t accept her help anyway.

“Not having free use of my power, it’s something of a chore,” Conquest said.  “I’ll be glad when you’ve given up-”

He fired at the imp, driving the beast back.

“-and I can flex muscles that have atrophied in the past few days.”

“Sorry,” Maggie told me.

She bolted, running down the street.

Conquest raised his gun, but Maggie ducked low, and in a moment, the connection broke.  She’d cut it.

I bit my lip.

Conquest loomed over me.  I couldn’t move.

No tricks up my sleeve.

He stopped to shoot a larger animal.  One of the imp’s.

I was starting to feel the effects of the imp’s power.

That scared me more than anything.

“You’ve got the upper hand,” I said.

“You surrender?”

“I don’t know if I can,” I said.

“The alternative is death.  I strongly suggest surrender,” Conquest spoke.  “Laird is dead.  I promised him that I would wait two centuries before I used the Thorburn power.  The threat would cow those beneath me, I would gain in power, simply having you in my grasp, and he can build his kingdom in the meantime.  Keeping you alive was only a way to delay your counterpart’s manifestation as something real.  It simplifies things.”

“My counterpart-” I started.  My mouth was dry.

“Yes?”

“I don’t know if I can surrender, because Rose and I are a unit, two sides of the same thing.  We’re both the Thorburn heir, as I understand it.  You might need to get her to surrender.  You’ve bested me, I won’t move ten paces from here until this is decided.”

Rose spoke, “Fuck you, Blake.  Sticking this on me now?  It’s-”

“It’s base trickery,” Conquest said.

Shocked at the words, I swallowed hard.

“Rose told me you were hard to get along with.  That you and she had a flawed, distorted relationship.  I’m to believe the tie between you two is so strong that you can’t surrender without her consent?  That when you promise to refuse any use of magic, she isn’t bound by the same promise?”

“It’s complicated,” I said.  It sounded feeble.  “We’re ying and yang, two sides of the same coin.”

“It’s not that complicated at all,” Rose said.  “I haven’t used any magic.”

Conquest turned his head.

“I haven’t.  Just like Duncan did when he was spent of power, just like Blake, I’ve been using the power Maggie and Blake’s friends set up.  They drew the circle, they set the things up to be summoned when an object was broken… we picked objects on my side of the mirror.”

“Thin.”

“As for my other power, to break mirrors, it’s innate to me while I’m an Other, a distorted reflection.  Besides, the deal was not to use power in Toronto.  This mirror world… it’s not Toronto.  It’s a vestige of Toronto.  It’s like comparing Disneyland and Euro-Disney.  It’s my world.”

“Questionable,” Conquest said.  “All the same-”

He lunged.

He passed into the pendant.

I flinched as the glass shattered.

The window of the S.U.V. broke next, then the windows of the house.

A battle waged over the reflective surfaces.

I could only wait.  I’d done what I could.

Pauz approached me, grinning.

No.

“I beat you once,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.  “Shall I take my revenge now?”

If he did – if he stopped me before Conquest could…

The contest would end.  A draw at best.

But it would be a horrible way to go.

No, I had to trust that this would work out.  Trust in the others.

Even if my companions here were reduced to the ones I trusted the least.  Maggie with some wild thing lurking within her, Rose with her questionable motivations, Corvidae, the impof things feral and foul.

I closed my eyes.  “No.”

He had a mocking grin on his face.  “You said you wouldn’t move.  Shall I drag you aside and watch what happens?  I can reign over the chaos that follows.”

“Or you can go,” I said.  “Did you think I didn’t plan contingencies?  That I don’t have a way to capture you right away?”

His eyes narrowed.  “Tricks.”

I remained still.

Glass continued to break here and there.  I could feel the strength going out of me.  Rose was spending power, and she was using the conduit of blood Maggie had drawn out, to keep her reserves up.

“I am Blake Thorburn,” I said.  I shifted position, cupped a limp Evan in my hands, then found my feet.  I stood as straight as I could manage.  “Custodian of Hillsglade house, overseer of the Thorburn’s diabolic library.  I come from a long line, and you’ve caught me at a moment when I’m very tired and very pissed off.”

“Poor mortal,” Pauz said.  “I can smell your pain.”

Time to draw from the same well as Rose.  “If you cross me here, I will bind you again, Pauz, I swear it on my name and my blood, and I’ll stick you somewhere where you won’t be found until humanity is long gone.”

“Your words don’t have the power that hers do.  You’re not the real heir, not the heir intended.”

“No,” I said.  “Do you really want to risk it?”

He narrowed his eyes.

He disappeared in a flurry of flies and darkness.

I sagged, the strength going out of me.

I’d never acted so much in my life.  To pretend I had strength when I felt more powerless than ever.

I carefully measured my steps, taking only five, to get past the driveway.

Corvidae appeared, a small oval mirror in his arms.

There we go.

He held it up, walking slowly.

I could see when the presence moved into it.

Corvidae threw the mirror.

It landed in the snow, one end buried.

He can’t turn down a fight, I thought.  He has to crush the weak.

The mirror stuck in the middle of the circle I’d drawn.  The blood of a free man, Laird.

The circle would be lined with Rose’s hair.  Hacked off.  Caught by Conquest, freed by myself.

Maggie had torn out the pages of Black Lamb’s Blood, weighing them down so they wouldn’t fly away.  I couldn’t afford to lose them.  The pages that had bound an Other, now free.

Thrice bound.

“It’s done,” Rose said.

I slumped to the ground, exhausted.

“We did it, Evan” I murmured to Evan.

“Woo,” he mumbled.

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