Category Archives: Arc 8 (Signature)

Signature 8.7

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

“I guess I missed you yesterday,” she said.

Prick of the finger.  Blood collected in fingernail, three drops deposited on the ground.

“I feel worse about it than you’d think.  Missing a day.  But it’s reality shenanigans, I guess.  Going to places where time passes differently.  I’m… jeez, coming from there to here, I’m seeing how screwed I am, and I’m hoping I’m not giving away something I can’t afford to give away, right here.”

Molly Walker’s ghost stood there, head bowed.

“Hopefully the tradeoff in keeping our little connection here strong is more or less equivalent.  If it isn’t, well, I guess it’s not all bad.  Penance doesn’t count for much if it isn’t hard, right?”

The ghost didn’t respond.  Couldn’t.

“Unless you’re religious, in which case you just gotta say a few prayers.  You aren’t religious, right?  That’d be weird.  Churchgoing diabolist family.”

Her light, fake laugh was empty in the still air.

A group of children walked along the sidewalk further up the hill that overlooked the spot where Molly had died.  Normal, everyday kids, on their way back from school.  Now that Jacob’s Bell was shifting gears and starting to grow, or even trying to grow, the elementary school and high school remained close to one another, but the elementary school was shifting to only serve grades from kindergarten through six.  The middle school in the north end was the go-to spot for the sevens and eights.

Which was problematic, because they were walking straight into the sorcerer’s realm, and they were walking out with a little bit less of their Selves.

“Nobody’s looking at me, and getting places is hard.  The goblin with a chunk missing from his backside was covering more ground than I was.  Having a name means you have a certain legitimacy in the world.  The smallest spirits don’t have a reason to get out of my way, now.  Feels like I’m walking against a headwind, no matter where I go.”

Molly didn’t move.

“My vision is getting a little weird around the edges, which is making me think I don’t have a lot of time.  Eyes are the window to the soul and all that.  Says a lot when your eyes are starting to feel the hit.”

The girl in the checkered scarf sighed.

“But I don’t want to dump my problems on you.  I just wanted to stick a nail in this connection, and above all, I wanted to let you know that I might not be paying more visits.  I don’t know what happens next, but it’d be weird to be on Johannes side and against the Thorburns, but still paying you visits…”

She trailed off.

Molly looked afraid.  Always, even when her echo reflected moments before she’d seen the goblins.

General fear.

Justified fear.

“Frig.  You can’t make it easy on me, huh?  Can’t give me the thumbs up and tell me I should go do what I need to do?  You gotta look like that and remind me that I’m coming perilously close to doing what I did, siding with Laird.”

She jammed her hands into her pockets, and found her pockets colder.

“I guess I gotta maybe say goodbye here.  Because I dunno what’s going to happen, and I’m running out of time.  I’m… I sort of made a promise to myself, way back when, that I wouldn’t be passive again.  I didn’t want to just stand by the next time trouble came calling, or cry when I could fight back.  And I guess I made the mistake of thinking I had to be aggressive, that fighting back meant fighting.  I’m still doing it, I guess.  I’ve always really been really crum- really shitty at finding the middle ground.  Yeah, fair warning, I might swear a bit, even though I’m not supposed to.  Count it as penance, I guess.”

Behind her, kids laughed as they ran along the sidewalk.  They walked right by the spot where Buttsack was hiding.

She summed up her courage, drew in a breath.  “I-”

Her voice cracked.

She tried again.

“I’m really fuckin’ sorry, Molly.”

She was as close to the ghost as she could get without intruding on the protective circle and shrine.  She watched for any hint of a response.

Kind of stupid to, but she still looked.

The lump in her throat was growing by the second.  All she could do was keep her breaths small.

She raised her arms a bit, because the emotions that were welling up were intense enough to demand she do something, and they were the sort that made her feel like she should hug someone or hit someone.

But she couldn’t do either.  Even if she deserved to hug Molly’s ghost, which she didn’t, there was the protective shrine and the fact that this Molly was only an echo of her fear and terror from that night.

The ghost’s hands weren’t shaking, she noticed.

Maybe a little less fear and terror now.  Just like Johannes’ children had been patched up with the spirits of rats and dogs, she’d patched up Molly some, giving up a bit of herself.

The emotion wasn’t going away, and she couldn’t do anything here.  She had nothing more to say that wouldn’t just take away from that last line.

She wondered about giving more blood to the ghost, while her blood still had any power at all.  Give it all up, a proper sort of penance, and-

And no.  No, even before she was through putting the thought together, she dismissed it.  That would be giving up.  It would mean she wasn’t fighting back.

She let her arms drop to her side and kicked the first clump of snow she passed by, hard.

The effect wasn’t quite so dramatic as she’d hoped it would be.

Fight to the end.

She met up with Buttsack.  He glowered.  “What?”

“You look like you’re going to cry.”

“Get moving.  We have stuff to do.”

He moved, his limp matching hers, in most part.

The trip the rest of the way up the slope to the road was difficult.  Headwind, the snow just deciding to be in the worst possible condition for walking through.

Did celebrities and powerful people glide through life, in large part, because their names carried weight?

Doing things this way wasn’t working.

The only person who was able and ready to help was Johannes, and she wasn’t sure if Johannes would ask her to make compromises.  Laird had asked her to make a compromise.

There weren’t many roads open to her.

Was there a road where she could be her, while avoiding retreading old ground and doing what she’d done to Molly after Laird had approached her?

If there was… what would that road look like?

Her best tools were the goblins.  Nobody else wanted them, and she understood them.  She’d dwelt on them for so long that her mind was keyed to think like goblins thought, to expect their reactions.  They were uncomfortable to deal with, but they were comfortable territory.

“Buttsack?”

“Yes, nameless mistress?  Wormy apple of my eye?”

He made his voice ooze with syrup.  Had he seen the reaction his ‘sweet’ act had had on her earlier?

He was still working out safe ways to get to her.  Scattershot approach for now, he’d narrow it down later.

“You get that line from some cartoon or something?”

“Yes,” he said.  His smile showed bad teeth.

“Needs some work,” she commented.

His strategy wasn’t the best bet.  Later wasn’t a sure thing, when it came to her.  She was liable to lose her grip on reality, or, more correctly, reality would lose its grip on her.  To top it off, the ogre she’d seen on entering the north end had warned her that she might not be a practitioner for long.

She’d said her name when she’d sworn her oath.  How long before the oath unraveled, leaving her without anything at all?  Padraic was pretty much guaranteed to be making a claim to her ability to practice if he was pretending to be her, but he hadn’t sounded confident about his ability to simply take that power.

If that was one hold she could maintain… maybe she needed to put a nail in that too.

Well, getting power would be a start.  If she had a little bit more oomph at her disposal, she’d be able to cement her position better.  There were ways to do it, even, without committing to a decision.

“Are local goblins still hanging out at the MacEwen Park shed?”

“Last I saw.”

“Do you know a better spot to find a lot of goblins in one place?”

“Don’t really care enough to know.  Little fucksops run when they see me coming.”

“Are you pulling my leg?  You’re telling me you’re not a charmer, Buttsack?”

“They do what I say when I need it.  Give one of them a kick in the ass and tell him to gather the others, or I’ll come after them.”

“Like the time before, where I shot you.”

“Yeh,” he said, barely audible.  He glared at her.  “Like that.”

She reached an intersection and turned north.

“We’re not going to the park?”

His bulldog-like face, growl of a voice and the question made her think it was what a dog might say in similar circumstances.  It was a welcome shift of tone from the accumulated emotion of talking to Molly.  She laughed out loud.

Stumbling a bit in the face of the wind and the slippery sidewalk, she had to stop, leaning on a railing, still laughing.  The wind picked up, catching on her scarf.

The girl in the checkered scarf grabbed at her scarf before the wind could claim it and make it so she was no longer the girl in the checkered scarf, but only the girl.

“That’s a no?”

“Yes, we’re going to the park…” she said.  She secured her scarf. “But we have one step first.”

He saw the tunnel loom and groaned.

They passed into the tunnel, and Johannes’ realm unfolded before them.  A different entry point than it had been on her last visit.

Straight to Johannes’ apartment building, the tallest building in Jacob’s Bell at maybe eight stories.  The penthouse was perched on top, sitting askance, a tilted crown atop the building, all done up in tempered glass that reflected the peach colored sky in dark purples, golds and reds.

The sorcerer had left the invitation open, the door sitting ajar.  Welcoming her in as he might one of his guests.

Buttsack muttered something foul under his breath, growing with intensity as they took the step that put the real Jacob’s Bell firmly behind them.

“Suck it up, Buttsack.  The alternative is that I ask you for this stuff, and I don’t think it’s the sort of thing you want to be sent out to collect.”

“What stuff?” he asked.

Johannes nodded slowly.  “Chains, steel wool, lighter fluid and matches, shotgun shells…”

The windows were open, but it wasn’t cold.  Here on the top floor of the tower, the upper section was raised, and only an arrangement of pillars held it up, reflective panes extending between each pillar, floor to ceiling, marked with curls of gold, bronze and the like.  Inside each curl of metal were the seams for the opening of the windows.

“…marbles, chalk and a plastic bucket…”

“Two buckets,” she said, without taking her eyes off the view.

Here, standing in the middle of the room, the only view was of the clouds on the horizon, cast in colors that were surprisingly cold, considering they were reds, oranges and purples.  There was no city, and there was no winter, not from this vantage point.  The breeze was warm, the air fresh in a way that one typically only found while driving through a park or something.

He went on, “…Cranberry juice, not pure, some coke, bottled water, and some sandwiches.  That’s all?”

She nodded.  “So long as I can take it out of your territory, yeah, that should be it.  What are your terms?  What do you want?”

“What are your intentions?”

She wasted no time in replying.  “Getting power.”

“To be used against me?”

“Are you seriously worried about little nameless me?”

Johannes smiled.  “I suppose not.”

The girl in the checkered scarf had to readjust her hairband to keep the hair at the front of her ear from tickling her eye.  “I’m hardly a threat to anyone, but if you need it, I promise not to use the power I gain here against you.”

“Very well.  I have one guest I can tap for the task.  Faysal, do you think you could bear a message to the Duck Knight?”

His dog sat by the window, long white hair billowing in the wind.  “The market district has no oversight.  The Djinn-born are restless.”

“I’ll keep an eye on it,” Johannes said.  He let go of the paper.  The wind direction changed, carrying it to Faysal.

Faysal flared.  A flash of light, a gleam, a brief glimpse of a humanoid figure, too bright to look directly at, and the entire area seemed to bend, like it sometimes did in the science fiction shows, when a ship kicked off into hyperdrive and the area took a second to resettle.

Then the dog and paper were gone.

“Duck Knight?”

“Long story.  Tagged along on another’s invitation.  We had words, and he’s agreed to be at my disposal while I grant him my hospitality.  I’m disposing, and I’m frankly glad to have the chance.  I wouldn’t want him thinking he’s getting off scott-free.”

“Okay then.”

“We have a chance to talk.  Can I offer you food or drink?”

“Can I refuse politely?”

“You can.”

She nodded slowly.

“Power,” he said.

“Power,” she replied.

“Power comes with costs.  It’s hard for me to step away.”

“Your familiar is a gatekeeper.  It can go virtually anywhere, virtually instantly, including some places with locked doors, or did I hear wrong?”

“You heard right.”

“I’d ask how you pulled that off, but you wouldn’t give me a straight answer.  There are a lot of things I really want to ask.  Need to ask, even.”

She fidgeted with the end of her scarf in her hands.  She had nothing to bargain with.

“I might give you a straight answer,” he said.  “I did promise to help you out where I could.”

She arched an eyebrow.

“I’ll give you three answers if you give me three.  But we can each retain a veto, to be fair.”

“Is this a trap?  This sounds like a trap.”

“Not a trap,” Johannes said.  “Ask your questions first.  I’ll match mine to yours in a way that’s fair.”

“Yeah?  Okay, then I’ll bite.  How did you get all this?”

“Very broad.  Are you sure you want me to answer?”

“It would count against my question count if I said no, I’m pretty sure.”

“It wouldn’t.”

“Then I’ll be clearer.  How did you get this demesne?”

“Going right for my veto.  No comment.”

She arched an eyebrow.  Johannes smiled.

“Alright, then.  How did you get something like that as a familiar?”

“Like all of the best friendships, we started out as enemies.  The inverse is possible, too.  It’s all about the strength of the connection.”

She arched an eyebrow, but was careful not to ask a question to get further details.

“I suppose that doesn’t answer the question.  We began as enemies.  When you mess with the natural order of creation or go well outside your way to bend the rules, you can expect the universe to send something like him after you.  I should have gotten the attention of a entity of the third choir, who oversee structure, but I suppose they weren’t absolutely sure.  They sent one of the little ones after me.”

“Little.”

“Yes.  Equipped to deal with the problem if it decided it had to.  I made an argument, he threatened me.  We even skirmished, very briefly on at least nine occasions, and he drew closer and closer to me.  Even came close to annihilating me.  Forced me to play my hand sooner than I’d hoped, but I played my hand all the same.  Once I’d started the ritual-”

“I take it you’re talking about the Demesne ritual.”

Awkward, to be in the position of being forced to give up a question or make a statement and risk lying.  She opted for the latter.  Carefully.

“Yes, I’m talking about the Demense ritual.”

“You vetoed my attempt to ask about the Demesne thing about a minute ago.”

“I did.  If I’d answered, I’d have had to tell you how.  Here, I can tell you about it.  About, meaning movement in a particular area.  I have room to maneuver in this case.  Did you want me to continue?”

“Please.”

“Well, once I started the ritual, he couldn’t interfere.  It’s not in his makeup, and quite frankly, I should have been destroyed as it stood.  We talked between rounds-”

“When you do the ritual, you invite locals to challenge your claim.  You’re talking about talking between individual challenges.”

“Something like that.  Yes.”

He paused, very deliberately, giving her a look.

“Go ahead.  Sorry.”

“Well, at one point he asked why I hadn’t tried using my pipes.”

“He was a dog then, I take it.”

“He was a great many things.  You could argue there was a little bit of everything in him.  The pipes could have worked.”

“But…”

“But I have a sense of how things work.  I might have won the battle, but I would have lost the war.  As it stood, I talked him into it.  Made a very convincing argument about the way things should be.  The deciding point to sway him, apparently, was that I hadn’t tried to use the pipes.  I claimed my Demesne and my familiar within seconds of one another.”

“So… that suggests the universe didn’t need him for its errands.”

“The universe did need him.  This is something of a vacation.”

“Ah.”

“Your second question?”

“Where’d you get the pipes?”

“I bought them from a man who had no idea they were an instrument.  He thought they were art.  I’ve been led to believe they’ve been wanderingEscaping, I’d venture to say.  I did my research, trying to find out what path they’ve traveled, and all I can tell is that they were once in the hands of men and women who most definitely should not have the ability to beguile children.  Perhaps a long succession of those men and women.  I don’t know if they’re the originals or if a very bad person decided to make them, but they serve.”

The girl in the checkered scarf shivered.  Very bad people.

“Then my third question,” she said, “Would be why?”

“Very broad.  I’d warn you-”

“I know.  Broad question, broad answer.  It’s cool.”

“Did you know, against all odds, we’re actually winning?”

“Who’re we?”

“Men, women, children.  Humanity.  We’re beating back the Others.  We’ve got twenty-and-thirty-somethings in a prolonged adolescence, compared to a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago, when most teenagers could be expected to be working, growing up fast.  Even people of retirement age are enduring under delusions, blithely striding forward into ruin, with crippling debt and no savings.  We’re reveling in a culture of relative innocence, and longstanding agreements put in place centuries ago protect people.  Society is changing with a startling speed, and the Others can’t keep up.  They fix themselves to ideas and methods and then fall by the wayside when we abandon our radios or our lanterns in favor of televisions and electricity.”

“We’re winning?”

“We’re swelling in number, and where there used to be only points of light in the midst of the night-time, small candle flames and hearthfires, our nights are bright now.  They have less shadows to lurk in.  We’ve grown to a population of billions, and the rules put in place by one brilliant man with an eye to the future have made it so that they can’t really stop us.  They kill hundreds, but we grow in terms of thousands in that same span of time, and then we send our practitioners to deal with the most problematic ones.  They have less fertile ground to grow from, as we put superstition and fear behind us and move on with blind, stupid confidence.”

The look he gave her as he said that last part made her feel like she’d almost been insulted, but it wasn’t quite so direct that she could call him on it.

“Don’t get me wrong.  You could say I’m one of those people,” he said.  He covered one eye, and pried the other open.

She looked away before she could see the empty socket.

He passed the orb from one hand to the other, then put it back.  “Blind, partway there.  Confident?  Yes.  Stupid?  I don’t have the objectivity to say, but, well, I’ve put this together, so that might be answer enough.”

“Agreeing or disagreeing?”

“Yes,” he said.  He smiled a bit.  “I don’t think we’ll banish all the Others anytime soon.  Or even in a hundred years, or a thousand. But we’re making inroads.  The landscape is changing, and Others are on unsteady footing.  Some won’t be uprooted no matter how much the landscape changes.  Because they’re powerful, or because they’re rooted in something too fundamental.  Some have found their place in the new landscape, but I imagine they’re still uncertain.  Even humans are a little uncertain.  Then there’s another group.  Some Others are looking for a place.  Faysal was one, in a way, and I think I’d rather give them a place than see what happens when they try to take it.”

He paused to let that sink in, then spoke again, “I won’t say it isn’t selfish.  I think, as the situation shifts and Others are replaced by us, others will start doing what I’m doing.  Maybe Lords will start offering up their cities.  It’ll concentrate the damage the Others do to us, maybe even slowing it, giving us more time to expand and assert or dominion… And whatever happens, I wouldn’t mind being the example people look to, ideally as a success story.”

“Ideally,” she said.

“That’s why.  It’s why I reached out to you, seeing you displaced as well.”

“I’m not an Other, as far as I can tell.”

“In the midst of a revolution, I’d rather be the one the other guy is shaking hands with than the one they’re crossing swords with, whether the other guy is Other or practitioner or human,” he said.

He looked so at ease, and he was talking about such grand ideas.

“Faysal is back,” he commented.  “We should hurry this along, I’m thinking.  You’re more or less secure while you’re here-”

“But you can’t do anything to stop Padraic from taking what he takes.  Sandra said the same thing.”

She looked.  The dog stood at the edge of the room, looking out the window at the city below, hair blowing in the wind.

“My turn?”  He asked.

“Please don’t screw me over.  It wouldn’t be sporting,” she said.

“Not to worry.  My first question… you’ve heard my argument, you know my agenda, at least in the abstract.  are you going to take my offer?”

The question caught her off guard.

She slowly shook her head.  “I can’t.  It’s… it would put me at odds with people who’ve been fairest to me, and that wouldn’t be fair to them.”

“Sandra and the Thorburn family?”

“Yes.”

“I see.  Then my second question would be… is there anything I can do to convince you?”

“Honestly?  Probably, yes.  But…”

“But…” he echoed her.

“It’s like it was with Faysal, maybe.  Yeah.  You want to play that game, I could list off stuff you could probably give me.  Important stuff…”

Fire and blood and darkness stuff.

He answered her.  “But I’d lose the war.  I imagine it’s in a different sense than having two enemies to fight for every one I vanquish.”

“…I think we’d both lose in the long run.  I guess it’s part of who I am.  I can’t take the easy road.  I can’t be passive.”

“Even if these important things are weighing on you.”

“Even then.  I need to find my own strength here.  I have to fight my way past this.”

“I see.  I could press you on the subject, demanding my answer.”

“I could veto,” she said, her voice firmer.  “and we might not get along so well afterward.”

He nodded.  “I won’t put us in that position then.  Keep your veto.  I have just one more question, I suppose.”

“Sure.”  She tensed, ready for the knockout blow.

“What’s the story with your being unable to swear?”

She blinked.

“I can put two and two together, but I’ve wondered.”

“I traded the harshest part of my tongue to a goblin for information on how to bind superior goblins.  I, uh… that’s pretty much the whole story.”

“Ah.”

“I don’t suppose you know where there are any superior goblins?” she asked.

“I’d be betraying my guests if I directed a practitioner their way.”

“Goes against the whole point, huh?”

“Yes.  In theory, I could point you to a certain individual who betrayed my rules, Rackspatter of the Nine Thousand Scalps, but I wouldn’t be doing you a service.  For one thing, he can’t be bound.  If I remember right, ninety-nine of his nine thousand scalps are from practitioners that tried and failed.  It’s like the rule of three, reinforced thirty three times over.  At this point, it’s a foregone conclusion.  You’d be the hundredth.”

“And he’d be over nine thousand,” she said.

Johannes’ smile suggested he browsed the internet.  That was telling.

Damn it.  So the goblin I dealt with got my curse words, letting him give people tongue lashings that hurt, but I’m gonna have to wait.”

Johannes raised an eyebrow.

“What?”

“Wait?  You’re not taking my deal, but you’re speaking with an eye to the future.”

“Yeah,” she said, quiet.

She trudged over to the spot where the dog had dropped the bag.  It was filled with next to everything, some of it in plastic bags.

Faysal was looking at Buttsack, who was perched on the railing, staring out at the city.  As different from the familiar as anything.

“A magicked bag,” Johannes commented.  “Everything weighs one tenth what it should.”

She tried to pick up the bag, and found she didn’t have the strength.

I’m as weak as a baby.

“Buttsack,” she said.

The goblin huffed out a bit of a groan before picking up the bag.

“I’ll need the bag back, if you’re up to the task,” Johannes said.  “As for the phone…”

“I’m suspicious there’s a reason you keep lending me things,” she said.

“Oh?”

“Keeps me coming back.”

He smiled, a faint dimple showing in one cheek.

A tell, even.

“Can I ask a favor?” she asked.  “Two?”

“Perhaps.”

“Let me hold on to the phone?  Battery’s dead-”

“Do you need the charger?”

“No.  Just… just the phone.  And a book on claiming a demesne,  if you have one?”

“Bag, phone, and book.  Three favors requested.  I could ask for something in return.”

“Yeah.”

“Let me ask one more question.”

“I can’t shake the feeling that all of this was a lead-up to this one question you wanted to ask.”

“No, not at all.  In fact, if you don’t feel like answering, that’s alright.”

“Can I not answer and still take the stuff?”

“No,” he said.

“Well, if there’s no harm in the question, shoot.

He glanced at Faysal, then back to her.  “What’s the real reason you said no to me?  It can’t just be your personality at work.”

“Ah,” she said.

“That’s not an answer.”

“I… I guess, when it comes down to it, you’ve got to fall back on what you know, you know?”

“I know.”

“And you told me your story, and you told me your agenda, and even though you left stuff out, I can sort of piece it all together.  But at the end of the day, there’s only one guy that I know of who’s tempted any angels down a different path, and I bet he sounded awfully convincing too.”

Faysal tilted his head.

“Ouch,” Johannes said.

“Just saying.”

“My fault for asking,” he said.

She put one hand on Buttsack’s head and steered the goblin towards the door.

“Would that other guy wish you luck?” Johannes asked.

“Probably.”

The floor tiles rotated, opening a hole.  A table rose from the floor, and Johannes picked up the book.

He handed it to her.  “Well, good luck all the same.”

“Appreciated.”

“Can Faysal send you anywhere particular?”

“That might help.  Buttsack, you’ve been by the shack, right?”

“Yeah.”

“Where were the guards stationed?”

“No guards.  We come and go enough to see if there’s anyone nearby.”

Faysal spoke, his voice that was accented in a way that made it richer, not flawed.  “I can put you two somewhere safe, child.”

She nodded slowly.  “Thank you.  The shed in MacEwen Park.  Can you put me there somewhere around…”

“A safe time, a safe place?” Faysal asked.

“Uhh, sure.  Thank you.”

Light washed over her, and it was warm, and in the midst of it, she saw Faysal Anwar as it truly was.

Cold air hit her like a hammer blow.

That wasn’t what had shocked her so much.

“Holy bucking candy balls,” she said, eyes wide.  “I think I might have pissed Faysal Anwar off with that comparison I made between Johannes and-“

“He’s always like that,” Buttsack muttered, interrupting.

“Frigging hell,” she said.  “Then remind me not to get on his bad side.”

“As you command, my mistress, wart on my cockshead, puckered-“

“Shh,” she said.

There were trees all around.  The park was a sliver of land that, as she understood it, was too much hassle to put buildings on.  Too close to the marsh – Hillsglade House was visible in the distance.

The wind pushed at her like she was some stuffed toy caught in the grip of two warring children.

“Every time I leave, I’m weaker,” she said.

“Time’s passing fast,” Buttsack said.

“How much time?” she asked.

“Enough.”

“Is it intentional?”

“No.  Something that fucking big, it distorts everything around it.”

That white dog…

“Frig,” she said, again.  “And Sandra thinks she can fight Johannes?”

“Yes.”

“Frig,” she said.  “I feel so small.”

He was silent.

“And I’ll get smaller if I don’t move.  Which direction?”

He pointed.

“Kill any goblin that tries to stop me or warn the others.”

Buttsack grinned.

He had his uses.

She loaded her pipe, moving one knife to one pocket.

The shack loomed in view.  A section of playground sat on the other side of the trees, distant.

The ‘shack’ was a building with maintenance equipment for park and playground, built of concrete blocks and a high window barred by a grille, to keep people from breaking in.  Squat, big enough to park a riding lawnmower inside, and thoroughly decrepit, to the point that there were several large holes in the exterior.

The sun shone, casting it in silhouette, making it hard to tell just where the holes were.

A resting spot for goblins.

There were others in the town.  Had Buttsack been unsure about this one, she might have tried one of the houses.

This served.

“Are they asleep?  Check.  You should know what tricks to watch for.”

“I’m one of the fucking ones they’re watching for,” Buttsack said.

Try.  Signal me when you’re ready.”

He creeped.  Goblin creeping was different from human creeping.  He could dance along darkness, become the ill winds.

Buttsack wound up in a position where he simply perched within a hole in the wall.

He turned and gave her the finger.

That would be the signal.

The snow pulled at her feet.  Even the short walk to this point had drained her.  She felt like she had just finished a marathon.

She’d felt a definite loss of personal power after her first visit to Johannes’ realm.  Now this?

How much time had passed?

She reached the shack.  Her hand touched the worn exterior.  Had a goblin taken a sledgehammer to it?  The damage was heavy.

“How many?” she murmured.

“Six.”

“Bag,” she said.  “Quietly.

She only managed to add the qualifier a fraction of a second before he let go.  He caught the strap with one finger, stopping the bag mid-flight, breaking the fall.

Quiet was relative, it seemed.  She reached out, her hands on the bag, and she knew she wouldn’t be strong enough.

She threw herself against the bag, instead, pressing it against the wall with her body.  It made for more noise than she wanted.

Buttsack leaped.

She heard a strangled scream.

More noise as the bag scraped against the wall, her arms straining as she fought to keep it from crashing to the ground.

The moment it stopped, landing in softer snow, she was opening it.

Another strangled scream.

The goblins were waking up.

She pulled the chain from the bag, everything from fingertip to toe straining as she fought to pull it free.  Other things were dragged out of the bag as the chain came out.

Once the stuff was out of the way, the process was faster.  The chain unraveled, and she circled the building.  She stopped at the front door, winding the chain around the latch.

A goblin appeared just in front of her, through a hole that she had yet to bar.

She grabbed the pipe, saw its eyes widen in recognition-

The blast was deafening in the relative quiet.  She wondered if her lack of presence in the world would keep people from paying attention, or if they’d catch the shotgun blast all the same, but find themselves unable to place it.

They were ignorant and innocent, whatever the case.

He’d gone back inside.  She had to haul on the chain harder, as it dragged against three corners of the building now.

Too difficult.  She dropped it against the base of the building and headed for the bag.  Easier to grab the other end.

Another two goblins appeared.

She hadn’t had time to reload.  She pointed the pipe at them all the same.

“Try the other door,” she said.

Then she moved to slam the pipes together-

They were gone.

Goblins were cowardly, as a general rule.  One of the first rules she’d learned.

She touched the two ends of chain together, then moved the bag’s contents so the metal there would help bar the gap.

As barriers went, it was weak.  Metal charged by cold.  She only needed it to hold for a minute.

Her hand touched the hole Buttsack had used to get inside.  Big enough for a raccoon to crawl through.

It would have to do.

The bucket was in the bottom of the bag, fitting the bag’s shape.  Most of the stuff was packed inside.

Ideal.  It made it easier.

She struggled with the buckets, moving it, removing the chain by tilting the bucket, then fed it through the nearest available hole in the structure.

grabbing the sandwiches and drinks, putting them in the bag with the remaining bucket.  Now it was light enough to sling over one shoulder.

Bucket, marbles.

And one of the items that Andy had given her.  The same item he’d stuck to the door.

A rectangular package wrapped in butcher’s paper.

She unfolded the paper.

The contents were mostly soft, dull beige, with a bit of hardware on the one end.  A microchip, a bit of wiring, and a dull screen that might have fit on a calculator.  All in all, it was surprisingly small.

Then again, she had no idea how big these things were supposed to be.

She dropped it in the bucket, then packed it in with the steel wool.

She tossed the bucket inside.

She could hear the confused comments, the swears.  She could see them peering through the holes.  She was already limping away.

“Fuck?  What the fuck!?” one goblin.  “What’s this?”

“Hey!  Bitch!” Buttsack cried out.

“You’ll live,” she said, without turning around.

“Cant get at whatever she shoved inside!”

“Break it!” Buttsack was shouting.

She walked until a good sized tree was between her and the goblins.

She pulled the transmitter out of her pocket.

Safety off.

She pressed the button.

She’d thought the pipe shotgun was loud.

When her senses returned to her, she was lying in the snow.

The world was a little darker, and not because time had passed.

Cracks ran through everything, as if the world were a picture, and the bomb had broken the glass in the frame.

Here and there, the cracks opened wide enough for a foot to slip through.

She crawled to her feet, careful to avoid the gaps.

She suspected she didn’t have the strength to open a door at this point.

It would be ignoble, if somewhat fitting, if she couldn’t do this next part.

Walk around the shack…

Stepping further out of the woods, she had a view of the town.

Most of it.  It was faint, faded, and further away than it should have been.  Everything looked like it was uphill, as if she stood in the midst of a great depression.

Not the small explosive’s work.

The door had been partially damaged.

Right.

She moved slowly, taking a moment to reload the pipe shotgun.

She pushed the damaged door open, and the middle held fast, held by chain, while the part that should have connected to the hinges swung inward.

She squeezed through, stumbling and nearly falling on her way in.

The goblins were wounded, but not killed, filled with glass marbles or shards of the things, as well as bits of plastic bucket and maybe some steel wool.

Buttsack was already on his feet, glaring with the hate of a thousand sociopaths.  He started to hobble her way.

“Stop,” she said.

He didn’t.  She didn’t have that much sway over him anymore.  He spoke, and his voice was a growl.  “I could-”

She shot him in the leg.

He screamed.

“Now you can’t,” she murmured.

She pulled the chain to the middle of the room, then arranged it in a circle, looped three times over, avoiding the spot in the floor which opened up into some seemingly bottomless pit.

The darkness shifted, and in the corner of her vision, it was worse.  She couldn’t shake the feeling that it was getting worse behind her, in all of her blind spots, waiting to catch her by surprise.

Her sanctuary was against goblins alone.  A circle Seven feet in diameter.

She sat down, cross-legged, and pulled the remaining items out of the bag, collecting it in a pile.

She’d opted for the lighter fluid and matches over a large battery because she hadn’t been sure how strong she would be.  Her plan had been to use her own blood if she had the strength, and the lighter fluid along with improvised materials if she hadn’t.  As it happened, she hadn’t needed to worry.

Flecks of goblin had been scattered throughout the room.

She used the end of her scarf to clean the inside of the circle, then painted a circle around the inside of the chain.  Goblin blood.

Chalk for a third circle.

Chalk for circles inside the circle, and lines that led to where her legs and rear end met the floor.

She pulled off her scarf.  “My dads bought this for me.  They gave me shelter, in more ways than one.  They gave me strength.  They’re at the core of who I am.”

Scarf in one circle, with the word ‘Dads’.

“My mom…”

She put in the phone Johannes had lent her, the vehicle for her latest, freshest communication with her mom.

An ‘x’ in goblin blood.  “My hometown…”

There weren’t that many connections she could secure.

Pipe shotgun.  “My relationship to goblins.”

She picked up the book on Demesnes, then shifted position until a circle was in front of her.  “Blake.  He told me he’d teach me magic.  My first real friend here.”

She opened the book, paging through it.

“Biiiiiitch,” Buttsack groaned.  He didn’t move, still staring up at the ceiling.

Others were rousing, reaching into open wounds to dig out marbles.

“Take your time,” she said.  “I’m… well, I won’t say I’m not in a hurry, but I can wait.”

She found the page on Demesnes.

But there was one more circle to attend to.

She pricked her finger with the stiletto, then let the blood collect.

The cracks around her yawned wider.  The structure shook.

She could see one or two of the goblins smiling.

One drop.

She let the blood collect again.

The cracks widened further.  A deep, endless darkness, a void that beckoned.

“If you want me,” she told the void, “You’ll have to take me.”

Second drop.

“I’ll take you,” Buttsack said.

She ignored him.

The third drop collected.

Reality cracked and creaked, straining to hold together, as the blood filled the little square of her baby fingernail.

She let it drop, and her vision wavered.  She very nearly fell over into the nearest crack.

There was barely any light now.  A crack ran through the window, allowing only a sliver through.

“Molly,” she said.

The word passed her lips, and she sat.

Waiting.

In the dark space around her, barely visible, the goblins moved, picking bits out of their wounds.

One slipped outside.

He came back with friends.

An hour might have passed, she couldn’t be sure.  She read through Demesnes to pass the time, to learn.

The goblins recovered, healing from the wounds that hadn’t been dealt by metal.  She reloaded her gun.

She ate and drank.  The sandwiches had been made as she’d specified.  Close enough to her favorite ham and cheese.

When all of the goblins were standing, Buttsack included, she was ready.

She paged through Demesnes to find her way to the ritual.

A demesnes wasn’t in the game plan.

“I hereby make a claim,” she said.  “Let this be my statement.”

The goblins watched.

She improvised, using the demesnes ritual for a guide, a loose outline to follow.  “I claim a name, and I claim only that name.  I claim it by the connections here, and only these connections.  I-”

She hesitated.

“-I name myself Mags.  By this, this remnant of my old name, I claim my Self, I claim my strength, and I deny Maggie Holt from taking anything further.  I give up what I have lost, and I hold to what I still have.

“But I won’t be half a person.  I claim other things.  I claim myself to be the wild card.  I claim myself to be the neutral party.  Three times, I was met and welcomed, and three times did I bargain.  I know these people have no reason to gainsay me in this.  I will be the messenger, the ambassador, the deciding figure, in Jacob’s Bell, until I’m replaced or unable to serve.”

I will be a part of this shithole for the indefinite future.

“Let this be my challenge.”

The words had a resonance.

“If anyone would deny me this, I bid them to come, and to go fuck themselves.  I’ll answer them, and meet them in fair contest of mutual agreement.  I so swear, with all my being to hold onto what I have here, I swear with my everything, as my being is all I have left.”

She aimed her pipe gun and fired it.

The sound rippled, reaching far.

She waited.

Footsteps passed outside.

Sandra.

“No contest.”

She couldn’t track time.

But the cracks didn’t seem so deep.

Johannes.

“No contest,” he said.

She nodded slowly.

Then another figure.

She could see her, but not hear the footsteps.

The voice was her own.

“You had to surround yourself with goblins of all things.”

“Yeah,” she replied.

“Bits of goblin.  Filthy, nasty.  Mess.  Ruins.”

‘Yeah.”

“Eugh.  Not worth it.  You’re conceding?”

She clenched her teeth so hard it hurt.  “In part.”

“I very nearly had you.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m interested to see how this next bit plays out.”

Fuck you, Padraic.  I bet you did a shitty job of being me.”

But Maggie was gone, as was Padraic.

All of this is so I can keep fighting.  I may be giving up on the name, but that doesn’t preclude killing you somehow.

Mara was next to appear.

“I won’t be so easy,” Mara said.

“I won’t have my dads,” the girl in the checkered scarf said.  “Not wholly.  I won’t have my old life, or even the school I hate.  If you want to be cruel, and force me to travel the harder path, let me keep going like this.”

Wind blew, whistling through the holes in the shack.

“No contest.”

The girl in the circle nodded slowly.

Time passed.

She waited, and she ate.  She conserved water, but time passed, and it finished.

The goblins watched, pacing, wanting an opportunity to attack.

Even as they watched, she relieved herself in the second bucket.  She endured the catcalls.  Then she resumed the sitting position.

Another figure.

A group.

They didn’t peer through the holes in the shack, but opened the door.

Rose Thorburn, out of the mirror, a black, gangly kid with a bird on his shoulder, a taller girl with a luggage case behind her, and a shorter girl with a cigarette.

“No contest,” Rose said.  “You’re done.”

Mags nodded slowly.

“You okay?” Rose asked.  “I heard what happened.”

“I’m not okay, but I’ll deal.”

Rose nodded.

There were no cracks anywhere they didn’t belong as Rose offered Mags a helping hand in getting to her feet.

“You’ve got to tell me your story,” Mags said, stepping outside, her eyes on the strangers.  “Starting with where Blake is.”

The quiet, confused looks were an answer unto themselves.

“What?” she asked.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Advertisements

Signature 8.6

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

The streets started out narrow, and then they got worse.

It was gradual, subtle.  From the outskirts, it was easy to overlook.  Trudging from one street to the next block, the sidewalk disappeared.  Lawns in the prefab housing developments got narrower, the houses were positioned closer to the roads.

Trees older than any of the buildings here loomed over the road itself, branches knitting together overhead for a third of a block, frozen into a kind of icy archway.  Two blocks down, the overhanging trees and branches loomed over half the block, bigger.  Here and there, people were perched on porches, leaning forward, or clustered in tight groups.

Still not so unusual that she would have raised an eyebrow, if she weren’t in the know.

The road sloped slightly downhill, bending around a strip mall, a one way street with no street leading out, no good spot to turn around and go in the other direction.

Time was different here.  She’d met the twins around noon, but the sun loomed on the horizon, the sky a peach hue.  The wind always blew steadily, unfaltering, the sky was always the same color, the sun in the same height above the horizon, only shifting to different compass points in the sky, confusing any sense of direction or ideas about whether it was early or late in the day.

The attitudes of the people who congregated in the streets seemed to reflect the atmosphere.  A lack of direction.  A hundred people, a dozen cars, and half of the people looked like they’d just come downstairs and walked into the kitchen, only to realize they’d forgotten why they’d just come downstairs.

A hundred people, just going through the motions, checking the fridge, visiting stores, perpetually in a daze.

An Other stood behind a fence, arms folded on the bar that held the chain-link upright.  Massively fat, horrendously bad complexion complete with peeling skin and pimples, his eyes were spaced too far apart, mouth far too wide, his nose too flat.  A toad of a man.  Still, he wasn’t quite so unusual that she couldn’t have dismissed him as a human being with a severe syndrome or something.  Most people didn’t even look at him, and the ones that did looked away, embarrassed.

For his part, the Other was looking at her.  His eyes were spaced far enough apart on his broad head that only one could watch her at a time as she made her slow progress, his head unmoving, eyes slowly shifting to track her.  He raised a cigarette to his mouth and puffed on it.

Her leg was hurting, made worse by her burden, a fat, four-foot-tall, eighty pound goblin.  The ice and the compacted snow of the street made him easier to drag, but his skin was so loose that it compounded the little traction that did exist, and the same smooth surface made it harder for her own feet to dig in.  People who looked at her glanced away, much as they had with the Other.  They kept to the usual pace, the dissonant wanderings.

Her expression was stern as she rounded the curve in Harcourt street.

Right here, at the end of the curve, the place got more twisted.  A few more signs, a three-way intersection.  Convoluted streets that made her have to pause to figure out how to get where she was going.  Everything was crammed in together.

It was like Mara’s setup, in a way, but the goal wasn’t to keep people out.  Just the oppsite.  This was a pitcher trap.  The unwary insect could perch on the edge, only to slip and fall in.  Entering was easy.  Leaving, every curve would bend back, leading toward the city center.  The one way streets would point the wrong way, and if Johannes willed it, the city would adjust.  Try to drive out along one of those one way streets, and a car would start coming the other way, or a cop would arrive.

Or, even simpler, the streets one took to get in wouldn’t be there when the traveler looked away and back again.

The older part of Jacob’s Bell was perpetually asleep.  Excepting bursts of activity here and there around the time everyone left for work or school, Jacob’s Bell tended to be the sort of place where you could walk from A to B and only see one person or one group of people.

Here, though, it was busier.  Newer housing developments, low property costs, an hour’s commute from Toronto, and the new setup at the station all brought people in.

It wasn’t asleep, but it was… how was she supposed to even parse it?  It was waking up, and it was poised, still half caught by the twilight of near-sleep, ready to leap up and strike.  To get out of bed and start running and never ever stop.

It was like something she might imagine seeing if she had taken a bad hit to the head and she feared another.  Except she was the seeing man in this land of the blind.  It was the rest of the world that didn’t make sense, here.  Stuff didn’t quite fit together, her eyes had trouble tracking from one point to the next without getting caught or snagged, and anyone who wasn’t wandering around in a daze looked like they were perchedTensed, even.

The people sitting on their front steps, hands or arms resting on their knees, as if they couldn’t quite relax, even when sitting.

People and Others gathered in tight groups, conspiring. The people would be talking amongst themselves, trying to voice their vague concerns while trying to keep their unsteady grip on reality.  Across this entire domain thousands were caught in the same precipitous state.

Scarf flapping in the incessant wind, hands a little bloody, face spotted with flecks of goblin blood, she dragged the goblin behind her.  Nobody commented, nobody looked.  All for the same reason.

They weren’t real people.

They were shadows with an illusion of depth.  Snapshots.  Reflections.

Dissonance was as dangerous to them as any knife.  Once their reality was challenged, they cracked a little.

They would go well out of their way to avoid that, acting on a thread of self preservation that existed on a level well below the instinctual.

Another bend in the road, leading her to a shopping center.  Individual buildings were set up on separate city blocks, connected by tunnels that extended over the street, from building to building.

It was the busiest part of all of Jacob’s Bell, and every road was a single lane road.  With no sidewalk, she was forced to walk on the edge of the road, side-view mirrors of passing cars passing within a foot of her.  Someone honked.

This, right here, was the point where an ordinary citizen might start wondering what the fuck was going on, but they were liable to blame themselves, to wonder if they’d missed a sign.

The road on the way out of the area had a spike strip and a parking attendant’s booth in the complete wrong order, with two cars parked nearby, tires shredded.

This was where the pitcher trap started catching its flies.  She struggled for a minute to get the bloodied goblin past the spike strip.  She got him halfway over it, the spikes digging into his gut, then pulled on his leg to bring his lower half over, increasing the amount of weight on the spikes.  She managed to get his limp body to do a somersault over the spikes, grabbing one foot to resume dragging him, his face scraping against ice and snow.

Entering into the uptown area, she saw taller buildings, breaking up the view, crowding together.  A small collection of Others, three or four, were gathered by a ledge in a parking garage crammed with cars that looked like they were in pretty rough shape.  Each of the Others was about seven feet tall and slim, brown skinned with glossy black hair.  They were similar enough in appearance to be related, all wearing long winter jackets and either ankle length skirts or loose-fitting pants.

One of them, the youngest looking by appearance, was sitting on the ledge, feet dangling over a two story drop.  She had her hair in black dreads, tied back.  With how black her long jacket and dress were, even her brown skin looked light.  She watched with an intense stare, her eyes showing too much white at the edges.  Given her height, the people who passed by didn’t break the Other’s line of sight.  Psychopath eyes.  Unnerving.

There were goblins here too.  Bigger ones.  They had the same habit of peering at her from dark places, their eyes flashing momentarily like slivers of light striking on random reflective surfaces.  Unlike stray bits of light, however, they had a weight to them.

They would be Johannes’.  All of them, in one way or another.

She pressed on.  It was easier if she kept moving.  When she was forced to pause, the goblin stuck to the frozen ground, her leg seized up, and the strain in her arms caught up with her.

She wondered momentarily if it had something to do with the nature of this place.  She couldn’t help but feel she was constantly going downhill, and it was drawing her to keep moving, deeper and deeper.

A car passed close enough that her snow-crusted scarf slapped against the passenger-side window.  If her hand hadn’t been on Buttsack’s foot, the mirror might have caught her elbow.

Worrying.

She paused, trying to find a way to maneuver up to safer ground, and Buttsack kicked weakly against her grip.

Was he waking up?

Going back was too hard, arguably dangerous.  She elected to move laterally.

Up a steep, snow-crusted stairway to an intersection.

A larger building stood nearby.  Giant metal letters had been mounted on the side.

A middle school?

She headed over, shifting her grip to have one hand to each of Buttsack’s feet, letting go only when she was near enough to test a door.

The interior wasn’t warm, but it was out of that constant wind.

Mostly.  A window was open or broken somewhere, and colorful papers drifted lightly across the school hallway.

Buttsack groaned.

She dragged him halfway down the hallway.  The stiletto still pierced both of his palms, above his head.  She shifted the position of it, putting the blade between two lockers, and then kicked the handle, driving it in.  The metal on metal sound echoed through the school hallway.  Buttsack made a pained expression.

“Wake up,” she told him.

He rolled his head from one side to the other.  Half his face and most of his shoulder were a bloody ruin.  She could see muscle and exposed bone, complete with bits of dirt, and moisture from the snow and ice she’d dragged him through.

She grabbed the pipe.  A single cord connected the front of the inner pipe to the back end of the outer pipe.  It worked well, slung over one shoulder.  She aimed it at him.

“Wake up or I’m liable to shoot you.  I’m done dragging you around, one way or the other.”

His eyes opened.

A moment later, they opened wider.  “You brought me here?”

“Caught you the first time in a school.  Fitting we do this in a spot like this.”

“The Sorcerer’s Demesne.”

“Oh, that.  Yeah.”

“Bitch!  You fucking bitch!

She bent down, grimacing at the tension in her leg where he’d bitten her the night before.  She pressed one end of the pipe against his groin.

“Bi…” he trailed off.

“I’m curious what’s so bad about being here.  I can understand why goblins want to stay away from, say, the neighborhood where the witch hunters live.  I can picture Eva hunting goblins for sport.  I can even understand why you guys want to avoid regular humans.  Common sense.  But you’re upset to be here?”

“You should be too.”

“I’m kind of upset,” she said.  She shifted position so less weight rested on her calf, and the pipe slid forward a bit in the process.  Buttsack flinched.  “An awful lot of walking.  This place isn’t even that big, but it’s so convoluted…”

“This place is bad because there are powers here,” Buttsack hissed.  “Things any self-fucking-respecting sod would fucking stay way from you moronic fucking cunt!”

She slammed the larger pipe down.  When the end of the smaller one slid from its perch over Buttsack’s groin, she didn’t try to correct it.  The spray fired into and beneath his prodigious rear end.

In retrospect, her ears ringing, she wondered if he was meaty enough to shield her from the shrapnel.

She wouldn’t do that again.

All the same, Buttsack was screaming, feet scrabbling frantically for purpose on the dusty tiles of the school hallway.  She’d taken a piece out of his rear end.

“Bitch!  Whore!”

“You know, I haven’t asked, since I’m not Isn’t it lying to call me those words?”

“Cunt!”

“I guess the words have another meaning, in a way.  Listen-”

He spat out a stream of invectives in a language that wasn’t English.  It sounded vaguely Germanic.

She sighed, took the pipe gun apart, removed the spent cartridge.  She retrieved another shotgun shell from her coat pocket and fit it into place before putting everything together again.

The onslaught of foreign curse words slowed.

It stopped as she put the pipe back into position.

“Listen,” she said.

She had his full attention.  His emotions were overflowing to the point that he couldn’t keep his expression still.  One lip twitched in some reflexive need to snarl.

“There are powers here, you said?”

“Yes.  Genies, goblins, elves, minor incarnations, wraith kings.  Changes from day to day.”

“Didn’t know we had that much traffic in Jacob’s Bell.”

“We don’t, you stupid fuckkkk-” he came to an abrupt halt as she adjusted her grip on the pipe.

“Go on.”

He glared, sullen.  “The sorcerer alters the layout to let them in.  Uses his familiar.  The rules are the same, always.  You don’t go after practitioners, you leave grudges and greater weapons at the door.  No fighting, unless it’s to go after someone who starts a fight, no deals with anyone except the Northern Sorcerer.  You leave with what you brought with you.”

Giving him an awful lot of power, if powerful creatures are respecting his rules.

“Nobody else has tried to do this?”

Lots do it, you imbecile!  But not many mortals.  How many have this much room to work with?”

“True.  We-”

Buttsack’s head turned a fraction, ears moving to reorient.

She stopped.

Her head turned.

A little girl.  Black, maybe ten years old, wearing a parka over a white dress, gray tights on her legs, with winter boots that had fur at the top.  Her hair was in two buns at the back of her head, held in place with bright elastics.  The child’s eyes were wide.

She could see Buttsack.

The girl in the checkered scarf moved, but the little girl moved faster, running.

By the time the girl in the checkered scarf reached the corner, the little girl was gone.  A door slammed somewhere distant.

Fast.

“You could be in trouble,” Buttsack taunted.  “You bitch.”

He went rigid as she pointed the pipe his way.

“You should kill the little slut to be safe,” Buttsack said.

“How long was she watching?” she asked.

“Dunno, but I still think you should pop little slut full of whatever you’ve got there.  Make her bleed.  If you hit her in the gut you get blood mingling with shit, and she dies slow.  I’d give you my shiv but you fucking lost it, mongoloid bitch.”

“You’d think I should kill her even if there wasn’t an excuse.  You have a choice here.  Agree to obey me and do me and mine no harm for the next year, and I’ll free your hands.  Refuse, and I leave you here for something to find.”

“Might take my chances.”

“You might.  Decide now.  Offer expires when I’m done counting down from five.”

“Five seconds?  You whore!”

“Four seconds.”

“Choke on a shit-covered dick!”

“Decide fast or the genie, elf, wraith king or whatever else that finds you decides your fate.”

He turned to the foreign swear words again.

“One second…”

“Fuck!  Yes.”

“Say it, just so we’re clear.”

“I obey you, one year.”

Well, that had been easy.

In fact, she was so caught off guard by how easy it had been that she mentally stumbled.  She’d been expecting him to be stubborn and stay behind, and now she felt obligated to bring him along.

Just how scared was he?

“Coolio.  You stay close to me.  Alert me quickly and clearly to any meaningful danger.  Avoid interacting with any other entity or object except when and how I tell you to.  You can talk to me, but I expect a measure of respect.”

“Can I fucking breathe?” he asked.

“Yes.  You can walk and carry out other simple tasks.”

“Because the air and floor are objects.”

She pulled the stiletto free from where she’d jammed it into the space between locker door and frame.

He grunted.

“Work with me and we’ll relax the rules later.  Make this difficult, and you’ll have a very boring year.”

“Bitch.”

“Respect, or do you want to be forsworn in your duties?”

“Said it quiet, indoor voice,” he said, looking around at the spot where the shotgun had blasted away a portion of his rear end.  He was durable.  Dense little bastard, underneath that loose skin.  Sullen, he said, “Modicum of respect.  Not forsworn.”

“Don’t swear at me.”

He made a noise like a dying cow might.  She realized it was a groan.

“And no annoying sounds, either.”

“Uh huh.”

She knew goblins, and she knew he’d be thinking about a way to get around her rules and do something suitably problematic.

For now, he was being quiet, half-walking, half-crawling to follow her.  She didn’t slow down for him.  Let him get tired out, he’d be less of a problem later.

She looked for the child, and she couldn’t find her.  Not even with the Sight.

“Quiet,” she murmured, as they ascended a half-flight of stairs, approaching classrooms.

Voices?

She moved along the wall, approaching the first classroom.

No.

She was nearly silent as she approached the next.  Her leg ached more from the more controlled, precise movements.

At the next classroom door, she could hear the voices more clearly.

“-Else besides the scary gun chick and the cute little whatsit creature?”  A young male voice.

“It definitely wasn’t cute.  Very definitely wasn’t.  But it was just them, I think.  I didn’t look for long.”  Girl’s voice.

“Damn it.  If we could just ask… are you sure she wasn’t friendly?”

“If she was thirty, muscley and wearing a bloodstained tank top and headband and carrying a gun, and she was doing what she was doing to some Nazi supersoldier or something in a movie, I wouldn’t think twice.  But she’s like, your age, Noah.  And she’s a she, and that thing was small and it’s worse.”

“And she’s human?”  Male voice, less young than the first.

“Like I said, I only looked for a second and then I ran, but she had this metal wand, and I think that’s it.”

The girl in the checkered scarf looked down at her pipe shotgun.

She reached out and knocked on the door.  It creaked a bit as the touch made it open a fraction wider.

No response, not a noise.

She pushed the door open, checked for possible traps, magical or otherwise, then rounded the corner, entering the classroom with arms extended, pipe in one hand.

They’d backed up, plastering themselves against walls.  Virtually silent in the process.

Two boys, two girls.

They looked terrified to the point that she wondered if they would have heart attacks.  Each was frozen like a deer in the headlights.

Three were young, about ten.  One of the ten year olds resembled the older boy, Noah, who was in his mid teens.  Definitely younger than her, despite what the kid had said.  The foibles of youth.

“I mean you no harm.”

They didn’t budge.

Jesus.  The fear on their faces.

Were there more people like this around the city?  People who’d seen the Other stuff and managed to stay alive?

For any Other that liked their mortals running scared, these guys would be like candy.

Poor frigging saps.

She looked for and found Buttsack standing in the doorway, a few steps behind her.

“Hey, this is the goblin I was talking to. Buttsack, say hello.”

“Hello, whelps,” Buttsack said, in a low growl.

“Say it nicely.

He gave her the dirtiest look he could manage, then plastered a smile on his face, wide enough to make his eyes scrunch up.  It somehow made him look far, far more terrifying.  He clasped wounded hands together, twisting them in front of him.  In a higher pitched voice, he said, “Hello, adorable little sweethearts.”

There was a pause.

Frigging goblins.

“You named him Buttsack?” one of the younger boys asked.

Frigging goblin names.

“No.  He came with the name,” she said, sighing a bit.  “Look, kids, whatever you think you saw, Buttsack and I are sort of allies right now.  You could even call us friends, since we have common interests.  Getting out of this place alive being one of them.  Right?  You can tell them.”

“We’re allies, just like she said,” Buttsack said, nodding a little too energetically.  “She might want you to be friends too.”

He sounded like he was trying to coo as he said that last sentence.  It came out strained.

Motherfucking goblins.

The kids looked more scared.

“Look,” she said.  “I mean you no harm, unless you come after me or try to stab me in the back somehow.  You’ve got questions, I’ve got answers.  When I’m done supplying the answers I can give you, I want to ask you some minor stuff.  Deal?”

She saw them break their frozen positions to glance at one another.

“Who are you?”  This from Noah’s little brother.

“I’m the girl with no name, unfortunately.  Long story.  I’m, in some ways, a lot like you.  A bad, scary, frigging strange situation got dropped on my hometown, I barely made it out alive.”

“This is happening in other places?”

“Nn-Yes, but not like you mean.  What happened to my hometown was… different.”

Her memories of the scenes, of the blood, flooded back to her.

Painful, ugly, but maybe it was good to touch base with that particular connection.  As connections to things went, her name wasn’t a big part of her attachment to hometown, and her hometown wasn’t something Padraic could or would necessarily take away from her.

Noah spoke up, “Something came after Mia, and then when we walked back home, it came after all of us.  We decided to hide out, but…”

“But that was a little while back,” the girl in the checkered scarf finished for them.  “And now things aren’t adding up.  Your families are acting weird, clocks are all wrong.”

“Yeah,” Noah said.

Time is wrong,” the little girl from before said.  Noah had looked her way when he said Mia.

In moving her eyes from one side of the room to the other to follow the conversation, the girl in the checkered scarf saw a flicker of something.

She adjusted her Sight to look.

No fricking wonder the kid had been so fast.  Even the way they’d gone still…

The four children stood before her, and each of them was shattered.  They were like mannequins or dolls, finely detailed, everything in the right place, but bits had broken away.  Whole chunks were missing, and cracks radiated across their whole bodies.  Where gaps existed, mice had crawled into the holes.  Teeming hordes, occasionally skittering along the outside surface to find a space with more room.  Here and there, a mouse ate a smaller mouse, and like some cartoon, it grew by the slightest fraction.

Noah was different.  There were mice, yes, but the horrific rent that extended from the crown of his head to his left shoulder was occupied by what appeared to be a mangy dog, nestled into the hollow space.

The girl in the checkered scarf exhaled slowly.

When she unfocused her eyes, the multitudes became single features.  Patches of fur.  One of Mia’s eyes was black from corner to corner, glossy.  Focus properly again… the eye socket was shattered, the empty space filled with large black rats.

“Ah… crumbs,” she muttered.

What?“Noah’s little brother said.

“Well, there’s bad news and there’s worse news.”

“That’s not funny,” Noah said.

“Nope,” she said.  “Bad news is, this whole scenario here?  Pretty much none of it is real.”

“That’s good,” Noah’s brother said.

“That’s bad,” she said.  “When I say this isn’t real, I’m referring to you guys, too.”

She could see the confusion, the alarm, even a bit of anger.

“Screw you,” Noah’s brother said.  “Don’t play with us.”

He was pale, with longer blond hair that had almost led her to mistake him for a girl.  She could see the rather large rat inside him.  Next to the dog, it was the biggest spirit present.

It would be making him more aggressive, confrontational, probably territorial, if she had to guess.

It looked gravid.  Pregnant.

She pushed the thought out of her mind.  Too weird to consider.

“You keep going quiet,” Noah’s little brother said, accusatory.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I’m… ah geez.  I’m sorry.  But you’re just pretend, kind of.”

“You keep saying that,” Noah said.  “Stop scaring my brother and his friends or we’re going to have a problem.”

I’m bigger than you, she thought.  How big a problem could we have?

She didn’t say it aloud.  Instead, she turned to the nearest desk with paper on it.  She still had the pens Sandra had given her.  One proper pen, one mostly empty pen that made ink only some of the time.  “Come.”

They were careful, slow to approach, quick to start when she moved too quickly.

By the time they’d gathered closer, she had the sketch finished.  They smelled like musk, like dust and sweat too.

An animal smell.

She’d drawn four rough outlines, like the ones that might appear on a bathroom stall.

“Here we have four people.  I caught some of your names already.  Noah, Mia…”

“Benjamin and Olive.”

“Heya,” she said.

“Whatever,” Benjamin said.

The girl in the checkered scarf looked at the girl who’d been named as Olive.

Olive was blonde, freckled, and had an expression that looked perpetually angry.  Her fingers clutched the fabric of her pants..

“Olive doesn’t talk,” Noah said.  “Something’s happened to her teeth since all this started.  She keeps biting her tongue, and the words don’t come out right.”

Without being asked, Olive opened her mouth.  The girl in the checkered scarf didn’t have a chance to look away before she saw.

Yep.  Olive had mouse teeth.

Olive also had mouse spirits filling her mouth, their bodies making her cheeks bulge as they squirmed past..  Some had blood on their faces, where they’d bitten her tongue.

She shut her mouth.  The bulging stopped.  Only the occasional mouse eye peeked out from the cracks that stretched from each corner of her mouth to the nearest ear.

“You went quiet again,” Ben said.

“…We’ve got four people here, named Noah, Mia, Ben and Olive.  These four people have shadows.”

She extended each picture to show the shadows each one cast.  She filled them in, then folded the paper, so the shadows were on the ground, the original pictures standing up.

“Well, there was a man who made a magical reality for himself.  Let’s call him the sorcerer.  Now, when wizardly types make these places for themselves, they base it on things they know, on reality.  That’s pretty normal.  But this guy, well, he worked it out so…”

She folded the paper forward and backward, then tore it along the middle, separating the shadows from their sources.

“…He could bring something very much like the real Noah, Mia, Ben and Olive with him.  Along with the houses, and the streets and everything else.  With me so far?”

“Oh my god,” Mia’s voice was faint whisper.  A mousy whisper, but the girl in the checkered scarf didn’t want to do the kids the disservice of thinking like that.

“And now he’s making it the way he wants it, pretty much.  That includes making deals with monsters.  Monsters get to do what they did in the bad old days, when we had more superstition than outright protection against them, and he gets payment in some form or another, or so I understand.”

“That monster that came after me?” Mia asked.  “The squirmy people?  The beautiful woman and her wild child?”

“Betting they’re all people who paid the sorcerer for the chance to hunt you.  And they can, because it’s not quite real.  The real Noah, Mia, Ben and Olive should be out there somewhere, going about their ordinary lives.  Maybe a little bit weaker or prone to getting sick since a bit of them got taken away.”

“Holy fuck,” Ben said.

“Yeah,” Noah said.  “I… I really want to deny this, to say it’s impossible, that it’s… Fuck!”

The shout was so sudden it made both the girl in the checkered scarf and Buttsack jump.

“That’s a good way of putting it.  Like I said, I’m sorry,” she told him.

“Bad and worse,” he said.  “What-”

He stopped.  The girl in the checkered scarf had raised a hand to interject.

“What?” he asked.

“That’s the bad.  It’s not the worse.”

All four children stared at her, expressions stark.

“Listen, I was thinking I’d do this thing with scrunching up the paper, and then showing the damage it’d do, but you don’t deserve stupid little theatrics.  All the stuff he’s doing to alter his reality, the stuff that you’re doing that’s different from how the real versions of you would act?  Well, you’re fragile.  You’re falling to pieces.”

“Pieces?” Mia asked.

The girl in the checkered scarf nodded.  “Bits are breaking away, and, uh… spirits are filling the space.  It’s why you’ve been acting differently, why you’ve been stronger in some ways and weaker in others.  The sorcerer might even be doing it on purpose.”

“This is worse?” Ben asked.  He sounded angry.  “We’re fake, we’re just props in some wizard’s screwed up fantasy world, but oh, we’re sorta dying but not really, and that’s the worse part?”

“Yeah,” the girl in the checkered scarf said.  “It’s worse.”

“You’re lying.”

I can’t lie.

“I know because I’m going through the same thing,” she said.  “A… monster took my name.  Mostly my fault.  Now I’m falling apart in the same way.  It’s why I’m here, as a matter of fact.”

“Good to know.”

Her heart caught in her throat.

An adult voice.  Or mostly adult.  One she recognized.

She turned.

“Kids, meet the sorcerer.”

They were frozen in fear and confusion.

Bad instincts, really.  Prey instincts.

“Most make a beeline straight for me,” Johannes said.  “Ask permission.  But I do suppose you do live in Jacob’s Bell, and it would be unreasonable to expect you to stay out entirely.  Hi.”

“Heya,” she said.

“Padraic?” Johannes asked.

“Yep.”

“I’m going to have to ask you to leave my vestiges alone.”

Maggie glanced at the kids.

Fuck.  They weren’t real, and they weren’t long for this world, but… fuck.  They were still scared.  They were thinking beings with a broad spectrum of feelings.

“Vestiges, children,” Johannes said, drawing his pipes from one pocket.  “Find another place to hide for the time being.”

“Why-” Ben started.

But Johannes was tapping the set of brass pipes against his ring.

Metal chimed, a brief sound like that from a tuning fork.

Begone,” Johannes said.

The kids were gone in a flash, faster than was humanly possible, darting for a hole in the floor, Mia grabbing a backpack on her way.

“There,” Johannes said.

“Not a coincidence that they have dogs and rats inside them, is it?”

“No.”

“Can I ask what the long term plan is?”

“You could.  Or you could ask what you came here to ask.  I have only so much time, now that we’re close.  It won’t be long now before the claim to the city comes into question, I have things to see to.  Metaphorical Ducks to get in a metaphorical row.”

She bit her lip.

He waited patiently.

“Can you help me?”

“Yes.  Do you want my help, nameless girl?”

“I’m not so sure, now.”

“Keep telling yourself what you told them.  They aren’t real.”

“I’m fairly attached to a few people who aren’t much more real than those kids are.”

“I imagine you are.  I guess what I really need to know is… do we have a problem here, nameless girl?”

You mean, am I a problem you have to get out of the way before Jacob’s Bell changes over?

“Not just right now.”

“Then just right now, you have my assistance.  I’m stronger than Sandra, who you saw earlier.  I can nourish you in the right amounts to slow your decay.  I can provide small amounts of assistance.  To fix your problem, I’d need more of a commitment.”

She nodded slowly.  “When you say fix…”

“I can retrieve your name from Padraic.  All would go back to being the way you need it to be.  Your name might be a little tainted, and Padraic would be unhappy, but he wouldn’t take it further from that.  I know Faerie superior to him in the court, and I would act as the middleman, putting you at minimal risk.”

“In exchange for… a commitment?  You want me to look past that thing with the kids, and…?”

“And I would want you working at my side.  My allies, for the most part, are transient ones.  Mercenaries, if you will.  Help me take Jacob’s Bell.  After that… it’s up to you.  You could take a seat on my council and be my problem solver, or you could leave the city.”

Take Jacob’s Bell.  Fight Sandra.

Fight Blake and Rose?

Help the man who did that to those children.

Fake children.

Whatever.

He spoke softly, “Take your time deciding.  For now, however, I can find you a place to stay.  Do you need anything else?  I give you these things with no strings attached.”

“What time is it?  I need to step outside.”

“What time do you want it to be when you leave?”

“Three thirty?”

“On a particular day?”

“Uh, I guess not.  I was hoping it would be today.”

“You’ve already spent a full day in my realm.  It’ll be three thirty by the time you find yourself outside.  The way should be relatively clear.”

“And… do you have a phone I can borrow?”

He touched the paper she’d drawn on, and sketched a rough drawing of a cell phone.  He reached into the paper and pulled it free.

It was a flip phone, ancient, worn around the edges, the sort that would survive practically anything.

“Something that will work outside of here?”

“Ah,” he said.  He reached into a pocket and handed her a smart phone.  “I’ll need that back.”

She nodded.  “Can it call outside numbers?”

“It can.”

She nodded again.  Her heart thudded in her chest.

“Just ask for me, when you’re ready.”

She nodded again.

She left.

Her fingers dialed the familiar number.

The phone rang.

She walked through the alien landscape, and it was weirder going out than it had been going in.  Less hiding behind the veil.  Houses with crooked roofs hid in the shadows of larger buildings.

“Hello?”

“Mom?  It’s me.”

“It’s-”

“Me.  Just… me.”

“What’s wrong, honey?  You sound tired.”

“I’m… I’ve had a really bad couple of days.  I need to talk to you, and I kind of need you to not ask about what’s going on.”

“I can do that, I’m just cooking dinner right now.”

“Yeah?  No other obligations?”

“No, hon.”

They talked about inane things until the phone’s battery ran out.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

Signature 8.5

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter

From the witch’s hut to meeting Hansel and Gretel.

Before all this had started, she had grilled goblins for tidbits.  The tricks and techniques almost always had to be bartered for, but information was easier to come by.  Goblins got bored, and when they were done cursing and making threats, they could be prodded to talk.

The goblins traveled in very specific territories.  They liked areas where they could enjoy human comforts while not quite being in the presence of humans.

More frequently, they picked places that had been abandoned or for sale for some time, and Jacob’s Bell had a lot of those buildings.  By the time a realtor or bank employee stopped by to check on the building, walls were spray painted or had holes, feces were smeared in places, and garbage littered every surface.

It was with this knowledge that she limped along busier streets, keeping to areas where the heavier plumbing made crossing harder for goblins, under an archway.  Avoiding goblins in general, because a minute after she had one on her tail, she’d have a half-dozen.

It was light out, there were people around, and it was morning.  All things that discouraged goblins.  So long as she traveled these roads, she was okay.  She’d done it practically every day, just to be safe.

The risk came when she headed into one of the less stellar areas of Jacob’s Bell.  Only a twenty minute walk from Sandra’s, she approached a deceptively nice looking area.  The houses were more in the prefab style, all identical, built maybe five years ago, but had languished and started falling apart, largely ignored, before Johannes’ area and the station had started bringing attention to Jacob’s Bell.

The people who moved in were able to keep the houses in a below average state, but tended to find that when they put in the time and money to fix something, another thing broke.

Goblins.

If you were struggling, they ensured you kept struggling.  If you were well-off, they weren’t much of a concern to start with.

In better-policed areas, practitioners and the Lords that managed them were strict about keeping Others from interfering too much with humanity.  If one person every generation was grabbed by the likes of Mara, a few people had their lives ruined by Others like Buttsack and the Faceless Woman, well, the general sentiment seemed to be that it was a drop in the bucket.

Drop a frog in a bucket of boiling water, and the frog would hop out.  Put it in cold water and slowly bring it up to a boil, and you had a roasted frog.  Except not really, but the idea held true.

Humankind was slowly roasting in boiling buckets, and the Lords and practitioners were more focused on dealing with those who were being less than gradual, less than subtle.

Even if the buildings here looked more modern, with less peeling paint or weather-worn wood than, say, Sandra’s place, she knew that the slow boil was well underway here.  Different rates of boil for different people.

The trick here was to study her surroundings.  She didn’t know the exact address, but she could put two and two together.

She kept one eye on her back, another on the state of the buildings, making mental notes of the little details.  A garage door for a house with no furniture inside was stuck, partially open, snow creeping into the garage space.  Another house had broken windows.

Like dogs marking their territory with urine.  Come to think of it, goblins probably did that too.  The same method, different ends.

There was a point where stuff was less lousy.  The damage normal, not goblin-made.

She did two laps through the neighborhood before she had a sense of it.  The epicenter of ‘not quite so messed up’.

Of the four houses, one wasn’t occupied, but it wasn’t trashed either.

Another had kids digging a tunnel through one snowbank.  They were so still and quiet when she approached that she wondered for a moment if they were goblins in snowsuits.

Paranoia.

Rather than continue searching, she approached them.  Better to forge new connections, no matter how small.

“Hey,” she said.

They kept playing.

“Hey, little dorks.”

One boy poked his head out of the hole-in-progress.  Clumps of snow clung to the fabric of his hat.  “Dorks?  We aren’t in the two-thousands anymore.”

“You need to shore up your tunnel.  If that snow falls on you while you’re crawling through, you’ll suffocate.”

“It’s just snow,” he said.

“Avalanches can wipe out buildings, you don’t think this much snow could wipe you out?”

He shrugged, then ducked down to continue playing, scraping with some sort of tool.

“Hey,” she said.  “Midget.  Pay attention to me.”

He poked his head out again.

“Don’t ignore me,” she said.  “Get on my bad side and I might break your tunnel.”

He didn’t flinch.  He thought she was joking.

She raised one foot, placing it on the side of the snowbank, driving the point home.  His eyes widened, and a little girl standing on the driveway piped up with a mewling “No!”

“First off, shore up that tunnel of yours.  Then tell your parents they’re idiots for not watching you better. Third, you can tell me if you know where Andy and Eva live.”

The boy didn’t respond.  He only stared.

The girl in the checkered scarf looked at the others.  Make this easier on me.  Where are the local witch hunters?

One girl at the side, smaller, said, “Andy lives in that house right there.  He used to babysit me, before his parents disappeared, and then he was too busy most of the time.  Then his sister came back, and we couldn’t be near him at all anymore.”

“Mom says Eva’s a psychopath and a tramp,” the second boy said.  he stood by the little girl, and was so bundled up that only a slice of his face was visible.

“You know if she’s around?”

“Andy might be gone right now, he usually goes and gets groceries around lunch, buys some fast food or sandwiches while he’s out, and sometimes he gives us something.  Asks if we saw anything strange when he was gone.  I think I heard him, but I’m not sure if he was coming or going.  Don’t know about Eva.  She’s usually out at night more.”

“Uh huh.  Good to know.  Hey, did he warn you about anything?  Places to avoid, in case you came by?”

“Huh?” the girl asked.

But the other boy did have an answer.  “He said we had to stay off the property, like our moms and dads told us.  If we did have to come to his place, though, we should stick to the front walkway and stairs, no fooling around, no tampering with windows or trying to sneak in.  Knock firmly on the door.”

“Got it.”

“I don’t,” said the boy in the snowbank.  “What’s to get?  Why even ask that question?”

“Because I might know Andy and Eva better than you do.  I know the sort of thing Eva gets up to when she’s out for her nighttime walks, for example.”

That had their interest.

“What?  What does she do?”

“Answers don’t come for free, dork.”

“You want us to pay you?”

“I want info.  You’ve obviously paid attention to those two.  They would’ve been the cool teenagers when you were kids, and now they’re two twenty-somethings who’re living on their own, they’re mysterious… you’ve watched, and you haven’t figured it out yet.”

“What, is she like a prostitute?” the girl said.

You’re, like, seven.  How do you even know what a prostitute is?

“No.  Look, you tell me something, I’ll tell you something.  Maybe something Andy said, or that he did, or you saw Eva when she didn’t know you were watching.”

The three children exchanged glances.

The boy standing on the driveway spoke up, “I don’t know exactly, but there was this one time when my dad was having problems.  Really stressed out and kind of freaking.  Nothing going right, and he and my mom kept talking about this boy, and it was bugging me…”

The etching of concern on the little boy’s face suggested ‘bugging’ was the wrong word.  He’d probably been tormented by confusion and the sheer negativity surrounding whatever had been going on, his friends hadn’t been any help, and he’d gone to the only trusted ‘adult’ he could find for counsel.  Andy.

“Paul,” the boy in the snowbank said, “I really don’t think Andy would want anyone to tell.”

“Oh.  Yeah, I guess not,” ‘Paul’ said.  He looked embarrassed, conflicted.  Caught between loyalty and interest, unhappy with where he stood on both fronts.

The girl in the checkered scarf looked over the group.  “I think I already know the answer.  It was bugging you, so you talked to Andy about it.  Then something happened, and the problem fixed itself.  The ‘boy’ that was giving your parents trouble just… disappeared.”

Paul didn’t even try to hide his surprise that she’d hit the mark, or at least came close to it.

“Yeah,” she said.  “I know.  And since you gave me a half-finished story, I’ll give you half an answer.  Your mom told you Eva is dangerous?  I think Andy is more dangerous than she is.”

“But he’s klutzy, and slow, and he’s a nerd.”

“Get with the new millennium, dork,” she said.  “Nerds are the second scariest group that humanity’s ever produced.”

“Second scariest?  Who are the scariest?”

“Stupid people,” she said.  Seeing their expressions war between confusion and incredulity, she added, “You’ll get it when you’re older.”

She left the kids with that tidbit of wisdom, she headed to the house they’d pointed to.

In retrospect, she suspected she could have figured it out.  The house was in worse shape than the others on the block, but it wasn’t malign influence or devious business that had caused it.  Just the fact that two twenty-somethings with very little idea how to maintain a property had lived here.

She wasn’t about to play games with the rules the kids had outlined.  Even if they didn’t know anything, a warning to them was as good as a warning to her.

Stick to the path, knock on the door.

There wasn’t a reply.

She hesitated to knock again.

The kids weren’t wrong.  Reports from various sources seemed to conclude the same thing: Andy was a bit slow.  Not mentally, but physically.  His reflexes were bad, he wasn’t athletic, he had no stamina or raw strength.

But Andy knew that.

He knew he couldn’t win in a straight-up fight with any practitioner or other.  His response to that knowledge was to avoid the straight-up fights entirely.

If he thought she was a threat, he’d kill her while she stood right here, before she even knew he was around.

“Hansel, Gretel, you home?” she asked the door.

The door opened, and her line of thinking made her take a step back.

It wasn’t Andy that was the problem.  It was his sister.

The young woman had a black tank top, sweatpants, and a crossbow in hand, aimed at the girl in the checkered scarf.  Her blond hair was tied back into a ponytail that left waves of hair framing her face.

Her eyes, not the crossbow, were the most concerning thing.

“I-”

“Shh,” Eva said.  “One more word that isn’t an answer to a question, or one more action I don’t give you permission to make, and I’ll shoot.  Nod slowly if you understand.  Good.”

Eva glanced around, furtive looks, as if unwilling to look away for more than half a second, then stepped back, the crossbow unwavering. The interior of the house suggested a lot of stuff that just didn’t have places to be.  Stacks of what might have been tax forms, books with no shelves to go to, bags of garbage sitting by the door, waiting to be carried out… it might have looked organized, but whatever organization was trying to take hold, disorder was winning out.  One garbage bag had been opened and left open, and bits of garbage sat on a chair with no table, right in the front hallway.  As if someone had been going through the garbage.

It was chaotic.  Unbalanced, even.  A healthy, ordered mind didn’t live in a space like that.

“Step inside, very slowly, then close the door with your foot.”

The girl in the checkered scarf moved at a glacial pace, partially to see if it would agitate Eva.  Eva didn’t seem to mind.

The door clicked as it shut.

“Without turning around, reach behind you and lock the door.”

Whatever the state of the house, the bolt slid in smoothly as the latch rotated.

Another click.

Eva stared, studying her.

“Who are you?”

“I’m the practitioner who came into town halfway through the year.  I’ve been to some meetings, I even played a part in what happened to Molly Walker.”

“Oh.  You.  You’re…”  Eva said.  She paused, groping for the name.  “Can’t quite place the name.  You’re easy to forget, apparently.”

“I’m-”

Eva pulled the trigger.

The girl in the checkered scarf managed a strangled grunt.

Watch enough action movies, spend enough time sitting in class, bored out of your skull, and you spend a little time imagining how you’d do in a proper fight.  You like to imagine you’d dodge the arrow.

She hadn’t.  She’d barely registered what had happened.

She gasped, clutching at her throat.  The bolt had penetrated the door, and it had punched through her scarf in the process, pinning her to the surface, scarf tight against her throat, the bolt itself so close to her neck that her struggles made skin touch cool, smooth wood.

The crossbow landed on a broad, square landing that marked the turn in a staircase leading upstairs.  Eva was drawing a knife from a back pocket, closing the distance with long strides.

The girl in the checkered scarf didn’t even try to fight.  Hands went up, flush against with the door, above her head.

Eva kicked her squarely in the sternum, and didn’t move the foot after it made contact.

It hurt, and Eva hadn’t really held back, but the girl in the checkered scarf left her hands where they were.

Eva’s face was only a foot from her own, and the knife-

She didn’t dare look.  No doubt the knife was in a position to do some immediate, terminal damage if she did anything else that Eva didn’t like.

A long ten seconds passed.

“Next time, you die.  Understood?”

Slow nod.

“Good.  Don’t even think that agonized screaming or blood are a problem.  The walls are thick, and Andy lacquered the floors after doing the spring cleaning.  Nice and thick, so there won’t be anything seeping into or between floorboards.  Cleaning up is easy.”

The young woman stepped away, arm extended with knife pointed, not once shifting her posture, position or eye contact in a way that suggested she couldn’t close the distance in a half-second and stab something vital.

Eva didn’t touch the shaft of wood that had penetrated the door, either.  She managed to reload the crossbow with a knife in one hand, eyes fixed on her new prisoner.

The only movement the girl in the checkered scarf made was to press her neck against the shaft, giving slack to the scarf and freeing up her neck for easier breathing.

“Now,” Eva said, as she raised the crossbow again, “You have my permission to say whatever it was you felt you needed to say.”

“I’ve honestly mostly forgotten what I was going to say.”

“Can’t have been that important.”

The girl in the checkered scarf remembered halfway through that sentence, opening her mouth to speak, but not letting a sound escape.

Eva indicated for her to speak, using the knife to make her ‘go on’ gesture.

“My name was stolen, which is why you can’t place it.  One of the Faerie has it.”

“Oh?  Well, that sucks.  Probably really bad for you.  But that doesn’t explain why the lamb came to the slaughterhouse.  Where we specialize in slaughtering lambs, among other things.  Explain.”

“All the creatures I captured got released.  Some are after me with vengeance in mind.  I was also thinking of going to see Johannes, and I’d rather make that visit as armed as I can possibly be.”

“You want our weapons?”

“Yes.”

“The only thing people negotiate with me is slow or fast.  You’re out of luck, Jane Doe.”

“If-” the girl with the checkered scarf said, pausing only to make sure she wasn’t about to be shot, “-If you could, please don’t call me that.”

“How come?”

“An lack of a name is a void waiting to be filled.”

“Really?  I could give you a goblin name like Twatface, and it could stick?”

“Yes.  So please-”

“Clitwart?  Ragstain?  Shitdribble?”

“You could call me anything you wanted-”

“Even Madonna?  No, that’s not nearly creative enough.  The Olsen Triplet?  Fatalie Shortman?”

The girl in the checkered scarf felt a chill.  A little too intense to be just in her head.  Not just cold seeping through the door, either.  “Please stop.”

“This could be the most fun I’ve ever had putting the screws to someone.  What about something off the wall?  Like Hitler?  Dahmer?  Satan?”

“That would be a bad idea.  Names have a power unto themselves, and some of those names probably have a lot of curses aimed their way.  You might bring something to pass.”

“Seems too easy.  Losing a name, replacing it…”

“It’s not easy at all.”

“You know what I mean.”

“I wouldn’t know.  I’m a newbie to all this.  I’m in bad shape, I just… I need to find a solution, before I degrade and I can’t do anything.  I need tools and weapons to do it, and you guys are the best source available.”

“In theory only.  I’m curious how this works.  You degrade?”

“No name, nothing at the center of my self.  I think it’s like the metaphysical equivalent of taking ten pounds of flesh out from within someone’s ribcage.”

“So take a new name.  Replace thy flesh.”

“That doesn’t help the fact that I don’t have many connections.  If I have too few and they get severed, or if they grow weak-”

“Hey, stop,” Eva said.  The crossbow moved a fraction, giving weight to the words.  “I’m not big on the magic stuff.  When people explain the magic stuff to me, I work it out in my head, and I distill it down to a simple, clear explanation.  I can do it with any magic.  Really.”

The girl in the checkered scarf nodded.

“Right here?  All this talking you’re doing?  It says one thing to me.  Nobody will miss you if I shoot you right here and watch you-”

Eva shut up right as the lock clicked. The door moved, but stopped short.

“-bleed out.  Ugh.  Worst timing ever.”

A whisper, a male voice.  “Is that you at the door, Eva?”

“It’s not me!” Eva called out.  “I’m here.”

A pause.

“Wait, shit, don’t try anything!  I’m fine, I’m safe.  Password is Creevey.

“…Okay.  Let me in.”

“Let him in.”

To avoid being strangled, the girl in the checkered scarf was forced to make twenty or so tiny steps to follow the motion of the door.

Andy stepped inside, throwing a foil-wrapped sandwich to Eva.  She caught it while still keeping the crossbow aimed more or less at her target.

He walked right across the crossbow’s line of fire to put bags down on the square stair where Eva had tossed the crossbow earlier.  Milk and the like.

“You let someone in?” he finally asked.

“Don’t lecture me.”

“The deal was I wouldn’t get in your way when you have a job you want to do, you don’t argue when I outline protocols.  There are some things out there that you don’t want to let inside.”

“She’s not a thing.  She’s just a practitioner who’s in a bad way.”

He reached into one bag to grab a chocolate bar.

“Gimme,” Eva said.

“I gave it to the lookout kids to share.”

“Fuck that!”

“They said someone came in and didn’t come out.  I needed to bribe them to get them to go inside.  Witnesses are bad.”

“Give them your chocolate.”

I didn’t violate protocols.”

The girl in the checkered scarf cleared her throat.

“Who or what is she?” he asked.

“She’s someone we know, minus the knowing part.”

“A trick?  Is she an assassin?” he asked.  He took a bite.

“No.  Just a dumbfuck who got in over her head, looks like.”

“Uh huh,” he said.  “Then why are you holding her at crossbowpoint?”

“Because letting a potential threat inside and not pointing a crossbow at them seems like a bad idea?”

Andy didn’t seem impressed.  He put his half-finished chocolate bar back in the bag and retrieved a sandwich like Eva’s.

“Open mine first,” Eva said.

He did, peeling back foil wrap.  He held the front of the crossbow up while she took a bite, then served himself.

“I just wanted weapons, and maybe tips on dealing with a situation like mine, if you had any” the girl in the checkered scarf said.  She kept her voice level, stayed assertive.  “No harm or trouble intended.  I can swear I won’t hurt you if that helps.”

“We’re witch hunters, it’s our duty to hunt witches.  Now one falls into our lap,” Eva said, ignoring the offer.  “Nobody is going to miss her.  I’m gonna put one through her heart, add a notch to my belt, dispose of the body in the furnace downstairs, and then watch a movie online.”

Andy chewed on his sandwich.

“Or are you going to renege on the deal and start interfering with my hunts?”

He finished and swallowed.  “She’s scared enough, Eva.  You can stop fucking with her.”

Eva scowled a little.  “You’re so lame.”

But she lowered the crossbow.

The girl in the checkered scarf released a deep breath.  She’d been inhaling, but not daring to exhale.

“I’m going to put a new protocol in place, I think.  Doing this sort of thing is dumb, Eva.  Making enemies of practitioners you don’t intend to finish off?  You pointed a gun at Thorburn, and now this?  No matter how bad their situation is, that situation can improve.”

“I don’t want to live to thirty anyways,” Eva said.

“I’d be okay with that, except you’re going to get me killed along with you,” he said.  He looked at the pinned girl, “Sorry about this.”

“I can talk, right?”

He took a bite of his sandwich, nodding as he chewed, approaching her.

One hand seized the bolt in the wood.  He pulled and failed to get it out.

“You’re so lame,” Eva said.  She approached too, and the girl in the checkered scarf found herself with two people less than a foot away from her.  She craned her head away from the bolt to give them more room to work.

Fuck,” Eva said, abandoning her attempt.  She bent and broke the bolt, which produced more splinters than a clean break.

The girl in the checkered scarf freed herself, gingerly working the scarf free of the bolt.

Andy nudged past, then opened the front door, reaching around it.  He fiddled for a second, then stepped back, holding a package.  Rectangular, broad, and wrapped in what looked like butcher’s paper.  A piece of electrical wire stuck out, apparently what he’d used to attach it to the door knocker or whatever.

When he put it down on the pillar at the bottom of the stair railing, it made a faint but detectable ‘clunk’ sound.  Hard.

The girl in the checkered scarf checked her scarf.  There was a hole where the bolt had passed through.

“Don’t fuss.  Nobody’ll notice,” Eva said, flippant.

“Spirits might.  Every connection matters at this point.  Even a piece of clothing.”

“Way I see it, if you’re that desperate for stuff to hold on to, you’re already fucked.”

You’re not wrong, the girl in the checkered scarf thought.  She couldn’t formulate a reply, witty or otherwise.

“I’d offer you food, but we aren’t bound by the usual rules,” Andy said.

“Right.  That’s okay,” she replied.  “Fuck me, I hate this town.”

“Sounds like we have something in common,” he said.  “I feel so damn tired at the end of the day.  Place takes a lot out of you.”

“I can’t wait to be gone,” she replied.

“Question is, where are the likes of us going to go?” he asked.

Right.  They were witch hunters.  They knew stuff, and it was hard to leave all that behind and live an ordinary life.  Practitioners could very well be unhappy or unsettled by the appearance of the twins in their town.  Lords or local powers could seek to control them, even abuse them.

Her own circumstances weren’t better.  Pretty much anywhere she went, she’d be second or third tier.  At best she’d be ignored.  At worst, she’d be a potential threat or target.

That was, if she even got out of this in one piece.  As it was, she was a target no matter where she went, working with borrowed time.

Eva ate while Andy grabbed a bottle of water out of a bag.

“Yeah,” the girl with the checkered scarf finally said.  More in answer to the silence than the question.

“Yeah,” Eva added her own voice.

“Look,” the girl in the checkered scarf said, “I don’t want to kick up a fuss, and I don’t have a lot to bargain with.  You guys want to clean up dangerous Others?  Arm me and send me on my merry way.  If you’re fair about it, I’ll promise I won’t hold a grudge for the whole crossbow thing.”

Eva rolled her eyes.

“Deal,” Andy said.  “You do know that deals with the likes of us aren’t binding?  Not on our end, anyway.”

“Yeah, I know that.”

“Just so we’re clear,” he said.  Without another word, he led the way to the back of the house.  She limped behind him, the wound Buttsack had left made worse by the walking.

Eva, for her part, headed upstairs.

Stuff cluttered everything, even here.  Andy methodically moved scattered papers to appropriate piles, moved a book or two around, and then knelt by a cabinet, where he fished out a keychain from his pocket.

Everything about his movements suggested he was the one who organized everything.

More subtly, she could conclude, objects had a kind of importance in this room.  Stuff that might have been family knick-knacks in another house took up odd positions here, sort of akin to how a museum might arrange things.  Giving objects a kind of prominence.

Odd objects.  A figurine of a bear, a frame that held a strip of cloth with an embroidered knot on it taut, a kettle, a small statue of a pig, a mannequin’s hand, a metronome…

Andy unlocked the cabinet.  A drawer slid out, heavy enough that the desk momentarily rocked when it reached its full length.  Part of the drawer had to be recessed in the wall.

Knives, swords, and something that looked like a mace or a scepter, but hollow, with holes punched through the surface.

He saw her looking.  “Censer.  When you want to hit something and you need a particular kind of smoke, both at the same time.”

Five seconds later, he had another drawer open.  Guns, many of which were old fashioned, ammo, and lead pipes.

“Take your pick,” he said.

“For real?”

“Some things I wouldn’t let you take, but that’s like, uh, that gun there, it’s the first gun I bought for myself, personal attachment.  And that sword right there is impregnated with the blood of a fox-woman.  And maybe that obsidian knife, unless you had a specific use for it, it’s sort of niche, and it’d be a pain to replace.  Just about everything else, well, if you lost it, it’s an excuse to get a replacement, or it’s less clutter.  Win win.”

She ran a finger along a length of pipe from the gun drawer.  “Sometimes all you need is a good whacking stick, huh?  I know one goblin who could stand to get hit by this thing.”

Wordless, Andy picked up the pipe from the rack.  He showed it to her.

“No freaking way.  That works?”

“Yep.”

“I’ll take it.  And I’ll take that, thank you, and, if you’re sure I’m not being greedy here-”

“No.  Just so long as you don’t come after Eva later on.”

“-Promised.  I’ll take that too.”

The highway divided the older part of the city from the new.  Only Harcourt led under it, and the north end of Harcourt was a ways from the twin’s place.

The town seemed to be fighting her more, now.  It reminded her of being in Mara’s woods.  Everything got in her way.  There were barely any people on the streets, but the woman with the two small dogs on a leash just so happened to be on the sidewalk in front of her, and even when traffic was so light kids might have played ball hockey in the middle of the street, two cars just happened to pass by just when she realized she couldn’t walk around the lady with the dogs, who were yipping and zig-zagging so violently that a disaster seemed inevitable.

The wind pushed against her.  The snowbank devoured her leg to the knee when she tried to walk over it, trapping her, doubly hard to extricate herself from when her other calf was injured.  Then the ground on the far side was frozen, covered in gravel, making it more slippery, as if she’d stepped on marbles scattered over ice.

Her sight was having a harder time seeing reality over the spirit world.  Not an intense difficulty, but enough that she noticed.

Then, topping it off, the goblins showed up.

Broad daylight meant they had to be furtive.  They moved when her head faced the other direction.  Lurked in the shadows that were available, eyes gleaming in that reflective way that animals had.

They were more secretive this time around.  Kept more of a distance, watching and waiting for an opportunity.

They gathered in greater numbers, perhaps in hopes that if another woman with a troll arrived to back her up, they could scare the troll off.

They even, she suspected, might have spread the word that the girl who’d hunted goblins was now vulnerable.  United in a common cause.

Hatred, of course.

They made a move as she reached the bridge.

Shadows, a lack of traffic…

A dozen pairs of eyes that she could see.  Some clinging to the roof of the bridge, others lurking at the sides, or in crevices.  Most were small, cowardly.

She recognized the goblin who barred her way.

“Buttsack,” she said.

“When you’re dead by my hands, I’m going to cut the skin off your face,” he growled, “and I’m going to make it a thong.  I’ll wear it so your lips are stretched tight against my butthole, and your eyes will have a close-up view of my cock, with balls bulging out one hole and schlong out the other.”

“That’s an amazing mental picture,” she said, managing to keep the tremor out of her voice.  She drew the section of pipe.

Hope this works.

Buttsack held out his shiv.  Not a knife, per se, but a piece of metal in a knife-like shape, ragged.  “We’ll make your death so bad it makes a dozen ghosts, and I’ll fuse the ghosts to my new thong so you can feel it.  So it’s just a little bit alive.  Moving, kissing my puckered brown ass all day long.”

She slapped the pipe against her palm.

Then she pointed it at him, walking toward him.

He cackled.

The one pipe was actually two pieces of pipe, one smaller pipe sliding into the other with a healthy amount of WD-40.

The smaller pipe, in turn, had a shotgun shell stuck in the end.

The big one had a blasting cap welded to the end.

She slammed the small pipe against the big one.

It fired.  Butsack went down, one side of his face and his shoulder a bloody mess.

Not quite dead.

The smallest goblins scattered.

The big ones-

They weren’t moving.

If they did move, she could probably make a run for it, but it wouldn’t be fun.

When she drew the stiletto, it was partially for their benefit.  Because seeing her draw a weapon in front of their wounded pseudo-leader would hold their interest, keeping them watching rather than participating.

She moved Buttsack’s hands, fighting him as he moved weakly.  One hand over the other.

She stabbed both at once with the stiletto.

The goblins lurking at the dark corners of the bridge watched in silence as she dragged Buttsack into Johannes’ realm.

Into twisted, narrow streets.

What little she could make out of the real world was quick to fade.

This was another realm entirely.

She thought, but wasn’t sure, that she could hear screaming.

A child ran by, with rat ears and a long rat’s tail.

An ogre, ten feet tall and built like a cartoon caricature of a high school bully turned real, lumbered into view.  Fat, broad in the shoulder.

She didn’t flinch, didn’t show fear.

“I’m a practitioner,” she said.  “You can’t touch me.  Johannes’ rules.”

When the ogre spoke, it was with a British-ish accent.  “Not for long, little girl.”

She set her jaw and continued forward, moving more easily, even with her limp and bleeding burden.

Last Chapter                                                                        Next Chapter