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Signature 8.1

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Buttsack had this down to a science.  Once they were inside the building, the humans were supposed to be safe.  The doorframes, the windows, the plumbing, all were made of refined metal, ‘stainless steel’ they called it.

‘They’ were fuckholes, as far as he was concerned.

Goblins as a whole came in all shapes and sizes.  Some were fat, some were skinny, some were furry, others scaly, others still had skin.  They could be no larger than a squirrel, or five times the size of a man, in all colors.

Certain rules held true, though.  All were ugly.  Buttsack was no exception.  His loose skin maintained an appearance and smell like the body parts that were his namesake, and he was grotesquely fat for his three-foot frame, giving him an uneven, ungainly appearance.  His legs were like overstuffed sausages sticking out from the stolen, piss-stained pair of shorts he wore.  Among the goblins of the area, he was just small enough to evade the attention of the Wise, the humans that knew.  However, that also meant he was also big enough to bully the other goblins hereabouts.  Some were quick enough or clever enough to stay out of his way, but the ones that weren’t paid up.  Some gave food, or gifts, some gave tips, and others gave him knowledge.

Metal door, metal frame, pipes… he was aware of all of them, as he might be aware of a flame by reaching out and feeling the warmth from it.

One piece of knowledge Buttsack had picked up had been from a scrawny little bitch of a goblin that called itself Scuzzwick.  Lick both hands, lick the back of the knees and elbows, the back of the neck.  The licking didn’t matter so much as the wet, and it was easier and more comfortable to use his own tongue than to use the snow.  He scratched his forearms deep enough to get his fingertips wet with blood.  Once the wet patches and blood were there, he could reach each arm out to either side, feel the wet patches grow cold from the force of the winter breeze.

Move with the wind, letting the arms move as the wind did.

A fatass of a man sauntered right past him.  Buttsack could feel the movement of air, clutch it with bloody fingertips, and follow it.

Catch the wind and ride it through the door the man was opening.

Drifting inside.

“Do you smell something?” a bystander asked.  The dumpy looking fuck shut one of the metal cabinets, then hooked a lock onto it.

Buttsack hurried off to take cover before he became fully material again.

This wasn’t a proper boundary, no power had sealed it, but it was still uncomfortable.  The things that gave the goblin power and energy were cut off here.  It was a bit like suffocating, a bit like being cold.  He always felt it a little, the sensation of dying, the spark within him going out by the smallest degrees, bit by bit, but here, like this, he felt it happening faster.

The goblins shared stories between one another about what goblins were and why metal was so problematic.  The usual story was that when a Wise man drank from a cup while dining, the bits of food that got into the cup and lingered after the drink was done accumulated.  Except it was workings, not drink, and bits of self, not food.  Greasy fingerprints left behind when touching something beyond the veil.  Bits of skin that should have grown and the hairs that should have fallen from one’s head, that didn’t, because they were wearing different skin or hair, and the stuff that wasn’t had to end up someplace.

There was another story that said that the unfair folk were people once, and they chopped off all the bits they didn’t like, and those bits became goblins, but Buttsack didn’t like that version.

Fuck the unfair folk.  Being magic hairballs for humans, fabricated of their dust, scum, grease, pubes, and stress, that was one thing.  Being of faerie?  Fuck that idea sideways and backward.

Whatever the case, many stories had one or two common elements.  The goblins were leavings, discards, scrap given form.  The earth called to them, to decompose them like it was meant to devour and decompose all leavings, and the metal was the earth in distilled form.  Or maybe the process that made goblins was

All the same, this wasn’t a place he was willing or able to stay.  He had to make the most of his time here.

Moving around was easier than in most places.  Here, the humans were insecure. He could see it in the shifting patterns around them, where their focus was falling.  He’d seen the roving spotlights in the movies and video games.  In most places, the attention of people was like those spotlights, roaming, cast out from their eyes, a dull glow emanating as they listened.  Here it was different.  The focus was largely on themselves, only periodically casting out at specific targets.

Not always, but enough.  Buttsack cloaked himself thoroughly against the insensitive, and for extra measure, he was careful to watch where they were paying attention and nudge it aside when it veered his way.

A satchel, sitting at a young man’s feet as he talked with a friend.  Buttsack smelled money, and reached inside, picking through contents, nostrils flaring as he sniffed away.

A wallet, fake leather, in the front pocket of the satchel.  The goblin stowed it in a pocket for later investigation.

“Oh man,” the boy that stood above him whined, “I just got a whiff of something rank.”

“You’re too close to the bathrooms,” his pal said.  “You’ve gotta change lockers.”

Buttsack moved on.  A phone, left at the bottom of one metal cabinet, pocketed.  A metal case sticking out of a purse… he opened it, and found cotton sticks with strings dangling from the bottom.  He stuffed them into the bag of a boy.  She’d have to do without, and the boy looked like the bigger pussy anyway.

Moving out into the main hallway, there was more foot traffic, and attention was harder to divert.  He waited, instead, lurking beneath a colorfully decorated display with false leaves and berries and a snow idol stuck to the surface.

A bell dinged, and the number of people in the hallway began to thin out.

The changing room that reeked of girl-sweat… no luck.  The door was shut, and he didn’t want to spend power walking with the air again.

Washroom was a yes, opposite the changing room.  The door was propped open.

He slipped inside.

Some bitch sat on the windowsill, while her cankled friend smeared powder all over her face.  The one at the windowsill wasn’t looking at anything, and her lack of focus was exactly the sort that could see something that was walking the fine line he was, wanting something to catch her attention.

He detoured right, instead, taking cover beneath the sinks and the oversized bag that cankles had left by the wall.

Rummaging, he discovered a wallet.

Nothing else to do, he picked his way through it.

Nothing.  Not a single coin or piece of paper.

Bitch.  Poor-ass cankled pasty-faced bitch.

He took the shiniest cards and stuck them through the ventilation grate by the sink, replaced the wallet, and then went through the bag.

A small pouch with writing tools – he broke the nicer looking ones, and scattered the remains inside so they’d leak their ink.

Another pouch?  He unzipped it slowly.

Syringes.  A little glass bottle.

Not the fun kind of syringe-stuff.  The kind that the human’s doctors gave out.

She wanted to short him?  He made the effort of coming here, and she didn’t have shit fuck all?

Fuck her.

He unscrewed the glass bottle, then reached into a pocket.  A sealable bag with white powder.

The fun stuff.

He busied himself emptying some powder into the glass bottle, carefully.  He knew where to get more, and this would be good.  Not right away, but in time.

Buttsack considered making it a regular thing, even.  If he could somehow get his hands on her stuff…

His thoughts were cut off when the door behind him opened.  He moved his hand, ready to turn the attention aside.

The bitch focused on him right away.  He moved his hand, ready to divert her attention and head in the other direction, but she didn’t budge.

Blond hair, long and silky, a nose ring and more rings in her ears, with bright green paint around her eyes.

He stared at her, she stared at him.  His gut was cold and hollow with fear, and fear wasn’t far removed from anger.  If she made a problem for him, what could he do to her in return?

“What?” the cunt at the window asked.

“Nothing,” the new bitch said.

One of the Duchamps.  She wouldn’t say a thing.  The goblins left the families alone, kept it all on the down-low, the families left the goblins alone.

That was the deal.

The girl headed to the furthest bathroom stall, giving him a warning look.

He had to admit disappointment, and briefly considered peeking all the same.

He finished lacing the medicine and then put everything away.

Fuck her, cheap cankly slut.

He picked through the bag, curious if there was anything else he could fuck with.  Condoms and the pill-cases were fun, but the bitch didn’t have any.

He settled on papers.

Almost smug, he thought, lesser goblins wouldn’t know how to do this.

Look at the papers, figure out the names.  Stuff with red markings and circles all over it was useless to mess with.

Find the papers with no markings, toward the end.

Find other papers to get clues.  Best if he did it clever-like.  Make it make sense.  Sometimes a nice colorful threat to the teacher, referencing an old mark if they were low, or drawing a picture at the edges of the ages,

Allusions to violence and guns worked well.  Something suitably strange, even, like a bit of blood used to draw a heart, and a line written within saying something like ‘I like to cut myself where nobody can see the marks.’  Get dumb humans sent to doctors to have their brains poked and prodded and their bodies looked at.

Except he’d done that one not so long ago.

But here she gave him nothing.  A simple, stupid, boring bitch.

One of the papers in the booklet had two people’s names at the top, two different kinds of writing.  Working together?

He went back to the unfinished work and erased the name at the top, copying down the other, mimicking the writing style.  Two copies might be turned in.  A stupid mistake.  Eyebrows would raise.

He put it back, and then stowed the little bag of powder at the very bottom corner of the bag, inside a fold.

Mix things up a bit.

Buttsack didn’t always understand their ways, the language or the changes from yesteryear.  He did understand the ugliness that came natural to them, and he could figure stuff out fast when it made him better at what he did.  He understood how easy it was to mess them up, to push them off course.  One incident, an oddity.  A string?  A bit of drugs, a cheating allegation?  People would worry, they would stay away from her, they would-

He grabbed the pipe beneath the sink and pulled his feet away from the floor, hiding in the shadows as Cankles collected her bag.

If she was still coming into the bathroom with a friend to keep her company a week from now, then he’d find something else to do to her.  He’d find her again, find where she lived, and he’d make a campaign of it.  He’d convince her she was doing it to herself.  Isolate, with a few other tricks, dismantle, destroy.

She’d suffer.  His grin was toothy as he watched her leave.

What now?  He had to wait until the hallways were empty before he could crack open the machine of food and cash.

Two stalls were occupied.  There was one he didn’t dare touch.  That still meant one possible view.

He smiled wide.

There were a number of fun things he could do here.  Scare them at the right time, snatch their bag and run, spit a loogie into their pants or panties…

This one wore hose, which he could scratch, or he could dig in his pockets for something to drop inside.  He kept a lot of things.  A live roach, two centipedes, a bundle of flea-infested hair, fresh shit in plastic wrap-

He’d decide depending on what she looked like.  Maybe do all of them.  Then he’d make a marking so the fear would stay, the bad feelings, but the impressions would linger, staying with her.

He ducked his head low to crawl under the stall door.

A chain settled around his neck.

“No!” he shrieked, clutching at the metal loops.  “No, no, fuck you!”

“Shh,” the practitioner said, tightening the chain.  Her dark brown hair was cut short, pushed out of her face by a metal hairband.  She still wore her winter coat, alongside a checkered scarf.

He could feel his essence draining out of him, bleeding into the metal.

This was what dying felt like. Except he wouldn’t die.  He’d become less, he’d take years to recuperate.

“Please, give mercy,” he said, lowering his voice, pretending to comply with her wish for quiet.

She smiled, showing her teeth, her eyes crinkling a little with mischief.  “What makes you think I’m the merciful type?”

Buttsack started shrieking, full-volume, lashing out with his claws.  She kicked the wind out of him, pulled the chain tight enough that he had to grasp at it to try and spare his throat, and then wound the chain around his head, into his mouth and around his hands, binding them in place.

Shit fell out of his pockets as she hauled his feet up, bending them brutally backward.  A second chain came out of her bag, winding around his feet and through his elbows until one was bound to the other.  Each loop of chain took a measure of his strength, until he was too feeble to work his hands out from under the metal.

He’d never live this down.

Maggie finished tying up the goblin, then dragged it out of the stall, slinging it over so it skidded off to one corner of the bathroom, chains scratching against the tile.

“You’re one of the gross ones, aren’t you?” she asked, as she bent over the sink, washing her arms up to the elbow.

The goblin grunted in a way that very strongly suggested he was cussing at her.

“Yeah, well, same to you, Wrinkles.”

The other stall door opened, and the Duchamp girl stepped out.  Lola Duchamp, was it?  It was hard to keep track of them all.  They looked so similar.

Lola went to the sink two spaces away from Maggie and began washing her own hands.

The goblin, unable to speak, resorted to pelvic thrusts in their general direction.  Lola glanced down, then looked away, disgusted.

“Quit it, goblin,” Maggie ordered, her tone sharp.  “Or I’ll step on it.”

The goblin went still.

“Sorry,” she said to Lola.  “Problem of dealing with goblins.  They have a way of bringing you down to their level.”

“There’s a deal in place,” Lola said.  “We don’t mess with the goblins, they leave us alone.”

You guys have a deal in place,” Maggie said.  “I never agreed to anything, and I don’t benefit.  Am I missing something?”

“It’s the way things are done here.”

“Consider me an anarchist,” Maggie said.  She finished washing her hands and shook them dry.

“Anarchy doesn’t work,” Lola said.  She picked at a fleck of black near one eye with a fingernail.

“It doesn’t work for countries.  As personal philosophies go, it’s fantastic.”

“Until you realize you’re utterly alone,” Lola said.  “Are you happy being alone?”

Maggie shrugged.  She walked over to the window, tested her ability to touch the metal, then used the scarf to insulate against the cold as she hauled it open.

Fuck, that’s cold,” Lola said.  “What the hell are you doing?”

“Putting Mr. Wrinkles away until later,” Maggie said.  “Unless he gives me a nod right now to tell me he’s cooperating.”

Both Maggie and Lola looked at the goblin.

He thrust his pelvis into the air once.  Quite amazing, even, given the chains that bound him.

“Right-o,” Maggie said.  She grabbed the chains and hauled him off the ground.  “Heavy little snot, aren’t you?”

The goblin’s retort was muffled but his glare said enough.

She held him above the open window.

Behind Maggie and Lola, the bathroom door opened.  Maggie still held the goblin out the window.

A teacher.

You two should be in class,” the woman said.

“I’m new,” Maggie said.  “Still learning my way around town.”

“I know for a fact that isn’t true,” the woman replied.  “Your name is making its rounds around the staff room, Maggie.  We do talk about our students.”

I am new, relatively speaking, Maggie thought.  And I am still learning my way around town.

Still, she made a show of looking suitably embarrassed.

“I have to assume you’re using the windowsill as an ashtray.  Please tell me it’s a cigarette, and not something you could get suspended for.”

The goblin squirmed, fingers reaching out in an attempt to scratch at Maggie’s hands.  Maggie shifted her grip so the goblin couldn’t touch her.

The woman couldn’t see, of course.  The goblin had cloaked itself, and something told Maggie that the woman was one of those people that could look right at an Other and walk away none the wiser.

“It’s neither,” Maggie said.  “Want to do a breath test?”

“Yes, I’ll call that bluff,” the woman said.  “Whatever you’re doing, please close that window first.”

Maggie nodded, turning her attention to the window, “Just trying to see if there’s something on the outside… ah.”

She balanced the goblin on the very edge of the window, then hooked the metal clip at the end of the chain to the raised lip of the window frame.

A nudge, touching the chain alone, and he tipped over, screaming.  A moment later, he jerked to a stop, screaming in pain, this time.

That only lasted a second or two.  He started screaming in rage as he realized what she was doing.  The chain swayed as he struggled, swinging left and right.

Maggie shut the door, only to find the teacher a foot behind her.

“Breath test,” the teacher said.

Maggie huffed a breath in the teacher’s face.

“Hands too.”

“You might not want to-”

Hands,” the teacher said, firmer.

Maggie held out her hands.  “I’m telling you-”

The woman took a sniff, then recoiled.  “Good god.  Wash your hands.”

“I did.”

“Wash your hands again,” the woman said, irritated, “Then go to the office, get a late slip, and get yourself to homeroom.  Lola Duchamp?”

“Same thing, I get it,” Lola said.

The woman turned to go, pausing at the door.  “Maggie?”

“Yes ma’am?”

“Consider seeing a doctor.”

The woman slammed the door.

“Goblin stink,” Maggie commented.  She took a tentative sniff of her own hands, then screwed up her face.  She started washing her hands again.  “I don’t think I even touched him directly when I was sticking him through the window.”

“It’s probably in your clothes,” Lola commented.  “Mine too.  Come with me to the office?  I’ve got something to bring up.”

Maggie nodded, giving her hands a quick rinse to get the soap off.

Lola held the door for her as they made their exit.

“Are we friends now?”  Maggie asked.  She let her shoulder bump Lola’s.  “Partners in crime?”

“No,” Lola said, without humor.

“That’s cold,” Maggie said.  “Shutting me down.  You could at least play along, or give more material so this conversation keeps moving.”

“Anarchists can be too dangerous to befriend.”

“Sticking to the Duchamp party line there, Lola?  What is it they tell you?  Stay away from outsiders, they’re dangerous and they’ll fudge you up?  Stick with our cult of black widow enchantresses, marry the disgusting old dude we tell you to, squirt out some Duchamp clone, drink the kool-aid…”

“If we’re talking about dangerous company, practitioners that make stupid mistakes like giving away their ability to swear have to rate somewhere up there.”

“That’s not exactly what I did,”  Maggie said.  “But hey, excellent banter.  I could convert you yet.”

“Oh?  Do tell.  How long do I have before I’m killing people in cold blood, Maggie?”

The words were like a physical blow.

Maggie managed a fake smile, “As banter goes, that’s a little too direct-to-jugular to fit in with the flow, FYI.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.  While we’re trading tips, if you want to pretend my words aren’t affecting you, you can’t have that telling pause before you respond.”

Despite herself, Maggie hesitated before speaking again, trying to find her mental footing.  “You think you’re better than me?”

Stupid.  If an argument was an exchange of blows, she’d just given up her opportunity and stuck her chin out for a hit.

Sure enough, Lola seized the chance, “We’re civilized, we’re building something.  You’re, what, doing the metaphorical equivalent of grubbing in the dirt for cockroaches?  I can’t even think of a good metaphor for what you did to the last Thorburn heiress, but it’s lower than that.  The fact that it needed to be done doesn’t diminish the ugliness of it at all.  We’re not ever going to be friendly, understand?”

“My metaphorical cockroaches could slit your throat and drop a dookie in the wound,” Maggie said.

The look Lola gave her was priceless.  Shutting up a Duchamp?

“Could, not will.  Just saying,” Maggie said, before Lola could decide on a retort, or escalate this into a problem.  “Not to worry.  You might not be friendly, but I’m a lot nicer than I look.”

Even now, Lola didn’t have the words for a reply.

Which worked.  Going back to her exchange of blows metaphor, she’d just picked up a chair and slapped Lola across the back of the head.  It wouldn’t make her friends, but she’d won the argument.

“You’re more energetic than usual.”

“It’s the end of the semester, and I’m pretty happy things have gone as well as they have, believe it or not.”

“You’re in Jacob’s Bell.  You murdered a girl.  You’re happy?”

Lola kept bringing that up.  Lola had to know the effects the words had, and it rankled.  She had no idea what was involved, the sleepless nights, the shame, and yet she threw it out there.

Which made Maggie’s mood worse and made it more likely Maggie would say something they’d both regret.  ‘I’ll have a goblin cut your throat and crap in the wound’ wasn’t her worst.

Maggie took a breath, then exhaled slowly before replying.  “Pretty happy, for lack of a better term.  I’m in a better place mentally and emotionally, even literally.  The damn nightmares have stopped.  I’m meeting people and making sorta-friends.”

“Sorta-friends like Mr. Wrinkles, the bathroom goblin?”

“No,” Maggie said.

“Because he’s a better choice for a friend than Blake Thorburn.”

“Blake gets a bad rap.”

“Maybe.  But I still don’t know how you can interact with him.  Aren’t you scared?”

“Nah.  Look at where we are right now.  What could be worse than high school?”

There was a pause.  Lola ventured, “On a related note, there’s something I wanted to bring up.”

“We’re almost at the office,” Maggie said, pointing.  “Dratting shame.”

“Where’s your homeroom?”

“Geo.  It’s in the-”

“I know where it is.  Whoever finishes first waits for the other, we walk back together.”

“Going back on the ‘never be friends’ bit?”

“No, but I need to run something past you, and-” Lola paused as someone walked by, “we can’t do it here.”

“I dunno, they check the times for the slips, and it’s a huge hassle if I have to go back to the office to explain why the walk took me-”

“At the back of the school after school then.  This is serious.  I need a few minutes of your time.”

“This is serious?  Traps can be serious too.”

Lola sighed.  “I promise no willful harm, direct or indirect, premeditated, present, or future, will come from me to you, as a result of this.  You have my protection, up to the point that you abuse it.”

Maggie considered, then said, “Okay.”

Lola nodded.

Maggie stepped in Lola’s way, cutting her off, before the girl could cross the distance to the front office’s door.  She opened it herself, holding it.

Equity.  You hold the door for me, I hold the door for you.

Lola didn’t break eye contact as she passed, intimidating as all get out.  Even her walk was graceful.  Take away the makeup and the piercings and she was such a Duchamp.  It was so disappointing.  The style could have been a small rebellion, but… no.

Can’t help but wonder how that works with the whole arranged marriage thing, Maggie thought.  Is it by choice, and she goes back to normal when the Duchamps want her to, does she define herself the way she wants, and they find a partner willing to take her, or is that look purely because the Duchamps wanted a girl with a particular style for a particular husband?

Whatever the choice was, it was gross.

Maggie followed Lola into the office.

When she’d moved here, Maggie hadn’t been able to shake the idea that she’d go to school and there would be only a handful of classrooms, with one classroom for each grade.

As it happened, St. Sebastian’s wasn’t that small.  Eight hundred students, give or take.  All of the trappings of a usual high school.  The only caveat was that it was the only real high school in Jacob’s Bell.

Maggie waited patiently in line, trying to zen away the frustration and the urge to say something.  That would be giving them what they wanted.

If a student was more than five minutes late for class, the school rules said they had to go to the office and get a slip.  The backlog of students meant that there were twenty or more every morning around this time.  Making the trip to what was bound to be the furthest point from the classroom, waiting in line, giving a reason, waiting for the secretary to write it all down, going back, it made everyone more late.

They wanted to frustrate.  To think they were being clever, driving the point home with this ‘subtle’ time wasting monotony when they really, really weren’t.

Maggie’s interest was diverted by the arrival of another practitioner.

Her head wasn’t the only one that turned.

Blonde, but with features too sharp to fit a Duchamp, not pretty and maybe a little underweight, she was dirty to the point that you could tell from the other end of the room.

“Fuck me,” Lola said, under her breath.  She stepped out of the line, hurrying.

But the principal was closer, and reached the Briar Girl first.

The tone of discussion in the room changed.  From conversation to restrained questions and answers.  It seemed like half the people in the room had no idea who the Briar Girl was, and the other half were eager to share the details, and all were trying to be quiet enough to overhear.

Maggie had another advantage.

She reached into her pocket, and gripped a pointed, leathery object.

Listen,” she whispered under her breath.

The goblin’s ear in her hand got warm.

The principal eyed the crowd.  When he spoke, Maggie could hear through her hand.  “Step into my office?”

“No.”

“You haven’t attended school all semester.”

“I’m not attending school now.  I want to meet someone.  If you can tell me which class-”

“If you’d please step into my office-”

“No,” the Briar Girl said.  “I don’t like confined spaces.  Stop asking.”

“I’m going to call the CAS, given your situation-”

Lola approached the principal and the Briar Girl.  She met Maggie’s eyes, then moved one hand to her own ear.

The goblin ear in Maggie’s hand went cold.

Then Lola said something to the principal.  Enough power was spent in the process that Maggie felt jealous.  If she had that much power… she’d hoard it.  She’d have no choice.  But Lola could fritter it away.  Maybe under the expectation that someone would pay her back, maybe because she really did have power to spare.  The Duchamps really were a step above.

The principal turned to the Briar Girl and said, “I am going to talk to you as soon as this is over.  Please wait here.”

Then he was gone, out of the office.

The connection that extended from him went nowhere, like a ribbon with a frayed end.  A wild goose chase.  He’d reach the end of it, then find himself unable to recall why he’d left in the first place.

Maggie watched Lola’s furtive discussion with the Briar Girl, their furtive glances her way.

“Your name?” the secretary asked.

“Maggie Holt.”

“Reason for being late?”

Problem with being unable to lie, situations like this call for snark.

“Well, it’s that time of the month-”

Or time of the week, that Mr. Wrinkles shows up.

The secretary gave her a very unimpressed look.

“Bathroom concerns,” Maggie said, her voice low.

“If this trend continues, you might need to do some volunteer hours.”

“Volunteer hours?”

“Practical detention.”

Gah.

“Go to class,” the secretary said, handing Maggie a slip of paper.

Maggie did, glancing over her shoulder at the Briar Girl and Lola, who were still chatting.

When she was safely in the hallway, she used a kleenex to wipe the blood from the goblin ear off her hand.  Maybe one more good use out of it before it was spent.  It had been a bribe from a goblin, to get her to release it.  If she wanted another, she might have to harvest it herself.

Reaching homeroom, she held up the slip, which the teacher didn’t even look at, then found her desk.

The class was quiet, and everyone was working on some worksheet, writing periodically.

The teacher appeared by her desk, leaning down to be quieter, as she handed over the worksheet and a marked test.  “You’d be doing far better if you showed up to more classes.  I can only give you so much leeway, given your circumstances.”

Maggie nodded.

The test sported a big underlined D.

There were two Duchamps and one Behaim in her class.  She could feel their stares, each carrying the weight of Lola’s words, compounded by the grade and the fact that they probably knew what the teacher had said.

Accusatory, condescending.  All thinking the same thing.

Murderer.

That thought led to the next, Blood, darkness, and fire.

She fidgeted with her pen more than she followed through on the worksheet.  With the mention of the murder, the Thorburn thing, and her recent goblin capture, they all distracted.  The capture was a good distraction, Blake wasn’t a bad distraction, and the murder was.  Killing Molly was like all of the horribly embarrassing and hurtful things she said and did when she was a kid, bundled up together in one.

She’d been the middleman, passing on instructions from Laird to the goblins, but it still left her with a shame like a tender wound, aching constantly, all the worse when she was trying to find sleep, hurting ten times more when she or somebody else prodded at it.

Which was why she was missing class, in a roundabout way.

It wasn’t that she wasn’t going to school, it had more to do with what she was doing when she did arrive.  She was content to hole up in the stairwell, stay out of the way, and work on her stuff.  If she had a goblin stowed, she could miss a class to bring it out and do some bargaining, offering freedom for a little technique or trick, or a bit of explanation about how things worked.  The really stupid ones could be caught over and over again, bled for everything they were worth.  She could read in the library, she’d practiced techniques on the school roof when it was only fall, and she could make notes and plan.

In the process, she maybe missed each of her classes once a week, but she was still keeping her promise.  Still going to school, like she’d promised her dads.  Technically.

Anything more than that was impossible.  She was sleeping better these days, but ‘better’ didn’t mean well.

Taking time out of class meant she could prepare herself, make herself a little and preparing helped her relax.

In a way, it was a long journey to take to feel at ease, and it didn’t last long.

But it was getting better.  She had an ally now.  Allies.

Sorta-friends.

Blake was one.  He could still offer her books.  Even though he’d just left, dashing off to Toronto, he was bound to come back.  When he came back, fixing his problem with the barrier, he’d give her access to books, with access to the books, she’d step up her game and prepare for trouble, and she’d beat it and everything would be okay.

“Thorburn probably isn’t coming back,” Lola said.  “I can’t tell you the key details, but four separate divinations or powers are saying so.”

Lola was here, a senior, one year older than Maggie, joined by Penelope, Joanna, Chloe and Lea.  Not all of the school-age Duchamps, not even half, but enough.

Gavin, Owen and Craig Behaim were here too, as were the Briar Girl, Patrick, Evonne, and Keller.

Plus the wrinkly goblin, bound in chain, which she’d retrieved and brought with her now that the school day was over.

Maggie looked at all of them in turn, for a hint, a clue.

They were deadly serious, and whatever they’d discussed, they’d shared with each other, but they wouldn’t share with her.

“You guys are jerks,” Maggie said.  “Why would you tell me that?”

“You’re on the verge of becoming a problem,” Gavin said.  “That vote during the council meeting was supposed to be a warning.  A very firm suggestion that you’re supposed to shape up or ship out.”

“Gotta say,” Maggie said, sticking her hands in her pockets, “didn’t appreciate you voting yes on my execution.”

“I was trying to make a point, a tangent to the greater point.  You came after me-”

“I played a prank.”

“You came after me,” Gavin said.  “You sent goblins after me.”

“I played a prank to equalize things because you assholes felt like the new girl needed to know her place or some shit like that.”

“I was asked to test your measure, see how you operated, what kind of practitioner you were.  I did as I was asked.  Whatever your excuse, you came after me with excess force, and you needed to know that when you make enemies here, on top of crossing lines and drawing interest from non-practitioners, you put yourself in a dangerous position.  So I voted.  Others will do the same until you clue in.”

Yawn,” Maggie said.  “Is this the only reason you reached out?  I knew most of this already, and if we’re rehashing old arguments-”

“Maggie, that’s not it,” Penelope said.  She was the oldest human present, and wanted to think she had more authority as a result.

Maggie remained silent, waiting for more of a response.

“With the Thorburn thing happening, we can’t have too many wild cards in play.  This thing, right here?  It’s the next generation of practitioners.  Except for your goblin there, and Patrick and his group who invited themselves-”

“You make us sound so unwelcome,” Evonne chimed in.

“We’re part of the next generation, and we’ll be part of the generation after that, and so on, barring strange circumstances,” Patrick said, “and believe it or not, we’re relatively young.  We’re perpetually current.  I’d like to think we count.”

Penelope hesitated.  Her canary gave her a look that a bird wasn’t supposed to be capable of, and Penelope continued as if Patrick hadn’t interjected.  “The current generation are doing their thing.  We’re doing our thing.  We’ve talked it over amongst ourselves, us practitioners.  On the assumption that you’re not planning on leaving Jacob’s Bell anytime soon…”

A pause, giving Maggie an opening.

“No plans to leave anytime soon.  Moving is a pain in the butt, and my parents really want to stop somewhere and get over what happened back home.”

“…Yeah.  Well, since you’re sticking around, and you’re almost an adult, we thought we’d count you in our number.  In a decade or so, we’ll be the council, or some of us will.  We’re extending an offer of peace.  Separate from the official council business, but honest, and it carries over as we move on.”

“Peace?”

Penelope continued, “We leave you alone.  We leave your family alone.  What Gavin was saying, in his roundabout way, is you could be our enemy, and stuff like the vote will edge closer and closer to putting you in a bad situation, or you can take this deal.  You do what you need to do, and you do it without any hassle from us, provided you keep to the terms.”

Maggie pulled her hands from her pockets to fold her arms.  “Lola said something like ‘we’ll never be friends’.”

“We won’t,” Lola said.  “But we can leave each other alone, and we can exist in the same sphere without being at each other’s throats.

Penelope spoke up, “It’s not going to change things overnight.  It might be a little clumsy, while we work out the details, but we can keep our parents from giving you a hard time, stop further execution votes from coming to pass.  As our parents retire and we take our spots on the town council, we can raise you up with us.”

“With enough time, you’d have as much of a say as the Crone, the Faerie, Briar Girl or any other local powers,” Lola said.

“I don’t like you either,” Gavin said, “But I can play ball if it means you don’t screw everything up.  We can send help your way.  Resources, knowledge, individual lessons, if people feel up to it or if you want to bargain for it.  If you want to focus on the goblins, we can change the way things are done.  Powerful goblins go to you instead of getting killed, we tell you if there’s something going on goblinwise.”

Maggie double checked there were no funny connections.  No obvious manipulations at work.  “But there are conditions?”

Gavin shrugged.  “Nothing too difficult.  First off, you can’t mess with the whole thing going on with the contested Lordship over Jacob’s Bell.  I’m hoping you’re not insane enough to think you can even make a play there.”

“Nah.”

“It benefits you,” Penelope said, “Letting things progress.  If we or our families become Lord, we can give you your due.  We’ll swear it.  We become Lord, you become…”

“Subordinate,” Maggie said.

“I’d rather say you become more powerful, with our backing,” Lola said.  “We’re not asking for slavery.  You’d have free will.  You could be a pain in our backsides and vote against every idea we raise, so long as the core rules are maintained.  So long as you’re hands off when it comes to the ‘throne’ and letting Jacob’s Bell become something better.”

“And?” Maggie asked.  “Those can’t be the only conditions.”

“It’s not a condition, since Briar Girl didn’t agree,” Lola said, “But we’d very much appreciate it if you didn’t mess with the wedding.  It’d be interfering in the Lordship game in a general sense, if not technically.”

“Fine,” Maggie said.  “Get to the meat of it.”

“You can’t go and help the enemy,” Gavin said.  “If someone intervenes at the right time, then things get more complicated.”

“Ahh,” Maggie said.  “That’s what you’re worried about.”

Penelope said, “We talked it over, it’s not hard to figure out what he’s offering you, and we decided we’d top the offer.  The resources of two families, Briar Girl will teach you some stuff in exchange for us doing her favors.  I can’t imagine you’ll get a better deal.”

“Not anytime soon,” Maggie said.

“The only lump knowledge Blake can offer that we can’t is knowledge on diabolism,” Gavin said.  “And if you’re going there, we’re going to have a problem, I’m sure you understand.”

Maggie nodded slowly, considering.  “Meaning that if I can’t come up with a good argument as to why I’m not accepting your deal, you’re going to assume I’m a wannabe diabolist, and I’m public enemy number two, after Blake himself?”

“No,” Penelope said.  “I can’t speak for the others, but I wasn’t after that sort of ultimatum.”

“I was.  Her answer should clear stuff up,” Gavin said.

“Okay,” Maggie said.  “Patrick?  Are you part of this deal or something?”

“It’s interesting,” he said.  “But I’m merely here as an observer.”

“Let me give this a shot, then,” Maggie said.  “Arguments why I shouldn’t take the deal?  If you guys came up with it on your own, I could fall for a bait and switch.  Your parents step in, they act without your knowledge or assent, and I lose all the benefits while still having to pay the price.”

Craig raised a hand, as if asking for permission to talk.  He was one of the youngest present, alongside Joanna, middle school or so, and blocky in terms of how he was put together.  Not muscular, not fat, just something in between, with a very typical Behaim square jaw.  Laird’s son.

“Go ahead,” Gavin said.

“I told my dad, Laird, and he said he’d see how viable it is.  I’m not sure, but he talked to Sandra,” Craig said, glancing at Lola and Penelope, “And everyone else that’s important, to make sure it’s okay.  He said it should be fine, and he’d step in if things got messy.”

Laird.

Maggie wasn’t sure if that helped or just made her more uneasy.

“They’re giving us slack,” Gavin said.  “Probably watching to make sure we don’t screw it up too badly, maybe meddling a bit behind the scenes.”

Penelope nodded, “This is genuine, coming from us.  It’s accepted by them.”

“It’s a load of hooey,” Maggie said.

“How is it hooey?” Joanna asked, the youngest Duchamp present.

“You want to know why I sided with Blake before?  Because he’s made wads more sense than a hundred Lairds or Lolas or Patricks have.  He’s fudged up, sure, but as I see it, that only makes him more legit.  I see people who are ‘normal’, and you know what?  I don’t respect them.  Either they’re oblivious and useless to me, or they’re just plain lying.  We’re all a little twisted.”

They were staring at her.

She hadn’t meant to say all that, but she had, and now she sounded paranoid.  There was nowhere to go but forward.

“The abnormal stuff isn’t deep inside Blake.  It’s exposed to the world.  Everyone with a clue knows why, mostly.  Demons and black tomes.  Anyone who’s spent more than an hour with him, me included, can figure out most of the rest.  He came from a bad family and a bad place in life, and at the end of the day, I think he’s more genuine than any of you.”

The others stared at her, intense, divided between those who seemed like they couldn’t comprehend what she’d just said, and those who thought they understood.  And were probably wrong..

“Sorry, but I have to ask.  Is this a romantic attachment?” Penelope asked.

Maggie shook her head, “If I had to put my finger on it… he’s like a dog you find by the side of the road.  Scruffy, quirky, you know it’s got a story.  It’s nice enough, plays fair, and I’m not about to let a bunch of idiots say it’s dangerous when they don’t know.”

“I sort of know,” Penelope said.  “He hurt my sister’s familiar.”

“You think the scruffy dog isn’t going to bite back when threatened?  No, you’re not being fair.  That dog had no dratting choice in what happened to it, and I respect it for not being worse than it is.  I’ve seen stuff too, and, well, that so-called dog has every right to hate me, and it was darn fair.  But even if I respect it and don’t mind its company, there’s no frigging way I’m taking the pretend dog home with me, you get what I’m saying?  I’m talking about a whole bundle of issues.  Fleas, dirt, bad habits, I dunno.”

“Yeah,” Joanna said.  “He could have been meaner, when he beat Letita.  He scared me though.  Him and the woman he was with.”

“He’s allowed to be scary,” Maggie said.

“Then I take it you’re going to side with your metaphorical dog over us?”  Gavin asked.

Maggie drew in a deep breath, then exhaled.  “Write up a contract.  If it’s everything you’re presenting it as, no tricks or anything that I can see, and you guys sign, I’ll sign too.”

“After saying all that?”  Penelope asked.

“He’s in trouble like you said?  I’m not interested in sticking my hand into the middle of a dogfight.  I’m not interested in acting against him, either, but I’m not under any rules or oaths that say I have to help him.  You guys studied me, you figured me out.  What I want above all else is power, knowledge.  I’ll take what you’re offering, if it’s legit.”

“It is,” Gavin said.

“Then yeah,” Maggie said.  “Is that everything?  We done?”

“For the purposes of this meeting?  Think so,” Lola said.

Maggie gave the group a bit of a salute.  “Run it by me when you’re done.”

“Will probably be a few days,” Gavin said.

Maggie shrugged.  “You know where to find me.”

She grabbed the chain that bound the goblin, then dragged the struggling creature in the snow behind her as she made her way off the school grounds.

Patrick fell into step beside her.  Evonne and Keller weren’t around.

His skin stripped away like autumn leaves in a strong wind, revealing a face beneath.

This was the face she thought of as Padraic.  Leader of the local trio of exiled faerie.

A teenager’s face, decidedly Faerie with a slant to his features and ears, wild dark hair, and a sly, almost condescending half-smile perpetually on his face.  There was an art to it all that was pure design, raw nurture, with no nature in play.

This was the face he wore for her.  Every part of him promised a subtle sort of danger, and even now, Maggie couldn’t tell if it was the sort of danger someone experienced while skydiving, controlled, measured, or if it was the sort of danger one experienced when they leapt out of an airplane without a parachute.

She wasn’t sure which idea appealed more.  The former was tantalizing, the latter offered a kind of freedom.

They walked together in near-silence for twenty minutes or so.

She was halfway through a thought about how long the silence would go on before it was awkward when he spoke.  That simple fact sent a thrill of fear through her.

“If Blake is a stray dog, what am I?”

Jealousy?  Feigned jealousy?

Where did the game end and the reality begin?  Or was he all game?

The worst part was, she enjoyed the lack of commitment, the fact that she only had one toe in this water.  Telling herself that she was safe, that there would never ever no way no how absolutely not be a relationship between them.

And that in itself could be part of the lure, the bait being set.

“Good question,” she hedged.

“Take a stab at it,” he said.

“You’re… the kitten in the shelter.  Giving me that big-eyed look.  And I know it’s calculated.  Everyone and everything is telling me it’s a bad idea, but here I am.  I haven’t walked away.”

He smiled.

And if I ever took that kitten home and let my guard down, it would kill me in my sleep, then curl up on the corpse.

She had no illusions about the monster Padraic was.

Even if he was damned attractive.

“Like the cat, I know you’re prone to doing what you want to do, regardless of the wishes of others, but-”

“You want me to wait here.”

Maggie nodded.

“I can,” he said.  “But I have to demand a favor, in compensation.”

She tensed a little.

“When you’re done, you let me teach you another trick with glamour, convincing spirits, and the objects they represent.  It has its uses in a melee, and I know you like the ones with uses in a fight.  I’ll even forfeit the glamour you need to practice.”

This wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, she knew.  What he was offering now was more bait.  This was something he’d anticipated handing over to her to keep her interested.  Keep her around.  He would have had this in mind for months, even.

“If it sounds uneven, remember, I need your continued silence about the lessons I’m offering.  If we get caught, we’ll have the Queen’s Riders after us.”

He managed to make it sound so alluring, the idea of them sharing a secret.

The kitten’s wide-eyed plea?  Please.  She was staring into the serpent’s eyes while the coils surrounded her.  She knew, and he knew she knew.

He knew, too, that she would accept.  She had to.

“Okay,” she said.  “I’ll take you up on that deal if you watch the goblin.  Watch and nothing else.”

“Of course,” he said, smiling.  She was careful to look away before the smile could get its hooks in her heart.

All glamour, she told herself.

She quenched the buzz of adrenaline and other excited, warm feelings with ugliness.

The path down the hill was a steep one, though it had been traveled some.  Footsteps had tromped snow down until it was almost smooth, and she had to move slowly to avoid falling over while Padraic watched.

There were flowers, odd as it was, in the middle of winter.  Pictures and arrangements, cards, all sitting on a wooden platform that rested in the snow.

Maggie drew her Athame.

She pricked herself under the fingernail of her pinky finger, and watched as the blood filled the little concave of her overturned pinky fingernail.

Tilting her hand, she let blood drop.  She repeated the process of letting the blood well up and then drop a total of three times.

The ghost absorbed the offered energy, growing strong enough to be seen.

The echo of the departed Molly Walker stood amid the token offerings that family members and various residents of Jacob’s Bell had left near the site of her death, hugging her arms to her body, face hidden by hair.

The boards that kept all the little offerings dry and safe from the elements were inscribed with a circle, to prevent interference.  It wouldn’t do if a goblin desecrated the little shrine.  But Molly’s echo had drawn a crude circle too, Maggie noted.

Maggie’s inverse.  Molly had never fought.  Maggie saw no option but to prepare for war, to face it head on.  Even as an echo, she continued to defend herself, retreating from this hostile, unfathomable world.

Maggie stared at the ghost, trying to interpret details, to come to grips with what it meant and represented.

She’d been in a bad place, scared, out of her element, desperate.  The arguments had been persuasive.

Could she really sign that contract?  Sign on with them?  Knowing that Laird was a part of it?

Could she, conversely, really side with Blake, letting guilt and shame make the decisions for her, and render herself weaker?

Maybe she’d decide by the time she was done.

She began what she considered her penance.  A way of reminding herself of what she’d let happen, so she wouldn’t do it again.  Every day, an offering to help keep the echo alive, and-

“It was a pretty slow day, I guess.  I captured a goblin, but I’ll get to that in more detail in a bit…”

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