Category Archives: 8.06

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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.

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