Category Archives: 8.07

Signature 8.7

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“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.

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