Category Archives: Arc 8 (Signature)

Signature 8.4

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Sunlight streamed through the windows where curtains hadn’t been drawn.  Probably intentional on Sandra’s part – an unobtrusive alarm of sorts to ensure the guest wasn’t up too late.

The girl in the checkered scarf -she did still wear the scarf, having fallen asleep in the armchair- was already wide awake.  A blanket had been draped over her, tucked in at the shoulders and by her hips, and she left it where it was, joining her scarf in half-covering her face.

Her eyes were fixed on her knees, her mind as active as her body was still.  Her thoughts walked the razor’s edge of inspiration and there wasn’t much footing to be had, if any.  A misstep meant succumbing to panic.

Through the kitchen doorway, she could see Sandra walking through the kitchen, and raised her head a bit to get a better look.  A portion of the blanket fell aside as she reached up to push a lock of hair out of her eyes.  She didn’t fix it.  Out of sight, plates clinked.

That ferret-thing passed across the narrow slice of the kitchen the girl could see, running along the edge of the counter.

A moment later, it passed the other way, roughly half of a package worth of bacon clasped in its jaws.

All of the remaining bacon, Hildr?” Sandra asked.  Her voice was barely audible.  “Give me half of that and I’ll get the sausage out for you.”

A pause.

Sandra stepped into view, meeting the weasel and collecting the requisite bacon.

The woman’s head turned toward the armchair.  “Don’t worry.  I’ll cook it in a separate pan from yours.  Hildr and I are practically family – a little bit of troll spittle won’t kill me.”

“Uh, sure,” said the armchair’s occupant.  She stood and stretched, unwinding her scarf a bit where she was too warm.  After a moment’s consideration, she took off her winter jacket.

“The bathroom is that way,” Sandra said, pointing.  “Do you have a preference for what you drink with your breakfast?  Tea?  Coffee?”

“Do you have cranberry juice?”

“Yes.  I’ll get it out.”

“And, uh, I don’t know what to do about clothes.”

Sandra gave her a once-over, a careful, searching look, before deciding, “Wear what you have for now.  You won’t be too badly off if you wear those clothes for one more day.  When you’re done eating, you can use my shower and dry off before you set out.”

“Thank you,” she replied, laying her jacket over the arm of the chair.  The plate and glass from last night were already gone from the little table.

She took her time going through the bathroom, her mind still darting through possibilities.

Go to Toronto?  No.  Padraic was right.  A bad idea on a number of levels.  Padraic could return, and she needed to look after her dads.

She washed her hands and then her face, using her wet hands to push her hair back.  As usual, it immediately rebelled against her attempts to get it in order.

After sniffing her clothes to judge her body odor and resigning herself to a maybe, she headed to the kitchen.

Hildr was devouring a raw sausage roughly a third her size, while Sandra was setting the table.

Croissant, crepes with blueberries and strawberries, bacon and a glass of juice.

“You didn’t have to do this,” she told Sandra, sitting down.

“I didn’t.  But I like to eat well, and it’s hardly hospitable to give you gruel while I prepare this for myself,” Sandra said.  She tapped the spoon of icing sugar to lightly dust her crepe.  “While you washed up, I was thinking about the clothing situation.  I do have clothes from when I was about your age.  I grew up in this house and left it behind when I moved to Toronto.  I’ve never had cause to get rid of it.”

“That could be good,” the girl replied.  She took a bite.

“I’m not sure it would be.  You’re coming unraveled, so to speak, and you’ll want to hold tight to those things which tie you to your identity.  Physical objects or otherwise.”

Like going to see Molly?  She made a note of that.  She also noted that she still had her scarf on – she had been wearing it for a large portion of the winter.   She downed a mouthful of the cranberry juice.

She sputtered, covering her mouth before she could cough it out on the table.  That only served to get it in her nose.

Her hand pounded the table a few times while she fought to regain her composure.  The ferret thing was hissing at her, baring vicious looking teeth.

Sandra barely flinched.  “It shouldn’t be off.  It’s fairly fresh.”

“Bitter.”

“Oh.  When you asked for Cranberry juice, I thought you meant real cranberry juice.  The stuff you usually find in stores is primarily apple or pear juice, with a bit of cranberry added.”

The girl with the checkered scarf sputtered a bit.

“You can get used to it,” Sandra said.  “I prefer it mixed with a bit of orange juice.  Should I get you a glass and orange juice?”

“Please.”

While she did so, Sandra said, “I’m assuming you don’t know how to put together a model?”

“Depends what kind.”

“It’s a technique enchanters pick up when first learning.  Sometimes you try to manipulate a connection and it goes poorly.  When that happens, it can help to have a sense of what exactly has happened.  I’ll show you after.”

“Thank you.  Kind of going above and beyond the call of… well, it isn’t even your duty, is it?”

“No.”

“What’s the catch?”

“No catch.  Please eat.  Rules for the hosted are simple – that you graciously accept what is freely offered.  I didn’t poison anything here.”

The girl in the checkered scarf ate.

“Laird, as I told you last night, went to Toronto.  He’ll be one of the champions opposing Mr. Thorburn.  Opposing Mr. Thorburn and Maggie Holt, that is.”

The girl in the checkered scarf nodded slowly.

It felt weird, hearing the name spoken like that.  It should have felt weird because it was familiar to her, but it wasn’t.

“I’m not quite sure how to phrase this without missing the mark.  Need?  Wish?  Desire?  Not quite any of those.  I would very, very much like to be lord of Jacob’s Bell.”

“No offense, but this isn’t exactly news to me.  I’m a little out of the loop, but I’m not that out of the loop.”

“Let me continue.  I once wanted to be Lord of Toronto, but things didn’t go the way we’d hoped.  I made a bid for power, I lost, and I hoped this would be my consolation prize.  Then Laird made it clear he wanted it.”

The girl nodded, eating.  The cranberry juice in orange juice was just barely drinkable.  She didn’t complain.

Sandra continued, “We fought, then we struck compromises, to keep things in balance.  The marriage was one such compromise.  Laird hopes to go to Toronto, put himself in the good graces of the lord of the city, and leverage that when he returns here.  I’m suspicious that won’t happen.”

“How come?”

“Laird has a very particular personality.  He comes from a particular lineage.  I grew up a number of years behind him, and he was always someone I paid attention to, because of his position in his family, the favor that the head of the Behaim showed to him, and because my mother told me to.  I know him fairly well, all things considered.”

“My condolences.”

“The knowledge is a good thing.  That it’s Laird… I don’t think it’s a bad thing.  He was groomed from a young age.  Less able practitioners in his general age group were punished by having to give him power as penance.  He was tutored, even sent away to the United Kingdom for a time.”

“Lucky guy, getting all the breaks.  A little spoiled, a little messed up because of how one dimensional his social circles were?  I think I get it.”

“I don’t think he was lucky at all,” Sandra said.  “Others in his family have to pay a share of their power, and are restricted in what they can do, as far as the practice goes, but they are free.  Laird has had firm hands gripping him by the arm every step of the way.  Even now, he’s bound and shackled, playing his role in schemes that were set up before he was born.”

“So he convinces me that Molly Walker is an inhuman monster and gets me to sic my goblins on her?”

“Yes.  And he’s done several other things, some recent, some not.  He puts on a good face and smiles, he sees to his duties as a police officer and a keeper of the peace in town, but I wonder sometimes if he isn’t screaming inside his head.  That’s why I gave him a nudge, prompting him to go to Toronto.”

“I just woke up, I’m not exactly on the ball.  I might have missed something you said, or I didn’t catch the logic there.  Don’t get it.”

“The Lord of Toronto is an entity that doesn’t live or die, but ebbs and flows in power.  As of right now, he ebbs.  He’s fighting for a foothold.  Laird, by contrast, is fighting the course of his own destiny.  In the doing, he might be adhering to it, like an animal that struggles against the net that binds it might only trap itself further.”

“Uh huh.”

“Did you know he gave up a share of his lifespan to his children?”

“No.”

“I believe he’s been setting his affairs in order.  The tone of our last conversation suggested it.  It didn’t take much of a push to get him to go to Toronto.  He asked me to look after the Behaim family in his absence.  Are you seeing where I’m going with this?”

“You’re talking about the Lord and Laird in the same breath.”

“Which is amusing when you think about the link of his name to the title.  Maybe Destiny has her way after all.”

“One and the same?” the girl asked.  “Oh.  Oh.  You think he’s going to sacrifice himself to give the Lord of Toronto a foothold?”

Sandra put down her fork, meal finished.  “Yes.  His personality would fit, and maybe he’s been thinking about this for some time, altering his own perspective, preparing for this.  An Incarnation is a representation of that which it represents, in a circular fashion, but it builds its image from pieces given to it.  Men that sacrificed themselves, as Laird may hope to sacrifice himself.  Laird would give the Lord a more modern perspective, clearer knowledge, and freedom to act outside the confines of its being.  In the long term, he would be trapped, largely dead, but in the now, well, he might shake himself free of Destiny’s firm grip.”

“He’s going to become an Incarnation?”

“Who knows?  I do suspect that he won’t return, one way or another.  I doubt Blake Thorburn will either.  Where does that leave us?”

“Well, I’m still here, nameless and kind of screwed.”

“And I’m still here as well, very, very much wanting to be Lord, with one potential rival potentially out of the way, and one dangerous element pinned down in Toronto, with signs and portents saying he’s unlikely to return alive.  I have to deal with Johannes, as well as other locals.  I might need help.”

“Ahhhh.  You must be desperate if you’re coming to me.”

“There are very few pieces on the board here.  I can call in favors from branches of my family, but that draws attention, and we aren’t at a stage yet where drawing attention would be good.  Understand?  I could twist your arm, make demands, and extract oaths from you, but I don’t know what specifically I would ask for right now.”

The girl in the checkered scarf put down her utensils, chugged the last of her juice, and then leaned back.  Try as she might, she couldn’t think of anything to add.  All of the gears that were turning in the back of her mind were presently busy trying to find solutions to her own predicament.

“There isn’t a catch, not really,” Sandra said, “My niece called you a wild card, didn’t she?”

The girl in the checkered scarf nodded.

“You could side with anyone here.  You could very well side with Johannes, if he has a solution.  I’ll be the first to admit I don’t have any clever ideas on how to salvage your Self, and I wouldn’t blame you.  But if you do side with Johannes, I’m hoping you won’t side against me in the process.”

“I can sort of see that.”

Sandra collected the dishes, rinsing them off in the sink before putting them away.  She didn’t turn around as she said, “He could and may well force you, if he has a solution.”

“Maybe.  Is that your subtle way of reminding me that you could have forced me to turn on Blake in exchange for sanctuary?”

“Yes.  In fact, as I first spoke to you, I was already working out this conversation for this morning.  Bookending ideas.”

“Clever.”

Sandra half-turned, revealing a slight smile.

“Here’s my chance to be clever – I think you said that the people that were strong enough to help me should know that it’s a bad idea to?”

“Yes.”

“Johannes is one of the exceptions to that rule, I take it?”

“Yes he is.”

“Is this a nudge?  Is this one of those nudges, like you gave Laird?  To go see Johannes?”

Sandra smiled, picking up Hildr.  The girl in the checkered scarf could see how the fur at one side of the ferret’s head had been braided and clasped in place with a tiny metal clip.  Sandra said, “It could be.  Nothing mystical about it.  The question would be why.”

“Yeah,” the girl in the checkered scarf said.  “I guess so.  Would I upset you if I said I don’t want to go see him just yet?”

“No.  Can I offer you anything else?”

“I’m done,” the girl replied.  And the juice sits heavy in my gut.  “Thank you.  I haven’t eaten a breakfast that good in a while.  One of my dads is on this health kick.”

And I might never get to eat a crappy vegan tofu salad or granola-milk slop breakfast if I can’t get my name back.

“Are you okay?” Sandra asked.  “All things considered?”

The girl looked up.

“You were somewhere else for a moment.”

“I’m… yeah.  Like I said before, I’m not so functional when I’ve just woken up.  I’m ready to get down to business.”

“Use my shower.  I’ll get things ready so I can teach you what you need to know when you’re out.”

She decided to pull on clothes rather than use the offered bathrobe, feeling fabric stick to skin where she hadn’t quite dried off enough.  For much the same reason, she hadn’t used the offered shampoo and conditioner.  Shampoo tended to leave her hair more unruly, so she tended to do one day on and one day off.  Her hair going unwashed a day was more her than it was smelling like the wrong products.

She donned the hairband, pushing her hair away from her face, and stared at herself in the mirror.

Was it just the more intense lighting above the bathroom mirror that made her look paler, her eyes lighter, her hair darker?  Starker?

She wound the scarf around her shoulders, loose.

When she emerged and stepped into the living room, she saw a sheet of parchment had been laid out.  Not paper.  Old fashioned stuff, a little uneven at the edges.  Another scrap sat at the base of the coffee table, mostly rolled up.  Thin ink marked it.  Lines and scribbled words.  Testing pens?

Sandra didn’t look up as she drew a circle in the middle.  “Write all personal details you can inside.  Everything about yourself you can think of.  You can’t include your name, but you can and should include other things.  Try to think of things that Padraic wouldn’t necessarily know about.  Things he wouldn’t have taken or claimed for himself, as part of his identity, that make you unique.”

I have three parents, but I think Padraic thinks it’s just the two.  I don’t sign my name with a heart over the ‘i’, but I do a little squiggle at the middle part of the M to make my signature mine when I’m signing something like a cheque.  I like salty foods way too much.  I don’t actually love regular pizza, but I’ll eat anchovy pizza and I’ll tolerate other stuff.  Both of the boys I’ve really liked much at all turned out to be gay.  It’s very rare for me to cry or sob when I’m upset, though I might get tears in my eyes but sometimes after a really long day, I’ll just break down and cry into my pillow for no reason, like I save it all up for that.

“More?” she asked.

“All you can,” Sandra said, eyeing the list.

It bothered her that Sandra was reading these small, personal things, but she wasn’t in a position to complain.

I’m pretty sure I’ll die young.  Polar fleece fabric gives me the heebie jeebies so bad I can barely sit still after touching it.

She hesitated.

I love my parents more than anything, and they’ve done better jobs than most.  I mean it.  But sometimes I wonder if the reason my priorities and feelings are messed up are because my surrogate mom wasn’t around enough and my dads just aren’t that emotionally sensitive.  I know it’s stupid, I know it’s wrong, and I tell myself every time that I’m just looking for a broad-strokes answer to it all, but I still think it sometimes.

She stared down at the words, pen still in hand, for a long minute.

“A little bit of blood,” Sandra said.  “I have a needle-“

The girl was already biting the end of her thumb.

“Or you can do that.”

“Used to it,” The girl said.  “Center circle?”

“You have the right idea.  Good.  Now draw more circles,” Sandra prompted her.  “Around that one.  Things you’re connected to that are important to you.”

Dad.  Father.  Mom.  Home.  The house.  My room.  My title as a goblin queen.

She paused at that last one.

“That’s fine,” Sandra said.  “Being a student?”

“I’m not much of one.”

“Okay.  Anything else?”

She wrote Blake, then Molly.

“Good.  This is something you can do again when you feel the need, to figure out where you stand.  When we do it, we use a board, pins and threads, so we can practice illustrating webs of connections and manipulate things more.  That isn’t what you need, so we’ll take the simpler road.  Draw lines from you to each of these things.”

The girl in the checkered scarf did, drawing a line between the circle with the confession, little secrets and blot of blood, to the circle with ‘goblin queen’ within.

The pen was nearly out of ink.  The line came out spotty, half of it was just the pen nib digging a groove into paper.

“That’s supposed to happen?” she guessed.

“Yes.  Keep going.”

Between herself and her parents.  Worse.  Two thirds of it was only scratches.

Herself and the house?  Worse still.

Mom?  Better again.

Dads?  The worst yet.

Her room?

She suspected she knew the answer before she tried.  The pen scratched paper, but no ink came out.

Padraic had made his claim to it.

Blake?

The sole bit of line was so short she could cover it with her fingertip.

Molly?

One of the stronger connections.

“If these were threads, and we were applying stress, you would be seeing how frayed they were.  You could gauge the health of the connections.  Keep this in mind.  Check again later today.  Figure out how this condition of yours is progressing.”

“Okay.”

“You have options.  There’s one obvious one I can’t and won’t outline to you, out of concern that Padraic would be upset with me.”

“And you need all the friends you can get, with so few pieces on the board.”

‘Yes.”

“I’m assuming that one option is that I have to go head to head with Padraic.  Take it back.”

“You said it,” Sandra said, smiling a bit, “Not me.  Another option would be to draw things out.  Faerie get bored, and if you can survive in the meantime, it’s possible he would take pity on you and return the name.”

The girl stared at the woman, unimpressed.

“Possible, but not likely,” Sandra amended.

“How do I survive, though?”

“Forge new connections, hold tight to the connections that do exist, tenuous or otherwise.”

“Oh god.  You’re telling me that I have to work for my salvation by making friends?”

“That’s one way to forestall the inevitable,” Sandra said.

“I’m liking the first option more,” the girl said.  “It allows for shoving of a stick up one of Padraic’s nether orifices and attaching it to a lathe.  I don’t make friends easily.”

“Other connections, then.”

“Other connections.  Making a mental note.  Got it.”

“The third option… well, I suppose it isn’t easy either.”

“Third option?”

“Accept that he’s won.  Make peace with it.”

“Oh helllll no.”

“Yes,” Sandra said.  “There’s a running theme in dealings with Faerie.  Trust me, I’ve dealt with them enough to know.  As a general rule, it’s not worth it.”

“What’s not.”

“It.  Whatever you’re striving for in dealing with them?  Whatever they’re offering?  It isn’t worth the trouble.  Rescue someone from Faerie clutches, and they’ll play along, acting like everything’s good, only to go back to their old masters.  You can win, but you might well fall prey to a trap in the process.”

“Blake kicked a Faerie’s ass the day he invited me into my house.”

“Yes he did.”

“So… that rule has its exceptions.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.  I don’t know the particulars, so I can’t comment.”

The girl in the checkered scarf narrowed her eyes.  “So I’m supposed to give up?”

“It’s a possibility.”

“Yeah.  Right.  I’m not about to lie down and get replaced, thank you.  Not my style.”

“Of course.”

“Anything else?”

“Not so much.  There are other tricks, but everything has its own gravity, and so long as he has your name, there will be a natural pull, drawing that which is Maggie’s to him.  If you were to reclaim your name, I’d think a confrontation would be inevitable.”

“What if he bites it in the meantime?”

“You would have to be careful with the timing and mechanism, lest you inherited a name with the notion of death attached to it and took that death for yourself, but I would be surprised if it even came to that.  I’d sooner expect him to simply get bored with this game and return your name to you.”

“You’d-” the girl in the checkered scarf started.  “Fuck, really?”

“Careful with the swearing, remember.”

“Swearing in very particular circumstances that call for it.  How is he not going to die?”

“He’s been around for centuries, leading an exceptionally interesting life.  Add up his experience, and he’s developed a degree of familiarity with most types of Other that are close to the sixteen or seventeen years you’ve spent getting to know your own family.  He’ll avoid situations where victory isn’t in the cards for him.  Faerie like to pick easy fights for themselves, but impose challenges on themselves to keep it interesting, always holding on to the idea that they can abandon the challenge and cut loose if the situation calls for it.”

“So that’s it?  No chance?  If it even comes down to a contest-”

“If it were Essylt?  She’s more one-dimensional.  Padraic?  I would consider your loss a foregone conclusion.”

The girl looked down at the map of connections, fists clenched at her sides.

“What happens?” she asked.  “Later on?”

“He’ll take and borrow to create his new identity.  Connections will find less traction with you.  Even simple connections.  The ability to open a door involves a connection, however basic.  In the end?  It depends on what the two of you do.  You might be reduced to a glimmer, held together by the little that Padraic didn’t take, unable to act or even function.”

“An echo.”

“Close enough.  More likely, you’d start coming to pieces.  You might find that spirits occupy the hollow spaces that are created, which would accelerate the decay.  You might go out in a blaze of spiritual activity.  Conversely, your body might simply be ground down into your constituent elements, the spirits would nibble on the exposed edges of the girl who was once Maggie Holt, and gravity and connections would pull the half-eaten, half-faded husk to pieces.”

The girl in the checkered scarf felt her heart pounding as if she’d just run around the block.

“I should go,” she said.

“I think you should.  That line connecting to Blake looks less solid than it did a minute ago.  While you’re here, I can help reinforce things, but I can’t stop Padraic from taking things from his end of this struggle, leaving you less to work with.”

The girl grabbed her coat, pulling it on.

“Where are you going?” Sandra asked.

“Don’t know.  Maybe the Briar Girl.”

“If she were strong enough to do something substantial, I would be very surprised,” Sandra commented.

“Maybe that’s true.  But she and Blake had a connection, and maybe I can establish one with her.  She doesn’t seem like she’d be impossible to get along with.  And I can ask.  Get more info on where to go next.”

“Maybe, instead of doing that, you should tackle the more dangerous possibilities while you’re still strong enough.”

The girl in the checkered scarf paused midway through doing up her buttons.  “You’re trying to nudge me to Johannes again.”

“It wouldn’t be a bad idea.”

“Maybe, maybe not.  And I do owe you one… but… what about her?”

She is… not your best bet.”

“She could have an answer.  She’s been around for a freaking long time.”

“True on both counts.”

“So?”

“I suppose if you’re going to talk to her, you should be as strong as possible.”

Great.  Unless there’s something I should know?”

“You know who she is?”

“Yeah.”

“You know what she is?”

“Pretty sure.”

“So long as you go in armed with knowledge.  She can’t hurt you unless you give her the chance.”

The girl with the checkered scarf nodded.  “Just in case, could I- do you have a weapon I could borrow?  I know it’s more valuable and permanent than food, but…”

“I have a number of weapons.  Metal?  I assume you’re still worried about them?”

“Not unworried.  They’re impatient, not exactly the type to wait all this time, lurking outside and attack me in broad daylight.  But one of them did promise to come after me, so…”

“Any preference in terms of what you’d want to wield?”

Bigger and sharper the better, the girl thought.

Then she reconsidered.

“My implement is a knife.  I’ll take something in that vein, if that’s okay.”

Sandra walked over to a bookshelf.  She withdrew a case and opened it.  Three knives sat within.  She placed the knife on the arm of the armchair.

The girl picked it up.  A stiletto, long and narrow, with a sheath.  “You sure?”

“As with my childhood clothes, it’s one of those things that’s been around for some time.  I have no particular attachment to it, and I’m happier it’s seeing use.  You’ll find Mara’s place due west, after the buildings give way to forest.  Stick to the hardest path.”

“Cool,” the girl said.  She paused.  “I won’t say thank you.  That’s sort of useless.  You helped me out.  I’ll… I’ll try to thank you with deed, not word.”

“I appreciate that.”

The girl nodded, then opened the front door, took a good three steps back from the force of the wind and snow, then plunged into the elements.

Take the hardest path.

Story of my freaking life.

The hardest path, as it turned out, meant not walking down the path people and their dogs had carved into the woods.  It meant going uphill, through snow that soaked her jeans in an instant.

Pushing through the thickest growths of branches, rather than walk around.

Maybe Sandra was nice to me just so she could get me to buy this crummy advice and laugh to her creepy children of the corn family about sending me off to stumble through deep woods.

Even as she mulled over the idea, entertaining the surprisingly infuriating mental image of Sandra and her ferret-troll both laughing with one hand over their mouths, she had a sense that this was a bit too troublesome.

There was always an easier option.  Always a seemingly valid route around that outcropping of stone with a tree growing out of it.

Was this a spell of sorts?  A way of turning ignorant people away, keeping one patch of wilderness in a reasonable walking distance from town away from prying eyes?

Or, given that Mara had been around for a while, was it by design?

Had Mara planted and cultivated trees or moved stones to generate this effect?  A simple, steady, relentless building of this discouraging barrier over the years?

The girl in the checkered scarf pressed on.  She told herself that the resistance the branches gave to her pushing hands was another design.  Branches left scratches on her hands and face.  One copse of trees tried three times to scrape her hairband away from her head, then snagged on the button-hole of her jacket.  Not actually moving, but simply happening to catch her clothing.

She couldn’t see any rune or trick, but maybe it was a harder thing to see.  Maybe the tree had been planted in the middle of a rune, so it manifested certain snatching, scratching qualities as it grew.

Maybe every tree this deep in the woods was like a full-sized bonsai tree, guided by Mara’s hand.

There were probably a lot of really cool things one could do when they were effectively immortal and largely removed from everyday human concerns and habits.

The cottage, as it turned out, looked fairly normal, if old fashioned.  Over one rock, and there it was.  Squat, probably no more than four rooms, all wooden logs, planks, and stones with a coarse looking mortar.  A fire somewhere within gave the thick, dusty glass a faint orange-yellow tint.  Thick smoke rose from the chimney at one side.

It wasn’t made of gingerbread, at least.

“This was probably a really bad idea,” she told herself.

Her voice didn’t help to reassure herself as much as she might have hoped.

A vague sense of danger made her double check where she placed her feet, every place where there was a gap in the branches.  No traps, no dolls or totems, no apparent runes or anything of the sort.

No options left, she knocked on the door.

She heard metal scraping on stone.  It reminded her of the goblin with the tools.  A shiver ran up her spine.

The door opened.

Not Mara.

A child, maybe twelve, aboriginal, with a chain shackled to her wrist.

The child didn’t meet her eyes.  Her shoulders were drawn in, eyes fixed on her feet.

“I’m looking for Mara?”

“Crone Mara doesn’t like the white people,” the child said, in an accented voice.  “I do not like the white people.”

“I’ve always cared less than most people do when it comes to being liked,” the girl in the checkered scarf said.  “I’m interested in dealing.  Negotiations.”

“Then come in and wait.  Crone Mara will speak to you very soon.”

Again, that vague sense of danger, a trap.  The metaphorical lion’s den.  “I have safe passage?  You can give me permission to enter?”

“Yes.”

She’d halfway expected the interior to be a demesne, but there was no guarantee that Crone Mara would hold to any recent traditions.  The notion of the demesne had come over from Europe with the settlers.  Crone Mara predated them.

No, the interior was cramped.  Warm, with thick walls and no leaks, but cramped, with a floor of stones that fit together like jigsaw pieces, grooves worn along the most traveled paths.  She suspected it predated the log and wood construction of the walls themselves.

The two bedrooms to the one side had no doors, only a bed and just enough space to stand between bed and wall.  Shelves above the bed held clothes.

It was all so utilitarian.  Only that which was absolutely necessary was within the building.  Of those necessities, the kitchen stood out as the largest room in the small building.  Containers held food, reeking of meat, and a fire burned under a large pot of stew filled with large chunks of vegetables.

There was only one nod to anything resembling entertainment.  All around the uppermost edge of the kitchen, high enough up that one would need to stand on a table or box to reach, were dolls.  Crude, made of raw materials, features made misshapen by the damage done to leather and woven grass by age.  There was no organization.  The very oldest stood beside more recent creations.  The newest dolls were crafted of reed and hide.  The oldest had started to come apart, hide degrading, reeds long since eaten away, revealing slivers of bone within.

The girl in the checkered scarf took a seat at the kitchen table.  A tree had been cut straight down the middle, flat end turned up.  The table was three such half-trees.

The chain at the younger girl’s wrist dragged on the floor as she made her way to the pot, stirring slowly.  Each motion of her arm made the chain tap against the stone housing of the broad fireplace.

Minutes ticked on, and the girl in the checkered scarf became acutely aware of the passage of time, the lack of time she had before she became some kind of glimmer or husk.

“What do you do here?”

“I am cooking blood stew.”

“When you aren’t cooking, I mean.”

“I will chop firewood.”

“Okay, sounds like indentured servitude.  Let me rephrase.  What do you do when there aren’t chores?”

“There are always enough chores to fill the day.”

“Always?” the girl in the checkered scarf asked.  “Every day, it’s just waking up, doing chores one after another, until you’re ready to go to bed?”

“Every day.”

The rhythmic clink of chain against stone continued, alongside the scrape of the large wooden spoon against the bottom of the pot.  The child’s flesh was raw around the shackle.

That looks like it hurts like crazy.

This sounds like it would drive anyone insane.

“It sounds lonely.  Never having fun.  Do you talk, at least?”

“There are lessons.  Basic things.  How to do this or how to do that.  How to maintain the hut”

“Uh huh.  And games?”

“No games.”

“Stories?”

“Few stories.  Only sometimes, to remind of why we are to fear and distrust the white people.  Better to be in here.”

“Um, okay.  What about singing?”  How bad can singing be?

“Crone Mara does not sing very often.  They sing when the quiet is too deep, or when I ask.”

The girl in the checkered scarf followed the pointing finger.

The dolls.

“Oh heck no,” she said.  “Point taken, no need to demonstrate.”

But the dolls were already singing.

Faint at first, like rustles through the trees, whispering, reedy voices, they found the high notes.

Children’s voices.

A foreign language, some voices better at the singing than the others, some halting, creating a vaguely discordant sound, like a children’s choir where there hadn’t been enough practice.

“Alrighty,” she said.  That does nothing to convince me you wouldn’t absolutely lose your mind in here.  “Can we stop?”

“They will stop when they are finished.  It depends on their mood.  They sing more when they are sad.  Lately they sang more than they have been silent.”

“Great, great.  Any idea on when Crone Mara will return?”

The little girl shrugged, giving the door a momentary glance.

Discordant voices, scraping spoon, clink and scrape of chain against stone.

The chain was fat, coarse, old fashioned, a little rusty.  It might well have predated Jacob’s Bell.

Her eye fell on the point where it had been banging the stone.

There were flecks on the ground.

The chain was being worn down, as was the thick stone that bordered the fireplace.

No way the chain had been that worn down in this generation alone.

The scraping of the spoon had stopped.

The little girl was looking her in the eyes for the first time.

The little girl looked old.  Weary.

“Can you break the chain?” the child asked.  “Crone Mara has the key.  For you to free me, you would need to break the chain.”

“I’m really not looking to make more enemies,” the girl in the checkered scarf replied.  “You’re putting me in an awkward position.”

“Can you break the chain?  It is damaged, you see, right here.  Can you show me that the white people are not so bad?”

“You’ve got to give me a chance to answer before-“

The child stepped closer, and chain scraped on floor.

The singing of the dolls grew louder.

The child’s hands clutched at the end of her jacket.

“Will you help me, white girl?  You can, if you act now.”

“I’m thinking.”

There were tears on the girl’s face.  “Please tell me you will help me.  Please.  Just say it.”

“I-“

“Please!”

The word was ragged, as if the child wasn’t used to anything but a dull monotone.

It was too much, the smoke in the hut, the singing, the pleas-

“I think-“

The girl’s hands clutched tighter.

“-That I’ve read too many fantasy novels to fall for this,” she finally managed to say.

A moment passed.

The singing quieted.

“Crone Mara,” the girl in the checkered scarf said, meeting the child’s eyes.

Crone Mara stood a little straighter.  Tears still marked her cheeks, but there was a flinty look in her eyes.

“What would have happened if I’d said yes?  How would I ‘help’?”

“You would be compost,” the girl said.

“Got it.  No.  Bad.

The child reached into her shirt for a key on a string and undid her shackle.

“Will you negotiate with me?” she asked the child.  “I need a hand with something.”

Never.  Not ever,” the child said.

“Got it,” the girl with the checkered scarf said.  She stood from the table.  “Had to ask.”

She stepped out into the cold.

One down.

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“Motherfucker!”

She could swear.

Maggie Holt had made the deal.  Maggie Holt was bound to it.

Maggie isn’t my name anymore.

The cold was a bit more bitter than it should have been.  Wind that had barely caught her notice earlier was now making her stumble.

The clumsiness had nothing at all to do with the tears that insisted on sitting at the corner of each eye, not large enough to come free with a blink, yet re-emerging if she scrubbed one away with her hand.  She set her jaw, clenched her fists, and marched.

Jacob’s Bell was easy to navigate.  There were three major roads, Harcourt running from North to South, dividing the city in half, while the other two ran from West to East.  Sydenham ran parallel to the highway, curving only to avoid the marshland near Hillsglade House, while King George ran through downtown.

While the smaller stores and restaurants sat on King George, deep within Jacob’s Bell’s downtown area, essential institutions like the hospital and the school sat up on or near Sydenham.  One such building served double duty as a train station and bus station, and could be referred to as one, the other, or simply ‘the station’, depending on need or preference.  While the train’s horn could be heard a half-dozen times a day, it only stopped twice in a given day.  The buses were more frequent.

Padriac, she was almost positive, didn’t have a car.  It wasn’t like a Faerie to grub under the hood and keep the thing running, it was even less like a Faerie to take a car into a shop for general maintenance, forking over hundreds of dollars or wasting the time to get around the repairs.  Besides, being an exile meant Padraic couldn’t go anywhere.

If he was heading to Toronto, and he wasn’t using her parents to get a ride, there were really only three options.  Bus, train, or walk.

Walking would take too long.

Only one destination made sense.  The station.  The train schedule had been timed to allow for commuting to and from Toronto, arguably the minor tweak that had enabled Jacob’s Bell to start growing, prompting this war over the Lordship, but the returning train would be gone, this late in the evening.  Only the latest bus to Toronto would get him out of here in any reasonable span of time.

“Padraic,” she said.  “Or Maggie Holt, if you insist on using that name, you prickletFucker.  Where the dog-diddling fuck are you?”

As if by answer, she heard a scuffling noise behind her.

A shadow moved in the darkness, dodging out of sight, as if barely staying out of her field of vision.  That would be design more than it was luck.

The wind wasn’t even blowing her way, but she still scented the faintest whiff of something rancid.  Not even the good kind of rancid, where it started off savory and went bad.  This was the kind of smell that started off as something offputting and went worse.  Like… ball sweat or that black mucky crap she’d once horked up after a really bad sinus problem, a few years back.  All wrapped up in a bouquet as though said foul-smelling object had spent far too long dwelling amid bathroom smells and warm garbage.

Or, to put it in simpler terms, it’s a bad smell that’s finding me despite the wind direction.

“Hey, goblin,” she said.  “It would not be in your best interests to mess with me tonight.  I’ve got places to be and Faerie to-”

A loud bang made her spin in place.  The ice tried to catch her foot as she moved it, but she caught a crusty bit of snowbank with her hand, instead.  Soaking her hand with bits of ice and snow to keep from falling over… hard to say it was good, but it was better.

Hissing cut through the quiet as a car across the street resettled at a slight angle. one back tire thoroughly deflated.

Her heart pounded.  The noise had been large enough for her to feel it, like a surprise attack.

Goblins were always easier to deal with when she had the advantage of the first move.  She really only had two experiences to date, in dealing with goblins without that advantage.  One where she’d fucked up, a clever little bastard of a goblin had slipped out of her trap, only to come after her with a vengeance.  It had been cunning more than it was capable, being no bigger than a bar of soap, possessed of more animal instinct than actual wit, but that hadn’t been a fun week.

The other instance had been the first instance.  Her hometown.  Her home, she still thought of it sometimes.  Even if she’d left it behind, unsalvageable, thoroughly ruined.

Fucked.

Being able to swear wasn’t nearly as fun or relieving as she might have hoped, considering the cost.

Even though she wasn’t entirely sure what the full cost would be, the cost was too high.

The station.

She had to get there before the bus left.

The one eye that appeared beneath the car with the popped tire was a yellow slit, just barely catching the light.  It was wide, focusing on her, then narrowed, as if the face was contorting with emotion.

The wind blew with enough force to make flecks of snow break loose from snowbanks, and the glimmer of light from the eye joined the flecks of snow in drifting away.  It was gone, slipping away by some angle she couldn’t track.

Move faster.

She picked up her pace, moving as fast as she could without risking falling.

Another shape to her right, lower to the ground, moving on all fours for more speed and stealth.  This one had lanky hair and tiny sagging tits on a scrawny frame, a scrap of bright colored cloth clutched in hands too small for its body.  The overlarge claws on its feet were long and strong enough to scratch through the snow and catch on pavement, as the goblin dove into the snow that covered the expanse of lawn in front of an old house.  There was a cloying smell like blood and black licorice.

The girl in the checkered scarf felt an ugly feeling stirring in her gut.

She recognized that one.  Appearance and smell both.

Without slowing, she spoke loud enough for each of the goblins to hear, “What’s up?”

She was glad her voice hadn’t betrayed her nervousness.  She couldn’t even clear her throat without the possibility that one of the goblins would hear it.

“You told us the game,” a voice sounded, from higher up.  There, a tree not far away, further up the road.  The voice was high, with a ragged edge, like it belonged to some rejected chain-smoking muppet.

It wasn’t a voice that would belong to the goblin she’d seen beneath the car, nor the one in the snow.

That makes three.

A game?

“Let’s go over the rules one more time, or are you so stupid you’ve forgotten already?”

“Fuck yourself bloody,” the words were spat, virtually a growl by the time the final word was spoken.

She couldn’t see the source of the voice, but she saw branches bob as the goblin in question leaped off.  Ice broke away and fell in jagged clumps, disappearing into softer snow below.  Snow fell from the edge of one garage, knocked loose.  Then, one half-story up, more from the roof of the house.

She wanted to run now, but she’d already picked her pace.  Showing fear would be a mistake.

The only option was to keep moving forward.

The sound of her feet crunching in the snow was joined by the sound of something dragging behind her.

One was across the street to her left, if it hadn’t circled around, the tire-popper.  The female one would be in the midst of the snowbanks to the right, another atop the houses and garages, staying ahead, ready to trip her up if she tried to make a break for it.

And one behind her made four.

Every afternoon since Molly Walker had died, without fail, she’d made one trip to talk to the girl’s ghost.  The idea was to confess, to tell stories about stupid day to day stuff, to lay herself bare.  Every day, she’d made a point of reminding herself of what she’d done.  What she’d helped bring to pass.

In the process, she’d reminded herself of what goblins were capable of.  That wasn’t wholly unintentional.  It meant she wouldn’t let herself forget about home, about Molly.  About these creatures she was dealing with every single day.

It meant, unfortunately, that the memories weren’t easy to shake.  The knowledge of just what the goblins had done to Molly Walker.

The scraping, dragging noise made her think of tools.  Corkscrews, spoons, doorknobs taken apart into their constituent pieces.  Strips of wire that had been cut free from older chain-link fences, coarse enough with age to saw, flexible enough to wind around a body part and cut off circulation.

Was this divine retribution?  She wasn’t one to believe in god.  Less so since learning about the existence of gods, odd as that might be.

But the god-bothered were pretty good at the whole guilt schtick.  That whole eye-for-an-eye deal.

Her fingernails very nearly dug crimson crescents into the skin of her palms.  The only thing that stopped her from puncturing the skin was the knowledge that the goblins would smell the blood.

Being surrounded meant that no matter which way the wind blew, she could smell some trace of them.  Sometimes it was faint, sometimes it was almost a slap in the face.  The wind was blowing in her face, which slowed her down and made her scarf whip behind her.  The cold gust threatened to make her eyes tear up, so she squinted.

Squinting meant she didn’t have quite as good a view of the ground in front of her.  One hump of snow caught the underside of her foot mid-stride.  She stumbled a little.

There.  Fermented testicle sweat, fecal matter and hot garbage, right in her face, in the moment she looked down to catch her balance.

The wind direction and smell combined-

Yes.  Buttsack stood in the middle of the sidewalk.  He looked like a cross between the worst features of a small child and a very old man, simultaneously lumpy, misproportioned, hairy, wrinkly, gnarled beneath his too-loose skin.

He was bigger than most of the local goblins, tougher.  He didn’t shiver, despite the cold, even though he had only coarse body hair, a pair of shorts that reached his ankles, a pair of panties on his head, scrunching up loose flesh around the elastic.  A scrap of paper in his hand, fluttering in the wind.

His face was bulldoggish, his one visible eye a yellow slit, brimming with simmering emotion.

For all the drama he’d displayed on their first meeting, where she’d caught him with the chain, Buttsack’s face didn’t twitch.  He stared at her with a degree of emotion that she couldn’t even identify.

Hate?

She’d never really seen someone’s expression distill hate before.  Not real hate.  Not like this.

It unsettled, seeing him like this.  Even with a pair of underpants pulled tight over his head, the crotch covering one eye.

Her underpants, as it happened.

As if he’d noticed her noticing, he used his one free hand and reached up to grabbed one side of the undergarments.  He pulled them down further, as if giving himself a reverse wedgie, his asshole of a face contorted into something uglier in the process.

The front of the fabric bulged as his tongue traced a line down the front, slow, from top to bottom, then back again.

When he let go, the elastic snapped back into place with a force that made her flinch just a bit.

“Do you really want to go for a round two, Buttsack?” she asked.  “I seem to recall you begging and pleading.  Shall I tell the others here just how you sounded?”

“Paper,” Buttsack said.

He let go.  The wind carried the paper to her, too low to the ground.

He wanted her to reach for it.  She could either let it go or she could risk falling, or failing.

Simply failing here could be disastrous.  If they were dogs surrounding her, one moment of weakness could be like a snap of the fingers or an order, bidding them to close the distance and take her to pieces.

She reached with her foot instead, with no time to even make sure if her other foot had any traction.

The paper was caught between her foot and the ground.

She bent at the knees to collect it, and saw the shadow of the goblin with the sack behind her.  Squat, neckless, bug-eyed.

She recognized it as one of the ones she’d directed at Molly Walker.

Unnerved, her hands shook as she unfolded the paper.  Two papers, as it turned out, folded twice over so they formed a neat square, kept tidy with a simple paperclip.  Buttsack’s greasy fingerprints marred the outside.

The writing was florid, complete with a stylized capital letter starting each paragraph.  It was easy enough to read in the clear moonlight.

How odd, I don’t believe I’m certain who I should name in the salutations.  I trust that if it’s found its way to your hands, the letter is intended for you.

Don’t stop your reading once you’ve begun it.  I did make these foul little beings promise to deliver the letter and refrain from interfering until the reading was finished one way or another.  It’s part of the terms for a game I’ve set up, you see.  But I shouldn’t digress.  Everything in time, for niceties’ sake and for dramatic effect.

The boxes stacked in the bedroom said ‘Maggie Holt’ on them, so I went on to assume it’s my room.  A brief word with the two gay gentlemen who own the house helped clarify the matter, with both assuring me that the room was mine and it was mine for keeps.  I thought I would make sure that my room was properly aired out before I made any return.  That isn’t to say that I’m planning on coming back any time soon, or that the bindings didn’t look sufficient to keep the smell contained, but I like to be sure.  I’ve had words with the other occupant of the room and I’ll be shooing him off as soon as I’ve finished this letter, handed it to him with further instructions and gone on my own merry way.

I realize I’ve left you in dire circumstances.  As I said, no hard feelings are intended.  In the interest of fairness, I’m thinking I might flip a coin.  Heads, I’ll come back before you’re completely gone, to give you a sporting chance.  Tails, I’ll wait long enough.  Yes?  No?

I have heard the Fair Folk do like their lopsided deals, which is surely in the realm of your imagination, so you might naturally conclude that I have spent the last two centuries or so practicing the flipping of coins in such a way that I almost always get the result I want.  No, I suppose a coin flip doesn’t count for much in the spirit of things.  Let me think, let me think.

What if I were to say I will return to Jacob’s Bell, albeit with no warning, and promised that if I did, and you were still present in some capacity, I would present myself to you for a conversation?  Of course, it would be ever so tragic if I were to arrive when you were out of town.  I’d say it was inevitable, even, that the one time I returned, it would be while you were away.

I think, in the end, that I will ignore small graces and give you a gift instead.  Two, hints as a matter of fact, in this very letter, about how you might escape the predicament with the goblins.  Taking and using the hints would mean you couldn’t meet me before I departed, which might leave you feeling chagrined.  I do suppose you could follow me soon after.  But wait!  Leaving the town would mean you weren’t around in case the goblins came after your fathers.  How tragic a thing is that?  It seems you just can’t win!

I seem to be going on and on.  I’m just so very excited!  You might even say I’m as giddy as a schoolgirl!  Ha ha!

I did claim a set of gremlins bound in papers as I passed through the bedroom.  The others were unusable.  I’m not quite a practitioner, you see, and certain deals and powers afforded to mortals aren’t for my like to claim.  Certain tricks, yes, but there are rules to be observed.  Give me time to get more settled into this skin, and that may change.

Buttsack watched as she turned to the next page, her face blank.

In the meantime, Maggie Holt has formally relinquished all goblin bondage and bindings.  Any promises that goblins made to remain hands-off or leave certain individuals alone are now undone, the goblins freed.  Two goblins were bound in or near the Holt household, and I was sure to pass on instructions for our little game.  They’ll be gathering their fellows, I imagine, before they bid you hello and celebrating their liberation.

On to this game I mentioned.  I had to be clever with my wording, but goblins are stupid little things, by and large.  I had to offer something to ensure they would give you distance while you read, so I simply distributed the clothes in Maggie Holt’s dresser and laundry hamper to the goblins as a means of guiding them to their target.  They’re to find their fellows and spread the word and scraps of clothing.  They’ll be able to find the person who wore those clothes, by scent or the ties that bind.  They were a little muddled by the fact that different parts of the same threads pointed in two different directions, but they do tend to be stupid little creatures, don’t they?

They’ll be after both of us, it seems.  Not to worry!  I suspect I’m rather more elusive than you are, and the threads will largely lose their tie to me once I’ve left.  In short, you need not concern yourself with my welfare.  As for you, dear girl, rest assured, the prize we agreed on for winning this little game here is limited only to bragging rights.  I’m hardly a barbarian or blackguard in this.

As to the nature of the game itself, it is exceedingly simple.  If their quarry is able to walk, hold pen or parcel, speak or see by sunrise, the goblins lose.  If none of those things are possible, bragging rights abound for these little pests and buggers!

How interesting, don’t you think?  I know the goblins seemed eager, and I wouldn’t have you getting bored in my absence.  Rest assured, I didn’t want you to feel like it’s a priority to see me before I take my leave from this little town.

I do believe you are at the door downstairs, and I do believe there are a small few of Maggie Holt’s goblins that must be personally sprung from their more secure confinement before I catch my train.  I’ll cut myself off here.

I must be away!  I leave it to you to decide whether to curse me for the length of this thing or to forgive me for the brevity of it.  I do know the reading of it postpones the contest.

With care,
Maggie
H.

“He signed the name with a heart over the ‘i’,” she commented, staring at the page.  “What the hell is wrong with him?”

“Doesn’t matter,” a voice whispered from her right.  Not one she’d heard before.  “You’re done reading, and-”

“It matters,” she said.

She wanted to continue speaking, but she went too fast, and her voice caught.  Three or four thoughts were snapping together all at once.  The hints.  Stated twice.

In the search for the hints, she found the answer.

Her hand trembled enough to make the page shake.

“Yeah?” Buttsack asked.

“Yeah,” she managed.  “That goblin is wrong, he’s lying, because this does matter, and I’m not done reading.  I’m commenting on the reading.”

“Commenting?” Buttsack asked.

She turned back to the first page, and she started reading again.  “There’s a lot to read in the midst of this.  Details to be picked out, clues that might inform…” she stumbled, trying to scan the page and speak at the same time, “…inform my strategies against him.  For example, I can read each sentence here and try to divine if he was lying, if I can call him forsworn.”

“Who’s him?” the high, ragged voice asked.

“Nevermind.”

Right here, this was the trick.

She took a step forward, eyes still on the page.  She could tell that Buttsack hadn’t moved out of her way.  “You promised not to interfere with the reading.”

“You’re walking, not reading,” Buttsack growled.

“I’m doing both.  Will you move out of my way or will you be forsworn?”

He didn’t respond.

She kept walking, even though the position of the page blocked her view of the goblin.  The smell of him was thick in the cold air.

If she happened to trip over him, there might even be a solution in that.  The question was, how fast could she name him forsworn, demand he obey her and sic him on the other, smaller goblins?

Was it faster than another goblin would reflexively respond to her weakness and attack her?

Her hands were cold, and the edges of the paper crumpled a bit as her grip grew tighter.  If she lost hold of the page, she was dead.

She walked past the spot where he stood.  He’d shifted position, perching atop a snowbank, where the snowplow had driven the snow high.

“Hey Scuzz,” Buttsack said.

“What?”

“This isn’t going to work.  She’s going to walk to sanctuary.”

“Maybe a cloud will pass over the moon?”

“Useless fuckspittle.  We can do better than maybes.”

She continued walking.  Her eyes scanning the words.  Continued dragging sounds told her that the goblin with the tools was following behind her.  Slow but steady, matching her pace.

“Arsedrip!” Buttsack shouted, loud enough to startle her.  “Up there, go!”

“Which, the sigh-”

“Don’t say it, you pustule!  You’ll clue her in!  Both!”

They were plotting.

“Go,” Buttsack ordered.  “Figure it out or I will fucking eat your genitals raw and regurgitate them into birdy mouths and-”

“You’ll feed the birds to cats and the cats to dogs and so on, until my genitals are shit nine times over,” Arsedrip said, “Am I on the right track?”

Keep reading, don’t get distracted.  He grabbed my gremlins.  The fucker…

“If you get it, you better go!”

Arsedrip ran past her, forward, further up the street.

“Cumnugget, you- yeah, just like that!  Nice and thick!  You aren’t completely retarded!”

She couldn’t read and run at the same time.  If she tried and failed, then one of the goblins could call her on it, and this would go from bad to worse.

Just as ‘Maggie’ had said, she couldn’t give chase now.

No, she wouldn’t call him that.  Padraic was still his name, and thinking or speaking the name would maybe help hammer at the trickery and put cracks in it.

Couldn’t hurt, and she wasn’t quite willing to forfeit her old name in that sense, either.

Padraic had arranged this.  He had putting her in a situation where she couldn’t chase him.  Where she was sufficiently distracted, pinned down in Jacob’s Bell, unable to leave out of concern that he would return, or that her fathers would fall prey to the goblins.

They weren’t quite innocent of Other things, but they did have protections.

She had to wonder if it was enough.

A distant crash and the sound of metal creaking marked goblin activity a block away.

She forced herself to return to the reading.  Her eyes fell on the line, ‘It seems you just can’t win.’

She reached an intersection.  Buttsack’s yellow eyes were on her, dancing in her peripheral vision as she strained to see the crosswalk sign without taking her eye off the page.

No crosswalk sign.

A shadow moved.  A goblin was perched on the crosswalk light, blocking her from seeing the ‘walk’ or ‘don’t walk’ signs opposite her.

The same was true on her left hand side.

She couldn’t see the light either.  She knew goblins could produce opaque bodily fluids in great quantities.  Shit, vomit…  They could break glass.

If she just looked up, she would see the light peeking through the smears or past the goblins.

She kept her eye on the page, and she took a leap of faith, stepping out onto the street, her attention on cars and their headlights instead.  Traffic was light in this town, with as much traffic on the main roads as there was traffic on side roads in other cities.  There was one car two blocks over.  Too far away to be a problem.

Except it didn’t stop at the one intersection.  The sigh?  The sign.  The goblins had taken down a stop sign, or enchanted it, or both.

She paused in the middle of the street as the car skidded to a stop.  The driver hadn’t seen her, and the hard packed snow wasn’t so different from ice.  Wheels skidded, and the rear end of the car wavered, fishtailing slightly.

The car stopped at the intersection with the blacked-out lights, nose jutting through the passenger crossing.  If she hadn’t stopped, it would have knocked her over, maybe broken her legs.

She walked around the nose of the car, reading.  The goblins were chattering, setting up the next bout of interference.

“Can’t stop her reading, but we can make someone else stop the little bitch from walking.  Good enough.  Um, um.  Hey, Cumnugget!  Get over here!  Even half a brain can help brainstorm!”

Celebrating their liberation…

Where the hell was she supposed to go?  She had no home to go to.

No friends, not really.

The closest things she had to friends were Blake, who wasn’t even here…

Padraic came to mind, which would be a laugh if it wasn’t so fucking tragically sad.

Who else did she have a connection to?

Molly’s ghost?  Did the mute, unresponsive creature even count as a friend?

That thought led to another.  There was a protective circle around Molly’s shrine.

But what happened after that?  She’d die all the same if she stayed out in the cold all night, standing there.

No.  What other options were available?

Laird?

She couldn’t say yes, not in good conscience, not so soon after thinking of the ghost as something resembling a friendly face.

Not with everything else the ghost represented.

“Wait, wait,” Cumnugget said.  “Why can’t I attack her?  I didn’t swear nothing.”

“You swore implicitly,” Buttsack said.  “You took the clothing we used to find her, after hearing the terms of this game.”

“What if we get some jerkbutt that didn’t swear nothing?” Cumnugget asked.  “Who isn’t playing the game?”

She felt a chill.

“That’s interfering,” Buttsack said.  “Isn’t it?”

“What if- what if I just happen to walk by some place near here where some horny suckerbutts hang out, on my way to scout the way, and they just happen to follow me back?  I’m not doing nothing ‘cept walking.”

“I think it sounds like you need to go for a walk, doesn’t it?” Buttsack said.

“Think it does.”

Her eye found the line,they do tend to be stupid little creatures, don’t they?’

Where was she going?

There weren’t many options remaining.  She turned left.

Harcourt ran North to South, dividing the left half of the city from right.  Half the streets in the city transitioning from ‘Street Name West’ to ‘Street Name East’ as they passed the dividing road, or the other way around, depending on the direction in question.

The houses in Jacob’s Bell ranged from ‘shitty and dilapidated’ to ‘used to be really nice and are currently alright’, and Danvers Avenue West was one of the areas which tended to the latter.  Houses here were old houses, dating back as much as a hundred years, suffering from less than perfect maintenance and all the vagaries that old buildings were prone to.

She didn’t know the streets exactly, but she was fairly certain she was in the right area.  These houses had more presence, being larger.  They loomed shadowy and grim like tombstones dwelling at the edge of her vision.

Her eye tracked the page, barely taking in the words, even as her mind turned over her options.

Still reading.

She didn’t know exactly where she was going.  If she spoke in an attempt to find a connection to follow, this fat wrinkled goblin that followed her might accuse her of being finished.

Each footstep was careful.  Her feet and hands were cold and numbness was seeping in.  It might have been the cold, true.  Still, there was a connection of sorts between that chill and the quiet horror that had seeped into her the moment she’d lost her name, yet to leave her.

Buttsack moved suddenly, waving.

Beckoning.

Cumnugget was here with the other goblins in tow.

The girl in the checkered scarf ran, the reading abandoned.

Her focus was warped, after so much attention given to the page a matter of feet from her face.  The world appeared distorted, darker in contrast to the paleness of the page under the strong moonlight.

The houses all looked the same.

She could have kept running, maybe continued down the block for another minute or two, but the house to her right had a wrought metal railing.

She grabbed the railing, using it to arrest her forward momentum, turning to face her assailants.

Buttsack moved faster than he should have, given his bulk.  A trick, maybe.  Something.

Teeth found her shin, hard against bone, and teeth found her calf.  Nothing hard there.

She fell backward, and she twisted over, falling on her back.

The pages fluttered free of her hand as she reached out to try and grab at his eyes.  Too far down, the narrow eyes too recessed.

Buttsack grabbed at her leg, trying to find a grip.  He was heavy, large.  Bigger than he should have been.  But in that scrabble for a grip, he gave her one chance.

She didn’t kick so much as she levered him back, like one might balance a baby on their shins, holding the infant’s hands.

She didn’t hold Buttsack’s hands.  The wound in her leg screamed at her as she half-twisted, driving him into the railing.

Something hard in the goblin met the hardness of the railing.  Metal sang its sweet song.

She reached into her pocket and found her keys, saw the goblin’s bulldoggy face, and realized there wasn’t a weak point to strike at, then thought twice about it.

Precious seconds disappeared as she used the railing to find her feet.  Buttsack recovered just as quickly.

Other goblins closed the distance.

One, squirrel-sized, pounced onto her shoulder, a fork in each hand.

Small as he was, he was strong enough to drive the tines into the edge of her chin and through her jacket, into her shoulder.

She shrieked in pain and grabbed him, tearing him away, and jammed him through a twist in the railing, then wrenched him, so the inflexible metal twisted him the wrong way.  Back or neck broken, easily.

She pulled one fork free of her shoulder.  The one that had scraped her chin had fallen free and disappeared amid snow.

Half the tines had been broken off, giving it more penetrative power.

She held it out, threatening, her wounded leg nearly buckling as she put weight on it.

The goblins approached.

Half had scraps of her clothing.  They wore them as trophies or clothing, or had desecrated the items with filth, or largely destroyed them.

If Padraic had been done this to make her feel more violated, it worked.

They weren’t approaching any further.

A sneak attack?

She half-turned.

A hand settled on her shoulder.

The girl in the checkered scarf looked up at Sandra Duchamp.

Her relief was powerful enough to wipe out the brief surge of strength adrenaline had given her.  Her leg did buckle.

Sandra helped keep her from falling, two hands catching her around the middle to prevent both knees from cracking against frozen-over sidewalk.

“Sanctuary,” the girl in the checkered scarf said, her voice low, eyes on the ground.  She was close enough to kneeling for it to count.

“She’s our quarry,” Buttsack growled.

“I could ask for concessions,” Sandra said.  “Blake Thorburn-”

“I’ll make-”

“Shh,” Sandra cut her off, the sound surprisingly sharp.  “I could, but I won’t.”

“Because you’re leaving her for us?” one goblin asked.

“No,” Sandra said.  “I’ll grant sanctuary to this stupid little girl.  You goblins will either disappear promptly or you’ll become troll food.”

Her weasely familiar unwound itself from around her neck, darting along one arm, stepping on the kneeling girl’s back-

“Oof,” the girl in the checkered scarf grunted.

The familiar hopped down to the ground, and the resulting sound resembled a falling sack of potatoes more than a large rodent dropping to the ground.

“I’ll be looking for you,” Buttsack said.

That was answer enough.

The goblins disappeared.

For long moments, the scene was still.  Sandra bent down and collected her familiar from the ground before helping her supplicant stand.

“I don’t have to swear anything?” the girl asked, wavering on her feet.

“No,” Sandra said.

The girl nodded slowly.  “I… I didn’t know where to go.  I thought about asking Laird, but-”

“Laird is gone.”

“Then it’s an extra good thing I didn’t go to his place.  Ow, frick- fuck, hurts.  Would’ve died.”

Sandra put one hand on the girl’s chin and used the leverage to turn the girl’s head, peering at the wound at the corner of her chin.  “Oh my.  What did you do to yourself?”

“I got forked.”

“Not what I was talking about, but yes, we’ll need to clean that promptly.  Goblins like to taint their weapons.  We’ll hope it’s only feces.”

The statement only got a weary nod by way of response.

“Rest your weight on me.  My house isn’t far.  Just over there.  The smaller house.”

They limped on for several seconds, spending more time working out a rhythm and figuring out how to progress than they did covering any ground.

“You know who I am?”

“I can put the pieces together.”

“Oh.  Well yeah.  Doesn’t look pretty, does it?”

“When I was teaching my nieces to drive, I told them they won’t learn proper respect for the road until they had an accident of some sort.  Maybe that’s silly, but I think the notion applies to the practice, too.”

“‘Accident’ sounds like it’s too mild for this degree of fuck up.  Oh god, ow, shit, my leg hurts.”

Sandra offered a look of surprise.  “I didn’t think you could swear.”

“I can now.  Silver fucking linings.”

“I’d strongly suggest you keep to old deals and promises.  Negative or not, you’ll want to hold on to what you can.  You’re coming apart at the seams.”

“Okay.”

They made their way to the front door.

“Lean more heavily on me there,” Sandra said, “I need one hand free for the key… here.”

The door opened, and they made their way inside.

“Why help me?”

“You might call it an urge to express a frustrated maternal instinct,” Sandra said.  “Have a seat in the armchair there.  I don’t have a couch for you to sleep on.  This is my refuge, so to speak, from incessant company, and couches only invite company to stay.”

“I didn’t take you for a loner.”

“Not a loner, exactly.  I revel in politics, in family business.  Dwell too long on such things, however, and I risk losing perspective.  I have to step away from it all.  The only company I would comfortably invite here is temporary company, like yourself, and one man who is presently in Toronto.”

“Blake’s in-” the girl started, before she stopped herself.

“I know exactly where he is, not to worry.  Not the man I speak of.”

The house was smaller than most on the block, and there was a kind of elegance to the setup.  Everything was narrow, everything had a place.  An old fashioned cornucopia took up space between sets of books that were pressed to either side of the shelf by bookends.

Books on herbs, cookbooks, wine guides, Tantric sex guidebooks, books on weaving and threads.

Spellbooks.  Two matching tomes, one in some Nordic language, the other apparently a translation, reading ‘Trollkind’.

A small glass of wine and a plate of bread and cheese were placed on the stand by the armchair, eliciting a look of surprise.

“While you’re present, you have my promise of safety.  You may take of my food, water and wine with no expectation of repayment,” Sandra said.

“I don’t know the proper response.  But… I won’t betray this hospitality.”

“One night, for the time being.  Faerie are dangerous business.  A bad kind of accident to decide to have.  If I give you more shelter than this, I risk getting on the bad side of their plots.”

“He’s gone too.  With my name and a glamour that makes him look like me.”

“He’ll return.  When the court gets wind of this… escapade, they’ll step in.”

“Could I reach out to the courts?  Get their help?  If I turned him in, I could f- mess with him.  Throw a wrench in the works.”

“Oh,” Sandra said.  It sounded like pity distilled.  With one hand, she brushed at the girl’s hair.

The girl stared down at the ornate rug in the middle of the living room.  “Yeah, frying pans and fires.  That was a stupid idea.”

“You have a hard road to travel, and it’s one I can’t and won’t help with, except for what I’m offering tonight.  Most individuals strong enough to help know well enough not to.  The exceptions to the rule… well, you’ll find out.”

“I imagine I will.”

“Let me get the first aid kit, and you can explain what happened tonight.”

“Oh, I can explain right now.”

Sandra raised an eyebrow.

“I earned my bragging rights.”

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It was still strange, seeing Patrick attending high school.  Like Ev and Keller, he showed up once in a blue moon, as interest suited him.  He wore different faces, stirred up drama, and then disappeared when he’d scratched that itch.  Maggie suspected that it might be a way of keeping tabs on the local players, as humans grew up and the local dynamics shifted.

Evonne, Essylt in her tongue, had only showed up to talk to Patrick the once, that Maggie was aware.  The woman was more predatory, and interrogation of bound goblins had revealed her father was some Faerie De Sade, someone known to be a very good and creative torturer, among a people who’d had centuries to pursue torture as a hobby.  He’d been executed for some failure, and then Ev had been banished.  Keller, a friend of hers and something like an apprentice to Ev’s father, had elected to come along and protect her.

Keller, doing the grunt work in Ev’s plan, showed up now and then among the student body, primarily during lunch hours or after school.  Faerie liked pretty things, and had a way of gravitating toward the prettiest person in a group, but Keller targeted the fringe groups.  The kid with the funny ears and his friends, who all liked the roleplaying games but hid what they were really talking about because the faculty considered it troubling.  The French-speakers in French immersion who seemed to do their very best to avoid learning or speaking more English, and the less than successful drama club members.  To them, Keller was the guy with connections, old enough he didn’t attend high school, young enough he could relate to them, even flirt, without crossing a line.  He wore a different face for each group, and he seemed to be equipping them.  More than one had trinkets with some kind of power that Maggie could recognize.

The kid with the funny ears with no cartilage to keep the top ends upright had a regular old book, nonmagical, that had been loaned to him by Keller, that he was apparently using to inspire the adventures he made up for his friends.

The cigarette smoking Quebecois girl that led the French immersion crowd had something in her pocket, and she’d made a recent trip to Toronto, returning with a completely overhauled and rather expensive wardrobe, albeit largely in black, with gifts for all her friends.  Maggie’s suspicion was that the girl was finding she was suddenly far, far better at shoplifting since she’d received the good luck charm from ‘Alain’, Keller’s Quebecois guise.

The rather round member of the drama club was finding his diets were working, he had Keller’s advice on fashion, and was exercising.  Some guys, even, were not-so-subtly gravitating his way, and the drama club was transforming with new membership.

Maggie didn’t have the fancy books.  No library, no resources to tap.  The only reliable source she had right now was, well, Patrick.

Except Patrick was the one at the head of the problem in question.

That left Maggie with the internet, storybooks, the brief and chaotic notes in her binder, and basic deduction.

She was pretty certain that presents and boons like the ones Keller was giving out were traps.  That they’d be wonderful and fantastic up until the point that things turned sour.  Maybe they became too much of a good thing, maybe there was a rule that had to be followed, with some horrific backlash if it wasn’t.  Maybe there was a catch.

Exiled Faerie weren’t allowed to go after innocents, not directly.  But, Maggie was fairly certain, they weren’t forbidden from doing something like giving a kid a flute that would summon a sprite to do their chores for them, with the caveat that the sprite would blind them if they ever tried to watch it while it worked.

End result?  The kid would be stupid, the sprite would eat the kid’s eyes.  People, the kid included, would rationalize it away as an accident, an infection, or just a freak occurrence.  Life would go on as normal, and the local Faeries-in-exile got their jollies without breaking the rules.

Maggie could look across the field where the students who weren’t eating indoors were spending their lunch hour.  She could see the stories playing out.  Connections, two Others among maybe three hundred scattered students; a student that seemed content to repeat the same grade without any teacher noticing he’d been on the class roster for ten years, and Patrick himself.

One of the Behaims took a seat on the ledge where Maggie sat.  A girl.  Strong jaw, full lips, and a hat with flaps over the ears.  Sort of what Maggie thought a female dwarf would look like, except without the dwarf part of it.  The girl was probably taller than she was.

The Behaims were healthy, as a general rule.

“Your rear end is going to get wet and cold,” Maggie said.  She was sitting on her own backpack.

“I’ll deal.  I’m supposed to ask you if you’re willing to look the contract over.”

“Finally?  You guys have been bugging me a couple of times a day, like you’re all worried I’ll change my mind.”

“Have you?”

No.

“Then will you look the contract over?” the girl asked.

Stubborn.

“Not right now,” Maggie said.  “Lunch ends soon, and if that contract is as solid as I’m hoping it is, then I won’t be able to read it all.  I’m thinking, anyway.  I’ll look after school, if I can.”

“Okay,” the girl said.  She didn’t move.

“I don’t know your name.”

“Tenth grade.  Elspeth.”

A year younger, then.

“The Behaims have a thing for really tragic names.”

Old family names.  There’s a power in it.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah.  You’re right, the names we get stuck with can bite, but there’s a reasoning behind it.  Am I interrupting your thinking?”

Maggie shrugged.  Yes, but she wasn’t in a mood to be a bitch about it.

When Elspeth didn’t take the excuse to leave, Maggie said, “Patrick, you see him?”

“Yeah, I see him.”

“What do you know about him?”

“I know of Patrick.  I don’t know him.  He shows up at the council meetings.”

“I mean, tell me something I wouldn’t know myself.”

“He was at the heart of this whole thing last year.  Slept with this guy, Duke, a straight guy.  While glamoured up as a teenage guy.  Ended a relationship that had been going on since middle school.”

“Four years, through high school?  That’s like lifetimes in real years.”

“Exactly,” Elspeth said.  “The aftermath was something to see.  Duke and his girlfriend Mary had been part of this really tight clique.  Just about fractured in half, one side backing Duke, the other backing Mary.  And maybe things would have calmed down, except the news got out that Mary was pregnant.  If Patrick hadn’t split up the friends, maybe they would have broken up over the pregnancy, but feelings wouldn’t have been as hurt, and a full fifth of the graduating class might not have gotten involved in the whole thing.”

“It’s like network television,” Maggie said.

“You’re not wrong.  Things are never simple with Faerie involved.  One thing led to another, which led to another, and so on.  All with Patrick stepping in only now and then to keep the flames fanned.  For him, it’s like a real-world soap opera, interactive.  A nudge here, and stories unfold.”

Maggie wasn’t too surprised, though she hadn’t heard this story in full before.

The hurt feelings, broken friendships and reams of pain and chaos aren’t really something he understands or pays attention to, except when he needs to leverage and use it.

That’s what he is. 

“Creepy, something as old as him sleeping with a high schooler,” Elspeth said.

“I felt that way once.  Then I adjusted my perspective.  Years are to a Faerie what dollars amounts are to a priceless artifact.  You could do your research, find experts to help figure it out, cross-check facts, but it doesn’t really matter in the end.  The priceless artifact costs a lot.  The Faerie are timeless.”

Elspeth nodded.  She didn’t look convinced, and Maggie didn’t care enough to keep trying to sell the idea.

He’s old.  Old enough to grow jaded and then find new faith in existence a dozen times over, until neither case has any meaning.  Old enough to be bored with reality.

The goblins had told Maggie stories about Faerie that had decided they couldn’t be entertained any more.  Faerie older than Padraic, who had seen enough permutations of everything that they couldn’t be surprised or amused any more.

Padraic didn’t eat or drink in the conventional sense.  He supped only on entertainment, and he’d been hobbled when he’d been sent here.  He was fighting and endless battle to stave off that ennui that would turn him into a monster that ranked up there with the worst.  All Faerie were.

On a level, it meant he wasn’t evil.  He was just… working with a different set of sliding scales.

On another level, fudge that.  He was evil.

Whether it was evil or sliding scales, he was idly moving among the student body right now, talking to some people, charming other.  The equivalent of picking wings off flies.

Maggie ventured, “There’s something like seven plots I’m aware of.  Keller has three charms and one questionable book that he’s given to people around the school.  Patrick has been talking to three people or groups of people, besides me.  This is going to end badly.”

“Maybe.  But if you try to fix it, it’s liable to end worse.”

“I can imagine,” Maggie said.

“Don’t get involved.  They’ve probably anticipated what might happen if any of us stepped in.  If you try to intervene, they’ll get you wrapped up in the game or the drama or whatever they’ve got going on here.”

“Yeah,” Maggie said.

She didn’t mention that there was something else eating at her.

The goblin she’d interrogated, Buttsack, had confessed to systematic attacks on more or less random targets.  There was a lot of little hurt here and there.  Some big hurt.  Buttsack had used a curse on a girl to make her envision everything edible as rotten and disgusting.  Every plate of salad practically compost, meat appeared and tasted rancid, festooned with maggots.  She’d been hospitalized a month ago, on the belief that she had an eating disorder.

Buttsack was upset because he wanted the curse back, so he could use it again.  Maggie managed to twist his arm until he shared the way to break the curse.  She’d scribbled it down and emailed the hospital with a message for the patient.

She’d left a note in the locker of the diabetic with the cocaine-tainted insulin, and discreetly removed the gremlin bait from her math teacher’s keychain, keeping it for herself.

Something told her that Buttsack hadn’t shared every victim of his.

The Faerie were active, the goblins allowed to run rampant so long as they were minor goblins.  Bogeymen and boggarts lurked in the outskirts of town.

The atmosphere was dark, here.

The council was letting bad things happen to innocents because it was, in a roundabout way, a path to power.

A seeing man is king in the land of the blind.  Protect your own eyes and let everyone else get blinded, and you rise to the top of the heap.

The dynamic here was toxic.

Places like this were a haven for those who didn’t want to kowtow to a proper Lord.  For every person here that hadn’t been directly affected by an Other in one way or another, there was another who had.

Too few were benevolent.

As Jacob’s Bell became something bigger, some would leave, because the city was no longer a haven.  Others would try to mark their territory and ride the cresting wave to the top.  They would get bolder, fight one another, or prey on people in an effort to grasp at power.

She hadn’t been able to help everyone that Buttsack had hurt or plotted against, and even though he was the most malicious and capable goblin she’d run into since she’d arrived in Jacob’s Bell, he was still a minor goblin.  Resourceful, but minor.

She wanted to help, but how was she supposed to help with the rest of it if this was all she could do to help him?

How was she supposed to help Blake if she was this powerless?  How was she supposed to face the blood, darkness, and fire that was inching her way even now?

Padraic was taking his leave.  He stepped on ice and used the slippery surface to do a half-turn.  His eyes fell on her.  She could see his smile.  She could imagine his voice in her ear.

“Was he just looking at you?” Elspeth asked.

“You know, if Penelope or Gavin pushed you to come and try and be friendly, you can stop pretending.  It’s not going to change what I decide to do with the contract.”

“Thanks for letting me off the hook,” Elspeth replied.  She stood, dusting snow off her rear end.  “My ass was freezing.”

“See ya,” Maggie said.

Exiled faerie were kept out of towns with Lords as a matter of course.  The Court apparently didn’t want exiles making deals or gaining power, so they stuck them only in small villages and towns, or even in areas well out of reach of humans.

Maggie made a mental note to ask him what would happen to the Exiles when Jacob’s Bell made the transition.

She put her hands between her thighs and pressed them together for warmth, watching the crowd.  Now that Patrick was gone, she was free to watch the practitioners.

Owen was being an idiot over a senior girl, and she’d turned him down despite some shenanigans affecting the connection between them.

Lola seemed distracted by something, fidgeting, her attention on her phone.  Every time she looked down, a connection ignited.  Someone far away.

Penelope was particularly focused on Maggie.  She was one of the people who’d worked out the idea for the contract, and she seemed especially intent on it.

If things worked out well, Maggie knew who to thank.  If they didn’t, she knew who to blame.

She made a long list of mental notes.  Weaknesses, ideas, clues, identifying details.  Whether or not she accepted the contract, they could easily become enemies.

Any information was a possible vector of attack.  Even romantic entanglements, even doubt over some distant boyfriend or family member.

She’d learned that much from the goblins and Faerie of Jacob’s Bell.

Maggie nudged the meat around her plate.  It looked like someone had cut away the good parts of the chicken, leaving only the giblets and tattered bits, and slathered it all in some weak, slimy sauce of vinegar and gluten free flour and cooked up in a baking pan with far too much fluid.  It looked undercooked.

No, scratch that.  It looked like limp, shredded, groin giblets.  Undercooked, limp, shredded groin giblets.  With overcooked asparagus and undercooked potatoes on the side.

Had Buttsack found a way to curse her?  Or was she just being influenced by the goblins, seeing rude things when they weren’t there?

“I know it’s not your favorite,” her dad said.

“That suggests I’ve had this before.  I’m pretty sure I’d remember this.”

Much as I’d want to forget.

“It’s pretty bad,” her father said.

“…Just eat what you can,” her dad said.  “We’ll have something else soon.  To take your mind off it, why don’t you tell us about school?”

Maggie suppressed a groan.

Full disclosure.  It was part of the deal, for her being allowed to practice.

Not that she was telling them everything, but she had to make a good faith effort.

“Bunch of kids approached me a few days ago, offering a truce.  Today they delivered the contract.  I’m halfway through.  I’m thinking I’ll read the rest in bed tonight.”

“Why have a truce if you aren’t at war?” her dad asked.

“Because they want to make sure I don’t go and help Blake with whatever’s going on in Toronto.”

“Does that have anything to do with the box of unpacked stuff you have up in your room, that’s been grunting and moving around?”

Maggie tensed.  “You said you wouldn’t go in my room.”

“I didn’t,” her father said.  “But it’s hard to ignore, and since I’m working from home, it’s… distracting.”

“It’s… a goblin,” she said.

She hated this.  The wounded looks, the bewilderment.

Her dads had been introduced to this world, they were scared of it, and they were vulnerable, even if they hadn’t awakened.  She didn’t have the heart to share her thoughts on just how overwhelming the problems here were, the number of lesser Others who were preying on people.

Let alone Padraic with his games, or Keller with his trapped gifts.

“Okay,” her dad said, “this meal was a failure.  Let’s clear the dishes and we’ll figure out if there’s something fast and healthy we can do.”

Healthy eating.  Her dad’s attempt at asserting control over something, as a way of coping.  It was just stressing her out more in the end, but she couldn’t say that.

You guys and mom are my favorite people in the world, but I feel like we’re falling apart just like Jacob’s Bell isHow can you build something better when the foundation is so unsteady?

“Are you okay?” her father asked.

“Meh,” she said.  “Not really.”

“You can put that entire world behind you, you know.  You don’t have to get involved.  Just… reach out.  Find help, don’t feel you have to tackle it yourself.”

Both her dads had been there to hear the prophecy.

Twice more.  Blood, darkness, and fire.

Hundreds would die.

No, it wasn’t that easy.

“I’ll be in my room,” she said.  “Love you.”

He put his hand on her shoulder, letting it fall as she walked away.

She reached her room, turned on her laptop, and plopped herself down in her computer chair.  She picked up a fat gold coin from the shelf above the computer.

One of the Rescuer’s coins.  Retrieved from the man who had tried to save her from the goblin attack back home.

Yeah, even now she still thought of it as home.

A kick sent her skidding over to the cardboard box.

Buttsack glared at her as she opened the flaps, a post-it note stuck to his face, a rune on the front.  The inside of the box had runes for metal on it.

The silence rune on the post-it was from her binder, the metal ones were from Padraic.

She flipped the coin, then caught it, flipped it, then caught it again.

Heavier than it looked.

She couldn’t carry it around with her all the time, but she appreciated the weight it had, in more than one sense.

No matter what her dad said, she couldn’t just ignore it all.

She left the post-it in place, debating what to ask for.  Did she press for more details on his past victims, in hopes of helping someone out?  It was good to build up goodwill, but as power grabs went, it was weak, and she wasn’t sure he would share details all that easily.

Was it better to ask for techniques?  Tricks?

Expand her repertoire?

The computer bleeped, interrupting her thoughts.  She spun around and kicked herself back to the desk, rolling.

An email, notifying her of a message on her wall.

Maggie,

A situation came up.  I’m going head to head with the biggest name in Toronto, and there aren’t many people I can call on for help.  You have your field of expertise, and I have my hands on something that’s not small potatoes.  If nothing else, could I get you to call me?  It’d make a big difference in figuring this out.  Our previous deal stands, whatever you decide.

This was the deciding moment.  She’d read most of the contract, and it was what they’d outlined outside the school.  Lessons, borrowed books, trinkets, safety and access to their properties.  Tutoring lessons.

It was, she suspected, exactly what her father wanted her to do.  It meant allies.  People who could back her up if everything went to hell.

Not that she wouldn’t hold on to her notes.

Blake, though, had something related to goblins, something that wasn’t small?  A moderate goblin?

The old deal stood.  She helped him out, he gave her access to books.

It wasn’t enough.

“Sorry, Blake,” she said.

“What’s that?”

Her dad stood in the doorway.

“Guy we met before needs help.  But it’s not worth the trouble.  Would mean angering a lot of locals.”

“That’s what was making you look so down at dinner?”

“Part of it,” she said.

“Listen, there’s nothing in the fridge.  I think the potato bar is still open, if-”

“Yes,” Maggie said.

“-You’re hungry.”

“I’m hungry.  Yes,” Maggie said.

She practically bounced as she stood from her chair, pausing only to lock the laptop so it would go straight to low-power mode.  She shut the box and hurried downstairs.

“You don’t have to act that enthusiastic,” her father said, as she reached the ground floor.

“Real food,” she said, just a touch breathless.  “Ridiculously thick milkshakes.  There’s two or three things that are tolerable about this town.  Those milkshakes and that greasy food are them.”

She had her coat on before her dad was even downstairs.

“Can we buy some junk food at the magazine store on the way back?” she asked.  “I want to torment the goblin by eating it in front of him.”

“I’m not paying for you to torture another creature, goblin or no.”

Torment, not torture.”

“No tormenting either.  Yes, you can get junk food, but you pay for it yourself.”

Maggie grinned, grabbing her backpack and slinging it over one shoulder.  Her wallet was still within.

“And you do your homework after,” her father said.

She rolled her eyes.

She, her dad and her father ventured out into the dark side streets.  In the dead of winter, the only light was from the street lights, and they were intermittent, with whole streets cast in ominous pitch darkness.

Her thoughts about the state of the city gave her pause.  She turned on the flashlight she kept in her coat pocket.

The potato bar was part of the little stretch of stores in the ‘downtown’ area.  A third of the storefronts were empty and desolate, others were only open in the summer and looked empty and desolate, and the others had dingy signs.  Even though it was downtown, only three cars passed them as they made their way to the bar.  One completely ignored the stop sign.

She held the door for her dads.  In the time they blocked her view of the dark block of parkland opposite the bar, a pair decided to appear.

Maggie held the door open as they approached.  A woman and a child.  Both so beautiful they could be models.  Neither were human.

Ev and Padraic, both wearing glamour.  Pretending to be a twenty-something mother and her young child.

Maggie joined her dad, remaining keenly conscious of what the Faerie were doing.  She was focused enough she needed a nudge before she could give her order.

The food arrived fast.  Chipped chicken in poutine and a chocolate milkshake so dense the mug could probably be used to bludgeon a bear to death.

Padraic used a high child’s voice to order a milkshake, little legs kicking as he sat on his stool to Maggie’s right.

The five of them and the one cook were the only ones in the dim bar.

Maggie ate her poutine as fast as she could without burning herself on the hot grease.  Poutine wasn’t good if it got cold.

She’d kick herself if she got into something with Patrick and let this rare treat go to waste.

Fortune prevailed, and she was largely done when the cook disappeared into the back, clattering with dishes or something.

She wiped her mouth, then asked, “Did you want something, Patrick?”

“I want a lot of things,” child-Patrick said.

“What?” her dad asked.

“I said I want a lot of things,” Patrick repeated himself.  “I want freedom, I want to go home.  I want sweet, cold revenge.”

The words were chilling, coming from someone who looked and sounded like a small child.

“What does that have to do with me?” Maggie asked.  “I’m enjoying time with my dads.  I don’t want hassle.”

“What makes you think I came here for you?” he asked.

“Tell me you didn’t.”

Patrick didn’t reply.  Instead, a smile crept across his face.

“I think we’ll step away,” her dad said.  Her father nodded in agreement.

They gathered up their sweet potato fries and chicken-potato wrap and retreated.

Maggie felt a moment’s loathing for the Faerie, independent of all the rationalizing she’d done earlier.

Events of blood, darkness, and fire could strike her at any time.  Moments like this were precious.

“I’ll clarify,” Maggie told him.  “What do you want with me?”

“I’m bored.  Can we chat, Maggie-closest-to-my-heart?”

Again, hitting those creepy notes.

“Define ‘we’,” Maggie said.

“Essylt is along for the act, nothing more.  She can leave now, if she wishes.”

Just like that, the elegant young mother stood from her stool.  She flashed a smile at Maggie’s dads.

Gross.

“Can we just not dance around the subject?  You approached me for a reason.  I’m guessing it’s something that recently came up, because you didn’t approach when I was visiting the dip by the bridge this afternoon.”

When I was visiting the ghost.

“The Briar Girl is spying on Blake, and she offered me knowledge for a point in the right direction.  Mr. Thorburn apparently intent on vigorous leaping from frying pans to fires, idiomologically speaking.”

As he spoke, he was breaking up his own glamour.  It was subtle, the changes only obvious when Maggie focused elsewhere, then returned her attention to Padraic.

He continued, the pitch of his voice changing just as gradually as he spoke, “He’s started a little contest, and even handicapped himself.  It’s really quite interesting.  You were named as a possible champion for his undersized, underarmed side, and I’m very keen to hear any details.  I’m limited to this grim little town, you see, and it’s rare to experience any involvement in greater events.”

Maggie sucked on her milkshake while he talked.  She put one finger on the top of the straw to trap the air inside and keep the milkshake from dropping back into the glass.

“I’m sorry to disappoint,” she said.  “If I had more to share, I’d barter for something.  He sent me a message.  I’m thinking I’ll have to tell him no.  Refuse him even answers to his questions about goblins.”

“No, Maggie dear, you can’t do that.  He’s interesting, you’re interesting, and you want to just leave it be?”

“I’m planning on signing the contract, unless something comes up.”

The cook stepped out, glanced at Patrick, and gave Patrick a puzzled look.  Patrick was grown, ordinary.

But Patrick was taking a taste of his own milkshake, and the cook seemed willing to accept he’d already been served.  The man disappeared into the back.

“This is tragic,” Patrick said.  “So much could have unfolded from this.  Do I need to offer you more knowledge, to urge you to go to Toronto?”

“Maybe,” Maggie said.

Knowledge was good.

“The prophecies the others mentioned?  It’s because Mr. Thorburn is going to perish, if he doesn’t get help at the right time and place.  All of the contract business, unsigned or not, those pages are primarily a manipulation, to keep you away from that place until that time passes.”

Blake was going to die?

That was different from ‘Blake isn’t going to come back to Jacob’s Bell.’

So many things wrong and rotten with this city.

Could she accept responsibility for another Thorburn’s death?

She had to.

“I’m… no, Patrick.  That doesn’t change anything.  My first and last priority is getting stronger, to prepare.”

“They called you the wild card.  Be wild, Maggie Holt,” Patrick said.

His words had glamour in them.  They aroused an excitement and restlessness in her that she knew wasn’t supposed to be there.

She suppressed it, and found it surprisingly easy to do.

In learning from him, she was getting better at dealing with this sort of thing.

“Then you leave me no choice but to make one grand offer,” Patrick said.  “You want power?  Shall I put Maggie Holt in the same place as one of the more powerful and respected beings in the area?”

He let the idea hang in the air.  Maggie suppressed the compelling glamour that was trying to get her excited.

“That sounds like a terrible bargain,” Maggie said.  “Far too many traps.”

“You’ll face zero risk from him.  You stand to learn a great deal,” Patrick said.

“Who is he?”

“An entity with the experience of Lordship, though he’s been stripped of much of his power.  It’s really quite an unbalanced deal, so I must alter the terms.  I’ll arrange the meeting, alongside my guarantee that you’ll personally face no meaningful risk from this being, in exchange for, let me see, I want you to consider helping Mr. Thorburn, and…”

And?” Maggie asked.  “There’s an and?”

“Trading in opportunities and maybes alone is feeble.  It can breed ill-will with the spirits, if you leave too much abstractness up in the air.  What if we agreed to the deal, you refused the opportunity, gave consideration to serving as the diabolist’s champion, and decided against that too?  The spirits might sort through all that, trying to decide if we’re disturbing the system or if the deal was struck in good faith.  Much like someone might draw ire if they tried to game the system.”

“Assuming I’m interested in this bargain, what’s the solution?”

“A token exchange of something concrete.”

“And that exchange is one way?” Maggie asked.  “I don’t believe it.”

“As you wish,” Patrick said.  “Good for you to be on your toes.  I’ll arrange a meeting in some form, with a personal guarantee that he won’t touch you.  I promise opened doors and troves of new lessons, and, let me see,” he paused.

Faerie didn’t need to pause, not really.  An act, theatrics.

He bowed a little, “In this shop that smells like rancid grease, I hereby offer Maggie Holt a ring from my finger, impregnated with my power, should you accept this deal.  It bears a connection to me, and through it, the owner can draw out glamour until I’m spent of it for one month’s time, thirty days.”

Maggie managed to suppress her shock.  She settled for being very still, her eyes fixated on the ring.  Gold and obsidian, with the gold formed into branch-like protrusions.  “You’ve lost it if you’re offering that.”

“Not at all.  Handing this over would mean I’m extending a measure of trust.  Imagine it as a prelude to taking me on as a familiar, Maggie my dear.”

Her heart nearly skipped a beat, but she remembered Lola’s advice from the other day, and barely hesitated.  “You’re assuming I want you.”

“Are you pretending you don’t?  As partnerships go, it would be mutually beneficial.  I’m powerful enough that when I speak in that council room, everyone present listens.  Familiarhood is an out, a way to slip the shackles of exile.  To be free to leave this city.  It wouldn’t earn me fast friends, but the court can keep track of me by keeping track of my partner.  The smallest of hurdles.”

“‘Small’ is relative,” Maggie said.  “And again, you’re still assuming I want you as a familiar.  I’m not even sure I like you.”

“Everything is relative, if it’s definable,” Patrick said.  “This ring is defined very simply.  An extension of myself, a golden circle.  Gold for bounty, a circle for an aperture, a gate.  If you were to take this ring and prove you won’t abuse the ability to wield all the control over glamour I have, and if make a good showing of it, I would sign myself to you as a subordinate familiar, swearing whatever oaths are necessary to keep my power from overwhelming you.  Maybe you don’t like me, but I think you like the font of power I offer, my knowledge and skills.”

Maggie took a pull on her milkshake, as much to give herself a moment to think as to drink.  It had partially melted, and it tasted delicious.

This deal sounded delicious too, which only made her wary.

“And in exchange for this, I’m giving you…”

“Consider going to Toronto to help Mr. Thorburn, and give me my pick of one thing from inside your backpack there.  The value isn’t so important to me as the sentiment.”

“That isn’t reassuring,” she said.

“Maggie dear,” Patrick said.  She expected the glamour to hit her before it even did.  Imbued words, charming, meant to tug at her heartstrings.  He continued, oblivious or uncaring to the fact that he’d had little effect, “My primary interest here is in what is happening in Toronto.  Interest being the operative word.  Allow me to sate that interest, and I’ll embrace this uneven deal.”

“One thing from my backpack?”

“Yes.”

“Is it something I’m aware is inside?”

“I dare say it should be, barring mental defect on your part, like amnesia.”

“I’m going to look inside my bag first,” she said.  “I reserve the right to take stuff out, if I don’t want you to have it.”

“You’re considering my offer then?”  Patrick asked.  He smiled, hitting her with glamour again.  “Fantastic.”

She dismissed the glamour, dashing it aside, and dusted herself off to be sure.  Before she did anything else, she paused, making sure she wasn’t thinking strangely.

Taking full mental stock of what was going on…

She glanced back at her dads.

“They’re content,” Patrick said.  “I’ve distracted them and the man behind the counter so we can talk in private.”

“If you’re looking to win me over, messing with my dads is not the way to do it,” Maggie said.

“I’ll take note of that.  I swear to leave your parents be.”

She relaxed, and set to sorting through her bag.  The wallet was inside, and she wasted no time in removing it.  The remains of her lunch, which she really should have removed earlier… nothing of value there.

Textbooks, she could afford to lose them.  Unfinished homework… even there, she couldn’t imagine his interest.  Pens?

One nice pen her father had given her.  Sentimental value.

Patrick had said something about sentiment.  Did he want to take the pen along with the attachment to her father?  Could he?  She wasn’t sure he was capable, and he’d just sworn to keep them safe.

She set it aside, just in case.

Leaving only textbooks and notebooks.  She took her time paging through the notebook to be safe.  Half a year of notes and handouts.

She could handle the inconvenience if he took the notebook out of some idle curiosity over how humans operated, or as material to help him in his schemes.  It’d make the next semester harder, but her education wasn’t the highest priority.

“Is this a trap?” she asked.

“I harbor no animosity toward you, Maggie dear,” Patrick said.  “I find you interesting, I would tarnish myself if I suggested becoming a familiar to someone boring.  I’m motivated by interest: Maggie Holt in one hand, Toronto in the other.  Combining the two seems like common sense.”

Patrick used his hands to gesture, clasping them together as he said ‘combining’.

“Are you anticipating that this Lord-level entity I’m supposed to meet is going to trap me or otherwise act against me in some form that escapes the protection you’re offering?”

“No.”

“Are you anticipating that I’ll cause trouble by going, breaking the truce and obviating the contract with this Junior Circle?”

“Yes,” Patrick said.  “I’m disappointed, but yes.  You will bring chaos down on your head by accepting the deal, refusing the contract, and assisting Mr. Thorburn.”

“Maggie,” her dad said.

Time was out?

Maggie drummed her fingers on the counter.

“Maggie,” he said, again.

“You could probably have distracted them a bit longer,” she said.

“Yes, but I’m impatient,” Patrick said.  “Yes or no?”

Maggie drummed her fingers more.

“Yes.”

Padraic smiled.  “Your bag?”

Her heartbeat was like something else, the way it pounded in her chest.

Padraic took his time removing the content.  Textbooks and a pencil case, some tampons, a bit of loose change, her notebooks.

“Maggie,” her father said, joining her dad in the orders.

“Just go,” she said.  “I’ll catch up.  This is important!”

Her father shot her a very unimpressed look, but the door shut, and it was just Padraic and Maggie.

She made doubly sure her Athame was on hand, in case there was trouble.  She’d cut goblin hair with it, and it was probably laced enough with impurities to do some real damage to Patrick if he made a fuss.

When the bag was empty, Patrick examined it thoroughly, turning it inside out.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Satisfying my curiosity, for one thing,” he said.

“And for the other?”

“Looking,” he said.

He picked up the notebook, then paged through it.

“For?”

“This will do,” Patrick said.

He picked one piece of paper from among the various slips and handouts she’d stuck between pages, so everything fell in chronological order.

The test paper, with the underlined ‘D’ on it.

Patrick pulled his ring off.

“That?” Maggie asked.  “That’s it?”

“Not exactly,” Patrick said.

He used a ‘branch’ on the knife to swipe across the paper, once horizontally, once vertically.

He tore off one corner, “I’ll give this to you, my dear.”

She took the test paper.  Every part of it, the underlined D included, was present.  “I don’t understand.”

Patrick turned the slip of paper around so she could read it.

Maggie Holt

She felt a chill run through her.  “I don’t understand.”

“You’re repeating yourself, my dear.”

“So are you,” she retorted.  “Keep calling me ‘my dear’, it’s weird and creepy.”

She knew she sounded defensive, but she didn’t like this unease in her gut.

“What should I call you, then?”

She opened her mouth, but the name wouldn’t come forth.

It dawned on her just what a horrible mistake she’d made.

She reached for the ring, but Patrick was quick, pulling it out of reach.

“The deal-” she started.

“The deal was that the ring would go to Maggie Holt,” Patrick said.  “Maggie Holt is my name.”

His name in the possessive.

He swiveled around on the stool, then hopped down.  “And, as promised, I’ll work to ensure that the person with the name of Maggie will cross paths with the de-powered Lord when I make my visit to Toronto.  As promised, you face no risk in the process.”

Me.

“Who am I?” she asked.

It was such a dumb question, but it held so much weight.

“That is a very good question,” Patrick said, with a smile.  “I’d hurry up and answer it.  Names are a lynchpin in the composition of our being.  You’re going to suffer if you don’t fill that void.”

“You bastard.”

Padraic began cloaking himself in glamour.  Short black hair with a hairband, canted eyebrows that looked perpetually caught between anger and a frown.  A shorter, female body.

“I look forward to this,” she said, “Getting to go to Toronto.  Finally getting out of this city.  While you’re suffering for lack of a name, I’ll be shoring up my disguise.  If it makes you feel any better, I’ll help out Mr. Thorburn.”

“You said you felt no animosity.”

“I don’t.  Like I said, this is pure interest.  I have a great deal of interest in ‘Maggie Holt’, the name, but I have no strong feelings either way for you,” the new Maggie said.

“You’re a bastard,” the girl in the real checkered scarf said.

“Be sure to consider going to Toronto, lest you be forsworn on top of everything else, not that I recommend it.  You might collapse like a house of cards if you venture too far from the connections you have here,” ‘Maggie’ said.  “I have a trip to Toronto to arrange.  It’s been so long since I had a good ruse and got to practice my acting.”

The girl in the checkered scarf stared, horrified.

A moment later, she found the Athame.  She stepped close, hiding the weapon with her body until the last possible moment.

Maggie blocked it with a fork, catching the blade between the tines.

A twist, and a strike with her free hand, and the girl in the checkered scarf was disarmed of the implement.  She found a hand around one wrist and her neck, a gentle tap of heel to the back of her knee took away her balance.

Dishes spilled from the bar counter as she was pinned, facing skyward.

“This implement, if I remember the rituals right, rightfully belongs to Maggie Holt, the name is invoked as part of the ritual.  I can’t really use it, but I’ll have to make do,” Maggie said, taking her implement in hand.  “You’re already weaker, I can tell.”

The girl in the checkered scarf grunted, struggling to win the contest of strength, but the fingers tightened around her throat, punishing her.

“Don’t interrupt,” Maggie said, whispering in the other girl’s ear.  “Save your breath, and save your strength.  You’ll need both.  Like I said, you have lessons to learn.  Doors have opened to you, as they are wont to do for lost souls.”

Fuck you,” the girl in the checkered scarf spat the words, despite the fingers at her throat.

She seemed more surprised at the epithet than Maggie did.

Maggie let her go, dancing back with wallet in one hand and mostly-empty schoolbag in the other, Athame stuck in her belt.

“This is fun,” Maggie said, smiling wide.  “I don’t know when I’ll be back, but I’m hoping it won’t be for a long, long time.  Bye!”

Then she was out the door, half skipping, half running.

The girl in the checkered scarf composed herself, catching her breath.

DadFather.

She collected all of her things that she could carry, stupid scattered school things, useless, then ran to catch up to them.

To Maggie’s family.

She only stopped running when she reached their back steps.

She knocked, unable to breathe past the lump in her throat.

The lack of recognition in their eyes was like a sword through her heart.

She looked like their daughter, but she wasn’t Maggie Holt.  When push came to shove, the latter won out over the former.

She was adopted, her birth mother lived in Toronto, meaning she couldn’t even claim a blood relationship.

The girl in the checkered scarf turned away before any questions could be asked.

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