Category Archives: Arc 9 (Null)

Histories 9

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The untidy man walked through the park.  He looked like he’d been ‘preppy’ once, but was disheveled now.  He wore a button-up sweater and a collared shirt with a tie that had been pulled loose, the knot a good half-foot from his collarbone.  He wore slacks and shiny black shoes.  His hair had been parted earlier in the day, but was now messy.

The youths were a stark contrast to him.  Fourteen or so, some with hair bleached to a near-white, some with hair gelled into wicked spikes or flame-like wreaths around their heads, some with both.  Most wore heavy eyeliner.  Some had jackets with ripped sleeves.

The twenty-something man set down his gift.  A case of beer.

“You’re offering?  How much?” asked the boy with the craziest hair.

“Free,” the man said.

The group’s ‘cool’ facade broke as a few of them exclaimed in surprise.  “No kidding?”

“No kidding,” the man said.

“You’re not going to turn around and demand money later, are you?”

“No,” the man said.  He raised his nose, miming sniffing, “I wouldn’t mind some of that grass, though.”

Wariness, now.

“This isn’t some sting, is it?”

“No,” the man said.  “If it was, I’d be getting myself in a lot more trouble than I’d be getting you into.”

“Man, this stuff is expensive.  You’re doing us a favor and all, but-”

“But nothing.  You want me to sweeten the deal?  If you do me this favor and manage to finish off the case between you, I’ll get you another before the night’s over.”

The eyes of the group’s leader widened at that, he wasn’t good enough to hide his greed, even as he demurred, “I dunno.”

“Hey,” the smallest in the group spoke up.  He was the least done up in the rocker aesthetic that ran through the gang.  “Don’t be a pussy, D.  Think things through.  He’s cool-

“He’s not-”

“He’s cool, D.  With it.  Gotta give a little to show we’re honest.  Make friends and he could hook us up in the future.”

“I’d consider it my duty,” the man said.  “But if you’re not interested, I’m gone.  Don’t worry, you wouldn’t see me again.”

‘D’ leaned closer, and the group huddled.

“He’s creepy,” ‘D’ said.

“He’s giving us free beer, and he’s offering more,” one of the other guys said.  “One joint.”

D hesitated.  “He’s creepy.  What if he’s getting us drunk to do stuff to us?”

The littlest of the group leaned away from the huddle.  “You queer, mister?”

“What if I am?” the stranger asked.  There was a glimmer in his eye, more mischief than threat.

The boy wasn’t quite sure how to parse it.  The question finally came out, clumsy, “You want us?”

The man smiled, “No.  No I don’t.”

“Then why?”

“Because once upon a time, I was where you are now, and a man did this for me.  I’m hoping that one day, you kids will be in a position to do it too.”

“That’s all?”

But another boy was pushing the leader of the group, and a little push was apparently all that was needed.

“Whatever,” the leader of the kids said.  He opened a pocket of his vest and fished out a joint.

The man took it, and wasted no time in lighting it, taking in a breath, holding it, then puffing out a ring.  “See?  Not a cop.”

He nudged the beer closer to the group with one foot.

Hesitant at first, like animals edging closer to a watering hole that predators might frequent, the boys reached for the beer.

They pulled it closer and tore it open to get at the cans within.

The man smiled, leaning against a tree, facing away from the boys.  He smoked.

The smallest boy of the group watched the stranger, wary, but still took a beer.

The drinking progressed, and the boys started to relax.  They relaxed even more when a woman came down the path, her hand finding the man’s, fingers winding together with his.

She was gorgeous.  Not in the way you saw in the skin magazines, but beautiful all the same.

She apparently heard the whispers from the boys, because she turned her head, paying attention to them for the first time, and she smiled.

“We might have a proper party going now,” the man said.  “Maybe you want to invite some of your younger sisters?  Maybe the Ibix trio, too?”

The woman smiled, practically skipping off into the woods.

Each of the boys, with the exception of one, were too inebriated to notice how contrived the situation seemed.

When the other girls arrived, with three more boys and one more case of beer, the other boys were definitely too distracted to notice.  The new arrivals had a look to them, as though both boy and girl were just naturally ill-suited to clothes.  The clothes hung wrong, as if enticing, demanding that the situation be remedied, inviting the clothes to come off.

The smallest boy in the group watched the scene unfold.  He was tipsy, but not drunk.  Swaying lightly as he sat, he turned down three girls before the group collectively decided to leave him alone.

Neils, D’s best friend and right hand man, was getting more attention from the three boys that had come with the girls than from any girls.

The small boy shook his head, trying to get his senses in order.

He was a little alarmed to see the man staring at him.

The man beckoned.

The small boy didn’t move.

Another beckoning.

People were stopping what they were doing.

In the midst of that scene, the spell ending, he saw glimmers.  One of the girls had sharp teeth.  The boy with his hand on Neils’ chest had an animal gleam in his eyes, his hair too long, the muscle structure of his shoulders odd, too pronounced.

Unneverved, the smaller boy stood, hurrying out of the crowd by the clearest route available.  Putting him right in front of the strange man.

The man took another puff.

At that moment, the smallest boy realized the joint wasn’t burning up.  It burned, and it generated smoke, but it wasn’t any shorter than it had been when it had first been lit.

“What’s going on?”

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” the man asked.  “Not much of a drinker?”

The smaller boy shrugged, feeling uncomfortable, still unnerved.

“Too young?” the man asked.

“I’m older than most of them.  Just a…”

“Late bloomer.”

“Sure,” the boy said.

The man nodded.  “Not interested in this?”

“I’m interested,” the boy said, with a defensive note.  “I’m… it’s just, Troy moved a couple months back, you know?  He was the oldest and knew how stuff went, so he was in charge, but when he moved, there was a lot of stupid fighting over who’d take his spot and call the shots.”

“You weren’t one of them?”

“Nah.”

“Okay.  Go on.”

“Well, D jumped off a bridge on a dare, to prove his worth.  Stripped down to his skivvies, hopped off the side, and landed ass first.  Water went right up his ass-”

The man laughed, abrupt and loud enough to spook.

The kid couldn’t help but smile a little.  “He nearly died.”

The man laughed harder.

“Shit blood for a month after, he says.  But we didn’t have it in us to tell him he couldn’t take over, after all he’d been through.”

The boy looked at ‘D’, who had his hand up one girl’s shirt.  Another girl snuggled close to him, worming her head under his arm, using one hand to tip the beer he held so it emptied onto her waiting tongue.

“Ah.  I think I understand,” the stranger said.

“I dunno if you do.”

“You didn’t want to be in charge, but you’re the one that watches out for them, after D’s misadventure.”

“I guess.  Are they okay?”

“Probably.  You know, it’s good that you care like that.  Shows the right kind of leadership.”

“Maybe.”

“Definitely,” the man said.  He took another puff.  “I’ve been looking for an apprentice.”

“Apprentice?”

“If you’re interested.  I don’t get the feeling you dislike any of this, outside of not knowing what’s going on.”

“I dunno.”

“I’d have to teach you to be more firm.  That’s a joke, haha.  As for not knowing what’s going on, that’s easily fixed.  I’m a priest.”

“A priest?”

“Yes.  Not like you’re imagining.  I worship Dionysus.  You know that one?”

The boy shook his head.

“Tragic.  Downright tragic.  I worship him, and he gives me his favor.  Right here…”

Sweater raised, the man showed off his belt buckle, a section of horn.

“That’s one such gift.  So long as I wear it, it keeps my drink flowing and herbs burning, so it doesn’t run out… you can probably count the cans, and you’ll see more than that case is supposed to hold.”

“Why?”

“Because it’s all about investment.  That’s how gods operate.  They gamble, molding life and giving that life a breath of the divine, to get it moving, and they hope that that little bit of life will earn them more than it cost them.  You can see my god’s creations doing their earning right there.”

The small boy looked at the scene, then looked away, uncomfortable.

“Same for me.  I made pledges, promising myself to my god’s favor, promising to keep to certain rules, and he gives me these favors.”

“Like cases of beer that don’t run out?”

“Yes, and other things.  I watch over his girls and boys there,” the priest said, smiling, “And he’s gifted me with a new one, matching my exact taste and interests.  A reward for proving my worth and reliability, and a way of keeping them current.  I can call on his favor, but there are no guarantees.  I have to gauge how happy he is with me, and if I want him to give me something specific, I have to ensure he’s very happy.”

“How do you make him happy?”

“Slaughter a goat or ten, follow his rules, or the lack of rules, as the case may be, and throw the occasional party.”

The priest’s hand gestured to the scene behind them.

“Ah.”

“It’s up to you.  Forgive me for saying so, but you don’t seem like a young man with a clear vision of where he’s going in life.”

“No, I guess not.”

“Here’s your once in a lifetime offer.  Say yes, and I’ll introduce you to a genuine god.  Say no, and I’ll have to insist you get drunk enough that you forget all about this conversation.”

The boy looked at the god’s creations, engaged in their celebration and worship.

“They’re a little scary.”

“Of course they are,” the priest said.  “They’re divine, and every god worth the worship they get is at least a little scary.  The weak ones get beaten, taken over.  With him, for Dionysus, what you get is blood lust, desire, and naked fear.  My question is, do you want him to be your scary god?  Do you want that to be your desire, bloodthirst and fear to control?”

The boy looked at the scene again.  He could see the animal in it, the nature, smell the alcohol and the blood and the moist grass.  For a moment, perhaps, he could see what it would mean to be in command of that raw energy.  It was a heady feeling, dizzying.

“Yeah.”

“There we go, finally a decisive answer.  I’m Nathan, priest of Dionysus.  You are…”

“Jeremy Meath.”

“Initiate of Dionysus.”

“Jeremy Meath, initiate of Dionysus.”

“This is a mistake,” Nathan said.

Jeremy shook his head.

“Everything comes at a price,” Nathan said.  “The gods exact the greatest prices of all.  You can’t treat this as some sort of system to be gamed.”

“I’m not,” Jeremy said.  He walked the perimeter of the apartment, before throwing open the window.  The furniture had been stowed in the bedroom, leaving the living room open.

“You haven’t practiced.  You haven’t established a working relationship,” Nathan said.

“I’ve prayed, I’ve performed sacrifices.”

“But you haven’t learned to use the power he grants you.  You’re going into this blind, and this is something you get one shot at.”

“I’m fine.”

“You’re-“

The older man stopped mid-sentence.

“I’m what?  Crazy?” Jeremy asked.  “Our god bears the epithets of Bromios, of Agrios.  He protects those who do not belong to society.  Who is he, if not a god of madmen?”

“You’re too young.  You’re still a teenager, inexperienced,” Nathan said, very clearly changing tacks, his argument weaker for it.

“I suppose we’ll see,” Jeremy said.

He laid out the item.  The address plate with the house number for the condo.

“You’re reaching too far,” Nathan said.  “You’re dooming me in the process.  I have responsibility over you.”

“I hereby make a claim.  Let this be my statement,” Jeremy spoke, his hand on the number plate, his voice low.

“Idiot,” Nathan said, his voice sounding farther away.  “You’re going to war when you’ve never held the sword before.”

“I claim this space, and only this space.  I claim it by right and deed, and I name it mine, I name it my god’s, and I name it for my god’s creations.  I name it as my staging ground, a place from which I can expand my god’s realm.  I do this not as a warrior-“

He paused, looking at Nathan.

“-But as a devout man.  I go to war with faith in my heart, not a sword at my side.  Let this be my challenge to all that would oppose me.”

The words reverberated through the area, through Jeremy and Nathan both, and all of Toronto.

“Dionysus,” Jeremy said, “I have not asked you for anything yet.  Now I ask you to give me the strength to see this through.  Let this gaping emptiness be filled by the powers of savage and inborn truth.”

Seconds passed.  He could feel others approaching, their weight tilting the world by the smallest fractions.  He closed his eyes, steeling himself.  There had been no chant in the background, no tide of wine or terrible transformation.  His god’s will was not making itself known.

But he could feel another tilt take place.  He opened his eyes.

The color was draining out of Nathan’s face.

Sure enough, they arrived.  Satyr, nymph, maenad, bacchae.

They gathered behind him, leaving Nathan bereft.

Most of them had been Nathan’s.

“You mad fool,” Nathan said.  “Damn you.”

“The gods are gamblers,” Jeremy said.

“So are we,” Nathan said.  “The game is rigged against all of us, unless we play very carefully.”

“If you believe that, you’re worshiping the wrong god.”

“I guess so.  I didn’t expect him to lose faith in me before I lost faith in him.”

“Well, those are the old ways,” Jeremy said.  “My first challenger is showing up now, unless you’re going to take the first stab at it?  You can prove your worth, reclaim what I’ve been given.”

“Can I?  I don’t think so.  You’ve got his attention and favor right now.”

He couldn’t quite manage to keep the bitterness out of his tone.

“Goodbye,” Nathan said.

“Goodbye,” Jeremy said.

His mentor left.

The room grew darker, as the spirits claimed the space.  It waited, in a state of flux, ready not not quite his.

He waited, quiet, and resisted the urge to drink.  In years of service, he’d been lightheaded, but almost never drunk.  Tonight might mark one of the few occasions he’d let himself get drunk.

He was relying on his god for insight.

He was relying on another simple idea, too.  That his god had as much to prove here as he did.  He’d noticed the trend, reading about the gods.  Priests had to work to get the kind of displays their god first gave them as initiates.  If his god was going to do his utmost to impress him, he might as well make use of that, and tackle a suitably large problem.  The demesne.

The first arrival, five minutes later, was Doug.

The man was young, but his hairline had started receding at the first chance it got.  His glasses weren’t thick, but they were tall and wide.  His beard was shaved short, his narrow body suggested he wasn’t eating too regularly.

The man was accompanied by Diana.  She cowered a little.  Reserved, years younger than Jeremy.  The house’s interior was darker, almost amorphous.  His servants lingered in the background, standing by to serve if it came down to a fight.  What little light existed cast their features as they truly were.

A frightening place for a child.

“Nathan seemed upset,” Doug commented, his voice gentle.  “He didn’t have much to say.”

“His god rejected him in favor of me.  The upstart.”

“Ah,” Doug said.  “I’m sorry.”

“Me too,” Jeremy said, meaning it.

Doug made a face, an apologetic half-smile.  “I’ve come to answer your challenge.  Been a few years for me.  I believe the standard approach is to negotiate the form the challenge takes?”

“Yes.  You can name a facet of the game, or take something off the table.  We narrow down the choices to a compromise.  If we can’t compromise, the spirits will decide the game, and they’ll be upset with the two of us for forcing them to make the effort.”

Doug nodded.

You know this, Jeremy thought.  Are you asking just so I can get my bearings?

His own hands were shaking just a little.  He stilled them.

“If I may,” Doug said, “I’d like to propose a board game.”

Jeremy nodded.  “Okay.  For every piece that’s taken, a shot.”

Doug smiled, “That takes Go off the board, for safety’s sake, or a ko situation.  Too bad.  Morabaraba?”

“That’s, ah, Twelve Men’s Morris?”

Doug smiled wider.  “You know it.  Fantastic.  Let’s make it Eleven Men’s Morris, to avoid the messy draw.  No accidents that lead to the capture of a dozen stones like we might see in Go, but there’s room for the decisive play, with plenty of space for forfeit.”

Jeremy frowned.  The game was a complicated variant of tic tac toe.  Placing stones.  Achieving three in a row meant one could permanently remove one of their opponent’s.  Once all of a player’s pieces were set down, they could be moved, to the same ends, aiming to create three in a row.  The game scaled up from threes to twelve, with complicated board arrangements.

“Is that a problem?” Doug asked.

“No, just… my mentor taught it to me.  He taught me most of the usual games… Deal.”

The board appeared between them.

Jeremy didn’t look particularly happy.

“How about you play Diana in my stead?” Doug asked.  “I’ll take the shots for every piece she loses.  If I pass out, or she gets too worried about me, we’ll forfeit.  She won’t be impaired, but she’ll be concerned for me, it should balance out.”

Jeremy gave the man a curious look.

“It’s good practice for her, and I’d rather walk away with goodwill for the two of us than a proper victory.”

“I suppose you have that goodwill then,” Jeremy said.

“I wouldn’t be so fast to agree,” Doug said.  “She and I have played this quite a bit.  She’s good.”

He put his hands on Diana’s shoulders, urging her forward to face the board.  He leaned in close to confide, to whisper an encouragement.

She nodded.

“Can I ask?” Jeremy asked.

“It’s only a chance to play someone new,” Diana said.  “The stakes aren’t high.”

“And if you win?” he asked.

“You don’t take revenge, and on three occasions, we can ask you to stand down from attacking, buying us a day’s protection.  Fair?”

“Fair.”

He was the challenger, Diana and Doug the challenged.

The challenged put their first stone on the board.

The game was swift.  Diana took the better position at the start, but that was an astrologer’s prerogative.

As he took more shots, he felt his mind grow receptive to his god.

A glimpse of what he needed to achieve… a particular board position, and however good Diana’s position was, she didn’t yet look enough moves ahead.

Had he done this two years later, or played against Doug, his opponent might not have been so young that they’d fail to look far enough in the future.  Once the board was arranged so he could move one stone between two rows of two stones, completing one after the other with each turn, he had Doug reeling.

“I forfeit,” Diana said, in lieu of making her next move.

It wasn’t his usual nature, but Jeremy offered a hand for her to shake.

She shook it, then offered Doug a shoulder to lean on.

An easy one, a gimme.  He had only three shots in him.

Diana and Doug weren’t gone for five seconds before the Sphinx entered the building.

He felt a moment’s trepidation.

“You understand that I’m not particularly fond of your god?” the Sphinx asked.

“I do.”

“I hear your challenge and answer it,” she said.

“Then I challenge you to combat,” he said.  No tricky word games, no tests of knowledge, and no riddles.

“By rights, as challenged, it’s my choice first,” she said.

I know, but you like things ordered, and I have to put you off balance somehow.

“Fine,” he said.

She smiled, but it wasn’t a pleasant smile.  “You’ll have your challenge of combat.  I can’t demand your god stay out of it, that would just invite you to demand I forego my power and strengths, but I can make this between you and me alone.  Your new soldiers stay out of this, and you don’t bring any outside weapons into this.”

“Deal,” he said.  He could feel the buzz from the shots, giving him courage where it might have failed.

He watched as the Sphinx became a proper Sphinx.  Wings unfurled, black cloth became black fur.

Claws extended.

Jeremy bowed his head.  “I call upon loud-roaring and carousing Dionysus, primeval, two-natured, three-times-born, Bacchic lord

The sphinx prowled forward, tensing, but this arena had rules, and he was to be allowed his chance to prepare.  Seeing her move at a speed that should have closed the distance in seconds, while remaining at bay, it nearly left him unable to speak.  She was big, she was powerful.

Hearken to my voice, O blessed one.  Gird me.

His god gave him two gifts.

A staff, bronze, topped with a pine cone, and a horn of drink.

For a moment, he feared that his mentor had been very, very right.  But the arena had given him the time he was due, just like it had granted the sphinx time to change into her true form.  Now she closed the twenty feet in a matter of five steps.

He drank, and he nearly choked.

Blood, laced with alcohol strong and pure enough to burn the sinuses, not wine.

He took as much of the drink as he could into his mouth, then forced it all down in one gulp that felt like a softball going down his throat.

A moment later, he saw red.

It felt like seconds passed.  It felt, at the same time, like hours had passed.  Mad visions of flashing claws and violence, real and hallucinated, they struck him one after another, not necessarily in succession.

When he came to, he was panting.  Blood dribbled from his nose and ear, claw marks etched his chest, his arms, and his legs.

The Sphinx was injured too.  She sat back, licked a wound at her shoulder.  Her blood dripped, thick and heavy, from his pinecone scepter.

There was still blood in the horn, not yet spilled.  Four-fifths of the contents remained.

“Don’t,” the sphinx said.  “If you drink that, you’ll probably die.”

“If I don’t drink it, I’ll probably die.”

“Short of finding immortality, you’ll die someday.  I might kill you here, but that’s not in my best interest.  I swore to myself, long ago, that I’d put my survival first.  To those ends, I’d like to offer a deal.”

“A deal?”

“I won’t contest your demesne any further.”

“In exchange for?”

“A meeting.  There are some young ladies you should meet.”

He was quiet as he entered Sandra’s wing of the demesne.  Some nymphs were scattered here and there.  Five were working in concert to comb through Hildr’s fur with bone combs that took two hands to hold, the teeth spaced far apart.  He couldn’t tell if the troll was enjoying the attention or just barely tolerating it.  Trolls were hard to read.

Sandra sat in a windowsill.  Demesne to her left, window to her right, the view of Toronto, outside his personal realm and temple.  A nymph sat on the floor beneath the window, more catlike than human in how she seemed to mold herself against the wall and floor, eminently comfortable in any position.  Her hands reached up to caress and massage Sandra’s left foot.  Sandra barely reacted, except to shift the position of her foot from time to time, to give the nymph a better angle.  She turned the page of her book.

She was hard to read too.  Did she enjoy things more than she let on, or was she caught in a state of perpetual tolerance?

He’d told himself he’d attend the meeting, and went in with plans to reject this arranged marriage.  She’d surprised him.  He couldn’t bring himself to say no, but his god wouldn’t encourage his saying yes, either.  He’d tried to pose things so Sandra would be inclined to say no in his place.

Now she was here.

Torches burned throughout his demesne, their light suggesting how pleased Dionysus was with him.  They’d burned lower since her arrival, but they still burned.

On a level, he wasn’t really sure how to interact with her.

He’d interacted with initiates.  Any practitioner that helped someone awaken and see past the veil took on a risk, but for a priest, well, a great deal could be gained, too.  Thus far, there hadn’t been any disasters.  Dionysus was fairly pleased.

The thing about initiates, however, was that they could be dismissed, the job could be finished, and the disciple could be asked to leave Toronto.  Sent to one city or another, to try and establish a presence for their god there.

There were others he dealt with, as victims, as pawns, but he mostly kept to himself.

Sandra… he wasn’t sure how to categorize her.  He wanted her to leave, he wanted her to stay.  He couldn’t commit to either without feeling like he was betraying something.

The Sphinx wanted her here to stay, apparently.  The meeting had been arranged for a reason.

That was ominous, and as he dwelt on the idea, he felt it settle into a kind of concern.

Was she supposed to neuter him, in terms of the power he could bring to bear?

A trap?  His god had already suggested the true nature of the Duchamp line in a dream.  All girls.  Was there something his god hadn’t revealed?  It would have to be something that appealed to Dionysus’ nature on some level.

He didn’t like the way that knowledge sat with him.

“Other foot, other foot,” the nymph murmured.

Sandra shifted position, offering her right foot to the nymph for a footrub.  In the doing, she saw her husband.

She rolled her eyes, pausing for a second to see if he had anything to say before she resumed reading.  There was a light smile on her face as she returned her attention to her text.

Tolerance, but good natured, not because she was simply enduring.

The doubts didn’t disappear, but they didn’t sit as heavily as before.  This wasn’t love at first sight, infatuation, or even falling in love, careening head over heels into love’s grip.

He did think, however, that there could come a day -not tomorrow, not in a week, a month, or maybe even a year- when he did love her.

One look, and she’d managed to find a place in the mind his god had warped, a mind that had a very hard time dealing with people.  She’d made him thirteen again, before he’d ever stepped foot into this world of gods and monsters, and she’d become one of the first girls he’d ever looked at.  She was one of the teenage girls he’d admired from afar when he’d been undersized, underweight, and awkward.  She, like they had, made him feel equal parts uneasy and heroic with just a moment’s eye contact and a smile.  But the idea of something happening as a result still felt very far away.

Try as he might, he couldn’t imagine something strong could be forged from that beginning of a connection, but at least something could come of it, perhaps.

“Wine and cheese?” he finally asked, aware that he was only emphasizing how long he’d been looking by announcing his continued presence.  “Some grapes on the side?”

“That would be lovely,” Sandra said.  She finished reading her sentence before looking up.  “Thank you.”

“What kind of wine do you drink?”

“Anything white.”

“I’ll remember that.”

Hildr huffed.  Sandra laughed.

“And a shoulder of pork,” he said, loud enough for the troll to hear, already turning away, her laugh ringing in his ears.

A time of upheaval, Jeremy mused.

Unrest in Toronto, unrest in Jacob’s Bell.

Fifteen years since he’d seen Sandra.  Their communication had been fleeting.  Brief messages, to the point.  Business.

He had permission from the old Lord of the City to travel throughout Toronto.  Now, with things in a state of flux, that permission had been revoked.  It made for some difficulty.  He hadn’t ever needed a car.

Now, with the current situation, he was braving Toronto’s rush hour traffic for the first time.  A great many complaints and comments he’d heard over the years were suddenly making sense.  He’d lived in the now for years, and the act of waiting in traffic was maddening.  He couldn’t read without feeling ill, he wanted to stay reasonably sharp, and somehow the congestion of Toronto extended a good hour and a half after they had left the city, with no sign of abating.

Still, it was almost better than the alternative.  Since he couldn’t drive, he’d handed over the task to the eldest Ibix brother.  The satyr playboy had gone on and on about the fact that he could drive, testifying that he’d been taught by his ‘dates’, he’d rightly earned the piece of plastic that gave him the right to drive, and he was quite proud of the learned skill.

Well, right on one count.  The eldest Ibix was proud to be behind the wheel.

At least the traffic jam meant they couldn’t go over ten kilometers an hour, and the satyr was just as happy to be going that speed as it was to have the gas pedal flat to the floor of the car.  The other occupants that had crammed into the back of the car had showered him with praise over every little action.

Jeremy was relieved to the point of dizziness when the exit sign for Jacob’s Bell appeared.

“Take the exit,” he told his driver.

The satyr did.

The exit led them to the foot of the highway.  The road led under the highway to their left, where the newer part of Jacob’s Bell remained under construction, and into the older half of Jacob’s Bell to the right.

“And… turn left,” he said.

It wasn’t a comfortable feeling, entering another’s demesne.

The road grew more twisted.

“Park.”

Tires skidded as the car pulled to a stop.  One wheel rode up on the sidewalk.

“You’re getting better,” Jeremy commented.

The satyr grinned wide.

Jeremy stepped out of the vehicle, stretching.  The seven nymphs and satyrs that had crammed into the backseat of the sedan climbed out as well.  Most were underdressed for the cold, the satyrs especially.

He took it in.  The scope of it.

He’d fought tooth and nail and had very nearly died to take only the condo.

This place… it boggled the mind.

“Johannes,” Jeremy said, “I announce my arrival.  I’d like to request a clear path to the heart of your domain, or a face to face meeting.”

“He can hear you?” one of the satyrs asked.

“Shh,” Jeremy said.  “See?”

He pointed at the flash of light.

The dog was first to appear, Johannes second.  The man walked with a cane.

“Mr. Meath.  High Drunkard of Dionysus, I’m pleased, albeit surprised, to meet you,” Johannes commented.

“Johannes, North End Sorcerer,” the priest said, brusque.

“Should I interpret this as an attack?”

“No.  I’ll be staying in Jacob’s Bell for a little while.  No more than a week.”

Or I may lose my chance to make a bid for Toronto.

“You’re assisting Sandra Duchamp with her bid for Jacob’s Bell.  How quaint,” Johannes commented.  “Why are you here?”

“We’d like a place to stay.”

“You’re aware that by assisting Sandra, you’re opposing me?”

“Yes.”

“I’m at a loss.  These two things don’t add up.”

“They do, just not in an obvious way.  If you pressed me, I’d be annoyed, and we’d have to drop the pretense of feigned civility.  I’d rather not.”

“All of this trouble, to avoid a little bit of awkwardness?”

“No.  Some of this trouble is to avoid a touch of awkwardness.  I’m also trying to eke out a small advantage.”

“Right to the point.  ‘Keep your enemies close’?  That cuts both ways.”

“Yes,” spoke the priest.

“What if I said no?”

“I’d make other accommodations.”

Johannes glanced at his dog.

The dog spoke something in some language that sounded almost Arabic.

Johannes said something in the same tongue.

Not so unusual.  Sandra knew several Scandinavian languages through Hildr, despite the fact that the troll rarely spoke one word, and her pronunciation was largely guttural mush when she did speak.

It made all the more sense when one considered that the dog was a Gatekeeper.  A creator of paths and languages, a traveler’s guide.

“Dear Sandra does like to make things complicated, doesn’t she?” Johannes finally asked, his conversation with his familiar done.

“No comment,” the priest answered.

“I’ll give you a space.  You can come and go, but you can’t hunt, and you can’t interact with the Other residents.  Your passage is barred the first time you act against me or my rules in my territory.”

“Agreed.”

Johannes frowned.  “Enjoy your stay, drunkard.”

“Thank you,” the priest answered.

The Sorcerer and familiar disappeared the same way they’d come.

The landscape rearranged itself.  Buildings parted like moving waves, and a path pointed to their new abode.  A squat apartment building.

Each member of his coterie took something.  The satyrs took the heavier bags.

Jeremy took only one small, heavy bag.  Contents sloshed.

“Talk to me,” he said.  “What do you smell?”

“Genies,” spoke the elder Ibix brother, without hesitation.

“Genies are a problem,” Jeremy said.  “Plural?  More than one?”

“At least four.”

Genies.  All of the problems a sphinx posed, with a great many of the same capabilities, but sphinxes were created, and genies were natural, born of elements and divine remnants.  A keen eye for the balance and the cosmic makeup of reality, an ability to alter that balance and makeup, and, generally speaking, genies operated on the macro scale.  Moving mountains, so to speak, or building castles in the span of a day.  Hard to use without causing a great deal of alarm among non-practitioners.  Guardians for the Sorcerer’s demesne?

“What else?”

“Glimmers.  Almost-people, like shadows come to life.”

“Vestiges.  Good.  Keep going.”

“A very big ghost.”

Lots of possibilities there.

“Sweat and metal,” said one of the youngest Satyrs.  One of Nathan’s.  “Something almost human, but not quite.  Violent.”

Vague, but any information was good information.

“Fox.  I like the smell of her.”

Suspicions, but it wouldn’t be good to jump to conclusions.

“Burning wires,” said the youngest Satyr.  “Elemental.  It’s not very old.”

“Good.”

“One… wraith-vestige?” the middle Ibix brother suggested.  “It smells like rotted branches, and birds, and the abyss.  It doesn’t smell very big, but it passed by here not long ago.”

“Excellent,” he said.

“And something that smells like fat and bile and blood.”

“I believe Sandra mentioned that one.  A butcher.  Stay away, it likes innocents, and you’re innocent enough for it.  The Sorcerer might let it slip the leash to come after you, just to hurt Sandra.  Not an official breaking of the rules of hospitality.”

His coterie nodded, taking in his orders.

They arrived at the apartment.

“Nobody home,” a nymph spoke up.

“All for us?” the priest commented.  “Good.”

He set down his bag on a bench in the middle of the lobby, unbuckling it and laying out the contents.

A scepter, topped with a pinecone, a branch with grapes at the end, a horn of ale that could drive a man into a killing madness, half finished, a carving of a bull in amber, a carving of a lion in gold.  A small sickle meant for the cutting of grapes from the vine, and a great horn belonging to a beast long dead, sizable enough to be used as a club.

Gifts from his god.

He’d come prepared for war.

He stood at the end of the path to the Duchamp household.  He didn’t approach, only watching.  A few individuals cast him curious glances.

He hadn’t really groomed, but that wasn’t his style.

Sandra was rallying her own troops.  Calling in favors.  The Duchamps from out of town were returning home, and many brought husbands.

Always in pairs.  Husband and wife.

A dozen different kinds of practitioners, coming and going in a matter of two or three minutes.

Someone would have tipped Sandra off.  She appeared in the doorway.

Her expression was still so hard to read.  Different emotions now, though.  Her eyes shone a little.

She approached, oblivious of the people who turned to watch.  Her hand brushed his hair, and his scruffy cheek.

“You’ve gone a little gray,” she said.

“You’ve barely changed at all,” he said.

She embraced him.

Still his wife.  They’d never divorced.

“I can hardly believe you need me,” he commented, “All these people.  Even if he has genies and angels.”

“These ones will deal with Johannes, or they’ll try,” she said.  “You… ah, we both made a mistake here, and it’s a twist of fate that it hasn’t bitten us already.”

“Mistake?”

“I asked you to stop someone from leaving Toronto, and you promised you would.  They came back, shucking off much of their identity, which is why you don’t remember.  That was your broken promise.”

“Ah.  You don’t sound so worried.”

“I’m not.  I made a mistake too, telling you you’d know him when you saw him.  That wasn’t true, apparently, not as he escaped.  You can remedy it, and keep it from being a lie.  While these people deal with the Behaims and Johannes, I need you to go after the Thorburns.  I think you’re uniquely equipped to do it.  They’re off balance, it’s the optimal time to do it.”

He squeezed her tight, feeling a tightness in his own chest.  He let her go, backing away.

“Of course,” he said.

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Null 9.6

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I’m back.

The demon pulled itself free.  A long limb here, serrated on one side with teeth, like some horrifically long jawbone.  A length of connective tissue there, with flesh sloughing off.  A pillar of flesh, extending floor to ceiling, like a long neck or a torso without ribs… all pitch black.

Welcome home, Blake, I thought.

If there were more details to be seen, I didn’t make them out, my eyes fixed on the floor.  After the Drains, near-complete darkness and then the brightness of the lost god’s light, the contrast seemed stark here.  Even the dim seemed far brighter than the tracts of utter darkness that the sunlight didn’t touch.

Light and dark.

Being in the Drains had helped, in a way.  I’d spent far too long straining my eyes to make things out in the darkness.  Now, in the midst of the factory, I was especially aware of the illumination from the windows, the way the dust lit up the shafts of light.

Two windows on the north face, four on the east face.  The light that came in did so in dim, murky shafts, painting long stripes of light across the floor.  The only paths I could travel.  I couldn’t even think about moving through the deepest darkness.  I couldn’t see what was happening in there.  Ur’s domain in entirety.

Time seemed to move in slow motion.  It didn’t, but it seemed like it.  I had no heartbeat, no breath to mark the seconds.  Motes of dust moved lazily through the air, stirred into flurries here and there by Ur’s movement.  Ur moved with the force of the tide coming in, slow, impossible to hold back, covering too much ground to even fight against.  If I tried to stop him, he’d only sweep in on either side of me, snatch me up, and devour me.

He was vast in a way I couldn’t put words to, the sort of massive that meant he extended from this reality to the Drains, and maybe to other places.

Comparatively, I was less than I had been.  Which wasn’t a bad thing, not entirely.  The meat had been carved from my bone, metaphorically speaking.  My ears, after that constant noise, were almost ringing in the silence.  No blood pounded in my ears or made phantom noises.  Every noise I heard was real.

I had very little to lose here, as I’d already lost just about everything.  At the same time, I had everything to fight for.  I’d fought this far, and I wasn’t about to lose my momentum.  He was weak, and I had only this one moment to grasp my next move, to wrap my head around the situation and deal with the shock of being back.

The only noises were Ur’s.  Grinding his way against a solid surface, slithering, slopping.  Faint noises.

If I wanted to, I could simply focus my gaze, ignore the movements in my peripheral vision, dismiss the sounds as something else entirely.  Pretend the problem didn’t exist.

I heard a grating noise behind me, something moving against the wall.

I moved.  Long strides.  Not to the windows. The windows were a trap, I knew that now.  The light they shed wasn’t protection, and Ur could and would grab me before I made it.

No, I ran to the place where the shafts of light across the floor criss-crossed.  Diamonds and squares were formed where the light crossed paths.  I felt Ur clutch me, and I tore free, falling in the process.

I pulled myself to my feet.  I didn’t stand in the darkness.  I stood at the center of the grid of light.  Almost the center of the factory floor, eyes on the ground.

A makeshift diagram of light, diamonds and squares drawn out by the natural intersection of light coming in from the windows.

One maneuver on my part, one maneuver on Ur’s.  I’d covered four paces, while Ur continued to swell in size, claiming all of the darkness around me.  Grasping hands, moving faces of animals or insects, lunging movements, all in my peripheral vision.  Every little movement distracted, demanding that I betray common sense and look, because any of it might be an attack, a bite, a claw, a reaching tendril, a trick.

Any of it might be a feint, as it turned out.

One lunging hand plunged past a shaft of sunlight, briefly illuminated, crumbling in the light even as it reached.  Past the second shaft of sunlight- half the size.  Past the third- flesh sloughing off to reveal a reaching, grasping claw, smaller than my own hand, but with fingers like kitchen knives.

I slashed out with the Hyena, pre-emptive, before it could do anything to me.  It seized the blade, and it wasn’t cut.  It pulled me.

If I’d been more clever, I might simply have abandoned the weapon, a casualty of war.

As it stood, I resisted and tried to match Ur’s strength with my own.

He slowly dragged me toward the darkness, inch by inch.  I didn’t pull so much as I angled my body to make dragging me harder.  Low to the ground, legs straight out, feet skidding on the floor.

Those knife-fingers wove themselves around the blade, wrapping around it in fits and starts, extending, then reaching further.  The light ate away at it, but for every step back it took, it gained two steps of ground.  The light touching it just wasn’t that strong, and I had no way to drag it back to where the proper ‘diagram’ was marked on the floor.

The guard of the sword was largely gone at this point, the wolf’s skull emblem damaged and partially scraped away by the efforts of the Drains or the fall.  The claws inched closer, doing their best to seize the blade and reach for my hand.

The light didn’t eat the hand, but it did chew through the thicker arm, further back.  Severed from Ur, the hand lost its strength, I stumbled back, landing on my back, and I scooted back until I was safe in the center.

Notches had been taken out of the sword.

The Hyena twitched.

Was it still alive?

Couldn’t be.

No, it wasn’t the sword.  It was something reflected in the sword.

I had to use my free hand to tear the metal out of my left hand.  I cast it aside.  The metal smoked where the light touched it.

Fucking stupid of me.  Ur could leap across reflective surfaces.

Ur didn’t seem particularly inclined to push past the light again.  My so-called-diagram wasn’t a wall, not absolute protection, only a preventative measure.  The light was mottled here and there, where it failed to get through the windows, or where windows were cracked or covered in dust.  Ur could push through if and when it wanted to.

I swallowed, utterly still, still on my back.  The Hyena had stopped smoking, so I flipped it over, letting the light hit the other side.  It took seconds before it was burned clean.

Somewhere outside, a cloud moved over the sun.

My diagram began to come apart, and Ur gained ground.

One reaching extremity, a deformed, tumorous lump- so large I had to turn my head to avoid looking straight at it as it loomed.

I couldn’t hope to fend it off, so, still lying on the ground, I brought my feet up, bracing against it, arms stretched out to my side for more traction.  It pushed me, striving to push me out of the diagram, into waiting oblivion.

Spindly arachnid legs unfurled from the thing.  The ones that didn’t crumble away in the light poised, their needle points aimed at me.

Another mass of darkness moved directly above me, perched on the ceiling.

I rolled, releasing my resistance to the thrusting limb, pulling my legs back from the stabbing legs that followed after me, piercing the ground.

The darkness on the ceiling shifted, then dropped.

A column of darkness, right in the middle of the diagram.  Meat and gnashing teeth, spilling out like water.

Kneeling, I grabbed the Hyena, because it was the only weapon available, and I struck out.

This time, Ur recoiled.  The column thinned out at one section, the lumps of flesh that were reaching for my feet and knees losing their connection to the source.  There was less of Ur’s being feeding into them to give them more mass to extend my way.

I didn’t know how or why the cut had worked this time when it hadn’t before.  Warming in the sun?  No.  It didn’t make sense, it was still cold to the touch.  The factory was cold.

But I cut again, repeating the same action, over and over, until I’d gutted the column. The ‘foot’ of the column that had touched down in the middle of the diagram broke apart, large hunks of black meat and ichor that became piles of black squirming maggots that shriveled up into nothingness in the sunlight.

I heard something behind me and turned, slashing out again-

This time to no avail.

Tendrils caught at my neck and chest, tearing.  They thinned out by the second as the dimmed light touched them, but they still took strips of skin with them, not consuming, but still wounding me, inch by inch, morsel by morsel, working to drag me out of the meager light.  One tendril caught me around the knee.

I cut, backhanded this time, and managed to sever the worst of the tendrils.  The light did the rest.  I stumbled closer to the middle of the mesh of light near the center of the factory floor.

The pillar of Ur still hung overhead, and I turned, cutting at it, blind.

Again, it recoiled.

Two more cuts.  Ur retreated, pulling the broken pillar of flesh up and away, up to the ceiling and out of sight.

A moment later, the sword began to move of its own accord, twitching.  In the corner of my eye, the weapon was dark, and the cracks got darker, widening-

I tossed it down into the nearest, brightest spot on the ground.  It spun in place, smoking.  I saw a piece of Ur slip free and try to find its way to darkness, only to disintegrate before it did.

Ur retreated as the cloud moved out of position, the light growing stronger.

Something was off.  The timing of Ur’s responses, the inconsistency of it-  Ur hadn’t flinched when I’d made contact.  Sometimes before, sometimes after, and sometimes not at all.

I knelt in the light, and I reached for the Hyena, picking it up for the third time in the last five or ten minutes.  I turned it over in the light, letting the sun clean it.  I saw how, when I turned it at certain angles, the darkness leaped into it, spreading into it.

Reflections were a means for Ur to travel.  Reflections were also a means for light to travel.

This weapon cut both ways.

My heart thrummed in my chest, but my body was still.  I recognized the pain of holding the Hyena, the spikes piercing flesh, but it felt distant.

Ur would win this in the long run.  I had a weapon, but it did far too little.  I might as well have been using a bucket to empty a lake.

I used the sleeve of my sweatshirt to scrub the remaining length of blade.  I pressed it against my thigh, so only a bit of the metal was exposed.  I angled it so the light would catch it, reflecting off to one side.

Ur recoiled, responding to the faint shaft of light.

Not a wound, but still, a tool.

I could feel my tattoos creeping in to replace the flesh that had been torn away.

I’d have loved to hurt it.  I moved the light, and in the corner of my eye, I could see Ur shift in response.  Moving the light back and forth, I saw Ur react, sliding back out of the way.  Rather than deal with the moving light, Ur simply avoided the areas the light roved.

I aimed for the thickest patch of darkness.

The light didn’t penetrate.  It was as though there was no surface there to catch the light.

That darkness was supposed to give way to light was a truism, a law of reality.

That Ur was apparently breaking that law…

Damn it.

I focused the light on the parts of Ur I could make out, driving him back, scanning my surroundings.  The demon crowded at the light, smoking where it accidentally got too close, trying to find a way closer to me – a crack it might use to sneak into the diagram, a shadow that ran along a bump in the floor.

There wasn’t anything, but this was a struggle that Ur would eventually win.  As time passed, more clouds could pass over the sun.  The shafts of light would move.

My eye traced the path, memory informed me about general directions involved.

As the sun rose, I’d lose ground.  It wouldn’t be soon, but given time, the lights would no longer intersect.

The diagram would come apart.

My heart was going crazy as I moved the blade, turning it to pass the light steadily over the surroundings.

Ur was smart enough to anticipate the movement of the light, to predict where I would move it and move out of the way before the light touched it.

Here and there, Ur had covered up windows, or covered up parts of windows.  Where Ur scraped against the edges of windows and sections of wall, falling debris clouded the light.

My eye fell on one window – there wasn’t much glass, largely covered, but it was close.  The only things of substance on the floor between Ur and me were chunks of rock and scattered pieces of glass from the window, ranging from a foot across to mere dust.  The little shards caught the light, scintillating in rainbow hues.  It was very possible my foot could slip.

Another section, further away, suggested a path to the window.  The same window I’d been running for when I’d fallen into the Drains.

Broken window or run for the intact window, further away?

Broken window.

I bent down, and I placed the Hyena on its side, blade facing the window, catching the light from the window so a shaft of light extended along the floor.

Widening the path.

Could Ur anticipate me?

How smart was the demon?

I bolted.  A reckless, headlong rush.

I was two paces away from the window when Ur finally stirred.  Tendrils snaked across the window, a mesh, smoking from contact with the light.

But I was already moving, one leg going far in front of me, as I changed direction.  The foot skidded long, I tipped over, and my hands came down amid glass and rocks.

I grabbed the largest pieces of glass and rock, feeling pain jolt up my arms from the cuts in my hands, and I sprinted back.

Already, tendrils and spidery limbs were moving to block my retreat.  Criss-crossing, smoking, disintegrating, but forming a net, a barrier, a wall.

Ur to the left of me.  Ur to the right of me.  A covered window behind me, a net in front of me.

I leaped, a headlong dive for the biggest gap.

Ur got his claws and teeth in me.  Ur took chunks out of me.  If I’d taken a second longer, I might not have made it through.  Sun-weakened limbs failed to hold me.

I collapsed, losing my clutched glass and rocks.

Rock and broken glass.

My eyes narrowed to lower the chance for error, I took in my surroundings, watched for a clutching hand, trickery.

I saw only faces, vague figures, humanoid  in shape.  A segment of Ur shaped like six bodies, shrink-wrapped in oily black skin.  Mouths agape, the skin stretched tight against lips and teeth-

I moved the Hyena, and the light pierced one body.  Ur moved away, collapsing the figure.  Not a real person, or even a good effigy.  A trick, a psychological ploy.

I’d trapped myself in this diagram here.  Stepping outside for more than a moment at a time could only spell my doom.

Waiting was just as bad.

Ur was too big to fight.

I spat on the largest piece of glass, then used my sweatshirt to rub it clean of dust.

With one of the smaller rocks, I propped it up so it caught the light.  Some shone through, a pale light extending beyond the glass, some was reflected back toward the window.

I did more with other pieces of glass I’d collected.  I only had a handful, scarcely half a window, but I did have some.

There was just a bit more inside the area the ‘diagram’ covered, and I used that as well.

It wasn’t much, but it served to expand the area I had to work with.  That was something.

The rocks…

I grabbed one piece of concrete and scratched it against the floor.

Nothing.  It only crumbled.  Too weather-worn.

I tried others, and for the most part, I got the same effect.  They didn’t leave a mark.

Hm.

If I chewed off the flesh at the end of one finger, could I use the bone to scratch the floor?

Probably not worth it, not with the time involved, even if it worked.

Instead, I used the rock to scratch the blade.  One side, roughing it up, grating metal with stone, until it was too scratched and too embedded with dirt to reflect anymore.

Holding it so the one reflective side caught the light, rather than Ur, I used the blade to scratch at the floor.

Spikes and rough spots on the blade gouged my hands.

I pulled off my sweatshirt, wrapping a sleeve around the handle, and I ensured the spikes wouldn’t cut me too deep.

One hand on the handle, the other on the pommel, to drive it forward, to push, or tap.

The floor had absorbed a lot of moisture, had dealt with extreme cold and a fair amount of heat.  Canada took pride in its long, cold winters, but the summers hereabouts could get brutal enough.  It meant my job wasn’t as hard as it could be.

I cut lines into the floor.

The Barber was, if I wasn’t mistaken, a demon of the third choir or thereabouts.  He was abstract, like Ur, though more inclined to take solid forms.  As a demon of ruin, he was opposed by structure.  Geometric shapes and symbols.

Ur was a demon of darkness.  The natural conclusion was to oppose him with lightLight was the sole reason I wasn’t dead already.

But Ur was, above all else, a demon of oblivion, of erasure.

To oppose him, I had to create.

Where the blade scraped ground, it left white tracks.

I scraped out a thick diamond, a minute’s work.  Then I began to draw.

I’d never been much of an artist. It didn’t help that I’d never existed, but the point stood.  The memories in my head were of me helping other artists frame their work, using skills I’d learned on the farm and honed over two seasons in Carl’s commune.

I didn’t try to be fancy.  One image, simple, to represent something.  A circle with two dashes inside it for eyes to be the head, an oval with lines drawn across it to be a swaddle of cloth.  A baby.  Then one image for every year.

The baby crying- lines radiating from its open mouth while two crude figures stood above, impassive.  The baby walking, arms reaching out, the parent facing away.  So it went.  A small child pushed to the ground by a fat teenage girl.  By his cousin Kathryn.

I stopped when I’d drawn images to line two faces of the diamond.

On the opposite side, I drew another diagram.

A baby, crying.  But the lines – I was sure to double check the first baby I’d drawn and draw the lines in the reverse angle for the swaddle.  In the second picture, the figures held the child.  In the third, the parent stood with arms reaching.

In the fourth, the small child pushed to the ground had a rectangle for a skirt, no notch for shorts.

The images were drawn to sit opposite one another, and even if my ability to draw wasn’t all that, I had a keen sense of space honed by years of work.  False, imagined, but they were skills I possessed all the same.

The memories in my head weren’t real.  They were artificial, or stolen, or given.  It was very possible they were simply pieces of reality that had fallen into a particular configuration.

All the same, they were inspiration.  I needed to draw something, a lot of something, and my memories were the one well I had available.  Four images to a face, eight for me, eight for Rose.

When I’d drawn the eight year old Rose, counterpoint to eight year old Blake, I sketched out another diamond, thick and fat.

Ur lunged for me as I drew the fourth line.  On a level, I’d expected it. On another level, I’d made the mistake of letting the shadow I cast give him an avenue for attack.

I managed to pull my arm back inside the diamond, and Ur didn’t pursue.

Darkness writhed in the shadows at the periphery of light, stirring.

Rather than try again, I adjusted the position and angle of glass, catching the light, and painted a bit of a shelter, illuminating my work space.  Faint, barely there, but it helped me brave the gap and finish the line.

I backed up until I was in the center.  Each little picture came very close to being a hieroglyph.  It made sense when I considered that hieroglyphs had been cut into stone tablets and walls.

This is the tale of Blake and Rose, I thought.  Was it coincidence that the images I’d drawn of Rose seemed thicker, the lines stronger?  Had I been leaning harder on the Hyena, or had the work earlier blunted the very tip of the shattered blade, allowing for a broader, clearer groove into the floor?

Or was it representative of something else?

My light was disappearing.

Ur lashed out, reaching, but Ur didn’t pass over the line.

This tale of Blake and Rose is my creation, I thought.  I turned my attention to the brightest patch of floor.  If I worked here next, then by the time I was finished, the light might have shifted to give me room to work elsewhere.  I was already plotting the greater work.  When I ran out of years, I could move onto pivotal scenes.  If I reached a wall…  My eye fell on a patch of graffiti, barely visible in the dim light that seeped through the windows.

The binding on the outside… it only dawned on me now.  It was a creation of a sort too.  Not just words hidden in graffiti, but the graffiti itself.

Nine year old Blake.  Playing with Paige and Molly.  Rose’s version of that image wouldn’t have that.

Ten year old Blake.  Torn away from his cousins.

I had a clear path available to me.  I was containing myself within this diagram that Ur couldn’t pass, but I could extend it.  So long as I was careful, I could stay largely within the diagram, continuing to expand it.

I wasn’t hungry, I didn’t need to go to the bathroom.  My heart didn’t beat.

I’m a false man, I thought.  A vestige, maybe, a boogeyman.

I could do this for days, I thought.

I hated the idea of waiting, of taking hours or even days to do this, but I could cover this floor in images.

Where would Ur go then?  Into the walls?  Retreat beneath the factory?

Ur stirred, moving around the periphery of the room, while my eyes were focused on the images I was etching into the floor.  My attention was divided several ways.

I almost missed it.

In one moment, Ur was there, writhing, making phantom images, distracting, and I was drawing the head of a twelve year old Blake over a test paper scrawled with doodles, marked with a big fat ‘F’ in the middle.

In the next moment, Ur was gone.

The factory empty, the way utterly clear.

Deceptively clear.

It was if Ur was communicating with me.  Negotiating, maybe, or tempting.  Aren’t your hands tired?  Aren’t your hands hurting from this tedious, awkward work?  Don’t you want to go back to Jacob’s Bell and help your friends?

Leave this crude binding unfinished, and you can go.

Go, I imagined Ur saying, so I can catch you by surprise, snatch you up and devour you once and for all.

I kept scratching.  Thirteen year old Blake and his first crush.

If I couldn’t remember her face, was that because the event wasn’t real, or was it just faulty memory at work?

The quiet was eerie.

The light moved as I worked.  I took a minute to adjust the mirrors, and gave my hands a rest.

No wind, no slithering, scraping, grinding or any of that, not even my own breathing or heartbeat.

Utter, complete quiet.

Then a sound.  A sudden crack.

Rocks fell from above.  Pebbles, landing and skittering across the images I’d just drawn.

Larger pebbles.

I had to be careful, looking up.  Up was dark, and very little light from the windows reached the ceiling.  The ceiling was that same utter darkness that had swallowed up the light from the blade.

But as the light from the windows had shifted, a section of ceiling above me had illuminated.

Binding diagrams, as I understood it, extended all the way up and all the way down.

Ur couldn’t loom above me anymore, not with the diagram here.

Ur could, however, work in the abstract.

The demon was devouring the roof.  It was like something from a cartoon, but Ur was cutting a broad circle, further around than my own, and when the demon finished, the roof would fall.

Right on top of me.

On top of my diagram of created art.

Stay put, get crushed.

Run, get caught.

Hyena in one hand, handle and arm wrapped in my sweatshirt, a large piece of glass in my other hand, I ran.  Broken glass scraped underfoot as I scrambled for the nearest window, hoping I could somehow run faster than Ur could raise an obstacle or seize me.

I needed to make this bluff into something I could take advantage of.  To seize on the fact that he was pretending not to stand in my way, and catch him by surprise.

I couldn’t.  Demon’s flesh extended from pockets of darkness.  An ‘x’ of limbs, barring my way.  They smoked and crumbled in the light, but a barrier was a barrier all the same.

Ur reached for me, and he succeeded in catching me: teeth clutched my injured hand.  This time, I knew how to use the Hyena.  A stab, extending the blade so it faced the nearest available window as I finished cutting, the light bouncing back to catch the knobby, ulcer-ridden head that had extended from darkness.  Cut and light together, so the light could make the cutting easier and the cutting wouldn’t be undone by easy replacement of flesh.

It let go.  I kicked it, using that same action to push myself further in the direction I wanted to go.

More tendrils and limbs.  Not big ones this time – a multitude of smaller ones.

I wasn’t going to make it.  The light wasn’t enough.

I thought of the lost god that had suppressed Ur.  I wasn’t naive enough to think he could somehow reach me here.  Just a random god of light that a tribe had once worshiped, preserved only by word of mouth, perhaps, until the tribe or the myth had passed from human memory.

I roared, not in fear, or in worship.

The demon ate existence.  It was opposed by creation and light.

I roared only to generate noise.  To create that noise.

The effect wasn’t tangible, but if Ur put more demon’s flesh in my way before I reached the window, I couldn’t tell with my eyes screwed shut.

I felt him tear at me, scrape and clutch, and I only screamed louder, struggling to hold the Hyena at the right angle, so the light would help forge the way.

If I’d stopped making forward progress as limbs clutched me and tried to drag me back, I couldn’t tell.

“I am the Thorburn bogeyman!” I screamed, the words raw.  “I am made of stick and bone and birds and spirit and false memories!”

Something tore at my eyelid.  I twisted my head back, screaming my anger to Ur and his factory and to the world.

“I beat you!  In this I’ve beat you!  You can swallow me up, but those scratches will stay!  People can learn how to stop you!  It’ll be easier!”

Something caught me around the throat.

“Tear down the roof to hide it and you’ll let the sun in!  Tear out the floor and people won’t come inside!  I’ve won!  I’ve won!”

My words felt like they had power.

“I’ve won, Ur!”

My fingertip brushed glass.

With a final surge of strength, I heaved myself forward and through.

When I opened my eyes, snow had settled in my one eye socket.  With the act of opening the eye, I felt snow touch the eyeball itself, drifting free to trace a line over my cheekbone.

I blinked a few times, clearing my vision in my one good eye.

The snow was wet and cold, and I used it to wipe my face clean, wary of the broken glass.  I was bleeding from wounds the demon had inflicted, and the snow served to dilute it.  The blood was too dark, too thick.  Almost congealed.

Nothing to do with Ur.  Only me.

When I spoke again, my voice was quiet, the words for me, not for it.  “I know how you work now.  I’m weak and broken and flawed and fake, and I still beat you, you motherfucking fucker.  You’re living on borrowed time.  I’m going to finish that diagram, and I’ll squeeze you to pulp between diagrams.  And I’m going to tell people exactly how to stop you, just in case something happens to me.  There’s nothing you can do about it.”

I picked myself up, still careful of the glass.  My body felt too light.  New birds were perched on the thicker growths of branches that had grown where flesh had been ripped away.

My eyes fell on the graffiti.

“I won,” I said, my words very small in a dark, still, silent Toronto.

My life in Toronto, reduced to the contents of cardboard boxes that sat out in the hallway.

Half my furniture remained.  The futon, the table my television had sat on, my coffee table.  My toolbox was gone.

Joel had forgotten me, his memories piecing together the best available explanation about this mystery client who had taped out a diagram at the edges of the apartment, and he’d packed away my things.

He’d replaced the bathroom mirror.  I stepped in there, and I gazed at my reflection.

I’d nearly forgotten what my face had looked like.  I hadn’t seen it for weeks.

Except for some markings around my blind eye where Ur had torn the eyelid, it was still my face.  Pale, with a dark circle under the one eye, some branches and darkness around the blind one.  Amid those branches, three birds were clustered together in the corner where the tear had happened.  Beady black eyes standing out from my flesh in three dimensions – one bird in profile, the other looking out straight on.  Three eyes visible in total, matching the general curvature of my eye socket.  I blinked, and they blinked slightly out of sync with me and each other.

I was a vessel, and the spirits would fill in the gaps in the way that made the most sense.  If I was damaged, they’d shore me up, but I’d become less me.  Already, some of the branches were raised, the skin rougher.

The conclusion was simple enough.  I was operating on borrowed time.

I’d mentally described a handful of others as being capable of straddling that boundary between human and Other.  Comfortable in both worlds, just ugly and freaky enough to be Other, but not so much that people couldn’t explain it away.

Seeing those three beady eyes standing out from my face, I wasn’t sure I’d pass.

I was less able to pass in public than Midge, the four-hundred and fifty pound hillbilly cannibal murderer.

I grabbed a washcloth, and I got it damp.  I gave my face a thorough scrub.  The water was almost black as I wrung the cloth out.  I scrubbed my face again for good measure, and on the second wringing, the water was almost as bad, leaning a fraction closer to black-brown or black-crimson.

Five more washes and rinses, and it still turned out more grime than not.  Like trying to wash dirt or vacuum up a beach.  No amount of scrubbing or vacuuming would change the fact that there was more dirt and sand than one person and one tool could clean up.

My arms, too, were more black than white tone, a dense forest of branches, littered with feathers and small prey birds hiding in their midst.  Chickadees and sparrows.  I was pale, and no amount of rinsing at the sink was going to suffice to get my hair clean.

When I was more or less as clean as I could get without actually stopping to take an actual shower, I found a box and began going through the contents until I found clothes.

I pulled on a fresh t-shirt and boxers.  My sweatshirt was closer to me than my jeans, so I grabbed it, contemplating throwing it away.

It was tattered, torn in spots, thanks to Ur.  Frayed wool stuck out to trace my collarbone, at the collar of my shirt.

It was dark, and it wasn’t dark with grime.  Seen in the right light, it was just… darker.  In the exact right light and position, I could see that same essence rolling off it like a kind of smoke, as if it were a recently extinguished candle.  Brown-gray smoke, the faintest aura, clinging millimeters away from fabric.

“You went through the Drains too, huh?” I asked my sweatshirt.  “A little less real, a little more spirit.  And you were a gift, too… shit.”

I pulled it on, then my jeans.  Clean socks and my winter boots.  My first aid stuff was in my toolbox, and my toolbox was gone.

I tore up a t-shirt using the blade of the Hyena, and I wrapped my left hand.  The wrist of my other hand had already healed.  Or, in more exact terminology, the spirits had already filled in those cracks and gaps.  The skin was particularly rough there.

What happened if they got my whole hand?  Would I lose control of it?

I left the rest of my stuff where it was.  I traced walls of the apartment with my hand as I walked out.

“I guess I’m giving you up too,” I said.  “Bye, apartment.”

I didn’t linger.

I reached the garage, and I felt a moment’s trepidation, seeing how dark the place was.  It made me think of Ur, and the Drains.

But fear didn’t have the same hold on me.  I’d faced down my greatest fear and called it false.

Would that I could do the same with… fuck.  What did I even call this?  ‘Despair’ was so melodramatic.

But… despair all the same.

The bike was gone.

Maybe it was in storage.  More likely, if Joel had no memory of me existing, he might have deemed me a squatter.

If my bike wasn’t sold, he’d probably sell it sometime soon, or give it to one of our friends, same as the toolbox.

My life, taken apart, the bits and pieces scattered.

I could build something that resembled it, but I would never quite have it back.

A part of me wanted to stay, to try and scrounge up those bits and pieces.

But it would be an illusion.  It would run contrary to the reasons I’d left the Drains.  Those reasons had given me the strength to fight my way free, and I couldn’t deny them.

That desire to stay and find my bike, to reach out to Joel and see if he had any word on the subject, it was a desire to be the old me.

I’d never really had a proper trial to face my future.

Was this endless well of grime and the state of my clothing supposed to suggest that the Drains hadn’t quite let me go?  That that place could pull me back in if I wasn’t careful?

If so, this might well be my trial.

I turned my back to the empty space, because I didn’t like the feeling that stirred inside me when I stared at it.  My thoughts were on Rose, the danger to my friends, the state of Jacob’s Bell, the lawyers, grandmother.

I could see my expression in the side view mirror of Joel’s car.

Try as I might, I couldn’t twist my expression into anything other than barely repressed anger.

“Wait, it’s a demon?” Ty asked.

“Yes,” Rose said.

There they are.  I hung back.

“As in, something like what was in that warehouse?” Tiff asked.

“Factory, not warehouse,” Rose said.  “And no.  Not like that thing.  The thing in the factory was a minor demon of the first choir, maybe on its way to becoming moderate, I don’t know.  The Barber is in the middle tiers of the third choir, according to the books.”

“Does that make it stronger or weaker?”

“It’s stronger,” Rose said, confident but not sounding too pleased to be confident.  “But, and this is important, it’s a strength we could control, if it came down to it.”

“I dunno,” Ty said.

“You’re flippin’ crazy,” Evan said.

“I’m being realistic,” Rose said.  “What I need to know is… do you trust me?”

“Yes,” Alexis said.  “I’d be a lot more inclined to exercise that trust if I knew what it stemmed from.”

“That goes two ways,” Rose said.  “I’d feel less guilty about drawing on it.  But we’re in dire straits, and…”

“What?” Ty asked.

“The house spirit is reacting.  Something’s inside,” Rose said.

“Shit, shit,” Ty said.

Something or someone?” Tiff asked, her voice small.

“Something,” Rose said.

I was already stepping into view.

I saw their eyes widen.  I saw fear, I saw hands moving closer to weapons, and it killed me a little.  Delivering a little wound as sure as a slice of a knife could, a little crack for another bit of spirit to get in.

I couldn’t bring myself to speak.

Evan was the one who drew closer, before anyone else.  Who let his guard down.  He settled on the back of the armchair closest to me.

I reached out for him, and my fingertips only touched my side of the mirror.

Silent, I let the hand drop to my side.

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Null 9.5

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One trial done.

I still had others to face down.

It had felt like it had taken years, but no time had apparently passed here.  I could barely remember where people had stood before I’d let Carl reach out for me…

If there’d been something solid to hit, I might have hit it.

Old wounds scraped raw.  Shame, regret…

False wounds?

The thought was quiet, almost not in my own voice.  It’s not real.

A weight lifted off my shoulders.  It was much as it had been when I’d first arrived in the Drains.  I turned my face skyward, drawing in a deep breath.

Difference was, back then, it had almost been because things had been so bad they couldn’t get much worse.  Now…

This was a kind of relief.  Things made sense, and knots were coming untangled.  Some things still didn’t make sense, there was a kind of horror to this, but I wasn’t burdened by my past anymore.

Because I didn’t necessarily have one.

I exhaled that deep breath I’d taken, and I saw vapor.  Moisture leaving my body?  More moisture inside my body?  Dust?  Something else?

I tried again, exhaling on purpose, and I didn’t see anything.

Some branches were still growing, trying to find places on the exterior of my body to entrench themselves.  There was a sound like splintering wood as they lurched and spasmodically grew to reach their new vantage points.  I could feel them embracing me.

I unzipped my sweatshirt to peer at my bare chest.  My chest was untouched, my ribs and back had the branches.  My face- I couldn’t see any of my face except my left cheekbone, nose, and part of upper lip when I moved my face in certain ways.  I didn’t see any marks.

No telling about the other side of my face.  I had only one working eye, now that I was back.

A spatter of water ran over my face and head, and I wiped it away – smearing a bit of grit over my forehead.  I wiped it off as best as I could, rubbing the grit onto my pants, and then ran damp hands through damp hair, pushing it back out of my eyes.  Silty grime and moisture kept it in place.

There were more birds on me now.  All tattoos, still, some hiding among the thicker branches, only the dark circles of their eyes peering out.

“I’m guessing you’re the spirits that possessed me as I cracked?” I asked.  Filling in the gaps.  I tried to get a better view of the birds, rolling up my sleeves and moving my arms-

A creaking, splintering sound as I moved my arm.  No damage done, only the branches on the skin moving.  I tested my movement, but the sound was far quieter.  Just a bit of stiffness, working out the kinks.

I resumed moving my arms to get a better view of the birds, and I could see how they were looking up at me.  They weren’t moving, but when I looked away and looked back again, they’d taken entirely different positions.  Still on the same branches, but turned in different directions, wings in different positions.

It would have been almost cartoonish, if they didn’t look so eerie.  The color was almost entirely gone.  Even the birds looked like ghosts.  Echoes.

“You’ve got a nice window seat now, huh?” I asked.

No response, of course.

In the wake of coming out of the Shadow-place, I’d felt cold, and I’d felt like I was almost in shock.

Now, as the seconds passed, I didn’t feel my heartbeat.

I wasn’t breathing, and I hadn’t been since I’d intentionally exhaled, but I wasn’t purple in the face either.  I reminded myself to keep up the act.  Breathe in, breathe out, just like I’m supposed to.

I found the breathing became automatic.

There.

There would be rules to be followed, as an Other.  As a vestige.

Sucks that I don’t know exactly what those rules are.

I turned, looking around.  A small handful of people were staring at me.

I collected myself, getting my clothes in order, rolling down my sleeves.  Hood up.  I fixed the bandage around my ruined hand and the bandage around my gouged wrist.

I’d faced down the reality of my past.

My present?  The future?

My present situation was marked by my visions of what was going on elsewhere.  I was stuck here.

The future… I wasn’t even sure how to parse that.

Maybe I could connect the dots if I had another dream, but I didn’t feel like sleeping anytime soon.  Not so recently after that experience.  A part of me still felt like I could embrace it.  I could just… give up and let it happen.

Accept somebody else’s idea of peace.

I felt a thrum of alarm and unease in my chest at the idea, as if my heart was a box and something was inside, fluttering in momentary panic.  The vibration of it ran through me.

I turned.  I had questions, and I had only one place to go to get them.

I drew a small handful of curious glances.

The door to the Witch’s hut was closed.  I heard voices through the windows – there wasn’t any glass.

I walked a distance away, and I waited.

One of the birds tattooed on my hand was peering around my sleeve, looking in the direction of the witch’s hut.  I pulled my sleeve down.

I mulled over the questions I had, and tried to figure out what I could offer as a gift.

The door opened.  The hinges were makeshift, not actually hinges, and the door opened in an odd way.  The man struggled with the door until the witch held it.  He lurched out, a bundle swaddled in his arm.

In the swaddle was a very small, frail woman or maybe a child.  The individual was riddled with the long, hard kind of mushroom that grew on the sides of trees, nearly to the point of being buried by them.

The man looked despondent as he hobbled away.  I watched him go.

“You’re back,” the witch said, her eyes on me.  “You look quite different, considering how short a time you were gone.”

“How long?”

“Oh, it’s hard to measure time here.  Hours?”

I nodded.

“Come in?”

“The only gift I can offer is a bit of story, knowledge.”

“It’s only a convention,” she said.  “Not an obligation.”

“I remember coming to a decision, maybe a year ago,” I said, “I wouldn’t accept something for free.  I didn’t want to give someone else that power over me.  To make me dependent.  I just discovered that that decision was only an illusion.  I’m honestly not sure if it holds any weight, but I feel like it can’t be a bad decision.”

“If everyone felt the same way, the world would be a fairer place,” the witch said.  “If you’ll tell me what happened, I’ll give you my attention.”

“Thank you,” I said.

She stood out of the way, inviting me in.

“…a vestige,” I finished.  My recap had been loose, general, skipping whole chapters and ideas.  The story wasn’t as important as the underpinnings.

I met her eyes, “And you knew.”

“I had an idea,” she said.  “Vestige isn’t the idea that leaped to mind.”

I nodded.  “It’s funny, but names mean so much, symbols, all that, but all the same, at the end of the day, labels are a bit of a trap.”

“Yes.  Any of us have had labels applied to us over the course of our lives.  Some are accurate, some aren’t.  Man, woman, normal, freak, genius, ‘good’, idiot, ‘wrong’…”

“Fool,” I said.  “High Priestess.”

She arched an eyebrow.

“Labels that were applied to me,” I said.

“How, exactly?”

“They were scrying me or something, using a spell to read me.  They drew the Fool with the right hand, the High Priestess with the left.”

“Ah.  I don’t know that particular trick.”

I nodded, “me either.  Didn’t really get a chance to research after, either.”

“The Fool can be the lowest value or the highest value card.  The ‘zero’.”

“I know that bit.”

“Fitting, for someone who doesn’t really exist.”

I grimaced.  “Ugh.”

“The High Priestess addresses the veil of awareness, about intuition,” she gave me a pointed look, one eye peering at my hand, where the tattoos were more intense.

“Well then,” I said.

“For those of us who know about the practice, it has a second meaning.  The very first thing we perceive when we enter this realm.”

“Connections.”

“Yes.  Make of that what you will.”

“Left and right hands?”

“I don’t know the exact ritual or the exact meanings.  I do know the most basic aspects of the left and right hands, practically and symbolically.  The right hand is the active hand, the hand fixed in the now, the one with which you address the world.”

“Sure,” I said.

“The left is the hand we use when we’ve got our hands full, in times of stress, more clumsy, but we’re strongest when we use it in concert with the other, rather than relying on the other alone.”

“Solid advice.”

“Except-” she started.

I looked up.

“The left hand has another meaning.  When referring to the parts of the body, terminology for the right side is Dexter, as in dexterity.  When referring to the left, the word is Sinister.  In superstition, the left is viewed to be the side closest to evil.  When we spill salt, we’re to throw a pinch over our left shoulder to ward off evil.  When the angel and devil are depicted sitting on a man’s shoulders, the appropriate representation puts the devil on the-“

“Left side,” I said, in concert with her.

“With allowances for artists who don’t know what they’re doing.”

“So,” I said, “What does that mean?  This decision I just made is evil?”

“Not necessarily.  As I said, the left hand is the hand you use when the right hand alone isn’t up to the task.  We use it when we’re in a desperate situation,” she said.  She gestured at our surroundings.  “And our actions tend to be clumsier.  Not wrong, not evil, but it’s not a stretch to jump to that conclusion, when all’s said and done.  I’d worry more about when the High Priestess intrudes on your life and it’s not in moments of desperation.”

“Oh,” I said.  “Well that’s a relief, then.  Because I don’t think I’ve had a minute to breathe where my circumstances weren’t desperate.”

“In the quieter moments between fits of whatever it was you were doing.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

“The possibility remains that I could be very wrong.  Give some thought to whoever did this reading for you, and why.  The only time I imagine someone should be concerned with your left hand is when they’re your enemy, and they want to know what you have up your sleeve, how you might function in a moment of peak stress, or if they wanted to put a ring on your finger.”

“Wedding ring?”

“I’m not being entirely serious,” she said.  “We put rings on that finger because of the myth that it was the sole finger with a direct line to the heart.  I’m not sure it has any meaning.”

“Uh huh,” I said.  I thought of the Behaims.  “I’m not entirely sure what they were planning.  What about the Hanged Man in the right, the Chariot in the left hand?”

“For who?”

“My, uh, mirror self.  The girl who took my place when I came here.”

“The Hanged Man suggests suspension.  Patience, waiting to act to achieve a better outcome.  Being stuck.  Despite the implications of the name, the man is often depicted hanging from his ankle, not his throat.”

“Enough said.  The Chariot?”

“Victory, control, overcoming obstacles.  It can mean travel, reaching a new point in life.  It suggests aggression finding a clear outlet, being honed, often in the frame of being articulate, winning arguments, and confidence.”

“My concern is what it means in the left hand,” I said.  “I’m… rather worried about what she’s doing.”

“For that, we can look to the image on the card.  I’m working from memory, but the card usually features a man with a laurel or crown on his head.  The victor, if you will.  The conqueror.”

I leaned back, my head striking the door, making it bang against the frame.

“Problem?”

“That’s ominous,” I said.  “Very ominous, considering the events prior to me making my way down here.”

“The black and white sphinxes that pull the chariot frequently refer to mysteries, and the stance of the man in the chariot suggests will being enforced, not strength.  Schemes, rhetoric, arguments, travel, it might point to some reckless path to ruin, or to glory.  Just like your High Priestess, it’s not necessarily an evil path, but on the crux of this, she may find glory or ruin.”

“Sphinxes, conquest,” I said.  “No, this is suggesting ruin more than anything else.”

“Oh?”

“Too many parallels,” I said.  I fidgeted, fingers drumming my knee, where my legs were crossed, me sitting on the floor.  “Oh man, this is going to get worse before it gets better.  I’m getting a sense of what she’s going to do.  I gotta get out of here.  Soon.”

“Don’t we all?”

“I passed one trial.  I faced the question of my past, my origin.  I need to know… how do I face the others?”

“I don’t know about the future.  I’m not even sure how your future would get its hooks in you.  The present, well, I can only tell you my experience.”

“Yeah?”

“Except there’s a problem of sorts.  I… hm,” she said.

“Just give it to me.”

“It’s not that you don’t want the answer,” she told me.  “I just don’t know how to frame it.  When I did it, I was looking for a way out.  These sewers showed it to me.  A glimpse-“

She paused, frowning, looking off to one side.

I waited, patient.  Something told me that if I pushed, she’d just shut down and kick me out.

“I suspected it was responding to the route I’d chosen.  If I’m right, then the closer I got, the clearer the picture.  When I realized exactly what it was showing me and why, I turned back.  The images haven’t plagued me much since.”

“Right,” I said.

“The problem is… if you were anyone else, if you just had the Shadow plaguing you, then I’d expect this to be it.  You gave this place what it wanted, it broke you down on a level.  It should cooperate with you.  I don’t know enough to guess what you’ll have to deal with here.”

I rubbed the stubble on my chin, silent.

“That’s the best I can do for you,” she said, her voice stirring me from my quiet musings.

“Right.  Thank you.  I mean it.”

“Not at all,” she said.  “I should ask for a token gift or payment, in exchange for the information.  The spirits might not oversee us, but… equity.  I shouldn’t dole out advice for nothing.”

I nodded.  I plucked at my wool sweatshirt.  “Will this do?  More fabric, quality is pretty good, it’s warm.  I’ll be cold, but I can deal.  Not so much use in holding onto my humanity, when I know I’m not human.”

“Your sweatshirt will do,” she said.

I unzipped it, then pulled it off.  I folded it, then handed it over with both hands.

She took it, letting it sit on her lap.

“Guess I won’t be seeing you,” I said, half-standing, head bent so I didn’t bang it on the corrugated steel ceiling.  “Thanks again.  If I get a chance, I’ll visit that grave.”

“Hey,” she said, as I turned around.

Something hurtled at me.  I caught it in my right hand.

“A gift, to wish you well on your expedition.”

I unfolded the bundled sweatshirt.  My sweatshirt.

“It’s warm,” she said.  “Fabric’s pretty good quality.  Do what you can to hold onto your humanity.  Keep the best parts.  Take the good that comes with being Other, too.  But don’t just throw any of it away.  Be smart about it.”

I gripped the sweatshirt a little tighter.

“Also,” she said.

“Yeah?”

“It crossed my mind while you were talking, but then I got distracted.  I was going to ask, but I’m not sure if it means anything.  It’s only a thought, but it might be a thought worth carrying with you.”

“A thought?”

“Are you right handed, or is it the injury to your hand that’s making you favor your right?”

“I’m right handed.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Your mirror self is a southpaw, then?”

“No,” I said.  I searched my memories, before coming up with a fairly confident, “No.”

“Hmm,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “That’s odd, isn’t it?  Given the mirror thing?”

“Yes,” she said.

“Worth thinking about,” I murmured.  I didn’t want to say goodbye again, so I shot her a salute, before pushing my way through the door.

I stood in the center of the settlement.

This… wasn’t going to be fun.

The rehashing of my ‘past’ had been one thing, but there hadn’t been any real chance of being irrevocably destroyed, devoured, facing a fate worse than death, or an ignoble end with one stupid misstep on a ledge.

At worst, maybe, I might have been mentally broken, left catatonic all over again, or I might have made the wrong decision, failed to see the falseness for what it was, and trapped myself down here, perpetually ignorant.

Now I had to go back.

Face the present.

While my future was waiting, probably with its hand behind its back, hiding a weapon it was preparing to blindside me with.

I started walking.

Back the way I came.

Along the posts.  Back to the dark tunnels.

I’d had one fleeting vision in there.

A starting point.

“What the are you doing here?”

Rose stared as her parents came down the driveway, Ivy in their arms.

Her parents, not mine. 

I should have made the connection, seen the clue.  If they were going to name their firstborn daughter after Grandmother to curry favor, why would Ivy be ‘Ivy’ in a world where I was the elder sibling?

We wanted to see how you were getting on.”

“I’m busy.”

“Rose,” her father said.

“Rose, what?”

“It’s done, it’s over.  The house is yours and-“

“You wanted to see if you can’t worm in and get a piece of the profits if and when I sold it?”

“No,” he said.  He managed to sound exasperated.

“I’m not selling the house.  I can’t.”

“That’s fine,” he said.  “Whatever you want to do.  We just wanted to see you.  Are you okay?  With this whole thing that happened to Molly, and what Irene was saying about how she was acting…”

“What was she saying?”

“She was distant, cut off, and she wished she’d done more to help Molly.  Look, we made the trip here because we were worried.  The phone is disconnected-“

“Yeah, that wasn’t me.”

“Rose,” her mother cut in, stepping close, Ivy in one arm.  She reached out with her free hand, seizing Rose’s.  “Please.”

Rose didn’t even flinch.  Her expression was placid, not betraying a single emotion.  “Please what?”

“Don’t shut us out.  We’re close, and we’re here out of genuine concern.”

“For the money?”

“No.  For you.  You’d tell us if something was wrong, wouldn’t you?”

“No,” Rose said.  “No, I wouldn’t.”

“Can we work on getting to the point where you could?”

“In the realm of theory?  Maybe.  In reality?  No, I’m not interested, and no.”

“You’re being ridiculous,” her father said.

“No,” Rose said, expression unchanging, “I’m not.  You want to start on the road to reconciliation?”

“You’re implying we did something wrong,” he said.

“Yeah, yeah I am.  So I was about to make a deal with you, but now I have to amend it.  If you want us to get along, I’m going to need you to sign a statement that swears you won’t take any money or profits from sale of the property-“

“What?” her father asked.

And, I’m going to need an apology,” she said, her voice hard.  “Not for all of it, but I’m going to need it worded in such a way that you recognize and admit culpability for some of it.”

“Look,” her father said.  “Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying we raised you perfectly, or that I don’t have regrets.  A lot of it stemmed from the way I was raised.  Our family was so cutthroat, my mother pushed us to fight each other every step of the way, and that was… in a large way, it was the only relationship I knew for a long time.  We certainly weren’t allowed to make friends at school.  I’ve changed in some ways since meeting your mother, and since I became a father to you- taking you figure skating, or to gymnastics.”

“When I was eight.”

“Like I said, I’m not saying I was right.  We made mistakes, and when you started becoming more independent, resisting us when we were trying to put you on the right path-“

“By attacking my cousins.”

“Maybe.  Some of it.  But that’s the competition I was talking about.  It was ingrained into me.  I saw you back away from it, and I trusted you to figure out your own path.  Your own way to be effective and strong in a very hard, unforgiving world.”

“Well, congratulations,” Rose said.  She spread her arms.  “This is it.  This is me.  You want to blame Grandmother for making you into who you are?”

“Shh,” her mother said.  “Don’t wake Ivy.”

Rose glared.  “You want to blame her?  Well, you have only yourselves to blame for who I am, and I’m someone who doesn’t even want to waste five seconds in your company, let alone however many minutes we’ve been talking already.”

Her father clenched his fists.  I imagined the expression on his face was very similar to my own when I was angry.

“Rose,” her mother said.

What?

“That’s okay.  We can leave it at that.  But right now, I want  you to take Ivy.  Because whatever’s going on, between you and us, that doesn’t impact your relationship with your sister, okay?  You have to admit that’s the case.”

“Yeah, I don’t want to wake her up.”

“It’s okay.  Just take her.  Hold her.”

Rose didn’t budge as her mother shifted Ivy around in her grip.  Ivy made a small whimpering sound.

“Take her, before she fusses.”

Reluctantly, Rose took Ivy.

“We made mistakes,” her mother said, in a low voice.  “I won’t deny that.  Help us avoid making the same mistakes with Ivy.  That’s all I ask.”

Rose was stiff, holding the sleeping infant.

“Please?” her mother asked.

“Yeah, maybe.  How?”

“We just want to see you from time to time.  Time and place of your choosing.  Next week?”

“There’s a small cafe downtown.”

“I know it,” her father said.

“I’ll maybe call you,” Rose said, “Let you know.”

“Okay,” her mother said.  She reached out, and Rose began the process of handing Ivy back.

Her mother, however, hugged her and Ivy both.

Rose, still rigid, allowed her forehead to rest on her mother’s shoulder, eyes still open, moving by fractions, as if she were thinking and calculating about things far beyond the realm where she could see.

The scene went dark.  For a moment, I was disoriented, and I feared I was blind.

I wasn’t – I was only in utter darkness.  The pitch black of being in a cave where the last light source was a twenty minute walk down winding corridors behind me, and the next one was twenty minutes ahead of me.

“If you’re trying to get to me,” I said.  “You’re going to have to try to do better than that.  Rose has a better relationship with her parents than I did?  Good for her.”

I laughed a little.  Not loud – only a little.  “She’s real.  She’s busy plotting?  Spooky, when I’ve seen the recent vision, but good for her.  I’d hope I’d be taking every chance I get to plot as well.  You want to get to me, Drains?  Try harder.”

In retrospect, it might not have been the most brilliant idea to taunt the primeval engine of entropy and destruction.  The compost heap of reality.

Still, it gave me the courage to keep moving forward.

I’d unzipped my sweatshirt, taking it off, and tied it around my waist.    My boots were off too, laces tied together, so they were around my neck.  I walked with fingertips trailing the wall to either side of me.

The cold was bitter, it hurt like an icy fist closing around me, but it didn’t damage me.  I wasn’t wounded, I wasn’t frostbitten.

I wasn’t sure if that was due to my particular nature or if it was just this place, only wanting to use the cold to make me uncomfortable.

After walking another five or ten minutes, I felt the temperature of the air drop a degree or two in temperature.  Not a cold wind, but even so, the still air was cooler here.

I slowed down.

Steady steps, careful, heel, then toe.

Cooler still.  My skin would have prickled with goosebumps, if I were still human.

I wonder if I can get wings after all.

It was a giddy, delirious thought, a little unhinged, as I approached the spot where I no longer had walls on either side of me.  My arms were stretched out all the way to either side, and I touched only air.

Heel, toe.  It was quieter than tiptoeing, as my heel touched a frigid puddle where a gentle groove had worn into the bridge, and I controlled the way I lowered the rest of my foot so it wouldn’t splash.

I felt the cold radiating from my right, and I very nearly hissed in pain at the sharpness of it.  Nearly.

I tried to remember the degrees of cold.

My arms were still extended to either side.  I didn’t dare move them, out of a fear that they would creak.

I didn’t breathe.  My heart didn’t beat.  I was a false person, a doll, a man of branches and feathers.

Another step, another… the front of my foot came down in a way that had the toes touching only open air.  I adjusted the angle I was walking, to stay on the path, and I made my steps more careful, until I was more sure.

Five more steps, and I felt the acute cold, sharper than it had been, across my right foot.

I brought my left foot forward.

Same thing.

I shifted my weight, balancing on one foot, and raised my right foot, extending it outward, half-inch by half-inch.

I wobbled, arms windmilling.  The branches didn’t creak or splinter.

Controlling my movements, I stepped forward, over the limb that was draped over this narrow bridge.

Raising my back foot over was just as precarious, just as dangerous.  If I touched it, I might lose my foot, before it simply got me.

My hand touched something cold and slimy, and I felt another mad birdy fluttering of panic where my heart should have been.

Goodbye.

But my other hand touched something cold and slimy.

The two walls of the tunnel.

I made my way into the tunnel, hands still trailing the sides.

I paused.

“Missed me,” I said, loud enough for my voice to carry into the chamber I’d left behind.

A limb struck the wall, hard enough to make a cracking sound.  Cold air blew past me, frigid enough to tear the wind from my lungs.

When I’d caught my breath, I had to resist the urge to laugh.

It was frustrated.

Was I a little crazy?

No.  Well, yes, maybe.

But that wasn’t exactly it.

“I’m not so afraid anymore,” I murmured to myself.  “For better or worse.”

The Astrologer stared at the burning building, tears streaming down her face.

I edged above the slumbering greater goblin that served as the omnipresent terror to the small cluster of people on the watermill bridge.

For long moments, I contemplated attacking it.

If I had metal, something that worked as a weapon, and if I had enough courage to simply step from the ledge I was on and plunge down onto its back…

Something told me that in the vision of the future I’d seen, an action like that had been what had started me on my path.

Kill it, share the meat for favor and more tools, skin it, and take the pelt…

In some cultures, wearing parts of the beast meant taking on their strengths.  The book Valkyrie had touched on that.  Binding spirits into objects, then carrying those objects.

The vision taunted me.  The knowledge that I could do this, I just had to decide to.

The knowledge that yeah, maybe I could have wings.

What did it matter?  I wasn’t real.

Right?

I remained where I was, debating the possibilities, for far too long.  I felt almost paralyzed.

On the surface, it was a dumb question.  Of course I wanted to stay human.

But this went beyond the surface.

What was my dream?  What did I want?

I wanted peace.  To be left alone.  To explore, and not be bound to one place.

Ideally with Evan at my side, my friends a phone call away.

Except they weren’t mine anymore.  Not in the normal sense.

No.

This was, in part, what that vision had been about.  Taunting me with a future that highlighted just what I could and couldn’t have.

I might never get to ride my motorcycle again.

In a way, my heart broke a little with the thought.  Owning that little piece of work had been my first real accomplishment.  The first real thing I’d bought that hadn’t been for my own raw survival.  The first thing I’d wanted to buy.

It was a symbol for me, symbolic of a lot of things.

Now I looked down at the goblin below me, and I saw it as another symbol.  The other path.

I touched my sweatshirt, which I’d put back on, and I remembered the Witch’s words.

I’ll keep my humanity.

But, if this even counts as a third trial… I’ll accept this reality about my future.

I probably won’t ever ride again.

I started edging along the ledge, as quiet as I could manage, teeth clenched.

You want to take something away from me, Drains?  That hurts more than losing my humanity.

Why?  It was simple.

Motorcycles rocked.

Humanity?  It varied.

“Yo,” Mags said.

Alexis and Ty exchanged glances.

“I’m the postman today,” Mags said.

“Rose is sleeping.  She was up late,” Alexis said.

“Yeah?”

“Something about a Barber?” Alexis asked.  “Any idea?  Might have something to do with what she was saying about us needing the big guns.”

“Huh,” Mags said.  “No idea.  I’m just hoping those guns aren’t too big.”

“Me too,” Ty said.  He looked tired.

“Not me,” Evan said.  He looked like he’d lost a few feathers, a few more were sticking up, as though they were on the verge of falling out.  “I don’t need to sleep anymore.  It’s a luxury.

“Lucky runt,” Mags said.

“You should sleep,” Ty warned.  “It conserves energy, and it delays the time until your next transfusion.”

“Bring it,” Evan said.  “I’m saying we should do the fire spirit thing.  Make me a phoenix, bro.  C’mon.”

“No, bro,” Ty said.

“C’mon, c’mon.”

Ty looked to Alexis for help.

“You got him started on that,” Alexis said, “You egged him on.”

“Damn it.”

“C’mon!  Pleeeeeaaase.

“Ahem, listen,” Mags said.  “I have letters I’m delivering in my official capacity as ambassador, and it doesn’t matter if Rose is asleep, because they’re for you… three.”

“Tiff’s hurt,” Ty said.  “I’ll take hers to her.”

“Great.”

Mags handed over three letters.  The envelopes matched.

Ty tore his open.  Evan hopped down to his wrist to get a closer view.

“A declaration of war,” Ty said.  He looked up at Mags, concerned.

“Damn, didn’t know,” Mags said.  “They said they’d do it.”

“We didn’t-” Ty started.  “We thought Rose stopped them from agreeing to those accords.”

“They’re still sticking to them, just not so officially,” Mags said.

“Damn it,” Alexis said.

“For all three of us?”  Ty asked.

Mags shrugged, “I can only assume.”

“Picking off the pawns before going for the checkmate, I guess,” Alexis said.  Her voice was calm, but her hand jittered as she reached for her pocket.  “Damn, need a smoke.  I’ll be back.”

“Not in the house,” Ty said.  “Rose said not to, and if you burn this place down-.”

“I’m not doing it outside,” Alexis said.  “Declaration of war, remember?  We could get attacked.  I’ll do it in the bathroom with the fan on.”

She muttered some curse word, inaudible, as she stalked off toward the ground-floor bathroom.

“Thanks, real Mags,” Ty said.

“Sorry,” she said.  “Good luck.”

His own emotions were betrayed as he hurried to shut the door, barely even paying attention as he shut it in her face.

He slumped against the door, while Evan fluttered up to the top of his head.

“Damn it,” he said.

He looked utterly miserable.

The guilt that fixed me was like a spear to the chest.  Violent in its intensity, force, and the pain that hit me where my heart was supposed to be.

I had asked this place to try harder.  Now it was dawning on me.  The objective, the message.

Hitting me where it hurt.  I didn’t want to wrestle with the idea until I had more validation, more confirmation.

Keep moving.  Wrestle with it when you’re out of here.

In the end, there weren’t many paths to try.

I was at a ledge, not far from Green Eyes.  Not far from the gargoyle’s perch where I’d first sat down, gotten my first glimpse of the present.

She’d told me to go left.  Her last bit of advice.

Coming back the opposite way, that meant I was turning left, to take the path she’d warned me off.

Another dark tunnel, sloping downward.

Water pattered down on my head and shoulders from above.  It ran down the walls in trickles and streams.

I saw light at the end of the tunnel.  My path was lit up, brighter than I’d seen yet.

I heard a buzz, a dull drone, like a low note, held continually.

Further down the path, the ground was shattered, ruined.  It was limited to chunks that only barely held together, haphazard, with deep cracks between each that I could fit a limb into.

As I got further down, the amount of running water increased, the light grew more intense, and the state of my surroundings grew even more precarious, more crude.  I almost had to hop from one shelf of stone to the next.

Twice, I had to stop to calculate which path posed the smallest gamble, three times I had to pause to work out how best to navigate over piles of crumbled masonry, or open chasms that were too wide for me to leap across.

The drone increased in intensity.

The light was in sharp contrast to the darkness here, and the sharp shadows that were cast were misleading, suggesting gaps where there were none, or glare hid the cracks that did exist.

I rounded a corner, and I was blinded.

Fell’s grave, the snow falling heavily.

“We’ll come back tomorrow,” the old woman told the little girl.

Then light once more.  Almost worse than the darkness.  My skin prickled with it.

In the midst of whole sections of the Drains that had broken away was a cavern.  Quite possibly what the Drains had been before they’d mutated into the drains.

In the midst of that cavern, a face stood out from the wall.  It wasn’t stone, but it looked like something close.  Bone, perhaps, or calcified flesh.

I had to wrestle with the idea that it was simultaneously further away than it looked and very, very big.  Especially for a face.

It could very well have been as large as a mountain.  The area between it and me was empty of anything, vast, a chasm as wide as the gap between countries, maybe.

It rested at an angle, leaning against a distant solid surface I couldn’t make out, surrounded by cracks that cities could have been built in.  It was cracked as well, with gaps running along its pale features, almost to the point that it looked like it might shatter any moment.  The eyes were open, and a light radiated from the eyes, as intense as the sun.

The noise it was making, the size of it, I couldn’t comprehend it, not cognitively, but in my would-be heart?  I felt something swell.

Light shone from the open mouth, too, and the drone emanated from the mouth, deep enough to touch me in the core of my body.

The size of it, the sheer base… I wasn’t even sure how to phrase it.  The simpleness of it?  No, that was wrong.  The appearance, the light, the utter monotone of the sound it generated, it was more like it was at the heart of simplicity, at the heart of something from which more complicated things could emerge.

A lesser god?

Forgotten, fallen through the cracks, swallowed up by this place that had existed before the Drains were Drains?

But… if my eyes weren’t deceiving me, this place and the area around the face had become Drains, only to break away.  The face, presumably, had been buried.

It had been revealed now.

It came back to the same question I had just faced.

Why?

I looked at the wall where the light was shining.

Where there was light and water, there was life.  Plants grew, scraggly, weedy, dangerous looking plants that probably had thorns or poisonous oils.  Because I doubted anything else would grow here.

Where there was light, however, there was shadow.

In that deep shadow that remained where the light couldn’t quite reach, I saw something move.

I saw darkness move.

My ‘heart’ beat its mad panic beat inside my chest.

I knew the name of that particular darkness.

“Ur,” I murmured.

It was working its way into this place that lay through the cracks.  Into the Drains.  The only thing that had stopped it, cutting it off from the heart at the source of it, was the accidental uncovering of this ancient forgotten god.

The panicked movement within my chest only got worse as my thoughts turned over, grasping the import of this.

Alexis, sitting in the bathtub, using the drain to put out her cigarette, a book on her knee, her other hand on her head, fingers in her hair, pushing it back.

Ty giving Evan a push, sending Evan fluttering off to where they’d stowed the video game console.  Evan was slowly dying, even his flight faltering, and he didn’t remember our bargain, he wouldn’t know to keep it, to move on.  Ty was too weary to even move away from the door, too stressed to even want to.

Tiff, nose crusted with blood, blankets pulled up around her on the couch, where she was so still she looked dead.

Carl, sitting in his living room, smiling at two of his friends.  One had a cup of tea, the other a joint.

I swayed, the battery of scenes leaving me virtually unable to put two thoughts together.

I didn’t even have time to contemplate the fact that Carl existed.

“I get it,” I said.  “I get it.  The abused becomes the abuser.  It’s my fault, isn’t it?”

Only the scouring light and jet blackness answered.

“I made a cabal, just like Carl made his cult.  The world was worse off for having me in it?”

I took a step back.

I stared at the chasm in front of me, the light that lit up the motes of dust that were thick in the air, the waiting tendrils of Ur.

“And I have to go out the same way I came in?”

If my heart felt like an animal in bondage, thrashing to escape, I felt like it was crawling its way to my mouth, ready to flee.

“Through Ur?”

Another step back.

I ran.

I leaped.

Ground gave way underfoot as I planted my foot down.  I still leveraged it into a jump.  I crossed the chasm.

I’m so light.

I hit with my ribs taking the brunt of the impact.  Masonry broke away, deep gouges cut into it by Ur’s devouring tendrils, and I fought to keep my place.  I climbed a small avalanche of falling brick and stones that disappeared almost as quickly as I could grasp them.

No fucking way was I leaving it at that.

I saw tendrils move, escaping the cracks they’d been hiding in, reaching.

My climb slowed.  I lost headway.

Clawing with my hand, I tore away a section of brick that was blocking the light.  It flashed across the gap, and the tendrils disappeared.

I found footing, leaped once more, almost straight up, grasping a handhold.

Again, I tore at brick to kill the tendrils.

I leaped to one side to put myself in the light, to catch a breath.

Metal gleamed in the dark.  A rod, radiating with spikes.

I grabbed the rod with my damaged left hand, letting the spikes impale flesh.

It would, if nothing else, keep the two halves in place.

I pulled the Hyena free.

This is the place for lost things.

And I was close to the place that served as entrance and exit both.

But not quite there.

Tendrils were breaking free, clutching for me, using the same shadow my body cast.

I wasn’t going to make it like this.

Tendrils seized me around the middle, and they bit into my sweatshirt, consuming it, finding gaps in my flesh.

I couldn’t even look to see the damage it was doing.  I had to avert my eyes.

I had to…

Ask for help.

I screamed.

I screamed guttural, as close to the same tone as the god that shone its light into this dark chamber, fighting Ur for as long as he lasted.

I worshiped that lost god for just a moment.

The light grew more intense, and Ur burned away.  Even the pieces in my arm.

I found the gap, unable to see, and clawed my way through, fighting through the shadowy places Ur had just occupied.

The light faded.

I was in the factory, lying in a heap, the dim morning light streaming through the windows, basking me in everything that was ordinary and warm.

The same place from which I’d entered the Drains.

The guttural god of light didn’t reach here.  The light faded.

I found my feet.

Ur, too, recovered.  Shadows breaking out of the walls, cutting off my escape.

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