I clenched my fists, but neither was in particularly good working order. My left hand was split in two, the wrist of my right hand butchered by the way I’d slammed it through the side of the bridge.
Getting to my feet was a slow process, made slower by the fact I couldn’t use my hand. Elbow on the railing, which wobbled unsteadily as I put my weight on it, a piece of signboard bowed under my weight as I planted one foot on the ground and used it to stand.
Ms. Lewis was already walking away. Her suit and clean, shampooed blond hair were eerily out of place in here.
With a quick glance over my shoulder, I looked for Carl. He was gone. For the time being, I was sure.
Bystanders stepped out of Ms. Lewis’ way, giving her a wide berth.
“Don’t walk away from me,” my voice was low.
She didn’t respond. She kept walking.
I hobbled after her.
She paused, and I took that as my cue to stop. Which was great, because I was aching in a dozen places. My leg, my hands…
“Talk to me,” I said. Demanded.
“Talk to you?” She turned. “Who are you? Keep in mind, that’s a very complicated question.”
“It doesn’t need that complicated or loaded an answer. I’m Blake Thorburn.”
“‘Blake Thorburn’ has no power. He has minimal presence in the material world. He has a minimal presence here. The spirits no longer pay him any mind. He can lie. Did you know this? Your words have no substance anymore. The only person who actually knows about you is your goblin queen friend, and she recently finished a ritual that obligates her to stay in Jacob’s Bell. You can’t throw your name around if it has no weight.”
“You still know about me,” I said. “How?”
“Yes. The demon primarily cut connections to those who were gathered outside the building. When you lost your grip on the world, other connections broke. Your home, your parents, your little sister… I held onto mine, as your goblin queen friend did.”
“And I know about me,” I said.
“You do,” she said.
“That would be telling.”
“I want out of here,” I said. “You can’t tell me you don’t have any use for me anymore. Just take me out of here, let me see to my affairs, and then you have me at your disposal.”
“Whether you’re talking about the errand I promised or joining the firm, we’re simply not interested. You’ve served your purpose, you’re spent, as currency goes. Inviting you back would only undermine everything we put in place for our client.”
“Undermine?” I asked. My mind raced.
“I understand you’re upset, Mr. Thorburn, but I offered you a means of extending your very short stay in the world, and you refused it. You’ve effectively ceased to exist, and right now, you’re wasting my time. If you wish to continue this conversation, I may have to bill you for your time,” she said.
A pause as I glared at her.
“You went considerably out of your way to refuse our last offer. I don’t think there’s anything I could tell you here that would be worth the price I’d exact.”
Undermine. It was an idea to latch onto.
If the idea had been to simply bring Rose into the world, they could have set up what they did and simply killed me.
Rose hadn’t become a practitioner, purposefully screwing up the awakening ritual, but she had learned. She’d studied.
I’d been there for a reason. Buying time. Buying Rose time. I’d been there to absorb the initial hostility, to put Rose in a good position. Then Grandmother’s ideal heir, custom made, got placed in the real world, replacing me, consuming my energy to become real. Any enemies vicious enough to put her down would be bewildered. Rose, knowledgeable enough to know what to do, would capitalize on the confusion that came with her appearance.
Except I’d gone down in the messiest way possible and buggered up that part of things.
Isadora had known it, and she’d tried to offer me a clean death rather than this. Or whatever fate I was running headlong towards. Rose had maybe known it. Laird had known it.
I could understand Isadora knowing because of what she was. I could understand Rose knowing because she’d been tipped off. Given a nudge or some lawyerly advice. How had Laird known?
“I was the sacrificial pawn, then,” I said. “That’s all it amounts to? I die, so Rose can live?”
“Effectively,” Ms. Lewis said. “You were polite in our conversations, and that’s more than some of our more manic or deranged clients manage. I noticed your call, however small your voice is, and I thought I would stop by to urge you to make peace with your circumstances.”
“Peace?” I asked. “Peace? Here?”
“It would be for the best,” she said.
“This isn’t the kind of peace I want,” I said. “I’m really fucking tired of people trying to get me to lay down and give up. To accept their fucking idea of peace. I want my peace, damnit!”
“Yet the alternative to our idea of peace was and is an unquiet end. You’re standing in quicksand, Mr. Thorburn. Thrashing means you only sink faster, exhausted and frightened. Go still, wait, and you might remain in the quicksand, but it won’t be quite so unpleasant.”
“No,” I said. “That’s not me. I’d rather go down fighting and stupid. Foolish. I’m asking for your help because I have to keep going somehow, and I can’t keep going here. Not with the price involved, not when it’s going to grind me down and make me something different.”
She tilted her head a little. It was unsettling how the gritty droplets that occasionally rained down from the ceiling weren’t touching her. This place wasn’t touching her.
“I suppose you’re right,” she said. “You can’t give up, and this may be the worst place for you to be…”
Despite myself, I checked again. Carl was still gone.
“…But you won’t get help from me. Unfortunately, that puts me in an awkward position.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, did I put you in an awkward spot?” I asked, infusing my voice with weeks worth of repressed sarcasm.
“Dramatic irony at its finest,” she said. “Your goblin queen friend can’t and won’t come, and your other friends are preoccupied. You left no other meaningful allies behind you. You’re alone. I’m your last hope, and you can’t let me go… unless I prevail on your wisdom and self preservation.”
“You’re threatening me?”
“I can’t have you following me out,” she said, “And I’d rather not make waves by leaving more dramatically. People aren’t the only things that come to this place to be worn away. Many a Demesne or forgotten god have fallen through the cracks, nothing to tie them to the world above. I would rather not disturb the more powerful locals.”
“You’re saying there’s an exit.”
“I’m saying this conversation is over,” she said. “I’m not here to hand you a solution. I’m saying farewell, that I’ve dealt with worse individuals, and I’m choosing to refuse your request in person, rather than leave you to keep wondering. I’m sorry it has to end on this note, but if you follow me, I will speak a name and you will regret making the choice.”
“As I said, this conversation is over,” she told me.
My divided hand clutched my wounded wrist as I stood on the rickety, piecemeal bridge, watching her leave.
When she said she would make me regret it, I believed her.
Frustration, rage, horror and a measure of panic boiled up within me.
Impotent emotion. I wasn’t dumb enough to follow.
But what the fuck was I supposed to do if I stayed?
I watched her disappear into the darkness, onto some ledge or path out of reach of any of the flickering lights.
My heart pounded. My mouth and throat were dry, even though my entire body was damp and numb with cold.
The darkness pressed in. I couldn’t shake the idea that the darkness was as solid as hard earth, and it extended for miles in every direction. Any progress I made was at the expense of scratching in dirt.
There was only this little patch of reality, and then only constant resistance that cost me more than it was worth to make headway against.
Seeing Carl had fucked me up.
Bystanders were staring. Others and people who weren’t a hundred percent people anymore. Broken down individuals who’d been shored up by whatever they could scrounge up from this place. Animal parts, grit, rags, flesh bloated with water.
I turned my back on the bridge that Ms. Lewis had taken, limping back in the direction of the small settlement.
I would have been lying if I tried to convince myself I managed to compose myself, but fuck it, I was allowed to lie now.
Hard shoe heels struck the tiled floor. The church was dim, with some multicolored light streaming in through stained glass windows.
Sandra stood in front of the altar, not at the altar. It loomed behind her, but the fact that she wasn’t using it as a stage to speak from suggested this wasn’t a proper assembly. Her familiar was perched across her shoulders, body bent to accommodate her neck. She wore her hair in a braid that draped over one shoulder, and a long coat with a fur ruff around the hood. Her family was arranged on one side of the aisle.
Mags sat on the edge of the stage, to Sandra’s left. Three goblins sitting or standing in her immediate vicinity. Her dark hair turned away from her head in twisted little curls, and only the metal hairband kept her from looking shaggy. Her t-shirt was black, with a bloody cartoon character on it, her jacket too small for the deep winter. Her denim skirt had threads hanging from the hem, and her legs were in black tights, jammed into sneakers. She looked painfully out of place with the modern clothes, and she looked worn out, with dark circles under dark eyes, little injuries everywhere, but the goblins around her were obedient, and formed a kind of unconscious tableau.
Andy and Eva stood leaning against the stage to Sandra’s right. He looked just similar enough to Eva for them to be obvious relatives, but their style of dress and demeanor were completely different.
Duncan sat with the Behaim family, his jacket draped on the back of the pew behind him. He wore gloves that extended inside the sleeves of his long-sleeved shirt, had one foot propped up on the seat of the pew. One finger tapped a relentless metronome beat on his knee.
A younger Aboriginal girl sat on a pew, all alone. Nobody sat next to her, but the Briar Girl and the Briar Girl’s familiar sat in the row behind her.
The Faerie had taken seats behind the Behaims. Ev and Keller. Padraic was absent.
Johannes was the last major player, sitting a little ways back, his familiar beside him.
Other Others were arranged at the edges of the room.
Eyes were on Rose. Alexis, Ty and Tiff had joined her, and each one of them was backed by a summoned Other. Alexis had a knight in rusted armor, Tiff was joined by a small child with white hair and pale pink eyes, lower face hidden by a scarf, and Ty was accompanied by both a mangy-looking Evan and a hulking brute of a man draped in what might have been necrotized flesh or seaweed. It was hard to tell.
Rose was accompanied by James Corvidae, and her style of dress -still wearing clothes from Grandmother Rose’s wardrobe- matched his in a strange way. Corvidae met the eyes of the small Aboriginal girl who’d partially turned around. He smiled, a slow, wide smile. The girl twisted around, sitting back down, eyes forward, but she smiled a little too.
Rose wasn’t in a position to see either smile.
“The diabolist has a cabal?” Sandra asked.
“No,” Rose said. “A circle. I haven’t taught them anything that would qualify them as a cabal, not yet.”
“You’re not doing yourself any favors, talking like that,” Sandra said.
“I know. Can I sit?”
“It’s your prerogative,” Sandra said.
Rose stood by while Ty, Alexis and Tiff filed in to take a seat on the pew. Their individual others moved into the row behind them, not sitting.
Rose took her seat at the end of the pew closest to the middle of the church.
“I must say,” Ev commented, her voice light and airy. “It is quite refreshing to have an active Thorburn around. Say what you will about the last one, she just wasn’t that interesting. We’re happier to be rid of her.”
“If you’re trying to bait me, it’s not going to work,” Rose said. “I wasn’t fond of Molly either.”
Mags shifted position, uncomfortable.
“For the most part, we’ve made our initial forays,” Sandra said. “Testing the water. If I suggest that an outright war is looming on the horizon, I don’t think anyone’s about to correct me.”
“I didn’t think so. This may well get very unpleasant, and I’d like to manage how unpleasant it gets. I’ve touched on the subject with Johannes, and I believe he’s on the same page as me.”
“Geneva conventions?” Mags asked.
“In a sense,” Sandra replied. “I don’t want this to devolve into the same sort of mess that apparently occurred in Toronto. I would propose a series of rules, to keep this contained and to keep it private.”
“I’m not against the idea,” Johannes said. “So long as they’re new rules, not some convoluted tradition that we can’t hope to study before events come to pass.”
“New rules,” Sandra said. “We limit the collateral damage by keeping all altercations between official combatants. To protect individuals that can’t speak for themselves-”
“Small children,” Johannes said.
“Yes. To protect individuals like babies and small children, we assume that only those individuals that sign a given, freely available tome are participants in the struggle for the Lordship of Jacob’s Bell.”
“I’ll have to say no to that one,” Johannes said. “My allies come and go, and some can’t sign a book. The rule is biased against humans and humanoids.”
“Individuals that can speak for themselves,” Sandra clarified. “Make a declaration.”
Johannes spread his arms wide. “I have friends that can’t speak conventionally. And how and when would this declaration take place? You’d need observers, which suggests it would have to take place in a setting like this, but that creates time restrictions. Not to mention it’s a rule that explicitly puts me at a disadvantage. I’d prefer my enemies to be surprised with the sheer variety of contacts and allies I have.”
“Then you won’t agree?” Sandra asked.
Johannes shook his head.
“If I may?” Duncan asked.
“People can declare themselves out of bounds, with the caveat that they cannot participate,” Duncan said. “Those who cannot speak for themselves can be named by another.”
“While they are present,” Johannes said, “With room for objection.”
“I have no objection to that,” Sandra said. “Innocents, and anyone who names themselves or is named by another and cannot or will not speak against that?”
“Works for me,” Johannes said.
“A show of hands, then?” Sandra asked, raising her own hand. “Who is interested in making a bid for power?”
She kept her hand in the air. It was joined by Duncan, Johannes…
“Rose, I know you’re new to this,” Sandra said, “But you might change your mind if I were to tell you that if an area has a diabolist for a Lord, that area becomes a target for other groups.”
“Groups with a sense of self preservation,” Duncan said.
“I know that already,” Rose said. “I’m still making a bid.”
“And your, ah, Circle?” Johannes asked.
“We’re standing by her,” Alexis said.
Sandra made a bit of a face. “Right. Then do we have any individuals or groups that are declaring for themselves? Separate and apart from the conflict, or hoping to gain from it without declaring for a side?”
Hands went up around the periphery of the room. Various Others. The two Faerie.
The little Aboriginal girl’s hand went up, as did the Briar Girl’s.
“Very well,” Sandra said. “You agree to abide by the rules?”
“If we don’t,” the Briar Girl said, “You’ll deal with us first, to keep this controlled, won’t you?”
“Yes,” Sandra said.
“Then I guess I have to.”
“I have to ask if there are any explicitly neutral declarations? A role to play in the contest itself, or in relation to the city?”
Andy and Eva’s hands went up.
Mags raised her hand too.
“Good,” Sandra said. “We’ll clarify the details in a moment, then. The second point would be to protect the citizens. Any altercations for the Lordship, should take place within Jacob’s Bell, which is only appropriate. No property should be damaged or altered in such a way that it distresses an innocent resident. I don’t want this to be about bloodshed and destruction.”
“Within Jacob’s Bell and its demesnes, and my residents aren’t considered innocent,” Johannes said. “Honestly, Sandra. Do you really imagine I’d let that one slip by? Amend it and I’ll agree.”
“I’ll agree as well,” Duncan said.
“Very well,” Sandra said. “Any altercation should involve a clear declaration of war. Where allowed and fitting, I would like to do this with clear rules of engagement. Contests, rather than outright fighting and murder.”
“This is getting tiresome,” Johannes said. “Of course you want contests rather than murder. You’re an enchantress. Assassination and violence remain on the table, or this is a farce.”
Sandra smiled. “Good. Declarations of war, then. Fair notice, confrontations should take place behind closed doors, the public none the wiser. I’ll just suggest it’s more Lordlike if one can best a foe without such barbarism.”
Johannes smiled just a little too much at that. “Of course.”
“We can add more rules at a later point,” Sandra said. “For the time being, are these basic restrictions fair? Any objection?”
Rose’s voice was quiet, but it carried.
It wasn’t the first time she’d displayed good oratory skills. Eyes turned her way.
“You object?” Sandra asked.
“Yes. I’m declaring my bid for the Lordship of Jacob’s Bell, and I’m unequivocally refusing all the proposed rules and conventions.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Duncan said. “You know what’s going to happen. Anyone who refuses, like the Briar Girl said, is inviting immediate retaliation.”
“You keep telling me things like I was born yesterday,” Rose said. “I know. I don’t particularly care.”
“You’re making enemies here,” Sandra said.
“You’re putting innocents at risk by weakening this agreement,” Duncan spoke, his voice low.
“Oh, you’re thinking of your fiancee,” Rose said. “Again, you keep telling me things I know and have considered.”
Johannes spoke up, “Your circle will be obvious and easy targets to weaken you. Surely you’re not that heartless.”
Tiff fidgeted, hands out of view behind the back of the pew in front of her.
“It certainly looks like I am that heartless,” Rose said.
“They’re open game, then?” Johannes asked.
“Try,” Rose said.
She stood, fixing her coat, then strode from the church.
It was a good twenty seconds before her circle and Others had all departed. The door shut behind the monstrous Other with the seaweed flesh.
“Well,” Mags said. “That happened.”
“We could forge the same deal with her absent,” Duncan said.
“It would be far weaker as a group-sworn Oath than it would be if everyone was involved, and it would put us at a disadvantage in relation to our prickly miss Thorburn there, tying our hands while leaving hers free,” Sandra said. “I’d rather not, not officially.”
Johannes smiled, leaning back on his pew. “Honor system it is, then.”
The North End Sorcerer excepted, there were very few present who looked particularly happy with the turn of events.
The Faerie were two of those few.
“So refreshing,” Ev murmured to Keller, practically squirming with excitement.
Muscles were tense all throughout my body. My teeth were grit so hard I was getting a headache.
I intentionally walked through the open pool of water, disrupting the image and sounds. Nobody else had caught them. The scenes were just for me.
What the fuck are you doing, Rose?
Me being a pawn was bad enough. My friends being used as pawns?
Holy fuck, if this place wanted to screw with my head, it was succeeding by leaps and bounds. Fuck me. I’d already been trying to deal with the frustration and rage that had followed from talking to Ms. Lewis, but now this? Watching my friends get led to their doom while I was utterly unable to do a thing about it?
I raised a fist, ready to punch a wall, and stopped. My wrist was still a wreck, badly bandaged with my other spare sock.
My other hand- bandaged with the first sock, divided in half.
A kick then? My right leg was a wreck, barely able to sustain my weight when I walked.
I would have screamed, but I wasn’t sure it wouldn’t wake up something I didn’t want to wake up.
There wasn’t anything to do but swallow my frustration. To let it gnaw at me from the inside out. The environment was doing its fair share of damage from the outside in. At some point, I’d hit my limit.
This wasn’t that point. Like I’d told Ms. Lewis, I wasn’t about to lie down and die.
I hiked up my pants leg to double-check my leg’s condition. Veins and capillaries had burst, causing horrific bruising, complete with what looked like black tracks along the skin where the veins or arteries or whatever had been closer to the skin. All from a brief touch from the cold tentacled thing in the water.
I let the pants leg drop. At least it wasn’t an open wound, like the cuts and abrasions on the sides of my right wrist were. Open wounds meant inviting diseases. Or, worse, they meant inviting something special to this place. Fungi, molds, parasites, infections of the sort that weren’t in any medical journal.
I needed a weapon. There were people selling them here, further into the settlement.
I needed information.
Progress through the settlement revealed more shacks. In places, shacks had been arranged around resources. Eight or so shacks were arranged in a ring at one point opposite a chasm, and water periodically emptied from some pipe high above, along with collected debris and garbage. Where the water passed under, I observed, there was very little garbage. A grill or grate to catch the leavings, shared communally?
Light, it seemed, was another convenience, many shacks built to covet and borrow the light of a given lightbulb, their windows and shoddy construction allowing only slices of light through for others to use. Safety was yet another, and the only apparent safety here was the safety of being in the middle of the herd. As I drew closer to the heart of things, the houses were crammed in closer together. It was like a very young child’s experiment with building blocks, sloppy, haphazard, and it didn’t make fundamental sense. Everyone knew that when one laid down bricks, they staggered it, so each brick was supported by the two below. Kindergarten level architecture.
Yet over and over, I saw sloppy construction where people had somehow, for some reason, decided to build their shack as an extension of the place below, increasing the pressure, making it all just a touch more wobbly and unsteady.
The people, too, didn’t feel like a society. The crowd didn’t function as any crowd should. Individuals stopped in the middle of the footpath, walked against the unsteady flow of people, and ranged from the openly hostile to the hyper-passive avoidant types.
I wasn’t seeing any indication of signs or general means of finding anything I needed. I had to ask.
I stopped a man who was walking by, looking furtively around, like he might be jumped from any direction. He startled at my reaching hand, as if he’d barely noticed I was there. Skin had been ripped away from his face, neck and hands in long, perfectly straight, pencil-thin strips.
“The witch?” I asked.
He started moving again, but he extended a hand, pointing as he walked, eyes averted from mine.
Moving in the direction indicated, I found an alley. It was the only way to describe it – a bridge with constructions on either side. Shacks were piled haphazardly beside and on top of on one another, very few any larger than a single room. They rose like individual walls with only a narrow path between them.
I picked out the Witch’s as one of the biggest, with walls of found stone – clusters of brick and mortar or stone and mortar that had broken away from various walls of the drains, fit together imperfectly. Something had been stuffed in cracks, sufficient to keep light from shining through gaps where individual elements weren’t flush.
There was even a plant in the window, which was quite literally a hole in the wall, lacking glass or any covering. The plant was a weedy, shitty looking plant of indeterminate nature, but there was a decoration. That said something.
Anyone here who isn’t a victim is a predator, I thought.
I knocked on the door of driftwood. There were cracks between the door and the wall, and candlelight shone through.
I had to work for a second to figure out how to open the door. The ceiling was low enough I had to duck a bit.
The witch was surprisingly normal looking. Back in what Ms. Lewis had called the material world, the witch would have passed for a homeless woman. Her hair was matted in places, and her skin had stretches of rash where it didn’t seem to have grit embedded in the flesh. Forty or so, Greek if I had to attach an ethnicity to her.
But she would have passed for normal, and the extensive collection of knick-knacks and decorations, as well as genuine conveniences suggested she had been here for some time. She’d spliced wiring leading up to a lightbulb and extended it to what seemed to be a hot plate. A radio buzzed in the background, a man’s voice reading what might have been baseball stats, alternating between English and a guttural foreign language. Swells of static periodically drowned out the voice. Candles sat on three different surfaces, fat and crude looking. Driftwood was stacked by what might have been a fireplace, though it was no larger than a toaster.
“You practiced,” the witch said. “Before.”
“That was you with the visitor, on the poles?”
The poles? Now that I thought about it, the bits of architecture between the bridges of scrap metal had resembled pillars, reaching up from the abyss to go nowhere.
“Yes, it was.”
“My visitors customarily bring gifts,” she said. “I don’t ask them to, but they started doing it, and some even bring small gifts from time to time, so I remember their faces. An insurance of sorts, so I might give them my time when they need it, and I am otherwise preoccupied.”
“Forgive me,” I said. “I didn’t know.”
“It’s fine,” she said, “You don’t have to give me anything. It’s a convention, not a rule.”
“I’d like to,” I said. “I could give you word of the outside world.”
She snorted rather dramatically. It wasn’t the usual snort. It was the sort of snort that one could only manage if they were particularly ill or if the circumstances and environment were just right. Heavy, impossible to ignore.
“No?” I asked.
“Everyone has the same question, and I’ll ask them if I’m curious in exchange.”
“I like fairness,” I said.
“Good,” she said. “Ask your questions.”
I shook my head. “One second.”
I pulled off my winter coat, then my sweatshirt, followed by my shirt.
“You’re more attractive than some,” she said, “But not so attractive a striptease is warranted or wanted, my dear.”
Shirtless, cold, I held out my t-shirt and sweatshirt. “Sorry this is so impromptu. You can have either one, your choice.”
“You’re new here,” she said. “What makes you think I want a filthy, sweaty piece of clothing?”
“I was homeless once,” I said.
“Were you now?” she asked. She quirked an eyebrow. “What do I care about that?”
“There’s always a use for an extra bit of clothing,” I said. “And I assume people are bringing you the wood you’re using for that fireplace, as gifts, and I can’t imagine you won’t find some use for a reasonably clean, intact shirt.”
“You’re not wrong,” she said. She took my t-shirt, smiling. “I like you. Offering accepted. Sit, please.”
I sat, struggling with my injured leg and hands.
She made no comment on either, taking an excessive amount of time to drape my t-shirt over the makeshift fireplace.
“Ask your questions,” she said.
“How do I get out?”
“There it is,” she said.
“I’ve heard there are exits guarded by powerful entities. They exact a price for passage.”
“That’s one way,” she said.
“And I’ve heard that practitioners visit, picking up the most monstrous and powerful.”
“Partially right. The most monstrous are left well alone, and for good reason.”
I nodded. “My… visitor commented that there were powers best left undisturbed.”
“You know of demesnes?” she asked.
“I know of them,” I said.
“People aren’t the only things that find their way down here. A demesnes with no tie to the world may fall through the cracks just as any person might. Some say this is how this place learns and adapts to the times.”
“Makes sense,” I said. “Does anyone or anything run this place?”
“Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know everything. I would venture a guess, fellow practitioner, that it was a demesne once, and it was attached to some vital process of our reality. Through this vital process, it came to devour other demesnes and objects, and it swelled in size. It connected to other such areas, and formed the backbone for what might otherwise have been the original void.”
“In the earliest creation myths, void was not nothing, but raw chaos. Nothing was not a concept. Void was an endless storm of everything under the sun, a great elemental grinder to churn up all which fell into its reach. But over time, this place became more civilized. Gods, you see, fall through the cracks as well, without worshiper or memories to hold them in place. They sleep inside the walls, and bring a kind of logic to this place. Demesnes bring memories of their masters. Every visitor shapes this place in little ways. The drains are but one manifestation of this essential need the universe has, for healthy entropy.”
“Cooperating with this entropy and working in concert with this place might make you sensitive enough to the underlying workings to divine a way out. The sad fact, however, is that many who do this don’t want to leave, in the end.”
“I, um, had a dream, where I did that. Cooperated. But I did want to leave.”
“Many have these dreams,” she said. “Not all leave in the dream.”
“There are other ways,” she said. “You know of bogeymen?”
“Yeah. They get out.”
“Hot malice drives them, anger. They boil up much as heat rises, and crawl free. Particularly gruesome, iconic ends give them this strength.”
“I feel pretty goddamn angry,” I said.
“Reports of your discussion with your visitor suggest you are… but the kind of malice and anger I’m talking about is anger where a civil conversation is utterly impossible. If you were one of them, you would attack on sight.”
“There are other ways, but they are very specific ways,” she said.
“I’m open to specific.”
“I couldn’t name them all, and I couldn’t be certain about them all either. At times, it’s ambiguous. Did they escape, or did they die in the process?”
“I’m open to uncertain, too,” I said.
“Too much hassle. Bring me another gift on a day I’m not so tired, and I’ll entertain you naming the possibilities.”
I frowned, hands clenched.
“Another question?” she asked. “You’ve found me tired but in a good mood. Take advantage.”
“There’s something following me,” I said. “A person from a memory. But his hair and clothes are black. A conversation with another resident of these drains suggested she-“
“-Had a shadow as well,” the witch said. “Not everyone does.”
“What is he? No, scratch that, dumb question. How do I fucking deal with him?”
“Most decide to run,” she said.
“I’m not most,” I said. “How do I bind him? Or seal him or banish him or whatever?”
“Ah, and I was starting to suspect you weren’t a real practitioner. Unfortunately, our like don’t have our true power down here, only our knowledge, and some tricks here and there.”
“Knowledge is power,” I said. “And it’s a huge freaking inconvenience sometimes, but you and I both know that Others can be countered if you have the right material, or the right circumstances…”
“You’re right in that, but you’re wrong in one element. He’s not Other. Not quite.”
It wasn’t hard to put two and two together. If he wasn’t Other, and he obviously wasn’t human, or animal, or plant, or mineral…
I groaned a bit. “No. That’s so cheesy.”
“A part of you. A reflection, twisted in a distorted mirror.”
“I’ve spent way, way, way too much time already dealing with a distorted reflection already,” I said.
Memories of the recent dreams hit me. The feeling of betrayal. There was that anger I’d just mentioned.
Fuck. I needed out of here. Rose was fucking it all up. I was at the point where I might do something reckless if I didn’t see a way through.
“The obvious answer is very simple,” the witch told me.
“You simply give him up. Abandon him, reject him, carve away that part of yourself. Some do it simply by attacking and killing their shadow.”
I swallowed. “Like I can give up my need to eat, or my need to sleep, or any of that. Except there’s a price, isn’t there?”
“Yes,” she said. “Tell me, did your shadow plague you in this vision you had, of yourself escaping?”
“No,” I said.
She spread her hands, as if that was my answer.
“…I was a monster,” I said. I wasn’t so hampered in my relationship with Green Eyes.
I only had to ask, and I could be rid of Carl, of those memories.
“Oh fuck,” I said, burying my face in my hands. “Don’t tell me that.”
“The spirits might not reach us or affect us with the same strength down here, but I believe in truth and honesty,” she said. “I believe in the bastardized notion of karma that suggests that if one is just and good, then justice and goodness will find them.”
“Telling me that isn’t just and good,” I said. “Fuck, that’s an easy out I’d totally take in the heat of the moment. Do you have any freaking idea how scary that is? I just said that knowledge can be a huge inconvenience. This is a freaking death sentence you just handed me.”
“I gave you truth,” she said. “If I started lying to people who come to me, I’d lose what little traction I enjoy, here.”
Fuck fuck fuck.
“Talk to me, stranger,” she said.
We hadn’t exchanged names.
“This isn’t even a slippery slope,” I said. “My humanity is one knee-jerk reaction away from utter ruin.”
“Humanity?” she asked. “Look at yourself. Your hands.”
I looked down at the feathers and branches, the cuts and scrapes, the wounds on my wrist.
“I guess I’m not so human anymore,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s the question,” she said. “The real question is, what are you?”
“That sounds an awful lot like the question I just got from my visitor.”
“It’s an important one,” she said.
“I’m… Other,” I said.
“Yes,” she said.
“And, what, that means I should keep going down that route? That there’s some weakness or strength I can derive from my status?”
She sighed a little.
“I don’t…” I started, but I couldn’t put thoughts into words. I was agitated, upset. “All I ever wanted was to wrap this stuff up. To go back to something resembling an ordinary life, to have my bike and my familiar back, and just, I dunno… wander?”
I felt like I was going to throw up. She wasn’t responding.
But she was listening, and that meant something. I spoke, just to fill the silence, to unload something more that I’d bottled up inside me. “I… every step of the way, I feel like I’m getting further and further away from that.”
“Hm,” she said.
“I’m thinking, nothing more. When push comes to shove, do you think you’ll take the step that leads you down that path, or the step that leads you to where you need to be?”
“Away from here? I’ll take the step I need to take. That’s what’s driving me so insane about all this. I keep taking that damn step. Away from what I want. Why? Is that bad?”
“It’s what it is,” she said. “I’ve mused before on the paths some take to escape. That this place tells them. Perhaps this vision of your future is suggesting you need to let go of this dream of yours if you want to find a way out of here… except…”
“You have a shadow as well. By my theory, you’d need to confront a reality about your past.”
“Confront the shadow?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said.
Okay, that sick feeling I had was getting worse at hearing that.
A thought struck me.
“And what does it mean if I have visions of the present? Of that screwed up reflection I mentioned in passing?”
Was Rose a doppleganger? “For the sake of argument.”
“It means there’s a present reality you need to confront or resolve. I’ll put it simply, stranger. These things are anchors, tying you down to keep you in place. This place is taking those anchors and using them, giving them form, to put you off balance. I’ve never run into someone with three, not that I’ve noticed.”
“This is kind of abstract,” I said, staring down at my tattooed hands. The branches seemed to move as the shadows the candles cast danced from left to right. “I’m not sure I grasp how I’m supposed to deal with these things.”
“How does a boat deal with its own anchor?”
“Haul it in,” I said. “Get it onboard. Oh fuck no.”
“Yes,” she said.
“That’s the answer?”
“It’s maybe a part of the answer,” she said. “This doesn’t make an exit magically appear. If I’m right, it does free you to walk through an available exit.”
I stared down at my hands.
“You know,” she said, “I came up with this theory based on personal experience. Glimpses of what was waiting for me if I made it back scared me off when I was drawing closer. I decided it was easier to remain here, than to resolve the issue and face reality.”
“I can’t be complacent,” I said. “It’s just not in me.”
“That realization sounds like the first step you need to take.”
“It’s the next step that terrifies me,” I said, my voice quiet.
“Rightly so,” she answered.
A silence lingered.
“I was going to ask about medical care, how to treat my injuries, but I’m already worried I owe you too much. I jumped into the questions without asking what the proper price would be. The shirt was just for the sit-down?”
“The shirt was a convention, not a rule,” she stressed. “As for this… if and when you fail, stop by and tell me. Or leave me some sign if you can’t speak. Further my research.”
“If I succeed?”
“Then I won’t have any answer at all,” she said. “Forcing me to wonder if you’ve died or escaped. Another data point, if nothing else.”
“I owe you more than an obscure data point or vague sign,” I said.
“If you felt compelled, and if you were ever able to travel like you dream, I think my family has a gravestone with my name on it in Wisconsin. Zoey Artana. A flower would be nice.”
“That sounds like a proper wizard name,” I said. “I’m jealous. You’ve got a deal.”
I started to get to my feet.
“It’s going to get uglier before it gets better,” she said.
“Believe me, I know,” I said. “Thank you.”
“We’re all on the same side here,” she said. “Us against this place. Doesn’t mean we’re all friendly, but it does make this sort of thing easier.”
“You’re not wrong,” I said. “If there’s anything that might make me want to stay in this place, having people be decent to me is a hell of a trap.”
I wasn’t sure what to say in response, good luck with this thing here, so I stayed silent.
I walked until I reached the poles. Pillars of stonework spearing up from the darkness, until it felt like a strong wind would make them wobble. Rickety bridges of debris stretched between each of them.
I stood there, in the darkness, cold and hungry, my woolen sweatshirt clammy against my skin, the seams rubbing at my shoulders, hurting from a dozen things at once.
There was no standing water for me to glimpse Rose and the others. I wasn’t about to sleep to confront the future, and I wasn’t sure that was the route I needed to take to pass that particular hurdle.
My focus lay elsewhere. The first hurdle, the most concrete one.
I heard footsteps and turned.
Carl stopped as I made eye contact with him.
“You got me,” I said. “I’m not running.”
“Think of everything you could have avoided if you’d done that from the start,” he said.
“Fuck you,” I said. “Do what you gotta do.”
He approached, and I had to stop myself from taking a step backward.
He stopped a foot from me.
He wrapped his arms around me in a hug.
I found myself someplace else.
I’d expected something bad. The shelter, cold, fear, panic, shame.
This place wasn’t that kind.
I felt warm, sunshine, safety. I smelled literal bullshit and cut grass.
I felt at peace.