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.”
“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 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.”
“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.”
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.
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…”
“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?”
“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.”
“Definitely,” the man said. He took another puff. “I’ve been looking for an 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’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.”
“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.”
“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.
“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.
“There we go, finally a decisive answer. I’m Nathan, priest of Dionysus. You are…”
“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.”
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.”
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.
“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?”
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 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.
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.”
“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?”
“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.
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?”
“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.”
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?
“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.”
“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.”
“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.