Category Archives: Arc 9 (Null)

Null 9.4

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I guess I’m starting from the beginning.

It wasn’t a memory.  More like a stage play, an act, the objects around me were props, not replicas.

The Drains were telling me I wasn’t out, maybe.  Or tainting my memories with some twisted version, to make bad memories worse.

A light rain fell, and it was dark.  The sky above me was pitch black, and I stood in the middle of a field of grass.  It was blighted.  The lighting was strange, without source, but sufficient to give me a glimpse of a landscape that extended from horizon to horizon.  Flat, checkerboard patterns where the dirt or grass were in different states.  Here and there, I saw animals in the distance.  A gaunt horse, a cow with some prolapsed uterus or intestine dangling from its rear end, a goat with blood on its snout.

I was shirtless, shockingly skinny even to myself, my arms smeared with mud, scratched and rubbed raw here and there.  My body wasn’t my own.  It wasn’t the body I’d worn before I was sent to the Drains, and it wasn’t the body I’d worn in the Drains.  I was lean, eighteen, skin, muscle and bone, with barely a half-pound of fat on my body.

I’d never been stronger, yet exhaustion had a firm hold on me.  Not just the tiredness of a hard day’s work.  The tiredness that came from working oneself to the point of collapse one day, sleeping five hours, then doing it the next, for days on end.  A simple push could have laid me flat.

I was okay with it.  I took in a deep breath, and even the taint of the Drains that marked this place didn’t take away from that essential experience.  The air of the outdoors.  Of cow and horse shit, wet grass, and oxygen.

I felt that peace.  Brief and fleeting, but peace all the same.

I recognized it, in a way.  This was where I’d stood, a little more than two years ago, when I’d first been okay.  Maybe okay for the first time I could remember.  No stresses of family, or school, or ambient hostility, no pressures, no watching people I cared about tear each other apart…

It was okay, but not perfect.  I did have worries looming on the horizon, but it was a damn sight better than it had ever been, and there was hope it could better.

It was a heady feeling, a scary one, because of how fragile and how very surreal it was.  The alien nature of this landscape only enhanced that surreal quality.

My grimy hands pulled a rubber band free from my hair, then pushed that same long, damp hair away from my face.  I tied it back with the simple elastic, so the hair was against the nape of my neck.

The fact that I could do that much of my own volition meant I wasn’t limited to being an observer here, like I had been in the visions Laird and Conquest had bestowed on me.

My heart pounded.

“What are the rules here?” I murmured.  I wasn’t sure if I expected a response or not.  What form would that response take?  An ominous voice?

I grabbed the poles to my right, jutting out of the ground, I recognized them as part of a post hole digger, and I slammed it into the earth.

Eerie, to have two functioning hands, a working leg.  I could see out of both eyes, and the vision out of my right was somehow too sharp, the outlines too defined, as if my brain was overcompensating after the recent lack.

Hole dug, I had to walk ten feet to the pile of wooden posts and boards.  I grabbed one post and a few boards, gathering them up in my arms, and waddled back.  Post into the vacant space… I checked it was secure.

The wood wasn’t supposed to be such poor quality.  It looked like the sections of a post I’d be replacing, not putting up.

All the same, I carried out the necessary steps.  Rotate the post until the slot was in the right place, then move the boards into place.  Nail them in.  I unrolled the length of wire fencing to run along the new section of fence, and I stapled it in place.

I looked at the post hole digger.

I knew what came next.  I’d reach for it, pick it up, but I wouldn’t get to the point of digging the hole.

I bit my lip, and I kept my hands where they were.  I watched the field instead.

Intentionally breaking from pattern.

“Everything alright?” the voice was deeper.

I turned to look.  I didn’t flinch as I saw the old man.

An actor, so to speak?  He looked Other.  His face was pale meat, eyes invisible in the midst of puckered, infected flesh, his mouth a slash across the lower half of his face, the vague hole that was his nose was off-center.

“Everything’s great,” I said.  The rain was falling harder, the light not so expansive, if I was noticing right.

Was that the result of deviating from the script?

He put one hand on the post, giving it a test for stability.  The fingers were all blurred together, like a burn victim’s.  “You’re doing good work, Blake.”

“Thank you.”

“I’ve had paid people who weren’t as quick to get their heads around what they were supposed to be doing.  You’ve got a knack.”

“Thanks,” I said.

Now that I wasn’t so active, the cold drizzle was starting to get to me.  I headed to the treeline and grabbed my shirt from where I’d hung it.  The trees seemed too bright and green, given the darkness of the sky, the branches jagged and gnarled.  I pulled the flannel shirt on.

In the midst of the silence, my response was halfway second nature and acting the part, halfway to remembering the line I was supposed to give, “I like having something to do.”

He turned, looking toward the house in the distance.  “Stop what you’re doing, come and eat?”

“I don’t have much more to do.  Can I-”

“I insist,” he said.  His voice was serious.  “I want to chat.”

“Should I bring the tools or-”

“Under the trees,” he said.  “You can get back to it this afternoon.  If the rain’s too bad, you can just pick them up.  Don’t forget.”

It took only a second to move everything from the fence-in-progress to the shelter of the treeline, a matter of feet away.

We walked through the field to head to the house.  A minute passed.  An awfully quiet minute, considering the ‘I want to chat’, a moment before.

I felt trepidation.  Not for the same reason the me of then had.  The me of then was worried about getting fired.  The me of now was worried about what was coming.

“You’re planning on staying the winter?” he asked, breaking the silence.

“Um.  Given the chance, please,” I said.  Then, the me of then felt compelled to add, “I was hoping to have a guaranteed warm place.  It was sort of the point of doing this.”

I remembered how I’d felt guilty about guilt-tripping him.

“Thought so,” he said, festering meat hole of a mouth opening and closing.

I hated to see someone I’d looked up to made into something so disgusting.  It was a slap in the face.

Fuck me, I’d been so relieved then.  Now it was just one step further along the path.

“I was talking about it with Chrissy,” he said.  “We’re kind of in an awkward place.  Wanted to figure out where you stood before we got ahead of ourselves.”

“Awkward?”

“Deal stands, Blake.  You’ve got room and board so long as you’re willing to help out.  I’m as happy to have you as you are to be here, if I’m not making bad assumptions.”

He didn’t sound happy.  “I’m happy to be here.”

When the first really cold rain had hit for the early fall, I’d headed to the youth shelter.  The idea had been floated around by shelter staff, that if we wanted secure accommodations, there was always a chance to find work in the more rural areas between the big cities.  Situations just like this.  Farmers who needed help but couldn’t afford to pay a wage.

It was tentative, mostly for springtime when the workload was heavier.  Most who made the offer had been bitten more than a few times.  Stuff stolen, addicts who flaked, choosing the high over the work.  The job could end any time, without warning, and it was very possible to be worse off in the end than if we hadn’t tried at all.

I’d made the leap, and it had worked out for the most part.

“There’s already frost on the ground, first thing in the morning.  You’re not dressed for it, and neither Chrissy or me have clothes that would come close to fitting you.  If you keep going like you are, you’re going to hurt yourself.”

I very deliberately avoided looking at his more prodigious stomach.  It bulged in a weird way, like he had a hernia or parasite.

He continued, “Unless I’m wrong, you don’t have money to buy better clothes, and we- we’re not in a position to buy clothes for you, however helpful you are.  Not good, rugged, warm clothes that are going to do you for the winter.”

“Oh,” I said.

“I’m not wrong then,” he said.  “You didn’t think that far ahead?  You don’t have clothes I don’t know about?”

“No,” I said.  “Even if I had thought about it, I don’t think there was much I could do.”

“I suppose you’re right, Blake.  Six or seven hours a day of work outdoors, it’s… it would be cruel to expect you to do it, as it stands, and it’d hurt us more than it helped if we kept you on but kept you indoors, in terms of finances and all that.”

I didn’t have a response for him.  There was only waiting.

“Might have to let you go,” he said.  “Just to be safe.”

Oh, the anger that the me of then had experienced.  The frustration, even.  Not so different from my recent experience in the drains.

To fight and work myself fucking feverishly for a place in the world, to do it with my own strength, then to get kicked while I was down, again.  To try my hardest and just have circumstance take it all away?

“Sorry,” he said.

“Yeah, I am too,” I said.  My feelings were so bare that I could only decide between sullenness and anger, and I’d gone for the former.  I’d hated how I’d sounded, then.  How much it reminded me of the family I’d run away from, the passive-aggressiveness and bitterness.

“I was thinking, after you’re done with the fence, you want to help me with wiring the lighting in the new stable?  You’d learn something you could take with you.”

“Back to the streets?” I asked.  “Yeah, might keep me warm in the coming months, earn me a job.”

I’d been looking to wound, maybe, to slap him in the face, to get a reaction.

He didn’t flinch.

I’d probably felt worse at hearing those words come out of my mouth than he did.

“Shit,” I muttered.  Even now, my shame was as sharp as it had been then.  “Sorry.  Nevermind that, please.  Please just forget I said that.  I’d really like to learn whatever you can teach.”

The silence was like a weight around my neck, too heavy.  Each step forward was harder than the last.

“You know what?  I’m going into town tonight,” he said.  “Need to pick up some stuff.  Why don’t you come?  I can maybe ask some people I know, they’ve got kids who are or were about your age, might have some stuff to spare.  You can stop by the bin at the back of the church.  Bit of a long shot, lot of a long shot, and I dunno how you feel about…”

Oh.

That was how this worked, wasn’t it?

Just like the witch had told me.

All I had to do was say no.

This would end here, on this pleasant note.

All I had to do was deviate from the script.

“About relying on the kindness of others?” I asked, before he could say begging.  “If it means staying, it’s fine.  That’d be great.”

The ‘great’ came out a little strained to my own ears, where I’d meant it to be enthusiastic, meaningful.

“Good man,” he said.

One meaty lump of a hand fell on my shoulder.  For the me of now, it was a weight, body contact, uncomfortable to the point of being unbearable.  For the me of then, it was the first time anyone had ever called me a man in a way that felt real.

There was a reason I was starting this early on.  Digging into a period of time I didn’t even like to think about.

Lose-lose, in the end.  Either I said no, and I gave up, or I said yes, over and over, knowing what was coming.

It wasn’t as fragmented as I’d hoped it would be.  No jumps from scene to scene.

The environment and the hideousness of my surroundings began to grate, fluctuating here and there.  Eating was hard, the taste slightly off.  Everything uncomfortable.  There was no respite here.

I felt like there was a rule at work, and it wasn’t entirely about the script, the story, or the stage.

I was making my way through this with hindsight, and wherever that hindsight helped me against what had been unfamiliar or uncomfortable before, this landscape replaced it with ugliness.  The food was an unfamiliar taste, the dynamic at work still uncomfortable, and that was represented in the meal.

The me of then hadn’t quite been able to trust people.  People were made monstrous.

The end result was that I was more or less on the same equivalent footing as I had been back then.

My mind was working overtime to figure out how this place worked, to take my thoughts off the future, and the realization of when and why things were ugly was my sole epiphany, over the course of the day’s work, finishing the fence and learning about the wiring.

My anxiety ratcheted up as it came time for us to head to town.  In the end, the me of now was almost in a worse mental space than I had been then.

Fuck.  Fuck.

Fuck this reality.  Fuck the Drains.

The small town came into view.  Old buildings, peeling paint, all under a dark sky.  The streetlamps and lights from inside the buildings were the sole illumination.

Fuck, fuck fuck.

Fuck.

The car stopped.

“Got some stuff to do, errand, asking around,” he said.  “Meet you here in, hm, hour and a half?”

“Sure,” I said.

“Good luck,” he said.

I nodded.

This spot was darker, a little more jumbled, the buildings closer together in an odd way, but still spaced apart, as if there was one destination in each cardinal direction.  The church, the stores, the bit of hill overlooking the water.

My memories were indistinct here.  I couldn’t remember the exact order, so the order didn’t feel like it mattered.  I could go to the church and check the bin, only to discover there was barely anything I could wear.  I could go to the clothing stores, hoping for cheap overstock, for stuff that was being thrown out or discarded, only to be disappointed.  I could go to the hill and stare out at the distant lake, at houses separated by quarter-miles of dense foliage or broad fields.  The me of then might wonder about the future, morose, doing his best not to think about the days he’d been beaten, shot with pellet guns, had his things stolen.  Days he’d nearly died.

But one building loomed, larger than it should have been.  Restaurant, cafe, tavern, all of the above, none of the above.  The lights inside were brighter, and the illumination extended further, reaching across the street to where I stood.

Fuck this place.

I crossed the street, not sure I’d have the conviction if I put it off.  Skip the unimportant steps.  This was where this place wanted me to go.

Laughter, one goofy laugh.  Genuine laughter.

More actors.  Three girls, all alien or monstrous in their own ways.  One with a crest of what might have been a hard fungus, shaped like horns, but growing over her eyes, over to and behind the corners of her forehead, her flesh was pallid.  Another looked almost normal, but never blinked, the whites of her eyes visible.  The third had teeth about twice the normal length.  The guy opposite them had scalded, peeling flesh.  They were supposed to be in their early- to mid-twenties.

They were arranged in a booth with a table, three seats with cushioned backs surrounding the three sides of the table.  Each had beers, and overfat, burned french fries sat in a basket lined with paper.  They took turns grabbing the french fries, biting into them.

The actors weren’t my concern.  My attention was on the man at the far end of the booth, opposite the opening, girls on his right, the boy on his left.

Carl.  Just as he’d appeared in the drains, utterly normal, except the colors were off.  Black hair and beard, black turtleneck sweater, black jeans, black scarf around his neck, more for fashion than for warmth.  His arms were draped on the back of the booth, extended out to either side.

The look on his face was different than it should have been.  Or so I thought.  I couldn’t remember the exact expression, or I was remembering it wrong because my perspective had been tainted.

For me, then, it had been a long, long time since I’d dealt with people my age in anything but a hostile context.

Hey there,” Carl said.

“Who’s this?” Fungus-face asked.

“I thought we’d seen all of the local boys,” Teeth commented.  “Hey you.”

“Uh,” I said.

“Don’t worry.  We don’t bite,” Carl said, smiling.  He looked at Teeth, “Right?”

“Right,” she said.

I couldn’t shake the notion that he was in on this.  That he saw what I saw and accepted it.  His expression and posture… he was on this stage that the Drains had created, but he wasn’t an actor any more than I was.  Not really.

“Listen, I feel dumb for asking, but-“

“The only dumb question is the question to which you don’t know the answer,” Carl said.

I hadn’t known how to reply to that.

“I do, though,” I said.  “I’m pretty certain I know what you’ll say.”

“Then why ask?” he said, cutting me off from elaborating without actively interrupting.

“I have to,” I said.

Was it hindsight that colored my view of his words and his attitudes?  The me of then had kicked himself for handling the conversation so badly.  He’d almost walked away.

“Then ask,” he said, serious but still smiling.  “We won’t laugh at you or judge you.  Promise.”

“I’m doing some work for a local farmer, and I’m-” their attention made it hard to press on.  The me of then had stuttered.  The me of now decided not to.  “-sort of underequipped for the winter.  I’m sort of asking around, seeing if anyone has a jacket or boots to spare.”

They hadn’t laughed at me, just as Carl had promised.  That somehow made it worse.  The awkward silence was made doubly worse by the fact that I had no idea what they were thinking.

Except the present me sort of knew.  I could see Carl studying me, very much in the way he’d studied me then.

“Not cool,” Carl said.

I was supposed to say something, to sputter.  I didn’t.

“Before you ask for a favor, you should tell us your name,” he finished.

I resisted, but something in the atmosphere told me I couldn’t bend the rules this much.  I couldn’t improvise here, refuse an answer and expect this test to continue.  Every second I waited, the contrast between light and dark seemed to sharpen, the noise of the light rain outside more intense, until it all felt like it might start to come apart at the seams.

“Blake,” I said.

This shadow reality seemed to sigh.  I blinked, and the contrasts eased up, the patter of rain against window growing quieter.

“Hi, Blake, I’m Carl.  These are my friends.”

I was caught for a second, tripped up because his words didn’t line up with my memories.  Hadn’t he introduced them?

I didn’t complain.  Easier if I didn’t think about it, and they weren’t the focus of all this.

“Hi, Carl’s friends,” I said.

They smiled or gave me little waves by way of greeting.

Carl smiled.  “Now that we’ve got that out of the way, Blake, I actually do think I can help you out.”

I remained silent.

“It’s not a problem, Blake,” he said, smiling.  “We’ve got some spare stuff.  One boot might need some glue where a flap is sticking off, and it’s not pretty, but it should do you.  What size are your feet?”

“Ten.”

“Perfect,” he said.  “You got a car?”

“No.  I can borrow a bike.”

“If you can get here, you can get there.  It’s west off the forty-one rural.  You’ll see a sign.  Loon Lake.  We’ll get you set up, Blake.”

My expression was stern, my gaze hard, as I met his eyes.

“Thank you,” I said, in probably the least grateful tone I’d ever managed.  Only because I was sticking to the script.

“We’ll see you in the next few days, then?” he asked.

That… it felt wrong.  I didn’t remember it.

He was breaking from script.

Making me say it.

“Sure,” I said.  My chest and throat were so closed up with emotion that I could taste bile in my mouth.

He gestured with his hands without moving his arms, “Got plans?  You should sit.  Partake of our fries.”

“I shouldn’t,” I said.

“Don’t worry, really.  We’re about as low key as people get.  Come on, we’ll order a round.  It’s on us.”

His eyes were exactly right in this world of imperfect and muddled details.  For someone who said he was low key, the eyes were hungry, drinking in every detail they could, looking for something he could use.

I’d sat down.  I’d had a bit to drink, despite being under the legal age.  Such was the script.

The past me had.  Here, I took a different option, “No thanks.  I’ve got someone waiting for me.”

His smile was almost smug.  Not Carl’s smile so much as it was my shadow’s.  I was deviating from the script.  I hadn’t ruined it, I wasn’t running, or refusing to continue, but I wasn’t helping myself either.  Not on the surface.

“See you in a few days, then?”  Never-blinks asked me.

“Yeah,” I said.  I raised my hand in a small wave, forcing a smile to my face.

“Bye, Blake,” Carl said.

I didn’t reply as I left the cafe.  I headed to the hill that overlooked the shop, leaned on the railing at the cliff’s edge, and stared out at the alien landscape.  I could take this option, but I couldn’t refuse to give him my name.  I had to give him that power.

After about twenty minutes, I punched the railing hard enough that I should have shattered my hand.  It hurt like I had.

Time slipped away from me somewhere along the line, as this shadow-reality crept in on me.  Never time that I could have given up.  Hours stretched on, but always the better hours.  I lost track of time while I worked, I experienced time at its normal pace when I lay in bed, awake.

If this was a matter of simply overcoming one or two events, it would have been something else.  Grit my teeth, fight.

But this was a question of endurance, fortitude.  Doing it all over, the bad bits, the stressful bits, the parts I regretted.

I’d been physically exhausted on my initial entry into this shadow reality.  Now my emotions and my sanity were starting to feel the toll.  The hideousness of everything, the darkness, the uncertainty, knowing what was coming…

Fuck this place so very much.  Fuck it, fuck it, fuck, fuck, fuck.

An unspoken curse punctuated every push of my feet against the bike’s pedals.

Wheels skidded on the dirt road as I came to a stop.

Carl’s place.

Cabins, all built on a hilly spot of land, overlooking a lake.

Carl waited on the front steps of one cabin.  It felt imperfect, not exactly right.  He had a bundle in his hands.

The second I was off my bike, he tossed the bundle at me.  Clothes, jacket, boots… Everything I needed.

“Great to see you, Blake,” he said.  “Come check it out.  Get hydrated.”

I couldn’t say no.

Except that wasn’t exactly right.  I could.  I just couldn’t do it without failing this test.

I followed.

More cabins, all log, stripped bare, set down on a concrete-block foundation.  Chunks were cut out of the logs so they could mesh at the corners, Lincoln Log style, with mortar or something filling the gaps.

He grabbed a beer from a cooler, tossing it at me.  I caught it in both hands.

My eyes roved over the lake.  I could make it out, despite the lack of light from above.  I was reminded of pictures of bioluminescent algae on the ocean, highlighting the cresting waves.

It was beautiful, eerie, and unsettling.

Doubly beautiful because it was in stark contrast to the ugliness I’d experienced for the length of my stay here.

“Nice place,” I said.  Script.

“It really is,” he said.  Just like that, simple.  He helped himself to a beer.

We drank our beers.  He finished his first, starting on the second.

Tired from the bike ride, I stayed where I was, content to nurse the empty can and pretend it had more in it than it did.

“Carl!” a girl’s voice.  Fungus-face’s.  “Coop!”

Carl was on his feet in a second, a brilliant smile on his face.  “Come on.  You want to pay me back for the jacket and boots?  Give us a hand.”

Waves crashed against the rocky beach below.  Each crash was more intense than the last.  The wind picked up, my hair and the grass whipping in the gale.

Second by second, it intensified.

“If you’re going to tap out,” Carl said, his voice friendly, as if he was my greatest ally, “This would be the time to do it.”

I felt my skin crawl.

“In a way, it’s the point of no return,” he said.  “Go any further, and you might feel like you have to do something stupid.  Like punching that railing…”

I touched my hand.  The pain was gone, any wound already healed.

“…Or one of us.  You know there’s no situation where you win here,” he said.  “Conquer this reality, attack me, dash any or all of this from your mind and your heart, you leave a hollow that gets filled by other things, and you become a monster.  Abandon it, and you’re still there, in the Drains, for the rest of your short existence.  Go through with it, and you’ll be less.”

“I know,” I said.

“Three,” he said.  “Two…”

“Let’s go build your fucking chicken coop,” I said.

He spread his arms wide, as if embracing this world.  He turned on the spot, and he jogged away.

I had to run to keep up, because hesitating might have spelled the end of this, as good as giving up.

It was a metaphor for what followed.

Actors with smiling faces played the roles of the waiting group.  Small, only six, eight with Carl and me.

It was a barn raising, so to speak, but it wasn’t a barn.  Eight of us worked in concert, starting from the raw materials.

Just as I’d run after Carl, I felt momentum carry me from this point on.  I wasn’t sure how I’d been able to tell, but I’d somehow known that the challenge here wasn’t in making the choices, so I didn’t have to make any.  I rode a cresting wave like the glimmers of light in the water did.  Enthusiasm, cheer.  They passed me another drink.

I showed that I actually knew stuff, that I’d learned from my time with the old man, that I had talent.

I’d almost forgotten what that felt like.  To have people praise me. Even the old man’s praise had been tempered, mild.  But these guys, a few of them were drunk, and they held nothing back in telling me how amazing I was.

Even in the cool fall air, we got hot.  One of the guys elbowed me, pointing for me to look – Teeth was in the water her back to me, swimming with no top on.  One of the guys and Never-blinks ran to join her.

It was nice.  The me of the past had found it a reprieve from weeks of hard farm work.  The me of now found it a break from the hostility and grind of the Drains.

It took maybe four hours to get the chicken coop and surrounding fence up, between eight of us, though half were drunk or playing around by the time the job was done.  I’d been content to work, because this sort of thing came easily to me.  Putting stuff together.  I had ideas about the roof, and I’d wanted the praise that came with making those ideas happen.

It was dark by the time we were done, and we were sitting on the steps of the nearest cabin.  I had a beer in my hand, and it wasn’t my second, or even my third.  My eyes were on the cresting waves with green-purple light marking the peaks and the foam on the sand, pitch black marking the ebbs.

Carl offered me a joint.  I refused it, passing it to the girl next to me instead.

Even if I’d hopped on my bike now, it would have been two or three in the morning by the time I was back.

I’d told myself I had a job to do.  Part of a job.

I’d then convinced myself it was only a job that I might get fired from if the jacket and boots weren’t sufficient.  A job he’d been willing to fire me from.

Fungus-face took my hand, pulled me to my feet.

Mute, I followed as she led me to her cabin.

I couldn’t see her face in the dark.  I could only feel her lips on mine, her cheek against mine as she hugged me tight.  There was very little ugliness here, because there hadn’t been much holding me back then.  Nothing that needed translation.

“I like the scruff,” she said.

“I’ve always hated it,” I replied, speaking for myself more than I spoke to her, convincing myself I still had some volition in the middle of this scene.  “Makes me feel homeless, reminds me of this night, right here.”

She pulled off my shirt, then pulled me down on top of her.

Actors and actresses on a stage.  Even I played a role here, because I couldn’t be the me of the present day in the midst of this.

The me of the past felt better than okay, for the first time in ever.

“Basics only,” Teeth told me.  The teeth were less pronounced.  Unfamiliarity and discomfort translated to ugliness, but the group was getting more familiar, more comfortable for me.

“Right,” I said.

“Only stuff we can’t get on our own.  We’ve got the cow, the chickens, and the veggies.”

“Yeah,” I said.

She squeezed my arm.  “You okay, Blake?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Toilet paper?”

“Yep.”

I grabbed three packs.

Teeth grabbed another three.

“That’s a little overboard,” I asked.

“I’m going to be polite and sum it up by saying girls use more than boys.  Trust me on this.  Better to have too much than not enough.”

“Right-o,” I said.

Pushing a cart burdened by toilet paper, I stopped in my tracks.

The old man.  The farmer I’d been working for, a basket in one hand.

I’d never actually said goodbye or gone back.

The look he gave me was one of disappointment, as he reached past me for a box of sealable plastic containers.  Wordless, he moved on, leaving me behind.

Yeah, I regretted that.  Not making the trip by bike, not saying something to him there in the grocery store.

Even now.

God, I hated this place.  I had to remind myself of that.  I hated this place, because it was such a petty asshole of a place, to make me face even stupid little moments like this.

“Hey,” I said.  “I’m starving.   You want to grab a snack?”

She squeezed my arm again, offering me a mischievous smile.  “A little something.  Or we’ll get in trouble with the others.  I can’t wait until we have the farm plots up and running.”

“Yeah,” I said.  My eyes were on the old man’s back.

I averted my eyes.

Snow fell.

Of course this place expected me to go through it all.

A bit of anger fueled my strength as I brought the hatchet down.

With deft cuts, I removed branches from a tree.

In a matter of hours, this tree I’d just brought down would be firewood.

“Blake,” a male voice.

“Food?” I asked.

But when I turned, the Scalded Guy had a serious look on his face.

“What?” I asked.  I slammed the hatchet into the tree, then met him halfway.

He looked a little freaked out.

“Something happened,” I said.

“Yeah.”

“Who?”

“Better you hear it from her.”

Her.

Even on hearing that, I’d known.

By the time I reached Carl’s cabin, a suspicion had worked its way into my heart.

Fungus Face, sitting on the bed that doubled as a couch.  The others stood at various points around the room.  Ten of us, altogether.

There was only thing that would make one girl look that miserable, the other people that concerned.

“Whose is it?” I asked.

Callow, stupid, insensitive me of two years ago.

On a level, though, I’d been terrified.

“Carl’s,” she said, “He’s the only one I didn’t… we didn’t use a condom.  I can’t be positive.”

“It’s not a problem,” Carl said.  “We’ll figure this out.  This sort of thing takes a village, and that’s what we’ve been building all along, isn’t it?”

There were nods here and there.

The me of then was watching it, seeing the reactions, the way that Fungus Face was the last one to start nodding, and how she didn’t look any less upset.

In agreement, but not agreeing.

I met Carl’s eyes.

His gaze was cool, confident.

The peace of this place had been disturbed.

The cabin doors didn’t have locks.  I was sleeping under heavy blankets, comfortably warm, when cold air swept into my room.

My first indication that I had a visitor was when my sheets moved of their own accord.  A cold hand touched my back as a weight settled in under me.

“Jesus, you’re cold,” I said, turning.  I stopped.

One of the newest to join.  The sister from a brother-sister pair.  Cute as a button, maybe two years younger than me.

“Hi,” she said.  “Is this… a problem?”

When I didn’t respond, her hand touched my stomach, slowly moving down.

My hand fell on hers, stopping it where it was.

“After what happened to…” I couldn’t say Fungus Face, and the only two names in this shadow-place were Carl’s and my own.  “After the pregnancy… this feels less cool.”

“We can be careful.”

“I’m saying no,” I said.

“Okay,” she said, her voice a hush.  “Can I stay?  It’s warm here, and I don’t want to walk back through the snow.”

“You can stay,” I said, reluctantly.  I’d kind of been wanting quiet.  Rest.  It was hard to come by, at times.

She snuggled close to my back, warm, but all I felt was uncomfortable.  Bothered in a way I couldn’t put my finger on.

“Carl said you were into me, that you’d been watching me, so I thought…”

“Another time, it would have been… very welcome,” I murmured.  “But not now.”

“Okay,” she said.  I heard a soft giggle.  “Very welcome?”

“Very,” I said, but there was no warmth in the word.  Even when the past me had said it.

Time passed.  The wind made one bit of fencing rattle around the cow pen.  Every time I heard it at night, I told myself I’d fix it, and then when morning came, there was always more to do.

When I spoke, my words were quiet.  “Around the time… your friend invited you to come here, she was talking about going home for a bit.  It was getting colder, and she wasn’t enjoying the experiment so much.”

The bit of fencing banged in the distance.

“Now she’s pregnant,” I said.  “And everyone’s just assuming she’ll stick around.  I’m not sure I like that.”

“If she went home, it’d be the same, wouldn’t it?  Worse.  Her parents would make her make a decision and she wouldn’t necessarily have a say.”

“Maybe,” I said.

“Here, at least, she’s got the freedom to decide on her own,” she said, and there was a finality to her words, like she’d decided.

The present-day me wondered if past-me had believed her.

I heard a car door slam.

I’d been unsure how I’d feel, but when the moment arrived, I felt my heart sink.

“Heyyyy!” a voice.

“Heya!” Carl said.  “I brought people!”

There were cheers, noises of greeting.

I sat on my bed, my knife cutting bits out of a stick.  I was trying to get a figure out of the wood, but I’d yet to get a result I wanted.  There was time.

Fifteen minutes passed.  Carl pushed on the door, and the rock I’d put behind it stopped it from opening.

“Blake?” he spoke through the crack.

“Hi,” I said.  “Sorry, I wanted privacy.”

I didn’t move to stand or move the rock.

“Blake, the others was saying you were feeling off.”

“Nope,” I said.  “Feeling good.  I’m just not feeling-“

I was cut off as he pushed the door, the stone I’d put down grinding against the wooden floor.

He entered my room, hand over his eyes.

“You’re not jacking off?” he asked.

“Nah,” I said.

“Because there are a lot of girls around who’d be happy to-“

“Not doing that either,” I said, cutting him off.

“Blake, is something wrong?” he asked.  He dropped his hand and managed to look concerned.  “I’m gone for a week and-“

“Nothing’s wrong,” I said.

“You are acting strange, Blake,” he said.  “You’re not helping out, and others are shouldering the workload-“

“No,” I said.  “I’ve gone above and beyond before, they can manage the slack for now.”

“We don’t treat work like a currency here.”

“I do,” I said.

He frowned.

I took a piece out of my stick.

“How can you even sleep in that bed?” he asked.  Change of subject.

I looked down at the spikes of wood I’d carved off of sticks.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“You’ve got cabin fever.  Come on, fresh air.  I’m not one to give orders, but I’m ordering you right now.”

I hesitated, but he pointed, and I moved before I thought to do different.

I climbed out of the bed, stick and knife going on the squat bookshelf that served as my bedside table.  I pulled on my worn boots with the glued sole that Carl had given me, then my jacket.  We ventured outside.

The others were collectively unloading the truck.  Beer, basic supplies, tools.

“This whole thing is supposed to be low stress,” Carl said.  “You seem stressed, Blake.”

“I’m not stressed,” I said.  “I’m me.

“You’re holed up in your room, being antisocial.  People are worrying about you, enough that it’s something I hear from five different people within two minutes of getting back.  All of them are worried about you, Blake.”

“I’m fine,” I said.  I somehow managed to sound less fine each time I said it.

He raised his hands, a placating gesture.  “Great.  I’ll take your word for it.”

We stood on the edge of the grass, where it overlooked beach and the small, dark lake under the pitch black sky.

“You came from a bad place,” he said.  “I heard about your suspicions about the pregnancy.”

“Fancy that,” I said.

“It’s natural to have trust issues, coming from where you came from.  But this is supposed to be a healthy place, Blake.  A good place.”

“The problem’s all me, then.  I’m just screwed in the head,” I said.  The words came out bitter, not like I’d meant them to.

He sighed.  “Something’s going on with you, Blake.  You’re confrontational.  Did you just stew in that room for the last week, convincing yourself something was wrong?  That because this works, there must be something wrong at the center of it?  Because I  know what it’s like to think that way, Blake, I did when I was your age.  I only want you to let that go, so you can enjoy life like I do.”

A group of people walked by.  The new group, taking a tour with Fungus Face leading the way.  She had a baby bump.  The car trip to Toronto had been partially to get her to a doctor for necessary checkups.

“Bonfire for the new guys?” Fungus Face asked.

“Go for it,” Carl said.

Her face wasn’t so much fungus anymore.  The horns were barely noticeable.  A large portion of the strangeness to her features were a blush of green and purple to her pale skin, nothing more.  So easy to ignore it, now.

On a level, I felt like I’d been here months.  It was surreal, to have to remind myself of what was wrong.  That this was a stage, with actors, a test.

Someone had to jog to catch up with the group.  She was lagging because she’d stopped to try and light a cigarette in the cold.  Her hair blew across her face, very nearly coming in contact with the smoking cigarette.  Only her cupped hands stopped it.

I stepped forward, gingerly touching her hair to move it out of the way.

She successfully moved it back, and fixed it in place with her hat.  She flashed me a funny little grin, cigarette clamped between her lips, not even showing a hint of her teeth.

Younger than I remembered her.  On the tail end of a very unkind adolescence.  She had bad pimples, patches of acne.  Her longer hair was meant to cover most of it.

Hey, Alexis.”

Her eyes widened in recognition as she saw me.  She ducked her head down as she spoke, “I don’t remember your name.”

“Blake.”

“You know each other?” Carl asked.

“Crossed paths,” I said, nothing more.

“See ya,” she said.  She ran to catch up with the others, snow flying behind her with each running footfall.

Carl and I walked a bit in the opposite direction, down to the beach.

“I only want to see you happy,” Carl said.  “That’s it.”

“Uh huh,” I said.

“What’s your opinion on Alexis?”

I shrugged.  Wary, I only said, “She’s cool.”

“That’s not very helpful.  I want to know her as a person, and she’s hard to get a read on.  A bit of an odd bird.”

“I like odd birds,” I said.  “She had helpful advice a few times, and we watched each other’s stuff in the one shelter.  That’s all.”

Just a bit of a lie.

“Hamm’s Shelter?”

I didn’t respond.

He jammed his hands in his pockets.  I watched the water, while he focused on the group unloading the truck.  The headlights were on, lighting up the exhaust, giving the group a clear view of the unloading process.

“If you like types like her, could I ask you to maybe go out of your way to make her feel comfortable?”

I felt a cold knot in my gut.

“Make her feel comfortable?” I asked.

“Keep her company, pair off, show her how things work, the usual chores and feeding the animals?”

My skin crawled.

I felt vaguely nauseous.

“Pair off… like how you pointed Fungus Face my way?” I asked.

“Fungus Face,” he arched his eyebrows.

Breaking script, both of us.

“When I seemed jealous about Fungus Face and the other guys, you pointed Teeth my way.  One by one, all of the girls.  You sent the little sister to my bed the night I seemed unsettled about the pregnancy.  Now you’re very subtly hinting for me to go keep Alexis company?”

“You’re making this out to be some screwy conspiracy,” he said.  “The only time I’ve seen Alexis smile is when she looked up at you just now.  And you said you liked her type.”

“That’s not-“

“What, Blake?  Am I wrong?”

“You can’t just do that,” I said.

“Do what?

Manipulate us.  Screw with us.”

“To make you happy?

“So you’re admitting it,” I said, and there was anger in my tone.

“No, Blake,” he spoke the words as a sigh.  “I’m trying to figure out what agenda you think I have.  I’d rather solve the big question than the little one.”

“You’ve got this grand idea for this… I dunno, this commune, self-sustaining, whatever, free love, easygoing, away from the pressures of the world.”

“You’re making that out to be a bad thing?”

“I’m making your methods out to be questionable,” I said.  “Pushing people, messing with them, always the group and what we need as a whole, you never give orders and you never seem like you’re doing anything major, but you’re really fucking good at steering the group against anyone who acts different.  You did it to Fungus Face.”

“When?”

“She coincidentally gets pregnant not long after she’s thinking about leaving, and the group decides for her, that she should stay with us.”

“Can you quiet down?” he asked.  “We can have this discussion, but let’s not make it-“

“Fuck that,” I said.

He reached for my shoulder, to steer me in a different direction, or to give me a push.

I flinched, pulling back, fist clenched.

“Woah,” he said.

“Don’t touch me.  Don’t,” I hissed.

“This is coming out of nowhere, Blake.”

“No, it’s really not,” I said.  I didn’t unclench my fist.  “You’ve led us around by our groins, you give us all this work to do and just barely enough food, you make us dependent on you, because you’re the one with the plan, the car, the ideas, the money, five or ten years of age on any of us.”

“What are you saying?” he asked.

“I’m saying just that,” I said.  “That you’ve got this damn dream, and you’re twisting us all around in really subtle ways that make it really hard to point to any one thing.  But somehow, on the days I don’t play ball or join the herd, there’s less food, less conversation, less… I feel sick saying it, less girls.”

“That’s crazy,” he said.

“It really, really is,” I replied.

“How am I controlling the girls, then?”

“The same way you’re trying to control me, but you put twice as much effort into them as you do us guys.  Half of them are in love with you, and they play ball with the group polyamory shit because they think if they try to covet you they’ll be shunned, the other half are… they’re still being manipulated, mostly.  And if they resist that, then you fucking get them pregnant to keep them in the group.”

Carl had gone still.

I turned to see Fungus Face standing at the edge of the trees.

“You know it,” I told her.  “You’ve convinced yourself it isn’t true because it’s easier.  Just go.”

She turned, running to the nearest cabin.

“That wasn’t what you were supposed to say,” my Shadow observed.

“It was something I’ve wished I said a hundred times,” I said.  “Cathartic.”

“Not that it matters,” the Shadow said.  He rubbed Carl’s beard.

“It matters,” I told it.

“Almost done,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Whatever happens, I win,” he said.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

“See you shortly,” he said.

“Yeah,” I said.  “Fuck you.

He ran after Fungus Face.  I headed toward the main area of the commune, taking long strides.

Alexis was with the group, the new people all drinking with Teeth.

“Hey,” I told Teeth, “Carl really needs you.  It might have something to do with the baby.”

Her eyes went wide.  She ran for the cabin where Carl and Fungus Face were.

Alexis rose half out of her seat.  I seized her wrist, shaking my head.

“What happened?” one of the guys in the newcomer’s group said.

“This place is a cult, I said.  “Not a drink-the-Kool-aid cult, but it’s still fucked.  I’m leaving, you have five seconds to decide if you’re coming.”

I didn’t wait for a response.  I headed for the truck.

Footsteps followed.

Only Alexis.

She had just closed the passenger seat when the guy who’d just spoken came to the window.  “You can’t take the car.  There’s a pregnant girl-“

“There’s always going to be reasons you can’t,” I said.  “That’s how it works.  I dunno, I’ll- I’ll send people.”

“You can’t-“

I shifted gears, stalled, and then managed to get the truck moving in reverse.  The guy stepped away.  I turned and pulled onto the road.

“Fuck,” I said.  “Fuck.”

Alexis put her hand on mine.

I pulled it away, sharp, the gear-shift making a violent noise as it jerked in response.  Touch was manipulation.  Poisonous.  I couldn’t trust it.

“Sorry,’ I said.  “That’s not nearly as reassuring as you think it is.  I’d explain but…”

“Okay,” she said.  “It’s cool.”

I nodded, focusing only on the unfamiliar act of driving.

Away from the only place I’d ever really felt like I’d belonged.

What was worse than being in a bit-rate cult and then spending a week second guessing yourself?

Being in a bit-rate cult and then spending a week second guessing yourself twice, the second time in some fucked up, twisted shadow realm.

I sat on the cot in the youth shelter, a separate, two-bed room, arms around my knees.  This wasn’t a decision time.  It was an experience time.  I got to sit there and experience the cold, impersonal misery of the shelter, while reflecting on everything I’d just given up.  Just to drive the point home, this Shadow-place made my environment as unpleasant as it could get.  The sheets were stained, and I heard people being loud across the hall, constantly fighting.  Chaos and conflict and urban, in contrast to the commune by the lakeside.

I was giving up feeling okay.  Friends, intimacy, sex.  A sense of accomplishment, of having built something.

I heard the door open.  Even with the benefit of hindsight, I expected Alexis.

It was Carl.

I hadn’t confirmed what shelter I’d cross paths with Alexis at, the shelter we were most familiar with, but he’d intuited it.

And maybe we hadn’t ditched the car far enough away.  He’d gotten a call, and he’d figured out the answer.

I gripped the side of the cot.

“You called the cops on us, Blake,” he said.

“On you,” I said, eyes on my knees.

“It messed up a lot of things.  People got scared, we got fined, for lack of permits, even when I own the land…”

I stood from the bed.  I tried to walk past him.  He blocked me.

“Tell me,” he said, “Do you even believe it anymore?  Now that you’ve had time to think?  This cult nonsense?”

“No.  Not a hundred percent.”

“But you still called the cops.”

“Better to do it and be safe, than not do it and wish I had,” I said.  “I don’t think it was easy for anyone there to say they wanted to leave, and the cops, maybe they made it possible.  Please get out of my way.”

I moved my arm to push past.  He grabbed it.

He wrestled me down onto the bed.

He was stronger.  We’d done the same work, but he had ten years on me, and his build was just somehow stronger.

He pinned me down.

I very nearly succumbed to panic.

“A small part of me has wondered, since all this with the practitioner stuff started,” I spoke, trying to disassociate, to distance myself from this, “Were you an Other?”

“No,” he said.

“But you’re a reflection of me.  If I didn’t know-“

“You know,” he said.  “I’m just a person.  Well, I’m your Shadow, but Carl was only ever a person.”

“Yeah,” I said, my voice very small.  I struggled, but I couldn’t break his grip, or even move.

My eye moved to the door, then back to Carl.

“No,” he said.

I couldn’t even speak.

“No,” he said, again.  “You don’t get to skip it this time.  This ends one of three ways, like I said.”

Banish him and become a monster, set him aside, or…

I waited.

Chronologically, if time didn’t work differently here, I’d have doomed myself, waiting.  The door would open, and I’d miss my window.

“I’m supposed to beg,” I said, my voice a hush.  It killed a part of me to even admit it.  “To beg you to take me back.  To promise to apologize, and make amends.”

“By the script,” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because-“

“No,” I said.  “Time works differently here.  I’ve had time to think.  Why?  Isadora asked it.  Ms. Lewis asked it, or something like it.  Pretty much every powerful being I’ve talked to has asked it.  Including Conquest, who talked to Rose, who apparently knows more than she’s letting on.”

“You’re not afraid,” Carl spoke.

“Which is an answer unto itself, isn’t it?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“It keeps coming down to why.  Just like me and piecing things together with your cult.  The fact that we were hungry.  There weren’t any big huge warning bells.  Lots of little things.  I… it’s a strong hunch, but I have to trust it.  I gotta trust my gut.”

“You-“

“God, I don’t even want to look at you,” I said.  “Alexis, come in.”

The door opened.

Alexis, moving in silently.

She was armed.  Something hard in a sock.

The Shadow knew it was coming.  He only had a blank look on Carl’s face.

He disintegrated as Alexis clubbed him over the head.

“Come on,” she said.  “Go, go, go.”

Old Blake had, according to the script, gone with her.  He’d then gone borderline catatonic after the fact.

She’d talked him through it.  Answered every damn question.  Agreed as he slowly put the pieces together, about the little tricks, the behaviors.  Had come back from the library with lists, about how cults liked to keep the food supply short, so people were more tractable.  Keep people working…  Had answered questions like was Carl maybe stronger because he’d been eating?

Why?

Why?

Why were the people that weren’t Carl or Alexis just blurs?

Why was I the heir, and not Paige?  If Grandmother could set up a vestige, couldn’t she set up a heterosexual Paige?

Why was practically everyone convinced that I was going to die?  Except they didn’t say die.

What the fuck was up with my tattoos?  Why did I get ‘possessed’ so easily?

Why was I good with glamour?

Why were my injuries so transient, so easy to remove, my spiritual damage so hard to shore up?

Why did I remember everyone?

Why didn’t the details add up?

The room in the shelter was gone.  There was only darkness.  Not even a solid surface under me, or air to fall through.

I spoke to the darkness.  “I feel like, if I get this wrong, I’m done.”

Only darkness answered.

“I’m probably fucked if I get it right,” I said.  “But that’s my situation, isn’t it?  Perpetually fucked.”

I could have done with anyone, even a Carl, to be there, to speak to.

“I can’t believe that I needed a Rose,” I said.  “Easier to believe that Rose needed me, a little warrior.  Someone to stall the inevitable.  You cobbled this together, grandmother, my story included, to make it so I couldn’t get touched… because when I did, I got hurt.  Not always right away, but my shoulder hurt after Tiff slept with her head there, and my hand, after I held Rose’s hand and even in the beginning, when I saw the visions, they said something moved… the connections aren’t real connections…”

I trailed off.

“I’m the vestige, aren’t I?  Rose is the second Thorburn heir, I’m just the custodian.  The sacrificial pawn.”

The darkness broke away, crept in.  The tattoos reappeared, the feathers, the birds.  The branches crawled across my skin, my neck and chest, as the Shadow around me found its place.

“That’s the situation I need to accept,” I said, making it a statement, not a question.

I stood in the middle of the Drains.  An Other.

“Fuck,” I said.

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Null 9.3

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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 even 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, though her remembering was more an accident of the ritual she was performing at the time.”

“And I know about me,” I said.

“You do,” she said.

“Why?”

“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.  “PeaceHere?

“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.”

“I’m not-”

“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 too 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.  Still, 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.”

Nobody did.

“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.

“Go ahead.”

“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.”

Duncan nodded.

“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…

And Rose.

“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?”

“I object.”

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.

Rose shrugged.

“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.

“Come in.”

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.”

I nodded.

“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 nodded.

“Gods?”

“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.”

“Nothingness?”

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.”

I nodded.

“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.”

I frowned.

“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.”

“It’s true.”

“He’s me?”

“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.

“What’s that?”

“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 did.

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.

“What?”

“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…”

“What?”

“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?”

“A doppleganger?”

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.”

“Godspeed, stranger.”

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.

I waited.

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.

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Null 9.2

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She fucked it up on purpose?

My thoughts were slow to get going as I tried to dredge up memories.  Promises she’d made, that had no real power behind them.

A promise to help me, to work with me, even.

The fact that she’d used Ty, Alexis and Tiff to prepare her summonings, but hadn’t been able to do it herself.  I’d glossed over it because she’d told me the ritual hadn’t worked.

Why?

How many times had I thrown myself into life or death situations, and all this while, she’d been holding back?  Keeping hands off?  I’d scratched, fought, and bled for power and she’d just turned it down?

Why?

When she would have made the decision… it would have been after we’d argued.  When she was frustrated, new to the mirror.

All because she’d wanted to be able to lie to me?

When I’d made promises to her, to get her out of the mirror somehow, she’d said she felt bad about it.  Because she’d known the promise she was making in exchange had no weight to it.

I was clenching my fists, and the strain was making the two halves of my one broken hand grate against one another.

It’s this placeThere’s a reason I saw it.  This place wants to grind me down, and it thinks giving me a glimpse like that is going to help do it.

Which isn’t entirely wrong.

I couldn’t let my agitation push me into doing something stupid.

This was the initial foray.  It was liable to get a lot worse, if what Green Eyes had said was true.  I had to get a grip on it now, if I wanted to be ready for whatever hit me later.

I grabbed the plank from where I’d laid it across my lap and stood, very carefully, making sure to have three points of contact with solid surfaces at all times.  One foot on the gutter, one on the gargoyle, my good hand on the wall.  I might still fall if something broke away, but it was less of a certainty.

The ledge here was steadier and gave me enough room to walk, so my shoulder didn’t scrape the wall, but I was more careful than I had been on first entering the drains.

There weren’t many light sources, and the ledge, at times, was only a thin line of light where the moist and rounded-off edge caught the light shed by some distant bulb.  A patch of stone, the edges lit up in a similar way.

Movement through this place was agonizing.  Slow, treacherous, and no matter how careful I was, there was no guarantee I wouldn’t fall prey to some trap, trick, or attack.

This was a place that made people feel small.  When I’d been in the tree with the Others beneath me in the Hyena’s woods, I’d compared myself to a prehistoric ape.

Here, I was degraded even further than that.  Calling myself an ape was maybe being too arrogant.

Apes had fangs.  They could climb properly.  They had fur to protect them.

Humans were built for endurance running, we evolved on the plains, chasing down our prey as pack hunters with improvised tools.  There was nowhere to run here, no tools, and no guarantee that I had more stamina than whatever I was up against.

The ‘ground’ here shuddered with some great mechanism, an endless roar of pouring water with a grinding of machinery, like the endless crush of some great millstone.

I felt like the trembling of the ground might make me simply bounce off, lifting my feet clear of the ledge, letting them slide to one side and off into the depths to one side.

Bugs crawled on my hand as I gripped one stone.  One, quite possibly a centipede, took a chunk out of the back of my hand.  I hugged the wall with my body and shook my hand, letting them fall into the darkness.

But more were crawling on my stomach and chest now.

I brushed them off and got stung by something.

There was no relief here.  No getting clean, no quiet, no comfort, no place where the smells weren’t vaguely offensive, no place where I was safe.

I approached a corner, and nearly jumped out of my skin as a massive figure loomed in front of me, at the corner’s edge. Not a gargoyle.  An irregularly-shaped block of brickwork that had broken away from the wall.  I got close enough to peer at it.  The mortar had cracked, but only around one section, so the entire thing held together, jutting out from the corner, as though it was poised to simply break free and tumble to the ground below if I tried to hold onto it for leverage.

I looked up.  The wall further above wasn’t much better, as far as I could make it out.  I could easily imagine something breaking free and braining me.

A steady stream of water flowed down the wall’s surface, joining the constant shuddering in responsibility for the state of the wall.  Thin trickles of water were pooling in the broken section of wall and draining off the edges of the block, onto my footpath and over area I’d have to squeeze through.

My plank scraped the areas I couldn’t see, a blind man’s groping in the dark.

Nothing offensive that I could tell.

I rounded the corner, edging along the ledge, while ducking below the giant hunk of brick.

The roaring, grinding sound got louder as I rounded the corner.  The wall no longer blocked the sound.

I stood straighter, and I could make out what looked like some massive, haphazard dam-turned-watermill.  A river of water flowed out of a tunnel and over the edge of an open-mouthed trough, dumping vast amounts of water and debris into the darkness.

The trough and the watermill were both put together with what looked like haphazard layers of metal, completely rusted, to the point of having cankerous boils on the surface.  The mill itself was a long cylinder, with four large paddles to keep it turning.  The turning wasn’t consistent, but when it did turn, nearby lightbulbs flickered on, or flickered brighter.  I could hear a distorted radio buzz.

More metal and wood formed a broad, flat, somewhat uneven bridge over the rushing water.  There were people gathered on and around it.  Kids.  Old people.  Others.  All together in clusters, or standing alone.  They had to be deaf, with the sound of this water and the metal-on-metal creak of the mill itself.

Shacks had been erected with more debris and sheet metal, fallen signs and collected branches.  When I’d been homeless, the accommodations I’d been able to manage had been better, on average, than what I saw here.

People were sitting on the ledge, and I wasn’t about to try going over them.  No choice but to climb down.

The climb down was precarious, especially when the surface below me looked so flimsy I felt like I might simply punch through and drown.  I could see the frothing water through the gaps in this makeshift bridge.

Metal sang with the impact of my landing.  One or two heads turned.  One man reached to his belt, where he had a makeshift skewer ready, deemed me no threat, and dropped his hand to his side.

I was careful with where I stepped, simultaneously watching the people around me.  All were dirty, most wore rags, and all were beaded in droplets of moisture that had been flung up from the crash of water below the bridge.

The man with the skewer had a wound on the back of his head that had festered as it healed.  It was mostly closed, helped by what might have been crude stitching with yarn of all things, but it was angry, puffy, with pus-like fluid in the recesses and cyst-like bulges straining against the skin around the site.  Another similar wound marked his arm.

My eye was drawn to the insect bites on my own arms.  My own arms were beaded with droplets, and the water-diluted blood was flowing freely.  It was freezing.  How could they even stand to be here, with the chill in the air making it worse?

One man was perched on the bridge, back to the railing, swaddled in rags.  He had no legs- no, wait.  Yeah, he had legs, but they belonged to an insect, not a person.  His eyes glowed through the shadows in the rags.

My heart almost stopped as a group of children tromped across a flimsy section of rusted sheet metal, each footfall slamming it against the wood frame beneath, producing a sound that I could hear even over the roar.

I exhaled as they made their way to the far end, well behind me, no longer certain that they were about to doom me to a watery abyss.  I watched them go.  They weren’t wearing much.  A little boy wore only a sash of cloth around his hips, more a skirt than anything else, and his back was riddled with ulcers.  A girl had patchy fur in two colors, black and part white, and snaggle-teeth that looked like they’d make it impossible to open or close her mouth, one arm ending in a scarred stump at the shoulder.  The biggest of the boys, who’d somehow managed to be overweight in a place like this, had bulges under the skin I could make out, like worms had nestled in deep.  A goblin rode on his shoulders, pulling his hair, but he didn’t seem to mind.

When I got closer to the far end of the bridge, I could see that the larger group of adults was staring at me, giving me hard looks.

Because I’d been looking at the kids?

I raised my hands to either side in the universal gesture of peace.  Maybe less effective when I had a plank in one hand, but if they were going to begrudge me a weapon in this place, they could get real.

They relaxed a bit.

It was eerie, getting the benefit of a doubt.  Was it the lack of bad karma, or was it this place?  Did they just not have the energy to spare to confront every threat?

The one or two of them that had weapons in hand didn’t drop what they had, I noticed.

I didn’t even try talking to them.  The noise was too loud, the looks too hostile.

I moved on, leaving them behind, heading for the next ledge, this one a broad pipe that ran alongside the wall, bolted in at intervals.

A woman’s hand seized me by the upper arm.  I whirled, plank readied-

And others had their makeshift weapons pointed at me.

For a moment, we were still.  The kids on the bridge were staring, frozen.

I decided to lower my weapon first.  No point – they could kill me here if they wanted to.  It was hard to bring myself to do it.  My heart still pounded from the momentary contact, and she’d done it hard enough to hurt.

The others didn’t do me the favor of lowering theirs.

The woman had a heavy net folded and thrown over one shoulder.  She pointed.

The destination I’d been headed?

When I looked at her, she gestured, making a scary face, turning her one free hand into a claw with fingers and thumb hooked.

Monster that way?

She pointed that way, then drew a finger across her throat, and pointed at me.

It’d kill me?

She drew a finger across her throat, then pointed to herself, and her companions.

And kill them?

Point, to ledge.  Then hand to one side of her face, head tilted, eyes closed.

It’s sleeping.

One pointed finger, extended my way, then she ‘walked’ across the air with two fingers, very slowly, with exaggerated care.

Tiptoe?

I nodded and mouthed the words for ‘thank you’.

The roar of the water continued.  The weapons came down as people stepped away.

The woman looked over her shoulder, waved a bit to get someone’s attention.

A man, bald.  I couldn’t see what was wrong with him.  It maybe said a lot that I had to define people in this place by how screwed up they were.

He stood, walking past me with a bit of a limp, he paused, then gestured for me to follow.

I nodded.

Up on top of the shacks, using them as stepping stones, to a higher area.  A narrower ledge here – I couldn’t have two feet on one section at the same time.  My stomach scraped against the wall with every step.

The bald man, his limp aside, moved with grace and ease across the ledge.  Familiar ground.

Months or years of experience, easily.

He could have stood by and let me forge ahead on my own, but he didn’t.  He continued to lead the way, periodically becoming little more than a silhouette in light or a vague human-shaped blur in the darkness.  Here and there, he paused, gesturing to a possible hazard.  A bit of stone that stuck out enough it might poke me, or a bit of ledge that wobbled when I touched it with my toe.

After what I might have guessed to be ten minutes of progress, he stopped, pointing down.

The act of looking was somewhat terrifying, given how little I could afford to lean away from the wall, but I looked all the same.  I couldn’t make out the shape, not really, but it was big, it smelled like garbage, and it had spiky black fur with periodic spines sticking out.  I could see it expand and contract with every breath, steam rising from one area I took to be the head.

I wasn’t sure if I would have even seen it.  It was big enough to block some of the light.

When I looked up, my guide was already moving on.

It was easily another ten of fifteen minutes before I felt brave enough to speak up.  “Hey.”

He raised a finger to his lips.

Right.  I wasn’t about to argue.

I lost track of time before we reached safer ground.  A corridor opened up, and we were able to step inside the mouth of it.

“You’re new,” he said.  His voice sounded disused, creaky.

“Yeah,” I said.  I ran my hands through my hair, where it was sticking to my forehead.  How was it possible to be so cold and yet so sweaty at the same time?

“You come this way, you leave it ‘lone.”

“Will do,” I said.  I held my hands up to the light above the corridor to examine them.  My fingertips were raw from damp, cold, and friction.  “I don’t… I really don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing.”

“You got choices,” he said.  “You wander until something gets you, you find a place you can hunker down and you wait until something gets you, or you decide it’s too much trouble and get yourself.”

“Or you get others,” I said.

He gave me a look, about as dirty as they came.  “Y’think you’ve got it in you?”

I sighed, then shook my head.

“Good.  Because I’d throw y’off the edge here if y’did.”

I frowned, gazing over the edge at the darkness.  The wall opposite couldn’t be seen.  It was just a wall that extended up and down as far as I could see, a pinprick of light or two in the dark, and nothing more.

As if the world were nothing more than the one spread of grimy, damp construction here, the neverending downpour from a pipe that jutted out of the wall further down.

“You make it sound so hopeless,” I said.  “Why even bother trying if you think it’s that bad?”

“The kids,” he said.  “Not mine, they washed up alongside us.”

“Washed up?”

“Bad weather hit, could be hurricane, but I dunno, don’t watch or listen to much.  Next thing, we’re all collected in some shallow drain with a whole lot of debris and dead.”

Washed away, I thought.  Had the storm erased their ties to the world as surely as Ur had eaten mine?

“You’re settled awfully close to that thing.”

“Sure.  Killed whoever lived where we’re at, we set up there, do what we can t’keep the thing going, fish the trough.  If it stops turning, it might hear us and decide t’pay a visit.  Lost two before we learned.”

I nodded slowly.  “What is it?  A goblin?”

He gave me a dark, suspicious look.

“What?” I asked.

“Yeh, it’s a goblin, or so we’ve heard.  Not what most people would guess.  Dragon?  Sure.  Bat?  Yeh.  But goblin?”

“I know stuff,” I said.

“Do you now?  ‘Cause the only one we know who knows this sort of thing calls herself a witch.”

“Is she dangerous?”

“Yeh,” he said.  “She’s dangerous.  Not always.  Not even some of the time, but she’s unpredictable, spiteful.  We mostly steer clear, but sometimes if we’re hurt or something new’s come up, we ask, and we pay.”

“Well,” I said.  “I’m not dangerous either, but I’m not all that unpredictable either.  I was a beginner, before I found my way down here, and I’ve lost just about everything I had.”

His stare was long and level, and there was a tension in the air.

Was he considering whether he should just shove me over the edge?  Handle the problem?

“If you want t’talk to her, she’s down through this way.  No light, y’gotta feel your way.”

“And if I don’t want to?”

A shrug.  “Wander until something gets you, wait until something gets you…”

“Or get myself.  I get it.”

He nodded slowly.

I rubbed my arms, comparing the two paths available to me.

“Y’realize the cold can’t kill you,” he said.  “Can’t starve, can’t go crazy without sleep.  But when y’give up on those things, y’give up something human in yerself.”

Wearing you down.

I was getting a sense of how this place worked.

Probably just as easy to let us decide to sacrifice common needs and let ourselves become less human than it was to maintain the usual rules for each individual inhabitant.

I couldn’t afford to do that if I wanted to get out and resume a normal-ish life.

I looked around.  Food was impossible and dangerous in its own way.  Water was… disgusting.

Sleep?  If I rested, maybe my mind would be a little clearer.

“Is this a bad place to sleep?” I asked.  “I… I just don’t really know much about anything here.”

He looked around before giving me a response.  “Probably.”

Probably.

The way he said it suggested that any place was probably a bad place to sleep.

I settled in, my back to the wall.  The floor was slightly sloped, and a thin trickle of water ran along the floor, dancing this way and that as dirt moved out of the way or the wind changed.  My rear end would get damp, and even my shoulders, where they pressed against the wall, given the state of my coat.  As places went, though, it was drier than some.

When I looked up, my guide was on the ledge, getting ready to make his way back.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Whatever’s keeping you going,” he said, “Hold onto it.”

“Yeah,” I said.

When the faint sounds of his shuffling progress were drowned out by more distant sprays of water, I glanced around, checking every way for possible trouble, then let my eyes close.

Days, weeks, years?  No, not years.  Months, at most.  It was hard to keep track of time.

Green Eyes had been so right.  It was all too easy to focus on the now.

I shuffled through the narrow space.  The walls pressed in around me, scraping at my shoulders.

There was no way to ensure I had food and water and sleep without staying active, focusing on the moment-to-moment. That came at a cost.  There was no way to track the passage of time but the intermittent flashing of lights, spouting of water and my own breathing… it was easy to just let the days slip by.  When I was so tired or sick that I didn’t think I could go on, I tapped into anger.

Rose and the others spoke up from time to time.  It helped to keep the anger stoked.  I couldn’t even remember what exactly had been said.  I only remembered the resentment, the self-hatred for feeling resentful, the fury at realizing what Rose had really been up to, the hurt.

A big ball of the most horrendous feelings possible, making it impossible to sit still.

The rules are the same, I thought.  The bald man’s advice had reminded me of that.  Whatever was down here, the basic rules I’d learned were the same.  Goblins didn’t like metal.  Faerie, even the sort of Faerie that lurked down here, they didn’t like crude things.

A little bit of ruthlessness, a goblin’s hide to keep myself warm, a bit of glamour to mend injuries…

Well, that made it easier to get the ball rolling.

I reached the corridor that opened up into the Cistern.

I unfurled wings.

They’d been decoration at first.  Then, with time, they’d become a part of me.  Even a part I could use.

More bat wings than bird wings, which was disappointing, but I had feathers, both real and tattooed, across the flaps.  A part of me liked that on a visceral level.

Another part of me felt like it was tainted, a gift for bending to the rules of this place.  Becoming a part of the system, cooperating with this small universe in helping to break others down.

Fetid, muggy air rushed over skin, through hair, feather, fur and spines.  Here and there, droplets of moisture fell on me, heavy with silt and grime.

I glided more than I flew, and I watched for potential prey.  Only the ones that were further gone.  Less human.  They were more nourishing.  If they asked for mercy or drew weapons, I left.  If they roared or screeched, I killed and I ate.

Steering myself up until I very nearly stalled, no air under my wings, I hooked clawed toes and fingertips on an outcropping of brick, twisted myself around and leaped off, because it was easier than reorienting myself in mid-flight.

In this area, where the smell of feces was stronger, I knew to avoid certain areas where water could come pouring down without any warning, knocking me out of the air.

No prey.

That was fine.  The nice thing about a primarily carnivorous diet was that one didn’t need to eat frequently.  One meal could do for several ‘days’, as far as days existed in this damnable place.

I hadn’t given up on getting out.

Not long now.

Before too long, I would try to make my way over the steam vents.  I’d lost heart the last time around, gliding for what felt like days and nights without seeing anything, while a great shadow followed, waiting for me to grow tired enough.

Next time.

Then I’d be out.

I steered myself upward.  The claws of my feet scratched small chunks out of the ledge as I settled at the mouth of one drain.

My night vision was good enough to reveal the figure emerging from the water.

“Blake,” Green Eyes said.

Most of the others that had known me as Blake were gone now.  The ones who were still around would be the targets of my revenge.

Simple, but it was still what drove me.

I had to get my feet wet to draw closer.  The bed of the drain here had collected so much silt and grime that it was like walking in the shallowest water on a beach.  That same silt and grime had, here and there, worked its way into my skin, coloring it, texturing it.  It had done the same with with Green Eyes, I assumed.  Her skin was rough, like a cat’s tongue.

She ran one hand along my long neck.  I didn’t flinch.

I’d given that part of myself up long ago.  I’d needed a more animal comfort before I’d needed to hold on to that.  My feelings for her weren’t romantic.  I’d just wanted to be warm.

I think I’d known, as I made that choice, what I’d be giving up.  Even why and how.  It wasn’t long after that that Blake Thorburn had crumbled as a person, leaving room for me to become this.

“Soon?” Green Eyes asked me.

No longer able to speak, I bobbed my head in a nod.

I woke up.

I spent far, far too much time staring at my hands, convincing me it had all been a dream.

Except it hadn’t, I realized.  It had felt real, as had the weight of memories, dim as they had been for my monstrous self.  They faded as quickly as I could reach for them, useful details dancing away.

A portent, then?

A suggestion of what could easily come to pass?

Even as the memories faded, the feelings remained, taunting me.

The act of flying, or gliding, and the feeling of security.  Of being one of the bigger threats in this particular area.

The knowledge that, if I were only to agree, to relinquish it, I could be rid of metaphorical demons that had haunted me for years.

If I didn’t want to go to the trouble of eating or sleeping, I just… didn’t have to.

If I didn’t want to feel cold, I could just stop.  Flick that switch in my head and stop worrying about it.

Everyone I’d seen to date had chosen some vestiges of human to cling to, but they hadn’t all chosen all vestiges.  There was only so much energy and time, so much risk any of us could face before we got ourselves killed for our trouble.

This place wanted us to choose.

But it was a lie.  Bait in the trap.  I wasn’t sure I could believe I had it in me to become that.  Not positive.

I was stiff as I hauled myself up off the ground, resting one hand on the slimy wall for balance, so I wouldn’t slip and simply fall backwards into the endless darkness.

I ventured into darkness, one hand on the wall, plank on the ground in front of me, making a faint sound as I dragged it left and right against the stone floor, feeling for hazards.

The bug bites were stinging.  I cursed myself for not thinking to ask about it.

The mark on my cheek where Green Eyes had kissed me stung too.

My wounds, from the stab wound on my left hand to the scrapes and blisters on my fingers and the place where my arm had been grabbed too hard throbbed.

I had little doubt I could simply shrug off all the pain.  Push it somewhere deep inside me, where it wouldn’t touch me.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to pay whatever price this place would exact from me.

How had the other Bogeymen gotten by?  Had they found their way to these same Drains, or had they discovered other places like them?  A ghost town shrouded in mist for the Tallowman to claim a building and resume his practice?  Had Midge found a place in the wilderness to set up a shack and live much as she’d lived in life, only becoming harder and meaner as she spent more time there?  Was she there now, so rooted in this Limbo that she would simply find her way here if her material body was killed a hundred more times?

The blank skittered right, but it didn’t touch wall.  The interruption cut off my thoughts.

A bend?

I prodded, and found a drop.  The plank’s end rose of its own accord.  A quicker movement made a splash.

Water.

Feeling around more, I was able to figure out the general layout.

Pitch darkness, a bridge of hard earth.  Water under and on either side.

I made my way across, the plank scratching across the ground, reminding me of where the bridge was.

Water splashed to my right.

I froze.

A rotten fish smell flooded the area.

Damn it, damn it, damn it.

Another splash, then another.

The smell grew stronger.

I felt cold.  Not personally, but from some nearby source.

Cold radiated from this as heat did from a hot poker.

I felt it draw nearer, and in the darkness and near-silence of this chamber, my other senses were painfully acute.  I felt the cold increase by steep degrees, reaching from my left shoulder toward my chin and collarbone.

I raised my chin by mere fractions.

It was a matter of an inch or two away from me.  Some reaching hand.

I felt the cold envelop my neck, and held my breath and my voice both.

Reaching around my neck, but not touching.

I felt it reach down along my spine.

Too many turns.  It wasn’t an arm.

I leaned back as I felt it draw closer to my neck, a natural consequence of this tendril or tail or whatever it was snaking around over my shoulder and behind me.

When I couldn’t lean over any more without risking falling into the water, I turned my upper body, not moving my feet out of concern that they might scrape.  I bent over, resting my free hand on one knee for balance, and ducked under.

I stayed like that, bent over, one hand on my knee, the other holding the plank.

One remained behind my leg.

Another was well over my head, only close enough for me to feel the brush of cold.

A droplet fell on my extended arm.  I suppressed a hiss of pain.  It might as well have been acid.

Every muscle in my body was tense, some of that tension from a searing pain that bordered on agony.

Alexis?”  Tiff’s voice.

A sniffling.  “I’m okay.  I don’t even know why I’m crying.

You really need to sleep.  Things are getting ugly out there.

I know.  I’ll try.

It was like a slap in the face, the knowledge that I hadn’t left the world a better place than it had been when I’d come into it.  Not for Alexis.

Something nudged the plank I held in the moment I was distracted.

A tenth of a second later, before I could even get my bearings or comprehend what had just happened, it had the plank, gripping it with a strength I couldn’t have resisted if I was on my bike, a chain stretched between bike and plank, wheels spinning full-bore.

It crushed the plank, and only windmilling arms kept me from plunging into the water.

I was left with only a square of plank.

More splashing, more violent, coming closer.

I turned to run and fell instead.  I spread my arms wide, reaching out for and hugging the bridge to keep from rolling off.  My empty, sock-bandaged hand touched water and went instantly numb.

A splash of water hit me, and more numbness spread from where water touched skin.  It was right here, whatever it was.

I felt a hot breath and nearly gagged from the rotten fish smell.  The heat of it was a stark contrast to the coldness of the limbs.

The sheer amount of breath, enveloping me, forming steam where it touched water, was another indicator of what I was up against.

I managed to find my feet.  There was no testing my step, only memory.

Another breath, more diffuse, only half as strong, in combination with cold as intense as I’d felt yet…

It was just in front of me, mouth open.

I acted on instinct alone.  I held the remaining bit of plank in both hands, and I struck out.

I hit something solid, and, using my two-handed grip, I raked the ragged edge of the plank across flesh.

There was no cry of pain, no response.

Only the limbs lashing out.  They hit water before they hit me, just as I was turning to run.  The water caught me mid-stride.

My shoulder met solid wall, hard enough that I didn’t even realize I’d dropped the plank in the shock.  One leg went off the bridge and into water so cold it should have been frozen over.

With one good leg and one good arm, I managed to heave myself past the corner of wall, past the area with the bridge, to the corridor that followed.

I heard something wet slap against stone, a faint crack.

There was no relief on the other side.  No remedy from the sharp pain that jolted from my shoulder to the fingertips of my good hand, nor the blistering cold that made me feel like my leg had fallen off.

No light, even, to convince me that whatever I’d left behind me wasn’t waiting a short distance in front of me.

I crawled ahead enough that I could be reasonably sure it wasn’t about to find a way to reach into the corridor and grab me, then collapsed.

I had no way to judge the amount of time that was passing.  My thoughts were borderline feverish.

I had to get out of here.

Had to.

Had to help Evan and repay debts and keep this fucking pattern from continuing with the Thorburn line.  I wanted to see Alexis and Tiff and Ty but especially Alexis.

I wanted to ride my freaking bike and my complete and total inability to tell what had happened with my leg and the freezing water was making me think that maybe that wasn’t necessarily possible.

I wanted to kill that freaking motherfuck of a demon who had put me here.

My fingertips scraped against the hard, damp floor beneath me.

Hours might have passed before the cold in my leg receded enough for me to feel confident about moving it.  My arm still felt stabs of pain from my shoulder, but they were only about ten times as bad as the worst whack I’d ever given my funny bone.

The pain in my frozen leg was a much different sort of pain from what I was experiencing in my shoulder.  If I were carved of stone, my shoulder might have a general crack running through it.  My leg, if I had to put an idea to it, felt like it was all cracks.

I thought about how the injuries of the people on the bridge had healed, and felt a twinge of panic.

But above all, I hobbled forward, wincing with every step.

The pain didn’t subside before I reached light, and it took me a long, long time to reach light.

The lack of ability to judge time was getting to me, joining the pain and general disorientation.  It was very much what I expected it felt like to be in solitary confinement, only this was a big, big place, and there were others present.

But the idea fit.

Light.  I could see a place very much like the watermill’s bridge, but far more extensive.  A settlement.

I had no illusions.  This wasn’t a safe place.  The danger here would be danger of another kind.  People would be vicious to retain whatever they had here.

All the same, I started plotting a path.  A great many bridges, real stone ones and makeshift pipe ones, as well as improvised bridges cobbled together with debris.  The path to the settlement area was a winding one.  I memorized the route I needed to take, one that would involve interacting with the smallest number of people.

Progress was slow, but that wasn’t a bad thing.

Priorities.  Getting information was one.  Green Eyes had suggested a way out.  Maybe there was another way out.

If the Witch had a measure of respect and power, maybe I could get something, or barter my knowledge and meager expertise to obtain something.  A better weapon would do worlds for my mental well being.  Medical care too, if it meant not letting my body be corrupted or degraded or whatever this place wanted to do to it.

But a weapon, after that run-in, sounded like a fantastic idea.

Hobbling footsteps carried me to the first bridge.  Stone, natural to this place, with no railing.  The stones had been smoothed by droplets of water that had fallen down from above and run off either side for decades.

A man was there, oblivious to me, hands clasped behind his back.  Black hair, black beard, black scarf, black jacket, black slacks, black shoes.

It was hard to convince myself that he wasn’t going to simply turn around and push, just because he could.  Something about him made me feel uneasy.

I edged around him, and when I was close enough to be pushed, I took one quick step, putting me out of reach.  I stumbled on my bad leg, but I stumbled on safe ground.

I was clear.

Paranoia would wear on my sanity too, but paranoia was better than falling victim to some stupid, vicious act.

“Blake.”

I stopped short.

That voice-

I turned.

To say my heart dropped out of my chest really didn’t do the feeling justice.

It was more like a great brutish fist just reached up from under me, fingers gripping everything inside the ribcage, and tore everything out, leaving me hollow.

I wobbled a bit.

If I’d been smarter about it, I would have put the pieces together.  I’d been watching for the wrong thing.

He didn’t belong here.  His clothes were intact, free of grime.  His jacket was a blazer worn to contrast the nattiness of the sweater he wore, his scarf worn for style, not for winter wear.  He wasn’t dressed for the season.  His hands were jammed in his pockets, he was completely at ease.

I recognized him.

Fuck me, did I ever recognize him.

“Long time no see, Blake,” he said.

I swallowed hard.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” I asked.

“I think you know exactly what I’m doing here, Blake,” he said.

“Stop saying my fucking name,” I said.

“Whatever you want,” he said.  He smiled.

An easy, genuine, disarming smile.  His eyes crinkled, betraying his age.  A little older than thirty, maybe.

The colors were all wrong.  His hair was supposed to be brown, I remembered the scarf as being red and white.

He was a shadow version of the man I remembered.  Black.

That thought made me think of a fleeting mention Green Eyes had made to something.  A black fish.

Of course.

I’d been treated to a vision of the present.

A glimpse of the future.

Now a shadow from my past.  Something produced by this place to harry me, to ensure that I wouldn’t have peace without paying for it.  Without becoming a monster, or… or what?  Letting go of my memories altogether?

This place doing what it could to find my weaknesses, to claw at them.  Attacking from different directions, to put me on my heels.

“Carl…” I said, and the name felt heavy on my tongue.  “Don’t follow me.”

“You know I’m supposed to, Blake”

I turned to go, putting him behind me.

His footsteps followed.

I broke into a run.  Heads turned.

He was faster.  When I glanced, I saw him pass by them, running just as fast.  They didn’t react, didn’t see him.

He was here for me and me alone.

My run became something reckless. My footfalls came down hard enough on one makeshift bridge that something bounced loose, to strike a hard surface a distance below.  I was already a ways ahead, running along a ledge that would have been too narrow for casual walking.

I looked, and I saw him just a step behind me, reaching.

Stupidly, instinctually, I spun away.  Less instinctually, more out of anger, I threw a punch.

Except there was nothing solid underfoot as I planted my foot behind me.  Only open air.

A glimpse, as I turned in the air, of Carl standing on the ledge.  A smug, vague expression that revealed nothing at all.

I was dimly aware of a bridge, and with the one foot that was still on solid ground, I kicked.

Another bridge of scrap metal and wood.

I didn’t trust myself to grab onto something and hold on.  Instead, I simply slammed my arm into the nearest gap.  Metal sliced the back of my hand and the ‘v’ shaped gap crushed my wrist.

I dangled, the entire bridge swaying with my weight.

With my damaged, bandaged hand, I gripped the sturdiest piece of wood.  I was breathing too hard, and my hand shook.  Rather than trust the integrity of my divided hand, I wrapped my forearm around it, and then pulled my wedged hand free.  I climbed up onto the bridge in increments.

I didn’t stand.

“Mann, Levinn, Lewis,” I said.

My voice was hollow in the darkness.

“Mann, Levinn, Lewis.”

Eyes stared at me.

“Mann, Levinn, Lewis.”

There was no clap of thunder, no fire and brimstone.

Only a long pause, and heels striking the bridge.

I didn’t look up.

“Let me help my friends,” I said.  “You win.  This place wins.  Just let me help them, and you have me after that.”

A deal with the devil.

“No,” was the reply.  “Too late.”

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