Leaving a Mark – 4.10

Avery

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They cleaned up the workshop, squeegeeing the floor, then ducked outside into the warmer outdoors.  The wind was blowing strong, carrying small leaves and bits through the air.

Whatever way they traveled, they’d be jumping from this into something dangerous or harsh.

Zed and Eloise were talking, a little way away from the door.

“How are you feeling, Verona?” Avery asked.  She picked up the crying doll, which was holding an opossum-form Snowdrop, and the doll’s legs kicked at the air.

“Ugggh.”

“‘Cause we don’t have a lot of time if we’re going to stay on schedule, and we should think carefully about the route we take. If you’re emotionally not great, we might want to avoid the Ruins.”

“You want to do the Paths?” Lucy asked.

Avery shrugged, making a face.  “Kinda?  I’m more familiar with them.”

She set the doll down.  It wobbled, then resumed petting Snowdrop.

Lucy raised a hand in a wave or signal to Zed.  He shifted position, going from leaning against the wall to walking toward them, still chatting with Eloise, who followed.

“Done?” Zed asked.

“I think we’re only really getting started.  We need to head back to check on things,” Avery told him.  “We’ve got to figure out a way there and back.”

“Ideally we head out tonight and come back tomorrow,” Verona said.

“She doesn’t want to miss classes,” Lucy clarified.

“Technomancy options lean on the tools we have available.  Most often, we have tech at the departure point and tech at the arrival point.  Or we’re departing to a tech-created place.”

“We were thinking about other options,” Avery said.  “Do you have the details on those Paths?”

“On my phone, yeah.  I’ll mail them to you.”

“There are ways to use enchantress techniques to travel quickly,” Eloise said, “but they’re costly, and they require you to have a connection to the destination.”

“We have a connection to there,” Lucy said.

“But not from there back to here,” Avery said, thumbing through her phone to her email, while Zed did the same.

“We could use the Warrens, apparently, but it’s dangerous,” Lucy noted.

“A walk through the bad part of town, metaphorically speaking,” Eloise said.  “I wouldn’t associate with goblins if I could help it.”

Snowdrop sneezed.

“There’s a simplicity to the Warrens,” Zed noted.  “Yes, you might get held up, ambushed, mobbed, or exposed to some really unpleasant things, but if you’re strong, if you can fight, and if you can hold your nose, then there’s worse.  Just make sure you know what paths to take, so you don’t get into the territory of something especially awful.”

“Paths might be better,” Avery said.  “I don’t mean to sound like a broken record, but…”

“You’re a bit of a broken record, even if you don’t mean to be,” Verona said.

“I was looking up the Paths, to try to figure that stuff out,” Zed told them.  “Since it’s related to you and I like to know who and what I’m dealing with.  Our curriculum doesn’t delve into that stuff, here.  It’s interesting.”

“Any input?” Avery asked.  “Insights?  Tips?”

“They used to think of it as dream-walking.  Reading about some of the places, I can see it.  There’s something a bit dreamlike or unmoored about it, which is pretty different from the technomancy stuff.  Places so far removed from reality that only a few key things are really locked in.  Rules, waypoints, puzzles, items.  The rest of it gets filled in or changed, depending.  There’s some really dangerous stuff out there, if you aren’t careful.”

“I kind of know,” Avery said.  The email came through.  She gave Zed a thumbs up without looking up at her phone.

“It’s hard to harness, which might be why relatively few really do the Finder stuff.  If you try to bind a location or tap a particular subsystem for power, you might end up giving it so much form and function that it stops being part of the Paths.  If it even works.  Sometimes you pick up so much other attached crap that you can’t control outcomes.  A lot of the mapping and stuff that gets done is finding out which places can avoid being bogged down and dragged back down to ‘reality’, which places aren’t going to drift away and disconnect from everything while you’re walking it, which places are safe… it’s a long list of qualifiers.”

“They sent me three locations?”

“More than they promised, but they left out some details.  They want you to be in touch, communicate with them, give them what you promised about the Forest thing.”

Avery nodded.  “Works.”

“What are our options?” Lucy asked.

“The Amaranthine Conundrum.  Everything’s purple.  Purple place balanced on a purple animal’s back.  We’d have to paint ourselves to blend in,” Avery said.

“Doable with glamour,” Verona said.

“The place was used as a prison for some Others that aren’t strong enough to break free, but are tricky or problematic.  Stuff like close this one door, another two open.  Move an object and doors disappear, and things move, accordingly.  They filled it up, then sold the instructions for visiting, with specific instructions.  Looks straightforward.”

“What’s the danger?” Lucy asked.  “You let something out because you dropped a penny?”

Avery scrolled through her phone, went too far, and went back.  “Or you corner yourself, adjusting the wrong thing, and there’s no door you can open without letting something out or closing essential doors further on.  Or the last person to pass through didn’t follow the exact sequence.  And there’s some times when the animal that the place is balanced on will take a step and it makes doors swing open and closed.”

“And the time limit,” Zed remarked.

“Yeah.  After a set time, a ‘clod’ comes tearing through.”

“Clawed?” Verona asked.  “C-L-A-W-E-?”

“C-L-O-D.  Starting from downstairs, near the entry point, closes all the doors, puts everything away.  Either locks you in, or catches you and breaks you.  You can’t die or starve to death in there because the spirits essential for those things can’t navigate the Conundrum.  So it breaks your arms, legs, face, back, whatever, and then you kinda lie there.  There’s instructions for using some of the Clodded people from previous attempts to navigate or get hints.  One in the kitchen, two in the bedroom, one on the back path.”

“Yeah, let’s not do that,” Lucy said.  “For all those reasons.”

“I’m not exactly keen either,” Avery said.  “Even if it looks like it’s really clearly outlined.  I’m not even sure how it works if we go in as a group.  Okay.”

“Let’s not.  Next?”

“Mug Mile.  The footpath is heads and faces, from a bunch of people who are all crammed in, shoulder to shoulder, chest to chest, back to back.  You walk on their up-turned faces.  There’s a system for timing it.  Apparently a redecorating crew sits a certain distance up the path, and a crew sits behind. You don’t want to get redecorated, so you have to stay between the crews.”

“I like how casually that’s said,” Verona said.  “Get redecorated.”

“A lot of the time you get Lost.  Other times, you might get transformed.  Depending on the crews, a lot changes.  One puts masks on every face and paints the walls red.  The masked faces try to bite you while you walk.  Another washes the walls and drowns a lot of the faces, giving you really limited time because the water level rises faster if you’re far enough back.”

“I don’t know why you like these,” Lucy said.  “I get crazy anxiety imagining this.”

“There are a few spots where you can ask certain faces certain questions.  The treatments of the redecorating crews change how they behave.  If you can deal with the hazards and bystanders… it looks like Mug Mile has a lot of bystanders, huh.”

“If you can deal with them then what?” Lucy asked.

“It looks pretty straightforward.  Pick a good decorating crew to follow behind that you can deal with, keep an eye out for certain hostile Lost…”

“You call this straightforward?” Lucy asked.

“It looks like the main thing you get from Mug Mile is answers.  On the washed mile, following the washing crew, there’s one face that tells you secrets about other Paths, and a face that gives you answers to things you want to know… but it looks like it isn’t really specific, it rambles off answers to questions big and small at random, and you don’t have long before the next redecorating crew catches up, or the water level gets to be too high.”

Verona nodded.  “So, to me, clear and obvious answer is that you gotta achieve inner peace, answer all of life’s questions, except for one, and then pay it a visit.”

Zed snorted.  “Whatever route you take to be that enlightened, you’re better off sticking with it instead of flinging yourself at that place and walking on a mile of faces to get your answer.”

“How dangerous are the Lost there?” Lucy asked.  “More or less than goblins?”

“You may be underestimating goblins,” Eloise said.

“There’s fewer of them,” Avery said.  “There’s a spinster who pricks you with her needle, and then in an eyeblink, your eyes and all the holes in your body get stitched closed.  The straggler is this person from the redecorating crew who you can’t help but bump into as you enter the Path, who can never catch up to his team.  He mostly tries to mess with you and redecorate you while running to catch up.  Then a bunch of other ‘regulars’ who pop up.  They’re sorta hidden in the crowd, which is I guess why the instructions give really clear descriptions.”

“I can’t help but notice the word ‘running’ in there,” Verona said.

“Looks like it’s a mile-long jog, with a rough five mile an hour pace set by the redecorating crews before and after.  On uneven, mushy, moving ground.  That sounds hard.”

“Next,” Verona said.

“The Shining Bridge.  Apparently it either takes you from our world to an adjacent reality, or an adjacent reality to our world.”

“Not exactly what you’re looking to do,” Zed said.

“Share the grisly details,” Lucy said.

“Light in that area of the Path is elastic and tactile, at least for visitors.  There are a few paths to take, but they recommend the one where you tightrope-walk on the thin beams of light.  It’s apparently very kid-friendly, except for the part where you kinda have to get there by going through some scarier places, or it dumps you in one of those scary places, and there’s always some Lost hanging around.”

“Tightrope walking is kid friendly?” Lucy asked, unimpressed.

“Supposedly!  If you don’t freeze up halfway and need rescuing.”

“How high up is it?” Lucy asked.

“Apparently there’s no ground or anything below.  If you fall enough, you’re Lost, but there’s enough stuff to grab onto or touch on your way down that that almost never happens, and if you know some tricks you can transition to other Paths.  I guess that’s part of what Ed would share if I asked for more details.”

Lucy frowned.  Avery showed her the text on her phone, indicating that bit about transitions and grabbing things.

“We could make that plan B,” Verona said.

“Or plan G,” Lucy said.  “Because there’s a bunch of other options I’d rather try.”

“Want a ride?” Zed asked.

Lucy shook her head.  “It’s a five hour drive, five hours back, and that doesn’t leave much time to do what we need to do, especially considering it’d be the middle of the night.”

“Thanks though,” Avery said.

“We have, what?” Verona asked, counting for a second.  “Sixteen, seventeen hours before morning classes start?”

“You may be crazy, wanting to do this,” Avery said.

“Having this to look forward to is staving off the crazy,” Verona said.  “Ruins?”

“Don’t know the good ways of traveling.  Jessica did say it’s hard,” Avery said.  “And I don’t want to bother her.  Maybe on a better day, or after we establish more of a rapport…”

“Oh hon,” Eloise cut in.  “If you’re talking about Jessica Casabien, there won’t really be better days.”

“Or much rapport,” Zed told them.  “Let me go talk to her.  I’ll see about getting her to help you guys, yeah?  And maybe you return the favor later.  You may owe her too, though.  You probably will.”

“Okay.  Sure, thanks,” Avery said.  She frowned, though.  It felt like this kind of imposition or awkwardness would hurt them in the long run.

“Get sorted, okay?”

“Appreciated,” Lucy said.

“I should get back to my class work,” Eloise said.  “Make sure you clean the diagram you drew.”

“Already done.”

“Good kids.”

Eloise left.  Verona and Lucy put their bags down, and began sorting through the contents.

“I can run back to the room if you need me to grab something.”

“We might need clothing for rough weather,” Lucy said.  “Remember the simulation?  Deeper Ruins?”

“I hate that I missed that,” Verona said.

Avery nodded.  “I don’t think most raincoats will really save you though.  You’d need something like Jessica’s.”

“Or something like people wear on a fishing boat, with storms at sea and waves slopping in over the top of the ship,” Lucy mused.

Avery stretched, arm overhead, hand at her elbow, pulling.  She walked over a bit, turned around, and saw the doll was still at work.

“Tell us if the doll starts to give you a bald spot or whatever, Snow.”

Snowdrop made clicking sounds and turned over.

“We should maybe turn the doll off.  We’re powerful, but we’re paying a steady cost to that thing to keep it running,” Verona said.  “And that leaves us with a bit of our Selves hollowed out, right before we’re going to the Ruins?  Maybe?”

Snowdrop perked up at that.  She made noises, trying to sit upright while the doll’s hand pressed her head down with each press.

“I think she’s right, Snowdrop,” Avery said.

Snowdrop turned human, sweeping the doll up and hugging her.  The doll’s legs kicked, arms groping stiffly out in front of her.

“That,” Snowdrop said, as she hugged the doll tight, “is a very sensible idea.”

“Snowdrop-”

“I know we can’t keep her around forever.  She’s a drain, and what happened to that other kid with a Z-name makes it really clear it’s just not worth it.”

“Can you please not be so difficult, Snow?” Avery asked.

“I’m a big girl, I can deal with it.  I’m not lonely or anything, being so far from my friend Cherry.  I’m very mature, you see.  Too mature for dolls.”

“C’mon, Snowdrop.  If everything goes right, you should get an opportunity to visit your friends.”

“Hey, opossum girl,” Verona said.  “C’mere.”

“I’m okay with this.  I’m obedient like a dog,” Snowdrop said.

“Don’t be grumpy, please,” Avery said.  “I thought the doll would be a neat little thing, not something to fight over.”

“C’mon,” Verona said.

Snowdrop sighed, and walked over to Verona, who hugged her.  Verona stroked her head with one hand.

“You can go animal if you want,” Verona said.  “Full body pets instead of head pets.”

“Sure.”  Snowdrop’s voice was muffled by Verona’s front.  “More comfortable than being hugged like this.  I’ll do that.  Soon.”

“I think you might be spoiled, Snowdrop,” Lucy said.

“Yes.  Sufficiently spoiled,” Snowdrop said, muffled.  One of her dangling arms held the doll, which was losing its hair as the eyepatch slipped.  Avery dropped to one knee on the grass to fix it.

Her phone vibrated in her pocket.  She checked it.

“Message from Zed,” she reported.  “Jessica’s grabbing stuff.  Zed says we should get the same things, if we can.  Raincoats.”

“I didn’t bring one,” Verona said.  “Didn’t cross my mind.”

“I have a moisture wicking hooded top,” Lucy said.

“Sure.”

“I’m going to go,” Avery said.  “Watch Snow?”

“I’ll come,” Lucy said.

Avery nodded.

The notes came in one by one as they jogged over to their room.  A list of things.

They were going to the Ruins.  Cool.

Avery glanced at Lucy, and used her Sight.

She could see Lucy’s hair, apparently a barometer for how Lucy was doing, and it was a bit darker, touched with pink closer to the edges, not so much along its length.

“We’re a bit drained,” Avery noted.

“Good to know.  That’s from my hair?” Lucy huffed.

“Yeah.”  Avery wasn’t really out of breath, but Lucy was.  She’d have to keep that in mind, when it came to her friends and whether they were keeping up.  “I was wondering about that.”

“The pink might be a Verona thing.”

“Is that, like, okay, or is it weird, or…?  I know the hair’s a touchy thing.”

“Not touchy, exactly.  It’s a personal thing, and people like to intrude on a lot.”

Though it was possible that this particular journey might require things other than strong legs.

More items appeared, a series of one-word texts.  Flashlight.  Rope.

“Lucy, can you write some stuff for the Brownies?  We’ll see if they can supply it.  Flashlight and rope.  Extra raincoat.”

“On it.”

They reached their room, and Lucy went straight to the desk.  Avery had her own things.  Her jacket, her medical kit.  There was a multitool…

“Personal memento,” Avery said.  “Nonmagic.”

“Objects we awoke with should work, except I enchanted my knife.  I’m not sure where Verona’s scissors are at.  She purified them, kind of.  I forget the word.”

“I think that’d be fine, if she didn’t jam something into them.”

“Can’t use my knife.  Umm.  Well, since you reminded me,” Lucy said, as she dropped off the paper at the door flap.  She went to the foot of her bed, grabbed her makeup case, unlatched it, and removed a section.  Avery tilted her head to see.  There were some foreign coins, beads, and bits of paper in the bottom, beneath the plastic insert.

“I’ve had this since I was ten.  Verona gave me this.” Lucy took out a creased piece of paper.  It had a cartoon drawing of Lucy with pink hair and Verona, done up in the style of a cartoon Avery remembered seeing but couldn’t name.  Cute.  There was something that looked like alien language all over the rest of the page.

“What is it?”

“She did this really complex, artistic cipher, just handed this to me when I was leaving her place after a weekend visit.  I asked about the pink hair, and she said something about how it seemed right.  We used the cipher twice, then she seemed to forget about it.  Might’ve been too hard to do.”

“Huh.”

Avery felt a pang of annoyance, or… not annoyance.  Not hurt.  She groped for the feeling.

She wished they’d all been friends, back then.  That she could be in that picture.  Which wasn’t fair or sensible, but the feeling stuck.

The phone vibrated.  “Extra belt.  Hand towel.”

“Right,” Lucy said, putting some with the stuff they’d accumulated.  “Did you get along with Jessica after I was kicked out of class?” Lucy asked.

“Reasonably.  I feel like I stepped in something and she got sorta cold.  When I talked about working together, I think I made a pretty good pitch.  I feel like if I could have kept on building that sorta relationship, we could build that rapport or whatever, that Zed says is impossible.”

“It might just be that Zed is right, and Jessica’s got too much going on to be friends with a bunch of girls three years younger than her.”

Avery frowned.  “It feels like for most of my life, it’s been this constant… I dunno.  Like, if I’d been born in slightly different circumstances, a bunch of stuff would’ve lined up right.  Soap.”

“I’ve got soap.  Different stuff like?”

“Like if I’d been born a bit older, or a bit younger, I could’ve connected to my siblings better.  If I was born a boy, I wouldn’t have gotten the same kind of flack for enjoying sports.  If I was born the next town over then I would’ve been able to see Olivia more often.  If my family owned a house on the other side of the river, I could’ve maybe been friends with you two.”

“That’s a lot of could’ves.”

“It just feels like there’s a lot, y’know?  You know that Chinese thing, death by a thousand cuts?  It’s like that, but it’s more like a thousand nots.  I’m not old enough to really be friends with Jessica, and she just radiates cool to me.”

“I sort of know what you mean,” Lucy said.  She reached over and turned Avery’s phone.  “Salt.”

“Sorry.  Let myself get distracted.”  Avery got a pen, went to the door, and grabbed the things that the Brownies had put outside.  She wrote down ‘salt’ on a piece of paper and put it in the door flap, before closing the door.

“I do know.  It’s not nots, for me.  Because I love my mom and Booker too much to give up this life.  I don’t know if I love myself.  I think it changes based on the day, and how recently it was that someone was a dick to me.  But I don’t think I’d give up my face, or age up, or age down, or do anything to change that.”

“I love my family, but I think if things shifted and my life got shuffled just a bit, I’d still love them, but things would fit better,” Avery said.

“Yeah,” Lucy said, opening the door.  She got something that looked like a pepper mill, as long as her arm, glass, with salt within.  She shrugged and put it in her bag, the top sticking out.

“I dunno,” Avery said.

“You’re part of our trio.  Learning magic, seeing a side of the world I don’t think a lot of people even get into.  What, one in a thousand people are practitioners?  One in ten thousand?  Another handful of those ten thousand are Aware, to some degree?  Maybe this is the only ‘fit’ where you could be our friend and be a part of all of this.”

Avery smiled.

“What do you think?”

“That’s… good point.  Hmm.  I’m not sure how good an idea it is to be opening up like this when we’re going to the Ruins, which are supposed to be rougher, somehow.”

“We’re doing a lot of things we’re not supposed to be doing.  But I’d rather do the Ruins with a guide and slight handicap than walk on tightropes made of light or navigate some puzzle house on a giant purple turtle’s back.”

“Huh,” Avery said.  “I was imagining a giant elephant.”

“Hm.”

Avery checked her phone.  “They’re heading to the front of the school.”

“I think we’re reasonably set, given the list,” Lucy said.  She grabbed her jacket, putting it on, where Avery had tied hers around her waist.

Avery nodded.

“We’re giving Jessica lots of power in the coming negotiation,” Lucy said.  “I know you’re eager to go to the Ruins, but don’t agree to anything too ridiculous.”

“It’s not that I’m eager to go there.  We’ve been there.  But I want to figure it out.  I want to go to other places,” Avery said.  “Let’s jog?”

Lucy huffed, then picked up the pace.

It looked like the class session they’d left was ending, and kids were filing out, heading down toward their rooms, to the student center, and a bunch of other places.

The two of them took the other door, avoiding the crowd.

By the time they were at the front of the school, some students had left, and were talking with Jessica, Zed, Verona, and Snowdrop.

“She’s still petting Snowdrop,” Avery murmured, as they walked over.

“I think Verona needs to pet Snowdrop more than Snowdrop wants to be pet,” Lucy answered.

“Is it because it’s her dad, and he’s not great, or is it because of the situation, or…?”

“I think anyone’s going to worry if their parent gets sick.  Whatever their parent is like.  Is it a problem?  Is Snowdrop ‘yours’?”

Avery’s eyes widened.  She shook her head.  “She’s her own self.  It’s actually… I’m really glad that she was arguing over the doll thing.  I worry about how much like… she’s an actual person, and I’m responsible for her, and how much of me is in her, and is she compelled to be my friend, like you suggested with Nina, the librarian, and Zed?”

“Ahh.  Sorry.”

“So even if I’m not one hundred percent great with her being as friendly with some of the goblins as she’s been… I’ll deal.  Because it lets her be her own self with her own preferences.  If she wants to be grumpy about the petting doll, same thing.”

“We really can’t afford to pay to keep that thing active forever.”

“I know.  But if she wants us to, that’s cool.”

Lucy nodded.

There was more to say, but they were getting closer to the people leaving out the front doors, and to the group of Zed, Jessica, Snowdrop, and Verona.  Avery noted the big bucket of chalk by Jessica’s foot.

“You guys are in a rush, and Jessica doesn’t want to wait, so here’s the deal,” Zed said, as they got close enough.  The kids who’d stopped to talk left.  “She can only take you there.  She’s not going to head there tomorrow morning, pick you up, and come back.”

Avery nodded.

“Damn,” Lucy muttered.  “We might have to miss the morning class after all.”

Or,” Verona said.  “Path.”

“Ronnie…” Lucy shook her head.

“There’s more,” Zed told them.

“You pay the entry fee,” Jessica told them.  “We need to dive deep if we’re going to be able to cross.  The Ruins map out emotions, emotional imprints, and the wilderness is hard to cross because there isn’t much.”

“What happens when we go deep?” Avery asked.

“I’ll tell you if you agree.  I’m sharing knowledge.”

Jessica looked at Zed.

“That’s my cue to go.  Be nice to them.  Brie owes them a lot for compromising, and I’m attached to Brie.”

Jessica didn’t respond, watching while Zed walked off.

“You said you’d help me look,” Jessica said.

“I can try,” Avery said.

“Then make me a promise.  You’ll make at least two more trips to the Ruins.  I’ll tell you what to keep an eye out for.  You’ll make a concerted effort to look, feel, and search for my cousin, while you’re there.”

“We three, between us, will,” Lucy said, “if that’s alright?”

“I figured it’d be her, but I don’t care.  Sure,” Jessica said.

Lucy nodded.  Avery did too.

“I think we’re okay with this?” Verona asked.  “Okay.”

“We, the Kennet trio, will make a genuine attempt to investigate on your behalf, three times in total, including this trip you’re taking us on tonight, provided the entry fee is reasonable, we’ll pay that entry fee, in exchange for you giving us safe passage, educating us in what to watch for, treating us in a fair and sane way, and your respecting of the borders and rules of Kennet, as we outline them.”

Gosh, Lucy was good at covering the bases when it came to stuff like that.  Avery saw Verona smile for maybe the first time since the phone call.  Probably thinking the same thing.

“Safe passage will have to include you putting in enough effort.”

“Okay.”

“To respect the borders, I’ll drop you off, then turn back and do my own explorations, since you’ve paid the fee.”

“Which is?” Lucy asked.

“Not sharing details of my practice unless you’re on board.  Pledge.”

“I pledge,” Lucy said.

Avery and Verona echoed her.

“The way I do it, it’s releasing an echo, then traveling to it.  Depending, you can lose some of the impact of the scene, moment, or memory.  But it has to be a strong feeling,” Jessica said.

“So what, like…”

“Each of you pick a memory with very strong emotion associated with it.  A key moment that can leave an impression.  Ideally, you feel something, dwelling on it right here and right now.  It might be visible or viewable, depending on the reception, so I wouldn’t pick anything you don’t want anyone to see.  But make it good.  If you hold back and it’s not enough to get us through, I’ll draw up the circle.”

Jessica lifted the bucket of chalk, then walked off in the direction of the parking lot.

“Well,” Lucy said.

“I don’t know if my emotions are strong enough,” Verona said.

“I think they are,” Lucy said.

“I don’t know which are.  She’s asking us to think of something that makes us feel something tangible just remembering it?  I don’t know if I feel anything tangible in the moments when bad stuff happens.”

“You do, but… you don’t always remember them that great.  It’s like you’re great at forgetting to file those memories away.”

“Which is a problem,” Verona said.  “Because I need one.”

“Happy memories?” Avery asked.

“Ehhh.”

“Coming to school here?” Lucy prompted.

“It’s not unhappy at all, but I don’t know if I can put my finger on it as a feeling.”

“Shock, surprise?  Getting bad news?  Report cards?” Lucy asked.

“Why are those thoughts strung together in your head?” Verona asked.  “I’m not that bad a student.”

“Sadness?  A feeling of loss?”

“Like getting to eat the best treat ever,” Snowdrop suggested.

Verona shook her head.  “The feelings that get to me are… it’s like, going home, and hating going home, because I know my dad’s going to be in a mood, right?  But it’s… it’s not a moment.  It’s this wide feeling that goes all over the place.  Anything that wide doesn’t have anything specific, and anything else gets drowned out.”

“Hmm.”

“I wonder if I’m broken,” Verona mused.

“I don’t think you are,” Avery told her.

“Jessica’s waving us over.  Got all our stuff?” Lucy asked.  “We can ask for tips.”

“She probably won’t give us any,” Avery said.  “If we fail her, she’ll just leave, I’m guessing.”

“Maybe,” Lucy replied.

Verona took the stuff of hers that Lucy had packed, slinging the Brownie-given black raincoat over one shoulder.  Lucy hefted her bag, and Snowdrop dropped into opossum form before returning to human, now wearing her ‘P.O.S.’ possum coat, hood up.  Both Verona and Lucy donned cape, hat, and mask.  Verona transformed her hat into a cap, then pulled the hood over it to protect it.

Avery pulled her jacket on, hood up, wrapped her shoulders with the cape, pulled on her bag, and did up the straps to secure it.  Multi-tool in one pocket, charm bracelet on.  Mask, no hat, cape.

It was a bit much, but she was pretty sure the ghosts and stuff wouldn’t care.

“Inside the circle,” Jessica said.  The circle was a fairly simple one, with a crescent moon inside it, teardrops arranged in a partial circle within the ‘c’ of the crescent.

A few bystanders approached.  Jessica held out a hand, telling them to stop before they got too close.

“Vultures,” Jessica muttered.  “Decided?”

“Is this all of us needing a really good echo to send out, or are you wanting us to add up to one really good echo?” Lucy asked.

“The latter.  But the deeper we can dive, the faster the trip will be and the easier the look.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “I hope mine and Avery’s is good enough, then.”

“Here,” Jessica said.  She handed each of them a folded up bit of paper.  It looked like she’d had it for a while, because the edges were more rounded-off by wear than crisp.

It was a picture of a boy, younger than Avery had expected, shirtless and grungy, with long hair like a girl’s.

“Key things to look for.  He’s outdoors.  There’s an old boat, painted blue, that’s seen better days.  Dinged, paint peeling.  Two men who look like businessmen.  I can’t give you clear descriptions, because he didn’t pick up any.”

“We’re looking for a memory?”

“It’ll be a scene.  Depending on depth, pattern, and placement, it may be in focus, partial, or knit to something else.  A plastic fishing net, not very long, it can be red, green, or blue, dense mesh.  A dog with mismatched eyes, barking.”

“What happened?” Avery asked.  “I mean, if it helps us place it?”

“If one of yours hurts one of yours, your authorities handle it, of course.  If one of yours hurts one of ours, someone on the reserve, your authorities tend to quote-unquote ‘handle’ it.  A slap on the wrist, too often.  Or probation, or bail.  If one of ours hurts one of ours, our authorities are allowed to handle it, usually, depending on how and where, and if there’s any history of crime outside the reserve.  If there is crime outside, we get little cooperation, no resources.  And if one of ours hurts one of yours?”

Jessica shook her head.

“He got in trouble?” Lucy asked.

“He found a toy by a lakeside.  We share, in our community, food when we have it, resources, help.  Toys.  He was young enough he didn’t think things through when he took it.  The toy, a drone, was owned by someone who was technically trespassing, and it was expensive.  Ontario police took him away for theft, and the system swallowed him up.  We had to call, search, and fight to get even basic information on where he was being kept and what was happening.  The charges were eventually dropped, after far too long.  He came back to us two years older with something missing.”

“I’m sorry,” Avery said.

“Don’t.  Don’t waste your breath, because I don’t care.  Just look, and that’s good enough.”

“Drone, being dragged away, are those possible things to look for?” Lucy asked.

“When I find glimpses or pieces, the drone isn’t there.  It didn’t stick with him.  He didn’t care that much about it.  He didn’t even have the controller to fly it.  He thought it was neat.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.

“Why?” Verona asked.

Jessica turned to her.

“Why dedicate your life to this?”

“Because he’s family.  Because there’s nobody else who can and will do this.  If I don’t, then who will?”

Verona nodded.

“Personal items out.”

“We thought maybe your scissors,” Lucy told Verona.

Verona pulled out the scissors.  Lucy had the old cipher and drawing, which got a smile and a silent ‘wow’ out of Verona.  Avery had her photo of herself at the rink.  Trying to smile.

Jessica shook out her raincoat, and donned it.  She wasn’t carrying a lot of stuff.  She reached into a pocket, pulled out a vial of water, and began to pour.  “Who’s first?”

“I can, since this was kinda my idea,” Avery said.

“Focus on the memory.  Push through, push out.  As it separates, give it the object.  Keep your hand held out, palm up.”

Avery nodded.

“Same for the others.”

“Do your best,” Lucy told Verona.

Verona nodded.

Jessica said something in what Avery presumed was Ojibwe, and the words flowed, almost like she was conversing or giving a monologue.

Water sprayed up from the diagram’s edges, like from a thousand water pistols.  The droplets were angled so they shot toward them at a slight angle, raining down around them.

The water fell, then kept falling.  The geysers became a waterfall, a wall of falling water that encircled them.  The water began to pool around their feet, then rose in level.

“Like this, we could enter the shallow parts of the Ruins.  But that won’t do,” Jessica said.  She looked at Avery.

Avery concentrated.  Thinking back to that night.

🟂

“Number six!” the coach hollered.  “Skates on!”

Avery was stirred from thought.  She hurried over, dropping her bag by the bench.  There was no locker room, they came geared up and pulled on the essentials at the benches by the ice.  Families and people from all over who were desperate for attention had converged here.

“We’ll huddle while you get ready,” the coach said.

The time for a huddle was weeks ago.  She barely recognized her own teammates.  Their teammates from Tripoli had decided to stay in their town for practices.  They’d been a disorganized mess when grouping together for the last two games, unmotivated, depressed.  Their best teammates had gone to Swanson.

Olivia had gone to Swanson.

Avery bent over, pulling off her boots and pulling on her skates.  One of the girls from Tripoli handed her a metal hook for getting the laces tighter.  Tugging, looking over, she could see Olivia.  Tan, with hair almost lighter than her skin, fully geared up in her pads.

“I won’t give you a long pre-game speech.  The Seabirds are a good team.  Tonight will be good competition, with lots of room to grow and learn.  However tonight goes, focus on that.  Be your best self.”

We’re going to lose and you can’t pretend it’s different.

It sucked.  It sucked as much as anything had sucked in recent memory, and a lot of things had sucked, recently.

She glanced out toward the crowd and saw her family.  Rowan and Sheridan had been vocally clear that they didn’t want to come, but according to mom and dad, this was Avery’s thing.  Which Avery interpreted to Declan getting the television and game console for hours every day, Sheridan and the others got the television every night.  Avery got a few hockey games a year, with reluctant attendance and sidelong jabs from her siblings.

Mom and dad had been trying.  Ms. Hardy had talked to them, and they’d stepped up after an initial panic.  Kind of.  They’d pushed hard for this.  Kept Grumble from putting the news on for the five minute drive over.

“Play your hardest.  Last game of the season.  Marcia, do you need help with your skates?”

Oh my god, some of these guys don’t know how to put their skates on properly.

The Seabirds were already on the ice, leaning over the door to listen to their coach.

Avery finished lacing up.  She pulled on glove, helmet, and grabbed her stick.  She had to wait for teammates who were taking their sweet time getting on the ice, stumping forward with two steps on the rubber mat, waiting, stumping forward another two steps.

The crowd was buzzing.  Many of her classmates were in the stands.  The boys.  The Dancers, who had probably been locked in as a group since Avery had been young enough to wet her overalls in Kindergarten.

Finally, finally, she got to put skate to ice.

She glided forward, skate grazing ice, then picked up speed.  She did some quick, tight laps, while her teammates got themselves figured out.

This was the part she was good at.  The one thing in life she was good at.  It made her heart lighter, when it had so many other reasons to feel heavy.

She’d give her all, she decided, as the faces in her peripheral vision blurred.

She couldn’t help her team to win.  That was hopeless, but she’d work with them as much as she was able when they’d barely practiced.  She’d try to manage some good moments.  Show off for Miss Hardy.

The whistle blew.  Avery stopped, sharp, then skated over.  She glanced at her teacher, who was sitting with friends.

So pretty.  So cool.  Something else to make Avery’s heart lighter when there was nothing else.

You saved me.  Maybe I can give you a bit better of a night by giving you reasons to cheer for me.  She settled into position.  Right wing.  Stick touched ice.

The puck was dropped.  Melissa faced off against Olivia, sticks clashing.  Olivia won.

Avery turned, flanking Olivia, matching her in speed.

Karci flubbed it, letting Olivia by.

Avery pushed forward, getting out ahead of her old best friend.  Olivia’s eyes met hers, maybe for the first time since she’d gone over to Swanson.  Olivia passed to a teammate.

Avery pushed harder, slipping by, chasing the puck, mindful of the possible pass back to Olivia.  She flew straight to Olivia’s teammate, saw the hesitation, and knew she had an opportunity.

Sticks clashed, she claimed the puck, turned to put her body between it and Olivia’s teammate, and pushed off, preparing to circle around her own net.  She’d get her bearings-

Olivia slammed into her, driving her into the boards, flicked the puck over to her teammate, and they’d scored before Avery was back on her feet.

“I know how fast you are,” Olivia said, not looking at Avery.  “I’m not going to give you the chance.”

Then she was off.

And she didn’t.  There wasn’t one chance.  It felt like Avery’s teammates weren’t even trying.  She caught them chatting, chatting, while there was a game to focus on.  Melissa gave it a shot, but Melissa wasn’t very good on skates.  Decent stick handling, but… Olivia was better.

Avery felt the flush of shame, and was aware of the crowd, and how quiet the arena was, all considered.

Olivia threw herself into the boards, directly in Avery’s way.  Avery, forced to slow or stop, passed, and watched her teammates give up the puck three seconds later.

When it wasn’t Olivia’s teammate, it was the girl with ‘Rochs’ on the back of her jersey.  Avery skated past her, but having to go around cost her the seconds she would’ve needed to intercept Olivia.

It felt like drowning.  The hurt of Olivia ghosting her was fresh, like this.  But if she cried and her classmates saw it, she’d be humiliated.  More humiliated.  Her face was probably bright red anyway.

Avery intercepted the puck.  She passed.  Her teammate, one of the girls who’d been chatting, she realized, gave up the puck as Oliva came tearing her way, ready to knock her into the boards.  Just… gave up.

Olivia scored.  Avery looked up at the scoreboard, above the ice.  6-0.

She pushed forward harder, not sure if she was sweating or crying.  She wiped at her cheek with the thumb of her glove.

Maybe she’d quit hockey, after this.

It would’ve been worse if she’d been completely stopped, but she kept getting tastes of what hockey should be.  The rising hope when she passed, saw the way was clear for a teammate.  Then it was taken away.

She intercepted the puck.  She caught up, claiming it from Rochs.  She broke away.  Moments like that, in the haze of being body-checked, intercepted, disappointed.

Olivia breezed in close, and bumped shoulders with her, and she had to take a shot.  She was fast, but she’d been at her best when she could pass to someone like Olivia, back when Olivia had been on her team.  She wasn’t a shooter.  Olivia shouldered her as she shot, and her shot went wide of the net.  Rochs claimed it.

She shot, and the goalie stopped it.

She shot again, and the goalie stopped it.

She passed to a teammate.  Karci.  Karci missed the net entirely, and she didn’t have Olivia riding her shoulder.

Melissa claimed the puck, passing to Avery, when Avery had Olivia right by her.  Avery’s expression twisted, she pushed forward, and took her shot.  The goalie had moved a bit out of the net in anticipation of Melissa taking a shot from the left, and Avery was clear to shoot.

She scored.

The buzzer of the shot being made was soon followed by the horn signaling the game’s end.  Not enough seconds on the clock for anything, according to their league rules.

7-1.

“Damn,” Olivia said.  “I wanted a shutout.  Good one.”

Avery turned, looking, but Olivia was already skating away.  Bumping shoulders with Rochs.

She skated backwards to the gate, only to find a log jam there.

No.  Worse.

The coach was there, to commemorate the occasion with a photo.

Avery looked, searching, but her family was already rising from their seats.  Ms. Hardy was sitting, but not really looking, talking in an animated way with her guy friend.

She was glad they weren’t paying attention.  She was hurt they weren’t paying attention.

Shame and frustration washed over her.

Avery’s eye fell on a woman in the stand, face obscured by the way the lights above them hit the plexiglass.  As Avery shifted position, the light refused to cooperate.

Is she looking at me?

“Number six!” the coach called out.

Avery looked at the camera.

The flash was enough to almost bring tears to her eyes.

🟂

She pushed out.  Let that moment go, and while she remembered, she held out her hand, slipping it into a hockey glove.  Picture provided.

Miss had been there.  She hadn’t remembered that until just now.

She’d gone out to get ice cream with her family.  Lucy and Verona had been there.  They’d been at the game, in the audience, but she hadn’t even glanced at them.  The Dancers had taken up her attention.

Maybe because the Dancers were a symbol of how hard it was to break into the social group.  Or how hard she’d thought it was to break into the group.

The Avery echo skated backwards, stick in one hand, photo in the other.  To Avery’s sight, there was a strong connection between herself and the echo, as the echo disappeared into the downpour.

🟂

The awakening ritual.

Avery could feel the excitement in a chest that wasn’t her own.  She could feel it, like Verona felt it, and she could finally understand what Verona meant.  The way emotions could feel different.  Dampened.

When the feelings hit her like she was checked on the ice, but wearing padding.

Being on the ice, Avery had felt like the environment was her friend.  The ice was her friend.  Olivia had made a point of showing that she wasn’t Avery’s friend.

Feeling Verona’s feelings, she felt like she was a very, very small heartbeat and grouping of physical sensations in tar.  A small human-shaped bit of clarity in a haze of dark smog.  And nestled in that human bit of clarity was maybe the part of Verona that could be counted on.  Ideas danced in her head, inarticulate.  Imagination.  Her mental pictures were simultaneously less clear than Avery’s own, and more pronounced.

The awakening ritual glowed, and Avery felt feelings in Verona’s chest, felt her heart hammering as much or more than Avery’s had.  The faces of the Kennet Others were lit up, and, to Verona, it was like the rest of the word was swelling, getting brighter, and living up to that imagination.

🟂

Avery wondered if she understood Verona a bit better now.

“Didn’t mean to pick that one specifically,” Verona said.

“Damn it,” Lucy muttered, glancing at Jessica.

“I really don’t care,” Jessica said.

“Can you not tell anyone?”

Focus.  I don’t care.  Fine.  But focus.”

Verona gave the scissors to her echo, fainter and number than Avery’s had been.

Avery tracked the tether.  Not as strong.  She hoped Verona wouldn’t lose that emotion and memory altogether.

🟂

Lucy lay on carpet, her head rising and falling with someone else’s breath.  She twisted her head around to look up at Booker, who wasn’t even a teenager.  Her head lay on his stomach, his head lay on their mom’s stomach, and her mom’s head was on-

His face changed, like a weird photoshop job, trying to drop in images seen from elsewhere.  From photographs.

“Don’t laugh,” Jasmine warned, smiling.

Lucy giggled, her voice young, and the way they were lying on the living room floor, her laughter jiggled Booker’s stomach, which made him laugh.  It was a contagious effect, spreading across all four of them.  But the more Booker laughed, the more she laughed, and then that set mom off because it was too much.

Booker bumped her shoulder with his knees, his face all squinty and scrunched-up, his body curling up, because he was too far gone.  He pushed her, trying to get her to move off him, then wriggled, trying to get away.

She flipped over, pushed his shirt up, and gave him a big wet raspberry on the stomach.

🟂

The echo that Lucy released wasn’t a clear one, but it had a lot attached to it, a vague family shape framing it.

She gave it the cipher with the little drawing.

“Two decent ones, one weak,” Jessica said.  “The-”

🟂

Every movement was careful.  Each foot had to be set down with care, to avoid tipping over.

She’d eaten and she was hungry.  When she’d eaten, her stomach had hurt, and she’d squirted out the contents.  After, she’d been tired, hungry, thirsty, and felt mixed-together emptiness with feeling stopped up, in her middle.

Now, even though it wasn’t that cold out, she was trembling.

She nosed at some grass, then chewed on it, prying at it with sharp teeth, tugging it free.  She couldn’t taste anything rich in it, there wasn’t a lot to it, but it was right there for the taking and it felt like an answer to the gnawing emptiness in her middle.

What she really wanted, though, the balm to all things, was her mama.  Her mama was warm.  Her mama provided food that didn’t hurt her stomach, rich and filling, quenching hunger and thirst both.  Her mama would make the world feel less open and empty.  Her mama would protect her.

She shivered, huddling into a crevice, and her mouth opened and closed as she chewed at grass.

The shadow slipped close with barely a sound.  When eyes focused on her, they were close together.

She knew from her very limited experience that eyes being close together meant predator.  It meant hunter.  She’d run into a few things, things that moved and smelled different than mama or than her brothers and sisters.  Some took to the air, others moved along the ground.  Others scampered up trees.

The scary ones had always had eyes like this.

She hissed as it drew closer, her heart pounding enough she thought she could faint.

The shadow nuzzled at her, found the back of her neck, and picked her up by the scruff.  She didn’t fight it.  She was too tired.

The shadow moved her to a shoulder, and she held on, feeling the warmth of her.

She was so grateful for that warmth, even as the rest of her was tired and very close to being done.

She nuzzled in close and accepted whatever was to follow.

🟂

“That’s a very small echo,” Jessica observed.  “It-”

The image of a small possum fizzled out, dissipating as a wisp.

“Good,” Snowdrop said, to the disintegrating image.  “Hmph.”

“She didn’t just lose a key memory or anything, did she?” Avery asked.  “She-”

“No.  No.  We’re good,” Jessica said.

The downpour steadily increased.  It began to feel like they were slowly falling.

To Avery’s vision, the tethers that stretched from them to their images, and their images were off over the edge, out past the boundary.  Pulling them down, or weighing them down.

The more that feeling of falling increased, the more the rain came down.

Avery drew Snowdrop close, shielding her some.

Images began to appear in the rain.

“Go,” Jessica said.  She turned on a flashlight.  “Keep moving.”

The world was broken up and crowded, and drenched in rain.  The school was there, surrounded by broken earth, water coming down from the trees with enough force and vigor to carve out moats.  The broken earth formed an island, and the island was pressed up against other, similar spaces.  Towns.  Roads were decrepit, eaten-through like swiss cheese or leaves that caterpillars had gotten at, and when enough of them had broken up, they’d pressed in close, mashing together.

Images swept past Avery.  Some rude, others violent, others scary.  Many were like Lucy’s memory of the man who she’d been in the laughing circle with.  Barely pieced together, or off, blurry.

They were wading through a crowd, on broken ground that was sometimes sloped, sometimes deceptive in how intact it was or wasn’t, water pouring down around them like a light stream or river, cold enough to numb.

Jessica held out her hands, getting them to stop.

Silent, like an eel, something with a head as big as one of the ruined buildings off to the side slipped by.  Eyeless, legless, skimming over the water and ragged ground.

An echo flew past Avery with enough force to take her off her feet.  Images of a woman, bored in a restaurant, rocked her, emotionally and physically.  She could smell the booth, feel the boredom.  And then it was gone, leaving her own emotions stirred, her physical body still in the process of being bowled over.  She slipped on uneven ground.  Snowdrop reached for her, grabbing her, but she’d found her footing before pulling Snowdrop off her feet too.

She hadn’t even straightened up all the way when another echo slipped past her.  A hand grazed her and passed through her, giving her a taste of the feeling in her midsection, only that feeling in her midsection, like she’d lost something or someone precious to her.

She was falling behind.  She hurried forward, hand on Snowdrop’s shoulder, and more echoes were in the way.  Too densely packed to avoid touching some.  She pushed past.

Money troubles.

Mental images, disconnected, of hands twisted in pain, struggling and failing to hold a pen.

Being laughed at.

Mental images of food, spread across a table.  A sense of accomplishment.

She forged forward, and Verona grabbed her hand, helping tug her forward as she slowed.  A moment later, Snowdrop was behind Verona, pushing.

Something more profound.  An Echo with darker shadows and brighter brights to how its blurry splash of a face and body were put together.

And with that, the sense of dying.  Of her heart slowing, stopping.  Her breathing grew ragged.

Snowdrop tugged on her arm, while Verona had a hand at her armpit.  Verona looked like she was suffering too.

A bright light shone in her eyes, doing nothing to dismiss the feeling.

Jessica threw something.  Avery felt the grit in her hair and face.

The feeling fled.  Jessica hauled her and Verona to their feet.

Through the smell of hospital.  Past a taste of vomit.

Into a memory of a book.

They were moving through a crowd, echoes sitting shoulder to shoulder, other figures here and there, stalking their way through.  A man, tall, with no eyes, what appeared to be a long coat actually a part of him, like a fish had fins, his mouth a weird shape that suggested it hinged away from the upper half of his face.

More echoes.  Some were darker, more disturbed.  Others faded.  All had a taste to them.

Lucy had the salt grinder, and was depositing salt into her hands, hucking it at the most intense images.  Forging a way.  Jessica didn’t stop her.

With skin as white as paper and slightly melted, like candle wax, slick with rain, a creature sat, as large as a building.  It reached out with long fingers to pick ghosts out of the crowd.

Jessica seemed wary of that one.

Avery had imagined, kind of, that with Jessica’s request that she go looking two more times after this, that she’d make a day trip of it.  It’d be easy.  She’d win her over.  If not by finding some clue or thread to follow, then through sheer effort.

Like trying to impress Ms. Hardy at the hockey game.  She kept making promises to herself and not keeping them.

What was she doing?

The downpour was too intense to really speak, and she felt breathless, anyway.  The images hit her too often, on too deep a level.

She was holding Snowdrop’s hand, checked on her friend, and then gave her a tug, gesturing.

Snowdrop handed Avery the doll’s head, body missing, and Avery took it.  Then Snowdrop switched to animal form, and Avery lifted her into a pocket, covering it with a flap.  A little white nose stuck out.

She pressed forward, doll’s head in one hand.

She moved forward with vigor now.  Because she wanted to do this.  She wanted to experience these worlds, and see if maybe there was a good fit out there there, or another perspective, or something.  A place where she could stand atop some equivalent of a clifftop or scenic vista.

She thought of what Eloise had said about using connections to draw oneself to a place, and looked for the connections to home, faint bands visible in the midst of faint figures, images, and images almost appearing out of the downpour.

She moved through the crowd like she evaded players on the ice and soccer field.  A ghost passed through the doll’s head, and seemed to get stuck there.  It whispered at her with the doll’s mouth, “I’ve disappointed them so badly.”

She gave the doll’s head a shake, and the ghost came free.

She supported Lucy, and with Verona right behind them, they pressed on.  Avery navigated, Lucy dispatched problems, and when they faltered, Verona pushed them from behind.

She felt maybe a dozen people dying in different ways, when certain stark echoes passed through her.  She felt people getting hurt.  She felt people hurting other people.  She saw images, and it was so hard to push the distinct mental pictures out of her head that she had trouble conjuring up the mental image of what Jessica had told her to look out for.

Blue boat with a dinged and peeling underside.  A lake.  A pair of indistinct businessmen.  A dog with mismatched eyes barking.

None of the above, in this jumble.

“Rough patch ahead,” Jessica announced.

She could talk in the midst of all of this?

Jessica reached into a pocket, then lifted up a bottle with what looked like a firefly within.

It flashed, flickered, then glowed, shedding a broad orange light.

Echoes scampered out of the way.  Four, five, or six indistinct shapes, slick and fishlike, pulled away from the gloom.  Avery hadn’t even seen them.

“Hurry.  Go, go, before it dims,” Jessica told them.

They hurried.

The morass of dark, slimy things closed in behind them as the light passed.  Echoes continued to lance through them.  Water rolled past them, sometimes up to mid-calf, sometimes with enough force that she slid back a few feet with both feet firmly planted.

Avery looked at connections, then pointed.  Jessica nodded, pointing her flashlight.  In this kind of gloom, with so much rain and so many intervening, transparent echoes, the light was feeble.  A five percent increase in how much they could see.

She pressed forward, doing the climbing work over a pile of rubble, then reaching back to help lift Verona up.  Lucy got help from Jessica.

They were covering a lot of ground, she realized.  The areas they moved through were all residential, all small towns, all compressed down to their most populated, emotionally active areas.  Places where her handprint-Sight would have been densest, were she to look at them.

The doll’s head twitched as an echo grazed it.

They moved downhill a way, then through trees that bordered a trail that apparently saw heavy use.

Into a tunnel that passed beneath a highway..

Avery touched a wall for balance, and pulled her hand away, looking at it in the meager light.  There was a red tint.

Like diluted blood.

She had to try three times before she was able to get the sentence out.  “I think we’re home.”

“Climb,” Jessica said.  “Get out.  Draw on the connections to the items you gave the echoes.  Reel them in, reel yourself up.”

Snowdrop wriggled energetically in Avery’s pocket.

“Snowdrop knows- knows ways to get around, around here, I think,” Avery said, wincing as an echo grazed her.  Alcoholism, maybe.

“I’ll go back now, then,” Jessica said.

Avery nodded.

Jessica adjusted her raincoat, fixed her hood, then ducked her head, moving out of the dripping tunnel, back the way they’d come.  No fanfare, barely a word of farewell.

They climbed.  Out of the tunnel, then up the side of the hill.

Toward familiar ground.  They’d been approximately here, a while ago.

The blood was thicker, and clotted, meaty chunks and strands of hair strewn across the ground made it clear that it had been dragged.

It was easier to follow the trail, now.

At the risk of not being able to ascend, or running into something native to the Ruins, they followed the trail.

Died at the Arena.

Dragged to…

They reached the river.  The bridge.

The Ruins were only the emotionally resonant or emotionally important places, jammed together, worn down and blurry at the edges, drenched.

Thunder rumbled in the distance.

The first night they’d visited the ruins, they’d thought the body had been moved.  Taken to pieces and then moved when they’d been on their way to the Arena, where they might have found what was left.

Moved here.

Echoes swirled, indistinct.

Avery held out the doll’s head.

Put it in the container.  Seal it,” the doll whispered.

Moving it around was like trying to get a signal from a bad radio station, fiddling with the knob, with no perfect answer, only a good enough.

-er to wass-

“-tonight-”

-f summer-“

-eal with the three even-

She gave up.

Snowdrop climbed free of her pocket.  She led them to a hollow between tree and bridge, up through gutter-water, and to the bridge itself.

To a shallower part of the Ruins, like where they’d encountered the eyeball collector.  Not all that far from here.

Avery reached for her connection to the photograph and memory, then gently reeled it in.

As she did, the world came more clearly into focus.  Like the rays of light that could appear around light sources when squinting, the rainfall went in and out of focus.

She felt exhausted, emotionally.  Raw.  The memory of Olivia swept over her like any echo, but this one settled back into place.

It didn’t feel diminished in the way she’d expected, but having let it go and brought it back in, it felt somehow less important.  She’d held it close to her heart, but it didn’t feel essential.  Maybe it was diminished that way.

They were in Kennet, without rain, the three of them dripping wet, loaded down with bags, exhausted.

Lucy pulled out her phone and checked.

“Tell me that we didn’t lose hours,” Avery said.

Lucy showed her.

Eighteen minutes, total.

“Jessica spends days in there,” Avery noted.

There was a sound of sirens, of an Ontario Police police car racing across Kennet.

“Are they here yet?” Verona asked.

“Arrived right when we did,” Lucy said, looking at her phone.  “You’ll have to put off checking on your dad.”

Verona smiled at that, a sad expression more than a happy one.

“Text from Matthew says it looks like the Skeptic, the Glamour-Drowned, and the Gilded Lily,” Lucy said.  “The local Others can’t even get close to them.  I want to regroup, get information, but we can’t let them get up to too much mischief.  I’m thinking one or two of us should stall, while the other or others get sorted.”

“Snowdrop and I can try intercepting them,” Avery said.  “Or at least keep an eye on them from a distance, in case something crops up.  We got a lot of practice with surveillance on the locals.”

“I like the surveillance idea more than the intercepting,” Lucy said.  “Just… even if it’s knowing what the Gilded Lily has or finds.  That seems important.”

Avery nodded.

Verona pushed wet hair back away from her face.  Even with a hood up, she’d gotten drenched.  “And if you do wind up intercepting or getting spotted-”

“Don’t,” Lucy warned.

“-You’re better at being nice, and I don’t think most of these guys are bad people.  So you’ll do better if you try talking it out, probably.”

Avery removed Snowdrop from her coat pocket, pulled off her coat, and tied it around her waist, then slipped her mask off.  Her shoes were soaked, but beyond that, it felt nice to be soaking wet on a hot summer day.

“Looks like it’s the park spot, west of town,” Lucy reported.

“‘Kay,” Avery said.

“Be careful,” Verona warned.  “If you’ve been using glamour-”

“I’ll keep a healthy distance.  If I can’t, I’ll try to deal with the Gilded Lily, specifically.”

“If you can,” Lucy said.  “Looking at you with the Sight, it doesn’t look like the omens are heavy around us like they were at school.  No strife, but that doesn’t mean it can’t catch up with us or find us.  Nicolette hurt Melissa.  Whoever this is can hurt us.”

Avery nodded.

“Stay in touch,” Verona said.  “Report in early and often.”

Avery nodded again.  She looked down at Snowdrop, who clung to her shoulder with sharp nails.  “Ready?”

Snowdrop shook her head.

“Great.”

Avery took off running.


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Leaving a Mark – 4.9

Verona

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Last Thursday: Dossiers


Verona flipped through pages in the textbook.  Which wasn’t really a textbook.  It looked like the yearbooks her school had mass-produced for everyone in grade eight and up, made cheaply with plastic spines that hooked into the holes.  The pages kept catching on the plastic spines.

“Stop turning pages so fast,” Avery said.  “I’m still reading.”

“I wonder if we can get another enchanting textbook,” Lucy said, looking around.

Mrs. Graubard looked like a doll, shoulder length brown hair that turned inward at the shoulders, straight bangs, stark makeup, and conservative, starched clothes.  Talia looked a lot like her mom, but was more relaxed in the hair department, with bleached strands framing her face and ordinary eleven year old clothes.  The doll was a weird middle ground, with crisper hair and old fashioned girl’s clothes.

The trio were going from workstation to workstation, and it looked like Mrs. Graubard was using the class as an opportunity to test her daughter, who was asked to clarify what people were doing and to give advice, which her mother then corrected.

They’d set up in the main building, moving some bookshelves and raising up some folding tables that were normally sunken into the floor, so they had more space.  All of the non-senior students were attending, and they were gathered into groups with four to a table.

A doll sat on their desk.  Each of the four of them had picked different parts of it from the bin that Mrs. Graubard had brought.  The end result was hilarious: a doll with fancy ringlets for her hair and a flower-ringed, wide-brimmed hat knit to that hair, a screaming baby’s face, eyes scrunched up and face contorted, only two teeth, and modern clothing.  The hair didn’t really fit the head, so Zachariah was trying to use the elastic portion of a superhero mask to pin things in place.

“Okay, done reading,” Avery said.  “Do you want to read, Zach?”

Zach shook his head.  He carefully let go of the head, backing away like he thought it might fall to pieces if he wasn’t careful, hands extended and ready to catch it if it started to fall apart.

“There’s a lot there,” Avery said.  “We’re doing a really basic doll, right?”

“That’s the idea,” Verona said, flipping through the pages to the reference.  “Squares drawn out?”

“Yes,” Lucy said, using a finger to rub a bit of a bulge where the chalk had caught on a slat of wood, tidying it up.  A square within a diamond within a square, out to the table’s edge, which they’d lined with chalk for good measure.

“Eight objects from the reference chart, placed so each square has one, and they spiral outward.  Inner diamond, north point… bowl of water for life.”

“Okay,” Zach said, pouring.

“Next step out, square, northeast, branch, for nature.”

Zach reached over to the tray, picked up the branch with a leaf on it, and then worked it so the frayed bottom end stuck into the slats between the boards on the table.

“Is that good or bad?  Does it reach over the boundary?” Verona asked, leaning forward.  Lucy put a hand out to keep Verona’s top from rubbing away a part of the chalk drawing, even though Verona was being mindful.

“It’s fine,” Zach said.

“It doesn’t form a bridge or anything?”

“‘Up’ as a direction has a lot of weird interactions with diagrams, but what they really care about is the point it meets the diagram,” Zach said.  “Trust me.  It should work better if we have a symbolic ‘tree’.”

“Okie dokie.  Next ring out, diamond, east point.  As we get further out, we get more freedom.  Second point can be the branch or candle, but let’s do the candle here.”

Lucy got the lighter from the tray, while Zach held the candle butt-end toward her.

“Get the bottom part melty.”

Lucy did.

He pointed the candle the other way, and she lit the wick.  He placed it melty-side down, the melt helping to keep it propped up.

“You seem to know what you’re doing,” Avery said.

“I’ve been doing this since I was a kid.  I got awoken at four.”

Four.

Zachariah nodded.

“So jealous,” Verona muttered.

Zachariah was a weird guy.  His head was buzzed to the point he was nearly bald, and he had a very square head.  Verona struggled to find anything to really mark as notable about him. appearance-wise, beyond that.  He was padded around the edges, heavy-cheeked, and a bit older than the three of them, but matched to them in height.  He wore cargo shorts and a tee-shirt with a graphic of some woman from an animated show she hadn’t heard of.  But as nondescript as he was, his attention was mostly focused, and he seemed assured about all of this stuff.

Being a practitioner since he was four made it make more sense.

“My family’s nothing major,” he said.  “We had to really stretch to even get me in.  But my best friend is attending.”

He looked over at the other table.  His friend was a really shaggy-haired kid with a bad complexion who had a bright smile that shone past the shag and skin.  He had joined a group with three girls around their age, Fiona, Melody, and Raquel.

Zach frowned at his friend, who was too preoccupied with his groupmates to notice.

Which, like… Zach was at a table with three girls, but he seemed more miffed at his buddy abandoning him than he was at having his own share of female company.

Verona rolled her eyes, flipped through the book, and asked, absently, “You’re a totemist?”

“Fancy way of saying shaman, which can be fancy.  Sal’s family does it fancy.  Not for my family.  But I’ve got good fundamentals.”

“Hopefully you can branch out after some classes here,” Avery said.  “Do something fancier, if you want.”

“We’ll see.”

“Next part of the diagram, we get more into purpose,” Verona noted.  “Do we want it to have a heart?  Apparent feelings?  Could do a flower.”

“That would be disconcerting,” Avery said.  “And… maybe unethical?”

“Disconcerting, at least,” Lucy said.

“Alignment matters in stuff like this.  I bet she’s going to teach more on that later,” Zach murmured.

“Alignment like?” Verona asked.

“Like, uhhh, straights, sets, arrangements of stuff.  How you balance your diagram’s props.”

“Like not having too much on one side?” Verona asked.

“And not having, like… branch, flower, leaf, as three things in a row, unless you’re having another ‘streak’ of related items elsewhere, to balance it out.”

“Gives you combo points?” Avery asked, looking over Verona’s shoulder at the chart.

“Sure.  It’s fine if we ‘break’ that combo with the candle between the branch and flower,” Zach said.

“They don’t want to do the flower, though.  Gear?” Verona suggested.

“Makes me think of a robot.  I wouldn’t do that unless someone wanted to write out instructions in advance.  One task?”

“Oh!” Avery stood up straighter.  “I can do that.”

“Sure.  The other items should complement the task, then.”

“Feather,” Avery said.

“It isn’t unbalanced,” Verona noted, “hammer to feather?  Or do you run into the opposite problem?”

“I think, uh, so long as we get it to move for a bit, we’ll be fine for the rest of class,” Zach said.  “Should be fine.”

Lucy plucked the feather from the tray of the random stuff they’d grabbed, and stuck it into the slats, like the branch was.

“Maybe lie it flat.  Unless you want it to write?  Point touching a flat surface?” Zach asked.

“This is all so arbitrary,” Lucy complained.

“It kind of is,” Zach said.  “Just roll with it.”

Verona read the words that Avery was writing down around the table’s perimeter.  “Comb?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “And something ‘beast’.”

“Bone?” Verona asked.  “Dogs chew bones, right?”

“Too deathy,” Zach said.

“I’ll go check at the front,” Lucy said.  “Though I’m not sure I get this.”

“We’re placing things on a spiral, starting with the basic signposts for life and vitality, then working our way out to function.”

Avery kept writing.  Verona paged through the book, checking stuff, and Avery wrote.

“So what does a totemist do?” Verona asked.

“Mostly we stick to Eastern traditions,” Zach said.  “But people get the wrong ideas when we talk about statues.  You think of statues walking around, when really, we’re making big, visible signposts for the spirts to follow.  Put the right statue in front of a house, and raise the prosperity of the house.”

Lucy returned, holding a horse statue.

After some hemming and hawing, they decided it didn’t matter much and placed it in the diagram.  A spool of thread, an earring, and a spoon joined the arrangement of items.

“What about the hot girl?” Verona asked.

“The what what?” Lucy asked.  “You’re asking this out of the blue?”

“Yeah, what?” Avery asked.

Zachariah laughed, awkward.

“In the student guide, you were down as ‘hot girl totems’, right, Zach?” Verona asked.

“I didn’t realize that would get put out there for everyone to see.  They do that a lot.  Salvador says it’s so we know who to talk to when we’re networking.  I did it for fun.  I figured if I had to spend hours carving something, it’d be a babe, right?  Way better than an old dude or monk reading a book.”

“I walk away for a moment and I’m already totally lost,” Lucy said.

“His family makes statues.  Guides for spirits,” Verona clarified.

“I made one, mostly for fun, and it sold.  Other people expressed interest.  So that was what I did for most of last year.  I’m not sure if they have as much oomph as a tutelary spirit or komainu, but Salvador said I should put it down when filling out the form.”

“Ah,” Lucy said.

“Salvador thinks I should go all-in on it.”

Avery had finished writing, and adjusted her coat on the bench before sitting.  She positioned her elbow carefully on the table, so she wouldn’t smudge the chalk.  She looked thoughtful.

“Where’s your head at?” Lucy asked Avery.

“Thinking about home.  The stuff we talked about at lunch.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  She checked her phone.  “No response.”

“Figured you’d tell us if there was.”

“Would you buy a statue?” Verona asked Avery.  Then, before Avery could answer, aware she didn’t want to out Avery, asked Zach, “Can you do hot boy statues too?  Are you equal opportunity?”

“I’m taking a break from making statues.  I made some to sell to help cover tuition, so… think I’m going to wait six months before making more.”

“What do they do?” Verona asked.  “And you’re dodging the question.”

“You’re asking about buying them before you know what they do,” Lucy said.

“Bachelor practitioners buy ’em, and it’s not because I’m that great an artist,” Zach said.  “They might make it easier to find a date that’s willing to come to your place, I guess?”

He looked increasingly awkward as he got into it.

“Might make it hard to get a long-term girlfriend,” Lucy observed.  “Giant… are they wood?  Naked?”

“I give them clothes.  Technically.  And I do both stone and wood.”

“Would you do a guy?” Verona asked.  “Skimpy loincloth?”

“I don’t – no.  I don’t know,” he said.  “Can we drop it?”

“Dropped,” Lucy said.

“If you can’t talk about it, you probably shouldn’t go all-in like Salvador wants,” Avery commented.  “All I’m going to say.”

“Yeahhhh,” Zachariah replied.

Mrs. Graubard was taking her time getting around to them.  It looked like she was stuck with a spoiled brat, who Verona judged was about the same age as the three of them, but acted younger.

“That would be Fernanda,” Zach said.  “My mom and her mom were kind of conspiring to have me and Fernanda spend time together, a bit ago.  Our families are on more or less the same level.  Or were.  Not a lot of power, no big library, not a lot of contacts, none of that.”

Fernanda had her hair in a ponytail.  She wore a top that left her shoulders bare, with little flappy short sleeves that extended to the arms, and skinny jeans. Whatever makeup she’d put on had a tiny bit of glitter to it, from how the light caught on her shoulder.

“She’s pretty,” Verona observed.  “Not that that’s supposed to matter, but knowing nothing else, if they’re going to try to get you to be boyfriend and girlfriend, it’s better than the alternative?”

“She is.  And it’s more like they were feeling things out before starting to talk arranged marriage,” Zachariah said.

“All of this practitioner stuff is stuck centuries in the past,” Lucy muttered.

“It really is,” Zach said.  “You’re new to it, but try living it, and going back and forth from regular high school to your dad telling your kid sister that he’s not sure if he wants the family to break tradition and bring the family’s women into the practice.”

Lucy made a face.

“Yeah,” Zach said.  “Exactly.”

“It doesn’t sound like it went anywhere,” Avery said.  “The marriage?”

“It didn’t.  Her brother got a bump in status, and her family stopped talking to our family.  The talks about the two of us stopped being as frequent, then stopped all the way.”

Fernanda, hands on her nonexistent hips, tone stern, was talking to Mrs. Graubard like she was a servant, “If my family is paying tuition then I expect better than you telling me to figure it out myself.  Stop standing there and be an actual teacher.”

“I’m a volunteer, not a teacher,” Mrs. Graubard said.

“I’m paying the school and the school is paying you, and you give us this booklet that probably took less than a dollar to make, and you won’t even give me five minutes of your time.  My family is going to talk to Alexander about this.”

“I’m sure I’ve given you more than five minutes at this point.”

“That’s gainsaying, right?” Lucy murmured.  “When you call someone out on a misstatement?”

“Yeah,” Zach answered, just as quiet.  “Would be more effective if she’d been more direct about it.”

“Like, saying ‘I’ve given you five minutes of my time already’,” Verona said.

“Being talked down to by someone like that could distort your perception of time,” Lucy said.  “Thirty seconds feeling like hours or something like that.  Makes you unsure if it’s really been five minutes, if you don’t have a watch on hand.  And someone like Fern there would flip if you checked the time partway through her diatribe.”

“Can testify that you’re right on all fronts,” Zach said.  “Also, don’t call her Fern in earshot.  Unless you want to be on the busy end of that.”

“I think I could take it,” Lucy said.  “I don’t think Mrs. Graubard can.”

“Talia’s her oldest, right?” Avery asked.  “She’s maybe never had to really deal with a teenager in full teen mode.”

“Thinking of your big sister?” Lucy asked.

“Rowan too.  He had his moments.”

“No.”  Fernanda had raised her voice and got multiple heads to turn by doing so.  “I want you to come over here and show us.  Thank you.”

“I think you dodged a bullet, Zach,” Avery said.

“I’m not one hundred percent sure the bullet’s dodged,” he replied.  “Depends on how well her big brother does.  If he elevates their family, I might be in the clear.”

“Is this going to take a while?” Verona asked.  “There’s only one part left, right?”

They looked over things, passing around the book, and checked the diagram and objects.  Verona used her Sight to make sure the objects weren’t affected by something or tricky in any way.  No cursed combs or anything.

“Do we just like, try it?” Avery suggested.

“I’m figuring there’s a minimal chance of an evil murder doll,” Verona decided.  She bent down and looked at the doll.  “We picked a good face for it, if we’re going to have to deal with it going all murder-y, though.”

“We power it up, let the diagram work?” Zach asked.

“We only need as much power as we need for a basic rune,” Verona said.  “So why don’t we… here, take my hand.”

Zach did.

She took Avery’s hand, then jerked her head at Lucy.

“Forming a ring?”

“No, no, touch your hands to the table, now.”

They did, forming something of a four-pointed star around the table, or they almost did.  Zach pulled his hand back.  “We’re powering it with ourselves?”

Everyone let go of each other’s hands.

“The power we carry, yeah,” Verona said.  “It says we only need as much as an elementary rune to get it started, and we can cut it off any time, and we’re splitting it up four ways.”

“That’s not nothing.”

“That’s okay,” Verona said.  “Uhh, do you two want to do it then?  Without Zach?”

“If he’s chickening out, then I’m not sure I want to do this,” Lucy said.  “I’ve spent too much of my Self before and it leaves you feeling like garbage.  And we have stuff to focus on tonight.”

“I’m not chickening out,” Zach protested.

“Maybe a bad word choice, sorry,” Lucy said.  “My point stands.”

“Does it?” Verona asked.

“I’m okay to do it,” Zach decided.

“Are you sure?” Lucy asked.

“It’s fine.  She’s right, it’s not too much power.”

Avery gathered up Snowdrop, who was bundled up in her coat, and carried her over to a short bookshelf, placing her on top.  She returned to the table.  “How would we do this if we waited for Mrs. Graubard?”

“I think she’s giving out vials of blood, and the stuff to clean it up,” Lucy observed.

“I kinda don’t want to mop up blood and clean a bloody doll,” Avery said.

“The doll shouldn’t get too bloody.  We just put it on the diagram, so we could draw a circle,” Verona pointed out.

“A square, technically.  You don’t want to cross the lines.  It’s not a lot of blood,” Zach said.  “Are we going to-?”

“We can,” Verona said.  She looked at her friends.  “Yeah?”

Zach put out a hand, touching Verona’s, then flinched away.  “Sorry.”

She rolled her eyes a bit, took his hand, then took Avery’s.  Lucy took the hands of Avery and Zach, all of them forming a ring around the table.

“On three, touch the edge of the diagram, and say ‘awake’,” Verona said.  “One, two, three-”

She brought the hands she was holding to the table.  Lucy did the same.

Awake.

She realized as she said the word that Mrs. Graubard had bailed on the conversation with Fernanda, and was speed-walking their way, picking up speed as she realized what they were doing.

It felt a bit like being punched, or huffing out a breath, or jumping into cold water, mingled together and not altogether unpleasant.  A big ‘whoof’ sensation, washing over and through her.  The diagram twisted up, spiraling, and drew up into the doll, dragging the objects together until they formed a tidy circle.

The doll cocked its head to one side, then fell over.

“Careful, careful!” Mrs. Graubard said.

Zach sat down on the edge of the bench, hard, with an inarticulate, “Bwuh,” and Lucy had to catch him before he fell from the bench to the floor.

The doll clumsily got to its feet, looking around.  It looked at its hands.

“Are you okay?” Mrs. Graubard asked.

“I’m fine, we’re-?” She checked her friends.  “I think we’re fine.”

“Zachariah isn’t,” Lucy said.

Mrs. Graubard drew chalk from her pocket and struck a line across the table between Zachariah and the doll.  The doll crumpled.  Zachariah didn’t perceptibly change.

“What did that do?” Verona asked.

“Breaking the connection, so the drain doesn’t continue,” Mrs. Graubard said.  She struck four more lines.  “You’re fine?”

Verona nodded.

An awful lot of people were looking.

Two of the girls that were a couple years older were dumping blood on their doll.  They and their groupmates touched the table to give it that extra boost.  Their doll awoke.

No issues there.

“What happened?” Verona asked.

“It’s a lot to take directly from your personal wells of power,” Mrs. Graubard said.

“The booklet said it was the same as an elementary rune.  Is that different from a beginner rune?”

“N- yes, but not in a way that matters for this.  Elementary runes are the most basic practices in the most basic script. Triangles and such.”

“Um,” Avery said.  She walked around the table.  Quietly, she said, “I don’t want to brag or make a big deal of it, but we do those all the time.”

“Some can.  Many can’t.”

“Will he be okay?” Avery asked.

“Zachariah?  Perhaps you should lie down?”

He nodded, sitting on the bench.  “I told them I was good to try it.  Not their fault.”

Their tutor nodded.  “I suspect it’s fine.  I just don’t want you to suffer.  Be sure you eat well, sleep well, do something you enjoy tonight, okay?  Shore up your Self.  Don’t do anything that draws too many spirits into or through you.”

Zach nodded.

Lucy touched Verona’s arm, doing the same with Avery.  Verona looked at her friend, then at the room.

People were watching, studying them.

Avery leaned in, until she was barely audible as she asked, “want to be discreet?”

“I was thinking we should do the doll thing, just the three of us,” Lucy said.

That was different.  Verona grinned.  She looked at Avery, who drew her eyebrows together.

But, in silent agreement, they returned to the table.  Between them, they drew up the diagram, arranged the objects, and wrote up the instructional text.  They had to fix up the doll’s hair and hat a bit, from where it had fallen over, and then they had to get in position.  The table was broad enough that to do the configuration with three of them, they had to press up against the table’s edge and lean forward a bit.

Mrs. Graubard watched, and as Fernanda approached, held up a finger, telling the girl to wait.

She probably enjoyed doing that a ton, Verona guessed.

“We good like this?” Lucy asked.

“If you’re sure you have the power.”

“Awake,” Verona said, in coordination with Lucy and Avery.

Again, that ‘fwoof’.  Maybe twice as strong, which was odd.

The doll stirred, then stood.  It swayed on its first few steps, then found its stride.

“The doll is a hallow, a home for the immaterial forces of our world.  Because the hallow is dressed up like a person, it is inclined to pick up sentiments and forces with strong links to humankind,” Mrs. Graubard told them.  Mostly a rehash of what they’d said earlier, but saying it like this left less room for Fernanda to butt in.  “The diagram enforces strong emphasis on structure and qualities, and the items signpost the tropes we want to follow and obey.”

Avery went to the bookcase, and picked up her jacket.  She moved it to the table, then folded back the material.  Snowdrop writhed, trying to bury her face in the dark folds.

The doll stumped her way across the table, walking about as well as someone with unbending ankles could, climbed over the hump of windbreaker material, and began to stroke Snowdrop.

Snowdrop made noises of protest, pushing back with one paw, but as the strokes continued, she surrendered, offering up her stomach for doll-pats.

“Good,” Mrs. Graubard said.

“Passing grade?” Verona asked, bouncing once on the spot.

“We don’t grade, but if we did, yes.  Well executed.”

“Ma’am,” Zach said.  “The Tedds.”

Their teacher turned, noting the doll at one of the other tables, that had been drenched in blood.  The doll, dressed in Gothic clothes, pried up the knife that had been stabbed into the table as one of the key items, and held it with both hands, breaking out into laughter.

Mrs. Graubard snapped her fingers.  Several of the spare dolls that had been placed around the room, some the size of babies, others of a similar scale to her daughter, all converged on the little Gothic doll.  The doll began stabbing them.  Students backed away.

“I’ve got-” Zachariah started, but his voice wasn’t strong.  He held what looked like a keychain, with things that weren’t keys on it.  Each of the things was a figurine, about three inches long, carved stone.  He rested his wrist on the back of the bench, figurines dangling.

“I see… bookish old man-”

“Tutelary Statue.”

“And lion dog?”

“Komainu.”

“And gargoyle?”

“Grotesque.  It’s a gargoyle only if it has a spout.”

“And naked lady totem.”

He wrapped his fist around the charms, hiding them, and brought them to rest on his chest, as he lay on the bench.

“It’s not me,” he said.  “I did it for a joke, and to stay sane while carving my… I dunno, I’ve done easily a hundred carvings over the years.  Then my dad said I should ride the wave of success, whatever form it took.”

“If it’s funny, why not go with it?” Verona asked.

“The joke got old for me a while ago,” he said, arm draped over his eyes.  “It’s not me.  I’m not that guy.  Salvador is that guy.”

Lucy turned to look over at Salvador, who was kissing the doll his group had put together.  She walked over to the other group, leaving Verona with Avery, Zachariah, and the doll that was petting Snowdrop.

Lucy, arms folded, began to talk to Salvador.

The Tedds, teenage sisters, were cheering on their doll, who was losing its fight against the teacher’s dolls.  The cheers seemed to be encouraging it.  America Tedd had the sides of her head shaved, wore a sleeveless white tee and baggy black jeans, and a fair bit of eye makeup.  All considered, for a self declared ‘goblin witch princess’, her outfit seemed pretty normal.  Verona could only imagine what her outfit would be like if she gave the combination of Toadswallow, Bluntmunch, Cherrypop and Gashwad any say over what she wore, or if she wore stuff to appeal to them.  She’d probably come out of it looking like an extra in a post-apocalyptic film.  Liberty, America’s younger sister, was similar, but wore a tank top with an old bloodstain on it, and when she smiled and cheered for the doll it was apparent she’d filed her teeth down.  The braces that had been on those teeth were mangled.  ‘Goblin raider princess’.

Verona knew from the Kennet goblins that a practitioner of goblin arts was a goblin king or goblin queen.  To be a goblin princess meant they were probably beginners on that road.  One more focused on the practice, the other on fighting in a goblin way.  Maybe?

Nah, all of that was pretty normal.  It was the look in their eyes, and the sheer fervor with which they got into the craziness of the dolls and how things got out of control that put Verona off.

Creepy stuff?  Cool.  Scary?  She could get into scary.

Weird stuff?  Awesome.

Darkness?  Darkness felt comfortable, and she was pretty sure she had a leg up on the edgy kids who usually said that, with how much she’d been able to put that into practice.  She could literally see in the dark.

The Tedds made her feel like she’d felt like she’d felt in John’s house, with Lucy at gunpoint.  It felt like things when the Hungry Choir stuff had gone crazy and Brie, who she hadn’t known was Brie, was screaming and crying, convinced she was going to die.  It felt like she was in the same room as her dad, while he was melting down in the worst way.

She wondered if part of that was some effect they wore, like they’d earned their stripes and now they had a bad vibe that most people could feel, intimidating others.

She had zero idea if that was true, and her Sight couldn’t see anything on them, aside from more bloodstains, but imagining it was true helped her to deal with it.

Even if she was only imagining it, it really helped to have an explanation or escape route as a release valve for that stuff.

Lucy returned, hurrying.

“Crap, I think I might actually hate this place,” Lucy said.

Salvador’s group had brought his doll to life.  It stood up in the circle, cracked, and hairy, foot-long spider legs had sprouted from the cracks.  The doll’s body dangled, suspended by the legs around it, its head bowed and its arms reaching out blindly.

Lucy walked around their table to the furthest side from the spider doll.  She sat on a bench, and put her hand out to Snowdrop.

“I think Mrs. Graubard doesn’t have great control over the class and that’s making everything worse,” Avery said.  “Would we be out of line going to talk to someone?  Like Mr. Belanger?”

“I think this might be him,” Lucy murmured.  “Same way it was us, earlier.”

Strife?

Graubard had been talking to Bristow and was on his side.  Was Alexander subtly discouraging her from being a teacher?

The older Tedd sister said something Verona couldn’t hear, and touched finger to lips and moved it away like she was blowing a kiss, but her expression twisted, and it was her middle finger.

The Gothic doll the Tedds and their groupmate had made vomited onto a doll that was trying to grab it.  It seemed to break the connection between the doll and its power supply, because the doll collapsed.

Maybe not so subtle.

America Tedd casually spat out a bit of something green, chewing what she didn’t spit out.

“Hey,” Salvador said, as he walked over.  “You’re missing the show.”

“Wiped myself out,” Zachariah said.

“If you’re done your project for the day, you want to come hang out?”

Zachariah sat up.  Salvador gave him a hand.

“Thanks for helping out, Zach,” Avery said.  “Sorry we knocked you out.”

He offered a one-note laugh by way of response.

“Cool learning about some of that stuff,” Verona said.

“I’m glad,” he said.  “Group up again sometime?”

“Maybe, if the situation comes up,” Lucy said.

Then he was gone, off to hang with his bud.

“What’d you say to Salvador?” Verona asked.

“Reminded him he had a friend over here.  A best friend should be looking after his bud.”

Verona smiled.

“Guys are dumb about that stuff sometimes,” Avery said.  “I see it a lot with Rowan and Declan.”

“That’s an unfair set of examples though,” Lucy said.  “Sheridan doesn’t really have friends, so you can’t use her as a measuring stick.”

“Hmm, maybe,” Avery said.

Girls in Salvador and Zachariah’s group shrieked as their doll walked on spider legs toward them, reaching.

“Do you want to go?” Lucy asked.  “I think this class might be pretty much over.”

“There’s other stuff to handle,” Verona said.

“Exactly,” Lucy said.  “Want me to grab Snowdrop?”

“Sure,” Avery said.

“Grab my notebook and stuff?”

Verona beat Avery to it, sticking out her tongue.

Off to the side, the Tedds’ doll seemed to run out of steam.  It didn’t look like it was cut off from its power supply so much as it was getting more and more tired, and slower.  It was pinned down by others until it sagged, fell over, and belched out another bucketful of green slime, covering its front and face.

“Mrs. Graubard!” Fernanda raised her voice.  “I’ve been really patient!”

They left the classroom behind, heading over to their room.

“Seems like Alexander is setting the stage, a bit,” Lucy said, once they were far enough away.  “Stir up a ton of chaos with subtle omens, and then biasing it against his enemies.  I’d be willing to believe this is him, and then someone else is messing with us, in the same way.”

“There are four other Belangers,” Verona recounted.  “Alexander’s right hand man and oldest apprentice, another person with the family name, the one who saw the writing on the wall and nearly got recruited by the landlord the first time around, and the dick who was giving Zed a hard time.”

“It’s so messy out there.  The things with Lucy’s class, then this dollmaking class getting so chaotic…” Avery said.

They reached their room, entered, closed the door, and settled.

Verona went to her bag, pulled out her phone, then checked the image she’d captured of her stuff.  The wrinkles, arrangement, and everything else were all untouched.

Carefully, she moved a shirt aside.  There was a notebook lying flat, glamour arranged atop it, with a rune carved into it.

One of the big issues of attending the school here was that they had to ration out their glamour.  But this?  This had been essential.  She traced her finger along the rune, working backward, and undrew it.  Then she carefully lifted the book out.

Avery already had a resealable plastic bag held out.  Verona checked the coloration and everything matched, then tilted the glamour back in.

A little nettlewisp charm, to protect their stuff.

She moved her clothes and got to the files and notebooks she’d had at the bottom of her bag.

“We need a better way of securing stuff,” Lucy said.  She plugged her phone in to charge.  “Matthew replied.”

“And?” Verona asked.

“And he says thanks for the info.  They had a little trouble opening the pictures, but they figured it out.  They intend to take it from here, and already have John intercepting.  The goblins took him through a tunnel a while ago, and they’re going to try to slow or distract those guys, Miss style, before they get anywhere near Kennet.  We shouldn’t need to go.”

Older people and technology.  Verona lifted her bag down to the floor, then slumped onto the bed.

Snowdrop, on the other bed, turned human, lounging.  The doll crawled toward her, picking up Avery’s brush, and began combing Snowdrop’s hair.

Verona was kind of tickled that she was still active, when the Tedds’ doll had used blood and burned out fast.  It had been more active, but they did have something going for them.

“I wonder if we could get some sort of token of Kennet,” Verona said.

“What are you on about?” Lucy asked.

“Like… if we had a coin or medallion or key or something that was very ‘Kennet’, we could draw on the Kennet power source, instead of drawing on ourselves and Kennet.”

“I think that line of thought might not make them very happy,” Lucy said.  “We’re paying a little something, even though it’s minor, and that keeps us from abusing it. If we take away that limitaiton?”

“If we take off that limiter, they have to worry about us doing something big and dumb and draining them all a bunch,” Avery said.

“What if we kept it to things that were explicitly for Kennet’s sake?” Verona asked.

“I don’t think that’s as cut and dry as you’re imagining,” Lucy told her.

“Hmmm.”

“Have you decided about your dad?”

Verona sighed.

“I’m not going to nag,” Lucy said.  “I don’t know what I’d do in your shoes.  But if we do decide to do something, I could see one, two, or three of us all going back home.  Just to make sure this thing with the landlord’s crew is okay.”

“Maybe I’ll call my mom and check,” Verona said.  “He said he called her.”

“Okay.”

“I don’t want to break up our connection diagrams, because they’re way harder to set up while we’re a long way from home,” Verona said.

“The Warrens won’t work as an option, if you want to go a long way,” Snowdrop said, as the doll with the crying baby face brushed her hair.  “The other realms are way bigger than Earth but a lot of places on Earth have ways to get to places in those realms.”

“There are entryways and areas key to the Warrens on Earth,” Avery interpreted.  “Doors could be a hundred steps apart in our world, but if you travel in the Warrens, because that space is smaller, it might only be twenty-five.  Go in a door in the Warrens, walk twenty five steps, emerge from the other door and you’ve covered a lot of extra ground.”

“That’s not what I said,” Snowdrop huffed.

Lucy, sitting on the other bed, hugged Snowdrop.  The doll floundered for a bit, trying to find a way to brush Snowdrop’s hair with Lucy in the way.

“Problem is, we’d have to travel through Goblin Warrens to do that.  And they’re dangerous.”

“Safe as anything,” Snowdrop said.  “No bumpkins, grumpkins, face-eaters, skin-flayers, freaky reality show contestants, bumps, lumps, warts, snots, creeps or anything else that would want to hurt you in there.”

“Have you been?” Avery asked.  “Did your friends drag you any deeper than the shallow tunnels?  Tell me the truth.”

“I have, for a long time,” Snowdrop said.  “I’m brave.”

“Good,” Avery said.

“Visiting gets tricky,” Verona said.  “If I call my mom now I test the connection breaking thing.  It might lead to questions.  And if it breaks, we can’t exactly draw up a new diagram and place it under our beds in a few minutes.”

“The fact your thing burned out so fast might be because of the strife things bugging us, so I’d bet whatever we’ve got back home is going to need replacing anyway,” Lucy said.

“Or maybe they’re up to something else, and they’re building up strength for one big move,” Avery guessed.  “Or they were only there for a while.  Or we’re being paranoid and there wasn’t anything.”

“I hope it’s not that last one,” Lucy said.  “I made a lot of statements about it.  Except we weren’t punished and our thing with this doll worked okay, so maybe that’s proof we were telling the truth?”

“Doesn’t work that way,” Verona told her.  “Sometimes the karmic spirits hold off, Edith told me that once.  If you mess up, they wait a day or two or whatever for a dramatic moment and then trip you up, or worse.”

“Darn.”

“I think I do want to call my mom,” Verona said.  “But we’ll have to be careful.  I’m thinking of a diagram.  Connection stuff, but elaborate.  And I want to draw it big, so I can do it right.”

“On the floor here?” Avery asked.

Verona sat up, looking.  There wasn’t much space between the beds, and with everything else…

She shook her head.

“Outside?” Lucy asked.

“Messy, but maybe,” Verona answered.

Avery, sitting backwards on one of the chairs by the desk, tilted the chair back, leaning closer.  “Let’s go see what our options are.  It’s something to do, and there’s a bit of time before dinner.”

It took them a minute to get sorted.  Verona gathered her stuff, including the files.

It was tricky.  Having everything they needed, at the risk that those things could become problems.  She’d brought everything she’d brought to the party with the expectation that, if anything came up, like Faerie or goblins, she could handle them and let Avery and Lucy enjoy their nights.  But then everything she’d brought ended up being the problem.

This was the same.  Did they bring the files? Other equipment?  Notes?

When going from class to class, it didn’t make sense.  Most kids didn’t even bring backpacks.  They kept a single notebook, some even keeping their notebooks on the bookshelves in the main classroom, instead of in their rooms.

If the strife thing was why Lucy had run into trouble with Ray, why Verona’s dad was calling, and why Snowdrop had had issues with the Brownies, then they had enemies.  People who could potentially come after them.  Or send things after them.

They headed out, more geared up than they’d been for class, and Avery, first out the door, nearly bumped into a serving cart.  Snowdrop in human form pushed past her, ugly doll following.

The cart had what looked like a Bonky Donk on a plate, and a one-liter carton of chocolate milk.

“We didn’t order this,” Avery said.

“Ugh.  I don’t want it,” Snowdrop said.  “Not hungry, not thirsty.  It looks awful.”

“Hold up,” Avery said, keeping Snowdrop from approaching it.  She lifted it up from the middle section of the serving cart to the top.  “Is this a peace offering?”

“Nuh uh,” Snowdrop said.

“Or a trap,” Lucy said.

Avery held up the carton of chocolate milk, and her eyes changed as she searched it.  She held it out for Lucy, who gave it a once-over.

Then for Verona.  Verona blinked, let the Sight take over, and viewed the bottle, no longer waxy cardboard or whatever it was a milk carton was made of, but something like thin, foggy glass.  A tiny skinless baby cow was crammed inside, almost drowning in its fluids.

“Looks fine to me,” she said.

“Same,” Lucy echoed.

Avery gave it to Snowdrop, then took the disc-shaped Bonky Donk from the plate, breaking it in half.  When Lucy elbowed her, she broke one of the halves up again, to Snowdrop’s muffled, mid-chug protest.

“Want some?” she asked Verona.

Verona shook her head.  She wasn’t into sweet stuff, and the food was a chocolatey sponge-cake with a sharp raspberry cream in the center.

They circled around, avoiding the main classroom and front doors, using the side door instead.  There was an area to the back, off to the side of the ‘stage’ of the main classroom, but there were a good ten windows around the back of the classroom that would have a clear view of them.

They headed around front.

The workshop classrooms varied, apparently, in how insulated they were.  It was sunny and warm out, and the classroom closest to them had all the doors open, to let air flow through.  On the back stairs, Eloise sat with Ulysse.  ‘With’ was a bit of an understatement, considering she had her legs draped over his lap, and was curled around him.  Ulysse was smiling.

Verona thought it seemed nice.  Not the long-term relationship thing and definitely not the early marriage, but having someone close by, like that.  A lot of the time, she didn’t know what to do with her hands or whatever, and it’d be so neat to have a boy to unashamedly touch and talk about whatever with.  Less… she wasn’t sure how to articulate it.  But it felt like she was missing out, somehow, and the one hundred and fifteen reasons why she wasn’t ready to get herself a Jeremy or a Ulysse became like a pressure on her.

That she was out, trying to find a way to navigate her dad’s situation without actually having to confront her dad was somehow right in the middle of all that.  It made her head feel noisy, trying to organize the thoughts and feelings.

She felt a jab in her stomach, like she’d eaten something off, when she hadn’t even touched the Bonky Donk, and her gut was letting her know with pain, first.  She sighed.

“Hey,” Lucy murmured, before throwing an arm around Verona’s shoulders.  “We’ll work it out.”

Verona’s head bonked against Lucy’s shoulder.

“Hey,” Avery called out.  “Sorry to interrupt, can we ask a question?”

“We’re being goofy,” Eloise said.

“You’re being goofy,” Ulysse told her.  “I came out to enjoy a bit of fresh air.”

“You were trying to bite my earlobe a few minutes ago,” Eloise told him.  “That’s goofy.”

“What’s your question?” Ulysse asked.

“We wanted to do a diagram, but the main classroom’s in use.”

“There are spare workshops,” Eloise told them.  “One was used for an enchanting class this morning.  There’s a sheet to request the space if you want to use it.  Students share, sometimes.”

“Any rules or anything we should know about?” Lucy asked.

“Can’t hurt to have a senior student with, if you didn’t get permission straight from a teacher,” Eloise said.  She leaned back, almost lying down on the top stairs, her head sticking into the classroom.  “Zed!  Your trio is here!”

“You didn’t have to bother him,” Avery said.

Zed emerged from the classroom, wiping at his hands with a cloth.  Brie was behind him.

“They want to use a workshop.”

He jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

“We really don’t want to bother.”

“I don’t mind the break.  I work better if I do a lot of different things over the day, instead of sticking with one project.  I think,” Zed said.  He flashed them a smile.  “What sort of thing are you doing?”

“A connection-guarded phone call,” Verona said, her head still tilted, resting against Lucy’s shoulder.

“I can help,” Eloise said.  She disentangled herself from Ulysse and stood.  “And you should get back to helping.”

Ulysse stood up, stretching, and then caught her in his arms.  He playfully snapped his teeth for her ear.

“I’ll catch up!” Eloise called out.

Zed led them away from the scene.

Verona looked back at the scene, the very very pretty Ulysse with his arms wrapped around his fiancee, face against the side of her head, the two of them off balance but not quite falling over.

The noise in Verona’s head was becoming dull and omnipresent, like the beginnings of a headache.

She so wasn’t looking forward to this.

The day had been so neat, to start with. Why did this thing have to be hanging over her?

Was her dad really hurt?  Sick?  Was it a car accident?

They entered the workshop.  It looked like some students had done some diagram work since the morning class, and hadn’t cleaned up.

Zed sloshed water from a bucket onto the floor, then used a giant squeegee-mop to wipe the chalk away.

“Thank you,” Avery said.

With the ambient temperature, the floor dried quickly.  Zed put the bucket into the sink in the corner and began to fill it up again.

Verona pulled her bag off, then got her notebook out.  She sketched out the basic idea of what she wanted to do.

Eloise appeared, approached, and investigated.

“So cute,” the blonde said.  Her centipede crawled across her shoulders and peered down.

“Cute?” Lucy asked.

“It works, but it’s as if you were building a dress out of sticks and stones.  Here.  For this, instead of drawing a straight line connecting this to this, do a really tall ‘s’ shape.”

“Why?” Verona asked.

“I dunno, it’s what I was taught and it works better.”

“They really didn’t drill you on those fundamentals, huh?” Verona asked.

Lucy elbowed her.  “She’s helping.  Let her help.”

“Instead of the Saturn sign for time, there are ways you can be more precise with cards, to signify relationships.”

“Okay, well, do you have cards?” Verona asked.

“Not with me.  And I’d need books, which I don’t have here.”

“So… Saturn sign, then.”

“If you want to do it in an inferior way.”

“We’ll do what we have with what we know and have,” Lucy said.

Giant connection sign, with a specific set of conditional symbols for a time window, location, and set of relationships.  Then a lot of reinforcement.  She placed it within a square, with a lot of ‘support’ struts within, and made it so only the carefully labeled branches extended out from the square, before curling out into a goblet or ‘Y’ shape.  Like satellite dishes, she imagined.

“It’s blunt,” Eloise said, looking down at it all.

“Will it work?  I don’t want to break up work we did in other places.”

“It’ll work.  But it’s blunt.”

“So long as it works,” Verona said.  She felt miserable, which sucked and felt wrong, when she was doing cool magic stuff.

“If push comes to shove, I can pay a visit,” Avery said.  She was sitting on a table, the doll beside her, holding and stroking Snowdrop.  “Walk a path, maybe, to get there sooner.”

“A little dangerous, that,” Lucy said.

“Warrens are bad too,” Avery retorted.

“Speaking of paths,” Zed told her.  “Those finders I put you in touch with?  They said hi.  They have stuff they promised you.”

“Cool,” Avery said.

Verona checked everything over, then pulled out her phone.

“Speaker phone,” Eloise told her.

“Huh?”

“I won’t tell anyone what I hear, or act on what I hear, unless it directly affects me, my family, or my friends,” Eloise said.  “But if you’re receiving a call and it comes through from one person to you, it’s like a spear.  Pointed.  If it’s to multiple people, it won’t stab through this nice diagram you made and disrupt things.”

Verona switched to speaker.

She dialed.

The phone rang.  Her phone felt like it weighed ten pounds, as she held it out.  She wasn’t sure if it was her or the diagram influencing flows and stuff, pushing it down.

She pretended it was the latter.

“Hello?” her mom’s voice came through.

“Hi mom.”

“Verona, hi.  You called at a tricky time.  Things always get really busy right before everyone leaves for home.  But it’s fine.  Did you get in touch with your dad?”

“Not yet.  I wanted to ask.  Do you know what’s up?”

“No.  No, can’t you get ahold of him?”

“I called you first.  What did he say?”

“He said he was in the hospital overnight and he was probably going back in soon.  He was really desperate to get in touch with you.”

“He didn’t say why?”

“He didn’t really communicate that, no.  The call was in the middle of the night, and I wasn’t thinking straight.  I told him that your summer camp might not have phone service and that might be why you weren’t replying.”

“It was tricky, making the call with everything else going on.  He’s going back?”

“You should call him, he’s the one who knows.  I’m sure he’d just like to hear from you, whatever’s going on.”

“Okay,” Verona said, looking down at the diagram.  Everything intact.

“I really hope he’s alright.  I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation in the car earlier this week, you know.”

Verona was silent.

“I want you to know, I don’t have any animosity toward your father.  I feel badly about the way things went, and that I couldn’t be who he needed me to be.  We simply weren’t compatible in the end.  If you need to talk to me about whatever it is that’s going on, the history between your father and I doesn’t mean you can’t.”

“Sorry, you’re on speakerphone.  There’s some people around.  It’s part of how this setup works, sorry.”

“Oh,” her mother said.  “Of course.  Sorry.  Listen, why don’t you call your dad, and get the story from him?  Then if you need to call me, you can call back in… let’s say at least an hour and a half.  I should be home from work by then, and I’ll be able to give you my undivided attention.”

“Message received,” Verona said.

She hung up, then realized she probably should have said goodbye.

She looked around, aware again that she was standing in the middle of a large diagram.  The lights of the room were off, because the light shining in through the windows, the open front door, and the open back door were mostly bright enough, and lights being on meant it was hotter.  Lucy stood off to the side, her phone out.  Avery sat on the table with the doll, a sympathetic look on her face.  Zed was at the front door, Eloise just outside, standing on the stairs.

Verona used a wet cloth to wipe up sections of chalk, adjusted the target, adjusted the time window, in case it was a long call, and verified everything was intact.  It hadn’t worn down or weakened anywhere.  Good sign.

“Calling your dad?” Lucy asked.

Verona nodded.

“Give us some privacy?” Lucy asked Zed and Eloise.

“I should observe, because you’re new students and they don’t want you blowing up the building, but I’m pretty sure this one is safe,” Zed said.  “Call me back before any adjustments?”

“Okay,” Lucy said.

Zed and Eloise left, or seemed to leave.  Verona wasn’t eager to carefully tiptoe across the diagram, trying not to smudge lines on the slate tile floor, so she couldn’t find a spot where she could see and check.

She dialed.

One and a half rings at the home phone.  She heard the hitch as it switched over.  The following three rings sounded different.  It was so obnoxious, because the way the landline was set up, answering the phone meant she had to sprint to get to the phone in time, otherwise it transferred over to her dad’s cell phone.

Her heart sank, weirdly, as she heard her dad pick up.

“Verona.  I’ve been trying to get ahold of you.  I don’t know why I pay for your cellphone when I can’t get in touch with you in a time of need.  You-”

“Are you okay?” she asked.

No,” he told her.  “No, I’m pretty far from okay, Verona.  I’m hurting, I’m tired, and I haven’t been able to take the steps necessary to deal with either of those things because I’m sitting here, waiting for your call.  I can’t sleep because what if I sleep through your message, and I can’t take meds because I need to be coherent enough to decide what’s going on.  I really hope you’ve been having a fantastic fucking time at your summer thing, too busy to answer my calls until eighteen hours later.”

“What happened?” she asked.

“I nearly passed out from the pain, is what happened.  I got a ride to the emergency room from a coworker I am not a fan of, and I had to wait ten hours, getting told it shouldn’t be much longer, it shouldn’t be much longer, except people kept coming in, needing to use the machine before me.  And all the while, I’m trying to call you.”

“What was it?”

“It’s not fun, wondering, is it?  Imagine how I felt, for those ten hours.  With nobody, not a single soul, to turn to.  Not even my own daughter. Especially my own daughter, who is ignoring my calls when I really need the support.  It was a partial obstruction of the small bowel.”

“You’re constipated?”

No, Verona! No.  It obstructed and my intestine twisted.  They put a tube down my nose, and they had to give me fluids by IV, because I’ve been throwing up from the pain and everything else.  There’s a very real possibility I’ll have to go into surgery.  They’re saying it’s fifty-fifty, but every hour that passes, the odds of surgery rise, and it’s been a bit.  If I do end up needing surgery, I won’t be able to handle things on my own.  I’m going to need you to put down whatever you’re doing and come home, just in case.  I literally have nobody else who can help handle these things.”

Lucy crossed the room, stepping carefully across the diagram.

“Get a bus or a taxi if you have to, I’ll pay for it later, somehow.  Come home.  I have an appointment at the hospital later, and they’re going to evaluate my situation and decide if the surgery is needed, which it probably is.  I’m going to have to miss work, I have no idea how I’m going to stay on top of everything there.  I need help, Verona.  For once, I need you to be serious about helping me.”

Lucy, crouching, indicated one portion of the diagram.

Verona nodded.

Lucy smudged out one lower section of a ‘6’ to turn it into a ‘5’, and did the same with the left side of an ‘8’ to turn it into a ‘3’.  With a line, she turned a ‘6’ into an ‘8’.

“And keep your phone on and stay available.  I- I’m getting another call.  It may be the hospital, checking in on me.  Not even letting me nap.  Keep your phone on!  I need you there, any time, no excuses”

“Bye.  Good luck.”

“Love you, Verona.  Keep your phone on!  Reply sooner.”

“Love you, dad.”

She hung up.

Her head and stomach hurt.

She wasn’t sure what to do.

This sucked.

“Thanks.  For the timing adjustment,” Verona said.

“It seemed like you had basically all the information,” Lucy said.  “He wanted to be mad at you, more or less.”

Verona nodded.

“It’s up to you, what you want to do,” Lucy said.

“I don’t want to go,” Verona said.  She looked up.  “I really really don’t.  But I think I have to.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “I wasn’t sure how to bring it up, if it should be before or after, but I figured I didn’t want to seem like I was biasing your decision…”

“I wouldn’t think you were, I don’t think.”

“Matthew called.  I thought you should decide how you dealt with your dad before we decided how we wanted to respond to that.”

Verona winced.

“They can’t handle it after all?” Avery asked.  “This band of Aware?”

Lucy shook her head.  “Seems not.  Others can’t really interact with them, and Kennet doesn’t have many non-Others to rely on.”

“Feels like the strife thing again,” Avery said.

“How do we get there?” Verona asked.  “Bus?”

“I don’t think the buses come out here,” Lucy said.

“Path?” Avery suggested.  “Warren.  Ruin?  Maybe Jessica.”

“We’ll find a way,” Lucy said.

“Okay,” Verona said.  Headache and stomach-ache aside, she felt kind of numb, and not sure how to react.  Numb was usually good.  It didn’t feel good now.

“Do you want to call my mom, before we clean this setup up?” Lucy asked.  “Get the info on whatever’s going on with your dad?”

“Nah.  We’re going anyway, right?”

“Right.  Okay,” Lucy said.

“Are you okay?” Avery asked.  “How do you feel?  What are you thinking?”

“That this sucks.”

“Fair,” Avery said, quiet.

“Do you need anything?  Food, something to drink?  A hug?”

“Tell me we’ll get back in time for this really important binding class we need that Nicolette said she’d try to schedule for tomorrow morning,” Verona said.  “And I think I could deal with a lot.”

“Tall order,” Lucy murmured.  She smiled.  “I offer you ‘anything’ and you ask for your magic class.”

“Let’s try,” Avery said, hopping up, grabbing the bucket.

“Lemme,” Verona cut in.  “I want to.”

She threw the bucket.

With a drenching of water, she choked out most of that chalk that spelled out the deliberate, careful connection back to home.  Time, place, lines, and boundaries dissolved into chaos.

It helped a bit with the stomachache, doing something that deliberate and dramatic.

But this whole thing was still going to be one heck of a headache.


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[4.8 Spoilers] Dossiers

Notes on the Aware

The Aware are human or human enough that they retain their natural Innocence.  Innocence, if not immediately clear from some of these entries, does not necessarily imply good, naive, or free of guilt or wrongdoing.  Rather, it means they are protected from the world of practitioners and Others.  Targeting the Innocent with practice or getting involved with them as Others, if not explicitly or tacitly invited in, can lead to negative karma.  If anything, this Innocence greases the wheels of reality, making it easier to skirt by on consequences or to keep going.

Not typically very strong, the Aware keep one foot in the world of the Other and one foot in the mundane, and can be said to enjoy the benefits of both, though many find that their mundane lives are limited or hampered in some way.  They cannot typically be bound as Others are, though they can in some cases be taken as Familiars.

The Aware are a broad category that cannot be readily summed up, beyond those generalized points above.  The subcategories number in the hundreds.


Clementine ‘Clem’ Robertjon
Gilded Lily

Gilded Lilies, or Gilded, are those who frequently intersect with magic items, free of any clear design or any intent on their part or the part of others.  We categorize them as such by these symptoms, not the source, when the source can be fate, bloodline, divine interference, patterns, or curses, among other things.

Clementine is a young woman, 20, independent as a reseller of items on online markets.  She is subsidized by practitioners who keep a close eye on her listings and maintain a relationship with her to get first eyes on anything she thinks of as ‘curious’, though she isn’t fully aware of the degree to which this happens.

Her disposition is kind, if troubled.  She very much enjoys the company of people, but avoids maintaining any long-term relationships.  Many people close to her have died, including her friends and family, or else they’ve suffered worse fates.  She earns a fair income and alternates between periods of seclusion and times spent wandering the city, with a focus on the arts.

Clementine is well aware of the existence of Others and suspects practitioners, but has been kept from full awareness, in part because awakening her or fully revoking her Innocence would tie one to her, and none of the twenty or so practitioners who have directly or indirectly been involved with her are willing to do so when it comes to Clem Robertjon.  Her existence is too fraught with hazard, and her relatively intact survival up to this point may be owed to her Innocence. To take away that safety net while simultaneously lashing their fortunes to hers is not a risk any are willing to take.  She remains quietly and enthusiastically interested, frustrated, and curious and these facts should be minded.

The paper trail and notes associated with Clementine are lengthy, owing in part to her childhood diaries, where some of her misadventures are chronicled.  Many or most of these diaries are mundane things and thoughts, thinking aloud, and a great deal of work went into sifting through them for the relevant information.  At the outset, they can best be described as doodlepads or scratchpads, with sporadic notes, self-affirmations, and moments listed as single sentences with accompanying illustrations.  It appears her first find was at an antique store in Guelph, and that her rate of acquisitions increased steeply after that, before plateauing in high school, but appearances can be deceptive.  She may have found some items in earlier childhood, letting them go without remark, and she may have consistently run into items every two or so weeks since the antique store, but not recognized some as notable.  Locations, when not otherwise stated, are Guelph, Ontario.

Spring 2008 – Clementine finds an incomplete set of VHS tapes, titled ‘Magic Ways’.  These items feature an aged, rumpled stage magician filming in what may be a basement, with a drop cloth nailed to the wall behind him, teaching stage magic.  The audio quality is exceptionally poor, to the point his voice sounds as though it is coming from a well, and the tricks are bad if they can even be called tricks.  Steps are missing, some tricks fail utterly and others produce unexpected results.  Were it not for the extended runtime and the clear amateurish filming (including two very lengthy periods of time where the camera was left running while he departed to go get dinner), it could be interpreted as bad satire.  There were six VHS tapes, but the early diary of Clem Robertjon includes attempts to note down the steps and suggests there are eleven of the two-hour videos, and that rewinding to the beginning can lead to a different video being shown.

Due to a lapse in the journals, an unfortunate recurring beat around the most critical or important moments, we don’t know what transpired, but Clem brought her neighbor, a boy of the same age, to practice the tricks with her, and he disappeared.  She remarks in two short statements in her diary that she later saw him in the videos.  According to her, years later, she remembers him as listless and distracted, introduced alternately as the stage magician’s son and assistant.  She was apparently distressed enough the tapes were taken away.  They haven’t been recovered.

Summer 2009 in the Bay of Biscay – Clem dives and surfaces with a smooth, glasslike stone that turned out to be the eye of a primal power of deep water.  She was afforded three wishes if she agreed to give it the stone.  She wished for her best friend to be with her for the whole summer trip, for her family to have ‘thousands and thousands’ of dollars, and for a dolphin to ride.  The wishes were granted in a typical manner (the friend, for example, was sent to join Clem because her parents wanted to take time to work through marital issues).  Clem’s mother would die before the end of the trip, drowned while trying to find more treasures like the cup the family discovered and gave to a museum for $17,000.

Summer 2010 – Clem discovers a crow pecking at something glinting, and discovers it to be a gold tooth.  The tooth belonged to an Other (thought to be a Dreck Ghoul) that sought to be whole again.  Thought by Clem to be a homeless man, it harassed her and tried to arrange deals, threaten, and use practice to obtain its tooth, upending trash cans and turning the refuse into sendings that could enter the house.  Due to the Other’s communication issues and Clem running in fear from most encounters with it, or else being too scared to look away, she never seemed to discover it was the tooth it wanted.  Due to residual taint in the tooth, her body slowly became more like that of the Other, with patches of her flesh undergoing various changes, including suppurating, drying out, tearing, scarring, and staining with ambient pollutants.  She lost a tooth, several fingernails, and the vision in one eye, which she would never fully regain.  Believing the Other had done it, she lashed out, attacking it, and drove it off, though it would continue to watch from a distance.  In the winter of 2010, in the throes of the tooth, she picked up a dead and rotting bird from the playground and stuffed it into her mouth, chewing and swallowing much of it before faculty were able to stop her, all in view of her classmates.  Distraught and confused, she ended up throwing everything she owned onto the lawn of the backyard, and called out to the ghoul to take anything and everything it wanted.  It did just that, taking everything from toy, mother’s keepsake, and clothing in three trips, along with the ‘black gold tooth’.

Winter 2010 – Clem describes seeing someone run to catch a bus, dropping their bag.  They note a young readers’ fantasy novel, but don’t include it in the things they reclaim.  Clem picks it up.  It is apparently ‘the most thrilling thing’ to ten year old Clementine, but paradoxically puts her to sleep within five to fifteen minutes, leaving her with no clear memory of the events.  The ensuing sleep issues include Clem ducking away to find a hiding place during recess to avoid the bullies teasing her about the bird incident and sleeping through much of the school day, before police find her hiding spot in the back room of the school.  The sleep issues are erroneously linked to the earlier, undiagnosed health issues by her father and doctors and Clem spends several weeks on and off in the hospital.  The unofficial but most widely accepted diagnosis is psychosomatic reactions owing to the recent death of her mother.

Spring 2011 – Clem is walking home from school, taking the scenic route and throwing rocks at other rocks when one splits open, revealing a fossilized bone with bite marks on it.  She keeps it.  Unbeknownst to her, it makes her beloved to all dogs.  Issues arise when the dog of one of her bullies repeatedly escapes its home or yard to find its way to Clem.  It is not the only dog to attempt such, but is the key repeat offender.  The bully and the bully’s father are savaged by their own pet while trying to remove the dog from Clem’s house.

Fall 2011 – Clem sees a ring in her aunt’s collection and asks if she can have it – apparently her aunt found it but never had occasion to wear it.  Clem’s health improves and she finds herself excelling in her physical education classes, and even the scarring from the Black Gold Tooth incident improves, with half of her eyesight returning.  At the same time, her classmates fall victim to a wave of what is thought to be bad flu.  Her teacher passes and two of her classmates are hospitalized.  Given her handling of the ring and some cryptic statements in her diaries, it’s suspected she realized the ring’s link to the incidents.

Winter 2011 – Clem buys a silk scarf from the thrift store, to hide a scar on her neck from the Black Gold Tooth incident.  Effects are slow to build up and initially only affect people in her peripheral vision and people she glimpses in fleeting ways, but intensify over time and eventually affect everyone she looks at, making them seem as though they are dressed in their underwear.  Because of the slow onset and the fact that removal of the scarf only means that the effect dwindles about as slowly as it came on, she doesn’t realize that the scarf is responsible for some time (she is depicted wearing the scarf in pictures from 2014).

Summer 2012, Gatineau (finding) and Guelph (remainder) – A flower that may or may not have been plastic is found at a roadside rest stop after a trip to a lake.  The flower causes life to spring up in various places over the ensuing year, including the move to a new home.  The life that sprung up would include flies, ants, maggots, pantry moths, bedbugs, and intestinal worms afflicting the house and family.  There was reported mold and mushrooms growing in the dark and recessed areas of the kitchen, bathrooms, and laundry rooms, and roots grew into the water line once at each residence.  The family dog birthed two litters despite no apparent inciting incidents with male dogs and a prior spaying, and many store-bought eggs had hatchlings within, including five dead and three alive.  Most dramatic, however, was that Clementine’s stepmother, her fourteen year old brother’s girlfriend, and two students attending her school all fell pregnant within the one year span.

Fall 2012 – A goblin matchbox with a ‘living’ match count that replenishes when unobserved and uncounted is found on the sidewalk, and picked up because of what Clem describes as interesting art on the box.  It produces fires that are very aggressive and vigorous.  Matches also had a tendency to cause other fires to spontaneously erupt nearby when struck.  The matchbox was taken by her brother, which soon led to the family home burning down.

Fall 2012, 2nd Incident – Found while in transition between homes (unknown if it was a hotel stay or a stay at a relative’s), a chipped unicorn figurine prompted dreams of increasing realism and depth every time she slept with it nearby.  By the two week mark, she was spending three days in the dream world for every eight hours spent asleep.  A ‘laughing prince’ on the other side eventually made a pitch, inviting her to stay with it, promising to send a fetch to be her apparent replacement in her life.  In the midst of the blame and upset over being accused as the source of the fire, Clem wrote a great deal about how she was considering the invitation, overlapping the issues and alienation noted in the next logged entry.  She ultimately refused for reasons not consigned to her journals.

Winter 2012 – Clem’s brother bought a used stuffed monkey to sit on the shelf of the nursery in the new house, to sit next to his girlfriend’s love-worn childhood stuffed animal.  It was situated so it could be viewed through the door of Clem’s bedroom.  It apparently whispered of dark secrets and human ugliness, encouraging Clem to blackmail and lash out against those around her.  When she refused, it told her that she was ultimately responsible for the death of her mother and neighbor friend, taunting her with these facts until she stole and buried it.  This is widely believed to be the point she became truly Aware, past the bounds and securities of childhood.

Winter 2012 – The item itself is unknown and not recorded, but it may be a choker bought from the mall prior to a Christmas party.  Toward the end of the year, she met two new friends who quickly became part of her life; one a faerie in disguise, the other a goblin in disguise.  The item appears to give the wearer or user two everpresent, Other ‘partners in crime’, who then encourage delinquent, extreme, and criminal behavior while protecting the wearer from consequences.  Already ostracized since the bird eating incident, Clem fell into their rhythm easily and participated in vandalism and rampant shoplifting.  She discovered their nature when overhearing them discuss the kidnapping of the two babies (Clem’s stepmother and brother’s girlfriend) who were due to be born.  When named (using the dug-up stuffed monkey to glean their Other names) and vanquished, all consequences of the acts Clem and the partners in crime had committed fell on Clem’s shoulders, possibly with added emphasis.

Spring-Winter 2013 – No journal entries are available for this time period.  Later journal entries make mention of long conversations with her mother while detained.

Spring 2014 – Clementine was given a birthday present, a used, handheld game console.  It only booted one game and the game booted ‘wrong’, with distorted or alternate artwork.  Events and dialogue within the game corresponded to recent or imminent events, and successes in the game corresponded to analogous events in real life.  She went on her first dates ever around this time, then ‘got rid’ of the game console.

Spring 2014 , 2nd incident – A thrift store dress, bought for one of the dates on a ‘belated birthday’ shopping trip with her grandmother, made people treat the wearer as adult and respected.  Clementine enjoyed the initial attention and the seriousness with which she was treated, but soon came to loathe the added expectations and responsibilities.

Spring 2014, 3rd incident – Clem, enjoying the freedom to go out at night while wearing the dress, comes across someone hurting a stray dog.  The attacker runs, leaving the dog and the weapon behind.  She finds the dog dead and cold and collects the unusually colored weapon, which turns out to be a knife that kills with even a nick, with a tendency to find flesh through ‘accident’ if not regularly provided with victims.  Clementine’s father gets in an argument with her where he tells her she should be more careful with how she acts, especially so soon after juvenile detention, and confiscates objects she tried to hide, knife included.  He passes away one day later.

Spring 2014, 4th incident – Sometime around her talks with police in her stepmother’s company, a man offers the stepmother a bracelet with a puzzle incorporated into it.  When she refuses, he gives it to Clem, insisting.  Clem takes it with the intent of throwing it away as soon as possible, but immediately gets lost in the police station.  The bracelet, while in one’s possession, appears to shuffle the layout of a building, while adding one room to the arrangement that can’t be found when the rooms are in order.  Clem begins to use the bracelet to store items and keep them out of the way.  She later describes this as a mistake, but isn’t especially clear as to why.  Through inference and the fact that many items are later described as being in the possession of people close to her, with her having to go to great lengths to get them back, we can surmise that the items found their way out of the ‘extra’ room.

Note – At this stage, the progression of ‘finds’ continues to accelerate, monthly rather than seasonal.

July 2014 – The rusty key is described as having a number on it.  She finds it in the dirt, sets it aside and a friend of hers takes it.  The friend, acting on suspicion that the key was for a room at an old and disused motel, lets herself into a room, with Clem following.  The key, according to her diaries, seems to change to a random number on each use.  When used to access a space with a corresponding number, it lets the user into a space with rusty metal and fencing bolted to the walls, ceiling, and floor, and an arrangement of twisted improvised weapons and tools.  The space can be anything from a storage locker in a bus station to a house with a matching number plate.  More than one use in an uncertain span of time corresponds with more attention from goblins.

July 2014, 2nd incident – Found while looking through old boxes of her childhood toys that survived the fire, a bone white mask that seems to disappear like it was never there when put on, included with Halloween stuff.  Somewhat ‘alive’, the item contrived to be put on, relocating to the headboard of her bed and falling onto her face as she lay down to sleep.  She discovered its properties and later wore it while getting the Killing Knife back from her brother.  The white mask protects the user from most harm until the next time they sleep, at which point it pops off.  It renders the wearer mentally and physically numb, among other protections from wounds and dying, but the harm that is diverted is repaid in spades and then some.  Clem was cut by the Killing Knife but didn’t die.  Instead, when she next slept, she spent an indeterminate amount of time (to her, it was possible days, weeks, or months in perceived time) reliving variations of the cut and the ensuing death by heart attack as a loop in dreams.

At this stage Clem retreats from many things in her mundane life, ceases being as regular with the diaries, with periodic statements or pledges to resume keeping track of things, but never doing so for more than a month at a time, and with frequent references to events only she could tell of.

The practitioner community took a hand in events after an event with a piece of currency that ‘drank’ nearby change and loose money to increase its denomination before ‘shitting out’ (to use the assigned practitioner’s vernacular) a sapphire and becoming a penny again.  Once Clem had people to sell the items to and a bit of a listening ear, she found something of an equilibrium.  She was later offered a low-cost apartment at Sargent Ave Hall.

General Notes:  The primary danger posed by Clementine is that she can very easily stir up problems or set off lines of dominoes.  She may have up to five curious items on her which aren’t fully worked out in functionality, and she may stumble on more, particularly in new places or times of stress.


Shellie and Daniel Alitzer
Bright Eyed, Glamour Drowned

The Bright Eyed have been exposed to the Faerie, and may even call it their place of origin.  They may be taken as babies, lured in as children, or seduced and lost for a time as in the old tale of Rip Van Winkle.  Sometimes used as ambassadors, sent back and forth, other times their stays are brief or they are encouraged to remember their old selves.  They remain rooted in reality as mortals, but are often Faerie in disposition and outlook.  Creative, hungry for excitement and stimulation, they often have a magnetism that draws people in, and a tendency toward wild behavior that mimics the courts they have spent at least a decade in.  They do not tend to live long due to their risk-seeking behavior.  Despite what one might initially assume, they tend to live a much shorter existence in the mundane than the Glamour Drowned, despite their firmer grip on reality.

The Glamour Drowned are humans who have been exposed to extreme amounts of glamour or the depths of the environment of the Faerie courts and lost their attachments to their old selves, or even their current selves.  Many of the Glamour Drowned were used for a specific function.  In the High Spring court, for example, they may be endless dancers, trained by Faerie to dance as a competitive act, where one Faerie competes against another to see who can elevate a human more.  The Fall courts may turn them into animals to sell to the other courts as pets and accessories, with the ability to turn them human on a whim because it is easier to set aside a place for a human than, for example, a twenty-foot serpent.  The winter court may turn a person into an object, such as a goblet that is asked to tell riddles, or a tapestry that changes to keep track of the days in reailty.  Whether they escape or are released for the amusement of their prior keepers, they cannot easily let go of their prior roles and have nothing to return to if they do.  Expect them to ramble, dance, and stumble, rarely with any quality, until stars align or a moment comes to pass where they find themselves again for a critical moment of dance or whatever else.  Such scenes can leave onlookers breathless.

Shellie, 27, is a Bright-Eyed human woman, caretaker of her brother, a 30 year old Glamour Drowned.  Sold to the Faerie by their own parents as children, they were separated, Shellie sent to the Bright Fall court, and Daniel to the Dark Spring.

Daniel Alitzer was made to bear witness to the death of an immortal queen of the Dark Spring, an event contrived to evoke a sense of tragedy never before seen.  Whether it was successful or not is up for debate, but as a young boy no older than ten, he was changed by the event.  He was bid to stand vigil and sing a lament for the dead queen, working with four other boys of similar age to make the lament endless, one boy joining in with his voice overlapping, taking over so another could sleep, and he did so for seventeen years, on instruction to sound like he meant it with every single note.  That he was mortal and the process thus more fragile and temporary was supposed to add to the drama of the song.

Shellie spent a total of eighteen years among Faerie brokers, thieves, and Fae who traded in faces like money.  Working as a slave, she helped translate and decipher human media, separated true urban legends from references, and spent time in the human world seeking out art to bring back while getting caught up on things enough to do her more mundane duties.

In practice, Daniel found a routine with the other boys where they sang longer shifts and he went without sleep to be able to visit Shellie for brief periods of time.  He told her what he remembered of their old life, family, name, holidays, and other things, and told her to hold onto what she remembered of their old lives, out of hopes it would ‘keep’ better instead of being distorted in the telling and retelling.

Daniel ultimately lost himself to the dirge.  Through a confluence of events that included two of his peers being subjected to Faerie-worked deaths and tortures for indignities such as redundant verses and their voices maturing, the training of new people, and that particular sub-area of the court growing tired of the seventeen-year dirge, Daniel was able to walk away without returning.

Daniel then kept Shellie company for roughly one year before she was able to find a means of escape, injecting poisons into the skin of her face before trading it for another, then leaving the resulting body behind in the study of her slave quarters.

The two of them were homeless for some time before Daniel surfaced for a moment and sang well enough to get practitioner attention.  They were referred to Bristow.  Even with reduced rent, the pair barely scrape by on Shellie’s work at a gas station.  Neither has much enthusiasm or capacity for mundane work, Daniel is addled, and Shellie is quietly angry.

Daniel either keeps Shellie company, tunelessly sings to himself, or both.  He listens to music and experiments with instruments he rarely keeps up with.  When other residents of Sargent Ave Hall are out in the yard or on their balconies, he will sometimes keep them company.  Shellie quietly ensures there are eyes on him at all times, as he can daydream enough to wander into traffic or walk onto a stairwell as if it were flat ground.  He also has violent crying jags and fits of dark depression, sometimes without rhyme or reason, periods of not eating or doing anything because nothing on earth has the quality of life in the Faerie courts, and he can sometimes be struck with the urge to return and throw himself at the mercy of the nearest Fae who might take him back, whatever they might ask, especially when it’s quiet or he can’t find new things to watch or listen to.

Shellie works, sits in a workshop sketching and building tools and weapons, and matches her behavior to whatever Daniel is doing, consoling him, entertaining him, or quietly watching him while looking after her basic human needs.  Her work at the gas station keeps a roof over their heads, but her time in her workshop (the second bedroom in their two bedroom apartment) is where her dark passions come out.  The tools she makes are largely for body modification, as she is keenly restless in her own skin after years of trading it back and forth as part of her currency in the Bright Fall.  Skin is flensed, tattooed, burned, pierced, and grafted with surgical care in an ongoing process, with the most dramatic modifications happening where her clothes can cover her.  The other passion is the weapons she makes.  She knows how Faerie work and she knows how to make them stop working.  Given an opportunity, she tracks them down and hunts them.  Not often asked to run errands for Bristow, as they are unpredictable, chaotic, and easily distracted.  Listed here because those things may be what he seeks.

General Notes:  Both are dangerous, in different ways.  Daniel is Innocent in ways that can be argued to be more dramatic than normal, not less.  Hurting him would incur a cost and there’s a chance he wouldn’t even think to get out of the way of imminent harm.  Shellie, by contrast, is aggressive, adept at disguise, well equipped, and fearless.  It’s been argued that trying to use glamour or subtle practices on them might be more immediately dangerous than it is when trying to do so with a Faerie; the Faerie has an instinct to play the long game, to better inveigle you or inveigle humanity as a whole.  This pair won’t hold back in showing you just how familiar they are with glamour and turning it back on anyone with less than eighteen years experience.


Kevin Noone
Maji, Evil Eyed

Those with the evil eye (sometimes called Maji) are capable of bestowing harm with a look.  There are many variants, ranging from the tame to the terminal, with many different forms they can take.  The most conventional will direct spirits of harm or strife to those under the Eye, but others usher in omens of Death, Exile, Heartbreak, Toil, Fear, or Madness.  The eye may be opened by a specific event, it may be open at birth, or it may open and close as circumstances or mood change, or as certain criteria are met.  The evil eye can be trained, but it fits into a difficult niche, where practitioners can easily refute it but careless or wanton use on the Innocent can hurt karma and bring consequences down on the owner of the evil eye.  There are countless superstitions around the world to ward off the evil eye, some so ubiquitous that we think nothing of them, and the Sickness, Doom, Disaster, or Discord that is brought forth will oft turn on the evil eye’s owner if they aren’t careful.  Often accompanied by strange, mismatched, or otherwise deficient eyes.  We say a Maji is Aware if they are conscious of what their eye does.

Kevin Noone opened his eye as a Maji when he was nineteen, on the day of his younger brother’s graduation.  Due to life circumstance, Kevin weathered his senior year while his family was living in a shelter, had no money to spare, and he was expected to work.  They recovered, but his prospects were limited by deficient grades and the habits he picked up to deal with his stress.  His brother, meanwhile, enjoyed a senior year with no responsibilities, a timely gift of a car from his parents, and a minimum of stress.  Friendless, with no girlfriend, no acceptances for post-secondary studies, and no job prospects, Kevin watched his younger brother get announced as a prospective student at an Ivy League school, with a girlfriend to cheer him on and friends to whoop and applaud.  Valedictorian.

Kevin’s eye took hold and he watched with green-tinted vision as his brother made an off-the-cuff joke about writing people’s papers for them, in front of faculty and students.  Without the eye, he might not have made the joke, and without the eye, people might have laughed and treated it as the joke it was.

His brother ended up losing the spot at the Ivy League school and the girlfriend.  Kevin, however, wouldn’t find out what his eye did until his girlfriend announced she was moving to a city with a better job.  He acted supportive, but inside he screamed, frustrated.  He didn’t want to let her go.  He remembered the moment with his brother, reached for the same thing, and by the end of the week, his girlfriend had lost the opportunity.

Kevin Noone hasn’t found success or raised himself up, but he has a weapon and knows how to use it.  He did end up letting his girlfriend go, but only because he found an especially attractive young woman he could bring down to his level and keep there.

The eye can’t be turned off at this stage, as it’s been used too often.  It remains active and anyone successful who holds Kevin’s attention for any length of time finds themselves struggling, or events conspire against them.  This ended up causing him difficulties, as he tends to sabotage his own employers, in-laws, landlords, and people he might otherwise lean on.

He was taken in by Mr. Bristow, and Mr. Bristow elected to allow Kevin Noone’s girlfriend to move in as well, possibly because she became Aware as well, albeit of another subtype.  Kevin now maintains a working relationship with Bristow, a professional malcontent and assassin of characters, as well as a general go-to problem solver.  These jobs are typically paid for in reduced rent and other favors.  He knows what the Practice is, but not the general scope of this world or its Others.

General Notes:  We have every belief that Kevin Noone would shoot someone if he thought he could get away with it, and we do know he has gotten in trouble with the law, only for the officers who were dealing with him to mishandle evidence and run into career trouble.  He is a dangerous, deficient human who carries some personality disorders.  He is greedy, resentful of the world, and indulges in his superiority over others whenever possible.  He was considered for the Belanger circle but was rejected because his eye couldn’t be closed and that complicates many practices we would like someone like him to learn.  There is a benefit to mixing far-seeing with the ability to hurt those one sees, even if this is a narrow skillset, but his personality is too wicked, he would be largely incapable of cooperating with others, and he was deemed to be a better fit for Bristow than for Alexander Belanger, at a time when Bristow and Alexander were friendly.  Many of the notes above come from our investigations and interviews.

If present, expect him to be Bristow’s point man, sent to specific locations or with a specific job.


Ted Havens
Worold, World-Weary, World-Wise

There are those who go through a transformational test or event, through practice, pattern, Other, Practitioner, or item.  While these events alter the entire world or the fundamental paradigms of the world around the target subject or victim, they may be the Tested or Wonderings, Aware individuals who are caught in a conflux or strange set of events, that may be occuring in a pocket world or snarl in reality.  These events can be time loops, visits to earths of alternate histories (typically projected within a pocket world and kept there), living life in another person’s body (or many people’s bodies), returning to childhood to relive events, or jumping from childhood to adulthood to experience it.  These events tend to impart a karmic wholeness, as well as (frequently) unusual knowledge or skill, and a deep-seated, soul-shattering existential disquietude over an existence where reality and experience is so fungible.  Or, put in simpler words, the test or the experience makes them (or requires the individual to be) very okay with themselves and where they stand, and also frequently makes them very distant from okay when it comes to a world where such wacky and distressing things can happen. Sometimes these events see the individual’s history or relationships rewritten in the aftermath.

Once an individual is through the test or situation and settles into the world anew, if they retain their old memories and memory of the testing event we call them the Worold, world-weary, or world-wise, with the latter two being dependent on just how they’ve settled in the aftermath.  They often sit apart from everything.  As an example, a reformed misogynist that has the experience of having lived the lives of ten thousand random women across history may have picked up a massive degree of competence and knowledge in countless areas, but while they remain human, they may find it hard to use that knowledge.  The world will resist them getting into politics or doing more than making generous (and ideally anonymous) donations.  The world and circumstance will fight them if they try to uncover ancient treasures or archeological sites or become CEOs with their accumulated skill and ability when it comes to reading people.  The knowledge gained and the transformation in Self are for them and themselves.  This in itself often proves to be something of a test of character.

Depending on one’s choice of definitions, Ted was chosen as a scapegoat or a champion.  When a primeval predator encroached on a sleepy PEI town, a higher power of unknown origin settled on him as its means of dealing with the problem, a boy with no career prospects who sometimes hunted and fished.  He was pointed in the beast’s direction, encouraged, and was summarily devoured.

Ted then, as he tells it, saw a bright light and heard screaming.  He emerged from his mother’s loins and landed in her shit, an unfortunate byproduct of some childbirths that nurses normally attempt to clean up in a timely manner.  He was wet, pink, and lacking in muscle coordination, and lived out thirty-five years of his life as an affable if impatient genius.  The primeval beast emerged, attacked his town, and he was told to fight it.  He drove in the other direction until midnight, blacked out, and saw a bright light as he emerged from his mother’s loins, landing amid her shit.

There is no telling how many times Ted lived out his life, but he became intimately familiar with his town, he eventually found his courage and practiced, and collected weapons with a mind to defeating the reptile from an age before things had form or easy label.  He suffered ego death, found himself again, honed his abilities, traveled the world to learn from the best people possible, and became Aware of many things in the world.

He did eventually become a competent enough warrior to slay the beast, rallying the people in town as allies and armed forces, but the damage was so severe that the town was wiped from the maps and collective consciousness, to minimize questions.

Ted Havens moved west, lacking a sense of purpose now that his great journey was done, at unease with the universe and paranoid that he would be pulled into another great quest that would test him on so deep a level.  He ended up discovering the Sargent Ave Hall apartment complex, and took up residence there, where he remains a resident advice-giver and helping hand.  When Bristow is away or sick, Ted takes over the duties around the place, and many residents prefer it when he does.

General Notes: Alongside the Gilded Lily, one of the most powerful and problematic people in residence at Sargent Ave Hall, albeit for entirely different reasons.  Ted is not only a man who enjoys the benefits of being technically Innocent, but he did enter into mortal combat with a creature larger than his hometown and strong enough to give all but the uppermost gods pause, and drove it off for another few centuries.  The world-weary tend to have exceptional karma, either exceptionally good or bad, but almost always to a level and degree that surpasses what an ordinary person could achieve in a lifetime.  Ted is one of these people, enjoying the karma of literal countless lifetimes well lived.  When he does leave the complex, he does so because he believes it serves the greater good.  This isn’t always or even often the case.


Sharon Grigg
Skeptic

The Innocent enjoy protections from Others and practitioners, but Skeptics often turn these protections to weapons.  There are many ways a Skeptic can come about, but these ways can include indoctrination or acclimatization.  The indoctrinated skeptic may be brainwashed or otherwise augmented with doubt as a fundamental facet of who they are.  Some are raised with daily lessons or a worldview and given no room for any other way of thinking, others are given drugs and reshaped, and yet others are starved, torn down to nothing, then rebuilt from the ground up.

The acclimatized take a gentler road.  When Innocents find themselves faced with the practice or with Others, they will instinctively reach for ways to soften the blow.  If there is room for doubt, they often capitalize on that room, then build on that capital.  Excuses are clung to, they question their own memories or accounting of events, and may liberally revise these memories and accountings, until they return to comfortable reality.  With enough repetition, they can form a comfortable bubble around themselves, where anything extraordinary is dismissed.

Skeptics are ignorant and ignorance is dangerous.  Practice struggles to find traction on a Skeptic, and Others suffer a heavy cost to their karma and Selves simply for stepping into the light when the Skeptic is present, even though the Skeptic is often so insulated that the appearance of a god in its full bearing could be dismissed one way or another.  Conversely, when the bubble is popped (again, if it can be), the cost is usually dramatically heavier than usual.  The biggest Skeptics are often dangerous due to their propensity to dampen practice in an area around them and their simultaneous draw to practice; they have a habit of unwinding or bypassing protective wards that are keeping troubling Others locked up, or walking blithely through barriers meant to keep civilians out of a sensitive or dangerous area, often bulldozing the way for other Innocents to pass through.

An acclimatized Skeptic, Sharon developed her initial resistance as the eldest daughter of a family very interested in the occult, though they never became true practitioners.  They entered abandoned places and tried to film ghosts, while she was brought along, typically coaxed with promises of treats or trips to the mall.  As they explored an abandoned building, her brother fell through a stair and injured himself, and as it happened, was partially possessed by a ghost.  The family got the event on video, and began to distribute it online, until certain interest groups with practitioners on staff took notice and countered that distribution, somewhat late.

The family enjoyed some initial fame, and the location saw more interest, which fed the echoes.  To Sharon, however, teenage rebellion and her frustration with the state of things helped to form the armor necessary to become a fledgling Skeptic.  Her rebellion against the family peaked after a comment of hers became a briefly-lived meme, and she spun that off into a separate channel that ‘myth busted’ the very things her family was trying to play up.  Convinced they were charlatans, she fought them tooth and nail until she was eighteen and she was kicked out of the house.

She moved to a desperately poor area and there she began her acclimatization against other echoes and goblins.  Her paltry stream of content was her lifeline, giving her an income stream when her jobs didn’t pan out, and she played into it hard, essentially brainwashing herself.  She hunted down urban legends to discount them, and dampened their power with her presence, making them easier to discount.  A group of young Witch Hunters recognized the effect for what it was and took her under their wing, under the guise of showing her neat things, and she pursued that work for two years, getting some steady money that helped her get on her feet.  She would later depart the group when she heard gunshots and became convinced they were trying to subvert her by pretending there were really trolls.  Her untimely departure led to them being devoured.

Sharon has shifted gears to other content, much of it both conspiracy centered and right-wing, intersecting in the area of the starkly racist.  She periodically returns to her old Skeptical content, which gets ten times the views of her other stuff, but this fact frustrates her more than it anything; the spheres where she seeks to thrive tend to also be misogynist, and her viewership is a hundredth the size of what she feels it should be.  As someone in Bristow’s toolkit, she pursues the work not when he requests it, but whenever she is desperate for the pay bump of two to three hundred dollars that a successful myth-hunt video gets her.  She usually travels with other Aware Bristow sends, matched to the task in question, but gets along with and cooperates with very few other residents.  In brief, her interpersonal skills range from nonexistent to argumentative.  The ones who do tolerate her presence do so because her presence dampens the negative effects of whatever they are dealing with as one of the Aware and because Bristow is giving them a cut on their rent.

General Notes: Sharon is a breaking and entering specialist, very well equipped, and carries a gun.  If present, she isn’t likely to be ‘on point’ in the same way Kevin is.  She doesn’t tend to follow orders or maintain communication in the same way, but she can easily be pointed at a specific target or problem, or redirected to it by the partner Bristow sent with her, or other members of a larger group.  Glamours tend to shatter pre-emptively when she goes to investigate them, echoes dissipate, wards and barriers break, the Sight and alternate modes of Seeing are weakened if attempting to track or analyze her, and the karmic or Other protections of a given Other are weakened.  It should be noted that she is almost always recording, and has a tendency to catch practitioner’s faces in media and then disseminate it wildly to unhinged individuals and her community of hundreds who then dredge up and compile more information and even seek out the individuals.

Sharon maintains loose communications with several other Skeptics and with Witch Hunters.  Sharon is one of three Skeptics in Bristow’s complex (and is friends with one), but he doesn’t send more than one out at a time, as a minimum of one is required to keep the complex in balance, and the effects don’t tend to overlap.  She maintains a self-reinforcing bubble of several hundred followers that feed into and reinforce her mindset, and remains Bristow’s most effective counter-agent to all things Practice or Other.

Leaving a Mark – 4.8

Lucy

Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter


Two weeks ago

“It’s too hot for this,” Lucy said.

“As much as I appreciate a duel that is distilled down to the two combatants, all other things removed from the field… reality rarely obliges,” Guilherme said.  He wore his hot boy look, matching her in size, though he had the lines of muscles down his body.  “It’s good to learn how to fight effectively when you have sweat in your eyes and the sun beating down on you.”

They were a ways down the river from Kennet, with shale rock all around them.  Their ‘arena’ was a large bit of flat rock, with the last fifth of the rock overhanging the shallow river below.  Lucy kicked one of the loose, flat, straight-edged stones, and it clattered over the edge.

She was wearing an athletic top and shorts, sneakers, and a coating of sweat that had picked up a fair amount of dust.  There wasn’t enough of a breeze to give any relief.  If the river had been deeper, she might have kicked off her sneakers and dove in.  The sweat traced rivers down her.

The hot lead was uncomfortably warm against the back of her hand, held there by bandages she’d put some inscriptions on.  The inscriptions fed power down to her palm, which let her comfortably hold a spear.  Guilherme was unarmed, wearing a kilt with long pants and sandals strapped to his feet with leather thongs.  He was sweaty too, but it looked like he wanted to sweat, because of the accent that sweat gave, and how it traced his body.  He had a faint smile, like he was enjoying himself, or he knew what he was doing with the sweat and he was smug about it.

She felt unreasonably irritated at that.

On another, larger rock nearby, Verona lay on a towel, wearing a swimsuit top and shorts, chin on her hands, watching.  She’d been reading earlier, and wading in the water, while Lucy had been suffering.

“It would be nice to switch it up, then,” she said.  “Bit of cold rain, maybe?  We could practice fighting in that.”

Drench Verona while we’re at it.

“Then what are you going to do about it?” Guilherme asked.

“Huh?”

“She’s going to complain!” Verona called out.  “Lots!”

Guilherme smiled.

Lucy felt the urge to go on the offensive, just for the chance to deal with that smile, but every time she indulged in those urges, Guilherme handily smacked her down.  More than usual.

“Something to build on another time, maybe,” Guilherme said.  “You’re favoring the spear, I see.”

Lucy twirled the spear, letting it become a pen, then a spear again.  “And?”

“Why?”

“Because it’s easy?  Hammers and stuff make my arm hurt if I hold them too long, swords are similar, but they’re harder to swing than you’d think.  Axes are similar.”

Guilherme nodded.

“Daggers and fans and stuff are too short.  Spears are awkward if you get in close enough, but if you’re that close I lose anyway.  I feel like as long as I have the spear, I lose in five seconds instead of three.”

“You had another style when you dueled me, distracting the goblins from Brie Callie.  Changing weapons.”

Lucy shrugged.  “Is there a point?”

The boy smiled.  “To a spear?”

“To this topic?”

“Don’t ignore your instincts.  They’re better than most.  It would be interesting to chase those instincts, and see how your style as a fighter and practitioner develop.”

“If it means I’m not losing as much.”

“You put a lot of emphasis on that.  On not losing.”

“A few years ago, I got the talk with my mom.”

“Ooh,” Verona chimed in.  Lucy immediately flipped her the finger.

“Not that talk,” Lucy said.

“My dad just gave me this book from the 90s and told me to ask if I had any questions,” Verona said.  “I didn’t ask, I just wooble-searched stuff.”

“The racism talk,” Lucy said.  “What you do in a bad situation.”

“Ah, yeah.”

“I was told the best defense is not being in the situation in the first place,” Lucy said.  “Run away, because the best way to handle a fight is to not be in that fight in the first place.  Defend yourself.  Be loud, get help.  Get eyes or a recording on the scene, because cowards don’t like being seen.”

“All sensible,” Guilherme said.  “Except?”

“Except you can’t avoid all the fights, can you?  I can’t, trying to protect my friends, protect Kennet.”

“No.  You’re right, and that’s not the whole answer,” Guilherme said.

“The whole answer?”

“You.  You specifically, there’s something else there.  You should run, you should call for help, you should be visible, you should defend yourself.  Except, for Lucy Ellingson in particular…”

“I feel like this is one of my therapy sessions.”

“Try and answer.”

“Except… if you always run or walk away, if you always take that sensible course, if you defend yourself, and they, the worst people, they’re always on the offense?  Looking for fights?  It feels like I’m, we’re, ceding too much ground.”

Verona shuffled around a bit.  She had sat up, sitting cross-legged on her towel in the shade.

Shade?

Lucy looked up and around.

There was no tree or cloud overhead to cast that shade.

“Lucy,” Guilherme said.

Lucy turned.

“I’ve talked with Avery at length about who she wants to end up becoming.  Do you want to be someone who holds her spear, point turned outward, to keep the enemy at bay?  To buy a few more seconds?  If you do, I won’t argue, and I’ll help you with that.”

“I want to win, but I’m thirteen and I’m inexperienced.  I’m up against a few hundred or a few thousand years of experience and history here.”

“But you’re still ceding ground.  You’re tired, and you’re no closer to a win.”

“You’re mixing up the two things, now.”

“Yes, but it was mixed up before.  Many experts at fighting will say their weapon is an extension of their body, and it moves accordingly.  For a true warrior, I believe the weapon and fighting style should be more than an extension of the body.  It should be an extension of Self.”

“So coooool,” Verona said.  She adjusted her posture, arms extending out over the edge of the rock she was lying on.

Lucy felt a bit of sweat roll into her eyes, stinging.  She blinked it out.

“Yes?” Guilherme asked her, when she was done.

“I’m not against it, I don’t think.  What do I do?  I’m supposed to decide if I want to be safe or…?”

“You do what you want to do.  Do you have a goal?  A you that you want to chase?  Avery does.”

“I haven’t given it a lot of thought.  Mostly… picking clothes out to be, I call it bulletproof.”

Guilherme nodded, like this made sense, which it didn’t, really.

“Takes time, energy, thinking, trying to be a few steps ahead.  My clothes, my hair.  How I act, being ready with something to say before someone says something subtle.  Maybe I have less energy to think about that stuff.”

“Your hair is special,” Guilherme said.  “To Other eyes, to the Sight of your friends.”

Lucy shrugged.  Comments like that were very close to being the sort where she would’ve liked to have something to say, to push back or call them out, but like an annoying Faerie, he hadn’t made that easy.

Her hair took time and effort.  It couldn’t be bulletproof in the same way as her clothes.  Or it could, with more chemicals, heat, and straighteners, but she didn’t want to do that.  Because to a certain degree, it was her.  Something she reserved for herself.

“What does it matter?” she asked.

“If we had the summer, I would have made your training into something that helped hone you into something authentic,” Guilherme told her.

“I think Lucy’s authentic,” Verona said, rolling over onto her back, arms stretched out over her head.

“Do you think you’re authentic?” Guilherme asked Lucy.

“Are you accusing me of being something else?” Lucy retorted.

“I’m not accusing.  I’m remarking that in fighting style and in other respects, you’re held back.”

Verona laughed.  “Lucy doesn’t hold back when she has something to say.  I love it.”

Guilherme didn’t move, standing on the other side of the rock, with a bead of sweat running down his cheekbone and cheek.  Staring at Lucy, daring her to respond.

“But I hold back in other ways,” Lucy said.  “Sure.”

Guilherme nodded.

Lucy glanced at Verona, and saw that Verona’s smile was gone.  There was just a searching look, maybe a bit sad or surprised.  Like Verona had thought she had all the answers and had just found herself bereft.

“I’m not sure if I’m more annoyed at this pseudo-therapy or at my actual asshole therapist’s therapy,” Lucy said.

“If we had the summer I’d annoy you into breaking loose, or use the sparring as a way for you to search yourself, forcing you to dig deeper until you found your answers and found a way to match me.  But we don’t have the summer, and in a short while, you will leave for hostile territory.  I think you’re annoyed by these matches, more than you feel immediately empowered by them.  You come because you’re worried and you want to be ready for any inevitable confrontations.”

Lucy nodded.

“Then we don’t have time to waste.  If we’re to match your fighting style to your Self, I want your help, to speed things along, and we can’t afford to travel too far down this road of your Self following after a fighting style.  This… reserved, careful fighting.”

“Reserved and careful can be good, can’t it?” Lucy asked.  “I mean, if there’s a good chance I’ll end up fighting some pretty big and scary things?  Ghosts and goblins and eyeball-stealing shadow monsters.”

“It can.  As I said, if that’s what you want to do, I can help you.  But is it what you want?  Think, because you’ve already shown us all bits and pieces of yourself.  You’ve made declarations, you’ve dressed yourself up, and you’ve been dressed up by forces that reflect the true you.”

“You’re thinking of the awakening ritual.  I brought two knives.”

Guilherme nodded.

“The fox mask.  The announcement I made then.  Sure.”

“And?”

“And?” she asked.

“Verona,” Guilherme called out, not taking his eyes off Lucy.  “Any input?”

“I’m- one second!”

Verona was sitting up, digging through her bag.

She wrapped her beach towel around her waist, then jogged down, book under one arm.

The patch of shade followed Verona.

Lucy poked at the towel, moving it so she could see what was scrawled on it.  A darkness rune with some controls, elaboration, insulation, and corresponding writing.

“You’re ridiculous.”

“If I go home with a tan or a sunburn, my dad will be like, ‘if you have time to sit in the sun, you have time to help with the basement’.”

“Show us what you were going to show us, Verona,” Guilherme said.

She opened it, showing Lucy.

A picture.  Lucy with the fox mask on, surrounded by rolling smoke.  There were swords and daggers lying around.  It had been done in watercolor.  Her hair had pink to it.

“My Sight?  The swords aren’t usually like that, though.”

“I wasn’t sure if they’d be stuck in stone or lying around,” Verona said.

“Stuck in stone, and they look older, like-”

Lucy stopped as Guilherme drew closer.  He held out a hand.

She’d lifted her spear, unconsciously.

“Show me,” he told her.

Wary, she held out a hand, and she accepted the glamour.  It was like dust, but heavier, and it felt like cold metal that had just the edges heated by sun.

“I’m not very good at this.”

“Act confident, let others be the judge of that.  And if you don’t want to be judged, then deny them the opportunity.”

She moved her hands with care, drawing out a sword.  It was crude and lacked detail, and the edge was wobbly.  But it more or less lined up.

Guilherme walked between her and the sword, which made her step back.

When she looked down, the sword was refined, accurate, detailed, with touches of rust and cracks here and there.

There were others in the background, too.

“What else?” he asked.

“What?”

“Keep going.  I’ll help.  I’ll supply the glamour necessary.”

“What am I doing?”

“Keep going.”

She drew out more swords.  A knife.  She had to try the hand movements to change colors a few times before she could wipe glamour on rocks and turn it into watercolor.

Every time she looked up from her work, Guilherme had extended it.  Out to the river, to trees.

“Is this a trap?” Verona asked.

“I have no interest in trapping you.  It’s amusing, to teach the three of you.  It’s useful, to protect Kennet and protect myself through Kennet.”

“Okay,” Verona said.  “It might not be something you’re interested in, but you’re Faerie, does that mean you’ll try to trap us on an instinctual level?  Without even meaning to?”

“I won’t.  I’ll be mindful.”

“Is it something that could be used against us?” Verona asked.

Guilherme met Lucy’s eyes.  Lucy wanted to play off of that, like the moment called for her to take charge, declare that this was her sparring, her lesson…

And she wasn’t sure where that want came from.

“Is it?” Lucy asked Guilherme, acting in contradiction to the feeling.

“It would be a Faerie who used this against you, and if they were strong enough to do it in a quick manner, you’ve likely already lost.  For most purposes, this is something good to set up, if you have the time.  It gets faster to set up each time you do it.  If you don’t like the arena you’re fighting in, decide the arena.”

“It’s too fricking hot,” Lucy said.  “Can I change that?”

“You can do what you want.”

“I could, maybe, but I don’t know the hand motions.”

He touched her wrists and manipulated her hands.  His arm looped over her head as he turned her, full body, like they were dancing.  The dust drifted from her hands as she did a full turn.  She stepped away from him.

He moved his hands, and she moved hers.

It was like blowing air over hot soup.  Cooling it momentarily.  It washed out.

Verona moved the beach towel to her shoulders, wrapping it around her upper body.

Lucy felt the chill, too, especially with the sweating from the walk over and the early sparring.  But she’d much rather be cold than be hot.

“There’s an advantage to lining up a concrete image with something abstract.  It gives you more power and influence over that abstract.  If this lines up with what you See and the lines become blurry, you can make small, careful adjustments.  Keeping in mind, of course, that glamour is fragile.”

“Can this be used against her?” Verona asked.  “I’m wanting to be careful of traps, here, and we know Augury can be turned back on the Augur.  If they look, the target can look back, or strike out through that view-window.”

“This is a reflection of what she sees.  The artist paints a picture, the canvas gets attacked.  It’s not a window that a fist could come through to punch the person on the other side.  The danger is that she puts power and time into this and it could break with one decisive move.”

Verona nodded.

Lucy looked around.  “Can I make snow?  How-?”

Guilherme raised a hand, index finger and thumb meeting to form a circle.  He made the hand gesture for ‘brighten’ within the circle.  it created a blurry point of white that started drifting with the wind as he pulled his hand away.

More fat snowflakes drifted out across the space, also following the wind’s course.

Lucy mimed the action, making fat snowflakes, then, with a much smaller circle made with her fingers, a pinpoint bit of blue.  She hurled it down, and it splashed against the ground.

A light, cold rain began to fall.

“I’d call you a dickwad if I thought I could get away with it,” Verona said, huddling more in her beach towel, as the light sleet and snow touched her.  She pulled one leg up, like she could stand like a flamingo and keep more of her body within the towel.

Lucy smiled.  Worth it.  She wiped at her face and arms, using the rain to help get some of the dust off, from the mid-sparring falls and stuff.

Verona, already shivering, put her hands out to catch some of the rain and snow.  She pinched the moisture, then began to do the twirly dance.  Lucy swept her friend up in a bear hug, pinning her arms to her side.

“No!  Let me warm this up!” Verona protested.

“Good,” Guilherme said.  “A space like this is fragile and easily manipulated, but you’ve already connected to one of the ways to protect it.  Don’t give them the opportunity.  If they take the time to answer it, take that same amount of time to target them.  Using the environment and choosing where you stand is as important as a weapon thrust.”

Lucy nodded, still holding Verona.

“There’s a dude walking down the shore with his dog,” Verona said.  “I’m guessing this is a protected space from innocents, but I think you should drop this glamour.”

Lucy twisted.  Verona wriggled, bringing Lucy’s attention back to her, and keeping her pinned, arms against her sides, towel wrapped around her.  Lucy gripped the towel to pull it tighter, like a straightjacket.

“A reflection of your Sight is only one part of you,” Guilherme said.  “There are other things to decide, before we return to the sparring.”

“Do we need to worry about the guy on the shoreside?” Lucy asked.  Verona wriggled harder.

“No.”

“Damn it,” Verona muttered.

Lucy contrived to look, with Verona struggling.

The ‘dude’ and the dog were John Stiles and Doglick.  Lucy wasn’t sure who was supposed to be the ‘dude’ and who was supposed to be the Dog.

“Let me go, fix the temperature, and I’ll do you a solid,” Verona said.

“What solid?”

C’monnnnn.

It was getting a bit chilly, and Lucy had already been both sweaty and lightly dressed.  She took a bit more glamour from Guilherme, then started to do the careful twirl.  She paused.  “Do I do it in reverse?”

“What do you think?  Follow your instincts.”

She mimed the effect from before, reversing it.

The wave of warm air seemed to pass like lapping waves on a shore, pressing up against her.  Thing was, the temperature fluctuated.  A ‘lap’ of pleasantly warm air, a lap of cold, alternating.  The wind picked up.

Guilherme made adjustments, smoothing it out.  The temperature leveled out as something closer to room temperature.  Lucy shivered, her skin prickling as it changed.  “We can discuss the particulars of layers and environment later.  For now, you.”

Verona wriggled, and Lucy released her.  Verona adjusted her beach towel, turning it into a skirt, then began using the glamour-rain she’d grabbed earlier to start fashioning a spare fox mask.  She painted it with traces of pink, rather than orange-red.

“Cool,” Lucy said.

“I thought about tweaking your hair, to match up with what it looks like to my Sight, but I thought the mask would be a better bet.”

“Good call,” Lucy said.  “A mask is probably better if I’m… what are we doing, here?  Dressing me up for battle?”

“Emphasizing you.  A similar idea,” Guilherme told her.  “Why don’t you touch up your own hair?”

“Huh?”

“If this space is a reflection of your inner Self and gaze, then try dressing yourself up.  Experiment.”

Lucy wiped her hands on her pants, then reached back for her ponytail.  “Remind me of the gesture for extension?”

Verona showed her, while Guilherme stood back.

John caught up with them, going to Guilherme’s side.  Doglick, the feral goblin, followed along on all fours, tongue lolling, bug-eyes peering through hair.  Lucy worked on her hair, drawing out its length and scale.  Something more elaborate, that she wouldn’t be able to maintain with a team helping her.

She adjusted her clothes, and dressed up the spot where the hot lead felt like it was burning a hole in the back of her hand, making the lead and the wrapping that held it there a bit more pronounced.

“John will spar with you,” Guilherme said.

Lucy’s eyebrows went up.  She took the mask from Verona.

“No guns,” Guilherme told John.

“Of course not.”

“And for the sake of fairness, no guns for you either,” he told Lucy.

“I didn’t think that was an option.”

“John wouldn’t die from gunshots, but it changes the fight if you have the option and he doesn’t.”

Lucy nodded.  Her hair had a different weight, her ponytail drawn out large, framed in glowing pink highlights.  She wore the pink fox mask with the bright eyes and she drew out her pen, flicking it out into spear form.

“You’re almost out of power for that,” John observed.

“Probably.”

He drew his combat knife.

Which, Lucy thought, was a good reminder of the lessons her mom had been trying to instill in her before.  To run away, call for help.  In a real fight, both people got hurt or, very often, it would be the disadvantaged party that got hurt.  The smaller person, or the girl, or the minority.  Sometimes the hurt wouldn’t be obvious or immediate.  If Lucy fought with a classmate, like she had with Logan not that long before ‘the talk’, her reputation would suffer more than his, whether she won or lost, because she was black.

That talk had been when Paul was still around.  A bit of a loss of innocence.  A time she’d started to really see the world as something else.  She’d laid a lot of that at Paul’s feet, but it wasn’t all him.

She sighed, rolling her shoulders a bit.  She was still stiff from the earlier sparring.

“Lucy?” Guilherme stated.

“Hm?”

“You still have glamour on your hands and feet.  This territory is painted up as yours.  It’s paying attention to you.”

Before she could process that, John was moving, striding toward her.

She almost defaulted to her earlier habits.  Holding back, spear ready.

But she didn’t want to do that or be that.  She’d felt guilty doing it for the Hungry Choir night, with Avery jumping into the fray while Lucy hung back.  She wanted to be able to protect her friends, to handle stuff instead of being scared.

She felt her heart skip a beat as her brain touched on another memory. John coming at her, grabbing her, and putting a gun to her head.

Now he came at her again.  She stepped forward, and twirled the pen.  Turning it into a whip.

She flicked it, her whole arm moving with the motion.  John tried to catch it and failed.  She struck out again, aiming low, where he couldn’t grab it.  Then again-

He seized it out of the air.

She twirled the pen, making it a spear, to match how far John was from her.  She poked, more to keep him from advancing any further, and he swiped.

Pen cut in half, spear destroyed.

She shifted footing, moving to the side.  Could she pick up a stone, or-

She grabbed a rusty sword out of the ground, then a stone.

John lunged, picking up in speed all of a sudden, and she turned the rock into a mace, flanged, like a fleur-de-lis.  She swung, and he met it with his palm, wincing a bit.  He stabbed, and she brought the sword into the way.

Easy, John!” Verona called out, with a note of anxiousness in her voice.

He was way stronger than Lucy, and she had to adapt.  She let go of her weapons, stumbled back, and then fell.

“Don’t hurt my friend,” Verona added.

Another bit of shale rock, another stone mace, same style.

The rock behind Lucy was sloped down and away, and it made it hard to get herself propped up or back to a standing position.

She needed a handhold-

She still had glamour on her hand.  A swift hand motion- she raised up a bit of rock, to grab, prop herself up, and help push herself to the side as John bent down to grab her.

To some limited, fragile degree, she could play with the rules here.  She made a more general motion, like she had when she’d created the warm breeze, to push-

John’s boot scuffed the rock, kicking little flecks of shale and grit at her.  She winced, squinting, and flopped back down, landing hard.  He bent down, and she swung the mace.  Again, he caught it, backhanded this time.  Again, he winced.  But he was free to bring the knife down toward her, probably to hold it at her throat.

Her heart skipped again.  She didn’t want to be at his mercy again.  Not like when they’d met at his place.  She drew a sword out of the ground where there’d been none, and met the knife blade with the sword blade.

He pressed, and the blade shattered like glass, but she was able to pull out another weapon, using the weapon ring.  A knife, this time.  She brought the point out toward John, and struck at the combat knife, caught the handle-guard, and knocked it from his grip.  He was willing to abandon the weapon to avoid getting cut.

“You were almost out of power, and after several uses of the ring and hot lead, you’re still almost out of power,” Guilherme said.  “Why?”

Because I’m being more me.  There’s more Self to draw on.  Feeding the battery with a bit of hot lead, a bit of Lucy.

She’d declared the knives on awakening.  Blade.  Edge.  Offense.  She scraped her fingers against the ground, and pulled up another weapon using glamour.  She had, with Guilherme’s help, decorated this battlefield with blades.  I was easy to just believe that there were weapons scattered around, waiting to be scooped up.  She found the handle and it came out of the ground as a knife.

She didn’t want to cede ground.

He backed away a few steps and she leaped, and turned while moving her hand through the air, like she’d tried to do before.  To create that wind, to help augment her movement.

Belief played into glamour and she had to wholeheartedly buy into what she was doing, for this to work.  Covering more distance, knives aimed at John, hair billowing and beautiful behind her, her face that of a glaring fox.

John caught the knife blades, letting them sink into his palms.  His fingers wrapped around to the backs of her hands.

“I gave you this,” he told her.  “It was mine originally, I earned its power, and I’ll take some of that power now.”

She looked.  His fingertips grazed the hot lead.  His eyes glowed a faint orange.

She felt the pull against her Self as the weapon ring began drinking other power.  She still had the glamour rock, but-

There was a lurch.

Then they fell.

They landed in water, her atop John.  His hand, bloody from a knife wound, cupped her head, which wasn’t positioned to be cushioned by his body.  She felt the force of it hitting the rocky riverbed.  Warm water splashed her.

He pushed her over, into the water, and for a moment, she couldn’t breathe.  He lifted her out.

The glamour had been washed away.  He’d thrown the two of them into the shallow river for just that purpose.  Leaving her with a drained weapon ring, with him right beside her.

“Kay,” she said, by way of surrender.  “Alright.”

He pulled back, sitting in the water, and then stood.  He extended a hand for her.  The wound was already closing up.

She accepted it, standing, dripping wet.

“Did you get hurt in the fall?”

“Not really.”

“Good.”

“Frig,” Lucy muttered.  Water dripped off of her.  It looked like the battlefield, her mask, and the minor alterations to the colors of her clothes had been lost in the splash.

“John can match me in serious confrontation,” Guilherme said.  “And you lasted considerably longer than four seconds against him there.”

Lucy nodded.

“Everything okay?” Verona asked.

Lucy nodded, huffing a bit for breath.  “Annoyed at being wet, but…”

She took a second to recover her breath.

“Okay,” she said, to Verona, to John, to Guilherme, who was using a foot to nudge Doglick so the goblin wasn’t so close to him.  This works, kind of.  “Okay.”

🟂

Now

They entered the school and headed for the student lounge area.  People were eating, and Lucy couldn’t decide if she was ravenous because of the energy the morning had required, or if she was too stressed out to eat.

It looked like some were having a brunch, others were having a proper lunch, and others were just hanging out.  It sort of made sense, since it was eleven thirty.  Not quite noon.

A few of the older students, who Lucy guessed weren’t quite old enough to be in the Western wing of the school were actually taking tea.  It weirded her out that that was actually a thing people did.  ‘Take tea’, exchanging thank-yous while being served by one of their number.

Some of them had books open.  It looked like some of the materials from the enchanting class.  Verona had walked her through it, but Verona had read some of this book and been there for the first half hour of class, so a lot of it went over Lucy’s head.

It was irritating, passing through the classroom where Ray had been a dick to her.  Irritating, a bit, that Verona was good enough at the enchanting stuff that her teacher was apparently super into it.  That Avery had her niche.

Lucy’s grades were better than either of the other two when it came to regular classes.  She even had the same grade as Avery’s in phys ed, because all you really had to do was show up and try, and probably because Lucy’s mom had given Mr. Bader flack.

But here?

A topsy turvy world, when Verona was the good, engaged student, and all Lucy wanted to do was lie down in bed and listen to music.

“Are you tired?” Avery asked Snowdrop.

“No,” Snowdrop said, sullen.  “I didn’t have any milk or snacks earlier, and that definitely doesn’t make me sleepy.  I’m totally diurnal now!”

She sounded sleep-drunk.

“Come on.  Go small,” Avery said, taking Snowdrop’s hand and lifting.

“Pain in the ass, I want to stay awake.  You’re so mean to me.”  Snowdrop became a small opossum, and allowed Avery to lift her up into her arms.  She kept making noises, like she was rambling.

“She okay?” Lucy asked.

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “Think so.”

“Do we want to eat, or wait to eat?  I’m not sure what we’re doing this afternoon, if we’re seeing Alexander soon.  There’s more enchanting classes, right?” Lucy asked.

“Yeah,” Verona said.  “Covering different stuff.  Dolls and moving hallows.”

“It might be nice to take a class all together,” Avery said, stroking Snowdrop, with one hand partially covering her eyes.  The opossum pup was already asleep.

“I’m more focused on Alexander,” Lucy said.  “Who might be watching us right now.”

“Creepy.  Hey, Alexander,” Verona said.  “If you can hear this, you’re creepy.”

“Saying his name might be plucking the cord of connections,” Lucy said.  “I ran into that earlier.  He may have actually heard you say that.”

Verona laughed.

“Hey,” Avery said.  “What was with the phone?”

Snowdrop made a sneezing sound, before chittering.

“Can’t understand you unless you’re human, Snow,” Avery said.  “And it’s not your story to tell.”

Snowdrop put a paw up and pulled Avery’s hand down over her head, to ward off the light.

“My dad’s been in the hospital,” Verona said.  “CAT scan or something.  He wants me to call.”

“Are you going to?” Avery asked.

“I dunno,” Verona said.

They walked down the hall toward the library.

“It seems like a complicated relationship,” Avery said.

“It’s…” Verona started, floundered, and stopped.  “Not so complicated.”

“I’m just remembering you not wanting him to have the nightmare, and it seems not great-”

“Ave,” Lucy cut in.

“Yeah.”

“I love my dad,” Verona said.  “I do.  But I don’t like him, most of the time.  I don’t know what to do about him.  I don’t think that’s complicated.  He’s the dad, I’m the kid, and that gives him all the power.  He’s big, I’m small.”

“Unbalanced,” Lucy said.

“Mostly.  The only thing I do get is that I don’t have to play his game.  I don’t have to do chores, I don’t have to spend time around him.  I don’t have to listen to him.  It’s not like he can kick me out, and he’s too lazy to really punish me.  Worst he can do is-”

“Trash your stuff?” Lucy asked.

Verona made a face.  “I keep forgetting about that.”

“Sorry to remind you.  But maybe be careful with the magic stuff.”

“So he wants me to go back.  I feel like that’s playing his game, even if logically I know that’s not really how it is.  He’s not that manipulative, that he’d make that up, I’m pretty sure.  And I love him and I don’t want him to be sick or hurting or anything.”

“Do you want me to reach out to my mom?” Lucy asked.  “She’s a trained nurse.  She knows all the terms and stuff.”

“That screws up connection blockers and stuff, and it raises questions, and I dunno.  No.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll decide after.  I’ll stew on it for a bit.  Alexander first.”

“Don’t stew on it so much that you get a headache or a stomachache again.”

Verona made a face.

They walked the rest of the way down the hall to the library.  There were two parts to the library, and they checked both before finding the section that Alexander was in.

He had Nicolette with him.

“Sit, please.  We were thinking of getting tea.  Do you want some?”

“Ehh?” Lucy made an uncomfortable sound.  She looked at the others.

“Wouldn’t mind,” Verona said.

“Sure,” Avery said.

Enghh.  “You guys drink tea?”

“With extended family more than at home,” Avery said.

“Oh man, the Kelly family extended,” Verona said.

“Twenty-two siblings and cousins under one one-storey roof,” Avery said.

“Horrifying.  I haven’t had much tea but on an aesthetic level, I would rather be a tea drinker than a coffee drinker,” Verona said.

“You’re so weird,” Lucy said, as they walked up to the long table, taking chairs.  She didn’t voice her own concerns, that taking the tea was making this more Alexander’s comfort zone than theirs.

Alexander leaned back into his seat, pulling up an ankle to rest on one knee.  “I’m well aware the problems in my backyard have started to edge closer to your backyard.  I’m willing and wanting to help you in all things relating to my colleague.”

“And your follower is here because…?”

“Apprentice more than follower, I’d argue,” Nicolette said.

“My apprentices are my eyes and my hands, when I’m tied up with the Institute.  I’m going to be tied up with affairs here soon.”

Snowdrop, eyes half-open, made sounds of protest and tried to climb up Avery’s front to the cradle of her arms, while Avery tried to gently transfer her to her lap.

“Is she okay?” Nicolette asked, leaning forward.  She adjusted her glasses, and they changed tint, like the light shining through them was more yellow than any light in the room.

“She’s nocturnal,” Avery said.

“We’re talking about Bristow?”

“If you’d avoid using his name, I’d appreciate it,” Alexander said.  “It’s a quirk of our world, and he has reason to be keeping his ears particularly open right now.”

“What’s his deal?” Lucy asked.  “He’s a landlord in Ontario, and from what my Aunt Renee says, being a landlord in Ontario is a really bad idea.  The tenant protections can make it a nightmare.”

“He keeps strange tenants.  Some are complicated.  A gilded lily, who stumbles on magic items by accident on a weekly or bi-weekly basis.  Many are cursed.  Someone who saw something so bent and broken it drove him around the bend.  A child of a witch hunter who survived the rest of her family, who knows something is afoot in the shadows of this world.  The pattern of that family seeks to wrap her up in its flows.”

“Why does he do it?” Lucy asked.

“To the best of my knowledge, the entire building is laid out as a diagram,” Alexander said.  “The people draw power into and through it.”

Nicolette leaned forward.  “Imagine your awakening ritual.  The skull, the knife, the timepiece, the living thing, and so on.”

“Ours were different,” Avery said, before Lucy kicked her beneath the table.

Volunteer nothing, Lucy used telepathy to tell Avery.

She didn’t really have telepathy, but she really tried, with a look.

“It’s like that.  He moves people between rooms to balance the diagram out.  Maybe restructures the building to add or remove rooms.  He feeds it into his demesne, so that’s one thing.”

“Is there a ritual he’s setting up, or does he do it regularly?” Lucy asked.

“No,” Alexander said.  “It’s an ongoing effect.”

“It seems like a lot of hassle,” Verona said.  “One resident bringing in a cursed item that causes havoc, or another resident starts carrying a crossbow around…”

“Many are passive,” Nicolette said.  “Some are problems, but there are residents like the old man who has fallen so deep into the pattern of watching television all day every day that he’s stopped sleeping, stopped eating, stopped using the washroom.  The most hassle he causes is that another resident might see his reflection in their televisions when they’re turned off.”

“He can’t be helped?” Avery asked.  “They all can’t be helped?”

Alexander shook his head.  “In the case of the couch potato… no.  Too long gone.  Others, maybe.  But their landlord, my colleague, he has a claim to them.  You’d have to get past him to figure out how much help they need or don’t need.  Then you would have to figure out the solution.  Most don’t get past him to even begin to address the other points.”

“I visit two of them,” Nicolette said.  “Less often than I should.  The boy who went mad.  He’s so sweet.  He has an apartment.  It’s seven hundred dollars a month in Winnipeg for a one bedroom.  It’s not especially nice, but with rent prices being what they are in the city, he’s paying half of what he might otherwise be spending.  It’s not overly unkind, at least.”

“It might be if he’s being used,” Lucy said.

“It might be.  But he’s getting therapy, with money he’s saving on rent.  He’s close to family.  This isn’t to excuse the landlord, but…” Nicolette shrugged with one shoulder.

Alexander spoke, “A lot of the residents have something intrinsically different about them.  The Gilded Lily has always been a Gilded Lily, dating back to early childhood, when she was drawn to the antique store.  She led a chaotic, confused life until practitioners stepped in to offer counsel, and take things off her hands.  She will, by virtue of the stars she was born under or a pattern established in long-running bloodlines, either find magic items or have magic items find her.  I don’t know if you could retrieve what the couch potato has lost.”

“Maybe going to the Ruins?” Avery suggested.

“You talked to Jessica,” Nicolette said. “That’s a quest she’s been on for years and I don’t know if she’s close to achieving it.  Not so easy.  I appreciate your sentiment, but what Alexander is saying-”

“Is that they’re lost causes?” Lucy asked.

“Or they’re too far removed to be causes,” Alexander said.  “Another apartment draws all the pests in the building to it.  They pile up into a roughly human shape, go through their day, boot up a laptop, work an eight hour shift as tech support.  They call an unlisted phone number at roughly seven o’clock, watch a movie and some episodes of a TV series, then go to bed, where they slump into a less human pile.  If someone goes to the apartment and spends any time there, they often act like a host, serve food, give them the remote to choose the show to watch.  They only get disgruntled if they get interrupted during their work day.  They don’t get lonely if ignored, they don’t mind the company so long as it’s timely.  They pay rent, pay bills, occasionally forget the rent but pay up when the reminder email comes in.  They don’t need anything except deliveries of food and a twice-a-month apartment cleaning.”

“Cool,” Verona said.  “What are they?”

“I don’t know,” Alexander said.

“That must bother you,” Lucy said.

“It would if I’d looked into it and failed.  I haven’t looked into it in more than a cursory way.  They’re one specific part of an overarching diagram,” Alexander said.  “Some of them remain and are power sources.  I imagine that swarm tenant is both steady income and a trickle of power.  Others balance out the other tenants.  A skeptic that dulls practices around her to help take the bite out of the worst cursed items.  An elusive man to keep the witch hunter scion’s attention without ever bearing fruit.”

“Elusive man?” Lucy asked.

Nicolette rose from her seat.  She crossed the room to the little set of double doors that split the library into sections, and picked up a serving tray.  She brought it through, and began handing out the tea, leaving a little pitcher of milk and a dish of sugar cubes with tongs.

Sugar cubes?  A woman serving the tea?  What was this, the nineteen fifties?

“The elusive are Aware and dangerous people who fell partway through the cracks.  The one here is only ever glimpsed in passing.  Always uncomfortable to come across, with a twisted grin and an intense look in his eyes.  The harder you look for him, the harder he is to find.  When you stop thinking about him, he can remind you he’s there.  As the brownies of the Blue Heron do, he invites people to misstep or breach the rules, unnerving them until they go looking for answers, break into his apartment or try to challenge him, and then he drags them into his apartment or locks the door to the apartment if they’re already inside, and they’re never seen again.”

“Holy crap,” Lucy said.

“He does errands for his landlord in exchange for a cut on rent.  One of a few that do.”

“So is that his strength?” Verona asked.  “A bunch of people that run errands, and then the rest are just there, pumping power into his place of power?”

“There are other things.  He buys interesting items from the Gilded Lily, who runs an online store.  He maintains relationships with powerful practitioners and problem solvers.  With Witch Hunters, with secret societies of non-practitioners, who use him and his facilities as a trash receptacle for human problems they don’t know how to deal with.  He holds out-of-season holidays at his apartment complex, and uses these days as rituals to bring tenants closer together, stir the pot, lets them ping pong off one another or allows problems to flare up, and then uses the power to make big moves.  Often opening doors.”

“You said he had a school?”  Lucy asked.

“Past tense.  He started the Blue Heron Institute, but I became headmaster after a time.  He also tried to start one centered around the young Aware, like his apartment complex, using the power to make it a bigger draw for other, similar Aware.”

“Tanner, one of Alexander’s other apprentices, was supposed to be a student there,” Nicolette said.  “Tanner was aware, after he entered a neighbor’s house after a fire.  He saw words scrawled on the wall, telling the neighbor he was going to die in the hospital.”

“And he did?” Lucy guessed.

“He went back after he heard about him passing, and the words had changed,” Nicolette answered.  “He took an axe to the wall and took it home.  After he’d moved up in life, using the words, got into a good school, got a nice paying internship at sixteen, at a big headhunting and talent sales company, the words started getting vicious.  Telling him scary things that would come to pass a day later.  The landlord and head of the small private school found him.”

“And I took it upon myself to talk to Tanner about opening up his ability to see the future,” Alexander said.  “Awakening him.  Unfortunately, with a centerpiece of the diagram occupied elsewhere, the house of cards that was the second school became unbalanced and collapsed.”

“Gee, and you say this guy doesn’t like you?” Lucy asked.

“For the time being, his attention is divided.  He doesn’t think it is, and he is in the midst of making a play for the Blue Heron Institute while simultaneously reaching out for Kennet.  He thinks I have something secret and essential to my power there.  A power source, a key contact, or whatever else.  He will make a two-pronged strike, and he thinks it will split my attention.  It won’t work.”

“You said you’d help.  You’ve outlined who he is and how he operates, but unless we trash this building…” Lucy ventured, trailing off.

“Nicolette?”

Nicolette bent down.  She unzipped a bag, then lifted some files onto the table.  She pushed them across.  Each file had a portrait or picture clipped to the front.

“I suspect he’ll send his Aware to Kennet.  I’d guess at least three of these six.  The Gilded Lily is a kind girl who he’s helped out a lot, so he might ask her to deliver something to someone in the city.  She may very well literally trip over something you’ve forgotten about or weren’t even aware of, if she doesn’t bring something into the city.  She’ll pick it up or unwittingly bring it with her, and disaster frequently follows from that, forcing Others out of hiding or forcing local practitioners to handle the crisis.”

“Supposedly dividing your attention?” Verona asked.

“Except I’ve pledged not to directly interfere in or investigate your affairs, so it can’t, beyond me taking half an hour to talk to you today.  You should know, some of these individuals would be given more explicit missions.  To find things out, to seek trouble.  To zero in on things you’d rather keep private.”

Lucy sat back.  She looked at Verona, to her left, then at Avery, who held Snowdrop in her lap, hands cupped around her to keep her from sliding off.

Fuck you,” Lucy told Alexander.

“Hey,” Avery said.

“No, seriously, fuck you, Alexander.  Fuck this.  Are we supposed to be grateful?  No.  You haven’t given us anything except a problem.  You’ve wronged us.  You’ve created this mess, and I in no way accept that you’ve taken every step you could to mitigate this.  We’re not your pawns.  We’re not going to be okay with this.”

“I approached Mr. Bristow earlier this morning, after he made his first insinuations about Kennet.  I tried to assure him-”

“Did you swear?” Lucy asked.

“No, but-”

Verona jumped in, “Did you try to assure him in a misleading way that led him to this?”

“No.  Are you going to let me finish a statement?”

“Are you going to be straight with us?” Lucy asked.  She leaned over the table, hands flat on the surface, fuming.

“I took steps to check before approaching him.  If I told him that you were mere students and it was uninvolved with me or my power sources, he’d note that I care for some reason, that I feel some responsibility for it.  Then he would still target Kennet, to target something I have some responsibility for, and he wouldn’t be gentle.  As it stands, if he thinks there’s power he can take, he won’t set fires or cause widespread damage.  It’ll be subtler.”

“Are you going to make this up to us?” Lucy asked.

“I will make some efforts.”

“You wronged us,” Lucy said.

“I will thank you not to say that a third time, because I’m going to make some amends for it.  Carry on saying it, and you’ll make it clear you’re more interested in lashing out than in justice.  That has a way of backfiring on you.”

“What amends?” Avery asked, quiet.

If Avery wanted to be ‘good cop’, that was fine.

“I can arrange private lessons-”

Verona laughed, abrupt.  “I wish I’d written it down.  Because I called it.  That you’d say that.”

“Private lessons serve you as much as they serve us,” Lucy said.  “Whatever we request, it gives you information on what we want and what we’re doing.”

“Frankly, the fact you’re here gives me more than enough information.”

“Because you spy on underage kids?” Lucy asked.

“Because we keep tabs on our student’s progress.”

“And spy,” Verona said.

“I’m interested in hearing the amends,” Avery said.

“Part of being in power and making judicious use of power is that it’s very hard to avoid benefiting.  A big company that gives money to charity will get positive attention for their generosity.”

“Find a way to help that doesn’t hurt us as much as it fixes a problem you gave us,” Lucy said.

“I’ll try to-”

“Or,” Lucy cut in, talking over him for a second until he stopped.  “Or… we’re going to go around to the rest of the student body to discuss what’s going on.  I’m sure they love gossip.”

“As I see it, Snowdrop’s like a mascot,” Verona said.  “Chaos and fire and unpredictability.  I’m totally okay with trying to learn what I can, and making a mess of things here.”

“It’s nice to be on the other side of this, as an observer while someone else is dealing with the threat of things being metaphorically set on fire,” Nicolette said.

“Shush,” Alexander told her.  “Or take your leave.”

“I’ll stay,” Nicolette said.

Lucy remained poised.

It was nice, having Verona backing her up.  Lucy just wished this kind of out-there-ness didn’t coincide with Verona having other, real-life, dad distractions.

“You may make enemies of students from powerful families, if you take your mascot’s approach,” Alexander said.  “You may draw attention to Kennet.”

“There’s the tuition thing,” Lucy said.  “I don’t know if we really have a reason to not side with Bristow, if it gets him off our backs and keeps him away from Kennet.  We can tell students you’re a manipulative douche-canoe that dropped a problem in our laps to use us.  Give your reputation a few licks.”

“And I can expel you.  I’ve technically kept my end of the bargain, bringing you into the school.  I’m allowed to enforce school rules and kick you out promptly.”

“I think we could challenge that as a move made in bad faith,” Avery said.  “Not keeping the deal.”

“The letter of the deal wins out over the spirit of the deal, when the two are in contention,” Alexander said.

“It’s an awful lot of distraction and fighting on multiple fronts, isn’t it?” Lucy asked, glaring at him.  “Sounds like a multi-pronged mess at a time something you care about is at stake.  Seems like it’s a better idea to make peace and be fair.  It’s your job to make the sacrifice and balance these scales.”

“What do you want?” he asked.  “Anything I could offer, I think you’d see it as manipulation.”

“Time, to start with,” Avery said.  She gave Snowdrop a stroke.

“Time?”

“For Kennet.”

“Five more years,” Lucy said.  “Five years after the Carmine Beast situation is resolved before you can get involved.”

“No,” Alexander said.  “I can’t, as I’ve made pledges and told people timelines.”

“Did you make those pledges and tell people timelines specifically to get out in front of something like this?” Verona asked.

“In part, yes,” Alexander said.

Lucy’s eyebrows raised.

“Three months after you’ve answered the problem,” Alexander said.

“Gifts,” Verona said.  “Power sources, tricks, magic items.  Books.”

“The school provides those things.”

“Not on loan,” Avery said.  “Not tied to the school, or through the school, because I feel like the connections would be… tangled.  Entangled.”

“Gifts, from you, specifically,” Lucy said.  “We’re being forced to deal with your enemy for you.  Because of you.  And we want to pick some classes for private lectures, and we want you to swear you won’t extend any interest or use that information against us.”

“Too broad.”

“We’re probably missing classes because of you,” Verona spoke with an intensity that Lucy rarely heard in her.  “We might have to leave and handle that and come back.”

“It’s too broad a condition, that I can’t use it against you.  There are too many small cases in common conversation and interaction.  I might have to ignore you altogether.  I can’t do that while you’re students.”

“You’d have to ignore Kennet,” Lucy said.

“I’ll arrange it so that Raymond Sunshine, Durocher, Bristow, and Musser have the ability to select classes and I will avoid digging into what classes you’ve taken or how the schedule is adjusted.  Nicolette can take your choices for classes.  She can pass it on.  I’ll be giving up some power over the Institute, doing so.”

“And finally-”

“You’re asking for a lot already,” he said.

“You’re putting things we care about at risk, making enemies and failing to steer them away.  Maybe even our families, depending on how bad this gets.  No,” Lucy said.  “Last term, here.  It sure feels like we’re being dogged by strife or something like it.  And I know you specialize in that.”

Alexander’s eyebrows went up.

“If you were, they’re not there now,” Nicolette said, adjusting her glasses.  “I see the traces of some dark shadow passing you by, but that’s only the aftermath.”

“Did you have any hand in it?” Lucy asked.  “Say it now.”

“No,” Alexander said.  “It’s actually a concern.”

She turned to Nicolette.

“No,” Nicolette answered.  “I like you.  Especially after the last half of this conversation.”

“It’s concerning,” Alexander said, straightening.  “That would likely be one of my apprentices.”

“Defector?” Nicolette asked.  “To our would-be headmaster?”

“Excuse me,” Alexander said.  He finished his tea, then set the mug down, and strode from the room.

Once he was gone, Nicolette stood, picking up her bag in the process and setting it on her chair.  “That was fun.”

“What happens next?” Avery asked.

“Alexander will win in the end.  Maybe with a few more enemies than he had before.  A few key people left by the wayside.  But in the wake of it, his grip on the Institute will be firmer.”

“You say that so confidently,” Verona said.  “Like you’re not afraid of lying.”

“I’m confident.”

Lucy sighed.  She straightened, realizing how tense she’d been.

But she was happy.  Not backing down.  Not ceding ground.

People like Alexander were everything she wanted to rail against.

“I’ll take your class preferences to Raymond, if you’d like,” Nicolette said.  “I could drop off something at your doors, so you could give us your skill levels and he can fill out his program.”

“We might have to leave for a few days,” Lucy said.  “I really don’t want to.”

“Frig.  I might have to,” Verona said.

For your dad?

“I’m going to go get lunch. I don’t know if you want to talk it out over meals,” Nicolette said.

“I think we have to talk a lot between ourselves, actually,” Lucy said.  “Put me down for… I’ll pick something I’m interested in.  Faerie stuff.”

“Okay.  Alexander had you pegged as Faerie related.”

“I’m not.  But I’m interested.”  It lets me study up on Maricica, who may be a problem, even if she’s not a culprit.  And on Guilherme, who I’ve come to trust too much for a Faerie.

“Ruins,” Avery said.  “We ran into your eyeball collector in the Ruins.”

“I do remember.  Do you want to spend more time around Jessica?”

“Yes, but at the same time, I don’t want to bother her.”

“The school brought her on board as an expert that covers a base we don’t have a lot of expertise in.  We could pay her in power or favors if she’d teach.  You could get your help that way.”

Avery nodded.

“Binding, I guess,” Verona said.

“I was wondering just what this patron or these patrons of yours weren’t teaching you.  Makes sense.”

“Please don’t infer,” Lucy said.

“I think there’s room for the binding lesson to happen tomorrow.  Or would you be gone by then.”

Frig!” Verona cussed.  “I don’t want to go.”

The librarian shushed them from the other end of the Library.

“Come on,” Lucy said.  She scooped up the files they’d been given.  “We should take photos of these files with our camera phone and pass them on.  Get lunch while we’re at it.”

“Hey,” Avery said, to Nicolette.  “How much are we playing into his hands, here?”

“Alexander’s?”

“Yeah.”

“Some, I’m sure.  He’ll have contingency plans.  But you’re giving him a headache and you had him on the back foot.  It’s like you’d learn in your beginner bindings class.  Negative bindings.  Hit them with something diametrically opposed to what they are.  You guys are awfully opposed to Alexander, on most things.  It’s great.”

Lucy nodded.

Lessons from Guilherme put into practice, on an abstract level.  Being forward, turning the battlefield to her favor.  Pulling on her Self.

She hoped that with this whole Bristow headache, she wouldn’t have to put them into practice on a physical, violent, drawing-blood level.


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Leaving a Mark – 4.x

Interlude

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Last Thursday: Student Guide


Snowdrop lay with her arms stretched out overhead, legs stretched out the other way, mouth open, and eyes half-lidded.  The sun shone in through the window, warming her belly, where her shirt had ridden up.  The student guide and graphic novel she’d been reading had fallen from where they’d rested and lay at a diagonal, resting against her side.

A rustling at the door made her eyes snap open.  She flopped over, one hand holding the footboard of the bed to keep from falling off, while her head and hair moved off the bed, so she could look at the door upside-down, eyes wide.  Her hand gripped the rusty fork.

Having keen senses was essential to be a good guide of the Forest Ribbon Trail, and it wasn’t possible to survive in the wild if you couldn’t be alert and ready when something happened.

Not that she’d really done much in the wild.  She had been born, crawled her way to her mom’s pouch, and then her mom had stopped giving milk.  She’d made some basic attempts to bring food, vegetables and roots, then stopped entirely.  Snowdrop had had to go looking for food herself, when she had been small enough she couldn’t do much.  Bugs here and there.  Chewing on grass.

Then a cat had sniffed her out, picked her up by the scruff of the neck, and carried her away to a life of adventure.

There was more rustling.

She slipped from the bed, hand touching the ground first, feet following, her spare hand gripping her weapon, and crossed the room at a crouch.

She had her escape route, a grate that led into the ducts.  She checked it was there, loose.  Good.

Fork held out of sight, she hauled the door open.

“Aah!”

It was a skinny guy, surly-looking, with a bit of a slouch, and a mop of red-brown hair.

“What do you want?  What are you doing?”

“Delivering.  Papers and stuff.”

She opened the door wider, then leaned over to get the papers from the little trough thing on the bottom part of the door.  She looked them over.

“Breakfasts are student’s choice, lunches are whatever is convenient, and dinners are served for everyone, with special exceptions for diet,” the boy said, sounding like he was reciting off a page.  “The first sheet gives students the ability to vote for future dinner items.  The second sheet informs students about the confirmed guest teachers for the coming week or weeks.  The third sheet informs students about upcoming field trips, and recommends things to bring, preliminary rituals, and other preparations.  Finally, there are some last-minute changes this semester, with Mr. Musser and Bristow doing some teaching, and in the back field-”

Snowdrop yawned.

“Am I boring you?”

“No.  Not boring.  I’m-” She yawned again, cracking her jaw.

He stood a little straighter.  “Don’t let me keep you.  If you’d please just make sure your master gets those.”

Snowdrop snorted.  “Master?”

“I’d hope a minor Other like you wasn’t the controlling party.  No offense.”

Snowdrop frowned.  She tried to concoct a good swear, like Cherrypop had told her, and found herself floundering somewhere around calling him a wet noodle, which was Avery’s favorite, and telling him to put his man junk in a hole in the ground.

She opted to stay silent, sorting through the pages.

“While I’m at it, I’m sure the faculty will inform everyone who brought a familiar, but before construction in the back field even begins, we’ll be using some binding circles to keep pests out.  Bugs, mice, wisps, echoes, lesser goblins, and the like.  We go with very brute-force approaches early, then segue into subtler workings that are woven into the foundation and architecture.  Familiars should steer clear, or it will be like walking into a bug zapper and they’ll risk taking their master out in the process.”

“Oh.  What about non-familiars?” she asked.

“Why does it matter?” he asked.  “You know what?  Nevermind.  I’ve gotta deliver the rest of this.”

“Why don’t you guys have the staff do that?” she asked.

He was already on his way across the hall to the next door.  He picked out papers from the pile in his arms and looked back at her.  “Do what?”

She held up the handful of disorganized papers.

“Because I had to type it up, and the process of telling them to deliver isn’t that much worse than writing up the instructions for the staff.”

“Why not have them type it up?”

“Having the f-a-i-r-y type things write up papers to be handed out to everyone gets you problems with fascination, subversion, and really weird old languages.”

“Huh.  That’s cool.”

“It’s pointless busywork.  Keeping me occupied when a good ritual could do this.  Or an arrangement with the brownies.”

“You’ve got it worse than me.  Do you remember how you said I couldn’t be the controlling party in my partnership with Avery?  I feel bad because you’re the whipped one.”

He stopped sorting out the papers and turned around, frowning at her.

She smiled at him.

People got so weird, sometimes.  She couldn’t always predict how they’d react to stuff she said.  Questions were usually safe, though.  Questions didn’t get flipped around.  Other stuff did, though.  Even the ‘huhs’ and ‘ughs’.  It didn’t matter if she tried to reword it or fib, because it was based on what she meant, not what she said.

“I lost track of the pages I just put in.  Can you go back to doing what you were doing before?”

“It looks complicated, and annoying.  Sorry you’ve got it rough, Mr…”

“Seth.”

“Seth.  You can do it.  Good luck.”

He turned.  “Of course I can do it.  I’m a Belanger.”

“Ooh.”

“And you’re annoying,” he added.  He crossed the hall, put a hand on her head, and forced her back a step.  He drew the door closed, stopping just long enough to say, “Stay put and be good until your master comes back.  Give her those papers.”

He shut it firmly after that statement.

“Good luck with your master too!” she called out.

He muttered something she couldn’t hear through the door, even with her good ears.

She placed the papers on the nightstand, tucked her fork into her waistband, and then sat down on the bed, stabbing herself in the belly with the fork.  She adjusted, lay back, and paged through her graphic novel.  It was in French, and had been left out in the woods for at least one bout of rainy weather, and the blue in the cover had faded away.  But it was a gift from Cherry.  Cherrypop liked the part where the one guy got someone else’s spine jammed down his throat, even though she couldn’t really read that well.  Snowdrop could recite it all by heart now.

She lay down in the sun, holding the book over her head, trying to get sleepy enough that she could sleep through most of the rest of the day.  At least until Avery got back.  Sleep escaped her.  The discussion, the strange place she’d once set on fire, and the annoyance of Avery being called her Master made it hard to relax.

They were partners.  Sisters in arms.  Like spotter and sniper, scout and runner, lookout and looter, trash and treasure.  There was no master.  Ugh.

Ugh.

She sat up.  If she wanted to get to sleep, there had to be something that helped.  Counting sheep was one thing, but that was boring and it seemed like a bad way to get to sleep in a way that let her have nice dreams.  It’d lead to boring dreams.

No, there were better ways.  Good things to get good dreams.  She shuffled through papers, moving things around until she found papers, then found paper that hadn’t been used yet.

With a broken pencil she’d found in a gutter once, she carefully wrote out her request.  Strawberry milk, warmed up.  Apples.  Carrots.  Red peppers.  A cinnamon roll.  It would work if she ordered it, right?  If she wasn’t human?

She was halfway to the door when she stopped.

Writing wouldn’t work, and it wasn’t because she was an opossum.  It was because things got flipped around.  Even in writing.

She held out the paper, squinting with her eyes and trying to squint with her brain too.

She had no idea what she’d really ordered.  What was the opposite of those things?  She could hope it was like, chocolate milk, but with her luck, it’d be congealed blood or something.

Which would be cool, except it wasn’t strawberry milk.

This was hell.  She really, really, really wanted strawberry milk now.  She wanted cinnamon rolls.  She wanted crisp foods that would snap in between her teeth.

Why had she started thinking about strawberry milk?  She was so stupid, getting herself started when there was no way to do it.

She kept the note she’d written, then placed it in the little ‘v’ shaped slot that sullen Seth had put the papers in.

This would be tricky.  She waited, watching by the door she’d left cracked open, peering through the gap.

If she could talk to the ‘staff’ face to face, then maybe there was a chance.  Faerie were smart, and fairy things were like Faerie.  Toadswallow had explained it all, a few weeks ago.  Fairy-with-a-y were things that had some glamour but they were old and followed more precise rules, or it encompassed things that were a bit glamour-y but also a bit goblin-y, or a bit abyss-y.  Every Faerie was a bit different but fairy things tended to be uniform and when they had kids, if they could have kids, the kids were like the parents.

So she had a bit of an idea of what to expect here.

Five minutes passed.  Her craving only got worse.

Milk was happiness and love.  It was one of the only things that was a giving food, not a taking one.  Meat was taken from dead animals, and sometimes, according to Gashwad, living ones, but she hadn’t tried that yet.  Fruit was the closest thing she could think of, but according to Toadswallow, fruits and vegetables were sort of like the sex organs of plants.  It was only sort of by weird design that they became delicious.  Animals ate the plant’s private parts, sort of, then they crapped out seeds and the plants got to spread.  Or the plants were made so they didn’t have seeds and it was kind of like eating a juicy dick with a condom on it, Toadswallow said.  That conversation had moved on to how flowers were also sex organs of plants, and Snowdrop was named after a flower, so she was sorta named something rude.

They’d all loved that.  Goblin brains were fun in how they worked.

Toadswallow was one of the smartest creatures that Snowdrop knew.  Avery and Verona and Lucy and Miss were smarter.  Not that she’d had a lot of time with Miss.

She opened the door and peeked around the corner, to see if the food had been delivered and placed off to the side.  Nope.

She considered for a moment, then closed the door.  She opened it after a second.

“I want my milk!” she spoke to the empty hallway.

“What?” Seth asked.  He was around the corner, further down the hall.

She ignored him, frowned, closed the door, and immediately opened it again.  She repeated the closing and opening a few times.

Maybe it didn’t work because she was Other?

That’d be even worse.

What would she do if she was a Faerie-y type thing?  Faerie-ish.  Toadswallow had told her she should say Faerie-esque, but Bluntmunch had told her that to handle Faerie you had to be crude and Faerie-esque sounded too fancy.  She couldn’t play into their hands like that.  She’d never live it down with her goblin buds.

With her fork, she messed with the delivery trough, mailbox-esque thing, prying at it until it was a bit loose.  She made it rattle, then checked the coast was clear.

Then she took off her sweatshirt and slung the hood over the doorknob.  Lying on the floor, she looked through the gap for shadows.  Two ways she’d be able to notice if they came.  Seeing under the door and the rattle.

She closed the door, lying there with one fist still gripping her fork and the other holding the sweatshirt, which was hung on the knob.

Almost immediately, she heard it.  A faint screech and scrape.

She twisted, hauling on the sweatshirt, pulling the door open wide, twisting her body so it wouldn’t smack her face.  She hadn’t seen the shadows of any feet, but the creature hadn’t even touched the ground.  It hung on the mail slot, paper in hand, narrow eyes opening wide as the door swung, banged against the wall, and the partially detached mail trough thing dropped a bit more, the loose screw dragging against the wood.

She caught it by the wrist.  It was smaller than her, but only barely, with wiry hair that looked like copper wire, eyes that were more like knife slashes that made ‘x’s than regular eyes, ragged in their edges, with ‘lashes’ like frayed flesh, lined with red.  The orbs on the other side were liquid-y metal, like copper mixed with gold.  It had skin that was like thick leather that had been bleached white.  It was knobby, spindly, and beautiful, with what looked like fancy lacy stockings or fishnets trapping hair close to its arms and legs, and more layers of the same around its body and legs.  She wondered if it was halfway between goblin and Faerie, from how it was misshapen but a beautiful misshapen.

It fought like its life was on the line.  Long fingernails raked her arms.

Snowdrop fought like her strawberry milk was on the line, trying to get it to sit still long enough for her to put thoughts together and decide what to say.

It hissed in her face, its eyes widening.  There were dark pupils in that sea of coppery gold, so paper-thin they were easy to miss.

She hissed back, turning the tables on it, shoving it, and kept hissing as it landed on its rump, scrambling back.  It was fast, moving to the far side of the hallway in a second.

She hadn’t meant to hiss.  Instincts had taken over.

It reached for the line of mortared-in stones where the wall met the floor, touched a stone, turned it ninety degrees, and lifted up a trapdoor.

She’d caught up with it by the time the trapdoor was open.

“I-”

It kicked her in the lower stomach, making her grunt and take a step back.  Then it flipped over, to go for the trapdoor.

She lunged forward, hooking a foot around its leg, and dragged it back.  It reached just inside the trapdoor, and came out with a mug of something like tea.  It sloshed it in her direction.

She shielded her face, best as she could, and the fact she was still holding her sweatshirt helped a lot.

It hissed at her, wriggling so its leg was free of where she’d hooked her foot around its leg.

She hissed back, on principle, and because instincts.  The thing threw a butter knife, maybe intending it as a parting gift.  It hit the side of her chest with enough force to get through fabric and break skin.  She felt a sharp twinge of pain as it stuck in, pulled, then dropped free, clattering.

It dropped to all fours, and she wasn’t sure if it was leaving, which was fine except she hadn’t gotten to order, or if it was getting more things to throw at her.

She returned the favor, stepping forward and soccer kicking it in the backside as it was on all fours, ducking back through the tunnel.  The soccer kick was a bit of something from Avery.  She’d been pure opossum once, but then when she’d gone to the Forest Ribbon Trail, she’d gotten the big Avery download from the universe or the ritual or whatever.  Everything she needed to be a companion on the trail.  Soccer knowledge came from that, and it maybe informed the kick, making it more efficient.

The target of the kick was scrawny and it didn’t really have butt cheeks.  It wore fancy, gauze-y clothing.  Gauze-esque?  Didn’t really offer much protection.  And so the effect of the kick was really to put the toe of her shoe in near-direct contact with Faerie-esque butthole.

Driven forward at an angle, the creature’s face slammed into the edge of the trapdoor it had been ducking through.

She stood there, as the Other member of the school staff member lay on the ground, one hand with long fingernails covering its face, the other hand gripping its butt.

“I-”

It rolled over, writhing.  It tried to kick her, failed to get any strength, and clutched its butt harder.

She dropped her wet sweatshirt on top of it, then stood on the fabric, pinning it down.  She adjusted her footing so her feet trapped its arms roughly where they were.

“Can you take my order?”

It moaned something in a whispery, rapid-fire, air-light language, one hand at its face, the other clutching its butt.

“Do you have strawberry milk and can you warm it?  I want-”

Three narrow hands with long copper-gold fingernails reached out of the open trapdoor, grabbed the faerie-ish thing, and hauled on it with enough force that it was pulled from where she’d pinned it.  She dropped to her knees, reaching, and the trapdoor closed within a half-inch of her hand.

“Yeah, well, I’m sorry!” she shouted.  She reached for the stone the thingy had touched, and tried a few times to rotate it.  She needed fingers in the right position, and the divots were narrow and camouflaged.  She found the position, started to turn it-

Hands on the other side resisted her, turning it back the other way.  They were about as strong, and after a minute of struggle, she gave up.

She’d come back later.

She straightened, rubbed her stomach, repositioned her fork at her waistband, and checked her injury.  She was bleeding where the knife had gouged her before falling to the floor, and it was soaking into her t-shirt.  She picked up the knife and added it to her waistband.  She picked up the slip of paper and sweatshirt as well.

“You have my order,” she said, to the empty hallway, a bit unsure.

She hadn’t wanted to fight like that.

She returned to the room, and dug through Avery’s stuff.  She’d put her kit together before the whole thing with the Hungry Choir, and that whole thing had happened before Snowdrop, so Snowdrop had gotten it in the big Avery download.  First aid kit.

Sticker-bandages.

She poked and prodded at her wound a bit before sticking a slim bandage over the hole.  It was shallow, anyway, and the knife seemed clean.

There.

She tried to decide what to do, and decided that with the pain and her heart pounding, she wouldn’t be able to sleep.

Without her warm milk, she definitely wouldn’t be able to sleep.

She paced on the spot, anxious, thinking about Avery, when a buzzing distracted her.

She crossed the room, went to the other bed, and moved stuff aside until she found the phone.

Dad:
I might need you to come home sooner than later.

Image: this image has corrupted and can no longer be retrieved.

Dad:
They’ve had me waiting at the emergency room for two hours now.  They say it’s serious but won’t move me ahead.  There’s a lineup of patients who are getting priority of the CAT scan machine.
Call me.  ASAP.
Ten hour wait and I only just got a bed.  Now I’m waiting for a doctor to be free.  Ridiculous.
I had to call a coworker to get a ride.  I’m humiliated.  He stayed with me for the first three hours but had to leave.  I would have liked you with me for part of this.
I need to get in touch with you ASAP.  CALL ME.
I spoke with a doctor.  I’m serious now: call me.  I’m going to need you to come home.  I called your mom and you know I hate speaking to that woman.  I wouldn’t do it if there was any other option.

Yeah.  She would need to talk to Verona and Avery.  The decision had been made for her.

Snowdrop switched to opossum form as she vaulted over the footboard of the bed, paused as she considered what she needed, then became human again, dropping into a sitting position on the little shelf-dresser thing at the foot of the bed.

Changing and becoming human again let her change clothes.  She’d wanted something that fit for school, literary or fancy or whatever, and the oversized t-shirt she wore was now crimson, with thick white letters wrapping around most of it, the text extending from shoulder to the base: ‘I may love garbage but that doesn’t mean I am garbage’.

Good.  Wordy.

She also had a pleated skirt, baggy socks, and sneakers.  She grabbed Avery’s jacket from the back of the door, sniffed it, and got Avery’s scent, along with the smell of grass and outdoors.  Good.  She pulled it on, for good measure, and to cover up her scratched-up arms.  A bit big for her, but many of her clothes were.  She combed at her hair, adjusted the utensils trapped beneath the beltline of her skirt, handles sticking up, and marched out of the room.

It was tricky, sometimes.  She could only carry so much.  Miss had told her what she needed to know, before leaving.  That being Lost made it hard to hold onto things.  Many Others, with a big exception for those that were specifically about having stuff, had a hard time holding onto things.  They had less connections, or connections meant for other things.

She probably wouldn’t hold onto the butter knife, or holding onto the knife would mean losing something she didn’t really care about or pay attention to, like her own personal dog tag.

Miss had had to use tricks to keep her stuff.  If she didn’t come back, then maybe Snowdrop would take over the same position.  Then she’d have to learn and use those same tricks, like juggling and lending things.  Miss had made deals with Others who didn’t come into Kennet, giving them things with power, then taking them back when needed, or calling in favors, to keep people busy.

So she only had her fork, the knife, the goblin lockpick she’d been holding, the phone, some spare change in her pocket, Avery’s raincoat-windbreaker, and the clothes that were as much a part of Snowdrop as her hair was.

There were other parts of being empowered by the Path that changed things up.  She didn’t have the best eyesight, especially in daylight, but her vision got very sharp when it came to seeing hidden things.  Things in shadows, things that were a bit around the corner.  Looking at something like the corner of a cover in a goblin’s rude magazine stash in the woods and having a good sense of what the magazine was about, and even when it was from.

Two x-shaped copper-gold eyes peered at her through the vents as she walked by.  She gave them a wider berth.

More eyes beneath a door.  A wooden plank in the ceiling lifted up, eyes peering down.

She counted them.  Ten in all.

She picked up her pace.

Avery had gone this way.  She could smell it, checking the smell on the jacket for reference.  Not that it was really necessary, but she was nervous and…

And the hallway was a dead end.

She stared at the wall, with water running down it.  She reached out, touched it, and pulled away her wet hand, wiping it on her shirt.

This hadn’t been a dead end before.

She pressed an ear to the wall, and heard a muffled voice.  She could connect it to Mr. Sunshine, teaching.

Snowdrop turned and looked.  Ten glowing, narrow eyes watched her.

They emerged, sliding into the hallway from beneath doors and out of trapdoor spots.  A lot of them came from the direction of the kitchen.  They were roughly the same as the one she’d scrapped with, all with stooped postures, skin with some thickness to it, that could have made them look brutish if they weren’t so very slender and soft.  She imagined it was like those dogs that were huge balls of hair, but when the hair was shaved off, they had spindly legs.

These guys were very spindly, once you looked past the thick skin, pronounced, angular joints, and very triangular faces.

Some were apparently female, with long hair and more effort spent covering their breastless chests.  There were two older ones, with hair a wiry white gold instead of wiry coppery gold; one with a long beard and long hair, the other with muttonchops.

They carried various kitchen things as improvised weapons.  Some knives, a tenderizing mallet, a rolling pin, a steaming teapot.  One lurked in a half-open trapdoor wall, and the space behind the wall wasn’t a dorm room.  It was a kitchen, lit solely by dark red fires, filled with steam.

She drew the fork and knife.

They hadn’t come to serve her any milk.

They came at her, all at once, and all of them were fast.  She wasn’t a fighter, but they didn’t seem to be either.  It was possible she had more experience scrapping than them, but that was mostly play-fighting with goblins.

Which had to be a good thing when dealing with Faerie-esque things like this.

She focused on the ones with knives first, grabbing a mallet-holder and shoving him hard in their direction.  The rolling pin came down, and she became an opossum, scrambling between his legs, her nails struggling to get traction on the wooden floor for that first crucial second.

Goblin technique number one.  Aiming for anything that jiggled.  She became human again, with a thought spared to keeping the wardrobe from before, and soccer-kicked one of the kitchen staff between the legs from behind.  She backed away from a thing with a steaming teapot that seemed intent on sloshing her with the boiling contents, swiping out with the fork to keep another at bay.

She retreated into a corner, weird wet wall to one side, pressing against her shoulder, a wooden wall to her other side.  She’d have to move when sloshed.

The bearded one hissed, before spitting out some invective in a whispery, sing-song voice.

She hissed back, fiercely enough that he stopped.  They all stopped.

Their heads turned simultaneously.  Looking back the other direction, away from her.

They moved as fast as they had earlier, but their destinations weren’t her.  They were trapdoors, panels, and the cracks beneath doors that they should in no way have been able to fit through.

That Seth guy came around the corner, and walked a bit of a way down the hall before stopping.

“He’s still got it up, huh?” he asked.

She looked back at the wet wall.  It looked like something had been carved into it once, but the wet had washed most of the detail away, leaving only circular grooves and stuff.

She touched the wall.

“I hope none of those kids have to go to the bathroom,” Seth said.  “Rad Ray doesn’t like interruptions for trivial things, and having to shut down the program and let them through would drive him up the wall.  Is there any place you can knock?”

She rapped her knuckles against the wall, but there was no sound.

“Guess not,” Seth said.  “Of course not.”

“Can I come with you?” she asked him, looking around for any glinting eyes.  One peered at her from under a door, then disappeared as Seth walked up.

“I’m going to make a deposit in the men’s washroom, so no.”

“But-”

“No.  Maybe if you were, like, sixteen and…” He looked her up and down.  “Actually, could look past the clothes.”

“Can you help me?” she asked, trying to keep to the question thing.  “What do I do if the kitchen staff are mad at me?”

He snorted.  “I don’t know, but I’m glad.”

“Glad?”

Someone’s gotta take the hit.  Now, excuse me.  Try not to become too big a mess, because Nicolette’s in class and I’ll probably be the one tasked with cleaning it up before we end up traumatizing a client.”  He fake-coughed.  “I mean student.”

He stepped into the bathroom and closed the door.  She heard it latch.

Yellow, ‘x’ shaped eyes lit up all down the hallway.

They slipped out of trapdoors and gaps.  Ten or twelve of ’em, silent.

Snowdrop bit her lip.

She slid the knife into her waistband, then reached past Avery’s jacket to get into her pocket.  The things came for her, and she lunged, going for the bathroom door.

The Ratfink Key slid into the keyhole.  She twisted, pulled, and hit the handle, before scrambling back, hand cupped to protect her eyes.

The door slid open.

The fairy things stopped just short of where Seth would be able to see them.

“Uhhh,” Seth said.  “I locked that.”

She kept her hand up, but as one of the things circled closer to the wall, peeking around the corner, she looked, and saw Seth on the toilet, pants around his ankles, reaching in a futile way for the door handle.

“Can you close that door?” he asked.

She didn’t move.

“Helloooo?”

She put the key away and drew her knife.

“Unh,” he said, trying to use the plunger from beside the sink to push the door closed.  It swung in, swung back, only to get another push from the plunger.

One of the closer fairy-things took a step closer, as the door closed.  Snowdrop jabbed at the air with her fork.

“Unh.  Fuck.  What the hell?  Did you open that?”

Raymond, it seemed, was midway through a lecture.  She could hear the murmurs and use her Lost awareness to fill in some of the context.

He shoved, hard, and the door moved with enough force to close.

But the broken lock kept it from properly closing.  It swung open again.

“Don’t look,” he told her, pulling toilet paper from the roll.  “If I had a say in things, I’d be pushing to get you unsummoned, white trash girl.”

Snowdrop watched the spindly creatures prowl, pacing the hallway, Seth’s activities as he wrapped up his ‘deposit’ early in her peripheral vision.  The sink blocked most of the view, thankfully.

He hiked up his pants and came straight for her.  Which- he didn’t wash his hands?

Even opossums washed their hands, when they could.

The fairy things slipped away as Seth came storming her way.

She bolted, running.

“Hey!”

The hallway had a bend in it, and the bend blocked Seth’s view.  As she rounded the corner, more eyes began to appear.

She knew the fundamentals of running from the Avery download.  Hands flat, pacing, breathing, good running posture.

She did all of that except the breathing thing, because the goblins said there was power in utterances and her best utterance was-

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

They came tearing out of every space nearby.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

Narrow hands reached out from under doors and parts of the wall opened up for more of them to drop down.  She could only run harder, trying to get past them before they could recover from their landings.  She threw her pocketful of change down in hopes they’d slip.

She didn’t hear them slipping, but they didn’t catch up to her despite being quick.  Maybe there was something to it.

It didn’t help with all of them.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

A hand clutched for her.  Long fingernails dragged against the slick material of Avery’s raincoat.  They caught at her hair and she was really glad it wasn’t as tangled as usual.

She wanted Avery.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

A woman stepped out of a nearby doorway.

“Miss, class is in session.”

Snowdrop practically tackled the woman, wrapping her arms around her.  Snowdrop’s chest jerked out and in more than it expanded and contracted, from the force of her breathing.

She looked back.  No creatures.  No change, even.

“This, right here?  It’s a library,” the woman said.  It was Zed’s summoning, but she didn’t have her hair in a bun.  She wore narrow reading glasses, a white blouse with a very light fabric, and a long black skirt that reached her ankles, her hair straight.

Snowdrop frowned, trying to get her bearings.  Was it?  It was.  “I knew that.”

“A class is in session at the back.  I’m going to kindly ask you to respect the space and be quiet.”

Snowdrop nodded.

“Come, quiet now.”

Snowdrop allowed herself to be led, with only the small protest, “I need to go out there.”

“Hush.  Come.  You’re agitated, and the right book makes everything better.”

She allowed herself to be led, mostly because she didn’t know what to do.  Through foggy windows, she could see the crowd in the big room at the far end of the library.

The woman gave Snowdrop a careful once-over, studying her, then went to a bookshelf, bending down.

“Here.”

The book had a mouse in knight’s armor on the cover.  It was titled ‘The Mouse’s Roar’.

No pictures.  Snowdrop flipped through.

“No pictures,” the librarian woman echoed her thoughts.  “But you’ll like it.”

Snowdrop read the first paragraphs.  Her legs kicked, impatient.

She closed the book.  “I want to read this but-”

“Everyone has time to read.  They convince themselves that other things are more important.  Do you drink tea?”

“Yes.”

“I do love the taste of tea amid the smell of old books, cracking leather, and ink.  A guilty pleasure, cultivated in small European bookstores.  Just promise me you won’t spill any on the books.”

“As long as I can go out there soon,” Snowdrop said, eyeing the windows, looking for those yellow x-shaped eyes.  She hugged the hardcover book to her chest.

“I’ll put the kettle on.  Do you want treats?  Again, sticky hands-”

“My sticky hands will ruin the books.  Right.”

“Be careful.  You could read in the meantime.  Tell me your thoughts.  I’ve read most published works, but a new reader’s experiences are something special.”

“I was bored earlier, and this is a nice change, but-”

Snowdrop froze.  She saw two eyes peering out from beneath a bookshelf.

The librarian strode over, bent down, and dragged the fairy thing out from beneath the shelf.

“I’ve warned you lot,” Nina said.  She drew a piece of lined paper from her sleeve and flicked it.  It went rigid, like a blade, and pressed against the side of the creature’s throat.  “Not in this library.  I won’t brook any disrespect of this space while I’m charged with it.”

She walked the thing to the door, then deposited it outside.  The eyes glowed at Snowdrop as the door swung closed.  Nina stopped the door at the last second, to keep it from banging closed.

“If there were more people in this part of the library, I’d be quieter,” the librarian confessed.

The kettle was near-silent.  Snowdrop leaned in her seat on the stool, still hugging the book, getting a view as she looked around the corner.  She looked around at the computers, boxes, and stuff, then back at the class in progress.  She focused her vision, and the obscured images became clearer.  Was Verona in there?  It was supposed to be the enchanting person, who was a woman, and that was Alexander.

“It’s good we have an electric kettle,” the librarian said.  “But I must be careful about the steam.  Even that can damage an old book.  Tea is a once-a-day treat for me, and I’m glad to have company.”

“Glad to be here,” Snowdrop said, antsy.

“Can’t have a fire hazard,” the librarian said, as she unplugged the kettle and carried it to another part of the corner of the library.  “The library burned this spring.  They did a good job of repairing the damage, but damaged books are harder to replace.”

Snowdrop got more antsy.

“It’s a cardinal sin in my eyes, to burn books.”

Did she know?

The librarian took the old hardcover novel from Snowdrop, setting it on a nearby table, then went to get the treat.  A slice of cake.  “Do you take milk in your tea?”

Was that even a question?

A bit more pressing, though, was another question: Do you poison book burners?

Snowdrop slipped from her position on the stool.

“I have to go back out there.”

“My dear, that-”

Snowdrop fled, pushing her way past the doors with enough force to bowl over the fairy things that had stuck around.  She hurried around the corner.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!”

Outside.  Into bright light, which always made her anxious.

There were picnic tables lined up under a long canopy tent, and some Others were sitting at those tables.

The fairys didn’t chase.

A burly guy with a thick, curly black beard, a mane of curly black hair, and elaborate curling horns as broad as Snowdrop’s arms were long turned to look at her as she huffed for breath.  It was hot outside, t-shirt and shorts weather, and he wore a heavy black coat that might have been wool.

“Did you thank the kitchen staff?”

She shook her head.

“Steal from them?”

She drew the knife from her waistband.  “It was given to me.”

“Hmm.”

“What if, hypothetically, I kicked one of them in the butt?”

“Why would you do that?” he asked.  His voice had a sharp edge to it, but the baritones were warm.

“He deserved it, probably.”  Snowdrop drew closer, keeping the table between herself and the guy.  A woman with gorgeous wavy brown hair that spilled out across the table and onto the ground at her feet had her arms, head, and part of her upper body resting on the picnic table.  A bottle rested by her hand.  She looked at Snowdrop with half-lidded eyes, seemed to need to focus for a few seconds, and smiled once she’d focused enough.

“It’s going to be a very long semester for you, then.  You’re an animal, aren’t you?”

“Opossum.”

“They serve high quality meals.  I wonder what they would do with opossum meat.”

“Don’t be cruel, Blackhorne,” a woman said.

Snowdrop felt a bit of relief at hearing a familiar voice. It immediately turned around when she realized why the voice was familiar.  Next to the sounds the girls had made before the ritual, Avery’s own voice, and the denizens of the Forest Ribbon Trail, Wolf included, it was one of the first human voices she’d ever heard.

Nicolette.

Snowdrop went stiff.

“It’s true, Nicolette,” Blackhorne said.

“I’m not saying it isn’t,” Nicolette said, as she approached the table.  “Truth is crueler than lies.  If it wasn’t, we wouldn’t believe our own lies.”

The blitzed girl with the hair chuckled to herself, hearing that.

Snowdrop backed up a step as Nicolette walked around the table.

“Hello, little liar,” Nicolette said, stopping where she was, about ten feet from Snowdrop.  “I couldn’t help but notice you from a distance, with this cloud hanging over you.  If I may take a closer look-”

Snowdrop scrambled back another five steps as Nicolette took one more step forward.  She pulled out her fork.

“Ah.  Nevermind.  Forget I said anything.  The Brownies want your skin, huh?”

“Opossum meat makes a better meal than opossum hide,” Blackhorne said.

“I’d be way too tasty,” Snowdrop said.

“Yeah, well, you’d be an awfully small dish,” Nicolette said.  “I’d say it’s possible they’re trying to scare you, but… I have means of telling they aren’t.  What did you do?”

“All I tried to do was order in person.”

“That’s all, huh?” Nicolette asked, with a wry tone.  She looked around.  “I remember how terrified I was on my first day.  It was a few years ago, and the culture wasn’t as soft as it is now.  It didn’t help that the me of back then could be described as a massive, raw open wound, literally everything around me, material or immaterial, prodding at the edges of that wound.”

Snowdrop remained where she was, fork held but hidden from view, tense.

“Did you manage to order?” Nicolette asked.

Snowdrop didn’t speak.

“Answer.  I want to help.”

Snowdrop relaxed, but only a bit.  Helping didn’t mean Nicolette couldn’t hurt too.

“Why does it matter?” Snowdrop asked.

“Because they’re transactional Others.  And they’re fairies, but our interest is in the transaction.  They offer their services to any dumb farmhand or genius augur they can, always with a trick, a caveat.  Sometimes, it’s if you get curious and watch them work, you’ll lose your eyes.  And even when your eyes aren’t attached to your head, you’ll see through them.  Then they place the eyes somewhere you have to watch the most horrible things imaginable.  Or wearing the things they make for longer than one day or one night means you can never take them off.  From there, you become a beggar in tattered clothes if you’re lucky, an Other in rags if you’re not.  But the key is the contract.  They live to deal.”

“This doesn’t help much.”

“They keep countless dishes going in kitchens bigger than this institute, where time flows differently, to supply what people need in minutes.  They’re serious about this.  But a certain type of Other that runs contrary to that seriousness and discipline, maybe a chaotic little opossum with a trace of goblin around the edges?  Throws them off their game.  If they keep you running scared for long enough you can’t call them out on it, they can get away with a loose breach of the implicit deal, in retaliation for a loose breach of etiquette.  But if you call them out…”

“They’d chop me up into dinner.”

“They’ll leave you alone.  Really.  I really should be getting back to class, but…”

Nicolette looked around.

“Trust me?”

Snowdrop hesitated.

“I’d rather go to Avery and Lucy and Verona than fix this.”

“Come on,” Nicolette said.  “If you need help finding them, I’ll help you later.  I think the front door is locked, anyway.  I don’t have long before I should get back to workshop, so let’s go now.  No dallying.”

Snowdrop reluctantly followed.

They entered the school, and with Nicolette present, the brownies, as Nicolette had called them, were elusive.  Mostly, Snowdrop saw them when she looked back over her shoulder, or when she looked into places that even an Augur like Nicolette couldn’t see.

They traced their way back through the school, all the way to the cafeteria.

“Keep quiet, and don’t agitate.  Don’t thank them,” Nicolette said.

The kitchen was apparently empty, but pots were sitting there, simmering.

“You’re obligated to serve the residents of this school,” Nicolette said.  “Adapt to their needs.  For Snowdrop here, I think Avery Kelly should help figure out a menu or checklist, and you should take pains to not discard that menu or checklist, after you get her requests.  Workable?”

Nicolette was asking Snowdrop.

Snowdrop nodded.

“Do you have any requests?”

Snowdrop moved further into the kitchen.  She saw a fridge with a glass door, and within was milk, in various flavors.  Lots of chocolate.

And a bit of strawberry milk.

She opened the fridge and then hesitated.  Taking was bad, wasn’t it?  “May I?”

“You may,” Nicolette said.

She opened the fridge, stood on her toes, and reached up, pulling down the bottle.

It wasn’t warm, like she’d imagined for naptime, but ice cold milk had its charms too.

She had the cap off in a second, then drank.

“Seems you’re satisfied,” Nicolette said.  She sounded a bit warmer than before.  “Food?”

Snowdrop gulped down a quantity of milk that made her throat hurt, gasped, and said, “I don’t need any Bonky Donks.  I know they’re a problem.”

“Oh no.”

“This is good.”

“Don’t-”

All around the kitchen, in dark corners, on shelves, and from within cabinets that were ajar, x-shaped eyes lit up.

Snowdrop backed away fast enough that she bumped into Nicolette.

They came tearing out, hurrying forward.  Mostly they moved behind Nicolette.  Disappearing as she turned around, emerging elsewhere.  A plate spun as it came to rest on the ground.  Nicolette pulled on Snowdrop’s shoulder, moving her closer to the kitchen entrance, looking to make sure the coast was clear.  Fire flared to the side.

More fire scattered across the kitchen floor, in intense droplets.

A Bonky Donk, tidy, was deposited on the plate that had been dropped on the floor.  Chocolate sponge cake with preservatives and cream filling.

Surrounding it was a sea of melted plastic, some of which was on fire.

A Brownie with a massive beard sprinted from one cabinet to another, beard on fire, covered in burning melted plastic, chased by another brownie with a stenciled ‘Bonky Donk’ logo staining its hand.

More fires erupted.  Glass broke.

Snowdrop drank some of her strawberry milk, satisfied, then walked over, picked up the Bonky Donk from the plate, and bit into it.

Snowdrop spoke around a mouthful of Bonky Donk.  “They really did it.  They’re so good at this.  No plastic though.  Except the burny plastic.  Which-”

Nicolette clapped a hand over Snowdrop’s mouth.

Yellow eyes filled the kitchen, behind Nicolette.  Hiding as she turned her head.  Intense.

“If you keep telling them their work is inaccurate and terrible, they may lose their minds,” Nicolette said.  “They have something to prove, now.”

Snowdrop chewed, Nicolette’s hand still clasped over her mouth.

Together, they retreated from the kitchen.  The eyes followed them.

🟂

“Aaaaa!” Snowdrop cheered.

Avery, Lucy, and Verona were on their way back.  They’d gone walking while Nicolette and Snowdrop were sorting things out.  Away from school.  Now they were walking through the parking lot, coming back to school.

“Aaa!” Avery greeted her.  “Is that my coat?  I don’t mind, but-”

Snowdrop ran up and hugged her with enough of an impact that Avery stopped asking.

“Miss us?” Lucy asked, running fingernails through Snowdrop’s hair.  “Any problems?”

“Yes,” Snowdrop told them.  She dug in her pocket and handed the phone to Verona.

“Damn it,” Verona muttered.

“Also, kitchen blowup,” Snowdrop said.  “And angry brownies, and stuff.”

“And we’ve got a lunchtime appointment,” Lucy said, not sounding happy about it.  “With Alexander.”

“Is everything okay?” Avery asked Snowdrop.

“Nicolette helped.”

“Nicolette?  Huh.  I guess we owe her one,” Avery murmured.  “Weird.”

“She found me when she said I had a dark cloud over me, then she took me to the kitchens to talk to the Brownies, and then we put out the fires, and cleaned up the mess, and Nicolette said I had to order a bunch of food and not act that unhappy about it…”

“You were busy,” Verona said.  “Want to come with us to the meeting?  It might be awful.”

Snowdrop’s eyes closed, as Lucy’s fingernails combed through her hair.  Hugging her partner in crime, the sorta-head-scratchy, sorta-petting of Lucy’s nails…

She sighed.

“What’s with the phone?” Avery asked.

“My dad.  I dunno.”

“I wonder…” Lucy said.  “Snowdrop, you said there was a dark cloud?”

“Dark- Nicolette said,” Snowdrop answered, turning around.  Lucy pulled her hands away, and Snowdrop took them and put them back.  “Then she said nevermind, and to forget she said anything, so I think she realized she was wrong?”

“You’re great, Snowdrop,” Lucy said, resuming the fingernail hair-comb.  “But deciphering you makes my head hurt sometimes.  She said to forget it?  Did she say she realized she was wrong?”

Yes,” Snowdrop said, “and no, to that last part.”

Lucy put a hand on Snowdrop and Avery’s shoulder, leading them back and away from the school.  “Ronnie.”

Verona looked up from her phone.

“Come on,” Lucy said.  “I’ll help you with that after if you need.”

Verona put her phone away.

They walked away from the school.  Snowdrop could see Lucy look around with her Sight, the whites of her eyes turning red, the irises turning white.  Seeing her do it, Verona and Avery did the same.

“What are we looking for?” Verona asked.

“We’re looking for signs that anyone’s listening, and I’m looking for that black cloud.  I think the stains are darker, but…”

“What are you thinking?” Avery asked.

Lucy’s voice dropped.  “I’m thinking Alexander works subtle.  And what Charles said.  He surrounds himself with strife.”

“You think Snowdrop’s thing is Alexander?”

“I think…” Lucy said, reaching out, touching Verona’s phone.  “That.  Ray picking on me in class.  Avery, I don’t know if you-”

“Some awkwardness around Jessica, but not too bad,” Avery said.

“Maybe you’re strife resistant, because of who you are,” Verona said.  “Or because you’re a Finder and that makes you more detached, or because it deflected onto Snowdrop.”

Verona sounded almost happy, saying that, which was weird.

Happy to have a puzzle, maybe.

“I don’t want to deflect onto Snowdrop,” Avery said, hugging Snowdrop from behind.  “I hope it’s not that.”

“Maybe he held off on going after Avery for now, with plans to do something later?” Lucy suggested.

“Pssht,” Verona made a dismissive sound.  “Simple boring answer.”

“What better way to put us on the back foot and make us dependent on him, than to make us think this school is rough going right from the start?” Lucy murmured.

“We can’t back out of the meeting,” Avery said.  “We said we’d meet him.”

“It would be a minor lie,” Verona said.  “And if we’re already being targeted by vague strife clouds-”

“It’s fine,” Lucy said.  “We’ll go, we’ll keep to the deal.  But now we’re going in with some knowledge.”

“You guys are so smart,” Snowdrop said.  “This is cool.”

“This is tough,” Lucy said.  “But we can do this.  Eyes open, okay?”

Avery and Verona nodded, giving a thumbs up.  Snowdrop joined them.

Verona reached down, putting Snowdrop’s middle finger down with the rest of the fingers, and adjusted her thumb.  “There.”

“Let’s go,” Lucy said.  “I think we have a sense of what we’re dealing with now.”

“We might,” Avery said, her forehead wrinkling a bit as her eyebrows went up.  “But it might not be that simple.  We might have a sense of what’s going on, but it was just over there-”

Avery pointed off to the side of the parking lot.

“-that Matthew said not to trust anyone.”

“You’re thinking Nicolette?” Lucy asked.

“I’m thinking… if we caught on, that’s too easy.  What if it was someone else?  Framing Alexander, or something?  Nicolette getting subtle revenge?  Or-”

“Or, to borrow from Lucy’s boring book,” Verona said, “it’s the simple answer and Alexander gambled with a big play, trying to mess with most or all of us, and lost.”

“When he can see the future?” Avery asked.

“We don’t need another whodunnit,” Lucy said.  “Please no.”

“It could be a small, less complicated whodunnit,” Verona said, trying to sound reassuring.  “We’re n- oh wait, yes we are learning practice from these guys too.”

“And there’s all this other stuff going on in the background?” Lucy asked.  She put her fingers to her temples, massaging.  “Bristow and the little civil war over leadership?  Him being interested in Kennet?”

“That might be tied to it,” Verona said.  “I guess it’s not uncomplicated.”

Avery nodded.  “It could be the strife thing.  Alexander indirectly encouraging interest in Kennet, to stir the pot.”

Lucy groaned.

“You guys got this,” Snowdrop said.  “You’re smart.  You’re great.”

Lucy groaned.  “Please, Snowdrop.  I know it’s not on purpose, but that much negativity right now…”


Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter

Leaving a Mark – 4.7

Avery

Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter


Avery watched as Lucy got boxed in by card-thin stone walls, each just tall enough to hide Lucy.  One fritzed with a jolt of electricity.  She leaped to her feet, and Ray put out a hand.

The walls dropped away.  Lucy was gone.

“I put her outside.  Please take your seat, Ms. Kelly.”

Avery didn’t move.  She was aware of all the eyes on her.

“We kindly ask that students not leave a class in session unless asked to leave,” Mr. Sunshine said.

Avery looked back at Jessica, and saw Jessica make a subtle motion with her hand.  To get down or sit down.

Avery sat down on the bench and sat back.

“As I was saying… the Ruins are a power source that draws on things that are hard to grasp.  Emotion, principle, and spirit.  The power drawn from here is hard for us to easily judge, as a result.  This is a delicate power, and in the same way that you could feed a flame with a soft breath or a bit of tinder, but extinguish it with a sharp breath or a heavy mass of wood, Ruins power changes what it does based on how much you use.  These things make it hard to use.”

The rain continued to fall around them, the floor layered in water, with dark things swimming in it.  Avery moved her foot and sloshed the water.  The things moved.

She looked back toward the door, wondering if Lucy was okay.

“When creating a ritual, we feed power into it.  As stated, our presentation and the symbols, language, and phrasing we choose help to shape the end result, but most often we use diagrams to control the end result.”

Ray typed on his keyboard.

A glowing circle appeared over his head, with a triple-layered border, the center circle filled in, and symbols at the north, east, south, and west.  It looked like a dog, an old fashioned axe, a comb, and a skeletal fish.  An ‘x’ was drawn through it, faint.

“This is a circle, with nonsense symbols randomly generated by my computer just now, but it does have a purpose.  For our practical exercise, let’s assume you don’t know the language, but it’s a repeated chant, shouted.  And the power source for this ritual is this.  A bound Other.”

He clicked a button.  At the stage of the church, an Other appeared, bug-eyed, mouthless, tall, gaunt, with arms stapled to its ribs, like a perpetual straightjacket.  Its flesh was slick and wet.  It struggled, flinging itself against the invisible barrier of the circle around it.

“I’m not necessarily looking for correct answers.  Imagine I am a rival practitioner, and you’ve found me working on this ritual.  A shouted chant, I’m wearing what I wear now, and I’ve got this circle in front of me, with this Other as a clear power source…”

He hit some buttons.  A faint light began to drain from the Other to the big circle in the air.

It thrashed, fighting harder, then collapsed.  The circle above Mr. Sunshine glowed brighter.

“What am I doing?  Is it dangerous?  Split into groups of three and discuss.  I want to hear your thought processes.  Take a few minutes, write down your notes and brainstorming so I can review them later.  Again, you don’t have to give me a right answer, just show me an effort.”

People rose from the benches, beginning to form their groups.  Jorja, Talia, and Dom formed a trio almost immediately.  Older students did much the same.

Jessica didn’t stand, and watched, her expression blank, as students grouped up.  Maybe to try to spot the people who were groupless.

But there were none.

“Do you want to group?” Avery asked.

Jessica shrugged.

“I wonder if I should go look for Lucy and make sure everything’s okay.”

“If you did, I’d assume he would lock the door behind you,” Jessica said, indicating Raymond.

Avery frowned.  She pulled out her phone and dialed, but there was no service.

“We’re in a simulation.  Far from reality,” Jessica said.  “It’s a good mock-up but it doesn’t feel like the Ruins.”

“I guess,” Avery said.  She put her phone away.  “Any thoughts?”

“Some.”

“I’ve seen a similar circle before.  It was an empty circle, filled in like that, with writing around the border.  But there wasn’t an obvious power source.  It was like… a hole that you could drop into.”

“A door.  Where did you go?”

“The Forest Ribbon Trail.  I’m thinking it’s like a door, and the message around the edge is like the passcode or number plate for that particular address, kind of,” Avery guessed.

“He said that power from the Ruins was subtle,” Jessica said.

“Is it?”

“He’s not lying.”

Avery frowned.  “Are you going to help?  Or give me hints?”

“Giving hints is helping.”

“You should know what I mean.”

“Zed told me I need to work with others better.  I’m used to working on my own, and I’ve already decided on the answer.  I could say it, but then I’m not working with the group, am I?”

Avery frowned.

That wasn’t wrong, but… it was frustrating, and it was that frustration that seemed to extend from Jessica.  Because Jessica was queer and casually cool, and she explored places.  And she was harder to engage with than the weird magic circle with the fish skeleton.  And when Avery tried to reach across that gap, which was a lot of reaching, then Lucy told her she needed to wind it back.  And Zed was saying, straight-up, that Jessica wasn’t good friendship material?

And like, okay, Jessica had a girlfriend and she was a few years older, and maybe that got a bit weird, so she was off limits relationship-wise, which just hammered home how small the number of available, eligible girlfriends was, and that sucked, especially when people in that small number could so easily not match Avery in personality, or life, or whatever.

But she just wanted a friend and it was this hard?

What the heck?

She felt like she had, pining after Pam in class, during that lonely stretch after stopping with the homeschooling.  Except she didn’t pine for Jessica, and that made it worse.

It just… hurt.  Rejection when rejection wasn’t even intentional or effortful.

Avery pushed her hair back behind her ear, so it wouldn’t be in the way as she turned to look at the limp, drained, Other, slumped against the confines of the magic circle.  Touching her hair reminded her that she was trying to build a better her.  She’d stopped wearing her hair in a ponytail, a few weeks back.

Fine.  She’d meet Jessica on another front.

“He says subtle, but there’s this really loud chant, and a lot of power, and it doesn’t feel subtle that way.”

“Sure,” Jessica said.

“Isn’t it… what’s the word?  Ironic?  No.  Oxymoron?”

“Contradictory,” Jessica said.

“Is the real test if we can find the trap?  And call him out on it?”

“What if it’s not?”

“You think it’s not?” Avery asked.  “A shouty chant is subtle?”

Jessica shrugged.

“Have you done a ritual like this?”

“No.  There are other ways.  I don’t really have that kind of power to push into rituals or anything.”

“So there are other ways.  So when is a big shouty ritual with a drained Ruins beast subtle?”

“Or faint, or small, or…”

Avery thought of Zoomtown.  “When it’s noisy?  When the thing you’re talking to is big and you’re small?  When your destination is far away?  Can’t blow out that made-up fire with a huge breath of air if the breath is far enough away.”

Jessica shrugged and nodded.

“So it’s a door to someplace big, or far away, or noisy?  And we’re putting a subtle, Ruins-y power into it?  Does that mean the destination is also in the Ruins?”

Jessica nodded.  She studied Avery’s expression, and Avery felt… it was hard to put the idea into words, except maybe… seen?  Like Jessica had been half-here and now she was all here, paying full attention to her for the first time.

Avery got her notebook and began writing down the thought process.

She paused mid-sentence, looked back toward the door and the windows, and really hoped Lucy was alright.

“Why was Mr. Sunshine like that with Lucy?” Avery asked, quiet.

“He was like that with you, briefly.  He likes things predictable.  You’re both… ‘wild’,” Jessica murmured.

“I don’t think that makes it okay.”

“It’s the fastest I’ve seen someone press all his buttons.”

“He pressed my friend’s buttons.  Even touching her hair.”

“Bad mesh, maybe.”

“It feels like more than that.”

Jessica shrugged.  Her gaze roved around the room.

Like she was further away.

Avery didn’t want to be desperate, but she did want to pay attention and maybe leave the door open for that friendship later, so she dropped the topic.  “The way the runes around the outside are arranged.  Dog and axe, you can have an attack dog, and both can be aggressive, right?  And then axe to comb, hair-cutting?  Or you use the axe to cut off heads and the comb is used on heads too?”

“You may be overthinking it.  He said it was random.”

“But random can mean things.  Does it hurt?”

“He wants to see effort.  Probably not.”

“Then comb and the dead fish have those fine-toothed ribs, and then dog and bone?”

“Sure,” Jessica said.

“I was always terrible at English class, and so much of this stuff is like being asked to read something and figure out what it really means,” Avery noted, as she wrote.  “But I like puzzles, and figuring stuff out.  It’s why I like the Path stuff.  As scary as a lot of it is.”

“I don’t really ‘like’ the stuff I do.  This.”  Jessica indicated the walls and the rain.

“Did you get into it because of… family, or Anshi- I forget how to say it.”

“You can say Ojibwe.  We call ourselves Anishinaabe in Pic River, at least, because it’s, hm, encompassing.  The good people.  Most tribes around here are Anishinaabe.”

“Like I call myself a Ontarioian and a Canadian, but…” Avery hesitated as she saw Jessica’s expression change.  “I feel like it’s more profound for you?”

“You can just say Ojibwe,” Jessica said, more curt than before.  “And no, they didn’t teach me.  I’ve used some ceremonies and things my grandfather taught me before going on an expedition, but that was for me, more than it was the practice.”

Avery nodded.

“Mostly they don’t understand, but they support me.  I lost someone important to me, and I went chasing after his echo, to try to bring it back somehow.”

“I’m sorry.  It’s been a while?  Does it get harder as time passes?”

Jessica looked up at the ritual circle that floated in the air.  “Yes.  But I was going in circles before I was invited here.”

“What I said before, about wanting to help.  I’ve done two rituals as a Finder.  That’s supposed to make me better at finding things.  So I don’t know if that helps, but the offer is real.  It can be as a friend or it can be a business arrangement, where you teach me about the Ruins and I’ll lend you good finding-thing eyes, maybe.”

Jessica studied her face again, a slight frown on her face.

“Perhaps the deal,” Jessica told her.

Okay.  Well, ouch.  Friendship rejection again.

But, Avery thought, and she didn’t have the glamour to give herself a checkmark, she felt like she’d been fair and adult and reasonably respectful?

“Anything to add?” Avery asked, showing Jessica the notebook.  Avery had opened it to the point the last bit of World Studies homework had ended, taken a box cutter to the spine, and cut away the front, bringing the last third of a notebook with her.  She kind of liked it that way.

Jessica read it, then shook her head.

“Good luck, anyway, with your cousin.  I hope you can resurrect him soon or whatever.  However that works.”

“Not a resurrection,” Jessica said, leaning back.  She sat on the bench behind Avery, and Avery could feel Jessica propping up a foot on the back of the bench.

“Not a-?”

“He’s not dead.  Something happened, and a piece of him broke away.  I need to get it back.”

Avery was- she just wasn’t equipped to answer that.  What did you even say?

“Good luck?” Avery offered.

Jessica shrugged.

Mr. Sunshine walked around the classroom, kind of dour and serious.  He began collecting the papers.

“So this Lucy thing,” Avery said, while he was off in the other corner of the class.  “Is that normal?”

“Happened once last year, but he was only part-time.  He spent chunks of time away.”

“Hm.”

“If you have an issue, you can go to Durocher or Belanger,” Jessica said.  “But Durocher is intense.”

“So I hear.”

“If you show weakness in front of her, she might always think of you as weak.”

“And Alexander?”

“I don’t know.  He bothers me more than the other two,” Jessica said.  She leaned back, taking the book.  “When I look at Canada’s government and what it’s done over the last one hundred and fifty years, or when I look at police, education, business, any of that, and think of what’s wrong there, and how much awful there is, I imagine the awful comes from people who resemble Alexander.”

“Heavy,” Avery said.

“Except I think the people who I imagine being awful there are only halfway to being what Alexander is.  Or two-thirds of the way, at most.”

“He can, um, hear you, can’t he?  Alexander listens in?”

“Zed says so.  I believe him.  I don’t care.”

Jessica took the notebook page as Avery tore it out.  She held it out for Mr. Sunshine.

“Good,” he said, on reading it.

“Is there any chance Lucy could come back in?”

“She’ll have found something else to do.  It’s how the school is structured,” Mr. Sunshine said, shuffling through the pages as he arranged them into piles.  “If she wants to attend more of my classes, please tell her she should remain levelheaded and if you three won’t give me data to work with in structuring my lessons, please sit back, be quiet, and don’t engage until I signal it’s okay.  The programs I use for the adaptive lesson plan are sensitive.”

“You could have told her.”

“I am not interested in arguing the point, Ms. Kelly.  This works for me and it works for the majority of my students.  The school offers many other learning opportunities for those who don’t like how I teach.”

Avery started to say something, then defaulted to nodding.

Ray walked away.  He held up one trio of pages.

“Ms. Kelly and Ms. Casabien, good.  Very close.  They suggested this is a door to another, bigger part of the Ruins.  Songetay, Martin, and Staples, I like the direction of your reasoning. Those three argued the Other’s power was bait, the worm on the hook, to bring something through the ‘hole’.  Similar logic to Kelly and Casabien, but they saw this as bringing something here, instead of going somewhere else, and they surmised the target was big.  Again, same logic.”

He indicated a trio of boys.

“Sutton, Austin, and Leos, good effort in drawing comparisons to the pillars of the awakening ritual, fishbone as skull, axe as blade, dog as element of nature, and comb as thread.  I would have liked to see more thinking about the power source and what that does.”

He put the papers down in three piles by his laptop.  Then he typed.  “Let’s demonstrate the ritual.”

Jessica shifted position, untying the heavy yellow raincoat with the cracked exterior, and pulling it on.  Gold light flashed out from the cracks as she finished zipping it up.

The church rumbled.  The rain momentarily stopped, and bits of brick fell from where the tops of the wall met the parts where the roof was missing.  The sounds were very realistic, even for a simulation.

The rumbling intensified, the circle shifted in color and texture, the symbols rotating around and the power intensifying as everything grew dark.

They were swallowed.  The closest approximation that Avery could think of was a blue whale suddenly emerging beneath them, mouth open to swallow up the entire church.  As the mouth closed around them, everything went dark, and there was a violent falling sensation.  It put her in mind of the entry to the Forest Ribbon Trail.  She gripped the back of the bench.

They splashed on landing.

Then the rain resumed, twice as intense as before.  There wasn’t much light, now, and the water was cold and felt wetter, simulation or no.

“Many realms and slices of reality have depths,” Mr. Sunshine told them.  Only one edge of his body was illuminated by the light from the computer screen.  “The ritual is a simple one, to get deeper into the Ruins.  Necromancers and incarnate practitioners will have their own ways to travel here.  It could be a ritual like this, or an Other they regularly use, summoned or found.  This route is fast but expensive, and requires a controlled amount of power and presentation.  Continuing to use routes like this to go even deeper requires more power, using one Other as bait to be swallowed up by something larger, then using that as foundation to be swallowed up by something yet larger.”

Avery shivered as cold water ran down her neck.

He hit a key.

The rain stopped.  The darkness leeched away.  There was a rooftop over them again.  The blue tint of the windows and the light that came through seemed way more intense than before, but it also corrected.

“Three rituals you’re likely to consider,’ he addressed them.  “Are the Implement, Demesne, and Familiar rituals.  Would you stand, Ms. Casabien?”

Jessica didn’t budge.

“Please?”

She stood, pushing her hood back.

“Your raincoat?”

“Yeah.  A few months ago, I did the ritual.”

“The item we choose is indicative of a lot about who we are.  How we approach the world.  It’s a decision we make only once, one object that can be held in our hands and comfortably lifted, and it works better if it’s not already magic.  Would you care to talk about yours?”

“It protects me.”

“Every object has a function.  Choose a shield as an implement, and it will tend to gather any benefits and spirits that gather around you, to better serve its function of protecting you from harm. The shield offers a different kind of protection than the raincoat.”

“Can I sit?” Jessica asked.

He motioned with a hand for her to sit, and she took a seat on the bench, heavy.

He went on.  “But that’s not all an implement is.  It is, like a magical diagram, a kind of series of signs, that tell the practice how to act around you.  Spirits will sit up and pay attention, standing at the ready to protect the shieldbearer.  Or the raincoat wearer.  And as the user practices, they will flow in a way that works with the implement.  Imagine that you yourself are a magical diagram, and the implement is an extension of that diagram.  Its messaging is very clear, and it colors every practice that flows through and around you, from the time of the ritual until the day you die.  It can make some practices weaker, at the same time it strengthens others.  Some, like me, choose not to commit to one, because they prefer to be more flexible.  But they are very powerful.  Our own headmaster uses a wand.  It can be used to point, to direct, and his practice leans that way as a result.  It can be held up a sleeve or used to make fine motions, and his own practice becomes subtle and finer to the touch.”

He hit a key, and the air around him filled with various objects and items.  Medal, dice, axe, glasses, dog collar, wallet, shoes, a hairpin, a fan…

“A side effect of the ritual is that what you choose is, even if kept out of sight, a badge of sorts, indicating who and what you are.  The implement tells Others what to expect of you.  Ms. Casabien makes no secret she works with Others of the Ruins, which we just visited, in a way.  She’s protected against the worst of that environment, she bears some of the benefits that Ruins others enjoy, and they’ll recognize her as one of their own.  It makes it easier, but makes dealing with non-Ruins Others harder.  Be careful when picking something that has power before it’s made an implement, or you may find yourself pulled more into that realm or power source, than the power source is drawn to you.  The ritual is a simple one, conducted over three days, where you become intimately acquainted with the object in question.  This too gets harder if the object is already carrying power.  It can be more complex if the object has a long and complicated history.”

He walked back to the laptop, and clicked.

“The Demesne.  A place of power.  It can be a room, a building.  It’s rarely more than that.  The Demesne is a tough clay to mold, but the advantage is that you can be a small god in its domain, while you’re there.  Everything and anything can be altered.  You can choose, with some restrictions, where the doors take you when you leave.  It can be a place where a curse does not progress and you are safe from its ravages.  A place where the abstract becomes real, and you can monitor, say, the value of stocks, as physical things.”

He hit a key.

The room went dark, the lights going out, then the windows turning dark.

Other things lit up.  Buildings without windows or doors, as rough three-dimensional creations.  Advertisements played.  Roads as black as anything, with markers and lines in neon yellow.

The world kept expanding, buildings appearing.  The landscape at the horizon turned upward, then kept going.

“My Demesne.  I created it as a tool.  It became a place with twice the surface area of Earth.  Less populated, but all the same.  Every website, tool, and device has its analogue here.  Locations both mundane and, for example, like the Abyss, have loose analogues here.  Here, if I wish to do my programming, I can do it in five different ways, shaping the corresponding buildings and machinery, using consoles, among other things.”

He raised a hand, and a pillar rose up.  It had something that looked like a laser-traced engine block encased within it.  He rotated segments and moved parts.

“The Demesne can be a place to store power, to invest in it, to translate, for example, power from the Faerie into something analogous, like Visceral power.  It wouldn’t be an efficient translation, but I could do it.  Others, with preparation, could do it efficiently.  Others can be bound and brought to stay.  Whether they thrive will depend on how you’ve shaped your space, if you choose to have a Demesne.”

He looked around.

Avery did too. It might have been twice the surface area as Earth, but there weren’t any details.  Many objects were simple polygons, with only the edges and outlines traced in bright colors.

“I’ve spent more time on my demesne than most,” Ray observed.  “As big as it is in here, it’s only a large room in a building elsewhere.  The scale and versatility of this building are a product of time and power invested.”

He touched a wall.  A panel appeared, and circuit-like lines spread out.

Everything went dark.  They were back in the church.

“Familiars.  Mrs. Graubard, would you stand?  And bring your familiar to the front?”

Talia stood from her seat.  Her doll went with her.

“A bond to an Other.  Lifelong, inviolable.  A connection is drawn between practitioner and familiar.  This can be a controlling connection, picking a weak familiar and dominating it.  For a long time, this was the only way things were done.  It can be another kind of domineering relationship.  Picking a familiar with no true mind of its own.  Often, the familiar will be raised up, rounded out, until it is on a roughly even keel.  An echo or ghost could develop a full personality, instead of being a stuttering replay of events.  A vestige, or a broken shadow of an existence?  It could patch itself up.  What it pulls in is often consciously or unconsciously influenced by the practitioner, who has the power in the relationship.”

Avery felt a bit of a sick feeling, hearing that.

Snowdrop.

How much of Snowdrop was really Snowdrop?  How much was there because she’d been empowered as Avery’s boon companion?

She had other thoughts, like Matthew and Edith, and Matthew raising Edith, but Mr. Sunshine was still talking.

“Here we have what looks like a balanced relationship.  Now, every type of familiar relationship has its benefits.  A domineering one can turn the familiar into a target.  The familiar can be made to absorb the hurt, harm, or part of a curse that the practitioner has to endure.  They are, when beneficial, one and the same, for purposes of the power they have at their disposal, but the domineering practitioner retains control.”

He walked over to where Talia and her doll were.

“In an even relationship, Talia is filled to the brim with humanness.  With vitality, and power, and self.  Her partner, Effy, is a canopic doll.  Can you tell us why you chose it, Talia?”

“My mom made Effy on the day I was born,” Talia said.  She didn’t look so bothered to be in front of the class.  Avery only liked to be in front of people when playing sports.  “She said if I wasn’t satisfactory as a daughter, Effy would drag out my guts, put them inside herself, take my blood and skin to seal up the doll joints, and replace me.”

Avery looked around the room, to try to judge why people weren’t freaking out, but the most she saw was serious concern here and there.

“Hmm,” Ray made a sound.

“The way a canopic doll works, especially if it’s raised alongside someone, given a birthday every time I had a birthday, with parts replaced to match my height and shape and stuff as I grew up, ummm, when it harvests, it can become human, after.  She could become me.  I awoke on my own, secretly, then I talked to Effy, and neither of us were sure if my mom would keep me or Effy.  So we agreed she’d be my familiar.  That way my mom would have to keep us both or destroy us both.”

“Very clever,” Mr. Sunshine said.

Talia smiled.  “My mom thought so.  Things have been so nice ever since.  I think she was proud I thought of it.”

These people are nutso.

“The focus on blood, guts… that’s something you’ve noticed?” Mr. Sunshine asked.

“Yeah.”

“With the more equal bond, the pairing can exchange power.  Talia could give Effy a bit of her humanity as a boost, or personal power, to help her heal, or dig up that bit of extra strength.  That flow can work the other way.  Effy could give Talia some of her power as a doll, with that emphasis on blood, guts, and dollness.  If Effy gave Talia a lot of her personal power, let’s say half… what happens over the next day, or week?”

Some people raised hands.

“Jarvis.”

“It balances out?”

“The power finds its balance.  Talia would naturally give Effy some of her power over time, until they were even.  Then they would recover together.  Eating well, sleeping well, and taking care of needs as human or Other help that recovery.  Can Effy become an animal?”

Talia shook her head.

“The partnership of master and familiar is often a reprieve for the Other.  Temporary freedom from needs, demands, work, or anything else.  If Effy required a regular supply of blood and oil, as some dolls do-”

“I don’t.”

“But if you did, Effy, then you wouldn’t require it while you’re a familiar.  You get your sustenance from your master or partner.  If you had a lifespan, it would be put on pause.  Of course, needier others have a heavier drain on their master.”

Effy nodded.

“Humans still age, at roughly the same rate, but they often find they age easier while they have a familiar.  They may also find that they are more Other, in subtle ways.  The edges are rounded off in the need for sleep and food.  Some Others are better at that than others.”

He hit a button.  The air was filled with monstrous silhouettes and corresponding animals.

“The animal form is mortality.  For many Others, it’s a strong enticement.  To have a heartbeat.  To have warmth, the ability to taste food, and the ability to engage with the world.  An Other in animal form can, unless especially wild, go without too much remark in civilized society.  A dog can be walked, a mouse or snake kept in a sleeve, and a bird can fly overhead.”

Avery watched as Jorja’s familiar, which had been the floaty guy with the backwards baseball cap, now a terrier, followed the movement of birds through the air.

“There is a third type of practitioner-familiar bond.  Not the master, not the partner, but the subservient.  Frankly, if you want to pick a familiar that’s much stronger than you, the Blue Heron Institute can counsel you, but we’ll be doing it with a mind to discouraging you and making sure you’re fully equipped with the necessary information.  We would be dealing with the familiar as an Other, and you as its slave or servant, and we have no interest in doing that.”

Ray hit the button on his laptop, then closed it.  Above him, various magic circles with subtle differences floated, changing color and texture.

“Something to think about.  Imagine these big rituals, and what would happen if you used various power sources.  What’s the impact of feeding raw glamour, Faerie magic, into a Demesne ritual?  Or Ruins energy into a Familiar ritual with an Abyssal Other?  If you want to do this as a homework assignment and bring it to tomorrow’s class, I should get back to you with my response and notes by dinnertime.  Strictly optional.  Questions?”

Some hands went up.  Avery put her hand up.

“Why not do all three, all the time, right away?” someone asked.

“Because each has its drawbacks.  Each requires a close attention to who you are and what you want out of life.  Some families choose to give their child a firm push in one direction early on, forcing the decision.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  I think many practitioners who get to old age will eventually pick up more options.  But to take all three is for the power hungry, desperate, and rushed.”

“With how cushy a hangout a Demesne is, do practitioners just, like, never leave?”

“It happens.  They can become Other.  More problematic is that a demesne without the practitioner tying it to reality may drift, in the sense that it stops being attached to any one place, and settles in one realm or another.  It can also drift in another way; if you never leave, you lose perspective on what the world and things are like.  It becomes loose, dreamlike, and self-referential.  It’s hard to say what happens when we don’t have a lot of material on the subject, but I would guess it can collapse.”

Avery waited, hand up, as he answered two more questions.  One about being forsworn.  She’d already heard that Charles had lost his Demesne.  Another about forcing Others to be familiars.  Already sort of covered with the ‘master’ type of practitioner-familiar relationship.

She still felt weird, thinking about Snowdrop.  Was she obligated to help Snowdrop live longer?  She’d made Snowdrop into this, and it had been self-serving.

But Snowdrop had personality traits, qualities.  Things that were very far from being Avery.  Maybe she should encourage that.  Except that might mean encouraging hanging out with goblins and stuff, which- that was complicated.

“Thank you, everyone,” Ray said.  “Go enjoy your lunches.  This afternoon Mr. Belanger and I will be available for lessons, questions, and handling any issues that have come up about the school, or anything you might need.”

She was being ignored, it seemed.  Avery dropped her hand.

Avery packed up, slipping her notebook into her bag, then slung it over one shoulder.  As people got sorted out, she hemmed, hawed, and tried to decide if she should deal with Mr. ‘Talking to a Brick Wall’ Sunshine or go find Lucy.

She decided on Lucy.  Verona was out there too, and there was a chance that class was already over, and Verona was taking the class with the mom that made a doll that might’ve killed her kid.  Which was freaky.

Verona was probably okay with it or something.  Like, she’d think it was cool, maybe.

“Thanks for- for stuff,” Avery said, by way of farewell to Jessica, stumbling.

“Sure.”

Avery headed out the front door, blinking to switch to her Sight.  The sun was very bright for a second, and then the fog of her Sight dulled it.

She looked for and found Lucy and Verona’s tethers, and traced them to the back of one building.  She blinked to get her vision normal again, ducking into the shade of the building while her eyes adjusted to the sun and outdoors.

The class had ended, it seemed.  Mrs. Graubard was walking across the campus, closer to the side door at the right wing, with nine ceramic dolls in various clothes following behind, moving in sync, each four feet tall.

Lucy stood as Avery approached.

“I couldn’t leave class without breaking rules,” Avery said.  “Sorry, if that wasn’t right.”

“It’s good you stayed,” Lucy said.  “Can you tell us what was covered, later?”

“There might be stabbings if you don’t,” Verona said, holding the small pair of scissors she’d used during the awakening ritual.

“Of course,” Avery said.  “Apparently he’s pretty particular about stuff.  Sensitive programs that adapt to the students and stuff.”

“And he’s a jerk,” Lucy said.  “According to Zed.  Who may like Mr. Sunshine more than most.”

Avery sighed.

“Zed said there’s some story there.  Stuff with his son.  I’ll tell you later.”

“Okay,” Avery said.  “I guess it’s lunchtime, or…?”

“There’s stuff to talk about,” Lucy told her.

“Off campus?”

Lucy nodded.

Verona turned to one side, pulled her collar down, and slipped the scissors into position, held there with the bra strap.

“What’s this about?”

“They’re cleaned out of crap, hardened exterior.  Now I decide what fills up the space I cleaned out,” Verona said.  “Gonna be a bit of me.  Might repeat it a few times.”

“That’s cool.  We covered a lot of familiar stuff,” Avery said.  She looked back in the direction of the eastern wing of the school.  Where Snowdrop might still be sleeping.  “Also rituals, the Ruins, Demesne and Implement stuff.”

“Damn,” Verona said.  She frowned.

“I’ll go over it.”

They walked down toward the road, rather than to any of the big student hangouts, like the bridge or anything.  A few older teens had climbed into cars and were heading out, so they stuck to the roadside.

“So,” Lucy said, once they were far enough away.  “Bristow and Graubard were talking about us.  And Kennet.”

“They were?”

“After I got kicked out of class, I went for a walk, sorta thought I’d cool off, then I felt that connection twinge.  Heard them saying my name.  Heard a bit of what came after.  Kennet.”

Avery nodded.

“We know Alexander used some tricks with his place of power, tying it to the school, to have more claim over everything.  And Bristow got the boot.”

“I was close enough to hear stuff,” Verona said.  “Standing with Graubard.  Bristow wants to teach some classes, and to be a more or less full time teacher, like Sunshine, Belanger, and Durocher.”

“Which is a play right?” Avery asked.  “Jessica told Lucy and me that there was something going on there.  That people would have to take sides.”

“Starting to teach, talking to guest teachers.  Maneuvering,” Lucy elaborated.

Verona nodded, enthusiastic.  “It sounded like he wasn’t told that there would even be summer classes.  And there’s some families that Alexander hasn’t been involving as much, in the same way, not telling them about the classes.  A lot of them stopped coming because of tuition hikes.  Bristow was saying they can have the staff build and stuff without too much disruption over the summer, and lower tuition, to better serve the community.”

Lucy frowned.  “What’s Bristow’s deal?  Ex-headmaster, and?”

“You know how people can figure out there’s weird stuff going on?  And become victim to it, like Brie almost was, and Gabe and the others?  People on the border?” Verona asked.

“Yep,” Lucy answered.

“He collects ’em.  The Aware.  People who get caught up in urban legends, who get caught up in routines like channel surfing and playing video games until they lose their humanity, people who get mixed up in Other stuff more than usual.  Owns some apartment buildings and just has like, one building with fifty apartments, each with one weird person.  Or whatever.”

“Crazy,” Avery said, making a face.  “Must be a weird atmosphere.”

“He apparently tried to get a different kind of school going, and it failed,” Verona said.  “He likes running schools.  But mostly he does property management, with select renters.  There’s a lot of balancing of karma and stuff, as part of it.”

“I noticed there’s not a lot on karma in the class selection,” Lucy commented.  “Um, but getting more on topic, he was talking about me, about us.”

“And Kennet?” Verona asked.

“Yeah.”

“Because that’s way different,” Verona said.  “If it was talking about us, they could just be shooting the shit.  Mrs. Graubard liked how I came to her class, I knew what I wanted to do, I knew what materials I needed, and I had good questions for her.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “But that’s a problem, if we got their attention and they have information on us, now.”

“We could let the Kennet Others know,” Avery said.  “Keep that line of communication open, and let them decide how to deal with it?”

“I don’t have my phone with me,” Verona said.  “Dodging calls from my dad, kinda.  Thought maybe it’d be easier if I didn’t have it close to me for the connections and whatever.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “I’ll call?”

“Cool,” Avery said.

Verona nudged Avery. “You mentioned Jessica.  She knows about the Ruins, right?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.

“Can she help us any?  Tell us what to look for, or how we might go hunting for the bits of the Carmine Beast?”

“I don’t know if she’d be willing.  She’s pretty closed off.  But I asked again about maybe getting Ruins lessons from her in exchange for me helping her look for her cousin-”

“Matthew,” Lucy said.

Avery shut up.

“Update.  Some practitioners named Graubard and Bristow were talking about us and about Kennet.  I think they might be digging for info, separate from Alexander.  You know them?”

Lucy looked at the two of them.

“You know Graubard.  And of Bristow.  Okay.  That’s great.  Uhh, middle aged.  So probably the same guy.  Not the son.”

Lucy nodded to herself.

“Thanks.  No problem.  Yeah.  Getting the feeling, yeah.  Yeah.  Alright, bye, will do.”

Lucy hung up.

“Well?” Verona asked.

“Matthew is going to talk to some people he used to know.  Which gets complicated because he apparently dropped off the map after everything.”

His dad being Heartless, then Edith and the Doom.

Avery guessed Lucy wasn’t elaborating in case there were eavesdroppers.

“Jessica might not be willing, but the demonstration in class included a ritual to dive deeper into the Ruins,” Avery said.  “You can apparently do it with other types of realm.  But it’s expensive, messy, and more dangerous.”

“We might want to save that for when we know exactly where we’re diving then,” Verona said.

“We also need to figure out bindings, and how to protect ourselves against Fae and complex spirits,” Lucy said.  “Can we use Alexander’s type of practice to answer a question?  It would be really useful to be able to write some names out and get a firm yes or no about whether we have the right culprits.”

“Except they’d look back,” Avery said.

“There is that,” Lucy admitted.

“That’s our big problem.  We don’t just need to be able to put up a fight, if they get vicious,” Verona jumped in.  She looked animated.  “We need to put up a fight in a way that doesn’t let Edith or Matthew wear the furs and make a claim to the name.  Or Maricica, or Charles, if that would even work.”

“That’s hard,” Avery said.

Verona nodded, animated.  “It’s crazy hard.  We’d have to not only figure out who did it, but also develop a master-stroke that can cover a bunch of different kinds of Other without giving them the ability to press this… you can call it a big red furry button.”

“Big red furry button, ugh,” Lucy said.

“It’s great.”

It was weird that Verona, for once, was super worked up about stuff having to do with the case, if it could be called that.  Except Verona seemed worked up about a bunch of stuff.  Bouncy and hyper and…

“It’s awful,” Lucy said.

Verona laughed.

And happy?

The dirt road wasn’t seeing much traffic, now that the older kids had driven off to go elsewhere.  Probably picking up supplies or getting food.  One car was passing through, though.

“There’s other factors,” Lucy said.  “It’s not even just that we have to figure it out.  It’s-”

“Alexander,” Avery cut in.

“Absolutely.  The deal we struck was that when we solved the case-”

“No,” Avery said.

The other two girls turned, following her gaze.

The car slowed, then stopped.  Black and sleek, though the dirt road meant it had kicked up a ridiculous amount of muck around the wheels and undercarriage.  The windows were tinted blue.

They rolled down.

“Do you want a ride?” Alexander asked.

“I think a ride with a strange, manipulative older man would be creepy and weird,” Lucy said.

Avery elbowed her.

Alexander smiled, then, without rolling up the windows, pulled ahead and off to the side of the road, kind of blocking their way forward.  Not that they’d been going anywhere.  They’d been walking and talking.

He got out, closed his door, and leaned against it, one ankle crossed over the other, arms folded.  “I wanted to talk.”

“Apparently,” Verona said.

“First, about Raymond.  He’s surprisingly anxious, as personalities go, and today was his first class with more than five students at a time, since some heavy personal events.  It took him a while to figure out a way to teach without his stomach or tongue tying themselves in knots.  He’s attached to his students and loves imparting knowledge, but he struggles to convey himself at the best of times.  His adaptive, computer-planned lessons help with that, but you three are wrenches in that machine.  Big unknowns.  Wild practitioners.”

“You seem very pleased Mrs. Durocher figured that out for you,” Lucy said.

“I am.  But that’s another topic.  Raymond is a kind soul, but not an especially adroit one.  If you waited, approached him with a level tone, and told him how you felt, I think he would surprise you in a good way.”

“Okay,” Lucy answered.

“I’ve pledged to make myself available to help solve student problems this afternoon,” Alexander said, “But I’d like to block out some time to have a serious discussion with you three, today.  I’ve kept to my pledge, about staying hands off from Kennet, and keeping others hands off, until five years pass or the mystery of the Carmine Beast is solved.  But I find myself in an awkward position with one aspect of it.”

“Bristow?” Avery asked.

“So you know.  He would like to start a civil war, here.  To make his second bid to reclaim the role of headmaster.  I recognize that you’re capable of giving him a monumental advantage in that, if you so choose.  You haven’t, as far as I know, sworn not to share that information.  I haven’t threatened or extorted you to make you agree to, and I wouldn’t.”

“It might have the opposite effect,” Lucy asked.

“It might.  My predecessor and would-be successor is antagonistic toward me.  And that’s putting it lightly.  He’s aware of how I operate, and he has a diverse toolbox and an amazing tendency to be a headache and a thorn in my side.  That is something I remain equipped to deal with.  I can deal with the civil war.  But Brie asked questions online before Zed found her, and my would-be successor, who I’m being careful not to name, found one of those dangling threads.  He thinks the silence and secrecy is mine, to my own ends, and anything reasonable I could try to use to deter him would only encourage, instead.”

“This seems a lot like your problem is becoming our problem,” Verona said.

“Thank you for saying that, because I definitely had that feeling,” Lucy added.

Avery nodded, eyebrows knit together.

“He would have found the dangling thread and investigated, whatever happened.  But the situation being what it is only exacerbates it.  He thinks my power base is there, and I don’t really have a power base like he imagines it.  He seems to think I do, but that’s because that’s how he operates.  I prefer a lighter hand.”

“We’ve already taken some preliminary steps to handle things.  But thank you for the information.”

“You’ll need more.  About who he is, how he operates, what to expect.  In the interest of keeping the spirit of our deal, and doing what I can for the letter of it, I can tell you.  We could do it here, by the side of the road, or in a spare room, now or some time this afternoon.  When to expect him, ways you could handle him.  Measures.”

Avery thought of all of that, and of juggling lunch, which was imminent, and- her stomach growled.

“You can put your request in for lunch at the kitchen.  Then we can see about hammering this out.”

“Can we have a second?” Avery asked.

“I’ll get a sip of water.  Excuse me.”

He stepped away from his car, opened the door, and climbed in.  He shut the door and rolled up the windows, giving them some privacy.  They still walked a distance away.

None of the three of them said much.

Mostly, they took it in, thinking about the implications.

“We kind of have-” Lucy started.

“-We should,” Verona said.  “Because of the deals we made.  To protect Kennet.”

“But he’s so dangerous,” Lucy said, in contradiction to the aborted sentence of a few seconds ago.

Conflicted.

Avery turned, looking at the car with the blue tinted windows.  She could only barely see Alexander’s face.  With her Sight, he stood out more, especially when he turned his head to take a gulp of water from a bottle.

Zed had said that Jessica was someone they could trust, if not necessarily befriend.  That much had been spot on.  Jessica seemed to know what she was talking about, on the rare occasion she said more than a few words on a subject.  And she’d had words about Alexander and people like Alexander.

Was this how it went, with all the types of situation like Jessica had described?  Government and police and big business and whatever?  Stuff like police and schools probably meant a lot of different stuff to Jessica than to Avery, even based on the little Avery had learned in school, but she had a general sense of it.  She was kind of dealing with it now, and she could imagine it playing out all over the place.  That one guy who was crazy smart, driven, and essential because of other stuff that was going on?  Or untouchable or inevitable?

Every dealing with him felt like you were at a disadvantage, and felt like you were losing a bit.  And before you knew it, a whole war had happened and you’d lost too many of the battles.

“I don’t want to,” Avery said.

“Neither do I,” Lucy said.  “But do we really want to go back to Matthew and Edith and say, like, this one practitioner with a good bit of clout and connections is about to drop a huge mess on Kennet, sorry we can’t help more?”

“Is it so bad if we trust them to handle it?” Avery asked.

“It’s bad if we trust them to handle it and one of them panics and presses the big fuzzy red button,” Verona noted.  “If it’s any consolation, we can be a pain in Alexander’s butt for a bit.”

“Small consolation,” Lucy said.

Small consolation.

They had to go and say yes, they’d have that appointment with him over lunch or sometime this afternoon.  Yes, they’d get some notes on strategy and stuff.

And Alexander would be super unsuprised that they were saying yes.  He’d probably known before rolling down his windows to offer them a ride.  That was what made this feel so awful.


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Leaving a Mark – 4.6

Lucy

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Last Thursday: Bedtime Reading


Lucy was woken up by whoops.  A bit later, there was applause.

She had to climb over a comatose Verona to get out of bed.  Avery had already swung her feet over and risen to her feet by the time Lucy was straightened up, the silk wrapping removed from her hair and laid across the books Verona had piled on the bedside table.

Shoulder to shoulder with Avery, she poked her head out the door.

At the very end of the hall, past showers and library, some guys were running out the door, one of them pulling off his shirt, wearing only basketball shorts.

“You want to go, new kids?” a guy asked.

“Go where?”

“Morning ritual.  From bed to the bridge, jump.  No hesitating or stopping.  There’s nothing to wake you up like freefall and a plunge into cold water.  Some of those guys do it every morning.”

“How tall is the bridge?” Avery asked.

“Twenty-six feet.  Nice and wobbly, missing a railing in one part, but you don’t want to jump from that part, unless you want to risk skewering yourself on some of the bits of bridge that fell into the water.”

Lucy made a face.

Booker’s rule was to say yes, but…

“It’s mostly the older guys doing it,” the guy across the hall said.

“And I don’t want to get my hair wet,” she said.

“Hey, you don’t need excuses.  You’re two of the new ones, right?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “Hi.  I’m Avery.”

“Lucy,” Lucy introduced herself.

The guy wasn’t bad looking.  Fourteen or so.  He was rumpled from sleep, with a crease at the side of his face, had a sleepy look that, if she remembered last night right, was perpetual, and tended to the skinny side.  Nice face, and hair that probably looked nice while it was tidy but was a black halo of bedhead right now.  He wore a long sleeved shirt and plaid pyjama pants, with flip-flops.

Something about the fact that he was the first boy she’d seen who wasn’t like, ready for school, Booker aside, and that she wasn’t fully awake with her defenses up, and everything?  Her brain did a mental that’s a boy he’s a boy somersault.

She extended a hand, on impulse, and then kicked herself for doing it.

But he stepped forward, across the hall, and shook it, smiling, like it was normal.  “Tymon.  Sharing a room with my little bro.”

“We’ve got three of us in here,” Lucy said.  She turned to Avery.  “But… not so bad?”

“Not so far,” Avery answered.  She shook Tymon’s hand.

“Is your sister in another room, then?” Lucy asked.

“Someone’s paying attention.  Yeah.  With another one of the newbies, and their familiars.  Talos and I have ours.”

He put a hand over to the side, and what looked like six rodents all scampered up his arm, one or two ducking under the cuff of his long sleeve, seeming to disappear into his arm with the lump under the sleeve going away, before crawling out again at the collar and shoulder.  They merged together into a single, black mouse with patchy fur and pale yellow eyes, with one tattered ear.

“This is Dreg.”

Right.  They were the callers of these great spirits of drugs or whatever.

Maybe not boyfriend material.  They’d been told to be careful and steer clear.

“Is he the spirit you call?” Lucy asked.

Tymon laughed, suddenly enough it startled her.

“No,” Dreg rasped, speaking with an adult’s voice.  “A good familiar is a partner, something you can control, or something you’re willing to be controlled by.  Things as large and wild as Black Gutter do nothing except drown you out.”

“Dreg is a vestige.  Was Aware enough to dip into some Jekyll and Hyde type alchemy, eroded away a good chunk of his Self.  Only a fragment of the person was left, other stuff took up residence.”

“I was almost a doctor,” Dreg said.  “A sip of this, a drab of that, to bring out the sharpness of my mind and my attention to details and diagnosis.  I was an angel to hundreds of people who had nothing.  But the same drug made me frail, and some people broke me to pieces so they could take my stash of herbs and chemicals.  Then I had only the frailty, a shattered body, an old self I’d forgotten, and dashed dreams of what might have been.”

“Don’t get him started,” Tymon said.

“Yes, don’t get me started,” the mouse rasped.

“Nice to meet you, Dreg,” Avery said.  “I’ve got… She’s not my familiar, but it’s apparently similar-ish.  Snowdrop?”

Avery turned back toward the room.

“Snowdrop, come say hi?”

Lucy looked.  Snowdrop slept, barely stirring.

“She’s conked out,” Avery said.

“Verona too, it seems,” Lucy noted, looking at her friend.  She had put her phone into the waistband of her sleep shorts, because none of them had an alarm clock, and she’d been worried the sound or vibration of a dinky phone wouldn’t wake her.  Keeping it in her waistband meant she’d at least feel the vibration.  She checked the time.  Eight.  The alarm was set for eight-twenty.

“My brother calls Glass Prison, and rescued Helei, a naiad.  A more bubbly and pleasant companion to help keep his spirits up.  Jorja taps Drugstore Cowgirl, and she took a bogeyman.  Uhh… doing the opposite of Talos, kind of.”

“Does everyone else have one?” Lucy asked.

“Nah.  Even Mr. Belanger and Mr. Sunshine don’t.  A lot of people only ever pick up one or two of the three.  Mr. Belanger has his study and a wand, Mr. Sunshine has this digital space he’s made, and Mrs. Durocher has En.”

“Huh.”

“Having a familiar makes it easier to… I’m not sure I know how to say it,” Tymon said.  “it’s like trying to stop a hundred-mile an hour fastball with your bare hand when you could use a catcher’s mitt.  When there’s two of you, there’s more surface area, some different material, to absorb what comes at you.  The hand’s still there, too, you’re there.  But it’s handy when you do what we do.”

Lucy nodded.  “That makes some sense.”

“Anyway, I don’t want to keep you, and I’m getting hungry.”

“How do we do breakfast?” Avery asked.

“I usually drop off my request at the kitchen on my way to the bathroom, do the basic stuff, come back, grab my tray and then either eat in the room or go outside, depending.”

“That works.  Thanks for the info,” Lucy said.

“See you around.  Watch out for those guys as they come back in.  They might drip and you don’t want to slip or bump into someone while carrying food or whatever.”

“Yeah.  Thanks.”

She and Avery retreated into the room, closing the door.

“You can be such a lump sometimes, Snowdrop,” Avery said.

Snowdrop, one arm and her head sticking out over the edge of the bed, mumbled something.  “Mmm… merry.”

Avery put a hand under Snowdrop’s head and gently moved her back onto the bed, moved Snowdrop’s arm so her hand and the fork it clutched was at her chest, and then pulled covers around her, bracing her with a pillow so she wouldn’t migrate over to the side of the bed.

Lucy looked at Verona.  Her friend had drooled onto her pillow.  She pinched Verona’s lips closed.  “You could sleep with your mouth closed, Ronnie.  You might drool less.”

Verona made a face, twisted her head around, and resumed sleeping, face-down in a way that made it hard for Lucy to believe she could breathe.

Lucy gathered her things, and made her way to the washroom, with Avery beside her, and the multi-layered case of hair and hygiene stuff in one hand.

They had to wait amid the students who’d gathered to write stuff and drop it in next to the kitchen.  They got paper and little pencils, and penciled out their breakfasts.  Lucy stole peeks at other people’s submissions, and settled on french toast with bacon and hash browns, and juice.  Because one of her hands was full with the case of hair and body stuff, she used it as a surface to write on.

The washrooms were divided up into two sections by a central wall, with a row of sinks attached to each wall, and another wall blocking off most of the view of the row of showers, some of which were already steaming.  It wasn’t exactly private, with a fair view of both bathrooms as they approached the dividing wall, but they headed off to the right, for the girls’ side.  Lucy headed into the shower, which had two sections- one for her clothes and toiletries, and for changing, the other for actually taking a shower.

She showered, changed into a hooded sleeveless red and black top with some writing on the breast and dark grey leggings with some writing on the leg, then migrated over to the sinks.  She ended up waiting for the girl with the doll partner, Talia, to finish at the sink furthest from the door before taking up residence there.  The sinks didn’t have a lot of space around them, and the sink here was by the window.  She was able to set her toiletry case down on the windowsill and spread some stuff out there.  She draped her towel over her shoulders and tucked it into her collar to protect it from her hair stuff.

Some hair relaxer and detangler, because the trip in the back of the truck had done a number on her hair, wide toothed comb.  Tangles dealt with.  She began putting in deep, leave-in moisturizer, sectioning off her hair and drawing it taut before moisturizing it from end to root, because she’d have it pulled back tight when her hair was done.

Avery left the shower and dropped her stuff along the back of the sink next to her.  She began brushing her hair.

“Beginner magical lessons, first thing this morning?” Lucy asked.  “See where we stand after a beginner class?”

“Sure.  I could see Verona jumping straight into the intermediate class.  What was it?”

“Immaterial stuff.”

“I could see her being into that.  Both feet first.”

“She has to wake up to do that,” Lucy said.

Avery finished brushing her wet hair, then put hair stuff on it and brushed her teeth.  Another girl went to the sink two down from Avery, and began to wash her face.

“Would you jump off the bridge?” Lucy asked, working on her hair.

Avery, toothbrush in her mouth, made a quizzical grunt.

Lucy pointed out the window.

Avery spat, then said, “I’d like to try it once.  Every morning, though?  I can’t imagine that.”

“Reminds me of that thing some parents in books and cartoons say,” Lucy mused.  “If everyone else was jumping off a bridge…?”

“My dad used to say something like that.  But he said he wished we were the types to go along with the crowd, sometimes.  If we listened to the crowd maybe we’d be on the same page as one of the other siblings for once.”

“Ha.”

The girl two sinks down gave them a curious look.

“Declan said something about ‘what if we hit the ground and went splat?’ and my dad said it would still be worth the peace of mind.”

Lucy snickered.

“Ohhhh,” the girl two sinks down cut in.

“Hm?” Lucy tilted her head to see past Avery and get a better look at the girl.

“I was defaulting to thinking your parents were practitioners.  I thought your dad was being ice cold there.”

“Nah,” Avery said, smiling.

“Milly Legendre.”

“Avery Kelly.”  Avery shook her hand.

“Lucy.  I’d shake your hand but mine’s covered in conditioner.”

“Cool last name,” Avery said.

“Meh.  If you asked around you’d probably hear something like how my family’s a bunch of magic janitors.”

“Janitors?  What do you do?”

“I’m a knight of seals.  If something too big to kill gets defeated around here, they’ll call my family and we’ll put up a barrier around it.  Or on it, depending.  Which is a once every few years type thing.  The rest of the time, we travel around, checking the old barriers aren’t growing legs or wearing out, and corking up any warren holes.”

“Legs?” Avery asked.  She turned to Lucy.  “We could get Verona to wake up earlier if we convince her she’s missing tidbits like this.”

“Legs, uh… it’s not common, but spirits can get tangled up in barriers.  Then you’ve got a smart barrier that’s adapting.  If it gets really out of hand you can end up with a magical jailer that’s tied into the perimeter or door, sapient and capable of being tricked, corrupted, or distracted.  Happens more if you leave a barrier for a long time or if it has more moving parts, so to speak.”

“Huh.”

“I don’t want to take up the family practice,” Milly said.  “It’s so dull, and when it’s not dull it’s traumatizing.  I’m hoping to find something else I’m good at.”

“Sounds hard,” Avery said.

“If I’m not really good at it, then I’ll get either dragged back or kicked out, and I’m not sure which is worse.  If I got kicked out, no high school education or anything, then I’d probably end up a goblin exterminator.”

“That’s a thing?” Avery asked.

Lucy faced the mirror, watching the exchange out of one corner of her eye.

“It’s part of the corking up of the warren holes.  They pop up, spread through the nearby area, usually in the worst parts of town, then after they reach critical mass, they start spreading out.  If you wait until they start spreading out, it’s almost too late.  You’ll end up having to seal a building perimeter, burn it down with the goblins still inside, then seal it again.  That’s without getting into the stuff you have to do to keep civilians from calling in about the fire or whatever.  The civilians in the worst parts of town can be weirdly good at slipping through whatever barriers and defenses you use, but the really good barriers are costly.  Three day job, easy, expensive, and thankless.”

Milly fixed her hair, then did a twenty-second brush of her teeth.

“Sounds like you know a lot about it,” Avery said, diplomatically.

“Have to.  My dad’s had me doing it for the last three years.  Ever since I was twelve.”

“What if the goblins don’t deserve it?” Lucy asked.

“It’s a cost and benefit thing,” Milly answered, packing up her stuff.  “If any of them don’t, and I’ve yet to meet one that didn’t, then the cost of letting the others slip the net isn’t worth sparing those few.  They’re too dangerous, too nasty.”

“Huh,” Lucy said, digesting that.  That sounded like the opposite of justice to her, and raised a whole bunch of other mucky concerns, but after the Zed thing yesterday afternoon, where she’d commented on Nina, she had the impression she’d need to pick the battles to fight, or she’d be fighting until lights-out.

“You’ve got a lot to learn, newbies,” Milly said.

“That whole thing doesn’t sound exactly right to me, but I am a relative newbie,” Lucy said.  “So maybe you’re right.  Or maybe you need to learn more about whatever it is you’re fighting.”

Milly raised an eyebrow.

Avery elbowed Lucy.

“I guess since your parents don’t practice, you don’t have them coming in as speakers?” Milly asked.

“Nope,” Lucy said, at the same time Avery said, “No.”

“Well, my dad’s slated to come in in a bit.  He’ll probably talk about some of it.  I’m betting if you asked him, he’d say something about how if you get close enough to goblins to get to know them, you’ll come to regret it.”

“See you around, huh?” Avery asked.

“Yeah.  Later.  Maybe we can jump off a bridge sometime.”

Milly departed.  A pair of girls moved to the sinks furthest from Lucy.  One of them was chatting with a boy who stood by the doorway.

Avery gave Lucy a look and sighed.

“I was good,” Lucy said.

“Were you?

“I could have been worse.  Those are some creepy, scary words to hear out of someone’s mouth when talking about thinking, breathing creatures.”

“I don’t disagree,” Avery said.  “Took me a second to even realize she wasn’t joking.  But we can’t keep making enemies.  Especially when her family might be exactly who we need to talk to about some of the binding stuff we want to do.”

“Are seals and barriers the same thing as bindings?”

“I don’t know, but her family could tell us!  We can’t go to the mat for every single thing.”

“Can’t we?” Lucy asked.  “If we let it go, aren’t we condoning it?”

“I don’t know.  But maybe we need to know more about the particulars before we fight.  Like Zed and Nina’s situation.”

“Maybe.”

“Do you want me to stick around, keep you company?”

“Do you mean stick around and keep me from making mortal enemies?”

“I mean company.  Really.  Are you nearly done?”

Lucy looked at her stuff.  She was still putting in the leave-in conditioner.  “No.  Go eat.  Feed Snowdrop.  Kick Verona’s ass and get her out of bed, tell her she missed interesting details and stuff, and that might wake her up as much as jumping off a bridge.”

“So bossy.”

Avery left.

Some of the kids from the bridge came back in.  Eloise and the shirtless guy Lucy presumed was her fiance Ulysse went into the girls shower stall closest to the door, together.  Lucy blinked a few times, not really sure if she believed what she’d just seen.

Ulysse was A+ grade cute, though.  Wavy hair that looked practically golden, slim, with chiseled features, chiseled muscles, shorts that hung low enough that the bones of his pelvis were visible at the waistband.  If Tymon as a generally cute, sloppy boy had made Lucy’s brain do a somersault, then Ulysse was a dense package of individual things that each made Lucy’s brain go pleasantly blank, dissolve into fireworks, or go down crazy trains of thought.

Like… boy band attractive, but without the attached annoyance of the boy band.  Or like a celebrity, but right in front of her face.

She convinced herself that it could be glamour, or… if she remembered what Zed had said, Ulysse was a student of Durocher.  Divine favor?  Was that a thing?  A god reaching down and placing a hand on his forehead, and bestowing the gift of cute?

It could be hiding something awful, maybe.  Eloise had the creepy living tattoo.  Somehow worse than the mouse swarm dipping under Tymon’s skin.

Verona and Snowdrop entered the washroom.  Verona went straight to Lucy, giving her a hug.

“What’s this?”

“Getting some of that last bit of stink on you before I wash it off.”

“Okay, off, screw you.”

Verona and Snowdrop laughed.  Verona headed to the shower stall, the small bundle of her stuff under one arm.

Snowdrop stood at the sink, then began picking her teeth with her fork.

“Okay, stop that,” Lucy said.  “That’s giving me phantom sensations and making my skin crawl.”

Snowdrop looked up at her and smiled, then began tugging the thin fork through her hair.

“I know you’re keeping the joke going, but please…” Lucy said.  “Come here.”

Snowdrop drew closer.  Lucy turned her around, then, conditioner still on her hands, combed her fingers through Snowdrop’s hair, sorting it out.

“Sleep okay?”

“I’m awake as fug,” Snowdrop muttered.

Eloise left the shower, a towel wrapped around her.  She kissed Ulysse, who also had a towel around his waist.  He skipped over to the boy’s side.  Eloise used soap from the dispenser on the wall to wash her face.  Lucy suppressed a wince.

“You going to stick with us while we study?”

“I’m gonna stay awake.”

“Solid plan.  I worry about what’ll happen if you’re off on your lonesome.”

“I’ll leave Avery all alone.  Screw her.”

“Right.  Be careful anyway, right?  Whether you’re alone sleeping or with Avery?”

“Nah.  Maximum reckless.”

Lucy finished sorting out the worst of Snowdrop’s hair, then unplaited her hair and combed it back into her waiting hand, which held it tight until she could snap an elastic into place.  She fixed the stray strands at her hairline with gel on a toothbrush, then did the same for Snowdrop, just for kicks, giving her a curl at the forehead.

Verona exited the shower as Lucy was rubbing on cocoa butter.

“Love that smell,” Verona said.  “Makes me think of friendship and family and stuff.”

“And bossiness?”

“Nah.  Only good stuff.  Gimme?”

Lucy gave Verona some.  Verona rubbed down her hands and forearms.

“Avery guessed you were taking the advanced class,” Lucy observed.  “Immaterial stuff?”

“The enchanting tutorial thing.  I read some stuff last night before bed.  Then depending on how the class is, I might move on to the dead languages or keep doing the enchantment stuff into the afternoon.”

“Alright.  You’re good at arts and crafts and stuff.  Like making Ave’s mask.  Hopefully you don’t feel too out of your depth without the other steps and stuff.”

“Hopefully.  But I think I’d rather figure out what I’m missing and then self-study to close the gap.”

Off to the side, Eloise’s centipede burrowed out of her skin, holding bottles and things as she did her hair and makeup.  Lucy found herself staring, and Verona saw and did much the same.

The centipede whispered something in Eloise’s ear, and she looked Lucy’s way.

“What’s up?” the girl asked.

“Jump went okay?”

“I started jumping the bridge last year.  Got over a fear of heights that way.  Now I look forward to it.”

“Cool,” Lucy said.

She rubbed cocoa butter across her stomach and lower back, beneath her top, and on seeing Verona start brushing her teeth, skipped ahead to brushing her own teeth.  They finished and spat at the same time, cleaned up, then left together.  Their breakfasts were waiting outside their doors, covered sterling silver trays that were atop a wheel-less cart.  Lesser breakfast things were on the lower shelf on the cart.

Lucy got maple syrup, salt, and butter, then carried her tray into the room.

Avery was partway through eating at the desk, periodically passing bacon to Snowdrop, who lay on the bed, head tilted back, mouth open wide for each new bite.  Lucy took the end of the desk, then dug in, while Verona used the bedside table.

The french toast was homemade bread, thick-cut, the bacon a little crisper than she liked but not in a way that burned out the taste, and the hash browns were everything she’d hoped to get when she’d ordered them, and then some.

“Remember our goals,” Lucy said, after stopping to breathe.  “Binding stuff is good to know.”

Verona held a finger to her lips and pointed skyward.

Lucy nodded, taking another bite.

“Keep an eye and ear out for anything we can use,” Avery said.  “Absolutely.  Keep an eye out for allies.  Minimize enemies.”

“I feel like that’s aimed at me,” Lucy told her.

“Please.  I’m already so stressed out, being here.”

Lucy nodded.

Verona checked her phone, then hurried to finish her pancakes, topped with lemon and sugar.  Lucy fed the last bit of bacon to Snowdrop’s upside-down mouth, as the girl lay back.

They carried their plates out of their room, placing them on the cart, which was now sitting across the hall.  Lucy returned to her room to do a last double-check of her appearance, wiping at her mouth, and then joined the others in the hallway.

They walked down the hall, and a lot of the students had already gathered at the main middle area of the school.  The ‘church’.  Raymond Sunshine stood on the stage, and a lot of the younger students were sitting closest to him.

Alexander stood with some of the older students, Zed included, and a scattered few, young and old, were around a woman with a pinched mouth and heavy makeup.  A few of the oldest ‘students’, like Nicolette’s boss, Chase, were standing back by the door.

“Join the instructor you’re most interested in studying with.  Ask if you have questions,” Alexander instructed them.

Lucy and Avery crossed over to Raymond Sunshine’s area, and there were a few boys there who were goofing off, so they sat a bit off to the side, to give them room to goof.  Verona stood by the Dollmaker woman.

It was taking a bit longer for the stragglers to arrive.  Lucy checked her phone.  Nine-oh-six.  They’d been told things started at nine.

A heavyset man who wasn’t much taller than Lucy was entered through the front door.  He began exchanging a whispered conversation with Alexander, a vaguely angry look on his face.  He looked… it was hard to pin down.  Red-faced and blotchy, but in a way that looked permanent.  Like he’d been lightly boiled and had scarred over.  His hair was parted and shiny with hair product.

“That’s Bristow,” a girl said.

Lucy turned her head and recognized Jessica, who was one of four people of color Lucy had seen at the school.  The girl who worked in the Ruins, Zed’s friend.  She’d taken a seat near them.

“Jessica, right?” Lucy asked.

“Yeah.  We talked last night.”

Their ‘talk’ had been about five seconds long.  Jessica had grabbed pizza and left pretty much after Zed had introduced them.  The girl had hair that was thick, black, and wavy-straight, chin-length except for the part at the back that she’d braided.  She wore a button-up blouse without sleeves, jeans, and sandals, with a weather-worn yellow raincoat tied around her waist.  A dense checkerboard tattoo encircled one bicep.  It made Lucy think of a loon.

“Who’s Bristow?” Avery asked.

“He came up yesterday, in the introduction speech,” Lucy commented.

“Ex-headmaster,” Jessica murmured.

It looked like he hadn’t give up on the teaching idea altogether.  On top of being short, wide, blotchy, and looking perpetually angry, Bristow was very tweed.  Like a professor.  You didn’t keep dressing that way unless it was integral to your identity.

Lucy could remember what they’d learned from Miss about how Alexander had taken the school.  Planting a demesne here and tying it to the school, so he had more claim to the school.  She imagined that if she were Mr. Bristow, she’d be pretty upset at being ousted, let alone if he knew that it had happened that way.

“Zed told me to look after you three,” Jessica told them.  “That okay?”

“If it’s no trouble, any help is great,” Avery answered.

“I’m surprised you’re in the beginner class,” Lucy said.

“I have a very piecemeal education.  More piecemeal because I’m not always here.  I was self-taught, until recently.”

“The Ruins, right?” Avery asked.  “Or is that insensitive?”

“The Ruins, yes.  Insensitive, not too much.”

“We went to the Ruins for a bit.  Didn’t seem too bad,” Avery said.  “I feel like I’m missing something, because the Finder I asked implied there was more to it.  Again, tell me if I’m getting annoying.”

“Have you been to the Abyss?”

“No.  Want to, though.”

“The Warrens?”

“Some tunnels.  We visited the spirit world.”

“If your body is physical, then the Abyss is… deeply unpleasant.  And the Ruins are like…”

“A walk in the rain?” Avery asked.  “In a creepy place?”

“If you say so.  Sometimes dangerous, but mostly wearying, nothing more.”

“Right.”

“But if your body isn’t physical, if you’re a ghost, a spirit, or if you’re astrally projecting, the Abyss is little more than a dismal sightseeing tour, and the Ruins are like trying to walk on the tongue of a giant who is trying to eat you, starting from the soul, then moving to the heart.  To get where I have to go looking, I must leave my body behind.”

“Got it,” Avery said.  “Good to know.  Um, I don’t know if the offer is welcomed, but if you happened to want any help, I’m interested in exploring these places, and if you were willing to guide me and walk me through stuff, I’d be willing to be an extra set of eyes, or extra set of hands, on a future excursion.”

“I think bringing people with me would slow me down more than the extra eyes would help.”

“I might-” Avery started.  Lucy elbowed her.  “What?”

Lucy leaned in close and whispered, “Wind it back a bit.

Jessica watched the exchange between Bristow and Alexander with a level stare.  It seemed to occupy her enough that she didn’t seem to notice or care about their whispers.

Very cold, very hard to read.  The most she’d talked had been about the Ruins.

“Any advice?” Lucy asked.

Jessica turned, and gave her a serious look.  Jessica’s eyes flashed, actually flashed, in the midst of turning dark, like Alpeana’s were.  The look faded, and she looked over Lucy again.

“I find,” Jessica said, “the proportion of bad people remains roughly the same.  If ten percent of people are assholes, they’re going to be assholes whether you’re in a big school or here, or in the city or a town like mine.”

“Where are you from?” Avery asked.

“Pic River.”

“I haven’t heard of Pic River.”

“Reservation.  Five hundred people.  Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe.”

“Ah.  I thought our town was small.”

“Please don’t interrupt me.”

“Sorry,” Avery said.  “Very sorry.”

“The proportions may remain the same, but the smaller the group, the harder it is to find the necessary number of people to surround yourself with, and the harder it is to avoid the monsters who are not Other.”

“I think maybe we’ve seen some small glimpses of the monsters here,” Lucy observed.

“Maybe.  In Pic River, the good people there are some of the best people I know.  I think you have to find a family, found family or blood, and I don’t think Zed, I, Eloise, Ulysse, or Amine can be yours.”

That was somehow very heavy to hear.  Lucy wondered if she’d hoped for a different answer, and if she’d been asking for that ‘found family’ when she’d been asking Zed who she could trust and befriend.

Zed had been right on the money, saying Jessica would be hard to actually befriend.

“Is it a long trip?  Going back and forth?” Avery asked.

“Yes and no.  Yes, because I go through the Ruins and every minute can feel like months.  No, because I leave at lunch and arrive before dinner.  Then I recuperate.”

“Sorry to hear it’s hard,” Avery said.

Jessica shrugged, her expression blank as she watched Bristow and Alexander talking.  Durocher would periodically say something.  It looked like the last stragglers had arrived.

She checked her phone.  Nine eleven.

“Thanks for the input,” Lucy said.  “I did mean more for lectures, or participating in class, but I do… the perspective is good.”

“Oh,” Jessica said. “I haven’t taken many classes with Ray.  He focuses on different things than I do.  Zed says to listen first, study what you don’t get, come back later.”

“Sounds like Verona’s plan,” Avery said.

“They’re wrapping up,” Jessica told them.  “This isn’t lecture advice, but don’t lose sight of the fact that they’re a business, first.  They didn’t help me or my brother when I was asking everyone I could.  When I learned things and became interesting and useful, they extended a hand, so quickly it was like they’d known I was there all along.  You’re here because the business can use you.”

“Alexander can hear things, can’t he?” Lucy asked.

“He’s preoccupied because he’s being challenged, and I wouldn’t care if he heard.  He knows, I know.”

“That we’re here for the money?” Lucy asked.

“Not money,” Jessica said.  “Keep an eye and an ear out for anything about Bristow or Alexander.  People will take sides, soon.”

“Alright,” Lucy murmured, glancing at Avery.  She wished Jessica was a little more inclined to elaborate on things, but Alexander was clearing his throat.

“If you’d like, you can take workshop six,” Alexander told the Dollmaker, speaking loudly enough to get the students’ attention.  “We’ll take the library as a study space?  Beginner class, Ray will teach here.  Seniors, if you have any questions or requests, Mrs. Durocher will make herself available for the morning, and Seth will be making himself available to get anything you need.”

Seth was apparently one of Belanger’s apprentices, a surly looking teen with wild hair.

There was a bit of commotion as people left, chattering, and some students joined their groups last-minute.  The youngest ones heading to the beginner group.  Talia was talking to her mom for a second before joining their group.

“Where are the seniors going?” Avery asked.  Some of Alexander’s group, Lucy noted.

“They come here to collaborate on private projects and take the occasional advanced project, and ask visiting teachers for input.  That’s three groups of five or six students, I think, then Seth, a few others.”

Zed included, it seemed.

Lucy wondered what those projects included.

Mr. Sunshine was clean-shaven, and took off his sunglasses to hang them on the front pocket of his shirt, a black button-up.  His hair was slicked back, but long, and the part that wasn’t touching his head broke up into wavy zig-zags.  His belt was the most colorful part of his outfit, next to his sunglasses, and it was gray.

It made his eyes stand out.  Very green.  He carried his laptop with him as he walked around to the floor in front of the stage.  Or altar or nave or whatever it was.  The podium loomed behind him.

“Younger students, move closer to the front.  Don’t be scared,” he said, as he placed his laptop beside him.  “I byte with a y, but I don’t bite.”

“That’s awful, Mr. Sunshine,” a boy said.

Ray smirked for just a second, before expertly hiding the emotion.

Their class had fifteen students in it, it seemed.  Some, like Jessica were surprisingly old, which made Lucy feel a bit better.

Avery and Lucy ventured closer, sitting on benches toward the middle of the pack.  Jessica sat behind them, Lucy noted.  The girl seemed to be very serious about doing as Zed told her to, and looking after them.  Which just raised the question: why was Zed so interested in that?

“Talia?” Raymond asked, pointing.  Talia nodded.  “Lucy?”

Lucy raised a hand.

“Avery.”

Avery raised a hand.

“Verona’s absent then.  Good.  Then I know the rest of you through our older records and process of elimination.  Compiling a lesson plan, there.  I don’t have the forms for you two, so please listen, find a copy of Essentials in the library, and study to fill in the gaps.  If any of you lied on your forms to puff yourselves up, you’ll have to do the same, and study aggressively to live up to that you that you purported to be.  For now, I’ll assume you were honest and you know what you said you knew.”

Of course Verona’s little ploy would bite them in the ass, while Verona was nowhere near here.

Well, she’d agreed to it.  She just had to hope it wasn’t too much of a detriment.

“Let’s skip ahead to chapter seven.  That seems to be the point that most of you start to become shaky.  There are many kinds of appeal to the spirits, including the standard…”

He clicked a button.  The room went dark, the windows suddenly letting in half the light.  A glowing circle with a triangle within it appeared in the air, like a hologram, with little motes of blue dust floating away from it.

“Basic shamanism, elementalism, and simple actions.  If you wanted to knock a door down or set someone on fire, this would do.  From here, we can branch out…”

He hit the button again.  The diagram divided into three.  The top one looked like it was built into a diagram of sun, moon, and stars, with zodiac signs littering the area around it.  The bottom left one had a circle with a hieroglyph-like bird set within it, and writing in something like latin around the rim.  The bottom right one had a wave-like motif, and a symbol in the middle that looked like the decoration on the point of a fancy crown.

“Into other, complex types.  You’ll learn these approaches after.  We call them the celestial, argumentative, and heraldic approaches, but that won’t be on the test.  You can use any you want, but one type is probably best for your purposes, and if you want to do something very specific and very big, then you may find something like the standard diagram is unnecessarily complex, compared to going out and learning another type of diagram.”

He hit a key.  A verse of what looked like poetry, written in the air in glowing blue letters, a crow with a sword in its mouth, and a simple circle with a man standing in while three more people looked on from without appeared.

“There are other ways to make appeals.  The right words.  Do you say ‘I want’ or ‘I need’?  Do you say ‘give me’ or ‘grant me’?  You can spend a lifetime learning the differences between these.  Remember that they-”

Mr. Sunshine reached up, standing on his toes, and took hold of the handle of the blue outline of a knife that the crow held in its beak.  He lifted it down, and weighed it in his hand, before using the point to indicate the crow, that now looked down at him, and the silhouette of the man and the man’s audience, who had turned their heads his way.

“They being the spirits, are watching and listening.  They are your audience, and you can imagine yourself on television for a live performance, and they’re watching you to see if you make a mistake, or if you do something cool.  You can get them on your side.  You can make them into enemies, to the point that they’ll take the worst interpretation of whatever you might do.”

He glanced over the room.  “You might cringe and choose to watch something else if you see someone mess up their line or embarrass themselves during a live show.  The spirits will leave you for a time if you lie, in the same way.”

He indicated the bird he’d taken the sword from.

“Symbols.  Themes.  Devices.  Objects take on meanings.  Do this well and they’ll come to admire you.  A joke about bytes-with-a-y and bites-with-an-i might get a groan out of you, but a spirit enjoys it if you can make those jokes and connect ideas.  Name things well.  It matters.  Know what a bird might symbolize.  We can guess what a crow represents, can’t we?”

There were nods around the room.

Lucy put up her hand.

“Put your hand down,” Ray said.

She hesitated, then dropped her hand.

“Lastly, presentation.  Not just what you say, but how you say it.  If you present yourself well, they can look past small mistakes.  If you dress the part, then that helps.  Examples?”

A boy put up his hand.  About three years older than Lucy.

“Jarvis.”

“Ceremonial robes.”

“An easy way for spirits to know they should gather, or stand up and pay attention.  Anyone?”

Lucy put her hand up.

“Put your hand down.”

“Mask,” Lucy said.

“Yes, masks, but please don’t disrupt the class.  Anyone else?  Not just articles of clothing, but…”

Lucy fumed.

“Easy,” Avery whispered.

“Colors?” Dom asked, from the front row.  “Royal purple, funereal black?”

“Absolutely.  Also materials.  Are you wearing cotton or polyester?  I could get away with wearing polyester as a technomancer, but a hedge mage?  What would that say?”

“No offense, Mr. Sunshine, but I don’t think anyone can really get away with wearing polyester,” a girl said.

The class laughed.  Mr. Sunshine smiled.

“Consider also,” Mr. Sunshine addressed them.  “Are the clothes old and familiar to you, or are they new?  If you’re transforming into something or someone else, old and familiar clothes that are very much yours could hold you back.  One of these things may not make a big difference, but a few of them together could make the difference.  Miss Ellingson, would you join me up front?”

So he wanted her to participate now?  She stood, frowning a bit, and walked around the one bench to go up front.

“There are other things that are a part of presentation.  Imagine, if you will, an actor appearing on your favorite show, that you know is a jerk offscreen.”

Lucy turned her head swiftly, glaring at him.  He was oblivious.

She wasn’t missing that insinuation, right?  She looked back-

Avery was pressing her hands together, pleading.

He typed on his keyboard.

Lucy closed her eyes a second and literally bit her tongue.

“Karma is the long-running tally of how we’re doing.  It’s hard to shake bad karma in the same way that the actor in our analogy might find it hard to make up for having said something rude to an actress.  He can be charitable, stick to good behavior, but memories are long.  Karma stays.”

Mr. Sunshine typed something on the keyboard, then hit a button.

The room was plunged into a bright white, but not in a way that made Lucy’s eyes hurt.  Objects were faint and transparent, to the point that she could see the sky through the roof, where the sun was twice the size and black, surrounded by lines and numbers that tracked its movement across the sky.  Other celestial bodies she couldn’t identify were tracked in similar ways, making the sky a webwork of diagrams.  Like ash and falling snow, motes of white and black drifted down.

And each student was a silhouette, pale, with motes of black floating in them.  Some concentrated around different parts of the body.  The mind, the mouth, the hands, the chest, the gut.

She looked at herself, and saw the motes in her breast.

“Lucy here has more bad karma than some of our new students, but… not bad overall.  She wasn’t raised by practitioners, so I would attribute the slight difference to the more minor missteps that a practitioner parent would discourage.  Good.”

I didn’t consent to this kind of analysis, she thought.

She looked at Avery, who made the gesture again.

She bit her tongue harder.

“Karma is influenced not by human law, but by the universe’s machinations.  Are you being fair in word and action?  Fighting someone by striking them from behind is uneven, and may incur you a few motes of black karma…”

Raymond reached up and caught one out of the air, before holding it out.

“…a debt paid in minor misfortunes, worse practices, and other detriments, over the course of days, weeks, months, or a lifetime.  How and where you tend to act may dictate how and when you find yourself paying the karmic price.  An effort toward explicit fairness, or even a courageous act where you meet someone at less than your full strength may earn you good karma.”

He held out a mote of white.  He released the two into the air, then tapped keys on the keyboard.

The lighting changed.  Everything became a slow-motion flow of smoke, but where transparent wisps overlapped, they painted silhouettes and details.

She wore the fox mask here.  More smoke traced the outline of her cape.

“This is what one might see with a particular variety of the Sight, ignoring connections.  Lucy here-”

She felt something brush her hair.  She stepped away from him, turning on her heel.

She almost snapped at him, then held her tongue.

“Please don’t touch my hair,” she told him.

“It was an accident.  It’s admittedly hard to see in this.  Please don’t interrupt.”

She drew in a breath, then stepped a bit closer, but not quite as close as she’d been.

“Turn ninety degrees sideways?”

She gave him a look, then turned, facing him.

He stepped around so he was behind her again.  “The power we have may find ways to reveal itself to the world.  Lucy here makes a good example.  As we get stronger or weaker, we may be able to see that in the Sight.  Look at the color in her hair.  Like a blush-tinted ember, glowing from within.  From the roots, a bit darker.  I could interpret that she spent power recently.  Draining this power.  These gauges can be very useful, for judging where we stand, and if one does not naturally manifest, then they can be handmade and designated.  A practitioner of the practice of Law, concerning themselves with the rules of the universe and of karma, may wish to keep a barometer for that type of karma, or even count the different kinds and origins of karma.  Another may wish to track the state of their body, or even the magical trinkets they have in their possession.  They can be overt, for status, power, and that ever-so-important presentation, like Ms. Ellingson’s wonderful hair here, or they can be hidden, a painted picture of a bouquet in a locket.  How many flowers does it have?  What color?”

Lucy raised a hand.

Mr. Sunshine pushed it down.

Lucy contemplated just how badly it would go if she acted on the surge of silent fury she felt.  Maybe a flung-down dog tag, a rune?  A stabbing?

“Presentation, symbols, and rhetoric go together with the right diagrams for a greater ritual.  But there is one core element.  Anyone?  Basic principles.”

“The power you use?” Dom asked, from the front row.

“The power you use.  What’s the origin point?  Power drawn from the spirit?”

He hit the keys.

The room’s appearance shifted, to become something very much like the spirit world Lucy had visited together with Verona and Avery.  The floor was covered in an inch of water, littered with flower petals.  She could see the nose of the ‘mask’ she wore in spirit, and her hair was far longer, pale pink tendrils blowing across her shoulder.

Other students changed as well.  Avery had the deer mask.  Jessica had two silver lines running down from her eyes, her skin and hair beaded with moisture.  Dom, Talia, and Jorja weren’t as affected as some, but Lucy could see how Dom’s hands were paler.  Talia resembled her doll and her doll resembled her.  Jorja had little pastel pellets littering her hair and shoulders, in stark contrast to how dark her clothes and hair were, and how grim her expression was.

“Spirit is one source of power.  Basic, simple, easy, but it can be hard to negotiate for the particulars, or to control the fine results.”

He clicked.

Everything was decorated.  Every surface with a curl of gold.  The air smelled like incense, spices, and fruits.  It wasn’t bright like the other places she’d seen, but it felt like there was a lot of glare, light reflecting off of places so that there was always something glittering and trying to catch her eye.  Like every part of Ulysse had sparked the mental stutters, fireworks, and imagination, everything here sparked the same.

The scene shifted.  From gilded and gold to the natural.  Vines crawling.  Berries, fruits.  Branches extended indoors, weaving around things until they looked like they’d always been meant to be there.  The smells and sights that found her nostrils and eyes made her imagine that keeping to the rules about not eating in strange places would be very hard.  Being closer to nature, at the Blue Heron Institute had made her want to be more active and stretch and maybe played a role in why her brain was reacting like it was to boys.  And this felt more outdoors than any place she’d been, even with the four nature-covered walls of the church around her.

Again, things changed.  The walls became fronts for other buildings.  Figures moved within.  Things that were like goblins but beautiful instead of small scrambled about.  Some called out, their voices indistinct, as they held out baubles and things.  There was no sun, anymore, but it felt like it was all a very pleasant shade to dwell within, here.  The air was filled with music, and she took a step forward without meaning to.  Students before her stirred, restless.  Her eyes roved over the things in the church, and she knew Verona would have been inspired by them.

Frost crept over everything.  The creatures fled.  Storefronts closed and shuttered, and the shutters became wall without window.  When Lucy looked up, the walls extended up as far as she could see, and she had no idea if it was night or day, indoors or out.  The frost curled out over everything, in brilliant, kaleidoscopic patterns, and what didn’t captivate the eyes like optical illusions reflected things.  She saw a glimpse of herself, clearer than in any mirror she’d seen, and closed her eyes before she could see too much.

When she opened her eyes, she was in the market again.  There was chatter, sharp, in a variety of strange languages.  Bells rang and tinkled everywhere, and the air was musical with the sound of creaking wagon wheels, carts, and things that were Other, with creaking limbs and lumbering gaits.  The residents here that offered their wares were bent, stooped, or part animal, coming in all sizes, from the giant to the small.  When there was beauty, it was heartstopping.  A fine, elegant woman standing at the back of the room.  A young man with hair that became like peacock feathers, that he wore wrapped around his body, in a tantalizing way.

Maricica was from a place like this.  She would have been one of those beautiful figures in the background.  All the more beautiful for being surrounded by the crooked and ugly.

Others were looking behind Lucy.  She turned, then backed away swiftly, narrowly missing a small figure so wrapped in robes that its true face and body couldn’t be seen, snatching for her wrist.

At the raised back of the church, a withered old man with long pointed ears held up a baby, swaddled in pastel hues that seemed wrong amid the wet stone, roots, leafless trees, and the buildings that had been carved into the surfaces around them.  It shouted something in a native language.

At the sides and back of the room, creatures made bids.  Holding up coin, bent sticks, and books.  And for a moment, she forgot that it was fake, and she felt the desperate need to save that child- to offer something.

The scene moved away.  The outdoors taking over.  The leafless trees became a rule.  The path through the church became rough stone, the church itself a ruin, like something that had once been like that great, intricate hall of gold leaf and fine decoration, with everything gold and great torn out.  The ruin of the church had a cloth tied to the highest points, and she felt a bit of sorrow because whatever it had been a part of had been more beautiful than any and all of the places she’d just seen.

She hated the emotions these places were pulling at.

There was singing, a beautiful, mournful voice joining with a rough-edged, vulgar one, and she shivered.  She knew, even though she couldn’t identify the language, that it was a Faerie singing alongside a goblin.

And then they had a roof and walls again, pulling together whenever she wasn’t looking.

Not gold but bone, not cloth but spiderweb.  Humans in fine clothing knelt along either wall of the church, bowed, heads bent, hands clasped.  Like people were meant to bow low before a great king, queen, or terrifying emperor.  But the king, queen, or emperor- she had to check.  They weren’t here.

And as she watched the unchanging scene, beautiful in its own way, horrifying as she looked into each thing and saw more fine details, like polished white teeth by the hundreds, she came to realize they were bowed in case that terrifying figure made an appearance.  Like anything else was the worst thing imaginable.

She heard a click, out of place.

They returned to the bright room of motes, white and black.

There, they remained, for long minutes, so many of them pale cut-outs of white with darkness floating in them in varying amounts.  A few students were half-filled with darkness and that seemed like a lot.

Ray had a fair amount.

“That,” Ray said, after a short while, “was the Faerie.  Seven courts.  Rituals and practices you do with that power may be fragile.  In the moment, they are strong, captivating, but over the long term?  Can you truly remember what you saw?  What you felt?”

Lucy tried to recall some of the intricate designs, the things she thought Verona would like, or the music.

She struggled to.  All she remembered was how upset she felt as her emotions had gotten away from her.  Like Ray had hit a button and made her feel something.

“If you can, you may be lost.  Glamour-drowned, they say.  Once you can recall it, you may be able to think of nothing else.  It will always have a part of your brain, of your self.  At best, you can carve out a part of yourself.  At worst, you belong to the Faerie.”

Spooky.  And… Lucy had to admit, she still felt pissed.

“Again, Karma.  Restricted, orderly.  Firm cause and effect.  If-and-then.  If I do this, then that.  Firm contracts, letter of the law, and heavy prices.”

He clicked.

The brightness changed.  Instead of the bright sky and the see-through ceiling and walls, there was-

Lucy looked up.

A figure, taller than any mountain, loomed over them, glowing softly from cracks along its body.  Clothing was hard to distinguish from elaborate skin and beard, riddled with details.

A man with a spear, so tall he might well extend into space, reached out to wrestle with a woman, cowled.

Lucy’s body was darker than some.  Jorja’s body was bright.  So was Jessica’s.

“The divine.  Capricious.  Know what you deal with.  Unlike the karmic, they get frustrated with firm rules and exact wordings.  Bore them and even the most rule-based divinity will take action against you.”

He clicked.

They went from brightness to darkness.

The church, if the church was abandoned for two hundred years.  Wind blew through broken windows and carried choking dust.  Something lay dying and twitching on the broken glass of bodies.

“The visceral.  Physical power.  Brutal, unforgiving, often with a way of biting the hand that would use it… sometimes as an always thing, sometimes it waits for the chance.  The price is that it will take chunks out of you, or your lifeblood.  In goblin practice, it may poison you after it pricks your flesh.  In the Abyssal, it may cut you deeper, longer to heal.”

Lucy coughed.

He clicked.

The roof was gone, and rain fell down around them.  Lucy’s hands went to her hood, ready to flip it up.  Then she stopped.  It wasn’t soaking her.

The scene changed, subtly.  The gaps became wider, and the scene shuddered, like a train was running through it.

“Ms. Ellingson?  Would you please relax?”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“You’re agitated.  Please relax.  I would like to explain and move on to a practical lesson, but I can’t do that like this.”

You’ve been telling me to shush, you’ve been keeping me from raising my hand…

She bit her tongue.

“Would you step out, please?  I am doing my best to include you in the class when I don’t have data on you.  I will include you more after I have a better idea of where you stand, skillwise.  For right now you’re being disruptive.”

“I’m not doing anything,” she said, doing her best to not sound snappish.  “You asked me to stand here, I’m standing here.”

“And I’m thankful for your cooperation.  Seeing your hair and appearance change, when it’s so very clearly broadcast is very useful, I think.  But that clear broadcast is getting in the way, now.  Settle down, or step outside.”

“I can’t just turn off emotions.  Can I sit down over there, or?”

He sighed, looked down at his laptop, and typed.

A churchy-wall with a little window of blue glass rose up between herself and him.

“What the actual fuck?” she asked.

She turned, looking back toward the other students, to look for Avery, and saw another wall rise up into place.

“What is this?”

She was boxed in.  She looked around, looked up, and saw the light flare.

The walls dropped down and away, smoothly, like blades through butter.  One flickered, like a bad graphical glitch.

She was outside the classroom, on the front steps.

She pushed on the door, and it was locked.

Fucking frustrating stupid what the fuck-

She resisted screaming at the door.  She remained there, angry, willing that anger to be disruptive for his class.

A minute passed.  She tried the door again.  Locked.

Her ability to resist screaming got worse.  She stopped only because of the fact that she was pretty sure that Mr. Sunshine wouldn’t care, and the students would judge her.

Fucking pain in the ass fucking dragging her up in front of the class, making an example of her, playing with her emotions and then shutting her out of class when she was upset about it?

She felt eyes boring into her from behind.  Familiar eyes, she thought, as she turned.

Zed had emerged from one of the smaller buildings that formed a half-circle around the field at the center of BHI.  Without the cars parked on it, she could see the tint in the grass where a heron’s silhouette was marked on it.

“Ray can be a dick sometimes.”  Zed stood at the foot of the stairs.  He was sweaty, his hands greasy, as he wiped at them with a rag.

That she’d been able to feel him looking at her…

What had Charles said?  That the weakness of magical seeing was that sometimes the target could look back?

Had Zed been looking at her with magic?  How intensely?

“He doesn’t mean to,” Zed added.  “You’re pissed?”

“Yeah.  Putting it lightly,” Lucy huffed.

“He can’t deal with pissed,” Zed said.  “Any other emotion, he could probably roll with it.  But not that.”

“Then he needs to learn to deal.  Or a student with less restraint than me might murder him.”

“Probably,” Zed said.  “Probably needs to learn to deal, I mean.  Yeah.”

“What do I do?”

“Give it time.  I think he’s incapable of holding grudges besides the one.”

“One?” Lucy asked.  “Nevermind.  Not my business.”

“His son,” Zed told her.  “Hector.  Got sick midway through university.  Terminally sick.  Ray went to the literal ends of the Earth, into realms and into places that hadn’t been seen with eyes for thousands of years.  To find an answer.  A cure for all that ails.”

Lucy thought of her dad.  But she’d barely known he was sick.  The doctors had barely known he was sick.  His liver had given out from the hepatitis, and from what Lucy had overheard her mom saying to Ran and Barb, Lucy’s grandparents, it wasn’t impossible that the white doctor hadn’t been accustomed enough to black skin to look for the yellowing of jaundice.  Maybe.

“What happened?”

“Hector was so mad that Ray was gone while he was dying that he didn’t even entertain him.  The way I heard it, he wasn’t willing to listen to two consecutive words Ray had to say.  When someone else tried to explain, said Ray was only trying to help, Hector wanted to know what would’ve happened if Ray hadn’t found a cure.  If Hector had died while Ray was out searching.  He thought it was unforgivable.  Ray thought it was unforgivable that Hector didn’t have faith in him.  Ray could kill gods, create worlds, set up three of the websites that practitioners all over the world use… why couldn’t he be assumed to be able to find a cure?”

“Hector died?”

“Slapped his dad’s hand away, and then he passed.  I think about it a lot.  Maybe to Hector, having that dad who could slay gods, make gods, do all these things, but who was unable to be by his bedside in a time of need?  Maybe that was some great betrayal.  Ray’s a… particular, obsessive, and weird guy.  I think Hector inherited some of that.  I don’t think Ray has ever understood it.  But seeing someone angry?  Quote-unquote unreasonable?”

“Kryptonite?”

“Basically.”

“I can’t turn off feelings.”

“Go for a walk then.  Or bury it under other emotions.  When he gets to me, I dig up a really pointed pity.  Or my love for the man.  Or whatever’s ready at hand.  Or I walk away.  Some social mores are lost on him, and he’ll walk away from conversations or let you walk away and move on with his day.  To him, it’s efficient.”

Lucy sighed, and the sigh became a huff.

“Go for a walk,” Zed told her.  “Take in some nature.  Whatever.  Everyone’s going to have classes or instructors that really get at who they are.  I’ve… I had a class where I had to face myself at a time I really, really didn’t like myself.”

Lucy nodded.

Zed went on, “They’re not going to penalize you for being absent, and even in cases where there are guest lecturers with very tight time windows, you can usually find a senior student who’ll walk you through what you missed.  It gets hard sometimes, they know it.  They work around it.  Find the current and just… flow with it.”

“That makes me more pissed,” Lucy said.  “I don’t know why.”

“Go.  You may be the first student this semester who needs to take five or take fifteen.  There’s going to be a bunch more.  I’ve really got to get back to my project, here.  They’re paying me for the help, it’s bad karma to defy the spirit of the deal.”

Lucy nodded.

Zed headed back to the building with the workshop in it.  She could hear an engine running as he opened the door.

She walked, traveling the perimeter of the school, trying to refocus.

Couldn’t lose sight of the goal.  She’d had glimpses of the Faerie.  If they ended up having to deal with Maricia… would they run into a place like that?  Or other faerie from a place like that?  Or maybe Guilherme?  Was there a chance he was a culprit, with his mysterious conversation partner that was tied into his alibi?  Would she get to that warm place of tantalizing smells and nature, while chasing him?

What defenses could they erect?

With nowhere specific to go, she decided to head to the bridge.  Simply out of curiosity about the jump, and how rickety it was.

Ms. Ellingson?

Her head turned.

It was a whisper, a sound on the wind that she could have dismissed as her brain playing tricks on her.

But out here, in nature, with barely any other sounds…

She followed it.

EllingsonKennet

She walked the path, stepping away from the one that was supposed to lead to the bridge.

She found them, not that far from the school or that deep into the paths.  The Dollmaker, Graubard, and the ex-headmaster, Bristow, talking.

She recognized them, and in the same moment she connected faces to names, they looked at her.  She felt the answering recognition like a plucking of a guitar string.

She turned and walked away, her heart pounding.

Had they been talking about her, in the lead-up?  Mr. Sunshine hadn’t even been able to connect her name to her face.

So why were a guest teacher and ex-headmaster able to?

Someone else had to be tied into that.  But was that someone Alexander?  Or someone from home?  A Faerie?  A goblin?

“Verona,” Lucy whispered.

She looked for and saw the connection.

Glancing behind herself to make sure they hadn’t followed her out, she retraced the steps she’d taken since leaving that conversation with Zed.

“Verona,” she said, again.

There was a twinge again.  Verona opened the door to one of the buildings.  Then she waved for Lucy to come, smiling.

“Didn’t have to call a third time.”

“Nah.  Got bored at beginner class?” Verona asked.

Lucy thought about telling her, but that would have to wait, just in case.  It was possible Bristow and Graubard would talk to Alexander in the meantime, but… those chances were slim.  And they’d been out a distance from school.  Maybe intentionally talking outside of Alexander’s view?

“Where’s your teacher?” Lucy asked.  She looked around the space.  It looked pretty extensive, with lots of counters, some short bookshelves, and adjacent rooms that might have been more dorm spaces.  Maybe for senior students who needed to sleep near the workshop overnight.  Or just more dorm space.

“Out for a pee break, I think,” Verona said, welcoming Lucy in.  Verona had her scissors from the awakening ritual sitting on a diagram on a sturdy counter with a slate top.  There were another twenty students around the class, many working in pairs or trios.  “Waiting for her to get back before I open fire.”

“Open fire?”

“It’s complicated.  I think I impressed her, though.  I’m glad I did some reading last night.  Turns out that Librarian animus makes some great book recommendations.  Amusing how that works.”

Just how much attention are people paying to us?  How serious was that talk?  What did it have to do with Kennet?

“Catch me up?” Lucy asked.

Verona turned a book so it was at an angle both she and Lucy could read, and she beamed, excited and happy.

Lucy only frowned.  The anger of dealing with a pain-in-the-ass teacher forgotten but not lost, replaced with a deep and abiding concern.

It could be nothing, a rational part of her said.

It isn’t nothing, answered that other part of her, that had just been lit up with simulations of karma and divinity, colored with spirit and seven shades of Faerie, and shaded with darknesses both visceral and ruined.


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[4.5 Spoilers] Bedtime Reading

Forged Hearts, Tess Hager

PSBN: 7340927009515
On Loan to BHI by:
L. Graubard
Level: Intermediate
Schools:
Enchantment, Sympathetic Practices

Chapter One, Introduction

I was raised by crafty people, in every sense of the word.  Craftsmanship, cunning, and the ‘craft’ of witchcraft.  My mother was traded to a Gnarling as a slave to make things for sale, in a wayside realm where Others hid, somewhere between the Faerie and Earth.  She created toys and trinkets, enchanting them, and the Other would curse them, before selling them to the unwitting.  The curses would do their work, upending lives and casting people to long torments, collect the misery, and make their way back to the Gnarling’s hands.

My father was a teenage practitioner, nothing too fancy, and would travel to and fro, buying and selling on each trip.  He came across my mother, whittling and painting, and offered her help, to reduce her workload and give her time enough to talk with him.  She accepted, and thus they met through the making of things.

There is more to that tale.  She accepted his help, but he wasn’t nearly so practiced as her, when she’d done that work all her life.  It would be another ten years before she told him that her Gnarling ‘mother’ had thrashed her violently with holly branches after every one of his visits, for wasting the resources and doing work so poor it wouldn’t hold a curse.  A fair price, as she saw it, for the company of this boy she was so besotted with.  But she did escape, trading a curse to a neighbor in exchange for a giant’s yawn, and trading the giant’s yawn for a welcome.  She spun the welcome into an Awakening, doing it as my father had explained, made a promise to all Others, and then aimed Gnarling’s curses at her, secretly, one by one, over the course of a sleepless night. And that Faerie-cousin of a thing, already little more than a walking curse, was done and undone three times over by each curse in turn, until she was unmade.

My mother walked the path my father had said he took to reach that place between Faerie and Earth, arrived in America without money, identification, or the ability to read.  She crossed half a continent to find my father, they embraced, and then they were married within the week.

My father’s side of the story is shorter.  When he was seven, his older brother drew a diagram to show him the summoning of an elemental.  A part of the diagram was not closed, and the uncle I would never know had his very being pulled into the open part of the diagram.  Elemental practitioners will be able to guess the end result; his being was folded into the natural, and as my father tells the story, for an acre around, wood became bone, grass became tattered flesh and hair, dirt became ground meat, and the wind became a scream punctuated by frantic cries.  I’ve since looked into this, to see if such a thing could be weaponized, and I’m suspicious a seven year old’s interpretation of events painted it as larger in scale than it was. Within and immediately around the circle?  Absolutely.  But an acre?  The power wasn’t there.

Nonetheless, I cannot debate the point with him, because it sits heavily with him five decades later.  It crushed my grandfather, and when my father was awakened at a much older age, he was taught a great deal less.  He led a quiet life, sedate, but he says it wasn’t until he met my mother that he felt at peace.

All of this is a lead-in to some thoughts on my own education, and how my parents approached that.  I was awakened at thirteen, but my parents had not collected a lot of books or practices.  My mother knew what enchanting she had learned from watching the Other who kept her as a slave, and my father had learned just enough elemental practice to know what to watch out for, how to protect himself.  I was sent off to a circle that taught young practitioners, because events at the time had us all wary of the state of the world, and they thought I should be prepared to handle anything that came.

I was so talented with what little they were able to teach me, but when I went to the circle and the tutors that waited for me there, I failed.  I was held back a year, criticized, and it was suggested that the practice wasn’t for me.  An instructor even suggested I was lying when I said I’d made some of the things I’d brought.  My spirits were so low that I started to believe it myself.

It took me four more years before I deciphered the riddle.

Practice, my dears, is about repetition, rhythm, and presentation.  We take some form of power, often something Others have to offer, or a bit of our Self, and we use our inviolable word to push that power into the ruts that the past has carved into existence.  Those ruts are the circuits in the computer of reality, the currents in the aether of unreality.

What, then, of Enchantment?  Not to be confused with enchanters and enchantresses, but the use of practice to make something with its own special workings?

How does one create a pattern when they aim to create something wholly new?  We can inscribe the pattern directly into the thing, that is certainly a way, but then the object is little more than a diagram wrapped around an urn, or sword, or doll.  We could do as my mother once did, and create the same things over and over again.  Surely a rut would form that way.  Perhaps not in one lifetime, but it would form.  Or we could take power or an Other and bind it into the weapon… a process that typically ends with the aforementioned inscribing of a pattern.

These are conventional ways.  I would guess a majority of typical enchanting tutors would teach these methods.  Even when borrowing other methods, I’ve noticed the habit of sealing things with a firm inscription.

Yet there are items that we call ‘enchanted’ that have no inscription, and no preceding pattern of manufacture.  The things created by the Gnarling that enslaved my mother had no mark, and if they had, the gig, as they say, would have swiftly been up.  What good is a cursed item with a large magical diagram on it, or an inscription that is hidden inside the construction, when a child often takes anything and everything apart?

Having a mark creates a weak point, and someone wishing to deal with the object can deal with either the object or the diagram that binds it.  Because of the inherent ‘stickiness’ of any measure one might take, the removal of the binding that seals it can undo the working, ruining the item.  The workings may be intricate when diagrams are involved, and they can be strong, but they may well be only as strong as the material of the object that bears that intricacy.

This was my difficulty, because I was raised with what I would term craft, rather than by practice.  The word ‘practice’ implies rote repetition, with aim of perfection.  Craft, on the other hand, is skill.  Something that comes from the honing of the self.  If it is to be used by people other than oneself, then it requires a skill in conveying something to the audience, or in inviting the audience in.

This tome addresses the manners and ways in which one can develop the skill.

In Chapter Two we discuss the Others for whom craftsmanship is tied to their being.  The Dwarves of Deep Midgard, Artisan Fae of the Spring court, Master Craftsman Animuses, and some Peddlers (a broad category encapsulating your ‘magic shop’ Other, including those similar to the aforementioned Gnarling).  We’ll discuss ways to shape the self and put yourself into your craftsmanship, including titles, signatures, and immersive crafting.

Chapter Three will cover Others who create the material from nothing, sometimes with its own properties.  Greater powers such as gods may create something from nothing to bestow a gift on a chosen champion, some Animuses for whom giving powerful gifts is a common practice (swordbearers), some goblins I hesitate to attempt to label (the labels intentionally change), and those Others with access to a strong means of translating power between states.  Practical lessons that pull on similar concepts detail the creation of an item out of raw power, with lessons ranging from beginner (mundane items) to intermediate (items with power and traits).  There are also some notes on advanced rituals for those with a Demesne, who wish to create a focal point within their place of power to empower an item over time.

Chapter Four covers related topics to chapter two, but in the case of ‘accidental’ crafting, the Other or the Other-associated leaves functionally enchanted objects in their wake.  Others borne of the morass of original void, revenants with their death-tokens, echoes and objects that are receptive but not hallowed, goblins (as in so many things, unfortunately), and things both material and immaterial that reside in another realm for long enough to absorb qualities can all produce these items.  Crafts detailed here include making objects receptive vs. making them hallowed, the means of identifying enchanted detritus, ‘gardenings’ that place an object in a strange realm such as the Abyss, Ruins, or Faerie to be recovered later and ‘architecture’ that prepares a space in one of those strange realms so that an item comes into being or finds its way to the desired point, with the desired qualities.

Chapter Five, the last one in this book, details those Others who are enchanted objects, including items with personality, once-human objects, hallowed items that have housed an Other so long they are inexorably tied, and those Others, such as goblins, who can become objects upon being bound.  We discuss the why, the how, and the advantages.  While many of these cases don’t lend themselves to an easy allegory in craft or crafting (aside from the obvious), they do comfortably provide a way of returning to some of the ideas discussed in this introduction, such as practice, binding, diagrams, and how things might map to those different schools of practice and craft.  Some advanced rituals combine concepts and crafts from earlier chapters, or use practice to help further shape and design the item we wish to have as an end result.

We’ll finish with a basic practice:

A Simple Tempering

A craft to prepare an item and distill its purpose.  A learning exercise.  I’ve prepared and encouraged this exercise with my own children, having them use the personal objects they brought to their awakening rituals for the demonstration.  The clearer connection to those objects helps to see the end result.

You’ll require a space to work, and an item of some meaning or quality.  Keep in mind that, with some of the sub-exercises, you may be keeping this item with you for some time.  You’ll also require some material to draw a diagram with, measuring tools if you want optimal results, and, optional but recommended, a supply of power.

Draw the following diagram on your workspace.  This can be any size, but the object should be able to lie across the Eighth Son cross at the center of the diagram:

Potency circle with Cross of the Eighth Son at center.

The diagram is a strengthening circle, and our aim here is to strengthen the object while blasting power through it.

If you have a source of power, prepare it appropriately, connecting it to the diagram or tapping directly into the ritual.  Failing that, kneeling, slicing one’s hand and allowing eight drops of blood to drip down, and making a declaration of power will serve for most demonstrations, though this will exhaust and diminish the individual until they can recover.

The tempering process is not overly complex and is meant to be an opening action that leads into several other practices in this book.  Conducting every exercise in this text may involve twenty to fifty temperings depending.  The object should be examined thoroughly with the sight; typically, the item will change slightly in appearance, mirroring the type of power used (matching the user if their own personal power was tapped), but to the Sight it may appear hollow, decorated, or ‘open’, depending on one’s particular means of Seeing.

Tempering can serve to create a hallow, as the use of power will remove pollutants, impurities, and loose matter from the item, making it easier for spirits or suitable immaterial Others to move in.  The item can be prepared, decorated, or placed in an area appropriate to the desired type of spirit, echo, or other formless Other that the user wishes to bring into the item.

Tempering serves some other benefits.  If the item is tempered, becomes a hallow for, as an example, water spirits, and tempered again, the water spirits will be pushed into the body of the item, while the core remains hallowed.  Tempering also strengthens objects on a fundamental level, both against physical harm, wear and tear, and keeping them primed for their function.  Blades will stay sharper for longer, for example.

The drawback, however, is that a hallowed item is vulnerable to impurities and unwanted Others.  This renders it weaker or sensitive to immaterial attacks, emotional damage, or ‘picking up’ incidental spirits.  One would not want to temper something they were eating with until they had placed something in the hallow or secured it.  Using a knife that had been tempered to cut meat would bring qualities of the meat into the knife, and it could ‘go bad’, causing food poisoning.  Small physical features may continue to change as things move into the hallow.

Sub exercises:
*  Temper an item important to you (such as what you awoke with) and wear it close to your heart (or your person, if the heart is too difficult) for at least a week.  In this case, we are treating the hallowed object by surrounding it with motifs and qualities.  These motifs and qualities will attract spirits and echoes that are drawn to those motifs and qualities.  Often these will be things that match, but they can be things that consume those qualities.  The motifs and qualities are ourselves and the clothes we wear, and our daily activities, and the spirits and forces attracted should closely align with ourselves.  Examine the item again after.

* Temper an item of some quality that isn’t important to you (for reasons that will soon become apparent).  Leave it be for a time, then return to it.  Study what came to dwell in the hallow, apply fundamental negative principles for that typology of Other, and try to destroy the item.  Use the Sight at every step along the way; familiarity with this process can lead to some ways to destroy other objects.

* Repeat step two, but instead of destroying it, temper it again, specifically targeting whatever resides within it.  Observe the changes in quality.

Once done, we have some foundational knowledge we can use as we move on to chapter one…



Quasi, Unnamed

PSBN: 1139697998664
Added permanently to the BHI library by: Mrs. Durocher
Level: Intermediate
Schools:
Halflight (Heartless var., Visceral)

The moon was behind me, as I walked my lonely path.
Whispers follow’d me, brimm’d of wroth and wrath.
No shadow that I could see, but I could feel his breath.
I turned and staggr’d, then fled from promised death.
Breath fogg’d, heels dogg’d, he wouldn’t let me be.
The monster that threatn’d I, was none other than me.

A man dons an animal skin and stalks a forest trail.  Another drinks an alchemical admixture, and becomes a beast of another sort.

A feral thing wears his victim’s skin and goes to the man’s home to eat a dinner, his family unnerved but unable to say exactly why.  A gossamer wisp of a creature dresses itself up as a babe using clay by the riverbed and the flesh from a dug-up corpse.  Then it wails, and a woman finds it.  The corpse it dug up was that of her baby, recently lost, and she is stunned to long silence by how it resembles her child.  She brings it into her home.

Walls separate man and monster.  Artfully addressed, halflight practices aim to capture the best of both at once.  Once we begin the journey, however, the way back to normalcy is hard, if not impossible.

Quasi is divided into four sections, to be read in any order, as needs demand.

In Harsh Moonlight we look at the means of storing and restoring humanity.  Those who have been set on this path by another may find the techniques therein a good way to stave off transformations or progression of a condition, such as becoming a ghoul or securing a fading Self.  Beginners of Halflight practices are advised to read that section next, and take steps to prepare and stock up on measures to control or recover from what follows.  When a situation gets out of control, the stock of old fingernail clippings or stored blood may prove invaluable for a quick infusion of one’s prior self.

In Long Shadows we list and explore some of the most common creatures that wear human guises and join human society.  These include those creatures both pitiable and nefarious that are human sometimes and lunge into becoming monster, deceivers who wear human guises for long periods of time, dopplegangers, some Faerie, those Offspring who have inbred to the point of edging out of humanity, and we briefly touch on possessors, but our primary intent there is to list better resources.  Material from other sections can be reversed to target weaknesses, compel the human form for a time, or force the monstrous change where nothing can be hidden, to unravel their doings.

In Eclipsed Self we list some of the ways that a human might take steps to become Other, and why.  Some practices are listed, and are somewhat scattershot in approach, providing only some waypoints for further research.  The expert should already know where they wish to be, the beginner will want to start at chapter one and then turn to this chapter to get direction on where to go.

In Fullest Dark we explore the ramifications of Other involvement in human affairs.  What becomes of a family or bloodline?  A marriage?  It is possible for an Other to step into humanity and assume nearly everything about a human life, including the ability to practice, or to take up the life as a role, where they then assume responsibility for deals and contracts.  Conversely, a life may be entirely abandoned, shirking off name, responsibilities, or consequences.  What, truly, is the end result?  Does an individual remember?  Contains some transcripts.

Eclipsed Self, part III

Four basic rituals are listed, in order, as per the Viscera (Otherness stemming from within),  Mien (Otherness starting at the outside), Calendar (Otherness at set intervals), and Unfettered (Otherness from detachment) categories.

The Sixberry admixture is the basic ritual for the Viscera approach, and paves the way for future progression.  A simple and flexible herbal concoction, softening those parts of the Self that are firm, and scouring away that which is disposable.  Taken as a triple dose, one might soften their own bones and features enough to mold them, but should expect up to a month of aches and pains after the admixture’s effect wears off, as the body fights to return to normal.

The Citation practice is the basic ritual for the Mien approach.  A paper is prepared and laid into the skin to meet the Self, then removed.  Color may be pulled from a lock of hair, pupils from eyes, or scars from flesh.  This will weaken the practitioner in many ways, some not immediately obvious or intuitive.  The practitioner should then shore themselves up with power, with the awareness that the type and amount of power will affect just how the body fills in the blanks.  Each ‘surgery’ in this manner may strengthen or alter them in the longer term.  Advanced use of this practice can cite away more abstract elements, but this should be done with extreme care, on a sturdy foundation of healed physical changes done with this or other Mien practices.  Other advanced approaches allow citing away the qualities of another individual or Other, to be taken into oneself, forcing one’s own exaggerated, unwanted qualities into others, and treating one’s wounds by using the Citation to remove the damage.  Removed scraps will take on physical form as papers, mementos and/or things with small power to them, useful in various Visceral practices.  Note that restoration of what was sacrificed is difficult to impossible.

The ‘Bloody Sundays’ Calendar practice is rather more open ended, setting a strict timeframe for changes (not necessarily the namesake Sundays), with a list of possible contracts and Others.  Some of the possibilities include transformation into a vengeance curse, shift into one of the seven Ideal Selves covered in Eclipsed Self Part II (the Brute, the Grace, etc), and tapping into a realm for a set time.  This should be considered a moderate-tier ritual and be conducted with close assistance and due precaution.  Once begun, the contracted timeframe must be ridden out.

Finally, the most accessible Unfettered practice is the Shadow of Oneself.  The Self is opened up and astral projected into, sometimes while the practitioner is asleep.  Individual issues, memories, and facets of the Self can be explored and confronted as physical things and places, growing more meaningful as one gets deeper, and may be slain with physical means or altered with practice.  At seven points along the periphery of the Self where it meets the rest of the universe, often past key barriers (core memories, Karmic barriers, inner demons), one can address or attempt to slay things such as specific connections, specific marks of karma, mortality (and other incarnation-related aspects), and any attached curses or abstract qualities.  Once sufficiently threatened (and it will be threatened even if the practitioner is ‘healing’ it, such as by removing a curse), the Self can be expected to attack the practitioner, in hopes of destroying the part of them that seeks to change so drastically.  A moderate ritual for which assistance is strongly recommended, primarily used for strategic targeting of key problems by those who cannot wait as long as Citation requires.

The practices are listed below…