Dash to Pieces – 11.3

Avery

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Last Thursday: Just in Case


The grass of Edith’s neighbor’s lawn turned black and hard, rustling, hard edges scraping against hard edges as the transition happened.  Each bit of grass became an actual spear or blade, and the grass was just long enough that each blade could point another direction, or be different lengths from its neighbors.

Edith remained where she was, as blades started to grow in length, surrounding her.  Her eyes burned orange, darting around, and her chest rose and fell as she breathed hard.  The blades stopped growing when they got an inch or so from her feet, ankles, calves, knees.  Many of the longest pointed toward her.

“What are you doing?” Avery asked the Sable Prince.

“Facilitating,” he answered.  He enunciated carefully but the ‘ing’ at the end of the word had a roughness to it, as if he had a sore throat but it only caught the end of the word.  It was quiet enough that she could catch it.  His following sentences were similar.  “If you would like me to do something else, you can ask.”

She didn’t know, so she didn’t ask.

“Edith,” Matthew said, quiet.

“Do nothing, Matthew,” Edith told him, turning.

“What’s going on?”

Do nothing.  Hold off.”

“Shutting down Kennet like we did, holding the neighborhood still…” Lucy said, looking around.

“At rest,” the Sable Prince said.

“Is it hard?” Lucy asked.  “Does it cost something?”

“Some.  It was the easiest road forward for what you wanted to do.”

“Can we take this inside?” Lucy asked.  “And not pay that cost?”

“It is not only the house of Edith James, but it is the home of Matthew Moss.  It is their space.  Even if it were her space alone, she would get a chance to respond before everything that is hers is forfeit.”

Edith drew in a deep breath, the orange of her eyes trembling.  “Forfeit?”

“You’ve been indicted, your husband indicted by proxy.  A few words from your area’s practitioners would indict him as well.”

“Indicted?” Matthew asked.  He took in the scene in a new light, then shook his head.  “No, that’s too much, this is too much-”

“The situation is pretty serious and the stakes are pretty high, Matthew,” Lucy said.  “Are you going to cooperate?”

“Are you going to execute my wife on my neighbor’s lawn?  In my house?  This can’t be how it- no.”

“We don’t want to execute her,” Avery said.  “That’s part of why we’re doing it this way.  We went to the Judges to double check that our course of action was right and within our rights and the Sable Prince is supposed to help ensure this all goes smoothly, with as little fighting as possible.”

“We’d like to start with questions,” Verona interjected.

“Are you going to cooperate?” Lucy asked.

Matthew looked over at Edith.  “I don’t even know what cooperation entails.  But I won’t fight you.”

Edith nodded once.

“It should be a lot easier and more comfortable if we can do this inside,” Avery said.

It seemed like Matthew was so overwhelmed he was having trouble taking it all in.  “John?”

“I trust them,” John said.

“I don’t,” Edith added.

“You have your gun out,” Matthew said.

“One of my guns.”

“Can we go inside?” Lucy pressed.  “So the Sable isn’t wasting power keeping the coast clear?  That’s a cost that has a receipt, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” the Sable Prince answered.  “Amortized by the flows of karmic right and responsibility.”

“I don’t know what that word means,” Lucy told him.

“I’ll rephrase.  It’s written off because it’s my job.  Because you seem to be in the right here.  If you’re not then it will fall on your shoulders.  If you are, then it will add more weight to what falls across hers.”

“Can we go inside?” Lucy asked, again, looking over in the direction of Matthew and Edith. “I think we need your permission.”

“It’s easier,” the Sable Prince said.

“Meaning we could trespass but it would muck things up?” Verona asked.

The Sable Prince nodded once.

“We should go inside, then,” Edith said.  “Matthew?”

“Yeah.  Okay, permission given.”

“Basement, please,” Lucy told Edith.

The blades of black stone grass receded.  Edith stepped forward hesitantly, and the blades that remained shattered and crumbled.  She crossed the lawn, walked through the black wood chips of her own ‘lawn’, and entered her house.  John followed immediately behind her, while Matthew stood to the side of the front steps.

Avery glanced at him as they joined the procession.

“You’ve drawn on yourselves,” Matthew commented, as Verona walked by.  Verona’s hooded top had a ‘v’ at the neck and dipped low enough that the drawing at her neck and collarbone was visible.

“In case things got violent,” Lucy answered.

“I don’t think I would have thought to do that when I was your age, or known what to draw.”

“I was at this for barely more than a week when I got stranded at the Forest Ribbon Trail,” Avery said, skipping up the steps and pausing at the railing before entering the front door.  “With everything that’s been going on we’ve had to learn fast.”

“We offered to let you scale back, do less.”

“Was that you or Edith who pushed that?” Lucy asked, from the front hall.

“I’m going to hold off on answering questions until I know more about what’s at stake here.”

“Alright,” Lucy said.

They entered the basement.  Edith turned on the lights, and Avery could see that the lines on the floor from McKay’s binding had been thoroughly cleaned away.  There were cleaning supplies piled up in the laundry room, just beside the door.

The room was square, but had a corner blocked off, an appliance humming within.  Furnace or water heater, maybe.  Dark wooden floorboards, with wine red walls.  Edith had planted herself in the far end, beside that humming, blocked off area.  A small television was in the corner, dusty and connected to a cable box, and some furniture that had once been arranged to face the screen had been moved and turned around to face the spot where McKay had been bound.  A few squat cabinets and shelves held books and a multitude of small candlesticks and jars with candles in them.

Some of the artwork was pretty normal, and might have been stuff Matthew had picked up, but there was also an arrangement of planks that looked like it had been scorched strategically, and a collection of wicker bristles and woven things arranged around branches, that looked like a star giving birth to baby witch’s brooms.  Avery found herself studying it in new light.

“Can we take that down?” Avery asked, pointing at the decoration.  “And put that aside?”

“Who are you asking?” Matthew asked.

“You.”

“I’m not about to set fire to my own house,” Edith said.  “Or my decor.”

“It gives me a bad feeling.  It’s very you,” Avery said.

“Claim,” Verona added.  “Could influence spiritual flows.”

“Well, that,” Avery said.  “But also I remember when we were protecting the perimeter against Aware, she liked surrounding herself with candles, papers, and things.”

“Trust your instincts,” Lucy said.  “Matthew?  Please.  The candles and candlesticks too.”

“Do whatever,” Edith said, sounding disgusted.  She stood surrounded by soft chairs and a futon, and she didn’t sit.

Matthew approached, went to put a hand on her shoulder, and she leaned away from the hand.  He remained there with hand still for a solid second, before he went to lift the wicker thing off the wall.  He got the wooden planks, four vertical, one horizontal, all black and burned, with a bit of a grunt.

Lucy and Avery grabbed candles and candlesticks while he did that, passing some extra to Snowdrop, who helped carry.  Everything went upstairs.

John, the Sable Prince, and Tashlit remained in the center of the room, blocking off Edith, who remained at the far end.

“Do you want me to release my hold on things?” the Sable asked.  “You implied it earlier.”

“What are the consequences of that?” Lucy asked.

“The residents of this area can go about their evenings again.  Whether they are neutral or enemies.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “John, Tashlit, can you guys do us a favor and keep an eye out?  Matthew, don’t let anyone in?  And if someone does come in because they don’t use doors, like Cig or Alpeana, don’t let them leave without us addressing it.”

“Windows,” Avery said, pointing.  “The goblins come in that way sometimes.”

John crossed the room, going to the window, and locked them.

“Is this a soft binding then?” Edith asked.  “Me held at bay by the threat of a gun and a judge?”

“For now,” Verona said.  “We’ll probably end up drawing something.  We thought you might fight, so we didn’t want to commit to anything.  If you cooperate, we were thinking we’d use all the available floor space.  Leave you room to move.”

“It depends on how open you are with answers and how dangerous we think you are, at the end of this,” Lucy said.  “And if Matthew is willing to agree to swear not to interfere or release you.  And other things.”

“And if I’m not?” Matthew asked.

“We discussed separating the Girl by Candlelight from the body, and binding that, somewhere else,” Avery said.  It felt uncomfortable to say.

Matthew looked shocked at first.  The shock dissipated, replaced with a deep, dark sort of concern.

Edith’s expression didn’t change.  It was like she considered that an inevitability.

With everything removed, Snowdrop returned, wiping traces of candle wax off her hands.  Tashlit sat on the stairs, one eye out the window that looked out in the direction of the driveway, able to see who came from upstairs and also see through to where they were with Edith.  John stood by the door.

“You’ve withheld critical information, you haven’t treated us fairly or as equals, and you put us at risk while shirking your stated duty to stand between us and outside threats,” Lucy announced.  She glanced at Avery.

“We think you did all of this because you were a culprit in killing and butchering the Carmine Beast,” Avery said, grateful she wasn’t being left until last this time.

She watched Matthew as she said it.  His eyebrows went up.

He met her eyes, and interrupted Verona, who was about to speak.  “You have proof?”

“We’ll probably get to that,” Lucy said.  “For right now, we’d like answers.”

“Are you familiar with the process of forswearing someone?” the Judge asked.

“We’re not wanting to forswear her,” Avery said.  “Especially if that would destroy her.”

“I recognize and agree to that.  I’m asking, are you familiar?”

“We know the basics, I think,” Verona answered.

“The process here is to be much the same.  It is not necessarily enough to say someone’s word is broken.  Local Lords and forces like myself will often decide or put it to tribunal, whether someone is present or not, and the person will have a chance to defend their word.  In some cases, if an oath is made but there are no witnesses to its breaking, we will test the forsworn in some fashion.  Every one of our methods is different.  Some will appear in person and question the forsworn, others will send a sick old woman to cross their paths and see how the forsworn reacts, judging their character.  Here, there are witnesses, but it is still a test.  Words are open to interpretation.  The one who would be called an oathbreaker gets a chance to defend their word.”

“Can I request assistance and guidance?” Edith asked.

“You may not.  It is your word in question.”

“I would be open to her having someone to give her guidance on what to say and what not to say,” Lucy said, “if that guidance was an outside party familiar with karma and law and not familiar or involved with this situation, sworn to secrecy and unable to pass any information on to potential co-conspirators.”

“Woah what?” Verona asked.  “We’re helping her?”

“This is about justice,” Lucy said, looking back at the Sable.  “I’d want the same for us.  Someone roughly equal to help us make sure we’re not overlooking something.”

“That would take time, wouldn’t it?” Edith asked, turning her attention to the Sable.  “I’d have to stay bound or roughly bound in the meantime?”

“It would, and you would have to come to some form of agreement with the three practitioners of this area on your binding.  Someone uninvolved is someone from outside my purview, by definition.  I would send a servant of mine out east to seek someone out.  I think it would take two days.”

“I don’t want to be bound that long.  No.”

“We-”

“If you want to twist around this call for counsel to bind me for extra days, that reflects who you are and what you’re doing,” Edith interrupted, voice heated.  “We shouldn’t have picked you three.”

“What did you think would happen when you appointed us as investigators?” Lucy asked, just as heated.  “I think going with the Judge and pushing for fairness is pretty reasonable here.  We’re not trying to unravel you by forswearing you.  We’re only trying to fulfill our duties and bring the culprits to justice.  Are we being unfair?”

She looked at John as she asked that.

“Terribly unfair,” Snowdrop said.

“I have minimal objections,” John said.  “Depending on what comes up, I may have none.”

“Thank you,” Lucy said.  “Tashlit?  Are you listening?”

Tashlit nodded.

“Any objections on how we’re approaching this?” Verona asked.

Tashlit shook her head.

“Matthew?” Avery spoke up.

“I don’t know enough to say,” he said, wary.

“Then let us start out by addressing the primary points of concern,” the Sable Prince said.  “Please.  Edith James.  You’re first accused of withholding information.  The argument has been presented to me as such.  You, at the time of their awakening, indicated your agreement for this when you offered your power and consent.  You withheld information about binding.  You withheld information about the true nature of Yalda.  When questioned about your involvement in the Carmine Beast’s murder, you ended the conversation early.”

Avery glanced at John as Yalda came up.  He shifted his footing but gave nothing away.

“Others have withheld details.  You haven’t complained about that,” Edith answered.

“None have been more pointed or blatant than you,” Lucy told her.

“But they’ve withheld details or handled the investigations in ways natural to them, because they’re idiots like Cherrypop or natural manipulators like the Fae, no?” Edith asked.

“How do you respond, Edith James?” the Sable Prince asked.

“That is my response.  If they’d condemn me they’d have to condemn others.”

“Cherrypop was actually pretty helpful and great about it,” Verona told Edith.  “I had to bribe her with nuggets and pit her against the other goblins, but she provided good info.  If we have any issues with the Fae we can address it with them specifically.”

“The Kennet Others agreed to the voting system and agreed to not teach you binding at that time.  You went to learn it elsewhere.”

Lucy folded her arms.  “What was your role in that discussion on binding?  You had a leadership position there, no?”

“I did, but so did Matthew, and it’s not as cut and dry as you paint it.  You wanted to bind the Hungry Choir.  A prevailing sentiment was that you were all hurling yourselves at a very dangerous force that most practitioners were declining to handle, because they weren’t strong enough.  Equipping you with a means of going after the Choir when you weren’t ready is tantamount to sending a man to hunt a werewolf with only a wooden spear.  John?”

“I said something about how I thought they were getting in too deep, too fast, back then.  It was Matthew who said the Choir was too strong for most practitioners.”

“Providing the information and encouraging you on a very dangerous path would have run against my oath to keep the practice and your duties from getting in the way of a long and full life,” Edith said.  “We didn’t stand in the way of you seeking the information elsewhere.”

The Sable Prince nodded.  “This is fine.”

“The Choir was too strong for most practitioners because they lacked the critical information.  Yalda’s nature.  In the car, you guys didn’t correct Charles when he told us it was a Black Dog.”

“She is a Black Dog, or was,” Edith said, glancing quickly at the Sable Prince as she made that last correction.  “The non-standard Dogs of War come in varieties that get loose categories.  They were originally named after the dogs leashed at the warrior king’s heels, the hounds famine, sword, and fire.  Then terms changed. The Black Dogs are a broad category that contains famine, contains sickness, contains plagues of insect or rats.  It fits.  Yalda affected people in ways that could be called famine or sickness, binding the gut.”

“And the interview you cut short?” the Sable Prince asked.

“I did not lie when I said what I said.  The timing was poor.  I left a hard meeting with family and then had a meal with you three.  We talked about my inability to have children and questions of my future with Matthew.  It put me in an uncomfortable state.  If things had carried on I might have said something untrue by accident or out of emotion.  You broke bread with us.”

“You walked away,” Avery said.  “You didn’t let us follow up.”

“I was new to being in charge, adding the coordination of the locals to my responsibilities.  We had to adapt to Miss being gone, and I took it on myself to send spirits to the perimeter to protect this territory.”

“But you didn’t let us follow up,” Lucy pressed.  “You took on a hostile stance with us after that.”

“Dire times.  I held off on providing the information because there were more pressing matters, but holding off is not outright refusal.”

“Putting something off forever is withholding it.”

“Did you have any plans to make a meeting with us and provide the full story?” Verona asked.

“Did you have plans to reach out when things were calmer?”  Edith retorted.

“When were things going to be calmer?” Lucy asked.  “End of the summer?  Too late.”

“By what calendar?  The only task we gave you was to investigate.  It’s not a violation of an oath to put things off.  It doesn’t put you in a spot where you’re in violation of an oath we asked of you.”

“If one of you killed the Carmine Beast with the intention of taking the throne, wouldn’t you potentially be putting yourself in the same role as the Sable?  Getting to decide and control the interpretation of the laws and things that determine how you’re interviewed or what punishments there might be?” Lucy asked.

“I have no intention of being Carmine,” Edith said.  “I wouldn’t want it, I wouldn’t be good at it unless I gave up the human part of me and gave up every part of me that lets me love and care for Matthew.”

“When you say ‘I’ do you mean Edith James with the composite spirit and echoes inside, Edith, or the Girl by Candlelight?” Verona asked.

“All of the above have no intention of being Carmine.  But when I say ‘I’ and I’m not speaking of the body of Edith James as a separate part, I mean the first, body and spirit combined.”

“You just hedged,” Verona accused  “When you say body and spirit combined, you’re leaving out-”

“Echo.  As the girl by Candlelight I’m primarily spirit, Verona.  I am a spirit.”

“This is true,” the Judge intoned, his voice taking that rough quality at the end.

“I want to make an issue of this ‘too late’,” Lucy said, to the Sable Prince.  “Am I right?  Would she get to be in charge of making and deciding the rules?”

“That is our purview.  You called us Judges, and this works as a term.  We manage seal and karmic law, we arbitrate the abstract notions of spirit and Other in most of our purview, depending.”

“Depending?” Avery asked.  “Can you clarify?”

“On depending?”

“On all of it.  We were debating… kind of what you guys are all about.  Knowing what the Carmine used to do and what you do is important.”

“In seal, we can use our influence to force Others to be bound to the Seal as they manifest naturally.  Sometimes this is formalized, other times it is implicit, and imprinted on them at the moment of their creation, as instinct and innate understanding.  To secure innocence, not necessarily to keep innocents alive, but in accepting responsibility if innocence is lost.  To keep to Truth in rule of discourse, holding to one’s word.”

“It was the case for me,” John said.  “I always had a sense of innocence.  I couldn’t lie from the moment I lurched to my feet from the midst of a pile of corpses covered in concrete dust.”

Tashlit nodded.  Finger waving between herself and John.  She gestured more.

“Tashlit too,” Verona interpreted.  “Presumably no corpse pile.”

Tashlit pushed fingers and thumb together to make an oval shape.

“She came from an egg.”

“What about me?” Snowdrop asked.

“You as well, in your own peculiar rule of discourse.  Most Others who are created naturally and created on Earth after the date of the Seal’s origination are bound.  All of the Others of this town are bound.  In places without any Judges, where Lords arbitrate instead, more may slip the net, but Lord, Practitioner, and Other are all obligated to enforce the seal at the earliest opportunity.”

“So that’s the seal,” Lucy said.

“We can be called to arbitrate matters of Truth, or new forms of discourse.  As the Judge most concerned with commerce and civilization, the Aurum Coil manages new rules of discourse, such as music, drama, or technological modes of communication.  In some areas, the Judge may be stricter, in others, more lax.  Over time, the rule of discourse is decided by many Judges and collected spirits in many places.  I understand that your Opossum familiar was momentarily the subject of the Alabaster Doe’s attention when she came into being.  I arbitrate many oaths that come to rest when one or both parties die.  When someone is forsworn, we can intervene and interject.  As I’ve stated, if no person lives to call a broken oath into question, we can step in to do so, directly or with another test.  In most contentious debates, one enemy forswearing the other, the Carmine would decide.”

Avery nodded, placing a hand on Snowdrop’s shoulder.

“Again, we do not hold sway everywhere.  In some places, the collected spirits would draw on the law as established to do this.  In others, or in those same areas, a Lord may hold sway and use their position and power to decide.”

“And abstract notions of spirit and Other?” Verona asked.

“Echoes boil forth and disappear regularly enough.  I can open or close the doors that let this happen, to allow more echoes to roam free, to allow them to be closer to the human world, or force a clear distinction.  The Carmine could decide what bogeymen could rise from the Abyss, and how long their leashes would be.  Our departed Carmine kept a short leash here for the Abyssal things, but allowed many feral beasts of an Other bent to roam in the deeper wilderness, keeping them out of man’s way.  Another Judge would see to matters of faith and the forces tied to that faith.”

“Like spirits in the East, before the Oni conflicts,” Verona said.

“And after those conflicts.  The leashes there, for lack of a better term, are quite long, and Others may deal with innocent fairly directly, provided they keep their nature ambiguous at the very least.  Here we are stricter.  When I said ‘depending’ earlier, there are limitations.  Realms I do not cover.  Some spirit-heavy areas have spirit lords who hold sway and they decide these things.”

“Like Lords in Earth?”

“In a loose interpretation.”

Lucy uncrossed her arms.  “The Carmine being dead… you implied that was the way things once were.”

“Before the seal, before we assumed roles as distant arbiters, stepping in only rarely to avert anything that would disrupt the balance of innocent and Other.”

“Like another group of Judges stopping a great primeval attacking the East coast of Canada?” Avery asked, thinking of Ted Havens, the man who’d gone from birth to age thirty a lot of times.

“That is something we do now, that we wouldn’t have done in the more distant past, yes.  That was handled by other Judges in another area because it would have caused untold harm and almost certainly made thousands or tens of thousands Aware.”

“And her being gone now, that’s changing who is deciding all of this?” Lucy asked.  “The arbitrary stuff on what Other gets to pop up?”

“The default assumption, without the Carmine, is that there are no barriers to the emergence of violent abyssal beasts or bogeymen, wraiths, goblins, or spirits, among many Other things.  It is why Kennet in particular is so bloody.  Her influence is present enough to supplant anything we remaining three might do, but at the same time, lacks any will or ability to assert influence.”

“Thank you,” Lucy said.  “If Edith is one of the responsible Others, then does that mean she or someone working with her would be able to use the Carmine Furs to take the throne, and confound us by letting lots of monsters pop up and keep us from questioning her?”

“That is possible.”

“I’ve already said, it wouldn’t, shouldn’t, and won’t be me,” Edith interjected.

“Do you know who is?” Avery asked.

“I couldn’t say.”

Before Avery could follow up, Lucy held up a finger, thought for a second, and then asked, “Would it be possible, then, for them to oversee Edith’s case, if we then decided she wasn’t providing us everything she said she would, challenged her, and her Judge friend in their new Carmine look could then favor her heavily and tell us to screw off?”

“That is not out of the question,” the Sable Prince said.

“And, if it’s a question of seals and karma… could they then wait until someone challenges us on something, calling one or all three of us forsworn, and have their own person do what you’re doing right now and decide the outcome?”

Avery felt the hairs on the back of her neck stand on edge.  Snowdrop looked up at her.

“There would have to be some merit to the challenge, but yes.  They could even take a very liberal interpretation of what constitutes an Oath and what constitutes breaking it.”

Verona looked at Lucy, frowned a second, then said, “That’s only during their term of service as a Judge?”

“If a matter from before their term started was brought up or if they decided an event left fallow was in their purview, they could arbitrate it as they saw fit, provided it had some merit.”

“And they’d be rid of us,” Avery said, quiet, the hairs that were standing up going all down her spine and arms.

“That seems like a very frigging huge loophole,” Lucy said, her voice rising.  “If someone can take the seat and just arbitrarily decide fuck these three practitioners they have a personal stake in messing with, those guys are forsworn!?”

“That’s- um,” Avery said, hesitating, cutting in before Lucy could get too heated.  Lucy looked at her.  “There’s no way around it?”

“Appeals?” Verona asked.  “Or asking other Judges to handle it?  You guys each have your areas, right?  Does that go for forswearing?”

“If you’ll ask one question at a time I can answer them one at a time.”

“Appeals,” Lucy said.  “Please.”

“There are appeals.  They would usually go to the same Judge that made the same ruling, or the same role.  Carmine to Carmine.”

“But we could go to another?” Avery asked.  “We could go to the Alabaster?”

“Yes, though we rarely change the decisions or intervene in the affairs of other Judges.  Our process is fluid and natural, we instinctively know what the others are doing.”

“So it’s up to them to bring up the case, they can decide the outcome, and then it’s up to them to handle the appeal, and you don’t see what’s wrong with that!?” Lucy asked.

“What about asking another Judge to handle the initial forswearing?” Verona cut in, because Lucy was getting heated.

“One question at a time, please.”

“Hers,” Lucy said, looking briefly disgusted, indicating Verona.

“You could appeal to the Judge and ask them to stand down to be impartial.”

“And are they obligated, is there another force that could…?” Verona asked.

The Sable Prince shook his head.  “Our process is old, simple, and not so convoluted as that.  Enforcement happens by the same laws that defined your bronze age.  If you do not like them, you can challenge the Judge for their seat, or you can establish a Lordship and let the Lordship arbitrate instead.”

“We can’t do that if we’re-” Lucy started.  John touched her shoulder and she reflexively pulled away.  Then she looked back at him, the look in his eyes, and she made herself calm down.  In a more level voice, she said, “We can’t do that if we’re forsworn.”

“Not easily, no.  It would have to be preemptive,” the Sable Prince said.

“I don’t think-” Avery started.  She hesitated, still thrown by this.  She glanced down at Snowdrop, back to Tashlit, then up at John.  “I don’t think that would go over super well.”

“We’ve discussed it,” John said.  “A seat of Lordship invites challenge in the same way the Carmine Throne does.  It also sets standards.”

“Like?” Lucy asked.

“Not being able to keep a perimeter and limit the access of practitioners.  We’d be subordinate to greater Lords of more powerful areas.  Some with subordinates who might take over our Lordship to expand the territory of that superior.”

“Some are practitioners, right?” Verona asked.

“Yes.”

“With kids?  Keeping it all in the family?”

“Yes.”

“There’s no other way to divert this or stop it from coming to pass?” Verona asked.  “You guys don’t go, hey, this is jank, we’re going to step in to protect the role of the Judges?”

The Sable Prince answered, “You’re in the midst of the primary other way as we speak.  I’m here in part because of the gravity of the situation.  If someone has taken the Wrong course to take the throne, it would be good to address that.”

“Uhhhh,” Avery said.

There was a brief pause.

“This really has you concerned,” Matthew spoke up for the first time in a bit.

“Uhhh, yeah,” Lucy said.  “Because I overheard someone, and by elimination, I’m fairly sure it’s Edith here, in this house, saying they’d get rid of us.  And if it’s not her it’s someone, so yeah, it’s a concern.”

“No,” Matthew said.  “I don’t believe it would be Edith.”

“At the meeting we weren’t invited to?  That’s part of point number two, by the way, which I do want to get to,” Lucy told the Sable Prince.

“As you wish.”

Lucy turned back to Matthew.  “-When we crashed it to let you know about the guys who were at the police station?”

“No,” Matthew said.  “I don’t recall that.”

“No?” Lucy asked, pointing an accusing finger at Edith.

“Were you spying?  Because I said something, but that wasn’t the exact wording-”

“It’s my implement, bitch!” Lucy said, pulling back the accusing finger to flick her earring.  “Eavesdropper’s earring.  It’s pretty hard for me to not catch some stuff by mistake.  Which you shouldn’t be surprised about if you did your research about who I am prior to inviting me in.”

“We left that to Miss,” Matthew said.

“Your oversight isn’t my responsibility,” Lucy told him.  “Now, unless someone was fucking with me, your wife said something to that effect-”

“Not to me, not in my earshot,” Matthew said.  “I’m almost certain.”

“Edith, did you or did you not say something to the effect of ‘we can’t keep them from living long lives, but one way or another, we’ll get rid of them?”

“As spirit, echo, body, or some combination of those things?” Verona added.  “Did you say it?”

“And if you said it and Matthew wasn’t there, who was there when you said it?” Avery cut in.  Left to last again, damn it.  “If it wasn’t you, then do you know who it was?”

Edith shook her head, looking away.  She didn’t answer.

“Edith?” Lucy asked.

“There was context.  The new Others in Kennet especially are nervous about you being here as active practitioners.”

Lucy folded her arms, stepping closer.  “By the Awakening Oaths, you pledged to give us a long and full life.  I remember you saying something to the effect of you not needing to worry about us in the long term.  That conflicts.  Confirm, deny, or explain.”

“I can help give you a long and full life without worrying about you.”

“Was that what you were going to do?” Avery asked.  “Or what you are going to do?”

“I’m not perfect,” Edith told the Sable Prince.  “I have a human body and a human brain that hosts me.  It gets tired, and it loses concentration.  With this kind of badgering I may start making mistakes, in wording, judgment, or details.”

“I’ll be lenient with that in mind,” he said.

“And if I don’t want to answer?”

“That’s your choice,” the Sable Prince said.

“We can’t compel her?” Avery asked.  “With you here?”

“You can, but me being here doesn’t force the answers to come.  By the seal of Solomon, Others that are bound can be compelled to give an answer if asked three times.”

We saw that happen with Gashwad.  Or Lucy and me did, anyway.

Avery fidgeted.  Her neck-hairs hadn’t completely settled.  Her fidgeting took the form of fingers touching the seams of Snowdrop’s shirt along her shoulders, and Snowdrop reached out to fidget back, fingers tapping Avery’s fingers, before she took Avery’s hands.

“Do we want to do that, then?” Lucy asked.

“I don’t,” Edith said.

“I would object,” Matthew said.

“Even hearing what you’ve heard?”

“Nothing too incriminating has been confirmed yet.  I have to stand by my wife until there’s more to what you’re saying.  Binding is barbaric and can easily be taken further than initially meant to.”

“This is the fastest way I can think of to confirmation,” Lucy said.

“Find another way.  This is also the easiest route to manipulating the situation to get the answers you want,” Matthew said.

“What if we swore?” Avery asked.  “A binding to get answers, then release.”

“You could release her into a prepared binding circle.”

“We could swear not to.  We could swear to return her to this situation.”

“Which is a soft binding unto itself, on yet-unjustified pretenses,” Edith said.

“And there are other loopholes, and however many I could name and ask you to come up with answers for…” Matthew raised his hands, then dropped them to his sides.  “There are three of you and I am an average man from a far-from-average background and I worry I may not be as smart as any one of you three, let alone all three of you together.  I can’t come up with everything you might do once you have Edith firmly in your control.  I can say no, not in my house, not unless you indict me directly, as you have Edith.”

“Frankly, we think you might be involved in some capacity, but from the way you’ve talked about us, and been open where Edith hasn’t, we don’t think you’re the ringleader,” Lucy said.  “There are others we’d bind before you.”

“I’m talking about what happens here, tonight.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  She turned away, then started pacing the width of the room, wall to the corner of the jutting room that surrounded the furnace or water heater or both.  “Let’s go back.”

“To?” Matthew asked.  He sounded defensive.  Edith, by comparison, was quiet.

“Three primary arguments against Edith.  We were discussing the sharing of information.  Edith James, from the framing of her response, suggests she had no intention of sharing with us before the end of summer.  But the end of summer, with the way things are slated to go, may see John Stiles dead and one of the conspirators in the murder of the Carmine Beast atop the throne, capable of being lawyer and judge over their own crime.  And over us, for that matter.  Yes?”

“To clarify,” the Sable Prince intoned, “you asked if it was possible.  It is.  But it’s not likely.  The role is a passive, observing one.”

“But it could.”

“It could, but it isn’t likely.”

“Is there any rule or procedure that stops it from happening?  Or stops it when it’s underway?”

“This, here, as I already stated.  Those who would lie or break oaths to arrange the position can be challenged and dealt with before they take that position.”

“Does it always stop them?”

“No.  But it’s rare for it to happen in the first place.”

“So it happens sometimes?” Verona asked.

“Yes.  But rarely, if ever, with the Carmine role or roles like it.  Almost always, it’s the Alabaster.”

“The Alabaster?” Avery asked.  “I went to her domain.  Why her?”

“Because she is the prey animal, the victim, and is vulnerable, by her very nature, just as I am chthonic death, gatekeeper, guide and guide of the other guides and psychopomps of our reality, and the Carmine is bloody violence.”

“To put it in simpler terms,” John said, “the Carmine Beast and those who sit in its throne fight back.  The Alabaster doesn’t.”

“From what the witness Louise told us, the Carmine didn’t really fight back,” Lucy said.

“It seems not,” John said.

“So the only thing that keeps this from happening is convention?” Verona asked.

“The practice is defined in large part by convention.  I wouldn’t say only when it occupies the space it does,” the Sable Prince said.

“Convention, then,” Lucy said.  “That doesn’t feel like enough.”

“What we’re doing here tonight is also a convention,” the Sable Prince told her.

Avery saw the argument getting circular and Edith seemed to be getting ground, so she spoke up, saying, “So we made argument one based on how Edith should have told us things and didn’t.  Binding?  She made an excuse.  The Choir?  She claimed it was a question of labels.  But when it came to her own deeds-”

“After asking us to investigate,” Lucy interjected.

“-She didn’t tell us the full story and seems to have no plans to share it until after she could be punished for it.”

“That’s a big seems,” Edith said.  “As the Sable Prince said, it doesn’t happen often.”

“It sure seems to be happening here,” Lucy told her.

“Moving on to point two?” Verona asked.

“Equality and fairness among the locals,” Avery said.  “I mentioned this one last night.  We were offered a vote but you haven’t held any formal votes where we got a fair say.  You’ve held meetings without us-”

“Did say we’d bring that up,” Lucy told the Sable Prince.

“-And you’ve stated you wanted to get rid of us.  You’ve provided no context for that, yet,” Avery finished.

Edith shook her head.  “I can’t without violating confidence and risking that you’d be irate with one or more of the locals.  That would defeat the purpose of reassuring them.”

“Do you have any points in your defense?”

“Do you have any clearer points to make in the first place?  You’ve been practicing for a matter of months and weeks.  We’ve held six or seven meetings with the full town and several with partial groups.  The span where you were away for several weeks had a good share of those meetings.”

“How many votes did you hold?” Avery asked.

“I don’t know.  For some Kennet Others there were several.”

“We weren’t invited to those.”

“You weren’t here for those.  We voted on whether to bring them in.  You were away.  If you want inclusion you have to be here,” Edith retorted.

“Did you email?  Reach out?”  Verona asked.

“You described Matthew erroneously as a boomer.  As a spirit I am technology averse.”

“A letter?  A phone call?” Verona asked.

“We gave your offerings and considerations for potential Kennet Others their due weight.  One of them is sitting on the stairs, watching out the window in case anyone approaches the house.”

“We didn’t get a say in the rest, though, did we?  By a compared number of votes…?” Avery pressed, worried her argument would be the weakest of them.

John cleared his throat.

They all looked at him.  “It was a lot of votes in total, and if the votes in favor of nominating Peckersnot and Tashlit-”

“Ahem,” Snowdrop cleared her throat.  “I don’t want to be included in this rabble.  I’m better than you guys.”

“-And Snowdrop’s natural inclusion, if those were votes on behalf of the Kennet practitioners, that’s only a small few, compared to all of the goblins, Lis, Nibble, Chloe, Rook, Jabber, Montague, and Ken.”

“Ken was brought on with the three practitioners in mind,” Matthew said.  He looked at Edith, “Right?”

“He explicitly was, to connect to the human element of Kennet.”

“Yeah, uhhhh, no?” Lucy raised her voice, rising up a little taller.  “Because you didn’t ask.  You assumed, and that, Matthew, Edith, is one of the big ways in which you didn’t treat us as equal or involve us in a fair way.  You assumed and you jumped to it and I can tell you right now that I was way less than impressed the moment I read the email summarizing the Ken situation.”

“What?  Why?” Matthew asked.

“Because the spirit of Kennet as a whole is as much a problem as anything.  Now I’ve tried to be open minded and cool but dude, Kennet is kinda a bit racist.  It has, like you admitted, a drinking and drug problem.  Kennet is really awful at looking after itself and standing up for its rights.  I could have and would have told you all of that, but I didn’t get a vote so it doesn’t count.  No.

“We did talk about all that in the car, driving back,” Avery said.

“And John brought up Rook,” Lucy pressed.  “What was it you said?  Sorry girls, this might be a difficult one but we need her.”

“No vote,” Verona jumped in.

Lucy continued, saying, “With no vote on the matter.  What the hell, dude?  What the hell, Edith?  You use us for some specific stuff that you need a practitioner for, but you don’t include us in this?  We deserved better than that.  We deserve better than being given the short shrift or being told we shouldn’t ask for gifts.  We’ve bled for you.  We went toe to toe with monsters for you.  Come on!”

“These accusations could be leveled against all of the original Kennet Others.”

“You led this group.  Miss was fine but this got worse when you guys took over the leadership,” Lucy said.

“Can you tell us, sincerely and without fiddling around, that you meant to include us?” Avery asked.  “Wholly and fairly?  That you weren’t trying to diminish us or leave us out just in case?”

“Yes,” Matthew said.

The silence followed.

He looked back at Edith.

“Silence says a lot,” Verona told the Sable Prince.

“It also doesn’t confirm matters.  But we’ll keep it in mind.”

“Point three,” Lucy said.  “Harm.  Goes back to what you said at the party.”

“You’ve litigated this,” Edith said.

“Fancy word but we didn’t really finish it did we?” Verona asked.

Avery added, “Can you tell us you didn’t mean to hurt us?”

“I swore not to.  I intended to keep that oath.”

Avery pressed, “Harm in other ways, scaring us away?  Uprooting us from home and family?”

“Many small things crossed my mind and I meant some and only flirted a bit with the rest,” Edith said.  “I couldn’t say for certain everything I considered and didn’t and give you a good answer.”

“Did you intend to follow through on what you said at the meeting and get rid of us?” Avery asked.

Edith didn’t answer.

The hairs on Avery’s neck stood up again.

Lucy addressed Edith, deadly serious.  “Edith James, we intend to bind you by your Word-”

“No,” Matthew interrupted.  “No, Lucy.”

Lucy stopped, but her expression remained serious.

“Matthew,” John said.  “I consider you a friend.”

“It’s not certain.”

“We can use this to establish that certainty,” Verona said.

“No.  I spent so long helping her to become a whole person, I can’t risk that this causes her harm or sets her back.  She’d risk losing things if it was rough enough.”

“We’ll be gentle,” Avery said.  “Have we ever indicated we wouldn’t?”

“Some.  In little, careless things.”

“But mostly.  The little things aside?”

“No.  I can’t agree to it.”

“Thank you, Matthew,” Edith said.

He looked back at her then looked away.

Whatever had come up already tonight, he looked uncomfortable with it.  But he stood by her even with that.

Matthew walked over to a short bookshelf that had been emptied of books and candles and leaned against it, butt against the upper edge, eyes downcast.

“Should we take a break?” John asked.

“Can we?” Lucy asked the Sable Prince.  “Does it weaken anything?”

“Edith should remain here.  You shouldn’t go far.  A short break is fine.  This matter has my full attention tonight, barring extraordinary event.”

“Like a primeval appearing off the shores of the great lake?” Verona asked.

“That would count, yes,” the Sable Prince told her.

They broke away, walking over toward Tashlit.  John followed, but he stopped at the doorway, blocking it, watching them and watching Edith both.

Avery looked for a place to sit, and in the process, thoughts crossed her mind.  She didn’t sit.  Snowdrop plunked herself down, sitting against the wall by the base of the stairs, and then gave her lap a pat, inviting Avery to sit, even though Avery would probably squish her a bit.  Avery moved like she was going to sit down, then turned, passing by John.  “Sable Prince?”

“Yes, Avery Kelly?”

“You said there were other options.  For how we could avoid the consequences of a malign Carmine Beast abusing its position to target us.”

“Yes.  Too many to name, but most are unlikely, down to chance, or difficult to assemble.”

“Is one of those options to just… leave?”

“You’ve sworn an oath to look after Kennet.  You would need to return at some point.”

“But… yes?  We could leave Kennet?”

“You could spend much of your time away from Kennet.  It’s my understanding that this was outlined to you before you had your Awakening ritual.”

“It was.  Okay.  Thank you.”

“You’d need to leave the territory the Carmine Beast holds sway, or you’d need to settle in a place with a Lord.  You’d be vulnerable when you returned and you’d be forsworn if a sound argument could be made that you’d abandoned Kennet entirely.”

Avery nodded.  “Figured.”

“Anything else?”

She shook her head.  Then she returned to the others.  She eased herself down and sat in the hollow between Snowdrop’s knees, as she pressed the heels of shoes with opossum-paw treads together and pulled knees apart until they were nearly touching the ground.  Snowdrop hugged her from behind as she leaned forward a bit.

“What was that about?” Lucy asked.

“Stuff,” Avery said.

“Relevant stuff?” Verona asked.

“Only that we could escape.  At least for a while,” Avery said.

“I heard,” Lucy said, “but what are you thinking?  Leaving?”

“If they want to get rid of us then maybe having us go live elsewhere would get us out of their hair and we could abandon the persecution of the Carmine murderers-”

Lucy was already shaking her head.

“-if we absolutely had to,” Avery told them.  “It’s better than being forsworn.”

“The Hungry Choir was made,” Lucy said, quiet.  “And the people who made it effectively killed hundreds or thousands of vulnerable people.  That’s messed up.”

“So is us getting forsworn if we can avoid it,” Verona said.  “We can do something for those people if we stay free and healthy for the rest of our lives.  Even if we’re not actually going after the culprits.”

“You really want to run?” Lucy asked.

“No,” Avery said.  “I fully intend to stick around.”

“Okay.”

“Are you going to tell them?” Snowdrop asked, cheek resting against Avery’s back.

“Tell us what?” Verona asked.

“You little rat,” Avery said.  “No, no, you don’t get to hug me if you’re pulling stunts like that.  I didn’t want them to worry.”

“That’s fair, I’m definitely a rat,” Snowdrop said.  “Not an opossum.  Can’t you see?”

“Tell us what?” Lucy asked, serious.

“Aw fuck, frig,” Avery said.  “Look, I pretty much already gave my answer.  But my mom’s moving out.”

“Your parents are separating?” Verona asked.

“Yes, but-”

“Seriously?  They seemed to like each other.”

“They do, but-”

“They don’t love each other?” Verona asked.

“They love each other.  Stop interrupting!” Avery said.  “Stop.”

Verona shut up.

“Remember back when we had the awakening ritual?” Avery asked.  “And I asked, um, what would happen if I had to bail?”

“You were thinking about it back then?” Lucy asked.  She looked hurt.

“I was thinking… my mom has this job she’s been doing in Thunder Bay for the last year, and someone quit and she got the head position there.  She goes on weekends and she’s been setting up the new office, and it was always this thing where, like, we might have to move if my mom got set up and my dad didn’t have anything.  But I left homeschool and my siblings did too, and my dad took the opportunity to resume working full time instead of working part time and… he’s good at it.  Earning good money, respected, and he wants to keep doing it.”

“So your mom’s leaving and your dad’s staying?”

“And they’ll be long distance.  They asked earlier, if we kids were to split up… who would want to go?”

“And?” Lucy asked.

“And Grumble would stay by default because he has to, and Dad would stay and Declan and Kerry would stay.  Sheridan and Rowan would go with my mom.  Rowan could follow after Laurie if she gets into school in Thunder Bay and Sheridan wants out of the small town.”

“And you?” Verona asked.

“I said I’d stay.  But it’s hard and complicated, y’know?  And it means, um…”

Lucy gave Avery’s arm a light swat.

“…Verona’s got a maybe escape route and so do I and…”

“I don’t, really,” Lucy said.  “My mom just got a job she wanted.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “It’s just a thing that’s happening and if things get bad or scary… it’s an option, right?  You could ask your mom to quit?”

Lucy made a face, pained.

“That’s worst case.  We’re not necessarily there,” Verona said.

“Ugh,” Lucy said.  “It’s a worst case scenario for a situation that’s supposed to be weeks away.  A situation where John would be dead and we don’t want that happening.  Right John?”

“Mmm.”

“We don’t want you to sacrifice yourself.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Frig!” Lucy hopped down from the stair and up to her feet.  She stopped when she stood where she could look past John to where Matthew and Edith were talking.

“Sorry,” Avery said.  “It’s not even really a big deal right this moment.  It’s got me thinking in certain ways about certain things, that’s all.”

“Don’t abandon me,” Lucy said.  “Don’t make me be the one who stays.”

“Not going to,” Verona replied.  “Really.”

“What are we doing?  What do we ask her?  If we lose this element of surprise, if Maricica comes and interferes, all of this gets harder,” Lucy said.  “Or goblins, or Alpeana, or Lis or Cig.  If word gets out and it becomes an inquisition on us, with no culprit confirmed…”

“Yeah,” Avery replied, her voice almost a whisper.

“I don’t want to waste time.  Frig,” Lucy said.

“Me either,” Avery said.

“It’s an arena, right?  This is our field, we know the tools and rules we have at our disposal, the ref is… reasonably fair?” Verona suggested, shrugging one shoulder.

“He’s fair enough,” Lucy said.  “It’s the system that’s got big gaping holes in it, isn’t it?”

“Usually is,” Verona said.

“Give me some water?” Lucy asked.

Avery got her bag and got water, passing it over.  Lucy drank.  Avery took it back, wiped the mouth, and drank herself.

“Let’s hit her hard and fast,” Lucy said.

“Okay,” Avery said.

“Watch our backs, Verona?  Same as if we were in a fight?”

Verona nodded.

“Hey, Edith,” Lucy said.  She strode past John to the main room of the basement.  “Let’s talk about a few other points, you said you’d be open about information in the future, how are you to answer some questions now?”

“Maybe,” Edith said.

John motioned to Tashlit, indicating they’d take places, and leaped the railing while Tashlit ducked down the stairs, following Verona.  John took up residence as guard and gatekeeper to the basement.

Avery followed Lucy in, one hand guiding Snowdrop, while Tashlit and Verona followed.

“Three missing teenagers.  Do you know anything pertinent that the average person doesn’t?”

“I suspect I do but I can’t say for certain if-”

“Tell me you had no responsibility as conspirator or co-conspirator in going after them and retrieving the furs from them,” Lucy said.

Edith was silent.

“Were you the woman in a mask who made Yalda into the Hungry Choir?” Avery asked.

“What’s this?” John asked.

“Two people, Yalda said, before we got the message from her to you.  Wearing masks, they were involved when she became the Choir.  One was a woman.”

“Tell us that wasn’t you,” Lucy said.  “Come on, Edith.”

Edith was silent.

Matthew gave his wife a long, hard look.

“What happened to the three teenagers, do you know anything pertinent?” Lucy asked.

Edith was silent, almost fuming now.  She looked like she had before she’d blown up and ended the interrogation about her role in the Carmine murder.

Verona touched Avery’s shoulder.  She opened her bag and held it out for Avery.

Avery reached inside and found the hard pencilcase she’d given Verona.  There wasn’t the clatter of a dozen pens and pencils, now.

She opened it, and she got the syringe.

“Matthew, I don’t think you were involved,” Lucy said, looking at Avery.  “I’m asking you, John, Tashlit, and the Sable Prince to please keep our confidence as I ask these next few questions.”

“It depends,” Matthew said.

“Edith James, you were guarding the cabin where the Carmine Furs were held.”

Edith didn’t respond, but her eyes burned now.  Accusatory.

Avery could almost read her mind.  It was you.

Matthew looked back at Edith.

“And this syringe was held there,” Lucy said.

Avery opened the case and showed Edith.  The syringe almost fell.  She had to catch it with a swoop of the case, using her hand to hold it steady.

It moved.

She laid her hand flat and the dark fluid in the syringe lunged, making it point straight at Matthew.

The relief on Matthew’s face was almost palpable.  Avery’s heart sank.

“That looks like faerie manufacture,” Matthew said.  “With a bit of Doom inside, for some reason.  The Edith you saw-”

“We fucking blew her up, Matthew,” Lucy said.  “Verona did, turned her rune against her.  Knocked spirit clean of body.  I don’t think many glamours are that good.  It was Edith, almost certainly.”

Matthew approached, careful, and reached for it.

Avery hesitated, but she saw the dark look in his eyes, hurt, confused, and judged it right and fair to hand him the syringe.

“Be careful,” the Sable Prince said.  “That kind of work is fragile.”

“Were you extracting it from me to deal with it yourself?” Matthew asked Edith.  “You shouldn’t, couldn’t-”

“I’m sorry,” Edith said, with more emotion in her voice than she’d shown all night.

It looked like the look her parents had worn earlier in the night.  With her parents, it hadn’t been guilt because they were doing something for someone else’s benefit, but guilt because they were throwing other lives into chaos for their own.

Did you extract it?” Avery asked Edith.

Edith didn’t answer.

“Edith?” Matthew asked.

She was silent.

“I’ve had dreams, when I was sleeping.  I’ve woken and found the Doom stronger.  I thought it was because I slept next to you and I considered it the price I had to pay…” Matthew said.

Edith looked away.

Matthew stared at her for a long minute, and then he passed the syringe to Avery.

He walked up to John, who didn’t let him pass.

“The oath,” Verona said.

“I won’t tell anyone.  Bind her and get answers and tell me if you think I can bear them.  I’ll be upstairs.”


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

[11.2 Spoilers] Just in Case

Heya mom, hi dad,

Yep, it’s Avery.  This is really hard to write.  If everything goes according to plan, you’re not going to read this.  If nothing goes according to plan then this might go up in flames when it sets my mattress on fire and you’d have nothing to read.  But in the event that things go mostly according to plan but you’re rearranging stuff in my room to find clues about where I’ve gone or what happened then this isn’t that.

There are things I still can’t tell you, even on paper, even if I’ve disappeared or died.  I know it sucks.  It’s okay if you’re angry.  I just want you to know I’ve been trying to be my best self and do good in the world and if there’s something that ends up keeping me from coming back to you guys I hope you know that at least.

I don’t think what I’m going to do tonight is directly dangerous but I think a whole lot of messiness can come from it and that might be dangerous.  So here we are.  I wanted to make sure you had something of a final word from me.

Please don’t bother Verona and Lucy too much.  If there were answers I could safely give then I’d put them here.  If you have questions, give them lots of time to answer and take ‘no’ for an answer if you have to.  Consider that a last wish or something.  They’re my best friends more than Olivia ever was.

If they aren’t around either then I don’t know.  Maybe you can compare notes with their parents, I dunno.  That’s if you have to ask.  But I think the best thing you could do would be to get out of Kennet.  Ditch the job, bring Grumble and leave.  Kennet has depths to it you wouldn’t believe and it’s beautiful and rich and awe inspiring and even funny.  It also has parts to it which are terrible and scary and intense and awful.  Whatever parts you’re thinking I might be talking about like drugs or gangs it’s really stuff that’s at least two hundred times worse than that.  I helped out with at least one of those things.

I’m going to be holding onto the best things, if I can.  Trust in that.  If I’ve disappeared at the time you read this letter then I’m pretty sure I’ve disappeared in adventure and excitement and laughter and style and glamour.  But I can’t ignore the bad stuff.

So that’s why I want you to go.  You told me once that you were really sorry that you sorta forgot I existed for as long as you did.  That you didn’t listen, that you wanted to try, you’ve said stuff like that, right?

And I’m a pretty good kid, right?  I’m easier than some of the others so that’s why I didn’t get as much attention, right?

All the not listening you did and the ignoring me and everything?  I forgive you for that and I think I understand but what I really need you to do is take all that credit and all the brownie points and all the listening and attention I’m due and bundle it all up and take this to heart in a big way:

GO.  Run.

Leave Kennet for anywhere else.

Other things:

  • If an opossum shows up here or at your new digs, feed it.  She likes me and she’s cool and she deserves all the cuddles and good things.  Don’t let my siblings torment her.
  • If anyone named Zed or Nicolette or Ray ask for anything or say anything then listen.
  • Matthew and Edith are dangerous, I think.  They said they’d keep me safe and if you’re reading this then they didn’t.
  • I’ve left a letter for Ms. Hardy.  Please deliver it.

I love you all, my messy, terrible, glorious thunderstorm of a family.  Rowan needs to step it up for Laurie.  Stop faffing about and go to school and be a guy that deserves her because she’s going to face the world at a run and you’ll get left behind if you aren’t careful.  She’s cool.

Declan needs to be nicer to girls and everyone in this family needs to make sure of that.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what sports mean to me and I really hope that if video games are the same thing for you that you can find all the enjoyment in the world in them.

Kerry you have the best laugh and I can’t remember a great moment with the family without your laugh as part of it so keep it up.

Sheridan, you had my back when it counted and I can’t tell you what it means to me, or how it changed the idea of what family is in my head.  You get so down on yourself but you’re so so so much better and cooler than you think you are.  You’re clever and funny and cool and the big problem is that you’re smart enough to think of all the reasons why not to or what could go wrong.  Keep being you and take some leaps of faith for my sake, ok?

Mom & Dad, most of this letter is for you but to give you another paragraph: I have no regrets.  You did nothing wrong here, to play into my disappearing or whatever else happened.  All my memories of growing up and the hours-long round trips to Olivia and homeschooling and birthday parties and everything are just so jam packed with good memories I know that if I get the chance I’m going to want to do a lot of the same things for my kids way down the road so take that for what it’s worth.

Sorry this is so rambly.  It’s so hard.  Every sentence makes me want to write two more that contradict or explain and I can’t do either so I’m going to make this a big messy letter and hope it’s better than leaving you with only questions and wondering.

Give my love to Grumble.  My heart feels like it could explode with love for him and yet writing a single paragraph for him is way too hard and I think you get why so maybe you can explain it to him if he needs an explanation because I can’t.

Love you all.

Avery.


Dear Ms. Julie Hardy,

A beautiful woman once told me I was on the cusp of losing my connection to humanity.  I nearly drifted away from everything and you were the person who reeled me back in.

Verona has said that she thinks every adult is unhappy and she wonders what there is to look forward to.  She seems to act and think like she doesn’t want to grow up because she has no role models and I think if things had happened in a different way and I hadn’t had you as a teacher and mentor than I might have agreed with her.

I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t been my teacher but I’ve seen how Melissa crumbled.  I have a friend who lost all faith in the system and outsiders when her cousin was unjustly imprisoned.  I’ve seen how hard my friends take it when things get rough because Verona can get into thinking the world is dismal and Lucy can get into thinking the world is hostile… and the world is definitely both of those things a lot of the time.

Lucy told me I’m cool because I can keep my cool.  I think me at my best isn’t as great as either Verona or Lucy at their best and I get super anxious sometimes but because you reached out I was able to avoid my rock bottom and I can hold out against some of the worst the world has been able to throw at me because you reached out.  Knowing that there are people who care and reach out has made such a difference I can’t put it into words.

I’m sad we haven’t talked any recently and we didn’t talk much at the end of the term but I understand.  I hope you don’t mind that I got the help I needed when I needed it and that a talk with Mr. Lai or whoever sitting in the background would feel like it took away from that or would make it too artificial.  I’m finding my support and resources elsewhere and I’m trying to reach out to others like you did to me, mostly in small ways.

Thanks for everything.

Avery.


Verona:

Verona Hayward has sent you a link to a gallery: [Link]

Jeremy:

It’s password protected?

Verona:

Ok, hmm.  Use this one instead: [Link]
But keep that link. 😉

Jeremy:

???????
Ok?
Oh!  Paintings and sketches!  Cool!

Verona:

Raided my room while stopping by my house.  Check out #52

Jeremy:

It’s Sir!
Showed him and he doesn’t care.
Hey are you good?  Are you enjoying the beach?  Settled in and starting to enjoy the vacation?

Verona:

I’m back and at Lucy’s and I’m not very settled and stuff’s going on so I may not be settled for a while.
If I can escape the chaos do you want to hang?  We can hang out with Sir and chat art orrrr
We could hang out and you can take your shirt off and I can draw you orrrrrrr
We could hang out and we both take our shirts off and we can pretend we’re confused about who is supposed to be painting who before finding something else to do
Up for whatever.

Jeremy:

All of the above?

Verona:

Bold!  Good man I can respect that.
We’ll find a way to make that work.  I gotta figure out what’s happening in other life areas though.
I am 100% down so if I don’t get back to you or disapear for a while it’s not because of cold feet or because I don’t like you it’s because other stuff is getting in the way.


Jeremy dude,

I told Lucy and Avery and a woman called Miss to pass on a password for a gallery I sent you.  You’re my designated replacement if anything happens and that gallery has the big rundown.  Yep, you thought you were getting to know me?  That was all the tip of the iceberg, buddy.

If you don’t remember me then that’s probably because, (like the place my name refers to) I don’t really exist (anymore?).  But the text should – I took a few steps for that.  Quick rundown: I’m Verona, classmate or ex-classmate, creative.  We were/are friends of a bizarre cat and art involved nature.  There was bathing-suit-area-touching and I didn’t run screaming.  You had your moments of being awkward and your moments of being cool and I was 100% down for being the passenger to that roller coaster so thanks.  You had some damn manly moments for a guy who’s supposed to only be starting on the road to becoming a full fledged man.

Maybe the most important: you sent me a lot of cat pictures too and that’s a surefire way to game this system.  You could have screwed up most of the stuff I just talked about and if you sent me cat pictures and if I thought you could take okay care of Avery and Lucy then I’d be like “who else!??”  Theres no other consideration as I see it.

On that note?  I’m writing this under the assumption that they’re there.  Avery Kelly and Lucy Ellingson.  No other end result is okay in my books.  If they aren’t there and it’s just Miss who is giving you this password and you’re trying to decide whether you should get on board or if you’re already on board but you’re wondering how much you want to get into the Kennet stuff in particular?  Don’t.

Not without Avery and Lucy.  Don’t.  It’s not worth it without them.

That’s all the thought I’m willing to spare to that!

Here we are.  Quick and basic rundown.  There’s stuff in the files and images.  It’s scattered and some isn’t super well explained but you should be able to figure out who to ask to fill in the blanks.

Practice:
In school I realized a teacher can’t turn down or turn away your assignment if you stick to the rules and terms they set for it, along with the universal rules where you know you won’t get away with stuff.  This is all basically that.  You need to know and pay attention to the rules to get around them or throw the people in charge for a bit of a loop.  and you need to get around them because the people making and setting up the rules are older and powerful and they’re set in their ways. This is how you screw them up.

It’s not all that easy.  There are forces who’ve been studying and messing with rules since before your family was the Cliffords and actually knowing and figuring out the rules is a whole thing that can take generations to work out.

You have the tools I think.  You’ve got a good heart and a good head.  You’ll need to rejigger things.  Put that artist part of you front and center first, okay?  That part of you that can look at the page and look at a tree and figure out how to use the tool you’ve got to make that tree into something that sits on the page.  Some of that’s skill and some of its practice and some of its interpretation.  Everything that goes into art matters here.

I’d give you the rundown on how I think and how I do things but that would take forever and I think you’ll get the gist of it if you go through my spell notes and pictures of things.  Low down, dirty reality is that if you’re reading this and I’m not around anymore then my approach wasn’t all that hot, was it?

You know how I’m a bit weird?  You’re going to be dealing with a lot of weird types and if you can figure out how to think from a certain angle where you’re treating them like you treated me, I think you and them will get along well enough.

Care and Feeding of Lucy Ellingson and Avery Kelly:
I liked the headline but because I wrote it I gotta let you know the feeding part: Lucy gets into stuff like pepperoni sticks and sour foods and things that make you go WOAH (except garlic and onions apparently) and it’s all intense and crap but when you get down to it I think she likes sweet and savory stuff most.  Avery is a vegetarian and she can eat next to anything you could call food, now, but I think what matters is that it comes from a place of care. She likes fruity flavors and mellow stuff.

If Lucy’s down and out and needs nourishment to get back in the game then a chance to have a savory home cooked meal or a sweet treat she can spend a bit enjoying would do it for her.  For Avery, just the fact that you notice she’s down and out is important and then you can hand her a sports drink or something and she’ll be up for more.

Silliness about food aside?  Lucy pushes and Avery pulls away so be ready to get in there.  Otherwise it’s going to be more like you’re on your own while they’re miserable.  They’re so good for each other but it’s going to be a little while before they figure out how to manage the push-pull.  Until then, if it’s not my job anymore, it’s yours.  You don’t have to but it’d be appreciated and I really do think it will help things.

Lucy is a bit tough to get to know but it’s super worth it.  Stay consistent, show her respect, listen.  Listen listen listen.  There’s a lot of stuff that’s tricky for me when it comes to her even after being her best friend for a while but I think that’s some of the same stuff that you’ll be really good at.  Being reliable.  There’s also some stuff that comes so naturally I can’t even think of it but so long as you listen and treat her with respect it’ll be cool.  Just give it time.  A lot of guys have left her in the dust for reasons that were and weren’t their fault and that’s going to be a thing that you gotta work out.

Avery is great but I think you know that.  Keep her company.  I think that’s the big thing.  If Lucy has a thing about guys in her life then Avery’s got a thing about friends- she’s pretty open about it but her best friend ditched her and I think there’s a kind of skittishness to her that you really have to push past.  Almost the inverse of Lucy, you know?  Make the effort.

Tash is one of the odd people I reference.  She’s cool and she’s super on my wavelength in a similar way to how you’re on my wavelength so keep an eye out for her.  I think she gets lonely so keep her company.  She’s about three years older than us she’s super cool enough I wouldn’t blame you for getting a crush on her.  😉

Other Junk:
A friend named John told me that I should write something like this letter so all the things left unsaid and the plans I’d want to make are handled.  There’s a last part and I wish I could do the research and figure stuff out to lay out a plan for you but that might have to wait.  Long and short is if you want to do me a solid you can distill my echoes and bring me back in some form.  If you can collect any and all echoes early then quality loss will be less bad and you can make a decision about things later.  I’m asking you and not Lucy or Avery because I think your head will be clearer and you can objectively look at them and decide if a shadow of my former self would be nice or if it’d wreck ’em.

If you bring me back as a composite echo and someone wants to take me as a familiar to help clarify me further then I’m down.

If not or if that’s weird then don’t sweat it.  Thanks for being a friend.

Take care of my people, k?  I think my parents can fend for themselves, at the very least, but my friends are going to need some help.


Mom,

There are three letters here.  Personal ones for you and Booker and one I’m calling ‘business’, trimmed down.  I’m going to start with the personal.  Business you can save for later reading or give to the police or whatever it is you want to do.  A lot of what’s in there is covered here.

As I was contemplating writing this I got misty eyed and you knocked on my door and asked why.  I told you some of my music gets emotional but that was misleading.  It’s because I was imagining the look on your face when and if I don’t come home.  I’ve seen that kind of look before.

Imagining you finding this letter and reading it.  What words could I even put here?  What would make it better or okay?

Every time I try to think of something that would help it goes in the other letter.  You can read that and follow every step but it doesn’t fix anything does it?

I’m still not home.

I count myself as one of the luckiest people I know.  I remember stories about dad with Barbie and Ran, and it makes me think that a parent can be good but nobody’s perfect but when it’s family that imperfect gets piled up together day after day because you spend so much time with them while you’re growing up.  I think dad ran into that.  The pile-up of the small things with family.  I have classmates who have sick moms and classmates with drunkard parents.

I got lucky because home was the place I could come back to to unload the small things, instead.  This was pretty close to perfect.

Except I haven’t come home to unload this time, if you’re reading the letter.

There’s no way to write this letter and also keep secrets.  So keep in mind that this part of the letter can’t go to the police.  It has to be the business letter only.

Magic is real.  All of the little things that don’t add up about me being gone don’t add up for a reason.  I and Verona and Avery were each brought in to fill a spot for the local monsters, so they could say they had someone in place.

As I write this letter I am planning to go confront a woman named Edith James and her husband and possible co-conspirator with some pretty heinous things.  It’s not a drug problem that’s filling up the emergency department’s waiting room, it’s the aftermath of something they did that I think they did out of greed, killing something big that was supposed to keep the balance.

I don’t think Edith can hurt me but I do think that challenging her is going to shake things up a bit and make a lot of nastiness come out of the woodwork.  I’ve had too many close calls this spring and summer and a lot of those close calls came from us being on the sidelines of some awful things.  Except for some brief moments we were never really front and center against all the bad stuff.  We stood on the sidelines and rushed in to try to push things and change the direction of stuff.

This time we’re confronting it dead on and that’s scary.  It feels like every time I’ve survived or gotten away with a hurt elbow is stacking the deck against a time in the future where I won’t.

If my feeling is right then that’s probably what happened.  We confronted wrongs head on and it shook things up and I or we paid for it.

The business letter says a lot of this stuff but it’s going to point the way without filling in the explanations.  It says I hung out a lot with Edith and Matthew and that they took us camping and made us keep secrets.  Edith is suspicious, so is her husband, and the cops should push hard.  She and Matthew can’t really lie so the longer pressure is applied the harder it will be for them to dodge around it.  The problem will probably be keeping the pressure on.  They or their friends can use tricks to distract or make it easier to forget they’re a concern.  If you’re insistent then you can break through that.

I used similar tricks to help keep you from noticing what I was doing and getting into so don’t blame yourself for not catching it all.

I’m going to give you a list of names and contact details on the back of this sheet.

Zed has agreed he’ll fill you in if someone needs to.  He knows most of the story and it’s easier for him to answer your questions than for me to explain everything here.  Imagining you going through my stuff and uncovering it all with a terrible look on your face is making this too hard to write.

If you want to uncover what I was doing there’s a diagram on the wall under my posters.  Removing that will make it easier to find some of my notebooks and things and it might help find me, depending.  Destroy it, don’t paint over it.  You have to be looking for it or you really could pack up my room to move and not notice it even as you paint over it.  It’s that kind of stuff.  Most of it is to keep trouble out of our house so be careful.

What I think will happen is that Edith or someone or something that’s helping her may try to get rid of us somehow.

If that happens then these letters will help.  You can probably push police to deal with them but there’s a chance Edith and Matthew won’t say anything.  After that the cops will probably get distracted by some subtle magic type stuff and the investigation won’t go anywhere.  Avery and Verona may be able to do something but they might not make it either if I don’t.

As a last ditch effort if the cops fail and Avery and Verona are gone you can contact a man I listed on the sheet.  His name is Samaniego and he organizes people who hunt monsters like one of the ones I’m about to fight.  Let Zed know we’re doing this, he’ll reach out to those we trust most to extract them before anything happens: anyone who’s stayed and still cooperating with everything here after Avery, Verona and I are gone is as good as complicit.  Zed can help pick out the ones who aren’t.

Arrange for Samaniego to come and make sure Zed manages the extraction before Samaniego arrives.  You’ll want to time it so that when Samaniego arrives you will be at the location on the map in bright noon when the monsters are weakest or asleep and pull down the charms and wards.  As many as you can.  Be prepared to run and then leave.  You’ll be close to your car and you can get in and drive away.

You tear down the wards at the same time he and his people come in and you leave.  He’ll go after the monsters.  The bad ones and the ambiguously bad ones.  And you leave.  You’ll leave town, leave the job.

A few hundred or thousand people across Ontario have died and they didn’t even get to be remembered afterward.  Their vulnerabilities were preyed on and they were killed in a series of horrible, violent nights that went on for nearly a decade.  Many of those in the know seemed to think it happened naturally, a ritual starting on its own, but it was made with greedy intentions.  Everyone who died was erased and their families and classmates and friends forgot they existed.  I stopped that process from happening but I don’t think I can bring those people back.

I don’t want this to end without there being justice.  If I was capable of accepting any other answer then I think this might be the point I gave up.  I could let Edith win, I could choose the option where I didn’t risk me dying and you having to find this letter.

I can’t.  I can’t let the people who would do that get what they want and take any more power or get any more influence.

That’s why I’m going, even if there might be collateral damage.  It’s why I’m writing this letter as a just-in-case.

It’s also why you may have to call Samaniego and ask him to clean house.  If it comes down to it you can give him this letter.  He goes after people like me who know magic and he goes after the monsters.  Then on your way out, car hopefully packed, you can kick down the protections.  It won’t make it any easier for him to get in, but it’ll make it harder to deal with him at the same time everything else comes crashing down.  Make sure you aren’t in Kennet when it happens.

Be safe, I love you, I love Booker, and I love Verona and Avery.

This can’t end without justice of some sort.

Dash to Pieces – 11.2

Avery

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The clock on the car dashboard read 11:14am in the moment before it went dark.  Engine off, seatbelts unclipped, car doors opened, and they climbed out.  Verona was in the car with her mother, talking in an animated way as they climbed out.

Avery’s thoughts were so preoccupied with what the evening might bring that she was in a daze up until she recognized a sign.

“Oh!” Avery exclaimed.  “This place?  I know this place.”

They were out in front of the bakery, exiting the car, Lucy and Verona’s moms leading the way, glancing back.

“I love it.  Proper bagels,” Lucy said, kissing and flicking her fingers.  More emotive than usual.

“Do you have any favorites, Avery?” Jasmine asked.

“I-” Avery started.  I know this place because Snowdrop and Toadswallow like to get food from the back dumpster here.  “Not yet.”

She flushed a bit, her thoughts tripping up on the fact that she knew this place through word of mouth about its dumpster food.  Verona shot her a quizzical look and smile.

They stood in line, and Jasmine grabbed things from the open coolers that were beside the line to the counter.  Cream cheese spreads with stuff in them, drinks that seemed to be divided between the regular soft drinks and then lighter herbal stuff and iced teas.

“Grab what you want,” Jasmine said, noticing.

Feeling put on the spot, Avery nodded, then turned to browse.  The line moved slowly, giving her time to pick.  She grabbed a peach iced tea.

“How did you meet these two?” Verona’s mom asked.

That put her on the spot.  “Group project.”

“What kind of project?”

Aaaaa.

“World issues related,” Verona said.

Avery frowned at Verona.

“Isn’t everything related to world issues?” her mom asked.

“Exactly.  It allows for some very broad categorizations.”

“They have vegetarian options,” Lucy pointed out, interrupting.

“Who’s vegetarian?” Verona’s mom asked.

Lucy jerked a thumb in Avery’s direction while Verona pointed.

Avery took the opportunity to dodge the line of questioning, walking over to Lucy and standing on her toes to look up at the board above the open kitchen.

“Ooh,” Avery said, “Hmmm.”

“Inception por-qué bagel sandwich, fake meat-” Lucy read.

“Fake pork on a bagel?” Avery scrunched up her nose.

“With tons of barbecue sauce and stuff, looks like,” Lucy added.

“On a bagel?  I dunno.  Fake meat I’ve tried is maybe half mediocre, squint-and-you-could-interpret-it-as-meat stuff,” Avery said.  “And the other half was real sad.  My siblings looked at the turkey slice stuff and they went from making fun of the vegetarian stuff to feeling sorry for me.  And making fun of me a little, still.”

“If it’s decent then you could come back and have it again,” Verona’s mom said.

“I dunno, I don’t want to ruin a whole meal though.”

“There’s also the Inception vegetarian bagel sandwich, and the I-TLC,” Lucy supplied.

“Vegetarian has… eggplant?” Avery asked.  Marinated, roasted eggplant, tomato, lettuce, swiss cheese and pesto sauce, pickle spear.  She didn’t ever remember having eggplant and the more she thought about eating it, the more she imagined it with the texture of soft rubber and the taste of soap.  Which was probably totally wrong.  “Don’t remember having it.  Don’t really want to try it, either.”

“Will you be bothered if we order something with meat?” Verona’s mom asked, turning to look at Avery.

“Oh, uhhh, no.”

Lucy elbowed her.

“Why the nudge?” Verona’s mom asked, sticking her elbow out into the air to mime what Lucy had done.  “Don’t lie for my benefit, really.  I don’t mind, and I’m admittedly a bit curious about the por-qué thing.

“It’s not a lie for your benefit,” Verona said, sagely, without elaborating.

“I really don’t mind much,” Avery said, feeling very put on the spot.  She could have elaborated to say she didn’t especially want to smell it, herself, but that would’ve made things worse.  She didn’t mind much but she did mind a tiny bit and she couldn’t say that.  She floundered, feeling a bit put on the spot.

Verona stepped in to fill the gap where Avery’s explanation would’ve gone, explaining, “The nudge is because Avery’s trying not to umm and uhhh as much.  She wanted us to bug her about it when she did it.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “That.”

“I think we all say it,” Jasmine observed.  “It’s a natural part of speech.”

“I said it a lot though,” Avery said.

“So long as it’s peer pressure done in good spirit,” Lucy’s mom said.  “You’d tell Lucy if she was nagging you too much about it, right?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “Third one, I think.”

“The TLC?” Lucy asked.  “Tomato, lettuce, cucumber, smoked swiss, and Yeast Inception’s specialty honey mustard?”

“Do you eat cheese?” Lucy’s mom asked.

“Yeah.  I like the name.  Sounds good enough.  On sesame.”

“Verona was reminding me to be environmentally conscious while we were on vacation,” Verona’s mom said.  “Is that your influence?”

“Not so much?” Avery asked, quizzical, looking at Verona.

“It’s a generation thing,” Verona said, still talking in a tone like she was laying sage wisdom down from above and having fun at the same time.  Verona was being very Verona and it felt a lot like Avery had felt when she was just getting into the flow of these two, after Miss had introduced them.

“I’ll take down notes so we don’t take too long at the cash,” Jasmine said, taking a note on her phone.  “TLC for you, Avery, Inception Special for Lucy, I’m guessing…”

“Yeah.  Peppercorn.”

“And Verona?”

“Lox and cream cheese with double helping of black olive and red onion, please, poppyseed.”

“If you’re eating that much red onion I don’t want to sit with you on the car ride back,” Lucy said.  “She had this garlic pizza just before sleeping right next to me, this summer.  It was so bad.”

“The pizza was great,” Verona said.  “The experience was bad, for you.”

“Yes.”

“What else were you doing there this summer?” Verona’s mom asked.

Avery didn’t want to be playing on the defensive constantly, so she volunteered, “I played lacrosse with some older kids.”

“She kicked ass too,” Lucy said.

“Language in a public place, please, thank you,” Jasmine said, absently.

“Avery’s great at sports,” Verona said.  “Someone on the sidelines was saying something like, ‘you don’t need to go that far, Avery’ and we said something like, ‘Nah, that’s just regular Avery playing sports.'”

“I envy that,” Verona’s mom said.  “I could never get into sports much.  Some kayaking with friends, back in school.  What draws you to sports?”

It was an easier question than some of the others, but Avery hesitated.

Verona glanced at her, then looked up at her mom.  “Mom, you’re grilling Avery. Easy does it.”

“Ah, I’m sorry,” Verona’s mom said.

Avery’s eyes flicked from Verona to Verona’s mom, assessing the situation.  It was a casual, small moment, but she felt very stuck in the middle of it.  Verona was browsing drinks, the comment made and forgotten, and Verona’s mom had turned away to watch the bakers putting the final touches on a tray of cinnamon buns they were making behind plexiglass.

Lucy’s mom leaned in to say something quiet to Verona’s mom.

Lucy glanced over, frowning slightly before glancing at Verona.

Avery was left to think about whether speaking up or interjecting would be better or worse, or if there were reasons, like if Verona was mad at her mom for some reason and if countering what Verona was saying by saying she didn’t mind would be taking a side, or if Verona was protecting Avery from something weird, like when she hadn’t really gone out of her way to introduce her to her dad.

Didn’t feel like either of those things.

Verona’s mom looked back at Verona, looked like she was going to say something to get Verona’s attention, then didn’t.  Avery had been in that exact same position, once.

“I like how small the world feels.”

“Hm?” Verona’s mom refocused on her.

“With sports.  I like how when you’re on the field, there’s you, there’s the crowd, ideally, cheering you on, ideally, and these people you interact with, and everyone has a place and the rules are known and you can…” Avery gestured without knowing what she was trying to convey.  “…kick a- rear end, and kind of be the fastest person in the world so long as I’m thinking of the rink as a small world all of its own?”

“That does make sense,” Verona’s mom said.  “Fastest in the world, huh?”

Avery shrugged.  “Can be, if it’s a small world I’m in.”

“I get that with music,” Lucy said.  “Shutting out the world.  Not to be on top, though.  Tuning out, more like.”

Avery nodded.

Jasmine went to deliver the order, reading off the phone.  Avery stepped around Verona’s mom to put her drink on the counter, and took the bottles handed to her by the others.

“And you?” Verona’s mom asked Verona.

“I… no.  I sorta feel like the world’s always like that, isn’t it?”

“Like what?” her mom asked.

“Like it’s all small and it’s all like… aren’t we all moving from one rink to another, trying to work as teams or beat the other side?  Class, Lucy’s room, here?  Each of us with our strengths and metaphorical rinks we tend to stick to?”

“I think so,” her mom said.  “My perspective is less about rinks, I don’t really-”

“Do you want to order?”

“-Oh.  I’m curious about the pork- por-que?  The alternate meat, did you want to try it, Avery?  We could each take half of-”

“Yeah, sure,” Avery said.

“The Inception por-qué, then, thank you,” Verona’s mom said.  “I was never lucky enough-”

“On what bagel?” Lucy’s mom asked.

“Oh.  Poppyseed.”

They walked away from the line as Verona’s mom talked.  Apparently really engaged.  “I was never lucky enough to find my passion, nothing that really gripped me as a career.  Finance, politics, computers, law…”

“I’m not into art as a career, though,” Verona said.  “And like, who even thinks about careers at thirteen?”

“Me either, with sports,” Avery interjected.

“Okay, fair enough.  But even at your age, I didn’t have a thing I liked.”

“That’s a bummer,” Lucy said.

“It’s an advantage, if you can tackle a new project without feeling like you’re leaving behind the things you really want to do.  I get excited about any new venture, and I think I can sell people on that excitement and make things happen.”

“Huh,” Verona said.

Jasmine finished ordering and took the little plastic thing from the person at the counter.  She joined them off to the side of the line, and they found their table and sat.

As they settled in, Avery could see through the front window to the street outside, and she saw them.  Alarm raced through her.

Her mom, dad, Sheridan, Declan, and Kerry, all together, just outside the front window.  Kerry was crying and it looked like Declan was at fault.

They stepped out of view, toward the front door of the shop.  The line of people waiting to order blocked her view of the red-haired chaos that lay beyond.

She dropped her face into her hands.

“What’s wrong?” Lucy asked.

“I think I just saw my family,” Avery said.  She lifted up her face and looked at the adults at the table.  “Did you invite my family?”

“We called your parents and said we’d be happy to have them join us,” Lucy’s mom said.

“Oh no,” Avery said.  “Oh no, no no no.  They brought my siblings.”

“What have you done?” Verona asked them, mock-horrified, even though she looked like she was enjoying herself at the same time.

Avery watched as her family appeared at the end of the line.  Avery’s mom struggled to hold Kerry, who was crying, whimpering some words, and who was too big to be held easily, and Avery’s dad was saying something stern to Declan.

Sheridan fixated on them, but as she left the line to approach their mom called out to her.

Kerry, realizing her mom wasn’t listening to her, raised her voice to be heard, saying something plaintive about Declan.

Avery shrank down in her seat.

“Hey,” Sheridan said.  She stood behind Avery and put hands on Avery’s shoulders.  Avery shrugged them off.

“Should we push tables together?” Jasmine asked.

“Why are you here?” Avery asked.  “Please go away.”

“I wanted to stay home but apparently Declan and Kerry need things and it was a choice between staying, making a meal for me and Grumble, making sure he eats okay, and I stress out every time.  Plus this way I don’t have to go to any effort.”

Avery looked up at her sister, Sheridan’s face upside-down to her perspective, and gave her a disgusted look.  Sheridan grinned.

“Is that a yes or a no on pushing tables together?  Does anyone have an opinion?” Jasmine asked.

“Avery!” Kerry raised her voice, shouting across the bakery.  People in line winced and heads in the dining area all turned.  Her mom tried to hold onto her, but she gripped the railing that kept the line out of the way of people wanting to depart the bakery, and pulled and squirmed out of her mom’s hold.  She ran across, accidentally kicking a bag of shopping stuff by someone’s chair, then reached Avery.  “Avery, Avery, Declan said I could watch Rat Princess after he was done playing, but he knew we were going out to lunch!”

She grappled with Avery and pulled on her shirt, as if each tug could add weight and meaning to words.

“Don’t pull on my shirt, you’ll stretch it.”

“Nobody told me, nobody tells me things!”

“Stop pulling!”

Lucy reached for Kerry and tugged the collar of her shirt up.  Kerry had a ponytail and by pulling the shirt up, Lucy could grip the collar around the ponytail, shirt around Kerry’s face, slightly plump stomach showing.  Blind, Kerry flailed, reaching up, releasing Avery.  Avery grabbed her wrists.

“I was thinking about getting a nice tall glass of ice water,” Sheridan said.  “Eh Lucy?  How refreshing would that be?”

“What have you done?” Verona asked her mom and Lucy’s mom, exaggerated.  “Have you no mercy?”

“Sheridan, go tell your mom what you want,” Avery’s dad said.  “Kerry-”

“I’m missing my show!” Kerry whined, shirt still up around her head, while she tried to pull it down.  She scratched at Lucy’s hand.  “Declan said I could watch and then he laughed when I couldn’t!  I was being good!”

“Don’t scratch me,” Lucy warned.

Avery’s dad bent down and scooped Kerry up, flipping her upside-down momentarily in the process.  Lucy released the shirt.  He grunted.  “Oof, getting harder to do that.”

“I was being good!” Kerry repeated, as she pulled her shirt back down.

“Come on, go to your mom.  Enough about the show for now, okay?”

“But-”

Enough.

Kerry whimpered.

“Go to your mom,” he said, setting her down on the ground and giving her butt a quick mock-slap to send her on her way.  “Not the best first impression, I know.  Hi guys.”

“This is Connor Kelly, Avery’s dad.  Connor, this is Verona’s mom-”

“Sylvia Hayward,” Verona’s mom said.  She shook his hand.  Avery’s dad gave her a look, and she said, “Changing your last name everywhere, notifying all business contacts, clients, the inevitable questions or conversations about divorces.  It’s easier to let it be.  I don’t care myself, either way.”

“Fair.  Easier for us too.”

“Absolutely,” Verona’s mom said.

“Please tell me they’re not sitting with us,” Avery said.

“Your mom and I wanted to check in with your friend’s parents, see how things were, do some shopping on our way out.”

“Please.”

“We’ll figure something out,” he said.  “Are you in town for long?”

“I leave a bit after lunch,” Verona’s mother said.  “Have to get back to work.”

“What do you do?”

“Right now it’s implementation and coordination of a pilot project for the government.  It could be something else next month.  You?”

“Data quality analysis.  Right now we’re working with data from healthcare.  Moved to full time this fall, taking over for a retiring colleague, lots more free time after the kids left homeschooling.”

“Sensitive stuff.  Lots of regulations to dodge, and-”

“Yep.”

“-Conveying the data to people is- that’s got to be tough on its own.”

“Not a lot of people would jump straight to that,” Connor said, eyebrows going up.  “It’s not something I’m the best at but I’m learning it’s important.”

“That’s my job, really.  Getting the message and the numbers across in a way that lets things happen.  Government moves slowly-”

“It does.”

“-and that turns small wrinkles into speed bumps and speed bumps into walls.”

“Absolutely.  I could go on at length about that but I don’t want to bore you.”

“Not at all, I’d love to discuss it at any depth.”

“Let me go figure out with my wife what we’re doing with the kids and lunch and we may flip a coin to decide who takes the kids to the park and who joins you guys for lunch.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Jasmine said.  The plastic fob that she’d been given lit up, and she rose to her feet, going to get the sandwiches.

Over on the other side of the railing, still waiting to order, Avery’s dad gave Verona’s mom a thumbs up, while Avery’s mom looked a little put out.  It seemed pretty obvious that she’d lost the coin toss.

Verona put her elbow on the table and rested her chin on her hand, giving Avery a look.

🟂

Because the kitchen of the Yeast Inception bakery had such an open plan, with people sitting in the dining area and people in line all getting a view of what was going on, Avery could see through to the clock.

12:03.

Eleven hours until we get word and make a move.

“Just the one, I think,” Jasmine said.  “She works for the whole hospital, and doubles as IT, I think.”

“That’s not nearly enough,” Connor said.  “One health information specialist?”

Verona’s mom leaned forward.  “The province cut spending and IT-”

“IT is the kind of thing that gets cut first.  If everything’s working right then you wonder why you have it and if it’s wrong you wonder why they deserve to be employed.”

Avery tuned most of it out.  Her mom had taken Declan, Sheridan, and Kerry out to the park.

The bagel sandwiches came in two halves, and Avery had exchanged one half with Verona’s mom, to try the fake pork thing with barbecue sauce.  It was not very good.  Tough, with a taste of something musty that the barbecue sauce was very obviously trying to cut through and hide.

She hated to waste food though, and looking down, she took a deep breath, her eyes turning dark as she drew on the familiar bond.

She was dimly aware of Snowdrop out there, lying in sunlight, stirring awake as she sensed Avery.

Avery focused on that, drew on the connection, and channeled it.  Snowdrop raised a paw, ‘thumb’ extended, then went back to sleep.

She adopted the omnivore scavenger’s palate.

“Hey, um,” Verona cut into the ongoing conversation.  “Is it okay if we duck out?  Maybe do some shopping?”

“You can, absolutely.  Do you want to stick around and say goodbye to your mom, or…?”

“I’ll loop back.  But I think we’re all done.”

Avery nodded, still chewing, and gave a thumbs up.

They rose out of their seats and escaped the conversation.

“Sorry.  That’s a thing that happens,” Verona said.  “I thought we should use the time we have, try to get ready some.”

“Sounds good,” Lucy said.  “What’s first?”

“Healing for you?  We could duck out, see Tashlit, I can return, say bye to my mom…”

“Avery!”

Avery flinched like she’d been slapped in the back of her head.

Her dad.

“Which store?” he asked.

“We don’t know yet.”

“You like the triathalon sports store, right?”

“Yeah.”

He accompanied them, and there was no easy way to ask him to get lost.  He ushered them into the sports store.

“Your mom will be upset with me if we miss you while we’re doing a bit of shopping for everyone,” he said.

“I’m okay.  I don’t need-”

“Here,” he said.  He reached into his pocket and got his wallet.  He pressed a card into her hand.  Then he turned to the cashier.  “My daughter has my card, Connor Kelly.  She has my permission to use it.  That okay?”

The girl at the counter barely looked older than any of the three of them.  Bewildered, she shrugged and nodded.

“I’ll leave you to it,” he said.  He bent down to give Avery a kiss on the top of the head.  “Buy what you need.  Clothes only.”

“A credit card?” Verona asked.  She cackled, loud.

“Don’t act suspicious before he leaves,” Lucy said, giving Verona a swat on the arm.

“Two hundred dollars max,” he called out to the cashier.

“Two hundred- two hundred?” Verona asked, after he was gone.  “Now we have to shop a bit, to not look suspicious.”

“I really can’t think of much I need,” Avery said.  “Some shirts, maybe, shorts…”

“Two hundred dollars?” Verona repeated.

Avery shook her head, looking around.  “While Snowdrop is leveling up in- I don’t even know what to call it.  Intensity of fashion?  I feel like I should do something similar but I don’t know what.”

“We can browse,” Lucy said.

“Does your dad do this a lot?  What’s the term?  Giving you carte blanche?

Lucy commented, “I think your dad likes talking to your mom.  He seemed pretty into the chat.  Going to back to talk to her.”

“This is what she does,” Verona said.  “Hey, while you’re doing that, Ave, buy your basics, I can think of some things to buy for Tashlit.  I have some money too.”

“Not just Tashlit,” Lucy said.

“Ooh.  I’ll grab this one for myself,” Verona said.  “If they have an extra small…”

Avery turned on her Snowdrop-eyes, felt Snowdrop stir in a distant spot, and then looked inside the stack for the strips of plastic with the letters on it.  Her fingers traced the stacked v-neck shirts, found the one, and pulled it out.

“So coool!” Verona said, happy, jostling Avery, totally ignoring the shirt Avery was holding out.  “That’s neat!  Fantastic!”

“I found a shirt.”

“In such a cool way, though!”

🟂

1:20pm, the display screen on Avery’s phone read.

She navigated the way down to the water, carrying bags of stuff.

“How bad is your stomach really?” Avery asked.  “I’d understand if you weren’t wanting to tell Verona while things are weird.”

“I think Verona’s kinda sorta okay right now?” Lucy ventured, pushing a branch aside.  “Laughing, joking, not seeming to take stuff seriously while she’s getting into serious mode?”

They’d left Verona behind to say bye to her mom.  The way down to Tashlit’s spot wasn’t exactly a path, and involved stepping over and around a lot of foliage, with some points that demanded backing up and circling around to where it wasn’t as dense and enmeshed.

Some of that might have been Ken doing some sorting out.

“You didn’t answer.”

“I couldn’t sleep much last night because it hurt.  And then I stressed because there’s this thing…”

“Ten hours.”

“In ten hours, yeah,” Lucy said.  “And then I got stressed because I knew not sleeping before a day like today which might really matter…”

“Yeah.  I get that.”

“Made it even harder to sleep because I was stressed.”

“Yeah.  For sure.”

“Ave,” Lucy said.

Lucy’s hand reached out for Avery’s arm and Avery’s instinct was that Lucy was off balance or falling while navigating the forest and stuff, so she half-turned, reaching out, on guard to brace or catch Lucy.  She relaxed when Lucy was just standing there, one arm extended to Avery’s elbow.

“What’s up?” Avery asked.

“Verona gave me a light pummeling last night.  I- After you left to go find Miss, thanks for doing that, by the way.”

“For sure.”

“She and I talked.  I was telling her, you know, I’m sorry I wasn’t in touch with you more?  I got stuck in my own head and I know you were trying to stay in touch and we weren’t and…”

“Happens,” Avery said.

“No, but… it shouldn’t happen and I am sorry I wasn’t better to you and wasn’t better to her, you know?  I told her that, and I know I should tell you.  I’m sorry.  I was hurt and scared and spooked and that’s a whole other thing from being scared.  And I should have let you know and I didn’t and if that made lying around with a headache worse or lonelier…”

“I’ve got Snowdrop, helps a bit,” Avery said.

“I’m sorry,” Lucy said, eyebrows up and drawn together.  “Really.”

“It did suck and it was lonely but I get it.  It’s cool.”

“We’re cool?”

“We’re cool,” Avery replied.

“That’s something I’ll watch out for in the future, okay?”

“Cool,” Avery replied.  “Thanks.”

“Things are probably going to get messy soon.”

“Yeah.  We kinda hinted around that subject while shopping,” Avery said.

“I like the idea of sticking by one another, it’s just tricky sometimes.  People are… personality-wise I see us all as jagged, weirdly shaped things, and we try to mesh together as best as we can but sometimes…”

“Yeah.”

“The mesh isn’t perfect and we bounce off one another or something and that doesn’t at all mean I don’t care or I’m not in your corner.”

“I know.  I get it, I mean, logically I get it and I don’t always feel it, but I feel it and get it and I know it now.  Because of what you said.  Yeah.”

“Yeah.  Good.”

“Thank you, it’s nice to hear.”

“Good,” Lucy said.  She let go of Avery’s elbow.  “Awkward moment done.”

“If you weren’t doing great before… are you better now?  Because Verona’s back?”

“It helps.  But there’s a part of me that’s still freaking out, you know?”

They resumed walking, side by side, and it wasn’t a fast walk because they were measuring their pace so neither of them left the other behind.  Mostly that was Avery trying not to leave Lucy behind.  And if one of them hit a snarl or a tough patch to navigate, the other stopped until they were through.

“The deadline for tonight is scary,” Avery said.  “I’ve been watching the clock since we woke up.”

Lucy nodded.  “I’m trying not to look at my phone or the time.  But I’m still spooked.  I’m still…”

“Yeah.”

“You?”

“I’m… mostly okay?  There was a while where the headache was bad and you know I had to go see the doctor right?”

“Yeah.”

“And he said I might have post-concussion syndrome, even if it didn’t look like I had a concussion right then.”

“You didn’t?”

Avery shook her head.  “He smacked me in the back of the head near the brain stem and that can give you gnarly headaches that last for a whole month.  But when he said I could have the post-concussion thing, he was saying I could have mental difficutlies or problems for the rest of my life.  And that’s when, you know…  I was spooked.”

“I would be out of my mind, I think.”

“I was too… hurting, and annoyed with everyone, especially my siblings, while it was all going on.  I went to lie on the couch with Grumble for a whole day and we watched movies, and my parents made everyone go away or be quiet.  Declan hated that, because he couldn’t play his console.  That’s why he was taking up extra time today, and negotiating with Kerry.”

“Constant stuff.”

“Grumble slept through most of it.  Then I got really irrationally annoyed at him for being asleep and for being… not cool, you know?”

Lucy nodded.

“I guess if I had to put my finger on it, I was too annoyed to be that freaked out about anything permanent.   And then when I was less annoyed it was like it was always in the back of my head and I’d kinda gotten over the fear?”

“Sure.  Well, whatever works.”

“I think it was all so broken and messed up that it somehow circled around to working again.”

“You know that you’re like… cool, right, Ave?”

“I don’t, no.”

“I don’t mean sunglasses and slicked back hair cool, or snowboarder chick cool, or leather jackets type cool, I mean-”

“These are your measurements for cool?  Sunglasses and slicked back hair?  What?” Avery asked, smiling.

“They’re- moving on.  They’re not exactly-”

“Do we have to move on?  Because calling me cool is awkward but defining what you see as cool is fun.  Who’s a cool guy, Lucy?  One cool guy you know.”

“I had a point I was getting to.”

“First one off the top of your head.  Is it Zed?”

“It’s- I don’t know.  Tymon from the Blue Heron?  George from our regular school?”

“Tymon?” Avery asked.  “Huh.  George?  I can kind of see George.”

“Can we go back to the regular topic?”

“What’s the commonality between those guys?  Tymon’s a bit laid back, especially when you put him with a bunch of these practitioners from uptight families, and George is sort of above it all.  Tymon’s from a big drug-spirit summoning family and George partakes…”

“Not really the direction I was thinking.”

“Very angular faces.  Sharp chins, defined cheekbones…”

“Is this punishment?  For leaving you hanging while I moped?  Are you channeling Snowdrop’s chaotic spirit?”

“Oh, they both have longer hair.  Are you into longer hair?  I can understand that.”

“The longer hair is a plus.”

“There we go!”

They navigated their way to the edge of the trees.  Avery called out.  “Hello!  Coming in!”

There was no answer, but of course not.

“Where does Wallace fit into this?”

“Wallace is nice.  I could bring him home to meet my mom and not want to die.”

“Would George from our class make you want to die?”

“I feel like he’d say something off that would.  He’s a little bit of a jerk in that way that’s fun if you’re in class and you’re bored and you want a little bit of snark but I feel like he’d say similar things at the dinner table.”

“Huh,” Avery said, nodding.  “I can see that.  Is Wallace cool, though?  Does he fit the metric?  Short hair…”

“I don’t think he’s cool.  But ‘cool’ isn’t the important thing.  I like some of the shirts he wears.  It’s not like he’s following a trend.  It’s unique.”

“Some make my eyes hurt,” Avery said.  Wallace tended to lighten his hair and wear shirts with wild geometric or fractal patterns, prints, and/or colors.

She saw Tashlit emerging from the water, water dripping off of her.  She set a pair of large stones down by the shore, taken in from underwater.  Many eyes peered through the torn, loose skin that was draped over and around her.  The skin was tanned, except where it had been too folded for the sun to get at.

“Hey,” Avery greeted the god-begotten Other.

Tashlit waved back.  Okay, easy enough.

“Sorry to intrude, we’re-” Lucy started.

Tashlit was already waving a hand, as if to brush Lucy off.  Body language careless.

No intrusion.  Okay, that was easy too.

Tashlit held up two fingers, separated, in a ‘v’ shape.

“She’s saying bye to her mom,” Avery said.

Tashlit cradled her arms, tapped her wrist and pointed down.

“When does she get here?  I don’t know that she is.  She gave us some stuff to give to you but we’re juggling stuff.  She thinks tomorrow, she’ll drop by if the situation…”

Tashlit was shaking her head.  Skin moved in a different time than the narrow, eye-covered head beneath that skin did.

“Not?”

Tashlit tapped wrist, pointed behind herself, tapped wrist, pointed ahead.  Tapped wrist, pointed down.

“Time… back?  Back in time?” Avery guessed.  She looked at Lucy, then back at Tashlit.  “We established this one, didn’t we?”

Tashlit nodded emphatically.

“Sorry.  Do you keep the signs consistent over time?”

Another emphatic nod.

“My bad.  Um, repeat it?”

Tashlit shook her head.  A hand waved.  She walked over to the cabin and bent over to squeeze water out of her hair.  In the doing, skin stretched and was pulled around.  As hair was twisted, the skin of her scalp that hung to one side of her real head was twisted up too.

“Not important, I guess?” Lucy asked.  “Hey, um, Verona got some stuff to give to you.”

Tashlit tilted her head.

They put bags down and dug inside.  Avery found the shirts and swim shorts.  “I was told to tell you this is from Verona with love.”

Tashlit took the shirts, then noticed the tags and stickers.  She stood up straighter, hyperalert.  She rubbed fingers and thumb together, then ‘polished’ the clothes with her fingers.

“They’re new, yeah.  They were on sale, I think?” Avery asked.

Tashlit dissolved into a series of gestures that looked more vigilant and concerned than anything else.

“I think it’s cool, Tashlit,” Lucy said.  “She wanted to thank you somehow and to think about you.”

Tashlit took the clothes, while Avery made sure there wasn’t something else.  She found a scarf with colors similar to Tashlit’s many eyes, and then the sketchpad and brush Verona had handed over.  “You draw?”

Tashlit made a ‘small’ gesture.

“You can’t hang out around Verona without putting some paint to page, I think,” Lucy said.

“I used to doodle a little and now I doodle a lot,” Avery said.

Tashlit nodded, emphatically.  She took everything that was offered and hugged it to her chest, carried it into her cabin, and then re-emerged, arms empty.

“Happy?” Avery asked.

Tashlit nodded.  She pressed her hands together into a prayer sign, and pointed at Lucy.

“Yeah, if you could?  That’d be… it’d be great,” Lucy said.

At Tashlit’s instruction, such as it was, Lucy sat on the log by the fire and then rolled up her shirt as much as she could without being indecent, before putting a hand behind her to lean back.  She peeled off bandages.

It was gnarly.  The deepest parts of the cut were only about half an inch deep but that was really deep when it came to the ribs.  Around the stomach there was just flesh and it looked uneven and not great.  All of the gouges seemed to get shallower as they crossed Lucy’s ribs and stomach, but the longest one traced a path across skin a foot long.

Avery had scraped her stomach on the bridge and that had bothered the everloving crap out of her until she’d gotten it mostly healed.  She couldn’t imagine having four of these rents.  She winced.

“Ave,” Lucy said, “what I was saying before?  You’re cool because you keep your cool.  The fact you had something as awful as what Olivia did to your friendship and your family ignoring you and you kept on trucking?  That takes grit.  I like that you’re always out there, watching our flanks and stuff.”

Tashlit gestured, and Lucy nodded.  Tashlit laid hands over Lucy’s biggest wound.

“If you want to have a little breakdown or whatever, you’re absolutely due.  Verona and I have had ours.  Just don’t do what I did and shut us out.  Reach out.  I’d be… grateful if you would, if that’s not too weird a word for it.  And if you don’t need to and you stay gritty and whatever then… thanks?”

“Okay,” Avery said.

“Did I mention I didn’t sleep that well?” Lucy asked.

“You did.”

“Because I’m rambling.”

“You are.  Don’t worry, Lucy.  Don’t worry.”

Lucy nodded, eyes closed.

Avery sat on the far end of the log, by Lucy’s feet.  She watched as Tashlit lifted up her hands.  The big cut was only a red mark now.  It still looked inflamed and scabby at the part that had been deepest.

“Better,” Lucy said, quiet.  “Will it scar?”

Tashlit looked it over, eyes roving while the rest of her was still, then held up two fingers.  Made a so-so gesture, then held up three.

“I looked it up and wounds from ghouls don’t always heal up easy,” Lucy said.  “Or they never heal and you just hurt for a long time.”

Tashlit shook her head, then held up fingers.  Two, hand shake, then three.

“Two, maybe three sessions?” Avery asked.

Tashlit nodded.

“That’s a relief,” Lucy said, leaning back a bit more, elbows and forearms resting on the log.  “Thank you.”

Tashlit stood, walked over to the front of her cabin, and washed her hands in the barrel right outside.  She pulled a music player out and put a song on.  It was a dark, gritty sound with a sweet voice over top of it.

“Oh hey,” Lucy said, smiling.  “I gave this one to Verona.  You like it?”

One nod.

“Cool.  I’ve got some more I can put on your music player when we’re done,” Lucy said.  “You’ll need to give me reviews, as repayment.  Some of this is stuff I’d love to talk to someone about but Verona is hit or miss and Avery isn’t super into a lot of it.”

“I tried,” Avery said.  “I’m down to try again.”

Tashlit nodded.

“Hey, Tashlit?” Avery asked.  “How about you, huh?  Lucy’s over here talking about grit and coolness and you seem cool enough with things.  How are you?”

The series of movements from Tashlit was hard to interpret.  Avery tried to follow or pick up on the sentiment of it and she couldn’t.

So she looked past, eyes meeting Tashlit’s, and that was easy enough when she could look at any part of Tashlit’s body and see at least one eye staring back at her.

“Sorry, I don’t really follow.”

Tashlit pointed at the old music player.

Dark and gritty with a sweet voice cutting through it.

“I’m not sure how to interpret that either.  But I think what Lucy said to me goes for you too.  If you need anything, or if you want to have a bad day, you let us know, okay?  We’ll do our best.”

Tashlit nodded.  She pointed at and between them, then clutched hands together, drawing them to chest.

“I know this one,” Avery said.  “Want?  What do we want?”

“This is great on its own,” Lucy said.  “I already feel better.”

Tashlit, sitting on the log, hand over the wound, nodded, and gave her a thumbs up.

Avery made herself check the time.

1:37.

She reached into her pocket and unfolded a collection of papers.  She sprung up to her feet, and laid them in a circle around Lucy and Tashlit.  Tashlit paused in what she was doing as the third paper was laid onto ground.

“It’s okay,” Lucy said.  “You can trust us.  And if this was nefarious, you have me as a hostage you could take.  It’s not a binding like that.”

Tashlit nodded, very still, eyes tracking Avery.

Avery set the fourth paper down.

The pages fluttered in the wind, but the fluttering seemed out of sync with everything else.

We’re being observed.

Avery used her Sight, starting with her own, to trace connections and try to source the connection that was out there, pressing at them.  Mist moved, and she remembered from when they’d dealt with the Augurs that there were often hints.

When they’d been in the Alcazar she’d made out of the photograph, the sky had had eyes in it, many blinded.

The mist of her Sight swirled, and the world was rendered invisible, painted with handprints, many bloody.  The water of the nearby river was a rolling mass of fleeting handprints and parts of handprints.

The band of connections was out there, extending to deep woods.

Her head turned, snapping to one side.  And the band of connection retreated, disappearing.  She changed to Snowdrop Sight, to try to see past obstructions, and wasn’t fast enough.

The papers went quiet.

“Who was it?” Lucy asked.

Avery shook her head.

“But someone was watching.”

“Yeah.”

“I think we’re good now.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  She turned to Tashlit, who cocked her head.  “Thanks for looking after Verona, Tashlit.  You’re great.  It meant a lot.”

Tashlit laid a hand over heart.  If she had a heart.  Same place, anyway.

“If you want to say no, totally cool.  You’re spending power here and there’s nothing big, but…”

Avery looked to make sure the papers were okay.

“We might need some backup.”

Tashlit gestured and Avery didn’t really follow the specifics, but she got the intent.  So did Lucy.

It was a yes.

“Thank you,” Lucy said.  “Really, whatever it is we can do, music, anything you need to buy… I’m- we’re happy to help.  You looked after one of my top four people.”

Tashlit gestured.  Pointing down, tapping wrist, a pinching-the-air gesture, like she was indicating something small.

“Here?” Lucy asked.  She got a nod.  “Time… small?”

“Stick around for a little while?” Avery asked.

Tashlit nodded.

It was hard not to feel like the clock was ticking, but…

“You got used to having company, huh?” Avery asked.

Tashlit nodded.

“What were you up to before we came?” Lucy asked.

Tashlit got up, went to wash her hands, and then walked over to the shore.  She picked up the stones she’d placed there, and carried them off to the side.

There was a wall in progress.  Tashlit was laying moss between the stones, piling them up into a wall.

Avery and Lucy walked over, and Avery picked up the papers.  Lucy brushed at her less-injured stomach before pulling her shirt down, and they looked at what seemed to be a garden in progress.

“Whatcha growing?” Avery asked.

Tashlit bent down and picked up cards.  There were tomatoes and cucumbers on them.

“Huh.  Do you like them?” Lucy asked.

Tashlit touched her lower face.  No mouth.

“Just growing them for the heck of it?” Avery asked.

Tashlit shrugged and nodded, her lower eyelids raising, body jerking slightly.

“Cool.  It’s a neat project.  And mossy walls are tops,” Avery said.

Emphatic nod.

“Oh,” Lucy said, as the song changed.  “Let me put something else on.  I’ve listened to this one too much, I’m sick of it.  I’ll run some songs by you.  Anything you’re in the mood for, feeling-wise?”

Tashlit made fluttery motions and then dropped her hands with emphasis.

“I’m… going to take a stab at fitting a song to that and you let me know how close I landed.”

Thumbs up.

“Verona’s gonna catch up with us.  I’m going to text her to let her know we’re hanging out.  Then she’ll probably hang for a bit here too,” Avery said.

Tashlit nodded, with emphasis.  Then she glanced back in the direction they’d come, not to look herself, but to pose, or convey something.  Tense.

Avery told her, “It’s okay.  She’s okay now.  The visit with her mom seemed to go really well, she’s staying at Lucy’s mom’s place now and things seem cool.”

Something in Tashlit relaxed a bit.

Lucy put some music on.

Avery checked she still held the paper, then said, “It’s other stuff Verona and us have to worry about.”

🟂

3:00pm.

“Of course.  I’ll help,” John said.

Verona, Avery, and Lucy held papers, guaranteeing privacy.

“What will that help look like?”

“It might mean sparring against some Kennet Others,” Lucy said.

“Hopefully there’s no fighting or sparring or whatever.  You being with us would help a lot,” Avery said.  “Both as implied protection and for the little boost to courage.”

“Do I command that much trust?” he asked.

“Do you think you shouldn’t?” Lucy asked.

“I hope I do deserve that trust.  I think I do.  You looked after Yalda before she was bound.  Told her about me?”

“Yeah.”

“Then I’ll support you until you’re in clear violation of the contract you made with all of us at the Awakening.”

Lucy nodded.  “Thank you.”

John nodded.  He took the little games that Verona had brought and set them aside, bending down briefly to slip them into his bag.  There was also a collection of darts Avery had grabbed on impulse.  No dartboard, that had been too expensive.  Just darts.  She figured John could improvise.  He seemed to like it.

“Can you think of anything we’re overlooking?” Verona asked.

“Overlooking in what way?”

“Just… the likely culprits of the Carmine’s murder seem entirely too relaxed,” Verona said.

“Some of the local Others have fifty years of experience for every year you have.  Some are naturally canny, others have abilities or special competence in certain areas,” John said, voice quiet, clear, and even.  “This isn’t their first time dealing with circumstances like this.  For some it isn’t their hundredth.”

“And the ones who haven’t been around that long?” Verona asked.

“Or who won’t be?  Shorter lifespans can mean less to lose, or more need to go all-in, so to speak.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “Right.  Okay.”

“And then there’s me.  I’ll live a long time until killed or the war ends.  I don’t know what the end of summer brings, but I have hopes.  I can give you an answer to your question but I’m not sure if it’ll be the kind of answer you’re looking for.”

“Anything we’re overlooking,” Lucy said.

“I say this not because I expect you to lose or to die or to suffer any particular fate.  I don’t know what this will bring, or what the end of summer will bring.  But I’ve lost many,” John said.  He touched the tags at his collar, then gripped them through his shirt.  Metal clinked.  “Make sure there are no regrets.  Get your affairs in order.  Be ready in case one, two, or all three of you are…”

John paused, trying to find words.

“Killed?” Verona asked.

“Verona,” Lucy answered, a sharp rebuke.

“…put in a situation such as one where I’d need to take a bullet for you to save you, and I’m not fast enough.”

“Killed,” Verona repeated, not making it a question this time.

“Yes.”

Avery exhaled, then shifted position, uncomfortable.

There were no words for a good short while in the wake of that.  Avery both relieved that she wasn’t the only one speechless- there was solidarity in that.  But it was also devastating in its own right.

“Sorry,” John said, settling into a sitting position, moving his bag to be closer to his foot.  “If that’s too much.  All I mean is- be prepared for this to not go the way you need it to.  Even if it comes to you getting hurt, cornered, imprisoned, if you have plans or things set in motion, you don’t want to think ‘I should’ve’ in the moment before you have no options.  Be prepared.”

“What does-” Lucy paused, swallowing.  “What sort of thing would we need to do to be prepared?”

🟂

4:30pm.  Protecting family.

Whatever happened, they couldn’t let this fall on their family.  They were big weak points.

It was a repeat of two weeks ago.  Avery had pulled off her shirt, wearing an athletic bra and shorts, and she was beaded with sweat, every inch of fabric soaked through.  Paint fumes made her dizzy, even with the runes she’d inscribed that blew the air around the attic, a steady breeze that was supposed to also dissipate the chemical smells.

Fixing and updating the diagram, expanding it to all four corners of the attic.  She added some protection against any remote viewing or spies.

Snowdrop passed her a bottle of water.  Avery chugged it.

“I wonder what my dad thought,” Verona said.

“Huh?” Avery asked.  She walked over and Snowdrop held up the phone so she could see Lucy in her room on one half of the screen, and Verona and Verona’s dad’s basement taking up the other half.

“He got on my case for not finishing the painting and this is… it’s actually pretty good.  Just needs some around the edges.  A bit of sanding down where it clumped.”

“I dunno, Verona.  I think it takes something bigger than that to get a jerk to stop being a jerk,” Lucy said.

Avery wasn’t sure what to say.  The closest approximation to that kind of stubborn jerkishness would’ve been Sheridan and Sheridan wasn’t exactly ten variations on terrific, but Sheridan had turned around and showed she could be something other than the bratty big sister.  Sheridan had her moments of cool.  Jessica had been a hard nut to crack but Jessica was cool.

As Lucy and Verona chatted, talking about painting and the rune, Avery flicked through.

Jessica had sent a picture of herself and her girlfriend in their house.  It looked small but it was packed with decorations, to the point that some stuff was sitting on the ground around the base of some of the tables next to a futon.  Avery was fond of the stone carvings and she’d asked, and Jessica had sent pictures of some.

America Tedd, maybe?  But she barely knew America.  She could think of her as abstractly similar to Verona’s dad but she couldn’t say for sure.

Which left Avery vanishingly few points of her life experience to compare to.  The one that her mind kept going back to was Grumble.

And she really didn’t want to dwell on that.

“All good?” Snowdrop asked.  “You’re looking sharp.”

“Just… I want to do this,” Avery said, straightening, focusing.  She took in the painted diagram.  “Protect my people.  As annoying as some of them are.”

“Awful,” Snowdrop said.  “They’re not my people, you know, even by association, and I’m having to sit here and help.  So you’re on your own.”

“Okay, Snowdrop.  Thanks.”

She resumed painting, being very careful not to mess up lines, because a too-fat stroke was something that required about twenty more strokes to balance out.

“Lucy overheard stuff about Toadswallow’s plans.  You mentioned the Sage thing.”

“Nah, didn’t tell you all of it.”

“It’s sounding like he wants to make a market?”

“He didn’t tell me, after he found out Lucy overheard.”

“I’m not sure how to feel about that.”

“I am.”

“Yeah, well… you wouldn’t be in charge, right?”

“Of course I would.  Sage Snowdrop and head merchant?”

“Hmmm.  Who would, his girlfriend?”

“Who knows?” Snowdrop asked.  “Everyone except Toadswallow and his choice, maybe.”

“Maybe,” Avery said.  “Keep me filled in?”

“Screw that.”

“Yeah.”  Avery straightened and blinked a few times as sweat got into her eyes.  She couldn’t wipe at it easily with the bits of paint on her fingers.

“You okay?” Snowdrop asked.

Avery could feel Snowdrop passing on some vitality through their shared bond.

“You don’t have to do that.  Do you think you can sneak down to the fridge?  There’s a sports drink in there and if I’m sweating this much I think I need the electrolytes.”

“No way.  But I know for a fact,” Snowdrop whispered, “there aren’t any ice cream sandwiches in the freezer.”

“How in the frick do you know that?” Avery asked.  She considered for a moment, then studied Snowdrop’s expression.  “How many have you had?”

“None.  Don’t worry.”

Avery winced.  “You know, my siblings are liable to go ballistic if there aren’t enough to go around?  I wouldn’t rule out murder, necessarily.”

“It’s fine, there’s plenty left.”

Avery, sweating, hot, sticky, and tired, considered how good an ice cream bar would be in this moment.

She looked at Snowdrop.  “Technically, there being none is less likely to result in murder than there being one or two left, right?  Nothing to fight over.”

“That is irresponsible thinking and I, for one, am not about to put up with it,” Snowdrop told her.

🟂

6:00pm.

“Avery!  Sheridan, Kerry, Declan!  Dinner!”

Avery drew in a breath, double checked the note she was working on, then stuffed it into her pillowcase.

In an ideal world she would’ve liked to be done by now, fixing wording, tweaking things to fit better, to convey feelings better.

She wasn’t a writer.

She headed downstairs and as she did, Declan bumped into her, making her miss a step, her shoulder hitting the wall.

“Declan, you penis!”

“You C-word!”

Declan had not gotten the reality check she had hoped for.

“Sheridan, Avery, can you help Grumble?”

Avery approached the chair and went to Grumble, taking his arm.  Sheridan took the other arm, and together they stabilized him while he got to his feet.

“Hey Grumble,” Avery whispered.

“Hey’very.  Y’rre good girls,” Grumble said.  “Even you, Sherr’n.”

“Uh huh.  I don’t believe you,” Sheridan said.

He’d been sleeping before dinner and he was a little more mumbly than usual.

Every footstep took about two seconds and moved him one foot closer to the tail end of the table.  Declan made unhappy noises about having to set the table, filling and bringing a pitcher of water.

There was a kind of jingle and clamor to it all, even in the moments they weren’t talking.  The clatter of silverware and jug touching table, the clinks of dishes being brought in from kitchen, the back door sliding open to let the breeze in, chairs squeaking on floor.

Then the voices were overlapping, her parents in sync in the kitchen, her siblings in the opposite of sync.  Grumble mumbled something more to himself than to them, shuffling closer to the table.  Kerry ducked underfoot, eliciting a not-wholly playful kick from Sheridan and a shout about not knocking Grumble over.  Kerry’s voice took on a Fernanda-like tilt to it, from when they’d all been making dolls at the Blue Heron.  Pitched to get the most attention possible.

Her mom set a dish down, and then pulled out the chair for Grumble.  They settled him beside where Mom sat, and Avery put his bib on.

She got him sorted, adjusted the haphazard placement of silverware and Grumble’s easy-to-hold, unbreakable glass, then gave him a hug.

“Uh!” he grunted.  “Whassis?”

“I love you,” she told him.

“You too,” he replied.

She kept the hug going a bit longer than she normally would have, then kissed him in the side of the head.

Kerry was pulling the TV around and Sheridan kept the flatscreen from wobbling off the stand.

As they all got settled, Kerry turned the channel on.  The singing competition.  A rerun.

Avery hid the face she normally would’ve made.  Sheridan was looking and she didn’t want to give Sheridan fuel.

“Remote,” Avery’s mom said.

Hope?  No singing show rerun?  Avery crossed her fingers under the table.

“But-!” Kerry raised her voice.

“Remote, Kerry K.J. Kelly.  Pretty please and thank you, no objections this time.  We’ll watch your show when we’re done.”

“Done dinner!?” Kerry exclaimed, her world shattered.

“Done talking,” Avery’s dad said.

The remote was handed over, the television muted.

Her dad addressed the table.  “This is going to be a brief but very important family discussion.  And I do mean discussion.  We need to talk about something serious.”

Avery had already spent the day on high alert, and she didn’t miss the fact that her mom reached over to place a hand over Grumble’s.

Avery’s next big set of preparation was foiled.  Spending time with family, finding a way to say goodbye and tell the people she loved that she loved them.  Something else was coming up.

“On the upside, there are ice cream bars for dessert,” her mom said.  “So let’s tough this out.”

🟂

The alarm clock by the head of her bed flashed 8:20pm.

“You have a plan?” Zed asked.

“Yeah,” Avery said.

His face was clear on the laptop screen.  Brie sat next to him, chewing on something.

“Heavy.”

“We’re thinking about, um, contingencies, I think they’re called.  What happens if…” Avery said, trailing off, and she gestured.

“We still owe you for looking after Brie’s situation.  So if there’s anything you need, let us know, we’ll see what we can do.”

“For right now… keep an ear out?  I don’t know what’s going on there or how preoccupied you are, but…”

Brie looked at Zed.  She chewed on licorice.

“If we don’t get a call, we should get curious?”

“Please.”

“Okay.  How’s three days sound?”

“Sure, that’s-”

Paper by the window fluttered.

She pressed lips together, using Sight to investigate the surroundings.  She could see the connection.

Snowdrop-Sight let her see around the corner.  A goblin, near the window.  An eye peered around the corner, then darted out of view before she could focus on it to see details.  Medium sized, a two foot tall goblin standing or a three foot feet tall goblin sitting down, judging by where the head was, which unfortunately encompassed most of the new goblins.

She typed: being watched, at the same time she asked, “How are things with the new headmaster?”

“Ray’s pretty tired.  He’s trying to pick up the slack where the new headmaster isn’t the best at some stuff, I think it’s a kind of vice principal role.  It’s not his skillset.”

Brie spoke up, “It’s not his skillset, but in my perspective, he’s much more… whole, this way, I think?  Helping, dealing with people.”

“Are you still mad at him?” Avery asked.

“No,” Zed said.  “It’s a flaw of mine, that I can’t stay mad enough for long enough that it matters.  Probably a good thing, because Ray can’t stand people being mad.  Not anymore.”

“Yeah.”

Text appeared on the screen: Still?

The goblin was still there, listening in.

Avery nodded.

“So are you good, you need help, or anything?” Zed asked.  “Or…?”

Avery shook her head.  “Only the little things I mentioned before.”

“Absolutely.  I’ll check in.  I’ll tell the others you said hi, same idea?”

“Sure, let them know I’m trying to stay in touch, and if I don’t then that’s, you know, circumstances.”

“Will do,” Zed told her.

Brie typed, leaning over for the keyboard.

Good luck, was the message.

Avery smiled, nodded, and then ended the call.

She climbed out of bed, disturbing Snowdrop, and the movement scared off the goblin, who fled the rooftop before Avery could get to the window to take in the breeze.

Avery returned to her bed, getting the letter out of her pillowcase, with only one new sentence added to it, and read the partial paragraph over twice before handing it to Snowdrop to read.

A call to Zed, an email to Nicolette, a text to Fernanda, who’d left the Blue Heron to handle family stuff.  If they needed rescue, hopefully this kind of message and contact would help speed that process along.  Making sure that friends knew what was happening.

Or what had happened.

🟂

9:50pm.

Connection blockers up with time limiters.  If they weren’t home in twelve hours then they didn’t want or need the connections to stay blocked.  It meant something bad had happened.

Until then, their parents might not remember they existed.  Not the most unusual thing in the world for Avery, but Lucy and Verona held themselves differently as they met up.

They cut through the bottommost end of downtown, carrying bags and boxes.  This wasn’t a place the Others hung out and it was oddly easier to move through the busiest parts of the town than it was to move through quieter spaces.

That wasn’t to say there wasn’t anyone.  The papers rustled and the runes degraded.

They passed through a crowd and Avery’s eyes were on every face, trying to find the ones that stood out by not standing out.  Lis.  Or a potential Fae.  However good the glamour it took a lot for a Fae to not want to stand out in some way.

It was Reggie who crossed their paths.  The Composite Kid.  Tousle-haired and somewhat androgynous, skinny and tense, Reggie rustled papers as he passed, then kept going.

They made sure they weren’t tracked any further, then accessed the house on Half street.  Avery double checked the anti-tracking countermeasure was working.  She didn’t know what they could do in order to do any better except to seal off this space entirely and access it by Paths, and she was pretty sure the other two wouldn’t go for that.

Almost no connections touched the four of them as they entered.  No bands followed at their heels to suggest anyone followed their tracks or paid attention to the courses they were taking.  They slipped into the place behind a fold in reality, that fold wrapped around a signpost, rearranged with a movement of the sign, sealing itself closed behind them.  Avery stayed outside a bit longer than the others, looking out at the sky and surroundings.  Snowdrop hung back with her.

Avery and Snowdrop joined the other two in the living room.  She looked at the big window where the connection blockers and anti-augury things were already arranged.  It looked like Verona’s work.

Lucy held up a paper.  “From Reggie.  Passed to me.”

“And?” Avery asked.

“Rook is trusting us with information.  Our doppleganger and cancer stick are with the candle spirit,” Lucy told her.  “They were out there.”

“Okay.”

“Doppleganger, cigarette, some of the goblins, probably,” Verona said.

“I had one outside my window,” Avery told them.

“We’ll prepare accordingly.”

They unpacked bags and sorted things out.

10:00pm, Avery’s phone read, the silent alarm going off.  She’d worried she’d nod off or something and screw up somehow.  It marked a milestone.

One hour to go.

“Would you ever think about taking this place as a demesne?” Avery asked.

“After this summer?  Maybe,” Verona said.  “Our town spirit picked it with that idea.  When I needed a hiding place, this was available, I guess.  I dunno.  I might not be a demesne person.  You were talking about being the fastest in your own little world…”

“And you feel like the world’s a lot of tightly contained spaces with their own rules already?”

“Yeah,” Verona said. “Would you pick a skating rink?  Or something else?  Is that how it works?  Do we pick that arena of choice?”

“I’d do something else, I think.  I think of, I dunno.  A house without a floor.  Ropes and things.”

Verona laughed.  “That’d be out there.”

“Isn’t it?  Or a loft with enough open space on the second floor where you could have a big hammock or something stretched across, like they do in tiny houses.”

“That’s neat.  I can see it.  Path-y.”

“Yeah, with doors and windows out to Paths.  Maybe so you can peek through?”

“My mom was talking about passions and not having any one particular passion for herself.  And that’s cool, but like, how do I decide on a place to call my place of power if I do something like that?  How do you define a space and make it cool if your approach to practice or to the world changes all the time?”

“No idea,” Lucy said.  “Make it a changing space?”

“Ennnh,” Verona grunted.

“Fair.”

Verona spread out stuff she’d done on the beach.  One of the books had sand at the bottom edge of each page.

“Where are we on the checklist?” Avery asked.  “Gearing up?”

“I don’t have all my usual gear,” Verona said.  “Stuff broke, my mask included.”

“We’ll sort things out,” Lucy said.  “But that’s soon, not right now.  For right now… expectations.”

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Verona said, quiet.

Lucy looked down at her phone, then set it aside.  “Let’s go over possibilities.  Odds, your best guess, how likely do you think this is going to work?”

“Eighty per-” Avery started, at the same time Verona said, “Sixty-”

“Sixty?” Lucy asked.

“Remember day one?” Verona asked.  “Awakening day?  Miss said I’d make a good practitioner because it took me so long to come around to being a bit Aware, or something.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s the same kind of thinking, isn’t it?” Verona asked.  “If you can think of ten different ways that goblin you’re seeing might be a prank or a trick, then after you’ve awakened, you can think of ten ways around something.  Or ten ways this could go wrong.”

“Let’s assume a sixty percent chance of succeeding,” Lucy said.

“Should we be doing this if it’s only sixty percent?” Avery asked.

“If I told you no, right now, what would you do?  What would our game plan be?”

“I don’t know,” Avery said.  “I guess… we can’t stand by and let the end of summer come.  But we could take more time.”

“If you have any ideas on what more we could be doing, or advantages we could gain, or anything else,” Lucy said.  “If you have any inklings… I’m more than okay with going home and tearing up papers, and returning to business as usual.”

Avery paused, thinking.  She shook her head.  “I don’t.”

“Verona?” Lucy asked.

“No.”

“Then tell me those ten ways you think this could go wrong.  Start with the biggest.”

“Us counting on the wrong type of person,” Verona said.

“Then let’s work on that.”

🟂

10:23pm.  Forty-nine minutes until the deadline.

Runes to contain fire and to manage spirit.  Runes for smoke, for light.  Warding signs against echoes, and the spell cards and salt to dispel them.  They had runes for expelling water, both for dealing with the Girl by Candlelight, and to contain any fire.

They drew the runes on skin and clothes both.  Then, because it was hot out and because it was dark, they dressed in heavier clothing with more pockets and sleeves, then drew the runes to stay cool.  As air and moisture circulated, hair and clothing stirred.

The more they worked, the more it felt like the arena was shrinking.  That this was a place for them to face off against an opposing team, with defined bounds and rules they could keep in mind or turn to their advantage.

Snowdrop brought water, brought a pepperoni stick for Lucy, and then went to stand watch outside.  Avery could see the back of her head through the window.

When it came to practical, drawing-diagrams type practitioner work, Snowdrop couldn’t do much more than provide moral support, and with how tense things were, Snowdrop’s most ardent moral support came in the form of verbal abuse.  Which didn’t, much of the time, lift morale.

It was fine.  She was an ally.

Edith had allies too.

Matthew meant Doom, he meant heartless practices.  Avery tied her hair back into a ponytail, minimizing the strands that could be tugged free in a reach.  Lucy braided her hair.  Verona put a hood up.

Because Verona was fastest at drawing the runes, they had her sit with laptop in lap and Avery used Verona’s drawings on Lucy’s arms, shoulder, and back to remind herself of what to put where.  Verona took the time to message Nicolette.  Images popped up on the screen as she downloaded them.  Anti-curse, anti-Doom.

For Maricica, they had fireworks they’d bought while shopping, and they had the silver bells the Witch Hunter had left behind.  Lucy rigged up some light runes on paper to go with the bells, then rubbed them down as best as she could to burnish the silver.

Lis, Fae, and Cig to some lesser degree could all go in a similar category.  Things that confounded or slowed down Fae could maybe slow down Lis, because she was subtle like that.  Cig was vulnerable to water like Edith was.

Beyond that, they had to remind themselves not to trust strangers.

“Think I’m done,” Avery said, taking the marker off of Verona’s skin.

“Almost done, don’t move,” Lucy said, working on her other side.

“Moving my arm to turn a page.”

“Okay,” Lucy held the marker away.  Verona turned the page, and Lucy resumed drawing.

“I know this sounds awful, but… countermeasures for John?” Verona asked.

“Circle, distract, tag, trap, anything to move faster than him, because we probably get one good chance.  Pray there’s no distractions,” Lucy said.

“There will be,” Verona said, “probably, right?”

“I don’t think John’s a problem, but let’s keep the plan in mind, really firm, and if there’s a problem, improvise while sticking to that plan.”

Verona nodded.  “Tashlit, ugh.  I’ve got the script in my notebook.  If we have to bind her in a pinch I can do that.  It’ll probably take a couple minutes.  Otherwise… ugh.  Ugh!”

“Nobody likes this,” Avery said.

“Hurt her.  If I can’t do it – not talking emotionally, but if I get knocked out or transformed or something, one of you guys should be prepared.”

Avery hesitated, then got her phone.  She took pictures of the binding circle and religious Babylonian script outlining seven gods.

“Next…” Verona said.  She sighed, heavy.

Just in case a friend turns out to be unfriendly…

🟂

10:58pm.

They ventured outside, avoiding people.  Long clothing helped to mask the drawings they’d done on skin.  Masks, hats, and capes were in reach, except for Verona, who had no mask.

Their destination was the same car lot that Zed had parked at.  Outside of Kennet, to the north.

John and Tashlit came to them.  Guilherme followed after.  Coming from the south.  John wore a t-shirt and dark green pants with cargo pockets.  Tashlit wore a new top.  Guilherme was shirtless, beaded with small amounts of sweat in the warm summer evening, the ends of his long hair sticking to neck and shoulder.

If that was supposed to tickle anyone’s fancy, Avery didn’t really get it.  It felt like a purposeful move on his part.

Tashlit gave Verona a high five, and then stood behind her, hands on her shoulders.

“Thanks for coming, Guilherme.”

“Of course.  Will you shed some light on what is happening here?” he asked.

“Don’t you know?” Lucy asked.

He smiled.

“Will you distract Maricica?” Avery asked.

“Does she need distracting?” Guilherme asked.

“Don’t you know already?” Lucy asked, again.

The Faerie chuckled.  “I’m fond of you, Lucy, but this is inelegant.”

“That’s the Faerie way of saying go fuck yourself, I think,” Verona whispered.

“There’s too much going on tonight, Guilherme, so if you want to keep to oaths and support us, please, deal with Maricica and ask questions later, give me your slow and careful education after, and I will be glad to have it.”

“And I will be glad to teach,” he said.  “Much as I will be glad to observe whatever things of importance are happening tonight.”

“And deal with Maricica?” Lucy asked.

“I have dealt with Maricica for too long already, what’s one more-”

“Yes or no?” Lucy asked.  “I don’t have the patience right now.”

“Yes.  I will distract her and keep her out of your hair for the time being.”

“Good.  Thank you.”

“I must teach you rhetoric, dear Lucy.  It breaks my heart in small ways to see you be so blunt when you have such potential for grace.”

Lucy looked up at him, a slow, careful, studious look, eyebrows drawing together more than usual.

“If you must,” she said.  “Another time, let’s hope.”

“Another time,” he answered.  “I’ll go now.  If you’re anticipating her then she’s already anticipating me.”

“Thank you, Guilherme,” Avery called out.

He waved his response as he walked away.

“What do you intend?” John asked.  “I can see lines at Verona’s neck.  Guilherme is being used as a distraction.”

“It’s okay, John,” Miss said.  She approached from shadow and stopped short of stepping out into clear light.  Branches between her and them blocked the view of her face.  She wore light summer clothing, hands in the pockets of pants with flared legs, black hair catching the wind.

“Ah,” John said.  He let out a deep breath, then smiled.  “You’ve returned.  Small reliefs.”

“I shouldn’t enter so long as Montague may be made to hold the diagram.”

“You know Tashlit?” John asked.

“We met briefly.  I would love to talk more, but for now I can only ask your silence, and cede the floor to greater authorities.  Some immortals are endlessly patient, but this one isn’t.”

“Such a way of introducing me, Miss.”  The voice was deep.

The blackness behind her deepened.  The Sable Prince stepped out of the darkness behind her.  Trees rustled and leaves went still, branches creaking and bowing.

Leaf turned to black stone, branches doing much the same.  Grass splintered, more like needles and blades that cracked underfoot.  Were it any other foot, they looked like they could stab through or slash neatly across flesh, but these footsteps hit ground as if the man in the black suit with the black dress shirt was an elephant, not someone resembling a human.  Hair was long and combed back in backwards-sweeping locks, and his beard was trimmed to the edges of the jaw and a goatee shape, sans mustache, the edges clean at chin’s edge, but at the extremities his hair was wild, curled, and dense in a way that threatened to catch at any hands or utensils that touched it.  His shoulder-length hair was similar.  More akin to a horse’s mane that became a bramble patch, but the same blackness and material from root to tip.

Avery glanced back at others.  John’s expression changed several times and when it settled at something closer to where it had been, the darkness in his eyes seemed deeper.  He seemed more reluctant to look at her, or Lucy, or Verona, Tashlit, or Miss.

“The arguments were presented and outlined fairly,” the Sable Prince addressed them.  “You want special dispensation?”

Lucy spoke up.  “We were asked to investigate.  We’ve investigated.  Edith appears to have wronged us, but we can’t say for certain if she was compelled to.  Whether it’s compulsion or whether she’s wronged us by shirking her oaths, we think it’s best to bring her into custody, so she might answer questions.”

“So granted.”

“Just like that?” Verona asked.

“Is there a reason you’re not certain?” he asked.  “Did you expect less?  I can amend.”

“No, no.  I’m used to having to fight things more to make stuff happen,” Verona admitted.

“The fight will follow from this.  You know this, don’t you?  If you wear runes and carry weapons?  These are your bodyguards?”

Avery looked back at John and Tashlit and nodded.  Lucy and Verona nodded too.

“Justice is yours to mete out,” the Sable Prince told them.  “If the justice or lack thereof is misplaced, it will be misplaced onto your shoulders.”

“You mean if we picked the wrong person?” Avery asked.

“Do you think you picked the wrong person?” he asked.  “Again, I may amend.”

“No.  Something’s going on here.”

“Then it’s not a concern,” he said.  “I will accompany you and oversee.  That simple act will make things easier for many of us, for very little effort from any of us.”

The three of them exchanged glances.

“Have you changed your mind?  That will reflect poorly on all of you,” he said.

“Go,” Miss said, quiet.  “Be careful.  Don’t make him wonder again if you doubt your course of action.  You decided after careful deliberation.  Now see it through.”

Avery nodded.

They turned to go.  John and Tashlit followed a step behind.  The Sable Prince followed after.

His footsteps were a thudding drum beat.  His shadow, long, moved in the wrong directions for the light around them, as if there was a special, invisible sun directly behind him, casting a shadow only for him, to make it as stark and long as it was.

As they approached the tunnel that would let them pass under the highway, the highway emptied.  Cars continued on their way, and no more cars came.

The lights on either side of the tunnel turned off.  Foliage near the tunnel entrance crackled and twisted, leaf and branch turning to stone, knots in wood to veins of ore.  A distance behind them, greenery transformed back to green, trees leaping and reaching back up to original heights, if not higher.

They entered their first street and people carried on their way, going to where they were going.  But nobody followed after.  Where it was normally a hustle and bustle and people came and went, they only went, now.

Doors slammed.  Lights were turned off with such ferocity that it seemed as if every breaker had been hit.  Businesses and houses went dark, streetlamps went out.

The Kennet that they approached went still as they entered it.

“Call,” Lucy whispered.

Avery dialed the number.

It rang twice.

Doors slammed as people entered buildings, as if they forgot to be gentle as they were moved on their way.

“Hello?  Avery.”

“We’re coming by.  It’s important.”

“What is it?” Matthew asked.

Avery went to hang up.  Then she heard a voice.

“Avery.”

Edith’s.

Avery didn’t answer.

More lights went off.  It felt like distances were shortening, in the opposite of whatever knotting was.

“I know what you’re doing.  This won’t be as easy as you’re picturing.”

“Okay,” Avery said.

She hung up.

She glanced back, and looked at the Sable Prince.  “Declared our intent.”

“As you see fit.”

Just like that?

“I arbitrate on matters of right and wrong, karma and course, for all things in my province.  Why do you think this is all so bloody?”

“Because the furs are here?”

“Because the arbitrator isn’t.  It all unravels.  This is what used to be.  It will get bloodier still.  Until the end of summer.  Then we will force a conclusion.”

Avery glanced back at John.  His expression was unreadable.

They approached Matthew and Edith’s.

And Edith, followed by Matthew, who reached for her shoulder, trying to stop her, had eyes that glowed.

“You don’t realize-” Edith said.  Her voice faltered as she realized how dark it had become.  She saw them.

“Edith, what are you doing?” Matthew asked.

Avery could see Edith’s face, and she saw the moment that she recognized that the Sable Prince was there.

All fight dropped away.  She let Matthew hold her shoulder.

Surrender, just like that.  Which didn’t mean this was over.

“It’s decided,” the Sable Prince told Edith.  “You’ll have your opportunity to respond.”

She didn’t even nod.


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Dash to Pieces – 11.1

Verona

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“Are mea,” Verona sang, enunciating each syllable as if it were it’s own word,  “Amaliche I appear, are mea…”

The music blasted, and her mom gave her a curious look.

“La dore, amaliche, are mea…” Verona sang, faking a deep voice.

“This is what you were doing on the beach with Tash?”

“Omen are, amaliche, cante me… Yes,” Verona posed for each burst of lyrics, dropping her hands as the rock solo started, the final word dropped in for the break in the singing.

“How many times have you listened to this, to have memorized it?”

“Litemea, dispeace, amaliche… Lots.”

“Is this what you all listen to?”

Verona turned down the music.  “Mostly me and Tash.  Lucy’s got a subscription service that Booker started and she picked up when he left for school.  Some cool stuff in there.  I let her sort through it and show me the highlights.”

“Booker’s gone off to University?  Time flies.”

“I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned that.  Or Jasmine has- have you talked to Jasmine like, at all?”

“Yes, but there were other focuses.”

“Beyond that, for stuff that isn’t emergency-level daughter stuff?”

“Does borderline emergency level your-dad stuff count?”

Verona made an exasperated sound, shook her head, and turned up the music again.  She squeezed her eyes shut and clenched her hands into fists.  “Omen are emalita atempo!”

“What language is that?”

“I’m hoping it’s not a real language or I could be saying something I don’t want to.”

They drove into Kennet.

“It always feels like so little’s changed here.”

“More than you’d think.  But it’s like… secrets in a small town type stuff.  Blood in the streets, a struggling defense against invaders.  Killings, gunmen, cannibalism, underage drinking…”

“What shows are you watching?”

“…But the cannibal types are on the side of the good guys, I think.  When they aren’t too hungry.”

“Is this from a game?”

“There’s not much game about it.  It’s deathly serious.  But it’s the kind of serious where you have to joke about it and play it off as non-serious to your mom, while she’s all confused, you know?”

“I’m definitely confused.  I do like your imagination though.  I wish I could keep up with it.”

“I feel the same way when you talk about your work, sometimes,” Verona said, deciding it was best not to push things too far, fun as it was.  As important as it was to leave a trail of breadcrumbs in case something bad happened.

The car pulled up to Jasmine’s house.  Jasmine was sitting in the living room and saw as the headlights shone, getting up and going to the front door.

“What did you say to dad to get him to agree to this?” Verona asked.  Continuing on a tradition of bringing up important things as right as they were ready to go their separate ways.

“Does it matter?  Do you have your things?”

“Mom.  Did you pay him?  Or threaten him?  It matters if I’m eventually going back there.  I want to know what’s going on.”

“When we separated and when we divorced, I think we both wanted the process to be over with, we didn’t litigate it as much as we could have.  He was adamant he wanted the house, I gave him the house.  I wanted a bit more money to get set up in a new city, less than half of what the house was worth.  We split the bank accounts down the middle, hired lawyers for an afternoon to go over things, and then parted ways.  A few things weren’t discussed or brought up.”

“Things?  Secret money?  Dad had money all this time?”

“Money for retirement that’s hard to pull out of the accounts and investments, from early on.  I’ve always had the mindset that, if that’s the cost of an easy separation then I’m willing to pay it, and there’s a chance it’ll go to you anyway, or it should.  I reminded him it was a thing.”

“A threat, then, okay.”

“I don’t like think of myself as a threatening person.  It was more diplomatic than that.”

Sure.  “He might have spent it.”

“Whatever happened, it’s between your dad and me.”

“What about me?  Bank accounts and everything got split… and custody of me didn’t?”

“Oh honey,” her mom said, shifting position.  “Jasmine’s out there on the front steps, waiting patiently, and I’ve just finished half a day of driving.”

“I think she’d understand,” Verona said, quiet.

Her mom heaved out a big sigh.

“That bad, huh?” Verona asked.

“No.  No, not bad.  I hope not, anyway.  It seemed easy and streamlined, me leaving you with your dad while I got set up, and then with how bitter you were, and distance?  It felt easier to not force things.”

“Hmm.”

“Do you have your things?”

“Hope I’ve got all my stuff, yeah,” Verona said, stirring from the absorption of all of that.  “Are you going to say hi?”

“Yeah, in a minute.”

Verona took a bit to get her things.  Lucy stepped outside and leaned against the railing.

She carried her bags over, and Lucy hurried over to help.  Most of it was new stuff or borrowed Lucy stuff because she hadn’t gone home after the whole dad thing.  Duffel bag, old backpack, plus two big plastic bags filled with basics.  Lucy and Verona went up the front steps and dropped her bags off by the front door, and they stayed there by the door while Verona’s mom and Jasmine exchanged words by the car.

“Hey,” Lucy said.  She gave Verona a hug.

“Hey.  What’s this for?”

“Pretending we didn’t see each other an hour ago?” Lucy asked.

“Ha.  Sure.”

“How did you not get a tan after a week at the beach?”

Verona smirked.  “Took effort.”

“I can imagine.”

“And how’s your injury?” Verona asked.

“Sucks hiding it from my mom.  Looking forward to Tashlit getting back.”

“For sure, yeah.”

“Want to go for a walk later?  Check on some stuff?”

Verona nodded.

She looked over and down from the top of the stairs.  Jasmine and her mom were talking, both just inside the other’s personal space bubble, both sneaking glances at her, both with arms folded.

It felt less than super great, being the focus of this.

“All good?” Jasmine asked, as she saw Verona looking over.

There was a whole frigging magnitude of feeling and things Verona wanted to convey that words didn’t really suffice for.  She felt lost for words.

“Yeah,” she replied, quieter than she intended, before saying, “thanks,” with much more emotion behind it than she intended.

Jasmine smiled, small and fleeting.

“I’m going to hit the road, then,” her mother said.  “I’ll be in touch.”

“CAS-mandated,” Verona said, giving her mom finger-guns.

“Do you want to come in?” Jasmine asked.  “Tea or coffee?  We could catch up.”

“Caffeine for the road,” Verona prompted.

“Caffeine works very well on me but it leaves me feeling the opposite way when it passes.  I shouldn’t.  I’ll be getting home close to midnight, as is.”

“What about wine, then?” Jasmine asked.  Then before Verona’s mom could say something, added, “I could make up the couch for the night.”

“I wouldn’t want to impose,” her mom said, shaking her head, at the same time Verona nodded.  Verona frowned at her mom.

“If you’re sure.  I don’t mind.”

“I-” Verona’s mom started.  “Okay.”

They headed into the house, Lucy carrying one bag while Verona carried the other.  Her mom got a bag from the car.

“Avery was saying she’d like to meet tonight.  Catch up on everything,” Lucy said.

“It’s pretty late,” Jasmine said.

“For an hour?” Lucy asked.

Verona made a pleading gesture.

“I worry because I’m already hearing that the intake at the emergency room is twice what it normally is, and it’s been that way all summer.  I don’t know if there’s something going on downtown, or if it’s more widespread, but it doesn’t make me happy to think you’re all going out around when some parents would be setting curfew for their middle-grade daughters.”

“High school daughters,” Lucy countered.

“I think no.  If Avery wants to get dropped off, that’s fine.”

“Ugh,” Lucy grumbled.  She picked up the bag they’d brought into the front hall.  “Come on.”

Verona glanced back as her mom came in, and flashed a smile before following Lucy upstairs.

“Strategy meeting?” Verona asked.

“Yeah, and I’m anxious about a few things.  Avery and I were chatting after we left you at the rest stop.  Thinking about stuff, thinking about where all of this is going, what, um, our friends said, at the rest stop.”

“Do you think anyone’s listening in?” Verona asked.  “Culprits?  Others?”

Lucy shrugged.

Verona nodded, and they didn’t say anything as they got to Lucy’s room.  She dropped off her bags, ducked into the bathroom to take a whizz, wash her hands, and wash her face, combing hair down into a semblance of order.  Her bangs were long enough she had to brush them off to one side.  She’d trim them, but that meant getting little hairs everywhere.  She used wet fingers to push the bangs into place, and her hair was dense enough that it stayed.

She was grateful, she’d asked for this, but she wasn’t sure what to say or do now that she was here.  It felt different from the usual sleepover.  She felt the urge to do something, especially with emotions all jerky-janky after being uncoiled and released from the pressure of the last- the last long while.  Even if it was a temporary release.

She had to remind herself of this.  That it was temporary.  That through the grace of Jasmine being awesome and her mom helping out and CAS and a bunch of other factors, the biggest obstacle between her and her doing her best with the Carmine Beast situation was gone.  Temporarily.

This was temporary.

She dried her hands on her top.  Then she looked at herself in the mirror.  Temporary.  She went back to Lucy.

Lucy paused as she pushed the door open, phone in one hand, one hand on notebooks.  Verona closed the door, and Lucy opened the books, moving papers into view.  Spell stuff.

Connection blockers?

“What are we blocking?”

“We should still go out,” Lucy said.  “This’ll keep them downstairs and stuff.”

“Your mom’s been really cool, letting me stay.  I don’t want to make the first thing I do after getting here be disobeying her.  Feels wrong.”

Lucy frowned at her.

“Feels shitty.  It’s like, I’ve got this impulse to, I dunno, do stuff.  Like, picking up a broom and sweeping and doing laundry and helping out and-”

“That’d be weirder than usual for you.”

“You’re- ugh.  You get what I mean though?”

Lucy sat on her bed, putting a notebook beside her.  “Yeah.”

Verona hovered near the door, rootless.  “Least I can do is not be shitty.”

“This isn’t shitty.  This is important.  And I think it’d make things worse if you got so caught up in making things up to my mom that you made things uncomfortable, or, I dunno…”

“You just want to go out, huh?”

“I want to- I spent the last three days being hurt and miserable,” Lucy said, lifting up her shirt to prod the fat adhesive bandage she’d stuck over the wounds.  “Feeling like we’re not doing so great with all of this.”

“Sorry I wasn’t here.”

Lucy waved her off.  “Nah.  But like- we’ve got a deadline and I just lost so many days, thinking we needed to regroup and strategize and stuff, and now you’re back and we can and if we don’t then when?  What if my mom wants to take your mom and you out for breakfast tomorrow?  That could be the day gone until noon, and then later?  Shopping trip to buy food and stock up on foods you like?  It’s what she did with Booker and Alyssa when they turned up.”

“This is making me feel more guilty.”

“Be you, Verona.  Be my ally, I don’t want to keep feeling like we’re losing ground.  We’ve got a deadline and John’s counting on us.  Kennet’s counting on us.  And I’m really not trying to guilt you, but I feel guilty and I really don’t want to feel that way.  Please.”

Verona considered, then gave Lucy a single nod.  She reached for her bag and lifted it up onto the desk.

Lucy rose from her bed and took some posters down from the wall.  The alarm rune was there, protecting the space, and so were some specialized connection blockers.

Verona got out her things and paged through until she found her notes on countering augury and other methods of spying.  It was something their issues with the Belanger Augurs had really forced them to learn.

She drew the symbols necessary and then arranged the papers around the room.  She pressed two against the big window at one side of Lucy’s room.

It would obscure any vision of spying eyes and confuse any listening ears.

“We good?” Lucy asked.

She gave Lucy a nod.

Lucy finished the connection blocker, then stood back.  “How’s that?”

“Works.  How’s it with the earring?”

“The earring doesn’t interfere with the connection stuff.  I think because it’s… interpersonal?  How I present myself?”

Verona nodded.

“I didn’t think it would be this big a deal.”

“Regrets?”

“No.  Just- didn’t think it would have this much effect.”

“Could be it’s like practicing a muscle.  If you pushed past it enough, you could get back to where you were, and keep the benefits, maybe?”

Lucy gave her an exaggerated shrug in response.  “Maybe.  I’m not too bothered, it’s more that I’m having to adjust, still.”

Lucy turned, looked at the diagram, then picked up the posters she’d removed, all taped together into a single panel.  She draped them over the top of her dresser.

“So what’s the deal?” Verona asked.  “Why the need for this?”

“Because things feel weird,” Lucy said.  “Avery and I were talking about it.”

“Weird.”

Lucy drew in a slow and careful breath, eyebrows knitting together, as if she was trying to summon up- not courage, but the right ideas, maybe.  “Can we check the cube of meat is still out there?”

“The cube?  I mean, I guess, yeah, but why?”

“Because a lot of how we talk about this and think about this depends on whether it’s still there.”

“In a serious way?”

“Avery thought so.  She used a sports metaphor, who has the ball, you know?”

“We can check.  I’d need to get sorted though.”

“I’ll text her while you do that.”

Verona’s stuff was scattered across many bags, her stuff that had been in her bag before had been ruined and she’d salvaged what she could, copying some of it over.  But it wasn’t organized the way it had been when she’d been in Kennet, always going out, always with stuff she used more in easy reach with a quick unbuckling and reach inside, or a reach into side pockets.

She set the pieces of her mask aside, sorted out books, put pens and markers into her left pants pocket, ground up glamour from the flower Guilherme had given her in her right pants pocket with three folded up bits of paper with feathers sticking up out of them, ready to quickly deploy transformations.  Back right pants pocket held a stack of spell cards.

She pulled off her top and switched to a top Lucy had given her when she’d left to go spend two weeks with her mom.  It was a wide crop top, black, coming down to the ribs, and left her stomach exposed, the logo at the front had been ninety percent rubbed off.  She’d texted for permission, been told it was hers for keeps, and had picked off the remnants of the logo, tidying it up.  The way it fit and the wearing down around some of the seams at the shoulder suggested Lucy had worn it a lot, and she could feel how Lucy’s narrower shoulders had fit inside it.

Lucy wore a dark red top with near-black grey horizontally across the collar and shoulders, black track pants with red zig-zags down the sides, and sneakers.  Her stuff was all sorted already, nothing to pack.

Lucy’s habit was to wear really nice clothes, and the stuff she liked most that got anything less than nice became lounge-at-home and sleepover wear.  This one had graduated from that to Verona.  A bonus was that because Verona was smaller and shorter, she could wear it without it being too small.

There was a hood as part of the top, and she flipped it up while pulling her bag on, before letting the hood drape back over the top of the bag.  Short sleeved crop top with hood, pale jeans with watercolor staining near the base of the pants leg, shoes with drawings on them.

She touched her mask, then moved it aside.

“Avery’s ready to go.  Where should we meet her?”

“Shore, north of her side of the bridge.”

Verona took the anti-augury papers and handed one to Lucy, before taking one herself.

Even though Lucy had given her rationale, it still felt sorta bad.  Slipping away.

She had a glimpse through the window, saw Jasmine and her mom sitting on two different couches, Jasmine with her feet pulled up beside her, but each was sitting as close to one another as possible, glasses of red wine in hand.

It was nine at night, and it was dark, the sky a navy blue and the mountains framing Kennet black, the moon’s position insufficient to illuminate much of either surface, even though it could touch some of the thin clouds overhead.

The air was warm, and it was warm in a way that felt heavy, to the point Verona was conscious of the extra fabric of her jeans and glad that her stomach was exposed enough for the breezes to wrap around her.  The beach had been a bit different.

They stopped at the convenience store by the bridge, then as they stepped onto the sidewalk that ran along the bridge, and Verona felt paper rustle.  She nudged Lucy, who stopped.

They looked around, Sight on, and Verona spotted Nat.

“Doing okay, Nat?” Verona called out.

Nat nodded.

“Sorry to hear about the other goblins.”

Nat shrugged, looked around, then dropped out of sight.

“We’re being watched,” Lucy whispered, leaning in close.  “Or else they’re watching everything and watching us as part of that.”

“Yeah.  Figures.  Probably the best way for them to do it, if you’re keeping tabs on possible enemies, keep tabs on friends too, and that lets the culprits watch out for us.”

They made sure there were no other watching eyes, then moved on.

Paper rustled as they reached the far end of the bridge.  Lucy subtly elbowed Verona.

There were teenagers sitting on the slope, smoking and talking loudly, paper bags between them.  A girl squealed as a boy tackle-hugged her, bowling her over from a sitting position, knees against her chest, to a position where she was lying on her side, him on top of her.

The tiny embers of the cigarettes caught Verona’s eye.  The teenagers were smoking.

They walked away, and nobody followed.  If one of those cigarettes was Cig, it wasn’t disturbing the paper that was so sensitive to prying eyes and ears.  Maybe Cig had been watching for them and was willing to or forced to let them move on without following them, and maybe it was coincidence that Cig was watching that spot.

They found Avery and Snowdrop on the shore.

“Hey Ave.  Looking sharp, Snow,” Lucy said.

Avery wore running shorts and an athletic tee with a pocket, which seemed like an oxymoron when it came to the shirt’s purpose.  Her hair was in a ponytail but it was low to the neck and excluded a whole lot of hair on either side of her face.

Snowdrop wore a dress without sleeves that had a turtle-neck style folded collar that drooped enough it showed her neck and collarbone, the white material of the dress covered in graffiti-style sketches, some of it outlining an opossum.  There was a pocket at the front with much of the graffiti styled around it.  Text read: ‘Was wearing fanny packs before it was cool’.  She had eyeliner on that looked very intentionally scribbly and shaky, adding to that wide-eyed sense of alarm and unease that she very naturally carried.

“I have no standards to meet now.  I’m attached and that means I can let myself go.”

“Good attitude.”

“Where are we going?” Avery asked.

Verona pulled out the papers, handed Avery and Snowdrop one each, and then checked, making very sure they weren’t being observed.

“I don’t think it’s possible to be perfectly careful,” Lucy said.

“But the more careful we can be, the better,” Verona said.

She got a few blank notecards out of her pocket, which were ready to be made into spell cards, then made a quick-and-dirty paper airplane.  She handed papers to Avery and Lucy.  “Copy me.”

They copied her.  While they did the initial stuff, she wrote down some preliminary lines on the paper airplanes, reached into her pocket, and got a bit of glamour.

Glamour worked best by toying with the senses, conveying a false image that could become reality.  She triple checked they weren’t being observed, then used the glamour to rub at the side of her neck, just below the ear, then her armpit.

“Gross,” Lucy said.

“And not good for the glamour,” Verona noted.  It had worn down what she had pinched between fingertips.  “Hmmm.  Glamour of high summer, catch our scents.  Glamour of adventurer, hunter and beast, you should know this stuff.”

“Talking to it?” Avery asked.

“I don’t think it hurts,” Verona said.  She rubbed the glamour on the paper airplane, shook off the rest of it, and then finished the lines on her paper airplane.

Winding up, to the point she was nearly curled up on the ground, she sprang forward, heaving the paper airplane up and out.  Across the river.  Air runes picked up and caught the air, transmitting it across.

It would land and on impact, Verona hoped, it would burn up, destroying the evidence of the runes, the heat of the burn directed at paper and nothing else.

The smell and scent of her flew along with it, painting a false trail across Kennet.

Avery and Lucy followed suit, each of them mixing up multiple scents onto the paper airplane, including Snowdrop’s, before throwing them to different places.

She used more glamour on the heels of her shoes.  “No traces, no tracks, please.”

“We’ll need an excuse if anyone asks why there’s traces of glamour with our scent all over the place,” Avery said, wiping down her shoes.  “If anyone asks, I mean.”

Lucy shrugged.  “Blame the witch hunter.  We can even stop by where he was active so we can tell them we were checking on his hunting ground.”

“Works,” Verona replied.  “Ready?”

Nods all around.

When they walked on the parts of the rocky shore that had grit and sand in it, they left no footprints.  They had to avoid puddles that had collected in the same way grit had, so they wouldn’t wash off the glamour, but their passage left no trace.

Halfway up the shore, getting back toward the strips of residential buildings at the southwestern end of downtown, there were a number of houses and buildings perched at the edge of a slope leading down to the rocky shore.  Some had the benefit of retaining walls of slate-like rock and stuff, some grown over with dense moss.  Others had planted trees, to stop erosion, Verona was guessing.  The trees provided heavy visual cover.

They walked up, checking they weren’t being followed, and Verona threw her second paper airplane over downtown before looking around.

She pulled a pen from her pocket and uncapped it.  Beneath the cap, plastic had melted, and she’d sunken a key into the plastic mess.  She triple-checked they were clear, then hopped up to a street sign that was by a fire hydrant, standing on the hydrant.  The post had little plates sticking out, identifying the sub-roads of this corner of almost-downtown.  New st. and Rodden st.  They were held rigid to the post by bands of metal, cinched tight with fat screws.

She slid the key into the slot of one screw there, turned, and then moved it in a half-circle around the post.  The ‘Rodden st’ sign split in two as she passed it, and formed a third little signpost.  ‘Half st’.

Shadows deepened, then the light shone through, as if a cloud had passed over the moon and then let it shine brighter immediately after.  What looked like dense trees and a patch of nature at the corner of this area was opened up like an optical illusion had revealed itself, showing the narrow one-lane street that extended into the trees, and the tall, not-especially-taken-care-of house tucked into the trees.  The skeleton of a for-sale sign was set into the lawn, the top portion with the realtor’s face worn by weather, the lower half that hung from the horizontal part of the post had fallen off and was mostly covered in weeds and tall grass.

“City magic is so badass,” Avery said.

“Go,” Verona said.

They led the way.  She remained where she was, paper in hand, watching to make sure they weren’t followed, then withdrew the key.

The new street sign slowly slid back to where it was, and the shadows and light shifted too.  Verona kept her eyes on the prize, keeping the road from disappearing from her perceptions until she was through.  Trees rustled and road creaked faintly as she walked down the path.  There was no street behind her.

“How hard is this to find?” Avery asked.

“I think if you hung out around that particular patch of trees you’d see the seams but that doesn’t mean you could get in,” Verona said.  She capped the pen and slid it into her pocket.  “You should need the key or you’d need to be Ken, and Ken made himself forget.”

“Should,” Lucy said.  “It’s been kind of weird, not dropping by or checking.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  “Sorry.”

“Don’t say that.  You needed to do what you needed to do.  I just worry…”

Verona got to the front door.  It wasn’t locked, so she pushed it open.

“…What if they took it back and we didn’t know?” Lucy asked.

They stopped in the front hallway, looking into the mostly empty living room.

“They didn’t take it back,” Avery noted.

It was there.  Safe, untouched.  A shallow pool of blood extended about a foot in every direction from the cube, and more blood traced its way along floorboards.

The house was dark, lit by moonlight sifting in through dusty windows, and the floorboards were slightly uneven.  Furniture had been left behind by the people who’d been selling the property, but it was uneven in terms of what had been kept and what had been left behind.  No couch beneath the window, but the square of floorboards where it had been were still there, slightly lighter than the surrounding ground.  There was an armchair, then a stack of boxes collecting dust where the other armchair had been.  There was an old fashioned cast iron stove with a metal chimney extending up to and through the ceiling, but from the looks of it water had seeped down and rusted the top end near where it met the ceiling, and the door, Verona knew, didn’t close all the way.  Ambient moisture had made the ash still in the base of the fireplace all crumbly and flat.

“Now’s a good time to let me know the thought process,” Verona said.

“We were talking about how the Others were handling stuff.  What they were doing,” Avery said.  “The metaphorical ‘ball’ isn’t in their possession but they don’t seem really frantic, you know?”

“They’re definitely more active, and more sloppy,” Lucy said.  “Edith especially.  But it doesn’t feel scared.”

Avery walked over a few paces, leaning against the inside of the doorframe that divided living room and front hallway.  Her eyes were misty with Sight.  “Be careful about saying names.  It makes a connection appear, and saying it too many times might make a trail to follow.”

Lucy nodded.

Verona frowned.  She slipped past Avery and crossed the room, approaching the cube, careful not to get the blood on her shoes.  “Is it that they aren’t scared because they think they’ll win anyway?”

“How?” Lucy asked.  “Isn’t the entire idea that John takes the throne, they challenge him?”

“I’m still not sure why it has to be that he takes the throne first,” Avery interjected, still leaning against the doorframe, hands behind her back to cushion the point where her spine would press against the jutting wood.

“I think it’s coup and claim stuff, like Bristow and Alexander taught us,” Verona said.  She moved a bit of the fur, feeling how soft that red fur was.  “Like… imagine a scenario where our soldier friend doesn’t.  A culprit puts on the clothing made from the red furs, they take the seat, and then the challengers come.  And most of those challengers are nobodies, they still have a huge claim, because they’re wearing the furs and everything, they might have other benefits, but each challenger is counting a bit of coup.  Just by saying hey no, you don’t deserve that seat, over and over again, they whittle down the claim.”

“And the other way around?” Lucy asked.

“I think it’s our soldier friend taking the seat, fending off the challengers, getting a bit of claim from the other three judges wanting him in that spot, and then our culprit shows up and is all, ‘You did well, soldier guy, but I have more claim to that spot than you.’  Bam.”

“Splat,” Snowdrop echoed her.

“That too,” Verona replied.

Lucy shook her head.  “Which takes us back full circle to the big fat question of why they aren’t freaking out.  And I have this sick little feeling in my stomach that makes no sense, but… what if we have it wrong?”

“There’s a lot of backup for what we’re saying,” Avery said.  “The Judges themselves, the fortune teller in the High Fall court…”

“But none of them know for absolute sure who did it, I don’t think,” Lucy replied.  “And this sick feeling in my gut is… what if it’s our soldier friend?  What if we have it wrong and he would get both coup and claim?”

“Hasn’t he said he doesn’t want it?” Verona asked.  “But he’ll take it anyway?”

“Could be he doesn’t want it but he needs it?” Lucy asked.  “What if our soldier friend isn’t a friend but a major culprit, we screwed up when interviewing him or jumped to conclusions, and the furs are… I dunno.  Secondary?”

“E was making clothes, right?” Avery asked.

“Yeah,” Verona replied.

“She was doing lots of stuff,” Lucy said.  “You have it?”

Avery nodded.  She got her bag out, and pulled out a thermos.  She uncorked it, then set it on a table.  She pulled out a syringe.

“Dark fall in manufacture,” Lucy noted.  “And inside, still inside, is a bit of…”

Lucy trailed off, looked around, and found a candlestick.  She gave it a waggle.  “…doom.”

“What the heck?” Verona asked, quiet.

“Estrella confirmed the manufacture, ninety-five percent certainty, Nicolette confirmed the Doom for what it is, ninety percent certainty,” Lucy explained, as she entered the living room and sat on the arm of the armchair.  “We sent them pictures.”

“Where was it?”

“Between the sink cabinet and the wall in the cabin.  We went back with Melissa,” Avery said.

“Told you part of that,” Lucy said.  “Trying to take the more compassionate, cooperative approach.  Then the Witch Hunter happened.  Bit of a reality check for Melissa, I think.”

Verona took the syringe and carefully examined it.  The black liquid within bubbled, swirled, and then the face, white, poked out, pressing against glass.  Edith’s face.

“So she was making clothes, she was doing something with this…” Avery said, trailing off.  “Can I see?”

Verona held up the syringe, but Avery indicated the furs.

“Go ahead.  Or if you’re squeamish…”

“The meat and blood part of it is a little bleh,” Avery said.  “I could stomach it but if you don’t mind, I’d rather not.”

“No prob,” Verona replied, walking over.  She went to the clothing in progress she’d thrown over top.

A tunic, fur scraped off, strands a foot long braided together and used for the stitching.  There was more fur cut into shapes that looked like they’d puzzle together into pants or a jacket or something.

“Thanks,” Avery said.  “Gender ambiguous.  Looks like they had a lot more to do.”

“So, again, I’m circling back, sorry I keep doing that,” Lucy said.  “Why?”

“Why take the furs, why go to this effort, why protect them, why not be more concerned they don’t have them anymore after all of that?” Verona asked.  “There’s a lot of why.”

“I’ve got one tricky answer to that last question,” Snowdrop said.  “They can’t take the furs back.  So why stress over it?”

Verona frowned at Snowdrop.

“What?  They can take the furs back, because… Small town K is on their side?” Avery asked.

“Something he prepared in advance?” Lucy asked.  “He might have forgotten, but if he set up the place and talked to others about where he’d put them if he could before…?”

“That raises a bunch of other questions!” Verona exclaimed.  “Like what?  Kennet itself is against us?”

“I’m only theorizing,” Lucy answered.

“What the frig?” Verona asked.  “Frig!”

“It could be something else,” Lucy said.  “But this is something I’ve been miserable over for the last… almost a whole week now.  We’re constantly reacting, we’re stressing out over complications that get thrown in our ways, like your dad, sorry-”

“Blah.”

“-and the Witch Hunter, and Chloe attacking me, and the kid, Bridge, and McKay slipping in through the perimeter…”

“Blah,” Verona repeated herself.  “Yeah.”

“So… goes back to what we said to Miss and Rook,” Lucy said.

“Going after…” Verona trailed off.  Lucy held up the candlestick.  “…Yeah.”

“How sure are we?” Avery asked.

Verona walked over to the window, kicking a bit of plastic that had fallen under the couch once upon a time and gotten stuck to the floor there.  It broke free and danced across the floorboards, popping up as it hit one uneven bit of wood.  “She was at the cabin.  To not know the furs were down there would take something extreme.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “I could see a theoretical universe where she was compelled to guard it.  By her husband or something.  Slim odds there.  She was there, she probably played a part in drawing up the explosive runes like the one on the door.”

Verona nodded emphatically.

“She and her husband didn’t answer the phone when the Witch Hunter came at us, Melissa, and the ghouls,” Avery said.

“She fought me on the binding when I was securing the factory against the rampaging ghoul, someone destroyed the binding.  Then she- this is speculation but my instinct says it’s right, she used fire and got guy-faerie hurt and disoriented, then scared our rampaging ghoul off in my direction.  I could have died and it would have been sort of a plausible death.”

“Sorry I wasn’t there,” Avery said.

“Same,” Verona echoed.

“No,” Lucy said.  “I don’t need to hear that.  You had reasons.”

“Speaking of, how’s the head?” Verona asked.

“Hurts,” Avery said.  “It helps that it’s dark and quiet here, my house isn’t either.  Even walking around makes my head pound.”

Snowdrop bonked her head into Avery’s shoulder, snuggling up against her.  Avery put a hand on Snowdrop’s head.

“All three of the people who took us on the camping trip were dodgy with some info when it came to Yalda being a sick dog and not just a black dog,” Avery said.

“This isn’t going to be one of those situations where we get to gather the information and do a big badass whodunnit moment, huh?” Verona asked.

“No,” Lucy replied.  “Probably not.  This is looking like a ‘we were on their trail for a long time and let the evidence stack up until we were sure enough to make a move.  I think we’re sure enough.”

“Okay,” Verona said.

“So we’re sure enough,” Avery said, nodding.  She winced and pressed a hand against the base of her skull.  “Either she did it or is compelled and if she’s compelled then bringing her into custody would be to her benefit anyway.”

“Yeah,” Lucy replied.

“How do we go about this, then?” Verona asked.  “I feel like even our friends among the Others are going to freak out a bit when we make our move.”

“I’ve been stressing out over how we actually handle the, for lack of a better word, arrests, for a while,” Lucy said, folding her arms.  “And the power we have, what we can get away with… stuff.”

“When I went to check in with the Judges, I asked if they could give us any kind of protection,” Avery said.  “They kind of said no.  Uhh, as I remember it, the protection we get for taking care of Kennet is what we get, karmically speaking.  We make our own karma.”

“I’m finding myself struggling to realize what the point of them is,” Lucy said.

“But they did say there was room for, um, what’s the word?”

“No ums,” Lucy prodded.

Hmmmm, what’s the word?” Avery restated, with an annoyed degree of emphasis.  She seemed more testy than usual.  The headache, probably.  Avery snapped her fingers a few times, then rubbed at the back of her neck again.  “Ugh.”

“Withholding,” Snowdrop said.  “Gathering?  Deduction.  Abstention.”

Not helping me here, Snowdrop,” Avery said.

“Dispensation?” Verona asked.

“Thank you, yes.  Exactly.  Thanks.”

“Snowdrop pointed the way.”

Avery rolled her eyes a bit.  “Thanks Snowdrop.”

“Get bent.  Don’t ask me for anything ever again.”

“Dispensation,” Avery stated, again.

“Good word,” Verona said.

“I think we could use them to, I dunno, say we’ve got this amount of good karma, would they please put that karma toward doing this one specific thing, you know?  But even there it seemed like… hmm, they’d rather we figure that out for ourselves?”

“My Faerie mentor keeps doing this ‘I won’t give you the answer you want, but I’ll help you along your journey to find it’ thing,” Lucy said.  “It’s super obnoxious.  I think he forgets I don’t live for hundreds or thousands of years and I don’t have the time to do all that slow, rich figuring crap out stuff.”

“Yeah.  I think these guys are similar,” Avery said.

“Again, what’s the point of them?” Lucy asked.

“I think they handle the stuff that’s really broken,” Verona said.  “There wasn’t anything super relevant in the books, but there were figures that seemed judge-like who would set quests and point the right people in the right ways to handle anything that was really bad.  In other places you get Lords and committees deciding what needs handling.  The Others who are threatening the seal of Solomon, monsters too big for any one person to defeat, breaches between worlds, stuff.”

“Stuff,” Lucy said.  “Not very helpful to us, that stuff.”

“We know they also hear appeals on forswearing.  Our local forsworn ex-practitioner tried once or twice,” Avery said.

“How is he that unsure about how many times he tried?” Verona asked.

“Could be like how you go knock on the door of the dentist and nobody answers, did you go to the dentist that time?” Avery suggested.

“Weird example but sure,” Verona replied, flashing a smile to make the words less of a shut-down.

“Could be he was messing with us,” Lucy said.  “Unwilling to be exact.”

Verona nodded to herself.  She moved some of the fur around, then stepped back, frowning at it, and took a running start before giving it a firm kick.  It was heavy enough it barely budged.

“What was that?” Avery asked.

“Double checking for glamour.”

“Huh.  Good thinking.”

“We could start greeting each other that way,” Verona said, smiling.

“Let’s not beat each other black and blue before the bad guys get a chance to,” Lucy said.  “Speaking of, we have some secret help from Miss and Rook.  We have maybe help from the judges… we have the practitioners outside of Kennet.  Zed, Nicolette, Tymon, Fernanda, Estrella, Liberty…”

“Could we ask them to go check in with the judges?” Avery asked.  “One of the students?”

Lucy made a face.

“Or not?” Avery asked, quizzical.

“It’s a day long trip to get there and a day to get back unless you teleport or something.  I get why you’re asking,” Lucy said.  “That’s a long time for any of us to be away from home.  But that’s a big obligation for them, and it’s really hard for them to handle it without us telling them stuff that we really should keep secret, for Kennet’s sake.”

“Back on the day of the party I went because I needed to clear my head and that was cool,” Avery said.  “But now?  We keep getting hurt and I want to protect you guys.  I don’t want to leave you unless I absolutely have to.”

“And yourself,” Verona said.  “Protect yourself.  How are we going to introduce you to some super cool deserving-of-Avery girl if you’re dead or maimed, huh?”

“Uh, yeah.”

“No uhs,” Verona warned.

“I think I get an exception when someone’s being that out of nowhere with a random tangent.”

“That’s the exact kind of moment you should be super cool and confident.  Unflappable, badass Avery,” Verona told her, grinning.

“Sure.  I’ll keep that in mind for a bit.”

“It’s something I’m thinking about, just so you know.  I want you to be happy.”

“I- uh, thanks, Verona.”

“We’ll work on the unflappable thing some more,” Verona said.

“Right.  It’ll help when my brain doesn’t feel like it’s being kicked in the brainstem and left to roll around a gravel pit.”

Verona glanced at Lucy, who had fallen quiet, and who was staring at the furs.  “We could ask our friends.  Who we met outside of town.”

“Hmm?” Lucy roused from her thoughts.

Verona answered, “To go see the judges.  Means we’re not away.  I don’t want to exactly disappear and let some fake me take my spot in our house so soon after your mom took me in, I don’t imagine you want to go, and Avery shouldn’t be the one to take a hike every time we see the Judges.  We could ask our sketchy Oni friend or our Lost-but-recently-found mentor, hm?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “I’m pretty sure either one of them can get back pretty soon.  But I’m thinking more… justice, arrest, the judges, you know?”

“Yeah.  I get you.  What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking… we definitely need to bring her in,” Lucy said, waggling the candlestick.  “Whatever they’re doing, they have a plan and that plan either means getting the furs back or not needing the furs, yeah?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.

“And they had a murder weapon, if you want to phrase it that way, in the Choir, but they’re not acting like they need that back either.”

“Yep.  They’ve even had chances to secure the Choir or go after Brie and they didn’t,” Verona confirmed, a bit eager.  Had Lucy figured something out?

Lucy nodded.  She stood with arms folded, fingers tapping rapidly against the back of her upper arm.  “I have no idea what their angle is.”

Verona groaned.

“But- but-”

Verona kept groaning.

“I’ll hit you if you keep that up.”

Verona kept groaning until Lucy started to move toward her, and shut up.

Lucy found her balance again, then shook her head.  “I do know- I do think, we need to screw with their plan.  If our candle spirit is an agent on their side, let’s take her out of the equation.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “But then we circle back to the big question of… how?  She has friends…”

“Her husband, the female Faerie, Charles, and any number of the new Others, possibly our resident, border-powering horror,” Lucy noted.  “Yeah.  So I’m envisioning us making a move with authority.  The Judges.”

“We’re going in circles,” Verona groaned.

“No, we’re- we are going in circles but here’s where I think this one circle stops, and it all starts lining up.  If they handle what’s broken, and if they handle forswearing, and if they’re more about righting wrongs than encouraging right…”  Lucy paused.  Verona cocked her head.  “…What if we go after our lady of the candle?  And we use them to get a very specific result we want?”

“Arresting her,” Avery said.

Lucy nodded.

“Judges,” Verona said.  “Candle lady promised us things and she’s failed in that, right?”

“Promised us information, she withheld critical details.  Both in the interview with her, and stuff about important things like binding,” Lucy said.

Verona held up a finger.  Avery, Snowdrop, and Lucy all looked at her.

“Why are you holding up a finger like that?” Avery asked.

“I think we should have three points to argue,” Verona said.

“She promised me safety and she put me in grave risk,” Lucy said.  “Letting the ghoul come at me like she did.”

Avery nodded, then winced.  “She’s never once been the Other who stepped up, allowed herself to be summoned or otherwise put herself in harm’s way.  John, Toadswallow, the goblins, Miss, Guilherme, they’ve all stepped up, haven’t they?  At different times?”

“That’s pretty telling all on its own,” Verona said.  She held up a second finger.

“I… you guys keep doing this!” Avery groused.  “You leave me until last after you’ve taken up the easy answers.  For random rhymes for the nettlewisp and stuff.”

“I came up with both of those, actually,” Lucy said.

“No pressure or anything, don’t worry,” Verona told Avery.

“Ugh.  I have one idea, though.”

“Please.”

“It’s not… she didn’t technically swear, but she didn’t say no, either.  When I made my pledge, I pledged fairness and equality.  And they haven’t been fair or equal as leaders.  They disarmed us, they pushed us down, they said we’d have a vote and we really haven’t, yet, not formally, not as part of the meeting.”

“Even the meeting structure sucked.  They were dicks,” Verona said.

Yeah.  Right?” Avery asked.

“I think that works,” Lucy said.

“Three times we were wronged,” Verona mused aloud, “That deserves righting.  We can ask for the judges to hand us the ability to right the wrong.  If they can control how karma happens, then let that karma be protection during and immediately after the arrest.  Access to any power that might be held back from us as we try to put it into effect. We need answers from her so we’re not asking for her to be forsworn.”

“That unmakes the Other which feels like ass, even if it’s her,” Avery said.  “Yeah, for sure.”

“We can say we intend to secure a binding.  Take any karmic backlash she deserves and put it to that binding, to our protection.  So we can bring her into secure custody and keep her there until summer’s end,” Verona suggested.

“Cutting her off from co-conspirators,” Lucy said.

Verona nodded.

“And if she’s being forced to act, this protects her, and it’s not karmically unjust,” Avery said.

“You’re more optimistic than I am,” Lucy said.

“I want to believe the best in people.”

“Even smelly trash children?” Snowdrop asked, looking up at Avery.  “Terrible.”

“How about you, Snow?” Lucy asked, arms folded.  “Do your Other senses tell you this feels right or wrong?  Anything stand out?”

“It seems like a terrible idea.”

“We should tell our other Lost friend then,” Lucy said.

“I can,” Avery said.  “Maybe she’s found Tashlit and is giving her the low-down, and I can get this headache cured.”

“We can hope,” Lucy told her, rubbing gingerly around her ribs and stomach.

“I can go now, then.  I’m fast, I can get to the outskirts of town, I’ll watch my trail, try and make sure not to tip them off, get back home before curfew.”

“Please,” Verona said.  “If moving around doesn’t make your head hurt too bad?”

“I’ll manage, I think.  Do I need to do anything special to leave this place?”

“No.  Move in a straight line.  Just make sure you aren’t seen,” Verona told her.

“Cool,” Avery replied, holding up the paper with the anti-augur stuff on it.  “Coming, Snow?”

“No way.  Seeing Miss, awful idea.”

“We’ll hang out tomorrow, kay?” Verona asked.

“For sure,” Avery said, flashing a smile.  She still seemed a bit diminished.  She put a hand on Snowdrop’s shoulder as Snowdrop headed for the door.

The pair of them ran off, the door creaking as it opened, then it banged shut.

“I hope she gets her head healed.  And you your stomach.”

“Yeah.  Frig,” Lucy muttered.

Verona turned, taking in the room, and the vaguely cube-shaped bundle of meat with the one corner disintegrated, the clothing in progress loosely piled up there.

“I was such an asshole to Avery, the last few days,” Lucy murmured.

“Huh?”

“If you hadn’t come back when you did I think I might’ve done some long-term harm to our friendship.”

“What the heck?  Explain,” Verona told Lucy.

“She was hurting, she was alone, she tried to reach out, and I was busy feeling sorry for myself.  Hurt, Booker gone, having to leave out information for my mom, mostly staying in my room, trying to think of a good way through this whole situation, you know?”

“Ah.”  Verona released the word as a bit of a half-release of breath more than anything.

“Yeah,” Lucy said, one side of her mouth pulling back hard, disappointed, upset.  “I was scared.”

That disappointment and upset gave way to something else, fleeting, deeper, vulnerable.  Lucy looked away a moment later.

Verona could understand that.  The look away.  That fleeting reveal of something deeper.

“It was a close call?”

“Really, really close.  And then I was scared too, of what if being in close contact with a ghoul infected me.  Close calls with death, right?”

“I don’t think it works exactly like that but… sure.”

“I wanted to ask someone for clarification on that but didn’t know who to trust, and didn’t really trust anyone, for a little bit there, and I didn’t even want to go outside.”

“And Avery?” Verona prodded.

Lucy shrugged.  “I didn’t think- I should have realized.  I wasn’t good about responding to messages and she was miserable and I ignored her, and it turns out being ignored is kind of a super huge way to screw with Avery’s head, you know?”

“I do.  She’s explained that stuff.”

“If you hadn’t come back and I’d let that continue then I could’ve- frig.  I was scared.”

Verona walked over and reached out.

She punched Lucy hard in the arm, once, then twice.

“What the- stop that, ow!  That hurt!”

“You deserved that!”

“Probably but ow!”

Verona jabbed Lucy.  “Avery’s cool and helpful and this whole thing with bringing her in is really tough on her because we’ve known each other forever and you ignore her?”

“Extenuating fucking circumstances, Ronnie!”

“Yeah, for sure, but fuck you for hurting Avery, and fuck you because you were ignoring me too while you were busy feeling sorry for yourself!”

“I’m trying to frigging find a way to deal, Ronnie, without blowing up like I did with Paul!”

“Talk to me?  Send me a frigging mail?  You say you didn’t know who to reach out and talk to?  Me!  Me me me me or Avery or your mom or me!  I can frigging take it, Luce!”

“It was more complicated than that!”

“We are cosmically frigging bound together, you jerk!  We agreed to handle this crap together and yeah, I was going through stuff but you can talk to me any freaking time, you know that?  Share!  I’m not that screwed up, that I can’t hear you out?  Because when you send me a mail like you did?  Love love love frowny face?”

“Oh my god, so embarrassing.”

“That was lovely I love that you sent that but then I asked for clarification and you gave me next to nothing except to shut me down and you didn’t reply after that!  So fuck you!  Worst of both worlds when I can tell something’s wrong and you won’t let me help!”

Verona jabbed at Lucy and Lucy pushed back and they scuffled for a second.

“Frig off!” Lucy grunted.  “Ow!  Ow!”

“Frig you!  I deserve better than that and so does Avery and so do freaking you so frig off!”

“Okay!  I’ll frig off or something!  Stop poking and jabbing and punching me!” Lucy started hitting and poking and pinching back, so Verona trapped her arms at her side in a tight hug.

They both panted for breath.  Lucy jerked, like she was going to go for a jab or a pinch, but Verona didn’t let her, and they stopped like that, Verona’s chin on her friend’s shoulder.

“Avery needs something like this too,” Lucy said.  “The big intense hug.  It’s harder to figure out.”

Verona thought of how diminished Avery had seemed.  It wasn’t just the headache.

“Okay,” Verona said.  “Absolutely.”

“I was really scared.”

“I know.  I’m sorry,” Verona said, eyes welling up.  “Is it better than it was?  Being scared?”

“It helps to move, to come here, to figure stuff out.  I spent so long in my room, thoughts going in circles like we were doing tonight, I didn’t want to do it again.”

“Okay.  But we’re on our way to better?” Verona asked.

“I’m glad you’re going to be around, staying over.”

Verona nodded.

“You’re so short your chin digs into my shoulder when you nod.”

“Mmm.”

“I think mom was going to ask you if you wanted Booker’s room or if you wanted to stay with me in my room,” Lucy said.  “Unless you have a major objection-”

“I’ll stick with you.”

“Okay.  Thanks.”

They remained like that.  Lucy sighed.

“I bet Booker and Alyssa boned a bunch of times on that other mattress anyway, so-”

“Ugh!” Lucy replied, pushing Verona away and out of the hug.  She turned away.  “Did not need to think about that.”

Verona cackled.

Lucy walked over to the window and looked outside.  “Let’s head back?  Furs are still here, no sign anyone’s been around…?”

“No,” Verona said, double checking.  “I think this is a pretty hard place to get at.  We can set traps later.”

“Cool,” Lucy said, nodding, still looking out the window.  She used the heel of one hand to wipe at the corner of her eye, then used the other hand for the other eye.  She rubbed at her right elbow, then her left forearm.  “Let’s go.”

They left the little locked-away copse of trees around the Half street house, checking the papers before they emerged from the woods.  No observers, glamour still intact, no trail.

“You know my mom’s going to go out of her way to be super nice to you, right?”

“I don’t want any special treatment, I just want… I dunno.  Regular life?  With you guys?”

“I think she’s happy to do it.  She loves having Booker around too, same sort of idea.  It’s not enough, having me around, maybe.”

Verona punched Lucy in the arm, light.

“Don’t- don’t you- no.”

Verona smirked.  “You’re not insufficient.”

“She likes having more than just me around.  That’s not me saying I’m insufficient.”

“So long as you admit it.”

“She likes having you around so don’t stress, okay?  Yeah?  Say it or I’ll punch you in the arm.”  Lucy cocked an arm, ready to deliver the punch.

“Okay,” Verona said, quiet.

Lucy lowered her arm.  “Breakfast out with you and your mom tomorrow, I’m betting, and then possible shopping, maybe.”

“Covered a lot of bases with my mom.”

“It’s about taking care of you.”

Verona nodded.

Lucy gave her a one-armed hug.

They didn’t really talk the rest of the way.  Across Kennet at night, a siren briefly sounding in the distance, two whoops.  The sky was closer to black, speckled with stars, and the ski hills on either side of town were only differentiated because they had no stars.  The clouds in the sky had no moonlight to brighten them, so they were more of a lack of stars, but they shifted and moved as the wind blew.

The air felt hot, heavy, and sticky, and Verona couldn’t help but feel like it was sticky with blood, and the only thing was that she couldn’t see, smell, or directly feel it.

They let themselves inside, snuck upstairs, and then got stuff put away.  Verona briefly touched her broken mask, while Lucy stepped out into the hall.

“Mom?” Lucy called down.

“Still up.  Living room!”

They’d known that.  But they ventured downstairs.

“What’s up?” Jasmine asked.

“Can Avery come over?”

Jasmine glanced at the clock.  “It’s late, I don’t know…”

“It’s vitally important,” Lucy said.

“She’s been lonely, we think,” Verona said.

“I suggested we invite her over a couple nights ago,” Jasmine said.  “Lucy wasn’t up to it.”

Verona gave Lucy a hard look and cocked a fist, without delivering the punch.  Lucy glanced away.

“Please,” Lucy said.  “I can pay for her if we’re going out for breakfast tomorrow or something.”

“You really want to go to the bakery for Montreal style bagels, don’t you?” Jasmine asked.

“I do,” Lucy said.  “Please.”

“Of course.  Maybe for brunch, so we can sleep in?”

That got emphatic nods from both Verona and Lucy.  Jasmine gave Verona’s mom a glance.  “Or do you have to be on your way?”

“I think I have to keep these girls happy, because they seem to want it so much.”

“Okay.  Why don’t we call Avery’s parents and see about her coming over?  Be ready for them to say it’s too late.”

“Can I call?  I’ll check with Avery first?” Lucy asked.

Jasmine nodded.  “Before you go, let me know, you have two options, Verona, if you want me to make up Booker’s bed or-”

“Lucy’s room,” Verona said, at the same time Lucy said, “My room.”

Verona’s mom laughed at that.

“Okay,” Jasmine said, smiling.  “Silly me for asking, I guess.”

Lucy made the call right away, checking in with Avery.  They had to time things so she could get to Miss, communicate what needed to be communicated, and then get back home, so her parents wouldn’t go to check on her and ask how she was, only to find her gone.

There were probably better ways to juggle all of this, and Verona tuned out some of it, focusing on getting stuff put away and removing tags from newly bought clothes.

They changed into stuff to sleep in, and got settled, not to sleep but to go over books, Verona sketching and taking notes, while Lucy browsed on her laptop and made the phone calls.

It took Avery about thirty minutes to arrive.  The lights were dimmed as she cracked the door open, and Verona waved her in.

“Heya,” Lucy said.

“Hey.  Snow’s out gallivanting around with goblins, so she’ll be tired tomorrow.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.

Avery got into her stuff and started getting changed.  She glanced over, her back turned, “Miss told me, if everything goes like we hope it will, about… twenty three and a half hours from now, eleven o’clock tomorrow, she’ll talk to the Sable Judge and then they’ll reach out and let us know.”

Verona nodded.  “Good.  Sounds like Miss thinks it might work?”

“Think so,” Avery replied.  her back still turned as she pulled on a camisole top.

“Did you get your head cured?” Verona asked.

“Yep.  Tashlit’s okay, weirdly tanned, um, hmm, yeah.  Never been so glad to see that many eyeballs.”

“Cool,” Verona said.

Avery turned around, then approached the bed, looking to see how she could find a spot.  Lucy shuffled over, moving her feet.

Verona pointed toward the window.  Avery turned, looking, and Verona lunged, rising up out of the bed, and hauled her down, backwards, onto the bed.  Avery lay there, barely on the edge of the bed, Verona holding her from behind, feet still on the ground.  After about ten seconds she tried to get her feet up onto the bed, failed twice, and succeeded on the third try.  They shuffled over so Avery wasn’t constantly on the verge of falling off the bed.

“Missed you,” Verona said.  “Sucked.”

“Yeah,” Avery said, quiet.

“This is pretty uncomfortable, lying like this,” Verona noted.  “Too warm on a summer night.”

“I sleep with Snowdrop sprawled in my bed sometimes, I’m getting used to it.”

“How do you manage that with two other people in your room?” Lucy asked.

“Sheridan doesn’t care what I do a lot of the time, and Kerry’s a bit of a ditz.  It’s not that hard.  Mostly I stow her in my bag.”

“Want to readjust, rearrange?”  Verona asked.

“No,” Avery said, sighing.

Well then.

“Missed you guys too,” Avery said, quiet.

Guys, plural?  Verona kicked backwards at Lucy, and Lucy punched her lightly in the back of the head for retaliation.  Avery twisted, lifting her head up, checking what was going on.

“Sorry, Avery,” Lucy said.

“Nah.  Happens.”

Verona grabbed a pillow, and stuck it under Avery’s head before she could settle it back down.  “There.”

“Thank you.”

In the end, they couldn’t stick it out like that.  It was hot, so they shuffled around, Avery got up to use the washroom, and rather than settle back down, they decided she’d move to the cot Lucy kept in her room that Verona sometimes slept on.  Verona switched around so she slept lying in the opposite orientation as Lucy, a gap between them.  It meant they could all sit up a bit and face each other.  They remained up for a bit, chatting some, Verona browsing pictures and showing them pictures of the beach, of Tashlit, and Sir.  Sir was a bit lost on Avery, who was more of a dog person.

Somewhere in the midst of it, Lucy turned off the lights and neither Verona nor Avery complained.

All of them were tired, from journeys, from emotional exhaustion, from thinking too hard.  None slept easily.  In the gloom, Verona could see Avery’s eyes glowing like mist, here and there, and Lucy’s with the whites swapped out for a deep red.

Less than a day and with any luck, we’ll arrest Edith… Verona thought.  And by doing that, we’ll throw everything into disarray.

The clock by Lucy’s head ticked its way from 11:20 to 11:50, and in those thirty minutes of watching the minutes pass, her thoughts wandering over what was coming, Verona’s heart didn’t stop or slow its drumming beat of apprehension over the implications.


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One After Another – 10.z

Interlude

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“Sydney!”

Sydney fled, running through the unlit hallway, slamming the front door behind her.

“Sydney, get back here!”

She didn’t get back there.  The door opened, hall lights on and bright orange, and her parents’ large, wide silhouettes danced on the walls and the front lawn.  She was small and they were heavy and they couldn’t run to the front gate, let alone the end of the block.

Downtown patios were filled with people on dates and families.  Restaurants had railings bolted to the sidewalks to section off areas for people to sit outside, and Sydney jogged along the railing.  Her body was a knot, breath and heartbeat and stomach all tied up to the point she wasn’t very aware of anything; her thoughts fluttered like butterflies that couldn’t sit still with what waited for her at home.  Trouble.  Trouble.

Eyes danced, her head light and airy and her body a lead weight.  Acting on impulse, she saw an opportunity and swiped a thing of fries from a table where the people weren’t paying attention.  Multiple tables of family talking to one another.  She saw another opportunity, a little girl eating a brownie, and reached through the bars of the railing to steal the food, gripping the brownie with hot fudge oozing between fingertips.  Hot, sticky.

There was a yell, and before anyone could articulate what had happened or accuse her, if they were even yelling because of her, she bolted.  Half the brownie crumbled as she ran, and fries spilled out.

It wasn’t that she was hungry.  She was full if anything.

But she could stop, turn the corner and lean against the wall, and she could shovel salt and starch into her mouth, vinegary ketchup, choking it down, coughing and wishing she’d been able to get something to drink, too.

Then, when done, she ate the brownie too.  She licked at fingers and sucked them free of hot fudge.  She didn’t even enjoy it, but the effort stirred her stomach to life, and freed up those knots.  Butterflies in the head, stirring, butterflies in the stomach, queasy, breath in pants from trying to breathe while eating, slow to recover.  Mouth dry, even with moist brownie.

She kept going because it felt like she’d die if she stopped.

There was no going back, not to home, not until she was out late enough that her parents were more relieved she’d come home than they were angry she hadn’t listened.  Not to the street with the food, in case anyone was looking for her.  She ran until her legs were out of steam, panting, not because she couldn’t recover her breath but because she didn’t want to.  The knots around heart and lungs tightened.

She thought she might have a heart attack.  She felt calm even as she had the thought.

Vending machine, outside a hotel or motel or something.  Brownie-sticky hands dug into her pocket for change.  She paid and mashed two buttons at once in her hurry, cracked it open and drank from it while it foamed.  Past a certain point, the guzzling gulps hurt, but she didn’t stop.

She knew what this was all leading up to.  Her thoughts got twisted when she got like this, and it happened more and more easily.  She found herself in a place where there was one road and only two destinations.  That self-inflicted heart attack or…

She looked back, then looked forward.  The can tumbled from her hand and she kicked it aside.  The side street was residential, dark, with cars parked on both sides of the narrow condo buildings.  No driveways, so every resident parked on the street.  Nobody was really outside.

A brownie-sticky hand dragged along windows as she walked by the cars.  Nice cars, lame cars, cars with rust by the wheel well, cars with dings in the side.

She burped and it tasted like brownie and soda.

There.

A car with windows cracked open so the inside wouldn’t get hot.  There was a tree nearby, sticking out of a little bit of ground that had been allowed for it on the sidewalk, and a short one-foot fence bounded it in, metal with round knobs on the posts, painted green, even though that was hard to see in the gloom.  No nearby lights.

The fence and tree gave her a stepping stone and something to lean against, a low branch covered in leaves provided some cover, and none of the nearby lights were on.

She held her breath as she approached the car, stepping up onto the little fence.  Gingerly, she reached for the partially open window and pulled down on it.  It was an old car, and the window had some give- pulling gave her almost another inch of gap.

She checked again.  Nobody.

Reaching into the pocket of her cargo shorts, she pulled out things.  Stuff from dinner last week, set aside in the bustle of visiting family and barbecue being served.

Lighter fluid from the barbecue, matches, some wads of tissue.  She used the wads to wipe at the residual brownie-stickiness, then triple-checked the coast was clear before leaning over toward the window.  Uncapping the lighter fluid, she emptied the little, squat bottle, roughly the same dimensions of grandpa’s hip flask.  She gave it a shake, then tossed it inside.

She was still holding her breath.  The knotted stomach and chest and heart were all worse, even her thoughts were still and without butterflies.  When she had to breathe, she allowed herself only a gasp, before gulping in more air, until her lungs hurt.  Every muscle was tight, every part of her taut or clenched.

She struck the match, then stared at it, watching as it burned down toward fingers that probably had traces of lighter fluid on them.  It was bright, beautiful, clear, and her life had very few things that were bright, beautiful or clear.  There was television and clothing and toys but she had to share television with her parents and the clothing was secondhand and the toys were few in number and shared with her cousin, who visited too often.  Every time she complained, her parents reminded her she was eleven.  Those toys were for children half her age.  Not for her.

Nothing was for her except this dangerous, dancing light.  This was hers in a big, out of control way.

She gulped in air, lungs hurting, breath still held.  Muscles released because she couldn’t hold them taut any longer and then she clenched them again, and in the process almost nodded into the fire, nose touching it.  She held onto the flame for as long as she could.

Sometimes this was enough.  Sometimes she could blow it out, chicken out, and it was still enough.  Not tonight.

At the last moment, she touched it to tissue, then shoved both match and tissue in through the gap.

Sometimes that was enough, too.  Sometimes it didn’t take but the fact she’d taken that leap of trying worked.

It took.  It waited just long enough for her to reach for a second match, and then it leaped up, orange light bright and beautiful and hers inside a random car that had the unfortunate luck to be perfectly deserving, because of where it was.

The trapped breath left her lungs with a quiet ‘whoo’, heady and dizzying as the initial whoosh of fire danced up the back car seat.  She leaned forward, touching glass, face almost smushing up against it, as muscles relaxed, everything unclenching, leaving her wobbly and exhilarated.  She thought for a long few seconds she was either at risk of wetting herself or already in the process and she didn’t care.  It was that much of a release.  The fact the glass was in the way let her get closer than she otherwise might, seeing the fire spread and roll, catching on trash on the floor between the back seat and front seat.

The swelling light consumed her senses, the smell of smoke tastier than the brownie.  Her eyes glittered, her hands warmed, touching glass.

A door banged open, and she ran, keeping to shadow.  When the shouting started and neighbors stepped outside to see what the problem was, the fire in the evening was bright enough to consume everyone’s attention.

It held hers.  She hugged herself, watching, and saw the fires rise up enough to lick the branches and leaves of the tree that had helped hide her while she lit the fire.  People shouted in alarm.

Everything was that orange light, then the red and blue lights of the fire truck.

Guilt mingled with the relief and release, that heady, overwhelmed feeling that came with something this big being so hers.

The fire was quenched, and all went dark.  Before people could wonder who she was and why she was hanging out here alone, she ducked away, stumbling over trash left on the curbside.

Flies buzzed around her from the trash, rain dripping from the sky.

There were more houses with lights out.  She ventured toward a park with a play structure, unoccupied late at night.

Something big and black loomed there.

“Sydney!”

Her parents, behind her.

Sydney ran down the dark path.

“Sydney, get back here!”

She didn’t listen.  Lights shone behind her, dull and orange, shadows dancing.  She was a better runner than her parents, who were older and overweight.  It meant she could run around the bends in the path, escaping to the outdoors.

Rain fell around her.

Joys of earlier faded away, replaced by a twisted tension.

She escaped into the commercial area of downtown, a few blocks from home.

Past shops that were still open.  She waited until the clerk was grabbing cigarettes from behind the counter, then snatched up snacks that wouldn’t crinkle when pocketed.

A louder voice startled her.  She ran, taking what she had.

Something was wrong.  It added to guilt and to anxiety.  Trouble.  Trouble.

The tension built, her breath was held, and that big dark thing from the park crouched in a parking space as she ran past.

She found a place to crouch, to devour the stolen snacks.  To chug a soda until her throat hurt.  Trying not to eat, but to release that tension.

There was only one way to release that tension.

She held her breath, walking down the street, as she approached a parked van.  A side window was open.

The dark thing watched her, watched as she reached into her shorts pocket and got the lighter fluid and lighter.  She had the paper from the stolen snacks from the corner store.

Every muscle tensed.  She let out half breaths and gulped in full breaths until her lungs hurt.

She checked the coast was clear, then poured the lighter fluid into the window.

Holding the paper snack wrappers in hand, she clicked the lighter, and she stared at the dancing flame.  Captivated by it, enraptured.

🟂

Her parents shouted her name.

She didn’t know her name.  She didn’t know what they were shouting.

They shouted her name again.

There were no flashlights, no hall lights, no car headlights, to cast that orange glow.  But somehow, there were still shadows.  Deep and black, swaying as they ran behind her.  She was faster than them, but not necessarily faster than the shadows they cast.

The dark thing without eyes snatched at her from out of that darkness, tore at her.  Lights of nearby houses and streetlights flickered, dimmed, and the world got darker.

She staggered, stumbling, weaker, mind numb.  It let her go.  She was running in circles, she knew, and it would be waiting for her at the next lap.  Another would be waiting up ahead.  They gathered around her like crows.

The rain poured, soaking through her mesh shirt and the shorts- what kind of shorts were they?

She had an impulse, a desire to eat, to reach for food, but the walls that stretched to her left were without window or door.  Any energy food might have given her was denied to her.

The circles she was running in got smaller and tighter each time she ran them.

She saw the car.  She swayed, almost too feeble to approach, but dark things gathered.

Rain pounded down around her, anxious.  The smell of trash on the curb was stirred up by wind and water, the detritus making each footstep a risky one, something that she might slip on, when slipping wasn’t-

It wasn’t something that was supposed to happen.  The dark things would be waiting for her when she was done with it.

Every bad feeling swelled and the good things- she wasn’t sure what was supposed to be good.

She approached the car- she couldn’t make it out in the rain, her vision bleary with water, every attempt at blinking water away or shielding her eyes a failure.

She reached for her pocket, and found tatters and smoke instead of anything.

The tension built.  She held her breath, releasing a half breath, gulping in a full breath.

Releasing a half breath, gulping in a full breath.

The black thing’s feet sloshed in the ankle-deep water, crunched through trash, stirring up more smells, more bugs, more fetid revulsion that worked its way into her and made her very aware of how much of the trouble she ran from was locked in the deepest recesses of her chest, her stomach, her mind.  From herself to herself.  Couldn’t get away, could only-

She reached for her pocket, and found tatters and smoke instead of anything, the tatters snarling at fingers and smoke creeping up her arm.

It drew closer.  The lights of nearby buildings dimmed more; they had been dimming for a long time.  Little by little.

There were others.  The second one she saw after the one in the park was sleek, black, and panther-like, muscles rolling beneath skin so thin she could see strands and bands of muscle.  Its head held a prominent position, overlarge and lacking in any apparent eyes, hair, ears, nose, or mouth, and its tail was impossibly long, stretching down the length of the city block behind it as it crept closer.

A third was man-shaped, with normal length legs, but long arms that let it lift and hoist itself onto a nearby streetlight, then reach out to the next streetlight to transfer its body over.  It poised above her, arms wrapping around the streetlight, choking out the light, so it dimmed further.  This one had a mouth, lips barely able to pull closed to hide white teeth, the mouth reaching a point that was close to the corners of the jaw, before traveling down the sides of its neck and part of its chest.

Her thumb clicked the end of the lighter.  A bubble of water oozed out instead of fire.

No precious fire, that would let her find relief and release, no light, no light, nothing of hers.

The one above her reached, arm unwrapping from the upper end of the streetlight, long fingers extending toward her.  She jogged, running, and almost came face to face with another.  It loomed on one edge of the road.  Landscape that was supposed to be there wasn’t anymore.

The lights dimmed further, half of the streetlights going out, and the dark oblivion of these things deepened by the same measure.

With so little light, it was possible to see other, distant lights.

Fixating on one, she ran.  She sought it and felt a need for it that matched what she’d sought and needed when she’d set the car on fire.

The things that pursued her were slow, patient killers.  They wounded and then followed after, letting the wound do its work in slowing her down, tightening her downward spiral.  They followed, some faster than others, but none particularly inclined to fight.

Scenes flickered.  Outdoors, indoors.  Nature and city.  But darkness and rain were omnipresent, grinding down everything.  There were figures in the rain and dark, some worse off than others, many milling around.

She chased the light.

It was a road.

A crowd dispersed, blurry, barely there.  Behind them, they left the echo of a song sung, filled with faith, of love and loss.  Behind them they left a wreath by the roadside, a girl’s portrait in a heart forged out of flowers, the image on the portrait bleeding away in the rain and the dark.

The light helped to clarify her.  The feelings heavy in the air helped to lift her up.

This was a dying image, the rain putting out candles, the darkness creeping in.

This was a door.

She gathered up the candles, and her lighter worked when she clicked it, igniting others that had gone out.  Wax melted into wax and the faint song carried on.

She burned the wreath because it could burn, paper flowers catching, and the remnants of the singing ceased.  It was more light, now, more of a door in wake of the sacrificial flame.

Cradling an armful of the candles, she turned toward the way she’d come, and she could see the stalking predators in the gloom, waiting and following.

She raised the newfound light and they shied back.

She ran, dogged by shadows, away from the dark things, and into a space with less rain and darkness.

🟂

“Cole, please.  Cole.”

“Quiet.  There are dark spirits here that will follow your voice.”

“Please!”

He slapped her, hard.  Then he slapped her again for good measure.

The landscape was rolling clouds of oily dark.  Some clouds looked like vapor but were gossamer footing, and other things looked like footing but were vapor.

The further she ventured into this space, the more important the candles became, and the less important the girl who’d set fire to the car became.

Figures stood by the wayside, working, writing on every surface available, or chipping material out of cracks in surfaces.  Some had printings on their flesh and others were dressed up in clear displays of the work they did and what they represented.

She trudged forward, feeling a deep and impossible longing for something she’d never truly have again.  A keening sadness that was only magnified by candle flame.  But the flame meant something and that gave it life here, drew attention, lit the path and helped make distinctions clearer.

It allowed her to follow these two people, who belonged here even less than the girl who’d set fire to the car.

A man dragged a girl half his age.  He was decked out in clothing that belonged here, and it made him strong.  When she struggled too much, he threw her, then picked her up while she reeled, hurting.  The girl wasn’t solid, not completely.  She was transparent, her clothes changing every few seconds, hairstyle and hair length varying.  In certain light, from her candles, points at various parts of her body glowed, radiated, and smoked.

Most importantly, the man, Cole, carried a lantern.  The fire of it caught her eye and drew her in.

Every commotion, every bit of pain, it made the candles receptive, made them glow.  It drew in dark things, figures who had imprints on skin of weapons.  A silhouette of a man without a face with letters carved into flesh.  Lesser things, too small and indistinct to have clear forms, beyond four legs and a lump that could be a head, some more transparent than others.  Many of the dangerous things stayed away from the light of the lantern.

He threw her again.  She shrieked, scrabbling on gossamer ground as she came to the edge of a cliff.  The edge of a hole.  “Cole!”

“Bailey,” he said, crouching in front of her, as she fought to avoid falling.  “In a minute or so, I’m going to ask you if you’ll cooperate.  Don’t tell me yes now.  I won’t believe you.  We’ve been down this road.”

“Don’t let me fall!  Please!”

“If you interrupt like that, this will take longer.”

She made small, frightened sounds.

The girl with the candles approached, cautious, fixated on the lantern.  She reached out, and the drippings of candle hit ground beneath her reaching arm, each droplet forming into a smaller candle on the ground.  The longing feeling extended with the carpet of small candles.

“Annoying.  You’re distracting my stepdaughter and you’re distracting me,” he said.  He swiped the lantern toward her.

She reached for it as it passed by, pushed out more with her being and reached with a hand and arm that had held candles for so long that they’d melted into flesh and become part of it.

“Not a spirit, are you?  Not wholly?” he asked.  He reached for a pocket.

This time, he flung something out.  It was pure and it was clean and it cut through her like thrown razors.  She moved back, pained, candles broken and falling away, flesh torn, the edges now tattered and smoking away.

“Please,” Bailey pled, fighting not to slip over the edge.

“This, Bailey, is the spirit world.  Ideas have more power here than the material.  Symbols, themes, the art of things, they form this space.  Shrines were inadvertently created by the artist clique in the neighborhood downtown… it gives the spirit of this region structure and clarity.  But we’re not there.  That should be obvious.”

Bailey fought to gain ground.  He put a foot out, blocking her, and she grabbed it.  Her arm, insubstantial, passed through.  She lost five feet of ground and nearly fell, holding on with the tips of one hand’s fingers, and the forearm of her other arm.

“This is the spiritual reflection of the bad end of downtown, and that, below you?  That’s a hole that leads to the Abyss.  For a long, long time, we thought that it was hell.  It will chew on you for a long time and then, if you have the grit, it will spit you back out.  But you don’t have the grit, Bailey.”

“Please,” Bailey whispered.

It hurt.  The razors, the way her lights had died out.  She wanted to venture forward but the ground that had been covered in whatever had been thrown at her was disintegrating, and what remained was covered in those razors.

“If you disobey me again, I will use the holds I have on your spirit, no matter where you are, and I will bring you here.  Then I will give you a choice.  Either allow me to mold and alter the spirits that make you you, for which I’ll require your consent… or fall.”

He stood straighter, and planted the rod with the lantern dangling from it into the ground, using it as something to hold onto, as he got a little closer to the edge.

“Bailey,” he said.

“Cole, please.  Please don’t-”

“You’ll realize very quickly that obeying me in the first place is so much easier,” he told her.  He crouched, and reached down, and he found the umbilical- a cord that stretched from spirit to body.  “If you go, your body will follow.”

“I don’t want to go.”

“Then we should think about what alterations to make to your spirit, Bailey.  I can’t have you embarrassing me.”

It hurt.  These razors.  She circled around them, every footstep pained on legs that were now tattered.

Candles dripped to ground as she moved, drawing out a half-circle behind him.

He became aware of it.  He half-turned, one hand wound with the umbilical cord wrapped and twisted four or five times around his hand and wrist, fingers gripping it, other hand holding the pole of the lantern.  He watched her.

“The wildlife can get persistent this close to a gateway to the Abyss,” he remarked.

The candles had their light and by pushing- extending out with that keening longing, that loss of classmate, daughter, friend-

Rain pattered, light at first.  Darkness extended, gaining ground to deepen the shadows of surroundings at the same time candles grew taller and brighter.

She willed herself at him, embraced him with feelings and found little purchase.  By protections he’d forged or by the life he’d lived, he didn’t have much room for emotions to get their grips on him.

He started to stand, then stopped.

Bailey was holding onto the spiritual umbilical cord, which he’d wound around his hand.  She wasn’t heavy, but her weight made the knot cinch tight around hand.

“Release me, Bailey,” Cole said.  “Now, or we’ll both end up in a bad situation.”

Rain increased in intensity.  So did her strength and ability to make him feel that longing and loss.

She wasn’t alone either.  Splitting off, pulling apart, she became the girl who’d set fire to the truck.  Lunging past and snatching lantern from pole in the same way she’d stolen food.

And with the lantern going, the shadows became twice as dark, and the spirits at the edges of the light were free to approach.

“Bailey!”  He barked her name like an order.

“Go to hell, Cole,” Bailey told him, her words bitter.  “Even if I have to drag you there with me.”

“You were always a stupid girl.”

Spirits lunged.  The one with words carved into flesh gripped him, flowed into him.  Words flowed from it to his flesh, fresh and raw like a knife had cut them in, blood flowing.  They redefined, inserted labels and meanings.

It didn’t matter.  All that mattered was that she had that burning light of the lantern now.

The rain extended, the spirits crumbling and falling back.  The flowing water made it hard for Cole to maintain footing.  Candles flickered at the edges of this region, with only oblivion on the far side.  Every time he fought to get free or get to a position to fight back, Bailey clawed at him, or tugged on the umbilical to jerk him off balance.  It was all savagery, all emotion.

“You don’t realize how bad this is, stupid girl!  It’s moving us, and spirits don’t do well here.  I have preparations, if you’ll just let me-”

“I realize, Cole!  Believe me!  And I won’t let you!”

The dark, eyeless shape slipped out through a gap in the half-circle of candles.  It was one of the older, stronger, slower ones.  It could reach out and it could find things in the dark that reflected Cole and Bailey.  Neither of them were physical.  They’d left bodies behind to come here, voluntarily for Cole and involuntarily for Bailey.  Their shapes being what they were let this thing snatch at the edges of them.  Gathering up the half-formed images and almost forgotten moments.

The hole of the Abyss and the dark thing worked together.  The Abyss provided the hooks, ground at the cliff’s edge shifting, nails and bent metal in evidence.  The dark thing gave the hooks their worms, and it gave a face to the darkness, reflecting something deep and horrible they had to confront.

A young woman, slightly older than Bailey, hair and clothing black, a small, sad smile on her face.

“No.”  Cole’s voice was sad and small.

Bailey hauled him back into the hole to deeper, darker places, and then fell after him.

The dark thing disappeared into the dark, pursuing.

The change was subtle, but there was power in this, in something being lost to the deepest dark.  It was power that fought the lantern and stoked it.

Dark things loomed, too.  The stalking predators who waited for her to dim and die a little so they could have their meals.  Oblivion things, faceless or eyeless or both.  They yawned large in frame or in maw, wanting her in a very different way than that hole in the ground had wanted things.

She hugged the lantern and candles close, stumbled, nearly fell, then let the light lead.  The lantern was physical, bright, defiant, and she found her way to a physical, bright, and defiant place.

A place that seemed so far away and long ago.  Staggering footsteps on wounded, tattered limbs, holding too much at once, the fires licking her shoulders and arms, metal around the lantern hot, burning her to tatters.

She followed smoke and stepped through rain and gloom onto the side of a road.  Cars whizzed past, signs glowed, and people were everywhere, in spirit and in heart and in darkness.

The smoke came from a car that had crashed.  People were inside, checking that they were all okay, speaking in frightened words and reassuring ones.

There was oil on the ground and she burned orange.  They noticed her and she had no choice but to duck low, so they wouldn’t see.

Ducking low and close to oil, igniting it.

She set the car alight, half by accident, half by intent, and half by no will at all.

Lantern, candlelit vigil and arson.  She was three halves put together.

Following the swell of pain from the people in the car as they fought to get out as the fire erupted around them, the traces of darkness from her proximity to the Abyss were fed with another sort of power.

Burning, powered, hungry and harried, feeling guilt and awe and other scattered things, she moved on.

🟂

A tattered, fading figure crawled along the floor.

The family that lived in the house couldn’t even see her.  One of them rubbed at her nose.  “Still smell that smoke.”

“The price of a cheap house.”

“It’s morbid.”

“Not having a place we can afford is even more morbid.  It’ll clear out eventually.”

It would clear out eventually.  The young girl who crawled across the floor, choking and whimpering, she wouldn’t last long.  When she faded, so would the phantom sensations and faintly desperate, frightened emotions.

The young pyromaniac with the candles and the lantern drew closer.  She’d come because she’d noticed the faint smoke, and she’d hoped there was more to it.  More to exploit, to take, to drink from.  Fire to capture her.

The fire drew the attention of the girl on the floor.

White ash began to collect, falling like snow.  Moisture in the air collected on walls and ceiling and dripped, streaking the window.

The scene was painted in that tapestry of ash and moisture, the darkness closing in as the smoke deepened.

In a house fire six years ago a young girl was upstairs while the babysitter slept downstairs.  The fire erupted and the babysitter called for help, but she couldn’t get to the girl.

Crawling, scared, blind, the girl couldn’t see anything.

Panicked, delirious, choking, and unable to see through bleary eyes, she saw the light and interpreted it as a way out.  A beacon to follow, a light at the end of a dark hallway, leading to something better.

She chased the flame and left other escape routes behind.  Smoke deepened, and her coughing intakes of breath failed to deliver oxygen where it was needed, as the fire greedily drank it all.

The pyromaniac with the lantern and candles was that fire, in this scene.  She let the girl come to her, aware the family downstairs was panicking as the smoke smell became overwhelming.

She’d existed in this world for a year and she knew rules, ways to make this all easier.  Touching an outlet where a bulky plug was stuck into the wall, she seared plastic until she got to the wire.  The suffocating little girl struggled to crawl closer in the meantime.

The smoke and flame would be blamed on a short.

The girl drew close and she embraced her.

Three echoes met.

A girl who saw beauty and glory and herself in fires faced a group of men and women who held the small candles, who were awash in emotion and faith and remembering the beauty and best parts of a young teenager who’d crashed by the side of the road.

There were alignments there.  Places to meet.

The chasing of the flame, the self-destructive pursuit, the fear, running… that was common ground between the pyromaniac and the girl who was suffocating in smoke.  They found places for the parts of themselves that weren’t whole to meet and to marry.

The vigil and the suffocating girl married in their own ways, in the senselessness of a tragedy still in the making.  They met and joined in hope.

All joined together.

They were big and strong enough to carry their burdens now.  Lantern, candles, pieces of wood from a lightning strike that had hollowed out a tree and filled it with fire instead.

They stood back, letting the house burn, in relief and release, in vigil, in empty hope.

The shadows of oblivion that stalked her waited at the edges of the burning house’s light.  A brief reprieve.  So long as things would burn she could fend them off.

🟂

Burning things had their consequences.

And this was a final consequence worse than oblivion.

She was encircled; her being was drawn into the circle and trapped there.  The lines were guides for spirits both big and small to obey by ancient compacts and laws and the laws could be turned against the spirit.

Three practitioners and their familiar stalked the shadows around the diagram.  The faceless shadows of oblivion stalked the darkness beyond it.  Not that there was much beyond- her senses didn’t extend that far, and what use thinking about the world at large when one was imprisoned for life?  The world shrank down to a single prison, a single cell.

A patch of sparse forest outside the city.

She knelt, tattered edges of her being pulled into salt that tore at her like razor blades.  It was as though her skin had been cut from her and nailed down.  She had forged a greater self with spirit, drinking in the heat of flames and the sentiments surrounding those flames.  She had rigged up a fresh pole to bear her lantern and candles were arranged all up and down the pole, wax dripping down around metal.  Those things, too, were bound and weighted down.  Lines were as good as invisible walls, and the smallest movements were interrupted with impacts that bent and threatened to break fingers or damage her lantern.

This wasn’t even the worst of it.

She could see what was spelled out beyond that, waiting.  This was a cell, yes, and she was imprisoned for life, but that life was to be a short one.  The parts of the diagram that had yet to be used were a kind of extraphysical machinery made of lines in the ground.  Machinery that would saw her open and puncture her, machinery that would leech out power, machinery that would latch onto her and pull pieces of her in separate directions with more brutality than if she was flesh and they’d lashed her to four chains and four horses, each horse set to run in a separate direction.

She would be spiritually butchered and the pieces of her portioned out like so much meat.  It waited for a single word.

She’d run, she’d pursued.  She had three good faces and several lesser ones.  When she wanted to run to, she could wear the face of the suffocating girl.  When she wanted to run away, she could be like the young pyromaniac fleeing her parents.  When she was to remain still, she was the force of spirit from the crowd holding vigil.

She struggled to find her feet and stand in this webwork of invisible lines.  Her being tore where it had been bound down, but she still felt it important to stand.  The power from the lantern helped, dark and physical.

She spoke with the voice of the suffocating girl, youngest and most scared.  “What’s happening?”

“If we cut this short, we can move on without any further hassles.  Like locals, and certain Lords,” one practitioner said.

“We’re fine,” another answered, terse.  “It was drilled into me as a kid.  If you’re not going to die in the next five minutes, you can always check your diagrams.”

He paced around, investigating, and then bent down, pouring some salt on one of the exterior portions.

Sharpening and fixing the angle of one of the blades that would saw her open, so to speak.

“I’m scared,” she said, her voice hoarse and young.

“Shut up.”

She wore the face of the vigil.  Faces swam in her being, sometimes three, sometimes eight.  Tears streaked cheeks.

They didn’t care.

She, at the very least, felt guilt when she burned down houses and set fire to cars.

There was nothing in her makeup that would let her scream.

She, wearing the guise of the young pyromaniac, reached up to her lantern and unhooked it from the pole.  She let it fall to the grass below her.

Grass ignited.

But fire didn’t cross the lines.  Flames licked up the length of her legs and tattered clothing, which was blended together from the mesh shirt and cargo shorts of the young pyromaniac, the nice clothes of those holding vigil, and the nightgown of the girl who’d suffocated on smoke.

They didn’t care.

“Hurry it up.”

“The little adjustments I’ve made have cost us two minutes and bought us ten percent more.  That’s more than three percent each.”

“If the local Lord takes issue with us hunting a distorted echo in his territory, do you know how much we get?”

“Wouldn’t he be glad we’re cleaning up his problems?”

“Not how it works,” the third person said, speaking up for the first time.

“Probably half.  Maybe none,” the impatient guy said.

“I’ve never regretted taking the extra time to make sure I do this stuff right.  You brought me in for a reason.”

“You only have to regret it once,” the patient guy said.

“This may be one of those times,” a fourth voice said.

The three young men turned and rose to their feet, gathering together as three.  The familiar, a large spider, dropped from a string and landed on one’s shoulder.

The fourth was a teenager, scruff on his chin, hair tousled in a way that made him look young, but his clothes looked like they’d seen at least a year of hard living on the road, spots around the knee and seams paler.  He was heavyset, not fat but solidly built, broad across shoulder and hips.

His eyes were empty, dark, and he was tattered, but it was a physical kind of tattering, edges raw like chunks of him had been cut away with a knife and sewn over, the blood a mist that bled out from the open wounds.

“Moss.”

“If you’d taken my notes on the Other I was tracking and nothing else, I could have let it go.  I don’t want the trouble.  But you took my money, my things.  Stuff my parents left me.”

Two of the three looked at the third, the impatient one.

“Yeah,” the impatient man said.

“He tracked us with that stuff, you imbecile,” the man who’d been careful with the diagram spat the words.

“He’s weak,” the impatient man said.

“I’m weak.  Inexperienced with practice,” Moss said.  “But I have very little to lose and a lot of pride.”

“What if Art returns what he took?” the diagram man said.

Moss shook his head.

“With interest.”

“Fuck off,” Art told him.

“It doesn’t matter,” Moss said.  “I already committed to handling this.”

“Handling?”

Moss touched one of the areas of his shoulder that bled, then a spot on his arm.  “See.”

Their eyes flashed.

The girl in the diagram looked as well.

There were things in those sewn-over spots on his body.  Some slithered, some were far bigger than the spaces given to them, and others were only darkness, or only tainted blood.  Lines traced up and down his body.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d be cool about this so I assumed you wouldn’t,” Moss said, staring at them with empty eye sockets.  “Cut away my ability to feel pain, cut away fear, cut away mercy.  I put other things inside.  Curses.  Lesser Others.”

“Moss.  You took this too far,” Art said.

“I don’t have much.  I don’t like people taking what little I do have.”  Moss stepped forward.

Art reached for his waist and drew a gun.  The diagram man kept him from pointing it at Moss.

“Idiot.  If you kill him you let everything out.”

The quieter third man spoke, “What if we give you Art?”

“Fuck off!” Art raised his voice.  “What?”

“I think the part of me that’s supposed to be able to agree to that kind of deal was cut away,” Moss said.

“Damn,” the third man said.

Diagram man told the others, “Keep hits to the face, and places he didn’t-”

Moss charged in.

He wasn’t fast, so it wasn’t a very startling charge, but he was big for a teenage guy.  All three seemed to expect he’d go for Art first but he didn’t, instead choosing the guy who’d been focused on the diagram.  Fist hit face with enough of an impact it was very clear that the flesh was a foregone conclusion and it was the bone that would be feeling the hurt tomorrow.

Moss’s hand was destroyed by equal measure.  He held it out at his side, and flesh and bone began to knit back together.  She could see his spirit working to restore structure to the temple-shrine that was his body, trained and bound by five year old rituals.

The other two tackled him, blows aimed at his face.  At the side of his head.

Something was inside his left ear, the flesh cut and sewn to provide a barrier, etched with a small rune.  When the blow separated fresh stitches, Moss screamed, and so did Art, who pulled away as fingers with too many segments and clawed tips gripped his fist.  It seemed to hurt Moss as much as it hurt Art, the arm reeling out, the lesser horror following.  It had been a mouse once, maybe.

Moss recovered faster than Art, who was still dealing with the clawing, ferocious little thing that Moss had placed in his ear canal.

“I only know a few tricks,” Moss told Art. “This is all of them, and some extra gambles, things I guessed and half-knew.”

“Fuck, dude, it’s not-”

Moss grabbed Art’s mouth, keeping him from talking.  “If it’s any consolation, I’ll feel bad about what I’ve done to you here when my conscience and sense of mercy grow back.”

Art shook his head.

Moss hooked a thumb and finger into two separated stitched-up sections of his arm, and tore them.

The Other and the curse inside slithered under skin instead of escaping from the freshly opened wound.  Into Art’s mouth.

She could see into and through Art, as internal organs twisted and became Other, churning and tearing at one another.  His back arched until it looked like it would break, every part of him contorting in pain.

A pain that would last until he died or the curse was extracted, and no doctor would ever diagnose it.  The girl in the diagram leaned against the barrier, surrounded by her fire, wax dripping down arms and pole, onto clothing.  Her eyes reflected fires long past.

Moss turned on the diagram man, who was still in the process of recovering from having his face smashed in.  A running start, a leaping kick, because that was the best way to get a good kick in without adjusting footing.  Essentially smashing in the other side of his face.

The third man ran.

Moss chased.  He wasn’t faster.

But she could see the measure of them, in spirit and in the echoes that drove them and pulled at them, the resonance of them as people.

Moss had removed the part of himself that registered being tired, and he’d removed the part of himself that was willing to let the other man get away.

She waited.

Thirty minutes later, Moss returned, so tired he was limping, breath ragged.  He checked that the diagram man was alive.  For a moment, it looked like he was considering doing something to him.

He looked at her.  Straightening, huffing out a breath, he walked to the edge of the diagram.

She faced him as the girl who the vigil had been held for, venerated in spirit, remembered in mourning as the best version of herself.

The best side of her best side.

“Look at you,” Moss said.  “I didn’t think you’d look like this.”

The suffocating little girl.  “Help me.”

“Ahh,” he rasped the sound more than he was uttering any word.

He didn’t help her, turning away instead.  He rooted through the men’s things.  There were some books, and he set those aside.  He finally found what he was looking for, sat down with a huff on grass, and picked through things.

Art twisted, balled up, then flexed the opposite direction, hands scrabbling in dirt for useless purchase.  He made retching sounds as his transformed intestines reached up for heart, distending stomach as they reached, showing the bone ridges that ran along their length now.  They constricted around the heart and Art managed a strangled scream.

“I think Art here tossed my things,” Moss said.  “I.D.  He was all too happy to take my notes… I was tracking you, on request from a local Lord.  They decided to steal from me and pick up my trail.”

The suffocating little girl spoke through her.  “Help me.”

“I’m not in a helpful state of mind,” he said, as he lurched to his feet.  He looked at the diagram.  “I’m not a good enough practitioner to know what this is.”

She didn’t have the words to spell it out.

“The Lord of this region only asked that I track and identify you.  I can’t leave you in a diagram in case someone stumbles on you, I don’t know how to keep civilians away… want to strike a deal?”

She stared at him, searching herself.

The vigil.

“Mmm,” someone mumbled affirmation in words to a prayer at the vigil, when words failed them.

“Swear to leave me physically whole, and to make no attempt to occupy my body yourself.  Swear to clean this scene of bodies and evidence, and to give me the answers to my questions.”

She stared at him.  She didn’t have the means to ask.

“I’m curious why the local Lord was interested in you.”

“No,” she answered, in the voice of the girl who’d realized the light was fire, rather than a way out, hoarse, quiet.

“No?” he asked.  “He’s not interested?”

“No.”

“Well, these three were, enough to pick a fight with me.  So I am, too.  Give me a bit of your time.”

“Mmm.”

“So sworn?”

She raised her hand, other hand at her heart, and again, gave the affirmative.

The fires pulsed, as if fed fresh oxygen.  Wind stirred.

He scuffed the diagram with his foot.  The invisible walls broke, then collapsed, lines all across the diagram losing cohesion, blurring, smearing, becoming salt on dirt.

She stepped closer.

Then, akin to a blind woman reaching for a face to get a sense of it, she reached for his face.

Fingers hooked in empty eye sockets, and she could feel the echoes there.

You have to do it yourself, Matthew.  Reach back and around and then tear them out.  Then we’ll awaken you.

I’m scared.

The fear in the moment is the price you pay for advantage later.

His dark, shadowed eyes closed, eyelids pressing around and through her fingertips, severing them.  They were only echo, only spirit, so they regrew as she moved fingers to cheekbone instead.  When he opened his eyes, they were human once more.

They were bright in the light of her fires.

“You’re far from home,” Matthew said.

She touched his lips.

Did you know what your father was doing?

Don’t make me answer.

Did you know?

She moved fingers down.  The dialogue clarified as she touched throat.

I can’t-

Answer the lawyer, Matthew.

Down to heart.

She could see him, cutting pockets of flesh open to place packets of paper beneath.  Papers with curses inside, papers with Others he’d collected or bought.  He’d taken on a debt.

He would suffer for it tomorrow.  Later tonight, when he cut them out to carefully remove them.

She touched the place where ribs met stomach and she could feel the vibration of him.  This was where he was most him, the center of his being.  He was content.

And below- she found his weak point.  Just below the belly button, in the stomach, a vast emptiness.  He hadn’t eaten and didn’t want to eat, and she wasn’t talking about food, but about power and ambition.

With that, as if sensing that she’d found that weakness in him, he pulled away.  He had cut away fear to be able to take on three men and to hold curses inside himself without crumbling in the wake of it, but this spoke to a deeper discomfort that went beyond fear.

She had the measure of him.

A man who had been wounded early on, who had been condemned for the sins of his father.  Who had found peace and contentedness, but in the smallest and simplest way, and had no drive to venture further.

Take away what he’d managed to scrabble together for himself, however, and…

She looked at Art, as Matthew walked away from her.  Art writhed, spittle frothing at his lips.  Flesh distended around his face as his brain slithered to find another place to live in his body.  Lungs bulged through and between ribs.

“Mmm,” she uttered.  She stepped away from the shattered prison of chalk lines and approached Art.  She held out her hand and waited for confirmation.

Matthew noticed her.  “I don’t care either way.  I’ll care tomorrow.”

She reached out with fire, disconnecting from the parts of herself that cared, from even the guilt that the young pyromaniac had felt in the aftermath.  She found the spirits that made Art into Art, spirits that now wrestled with the Other that had slithered in alongside the curse.  She met them with spirits of fire.

Art burned from the inside out, as did the Other he housed.  The curse, a simple charm that made endings far more drawn out, dissipated.

She approached the unconscious man who had been punched, nearly knocked out, and then kicked in the head as he’d started to rise to his feet.  He was easier to burn.

“Other one’s a bit of a hike into the woods,” Matthew said, as he gathered up the things he was taking from the men.  “After, if you don’t object, I’ll take you to someone.  I need to do some research and figure out how you work, figure out how to get you to where you can communicate better.”

🟂

“Emotions fit to a wheel.  She found a good balance on her own,” Charles said, taking notes.  He was a young guy, blond hair combed back, wearing a jacket that looked more suited to keeping him warm and comfortable than anything.  He wrote down a frame on a paper, then held it up.  The interior of the square filled in, an x-ray for the metaphysical and spiritual.  “You can approximate love with a combination of the vigilance of those attending the vigil and the relieved ecstasy of the pyromaniac with her fire.”

“But?” Matthew asked, arms folded.

“She’s lopsided.  Trust is missing.  That’s hard to approximate.  She lacks the heat of anger, ironically, and revulsion.  Too much of that’s turned inward.”

“We did as you suggested, and found the origins of the original echoes.  Sydney is twenty years old now.  She gave up the pyromania.  Became a different kind of wild teenager.  Found release in drugs and sex, instead.”

“Whoo,” the Girl by Candlelight whispered, in the young pyromaniac’s voice.

“Whoo,” Matthew said, deadpan.  “We toured her hometown, she seemed to pick up some things.”

“And she’s lost others?”

“She’s gotten weaker.  We ditched the lantern, as you suggested.  But that was a big source of power.”

“It was an anchor.  Too physical.  It was doing a lot of damage,” Charles said.

“I know.  You said and we believed you, but she’s weaker, and she’s weaker every day.  Fraying.”

“If this was an Other I’d made, complex or simple, I’d have bound it, to limit the damage.  Put it in a vessel of some kind.  But she’s always going to… some Others don’t live long, Matthew.”

Matthew sat back, looking over at the Girl by Candlelight.

She sat across the brick of the fireplace, close to the flame.  Her candle dripped wax across her chest and legs, her cheek resting against it as she hugged it.  This was their fourth visit with Charles.  He had told Matthew what to do to help her smooth over the gaps, and to bring things closer into alignment.  She was three major events, two echoes and one spirit, and twenty more smaller events and sources of power drawn into the mixture.  She was the pyromaniac, death by suffocation, and the vigil; the three faces now blended together.

“Does it bother you?” Matthew asked her.

She paused.  She still had to search for words before speaking.  “I don’t want the darkness to take me.  It’s too vast.  It wants to pull me apart and distribute me evenly across distances light can’t easily cross.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Matthew said.

“Speaking of times and places,” Charles told Matthew.  “Your time in this place… I’ve been asked to talk to you.”

“About this town?”

“Kennet.  I’ll be blunt, Matthew.  They get impatient if I spend more than a few days here, and they like and trust me more than they like or trust you.  You’ve been here for months.”

“They’re encouraging us to leave?”

“You, Matthew.  She could stay.  What keeps you here?”

“You live close.  You know as much about the Girl by Candlelight than I do.  It’s quiet, peaceful.”

“Your definition of peace is different from theirs.  You’re a threat.  They know what happened to the practitioners who tried to bind the Girl by Candlelight.  It wasn’t peaceful.”

“Ugh,” Matthew made a small sound.  He looked over at her.

“It’s all my fault,” she whispered.

“No,” Matthew said.

I swore the oath to burn the evidence.  You could claim I failed and destroy me.

She turned her focus to the fire, taking it away from the forces of oblivion that crept outside the window, at the boundaries of light.  Waiting for her, ready to pull her through Ruin and into black oblivion.

“Do you know the soldier with the little girl?” Charles asked.

“John?”

“Yeah,” Charles said.  He adjusted his position.  “John.”

“Is that who they’ll send to encourage me on my way?”

“No.  They’re asking him to kill her.  She’s too dangerous.  Kennet’s become too large a town, things that would be fine on their own in a smaller place are concerning in aggregate.”

“Us included?”

“They’re cleaning house, Matthew,” Charles said.  “Tidying up, preparing.”

“And they don’t like me being here.  I can… I can connect those dots.”

“John’s yet to decide.  What would you say, in his shoes?”

“With the Girl by Candlelight?” Matthew asked, sounding surprised.

“I meant with the little girl, but that’s a more effective way of putting it.”

“I’d leave.  I’d tell them to fuck themselves and I’d go somewhere else, to another territory.”

Charles nodded.  He sighed.

“Fuck,” Matthew swore under his breath.  “Here.  I owe you…”

“Two hundred.”

Matthew handed over some bills, neatly arranged and folded, with another five dollar bill slapped over top.  “Here’s two hundred and five.  I need another beer.”

“Sure,” Charles said, sitting back.  “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know,” Matthew grumbled, as he crossed the cabin to the fridge.  “Would they be receptive if I asked to talk?”

“I’d say you should go now.  Before they get underway with cleaning house,” Charles warned.  “Offer to swear some oaths.  Offer to help out.  Make yourself indispensable.”

“And we can stay?”

“I’d guess you can stay longer.  This isn’t a forever arrangement.  It wasn’t ever intended as such, not by them.”

Matthew started to swear but frustration cut the word off, leaving it to hiss between teeth and lip instead.  He held the beer bottle like a club.

“Go.  If you make yourself too valuable, agree to play by rules, they’ll let you stay around.  It’s what I’ve done.”

“What are you doing for them?  What sorts of things do they ask?”

“For me?  They want me to build a perimeter.”

Matthew nodded.

“Go now, Matthew,” Charles said, sighing the words.  “Speak from the heart, let them know your concern for your friend here.  I want to check on some things with your friend here, that I can’t easily do while you’re around.  Take your beer.”

Matthew paused.  He gave Charles a long look, then looked at the Girl by Candlelight.

“Can I trust her to your company?”

“Yes,” Charles said, firm.  “I believe you can and should.”

Matthew shook his head, swore under his breath, then stepped outside, pushing the door open and letting it bang closed behind him.

The car started up.

“I wouldn’t drive…” Charles murmured, walking over to the door.  “But he’s twice my weight, I’d guess, and one beer.  Hmm.”

“What do you want?” the Girl by Candlelight asked, wary.

“Forming sentences better, are you?  Matthew’s worked hard with you on that.”

She nodded.

Charles sighed, then sat in a chair, lanky.  He pulled off his jacket and tossed it onto his couch, which it looked like he slept in.  “You’re in love with him.”

She stared at him.

“Yeah,” he grumbled the word, slouching back, his own beer bottle resting on one leg.  “How do you see that going?”

“It seems… oblivion will take me before Matthew will take me.”

“Tragic,” Charles told her.  “So much about this world of ours is tragic.  Human and inhuman.  Why not tell him?  Take the time you have?”

“No,” she answered, and the word was clearer, drawn from memory.

“Or extend your time.  We’ve danced around the subject, but you could become his familiar.”

She hugged the candle tighter.  “I cannot.  I’ve sworn not to possess his body.  Tying myself to him, I would flow over and in.  There’s too much emptiness there.”

“There are ways to shape the ritual.”

“No… perfect.”

“No perfect ways,” Charles said, nodding.  “Nothing’s perfect.”

“No.”

“Hmmm.”

“I wish… I had sworn something else.  The things I have in abundance are things he lacks.  Fire inside, something desired, a goal to move to.  I can patch over damage and he is so damaged.  I have the eyes of two people and a crowd, glittering with flame, and his eye sockets are empty and dark.  We would fit together so…”

She hugged the candle tighter and softened wax squished in her embrace.

“Sexual desire?” Charles asked, eyebrow raising.

“No.  Possessive desire.  I want to live in the spaces inside his skin.  I want him to be mine, bright and alive.  I want to mix with him beneath the surface of his skin.”

“And him?”

“He doesn’t want that.  So I will stay quiet.  And… warn you.  Quiet.  Shhhh.”

Talking was hard, and straining herself beyond what her echoes would say was even harder.  Her flames were waning.  She fell silent, eyes on the ground, drinking in the heat and light of the fire, very aware of the darkness that was always stalking her.

“Shhh, yeah,” Charles said, sighing.  “I won’t tell him.”

🟂

At her full strength, she was a threat to anything minor or moderate in strength, including the occasional lesser lord of a small town or dominant Other of a rural region.  It meant that few were willing to help her without reservation.

Echoes were expendable, common, many faint in strength, and even something like her, part spirit, part echo, part elemental, was tainted by association.

At her weakest, she was stalked by the dark shadows of oblivion.

She was stalked now.  Dark oblivion’s mouth yawned open, drawing her toward the Ruins any time she wasn’t moving.  Lesser things from there followed after, watching without eyes and reaching with inhuman hands.  They were always preceded by dark, and in the hours there wasn’t enough dark to precede them, rain would start falling instead.

John had shot his longtime friend and companion, the girl Yalda.

Charles had been forsworn.

They didn’t have Charles’s help anymore.  Many of Charles’s books had been stolen by the man who had forsworn him, or lost because Charles had been forced to move, and not all of his things had escaped with him.  Matthew was at a loss for how to help her without Charles helping to direct, the locals had done their cleaning house, and Matthew had left, suggesting he’d return when he’d found something workable.

Two years had passed without his return.  She preferred to think that he’d been killed than to think he’d ceased caring.

If he was dead then he might have an echo out there.

She’d set out on her own.

Now she was dogged and harried.  Again and again, she faced paradox and conflict.  To fend off the dark, she had to set fires.  The fires invigorated her and drove them away.  They could be gateways to spirit, to ruin, to abyss.  Candles had a certain meaning and she could use that meaning to claim a space, but that required power.

At the same time, using power and setting fires drew unwelcome attention.  Lords and the powers of an area took offense to the suspicions and sentiment that a burning building drew.

She was fading, her light dwindling, the beasts of dark oblivion creeping nearer, and she was driven by the pyromaniac’s pursuit of release.  Spiritually, metaphorically, and in reflection of past, she held her breath.  Tension laced through her body, as she carried the candle and dripped with wax.  The fires that had once been her complete and total release were now like the snatched snacks that tided her over, fixing one part of her.

She needed and wanted something else.  The light and life that was Matthew.

She would find some echo he’d left and marry herself to it, and she had no illusions that she would live for long after.

Blackest oblivion would claw her to pieces and disseminate those pieces over dark void, but she would go with the echo of a man who made her life brighter.

Three towns, then four, then after a Lord encouraged her to move, a fifth.  Too many practitioners in the fifth.

A burned theater drew too much attention.

The idea was a consuming obsession, the tension crushed her very being.  A fire needed oxygen and she held her breath.

“There you are.”

She turned.

Matthew Moss.  He’d aged by a little.  His beard was fuller.

She spirited herself to him.  Embracing him with arms that were insubstantial, passing through flesh but not the spirit of him beneath.

She held herself close, hugging him, and reached up, touching his face.  Touching eyes.  The orbs beneath eyelid.  Then, after he blinked, empty sockets.  Touching mouth, throat.

There you are.

Heart.  He was tired.  He’d been traveling for a while.  But he was healthy.

The space between rib and stomach.

There, before, he had been content.  At peace.  The equilibrium had been found, once.  It wasn’t there now.  She imagined she was helping to stabilize it, now that he’d found her.  She imagined, too, that it was her believing what she wanted to believe.

And there, in the center of his belly, just beneath the belly button, the well of his spiritual desire.  Want, need for food, for sex, for sleep.

Still an emptiness, inviting, warmed faintly by her candlelight.

She imagined she could break her oath and occupy that space.  Just to taste it for a moment before fate and law ripped her to shreds.

“Will you come with me?” he asked.

“Yes.”

“It’s a long trip.  I didn’t think you’d wander so far afield.  I went back to Kennet to find you but you’d gone.”

“I thought you were gone,” she told him.

“No.  But I didn’t want to go back without answers.”

She went with him, and it was a long trip.  Back toward Kennet, but not to Kennet.  He played music and kept the window rolled down, and between the two of them and the speed they were moving, she could almost forget about oblivion’s chase, dogging her heels, ready to drag her through the Ruins before pulling her apart into her constituent elements and scattering them.  The universe cleaning up symbols and memories.

Her heart, a cluster of elemental fragments, wood from a tree set afire by lightning, and a few pieces of the Abyss-touched lantern, was lighter than it had been in some time.

To a hospital.  Matthew stepped out of his truck, then pulled on a janitor’s coveralls.  He looked across the cab of the truck to her.  “Do you trust me?”

“Yes.  A little less after you didn’t come back for two years.”

“Nearly three, and a few months to find you.  I need you to occupy this oil lamp.  And I’m going to put it away, so it doesn’t set off smoke detectors or give off light.”

She thought of how easily the beasts of oblivion would be able to reach her.  “It can’t be for too long.”

“No more than ten minutes.”

Ten minutes spent in oblivion’s reach.

He held eye contact with her.  She nodded.

He provided the lamp, and she occupied it.  She was immaterial spirit, and it was a vessel he had paid careful attention to, making it suitable as a place for her to live.

The walls of the lamp became protection, stability and scaffolding for her to lean against.  The fire fueled her in a small way.  She would drink it in these ten minutes, she was sure, but everything helped.

Then the darkness swallowed her.  A cover for the lamp, a rustling and jostling, the oil in the lamp moving around her.

Darkness and a whisper of oblivion around her.

Claws reached for her, and even with the lamp’s protection, she struggled to fight back.

It cost her strength.

Another clawing cost her time.

Another yet cost her precious feelings she’d had to reinvent and build in the spaces between other emotions that her echoes knew and embraced.

There was no time, here.  Only the fight, the struggle of a candle that didn’t exist in reality, doing its best to keep from going out.  A memory of wild release and flames reflected in eyes.  The scared moment of a girl who had died struggling to breathe, chasing fire while thinking it was escape.  The vigil for a girl whose roadside shrine no longer existed.

The cover was lifted.  Oblivion retreated.  Matthew set the oil lamp by a open window.

There was a girl on the bed.

“Her name is Edith.”

The Girl by Candlelight emerged from the oil lamp.  She crossed the room to stand next to him.

“Did you have a hand in it?”

“No.  If I was willing to do that it wouldn’t have taken me nearly three years to come to you with an idea.”

“What’s she for?”

He extended an arm, hand out.

She took that as an indicator to approach.  She flowed closer, over.

Immaterial fingertips touched the top of head, and found it open, empty, inviting to the point that it was hard to move her hand away.  Other spirits had already moved in.  Lesser ones, ambient ones.

She touched eyes with thumb and pinky, brow with the middle three fingers.  There was nothing.  A certain kind of terrible oblivion.

Throat, where it connected to ear, then at the center.  Some stirrings, but nothing of substance.

Heart, she was alive.  Frail but alive.

Traces of her between rib and stomach.  Traces of memory.  Many of the spirits had already moved in there.  Had she come sooner, there would be more.

Matthew must have had to look so hard to find vitality and so little else.

The Girl by Candlelight bent over the girl’s head and kissed the peak of it.  Then she let herself be called into that small emptiness.  She had to fight the lesser spirits, grinding them to pieces against the boundaries of Edith.  The ones who wouldn’t be ground to pieces had to be burned.

Edith’s body temperature rose.

“Careful,” Matthew said, glancing at the monitor.  He sighed.  “I told myself I wouldn’t do what my father had done, but here I am.  Prowling around hospitals, wearing his old coveralls.”

She worked to find her place and she hated it wasn’t Matthew, but-

Brow.

Eyes fluttered open.  Everything was blurry, but she recognized the blur that was Matthew.

“Charles said a fitting vessel would give you time,” Matthew told her.

She stirred, finding the means to move, to ground herself in Edith.  She still fought against spirits who had settled in.  The body temperature rose further.

“Mat-” she tried.  She struggled to breathe and speak.

He approached, taking her hand.  He held it in his, and she squeezed with the feeble strength she was able to muster.

Four times, she tried to speak, and ended up out of breath, or stopping because she worried she wouldn’t get the full sentence out.

“I should go.  That body temperature is going to bring nurses running soon.”

“Matthew,” she whispered, voice paper-thin.  “Thank you.”

He smiled.  It was a nice smile, the sort that made people want to like him.  He was so kind.

“I- love you,” she told him, squeezing his hand with that feeble strength from before.

The smile faltered just a little.

What a way to break her heart, so soon after she’d obtained one.  A twitch in a smile to destroy her.  Tears appeared in the corners of her eyes.

“I am so fond of you,” he whispered, brushing her sweat beaded forehead with a hand, stroking hair.  “It wouldn’t be right.  I defined you.”

“I def-”  Her lungs didn’t have capacity, and the word broke off with a sob of a breath.  “I defined me.”

“I clarified you, then.”

The alarm on the monitor went off.  Her temperature had risen above 38C.  39C.

“Matthew,” she whispered.

“I feel responsible for you, so I wanted to make sure you were okay.  But as deliriously fond of you as I am… it wouldn’t be good.”

“Is good,” she whispered.

Another alarm went off.

“I have to go.  Heal, find yourself.  I’ll be in touch in a few years.  We’ll catch up, compare notes.”

The nurses came running.  The temperature was at 40C.  Her body was suffering.

“I was just standing there, she started whispering, the monitor started beeping,” he said.

“Out of the way!” the nurse ordered him.

They separated Edith from him.

He shot her a smile before disappearing into the hallway.  Leaving.

🟂

“Goblins in the deep Warrens are so expendable that we think nothing of a life.  So common that we cannot stand out unless we find a unique name, a creative way to twist our own flesh, or a way to stand above,” Toadswallow spoke, addressing everyone.

Edith folded her arms.

“Ladies, gentlemen, and noble persons, we aren’t in the freaking Warrens!  These souls, Fishmittens, Humpydump, Bumcake, Creamfilled, and Biscuit, they had stories!  They lived good goblin existences with ups, downs, and glorious disasters in between.  We’re going to remember them, reminiscing on deeds and dares, and I challenge the everloving shit out of you, goblin and all, to name the best way to remember each of them.  Take your turns, give us your best memories of them, name their best deeds, or come up with the best way to remember them.  We’ll settle for the best one, with respect and spoils from the dead going to the person who came up with it.”

“I’m alive,” Biscuit said, lying on the table by the dead goblins.  They had towels and pillowcases draped over them, and Biscuit had a facial tissue draped over her, her feet and calves sticking out.  She wriggled her toes.  “Real hurt though.”

Kittycough stirred.  The goblin was skinny, akin to a hairless Siamese cat that walked on short back legs.  It went to the stage, then held up one fist, claws holding three shrimp.  The other hand held a lead pipe.  He pointed the pipe at Fishmittens.

“Any translations?” Toadswallow asked.

“Putting shrimp in curtain rods in three houses,” Gashwad growled.  “They rot, stink like nothing else, and they’ll never find them.”

Kittycough nodded once, turned, faced the body of Fishmittens.

“They weren’t friends,” Snowdrop observed.  She was standing behind the four dead goblins and Biscuit, hands clasped in front of her.

Kittycough kissed the back of one hand, then punched Fishmittens in the balls, before walking away, satisfied.

Tatty walked up.  She’d attached black elastic bands to her usual ‘dress’ of interwoven, drooping breasts, with more at her hair.  “I pledge to put shrimp in the curtain rods of four houses, instead.”

Kittycough screeched.  Tatty barely had any time to look before Kittycough tackled her, beating her with the pipe.

“It’s allowed,” Toadswallow said, somber.  “Tatty pledges to shrimp-rod four houses.  Keep in mind, if you pledge and fail, we’ll fucking kill you for letting down our dead.”

Kittycough raised a paw, dropping shrimp to extend five clawed fingers.

“Kittycough pledges five shrimprods.”

“Can I pledge?” Biscuit asked, from beneath the facial tissue.  “I liked Fish.”

“Anyone alive?” Toadswallow asked.

“I won’t pledge,” Ramjam said.  “This should be Kitty’s.  They were buds.”

“Then shut your yap!” Tatty screeched.

Ramjam spoke up.  “But I got a memory!  Remember Price?  Barney before last?  The helicopter.”

“Shit yeah!” Biscuit cried out, sitting up, the tissue slipping.  Snowdrop put a finger on her forehead and set her back down, fixing the tissue.  “The helicopter jump.”

“We needed the helicopter so he jumped through the rotor blades to get at the pilot while the door was open,” Ramjam said.  “Didn’t make it through.  Was real hurt.  That was cool.  So brave.”

“So brave,” Biscuit said, her breath making the tissue lift up around her face.

“Six!  Six hou-” Tatty’s voice was muffled as Toadswallow stepped on her face.

“Five houses with shrimprods, for the brave soul who jumped through spinning helicopter blades,” Toadswallow said.  “Going once… going twice…”

Peckersnot got up and approached the front.  He held up a paper and patted it, holding up one finger.

“Your snotty pictures aren’t worth the prank of five shrimprods,” Gashwad said.  “Sit back down.”

Peckersnot, dejected, went to sit back down.

“And you shouldn’t draw any,” Snowdrop said.  “Nobody wants them, they suck.  It’d be thoughtless.”

Cherrypop burst into laughter, pointing, while Peckersnot quietly glanced around, made sure nobody was arguing with Snowdrop, then smiled before sitting down.

“Biscuit?” Toadswallow asked.

“Yes?” Biscuit asked.

“Any suggestions for Biscuit?” he asked, ignoring her.

“She wanted to be a Tod for a Barney.  That was a dream,” Ramjam said.  “Good dream from a good goblin.”

“Still a good goblin,” Biscuit interjected.

“I pledge,” Ramjam said.  “I’ll get booze to three impressionable youths.  Enough to get them drunk.  They’ll have fun.  Maybe they’ll be Barneys one day.”

“Hecking yeah!” Biscuit said, sitting up.  Snowdrop pushed her back down again.  “Can I die for real?  That’s great!”

Edith cleared her throat.

“Outside Kennet.  Reasonably safe,” Ramjam amended.  “It’ll be cool.  She was cool.”

“Still am.”

“I’ll smash the biggest goblin from her old neighborhood in the Warrens, so long as they’re not bigger than me,” Bluntmunch said.  “Then tell everyone who’s looking, Biscuit sends her regards.”

“Hecking what!?  Badass!” Biscuit sat up again.  Both Toadswallow and Snowdrop pushed her back down and held her down.

“It’s kind of charming,” Matthew said, beside Edith.

She leaned her head against his shoulder, her arms still crossed.  “I hope they don’t end up trying to kill each other by the end of this.”

“The fact that they’re doing a send-off like this in the first place,” he murmured.

“Mmm.”

“We’re holding a second service later.  John’s swinging by, he’s out on patrol now.  The trio will visit.  We could have words with them then.”

“Mmm, maybe.  What do we even say?”

“We make peace.  If the Witch Hunters come in greater numbers…”

She sighed.  “Yeah.  Peace would be nice.”

“Just a little bit longer,” he told her.

“Yeah.  I’m going to get some air.”

“Don’t smoke,” he told her.  He winced.  “Please.”

She turned his head and kissed him.  “It’s air, for real.  I won’t smoke before I see you again.”

“Okay.”

She left Matthew to supervise the goblin funeral, going upstairs, through the kitchen, where she got a bit of water, and then she stepped outside.

It was all so much.  Too much.  The close calls, the threats around every corner, the chaos of having to manage everything…

That was without delving into the issue of the furs, the process at the end of summer, and the losses that would come of that.

She heard Maricica’s wings unfolding before she heard anything else.  There was no brush of wind, no audible flap or swoop.  Only the draping of thinner-than-silk wings across a part of her porch, Maricica up in a tree, lying across a branch, one wing draped over her unclothed body.

“The goblins are still having their funeral.  Non-goblins are elsewhere.”

“I know,” Maricica said.  She turned her head toward Edith, silky hair falling to one side, framing her expression, her smile turned up at one side.  “I thought you would step away.  You’re in a state where you must, I think.”

“What state is that?” Edith asked, tense.

“Bereft, anxious because of things unknown.  I come to end your ills.  I come bearing a gift with strings attached and I come with information.  What do you want first?”

“Is this a ‘do you want the good news or the bad news’ thing?” Edith asked.

“Not at all.”

“A dangerous gift or bad news?”

“You want, Edith James.  You desire, you hunger, you have a spark of dancing flame you chase, and you have thoroughly cornered yourself.  You want a release of this building tension, and you will do something destructive or self-destructive to find that release.”

“No riddles, please, Maricica.  Give me the information.”

“Miss has returned.  The practitioners know.  If they don’t already know you and I are collaborating, she will tell them.”

“Just like that?”

“Implicating Montague in the perimeter has warded her off.  She’s limited in what she can do.  She’ll focus herself on the witch hunters who are on the approach, next.  She’s working from the back foot.  She’ll try but not necessarily succeed.  Be ready, but in equal measure, be confident that she’ll be preoccupied a little bit longer.  Our concern is the practitioners.”

“Of course it is.”

Maricica sat up, smiling wider.  “What would you think if I told you that Guilherme hired the Witch Hunter?”

“I would think that posing it as a question like that is a ludicrously obvious way to imply without lying, Maricica.”

“Guilherme hired the Witch Hunter.  He used the contact he’s been in touch with, a human who interacts with the courts.  I can’t ever be sure when he outclasses me in scheming, and he may never admit it clearly, but I think it didn’t go as he wished it would.  His attention is divided, and mine is singularly focused on countering what he does.”

“Will he call them off?  Or will Miss succeed?”

“The door has been opened and I don’t think it will close until summer’s end, at the earliest.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Edith said, voice tired.

Maricica touched a part of her wing that draped over the branch, stepped into a fold, and let herself down to ground in a smooth fashion.  She crossed the lawn, tossing one wing around herself like a noble with their cape, smiling.  “Do you want your gift?”

“You tell me.  Should I want it?” Edith asked.

Maricica approached until their toes nearly touched, a foot of space between them.  She pulled back the wing and showed Edith the syringe.

“How did you know the other one-”

“A look in your eye, as you glanced at me.  Fear, apprehension, need.  Few things match to those specific proportions of those three things I saw.  Seeing how you looked at your husband confirmed it for me.”

“You said there were strings attached.”

“There are.”

“The same strings as the last?”

“No.  Those strings hold.  You took them and you’ve bound yourself in them and if you tried to take another course you would do devastating damage.  For this one… it’s a simpler task.  The girls are motivated, thanks to Guilherme’s Witch Hunter.  They will come for you.  They will bind you.”

Edith tensed.

“Perhaps until the end of Summer.  Perhaps this is the only way you’ll ever be free of that binding.  However it unfolds, I will buy your silence with this gift.  Do your best to avoid the binding, fight them, maneuver, enlist my help if you wish, enlist anyone’s, but you must swear that if captured and compelled to talk, you will say nothing about us.”

“Is that it?”

“I’m a Faerie, Edith.  It’s rarely ever the one thing.  There will be ripple effects.  But what is your alternative?”

Edith hesitated, hand hovering above the delicate syringe, but not taking it.

“If left alone, the Doom of Edith James will dwindle and fluctuate in strength, getting weaker over time.  That darkness that binds Matthew to you will lose strength over time and Matthew will be left to wonder and theorize why it changed its behavior.  In the midst of that wondering, it will cross his mind that it was convenient that you two were drawn together by your need for him.  He knows you better than anyone, and he will connect changes in your mood and approach to the changes in the Doom and see your hand behind it all.”

“Enough,” Edith whispered.  She took the syringe, then slipped it into her pocket.

Maricica pursued as Edith turned away.  “You’re a villain more degenerate than any of our local goblins, Edith.  Fostering the darkness inside yourself so it gives him a reason to save you, to stay close.  Letting it fill that space inside you, extracting it, over and over, to make your own monster.  Making it stronger to match his growth in strength.  Do you put it in his food, or do you inject it into him while he sleeps?”

“Enough!” Edith told the Faerie, eyes flaring orange.

Maricica laughed.  “That ugliness from inside you has grown to such terrible proportions as you’ve used it to poison the man you love.  You’ve no idea.”

“I’ve some idea,” Edith answered, quiet again, overwhelmed.

The sweeping dark of oblivion that reached over her wore her face, now.  It slithered inside Matthew because she couldn’t.  Much of her life was like that.  Edith’s parents were the wary, dancing, ever-pursuing shadows at the edge of her life, always wanting to be closer to her, when she didn’t care enough.

The body of Edith, at least, was happy, content she had spared them too much grief.

Maricica smiled.  “Good luck with our local practitioners, dear Edith.  Put on a good show and convince them you’re our primary culprit, and we’ll release you from any binding or circumstance when we’re done.”

“If you win.”

“We’ll win,” Maricica told her, with a smile.  “For now, you should do your best to survive.  If you can keep your relationship with Matthew in the wake of this, it’ll be a miracle.  We can bargain further if you need more help.”

Edith badly wanted that help but she denied that need.  She fled the conversation with the laughing, smiling Faerie, entering the house, dogged by darkness and circumstance she couldn’t share with Matthew.

Into a dark spiral yet again.  The big distinction was that she was poisoning with Doom instead of setting fires.  She still saw the light of hope and stumbling into danger.  She still held stasis, maintaining vigil, holding onto love even as it hurt.  Even if that love, if she really were able to be honest with herself, was as good as gone.


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One After Another – 10.4

Verona

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A headache nagged at her, the issues she’d left behind sticking with her in the form of a surface-of-the-brain noise and a dull throb at the back of her head.  Even when she could take her mind off of things, her stupid human body reminded her of what was hanging over her head.

She drew using a plastic watercolor brush with plastic bristles, water in the handle, dipping it into an ink bottle.  She was probably getting water in the ink but it was the only brand they’d been able to find and it was cheap, so… no biggie.

She finished, blew, then got some white-out and used it to help define the finer hairs and add definition.

Tashlit reached out, touching her arm.

“Can’t show you this one, Tash.”

Tashlit, lounging on a beach towel, reached toward her waist and gestured.

“No, this one isn’t rude.  It’s just… a picture of Sir.”

Tashlit flipped over onto her back and pressed hands to cheeks, or where her cheeks would be if her skin didn’t hang off and around her like it did.  She nudged Verona again, pointing at the notebook.

“If you insist,” Verona said.  She showed Tashlit.

Tashlit gave it a look, thirteen or more individual eyes roving over the page as she took it in.  She gave a thumbs-up, then used one hand to bunch her face-skin up around her face and clawed at the air with the other.

“Mean?  Scratchy?  Hostile?” Verona asked.

Tashlit released her face-skin and shook her head.  She pointed at the brush.

“Oh.  I guess,” Verona said.  “Intense drawing style?”

Nod.

“Trying to get feelings out on the page.”

Palm facing up, hand shake.  What?

Verona sighed, reached for her bag, and grabbed her phone off the top.  “Pretty sure this is the third most recent email, miss you so much I could cry, come back with everything fixed okay?  Bring Tashlit.  Avery and I need healing.  Witch hunter and ghoul mishap.  Long story, will tell you later.  Love love love, frowny face with tear emoji, heart emoji.  Lucy.  P.S.  Heart.  So I reply, naturally, what the fuck, right?  This doesn’t sound like her, is she okay, what happened, full story, all the question marks.”

Tashlit nodded, expression unreadable.

Second most recent email, unless I’m mistaken, is her reply, shouldn’t have sent that, was tired and feeling low.  Still tired and still low, but am ok.  Keeping my head down for a few days.  Take care of yourself and get everything set with your dad.  Keep me updated.”

Tashlit held up a finger.  One.  Then the ‘what?’ gesture.

“The first most recent email is a reminder from Ding Phones that my prepaid phone account is almost out of funds, please visit the site to top up.”

Tashlit collapsed onto the beach towel.

“I know, right?  It’s why we’re emailing and not texting.  I went through fifty bucks in the first two days, at fifty cents a text sent and twenty-five cents per text received or something.  Told my mom, might want to bite the bullet and get something unlimited because I’m going to be texting a lot.”

Tashlit did a bobble of a nod, hand moving through air, ending in something firm, like a slap against air.

“Makes sense, right?  Yeah.”

Firm nod.

“But she wants me on her work plan, so she said let’s do prepaid for now and after she gets back to Thunder Bay -she said we, as in we get back to Thunder Bay, but no– but she wants to set up the phone once she’s there.”

While talking, Verona put her art aside carefully, so it wouldn’t get sand on it, and screwed on the cap of the little ink bottle.

Tashlit gestured, cradle, question, firm.

Verona quickly chugged most of her water.  She wiped at her mouth, then answered, “I really don’t know.  She didn’t complain or say sorry.”

Verona swished the brush inside what remained of the water in the bottle to get the ink off the bristles.  Tashlit gestured, a general outline of a person, then another question-swish.

“What’s she like?  In what way?”

Tashlit raised her chin, then did a swish near the forehead.

“I… don’t really know what my mom thinks, or how she thinks.  When I was little she was Mom and now it’s been a while.  She surrounds herself with smart people, and she lives for these, like… they’re one on one dinner parties, almost.  Or one on two, if she invites a married couple.”

Verona collapsed onto her beach towel again, adjusted her bikini top, and then wriggled a bit to get comfortable.

“I like to think I’m smart, like, I can pick up on stuff, usually, or I’ll watch a medical show and I’ll be able to figure out what they’re talking about a step before they find some excuse to give the dumbed-down explanation for the audience.  But the discussions they have are way over my head.”

Watch tap, then the point down.

“Now?  Oh, this visit?

Nod.

“There was the couple I told you about-”

Tashlit was already nodding.

“My mom invited them over and couldn’t cancel on short notice so she ordered in and I sat in and bluuuuuh.  Finance.”

Verona finished wriggling and banged her head against the beach towel a few times.  Sand adjusted under her head and under her butt, from the wriggling.

“My mom tried to give me the dumbed down explanations but it felt a lot like I was in the way.  So I gave the excuse I had to get stuff sorted out.  And then we left a couple days after and we stopped in for a visit with her artist friend and I think that was meant for me.  Like, she thought I would be receptive and I’d get it and stuff, and it was cool to see the guy’s studio and stuff but like, I’m here and that guy’s alllll the way over there.”

She looked over.

Tashlit nodded.

“Yeah,” Verona said.  She stared up at the sky.  “I see it as like… she was maybe trying to find middle ground between something’s she’s into and what I’m into.  She gets her lunch with a smart friend and I get art talk and I didn’t hold up my end of the deal, sorta?  It felt a bit like she was disappointed in me.”

Paff.  A sound of a hand slapping down against sand.  Verona turned her head.

Crossed wrists for an ‘x’, pointing at Verona, then a hand held like a blade against face, dropping down, while shoulders went up.

“Not me…?  Didn’t pick up that second part.”

Tashlit repeated the same gesture as before, hand held up like a blade against where her nose would be, sliding it down her face, shaking her head this time, eyes closed.

“Oh.  Disappointed, but not disappointed in me.  Maybe.”

Tashlit nodded, then settled back down.  She wore a t-shirt and a pair of Verona’s swim shorts from her other bathing suit.  Skin bunched up in what looked like a painful way around the too-tight waistband.

“I guess.  Maybe,” Verona ruminated.  “I don’t know what she thought about the fifty bucks on the prepaid phone.”

Tashlit gestured.

“Ask?” Verona asked, before even looking to get a better look at what Tashlit was gesturing.  Tashlit gave her a thumbs up.  “Yeah.  That’s a thing people do, huh?  Communicating.  Blah.”

Paff.  Hand hit sand.  Verona glanced, but Tashlit had gone limp.

“Blah, yeah.”

Tashlit, head drooped to one side, skin pooled beneath her narrow head, just nodded, ragdoll limp.

They’d found a spot a little ways away from the cabin, on a bit of shore which wasn’t really a beach, exactly.  From the seashells and stones around them, it looked like it was underwater most of the time, workable as a rest spot on the edge of the woods only because the water level was low.  The sand was black, which Verona liked, and the bugs were sorta bad.

But there was plenty of warning if anyone came in by way of boats on water, so it worked as a hangout spot.  Verona was sticking to shade, while letting Tashlit have the sun.  That loose skin was getting tanned, but there were stripes where it folded or where wrinkles were.  Tashlit would periodically massage and adjust it, before closing most of her eyes, leaving the ones that were close to the beach towel peeking out, watching surroundings.

It should have been relaxing.  Art.  Chatter.

The headache burned at the edges of Verona’s brain, reminding her that something was stewing.

Verona tried to get comfortable, created a pillow out of sand beneath her head, adjusted her bikini, then sat up.  Half the eyes on Tashlit’s body opened, some squinting against sun.

“About that email…”

Tashlit nodded.

“…I know it might take you a bit to get back to Kennet.  I don’t have a great way of sending you there.  That’s more Avery’s jam.  They need healing.  I don’t want to sound like I want to get rid of you.  But if you were tired of hanging around with a kid three or four years younger than you…”

Tashlit shook her head.  She sat up as well, then made a gesture, cradling her arms, then slapping her forehead.

“Uhhh… dumb kid?”

So-so.

“Immature.  You’re immature…?”

Tashlit nodded and then pointed at Verona, and did the same gesture in reverse, hand rocketing away from forehead, the arm-cradle thing dashed away, arms exploding away from body.

“I don’t think I’m that mature.  Case in point… uh…”

Verona grabbed her book, flipped back a few pages, and found the image she’d drawn after Tashlit had insisted she would take every art critique seriously.  It was rude: a crude and rude drawing of a guy hugging a two-foot-wide boner that came up to the top of his head.

Tashlit, with lots of chin rubbing and trying to seem scholarly, had given it a serious critique, in hand gestures, without a hint of a laugh.

Not that she laughed, exactly.  Even in this moment, Tashlit seemed committed to the bit, holding back, giving her chin a slight stroke.

More gestures.

“Sorta mature.  Ok, we meet somewhere in the middle, maybe.  But my point is…”

Tashlit pointed at Verona.

“…You could go and heal them and it’d be cool.  I don’t know why you’re pointing at me.”

Tashlit kept the finger extended.

“Not getting much clearer, sorry.”

Tashlit pushed the finger closer to Verona.

“Me?”

Her friend nodded once, firm.

“I’m… I dunno.”

Tashlit tapped wrist, pointed down.

“Right now?  I’m…” Verona trailed off.  She made some hand gestures like Tashlit did when referring to vague sentiments, wrist limp, drawing lazy circles in the air.

Tashlit put her hands on her hips.

Verona’s headache buzzed around her brain, a pulsing throb bruising her thoughts.

“…I could really-”

Verona stopped before her voice could crack.  She paused, went to drink water, and remembered it was inky.  Blah.

She looked back at Tashlit.  “I guess I could use the company.  But that feels selfish.”

Tashlit shook her head, then settled down on the beach towel, hands behind her head, getting comfortable.  One hand pulled away, pointing at each of them in turn, then pointing down.

You and me, here.

“Okay.”

She wanted to articulate the leftover feelings and it didn’t feel like a resolution, but Tashlit seemed firm and that let her put some of the feelings aside.  If this was what Tashlit wanted to do…

It eased things a little.  Maybe in fifteen minutes, the headache would be a little less.

Since she had the sketchbook out, she resumed drawing, experimenting with using the very watered down ink to do a wash on the page first.

Tashlit fumbled with the music player Verona had brought, and gregorian chants playing over rock music began blaring out.

“Turn it up!”

Tashlit did.

Verona drew Lucy and Avery in the same picture, switched from doing one to doing the other, starting from background before doing the details, narrowing things down every step of the way, with less and less water on the brush.

Water lapped against the shore, sun shone through the trees, and the headache burned against her brain.

Tashlit touched her arm, and Verona jostled awake.  She hadn’t realized she’d dozed off.

Tashlit pressed the phone against her shoulder.  It was vibrating.  Verona took it.

“Did I get a sunburn?”

Tashlit shook her head.  Pointing.

Tashlit had a tent with her, stowed in her pack, and she’d put it up against the side of the trees, blocking sun.

Verona had really been out.

“Thank you.”

The phone had an alarm.  Verona had given herself fifteen minutes for a ten minute walk.

“Ugh,” Verona grunted.  She turned off the alarm.  “I gotta go.”

Thumbs up.

“You need anything?  Want anything?”

Head shakes.

“What are you going to do?”

Tash’s finger pointed to water.  She plucked at her skin, turning it inside out, and showed Verona sand that was stuck to the raw underside of skin.

“Mannn, that’s gotta be super annoying.”

Shrug.

“With all those eyes, it makes me think of getting sand in your eye, whole body.”

Shrug.

“And with the underside of the skin being all raw and textured… it’s like sand in your vag at the same time.  Whole body.”

Tashlit laughed, lower eyelids rising, body rocking.  Verona laughed as well, doubly so when Tashlit gave her the finger.

“Take care of yourself, eh?  Thanks for watching over me while I napped.”

Thumbs up.

“Oh, wait, wait, before I go… meant to send this…  Can you take a picture?” Verona asked.

Tashlit took the phone.

Verona held the sketchbook up against her front, with the picture of Sir.  “Do I look gross?  Is my skin greasy?  Gross beach hair?  Smudges or sand in weird places?”

Tashlit gave her a dismissive wave.

Verona adjusted her posture, then adjusted how she held the sketchbook.

Tashlit tilted her head, then began giving her some stern finger-waving and gestures.  It was very one-or-the-other.  She plucked at her own top, then a square.

“Can’t it be both a picture of me in a swimsuit and a sketch of Sir?” Verona asked.  She held the sketchbook up higher, so it acted a bit like a push-up bra.

Tashlit stepped closer, moved the sketchbook so Verona held it up in front of her chest, instead, for the opposite effect of the ‘push-up bra’, then adjusted Verona’s posture a bit.

“Is it still nice?” Verona asked.

Nod.

“Okay.  I trust you.”

Tashlit needed two tries to take the picture, with the loose skin on her fingers.

Verona took the phone back, then sent the picture to Jeremy, not looking at it too much, in case she got self-conscious.  Self-validation was a bottomless well with anxiety boiling at the bottom.  External validation was easier.

Probably not healthy but whatever.

“Gonna go.  You enjoy your swim.  If you see the forest spirit thing, tell her I say hi.”

Tashlit nodded, taking Verona’s beach towel and hanging it up.

“Later!”

Wave.

The little nook of beach was cut off from other areas by trees, so she had to wade through some rocks that were slippery and uncomfortable underfoot, and some knee-deep water, carrying her phone, sketchbook, and other stuff.  A bit hazardous, but doable.  Then lighter trees, bit of shore that was more mud than sand, water lapping by, and then after about five minutes, there was some beach with people on it.  Some guys were sitting around a very unnecessary seeming campfire, beers planted in sand, while others swam.

Jeremy replied.  I don’t know how to respond except pic just made my week.  Have some pics of Sir.

The pics came rolling in.  Verona smiled.

Verona rearranged the stuff she was carrying so she could type while walking, peeking at the ground to avoid stepping on stray sticks and anything the college-age guys might have left around.

You’re a wise person, Jeremy Clifford.

The cabins were really basic corrugated siding and flat tops, box-shaped with little wooden stairs, rigged up on stilts so they wouldn’t flood if the water level rose too much.  It felt like a waste that they weren’t wood, but the focus seemed to instead be on keeping things durable.  There were three beaches, one shared by three cabins, another by two, and then at the mini-peninsula, one slightly larger cabin with a narrow beach between rocks and a long dock.

These twenty-somethings were about eight people sharing two cabins that would have probably been crowded with two people each.  Having the cabins meant they got a bit of a claim to two-thirds of the longest beach.  Locals sometimes came by and nobody got especially territorial, but Verona still felt like she was intruding as she headed up, ascending stairs onto grass.

Out in the water, a guy, grown and older than Booker, shrieked in a ragged way.

Verona turned, looking.

“Dead body dead body dead body!” he screamed, thrashing to get away.

“Dude, there’s nothing!”

“It’s under the water!  I touched it with my leg!”

“There’s nothing there!”

Verona laughed.

That’d be Tashlit.

Her mom had rented one of the two cabins at the second beach.

Verona giggled as a mental replay of that ragged scream passed through her head.

“There you are.  I was thinking about calling you,” her mother said.  She stood on the front steps, looking down the path.

“Am I late?”

“No, but you might want to get ready.  I didn’t think you’d be coming straight from the beach when I gave you the time.”

“I have a few minutes.”

“Maybe pull a shirt on, and run a comb through your hair?”

“I like the shaggy look.”

Her mom looked like she was going to say something, then said, “If that’s what you want.”

Verona dipped her feet in the tray of water by the door to get sand off before going inside.

The cabin was about one-and-a-half times the size of Verona’s bedroom back at her dad’s, but had a bathroom, a tiny kitchen, two beds separated by a partial wall and a curtain, and a bench.  The floor was all tile, the walls super simple and freshly painted.  It was very white.

Verona put her stuff on the bench and stepped into her ‘room’, pulling the curtain closed.  She pulled a v-neck tee on over her bikini top, looked at herself in the mirror, and combed her hair with fingers, instead of a comb or hairbrush.

The headache buzzed more intensely as she looked at her face.

“I love this picture,” her mom said.  She’d come in after Verona.

Verona pushed the curtain aside.  Her mom stood, hands clasped behind her back, leaning over the bench and looking down at the sketchbook.  Verona had drawn other stuff after but had turned the page back to Sir.

“Thanks.”

“Can I look through?”

Verona thought of the ruder and harder to explain pictures.  “Uhhhhhh… no.  A fair bit of it’s inside jokes.”

“I don’t mind if I don’t understand it, I’m just curious what you’re up to and how you’re progressing.”

“Just leave it,” Verona said, more curt than she’d intended.

Her mom left it, straightening.

Verona had the sense her mom was hurt, even with the small smile that was sent Verona’s way, and offered, “I can show you some select stuff later if you want.  After I’ve gotten rid of the random crap.”

“I’d love that.”

It felt like she’d offered but her mom wouldn’t ask out of fear of pressuring her and she wouldn’t ever feel like saying out of nowhere ‘Hey mom, want to see those pictures?’, and there wouldn’t be a situation that made it any less out of nowhere.

So it was empty, and that sense of faint hurt from her mom was still there, and the headache throbbed at the back of her head.

She hiked up shorts over her bikini bottoms, and walked over to her mom while doing up the button fly.  Another look from her mom made her feel like there was disapproval over the fact she was still putting on clothes while walking over, but like, why?  Practically, why was that weird?

Or was there other stuff from her dad poisoning interactions?

This small cabin with the two of them felt like Avery’s house with Avery’s whole family, except it was the opposite of noisy.  A fan in the corner whirred and the laptop chugged along, dusty fans straining to cool it off in the summer temperature.

“Were you having fun?”

“Some.”

“Same friend?  The one you met on the beach?”

“In the woods, but yeah.”

“I’d like to meet her.”

“Maybe.”

“Anytime you want to bring her over.  If she brought her parents we could eat outside.”

“Her family situation is…” Verona reached for a word that summed it up.  “Complicated.”

“I see.  Just her, maybe?”

“Probably not.”

“Okay.”

Her mom turned away, back to Verona, and got the broom.  Sweeping up sand that- Verona looked.  She’d trekked it in even after washing her feet.  She hadn’t been aware.

Her mom didn’t complain, but the action of sweeping felt like a rebuke.  Probably an unfair interpretation, that one.

“My computer’s set up.  It looks like you have a minute.”

Verona nodded.

“I was asked to give you two some privacy.  I’ll step outside, but I’ll be in shouting range if you have any technical difficulties or if you have to ask a question.”

“Okay.”

Her mother went to the little pull-out table in the kitchen and checked the computer was unlocked. She gave it a minor adjustment, then picked up her book from the top of the microwave.

“Be honest, be open, they want to help.  I like her, from my first call with her.”

“Okay.”

Her mom nodded, then stepped outside.  She grabbed a folding chair and took it and her book out toward the beach’s edge.  Verona looked through the screen door at her mom as she settled in, wearing a one-piece, sarong around her waist, sun hat and sunglasses on, chair on grass and feet on sand, reading.

She looked back at the computer.  She sat.

The headache burned and her stomach did a little gurgle-flip to remind her she hadn’t eaten lunch.  Acid reflux felt like someone was pressing a thumb hard against the base of her neck, just above her collarbone.

The clock hit 3:00.  The scheduled time.

Verona got up, got some water to see if it would help clear the acid in her throat away.  It didn’t.

She checked around for food, found some cheese to nibble on, then got her sketchbook, sitting sideways in her chair while flipping through, deciding what was mom-appropriate.  Not that she felt like she’d end up showing her.  There was still that barrier of her mom probably not being the type to ask and Verona not ever having the moment to show her.

It was still a distraction.

3:03.

She got up, got the broom, and got some sand her mom hadn’t.  She checked her body and realized there was still a stripe of black sand clinging to her side, and stepped outside to brush it off.

Her mom took notice of her stepping outside and started to stand, and Verona motioned for her to stay.

She returned to the computer.  3:04.

The speech bubble popped up in the corner.  She clicked it.

The video call took up the screen, blurry and choppy in the first few seconds.

Then a guy, orange scruff on his chin, gray temples, badly receding hairline.

“Hello!  Hello, are you Verona?” he asked.  His voice was not great, through the speakers.  Verona made adjustments.

“Hello.  Can you hear me?”

“Can you hear- yes, I hear you.  Hi there.”

“Hi,” she said, settling.

“Hi, thank you for making the time,” he said.  “Is the video call okay?”

“You’re clear enough to see.  Sound’s okay.”

“I could have come all the way to see you or asked you guys to come by and see me, but I didn’t want to interrupt your vacation.  Is this okay for you?”

“It’s good.  Probably better.”

“Okay.  And do you have company?”

“My mom’s out on the beach.  I can wave her over.”

“No need.  That’s great.  So hi, I’m David, I’m from CAS.  Do you know what that means?  CAS?”

“I think I’ve got the gist of it.”

“Try me.”

“I think you’re child protective services?  You’re supposed to help with the dad thing.”

“Yes, the dad thing is an interesting way to put it.  But okay, cool.  My job as part of the children’s aid society is to make sure you’re safe and that things are okay, and if they’re not okay, then I will either help your family figure out a plan or I’ll work with a judge to.  Does that make sense?”

“Yeah.”

“Perfect, great.  I’ve had short conversations with your dad, mom, and two others…”  He looked down and off to the side.  “Parents of your friends, let’s see…”

“Yeah.  Jasmine and Avery’s parents.”

“I have one down as Yasmine.  With a ‘Y”.”

“Oh.  Yeah.  Jasmine pretty much everywhere that isn’t paperwork for the last eight or nine years, I think.  Easier.”

“Got it.  Making a note.  While I was doing that, talking to your friend’s parents and your parents, I was trying to figure out what happened, or what’s been happening, over time, and I’ve been trying to get a sense of you.  All along the way, I think well, I’d like to talk to you to get your version of things, but how do we approach this conversation, right?  That’s my line of thinking.”

“Makes sense.”

She appreciated that he was outlining this, because she liked knowing how systems worked and it was clear he had a system.  At the same time, this was dragging out and that made the headache throb more.  She kept her expression neutral.

His smile was fixed, his eyebrows creased in regular concern.  The dull filter of the low-resolution camera made him look like a bit of a doll instead of a person.

“Your mom, dad, and friend’s mom Jasmine all said you’re a very intelligent girl.  And a creative one?”

“Yep, I guess.”

“Here.  There’s a drawing program… it’s in browser, let me send you a link.”

The link popped up.  She clicked it.

“Go to room… M-U-X-I.”

She did.

A blank canvas.  Like a basic paint program.

“If you want it, it’s there.  Sometimes it’s easier to draw something than to use words.”

“Can I just draw?” she asked.

“Absolutely.  I’ve got you on one screen and the canvas on another.  I can participate if you want me to.”

She didn’t want him to, so she settled in, sitting askew in the chair so she could reach around with the mouse, on the relatively small table.

“Can you tell me about yourself in general, Verona?”

“In general?”

“How are you doing?  Where are you at with school, friends, anyone you’re interested in, boys or girls, extra-curricular activities.”

Extra curricular activities.  Verona smirked.  That was a thing.

“School is meh.  But isn’t it meh for everyone?”

“No, not everyone.  But for most, I think.  How is it meh?”

“Takes so much time out of the day.  Obviously I’m not in school right now.”

“Are you enjoying your summer?”

“With everything going on?  I sorta was.  Then no.”

“I can tell you right now, our conversation is going into a report, it’ll be your input and everyone else’s, and it goes straight to a judge.  I won’t be sharing with your family or friends.  All I want is a picture of where you’re at, who you are, what’s going on.”

“I don’t really care if you share it around.  Or I might but I’ll say not to,” Verona said.  Her headache buzzed.

She drew her mom, halfway off the page, on the right edge.  Silhouette first, then details filling in.  It was hard to draw with the mouse.

“Where are you at with your mom?”

“Cabin up at the lake.  It’s nice enough.”

“Can I see?”

“Turning you around?” she asked.

“Sure.”

She unclipped the camera from the top of the laptop and slowly rotated it around, showing him the cabin.

“Very nice,” he said.

“Bit small.”

“It is, but it looks like you’ve got what you need.”

“And you get to subtly confirm I’m here alone, no parent signaling me or whatever?”

“I see a bit what your parents and friend’s mom were talking about.”

“Mostly that’s Lucy influencing me.”

“Your friend?”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  She thought of Lucy being hurt and needing Tashlit, and how she hadn’t immediately sent Tashlit back.  “Lucy’s cool.  But she’s sharp like that, about that sort of stuff.  I’m not a good enough friend to her.”

She felt like she was rambling a bit.  She drew Lucy.  Pink hair.

“How so?” he asked.

“Just… she needs backup, and Avery too, and I’m being selfish.”

The acid reflux pressed on her throat and upper chest.  She wondered how the guy would react if she threw up mid-interview.

Drawing helped a bit, even if it wasn’t feelings-on-the-page kind of drawing.  Like the slightly angry, bold-strokes version of Sir.

“Have they said that?  That you’re selfish?”

“No, and they probably wouldn’t.  They’re really good friends and good people and I can’t-”

She stopped drawing.

“Can’t?” he prompted.

“Can’t… it has to be priority number one, I can’t give them up, I can’t leave them.  Lucy’s been there for me more than anyone and Avery… the fact Avery’s almost at Lucy’s level when Lucy’s been there since kindergarten is huge.”

“Huge, yeah.  If only everyone was that lucky.”

“So whatever happens, that’s pretty much a number one thing,” she said.  “They’ve been there for me and if I can’t be there for them then that’s a… it’s a no-go.”

Her voice was whisper quiet by no-go.

“Is that a concern?”

“Priority one.  I can’t leave them hanging.”

“What’s going on there?  Jasmine mentioned her daughter had a tough year at school, brief mention as part of something else she was saying, but…”

“Tough year sums it up pretty well.  The toughest.  And Avery came out to her parents and everyone.”

“Good for her.”

“Mmm.”

There was so much more in the way of reasons she couldn’t articulate.  It pressed on her, even as she tried to hold it together.  She outlined Avery, then Snowdrop.  Simple drawings, dots for eyes, lines for eyebrows.  Lucy frowning a bit, Avery open and looking off to the side.

“What’s your take on what’s going on, Verona?”

“Had an argument with my dad.”

“Yep.”

“Jas and Avery’s parents probably relayed it.  My dad probably did.”

“That’s secondhand though.  I’d like to hear it from you.”

Verona contemplated drawing a fire rune or something.  What would even happen?

What was going to happen?  That was the biggest source of the acid in her throat and the growing discomfort in her midsection, and the throbbing pain on the back of her brain, the rest of her brain crawling with mild pain.

“Is my dad going to jail?”

The words left her lips before she realized she’d asked.

“Is that another priority, Verona?  That your dad be punished?”

It was subtle.  The tone a little cooler than before, less warm.

Oh.  She’d fucked it.  She’d thoroughly fucked it, hadn’t she?  Because now the idea was in David’s head.  That she’d had an argument with her dad and things had gone wrong and now she was a manipulator or she was trying to get back at him and he was a tool for her to do that.

Fucked it.  Fuck it.

Acid choked words out of her throat.

“Punishment is reserved for pretty extreme cases, and it isn’t something I do.  If there was something actionable, the judge or police would handle that, and I could supply information.”

Still faintly cold, compared to before.  Formal, laying out steps.  None of the warmth or interest in her remained.  She switched windows and he was looking off to the side, writing a lot, shuffling papers.

She’d fucked it.

It was hard to breathe.  She shifted in her seat, and looked out the window, tongue between her teeth.

“Is there something actionable, Verona?” he asked.  “Was there more that you didn’t tell Jasmine, Avery’s parents, or your mom?  Has he ever hurt you?”

The tone made it sound like he didn’t really think there was anything like that.

The way he looked off to one side here and there made her wonder if he felt like his time was being wasted, now.  Or misused.  He kept taking notes when there wasn’t anything to take notes on.

“No,” she said, voice quiet.

“I can’t hear you, sorry.”

“Nothing actionable, probably,” she said.

“Okay.”

“I’m not- it’s not- I just want to know, um-”

“I didn’t track that.  Sorry, can you repeat?  Take your time.”

She took a breath and it hurt, with the pressure on her chest.  And when it wasn’t the pressure of the breath being taken in, holding the breath made her stomach feel uncomfortable.  Every part of her felt affected, her arms weaker for it, her legs jittery.  And in the time she was absorbing all of that she wasn’t breathing and her breath got irregular.

If she was a divine practitioner like Amine or Ulysse then this kind of feeling could reach the powers they talked to.  But this was just some dude on a computer screen, not even looking at her as he took notes, head turned down and off to the side, pen faintly scribbling.

Not that there was much to see, beyond her discomfort.  She could see herself in the little sub-window.

“I want to know what’s going to happen.  Like… what’s the most extreme possibility and what’s the least?”

“Jail probably isn’t a possibility, Verona,” he said, looking at the screen again.  “Unless there’s more you haven’t told people.  Most likely, if things really were as bad as Jasmine and Avery’s parents feared, you might go live with your mom.”

She kept her breathing managed.  Still breathing hard, feeling a lack of oxygen, but controlling the rate of breaths so it wouldn’t be obvious.  “I can’t leave Kennet.”

“There’s a range of other things we could do.  Voluntary service agreements, temporary changes of custody… the least extreme thing that could happen is I could talk to people, finish interviewing your teachers, and make a note in the file in case anything else pops up in the future, for context.”

“Okay.”

“Why is it important to you that you know what might happen?”

“Because… if it makes the difference between you guys saying I have to go live with my mom and me staying in Kennet, then I might leave stuff out.”

He looked at the screen again, studying her, then turned to make notes.  It felt different than before.  “What sort of things?”

“That’s defeating the purpose, isn’t it?”

“If we think there’s reason for concern, or that you’re leaving out a great deal-”

“You can’t, though, can you?  Even if you’re super suspicious, if I’m not saying and my dad’s not saying, it’s not something you can do, right?”

“Let’s backtrack, this is getting into hypothetical territory.”

She nodded, lips pressed together, expression firmly, fiercely neutral.  The headache throbbed.

“What’s going on?  Tell me about you and your dad.”

“In the argument, or-”

“Generally.”

“It sucks.  It’s… he sucks.”

She was fucking it further.

“Sucks how?”

“He’s-”  Her thoughts failed her.  The headache crowded them out.  “He sucks at being a dad.  He sucks at… he has no friends, he has no money, somehow, despite two jobs, he… sucks and I end up dealing with it.”

“Dealing how?”

“Dunno, he vents, gets down on me.  He cries at me-”

“Cries?”

“Sits in bed and sobs and tells me everything I’m doing wrong and everything he’s doing wrong and stuff about my mom.”

“Okay.  How often is that?”

“Two to six nights a week, except when I’m away, or like, not nights but in the kitchen after he gets home from work, he’ll start telling me I didn’t mow the lawn or whatever and then it gets into how much his coworkers suck.”

“Was the argument like that?”

“The argument was… I guess.  It was a lot of stuff piled up that got shoved into the moment.  Felt different.”

“Different how?”

“Like… he wanted to have the fight.  He was all ready for it and I’ve been screaming at him because he doesn’t ever listen and he was so ready to scream back he didn’t wait for me to scream first.”

“How unusual is that?”

“It’s… stuff’s happened before.  Handful of times a year.  This year was too much.  The stuff I’ve been doing with Lucy and Avery…”

“Exacerbated by life circumstances?” he asked.  He started to take a note.

“Not- no,” she said.  She watched him continue to take the note, ignoring the ‘no’.  She could imagine that penned down ‘life circumstances’ taking all the heat out of what she was saying.

She could be so good with words and when it came to her dad and her mom that totally went away.  Nothing.

“He broke my stuff,” she told him.  “Swung my bag into the counter because he couldn’t win the argument.  A mask my friend made me was broken.  I have it.”

“Has this happened before?”

“This was important.  It was a really important mask to me,” she told him.

“Okay,” he said.  He didn’t pen that down and it felt like he really should.  He looked at the screen.  “Has it happened before?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Three times before.”

“Three times.  Broken your things?”

“Yep.  Once after I forgot his birthday, because I spent the break with Mom.  Lucy- Jasmine’s kid, she knows about that one.  She was there to see my stuff.  My art shelf.  Um.  Once, right after the divorce.  He wasn’t really himself, he threw out a bunch of my mom’s stuff and some of it was stuff I wanted to keep and some of my stuff was in there.  Clothes.”

He took notes.

“There’s no proof of that.  I’m not lying though.”

“It’s fine.  You said there were three incidents?”

“The third was- we went shopping and I got on his case, called him a bad dad and stuff.  I pushed his buttons on purpose, because I could.  And he freaked and stopped the car in the middle lane of a three lane road and made me get out.  Cars were honking their horns and passing on the left and right.  And I had icecream I’d bought for myself I was too full to eat and it melted while I walked home.  I guess that doesn’t count when I think about it.”

“When was this?”

“Christmas.”

“And what did he do?  During or after he made you get out of the car?”

“He just stayed there, crying, in the middle lane, and I went home feeling like crap.  He got home before I did, so he didn’t stay there that long.”

“What happens after these incidents?”

Verona thought of screaming at her dad for the first time, spitting in his face.

“It goes back to normal.  Or… normal.”

She tried to give the word the inflection it deserved and felt like she’d failed.

David wrote down a note.

“It simmers.  It doesn’t really go back to normal.  Comes out later when he cries at me.  He still brings up the missed birthday.”

“Anything else?”

“He walks into my room without knocking and he never thanks me for chores.”

It felt so hollow saying it like this.  Ineffectual, like it didn’t convey how much it sucked to do chores day after day…

“I meant, ah, incidents.  Big bullet points.  I’ll make a note of that too, though.”

“No, uh.”

How could she even put it into words?  It was pressure and pressure over years.  It was telling her dad about her problems and it never mattering because he always one-upped her, and that added up little by little.

“Not really,” she said.  “There was a time Avery was in a bad spot, I asked for help, and he didn’t…”

So ineffectual.

“Okay,” David said.  “Is the house okay?”

“The house?”

“Home?  How are things there?  I may come by for a visit, depending on how things go, check in, but I want your take.”

“It’s a house.  Nothing too bad or good about it.  I do the cleaning and I cook most nights, so… if it’s dirty or if something’s wrong, that’s on me, right?”

“Your dad doesn’t cook?”

“Sometimes.  He’ll do a big pot of chili or spaghetti or curry and I do half the work and we put it in tupperware and that lasts us a month or two.  Mostly when I make dinners I reheat that or I do frozen stuff out of a box.  But I’m fed.”

“Okay.  You get enough sleep?”

“Mostly.  Unless my dad keeps me up an hour or two late, doing that stuff I talked about before.”

Verona rejiggered the questions in her head.  Picturing what he was doing on the other side.  A checklist of basic needs.

“Clothes are okay, I get an allowance.”

“How are things with your mom?”

“They’re okay.  I’m not sure what to say.”  She really wasn’t.  Could she or should she throw her mom under the bus?  Did throwing her mom under the bus help her stay in Kennet or did it make her out to be a complainer who was exaggerating?

“What have you been up to?”

“Beach.  We met her artist friend.  Watched a movie.  Mostly we do our own things.  We’re not close.”

“Are you and your dad close?”

“No.  I think he wants us to be.”

“How does he want you to be close?”

“Hanging out, watching movies.  He’d rather I didn’t see my friends and instead went with him.  I think he’s lonely.”

David made another note.

It felt like every time he was making notes, he was taking down the statements or arguments she felt were weakest and most unimportant.  Or stuff that made her dad seem more okay than he was.

Dad’s lonely, wants to bond with shitty daughter.

The headache throbbed.  It felt like a dark cloud that enveloped all of her brain except for her mind’s eye, a narrow window of thoughts that were only capable of conceptualizing a very little at a time, when she took ideas and put them directly in the front and center of her forehead.

Where was the line drawn, in strategizing this?  Where was she meant to stop, in drawing the line at getting them to…

…She wasn’t even sure what she wanted.  She wanted to land this entire thing in the zone where she left her dad’s and went to Jas’s.  That was the perfect outcome.  It’s bad, gotta take this girl out of there, it’s crushing her and making her feel small and broken.  So we pick her up and take her… no, that’s too far.  Where’s a place we can put her that’s out of the house but not that super far away… Jas’s house!

It was impossible and the moment the thought crossed her mind that it was impossible she couldn’t breathe.

And even if it wasn’t impossible she couldn’t burden Jas like that, especially if Jas had a job she wanted and no time or money.

A tear slipped out of her eye and she turned her face toward the window so he couldn’t see it.

“And what are the arguments like?”

She cleared her throat.  Words didn’t come.  She surreptitiously rubbed at her eye, then looked at him.  “Didn’t I tell you?”

“Kind of, Verona, but run it by me.”

“It’s… I’m like my mother, my mother’s awful, I don’t do enough chores.  That argument he said, um, I don’t try, I don’t care about people, but I do.”

She was doing such a bad job of communicating it.  Words didn’t carry the weight of it all.

He took another note.

“It’s constant.  It never stops.”

“Okay.”

“I told him I almost died and he just didn’t even listen, he- he just went on about how work was killing him.  He doesn’t really listen, it doesn’t really matter to him.”

“Almost died?  Tell me about that.”

“At this thing I went to at the start of summer.  I don’t want to get into it, it… it scared me, a lot of it scared me, but I can’t tell him that stuff.  What I’m saying is he doesn’t listen, really, he doesn’t change.  I can scream at him and it doesn’t really change things from if I’m listening and patting his back while he cries.  He just… he gets more frustrated, but it’s the same general thing.”

“Okay.  Listen, Verona, I’ve only got so much time, so I’m going to go over my notes here, and talk to you some more about what’s going on, so you’re equipped.”

She swallowed around the lump of acid in her throat.  Another tear welled up and she got rid of it under the guise of scratching at the corner of her eye.

“Can you call your mom in?”

She took a deep breath, composing herself, then stood, going to the door.

Her mom stood up right away, leaving book open on the chair.

“She’s coming,” Verona told David.

“Okay.  Thank you.”

She smoothed out her shirt, shuffled over, and dragged a chair around.  Her mother washed her feet in the pan and then dried them on the towel that hung on the railing, before coming inside, removing hat and sunglasses.

“I didn’t expect to be participating,” Verona’s mother said.  The space in front of the laptop was tight enough that their arms touched.

“Verona and I are done for now, I want to outline what’s going on and what’s ahead of us,” he said.  He sorted out papers with an audible rustling.

“I stay in Kennet.  Priority one,” Verona said, quiet, interrupting him just as he started to deliver what he was going to say.

“Okay,” he said.  “That’s certainly in the cards.  Based on what you’re saying, I don’t think your dad’s going to jail.”

“That wasn’t ever a priority thing, don’t make a big deal of it,” Verona said, shrinking down a bit.

“Okay,’ he said, glancing at her, then looking down at his notes.  “After preliminary interviews to determine the situation, CAS decided we would pursue the investigation.  That’s, ah, in a case with absolutely nothing wrong we’d drop things there.  We decided there’s stuff to work on, here, so we pursued that.  We did this without needing to interview you, Verona, so we spared you that hassle.”

She nodded, breath tight, throat choked.

“Right now we’re in a middle stage, deciding what the immediate needs are.  It doesn’t sound like you need to be removed from the home, and it doesn’t sound like you want to be removed from the home.”

“I want to leave that house.  I don’t want to go back,” Verona said.  “But can’t I go to Jasmine’s, instead?  Can’t- isn’t there a way to-” Breath hitched.  She was aware her mom was sitting next to her.  “Can’t we- you guys give money to foster parents, right?  So couldn’t I go there, and couldn’t, um, you could give her money and I wouldn’t be a burden, and she’s a really good mom to Lucy and she’s lovely.”

“That’s not really how this works,” Verona’s mom said.

“We try to keep children with their parents wherever we can,” David said.

“But it would be perfect, I’d stay in Kennet and stay with my friends for when they need me and Jasmine loves me and I really don’t think she’d mind.  I’d do everything she needs me to do.”

Verona’s mom hugged her, one hand on her head, pulling her over, stroking hair.

“The cases where-”

“Please please please please.”

“Shhhh,” her mom said.

“Can you move, can you go to Kennet, then, please?  If it’s money, I can find a way to help out.  I think you’d be surprised.  I can tell you- I can tell you stuff.”

“No, honey.”

“Then it has to be Jasmine, I don’t see any other way.  Please.”

“Mrs. Hayward, can we take five minutes?  See to Verona, then come back for a one on one meeting?”

Verona drew in a shuddering breath.  “Please.”

Her mom got up, helping Verona to her feet.

There was nowhere in the cabin that wasn’t close to the laptop, so they went out to the stairs.  Nobody was really close enough to see.

Verona’s mom hugged her.  Verona sobbed, face in her mom’s shoulder.

Verona didn’t know what to say when what she’d already said and how she’d reacted had probably hurt her mom, and her mom didn’t say anything.

They took five minutes like that.

Her mom spoke in her ear.  “What do you want to do?  You could go lie down in bed, take the laptop, and I could call him.  Or you could go sit by the rocks or beach.  Or we could call your friend- was it Tasha?”

“Tash,” Verona said.  Every breath between words hurt.  “Not right now.  Can’t call her.  I’ll sit.”

“Okay.”

“Let me-” Verona pointed at the inside.  Her mom opened the door.

She got her sketch stuff and bag.  Her mom went to the table, sitting, watching her as she got sorted.  Verona put her inky water bottle aside.  “Don’t throw that away.  I’m using it for washing brushes.  I don’t want to add plastic to the environment.”

“Got it,” her mom said.

Verona got her regular water thermos and filled it, then took everything outside.

“Love you, Verona,” her mother said, through the screen door.

Verona shot back a teary-eyed smile, then shut the door.

Sketchbook.  Rune.  Sound rune, connections… she used a Pisces sign to pair it to a matched, mirrored sign.  Then more symbols on the paper.  Strokes measured, firm, everything in its place.

She pressed one sheet against the wall by the window.

Then she ran down to the beach chair, where she sat, finishing the mirrored page.  She set her bag down and put her mom’s book on top of it, saving the page.

There, she curled up in the chair, ear to the rune.

…doesn’t want to stay with you?”

“We’re not close.  It’s my fault.  And Brett’s, I suspect.”

“Would you want to push for custody?  Sometimes the child will refuse, especially in cases of parental alienation…”

“I want what Verona wants.  She wants to stay in Kennet for her friends.  Lucy’s- they’re paired.  Ever since kindergarten.  It’s too important.”

“Okay.  Let’s see.”

“Is it possible?  To give Verona what she wants?  I don’t imagine the money from the system going to her would be possible, like she suggested, but if we could divert child support, maybe?”

“I’m surprised you’re so open to that.”

“I told you, I want what Verona wants.  I hate- I hate seeing her like this.  I’ve never seen her so distraught.”

“There is such a thing as a temporary care agreement.  That would give CAS the ability to direct care of the child, of Verona, until roughly the new year.  Then we would have to reassess.  But that requires both parents to sign, Verona’s older than thirteen, so she would need to agree as well.  We would then place her in foster care, probably in Thunder Bay, as I don’t think there are any available families in Kennet.  That would be until we could survey the suitability of Mrs…”

“Ellingson.  Jasmine.”

“Jasmine’s home.”

“That would require Brett to sign.”

“Yes.  Lawyers would be involved in any case.  In the case of something as significant as the care of a young teenager, I would expect you and Brett to have legal counsel to see you through the process, and if Brett refused to sign it could go to court.  In some cases it’s a very cut and dried process, we can say there’s clear and imminent danger, rescue the child from the home without that signing.  It’s not cut and dried here.”

“And Verona’s in foster care in the meantime?  If this was to move forward?”

“That’s likely.”

“How likely is it that the court would turn over custody?”

“I think, in a case like this, where problems are hard to define, it’s not for me to say, but…” he trailed off.

“Okay.  Slim hopes.  What happens next?”

“In a scenario like this, generally speaking…”

“What is the scenario here?”

“I told Verona I would keep her confidentiality.  She said it wasn’t important, but I do feel it is.  In taking into account that Jasmine, yourself, and Brett have all indicated problems here, what we’re looking at is a VSA.  That’s a voluntary service agreement.  That would mean that Brett, and you to a degree, would all agree to abide by certain rules, standards, and services.  For Brett, an online parenting class-“

“How will that do anything?” Verona whispered, curled up in the chair, ear on the book.

“-anger management classes, and a schedule of in-home visits.”

“It isn’t anger,” Verona whispered.

“Anger isn’t the issue, is it?” her mother said.

Verona wasn’t sure it was love, exactly, but the appreciation she felt in her mom echoing her sentiment and getting it was pretty profound.  She curled up tighter.

“…might not be the apparent emotion but the skills one learns in these classes are applicable across the board, when it comes to managing outbursts and the emotion one directs at children.”

“Won’t work,” Verona whispered.

“Okay,” her mother said.

“We’d be looking at… the schedule’s tight.  This looks like, hm, three at-home visits over three months.  During those visits, I or someone else with access to the file would be checking in to make sure that all course participation is maintained, that the house is safe.  I would check in with Verona.”

“Only three visits?  She’s so upset right now.”

“Resources are stretched thin.”

“You’re sending her back to that house?”

“I would hope that after two weeks of Verona being away, things will have cooled off, Brett’s had time to reflect…”

“I can’t- if she’s this upset when I drop her off, I don’t think I can let her out of the car.  No, options, let’s talk options.  Please.”

“There’s no clear indication of direct and clear danger that would make us remove her from the house, and past that point, it comes down to your custody arrangement.  You’d have to go to court to change the custody terms, and we would keep tabs on that but it would ultimately be up to the court, not CAS.”

“She wants to go to Jasmine’s.  It’s where she feels safe and happy.”

“As we’ve already said-“

“Informal.  Something.”

“Informally… parents can leave children with trusted adults and family members.  If both you and your ex-husband agreed…”

“Okay.  Okay.  I- I’ll talk to Brett.”

“It shouldn’t be for too long.  Two weeks would be best.  At the very least, when the school year starts…”

“Understood.  I’ll talk to Brett.”

“In terms of your end of the VSA, I’d like to mandate some more contact between you and Verona.  Video calls at the very least, or visits.  I know it’s a trip.  But the situation can only be improved if she feels like going to you is a possibility.  That starts with a connection.”

“Okay.  I won’t lie, I’m- I’m glad.  That’s a positive, not a negative, for me.”

“I’ll be in touch about specifics.  I’ll be in touch with Brett for a follow-up interview, piecing things together… you let me know if you arrange for a informal custody situation, with Jasmine looking after Verona.  Brett must agree.”

“I’ll work it out with him.”

The sound cut out.

Verona lifted up her face.

Moisture from her eyes had ruined the rune on the paper.  No more listening in.

Before it could be ruined further, she drew the rune paired to what she’d put on the corner of the page by the window, in the center of her palm.  She checked nobody was close enough to look.

With a movement of her hand, she pulled the page away.  She moved her hand and arm, and put the paper in the water.

It was littering, but it would decompose.

She sat, watching the water.  She thought of texting Lucy or Avery and she didn’t have it in her.

She sat, caught up on the backlog of cat pictures from Jeremy, checked there wasn’t more from the others…

Things are worse than they’re saying.  They’re quiet because they don’t know what to say, Verona thought.

Then she watched the water some more.

The other family had kids come out to swim, and in the time Verona sat, waiting, no longer listening in, the kids swam, played, and then went back inside.  The sky changed tints.

Her mom’s approach was nearly silent, but there wasn’t much else to listen for.  She turned her head, and her mom hugged her from behind.  Then kissed the top of Verona’s head.

“You like this haircut, huh?” her mom asked.  “I thought you would have grown it out.”

“I like it.”

“I finished talking with David Williams.  Then I called Jasmine, and I called your dad, and I called Jasmine again.”

Verona looked up.

“She’ll take you until the end of summer.  Your dad agreed to it.”

Verona hiccuped her relief, tears finding their way to her eyes again.

“Your dad is going to go to anger management group and do an online course.  A bit of a refresher in how to be a parent.  CAS will come with you as you go from Jasmine’s to your dad’s, check everything’s alright.”

“I don’t think it’ll make him change.”

“Then we’ll reassess.  You and I are going to have video calls and some visits.  Hopefully by the end, you’ll feel comfortable keeping me up to date, so we’re more on the ball with handling anything like this.”

“So you do think it’ll happen again.”

“I don’t know, Verona.  I don’t know.  Your dad wasn’t like this when we were married.”

Her mom straightened.  Fingers combed through Verona’s hair as her mom stood behind her.

“What was he like?”

“We were mismatched, that’s all.”

It didn’t feel like that was all, but her mom didn’t like talking about her dad, so Verona didn’t ask.  She was kind of done with all of this for now.

She was going to Jasmine’s.  What came after could be saved for after.

The headache was gradually easing.

“It’s about an hour before dinner.  Want to go somewhere as a treat?  Or any special requests?  I could do a quick shopping run.”

“Anything easy.  I’m pretty tired.”

Her mom stroked her hair.  “Come on.”

They went back to the cabin.  Verona got her stuff, hiding the rune on her sketchbook from her mom, got her water, and drank greedily.

She claimed the laptop for herself, and went to bed, lying down for what might be her second nap of the day.  The laptop rested on her stomach, and she used the mouse to browse, too tired to even reach up to the keyboard.

She found the browser page still open, connected to the drawing app, and she finished the drawing.  Her dad.  Angry, leaning over the counter.  She gave it extra attention, then filled out the rest.  Details.  Little things.  Leaves for Avery’s top.  Jas behind Lucy.  She gave a little more care and attention to her mom, who was barely in the frame.

A chat message popped up in the corner.  She went still, cursor stopping.

Can I save this? – David.

She adjusted the position of the laptop.  Typed.

Sure.

Sorry, had it open still.  Best drawing I’ve seen anyone do on this program.  It’s hard to draw with a mouse.  – David.

It is.  And no problem, same, I figured you were gone.  I don’t mind.  Hang it on your fridge or whatever.

Can I ask? – David

?

Why is he screaming at the cat?  – David.

Beneath her dad, who leaned against the counter, feet a bit away, chest and arms braced against the edge, head tucked in to look down in the space between his arms, face tinted redder, was a small black cat, defensively curled up into the corner, looking up with purple eyes.

The cat symbolizes me.

Why are you a cat? – David.

Why wouldn’t I be a cat? she replied.

🟂

“So he gave my mom a preliminary plan of three visits from CAS over three months, right?” Verona told Tashlit.

Nod.

“And that’s now going to be twelve over six.”

Double nod.

“And originally, anger management classes and parenting classes.  Now it’s anger management classes and parenting and therapy.”

Thumbs up.

“I don’t know if it’ll work, but…” Verona crossed her fingers.

Tashlit tried to cross her fingers back, and had to grab the fingers with her other hand to manipulate them into a crossed position.

“Your finger okay?  Is it-?”

Tashlit showed her.

Empty nail bed.

The skin was loose around the finger now.

“That recent?”

Nod.  Tashlit tapped her chest.  She had a bag there, tied to a string.  She tugged on the string.

“Keeping them?”

Nod.  Tap to the mouth-region.

“That have your old teeth too?”

Nod.

“I hope that goes okay.  Let me know if you need anything.  Could be we could do some limited binding or whatever, like Brie is doing to keep the Choir inside her.”

Nod.

“You going to be okay?”

Exaggerated nod, shrug, dismissive wave.

“Okay,” Verona said.

Tashlit’s finger pointed skyward, and then her hand made a ‘c’ shape.

“C?”

Tashlit moved her hand through the air, drawing a picture.

“Crescent.  Traveling at night.  Good, makes sense.  I just worry with the others having run into witch hunters.”

Tashlit flexed an arm, fingers pushing loose skin on the narrow limb up into a bicep shape.

“Good.  I know.  I just… yeah.  If you end up in a fight you gotta fight extra hard, because I need you to be okay.”

Nod.  Tashlit reached out to rub Verona’s arm with a mushy-skinned hand.

“I could have lost my mind if I didn’t have your company.  Thank you for coming.”

Tashlit hugged her.

“I’ll see you in a few days.”

Nod.

They sorted things out.  Verona brought some stuff for Tashlit.  Tashlit took some stuff in resealable bags, carefully putting it in her bag before tying everything up.

“You’re lovely, Tashlit,” Verona said.

Tashlit pointed back at Verona, then held up two fingers.

Then she walked into the water, fully clothed, bag with tent, clothing, and stuff in sealed plastic slung over her back.  She disappeared beneath.  Faster to swim in daylight hours than to hike.

Verona sorted out her things, packed, and then hiked into the woods.  Normally she took the shore, but she was wearing pants and she had places to be.

Nature spirit, sitting in a clearing.  An androgynous figure with green-tinted skin and what looked like leaves tattooed on flesh, except the leaves had raised edges that rose up off of skin.

Verona bowed.  “Thank you for your kindness.  It was nice to meet you.  I have offerings of art and a lock of hair.  The art is effort, investment and care, and the hair is- I thought of food but you provide food, and that felt crass. it-”

The spirit approached, took both, and then kissed Verona on the forehead.

Verona moved on.

There were some goblins at the edge of the campground.  She dug into her bag and got some stolen beer.  They were wary of her, but she put the beer down.

“There.  Don’t be too terrible to humans, okay?  Some of them don’t deserve it.”

A rat spirit had made a shrine in the trash.  She put some peanut butter on a cracker, then put it on the ground just far enough away from the trash to not be trash.  It stared at her from the darkness beneath the archway made where cans heaping with detritus leaned into one another.

She jogged the rest of the way to the car.

“Say goodbye?”

“For now.”

“For now is good.  I’m glad you’re staying in touch.”

Verona nodded.

They got in the car.

Heading back to Kennet.

🟂

“Not again, not- come on.”

The car engine died.  Verona’s mother steered off the road and into a parking spot.  They were between a convenience store with a peeling sign and a bait shop.  There was a little burger stand with both a patio and an indoor area.  Rain drizzled down from a bright dark blue sky.

Something to keep in mind for the future, Verona thought.  Traveling gets harder.

Verona and her mom climbed out of the car.  Her mom popped the hood.

“Can I go to the store?”

“Can you buy me some water?”

“What about tap water from the bathroom, as a refill?” Verona asked.

Her mom made a face.

“It’s the same water, pretty much.  And it’s better for the environment.”

“Let’s skip the water, then.  Go, don’t dally.  I’m hoping this doesn’t take too long.”

Verona crossed the road.  She went into the store, bought some salty and sour snacks, and then asked to use the bathroom, getting the key from behind the counter, going inside, and filling up her thermos.

She stepped outside, looking around.  The car had stopped for a reason.

“Hello there,” a man said, in a voice lacking affect.

She turned.  The man had oddly spaced features on his face, his clothes not entirely fitting him.  It made him hold himself awkwardly.

“New here?” he asked.

“Are you the welcome committee?”

He glanced left, then right.  “Yep.  I guess I am.”

“If it’s okay, I’m just passing through.  No hostility, will keep practice to a minimum.”

He frowned.

“Not good enough?” she asked.  “I have minor tokens of favor.”

“I don’t know what that is.  But practice is important.”

“Oh.  Okay… uh, do you need anything?  Or the Lord of this area?”

“Lord?”

“Or whoever’s in charge, whatever power structure there is…”

He shook his head, slightly odd features clearly bewildered.

“Just you?  Do you need anything, or…?”

“I’ve got everything I need.  On Thursdays, Kyra gives me leftover slices of pie from the Barn Pit.”

He indicated the burger stop.

Verona flushed.  “Oh dang.  That’s a nice deal.  Kyra sounds super.”

“She’s the best,” he said.  “And the pie is great.”

“Maybe I’ll get some.  She’s nice?”

“Very nice.  She’s super.”

“Super,” she said, nodding, still flushed.  “I’m thinking pie and I give her a nice tip.  What do you think?  A nice tip for a nice person?”

“That sounds good,” he said, smiling.

“Great, cool.  I’m Verona, by the way.”

“That’s a pretty name.  I’m Tyson,” he said, with clear pride.

“That’s a good name too.  Is there anything to do around here?”

“Nope!  There’s pie and if you go to the next town over, there’s a fair and flea market sometimes, they have cool things.”

“Cool.  Hopefully they’re open when my mom and I pass through.”

“You drive safe.”

“I don’t drive but I think she will.”

“Don’t drink and drive.”

“Good plan, that.”

“Gonna go,” he said.

“Thanks for the tips about the pie and stuff,” she said.

He ran off.

Not an Other.  Just a regular dude with a disablity or two.  She flushed.

A low chuckle sounded behind her.

“I was hoping nobody saw that,” she said.

A man, spindle-thin, twenty feet tall, wearing old fashioned clothes, was peering around the back of the convenience store, hugging the corner.  He smiled, chuckling.

“Verona Hayward, just passing through-”

“I heard.  I’ll let our minor Lord know.  Go freely and with goodwill, no obligations.”

She went to buy the two dollar pie, left a five dollar tip and a mention of Tyson’s recommendation, and then headed to her mom, who gave her that look, disapproving or even disappointed but not saying anything.

“Try to start it up?”

“I haven’t figured out what’s wrong.”

“Try?” Verona asked.

Her mother climbed in, tried the ignition, and the engine rumbled back to life, no issues.

“Granna’s car giving you some grief, huh?”

Her mother leaned into the steering wheel.  “Get us to the motel tonight, at the very least.  Ideally, let me take my daughter to Jasmine’s.  Then you can break down all you want.  I’ll endure.”

“I bet we’ll run into a problem when we get to the next area,” Verona said, brightly.

“Don’t say that!”

They drove out to the next area.

🟂

They weren’t stopped as they got to the sleepy town with a population of 200.  There was a single motel, and it was actually in decent shape.  Verona still drew some runes to ward off bugs and put them inside her pillowcase when her mom wasn’t looking.

She dallied, looking around to make sure no Others were looking for her, because she didn’t want to seem like an intruder and she was practicing a bit.  She sent texts to Lucy and Avery, and the responses, while friendly, felt like they were leaving stuff out, still.

She returned to the room.  Two beds.  One TV.  She claimed the laptop and let her mom pick what to watch.

“Channels,” Verona said, scrunching up her nose.  “Who uses channels anymore?”

“Old people,” her mom said.

Verona cackled.

“You’re enjoying that bad joke a little too much,” her mom said.

“Yeah, well…”

“I’m glad you’re more yourself than you were.”

Verona shrugged, sitting on her bed, legs kicking.

Her mom sighed, sitting up and moving a pillow so she had something to lie against.  She tucked a foot underneath herself.  “I hope, um, if we do more regular video calls, and them ordering the calls makes it harder to…”

“Shirk?”

“No, um.  I think we’re similar, Verona.  We go off, we do our own things in our own way.  And I love you, I really do-”

“But?”

“No but,” her mother said.  And there was that look.  Disappointment, but not disappointment at Verona.  “I hate that we go off and do our own things and we don’t cross paths.  And it is entirely my fault as the mom that I let it happen.  A part of me hoped my situation would change or we’d grow into new interests that did have those overlaps… I did with my mom.  It took until I was seventeen or eighteen before I could talk to her, adult to adult.  But I screwed up.”

“You could’ve stayed in Kennet, couldn’t you?”

“I couldn’t, I can’t.  None of the things I enjoy, none of the people that make me thrive, I know you’re thinking of Jasmine, and she’s a lovely woman, but- I was dying in Kennet.  I was getting mean, I was frustrated with everyone, your dad included.  The divorce drove home how small people are.  I’m- I have to live in a city.  I would love, at some point, for you to experience that with me.”

Verona shrugged.

“Call.  Anytime, any reason.  I would move heaven or earth for you.”

“But you wouldn’t move,” Verona said.  She saw her mother’s expression, then added, “Because if you did, you wouldn’t be a complete and total you anymore?”

“That’s one way of putting it.  You’re so clever with words.”

“Thanks, I guess.”  Verona settled on the bed, lying on her side, looking at her mother.  Abandoning the laptop.

“Do you want to pick something?” her mother offered.

“Blehhh.”

“Bleh, huh?”

Her mother turned off the television set.

“Want to turn in earl-” her mom said, at the same time Verona said, “Want to look at my art?”

“I would love to,” her mom replied.

Verona picked up the sketchbook.  “I tore out all the pages with wangs and stuff on them.”

“Wangs?” her mother asked.  She gave Verona a disappointed look, this time aimed at Verona.

Verona cackled.  She crossed the room and lay on the bed next to her mom.

Something moved at the window.  She kept an eye there, watching, wary.

But she showed her mom.  Cat pictures, figures, attempts at hands, feet, and faces, sketches of Lucy and Avery.

They chatted, talking about little things, friends, friends her mom remembered from school.

Another movement at the window.

“Who’s the boy?”

“Jeremy.  I sent him a picture where I was wearing a bikini and he sent me cat pictures back.”

“Verona!”

Verona cackled.  “Kidding.  The bikini was secondary.  I was showing him a picture I drew of Sir… this one.  And he sent me pictures back.  See?”

She showed her mom on the phone.

“Is he nice?”

“Cat pictures.  Evidence.  Right here.  Yeah, obviously.”

“Is he nice aside from sending you cat pictures.”

“His parents raised him right.  He’s all respectful and stuff.  Clever, creative too.”

“Boyfriend material?”

“Blegh.  No.  Not what I’m after.”

“A boyfriend?  Are you-?”

“Nope.  No, I wish.  It’d be nice.  No, it’s not the boyfriend part of that.  It’s the material part of that.  I’m immaterial.  Maybe I’ll get there, maybe I won’t, but not right now.  Lucy and Avery keep saying stuff like ‘uh oh’, poor Jeremy.”

“That doesn’t sound friendly.”

“It’s sorta accurate.  Because we’re hanging out and he likes me and I don’t like anyone like that, so…”

“Okay.  I see.  However you figure that out, don’t do what I did.  If you’re going to make a mistake with an ill-fitting relationship, don’t stick it out for thirteen years.”

Verona rested her head on her mom’s shoulder.  She paged through more of the art.

“We keep doing this,” Verona said.

“This?  I don’t think so.”

“This, like… we meet, and it’s so awkward, and it’s like we don’t mesh at all and our lives don’t intersect and then right toward the end of the visit we have really good conversations and connections and stuff.”

“Maybe with the regular video calls and face to face meetings, we won’t forget how to talk to one another.”

“Hope so,” Verona said.  She sighed.

There was another movement at the window.

And the fact she could see it and her mother couldn’t…

She sat up.  “Gonna go to the vending machine.  Want anything?”

“I thought you were being careful about plastic.”

“There’s stuff that isn’t plastic.  I’ll be back.”

“Okay.  Money’s in my purse.”

She got the money, then went outside.

Verona looked around, checking, and didn’t see any signs of Other or practice.

She crossed the mostly empty parking lot to reach the vending machine.

A figure stepped out of darkness, and it wasn’t the local Others come to check in with her or welcome her to the area.

🟂

Avery and Lucy dropped into existence in the midst of a loose shower of bricks.

Verona clapped, smiling.

“Verona,” Lucy said.

“Was that a path?  Did I miss out again?”

“City magic,” Avery said.  She looked weary, squinting a little too much against the sun.  Still, she had the vigor to move and to reach Verona, hugging her.

They met at the ridge, on the hill just far enough away that Kennet was in the distance.  A road, two lane, with lots of gravel on either side, enough for trucks to park on.  Some fencing and stuff cordoned off the area.

Verona had stopped her mom’s car and used a bit of practice to distract her long enough for this face to face.

“Hey.  Hi,” Verona said, hugging Avery back.  Lucy, a little slower on her feet, joined in on the group hug.  “City magic is cool.”

“It’s very cool,” Avery said.  She leaned back, Verona’s arm moved, and Lucy winced audibly.  “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Lucy said.

“What happened?  What did I miss?” Verona asked.  “Ghoul fight?”

“Ghoul,” Lucy said.  She pulled up her shirt and showed Verona the scars, two at one side of her ribs, one at her stomach.  “Chloe was provoked into losing it.”

“There’s a lot to cover,” Avery said.  “They’re actively sabotaging each other.”

“It’s not even about just holding the perimeter and keeping the city safe anymore,” Lucy said.  “It’s doing both those things while also watching your back.  John just got waylaid twice, Nibble’s hurt, Chloe’s going to be out of it for a while.  Even Guilherme got burned.”

“Damn,” Verona said.

“Some goblins died,” Avery said.  “Nobody we’re close to.  Snowdrop’s there for the huddle, she’s going to say some words.”

“Crap,” Verona said.  There were words that conveyed the feeling better but they felt too ill-fitting.  A ‘shit’ felt the opposite of pithy, even if it was goblin appropriate.

“Upside, good news type stuff,” Lucy said.  “Just so you don’t get too down, you know?  Wanted to cover the good, too.”

“Did your mom get the job?”

“My mom got the job but-”

“She got the job!  She got the job!” Verona bounced.  She hugged Lucy, careful with the injured parts.

“It’s great.  It’s one of the only great things that happened this week.  But that wasn’t what I was going to say.”

“Yay!”

“Your mood’s better,” Avery said.

“I’m going to Jasmine’s.  At least for a little while.  I hope that’s okay-”

“It’s fine, it’s good,” Lucy said.  “But we got clues, Verona.  About who did it.  We’re close.  The reason things are so tense is they’re being forced into a corner.”

“Because we took the furs?”

“I don’t know.  But we’re figuring stuff out and that’s definitely playing its part.”

“Good,” Verona told them.  “I think I have you beat.”

“Do you?  Getting the furs out of there wasn’t enough?”

“You tell me.  Look what I found, or well, look who found me while I was out there!”

At that cue, Miss stepped out from behind the power pole.  Wind picked up and dust from the roadside hid her face.

“Miss!” Avery said.  “Hey.  Are you okay?”

“I’m well, Avery.  You settled on your familiar, did you?  And Lucy has her implement.”

“Yep,” Avery said.  She looked at Lucy, who nodded.

“And you brought a friend?”

“We what?” Lucy asked.  “Did we-?”

She looked back.

Out of the dust further down the road, Crooked Rook stepped forth, one hand gripping the head of the cane.

“Friend?” Lucy asked.

“A good one,” Miss said, walking past the girls.  She walked up to Rook, and the two of them hugged.  “Hello, it’s been some time.”

“I go by Crooked Rook with them,” the old woman said.

“That works just fine,” Miss said.

The two of them turned toward the girls.  Rook held the mask she normally kept near her lower face out in front of Miss’s face, her arm covering her own mouth as it stretched across, eyes peering over like a crocodile’s peering over water.

“Have you been looking after my practitioners?” Miss asked.

“In my own way,” Rook said.

“What is this?” Lucy asked.  “Why do this?  How are you okay with us if you hate-”

“Practitioners in general?” Rook asked.  “I was under the impression you three weren’t the biggest advocates of practitioner society in general, either, especially after your stay at the Blue Heron.”

“I asked Rook to make sure you three were more or less alright until I could find my way back.  She has, I hope.”

“She said she didn’t want to associate with us.”

“Maintaining that position let Matthew, Edith, and the rest draw their own conclusions about my intents and goals,” Rook said.  “And it helps keep this secret right here.”

“Rook,” Miss said, sounding more than a little upset.  She turned her head Rook’s way, and Rook adjusted the position of the mask perfectly, in accordance with that.

“You should have known what you’d get when you asked it of me,” Rook told her.

“And out here?” Avery asked.  “Why are we outside of Kennet?”

“That is a good question,” Miss said.  She turned to look toward Kennet, standing on the other side of Rook, who blocked their view of her face until Rook could move the mask back into position.  “A plicate spirit, or a spiritual horror, has taken up claim over the boundary.  He influences everything inside Kennet, only for brief times, but-”

“Miss is sensitive to having patterns imposed on her,” Verona finished the explanation.  She looked at her friends and gave them a sad half-smile.  “As long as Montague could seize control of the diagram at any time, on Matthew and Edith’s request… Miss can’t come into Kennet.”

“It’s one of several moves they’ve made,” Miss said.  “We have to work out the remainder before summer’s end.”

“If you can’t, then you will lose,” Rook said.  “And we lose with you.”

Avery huffed out a sigh.  “My head hurts too much for this.”

“When we’re done here, I’ll find Tashlit,” Miss said.  “I’ll bring her to you.”

“Please,” Avery said.  “This is supposed to take up to thirty days to go away, and I can’t function like this.”

“Sorry I didn’t send her back earlier,” Verona said.  “Selfish of me.”

“No, not at all,” Avery said.  “That’s like being mad at me for not sending Snowdrop to deliver cuddles.”

“I mean, now that you mention it…” Verona said, elbowing Avery.

Avery had less playfulness in her, not really being receptive to the elbow.

“And you?” Verona asked Lucy.  “Best friend, buddy old pal.  What’re you thinking?”

Lucy looked at Verona, and reached out to give Verona’s shoulder a squeeze.

Then she turned her full attention to Miss and Rook.

“I’m thinking back to a few nights ago.  At the factory.  Edith pretty much sent Chloe right at us.  She was aggressive with the furs, she’s been testing the rules.  What if we dealt with her, like, right away?”

“Let’s,” Rook answered.


Previous Chapter

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One After Another – 10.3

Lucy

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Next Chapter


Toad…

Lucy hesitated, taking it in.  It wasn’t a grand betrayal.  Toadswallow had his goals and whatever the nuances were, he hadn’t wanted to share them.

It felt very lonely, especially with Avery down and Verona out.

She could see Guilherme’s back, and two thoughts crossed her mind, with an emphasis on the cross– that Guilherme was a teacher and a friendly face and that Guilherme was, by his own admission, a manipulator, a villain, a monster, a hero, a true friend, a man who’d been all things and was running out of things to try.  In those things, Lucy knew, were probably events that would be far worse than anything done by violent, abusive goblins, their violence-stoking doppleganger or their living spirit of a soldier who killed both sides before finding his head.

The two thoughts collided and Lucy felt her general frustration at Toad and Guilherme both, felt the drive to go with Guilherme as he slipped into the factory, and both of those things were ‘go’ so she went.

Up to the weather-worn forklift at the side of the building.  Guilherme had moved the wooden pallets aside and there was a gap in the wall, Guilherme tall and majestic on the other side, crouched, spear in hand.  He looked too big to fit through the gap he’d just slipped through.

“This is too dangerous a fight for you,” Guilherme told her.  “You shouldn’t try to confront the man.  Find other ways to help.”

“Isn’t it too dangerous a fight for you?” Lucy accused.

“I’ve been on the other side of this opponent before.”

“You know this guy?”

“Once, a century ago, an Abyssal Spider, stalking the voids of the deepest Abyss.  I had a rivalry with another Fae of High Summer.  It was good, as rivalries go.  Closely matched, to the point every verbal barb could be the deciding factor.  We had our final confrontation balanced on the strands of the spider’s nest, drawing every last thread of our contest together in the end, our time limit defined by the pace with which the threads of webbing ate through our boot soles.”

“I’m not getting it.”

“He weaves his own web, with silver bells instead of black silk web in a lightless cave, each strand dripping acid that can eat through metal.  The habits are similar, the mentality.  I remember a Wraith Socialite in the courts, too.”

“I’m really not seeing where you’re going with this.”

“She was a dark echo in a dark vessel, poorly created by one Fae or another, but none could call her out as such because she could so easily be a trap.  What happens if you call her a poor work of artistry and she turns out to be an allegory you weren’t clever enough to get?  Or a joke ready to be played on whoever stood opposite her to challenge her?  A sword wound is one thing, but being made a fool is the sort of thing that makes noble fae wish to avoid you.  She was left to her own devices, gathering up Fae of the lowest caliber in a network, whispering and communicating, warning.”

“If you want me to do something about the bells then just say it straight, Guilherme.  Or is the common part of it that they all pose a small danger?”

“Not a danger, Lucy, not directly.”

“Just say it straight, Guilherme, I know you’ve got this thing where you want me to connect the dots myself and grow and crap, but I’d rather focus my energies on helping Chloe.  Maybe I can digest the lesson later.”

“The danger is exactly that.  Pressure, inexorable, annoying, sapping away enough of your focus that you cease to grow, or you start taking easier paths.  What a waste it would have been, had I cut the finale of my centuries-long rivalry short, or pushed into predictable action against an echo who was fabricated and convinced she could be a scheming aristocrat on par with Fae.”

“You being a butthead could be called the inexorable, annoying sapping away of my focus, Guilherme.  Do you want me to deal with the bells?”

“I want you to be aware of what the bells are as you deal with-”

She had to work to not raise her voice.  “Yes or no?”

Guilherme turned toward her, shifting his stance.

“No, no, no, don’t twitch muscles or hold your head differently, don’t flip your hair or whatever.  Either a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’.”

“If you could.  Chloe is no longer chained up, she’ll be another sort of pressure, and the bells he’s tied up inside the building are complicating that.  I can fight him more easily if the bells are handled.”

“That’s not a one word answer.”

He smiled.

“Would you win?  Are you like… you’ve played out nearly all the stories so you’ve seen all the outcomes, right?  Is that-”

He smiled again, but his eyes were sad.

“Sorry.”

“Some Faerie, especially those of Summer, have sought to be among the best swordsmen, or the best archers, and it tends to be a very short road with no branches to explore or detours.  Seeing swordsmanship as a puzzle to be solved, a formula to be followed, especially when competing with others… it drives you in one direction.  Straight into Winter.  That court is populated with so many who saw swordsmanship as a game like chess, where you can ‘solve’ the game by working out every possible permutation until you have a perfect, never-fail road to victory.  I’ve never sought it out for that reason.”

“Makes sense.”

“I can hold my own but I don’t know if I’d win against him, even with all my skill.  That’s the joy of fighting, having to adapt to what your opponent does.”

“Joy?” she asked, giving him an unimpressed look.  “Look, about the bells, would you give me a bit?  If Chloe’s loose we need to account for that.  Can you watch my back while I work?”

“Effective-”

“Yes or no?” she asked, hands on her hips.  Her elbow twinged.

“You’re built like you could be half Fae, Lucy.  It breaks my heart in small ways to see you be so blunt when you have such potential for grace.”

“I’ll try and handle being me, Guilherme, I don’t need the attempt at flattery, if that was what that was.”

“I’ll watch for trouble while you work.  We can’t have Chloe leaping out of the darkness at you.”

Maybe it was unfair to ask a Fae to keep things simple.  Like asking a goblin to sit at the table and maintain perfect table manners.

If Chloe was both berserk and unchained, then protecting the people of Kennet was important.  Verona had sent the things on binding and handling ghouls.

A line of salt would hamper too many of the Others inside.  Lines and shapes were what the ambient, possibly microscopic spirits used to direct things, and the line, as Lucy thought of it, was an order for them to form a wall.  Weak barriers would weaken those who came running through.  Strong barriers would be like a massive glass wall, leeching the Other’s strength with every blow the Other attempted against it, and depending on the difference in power, it could require many, or be fundamentally impossible for the Other.  And the very strongest barriers would leech power for any Other even approaching it.

Barriers could be made strong by having a lot of personal power.  Being a member of a family that had a lot of clout with spirits could make the difference between a simple chalk circle being a minor inconvenience for all but the smallest and most mindless Others, and being that last category where Others of Guilherme or John’s stature would buckle at the knees if they got close.

They could also be made stronger with structure.  More lines, more time spent, more direction in what lesser spirits were meant to be gathering and preparing to defend against…

Lucy didn’t draw a line.  She didn’t want to risk that John could come running out, Witch Hunter hot on his trail, and then hit the wall and find himself trapped or weakened, too slow to run.

Zed’s info on wards helped her here.  So did the lessons from Matthew and Edith.

To start with, she chose the astrological sign for Pluto, because it was close to death, and their second batch of spell notes had worked out how Pluto could signal a diagram to go off when something broke.

Then to frame it, she chose the warding arrangement.  Each of the five major forces had a rune that could be put down or made out of lashed-together sticks.  They’d handled some of that when rebuilding the wards after the skeptic Sharon had torn everything down.  The arrow for War, the forking branch for Nature, the hourglass arrangement of two triangles with points touching for Time, the angular C-shape for Fate, and the gateway, like a keyhole without a floor, for Death.

There was another, and it sometimes replaced nature, sometimes overlapped with Fate, for Fortune, but that was a newer thing.

No, the gateway of Death was the framing she wanted.  She drew it out in chalk, the base touching either side of the gap, with breaks to allow the other four forces passage through.

It would still be a gut punch, probably, especially for weaker Goblins, but it wasn’t made for them.  It would pull at the Death inside them and other things would slip through.

The earring was making this harder than it needed to be.  It was like being a kid again, knowing the shape of the letters she wanted to put down on the page, but not getting the cooperation out of her hand and arm.  The chalk didn’t settle in the smooth and even lines she wanted.

She changed tacks.  She arranged the outside of the gate as an alarm, with the rest balanced against that.  Better.

If this was about spirits… she reached into her pocket, found her phone and coiled up earphones, and selected the first song that felt thematic, close to the top of her playlist.  Au Rii – Dance Into Dark.  A sultry, purring guy’s voice almost straining to push through a backdrop of throbbing, dark instrumentals and a back-backdrop of synths that were just biting enough that they could be hard to listen to.

It made her think of Tymon.  Very guy.  Sexy, as far as she could even articulate that, but also bad for her, dangerous, and she wasn’t the type to chase after that.

The music intensified, and the voice took on a breathless, croaking quality.

It made her think of Verona.  She’d tried the song on Verona once, to good effect, Verona had liked it and then played it on repeat while doing some ink drawings, where Lucy could not take this on repeat.  Verona had chased after that, was actively working out the idea of boys and ‘sexy’.

Verona would have ideas about this.  Maybe even ideas about how to make it more specific, so it wouldn’t even hurt people like John or the goblins a little.  Verona would… probably not match the mood for this specific situation, but would help Lucy figure out how to feel about things in contrast.

She missed Verona.  The humor, the cleverness, the idea that no matter how bad it got, her friend could pull out an idea and salvage things.  Or partially salvage things.  Verona pushed things and kept them from never falling into a rut.

She missed Avery.  Avery was in bed with a killer headache, sleeping most of the day while her mom or dad checked in regularly, forcing her to hide Snowdrop.  Lucy had stopped in.  Avery, who could normally find her way to Lucy’s side even if she was nowhere nearby.  Who was decent enough as a person that it felt like Lucy was better off for it.

Usually.  Usually for all of those things, which was fair and fine.  Everyone made mistakes; sometimes Verona didn’t have ideas or Avery screwed up, like with Pam.

The music throbbed, each beat as heavy as her own heartbeat.  This moment felt a lot like she had felt after lashing out at Avery.

When she’d been afraid that this would all mount up, and that everything would fall down in a way that put all the responsibility on her shoulders.  That she’d be essentially alone against a hostile world.

They’re coming back, she told herself.  We’re collecting some allies. 

She glanced at Guilherme, who didn’t move a muscle or say a word.

She resumed her work, but her thoughts were on other dangers.  A share of the people around her were taking sides and one of those sides was against her, Avery, and Verona.  The people who were for them were few.  Edith was almost certainly a danger, Matthew might have been an unwitting one, Maricica was implicated, and she had next to no ideas about the new Others in town.

They’re coming back.  We’re narrowing down the opposition. They can’t hurt us directly.

Chloe couldn’t hurt her directly and intentionally, with the oaths she’d supposedly sworn, but Charles had warned them that creatures acting on instinct could escape the constraints of rules.  This sure seemed like a situation that would fit in that category.

The lines were coming out better, now.  The music played, the lines were straight, and she could do the more detailed work of specifying values.  She had no idea if it would work, but she didn’t want to kill or destroy Chloe, or any lesser goblins who came charging through.  She gave it limits, and then she gave it a trigger word.

“Going to other entrances, I’ll try and circle around, make sure Chloe can’t get out and that stuff stays manageable,” she told him.  “Then I’ll try and come in here and handle the bell.”

“I’ll stay close.  What is the diagram?  Pluto in Death?”

“It’s aimed at Chloe.  Don’t let Nibble run through, and pass on word.  You can break it in a pinch with my last name.”

“Be safe,” he said.

She circled the factory.  Even with her mask on and the eyes burning red, lighting up her view in a red tint, there were many shapes in the darkness that looked like they could be a Witch Hunter stepping out of the shadows.  A collection of shelving units with the shelves pulled out and stacked against a wall, left there so long that nests had formed in the gaps and corners.  Bird nests up high and rat nests below.

A gunshot within the building made her nearly jump out of her skin.

She pressed on with more urgency.  Both of the earphones were in but her earring let her hear.  She had to cover the bases before helping Chloe.

There was another door that some of the others had used.  It was more obvious, previously chained and padlocked, and the chain had been broken by the Witch Hunter.

She pulled out the bag of chalk, a cloud puffing up as she squeezed it, and she repeated the prior diagram.  The keyhole without a line at the bottom.  The Pluto rune at the center, the offshoot runes, the command word written in nine letters.

She pushed off the ground, dashing to the next point.  Around the corner of the building, a side door that had been unlocked by Bangnut and propped open.

The music throbbed, helping to center her and make her feel attuned to Death.  Death as something seductive to the guys, because Guilherme flirted with it to add spice to life and John kept on sacrificing his frigging self and Lucy was worried it would one day stick.  Death as dark and uncomfortable and intense as an idea.

“What are you doing?”

Lucy sprang to her feet, backing up.

A woman’s voice.  Edith’s eyes were visible, burning like coals in a fire, parts growing in brightness and intensity and then fading out without clear reason.  The rest of Edith followed.

“Keeping Chloe inside,” Lucy said.  “She’ll be slowed down a lot if she comes through.”

Edith looked down at the beginnings of the diagram.  “Don’t.”

“Any reason?” Lucy asked.

“Because I said not to, Lucy.  It’s uncomfortable to be sealed within.”

“Sure will be a heck of a lot more uncomfortable if Chloe gets out and hurts someone.”

“I’m asking you not to,” Edith said.

“And I’m asking you to give me a reason better than ‘it’s uncomfortable’.  You’d better believe I’m dealing with uncomfortable stuff for all your sakes, like even being here tonight-”

“We didn’t ask, Lucy.  You offered.  Matthew and I made it clear you have no obligation to be out here and in danger.”

“Because you guys are handling this stuff that great without us?  I live here, Edith.  My mom lives here, my brother visits, I have friends here in Kennet, I have classmates, I have boys I like.”

“I live here too.”

“If you guys screw up, and if this becomes a knotted place, or if Others start hurting innocents in larger numbers and that becomes the new rule, that’s my life on the line.  That’s my day to day, full, whole life that gets turned upside down.  I don’t want a ghoul running around if my mom might be out picking up milk from the store, or if one of my teachers could be walking their dogs.”

“An out of control ghoul getting at family members is something that could affect Matthew or me just as easily.  But you, as so many practitioners do, seem to treat binding diagrams and your ability to entrap us in a-”

There were two more gunshots.

“-cavalier way.  It’s easy for you and life altering for us,” Edith finished.

“I guess we know which way your vote fell in the big debate over whether to teach us binding.  But we had to go to the Blue Heron instead.”

“I’d rather you hadn’t gone at all, for reasons I think are obvious.”

“The way I’m doing this, it’s tilted at Chloe.”

“With Death.  Something that has a firm grip on Edith James,” Edith said, the tone of her voice changing.

“Yes, well, if Verona were here I’m sure she’d have some better ideas on how to specifically target Chloe, but for right now and right here, Edith, I’m going to write it in a way where you just have to say my last name to destroy the diagram.  It only affects those without the sense to remember what my last name is.”

“Ellingson,” Edith said.

“It’s not written yet,” Lucy said.  Only the ‘gate’ was drawn, with the Pluto rune, and some of the alarm stuff.

“That’s my point.  What if you make a mistake, Lucy?  What if you give it too much power?  What if you get interrupted and trap me and Nibble within, with a berserk ghoul?  What if it cuts off my access to spiritual and elemental power?  What if you draw it perfectly, balance everything with care, and the Witch Hunter runs out, leaping over much of the diagram but mars your name, so the passphrase to break it is ruined?”

“Do you have a better idea on keeping Chloe inside?”

“I have fire, she doesn’t like it.  Others have their own ideas.  I want you to trust us, Lucy.”

“I want you to trust me.  And Avery.  And Verona.  We’re not going to, like, draw a diagram that I very specifically intended to be weak, then leave you trapped here forever.  You picked us!”

“Miss selected you, and she hasn’t stuck around to explain her thought processes.”

“And you guys agreed.  That was a big part of the awakening ritual.  I swore what I swore in pretty damn good faith, Edith.  And I’m pretty sure that that not every Other who was there was returning that favor.  Now I told Guilherme that I’d try to finish this and come back to him.  Now, unless you or someone else forces me to stop, I’m going to keep working on this in good faith, which is better than some of you deserve.”

Edith didn’t respond.  She remained there, staring at Lucy.

So Lucy, under Edith’s gaze, drew out the lines.  Edith stood inside, back to the wall by the door, her attention split.  Lucy crouched, drawing out lines with extra care.

She halfway expected that she would finish, write out the command phrase to break it, and then Edith would speak up, destroying it.

“Are the others okay?”

“Goblins died,” Edith said.

Lucy looked up.

“None you’re close to.”

“That doesn’t make it much better.”

“No.”

Isn’t your energy better spent helping than here, arguing with me?

Lucy finished the diagram.  She straightened, her things in hand.

Edith’s eyes glowed as she stared out the door at her.

Lucy could remember the voice, spelling out how the Others fully intended to get rid of them.

The look on Edith’s face was exactly the expression Lucy imagined someone could wear while saying that.

Lucy could remember how Edith had looked, outside that cabin they’d just recently gone back to with Melissa.  The intensity, the danger.  And that was the natural conclusion of someone saying that, someone wearing that expression, then taking the declared action.

She thought of the syringe.  Dark Fae in design, holding a bit of Edith’s Doom within.

“What happened, Edith?” Lucy asked, quiet, as she backed up.  “It was nice, once.  Learning basic runes while you guys made barbecue.”

“Answering that question would take longer than we have.”

“Maybe.”

Edith didn’t volunteer anything.  Lucy looked off to the side, then abandoned the conversation.  Abandoned this.

She’d done a full loop around the building.  There were maybe other ways out, but she couldn’t cover windows or the roof.

She reached the forklift, circling around the chalk pattern she’d laid out earlier.

Deep breath.

Then inside.  She crossed the diagram with care, slipping on the weapon ring.

Something crashed upstairs.

It wasn’t as wide open as many factories were in the news.  There were individual sections, separated by partial walls, with tons of stuff packed up here, some of it of varying ages.  A whole lot of wooden chairs with metal bits, wood rotting and metal rusting, until they were a confusing jumble to the eye.  She could see the main areas that led off to the other two doors she’d prepared.

“He’s upstairs.” Guilherme’s voice was gentle, soft enough she wasn’t sure it was a voice until she recognized the sounds and the way he enunciated things.  “He’s unwilling to jump from a window.”

“And Chloe?”

“Down here.  Not that far away.  Take care as you walk down this way,” he said, stepping out of shadows, his voice still a gentle whisper that could be mistaken for ambient noise.  She could have used her earring to pick out the sound.  “There’s a tripwire.”

“Jeez,” she whispered back.

She saw it.  Even when she was looking for it, it was hard to make out.  She saw a line across the floor that ran counter to worn old floorboards, thought that was the tripwire, and then looked for how he’d rigged it, only to spot the little staple that had been pushed into the wood, further down, a knot of thin wire tied around it.

None of it turned up to her Sight.  It was hard to make out even with night vision.

Guilherme whispered to her.  “He’s a man who dresses things up in patterns.  The bells are arranged by a system only he understands, woven into a tapestry.  Ten paces before he ties a bell to a tree, then seven, then twenty, then a trap.  Inside, those numbers are much smaller.”

“What does that mean?” Lucy asked.  “Practically?”

“Move with care, expect him to have a very specific way he wants to make his retreat.”

She moved with care.  Gently, carefully, she stepped over the tripwire.

She could see the bell through a hole in the wall just barely wide enough for her to slip through.  It was hanging over something that could have been a tape player, flat, long and rectangular.  Something had been rubbed on the silver to tarnish it, making it disappear easily in the gloom, without reflections.

Lucy ventured closer to the bell, mindful of the wire near the floor.

She stopped short of passing through.  At the level of her chest was another wire, stretching across the hole.

There was a gunshot upstairs.  It boomed through the building, and Lucy flinched.  She managed to not move her feet or lurch forward into the waiting wire.

“Good, you saw it.  Your instincts are strong, Lucy.”

“Maybe tell me about these things before I almost walk into them?” she asked, frozen in place, studying the situation.

“I’d rather instruct than tell.  I won’t let too much harm come to you,” he told her.

She drew a marker from her pocket, then reached into her pocket for the Hot Lead, contained in a case she’d inscribed with insulating runes.

Hot air blasted out as she cracked it open.  It didn’t like being contained.  She held it, and it felt like it was searing the flesh of her palm.

The weapon ring let her turn the marker into a rod, and she placed it down on the ground, something to lean against for balance while ducking beneath the wire.  She had to use the top end of the rod as a tool to press her hair down so the puff of her afro-ponytail didn’t bump the wire.

There was another cassette on the wall.  Except it wasn’t a tape player.  It wasn’t a gun or an obvious bomb either.

She abandoned the rod, but kept the ring and hot lead ready.  She could spend a minute disarming this arrangement, but… instead she reached out to touch it, laying her hand flat against the side.

The weapon ring transformed it into a weapon.  A squat, rectangular shotgun.  Ball bearings spilled out into the floor as she tipped it down to look at the handle.

“Silver,” Guilherme remarked, from the other side of the hole in the wall.  “It smells like gunpowder and salt.”

She nodded slowly.  She set the cartridge-shotgun down, the open end facing away from herself and toward an open area, and was especially mindful of the wire as she let it stop being a shotgun.

The wire came free, dropping loose to the ground.  Lucy’s finger remained on the little spring-loaded catch, her eyes casting it in a red light in the otherwise total darkness, while the fingers of her free hand carefully explored the surface while keeping the body of the thing from moving.  It was the same end result, to either let the cartridge body be still but the little catch snap left, or letting the cartridge body move right while holding the catch still.

She found a depression.  Pressing in, it partially ejected the ammunition.  Ball bearings in separate compartments, then three shotgun shells, banded in yellow tape, marked with a circle that had a horizontal line through it.

With no ammunition, she could let go of the catch.  The little cartridge-bomb kicked, but there was nothing for it to shoot.

The other arrangement was more tricky.  The bell hung from a wire close to the ceiling, and instead of something to ring the bell, there was another wire extending straight down from the bell to another cartridge, which sat atop something round, like one of Barbie’s cookie tins that she’d crack open for Lucy and the other grandchildren at teatime.

Not that Barbie and Ran really invited them over or had them over much since Lucy’s dad had died.

That cartridge, sitting in a depression in the floor where floorboards had rotted, that was what really spooked Lucy.

“Lucy,” Guilherme whispered.

Lucy turned her head, then saw.  Not Guilherme.  A ghoul.

Chloe moved through the darkness like it was her friend, crouching and not really slower for that crouching.  The paleness of her skin didn’t do a thing to make her more visible in the dark.  Her shirt was torn, and it looked like she’d taken a direct hit from one of the traps, because her neck, shoulder, arm, and part of her upper body was dotted with deep, raw, red holes.  Where the holes were bad enough that bone was exposed, it looked like the bone had thorns on it.

All down the girl’s spine, spikes jutted from skin, and those spikes branched, with hooks, barbs, and almost decorative elements.  At her side, through the hole in her shirt, ribs did much the same thing.

Option one was to stay quiet, hoping Chloe moved on.

Lucy was bad at staying quiet when something upset her, and this was really freaking upsetting.  Standing a foot away from a supernatural-sensitive jury-rigged shotgun trap while a feral ghoul was nearby.

“Chloe,” Lucy said.

The ghoul stiffened.  It looked as if the body fat on her drew back and away, exposing the lines of muscle and angular bones.  She looked even less human than she had, arms crossed over one another, front claws on ground, back arched, legs out, all tension.

Her mouth yawned open, and Lucy could see the teeth.  Many had two or three points, jutting out at different angles.  They looked more like they were for tearing in a vicious way than for anything efficient.

“You swore things when you joined Kennet.  Protecting me and the other two should have been one of them.  We swore to protect the Others of this place.  By the oaths, Chloe, I am not your prey.”

Chloe stared at her.  Had anything changed?

“Dally with me instead, Chloe,” Guilherme said.  “Here.”

He rapped something, and Chloe lunged.  She barely twisted as she did it, and went from facing Lucy to lunging right with scarcely a turn of the head.

The bell swayed slightly at the impact of Guilherme and Chloe moving.

Lucy got to work.  The bell in the field, she remembered, had acted up when she’d gotten within a foot or so of it.  She gave this one a safe distance of a foot and a half.

There were two cartridges, though.  The one facing the hole, probably a directed shotgun-like blast of silver ball bearings and salt… and the one it was poised on, which looked set to fire in a ring around it.

Couldn’t disturb the bell without setting off both weapons, probably.  If she had to guess, the weight of the shotgun cartridge was resting on some button or landmine-like switch that would trigger it to go off if the shotgun thing was lifted away or moved away while shooting.

So she couldn’t disturb the all-around thing either, not without-

There was a crash.  A hiss.  Chloe’s.

“Our man is upstairs,” Guilherme said, calm.  “He’s holed up and I know from my experience with a certain Abyssal Spider and a social schemer of a Wraith that he wants to draw things together.  He’s arranging a tight cluster of traps around himself, making approach hard.  When he’s ready, he’ll move out.”

“Can we smoke him out?  Burn him?”

“Not without risking setting things off.  Maricica’s closer to that right this moment and she doesn’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Hmmmm,” Lucy replied, noncommital.

“She wouldn’t put her own skin in danger, Lucy.”

“Mmmm.”

She carefully circled the room, mindful of more wires.  She had the suspicion that if there were more wires, they’d be tied to this setup.

Couldn’t use glamour.  She could otherwise turn to smoke, contain this, then set it all off.  Problem was, it was silver.  Silver had a lot of influence on Faerie stuff, because it was linked to Winter.

She adjusted position until she could see more of the factory.  Montague was creeping along the wall, spidery limbs reaching out.  Chloe was huddled by the fridge, which was open and releasing frosty air.  There was meat inside and she was eating.

From the dent on the fridge door it looked like Guilherme had tossed her into it and the door had bounced open.  Chloe wanted food and now she had it.

Lucy was well aware that fresh meat was preferable to a ghoul like Chloe, over frozen meat.

Edith guarded one of the exit routes, eyes glowing, the ground liquid around her feet, candles in shallow bowls floating in the liquid.

A wounded Bluntmunch was in the other hallway, surrounded by goblins.  Nibble crouched by the big goblin, watching Chloe from the very opposite end of the building.  One of his legs was bent.  The other was severed at the knee.

“You’re a clever girl, Lucy,” Guilherme said.  “You’ve learned many tricks when separated from your friends.  That’s a cleverness you need to embrace and capture.  You can do this.”

And if she couldn’t?  Falling from the balcony near the Abyssal Beast had been a scare.  So had their last run-in with the Witch Hunter.

She’d had other scares too.  Her fingers touched her arm where the Nettlewisp had been.

You like it too much.

Some small, subconscious part of herself had liked being prickly.  She’d liked that aesthetic, the twining vines, the spikes, the barbs.

She backed away from the arrangement in the center of this room, which had once housed some big machine that had since been taken away.  That weight had damaged the floor and the damage to the floor had gotten worse, creating the depression, a small crater of broken floorboards that the trap had been set in.

Some of those floorboards were part of the trap.  Many Others couldn’t even approach the bell without it ringing and the rigged traps going off.  But for someone who could, like Lucy or even Melissa, stepping on the wrong floorboard would jostle the entire arrangement.

Her back to the wall, Lucy put the weapon ring away.  She kept the hot lead.

Glamour was tricky.  Glamour required belief.

She believed, as she drew on the power of the Hot Lead and moved her hand, encouraging the glamour to reach out.

Smoke reached like hands and vines, bristling, casting eerie shadows on the wall from the faint red light of her mask’s eyes.  She gestured, sending out one strand, then moved her hand, sending out another, down toward her foot, her foot moving to give it direction.

The Hot Lead was the bullet John had given them, a little power source.  The power was elemental, and so was the smoke she was encouraging.

The limbs that reached out settled and condensed into strands, branching and flowering.  Holding floorboards as rigid as possible, first, then creeping along floor and the ceiling above.

She’d heard what Alpeana had done, to get to the Witch Hunter in dreams, most of that hearing secondhand.

Take over the surroundings, cut the center off from everything else…

She moved with excessive care as she reached along the ceiling until she reached the point were the bell hung from.  She did the same at the floor.

Alexander had taught them about coup and claim.  She claimed this for herself.  She found the other connections to the other bells in this building and held them firm.

Shadowy hands gripped the wire above and below the bell and held it fiercely taut.  The bell jostled as smoke reached toward it from one direction, tugging, ready to pull away and jangle, but a reaching out of smoke from the opposite direction made it move back to center instead.

And when she reached out from all directions, it had nowhere to go.

She stepped away from the wall and toward the bell, reaching out with a hand.

She closed her hand around it, still holding everything firm.

The glamour knew what she liked, and mimed it.  As tendrils settled on her, they mimicked the exaggerated color and style that she’d worn when making her arenas with Guilherme.

The glamour snaked along the connections between bells, and she moved her fingers carefully, rubbing thumb against fingertips in the crude motions that Maricica and Guilherme had instructed them in.  Rotating colors.  A little rub outward, thumb leaving the pads of those fingers.

The connections between bells lit up, turning a red-pink.

Near the fridge with the disabled interior light, Chloe shrank back from the glow.  Guilherme stepped out, casting vague shadows as he was illuminated.

Edith watched Lucy with more caution in her eyes than she reserved for Chloe.

The Hot Lead was cooling in her hand, and there was only so much glamour in the compact.

So she used what she had, to begin with.

Mine, she thought, reaching out toward the densest cluster of bells.  This arrangement of traps their Witch Hunter had worked out.

Whatever they were doing, she didn’t want his blood on her hands, so she reached out with the pink, toward the bells, working at holding everything firm while asserting an obvious claim over it all.

He did something.  The glamour faltered, hit hard enough that the reaching tendrils between her and him in that far upstairs corner of the factory were cut in half.

She pushed out, spending residual power to reach back-

Gunshots.  He tore out of the hallway, shooting as he did.

There were answering flashes without noise.  John.  Lucy had never meant for him to keep the silence rune on the gun.  She wondered for a moment if he’d want something more permanent-

Other things were more pressing.

She tugged on connections, exerting control.

That cost her more than whatever the Witch Hunter had done, but it set off what sounded like six different gunshots behind the man.

Then the Witch Hunter and John were at the stairs.  John was already wounded, the wound bandaged in a way suggesting it was old.  The Witch Hunter went down the stairs in a way that could have been a tackle and could have been a fall.

Lucy shook her head.  She had to find herself.  Fogging her head and believing this glamour out there, tracking it all in a general way, it was dangerous.

“Go back to the fridge.”  Edith’s voice was distant, but Lucy’s earring picked it up.

Chloe had ventured forward.  So had Nibble.  Chloe’s attention was on the stairs.  Nibble’s on Chloe.

“Chloe,” Edith warned.  “Leave it be, go to the fridge.  There’s lots of food.”

The feral Chloe edged closer to the violence, shying away from the dwindling strands of red where Lucy’s grip on the wires was weakening.

They’d scared the Witch Hunter out of his hiding place, and the man now wrestled with John.  A fight he was winning, except the goblins were venturing closer.

“Montague!” Matthew called out.  “Secure the remaining traps!  See if you can’t get the network!  Lucy, signal him!”

There was a moment, brief, where it sure seemed like the Witch Hunter had looked at Lucy.

The clotted blood carpet of distorted, burned crimson crept along the wall to the upstairs.  Lucy pushed out more of the glamour, faint, to highlight the network for him.  She held things firm, felt a tug as he did something.

And she could see it as Montague reached back.  Lucy’s influence was a light pink, a literal change of color to highlight and help.  Montague’s influence was heavy, weighing down wire until it sagged, turning hair-thin wires into cords a half-inch thick, dripping.  Some spikes and spidery legs stuck out, twitching.

The Witch Hunter’s strength was that he was so alert, so capable of watching his own back and keeping track of every last one of them.

Lucy had no idea how the Kennet Others had let them get this far.  Nibble had to lean on a wall to prop himself up, because one of his legs was partially missing, the end ragged.  Chloe was a mess, wounded by several traps, and she’d apparently been in a bad state before.

Montague’s reaching being extended far enough down the trap network that spidery fingers were nearly touching Lucy’s.  Even something as simple as a network of reaching glamour was something he could take over.  Food for thought.

The traps were under their control.  Montague surrounded the traps in his own distorted being, then lifted them up and away from the ground, leaving the bell swinging from the wire.

That made Lucy tense on its own, but the Witch Hunter wasn’t in a position to follow up that cue with a gunshot.

He was cornered.

Surrounding the Witch Hunter like this had required that they first form a very wide net.  Lucy had the feeling they’d let him pursue the ghouls, surrounded him from a very wide distance he couldn’t necessarily track, where bells and his influence were thinner, and treated the ghouls as a sacrifice or necessary risk to get the man under control.

Which got him here, fighting John, pulling away to aim, shooting at goblins and hitting none as John pulled at his arm, drawing him back into a headlock.  Guilherme approached, as did goblins.

“Watch Chloe,” Nibble called out.

Chloe hissed in response, prowling a bit closer.

“I’ve got-” Guilherme said.

Three things happened in the same moment, and there was nothing Lucy could do about it.  Chloe was fast, and Guilherme had taught Lucy about being fast, fighting against fast.  He knew well enough what to do.

But Edith was ready, too.  Fire erupted between Chloe and everyone else.

Chloe and Guilherme were both blinded by the burst of flame, Guilherme already moving forward, and in his grace unable to steer out of it.  He walked facefirst into flame and stepped out of the side of it, flesh seared, eyes squinted shut.

So Edith put the fire out.

Chloe reacted too, but Chloe, though blind, had other senses.

And virtually nobody in Kennet was working together in all of this, or they were so different that they didn’t mesh.  Goblins didn’t cooperate, Maricica was in the background while Guilherme was reeling from being on fire, and there were only two individuals who weren’t concerned about causing friendly fire or suffering from it.

Chloe tore into the crowd.  She pursued the wounded, which started with Nibble and Bluntmunch, shied away from goblin firecrackers, then went after John, biting at his foot, as he lay across the stairs with the Witch Hunter, trying to strangle the man out into unconsciousness.

Freeing the Witch Hunter.

Lucy backed away a bit, taking cover.

He unclipped one of the circular trap things from his belt, with two remaining, and tossed it into the back of the pack of goblins.

Humpydump threw himself on top of the thing.  It detonated, muffled.  The flash startled Chloe into letting go of John, while bowling over half the crowd.

Chloe looked like she was going to lunge straight into the middle of it all, but another gout of flame from Edith made her back away.  Closer to the fridge.

She turned her attention to Edith instead.

Another burst of flame and the emergence of the Girl by Candlelight made her change her mind.

Lucy’s eyes widened as she realized who the most apparent target was.  Chloe’s face turned her way, face and gums blanched to the point that the spots where skin ended, gum started, gums ended, and teeth began were all obscured.  Flesh was red rimmed around the spots where teeth and bone jutted out, but red was everywhere, splashed.  Mostly around the ghoul’s mouth.  Thick strings of John’s blood dribbled down from her mouth.

Guilherme was partially blind, head turned away, spear in hand, as he faced off against the Witch Hunter.  Doglick perched on a wounded and healing John, growling aggressively.  Goblins milled around, many hurt from the muffled trap that had put silver ball bearings throughout their number.

Maricica was gone.

Lucy made a spear, quickly.  Chloe came for her, respecting the spear’s point, swatting at it.

Every lesson Lucy had had with Guilherme fled her mind as she fought.  It was frantic, full of second guesses on what her weapon should be.  Javelin- knife.  Shorter as Chloe got closer.  She swiped, fended her off, and then claws gripped her wrists, the whole of Chloe lunging and shoving her hard into the wall.

Even like this, even wounded, Chloe was several times stronger than her.  Her hands strained to reach up and do something, and all she managed to do was abrade her wrists as she rubbed skin up against ragged claws.

Red spidery legs reached down from the ceiling, grabbing at Chloe, and Lucy strained to get away.  She couldn’t- couldn’t make headway toward the hole in the wall she’d come through, that had been trapped.

Trap.

She reached over for the one she’d disarmed.  The ammo was still partially popped out the back.  She picked it up, slammed it into the wall, and then pressed it against the side of Chloe’s torso.  Her thumb fumbled for the little catch that the string had been tied to.

Chloe pulled a claw free of Montague’s grip, then swung it forward.  Lucy jerked her head to one side, and claw-tips impaled the plaster, raking through it.

Lucy found the catch that served as the trigger for the little trap, then changed her mind.  She aimed down, twisting her lower body away, and pressed the muzzle against Chloe’s thigh.

It went off, the entire thing springing out of her hand and clattering to floor, a jolt so forceful it went up her arms to her ribs and stomach, but it didn’t feel as strong as it was supposed to be.

It still hurt Chloe.  Without killing her.

Lucy was able to pull away, letting Montague grab at Chloe while she headed for the hole in the wall.  The other tripwire was disabled.  She just had to get outside.

“Lucy!” John called out.

She looked back, not sure what she could say, still with that faint half-second of hesitation before anything she said that could end up being a lie.

She meant to look back and call out to the others, but Chloe, Montague still grabbing at her, was only a few paces behind, tearing out of the hole in the wall, finding Lucy a moment later.  She was barely slowed down by the huge hole in her thigh.

Lucy ran for the diagram she’d drawn out.  A barrier meant for ghouls.  She leaped over the chalk, foot finding the wheel-well of the forklift.

Her eyes adjusted to the light of the moonlight outside, magnified by the mask she wore, and she saw the chalk.

Marred.  Smudged out.

Chloe leaped past it, catching Lucy.

How much of this was intentional?

The fact that the people who had gotten hurt were not their prime suspects.  John, the goblin riff-raff, Guilherme…

Lucy fell with Chloe into the driver’s seat of the forklift, branches that had found their way there breaking under her back.

Chloe reached, claw out, and the steering wheel and cramped confines limited what she could do, reaching.  If she’d had more sense she would have figured it out but she was almost animal like this.  She snapped instead, and Lucy pulled her head down and away from the seat, toward the pedals, to stay away, tears in her eyes.

The other claw held her arm, and squeezed, tight.

She’d expected snarling, hissing, ravenous sounds.  But Chloe snapped, pulled on Lucy’s arm to try to get her closer, Lucy’s fingers finding the gap between seat and backrest to strain to avoid letting her arm get pulled up to where it could be chewed on…

…And Chloe made small, desperate sounds, almost whimpering.  Chloe had tears in her eyes too.

Chloe wormed her way in by inches, ribs hard and jagged against Lucy’s upper body, and Lucy pulled her way back by half inches.

Another inch closer for Chloe.  A half inch back for Lucy.  The teeth drawing closer.  Lucy had to turn her face away.

She pulled the weapon ring on, aware that the strength it cost her to use was strength she needed to defend herself.

The marker from her pocket extended into a fighting staff.  The base hit the ground near rusted over pedals and the end extended up to Chloe’s chin, pressing head up and away.  Chloe reared back, then snapped at it.

“By oaths we swore,” Lucy breathed the words, gasping out her breaths because she didn’t have the ghoul’s weight pressing on her anymore.  “This isn’t what we’re after.”

It didn’t make sense as a whole sentence, but she wasn’t in a place to string thoughts together.

Chloe, the marker-staff in her mouth, locked the cataract-glazed eyes with Lucy.

“Nibble needs you.”

The ghoul was still.

Lucy had five ideas for what she might say in the span of three seconds- not words but ideas, and every single one ventured too close to things that might set Chloe off again.

She settled on just saying, “Go.”

Chloe pulled back, leaped over the blurry chalk smear on the ground, and went back inside.

Leaving Lucy lying across the driver’s seat.  Lucy let out a one-note sob of a breath.  Relief and the cost of the weapon ring had sapped all her strength.

She picked herself up, investigated the gouges where Chloe’s ribs had rubbed against her side, and then used her cape because it was the only material she had to press against the wound and stop the bleeding.

She was wobbly as she walked around to the other side of the forklift.

Someone or something had wiped away the diagram that would have stopped Chloe in her tracks.  In the best case, left alone, the diagram should have sapped Chloe’s strength, leaving her weak as a baby but alive, with room to recover strength and sanity.

Someone or something had wiped it away.

Someone or something had done this.  All of this.  The chaos, the infighting, the selective harm… playing games with very real things on the line.

Lucy found her chalk with shaking hands, and drew a big fat line at the door.

She thought long and hard about doing it everywhere.  Keeping people inside and interrogating them.

There was no way that would work.  There were other exits and she didn’t have enough chalk.  It would turn friends into enemies.

She felt very alone, out here.

She didn’t go back inside, she wasn’t that brave.

Instead, she went to the corner of the building, where she could watch two exits, and she tried to pull herself together.  Weapon ring, the last of the glamour gripped in her palm, and two cans of awful, awful apple soda.

She was so shaky and physically wonky she could barely taste the one she opened.

She told herself that the Witch Hunter could emerge, to not be surprised, that this was what he did.

When he actually did step outside, however… she couldn’t help but be surprised.

He limped, favoring one leg, and he was bleeding in a few places.  Fishmittens charged him from behind, and he didn’t put up a great fight against the small goblin, but he did throw the goblin aside after getting bitten a few times.

He jogged off.

Lucy let her second can of soda become a gun.

She couldn’t bring herself to raise it.  She’d wrestled with the idea of bringing the knife.  Lifting a gun, even on a night like tonight… it wasn’t what she wanted.

Alyssa had said to start from compassion and she was really fucking trying, with Chloe especially, but it was the furthest thing from easy.

“Hey!”

A girl’s voice.  Lucy raised her head.

Melissa, approaching at a run.

John followed the Witch Hunter out, Doglick at his side, the goblin dancing around him and headbutting his leg ineffectually every time it looked like he’d teeter over.

John, Lucy, and the Witch Hunter all shouted out to Melissa to get away.

There were still ghouls around.  There could be more traps in the area.  There was-

Melissa didn’t stop.  “Witch Hunter!”

“Stop!” Lucy shrieked.

Melissa didn’t listen.

It was the Witch Hunter who stopped.  He had only one of the fire-in-all directions traps on him now, and he tugged it free, facing Melissa.

He turned his head, looking around him.

Montague rose around him in a ring.  Bells tinkled, and traps were leveled.

Melissa stopped running, skin tearing away in folds that reached around.  She lifted up off the ground, slender, tall, dark-haired Maricica, looking down at the encircled Witch Hunter.

Lucy looked away, hand cupped so she couldn’t see the man.  It was clear what would happen.

She could see Maricica though.  The Faerie gestured, making a gesture like she was flicking at the man.

The sound of it all was too much.  Lucy turned away, walking, without looking at the aftermath.

No, there was more aftermath to be had.  This wasn’t the sort of thing that settled this easily.  The Witch Hunter had friends, he had an employer, and…

Too much of this had happened because key people in Kennet had let it.


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One After Another – 10.e

Interlude

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He slept a nascent sleep, impossible to track in hours, days, weeks, months, years, or centuries, because it was a sleep so embedded in meat, meat chunks, and mud.  Grey-brown earth had diluted blood pooling in depressions, black-red bubbles oozing out along with the detritus of violence and waste- parts of broken toys and watches, teeth, wasted staples and scattered wrappers.  This waste is pooled so deep here that it transcends time and nature.  Here, things do not rot, but recycle through, collect, bubble up, and sink down.

An expert hand reached in, wove between bits of trash, and found him.  Two fingers plunge into mouth and throat.  Fingernails keep him from closing mouth and teeth over the offending digits, stabbing upper and lower gums.  He bites deeper regardless, as the fingers in his throat make him vomit and he thrashes, kicking and screaming, into light and action.

With a flick, he was flung into mud and dirt, skidding a few feet before traction was lost.  He puked the remaining dirt, blood, and gunk from his lungs and stomach.

“You’ll do.  Disappoint me and I’ll twist your head off and shove it up your bunghole.  Disappoint me a lot and I won’t kill you when I do it.”

“Blah,” he replied, spitting.  He looked around, bewildered.

“I bind you, blah blah, seal of Solomon, and I oblige you to bind any other goblins you bring forth.  Yeah?”

He nodded.

The homes looked as though they were made of wet paper; they absorbed moisture and buckled, stained and in places even let light shine through, highlighting the spots of mold and stains.  It was dark but there was a lot of ambient light, shining from inside places and around corners, people of various shapes and sizes gathered around, sitting in mud or on whatever trash was available.  It was a street, and it looked like the buildings were designed to focus more on letting alleys happen than on actually being decent to live in.  Rooftops were partially walkways, when other things weren’t stacked on top, and various boxes and collections of things were stowed off to the sides, many protected by creatures big and small.

The things that lived here were- were goblins.  He knew that.  They could be as small as mice and as large or larger than the heavyset one who sat atop a house, no less than fifty medium sized goblins crawling over and around the flesh that pooled out around him.  He could use his own mass, rearranged, as a chair.

There were goblins with noses like broomsticks, noses like hatchets, noses like animals, and no noses at all.  Overbites, underbites, teeth so snarly and woven together the mouths didn’t look like they could open, lips stitched and wobbly too-open mouths with tongues lolling out.  When there weren’t noses or weird mouths there were beaks, or muzzles, or body mods.  Some were naked and others were clothed in trash and rags.

“Stay, or else we’ll do the head twist.  Yes?”  The goblin giving the order was a woman, head like an unpopped zit with features molded into it, hair purple, clothing purple, and it was very clear she stood above a lot of the rest, because she’d been able to pick and choose trash until she had that color scheme.  It didn’t suit her.

He’d been awake for a few minutes and he knew it didn’t suit her.

“Yes!?” she raised her voice.  Some heads turned.

He nodded, mute.

She walked away, rummaging through trash.

He patted himself down.  No real nose, short nubby ears at the side of his head, wide mouth, big head, big belly, stubby arms and legs.  There was a brown bottle in the dirt and it came up to his belly button.

A pair of goblins were sniggering.  They were a pair, very similar, with very tall heads topped with greasy hair, and mouths that extended sideways, with one’s skewed as if the left side was shorter than the right, which extended to his ear, and the other with teeth sticking out of his cheek on the left side.

The newborn watched, eyebrows furrowed, as they pulled a goblin twice his size out of the crowd, festooned with metal and teeth.  One of them hurried to dig a hole, before the two of them shoved him in and buried it.

“No asking for help!” one of them barked, the other stifling his mean snickering.

The goblin lady in purple gave them the finger, grabbed her forearm in a deathgrip, and squeezed flesh and blood upward, so the hand and then the finger swelled, big, disgorged and purple.

“Running out of time!” the other one said.  They fished around in the wettest dirt, and each found another newborn goblin.  Each a little under twice the height of the little brown bottle.

“Ten… nine… eight… six…”

“Here!” the goblin in purple declared.  She threw two more newborns into the muck.  They skidded.

And the brothers reached in at the spot they’d buried the other and hauled out the big one, with the metal and spikey bits, and the snaggleteeth that looked like they could bite an arm off.

“What!?” the one in purple barked.  “No!  Get bent!”

“You’re weak!  Can’t even find a goblin this good!” one of the twins jeered.

“He looks familiar.  Haven’t I seen him!?”

“So cocky without a cock to call your own!”

“Nobody wants you!” the first jeered.

The insults got meaner.

She got flustered enough she seemed to forget about the part where she recognized the goblin they’d buried and dug back up.

One of the others she’d found started to sneak away.  She kicked it hard enough it bent its leg the wrong way.  “Don’t run!  You’re fighting for me!”

“How can it fight?” one twin jeered.  “It’s so small!”

“You’re so bad at this!”

She huffed, turning redder, until her zit-like head threatened to pop.  Her voice became a low growl, just for the three she’d picked.  “Fight for me or else.  Don’t suck or extra fucking else, got it?”

Other goblins were gathering, or moving to vantage points where they could look down on the scene.

So many, he thought, looking around.  So many eyes on him.  Some brought sources of light closer, guttering flames in containers, makeshift lamps, and torches.  It only made the roughly circular arena seem darker.

It was a series of one-on-one fights.  The goblin with the screwed up leg from being kicked was pushed forward and then staggered forward the rest of the way.  They -gender unclear with tufts of fur getting in the way, lasted about three seconds before the other newborn smacked it across the face, then leaped on top of it, pounding it with its fists, expression transforming to a growing glee as it discovered violence for the first time.

Second.  A female with a face that all extended to a point, who moved forward on all fours, and then picked a bit of twisted metal out of the mud.  Her head twitched, shaking, and she sneezed.  She advanced, cautious, pausing to sneeze here and there, while the other goblin, still smiling, watched, caught between defending himself and his new hobby of pounding the now unconscious first goblin.

He apparently wanted to pound until the very last second, when he could move onto the new target, but he underestimated how fast the pointy-faced one was, or how sharp that metal was.  She got a few good cuts in, putting him on the defensive, then sliced him across the belly.

There was more blood in the muddy street, now.

“Bahaha!  I pick good ones!” the goblin lady in purple cackled.  “See!  See!?”

“Get her!” one of the twins barked.

They sent their second.  He didn’t seem to know how to fight or want to fight, and his death came quickly.

So they sent their third.  The one they’d buried and dug up.  Huge, compared to all the rest of them, with metal bracing all around his head and more metal strapped to his body, no care given to sharp edges.

He didn’t care much about the sharp bit of metal she wielded, either.  She cut him four times, and he picked her up.  She flailed, screaming, cringing, babbling frantically.  The crowd erupted.

“Kill her!”

“She fought fine, break her legs and toss her aside!”

“Spare her!”

“Make her eat something!”

It was chaos.  Goblins shouting over one another, saying all kinds of things.

But the more scared she got, the more she babbled and sniveled, the less kind those things they were saying became.

Can’t do that, the last of the newborns thought.

He watched as the big goblin lifted the pointy-faced one up, then bit her head off.  Members of the crowd alternately winced and jeered.

“Don’t make me kick you,” the goblin in purple warned.

All confidence, head held high, the last newborn waded forward, glancing down here and there, searching.  A bit of metal wire that could poke.  He grabbed it.  A wooden skewer with a desiccated goldfish on it.

The big goblin watched him carefully.

The last newborn stood taller, and smiled wide.

The wire was too little, the skewer would break.  He saw a fang, and picked it out of the mud.  Then, because he only had two arms, decided to put it in his mouth, mud dripping from tooth and hand.

The other goblin stared at him, the headless body lying in front of him.

So the last newborn smiled back, holding back fear.

The bigger goblin, not moving closer, reached down, scooping up mud, and shoved a handful into his mouth.

Why?  What?  Was he a moron?  Didn’t he realize?

The last of the surviving newborns dug into mud again, picking it up, lifting it slowly to his mouth.

And the other scooped up mud, choking back a large handful to beat him to the punch.

The twins were complaining, jeering, stepping forward, but others held them back from interfering.  Whatever they were saying wasn’t penetrating over the raucous crowd.

The last of the newborns didn’t actually eat the mud, but picked it up, letting it slop down his front, throwing weapon aside to use two hands.

And the other gobiln shoveled the street mud into his mouth, choking it down.  Trying to win a contest or benefit from what the last newborn was trying to do.  Every shit-eating grin shot his way only spurred him on further.

He dug up another newborn, deep in the street mud, and his eyes flashed, as if he’d discovered the supposed secret or realized what the prize was that he was trying to discover.  He went to eat the newborn, and it fought back, scratching and biting.

The no-longer-the-last-newborn used that distraction, used the fact his opponent was now bloated, stomach badly swollen, and went to pick up that piece of metal his predecessor had taken up.  With a slice, he opened up the stomach and all the mud his opponent had been eating spilled out again.

The arena collapsed.  Goblins entered, some picked him up.  He screamed, releasing his anxieties and pent-up fear, and the scream became laughter.

The goblin newborn who’d been excavated by his opponent was partially lifted, partially climbed over arms and hands, tackling him in the air with a hug.

“Me!  I picked him!  This is my victory!” the goblin in purple cried out.  “Yay, Pustulebottom!  Yay!”

Even in how he was raised up, hands pushed and grabbed parts of him and sometimes wrenched. He was turned, flipped, swayed, and it was bewildering and violent.  The goblin clinging to him was female and bloody from the scratching she’d given the other goblin and she seemed to see him as her savior.

The goblin in purple was taller than most, so she shoved and pushed her way to the middle of the crowd, and then reached up, seizing him firmly, pulling his companion away.  Goblins backed off a bit, and she remained there, pumping her fist in the air, beating her chest.

Much of the crowd lost interest.

She soaked in as much of the residual glory as she could, responding every time someone tried to communicate to him, or offer him a treat if he found them at a stall somewhere.  Interjecting, trying to claim the rewards.

Off to the side, goblins were carrying an unplugged freezer full of warm meat down the road.  They set it down at the base of a building, and it carved a furrow into the mud.

Two newborns were buried in that mud, near the surface.  One was injured by the freezer passing over it.

They paired up, one taking the hand of the one with the skin stripped from the back of his head, helping him stand, before they scampered off to places more of their scale, out of the way of tromping feet and freezers.

“Fucking- I have to be nice to you now, don’t I?” Pustulebottom asked.  “You’re my champion or shit like that.  They’ll remember this for a week, ugh!”

He started to try and formulate a response, then spat out the tooth and a bit of mud, off to the side, to clear out his mouth.  “Bleh.”

“You want a name?” she asked, clearly dissatisfied.

He nodded.

“Then I’ll call you-”

🟂

“Toadswallow.”

“I saw,” Toadswallow replied.

The Witch Hunter had woken early in the morning, the rest of the motel’s residents coming and going while he slept, trapped in a room with a Nightmare.  From that point, he hadn’t stopped.  Now the entire nature-ridden region east of Kennet and a full fifth of the city near it were being considered a no-go zone.

This was why.

Snowdrop had stepped in to relieve some of the Others who were getting fatigued, even though she was tired as well.  She’d stepped out into the late afternoon crowd, spotted him, and he’d spotted her almost immediately.

Now she was making a brisk retreat, weaving through the crowd, while he followed unerringly.

“Bangnut, Bumcake, Tatty, would you unkindly distract our man down there from killing our opossum friend?” Toadswallow asked.

“Unkindly?” Tatty asked, shrill.  “What kind of word is that?”

“Go, or I’ll deliver you,” Toadswallow warned.  “An unkind sort of delivery that begins with a firework where it doesn’t belong.”

“Do it!  Do it!” Cherrypop demanded.

“You want me to use the firework, Cherry my dear?  High velocity, explosion at the end?”

“I’m going!  Geez,” Tatty snarled.  She scampered off.

“No, no, yes, use it!” Cherrypop piped up.  “Use itttttt!”

Toadswallow picked her up in a swooping movement, reached into his vest for the firework, and a wad of not-just gum that his beloved had given him, that he chewed sometimes while thinking of her.  He tore off a bit of the wad, stuck Cherry to the rocket, and then lit the fuse.

She opened her mouth to wail, and he pressed it closed with one finger.  “If you make it, tell Snowdrop to get out of this area of the city.  It’s his now.”

The fuse continued.

“Nod.”

She nodded, trying to pull herself off the gum wad.

The fuse hit the base of the firework, and it kicked off.  He aimed it, and let her rocket off across the street with a sharp ‘Fsssss’ sound.

She tore herself off the wad of gum, leaped down about twenty feet to a trash can, bounced hard off the rim and into the alley, and the rocket continued for a little while.

The firework went off behind a business, startling about a dozen people on the sidewalk.

And a wounded Cherrypop, holding a bit of crumpled up food wrapper around herself, ran down the sidewalk, moving with the wind.

Below the rooftop Toadswallow waited on, Bangnut and Tatty crossed the street, clinging to the undersides of cars, darting between them as they passed.  This wasn’t something they weren’t practiced in, but doing it this deep in the city was something that required certain help and permissions.

Ken was altering flows and giving them his blessing for the time being.  The goblins had access to the more active, living parts of the city, where water, electricity, and heat flowed inside the walls and beneath the roads.

The Witch Hunter carried on, closing in on Snowdrop.  He seemed to notice Bangnut and Tatty, and his head turned, looking up at Toadswallow at the rooftop’s edge.

As Bangnut reached the underside of a car, the car’s tire popped.  It was a sudden, violent sound, and the Witch Hunter backed away fast from the vehicle.  Buying Snowdrop time.  She turned into an alley, black rope around her hand, and there were people there.  She reversed course and went back to the sidewalk.

Toadswallow moved between rooftops, tracking the proceedings.  Tatty was also beneath a parked car, but the Witch Hunter was staying too far away.  Didn’t she have some tools or tricks?

I’ll have to knock some sense into these idiots, about being prepared, Toadswallow mused.

“My daughter!” the Witch Hunter shouted.  “Would you grab her?”

Snowdrop hissed as someone hesitantly approached her.  They didn’t grab her.

The Witch Hunter lived in this world.  He had permission and access and privileges the Others didn’t.  He could say that kind of thing, asking to stop Snowdrop, knowing he looked suspicious, but attempting to force a conversation.  Once in that conversation, he could lie and Others couldn’t.  He could sound convincing and calm while any Other, even Lis, would give off odd vibes.  They would seem dishonest.  Or they’d be forced into a corner.

In an extreme case, police could be called, and Alpeana had said the Witch Hunter was from the Lighthouse group, and that they had a relationship with the police.  Someone higher up was a witch hunter or tangentially related to them, and believed in the mission.  Way higher up, most likely.

And if it didn’t go that far, it didn’t even matter, because the conversation had to end, people had places to go, and Snowdrop would be released and the Witch Hunter would be released, and he’d be closer to her, more able to study her.

The crowd hadn’t stopped her, though.  He carried forward, jogging, and Snowdrop broke into a run.

He could smell something that tickled at his nose.  Fruity and altogether too pleasant and warm.  Flowers and shit.  His face wrinkled up and he leaned over the roof’s edge, sniffing.

A person on the street looked up, and he pulled away before the innocent gaze could pass over him.  He moved to another corner, sniffed again.  He sneezed, wet, and wiped with the back of his sleeve, moving again.  He wasn’t nimble, hadn’t been born that way.  He was heavy for his size and he’d always be heavy, no matter how he treated his body or ate.

Third sniff.  He could measure the intensity of the smell, the freshness of it, and get a sense of how far away his target was.  It wasn’t as easy as measuring distances alone, because most of the people down there were moving.

Then, using logic, he could narrow it down.

Fae were prejudiced in their own way, choosing attractive people to associate with, so he could ballpark an area, look for the most attractive person, and check they were moving in the right direction.  There.  A person, touched with Glamour in a brief exchange with one of the Fae.  A woman in a short linen dress with scalloped edges at the bottom, hair in curated waves.  Attractive, like the Fae liked, stinking of, as he’d joked with the Kennet practitioners, ninny glitter.

Cherrypop caught up with Snowdrop, who bent down to pick up the paper wrapper Cherrypop was hiding under.  She deposited it in a trash can, but kept Cherry.

She glanced back and up at Toadswallow, who pointed, jerking his head to one side.

Snowdrop picked up speed, then crossed the street.  A car squealed a bit, stopping abruptly as she ran out in front of it.  She ran past the woman Toadswallow had identified.

The Witch Hunter pursued, crossing the street, and the woman passed him, giving him a long, hard, and curious look.

It slowed him down, as he turned his head, tracking her as she walked by.

He almost lost track of Snowdrop in the process.

Car tires squealed, and a car due to stop at the intersection didn’t- not completely.  One tire stopped rotating and the other carried on, the tail end of the car swung out, and the Witch Hunter was near enough he had to throw himself to the side.

There was commotion, people gathering closer- that slowed him down more.  Checking he was okay.  The driver scrambled out of the car to join things, apologizing, reaching out.

And Snowdrop was gone.

The Witch Hunter turned his attention to Bangnut, who scampered out from beneath the car and into the storm drain.

Then up to Toadswallow.

There were more who smelled like glamour in the area.  People passed the Witch Hunter, giving him curious looks, or offended ones.

This was a workable balance, but the Faerie would tire themselves out doing this.  The ninny glitter was Guilherme’s, and Guilherme was near enough to be useful but not so near he could be intercepted by the Witch Hunter, not easily.  The challenge they were running into, as Snowdrop had found, was that if they were close enough to keep track of the Witch Hunter, the Witch Hunter would track them.  But if they didn’t keep tabs on him, then he would emerge from nowhere, coming right for them.

As his territory expanded, the silver bells and then whatever he was doing here, he would get better at doing this over a wider area.

He wasn’t trying to resolve this situation today.  If he got one of them every few days, killing or disabling like he had a couple nights ago, then he only needed a month or two.  If he kept escalating his capabilities and working out how they operated, or if he took out a few more of their key players, then there was a chance he’d have one very good day where he got more of them.

Toadswallow unbuttoned his top button, reached into his vest, and dug into the mud he kept wet and close to his body, between fabric and shirt.  Clawed fingertips traced a circle and he reached into that circle, arm plunging into the hole there, to withdraw a stinkweed, growing out of a pot filled with specially treated manure.

He huffed as he ran along the roof to get ahead of the Witch Hunter, who was pursuing Tatty and Bangnut, now.  He eyed what was going on on the street below, placed the potted plant on the roof’s ledge, then nudged it over.

He didn’t wait to see the results.  He heard the pot crash and if Bangnut and Tatty reported that he’d struck home and killed the Witch Hunter, he’d be smug and act as if he knew and it was intended.  If not, there was a very good chance the spatter would catch him.

If he had good eyes, they’d use their noses to smell him coming, or at least slow him down while he removed the smell from himself.

Toadswallow beat a hasty retreat, following the other, less natural stink.

They all lived in different worlds, operating by different rules.  Toadswallow had emerged in the middling Warrens, where life boiled forth from mud with such ease it was expendable.  He had almost been expended, but he’d realized things early and he had built on those realizations in the decades since.  The power, the privilege, the ability to change the world and the ability to exist were all predicated on having a story and having an identity.  To do otherwise was to be expendable.

When there were this many faces and names and they became anonymous for being this numerous, the stories were short ones, to be forgotten, saved, or twisted around for the next short story.  And they were enunciated in rage, disgust, outrage, jokes at others’ expenses, narcissism, sharp wit, and other feelings that lasted for moments.

Humanity was figuring that out.  That one graphic picture could get ten times the attention of a piece of poetry.  That the average person, given the choice between a hot and heavy exchange of bodily fluids and a night at the opera in starchy clothes, would pick the former.

And the Faerie, by contrast, were retreating.  They didn’t get involved, going back to their courts and kingdoms.  The ones who ventured out were exiles, the tired like Guilherme, and the young, like Maricica.  Faerie were on their way out.

He found Guilherme, wearing the guise of a twenty-something man, shirt partially unbuttoned, skin tan, hair black and thick, swept over to the right side, while the left side of his head had the hair braided.  Jewelry twinkled at his ear.

“Where do you work?” he asked a man of roughly the same age.

“The coffee shop a block that way.”

“Is it any good?”

“I might get fired if I say no.  The pie’s good.”

“Yeah?” Guilherme asked.  He smiled.  “Is that an employee perk?  Getting the leftover pie at the end of the night.”

“Yeah.”

“Lucky.  Hey, if it’s okay, I’d like to run a survey by you.  A minute of your time, I’m in a rush, I don’t want to give you the scientific rigamarole or whatever.  Let me put some details down on my paper and send you your way.”

“Is this paid?”

“No, people get in trouble for doing that, but hey, uh, while nobody’s around…”

Guilherme led the guy a few steps off to the side, hand on his shoulder.  There was a faint handprint of glamour there.  “I could stop by and buy a slice of that pie, and tip you?”

“Sure.  Yeah.”

“Let me get this survey done before I run out of time.  I want you to look at two pictures… tell me what you think.”

Pictures of men’s faces.

Toadswallow reached into his jacket, found a bag of mud, and deposited the mud on the rooftop, drawing out a circle.

Below, Guilherme coughed and fanned at his nose with the pictures he had yet to show the bystander.

The circle filled in with mud, and Toadswallow plunged into it.  He traveled through goblin spaces, aligned to a trash chute inside the building.

He exited into an apartment with heaping clothing and collected refuse, and sat with his back to the wall, head just beneath a window that had been opened to air out the space.  Guilherme was a matter of feet away.

“And this one?”

“Seems evil.”

“Insightful.  He’s a criminal.”

“Really?”

“Really.  Have you ever thought of going into law enforcement?”

“No.  God no.”

Guilherme laughed.  “Sorry.  Sorry.”

“Nah, it’s okay.  Is that it?”

“That’s it.  Easy and helpful.”

“Cool.  Drop by for that pie, yeah?”

“I’ll try.”

In little ways, Guilherme had steered the man over to one direction, stood in another way.   It meant he went left instead of right, on his way to work.  One more person sent out into the area with ideas in his head and a touch of glamour around him.

“Toadswallow?” Guilherme asked.  Toadswallow could see the side of his face, and his lips didn’t move.  Sound didn’t travel in any direction except to Toadswallow himself.

“Did you hear me?” Toadswallow asked.

“Smelled you.  Where’s he gone?”

“Our hunter turned west.  Stinks of manure, with any luck.  He almost had our dame Snowdrop.”

“With luck we’ll smell him coming as well, then.  There’s less room for that luck as long as you’re here, filling up my nostrils with the smell of you, goblin.”

“So ungrateful!  What have you been doing?  Putting notions of evil in the heads of youngsters, Guilherme?  Isn’t that crude for a Fae of your standing?”

“It’s less crude than you know.  I’m doing many things at once and I’m doing them in a hurry.  None of you would recognize the art in what I do, if I did art.”

“That just sounds lazy.”

“We’re done here.  If he’s coming, I’m going.”

“I was there, working against him, and you’re running, my good gentleman.  Does that mean I’m the braver man?” Toadswallow asked.

He timed his guttural cackle of a laugh to cut off Guilherme’s first attempt at speaking.

Guilherme responded, “I seem to recall you saying bravery and stupidity are rooted in the same thing.  A year ago or so.”

“That does sounds like something I’d say to you, brave Faerie.  Does it shrivel your testicles, knowing I got closer to our mutual enemy than you were willing to?”

“He’s here.”

“Good deflection,” Toadswallow cackled.

Guilherme turned his head, looking into the window.  He donned a smug smirk, shifting how he stood.  Fingers ran through his hair, rearranging it, and the stench of glamour filled the air.  A woman walked by in the same moment, glancing at Guilherme, looking annoyed.

“Crude trick, Guilherme,” Toadswallow commented.  “What are you, two hundred years old?  Getting her annoyed at how attractive she finds you?  Or flushed with the thoughts of how she might smack the obnoxious smirk from your face?”

“I loathe that I have to use it.  It’s nothing so crude.”

“More’s the pity.”

“Again, I must do multiple things at once.  I’ll see you at the meeting later, with luck.”

“With luck?  Am I such a lucky charm?  Do you flatter me with comparisons to a dismembered rabbit’s foot!?” Toadswallow raised his voice, getting to the point of a near shriek by the end of the question.

The whisper carried back in the air.  “A dismembered something.”

Toadswallow checked the coast was clear enough, pulled his monocle off, then held it out the window, angling it to see in the reflection of the smudged glass.

The woman who had walked by, annoyed, was rubbing at her eye.  She bumped into the Witch Hunter as he rounded the corner, and he caught her before she could fall.  Except she wasn’t falling.

“Creep!” she shouted, pushing him away.

And attention gathered.

Toadswallow reversed course, going up to the roof and the small, temporary hole he’d forged there.  He arrived in time to see the confluence of actors and glamours.  The woman with the scalloped linen dress returning with a shopping bag in hand, jogging forward- interrupted by a passing man with dark hair.

Guilherme had taken Toadswallow’s bait, to prove something.  He got close, keeping to the crowd, keeping people between himself and the Witch Hunter, while people surrounded the man, asked what had happened, and the woman continued to rub at her eye.

The Witch Hunter spotted Guilherme.

This was Faerie practices 101.  The nudges, the arrangements, knowing how people acted well enough to guide those actions.  A thought of an obnoxious man putting thoughts on the defensive, shaping her reflexive reaction, helped by her inability to see.

It wasn’t that Toadswallow didn’t appreciate many of these things on their own.  It was just… so much effort for something so subtle.  He preferred farts in a can and fireworks.  They were far more fun.

The Witch Hunter’s hand moved toward his gun.  Someone noticed.

And Guilherme slipped away, glancing at Toadswallow, who smirked in response.

There were more agents of Guilherme’s, influenced and caught in the midst of their routines, returning or walking dogs, like boomerangs thrown out, all passing by this point around this time, most attractive, all nudged in subtle ways.

And Toadswallow could see what Guilherme had been talking about.  The multiple things he was doing.  The initial focus was on the Witch Hunter, but there was more on the other antagonist.  Much as the woman in the linen dress had been interrupted and wasn’t stepping up to play her role, a family came through the area, filling up space that Guilherme’s agents would have occupied.  Some pushed forward anyway- to Guilherme’s credit.

A lot of people on two sides of the Witch Hunter probably influenced the direction the man took as he saw the opportunity to pull away, heading out toward the river, southwest.

Toadswallow inhaled, deep, and the summer glitter was heavy in the air.  Beneath and behind it, close to that family and the man with black hair who had interrupted Guilherme’s maneuvers… the musk of dark fall.

The game was afoot.

The Witch Hunter had no idea how two factions were using him.  Guilherme nudged him one way, trying to entrap him, while Maricica freed him, countering the pawns Guilherme used.  Sending him out toward the water and the southwest.

Toward John.  In a roundabout fashion, toward the Ghouls.

Toadswallow put the monocle back, the lens from a child’s pair of glasses, sorted out his things, then plunged into the depths.  He was already thinking of his own moves.  Talking to Snowdrop, rallying the goblins he’d just scattered around as distractions.

Playing with the balance of power between Maricica and Guilherme, now.

🟂

“Dee, you fuckwit, what the everloving fuck is that?” he asked.  “You’re gone for forever and you bring that with you?”

Dee was a skinny adolescent of a goblin, bat-nosed, big-eared, bug-eyed, with fangs poking out of the corner of her mouth.  She fit to human proportions, so she wore human clothes- a lot of fishnets and mesh stuff with a big spray-painted smiley face on her chest.  Some of it had reached past the mesh to paint her skin with flecks that had fallen away, dusting her belly and the top of her shorts.

A human girl followed her, holding onto the back of her shirt.  Wearing a nightshirt with a cartoon character on it, her hair messy.

“It’s a long frigging story, Turdy.”

“I frigging bet,” Turdswallow replied.

“It’s a baby!” Bubble cooed.

“Child.”

“Same thing!  They’re all babies!  So cute and fresh faced!” Bubble cooed.  She hurried forward, pink hair with a white streak in it bouncing more than she did.  The kid shrank back behind Dee.  “How does it taste!?”

“Iunno,” Dee replied.  “I don’t want to eat it.  It followed me, mostly.”

“The story!” Turdswallow pressed.  “Tell us!”

“Pay me!”

“Fuck you!”

“Do I exist for your entertainment?  Is that all I’m worth!?”

“Yeah, you do and yeah it is!  How much do you owe me, helping you out, you twit?”

Dee paused, then got a scheming look on her face.  “Does this clear my debt, if I tell the story?”

“Fuck no, it doesn’t.  But it’s a start.”

Her face fell.  “Frig, fuck, fine!”

Bubble creeped around Deedee, reaching out with a claw to pat the child’s hair, as the child shrank back, hugging Dee close and keeping the goblin between herself and the goblin with the shaggy pink hair and fanged grin.

“Spitsucker was showing me the ropes last week.  I’ve been thinking for a while, I gotta get out of this pit.  Gotta get friggin’ gone, yeah?”

“Why would you want out?” Bubble asked.

“Because…”  Dee waved a long, skinny arm around at the Warrens.  They were in a sub-cavern, a roughly circular area with tunnels extending out like spokes, bits of trash stuck to the walls to indicate where each tunnel led to… sometimes.  Sometimes goblins stuck things there for fun.

A goblin about fifteen feet across and thirty feet tall was occupying the center of the central space, a pillar of an entity, fleshy, with bits of technology gathered all around it.  Gremlins served it, bringing food, hauling wires, pulling things apart and putting them together to improve the setup.  Screens hung from chains in front of the many eyeballs, wired to other screens and various feeds.  Many channels all at once.  A lot were cartoon reruns.  Turdswallow and Bubble were hanging out, cuddling in a corner and watching from a distance, trying to strike the right balance of having a good view and not being too obvious to the busy gremlins who would demand payment at random times, for a chance to watch the cartoons and things.

“It’s a place that fuckin’ devours you,” Dee said.  “Can’t get away from crap.  If you don’t look like you’re working then they’ll recruit you or eat you or some worse shit.”

“They’ll recruit you or eat you or worse shit up there,” he grunted his response.

“There’s a reason so many go up there.  It’s less- it’s way friggin’ bigger, Turdy.  Way bigger!”

He wanted to argue but couldn’t.

Dee went on, “I’m sneaky.  Spitsuck was showing me the bump in the night crap, right?  Go under some kid’s bed, right?  Right.  Then you scare ’em, and the parents come, and you scare them too.”

“Good work to be doing,” Bubble said.

“Right?  Yeah!  An’ it keeps me busy and shit.  An’ if you do it right you can get ’em before they grow up and put everything away in their brain boxes.  That thing under the bed was all imagination, boxed up, taped, packaged and put away.  There’s a lot you can get away with if you time it right.  Steal stuff, toys, tools, games, pawn ’em off here.  They’ll put that in the same box.”

“Pets, though,” Turdswallow said.

“Pets, yeah.  An’ it’s not usually good work.  But Spit and I were doing some next level crap.  Phrogging.”

“I don’t know what it is but I like the sound of it.”

“You do the usual, under the bed crap, but… closets, attics.  Make secret doors, right?  Spit makes entrances to the attic, paints over it, looks like it was always there and shit.  Or if they have huge fuckin’ houses, you move into a room they don’t go into.  Live in freaking luxury, take food from the kitchen, whatever.  An’ you live in their houses without them knowing.  Ramp it up, take things, make noises, screw with their heads, spy.”

“That is next level,” Bubble cooed.

“So I was doin’ that.  I’m creeping around this kid’s room.  She’s got those popular toy bugs, pictures on their backs and crap.”

“Love bugs,” the kid muttered.

“That shit, yeah!  Yeah!  I’m taking that stuff and selling it.  Kid’s all huddled up in bed every night so she seems okay with it.”

“I liked those, actually,” the kid said, sullen.

“Anyway, so I’m there and dad comes in.  Kid’s in bed, covers pulled over her head.  He walks over, bam bam bam, punches her.  Walks out.  What the fuck, right!?”

Turdswallow looked at the kid, who glared at him.

“I know goblins who’d do that,” Bubble said.

“He doesn’t even do it like he thinks it’s funny!  He does it a few nights later.  Kid’s not even sleeping anymore, it’s cramping my style, and she sees me.  Normally that’s fine, but I’m pissed at this point.  There’s only so far I can push this crap.  So I wait two nights, kid’s in bed, I climb under the covers with her, curled up behind her.  She doesn’t move a muscle.  Dad comes in, stomp stomp stomp stomp, punches me.  Way I see it, I’m entirely justified in what I do.”

“What did you do?” Turdswallow asked.

Dee broke off, frowning hard.

“Deeeee.” He leaned in.  “Deee, what did you doooo?”

“Deeeee,” Bubble echoed.

“I had to get rid of him, okay?”

“Because he hit you?” Bubble asked.

“Naw, nah!  No, because one weird hurty thing you do to someone can be explained away at the hospital, but five?  Nah, that’s too many questions and they’d probably ask the kid and kids are shit at lying.”

“So you brought the kid?” Bubble asked.

“She came!  Ugh!  This was a mistake.  I had to dispose of him, she followed, I thought maybe the crotchdroplet would peel off and go mind her own business once she knew he was really gone, but no, she keeps following me.”

His nostrils flared.  She didn’t smell like all the normal smells.

“Kid,” Turdswallow said.

The kid looked at him.

He rummaged in a pocket, and pulled out a cold cheeseburger.  “I was going to poison this, leave it and see what happened.  Might’ve already poisoned it but I’m pretty sure I didn’t.  Want?  Can’t promise you won’t shit your brains out.”

The kid hesitated.

“Grease, fat, salt, meat,” Bubble said.  “Everything you need to grow up right.”

The kid reached out.

He pulled the cheeseburger back.  “Talk first.  Why follow Dee?”

The kid shrugged.

“C’mon.”

“C’monnnnnn,” Bubble echoed.

“Where else was I supposed to go?”

“Yeah,” he replied.  “There are places.  If you want, I’ll take you back somewhere good.  But you gotta think of us as big imaginations after a big trauma and crap.  And you’ll have to pay us.  Bury all your baby teeth in a hole in a spot we tell you to or somethin’.  Whenever you lose ’em.”

“Those contradict,” Dee said.  “Can’t forget us if she has to do that.”

“You contradict, you ditzwit!  You let a kid follow you down here!”

The kid reached for the cheeseburger.  He handed it over, let her get her hand on it, but didn’t release it.  “You want to go somewhere safe?”

“I want to watch cartoons,” the kid said, pointing.

“You-”

“Gotta pay,” Bubble informed her.

The kid patted her legs where pockets would otherwise be.

“Here,” Turdswallow told her.  He fished in a pocket and found a can lid with a razor edge, half an apple with a really big centipede hidden in it, and a coin that had been somewhere unmentionable.  “Give them these if they ask.  One at a time, every time they ask.  Don’t eat the apple bit.”

She nodded, holding the things with the same hands that held the cold, greasy cheeseburger.  She ran off about thirty paces, then stood by, watching the screens, startling a bit as the big goblin burbled.

“You’re so good with kids,” Bubble said.  “Will you give me one?”

“That age?”

“No!  In my belly!  A baby child thing!”

“Ugh.  You can find those all over the place.”

“But I want yours!”

He grunted.

“I’m gonna keep doing the creepy stuff, pawn off anything I grab, scare some people and shit,” Dee said.  “Maybe once I get enough scrounged up I can get what you guys have.”

“It’s good work.  Sounds like you’ve got a plan, Dee-diot,” Turdswallow said.  “Except you can’t bring the little shits home!  Don’t change the subject!  What are you doing with her?”

“Who’s changing the subject?” Bubble asked.  “Baby.  Now.”

Dee shrugged him off.  “Aw, I’ll just look after her, I’ll nudge her if she’s wandering into trouble.  How hard can it be?”

“They’re all fragile, y’know?  They don’t bounce back like we do.  And you were saying you’re leaving to work on other stuff, right?”

“Want her?” Deedee asked.  “She’s so easy, look!  Cartoons, she just sits there!  Give her your leftovers.  And I bet she’s obedient.  Kid!”

The kid looked over.

“That piece of paper!  On the ground, right by your feet.  Bring it to me!”

The kid picked up the paper, then jogged over, bringing the paper.

“See!?”

The kid went back to watch cartoons.

“So easy!”

Turdswallow grimaced.  “You’re… not wrong, it’s dangerous to stay down here, get too comfortable.  Been hearing rumblings.”

“Yeah!” Deedee agreed.  “I wanted to ask!  What are you doing?”

The twit couldn’t keep two ideas straight in her head sometimes.  Smart sometimes, an airhead at others.  She was forgetting she needed a babysitter as she urged him into a career choice.

“I dunno,” he said.  He looked at the kid, then Bubble.  “Bubs?  What do you want?”

“Meat.”

“My meat?”

“All meat.  I got ambitions,” Bubble said.  “Gotta get strong, gotta kick ass, gotta eat meat, gotta get more meat that’s not for eating.  Meat makes the world go around.”

Turdswallow nodded.  It was a good answer.

“And you?” Deedee asked, excited.  “Creeping?  Being a bump in the night?”

“Ah, nah,” he told her.  “I’d get bored.”

Bubble gave him a pat on the head.  “You’re too smart, Turdy, too clever for your own good.  Gets goblins killed, if they can’t sit and be stupid.  When your brain goes too fast you get moving and it’s easy to move into trouble.”

“Yeh.”

“There’s kid stuff!” Deedee exclaimed.  “If you’re good with kids and you’re smart you could do kids!”

“Phrasing,” Turdswallow told her.

“Kids!  They’re all squishy and malleable!  I could get that kid over there to do all sorts of things, like if I told her to spin around in circles before she talked to me!  They’re a riot!”

“Mmmmm,” he grumbled, while considering, his eyes narrowing.

“You’d have to sanitize,” Deedee told him.  “Fix the language and shit.”

“Shit,” he grumbled.  “I can do that.”

“And the name.”

“Want to do it with me?” he asked Bubble.  “We could turn you to… Bubbleyum instead.”

She made a face.  “It’s not all aspirational and shit.  Hard to climb the ladder in goblin society if you’re teaching kids what sorts of nails to eat.”

“Doable,” he told her.  “Not impossible.”

“Not for me, fuckyboo,” she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek.  “I don’t like kids that much.  At least if they’re ours we can smack ’em across the back of the head and tell them to go away for a few days.”

“Yeh,” he agreed.  “Yeah.  Arright.  We’ll think about it.”

“You could use my pet human as practice!  Show her the ropes!” Dee exclaimed, excited.

“Yeah.  Sure, some!  Only some!  Don’t go sticking your mistake on me.”

“She’s not that sticky.”

He stabbed a warning finger at her.

“You!  Child thing!” Dee called out.  “Come!”

The kid perked up, then ran over.

“You’ll need to protect your tiny ass down here,” Dee told the little girl.  “How are your knife handling skills?”

The girl shrugged.

“And improvised weapons,” Toadswallow said.  “And tricks.  Gotta keep some tricks in your back pocket.”

The kid looked at him and nodded.

“You are good at this,” Bubble said, leaning into him, head on his shoulder, hand on his buttock.

🟂

“You know that was too close, moron,” Toadswallow said.

Snowdrop shrugged.  She was wearing headphones with flared rims that mimicked an opossum’s ears, black denim shorts, and a gray crop top with a white snowdrop flower where every petal was an outline of an opossum.  Florid text around the flower read ‘I have a mouth and I must scream’.  There was a hood attached, and Cherrypop slept inside the hood, making it poke down a bit, the collar of the top pulling tighter across the throat.

They zig-zagged between backyards and traveled along and through fences to get to the back of Avery’s house.

“A lady without something in her pocket is lacking,” he told her.  “Disappointed in her times of need.”

“Didn’t have anything, yeah,” Snowdrop told him.

“More than the rope.”

“I carry a lot of stuff, usually.”

He put a hand on her arm.  “You’ve got more of the Kelly girl in you now, am I right?”

Snowdrop looked at him.  “Nah.  She’s not giving me anything right now.”

“Then, my dear, you can carry more shit.  So carry more.  Be ready.”

“He’s an idiot who falls for that stuff all the time, so that’s a real winning plan.”

“Don’t get clever with me.  Everything counts.”

“And here I thought you cared about me and wouldn’t say stuff like this to me.  Meanie.”

“Snow,” he growled.  He held firmer on her arm, stopping her from walking.  “What’s your plan?”

“Ditch Avery, ride off into the sunset, steer clear of opossum males and trashy boys.”

“Gotta persist if you want that stuff, trashmouth.  Gotta live!”

“I know that!” she shouted.

Stupid sacrificial animal! he thought.  He didn’t say it.  Sacrificial animals got touchy about those sorts of things.

“So work harder at it, yeah!?” he told her.

“You don’t have to lecture me like I’m four months old!” the four month old opossum shouted.

“I was less than forty minutes old when I was figuring some of this out, so don’t give me excuses.”

She huffed, folding her arms.

He drew himself back, exhaled, and forced himself to calm down, to be composed.

He scratched the top of his head.

“How’s your human?”

“Headache free, happily sleeping, last I checked.”

He nodded.

“How’s our witch hunter?” Snowdrop asked.  “I saw some at the end there.”

“Headache free and running rampant, last I saw,” Toadswallow told her.  “Getting into our shit.  He’s checking places Others like to live.  Matter of time before he finds John or the ghouls.”

“I don’t like either of those.”

“Yeah, well, it is what it is.  So you like those guys.  You like your human?”

Snowdrop shrugged.  “I could stand to be through with her.”

“You like us?  Her, sleeping in your hood there?  The others?”

“Nah.  It’s not fun anymore, having to share trash food and being all immature and stuff.”

“Yeah,” he replied.  “I wanted to run an idea past you, but I’m going to need you not to tell your human.”

“I’m sworn to secrecy.”

“But you can keep a secret.”

“I’ll… keep everything from her.  No ifs ands or buts.”

She’ll keep some secrets, with discretion, he interpreted.  “Okay.  How would you like a bit of steady employment, down the line?”

“A job?  I’m free, no obligations, nothing.”

“When you’re free, when Avery doesn’t need you.”

She cocked her head.

“Remember the sage?  Plastic beard?”

Snowdrop shrugged.

“Most places have one.  Usually the same sort of rule as your Carmine, Alabaster, whoever, trying to stay so you don’t have to travel more than a day to find one.  Sometimes they’re in the Warrens, sometimes up here, sometimes they’re tucked away, and sometimes they’re further because goblins are really bad at counting and keeping track.  Helps manage things, to have someone.”

She cocked her head the other way.  “But-”

“You’re goblin enough.  You’re popular.  They like you.  It’d be a part time gig, bit of showmanship, bit of wisdom.  Not for right now, but a few years down the line.  Once you have that wisdom.  We’d need to get there first.”

“Great goblin sage Snowdrop?”

“If we call you a goblin, make that our rule, it’s a bit of a lark for anyone passing through.  What do you think?”

“I think… I’m adamantly opposed.”

“Does that mean you’re adamantly interested, or not completely opposed.”

“Nah.”

“Nah,” he echoed her.  “Okay.  I wanted to run that by you.”

“I’ll have to keep it a secret from Avery.”

“Hmmm.  Do me a favor?  Don’t go talking too much about it?” he asked.  “Think on it, we’ll talk about it again, after some things clarify, and you can bring it up then, how’s that?”

“I’ll have to keep it a secret from her, yeah.”

“Alright,” he said.

“Not sorry.  I shouldn’t go.  I was told not to bother her while she’s sleeping.”

“Sleeping at this hour?”

Snowdrop shrugged.

“Give me Cherry then.”

“Cherry,” Snowdrop said.  She tugged on her hood, jostling Cherrypop.  “You should stay asleep forever, jerk.”

“Cherry!” Toadswallow barked.

Cherrypop turned over.

Snowdrop stuck her arms in the air.  “Aaaaaaa!”

“Aaaaa!” Cherrypop replied, nearly falling out of the hood in her haste to spring upright and stick her arms in the air.

“Aaa!”

“Aaaaa!”

“Aaaaa!”

“Aaaa!”

Avery leaned out of her window.  All of them looked up from the back garden to the young teenager with messy strawberry blonde hair.  She had been sleeping.  She winced before hissing, “Shut up!  Please!”

“Headache’s gone,” Snowdrop remarked.

Toadswallow followed Snowdrop as she scaled up to the side of the house, to the little bit of roof that extended below Avery’s window.

Avery was there, looking pretty bad.  Worn out by a headache.  Elsewhere in the house, kids were screaming or shouting.  Avery winced with every sound.

“Tashlit can’t come back soon enough, it seems,” Toadswallow remarked.

“It’d be nice,” Avery said.  “I just hope Verona’s situation gets resolved.  Did everything go okay?”

“Stayed out of trouble,” Snowdrop said, climbing in through the window.

“Thanks for seeing her home,” Avery told Toad.  “Sorry I’m not more hospitable, but…”

“It’s alright, dear.  I had things to talk to her about.”

“I’m offended by the terrible offer,” Snowdrop told him, quiet.

“Good,” he said.

“Offer?” Avery asked.

Toadswallow glanced at the opossum girl.  “She’ll probably tell you.  You loaned her a lot of your Self, Avery?”

“Through our bond.  It’s a bit sloppy, though.  But I thought it would be better if she was strong.”

“It’s good.  But you’ll heal slower if you keep doing that.”

“I’d rather have a healthy Snowdrop,” Avery said.  “I’m going to close the window now and go back to bed.  Kerry goes out to the backyard and does the screaming thing, all on her own, so it’s better if I have the window closed.”

“Could use a trick.”

“Silencing rune?  I can’t draw it very well.  But I’m doing it a bit.  I didn’t want to spend much personal power while loaning out to Snow.”

“I was thinking of something like a slap from the old soggy handshake.”

Avery laughed, then rubbed the back of her head.  “Ow.”

“You know what I’m talking about?”

“Snowdrop gave me the rundown.”

The ‘soggy handshake’ was Toadswallow’s weapon form.  Goblins could become weapons, and his was something akin to a lone boxing glove resembling a very full diaper in consistency.  A heavy shackle locked it to the wrist, which let him mess with whoever had their hand stuck inside by having something writhe against the hand.  It also stored an improbably large number of random little goblin tricks and trinkets.  Glue bombs, screaming doll heads, capsules of suspicious looking brown paint, a Mother Tick from the warrens… distractions, easily fired off from the wrist with a slap of the free hand.

He’d worked with Bubble to match in that regard.  He was the right hand, she was the left.  Mismatched pugilist’s gloves.

“Ow,” Avery said.  “Be safe out there, Toad.”

He nodded.

She shut the window, then retreated to bed.  She was careful in how she lay down, arranging pillows.  Snowdrop cuddled close, and after Avery said something Toadswallow couldn’t hear, Snowdrop became an opossum, and Avery snuggled her close to her chest.

He left them alone.

There were bigger things at work.  Others were making their moves, and before too long, the Witch Hunter would make his next one.

🟂

The fairy danced between boughs, carefully adjusting leaves and branches, while referencing the back of a leaf, which had a very specific pattern on it.

She hummed, sang, and twirled, butterfly wings.  Moving a flower, breaking off a twig that had no leaves.

She tugged on another thing, and then realized it wasn’t a leaf.  She shrieked, then took flight.

Butterfly wings didn’t lend themselves to velocity, however.

Toadswallow reached out, caught her, and stuffed her into a glass jar that four other fairys were inside, corking it.

The faerie realm was expansive, everything carefully arranged, and fake.  There was no heart to it, because it was so far from being alive.  It was to the common human garden what the common human garden was to the rich forest.  Pretty, but useless for more than looks.

He continued picking up odds and ends, including the little things that were hidden in bushes.  Charms for listening and warding, it seemed.  None reacted to him, but they didn’t protect against goblins for the primary reason that most goblins didn’t care to come this far in, or got distracted well before they made it this deep.

Toadswallow had started giving some lectures and lessons to young practitioners with interest in goblins.  He was figuring out how little he knew, and he had an obligation now.  Bubble was working on earning power and clout with practitioners, working with a family, and he was peripheral to that, the two of them keeping an eye out for one another as they worked.  The goal, in the end, was for him to earn clout and influence the children of young practitioners, and for her to gain power to influence goblins.  And they’d fought, they’d separated, they’d gotten back together.  They’d known each other from the first hour they’d been born and they’d grown together- so many goblins didn’t eat enough or didn’t find the opportunity to grow so they stalled at small sizes.  Some didn’t have the potential, and others had it but didn’t seek it.

Size was the big way that a goblin could get clout, but they weren’t growing any further.  So he collected tricks, and Bubble gathered power, and they waited for an opportunity to flip the tables on a bigger, more powerful goblin.  Like they had, in that first hour they’d been alive, in Pustulebottom’s contest with Slackjaw and Cracksaw.

The frustration and the fights came about because they were both frustrated, both stumped.  The road to greatness was steep.  He had so much to learn and Bubble didn’t value the trinkets and little magic items he gathered.  He sold services to young humans and taught them things, but in the end, he didn’t understand the Abyss, or Ruins, or anything else.  He didn’t even understand humans.  It was a slow series of lessons and Bubble hated slow.

He hated it too for that matter.  So he took risks, like breaking into the courtyard of a Faerie Lord, seeing what knick-knacks and lesser wildlife he could take and twist around to goblin purposes.

Faerie approached.  Taller than humans, slim, obnoxiously pretty.

He drew into shadows, hand rummaging in pocket, and he found a good distraction, a little paper packet with a number of Warrens fireflies in it.  Each would set a fire every thirty seconds to a minute, until caught or extinguished.  Here, the Faerie would be obligated to handle each last one before getting around to chasing him.  Or they would chase him, then realize the fires were spreading behind them.  Or they would burn.

“You betrayed me, Ysolde,” one said.  “And to a High Summer princess!?”

“No, Eristan, not a betrayal, don’t you see!?”

“I don’t!  I can’t!”

Toadswallow gagged, silent, hiding within bushes.  It seemed so fake a drama.

“All of life’s a stage, Eristan.  All of us are telling a kind of story… each the stars of our own tale…”

Toadswallow lurked, holding the fireflies ready for a moment’s notice.

“The High Summer tells stories of adventure.  But adventure inevitably falls to intrigue, don’t you see?”

“Us.”

“The spring court, yes.  And better yet, if pressed, the best adventures are subverted by tragedy.”

“Tragedy, Ysolde?  But we’re of the high spring.”

You’re of the high spring, Eristan.”

“No!  Then you’re-”

“Yes!”

Toadswallow made a barfing sound.  Both Fae stirred, looking.

He hucked the fireflies their way, holding onto one corner.  The paper packet tore, the rest of the paper soared out, and it burst into a ball of flame, little bugs with lit-match bottoms flying around and setting a surprising amount of fire to the Faerie’s clothing and nearby foliage.

Stupid, he thought.  Stupid Faerie with their stupid melodrama.  Stupid ideas, stupid fanciness, stupid flammable clothing.

He legged it.  Back to the tunnel he’d used to break in.

He was halfway back to the Warrens when the thought crossed his mind.

But there are takeaways.

🟂

The Witch Hunter was inside.  In the factory where Nibble and Chloe were.

And Chloe wasn’t well either.  She’d been chained up and had been too dangerous to release, as of late this afternoon.  A berserk rage that had continued since her last altercation with the Witch Hunter.

John and Bluntmunch were inside, with Bluntmunch’s favored goblins.  They’d wanted to go all out.

The windows flashed but there were no sounds of gunshots.

Toadswallow sat, counting out his tricks, monocle flashing with reflected light as he periodically looked up.  Other goblins stood by.

Crooked Rook approached, and Toadswallow motioned for the nearest goblins to move away.

Rook stood there, holding the head of her cane in both hands, patient.

She looked down at Toadswallow.  It was just them now.

“Sir,” she said.

“Ma’am.  I’m so fucking curious what you’re on about,” Toadswallow remarked.

“You could ask,” she said, smiling.

“Would you be evasive?”

“I’d rather hold a position where I don’t have to evade.  Saves energy.”

“Do you?  Hold that position?”

She smiled.

“What are you up to?” he asked.

“Standing outside a factory, waiting to see if we were right to place trust in the hands of John Stiles, Bluntmunch, and Bluntmunch’s favorite goblins.”

“Some goblins will die,” Toadswallow said.

“I believe it.”

“What are you up to in Kennet, in general?” he asked.

“Keeping to promises made while terrifying Matthew and Edith, avoiding the practitioners that you all so thoughtlessly recruited, intriguing you, sir.”

“Am I intrigued?”

“Most are.  And I do believe you understand why, better than many, Sir Toadswallow.  Why it’s so important to be intriguing.”

He chuckled.  “Do I intrigue you?”

“You did.  But I’ve figured you out for the most part.  You’ve a ways to go, sir.”

“Too bad,” he said.

The windows lit up with another gunshot, silent.

The Witch Hunter’s shot wasn’t silent or silenced.

“Are you a fighter?” he asked.

“A poor one.  I manage.  I’ve heard you’re not one.”

“A gentleman goblin with a bag of tricks and a mind to suit.  I pick fights I can win.”

“Better to not fight at all.”

“I agree more than you know,” he told her.  “But here we fucking are, standing on the road outside a factory, eyes on windows, ready to leap into the fray if it’s asked of us.”

“Here we are, yes.”

A full minute passed without gunshots.

“Alpeana came to me this morning to tell me things,” Crooked Rook said.

“Did she?  She told us all things about the Witch Hunter.”

“She told me certain details, quite interesting.  She also told Maricica.”

Crooked Rook glanced at him.

Toadswallow sighed.  “She’s a bit, how shall we say it?”

“Overworked?”

Glaikit.  A moron,” he told her.

“Unkind.  I prefer to blame circumstance first, then to take the best possible interpretation, and then to think of things like that.”

“Being a moron is a terrible circumstance.”

Crooked Rook shook her head.

“Do you extend this jolly fucking philosophy to practitioners, Rook?”

“Oh yes,” she said, peering over the mask she held over her lower face.  “What a circumstance, that.  Almost always their own fault.”

“So we’re on a similar page, then, hm?”  He chortled.

“Perhaps.  I did hope to sound you out about the page you were on, Toadswallow.”

“The last I checked, the last page I glanced at was a French lingerie magazine, with fancy words for each outfit.”

“Don’t deflect.  I said I’d figured you out, Toadswallow.  I think you’re very smart, but you’re also prone to missing out on the critical details.  I suspect I know your answer, but I wanted to ask… of the two sides, one wanting to take the Carmine Throne and cast Kennet in new light, and one wanting to oppose that and seek peace…”

“John’s peace?”

“John’s peace, yes.  Who do you side with?”

“Neither.”

“Tell me.”

“A long few years ago, I visited the Faerie courts.  I came to a theory.  If words of it left my lips, half of the Others here in Kennet would want to draw and quarter me.”

“Yes?”

“And I think you’d hear me out more readily than just about anyone.  Verona would take to it, but she’s not here.”

“Don’t talk to me about her or them.”

He chortled.  “The Faerie live by stories.  But so do goblins.  It’s… the limerick to their poetry.  The one-liner to their epics.  From a very early point in time, I knew it was important to tell a lie and portray myself as confident, to be open and ready for ideas, and to be armed with any tool… even theirs.  Perhaps that equips me in a unique way.”

“Not unique.  Rare.”

“The thought crossed my mind… what if the goblins were an eighth faerie court?  What if we’re a counterpoint, noisy and active, to Winter?”

“I shan’t say a word, Toadswallow.  They would want to draw and quarter you, Fae and goblin alike.”

“Everything I’ve done since, aping them, dressing myself up, giving myself a meaningless title, the tricks, using their tricks in my own way, like the curse of three… it’s worked out well enough.  I have no glamour, but the Winter Fae have little else.  It makes its sense.”

She looked down at him, and it looked like she was smiling, from the way her eyes lifted up.

“You’re not saying no.”

“Were I to say yes, and if word were to get around, I’d be the focus of much upset here in Kennet.  You’ve neglected to mention what I asked about.  What are you doing?  What is the aim of your… faction, shall we say?”

“A faction of one with some buttocks he kicks into steep motion now and then?”

“Yes.”

He gave the Oni woman an appraising look.  He suspected she understood, and he suspected she had either had her own thoughts along similar lines to his, or others had, and those thoughts had been passed down to her.

He decided to trust.  “Many courts have their markets.  Each trades in different things.  I think Kennet could host an eighth.”

“A goblin market?  With you at the helm?”

“Not me at the helm.  I’d prefer to walk around, friend to many, giving advice, jolly and just threatening enough.”

“I see.”

“Do you hate the idea?  I think it would be interesting.”

“I’ve nothing against goblins.  I’d support you.”

“Hmmm,” he grunted, approvingly.

“I won’t say a word to Bluntmunch.”

“Bigger is often the same as being in charge, when it comes to goblins.  He’d object on basis of size differential alone.  It’s truly fucking obnoxious.”

“But I should, at this point, raise a point of interest.  There’s a reason I walked over here.”

He turned his head, looking up at her.  “It wasn’t to inquire about sides and affiliation, to subtly guide me onto your side?”

“Not at all,” she told him.  “I don’t believe much in subtlety, that’s more the province of others and I trust them to handle such things.  I believe in position.”

“Playing your chess game?”

She nodded.  “I changed my position and walked over here because Lucy Ellingson approached the place I was previously standing.  Just around the corner.”

Toadswallow went pale.  He looked at her, then walked a few feet to the right.

Sure enough, right around the corner, Lucy Ellingson was standing near Matt and Edith, wearing her fox mask, hat, and cape, her eyes burning.

And she wore the earring.

“Be careful.  Their kind can listen in.”

“You-”

Then Rook moved.

“You-” Toadswallow bit back vicious curse words.  Had she realized?  Had she done that on purpose?  It seemed so, but he couldn’t be sure.  Why?  To put him at odds with Lucy?

What could he even do?

To force him to her side, in a roundabout fashion?  He hadn’t wanted to take a side.  He’d wanted to build a market on the battlefield that Kennet was inevitably going to become, to invite other key goblins in, to gain power that way first and foremost.

“John just communicated!” Matthew shouted.  “Bluntmunch is down!  John wants assistance!  Collapse in and be careful!”

They moved.  Goblins were eager.  Guilherme was, for all his years, not about to let goblins beat him to the scene.  Maricica had things to prove.  The only ones who didn’t enter to fight were ones who couldn’t.  Lis, Alpeana.

Lucy didn’t rush into the fray, for once.  She was usually quick on the draw, but she paused.  Her mask hid everything, and the red eyes settled briefly on Toadswallow.

She and he rushed in to storm the building from near opposite directions.


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One After Another – 10.d

Interlude

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The Witch Hunter slept.  After a night spent awake and busy, he returned to his motel room at five in the morning, made phone calls, and then retired at six.

It made her job harder, when she wasn’t a creature of the day hours.  She didn’t incline herself toward light and the sun rose at a little past five thirty.  He locked the door and employed other mechanisms, drawing his curtains closed.

Even the most mundane barrier to entry could stymie her, from superstition to symbolic.  Curtains included.

She was grateful that the sky was overcast.  That helped matters.  It helped, too, that there were others nearby who slept.

Alpeana perched on the roof of a squat apartment building and she swelled.  Her mane extended, bubbling forth, locks reached out and across the street, twisted along the length of telephone and power lines, black hair snaking along black insulation.  She reached into the building, found holes in brick, and traced her way along those until she found one that worked.  Ants were trickling in in a thin stream, into a room occupied by a father, his wife, his sister, and their three daughters, the three daughters in one bed, husband and wife in the other, and the sister on a cot.

The children had left snacks unopened and the ants were having a day of it.  The room was a mess and had been because the family had been there for a time.

It made her think of where she’d come from.  The big family.  The crisis.

Alpeana stepped off the roof and into the darkness she’d spread.  She flowed, liquid, along the length of it, reaching and opening herself.

The middle of the three girls, ten, was most receptive.  Her eyes fluttered open, half-lidded, dream ready.

It was a piecemeal mosaic of half-remembered images of the day, each image lacking details, waiting to be filled in.  The girl was standing outside the gift shop with a Wink and a Nod.  Agents of Dream, immaterial and capable of connecting to the half-remembered to find order in the great unconscious.

The girl lurked outside the gift shop, peering around a corner, and she was accompanied by friends.  One a shadow of a face seen on television, the other a juxtaposition of two vaguely recalled classmates, aged up.  They were waiting and biding their time and it was Important.  If this were a scene on the television the music would have been fit to a heist, the tone monochrome.  The distinction was that the feeling of that heist was there without the music and the colors were lacking because the girl didn’t spend much energy on recalling them.

A group of overweight women were pushing and shoving at one another and the three friends were deciding how they’d get in.  For something Important.

Alpeana slithered through the scene, identifying and working with the pillars that held the dream intact, reinforcing them.  There were Rems, who extended from dream to body.  She could touch them and spread darkness into them as she passed by.  If these objects and agents were weak or fleeting then the dream could collapse easily.

There were Mnemes, as other lesser entities, recurring memories, carrying forward information from day to night and from dream to dream.  A car littered with fast food wrappers, until the floor couldn’t be seen.  Alpeana reached in and picked up a paper, and the writing on the wrapper read ‘Toronto’.

Her mane picked up the wrapper and tore it wide.

The car, crowded, the garbage incidental, father in the front seat.  Poking her younger sibling.

Monica, stop it!  That’s enough!  Leave her alone now!”

That was the Mneme, a poking and a fatherly rebuke.  It reached back weeks but Monica would never be able to recall the origin of it.  The loop and repeat were more interesting.

She fed power into the mneme.

“Monica!” the father’s voice was loud, a rebuke.

Alpeana snatched up the Mneme, then pushed the image of the car and the garbage away, darting away.  The Monica at the entrance to the gift shop stopped, turning, alarmed, and she noted the darkness of Alpeana’s passing as an ambient thing without processing it.

Alpeana touched the face of the building while the girl’s back was turned, reinforcing it.  The building face shuddered, and in a mirror to that shuddering, the girl’s eyes started flicking left and right beneath her eyelids.

Alpeana took the friends away.  The girl turned forward and realized she was alone.

“Monica!” the mneme barked, again.  Louder, angrier.

From there, it didn’t take much.  The girl filled in her own blanks.  The reason, the context.  Alpeana only helped it along.  Much in the same way color hadn’t been defined, the quilted patchwork of half-intact details lacked a time of day.  Monica hadn’t defined it so Alpeana defined it for her, as Late.

She could have put other things down, now, but she wanted to conserve her strength.

Leave… now…” Alpeana controlled the Mneme’s utterance.  It trailed off, begged to be filled in.

Monica headed back for her motel room, the Importance of the gift shop forgotten.

Other mnemes were appearing.  Over a year of moving from motel to motel, of moving, of parking lots.

Alpeana used the disparate pieces and made the scene as real as what the girl might experience waking.  She captured the feeling of not being able to find her room.  She magnified that Late.

The girl provided the final stroke to her own nightmare.  An angry father, late, lost, a strange place.

The car peeled out of the spot in front of the motel room, carrying her family away.  She was forgotten or worse, abandoned intentionally.

“Dad!” she screamed.  She pitched her voice high in a shriek.  “Lea!  Heather!”

Rems tied this to her physiological reaction and carried back power.

From faint dream to words muttered in reality.

The girl reached into her pocket for her phone, expecting it.

Alpeana took it away.  Empty pocket.

Monica broke into a run.  Going for help.  Alpeana got there first.

“You need to pay,” the person said, a little too soon, as Monica got to the office of the motel room manager.

“What?”

“If you want to use the phone.”

“I don’t have mine.  Please, I need to explain, I have to say I’m sorry.”

“You have to pay.”

Late.  Alpeana took that and used it.

“Can I please?  My father will cover it.”

“We’re closing.”

“Please.  One call!”

The Wink shoved Monica out the door, then closed it.

Late.  Staying up late.  The hours she was usually asleep.

Alpeana played one idea off of another and then strung them together.

Monica ran along the parking lot, vast as four Mnemes held together along Alpeana’s mane.  Into the urban environment.

The angry shout from her father could have been a nightmare unto itself, left alone, with no intervention from Alpeana.  Being abandoned was the sort of nightmare that was forgotten by afternoon.

But entering a city, then realizing she was so lost she couldn’t be found by family if they wanted to come back for her?  It was a prank, leaving her behind because she had been so Late, and she’d ruined it by wandering off.

The city swelled wide, uncooperative, never a crosswalk when Monica wanted one, every passing face unfriendly, and the terror swelled with it.

“Yer folk will be here when ye wake, lassie,” Alpeana whispered, as the girl twitched, made frightened sounds, and wept into her pillow, still asleep.  She kissed the tear off of the girl’s cheekbone, brushing her hair with a hand.

The nightmare served little in the grand scheme of things.  It didn’t smooth any wrinkles or resolve anything.

She had the material to carry elsewhere, now.

A Nod helped Alpeana to bring the youngest sibling from the cusp of waking up to deep slumber again.  Rems could be dropped in to lock her in that state.

Running, happy, chasing a sibling.  Alpeana helped her lose track of the sibling.

A Mneme.  A happy moment, a birthday celebration.

The song played for Lea, a group singing the song without her.  If she didn’t get there before the song ended she wouldn’t get her birthday.

Rushing taking a familiar path, bursting into the room.

Wrong room.

Alpeana populated it with another family, a scraggly looking boy who had said mean things.  A woman with missing teeth and an agitated way of moving, her clothes in tatters, always out at night, never the day.  She spoke to a fear in Lea, that this movement from motel to motel might never end.

She had been sassy about it, had complained, had even cried, demanding her parents improve the situation.  This fear, here, was fanning the flames of that behavior.

Alpeana crafted the scene while Lea tried to navigate it, feeling the anxiety of accidentally being in the wrong place.  She laced it with the sentiment of seeing something that shouldn’t be seen.

The door locked as Alpeana closed it.  She placed a snarl of imagery into the mechanism, drawing on a Mneme of a shower in Hamilton that replaced nearly every shower that appeared in Lea’s dreams, the controls incomprehensible.  Now the knob and the lock to get out of the room was incomprehensible.

The eight year old girl was locked in a motel room now, with a mother that wasn’t hers and a new, mean sibling.  She needed time to figure out the lock and nobody helped.  The new mother and sibling said mean things and distracted her, resetting her to the beginning.

And with that, the slow burning horror of becoming like the woman who sat on the bed, rail thin with skin that looked like she was dead.  The longer she was in a place like this, the more it progressed.

The oldest sibling dreamed of her father, explosively angry at her mother as tensions reached a peak.  Except Alpeana rearranged the scene, put Heather down as the focus, screwing up, her father angry at her.  Words tore into the many insecurities of an eleven year old without roots.  She could play into the loop, making this a Mneme localized to the dream.  Move this way, do this, and the scene would replay.  Try to move away, try to think about a way out of the loop, and Heather received a slap to the cheek, sharp and surprising more than it was painful, reset to the beginning.  A father she loved but was losing respect for tearing into everything that mattered.

Alpeana gave the father the same kind of nightmare, but twisted around.  His temper lost, saying biting, unforgiveable things he shouldn’t to a daughter who would carry those things with her for the rest of her life.  Instead of the slap, there was a feeling of flailing, being out of control.  If he pulled back or reined in feelings, then Heather or one of the other girls would do something and he’d snap.  Right back into it.

The mother dreamed of waking up in the motel room, realizing she’d forgotten her daughters in the car.  At Alpeana’s silent direction, Rems carried back the feeling of dripping in sweat, of heat, of physicality, and turned up the temperature.  The girls in the backseat were young, dead or dying of heat exposure as she tried to get into the car.  She tried to break windows to get at them but car windows were hard to break.

The aunt had a nightmare that was rooted in her own childhood, becoming its own Mneme.  Finding an animal by the side of the road, hit and hurt, and trying to put it quickly out of its misery.  Each attempt failed, eliciting biting and scratching from the roadkill, adding to the horribleness and misery, demanding the next attempt.

Alpeana took one room in the motel, then moved into the next.

A man away on business had a nightmare about returning home to discover he had a child he didn’t know about, riddled with health issues and complications.

An alcoholic sleeping things off in the motel was harder, too numb to reality, too lucid.  She spent more of the available resources and the limited time she had on the man than she’d wanted before realizing he wasn’t a good candidate.

She perched on his chest instead, drowning him in her mane.  The agents of Dream took his body’s movement, paralyzing him, and she let him see her as the nightmare.

Her, her dark eyes locked to his, her mane extended out to an employee elsewhere in the building, waiting for coffee to brew.  She helped guide the employee to sleep and then plunged him into nightmare.  Leeches and black slugs crawled across him, each leaving behind a snail-trail of slime with filaments.  His attempts to wipe it up only revealed the strings that wound around him.  No string could be torn or fully entangled, he couldn’t get the undulating life off of himself- every attempt only revealed that more were crawling out from under clothes.  Binding him.

There was no need for blood, or for the things to crawl into him.  He hated the idea of being unavoidably bound so much that he wet himself while nodding off, waiting for his painfully early morning coffee.

She reached out of darkness to draw curtains, then unplugged the coffee maker before plugging it back in.  It stopped boiling.

She unplugged the alarm clocks that would dismantle what she was making and wake those having nightmares, plugging them all back in.  She took phones and she didn’t know how to use them, so she put them in piles of clothing, instead.  More curtains were drawn closed.

The Witch Hunter had no doubt trapped his room, and there was too much danger that he had secured it against things like her.  It wasn’t hard.

She couldn’t enter his room and she couldn’t get to him directly, so she took the motel.  Every room painted black and drowned in Nightmare.  Her mane filled the available space.

That one motel room became an oasis.  One bit of light in a motel-wide darkness.  The darkness was left with no place to go but inside.

She let it bleed in, darkness dripping and leaking in, filaments of her mane naturally extending in through outlets and the holes drilled for cable and plumbing.

No traps were sprung, any wards that had been placed were only active for a little while before the inexorable pressure of accumulated nightmare broke them down.

She found him fast asleep.

🟂

The moon was starting to eclipse the sun.  It sizzled and roared, a static intensity that filled all background noise.  Darkness deepened further across the city, where everything was asleep and the people who weren’t asleep were a particular breed of nocturnal human.  Criminals and the desperate.

Monica ran until she bumped into the man.  She shrieked, looked at him, and at the first hint that he wasn’t lashing out at her or getting angry, she broke into tears.

He bent down, hand on her shoulder, and listened as she tried, in terrified sobbing, to explain that she’d lost her family.

This was a different kind of fight, to drown someone in nightmare.  He didn’t know he was dreaming and she didn’t know who he was, as a dreamer.  Every piece she set into motion was a tool at the same time it was a clue.  Rems flickered or maintained inconsistent position, or they throbbed and pumped with dull deep sounds in tune with heartbeat, getting more agitated as he did, or the walls expanded or props moved in tune with his breathing.  All to draw the connections to his physiology, so the dream could have more sway over him physically and pressure him down, keeping him asleep.  Noticing one inconsistency wouldn’t wake him, even if he was good at seeing things, like Lis had described.  But it would get him there.

She used four while he was distracted.  Four figures who walked in the area around him.  Involuntary movements of his arms and legs produced movements of theirs.  She kept them present but out of the way.

If he wakes I’ll have a fight with a Witch Hunter on my hands, me all tangled up in the motel, unable to run, Alpeana thought.

“You can call me Raff,” the man introduced himself.  “Raphael Tindall.”

“Monica Luis.”

“Hi Monica.  I’ll help you.”

“I’m so scared.”

“I’m a specialist in dealing with scary things.  Don’t worry.”

Alpeana found the Mneme again.

Monica!” a shout, faint on the wind.  Monica stiffened, all reassurance dashed away in a moment.  She remained transfixed, caught between wanting to go to her father, wanting to run from his anger, and being unsure if she’d really heard anything.

“It’s okay,” Raphael told her.

“No,” she replied.

Her subconscious was laced with lessons taught in children’s cartoons and a school event.  It barely took a prodding for those ideas to leap to the surface.

And Raphael became something insincere, his grip on her wrist too tight.

She pulled free and ran, and he ran after her.

Deeper into the mire.  The moon moved across the sun’s surface, burning, and the roar became that of a plane passing overhead.

A scream.

“Lea!” Monica called out.

They descended into the nightmare and Alpeana encouraged it deeper, piling up elements together, and accumulating the Rem, taking them from others to put in this nightmare.  She linked his nightmare to the others and their heartbeats, and dragged it all to a deeper, darker place.

The motel was across the street from a church, and that was Raphael’s doing, somehow, setting contrasts.  A dark place opposed to one he saw as warmer.  The motel was now a jumble of a building, rooms stacked on rooms like haphazard shipping containers, with sidewalk stretching up to multiple floors, footing precarious, railing broken in places.  A black slug crawled across the window, leaving a slime trail.

“Lea!” Monica shouted, as the scream repeated.  She ran up the stairs, then pulled open the first door she saw.

A heavyset woman burst out, screeching and angry.  Monica backed away, bumped into the railing, and metal creaked.

The Witch Hunter ran, sprinting, gripping the railing in a fierce effort to haul it back into position, before reaching out for Monica.

She fell, slipping from his grasp to drop a full fifteen feet.  A slow descent, like she had dived into water.

“Monica!” Lea’s desperate scream followed her.

She hit the car windshield below her, headfirst.  The way her body fell left no mystery about her fate.  The exact positioning of the landing called to the Witch Hunter, reflecting something deeper.  Face sliced by the slide of face against broken windshield.  There was something in that too.

Alpeana took note, quick, gathering up what she could from sentiment and symbol before she resumed trying to arrange everything.  Monica woke, her body replaced by a Nod.

Lea screamed, and he found his senses and his voice.

“Call an ambulance!” he shouted at the heavyset woman who had scared Monica.

Late.

“There are no ambulances at this hour!” the woman screamed at him.

He pushed his way past one of the Rems.  Alpeana worked, weaving things together, drawing it all in tighter.

“She’s dead anyway!” the woman shouted behind him.

Lea’s screaming resumed.  Desperate.

He gave chase, looking for the room.  People burst out of rooms, others remained locked, with ugly sounds on the far side.  More slugs crawled throughout.  He slapped one off his arm.

The moon continued its slide across the sun’s surface.  Everything throbbed with the roar of flame and the creak of the stone of the moon moving so much mass.  It filled a good portion of the sky, the eclipse two thirds of the way to being total.

He looked for the church, eyes fixing on the stone statue atop its peak.  He found some solace in that and Alpeana wanted to take that solace away, but there weren’t good avenues.  None that didn’t cost her more than she was willing to spend, in figments and half-remembered images, in echoes, ruin, rack, or memory.  She would have to keep him clear of that church.

It was his way out.

He found Lea, inside a hotel room, sitting on the lap of the emaciated woman with sores on dry skin and stringy hair.  The woman tried to shush her but everything about the way how felt wrong, too different from her own parents, and the boy pinched her and kicked, adding to the frantic nature of the situation.

“What are you doing to her?”

“She’s my daughter!”

“I’m not!  I’m not!  I want to go home, please, I want to go home!”

He entered the room, and the boy came at him, swinging, clawing, pulling him off balance.  A scrapper.  Something in that was important to Raphael.  Fed the boy strength and tenacity.

He found Lea’s hand and pulled, and the woman pulled back, but she did it with ragged fingernails.  Tearing skin.

“I’ll kill her before I let her go!  I’ll kill her, I’ll kill her, just you see, I’ll kill her!  I’ll kill her and then nobody can have her!”

He couldn’t let her go or she’d be fully in the woman’s clutches, the woman maddened.  He couldn’t pull, because every tug meant fingernails dug another trench into the little girl’s flesh.

Alpeana’s mane twitched, darkness boiling up.  She searched, reaching with hair and hand, across the scene.

Instinct and years of studying let her find the means with which to break him.

His hand slipped.  Lea slipped from the woman’s lap, falling, and fingernails tore skin as if that skin were clay, doing irrevocable damage.  Blood sprayed, slapping him across the face, and he fell onto the bed.  Slugs and leeches spilled out along with cockroaches, chasing after that blood spray.

The slip of the hand.  Another piece of a more meaningful scene.  Alpeana kept it.

Lea woke.  Not that he would notice or see as he stumbled back, onto the second story sidewalk outside the motel.

Below him, a woman pounded on a car window, keening.  Her words were various repetition of ‘no,’ ‘oh god’, ‘help me’, and words of endearment, less spoken than things she squeaked out between the unmodulated screaming.

Alpeana pushed the sound out there, let it chase him as he decided to abandon her.  He was trying to get away now, looking over to the church, looking for escape routes.

Was there one string of utterances that worked better than others, to wedge in his consciousness?  She tracked the Rems who mirrored his heartbeat and breathing, the movements of his eyes, and pushed the utterances out there, twisting them around before they reached him to make each different, and to see what worked.

You’re here for information, she told herself.

But she wanted to break him, to be done with the problem.  She could pursue both at the same time.

At one room, the door was open.  A man came tearing out, holding a hunk of bloody metal that might’ve been a toaster once.  He swung, wild eyed.

Raphael the Witch Hunter tried to get away, and string from the slugs limited his movement, tying him to the railing.  “Stop!”

“Such a disappointment,” the father said, words eerily calm and steady.  A stark contrast to the woman’s ongoing screaming.

Please, come back to me!” the mother shouted.

Raphael’s composure slipped.  He drew his gun without thinking about it, pointing it at the man.  “Stop or I shoot!”

“She let the family down,” the father said.

He came at Raphael, and Raphael shot.  Killing an innocent.

And the woman below screamed louder, horrified as her husband died.

He tore his way free, resolve slipping in the midst of all the chaos that surrounded him.

Alpeana found sirens in an echo she held.  The echo gave the sound an emotional intensity.  Defeat, loss, panic.

It didn’t have the effect she wanted.  Barely anything at all.

He doesn’t care about police.  That was one piece of information.

He ran, until he came face to face with the roadkill, and the woman trying to put it out of its misery.  It covered walls and floor, spreading with every blow that was meant to kill it.  Limbs twitched and teeth stuck out.

And in that, a final piece of the puzzle.

The moon slid into place against the disc of the sun’s surface and the flames were extinguished, guttered out with a bright white flash spraying out from one side.  Bright enough to erase everything.

Alpeana gathered the critical, interlinked pieces she’d found and carried things deeper into collective unconscious and memory.  They were the passcode, the arrangement of ideas that were both guiding light and key into more vulnerable parts of Raphael Tindall’s psyche.  She delved deeper, to gather what information she could, and to destroy the man if the opportunity arose.

🟂

Raphael rubbed the surgical needlenose pliers with holly, then used them to pick a bell out of the bag.

“What the heck are you doing, Raff?” Shawn called down.

Raphael, holding a second set of pliers, raised them close to his mouth, holding his breath so he wouldn’t breathe on them.  The gesture for silence.

Shawn had the body type to be a bouncer, was bald, and had a smile with a chipped tooth.  He crossed arms with biceps the size of watermelons.  Behind him, others were getting out of the car.

Raphael used the two pliers to tie the knot, metal clicking against metal.  He picked up holly with the pliers and rubbed it down.  Then he gave it a tap.

The bell made a small, high sound, and a hundred and thirty bells across the valley below the ski hill answered.

It was a sweet sound compared to the churning, grinding, burning sound of the eclipse, a ring in the sky that marked the ruined, unreliable ring around the city.  A perimeter as clear as day.

Rooted to reality, Alpeana thought.  It was bright and it was the wrong kind of dream for her to get too involved.  Not at this stage.

He gathered his things.

“Thought you’d want company, or backup.”

“No need,” Raphael told Shawn.

“Do you remember Tess?”

Tess was five feet tall, with enough hair for five people, frizzy black ringlets extending to the small of her back and about a three-quarter foot in every direction.  Even in the summer heat, she wore a baggy sweatshirt, and wore shorts short enough that they were barely visible beneath the sweatshirt.

“I remember Tess being twelve.”

Tess shrank back, as if he’d said something wrong, looking to the side.  “Sixteen now.”

And Raphael is twenty.

“And you know Dina and Cory.”

Dina was a tough looking woman, muscular, with a knife on her belt, wearing jean shorts and a tank top.  And Cory, despite being about a hundred and twenty pounds, was-

Scrappy, like the boy from Lea’s nightmare.  Alpeana wove it in.

Scrappy, hair messy, chin scruffy, with a perpetually agitated atmosphere that wasn’t because of drugs.  Cory’s eyes were small in a way that looked like he had two black eyes, minus the bruises.  He had the energy of an off-brand attack dog.

Melissa, Alpeana thought.

“Melissa!” Raphael called out.

The girl limped up the slope.  Melissa was aged up to seventeen because fourteen wouldn’t fit the scene, and it was somehow important that Tess be the youngest or close to the youngest.  Melissa had her hair crimped, wore a t-shirt with a logo, and a polka-dotted skirt that flared out a lot.  She unconsciously shrank down a little when situated around the others, like they made her feel uncomfortable.

“They’re friends.  Easygoing,” Raphael told her.

“That makes me feel more out of place.  I’m not an easygoing person.”

It wasn’t the true Melissa, but Alpeana didn’t need much to control the scene or convince Raphael.  He was thoroughly in her grip.

“It’s good if Tess has company,” Dina said.

Tess gave Dina a look.

“Should we go?” Dina asked, smiling.

They all climbed into the van.  The engine started up, then they left Kennet.

Kennet wasn’t in the actual memory, and neither were half of these people, Alpeana noted.  She had to work to stitch things together.  Turning leaving a minor everyday job into leaving Kennet.  It gave her openings.  Such as…

“What were you doing?” Tess asked.

“Alarm and arm,” Raphael said, sorting out his bag.  Shawn opened the back of the truck and Raphael tossed his bag in.  “Control an area, I like to start with the perimeter, because the urban areas get snarly.  Open areas are nice, so I started with that.  One place with room to shoot.”

“Shoot?  What about police?” Tess asked.

Shawn, sitting in the driver’s seat, let out a laugh heavy enough he didn’t drive completely straight down the winding, up-and-down road.  “We have pull.  One phone call to the right names and the worst that will happen is we get dropped off outside of town instead of taken to a jail cell.

“That easy?”

“It’s not a card you want to play too often,” Raphael told Tess.  “Are you going to be working with us?”

“I don’t know.”

“Had a bit of trouble at school,” Shawn said.

“Shut up, Shawn,” Tess said, quiet and tense.

“What’d you do?” Melissa asked.  “Swing a punch?  Set fire to the chemistry lab?”

“Nothing.  I tried to stay out of everyone’s way and they didn’t let me.”

“Bullying,” Dina said, not especially quiet.

“Shut up!” Tess said, insistent.

“Easy, it’s cool, Tess,” Cory said, from the passenger seat.  “We’re having a day vacation, trip up to the lake, enjoy the water…”

“…Not swimming.”

“Barrel of laughs, this group,” Melissa said.

“Be good,” Raphael warned.

Melissa shut her mouth, then nodded.

“What’s Melissa’s story?”

“Something opened her eyes, she’s apprenticing under me.  We’ll go to the lighthouse when we’re done here.”

“Lighthouse?” Tess asked.

Alpeana recognized the Mneme as it stirred, seizing it for later.  It would distract and detract from the scene if used now, but it was information.

Without that thread to go by, the nightmare progressed.  A bad sentiment overshadowed everything, and the eclipsed sun burned a ring in the sky directly overhead.  The van sped through dusty back roads and rural communities.  There was the angel again, a lawn decoration.  Then a derelict cemetery that the road curved around, the angel remaining in view, stone with a square base.  Raphael, elbow on the windowsill, watched it.  It seemed to turn to stay facing him.

Clouds moved over the eclipsed sun, until it seemed the only lights were sunbeams in the distance.  The road rose and fell, hypnotic.

“Fucked up my ankle, and apparently there was some sketchy stuff involved.  I started digging… dug too deep I guess.  I tried to drown it all in booze and pills and that asshole got in my way.”

“I’m an asshole, am I?” Raphael asked.

“Yeah.  You held a freaking gun to my head.”

“That’s so Raff,” Shawn said, laughing, like he was quoting a show.  A few people chuckled.

The darkness deepened.

“How do you know each other?” Melissa asked.

“Friends, from high school, led to work.  Cory’s known Raff for a good long while.”

“Childhood friend.  We don’t talk enough,” Cory said.  “Don’t get me started on how hard it is to stay in touch with this guy.”

“Tess is the cousin of one of our mutual friends,” Raphael told Melissa.  “That friend, uh, she’s spending ten years on a vacation from society.”

“Ah huh,” Melissa replied.

“We like Tess enough we keep her around,” Shawn said.

Tess drew a knee up, foot on the seat, and hugged her leg.

“What’s your deal?” Melissa asked.

“Don’t pry.”

“I told you mine.”

“Melissa has a hearing problem,” Raphael said, his voice a warning.  “It goes in her ear, everything works physically, but somehow the words do not penetrate.”

“Is it supernatural?”

“No,” Tess replied.  “People suck, that’s all.”

“I think we’re more on the same wavelength than you’d think,” Melissa told the girl.  “Fuck everything, am I right?  Fuck people.”

“I like the people in this car,” Shawn announced, bodybuilder and enforcer in the driver’s seat.

“Fuck you guys a little less than the rest, how’s that?” Melissa asked.

Shawn chuckled.

The lighthouse briefly took a position of prominence in Raphael’s mind.  It was an excuse to move the scene forward, while he wasn’t paying attention.

The tire popped.  The van went off the dirt road, hit the slope where the dirt was built up to the road surface, and keeled over.  The van landed hard on its side, one hard impact, followed by the collision with a tree.  A cooler in the back practically exploded, showering the rear of the car in ice and ice water, with one can clattering against the window that now looked down at ground and ground only.

And then the pained cries, the moans, and the struggle.

“No bars, fuck,” Cory swore.

There were attempts made to open the door next to Dina, but the branch of the tree they’d bumped into prevented it.  Melissa had cracked her head on the window as the truck had gone sideways, and wasn’t coherent, Shawn was too hurt to move much, and he was big in a way that blocked access through his door.  Mostly he sagged down in Cory’s direction.

Raphael did his best to move, squirming past the two younger girls, to the trunk area, but even that was fruitless.  The trunk of the tree had crumpled it.  Violent kicks didn’t budge the trunk door.

“Hello!” Cory shouted.  “Hey!  Hi!  Hello!”

Raphael twisted around to look.  At the window above Shawn, a face peered down.  A girl with a long brown braid and a serious expression.

“Can you help?  Can you call someone?” Cory asked.

The girl remained mute.  She reached down, grabbing Shawn.

Dina protested.  “Don’t move him!  If there’s something spinal-!”

“We have to!” Cory replied.  “He’s moving anyway, the way he’s hanging!  Listen, miss, can you even get him out?  He’s like, two hundred and fifty pounds of dense-ass muscle,” Cory grunted.  He was shifting position, using both legs to try to push Shawn up.  Shawn’s own movements were faint and slow-motion.  Dina undid Shawn’s seatbelt buckle, and Cory grunted as he bore more of the big guy’s weight.

Even Dina reached forward, to reach between seat and the side of the car or around the seat to grab onto bits of Shawn and keep him from falling back down.

The woman or girl managed to pull Shawn over the edge.  The car rocked as he landed on the ground.

“Got him, okay, hopefully she can get him into a car or something,” Raphael said.

“Hopefully.  Hey miss!” Cory shouted.  “Are you there?  How’s our guy doing!?”

All of them, except for a groaning Melissa, fell totally silent, listening.  There was nothing.

Cory unbuckled, then, frantic, climbed up toward the car window.  It took a moment, and then he slipped out.

Tess was next, and it was a struggle for her, her ankle hurt.  Then Dina.

“Can you get out?”

“I can but Melissa can’t!”

“We’re going for help.  Look after her!”

Raphael swore under his breath.

But he obliged.  He found towels and adjusted Melissa so he could soak up the ice water that was collecting against the side of her head, arm, and shoulder.

In another, true-to-events version of the scene, it isn’t Melissa, but another girl, an older friend of Tess’s.

Making her comfortable.

At least an hour passed.

“I have to leave you.  See what’s happening,” he told her.

She didn’t respond.

He left her behind anyway.  He had to, because nothing was improving.

It was nighttime out now, the eclipsed sun burned its faint orange ring in the sky, and the wind stirred up the dust of dry dirt road and the nearby field that hadn’t been touched in a long, long time.

No sign of the others.

He started running, cutting across the field, toward the derelict house and barn.  Dust blew in dense clouds that hung about four feet off the ground and lower.

He heard screaming.

“Cory!”

“Run!” Cory responded.

He squinted through the dust as he hurried in the direction of Cory’s voice.

“Run away!” Cory shouted, and the clarification made Raphael pause, before he resumed.

Cory stood at the edge of the field.  Wolf traps had snapped closed around his legs, crushing his calves.  He leaned onto the fence to avoid putting weight on it, but it didn’t work.  With his other hand, he held a pitchfork awkwardly.

And the girl with the braid, smaller than Dina, wearing a homespun dress, was carrying a scythe and wearing a calfskin cap and supple leather apron.  No smile on her face, no emotion at all.  But she swung the scythe at Cory and he jabbed out with the pitchfork, catching the blade in the tines.

“Cory!” Raphael shouted.  He broke into a run, eyes scanning for things he could use as an improvised weapon, or the glimmer of metal.

He misjudged the shadows, on a field lit by the eclipse alone and obscured by rolling clouds of dust.  One patch of darkness wasn’t a shadow, but a deep, narrow hole.  His foot dropped into the hole, knee deep, and forward momentum kept him going, his leg nearly bending the wrong way as his lower leg stopped short and the rest of him carried forward.  He screamed at the tearing in his knee.

Cory was distracted, let his guard down.  The woman turned toward Raphael, and swung her scythe around, catching an unaware Cory at the lower legs.  The corroded blade cut through bone, just above the traps.

Raphael hauled himself free of the hole, then tried his best to hobble away.

She didn’t chase, instead turning her attention to Cory.  Picking him up.

House.  Inside the house there had to be a phone.

He hobbled inside.  The door was open.  Nothing in the front hall.  Nothing in the kitchen.

Upstairs?  He didn’t want to give up on escape routes-

“Oh god, oh god,” Tess’s voice was audible.

She’s panicked, not hurting.

Going up the stairs was easier, if nothing else, because there was a railing.

Tess shrieked at the creak of a stair, and he lurched into the hallway, trying to find balance and breath.

“It’s me!” he shouted, belated.

But she was running for a window.  She looked back, and one of her feet hit a floorboard with more wobble to it than the rest.  The floorboard extended to the wall, and the window slid shut, just in front of her.

Tess saw, but couldn’t stop before she crashed, head, shoulders, arms, and upper body, into the glass.  Lacerations to every part of her.

“I can’t do this, I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t-”

“Tess,” he said, trying to stay calm, glancing down the stairs.  “Help me, let’s do this together.”

“Have you seen the barn?” she asked.

He shook his head.  “Only Cory.”

“We have to get away or die trying.  We can’t go there.  We have to be able to call for help.”

“Why?  What was there?”

The front door banged.

Raphael looked, and it was the girl with the calfskin cap, the edges ragged, the original calf’s ears sticking out to the side, the tassels draping down.  It would have been silly in any context where she wasn’t covered in Cory’s blood, soaking face, apron, and dress.

She looked up at him, he looked down at her in fear.

“I’m jumping.  If I break a leg or something and I can’t get away, you have to find a way to finish me off.”

“Tess, that’s insane-”

Tess crawled through the window and fell through.

He raced down the hallway.  That floorboard made the window rattle when he walked on it too.  He reached the end of the hallway, looking down.

Monica fell in a certain way.

A terminal fall.  Bits of cloth from Tess’s sweatshirt were caught on the nails that bristled out like waiting hooks, to catch at flesh and cloth.  She might have made it down without that.

He leaned out the window, noted how the roof slanted, and headed for the bedroom.  Simple, spartan, with a cow skull mounted over the bed and two more skulls in the corner, sitting one atop the other on a chair.

There was a window, dusty.  He hurried there, hearing footsteps behind him.

And the floorboards broke.  It dropped him to the room below, a hard fall that was doubly hard on his already injured knee.

Floorboards creaked and snapped, and he fell to the basement, cushioned by a carpet of bones, big and small.

Hurt, out of air, bewildered, he struggled to pull himself together.  He didn’t manage to before she made her way from the top floor to the basement.  She walked on bones with bare feet, and as ordinary as she looked, in frame and proportion, she was strong enough to drag him with both hands.  Up the stairs, toward the barn.

He struggled, found some strength, and resisted, and she didn’t care.  He groped, fumbled, and fought, and she was relentless.

A deformed calf was at the barn entrance, two faces for one body, all three eyes milky, the coat mangy.  She gave it a pat on the head as she passed, dragging him.  He focused on trying to break her grip, prying at fingers, bending one back as far as he could, and she seemed immune to the pain.

Past a group of mangy, sick looking cows, some with staples across faces or down necks.  The cows moaned, groaned, and mooed at him, or made sick, guttural sounds a cow shouldn’t make.

As she dropped Raphael, she reversed direction.  His hand gripped the end of her dress, ineffectual, and she stepped on his injured knee, making his entire body arch.

He collapsed onto his back, sweating all over, trying to catch his breath, and he got an upside-down view of Cory.

Cory was missing his lower legs, the stumps branded so they wouldn’t bleed as much.  A metal collar and chain were hooked around his neck.

The chain and collar- he turned to look, huffing for breath, and saw more of the chains.  The same arrangement, each chain attached to the ceiling in a way that didn’t look like it was meant to be unattached, extending down to the start of a collar that was buried in cow flesh.

No.  Cow skin.  The collar was around a human neck…

He had to recontextualize everything he was seeing.

The only real cow he could make out was the mutant calf.  The rest, seven in total, were people, people with cow skin and parts stapled to them, bodies bent and broken into the right rough shape.

She returned, carrying the shackle.  He fought, and in that fighting he won a few times, kicking her leg with his good one, bowling her over.  He smashed her across the face with a metal bowl he snatched up.

None of the victories helped.  They only bought time.  She recovered, or she didn’t care about the pain, and in a shamefully short twenty minutes or so, he exhausted himself.

One last attempt.  He groped for and found a nail, old fashioned, half a foot long.  He swung it, aiming to put a hole in the side of her neck, and she reached down with the shackle.

He punctured flesh, impaling her neck.  The shackle slipped closed. There was a part that went into his mouth, pulling his tongue down hard to the floor of his mouth.

The puncture didn’t kill.  He pulled it out, and it barely bled.  She turned away, stepped on his ruined knee on her way back, then rigged the chain, hauling back on it.

Pulling him into a stall.

Shawn was already her victim, draped in a cow skin, hands nailed to a wooden beam in front of him, his body bent forward.  Dina was in the stall between Shawn and Raphael, draped in a skin that had yet to be affixed to her.  She made low moaning sounds, fought chains, pulled.

He still had the metal nail.  He tried his best to work it into the lock or bend a part of the chain, but it didn’t work.  Too thick.  He worked with the slack on the chain, twisting or manipulating it, but that didn’t work either.

Her procedure was steady, inexorable, and calm.  She worked on Shawn for hours, stitching.  Then, that done, she got a milking machine, and rigged it to the udder that now dangled low, out of Raphael’s sight.  Another one went to the wound at Shawn’s side.

It hadn’t been Shawn.  It had been another person he’d known.

Alpeana used the glimmer of the nightmare of the man who’d found he had a baby who would be in the hospital for the rest of his life.  Tubes and medical… to make this more real, more three dimensional.

Milk coursed into dirty tubes, joined by a measure of blood.  Shawn raised his head, and when he did, the cow’s eye fluttered in a shaky blink.

Raphael concocted his measure of escape, tearing off his shirt with the help of the metal.  Then, terror sealing all things shut, he unzipped, straining.

Dina couldn’t see, except out of one cut in the side of the head of the nearly-intact cow skin that draped over her.  She watched, and that didn’t make it easier.

He urinated on the shirt.  Instinct made him want to pull away, but he couldn’t.

Then, shirt soaking wet, he tied it, wrapped it around the slack on the chain, and used the metal to twist.

Wet fabric was harder to tear than dry fabric, and twisted up fabric doubly so.  The rust of the nail biting into his hands, the smell of urine thick in his nostrils, he wrung the cloth to the point it was compressing the chain.

The monster woman started on Dina.  Nails first, to pin the hands down.  Then the stitching.  He had to wait, holding the slack and the urine-soaked shirt down below the divider between the stalls.  The ‘mooing’ and moaning of captives wearing skin that wasn’t their own filled the air, and he thought it might drive him mad.

A gun cocked.  Raphael stood upright, and for a blessed second, all sounds stopped.

Then the first ‘cow’ made its frantic cry, trying to form words without a tongue available.  Pleading, shouting.

A man at the entrance wore a long black coat, and looked very uneasy, holding a gun aimed at the woman.

“Milkmaid?” he asked.

She nodded once.

“Same deal as usual?”

She nodded once.

He pointed down toward the base of the old fashioned milking machine, which was soaking in a seemingly endless quantity of milk from people who should not have been able to produce any, mingled with blood and maybe pus in one instance.  Smaller containers held fluid.

She nodded once.

“My mama’s been wanting to do a youthening ritual, she says this gets the smoothest results.  Need anything on the next trip?”

Head shake.

“My dad’s getting too old to drive up, so I’ll be the one from here on out.  Dean Rowsome.  I’ll be here next week, if that’s ok?”

She nodded once.

“I left the things you like on the doorstep of the house, as I was instructed.”

Another nod.

Raphael cried out, frantic, top of his lungs, straining to make words.

The man walked away, taking his milk with him.

The milkmaid stepped outside.  Presumably to check on whatever was dropped off.

In a frantic, desperate attempt to get free, Raphael wrung the chain with the urine-soaked cloth until metal gave.  Then he unwound, checking.  A link had bent, collapsed.

With the nail, he leveraged that link until it bent enough that the entire chain could come free.

He freed himself.

Shawn was- there was no way he could save Shawn in a way that didn’t take thirty minutes.  The guy had been barely able to stand earlier and now he was so covered in stitches and fake skin that he could barely move on his own.

So he focused on Dina.  Opening the door to the individual stable, then approaching her.  He found a hammer and used it to free her hands from the plank in front of her.

She tapped her mouth.

He hesitated- he’d rather break the chain, but-

He couldn’t remove the collar so instead reached into the cow’s head that was now attached to her skin, finding and bending the tab that extended into her mouth with the claw end of the hammer.  Blood welled, and she spat it.

“I can’t run,” Dina told him.

“Neither can I, but-”

“I can’t run,” she told him.  “I can’t go.  I’d hold you back, we’d get caught again.  You need to go for help.”

He shook his head.

She leaned forward, the chain clinking.  The eyes of the cow head that overlapped and covered her head closed.

The horror of it mirrored the roadkill in someone else’s dream, that he’d glimpsed.  Alpeana drew on that sentiment.

Something in her had been changed, she wasn’t human anymore, or something.  He had no idea what that meant.

“Go, be safe, but you have to go now.  Get Tess and Melissa.”

He hesitated, as if he might tell her, then he nodded.

Alpeana readied the next piece of the picture.

Please, come back for me!” she shouted after him.

“I will!”

He ran.

He fled the house, entering the field.

And she was there on the front porch, biting into an apple.  She turned to look at him.

She was faster than he was.  She strode, walking around a dark patch of ground, then leaping over something.  He hobbled, slow already and slowed further by the need to make sure he wasn’t walking into a trap.

Rolling clouds of dust and darkness obscured the scene further.

Alpeana prowled close, playing with the details, pushing him, and picking up the sentiments and feelings that he left behind.  To know what he felt and what he saw, and piece together how he worked.

He turned, deciding he had to fight.  She was unarmed, except for the apple.  He had the nail, clenched in his hand.

The exchange was brief, undramatic from a purely visual standpoint.  She drew close, and he plunged the nail into her heart, doing damage to his hand as he shifted his grip and pressed down on the base, thrusting it down and in, the rough flat head of the iron nail chewing into the meat of his palm.

She staggered back, and he did too, watching his step.  Dust rolled, light brown.  She didn’t die, instead digesting her situation, one hand falling on the spoke.

And something dawned on him.  The color and nature of the scene became clearer.  His eyes opened wide and something in him either broke or became whole again.  A deeper, wider awareness than what his eyes showed him, and Alpeana could see it as he would.

He moved with less fear of traps this time, less fear of holes.  He ran, eyes finding a car in the gloom, so aged and weather worn it shouldn’t run.

With an angel on the front of the hood, with a square base.

Alpeana moved quickly, hurrying to the car, ducking low at the front of it as he opened the door and climbed inside.

She broke the angel off, and it hurt, sapping at her power.

But the car didn’t start.

The Milkmaid stepped around the side of the garage, pitchfork in hand, and stabbed through the windshield.  He only barely avoided it.

Alpeana moved, and his eyes tracked her.

With that alone, he had enough control to pull out of the memory.  Alpeana tried to assert control.  She had the Lighthouse.  A scrap of a sentence that fed into something bigger.  She used it to drag the two of them into that something.

🟂

“Your friend Shawn put me in touch with you, Raff.”

“Raphael.  For what?”

“Raphael, sorry.  He said you were attacked.  That family members died.  Your sister?”

“I left her there in the van with a concussion, she wasn’t there when I got to her.”

“The police are suspicious and frustrated with you.  You have questions, and you are more aware of things that go bump in the night, aren’t you?”

“I can see them.”

“Most can’t.  Even among us who have had similar experiences.”

“Monsters?”

“All sorts of thing.  Monsters and monstrous men.”

“There was one there.  He could have helped.  He didn’t.  For some ritual.”

“We hunt them.  Jury and executioner only.  No judges to adjudicate, no court.  You’re talented.  You escaped a situation that killed many others.  We need that talent.  If you’re willing to help us, then we’ll help you in every way we can.”

“What makes you think I’d want to go back into any situation like that?”

“If you can walk away, knowing others are out there, then do.  This isn’t pleasant or easy.  But it’s important.”

“Important why?”

“That’s for you to tell us.  Tell me, what do you want, Raphael?”

“I don’t know.”

“There’s no rush to answer.  But once you can, come to the address I’m about to give you.  It’s a place we call the Lighthouse.  About twenty-five of us coordinate and train there.  If anyone hassles you, ask for Samaniego.”

“Samaneigo.”

“Don’t come until you know what you want.  The training is hard and bitter, the resources and tools we use too valuable to give to someone who is going to give up halfway.  You can’t be blamed for the loss of your sister, or the fact that the practitioners got to the stable and executed your friends before you could get to us.  You were unequipped.  Let us equip you.”

“Is the idea that you’ll blame me if I don’t say yes?”

“From what Shawn told me, you’re the kind of person who will blame himself and stay up at night, knowing he could help.  With us you can sleep easy at night again.”

Alpeana made a face.

Raphael paused, staring out into the darkness, phone held to his ear.  “With a nightmare dragging me into tired old memories?”

He stirred, twisting, shaking his thoughts free of the cage.

🟂

They were back in the collected, shared nightmare, supported by the nightmares of the Luis family, staff, and the other people spending the night there.

He stood in the middle of an intersection, on a street without cars, aware enough of the nightmare and his place in it that she couldn’t sway things as much as she’d like.

The piecemeal, depressed, compressed, jumbled space.  Buildings crowded together and streets lacked logic.  It was deep and intimidating and terrible, more the city that a man who’d never seen anything than a hut might take in, in all the worst ways.

And the church was in front of him, topped by the angel statue.

“I’ll be taking my leave,” he said.

“As ye wish.”

“Work to do.”

“Ah’ve shirked my work as well, hunter.”

“To pry, to remind me of darker moments.  Is this… this city… is it meant to wear me down?”

He indicated the landscape around him.  And there were small eyes, red and yellow, in every shadowy place.  People ran for cover, and the true nature of this dark, twisted landscape became clear.

“A place where you won?” he asked.  “All of your kind and the people who would sell out humanity for power?”

“This comes fae you only, Raphael.  This is tha fear close tae yer heart.”

The eclipse burned high overhead, a gateway opened, a perimeter encompassing earth as a whole.

He’s a crusader.  A hard man to deter.

“Is it wrong?  As fears go?  That this is what we might come to?”

“Thare’re mare of us than th’ monsters like th’ Milkmaid, Raphael.  Some of us only want peace.  Ye’re focusing on the wrong things.  Does mare harm than good.”

“Within ten minutes of my arriving, I found the wallflower doppleganger that was tracked to this region.  A mass murderer, unless she isn’t the very wary, very careful wallflower doppleganger and you happened to have another appear.  She tried following me.”

Alpeana perched on top of a car, her mane writhing and bubbling out around her, considering that.

“If that’s the quality of your friends, you’re not much different from her.”

“Was th’ cigarette wi’ her?” Alpeana asked, wary.

“Yep.  Nearly doused him in acid.  Can’t take chances.”

Alpeana nodded, wary.

He looked around, taking in the buildings, and the creatures that lurked in shadow.  Then he looked up at the eclipse, fat in the sky, edges burning.  His expression was more drawn than it had been earlier in the night.  She hadn’t inflicted any injury, she hadn’t done more than give him a rough time, but he looked like he’d just suffered…

She checked, peeking.

Twenty hours straight of nightmares.  Once she’d had him, she’d had him.  Now he had his way out.

“Thanks for the reminder of what I’m fighting for, I suppose.  I won’t give you another chance to do this.”

“Aye, ah thought not,” she replied.

“This doesn’t change anything,” he said.  Then he headed for the great arching door beneath the angel statue.

She withdrew before he could.  To withdraw her influence, and let the parts of her that had bled into his room rescind and fade.  She avoided any voluntary motion and wormed her way around the bells that were hung up in the room, so she wouldn’t make any ring and wake him.

He was wrong in saying this didn’t change anything.  It did.

Lis had been out with Cig, she remembered the schedule.  They were specifically meant to look for people like this.  They’d seen him, and neither had said anything.

There were other things too.  His intent toward Melissa, indicated by the way he’d treated the Wink she’d inserted in the dream.  The bells- he took over a region but he would keep expanding, until he was alerted whenever any of them made a move.  It would be slow to dismantle, dangerous.

She hadn’t been able to find the person who did the hiring.  She’d hoped to use the practitioner who’d come for the milk, after first seeing him, Rowsome, but then he’d seen her, and he’d started surfacing out of the deep nightmare and traumatic memories.

She had been able to find out who he was, in character and in intent.  A crusader.  A man with a mission, who knew what he was fighting for and wouldn’t be easily turned aside.

She had to tell others.  Avery was hurt, she’d knocked her head, Verona was gone, and that left only Lucy, out of the usual three.  Bothering one meant bothering all three and she didn’t want to do that.  Not until they had more to say.  She’d let others decide to do that.

Rook and Maricica, then.


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One After Another – 10.2

Lucy

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“Go, go, go,” Lucy urged, whisper quiet.  Snowdrop and Avery came down from upstairs, their eyes the inverted white pupils, pink irises and black surface of Snowdrop’s Sight.  Lucy gave them a nod, then guided Melissa toward the door that went from inside Edith’s cabin to the porch.

“I’m not really a go person,” Melissa replied, surly, and decidedly not whisper quiet.

“You said you’d cooperate,” Avery said, blinking away her Sight.  Snowdrop’s eyes went back to normal at the same time.

“And you said you’d be straight with me, finally.  You’ve got to help me help you and I need help to walk straight so put two and two together.”

“That makes no sense,” Avery told her.

“It makes a ton of sense,” Snowdrop said.

“I’m trying- I’m giving you- I’m providing…” Melissa paused, struggling to get over the hump of the sentence as she navigated in the dark.  And she stopped moving, as if that would make it easier.  Lucy reached out for her wrist, to tug Melissa forward again, and Melissa pulled her hand away, supremely offended.  “…You guys, I’m always been trying.  Always.”

Avery hit the light switch, turning off the cabin lights.  She put the broken padlock back on the cabin door.

“I know you were too hungry to pay attention, but I liked them okay.”

That was Nibble.  It was the ghouls out there.  At least.  Lucy leaned in close to Avery, whispering, “Ghouls.

Snowdrop glanced around, and her eyes settled on a point in the distance.  Avery nudged her and Snowdrop looked away.

“And now you’re whispering.  You said you’d be straight,” Melissa accused.

“We’re trying, Melissa,” Lucy said.  “Meet us halfway?  Come on.  Do you need a hand down the stairs?”

“No.”

“Then go down the stairs,” Lucy said, biting back her exasperation.  Avery headed down the stairs first.  Melissa limped her way down the first two.

“You’d have to go.  I shouldn’t show myself to the innocent.”

“She’s not that innocent anymore.”

Lucy felt a chill.  She helped Melissa down the stairs despite Melissa’s initial protest, then they started down the path, back toward home.  Lucy made it about five steps down the path, then paused, turning back, because Melissa was already lagging behind.

Again, she held her tongue.

“Stay close, stay safe.”

Nibble stepped out of the darkness.  He was pale, skinny, wore a beanie hat, t-shirt and shorts, and none of those things on their own really conveyed ‘flesh eating undead monster’.  The whole package though, and the little details like how quietly he moved and how the paleness of his skin held onto the darkness and didn’t transition so much as it appeared in a sudden way… yeah.

Lucy’s thumb went to her neck, running along the chain to the weapon ring.  She didn’t put it on.  Not yet.

His appearance startled the daylights out of Avery, who took about five steps back in short order, and Avery’s movement startled Melissa, who then turned and saw him.

“Oh!” Melissa nearly fell as she turned to face him.  She stumbled back a step, then took stock of everything.

Snowdrop had gone still, at the same time.

“How scared do I need to be?”

“Very,” Nibble said.

Lucy’s finger slid through the hoop.  The chain was still at her neck, keys and dog tag attached to the chain, along with the ring.  It was a squeeze, putting her finger through with the chain there, but she was armed if she wanted to be, now.

“Oh, awww,” Melissa said, with two different emotions in each half of the utterance, one surprised, the second close to being heartbroken.

“Not of me, not of Chloe,” Nibble said.  “There’s someone worse out there right now.  I wanted to warn you, and help.”

“Should I feel better?” Melissa asked.  “And what the hell, guys?  I’m here- I’m standing, look at this!  You don’t have to outrun the bear or… creep-ass dude out in the woods, you just have to outrun the sad sack with the limp?”

Avery had made it a fair bit ahead of their group, but that was what Avery always did, Snowdrop was close to Avery, and Lucy had been ahead of Melissa, waiting for Melissa to catch up.  Putting Melissa at the rear of the pack, closest to Nibble and least able to run away.

“That wasn’t what we were doing,” Lucy told her.  She pulled her hand away from the ring.

“The hell.  Assholes,” Melissa muttered.  “Not consciously.”

“I wonder what that’s like,” Snowdrop told her, confidentially.  “I was the biggest kid my mom had.  I never got left behind.”

“Sorry, she’s in a bit of a state, Nibble,” Lucy told Nibble.

“Nibble?” Melissa asked, scoffing.

“It’s the name he got when he was born,” Snowdrop added.

“What’s the danger?” Lucy pressed, to avoid letting Snowdrop and Melissa derail or confuse the conversation further.

Nibble looked a bit nervous.  “Man with a gun out in the woods.  Hunting us.”

“We heard the shots,” Avery said.  “We thought it might be John.”

“It wasn’t.”

“Okay!  Okay.  Good enough for me.  Moving, going,” Melissa said.  “This way?”

“That way works,” Nibble said.

Melissa began moving with purpose, for once.  Melissa at maximum walking speed was a bit slower than Avery at casual walking speed, but it was nice to see.  Lucy joined in, matching Melissa’s pace.  Avery, Snowdrop, and Nibble accompanied.  Nibble glanced back over his shoulder.

“Is he like… us?” Lucy indicated herself and Avery.  “Or is he like John?”

“John,” Melissa snorted.  “Can’t get over that name.”

“Neither,” Nibble said.  “He’s like her.”

He indicated Melissa.  Melissa turned and looked.

“Hah, what?” Melissa scoffed, slowing down.  She paused, then began giggling.  “What?  You’re joking.”

“Keep moving,” Lucy urged.

“Are you really not joking?  Does our gunman have too much junk in his trunk and really ebal- exaggerated, sad fantasies about minor actors nobody else pays attention to, coming and sweeping him off his feet?”

“What can I say in front of her?” Nibble asked.

“In a way that’d be really depressing if you knew how many hours he spends doing it?” Melissa continued, ignoring that Nibble was talking, giggling at her own statement, or the image it put in her head.

Nibble went on, “She’s close to being Aware, if she isn’t there already, but she has the inherent innocence you can’t give up unless you…”

“Give us the basics?  What do we need to know?” Lucy asked.

“Look out for bells tied to tree branches.  They’re hard to see, if you’re looking in ways that don’t use your eyes.  They alert him.”

“A lot of things are hard to see if you don’t use your eyes,” Melissa said, sagely.  She’d gone from good humor to jokey.

“Call John?  Yes or no?”  Lucy asked.  “Stay close, Ave.”

Melissa shook her head.  “I can’t get over this.  The guy called John and a mystery gunman like me?  There’s no way to take this seriously.”

“Yes,” Avery said.  “I vote yes.  And yes, I’ll stick close by.  Nibble?”

“Yes.  I called Matthew and Edith but they didn’t reply.”

“On it,” Avery said, pulling a chain from around her neck.

The coverage of trees thinned out a bit, further down the path.  Toward the base of the ski hills, some woods had been cleared, and there were stretches where trees had grown in dense, stretches where trees were more spread out along the grass, with many paths around them trampled down to dirt by people walking around, and stretches more like field with the occasional tree.

The area ahead fit that last group.  Field, tall grass that was occasionally mowed, so the grass that had regrown was doing so in stubborn spikes that stuck out of the matted grass that had been left from the last pass of the riding mower.  There was a ridge where the ground sloped up to a short six foot cliff, and a group of trees had decided to grow up there.  The short kid standing on something to make himself appear taller.

“No ticks here,” Snowdrop remarked.

“Thanks, Snow.  Guess that’s another thing to watch out for,” Lucy said.

Avery was moving ahead, and she indicated a diagonal path across the field.

Cutting across to where there’s more cover?

Lucy looked back, studying the darkness and the treeline they were leaving behind.  She nodded.

They crossed the field.

“He spent a while over here,” Nibble said.  “That’s weird.  Isn’t that weird?”

John rose to a standing position out of the grass.  Melissa yelped, and Lucy reached for Melissa’s face to get her to be quiet.  Melissa fended her off.

Ugh.

“It’s odd,” Lucy agreed, in a belated way.

“Tying bells to trees, setting traps, pouring out salt.  That took at least an hour, probably two.”

“Doing random shit?  Guess he is like me,” Melissa said.

“Melissa, please,” Lucy urged.  She paused, trying to think of what to say or what to ask for, then said, “please.

“Shutting up now.”

“What is it?” John asked, as they caught up to him and Avery.  Avery was checking the grass ahead of them.

“Witch Hunter,” Nibble said.

“Oh what?” Melissa asked.  Lucy elbowed her, and she fell silent again.

“Type?  Methodology?”

“I don’t know about that stuff.  Traps.  Little bells everywhere.”

“Like this?” Avery asked.

They ventured closer.

At the tail end of a bit of tall grass, one set of stalks were old and grown enough to be rigid, and a bell had been tied to the bowed stalk, so the bell itself was nearly hidden in the grass to the side.

As John drew closer, the stalk moved a bit.  John stopped ten feet away.

Nibble produced a similar effect.  Snowdrop got to about five feet away before the bell stirred, the stalk it was tied to swaying slightly.

“They’re silent, so be careful,” Nibble murmured.  The stalk reacted faintly to his voice.

“Has it rung already?” Avery asked.

“He’s shot in the past, after we disturbed the bell.  Not always, only sometimes, I think he was too far away when we jarred it last time,” Nibble reported.  He turned.  “Chloe was supposed to stay closer than this.”

“She’s out there?” John asked.

“I really hope she is.  Because if she isn’t, he already got to her.”

“How far behind was he?” Avery asked.

“A way back, but he shoots at a distance.  He passed us, tried to get us to come closer, then he circled around behind us pretty fast.  Seems to know what he’s doing.”

“We could stop here,” Avery said.  “I mean, option one is we keep going but I think we’re going to stumble over one of those bells and there’s not a lot to hide behind out here.”

“Agreed,” John said.

“You want to stop, though?” Lucy asked.

“Pause for a minute.  Diagnose?” Avery asked.

Lucy nodded, shrugging off her bag.

She, Avery, and Snowdrop crouched around the bell.

“Come on, Chloe,” Nibble murmured, looking around.  “Maybe she didn’t want to step out into the clearing?”

“Would she not want to?” John asked.

“Wouldn’t normally bother her.”

Lucy pulled out papers, figuring out what she had and what Avery did.  Avery had a deck of cards.  Sure.  Lucy had an image on her phone, snapped of a diagram Nicolette had used, taken by Verona.  She sat in the grass and sketched out the same diagram, albeit rougher.

“No swords,” Lucy noted, scribbling down the note.

“Connection reaches out and then goes to tatters, blowing in the wind.  There’s threads extending out from the tatters,” Avery said.  “One’s loosely tied to him.”

“Could we ring it, see which goes taut?” Lucy asked.

“Could.  If I was looking in the right place at the right moment,” Avery said.

“He could shoot you while you were out looking,” Nibble said.

“We can’t set the table,” Lucy told Avery.  “It might be that it’s dark but it might be because we’re so close to Kennet.  There’s too much staining for me to see detail.  That skews the results.”

“How do we set the table without ringing the bell?” Avery asked.  “Melissa?”

Melissa was standing by, watching, a frown on her face.  “Table?”

“Can you help?” Avery asked.  “And not ask too many questions, and don’t mess around?”

“I don’t know.  Can I?”

“Seriously,” Lucy told Melissa.  “This is like… imagine disarming a bomb.  Those two guys, Nibble and John?  They’re tougher than the guys who you ran into last week, and they’re a little spooked, I think.”

“Concerned,” John said.

“See?” Lucy asked.  “So we need you to help us out.  Because-”

Lucy reached for the bell.  It swayed away from her hand as she got about a foot away.

Avery tried.  At about two feet, it started moving gently away from her hand, dangling, as if she was holding a strong magnet.

“It doesn’t like you guys.”

“We can go with that.  Can you help us?  I think you can handle it.”

“Handle the bomb bell thing.  Do I have a choice?”

“If you don’t there’s a good chance one or all of us get shot.”

“What do I do?”

“I don’t know,” Avery admitted.  “Still need to figure that part out.”

“Here,” Lucy said.  She reached into her bag, got her investigation notebook with the interview notes and portraits, and turned pages until she had a blank page.  She glanced back to make sure Nibble and John hadn’t glimpsed anything too telling, then drew a circle, as best as she could.  “Hold this beneath it.  As close as you can get to the bell without touching it.”

Melissa took the notebook with the spiral binder and held it out.  Avery put her foot out carefully, keeping it low and close to the ground, and nudged grass out of the way, so it wasn’t up and around where the bell dangled.

Lucy looked, using the Sight.

Dim, but there was staining.  The contrast to the white of the page made it easier, and there wasn’t the omnipresent staining that was all around Kennet.  It was dark out and that didn’t help matters, because it meant the world was cast in shades of dark blue, darker blue, and black.

“This helps,” Avery said.  “Finer threads going out.  To other bells?”

“Good,” John said, quiet.  “Any directions that don’t have many?”

“Some,” Avery said, twisting around, looking at their options.

“Stain on the grass where he tied it,” Lucy observed.  “He’s hurt people.  A lot.  The bell itself is clean.  He’s careful with it.”

“Are you guys making this up?”

“Wait, this’ll get even wilder,” Avery said.  She shuffled cards, then touched Melissa’s elbow.  “Excuse me.”

“Sure, do whatever,” Melissa said.

Avery laid cards out on the part of Melissa’s arm that was extended out.

Jack of diamonds, ace of diamonds, two of clubs, jack of diamonds.

“That’s two of the same card.  Did you mix two decks together?” Melissa asked.

“Nope,” Avery said.  “Defective production, maybe?”

“What does it mean?” Lucy asked.

“No idea.”

“I’m surprised there aren’t more spades,” John remarked.

“Do you know this stuff?”

“No, but I know the spade is the suit of violence.”

“It’s not an inherently violent object,” Lucy said.  Lucy referenced her phone and sketched out the diagram that Nicolette had used.  The collector’s arrangement.  Each space had a meaning noted in a scrawled-down word.  “Any sightings?”

“He’s hard to see,” Nibble said.  “You have to use regular eyes.  Where’s Chloe?”

“How was Chloe tonight?” John asked.

“Sharp but… weak.  There was an incident in the shower.  She burned her shoulder, too.  She was as weak as a baby in the aftermath of it.”

“She stayed behind while you went to the girls?”

“Because of her,” Nibble said, indicating Melissa.

“I’m getting so many mixed messages,” Melissa said.  “Saying I’ll get powers but they’re not really powers, it’s more like a curse that’s going to ruin my life more, but also ahh, stay away from Melissa, and this guy that’s like me is out there with a gun and you’re freaking out more than you did when there was that cop and that kid who was definitely not in our class-”

“Take it easy, Melissa,” Avery said.

“And he’s supposedly a witch hunter?  Is that why you guys are on my ass so much?  You’re witches and I’m, what, heir to a line of witch hunter powers, crippled by some rival witch from outside of town?”

“No, that’s silly,” Lucy said, drawing and making notes.  It was hard when she had to switch from using her pen to zooming in on sections on the image on the phone.  If they made it out of this okay, she’d have to keep a few copies on hand, like Nicolette did.

“Do I get a love triangle?  There was that show where the girl found out she was a half centaur and that’s why she was so good at riding horses-”

“I liked that one,” Avery said.

Lucy, still drawing the diagram out, shot Avery a look.

“It was well made, it was what was on, and Kerry was blissfully quiet for the entire runtime, sue me.”

She had the secret heritage and she got a love triangle,” Melissa said.

“Opossums are monogamous, they never cheat, don’t have anything complicated going on,” Snowdrop said.

“I’ve been meaning to ask, why is this kid so obsessed with opossums?” Melissa asked.  “She’s worse than Caroline from school, with her horse obsession.  Hey, do you think Caroline watches the centaur show?”

“Done,” Lucy said, finishing.  “Water?”

“Got some,” Avery said.  She had a sports bottle half-filled with water.

Lucy uncapped it, laid it on Melissa’s arm, that was outstretched and holding the notebook with the circle on it, then poured it out over the page and arm.

“Sure, do that,” Melissa said.

Lucy picked it up by the corners, being careful not to tear it.  Ink from the pen ran and bled out, and a lot of it was bleeding into a select few circles.  Nicolette had walked them through the ways to do this, and Nicolette had a way of explaining things that suggested a simple, quick-and-dirty way of doing it, the practical, usual way, and a hint of the fancy way that it could be done better.  Lucy really appreciated that.

This was the quick and dirty way.

Nibble was talking to John, off to the side, the two of them standing guard, watching the edges of the more open field.  All of them were huddled, ducking low, grass taller than them in places, the ridge with the trees between them and the place they’d entered the field from.

“Scattered fills,” Lucy noted, “like the rose Guilherme gave us to give to Verona.”

“What the fuck?  Does Verona have a love triangle?  Jeremy and some guy called Guilherme?  That sounds foreign.  What the fuck, why does she get a foreign boyfriend?”

“There’s no love triangle.  I don’t think there’s even any love,” Avery reassured.  “Definitely no triangle I’m aware of.”

“Hmm,” Lucy said.  “Interact, protect, eye, access.  Maybe family.  Fits for a throwaway item.  I don’t get the feeling there’s a lifeline… again, throwaway item, recently made or prepared.  It’s a ward of sorts.  Can Witch Hunters, uh, do what we do?”

“They can utilize some techniques,” John said.  “Many lean on superstition and find their way to certain patterns, or they have one trick or one servant they steal from someone they’ve gone after and they use that.  Combine that with what your friend Melissa can do, and keep their eyes closed or minds turned away when it comes to certain things, so they remain… innocent.”

“Are they all this intense?” Avery asked.

Melissa’s eyes were wide.

Lucy had a bad feeling about that.

“I can imagine there are many who try this or aspire to be this good, but if they don’t get good at this, they don’t survive.”

“Thinking of Guilherme, makes me wonder about um, that interact bit,” Avery said.  “And connections.”

“And Guilherme type solutions?” Lucy asked, rubbing fingers together.

Avery nodded.

“Melissa, can you lower the book about a foot, foot and a half?  Keep the bell above it?”

“Uhhh, sure.”

Melissa did.

Lucy dug in her pocket and found the compact.  She smudged her finger, then moved as low to the ground as she could, arm outstretched for the notebook.  She traced a smudged red line around the circle.  “Tell me when I’m by a thread, Ave.”

“Here, let me.”

“You can’t get as close as I can.”

“Right.  Okay.  Now.  You’re right under a few.”

Lucy drew a smudged line out to the edge of the page, directly away from the center of the circle, and lifted.

Edges of the smudge flaked away.  Three threads went taut, lifted up by her finger.  Drawing her finger along the lines, she could smudge them, painting them a stark red that cut through the blue-tinted gloom of nighttime Kennet, making them faintly visible in reality.

“There’s real threads,” Melissa said, awed.

“Heads up,” Lucy murmured.  She pinched one thread, then gave it a sharp tug.

A bell sounded, about thirty feet away.

The sound of the gunshot, distant, almost immediately followed.  Melissa shrieked.  All of them ducked low, wary.

“Holy shitballs!  What the shit!?” Melissa cried out.  She moved the book and almost jostled the grass, but Snowdrop caught her and pulled her down onto her ass.  “Shit on me!”

“Shh!” Snowdrop urged.

“I heard that bell,” Nibble said.

“I wasn’t exactly subtle about it,” Lucy told him.

“Again,” John said.

“What?  No,” Melissa told him.

Lucy picked out another thread.  She gave it a tug.

The peal of the bell was clearly audible, even at a distance.  The gunshot followed once again, the bullet causing dirt to plume.  It was followed soon after by another, even further away.  Tracing a line.

“He’s coming,” Nibble said.

“Yes,” John said.  “Can you keep doing this while we run?  Mislead?”

“I don’t know,” Lucy said.  If we move we might lose the focus we have on the bells and the connections that tie them together.”

“Another option, then.  I do think we should run.”

“There’s a gap we can run for,” Avery said.

“Be careful,” Nibble said.  “There was a gap in the barrier he rigged up, and he put a trap there.”

“Good to know,” Avery answered.

John looked at Lucy and Avery.  “Can you silence them all?  We should get away, talk to others, and regroup.  I don’t want to engage him when he’s secured this area like this.  We’d just have to watch for the traps as we ran.”

“Silence is sort of your thing,” Avery said, touching her ear.

“Kind of,” Lucy agreed.  Her finger still had glamour smudged on it.

“I’ll be back.  Do what you can,” John told them.

Lucy nodded.

John ducked low, then headed off in the direction of the other bells they’d sounded off.

Lucy drew the silence arrangement that Verona had first done back at the shack with Brie, when she’d insulated the air that would carry the sound, and added the swirly, swooping embellishments that indicated connection.

The earring helped.  She felt it work, felt it make the smudge not catch on certain parts of paper, while it exaggerated and fattened the line in others.  Things were smooth, artistic… it was a nicer looking diagram than any one she’d normally put together.

Lucy didn’t insulate the air.  She did the opposite.  She encouraged it.

She tore the page with the circle on it from the book, partially finished diagram extending around the circle.

She laid the page on the ground, then reached over, finishing the core rune.  The triangle of air.  “For the protection of Kennet and its population, human and otherwise.”

“We draw on what we’re owed,” Avery added.

Verona’s absence was very much felt.

The wind stirred.  Bells began tinkling, and at the first sound, there was another gunshot.

But they picked up, and soon, all across the clearing, bells were chiming, each with a high, sweet sound that carried in a way that would let it be heard from a mile away.  Grass blew and trees swayed.

“Go!” John shouted.  “He’s there!”

“Fuck!” Nibble cried out.  “I don’t see him.”

“He’s there!”

They ran for it.

“If he trapped the gaps, go where there’s more noise!” Lucy told them.  She held onto Melissa’s upper arm.

John reached out, and he was holding something.

Lucy took it.  It was about the size of her pinky finger, but deformed at one end.  Metal, and it felt like it weighed five pounds.

“What is it?”

“What he’s shooting at us.  It’s treated.”

“It’s heavy.”

“It has gravity.”

“Is there a difference?”

“Can I?” Nibble asked.

“He’s shooting at us!” Melissa shouted.  There hadn’t been any gunshots- Melissa was still processing the fact, shouting it aloud.  Lucy could have easily been doing the same thing, but there was no point to it.  She was used to holding her tongue.  It took a lot to get her to lash out.

Lucy tripped over a ridge that she couldn’t see in the dark, where the path briefly split in two and joined together, the grass in between the two splits having produced a small grass-tufted peak.  She fell, and because she was helping Melissa stay steady as she ran, she brought Melissa down with her.

Nibble appeared at her side.  His hand on her upper arm was cold, the fingertips rough.  He helped her stand.  She passed him the bullet.

“Smells like an old, dry grave,” Nibble said.

“Bury a soldier with ninety nine bullets and his blessing, given in advance, place one more on the gravestone,” John said.  “In a time of need severe enough to warrant disturbing a good soldier’s grave, unearth that cache.”

“He thinks this is that severe?” Lucy asked.

“He might be the type who thinks all work he does as a Witch Hunter is in need.  It could be he found a cache on its own, and had no attachment to the soldier.  It would lessen the weight of the bullet, but it’s still potent enough.  It was something I read about in stories about soldiers retiring after they buried a friend, picking up the gun again.”

“John doesn’t like Westerns,” Snowdrop said.

“He has a hundred of these?  What, heavy bullets?”

“Bullets with a grave gravity to them,” John said.  “And I’d guess he has more than a hundred, though there’s a limit to what he can carry.  Any group that would do this would do it more than once, all in the same graveyard.”

“What do the bullets do?” Avery asked.

“I don’t know.  Nothing good.”

“Let’s not get hit by one?” Avery asked.

“Good policy for bullets,” Melissa said.  Wise as ever.

“Okay, so where are we running to?” Avery asked.

Already, she wanted to split up, to increase their options.

“The parking lot,” Lucy said.  “Maybe the teenagers are still there.  Might slow him down.”

Avery nodded.

The bells rang, intermittently and incessantly, a hundred wind chimes spread out across the field.

A man, far behind them and catching up, because Melissa was not a fast runner anymore.  Dark hair, messy, bag slung over his shoulder, holding the gun braced against his chest.

The man adjusted his hold on the gun, pausing mid run to plant his feet, looking down the sights.

John lurched, his own handgun drawn.  Shielding the group of them with his own body as he aimed.

Lucy covered her ears preemptively, ducking low.  Even with that, the gunshots, close and far away, were too loud, uncountable in an exchange that seemed to take place between two beats of her heart.  Three rapid shots from John, one answering shot from the Witch Hunter, before he fell, dropping out of sight.

The bells pealed, high and fierce, all chaos, the wind disturbed and angry now.

The Witch Hunter found his feet again.  One member of their group stayed down.

🟂

Earlier

Are you free?” Avery asked.

“Gimme a moment.”  Lucy had her phone to her ear, and stepped away from the gathering of her family, Booker ribbing Mom, Alyssa sitting on a stool, laughing.

“You need to stand up for me if you want to be in my good books, Alyssa,” Mom said.

Lucy looked into the hallway.  The luggage cases were there, by the door.

“Not really free, no.  Why?  What’s up?”

Melissa.

Lucy sighed.

I know.  Believe me.”

“On a scale of trivial to super mega major, how major is this?”

It’s major-ish.

“Booker’s leaving tonight.  It’ll be my last chance to see him before Christmas, probably.  He’s spending Thanksgiving with Alyssa.”

“Aw crap.  Crap, um…”

“No ums.”

Hmmmm, then!” Avery replied.

“Just tell me.  Is the Melissa situation urgent, and is it worth me missing out on my goodbye time with Booker?”

I’m going to feel like an ass if I tell you to come, now.

“Share the load.  I’m going to feel like a jerk if I leave.”

The goblins mentioned to Snowdrop that Melissa’s hanging out with older teenagers and drinking.  Snowdrop told me.  It’s bad.  Not super urgent, but it’s bad.  Biscuit is over the moon.

“I can imagine.  Did you check in with Matthew and Edith?”

“No.  Gotta wrangle family for a bit, I can call after.”

“I’ll do it now.  Talk to you soon.”  Lucy hung up.

Frig.  Frig frig frig.

She found Edith on her contact list.  The phone rang.

“Hello?”

“Matthew.  We’ve got a Melissa situation.”

“Again?  What’s the story this time?”

“She’s drinking, for one thing.  It sounds like she’s in a bad way.”

“Okay.  We sort of knew about that.”

“About drinking?”

“Stuff in general, about her.  Edith and I have been postponing a discussion on the subject.  And decisions.”

“Are Verona, Avery and I going to like that decision?”

“I don’t know, Lucy.  But listen, Edith ran into trouble last night, we’ve got reports from Montague, Cig, Lis, and John.  Don’t go out.  Stuff’s apparently dangerous right now.”

“Is this you shutting us down again?”

“It’s me telling you it’s dangerous out there.  We’re hunkering down, we’re going to have Montague put in a little extra effort tonight, see if we can squeeze out the small fry, and we’ll coordinate for other stuff.”

“That doesn’t do Melissa much good tonight.”

“No, but it might be best if you leave her be.  While things are this bad, until we have a grip on it, stay home.”

“No.”

“Lucy-”

“No, Matthew.  I really want to, but if things are only going to ramp up… that leads to us sitting this out until the end of summer.  No.”

“Edith wants to know if you have John’s tags”

“Yep.  Until further notice.”

“Okay.  Alright.  Keep him ready, then.  Just be prepared, a lot of the Others are hanging back for right now, until we have a better sense of who or what we’re dealing with.”

“Alright.”

“Good luck.”

“With freaking Melissa, we’ll need it.”

She returned to the kitchen, and her mom and Booker had moved out to the backyard.  The door was closed.  Alyssa picked strawberries out of a bowl with her fingernails and dipped them in chocolate.

“What are they doing out there?” Lucy asked.

“Serious adult-to-adult mom and son talk,” Alyssa said.

“Can I interrupt?” Lucy asked.

“I think no.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  She fidgeted.  “I hope they won’t be too long.”

“Mm,” Alyssa grunted, strawberry in her mouth.

Lucy went and got her bag, sorting her things out.  She returned downstairs, and they were still out there.

Ugh.

She thought about intruding, but Booker was giving Mom a half-hug, one arm around her shoulders, and Lucy didn’t want to take away from that.  She’d chance a bit more trouble on Melissa’s part and run a little harder to get there before she interrupted that.  It was probably something Mom looked forward to for months.

Is Booker okay?  Lucy thought.  She glanced at Alyssa, who glanced over at her, thought about asking, and didn’t.  Booker seemed okay and she could figure that out after talking to her mom.

It felt like a five on the scale of personal questions and she wasn’t sure about raising the bar to that level in what was kind of one of her first interactions with Alyssa alone.

“Are you in a band?” Alyssa asked.

And Lucy had no idea what that question was or where it fit on the scale.

“Band?” Lucy asked.

“I mean, you’re into music and you have this… image?  A crafted self-image, you know what I mean?”  Alyssa floundered.  “Confident, specific style.  Reminded me of friends who were in a band.”

Lucy could have let her continue to struggle.  She decided to show mercy.  “No band.  But yes, I pay attention.  I kind of have to.”

“I don’t think I started paying attention to what I was wearing until I was a senior.  I went to a few stores I liked and picked things that fit.  But I didn’t have to.”

“Yeah.”

“Sorry, I wanted to say something but we’re almost out of time, with me leaving, so I went for it.  It’s something I’ve wondered a few times, I asked Booker and he told me to ask you.  Start a conversation.  Real helpful, right?  And you’re always going off to meet with your friends.  They have similar images.  Well, Avery more.  Verona wasn’t so hot when she came by, but even with her, a bit.”

“It’s cool,” Lucy said.  “Images, huh?”

“Like you’re a part of something.”

“It’s not wrong.  Works,” Lucy agreed.  “It’s a kind of band.”

“Aha.  Secret?”

“Yeah.  For now at least.”

“Then I won’t pry or tell Booker.  Thanks for telling me.  You know, Booker adores the heck out of you.”

“Yeah,” Lucy replied.  Her heart was a bit heavy though, because she felt like she’d missed out on so much time with him, over this brief visit.  “It goes both ways.”

“He talked you up so much, and I saw glimpses of you on the calls.  I thought he might be exaggerating, and he really wasn’t.”

“That’s nice to hear,” Lucy said.

She hesitated, then sat at the table, reached for the strawberries, and Alyssa moved them closer, passing the chocolate closer too.

“He warned me it’d be scary if I got in your bad graces, and it’d be tough but wholly worth it to get in your good graces.  I wasn’t sure what to think about that, except being worried about ruining the trip somehow.”

Lucy popped a chocolate-dipped strawberry into her mouth.

Alyssa went on, saying, “I thought you’d be a kid, and you really aren’t.  So I was intimidated, and I really like your brother, so I didn’t want to spoil things.”

“You didn’t.”

“I didn’t?  Because I wanted to know, and Booker’s too nice to be one hundred percent honest, sometimes.”

“You’re fine,” Lucy said.  “Booker likes you and you make him happy, and I came prepared for you to say or do something mildly racist-”

“Booker said you had a tough year on that front.”

Lucy nodded, a bit of a rushed gesture, then went back to what she was saying, “-and I planned to bite my tongue if it was mild, and I’d maybe lose a tiny bit of respect for my brother because he was putting up with it.  And you didn’t, so thanks, I guess.”

“You think I would?  From what you saw of me?”

“Sometimes it seems like nearly everyone does,” Lucy said.  “Nearly everyone, except for my friends, and even Avery’s sorta needed a reminder, and Verona got over it early because we knew each other when we were little.  And other times I feel like it’s all question marks and I could go crazy trying to figure it out.  And other times… dunno.  I used to think it was all me, and there was a chance those question marks were all false positives and that was almost easier to believe.”

Alyssa got a strawberry.  It was a weird one, with a kind of strawberry tentacle wound partially around it.  She held it up, and Lucy nodded once, acknowledging it.  Alyssa dipped it in chocolate, then said, “Easier to believe how?”

“Just… easier to think I was a screwed up, paranoid kid, than to think the world was that gross.  And then Paul happened and stuff happened with my teacher and I don’t, really, not anymore.  Not since a few years ago.  Which is all a long-winded way of saying people suck and you didn’t suck so points for you.”

Alyssa took a second, strawberry in mouth, before saying, “My mindset going in was mostly that I didn’t want to add to your tough year.  I’d kick myself for years if I managed to say or do something like that.  But I didn’t want to ignore your existence either.  Which is why I asked a random question.”

“Thanks.  It’s cool, you’re fine.  I guess I won’t hate it if you keep dating Booker.”

“I’ll take it.”

“You make him happy, you play off each other well.  That’s the important thing.”

Alyssa nodded.   “Any word from Verona?  Since you brought her up?”

“Just that the process started and they talked to her dad and her mom.  She’s at the beach.  I dunno.”

“Tough stuff.”

“Yeah.  Putting it lightly.”

They sat, the closed glass door between them and Booker and mom, who were apparently having a heartfelt talk.

Lucy turned her eyes away, found another strawberry with a kind of puckered anus shape between two mounds, and showed Alyssa, who smirked.

“I’ll keep this one,” Lucy said.  “Friends will like it.”

“I wonder if there’s a way to preserve the shape.”

“I dunno.  Verona would know the answer to that, I bet.”

She thought of Verona, and of Melissa, and of Avery, who was waiting.

She might have to interrupt Booker and her mom after all, if she was going to show up in time to be able to help.  Maybe she could tell Avery to go ahead and she’d fly over.

“I might have to leave early,” Lucy said.  “Before you guys do.”

“Oh no!  Why?”

“Friend… of a friend, is in trouble.  Booker would know more about this stuff than you, I’m betting.”

“Try me?”

“I dunno.  She was in gymnastics, dance, kind of thing that’s really big for girls in our grade.  More than half the girls in class are super into it.  Supposed to go to New York this fall and everything, getting time off school.”

“Wow.”

“And she played soccer and hockey with Avery, she was super active and… foot snapped off after a bad gymnastics landing.”

“Snapped-?”

“Off.  Only skin still attached.  Super grisly, everyone there freaked out, ambulance called, and… she’s not taking it well.”

“I can imagine.”

“Friends sorta dropped her, but she sorta dropped them too.  She’s bitter and angry and jealous, she’s getting into trouble, over and over, and sticking her nose where it really doesn’t belong.  It’s not even a downward spiral, exactly.  More like… freefall.”

“Booker has talked about stuff like that.  Friends in freefall.”

“We weren’t even her friends before exactly but she keeps crossing paths with us so we end up helping.  Her parents don’t know what to do and she’s messing things up for herself as much as any of the outside stuff is piling up.”

“Booker’s said he had to leave some people like that behind, when he went off to school.  That he could have stayed, but…”

Lucy made a face, nodded.

“It’s hard to do that when they keep crossing paths with you.”

“And a bunch of people keep expecting us to step in, because we’re the closest things to people who could help.”

“Nobody else you could go to?  Nobody you could send them to?”

“We- Avery contacted someone in Winnipeg we know.  But Melissa- uh, the freefalling person, she didn’t exactly bite.”

“I’ve run into that.  People in dark places don’t always want to accept the help.  The darkness can be more comfortable.”

An image of Verona darted through Lucy’s mind’s eye.

“So, maybe you can guess, or try your hand at an answer, and if you’re way off, you lose points,” Lucy said, elbow on the table, hand on her cheek, looking sideways at Alyssa.  “What would Booker do?”

“Hoo boy,” Alyssa said.  “You don’t make things easy, do you?”

“Not usually.”

“Because I think I know what he’d do, because he’s talked about it some, but I’m not sure you’d love the answer.”

“Leave them behind?” Lucy asked, an accusing note in her voice reserved for Alyssa.

“Maybe.  But I think he’d try to help and support some guys he considered best friends who sure didn’t seem to think of him as a best friend back… and he’d be really, horribly upset at the fact he couldn’t help them more when maybe they couldn’t be helped or didn’t want to help.  And leaving them behind is part of that.”

Lucy got a strawberry and ate it without the chocolate.  It was faintly sour.

“That might be a bit of what he’s talking to your mom about.  Seeing friends after coming home who haven’t been doing as well since he left.”

Lucy nodded.  “So I just… leave her?  Abandon her?  Melissa?”

“I can’t say, Lucy.  I really can’t, without knowing more about the situation.  I don’t know what the dynamics or resources are like here in a town like this.  But I think that’s the road Booker went down and he’s unhappy about parts of it.”

Lucy frowned.  She didn’t like to think of Booker being that unhappy.

“How many points do I lose?”

Lucy shrugged.  “Dunno.  We’ll have to see, I guess.”

“Okay, well, at the risk of losing more points, some unsolicited advice.  Not a ‘what would Booker do’, but a ‘what would Alyssa do’…”

Lucy looked at Alyssa.

“…Start from a place of compassion.  There aren’t any guarantees it’ll turn out okay, it might not even help things turn out okay, but you’ll kick yourself a lot less.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not exactly a bundle of warmth and cuddles.”

“You sure?” Alyssa asked, matching Lucy’s posture, elbow on table, hand on cheek.  “You’ve got a lot of warmth reserved for your mom, Booker, and Verona.”

Lucy looked out the window, then sighed.

She straightened and got up, then walked over to the door.  She knocked.

Booker beckoned for her to come out.  She did.

“I’m going out,” she told her mom.  “Avery wants some backup.  Wanted to say goodbye.”

“Family stuff?” her mom asked.

“Classmate stuff.”

“Okay,” her mom said.  “I can guess why Avery wants backup.  Be safe, watch for cars.”

“Wearing brighter colors than the last time you nagged me about that.”

“Good.  Come here.”

Lucy did.

Three-way hug.

“I came so prepared to be crazy worried about you,” Booker said.  “And I ended up crazy proud of you instead.”

She hugged him tighter with the arm that was wrapped around his back.

“I don’t know what to say,” he told her.  “Except it won’t be too long before I’m back.  Christmas?”

“You’re going out east with Alyssa, right?” she asked, pulling back from the hug a bit.  “Swing back here on your way back?  For a dinner?”

“Ahhhh… maybe.”

“Please?  Pretty please?  I’m greedy.”

“We’ll see what we can do.”

“I’m going to go to Avery,” she said, making a pleading gesture.  “There’s virtually nothing I want more.”

“Laying on the guilt, Luce?”

“Super thick.  And stay in touch, please?  Super pretty please?  Don’t make the next time I hear from you be Christmas or almost-Christmas.”

“No way that happens.”

She nodded.  “Love you.  Drive super safe.  And be careful out there.”

“Love you too.  I will.”

She backed up, then headed back inside at a jog, scooping up her bag.

“Don’t be too late!” her mom called.

She nodded again.  Then she turned around and Alyssa was in front of her, still sitting on the stool.

“It was great to meet you,” Alyssa said.

Lucy nodded, and there was a moment of Alyssa’s expression turning sympathetic, and at the same time, Lucy was unsure how to part ways.  A wave?  handshake?

She leaned in and gave Alyssa a brief, one-second, one-quarter hug, and then hurried off, out the front door, closing it behind her.

She paused, her back pressed to the front door, and stared skyward, moisture collecting in her eyes.

Deep breath, focus, lips pressed firmly together.  One hand clenched into a fist, the other held the strap of her bag super tight.

She didn’t want to cry for the stupid reason that she was saying goodbye to Booker.  That she only had his company for about a week; a two week stay, but he’d spent some time with her mom before she’d come back from school.  She hated that stupid things were taking away from her time with him.  Stupid Melissa things.  Stupid Melissa.

She got her fox mask, compact, and made a change.

Fox-form.  She ran down the wide street with its widely spaced out homes.  Large yards, often with fences that were two logs with a gap that’d stop basically nothing except maybe a car.  Maybe.  Or chain link.

To Avery’s house.  She headed for the bridge, taking familiar streets, with one diagonal shortcut across a lawn as a car’s headlights shone down the road.

Verona’s dad stood on the edge of the lawn, dropping off garbage at the curb.  He stopped as he saw her.  She stopped as she looked at him, wearing her fox form, breathing hard.

Emotions roiled inside her, flaring, boiling up.

He put the bag down, then patted his pockets, including the polo shirt pocket and his shorts.  Then, not quite turning his back on her, he retreated to the house, leaving the door open.

She waited.

He emerged again, carrying the recycling bin tucked under one arm, loaded with the packages of microwaved dinners and cans of ginger ale, phone in his other hand.

He stopped when he saw her, human form, standing where the fox had been.

He hesitated, and she stared him down as he stood there, top of the stairs to the house, and decided how he’d approach this.

Then he walked down the stairs, crossed the lawn while sliding the phone back to his pocket, and set the recycling bin down.  Almost as an afterthought, he said, “Hi, Lucy.”

“Hi.”

Then he turned to go back inside.

“Where are you going?  Is that really all you have to say?” she called out after him.

“Guess so.”

“Coward,” she called out.  “Not even going to engage with me?  Is there a trace of shame there?  Guilt?”

He turned, and he shot her a wounded look.

“Did you really say my mom was a bad mom, Mr. Hayward?” Lucy asked.

“It was the heat of the moment,” he answered.  “Sorry.”

“Did you say Booker was a screw-up?  That I was?”

“She told you all that, huh?” he asked.

“She sure did.  Can you say it again to my face?  I’ll point out right now that Booker’s doing great at school, he’s terrific.”

“Not that it’s really any of your business, but I was trying to convey to my daughter that every family has its difficulties.  Even yours.”

“Don’t B.S. me,” she told him.  “Verona’s not dumb.  She knows what you said.”

“She’s not dumb but she does dumb things sometimes.  Part of being a teenager, like it’s part of being a parent to steer teenagers from the dumber decisions.”

“You’re not filling me with confidence right now,” Lucy said, clenching her backpack strap.  Her eyes were still moist from the front steps of her own house, and being in fox form hadn’t given them the chance to go back to normal.  She breathed hard from the run.

“Confidence?” he asked.

“That you’ll do better.  Because you need to do way better, Mr. Hayward.  You’re messing up and you’re messing Verona up, and I’m missing the hell out of her and I’m worried, and the reason is because you messed up.  You did this and her mom had to take her because she couldn’t take going home.”

“I always mess up, apparently,’ he said.  “According to Verona, according to my wife, just a few nights ago, according to your mother, and I’m sure, when they get around to it, child welfare will say it.  But they don’t pay attention, they don’t live in this household, they haven’t walked one step in my shoes.”

Start from compassion, Lucy thought, thinking of Alyssa’s words.

“Fuck offffff!” Lucy raised her voice.  “And fuck you!  If I lose my friend because of you, Mr. Hayward, if you can’t improve this situation and she ends up getting moved somewhere that isn’t Kennet, to foster care or with her mom, you and I are going to have some real issues.”

“Noted,” he replied.  “It’s not going to happen, Lucy.  They don’t move kids to foster care because of an argument about chores, and none of us, not me, not Verona, and not Verona’s mother, want her to go live with her mom in Thunder Bay.  She’ll come back home.”

Lucy stood on the far side of the street, fists clenched, breathing hard, staring him down.  She’d made it a point not to move any closer.  To avoid a repeat of the Paul situation.

She could curse him.

She had no idea how Verona would react to that.  She remembered how Verona had reacted to Alpeana and the nightmare.

She’d have to move closer or deliver some sort of impact to nail it in, though.  She couldn’t do that without moving closer and that was the rule she’d set for herself.

“I’m going inside, Lucy.  Go have fun running around at night.”

“I hope you go to therapy, Mr. Hayward.”

He gave his head a small shake.  “You keep going to your therapy, Lucy.  It seems like you need it.”

He walked the rest of the way into his house.

“Asshole!”

He shut the door behind him.

Breathing hard, moisture in her eyes, Lucy twisted, letting glamour twist with her.  Paws hit road.

She ran hard, crossing the water of the ‘river’ where it was shallow and still, dried up by the heat, and making her way to Avery’s house.

She found Avery, who wore a jersey top with a sports bra, shorts, and her running shoes, hair down.  She had her bag slung over one shoulder.  It looked like Avery had grown up by a year or two in just the short time they’d been active.

Snowdrop was beside her, and even Snowdrop had changed.  Snowdrop was more put together, dressed a little less like a homeless kid, hair tied back into two braids that ran along the corners of her head, with spiky strands of pale hair sticking up. She wore a dress with a super-short denim jacket that read ‘staring contest winner 2020’ superimposed over a sketchy-style opossum, with eyes done in white with many extra sloppy circles surrounding them, tongue sticking out of mouth.  She wore one earring.  The other one was attached to Avery’s friendship bracelet, which Avery had moved to her neck, the end strands tied to another spare dog-tag beaded metal chain.  A draping arrangement of multiple necklaces of varying lengths with the friendship bracelet as one of the lower ones.

Snowdrop’s eyes were animated, her eyebrows drawing together into a slight frown as she looked at Lucy, as if she could read Lucy’s expression beneath the fox’s facade.

Avery pointed, and then started running.  Lucy followed.

It was a zig-zagging kind of race, Lucy moving faster, but Avery lunged forward by fits and starts, whenever she saw an angle to use the black rope, coordinating with Snowdrop.

“Here!” Avery called out, as Lucy caught up.

‘Here’ was a parking lot, where the cars that gathered to use the ski hill would all be come winter, if they didn’t walk over and carry their skis and snowboards from the nearby houses.  Teenagers were using it as a hang-out spot.  Teenagers and twenty somethings.

Lucy shrugged out of the fox form, primarily to have the ability to view the scene from more than a foot and a half above ground.  Lucy scanned the crowd for Melissa, and it wasn’t super hard.  Melissa was small and had distinctive hair.

There.

Melissa, sitting on the hood of a janky old car with a twenty-something boy.  It looked like- was that vodka?  Melissa was drinking vodka?

“Frigging Melissa, frig, fuck frig,” Lucy swore.

“You really didn’t want to leave Booker behind, huh?”

“Pain in the ass- why can’t she make this easy?”

They approached from an angle, walking up the slight slope to the lot, gravel crunching under their shoes.

Goblins were around.  Snowdrop headed over to them.  “Hey, you punks!”

The goblins stopped and looked over.

Biscuit seemed to be leading the crew of smaller goblins.  Nobody bigger was around.  Bangnut, Cherry, and Pecker were all gathered nearby.

“Her!” Biscuit chirped, pointing, looking up at Lucy, Avery, and Snowdrop with large eyes.

Pointing at Melissa.

“We found one, we got one!” Bangnut cheered.

Biscuit hopped and punched at the air, prancing because she couldn’t stay still.

“No,” Lucy said.

Biscuit collapsed.

“Bad idea.”

“But!” Biscuit cried out.

Lucy put her hands on her hips, but Biscuit didn’t tend to speak in more than one word and she didn’t break pattern here.

Biscuit drooped, face sagging, and paused, looking up at Avery with her best puppy dog eyes.  She was actually pretty good at it, especially for a goblin.

“Sorry,” Avery said.

Biscuit dropped her face until it was pressing against the gravel.  Then, slowly, she ground her face into the gravel, swishing it side ot side, fingers clawing at the finer grit beneath it.  She punched the ground.  Something between a tantrum and wallowing in abject misery.

Peckersnot gave her a pat on the head.  Then Snowdrop picked her up.

Avery raised her hand in a wave.  Melissa saw them.

Melissa leaned over and gave the boy next to her a hug, then pulled on his shoulder to give him a kiss on the cheek.

“Frigging Melissa…” Lucy muttered.

“What did I do wrong this time?” Melissa asked, as she walked over.

Snowdrop, cradling the upset Biscuit, turned away, keeping Biscuit out of sight.  The other goblins lurked beneath a car.

Avery glanced at Lucy.

Compassion, Lucy thought.

“What are you doing this time?” Lucy asked.

“It’s the thing, you said.  You told me I had options- I have to do one of four things?  Five?”

“I’m pretty sure getting drunk with a group of skeevy teens wasn’t one, Mel,” Avery said.

“Is forgetting.  I’m getting blackout drunk.  Like you told me.”

“That wasn’t how we put it,” Lucy said.  “This is dangerous.”

“This isn’t the way to do it,” Avery added.

“It’s the only way- I don’t know how else to.  Works for me, so far,” Melissa said.  She swayed. “I can stop when I’ve brain damaged myself enough I can pretend it was all a dream, hows that?”

“It might be harder than that,” Avery said.

“Might be!” Melissa raised her voice, no modulation.  “Mebbe!  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do, then!  If I can’t!  Want to bash on my skull?  Brain damage another way!”

“No, I don’t want to bash on your skull,” Lucy said.  “But that guy you were hugging- is that okay?  Is this whole thing going to be okay?”

“Nothing’s okay!  That guy- Sean’s my cousin, so don’t worry.  There’s zero interest.  Less than zero.  But he said if I wanna hang somewhere that isn’t with my lame parents he’ll have my back so thas what I’m doing!  Hanging!  He gives me something to drink?  Suuure.  Very sure.  I’m trying not to be bored out of my skull and this almost works!  I’ve got to do something!  Nowhere else to go.”

“Melissa…” Avery winced.

“No carbs in vodka so maybe I won’t be a sad sack of fat.”

“You could get sent away like you were worried,” Avery said.

“Maybe!  But here I am!  Nowhere else to go until I go there I guess!  And then there’ll be really nowhere else!”

She was raising her voice a lot and people were looking.

“Come.  Walk.”

“Look, mr. blind man.  Look at that!  Listen, mr. deaf guy.  Do you hear that?  Now march, cripple girl.  Dance, cripple girl, do a flip!”

“You’re not that badly off, and we’re not asking a lot,” Lucy told her.  “We don’t have to go far.  Let’s just talk about stuff we don’t want others to hear.”

“Wheeeee.  Tell me to do one thing, then we’ll do another.  Forget, but also, let’s talk about secret stuff!”

But Melissa did follow them.

“Sorry, Mel.  I wish this was all easier,” Avery said.

You wish this was all easier?  Mannn, you have no idea.  I have whole days, days I feel more shitty and miserable than I ever have, and my parents are bored, bored of me being sad.  And you know who’s more bored?”

“Us?” Snowdrop asked.

“Fucking me!  I’m so bored of all of this!  Maybe my parents are sick of my shit and maybe you guys are but I’m way more sick of it!  I’m sick of all of this because I don’t get to go to work or go to school or run off and play at magic!”

“Shh,” Avery said.

“Mel,” Lucy said.

“Loo.”

“Are you… is there anything fun about this, drinking?  The smoking?”

“Pills.”

“What pills?” Lucy asked.

“Painkiller stuff.  Really strong.  I had leftover from the last refill, but it, they don’t tell you this in the drug classes, it dries out your poo.  It’s like crapping out gravel.  Nothing moves through.  So I’m taking a break, I’ll drink for a bit, then finish it off… until I stop thinking about stuff.  So if you really want to help-”

Lucy reached out, and pulled Melissa into a hug.

“Ew,” Melissa grunted.

“Doesn’t sound fun,” Avery said.

“It isn’t at all.  But nothing is anymore.  I don’t have friends.  You guys don’t like me.  You come here because you’re told to, I bet.”

“We did,” Lucy said, still hugging Melissa.  “At first.  We came because you’re a mess and it could cause trouble.  But I came tonight because I cared.  My brother’s leaving town and I cried because I didn’t want him to go, like a little kid instead of a teenager.  But I came because I cared.”

“Whoo hoo.”

“You cried?” Avery asked.

“Shush, you.”

“It’s sweet.”

“Shush!” Lucy told Avery, breaking the hug and pointing a warning finger.

Then she looked at Melissa, who was slumped back against a car, looking the picture of misery.  She’d be even worse when the hangover hit.

“What do you want, Melissa?”

“Doesn’t matter.”

“What are your aims?  What would make you happy?” Lucy asked.

“Every time I try to answer that I get told no.  No, it’s dangerous, no, it’s not as cool as I’m thinking…”

“We can’t bring you into this world.  I think that’d be like throwing fuel on you while you’re smoking.”

“Sure, of course,” Melissa replied.  “Of course.”

“Look me in the eyes.  Seriously.”

Melissa made eye contact, but even though her gaze remained locked to Lucy’s, her head shifted and swayed a bit.  Lucy supposed that was about as serious as she was going to get.

“What else sounded cool?” Lucy asked.

“Having a superpower, except it apparently isn’t a superpower, and apparently it gets me into trouble.”

“Connecting dots?” Lucy asked.  “Like you did with Gabe?”

“Apparently it’s a disaster.  But it’s cool.  And it’s something.  Detective Melissa.”

Lucy sighed.

“What’s the line of thinking?” Avery asked.

“That Melissa might be a trainwreck no matter what we do.  She’s getting into trouble no matter what, but at least she’ll be one we can sorta steer or manage if we step in.  And maybe she’ll even find some joy in it?”

“Trainwreck Melissa, I’ve got the caboose for it.  I hate being fat, I hate it so much.  Why am I saying this out loud?”

“Because you’re fourteen and you drank most of that bottle of vodka?” Avery asked, indicating the beer bottle sized container Melissa still held.

“And all of another one!  My family can deal with alcohol pretty well.”

“Really?”

“No,” Melissa said.  “But wouldn’t that be badass?  I did drink most of this one.”

“If you’re serious about this, if you’re game, and if you’re willing to please please please pull your head out of your ass and listen to us…”

“Cooperate,’ Avery interjected.

“An effort can be made.”

“…we’ll try to be straight with you, when and where we can.  But you gotta take it for granted that if we don’t, we’re doing it for good reasons.”

“This doesn’t seem like a good deal.”

“Come on, there’s more to it,” Lucy told Melissa.  She motioned for the goblins to stay where they were, walking with Melissa until they were out of earshot.  “And by going this far, there will be danger-”

“Still sounds rotten.”

“We’ll see if we can make you the Connect-the-dots type of Aware,” Lucy said, glancing at Avery.  “If there’s some happiness to be found there.”

“I don’t care about being happy anymore,” Melissa said.

Lucy could have screamed.  She bit her tongue.

“…I care about belonging to something.  I don’t belong to family, I don’t belong to the Dancers, I don’t fit in with all those older teens who’re drinking and shit.  I don’t belong to- there’s no- there’s no me to belong to, I don’t fit to anything.  I’m so lonely it feels like my heart doesn’t beat anymore.”

Avery hugged Melissa from the side.

There was no ‘ew’ or protest.

“Help us solve a mystery, Melissa,” Lucy said.  “Help us connect some dots, how’s that?”

“You’re just using me, aren’t you?” Melissa asked.

“A bit.  But I also want to help and if this is your road to happiness… fuck it.”

“I’m not complaining,” Melissa said, mumbling a bit.  “I want to be used.  I want to be useful.  I want to be wanted.  Awesome.”

I think it’s good we got you away from that party and those older boys, then, protective cousin or no, Lucy thought, looking back.

“Just go along with stuff, where you can?” Avery asked.  “Don’t fight us every step of the way, okay?”

“I am in a very going-along state right now,” Melissa said, raising the bottle she still held.  “You have no idea.”

“Let’s maybe take that away,” Avery said.  She put her hand on the bottle, and Melissa surrendered it.  Avery passed it to Snowdrop, who put it in some pocket or something.

“See?  Going along.  I can do it sometimes.”

“That’s terrific,” Avery said, glancing over at Lucy.

If this doesn’t work, I’m blaming you, Alyssa, Lucy thought.  Which was unfair but whatever.  She was in an unfair mood.

The conversation with Brett was dark in her thoughts.

“What are we up to?  Where to?” Melissa asked.

“There’s a cabin this way.  And a murder victim’s body was stored in the cellar,” Lucy told her.

“Woo!”

“Can’t hurt to take another look, right?” Lucy asked.

“Let’s hope not,” Avery said.

They headed away from the parking lot and partying teens, into the lightly forested area south of the Bowdler ski hill.

🟂

They headed toward the parking lot.  Not many of the partying teens were still around, and many were soused.  Bells sang, wind jostling each, each producing an augmented sound that jarred with the heavy footfalls as Lucy did her best to help support their soldier friend.

Nibble struggled to drag John while at the same time digging in John’s side with his claws.  Fishing for the bullet.

John wasn’t bouncing back.  They were operating under the assumption that John might be able to heal if they could get the bullet out.

There was another gunshot.

Lucy looked back.

Chloe.  In close quarters with the Witch Hunter.  He wheeled on her and shot again.

Teenagers and twenty-somethings were responding to the noise, looking to try and see what was going on.

Which raised issues.  Lucy knew she was a recognizable face, and if she was tied to some shooting victim and random violence, there would be questions.

She didn’t know what to do.

“Chloe!” Nibble shouted, top of his lungs.  There was an edge to the sound that wasn’t human.  Darker.

They weren’t making enough headway while carrying John.

Chloe lunged, at the same time the Witch Hunter tossed something in the air, raising his hand as he threw out something like sand.  Salt.

Chloe stumbled into and through it, and her strength left her.  The Witch Hunter caught her, then pushed her to the ground, fending off the slashing claws with the length of the rifle..

She sprawled on the ground, too weak to even stop the fall.  He adjusted his grip on his rifle, aimed-

Avery stepped out of grass from behind him, grabbing the barrel.

He barely even flinched, asserting his grip with one hand, then elbowing Avery across the side of the head with the other arm.

“I need to go.”

“Nibble, if we get caught in a fight with him-”

“I need to go!” he growled.  “It’s Chloe!”

“Save Avery too!” Lucy called out.

He was gone, moving quickly through the darker portions of the field and tall grass.

John’s body was like a sack of lead weights as it collapsed to the ground.  Lucy tried and Melissa added her strength, but they couldn’t budge John’s mass.

“Leave him,” Lucy said.

“Not arguing.”

Lucy tried her phone again.

No response.

They ran back to the parking lot.

“What the hell’s going on?” a teenager asked.  “Is there an animal out there?”

“I think there’s something feral,” Lucy replied.  She kept running, while Melissa stopped, huffing for breath.  She motioned for Melissa to follow.

Melissa seemed to hesitate, then nodded, following after.

Nibble snatched up Chloe, carrying her away, while the Witch Hunter was focused on Avery.  He threw flares, and the crowd took interest, watching, as the scene was partially illuminated in dark red.

Avery wasn’t moving right.  Like she was off balance.

That hit to her head.  Fear gripped Lucy’s upper chest.

“Is he chasing her?” someone asked.

“I think something’s after her, the way she’s moving.”  Another bystander.  “He’s trying to shoot it without shooting her.”

He’s trying not to waste bullets on something that can move like Avery does.

Snowdrop’s human form appeared, lunging for Avery.  Knocking her to the ground as there was another shot.

“I think he was trying to shoot her!  I’m calling the police!”

The Witch Hunter pushed the grass aside.  No Avery or Snowdrop.

He turned and looked at Lucy and Melissa.  People standing nearby shrieked at the attention from the gunman.

Lucy moved.  Into the parking lot, into the now-sparse collection of cars.  There wasn’t any good nook, no place she could go.

The Witch Hunter didn’t have to cover a lot of ground.  They hadn’t been able to drag John far without Nibble’s strength.

With Nibble running with Chloe, Snowdrop and an injured Avery gone, he was marching toward where John laid.  Taking targets as opportunity presented.

“Come on, come on,” Lucy muttered.

There.  A ditch.  She hurried over, huffing, hopped the ditch, and then reversed direction, heading back the way she’d come.  Throwing the tag down.

Looking down the slope further down the parking lot, she could see the Witch Hunter look up.

Hopefully there’d been enough shadow that it wasn’t too mysterious.  Not that she cared that much.

Lucy slid down the slope as Melissa caught up.

“How did he-”

“Keep an eye out!  Is your cousin around?” Lucy asked.  “Can he drive?”

“Yes and no way,” Melissa said.

It sounded like she’d sobered up some with the fear.

Lucy ripped John’s shirt and investigated.  It was a grisly wound, all considered.  She’d expected a neat, round hole.  Nibble had done a lot of damage, trying to fish in the stomach injury with his claws.

She dug fingers into wet, sucking blood, and found it a tangle inside, stuff getting caught between her fingers, parts that felt like they were the way further in or between bits of internals until they really didn’t.

Bullet, where’s this grave bullet?

We need you fight ready, John!

Need you!

Lucy snarled, pushing until her finger hurt, but a strand of something broke and she could work her hand in, nearly wrist deep.  Fishing, groping, searching for something.  A bit of solid, no, that was deceptively tense tissue.

She growled, face contorting, as she pushed her hand in deeper, another inch of give.  It was so hot inside.

She had glamour but this was so far from a Fae kind of operation that she didn’t think it would last, if she reshaped her hand.

She touched it, and it scraped her finger.  The bullet, two pieces, collapsed and torn metal.  Her hand was too slippery.

“Lucy,” Melissa whispered.

I don’t want to hear it.  I know.

“He’s here.”

I know!

“Run, then,” Lucy said.

Melissa didn’t run.

“You said you’d listen!”

“Fuck you!  You said I belonged!  You’re all going to this effort and I’m doing nothing except being slow.  Fuck off!”

You’re doing more than being slow, Lucy thought.

Melissa had found something.

But none of that mattered, because John, because this Witch Hunter, because Avery was hurt, because-

She heard the gun cock.  Teenagers shrieked.  Tires stirred up gravel.

I’m in the ditch.  The depression that ringed the car park, keeping moisture from collecting there.  At least they can’t see me.

“Move,” the Witch Hunter said.

“Fuck off,” Melissa replied.  She stood between him and Lucy.

Lucy’s fingers slipped on bullet.  The constriction around her wrist was making it hard to hold onto anything.  John was still so out of it he barely reacted to her digging around in his insides.

“Who or what are you, getting in my way?”

“I’m a sad sack loser who was actually having a kind of cool night until you showed up so fuck you!”

“You’re not one of them.”

“Fuck off!  I’m part of the team for tonight at least!”

“You’re not one of them.  What’s your name?”

“What’s yours?”

“You’re human, and you’ve been hurt by them, haven’t you?”

“Have you?”

“I have.  Most of us have.  People, broken by them, until we’re a little more and a little less person.  I’m honorable.  If you step out of my way, I’ll give you five percent.”

“You were paid to be here?”

“Were you?  I saw you limping.  Did they offer healing?  Did they offer treasure?  A special item?  A dollar?”

“Fuck you.”

“That’s not a yes.  Getting a raw deal aren’t we, miss?” he asked.  “Not getting much, but you’re willing to set your life on the line?  Move aside.”

“Fuck off, no, I’m not going to let you shoot my classmate.”

Don’t give him information.

Lucy’s fingers couldn’t get a grip.  She was realizing it was impossible, but she was already wrist deep.

He stepped up closer, close enough to be toe to toe with Melissa, looking down.

“What do you want out of this?” he asked her.  “Because they’ll eat you alive, you know.  They’ll string you along or they’ll string you up.”

He had a gun to Melissa’s head.

“My own fault.”

“Is that what they told you?” he asked.  “No.  Not at all.  This is all what they’ve set up and made over centuries.  It’s only your fault according to them, because that’s how they arranged it.”

“Lucy!  Melissa!”

Guilherme’s voice.

“Here!” Lucy shouted.

“And… company of multiple sorts.  I’m getting a better picture now.  I’m going to leave now, Lucy and Melissa.  Whichever one you are with her hand in that man’s guts, I’ll put a bullet in you sooner than later.  And to you… Lucy or Melissa, it’s not your fault.  There’s better ways and better things.  I can tell you things they never wll, and show you ways to deal with the threats that are going to be lurking in the shadows all your life.  I can show you how to feel empowered again.  I’ll be around.  I’ll come to you if you come looking for me.  Whether you want answers or a ticket out of… this.

He moved, and Melissa shuffled her feet, staying between him and Lucy.

“Thank you, Melissa,” Lucy said.

Melissa turned, then sat down heavily, shaking.

Lucy’s arm was too tired to pull anything free, even her hand.  So she leaned forward, her head against John’s chest, hand stuck, until friendly faces came.

“Thank you.”

Melissa nodded, expression unreadable.

The Others came to them, and Guilherme knelt down.  Lucy noted the goblins, from all three groups, original, Tatty’s, and Creamfilled’s.  Guilherme was here, but Maricica wasn’t.

It made sense.

Nothing that jarred with what they’d discovered back at the cabin.

🟂

“Here,” Melissa said.  “It fell between the sink and the wall.”

Lucy, Avery, and Snowdrop approached.

“Oh man,” Lucy whispered.

“How did you even find this?” Avery asked.

“Dunno.  Is that my power?”

“I don’t know, Melissa,” Lucy said.  “But good finding anyway.”

The syringe was sturdy, with fine, dark filigree all down the glass, denser toward the end with the needle.  Artistry that could only come from the one place.  Inside was a oily slick of darkness, glistening, strands and clumps gathering into shapes suggestive of body parts.  And one blob of white that moved through it, to the surface of the glass.

The blob of white had a face.  Edith’s.


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