Lost for Words – 1.7

Avery

Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter

Last Thursday: Flyer & App


Low-quality shoes squeaked on the gymnasium floor as the other kids ran, stopped, changed direction.  Avery twisted, running through a gap between Melissa and Alexa as they tried to block her.

She was faster, she could run for longer.  All she had to do was break through, force them to run after, and tire them out.  Thirty minutes into the game, they were already walking half the time and halfheartedly running the other half.

There were three basketballs bouncing intermittently, which made it hard for her to train her ears and use her situational awareness.  On the other half of the gym, the boys were playing.  Wallace was sitting out, which he did a lot of the time.  She didn’t know how his phys ed marks were, or if there was a reason, but for right now, her main concern was that he was killing time while sitting on the bench by dribbling a basketball.  Periodically he’d do something wrong and have to chase it a few steps.

It meant she had to use her eyes and twist around more to keep track of the ball, so the auditory illusion of the other balls bouncing didn’t communicate something else.

“Ave!” Lucy called out.

Lucy’s pass went high.  Avery caught it, then took off.  Immediately, she realized she was surrounded by three players.  They converged on her as a line, trying to force her off the court, or force a retreat back toward her own hoop.

Frustrating, but not in a bad way.

Avery’s eyes opened wider, her pupils narrowed, and the ‘real’ world peeled away.  The floor was shrouded in the faintest of mists, the unimportant details flaked away like peeling paint in a high wind, and it was just her, the people on the field, a court of handprints and footprints, and a mess of the bands all around her, strung between players and between herself and the others.  The ones from herself were harder to see.

“Pam!” she called out.  She saw one of the bands stir.  Using it as a guide for general direction, without really looking, she spiked the ball into the ground, halfway between Melissa and Alexa.  It carried on, straight toward Pam.

“Ah!  Scared me!” she heard Pam.

Caught the other team off guard too.  Melissa and Alexa were distracted by the pass, Emerson was in her way.  She squeezed past.

“Pass to Avery!” Lucy called out.

Verona was out there.  That band seemed familiar, stronger, and clearer.  Verona was on the other team.  She would be closing in on Pam.

“But-”

Hailey was closing in on Pam too.  Hailey could actually steal balls in a way that didn’t suck.

“Pass!” Lucy called out.

The remaining three girls changed direction, converging on Avery.

Avery saw the movements and reactions, the bands that stretched between things rippling, as a single action made each one change, bend, and adjust.

One tenuous band connected to the ball, a wisp of something that could be mistaken for a long, dark cobweb in this gymnasium, where the ground was misty and the air above the mist was thick with dust and flecks of the ‘paint’.

She was ready as the ball came at her, and caught it.  Emerson right behind her.

And she was close to the hoop.

She made the easy shot, a layup off the backboard.  Even though it was an easy shot, there was still a moment where she thought it would be a miss.  She wondered if she could say something and influence the outcome.  She kept her mouth shut, eyes wide, breathing hard through her nose.  It tilted and went in.

“God damn it!” Emerson complained.

“Language!” the gym teacher barked.  “I think it’s time to rotate!  Avery, Pamela, and let’s see…”

“Me!” Verona called out.

“You can stay out there a bit longer.  I want to see you trying more, that goes for the rest of you whose names I don’t call!”

Melissa, bent over, hands on her knees, raised one of her hands over her head.  She was panting for breath.

“Melissa, Alexa.  Mia, lose the jersey, switch teams.”

The four players on the bench, Mia included, got up, jogging out onto the court.  Avery turned sideways to navigate between them, giving Verona a nod as she walked by.

“Cheating?” Verona asked.  Her eyes flashed that weird almost-purple color.

“How do you even cheat at basketball?” Melissa complained, undoing the band that tied up her ponytail.  Her hair had been crimped, and was tied back into a high ponytail that still touched her shoulderblades.  With the ponytail undone, it came closer to the middle of her back.

“She practices at stuff.  For fun.  It’s ridiculous and I’m calling it cheating,” Verona said.

Avery shook her head.

The way the gym was set up, the two courts were set up so they could be separated by a divider.  There were benches arranged, and right now the boys on the bench sat so their backs were to the girls as they took their seats. Some boys twisted around to look or watch the girls play.

That fact reminded Avery that she had gotten those ‘likes’.  It reminded her that her own like had gone unanswered.  That she was alone.

Today was going to suck.  It might even suck more than yesterday, and yesterday –last night– was the day they got ambushed by John Stiles.

It sucked.  It really sucked.  It confirmed what she’d suspected and feared and she really wanted to talk to Ms. Hardy about it at some point during lunch or after school, but Verona and Lucy wanted to do something at lunch and she couldn’t really talk about the app with Ms. Hardy without getting people in trouble.  Adults went nuclear about the dumbest things.

She sat at the end of the bench.  Pamela seated herself beside Avery.

The thrill of that fact blurred into the fact her heart was still racing from running around, the whiplash of thinking today would suck to thinking today might not suck, to being very aware that Pamela radiated body heat and was right next to her, to the half-thought internal debate that Pamela might have sat next to her on purpose.  Was that just because Pamela was nice?  Had there been empty seats on the bench before Pamela sat down?

Her Sight was more farsighted than not, which was a pain, because she really would have liked to see and study the band that stretched between her and Pamela.

She leaned forward, elbows on her knees, to put Pamela out of her peripheral vision and try to find an equilibrium when her number-two crush was sitting next to her.

“You’re good,” Pamela said, huffing for breath.

“Thank you,” Avery said, her eyes closed as she focused on breathing and sounding normal.  She wasn’t really sure how to answer, but hearing Pamela say something nice about her was so… so nice.  She felt a bit dizzy from it.  “I’d be better if I could get the ball through the hoop, or run full speed while dribbling.  Hailey’s way better than I am.”

“Hailey plays basketball regularly,” Melissa said, from further down the bench.  “You’re really good, considering it’s not your sport.”

“I’m-” Avery responded, couldn’t find the words or the breath, and just shook her head, eyes on the ground.

She looked up to the side, further down the bench, and saw Pamela looking at her.  Making eye contact with her.  Surrounded by a nimbus of the bands that connected her to others.  Avery’s eyes dropped to the floor again.

It was criminal that Pamela hadn’t gotten more votes with the stupid app.  When Avery had come to this school, because Sheridan was already going, Kerry wanted to come because her friends were attending for first grade, Avery had thought it would be cool, that she’d meet new people.  It would be a distraction from Olivia abandoning her to go play for Swanson.  Then it had been worse.  It had been distilled loneliness.

One of the things that had kept her going had been this girl who really did light up the room.  Who gave out compliments and said positive things more often than most of the girls in class smiled.  Who never had a mean thing to say about anyone.  Just seeing her around gave Avery something to look forward to.

Avery couldn’t understand how girls could talk about boys like dimples and hair were what mattered.  She had the feeling boys were the same or worse.  Why would anyone want to go out with someone and spend time with someone just to look at them more, when they could spend time -or the rest of their lives- with someone who made the days brighter?

It wasn’t even that Pamela was unattractive.  Avery had heard Pamela saying something self-depreciating in class once, about how she was fat and clothes didn’t sit right.  That had been back when Avery herself hadn’t opened her mouth in class for weeks, and she’d wanted so badly to say something to Pamela, to convince her that no, she was cute, she was curvy.  That she loved the way she changed up her hair color every couple of weeks, that she liked her body more than… more than just about anything.

Avery had thought she might be gay or bi before that, but after that thought process she’d been ninety five to one hundred percent sure about a lot of things.  Her interactions with Ms. Hardy had turned that ‘sure’ to ‘certain’.

She wished so badly she could say a lot of things to Pamela, so this girl that didn’t even know she’d helped Avery through the worst time of her life could shake off some of her demons.

Avery had mostly caught her breath, now.  She glanced up- saw Pamela was looking at her again, and made her eye slide to the side, to look at Melissa and Alexa, who were talking.

On the bench behind her, Gabe sat with some of the other boys.  They were crammed in, kind of.  More boys in the class, more boys on the bench.

“Hey, Avery?” Pamela said.  There was a rising note at the end, like maybe Pamela wasn’t one hundred percent sure of Avery’s name.  That wasn’t super uncommon.

“What’s up?” Avery asked.  Did I look at her too much?

“You kept passing to me,” Pamela spoke the words with a breathless laugh.  “Scared me.”

“Sorry,” Avery said.  She made herself look away.  Watched Lucy cut Alayna off.  Verona was hanging back, occupying space on the court where there weren’t many players.  She wasn’t trying very hard, so Avery’s team wasn’t trying very hard to cover her.  “Uh, you were there.”

Verona caught a pass and passed to the next player almost immediately.  Not really paying much attention to the flow of the game so much as she was avoiding doing much.

“I don’t mind, I was just surprised.  You’re a good player, I kind of thought you’d ignore crappy players like me.”

“You catch the ball, you pass it.  That’s most of the game, isn’t it?” Avery asked.

Pamela smiled.  Avery experienced a deer in the headlights moment, hyperaware of the fact that looking away would be way too obvious, and staring would be weird, and-

She settled on an answering smile, before a shout from the coach rescued her.

“Lucy!  Stop being aggressive!”

“I haven’t touched anyone!  I’m not breaking rules!”

“Stop.  Being.  Aggressive!  Or you can spend the lunch hour with me-”

The boys were causing a commotion, with some shouting and talking over one another.

“-in the staff room, talking about bullying and ways to conduct yourself with classmates.  What’s going on over here?”

“Brayden got fouled!” Xavier complained.  “Blatantly.”

“He stopped dead in his tracks right in front of me!” Logan retorted.

And the gym teacher hadn’t seen.

“Enough!  There’s a few minutes left of class.  I want Logan and Brayden to run laps around the gym’s edge.  Quick now!”

“But!”

“Now!  And anyone who complains or mentions it again is running laps as well.  Go.  Back to the game.  Ian, Bryan, off the bench.”

There were a chorus of complaints.

Avery watched the room, saw girls taking notice of the thing with the boys, and with her Sight, she could see the variations in the bands that connected them.  She’d noticed the parts of the app where the girls and boys had gotten mutual likes, and now that she knew which girls to look at, she could See the differences in those connections.

It made her acutely aware of how few connections she had.  Lucy, Verona, and then tethers extending elsewhere, for the various members of her family.  The bands that stretched from the boy’s side of the gym reached for her back, thinning out as they got closer to her, until the ragged ends only barely brushed against her back.

Sucked.  It really sucked.

Lucy had mostly given up on playing, for the most part.  Could she even risk detention, if she’d said stuff earlier about her plans for lunch?  That was something they’d have to be careful of.

Lucy had to feel at least as bad.

The ties that connected Lucy to her classmates seemed to be stronger, or… older, maybe.  They’d been classmates for a long time.  They knew each other.  But there wasn’t a lot else.

Verona’s positioning on the court put her close to the bench.  She got Avery’s attention, then indicated Gabe, who was sitting behind Avery.

Avery twisted around, looked at Gabe, then back to Verona, giving her friend a shrug and a look of confusion.

Verona gestured, motioning for her to say or do something.

I can’t read your mind.

“Move along, Verona!” the gym teacher barked.

Avery felt multiple eyes on her, and flushed.  One set of eyes was Pamela, who mouthed Gabe’s name.

Avery shook her head, shrugging.

So dumb.  It felt like everything she did was making her feelings blatant or creating misunderstandings.  How many times had she passed the ball to Pamela?  She’d been in the zone.  Then the weird eye contact when she’d looked Pamela’s way.  Now Verona was so stuck on the other stuff that she was putting the spotlight on Avery.

Sucked.  So frustrating.

She was aware of the glances she got, and the connections that radiated out from her to connect her to classmates seemed more intense than they had been at the start of the match.

And there was only one connection she really cared about.  If she looked, really focusing her eyes, she could sorta see the band that extended between her and Pamela.

It wasn’t like it was with any of the mutual like ones, and that stung, but each band had translucent images or cut-outs in them.  Like a row of pictures.  She wanted to interpret, to make them out, and find out if there was anything useful in that, but they shifted every time her eyes moved, like dust on the surface of her eye.

More than anything, the texture and consistency of the band was a reminder that this awesome, warm, likeable girl didn’t like her.

She shut off her Sight, pressing her eyes closed.

Opening her eyes again, she saw the world as she normally would.  Wood covered in track marks from cheap sneakers skidding on it… and a tether, in the corner of her eye.  Mist, handprints.

Alarmed, her head moving, she looked for the part of the Sight that hadn’t gone away, and it moved with her head.

One third of her left eye was stuck on the Sight, like a blurriness that wouldn’t go away, but it was a different picture, darker, mistier, with handprints, some bloody.

She rubbed at it with her thumb, and it didn’t correct.  She rubbed harder, using the heel of her hand.

“What’s wrong?” Pamela asked.

“Um.”  Avery tried to will it away again, then rubbed harder.

A little panicky now.

She didn’t want to turn on her sight and turn it off again, if that could be the next step to things getting weirder or worse, but she didn’t know what else to do.

“Mr. Bader,” Pamela said.

“What’s wrong?”

“My eye,” Avery said, quiet.  “It’s… weird.”

Boys in the background were making another commotion, hooting and jeering and being loud.

“Do you need to go to the school nurse?”

The school nurse couldn’t do anything.  “Just… can I go to the bathroom?”

“Go.”

She stood, and Pamela stood with her, one hand on her back and one hand on her arm, to steady her and give her direction.  In any other circumstance it would have been so nice, having Pamela be nice to her in specific, but right now she just wanted her eye back to working like it was supposed to.

What did she do wrong?  Was it a lie she told before, that made something break?  If it was, was it broken forever?

She was aware of Verona and Lucy giving her concerned looks.  In that one corner of Avery’s eye where her Sight was stuck, she saw Verona’s eyes as purple again.  Lucy’s as red where they should be white.

“Pamela, if her eye is still bothering her, take her straight to the nurse?”

“Okay.”

“I’ll be right with you.  Okay guys and girls!  We’ll end a minute early! Balls in the bins, take your jerseys off and in the laundry.  Then change and shower.  Emphasis on the shower!  Your afternoon teachers will kill me if you’re sitting there all afternoon reeking of B.O.”

She and Pamela left the school gym and in the short L-shaped corridor with the bathrooms and change rooms, took a detour into the bathroom.  She reached for the taps, turning them on.  She splashed her eye, trying to get as much water in it as she could.

“Are you okay?” Pamela asked.  Her hand rubbed Avery’s back.

“I don’t know.  A little freaked,” Avery admitted.

“Can you describe it?”

“I don’t know.”

Was it better?  She couldn’t tell, with the way the water stuck to her eyelashes.

“I know sometimes my eye will get this muscle twitch and it freaked me out when it first happened.  Is it like that?”

“No.  It’s blurry and misty and intense, stuck that way, no matter what I do.”

“Maybe a retinal detachment?  That happened to my mom once.  She had a dark blot in the middle of her vision for a while.  I think you have to get immediate help if that happens.”

“No.  It’s not…” Avery stopped, and focused on just washing her eye.

There was a commotion as the rest of the class left the gymnasium, heading to the change rooms.

“Avery?  How’s it?” Mr. Bader called through the door.  It was cracked open, and she could see a bit of his shoulder and shorts.  He stood with his back to the door.

“Better, I think,” Avery said, quiet, before washing again.

“She says it’s better,” Pamela said, moving away from Avery so she stood halfway to the door.

“Are you positive?”

Avery washed for a second, holding up one finger for Pamela.

“One second,” Pamela said.  “She’s rinsing.”

“Okay.”

The door opened, and Verona and Lucy came in.  They went straight to her side.

“Do you want me to stick around?” Pamela asked.

Yes.

“…Because if you want it, I’ll stick around for whatever you need.  I’ve got a lunch date with my dad, but I can postpone or cancel.”

“I think we’ve got it,” Verona said.

“It’s fine,” Avery said.  “Go to lunch with your dad.  Thank you.  Really.”

Pamela nodded.

“Can I get an update?” Mr. Bader called in, as Pamela exited.

“I think it’s-” Avery tested.  Her vision was normal now.  “It’s better.”

“Alright.  Come find me if you need me.  I can take you to the nurse’s office if you decide it’s not better enough.”

“Thank you, Mr. Bader.”

“Lucy, Verona, don’t forget to change and shower.  Avery, same thing, when you can.”

The door closed.

“Dick,” Lucy muttered.

“I think he’s nice,” Avery said.

“Who would forget to change?” Verona asked.  “And what happened?”

“My Sight got stuck in one part of my eye.”

“It’s better?”

“I said it’s better.”

“Were you looking at anything specific?” Lucy asked.

“No.  Nothing special.”

“Weird.  I think that’s all the more reason to talk to Miss right away.”

“Let’s,” Avery said.

“You good?” Verona asked.

“I hope so.”

The three of them left the bathroom and entered the girl’s change room.  Avery brought her hand to her eye to shield part of her view, with the excuse it was still awkward, her eyes dropping to the floor.  She navigated through the girls of her class, not looking at anyone or anything, to where her bag was hung up on a hook.

She felt too many eyes on her, especially after her little commotion a few minutes ago.

Grabbing her bag, she slung it over one shoulder and slipped back out, heading back to the bathroom.  She went into a toilet stall, and did her change of clothes there, stepping on the tops of her shoes to avoid stepping on the bathroom floor.

Her lunch usually had napkins or wet wipes, and she was grateful that there was a wet wipe in hers.  She fished the ziploc of wipes out of the brown paper bag, then wiped herself down before getting changed back into her regular clothes.

The feeling of having something wrong with her eye and knowing there was no doctor, no greater support structure, it had shaken her, like being as alone as she’d been back in the winter and start of the year.  Combined with being the odd one out, no pairings in the app, knowing from the Sight that Pamela didn’t return her feelings, and then the change room, the showers, feeling like she was one wrong look away from being found out…

She’d never felt so out of place.

She ran a comb through her hair.

Mia, hair wet, stepped into the bathroom, walking up to a sink two sinks down from Avery.  She got out a makeup kit, and began fixing up her face.

“Hows your eye?” Mia asked, as she put on mascara.

“It’s okay now, I think.  I wish I knew what happened.”

“Spook.  I hope it’s a one time thing.”

“So do I.”

There was silence.  Avery could hear the commotion of boys in the little L-shaped hallway.  Too numerous to all have showered.  Not that she was in a position to point fingers, but she’d done something.

Avery didn’t really have anything to do at the mirror but didn’t really want to go out there into the middle of all that.

“Are you the lesbian?” Mia asked.

Avery didn’t move a muscle.

“From the app,” Mia asked.

“Uh, what?” Avery asked.

Mia turned her head, the little pad of foundation held up an inch from her cheek.  “My friends were wondering aloud who it could be.  I thought maybe it was you, and I don’t want to be a jerk or anything, so… don’t feel like you have to respond.”

“Awkward,” Avery said, quiet.  She kind of wished she was in a position to draw a connection breaking diagram right now, and keep it up forever, just to get away from this.

Mia resumed putting on her makeup.  “Yeah, like… there’s this girl at the dance studio, seventeen, I think.  And she’s great.  Great dancer, does acro gymnastics, acro dance.  She’s gay and like, nobody cares.  So if you were gay and you were avoiding the showers because of that, I wouldn’t worry about it.  You don’t have to make up eye problems.”

“Wasn’t made up,” Avery said.  She looked at Mia.

Mia winced.  “Ew, yeah, a bit bloodshot.”

“Yep,” Avery said.  Probably from me rubbing it too hard.

“I hope that people are cool if the lesbian in class comes out.  I know if anyone talks shit, me and my friends will give them the hard time, not her.  Same goes for the boys.”

“Makes sense.  That’s good of you.”

Mia smiled at her, before packing up her makeup stuff.  “You’re cool, Avery.  There’s next to nothing to do in this town, so we throw parties sometimes.  If you want to be in the loop, just ask.  I can fill you in whenever we’re at the planning stage.  Standing invite.”

“Ah, thank you.  Sorry, I’m still freaked out about the eye thing, I’m not really processing everything.”

“Nah, that’s cool.  But like… give me an objective opinion.  When my friends are wondering aloud about the lesbian in our class, should I try and throw them off the trail?”

“I don’t know,” Avery said.  “I’m not like…”

She stopped.  Mia looked at her.

“…Not really trying to hide it,” she said, quiet.  She stared at her eye, half-bloodshot, in the mirror.  “Not broadcasting it either.  Don’t want it to get back to my family, kinda.  My siblings are a pain sometimes, and my grumble- my grandfather.  Best case scenario is he’d worry and fuss and I don’t want him to worry and fuss.”

“What’s the worst case scenario?”

Avery shrugged.  “Maybe I wouldn’t be his favorite anymore.  Just the opposite.”

Mia frowned.  “I know it’s like, really tone deaf, but it’s cute as hell that you call him Grumble.”

Avery shrugged.

“Sorry.  Do your friends know?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m glad you’ve got them, then.  And you’ve got me if you need anything.  Ask whenever.”

The door opened, and Avery jumped a little, despite herself.  Melissa, who went straight to one of the stalls, closing the door.

“Standing invite,” Mia said, picking up her stuff.

“Standing invite to what?” Melissa asked, from the stall.

“To parties or whatever we’re doing,” Mia said.

“Oh, I thought you were asking her to come to the dance studio,” Melissa said, through the door.

Avery rolled her eyes a little.

Mia gave her a small wave, then stepped out into the hallway.  Mia, who was so adult-like sometimes, so together, that she made Avery feel like twice as much of a kid.

Thing is, Avery thought, as she got her bag together, making sure her lunch wouldn’t empty out in her bag, since she’d opened it to get the wet wipes, I don’t want to be ‘the’ lesbian.

She felt more alone and out of place than before she had gotten Mia’s overture of friendship and support.

Feeling awkward, she left the bathroom.  The boys were lined up at one side of the hallway, the girls at the other.  Avery glanced at Mia, who was talking to Hailey.  She’d had a niggling worry that Mia would be talking to a cluster of the Dancers, laughing at her.  She wasn’t.

Mr. Bader did his thing where he touched everyone’s head, counting the students.

“Did you wash that hair, Jeremy?  Looks like you wet it under the tap.”

“I washed it, my hair dries fast,” Jeremy said, looking innocent.  The moment Mr. Bader was past, he smirked and shook his head ‘no’.

Mr Bader moved on to counting the girls.  Avery felt him touch her dry hair.

“How’s the eye?  Still good?”

“It’s better.”

“Good.  I don’t want to see you skipping any more showers.”

“Yessir.”

He moved on, counting Verona and Lucy, at the tail.

“Did you wash your hair, Lucy?”

“I don’t wash it at school.”

“You need to at least run it under water.”

“No I don’t.”

“Excuse me?”

The bell rang, and the assembled students immediately broke rank, some almost running in their haste to get to lunch.

Avery took Lucy’s hand and tugged her along.  They fled Mr. Bader.

“Dick,” Lucy muttered.

“Were you actually being aggressive, back in class?” Avery asked.  “I was distracted.”

Yeah, kinda?” Lucy answered.  “Hailey’s really good, but it’s easy to put her off her game.  Get in her way, get in her face.  I wasn’t touching her or breaking any rules, though.  Mr. Bader’s still a dick.”

“You said that three times,” Verona said.  “Curse?”

“Didn’t nail it in.  Gotta drive the point home.”

“Too bad,” Verona said.

Most of the kids were heading to the lunch hall, but there were some who made the rather tight trip to the fast food places.  Especially the teenagers.  It was a twenty minute walk there and a twenty minute walk back, and they only had fifty minutes for lunch.  Those with bikes or cars could usually make it.  For the others, there was a risk that the line would be too long, forcing them to choose between going hungry or being late back.

Avery, Lucy, and Verona left the school.  As they passed the parking lot, Lucy made a hard detour.

“Luce?”

“I see someone.”

“I was talking to Gabe after changing,” Verona said.  “We weren’t sure where you went.  I thought I’d ask him about the flyer.”

“I wish you hadn’t,” Lucy said.

“I also asked Caroline, since she was next to me in line.  Gabe can read the letters and Caroline couldn’t.  I think it depends on who reads it.”

“Good to know,” Lucy said.

“Where are we going?  I thought we’d ask Miss about my eye and stuff.”

“Soon,” Lucy said.  “Shh.”

They approached some teenagers, who were gathering around a car, ready to drive off.  They looked like eleventh or twelfth graders.

“Excuse me,” Lucy said.

“No rides.”

Lucy reached for Verona, opened the back flap of her bag, and pulled out the flyer, folded into another piece of paper.

One of the teenagers, a dark haired girl with sunglasses on, pushed her way past the others, reaching for Lucy.  Lucy backed away.

“Woah!  Back off!”

When she couldn’t get a grip on Lucy’s wrist, the teenager grabbed Lucy’s shoulder, and tugged her away from the car.  Avery and Verona followed, anxious, Verona reaching back to close up her bag as she jogged to keep up.

The teenage girl grabbed the flyer and unfolded it.  A second later, she grabbed Lucy’s wrist, pushing up Lucy’s sleeve.  If Lucy was going to fight back, she seemed to hesitate.  The hand that gripped her had only a thumb, index finger, and middle finger.  The rest was smooth skin over bumpy tissue.

A moment later, the teenager turned on Verona, who backed away a step, pushing up her own sleeve to show her arm.

“I’m keeping this,” the teenager said, holding up the flyer.

“We’ll need it back, actually,” Lucy said, “And we have questions.”

“Leave it be.  Ignore it.”

Verona lunged, and her hand moved a bit, grabbing at nothing, before the paper partially unfolded on its own.  She managed to snag the corner of it and pluck it out of the teenager’s hand.  Avery blocked, stepping into the way before the teenager could follow up.

The teenager’s friends were just standing back, watching.

Avery really wished she could use and trust her Sight, just to get a better sense of what was going on.

“Show us your arm?” Lucy asked, indicating the teenager’s long sleeve.

“No.  You need to let this go.  Walk away from it.  Don’t have anything to do with it.”

“Full moon tonight?” Verona asked.  “Kennet.  What does it mean?”

“You’re not listening to me.”

“We hear you.  As of right now, we’re not planning on participating.  But we need answers.  There are more like you in our school alone.”

“I know one of them.  Listen to me.  Don’t visit the website.  Don’t reserve.  Don’t get involved.”

“Full moon in Kennet?” Verona asked, stepping forward.

“I’m not answering your questions.  I’m doing you a favor when I’m telling you to leave this alone.  It’s bad.”

“Full moon in Kennet?” Verona asked again, reaching out to grab the teenager’s sleeve.  The teenager jerked back, hesitated.

Relented.  “It’s better to go there, than to make them come get you.  The moon’s the date.  The place is the location.”

The teenager wrenched her sleeve out of Verona’s grip, pushed it up.

There were four circles there.  One white, one with a crescent in it, the rest filled in black, one half-filled in with black, and one with a dark crescent in it.

“One for each phase of the moon?” Verona asked.

“I’m halfway through.  People turn up, different counts.  I haven’t seen anyone make it through all eight nights.”

The guy in the driver’s seat honked.

“What happens?” Verona asked.

“It’s on the website.”

“The website’s blocked for all three of us,” Verona said.

“Great!  Fantastic!” the teenager said, “Never heard of that happening, but I’m glad.  It means you’re not in it.  Leave it alone.  I’m not an awful enough person to give you the ropes to hang yourselves with, okay?  I’m not telling you more.”

“But-” Verona started.

“Listen!” the teenager hissed, leaning in close.  Her voice became a harsh whisper.  “I probably won’t last the full eight rounds, so do me a favor.  Unless I get crazy lucky, I’ve got a bit over two weeks left, max.  It could be that today and tomorrow are my last days I can spend with my friends and family.  Let me enjoy them without being bothered.”

“You really believe you won’t make it,” Lucy said.

“I’ve seen people better than I am in every way fail,” the teenager told them in that harsh whisper.  She stood straight, then began to retreat back toward the car with her friends in it.  She moved with a bit of a limp, Avery noted.  At a normal volume, she said, “Better than you.  So don’t even try.  Tell yourself it’s a bad prank.”

She slammed the car door after her.  Avery watched the girl field questions from her friends.

“She’s missing an eye,” Verona said.

“What?” Avery asked.

“She’s missing two fingers, you probably noticed that.  But behind the sunglasses, she’s missing an eye, I think she’s missing an ear.  The skin’s smooth, like it’s been like that for a while.”

“She walked with a limp,” Avery said.

“Yep,” Lucy said.  “You shouldn’t be using your Sight, Verona.  Not until we know what happened to Avery.”

Verona shrugged.

“And how did you know it said ‘full moon in Kennet?'” Lucy asked.  “Did Gabe say so?”

“Nah.”

“Nah,” Lucy echoed.  “You’re just annoyingly good at stuff that doesn’t usually matter, which makes you weirdly good at all of this.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.

Avery shifted her weight from foot to foot.

“Um… can we go talk to Miss?” Avery asked.  “Please?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “Sorry, was just… they were right there.”

“I don’t mind, but I’m really ready for some answers, now.”

🟂

Avery ate her lunch as she walked.  The sandwich was the chicken from last night, shredded, with dad’s barbecue sauce, some greens, and a really dark whole wheat bread.  She couldn’t help but feel like any one ingredient could be changed out for something similar and it would make the sandwich ten times as good.

With the way every single kid at school kind of fanned out, especially as they finished eating, it was hard to find a place secluded enough.  They settled on the trees at the edge of the grounds the school technically owned.  There were a lot of small trees nearby that had probably grown naturally from saplings, that could stand to be cleared out.

“Miss!” Verona called out.

“Miss!” Lucy called out.

Oh, we’re doing it like that?  Avery choked down her bite of sandwich.  Dry.  “Miss!”

There was no rustle of wind, no music, no sound or lights.

“I’m here.”

Avery turned, looking.  She wanted to use the Sight, but she was scared to.  Miss stood by the tree, only the edge of her body visible, while she looked out toward the rest of Kennet.  When the wind picked up, it made her hair move.  She was wearing what might have been a long pleated skirt and a long-sleeved shirt.

Lucy paced left, and Verona paced right, trying to get a better look.

“What’s happening in Kennet?” Avery asked.

Miss stepped out of sight behind the tree as Avery’s friends got to the point where one of them would be able to see her.

“A lot of things are happening in Kennet,” Miss said, from the edge of another tree.  Avery’s friends stopped in their tracks, and stopped trying to intercept her.

“I’m seeing bloody handprints, and they’re only really in Kennet.  Lucy’s seeing bloodstains and swords all over the place.  Verona sees…”

“Everything in wrappings like really wrinkled plastic wrap or spider webs.  Flayed, meaty things on the other side.”

“A kingdom without a king will be in turmoil.  Even if it is a peaceful area and the people are content, there is a tension and an omnipresent anxiety that is only eased when the next someone takes the throne.  A region without its Carmine Beast is… similar.”

“But more focused on blood and violence?” Lucy asked.  “Aggression?”

“More focused, yes.  It will get worse before it gets better.”

“What happens when it gets worse?” Avery asked.

“Others of that type that emerge naturally will emerge more often, or find their ways here from Other places, or from other regions.  They will tend to be violent, messy Others.  Many will be fleeting and desperate.  The Carmine Beast… just by being in position, she encouraged a system where Others more in line with her disposition will appear and find stability.  When something else takes the seat, it will do the same, depending on who and what it is.  Nearly anything taking the seat will be better than what is presently happening.”

“Even the Hungry Choir?” Verona asked.

“The Hungry Choir is strong, but it is defined by its ability and desire to sustain itself, more than most living rituals.  It has to know it wouldn’t hold the seat for long before being spent or being challenged and beaten by something else.”

“So it has the means but not the motive?” Lucy asked.

“It is, by all reports, doing remarkably well for a living ritual of its size.  It doesn’t get anything, as far as I can tell, from harming the Carmine Beast.”

“Isn’t that a bad thing?” Avery asked.  Beside her, Verona was digging in a pocket.  The flyer.

“Some of us have exerted influence to disarm it, to discourage some people from finding the ritual.  It’s large enough a phenomenon that any slack we create here will be picked up by someone halfway across Ontario.”

“We want to talk to it,” Lucy said.

“It doesn’t talk.”

“How do we communicate with it?”

“Talk to the people who are caught up in it.  Put the pieces together.  Living rituals tend to build up a mythology, like a plant setting out roots.  They anchor it in this world, give it ground by which it can spring back up later.”

“At the cost of giving up more information?” Verona asked.

“Yes.  More information on how it can be riddled out or beat.”

“You call it a living ritual, but Matthew Moss called it a ritual incarnate.”  Lucy sounded a bit accusatory.

“I’m sure that’s more accurate.”

“This stuff,” Avery said.  “That’s throwing everything off.  Is it responsible for my Sight acting strange?”

“What happened?”

“You don’t know?” Lucy asked.

“I don’t.”

“My Sight wouldn’t go away.  It stayed in one part of my eye.”

“My theory was that it’s like straining a muscle,” Lucy added.

“Have you been using it a great deal?” Miss asked.

Avery shrugged and nodded.

“The part of you that connects to the Sight isn’t physical.  It’s your Self, your soul, your ‘you’.  The complex spirit or fingerprint that makes up all the parts of you that are distinct and unique when put together as a whole.  It adheres to patterns, adjusting and adapting by scales that have nothing to do with muscles or physical health.”

“What happened?” Avery asked.

“It adjusted.  As spirits do, your spirit worked off of underlying patterns and assumptions, that you were someone who always used the Sight, so you always wanted the Sight available.  There are many practitioners who do this on purpose, refining their Sight so it is something they can always have available, for specific purposes, and keep their vision clear for other things.”

“Uh, so how do I tell my Self to not do that?” Avery asked.

“That might be something that Charles can help you with better than I can.  Intuitively, it makes sense that if you don’t want it on most of the time, don’t use it most of the time.”

“Are there any other ways?” Lucy asked.

“You could make the pattern more elaborate, so it is harder to fall into by unconscious habit.  Saying a particular word or wearing your mask or a pair of glasses when you want the Sight available.”

“Does this happen with other things?” Avery asked.

“Absolutely.  Use of a particular tool or practice might wear down a path, that path becomes a requirement, then becomes something inexorably tied to you.  I wouldn’t panic.  Nothing that is done in this sort of way is likely to be impossible to undo.  It might be very hard to undo, but not impossible.”

“I feel like there should be a rulebook or handbook for this,” Lucy said.

“There is.  They call it Essentials and many novice practitioners who are born into families that teach the practice tend to get it before they awaken.  Unfortunately, we’re not practitioners, and we’re not in a position to give you one.  I asked around, and Charles had given away his copy.  Matthew didn’t keep his after his father died.”

“You know they told us their stories,” Avery said.

“Yes.”

“Are you having us watched?” Lucy asked.

“Yes.  Part of the reason is for your protection.”

“And the other part of the reason?” Lucy asked.

“I decline to say.”

“That’s… a bad look, Miss,” Verona said.

“I know.”

“I’ll be blunt here.  Did you have anything to do with the Carmine Beast’s death or disappearance?” Lucy asked.

“Not to the best of my knowledge.”

“Is your knowledge potentially tainted or warped?” Verona asked.

“I have no reason to believe it is.”

“Do you know or suspect who is responsible?” Lucy asked.

“I have strong suspicions.”

Avery gave Lucy and Verona nervous looks.

“Who do you suspect?” Lucy asked.

“I decline to say.”

Why?

“Calm down,” Avery said.

“Why?” Lucy asked, again.

“Because the moment I do, the guilty party or parties are likely to know.  Two events are likely to move us to the next phase.  The first is that I tell you, you get too close, or outside practitioners act, and the guilty party hurries to claim the seat.  The second ties into what I told you earlier.  If the fleeting dark, violent, and bloody Others keep escalating and drawing near, the Carmine Beast’s kin may force someone to take the seat.  My guess is they would pick John.”

“What happens then?”

“The Alabaster, Sable, and Aurum would pick the Dog of War John Stiles, someone else would step in while bearing the power they took from killing the Carmine Beast, they would irrevocably destroy John, and then they would take the seat instead.”

“It sounds almost inevitable,” Verona said.

“It may be.  You’re under no obligation to solve this mystery.  This may be a puzzle best left unsolved.  I can’t and won’t tell you to solve it or not to solve it.  Trust your collective instincts.  You shouldn’t be blamed for the outcome, not by us, no matter the outcome.”

“John and the Choir… they’re the Candidates, right?” Verona asked.

“They are the top contenders I know of.”

“And they’re both from Kennet?  But John said the region the Carmine Beast covered was all of Northern Ontario, and some of Manitoba.”

“Yes.”

“That’s… weird, isn’t it?  That the Carmine Beast dies here, and the two major candidates are from here?”

“Certain regions are disqualified, because they are already under the power or sway of Lords or other Practitioners.  Thunder Bay, for example, is managed by an elemental.  Perhaps that elemental is violent and powerful enough to rule, but it is beholden to other interests and roles.  Other areas are too messy, to untouched by humanity.  They have less strength than John and offer less stability or longevity than the Choir.”

“This is a perfect middle ground?” Avery asked.

“It’s a good middle ground.  The other side of it is that these two may be candidates strictly because the Carmine Beast died here.  You’ve noticed the blood, the staining, and how the effects of her death are concentrated here.  All of us here may have more of a claim to the seat because we’re touched with her blood.”

“Could someone intercept it?  Use that and claim the seat?” Lucy asked.

“I do not think that that someone could easily survive the competition that came immediately after.  Not unless they were strong.”

“Like the Choir is strong?” Lucy asked.

“Potentially.”

“The Hungry Choir appears tomorrow night,” Verona said.  “We were thinking of trying to intercept it.”

“Do you have protection?”

“We have John, and some basic symbols and runes we can use.  A power source.”

“It’s scheduled to appear in Kennet next.  If you open up your ears like you opened your eyes to the Sight, you should hear the song.  You can follow it to the epicenter.”

“Epicenter is an ominous word,” Lucy said.

“It should be.  Do not participate.  Stay quiet, observe, and think hard before interfering.”

Avery spoke up.  “Charles said an Other that is acting on instinct may be able to harm us, in defiance of the deal we made on awakening.”

“Yes.  The Choir is a pattern, a ritual.  If you get caught up in it, it has to follow through on its own rules.  That is its ‘instinct’.  Be careful.”

“Can we trust you?” Lucy asked.  “About the Choir?  About anything?”

“That is up to each of you, Lucille, Verona, Avery.”

Should we trust you, then?” Lucy pressed.

“Based on the facts as you have them now, no.  In the bigger picture, I would hope, yes, you should trust me.”

“Why are you making this hard?” Avery asked.

“Because what is happening is hard, and is going to get harder.  We’re far from the point where someone forces someone to take the seat, and my suspicion is you need to find your own ways there.”

“What are you?” Verona asked.

The question cut through the conversation, the tone of it disconnected from everything else.

“What do you think I am?”  Miss asked.

“No straight answers, huh?” Lucy asked.

Miss was silent.

“Are you a complex spirit?” Verona guessed.  “Stable?”

“No.  I wish I could be.  Spirits can find hallows and homes, they can break apart into constituent elements, or draw in other things.  I am what I am.”

“Bogeyman?” Lucy asked.  “Whatever that is?”

“No.  I’m not of the abyss.  You can recognize Others of that type by the darkness that stains them.”

“Like the stains of darkness I see with my Sight?” Lucy asked.

“Very possible.”

Avery drew in a deep breath.  Again, she had that feeling, like everyone present was fixated on her.

“Why do I feel like each of us only get one guess?” she asked.

“You can guess as many times as you like, but as Toadswallow explained to you last night, third times make a charm.  They make things more meaningful.”

“Can I save my question for later, then?”

“You can.  It won’t be as effective as three guesses happening in a timely manner, but if you’re right, then…”

“Then what?” Lucy asked.

“Then I suspect you get a better answer, with things flowing into and out of the occasion in a more satisfying way.”

“Then I’ll save it.  Until I understand things more.”

“Why don’t you just tell us, Miss?” Lucy asked.

“Because, Lucille, I’m afraid I don’t trust you three.”

“You picked us,” Avery said.

“In this world, knowledge is power.  To give you knowledge of what I am, with just a bit more research, is to give you an idea of how to bind me.  To enslave me.  All around the world, humans are fathoming the unfathomable.  They are riddling us out and raveling us in bindings, unraveling us into our constituent elements, or riddling us with holes by way of blade and bullet.  The Others of Kennet are for the most part fair and friendly.”

“Even the Choir?” Lucy asked.

“Technically it is fair.  It offers a deal and people take the deal.  Arguably, it is not of Kennet, but over a large area that includes Kennet.  Controversially, it isn’t something we could easily handle in the first place.  We manage it, contain the damage.  It pulls most of its targets from outside of Kennet.  Kennet acts as a regular staging ground, while the other stages change.”

“Can you give us more specifics?  How it works?” Verona asked.

“No,” Miss said.  “Because I am uniquely and unfortunately prone to being tangled up in traps such as that.  I have avoided particular knowledge and acted from a distance when I must act.  I’d explain more, but…”

“But you don’t trust us,” Lucy stated.

“I’m sorry.”

“We swore we wouldn’t be a threat to you unless you deserved it,” Avery said.

“And, acting with intent, you shouldn’t be.  Acting with instinct, or if you take leave of your senses, or find yourself vulnerable and at the disposal of other, greater practitioners?  You’re a danger.  The blade cuts both ways.”

Lucy looked miffed.  She checked her phone, then looked back toward the school.  “We should be heading back.  We’ll get in trouble if we arrive late.  Sucks.  I had so many more questions.”

“I should be available.”

“That reminds me.  Where have you been, the last few days?” Lucy asked.  “You were hovering a lot prior to our awakening.  Then you were gone.”

“Giving you space.  I’ve occupied myself keeping outside practitioners at bay.”

“Are they something we need to worry about?” Verona asked.

“I don’t know.  But speaking of worry… my gifts and teachings.  I should give them to you now.  Before tomorrow, and so you have more time to get acquainted with them.”

“Something we can use against the Choir?” Verona asked.

“There is no effective ‘against’ the Choir.  Observe, don’t oppose.  It won’t be worth it.  Verona?  If you would approach, my gift is tailored to your interests.”

Verona took a hesitant step forward, then walked around the tree. She passed around the left of it, emerged at the right, and had a paper in her hand.  There was no indication she had seen or interacted with Miss.  A black feather stuck out of the paper.

“The first part of my gift to you is unfortunately aimed at the long term,” Miss said.  “All of you girls will benefit.  There is a small school for practitioners to the east.  It takes time to get there, it takes time to return.  When and if you know more about what you want to do, you can go there, and attend by loopholes suggested there.  Or else you may need to go there, to field the outsiders, if they start to get too close.  Any families or individuals in the area will have some points of contact there.  If you ask it, they’ll teach you specifics about binding and defeating Others, depending on what Other you’re needing to deal with.”

“Why can’t we go now?”

“It takes time?” Lucy asked.

“You may need to wait until summer,” Miss said.  “To have the time needed.”

“What’s this feather?”

“A quill pen.  It lets you pick up written words and put them down.  I thought it suited you.  I would be careful about moving words into or out of practices, at least until you have power, protection, and a solid understanding of exactly what you’re doing.”

“Hmm,” Verona made a sound.  “Cool.

“Avery.”

Avery approached Miss, who was now at a different tree.

She saw a slice of Miss’s silhouette, and chased it around the tree, before finding herself face to face with the others.

“Verona’s gift is given with an eye to the long term, with a second component that will take time to master.  Yours is not so far away, but it is not something you can or should do tonight or tomorrow.”

She looked at her hand.  There were papers there, like she’d been holding them all along.

She unfolded it.

“The Forest Ribbon Trail.”

“You wished to travel.  This is a place you can go that is as far from the earthly as you can safely go.  It is not easy, it is at the razor’s edge between safety and ruin, and it may leave you changed.”

Avery skimmed the instructions.  There was a ritual.  Capture a wild prey animal that has not shed or tasted blood, taking it unharmed and without drugs, and bring it indoors.  Bind it in ribbon…

She skipped ahead.  You must not step off the path.  You must not look down.  You must not step back.  If you do, you will be Lost…

She skipped further ahead.  Dealing with the Wolf…

Those capital letters in Lost and Wolf were ominous.

The very last lines… Done right, you will find yourself at the edge of losing your life, with the chosen gift in hand.  Done wrong, you will be Lost.

“Much as the loophole I gave Verona as a gift is a gift to all of you, any of you can walk the path, but I think you’ll get the most out of it, Avery.  You may wish to wait until you’re stronger.  The walking is not easy.  The gifts are very much worth it, and more doors will be open to you after.”

“Thank you, I think.”

“Lucille.”

“You can call me Lucy.”

“Lucy.  At your feet.”

Lucy knelt, reached into the grass, and picked up a ring.  It looked awkward, with a long, narrow bit built into it.

“What is it?”

“A gift for the now.  For your protection.  Wear the ring, draw it and your hand along any object.  You’ll have a weapon at hand.  Be aware this costs something, and if you do not have a source of power at hand, it will drink a bit of the Kennet Others and a great deal of you.”

“Of my… Self?”

“Less of your Self and more of your blood, your personal power.  Your strength.”

“So I’ll have a weapon and I’ll be in too bad a shape to fight?”

“That is a risk.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “We can call you again?  If we have questions?  We have the rest of tonight and tomorrow to prepare, I think.”

“You can call me anytime.  I can’t guarantee that I’ll answer, but I’ll try.”

“Thanks, then, I guess,” Lucy said.  She looked at Avery and Verona.  Avery gave her a nod.

They started the walk back to school.  Lucy checked her phone and made a face, before picking up her pace.  Other kids were already filing back in, and ninety percent of them were a lot closer to the school.

“I want more interviews like that,” Verona said.  “Gifts and lots of things to look forward to.”

“Weird gifts.” Avery looked down at the papers, before folding them up into a square and putting them in her back pocket.

“Miss is weird,” Verona answered.

“You’re not wrong,” Lucy said.  “But I have to wonder…”

She trailed off, and she didn’t pick up the thought immediately.

“Wonder what?” Avery asked.

Lucy looked back, as if to check Miss wasn’t listening in.  They were making their way uphill, and there weren’t even any stones or bushes for goblins to hide in.

“…I can’t say for sure if I should be really happy or concerned about my gift,” Lucy said.

“Concerned?” Verona asked.

“My first feeling was that this is great.  Just what I wanted.  Protection, power.  It has a bit of a drawback, but… fine.  Maybe that’s most magic items and trinkets.”

“What’s your second feeling?” Verona asked.

“That after last night, I wasn’t so keen I wanted to go this route, with violence and weapons.  And if Miss is keeping enough track of things to know exactly what Toadswallow taught us… is it impossible that she knows I wasn’t keen?”

“A bit of a monkey’s paw?” Verona asked.  “A gift that seems neat, that you’re not likely to make use of?”

“Well I mean…” Lucy looked again, to check for eavesdroppers.  “What if she gave me something with the full expectation I’d use it… right after telling us we shouldn’t oppose the Choir?”

“A trap?” Avery asked.

“A warning, with full expectation we’d ignore it?” Verona added.

“I don’t know,” Lucy said.  “How do you feel about your things?”

“A really great first feeling.  School for practitioners?” Verona asked.

“Could be neat.  Could be necessary,” Lucy said.

“Could be.  But… when you reframe it as hooray, summer school!?”

“Maybe,” Lucy said.

“The pen is neat, at least.”

Lucy nodded.  “If it isn’t another trap.  And crap, that’s the warning bell.  Run!”

“I’m all runned out after gym class,” Verona complained.

“You barely ran,” Avery said.

Verona laughed, but as much as she’d complained, she did pick up the pace.

And me, Avery thought.  My gift from Miss is a way to go to some magical, mystical place, with the threat or promise that I’d be changed afterward.  And she gives it to me right after my Sight went weird and I was terrified of being changed irrevocably.

“We’ll need to plan and prepare,” Lucy said, as they reached the side door of the school.  “We’ve got tomorrow to get ready, maybe see if we can dig up some of the roots or figure out what the rules are, get geared up, maybe prepare some diagrams.”

“You’re speaking my language,” Verona said, elbowing her friend.

“Ha ha.  I’m speaking English, you dunce.  We get prepped, we get things squared away, and then we meet the Choir.  I’m betting none of those things are as easy as they sound.”

“And hopefully,” Avery said, quiet, as Lucy held the door open for her and Verona, “We won’t be missing any body parts afterward, like the teenager with the sunglasses was.”


Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter

Lost for Words – 1.6

Lucy

Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter


Lucy paused at the foot of her front steps.  Each step had a potted plant at the end, half of which were just sprouting new green.  Her mom’s car was in the driveway, which wasn’t always a certainty.

Pulling her sleeve over her hand, she wiped at her face.  Fingers plucked at her hair, fixing it where it’d be lopsided from being crushed.

She was hoping that every interview wasn’t that intense.

She rocked forward, almost taking a step, then stopping herself before her foot rose from the ground.  The entire way from Verona’s house, she’d felt like she wanted to cry.  It wasn’t that she was sad, or that she could say for sure what made her upset, but she’d held herself together for the interview with John, she’d talked to the goblins, had dropped off Avery and then Verona, and… then she’d lost most of her reason to hold herself together.

Most.  She couldn’t walk in her front door crying or having just cried.  She couldn’t have a neighbor or someone look out a window and see her walking down through the maze of shitty houses with shitty gardens, having a stress cry.

She couldn’t walk into her house and start crying either.  Her mom would demand to know what was going on.

She’d almost died.  Or- Or she’d really thought she was going to die.  How was she supposed to deal with the feeling that had left her with?  Like… it wasn’t a lump in her throat.  It was bigger, and she couldn’t swallow it, couldn’t ignore it, couldn’t digest it, couldn’t throw it up.  Crying might help but wouldn’t fix it.  Breaking down and throwing things and screaming might be a big enough action to match the big feeling that was sitting with her, but it might not.

And breaking down and screaming would diminish her.  Worse, it wouldn’t make sense.  It would be reacting to something that she couldn’t process by being random, flailing.  She’d done it before and she regretted it.

No.  Not allowed.

She pressed her hands over her eyes, head turning upward, like she could somehow, at least, seal them, and keep herself from crying.  At least until she was out of her mom’s sight.

I almost died, she thought.

She could at least give that heavy feeling a shape.  It was still hard to bring herself to actually walk up to the door.

Get through the bit with mom without crying, I’ll treat myself to something.

She lifted one sneaker off the brick path leading up to the front steps, and took the stairs two at a time, letting herself in.

“Lucy?” her mom called from the other room.

“Yeah.”

“That was a long walk.”

“Swung by Verona’s,” Lucy answered.  She had.  Was her voice too monotone?

Her mom was in the living room, sitting on the couch, the coffee table in front of her, loaded down with papers.  She was still wearing nurse scrubs.

“Can I see you?”

“Yep.”

Lucy walked into the living room, approaching the coffee table.  The papers were all from the same company, with a really artificial looking header, swoopy and colorful, the company’s brand name printed in white next to a medical cross.  It was her mom’s latest job, which was mostly better than the last one.  She’d heard mom explaining it to Alison, their neighbor and her mom’s friend.  She traveled around to different houses, sometimes in nearby areas like Swanson, and taught old people how to take the company’s drug, the side effects.  Each client had a different schedule, and they had to be monitored for the first six applications or whatever.  It meant her mom was gone at completely random times.  Sometimes before school, sometimes when Lucy went to bed.

“Did you get snacks?”

“Didn’t go into the store.  We uh-” Lucy paused for a second to mentally fact check.  “-Mostly talked and walked, I guess.”

“I was hoping I could get a bit of whatever snack you grabbed.  Especially if there’s any caffeine in it.  I’m so sick of coffee.”

“Sorry.  I was thinking I’d get a snack, but…” Lucky thought.  “Do we still have hot chocolate in the cabinet?”

“It’s been a long time since we’ve had that.  Is that going to make it too hard for you to sleep tonight?”

“I-” Lucy stopped herself before the hitch in her voice actually reached her words.  Dangerous, when her voice might have cracked.  “-really wanted a hot chocolate.  I’ll manage.”

“Make me some too?”

Lucy nodded.

She went to the kitchen, turned on the oven ring, filled a pan with a couple cups of water, and set it on the ring. Once it was at a near boil, she poured some into a bowl, set another bowl inside, and put a good amount of cacao oil in the small bowl to warm.

With the rest of the water, she whisked in a bit of cocoa powder while it heated up, crushing the lumps.  Then the milk.  She emptied three mugs worth in.  Last was the chocolate.  Some cooking chocolate was in the cabinet, a little white at the edges from age and lack of use.  She crushed it and whisked it in.

It’d take a few minutes, she knew.

Looking at the creamy mixture made the feelings well up again.  Like she could freak out right here.  She distracted herself with the whisking, periodically pacing, roaming the kitchen.

There were a lot of envelopes from the local hospital.  Her mom was applying again, it seemed.  There was supposedly a shortage of doctors and nurses, especially in places out in the middle of nowhere, like Kennet.

But that had been true the last time her mom had been applying.

Her current thing was better than her stint as a homecare nurse.  That had been last year, and she’d been gone every night and most mornings, always trying to time it so she left right after Lucy was in bed, and right after she’d gotten Lucy to school.  She’d seen her mom change over the months, becoming more washed out, more frustrated with the little things.

Verona had said that every adult she knew was unhappy and Verona knew Lucy’s mom.  She wasn’t wrong.  Things were a bit better for her mom now, but this drug injection thing wasn’t what she wanted to do.

The chocolate in the milk and cocoa had melted enough that it had smoothed out.  She carefully portioned it out into two mugs, got the whipping cream from the fridge, and portioned it out, giving each mug a swirl.

She considered her next steps.  Oil, hot chocolate, her mom’s hot chocolate… she dug into the lower drawers to find a rigid plastic silly-straw, which took the contents of whatever was sucked down on a course shaped like a peace sign.  It had been long enough since it had been used that it was a bit sticky and dusty, so she rinsed it off, before making her way back to her mom, carefully holding the bowl of warm oil, two mugs, and straw, her backpack slung over one shoulder.

“Oh, where did you even find that?” her mom said, taking her mug.  “You shouldn’t use a straw when drinking something hot.  You’ll burn your mouth more easily.”

“I was going to do my hair, because I was outside a lot this weekend.  I thought it’d be easier with the straw.”

“Do you want me to?”

Lucy considered.  She had been bracing herself, telling herself she only had to look normal for a few minutes.  She’d distracted herself with the making of the hot chocolate, but…

“Come on,” her mom said, rising to her feet.

“Don’t you have work to do?”

“Just trying to figure out my schedule for next week.  What I don’t do today, I can do tomorrow.  Let me take that.”

She gave her mom the bowl.

Lucy’s room had two walls covered in art from CDs and subscription boxes.  Her brother had been subcribed to one service that sent music samples, promotional materials, and the rare ticket from new artists and whatever every month, and he hadn’t canceled it after he’d moved out.  She’d convinced her mom to keep paying when it had lapsed, because she’d gotten into it.  Less that she loved music and more that it reminded her of her brother.

The other two walls were mostly empty.  There was a cot folded up in the corner, for when Verona stayed over, a bookshelf with mostly graphic novels, and a desk with a mirror built in, a few minor cosmetics, some wide-tooth combs, and homework she hadn’t one hundred percent finished.

She sat down at the desk, mug in front of her.  Her mom put the bowl down, and undid the ponytail, before starting to quadrant off her hair.

It was nice, and it was nice in a way that weakened her defenses.  Made her feel like she might do the crying thing.  She focused on the hot chocolate, eyes down on the homework.  She took a sip, put it down, picked up her pen and penciled in an answer.

Her mom’s hands rested on her shoulders as she leaned over to look at the answer.  Rather than comment on the homework, she said, “You’re tense.”

“Mm.”  Almost always.  But especially after I almost died.

“Don’t want to say why?”

“Not sure what I’d say.”

“Okay then.  How’s Verona?” her mom asked.  “Don’t let me interrupt you, if you want to do homework.”

“I don’t, and it’s mostly done.  Um, Verona…”

Lucy thought of Verona, a knife pressed against her lips.  The look on Verona’s face, like she didn’t even really care.  When had Verona stopped being the person she knew and understood?

Scratch that.  She’d never entirely understood Verona, but… she definitely didn’t understand this Verona, who seemed to be so full of the idea of everything about spirits and practice and everything else that it had pushed out parts that Lucy recognized.

“She’s always a bit weird.  Weirder now.  I think her dad is getting to her.”

“Should I say hi to him?  I could find an excuse, maybe give him a nudge if he needs one.”

“I don’t know if it’s the kind of thing you could nudge about.  More like they aren’t even related, and they’re stuck in the same house.”

“Mmm.  Hard to disagree.  Does she take after her mom?”

“You’ve met her mom.”

“But I don’t know her.”

Her mom’s hands were gentle, working through a few tangles and knots.  Lucy’s hair was in four simple braids now, each sticking out a bit from her head.

“I look like a derp.”

“You’re a beautiful girl, Lucille, and that’s not my mom bias talking.”

“A bit of mom bias.”

“Really, no.  All my friends remark on it, okay?”

Lucy shrugged.  She didn’t think she looked bad, but she wasn’t remark-worthy either.

“And just so we don’t get distracted from the topic, you know Verona can come over whenever.  The house feels empty with Booker gone.  It’s nice hearing voices in the other room.”

“Okay.”

“How’s Avery?”  Lucy’s mom hand-massaged the oil into Lucy’s hair.  “It’s easy to forget you’re a trio now.”

She could imagine Avery, standing in the dark, barely visible, while Verona had a knife to her face and Lucy had a gun to her chin.

They’d strongarmed Avery into this, a bit.  That point when they’d been walking up to the clearing, and Avery had wanted to go.  Would Avery have wanted to do this without that push she’d given her?

The Others had said there was a kind of responsibility when they brought someone into this world.  It felt to Lucy like that was the case.  That she’d brought Avery into that Other world, at least a bit, with that push.

“She’s cool.”  Not answering the question, but a technical truth.  Lucy sipped more of her hot chocolate.

Things continued for a bit, her mom massaging the oil into her hair near the roots.

Lucy penned another answer.

“Reasons for Canadian confederation,” her mom observed, leaning forward.

“Ugh.”

“Come on.  You’re almost done.”

“Blame America.”

“Phrase it better.”

Lucy, her head rocking a bit with the movements of her mom’s hands through her hair, penned down an answer.  Threat of American invasion.

“Five more reasons.”

“Trade.  Hudson’s Bay Company couldn’t use the rivers for the ongoing fur trade, they wanted a railway…”

“Good.”

“Is it right?”

“It’s been a long time, and my mind is fried.”

“So you don’t know.”

“It sounds right.”

Lucy penned it down.  She reached for her hot chocolate, but didn’t pick it up, only holding the handle.  “Any luck with the hospital applications?”

“A few positions were open.  We’ll see.”

“If you don’t get it, and if your current thing doesn’t work out, is there a chance we’d have to move?  There might be openings at other hospitals in other towns, right?”

“Don’t worry about that.  I don’t want to separate you from your best friend.  From your friends, still have to remind myself you’re a trio.  I will figure it out, Lucy.  It’s not something you need to worry about.”

“But what if I want to worry about it?  Like, you deserve the job.  You’re a good nurse, the people who you used to work with at the other hospital said so.  You know your stuff, I know you study.”

“Really, Lucy, don’t worry.  We’ll be fine.”

Lucy made herself shut up by picking up her mug and sipping from it.

Her mom used a paper towel to hold her mug and also drink from it.

“I want to know, if there’s an explanation.”

“And I want you to let me handle my stuff, while you focus on handling Lucy stuff, okay?  As a teenager your job is to do your homework, do the occasional chore-”

“More than occasional.”

“-and if you can figure out who you are and where you want to go in life before you need to make decisions about University, then that’s a bonus.”

Lucy thought back to that dark house.  How cool to the touch John Stiles’ hand had been, the metal of the gun even colder.

Why was it, she found herself wondering, that whenever she got a glimpse behind the curtain, it was so very dark out there?  Seeing her mom with that same look in her eyes as John Stiles.  Seeing the blood, the swords.

Her eyes were open, and she opened them again, to view the world in dark watercolors.  The yellow of the oil in the bowl in front of her was surprising in how bright it was.  She looked up to see herself in the mirror, and there were angles where she could see herself wearing the fox mask.  Sometimes the mask was a stark white, barely resembling a fox.  Other times it was like Avery had carved it, painted a rosy color, but with real fox eyes.  Another time, it was almost a real fox’s face, but with her eyes.  Her hair was highlighted with enough pink that it didn’t look real.

She could see her mother dip fingers into the bright yellow oil, then run those fingers through her hair.  The pink almost flared, as the oil set in.

Third quadrant done.  The hair that had just been oiled was bound into a tight coil.

Onto the last quadrant.  Braid undone.  Her mom leaned over to put the elastic that had held the braid together on the desk, sipping from her own mug of hot chocolate.

With the change in posture and the bending over, Lucy could see her mom’s reflection in the mirror.  A sword, short and rusty, with a broken tip and a sash-like rag tied to the handle at her back, was stuck through her upper body.  Penetrating her heart, the blade sticking out her front.

Lucy shut her eyes at the sight of it, and for a second, her head trembled in a way that her mom would have noticed if she wasn’t preoccupied.  Lucy clasped her hands in her lap, eyes still shut.

“Falling asleep on me?” her mom asked.

With her eyes closed, she couldn’t be sure that she had actually turned off the Sight.  And there was no way she wanted to risk opening her eyes and seeing that sword sticking through her mom again.

“I’m tired,” she said, and that admission almost made her break.

She kept her eyes closed and drank the rest of her hot chocolate.  The chocolate had settled in the bottom as a delicious sludge.

The last quadrant of hair was bound up, and her mother stepped out of the room.

Lucy let herself open her eyes.  She shut off the Sight.

Her mother returned with freshly washed hands, a towel, and a silk scarf.  She wrapped up Lucy’s head in the towel, then secured it with the scarf, which she knotted at Lucy’s forehead.

“Thank you.”

“This was nice, I don’t get the chance to do it myself,” her mother said.  Her mother’s hair was cut close to her scalp.

“Lucky,” Lucy said, smiling.

“I wish you smiled more.  You used to be so warm and happy.”

I used to be more of a softball than Avery or Pamela O’Neill.

“Maybe I’ll work on it.”

Her mother kissed her on the forehead.  “Homework, then bed.”

“I usually finish my homework in class, before it starts.”

“If you think you can.  I trust you.”

Lucy stood from the chair.  She handed her mom some of the things, like the elastics, the bowl, and the paper towels with oil, hot chocolate and whipping cream on them, but when it proved too much for one trip, she followed her mom out, carrying the rest.

Halfway back to the kitchen, she said, “I love you, mom.”

“Wow.  It’s been a little while since you’ve said anything like that.”

“I really do love you.  You’re great.  Thank you for doing my hair.”

She felt so awkward saying it, especially now that it had been pointed out.  But after what had almost happened earlier… she felt like she needed to say it.  Just in case.

“My genuine pleasure.  I love you so much my heart hurts, you know that, right?”

Lucy glanced at her mother’s heart, where the sword had been, looked away.

That hadn’t been for or about her.

“Yeah.  I know.”

Her mom dropped stuff off at the sink, rinsing some, then headed back to the coffee table and couch to resume working.  Lucy rinsed one bowl, and while she rinsed, turned her head back to the pile of envelopes from the hospital on the kitchen counter.

She looked with the Sight.

Dark stains discolored the paper, like watercolor or mold.  She couldn’t say for sure if there was more of it there than there was elsewhere.  Every time she felt like she could decide for sure, she noticed more untouched space or noticed more staining.  Tricks of the eyes.

She shut that eye, leaving her ordinary eyes open, and washed her hands before heading back to her room, turning off some of the lights as she went.  She sorted out her homework, then collapsed into her bed.  The taste of the hot chocolate and warm feeling of a moment with her mom sat high and thick in her lower throat and upper chest, kind of like heartburn.  The big ball of emotion from earlier was still there, and it was like it wasn’t letting the rest of it by.

She stripped out of her sweatshirt and changed her pants out for some pyjama shorts, then collapsed onto her bed, one hand keeping the scarf in position around her hair.

The red of the clock seemed so bright in the gloom, penetrating her awareness to inform her it was ten oh seven at night.

At ten thirty, she turned over onto her side, reached down for her bag, fished out her notebook, and turned her bedside light onto its dimmest setting.  She pored over her notes.

The moment she’d heard Charles talk about practitioners who dealt in war, she’d been intrigued.  Now… she wasn’t sure.

She penned down some more questions she wanted to ask, then connected them with lines.  Who fit best?  Who should she ask?

It was clear now that they were out of their depth.  They needed the means to defend themselves, and she didn’t want to trust something like John Stiles to appear and protect her if she had the option of protecting herself.

Guilherme?  The warrior faerie that John liked?  She was leery, because of how everyone else had acted about faerie.

None of the others seemed to really be about self defense.  Edith, maybe, if she wanted to work with fire.

The problem was that she couldn’t trust any of them until she knew for sure which ones she could distrust.  A lot of the questions and details were things she could posit to Miss, but Miss seemed to be actively untrustworthy, hiding, staying quiet, controlling when she wasn’t quiet.

At eleven fourteen, she heard her mom quietly go to bed.  She remembered that she’d told herself she would let herself cry if she needed to after she was out of the way of her mom, but even with that heavy, awful feeling that seemed to have swelled inside her until it felt like something should have broken, she couldn’t bring herself to.

At eleven fifty five, she realized this was going to be a long night.  The frustration at her inability to sleep began to make it harder to go to sleep.

She mused for a bit on various insults she would level at some of the people in her life who had really pissed her off, using the goblin magic and the rule of three.  Sling some bottom-tier curses out there to some specific people.

Mrs. Fowler, her grade two teacher, who had berated her in front of the class because she kept writing her nines like they appeared in the textbook, with curved tails.  Nothing really said to Logan who had writing so indecipherable the letters looked like wingdings, or to Melissa, who took similar, intentional liberties with her ones, sevens, and zeroes.  Lucy just hadn’t known better, and she’d gone home crying that day.  Mrs. Fowler hadn’t let up either.

She remembered reading in a book once that growing old was like being a baby again.  Being in diapers, having trouble walking, sometimes even having trouble speaking.  She wished there was a good word or thing to say to Mrs. Fowler that would make her like that.  Old and helpless and totally alone, singled out and going back to her bed in the old folks home, crying.  She hated that woman.  Lucy had never really loved school again after that.

There was Logan who had proclaimed in fifth grade that boys were stronger than girls, and when she’d offered to fight him, had agreed.  While he hadn’t trounced her -it had been a really sad fight on both sides, really, with other kids cheering them on, more pulling on hair and clothes than actually fighting- he’d turned around and told a teacher she’d bullied him.

That would’ve been after.  After Paul.

She put Paul out of mind.  He was after.  He was last.

Logan needed to be marked out as the stain he was.  Gross and sweaty and embarrassing.

There was the boy at the lake, when she’d gone vacationing with her family.  That had been so long ago she couldn’t remember for sure if Doug was his real name in her memories or a name she’d stuck with him.  He’d made fun of her watercap and pushed her into the water, and then didn’t let her out, pushing her down and in every time she tried to slosh through and get by.  Booker had come by and Doug had fled, and she just… she remembered being so indignant, shaking from it and from the cold of being wet.

She hoped he got a disease that made him have to crap in a bag for the rest of his life.

She was working herself up, her mind going in circles, sometimes going back to the same curses and curse ideas.

If she had the power to apply curses, could she do something that would satisfy?  Because everything that came to mind was like a story that hadn’t been finished yet.  It felt wrong that there was no final chapter, no moral to the story except that things and people sucked sometimes.

When they’d had to pee in cups for a health test in school, Kirsten had spilled her cup, splashing Lucy’s leg and sneakers.  She hadn’t apologized and had made insinuations about Lucy smelling like pee, later.  She remembered scrubbing at her shoe and leg and feeling so gross.  Just a small curse for something like that, right?  Like a recurring ulcer on Kirsten’s peehole so she’d writhe in pain when she peed and end up on the bathroom floor, still peeing.  Once or twice a year, maybe, until she did something to make up for it.

Eve had borrowed a graphic novel that she’d bought and got signed while in Thunder Bay to do some city shopping, and had never returned it, but… Eve had been held back a grade.  She’d bug Eve about it when she ran into her again, but she had mercy.  No curse, imagined or otherwise.  That was a shitty enough thing to have to deal with, without cursing her with a propensity for papercuts and sharp bits of food between her teeth.

The curses that she imagined weren’t like the ones that the goblin’s trick would let her apply, but… it was satisfying.  It got her worked up to imagine the events all over again, but… the lack of fairness in it all ate at her.  The heaviness of the emotion that was sitting with her wasn’t one singular event.

When she ran out of new, inventive swears and people she had a grudge at, she looked at the clock.  Twelve thirty five.

She got her phone and fiddled around with it, watching some of the recommended videos, revisiting the app to check that the class’s votes hadn’t come out yet… not that it mattered.  She put on some music, put her earbuds in, and lay with her face smushed into her pillow, arms out to the sides.

One eleven.

She was exhausted and she felt like sleep was never going to come.

I almost died.

And they think the Hungry Choir is scarier. 

They act more scared of the Faerie.

Have to take this seriously.  Have to get Verona to take this seriously.

Avery, at least, I can trust.  She’s a ditz sometimes but she’s cool.

She found and put on a video by Mr. Lai.  One of the kids in school had found his channel when he’d left his computer unlocked, and spread it around.  A lot of people had been laughing, because Mr. Lai was this short, super-clean cut teacher who’d been born in China, and his channel had a ton of videos where he was dressed like a lumberjack and building a cabin from scratch, somewhere up north.

But like… it was actually kind of cool.  That single-minded focus.  The skills involved.  It was neat to see someone into that, and it kind of reminded her of some of her memories of sleepovers with Verona, when Verona was super into something obscure or weird, like a craft project.  Those had been some of the best weekends, really, because that kind of steady enthusiasm was infectious.  A part of her still hoped this practice stuff could be more like that.

Mr. Lai’s accent was pretty tough, but if she didn’t really listen, like she wasn’t really listening now, then it just became a steady, pleasant noise, sometimes over the sound of saws and hammers.  He kind of put her to sleep, like he had last year, but that was a plus right now.  And watching like this gave him some views.  Win-win, wasn’t it?  He might not be super thrilled to know students were falling asleep to the sound of his voice, but… whatever.  Win-win.

She hit the like button and lay there, trying to let her mind wander and picture what he was putting together from the sounds of his voice, even if she couldn’t always catch the words.

She heard a thumping noise, and picked up the phone with the video still playing, her eyes still closed and face still pressing into the pillow, and blindly thumbed at the screen until she could rewind the video a few steps.

The video went back, then continued toward the point where it had been when she’d heard the thump.

There were more thumps, dull and hollow, at a point in the video where she definitely hadn’t heard anything.  She paused it and pulled out her earbuds.  She flopped over onto her back, looking toward the door, the closet, the cot in the corner.

One forty-seven.

The time on the clock changed to gibberish, then flickered.

She could hear it.  Scrabbling and thumping, elsewhere in the house, rapid, almost like a lunch table worth of hands drumming at a table in anticipation of pizza.

Except… there was nobody.  The house was dark and quiet.  The only light was from her alarm clock and phone.

Thumpthumpthumpthumpthumpthump.

Something in the house creaked and banged.  It wasn’t a door.

Thumpthumpthumpthumpthump.

A face appeared at her doorway.  Pale, framed by long, dark hair.

Alpeana, peering in from the upper corner of the door, face at a diagonal.  The face rotated two-hundred and seventy degrees.

“Is this a threat?” Lucy asked.

Alpeana lunged, crawling across the ceiling with rapid movements.  Thumpthumpthumpthumpthump-

Crawling across the ceiling to a point directly over Lucy’s bed in about a third of the time it would take Lucy to walk from her doorway to her bedside table.

She hung there, suspended, fingers straining, curved backwards as fingertips seemed to dig into the ceiling itself.  Her head twisted, rotating, like she was trying to get a better view.

Show no fear.  Give her nothing.

Never show weakness.  It’s never worth it.

Lucy remained stock still, watching.

Alpeana’s mouth yawned open, and black fluid oozed out, multi-layered, thick with debris that could have been anything, but with shapes like rotted leaves turned black by a winter spent under the snow, or the stringy guck pulled out of drains.

Her hair turned liquid, doing something similar, just in much greater quantities.  Drainstuff, rot, mold, mixed with liquid as thick and black as oil, refusing to flow straight down so much as it stuck to itself.

“I had a bad night.  I’m not in the mood for this,” Lucy said.  As the stuff reached down from the ceiling and toward her head, she grabbed a spare pillow and held it up in the way.  “You’re not allowed to hurt me, by the deals made.”

The stuff touched her sheets, just over her chest.  Heavy, soaking in and pressing down.

It touched her pillow, that she held up as a shield and barrier to keep it away from her face.  Strings, rivulets, and clumps oozed down around the edges, sides, and more of it piled on top, making the pillow difficult to hold up, even with both hands.

No fear.  No weakness.

“You’re not winning any points with me, Alpeana.”

Is this her acting on instinct?

A white shape pressed into the curtain of black stuff that draped down from the pillow’s edges.  It took Lucy a second to realize it was a face, poking through, with eyes as dark as anything.

“Ye’re due a nightmare, lassie,” the Mare said, her voice young, but thick with a Scottish burr.

“No thanks,” Lucy answered.  The stream from above had eased up.  The curtain of dark liquid had pooled around her, soaking into her sheets and pillow, but now that what was coming from above wasn’t so thick, she could see that what had piled up on her stomach and chest was the rough silhouette of a person.  Alpeana’s face lifted up to find a home roughly where the head should be.

“Yeh,” Alpeana said.  “Tha’s wha’ I thought.  I’ll spare ye that.”

“Okay.”

“Can’t go and say ye won’ have a bad dream now, but it won’ be a fancy Mare dream like ye might be havin’ if ye were’n protected.  I’m suppose ta pass on a message.”

“Pass it,” Lucy said.  In her efforts to keep from freaking out, she was holding her head so rigid that her chin was rising by fractions.  Her breath came in small intervals, with the weight on her chest.

“Miss wants ta talk.  Get an update on yer findin’s and all tha’.”

“Miss is a suspect.  I mean no offense, but… we’re not at her beck and call.  If there’s any oversight, I think it’d have to be from the Alabaster, Sable, and Aurum, and I’m not even sure about that.”

“Tha’s a no then?”

“No.  Sorry.  I’ll discuss with the others, though.  We may want to talk to her anyway, but it shouldn’t be like that, us answering to her and filling her in on everything.”

Alpeana leaned forward, darkness pressing in close to Lucy’s head.  Then she scampered up the wall, then to the ceiling.  As she pulled away, the rags and dark strands of her hair pulled up the stains and dark gloop that she had left behind her, leaving the bed and everything pristine.

“Alpeana,” Lucy called up.

The girl, already at the door to the bedroom, turned around, then sat down, positioned upside-down, bare legs and dirty toenails visible.  She idly pushed at the door, which was right by her head, and it opened further, creaking.

“What would you have done if I’d been asleep?”

“Ah, I’d have left ye be, like I did the other two.”

Lucy nodded.

Alpeana flipped over, climbed over the top of the doorframe, and disappeared out into the dark hallway.  Thumpthumpthumpthumpthump.

Lucy remained where she was, her phone still glowing with the video paused on it, the alarm clock reading two fifteen in the morning.

Her heart pounded, each of the beats heavy enough that they jarred her vision.  After two minutes of it, it hadn’t eased up, and she felt nauseous.

Her eyes remained open for most of the time until it was three twenty, when she finally eased down, pulled the covers around her, and let herself close her eyes.

She didn’t look at the clock, but it was probably closer to four thirty when she finally slept.

🟂

Lucy stood by the fence by the school, watching the students approaching, and the long, long, long line of cars on the road.  The school had been set in an area without a lot else nearby, possibly with plans to expand or use the space nearby for more fields or whatever, and that opportunity had never been capitalized on.  The building was boring and the area around it was just as bad, with tall grass cut short so kids didn’t get ticks, some trees, and not much else.  Some kids were cutting across that area.

There was one road that people could take to get to the school and it tended to be clogged.  Half the kids took the stubby half-size school buses that cars couldn’t legally drive past, the other half that didn’t walk it got driven in, their parents parking somewhere along the road to drop them off, then pulling out to cut off or clog up traffic.

Add in the kids who walked or even ran across the road when traffic was at a near-standstill, the kids who biked and cut off everyone, and it made for a lot of stupidity.  A lot of parents dropped their kids a five or ten minute walk away from the school to avoid the whole thing.  Lucy’s mom had offered the option of getting a ride annoyingly early or making her own way, and Lucy had taken the former.  She’d done it enough times before that she knew how this whole setup tended to evolve.  The jams, the kids getting dropped off, the dynamics.

Today it was a little worse, because she’d slept like crap and she was grumpy.

Verona’s dad, in contrast to Lucy’s mom… Lucy recognized the beat up old Corolla.  Inching along, fighting with traffic.  Verona didn’t talk to her dad, her head down as she played with her phone or read.  Maybe one day out of the week, Lucy would see the two of them talking.

The Kellys had parked at the end of the road, and the kids were unloading.  Lucy watched Sheridan get out, followed by Declan and little Kerry Kelly.

No Avery, which meant…  Lucy turned, sticking her toe into the criss-crossing wire of the fence and hopping up to get a better look past the fence and to the point beyond the schoolyard.  She was pretty sure she saw Avery back there, biking across the uneven field.

She turned, walking down the sidewalk, against the current of students, to get closer to where it looked like Verona would get out.

Rather than pull over, Mr. Hayward stopped in the road and Verona scrambled out, bag hugged to her front, slamming the door behind.  Lucy raised a hand in a wave, and Mr. Hayward gave her a wave back.

“Don’t draw attention to him,” Verona said.  “It’s embarrassing.”

“He’s not that bad.”

“My dad got anal last night.  Avery got in trouble, too, for being out past curfew.”

“I saw the messages when I woke up this morning.”

“You?” Verona asked.

Lucy shook her head.

“Did you draw the connection breaker when we went to John’s house?” Verona asked.

“Nah.  Told my mom I was going out for a walk and that I’d hang with you, said I’d try to be back before curfew.”

“I think Ave and I got slapped down for using it too much.  Extra and unwanted parental attention.”

“How bad?”

“Just annoying.  Have to get the details from Avery,” Verona said.

“Speaking of.  I wanted to talk with you guys.  Want to head over and see if we can’t catch Avery and chat for a min before we go inside?”

Verona nodded, smiling.

They had to take a roundabout route to get through the gate and then around to the side of the school, while Avery biked over.

“Your siblings got a ride, Avery!” Verona called out.  “What are you, the red headed stepchild?”

“Ha.  Ha.  I’d rather do this…” Avery panted.  The grass was not good for riding on, even with her mountain bike.  “…Than subject myself to the back seat.”

“How much trouble did you get in?” Lucy asked.

“My parents aren’t really good at laying down punishments, and even when they do stick to it, I usually get it easy because I don’t cause much trouble,” Avery said.  “But I’ll have to watch out for that.”

“We have to watch out for other things,” Lucy said.  “I think we’re being monitored.”

“Monitored?” Avery asked.

“Toadswallow was right there, wasn’t he?” Lucy asked.  “He was in the bush, keeping tabs on us.  And Charles… they brought him along when we went camping?”

“Yeah, but… what’s weird about that?” Avery asked.

“The entire time, I was thinking, alright, well, he can lie, so we have to be careful.  Can’t listen too carefully.  They might have brought him along to slip us a key piece of misinformation.  Every time he said something, I was kind of going through it in my head, wondering if it was the trap he was trying to slip us.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  “Same, kinda.”

“And… that’s not the full story.  What if they brought him along because he could hurt us?  Like, if we immediately set out on a direction that they weren’t comfortable with.”

“That’s a little paranoid,” Avery said.  “He seemed kind of shocked that we were kids.”

“Teenagers.  What if he was shocked that we were teenagers because he made a deal before he showed up, that he’d go along on any road trips and put an end to the new practitioners if they turned out to be trouble?  Like… he gives off creepo vibes, but that’d give most people pause, wouldn’t it?”

“Can’t really blame them,” Verona said.  “Like John said, a practitioner can enslave with words.  We can curse with words.  They have a lot at stake.”

“Uh, sure,” Lucy said.  “Maybe.  But… so do we, right?  You do get that?”

“I get it,” Verona answered.

“Alpeana showed up in my room in the middle of the night.  She said she stopped by to see you two, too.  So you know, like… I assume your houses are locked up, but she’s showing up while you’re asleep.  Let that sit with you for a second.”

“Was she nice?” Avery asked.

“She was… Scottish, I think?  Didn’t expect that.  I think she said she spared me from an especially bad dream.”

“Aww.”

“It was a pretty creepy visit, Ave.  She had a message from Miss, but… it’s pretty obvious they’re keeping a close eye on everything we do.”

“Like I said, it’s understandable,” Verona said.

“It’s understandable, but… are there any Others that could turn up at the school?”

“Hungry Choir?  Maybe?” Avery suggested.  “I’ve been trying to train my Sight, ever since we first went camping, and I probably have a long way to go, but I don’t see anything.”

“Training is a good idea,” Lucy mused.  “Okay.  This might have to be our place to compare notes and discuss.  It might be too much civilization or too many people for the goblins, I don’t know who else would show.  We’ll watch out, maybe head out to the field or meet somewhere private between classes, compare notes and come up with plans.  That way they can’t anticipate us too much.”

The other two glanced at each other.

“Yes?” Lucy pressed.

“Sure.”  Verona shrugged.  “I’m happy to talk more about this stuff.”

“No objection,” Avery said.

“Thank you,” Lucy said.  She meant it.  She’d been prepared for a fight, or for resistance to the more aggressive precautions.  The last few attempts had been debates.  “Keep an eye out, and we should start thinking about what we do to protect ourselves.  If someone like Alpeana can decide whether we do or don’t get nightmares, can she do other stuff to our dreams?  Where else are we weak?”

“Stiles really spooked you last night, huh?” Avery asked.

“That’s not it.  It’s a small part of it.”

“I want you to be safe,” Verona said.  She looked at Avery.  “Both of you.”

“Uh, all three of us, Verona,” Lucy said.

“Yeah.  For sure.”

“Say it.”

“I want all three of us to be safe, intact, sane, whatever,” Verona rolled her eyes as she said it.

They made their way into the building through the side door.  There were some students around, but they seemed caught up in conversation.

“I still don’t know how you were able to stay so calm after having a knife in your face,” Lucy said.

Verona laughed as she retorted, “You had a gun in yours.”

Lucy smiled for Verona’s benefit, but she really didn’t feel like smiling.  That heavy feeling was there.

“Hey!” A voice, male.  It was Jeremy, from their class.  He jogged up a couple stairs.  “What game?”

Ah, damn.

“Huh?”

“What game were you playing?”

“It was real,” Verona said.

“Ha ha.  Seriously, though.”

“Totally real,” Verona said, again, a half-smile on her face.  Then she jogged up the stairs.

Lucy looked back at Jeremy and shrugged, before following, Avery right behind her.

They took three desks at the back of the room, putting their bags down.  Lucy had to remind herself to be careful, because her mask was in there.

“Guess we can’t talk about this stuff in school,” Avery said, sitting in her chair sideways, back to the wall, head leaning against the window.

“Not easily,” Lucy admitted.

There were no cliques in their class, not like there were in mom’s old movies.  Whatever there had been way back then had seemed to splinter and combine over time.  Other students made their way into the class.  The Dancers were the biggest contingent, but even they had their subdivisions and blurred lines.  They had thirty three students in their class, and ten were Dancers.  The other class in their grade had twelve.  Girls who were super into the gymnastics, dancing, and cheerleading things that were taught at the place down near the bridge.

But there were people like Melissa, who was on Avery’s soccer team, as well as being a Dancer.  As she entered the room, Verona looked at her, and Melissa pressed her hands together in a pleading gesture.  Verona shook her head, making a face.

Sharon was an arty kid, like Pamela, but also a Dancer.  Jeremy was an arty kid and a ‘nerd’, and was someone Lucy wished Verona would talk to more, because they probably had a lot in common.  Wallace was a gamer and a nerd.  And so it went.  Being a nerd didn’t mean someone wasn’t cool.  Amadeus was super into science and computers, but he was maybe the most popular guy in class… helped by the fact he was cute, with long black hair and a dimple at his chin.  George was popular, but Lucy was pretty sure he was what Lucy’s older brother had once termed a ‘pebbler’, a baby stoner who hadn’t actually gotten stoned yet.  But George was a bit of everything.

No hard cliques, no specific sections at lunch tables like that one movie from years before Lucy was born, but Avery had had a tough time, and there were reasons for that.

For one thing, the class was kind of cut in half, because they were combined grade eights and nines.  For another, when put together with the other grade nine class, they had all known each other since kindergarten.  She could count the kids who had moved away and the kids who had moved here midway through on the one hand.  The friendships had been established, and barring invitations like the one Verona kept getting, that was hard to butt into.

Three of the dancers walked in near lockstep along the back of the class, before turning down past Lucy and her group.

“Hey,” Hailey said, as they stopped, standing behind where Lucy, Avery, and Verona sat.

“Hey,” Verona said.

“Melissa really wants you to join us for dance.  She says you’re a natural.”

“I wish she could take no for an answer.”

“No?”

“Really, no.  I did the one dancing thing two years ago when the instructor from Wavy Tree came to teach a gym class, and I hear about it way too often.”

“Some girls were saying you’re arrogant, and you’re looking down on us,” Mia said, accusatory.

“What?” Verona asked, shocked.  “Haha, no.  Really.”

“Really?”

“It’s just really not my thing.  I find it boring to do and keep doing until you get it right.  I’ve rooted for you guys when you do an event or a parade or whatever.  Just… not for me.”

“Hm.  Want us to tell her to knock it off?”

“Please.  Please, please, please.”

“Cool,” Hailey said.

Lucy felt her pocket vibrate.

Before she could reach for her phone, she saw others reacting.

All together.

There was an energy to it.  The tension, the emotions.  With everything that had been going on, she felt like it was the kind of thing that someone might want to harness, or already be harnessing.

She used her Sight, looking out over the class, while she got her phone free of her pocket.

Some kids with knives in their heads or bodies.  Some kids with blood-red watercolor at their hands.

But they were ordinary students.  And the phones themselves… nothing.

She looked.  There was a notification from the app.  Class_RankR.  Their class had ranked everyone, each student picking a first and possible second person they liked.

“Huh,” Hailey said, still standing behind them.

“Hey,” Mia said.  “Go Avery.  And Verona-”

Hailey elbowed her.  “Let’s go sit.”

Lucy looked over the list.

Kids who had been out in the hall were staying out in the hall, talking and looking at the results.  Some looked into the room, and Lucy felt the gaze of more than a few people fall on her.

Her face flushed.

“Just me, huh?” Avery asked, quiet.

Lucy was already staring at the bottom, but she scrolled down a bit more, to the stats at the foot of it.

By the results, two anonymous guys were gay.  Another was bi.

One anonymous girl was a lesbian.

“There’s the other class,” Lucy said.

“Already asked, and no.  One guy, no girls,” Avery said.  Her face had fallen, and to Lucy’s Sight, she had a dark watercolor stain spreading across her chest, like a growing hole.

There were others in the room who seemed brighter, others who seemed hurt.  There were a few swords and blades represented in Lucy’s sight.

As people entered the room, murmuring, Lucy felt conspicuous, her face felt hot.

“There could be girls that haven’t figured it out yet,” Verona whispered.

“That doesn’t do me any good now, does it?  Feels lonely.”

Verona nodded.  “Yeah.  But like Lucy said, the whole thing’s stupid, right?  There’s lots of people like me who don’t really give a shit and put in whatever.  It doesn’t matter, so let’s just ignore it and wait for it to blow over.”

Verona made a hand motion Lucy couldn’t see.

“Sure,” Avery said, putting her phone away a little too quickly.

Lucy watched the room, avoiding eye contact, because everyone that was looking at her right now was thinking the same thing.

It would have been a relief at this point, she felt, if the entire stupid thing was magical.  Some kind of curse, or some kind of shitty stupid magic puzzle or whatever.  But she didn’t see anything like that.

She wondered if she could somehow see the blade that was sticking through herself, or the watercolor stains that were spreading across her, what would they look like?  How big would it be?

That heavy, overwhelming feeling that she hadn’t seemed to be able to process all last night had come with her to school today, and it had expanded by inches over the last few minutes, until it kinda hurt constantly.

She sighed, slumping down over her desk, her arms extending forward and over the other end.  Head on one arm, she looked over and murmured, “Am I ugly?”

“Nah,” Verona said.

“Avery?  Expert opinion?”

“I’m not an expert,” Avery said.  “You keep saying my taste is terrible.”

“I’ve said it maybe three times.”

“You’re pretty, Lucy.  Not my type, and I’m pretty sure you’re not gay, which makes you very not my type, but… people are dumb, I guess.”

“You could be a lot of people’s third choices,” Verona suggested.  Then, “You’re kind of intimidating.  Maybe that’s it.”

“I’m a bitch, you mean.  And I don’t want to be a lot of people’s third choices,” Lucy said.  “I want to be someone’s first choice.”

“Sorry.”

“Whose dumb idea was this?” Lucy asked.  “I might have a few choice words for them, said three times, nailed in.”

“Don’t say stuff like that.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “Ugh.  I feel like I’d be like, twenty times more able to deal with this if I’d slept more than two and a half hours last night.”

At the far corner of the classroom, Gabe rose from his seat.  Lucy noticed primarily because of the twisted skewer of metal that her Sight put in his midsection.  As she followed him with her eyes, she saw him pick up his bag, and it was soaked with the red watercolor, impaled at the same point by three smaller blades.

She watched as he left the classroom, reaching for her phone, and flipping over to check the boys’ ranking.

Gabe was at the bottom.

She rose from her seat.  A lot of eyes followed her, as they’d followed Gabe.

“Luce?” Verona asked.

“I’m cool.  Checking on Gabe.  Something’s off.”

She went back for her bag, grabbing it as a just-in-case.

She almost missed Gabe, who was ducking into the boy’s bathroom.

With only a moment’s hesitation, she followed him in, finding him by the sink.  He was the only one in.

“Gabe,” she said.

Gabe wore glasses and dressed like he was going to church, and aside from a sorta lame haircut and a really skinny frame, there wasn’t anything offensive or exceptional about him.  He was one of the homeschooled kids who’d come over when High School had started.  He hadn’t really come to the school with any hint of social skills, had struggled like Avery had, and instead of finding a way forward, had taken to hanging around with kids two and three years younger than him, who sometimes seemed annoyed that he kept turning up.

It kind of sucked that she was being put in the same bucket as him.

“What the-  You can’t be in here!” Gabe said.

“If I get suspended, I’ll deal.  You okay?”

“It’s whatever.”

“It sucks,” she said.  “What’s in your bag?”

“What?”

“Your bag,” she said.  She approached him.  He backed up.

She closed the distance, grabbed him and spun him partially around.  Pulling down his backpack’s zipper, she fished inside.

He seemed more confused than defensive.

Moving a paper, she saw the blades rattle.  She pulled it out, and the red staining immediately began to fade from the fabric of his bag.

One paper, a grey-pink color, with a less than great photocopying or print job, like two things superimposed onto the same paper, with the end result being near-gibberish.

Most of it was faded and stained in a way that persisted even with her Sight removed.  Most distinct was the website at the bottom.

“Where did you get this?”

“I found it.  What the hell?  How did you know I had it?”

“Have you done it?”

“Done what?  I logged in, but I didn’t sign up.  I couldn’t figure it out.  It has to be on certain nights.”

“Don’t.  You might get really badly hurt, or worse,” she said.  “When’s the next night?”

“Tomorrow night.  Why?”

“Where’d you find it?”

“In the cafeteria.  You’re not answering my questions.”

“Not really, not so far,” she said.  She left the boy’s bathroom, pausing at the door.  “I’m around if you want to talk or whatever, I guess.”

An older high schooler whistled as she left.  She rolled her eyes.  Whistles were better than the looks she’d gotten back in the classroom.

“Avery, Verona,” she whispered.  She used her sight, and reached out, finding the ribbons that seemed clearest and most inclined to drift her way.  Would that work the same way calling Miss had?

The two girls emerged from the classroom.

Lucy looked down, ready to show them the paper, and found her hand empty.  She spun around, looking with the Sight, and found the paper, folded into a square, tucked into the slats of an unused locker.

“Don’t run away,” she told the paper, unfolding it again.  She showed the others, moving to stand beside them as she pulled her phone out.

“The Hungry Choir?” Avery asked, tapping the paper.

“Sending out feelers, found Gabe, who’s vulnerable, I guess,” Lucy said.  “As the stupid app just demonstrated.”

“It’s nice to have a distraction,” Verona said.  “How did you even see this?”

“I think I can see hurt and danger,” Lucy murmured.  She punched in the website address.

USER BLOCKED.

Verona tried next.  She was in the middle of typing when the bell rang, signaling the start of class.

“Blocked,” Verona said.  “So is this the Hungry Choir itself, or…?”

Lucy shook her head.  “Part of it.  Like an arm or a finger, or…”

“You can’t see the connections?” Avery asked.  “More than one arm or finger, here.”

“I see…  sashes, but that’s all.”

Gabe walked past them.

“Bands,” Avery said, once he was past.  She turned, craning her head, looking at windows, both inside classrooms and at the end of the hallway.  “I can see stretching through the school.  This paper is tied to four things in our school.  I think there might be others, faint, that extend outside our school, maybe outside of Kennet?”

The teacher stood in the doorway, whistling sharply to get their attention.  He motioned for them to get inside the classroom.

“Lunchtime,” Lucy said.  “We need to call and talk to Miss.  I don’t like all this bloody watercolor I’m seeing in Kennet, when there wasn’t much outside of it.”

“Bloody handprints for me.”

“Meaty things pressing against the inside of the plastic sheeting,” Verona added.  “Yeah.”

They made their way into the class, past their homeroom teacher.

“Between the bloodiness and the Choir, I get the feeling there’s more going on, like maybe not having a Carmine Beast is making things worse somehow,” Lucy whispered, as she took her seat.

“Do we really want to tackle more?” Avery asked.

“If it’s tied to the Carmine, we might have to,” Lucy whispered.

Between them, Verona had the paper, which she folded into a square.  She drew out a diagram with a surprisingly circular hand-drawn circle, setting up a group of blocks pointing inward, toward the folded-up paper.

The teacher was getting the class to quiet down.

Lucy leaned over, to whisper one last time before class started, “Miss might be the person to ask, because Gabe said the next stage of the Choir thing happens tomorrow night.  We might need to get involved, or people could get hurt.”


Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter

Lost for Words – 1.5

Verona

Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter

(Posted Last Thursday – Notes on Practice – Circles & Diagrams)


Verona watched the goblins as they led the way.  Toadswallow was round, with legs a bit too short to be practical, and he crossed the street at a run that required him to rock from side to side to get his legs up enough, while periodically touching the ground with one hand to keep from tumbling or sprawling.  Cherry moved on all fours.

Not in a straight line, either.  They avoided the light from nearby buildings, cutting diagonally across the intersection, then crossing the street further down.  If she hadn’t been watching, she might have mistaken them for a racoon and a small rodent crossing the road.

“Ready?” Lucy asked.

“Yeah,” Avery said.

Verona nodded.

Seeing the goblins be so careful with how they crossed the road made her look both ways before crossing, even though there weren’t any cars on the road.

At this corner of town, there were some scattered businesses and stores, a trio of big concrete buildings that might have been factories, and narrow neighborhoods of houses.  The houses were different from the ones in Verona’s area.  A house that had been a barn once had extra stuff tacked onto it, like a wooden staircase and a second floor addition.  A nicer house was sandwiched between a house with grass and weeds so long that strands had grown wheat-like feathering at the top, and a house with peeling paint and next to no lawn at all.

Her dad was in a mood tonight, and she was so glad Avery had called.  Verona threw an arm around Avery’s shoulders.

“Wah,” Avery said, more like a word than an exclamation.  “You scared me.”

“How was it, going home?” Verona asked.

“Noisy,” Avery said.

“My mom ordered takeout,” Lucy said.  “She wanted to ask what we did all weekend, so I told a partial truth, that we had a short camp-out.  I think she imagined we had it in the backyard.  What about you?”

“My dad’s being a bit…” Verona floundered for a word that was both the truth and accurate.  “You know him, Lucy.  How do I put it?”

“I don’t know him,” Avery said.

“Lame?” Lucy offered.

“Yes, but… more than lame.  I want a word more profound than that, and…” she floundered again.  “…Sad.”

“Is sad more profound?” Lucy asked.

“It is the way I’m thinking it,” Verona said.

“He’s depressed?”

“I dunno,” Verona said.  “Maybe, but I feel like most adults are.”

“Agree to disagree,” Avery said.

“Sure.  But if you asked that because of what I said, I meant sad the other way.”

They’d reached the foot of the house.  It was a narrow building, and much of it had burned, with the edges of plastic siding having charred and melted.  Plastic sheeting had been nailed down to minimize the water damage.  Whoever owned it didn’t have the money to make the extensive repairs, and they couldn’t or wouldn’t sell it, probably.

This close to it, Verona could smell the burned plastic, even though it had been like this since before winter.

Toadswallow crept up onto the stairs in front of the house.  He didn’t give Cherrypop a helping hand, as she fought to climb the scraggly bush next to the stairs.  Instead, he walked over to the front door, reared back enough it looked like he was going to tip backwards onto his ass, and then kicked it with surprising violence.  The door swung open, a bit of wood dropping from where the latch met the frame.

“We heard John Stiles was twitchy, so maybe-”

“Please pardon our rude intrusion!” Toadswallow hollered into the house.

“-Don’t be too noisy?

Only silence answered them.

It looked like older teenagers had broken in at one point to have a party, and there were remnants everywhere.  Stuff was written on walls, and there was debris littering the area.  Surprisingly, not a lot of alcohol.  There wasn’t much light outside to begin with, and the boarded up windows let only dark grey slices of light through around the edges, while the plastic that covered the other windows allowed a dull glow that barely reached past the frames themselves.

Verona shrugged out of one strap of her bag, pulled out her mask, and pulled it on, because it helped with her Sight.  The sources of light seemed to reach further, and details melted away, like everything had been covered in a thin film.  Connections were marked out like spiderwebs or hairs, glistening wet and bright in the gloom.  She picked up her feet more to avoid stepping on anything like a can or a bag that might have held organic trash, before melting or being trampled down into a sketchy black patch on the floor.

She reached out to pluck at Avery’s sleeve, gently pulling Avery away from a course that would have seen her walking into a shin-high pile of trash.

Lucy kicked a bottle she hadn’t realized was there, producing a loud clatter.  The clatter extended as Cherrypop flung herself at the rolling bottle, propelling it further across the floor, until it reached a wall and audibly broke.  Both goblins stuck to the shadows, only visible for fleeting moments, even with Verona’s sight.

“This is a good haunted house aesthetic,” Verona whispered.

“Where’s John?” Avery asked.

There was light down the hall, dull and red.  Lucy took the lead, her back running along the side of the staircase that led upstairs as she inched closer to the room with the red glow within.

Verona used the same staircase to lean against as she pulled a pack of longer post-its from her pocket.  Putting one foot flat against the wall, her knee pointing out, she laid the post-its across her leg, and penned out a quick, simple diagram, one that was badly imbalanced, a triangle atop a circle, atop a triangle, each triangle pointing the same way.  Within the circle, she penned the simple ‘fire’ rune, underlining it.

“He was here recently, I hope,” Lucy said.  “Looks like he was cooking.”

It might’ve been that there wasn’t enough heat.  She tried pressing her thumb to the bottom end of the diagram.  Pull in heat, feed it to the rune that defined the function, then push it out.  She could feel the rune at her fingertip, uncomfortably numbing and kind of painful.  The end of the slip of post-it turned orange, smoking.

“What are you even doing?”

“Trying to create a light source,” Verona said.  The end of the paper ignited in flame, spitting out the occasional spark.  It wasn’t as much light as she’d hoped.  The fire extended to the diagram, and traced out glowing orange lines as it burned through, the entire thing coming to pieces, with fire rushing to the fingers that held the paper.  She tossed it up into the air rather than at the ground.  It was ashes before it reached the floor.  “Didn’t work.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said, shaking her head.

“I wonder if there’s a good ‘light’ rune.”

“Focus, Ronnie.  Please,” Lucy said.

“What’s he cooking?” Avery asked.   “That can doesn’t have a label.”

Verona looked past the pair.  There was a hotplate sitting on the kitchen counter, which was tidier than other areas of the building, and a can sat on the plate, glowing red near the bottom.  The glow from within cast light onto the cabinets, that was more than the light elsewhere in the house.

“Makes sense to remove the label, if you don’t want it to burn,” Lucy said.  She entered the kitchen, heading for the hotplate.  “Where is-”

The kitchen door slammed shut, almost in Avery’s face.

“Hey!  Lucy!” Avery raised her voice.  She pushed at the door.  A heavy mass bigger than Lucy hit the door, slamming it shut yet again.

Verona backed away a few steps, alarmed.

Lucy.

She bolted, running back into the front hall, avoiding the heaps of trash, and took a hard right.  The house had rooms off to the left and right of the front hall, and they’d been cutting straight down the middle.  Verona took the right route, hoping that the rooms off to the right reconnected to the kitchen.  She grabbed a door frame to help swing herself around in a sharper left turn.

What could she do?  She had the post-its.  The fire hadn’t been much but it had at least been fire.  If she wrote something down, she could slap it down and the post-it part of it would make it stick.  She reached for her pocket, trying to extricate the post-its again.  Hard to do when running.

She circled around, saw the open kitchen door, and paused to pull the post-its free.

He came out of a dark corner, rising from a crouch so swiftly as he closed the distance that it seemed like he grew to triple height.  One-armed, he reached past her to take hold of her wrist, drove the length of his arm into the side of her neck, and stepped in close enough that he could place a foot in the way of one of her legs, when she tried to step backward and catch her balance.

Verona tipped over, half-spinning on her way to the ground.  Her mask fell ajar, obscuring the part of her vision that was normal, while leaving the general bleed of light, shadow, and the strings mostly visible when she looked through the mask’s material.  She shook her head until it fell into a position where she could see with one eye.  She felt a weight press on her chest.

He was leaning on her, pinning her down.  She had a hand beneath her and another hand in his grip.

John had used only one arm to take her down, and he used one thumb from the hand that held her wrist to pry the post-its free.  They flopped to the floor.  His eyes were all intensity, but he barely looked at her, his head angled more in the direction of the front hall.  Avery.

Verona looked past him.  His other arm held Lucy, who had her chin about as high as it would go, her eyes shut.  She was breathing hard.

Her eyes adjusted again, the Sight helping to clarify things in the gloom.  John Stiles had a gun, and it was pressing up against the underside of Lucy’s chin, his elbow hooked under her armpit, holding her close to him.  Lucy’s hands were out in front of her, fingers splayed, not facing anything in particular.

Verona pressed her lips together, tight.  She didn’t move as he let go of her wrist, brought his hand closer to his chest, and then pulled out a knife.  The blade touched her mouth, where her lips would be if she wasn’t already pressing them together enough they were barely out there.

“Hands out, fingers splayed,” he said.  His head didn’t move, but his eyes did, falling on her.

Verona obeyed, moving just enough to slowly free her trapped hand.  She put them out where he could see them.

“Uhhh, guys!?” Avery called out.  She might have called out a second ago, but Verona was too busy being thrown to the ground.  “Lucy?  Verona!  If this is a joke, it’s a really sick one!”

Verona couldn’t even move, because the blade being where it was made even the tiniest of movements hazardous.  She could feel her skin rasp against the blade’s edge.  If she had any hairs on her lip, even the tiny white fuzz hairs, then some were getting shaved off with the movements that the tiniest of breaths forced.

Lucy’s hands were shaking.  Verona’s were shaking, more for Lucy than for herself.  The reality of a gun being there, a gun, and that his finger was on the trigger.

If there was any way she could let her mouth get cut open, and with where the knife was, it looked like it would be nose to chin, and somehow save Lucy from that… absolutely.

“Anyone!?” Avery called out.  “Toadswallow?  Cherrypop!?  What was that thump?”

Avery sounded so scared.

He didn’t move.  Verona’s tiny movements were making skin rub against the blade’s edge, not quite enough to cut, but enough that she could feel it, but John Stiles was statue still.  Even his hair was short enough it didn’t move.  His eyes were open, whites visible, and he didn’t blink.  His eyes didn’t water.  Heck, even the tiny movements of his eye didn’t change.  His clothes weren’t the sort that shifted or settled.

He really wasn’t human.

“Um, guys!?” Avery called out.  Her voice sounded closer.

“Stop!” John called out.

There was a pause.

“Stopped,” Avery said, quieter, and not quieter because she’d moved away.

“Name.”

“Avery Kelly.”

“Full sentences.”

“My name is Avery Kelly.  Where are-”

“Stop.”

Lucy made a sound of protest.  The gun shifted, pressing further into her chin.

The knife moved, pressing in.  Verona realized her hands had moved involuntarily, on seeing Lucy’s distress.

For a while, Lucy had been the only person she could stand.  Lucy and Avery were maybe the only people she really cared about.

“Speak only when spoken to.  Don’t go off topic.  Words are a weapon in a practitioner’s hands.”

There was no response.

“Where were you this morning?”

“A campsite, with Matthew, Edith, and Charles.  I don’t remember the name.”

Bethlehem, Verona thought.

“They dropped you off?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“Around a quarter to six.”

“Tell me your movements since.”

“I was dropped off at home, after my friends were.  I dropped off my things, I started dinner, left early, I called them.  We thought we’d move into the interviews.”

“Are you under any compulsion?”

“No, pretty sure.”

John shifted, and Lucy made another involuntary sound.  His voice was loud and crystal clear, no doubt audible through the entire house.  “Why only pretty sure?”

“I mean, I don’t- I don’t want to say anything for certain when I could be wrong, like… what qualifies as a compulsion?  ‘Any’ is a strong-”

A violent crash interrupted Avery, and made John move, throwing Lucy to the ground beside Verona, the gun aiming at another target.

Toadswallow sat on the dining room table, which he had just cleared the bottles from.

“Toadswallow,” John said.  “I nearly shot you.”

The plump goblin cackled.

The knife was no longer at Verona’s lips.  “Toadswallow, vouch?”

“Let ’em go, John,” Toadswallow called out.  “No reason to think anything’s up.”

“Can I trust you?” John asked the goblin.  “Practitioners have your name.  All it would take to sell the lie would be to summon you and compel you to a course of action.”

“I haven’t been.  Rest assured.  Not in months.”

John pulled the knife away, then stood, backing up a step, leaving them to get to their own feet.

“Avery, I think it’s okay now” Lucy called out.  She backed away from John, and walked around the end of the badly abused dining table, keeping it between her and John.  She was still breathing hard, and she had a shine of sweat on her face now.

Verona stayed put, moving her mask to the top of her head.  Staying where she was meant that John was less likely to move around or approach Lucy.

Avery stepped through the doorway.  She stopped short as she saw John standing there in the dark.  “What happened?”

“Why do that?” Verona asked.

He put his gun into his waistband, and put the knife into a pocket sheath.  He stood there for a moment, too still, too intense looking, his eyes fixed on a distant point in space.  He was wearing a black sweater with the sleeves rolled up, cargo pants, and boots.  He had circles under his eyes and his hair was sun-bleached blond and buzzed to an even shortness.  The only decorations he had on him was a narrow black label on each sleeve and the dog tags he wore- six tags and a gold loop that stood out against the fabric of the sweater.

He turned, striding out of the room and into the kitchen.

“Hey, John!”  Verona called out.  She approached, saw him at the hot plate, grabbing the hot metal with his fingers.  She heard sizzling.  He turned, coming right toward her, red hot metal gripped in one hand.  The contents were smoking.  He opened a cabinet and pulled out a plastic container.

“Out of the way,”

She scrambled back.  She could smell something acrid and awful in the smoke, and the chemical smell from the bucket.

He went to the window at the end of the dining room, pulled away the wood covering, and tossed the contents of the can into the backyard.  The red hot can was draped over the stem of a glass vodka bottle at the top of a trash pile.  He reached into the bucket, pulled out a cigarette, and dropped it into a beer can before sloshing the bucket’s contents out the window.

“Okay,” he said, like that was done.  He approached the table, and stood there, hands on the back of a chair.  Avery was inching closer, drawing nearer to Lucy.

Verona went to the back window, moved the wood out of the way, and looked at the glowing contents of the can, which now sat on dirt.  Metal that might have been a steel scrubbing pad, long narrow things that might have been nails and screws, and…

“You eat batteries and metal?”

“No.  I don’t need to eat, though I like the routine,” he said.

“Why, then?”

“Boom,” Toadswallow said.

“If our discussion had continued for much longer, if you had forced a stalemate or initiated a binding, it would have interrupted things.  The can would explode.  If you handled the can, there was still the bucket, with a longer timer.”

“Geez.  You’re that nervous about having us around?” Lucy asked.

John didn’t give her an immediate response.

“Not us,” Verona guessed.  “I think he thinks we could be hypnotized?”

“Or disguised, or bound, or compelled,” John said.  “I’ll assume it was after he dropped you off, but Matthew addressed some of us, to let us know other Practitioners had found out about the Carmine Beast.  There are good reasons to be careful.  We should be able to tell if they enter Kennet, but there are never any guarantees in times like these.”

“Are we going to have to deal with this every time we come see you?  Or any others?” Lucy asked.

“No,” John said.  “We can hold to an approach where each meeting ends with an agreement on a time and place for the next.  If you need me sooner, use trusted channels, like Matthew or Toadswallow.”

He’s trusted?” Lucy asked, indicating Toadswallow, who was plucking cigarette butts out of the top of a beer can, before tipping the contents into his mouth.  “He nearly got us killed, making that noise when you were ready to shoot me or cut Verona’s throat.”

“Careful, careful,” Toadswallow said.  “Don’t lie now.  The deal was struck, we can’t harm you.”

“Charles said that he thinks Others can,” Lucy said, louder, raising her voice more.  “If they’re acting on instinct.  And it sure looked like John was, there.”

“Don’t bunch up your undies there, dear, how was I supposed to know that?”

“Don’t tell me what to do, especially when you almost got us killed!” Lucy called out.  She advanced toward Toadswallow, who scrambled back, pushing more trash and bottles from the table to the floor as he scrambled across it.

“Kick his ass!” Cherrypop shouted, from a dark corner.

“Shut up!” Lucy shouted.  “Or you’re next.”

“Kick my ass!”

It was chaos, the goblins escalating things.  Verona took a step, ready to try to grab Lucy, but Avery was already on it.

“Easy,” Avery said, intercepting Lucy, stopping her.

Lucy stopped, breathing hard, face a bit shiny.

“Did you do it intentionally, Toadswallow?” Verona asked.

“Huh?  What?” the goblin asked, in his frog’s croak of a voice.  She wasn’t a judge of character, but he did sound genuinely surprised at the question.

“Sir Toadswallow, did you make that noise with the idea that John would hurt us, and we’d be out of your way?”

“No,” Toadswallow said.  “Gob bless and perish the hecking thought.”

“Did you have any inkling it was a possibility?”

“I thought it was a done deal, none of us can’t hurt any of you!”

The aristocratic act had slipped a bit.

“Did you have anything to do with the Carmine Beast and the disappearance-murder?”

“Some,” he said.  “Not like you’re implying, though.”

“Elaborate,” Lucy said.  “Now.”

“We saw it from a distance, saw it hurt.  Goblin noses, they’re good for sniffing out trouble, and she was in trouble.  We four met, ran into a dame who was bleeding from the eyes.”

“The witness,” John elaborated.  “Louise Bayer.”

“We followed her as far into town as we could get before it got tricky to go further.  Then we split up.  Told people.”

“Which people?” Lucy asked.

“Uhhh… I saw to Miss.  Munch went to Charles.  Gash went to Matthew and Edith…”

“Munch apparently found Matthew at Charles’ place.”

“Yeh,” Sir Toadswallow said.  “Yes indeed.  And Gash said Matthew called Edith about picking her up in his truck while he was filling her in.  Choir knew already.  Could smell ’em coming.”

“You could smell them coming, or they were already there?” Lucy asked.

“Couldn’t say, dearie,” Toadswallow said.

“Why not?”

“Because they’re not a group or anything like that.  They’re like a storm or a clog in the sewer.  The kids you see?  They’re just the raindrops or the bad smell that comes with.  The whole thing?  Bigger and vaguer.”

“The storm was already there?  Gathering?  On its way?”

Toadswallow shrugged.  “Don’t know.”

“Good to keep in mind,” Lucy said, meeting Verona’s eyes.

“Where’d you go that night, Cherry?” Toadswallow asked.

“The worst place!”

“Ah, yes,” Toadswallow said.  “Cherry went to the Faerie’s hideaway.  The poor little abortion of a thing is too dumb to know to stay away from those things.”

“I’m so dumb.  So ugly,” Cherrypop said, rustling through trash.  She sounded mournful, like it was assumed to be a fact.

“You’re-” Avery started.  “That’s- you shouldn’t say stuff like that, Cherry.”

“She’s fast enough to escape alive, and we thought it’d annoy them more if it was her.”

“I laid a trap while I was there,” Cherrypop whispered, right beside Verona, making Verona startle and step back.  The goblin had climbed halfway up the wall.  Louder, Cherrypop went on, telling Toadswallow, “Used condom on a tree branch I tied back.  They walk by, thwap.  Right in the kisser, if it’s the girl twit!  Right in the belly button if it’s the jock!  Thwap!”

Toadswallow cackled.

“Don’t laugh,” Lucy said.  “We’re a long way away from being cool, Toads.”

“What if I say I’ll make it up to you?” he asked.  “Dear me, I don’t want a practitioner as an enemy.  I thought I’d mess with you and give you a scare.”

Lucy didn’t answer.

“Luce,” Verona said.  “We’ll have to work with them for a while.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Okay.”

“Then I’ll make it up to you,” Toadswallow said.  “It’s so.”

“Okay,” Lucy said, again.  She had her hand near one pocket, where her knife was still in the sheath, and she seemed to be trying to calm down.

“Thwap,” Cherrypop said, quiet, before making a tittering sound and dropping down from the wall to the detritus of past parties.

Verona looked back at John, and was surprised to see him smiling a bit.

“You don’t like them?” she asked.  “The Faerie?”

“I don’t mind them.  Guilherme can be good to have drinks with, exchange war stories.”

“War?  Farce,” Toadswallow grumbled, before spitting.  “Real war is waged knee-deep in a mix of mud, blood, and bowel evacuations from the dead.  My dears, the closest you get to glory in real war is sitting in the trenches with your fellow soldiers, telling dick jokes and pretending not to notice when your buddy old pal cries.”

“Agree or disagree?” Verona asked John.

“I think Toadswallow’s seen a few too many movies of the World Wars.  There’s not nearly as many trenches or battles spent knee deep in mud these days.  But… right direction, I think.”

Toadswallow was getting worked up.  “To hear that tumescent lug of a faerie tell it, it’s all glory, all the time.  What’s the fun in that?  I’ll tell you this, and you can hold my ass to the fire on this one, the only people who come back from war talking like it was the best thing ever are the liars and the sickos.”

“It’s the people,” John said.  “Nothing tempers friendships like traveling to another continent and having to trust them with your life.  Or meeting someone like a guide who doesn’t speak a word of your language, you don’t speak a word of theirs, and getting to the point where they want you to eat dinner with their family.”

“Or idiots who’ll tie a condom to a tree for a laugh,” Toadswallow said.  “While you do double duty pegging some jerks who need to be knocked down a peg.”

“I think you phrased that wrong,” Verona said.

“Maybe.”

John shifted position.  He seemed more relaxed now.  “It’s reasons like this that about seventy percent of my time spent hanging out with others is spent with the goblins.  They’re colorful but… I think they get it.”

“You were smiling when Cherry was talking about her prank on the Faerie,” Verona noted.  “Why?”

“Because of what he said, reminds me of stories from old squads.  The more regimented the system you’re in, the more you find yourself needing the occasional laugh or testing of acceptability.  And this?  What you guys signed up for last Friday?  What the goblins, the Faerie and I all deal with by the very nature of our being?  A lot of it’s regimented.  A lot of people and non-people are watching you for the slightest slip-up.”

Verona shifted, uncomfortable.  “There are a lot of freedoms too, right?  New things you can do.  A whole new world to explore.”

“There are.  But if I were you, given similar choices, this isn’t the road I would have taken.  There’s lots of other things to explore and things you can do.”

“But like… I don’t know if you understand me, here,” Verona told him.  “The sheer scale of it?  A whole world of Others and places to go… there’s like… there’s literally no way the life of the unawoken can come even close to opening that many new doors and new possibilities.”

“Careful,” Avery said.

“No, Verona isn’t wrong,” John said.  “But I can tell you, a lot of doors have closed as well.  If you’re not careful, virtually all of them close, like they did for Charles.”

Verona frowned.

“What you said about old squads,” Lucy said.  “You were actually in the army?”

“No,” John told Lucy.  “But I have scattered memories.”

“Alright, hm,” Lucy said.  She swallowed.

Verona looked at her friend, and she was pretty sure that even Avery, who hadn’t known Lucy since kindergarten, was worried about the girl.  Lucy was still shaky, still had that bit of sweat on her brow, and wasn’t as together as she sometimes was.

“We came here to interview you, John,” Verona said.  “We want to do it with all the Others in Kennet.”

“Okay,” he said.  He stood a little straighter, feet shoulder-width apart, hands clasped.

“Okay,” Lucy said, kind of cutting into the conversation.  She was getting her bearings too.  “Can we move this elsewhere?  Somewhere with more light?”

“I can bring light.  If you’ll give me a second?  I’ll be back ASAP.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.

Verona took the opportunity of John leaving to circle around the dining room table and join Lucy and Avery.  She kept an eye on the other room.  She could see a bit of John Stiles, and it didn’t seem like he was doing anything more than grabbing lanterns.

She glanced at the others.  Avery seemed to be most together, but Avery hadn’t been manhandled or held hostage.  Rather than deal with the stuff John had brought up, Verona wanted to make sure Lucy was okay first.  If it came down to it, she could help provide the guidelines and structure.  The fun stuff and the anxiety-inducing stuff could wait.

He entered the dining room and set the lanterns down around the edges of the room, before placing one on the table.

“Better?”

“Yes, thank you.  I may be blunt,” Lucy said.  “I hope you don’t mind.”

“No.”

“Did you do it?”

“No.”

“Do you know who did?”

“To be precise, I might know the person who did.  It even seems likely, if the power is still in Kennet.  But I don’t know who it might be.”

“Do you have suspicions?”

“No.”

“Toadswallow?  Same question.”

Toadswallow narrowed his eyes.  “Faerie.”

“Can you give us something more than just that one word?” Lucy asked.

“When things get messy, they like to stick their noses in it.”

“But… no evidence?  Nothing you’ve seen or heard?”

“Nah,” Toadswallow said.

“Okay, maybe uh, just hold back on the unsupported guesses until we ask.  Back to you, John.”

“Yeah,” he said.

“John.  It’s my understanding that you’re a… super soldier?  A Dog of War?”

“No,” John said.  “Yes, about the Dog of War label, no, I’m strong but I’m not a super soldier, like they appear in movies.  I’ve been told I’m… a stained glass mosaic of a soldier, each segment pulled from someone.”

“A… Frankenstein?” Verona asked.

“I’d hope my brain wasn’t labeled abnormal, but…” he shrugged, smiling.  “Sure.  Maybe there’s some cherry picking going on there, with what pieces go into the mosaic, but…”

“Are you stuck on that bit of it because you don’t like being called a super soldier, specifically?” Avery asked.

“I don’t mind but… I don’t want to mislead you or be called a liar,” he said.  “It’s more accurate to say I’m many fragments adding up to a whole.  If I’m good at what I do, it’s because it’s more or less all that I do.”

“So when you can improvise bombs and think those three or four steps ahead,” Lucy said, “it’s because-”

“It’s because that’s the way I think, when I have a free moment to think.  I’m this, twenty-four seven, seven days a week.  I don’t sleep, I don’t ever fully relax.  If I do find distraction, it’s only a small share of me that’s distracted.  The rest is ready.”

“Are you entirely made up of Canadian soldiers?”

“No.  Canadian, American, ANA, armed citizens, others.”

“Why Kennet, then?”

“I think the part of me that thinks of ‘home’ came primarily from a man that thought of Kennet or a place very much like it.”

“Can I?” Verona asked.  “Ask?”

“Stay on target?” Lucy asked.

Verona nodded.  She was focused on Lucy and making things easier for Lucy right this minute.  That Lucy was so guarded about that, it was another sign Lucy wasn’t all the way okay.  Other stuff didn’t take priority when that was the case.  “What’s your day to day like?  What do you do?”

“I walk around at an hour before people are really awake.  I clean and sharpen my weapons.  I watch some TV.  I read and play video games.”

“Feels like you’re just whiling away the time,” Lucy said.

“Waiting, watching.  I don’t get bored in the same way you do.  There’s a stasis in it.  A… lack of anxiety.  I expect to live a long, long time, so there’s no feeling that I’m wasting my time.”

“Not yet,” Toadswallow said.  he was shaking various cans and bottles now, trying to find the ones with trace contents in them.  “Most of the Faerie have been around long enough to go a little loopy from it.  John might eventually.”

“I’m getting the impression you’re not the biggest fan of Faerie,” Avery said.

“Nobody worth talking to is, dearie-sweet.”

“Maybe you’re a bit biased?” Avery asked.

Toadswallow cackled.

“What’s so funny about that?”

“Oh, if you keep on saying stuff like that, it’s your funeral, deerface.  Your funeral, and only if you’re lucky enough to die at their hands.”

Deerface?  Verona found that interesting.  Avery wasn’t wearing her mask.  Just her cape thing, which she was wearing more like a scarf, now that the weather was cold.

“Do be careful with the Faerie,” John said, cutting into the conversation.

Lucy nodded.  She looked at Avery.  “A lot of people are saying to watch out, so maybe…”

“We’ll try to watch out,” Avery said.

“We were saying?” Lucy asked.

“Routine.  Boredom.”

“In the evenings, if I’m alone, I’ll drink and I practice my awful singing and guitar playing.  If I can, I meet with others.  The goblins, usually, if they’re awake,” John told them.  “And usually Munch.  If there are new goblins in town who won’t listen, any monsters, any Bogeymen getting close, or any new Others who might be problems, sometimes Munch and I handle it.”

“How?” Verona asked.  “What can you do, exactly?  You come back when you’re killed?”

“More like I don’t die in the first place.  I can always keep fighting until I’m badly wounded enough that nobody would believe I could keep fighting.  If I get obliterated, you wait a couple days, I’ll show up again.  I get stronger with every life I take.  It clarifies me.  I and the other ones like me began with no names, no real faces.  Just… uniforms.  Piecemeal, like each part of the outfit was taken from one body.  After one very bloody, prolonged fight, I and two of my squadmates took on handles.  Then names.  Then specializations.  Skillsets.”

“There were others like you?”

“We rarely appear alone.  When the conditions are met for one of us to appear, the conditions are met for several.  After three years of bitter conflict, the conditions had been met enough for there to be twenty of us.  Usually… numbers vary, but for every five like me, there’ll be one more that’s a… they have a few names I’ve heard.  Dogs of Flame.  Frag Tags.”

“Hot Dogs,” Cherry piped up.

“They are…?”

“They burn, they use explosives.  They cover other bases.”

“Like?”

“Like if a practitioner wants to bind us using something like a circle, item, fencing us in?  They’ll do like I did with the can and the bucket of paint thinner, but… much bigger.  If they blow up an area… something like me will survive it.  The practitioners trying to bind us usually won’t.  Someone like me, I can collect grenades.  I won’t magically always have one, but if I wanted to set out to get a gun or a grenade, I’d know just the direction to walk.  The easiest path to take to find or acquire one, whether it’s on a corpse or in a hiding place.  The Frag Tags, they always have explosives or ways to start big fires.  They don’t come back so easy once they’re properly put down.  Gotta start a big enough fire or wait for one, and they come walking out of it.”

“Kind of getting the bigger picture,” Lucy said.  “There were twenty of you, so… four of these guys?”

“Sixteen like me, three of them.  One other.”

Careful, Verona thought.  That other one was his friend, wasn’t it?

“A leader?” Lucy asked.

“Another kind.  For every twenty or so of the rest of us, you might see one Black Dog, one Rag Tag.  They come from civilians like I come from soldiers, but… they come from wrongs, from pain, attrition.  They’ll look like kids.  Or like old men or women.  Kill them, you get sick, or something twists inside you and you can’t eat enough anymore, or… you get cold and you can’t warm up.  A curse.  The strong ones, you can’t even hurt them or say an unkind word without them laying something on you in turn.  And they come back too.  They protect us, walk into firefights, stop other kinds of binding than just the circles.  They give us direction, motivation.”

“What happened to them?  These others like you?”

“Some came from nearby conflicts that ended for long enough, then took a bullet.  Others were bound by War Mages.  Combat-focused practitioners that like a good soldier and know special ways to bind us.  Others were stopped by other practitioners, caught in other traps.  To some, we’re like cockroaches.  Pests to be exterminated.  We fled.  They got two more of us while we were fleeing.  In the end, it was just me and Yalda.”

“Yalda?”

“Our Black Dog.  My friend,” he answered.  “She filled the empty hours of the day and kept me entertained, she watched terrible shows.  Not, uh, not so clarified.  Black Dogs, they don’t take lives, not easily.  Only if they give someone a curse of revenge and that curse kills.  But what was there was… rich.”

“Did you love her?” Avery asked.

“I don’t know if I can love.  I think so.  She was my last friend.  Then I was the only one left.  I’m lucky I found Kennet.  That it’s safe here.”

“Do you hate them?  The people responsible for taking your comrades?” Avery asked.

“No.  It’s the way it is,” John said.  “And I was the one who took Yalda’s life in the end.  I was cursed.  I carried it with me for years.  Then Charles carried it for a short while before they figured out how to break it.  If I was going to hate anyone, I’d hate myself, and I spend too much time on my own to spend it stewing in hatred.”

He said all that, Verona observed, but he had a dark look in his eyes.  Sad, in a much different way than her dad was sad.

“You’re in the running to be the next Carmine Beast, if someone doesn’t get there first.  Are you excited about that?” Lucy asked.

“No interest,” he said.

“No…?”

“I don’t want it.  I’ll take the role if I have to, but I’d rather serve a quiet life protecting this place from errant goblins and bogeymen than an important life keeping all of Northern Ontario and part of northern Manitoba in balance.  I’ve served enough.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  She looked a little caught off guard by that.

Verona jumped in, “If you did want it… how would you do it?  Kill the Carmine Beast.”

“Explosives?  A big gun?” John asked.  “She’s too… important.  The forces of this world wouldn’t want to let you, and if you did manage it, I feel like it might hurt.”

“Hurt how?” Avery asked.

“Like killing Yalda, except… not as obvious.  I could be wrong.  But this death feels bitter in the way hers did.  I don’t know what it would look like, but I feel like that would be something that would demand an answer or put something on the shoulders of the killer or killers.  You could look for that.”

Verona nodded.

“Do you have an alibi for that night?” Lucy asked.

“I wasn’t in town.  I was walking forest trails, looking to see if anything was encroaching too close.  Guilherme can corroborate.  I saw him when I left and when I came back.  I saw Miss when I came back as well.  She can confirm I was away and why.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.

“Anything else?”

Verona cleared her throat.  Lucy shot her a look, rolling her eyes a bit.

“It’s awkward to ask about, but…”

“Tricks and treats!” Toadswallow exclaimed, clapping his hands together before rubbing them.

“The boons and teachings,” John said.

“If it’s no trouble,” Avery said.

“You told us to think about what we could give you.  I’m sure the Faerie and Goblins could give you something.  Alpeana, Edith, they can make things, or know enough to teach things.  I’m not sure what I could give.”

“If I may interject,” Toadswallow said.  “I heard them talking outside.  I heard about the deerfaced one laying a penis on her kid brother.”

“Uhh, I called him a penis.”

“So!” Toadswallow exclaimed.  He started to rise to his feet, struggled with his belly and short legs, and only managed on a third effort.  “Want to make it count?”

“I’m not sure,” Avery said.

“Anything you can teach us is great for our magical toolbox, kinda,” Verona butted in.  Lucy seemed to be more okay, they were into the interesting stuff now.

“The rule of three, my dears.  I dare say it’s why we picked three of you, see?  Threes count.  Calling someone a name?  That’s introducing them to the idea.  Giving it to them again?  That’s establishing a pattern.”

“Two points make a line,” Avery said.

“And three points?  They make a shape, something you can lay on them.  The trick is you need to make it abundantly clear what you’re doing.  Stick to a theme, if you can’t use the same word three times.  And nail it in.  You!  Useless rat in the corner!”

He shouted off at the empty end of the dining room, Cherry falling from her perch on his head as he rose to his feet.

Verona turned her head.  There was indeed a rat in the trash, visible with her Sight.  It had frozen at the noise.

“Repugnant beast!” Toadswallow shouted, and slapped his hand down on the table.  He turned his head.  “The slam or physical action helps nail it in.  If you can make it personal, that helps make it hurt, get them in the heart instead of the shoulder or leg, that helps.”

“Makes sense,” Lucy said, her arms folded.

“Does it?” Avery asked.

“Revolting filth!” Toadswallow shouted, louder.  He pushed bottles from the end of the table to the floor.  He pointed at the mess beneath, “Nailing it.  Make it louder each time.  If you can make the insult more creative, bring out the really bad words, which I can’t do because of promises I swore, then it’ll stick in more.  Memorable swears won’t ever want to come away.”

“I don’t know any great swear words,” Verona observed.

“Gotta pick some good words and tie them together.  You could ask Gash.  He hasn’t sworn anything about kids, I don’t think.  Now, ahem,” Toadswallow cleared his throat, then flung himself off the table, knocking over a chair and crashing into bottles and “You malmsey, detestable shit-lick!”

The rat bolted, tried to go for a hiding place, and failed.  Toadswallow crashed through more trash, tearing his way toward it.  It finally escaped into a hole somewhere.

“Always fun,” John said, observing from the other end of the room.

“I don’t got much,” Cherry said, looking up at them.  “Some gobs of stuff.  You could rub ’em in someone’s face.  And a condom I was gonna use.”

“Uhhh… we’ll take a rain check, maybe,” Lucy said.  “Think on it some more?”

Cherry nodded.

“Do you know what you need?” John asked.  “Things I could provide?”

“Protection,” Lucy said, looking uneasy.  “We need to check in with the Choir.  Figure out what they are, try to interview them.”

“Even if those kids are raindrops from a storm,” Verona added.

“Tough,” John said.  “But if you need me there, I’ll be there.  I’ll do what I can.”

“I need- we need power,” Verona said.

“Power?”

“I was trying to do a rune earlier.  I don’t have a power source.”

“I don’t have much,” John said.  “I don’t even know if this would count, but… let me go find it.”

They remained where they were, standing in a trashed, abandoned house that smelled like burnt plastic and paint thinner, while John ducked into the back.  Toadswallow continued tearing through the room, agitating the rat.

“Can you please leave it alone?” Avery asked.

“It- Excuse me, I wanted to demonstrate the fecking thing!”

“It’s fine!” Avery said.  “Just finish explaining?”

“It’s a-” Toadswallow started.  He nearly fell over, tripping over trash.  “Third one sticks.  It’s a minor curse.  Turning an insult into something that means something, by driving it in.  That rat’s going to be grosser.  It works with all kinds of things.  Faerie use it with fancy words and phrases.  If you do a contract with them, they’ll work in repeated words and phrases that imply crap and make other stuff more important.”

“Guilherme has mentioned something similar about fights.  I think you could turn it around,” John explained, as he re-entered.  “Use words while beating someone, three times, escalate the drama of it.”

“I’ve done that,” Toadswallow said.  “Calling someone names while kicking in their… ahem, their asshole, like I kicked in the front door here.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Good to know.  I’m going to try not to visualize that.”

John approached, and Verona was aware that Lucy backed off a bit, reflexive, before steeling herself and standing her ground as he closed the distance.

He held out a hand.  Verona placed hers beneath it.

It was a slug from a gun.  It was uncomfortably hot against her palm.

“It’s always had an energy to it.  Heat that wouldn’t go away,” he explained.

“What’s it from?”

“Putting down an elemental that was causing engine blocks to overheat, sometimes to burst into flame.  I don’t know how you’d tap into that power, but it’s yours if you want to try.  Keep it in a container that won’t burn.”

“It’s painful to hold.”

“It’s not real harm.  Don’t put it in your pocket.  It won’t burn through so long as it’s carried, but no matter how you carry it on you, it’s uncomfortable.”

“Got it,” Verona said.

Lucy made an inquisitive sound.  Verona handed it over, saw Lucy’s expression change at the contact.

“And…” John said.  He pulled off the simple necklace that the dog tags and the singular ring hung off of.  He removed three tags, each of them partially melted, gouged, or otherwise scarred, well past the point that the labels could be read.  “For you.”

“What do they do?”

“They’re connected to me.  Throw one down, stride forward into conflict without looking back… I’ll be right behind you.”

“Like…”

“No more than five steps behind, armed.  I’ll give it back to you after, or give you another one, provided you aren’t being frivolous in calling me there.”

Lucy nodded.  Verona ran one finger over the one she’d been given.

“Thank you,” Avery said.

“It’s appreciated.  I imagine these mean a lot to you,” Lucy said.

“Yes.”

“Are they from your squadmates?” Verona asked.

“They are.”

“And the ring is Yalda’s?” Avery asked, her voice gentle.

“It’s not available.  I’m not offering it.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, I really didn’t mean to imply that.”

“I know,” he told them, his voice hard.  “I believe you.  But I’m being as clear as I can.  No.  It stays with me.”

The hardness of his voice and the intensity of his gaze was a lot, like there was a promise that there was a fight to be had.  A reminder of what he was.

And Lucy looked scared.  Lucy, who hated to look scared or weak.  Lucy, who would go ballistic sometimes, or go over the top, whenever she was anxious.  Like how she’d threatened to curse Avery before the Awakening.

“I think that’s all we need for now,” Verona said.  She reached out for her friend, holding the dog tag in her closed hand.  She retreated a step, and the others took her cue.  “Thanks for cooperating.  Thank you for this.”

“Thank you for stepping in as Kennet’s practitioners,” he said.

“Toadswallow,” Verona said, trying to think of what Lucy would want to say if she was more herself.  “We may be talking to all of you goblins later, I think, for a more complete interview.”

“As you wish.  I’ll have some trinkets and gifts ready, I can help Cherry pick something fun.”

“Great.  Fantastic,” Verona said.

They left out the front door, and compared to the gloom from within, with the focused lights of the lanterns, it was bright outside.

Verona looked back at the way they’d come.  An Other that lived in a house that made sparing use of light, and only cleaned up select areas like the kitchen, because he wanted to keep a low profile.

She sighed.

She looked at the others.  At Lucy.

Lucy’s hand went to her upper arm, near the shoulder, like she was trying to find a place to put her hand, and she settled on higher ground rather than lower.  The hand moved, agitated, like it couldn’t find purchase.

She reached out, laying a hand over Lucy’s, pressing the hand into place.

“Well,” Lucy said, her chin rising, her voice making an effort to sound nonchalant.  “Got a gun pulled on me for the first time in my life.  Wasn’t expecting that.”

Verona’s free hand, still holding the tag, moved up to her mouth, touching her lip.  She wondered if her skin was red where the blade had rubbed it.

“Kinda got real,” Lucy murmured.

Avery hugged her, one arm.

“Kinda unreal,” Verona echoed her friend.


Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter 

Lost for Words – 1.4

Avery (again)

Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter


Their travel plans hadn’t allowed much leeway.  From six in the evening on Friday to six in the evening on Saturday.  Then they’d left at about eight in the evening on Saturday.  Shorter stop for the night, more pressure on the gas, and now they were back at Kennet, the sun yet to set, making it… maybe five o’clock?  Five thirty?

Lucy had exhausted herself of questions, and Verona was reading the book Avery had finished last night.

It was hard to shine when the other two were so good at their own things.  Hard to stand out, hard to be anything but the third wheel.  She was practicing with her Sight, which made the scenery more interesting, at least, but she felt a kind of anxiety as they got closer to home.  She didn’t want to end this trip feeling this useless.

If patterns were as important as Verona had been saying, then she didn’t want this to be her pattern.

She didn’t want to ask Verona or Lucy, because she felt like asking them would put her back in the second or third place position again.  But then the next person was… Charles.  If she turned her head and peered through the dirty window, she could see the back of his head.

Reluctantly, she knocked on the window.  Both Lucy and Verona turned their heads.

Charles opened it.  “Need something?”

“Can I ask some questions before we get where we’re going?”

“It’s why I’m here.  Just ask.  You don’t have to ask permission first.”

“Um, okay,” she said.  His tone had been stern enough she could feel her brain momentarily freeze up.

She hadn’t really dealt with jerks before last September, siblings excepted.  This wasn’t a sibling vibe, and she didn’t know how to handle it.

“Did you decide on your questions before asking?” he pressured her.

“Um,” she said, before clearing her throat.  “What would you do if you were us?”

“That’s at least one hell of a question.  If I were you, I wouldn’t have done the ritual.  Wouldn’t have gotten stuck in all of this.”

“But we did,” Lucy said.

“But you did,” Charles said.  “It’s done.  You’re stuck in it.”

“Then… can you help us?  Tell us what to watch for?  The people at the ritual can’t hurt us, right?”

“No.”

“There’s no way of cheating it?  No way around that?”

“There are ways around it.  Not participating in the ritual.  Faerie are tricky.  Maricica could, for example, send an effigy to participate.”

“Effigy.”

“Or an illusion, or a doll, or something false.”

“Would, um, the big guy, Guil…”

“Guilherme.  He’s not the trickster type, he’s a warrior, but when it comes to the Fae, you can assume that if they aren’t obvious tricksters, that will make the moments they do pull the rug out from under you all the more dramatic.  I wouldn’t rule anything out with either of them.”

“And if someone didn’t participate fully in the ritual?” Avery asked.

“Why?” Charles asked, and his voice was harder.  He twisted around to stare at her.  “Did you see something?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “I’m trying to figure this out.  Um.  Lucy’s really good at the investigation and moving forward stuff.  Verona’s really good at the practice already, I think.  I thought maybe I could play defense.”

He made her nervous, and she hated to admit it, because she hated to be judgmental of anyone, but he really did smell, especially after two days in the truck.

“Defense.  Matthew was saying you played hockey, earlier.  Was that your role?  Goalie, or defense?”

They’re talking about us in the same way we’re discussing and dissecting them.

“No, not at all,” Avery said.  “Forward.  I’m fast and I’ve got endurance.”

“Hm.  I won’t say you’re wrong to be defensively-minded.  If the most reckless of you was being as careful as you’re being now, and the most thoughtful was spending hours poring over every sentence, then…”

“We’d be okay?” Avery asked.

“No.”  Charles sounded exasperated.  “No, child.  Some of the forces you’re now dealing with have been figuring out and perfecting means of attack, deception, and manipulation since a time before man wore shoes, and the stakes are your very mortality, your Self, your future.  When the stakes are that high, you don’t sit down to a game of chess with someone that’s been playing since before you were born.”

“Oh.”

“We shouldn’t sit down to a game of chess with those guys, you mean,” Verona said.

“Don’t can mean should not.  But you’re right, I should be more precise, especially when instructing you.  I’m out of practice since losing my practice.”

“What hurts us?  If the Others from town can’t touch us, what’s the risk we should be worried about?” Avery asked.

“Off the top of my head?  You, yourselves.  Lucy’s statement to ensure your long and full life was a good one.  It’s open ended enough that they should be encouraged to steer you away from your own ruin.  Without that rule, the danger would be that they would let you destroy yourselves, the moment you became inconvenient or got close to them.  There are too many stories out there of people who are given a gift with a warning, and the warning is of course defied.”

“We should make a deal then,” Avery said.  She looked at her friends.  “What if we agreed to not practice unless at least one other person agreed?”

“Uh, no,” Verona said, at the same time Charles said, “No.”

“Why not?” Avery asked.

“Because then all your enemies must do is separate you.”

“Nothing major, then?” Avery asked.  “Nothing that would change us or nothing big?  We could ask when getting practices and powers, what’s minor and what’s major, and make rules about anything major.”

“Not keen,” Verona said.  She put down the book Avery had given her.

“Why?” Lucy asked.

“Because life before this sucked enough with the rules, expectations, the structure, the other garbage.  So much of that crap that I couldn’t and still can’t really see any point in enduring it all.  I’m pretty sure I don’t know one adult who I can definitively say is actually content and secure and happy with where they are in life.  So why?  Why am I sitting through class every weekday, doing chores, and stuff?  So I can become a teenager and get a car I can’t afford, with a part time job I’m going to hate?  To get work experience that’ll let me get a slightly better job later, and buy a house that I’ll have to upkeep?”

“This is different,” Lucy said.

“It is!  But I feel like if we’re making deals to limit ourselves and structure all of this, we’re going to make this into that.”

“We’d be making these rules to keep ourselves safe,” Avery said.

Those rules about going to school, doing chores, or paying bills are to keep us all healthy and safe, or because there are other reasons.  And I bet the people who enforced them thought they were important and good.  But they add up to a system I find very depressing to think about.”

“I think my parents and Ms. Hardy are happy,” Avery said.

“No offense, Avery, I don’t want to dump on the people you obviously care about, but I’m more likely to think they’re doing a good job of hiding how unhappy they are, than that they’re really, genuinely happy.”

“Maybe,” Avery said.  “I hope you’re wrong.”

“Look,” Lucy said.  “Is this really that big a problem?  Can you focus on what exactly is wrong with the rule?  Because Avery’s wanting to have input and we’re going to be doing this with her for a long time.  This is her suggestion and I don’t want to shut her out.”

“It’s not the rule, exactly.  That seems okay, but… it’s the first step on a road I don’t want to go down.  Already we need to have our hat, mask, and-or scarf with us.  Then we need to have partners for the major stuff.  Then what?”

“Then if there’s anything else, we discuss it.”

“Can we think on it?” Verona asked.  “No hasty deals, remember?  We’ll put it down on paper or exchange emails, and think of loopholes or possible traps?”

Lucy looked at Avery, who nodded.

“Okay,” Avery said.  “Sorry, Charles.”

“Don’t be.  I was thinking about what else might qualify.  They promised no willful harm.  That raises the question, then, what harm can they do when they don’t will it?”

“Is there stuff like that?” Avery asked.

“I wouldn’t rule it out.  Dealing with goblins, for example, may make you a worse person by the regular association.  Our goblins are mild, at least.”

“Sir Toadswallow stuck his hand down the back of his pants to collect his own crap,” Lucy protested.

“That’s mild.  There are other kinds of taint or change.  I don’t think there are any Others in Kennet who would taint you that badly.  Matthew, perhaps, if he loosened the bindings on the Doom he’s keeping caged inside himself.”

“Good to know,” Lucy said.  She had her notebook out and was taking more notes.

“You could ask, then, what Others might be a danger, if they revert to instinct.  That wouldn’t be willful.”

“Which are?” Avery asked.

“Most.  Even Edith comes from a place of pain and fire.  Put into the wrong situation, the human side of her weakened, she could harm you and it wouldn’t violate the oath.”

“And because she’s not an outsider…”

“The collective promise to protect you from outsiders wouldn’t force Others to intervene.”

“Can we handle that?” Lucy asked.  “Force Others to clarify the pact, agree to help, or… whatever?”

“Yes.  But keep in mind, Others may not like being constricted by a closing net of restrictions any more than your Verona does.”

“Good to know,” Lucy said.  “Case by case basis, maybe.”

“Be careful.  Even the suggestion of it may turn a good working relationship into a hostile one.”

“Is there stuff we can read about this?” Avery asked.  “You said you had books.”

“Had.  Past tense.  I can’t practice, and like what happened with my once-friend the Augur, having books or materials makes me a target for people who want those things.  I gave them and traded them away.  Matthew has a few.”

“I’ll see about digging them up,” Matthew said, from the front seat.  “I was looking for specific things about my specific dynamic, and once I verified there wasn’t anything useful, I put them away.  A few might be in a box in my basement with some ritual supplies and Christmas decorations.”

“That’s great,” Verona chimed in.

Was that sarcasm?  Or was it true?  If Avery had to ask, did it matter?

She wasn’t even a sarcastic person, and she was going to miss sarcasm.  It was very interesting if Verona could make it work, because that meant Avery could too.  Charles, at least, wasn’t saying anything.

Lucy was still taking the notes.  Without looking up, she said, “I’ve been thinking about things in terms of the order we need to conduct the interviews, but we’re not just conducting interviews, right?  We’re gathering power.  Tools.”

“I’ve kind of been saying that from the start,” Verona said.

Lucy nodded, her hair bobbing out of sync behind her.  With Avery’s sight, the hair was pink at the ends, and Lucy’s eyes were a rosy brown.  Lucy twisted around, to face the window.  “Charles, if we’re worried about someone or something losing control and being able to hurt us… who or where would we go to get something to protect ourselves?”

Charles sighed.  “The best defense is running away, avoiding that fight in the first place.”

“You made it sound like a bad situation was unavoidable,” Avery said.

“I might’ve, but it might be better to say that a bad situation is inevitable, unless you stop.  If and when that happens, the tragic outcome might be what’s unavoidable.”

“Let’s assume something or someone’s going to pick a fight with us,” Lucy said.  “Who do we go to about self defense or getting what we need to stop them?”

They’d made their way down the winding road and they were into the upper portion of Kennet now.  There was a fair amount of traffic at this hour and time of the week.  The highway cut through the town, and the upper end of town had a ton of fast food places and rest stops for people to pull off or go to the bathroom.  A lot of the signs were crummy or had unlit letters, but the fast food places and other franchises at least had head offices ensuring that they were keeping everything top notch.

Avery looked at it with the Sight.  She could see the distinction, now that she’d been gone and come back.  The handprints and footprints that her Sight painted on everything were keeping this place in good shape, but an awful lot of them were bloody.

The bands that connected things were touched with blood here and there too.

Now she had another question, but the others were talking.

“…would suggest John,” Charles said.  “He’s a fighter.  Goblins if you want to hurt something, but that’s… again, practice is political as much as it’s anything.  Something like Munch from downtown might give you a win, but you hurt yourself in the long term.”

“And which Others are most likely to lose control and hurt us?”

“John,” Charles said, again.

Verona laughed.  “That’s, uhhhh…”

“We want to talk to him soon anyway,” Avery said, pushing her way back into the conversation.  As they got closer to their destination, she felt more and more like she wanted to do her share, or make her contribution.  “What do we need to know?”

“He’s easy to find.  He lives in the burned out house at the southeast of town.  At the intersection of Lily and Henry.  He’s a good man, but… avoid sudden moves.  Don’t push him, and avoid all signs of violence.”

“Like a big, scary dog,” Avery said.

“Essentially.”

“What is he?”

“He’s a Dog of War, known in some circles as Dog Tags.  I think his name is an older equivalent to John Doe, but for soldiers.  When warzones are at their ugliest and most chaotic, and people start losing track of who is where, who is alive and who is dead, certain Others may crop up on the battlefields.  Ones that fight, so long as there is conflict around them.  If the soldiers in that war are killing innocents, so will the Dogs of War.  If they commit other atrocities, so will the Dogs.  They don’t sleep, they keep the battle going, and as long as the battle continues, they don’t stay down.  Related to Revenants, but Revenants are the province of Death, not War.”

“Did he- does he commit atrocities?” Avery asked.

“I don’t think so,” Charles said.  “But he came with a friend, and the friend suggests things, because of what she was.”

“Clarify that for us?” Avery asked.

“I don’t know much.  She was gone before I was a practitioner, and she’s a touchy subject for him.  Dogs of War have a multitude of subcategories and varieties.  Labels are rarely tidy, and Dogs of War are something that emerges naturally, for lack of a better way of putting it.  Dog Meat emerge from multiple killings at the hands of serial killers or more violent goblins, Hang Dogs from lynchings and hate, Blast Dogs from areas that have been traumatized, and Sick, Famine, and Black Dogs are rare ones from the more vulnerable innocents killed in those crises, usually the leaders or guides for collected packs and combinations of Dogs of War.”

Avery looked out over the congested traffic.  People were lining up to pass through the fast food drive throughs, with lines extending out onto the road.  It meant that traffic was reduced to one lane at places, and that traffic was stop-and-go.

The world felt so much bigger and more intimidating than it had last Thursday.

“Are there a lot of these things out there?” Verona asked.

“By their nature and where they come from, they’re hard to count.  All it takes is that the dead pile up in the midst of greater conflict and violence, people start becoming statistics instead of names, and the numbers stop adding up.  John’s companion was a Sick Dog type.  It looked like any child you could find on a warzone.  He smuggled it here, it took care of him, he took care of it.  But by its nature, it spread sickness and tainted everything around it with malaise.  It had to be dealt with.  John decided to do it himself.  Before my time here.”

“Dealt with?”

“He executed his companion.  I think that might be why the Alabaster, Sable, and Aurum liked him for the role.  He does what’s necessary.”

“You were listening in?”

“Matthew recapped for me.”

“Okay, so… just so we know, how do you deal with a Dog of War or any of its variants?” Verona asked.

“By putting a bullet in them, or some other means of execution, after cutting them off from their power source.”

“How do you cut them off?”

“Draw a circle around them.  I can teach you the basics of binding Others at a later date.  With John, don’t bother trying.  The act of finishing the drawing of the circle gets harder the greater the source of power is.  His source of power is a big, long-running conflict with no sign of ending, even if Canada pulled out six years ago.  Like a large body of water with a narrow hole feeding out the bottom to this particular output, the pressure is immense and the stream violent.  You’re not positioned to put that conflict to rest and you’re not equipped to close a circle.”

“We might have other options if we can figure that out, if it comes to that,” Lucy said.  “Was he upset?  After killing his friend?”

“John has two modes.  Hurry up and wait, and opening fire.  He hasn’t opened fire yet, and it’s been a decade.”

They’d hit the residential area now.  They weren’t far from being dropped off.

“What about the Hungry Choir?” Avery asked.  “Are they something we can use to protect ourselves?  I’m thinking of the knives that appeared in the ritual, and they seem to be a common thread.”

“They aren’t.  Too unpredictable, you can’t communicate with them, and by their very nature, they tend to bite the hand that feeds.  They’re not servants, summons, or assistants I would have wanted as a practitioner.”

“What is their nature?” Verona asked.

“Ritual Incarnate,” Lucy said.  Her phone rang, startling her.  “Sorry.  It’s my parents.  Crap.”

Verona grabbed her hat, which was in her lap, flipping it over.  The chalk diagram to break connections had worn out to the point they were almost gone.  “Our connection breaking stuff ended.  Because we drove through a populated area, and a lot of people would notice kids riding in the back of a truck.”

Lucy motioned for Verona to shush, putting the phone to her ear.

Verona twisted around, and pushed past Avery to get to the window.  She spoke into the window so she wouldn’t be too loud for Lucy.  “My house is a block away. Stop?”

Matthew pulled over.

“Yes, no, I figured I’d reheat something if you hadn’t cooked,” Lucy said.  “Less than five minutes.  Okay, cool.  Thanks.”

Verona hopped out of the car, and Avery handed down the bags.

Verona leaned in closer, all wide-eyed, hair messy from not having showered or brushed it.  It suited her, honestly.  In Avery’s Sight, Verona’s eyes were bright with a purple tint that wasn’t reflecting anything nearby.  Was that because Verona was using the Sight too?  “Get the rest of the info and fill me in later?  Or fill in Lucy and I’ll read her notes?”

Avery nodded.

“Thanks,” Verona said.  She turned to look in the direction of her house.  “Sucks to go back home.  I kinda hoped I wouldn’t have to, but I guess that doesn’t make sense, huh?”

“I guess,” Avery said, not sure what to say.

“I’ll see you at school tomorrow,” Verona said, before quickly adding, “Probably.”

“Later,” Avery said.

Verona started to leave, then turned.  “I’m glad you stuck with it.  Thanks for the book.  Let me know if you want it back.”

“Nah,” Avery said, a little caught off guard.  She raised a hand as Verona ran off.  The truck started up again as Avery settled back into her ‘seat’.

“What were we talking about?” Avery asked.

“Ritual Incarnates,” Lucy said.  She’d finished her call.

“There are ways you can ask to play chess with Death,” Charles launched right into it.  “Or one Death.  War, Innocence, Pain, Hope, Mischief… all are forces that can take form in this world, you can meet them, you can deal with them.  They’re more solid and tied into things than a spirit, which influences, or an elemental that impacts the physical and natural world.  Incarnations represent particular human realities.  When these incarnations want to spread their influence, sometimes they set things in motion.  On the rare occasion, they happen naturally or by accident.  All we know about the Hungry Choir is that they arose somewhere else and they’ve settled here, at least for a little while.  Perhaps some locals are tied up in it.  The Other you call Miss could tell you more.”

“What is it?” Avery asked.  “Like, what did these Incarnations or accidents set in motion?”

“An Incarnation of Poverty might try to spread poverty.  Sometimes that would be with a cursed item; innocents handle it, they ignore the warnings printed on the item or shared by the seller, they lose their earthly belongings and fortunes, they die or suffer a dark fate, the item gets passed on, having strengthened Poverty, until someone figures out a way to deal with it.  Other times, it’s a ritual that finds its way to people’s hands.  In this modern era, when urban legends can gain traction and the internet is a thing, it’s getting more and more common.”

“But they’re not practitioners?” Avery asked.

“This is my house!”  Lucy knocked on the window.  Matthew pulled over again.

Lucy made no motion to get up, still listening.  In the background, Matthew turned off the engine, turning around to look and listen as Charles talked.

“No, they’re not practitioners.  And that’s the gamble, of sorts.  Will the ritual pull in enough to be worth the cost of inducting an innocent?  If the ritual brings in enough poverty, for example, or brings in enough other people who fail, it may be worth paying the penalty or assuming the karmic responsibility.  But if the people participating thrive, succeed, and ‘beat’ the ritual, it’s costly.”

“Beat?” Lucy asked.

“Often, the karmic cost of bringing in innocents is tempered.  If it’s just, if someone must opt in, and if there’s a possible way out, it’s less costly.  Remember what I said earlier about the warning given with full expectation that the warning would be ignored?  One such example.  The Ritual Incarnate may be a game, or a pattern people willingly participate in, with enough traps or enough of an uphill climb that failing at the game is expected, and they may be difficult enough that by the time the participant is done, they are no longer capital-I Innocent, or even no longer human.  These things tend to end when enough people get the hang of it.”

“The Hungry Choir is strong, so… nobody’s figured out how to beat it?”

“Not consistently.  I’ve heard about one where a notebook described how to find the location of a tunnel entrance, which regularly moved.  An Incarnate Ritual of Time.  Going through the winding tunnels would take the participants back in time.  They could alter their pasts, but while in the past, they had to arrange events so a specific scene would come to pass at a specific point in time, years in the future, as depicted on a mural along the way.  They got three tries and if they failed to replicate the scene, they were unwound from Time altogether.  The notebook was mass produced, some practitioners in the States got ahead of it, and used their expertise to beat it enough times it ran out of steam.  In another case, an Incarnate Ritual of Envy, participants could log into a website, and would join as a group, engaging in a game of several rounds of swapping minds with bodies among members of the group, similar to musical chairs.”

“What happened when a chair was taken away?”

“I don’t know.  The easiest and most obvious answer would be that that specific mind and body pairing were snuffed out.”

“Do they all end horribly?” Avery asked.

“They tend to, but typically, there’s incentive to win, a reward for the winner, that draws specific kinds of candidate into the ritual,” Charles said.  “Be careful with the Hungry Choir.  Have some protection if you’re getting close.”

Lucy got to a standing position, moving her bags to the side.  Avery stood as well, ready to help.

Avery gave Lucy her bags.  “I’ll catch you up on any other info, after.”

“You did good this weekend, Ave.”

Avery wanted to protest, but she worried calling Lucy out on being a liar would hurt them both.  She shrugged instead.  “You too.”

“We’ll talk soon,” Lucy said, giving the side of the truck a pat.

“Sure.”

Lucy lifted up her bags and cut cross-wise through someone’s lawn to head to her house.

“Remind me where you live?” Matthew called back.

“Over the bridge, turn right.”

“Got it.”

It felt weird and worse, being in the back of this truck with the strangers in the front, nobody at her side now.

“Any more questions?” Charles asked.

The way she was sitting, her back was almost to his, separated by the back of the truck cab, his seat, and her bags that she was using as a back-cushion.

“How do we talk to the Choir?  We have the location for John Stiles, but…”

“You don’t.  You can’t.  But ask Miss.  She may be able to point you in the right direction.  Prepare first, or better yet, skip them.”

“Skip them?”

“They can hurt you,” Charles said.  “They’re a small, localized hurricane, except instead of wind and flying debris, they’re patterns and rules.  Don’t get mired in it.”

“Alright,” she said.  “Thanks for the advice.  I do mean that.”

The car reached her house and passed it.  She told Matthew to park.

“What you said about being fast?” Charles ventured, as she picked up her bags.

“Yeah?  Fast and high-endurance.”

“If those parts of you on the rink are you, your capital-s Self, play into that.  Pursue that.”

“I’ll think about that, and how to make it work.”

“Careful,” he said.  As it got quieter, his voice took on a crackle that reminded her of her grandfather.  “I’m karmically ruined.  It makes it easier to ignore my advice, so don’t tell me you’ll think about it unless you will.”

“I will,” she said, as much to nail down the idea for her own benefit as it was for him.  “Thanks Charles.  Thanks Matthew.  Thanks Edith.”

She grabbed her bags and hopped down, the added weight adding more crunch as her running shoes hit the grit, salt, and gravel that had been deposited at the road’s edge, yet to be fully washed away.

Three cars in the driveway.  Reason enough to believe everyone was home.  The garden had been watered and a puddle had yet to dry out by the spray-hose, which had been left draped down the length of the road.  Someone was earning the bonus chore money, it seemed.  From the fact it hadn’t been picked up after, a good one dollar deduction, she was guessing Sheridan or Declan.

She let herself in, squeezing in past the screen door to the front door, with a bag slung over one shoulder and another at her back.

“Grumble, do you mind if I take the Ion!?”

The answer was unintelligible.

“It’s so cute you call him Grumble,” Laurie said.  The woman, twenty, slim and dark haired, was already standing in the front hall.  Laurie reached in to hold the screen door and let Avery squeeze through.  Avery ducked her head down, feeling heat at her face as she had to pass in such close proximity to the woman.  It wasn’t that her brother’s girlfriend was her type, but Avery’s height put her head at the same level as Laurie’s chest, which meant she had to work to not headbutt her, and she was very cognizant of the smell of her shampoo and the fact she was wearing a low-cut top.  If she’d had any warning, it would have been fine, but it was a lot to suddenly find at eye level, and she was very aware she hadn’t showered.

“Thank you.”

“Hey, skates,” Rowan said, touching Avery’s head.  He was tall, skinny as a rail, with freckles, with an actually nice haircut, which Avery kind of envied.  “Good weekend?”

“S’alright,” she mumbled, still a bit flushed.  “Going out?”

“Date, yeah.”

“Rowan,” Avery’s dad said, “can you wait two minutes to let me write up a list?  I’ll give you money, you can grab stuff on the way home.”

“Aw, dad, that’s really not the direction we’re going, and your two minutes is closer to ten minutes in reality.”

“Two minutes, I promise.  You can keep the change for gas money.”

“Avery!” Kerry exclaimed, voice high.  The six year old threw herself at Avery, latching onto the gym bag and nearly pulling Avery off balance.

“Ow, let go.  Let go!”

She pried Kerry’s fingers off and twisted away, doing a half-step to avoid whacking Laurie in the knees with the bag as she turned. She hurried to the stairs, where she had to twist to let Declan by as he hurried down the stairs.

“Avery!” her mom called from the downstairs kitchen.  “Can we touch base!?”

“Yeah!  Give me a minute!”

“Have you eaten!?”

“Not since lunch!”

“Can we touch base!?”

“I said give me a minute!”

She made her way upstairs, and had to stop at the door to her room.  Sheridan was exiting as she entered, and looked very aggrieved at the minor inconvenience at having to wait for Avery to step aside and let her pass.  Wearing pyjama pants and an oversized shirt even though it wasn’t nighttime yet, running a brush through black hair -the only person in Avery’s family without red hair besides grandpa- Sheridan strode to the stairs, tossing her brush onto the bathroom counter as she passed it.  Sixteen year olds.

“Don’t leave that stuff in the way!” Sheridan called out, from the top of the stairs.

“Yeah.”

“You leave your gym stuff around all the time.”

“Stop stressing out!”

“Laurie!” Sheridan called down.  “Hey, where are you guys going out-”

Avery deposited her bags on her bunk. She rolled her shoulder where the strap had been digging into it, especially with Kerry hanging on, and she heaved out a sigh.  The bunkbed was relatively new.  Declan was ten, and her parents didn’t want a ten year old boy sharing a room with a six or thirteen year old girl, so they’d been sorted by gender instead.  Avery’s bed had gone to Declan, she got the top bunk, and Kerry slept below her.  Sheridan’s half of the room remained intact, on penalty of all the wrath a sixteen year old could bring down on one’s head.

“Avery!” her mom called from downstairs.  “Tout suite!  Dinner’s ready in ten!  I want to chat before then!”

She put her bags on her bed and in the closet, and made sure none of her stuff was in Sheridan’s way.  She picked up one of Kerry’s stuffed animals that she almost stepped on, a dog with a fat tongue sticking out, and situated it on her sister’s pillow, before posturing it so it was licking itself.

Kerry would laugh, probably.

Her head being down, she got in her dad’s way as he crossed the hallway.  He stopped in his tracks, hands going out to the walls so he could brace himself instead of walking into her.

“Whoop,” he said.  “Looking for a pen.”

She had one in her pocket.  She handed it over.

He bent down to kiss her on the top of her head.  “Thank you.  Good weekend?”

He was already heading downstairs.  She followed.

“I think so,” she said.

“That sounds very ambivalent.”

“Just… a lot going on.”

“No idea what that’s like,” he said, a twinkle in his eye.

“Yeah.”

Sheridan got out of dad’s way, but when Avery moved to get by, stuck her butt in the way.

“Did you leave your stuff on the floor?”

“I didn’t!” Avery protested.  She was annoyed she couldn’t help but sound childish, saying it.  She tried to get by, but Sheridan stuck her fat butt out.

“Why don’t I believe you?”

“Avery!” her mom called out.

“She’s coming,” her dad said.  “Sheridan, let your sister by.”

Sheridan obeyed, but only as long as dad was looking.  As soon as he turned away to add to the list he was writing, she moved to block.  “I thought you were a hockey player.”

Avery saw the sympathetic look that Laurie shot her, but Rowan, dad, and Kerry were all in the front hall, and she couldn’t speak without interrupting.

Avery climbed over the railing, put one foot on the top of the chair by the stairs, and stepped down onto the seat, then to the ground.  She jogged through the living room, evading Kerry’s clutches, and paused by the chair her grandfather sat in, giving him a hug.

“Heya,” he said, his voice mushy and ten times as gravely as Charles’ had been.  He’d had a stroke a long time ago and had mostly recovered, but his voice wasn’t what it had been, and his movements were sometimes limited.

“Heya Grumble.  Have a good weekend?”

“Surright, yeah,” he said.  He gave her cheek a pat with a stiff hand, the movements rough and the hand rougher.  He indicated the television, which was showing the news.  “I dunno what these guys, what they’re doing.  They’re idiots.  We’ve got idiots in charge.”

“Love you, but I gotta go talk to mom though.”

“Mercy on ya.”

“She’s not that bad,” Avery said, smiling, as she walked backwards.  “I don’t think I’m in trouble.”

“No trouble,” her mom said, overhearing the tail end.  She wiped wet hands.  “Backyard for a second?  Connor!  Can you watch the stove?”

“Yeah!  One second!” Avery’s dad called back.

“Sheridan’s not doing anything,” Avery volunteered.

“Sheridan!  Stove!” Avery’s mom called out.  “If I look back in five seconds and you’re not on it, I’m going to be ticked!”

“Yep!” was the answering call.

Avery and her mom stepped into the backyard.  Her mom shut the door, which immediately opened, six year old Kerry wanting to come outside.

“Nope, back inside,” mom said, ushering the kid in, before closing the door and standing with her back to it.  “Whoo.”

“Whoo,” Avery said.

“How are you?” her mom asked.

Avery shrugged.  “Doing okay.”

“Where were you?”

“Was hanging out with Lucy and Verona.  We slept in a tent.  Studied.  Verona made a boomerang hat.”

“Never heard of that.  I know it might not seem like it, but I miss you when you’re not around.”

“I miss you guys too.  I don’t tend to miss… all of this, though.”

“Haha.  Your mind might change when you go away to university.  Your dorm or apartment will feel very empty.”

“If.”

When, please and thank you.”

“We’ll see.”

“I guess we will.  Plenty of time to figure it out,” mom said.  “I’m proud of you, you know.”

“Um.  Thanks?  Can I ask- what’s this?”

“This?”

Is it a screwy connection thing?  A rebound from the connection breaking ritual?  If it is, I feel kind of sorry for Lucy and Verona.

“You, me, talking here.  I know you said I’m not in trouble but I feel like I’m in trouble.”

“No, honey.  Usually, when you’re around, I feel like I make a few minutes at a time to check in, or see how you’re doing.  But when you’re away, I do want to take a bit more time to catch up.  I don’t want to go back to where things were last winter.”

Aha, this was something far more boring than connection weirdness.

Avery was pretty sure that Ms. Hardy had called her parents, because a short while after she’d opened up to Ms. Hardy, her parents had turned things around a bit and started talking to her more, asking her how she was, taking her out for treats or one-on-ones.

She kinda really resented that it had taken that long and that much, though, which made this uncomfortable dialogue a little more uncomfortable.

Which she summed up in a shrug.

“Are you in a good place?  Your friends are good to you?”

“They can be a little bit much, but… they’re good.”

“Did we do you wrong by homeschooling you?”

Avery shook her head.  Homeschooling had been easier.  The forced social interaction with the meets with other homeschooled kids.  They’d been so mindful of the risks of not giving her enough socialization that they’d gone the other direction.  Museum trips, hangouts.  It had been nice.

She’d still asked to go to regular school.  She’d been wrong to, kind of.  Rough few months.

“Want anything particular for dessert?” her mom asked.  “I think we have ice cream, brownie bites, hmmm…”

“I don’t really care about dessert.  I snacked out all weekend.”

“Hm.  So long as you finish your dinner and you had a good weekend.”

Avery shrugged again.  “Um.  But can we not watch the singing show?”

“Oh, honey.  That might be a losing battle.  I’ll be in your corner if you really want it, but…”

“Literally anything else.  Please.”

“We’ll pitch it.”

“Okay.”

“I’ve got to go check on dinner.  Have you finished your homework?”

“No.”

“And I thought you said you studied, hm?” her mom asked, smiling like she’d just played a trick or caught Avery in a minor lie.  “After?”

Avery nodded.

“Alright.  Dinner in… maybe five.  Go, sort out your things from the weekend.  Make sure your laundry is in the pile or it won’t get done.  Get clothes ready for tomorrow.”

Avery nodded.

Back into the house, where Kerry was waiting by the door, trying to peer through the window.  Mom scooped Kerry up, grunting as she lifted her, and leaned her on one hip.

“Can’t do this for much longer.  You’re lucky you’re so tiny, Ker.”

Avery watched as her mom situated Kerry on the kitchen counter, and set her the task of spinning the salad dry.  Sheridan was on the stove, and Laurie had left with Rowan.

“Pen,” her dad said, as she passed him.  He was in the front hall, plugging in his phone at the hub, which had what looked like ten different wires and chargers sticking out of it.

She reclaimed her pen, then jogged up the stairs.

Declan was in her room, holding her deer mask.  Her clothes and other stuff from her bag were on the floor.

“Declan, you’re such a little penis!”

She stopped after saying it, that moment of regret and realization washing over her.

Of course she’d be the lame-ass loser who’d be the first in her trio that would say something that was technically a lie.

“Where’d you get this?” he asked.

“Give it back!” she told him, with a little more volume and anger because she was mad at herself.  For the lie, for not considering that she had zero privacy.

“Did you make it?  I saw you carving something in the backyard but it wasn’t like this.”

“It was a gift, like my carving was a gift, and don’t you dare drop it.  Give it!”

He held it at bay, using Sheridan’s wheeled computer chair as a barrier.

She used her Sight, because she didn’t have many other options.  She could see him, see the bands of connections.  She could tell her dad was on his way.

A band connected her to her mask.

On impulse, she grabbed for it.  The band moved out of the way of her hand, but she grazed it with her fingers, which pulled it closer-

And Declan, standing on one of the legs that extended from the base of the computer chair, slipped and slid a bit closer.

She snatched the mask from his hand.

Flushed with victory and anger, she gathered herself.  She could do things.  This was more than just stopping the wind, postponing a phone call that probably wouldn’t have come, and keeping her hat on.

She had another issue to fix.  The lie.

“You little penis,” she pressed.  “You’re- you’re runty, you’re sticky and snotty, you’re annoying, I don’t want you in my face, ever, and I definitely don’t want you poking randomly through my freaking stuff!”

“Avery!” her dad said, behind her.

Was that okay?  Did saying that stuff, drawing those parallels, did it work?  She didn’t care if she got in trouble with her dad, so long as it wasn’t hurting her practice or her friends.  Was it like giving an argument after being forsworn?

Whatever.  She’d work it out after.  There were other battles to be fought.  It was a question of sanity and siblings.  “The little creep was going through my stuff!”

“Was not!”

“Why are you even in my room?  Isn’t the whole point of Kerry moving in and me losing my actual bed so we wouldn’t have him perving his way through everything?”

“I wasn’t perving!  I was just curious!”

“Declan, time out.  I’ll talk to you in a minute.  Avery, calm down.”

She shut her mouth and she shut up, fuming.

Still mad at herself, because she should have known.

“How long am I in time out for?”

“Until your mom and I decide on a punishment.  You should respect your big sister’s privacy.  Avery… clean up, breathe?”

She huffed out a breath, bent down, and began picking up her dirty laundry and stuff.

She used her Sight, and she tracked the connections.  She looked at one band that was particularly slack and frail, paused as she noted that the bloodstains and bloody handprints extended to her brother, her dad, and Sheridan, who was out in the hallway.  Small, occasional, but definitely there.  A thing in Kennet alone.

But… that one band.

“Pat him down, dad?”

“You’re not serious.”

“I am,” she said.  “I’m-”

She marched over to Declan, reached for his pocket, and found it empty.  She checked the other- the connection wasn’t that clear.

She fished out the chocolate bar.

“Stealing has to be extra punishment, right?” she asked.

“Your mom and I will work it out.  This house would descend into anarchy if you got input on each other’s punishments.”

“Dinner!” the call came from downstairs.

Avery huffed.  She waited until people were out of her room before finding a quick hiding place for the chocolate bar.

Downstairs, the TV had been turned around so everyone at the table could watch.  It was already tuned to the previews of the talent competition.  Spotlights, judges, and the endless litany of new singers, dancers, and jugglers.

She hated it.  She gave her mom a look as she sat down.

“What would you guys think about a movie instead?” her mom offered.

The protests were loud and immediate, from Kerry, Declan, Sheridan, and even dad, who was now bringing over plates from the kitchen.

“Or, novel concept,” her mom said.  “We could turn off the television and talk like human beings.”

“This is Avery, right?  You’re saying it because of her, because I know you love this stuff, mom,” Sheridan said.

“It’d be nice to have a change,” mom said.  She gave dad that ‘back me up’ look.

“It could be,” he said.

If I ever have a girlfriend and she’s that bad at backing me up, she’d get the silent treatment or something, Avery thought.

Sheridan pressed the argument, “You’re not saying no.  It’s always Avery that’s whining about having to watch this, she’s the only one who doesn’t.”

“I don’t whine,” Avery said.

“You whine, you complain.  You don’t even try to like it.”

“It’s just so samey, and it’s always on.”

“See, whining.”

“Whiner,” Declan said.

“Stop, right now,” mom said.

“Let’s not forget you’re in trouble, Declan,” dad added.

“We’re missing the start!” Kerry said.

“I need the recap on whatever happened.’

“After, after.”

“If this was in any way fair, every eight days, at least, we’d get to watch something I like,” Avery said.

“We’re missing the start!” Kerry raised her voice.

Avery looked at her mom, helpless, with three siblings lined up against her, one older, two younger, all annoying.

“No, Avery’s right.  Movie,” her mom said, as she put a bib on Grandpa.

There were groans across the table.

“Jenniston’s on tonight, mom,” Sheridan said.  “Your favorite, quarter-finals.”

“I can survive, I think.”

Dad changed the channel until he found a movie that looked safe for Kerry.  Romantic comedy, it seemed.

“What, did this take two dollars to make?” Sheridan asked.  “Look at that set.”

“This looks awful,” Declan chimed in, picking up on Sheridan’s cue.

“I don’t even recognize this actor,” Sheridan said.  “How do you have a romance movie without an attractive guy?”

“I can’t hear what they’re saying,” Avery said.

“Guys, be quiet.”

“Avery talks all the time when we’re watching our show.  Which, I should mention, has something for everyone.”

“Not really for me,” Avery said.

“Oh my god, do you even like this?” Sheridan asked.

“Enough, Sheridan.  I will ground you.”

“It’s better than Singfest Canada,” Avery said.

“I want to see Jenniston!” Kerry raised her voice.  “And the box boys!”

“They got eliminated last week, remember?”

“I still want to see them!”

Much as her grandfather was doing, Avery focused on eating, enduring the onslaught.  Dinner was good, at least.  She was hungry.

“Avery, are you even watching?” Sheridan asked.

“Stop heckling your sister.”

“I don’t-” Avery said, stopping short.  “Whatever.  Change the channel.”

“Are you sure?” her mom asked.  “Because if you’re doing it because they’re behaving this way-”

“It’s not worth it.  Just…”

Avery got up from her seat, changed the channel, and sat back down, to the cheers of her siblings.

“I’ll make it up to you,” her mom said.

She continued to endure, to eat in silence.

God, she hated this show.  The judges, the performers, the fakeness.  She’d never even liked it a bit, but… ever since last fall, when there’d been three different talent shows on TV, and other shows the family liked to watch, when she’d been so lonely it got hard to breathe sometimes, the dinners had been some of the worst parts.  Worse than school.  Because people that should have reached out and connected to her hadn’t.  They’d watched their stupid show and barely talked and then went and did their own things, ignoring her while she was suffocating.

And yeah, she was to blame too.  That was what got her.  She could have always said something or piped up or whatever, but… she hated that they all made it so hard, sometimes.

“See?” Sheridan said.  “Something for everyone.  Cute boy for you, Avery.”

Avery looked at the screen and at the boy, and her initial reaction was sheer disinterest mingled with her hatred of the show, which settled on a wobbly feeling of general revulsion.  Then, worried it had shown on her face, she glanced at her grandfather, who was looking at her, and down at the table.

She wondered if she could muster enough sheer dislike for it all that the screen would crack.  Was that a thing she could do with her sight?

Wetting her hand with condensation on her glass of ice water, she drew on the table.  A circle, herself, and then spurs pointing to each member of her family.

She spat on her hand.

“What are you doing?” Sheridan asked.

She smeared it in the center of the circle.  That was enough of her, wasn’t it?  DNA?  People spat on their hands and shook, and so that had to mean something.

The young teenager’s singing had just started.

Avery realized nobody was fixated on her.

Shoveling a few more bites of food into her mouth, she stood, bringing her plate with her.  She kept an eye out, but they were stuck watching the screen.

There was no way she was sitting through another episode of this crap.

She cleaned her plate and put everything away, and jogged up the stairs to her room.  She did another, cleaner connection breaking circle that wouldn’t evaporate, sent a text to her friends, and then went to the bathroom to wet her hair under the showerhead.

She got a reply, and, water still running, checked.

Giving her hair a brief towel, she pulled on a hat, got her stuff, mask and hat included, and made her way out the door.

🟂

She spotted the house at the corner of the intersection.  It had burned in a fire, and nobody had gotten around to replacing the walls.  There was only plastic sheeting.

“That’s a good trick, though,” Verona said.

“I wish I knew exactly how I did it.  If we got good at it, maybe it’d let us do the hat boomerang thing without having to draw something.”

“It might be worth asking one of the Others about that, before we do it too much,” Lucy said.  “What if it degrades the connection to pull on it all the time?  Or if it costs something?”

“Sure,” Avery said.  “I don’t see myself objecting if you say we need to be more careful, especially after what Charles said.”

“What kind of Other, though?”

“The thread ones,” Verona said.  “Maybe… Miss?”

“I don’t trust Miss,” Lucy said.

“Alpy?” Avery asked.  “She seemed cool.”

“Based on a single smile?”

“Nevermind that.  We can figure it out.  I want to know what happened next?  How did he react?” Verona asked.

“It wasn’t like that,” Avery said.  “Declan tipped my way naturally.  Like it was always going to happen.  I just grabbed it.  He looked annoyed, then I had to handle the penis thing.”

“The penis thing.”

“I called him a penis, and I didn’t want that to be a lie.”

They stopped at the far end of the intersection, waiting for a car to pass.

“So what did you do?”

“I named all the ways I could think of, that he was like a penis.  I did pretty well I think.”

“Want to do better?” a voice cut in.  Trying so desperately to be a purr and sounding more like a person choking.

What did he hear?  Avery wondered, as she backed away from the bush.

Toadswallow and Cherry were within, crawling forth.  Toadswallow was wearing a vest with a tie that didn’t quite cover his belly.

“What are you doing here?” Lucy asked.

“We’re friends with John.  We were going to hang out,” Toadswallow said.  “Come on.  You were going to talk to him anyway, weren’t you?  Hang out with us, and Cherry and I here will teach you how to make a swear count, as one of my gifts to you.”


Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter 

Lost for Words – 1.3

Avery

Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter

(Posted Last Thursday – Notes On Others)


Avery and her friends sat in the back of a beat-up old pickup, Avery with one hand on her hat, her mask in her lap, and a blanket thrown over her and Lucy’s legs, weighed down at the ends by their bags.  The wind blew past them, not as cold as it should have been.

Avery could finally let herself believe that all of the scary moments had been worth it if things could be this good now.

Not that things were excellent.  Just good.  Excellent would require someone she could cuddle up against, and less of the mind-numbing, stomach-gnawing anxiety that came with being in the back of a relative stranger’s truck as they drove down little-known roads into the Canadian wilderness, the sky black and moonless and the streets unlit by anything but the truck’s headlights.

It being ‘good’ despite everything said a lot, as far as she was concerned.  The awakening was done and she had her friends with her.  There was anxiety, yes, but there was also relief and excitement.

“Verona,” Lucy said.  She’d had a flashlight about as long and thick as a finger in her lips, and she had to pull it out to speak.  She shone it on her notebook.  “Give me one observation about Miss.”

“You’ve been on this for hours, Luce.”

“I want to finish her section.  I’m almost done here.”

Hours.  We’re going to go to sleep tonight and I-” Verona stopped.  In the dim light of Lucy’s flashlight and the light of the truck’s cabin interior, Avery could see Verona rolling her eyes, her lips moving for a second before she continued, “-can imagine myself hearing you in my dreams, tonight.”

“Almost screwed up, huh?” Lucy asked.

“I think I’m one hundred percent so far for truth-telling.”

“Then open your mouth one more time, continue that win streak, and tell me one observation about Miss.”

Verona groaned.  “Give me one observation about Matthew’s truck.  Give me one observation about that black bear out in the woods.  Give me one observation about that unicorn you dreamt of.”

“You do not seem like the type to dream about unicorns,” Avery said.

“Come on.  I don’t like leaving things unfinished,” Lucy said.

Verona reached for one of the chocolate bars they’d got from the last rest stop, and Lucy lunged for it, upsetting the blanket and letting cold air beneath, chilling Avery’s legs.  Lucy seemed to want to take it hostage, but when Verona got two fingertips on it, pinning it down, Lucy stuck her foot out, kicking it away.  The chocolate bar slid down the length of the pickup’s bed to the tailgate at the end, stopping there.

Avery watched Verona huff, clearly annoyed by the fact the chocolate bar was now a matter of feet away, out of easy reach.

“Tell me, and maybe I can reach it,” Lucy said.

“I’m not going to answer your question until I have a chocolate bar,” Verona said.  “Ideally that one.”

“You-”

“That’s now fact,” Verona said.

“You shouldn’t use minor oaths for chocolate bars, Ronnie.”

“Already done.  Hey Avery, you realize you don’t need to hold onto your hat?”

“I don’t want it to blow away,” Avery said.  Her position, now that she was done fixing the blanket Lucy had disturbed, was skewed sideways, one leg extended to the bulge at one side of the truck bed where it accommodated the wheel beneath, her back was to the bag she’d placed between herself and the truck’s cab for cushioning, one hand on her hat, and one arm around the lip of the truck bed, holding the cool metal.  It didn’t leave her a lot of freedom of movement, but riding in the back of a pickup, exposed to the elements, on four sides, no seatbelt or anything, she liked claiming the security she could.

Verona rolled her eyes, picked up her own hat, and turned it over.  She had a bit of chalk, and began drawing.

“Ave, ignore her,” Lucy said.  “Give me one observation about Miss.”

“She keeps things hidden,” Avery said.

“Already had something like that down.”

“I mean, she told me during the ritual that she picked me first?”

“Can you expand on that?”

“It just feels like she can’t help but keep a lot of cards up her sleeve.”

“Good enough,” Lucy said.  She moved the narrow flashlight to her mouth, shining it on the book she was writing in, and began taking her painstaking notes.  Verona leaned in closer to try to borrow some of the light, and Lucy leaned away.

Verona used the light from the truck’s cab, instead.  She’d drawn a circle on the brim of her hat, and within that circle, she had drawn a triangle with a line through it and a line beneath it.  Now she drew branches off to the side, with curved arms.

Edith had given them the quickest of rundowns before they’d left.  Four symbols, all triangles, some with lines through them, each with ‘underlines’ to indicate orientation.  They’d been encouraged to stick to air for the time being.  They had organized themselves in the back of the truck, Lucy had started to write the symbols down before she could forget them, and she’d nearly lost her notebook to the fierce wind, before scribbling over the simple symbol and stopping the effect.

They’d sat there, cold and disappointed, debating about whether they should knock on the window and ask Matthew to stop.  They’d sat in dissatisfaction for about forty five minutes before he’d pulled the truck into a rest stop.  They’d peed, ordered hamburgers and pogos from a place with more bare wood than paint on the sign, had Edith explain runes and particulars again while waiting for their orders, and then hit the road again.

The second time around, they had tried out some of the basics.  How you could draw a circle with a rune within it and have lines radiating out, to emit that thing, or have a ‘bar’ perpendicular to the radiating lines to block that thing.  How a square or triangle could be used, but a circle was often best because it was equally strong around its perimeter.  Triangles could impart more force on the rest of the world because they pointed outward, but had points of weakness and points of strength, and could thus ‘collapse’, especially if the diagram was imbalanced.

There were air signs along the side of the truck now, drawn in chalk on the textured plastic.  Triangles pointing up with horizontal lines through them, enclosed in circles.  Each circle had a line extending up and away from it, with a ‘bar’ at the top.  Essentially a circle with a capital ‘T’ at the top.

Block the air.  After they’d drawn that, the chilly wind had stopped being a problem.

Verona seemed to be doing something more complicated.  Avery watched as Verona experimented, creating three radiating lines that bent at right angles, curved in quarter-circles.  There was already some chalk on the hat, like there was on the underside of Avery’s.  Edith’s work.

“What are you doing to your hat?”

“Experimenting,” Verona said.  “This should work.”

“Your hat is-” Lucy started, mumbling around the flashlight.

Verona’s hat flew out of her hands.  As the truck continued barreling down the road, the hat flew the opposite direction, and the dark material disappeared into the darkness in about one second.

Lucy reached up and pulled the flashlight out of her mouth.

Verona raised one hand, reaching up.  She raised her voice, “Come on!”

The hat, caught by strong wind, came from off to their left, blowing straight into Verona’s waiting hand.

“Yeah!  Whoo!  Thank you, spirits!” Verona called out.

Inside the cab, Avery saw, Charles was turning his head to peer through the back window at them.  Noticing the commotion.

Verona brought her hat down to her lap, spat on the part she had drawn on, and started to wipe the diagram away with her sleeve.

“That could have gone badly,” Lucy said.

Verona folded the hat so the circular brim was a half-circle, point caught within, and then stuck it into her bag.  “Maybe.  But Miss said earlier that this is about deals.  Words, actions, and routines.  They’re listening now.  Paying attention to our words, watching what we write down.  If you do something confidently, there’s a better chance it’ll work.”

“There’s also a chance you lose your hat and we spend three hours looking for it off the side of the road.”

Verona smiled.  “Maybe.  But it’s about routine, too, right?  According to Edith, these symbols for wind have been used by a variety of cultures for hundreds of years.  They were written about  by ancient people, they were passed on, taught.  So the spirits know how to recognize them.”

“Uh huh,” Lucy said.

“And it’s the same with our words, the longer we go without telling any fibs, the better we get at making ourselves heard.  They said that it’s a regular thing with practices.  Habits become patterns become expectations, for us and for the world.  We can set our own small routines.  If we do stuff and it works, it makes it more likely it’ll be a real pattern in the future.”

“And?”

“If we make a habit of doing a lot of practice and pulling off minor stunts and tricks, then that should become a pattern, and the pattern…” Verona let the words hang, a hand extended.

“Becomes expectation,” Avery finished.

“I think if I need to do something like toss my hat away and have it come back, or whatever, the spirits are more likely to give me a thumbs up and carry on doing what we did before, if I’ve done it a lot.”

Avery and Lucy exchanged a glance.

“Are you going to call me an idiot?” Verona asked.

“No,” Lucy said.  “I had a feeling you’d be annoyingly good at this.  But let’s talk to them before we make too many assumptions.”  She pointed the lightless end of the flashlight back toward the truck cabin as she said ‘them’.

“Sure,” Verona replied. She looked pleased with herself.

“I think it’s smart that you can do that… and it’s a dumb thing to do,” Lucy added.

Verona twisted around, then knocked on the narrow glass window at the back of the truck cab.

It was Charles who slid it open.  Avery could hear music playing from within.  Charles didn’t ask a question or speak.

“Can we ask questions?” Verona asked.

“We’re stopping soon,” Matthew said.  “You could ask then if it’s easier.”

“Quick question for now, then,” Verona said.  “I don’t want to jump to conclusions about stuff.  If I act a certain way with the spirits, practice a lot, it’ll become a… working relationship?”

“Yeah,” Charles said, his voice rough around the edges.

“Avery’s holding onto her hat, but if she has it protected from the wind, would it be good to trust the spirits?  Is that a good thing for practicing?”

“If you’re sure you drew it right,” Charles said.

“Thanks.  How long until we get there?”

“Getting where we’re going takes a day,” Matthew said.  “We left at six oh five, we should get there at seven oh five.”

“That’s very precise,” Lucy said.

“Didn’t hear that.”

“Very precise!” Lucy raised her voice.

“I’ll explain after.”

“How long until we stop?”

“Couple of minutes.”

“Thanks!”

Charles motioned like he was going to shut the window, checked they didn’t want to say anything more, and then slid it closed.

The road was long, flat, and straight, with the trees set very close to the road’s edges, the vast majority of them evergreens.  Avery pulled off her hat, checked the rune, and then took her hand off of it.  It moved here and there with the wind, but it wasn’t pulled off her head and lost in the darkness.

Her hands freer, she opened a bag of ketchup chips.  Even though it was a small bag half-filled with air, she didn’t finish it before the truck slowed and they began to pull off to a side road.

A campsite.

The truck pulled into a parking space.  The place was desolate, probably because there were still a couple places here and there where the sun didn’t reach, where there was still snow on the ground.  There were two other cars in the parking lot.

Matthew got out of the car and headed straight for the office.  Avery and her friends took a second to disengage from their blankets and bags, standing and stretching.  Avery had put a folded blanket beneath her and a blanket on top, and arranged her bag so the padding and the clothes inside were behind her, and she was still stiff and sore.  She was faster to get to her feet and get moving than the other two, and surreptitiously made her way to the end of the truck, where the candy bar had come to rest against the tailgate.  She pocketed it.

“Share after?” Verona asked.

“Maybe.”

The truck had been awkward, and the riding in the back illegal, but Charles didn’t have a license, and Matthew and Edith didn’t have room for six people in the truck cab.

Their bags had been strapped down, and Avery undid the straps before handing the stuff down off the sides to the two adults.

“Campground?” Lucy asked.

“It’s private, the weather shouldn’t be an issue, and it keeps us on course,” Edith said.  “Watch your step.”

“I’m fine,” Verona said.  “I can kinda see in the dark if I use my Sight.”

“What?” Avery asked.  She did as Miss had instructed earlier in the evening, and opened her eyes to the Sight.  She could see the flare of Edith’s eyes, and the world partially dissolved.  On trees, on cars, there were a multitude of handprints and footprints.  Bands extended like clotheslines or spider’s webs across everything, including a band from the truck to the office, another band to the truck, and another band that extended down into the woods, wrapping around trees on the way there.

Where there weren’t handprints and footprints, things were damaged.  Bark was peeled and broken, grass black to the point it looked like there was nothing there, and sections of wall around the camp buildings were splintered and shedding paint.

The bands were the interesting thing.  They were almost like old film negatives, partially transparent, silhouettes standing up and looking around.  Almost like paper with sections cut out.  Almost like something quilted, layers stitched on.  A middle-ground between all three.  Where there was too much negative, too much cut-out, or too little material, the bands looked like they could snap.  She felt like she could look at those scenes that formed the band and analyze them, but she couldn’t get close enough.  When she moved, they moved.  If she walked towards one, it rose higher until it was well above her head.

She remembered why she’d used the sight, and tried to analyze the world around her.  Movement and motion provoked shedding of bits of grass, bark, or paint, to the point she could tell that there were things out there, but… she couldn’t see in the dark.

“I can’t,” she said.

“Me either,” Lucy said.

“You could train your eyes to See that way,” Edith said.  “For now, I would guess your Sight is exaggerating your natural abilities, preferences, and your way of looking at the world.”

“You’d guess?” Lucy asked.  “You don’t know?”

“No,” Edith said.

“You weren’t a practitioner, then?”

Edith picked up Lucy’s spare bag, bringing it to her shoulder.  Matthew was exiting the building, having paid.  “Let’s get settled first.”

“Were you tired?” Avery asked, hefting her bag.  Charles extended a hand, like he was going to carry one, and she shook her head.  The man’s expression was unreadable as he started walking.  “I know my mom gets bad road hypnosis, when the roads are straight and monotonous.”

“It doesn’t matter much how long we stop for,” Matthew said.  “So long as we’re sticking with the journey.  It takes a day of travel to get to the Carmine Beast’s… domain, I guess it would be, or have been.”

They’d agreed they needed to know about the victim before they could start assessing the people who might have done the victimizing.  This, apparently, had been part of the plan and the timing.  It was why they’d been told to free up their weekends.

“Just to be clear,” Lucy said.  “It takes a day.  No matter what?”

“If you take a detour or aren’t doing something that’s part of the singular journey, you may have to start over,” Matthew said.  “Stopping to rest is part of a long journey.”

“We could have walked?”

“Provided you were walking away from civilization, yes.  The destination is wherever you are when you’ve been traveling for the full day.  But your feet would be sore after a full day of walking, and the directions call for not just a day’s travel, but a day’s travel in directions that take us further from civilization.  Taking a car north makes it easier to go somewhere without traveling toward a hub of civilization.”

“Huh,” Avery said.  “Then what?”

“When we get there, there will be a cue.  One that only the lost and desperate are likely to follow.  From there, it is a short distance to her domain.”

Lucy was using her flashlight to shine the way.  Matt had another, bigger one from the truck.

Edith turned her head to look off into the trees.  Avery, her Sight still active, could see the band that wound through the trees and along a path, extending to the distant campsite that Edith was looking at.

Edith pulled hairs from her head, twisted them together, and snapped her fingers at the frayed end.  A flame appeared, brighter than either of the flashlights.

“Campsite nine,” Matthew said.  “Here.”

They walked down the short path to the site.  Matthew set down a large bag.  Avery dropped her own stuff near the bench.

“So.  Can we ask questions?” Lucy asked.  She had her notebook with her, but it was closed.

“Go ahead,” Matthew said.

“You and Edith.  This isn’t a formal interview, but…”

“It’d be nice to know who we’re traveling with,” Avery said.  They’d agreed to wait to interview the pair.  A casual conversation was better.

“My name is Matthew Moss.  My father taught me some of the practice when I was young.  I did a ritual that resembled what you did earlier today when I was ten.”

“When we asked your name and what type of Other you were, you said Host.”

“It’s most accurate, but I trained as a Heartless.  A practitioner who gives up select fragments of their mortality or takes from others in pursuit of life everlasting.  My father was caught and killed by witch hunters while trying to take the last years from people at a palliative care home.”

“Witch hunters are a thing?” Avery asked.  She pulled off her hat, placing it on the bench next to her, looking over one shoulder.

Edith, kneeling by the concrete-ringed campfire, ignited the wood that had been left there, cold and damp, by past campers.

“Witch hunters are a thing.  I wasn’t interested in obtaining more youth when I was already young, especially after losing my father.  I carried on, with basic practice under my belt.  Some shamanism, some of the heartless practices that made life easier without needing to prey on others.”

“I taught you the basic runes and ways of interacting with spirits using diagrams because they’re very good to know as fundamentals,” Edith said.  “You can tap into forces like wind, fire, earth, but spirits can represent anything and everything in this world.  A single twig has spirits of wood, of the color brown, of life, pine, and nature touching on it and affecting it.  A heartless practitioner can benefit from knowing how to interact with spirits of life or death, how to recognize them.  A binder might pay closer attention to spirits related to certain emotions.”

“Like knowing your math or spelling.  There are very few jobs where you won’t benefit from being able to write a coherent email or add up your paycheque,” Matthew spoke, staring into the fire with eyes that were cast in shadow the firelight didn’t touch.  “There are very few practices which can’t benefit from something like ‘I need a little bit more of this’ or ‘I need this out of the way while I work’, when ‘this’ could be anything from heat to hate to a bit more Self.”

Avery was glad for the fire.  She put her hands out.  The night was dark and the woods darker.

“I bring up the shamanism because I noticed a disturbance and I found the Girl by Candlelight.  A complex spirit.  Remember how Edith just said you can have all those individual things in a twig?  Those things can fall away or separate, and attach to something else.  An echo, or a ghost if you prefer to call it that, or whatever event shook them loose shook enough free that the stray spirits were able to clump together.  They form into something coherent, and the complex spirit that results can be a fleeting existence or a concrete one that gets its rougher edges sanded off by time.”

“Were you more concrete?” Verona asked.

“I was and am fleeting,” Edith said.  “Practitioners have a responsibility to tidy up messes and keep ordinary people from being inconvenienced.  Matthew followed a trail of small fires and sightings to me.  The ghost of a girl who suffocated on smoke in a house fire.  The emotions and spirits shed in a roadside, candlelit vigil for a teenage girl who died in a car accident.  A child’s pyromania, manifested in anxiety and confusion, cast away as the child grew up.  These things and other, smaller things found each other and were bound together.”

“She was the most interesting thing I’d run into with my practice in years.  I tried what I could to keep her fueled and together,” Matthew said.  “I talked to her for hours, sometimes, trying to bring out the responses that helped her take more human shape.”

“Seven years ago, a girl named Edith James tried and failed to end her life,” Edith said.  “She suffered severe brain damage and necrosis of the intestinal lining.  It wasn’t pretty, especially with the grief the family suffered in the wake of the attempt and the hospitalization.  There was next to nothing of her left, so… I moved in.  The two years I was learning to operate a brain and a body were excused as Edith James’ recovery.  Her family was overjoyed, and that fragment of her that remains inside this body is content that they aren’t grieving.”

“And you?” Lucy asked Matthew.

“We found each other again.  She needed help.  The darkness that haunted Edith, the doom, had become complex in its own way.  It wanted fruition, and was trying to attach itself to the Candlelight Girl within.  I made the transition to being a Host, a practitioner who takes spirits and other immaterial things like ghosts or elementals into their body.  Done well and carefully, hosting something lets you draw on its power and qualities.  I carved out a hole in myself to take it in using the practices I was taught as a youth, but Edith’s darkness is too large and unwieldy for me.  I have power if I need it, I can draw on its strength, but I have to be very careful.  I can’t really practice and haven’t practiced for seven years, and the practices I can do are all touched by the force I hold inside myself, or directly related to it.  Darkness, pain, doom.  At this point I would better be considered a human turned Other than a practitioner.”

Avery leaned forward.  “So you’re both kind of the same, but…”

“But different.  In the end, I, Matthew Moss, love the Girl by Candlelight.  She, I hope, loves me.”

“I do.”

“And the darkness I house wants to finish destroying her flesh and what remains of the original Edith James.”

Lucy’s finger tapped a pattern on the notebook’s hard cover.  She seemed to be considering.  Avery was about to ask something, when Lucy came out and said, “You kept your last name, Edith.”

“We got married in hopes it would make her stronger against the darkness,” Matthew said.  “And because we were and are in love.  We decided stability was more important than redefining who ‘Edith James’ was.”

“Yes,” Edith said.

They’re still kind of doing that thing where Matthew does the talking for Edith, who is quieter.  Like my second aunt, Avery observed.

“I guess this became more of an interview after all,” Verona said.  “This is interesting.”

“There’s a bunch more questions I want to ask, actually,” Lucy said.  “But I think they should wait until we know more about practice and the Carmine Beast.  Charles?  Can we ask you things?”

“It’s why I’m here,” Charles said.

“About your past, I mean.”

“Oh.” He heaved out a sigh.  “Go ahead.”

“How did you get forsworn?” Lucy asked him.

“I broke an oath,” he said.

Avery wasn’t exactly keen on having Charles with them.  When she imagined an axe murderer, she tended to imagine someone who looked kind of like Charles, but with more muscle.  Now, being here and watching him, it seemed to her that the kind of person who would be that unhinged wouldn’t be doing pushups or lifting weights.  It made sense they’d be as gaunt as this man was.

She wanted to feel sorry for him, but she would have much rather felt sorry for him from a distance, without him sitting across the campfire, his freaky face lit from below by the flames, shadows dancing across creases and old scars.

“What oath?” Lucy asked.

“I had a friend over.  A fellow practitioner.  He was… a tricky friend.  The kind you have to make excuses for, or warn friends about before you introduce them.”

“Hmmmm,” Verona made a sound, her chin on her hand.  She turned her head toward Lucy.  “Hmm.”

“And?” Lucy asked, putting a hand out in front of Verona’s face.

“He was opinionated, he didn’t like to let things go.  He came so we could talk about the process of creating an Other.  A kind of summoning.”

“Tell us more about that?” Verona asked.

“Maybe put a pin in it for later?” Lucy asked.  “Let’s continue with the basic story.”

“It’s not a long explanation.  I wanted an invisible presence that would look out for trouble.  Something like a roving eye, that could check that certain dangerous things hadn’t escaped, or notice if a bogeyman or vicious goblin were out there preying on people, so someone could be notified and the monster stopped.  My friend was an augur.  He would have handled the part that let it watch and observe.”

“Did it work?” Verona asked.

Lucy elbowed her friend.  “Are you going to get us sidetracked every single time someone talks about practice or Others?”

“It’s interesting and worth knowing,” Verona protested.  “It tells us about who Charles is as a person.”

“We never got that far,” Charles said.  “I made dinner.  We talked, we drank, and the conversation changed several times.  It got onto the subject of politics.”

“My grandfather is really political,” Avery said.  “It seems kind of miserable.”

Charles huffed out a small laugh, in what might have been the first glimmer of anything  like amusement or positivity from him since they’d met.  “Miserable, and it feels more miserable every year.  Our talk got heated.  He argued for the sake of arguing, I argued out of passion.  He needled me, using topics he knew I was sensitive about, and I’d been drinking.  He said something unconscionable, I picked up a glass to throw it, saw the look on his face, and he looked victorious.  I threw it against a wall instead.”

“How do you get forsworn from that?” Verona asked.

“I didn’t even remember back then, but the look on his face told me there was something.  Around the time we’d first met, he’d had me promise him he’d be safe from any harm at my hands or the hands of my guests.  I hadn’t thought we’d have a long-term friendship, then.  I’d needed him for one thing.  But it was enough, and it still counted, later.”

“Note to self,” Avery said, quiet.  “Remember my oaths and promises.”

“Be sensible about the ones you do make,” Charles said.  “That one wasn’t so bad, but it was too broad, too long-lasting.  If you think you might forget, put a time limit on it.”

“Miss chocolate bar,” Lucy said, looking over at Verona.  She turned her attention back to Charles.  “I thought you didn’t hurt him.”

“I realized he’d been trying to corner me or pull something.  I told him to leave.  Angrier than I had been.  He was, and I have to imagine he still is stubborn.  I pushed the table, enough to force him to take that one step toward the door.  He did, and he stepped on broken glass.”

“That was enough?” Avery asked.

“Yes.  Especially considering the ways of the spirits, Others, and old traditions.  For much of human history, hospitality and respecting one’s guests was one of the most important things.  Turning away a traveler in need could kill them.  Disrespecting a guest or host could be disastrous.”

“How does it work?” Verona asked.  “What does it look like when you’re Forsworn?”

“When someone calls you forsworn, as he did, there is a process.  He looked me in the eye, he named the oath, and he named the wrong.  If there’s no person to do that, then the world has a way of telling you.  A crack of thunder, a tremor in the earth, a vision.  It can depend.  Then the person forsworn gets an opportunity to answer it.  It’s a heavy thing to name someone forsworn.  If the person answers and they didn’t actually break the oath, the person trying to forswear them is forsworn instead.”

“He was playing with fire.”

“He knew what he was doing,” Charles said.  “I couldn’t answer it.  His blood was drawn by my violent actions.  I immediately took steps to mitigate the damage.  Protections and practices I’d set in place were coming undone.  My demesnes was collapsing in on itself and I had things within to rescue.  I would later find he’d taken some of my things while I was distracted, before he left.  He could get away with it too, because when you’re forsworn, you become a karmic sinkhole.  Open season for everyone, with no rights.”

“When did all of this happen?” Lucy asked.

“A decade ago.”

“What was the political argument?” Lucy asked.

Charles raised bushy eyebrows above eyes with deep circles beneath them.  “Is it important?”

“You tell me.”

“It was about prisons.  The government then was making noise about privatizing Canadian prisons.  Following the god-damned American model, when we once had a prison system that was top three to top five in the civilized world.  It seemed so important then.  Now, if it weren’t tied to my being forsworn, I might have forgotten that argument entirely.  Stupid.”

“What was your relationship with the Carmine Beast?” Lucy asked.

“I see.  We’re going there?” Charles asked.  “I’m a suspect?”

“Everyone is, not just you,” Lucy said.

“There was none.  I only got a few glimpses of her.  I reached out once or twice, after being forsworn.  There was no answer.”

“Were you angry there was no answer?”

“I’m angry at a lot of things.  This world is happy to make you a part of it until you stop being useful, and then it discards you.  Remember that.  Keep it in mind always, and maybe you’ll avoid getting what I got.”

“Easy does it, Charles,” Matthew said.

“No,” Charles said.  “No, there’s nothing easy about this at all.”

“Were you angry at her?” Lucy pressed.

Charles, still looking at Matthew, still fresh off the retort, seemed to need a few seconds to gather himself.  He sounded tired as he muttered, “Not especially.”

“Why did you reach out to her?” Verona asked.

“Because, among the Others around here?  She’s close to the top.  If anything or anyone could change my situation, it’d be something like her.  When you’re facing a life sentence, Veronica, you appeal.  You write the governor.  You do whatever you can.”

“Verona, not Veronica.”

“It’s not short for-”

Verona was already shaking her head.

“Sorry.  And what I said stands.”

“Where were you that night?” Lucy asked.

“I was with Matthew.  He brought me things.”

“Magical things?” Verona asked.

“Some groceries.  Things for putting up a shelf.  He wanted access to the books I still keep around.”

“Why?” Verona asked.

“Can you verify, Matthew?” Lucy butted in.

“I went over that night.  Trading some basics for information.  I’m always engaged in some form of research, in hopes I don’t have to lug this ugly thing inside me around for the rest of my life.  One of the goblins came by to tell us the Carmine Beast was dying.  They’d followed it to the edge of the city, but couldn’t go further.”

“Why?” Verona asked.

Matthew cracked his knuckles.  Beside him, Edith laid a hand on his leg.  She looked more comfortable and not like the diminished, abused wife now that she was by the fire.  Matthew answered, “Because they’re goblins, and to put it in the simplest terms, the more civilized an area is, the harder it is for them to venture inside.  I left, I caught up with the others there.  I took note of the witness.  We figured out our next steps.”

“And you?” Lucy asked Charles.

“I stayed home, I put up my shelf.  I made a late dinner.  The goblin was there.  Bluntmunch.  I fed him some of my dinner, gave him some booze.”

“He can corroborate?”

“He’s not as dumb as he looks.  He should remember.”

So he has an alibi?  Or either Matthew or the goblin can lie?

“So you’re saying you didn’t, and others will back you up in that.  You say you didn’t want to,” Lucy said, speaking very carefully.

“Uh huh.”

“If you did want to… how would you go about it?”

“If I did want to…?”

“Kill or vanish the Carmine Beast.”

“It’s at or near the top of the food chain, girl.  It’s-”

“Don’t call me girl.  Don’t do that,” Lucy said.  “Just like you wouldn’t call my brother ‘boy’.  Don’t be that guy.  Don’t diminish me.”

“Didn’t mean anything by it.  So soon after getting her name wrong…”

“Just don’t.  I’m Lucy.  Lucille if you want to be formal, but I hate that.”

“Lucy.  I can’t seem to win, ever.”

“You were saying?”

“I’m saying it’s at the top, I’m so far down that I need to rely on people like Matthew here to ensure I can stay fed.  The universe is against me, I can’t hold a job, I can’t keep a place of my own, and the karma hit that comes with being forsworn means I’m on everyone’s shitlist.  I have no earthly idea how I’d do the deed, even if I could still practice.  Like this?  Impossible.”

Lucy’s head turned slightly.  Matthew and Edith were nodding.

“What could?” Avery asked.

“I don’t even know,” Charles said.  “But I haven’t been paying a lot of attention.  Mostly I’ve been trying to survive.”

“Matthew?  Edith?” Lucy asked.  “Who or what could?”

“It’s a very short list,” Matthew said.  “We can talk more about the Carmine Beast tomorrow.  It’s the point of this trip, after all.”

“Should we turn in?” Edith asked.

“If there’s no objections,” Matthew said.

There weren’t any.

“A bit of a lesson, while Matthew sets up the tents,” Edith said.  “We’ve talked about some of the ways a simple circle can be elaborated on, when drawing diagrams.”

“You sense this stuff on a fundamental level?” Verona asked.

“I do,” Edith said.  She reached into the open fire, which hadn’t gotten any smaller or more diminished by the ongoing burn, and she pulled out a stick.  She began drawing in the dirt, walking the perimeter of the campsite to create a large circle.  “The ‘T’ shape forms a bar, if you remember.  What happens if we turn it upside-down?  The circle sitting on the ‘T’ shape instead of the other way around?”

“Holding something in?” Avery asked.

“Yes.  Insulating.  Triangles serve much the same function, but we’ve already talked about how triangles are shorthand for the various elements.  They point, and are more driven,” Edith explained.  “What do you think would happen, if we were to drive heat in?”

“We’d cook?”  Verona asked.

“Possibly.  We don’t have a defined power source yet, and no nearby source of heat, so it’s possible and likely the circle would break, instead.”

Verona began taking notes, while Edith continued working on the diagram.    Blocks for the wind at the north, east, south, and western points, while insulation for heat were set at the northwest, northeast, southwest, and southeast.

Charles lay down across a bench, and seemed to be getting himself settled to sleep there.  Matthew shook out the tents.

Lucy had pulled out a sleeping bag, and was watching all of them.

“Luce,” Avery said, quiet.

“What’s up?”

Avery’s eyes fell on Charles.  “Want to sleep in shifts?”

Lucy followed her gaze.

“They’re strangers.  This is all strange,” Avery said.

“What time are we getting up?” Lucy asked, her voice loud enough it startled Avery.

“The sunrise will probably wake us,” Matthew replied.  He seemed to know what he was doing with the tent, with one already almost put together.  “If we sleep in, the sleep stops being part of the travel, and we’re delaying or interrupting the journey.  So it’ll be sometime soon after we wake up and eat.”

“In eight hours?” Lucy asked.

“Something like that.”

“Two-and-a-half hour shifts?” Lucy asked, quieter.

“I can take any extra, if we gotta,” Avery said.

Lucy nodded.

Avery got herself settled, her sleeping bag was thin enough it was probably for summertimes, not winters, but the diagram was finished, and she could already feel the area getting more cozy, the warmth from the fire gathering within.  She situated her bag to where she could sit up against it and watch everything.

Verona was sitting inside her sleeping bag, rummaging around.  Avery wasn’t sure what she was doing until Verona pulled out a sock.  She averted her eyes as Verona pulled out her pants, as well.

This would all be so cool if it weren’t for the gnawing fear that hung over everything.

It would be nice to get stronger, learn more, and be able to defend herself.

The tents were set up, and Edith and Matthew got inside theirs.  Charles slept outside, lying on the bench with his face skyward, the crook of his elbow at his nose.  Avery sat at the aperture to her tent, watching Matthew and Edith’s tent, and the sleeping ex-practitioner.  Behind her, Verona and Lucy got settled in to sleep.

Avery used her Sight.  It made it easier to see moving things, and to see the threads that tied one thing to another.

Two hours was a long time to kill, but she didn’t mind much, and while she was doing it, she imagined, it was good to get the practice in, and train this Sight of hers.

Verona was very good at the practice.  Lucy was on top of the investigation.  Avery knew she didn’t have a lot going for her.  So she’d do her best at this, at the very least.

🟂

Avery was woken by a shake.  Her first thought was alarm, that she’d fallen asleep while on watch.  But she was further inside the tent.  She’d swapped places with Verona, who now was beside her, already waking up and pulling on pants again.

She could smell food.

Avery was in full zombie mode as she got up and got ready to leave the tent.  She made her way to the bench and accepted the offered food, giving it a long, hard look with her Sight before digging in.  She wasn’t even sure what she’d See if there was anything strange in there.

“Can I see your hat, before we get going?” Edith asked.

Avery had placed it with her main bag, and that was just through the tent flap.  Plate still in her lap, still chewing, she leaned back until she had to put a hand on the ground to keep from toppling back, reached through the flap with the fork, and managed to hook her hat.  She got it close enough to grab it, then sat up again.

She gave it a once-over, noting the diagram they’d put on it before leaving.  The wide brim was useful in a way, because it provided a lot of drawing area.

The idea of this particular bit of chalk-drawing, like the one on Lucy’s hat and Verona’s hat, was not to work on spirits, but to work on the bands she could see with the Sight.  Every relationship between a person and a person, place, or thing had a band or a ‘connection’.

The main drawing on the brim served to temporarily sever the connection between her and her home.

“It’s faded,” Edith observed.  “We should redraw it.”

“Okay.”

“There may be a rebound, especially if they’re the type who would have called.  Expect to get an awkward phone call the moment I wipe this off to put something new down.  Try not to panic, don’t lie, just keep the conversation going until I finish redrawing it.  Once it’s done, try to end the conversation.”

“My parents wouldn’t call, I don’t think,” Avery said.

“I’m sorry,” Matthew said.

“It’s faded, meaning there’s been some resistance,” Edith said.

“I really don’t think they’d call,” Avery insisted.

Matthew gave Edith a look.  He was still cooking.  Pancakes and bacon in the same pan.  Avery’s dad was the type who really hated that, because he’d say the bacon would taste like pancakes and the pancakes like bacon.  As far as Avery was concerned, it was all the same in the end.

“Even if they don’t love you, they might feel like they should call.”

“Nah.  My parents love me.  They’re great.  They’re just busy and distracted.  My grandfather might ask about me, though.”

“That could be it.  If he’d ask, miss you, or wonder how you’re doing, and that’s being blocked.”

“Feels a bit lonely,” Avery said.

“It is, a bit.”

“My dad never calls when I’m at Luce’s,” Verona said.  “It’s early Saturday so… he’s probably working, and he might even be glad he doesn’t have to bother with me.”

“Ronnie comes over most weekends,” Lucy said. She was prodding at her hair, which had gotten squished in the night, “If you wanted to start coming over whenever, that’s cool too, Ave.”

“Thanks,” Avery said, smiling.

“Were you comfortable last night?”

“I wasn’t cold, if that’s what you mean,” Lucy said.  “Not sure about the others.”

“No issues,” Avery said.

“First time ever that I’ve been camping.  Was neat,” Verona said.

“Good,” Edith said.  She smiled, and there was a bit of warmth in her eyes that had nothing to do with the spirit of candles and fire inside her.

The smoke and the sleeping outdoors had made Avery bleary-eyed, and she was frankly happy to keep a blanket around her, fill her belly, and then do what was necessary to get packed up, conserving all energy and staying half asleep throughout.

The tents were dismantled, their stuff gathered.  They got into the open back of the pick-up truck again, secure from the attentions of any police by the same connection-blocking practice that kept their parents from calling to check in and finding that their daughters had skipped town.

At the last second, Lucy knocked, asking them to stop.  She hopped down from the back, ran over to the office where they’d gone to pay for the spot at the campsite, and went to the vending machine there.  She made her way back, climbed in, and handed Verona and Avery a chocolate bar each.

Verona laughed.  “Is this because of what I said yesterday?”

“I don’t want you to make stupid oaths like that again.  Promise.”

“I’ll be more careful,” Verona told Lucy.

“Why do I get one?” Avery asked.

“Because you’re not a pain in my ass.”

The truck rumbled back into motion.  They resumed their journey.

“Got some stuff for you, Lucy,” Avery said, doing what she could to get settled.

“Let me get my notebook.  What stuff?”

“The farther we get from Kennet, the happier Edith seems.  Not getting that vibe I was before.”

“That’s good,” Lucy said.  “Might have something to do with her being a spirit.”

“We should write down the stuff about her background.  And what Matthew said.”

“And Charles,” Verona offered.

“Help me remember,” Lucy said.  “Be really, really sure, speak up if you have any doubts about any piece of information…”

🟂

A knock at the window disturbed Avery’s read of the book she’d grabbed from the last rest stop.  She sat up, and she twisted around.  When she couldn’t see through the truck window and out the windshield, she stood, taking hold of the rack at the top of the pickup to stay balanced, in case the truck started moving all of a sudden.

The sun was setting, and the sky was red.  The trees were thick here, and the road was dirt.

At the top of the hill at the far end of the road, there was an animal that could have been a stray dog or coyote.  Too small and long-legged to be a wolf.  It looked like it had been hit by a car.  It was injured.

“Aw!” Avery exclaimed.  “Poor thing.”

“This is it,” Matthew spoke through the open window, as he turned off the engine.  “The cue we’re supposed to follow.”

He opened his door.  He, Edith, and Charles climbed out.

Avery and her friends climbed out.  Her hands were gross from not having showered and the dust that had gotten on them.  They’d put down more signs on the plastic lining at the rear of the truck, warding off the dust, but just the grit that had already gotten in there was bad enough, when she wasn’t in a position to wipe it off.

They ventured forward, and the bloodied animal slinked into the trees.

Matthew explained, “The only people liable to follow a random animal are those with nowhere to go, or people who know what the animal is about and want to find the Carmine Beast.  Essentially, the only people the Carmine beast wants at its doorstep in the first place.”

“What kind of people does it want?”

“Hunters and the hunted,” Charles said.

Following the animal wasn’t easy, but it was bleeding, and the blood trail helped.

Until it didn’t.

There were more places here where blood had stained the ground or painted green leaves, grass, weeds, and moss with crimson.  Blood in the traces of snow that spring hadn’t yet erased.  Blood in soil, in sand, in what might have been peat.

Until there was more bloody ground than ground without blood.

“It says a lot that the animal we’re following is injured,” Matthew observed.  “Our witness described following a giant canine, it was howling in pain and mourning, and it was injured.”

Avery spoke up, “So the Carmine Beast was a beast?  I know that’s a dumb question, maybe, but-”

“Not a dumb question,” Edith said.  “Its shape is variable.  Many spirits are similar, though complex spirits like myself tend to be firmer, either because we’re too knit-together, or we can’t afford to change because we’re that weak.”

“It’s a spirit, then?”

“It’s more than a spirit.  By taking on this role, it is elevated.”

“A god?” Verona asked.  “Or a lesser god?”

“A role,” Matthew said.

He pushed past some foliage, and held branches out of the way for Edith and the girls.

Past those branches was a bit of a cliff, and then a clearing.

In that clearing, the ground was so blood-soaked, so much more red than anything Avery had seen, that the leaves couldn’t hold color, and were whiter than snow.  Trees were cast in blacks and greys, and moisture, where it appeared, beaded crimson and thick.

Bones had been dragged to a central location, and the bones had formed an arrangement, crushed or pushed into place by a weight and framing that Avery instinctively knew.

That something belonged here, in that nest of bones, and it was absent.  There were animals here, all carnivores, but they were listless, bowed.  Lacking.  Again, they were missing something.  She could feel the absence like a weight on her chest.

A throne without its Queen.  Servants without a master.

She understood now why they’d needed to come and see this.  To understand the magnitude of what they were trying to fix.

A sharp growling behind her made her jump and skip forward a solid three steps.

Other animals had crept in through the bone-white foliage.  They continued to growl, advancing.

“Charles Abrams,” a woman said.

“I know,” Charles said.

“There is no shelter for you here,” the woman said.  “No quest, no passage, no currency.”

“I know,” he said.

“Charles is forsworn.  He gets no court or audience,” Edith murmured.

There were Others present.  Others who passed through the trees without needing to bend for branches or get out of the way.

“Court?  Do we bow?” Verona asked, quiet.

“No,” Matthew said.  “No need.  That’s a human custom.”

Avery pulled off her hat, and held it to her chest, all the same.

One woman, dressed in white furs.  A man in a black suit.  And off to the side, sitting atop the head of a centipede, an older teen or younger adult with long hair and flowing clothes in gold.

“In many places around the world,” Matthew explained, his voice low.  Their group parted as the three Others made their way past them and deeper into the clearing.  “There are totems, fixtures, or assumptive forces.  In one part of Asia, I’m not learned enough to place it exactly, you might have the Azure Dragon, the Vermilion Bird, the White Tiger and the Black Tortoise.  In some places, it’s only one.  Often, their role is similar.”

“We have four, here?” Lucy asked.

“Three, at present.”

“You’re not the first to come here,” the woman in white said.

“I know,” Matthew said.  “We inducted some new practitioners.  There’s no Lord in our area, so we thought we’d make introductions.  Let them see the Carmine Beast’s domain, and get a sense of what they’re doing.”

“Who came before?” Lucy asked, twisting around.

“Other practitioners from near Kennet.  The ones who would be investigating if we didn’t bring someone in,” Matthew said.

“They know very little,” the man in the flowing gold robe said.  He still sat cross-legged on the centipede’s head.

“They’re fast learners.”

“Can they bring her back to us?  Or name the culprit?” the one in black asked.

“We’re going to try,” Lucy said.  “Can we ask questions?”

“Ask,” the woman in white said.

“What are you, what is this?”

“When the practitioners of an area organize to a sufficient degree, they tend to put Lords in place.  Others or Practitioners strong enough to oversee an area, mete out judgment, and deal with problems.  But not all areas have these things,” the man in the black suit explained.

“For other areas, there is a hierarchy.  The Others self-organize, they handle threats, they keep things in balance,” the man in gold told them.  “But sometimes, it’s not enough, or there’s nobody and nothing suitable to fill a role.  If something needs to be laid to rest and there is no Death nearby…”

He indicated the man in the black suit, who said, “I might step in to handle duties.”

“You’re a higher authority?” Lucy asked.

The man in the black suit answered, “A court of appeals, a final stop, or very rarely, a first stop, when a problem needs handling, a specific individual may find their way to us for a first meeting.  People on the most desperate of quests, those seeking answers, those seeking shelter, and people needing salvation… they often find their way to us when they’ve exhausted every last option.  Each of us take on a different role and share of the duties.”

“I suppose if we say no, they could pray to gods, for all the good that often does,” the man in gold said, smiling wide enough it looked like his face could crack in two.

“The Carmine Beast was one of you?” Verona asked.

“She was.”

“What was her role?” Lucy asked.

“She handled monsters and those who kill monsters,” the woman in white said.  “She handled matters of war and murder, carnage, blood, and execution.  Justice, in its bloodiest form.”

“Was…” Avery started.  She was suddenly very aware it could be a rude question, considering these things were like the Carmine Beast’s family.  She decided to ask anyway, because the question would bother her.  “…was she evil?”

“She was too fundamental a thing to call good or evil.  But she did not have many friends.”

This was a little too much.  This felt too big.

It was starting to dawn on Avery that the reason Matthew had said they didn’t have to solve this was because it was far more immense than the three of them could hope to wrap their heads around.

“I don’t mean to offend, but I’m going to be blunt,” Lucy said.  “Do you know anything relevant?”

The man in the black suit and dress shirt answered, “We know very little.  It only recently came to our attention.  I suspect we don’t know much more than you.”

“Do the others agree?”

“Agreed,” the woman in white furs said, at the same time the man in gold said, “Yes.”

“Did you have any part in this?”

“None.”

“No.”

“No.”

“How strong would you have to be to kill her, or make her vanish like this?” Lucy asked.

“To give an idea of the scale and difficulty, could you end all violence in one area of one Canadian province?” the man in gold asked.  “Even for a short while?”

“It’s more about having the right information and leverage than having the strength… though strength certainly wouldn’t hurt,” the woman in white said.

“Why would someone hurt her?  Because she didn’t have many friends?” Lucy asked.

“She didn’t, but you could look at it as the vacating of a position.  There’s a power in taking someone from that seat, and there’s a power in the seat.  Right now, the seat is empty, and it must be filled.  By filling it, one Other or Practitioner will take on the responsibility and the power that comes with it.”

“It’s like the supreme court, then?” Avery asked.  “Once you’ve worked your way through all the lower courts, if the case is compelling, you end up here?”

“As you say.”

“And by taking the role, they get that final say.  They get to make the laws, essentially?”

“More or less,” the woman in white furs said.

“Are there any limitations on the kind of person or Other?”

“They’d need to fit the role, to a certain degree.  The role would then mold itself to them and they’d be molded in turn.”

“Has anyone applied?”

“Nobody has stepped forward.  This isn’t surprising.  If one declared themselves for the seat and the role as the next Carmine Beast, there would be a brief period they could be cut down or supplanted.  It is easier, especially among the murderous and dangerous types that would take this role, to let someone else make the first move.  We may be forced to select someone, which would make them vulnerable, force them to prove themselves.”

“And who are the candidates?” Verona asked.

“You know them because they are in Kennet.  The first is John Stiles, who is not especially strong, but we think he would serve with a mind to balance, making him our preference.  The other is your Hungry Choir.”

“And how would they serve?” Avery asked.

“We have discussed it and concluded they’d serve in a disastrous fashion, with an uneven hand,” the man in the black suit said.  “Their reign is likely, because they are strong, and it’s likely to be short.  We’ll adapt, whatever happens.”

I guess we know who we’re talking to nextTwo suspects with something to gain.  Others who could be the next Carmine Beast.


Previous Chapter

 Next Chapter