They got off the train, entering a train platform that looked like any number of little-used subway stops. An underground alcove with a set of stairs at one corner, a bench at another, and faded paint that had changed texture and hue from smooth where the lights had shone on it for too long. From sewer green paint to pocked and peeling mint green. The entire space was about thirty paces across and five paces deep.
A sign above the bench read ‘CAKEWALK’, and graffiti that looked like it had been put up with charcoal portrayed a cake and knife.
The train moved on. Avery leaned over the tracks, peering into the dark tunnels the train had come from and gone into.
“Wouldn’t,” Cliff said, brusque.
“Hm?” Avery asked.
“We’ve poked around. That’s not a way out.”
“Okay,” Avery said. She nudged Snowdrop. “Tell us if your Lost senses tell you anything?”
“I’ll keep it to myself, thank you very much.”
Clay volunteered some information, telling them, “As near as we can figure, the trains are some metaphysical approximation of the connections between Paths. If you use the runes for the Gate of Horn with certain tools, you can reinvent the train into an elevator. If you’re alone. Otherwise, it has the form the majority give it.”
Avery nodded. “The Page of Suns asked me to travel along a thread, and I think he was drawing a parallel to travel between Paths.”
“Jude mentioned,” Adorea said. “Sometimes he tells us stuff about you and it sounds like he’s figured out how to lie, it’s so off the wall.”
Avery frowned. “I don’t think I’m doing much that’s that special.”
“Even the Founding wasn’t all that,” Snowdrop said.
“Oh, yeah, that was over the top,” Avery corrected.
Cliff walked between them, making Avery take a step back, hand at Snowdrop’s shoulder.
“The phone?” he asked, looking around.
Avery checked, shook her head, and realized he wasn’t looking at her. “No. I think it worked only because we were on the train. And that was an in-transit type thing.”
“So Wunderkand is setting up at the Promenade entrance. They’ll be riddling the Station Promenade out with some of the best Finders and Path Runners and the best resources in the business,” Cliff said. “We get the one shot. If we can’t see this through, then I don’t think we get another chance. They’ll be there, they’ll get in our way, they’ll sabotage our efforts to start over. If they don’t outright block us, complicate entry.”
“Sounds right,” Clay replied.
“Wolf’s there, his fixation is us. He won’t leave as long as they’re there. They won’t leave as long as there’s an opportunity. The Promenade is big. I don’t think you can look at it and not realize it’s important. So they’ll keep bringing people in.”
“Upside is I guess the Wolf being there messes them up too, right?” Avery asked.
“Remember your soldier friend going over the edge, holding onto the Wolf?” Cliff asked. “He’s not impossible to deal with. They’ll have tools, magic items, practices. Things that buy them time. Protections. Maybe enough times they can figure something out. Wouldn’t put it past them.”
Avery nodded, frowning.
“Sorry, by the way,” Clay said.
Avery raised her eyebrows at him.
“It’s our mess, here. Shane and Kimber. The betrayal, info getting out. We got you involved, then things went to shit because of them. Sorry.”
“It’s okay,” Avery said.
“Thanks for saying so. I get it’s okay to you, but it’s not okay to me or us, I don’t think,” Clay said. He looked over at his uncle.
“Yeah. Hrmmm. Sorry,” Cliff said.
“It really is okay. I think these things happen to all families, it’s just… big money, big events, family business, they make it worse.”
“Clayton Garrick,” Adorea said, nudging her cousin. “Angling to be family leader someday? Flexing your diplomat muscle?”
“Not my goal. Just trying to keep things… going smooth, I dunno.”
“I was going to say you’re so good with words, and then you had to fuck it up at the end,” Adorea told him.
“Enough of that,” Cliff said. He looked grim. “We’re as good as stranded, everything’s on the line, and we’ve got a tough Path ahead of us, with the Wolf probably right after.”
“Partial Path,” Adorea noted.
“Right. Part of the Cakewalk. From this train station to the next train stop. But it’s a dangerous one. That’s the bad. The good is that you three are very competent Finders. We wouldn’t have had you on the core team, Clayton, or you two girls on the alternate team, if you weren’t.”
Avery nodded. “Three girls.”
“Two and a half,” Cliff said.
“I think that’s worse.”
“Point is, we can give it an honest try. But we need to focus.”
“I’m totally focused,” Snowdrop told him. “No bundle of nerves, internal screaming, and trash obsession here. I got you, champ.”
Cliff looked down at her like he was trying to fight suppressing a sigh. He jerked a thumb toward the stairwell.
They walked over, and they stopped, looking up at the long, narrow stairwell. Leading up to the Cakewalk.
“You done this?” Avery asked.
“In two test runs. Third go, we had a close call, even knowing what we were doing.”
“Our plan was to run it until we were sure we could be consistent. The close call was close enough we decided against it. Figure if you’re going to get in a metaphorical cage with a tiger, might as well give it only the one chance to eat you.”
“No internal screaming here,” Snowdrop remarked. “I don’t know anyone who’s done anything like that.”
“If the Promenade’s worth running, we can work out the Cakewalk some more,” Cliff said.
“Okay,” Avery said.
“Not okay. You guys have been so shitty-”
Avery covered Snowdrop’s mouth. Snowdrop lightly bit her fingers.
They started the climb. The entire place had the sense of a place that was both traveled enough that passerbys broke stuff or wore stuff down, but disused enough that nobody came to fix it. The stairs had metal braces for traction at their edges, but the occasional one was broken. The lighting was similarly broken – one in every ten or twenty lights, at least. The problem was the occasional case where both happened. Avery tripped over one bit of metal at the stair’s edge that had pulled away and peeled up.
She’d heard that realms could overlap with one another. This seemed like one spot of the Paths that could be connected to the Abyss, which would fit.
“Fireflies of Left Field… lend me a hand. I’ll put on the bug movie for you some time later, okay?”
The fireflies broke pattern, flying ahead, checking the darker areas, tracing steps.
One flew a playful path, taking more time than necessary.
“You, uh, I’m going to call you Wiggle, if you don’t want to like, draw another name in the air…” Avery said. “Come here?”
It didn’t draw another name, but it did come.
“Love the personality,” Avery told it. “But since tonight is serious, can you do me a solid and stick to the basics? I don’t want to be distracted by a wiggly firefly, thinking it’s trying to signal me, when it’s just messing around.”
The firefly bobbed a ‘yes’ up and down.
“Thanks. I’ll make-”
Snowdrop lunged, mouth open, and ate Wiggle.
“What?” Snowdrop asked, without opening her mouth.
“Do not eat my magical companions! Especially ones I just named!”
“I didn’t eat anything,” Snowdrop mumbled. “Be awful if I did.”
“It would be awful, Snow.”
“I didn’t do it!” Snowdrop told Avery. She opened her mouth in the process, and Wiggle flew out.
Snowdrop snapped Wiggle out of the air again.
Avery gripped Snowdrop’s collar with one hand and the top of her head with another, like she could open her head like a pizz dispenser. “You did it again!”
“Didn’t,” Snowdrop mumbled. She tripped over a step, because they were still climbing. “Didn’t!”
“Stop- wait, is the reason you’re saying you did it over and over again because you’re celebrating?”
“Can you talk louder?” Snowdrop asked, out of the corner of her mouth. “Because I can’t hear you over the sound of the dopamine rush I didn’t have. Nothing like scoring a goal”
“No instincts involved. All me.”
Avery tried to pry Snowdrop’s mouth open, tugging to keep her moving up the stairs, while Snowdrop clamped everything down, eyes squinting shut, mouth pressed closed, biting down on her lips from the inside.
Wiggle escaped out of Snowdrop’s nostril. Snowdrop made a small sneezing sound. “If I swallowed, would she fly out of my butthole?”
“No instincts, no goblin influence.”
“You okay, Wiggle?” Avery asked, releasing Snow, but keeping a hand ready to block another lunge.
Wiggle seemed to be okay, confirming yes, and doing a playful twirl, a little less glamour trailing behind her.
Avery pointed a finger at Snowdrop.
“How does it feel, being in a familiar relationship that’s a low-key, twenty-four-seven comedy routine?” Adorea asked.
“I don’t think it’s that bad,” Avery said. “I think Snowdrop’s trying to distract me from the tension of the situation.”
“Nuh uh. Avery’s wrong. It’s so bad. The dynamic makes thing so much harder,” Snowdrop added.
“Most people get used to it fast. Except her best friend Cherrypop.”
“I level things out, Avery makes it weird, it’s a balance,” Snowdrop said.
“It’s a survival thing, I don’t regret it at all, but I brought Snowdrop into the world, I feel responsible.”
“Huh,” Adorea replied. “And you’re-? Are you…? You know? Eating your opossum’s candy jewelry something or other?”
“No! Gosh, no,” Avery replied. She glanced around the group, and saw a sidelong glance from Cliff. “No, no. That’d be a bit weird. God- gods and spirits. I hate that that’s something everyone here knows now. Um. Hmm. Is it a problem?”
She caught the backward glance from Cliff, who was leading the way.
“Don’t think so. Weird that you and Jude pulled one over on us.”
“I’d really rather leave Jude out of discussions until Jude can be included in the discussions.”
“Didn’t think he had it in him.”
“Really truly. Please. Let’s not bring him up?” Avery asked.
“Avery and I are totally, you know,” Snowdrop said, expression placid.
“Friends. Familiar-practitioner, partners,” Avery asserted.
“I don’t even bite her or nibble on her sometimes,” Snowdrop said. “Or cuddle.”
“Not helping, Snow,” Avery hissed. “No. She’s like, not even a year old, technically, so that’d be…”
“You can tell because I put out an aura of maturity,” Snowdrop said.
“Makes me wonder,” Adorea said. “About my dormouse.”
“Your- your boon companion?” Avery asked.
“Yeah. The Forest Ribbon Trail, you forget what the Wolf does, but you never forget the Wolf himself. Or the fact that you’re guided through this terrifying, complicated, scary first Path by a sweet, innocent soul-”
Snowdrop grinned, showing off her crowded teeth. “So innocent. So sweet.”
Avery mussed up her hair.
“-and you sacrifice them. Like this big symbolic gesture. Welcome to the Paths, there’ll be no more guides, no more comfort, no more handholding.”
Ominous words for the steady staircase ascent to a dangerous Path. Avery ran her hand along the wall. Tiny bits of paint flecked off.
“Makes me feel guilty, constantly, in this tiny way that should be a much bigger than tiny way, you know?” Adorea asked. “What if I’d found a way to save her?”
“It’s horrible,” Snowdrop said. “Just appearing out of nowhere, and like, no way do I want to die. For some stinkbutt like her?”
“You wanted to die?” Adorea asked.
“Like, no point to it,” Snowdrop said, as if she hadn’t heard the question. “What a way to go, horribly maimed by the Wolf.”
“Snow has suggested in the past that there’s some grand sense of joining something greater,” Avery clarified. “Maybe The Child. Who may or may not be an architect.”
“It’s a pattern,” Clayton said.
“Definitely,” Avery replied. “Enough of one to alter the Forest Ribbon Trail, apparently.”
“Do you think that’s why you’re different?” Clayton asked. “Or is it the Wild Practitioner thing?”
“I dunno. I really don’t think I’m that different. I make mistakes. I get caught up in stuff.”
“Keep secrets,” Cliff said, from further up the stairs, his back to her.
“Do we need to hash this out?” Avery asked. “Maybe if we can get in touch with Jude, sometime between now and the Promenade-?”
“But- you realize this is what the Wolf wanted, right? To get at weak points, divide us, so we’re vulnerable, so she can come after any one of us…”
“There’s too high a chance that if we try to ‘hash this out’ as you say, even with Jude as part of it, it makes things worse.”
“Uncle,” Adorea said.
Cliff turned around, looking down at Avery from about ten stairs up. “We need to keep moving. Focus on the Path. We’ll figure this out later.”
“I’m not perfect, but I don’t think I’m a bad person.”
“Okay,” Cliff said, frowning. “Position noted. Can we move on?”
“When it came to the negotiation for items and books, my instinct was to just work with Jude, do that, give you the info. If you gave me something, that’d be a bonus. But Miss, and the others, they said if I did that, people I deal with might take me for granted, or get greedy. But now I feel like it’s flipped around, and I’m- am I being made out to be a bad guy because I took money, like I was manipulating you for some scheme? Because I wasn’t.”
“Doing this now, when everything’s on the line? It’s making the situation worse,” Cliff said.
“Then engage with me, let’s get this over with. What do you want from me? I made a mistake not telling about Max Garrick- I told Jude, before he did the big Founding thing with me-”
“That was why he was weird,” Adorea said. “I thought he had PTSD from-”
“Adorea,” Cliff interrupted.
“I didn’t want to do anything big without knowing. I don’t want to get onto the subject of Jude in case it gets him in trouble, but I gave you a huge discount on Cakewalk info and other stuff, and offered my help here because I do want to make it up to you. I want to-”
Cliff was shaking his head, not even making eye contact, shoulders turning slightly away, like he was ready to turn and walk away.
“What!?” Avery raised her voice. It echoed in the stairwell. “What am I missing? Because I’m okay at the Path stuff, I like Jude as a friend, I like your family, I like working on the big project, I’m invested, I’m interested, I’m here, I’m doing what I can! I gave up my rope and spare rope to get Esme and Lance out! Why can’t that be enough?”
“Are you done?”
“I don’t know! Are you going to give me an answer?”
He didn’t look like he was.
“Is it that I’m gay? Because seriously, you reacting badly to that isn’t super great to begin with, but if it’s because you really thought you could wear me down and marry me into the family, that’s not super great and then it’s way worse because you’re ignoring stuff I’ve repeatedly and very clearly said! That’s sketchy!”
“You’re a- you’re deceptive!” he answered, angry now. At least he was making eye contact. He descended two stairs. “I’ve had my fill of deception, I’ve lost sleep over it, and I didn’t think it would come from you. I’ve told my son- I’ve told other kids in the family, look at Avery. Emulate Avery.”
“That’s not on me!”
“You being deceptive is!” he roared the words back, emphasis on the last one. “You made me look like a fool.”
“What?” he asked. “I what? I nearly lost and had to rebuild my relationship with my brother because of you. I did that rebuilding by telling them there was a chance. A chance we could bring you in.”
“I’m in!” she told him. “Look! Me! Here! Without ropes, because I gave everything!”
“You weren’t there these past few days.”
“And I won’t be! In some hypothetical reality where I wasn’t gay and you married me into the family, I’d still be a person with other obligations! If you’re building me up, if you’re telling people I’m something great, and if you’re making promises, that’s you, not me! I’m a girl that’s fast on her feet, a bit of a scatterbrain, but I’m okay at the Path stuff! I treat Others like people and ask how they’re doing and I get a lot of support from my friends and mentors! That’s it! That’s the recipe! My mentors gave me a lot of power to work with but that comes with responsibilities! You were there, that day of the founding-”
“Which we came to, for you!”
“And I appreciate that, but you saw what I’m doing! What we’re up against! Don’t resent me for what you built me up to be, for what you thought!”
“I resent you for the lies! Start to finish! Jude comes to me to say he established a good rapport, you know what you’re doing, okay. That there was interest? That’s how it starts! That’s my son! My older brother’s got some screwed up shit going on with girls he knew from college? My cousin and cousin-in-law are traitors? Who the fuck am I supposed to trust?”
“That’s not me! That’s not on me! Don’t make me the scapegoat for all the other shit you’re not ready to work out! Because I am fucking here Cliff!”
There was a sound of a train.
She breathed hard.
“Train,” Adorea noted.
“I have ears,” Cliff said, brusque, staring Avery down.
“If an Other gets off from the Promenade, we should stick to some Cakewalk standard practices. Don’t move, don’t say anything…”
The doors hissed.
“Yeah,” Cliff said, quiet.
They pulled back to either side of the stairwell, leaving the middle clear.
A 300-pound hamster wearing what looked like an overelaborate bondage getup was the only apparent passenger. Muzzle, high collar, criss-crossing leather straps that each had decoration. Twelve nipples in total down the front, each with a fat nipple ring put through one, the metal as thick across as three of Avery’s fingers put together, and it wore a leather thong with metal to protect it, because the hamster’s proportions and physiology meant that the pronounced genitals were awfully close to the ground.
The thong clacked against every stair as the hamster made his way up.
Avery’s phone buzzed in her pocket. The hamster paused, glancing back.
Avery surreptitiously checked her phone as the hamster moved on. The delayed ring was a message from Lucy, catching up as the magically boosted service provider found her.
And a picture.
“We need to go,” Avery whispered.
“Let the hamster go, then we go,” Cliff said.
“I think we should deal with whatever that hamster does if it’s provoked, because-”
Avery heard the tapping. Boots and something else clacking against the ground.
She hurried forward. Summer glamour…
Free ribbon at her wrist. Nothing magic or anything big. Just… material. She situated it in the light, so the High Summer glamour would have more to grab onto and represent.
Drawing up a flat surface, at first. Matching it to the walls, then letting details fill in, while she cut out something else-
The footsteps were getting closer, walking the length of the truncated, train-car-wide platform. Slowly.
She made a door. Then used the ribbon to decorate it.
Ribbons meant things in the Paths. Ribbons were often a warning. She hoped that was a secret terminology that an expert in the field would catch onto.
She didn’t have time to make the full sign, so she made a shitty one, scratched out, faded by time and wear, eroded at by light.
She backed off, hands raised, glamour tinted to be one-way. Giving them a view down the length of the stairwell, some blurs of color obscuring, while the woman at the bottom would look about a hundred feet up the stairs and see a dead end. A painted concrete wall with peeling paint, a sealed door, covered in ribbon like a crime scene was covered in police tape, with ‘occupied’ written on it.
A young woman appeared at the very bottom of the stairwell. Avery could look at the phone, then look at her.
Back when she was Declan’s age, Avery had been over at Olivia’s. Her original best friend. They’d been reading some celebrity rag and talking about everything under the sun. For whatever reason, they’d gotten onto the subject of what word to use to refer to a woman’s chest. Maybe because they’d been starting to get their own, they’d recently gotten the talk, because they were old enough to know shit and unfiltered enough to talk randomly about it.
They’d started talking out a categorization scheme, and flipping through the magazine to work it out and test what they’d sorted out so far. The basic idea had been that longer words referred to bigger ones, and different- Avery figured they’d be roots, now, but that hadn’t been their terminology then, referred to shape and disposition. So bits or buds for the starter set, terminology taken from the ‘what the fuck, body?’ puberty book, pink edition for girls. That graduated to the breast, classic and normal in every sense, then to the respected and vaunted boob, which was technically a shorter word on paper but was longer when said, and heavier, a low sound, bass. Then anything up from there got into the bazookas, the bazongamongas, and so on.
Midway through discussing the progression of the terms starting with ‘t’, the pointier boob with potential to thrust outward, and where ‘tit’ fell into the terminology and system, Olivia’s mother had stepped into the doorway to give them a look, like she’d heard way too much, she wasn’t going to stop them, but also, like, they should stop.
They hadn’t stopped, but they’d been quieter, talking about what they wanted – deeming bigger as better, obviously and stupidly. Then Olivia had turned the discussion toward dicks and if there could be a similar system for those, and for some reason, the discussion had lost half of its steam. For some reason.
But like, seriously, it hadn’t been nearly as clever or fun.
Which was all a roundabout way of saying the woman in the picture and at the bottom of the stairwell and her mammary-hammers warranted a flashback to when Avery had started paying attention to women’s chests. It was never something Avery had obsessed over or given as much attention to as the average boy seemed to, but she had started noticing at one point, that discussion with Olivia was a firm starting point, and this might’ve even been a very not-firm end point. Like nothing she saw in real life would really stand out or surpass this in sheer impact.
The woman had white hair that looked like a wig, with ringlets big enough in places Avery wondered if she could put her arm through them, but most prominently, the woman was a member of Wunderkand who had an outfit. The outfit in this case was a corset-style top with a scoop neck that scooped out a whole lot, and pushed what was there up and forward. The effect, even from a distance, was that what was there trembled and jiggled with every small movement, like water in a glass- in a goblet, that was threatening to spill with every step its carrier took.
There was also a dress, short in the front and long in the back, with cascading frilly layers disguising the shape of the ass, and high boots and a croquet mallet. Yeah.
They retreated up the stairs, being careful to not make too much noise. Avery drew a silence rune on the wall, outlined it as a barrier, and Clayton nodded.
“I might join Wunderkand,” Clayton whispered.
“Not funny,” Cliff growled.
“What?” Adorea asked. “Oh. If you’re going to get with that, you’d better get good at backrubs. And shoulder rubs.”
The woman tapped the ground with the croquet mallet as she sauntered forward, taking her time on the first few stairs, approaching the glamoured barrier.
Her familiar took its time approaching. A wolf, small-W, big as a pony, with a collar that looked like it could be part of an ox’s yoke, or a plaque that an animal’s head was mounted on, but with the animal’s head thrust through it, mirror-shiny.
The wolf padded its way up the stairs, sniffing.
Then it snorted, hard.
The glamour was blown away. Scraps of ribbon trailed through the air, disintegrating as they blew this way and that.
The woman’s lips moved. Then she frowned. She walked up the stairs, taking her time, and they retreated about as fast as they could without provoking her to do anything more sudden, moving slightly further and faster than she was.
She swung the croquet mallet at the wall where the silence rune was. The rune was destroyed, concrete shattered, and a ten-foot-by-ten-foot chunk of the wall was consigned to oblivion, blown up, demolished, the chunks disappearing into emptiness beyond. The air stirred, the woman’s white ringlets and frilly dress blowing toward the nothingness to her left.
“As I was saying, heh, your illusion was a cute trick.” The woman leaned against the wall, holding the mallet in two hands, mallet’s head over her head. Her wolf advanced, taking its own time, and stopped when its head was near her knees. Giselle looked up at her upstretched mallet’s head as she said, “Giselle Seidel. Chief operating officer of Wunderkand’s security. Second in command for now, but I’ll run the department one day.”
Avery’s group kept retreating toward the Cakewalk.
“You detoured like you had a plan. You even coordinated to grab the tickets at the same time, then went to the same place. What does coming from there to here do to this Path?”
Nobody replied, continuing to back away.
“Tell me,” Giselle said. “And maybe we’ll give you a partial share of the dividends.”
She lowered the mallet, holding it level with her bellybutton, stretching across the stairwell’s breadth, pointed at the hole in the side of the stairwell that had only blackness beyond it.
“An alternative is I extract it from you, by way of my mallet here, if you’re lucky. Or my familiar, if you’re not.”
She moved the end of the mallet slightly toward the top of the stairwell. The familiar brushed past it, padding its way up.
“Want to take a guess?” Giselle asked. “What are you up against? What the heck is that familiar? Why is it so big? Want to try? Crack, spill the beans, convince me, I’ll leave you alone. Live to fight another day. Guess my familiar but give me nothing else? I’ll give you the mallet. But if you give me neither?”
The mallet pointed at the wolf as it padded its way up stairs. Black-furred, with red eyes.
“No,” Cliff murmured, staring down at it. “No, it couldn’t be.”
“Point to the big man,” Giselle said. She started walking up the stairs. “I’ll give you that one. Mallet for you.”
“What is it?” Avery asked.
“Wolf?” Cliff asked. “As a familiar?”
Avery looked down at the glowing red eyes. They seemed to know her.
“The recipe is as follows,” Giselle said. “One precocious youngster on her way to the Forest Ribbon Trail. Nervous, which is understandable. She takes precautions, in case something goes wrong. Which it usually does, often in little ways. She brings a powerful magic mirror. Her plan is to fight fire with fire. And what better way to do that than to capture fire’s reflection?”
The reflected Wolf abandoned its wolf guise. It became an old woman, tall, with white roots in black hair, an addled smile. She put one foot in front of the other, advancing at the same pace, one hand at the wall to steady herself. Each time she pulled her hand away or let it drop, fingernails gouged concrete.
“The Wolf cooperated. Let me walk away with my prize, after my standard deal, of course. To better secure it, to ensure that if Wunderkand wanted what I had, I needed to make it so they had to go for the complete package. I established the Familiar bond. It’s only a sliver, really. A reflection. But a reflection of the Wolf? Not a Wolf, but the Wolf? It might have only a fraction of the original’s power, but I haven’t met much that can stand up to it.”
“It must be so unpleasant to be bonded to,” Avery replied.
“Speak up!” the woman called up. “Project!”
“It must be so unpleasant!”
“Yeah. Wunderkand has had seven others try doing what I did. For three of them, they didn’t get past trying it on the Wolf, Four of them couldn’t stand it. It sure isn’t a picnic. But for me? The money and power make up for it.”
“I’m sorry,” Avery told her.
Giselle walked slowly up the stairs. She ascended a step, then swung right, smashing out a chunk of wall there. Another three steps, swung left, smashing out another chunk of wall. “I won’t say I enjoy this part. I’m not a monster.”
“What part?” Adorea asked, looking between the Wolf and Giselle, still backing up.
“Where you realize that you need to make it through the Path head with me and my reflected Wolf on your heels… and there’s a Wolf waiting for you when you’re done. Caught between a Wolf and a Wolf place.”
Avery gripped Snowdrop’s shoulder, helping keep her moving upstairs.
“I don’t enjoy it, but it’s satisfying, does that make sense?” Giselle asked. “I could explain it better in German-”
She broke another wall to her right. Only a bit remained between the two holes to the right, and it cracked, breaking away. The jiggle of impact rippled across her chest and over to her shoulder, where there was enough tissue pushed up by her top that it could do the shimmer-wobble thing too.
“-it’s like eating your greens. Not fun, but you feel better off when you’re done.”
“Hurting people seems like something that eats at you more than something you’d be stronger for,” Avery said.
They were close to the top of the stairwell.
“You’d think, wouldn’t you?” Giselle asked. She swung, knocking out the left wall.
Soon she was going to be ascending a staircase with oblivion on either side of it. No walls to keep the ceiling up.
“I have an appointment with Milton. Relations.”
Giselle nodded. “Milton can write a complaint to me for messing up his appointment schedule, and I’ll be sure to ignore it. He’s a regional head, isn’t he? North East. Regional heads answer to me.”
“Avery,” Clayton whispered.
Snowdrop turned her head. Avery could sense it.
They hauled the door open, then ran through. As they moved to slam it behind them, the Wolf broke into a run, laughing that addled, off-kilter laugh. Avery’s every nerve and hair stood on end.
Cliff had a box of adhesive bandages, and quickly stuck them around the doorframe. He pushed Avery out of the way so he could get another angle. Cliff stepped in, drawing on the door itself. A seal.
The door banged, heavy, as the Wolf reached it. The door didn’t open, but the wall around it cracked.
Avery hurried to slap down some spell papers on the wall, floor of the hallway, and then as they started to glow, ready to go off, she connected them with lines.
Spirits here were slow to answer. Like they had to wake up from long naps, or gather the requisite energies. That bought her time. If one was one second from going off and she tied it to one that was three seconds from going off, it became a two second timer for each. She kept going, as fast as she could, slapping down more, drawing lines.
“Adorea, get us started.”
An explosion rune with a sixty second timer bought her some time, even if those sixty seconds were split about twelve ways-
Cliff stepped back from the bandage application and tripped over Avery. He nearly fell, and Avery was bowled over, falling onto her side.
“Fireflies,” Avery called out, pointing and drawing a line with her fingers.
The fireflies traced a line through the air, tying runes to one another.
Avery scrambled forward, making the lines chalk before the golden glamour lines could fade.
“Seven coats on the bench, nine pairs of shoes.”
“Bannister,” Clayton said, finishing his rune.
“Is the bannister before or after the bench?” Adorea asked.
“Figure it out,” Clayton urged her.
Avery drew a circle to the network of papers, then drew a big ’30s’ inside it, hourglass shape at the bottom of the circle.
The door banged, hard. The cracks opened wide enough Avery could see the light from the stairwell through the gaps.
Avery smudged out the ‘3’ and turned it into a ‘1’ instead. She whispered, “For Kennet, and for the Garricks, who’ve supported us.”
The recently drawn portion glowed, fighting to override the timers in other portions of the network. It wasn’t terribly balanced either.
They backed away.
Avery watched the magical diagram changing in real time, counting down.
It was Giselle who broke through, using her mallet. She paused, adjusting her head like she was fixing a crick in her neck, then saw the papers.
She assessed the setup, stepped through quickly, and without even turning around, reversed her grip on her mallet and used it to smash out what remained of the doorframe. It was obliterated, consigned to oblivion, leaving a void behind her instead of a way down to the train station. Giselle stepped backward into oblivion, being swallowed up by it in the same second everything went off. Explosions, wind, water, and fire. Boxed in by the same lines Avery had used to connect everything together. Mostly. Those lines disintegrated, and the group of them had to back up and away.
The wolf couldn’t come through while the door was like that.
“Christ,” Cliff said. “You know just one of those could leave your average novice staggering around for the day after?”
“Yeah,” Avery replied. “But that’s juice I earned, by doing stuff like taking those days away to help Kennet, you get that, right?”
Avery glanced back over her shoulder. The Path itself was indoors, inside a large but dingy apartment. A crowded large and dingy apartment. The closet was overfull, and enough guests had arrived that coat and shoe didn’t have space, and had been relegated to nearby surfaces.
About fifty Lost inside. The catch to this space was that it was organized by a certain logic. Miss had provided some information on that. The rooms weren’t evenly spaced out enough to make it obvious, but it was a nine by nine arrangement of spaces. Entryway, with a second door because they’d come from the train station. Then kitchen, then dining area, which was more or less the staging ground. Six more rooms were for the party itself, with most of the guests standing or milling around there. Some places didn’t allow passage from one room to an adjacent one – there was a wall between the entryway, room one, and room four, for example. Good thing, too.
The Cakewalk is a Finder Killer.
There were streaks of blood on the walls and ceiling. The floor had been kept mostly clean- but there were no guarantees there. A partial hand was in the dustpan that was situated beneath a broom, hidden off to one side. Three fingers and a thumb.
Other places were worse. This was just the entryway and getting obliterated in the entryway was rare.
Adorea looked back at the doorway to oblivion, then kicked the shoes and upended the coats, throwing them around.
“I hope your memory’s good,” Cliff said.
“Good girl. Coats off, if any, shoes off.”
Avery had both. She removed them, attaching them to her charm bracelet.
The Path was upside-down and backwards in a lot of ways. For one thing, it wasn’t usual for there to be so many important points of setup and clues in the very opening part, before the entry point. But if they went from entry way to kitchen, kitchen to dining room, which was the entry point, then they couldn’t cut back through the kitchen to check the entry way. They’d get killed trying.
Another backwards thing was that a lot of Paths had a large or important Lost like Sootsleeves, the Falling Oak Avenue’s Teacher, Left Field’s Scarecrow Keeper, or the Watcher of Ways in the Watched Way. They tended to appear at the end, which Avery figured was a way to minimize the hassle of having to get dressed and ready for every passer-through.
Here, the Cake Lady was right there in the Kitchen, room two out of nine. She was taller than the room, by about two or three times, and the ceiling wasn’t low. She was dressed like a fifties housewife, wearing a cake patterned dress and apron, but her head and shoulders were phased through the ceiling, like a ghost or hologram stuck through walls. Everything from about the mid-thigh down was the same. She took up a lot of space, bustling around, and they couldn’t let her bump into them.
“What a ruckus you’re making,” she said, her head upstairs, voice muffled by the intervening surfaces. She opened one of the two ovens and pulled out a platter of cookies. “Excited to attend?”
“Yes ma’am,” Avery and Snowdrop joined their voices to Cliff’s, Clayton’s, and Adorea’s.
Avery glanced at the second oven. Three broken bodies were stuffed into a space that should’ve been given space for one. They could have been here for decades, because they didn’t rot here. The kitchen garbage was stuffed with another one or two people. Three more were on the counter, pushed off to the corner. Blood oozed out, but didn’t drip.
This wasn’t even the dangerous part. But stepping into the kitchen without taking shoes and coat off at the entryway got some killed. Not being polite got others killed.
Which accounted for eight bodies in the kitchen alone, that probably wouldn’t even degrade or go away, at least until the Path did.
“Be a set of dears, would you? Because you’re late, would you take the dessert in the dining room and make sure the other recent arrivals are served? In order, of course. We don’t want our guests getting too hungry or offended. That’s a recipe for trouble.”
“Of course, ma’am,” Avery joined her voice to the chorus of the four Garricks and Snowdrop.
They moved on to the dining room. Someone had died here and Avery wasn’t sure how, because this was a staging ground, a neutral spot before the Path proper began. They’d been pushed against the carpet with enough force that carpet had torn, flesh had abraded, and a bloody streak crossed the room at a diagonal, starting at a point near the one corner, and extending to the wall beneath the long dining table in the corner, where a body lay, neck and head bent at a violent angle. Plowed into carpet and shoved into the wall with enough force to break her neck and pulverize part of her head.
In the open concept space, there wasn’t any architectural dividing line between the dining room, room three, and room six. but the carpet marked a transition point.
In the next room over, various Lost were standing around and talking, or lightly dancing. Elsewhere, they were acting different. Avery could see across the apartment space to rooms four and seven. The lights were off, the only lightning coming from strobe lights and cheapo fog machines, light machines, and illuminated disco balls. The occupants of those rooms were dancing frenetically, on a surface made slick by those who had ventured inside, died, and been pulped under perpetually dancing feet.
Forty-nine guests, and the Cake Lady made fifty. Seven to nine guests needed to be served. In order, based on who had arrived earliest.
Sitting atop that table was the cake, divided into nine. Nine guests.
There were rules. There were patterns. Strict rules outlined how the party could be navigated. Walking between two Lost who’d formed a connection earned the ire of those Lost and any they called friends, here. Sometimes that was ongoing conversation, sometimes it was regular eye contact, and sometimes it was bullshit they couldn’t be expected to know for sure.
Adorea got her phone out, flipping through. Cliff and Clayton leaned in.
Avery stepped back, taking stock.
There was another catch. The catch. The guests.
The Clod, from the Amarinthine Conundrum. Sick Girl, from the Hospital Hallway. The Killer By Night from the Neverending Night. The Cigar Smoker from the Up in Smoke. Pumpkin Belly from Cinderella Run. Those were just the ones she could identify.
Forty-nine killers from various Paths. Some were staples, as much a part of a Path as anything, some wandered between Paths, serving a role when a Path needed a danger. All attending a stale, boring dinner party in a dingy apartment littered with the carcasses of those who had come before.
Every last one of them looking for an excuse.
“Human skin coat, looks like it was dyed black, but the dye rubbed off where it rubbed against the body, so maybe they’re, you know, smudged?”
“Human skin slippers in the back corner with the shoes,” Cliff noted. “That’s our obvious number one.
“We’ve only got seven coats, so that’s two wild cards,” Adorea said. “Two where we can’t use the way coats were piled to judge the order they might’ve arrived.”
“They might’ve dressed heavier?” Avery suggested.
“Maybe. Or they don’t care about cold,” Adorea replied.
Clayton asked, “These shoes separated. Were they thrown in late, over top of stuff, or were they early, but placed in a messy way, then separated later?”
Adorea shrugged. “I don’t know. But if you look? Metal tips with skulls on them. That’s extra. If you try to match them to the coats, there’s two good candidates. Leather jacket, and the, I don’t know what you call it. Cape? Cloak?”
“Mantle,” Cliff said. “Jesus Christ, Gods and spirits, you kids need a solid grounding in terms and labels. Could save your life one day. We can make a weekend of it.”
“I feel like depending on how today goes, we’re going to spend weeks celebrating, or, gotta admit, way more likely?” Adorea asked. “Weeks sulking. Either way, not running Paths for a while.”
“You need to keep up with your studies. Any of this can make or break the difference. Details matter. Labels matter.”
He glanced at Avery at that last bit.
Avery used her Sight to survey the room, but there was way too much going on for her to easily assess it.
“What can you see, Snow?” Avery asked.
“Not much.” She started to borrow from Snowdrop’s Lost Sight to see what ‘not much’ was, then stopped. She got her bag, fishing inside.
“Too many maybes,” Cliff said. “If this happened in our test run, we’d say stop, quit, start over from scratch. Hope the Cakewalk’s clearer.”
“We can’t,” Clayton said, his voice low.
Snowdrop’s head turned, alarm spiking through her. Avery turned to look.
Giselle was back, stepping through the door at the entryway. The Wolf was beside her now.
“Shit,” Clayton whispered.
Avery wasn’t digging around for chalk, but she found some, and drew a line firmly across the carpet. Just in case. A barrier, to ward off any tracking, practice, tricks, magic items… it wasn’t much.
The Wolf started to lunge, and Giselle caught it by the collar.
Still holding her reflected Wolf, she looked around at the scattered coats and shoes.
Then she used a practice. Wordless, without gesture or apparent item. The shoes became echoes, echoes sorted out. Like time was rewinding. Everything going back where it had been.
“We’re out of time,” Cliff said. “Clayton, you carry. Adorea, keep an eye out for our guests. Avery? I don’t even know. Keep an eye out for our pursuers. Be careful about using practices, it can be their excuse to kill us.”
Avery nodded. “Miss said the rooms are split into categories. Four and seven blend some, because it doesn’t really matter, but like-”
“I’ve read your notes,” Cliff said, curt. “Thank you.”
It sounded reluctant. Angry.
Six rooms with forty-nine guests between them, nine of whom needed to be served. Had to watch where they navigated, couldn’t jostle or bump the wrong guest, if there was a clear passage through. Bypass the wrong guest, and things went wrong. Serve the wrong guest, things went wrong. Wander, dawdle, frick around too much, trying to figure things out, things went wrong. Some guests had special rules, that could make things go wrong.
It was very possible for one misstep to lead to three to six killers coming after them simultaneously.
What Miss had clued them into was that there was more organization here than not. Rooms four, five, and six, cutting across the middle of the layout, had mandated killers. Who killed when and where the Paths required it. Rooms seven and eight had the willful Lost who enjoyed killing. Six was incidental killers who didn’t want to kill, a scattered few. Five and eight were ritual killers, who had patterns and rules they killed by. Four and seven were chaotic killers- the dark rooms with the heavy, intense dancing and messing around.
So by that logic, seven had the Others that killed because they liked killing and who killed chaotically, unpredictably, and accidentally, just as one example.
There were clues to find the guests. The ones who’d eaten and drank didn’t stray more than a few paces from where they’d put their cups and plates, until provoked or given an excuse to start murdering. So when there was six plates and eight Others in one corner of a room, that hinted that two of the seven needed to be served.
The Garricks had known that, going in. What they hadn’t known, besides the general organization of type of killer by room layout, was that the Others who were dangerous who hadn’t yet been served were in the wrong rooms.
So a pattern killer who killed because the Path required it should be in room five, but if they were in room six, for whatever reason, that was a giveaway they needed their cake.
And all of that amounted to a puzzle with very little room for missteps. Coats, shoes, and the aesthetic of the guests were clues. Plates, who was where, they were clues too. All needed to be solved without stepping between the wrong two Others, without delay or making a mess, and without serving cake to the wrong Other, or in the wrong order.
“Fuck,” Clayton whispered.
“Don’t say that. What?” Cliff asked.
“Ice cream cake. Partially melted.”
The cake was on a glass stand, and visibly slid an inch to the side as he lifted it, stopping as he fixed the slant of the stand.
“It’s heavy too,” Clayton added.
“Plate it?” Cliff suggested.
“Plates are worse,” Clayton replied. “No raised edges, and they’re small, compared to the pieces.”
“Fuck, then- I don’t know. Snowdrop. If something slides too much, do your best to help. Serve it onto a plate. I don’t know.”
Snowdrop looked at Avery. She sent a quizzical impulse.
Giselle, in the entryway, was studying the surroundings she’d echoed back together.
“Yeah. You have a good eye for food.”
“Not so much for mess,” Snowdrop told Avery. “I’m mess-blind.”
“Okay. Do what you can.”
Snowdrop went over to Clayton’s side, then stopped. “That piece is bigger. And has two and a half strawberries, instead of two.”
“Does it matter?” Clayton asked. “Does your Lost sight tell you that?”
“It’d matter to me. My stomach tells me that.”
“Um, Cake Lady?” Avery asked.
“Do not interrupt me,” the Cake lady said, intense. Then, sweeter, she said, “I have so much to do.”
Cliff grabbed Avery’s shoulder, hard enough to hurt.
“-a guest of honor here? Someone the party is for?”
“The party is for everyone,” the Cake Lady said, voice muffled by the floor that separated head from body. She moved across the kitchen, but then stopped, turning.
Cliff and Adorea braced themselves. Giselle paused in what she was doing, watching.
“But yes. The Cornered Rat. Please do hurry, though. The cake will melt.”
“Go,” Cliff said.
Avery finished digging in her bag, pulling out a magic item she hadn’t gotten much use out of. The Sunset Specs.
The Specs, confiscated from Brie, then given to them permanently by Zed as payment, cast the world in bright sunset hues. Music was playing elsewhere on the Cakewalk, which helped keep them functional, and the room flared up with colors that represented mood.
She glanced back at Giselle and the fake Wolf, then joined Cliff in stepping into the next room, one hand at Snowdrop’s shoulder, because the Specs made it harder to see where she was going – and see the details.
The color changes were hard to read, because there were so many things in the apartment that were colorful, and that obscured things and changed tints. But she could use them for a few purposes.
Like noticing when two Lost were on similar wavelengths. She beckoned fireflies over, then subtly pointed at two. The group navigated around them.
And there. One Lost who wasn’t on an even remotely similar wavelength as the rest of the group he was with. Smiling, eyes half-lidded, radiating chaotic violence.
She drew a circle with her finger.
“By his size, that might be four or eight,” Adorea murmured. “Number one is the guest of honor? The Cornered Rat?”
“By rules of hospitality, should be. Biggest piece, most strawberries,” Cliff murmured back. “Look in the corners, I guess?” Not just of the room, but between furniture and room?”
“Yes ma’am,” Giselle said, in the other room. “Ooh, that’s hot.”
“Fresh out of the oven. Let me do a quick frosting, it won’t even be thirty seconds…”
She was right there, coming through with her own cake.
After checking, they moved from room six to room five. Clayton managed the sliding, slowly melting ice cream cake. Snowdrop stood by, her attention split between the room, Avery, and keeping cakes and serving knife ready.
Avery could see through room eight to the fire escape. Train tracks ran parallel to the fire escape.
“We don’t need to do the entire Path,” she whispered.
Cliff looked from her to the window, then nodded. “But if we try to cross that room and we’ve left someone behind who should’ve been served…”
They wouldn’t make it across the room.
Avery pointed out more of the people that stood out from the rest, using the Specs. If she studied them, really pushing herself, trying to use her Sight and finding it diffracted and blurry, she could intensify the auras she was looking at, try to analyze them. A deep purple-blue welled at the stomachs of some. A hunger, she guessed. But there were some who didn’t experience hunger. An orange around the mouth of others. Anticipation.
Adorea wasn’t close, so Avery wrote on her arm, making quick notes. A symbol to represent each. She made marks by each to represent intensity of hunger and-or anticipation, if either existed. Ordering them.
“Where’s the cornered rat?” Cliff asked. “Is it an actual rat? Are we looking for an animal that’s that small? Christ.”
He sounded more nervous, and he hadn’t exactly been Mr. Calm before they’d entered the Cakewalk.
Giselle stepped out of the dining room, carrying a foam-style cake with strawberries and frosting on top. The reflected Wolf, wearing a wolf’s body, padded alongside her, mallet clamped in its teeth.
It looked like she had a different order. She served someone who definitely wasn’t the cornered rat.
“Avery Kelly,” a Lost greeted her.
She glanced over. At the border between room eight and room seven. Todd. No resemblance to a Barney’s Todd, like what Biscuit was on the lookout for. No. One of the first non-Kennet Others Avery had met. On the Forest Ribbon Trail.
“Hi Todd,” Avery asked. “How’s the laying eggs in corpses thing going?”
“Slow. I don’t think I’m equipped right now. I need to get off the Paths. The cake is good, at least.”
“Cool, cool. I don’t suppose you could point me to the Cornered Rat?”
“No? Maybe you could-”
Avery judged the room layout.
The Wolf and Giselle were blocking the way to room six. They’d have to get past them to deliver to the guy who was number six or number eight on the list of people who needed to be served. Maybe.
“-deliver a cake for us?”
“And if I spill even a crumb on the carpet, or serve it with icing or drips on the side of the plate, I get torn to pieces by literally every other Lost here? No.”
“Noted,” Clayton said, quietly. Snowdrop used a napkin to wipe the edge of a plate she’d used to push the cake back to center.
Todd laughed again. “Why would I help you in the first place? How did you get stupider from the last time I saw you?”
“Want cool sunglasses?” Avery asked. “Cool points? Look stylish while you try to lay eggs in corpses? Why not?”
“Okay. Moving on then. Unless you’d be motivated by getting one over on the Wolf?”
“I want to see her rip you limb from limb. I’d like that. It would at least liven up ths whole thing.”
“Okay,” Avery said. “Well, I don’t think I would.”
“I can’t lay eggs in your corpse, but you’d damn well better believe I’ll try,” Todd said, his voice low. He smiled, then retreated into room seven.
“Yep. Okay,” Avery said, quiet.
“What did you think would happen?” Adorea asked her.
“I dunno! I just figured it couldn’t hurt to ask?”
Snowdrop bumped lightly into Avery. Avery felt an impulse from Snow, and looked.
Room four. A dangerous room to be in. Things were violent in there, unpredictable. Almost a mosh pit of murderer Others.
The standard route meant having to progress through a few times, dodging the groups of Others. Get bumped into, you might drop cake, or upset the wrong Other. There was a reason the carpet in that room had about ten to twenty bodies that had been pulverized and stomped into the weave. She could smell it, and it made her uneasy. It made her think of the Wolf-
Who was close.
“Giselle,” the Wolf said, in her old woman voice, almost sing-song.
“What do you say we break rules?”
“We’d have to fight literally every Other here.”
Avery followed Snowdrop’s line of focus.
To the next room. Up.
There, in the corner, to the left of the door. Sitting on the ceiling, legs folded under him. Four legs, with little human baby feet, which fit two pairs of shoes. Was one of the guests shoeless?
He had the body of a rat, mostly hairless, but his face was human, slack-jawed.
To the Specs, he was very hungry, anticipating cake and a bunch of other things.
“Clayton? I’ve got our first guest.”
“I’m more focused on-”
Snowdrop leaned in, serving knife ready. She quickly moved cake onto plate-
Avery leaned in, putting her foot out to catch a dripping that escaped the cake stand’s edge.
Snowdrop turned, reaching up with cake overhead-
The cornered rat took his.
And things didn’t blow up. Nobody lunged in to murder them.
One out of nine? Avery thought.
“I’m willing if you are,” the reflected Wolf told Giselle.
Giselle stared down at Avery’s group. Then she dropped her cake.
The glass cake pan shattered on the floor. Cake spilled out, individual layers sliding apart from one another.
The Cake Lady screeched from the kitchen. Others throughout the room turned, lunging. Giselle took her mallet from the reflected Wolf.
Clayton, jostled, nearly dropped his cake. He recovered, but in a bad spot. There were Others coming from multiple directions, they barely seemed to see him-
“Over here!” Avery shouted. She didn’t want to step on furniture, that was a capital offense here. So she hurdled the armchair, taking Snowdrop’s hand. By coordination, she pulled at the same time Snowdrop went small, and pulled Snowdrop clear over it, letting her turn human as she landed on the far side.
Clayton came. He couldn’t hurdle it with the cake in hand, but Avery had her hands out.
“I need two pieces!” Adorea shouted. “And I need clarification on who is three!”
“Cornered Rat had four shoes, I think one of our guests to serve is shoeless!” Avery shouted. She took the cake and fought to keep it balanced. It didn’t help it was missing one piece, or that the cake stand felt like it was made of fifteen to twenty pounds of lead and the cake itself could be another another five or ten pounds.
Clayton used a magic trick -maybe a magic item or boon- to get over the armchair, landing on the other side. He put fingers on one side of the cake stand Avery was holding, righting it.
The Wolf was tearing through the various Others. About one or two a second, and there weren’t that many present. Giselle smacked a couple, then turned as the Cake Lady moved through the wall as if it wasn’t there- reaching out one hand with long fingernails painted with cake patterns.
Giselle smashed one hand with the mallet. It was smacked away quickly at first, then moved as if by slow motion, and then disintegrated over what would be five or ten seconds.
“It’ll grow back,” Giselle said, over the Cake Lady’s scream. “And so will you-”
She smashed Todd. He exploded into a spray of body parts and maggots, and his silhouette lingered, moving in slow motion, a Todd shaped hole to some mixture of void and oblivion.
Cliff had taken the plates, and was writing on the edges. He passed one to Avery and Snowdrop.
The cake stayed relatively centered.
“Won’t last long. It’ll drain me,” Cliff muttered.
“Okay. How sticky or balanced is it?”
“Very. But don’t go turning it upside down or flinging it around.”
The Wolf was angling-
Prey instincts through the opossum bond let her sense something was imminent.
Her own instinct was to freeze. She fought it, moving, cake in each hand.
The Wolf lunged with barely any forewarning, claws gouging armchair and wall behind where Avery had been standing. Three Others leaped onto the reflected Wolf. Because they had to.
And two were torn to pieces almost immediately.
“There. Number two!” Adorea pointed.
Avery passed it to an other in room eight. She’d already spotted them with the specs.
“I don’t know which is three, still!” Adorea called out, an unhinged note in her voice.
Avery pushed her bracelets out of the way to see what she’d written on her arm. “According to my specs, skull-face is hungrier than the lady with scissors. Guy with the holes in his body and face wants to eat more than the guy with the sword-wang, who wants to eat more than the lady with scissors.”
“Did you have to make it a riddle?”
“Who’s number three?”
“Either the sword-dick or lady with scissors.”
“I think he wants cake a lot more than she does. I don’t think that guarantees anything, but maybe if you need a tie breaker?”
Adorea went over to Sword-wang, in room eight. She visibly braced herself, ready to be attacked, and then when she wasn’t, she hurried to give Sword-wang a plate. “We’ve got a clear route through room eight!”
To the window, to the fire escape, and to the train.
They bolted. Avery threw a spell card to stall one Other that was swinging a weapon like he was trying to emulate a blender, giving Cliff time to slide by, then backed up toward the window.
The reflected Wolf saw. It came for her-
She went back through the window. Little-w wolf became human, and the Wolf reached-
Cliff swiped a hand out, sticking an adhesive bandage to the Wolf’s finger and the wall. As repayment, she clawed the back of his hand open, clear to bone.
But when she pulled back and tried to pull away, the bandage held. Sword-wang came at her from behind, sword erect, pelvis ready, and she backhanded him, shattering sword, knocking his plate aside, and demolishing part of his ribcage.
She pulled back with more force, and tore half of the window-frame away from wall. What wasn’t torn away broke, falling down part of the way.
With teeth, she bit into and tore at the wood, until only the chunk that was dangling by the bandage remained.
“The train,” Adorea said.
The four of them had backed as far away from the window as they could. There wasn’t a lot of room.
“It hasn’t arrived,” Adorea pointed out.
“Yeah,” Cliff said. “It has a schedule.”
The Wolf pulled away another chunk of window. She attacked another Other that had come after her.
There couldn’t be that many left. Giselle was holding the Cake Lady at bay.
Just… strong enough to wade through a Path as dangerous as this one, smashing and killing any obstacles.
That was Wunderkand, Avery supposed. Or the security arm of Wunderkand.
“Here, out of the way,” Giselle told her reflected Wolf.
The Wolf tittered, that addled, old-lady laugh that made Avery feel something a little bit like dying inside. Like she was back to being her worst self. Especially here, so far from friends.
Snowdrop took her hand, squeezing.
“Watch my back? This should be good.”
The Wolf laughed.
Giselle held her arm out in front of her, forearm horizontal, level with the top of her chest. She placed the croquet mallet on the back of her arm, almost like she was lining up a pool shot.
Her focus wasn’t on any of them, Avery realized. As they moved aside, each of them to one corner of the fire escape, she didn’t change her target.
Cliff had another bandage ready, but it wouldn’t do anything.
Giselle was aiming for the fire escape. She’d smash it, consign it to void and oblivion or whatever the fuck that mallet was supposed to do, and then they’d have nowhere. No platform, nowhere to stand…
If Avery could put something in the way-
Avery stepped back, tapping her foot three times. She flashed a smile at Giselle, mostly to try and throw her off her game.
The wind stirred.
Then she leaped. Straight up. She tapped a foot against the wall to adjust her trajectory a bit. It pushed her further out, just a bit, but also turned her in the air.
The organization of the space blurred. She could see through windows and walls to where the head of the Cake Lady was in an apartment above-
Not her focus. She tumbled through air, twisting- reaching down and screwing up her potential landing instead. She fell almost face-first.
She nudged Snowdrop.
Snowdrop leaped onto the railing, put hands up and out-
Arms out to Avery’s shoulders. Avery put a hand to Snowdrop’s shoulder. To break her fall and keep from face-planting onto some Lost fire escape on the edge of the Cakewalk.
The curtains billowed out. The Build Up boon. Curtains and ropes and things appearing as convenient when falling.
Giselle hesitated, wary. To buy time, Avery moved her legs, wobbling slightly, still on her way down, kind of, delaying her descent a fraction-
Giselle saw the gap in the curtains and aimed for it.
Avery caught them and tugged herself closer to the fire escape, pushed sideways off Snowdrop’s shoulders. Snowdrop pushed back. Pulling curtains over-
Giselle’s mallet smashed the curtains. Avery collapsed almost upside-down onto Cliff Garrick.
The way the mallet seemed to work, it smashed things clean out of existence. At least temporarily. And it left messy holes in reality in their place.
Meaning the stretched out curtain became a wall of hole-in-reality. One covering the exit Giselle needed to get at them.
One Giselle could pass through, but… they’d seen earlier, that took time.
The Wolf was tearing away wall and brick. Cliff reached up, Avery still partially on top of him, and stuck finger to wall. Making the reflected Wolf have to tug a few times to get free. Slowing it down. He repeated the process again.
Avery sighed as she heard the train honk. She rolled off Cliff.
The train stopped, one car door open near the fire escape, and they boarded, leaving Giselle, reflected Wolf, carnage on the Cakewalk and everything else behind.
Avery didn’t fully relax until the doors slid closed and they were moving. She could see the Wolf reaching out, tearing through the wall.
“Real wolf’s stronger,” Cliff huffed, as he sat back into a chair in the train car. “Bandages and walls wouldn’t stop her as easily.”
“Fuck,” Cliff grunted. “I’m getting too old for this. If you told me I was about to have a heart attack, I‘d believe it.”
“Thought you were bailing on us, jumping up and away like that,” Adorea said.
“I don’t know what I gotta do to keep your trust,” Avery told the Garricks. “Don’t keep making me the scapegoat for the other betrayals you’re dealing with. Don’t make me out to be the next Hazel and then get mad at me when I don’t live up to that crazy expectation.”
“I have reasons to not be impressed with you,” Cliff told her. “The lies, letting Jude lead us on-”
“I know you don’t want to talk about Jude without Jude here. Tough. You put my son in a shitty, shitty position, having him keep a secret. Secrets destroy practitioners, you know that, right? You know that what we do, it’s about our word mattering? Truth, enough the spirits know to pay special attention to what we say, gesture, write, whatever.”
“Putting him in that position-”
“I didn’t ask him to.”
“Yeah, I figured. But you put him in a position where had had to, didn’t you? Because he’s fond of you, you’re a pretty little teenage girl and he’s a teenage boy, if you asked him to lop off an ear, he probably would. Leave him in a position to keep a secret and keep you around, or be honest with his parents and walk away from you? I know what he’s going to do. Some because he’s a healthy boy, some because he’s a teenager and that means being a bit more rebellious.”
Avery kind of resented parts of that that had to do with gender, because like… she really wanted to bring up the fact the core team had all been Garrick patriarchs and the promising maybe-future-leader Clay, going in. But doing it now would feel petulant and it would only make things worse. Leaving it alone, though, it felt bad too.
She guessed Lucy could pull something off, arguing both parts without screwing everything up.
“I think…” she trailed off, standing in the middle of the aisle, between rows of empty seats, “…if it was just that, you wouldn’t be so mad at me. And you wouldn’t have gone off about the other stuff, before Giselle and her fake Wolf showed up. I’m not saying I didn’t mess up. But I don’t deserve all of this.”
Cliff looked incensed, still.
“…I’m going to go sit over there. Hmm. And if you want me with? If you want to try doing this? Come on over. But you gotta leave the extra stuff behind. And the current stuff? The fact I didn’t tell you guys about Max right away? Jude and putting him on the spot? Okay. But let’s deal with that after. For right now we have a bunch of problems.”
Cliff and Clayton gave Avery nothing.
“If you’re going to be shitty about me being gay, or me not telling you, when I couldn’t know for sure how you’d react? Don’t come over. Because that’s either you being a bigot, or you not being understanding of where I’m coming from… and I dunno. But either come on over, we tackle this thing, or stay, we go our separate ways. If you wanted to be fair, considering I saved your wife and nephew? Sure would be nice to have an escape rope. But I won’t expect it. It was my call.”
She walked over to the other end of the train car, Snowdrop coming with.
There was a lot more that needed hashing out, that wasn’t okay. The subtle treatment of women and girls in the family, the focus on the marriages, and how stupidly offended he was that she wasn’t eligible. But if she was expecting him to put stuff aside to hash out later, she could do it too.
If he came over.
“Well, gotta say,” Snowdrop told Avery.
“What do you gotta say?”
“I think I’m done with cake. Just not in the mood. Might never be.”
Avery clicked her tongue. “Yeah.”
“Good thing too, since I’ve been trying to lose weight this winter.”
“Hibernation issues, huh?”
“Nah. I put more emphasis on being pretty than food.”
Avery nodded. “There’s a balance though.”
Avery thunked her head back against the seat headrest, closing her eyes. Her foot braced against the leg of the table that was positioned between the seats, separating her and Snowdrop. Snowdrop matched her, foot placed a little higher up, because her leg was shorter.
Snowdrop turned her head. Avery could sense it. She didn’t open her eyes.
She heard the sound of something landing on the table.
Avery opened her eyes, and looked down at the escape rope.
Cliff had a bandage on his wounded hand. Crimson bled into the white, second by second. Avery leaned over, and saw Adorea putting away first aid stuff.
“Spare. I wasn’t thinking. You should have that,” Cliff said.
“Is this goodbye then?” Avery asked.
He sighed. “Any ideas on how we’ll handle the real Wolf as we arrive?”
“Maybe. I don’t know.”
“Got what it takes to pull together another illusion?” he asked.
“Yeah. Some. But I don’t know how well that’s going to work. The reflected Wolf got through the one glamour real fast, between the train and the Cakewalk.”
“And when I lied about having a boon?” Snowdrop asked. “She saw through that right away. Or she didn’t but she had to pretend she did.”
“Yeah. That’s true, isn’t it? She’s one of the only Lost who didn’t get you lie, or she had to pretend she didn’t, like you said.”
“Interesting,” Avery murmured. “Some kind of Wolf-Child interaction?”
“It’s something,” Cliff said. “You could write an essay on that sort of thing. Easy couple hundred bucks, minimum.”
“I’m not much of an essay writer.”
“It’s still a thing. Even shitty writing, if it’s got tidbits to use, it’ll sell.”
“Huh,” Avery grunted the word.
It was hard to let go of the tension from earlier, from arguing and being frustrated with him. But she was trying.
Adorea and Clayton ventured closer. Snowdrop wriggled her way under the table and sat by Avery, while Cliff sat across from her.
“My uncle,” Cliff said. “Brother of Walt and my dad. He was gay. Might still be, I don’t know.”
“Okay?” Avery asked. “If he was gay, he probably still is.”
“If he’s alive. Old enough to be old, don’t know what happened to him.”
“Okay,” Avery agreed.
“His dad worried. What’s the world going to do to someone like him? There wasn’t- it didn’t happen. People didn’t talk about it. It was hush-hush, and if it wasn’t hush-hush, it was rude to bring up. There wasn’t a script to follow, no rules, no path. Just a guy doing something out-there in scary times, putting himself at risk.”
“Dude,” Avery said. “The way you’re phrasing this-”
“It was bad. Whatever you want to call it, however you want to put it, it was a bad time to be that way. He acted a lot like you acted here-”
“Because his dad was being a butt?”
“Because… I dunno. But he did something similar to you walking over here. Except he didn’t go down to the other side of a train car. He traveled halfway across the world. Took what he thought was his share. Except he didn’t have kids. My dad, uncle Walt, they did, they had to supply their new Finders. Me, I was old enough to be underway. But- he took a third. When there were three of them, seven or eight of us kids. He took a third.”
“Maybe he thought it’s what he’d end up with if he’d had the chance to have kids? Or he had kids later, he wanted to make sure they got what they deserved?”
Cliff sighed heavily. “People died. Kids went in with less equipment and stuff. My cousins, nephews. Dex. When they died, sure enough, conversation would go to my uncle. If they’d just had one more item, one more book on practice to study, would they have made it? Peter and I, we were old enough to be around when he left, see the aftermath. See the casualties. Guy turns out to be gay, deceives us-”
“That’s not- it’s not intrinsic to being gay-”
“It’s not not, is it? And this situation, it’s similar, it’s pushing similar buttons, but way I think about it, you gotta hide it, hiding means being deceptive, that lays-”
“Stop,” Avery told him.
“If you make me get up from this seat and walk away… that’s it.”
“I’m trying to apologize.”
Avery huffed out a small laugh.
“Doing a bad job of it, I guess. I’ll try again. I hear you. Shit that happened elsewhere, family shit? Not on your shoulders. My fault for making promises and sales pitches for you to keep. My fault if I look foolish after doing that. Yeah.”
“Okay. Thank you for recognizing that. Again, I’m sorry for my part in it.”
“So that story, that’s why I was warned about bringing up the subject?”
“Warned by who? Jude? Fucking Ed?”
Ed being the city mage Zed knew who’d referred her to the Garricks.
“Yeah,” Cliff replied. “Fuck. I guess it would be. They didn’t specify?”
Avery shook her head.
“Good. Private family business. Yeah.”
Avery nodded. “I won’t share, then.”
“Thank you. Sore spot for a lot of us. Especially the older generations. Anyway. So that’s that.”
“Let’s talk about the Wolf that’s greeting us in…”
He craned his head around. Looking for a clock or something. “Don’t know when we arrive, but if it’s as long to get back as it took to get out here, we have some time.”
“Let me try contacting my friends.”
They remained ready, ducked down. Their illusory copies were gathered, hiding a little less successfully. Decoys. They’d stop, the Wolf might be on the platform, or maybe she’d drop down from above. The decoys would run, draw attention-
They were already prepared to go out the window on the furthest side from the Promenade, when the Wolf wasn’t looking, go out, over the top or under the bottom of the train, and then get onto the Promenade.
The Promenade came into sight.
Only moments later, the train jerked. Glamoured copies were thrown against the door. Glamoured Adorea lost an arm. The rest of her began crumbling with increasing speed.
The Wolf had gotten out in front of the train. The train car jerked again, then jackknifed violently. Adorea’s glamoured self was destroyed. The rest of them were thrown free of their hiding places.
The train derailed, and the thing beneath the rails was empty Nothingness. Slowly, car by car, the train leaned out or stuck out over the emptiness.
“Getting too old for this,” Cliff grunted.
Avery motioned. The glamoured copies of the four of them that were still mostly intact headed for the window closest to the Promenade. Climbing out. Making the leap.
And the Wolf was there. Ready. Leaping.
Adorea had a window frame that helped make an easy exist, placed against the top of the train car, exiting into any outside space with a clear view of sky. They climbed out onto the top of the train car, which was pointed sideways, almost completely away from the Promenade, and Avery borrowed opossum climbing process, scaling the length of the car, moving down and away.
The air was filled with paper airplanes.
Into the space between the cars. The train groaned loudly as it teetered, moving closer to the edge. The crumpled part at the front was sticking to the rails, and the part at the back of the Cakewalk’s train was leaning but not yet tipping. Both served as a bit of an anchor for the bits that had jacknifed and gone sideways.
The Wolf laughed, loud.
“Verona Verona Verona,” Avery whispered.
Verona said the command word.
The airplanes dove. Each loaded with a bit of Garrickstuff, and Averystuff. They hadn’t had enough time or resources to make full copies. But they’d made some. And they’d added other things. From Cliff’s wife and the parents of Clay and Adorea, they’d gathered up some hair, some other smelly things. Scent blockers. Now glamoured bits and bobs were emerging from the wreckage of paper airplanes, scampering around. Blocking smell.
The Wolf let out a howling laughter that echoed across the Promenade.
Wunderkand’s forces were mostly a third of the way down. Some were taking the same route Giselle had. Fighting the smiling Others. The most successful of them were halfway down, but they were getting bogged down now. From the destruction, it looked like the Wolf had gone after them while waiting for Avery’s group.
There were less Wunderkand people around. Avery wasn’t sure if some had died, bailed and started over, or if they’d clued in from how Avery’s group had done it that they needed to leave and come back.
According to Verona and Lucy, there was still a lot of setup happening in the entryway.
The Wolf’s endless howling laughter made Avery’s hair stand on end. She could remember being stuck with the Wolf. Something she’d suppressed.
A lower, scarier point than being a friendless Avery who’d never been rescued by Ms. Hardy, who’d never found her friends, never worked with Kennet, who’d been going to the Ruins because the pain of being overtaken by echoes was easier to bear than the pain of being herself, alone.
She rubbed Snowdrop’s shoulders, working her way to a middle point, waiting for the three Garricks to catch up. Cliff was using a practice to walk sideways on the train car. Treating it as if it was upright. He crouched.
Had to wait, had to bide their time, act when the Wolf’s focus was elsewhere…
Avery Avery Avery.
It pinged her. Verona’s voice.
She motioned, then dashed out, stepping onto colored tile, then resuming her normal ‘long knight’ movements. She didn’t technically have to, but she worried that not doing that would alert the Wolf.
To the second post office. Hurdling the counter the employees were crouched behind. Dropping onto a red square.
“Give me a job,” she told them.
“Give me a job, and there’s a chance this ends sooner. I’m on your side. And I think you guys really want us on your side here. Not Wunderkand. They’ll corporatize you.”
“In a fun way, though,” Snowdrop said.
One post office employee with a huge mustache pushed another, motioning.
They opened a box, pulled out the post uniform, measuring tape, checked the coast was clear-
The tape was put around Avery, then pulled on, spinning her. She was lifted up into the air, numbers flying off the measuring tape. Letters and envelopes lifted into the air.
She did the whole transformation sequence, the mid-height flat cap with a brim, simple epaulets with envelope style patterns on them, big brass buttons, mailbag…
Her feet touched ground. She crouched.
“Not very spiffy,” Snowdrop told Avery.
“What’s the job?” she asked the man. “I’m in a bit of a hurry.”
“Uh…” the employee grabbed an envelope and passed it over. “Put a stamp here.”
“Hm?” Avery asked. She found a stamp lying on the ground, amid the litter of the ongoing destruction elsewhere. She licked it, then stuck it in the corner. Part one, apply stamp, part-
She lifted up into the air, turning. The uniform was pulled away, her regular clothes put into place simultaneously, to keep her modesty. She got her regular stuff back, then dropped to the ground. Now with a package of postal worker clothes with her, a coin in her hand.
“Wait, seriously? That’s it?”
“If you think you can get things back to normal… we’ll deliver the mail ourselves later,” the man with the mustache said.
“You’re so uncool,” Snowdrop said. “And your mustache is stupid.”
The man smiled.
“What she said,” Avery told him. “You think I could convince the other places of employment to do something similar?”
“I’m going to go, then. See what I can do. If I can’t convince their employers to go easy for the sake of normal, I’ll run interference. Or can I send them to you?”
“Yeah. If they haven’t started one yet.”
She waited until she heard the Wolf’s howling laughter, then exited the shop, crossing colored tiles as necessary, mingling with other illusory Averies and sensory decoys.
With a sound rune to distort direction and source, she had Snowdrop shout. “We’re over here!”
The Wolf moved, chasing. And Avery ran for the gap.
Adorea fixed the bandage at the back of Cliff’s hand.
“Last stretch,” Clayton said.
They’d done the errands, got the ticket, and left just as Giselle had gotten off the train from the Cakewalk. She hadn’t caught up to them, and she hadn’t appeared on the Watched Way.
Black deer with glowing eyes stood everywhere. Like lawns with way too many flamingos, or houses with too much in the way of Christmas decorations, but they were shadow deer with headlight eyes. She avoided making eye contact with any of them.
And another Deer loomed at the end of the Path. Massive. The Watcher of Ways.
They weren’t going to the end though.
The train passed behind some houses, pulling to a stop. The bar lifted up. The space between houses led to the open train car door. They jogged over.
Ascended the stairs.
Into a mostly empty train car. It seemed like traffic was pretty light, considering the situation.
“Whatever happens,” Cliff said. “Good path running. Good finding. I’m proud.”
“Condescending,” Adorea muttered.
“Come on now. Don’t pick up on this kid and her opossum’s snark. Take it how it’s meant to be taken.”
Adorea nodded. She heaved out a breath.
“Are we thinking the Wolf is going to show?” Clayton asked.
He’d had a minor panic attack earlier. He wasn’t so good when the Wolf was involved. Like, he could handle what he was doing, but he kind of shut down. Locked down to handling one thing, and that was it, and he’d freeze with whatever else.
Probably not leader material. Avery agreed with him.
“I think she didn’t see us board, so there’s a chance she won’t be there when we get off.”
“So we got to get from a platform two thirds of the way down the Path to the end of the Path, and we gotta do it fast,” Cliff said. “No jobs to do, no tickets to barter for, no shenanigans. But the Lost will be dense there. Every time we leave and come back, we arrive to less numbers. But they’ll still be thick, there’ll still be a lot. Even with Wunderkand there. But them being there means we don’t reset. We can’t rely on the edge, or the Wolf might notice. We do any of that? We do it sparingly.”
There were nods all around.
“Wunderkand, the Wolf, smiling Others in large numbers, and whatever else the Path throws at us,” Cliff said. “Be ready. Remember, close as we are, don’t be stupid. It’s easy to get brave in the moment. But I’d rather you tug on your ropes and get jerked back over to Earth-”
Adorea, elbow on table, covered her mouth with her hand, trying not to smile at the innuendo. Avery managed to keep a straighter face.
“- than try for a stupid low chance of success, get killed. I’d rather my family’s alive than have a slightly higher shot at staking out the Promenade. I’d rather you’re alive, even, Avery.”
“Wow. Ringing endorsement, I guess?”
“It’s meant- even if you’re not family, I care. You’ve done pretty darn good. We owe you a lot. You get a share of this. But don’t go dying for it if you can help it.”
“But you can go ahead and die, Cliff,” Snowdrop said.
“Yeah,” he replied. “Not planning on it.”
The words had been said. There was no strict schedule for when the train would arrive, so there was no way to time the speech or planning for their arrival. It became a weird preparatory silence. The train rolled over tracks, rocked occasionally at gusts of wind, and moved between night and day, sunset and rain like other trains passed into tunnels. Here and there, there were fantastical sights outside, like schools of fish diving through cloud to ambush flocks of birds, or roads and tracks building themselves out of nowhere, or barren Paths on weird trajectories, spinning a thousand kilometers an hour, casting things away, or colliding with one another three times in the time it took the train to pass by them. But mostly it was dense, smoke, clouds, mist, and white sky.
And it was like, any second, the Promenade could come into view. Then it would be less than a minute before the train settled at its stop.
Avery ate a protein bar and drank water to wash it down. Snowdrop had the same.
There wasn’t a lot else she could do to prepare. She considered wearing a uniform onto the Path, but that came with complications. If there were surviving decoys, they were dressed like her, and if she wore a uniform onto the Path, there’d be benefits, but there’d also be assigned work. And she really just wanted the coast to be as clear and uncomplicated as possible for getting to the end of the Path.
Spell cards sorted. Tools and things set up. She had one of the ‘down to earth’ baseballs ready at her hip. Familiar at her side.
She ran her fingers through her hair, like she was going to put it into a ponytail. She looked at her reflection.
Condensation was collecting. She reached out and smudged parts of it.
Past the white clouds, there was a dark patch. The dark patch clarified, clouds peeling back as the train plunged, traveling along tracks with no ground between them and sky.
The Station Promenade. Final length.
She put her phone to her ear.
Lucy answered the group call first. Verona was a second later. Lucy’s voice came through. “And? Are you okay?”
“Coming in now.”
“Is my dad there?”
“He left,” Verona said. “Then he came back. I helped. He’s fun.”
“Is Wunderkand being a problem?”
“They’re okay. I mean, as far as we’re concerned. Busy setting up. Terminals, temporary quarters, maps, gathering information. They made it pretty far up. Not even leaving and coming back,” Lucy said. “Do you want to talk to your dad? I could set up his phone-”
“Or I could give him mine,” Verona said.
“Or that,” Lucy said.
“Hmm. Yeah, sure. If you could?” Avery asked.
The Promenade was coming into focus now.
“Hey there,” she heard her dad’s voice.
“Final bit. Next minute or two decides what months of work and preparation come to. Like a sports match, you know? Months of work, hard fighting, injury, all for minutes of actual play. The final period of a hockey match. Overtime in a soccer match.”
“Final song in a singing competition,” her dad replied.
“Don’t put me off my game right at the end. I hate those shows so much.”
“Yeah. You good? You okay?”
Weird question to be considering as her stomach plunged, train dipping, rollercoaster style, drawing close to the stop, barely slowing.
“I think so.”
“These guys, I don’t think they know what to do with me,” her dad said. “They’re building up so much. It’s like they’re assuming the conclusion is a given.”
“It might be. But we offered them a slice of the Promenade, if they’d get out of our way. Bird in the hand, instead of the two in the bush. But they decided to slap away our offer. I’m hoping we get to make them regret it.”
“Is that you? Coming down in the distance?”
“I’ll let you go.”
“Love you,” she told him.
“Yeah. Love you too.”
“My love to Lucy and Verona. If either or both of them are on, still.”
“We are. Lucy’s being an eavesdropper, won’t hang up,” Verona said.
“I’ll hang up then. Gotta focus,” Avery said.
She hung up without waiting for another response. The train was slowing to a stop, and the back and forth could continue for a while.
Another moment of quiet. The Garricks were talking with one another, moving toward the exit.
As they stopped, a flying basket spiraled out of the air, crashing into a stall.
Disaster girl, Avery thought. This far back?
And she saw Wunderkand.
This far forward.
The train doors opened. Avery didn’t go out onto the platform, instead slipping out the side, between the train cars, then climbing up, Snowdrop following.
Not stepping on the tiles bought her time without having to follow the regimented movement. Being on top of the train bought her a vantage point to see.
Smiling Others were crashing into Wunderkand, and the suited, sometimes gussied up members of the corporate Path group were fighting them back.
Roughly equal in number, maybe. There weren’t that many smiling others, even this far in, when so many of the regular Lost were now smiling, moving aggressively, being aggressive. And Wunderkand had a lot of forces to deploy.
The thing seemed to be that if a Lost was removed, it was replaced. Maybe it was the same one popping up near the back. Maybe it was new ones, getting off of trains, immediately breaking into smiles and moving on the tiles.
But Wunderkand was strong. Even the lowest tier guys and ladies in suits were pretty darn competent. Maybe on par with or more competent than Adorea. People with the upper hand, skill, resources, against Lost, who didn’t stay down for long, who had the home turf advantage.
And, technically, since they had means of getting out in an emergency, regrouping, and coming back, they too could return, like the smiling Lost were doing. Maybe the turnaround was longer, but they needed to do it less.
The catch, really, was that for every bit of progress they made, the harder it became to advance.
And Avery had to get past that same issue.
So she remained atop the train.
It started to roll forward, and she adjusted her position, running along the top of it, Snowdrop beside her. It moved forward faster than she could run backward along its length.
It curved upward as it pulled out of the station. She slid down one car, putting a foot out, and stopped as her foot hit a ledge- a ventilation hatch.
She tapped her foot three times, riding it straight up. Drew a spell card…
Snowdrop went small, clinging to her.
And she leaped from a train that had gone up as much as it had gone forward. She twisted in the air, curving her body and letting the wind push her around a hundred and eighty degrees, and then she threw the spell card.
An explosion of wind. Thrusting her out and away, in coordination with the air-empowered leap.
Another twist in the air- trying to get her feet under her, before she went spread eagle, coat open, cape fluttering behind her. Blocking the wind. She felt like she was going to land on her legs first, but she was able to stretch- leg up and forward- she hooked her arms around it, hugging it closer to her body, more ‘down’-
Glad for the pre-lacrosse stretches and runs, she thought.
Her toe made contact with the ground. Ground rippled, and smiling Lost around her lost their footing.
She reverse-jackknifed, straightening, stumbling forward, traced her steps, and then took a step to her right.
Snowdrop went human, dropping down, feet planted at the corners of the red tile, stopping Avery’s forward momentum.
Then the smiling Lost were around her, and on her.
There were too many, and there was too much going on. There was no way to track their full motions, no escape except to go over the edge, and if she hung from the edge, she was pretty sure the Wolf would come.
It was meant to be the way across this tough patch, she figured, in a reality where they hadn’t been screwed over, Wolf summoned onto the Path by a wasting of their ‘plays’.
Wunderkand had drawn up battle lines across two thirds of the Promenade, extending across the foot of the stairs that led up to the bridge that ran through the center, and across the rightmost footpath. The smiling Lost seemed to take the shortest route they could get to obstructing or attacking, so they’d clustered there, a wall. Wunderkand attacked, pushed back, used summoned Others, and drove them back. Making a few steps of progress at a time. Others were coming to reinforce.
Avery could go forward, into smiling Lost, and into the thick of things, but she wasn’t sure how that would go. So she retreated.
Down toward the footpath that was on the left, if coming from entrance to endpoint. Mostly empty. Some Lost lingered, and some Wunderkand people were taking shelter. They’d figured out they could stop in the shaded cafes and places, so they’d turned those places into rest spots. Places to lick wounds and regain stamina, before replacing others at the inching progress on the front line.
Avery drew the attention of smiling Lost down toward those cafes, before triple-stepping and leaping up onto the bridge.
Some waited up for her there. A Lost fellow was spraying so much urine from his dick that he was airborne, spiraling in the air, body ragdoll limp. Lost were treating the tiles he’d flooded as gold ones. Or as one extended gold tile, hurrying along its length while the clock allowed.
He wasn’t smiling.
“Buddy!” she called up. “Want help!?”
He banked against a railing so hard she could hear the ‘thwack’. His head went down, his pelvis went up, and he skidded about twenty feet along the bridge, bowling two smiling Lost off their feet.
Avery passed one collapsed stall place with a tarp over it, pulled the tarp free, and chased the guy. She could see Cliff and Adorea below, trying to navigate. They’d reached the left side, where things were clearer, but had run into problems with Wunderkand. A few of the Others she’d led around were getting closer, and the Wunderkand underlings looked antsy.
She had to trust them. She’d help in a moment.
For right now, she ran after the peeing man. She threw the tarp over her back, reached for his arm, and hooked her elbow at his. The tarp protected him from his damp and stained clothing, and she was able to spiral with him for a second, grounding him, before pressing him against the railing, extending her arm back, and hooking her left elbow with his. Back to back, elbows interlinked. he’d stopped, but continued spraying.
“Better?” she asked.
She could hear him throw up. Opossum Snowdrop reached up, pawing at the back of his head. Patting.
“Want to help me clear up this situation? Deal with Wunderkand?” she asked.
“No way-” he grunted. He sounded badly injured. “No way am I getting close to that.”
“What if you don’t have to?” she asked.
“How?” he asked.
“Work with me on this, keep doing what you do, and if I can, I’ll tell the important local Lost you were a help. I don’t know if that’s a medal, or feel good, or-”
“Without getting close?”
“Not to the front lines,” she said.
She moved. It felt like moon walking. She had a shitty -or piss-poor, rather- jetpack, and it boosted her forward and up, the spray constant behind her.
She bounded over, toward the Lost, and sprayed the Wunderkand mooks who were bothering Cliff and Adorea. A few spell cards froze what was there, and Cliff was able to finish them- pushing one over the edge and driving the heel of his hand into the other’s chin- knocking him backward when his legs and feet were frozen into a ground that didn’t really allow a graceful way down. Something probably broke or badly sprained as he went down.
But that wasn’t her focus. She didn’t need a jetpack, and she didn’t need a weapon to spray people she jumped over. She could paint the tiles. She could lure the smiling Lost.
Over to the rooftops of shops and collapsed stalls. Spraying them yellow. Like one broad tile.
Smiling Lost came running up, toward the bridge…
And she led them over. Down the other side.
Well behind Wunderkand’s front line.
They came in as a trickle, then a river. A collection of smiling Lost now attacking from behind.
She air-shoed her way up, went way higher than expected for a landing on the bridge, tarp fluttering around her, and then landed on the left side.
“That’s it, that’s all,” she told the pissing man.
“Sorry if I got you dirty.”
“It’s okay. Did them way dirtier.” She started to toss the tarp aside, then paused. “Hey, Do you want to be a kite? More control?”
“Avery!” Cliff bellowed, pointing.
A volley of Lost projectiles came at her, turning in the air.
She ran, dodging, shucking off the tarp and letting the pissing man have it. No time to tie cords or set him up.
The volley didn’t stop until she’d circled partially around, Clayton found her, and he threw up a seal into the air, disrupting the connection between projectile and whoever was directing them.
Together, they advanced. The smiling Lost weren’t as condensed at the point point, as they now flowed out and past the Wunderkand front line, which was a tenth of what it had been two minutes ago, and started to distribute themselves along the Path.
Still a lot, though.
With her Sight, she spotted the guy who was directing projectiles- a Wunderkand guy wearing suspenders and bellybutton high pants who was hiding. He was currently tearing down Clayton’s seal, so he could resume doing what he’d been doing. Others lurked nearby, using magic items and practice circles to produce flurries of projectiles that they were aiming at smiling Lost until they could start shooting Avery again.
She used a spell card optimized for long distance. A spark of flame that exploded into a patch of burning ground. Forcing suspenders guy back.
Smiling Lost noticed the fire and came at him from three directions.
The endpoint wasn’t even that far away. Like, two city blocks. But with everything going on, with Wunderkand’s soldiers prepped… they couldn’t make it through, it seemed like, because at a certain point it was like, eight aggressive Lost on them at a time, but they could hold the line okay, make occasional progress, and from this vantage point, they could interfere with Avery and her group.
She tried two more spell cards, but they were interfered with before they reached their destination. Wunderkand Lost came after her, forcing her down off the bridge, onto the one side, and leaving her running.
“Do we try!?” she asked.
“Is it doable!?” Cliff asked, back.
She wasn’t sure.
She wished she could call in an airstrike from the Tearaway Kid and his girlfriend, but he’d said no. If he got bound by Wunderkand, that was it for him.
She had some goblin fireworks, as a just-in-case for Wild Hunt crap, but that wasn’t a lot.
She backed off, away from Cliff, trying to take in the surroundings.
She heard the Wolf’s addled howling laughter.
She looked into the stalls. Maybe if she took a job? Pilot of a zeppelin?
“Guys,” she addressed the Lost. “Will the smiling Lost attack you?”
The Lost inside shook their heads.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” she told them, before the movement requirements forced her to step away.
One ventured outside. “What deal?”
“You get to keep doing what you do. No control, no oversight. We don’t bind anyone on the Promenade except the most dangerous of you,” she said. “Only with permission and cooperation. You help us, we help you get rid of the guys turning this into a real warzone.”
He left. Back into the shop.
Avery navigated her way back to Cliff-
And saw more of the projectiles curving lazily in the air, veering back toward them. Clayton managed another seal in the air.
“Can’t keep doing this!”
“Yeah!” Avery called back.
The guy came out of the shop. “No!”
“No!?” Avery called back.
“Too dangerous. But there’s some further back! They were tricking and interfering with those other guys.”
She nodded, turning.
She went. The projectiles rained down at her. They seemed to aim for wherever she was standing, so as long as she kept moving, they hit wherever she’d been a second or two ago. But she did have to stop as part of her pattern of movement, so that forced her into awkward patterns, where she had to move to awkward spots or backtrack before being able to move under temporary cover.
She found the duck shop.
“Want to fight back?” she asked the Promenade rebels of the duck shop.
“How bad a fight is it?”
“I think you might not even have to fight at all,” she told them.
She led them out, down the length of the Promenade. Some smiling Lost had trailed after her and filtered down this far, so she used it as an example case.
Smoke was everywhere, rain was coming down, and the sound of fighting filled the Promenade. Various Lost practices and weird Lost quacked, exploded, and screamed. More zeppelins kept taking off only to find excuses to be taken out of the air and crash land.
“Block him!” she told one of the Duck rebels, indicating one of the smiling Lost. “He moves at diagonals!”
A lost did. Giving Avery clear movement forward. “And someone picks up where he left off…”
Chaining movement. A group of fifteen with their own movement patterns blocking them off.
Keeping that smiling Lost stuck by a wall for a solid ten movements. Avery got far enough ahead she didn’t need to worry, detoured right onto the bridge to let the Duck rebels catch up, then led them down the concourse.
“Go ahead, block off movements where you can,” she told them. “We need a course at the left side.”
“And you can end this?”
“I think so.”
“Your Familiar ritual was cool, you know. Opossum all decked out.”
Avery nodded. “She’s great.”
“You look after her.”
Avery gave him a thumbs up, before moving to avoid the projectiles. It looked like Adorea was trying to stop the guy now, but it had turned into a back and forth where he had a torrent of never-missing shots and she had some next-to-zero-accuracy Lost party tricks that made him keep his head down for that one percent chance something could actually hit him and do serious damage.
“How long will it take them, brute forcing it like this?” Avery asked, changing position. Knives and darts rained from the sky, embedding themselves in the tin roof of a shack she’d taken shelter in.
“Days,” Cliff said. “Pushing? Not ceding ground? Except when you draw a flank around to their sides? There’ll be gaps. But they won’t keep brute forcing it. This just keeps the situation where they like it, they’ll have experts on the job, they’ll unravel this thing in minutes or hours. That Giselle woman might have already figured out a good bit of it.”
“They’re getting set up!” Clayton shouted.
“Go,” Cliff ordered.
They went for it. Smiling Lost were moving toward the bottleneck where Wunderkand’s stragglers were holding the line, and where more Wunderkand people were setting up and trying to squeeze out the flankers. It moved them right. With some cooperating Lost in the way, dangerous smiling Lost weren’t left with clear movement when Cliff led the way through and around. Past the lines of smiling Lost.
But as they made forward progress, someone else did too.
They ran, coast made clear by the cooperating Others, but Giselle was there, far right, swinging her mallet back and forth, her reflected Wolf charging forward, using raw strength.
None of the smiling Lost were able to stand up to it or get past it. The mallet hit them like an eighteen wheeler, smacking them out of reality. The fake Wolf tore them limb from limb like they were paper.
And Wunderkand’s people raced in behind her.
“No fucking way,” Cliff muttered. “No way does she follow in our footsteps, then lunge forward at the finish line. No fucking way.”
He pulled a sheaf of paper from his jacket. He let the wind catch them, and they blew out and back.
They stuck to the air. Papers stuck end to end, forming a circle. And another circle at the center.
“Was saving this for a gift for Jude or Tess,” Cliff said, voice low. “But I’d rather they have the Promenade as a place to go.”
“What is it?”
“Pages from the Page of Sun’s book.”
The pages glowed.
Giselle leaped over the railing, with way more grace than Avery would have expected for someone of her proportions, in a corset and long skirt. Giselle leaned back, hand at the railing. Using the edge.
“She’s figured shit out, or Shane and Kimber found stuff out and told them,” Cliff muttered.
She was using the edge. The pages finished glowing, then spat out a fierce shaft of fire that blazed a trail across the Promenade.
And stopped at the railing.
It burned the false Wolf, at least.
“Will that draw the real Wolf’s attention?” Clayton asked.
“I don’t know. Should. But she’s got a fucking weird relationship to the thing,” Cliff growled.
They’d bought time, at least. As long as the laser burned, the Wunderkand security manager or whatever she was couldn’t move much.
Avery reached for the Down to Earth ball, aimed, and threw.
She wanted to hit Giselle’s hand. Something that would bypass abnormal rules, act like a normal baseball would, ignoring the shenanigans and usual crap. She might have hit Giselle’s body. But Giselle chose that same moment to move.
It sailed past the edge and into the Lost sky beyond.
“Nice idea, but no,” Cliff said.
The pages were running out of firepower.
Giselle, teeth clamped around mallet, reached for the burning false Wolf- grabbing the mirrored collar at her neck.
She pulled it out of the false Wolf’s neck. The Wolf ceased to be. Leaving her with a powerful magic mirror in her hand, her other hand gripping the railing.
“Careful!” Avery shouted. “Mirror! Don’t let her reflect the fire beam!”
She didn’t. It wasn’t the goal, if it was even something she could do. But she aimed the mirror down the Path, it glinted, light refracted, and the camera flare, sunspot, rainbow reflection type stuff that shone off it all gathered together.
And Avery could hear the howling laughter of the addled true Wolf, elsewhere. Further down the Path.
The false Wolf reappeared, whole, directly ahead of Avery. Wearing the mirror collar again, while Giselle held spots, camera flares, and rainbow refractions.
The false Wolf howled her laughter, addled, and Avery felt a stab of fear.
She could see and hear the convergence. The laughter down the Path and this laughter aligned. The image clarified in ways Avery hadn’t realized it was unclear. It trembled at the edges.
As the fire beam tapered off, Giselle sat on the railing, swung her legs over, and set her feet down on the other side, standing. She walked forward, mallet and heels clicking against tile as she walked. “Sure. You can have the glimmer of you I took back, destroy her. Then separate again? We go back to the status quo?”
“I’ll destroy you eventually, my darling,” the Wolf told her. “And you’ll look back on all of our moments together with a special kind of horror.”
“Maybe. Go ahead.”
With the permission, the trembling resistance faded away.
The false Wolf had become the real Wolf.
“Move, and I break her in two,” the Wolf told the Garricks.
Avery held onto the Wolf’s wrist, to keep from choking and blacking out. The texture of her skin felt like it was fine tuned to be offensive, too papery, too moist and swollen beneath. Eczema cut at Avery’s fingers.
The Garricks remained where they were. As they did, violating the movement precept, the unsmiling, helpful Lost behind them started to smile.
“Move and I break her in two,” the Wolf warned. She walked, carrying Avery with her. Then she leaned in close to Avery, her breath sour with the smell of rotted teeth. “They’ll move eventually, and I’ll eventually break you in two, but not today. Today I want to break you in other ways.”
Avery gasped, fighting whole-body for small tenths of a breath of air. Fingers scratched.
The Wolf carried her to the end of the Path. Up the stairs. Then she held Avery out.
“Careful!” Giselle raised her voice.
The Wolf smiled. Avery averted her eyes, fighting. She happened to look down, past the darkness creeping in at the edge of her vision.
“There you are. A hair’s breadth from the final step. From the door, the boon, from success after months of work,” the Wolf told Avery.
Avery strained, toe reaching.
“Closer than any human ever has. If you’d eaten one more meal with family, would you be that hair’s breadth taller, to be able to touch it? If one Other could reach out, one Garrick pull a trick out of his pocket to nudge me, you could touch it. But they won’t. They’re fighting for their lives. I think, hmm, two will die. Cliff is strong, he has tricks. But he won’t be strong after he has to explain the death of a niece and nephew to his older brother and cousin. It will be the end of him.”
“Try harder. Push. Break something,” the Wolf told Avery. “Tear a muscle, get close enough to claim victory. Less than a millimeter.”
Snowdrop came out of hiding, biting the Wolf’s hand.
The Wolf didn’t even flinch.
“Sacrifice your boon companion?” the Wolf suggested. “The old deal holds. It would be a victory.”
Avery closed her eyes. She shook her head.
She jerked. The Wolf turned, striking something dark out of the air with the back of her hand.
Cliff Garrick. He’d used something to attack with, been stabbed in the arm for his trouble, and was now losing the fight against smiling Lost.
“So close. It’ll eat at him knowing how close you all got. If he’d been a little faster, more focused, stronger, more willing to make sacrifices. It’ll eat at you. In all things, you hate losing, don’t you? Especially bitter losses.”
Avery’s fingernails dug in. Snowdrop bit again.
“Come back to the Path. Or try. You’ll have to, in vain, slim hope that your competitor fails, and there’s another chance. Come, see what it looks like after it’s theirs. There’s little worse than getting this close and failing so miserably.”
“Wolf?” Giselle asked.
“Hmmmm?” the Wolf asked, her voice an off-kilter hum. She turned, Avery dangling, so close to passing out that just being swung around made her go black for a second.
“Finish with her? I want this done. And I need your help to clear the way to the platform.”
The Wolf laughed, and then, with a casual toss, flung Avery sideways over the edge.
Thirty feet out, Avery realized, as she fell, limp, gasping out a breath, the surge of darkness that had been claiming her vision giving way to too-sharp alarm.
No Others flying in to the rescue. Too far away to grab a trailing wire or anything.
Too seen to black rope.
Friends turned to smiling enemies by shittiness.
Garricks being cut down.
Cast out into nothingness. The Path disappearing above her as clouds moved between her and it.
She reached out to Snowdrop with thoughts too fuzzy from being strangled to articulate full thoughts.
Snowdrop, clinging to Avery’s neck and shoulder with back paws, stretched out, forepaws out, nose extended up.
Fireflies flew out from Avery’s sleeve.
Avery willed it. Snowdrop moved, forepaws moving, slashing through air, directing them. She’d read over Avery’s shoulder from the beginning. Download basics.
Trails, drawing lines in air.
Avery put a hand back. Yeah. Do it.
Putting power into it.
A massive air rune, drawn in glittering gold, with lines. It took time to draw in air spirits, to wake them up. But the fireflies kept drawing, retracing their steps.
Avery slowed in her fall, a cushion of wind beneath her, making her clothes and hair flap in insane ways.
Lines fade. Need-
She wanted it. Snowdrop articulated it. Redrawing the central part. Giving it another focus. An air rune and a push.
Snowdrop helped aim.
Pushing Avery up and out. Toward the Path.
Giselle was watching.
Avery heard the voice. Faint.
The mallet came down. Runes flared in the air in its wake.
And the air around Avery was smashed down. She went from an upward and a forward trajectory to one that sent her straight down, ten feet from the Path.
She twisted in the air, hurtling.
She’d gotten close.
Her hand out, she grabbed a cord that trailed from the bottom of the Path. She grabbed hard, and it ripped at her palm and fingers as she fought to find traction. Her hand felt wet as skin tore and blood slicked the way-
She’d slowed some, though. She brought her feet down, clamping them on the wire, and hugged it full-body.
Coming to a stop, swinging madly in wind.
She heard the Wolf’s howling laughter.
A tarzan swing- a failed grab. Her hand-eye coordination wasn’t all there. But she could move her body. A rush ran through her, she swung her legs, reached again, grabbed on.
And she wasn’t observed, down here. So she could reach to her wrist, pull out the black rope…
Punching it upward. She moved, bringing Snowdrop with, and grabbed a ledge beneath a train platform.
She climbed, as fast as she was able. She got ninety percent back to pre-strangulation normal as she did. She peered past the railing.
The smiling Lost were fighting Giselle and the Wolf. Wunderkand’s people were forging their way forward.
A bit of glamour. One-handed. She didn’t have time.
She motioned. Snowdrop helped again. Providing two paws, twisting them in air to change colors. Red hair to black.
She climbed up through the railing, pulling out spell cards.
She made it about two seconds before being noticed. A Wunderkand suit sparring with smiling Lost shouted once in alarm.
Avery slapped down a silence rune. Giselle turned.
The guy tried to get to Avery, but the smiling mascot-headed Lost was happy punching and tearing at the suit.
Giselle didn’t see Avery.
She pulled away. From a point close to Wunderkand’s camp, breaking into a run, toward Giselle, the Wolf and the four or five Wunderkand suits who were backing her.
“If you’d let me continue,” the Wolf said, smiling.
“What?” Giselle asked.
“You told me to get rid of her.”
Avery was fast. She covered a lot of ground. People that saw her in the corner of their vision took her as a suited Wunderkand employee.
She tapped her foot three times mid-stride, touched ground with the other foot, twisting-
Navigating the immediate crowd with one boon. She crashed between two people, turning in the air, knee fully bent, ankle at her rear end, tucked in, so she wouldn’t graze the wrong target.
She kicked Giselle in the side. Wind-boost runes at her shoe glowed for a moment-
And with a rush of wind, Giselle was kicked clear off the Path, two steps from the landing at the top.
She hurled her last few spell papers at the Wunderkand crew who’d been behind Giselle, then threw herself sideways.
Papers detonated. A torrent of fire, ice, lightning, flashes, cracked ground-
A few smiling Lost didn’t need much advantage to collapse in on them.
And the Garricks-
Behind Avery. Blocking Avery’s path. Stalking toward her.
Avery rolled down a few steps, scrambling away.
“That will eat at her,” the Wolf told Avery. “As I said.”
“Yeah, I bet,” Avery said. She glanced to one side. Nobody was in a great position to get to the Path landing.
The Wolf closed in. Trying to crawl backwards down the stairs, Avery slid down about three or four stairs on her tailbone instead.
“As for you… what shall I do?” the Wolf asked. “What would break you? Gouges on your face, for your girlfriend to wonder about? Taking your legs?”
“We’ve talked about all this before,” Avery said, without the confidence she would’ve wanted.
Snowdrop moved at Avery’s shoulder. She was thinking about the rusty fork.
No. That trick wouldn’t work here.
The Wolf shook her head, like she could read Avery’s mind. She continued advancing.
She didn’t even want to think it. She was against a primal force that was meant to foil her, break her. Something almost animal.
“There are two people you’ve ever really gone truly still with. Not going, not coming, not departing, not arriving. Your girlfriend is one. But me? I had you for a long time. Shall we go for two out of three? Shall I keep you this time? Your Founder Miss can’t come this time, the Garricks will be broken without the Promenade, your friends won’t know how to reach you. Not for years. And they’ll be weakened with you gone.”
Avery tried to stand. The Wolf lunged a step, a mad look in her eyes. Avery fell back down onto her rear end.
The Wolf swept in, grabbing her.
She lifted Avery like she’d held her before. Like there was no point, like it was inevitable that things would go the way they had before.
Cliff Garrick used a practice again. Throwing something- a piece of black paper with white writing. It flew like a dart, or a swooping bird. The Wolf backhanded it out of the air.
And this time, Avery put a foot out, on the Wolf’s knee. Pushing, twisting.
Grabbing Snowdrop. And flinging her underhand.
Onto the landing.
Snowdrop became human, then stood.
The Wolf glanced back.
“She’s me, and I am her, we’re paired. Master and familiar. Established at the start of this Promenade. Important right here, at the end,” Avery managed.
“Then she and you are both in my grasp, ready to have your necks snapped. Paralyzed for life. Done by me, it will be permanent.”
“We’re at the end of the Promenade. Out of your jurisdiction. I’ve read up on you, on the Forest Ribbon Trail. Too many Finders wondering if you’ll come reach them, appearing in their nightmares. The words are written… only in your territory. Only in your Path.”
“Then,” the Wolf brought her face close. That sour, tooth rotting smell made Avery’s face turn away. “We’ll strike a compromise. I have you. You just don’t know it yet. And I will see you soon.”
Avery grimaced at the puff of sour breath, and the flood of memories it evoked.
She was dropped, released, and landed hard on stairs.
She could go down to help the three Garricks, but she climbed instead. Before she missed her chance.
“This space, the Station Promenade, is claimed, by the Garrick family and Avery Kelly,” Avery said, climbing the steps. Snowdrop took her hand and helped her up. “We’re done. Screw the Wunderkand Finders.”
The smiling Lost who’d been gathered around the Garricks turned away. Changing their focus. Ignoring Cliff, Adorea, and Clayton, now.
Clayton was hurt, stabbed in two places. He barely made it up the steps before falling.
He had the seal stuff ready. To lock the way, to complicate entry.
To seal the Promenade access, barring permission.
The Wunderkand Finders that were coming through were replenishing their numbers at the start. Some were coming and going, apparently, and as they went, now, they couldn’t get back in.
She sat down on the top stair, breathing hard, throat hurt, unable to talk.
Cliff patted her on the shoulder as he came up beside her.
She drank water, wincing at the pain. Then she texted her friends.
This would take a while to clear out. But Wunderkand’s numbers were already dwindling a bit. Just a bit. Maybe she’d sit here for hours in total, watching. Guarding the end of the Path.
“I’ll signal home. Tell them, hm. I don’t want them hurt. Not this late in things,” Cliff grumbled.
“You are bleeding so much,” Adorea told him.
He nodded, then sat down hard. She cut at his sleeve to expose bleeding wounds, and tended to them. She looked at Avery. “Need anything?”
Avery pointed at her throat, made a croaking sound, then shrugged. That would recover.
They could sit, wait, watch, guard this spot. Until the Lost stopped smiling and everything reset before her eyes.
That would be cool.
Snowdrop rested her head on Avery’s shoulder. The fireflies rested on her bracelet, glowing.
You guys get so much bug movie, she thought. And you…
She looked at Snowdrop. Snowdrop lifted her head up, then thunked it back down at Avery’s shoulder.
They sat, recovering for a bit, waiting, watching the foremost Wunderkand group trying to fight past the thick of things without Giselle and Giselle’s fake Wolf familiar.
When that group gave up, retreating, they relaxed a bit. Avery got up, checked the sides, checked the sky, then turned, looking at the big set of double doors with the clock over it.
“Want to see?” Cliff asked.
“She totally doesn’t,” Snowdrop said.
Cliff Garrick walked over. Clayton and Adorea went to his left and right, respectively. Avery followed.
“There’s guidelines about who goes through, does what. Based on what you said, I think we all push,” Cliff said.
Avery reached between Adorea and Cliff, touching the wrought metal gate, almost two stories tall.
She pushed. So did the others.
Hinges squeaked, and doors swung wide. Light shone through- not because this place was darker, but because smoke and dust from the fighting and destruction choked a lot of the sky on this side of the doors.
Avery took it in.
A city. She’d seen Lost cities and towns before, but this took it to another level. A similar aesthetic to the Promenade, extended to something bigger. Parks and towering buildings, multi-layered streets kind of like what Kennet found had, except there was no baseline road below, no bottom. Just the arching bridges, paths, and connective tissue.
Lost were already going from the Promenade into that place. Like, matter of fact, nobody seemed to think it was weird it had been closed, it was just convenient now that it was open. Maybe they’d had ways to get here from other angles, but now another big one was opened.
It wasn’t a Path, though. Avery could feel it. It was supporting structure. And the structure it was supporting – at least part of it…
A metal cube, suspended in air. Bridges reached to it. It was damaged, clearly no longer suffering the function it once had, decayed from neglect and age. Slowly, it turned in mid-air, one corner pointed down, the spinning with a wobble to it. The bridges and paths that extended to it formed a kind of halo around it, both horizontal and vertical. Framing. It looked like they could move, to be retracted or adjusted.
There were others, though. A sphere of ice, with something dark within. And something that flickered when Avery moved her head. Like she could almost see it, but not quite. Like there was one position of head and eyes a fraction of a hair’s breadth wide, that she could be jarred from with a single beat of her heart, that let her see it. Fleeting.
And a final one. The Promenade ‘s concourse led forward, colors fading to pure black, creating a straight path and bridge to one empty space, where no construct sat within. Nothing frozen, metal, flickering or otherwise.
Avery walked through, looking around. Noises rustled around her.
Each one had a path extending out. To open gates.
“Avery,” Clayton said.
On either side of her were doors to buildings. One was black, painted with a white mark she couldn’t decipher. One was blue, with a light blue mark.
She stepped back. Doors slammed. The doors changed to something that matched the rest of the surroundings.
She stepped forward again, and the doors ‘slammed’ into place in the same way she could use her Sight to open her eyes a second time.
She stepped back. Cliff stepped forward.
Same deal. Doors changed to something else.
Cliff walked over, then opened the black one.
A black sea with white water. It looked like the moon was at the horizon, melting into the sea and tainting it.
“Neverending Night,” Cliff said. “I wonder how that works. Wherever we go, doors give us access to other Paths? Is it only if we’re on a Path? After we finish one?”
Avery rubbed at her throat, wincing. She didn’t feel brave enough to try talking.
“We can set you up with jewelry or something,” Adorea said. “Something to suppress the door thing, if it gets inconvenient.”
Avery nodded. They’d gone over that earlier.
“Makes getting around pretty easy, huh?” Clayton asked. He checked for himself that it worked. “We get choices now. On top of…”
He gestured at the setup around the constructs. The buildings, the Lost network. Whatever else this was.
Avery was pretty sure she knew whatever else this was, now.
A halfway point.