“Anyone want to do me a solid and let me gainsay them, so I get some power back and can practice again?” Verona asked, hopeful.
The looks she got in response really said it all. Their group was gathered in the music place, because it had sitting room, encouraged loitering, and gave them a good vantage point for watching the motel.
“I don’t think that works,” Zed replied. “You might tick off the spirits and then both individuals are depowered.”
“Someone could transfer power,” Zed told her, as he flipped through records. “But I think it’s a skewed system. If it costs me five units of power to give you three, then in most cases it’s going to be better for you to walk me through whatever it is you want to practice, instead.”
“For most cases?” Verona asked.
“Getting sidetracked again?” Lucy asked, from the next aisle over.
“I love the sidetracks! Avery goes wandering off and flanks the bad guys and whatever, but I’d like to think I do it mentally.”
Lucy gave her a look.
“Most cases,” Zed confirmed. “In cases like, say, Raymond doing some big technomancy, if he got gainsaid at a bad moment, maybe it’d be better for me to hand him some power and let him do the programming-dense part of the technomancy.”
There was a knock on the window.
Guilherme, not one to really browse a record shop, was sitting on the sidewalk, in his guise as an older man, hair long and white, body muscular in that way really fit old men could be, where his tanned, less-wrinkled-than-it-should-be skin stretched over muscle. His hand remained raised, knuckles resting on the window, his head hadn’t turned to look at them.
“Showtime?” Verona asked.
“Showtime. If things get bad, we need to be ready to book. That means rushing the backdoor,” Zed said. He turned to the guy at the counter. “Can I try this record?”
“Ten dollar deposit.”
“To test play a record?”
“Machine’s junk, if it digs the record, that’s on you, not me.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Zed told him.
“I think it’s been junk since my big brother was my age,” Lucy said.
“That’s even more ridiculous,” Zed exclaimed, legitimately offended.
“Oh yeah. You should see some of the other old standbys here. These headphones…” Lucy trailed off.
“I don’t think I want to,” Zed told her.
Guilherme turned his head, peering through the window.
“Guilherme’s giving us a look,” Verona pointed out. “Can he hear us?”
“No,” Lucy said.
“Right, okay. Just impatient, then.”
“Give me a bit,” Zed said, bringing the records he was interested in over to the record player, which was set up at one corner of the counter. He put the records on the counter, pointed at the player, and asked, “May I?”
The man at the counter shrugged. “You break it, you buy it.”
“The record player that’s been junk since…?” Zed looked over at Lucy.
“At least five years ago.”
The older teenager at the counter reached into a bag of gummy candies that Verona recognized as being from the bulk bin at the supermarket, put too many in his mouth, and then chewed, giving Zed his most disinterested expression.
Zed took a minute to dismantle the needle thingy on the long arm, then began rubbing it on his jeans.
“Static on the needle thingy?” Verona asked. “Or are you trying to get it staticky?”
“No, and no. But there’s a burr on the stylus, and a collection of dust and stuff. Tonearm…” Zed toyed with the thing the needle had been attached to. “Is too loose. Screwdriver, in my bag.”
Verona went to Zed’s bag, followed instructions, and found the screwdriver set.
“Seems like you’re as bad as Verona when it comes to this stuff,” Lucy said.
“They’re there? Settling in?”
“Nobody coming our way? Because if they do we need to book it.”
“Nobody’s coming our way just yet,” Lucy said, approaching.
Zed tightened a screw, tested the speed of movement of the ‘tonearm’, replaced the stylus-head, pulled out a record with more care than the dusty record and worn out sleeve seemed to deserve. He made sure it turned okay, started up the machine, and brought the stylus down.
Rock began to play. Zed closed his eyes for a moment.
“Sounds pretty good,” Lucy said.
“You might have a better ear than I do, but yeah,” Zed said. “Still want that deposit?”
The guy at the counter had already jammed another fistful of candy into his mouth, since finishing the last. Which meant they had to wait about eight to ten seconds for him to finish chewing and choking down the gelatin mass. “Not if you’re going to be cranky about it. Forget about it.”
“Play your music. I don’t care. Don’t steal anything,” the teenager at the counter said.
Zed walked over to the little chair by the window. It was a hangout spot for certain types at certain hours, judging by the singular brand of cigarette piled up in the dingy ashtray by the display window, as if this place and that one person’s routine of smoking there predated the indoor smoking laws.
The little chair was at a round table with another chair opposite. Verona grabbed that chair while Zed settled in, nodding his head a bit to the rock, and pulling a badly outdated laptop out of his bag. He got set up, finding an outlet and plugging in.
Window seat, view across the seat to the motel, Guilherme a few feet away on the other side and other end of the window. Verona put her chair down and sat next to Zed, sitting down with knees apart, hands together at the front edge of the chair, edge of her seat, interested.
Zed looked at her while the laptop booted up, lines of green text spooling out.
“Can I watch? I’d like to see how technomancy works.”
“Sure,” Zed told her, though Verona had a vague sense she was testing his patience. Or all of this was. Zed glanced over at the guy at the counter, on the far end of the store, who chewed on candy and turned pages in a magazine. “I don’t know how you can have all that free time and not fix the equipment, or bring someone in to. Woobtube tutorials.”
Verona shifted position on the uncomfortable plastic chair. “One way I like to think about people and learning and stuff is that we’re like cars.”
“I like this analogy already,” Zed said.
“The faster we go, the easier it is to go fast. If we’re in good working order, it’s easier to figure out what’s wrong and fix it, so we stay in good working order. Momentum in all things. And if you’re a teenager who’s been working here since you were fifteen, doing nothing but eating junk and maybe ten transactions a day?”
“No momentum,” Zed said. “But if you’re working here, don’t you like music? How could you not be motivated to put in that bare-minimum effort?”
“Small towns, boyo,” Verona told him.
“You should see the headphones they’ve got for sampling music,” Lucy said. She’d approached and now stood in the vacant spot where the chair Verona took had been, standing by the window, glass separating her and Guilherme, arms crossed, looking outside. Her expression looked angrier than usual as she watched the Witch Hunters and said, “some have half-inch thick crescents of earwax or something built up in them.”
Zed logged into his computer. Verona averted her eyes for the password input, out of respect. Zed looked up at Lucy, though it wasn’t much up, considering he was sitting on a dinky chair and she was standing. “Have you given any consideration to not saving the town from Musser, Witch Hunters, and whatever else is going on?”
Carmine stuff, Maricica stuff, Verona thought, just to keep track.
“People I care about live here,” Lucy said.
“Plus oaths,” Verona pointed out.
“You could probably barter headphones like that to a goblin, trade for something that you can exchange for cash, and buy replacement headphones.”
“Economical,” Verona said.
The fan on the old laptop was roaring now, the machine kicking to life. Zed opened an application, then opened a separate window. Blue text that didn’t fit the lines of code and the streams of ones and zeroes appeared on the screen.
“That’s Nina,” Zed noted.
“Our librarian? Your librarian? The librarian?” Verona asked. “She didn’t stay at the school?”
“Yes, it is, and no, she didn’t. She sticks with me. Part of the terms we agreed to. She didn’t want to be left behind,” Zed explained. He plugged a wire into his flip phone, then plugged an adapter into that, an adapter into that, and then a clearly homemade and dangerous looking arrangement of wires and plugs to connect the last adapter to his laptop. He dragged some pictures from one folder onto the desktop. Blue text appeared, and then the pictures were swept up. “Being an Animus can be a lonely existence. For a Librarian Animus, life is defined by the search for books, visits to bookstores, meeting people in a moment and giving them that one perfect book.”
“I wonder how that is for someone like John,” Lucy said. “Moments of violence? It feels like he’s moving away from what he is whenever he’s being social and nice.”
“I don’t know,” Zed replied. “That’s not me disagreeing, it’s me not knowing. Just going to ask Nina to identify our guys. Going by names… Clint, Rocky, Gerald Haris, remind me?”
“Elise, Renfroe, Francis, Cleo Aleshire,” Lucy supplied.
“Getting use out of that earring,” Verona said.
“Hopefully it’s useful,” Lucy said, watching out the window.
The witch hunter group had come in, moved out of the way to make room for the tow truck that was pulling the burned husk of Musser’s car out of the lot, and gone into their rooms, but they kept coming out and going from room to room. Clint roomed with Rocky, Renfroe with Francis, and Gerald with Elise.
“Assuming they didn’t change their names… should be able to get something. And there’s nothing.”
“What if they did change their names?” Verona asked.
“Nina’s looking… and nothing. Scrubbed.”
“Scrubbed. Just completely wiped away from the internet?”
“And apparently from news, microfiche records, police records,” Zed said, leaning back into his chair.
“Step one, identify your enemy,” Lucy said.
“We know what they are, we can assume they’re very good and very dangerous,” Zed said. “But individually? Only what we’ve seen so far.”
Jessica walked down the sidewalk, passing Guilherme, and paused to say something to him, and then stepped inside.
“Going to go listen in and talk to Guilherme,” Lucy said.
“Sure,” Zed said, absently. Then he looked up as Lucy walked to the door. “Hey.”
“I was going to joke you’ve got a weird goblin, Sir Toadswallow, and now you’ve got a weird Faerie, y’know?”
“Sure?” Lucy frowned.
“But I think it’s different. I don’t really know Fae stuff, but is there something wrong with your Faerie?”
“Yeah, yeah there is,” Lucy said. “Hey, Ronnie?”
Verona looked over.
Lucy put her phone on the table and slid it over, face-down. Verona looked without showing Zed, because it was face-down. The messages were still coming in.
while were here remember we need to figure out what newbies in town were brought here for:
jabber lis rook
cig ken chloenibble montague
remember guilherme has angle for WH
Verona passed the phone back to Lucy. Lucy caught it before it went over the table’s edge. She gave Verona a serious look that could be mistaken as a thing for mishandling her phone. “I’m going to go check on Guilherme.”
Sounding him out to see what you can figure out about the Witch Hunter involvement? Verona telepathically communicated with Lucy. Not that that actually worked, but in this moment it felt like it sorta did. Like they were on the same page.
Which was rarer now than it had been.
“I’ll keep an eye out as stuff comes up, I guess,” Verona said.
Lucy stepped outside as Jessica came in.
Zed looked at Verona.
“We’re pretty sure he’s going Winter,” Verona told Zed. “I don’t think it’s a big secret anymore, but it’s sensitive.”
“Huh,” Zed murmured. “My involvement with practice doesn’t really get into that general area. I only know what I learned at the Blue Heron.”
“It’s a kind of dying, I guess,” Verona told him.
Jessica took up the spot that Lucy had occupied, by the table, looking around for a chair.
Verona looked up at her, eyebrows raised. “How was the wandering?”
“You’ve got a lot of wraiths around.”
“Spirits are filtered, some, but you’re walking the line.”
“The line?” Verona asked.
“There are places the spirits are a problem, practitioners go ‘that’s weird’, but they leave it alone, and there are places they can’t leave alone. You’re walking that line between the two. One bad night and you could end up on the wrong side of it.”
“Technically we’re the practitioners not leaving it alone, and doing our best.”
“Yeah,” Jessica said. “Can’t say I’d do a better job.”
“Hey, is that a compliment?” Verona asked.
“I don’t see myself willingly ending up with this mess as my job either,” Jessica said.
“Yeah, well…” Verona replied, trailing off. She sat back against the chair and looked at Zed’s screen. “Still searching?”
“No. Okay, so rundown on technomancy…”
“They’re grounded in astrology practices and historian practices, if you remember that one kid who left early…”
“Big diagrams tied into celestial practices, which I didn’t get enough time to study…”
“Yeah,” Zed said. “Astrology is celestial diagrams, which are like your elemental diagrams I know you’re pretty competent with, but many more moving pieces, using massive reference points, math, and other formulas.”
“Historian practices can relate to that, but may focus on naturally occurring astrological practices. Patterns emerging in how a city unfolds, the roads as diagrams, whatever.”
“Which overlaps with city magic?”
“Definitely. Which overlaps with shamanism, dealing with spirits. None of these things exist in their own completely unique sphere. Your friend Avery’s gets close though. Lost practices are out there, by definition. Finders, path runners, collectors of Lost things, losers, envoys of the lost, yadda yadda.”
“Her stuff does tie into knotted places, some overlap,” Verona said.
“Oh, for sure. Probably scourge stuff too. Ruin stuff. You know, you get to the very edges of the Abyss or Ruins, maybe. But… I think way less than a lot of other practices. Anyway, technomancy,” Zed said. He was typing all the while that he was talking, putting lines of code down. “We’ve got the world with power running through lines in the wall, power grids, streets, internet lines… it’s not a big jump to think about the power lines and wiring that could be overlaid on a map or a building plan and the lines we’d draw as part of a diagram.”
“But you’re not the one setting down the power lines.”
“Nope. But we are dealing with an emergent power. We dump all this knowledge out there, unfiltered wavelengths through wifi, we’ve got spirits new to reality with very little in the way of reference points or anchors, and all these diagram-like lines, grids, and power pushing them this way and that. The goal is to give them direction. Our tools are that we’ve got these things playing out on a lot of different levels. The architecture of a computer, sometimes literal architecture, the wiring in walls, the framing of a city, internet, power, wavelengths, the flow of spirits…”
“That’s a lot.”
“And if we get a grip on a couple things, we can steer the others. And it’s some combination of flimsy, minor effects, or we can only do it for a short time, and it gets really costly every time you want to push it further. It’s also… by the time you get good at manipulating certain tech, customize your computer’s architecture, learn to work with what you have, the world is moving on.”
“Potentially leaving you stuck in the seventies,” Jessica said, voice dry.
“I’m not stuck, and I’m not that old. I picked this stuff up because it was available, Ray thought it could give me a good grounding and I could go from there. I just so happen to like the era. I’m comfortable there. This laptop is from the 90s, for the record. I’m sane, I’m not going to use a five-by-three-inch screen on a twenty pound typewriter-scaled monstrosity.”
“Uh huh,” Jessica replied.
“Anyway, with me so far?” Zed asked Verona. “I’ve learned I’m not a super great teacher. Tell me if I’m getting too far into la la land.”
“You’re okay. Um, I think I’m with you. The world moves on while you’re figuring stuff out.”
“So those spirits that were lost in that maze of power lines and whatever? Or pipes, rail lines, and steam, of an even earlier era? Those are the ones that stick by you, help guide other spirits, and the further you’re left in the past, the more you become a techno-shaman. You lean on them more and more as your stuff gets less able to grapple with the world around you. If you get left far enough behind, then they just end up saying you’re an astrologer or historian. The technology becomes so matter of fact or irrelevant that you don’t count as a technomancer. Or whatever the term is for the era.”
“Will that happen with your tech?”
“Computers are distinct enough, I don’t think so, not for my eventual apprentice, maybe not even for my apprentice’s apprentice. But wait long enough and probably, yeah. The world forgets laptops like this were a thing. There are kids who are born in this era who’ve never seen a floppy disk, who don’t know what the save icon is meant to represent.”
“Everyone born in any era doesn’t know. Because they’re babies,” Jessica said.
“You can see why we keep her around,” Zed said, giving Jessica an annoyed look. “Keeping us square.”
“So that’s the big rundown. What are you doing?” Verona asked.
“Certain arrangements of line and power suggest certain arrangement of hallway and room. With computer architecture on one end, this laptop I’ve customized so the circuits and boards form their own specific, signature diagram, and then surveillance footage on the other end, I can push power to the right places, draw lines, and push a space into being. As Ray likes to say, it’s going to be fragile, it’s going to be fleeting, or it’s going to be weak, pick two.”
“You created a phantasmal building or whatever to hunker down in, when the Blue Heron thing got bad,” Verona noted.
“Yeah. What I’m doing is like that. I’m in a weird position where I don’t want to hurt the Witch Hunters, but I also really don’t want to be too much on Musser’s bad side. I think I can be involved, but if I attacked him or worked against him directly, I think that’d be trouble.”
“If the Witch Hunters don’t get him,” Verona said. “That’s… a possibility, isn’t it?”
“This security camera system erases the tapes. Makes things harder. You want to field this one, Jessica?”
“I guess,” Jessica said.
Verona wondered how this would go, because Jessica wasn’t a big talker.
Apparently assholes were something that got her talking. “Musser is a taker. He takes power, he takes familiars, he takes implements, he takes demesnes. He takes things people think are safe and he’s very mindful of doing all the while. Bristow was a collector, an important distinction, because he wasn’t on guard for Alexander taking Tanner from him. Tanner was an Aware, could read the writing on the wall…”
“Yeah, we got the gist, student guide and everything.”
“Good. A collector has to be very wary, at all times, because it’s very easy to bring the wrong piece into your collection and ruin everything. The counterfeit, the cursed, the tricky things and people. As a taker, same idea.”
“Being careful about what he takes?”
“He’s very unwilling to take shit, to take insubordination, any of that. He takes selectively, he won’t take just any implement. He’s always building an image. He holds himself up as a breed above and unfortunately, we live in a world where far too many out there, Other and human, will see that and go along with it.”
Zed spoke without taking his eyes off the code. “Which goes back to the question. Will the Witch Hunters get him?”
“I don’t think so,” Jessica said.
“Neither do I,” Zed added.
“Then… why not say something when we were bringing the Witch Hunters in?” Verona asked.
“Because there are reasons to let them in and deal with the chaos that aren’t outright killing or scaring off Musser,” Zed said. He finished typing, pushed the laptop back and away, and sighed. “If you didn’t do anything, I think he’d trample over everything you’re doing here, trample over you, enslave your Others, and inject his own methodology into whatever it is that’s happening at summer’s end.”
“Right,” Verona muttered.
“If you can scare him off, that’s great, but I wouldn’t count on it,” Zed told her, looking her in the eyes. “And it might even be more of a problem, depending.”
“A headmaster killed, another ruined, a third humiliated?” Jessica asked. “Too many power systems in the various families lean on these guys. They might start feeling threatened.”
Systems, power systems, families, expectations…
“In an ideal world, the Witch Hunters keep Musser out of your hair long enough for you to do what you need to do, and this-” Zed indicated the laptop, “should help with the Witch Hunter situation.”
“Creating hallways and rooms?”
“Yeah. In a pinch. I was trying to get at this earlier, but Avery was itching to go to Raquel. You guys don’t really have a plan. I don’t want to be a drag, here, but it’s not one of your strengths.”
“Strategy,” Zed said. “I think that’s the big difference between practitioners like Ray and practitioners like the guy we were dealing with last spring who got eaten by his computer. It’s something I’ve been working on. Going by how Brie and I were really at the helm for the fight against the Hungry Choir, I think I’m only halfway there.”
“Hm,” Verona made a sound, to let him know she was listening, but she didn’t know what to say.
“You’ve got a thousand things going on, you’re handicapped, and you’re pretty new to this. I don’t want to come across like I’m ragging on you. I don’t know what you want to do, big picture, where you see yourself in the future…”
“I’d like to be someone who can teach at the Blue Heron. Good at something, or a little good at everything, with my own angle. Just gotta… figure out what that is.”
“Well, if you want to be closer to those like Alexander or Ray or Musser, ideally without the problematic parts…”
“Ideally,” Jessica said, watching the Witch Hunters going about their business.
They were moving cases from the car to the motel rooms. Haris and Clint were smoking and talking, while keeping an eye on the nearby foot traffic and passing cars. Elise was giving instructions, mostly aimed at guiding the younger ones.
“If you want to be on their level or if you want to approach that level, you’d want to be someone who can approach a situation with a plan and then carry it out. With Bristow it felt like you had the end result you wanted and you forced that. And since he was always someone who was going to self destruct somehow… that went well. Alexander looked too far to the future and forgot the immediate moment. I think your instincts are stellar, but that only gets you so far.”
“Okay,” Verona told him.
Her phone rang.
Avery was on her way back.
“Brie’s safe,” Verona reported. “John took a bullet to the head, so he’s moving a bit slower. They’re coming here.”
“Good,” Zed said. “What are your-”
A message came through on his flip phone, and was put on the screen by way of the adapters. From Brie, almost a minute after Avery.
Verona waited for the question.
Zed read and reread the message, even though it only really said Brie was okay, then closed the window. He looked at Verona. “What are your priorities?”
“Protect my friends, protect some key people, protect Kennet, protect the local Others, some key ones in particular, ummm…”
“Lots of protecting,” Jessica said. “Not that that’s a bad thing.”
“I want to get un-gainsaid. I want to not be grounded, I want to make it through the end of summer. I want to stop the bad guys. Each of those things has a bunch of little add-on extras of things I need and want.”
“You might need to organize by priority,” Zed said. “Do triage. Do you know what that is?”
“Yeah. Matthew- you know Matthew. Yeah, he explained that. Damage control.”
“Figuring out who and what you need to save, above all else, what you’re willing to let go. Would you be willing to be gainsaid for the next few years if it got you clear of this?”
“I’d have a whole bunch of questions before I agreed to a deal like that.”
“It’s not a deal, it’s… reality, you know? When things get bad you might have to make split-second decisions and it really helps if you’ve already framed everything in your head, one way or the other. It could help you decide where you need to be or where you need to put your energy. What comes in what order?”
“I think you’re way overestimating how organized I am.”
“It’s good practice and it’s good Practice,” Zed told her.
Verona groaned. “When you say it like that…”
“Maybe internalizing that kind of need for prioritization of energy is where you need to put your energy, to start.”
The rev of a motorcycle was audible. Cleo returned, much the same as before, but her jacket was off. She parked the bike and wore the helmet up until she’d reached the door, at which point Haris reached for a gun at his waist.
Guilherme stood up, and Lucy shifted position, fingers knocking lightly on the window.
Cleo pulled off her helmet, and flashed a smile at Haris. White teeth between lips with striking red lipstick, skin darker than Lucy’s, parted hair slicked down close to the scalp.
Verona wished Avery had taken the time to give them the rundown on this woman.
“Is she telling them about Avery, then?” Verona asked.
“Probably,” Jessica whispered.
Because Avery hadn’t texted them any info, and now the woman was telling other Witch Hunters that there were local practitioners and Others, probably… it put them in a bad spot.
Lucy came back inside, followed by Guilherme, who looked around with a generalized disdain. “Avery messaged.”
“Me too,” Verona told her. “I mean, she messaged me too.”
“Normally Avery would be back by now but if she’s going at Brie and John’s pace…”
“Yeah,” Verona replied.
“You guys okay? What’ve you been up to?”
“Security,” Zed replied. “Because-”
Jessica cleared her throat, angling her head.
“Because that,” Zed said, looking out the window.
The Witch Hunters were crossing the street, approaching them.
“Frig,” Verona said.
Zed hurried to pack up, pulling the cords out and putting them away, unplugging the laptop from the wall, pocketing the phone, then remained poised with laptop open, hand over the keys.
“We should run,” Lucy said.
Cleo wasn’t staying with the main group. She pulled out, cut across the sidewalk, and drove her motorcycle out of sight.
“She’s going around behind,” Jessica said. “She’ll be waiting at the back door.”
“We suspected this could happen. They’re wary. We’ve got tricks, right?” Verona asked Lucy and Guilherme. “Glamour?”
“We do,” Guilherme replied, voice deep. “But remember that they know I’m here. They may be expecting glamour or illusion.”
“Stay put,” Zed said. “Wait… and text our guys. We don’t want them walking in unaware as the Witch Hunters come kicking the door in.”
“On it,” Lucy said, texting Avery.
The Witch Hunters were only twenty feet away, standing on the concrete divider between lanes, waiting for cars to pass. The boy, Francis, was hanging back on the far side of the street, standing on the sidewalk. Elise carried a large, long gym bag, and Haris wore a long coat that looked like it had to be unbearable in this heat.
The distant puttering of the motorcycle cut off.
They had weapons but they weren’t brandishing them.
“Stay put, stay put…” Zed murmured.
Verona made sure she had the dropped knife, tucked in a pocket with the handle sticking out. She wasn’t sure if it helped.
Zed looked back at the counter. “Guilherme, good sir, would you do me a favor?”
“Stand beside Jessica at the window? Shoulder to shoulder? Jessica, stay put.”
The Witch Hunters crossed the last distance, got to the front door, and, from what Verona could see as she peeked between Jessica and Guilherme, hung back, letting Clint be the one to open the door.
She could see a bit of Clint and a bit of the door as he hauled it open-
-and a few feet away, the front door of the old music store remained closed.
“Damn,” Zed said. “I hoped to catch more of them.”
“Delay, slow them down.”
On the laptop, Clint held the front door open. The image was not high fidelity, but it was clear he stood in a hallway of unpainted drywall, dark gray with white plaster or something smeared in between the individual segments.
“It’s fleeting and it’s fragile,” Zed noted. “This construction only stands for the next two to five minutes.”
He hit a button.
On that blurry, low-framerate image, the door slammed, making Clint stumble back.
Clint was barely audible as he raised his voice, and his voice echoed a bit. From inside the store, he sounded like he was outside. Zed checked what looked like a traffic camera, with what appeared to be a partial view of the street leading up to the traffic lights, and the Witch Hunter gang was outside, hauling on the door and failing to open it.
Elise, the girl with the hood, the shaggy blonde hair, and the big bag, walked over to the window. She peered into the window, cupping a hand to block the light as she brought her face close, squinting.
She didn’t seem to see them.
“Worth saying, everything I’ve heard about Witch Hunters says we should expect them to figure out this sort of thing a lot faster than you’d expect,” Zed said.
Lucy glanced at Verona, then told him, “When you say that, you make it sound like you’re going more on hearsay than personal experience.”
“I have very little personal experience and I was a bystander then,” Zed said.
“Never ran into one,” Jessica said.
“Right,” Lucy said.
“What are our options? Could we force the back door route?” Verona asked. “Or- there might be stairs going to upstairs apartments, above the shop.”
The girl at the window turned away, swayed a second, and then slammed the big bag into the store window, shattering it. Glass flew inside, scattering across the floor and across the keys of Zed’s laptop.
“Shit!” Zed exclaimed.
“Get down!” Guilherme bellowed, and even though the bellow wasn’t aimed at her, Verona ducked low. The guy at the counter, bewildered, candy falling out of his mouth, ducked behind the counter, out of sight.
And, as it happened, he no longer had a view of the hole in the window, and the drywall-lined passage on the far side.
Footsteps marched, approaching.
Zed shook keys free of glass, then typed.
Up until Clint showed up at the hole in the window. The Witch Hunter’s voices called down, echoing through the false space.
Zed lifted up the laptop and carried it a few steps back.
“Here!” Clint called out, as he approached the window, jagged glass lining his makeshift entryway into the store. Glass on their side, with a view of the outside, but on his side, it was broken drywall. The image flickered momentarily.
Clint reached for a weapon. Lucy reached for a chair with her right hand, necklace with her left.
He aimed, and she blocked with a plastic pitchfork, catching the pistol, his hand, and his wrist among the uneven tines, penetrating nothing, but grazing everything.
Clint shifted his grip, twisting, and nearly wrenched the weapon out of her grip. Lucy seemed to want to keep him from aiming the gun, so she held on- but that only let him maneuver her close enough that he could grab her wrist.
He jerked her hard toward the window and the glass edges there.
Verona reached to catch her friend, but Guilherme was faster. Moving forward, he moved Lucy’s hands away from her weapon, guided her aside, and then leaped the final step, hopping onto onto table and then stepping forward onto the shattered glass that was still in the window.
An old man Guilherme, wearing sandals, his weight distributed across three of the points of glass that pointed inward toward the break in the glass display window. He remained there, poised, above Clint, one hand on the chair that was no longer a trident.
“Faerie,” Clint breathed the word.
“I am, and I’ve been around for a considerable time. That makes me dangerous, Clint.”
Clint didn’t make any obvious movement, but some small motion of his hand made Guilherme adjust the chair, the legs held out so the back right leg and the front left leg were pressed against the top of the elbow and the bottom of the wrist, respectively. Guilherme remained crouched on the edges of the foot-long bits of broken glass still attached to the window frame, as if he was the weight of a feather. As Clint jerked, the glass wobbled and cracked slightly but didn’t break.
“I kill dangerous,” Clint replied. “Faerie.”
He said that last word like he was swearing at Guilherme.
“I may be faerie but you’re a fool. Faerie are immortal, fools pass early to serve as lessons for the wise. Hold onto that gun and give it another firm tug and I can demonstrate.”
Zed carried his laptop away from the scene, put it on two rows of old CDs, and typed another line. “Get ready, we’re going out the front door!”
“They’re out there!” Jessica called out.
“What’s going on!?” the guy hiding behind the counter shouted.
“Don’t look at them, Clint,” Guilherme said. “If you have any inkling of what I am, you should know that even your undivided attention isn’t enough. Pay close heed to me, and if I deign to leave you alive at the end of this, you’ll at least have learned a little something.”
Verona’s angle was such that she could see below Guilherme’s legs, with a bit of Clint’s face in evidence.
“I wouldn’t,” Guilherme said.
The hand that Clint wasn’t using to hold the gun went forward and out. He grabbed Guilherme by the balls.
The glass beneath Guilherme shattered. The chair clattered to the ground on the far side, Guilherme fell, nearly on top of Clint, and there was a momentary flurry of movement.
Guilherme seated himself in the chair as he descended. One sandaled foot settled on Clint’s elbow, pinning gun-arm to floor, and the other rested atop a sliver of glass, which penetrated Clint’s throat dead center, just below the adam’s apple. Clint made small choking sounds.
“That’s nonlethal, and it won’t affect your voice with the current placement,” Guilherme told him. “That placement can change with one slight movement of my foot, turning the nonlethal to lethal, or removing your ability to speak.”
“Door’s open,” Zed said, closing his laptop. “Front door.”
“Elise Norwood, stay where you are. As you can see-”
Clint slammed his hand into the glass that was embedded into his throat, breaking it into three apparent pieces. Gripping the middle piece, he slashed at Guilherme’s foot. Guilherme raised his foot up to block the slash with the underside of his sandal.
“Verona!” Lucy shouted.
Clint lurched to his feet, and Guilherme gave him a helping foot, lifting a foot up, placing it in armpit, and bringing Clint staggering to his feet. He brought his leg around, bringing Clint with it, and slammed Clint into the wall just by the window.
There was a gunshot, and it caught Clint rather than Guilherme. Verona clapped her hands over her ears, backing up. She saw Guilherme talking, holding Clint.
“That was ill advised,” Guilherme told the Witch Hunters at the end of the fake hall. “Go, Verona and Lucille, I’ll catch up.”
“Lucy, not Lucille!” Lucy called out, grabbing Verona’s wrist, running.
“Is that what’s important?” Verona asked.
They pushed the door open, and Verona hesitated. The door led out to the hallway- the same one the Witch Hunters were in?
No. It was empty, no holes, no people, just drywall and flickering lightbulbs that gave the area a greyish, desaturated look.
“End of the hall!” Zed called out. “Hurry! Before it collapses!”
Verona wasn’t good at hurrying. Her bag was heavy at her back. She was maybe in the best shape of her life, running around and going on hikes to shrines, but she wasn’t built for running, and even with gym class drills, she’d never felt like it was a natural way her body moved. She was short, it made her chest hurt, she never felt like she got enough air-
She pushed herself and it wasn’t enough. A grating buzz of a sound came from very far away to very near, in an alarming, disorienting way that seemed too fast, more like a car whooshing by at two hundred kilometers an hour than anything else.
The chainsaw cut through the drywall. Bits of drywall on either side broke free, falling, and some broke like glass as they hit the floor. An eye peered through the gap, tracking Verona and Lucy as they ran up to it, then past it.
The chainsaw remained protruding from the wall, and began to draw a line down the length of it, matching their speed at first, then speeding up. More and more fragments of growing size began to come free.
What happens if this world breaks down while we’re in it? Verona thought.
It was clear the idea had been for the Witch Hunters to be in one hallway that existed in the middle space between the front of the store and the interior of the store, while they traversed a similar one, overlapping. But Elise the Witch Hunter was cutting her way through.
Yeah, like Zed had said, they figured out these things fast. Good instincts.
Maybe I should’ve been a Witch Hunter, Verona thought, before immediately dismissing the idea.
She couldn’t imagine anything more miserable than killing all the magic in the world.
That thought gave her a bit of clarity, not in the practical way, but in bringing her thoughts away from panic panic run run I hate running and toward herself again.
She could hear running footsteps echoing down a hallway that wasn’t this one.
Haris threw himself into and through the broken wall, leaping from that hallway to this one.
Lucy’s hand, still holding Verona’s wrist, trying to tug her forward, let go. The cracks surrounded them, and they were separated.
The broken hallway tilted, and Haris remained on Lucy’s side. Verona slipped, falling backward, as up and down ceased to make sense.
She banged backwards into the door, metal framing around glass, and it swung open with her weight. She landed on her back across the rubber welcome mat just inside the music store. She could see the regular old outside through the gap in the moment before the door closed.
The Witch Hunter Elise stepped out from around the corner, grabbed the door, and hauled it open, as Verona flipped over and scrambled into the aisle, ducking low behind a collection of CDs.
She licked her lips, going over her options.
“How many of them are inside?”
It was the old man’s voice. Haris.
“One in the hand is better than two in the bush.”
“There’s more than two in that bush,” Elise said. Her footsteps were loud. “How many have to be in the bush before you decide to go for the bush instead of securing your grip?”
“Are you setting up a dirty joke, Elise? I don’t brook that nonsense.”
“Wow,” Elise said. “It was a legitimate question. At what point do we start saying the universe is handing us our targets? If they’re all lined up neat and tidy over there…”
“God, not the universe.”
“It’s a shorthand, Haris. Call it God, call it something else, something’s acting on our behalf, setting this up, protecting us.”
“He protects us. It’s spelled out in the book, if you’d only read it. He chooses champions against servants of evil.”
Verona crawled to the end of the aisle and sat with her back to a shelf of old music devices. Vintage walkmans and tape players, a record player for small, half-sized vinyls, with some of the vinyls taking up shelf space. She tried not to bump it so that things would rattle.
“Can we keep to the neutral, open-to-interpretation version, and apply our takes after the fact, so we’re not infighting over it?”
“Not if it’s wrong and willfully turning away from Him. There’s a bible in the motel room. You should read it. It might serve you when the next fight doesn’t go our way.”
Verona did her best to catch her breath, gulping in air and trying not to make noise while she did it. The landing had knocked some air out of her, and she’d been sprinting before, which hadn’t left her much to begin with.
“I have my god, you have your God-”
“You’re nettling me now. We’ve been down this road.”
Verona could track their general directions by their voices, and knew they were each going down separate aisles, leaving her nowhere to run. She leaned over, halfway expecting to see the guy from the cash behind the counter still, but he’d fled.
“My faith rests wholly on Blessed Wobbles, the oversized pink dildo, mounted on a broom handle-”
“And if you want to shove your god down my throat, I’ll shove mine down yours. How’s that?”
Haris made a groaning, grumbling sound.
“You know if I actually tried I could.”
“Don’t be vulgar.”
Verona could run to the door back there, but if it was barred or locked she’d be utterly and completely screwed.
She pulled out her phone, and messaged Zed.
In store. 2WH.
“You smell any civilians?” Elise asked.
“In the back, hiding in the toilet. In here, there’s just one spooked little girl. She’s got grit, hasn’t pissed herself. Breathing under control, doesn’t reek of fear sweat.”
“Hey kid!” Elise called out.
Verona remained silent. She pulled her bag around to her lap.
“You keep bad company, don’t you?” Elise asked.
Haris already knew where she was. She could imagine them exchanging hand signals.
“I sure hope you don’t mean my super cool friend with the slicked back hair. Are you biased against cool people, Elise Norwood?” Verona called out.
“I sure hope you don’t mean my friends of color. Are you racist, Elise?”
“Keep going. We’ll get there.”
They were getting closer.
Verona eased her prize out of her bag. It was wrapped in newspaper and plastic, and she didn’t want the plastic to rustle too much.
She peeled plastic away from the end, picking at it with fingers.
It was the grungy keyboard, liberated from Brie back when Brie had been spying on Kennet, then kept with Zed’s agreement, as a way of keeping the peace.
They hadn’t brought it with them to the Blue Heron Institute, because, frankly, it was a really gross keyboard. Some goblin had probably found it as their prize, a keyboard grosser than a million other keyboards out there. Food drippings gone moldy, people drippings gone moldier, crumbs, corroded plastic, leaking battery acid.
Nobody wanted that in their bags, so it had stayed home. And it hadn’t seen much use otherwise.
Verona only had it for one reason now: it was a bit of power. And it was power she could use while gainsaid. Just like Charles had created the Choir using tools he’d made prior, despite being Forsworn, she could use this now. She gripped it, and even with three layers of plastic bag as a barrier, she could feel the plastic of the bag slide against the hard plastic of the keyboard by way of some intervening layer of grease and fluid. Dry crusty layers broke up and slid on oily ones.
“Haris and Clint think that was a Faerie. That leaves three options,” Elise said, filling the void left by Verona’s silence.
Elise’s voice wasn’t coming closer anymore.
They’d heard the plastic.
Was it better to buy time and wait, or to rush things and secure her position? If she waited, maybe Zed could help, giving her an escape route, and she’d only need to buy a moment.
If she waited, more Witch Hunters could show up, and her position would be worse.
The recent conversation with Zed made the decision feel even more overwhelming than the mere question of her life and safety. What was her strategy? This wasn’t about finding a singular answer. That-
If she was ever a teacher in front of the Blue Heron or a place like it, she wanted to be a cool teacher, not a…
Not a grizzled one, scarred, talking about the ‘don’t do’s more than the ‘dos’, from bad experience.
The grungy keyboard worked by destroying something of value. There were records but she couldn’t be sure of the value. There were some old music players and devices right behind her, but… all lower value, defunct. A record player in less than mint condition over at the far end of the store, up near the front.
That was one priority. It could potentially be what got her out of there. The grungy keyboard needed something of value, she just had to spot it. A dropped phone, maybe the cash register- but she wasn’t sure how much damage she could do to that.
She needed out. That was a priority.
She had the enter key. It would let her escape if she could jam it into a power socket, but it would also potentially kill her. She couldn’t think of any great options, except maybe a trap for the Witch Hunters.
Too risky, especially when they, as Zed had noted and proved, figured things out too quickly.
Dog tag? She was worried Lucy needed John. If Lucy wasn’t here right now she had to trust that it was because she was fighting her own battle.
John was an emergency thing.
“I’m just trying to keep my town safe,” Verona told them.
“By consorting with the Faerie?” Haris asked. Didn’t sound like he was drawing any closer.
“On that note, I don’t suppose you guys know who sent you that anonymous tip about our town? Or sent it to Raphael?”
“You met Raphael, of course,” Elise said.
“Nope, wrong,” Verona said, privately hoping that counted a little. “I was out of town. What I’m asking is… who tipped Raphael off? And would it change how you’re approaching all of this if it was a Faerie plot?”
“I don’t like the sound of that. Should I drown it out with the sound of bullets?” Haris said.
And he sounded closer than before. For a big old dude, he could move without making much noise. Verona scrambled-
The chainsaw revved, and Elise was there, a few steps away. Verona backed off with enough of a reversal in direction that she landed on her rear end. The keyboard bonked on the floor and shed flakes of black and baked-bean brown. The roar and the implication that Elise was willing to use the chansaw as a weapon threatened to drive all rational thought out of Verona’s mind.
She focused, eyes going wide.
Priority one, getting out.
The grungy keyboard was one of the only good tools she had at her disposal, for that. She had one of the dropped knives, and she had the broken Jammer.
She was pretty sure the jammer wouldn’t do much if she got into a knife fight with either of these guys.
Secondary priority, background, Musser, defeating Musser.
Another secondary priority, getting un-gainsaid.
Third big one, if she had to list them, she had to keep an eye out for chances to figure out what was going on with the new Others. If Rook was right and there was an ulterior motive for each, that might be their best bet at unraveling whatever was coming at the end of Summer.
But for this… she had to get out. She rose up a bit-
Haris had a gun. He stood over what were for him waist-high shelves and his arm went out- she didn’t wait to see if he was aiming at her or if he was going to shoot.
The gunshots were loud enough that her instincts were to cover her ears, even though she was scrambling enough that she needed hands to crawl-scamper forward.
Verona ducked low, behind a shelf that came up to her armpit, with a bit more sticking up – a thin barrier of wood for signs and labels to hang on.
The signboard broke, labels fluttering.
And Elise’s chainsaw went out, sticking into the base of the wooden shelving that held the boxes of records up at chest height. Wood splinters kicked and went flying.
Verona attacked- not Elise, but the chainsaw. She swung the keyboard underhand to parry and block it, catching the keyboard in the teeth. Plastic was tugged and torn free and hauled into the machinery, and the outer casing of the keyboard broke like thick eggshell, shedding liquefied machinery and other goop.
Verona caught the gross end of the keyboard in her hands, holding it steady and keeping it from being pulled out of her hands, ensuring that the chainsaw wouldn’t just move or get thrust in her direction. In the heat of the moment, vibration traveling up her arms, flecks of gross keyboard dappling her face, hair, and upper body, all sound dropped away. Chainsaw bit into bones near the core of the keyboard.
Guilherme was standing back there, watching without intervening.
She could hear Haris behind her, and remembered the gun.
The chainsaw stopped abruptly enough that it kicked, more or less, both Verona and Elise stumbling as the stances and adjustments they’d made to counteract the movement of the blades were suddenly overcompensation.
Haris opened fire on Guilherme, who ducked low. Verona’s hearing felt screwed up, the store suddenly too quiet in the moments between those too-loud shots, but she could hear Guilherme running despite how low he was to the ground.
Elise used the distraction to kick Verona. Verona fell back, choosing to fall harder instead of bracing against the fall and risking letting the gross keyboard land on top of her.
“You okay, Haris?”
“It’s a fucking Faerie, nothing’s okay!”
The Witch Hunter pulled plastic bag out of the chainsaw chain, made an adjustment at the side, and then hauled on the starter handle. It chugged for a half second and then aborted.
Verona picked herself up, panting for breath, spitting to get the flecks of stuff from the keyboard off of her lips so she wouldn’t breathe them in. She was pretty sure she could taste one crumb of something, and the taste of it filled her mouth.
“What do we call you? Were you the ones spreading those creepy smiles?” Elise asked. “Your own unique way of keeping innocents out of it?”
Verona didn’t comment, catching her breath, sore and worried. One hand remained pressed over her ear, in case Haris shot again, while she kept shelves between herself and him.
Flimsy plywood, painted teal that had taken on a brown-ish dinge in the cracks a long time ago. It wouldn’t stop a bullet, she was pretty sure.
“Elise!” Haris grunted. “She doesn’t smell as scared as she should!”
“Sometimes they’re like that. They put the fear aside.”
“I’ve done that,” Verona said.
“That ugly keyboard is tech, so’s the chainsaw!” Haris grunted, as Guilherme pushed him up against a wall. He punched ineffectually, Guilherme moving arm and elbow to deflect each punch as it came, smiling. “Get rid of it!”
Hopefully a chainsaw that a Witch Hunter loved and carried with her to multiple places and took apparent good care of was worth something, right?
Elise, mid-tug on the starter, seemed to grasp the sentence’s meaning at the last second. She let go of the chainsaw, her arm still in motion to pull, and whipped it away by the handle and the cord she’d been pulling on, hurling it across the store.
Besides, the keyboard was a goblin tool, and the chainsaw felt like a goblin-aligned weapon. If gremlins wanted anything to work with, then it should be this, right?
The chainsaw kicked to life, purring violently, then hit the floor and detonated. Chain whipped out and slashed a box of records, and fragments of the chainsaw kicked CDs and tapes off of shelves, sending them and the broken plastic that had housed them skittering across tile. The record that Zed had put on a while ago that had stopped playing several minutes back was kicked up and off of the player that housed it, flipping over a few times before shattering on the floor.
“Nice try,” Elise said.
Priority one, she had to escape.
Priority two, defeating Musser.
Priority three, getting un-gainsaid.
Priority four, figuring out the background stuff that might help with the Carmine conspiracy.
None of that applied except getting out.
It helped her to focus, to put other thoughts out of mind, like a mantra. Now she knew she just needed out.
“You okay, Guilherme?” Verona asked.
“The stench of that machine is filling my nose, slowing me down,” Guilherme grunted.
“You and me both, old man,” Gerald Haris growled in Guilherme’s face. He was taking on a more aggressive fighting style.
“I’d worry about yourself,” Elise said, staring at Verona. “I liked that one. I had it for a while. I’m a bit pissed off, now.”
There was movement behind Elise. The sun was dipping below the mountains to the west, while the shop faced north, so the light was diffuse and came in at a low angle. The shadows were similarly vague, small in size, and belonged to bodies that were staying out of sight.
Elise seemed to notice. “Did that keyboard hatch something? Infect my chainsaw? A little space-themed techno-horror?”
“No comment,” Verona told her.
“I’m having a harder and harder time telling myself that maybe you’re one of the ones we can suffer to live.”
“I think if you say that stuff you’re automatically the bad guy,” Verona replied.
Things clattered in the back corner of the store.
Right now, Verona was pretty sure the right thing to do was wait. Wait for a moment…
Maybe more Witch Hunters were coming, but for right now she trusted Guilherme to hold his own and she had the gremlins that had hatched from the grungy keyboard, doing their thing.
They weren’t necessarily her gremlins. That was a problem too. But she’d deal with that later.
They came out of the shadows, a group of four. Three went for the nearest target- Elise. They lobbed makeshift grenades. One went wide, clipped a box of records, and detonated. Elise wheeled away from that, saw the other two, and ducked beneath one, picking up a mostly empty box to whip it at the third. The one open side of the cube-shaped box caught the little explosive and redirected it away. It detonated mid air.
“Whoo!” one of the gremlins cheered, clapping uproariously.
Elise stomped on him, her foot skidding a short distance. The other two goblins yelped and went to get more stuff.
“Gremlins!” Elise raised her voice.
“Rather a gremlin than a Fae!” Haris shouted, nearly in Guilherme’s face. His nose was bleeding and the blood was turning his white beard red.
“Take that back,” Guilherme said.
Verona ducked low, taking advantage of Elise’s distraction to move behind a short aisle of kids music and DVDs, close to the door. While out of Elise’s sight, she drew the dropped knife.
A small noise made her look up. A gremlin with no teeth and screws worked through lips to serve as very wobbly ‘teeth’ peered down at her, holding an arrangement of a box cutter and springs that trembled with the force they held back. Spring-loaded blade?
“No,” Verona told it, shaking her head.
It nodded with emphasis, and whispered, “Yeph.” The little screws worked through its lips rasped faintly and caught on one another as they rubbed against one another, lips closing and pulling apart.
Verona moved slowly, aware of Elise just twelve or so feet away. Elise was watching Verona, watching the door, and watching out for the other two living gremlins, who were staying out of sight.
Verona called out, “You didn’t have to kill the little dude. He was so proud of you for your trick with the explosive.”
“You’re demented,” Elise replied.
“Hey, gremlin dude…ette?” Verona asked, moving her head to check and make an educated guess for screw-lips. “You’re on the wrong track.”
The gremlin narrowed her eyes.
By the door. The headphones. Verona grabbed some, checked, grabbed others. “You guys like this stuff…”
She found some headphones like Lucy had described. Sure enough, grosser than anything, with a crescent of what might have been accumulated earwax between the padding and the speaker part.
She hauled on the cord, showing the gremlin, and the gremlin swiped out with the blade, without triggering the launching part of the mechanism.
But she got its attention. Using the dropped knife, she cut the cord, then handed the headphones to the gremlin.
I wonder if gremlins are the overlap between technomancy and goblins, Verona thought, as the goblin let its guard down.
“You’ve got speakers over here, you’ve got the music player, and you’ve got bins of awful music intended for children. Awful, awful, awful music. Look at this. This actress is not destined to be a singer, as much as the gross family channel might want her to be.”
“What are you on about?” Elise asked.
“There’s so much you can do,” Verona whispered to the gremlin. “And you’re using a spring loaded knife? C’mon, dudette. Step it up.”
The gremlin looked around, eyes still narrowed, suspicious.
“She stomped on your… compatriot, and here I am, I just want to empower you to be the most-”
Elise marched over. Verona scrambled to keep the little shelf of kids CDs and DVDs between herself and the Witch Hunter. Elise responded by planting a foot on the shelf and kicking it over.
The little gremlin launched the blade at Verona.
“-funny-horrible little shit you can be, so step it up!” Verona raised her voice. She slashed her knife, not with any rhyme or rhythm, but to keep Elise from closing the distance or grabbing for her.
She nicked Elise’s fingers. Elise pulled her hand back, blood droplets falling on the floor.
The gremlins fired something at Elise’s back, and the Witch Hunter wheeled around, kicking boxes of records from the top of shelf to the ground. A gremlin scampered from wreckage to shadow.
“Have you seen the worst of what’s out there?” Elise asked.
“I’ve seen some horrible stuff, yeah,” Verona said.
“But the worst of it? And not even demons, or the most cruel goblins or fae,” Elise said. She kicked something in the direction of a gremlin. To Verona’s right, screw-lips was climbing up into the little phone-booth-like stall where people could use gross headphones to listen to music. There was a metal plate but the gremlin was climbing in through the gap in the underside.
“What’s worse than those things?” Verona asked, just to keep Elise talking.
“Those things… they don’t show up very often. They keep their heads down, do their evil in shadows. But the wrong people with too much power? It’s everywhere, there’s no avoiding it. And here we have something seriously wrong, Gerald can smell it, Clint can feel it, and humans are consorting with Faerie and gremlins in the same room?”
“We’re doing our job, bringing Others to justice, we just imprisoned one and exiled a couple more. We’re genuinely trying to protect this town. The guy with the car you totaled? He might be the kind of person in power you’re talking about.”
The cord of the gross headphones was tugged up into the booth. The headphones dangled and banged against the sheet metal that formed a three-quarter enclosure.
“I’ve been at this since I was about your age,” Elise told Verona. “Sometimes a job every day for a week, sometimes a job every month. Split that up into a fifty-fifty grouping of Others and practitioners that I have to deal with.”
“It’s been pretty hectic here too.”
“Every damn one of you, excepting a number I can count on one hand, made really good sounding arguments. Even the utter monsters proclaimed innocence or made justifications. Some pointed to people who were worse, some claimed they needed eternal life, that it wasn’t fair that they were going to die young. There’s always- fuck off!”
Elise kicked backwards and connected directly with one of the two gremlins behind her. It went flying.
“There’s always something,” Elise said. She drew closer, and Verona swiped.
The little music booth sputtered, static coming out of the speakers and headphones. The screw-lips gremlin scampered along the surface, pulling wires behind it, wrapping it around the face of the machine.
“Maybe there’s something to that something?” Verona asked. “If all these dozens of people you meet are making really good sounding arguments, maybe there’s a kernel of truth to it all?”
“No. Get past all that and it’s selfishness,” Elise said. “People clinging to power.”
“Lick lick lickety lick-” the music played. The sound warped and distorted. “Lick my pick up stick-“
Verona held the knife out, one hand over her ear, protecting it against the music as she had against the gunfire. She flicked the knife as Elise grabbed for her wrist.
“Lick lick lickety split. Lick our broom stick.”
The music distorted, the heavy autotune dropping away into anti-autotune or something. The voice went from kids singing pop to something guttural. It sounded like the earwax headphones had looked.
“Lick lick lickety lick. Lick my lipstick.”
Guilherme stepped away from Haris. Haris leaned against the wall, bleeding in multiple places, the side of his head and his beard painted red with blood, his eyes holding a level glare.
It didn’t look like the old man wanted to go down.
Verona pulled her phone out to check. She hadn’t even felt the vibration of the incoming message.
The volume rose. “Lick lick lickety slick. Lollipops, don’t make me stop. More lollipops don’t make me stop. More lollipops don’t make me stop. More lollipops don’t make me stop.”
Verona wasn’t sure if that was the gremlin or the actual music.
“I think a world without magic would be pretty sad,” Verona told the Witch Hunter.
“Magic made that sound,” Elise said, indicating the booth that was producing the music.
Booths, plural. A second booth was now playing music, slightly out of sync with the first.
“Lick lick, lickety split, lick it up, lick it quick!”
“It started with humans. Humans are supposed to fix it and steer it so it doesn’t get this bad,” Verona said. “I think humans are the source of a lot of it.”
“Lick lick, lickety slick, lick it up, don’t let it drip!”
“Humans can be the end of it too, then,” Elise growled. She glanced around for the one goblin who wasn’t in the music device who she hadn’t killed yet.
“Nah,” Verona told her, “I don’t like that.”
The guttural voice lapsed into children’s singing again, a little too high-pitched. “Lick lick, lickety quick, lick my… ummm… chopsticks!”
“Are you really ending anything?” Verona asked.
“Are you? Fuckers can live forever, sometimes. Or they live such short lives they don’t care outside of the moment. And the rest of us have to live in the middle of all that. Or you do like you did and sign some screwed up contract to sell your humanity.”
“Lick lick, lickety split, lick my lipstick! You sang that already, Danny! Hahahahaha!”
Verona flinched and covered her ear as a gunshot went off. It looked like Guilherme had started to cross the room, only for Haris to pull out another gun. Guilherme wrestled with the gun.
Elise had barely reacted to the shot.
“I feel like you’re less human than I am,” Verona told her. “And man, I’m pretty sure I’m not that attached to my humanity, compared to the average gal.”
“Lick lick lickety spit! Lick my fish sticks!”
“I give you a C, compared to all the lines and arguments I’ve heard,” Elise said.
“Lick lick lickety- lollipop! More lollipops don’t make me stop. More lollipops don’t make me stop! More lollipops don’t make me stop!”
“Huh. In my defense, I’m just a kid.”
“True. C-plus. Unstated implication you were manipulated into this. You know how we deal with manipulation?”
“More lollipops don’t make me stop. More lollipops don’t make me stop! More lollipops don’t make me stop!”
“Brute forc-” Verona started to reply.
Elise lunged. Verona ducked, slashing with her knife- but she hit only air.
Elise went for the music player first. Her foot caved in the metal and wiring, shorting out the music.
Verona had ducked, and now she ran, straight for the door.
She hauled it open, and a hand caught the door.
She twisted around, knife ready, looking back the way she’d come.
Guilherme leaned into her. Leaves, wood, boxes, records, and bits of shelf were airborne, flipping through the air. Guilherme’s hair was wild, shirt torn, a cut at his neck that looked like it had come millimeters away from ending him.
The gunshot flashed what felt like a full second before Verona heard it.
She registered the passage of the shot through airborne shelf, boxes, metal, and other things before she realized it had struck the doorframe, just by her temple. Her eyes slammed shut as the impact cut through the air to touch her face. Eyelid closed on splinter.
Guilherme pushed her through the door.
Elise gave the music player a backwards kick, silencing it again, before striding forward.
“Lick, lick, lickety-slick-!”
The door closed, and promptly fritzed out of existence. The distorted music mercifully ended.
“We don’t have long,” Verona told Guilherme. “I don’t know when he sent the text.”
They ran down the empty hallway. There was a door at the end, bright red.
Guilherme reached it first and pushed it open.
The exit took them onto a rooftop. Wind blew, and Verona was beaded in sweat, which made that wind feel amazing.
Lucy and Avery were there too, with Zed, Brie, Jessica, Toadswallow, and Gashwad.
“You’re okay,” Lucy said. “I was starting to worry.”
“You guys okay?” Verona asked.
“Cleo came after me,” Lucy said. “Avery intervened.”
“Side mirror from a car, courtesy of Toadswallow,” Avery said. “If she catches herself in that camera, it keeps her from using it to get you.”
“Could’ve used the help if you had any to spare,” Verona told them.
“We wanted to,” Lucy said. “They thought it was a bad idea, that we’d get trapped. We’ve been taking turns trying to lure Witch Hunters away.”
“They caught on,” Avery told Verona. “They stopped taking the bait and fell back this way. So we had to apply other pressures.”
Verona huffed, both from the running and from vague upset.
She got her bearings, looking around and placing herself in the downtown area by way of landmarks, before moving to the roof’s edge.
She could see the people standing around, smiling, and she could see the children from the Hungry Choir. A bunch of Witch Hunters were keeping them away from the store.
“Thanks for trying, Brie,” Verona said.
“You’re alive, it’s good, I’m glad,” Toadswallow said.
“Ugh,” Verona coughed. “I need a shower.”
“Haris’s nose won’t be smelling anything for the next week, at the very least,” Guilherme said. “I boxed his ear, stressed his joints.”
“You could have stabbed the man,” Toadswallow said.
“Perhaps. I thought we’d rather have them around, to keep Musser’s group occupied.”
“Musser is situated just outside town, to the west. Kennet isn’t upscale enough for his tastes, but he found a cabin suitable to his needs,” Toadswallow said. “The upside is that he’s out there, not here. The downside is he’ll have less opportunities to run into the Witch Hunters.”
“Until we tip them off,” Lucy said.
“They might see through that,” Verona said.
“I don’t want Musser comfortable. If he’s going to hang out here and get involved, we need to make that as much of a pain as possible,” Lucy said. “Witch Hunters, goblins, anything.”
“Agreed,” Toadswallow said. “The trick lies in doing it without inviting more hassle, as we faced today. When they set their sights on us, they’re not harassing him. Matthew would encourage you to hang back at this point. Reassess, let others handle things.”
Verona hissed her displeasure at that.
“We’re still technically grounded,” Lucy said.
“Yeah, for sure,” Verona replied.
“I hate it too.”
“Jabber is going to run out of medicine for the innocents of Kennet,” Toadswallow said. “Guilherme, would you be a dear? We should rid the area of them.”
“Actually… can someone else?” Verona asked.
“You have a use for this oaf?”
“I’ll round up goblins. We’ll see what we can do,” Toadswallow said.
“There’s a gremlin with screw lips in the music store, and possibly one other she wasn’t able to kill. From the keyboard,” Verona said.
She looked back at her bag, with the keyboard jammed in it. The bag would need to be cleaned five times before she felt okay using it, and it might even be unsalvageable. The keyboard looked like it was regenerating from the damage.
“I’ll send them away.” Toadswallow disappeared off the side of the roof, other goblins appearing and disappearing to go with.
Zed, Jessica, and Brie remained at the far corner of the rooftop. Verona sorted herself out, taking water from Avery and pouring it over herself to get rid of some of the gunk.
“I heard you speculating aloud to the Witch Hunters,” Guilherme said.
“Yeahhh,” Verona said.
“Lucy hinted, in her line of questioning. That, in combination with you wanting time to ask me questions alone? You gave it away,” Guilherme told Verona.
“I wasn’t about to try and keep it a secret. Secrets are a Faerie thing,” Verona said. “No headway, Lucy?”
“I think Guilherme knows and understands me too well. No luck.”
“Didn’t try. Mostly focused on you being trapped in a building with Witch Hunters.”
She looked over at Guilherme.
“Ask,” he said.
“Can I call you old man winter? For the sake of-”
“Of being cruel?” Guilherme asked.
“Not- no. That wasn’t the intent,” Verona told him. “I’m going to ask you upfront. Did you call the first Witch Hunter in?”
“Someone figured it out and told you.”
“Did you? Just to confirm?”
“Yes,” Guilherme answered.
“For schemes and plots. To set things in motion for greater purposes here, ones you’d agree with if you and I had the time to go over the totality of it.”
“Can you give us the scheme and plot in twenty words or less?” Avery asked.
“Okay,” Avery said. “Because I got a crack on the head that had me in pain for a long while.”
“That was not the aim, only a casualty of the plan,” Guilherme said.
“I was whimpering because it hurt so bad… Snowdrop can verify.”
“You can’t lie without being gainsaid. That’s enough for me.”
“But Snowdrop was there. I mean, Snowdrop was there and taking care of me and where were you?”
“Taking care of Kennet.”
“You- no,” Avery said. “Lucy got hurt, in all of that. Chloe went after her.”
“Maricica twisted things, I tried to minimize the damage.”
Lucy shook her head.
“I, as much as I’m loathe to admit it, got hurt as well. Edith, Chloe, and Raphael got me at different times. I was a casualty too.”
“But you did this,” Verona pressed. “You set this in motion and you’re not explaining why.”
“It would take too much time. The more I try to give context, these days, the more impatient Toadswallow gets with me. Even John had words.”
“They’re here now because you did that before. Was that the goal?” Verona asked.
“Again, painting the goals out in full-”
“That’s a cop-out,” Lucy said. “Summarize. If you’re that clever, summarize.”
“Two hundred and twelve years ago, in a dark summer court, a walled city ruled by-”
“Today, not two hundred years ago,” Lucy said. “Start with today.”
“It’s relevant. Those events two hundred years ago formed a foundation and a pattern that reinforces what happens now.”
“Leave that out, let’s assume there are patterns.”
“Six hundred and fifty years back, a pair of High Summer Fae were with me-”
“That’s the wrong direction,” Avery said. “You’re going further back in time.”
“It’s the same device, the same plot, if I’m to abbreviate, can I not paint the situation with these past events and how they unfolded as allegory?” Guilherme asked.
“Okay,” Verona said. A frustrated Lucy and confused Avery looked over. Verona added, “Short version?”
“Six hundred and fifty years back, with several weeks and months in change, in a different court system, a pair of High Summer Fae were with me. We were drunk, we caroused outside the gates of a High Spring court palace, singing songs and bidding dames to come out. Each with their own reasons for doing so. Subterfuge, to make others jealous, to gather secrets for the keeping, or to share them out into the world…”
“Are they an allegory for Maricica, for the record?” Verona asked.
Guilherme looked annoyed. “No. No, they’re not an allegory for anything particular here.”
Lucy made a frustrated sound.
“Can you leave it out then?” Verona asked, trying to understand.
“They’re tied into the three other tales I’d tell, which, as much as I try to abbreviate, would take two days and two nights to spell out, with all these interruptions and complaints.”
“Why is it so important that you tell all four stories?”
“Six stories, with derivative tales and such, linked to the base four. Seven if I want to include a lesson in the telling.”
“They’re inexorably linked,” Guilherme replied. He touched the wound at his neck and frowned at the blood on his fingers. “To me and to one another.”
“What’s it you guys said to me? That the longer I was explaining I was okay, the less convinced you were?” Avery asked.
“Yeah,” Verona said.
“I’m getting the feeling they’re not that linked.”
Guilherme shook his head. “They are, or let me be forsworn.”
“Is it possible they’re linked that way…” Verona struggled to find a gentle way of putting it and settled on a less gentle way. “…because you’re falling to Winter?”
“How would you feel, child, if I reminded you at every opportunity that you’re mortal and speeding toward your own demise, in what would be an eyeblink to me?”
“Is it possible?” Lucy asked.
Guilherme shook his head, and started to reply, before he made himself stop.
The wind whipped past them, and Verona closed her eyes, glad for the drenching in water she’d given herself, for sweat. It was too hot; living with a human body was hard sometimes. She was sore and tired and the cool-down from the intensity of being inside that music store, the distorted song still playing in her head, it wasn’t helped by this situation, which was tense in a completely different way.
“I want to say no, but a lifetime of avoiding forswearing or gainsaying myself has me forced to admit it’s possible. I don’t think it’s the case,” Guilherme said.
“Is it possible this scheme doesn’t go anywhere big?” Verona asked. “That you’re… playing out some story again, too used to the outcomes, expecting them to be the same, even though all the pieces aren’t there?”
Guilherme peered at her through the hair in his face. The words were stern, reluctant. “It’s possible. I don’t think it’s the case.”
“You said us being hurt wasn’t part of the calculating and scheming you did when you put this into motion,” Lucy said.
“I did, and that was truth.”
“Isn’t it weird that it wasn’t?” Lucy asked. “Isn’t that shortsighted? An incomplete scheme?”
“Relatively fresh off the oaths you made to us?” Verona asked.
“It would have been for the greater good, for your greater benefit.”
“How?” Verona asked. “Where, when, why? How do you know that if you didn’t consider the harm you were doing, to balance it against?”
Guilherme looked frustrated. He touched the cut on his neck and gave an annoyed look to the blood on his fingers as he brought them forward.
“I can’t explain it in full. I can tell you I’m fond of you three, in various ways. One of you my student, one a girl who straddles the line of summer and fall, and the last of you three a girl with some faerie talent with glamour to her, if she’d only hone it and stop using goblin tools.”
“I’m fond of you too, Guilherme,” Lucy said. She looked concerned, and Guilherme saw that look and looked away, shaking his head. Lucy took a step forward. “I’m not fond of this… thing you did. It’s shortsighted and that doesn’t seem very you. You brought trouble to Kennet.”
“Would you bind me?”
“Do you want me to?” Lucy asked, quiet.
“No,” Guilherme said, voice hard. “I’m not a fool, Lucille Ellingson. Don’t be graceless. Pay attention to tone and meaning. I’m asking you, are you so offended that you’d take action?”
Lucy’s words failed her.
“We’re worried,” Verona said.
“When the worry gets to be too much, bind me. Or go to Toadswallow for permission, to add the insult of goblin involvement to my injury, call on greater forces, and hold me to court. If I’m truly deserving, I welcome it.”
“You’re reminding me of my dad,” Verona said, quiet.
Guilherme looked at her, the insult clear on his face.
“Making us out to be the bad guys for trying to work through things.”
“I’ll leave then, and I’ll leave you to decide what you will. Do it yourselves or involve others, then let me know. For the time being, I have one story left to wrap up, as the mentor and protector in the Carmine plot. I am going to make sure Toadswallow and the goblins don’t bungle what they are doing, and I’ll handle the Witch Hunters. I’ll endeavor to keep the rest of this Witch Hunter plot from affecting you.”
“I’d rather talk,” Lucy said.
“And I would rather not. There are better uses for my limited time as a free Fae,” Guilherme told them. “Again, do as you will.”
Then he strode over to the rooftop’s edge. The beams of the sun peeking through the clouds over Greensey got brighter, and they consumed him.
He was gone, just some stray leaves and a smell of honey in the air remaining.
Lucy looked down at her ankle, at the little augury detection bracelet that she wore there. Quiet, she asked, “Does that resolve that?”
“I guess?” Avery asked.
“Guilherme’s sick, he’s making less sense now?” Lucy asked.
“I guess?” Avery said, again.
Verona nodded, partially to herself.
Too much of this made her uneasy.
“Does this mean we have to do something about it?” Lucy asked. “Deal with a guy who’s our friend, because he might pull something like this again?”
“I don’t know,” Avery said.
They fell silent for a bit.
“That didn’t look like it went well,” Zed said. “Or sound like it went well. Couldn’t hear the words, but the tone-”
As bad as Verona felt, Lucy looked like she needed the backup. She’d been closest to Guilherme. Verona gave Lucy a one-armed hug. Avery offered a back pat to Lucy.
“It’s getting closer to dinnertime,” Zed said. “Maybe time to take a break. Brie, Jess and I are probably going to see where we’re sleeping for tonight. Maybe do the same? You three look a bit shell-shocked.”
Verona nodded. Lucy didn’t move, and she didn’t have an angle to see Avery.
“We were going to do shifts tonight,” Avery said. “But…”
“Toadswallow suggested we let the Others handle stuff a bit more. Maybe until we’re more grounded?” Lucy suggested, pulling back from the hug.
“Musser might not give you the chance,” Zed told them.
“Right,” Lucy said. “Let’s set up what we can against Wye’s tracking, Haris can’t smell, so that helps. I think we’re okay to go home? And if Musser does something, we can react.”
Strategy, planning, triage. Verona knew she had to focus more on that now, because she had so much less to work with.
Avery helped them all down from the rooftop. They crossed downtown, splitting up with Avery and Zed’s group. Verona extracted an a-ok from Jessica to have Jessica come and see the shrines during one of their visits and give her input. Tonight they’d rest, hang back, let the Others handle things.
What was realistic, and what wasn’t?
If she was strategic and sensible about this, her answer on dealing with Guilherme got very different. That warranted asking John questions. Or Rook. Or Miss.
If she went by what she wanted, an end result she could try to force, then her mind jumped straight to some clever wordplay that would mean gainsaying someone. But logically, being strategic… how likely was it that she could gainsay Musser? Or Wye? Or Reid? What about Raquel, even?
If she couldn’t trust her ability to gainsay someone, even with a contrived trick of some sort… what did that leave her?
Lucy helped her slip inside, donning the form of sunbeams to travel in and through the window.
The two of them collapsed, Lucy onto her bed, Verona onto the cot.
Magic items. Magic items worked even when weakened from being called out on a lie, or when forsworn.
She got her phone out, and she started messaging Clementine. Clem had offered some of the magic items she had in abudnance, but they’d never followed through on asking after it.
She sent the message, with a polite request. In a pinch, she suspected Miss or Alpeana could help travel the distance and pick up what was needed.
If she could get competent working with barely any power at all, then maybe, if she could get free of the gainsaying by summer’s end, she could be that much stronger when she finally had access to Kennet’s power again.
She hoped that meant she’d be strong enough.