Vanishing Points – 8.5

Verona

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Verona sat back, taking it all in, as students reacted.  Chattering, leaning over benches in a loose violation of Raymond’s request to stay in their seats- their butts were clearly not in contact with wood as they leaned forward.

Durocher strode down the length of the room, to the rear of the classroom.  The stage area had an offshoot area to the right where there were more shelves and, maybe more importantly, an exit to the rear of the school.

The rest of the senior students and faculty -maybe better to say apprentice senior students and faculty- were hanging out at the back, in a loose organization that barred the exit through the front door or side hallways.

Not that it mattered much.  Was there really any way that anyone gathered here would run for it?  They’d make it about three steps before being bound five ways from Sunday, eaten by a Durocher summon, and sent to Brownie Hell.

Or, again, correcting herself, was there any way that the people who knew how Alexander had died, herself and Lucy, could run away?

No.

No escape.  That- that really sucked.  She’d woken up that morning with a headache buzzing at the back of her head, maybe a consequence of not eating breakfast and then throwing up lunch, and then eating a pretty small dinner so she wouldn’t upset her sensitive stomach.  And that headache had worsened with a morning class that had covered precious little new information, frustration making the dark cloud at the back of her head that much worse and harder to ignore.

Now she had a stomachache and a headache, and the fact that these were both things that were like, exactly how her dad physically reacted to stress, it annoyed-

No, it ate at her.

She hated that in the span of one minute of feeling and thinking she was second-guessing herself and needing to clarify.  This situation, the fact they were being asked to stay put, that there had to be questions while the teachers and apprentices had them rounded up, it needed her to be one thousand percent on the ball with what she was good at.

And she was already messing up, making herself suspicious of her own words and meaning.

“They’re talking about Fernanda and America right now,” Lucy whispered.

Verona looked at her friend.

“Because Fernanda jumped to the conclusion it was about Alexander, and America went straight to a question about-”

“America, Liberty.  A word?” Raymond asked.

Lucy pursed her lips.

“About Alexander maybe being dead?” Verona asked.  “Or forsworn?”

Assume someone can hear anything we say.

“It’s hard to concentrate on everything, because there’s so much chatter, but I think everyone’s a little freaked out,” Lucy whispered.  “I think everyone blames themselves a little, for not supporting him more, or pushing him out, or they’re upset, or they’re worried about consequences.  Some have families that will be upset.”

“What does that mean, though?”

“It means this is a mess, I don’t envy Mr. Sunshine and the others if they have to sort through all of this.”

Verona got what Lucy was really saying with that.  That they had a bit of cover.  Which didn’t mean a lot but it meant something.

“Um, they’re really grilling America, though,” Lucy whispered.

Verona glanced back.

America looked angry, and Liberty and America looked like they, as a pair, were really good at playing off one another, picking up where the other left off.

“I wish we had the mood glasses, remember those?” Lucy asked.

The mood glasses they’d confiscated from Brie.  When they’d released Brie they’d negotiated to keep the items they confiscated.  They’d gotten the red button, the crying cold tears tape, the centipede keycard, and other stuff.  The glasses were a weird multi-hued, sunset tint, and they made it easy to read a crowd’s mood, and see individual moods standing out inside that crowd.  They were also very dorky and…

“Tried them on for a few days to see if I could do anything too interesting with it.”

“Yeah,” Lucy replied.  “But I bet they’d show some interesting stuff.”

“Like any culprits?”

“Maybe,” Lucy said, absently.

“What about your Sight?  You see shades of watercolor and blades-”

“It’s a mess.”

“I don’t think my Sight is good for much here,” Verona commented.  She turned it on just to see and the room was wrapped in film and fibers, everything under a transparent or translucent veil, hiding things beneath.  A lot of those things were crimson and wriggly.  Magic items on the shelf at the back of the room, some things the students carried or wore…

What other stuff did they have?  Avery was carrying the enter key, as well as the glasses.  The enter key was another confiscated item that could have been a quick, if dangerous, way to escape.  Something for if the crowd turned on them.  It was dangerous, it electrocuted the person using it, but that had to be better than whatever this crowd would do to them.

Summoning John was the opposite of a good idea.

No, no items really stood out as good answers.  She had glamour but whatshisname Vanderwerf was among the students.  Estrella’s little brother.  Risky.

“Raymond is asking if America or Liberty have any idea what happened to Alexander, beyond what was said here.  America answers that he probably died old-guy-hot.”

Verona nodded.  Tough questions.

“Wye isn’t letting her get away with ‘probably’.”

Verona nodded again.

“America concedes she doesn’t know what happened.  Liberty says the same.  Raymond is now asking if they took any action, used any item, or performed a practice that would confound their answers or actions about Alexander.”

“Would you know if you did?” Verona asked.  “Should we have been asking-”

“Maybe,” Lucy interrupted.  “They say no to all of the above.  Apparent-”

“What?”

“Shh.  Let me listen.  Apparently… cheating the system to alter your mind or force a lie is something the spirits don’t like all that much.  Chase says that if America and Liberty pulled that, then they’d know.”

So that wasn’t a thing.  Right.  “Know how?”

I don’t know, Verona,” Lucy said, surprisingly intense, startling Verona a bit.  “I’m listening and trying to figure out what’s going on.  Shh.”

Verona nodded.  The nod reminded her of the burgeoning headache and upset stomach.

They weren’t even being interrogated yet.  What the heck?  She considered herself okay at hiding her emotions and emotionally deadening herself, but she had no confidence right now, and she could remember messing that up when talking to Yadira and Kass, back when they’d been trying to sell themselves as tough and too scary to mess with.  She’d tried to go emotionally dead and she’d just gone, what… sad?

What if they got directly questioned and she puked like yesterday?

“They’re asking about movements, when they’ve seen Alexander… Chase and Tanner are taking notes.  I think they’re going to split up and ask additional questions.  Chase is suggesting a question, asking… feelings toward Alexander.  Okay, that’s vague.”

If they ask us those questions we’re doomed, no way to dodge it.

So we can’t let them ask on their terms.  But they’re going to be on the lookout for that.

Need a second to think.  Need-

Lucy’s hand brushed Verona’s as her head turned.

The bench behind them had the host brothers, sitting at the far left, while Verona and Lucy sat at the far right of their bench.  Both brothers were focused entirely on the huddle of apprentices near Ray.

One of those ‘apprentices’, for lack of a better way of putting it, was Nicolette, breaking away from the group to walk over.

To them.

Lucy raised her hand in a wave of greeting.

Verona could see Nicolette’s face as Nicolette walked around the rear bench to where they sat.  Nicolette had an earpiece above and behind her ear, hooked into her hair and over her ear, like a petrified lizard or something, with a glass orb in its mouth, right-front claw, right-back claw, and the end of the tail.  Her eyes were normal until viewed through her glasses, which were thicker glass and magnified her eyes a bit.  Through the glass, Nicolette’s eyes showed something red and nugget-like swimming in a filmy pool within her eye sockets.  She adjusted her glasses, and the image the glass showed changed, to a crimson coil where the whites should be, orbiting a deeper darkness.

“Being good?” Nicolette asked.

“Are you?” Lucy asked her.  “What’s going on?”

“We’re using America as a starting point.  We may pull students aside to ask and try to get a fuller picture.”

“You might want to do more to control the room and take care of the students here,” Lucy said.  “I can see a lot of pain and agitation.”

“What practitioners do is big, we touch on a lot of bases, go to a lot of different worlds,” Nicolette replied, looking out over the room, the coiling redness twisting, adjusting, and condensing as she focused on more distant subjects.  “But it’s a small, interconnected world at the same time.”

“People know people,” Verona suggested.

“Like you guys and me, or you guys and Zed.  At odds one day, friendly-ish a few weeks later.”

“I kind of thought that might be us.”

“It isn’t, and it makes for some interesting arranged marriages and things.  Families trying to force that kind of adjustment by sacrificing sons and daughters, basically.  But I’m getting off track.  The way Alexander works- or worked, as the case may be, he liked being a part of well-coordinated systems.  Like Jessica’s diagram, for that ritual that was sabotaged.”

“I remember,” Verona said.

“He earned a reputation as someone who did good work, which led to people starting projects with him, and with each other.  Some small families positioned their success and failure on work they were doing with him, or things he was facilitating.  I know a lot of students are aware of that.  It’s not just losing a teacher and wondering what the future holds.  It’s also knowing your parents might lose everything.”

“He wasn’t that reliable or doing good work when he forswore Seth, was he?” Lucy asked.

“No.  Maybe, I don’t know.  I think… it goes back to what I just said, about how grudges can become uneasy friendships, and vice-versa.  Stuff doesn’t die and this world has a long, long memory.  Unless you kill it.”

“Unless-”

“Unless you very deliberately ensure those things don’t follow you or weigh you down,” Nicolette said, watching Mrs. Durocher talking to Mrs. Ferguson at the end of the stage.  “Removing burdens and threats in a surgical way.”

That felt… chillingly on-target.

Verona’s headache ground at the back of her head, stomach tense.

Nicolette’s eyes fell on her, dark centers ringed by deep red coils of veins.  Which would normally be cool but was only a four out of ten on the cool scale, now.

Had Nicolette been hinting at knowing they were involved?  Or alluding to why Alexander was gone?  Or just talking about other stuff?

Verona wanted to shake Nicolette and get clearer answers on what she was doing but there was no way she actually could.  They had no power here.

Nicolette went on, “Alexander was never one for the arranged marriages, not for himself, even though it would have been a good play to rise in status.  He’d arrange them for others- I know he was looking into options for me.  Connecting me deeper to the Belanger family if I turned out to be a true asset.  Trading me to someone else in another family if I didn’t.”

“Gross,” Lucy said.

“I wasn’t a fan.  Either way, given the option of either maintaining those connections to people who might end up being enemies or burdens, or cutting them loose, he preferred the latter.  Doing surgery and staying free, independent and alone, and sometimes that surgery was a brutal amputation.  That was the last few days in his confrontation with Bristow.”

“Seth,” Lucy said.

“Yeah,” Nicolette said.

“How is he?”

“I put him in a protective circle after something got at him, last night.  Spiritual parasites.  Purged them, moved the bed, set up the circle.  He was catatonic, even before the parasites, but I got it so he’s at least watching television.  It’s a step toward showing interest in the world again.”

“That’s, um… good?” Verona guessed.

“It’s something.  Even if the television won’t stay on for long if I’m not there.  The power shorts just long enough for it to turn off, or the internet connection hangs.”

“Do you have a plan?” Lucy asked.

“Taking it day by day.  I loathed him before.  Now I pity him… and loathe him.  And I don’t know how much of that is the forswearing letting connections around him fall away.”

“We know someone forsworn.  He made a deal for protection,” Lucy told Nicolette.

“Yeah.  But I took responsibility for Seth, and I don’t know if I could turn him over to someone or a group of someones like that without being absolutely sure it was okay and safe.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“I told you what happened, that made me Aware.  I’ve been… awfully close to where Seth is now.  The catatonia, the world not cooperating, the hopelessness.  Being so close to Seth right now is giving me nightmares.  Flashbacks back to where I was, then.  Not your nightmare, don’t worry.”

“That’s good,” Lucy said.

“I have too many protections for Seth’s benefit, for something like that to get into the room.  And the school is secure.  Regular old mundane nightmares.”

“Can we help?” Lucy asked.

Nicolette shook her head.

Verona desperately wanted a free moment to think and plan, and Nicolette being here made that impossible.  This entire thing was far from being Verona’s style.  The crowd, the moods that Lucy was noticing- that wasn’t something Verona was any good at wrangling.

“Was Bristow the same?  Interconnected?”

“Some.  Different.  He was more of a builder-”

“Fernanda,” Raymond called out.

“Oh,” Nicolette said.  “I’m going to go look in for this interview with Fernanda.  I think she’s not doing great, and I like her.  Good kid in a bad situation.”

“Not doing great?”

“Her family fortunes are her fortunes, they put all chips on Alexander, with Chase, then Chase thought they should bet on Bristow, instead.  If just Bristow had fallen, I think she could have navigated to Alexander’s side again, even if Chase didn’t, but with both gone…”

“She has nothing,” Lucy said.

“Except me, maybe,” Nicolette said.

“You’re looking out for a lot of people,” Verona noted.

“You included, I guess.  But I know from experience how I can help those at rock bottom, I don’t know about your case…”

Nicolette looked down at them, adjusted her glasses, and her eyes became normal.  She glanced over as Fernanda navigated past America and Liberty, who were walking down the same aisle.  Liberty growled at Fernanda, who didn’t flinch.

“What are we?” Verona asked.

“If rock bottom is broad, dangerously freeing, and an awful kind of safe, then you might be at the opposite, or on the road to the opposite.  Maybe if I’d spent more time around Alexander, I’d know what to say or how to warn you about what’s coming.”

“A precipice?” Verona asked.

“A narrow path, maybe.  From Awakening to whatever lies ahead.  And whatever lies past that.”

“That’s more Avery’s thing,” Lucy said.  “Paths and stuff.”

“You’re interconnected, aren’t you?  All tied together?”

“Yeah.  Guess so.”

“I wasn’t really talking about paths in that sense.”

“Yeah,” Lucy agreed.  There was a pause where it felt like someone should say something.  Nicolette looked at Verona, and Verona shrugged.

Which seemed to fill that silent pause.

Nicolette knocked twice on the backrest of the bench, then walked over to where Fernanda was joining Ray, the Belangers, Amine, and Ulysse.  Fernanda sat on a storage box by one of the bookshelves, seemingly not caring that it situated her lower, so she was looking up at all those people.  Nicolette found a seat on the box next to Fernanda, and put an arm around her shoulders.

“Given the circumstances Nicolette talked about, probably not Fernanda,” Verona mused.

“It’s kind of weird, being in this situation, what with the other investigative work we’ve been doing.  We don’t have to solve this mystery.”

“Yep,” Verona agreed, meeting Lucy’s eyes.

“Yeah.  Um, not to make too big a point of things, but you look a little green around the gills.  Again.  Might be the lunch we just ate, as much as you were bragging.”

It wasn’t the lunch and Lucy knew that.

“Stupid human bodies.  Stop telling me I’m not feeling great, body, I know I’m not feeling great.”

Lucy reached into her bag and got a bottle of pills in a nondescript container.  She held it out for Verona, then hesitated.

“What is it?”

“Stuff for upset stomachs.”

“Gimme.”

“It’s from the Brownies.”

Verona hesitated.  “Gimme.”

Lucy handed it over.  Verona tilted out two pills and swallowed them with some water.  “I just need less distractions, I know we don’t have to solve this mystery, but I do want to go into this smart, aware of what’s going on, with a plan.  I don’t want to get blindsided.”

“Me too, and…”

Zachariah and Salvador, sitting a few benches down, glanced back, then snuck their way up to a seat on the bench just in front of Verona and Lucy.  Don’t no no no no don’t you assholes, you literal goblins!

Verona kept her expression flat, eyebrows going up.

“Stay seated!” Ray warned, looking over.

Salvador made a pleading gesture as he settled in.  He didn’t go back to his old seat.

You assholes, you jerks.  Verona fumed.

Zachariah was the undefined sort of guy, hair shorn short, features a bit doughy.  The hot girl totemist.  Salvador was the spider breathing shaman, which apparently meant he stored an awful lot of free, minor spider spirits within a hallow in his throat and upper chest.  Not to host them, but as ammunition, the kind of thirteen year old who’d lurched into puberty with wiry hair on his arms and face, pimples, and gangly limbs.

“What was Nicolette talking about?” Zachariah asked.

“Seth, people at rock bottom, people on precarious paths,” Lucy answered.  “Why are you so interested?”

“Because we have no idea what’s happening.  You guys really threw yourselves into that whole thing, and we were like… very background.”

“Wasn’t about Alexander so much.  More about how we approach all of this,” Lucy said.

“Generally,” Verona said, watching them warily, wishing they would go away or leave her alone to think.

“I mean, you guys have your approach, for sure.  My approach is probably going to be like my mom and dad, stressing out over the mortgage, money, sales sheets, and hoping my kid figures out something a little bit better than carving, uh, hot girls out of wood and stone.”

“I can’t think of anything better for you than carving hot girls, except maybe marrying one,” Salvador said.

“Yeah, yeah.”

Salvador hooked his arm over the back of the bench, facing them.  “My friend, ladies, is a very eligible bachelor, he’s clean, smart, way more sensitive than you’d think…”

“Don’t do that.”

“I think if you’re starting with ‘clean’ you’re damning with faint praise,” Lucy noted.

Verona sat there, silent, mentally banging her head against the wall.  Why were they here?  Why were they talking to her?  Each mental bang made her headache worse.

“Or am I recognizing that a lot of girls our age say ‘gross’ when faced with a guy they aren’t into?  Gotta head that off.  This gentleman is actively un-gross, he’s nice to his parents, he’s good to his friends, he has hobbies, he even has a workshop he spends time in for fun, when he’s not doing it for work.”

Lucy glanced at Verona.

“I saw that.  Why’d you look at your friend?  Is the workshop a selling point?”

“Not really,” Verona said.

“I think it would be if Verona was looking for a future husband, but I don’t think you are, are you?” Lucy asked.

“Nope, not into guys that way.”

“Girls?” Sal asked.

If it wasn’t the vaguely girl-obsessed guy saying that in that tone, it would have gone over a lot better.  As it was, Verona frowned at him.  “Not girls either.  Don’t get me wrong, boys are cute, they can be hot, but… no.”

“No?”

Verona shrugged.  Would they just go away?  This was distracting and she hadn’t been thinking straight when there weren’t distractions.  Stress was mounting and she felt like this was an out of control train, speeding violently toward her saying something regrettable and making them enemies instead of friends… or her puking again from stress and tipping everyone off that she was freaked.  Which would mess up their image pretty bad, if it didn’t bring the full focus of the investigation straight to her.

“No interest in boyfriends or marriage?” Zachariah asked.

“Nah,” she said.  She met his eyes and she momentarily imagined a scene, domestic, her and a sorta muscular, sorta plain woodcarver boyfriend, a house filled with art, bills on the table, rugrats running around.  Having to get up early every morning to send kids to school, scraping by to find free time for herself as an individual.  Having to worry about fifty birthdays and anniversaries and date nights and stressing about all of it, because if she missed one then the kid or husband or family member she slighted would be upset.  Where she had no big aspirations except maybe teaching a few days of class at the Blue Heron once in a blue moon, which would mean the kids would have to be juggled and stuff shuffled around.  She’d heard her dad and mom talking about how life had to be managed just to make things possible, like coming into town for dress shopping or getting a week off.  It would be like that.

The scene only lasted in her mind’s eyes for a moment, but it was vivid.  It was an existence of piled up stresses and life-clutter that got in the way of what she’d really want to do and be.  All inescapable, burdening, slowing her down and occupying her head.  This headache and stomachache would be unceasing.  She’d end up treating any hypothetical husband like utter shit as a result, she knew it.

It felt like Nicolette was very, very wrong.  That there was this safe road running right down the middle of things and thinking about it made Verona’s stomach cramp. She’d rather fling herself over the side of that safe path, into Otherdom or hardline practice.

“No,” she elaborated, feeling like it was a huge understatement.  “None, really.”

“You might change your mind,” Salvador said.

In lieu of throwing up on him to convey her feelings on that, Verona made a face at him instead.  With all of the ambient stress and distraction she was channeling into it, and the way the smile dropped from his face, she sorta wished she could take a photograph and keep it with her, to punctuate future statements.

“It’s cool,” Zachariah said.  “Sorry my friend’s being annoying.”

“Annoying?  You wound me, Zach.  Here I am, trying to be a wingman for you-”

“Don’t do that,” Zachariah told his friend.

Verona let them chatter, glancing at Lucy, who looked a bit worried, peeking at the ongoing discussion with Fernanda.

“They can’t keep us here all afternoon, can they?” Lucy asked.  “Going to us one by one?”

“I don’t know,” Verona murmured.

That scene of vivid imagination had helped, in a way, even though it had inflated the brutal headache that was gnawing at the back of her brain.  If she had to steer off that safe and predictable path that people like Zach were on, she had to do it carefully.  It would require some of that surgery Nicolette had talked about.  Like with Bristow.  Like with Alexander.  It would require some brutal amputation somewhere down the line, but she couldn’t make the mistakes Alexander had.  If she went down the more serious, more ambitious practitioner path, then she couldn’t go all the way down that road.  She had to make those connections, those compromises, do that arranged marriage crap, in a way.

Except without the marriage, like she’d just told Zach.  Unless it was purely for show and periodic nights together as the mood struck, with them each having their own space in a manor or whatever.  That would actually be kinda ideal.

But she was getting distracted.  Very distracted.

A big connection she’d have to hold onto would be her friends and their Other allies.

If she became Other, she’d need to do the same.  Maybe less surgery, since the surgery would be on herself.

Having a more concrete plan and set of goals helped focus her and made her feel more sure of her thinking.  So much of her exploration here and her discussions with the others had been… breaking down.  Trying to process the Other path on her own until Lucy forced her to fess up, then crying it out and confessing stuff.  Or trying to support Avery and Lucy from the background until she slipped up, made a mistake, and they got angry.  Or…

Or, similar thing, she’d think she had a plan, then Lucy would say something and she’d realize it wasn’t that doable.  Or Lucy would say she needed to attend a super boring Self and Soul class and she’d attend and it would make her second guess everything.

Nothing ever came together that easily.  She had to put in the work, and maybe sometimes Avery would pull the last step together or Lucy would provide some clarity, but… mostly it was Verona struggling to figure it all out and reality would shout ‘Wrong!’.

Surgery and bridge building.  Amputation and politics.  Figuring out who to leave behind and who to rely on.

She knew who she was.  That was her strength, right?

So she had to hold onto that.

“They’re wrapping up with Fernanda,” Lucy said.

Verona’s eyes widened a fraction.

“How do you know?” Zachariah asked, breaking away from a discussion about a girl who lived in Zachariah’s area.  He looked relieved to not be talking to his friend about that.

Lucy tapped her earring.

“Your implement.  That’s uh, disconcerting, that you can hear stuff.”

“I’m not that interested in listening to whatever you and Salvador talk about in private, Zach.”

“That’s a relief.  I heard you did the ritual, I saw.  It looks really good,” Zachariah said.

“Thank you.  I appreciate that.”

“My dad picked a mallet.”

“That’s, uh, very nice.”

“My mom had him etch it, so it’s silent, so he doesn’t make such a racket in his workshop area.”

“Uh huh, that’s- sorry to cut you off, but Verona, I think they’re talking to us next.”

“Uh ohhhh,” Salvador jeered, smirking a bit.

Lucy wasn’t smiling, and neither was Verona.  Verona managed a shrug and nod.

“How do you want to do this?” Lucy asked Verona.  “I remember meeting Alexander for the first time, but…”

“Yeah, no,” Verona replied.

“No,” Lucy echoed, frowning more than usual.

They’d gone full kid, full disruption, and put Alexander on his heels a bit.  It had bought them the time to change the conversation.  The problem was, the other augurs had been there too.  Alexander had brought Tanner, Chase, and Wye, along with Nicolette.

Verona thought back, to ties they were maintaining, beyond just the three of them.  Four, if Snowdrop was included.

To John, to Edith, to Matthew, to Guilherme and Maricica.

Maricica.

“Remember the first meeting with Mari?” Verona asked Lucy, drawing her feet up onto the edge of the bench and wrapping her arms around her legs.

“Yeah.  She makes meetings memorable.”

Verona nodded, thinking.  “We did one thing right when meeting Alexander for the first time.”

“Cryptic,” Zachariah said.

Verona shrugged.  “They’ve been angling for more information or control of us for a bit, this might be their chance to do that, secondary to their investigation.”

“You really think they’re the types to do that, when Alexander just died?” Zachariah asked.

“Yes,” Verona said, at the same time Lucy and Salvador voiced the same.

“The meeting with Alexander, and Mari, I’m trying to connect the thought- oh,” Lucy said.

Verona could have kicked herself.  She hadn’t been building enough.  Hadn’t been taking steps.  Instead, she’d been leaning back, watching, looking for the right fit.

And Lucy had been taking steps to build herself up, picking her implement, and Avery was giving herself gold checkmarks and going off on an expedition with Jessica.

Just have to pull myself together.  Put the headache out of mind, resist the stomach issue.  The meds were maybe helping, even if thinking about the meds as being from the brownies was not.

Get centered... I can’t do this if I’m freaking out.  Verona found her emotional center.  Calm and ordinary in the face of a situation more stressful than her dad bawling and screaming a foot from her face.

“Verona Hayward, Lucy Ellingson?” Raymond raised his voice.  “A word?”

There it was.  Sure as wet shit.

Verona glanced around, eyebrows up, looking a little surprised at being called as Lucy got up first, clearing the way for Verona to circle around.  She left her bag behind.  Having her spell stuff and glamour and junk wouldn’t help that much.

At the front of the room, Mrs. Ferguson was with her son, holding his arm and apparently forcing a conversation with Raquel, while Sol looked like he wanted to wriggle out of his skin.

Trade ya, guy, Verona thought.

“Don’t touch,” she told the boys, pointing to her bag, as if that was her biggest concern.

She had to skip to catch up with Lucy, who walked with head high.

It was a pretty imposing arrangement.  Raymond was tall and thin and dressed in a way that exaggerated those features, currently a charcoal button-up shirt with brass buttons that were more like horizontal dashes than normal buttons, and pants so black they made the shirt look light in tone.  He peered at them with the red-tinted glasses he wore hiding his eyes.

Wye was like Alexander, but younger, and… warmer, maybe, in look.  Hair less immaculate, eyes with more emotion in them, a dress shirt that looked like it had been worn for more than five minutes, not just pulled straight off the hanger.  She had no illusions about him being sharp.  The most dangerous person present?  He, like Nicolette, wore glasses, thin and wire-frame, but they didn’t appear to be magic.

Chase was… he was that but taken in the wrong direction.  Hair that looked more nineties than twenty-twenty, face too small for his head.  He was too soft at the edges of his features, he’d missed shaving spots at the corners of his sorta-nonexistent jaw, and his clothes looked expensive but, maybe like his hair had maybe been, before, it looked like he’d shelled out the money but hadn’t done the upkeep.  Maybe that was his entire character.

Tanner was legitimately attractive.  Whatever dress code Alexander had encouraged among his apprentices, it worked for the guy, he’d gotten a nice haircut and it worked for him with everything swept back except for locks of hair that were very good at locking, all twirly-downy, he had narrow eyes and a sharp chin, and cut a sharp figure.

Then there was Ulysse, disturbingly attractive and a bit disquieting to have looking directly at her for maybe the first time she’d noticed.  Wearing a sports top and shorts like a model from a magazine.  And Amine, who wore looser clothing and had looser hair, tied back with beads.  A more casual arrangement of beads hung from one forearm and Verona had no idea how it all didn’t slip down.

And then Nicolette.  With the cool lizard hair ornament, dress shirt, and knee-length skirt.  Still dressing like an Alexander apprentice, post-Alexander.

All of them tall and the youngest of them was maybe seventeen and then there was Lucy and Verona.

“How are you two?” Raymond asked.  “Nicolette tells me Avery’s out on an impromptu field trip with Jessica Casabien, Brie Callie and my apprentice?”

Verona nodded.

“What is this?” Lucy asked.  “Asking us over?”

“Trying to figure out what’s going on.  You were involved the other night,” Raymond said.

“Unfortunately,” Lucy said.

“We talked yesterday, but that was about Bristow, and your attendance in general.”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  It was her instinct to fall silent, to withdraw, to let the other person exhaust themselves doing all the talking.  But she couldn’t do that here.  And she couldn’t lose that emotional center.  “Can we… not make this, what, seven of you against the two of us?  We’re not even a trio right now and that makes us weaker.”

“Are we against you?” Wye asked.

“Kinda?” Verona asked, wincing as she said it.  “I’m not going to lie, but like… we’re on pretty good terms now, Nicolette, I hope.”

“Yeah,” Nicolette answered, taking a seat on the box where she’d been sitting with Fernanda a few minutes ago.

“But that didn’t start great.  And we’re okay with you, Nicolette, but I remember it seeming like half of these guys were there ready to strongarm us or ruin our day if Alexander said the word, and you guys were stirring up strife in the school-”

“We’re putting the events of this past week to rest where we can,” Raymond said.

“But we can’t!” Verona stressed.  “It’s not that simple.  You said we’re getting expelled around the time the new headmaster comes, fine, but then we lose protections, and Alexander’s gone, and we may lose the protections he swore to provide us.”

“You should have some,” Wye said.

“Should isn’t good enough.  But fine, maybe that’s the way things go, but now you’re also grilling us on this?  You said yesterday you couldn’t swear to anything.”

“No,” Raymond said.

“And you won’t swear here?  Because stuff we tell you might come back to haunt us, which is definitely something you said we should be careful about.”

“I can’t readily swear oaths without more information than I have.”

“What about them?” Lucy asked.  “Can all of these guys swear some oaths, like he swore, at the very least?”

Raymond looked at the young men who formed a half circle around Verona and Lucy.

“No,” Wye answered.  “It’s a bad precedent to set, making frivolous oaths when I may be head of the Belanger family.”

Verona laughed in response.  This was why she’d needed to have her emotional balance, and be situated at a fake ‘neutral’.  To be able to laugh.

The entire room fell silent.  Conversations in the background stopped.  Even Lucy looked a little startled.

All eyes now on Verona.  Laughing so soon after Alexander’s death.

“It’s not frivolous to us,” Verona answered him, more seriously.

“In the grand scheme of things.”

“She’s right,” Lucy pressed.  “I feel like Verona’s getting to something and I don’t want to get in the way of that, but she’s right.  We swore oaths.  You guys have a way of- and I’ve said this before, you make your messes our problem.  Over and over again.  Nicolette, you trespassed-”

“Only in one sense.  The boundaries weren’t marked, there were no declarations of owned territory…”

“Not winning me over here,” Lucy said.  “You went digging and you found us.  You sent in a dangerous Other that was tearing up our resident echoes, you were told to stay out, you kept going, and you found us.  Then you attacked after I personally reached out for parley.”

“Yeah.  About right.”

“This stance and this tone runs against what I was recommending,” Raymond said.  “Don’t burn bridges.”

“We don’t want to,” Verona told him.  “But isn’t it the stupidest thing ever to build metaphorical bridges while the other guy is mounting an army to send over that bridge?  We can’t tell you stuff if you’re going to use it against us.”

We can’t tell you stuff even if you won’t, but that’s at least easier.

“That’s pretty damning from my perspective,” Wye mused.

“It’s our reality and our responsibility,” Lucy told him.

“I’ve heard some of these girls’s situation from them,” Raymond said, glancing over at Wye, then turning to look at Nicolette, then Ulysse.  “I can say their hands are somewhat tied.”

“And dictating the terms of our questioning of them is, I maintain, not a good sign,” Wye said.  He managed to look stern and dangerous without seeming defensive; he didn’t fold his arms or wear anything more than an inquisitive expression, his posture remained relaxed, thumbs hooked at the corners of his pockets, his tone was level, but he still had Verona’s attention as the threat here.

“Then we’re at an impasse?” Raymond asked.  “I don’t like that.  As Wye said, not a good sign.”

“Send them away?” Verona asked, indicating the guys.  “We sorta trust you and Nicolette, at least.  When Lucy was saying she didn’t know what I was getting at… that’s it.  Nicolette’s sworn to keep things private and I believe Mr. Sunshine when he says he’s too busy to bother us any.”

Wye frowned, his gaze meeting Ray’s, which was hidden by the red-tinted glasses.  Then, relenting a bit, he said, “I’ll go talk to the Leos.  Tanner, Chase-”

“You’re not our master,” Chase said.

“I can be,” Wye told him.  “Whiskey, cigarettes, whatever, we should meet tonight, talk.  Maybe we remember Alexander.  The good parts.”

Chase frowned a bit.  “Who should I talk to?”

“I don’t know, Chase,” Wye sighed.  “The Oni practitioners?  Tanner, would you go too?  You’ve got the list of questions?”

The three men walked away.

Amine and Ulysse glanced at Raymond, then, without remark, headed over to the far archway, blocking one of the exits.

Leaving just Raymond and Nicolette with Lucy and Verona.

“Will they come after us, do you think?” Lucy asked Nicolette.  “Our town?”

“Wye has to manage the Belangers, I guess it’d depend on whether he thinks there’s a good enough prize at the end of that tunnel.  Chase has the entire Whitt family leaning on him.  The Bristow thing fell through, he can’t even beg his way back to Alexander’s good books if Alexander’s really dead.  I guess Tanner’s the one you’d have to worry about, if any of us, and I wouldn’t worry that much about Tanner.  He focuses on other sorts of things.  Events more than places.”

Lucy bit her lip, nodding.

“I want to ask you some blunt questions,” Raymond said.

“This is all kind of screwed up, isn’t it?” Verona asked him.

“It’s far from great.  For my first question, please-”

“I wanted to ask about a limited Oath, first,” Verona tried.

“Please,” Raymond said, raising a hand.  “Let me ask first.  If you can’t answer, you can’t answer.  We can discuss Oaths.  But continued stonewalling and deflection may lead to me signaling Amine and him binding you on the spot, if I think we need to bring you into custody for more serious questioning.”

“That’s a bit of a power imbalance, isn’t it?” Verona asked.

“Verona,” Nicolette said.  “I don’t know if you realize this, but you’re really coming off as evasive.”

The headache buzzed.

“That’s kind of how Verona always is, a bit,” Lucy said, quiet.  “I’ve known her for years, it’s how she was with her dad, her mom…”

Verona shrugged.

“To answer your statement, it is a power imbalance,” Ray told Verona.  “That’s reality.  I run this school, and in our world, there are no policemen, there are no detectives.  We police our own.  Often poorly.”

Verona laughed again.

She didn’t look but she could feel eyes boring into her back, in the wake of it.  There was zero humor on Raymond or Nicolette’s faces.

“That’s the tone of discussion I was saying may burn bridges,” Raymond said, quiet.  “A man died and you’re laughing.”

“I’m not laughing at the death,” Verona said, half-smiling, “it’s all kind of missing the point, isn’t it?”

“Then I’ll get to the point.”

“I mean-”

He trampled over her, “Do you girls know anything more about the passing or forswearing of Alexander Belanger?”

“More than?” Lucy asked.

“The typical student in this room.  Is this going to be a painstaking process, Ms. Ellingson?”

“A student was forsworn less than a minute’s walk from here, apparently for pretty frivolous reasons,” Lucy said.  “So… yes?”

Raymond looked at Nicolette and sighed.  He looked back at Lucy.  “More than the typical student in this room, then.”

“Yes,” Lucy said.  “My new implement lets me hear things.  I heard what you and the other apprentices talked about as a group.  Interviews.”

“I see,” Raymond replied.  He frowned.  “Then, besides what the typical student knows, and what Wye alerted us to in this huddled group and the interviews we conducted, do you know anything more?”

He was going to press on this line until they were cornered.

“I heard what students chattered about,” Lucy said.  “Connecting movements and making guesses.  Alexander made calls.”

“Elaborate.”

Lucy shook her head.  “Just… he made plans to talk to Fernanda’s family, but Fernanda talked about that, too.  He, um, he was plotting, rallying the troops, sort of.  Talking to some mercenary types through America’s dad, um, he was serious about that revenge plot.  I heard only snippets, so there was more I missed or only got fragments of.”

Verona thought hard, trying to think of a way through while Lucy supplied answers.  Raymond was too stubborn to deflect or turn aside, he insisted on pushing forward…

Sure enough, he went on, “Then besides that, besides the typical knowledge of students, our discussions and interviews, and the whisperings of students, what do you girls know about Alexander’s passing?”

“I don’t know,” Lucy answered.

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t know what Avery knows, I assume it’s not much more than us, unless Zed or Brie or Jessica have said something.”

“What about you two here?”

“I only really know what Lucy passed on, what she overheard and observed,” Verona said.

“Lucy?” Raymond asked.

“This feels like it’s running against everything my parents tried to instill in me when I was young,” Lucy said.  “Talking to authorities and all.  Not having a representative.”

“Maybe,” Raymond said.  “Nevertheless…”

“Who would you pick?” Nicolette asked.

“The person I’d pick would be the same person Raymond said he wanted to bind, in our earlier conversation,” Lucy said.  “Um.  Which wouldn’t go over well, because we can’t get to her right now.  So it’d be like in the movies, asking for a lawyer that forces a delay.”

“Do you need a delay?” Raymond asked.

“No,” Lucy said, getting a bit heated.  Raymond frowned.  “But I don’t want to give the wrong answer, because I don’t want to entrap myself or get in trouble.  These things happen.”

“Do you think I’d do that?”

“Frankly?  Yes!” Lucy raised her voice a bit.  “I’m sorry.  I respect you more than most here, I appreciate you turning things around, but I can’t forget day one.  It wounded me.  You wronged me.  I have to account for the fact that you could do it again.”

“Even with me looking out?” Nicolette asked.

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “Sorry, I am, but… always.”

She clenched her fist, holding it up, like she wanted to punch something.

Raymond loomed above them, unmoving, silent, watching.

“To answer your question, what else I know, yeah, what Verona said is right,” Lucy finished, turning away, like she was disgusted.  Her tone remained angry.  “Can we finish this?”

“There’s more to ask,” Raymond said.

“Of course there is,” Lucy added.

Verona glanced at Nicolette, and saw those weird eyes filtered through the glasses, staring at her.  Eyes like black windows with pale, shrouded figures within.  White-wrapped heads and bodies with vague, distorted black shapes of unevenly-sized eyes and mouths all grouped in the middle of the eye, like a family or something staring through a window.

So many students were watching, looking for clues, for signs.  Listening, if they had the ability.  Lucy’s anger had drawn more attention.

Even the students who weren’t deeply invested would be following for the drama.

Lucy was here, using the fact that Raymond wasn’t great at dealing with angry people.  Tapping into what may have been legitimate anger and emotion.

It bothered Verona, that Lucy had to do that.  She’d wanted to find an opportunity to take control over this conversation and she hadn’t been able to get past this.  Raymond was too straightforward, too unerring.

Would there be a follow-up question?

“Could your answers provided here be affected by any practice, items, substances, or measures you may have taken?” Raymond asked.

“That apparently doesn’t work,” Lucy said.

“It almost never pays off, even in the short term.  I’m still asking.”

“No,” Lucy said.

Verona shook her head.  “No items, practice, or any of that junk, really.  I took a pill for an upset stomach.”

Give me something.  Give me a fingerhold, a crack, a something, Verona thought.  Her stomach hurt, as if she were reminded it existed by the mention of the pill.  Something I can use.

Her finger on the metaphorical trigger.

“Did you wish any harm on Alexander Belanger, as that evening-”

Her metaphorical finger twitched and found the trigger more sensitive than she’d expected.

Verona, despite herself, despite sense, sanity, and reason, laughed, interrupting him.

“-concluded.”

“Verona,” Lucy said.

The laugh trailed off.  Verona was startled to find tears in her eyes.  “You- you think I wanted this?”

“I’m asking.”

“You think I wanted Alexander gone?  I came to study!” she answered.  Lucy’s fingers gripped her bare arm, digging in.  “I wanted to learn, I wanted to do cool magic stuff!  And those guys started a war and they took it to our home, our families, our friends!  They dragged us into it and they didn’t back down!”

Her voice rang in the acoustics of the room.

She couldn’t even bring herself to glance behind her, because she didn’t know how she’d react if she did.

“I backed down!  I was willing to let Bristow go!  You would’ve heard me if you were there!  You can ask!  I didn’t want that!  I didn’t want to- to feel sick at the idea of eating here!  I didn’t want to do that to him!  I just wanted him to leave me alone!”

The shouting was raw enough she coughed, and she had to bite back a gag.

Raymond’s expression was unreadable.

“Verona was upset enough over it she was sick yesterday.  And not great today.”

Verona started forward, and Lucy held back on her arm, like she could somehow keep Verona from getting going again.  Verona let Lucy keep her in one spot, but she raised her voice, “You call me evasive but I’m human!  I don’t want to talk about Bristow!  I don’t want to think about Alexander being gone!  You ask me my feelings on him?  I kinda liked the guy!  I know my friends didn’t like or adore him but I thought he was sorta cool sometimes!  Now he’s gone?  And I can’t ever chill and talk practice with him?  That sucks!”

“Yeah,” Raymond said, terse.

“I didn’t want this,” Verona said, and she couldn’t bring herself to raise her voice as she said that.

The tone that resulted was… pretty much the opposite of the strong image that Lucy and them had been trying to convey, before.  The ‘don’t mess with us’ image.

Image shattered.

Sorry Lucy.

Lucy, fingers still digging into Verona’s underarm, rubbed her thumb on the back of the forearm.

Mixed messages there.

Verona’s breathing was ragged because she wanted to cough more and clear her throat but she couldn’t without risking gagging and she couldn’t risk gagging without throwing up in front of everyone and it was so stupid that this was her stress response and it was absolutely going to be the first moronic bit of humanity she ditched if and when she got around to that.

She already felt like she’d embarrassed herself more than Sol had been embarrassed by his mom, acting like this with everyone watching.  Venting emotion like a little bitch, like her dad.  Puking would just dial that up tenfold.

She looked at Lucy and in her peripheral vision she could see people looking.  Faces blurred by the tears in the corner of her eye.

Lucy gave her a one armed hug, pulling Verona’s head down into her shoulder.

“And you, Lucy?” Raymond asked.

Lucy looked up at him, and she might not have realized it, but she held onto Verona’s arm and shoulder tighter, painfully so.  “Really?”

“I have to ask.”

“I didn’t want this, either.  I didn’t do it, I didn’t ask for it.  Avery didn’t either, for that matter.  Now can I take my friend out for some fresh air?”

Lucy’s tone was biting.

Verona hiccuped, which became a cough.  She put the back of her wrist to her mouth.

Would Ray push it?  Press the questioning?

“Go,” he said.  “Take care of your friend.”

🟂

The ritual circle exploded near the base of the parking lot.  Wet snow splooged out in every direction from the circle’s edge, along with mournful wails and stuff.

Avery crossed the distance, hurrying to their side, as they sat on the steps to a workshop.  Zed and Brie lingered behind.  Avery practically threw Snowdrop out of her pocket, freeing her to run faster.  Snowdrop became human and hurried along.

“What’s wrong?  What happened?”

“Alexander’s dead,” Lucy said.  “Verona had a freak-out during questioning.”

“Oh,” Avery said.

Snowdrop caught up and tackle-hugged Verona.

“Tried to call, guess your battery was dead,” Lucy said.

“Yeah,” Avery said, her expression stricken.  “How… how bad was it?”

Lucy shrugged.  “I don’t even know how to begin answering that question.”

“I want to go home,” Verona said.

“Oh,” Avery said.  “That’s… pretty bad.”

“…to Kennet, anyway.  To be a cat for a few weeks.”

“That sounds more like you.”

Verona gave a half-chuckle.

More students were walking free.  It looked like questioning had come to an end.  About an hour after they’d gone outside.

Zed and Brie approached, and Lucy motioned for them to move on.  Zed asked a question that might have been ‘later?’ and Lucy nodded.

Verona was content to not have more company.  Even being outside like this, waiting for Avery, it felt very exposed, and she felt a bit humiliated.  That hadn’t exactly been the master ploy she’d been going for, in tackling Raymond.

Avery sat down and leaned back.  “We waded through literal despair and desperation in the form of a wintery hellscape, got hunted by three unstoppable-ish Incarnations, Zed got an arrow through his nice jacket, a magic wall-making box and a spare battery, Brie’s binding needs work and that’s getting to her more than I think she wants to admit… and I get the feeling we had the easier time of it.”

“Lucky,” Verona mumbled.  “Smart move.”

“What’s the plan for tonight?” Avery asked.  “Maybe a walk?  Visiting goblins?”

“Library?” Lucy suggested.

“Mmm, you know just what to say,” Verona mumbled, knocking her head against the side of Lucy’s.

“Oh, what shall we learn about?” Lucy asked.  “Ogres?  Oni?  Lost?”

“Keep going, you’re making me feel a bit better,” Verona told her friend.

Lucy went on for a minute or so, musing on topics they could cover and topics they needed to cover, to know what they were grappling with with the new Others of Kennet.

Others who could be working for or under the culprits of the Carmine Beast thing…

Which felt heavy, as Verona thought on it.

Estrella Vanderwerf left through the front doors, stretching, her brother a few steps behind her.  Silas, Verona remembered, now that she saw his face.

Silas stayed put as Estrella walked over.

All four of them sat up and looked up at Estrella.

Estrella dropped down to sit on her heels, bringing herself to their level, her attention on Verona.

“What do you want?” Lucy asked.

“Mm.  Those tears you shed were real,” Estrella said.

“Do you know what else is real?” Lucy asked.  She raised her hand, then raised one finger.  “Leave us alone.”

“I remember when I was a little younger than Silas, I had a stay in the Winter court,” Estrella said, rising up to a standing position again.  “It was a crash course in all things Faerie.  A sink or swim thing for me.  A woman took me under her wing, because that was what she did, she took people under her wing, and she shared secrets.  She pointed out a young faerie of Winter, something in him broke early.  He took on a role and he didn’t want to give it up.  He kept saying it.  I dare say.  I dare say.  I dare say.”

“I don’t dare say,” Snowdrop echoed.

“It stood out.  Like you laughing stood out.  It’s a beginner trick, and I’m pretty tuned into those tricks,” Estrella said.

“What are you talking about?” Lucy asked.

“Three times, a startling laugh.  Taking control of the conversation by stamping it with your Self.  Making it yours.  But the tears were real.  The words were real and unfiltered.  And they didn’t finish questioning you.”

Verona looked up at the senior student.

“Can’t steer a discussion that big unless you have firm control over yourself.  Don’t worry.  I wasn’t on Alexander’s side.  I’m glad he’s gone.  I’m not going to say anything.”

Avery looked at Verona, studying Verona as she heard Estrella’s words.

“If the tears were fake, I’d have so much respect for you.  It’s a good move.  As is… happy accident, no?”

“My friend was clearly upset and you think we’re happy?” Lucy asked.

“Happy outcome, at least.  Showing weakness, it got most of your enemies to back off.  Most.  Raymond Sunshine closed off with some announcements.  They’re bringing in the new headmaster sooner than later, they’re ordering in for dinner, so you don’t need to worry about the Brownies… but that comes at a cost.”

“What cost?” Avery asked.

“The enemies you still have want to make a move, sooner than later.  You have two days that aren’t the very supervised field trip to the faerie realm, which means your enemies have those two days to get to you.  And if they can’t, I don’t think they’ll let things go.”


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Vanishing Points – 8.4

Lucy

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Lucy ate her gas station food with the resolve and weariness that she’d run into during their fitness test in gym, at the start and end of the semester.  As part of it, they’d had to run back and forth along the gym in response to timed beeps until they couldn’t anymore, then they’d had to do some other exercises, then run laps.  Some of the other teenagers had thrown up.  Verona had come close.

Eating this sandwich, chips, and salad felt like that.  A chocolate bar sat at the desk to their room and Lucy didn’t even want it that much.  This was only day two of the post-Bristow dining.

Verona lay in bed on her stomach with her legs kicking, no doubt getting crumbs on the sheets or the book she was reading as she ate and went over a textbook at the same time.

“I’m glad we don’t have a full semester of this,” Lucy said.

“Wha?” Verona asked, twisting around.  “Huh?”

“Food?  Eating like this?”

“It’s fine.  We’re fine.  Don’t be a wimp.”

Lucy looked around for something to throw at Verona that wasn’t so lightweight it could be ignored or so heavy it would do serious harm.  “I’m not being a wimp, I bet even Ted Havens would sigh as he had to eat this bland, weirdly dense bread.”

“Is he really the guy you’re comparing yourself to?” Verona asked, flipping over to lie on her back.

“If not him, who?  An Other?  If we’re talking about eating awful food, then… a goblin?  I don’t want to compare myself to a goblin.  Or a-”

A ghoul?

She remembered Musette, two nights ago.  Her good humor faltered.

“I mean, Ted works,” Verona replied.  She adjusted the positioning of textbook and food.  “It means I can say I might be superior to Ted.  He might have lived for thousands of years, but my experiences of eating freezer-burned leftovers and frozen dinners have made it so I don’t give a crap about food.  I win against you and the Ted we’re imagining.”

“If you can call that winning,” Lucy said, humor returning.

“I can call it whatever I damn well please.”

“You know I sleep on that bed too, right?  You’re getting crumbs-”

Her phone buzzed.

“-on it.”

“That Avery?” Verona asked.

“Zed,” Lucy said, holding her ham and bland sandwich with one hand and poking at her phone with the other.  “We’ve got you on speaker.”

“On our way back.  We’re taking the long way, to be safer and steer clear of some locals.  We probably won’t make it back for afternoon class.”

“Sorta figured.  What locals?”

“Three incarnations came after us.  Jess had an escape route ready, but it was close.  I’ll let Avery share the deets later.  We wanted to let you know all is well.  A bit tired, but well.”

“Great to hear,” Lucy said, leaning back.

“I have some requests to pass on.  We were talking about who might be your primary focus before you go.  My advice was that you might want to focus on those who would actually take the time and make the effort, ignoring everyone who might be powerful and upset, but ultimately irrelevant once they go home.”

“We might come back here, right?” Verona asked.

Lucy made a face at Verona.

“You might.  You can deal with it then.  But when you have limited time…”

“It’s like Clementine said,” Lucy finished.  “Gotta clean up the biggest, most necessary messes, when you have someone coming over.  Right, okay.  Which leaves the question who.”

“We talked about that too.  We can expand on this list later, but for now, part of what I’m passing on is a recommendation: steer clear of the Tedds, and stay away from the Belangers.  Nicolette excepted, of course.”

“Belangers are weirdly positioned right now.”

“They’re not bound by a lot of obligations or alliances, they had big stakes, I sorta know Wye, Chase, and Tanner, and I really don’t know what they’ll do.”

“Right.”

“So those things bundled together are numero uno.  Number two?  Can you throw a cold drink at Verona on Avery’s behalf?”

Verona sat up, smirking.

“I can, but she’s lying on a bed I sleep in.  How deserving of this is she?”

“Checking- not that deserving.  She says a smack across the head would suffice.”

Lucy stood, and Verona shielded her head for a few seconds until Lucy could find an angle to give her a sharp swat.  Verona cackled through her sound of pain.

“Done.  What did she do?” Lucy asked.

“Misled Brie and I about what we were talking to Avery about.  Or who we were talking to Avery about.  Again, I’ll let Avery explain.  Gotta wrap this up.”

“Can you put her on?”

“I can, but calling from this far away burns through battery, and my spare battery was in a device that got a giant arrow put through it.”

“I’ll keep it short.”

Zed made a pained sound.

But a second later, Avery spoke, “Hullo?”

“Avery.  Managing?”

“This is tough but I’m glad I did it.  Learning a lot.  What did I miss this morning?”

Zed said something audible in the background.

“Not much.  Elemental rune stuff we already knew.  Refresher.  This afternoon is the guest teacher.”

“Okay, I had a third request Zed didn’t get to.  Can you take good notes for this afternoon?”

“Of course.  Was going too anyway.  Listen, uh, this is awkward…”

“Oh no.”

“Just wanted to say I miss having you around and stuff.  Glad you’re doing this, hope it’s doing what you need it to, but I’ll be glad when you’re back.”

“Me toooo!” Verona raised her voice, cupping her hands.  “Averyyyy!  We love youuu!  Snowdrop toooo!”

There was a hiccup of a chuckle from Avery’s end in response that suggested she’d heard.

“Now unless there’s more Zed wanted, you should hang up,” Lucy said, stern.  “Leave some charge on his magic battery in case of emergency.”

“Yep,” Avery said.  There was a pause.  “Thanks.  Means a lot.”

Then it went silent.

“Recharging her Self?” Verona asked.

“Sure.  And I wanted to make sure she knows.”

“Cool.”

Lucy slid the phone around the desk a bit, poking at it to check other messages.  Her last message from her mom was that thing about Verona’s dad.  Matthew had sent a short list of who they’d invited in, why, and the rules they’d put into place to keep things manageable with the influx.

Something to think about more seriously later, when they were heading home.  It was a long drive, they’d be able to talk it over then.

Lucy finished the sandwich, wet a napkin, and cleaned up the desk of crumbs.  Then, after weighing the options of saving the chocolate bar for later, knowing the opossum or one of her roommates might get it, decided to eat it.

With her earring, she could hear the sound of doors opening and closing, and footsteps in the hallway.  She checked the time.

“Want to go learn about elementals?” Lucy asked.

Verona nodded.

It was tough, heading out into the hallway.  The eyes that were immediately on her, combined with the fact that they were in the room at the far end of the hallway, so a lot of those eyes that were staring at her were between her and the room they were walking to… something she had to walk into and through.  She could see Liberty in that crowd, not smiling, and she could recall the warning they’d just got.

The fact it was tough, weirdly, was the worst thing about it.  Lucy, all her life, had dealt with assholes.  She’d marked, even from a young age, that some people would be vaguely jerk-ish to her -if not total a-holes- and then be nice to the next random person her age.  More often, there was a vague sense that the world was a hostile place, that things were hard, and question marks were stamped all over everything.  Why was this person giving her a hard time?  Why did that guy pick her to bully and keep in the water?  Why had Logan given her a hard time?  Why had Mr. Bader had an issue?  Why had Paul left?  Alone, any one of those things was a maybe, or even a likely, and putting it all together she could be reasonably sure that the color of her skin was the primary reason why.  But those question marks still got to her, made it hard to call any one thing out, frustrated.

And she liked to think she stood tall through it, she picked her clothes with care, she learned hair and makeup through a hundred hours of tutorials and videos.  Was still learning.  She called out what she could and she didn’t let stuff slide.

It made this hard.  When she was tired and she’d just eaten a lunch that had supplied basic nutrition and less than zero joy.  When she’d seen violence very real, a man’s head cracked open, just nights ago, and hadn’t slept great ever since.  When she felt far from safe, far from any backup that wasn’t her friends.  When it felt like all of that prep and those safeguards weren’t helping like they normally might.

When she didn’t feel like she was standing tall, emotionally.

Verona nudged her.  Lucy looked over at her friend.

“Come on.”

Some of the students who’d left during the event still hadn’t returned.  The Driscolls, Scobie, Rowsome… but at the same time, the fact that there was only one option for classes meant that everyone was heading in the same direction, albeit at different speeds.  They didn’t really enter the bigger group so much as they got absorbed by the stragglers.

They reached the student lounge, and the slight bottleneck as other teenagers stopped and figured out where they were sitting.  Lucy leaned against the wall and looked over to where Sol Ferguson sat in the lounge.  He looked restless but he didn’t rise to his feet, either.

“How’re you doing, Sol?” Lucy asked.

“Not looking forward to this afternoon,” he said.

“Redundant?” Verona asked.  “Elementals class, and you’re the elemental explosion guy.”

“That too,” he said.  He stood, making grumbling sounds, and stretched.

She remembered reading the student guide and feeling sorry for Sol.  The only twelve year old.  A bit too young to fit in among the teenagers, pushed into a younger age group by the fact his roommate was ten.  But he was Lucy’s height, lanky, with superfine blond hair that looked a bit like it was always suffering from bedhead or light static.  He’d put some gel or something in it but he did that thing that guys did when they were first doing their hair and concentrated on the parts at the front that they saw when looking in the mirror, ignoring the back.  He was wearing a shirt with a stylized graffiti orange-on-black pattern on it, and had tattoos at his hands- a half circle on each hand, each filled with diagram stuff.

If there were students out there who weren’t glaring at them or hating them for intervening like they had, then Lucy wanted to use that.  Getting rid of enemies was important, but making friends didn’t hurt either.

“What’s got you down?” she asked.

He walked over, then peeked around the corner, pointing before retreating.

At the stage was a woman with very fine dark brown hair, skinny, with tattoos all down her arms, each of a partial diagram.  Her dress was a crimped fabric, red at the shoulders and blue near the ankles, with unnecessary brassy buttons up near the collar.

“That bad?” Lucy asked.

“Would you want your parents teaching?”

“That would be a sight to behold,” Verona mused.  “Plop my dad down on the stage.  Get him to teach something about designing ticket systems for management branches and how the right implementations can encourage good workplace habits, and blah blah blah.”

“I think he’d run instead of teaching,” Lucy said.

“Well yeah, but it’s trippy to think about.  And awful.”

“This is awful,” Sol muttered, glancing around the corner.  “I can’t skip a class my mom’s teaching, can I?”

Lucy made a ‘hmmm’ sound, before venturing, “I don’t think I’d want to get on the wrong side of the kind of woman who tattoos a twelve year old so he can blow stuff up by putting his hands together.”

Sol sighed.  “Yeahhhh.  I was ten, by the way.”

“Is this a Talia type of situation?” Verona asked.  “Scary mom?”

“Very scary, but not at all like Talia’s.”

“Huh.”

Durocher entered the classroom from the western hallway, and the murmur of conversation changed, dropping in volume by half, then by half again, just a second or two later.

Mrs. Ferguson clapped her hands.  “Everyone, if you’d please take your seats!”

Durocher walked partway up the stairs, and gave Mrs. Ferguson a hug, before they exchanged kisses on the cheeks.

“Ohhh, she’s close to Durocher,” Verona commented.  “Cheeky-kissy close.”

“Yeahhh,” Sol groaned the word.

“Does that give a hint about what kind of teacher or mom she is?”

“Nooo,” Sol groaned out the word.

Things were quieting down enough for class to start, so Lucy entered the room.  She, Verona, and Sol sat down on the first available bench, toward the back.

“Mrs. Durocher is going to be sitting in and observing, apparently?  That’s a thing you’re doing this year?” Mrs. Ferguson asked, looking around.  “Okay!  I’m Mrs. Ferguson.”

Sol dropped his face into two waiting hands with enough force it made an audible sound.

“Those of you who have been attending for a while may remember me from two years ago, I did a week-long series after a Storm not too far from here.  I’m a career elementalist, semi-retired adventurer-hyphen-explorer, mercenary, monster hunter, writer of two textbooks, consultant for police on weird events they’d rather not get involved with, and, of course, most challenging of all, I’m a mom.”

Sol lifted up his face and smacked it down again.

“Careful you don’t, um, connect that diagram on your hands,” Verona murmured.

“I’m tempted.”

“This is the first year I get to teach a class with my son attending.  Sol!?  Where are you?  Looking through the benches, Sol?  Sol!  Solarisse Blaze Ferguson, I hope you’re in this class!”

Sol sat up and put his hand up.

“There you are!”  his mom gushed.  “Come on, come up to the front, you can help with the class.  I hope you haven’t been having so much fun you’ve forgotten everything you know.”

Virtually every pair of eyes on the class was on Sol as he rose to his feet, circled around to the aisle, then walked down, head a little bent.

Cringing a little, Lucy distracted herself by getting her book and pen out.

“I…” Mrs. Ferguson said, touching the edge of her palm to a partial diagram on her arm-

A violent blast of wind scattered papers all across the room, made students lose their pens and pencils, and made pages flip in books and notebooks that sat open throughout the retrofitted church.

“Love…” she touched another portion of her arm.

A geyser of flame shot through the middle of the room, over the heads of students who were already ducking low.

“Elemental practice!”

The third point of contact produced a spray of water.  Droplets reached Lucy, moisture dotting the page she had just opened.

Mrs. Ferguson touched a point near her wrist, then drew her hand up her arm- white lines spelled out more diagram, spreading up to the shoulder, and with them, lightning crackled out around her.  She touched a point at her shoulder, and it all fizzled out.

Students flinched as she switched hands, touching her right arm with her left hand, instead of her left arm with her right hand.  A humanoid figure made of light flickered into existence.

“I love elementals,” Mrs. Ferguson said, smiling all the while.  She turned to the Other.  “Stay put.”

The figure, mid-step, hesitated, then planted its feet, remaining still.

“Shamanistic practices are struggling with a modern paradigm shift.  Technomancy is modern but has no roots.  But elemental practices have been around from an early era, and we’re still going strong today.  We may even be stronger.  Yay for global warming, am I right, Sol baby?”

“Yeah,” Sol stood with his back to the stage, his mother a few feet behind him.  He sounded and looked like he wanted to die.

“As mankind harnesses the elements, earth, air, fire, water, and all of the derivative elements, like electricity, cold, smoke, wood, and iron, the Others change.  In my grandmother’s generation, it was more common for elementals to resemble animals, but now they resemble men and women, old and young.  The balances of power change, as electricity reigns triumphant.  They take on new flavors.  Polluted water, radiation, acid rain.  Elementals are exciting!”

If the enthusiasm and forced charm were painful enough to make Lucy’s teeth hurt, the current state of Sol was something of an antidote.

“Some say elementals are indistinguishable from spirits, but this isn’t correct.  Elementals and elemental practices are the work the spiritual does, channeled through strict physical laws, making contact, sometimes violent contact with our world.  Spirits govern, but elementals are the doers.  It is an excorporate school of practice.  What does that mean, Solisse?”

“Makes stuff,” Sol answered.

“Don’t be sullen.  Come on, up on stage.  Come on, don’t make everyone wait.  Up, up.  You couldn’t have combed your hair?”

Sol shrugged.

“I’ve missed you, honey,” she told him, reaching up to sort out the gelled locks of hair at the front of his hairline.  Sol gave the room of students sitting in benches a sidelong look.  “Excorporate?  Full sentence, please.”

“The schools that can take power and make stuff.”

“There are a lot of schools that can take power and make stuff.  How is it different from enchanting objects, or creating a ward?”

“Out of thin air.”

“Yes.  Out of thin air.  Or, more technically, from us, our bodies, our power.  Excorporate forces include elemental, echoes, and celestial bodies.  They’re easiest to bind, banish, and create, when we have a mind to.  But with elemental practice, while it’s very easy to use… it hits much harder than the echo you’d get with the same power expenditure.  If you have a source of elemental energy, or an elemental Other that you have bound and available to tap, then it’s easy to draw on for raw power.  It’s excellent for offense and defense in a pinch, it’s versatile, and at its best, it can be awe-inspiring in strength.  Which raises the question.  Why isn’t anyone using it?”

A few seconds of silence passed.  Then, as students realized it wasn’t a rhetorical question, they glanced around.  Nobody seemed to want to volunteer an answer.

“Are you all going to abandon your family schools of practice and come apprentice under me?” Mrs. Ferguson asked.  “Come on, you’re big boys and girls with a well-rounded experience.”

Lucy had no idea what the answer was, but she saw Verona squirm and start to raise her hand, and took hold of Verona’s wrist, putting the hand back down.

If this woman wanted to put poor Sol on the spotlight, she could squirm a bit.

“Anyone?”

It took a little bit, but on the far end of the room, America put her hand up.

“Yes?  Young lady?”

“Is it because Elementals are lame and don’t last very long?”

Mrs. Ferguson made a face, then replied, “Not lame, but you’re on the right track.  Elementals are fleeting, they exist to change our world and they tend to do it in rushed, dramatic ways, and then they disappear.  Look at this Other I summoned earlier.  Light and heat energy, and it’s already faltering.”

The Other did look dimmer than before, and it crouched a bit.

“Effective elementalist practice requires that we, sometimes literally, must catch lightning in a bottle.  To be in the right place at the right time, to have the right things on hand, and to act fast when that Other or general elemental manifestation is actively tearing up your surroundings, setting them on fire, or flooding the ground you’d want to draw a diagram on.  The goal is then to find a home for the elemental, a hallow or a positive environment that keeps them in one position, and this isn’t as simple as you might imagine.”

She walked over to the side of the stage, got a case, and lifted it to a lectern.  She popped open the case, grabbed some papers, and handed them to Sol, who looked a bit shell-shocked in the moment.

“Our summoned friend at the side of the stage.  Would you invigorate it?”

Sol looked over at the dimming spirit and then down at the paper.

“No pressure, really,” she told him, putting hands on his shoulders from behind him, while the eyes of every student present pressured him.  “But don’t let it go out while you’re reading.”

Sol frowned, looking up, then back down.  “What am I-?”

“Sol has a list of entities I’ve collected and bound, all of which are in the case.  These are other excorporate Others, vestiges, echoes, spirits, and even a cracked cherubim.  Creating a bright light or lighting up the area isn’t quite enough to invigorate the elemental Other.  Elementals come through environment, strike, and leave through environment, and the wrong trigger would cause it to burn its power and then break into constituent elements, going back to the spirit and physical spaces from whence it came.  We need a container.

“I don’t know,” Sol told her.  “Is it this one?”

She looked over his shoulder, frowned, then said, “Don’t ask me.  Have you been keeping up with the reading over your school break here?”

“Some.”

“Then if you don’t know, it’s your own fault.  Figure it out, now.  It’s dying, by the way.”

Sol’s posture was rigid as he read through the page, turned it over, and read the list on the back.

He put the paper down, went to the case, and stood on his toes to peer over the lip, before reaching in.

He lifted out an ID card on a cord then held it at arm’s length.  He looked to his mom, who gave no indication of whether the choice was right.  The ID card twitched and pulled like something was hauling on it, or it was in a violent wind that nobody else experienced.

“Ahem,” he cleared his throat. “Willie Koehn.  Night guard.  He snapped, caught some teenagers sneaking into the property to use it as a skate park.  It was a pair from a larger group that had mocked him and always got away when he tried to confront them.  He ambushed them, and tortured them.  Bludgeoned them, breaking their legs, beat them around the heads until they were insensate, then hurt them more.  Dumped them into a dumpster.  Pretty angry echo.”

Sol’s mother folded her arms.  “An echo this angry is better termed a wraith.  Nasty influences are mixed into it.  You’ll need to summon it.”

“I know.  I’m naming it as a prelude to summoning it.”

“Safeguards?  What are they teaching you at this school?  Sorry, Marie, I know you try, but you’re only one person.”

Durocher didn’t say anything in response, watching.

“I’m a safeguard.”

His mother shrugged, arms still folded.

“Willie Koehn, I call you out.  I hold your I.D. card, and I release you.  Go into this light,” Sol said.

The card twitched more violently, then it began to shed shadow.

An echo appeared, but it was a dense one.  The edges were inconsistent, like it had caught outlines of other ways the head had turned or the arms had moved, and the midsection had gaps like it was missing organs or something had melted through it.  The man was big, overweight, and looked about five times as mean as any human should.  His face was shiny, his hair and beard wet and sticking to his head like he was in heavy rain.

Lights throughout the room flickered, some going out.  Most of the light that filtered in was through blue tinted windows, but the man didn’t take on any of that hue.

“I’m pretty disappointed Sol,” Mrs. Ferguson said.

“I thought-”

“Carry on, Sol,” Durocher spoke up.

Sol turned.  He held up his hands, keeping them a few inches apart.  “The light, Willie.  Now.”

The figure twisted, turned, and set its sights on the dimming elemental of heat and light.

It marched forward, pulling out a flashlight that was about a foot long and all metal, thwacking it against palm audibly.  Lights flickered more violently as the man closed the distance, reaching out with one fist to grab the elemental by the neck.

It glowed, flashed, and then flowed up the wraith’s arm.  The flashlight the wraith held turned on, then turned bright, and the wraith’s eyes lit up.

It grew, visibly, by about half a foot, and that twisted, gap-filled mess in its midsection started to have a light that emanated at the edges.

The wraith turned, looking at the assembled students, and its eyes were like searchlights, casting out light into the gloom.  Faint light shone within its mouth.

“That was not the choice I wanted you to make, Sol baby.”

“It wasn’t the right answer,” Mrs. Durocher said, reclining on the stairs that led up to the left side of the stage.  “But it’s a right answer.”

“I hear you, Marie, and I disagree.  If you have a multiple choice question, you’ll only get the point if you pick the most correct answer.  There was another choice that was far more elegant, efficient, and economical, than using a hard-to-acquire wraith.”

“What was your thought process, Sol?” Mrs. Durocher asked.

“That a security guard working an evening shift would have ways to see at night.  Like a flashlight or headlamp.”

“You were right.  Good job.  Now please don’t let it kill my students.”

The wraith set its sights on a corner of the seated class.

The lights flickered, and when they came back on, the wraith was right next to some students sitting on a bench.

“Back!” Sol shouted, his voice high as he held up the I.D. card.  “Here!”

The lights flickered, and the wraith appeared behind Sol.  He turned around as it lifted up the flashlight to use as a bludgeon, and then pressed the sides of his hand together, completing the diagram there.  A rolling explosion blasted the wraith’s head and shoulder off.  The flashlight hit the ground without bouncing, a leaden weight that produced an echoing boom on striking floorboards.

Sol thrust the I.D. card into the remains of the wraith.  The darkness with glimmers of flickering light threaded through it leeched into the I.D. card.

Mrs. Durocher stood, walked up the stairs, and went to the shelving units at the back.

The I.D. card wasn’t taking in all of the darkness.  It began to creep along Sol’s arm.

“Honey, no,” Mrs. Ferguson said, sounding exasperated.  “I guess you’re only twelve, after all.”

Sol looked more annoyed at her than the wraith that was slipping its binding.

Mrs. Durocher walked over to Sol, carrying a flashlight that resembled what the Other had held, metal and long.  Sol took it, and, hesitating for a second, wrapped the lanyard and laminated I.D. card around it.  The card struggled every step of the way, moving of its own volition.

“Authority, Sol,” Durocher’s voice was quiet, but Lucy could hear with the earring.  Then again, it was Durocher speaking, so maybe everyone heard.

“Uhh-”

“Exercise your Self.”

“In!” Sol raised his voice.  “I don’t want you, get in!”

“Willie doesn’t like youths,” Mrs. Ferguson told Durocher.

“Too bad for Willie,” Durocher said.

The wraith didn’t look like it was going to listen, but gradually, it gave way.

Lucy wasn’t sure, but Durocher standing as close as she was might have been a factor.

The flashlight flickered, casting a red-tinted light, then went dark.  The lanyard and card stopped whipping around.

Sol huffed out a sigh.

“A little scary, baby?” Mrs. Ferguson asked.  “I’m sorry, I asked too much of you.  If Mrs. Durocher hadn’t been here, what would you have done?”

“More explosions.”

“While it’s crawling all over you?”

“The lesson,” Mrs. Durocher said, putting a hand briefly on Sol’s shoulder before returning to her seat on the stairs.

Mrs. Ferguson beamed.  “Yes.  We were talking about hallows and homes for elementals.  Others can be that point of residence.  A vestige can be the broken jar that hold most of it.  Even a hazy echo can be the structure an elemental maps to if it has the right anchoring points.  The elemental becomes the beating heart of the Other.  Electric, hot, storming, boiling, or turbulent, among other possibilities.”

She put papers and things back in the case, retrieved something, and then lowered it to the base of the podium, before dusting off her hands.  She held up objects.

“Objects may become inadvertent homes, if they meet the right requirements.  Whatever force created or currently holds the Other might have less grip on the Other than the new object.  Here is where we war with the environment, and where they protect themselves.  I have here a taser, rusty and ulcerating from a leaking battery.  It holds a strong Other, and a lot of power.  To capture that elemental, I had to deal with downed power lines, wiring tearing itself from walls, and arcs of electricity dancing through hallways.  Electricity that did not always follow normal rules.  Every bit of chaos it could create was something that kept it present, while also giving it an escape route.  This device was used to murder three individuals.  Ostensibly nonlethal, not very impressive, it had weight.  That weight mattered more than the state of the building and the electrical storms, and the elemental found its home.”

She held up a blasted chunk of what might have been a radiator.  “This gained its meaning and momentum through violence.  An explosion punched it through the head of the hallow a steam elemental.  Destructive force can be its own force, but it only worked because this chunk of metal had affinity for the steam.”

She walked back to the podium, setting the things down.  The taser sparked.

“Third, if we’re talking about the background parts of an elemental, we need to talk about realms.  The realms we assign to elementals are known as capital-S Storms.  Mrs. Durocher, did Raymond set it up?”

“There’s a remote on the shelf inside the stand.”

Mrs. Ferguson bent down, checked the stand that was set up at the front of the stage, for notes, luggage cases, and display, and pulled out a remote.  She clicked.

The lights went out again, and the room took on a red haze, with no particular light source.  Dark clouds floated where the ceiling should be.  Smoke rolled, and lines of white light buzzed, crackled, and arced as they held the shape of electrical towers and power lines, standing out visibly against that backdrop of choking red and black.  There was an audible electrical hum.

“Like elementals, the Storms are fleeting, intense, exceedingly valuable and powerful, and very hard to deal with.”

Lightning struck, making nearly everyone jump out of their seats.  A second later, more lightning hit, and this bolt not only rocked the room, floor, and the people sitting, but it traveled, digging a trench along ground that left ruined dirt in its wake, that dirt arcing and crackling with its own residual energy.  The ground looked like it was melting, like there was nothing that solid about it.

An ozone, burning smell filled the air, prompting some students to cough.

“It takes preparation to survive even a few minutes in a real, un-simulated Storm.  They tend to emphasize one element, they arise when a great many elementals gather and die at once, or when a powerful elemental comes into being.  Then they pass.  You could draw comparisons to a hurricane.  When they last for any meaningful length of time, they often, like elementals, have something they root themselves to.  One tree that’s been struck by lightning enough times, one building, one object.  In an ideal case, an elementalist will want to get to the Storm itself, well prepared, and harvest it for power.  If achieved, this can elevate a family dramatically.  Most often, we harvest the power after.  Tapping a storm, a few good harvests, or one strong elemental caught like lightning in a bottle are things great elementalist families and circles have managed.”

The storm grew more intense as she talked.  Figures as tall as the skeletal structures holding up the power lines remained like electrical giants in the wake of some of the blasts, darting around.  She had to shout as the sound got especially loud.

She clicked the button.

The ghostly-white image of the power lines, the red sky, and the black clouds faded, even though the ozone smell lingered.

The walls melted like wax, fire licking them, and smoke rolled up.  At times, the wax melted into smoke and rose up.  Other times, the smoke seemed to get heavy with chemicals or heavier materials in the smoke and rolled down the walls.  Colors ranged from pink to green to yellow, but the tones of fire were dominant.

A single metal chair glowed white-hot at the side of the stage.

Echoes entered the area and ignited, taking on power like the night security guard had.  Growing in size, ferocity, with energy burning within.

Random objects ignited and became intense blazes.  The only thing missing was the actual heat.

Lucy reached out for a blob of melting wall and her hand passed through it.

“Another Storm.  This is terrific, Marie.  Raymond’s work?  Did he model them off a real storm?”

“I don’t know.  He is good, isn’t he?” Durocher asked.

“Storms will keep going because they turn inward.  Winds will loop inward instead of venting out, fires will focus toward the interior of a structure instead of spreading.  They can cover wide areas, enough to occlude a small settlement, but they can be as small as a single building.  It often requires something catastrophic.  This is, at the most extreme end, the uppermost tier of elemental power.  The things that live and are comfortable in storms are akin to deities, but as fleeting as their storm.  We don’t know how many live for a few hours or a day, and how many recede into other territories or realms, waiting for another storm to wake them, before they emerge there.  Now, is there a student named Raquel present?  Raquel Musser?”

Heads of students around the room turned.  Even if nobody actually pointed, the sheer number of eyes that fixed on Raquel made it pretty darn clear that there was.

“Would you come up on stage, dear?” Mrs. Ferguson asked.

Raquel rose to her feet, and because she was closest to Mrs. Durocher, had to slip past the woman who sat on the stairs to get to the stage.

“I’d like to get to know my son’s schoolmates and friends.  I’ve heard your name, I’d like your help for the demonstration, if you please.”

“We’ve never really talked, but I’ll help out,” Raquel said, wincing a bit at the fake image of the ‘Storm’ that decorated the classroom.

Lucy felt that Sol was doing a commendable job of holding a poker face and simultaneously looking like he wanted to hurl himself face-first off the stage.  Subtle body language, and a frozen expression.

“At the very opposite end to the storm, we have another vessel for elements.  And it’s one that is critical to master if we’re to direct the elements, make good use of celestial and crude elemental diagrams, or even host the elementals in our own bodies for brief periods of time, to channel power or withstand a storm such as the one depicted now.  The human body.  You are a very pretty young lady, Raquel.  You seem to be in good health, fit.  Sol?”

Sol looked at his mother with that frozen poker face and those dead eyes.

“All of us, in ways both subtle and obvious, have slight affinities for certain elements.  Sometimes we even give it away.”

“I like to think I give very little away, Mrs. Ferguson,” Raquel told her.

“If you’d face my son?  Sol, stand here?”

Sol moved as ordered, facing Raquel on the stage.  The ‘Storm’ continued to ravage the walls and turn the background into a flaming, psychedelic hellscape.

Raquel stood with her hands clasped behind her back, ramrod straight, feet shoulder width apart, her chin raised, staring Sol down.  She wore a pleated skirt, black, and a tennis top with no sleeves and a polo collar.  She flinched a few times as the fake Storm erupted near her, but she didn’t take her eyes off him.

Sol visibly withered, standing there, his mother behind him with densely tattooed hands on his shoulders.

“Describe her,” his mother said.  “As detailed as possible, now.  Every little thing can be a sign of the elements and elementals she has affinity for.  Do you know, by the way, Raquel?  Have you worked it out for yourself?”

“I have.”

“Good, then that makes checking Sol’s answers easier.”

Sol swallowed.

“Hurry up.  If you take too long, we won’t have time for everyone here to do practical exercises in the blasting field behind the school.”

“Yeah,” Raquel told Sol.  “Please hurry.  This is awkward.”

The back door of the classroom opened, and Lucy nearly sagged with relief for Sol, at this interruption.  The poor damn kid.  The figure was hidden by the holographic ‘Storm’, up until Durocher motioned and Mrs. Ferguson clicked the remote and dismissed everything.

Lucy blinked a few times as her eyes adjusted to the change in scene.

“What’s this interruption?” Mrs. Ferguson asked, arch.

Lucy’s relief was short lived.  Verona’s hand gripped her arm.

Wye Belanger.

“Mrs. Durocher?” Wye asked.  He didn’t walk to her, but to the western hallway.

Lucy had to lean back, almost falling over the bench, to see into that hallway and see Chase and Tanner.  Nicolette was a ways behind, with Ray.

She sat back down, more normally, and tucked hair behind her ear, her fingers finding spots to rest on her earring, as she closed her eyes.

Raymond: You found him?

Wye:  No.  It bothers me I can’t.  I started to look for other things.  Financial connections, colleagues, people who I know he knows who might have hidden him.  I talked to the three skeptics at Sargent Hall, thinking he might be in their company.

Chase: That wouldn’t explain the lack of a trail between here and there.  Seems he did a good job of cleaning up the trail behind him.

Wye: He didn’t.  Hi, Mrs. Durocher.

Durocher: What did you find?

Wye: I didn’t.  I went looking for his car, today.

Raymond: You asked for help on that.  I found footage on traffic cameras.

“Can you hear?” Verona whispered

Lucy nodded and held up a finger.

At the front of the room, Sol stammered through the task his mother had given him.

Wye: …was the starting point.  Thank you, Ray.  The end point was… I talked to authorities, because practice wasn’t getting us anywhere.  I steered them in the right directions, paid a couple guys who weren’t on duty to help me find my way around.  The car was driven into a river.

Tanner: He knows how to cover his tracks.

Wye: No.  This wasn’t him.  The car interior was torched, I found his wallet and phone in the muck.  His wand, too.

Raymond: You think he’s dead?

Wye: Have you tried to enter his demesne?

Raymond: Sealed. 

Nicolette: Sealed how?  There are a lot of interpretations of that.

Raymond: I haven’t tried, frankly.  I’ve had enough to do, and his security is good.

Durocher: Go, Nicolette.

Students through the room were chattering.  Mrs. Ferguson’s lesson wasn’t getting a lot of traction.  The woman raised her voice.  “Excuse me!”

“They think Alexander might be dead,” Lucy whispered to Verona, picking her words very carefully.

Verona’s eyes widened.

“Excuse me!  Thank you!  I’d like to very deliberately ignore the events of this past week and focus on learning, please.  Sol is making a commendable effort at describing the beautiful Ms. Musser, noting she’s dressed comfortably for warm weather.  That leads us to natural body temperatures-”

“Shut up, nobody really cares about that,” Fernanda declared.  “I think they found Alexander, and Wye’s like, the only guy that’s one hundred percent in Alexander’s corner.  He didn’t look happy, so something happened.”

Fernada, for that matter, didn’t look especially happy.

Fernanda hadn’t really taken a side in the whole back-and-forth thing, and she’d settled in the middle when they’d made their final play against Bristow.

To go from that, to being this unhappy?

Nicolette: There were some wards and some security that were up there like normal, but the door opened.  It’s a mess in there.

Raymond: Define mess.

Nicolette: Everything he brought in there is jumbled up together, layout’s different, the space is still Important but it’s not…

Raymond: It’s not a demesne anymore?

Nicolette: No.

Durocher: That confirms it.  Dead or forsworn.

The chatter was increasing in intensity as students discussed possibilities, and it was a lot of whispers for the Eavesdropper’s earring.  Lucy ducked her head down, meeting Verona’s eyes, but neither of them had anything to say.  Any words they might have exchanged could be just as easily shared with a glance.

Durocher stepped into the archway, and the volume level dropped.

“Is he dead?” America asked.

“We can’t say anything for certain, but it does appear that way,” Mrs. Durocher said.

“What the frigging fuck!?” America raised her voice.

Everyone had a reaction, and Lucy’s eyes couldn’t move fast enough to grab all of them.  Fernanda staggering back to rest her back against a bookshelf, students who had been against Alexander who now looked spooked.  Students who’d been for Alexander who looked like they’d had something important ripped from them.

She hadn’t realized how much they cared.

The image of Alexander lying in the mud with his head shattered and leaking sat in her mind’s eye, big enough it choked her throat and made it hard to breathe.

She swallowed hard, and felt Verona’s hand on top of hers.

Others followed behind Durocher, striding into the room.  The Belanger circle, or ex-Belanger circle, and Raymond.  Nicolette was late, but she was followed by Amine and Ulysse.

“We’ll be calling an end to this class early,” Raymond said.  “Please do not get up from your seats.”


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Vanishing Points – 8.3

Avery

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Last Thursday: Self & Soul


Just down the forest path, nearly hidden by wet falling snow, was a deer, male.  Its horns were tangled in the branches of a tree, its forelimbs unable to touch ground, and it struggled violently, thrashing, pulling, and making no progress.  It screamed, and dark shapes ducked back away from it.

Wolves, drawing in.

“Can’t do anything about it, Avery,” Zed told her.

Zed, like Avery, was bundled up, in improvised cold-weather gear.  It looked like he was using sleep clothes for a scarf, flannel wrapped around his lower face, held there by the collars of the knit shirts he wore.  He had a hat on, hood up, and a leather jacket over several layers.  He was a bit on the short side and muscular to begin with, and the layers made him look very stocky.  He still managed to look cool, hands in his pockets, bag packed with tech over his shoulder.

Avery wore her fall jacket, black with reflective orange panels, over Lucy’s sweatshirt, borrowed, and she had her track pants on under her jeans.  She’d worn two pairs of socks with her running shoes, but had ended up taking it off, because it was making her feet hurt with the long hike.

The deer thrashed and screamed, in a repeat of the earlier sound.  The wolves darted in, and the deer’s eyes roved, wild, more whites than anything else, as it tried and failed to keep the predators in view.

“Think of it like a photograph of something bad that happened once,” Zed told her.

“What if we put it out of its misery?” Avery asked.

“You wouldn’t be putting it out of its misery.  It is misery, or panic, or helplessness, or some combination of those things.  You’d just be putting it out.  Water on a fire.”

Avery sighed.  Her breath fogged.  The snow came down in quarter-sized dollops, wet and ice cold, each bit hitting her like a sharp jab with a finger or pen.

“It’s so uncool that you care,” Snowdrop said, “Tch.”

“Tch,” Avery echoed, “You good?”

“No, I’m not good,” Snowdrop muttered.  “I’m exploring this awful place with you, it’s the pits.”

Snowdrop wore a shearling lined coat with opossum-style ears on the hood, and teeth at the edges.  A scarf covered her lower face, the ends slung over her shoulders so they sat over her shoulderblades, her eyes the only part of her face that was visible, large with dark shadows around them.  The ends of her scarf read ‘First play dead’ and ‘then play dirty’.  Well, it was the other way around, but Avery got how it was meant to be read.

“Using salt would at least make it be quiet,” Avery said.  “Makes it easier to hear things that matter.”

“It would,” Jessica answered, as she walked through the slushy snow. She wore a fluffy hoodie under her raincoat, and it didn’t look like nearly enough in weather this crummy, but she wasn’t suffering nearly as much as any of them.  Snow wasn’t piling up on her, either.  She stopped, took stock, then said, “But we don’t want to do that.  This place is built of scenes like this.  Especially this facet of the Ruins.  Take out one piece, and things will collapse inward.”

“Things?  Other scenes?” Avery asked.

Jessica nodded.  Then she crouched.  “Look.  See how wet the ground is?”

Avery nodded.  The deer’s trampling footsteps as it danced, trying to free itself, were making the ground a muddy puddle beneath it.

“There’s also water running down the branches.  Now see how dark it is?”

The grouping of trees blocked out most of the light, not that there was a ton of light here.  It made the whites of the deer’s eyes and teeth stand out more.  Front legs kicked at the air.

“Yeah.  I see it.”

“Clean salt can remove that scene from this tapestry, but you’d plunge back into Ruins more familiar to you if you tried.”

“Rain and darkness.”

Jessica nodded.  “The screaming is a way of pushing its echo outward, too.  You could get snared if you hear that scream up close.  Tangled the same way it’s tangled.”

“Are the wolves a danger?” Snowdrop asked.

“Props for the scene.  There are worse dangers here.  I saw signs of some while looking around.”

“Anything to worry about?” Zed asked.

Jessica looked around, and walked away a few steps, circling a tree and looking at the trunk.

“Answer whenever,” Zed told her.  “I’m just here, freezing.”

“The cold doesn’t matter.  How you feel about the cold matters,” Jessica said, still studying tree trunks.

“I recognize the distinction and I don’t like it,” Zed told her.

“Call Brie,” Jessica said, pulling something from a tree trunk.  It looked like a coin, but it was lumpier.

Zed pulled out his phone.  He selected Brie from the contact list while asking, “Why?  Danger?  Do we prepare for a fight?”

“You don’t fight these things.”

Zed sent the message.

“What’s that?” Avery asked, indicating the bit of metal.

“A token.  Certain inevitable forces will leave them places.  Like an Other closely related to Love leaving behind roses or rose petals, or an Other related to Mania leaving a pitchfork embedded in something.”

“Brie wants to know if she should abandon the fire.”

“Leave it.  Let it burn out.  It doesn’t matter.  Have her come straight here, avoid any lights.  If she gets lost and has to cross a road or path, have her stop, hide, and call us.”

Zed typed.

“Tell her to be quiet.  If she runs into any kind of trouble at all, she should let loose, as much as possible.  Let those children free.”

“You’re making me nervous here, Jess,” Zed spoke, his voice low.

“I’d say… five percent or less chance we have any trouble,” Jessica answered.  “But we want to make sure she does the right thing if she has trouble.”

“I could go.  It’s best if we pair up.”

“You could,” Jessica said, sounding unenthused.

She’s so used to doing things alone.

“Do you want me to go?” Avery asked.

Jessica turned, looking her over.

“It’s part of why I’m here,” Avery said.  “I know you’ve been down in places like this with Jessica a lot more than I have, Zed, but-”

“No,” Zed answered her.  “You’re better at navigating this place.  My only worry would be, you know, if you got hurt instead of me, I’d feel like the biggest piece of shit.”

“Ave’s useless,” Snowdrop said.  “Don’t let her.”

“Are you tired?  Sore?  Cold?” Jessica asked.

“Barely, a little from the other night, and barely.  Running might help warm up my toes,” Avery answered.

“It won’t make you too slow for the return trip?  Going out there and back?”

Avery shook her head.

“Go, then.  I’ll stay and keep an eye out.”

Avery picked up, grabbed the black rope from her pocket, took Snowdrop’s hand, and led her around a tree.

Felt good, being trusted.  And when so much of this place felt bad, it was like a much-needed light in a very dark place.

She slipped in and out of this desolate winter, that had so little of what made winter great.  There was no snow that was pristine or great for snowmen.  It was dark and gloomy and drippy, the ground treacherous, and somehow it managed to be a difficult trudge uphill and a slippery slope downhill.

Jessica had described the ruins as being like a cube.  The side they were closest to and most familiar with was at the edge of two sides, wet and dark.  Close to depression and apprehension.  Humans and civilization dwelt pretty close to that.  They’d taken a side track, now.

The things that lived here in this cold were well past depression and into grief and despair.  The people who lived in those emotions were far removed from things- their homes and rooms like cabins in remote wilderness.  Animals were far more familiar with that resigned despair, starved and trapped, so they occupied a lot of this space.  Their echoes were strongest here.  Like the deer’s.

There was an echo nearby, a canine, emaciated and starved, howled, caught in a trap.  It had tried to gnaw off a limb and stopped halfway, too weak to continue.  She remained a generous distance from it as she skirted around.  She still felt twinges in her own leg.

Echoes of this sort had a wide reach, and they snared.  An echo of a lonely disabled guy had caught her like tar, earlier.

Not many were mobile, at least.  They remained where they were, many in a bit of a dip, ditch, or low point.

Figures, gaunt, pale, draped in furs and collected curios, and eyeless, lurked at a ridgetop, crows gathered around and on top of them.  They didn’t move, only waiting.  One turned its head, the eyes of the feline skull it wore following her, but it didn’t move.

Part of the reason Brie was here was to test the bindings.  And they’d failed the test.  The Choir had started to leak out around her, and so she’d stopped to sit by the fire and try to fix the binding up again.  It wasn’t a big deal, but it was a deal.

“Go,” Snowdrop huffed.

Avery stopped in her tracks.  She looked at her companion.  “Tired?”

“I can’t hear her.”

Avery stopped, listening.  Snowdrop’s head turned sharply as she looked off into the woods.  Avery matched the angle.

A shout.

“You okay to run?” Avery asked.

“No.”

“Great.”

They ran.  There were more of the eyeless here, and Avery held off on using the black rope, because she wasn’t sure if they saw her, and a slip and fall could mean sliding down the wrong slope.

Like drafts of wind, impressions of starvation and mourning flowed over and past Avery.  The starvation blew into and through her, leaving her feeling hollow and weak, and the mourning messed with her head.  An animal mourning her cubs she couldn’t feed.

She squeezed Snowdrop’s hand.

“I’m a wimp, I can’t take this.”

“Yeah.”

“Free and clear ahead!” Snowdrop’s raised her voice, a contrast from earlier.

Avery stopped in her tracks.  Snowdrop had beat her to it, and was an anchor that held her back from going too far.

Echo-y, coyote-like animals, starved and distorted by that sensation, stalked their way out of snowy bushes.  Darkness had leeched into them, and sparse, patchy fur clung to gaunt, blackened bodies.  Some had only one eye.

The leader of that pack led from behind.  Its back was about even with Avery’s ribcage, and it was so gaunt it was little more than skin wrapped around a canine skeleton, eyeless.  Organs throbbed against that skin at the belly and ribcage.  Moisture wicked from it.  Some from the pelting snow, some like sweat.

Jessica had said to be confident in the face of things like these.

“There’s easier prey, big guy,” Avery addressed it.

The lesser hounds circled around.

Snowdrop’s grip tightened.

The smallest hound, which still had two eyes, wheezed, giving away its position as it moved behind her.  Avery tapped her foot.

It lunged, and Avery kicked.  By all rights, in a normal circumstance, it would have gotten its teeth around her shoe and held on, she would have fallen, and the rest would have descended on her and Snowdrop.

But she wore wind shoes.  It propelled the runt back and away, tumbling down a slope, and made Avery jerk forward.  Snowdrop held onto her to keep from going too far in the opposite direction, right at the big one.

She was off balance, though.  The big one came at her, teeth gnashing, and Avery reached to her charm bracelet, which was at the wrist of the hand that held Snowdrop’s, and pulled the Ugly Stick from the bracelet, swinging it.  Glamour peeled off as it swung, and it grew to full size by the time it passed by the big hound’s head.

The sudden attack from the weapon made it shy back.

It bolted, running.  The rest followed.

Other things were encroaching though.  A mourning wind blew from behind, and a trio of eyeless humans were trudging through the trees.

She and Snowdrop started running in the same moment.  Same wavelength.

An eyeless figure lay buried in snow, and birds like crows with skin peeled from their faces pecked at the body, tearing away strips.  She avoided those, using the black rope to jump up to a tree branch.  The rope was harder to use when she brought Snowdrop with her, because they both had to be entirely out of sight.  It required large trees, or groupings of tree big enough.

They moved from branch to branch, and in the midst of it, jumped straight into an echo going full-tilt into a starvation despair.

These were the things that made the Ruins so tough over the long term.  She could escape that effect, but feelings lingered and her body responded to it.  Stomach clenching, changing how it handled the food that was already there.  If she was exposed to that for too long, it would lead to her actually starving in fast motion, or something similar.

Get hit with an echo, then recover nine-tenths of the way.  Rinse, repeat.

She found a perch at the edge of the woods.  Brie was making her way over.

No evasion, no sneaking.  Brie marched on, and to Avery’s sight, she was streaked in blood, small child’s hand-prints in crimson painting the ‘false’ body parts the choir had given her, even over the heavy clothes.  Avery’s Sight created a mist, and the markings on Brie’s hand and neck cut through that mist, clear as anything.

An echo was making its way toward Brie.  A man in a hospital gown, bare-legged, trudging through slush.

Brie looked at him, slowing.  The light and shadow around her changed, the mist getting thicker, and she sagged a bit.  Feeling the echo’s influence.

Then the waifs started appearing.  They rose up out of the snow around her.  A girl in a bunny hat, a boy with a bike helmet, and a girl with a leather jacket covered in zippers.  However they were dressed, they acted similar; the ones with the bunny hat and bike helmet charged in, moving through the slushy snow like it was easy, pouncing on the echo and tackling it to the ground.  The girl with the leather jacket hesitated, glancing around, then jumped him, fingers dragging through his stomach to tear cloth and skin.  For every bite she got in, ten more bites worth of echo dissolved.  The others tore at arm and face, respectively.

Brie straightened and moved on, same pace as before.

Avery descended, bringing Snowdrop with.  Brie looked her way, and Avery raised a hand in a wave.

Brie waved back.

She could have gone to Brie’s side, but the Choir was out.  Just five kids now.  The Echo the waifs had tackled was gone, and so were the waifs.

The same pack of hounds that had come for Avery were surrounding Brie, now.

“Hey!” Avery shouted.

They didn’t react.

Brie matched the number of waifs she had around her to the animals.  One per hound.  It didn’t seem like enough, and frankly, it seemed like prime bait for the hounds.  Starving kids?

“I’m going ahead,” Avery told Snowdrop.

“Not cool!”

She tossed the black rope back to Snowdrop, then charged ahead.

The hounds went after waifs, and seemed surprised that those waifs fought back as viciously as they did.  Most were on the defensive a second after the kids started biting back, trying to pull away and retreat.

The lead hound charged at a boy in a skull t-shirt with a mohawk, gripped him with blackened teeth, and hurled him aside.

More waifs reached out of the snow, flanking the hound, grabbing its sides, but it still had momentum, and Brie backed away a few steps, slipped, and skidded down a slope, out of Avery’s sight.

The song was audible now.  Singing in the background, as the Choir swelled in number and strength.

Snow jabbed at Avery’s face as she crossed the distance.  Four children fought to keep the lead hound back, and failed as it walked to the crest of the ridge where Brie had slipped.

Avery closed in, and the hound started to turn- that, at least, was a process the waifs slowed down.  Avery gave it a sharp swat on the rump with the ugly stick.  A gift from the goblins from a while ago, it was a weird weapon that was often too heavy duty to use, even in the serious situations they’d been in so far.  They barely carried it with them.

It was gnarled, knotted wood in a club shape, it hurt like dammit, and it left lumps that were slow to heal.  A hit hard enough to do any structural damage would change that structure.  Break someone’s jaw and it would never be exactly right again.  Knock out teeth, same idea.

She wasn’t interested in that part of things.  She just wanted to scare off the hound.

Its back legs went out from under it as it finished turning on her, splaying out behind it, and as much as it gnashed its teeth at her, it couldn’t advance without those legs.  She rapped it on the snout.

In a twisting scuffle, waifs biting and hound reeling, struggling to get its feet under it, the hound finally managed to pull free, and bolted.

One hound had been brought down by a waif, and the others ran off.  The remaining waifs ate.

Brie was at the slope, waifs around her, holding onto her.  At the bottom of that slope, in a bowl-shaped depression, was an echo of a family around a car, and a bit of the sort of guardposting that appeared at a bend in the road, to keep cars from going over.  It looked like a crash, the family was trying to stay warm.

Brie slipped down another ten feet.  Two-thirds of the way down.

The family reacted, changing position.  Echoes were blurry and these guys were no exception, and blurs melded together.  Flesh blackened and waxy by cold, shrouded by wisps of sensation and sentiment.  The mist welled, the snow intensified, the mother cradled her child in her arms, and they looked like one singular mass, groping and reaching.  Even the car seemed to be part of them.

Frost crept up Brie’s legs, and they stopped working.  Sort of like how the hound’s had, but the hound had got it together enough to run off.  Brie wasn’t able.

Waifs multiplied, scrabbling for their own traction and grip.  The ones that found any supported others, and supported Brie.  The echo got to them too.

“I’ll help!” Avery called out.

“Don’t come!” Brie raised her voice.

Avery stopped.

She pulled off her bag, grabbed the plastic screw-top water bottle she’d filled with salt, and got spell cards.

What was the symbol for time?  She had to use process of elimination.  Each one was a planet and a god.  Trident-ish symbol was Neptune, sea and sky, to make stuff activate at a certain height or if it met water or some other environment.  Mars was the whacking symbol, like she used for the hockey stick.  Mercury for movement, like she used for her shoes.

She ended up sorting through her cards, taking a second to interpret each.

There.  She had a time-delayed smoke thing, for cover so she could use the black rope.  Little ‘h’ with a curl on the one leg and a cross at the top.

She copied that symbol onto another card, noted a time: thirty seconds, finished the diagram with two strokes, and then stuffed it into the water bottle.

She lobbed it.

“Things might shuffle, I think!” she shouted.

“Shuffle!?”

“Hold your breath, don’t panic!”

The echoes down here tended to remain dormant until provoked, and then they became whirlwinds of intensity or desperation.  This was no exception.

The bottle detonated.  Clean salt sprayed everywhere, and it cut through the echo, leaving gouges, causing parts to dissolve.  The entire effect got weaker.

Brie moved her legs, finding footholds in addition to the handholds.  Waifs were more mobile.

“Anyone!” the echo shouted.  A man’s ragged voice, hollering in desperation.  With the voice came a push of that cold effect.  It hit Avery like a slap in the face, whole-body, a cold that reached past any clothes she wore to lower her core temperature.

It was all she could do to control how she fell, tipping over into a snowbank.  Numb, she’d gone from 100 to 0, and she could feel herself slipping, sliding inch by inch toward that same slope, and she couldn’t move to do anything about it.

Snowdrop ran up, holding the black rope, and took hold of Avery’s arm, pulling.

Reversing that descent.

“Anyone!” the man shouted, voice ragged and raw.

Brie was in worse shape.  She slid further down that slope.

Waifs emerged. A couple dozen, now.  They pushed through the cold, stumbling, grabbing and tearing.  Each one seemed to get close and have time to do just one thing- one grab, one bite, and then collapsed.  But they were solid ground for others, and the tide of them were like a wedge driven into the damage the salt had made.

Car, people, and everything distinguishing about the scene were torn to shreds.

The song built in intensity, in volume, and mirrored the level of violence as they ate and destroyed.

Avery shivered as the cold from the echo dissipated.

And with the scene gone, things began to slide around.  A mini-avalanche, a bit of water.  A tree fell, and let snow start to tumble.  What looked like a hill flattened out into a sharp slope.

All converging on or aiming at the location where the echo had been.  More echoes loomed at the ridge, ready to take up residence in the bowl-shaped depression.  Each carrying their own effects and impressions.  Feelings they would transmit to anyone nearby.

The good side of the effects of the echoes was that they left as fast as they arrived.  Avery picked herself up, assessing the situation.

“Thanks, Snow,” she said.

“Never again.”

She had a game plan.  Now it was time to use those other cards.  She finished one and handed it to Snowdrop, then finished the other.

Avery took off running down the slope.  To Brie.

The Choir was around Brie, and two of them got in Avery’s way.  One hissed.

She leaped over them.  Helped by the fact she was on a slope, and she didn’t care that much if she happened to kick them in the heads in the process.

“You shouldn’t have-”

“Grab me.”

Brie did, hugging Avery.

Other, smaller hands gripped Avery as well.  She knocked one aside, waiting, hoping her timing wasn’t bad.

Snowdrop exploded into a plume of snow.  Avery winced.

Her own card went off, kicking up snow and wind.  Hiding them.

She used her Sight to look clearly to her destination, then used the black rope, jumping herself and Brie to the top of the ridge.

Fumbling, she found Snowdrop, heavily covered in wet snow, now.

They navigated their way away from the cloud of snow, and Avery had a view of the echoes colliding and wrestling with one another.  Two seemed to merge, and might have become kings of that particular pit if they weren’t torn in half by something animal that was hidden by snow.

It looked like that would take a little while to resolve.  Each one had been pulled there by the absence of the car family, and now that they were close, they were switching to their ‘mad desperation’ states.

Small hands gripped Avery again.  Fingers dug into flesh.  She pulled away with a sharp movement.  Snowdrop hissed at one who was presumably doing the same..

“Go,” Brie said.  “I don’t want them to hurt you and I don’t really control them.”

“You were doing okay.”

“They keep me alive and well because if this body dies, they die.”

Avery nodded.

She did as Brie had suggested and backed off.

Thirty or forty feet separated Avery and Brie.  The kids led the way, flanked, and followed Brie.  The singing was faint.

“So,” Brie said.

“Yeah,” Avery replied.

“Glad you skipped class for this?”

“Needed to get away, a bit,” Avery replied.

“Is this really better?”

Avery looked around.  At the unfriendly, battered trees, the forest that was more fallen branches than undergrowth, the gritty, slushy snow that promised no snowmen or snowballs, the distant, ruined shacks and cabins.

“Kind of?”

“The way Lucy was talking about it, you don’t have that long to study what you need to study,” Brie noted.  “Or to reach out to those students you want to keep around?”

Avery shrugged.

“Do you want to talk about it?  Those students, or, on a lighter note, studying?  I’ll be studying here for a bit, while I get things sorted.”

“I mean, for studying, they’ve got the morning class handled.  I could spend the day in the library, instead, but we thought being alone with other students might be dangerous, and I’d really rather be doing this.  Hands on learning, direct with an expert.”

“Studying in its own way.  Sure.  Are you going to become a necromancer?  Tapping into echoes and working with the other forces that dwell here, to affect Death?  Something like that?”

“No.  Just… exploring.  Learning how otherworldly places work.”

“Hm.”

“How’s your binding?”

“Not good, I think we have to do the long fix,” Brie answered.  She pushed up her sleeve.  The tattoos were broken up, and as Avery used her sight, the lines peeled away, drifted, and formed loops and bubbles that pulled away and disappeared amid snowfall.  A second or two later, a waif appeared in roughly the same general direction.

Gabe.  Shirtless, vomit streaked across his lower face, mouth ajar, with a mushroom cut.  Ten or so, skinny.

He looked at her and yawned his jaw open to crack it audibly.

Poor Gabe.

Could Avery have gone down a similar path?  Lonely at school, if Mrs. Hardy hadn’t reached out?  Or if she hadn’t had sports as an outlet?  Would she potentially have snatched at an answer, if that newsletter had found her?

Avery swallowed, shook her head, then reminded herself she was part of a conversation.  “What does it mean, to do the long fix?”

“Proper tattoos, redoing the initial ritual.  I have to fast for a few days, which isn’t a problem, because, well…”

Because Brie had finished the Hungry Choir ritual and she would never again have problems related to food.

“Just annoying?” Avery asked.

“Yeah.  Putting life on hold again.  No books to read, no TV, no movies, no phone or internet.  The first time it was okay, except I was worried it wouldn’t work.  This time it just feels- I don’t want to make this a thing I have to do every few months.”

“At least you have Zed for company.”

“Yeah,” Brie answered.  She smiled.

Avery glanced at Brie now and then, while still keeping an eye on Gabe, who was getting closer to her than some of the other waifs had.  Brie seemed to have more energy and enthusiasm than before, just from the mention of Zed.

“Do you have a plan for after?  Work?”

“It depends on a lot,” Brie said.  “We don’t know how or if we can totally bind the song within me.  It’s… not going perfect, so far.  If we can seal them in, then long sleeves, a high collar, and I’ll look for a job.  If not, then we control it, so there’s always a little bit of their power leaking out, and I manage that, and I’ll do some work that doesn’t require me to show up much in person.”

“Huh.  What about draining it?  Tapping it for power?  Doing the ritual, in a different way?  You guys ran the ritual for a group after the binding, didn’t you?”

“Yeah,” Brie said.  “They did the last part the weekend Bristow took over the school.  Five of the eight participants made it.”

“Five?”

“Forced a rules consistency.  So the last round was like the prior ones.  We drew some power at the start, gave you guys a share of that.  We’ll give you more as we figure out how to tap the rest.  If we can keep the numbers going like that, drain the reserves…”

Gabe hissed.  Brie stopped.

Gabe looked over at Brie, and Brie looked down at Gabe, then from Avery to Gabe again.

“You knew him?” Brie asked.

“He was a classmate.  We barely talked.”

“He was there that night.”

Avery nodded.

Brie made a gesture with her hand.  Gabe disappeared the next time a tree blocked him from Avery’s view.

“I was there too,” Snowdrop declared.

“Maybe if you were, Snow, we could have done something,” Avery told her.  “One extra set of hands for the people that needed help.”

“Are you okay?” Brie asked.  “You’re avoiding your friends-”

“I’m not, I mean, I am, but that’s not the main objective.  Just… a breather.”

“And you sound down about stuff in the past.”

“I liked what you said, before we did Jessica’s ritual.  We chatted for a minute or so, we talked about wanting things to be better, to share, to support.  More like friends are supposed to do.”

Brie nodded.

“I want that too, and I think it’s doable, but it’s like we’re doing it all at the edge of a cliff, and it’s so easy to push things too far.  And then it’s a long, long way down.”

“I’ve been dwelling on that too.  You’re thinking of Gabe?”

“And Bristow.  And-” Alexander.  “Reagan.  I had a close call, myself.  Almost got Lost and I might never have gone home again.”

“If you ever need to talk…”

“Can’t talk to me,” Snowdrop said.

“…and you can’t talk to Snowdrop, you can call,” Brie told Avery.  “Zed has neat phones.  We’re almost always reachable.”

“Thank you,” Avery said.

“I mean it.  I owe you guys.”

“And I mean it when I say thank you.  I- I’m collecting names at this point, kind of.  A bit of a support circle of people I can call.  Which might be important, because I don’t know what’s waiting for me at home.”

“I’d give you a hug right now if I could,” Brie told her, still walking forward, with the group of waifs around her.

“It’s okay.”

They walked for a bit.  Zed and Jessica stepped out of the trees, banishing a lesser Echo as they approached.  They walked fast and looked intense.

“Heard the singing of the Choir before we saw you,” Zed said.

“What’s up?” Avery asked.

“Walk fast.  You guy are covered in snow.  You okay?”

“We had a scary run-in with an Echo,” Brie said.

“Knit together.  Whole family,” Avery said.  “I don’t think Brie ended up needing me.  She pulled out the choir and dealt with it.”

“I could’ve, maybe,” Brie said.  “But I would be more tired than I am.  And we have to travel back.  If I’d fought on my own I might be too tired to walk all the way home.”

“You okay to walk right now?” Zed asked.  Brie nodded.

“What’s got you guys spooked?” Avery asked.  “Does it have to do with that token?  The bit of metal?”

“A group of lesser incarnations,” Jessica said.  She reached out, holding the token like she was going to drop it.  Avery put her hand out.

The bit of metal, slightly triangular.  A squashed bullet, edge sharpened.  It was wrapped up in cord.

“My best guess is this is Hunt,” Brie said.

“Hunt?  As in-”

“The hunter distilled, seeking, tracking.”  She motioned with her hand, then dropped something else.

A bit of glass wrapped in more cord, curved and smooth on one side and broken on the other, like it was from a magnifying glass or marble.  There was blood on the pointiest corner, worked into the cracks.

“Inquest or Inquisition.”

And a ring, snipped, the band twisted so it formed a curl, where the snipped ends didn’t meet but crossed instead.  There was a heart shaped hole at the center of the band, opposite the mis-aligned ends.  The cord was threaded through the hole and around the ring itself.

“Which one is this?”

“I don’t know.  But it’s compatible with Hunt and Inquisition, that token represents it.  If you let them drop from your hand, they fall into a position that forms a triangle.  Don’t actually drop it.  I don’t want to waste the time.”

“Okay,” Avery said, holding the tokens in her hand.

“They fall equally distant apart.  The triangle shape appears in the tokens, too.    They’re a team of three.”

“What do you need, and what do I need to know?” Avery asked.

“We avoid them.  This broad area is their hunting ground,” Jessica said.  “Brie, this is where you might be important.”

“Whatever I can do.”

“I normally back off in situations like this, return home, or find a long way around,” Jessica stated.  Her eyes roved, searching.  “I don’t want to, this time.”

“That’s fine,” Zed told her.

“You can leave if you want to.”

“I came to help,” Avery told her.

Jessica nodded.  She didn’t say thank you, and her expression remained serious, her eyes fixed on distant points.

“Incarnations- I remember you calling the Hungry Choir a ritual incarnate?  Am I right?” Zed asked.

“Yes.”

“So you know the terminology.  Incarnations are the same idea, but without the ritual attached.  They’re a concept, distilled, and they usually manage or control that thing, draw power from it.  And they’re inevitable.  Which is a pretty deep concept that’s hard to explain.  They’re stubborn.  Don’t get between them and their target, avoid face to face encounters if you can, and remember you can’t stop them.  You can deflect and distract.”

A starved wind blew past them.  It made them all pause until it passed.  Jessica seemed more wary in the aftermath, like she’d expected an attack or appearance, using the wind.

They passed through woods and entered a grouping of houses.  Except the houses weren’t true houses.  Instead, they were like rooms out of an apartment or hospital.  Through the windows were scenes where the echoes were in full form.

It felt hazardous.  The walls paper thin, containing some intense, miserable echoes within.  A woman curled up on her bed in a room with so much trash on the floor that the floor wasn’t visible.  A man holding a bucket for his daughter to throw up in.  A young man holding a letter, reading, while parents stood behind him.

Avery felt for each of them.  But she also felt worried that those thin walls would tear or something would give, and those echoes would wash over them.

“What were you two talking about, as you came over?” Zed asked.

“The choir,” Brie told him.  “Feeling like this is all… precarious.”

Avery nodded.  They slipped into a narrow passage between two buildings.  Avery could feel pressure weighing on her from one side and sadness leeching into her from the other.

“Heavy,” Zed stated.

“This is a heavy place,” Jessica said.  She held up her hand and checked the way was clear.  They left the alley between the two buildings.

“School’s heavy too,” Avery said.  “I wanted to ask, since you’re seniors, you know who the families are…”

“You might be asking the wrong guy,” Zed told her.  “I’m gone half the time.”

“But you went here, right?”

“Some.  I didn’t come at thirteen and then attend every year.  But if you have questions about anyone or any family, I can try answering.”

Off in the distance, an eyeless thing, pale, humanoid, and as tall as a one-storey house, snatched up an echo.  It held carved wood in the other hand, and pressed echo to wood.  To a carved head and torso.  Once the echo’s head and torso were stuck inside, it began attaching a multi-jointed arm.

Making a puppet.

“Dark,” Snowdrop murmured.

Avery looked.

Snow was pointing at a distant house.  Where every other place seemed so dim, unlit within, there was a warm red light glowing within that place, to the point it lit up the exterior walls.

“In nearly any other circumstance, I’d go there,” Jessica stated, staring.

“What is it?”

“Treasure.  Distilled power.  Echoes and things shuck off goodness, joy, and serenity here, and those things are pushed away by the grief, sadness, and despair.  Those scraps gather and concentrate in a hallow, which pulls in more.  Most are small.  An apple that glows with a light within, in a dark part of the Ruins, or a small mouse that warms like a fireside without burning flesh.  Even those are valuable.”

“That doesn’t look small,” Avery noted.

“No.  Which makes me think it’s bait.”

“Hunt?” Zed asked.

“They’re close.”

Zed pulled his bag around in front of him to access it.  “I’ve got a locator.  It notifies us if they’re close, but it’ll make noise.”

“That’s fine,” Jessica said.  “I think Hunt knows where we are by now.”

“Come,” Avery told Snowdrop.  “Small.”

Snowdrop shrunk, going from holding Avery’s hand to being small enough to fit in Avery’s hand.

Avery tucked Snowdrop into her jacket.

“What families were you wondering about?” Zed asked.  “If I don’t know, maybe Jessica does.”

Jessica snorted.

“More like, um, after the thing with Alexander and Bristow, a lot of students hate us.”

“I wouldn’t say it’s hate, exactly,” Zed told her.  “Not universally.  But a lot of negative feelings.”

“Clementine and Shellie recommended we tackle the biggest threats first.  So maybe who the big players who have reasons to be mad?”

“That is, uh, a very complicated question,” Zed replied.  “If your reason for coming today was to ask that, it might have been better to go to Nicolette.”

“I came today to help.  And to get away.  And this is secondary.  I figure while my friends are in class, I should try to work out next steps.”

“Clementine may have the right idea,” Zed replied, “But to narrow it down a bit more, I don’t think it’s the big threats who have reasons to be mad that you should be worried about.  Small threats could be more dangerous.”

“How?”

“Worry about the people who would take the time to find you and ruin your day, or hurt you,” Zed answered.

“Like?”

“The Tedds?  America and Liberty aren’t that strong, and their reasons are a bit shallow and stupid, but they absolutely would gun for you.”

“Why?”

“Because America had a running joke about having a crush on Alexander, and with the way her head works, I could see her targeting you guys as a capstone for the joke.  Doesn’t have to succeed or fail, just…”

“Has to ruin our day?  Be dramatic enough?”

“You got it.”

“That’s exactly what we don’t want.  Problems for tomorrow.”

“Ray says something similar.”

“Ray recommended we do this.  Get out ahead of this.”

“Ah,” Zed replied, and his expression changed a bit, a little more taut.

Brie’s, meanwhile, softened a bit, as she looked at Avery.  Like… like a plea for something.

“He helped us out in the end, and was pretty cool,” Avery ventured.

Maybe, from the look on Brie’s face, that wasn’t the thing to say, or the thing Brie had wanted Avery to do.  Maybe Brie hadn’t wanted anything at all.

This was so hard.

But it wasn’t like it set Zed off.  He barely reacted, only shaking his head a bit.

“Belangers,” Jessica said, from the head of their group.

“Belangers?”

“Or Ex-Belangers.  I don’t know.  But I think that group had a lot riding on stuff.”

“More stuff to ask Nicolette,” Zed said.

“Except she’s super busy, and she doesn’t want to get involved,” Avery answered.

“Yeah.”

A cold wind blew, and it didn’t have a feeling to it so much as it carried images.  Phantom figures, flickering, suggesting, promising.  Some were feminine, alluring.

“Shhh,” Jessica shushed them, her voice nearly lost in the wind.

The wind passed.

Zed’s radio whispered.  “Mark five and chatter… by the houses, end of the valley…”

“They hear us.  Do you hear me?  We’ve found you.  You can stop looking now, boy and girls.  Life is a long and empty search…”

Zed scrambled the channel.

“…and now you can finally stop,” the voice came through on the new channel.

“They must answer for being here first,” a stern voice added.  “Then you can have them and they can have you.”

“But I don’t want them all broken and bloody…”

Jessica peeked around the corner.  Avery ducked low to do the same.  In the distance were three figures.  All androgynous.  One hooded, carrying a bundle under one arm, long branches, twigs, and bits of metal.

One with a tunic that tapered down to a point at the knees, head partially shaved and less-partially scarred.  They wore gauntlets and metal boots, and broken glasses over their eyes. They had a heavy book under one arm.

The last one was underdressed for the weather, slender, shirt unbuttoned, hair long in a way that hid eyes.  Bangles like the ring encircled the arms and rings were at the finger, and they looked heavy enough that they kept the arms from swinging as the lesser incarnation walked.

That last one raised those heavy, decorated arms.

Zed and Jessica’s eyes flashed with Sight as they focused on what it was doing.  Brie and Avery followed suit.

As those arms raised, connections were forming, snapping into existence, and warping, between them and it.

“Yearning,” Jessica said.

“What?  It’s Yearning?”

The hooded one dropped the bundle.  Bits bounced out into the slushy snow at their feet.  The one with the book raised their free hand to their mouth and whistled.  Calling something.

“Go,” Jessica urged.

They ran.

“Good thing about it being Hunt is it’s about the pursuit, not actually catching,” Jessica said.  “Same for Yearning.”

“What about Inquest?  Or Inquisition?” Zed asked.

Jessica didn’t reply, focusing on running instead.

“You said you needed me,” Brie said.

“If they get close, the Choir is the only thing that can push back.  It only buys us time.”

Galloping hooves were getting closer.

Avery broke away from the rest of the group.

“Careful!” Zed raised his voice.  He had a device out.

They could distract, not stop.  A bash with the ugly stick wouldn’t put them down, but if she could lure them away-

Avery used the black rope to cover ground.

Inquest was on a horse, draped in similar outfitting to what they wore.  Avery whistled.

The horse was nimble.  A second after the whistle, it had turned, and lunged into the trees, Inquest ducking low to avoid being clipped by branches.

Avery ran.  And she couldn’t outrun a horse, but she could use the black rope, cutting this way and that, to be as unpredictable as possible.

She hadn’t expected the pressure, though.  The way this woman on horseback seemed to read her mind, and veer in the right directions.  Avery made a move, thinking she would get a good thirty feet away, and found Inquest within a second or two of grabbing her.  Another move, a feint this time, and Inquest didn’t fall for it.

Her Sight helped her see movement.  She tracked the figure on horseback and tried to lead it away from others.

She could also see connections.  Some from Yearning.  And those connections were vibrating, moving.  Each was a film reel of scenes and the reel was… winding up?

Retracting.

She saw the final bit of retraction out of the corner of her eye, like the tape measure slapping its way into the container, rounded a tree, and saw Yearning within arm’s reach, reaching.

She expected a firm grab, those rings digging into her arm.

Instead, a soft touch on the cheek.

Avery stopped running, eyes locked to the figure, looking past the hair to eyes that had stars in them.  Yearning smiled, hand resting against the side of Avery’s face.

The horse reared up as the rider stopped.  “She called to me.”

“I got to her first, Inquest.”

The horse, still rearing, slapped hooves to snowy dirt.

Staring into Avery’s eyes, Yearning sighed, smiling.

Avery remained frozen, unsure what to do.

A tumbling sound came from their right, but neither looked away, even as the horse whinnied.

A stampede.  Waifs, rushing in.  They were fast, and they were hungry.  They bowled over Inquest and the horse, and Inquest rolled, rising to their feet at the end of the roll.  Waifs grabbed Inquest and tried to pull them to ground.  They couldn’t.

It felt like a long ten seconds before the waifs ran over Avery and Yearning, separating them.  It was probably only a second or two.  Yearning smiled in the last second before the waifs hurled them to ground.

Avery was pulled away too, but the waifs disappeared.

“I told you to be careful!” Zed shouted, angry.

The anger was enough to jar Avery back to reality.

“I only have a minute of battery,” Zed told her, as she reached him.  Brie was there, too, directing the waifs.  Dismissing them any time they got too close to Avery.

“Battery?”

Zed clicked a button on the handheld device.

It was like the device that had created that plastic-bag-head Other.  The fake environment.  They kept running, but now there were walls between trees, then more walls, and then they were indoors, running through a long hallway.

Avery glanced back and saw Yearning, two kids holding each arm.

“Don’t look back!” Zed barked.  “Can you keep up, Brie!?”

“Yeah.  Where’s Jess?”

Zed didn’t reply, instead taking time to tap on the device.

“What are you doing?” Avery asked.

“Concentrating.  Trying to adjust the space-”

There was a tearing sound, and Zed hurled himself into the wall.

No- not hurling himself.  A wooden arrow as long as Zed’s arm had punched through the wall, alongside Zed, and impaled the device he held.

The walls he’d thrown up fizzled out.  Zed remained where he was, The arrow stuck through the sleeve of his leather jacket and attached him to the tree.  He tugged and didn’t budge.

Avery turned.  Past about a hundred trees, barely visible, was Hunt, holding a crossbow about as large as Hunt’s entire upper body.  They dropped another arrow into it, holding it level.

“Here!” Jessica shouted.

Avery looked over, looked back to Zed.

“Go!” Zed urged.

Avery went to Zed, hefting the ugly stick, and shouted, “Down!”

There was no room or good angle for the swing, so Avery chose a bad angle, and trusted Zed to get out of the way.  The club hit the tree and splintered wood, smashing, blistering, and scattering fragments of arrow.

Zed came free, and stumbling forward, hauled on Avery.  Both off balance and pushing off the other, it was a moment that could have made their falls that much worse, the two of them landing in a heap.  Should have.  But Avery was in the zone, focused on moving and getting away, and Zed might have been too, and together they stayed upright.

Brie ran alongside, a few trees over.  A waif on a branch caught an arrow meant for Brie, and slammed into her.  She found her feet.

Avery started to move in Brie’s direction, wanting to help.  Zed stopped her.

“Straight, go straight,” Zed urged.  “She’s a survivor.  Trust.”

Avery focused on going forward, one hand on Snowdrop so she wouldn’t jostle her too much.

Jessica had found a way.  An echo surrounded by heavy mist.

Yearning laughed as they plunged into the mist.

Their pursuers didn’t pass the threshold.

Another facet of the Ruins.  Buildings loomed on either side, only vague silhouettes, shrouded by fog.

Figures darted in and out, or they watched, obscured.  Echoes moved through the fog as well, and they didn’t have the wide, sweeping effects that the other echoes Avery had run into did.  These were tighter, more personal.  Focused on their own things.  They brushed up against Avery, surprising, and pushing ideas and things into her head.  Desires, wantings…

“Fog of… love?” Avery asked.

“Attentiveness, wariness, anticipation, the veil that tempts interest,” Jessica said.  “Very different, and we aren’t staying long.”

“Okay,” Avery said.

“Are you hurt?”

“She had a damn close call,” Zed said.  “That was dumb, Avery.”

“I thought I’d distract.”

“You distracted us too.”

“She did okay,” Brie said.  “She just underestimated that they’d be good at closing the gap-”

“Can we-” Avery started, stopped.

“Can we what?” Zed asked.

“Just… save the arguing over how I screwed up for after?  This is a lot,” Avery winced.  Her heart was still hammering and the echoes here, while subtle, were nagging at her brain, like they had fishhooks and barbs.

Snowdrop, nestled near her belly, gave her a nuzzle.  She gave Snowdrop a pet through the material of her jacket.

“After, then,” Zed said.  “Sorry.”

“Reminds me of my Sight,” Avery mused, looking around.

“The veil?” Jessica asked.

“Yeah.  Mist.”

“Yeah.  I’ve heard people theorize that the Sight might lean on these sorts of things, depending on who we are.  Desolate ruins for anger, darkness for fear and apprehension.  Cold for mourning.”

“I See the world as dark with laser outlines,” Zed said.

“I see the world the Hungry Choir brought me into,” Brie said.

“Yeah,” Jessica replied.  “I don’t see anything too different.  I needed clear vision, going in.”

Figures in the fog taunted, tempted, distracted.  Avery flinched away from looking, then flinched again as one brushed her arm.  Greed, theft, stealing, selfishness…

“Need a chocolate covered protein bar?” Jessica asked.

Avery nodded.  Those starvation winds and echoes had done a number on her midsection.

“What else?  Do you want to stop?”

“I want to get through here,” Avery replied.  “Distract me?”

“With?” Jessica asked.

“I dunno.  Your girlfriend?  I know how Zed and Brie met.  Or is that too personal?”

“Yes,” Jessica said.  “It’s personal.”

“Oh.  Sorry.”  Avery felt her face flush.  Zed was mad and Jessica was offended, and Brie had her own stuff to deal with.  She shouldn’t have come.

“Jess,” Zed said, “Come on.  She doesn’t want to pry.  She wants… guidance, I guess?  You hinted at that the day you came to school.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  She still felt the heat of flush at her face.

“What do you want to know?” Jessica asked.  “Turn.  Watch for trouble.”

They turned a corner.  The mists were darker, the echoes slippery.  It was hard to think straight, because it was a crowded alley and there was nowhere to go that didn’t involve brushing up against something and getting ideas pushed into her head.

Jessica forged the way at least, walking a few feet ahead, parting the incoming crowd of figures that were barely visible in dense fog.

“How did you meet?  When did you know?”

“That I liked her?”

“Or anyone?”

“When she kissed me.  She was my friend and then she kissed me, and asked me to think on it before saying anything.  So I did.  And now we’re together.”

Avery huffed out a laugh.  “That easy?  You didn’t know before?”

“No.  I had other things to think about.”

They passed through a patch of dark, and cold wind blew.

Weird, that this desolate wintery sadness would be a relief.  Avery shivered.  Getting cold, not-cold and then getting cold again had sweat running down her body now, chilling her.

And they still had to get home.

An echo stumbled toward them.  Looked like a teenager who’d blown off his hands and face with a firecracker.

“I keep meeting people who… I get tempted into thinking they might have answers,” Avery said.  “And then they don’t.  No offense, or anything.”

Jessica snorted, and Avery had no idea how to read the snort.

“Like Clementine?” Brie asked.  “She’s pan, I think, with someone nonbinary.  That’s what you’re talking about, right?”

Avery nodded.  She hadn’t known for sure about Clem, specifically, but that was confirmation.  Cool.  “I wanted to ask Clementine stuff but we didn’t get the chance and I have her email but I dunno how I’d word the really basic, stupid questions.”

“My face,” the echo with the massacred face mourned, stumbling.

“You can’t ask your parents?” Jessica asked.

“My face!” the echo raised his voice.

“Shut up!” Avery shouted at him.  “Screw off!  Geez!  Have some manners!  I’m talking with people here!”

The echo remained where he was, rocking in place, ruined hands held near his ruined face.

“But… my face.”

“I’m sorry that happened to you, but what do you want me to do about it?    Do you want me to salt you?  End that?  That sucks, really, but I don’t know what else to do for you.”

The echo swayed, then muttered, “So sorry.”

She watched it stumble off.

“Sorry,” she said.  “I hope you find peace or whatever.”

“Your parents?” Zed asked.

“Different.  I dunno.  I go home in a few days or a week and a few days, and I don’t know what it’ll be like, but I think we’re having that conversation.  Whatever they could tell me about love and looking for love I just… I think it’s way different.  My circumstances.  There’s apparently nobody for me in Kennet.  Like, an Other told me that.  How do you even deal with that?”

“Here,” Jessica said.

They walked up to a lakeside.

“Careful on the ice.  If you fall through, you end up in the Abyss, not the Ruins, and it’s a lot harder to get out,” Jessica said.

“I’ll calibrate.  You talk to Ave,” Zed told Jessica.

This was their destination.  Using Zed’s tech to get Jess a concrete lead.  But they had to be in the right place, in the right facet of the Ruins.

“I thought we were similar, because we’re both explorers, we’re gay, we… strike off on our own, I guess,” Avery said.

“Sorry,” Jessica answered.  “I’m not good at this.  I could ask my girlfriend.  She might be more similar to you.”

“I’m trying to improve myself, and become someone better, that attracts cool people, but that feels shaky when we’re currently struggling with half the school hating us.”

“Which is tough with certain key classmates, I’m told,” Brie said.

“Yeah, we kind of had almost-friends here and there, and now we don’t as much.  You guys, but you’re older.”

“Yeah.  You could always ask those other students outright, if they want to make a connection.  It’s awkward if you’re leaving, but things can be established long-distance.”

“Kind of,” Avery admitted.  “That’s more Lucy than me, though.”

“Is it?” Brie asked, sounding surprised.

“Isn’t it?” Avery asked.  “Why does this feel… are we talking past each other?”

“Jess,” Zed said.

They walked on the ice, and dark shapes moved beneath the surface.  Here and there, a footstep produced a cracking sound, but Avery didn’t see actual cracks.

On the far side of the lake was a bird.

“My witness,” Jess noted.

As they got closer, Avery could hear a dog barking.

They walked up to the bird, and it remained very still.  Zed slipped on his power glove, then put his hand up, lifting the bird from its perch.

Pale, the songbird began to take on color, until it glowed from within.

“There,” Zed said.  “Freshly fueled, bright, easy to track.”

“The last four times I found this bird, I got close,” Jess said.

“And you know the general direction from the failed ritual.”

“Don’t remind me.”

“But you do know,” Zed told Jess.

Jessica rubbed her hands together and blew on them.

“See you later?” Zed asked.  “A few weeks?  Months?”

“Unless things go badly.”

“Get in touch after.  Let us know how it went.”

Jessica nodded.

They stood there awkwardly for a bit.  Zed lifted the bird from his finger and moved it to Jessica’s.

There were distant shouting sounds, men and an alarmed child.  A dog’s barking continued, incessant, mingling with the faint, barely audible song of the Choir.

“You can find your way back, I hope,” Jessica said.  “I can’t lead you.”

“It’s why Avery’s here, in part,” Zed told her.  “You’re pretty good at navigating this place.”

Avery nodded.

“Good,” Jessica said.  She hesitated.  “Thanks.”

“Thank us with a call after.  I mean it,” Zed told her.  “I don’t want us to never talk again because you don’t need us anymore.”

Jessica nodded.

Then, without further fanfare, she headed out into the cold Ruins, following the pointing beak of a bird-shaped echo that had witnessed her cousin being dragged away by authorities.

Leaving Brie, Zed, and Avery standing there.

“We can talk on our way back,” Brie said.  “I don’t know what advice I can give, I’m… a pretty boring girl who likes tough guys with a nerdy interior.”

“I’d like to think I’m tough and nerdy, inside and out both,” Zed said, flexing the glove with the keyboard and buttons built into it, before giving her a peck on the lips.

“Again,” Brie told him.  “Warms my Self up, and that’s important in this place.”

Zed kissed Brie more seriously.

“So yeah?  Good to head back?” Brie asked.  “Mission successful?”

“Warms me up, Jessica getting what she wants.  Seeing you guys happy,” Avery said, quiet.  She peeked down past her zipper and confirmed that Snowdrop was fast asleep.  Which was annoying because she had to keep Snowdrop propped up so she wouldn’t fall out the gap between jacket and pants.  “Before, you were talking about-”

“Fernanda?” Brie asked, interrupting.

“Fer-what?” Avery asked, her brain stumbling mid-thought.

“Sorry, that was blunt.  We were talking about your plans.”

“Oh.  Ohhhh.  Students we don’t want to be our enemies.  Yeah.  So it’s sounding like the Belanger circle, or what’s left of it, maybe the Tedds as a danger we could try to sort out.  And a couple others.”

“And the opposite of enemies?” Brie ventured, voice gentle, giving Zed a look.

Zed helped out.  “Students you wanted to keep in touch with.  Closer connections, alliances, more-than-alliances?”

“Wait.  This goes back to Fernanda?

“Your friends were concerned, after you told them you were bummed that you missed out on talking to Clementine,” Brie said.

Zed added, “Which in a roundabout way, led to us agreeing to take you on this outing.”

“Yes, but what?  What?  Where does Clementine fit into this?  Or that?  Or Fernanda?”

“And they gently made sure we were already aware you were gay before broaching the topic of your crush on-”

Fernanda?” Avery interrupted.  “Crush?  No.”

She paused.  The three of them stood on ice above the dark Abyss, in a snowy hellscape of sad, all bewildered, failing to connect the dots.

Avery finally did.

VeronaVerona talked to you.”


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Vanishing Points – 8.2

Verona

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“I’m not going to eat it.  No way, no how.”

“We all know you can eat it, Snowdrop,” Lucy said.

“It looks terrible.”

It looked amazing.  Set outside the door to their dorm room was a little cart, and the food was laid out on that cart, each dish covered.

An arrangement of vegetarian sushi, including avocado rolls, cucumber rolls, fried rice rolls, and what looked like some brawny string beans dusted with salt and beads of moisture.

Chicken nuggets that didn’t look like they came from a fast food place, dusted with herbs and what might have been finely chopped chives, set on one side of a plate that had a trio of dipping bowls.  Assorted chopped vegetables sat on the other side, half of each one deep fried, while leaving the other half crisp as a handle.

A mini-bowl of what looked like grilled shrimp cooked with a thick noodles and a creamy sauce.  Vegetables were arranged at the edge like a flower blossom, and the creamy sauce was just thick enough that they didn’t sink or drift.

Verona dragged the plate with the nuggets closer to her, then picked up a nugget, giving it a scrutinizing look.  “It’s… at least it’s not talkative.”

“Ronnie,” Lucy said, glancing over her shoulder.  A few doors down, some other students were also leaving class, getting ready to order their lunches.  Watching, Verona noted.

“No, uh, tweed in evidence.”

“Don’t be gross,” Avery said, wincing.  “I had a Wolf nightmare and I’m really not up for it.”

Verona tore the nugget in half, looking, then set it down, using a napkin to clean her fingers of breaded crumbs.

Lucy poked at the shrimp pasta dish with an obsidian chopstick.  “We skipped breakfast, we should eat.  Keep energy up.”

“Yeah,” Avery agreed.

At a poke from Lucy’s chopstick, a bit of shrimp sank into the creamy pasta.  A bubble rose and swelled without popping.

“Aaaaaieee,” Verona kept her voice very quiet, picking up a skewer and bringing it close to the bubble.  “Before I pop, call me mister bubble, esquire.”

Avery punched her in the arm with surprising speed and force.

“Ow- frigging ow!  That was hard!”

“Don’t be shitty,” Avery said.

Verona rubbed her upper arm.

“Friggin’- you shouldn’t hit people, Ave,” Verona grumbled.

“I have too many siblings to be nonviolent,” Avery said.

Verona glanced at Lucy, looking for help, and saw only a serious, thoughtful expression.

Lucy’s eyes flashed, irises turning white, the whites turning red.

“What do you think?” Verona asked.  She used her own Sight.  The dishes took on a weird uniformity, all white with red things struggling in them.

“It’s technically safe to eat.  No sign of anything weird.”

“Yeah,” Avery agreed.  She wasn’t using the Sight, she was just acknowledging Lucy.

Lucy didn’t look away from it.  “We really do need to eat.  Feed the Self.  This would be easier if they hadn’t, uh…”

“Given us this as a thank you of sorts?” Verona asked.  “A meal that may be designed to be our individual perfect lunches?”

“Yeah.”

“I know you three aren’t picky eaters at all, but I am,” Snowdrop said.  “I hate seeing food go to waste.”

“You hate- oh.  Trash food,” Avery said.

“Uneaten meals going in the trash is just the biggest tragedy,” Snowdrop said, shaking her head slowly.  “It’s the worst.”

“Anyone up for fast food instead?” Verona asked.  “I know it’s a bit of a walk.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Avery said.

“Yeah.  I do, actually.”

“Tossing out food like this?  Who would do such a thing?” Snowdrop whispered, leaning over the cart, nose so close to the bowl of shrimp she was threatening to tip it over.  “I don’t even want to know.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Fast food, then.  We should go now if we’re going to go and get back in time for afternoon’s class.”

“Self and soul,” Verona recalled.

“If you’re legitimately interested in this Halflight stuff, and ditching your humanity, partially or overall, this seems like a great class to pay close attention to,” Lucy told her.

“Souls, though,” Verona mused.  They left the cart behind and headed for the front door, against the loose collection of students.  “Do we really need souls?”

Snowdrop reached for food, and Avery moved her hand away.  “We’ll feed you after.”

Snowdrop sighed.

“I’m willing to make you a bet, Ronnie,” Lucy said.  “That after this afternoon’s class, the consensus will be yes.  Yes, souls are important.”

“Pssh.  Class held by a bunch of soul-havers, bound to be biased.  We can’t really know until we dredge up some Others who don’t have souls and get their take.”

“You do that, Ronnie and I’ll listen.  Believe it or not, I do want to learn stuff, especially the stuff relevant to whatever practice you’re learning.”

Outside the school, in the parking lot, a bunch of older students were hopping in their cars.  More students were leaving the school campus than usual.  Hadley Hennigar, the Legendres, Xerxes and his little brother, Jarvis’s group, who were waiting and looking impatient while Silas talked to Estrella, off to the side…

America’s battered sedan looked like it had received the post-apocalypse road warrior treatment.  Modified engine block that stuck out of the open hood and blocked some of the driver’s view, spiked hubcaps, roll cage, graffiti on the side, and armor reinforcement.  Some of it looked less battle ready, but considering her focus on goblins, it was hard for Verona to say.  Fake eyelashes on the headlights and an arrangement of screaming rubber chickens rigged to the tailpipe.

If the group of older, unfriendly students wasn’t enough, the fact America and Liberty were getting in their car was good reason for Verona, Lucy, and Avery to stop walking and pause a healthy distance away.

America reached in through one of the car windows -no glass- and grabbed a goblin from the car interior, glancing over her shoulder before bringing it out.  It looked like a different type than the usual, which said a lot when goblins came in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of features ranging from the noseless to the big-nosed, big-eared to pig-eared to earless.  This guy was decorated in glass and metal, and was bound thoroughly in chain and bike lock.  One key-turn freed him from most of it, America shoved some food in its mouth, gave its head a pat, while it smiled up at her, then tossed him into the open engine block at the front of the car.

“Bound goblin?” Avery asked.

“I think it’s a happy goblin,” Verona mused.

The car started before the goblin princess even had her car door open.  A moment later, she was tearing out of the lot, the rubber chickens screaming and flapping around behind the car like bats out of hell.

“What was that?”

The three of them turned.  Clementine.  The woman was holding a wrap and finishing eating, as she stepped out from one of the workshops.  She was dressed for summer, with jean shorts and a tee with a color-mismatched pocket on the breast, and sneakers without socks.

“Or do I not want to know?” the woman asked.

“It’s a student with an annoying set of car mods,” Avery said.  “Hi.”

“Hi.  Was that the scary car?  The one that didn’t look like it should even run?”

“Yeah,” Avery said, adjusting her footing and bouncing on the spot in the process.

“We heard you’re still around,” Verona commented.

“Some of us are,” Clementine said.  “They set us up in here for overnight.”

As if to answer that, one of the others stepped out of the building, brushing her teeth.  Shellie, who looked a bit sleepy.  Despite the summer warmth, Shellie wore a long-sleeved shirt, covering most of her piercings and body mods.  Some had been pulled out or changed out.  It was still a lot, overall.

Shellie’s arrival had a chilling effect on the conversation.  The woman took her meandering time, walking over to where Clementine was.

“Crazy stuff these past few days, huh?” Shellie asked.

“Yeah,” Avery answered.

“Clementine was just telling us they set you up here for a bit.  In the workshop area?”

“Beds and everything,” Shellie answered.  “I’m taking five until I go back to Daniel.”

“I’m still getting to grips with a small part of what happened,” Clementine said.  “Did you guys have a run in?”

“Yeah,” Verona answered, not taking her eyes off Shellie.

“I tried to kill them a little,” Shellie commented, eyes half lidded, foamy toothbrush in hand.

“Oh,” Clementine said.  “Maybe go back inside?”

“Bygones, right?” Shellie asked.  “We good?”

“I don’t want to be on bad terms,” Lucy answered.

Shellie snorted.  “Good way of putting it.”

Some others stepped outside.  People who had been in the background last night.  An older man, a nervous looking guy, and a guy who wouldn’t make eye contact.

“What’s the story?” Avery asked, glancing between the newcomers and Clementine.

“Things back at the apartment building are pretty rocky,” Clementine answered.  “Apparently Mr. Bristow isn’t coming back?”

Verona nodded, swallowing.

“And Ted Havens- you met Ted?”

“We crossed paths,” Lucy said.

“He normally runs things when Mr. Bristow is gone, but he’s taking a sabbatical.  I don’t know how things are going to end up,” Clementine said.

“I think our offer stands,” Lucy said.  “Maybe get out now, while there’s nobody keeping you there.”

“Maybe,” Clementine said.  “That’s a maybe aimed at the offer.  I… I thought long and hard about what the old man said…”

“Charles?” Avery asked.  “He’s not old-old.  Just…”

“Life kicked his ass,” Verona finished.

“Yeah,” Avery said.

“He said that I shouldn’t.  I thought about it and it’s usually better when I take advice.  And the bad advice I shouldn’t take tends to be people trying to lure me in.  So I don’t know.  I… a lot of stuff’s up in the air now.  I think I should back off and take people’s word for it.  But after that… what do I do?  Mr. Sunshine said he might be able to help with some things, since I can’t go to my landlord about it now, but if he’s gone, will the building be sold?  Will I be able to get in touch with my usual buyers, who take questionable stuff off my hands?”

“We could help a bit,” Verona said.

Clementine gave Verona a half-smile.  “The offer is appreciated.  I’m not sure I want to get kids caught up in this.  Especially given what happened the last time I came to your neck of the woods.”

“Is Raymond helping you get things figured out?” Lucy asked.

“Not really.  He’s figuring his own stuff out.  I work online, so I can be away for a little bit, but I’m postponing deliveries- I do online buying and selling.”

We know, Verona thought.  She was glad neither of the other two said it.

Shellie stretched a bit.  Piercings all up and down her arm stood out against her sleeves.  “And I work in a fucking gas station.  I called some people to cover me, but I don’t believe them.  Getting fired would be a mercy, anyway.  Not that you care about me.”

“Hey, if you don’t want to be enemies, I don’t know about these other two…” Verona started, looking at the others. “…but I’m cool with that.  I never want to work at a gas station, I think.  I don’t want to work anywhere, except for the weird stuff related to this school.”

“I mean,” Avery ventured.  “I don’t want to start anything, really, but… an apology would be nice.”

Shellie snorted.

“Shell,” Clementine said.  “They helped Daniel.”

“Yeah, well, I get carried away.  The short man with the mustache knew that.  I should have been more on guard.  Sucks that you got in the way.”

“Uh huh,” Avery replied.

“Who are they?” Lucy asked, jumping in before things could go any further.  “Staying with you?”

The Aware.

Clementine looked back.  “Neighbors.  They had disputes about how Mr. Bristow was taking care of the building.  They were told if they traveled, on Mr. Belanger’s dime, they could name and shame him, instead of going through the convoluted landlord tenant board.  A bunch of them were mad enough to want to do it, especially once they were told Mr. Bristow was trying to acquire another property.”

“What do they do?” Verona asked.

“Do?” Clementine replied.  She looked surprised.  She frowned a bit.  “I don’t know.”

“I do,” Shellie said.  “Want the dirt?”

“Yes,” Verona said.

Lucy shook her head.  “Yes, but we don’t have a lot of time.  We didn’t want to eat on campus-”

Shellie laughed.

“-and it’s a long walk.”

“Want a ride?” Clementine asked.  “My truck turned up last night.”

“Turned up?”

“Come on,” Clementine told them.  “She’s not very big, but if you don’t mind riding in the back…”

“We do that a lot, actually,” Avery answered.

They followed her.  Shellie came with, spitting her toothpaste into the grass, then, like she was a baseball player, hurled her toothbrush past the group of people at the door and inside.  Presumably to land on the floor.

Verona kind of wished she could give so few fucks.  Not that she was a fan.

“I’ll be back shortly!” Clementine called out to the three at the door.  “If Mr. Sunshine comes asking after me, let him know I won’t be long, I’m taking these three for lunch!”

Shellie wiped the toothpaste from around her lips.  It took some dexterity to get at individual sections of lip that were separated by piercings.  “Just so you know, our ride is a murder truck.  Scared?  It’s spooky, ooooh.”

“Right,” Lucy said.  “Sure.”

“It is though,” Clementine clarified.  “She’s not kidding.”

Lucy gave Verona and Avery an alarmed look.

“Did a lot of murders happen in it?  Or near it?”

“It’s not a murderer’s truck, it’s a truck that murders on its own,” Clementine explained.  “She found her way to me a few years back.  I love the aesthetic, and I figured as long as she’s with me, she’s not racking up a body count.  Can’t dismantle her, she’ll just turn up intact later.  But I had to do a retrofit to get her to where she can get up to highway speeds and be road legal.  That worked, at least.”

“You upgraded the murder truck?” Lucy asked.

Clementine stopped in her tracks, then resumed walking.  “I’ll keep her out of trouble.”

The murder truck, as it turned out, was the smallest truck Verona had ever seen, with a super low truck bed and a roof that was about the same height as Lucy.  It was white, a bit dusty, and showed no signs of the murder spree.

“I like it,” Avery said.  “Is it bad if I call it cute?”

“I’m unreasonably fond of it,” Clementine said.  “Even if cleaning is a horror show.  Tiny bones and congealing blood.  I went to a mechanic about it and they said it was an oil leak or something, the red color was a coincidence or rust boiling through with the oil.”

“Weren’t you saying America’s car was creepy?” Lucy asked.

“There’s creepy because of weirdness, and there’s creepy that makes you wonder who the owner is.  People bother me a lot more than some of this stuff,” Clementine said.  “You okay riding in the back?”

“More than,” Verona said.

It was a bit crowded, actually.  Avery sat up front, and then Lucy, Shellie, Snowdrop, and Verona sat in the back.

Windows were open and Clementine was right, she wasn’t a fast driver.  It seemed like a limitation of the truck and the roads being winding more than Clementine, though.

“Old man is a substance abuser,” Shellie said, head lolling back, watching the branches over the road as they passed by.

“I know that much,” Clementine said, from the front seat.

“Went to the war, got experimented on, you know the drill,” Shellie went on.

“Which war?” Lucy asked.

Shellie lolled her head back even further, until her shoulders and head were leaning well off the side of the truck bed.  She lifted a leg, and it looked like she could slide or fall off.  “Who knows?  The war.  You don’t ask a guy like that about his wartime experience.  You listen if he decides to share it.  He consumes enough caffeine to kill a herd of horses, pops the pills, whatever he can do to keep from sleeping.  Doesn’t really suffer for the lack of sleep or the drugs and stuff, but it does catch up with him if he lets his guard down.”

“What happens if he sleeps?” Verona asked, raising her voice to be heard over the whipping wind.

“Goes somewhere else.  Spot from the past.  You can always tell because he’s got fresh scars, blood, look in his eyes when he trudges in the front door.”

“I might actually have something that helps with that,” Clementine said.

“If you do, do it on the down low,” Shellie told her.

“Why?”

“Because the people who want him around aren’t people who want him better.  Just like they don’t want you fixed, or Daniel as a productive member of society.”

Verona had to lean over to get something of a view of Clementine’s face.  Clementine didn’t respond to that, just driving.  Lucy gave directions as they hit the intersection.

“No response?  That’s cool.  Moving on, the young lady?  She took me a little while to figure out.  Not really my thing, you know?  I thought, the way she’s working, the corporate overtime, she’d have to get promoted.  Probably a young CEO.  But no.  She smokes like a chimney, and comes up to the rooftop, so we run into each other a lot.  Got to talking.  My first clue was that she wasn’t sure if it was AM or PM.  She’s a basic data entry tech.  Has been for a while.  She can’t keep track of the days.  The clock and calendar aren’t nice to her.  You didn’t like the sound of working in a gas station, kid?”

“Nope,” Verona said.  “Sorry.”

“She works twenty-six hour days.  Might be longer if you account for other weirdness.  She doesn’t realize it, she can’t keep count, but she goes in, doesn’t come back to the apartment for a while.  Then she arrives home, maybe watches some TV, has a smoke, might have a, uh, gentleman caller but can’t actually upgrade to having a boyfriend because she doesn’t have the time.”

“So she’s, what, stuck at work?” Verona asked.

“You know when it feels like your days take forever before they’re over?  At school or whatever?”

“School, yeah,” Lucy said.  “Can’t work yet.”

“Don’t have to work yet,” Verona said.

“Hers actually take as long as those worst days feel like.  She at least racks up some crazy overtime, nobody’s caught it.  She sends the extra home to her mom to help get her out of debt, her mom wastes the money.”

“That sounds like a kind of hell,” Verona said.

“Can’t anyone help her?” Avery asked.

“Can you help her?” Shellie asked, indicating Clementine.  “Me?  Daniel?”

“Some,” Avery said, frowning as she looked back through the window.

“You’re more optimistic than I am.  So, after Mr. Dreams-take-me-to-bad-places and Ms. Work-takes-forever, we have Mr. Prey.”

“Prey?” Avery asked.

“The way he tells it, he bumped into a guy on the street, the guy dropped something.  He returned it, and got an envelope in exchange.  Money.  The person giving him the money freaked out when he opened the envelope to check, didn’t let him return it, then walked away.”

“How much?” Verona asked.

“A lot.  Enough that it was weird.  Ten years passed, nothing came of it, he nearly forgot about it, until a very pretty French woman with two very ugly French men came knocking.  They want what they’re owed, they tell him, and every time they catch up with him, they try to impress on him just how much they want it, before they drop him off at some random point unknown, bleeding, bruised, burned, electrocuted. Or he’s unscathed, but they burn his apartment building down.  Then the cat and mouse game begins anew.”

“I’m trying to think of what that would even be,” Lucy said.

“No idea.  He stole some money, tried to refuse it, but they don’t want the money back.  Even with interest.  They want what they paid for ten years ago.  Whenever he asks, they speak in metaphor only, or in French, or both.”

“Do you know?” Avery asked.  “What the metaphors were?”

Shellie shook her head.  “I didn’t have French class as a kid, and I kind of didn’t care.  We run into one another when I’ve finished a shift.  I finish my day as he’s starting his.  So long as he stays near the apartment building, they only watch from across the street.  The original three expanded to something like twenty.  Sometimes he’ll slip me five bucks to distract someone specific and let him by.”

“I’m thinking of the Wolf,” Avery said, leaning back and looking at Verona and Lucy.  “I feel like that’s sort of what she’d be like, given the chance.”

If she were free?

Just picking randoms to terrorize?

“If that’s true, what does it mean?” Lucy asked.  “In terms of deciphering his situation?”

“Could mean they don’t want any specific item or person.  Maybe they want the chase, the hunt.  They paid so they’d have the justification to hunt him.”

“They don’t, though,” Lucy said.  “Maybe if someone with enough authority told them…”

“I wouldn’t want to be the one to try,” Shellie said.  “They’re frustrated he’s so hard to get to, these days.  Kind of like certain school staff, who were pretty eager for someone to give them a reason.”

Verona looked away.  Shellie laughed.

They reached the small town.  The kid from before who’d been in the wading pool was there, slack jawed and staring, while a baby wearing totally unnecessary floaters was leaning hard into the pool’s edge, making it collapse and water leak out.  No parents in sight.

The woman from before at the gas station was standing by the door, smoking while there were no customers.  A similar-ish vibe to the current Shellie.

They pulled up at the fast food places.  Snowdrop was sleepy enough that Avery discreetly had her turn into an opossum, lifting her to a shoulder, and they ordered food for her anyway.

Verona had a barbecue chicken burger with sweet potato fries that were limper than spaghetti noodles.  It was nothing compared to what the nuggets back at the school would have been, but still better than eating at home, and she was ravenous.

Clementine and Shellie had been kind enough to wait.  They stood by the car.  Other cars from the school were in the lot, but Verona guessed the students had gone to sit by the water or whatever.

“How are you after last night?” Clementine asked, while they chewed, using the flat surface of the truck bed and the lip around the edge to rest stuff on.  “I’m not fishing for information.  I just worry.”

“You look healthier,” Shellie commented.  “Less cuts, bruises, and bumps.”

“Fast healing,” Verona answered.

Shellie smirked.

“It was dark, so I didn’t see,” Clementine said.  “Was it that bad last night?”

“It was pretty bad,” Lucy said.  “It’s bad in different ways today.”

“Lucy got shot down by Yadira,” Verona said.  “Similar wavelength, before, right?”

Clementine cocked her head.

“For friendship.  Or at least, I wanted to not be enemies,” Lucy said.  “We didn’t make a lot of friends.”

“I’m not the best person to give advice on making friends,” Clementine said.  “Wish I could.”

“I’m a bundle of hugs, warmth, and smiles,” Shellie said, leaning against the side of the tiny truck.  “This here’s my thing.”

“Shellie is comfortable being on her own, I think.”

“Comfortable enough.”

“And I-” Clementine hesitated.  “I don’t make many friends.  I have a lot of acquaintances.  But not many friends.”

“Maybe you could consider us friends?” Avery suggested, shrugging.  Snowdrop roused a bit lifting her head, then noticed the food, stretching herself awake.

Lucy shook her head.  “It’s not- I don’t care as much about making friends as I care about… sorting out the mess.  Trying to limit the damage and what might follow us.”

“Like envelopes of money opening the door to life-ruining headaches ten years later,” Verona suggested.

“Sure.”

“Hm,” Clementine hummed for a second.  “I do have experience with dealing with the aftermath of bad messes.”

Avery joined the conversation, eager.  “Any advice would be great.  I’m sorry to impose, you were kind enough to drive us.  And to help us last night.”

“I’m glad to.  What happened last night, going with Alexander, it didn’t feel right.  Helping you felt right.  Even if I don’t know half of what it meant.

Shellie looked down at Verona.

“You okay?” Lucy asked.

Verona met her friend’s eyes, and saw that the irises were white, the edges red.

Verona turned on her sight, meeting Lucy’s eyes with purple ones, and stuck out her tongue.

Oh wow.  Now that her Sight was on, she was seeing just how… meaty that truck was.  And everything near it.  It was less like it had a thing made of gore flapping around in it, because there wasn’t much space for anything in there, and more that the immediate vicinity of the truck was shark infested water, the flayed-flesh sharks swimming beneath the street, while bits of meat floated around, chum in the water.

“I’m serious,” Lucy said, taking hold of Verona’s chin and forcing Verona back to eye contact.

“I think I’m okay,” Verona said, her pronunciation messed up because of Lucy’s fingers near her mouth.  She did think so, even though her stomach was sore, like she’d been punched there a few times and couldn’t relax the muscles.  She didn’t remember taking any hits there yesterday.

“Okay,” Lucy said, letting go.

Clementine folded her arms.  She took a few soggy sweet potato fries as Verona held a container out.  “I think when it comes to situations that seem unreasonable… I think of the time someone invited themselves over to my place.  We’d been a thing, it hadn’t been great, but I wanted company.”

“Understandable,” Avery said.

“I was worried my place was a mess- this was before Sargent Hall.”

“Inviting one night stands to Sargent Hall is a gamble.  They might run into someone in the hallway and get scared off,” Shellie said.

“Yeah,” Clementine said.  “But that’s not what I’m talking about.  I had to do about a week’s worth of cleaning in an hour.  More than.  With the added problem that there are things at my apartment that I wouldn’t want someone I liked to get tangled up in.”

“Seems like mess would be something you’d really want to avoid,” Lucy said.

“It is, and I’ve learned that the hard way.  But that was… let’s just say it was a dark month or two.  Part of why I wanted an ex girlfriend over, even if she wasn’t my absolute favorite.  I let things slide, I had to clean up.  So how do you tackle that?  It’s easy to be paralyzed by the mountain of stuff before you.”

“I feel a bit paralyzed right now,” Lucy said.

“I had to tackle it.  What would do the most damage if I didn’t deal with it?  Either in terms of mess and her opinion of me, or the… I don’t know.  The reversed music box that turns random people nearby into babies.  Lotion that makes you immortal, but more and more cruel.  A paper airplane that was really good at flying, and slitting throats with papercuts.”

“Lots of stuff, yeah,” Lucy said.

“Start big.  The most obvious, problematic stuff.  And the stuff that’s easiest to handle.  Then you work your way down.  Then you ask yourself what the next biggest problem you’re facing is.  What needs to be handled?  And you work your way down.  Maybe accept that you can’t fix it all.  If you’re having somebody over, and they more or less invited themselves, then they shouldn’t expect things to be perfect.”

Lucy shook her head.  “It’s not about being perfect for any one person.  It’s more like… if we can’t get stuff sorted here, then what happened back home where you and Sharon and, uh-”

“Daniel,” Shellie said.  “I’m not going to bite your head off, so long as you don’t try to guilt me.”

“Not trying to.  When you guys got sent our way to pry and cause chaos, that might become regular if we don’t give people reason to back off,” Lucy said.

“Then start with the biggest things you can deal with, and work your way down,” Clementine said.  “Keep an eye out for fixes for the big stuff you’re ignoring.”

“You should be good at that,” Shellie said.  “The way you dealt with the biggest threat last night, and murked our landlord.”

That feeling in Verona’s stomach, like she’d been repeatedly punched, shifted all at once.  Like hands were gripping her guts, twisting.  Fine one second, and the next, distress, pain, and the aftertaste of the chicken burger she’d already eaten and swallowed became more intense than when she’d been chewing on it.

“Ronnie.”

The food stuff made her think of the brownie’s gift, like a prize or some crap, and the pain made her think of her dad, and of not going home, and karma, and the-

And that was the entirely wrong line of thought to go down because it made things twice as bad.

“Ronnie, hey.”

“Verona.”

She turned, jogged a few steps away, and decided jogging was bad, walked, then staggered, and then doubled over.

Last night’s late dinner and the meal she’d just eaten found their way to the ditch.  She almost keeled forward, but Lucy caught her.

Even when she was done, and it took a few goes, it was like her body was trying to purge itself of the negative thoughts and memories, and with her stomach empty, it worked on her lungs, making breathing hard.  She coughed and sputtered, trying to clear her throat.

If I’m going to purge my brain of all the bad stuff, there’s an awful lot more lung, heart, throat, and stuff to get through before you get to the skull, body, she thought.

She had tears in her eyes, and they were mostly from throwing up, and they caught the sunlight that filtered down through the tall trees around this little mini-town.  The light mixing with the moisture in her eyes made x-shapes, like a reminder.

Shellie came over with a water bottle from the gas station, handing it to Clementine.  Clementine wet a napkin, then handed it over.  Avery used it for Verona’s forehead, then mouth.

Lucy just stood by her, half-hugging her, and keeping her from falling over.

“Do you want a ride back?” Clementine asked.  “To a school nurse or something?”

“We don’t really have a nurse,” Avery answered.  “We have a Durocher.  Scary teacher.”

“We might not survive what she does to fix us up,” Verona mumbled.

“In some cases,” Lucy clarified.

Verona nodded, her vision filled with those ‘x’ shapes reflected in the moisture that welled in her eyes but didn’t drip down her face.  She thought the nod would shake them free and it didn’t.

“Are you up to walk back?” Lucy asked.  “You can borrow Avery’s… thing, maybe.  But I think we should talk amongst ourselves.  Figure stuff out.  Go over key stuff.  Family stuff.  Strategy.  If you’re up for it.”

“Could get a ride back and leave Lucy and me to handle talking about that,” Avery said.  “Catch a nap?”

“Important afternoon class, remember?” Verona asked.  She was a bit hoarse.  “Yes.  I can walk.  I’ll deal.”

“Time delayed reaction, huh?” Avery asked.

Verona shrugged.

“Is she okay?” Clementine asked.

“Verona bottles crap up and doesn’t think about it until it blindsides her.  It’s been a few years since you did that like this, Ronnie.”

Verona coughed.

“Can I do anything?” Clementine asked.

“Can we talk further?” Lucy asked.  “What’s your schedule like?”

“While you have your afternoon class, I’ll be having my meeting with your temporary headmaster,” Clementine said, her voice gentle.  “Then I go home, drive Shellie back.  Raymond Sunshine will arrange transportation for the others.  It’d be nice if Kevin and Rae had offered to give anyone a ride, but they left first thing.  We’ll have to make it safe for Curran, the guy with the mob after him.  Or whatever it is.”

“Not a mob,” Shellie said.  “Mobs don’t act like that.”

“Whatever it is,” Clementine said.  “But I’ll be leaving.  If that’s okay.”

Verona nodded.

“It’s okay.  We appreciate what you’ve done,” Lucy told her.

“You have my number.  I’d like to not lose touch.  Call if you need help or support, or… just to call.”

“That means a lot.  Thank you,” Avery said.  “Good luck with the apartment, and your, uh, girlfriends?”

Smooth, Ave, Verona thought, licking her lips and then wishing she hadn’t because it tasted like bile.  She motioned for and took the wet napkin to wipe at her mouth.

“Not girlfriend.  Partner, I think.  I might be jumping the gun on that one, but… I really want it to be the case.  I took the leap, reached out after talking to Charles, that old man you introduced us to.  I told them my life was complicated, they’re okay with that.  I’ll ease them into the rest.”

“That’s so great,” Avery said.

“I’m pretty terrified,” Clementine admitted.

Verona straightened up, wiped at her eyes with the napkin, and saw Clementine smiling.

Before,” Verona started, and her voice was a croak, prompting her to clear it.  “Before the end of summer… we might need a bit of help.”

“Anything I can do to help.”

“Stuff that’s safe and easy to use.  Or hard to use but you’ve figured it out enough to tell us what to do?” Verona asked.

“Okay,” Clementine answered.

“And Shellie?” Verona ventured.

Shellie’s pierced eyebrows went up.  She looked hot, wearing long sleeves in summer.

“We might need to kick Fae ass at some point.”

“Say when and where.”

Lucy’s grip on Verona’s arm tightened.  Verona could almost read her friend’s mind.

Shellie in the mix would make things harder, not easier.

“More like… advice?  Tips?  Any tricks?  Can we call or something?”

Shellie leaned back, looking to the side.

“Shellie,” Clementine said.  “Help them out.  Especially if you did try to kill them.”

Verona closed her eyes.  For a moment where they were opening again, moisture drew out those bright ‘x’ shapes, like the eyes of Brownies.

“Call Clem, Clem can bug me for it.”

“Thanks,” Verona said.

“Don’t thank me.  Thanks are annoying.  Just… employ some extra prejudice, when the asses are kicked.  How’s that?”

Verona shrugged and nodded.  “If or when.”

“Feel better,” Clementine said.

With those parting words, she headed out.

🟂

“Ahem,” Verona read.  “Your father is out of immediate danger and shouldn’t need surgery, but he will be tender and sensitive to food for a while.  He’s got plenty of meds and is returning to work for half days.”

They sat on the sidewalk.  Verona read from her phone, Lucy to one side of her and Snowdrop in her lap.

Avery was drawing a circle on the road around them, using a fat stick of chalk.

“It will take six to eight weeks for things to return to normal.  He had a flare up after pushing himself too hard and too fast last night.  He’ll have regular appointments to follow up and watch for any signs of danger or relapse, and may want you to come for some, when you’re back.”

“Not too bad,” Avery said.

“I think he’s going to milk it.  He’s going to draw this out and guilt me and I really don’t want to go home.”

“Careful with the language,” Lucy warned  “Predictions are dangerous.”

“He will, though.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “You can stay over some.”

“What if I go cat mode for a few weeks?  Just as a trial run-”

“Ronnie…”

Avery sat down beside Verona.  “If you can figure out a way to stay at Lucy’s without her mom talking to your dad, then maybe you could become a cat and stay with me when you’re not there?”

“I’d be worried your little sister would twist my head off or something,” Verona answered.  “And I don’t want to fib to Lucy’s mom.  But we’re getting distracted with my crap.  What about what Clementine said?  About there being big stuff to handle?”

“This is big stuff,” Lucy told her.  “We can’t handle all this other crap unless we’re all okay.  And you’re not okay.”

“And you?” Verona asked.  “Ave?  You were a part of things.”

Avery nodded, eyes dropping.

“I was telling myself he had an out and he decided to march in there as a big fuck you to us.  And I guess to leave a mess here for whoever became headmaster, and to mess things up at the apartment, and a bunch of other stuff.  So fuck him, right?  I shouldn’t feel bad, right?  But… it caught me off guard.”

“It wasn’t only the one time,” Lucy said, looking around at the sleepy little town in the middle of nowhere, with megafrighuge trees in the yards and stuff.  “We offered him a lot of chances to stand down.”

“I don’t think that makes it better,” Avery said.

“They came after us, over and over again.  They used us, they pit us against their enemies,” Lucy said.  “They acted like the wanted the school but they were awful to the students.  Holding them hostage, using them like pawns.”

“Alexander’s another thing,” Verona said.  “If we’re sorting out our messes from biggest to smallest, then he’s probably the next biggest, and normally my mind feels like I can think about things from all angles, but I don’t even know when it comes to a guy like him.”

Lucy looked down at the circle that Avery had drawn.

“Circle isn’t changing your stomach any?” Lucy asked, looking over.

Verona shook her head.

“I’d guess it isn’t an attack, then.”

“No,” Verona agreed.  “It isn’t.”

Lucy laid down a small stack of notecards.  Connection blockers, with some anti-augury.  She fanned the four cards out, and they flared as they lined up with the circle.

“That won’t last very long unless we give it a lot of power,” Avery said.  “Or redraw with something better.”

“We don’t need long,” Lucy said, handing the cards out.  “Hold onto these.  Let’s keep conversation private for the walk back.”

Verona nodded.

“You okay to walk?” Lucy asked.

“Do we need to worry?” Verona asked.  “If Alexander comes, it’s going to be when we aren’t near the Aware, or smack dab in the middle of this town, with a bunch of wary locals watching us through their windows.”

Avery looked around.

“Come on,” Lucy said.

“You’re sure?”

“No, but I’m pretty sure.”

They walked.  Verona kept the paper held to her chest, over her heart.  It felt cooler than anything else she was touching.

“Ronnie, stay over lots.  But tough it out if you can.  Remember we’re your escape hatch.”

“Okay,” Verona said, feeling miserable, her throat sore, her stomach growling.

“I think I’m more okay with what happened to Bristow than you two are, believe it or not.  Because fuck him, he came after us, he raised the stakes.  We were on the back foot, we didn’t want that.  He’s like a big stupid bull that charged through.  And on his way out, he hurt Clementine and the other tenants who didn’t deserve that crap?”

Lucy sounded mad, her words heated.

And it helped.  It really helped.

“I’m not glad it happened, I wish we found another way, but the important thing is that we found a way,” Lucy said.

“Yeah,” Verona replied.

“As for the other headmaster… don’t say his name for a few minutes.”

“Why?” Avery asked.

“Because I think people are keeping an ear out,” Lucy told Avery, touching her earring.  She held up the card.  “If we aren’t careful this simple connection block and anti-scrying stuff will collapse mid-sentence.  So let’s not give them something to latch onto.”

“What are you talking about?” Avery asked.

“He isn’t a concern, in the- he’s not going to come for us.”

“He’s-”

“I’ll tell you details later.  He’s gone.  More gone than Bristow.”

“You went out into the woods,” Avery said.  “You were worried about… John.”

Lucy nodded.

“He said he needed some time before Matthew called him back with a tag.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“Promises have power,” Verona said.  “Alexander sounded mad, that’s the sort of thing that makes it easier for an echo-”

“No chance of an echo,” Lucy said.  “Or revenant, or alchemical revival, or anything like that.  They’ll eventually find the car, but John said he was going to drive it through some shallow streams and creeks, then drive it into a river.  Rivers wash away traces and connections, and break up trails.  I stuck some anti-augury stuff in there, some general connection break stuff to weaken the chance anyone would follow John.  I scrambled some other augury stuff, added noise, trampled all over the crime scene.  Made sure there was no evidence I could see with Sight.  Did everything I could.”

“You say all of that so calmly,” Avery said.

“I don’t feel calm,” Lucy said.  “I feel angry.  I’m frustrated.  I- I can’t get some stuff out of my head.  And I’m worried that’s, like, permanent.”

“Talk to your counselor?” Verona asked.

“I want to.  It’s hard to schedule, and I crammed one in yesterday morning.”

“Maybe if you say it’s an emergency?”

“I don’t even know what I’d tell her.”

They walked in silence for a bit.  Verona checked the connection card.  Still intact.

Verona’s thoughts roved through everything from how Lucy could word things for her therapist, to Bristow, to Brownies, to Alexander, trying to visualize just what it was that Lucy had done.

Lucy hadn’t slept well last night.  None of them had.  But Lucy less than either Avery or Verona.

A lot of Lucy spacing out today made sense too.

She gave Lucy a one-armed hug, walking beside her.  Lucy returned the hug.

A distant, unearthly shriek grew louder.

America’s car came tearing down the road, swerving into the other lane to give them a wide berth before disappearing around the corner, rubber chickens hollering as the car exhaust poured from their mouths.

Verona smiled, and was glad to see Lucy doing the same.  Avery snickered.

“We’re not really making good use of these cards we took the time to draw,” Lucy remarked.  “Being all quiet.”

“Maybe a bit of silence throws them off the trail, if they get suspicious,” Verona said.

“We’ve got to figure out food-”

“Urgh,” Verona grunted.  “Don’t remind me.”

“-and what books to get from the library.  It’d be nice to know what classes are covered later.  I overheard someone saying Sol Ferguson’s dad is coming to teach tomorrow,” Lucy noted.  “Elementalism.  Relevant.”

For Edith.  Good.

“We’ll have the Athenum, won’t we?  Sunshine’s program?” Verona asked.

“Who knows?” Lucy asked.

“I really want it though.  How much will it suckif we can’t use it?  If we have to go from having all of this to going home and having almost nothing.”

“Toadswallow can’t teach you a damn thing,” Snowdrop pronounced.

“That’s true,” Verona agreed.  “Very specific style and focus of teaching though.”

“One thing that was bugging me,” Avery said.  “Was Charles’ books.  We kind of asked about his old books and if anything was left over and he seemed to think there was, but then we got busy and we didn’t follow up.  We never got a definitive no.”

“We didn’t,” Lucy agreed.

“Might be nice, if we go home and don’t have any books or the library program.”

“Please, no.  Let’s not even entertain the idea,” Verona protested.

“Speaking of reading,” Avery said.  “I’m also just noticing Snowdrop’s shirt…”

Snowdrop was wearing a top with exaggerated armholes that indicated she was wearing a bandeau top or something beneath.  It had a hood built in, and a pouch at the front.  It depicted a pudgy opossum with a remote control, sitting up, and the pouch at the front had ‘Pouch Potato’ printed on it.

“I think when your shirt is saying you’re overpreparing for winter, Snow, you need to take that as a literal sign,” Avery told her companion.

“That’s possible.”

The light, joking talk continued the remainder of the way back.  They took a shortcut down a path through the woods, so they didn’t have to travel the bend in the road, and Verona caught a glimpse of Lucy’s expression turning more solemn as she got lost in thought.

The way the conversation had turned to the way Alex had so suddenly been removed from the picture- it was jarring, it was unsettling, and that mirrored how quivery her stomach felt after throwing up from stress.

But as she groped for equilibrium and balance and a break from that quiveryness, she couldn’t help but think of Charles, and Charles’ warnings from the very start.  That they shouldn’t get involved.

Clementine was taking that advice.  Taking a leap with her partner, which was great.  But stepping back from trying to get all the answers.

Verona knew she’d be lying if she said she hadn’t quite understood what Charles had been referring to until now.  She’d seen enough monsters, enough shitty people.  Practitioners… she got why Matthew was so spooked, dropping them off here, the way he’d talked about the other kids and teachers.

She understood.

But seeing Lucy digesting the events of last night… more than throwing up, it was the worry for Lucy that really hit home.

She didn’t want the light in Lucy to go dark.  She didn’t want Lucy to stop being about justice and fighting injustice and being elegant and being someone who could fit in with beautiful people like George and Amadeus and Mia.

“I don’t want to go down this road,” Verona mused aloud, “-the”

“This road?” Avery cut her off.  “Back to school?”

“You didn’t let me finish.  I don’t want to go down this road of becoming a practitioner like they are in the big textbooks, or like how Bristow and Alexander are.”

“Frigging good,” Lucy said.  “I’m glad.  Because screw that.  I- I don’t either.  I think when I summoned John and Toadswallow asked me if I was sure about having him along… deep down, I wanted change.”

“Spooky,” Avery said.

“I don’t think you’re in danger of becoming a Bristow,” Verona said.  “Or an Alexander.”

“You’re too cool,” Lucy said.

Avery scoffed.

“She’s so uncool,” Snowdrop hissed, leaning over.  “So lame, you shouldn’t ever see what she’s like when nobody else is around.”

Avery pulled Snowdrop’s hood up and over her head, pulling it down over her face.

“But there are other traps.  Other dangers,” Verona said.  “If you end up some practitioner on the fringes… gotta be careful of the kids.  That’s when you let your guard down.”

“End up like my parents?” Avery asked.

“Compounded by practice?” Lucy suggested.

“Ugh.”

“We gotta keep each other on the straight and narrow, away from all those traps,” Verona said.  “Keep the best parts of ourselves.”

“Heck yeah,” Lucy replied, eyes on the school as they emerged from a second shortcut through woodland.

Some students were climbing out of cars.  Others were hanging out on steps in workshops.

“Feeling all squared up?” Lucy asked, watching the students, as many of those students stared at them.  Her eyes had the Sight on.

“More square,” Verona replied.

“We’ve got our work cut out for us.  Was seeing a lot of swords and stains with my Sight.  A lot of those points were pointed at us, until they started realizing I was looking and putting them away.”

“Good to know,” Avery murmured.

They crossed the campus, many eyes on them, and headed to the main classroom.  The students that weren’t outside were already seated.

Their teacher was a nervous looking guy that could have been a math teacher in a cartoon.  Everything except the pocket protector.  He had props- anatomical models that were more like that drawing by Da Vinci, the Vitruvean Man, and boards arranged with drawings of bodies and lines in the body and the entire mood was just… very sex ed class, somehow.  The focus on bodies.

Verona settled in on the bench.

It took a couple of minutes.  She mostly focused on not focusing on her stomach hurting a bit.

“Self, spirit, soul.  Who are you?” the new teacher asked the class.  No introduction or anything.  “Who or what will each of you become?  What were you when you began, except your parent’s child, and what will you be when your story closes?  Do you really change, from start to finish?”

Verona slumped down in her seat a bit, but she listened.


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Vanishing Points – 8.1

Lucy

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Lucy roused to the sound of a knock on the bedroom door.  She didn’t wake, exactly, because she had woken up at five and startled Avery awake when she’d gotten up to head to the bathroom, they’d talked momentarily, and then they’d settled, four to a bed, Avery, Verona, and Snowdrop sleeping while Lucy sat, butt beside the pillow, back to the wall, thinking the kind of muddled thoughts that happened between five in the morning and…

She looked at the clock.

And almost nine.

She pulled out her earbuds, put her phone aside, and made herself get up.  Once up, she checked she was decent enough to answer the door, and unlocked it, opening it.

Raymond Sunshine stood on the other side, tall, narrow, long hair combed close to the scalp up to the point it no longer touched the scalp and went a bit wild.  His eyes were hidden by his red sunglasses and the rest of his expression gave nothing away.

“I’m doing rounds, checking on every room of students who haven’t woken up already and started breakfast,” he told her.

“We’re alive.  We’re mostly intact.  Tired,” she told him.

“Good, acceptable, and a bit of a shame, respectively,” he told her.  “Ms. Durocher is holding a class on healing practices this morning, starting late, at ten.  We thought it would be a good chance to make sure our students are in tip-top shape, physically or otherwise.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  She felt a bit weird, giving such short answers, so she elaborated, “I’m sort of interested in that one.  The way things have been going, it would be a nice skill to have.”

“Yes,” Raymond said, absently.  Some students were in the hall behind him.  Lucy felt a bit anxious, hair uncombed, wearing a rumpled t-shirt and sleep shorts.

She wasn’t sure what to expect from a healing class, but a part of her had hoped for a distraction, or a class they could skip.  This wasn’t really either.  With the ambient mood, the injuries, the resentments, it felt like it’d be a drag.

“Are your friends awake?” Raymond asked.

Lucy was standing in the doorway, and leaned back to look.  Avery was sitting up, propped up by elbows.  Verona kept her head on the pillow, but raised a hand, thumbs up.

“Yes.  They’re up.”

“There are some other things to discuss,” Raymond said.  “If it’s no trouble, could you meet me in my office before class?  Say, in ten minutes?”

She glanced back, verified, then ventured, “Fifteen?”

“That’s fine.  Whichever is convenient.  Finally, while I’m here, I thought I’d let you know, we’re stepping up security, activating some wards at the perimeter of the property, and putting the augurs on shift duty to avoid further trouble.  I reached out to Alexander this morning and couldn’t find him.  I don’t know how concerned you are about him, but you should know that we’re keeping a close eye out and I don’t think you should have any immediate worries.”

Lucy had worried about this, or about something like it.  The inevitable questions or prodding.  She’d thought panic might grip her, or she might say or do something weird, or flinch, her expression giving something away.

Her expression didn’t change at all from its default, slightly-pissed-off frown.  She inhaled, then exhaled slowly.

“Is-”

Lucy turned her head, then shifted her position, pushing the door open so Raymond could see the others on the bed.

Avery asked, “Is he the type to do something like that?  Retaliate, when we weren’t even directly against him?”

“Yes,” Raymond said.  “I could dodge the question or talk around things, but yes, he would and I’m guessing he will.  I’m a longtime friend of the man, and he made some preliminary moves against me last night.”

“What kind of moves?” Avery asked.

“Political ones, with political types who sometimes eliminate their political problems.  But that’s not a topic for when you’re barely awake.  Shower, dress, eat, do whatever you need or want to do.  I’m going to check on other students and then head back to my office.  Barring emergency, I intend to see you there in ten to fifteen minutes.”

Lucy nodded.

Raymond moved on.  Lucy let the door close by its own weight.

“So we have that Alexander thing happening, I guess,” Verona said, mushing her face into a pillow, and dragging Snowdrop halfway across the bed to hug against her chest.  Snowdrop stretched out all four legs toward the ceiling for a moment before relaxing.

“I want to say sarcastic things right now,” Avery said, stretching.

Lucy visualized Alexander lying in the dirt, body unable to lie even completely flat because an arm and a tree branch were beneath him.  The damage from the gunshot was more than just about any movie she’d seen, and she’d watched a lot of horror films.

She didn’t want to visualize it, but she did.

She’d tell them after.  It was calculating and awful but them having no idea made selling their non-involvement easier.

The mental image had a vivid nature to it that beat out even that crisp mental picture of her mom sitting on the edge of her bed, after Paul had left.

She’d slept with her earring on and somehow it hadn’t gotten sore or bothered her.  Now she could hear Raymond across the way.  Talking to Jorja and Talia.  The way the two girls talked, voices almost overlapping as they answered questions, no hesitation, no barriers, it sounded like they’d made up.

One good thing to come from last night’s resolutions.

To get the mental image out of her head, she turned to music, getting her phone and headphones, and sticking one of the earbuds into her ear.  It was a purring, grungy, goth-y sound, percussive sound, heavily processed and loaded with lyrics her mom wouldn’t be happy about.  Might even get her grounded.

It was good, though.  Distracting from the visual, the lyrics pulling her brain away from things.  It didn’t fit the mental image, and was almost like she was attacking it.

“Come on.  Meeting with Raymond shortly, then class,” she told the others, leaving no room for disagreement.

The others picked themselves up.  Lucy put the other earbud in.

Drowning out the visual with music.

She got her clothes and her hair and makeup stuff, then headed to the showers.  Verona caught up with her a short distance down the hall, stole an earbud, and popped it into her own ear, prompting a look from Lucy.

Lucy glanced back, saw Avery trailing behind, carrying an opossum-form Snowdrop.

Including Avery was important.  She pulled out the remaining earbud, rubbed it clean on her shirt, and held it out.

“Ah, I don’t want to be a bother.”

“Be bolder about what you want,” Lucy said.  “I can handle me.”

Verona took the phone and Avery put the earbud in, sharing the cord with Verona.  Lucy pulled off her earring, tapped it against the phone, and murmured, “listen.”

The earring picked up the music.  As well as any earbud, to both ears.

Lucy’s head bounced with the music as she led the way.  She smiled when she looked back and saw how scandalized Avery seemed to be.

“You seem so pure,” Verona teased.

“I’m not that pure.”

It felt like nothing fit.  That everything was at odds.  The sexy music warring with a mental image that was almost fighting to stay in Lucy’s mind’s eye.  The school so tidy when it had so recently been at war.  The playful banter between the others, when students kept giving them sidelong glances.

Like glances Lucy had gotten all her life, just… condensed into one short walk to the showers.

There weren’t many stalls open, but with one open, the others encouraged Lucy to take it, because she took longer.  She did, and kept listening to the music through the earring.

Midway through pulling her sleep clothes off, she got a good look at her arm in the light that came over the door.  It looked bruised, and still had traces of the coloring from the Nettlewisp, and she wasn’t sure which was which.

Her lip was still split, tender as she touched her tongue to it.  She’d been knocked to the ground, pushed around, grabbed by the throat… and fatigue settled into her, settled into all those sore points, real and imagined.

She might normally have stood under the stream of the shower, taking a few minutes to rinse and think about nothing.  Instead, she used every moment of the shower to do self-care, to take care of hair and skin, her mind thinking forward to what she might anticipate from Raymond.

She dressed in the clothes she’d hung up just before showering, any minor wrinkles smoothed out by the humidity and a pass of her hand.

The others were in the shower as she emerged.  She dried her hair using a t-shirt, because it was gentler than most towels, and produced less frizz, then covered bruises with some of the same concealer she used on her face.  Couldn’t do anything about her lip, though.

Yadira took up a spot at a sink, further down, pulling her hair into a ponytail at the same time Lucy was doing the same.

Lucy was very aware of how cold Yadira’s sidelong glances were.

If it weren’t for the music, then Lucy might have snapped at the silence, and that fact surprised her.

The others caught up, and Lucy gathered up her stuff.

Some students were already camped out in the main classroom, more than half an hour before class, sitting on benches and talking, some eating or finishing off juice and tea.

More sidelong looks.

The western hallway of the school, at least, was for senior students and staff, and was fairly empty.  A bit of reprieve from the staredown.

Lucy knocked on the door to Raymond’s office.  The door opened.

They layout had changed somewhat.  Furniture was arranged in the center of a main room, surrounded by floating screens.

Raymond was talking to a mannequin-like figure, who stood on a pedestal.  He beckoned them in.  “Yes.  If you can, just get back to me with availability, and any fees.  The school can provide, up to a point.”

Lucy, Avery, and Verona took seats in the cushioned chairs.  Snowdrop hung back, standing behind Avery’s seat.

“Thank you.  I have students to attend to.  Excuse me.”

The mannequin nodded, then fizzled out of reality.

“Sorry,” Raymond said.  “Phone call.  The holograms and things are a trapping I fell into at an earlier age that I haven’t bothered changing.”

“It’s cool,” Verona told him.

“Ahem,” he said, smoothing out shirt and slacks as he took a seat.  “Thank you for coming.”

“I can’t tell if we’re in trouble or not,” Lucy said.

“I can’t either,” Raymond answered.  “Which is why I asked you here.  Part of why.  Some concerns have come up, I thought the best way to handle them would be to be straightforward.  I’ll tell you right now, this is between you three, your opossum, and me.”

“Concerns?” Lucy asked.

“I’ve been awake all night, trying to reach out to some people who may be suitable headmasters.  The people who are most suitable to take over and carry on some form of the school’s mission statement are also very particular individuals.  Two candidates stand out, and to ease their transition and ensure I’m prepared as I engage in these hours of phone calls, I’ve been familiarizing myself with the school and how it’s being run.  Some I already knew, some I’m just now learning.”

“Sounds like a lot,” Avery said.

“If you’re doing all this, why not just become headmaster?” Verona asked.

“Because I would like to have some semblance of a life when I’m not working.  This is manageable for a few weeks or months, but I’d shorten my lifespan if I kept it up for long.”

“Especially with those all-nighters like you’re describing,” Lucy said.

“Yes.”

“My brother’s talked about having to do those.”

“Alexander kept me and Ms. Durocher informed about things like the teachers we’d invite in as guests, resources and trips we’d carry out, and the renting out of workshops to graduate and senior students.  Sometimes we take on bigger projects as a school and use workshops for that, committing students like Reid, Wye, or Amine to oversee them and bring in necessary individuals.  Deciphering threats, remote bindings, and scholarly work that standalone families can’t do.”

“Super interesting,” Verona said.

“Perhaps.  Alexander managed other things himself, including incoming student lists, reaching out to new students, sponsorship from larger families, interactions with Lords and other powers, whenever we might be taking any action that would draw their attention, staffing, funding, and general finances.”

“Oh,” Verona made a sound.

Yeah.  The fact that he’d chosen that note to end on…

“Your reaction tells me I’m not mistaken,” Raymond told them.  “There’s a discrepancy in paperwork and funding, with a short note from Alexander saying to contact him if there are any questions.  I’ve set Tanner to the task of finding the man, and intend to include those questions on the long list I have for him.  But until he figures out how to find an augur who doesn’t want to be found, the only way to get answers about this is apparently by talking to you.”

“From the way you responded to Alexander wanting to have a vote for the school, I think you know,” Lucy said.  “His… cheat?  Kind of?”

“I couldn’t volunteer that information if I did know.”

“He set up the demesne here, but it’s more than that, isn’t it?” Verona asked.  “He tied it to the school itself, serving students and that left some pretty big loopholes.”

Raymond reached behind his chair, to a space where there wasn’t a table, shelf, or anything, and picked up a tablet.  He tapped on it a few times.

“He messed with Avery and our hometown,” Lucy said.  “We called him out on it.  Said we had a right to be students, because of that loophole.  Then he couldn’t really come after us or leave Avery out to dry like that.”

“I see.  Even if you aren’t paying tuition.  He could argue the point, but if he does, he damages his demesne and claim, if worse doesn’t happen.”

“Our leverage for being here was that we could tell other students they could technically attend for free,” Avery said.

“I’m glad you didn’t.  That makes my life easier.  I do have to tell you that I’m afraid this leverage only works if Alexander is headmaster.”

“Crap,” Verona muttered.

“Thank you for your honesty.  You could have evaded, and I have enough minefields to deal with, without you three being another set.  Two possible headmasters are lined up, and I know them well enough that I don’t think this tuition concern will be ignored.”

“Double crap,” Verona said.  “How much is tuition?”

“For the three of you, twenty-one thousand dollars a term.”

“Okay,” Verona replied, blinking in rapid succession, her eyebrows going up until they disappeared behind her bangs.  She looked at Avery, “Want to rob a bank?”

“What does that mean?” Lucy asked Ray.  “That it won’t be ignored?”

“What it means depends a lot on your answers to my other questions,” Raymond said, putting down the tablet.  “I don’t know you.  I have some sense of you from our past interactions, and from how you conducted yourselves last night.  Zed likes you and I like Zed, but he’s sworn to secrecy, as is Brie.  Nicolette has run into you but won’t say anything, and she won’t let me talk to Seth, who is forsworn and could tell me, even if oaths still hold some sway over him.”

“What happens if we give the wrong answers?” Avery asked.

“Wrong answers could be cause for expulsion right here and right now.  The Blue Heron Institute might try to handle you, at least until we can extract more information and some necessary oaths from you.”

“Extract as in torture?” Avery asked.

“Extract as in extract.  We have a number of Augurs still in attendance at this school,” Raymond said.  “But given the severity of an attack of this potential style and scale, I wouldn’t rule out torture either.  I’d argue against it, for what it’s worth, but I wouldn’t necessarily be in charge.”

“What the heck kind of answers would those be?” Verona asked.

“Zed mentioned to me at one point that students were speculating about you.  They thought you might be Oni-related.  Oni and practitioners don’t traditionally get along, and it would make some sense if you were actually here specifically for what happened last night.  The removal of one headmaster.”

Lucy’s thoughts went to Alexander, before she reminded herself that he was talking about Bristow.

Raymond lifted up his sunglasses, and he was looking at her, studying her with eyes that looked as tired as she’d felt when she had been getting ready for her shower, feeling all her sore spots, injuries, exhaustion, and little traumas in one total feeling.

“I’m glad it bothers you,” he told her.  “That it happened, and that you had a part in it.”

“It’s pretty spooky,” Avery said.

Lucy pressed her lips together.  The split on her lip stung.  She licked it.

Verona shifted position, but she maintained a pretty serious poker face otherwise.

“Do you believe that?” Lucy asked, quiet.  “That we came here for that reason?”

Raymond Sunshine shook his head.

“Good, because we didn’t,” Lucy told him.

“But I do worry,” he said.  “You might have been directed here unwittingly.  Oni or other forces like Oni might want to hurt the school.  Certain practitioners or ex-practitioners would want us out of the way.”

That word, ex-practitioners, it said a lot about Raymond’s train of thought.  Lucy tried to keep her expression still, but her eyebrows drew together and she wasn’t sure how to put them back to normal, that wouldn’t be too far in the other direction.  Concerned or worried.

He went on, “You awoke relatively recently, you have a lot of power and a large number of contacts, and your arrival was followed by the handling of the Devouring Song.”

“Hungry Choir,” Lucy said.

“Hm.”

“Sounds better.”

“Convention has sway, and both urban myth sites and practitioner circles have been calling it something else.  Either way, you struck very close to the heart of this Hungry Choir, very quickly.  I worry you’re striking at the heart of this school in a very similar way.”

“Which is how you get to us being imprisoned, bound, sworn to oaths?” Lucy asked.

“If true or close to true.”

“Well,” Lucy said, looking at the others.  “Let’s try to make it clear that’s not the case, and soothe those worries.”

“I’d love to,” Raymond said, leaning back, setting one ankle across his knee.  With his long legs and the framing of the chair, it was pretty effective.  He set the sunglasses back in place.  “What can you tell me?”

“That’s a pretty big question,” Verona told him.  “A lot of practitioners would be protective of their family stuff and secrets, I think.”

“They are.”

“I don’t like how early it is in the day right now,” Verona said.  “My head’s not all there.”

“I’m not interested in power, or on preying on practitioners.  I want to ensure the school is safe, that things transition smoothly to a new headmaster, and that students are safe.  I want Zed safe, and I know he talks to you more frequently than many students.”

“Would you swear oaths?” Lucy asked.  “To keep stuff secret?”

“Depending.  I’m limited in what I can do.”

“Then maybe it’s better that you ask questions, and we try to answer?” Lucy tried.

“Alright.  Then I’ll start with one of the most pressing questions.  Lawrence Bristow.  You played a significant role in what happened to him.  I’ve looked in, and the man is as good as dead.”

“Not what I aimed for,” Verona said.

“What did you aim for?”

“To ruin his day.”

“You have thoroughly done that.  Yesterday, today, and every day for a long time.”

Avery sighed audibly.  Snowdrop reached over the top of the chair back and hugged her.

“Nobody really spelled out what the brownie thing was,” Verona said.  “He kind of- you know he came after our hometown, right?”

“Easy,” Lucy murmured.

“I know,” Raymond said.  “Clementine explained.  I intend to verify other facts with her before she leaves, after our talk.”

Lucy nodded.  Damn.

“He came after us, and if he hadn’t then we wouldn’t have had that ammunition to use against him, and start the Brownie thing,” Verona said.

“Was that a motivation then?”

“We wanted him to back off and leave us alone,” Avery protested.

“We told him,” Lucy jumped in, a little firmer.  “That he was off target.  He was aiming big guns at us, our town, our friends, and our families, just to inconvenience Alexander.  We gave him a chance to back off, and he made it clear he wouldn’t stop.”

“We don’t fit what he wants in his school,” Verona said, before correcting, “didn’t.  Wanted.”

“Did you want him dead or, for lack of a better word, gone?”

“No!” Verona’s voice raised.  She lowered her volume.  “No.  When Alexander said we could have gotten the Brownies to back off, I was all for it.”

Lucy frowned.  “But Bristow wouldn’t back down.  I think that shows there wasn’t a better way.  He had the chance to back off, and he wouldn’t.  He would have kept coming for us, and we can’t- we swore oaths.”

Raymond nodded, leaning back.  His chair wasn’t adjustable, but it adjusted, reclining slightly.  He folded his arms.  “When you say you were all for it, was that because you worried about the audience?”

“Because I’m not super happy about doing what- what Shellie said.  That he gets kidnapped and gets sold off or whatever.”

“Or whatever,” Raymond said, absently.  “Something of a relief, to get this confirmation.  But these oaths you mention, Lucy.  I think I need to know more.  About who you are, where you’re from.”

Lucy nodded, tense.  She was glad she’d put herself together earlier.

“Kennet.  Charles Abrams is there.”

“He lived outside of the town,” Lucy said.  “After Alexander went after him, he was offered sanctuary.”

“In exchange for?”

“Taking on specific ailments, curses, and things, until they could be handled.”

“Was this part of a greater experiment, design, or the refinement of a form of attack?”

“Not to my knowledge,” Lucy said.

“Keeping things clean.  Healing an innocent.  Some stuff, ummm…” Avery hesitated.

What else?  Oh.  John and Yalda.  Lucy tried to figure out how to phrase that.

“Stuff tied to jobs done for major powers,” Verona jumped in.

Think of this like a police investigation, Verona.  Don’t volunteer too much, Lucy willed.

“Major powers.  Are these gods?  Great spirits?  Incarnations?”

“I don’t know,” Verona said.  “And it was a while ago.”

“You can’t append a label?  An incarnation would be a force like Death herself, or Poverty.”

Verona glanced at Avery, then Lucy.

Said a lot, that it was in that order.  It wasn’t that Lucy was insecure, really.  But Avery offered a different sort of backup to what Lucy did and if Verona was looking for that, then Verona wasn’t doing all that hot.  It was hard to tell sometimes, but things like this were clues.

“I could offer an oath, but that’s dangerous ground, especially considering the scale of things that a major power may interact with.  Let me instead provide more context.  I gave Zed his foundation in technology and technomancy.  Most technological know-how can be a problem, when you’re trying to bring somebody into the fold and get them thinking in the right ways.  I would rather start with a luddite than with a career programmer.  But it’s best to start with someone very young.  In any event, I taught Zed most of what he knows and I took responsibility for awakening him.  In exchange, he helps me, he allows me to guide, direct, and inform his research, and he owes me a token from whatever power or position he gains.  I know he was looking into the Devouring Song, for example.  I know he’s avidly curious about the three of you now.”

Lucy nodded.

“I suspect you three may have inklings already, but sometimes what is not said can be as telling as what is said out loud.  Zed stopped keeping track of specific data after he negotiated with you for details that let us conquer the Devouring Song- Hungry Choir.  Nicolette has similar areas she declines to talk about.”

“Not very fair,” Verona’s voice was barely audible.

“It may not be.  What would you say if I asked if these greater powers are judges?  Carmine, Alabaster, Sable, and Aurum?”

The three of them exchanged glances.

“Yes,” Raymond said.  “No need to say.  Alexander took specific files with him when he left to target Lawrence.  There were similar absences there.  I know that what Lawrence would have built here would have overridden the position of the four Judges.”

“What would that mean?” Avery asked.

“That the Judges would have less sway.  Lords and… whatever we would have ended up calling Bristow, leader over this swathe of unclaimed territory, they would have made the final judgment calls on things such as forswearing, the Others that may exercise full power or allowed leeway under rules, and how the landscape changes.  Mr. Bristow seems to have timed what he did to take advantage of the fact that the four judges are currently three.”

Lucy nodded.

“By that same token, I think Alexander may have thought he could bait Lawrence into the position, or used the current situation with the Judges to upset his rival’s plans.  And I think, if you’ll excuse my speculation, that we have a confluence of factors all coming together.  An empty Carmine seat, Alexander, Lawrence, the emergence of the Devouring Song, Charles Abrams, and, of course…”

He extended a hand even as Lucy beat him to the punch.  “Us.”

“You,” Raymond said.  “Less surprising, now, that a lot of power has been invested in you.  Which leaves me with the pressing question… why?

“You said, before, if we gave you the wrong answers, you might capture us or come after us,” Verona reminded Ray.

“More or less, yes.”

“And I think we gave okay answers, to avert that worst case scenario?” she asked.

“More or less.”

Verona nodded.  “What’s our best case scenario?  What comes from this meeting, if we give really good or important answers?”

“If you’re going to kick us out,” Lucy followed up, “then maybe we should leave now?  If you’re satisfied we’re not malicious?”

“Stay,” Raymond said, firm, gesturing.  “If you’re in over your heads, and this is as big as I’m starting to think it is, then the best case scenario may be that I help you.  I can provide guidance, shelter, pull you away from being made pawns in something big and malicious.”

“What if we’re not in over our heads?” Verona asked.

“If you’re not, then I’d have a hard time believing the incident with Lawrence and the brownies was pure accident and naivete.  But that’s unfair.  Let me ask, was it Charles Abrams who spearheaded this?”

Lucy shook her head.

“No?” Raymond asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“You’re sponsored, according to Durocher.  Others provide you with diverse power.  You do something for the Others.  What?  And for who?”

“We’d need oaths,” Lucy told him.

“I can’t.  Not in my current position, not in general.  Not when it’s peripheral to Zed and the young woman he fell so fast and hard for.  If the Judges are involved it involves all practice in the region.  Another tack, then.  I’d like to meet the Other who led this endeavor.”

“That’s hard,” Avery said.  “But we could arrange it if we had to.”

Avery’s instinct was to be helpful, and to go easy.  She softened every blow.  That was tricky.

“Are they sworn to the seal?”

“We have good reason to believe they are,” Lucy said.

“I can confirm, simply by re-binding.  Temporarily.”

“I think that would… not go over well,” Lucy replied.

“I see.  That sort of situation.  Zed reported to me that there were areas he was being kept away from.  Distractions, interference, some light violence.  Around Kennet.  Your hometown.  Liberty and America recognized one of your friendly Others by name.  Uncle Toad.  He reportedly said he’s been hiding away.”

Lucy nodded.  The others did the same.

“I have strong suspicions but I need to know,” Raymond said.  “Small details may have big impacts.  I’m willing, not to swear an oath of silence, but to pledge my goodwill.  I have little to do with judges and thrones and I’m not looking to hunt or prosecute Others, unless given cause.  I’m only interested in this because it affects everything, a little bit.  If Alexander were to make a play for the empty seat, or if the wrong Other took the spot, it affects the school, every student in the region, my practice…”

Lucy shook her head a little.

“I will only step in or share this information if it’s necessary to protect good people,” Raymond told them.  “Frankly, I’m happier to ignore it, with everything else on my plate right now.”

“I don’t know-” Verona started.

“You swear it?” Lucy said, at the same time.

The two of them exchanged looks.

“Do you need a moment?” Raymond asked.

“I made a similar promise when I awoke,” Lucy told Verona.  “To step in for the sake of justice, protecting innocents.”

“Good oath,” Raymond said.

“It’d be hypocritical of me to deny Raymond the same.”

“I agree with Lucy,” Avery said.  “I don’t know about you guys, but I do feel like I’m in over my head.  I don’t want to do what we did last night, ever again, and I’d love to have an adult we can go to that isn’t, like, Brie or Zed.”

“What a thing to think about, imagining that Brie and Zed are adults,” Raymond said, wistful, shaking his head a little.  He removed his glasses to rub at his eyes.

“You have no, uh, what are they called?  Ulterior motives?” Verona asked.

“None large enough to spring to my mind.  Among the minor motives, I think there is some curiosity, some frustration, some desire to know what my apprentice is entangled in.”

“I’m okay with that,” Lucy said.  “If the others are.”

“Yeah,” Avery added.  “It’s a big thing we’ve lacked, for a bit.  Someone we can trust.”

Verona nodded.  But time passed, Verona’s eyes moving like she was looking for something, until she finally relented.  Ten or twenty seconds before her quiet, “Okay.”

“We’re trusting you,” Lucy told Raymond.

“Okay,” he told her.  “Thank you.”

“We were awakened to serve as practitioners for Kennet.  To tell anyone who started poking their noses in that the area’s covered, it’s our territory.”

“Benefiting from general rules we put in place, to defer, leave things alone if asked to,” Raymond said.  “If they wanted to intrude, settle down, or start tapping the area for power, they’d really need to go to the local Lord.”

“No Lord in Kennet,” Verona said.

“The Judges then.  I see.”

“We were asked to investigate the missing Judge.”

“And?”

“And we have some good ideas, I think,” Lucy said.  “We’re at school to figure out what we need to do to bring in the perpetrators.”

“What about Charles?”

“Peripheral.  He may have helped.  Or summoner-type practices were used.”

“Relating to the Choir?”

Lucy nodded.

“Who told you to come here?” Raymond asked.

“The Other you can’t easily talk to,” Avery said.

“She told us the trick to force Alexander to let us.  We had to use it when he stuck his nose in, trapped Avery,” Verona told Raymond.

“And how did she learn this?”

Verona shrugged.

“We don’t know,” Lucy said.

“She knows a lot about a lot of things,” Avery said.

“We think others allowed us to be picked because we’re children,” Lucy said.  “And they thought we’d need a lot of help or we’d be likely to fail.  But she- she picked us because she thought we’d be very good at this.”

Raymond sighed.

“We need to study a bit more, without distractions,” Verona said.  “Then we do our job, bind the perpetrator or perpetrators, and that’s it.  That’s our big plan.”

“I believe you,” Raymond said.  “My concerns lie elsewhere.  Students described this Uncle Toad as very canny, and world-wise.  Your patrons seem to be evasive, hiding away from the world.  I don’t know what they’re plotting or doing, and my efforts to find out have been mostly stymied.”

“I don’t think it’s that nefarious,” Avery said.  “Except for the murderers but we’re handling that.”

“I want to ask you, then.  One of my last big questions before your first class of the day begins.  Is it at all possible that, even if you had no such intentions, you were led to come here to cause this kind of mayhem?  Could that have been part of a scheme, plot, or plan, on the part of your patrons?”

“I think-” Avery started.

“Think about it before answering,” Raymond said.

They paused.

“I think the ones who would have had to scheme that up care too much about us to use us like that,” Avery said.  “And the ones who would be willing to let stuff happen to us didn’t want us to come.”

Lucy nodded her agreement.

“Which group does Charles belong to?” Raymond asked.

“I don’t think Charles is capable of doing much,” Lucy told him.  “Scheming or doing anything.  He didn’t even want us to Awaken in the first place.”

“A new headmaster will be installed in one to three weeks,” Raymond told them.  “Either Maurice Crowe or Mr. Abraham Musser.  Neither is likely to miss or overlook the tuition issue, and I don’t intend to keep it a secret either.  I’ll assume you don’t have the twenty-one thousand dollars or equivalent services to render.”

Lucy shook her head.  Matthew and Edith had said they’d pay for the demesne, but that was different.  The Kennet Others hadn’t wanted them to come, and shelling out that kind of money for lessons in how to bind Others, among other things, probably wouldn’t go over that well.

“You have a bit of time.  Not the whole summer, as you might have hoped, but some time,” Raymond told them.  “You’re going to want to make the most of it.  In exchange, I want you to keep Zed from getting too entangled in this.  Come to me if you need help, but…”

“But you’re busy, right?” Verona asked.

“I was going to say there are political considerations.  I can’t be seen as taking a side and apparently Alexander has notified outside forces that he thinks I did.  You’re not wrong, in any event.  I will be busy.  I’ll try to make time.”

“Thank you,” Avery told him.

“I’d like to see Charles.  Will you go home to Kennet after you leave here?”

“That’s the plan,” Lucy told him.

Verona made a gurgling sound.

“I’ll be in touch, then.  To arrange things.”

“A lot happens at the end of summer,” Lucy confessed.  “Apparently that’s the deadline for the Carmine Throne to be filled.  The judges will force someone to step in.”

“Before then, then, so I’m not in the way,” Raymond said.  “In the meantime, as I was saying, I imagine you’ll want to study and use the facilities, but I do have another recommendation.”

“What’s that?” Lucy asked.

“Mend fences and build bridges.  There are a lot of hard feelings over what happened these past few days.  And practitioners are, as a general rule, very wary about anyone who would do what you did to Lawrence Bristow.  Even considering the circumstances.  Your stay here might not be easy as things stand.  I intend to keep the peace, but I can’t make guarantees, and I can do little to nothing about much that happens if your tuition lapses and you’re no longer considered students of the Blue Heron.”

“You think they’d do that?” Avery asked.

“Bristow had friends and you now have enemies.  Reverse this trend while you can, or it’s something that can follow you well into the future.  Now, I do think class is about to start.  We’ll be doubling up on teachers and teaching assistants to make sure we have everything square, so I’ll be sitting in for this one.”

He stood, and they followed suit.  Avery lifted a sleepy Snowdrop to her shoulder.

Lucy exhaled.  Class.

Her stomach was clenched, worrying they were providing too much information, setting themselves up to fail later.

She had to avoid rubbing at her arm, and had to work doubly hard to keep from replaying the conversation over and over again in her head, wondering what she’d done wrong, that she could regret just as much as any enemy she might make.

Class, at least, was a little easier on the nerves.

🟂

The god walked across the stage, past his sister, his head ducking low so he wouldn’t bang it on the beams that supported the roof, and took a seat at the stage’s edge, hunched over a bit.  Lesser Others peeled away from him, taking to the air, grabbing onto beams, and cavorting around him, humanoid figures with heads like lit matches, their ‘hair’ a dancing and flickering glow, their heads too golden-bright to have faces.  His hair was similar, but his face was defined, etched more severely than a statue’s, his eyes bright.  Each bend and sudden turn in his blazing mane made the air in the rest of the room stir.  His steps, though gentle, made the room shake.

He wore only a cloth, and it wasn’t even draped on him like a toga might be.  It was more by accident, volume, and design that it shrouded him.  His posture was casual, one foot flat on the ground, the knee of the same leg higher than any of the bookshelves that lined the classroom, while the other leg was folded under him.  His face was framed by long flickering hair as he looked down on them all, while lesser entities appeared like the sparks from a fire, taking to the air or gracefully navigating his head to drag locks of hair behind his ears and away from his face, so it wouldn’t be covered.

“Yo,” he addressed the room in a deep voice.

Lucy, as she’d been instructed, kept her head bowed a bit, studying him before dropping them to the floor.  Her hand gripped the bench’s edge.

The wood was new.  It was fresh cut, sanded, polished, but it was new.  So much of this room had been trashed and it had been put back together again, just about everything set in order.  Maybe too much order, with papers too neatly stacked, nothing left out of place.

Just yesterday, she’d been bound to a bench on the other side of the classroom, threatened.  They’d deliberately sat as far away from that spot as they could, but it didn’t really help shake that awareness.

Easier on the nerves.  Right.  Right.  Yeah.

“We appreciate your attendance,” Durocher told the god.

“No problem,” he said.  His voice was loud, at the same time he was very obviously keeping his volume down.  The acoustics of the church-style building carried the sound.  “They’re worn out.”

“They are.  It’s been a long couple of days,” Durocher said.  She walked around at the foot of the stage, past Raymond, who was sitting in on the class.

“Very few come to visit my ilk when times are good, so I’m used to it,” the god said, before laughing.  The laugh should have been painfully loud, but it wasn’t.

Lucy couldn’t have been more shortsighted, thinking the class would be easy or calm or boring.  She’d wondered if the class would be distracted or too tired to focus, and how Durocher might handle that.

Silly her.  Durocher didn’t do easy and the woman always commanded attention when she wanted it.

From their meeting with Raymond to class.  Then, in the first minute of Ms. Durocher talking, she’d shouted out an invocation, and then this.  Inviting a pair of gods into the classroom.  The sister of the god who sat at the front of the stage was as dark as he was bright, her hair like a waterfall of black-feathered birds with feathers longer than some people were tall, diving in glacial slow motion, weaving past one another.  Her skin was the grey of storm clouds, she was bare chested, and her lips and nipples were silver.  A night-black cloth sat loose around her waist, extending around and down her legs to the floor.  Black-furred beasts lurked in the folds and emerged here and there, only to disappear again, giving glimpses of silver eyes and silver-y-er claws and talons.  The things that peeled away from her were less immediately helpful or fanatical to her and looked more like they were intent on slinking off into dark corners to wait.

“The morning’s topic is an elementary lesson in healing,” Durocher said.  “A springboard to discussion of structural practices, which, I’ll note, are different from realms practices.”

“Sounds fun,” the god said.

“Gods tend to send splinters or aspects of themselves to tend to minor matters,” Ms. Durocher addressed the class.  “You’ve done so, yes?”

“I wouldn’t fit in here at full size,” he said, laughing through the sentence.

“Tell us about yourself.  What do you do?  Who or what are you?”

“Metaphaos, I’m not one of your gods from the books, and very few of the gods who practitioners will deal with are.  Being bound up in history is too constraining, too formalized, it comes with too much baggage.  You only find the best gods if you go looking in places unknown.”

He smiled.

Durocher looked up at him.  “And many are like yourself, others are, hm, what would we call them?  Raymond?  Glitches in the system?”  She looked to Raymond, who sat off to the side.

“Emergent gods,” Raymond said.  “Sometimes we’ll term them cosmic rounding errors.  Complexities of a deific scale?”

“Complex, in that case, being used in the same sense we talk about complex spirits, elementals, and such?”  Durocher asked, pacing, looking at the class and not Raymond.

“Yes,” Raymond said.

“You have to be careful with that lot,” Metaphaos said.  “Messy.  Interesting, but not fun.”

“Why?” Durocher asked, pointing at him, without turning around.

“They don’t always have humanity and humanity’s faith giving them a push from behind from the outset.  You can get less human forces, and that gets out of control fast.  They might not speak your languages, they might not have very good aim, or they might not care either way.  Guy travels to a temple deep in the woods that wasn’t built by man, where a deity of civilization has risen.  He wants wealth and gets kids instead, and before the hour’s out, his great grandkids have great grandkids.  The poor little explorer is now wading through birthing-muck and the bodies of descendants who are fast-tracking their way through learning how to crawl, walk, and talk, trying to get far enough away that it all stops.  Meanwhile,the god there is happy as can be, starting a deific civilization from the singular seed of one man. Then the cleanup crew arrived, I played a small role in that.”

“You self-police?”

“It’s easier than it once was.  To hear the older forces talk about it, it used to be lawless out there.  But you know how lawless things were, teacher.”

Durocher smiled.  “That’s for later in the class.”

“Sure thing.  Right now, those of us who are canny enough are changing roles.  Used to be we provided definition and structure.  Now your species is doing that for itself.  We’re smaller, we keep more to our own selves and family branches, and we game the systems if we’re smart.”

“Structure, you said?” she asked.  “We put gods under the broad umbrella of structural practices.”

“Your call.  It works.”

“Why does it work?”

“Because we build, we create from raw clay, beams of light, and from ourselves.”

“Create what?” she asked.

“Life.  Weather.  Rules.  We don’t create-create, but you can cut a statue out of raw clay and say you made that, can’t you?  Creating from scratch is a dying art, left to other forces.”

“And this is how you heal.”

“Sure thing,” the god said.  He smiled.  “Blow a bit of life into a vessel, doesn’t matter if they’re a man or a clay dog.  Or do a bit of repair to their fundamental structure, patch a hole, carve something out.  Most gods get to be gods because they have that faith backing them and they have the tools to do that creating.  Sometimes it’s one and the other follows, other times?  We’re like this, right out of the tin.  Grown and gorgeous.”

“Will you help us with the class exercise?  I’ll cover any deficits you find yourself at.”

“No need, Ms. Durocher,” the god waved her off.  “I’m not that minor.”

He held up his hands.  A glowing sign began to form in the empty space before them.  “If you wish to mend or heal, say some words to that effect, and call on my name.  We’ll get it done somehow.”

“Pair up.  Find the injured.  If you can’t, then find someone to watch,” Durocher said.

Verona turned to Avery, tapping her own collarbone.

Avery reached up to her collar and pulled it down.  The cut was bandaged there.  She’d placed the bandage against it and haphazardly taped it down.

Verona laid her hands down there, palm against the back of one hand.  Avery winced.

“Sorry,” Verona said.

“What are the risks of divine power and direct prayer?” Durocher asked, at the front of the room.

“That’s a big question.  If you have less awesome gods, they might give you something you didn’t ask for.  Or they might get pissy,” Metaphaos said.  “Can I say that, in front of a classroom of kids?”

“Please don’t,” Durocher said.

The god’s voice filled the room, “By deific decree, ignore the rude word, children.  I’ll warn, less great gods will get irritated, or very particular about how you can ask for things and what barriers must be met.  Especially if you’re asking a lot.  That’s how you ask for healing from a war god and get them deciding nah, have a dozen undead soldiers, instead, churl.”

“Gods will do what they want while the door is open,” Durocher said.

“Exactly.”

“Hm,” Avery hesitated, leaning back out of the way of Verona’s hands.

“Relax,” Verona said, putting the hands back, gentler this time.

“Metaphaos, bright haired cool god-”

The god laughed at the front of the room.

“-heal my friend of these cuts.”

Light shone beneath Verona’s hands.  She stroked the length of the bandage, then pulled her hand back.

“Ow, ow,” Avery said, as she pulled on the bandage.

“Did it not work?” Lucy asked.

“It’s taped on, it’s pulling at my skin, ow.  It worked.”

There were some exclamations from others around the room.  More glows.  Metaphaos laughed and it was a bit like the evil villain, heady on his own success.

“One healing for each of you!” Metaphaos addressed a group of boys.  “Don’t be greedy.  If you want more, talk to me.  I only ask for a symbol branded on the arse, thigh, or upper chest, a three week fever dance, or a moderate animal sacrifice, to start!”

Avery reached up, a bit shy, toward Lucy’s face.  Lucy crossed the last inch, pressing lip to fingertip.

“Plesh,” Lucy said, lip movements constrained by the touching fingers.

“Metaphaos, um-” Avery said.

“Fluff him up a bit,” Verona told her.

“Fluff?” the god asked, from the front of the room.

“In the most respectful, appropriate ways,” Verona hurried to say.  “You’re the coolest god I’ve ever met, I wouldn’t be fake about this, don’t worry.”

“Way to go, Ronnie,” Avery muttered.

“I didn’t think he’d hear.”

“You said my name,” Metaphaos boomed.  “I listen.”

“Okay, okay!”

“Stop irritating the nice, awe-inspiring god when Avery’s about to heal me, you moron,” Lucy muttered at Verona, her lips moving against Avery’s fingers.  It stung, reminding her of the cut.

“Metaphaos, exercise your divine glory, please, and heal my friend who thinks you’re nice and awe-inspiring, ignore our other friend who’s a moron sometimes,” Avery said.

Verona sniffed.  But light shone.  Warmth leeched into Lucy’s face, like her face was close to a fire, but at no risk of being burned.

She opened her mouth, then moved her lips.  No cut.  She traced a finger at her lip’s edge to check.

“Thank you, Metaphaos,” she said.  “Maybe it’s because I was a wimp, but that was bothering me an awful lot.  You’re too kind.”

The god glanced at her, smiled briefly, then turned his head, looking at another group.  “I’m not healing that.  Be good, girls.”

“Other forms of healing have their own risks,” Durocher said, stepping up onto a bench, because the stage was pretty much entirely occupied.  “Look at what the source of practice is when weighing the value.  The powers I tap originate from an age of primordial chaos.  When light, land, sea, and sky mingled freely.  As those things settled into layers, animals and other forces took form from the chaos.  Gods gave it structure.  The powers I tap don’t necessarily know I’m drawing on them.  The trick is tapping the right place in the right way, and the result is a flood of whatever it is I’m reaching for.  If I can successfully heal, it’s rarely pretty.  You may get some of that chaos in you, a bit of scale, fur, or wood where you once had flesh.  But it will almost always get the job done.”

“You have any healing you need?” Lucy asked Verona.  “Maybe we can cure that longstanding mental deficiency?”

Verona gasped, poking Lucy in the stomach.  Lucy gave Verona a playful shrug.

A few benches down, some students did another healing.

“Goblin healing is surprisingly effective, but difficult to bear.  Spit and a slap of mud, and it must be taught or done by the right goblins.  Find the wrong goblin and they’ll surprise you with an amputation.  Faerie healing is surface level and fragile, and I wouldn’t recommend it.  Glamour paves over the injury and you could just as easily end up with a mystical abscess as a healing that reaches below that surface.  Echoes can patch up the Self if matched well, but rarely mend flesh and they may even slow that healing.  Better to turn to spirits, who repair from the inside out, giving you fuel and fire.”

“Wonder how that works with Edith,” Lucy mused.

“I came out of yesterday mostly unscathed,” Verona told her, unrelated.  Replying to the earlier offer.

Durocher went on, “Put something elemental into a wound, and it’s more likely to brew as a small storm within than to truly mend.  A replacement spark of life, sometimes, if you have nothing else.”

“You could heal Snowdrop,” Avery told Lucy.  “She’s not too hurt, though.”

“Maybe after?” Lucy asked, as she looked back.  “If she needs it.”

Snowdrop turned human, reclining on the bench, head in Avery’s lap.  “I’m dying.  I need healing now.  Mercy.”

Yadira was at the back of the room.

Lucy stood, giving Avery a pat on the shoulder, and giving Snowdrop’s foot a waggle.

She walked over.  Durocher kept talking, “…and in fact, the Abyssal may be related to the same kinds of primordial chaos I tap into, simply refined by time.  The effects are very similar.  Healing is possible, but it leaves scars in much the same way my healing might leave inhuman flesh…”

Yadira locked eyes with Lucy.

Yadira was injured, her wrist wrapped, and she was alone.  Kass was in the middle of the room.  Raquel had left when Musser had.  Nobody had walked over.  Yadira’s stance and expression might have scared off anyone willing.

To Lucy’s Sight, it looked like the wrist hurt a whole lot.  Threads of dark red watercolor shot up and down Yadira’s arm, bleeding out to the point it colored a lot of her in darker shades.  It swelled around the wrist in particular.  The wrapping seemed to be keeping it rigid.

“Can we not be enemies, glaring at each other?” Lucy asked.  “I think we each get to perform one healing.  Will you be mine?  That wrist-”

“You have no comprehension, do you?” Yadira asked, looking at Lucy.  She shook her head a bit.

Lucy didn’t respond.

“Bristow?  The damage you three did?” Yadira asked.  Her expression changed three times, so fast Lucy could barely follow.  Bewilderment at Lucy’s reaction, then frustration, then anger.  “Get out of my fucking way.”

Lucy wasn’t in her way, but she still stepped back.

Yadira stormed off back in the direction of the dormitory rooms, leaving class early.  The god at the front of the classroom watched, but said and did nothing.

Lucy ducked her head a bit, as he glanced her way.  She didn’t need more enemies.

There were a lot of others watching her, too.

They didn’t have a lot of friends here.  One of the people she was most familiar with was Yadira, and Yadira was more willing to have a wrist that sore than to make things okay again.

They’d played games before, intimidating a bit, trying to look strong as a just-in-case.  They’d scared off the sorta-friendly types, like Yadira’s group.  Now they looked strong, and they had no friends.

Raymond, at the front of the room, talked to Durocher but his head turned toward Lucy.

He was right.  They were in a position to walk away with too many enemies and not enough friends.  She’d underestimated how hard that would be to fix.


Previous Chapter

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Gone Ahead – 7.x

Interlude

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter


Before

“Ray, sweetie,” Durocher said.  “Don’t spend all night with your nose in your computing machines.”

“Computing machines?” Ray asked.  He leaned back, closing his laptop.  “Really.”

“I’ve had a few drinks, and I don’t understand half that stuff when I’m sober,” she told him, before laughing.

“Be careful,” he told her.  He sighed.  “For others’ sake, if not your own.  Especially after a hard day like today.”

“I’m not really very drunk,” she told him, sitting down beside him, and laying a hand on his shoulder.  “I’m other things.  If you’re tapped out, you and I could retire upstairs.  Work out the leftover restlessness and adrenaline of the day.”

He shook his head.  “I’m attached.  You know that.”

“It wouldn’t mean anything.  You know that.”

“It would to me.”

She sighed.  “Should I go find some other hapless gentleman?”

“If you like.  I wouldn’t mind catching up, though, without the chaos of everything getting in the way.”

“If I stay, will you stop peeking at that laptop of yours?”

“I have to keep tabs on things.”

She shook her head, then shifted position draping herself into the space next to him, head on his shoulder, leg against his.  There wasn’t anything to it, no intention or anything, and her attention was clearly elsewhere, but that was the kind of person she was.  Especially after a couple drinks.

Larry Bristow laughed at something.

A slightly strained laugh, like he’s trying to inject the humor into things by force.

Larry was short, haircut simple but tidy, parted, lifted up at the brow.  He’d worn a blazer with a t-shirt, but his clothes had been torn and taken the brunt of a tide of centipede blood, as had his slacks.  The man had been able to change his pants and t-shirt, but hadn’t had a replacement blazer.  It looked better, him wearing a t-shirt.  It looked better.  His body was a bit muscular, a bit padded.

The best he’d ever look, maybe.

Durocher, by contrast, hadn’t changed her clothes- a black lace top that was probably meant for someone a bit larger around the chest.  It worked for her, on the same level that let her lounge beside Ray so casually.  Her hair was a bit shaggy, by accident rather than by design, the upper edge of her ichor-stained top sagged perilously low across her chest, and her dress, a lighter material, had more of the blue-black stains that caught normal light a bit like there was a blacklight.  She’d kicked off her sandals and the strapping of one of those sandals was being idly toyed with by her toes.  She’d washed off her face, hair, arms, and legs, but had done nothing about the clothes; the metallic and ammonia-like tang of the insect blood hung around her as a perverse sort of perfume.

More like a wild animal than a person, in many ways.  Here, in a bar, late at night, the group of them gathered, her slightly inebriated, tired self was akin to a tiger stretched out in a sunbeam.  The claws so easily protruded as she stretched.  A hand flexed, multiple joints popping.  A long thumbnail had been split in two, cuticle to fingertip, blood crusting the gap, and she examined it.

“You’re stronger,” Ray said.

“I sure hope so.  All that time away.”

“Seems like every time you go away, you get twice as strong.  Anything interesting come of this trip?”

“Yeah,” she said, and she smiled about as wide as was possible, while her gaze was vacant, like her mind was very far away or she was looking at something that wasn’t in that bar.  “We got bored.  We went into its den.”

“Of a primeval?”

She nodded, still smiling, gaze unfocused but generally aimed at her thumbnail.  Her gaze clarified, and she met Ray’s eyes.  “Itty bitty one.  Type seven-E, about.  Complex.”

“Complex?”

“The locals were wondering where their local goddess got off to.  My suspicion is that it found her or she went after it.  They got embroiled in a battle to the death, and it subsumed her.  Bit of goddess mixed in with a carrion beast from aeons before aeons existed.”

The seven-E was a shorthand, initially joking, that Durocher had started to take seriously.  Elephants.  Each E was about six and a half tons of mass.  At seven E, a little over forty five tons.

A sliver of primeval with the mass of a bull could kill a lot of groups of practitioner.  Primevals sat comfortably at a tier where gods, angels, demons, and the highest spirits dwelt.  Things that could be contained, but never truly defeated.

Ray put up a hand.  She looked at it, bewildered.

“You know what a high five is,” he told her.

“I feel like decades have passed,” she said, grunting as she sat up.  She gave him a high five.  “I want to get high, get drunk, drag some guy back to my den so I can demolish the hardest parts of them with the softest parts of me-”

Luisa Crowe choked on her drink.  Musser laughed.

“I’m noticing you use the same terminology for your lair and the lair of the beast you were hunting,” Alexander commented.

“I have no comment on that specific coincidence,” Durocher said.  “Some people ask not to be bothered until they’ve had their coffee.  Well, I don’t want to be bothered until I’ve had my vices and deciphered my new find.”

“I don’t know if I should feel sorry for this hypothetical guy you’re dragging back to your den, or if I should be envious,” Alexander said.  He leaned forward to stub out a cigarette.  Alexander wasn’t local, but he was at peace here.  Mellowing out after a triumphant day.

“Not hypothetical, Alex,” Raymond said.  “Ree gets what she wants.”

“I want to study my new find but I won’t be able to think straight until I’ve had a bit of what I’ve been missing all this time.”

“All this time?” Raymond asked.  “It’s been less than a year.”

“In a land before time.”

“Isn’t that a movie?” Larry asked.

“And a place beyond defined physical boundaries.”

“That’s not a movie,” Larry said.

“Make it,” Musser said.  “I have some funds if you need startup.”

“At a high markup,” Larry retorted.  “No, no thank you.  And I’d have to move, just when I’m getting things underway in Winnipeg.”

“Too bad,” Musser said.  “I’ve been looking for a creative project.  “Luisa?”

“Only if I get a part in the film,” Luisa told him.

They were all so different.  Raymond wanted to relax, but he wouldn’t feel secure until everything had been checked over.  The Deus Ex Machina they had defeated and captured was still in holding, being filechecked, and the power would have to be parceled out.  Or, better yet, Raymond would work out a system to ensure that each person got something equivalent in power.  Trying to butcher something like that into its individual pieces was a task.

Musser and Luisa looked like they held themselves a bit above this space, and may never have normally come to a bar like this.  Musser was well-dressed, his clothes and accessories expensive.  The dynamic there was almost entirely the family he came from.  His dad had delegated him to act on behalf of the family, and Musser had been happy to get a chance to escape.  Even if this wasn’t his scene, he was prolonging going back home where he’d war with brothers over the imminent turnover of the family, and now that he was here, weariness was softening him around the edges, enough that he could fit into the conversation, instead of being upright and off to the side.

Luisa Crowe wouldn’t stick around, for entirely different reasons.  She’d become a mother young.  She had to get back for the kids.  Her entire life was divided into stark roles.  That she was relaxing here was a thing she was doing, that would have no relevance at all to her place in their dynamic.  Or her lack of place, really.

Durocher was physically exhausted but mentally, she tended to come away from encounters with the scariest and largest Others energized, wanting more.  Just a week or two off of her latest hunt, she was willing and wanting to track down this Blue Heron Throne god, while Alexander did the legwork to bring them all together.  She would sleep only with the help of drugs, drink, and more physical exhaustion, and she would wake interested and alert, wanting to research.

The least human human any of them knew.

Larry barely seemed to care.  That was his strength and weakness.  Every challenge was something fleeting, before the next thing.  It took a lot to get him to flinch, and it had worked for him up until this point.  A danger when facing a god was that any respect afforded was power handed to the god, with a direct connection to the person giving that sentiment.  Larry and Durocher occupied a similar space in refusing to cede any ground.  It had mattered.  And now, for him, it was a night like so many others.  Drinking, being a touch boorish, wheedling for attention, respect, and gratification.

And Charles, he hadn’t even gone into the structure, he had only sent help and promised to look into rescue if they couldn’t leave.  But they’d invited the man to celebratory drinks.  Thoughtful and lost in thought.  He was hard to get to know, and much of that had to be done not by reaching out or studying him, but by studying what he offered and what he asked, when he finally decided what he could ask that might be a good question.  Seeking validation and respect in the opposite way to how Larry did.  Too subtle, instead of too forced.

“Charles,” Larry said.  “What would your role be, if we collaborated to make a film?”

“Ah, well, you know I’m a crook,” Charles said.  “I could supply actors and actresses. Others.”

“Don’t discount the crookedness.  The closer you get to high society, the more you realize how many of those are there,” Musser said.  “Crooks make things happen, because systems are so broken and convoluted that they logjam, otherwise.”

“I’m not that kind of crook, and I don’t have any desire to be a part of high society.”

“What’s wrong with you?” Larry asked.

Charles looked bewildered.  “I mean I’m not a threat, I’m willing to help but… I know how cutthroat practitioner society can be, and I imagine hollywood or any other high society is the same.  I’d rather keep my throat intact.”

Bristow laughed again, forced.  “What about being wealthy?”

“No.  Seems like a hassle.  That’s not very high on my list of priorities.”

“I wonder if you just broke poor Larry’s brain,” Durocher said.

There was light laughter.

Charles wore a rumpled men’s overshirt over a black tee, was relatively clean shaven, considering they’d had a long day, and didn’t really style his hair.  The man was quiet, and looked simultaneously older and younger than the group here.  Chronologically younger, maybe, but he had an attitude and atmosphere that conveyed more.  A bit more melancholy.

Which seemed to work for some.  As others had come through the bar, two ladies had started up conversations with Charles.  Two had done so with Alexander, and none with Larry.  Raymond hadn’t received offers either, but his proximity to Durocher was probably a factor in that, as was the t-shirt with the cartoon character on it, and the headphones he had around his neck.  Musser sitting next to Luisa probably played a part in the man only getting one offer; on another night, without the false signaling, he would have beat them all.

“What do you want?” Musser asked Charles.

“If you’d asked me a year ago, my answer might have been the same as Larry here,” Charles said, eyes downcast, gaze sinking into his drink.

“I’ve got a little trinket for time travel in my collection,” Larry said.  “Given a great deal of time, I could maybe finagle getting a question back to you.  Question is, is it worth using it?”

“Hush,” Luisa said, smiling.

“Not by me.  I’m a minor player, very much on purpose,” Charles said, his voice taking on a bit of a grumble, until he sat up straighter.  “There’s a more comfortable territory that a practitioner can sit in, no greed, no ambition, not so minor they’re vulnerable, not so big they have others wanting their position.  I’ve tried to stay in that general area, as of late.”

“There’s something wrong with you,” Larry said.

“Part of flying under the radar might mean me leaving before there’s too much attention pointed my way.”

“Stay, stay!” Alexander said.  “Really.  I’m sure you have stories to tell.  Or anecdotes to share.  These things are important.”

“I’m not sure what I could share.  I’ve- you guys know my history.  But actually sharing parts of it…”

“Share,” Alexander said.  “We’re open minded.  War stories, perhaps?  First big wake-up call.  First Other that was out of your league, or closest to being out of your league.”

“This sounds like a trick question,” Durocher murmured.

There were some chuckles.

Alexander leaned forward.  “I’ll start.  Before our recent machine god, the blue heron on his throne, it would have been a Hangmaiden.  This would be your specialty, Larry.  Or Mrs. Crowe.”

“I’ve seen two,” Larry said, more serious.  “A Fisherwoman and a straight Aranaea Hangmaiden.  Yeah.”

Luisa Crowe shook her head.

“Lucky,” Larry said.

“I stay out of trouble for the most part.”

“One Other, three forms,” Alexander explained.  “They hew close to Fate.  The maiden, the matron, the crone.  Each form has different abilities.  One to do the luring, one to trap, one to reveal the spider and do the devouring.”

“They often hang around clubs,” Larry said.  “Or anywhere people go to find dates.  Always glimpsed out of the corner of your eye, taking a lot of time to pick their targets.  They get in close and then ensnare.”

“She was strong,” Alexander said.  “Love at first sight, when she wanted it.  And that’s dangerous when you’re an Augur, and you See a lot.  She knew that.  She made a sport of hunting us.”

“Brave,” Charles said.  “Stupid.”

“She got away with it for a long time,” Alexander said, his expression serious.  “Invited herself over.  Flirted but put off consummation.  Her ‘snare’ was to find things valuable and important to you and mark them.  Keepsakes, things from childhood, projects you were neglecting because you were so infatuated with her.  A childhood stuffed toy in the back of a closet, now festooned with biting spiders and throbbing clusters of eggs.  Cobwebs growing on that pile of paperwork in your study you can’t even bear to look at.  A letter from a first love has handwriting get more and more spidery until it grows legs and crawls from the page.”

“And signs, I’d guess?” Luisa asked.

Alexander nodded.  “Every hint she can give you without you pulling away is another tether, tying you to the fate she wants to hand you.  Dreams about being bound, for example.  Or they’ll even unnerve or reveal glimpses of their true self to neighbors, family, and friends, with the intent that you’ll ignore those hints and be drawn deeper into it.  In the end, she reveals her third form, and it’s half-woman, half-spider, and you look around, realize you haven’t eaten in five days, you’re weak, and you couldn’t go in your kitchen if you did have the strength, because your apartment is filled with dense webs and small biting spiders.”

“You survived,” Raymond said.  He lifted his beer.  “Cheers.”

“My cousin passing gave me the opportunity to lead the family.  Ambition won out.”  Alexander clinked his glass against Raymond’s.  “She had my heart on a platter, for all intents and purposes.  So I told her I didn’t care.  I wish I hadn’t had to kill her.  I would have liked to question her.  In the aftermath I found a trove of little trinkets and scraps from other Augurs she hunted.  I could have gotten more.  I carved her eight eyes out, used the last one today, for our machine god, as a matter of fact.”

“Feeling melancholy about that?” Charles asked, staring down into his drink.

Alexander smiled.  “Weirdly so.  The end of the post-Scarlet chapter of my life.”

“Her name was Scarlet?” Larry asked.  “That’s a tell right there.”

“In my defense, I was a teenager,” Alexander said.  “And that’s my war story.  The one that almost got me.”

“Raymond?  I’m curious,” Musser said.

“It’s embarrassing,” Raymond said, dropping his eyes.  “You know the saying, the brighter the light, the sharper the shadow?”

There were a few nods.

“I got a tip from one of the men who taught me.  A student of one of his colleagues went down into the digital aether and didn’t surface.  I knew I should be wary, if it was going to be easy, they would have gone after him themselves.  Navigating a foreign technomancer’s systems… it’s like entering a dungeon.  Winding corridors, spaces, folders, subsystems with their own purposes, security… and other hazards that move in when you have any sufficiently dark, empty space.”

“And then you have your man,” Durocher said.

“The target, the apprentice who didn’t end up coming up for air.  Crazed, on edge, and very familiar with the space.  I was so fixated on those things, and so nervous, I missed a step when turning on the metaphorical lights.  I cast myself in sharp shadow, and unbeknownst to me, something seized on my digital silhouette.  I plumbed the rest of the depths, I seized systems, evicted residents, gathered data that I could sell.  My loot from this digital dungeon, if you want to call it that.  Dealt with the apprentice.  All in all, about forty five real seconds passed.”

“And the silhouette?” Musser asked.

“Had enough of me and my life to emulate anything and everything it wanted.  Passwords, security, contact information for everyone I cared enough about to keep in touch with.  It knew my history, the music I liked… and I’d been careful.  A lot of that was air-gapped, or obfuscated.  Didn’t matter.  What it didn’t get or decipher in those forty-five seconds, it got in the next few days, through agents it hired or unwitting people who answered a voice that sounded like mine on the phone.  It started to materialize physically.”

“Doppleganger?” Charles asked.

“No, not exactly.  Data vampire, more like.  Started applying for name changes, creating new bank accounts and moving funds, using my reputation and my word to create the image of a new person with a new name.  If what it was doing wasn’t enough, the time I had to spend in there, chasing after it, looking for digital fingerprints, seeing if it had laid groundwork to pop back up again in the future… that did damage of its own.  Hector was an infant.”

“This wasn’t all that long ago, then,” Alexander said.

“One stupid mistake, cost me months,” Raymond said.  “I hit the big red button nineteen times. The big red button is-”

“Nuke everything nearby,” Alexander said.

Raymond nodded.  He looked frustrated.  “Except everything nearby was a good chunk of my life.  I thought this would be a good diversion.  A bit of beer money, pot.  And then… so much empty space.  So many ways things can be streamlined, or needs can be filled.”

“Raymond’s work is getting international attention,” Durocher said.  “Lords of Paris, London, and Moscow.  They’re pleased and they’re willing to pay if he’ll give them more.”

There was some cheering at that, some excitement.  Raymond protested all of it, as glasses clinked.

“I don’t even know if I want to pursue it.”

Charles met Ray’s eyes, nodding.

“You’re mad if you don’t,” Larry said.

“I want to curl up with my wife and kid and watch cartoons.  Put Heck to bed, then smoke up and bore my poor wife about technology, and pretend to be annoyed or bored while she tells me about teaching kids.”

“A life that stops at that sounds like it could be more of a bullet to dodge than the identity vampire,” Larry joked.

There were a few chuckles at that, more from Larry’s friends.

“My war story isn’t an Other,” Musser said, “Practitioner.  Stupid fucking kid.  Became my apprentice on a trial basis.  Wanted to know more, faster.  The more he pushed, and the more he disrespected me, the more I slowed him down.  My hope was that he’d start listening, or he’d match my pace.”

“You don’t want to hand an apprentice the keys to the proverbial kingdom in the first little while anyway,” Alexander said.

“Yeah,” Musser agreed.

“Wait, was this Yellowston?” Larry asked.  “Wondered what happened to that kid.”

“This happened,” Musser said.

“He kept giving me the stink eye, that one time I was over,” Larry said.

“He gave me two years of stink eye.  Doesn’t help, when you’re trying to make a bid to be head of the family, being ground down from above, sniped at from the sides, and you’re getting crap from below.  He never did shape up.  He snapped instead.  Turned on me.”

“Was he smart about it?” Alexander asked.

“He almost got me.  I tasked him with drawing a diagram.  Standard grunt work for an apprentice, but you do have to be careful.  I did the intricate runework in the center, tasked him with the rest.  Easily two hours of putting chalk to floor.  The design at the end was thirty feet across.  It was a major project, and the biggest I’d given him.  I thought he’d be eager enough to move forward and move up that he wouldn’t make mistakes.    He put intentional flaws in the border.  Aimed at the lectern where I was prepared to stand.”

“You spotted it?” Durocher asked.

“I’m betting it was the human element,” Charles said.  “He gave something away in body language.”

“Humans are frequently the weakest part of any system,” Raymond said.

Nerd,” Durocher whispered.

Musser shook his head.  “Maybe he did give something subtle away.  But for me… it was supposed to be symmetrical.  But as I walked around the room, looked out over the diagram for anything obvious, something felt off.  I lit a candle and cast a shadow to check.  With an even number of studs at the border, the shadow should have cut between two details, stretched directly through the middle of the diagram, and passed through two matching details on the other side.  It was lopsided.  From there, other things jumped out at me.”

“Imagine if you’d been the type to never pay mind to chalkwork again, after teaching it to your apprentices,” Larry said.   “You have to stay brushed up on the basics.”

“That was a factor, I suppose,” Musser said.  “He rotated the exterior border, moving the chalk on the floor to point it at me, while pushing power into the diagram.  I asserted my ownership over the space, stopped it just in time.  Pushed it back toward him.  He broke at the last second, ran, and I put my fist into his throat.  While he sputtered and choked, I pointed the diagram at him and let him have what he planned for me.  Now he’s a stain on the wall, a vestige of his former self, aware of things but… dim.”

“You should go right home and let him go, Musser,” Luisa said.  Her expression was troubled.

“I don’t like to discard resources.  I could have use of the vestige later.”

“He doesn’t deserve that.”

“The powers that be do like eyes traded for eyes,” Larry intoned, looking at nobody in particular.

Luisa looked troubled, like she was going to say something, but she was interrupted.

“What do you even say to the boy’s family?” Alexander asked.

“That he made an error, he paid the price.  I noted it looked intentional, suggested there might be justifiable reason for retaliation or sanction if we looked at his phone and did some investigating, and found he’d been given orders.”

“Now you know an investigator, trained in these matters,” Alexander said.

“I already know.  Keeping the who, when, where, and why up my sleeve until later lets me eventually re-establish contact with the Yellowston family.”

“Smart,” Alexander said.  “I don’t think I’d have it in me to hold back on revenge.”

“You have to, don’t you?” Larry asked.  “To make the revenge effective?  Make it so that no matter what they do, even if they escape the specific fate you have planned, they’re still ruined.”

“I prefer to look forward just enough to ensure my fates are inescapable,” Alexander answered.

“Do you have one, Charles?  A close call?  A war story?”

“Mine were human,” Charles said.  “Well… technically, it was a revenant.  She came after us, licked with flame like she’d just been set on fire.  This was… I was barely over sixteen, I think.  A gang in Toronto was on the rise, and whenever they got stumped or ran into something strange, they’d come to me.  I’d tell them, hm, you know, I’m thinking of one particular asshole, he’s a real monster.  If you want to leave an indelible mark in their minds and hearts, this would be just the bastard.”

“Bogeyman?”

“Or a vestige with a bit of elemental nestled inside.  Or a ghoul, if I want the crime scene cleaned up.”

“You’re a scary man, Charles.”

“I was scarier then, even if I didn’t realize it.  Revenant came tearing through.  Horror movie stuff, custom endings for each of us, starting with the lowest rank guys, then moving up.  Attacked our business, our alliances, stock, money, revealed secrets.  Crucified one guy with rebar she’d hooked up to a heat source, took the bones out of a woman’s arms and legs and left her in a shallow hole in the rain, to drown.  She had a vendetta in the way only the vengeful undead can.  And the thing that got me was… we had no idea who it was.”

“Each death is a hint,” Alexander said.  “But you know that.”

“Yeah.  The revenants need to stay anchored in this world.  They do it with keepsakes, which means you’ve got to look for the places they hit before they start coming after people.  Reach the start of the trail before they get to the last of you.  And we couldn’t.  The guys I was working with cooperated, I told them to investigate and they did.  We contacted police, we were everywhere.  We narrowed it down to a certain neighborhood, a select few people, and couldn’t get any further than that.”

“How’d you get out of it?” Raymond asked.

“I didn’t.  She got the third, second, and the top guy.  I pulled out all of my tricks.  A few of my monsters, and she still got me.  Decided I wasn’t directly involved enough to die, so she’d leave it up to fate.  Handcuffed me in the electrical room of an abandoned warehouse with a lot of the evidence.  Cops eventually came, and I got my first stint in prison.”

“What’s the moral to this story?” Ray asked.

“If you’re going to kill, don’t kill with prejudice?” Musser asked.  “Just ticks them off.”

“You say that but what happened to the Yellowston apprentice?” Larry asked.

“He offed himself, really.  There was justice in it.”

“Or don’t kill at all?” Luisa asked.

“There is no police force governing us.  We’re still, generally speaking, in a wild west of practice,” Alexander said.  “If you don’t act with prejudice, you’re setting precedent.”

“They were civilians,” she said, her voice was sharper.  “Innocents.”

“And Charles wasn’t involved.  The revenant gave him a pass, pretty much,” Musser said.  “Don’t blame the man.”

“I won’t argue with all of you here, me outnumbered.  Not after two beers.  Consider me thoroughly unimpressed.  Excuse me-” she said, her voice rising with that last bit, anything but polite.

“You’re leaving?” Larry sounded aghast.

“I’m using the facilities.”

Luisa navigated her way to the back of the building.

“Don’t go killing her anytime soon or you’ll have another vengeful dead to deal with,” Alexander joked.

Larry laughed.  “You were asking about the moral, Ray.  I think the moral is that Charles deserves a drink.  If she’d had a bit more fire in her, he wouldn’t be here with us today, to regale us with… what was it?  Petitioners, edicts, and covenants?”

“Among others,” Charles replied.  “No drink for me, thanks.  If I lose half my power for the next while by being gainsaid, I won’t have much of anything, unlike some of you.”

“Drinking and keeping to your word is a cultivated skill, Charles,” Larry said.  “You train it.”

“If you can trust him on anything it’s that,” Musser said, smiling.

Alexander leaned back. “Seeing him tonight I wonder if it’s his rule of discourse.  If you’re always sloppy with your word and a bit inebriated, it might blunt the impact.”

“Blunts the power too,” Musser said.

“Is this how you see me?” Larry asked.

There was more laughter.

Charles was staring into his drink, and he looked morose.

Ray nudged his leg with a toe.

Charles looked up.  “I made mistakes.  Should have paid more attention to what I was enabling.  They deserved those ends, more or less.”

“Don’t be a downer, Charles,” Larry said.  “The only mistake that matters is the one that ends you.  The rest are chances to learn.”

Luisa emerged a bit too fast to have actually used the facilities.  Her face was wet, like she’d rinsed it.  She paused at the bar.  Alexander watched her.

“Charles,” Larry said.  “When we were mid-job, you mentioned these special Others.”

“Loose category,” Charles said.

“Are we really going to talk shop?” Musser asked.

“Please!” Alexander cut in.  “Unless Marie wants to share her horror story?”

She shook her head.  “None I think worthy of sharing that you don’t already know the details of.”

“Then I’ll share what I know,” Charles told Larry.  “Others, bound by rules, get certain leeway.  If they must ask questions or must do certain things, like a revenant having a very specific path laid out before it, that’s… in our analogy of a bank heist, it’s the drill.  It’s more solid, it has more force.”

“Can that apply to people, then?” Larry asked.

“Certainly does,” Alexander answered.  “Practitioners as well.”

Luisa returned, taking her seat, but her phone started ringing almost immediately.

Alexander, situated so Musser was between him and Luisa, sat back, his eyes flashing gold as he turned on the Sight.

Raymond, too, opened his laptop.  Checking again.  God still bound, and the nearby phone call… yeah.

“Yes, okay.  Thank you,” Luisa said.  She hung up.  “I’m going to go.”

“What a shame,” Musser told her.  “Back to the kids?”

“That’s the intent.  Good work today, everyone.  Raymond?”

“Your dues will be delivered soon.”

“We need to do this more,” Alexander said.  “Did you notice the catch in our stories?”

“Is this important?  I’d like to return to my children,” Luisa said.

“It’s that we’re very strong when we’re united.  It’s when we’re alone and interacting with dangerous forces, be they practitioner, Other, or man, that we find ourselves at risk.  Which is a roundabout way of saying I’ve enjoyed this, more than I’ve enjoyed myself in a long while, and we should do it again.”

“No hard feelings if you can’t get away from the kids,” Raymond said.  Alexander arched an eyebrow at him.

“These things get harder and harder,” Luisa said.

She wasn’t talking about getting away from the kids.

“The age difference is too much for a playdate, isn’t it?” Raymond asked.

Luisa nodded.

“Take care.”

“I will.  You too, Raymond.  Give an extra kiss to-”

“Hector.  Or Heck, affectionately.”

Luisa nodded.  “Kiss Heck for me, then.  Bye all.”

They said their goodbyes.  Luisa pulled on jacket and scarf, then ducked out into the cold.

“I suppose we scared her off,” Alexander said.  “That call wasn’t from her family.”

“She asked the bar to call,” Raymond said.  “It’s fine.  Let her go, let her enjoy her family.”

“She’s a resource that may yet be tapped,” Musser said.  Larry nodded.

“But for what?” Alexander asked.

Musser shrugged.

“You’re lined up to become head of the biggest family here,” Alexander told him.

“And you’re already heads of your own families, or once-apprentices, now free,” Musser said.  “I have no designs, outside of silly ideas for movies or other vanity projects.”

Larry laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles.  “Carry on?  Tell me about these others?”

“Or maybe I should take over,” Musser said.  “To keep Larry from going on at length about his passions.”

Larry laughed.

“Still awake?” Raymond asked Durocher.

“I’m overdue on sleep too,” she admitted, reclining in that tiger-in-a-sunbeam way, arms draped out over the back of the cushioned bench.  “Somehow that rarely make the list of priorities.”

“You tend to fold drugs into the mix.  Tranquilizers.”

“I do.  You’re a very smart man, Ray.  I don’t suppose you can oblige?” she murmured.

“Be careful,” he said, reaching into his bag.  As he was bent over, he also flipped up his laptop, checking.  The god was still bound, security was still within normal levels.

He straightened and passed her a packet.  She went to take it, and he held onto it.”

“In exchange, tell me about how this place was laid out?” Raymond asked.  “With the god-primeval?”

“If I must,” she told him.  She laid a hand on his cheek, staring at him.

“I’m attached, Marie, and you’re tipsy.”

“I’m not looking at you like that.  Don’t worry.  You’re quieter tonight than usual.”

“Scary business.  I’ve got people to go back to.”

“I could never do that.”

“I would fear for what your child’s life would be like, if and when you were to have one.  I’ll face down a god for the sake of my intellectual curiosity, get some power I can hand down to Hector when the time comes.”

“You can work with London, Moscow, and the other powerhouses.  That’s security and power surer than anything else.”

“You talk so casually about facing down monsters bigger and more enduring than dragons.  I’ll think on it.  For now, tell me about this space the complex seven-E was in.”

Durocher sighed.  “Netherlands.  Veluwe.  As mankind grows, its territory shrinks.  It held onto a pocket, accessed by taking a certain path…”

🟂

Now

Alexander exhaled a cloud of smoke through his open car window.  The inside of the car was hazy, and glimmers of the scene of years past were cast out into the smoke.

Outside the car, in the woods, there were no crickets, no animal sounds, no sounds of traffic.  The only noise was smoke rubbing against smoke and producing whispers.

“Accessed by taking a certain path.  The way is harsh and troubled.  The bog asphodel decorates some areas.  Look for a bushel.  Seven on the left side, three on the right.  Then walk past.  The peat bog will swallow you.  Let it, and wait four minutes.  You’ll drop into a deep cavern of thick mud and bog plants.”

“How do you bind such an entrance?  Especially to- you can call on it?”

“Her.  We sank figurines into the muck around the portal.  Figures for each of the seven ages of mankind.  Others are doing more.  But yes, I can call on her.  She’s not very big, only a seven-E, but I think she’s very pretty.”

“It’s hard to imagine, the way the others have looked.”

“Oh, it’s not so different from that.  No solid form, just everything you’d hope to see in a carrion-eating animal, and then some, twisting through itself in a way that’s never the same from moment to moment.  But it’s got an elegance you wouldn’t expect to see in something that devours the dead.”

“It’s that goddess, I bet.”

Even taking his time, he couldn’t keep it alive forever.  He’d burned his cigarette down to the filter.  He stubbed it out on the car mirror.

He saved one from every pack he smoked, and he liked to smoke in important meetings and negotiations.  He kept meticulous notes, using practices that recorded things for him, and the cigarettes were a backup.  He changed his brand every year, which helped with keeping track.

Eyes half-lidded, one arm extended out the window, still holding onto the smashed cigarette butt, he picked up his phone and dialed.

“I heard you had a bit of trouble, Alexander.”

“Word travels fast.  I don’t call for the commentary.”

Alexander discarded of the butt, and made a one-handed cut of a deck.  He checked, cut, checked again.

“What do you need?”

“Veluwe national forest.  I want a hold on certain action.”

“You’re going to make me send some poor apprentice into the deep woods to get eaten alive by bugs?”

“A peat bog, not a forest.  And don’t send anyone you value.  It might be better if they aren’t practitioners at all.  Just make sure they follow instructions without fail.”

“What instructions?”

“Find flowers, they’re called bog asphodel.  They can have red or orange fruit at the right time of year.  I have no idea if this is that time of year, over there.  Seven on the left side, three on the right.  They walk between those points, in until they start to sink.  They should let themselves sink, grope in the mud until they find something.  Figurines were soaked into the muck.  I want one, but failing that, I want it gone.”

“At the time of your choosing.  I get the impression this is more complicated.”

“It is.  Don’t leave a trail between you and whoever you send.”

“Expensive, Alexander.”

“I can pay it.”

“Then I’ll send someone.  Soon?”

“ASAP.”

“I’ll arrange it.  I’ll contact you shortly when they’re positioned.  You know the drill.  Text when you want us to act.  If it’s not ‘cancel’, we treat it as a cue to go.”

“Thank you.”

Alexander hung up.

He lit up another cigarette.  Not one of his ones from the past, this time.

Just a regular cigarette.

Sitting in his car like this, figuring out his next moves to get the desired results, it felt like he was young again.  Still learning under his uncle, still doing the private investigation and petty criminal work.  He picked up a collection of large photographs, each nearly as large as the folder he’d been keeping them in.  He peered at them through the haze of smoke.

Raymond was in his office.  The meeting between Raymond and the major powers was over.  Raymond was still alive.  He was checking things on his computer.

It was so tempting to target Raymond in this.  Zed would be the easiest target, if he wanted to utterly destroy Ray.  Zed was…

He checked.

Zed and Brie, sitting on the steps outside the west entrance, Brie on a step below Zed, Zed behind her, his arms around her.  Zed had a bruise on his face.  Brie had been scuffed up, and one of those scuffs interfered with her binding.  A few waifs from the Devouring Song were lingering in the area.  Zed and Brie ignored them for the time being.

He touched a pen he kept in his dash.  It was no larger than an ordinary pen, but it might have weighed fifteen pounds.  It twitched in his hand.

Defenses were down, they were still being careful, but not careful enough.

If he had it in his mind to bring the full bearing of his wrath down on their heads, then he could.  A stroke of the pen, to turn that vulnerability into a critical flaw.  Brie would break, and the devouring song would be free, Zed would be at the epicenter, close enough to be pulled into it.

And Ray would be destroyed.  Alexander would have to act while Ray was still reeling.

His preparation with Durocher’s peat bog was a multi-layered attack.  On its own, if he were to use it, he would be putting Durocher and Ray at a disadvantage.  Durocher because she had taken responsibility for it.  Raymond because Alexander could let word slip that he knew and had exploited it because of Ray.  Minor, but it was something, and a furious Durocher was something to behold.

But it was a critical tool in case he ended up facing other enemies.

Raymond was the enemy that had the most focus.  Raymond hadn’t let him take his school back.

He checked on his other enemies.  Bristow- the picture was distorted, stretched out, like a misprint.  He tossed it onto the passenger seat.  He’d had to push hard to force that outcome, but he’d wanted it to be his.

Bristow’s followers.  Clementine was with the other Aware.  Most of them.  Kevin was off on his lonesome.  Ted Havens was gone.

He exhaled cigarette smoke he’d been holding onto, directly onto the black and white photograph.  He turned it over, while it was still obscured, and touched his hand to it.

“Inscription,” he said.

The smoke cleared.  There was writing on the back.

Clementine Robertjon and the Sargent Hall Aware discuss how they weren’t truly themselves.

He gave it a shake, and the inscription disappeared partway through.  The scene changed slightly too.

He tossed that onto the passenger seat, where it joined Bristow’s.

Sargent Hall.  The picture was distorted.  Another misprint, but it was more like two photographs had been taken in quick succession, or one photograph taken in the midst of an earthquake.

He couldn’t use too many calls for inscription, and he already had some information from Wye.  The residents were agitated and didn’t know why.

It would get worse before it got better.  But they lived there, and there they’d remain.  Low rent had its own traction, even if Bristow was gone.

Putting that photo away, he had another glimpse of the one with Raymond.  Raymond looked into the camera, so to speak, meeting Alexander’s eyes, even though he barely seemed to realize it.  Durocher stood beside him.

There was a faint growling, as if from far away, but from something very large.

Augury didn’t like Durocher.  Watching her by any kind of Sight was like swimming in shark infested waters.  There was no guarantee the bite would come immediately, but it would come eventually.  Even Shellie had mimicked the effect while pretending to be Durocher, apparently.

He didn’t want to do more than dip his toes into those waters, and Raymond could retaliate if he didn’t like being watched.  Not that he was really that personality type.  More likely, he’d retreat behind defenses.

Alexander withdrew, putting the photo aside and turning it face down.

He’d act soon.  It was a payback of sorts to make Raymond twist in the wind.  He knew retaliation was coming, and he was an anxious, introspective man.  Driving him into his own mind where worry could eat at him would be fair spice for Alexander’s retaliation.

A few things remained True.  Alexander had a seat of prominence in the building.  Raymond could wall in that space with concrete and Alexander would still belong there.  A vote was easier because it required a half dozen to a dozen nudges.  But he would find his way.  That was the guarantee the demesne provided, its true purpose, beyond being just a study or a place to work in.

He’d then have to tap resources.  New staff.  New structure.  Lawrence had wanted to shrink the school, distilling it down to its key, loyal, and effective players.  Alexander would have to find a way that made it feel natural and right that he resumed power.  Pushing Raymond over the edge would be a punishment of sorts, and it would be Just.

Next photograph.  Nicolette lay in bed, fast awake.  Seth was in the room, sitting so he could look out the window.  He looked diminished.

“Having doubts about your chosen path?” he asked the photograph.

Cigarette smoke swirled around it, hazy within the car.  As a whorl passed over the picture, the image changed.  She was looking at him.  Seth was looking at her, like she’d said something.

One curl of smoke later, she lay with her back to him.

The trio from Kennet had played a big part in stealing his victory out from under him.  He picked out a photograph.  Taken by Seth during the first day of school, it now showed them inside the school, instead of just outside the doors.  They were in the woods, talking to various Others.  Goblins, the many-eyed god-begotten, the nightmare, the opossum companion.  Some he’d seen in his visit to Kennet, others he hadn’t.

“Inscription.”  He exhaled the word with a mouthful of smoke, washing over the photograph.

The Kennet trio send friendly Others home.

He waited, studying the photograph for details.  The inscription was telling.  The phrasing.  Not unsummoning, not releasing.  Just… sending them home.

After so much fighting, tension, and bitterness, so many were relieved the worst was over.  Bristow was gone, and even to those who had liked or loved Bristow, however that was possible, there was no denying that things were stable again.

Now people rested.  They let their guards down, they unsummoned Others.  They were all on the same page, they thought.  All tired, all relieved to have stability.  It helped to put enmities aside.

Alexander gave the photo another look.

The Others were gone.  Only some scattered local goblins and the opossum Other remained.

Lucille Ellingson was walking away, rubbing at her arm.  Going for a walk in the woods?

They were too unguarded.  All of them.

It’s my school and I have eyes everywhere.

And Alexander had, with purpose, chosen to stagger out his moves.  He’d taken his time, conserved his energy, and let them exhaust themselves fighting each other.

Picking up the heavy pen again, he touched it to the photograph.

Black ink bled into the photograph, taking on three dimensions in the scene.

“Abandonment,” Alexander said.  “A connection severed.”

The ink took on a sharp smell, then began to eat through the photograph.  He tossed it aside before it could burn his fingers.

Done.

This was the time to strike, that he saved energy from.

Some of the most powerful practitioners and families in the world were strict with Raymond as they were because information was power, and Raymond had made it a project to disseminate and share information.  Taking the power of practice from textbooks and paper to the digital space.  The moment he suggested a stance, or looked as though he might withhold that kind of power from certain groups while supporting others, the balance was shattered.  He could play kingmaker if he chose.

It didn’t matter that Raymond had little interest in such.  It mattered that he could.

Alexander would destroy the man, by suggesting impropriety to the right ears.

He dialed.

The line clicked.

There was only a heavy silence on the other end.  No buzz or static in the line, no disruptions in the signal.  Nothing.  As if the phone was off.

“Alexander Belanger,” he announced himself.

The weight of the silence on the other end was heavier, somehow.  Like there was an implicit ‘we know’.

“Raymond Sunshine defied established order and precedent when he didn’t hand the school back to me.  I have a claim.  It’s concern-”

The line clicked again.  He looked at the phone.

Call ended.

He had the sense that if he’d upset them, he’d already know it.

Maybe it was too trivial for their tastes.  They would discuss it internally, hand it to certain people lower in the internal structure, and it would make Raymond Sunshine’s week far worse.

There.  Done.  Easy.

Ray had to know what he was doing.

This would be a taste.

The bell that hung from Alexander’s rear-view mirror dinged.

He had to reach up to touch it and silence it.

The heavy, cricket-less, wind-less silence pressed on, outside.

Only a few enemies remained unaccounted for.  A few out in these woods, like Lucy Ellingson, who was going for a walk, now severed from critical connections.  They wouldn’t renew.

If only he was in his office.  He’d have a better view than he had out his car window.

He climbed out, still smoking, and slammed the door behind him.

That chime hadn’t felt like a chime that fit the Kennet trio.  Too sharp, and too heavy.

One enemy remained unaccounted for, and he didn’t have a good photo of the man.

The world was see-through, if he wanted it to be.

The trees provided little cover.

Ted Havens ducked under a branch, rounded a copse of trees, and emerged from foliage.  He was unscathed, unlike so many others.

“Saw me coming?” Ted asked.  “That’s not usual.”

“We’ve met many times before, I’m sure.”

“Less than you’d think.  You, like Lawrence’s colleague Durocher, you kept out of the way.  As if you saw me coming and slipped away before I could do more than glimpse you.”

“What are your intentions?” Alexander asked.

“I don’t know.  But this feels like the most important place to be.”

“I’m touched.  To help me or to stop me?”

“I don’t know yet.  Why does it feel like you’re similar to me?”

“Because you have experience.  You can look to the past, and there’s more to your past than in many family lines, start to present.”

Ted nodded.

“I look forward.”

“Ah.  People are usually more shy about outright telling me these things.”

“There are loopholes.  Lawrence went to great lengths, behind the scenes, to keep all of you innocent.  He made it hard for details to stick in your mind.  You in particular might find that frustrating.”

“Deciding what memories and experiences to hold onto when a brain can only store so much was… it was difficult.  You’re right, I hate the idea of that being tampered with.”

“You do know that Bristow latching onto your idea about saving the world in the future, that was only bitterness, an effort to get people to care about his passing.”

“Yes.  But I think he would have come to believe in it with the right guidance.”

“You would have found it hard to guide while directly under his boot-heel, I think.  I’ll tell you now, I can’t do what he did and keep you innocent.  Not as easily.  I don’t think I’m your vision of a saved future.”

“I came to see.  Your eyes are too cold.”

Alexander pulled on his cigarette, then exhaled.  “The world is full of monsters, Mr. Havens.”

“I know, believe me.”

“Oh, I believe you know of some.  I just don’t think you know the extent of it.  You don’t want to, because then you might falter.”

“Could be.”

“Some of these monsters, despite deals and arrangements, rules set down from on high, they prey on people.  They steal children and butcher people who stray too far from civilization.  And they do it, they can do it, because of certain loopholes.  Dead men tell few tales, and the tales they do tell don’t reach the people that matter.  Leave no witnesses and the deed will be forgotten.  Some of them are very good at this.  The ones that aren’t have been pruned away.”

“This is your loophole, Alexander?  You intend to try and kill me?”

“Remove, not kill.  I made deal earlier.”

“A deal?”

“About a place outside of your reckoning.  By your own admission, you weren’t able to get a bead on Mrs. Durocher.”

“No.  Something about her always unnerved me.”

“Sisyphus,” Alexander said, pulling out his phone.  “I have another rock for you to push uphill.  Smaller, but complex.”

“What are you doing?”

“She caged one, Mr. Havens.  She toys with it, uses it.  And I…” Alexander touched a button.  “Am prepared to release it.  I have other countermeasures and plans.  You can try to fight me and stop me.  I don’t think it will go the way you wish.”

“I don’t believe it could be that easy to free a thing like that.”

“It isn’t.  It’s expensive.  But I see it as an investment.  By threatening this, I can give a dangerous man like you pause.”

“You can.”

“And I can, I think, rock you to your core, by telling you that if powers that be go looking for a way to stop or slow this thing, they might do what has worked before.  With someone who has achieved it before.  Ted Havens, the sequel.”

Faint emotion touched Ted’s face, as much as he tried to hide it.  Alexander could See through that too.

“It might take a nudge to get them to look at you, but it might not.  The powers that be over there are different from the ones here.  Just like how the people who condemned you in the Maritimes aren’t the same ones that hold sway here.  With my finger hovering over this message, ready to send a text, you stand on a precipice.  Will you risk doing it again?  Or condemning someone else to it?”

Something slight in Ted changed.

How many thousands or tens of thousands of years had he lived?  If all those years were placed in a chart, then the time he’d been free was slight, an imperceptible sliver or change.  That made for a lot of weight behind Ted, and little ahead of him. It was why Bristow found him so easy to snare.

“You believe me,” Alexander said.

Ted didn’t deny it.  “What are the options?”

“The first option is that you tell me everything I want to know, then die by your own hand.  The second option is that you Awaken fully to this world and swear undying fealty to me in the process.”

“You’d have me be a servant?”

“Right hand man.  Or die, if you think your character couldn’t withstand fealty.  I’ll take what Lawrence had, keep the items and people that are valuable and cooperative, and let the rest go free.  Unless you think you can get to me before my thumb can hit the button.”

Thirty paces separated them.  Trees obscured the view some, though Alexander’s Sight helped with that.

“What if giving someone like you, that is willing to do that, any information, power, or help is too much of a price?  What if I’d go back to that life?”

“Or risk someone else doing the same?” Alexander asked.  “Some poor man, woman, or child, who might get flung into similar predicaments?  To lose their mind and regain it again, to put their original self so far behind them that they can’t even imagine what that person might have been like?”

“Yeah,” Ted said, and the words were heavy.  He didn’t stand as tall as he had.  “I’d risk it.”

“Even if I sweetened the deal?  I have your diaries, Ted.  Retrieved from oblivion.  A glimpse of the man you once were.  Meaning given to the journey, rather than the end.”

Ted paused.

“I do.  I can’t lie to you, Ted.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Ted lied, but he diminished a fraction more.

“Then that brings us to option three,” Alexander replied.  He closed his eyes and opened them again, and they were gold.  “We fight.  I press the button early on in that fight.  Then you’ll try to beat me, get me to take it back or take measures.  Except it doesn’t work.”

“Why not?”

“Because I won’t lose the fight, Ted.  I’ve been anticipating having to deal with you since before you arrived.  Hindsight may be twenty-twenty, but it’s the people who look forward who win.”

Alexander’s eyes, gold, started to flake and peel.  They revealed a burnished red.

With each fallen flake and revealed bit of red, his vision took on a red tint.  He could see the entirety of Ted Havens, inside and out.

With his free hand, he drew his wand, and he tapped his pocket, before tapping his eye.

White text began to flow into the backdrop of blood red and dark shadow, and the expanding image of Ted Havens, analyzed in full, in motion, in stillness, in emotion.

A little bit of fate, a little bit of strife.

Invisible to Ted’s eyes, they began to gather between.

Moments of hesitation, of doubt, of recollection, of dismay.  Frustration at Bristow, even.

Little landmines that would slow the man down and create openings.

This wasn’t going to be a drawn out fight.  It was one pass.  One exchange.  Lesser ‘landmines’ would pave the way for the big one.  Which would be when Alexander struck.

He had many forms of awareness, many Sights, many tools.  He fixed them on defeating a man who had seen tens or hundreds of thousands of years on this Earth.

Good.

That left one last measure, to secure this fight before it started.

He jerked, and for a moment, saw only stars, heard only raucous noise.  His eyes rolled up and his head turned skyward.

“What are you-” Ted started.

The man wasn’t at his best.  Having just lost Bristow, faced with what might be his worst fear, he was prepared to throw it all away, and that kind of preparation could give a man an edge.

Here, it only added to bewilderment.  The incomprehension.

“You’re-” Ted started, stopping.

Alexander’s head dropped, and he knelt.  Ted remained where he was.  No, Ted took a step backward.

🟂

After

He trudged through grass and fallen branches.  Toward Ted.

Worn out Ted.  Spent, defeated Ted.

“What now?” Ted asked.

“Go home,” John Stiles told him.

“I don’t think I can.  Or should.  If people want to get me under their thumb like this, it might be better if I disappear.”

“Then travel.  I used to go from ghost town to ghost town with- you can think of her as my daughter.  And my friend.  It was nice.  You don’t have to choose ghost towns.”

Ted sighed.

“Consider yourself free.”

“I don’t like freedom,” Ted answered.  “So much bigger than the life I used to live.”

“I knew men like that.  I fought men like that.  It’s hard to leave it all behind.”

“What about him?”  Ted gestured.

John didn’t turn to look.  “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention my part in this.”

“According to him, you saved my life.  He was going to beat me and the kill or enslave me.”

“Yep.”

“Yeah.  I won’t say anything.  I could help with the body, and the crime scene.”

“Go, Ted.  While you still can.”

“Is that a threat?”

“It’s a warning.  About them.  Everyone who would chase you.”

Ted remained where he was.  He took a deep breath, staring, then sighed.

John remained where he was, watching Ted, until Ted finally looked away.  His head turned away first, then his body followed, as if the scene had a hold on him.

John didn’t move until the man was gone.  He wiped his gun down with a cloth, then holstered it, wet the cloth with his water bottle, and then wiped his hands.

“Which one of you is out there?” he asked the woods.

Branches and leaves rustled.

“His head-” Lucy said.  “It’s gone.  Cracked open.”

She sounded so much like a kid.

John walked, long, quick steps, until he stood between her and the body.  He put a hand out to steady her, to keep her from pulling away or moving to a point where she could keep looking.

“You didn’t need to come.”

“Didn’t I?  Toadswallow – he asked me.  He asked me if I knew what summoning you to the BHI meant.”

“This was not you.”

“He asked and I nodded because I knew it might be a thing.  And Avery nodded but I don’t think she got it.  And Gashwad said it would be violence but… you said, back when we negotiated with Alexander the first time, to free Avery…”

“Lucy,” he said, firm.

“You said you’d need to shoot Alexander.  Before the deadline came up.”

“Yes.  But that’s my duty, as a part of this.  I was always going to do it.  He was always going to come after you.  You summoning me did nothing to make this happen, it only let me act to stop him before he could retaliate against you in any meaningful way.  And it let me protect you in the meantime.”

“I don’t really believe you,” she whispered to him.  She was shaking a bit.  “Sorry.”

“I can’t lie.”

“And I can’t believe you, that I have so little responsibility, bringing you here when I knew deep down that this was possible.”

“It had to happen.”

“I know.  I really do.  I-” she broke off.  Her voice, already shaky, became a tremulous whisper.  “John, I think he’s still alive.”

John pushed Lucy behind him as he turned, drawing his gun.

He stared for long moments, at a man with a head that had cracked like an egg.  Large caliber bullet.

He’d waited, used extra senses, about war and conflict, to determine the moment Alexander might be most distracted, or have the most senses turned away.  Then he’d fired.

“He’s not, Lucy.”

“But I can See-”

“His awareness.  He set powers into motion and extra forms of sight and analysis.  Observation.  It’ll keep going until the power runs out, even though the man is deceased.”

“Oh,” Lucy’s answer was a shake breath with a word sort of in it.

“You should go, Lucy.  Go, distract yourself, get the mental image out of your head.  Put the entirety of yourself into music you never want to listen to again, and try to crowd out the visual.”

“I should stay,” she said.  “They’re probably going to find this place eventually, if they go looking.”

“I can manage.”

“But they have augurs.  Alex-” she stopped, staring like she could see through John to the body.

“Lucy.”

“Alexander taught us that if you use augury a lot, it gets harder to get a signal the more times you try.  If I get some stuff off of him and from his car, I can create a lot of noise.  Hide that you were here.”

“Not your responsibility.”

“It protects Kennet,” she said.  She was still shaky, but she stepped back so she could meet John’s eyes.  “That’s my responsibility.”

“I wouldn’t have shot him if I’d known you’d end up here.”

She shrugged.

“Don’t look any more.  Sit with your back to a tree.  You can do a lot of what you need to while there.  I’ll bring you whatever looks useful.”

“Verona would want to keep it, but we shouldn’t.”

“No.”

“Okay.”

He reached into his bag and he got a cassette player.

The music began playing.  A light, sad rock ballad.  Lucy sat, and John remained where he was, watching her, until her head started bobbing.

“You need me?” Musette asked.  The ghoul, called by the cassette player.

“Cleanup.  If you’re up for it.  I know it’s not your usual meal.”

“I was talking to her,” Musette said, pulling off her leather jacket.  She tossed it to the ground beside Lucy.

“That works too.”

“I’ll get to him after,” Musette said, sitting on the jacket.  “Heya.  Want company?”

“Am I next on your list?  Slated to die?”

“Nah,” Musette said, settling in.  “Not as far as I can tell.  But this is familiar ground for me.”

Lucy nodded.

“Talk to me,” Musette said, sitting shoulder to shoulder with Lucy.

“I was thinking about him being my familiar.”

“Yeah.”

John remained standing where he was.  He wasn’t sure he was supposed to hear this, but…

“…Not so much anymore.”

The air filled momentarily with the smell of acid and ink.

He nodded, turned, and got started with cleanup, fishing in pockets for car keys, apparently content to miss the remainder of the conversation.

Musette finished her talk with Lucy, and sat for another fifteen minutes before rising.

She cracked her jaw, then set to work.

The last practices that gave any awareness of the scene to the body ceased to function, and all went dark.


Previous Chapter

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Gone Ahead – 7.9

Avery

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Last Thursday: Can We Talk About the Girls?


“Take this,” Jessica told her.

Avery looked up.

They were in the little building with wood paneled walls and fluorescent lights that had gone up in the middle of the sports field.  Half of the anti-Bristow forces were within, getting treated for injuries and figuring out their plan.  Jessica held out a wrapped- Avery took it.  A wrapped, chocolate covered protein bar.

“I don’t want to take your supply, it’s-”

“It’s fine,” Jessica told her.  “I like those for energy, but if you don’t like it, I’ve got other stuff.”

She reached into a pocket, pulled out two chocolate bars, then put them back, pulled out two more.

While she did, Snowdrop reached over, took the protein bar, and opened the package.  She put it into Avery’s hand and moved her hand to her mouth.

“Is- did you make your raincoat supply you chocolate bars?” Avery asked.  She bit the bar.

“I’m self-taught.  I picked up what I did through trial and error,” Jessica said, taking a protein bar of her own.  “When I get a chance to learn or do something new, I start with the essentials.  Stuff that lets me stay in the Ruins longer.  Because not much ruins my day more than seeing a glimpse of what I’m after and then having to leave it behind because I have to come up for air.  Or food.  Or light.”

“So… no?” Snowdrop asked.

“I rigged one of the pockets to supply me with rations, yeah.”

Avery wanted to reply, but the protein bar, with raisins and almonds and sunflower seeds all compressed together into a dense honeyed mass and layered with chocolate, was very chewy.  It took some work to get it out of her mouth and into her throat.

Snowdrop lowered her head to where Avery’s hand rested with one thumb hooked into the pocket of her shorts, and she took a bite.  Avery let her.

Wary of the way past conversations with Jessica had gone, Avery ventured, “I do that too.  Focusing on basics.  For me, it’s running fast.  Whacking stuff.”

“If it works, it works.”

“Those glimpses?  That’s stuff like your cousin?” Avery asked.  Was the cousin a touchy subject?

“Other things too.  Power concentrates, down there.  You might see something bright or something that still glimmers, when so little can.  Sometimes that’s an echo, or a bird in a rusty birdcage that some skinny guy is carting around.  The trick that lets me ‘lose count’ of my snacks and never run out was one of those things.”

Avery nodded, taking another bite.

Jessica sat there, watching Zed talk to Brie, the two of them chewing.  Over to the side, Lucy and Verona were figuring out the papers of Bristow’s they wanted to distribute.

Snowdrop bent down to take another bite from the half-eaten protein bar that rested on Avery’s knee.

“If she wants one of her own, I have more,” Jessica said.

“I don’t mind,” Avery told her.  “I have enough siblings I got pretty used to it early on.  Feels a bit like home.”

“That’s important,” Jessica said.  “Feeling at home helps heal the Self, which you need after a stint in the Ruins.”

Snowdrop said something with her mouth full.

“Chew, then talk, you savage,” Avery said, poking Snowdrop in a bulging cheek.  Snowdrop flipped her the middle finger.

Jessica smiled a little.

“Why are you being nice to me?” Avery asked.

“Was I mean before?”

“You weren’t… this.

“You came.  You went looking.”

“We said we would.”

“A lot of people make promises to me,” Jessica told her.  “It doesn’t mean a lot, a lot of the time.  Deals to do something they put off until the last minute.  Or they track their own bullcrap in with it.”

“I don’t want to be dishonest, I wouldn’t give it the weight you are.  I was rattled, tired-”

“That’s it,” Snowdrop said, to Avery.  “Convince her she shouldn’t be nice to you.”

“When things get this bad, the bullcrap peels away and we show our real selves,” Jessica said.  “Yours is fine.”

“Thank you,” Avery said, voice small, not sure how else to reply.

“Your friend’s scares me.”

Avery looked at Verona.  Aside from being tired, frazzled, a bit bruised and scuffed up, her hair even scruffier than usual, Verona looked weirdly fine.

“She’s, uhhh…” Snowdrop snatched the rest of the bar out of her hand.  “You brat!”

Snowdrop ducked back out of Avery’s reach, and Avery winced, touching the horizontal cut Shellie had made at her collarbone and shoulder.

“Let’s get that fixed up,” Jessica said.  “I’ve got some medical stuff.  Sit.”

Avery sat back,butt against a table, feet on the floor.  Snowdrop hung back out of reach.

“You’re supposed to be backing me up, Snow.  Support me fixing up my Self.”

“I’m not sorry,” Snowdrop told her.  “Here, have it back.”

She handed Avery a bar.

Avery looked at it, and something moved under the wrapper.  Avery nearly dropped it, and Snowdrop caught it.

“Is that Toadswallow chocolate?”

Snowdrop cackled.

“Do you have another shirt?” Jessica asked, pulling some supplies out.  She handed Avery another protein bar.  Avery opened it.

“In my dorm room.  I liked this one, dang it.”

“Mm.”

“Can’t help you there,” Snowdrop said, with her mouth full.  Avery kicked out in Snow’s direction, aiming for a light kick to the shin.

“Yeah?” Avery asked.  “How does that work?”

Snowdrop hopped up onto the table, switching to opossum form, masticating the remnants of the protein bar, crawled around behind Avery, and became human again while behind Avery.  She wore a short-sleeved shirt over a long-sleeved shirt, and shorts.  The short sleeved shirt was pink, had an winking opossum with makeup on, two paws over the end of her nose.    An dotted-line arrow  extended to the right, to where her eyes were, winking.  ‘Eyes over here’.

“That might be the first one I don’t get, Snow,” Avery admitted.  She looked at Jessica, who shrugged.

“Don’t wear it,” Snowdrop said, pulling off the one shirt, keeping the long-sleeved one on.

“I’m confused both about the shirt and the weirdness of wearing something that’s technically you, Snow.”

Jessica wiped something cold along the length of the cut.  Avery shivered, full-body.

“Do you want to try to salvage this shirt, or can I tear it some?”

“I guess tear it.”

Jessica’s face was very close, and her expression was very intent, and she was being caring and even though Jessica wasn’t the build she really liked, the rest of those things were enough together to get her attention.

Avery jumped as Jessica tore the shirt to get more access to the shoulder cut.

“No cracking, no veins.  You don’t feel heated or chilled?”

Avery shook her head.

“No hallucinations?  Any figures at the corners of your vision?  Whispers?”

“Does she count?” Avery asked, indicating Snowdrop.  “Or her weird shirt?  Does the shirt make sense to people who aren’t possessed?”

Snowdrop cackled.

“I see and hear her too, and half those shirts don’t make sense to me, don’t worry.  I assumed it was an internet thing.”

“Some are.”

“I’ll put on some cream for scarring.  I don’t think you need stitches.  Maybe here and here, but I’m going to use some sterile glue.”

“Okay,” Avery said, taking the shirt from Snowdrop, who tried to steal the second protein bar as she handed it off, draping it over one leg.  She jumped again as Jessica touched something cold to the big cut.

“You’re turning blue,” Snowdrop said.  “You’re getting cold.”

Avery’s face felt warm.  Was she flushed?

“Hey, Snow?” she asked.

“Hm?”

“I’m not sure if you’re trying to cheer me up or change the mood, but, uh, not now?”

Snowdrop swiveled around, scooted over, and sat on the table, her back against Avery’s.  She wasn’t that much shorter than Avery.  The back of her head rested against the back of Avery’s neck, like they meshed.

“You’re the same as you used to be,” Snowdrop said.

“You too, you know,” Avery said, grateful for the distraction from Jessica’s proximity.

“Pinch,” Jessica said.

Avery pinched her own skin together.  Jessica adjusted, then nodded.

“The Avery I got to know from the start wasn’t the sort who’d think that stuff was fun,” Snowdrop said.

“I think the Avery who you got to know from the beginning wasn’t one who’d dealt with the Wolf.  Or seen someone die.  Gabe, kind of.  For a certain meaning of death.”

“Alright then,” Snowdrop said, shifting position, her back pressing against Avery’s.  “I know just how to adjust, then.”

“We talk, Snow.  We communicate, we listen.  And as part of the communication, you can tell me what this shirt is about.”

“Whatever you do, you can’t ask Toadswallow.”

“Toadswallow isn’t here.”

“Ave,” Verona said, hurrying over.

“Yes?” Avery asked.  She was probably still flushed, because Verona grinned.

“Bristow’s coming, we’re going to mobilize.  He’s walking, so we’re going to run.  Can you catch up?”

“Probably.  What’s the plan?” Avery asked.

“Are we covered?” Verona asked Lucy.  “For Augury?”

“I think so?”

“We’re not covered but we should know if they look,” Zed said, as he walked over.  Brie followed him.  “Why?”

“Discussing the plan.  Move number two of my hits against Bristow.  I want to burn his new place.  I think as far as coup, claim, screwing up the power he has here, it’s a pretty good move.  And it’s really hard to deal with Alexander while also handling the blaze, and it’s big, dramatic.”

“Can’t,” Zed told her.

“Okay, maybe it’s complicated to do, but-”

“But you can’t.  It’s worked into the runes below the place.  Believe me, technomancy is about places, and I was just scanning the place, less than fifteen minutes ago, to figure out the weak points.  After the recent fires in the library and stuff, I think they were extra careful.”

“Can we blow it up?” Verona asked.  “Where are the goblins?  Or the elementalist kids?”

“It’s pretty sturdy, Verona,” Zed said.  “Seriously.  He was expecting a fight.  He fortified it.”

Lucy stepped forward.  “It’s one hundred percent off the table as a plan?”

“Probably not one hundred percent, but… I think you want to find another tree to go barking up,” Zed answered.

The three of them paused.  Jessica moved Avery’s hand.  “Pinch.”

Avery pinched her own wound shut, again.  Jessica adjusted, then glued.

“You had four ideas on how to hit Bristow, Ronnie?” Lucy asked.

“Yeahhh.  Had.  Now I have three.  One that I just used.  And I just committed to hitting him three times.  Because it’s a good number.”

“Classic number, but maybe outline your other plans?” Zed asked.

“I wanted to hit him where his power is.  Three challenges that weaken or gainsay him, or make him a lot weaker against Alexander.  The last one, I challenged his word.  Challenge idea number two was the building.  If he loses his place on campus, he loses authority, he loses power, he loses standing, any stuff in there.”

“Not doable,” Zed said.

“He’s walking over here to challenge you.  You wanted to scare him enough he had to run.”

“And to get him to huff and puff and look less sure of himself, because he’s not a runner, yeah,” Verona said.  “Idea three was his Aware.”

“Which I’m very skeptical about,” Lucy told Verona.  “Every single time we try…”

“But Bristow is here, and so is Alexander.  If we can corner them into saying something, that-”

“Won’t do,” John said, from the background.

“No!” Verona exclaimed.  “Why won’t do!?”

“Guilherme thinks the Aware couldn’t be budged as things stood when they made their last move against us.  There’s no reason to think it could happen here.”

“But if we can go after one in a fight…” Verona said.  “We don’t have to convert them if we knock ’em out and hold them hostage.  Make him say he’s willing to let his hostage die in front of the others.  Even if it’s a small hit, if we can get three minor wins-”

“I wouldn’t bet on it,” John told her.

“No!” She echoed, frustrated.  “Why?”

“Same principle as the building.  He brought them here knowing they’d be an obvious target.  He reinforced them.  I haven’t seen any true openings and I have a fair eye for these things.”

“It’s like you theorized, with how Shellie was affected,” Avery told Verona.

“We had four ideas,” Lucy said.  “Now we have-”

“Three,” Verona cut in.  “Attacking his oath was used, that leaves this one as a maybe, if we can hit his power base enough, weaken the way he set them up-”

“When hitting his power base is the goal?” Zed asked.  “That’s like saying you can move the queen piece where you need it if only you get the king into checkmate first.”

“Help me,” Verona told him.  She turned to Lucy, then Avery.

“What’s idea four?” Avery asked.

“You don’t keep your third in the loop?” Jessica asked.

“She’s off running around a lot, so she wasn’t there when conversations happened, or we were worried about being listened in on and we couldn’t say,” Verona said.

Avery frowned a bit.

“Sorry,” Verona said, quiet.

“Fourth is the students,” Lucy told her.

“Kass and Mccauleigh,” Verona said.  “Maybe others.”

“Fernanda,” Avery said.  “After Laila?  They were friends.”

“Maybe, yeah.”

“How?” Zed asked.  “On short notice?”

“Knock them out, set them up… hope for two out of the three as they come to?” Lucy asked.

“It might not be that simple,”Jessica told them.

“But it’s not impossible?” Verona asked.

“I could help.”

They turned.

Jorja.  The younger sister of Tymon and Talos.  Her Bogeyman was behind her, hovering.

“With the knocking out part?” Jorja added.  “It’s okay if I get expelled.  I lost my friend, I don’t want to come back anymore.”

“I think we should get your brothers to sign off on this,” Brie said.  “If you get involved at all.”

“Your big problem is how you present this,” Zed told them.  “You don’t have to get expelled.”

“I don’t care.”

“We do,” Zed said, glancing at Brie.  “Here’s what we do…”

“Ave,” Lucy said, while Zed talked to Jorja.  “You good to go?”

Avery nodded.  “I don’t suppose you can tell me what this shirt means?”

She held it up for the other two.

They shook their heads.

Snowdrop snorted, her back still to Avery’s.

“Or you?  Boon companion?”

“It’s a short, easy explanation…” Snowdrop said.

“No time,” Verona said.  “We split up?  Take one each?”

“I don’t have the juice,” Jorja said, to Zed, raising her voice.  “The binding lesson, I used a lot of it.”

“It’s that limited?” Verona asked, turning back.  “One shot, once a week?”

“A month?  Maybe every two months,” Jorja said.

“We’ll cover you,” Talos said, from the sidelines.

Jorja looked at her big brother.

“We got you,” Tymon added.

Jorja smiled, and the smile faltered as the lights flickered.

The lights went out, turned red, and then the ceiling went out, showing them the roof above, and then the walls went out, fritzing as they went.

A machine that hummed in the corner popped audibly, then began to smoke.

The building fell away.

The group of them adjusted their positions, eyes adjusting to darkness.

Bristow had rounded the corner and now approached.

“Want me to stay?” John asked.

“Go to the woods, talk to the Others, get us set,” Lucy said.  “Please.  You have the anti-Kevin charm?”

He nodded once, raising his hand, where a little, blue-painted ‘eye’ charm dangled from a cord, an inch below the wrist.  Then he went.

Jessica gave the bandage at Avery’s shoulder a pat.

Avery quickly pulled on Snowdrop’s shirt, reached under to grip the existing shirt, and ripped it the rest of the way, before pulling the remains off through the armhole of the new shirt.  She looked at Snowdrop, then poked at the cord at Snowdrop’s neck, checking Snowdrop had the charm too.

Snowdrop drew a kitchen knife and rusty fork from her pockets.

Avery grabbed her stuff.  Hat on, mask on, cape on, bag slung over one shoulder.  She adjusted her charm bracelet and found it empty.  The Ruins had washed away the glamoured objects.

“On my signal,” Verona said.  She backed away a little as Bristow approached.  He had Rae and Ted with him, and a few students trailed a bit further behind.  “Jorja?  Talos, Tymon?”

“Ready,” Tymon said.  “We, uh, can’t protect you from what Jorja does.  Not on short notice.  Your opossum might not be as affected.”

“Damn,” Snowdrop said, quiet.  “I’m not okay protecting these three.”

“Here we are!” Bristow raised his voice.  “Made me come to you?  I’ve left poor Alexander waiting.”

“And here’s my second of three challenges!” Verona shouted, pumping her fist into the air.  “Now!”

Avery pumped her own fist into the air.  Lucy followed suit a bit later.

“Downer downpour!” Jorja called out, her voice high.  Her brothers had her back, each with a hand at her shoulder.

The Drugstore Cowgirl loomed out of the shadows.  A raver girl, drawn out tall and exaggerated, who arrived with vague clouds in multiple colors, and an expanding rain of pills and pellets.

“Tranquilizing Truce!” Jorja shouted.  “Let’s put a big pause button on the fighting!”

Making it a truce, affecting both sides, to get past the rule about harming students.

The pills changed, all to white and blue capped types.

A pill hit Verona like a bullet fired from sky to ground, and Verona keeled over.

One bounced off of the brim of Avery’s hat and off of Snowdrop’s head.  Another punched through, without leaving a hole.  It slipped into her, flooded her mind, and she was out.

🟂

“They used to think the Paths were dreams.”

The voice had an off-kilter edge to it.  Like how a hacksaw could make different sounds on the push and the pull.  Pushes for some words, pulls for others.

“Then they thought different.  They’re far-flung realms, the cliff’s edge of the world, so ragged that the pieces flake off.”

The Wolf stood opposite Avery.  Old, hunched over, but big, wearing a startlingly red dress.  Laila laid at the woman’s feet.

The Wolf put her foot under Laila’s neck and lifted it.  Toes worked their way through Laila’s hair.

She stomped.  The head made a sickening, familiar sound.

Avery flinched.

“The Paths are dreams, Avery,” the Wolf said.  “And they are the edge of reality.”

She raised Laila’s ruined face, lifting with toes gripping hair, and then stomped again.  The sound repeated.

“Both at the same time.  The world’s dream, your dream.  One and the same.  Humans make up the world and that has its border.  Its sharp edge.”

She stomped again, then again, with a faster tempo.

“Your world, your dream, your edge of sanity.  I’m here, Avery.  I haven’t left.”

The stomps repeated, drumming wet, until they defied sense and reality.  The head going to pieces, the original chunks becoming pulp.

The exact same sound was there, behind it all, repeating over and over again.  The sound of Laila’s head hitting rock.

Avery’s hand clutched her shirt, over her heart.  The shirt Snowdrop had given her.  It helped, just a tiny bit.  But she needed even the tiny bit.

“How long would it take you to get home, to mother, father, family, brothers and sisters, a nice warm bed?  How long, if you decided to run?  To ask for help and drive it?  Hours and hours.” the Wolf asked, against the backdrop drumming of sick, violent sounds.  “How long would it take for you to get to me, if you wanted to?  Less than an hour.”

When there was nothing left for the Wolf to stomp, what happened?

“How long would it take me to get to you?”  The Wolf laughed, and it was an eerie sound, that hacksaw effect all the more pronounced, decorated with blood spatter and a foot pounding its way past broken bone.  “How long?  Seconds, once the way is clear.  I’m closer to you than home is.  I want to embrace you more than anyone or anything else does.  The briefest of embraces, before I tear you to pieces.”

Avery swallowed, and it took effort, made her head shake.  She didn’t break eye contact.

The Wolf laughed again.

The Wolf’s foot came down, and it slipped, turning sideways, scraping to the side in the red gore.  A look of surprise crossed the Wolf’s face.

The look of surprise became a toothy smile, ear to ear, her eyes dark.

She lunged, moving with long, gnarled limbs and a reaching hand with long, broken fingernails.

Avery, keeping to the rules, didn’t back up.  She ducked left, avoiding the reaching claw.

A hand gripped her neck, and terror seized her.

“Aye, thar ye are.”

Alpeana.  She recognized the face.  The second or two it took to process the realization were more than enough time for the Wolf to get her from behind.

Alpeana pulled her into the dark woods.

🟂

Avery woke, scrambling, pulling away from the shadows of Alpeana’s darkness.

“If you’re unconscious as I arrive, that’s a failure to meet,” Bristow said.

“I’m conscious,” Verona said.  All around them, people had collapsed.  Only the Others, Jorja and her family, Brie, Zed, and those of Bristow’s contingent that had come with were unaffected.  Snowdrop crouched nearby, brandishing her weapons at Ted.  “A brief lapse.  If you’re focused on that, you’re not paying attention to the challenge.”

“Help,” Alpeana whispered.  “I cannae work so fast.”

Avery gripped Snowdrop’s shoulder, then started running.  Ted lunged, reaching, and momentarily got his hand on Snowdrop.  She swiped with the fork and he let her go.  He didn’t run after.

Lucy was already running.  Not as fast, but running.  Circling around the western end of the school.

“Fernanda,” Avery huffed.

“I dinnae know tha names, lassie.”

“Daughter, prissy, our age, pretty, skinny.”

“I dinnae pay much mind ta faces, either.  Prissy covers a wee bit under half tha lot.”

“She lost a friend.  Her friend died.  Hit the rocks, because- we think it was Kevin.  The evil eye.”

Alpeana’s darkness roiled, chasing, buoying.  It pushed Avery, encouraging her forward.

She ran by the woods.  And she saw the goblins trying to match pace.  Gashwad was faster.

Gashwad sniggered.

“What!?” Avery asked.

“The shirt!” Gashwad raised his voice, before laughing.

“Focus!” Lucy barked.  “Cover us!”

Alexander was there, amid the workshops and other external buildings, his back to the parking lot.

So was Clementine, unconscious.  So were some other adults Avery didn’t recognize.  Alexander was waking students.

“I got Kass!” Lucy shouted.  “We talked about her, Alpeana!”

“Aye, I remember!  Direct me!”

Alpeana’s amorphous, multi-limbed, multi-faced form grew and divided.

Fernanda.  Avery saw.

“Can’t-” Alpeana said.

She peeled away.  The darkness dissipated, hands, faces and black drain-guck hair-smoke pulling back.

Rae, hands in her pockets, walked down the stairs.  She was a woman who could have been a model or celebrity, except she looked so tired.  The woman held out a hand, and a pill bounced off of it.

“Weird,” Rae said, her voice hollow.

Lucy was dragging Kass off to the side.  As she got Kass out of sight, Alpeana was free to work.

If we can get the Aware to split up… that’s another challengeWe need three wins.  Three wins against Bristow when he and Verona are going back and forth on the Brownie thing should tip things in our favor.

They had two challenge ideas, one of which they’d managed okay.  The second was the students, and Rae was in the way of that.  The third could be the Aware, but that wasn’t likely to happen.

“Rae,” Avery said.

“Don’t know you.  This is all pretty crazy, huh?”

“Kevin sure dragged you into something, huh?” Avery asked.  Snowdrop took her hand.

“He does that,” Rae said.

Avery glanced at Alexander, who stood back.  He’d woken Clementine, who looked up.

On the other side, though, other reinforcements had arrived.  Chase and Nicolette.

They approached and backed Rae.  Silent and staring.

“We got the rundown on the Kevin thing,” Avery said.

“Yeah?  Seems like everyone knows my life.  Parents, friends, strangers.  Whatever you’re going to say, I promise you, people closer to me, older, with more experience in the world have said it.”

“Okay,” Avery said.  She shook her head.  “What are you doing here?  Why here, why now?”

“It’s kind of a vacation getaway.  Not really a vacation, not really a getaway, but kind of, isn’t it?” Rae asked.  She smiled, and it was a bit wry, like feelings behind it betrayed the smile.

“Can I get you to go inside?”

“No.”

“Why not?” Avery asked.  She paced, trying to direct Rae’s attention away from Kass and Lucy.  Maybe Lucy could get Fernanda and they could do something there.

“Kevin’s counting on me.”

“Kevin’s kind of a dick, though,” Avery said.

“He’s mine,” Rae answered.  “My guy.  He’s letting me in by showing me the kind of work he does when he goes away.  So whatever you’re doing, whatever reason they need to have private security, while weird rich kids run around… stop.  Don’t make me stop you.”

Rae’s hand went to her waist.  She had a gun holstered there.  The hand rested on the handle with a casual ease.

It was like she’d stopped caring about anything.

“I’m not rich.”

Rae shrugged.  “Privileged.  You can come to a place like this.”

Avery was close enough to Alexander and Clementine now.  Clementine went to take a step forward and Alexander stopped her.

“Help?” Avery asked.

“No, you wanted to interrupt?  Interrupt.  We can wait until you’re done.”

“I don’t really know Rae,” Clementine said.

“Help?” Avery asked Nicolette.

“I’m not sure I could, even if I had the a-ok.  I’m very sorry.  The situation sucks,” Nicolette said.

“Maybe get Raymond to come?”

“He stepped in a few too many times,” Chase answered.  “He’s taken a spot critical enough in the world scene that within the hour that he takes a side, six or seven people bigger than Durocher, Bristow, or anyone here will wipe him off the face of the planet.  Guaranteed.  They’re deliberating now.  Because he countered the movements of the staff the one time, he arranged healing for a student on one side, and some other stuff.”

“Sounds big,” Rae said.  “I won’t pretend or try to understand.  But just in case it keeps me on the right side of people that big and important, I’m going to insist you all stay put and stay quiet until some others arrive.”

“Is this really what you want?” Avery asked Rae, still moving, pacing, leading her to the side and away from Lucy.

Rae didn’t answer.  She only laughed.

And it was an unhinged, hacksaw-back-and-forth kind of laugh.

Avery shivered.

Sanity’s edge?

“Avery!” Lucy raised her voice.

Rae twisted around, pulling the gun free of the holster, and aimed it at Lucy.

Lucy, who’d stepped out of cover, left Alpeana and Kass, who hadn’t gone for Fernanda.  Stepping into danger.

Lucy bit her lip, then raised a hand slowly to her eye.  Her other hand remained still.  She scratched her eye as she made eye contact with Avery.  While held at gunpoint.

Avery turned her Sight on.

Mist over everything.  Motion made more real.  She could see connections, and she could see movement.  Changes in expression clearer than expressions themselves.

Rae was like stone, unmoving.

And the mist was thick, cloudy, noxious.

Like it was acid, the mist was eating away at connections.

The longer, fragile one, it was between- not Avery and Lucy.

Avery looked down at Snowdrop, then took a step away, before wishing she hadn’t.

The step away gave her a better view of her little friend.  Her companion, and the way connections between Lucy and Snowdrop were dissolving.  The connections between Snowdrop and Avery.

“This is great,” Snowdrop said.  Her hand went to her throat.

“Easy!” Rae raised her voice, the gun moving with an erratic swing.  Even Alexander ducked some.  “None of you are moving until Kevin comes back or my landlord comes and passes on other orders.”

Ted.  Ted had momentarily gotten his hand on Snowdrop.

Taking her protection?

“Oh, I’m like a little trash goblin.  I have lots of junk.  Weird that I lost that,” Snowdrop said.

You’re a Lost, denizen of Paths.  You can’t hold onto stuff, you told me that.  Not weird you lost your grip on it.

You couldn’t have ditched the stupid knife or fork?

“Snow-”

“Don’t say or do anything,” Lucy urged.  “It makes it worse.”

“Shut up!” Rae raised her voice, reacting to the change in tension.

“Rae,” Clementine said.

Rae pointed the gun at Clementine.

“They’re kids,” Clementine said, staring down the barrel of a gun, with one eye that was half-closed, a little foggy, the other unwavering.  “Don’t you want kids one day?”

“Shut up!”

The agitation grew as the smoke did.

“Hey, loser,” Snowdrop said, turning her head to look at Avery.

Avery shook her head.  Small motions.

“Eh,” Snowdrop said, her voice wavering.  “Sucked knowing you.”

“You little brat,” Avery hissed.  “Don’t you dare.”

“If I die here, I’m going to leave you without a cool shirt on,” Snowdrop said.  “Funny.”

Avery mentally translated.

If I die here, I’ll leave you with a shitty t-shirt.  Tragic.

Their help was on the other side of the building.  Unconscious or tied up with Bristow.  Verona was stuck there, dealing with the trials, presenting or countering any arguments.

The goblins couldn’t take on an innocent Aware.  Maybe Clem, but Rae was a danger.

“You didn’t explain the shirt to me,” Avery told Snowdrop.

“Don’t ask Toadswallow.”

“I want to ask you!”

Rae fired the gun.

Avery took a step back.  Snowdrop flopped over.

A car alarm in the parking lot sounded, going off, whooping through the air and casting a faint red tint into the gloom as the lights on the back flicked on and off.

“Pay attention to me,” Rae said, gun raised, a curl of smoke barely visible from the barrel.

Avery paid attention to her, expression serious.

The noxious mist cleared.  Avery’s focus was on the smallest of Rae’s movements.  Of Lucy’s.

“What the hell’s with her?  I wasn’t aiming anywhere near her,” Rae said.  “It was a warning shot.”

Avery didn’t move, didn’t look away.

The connection was still there.  Even if she didn’t look, she could feel it.  It healed as the mist seeped away.

Snowdrop had fainted.  Kevin’s influence had pulled away, thinking his job was done.

Avery didn’t budge, her eye on the ‘ball’.

On Rae.  The gun.

Distract her,” Avery hissed.

“Did you actually hit her?” Lucy asked.

“I aimed in the air.  You saw.”

“Is she dead?  Did you kill a kid?” Lucy asked.

Rae turned toward Lucy.

Avery started running.

Closing the gap in record time.

She reached for Rae, her Sight showing the woman as a silhouette surrounded by handprints.  Not touching her- apparently he hadn’t hurt her like that.  But they were there and so dense they were a wall.  Comments, barbs, other things he’d done to separate her from the world.

Avery couldn’t get past that.  She knew it by looking at it.  By how they seemed to clarify instead of fading or pulling away as she got closer.

Each one, instead of fingerprints, had scenes, as though the whorls and prints were papers, arranged into the shape of a man in a doorframe.  A scribbled word against a background at a store.

Rae wasn’t the enemy here.  Something supernatural had pulled her to a place dark and unreachable.  And Avery couldn’t touch her there, couldn’t get to her.

So Avery went for the gun.  She’d spotted the connections that had jumped out when the gun had fired and claimed everyone’s attention and now she pursued those.

She barely grazed the side of the gun, reaching out.  But she could grip connections and put her power into those connections.  Like she had on day three of the practice.  Reclaiming her mask.

It was, in Rae’s reality, a grazing touch at a moment she didn’t have a good grip.  The gun fell from her grip.

Avery hit the ground, the cut on her chest screaming like she’d just torn it open again, as she landed on her back, holding the weapon.  She raised her feet, a barrier, and kicked as Rae lunged in, reaching.

“I’ve taken self defense,” Rae told her, grunting as she pushed a leg aside.  Avery flipped over and scrambled back, holding the gun pointed down and to the side.

Rae didn’t fight like she’d just taken self defense.  She fought like Avery had imagined Ted would.  Slippery, fast, strong.

The ‘slip’ part of that might have been the kind of Aware she was.  Nothing got to her.  Not words, not a reaching hand trying to get hold of her wrist.

But some of it was something else.  Like she was in the zone, her focus entirely there.

“This isn’t you!” Avery grunted.

“It’s us!” Rae shouted, groping for the weapon.

“You’re worse off because of it!”

“No,” Rae grunted.

Avery twisted, kicked, and pushed Rae away.  It barely landed, barely worked.

“No,” Rae said, again, before adding, “I can’t be alone.  I won’t ever be alone again.”

The words were heavy.  Rae’s presence heavier still, as she crowded in on Avery.  Using reach to win the wrestling match for the weapon.  There was no self-preservation on Rae’s part.

“Might not be alone right now,” Avery grunted.  “But you’re not you either.  Not like this!”

She pushed.  It worked.  Rae moved back a bit.

Avery feinted, and Rae fell for it.

Avery used the moment to turn, to hop up onto the hand-rail by the stairs of one of the exterior classrooms and run up to the top of the stairs, her feet by the doorknob.

As Rae circled around to the bottom of the stairs, Avery hopped up, climbing onto the roof.

“Get- come down here!” Rae shouted.

Avery gave the woman the finger, glancing warily at Alexander and then over at Chase and Nicolette.

She glanced down at the gun, figured out how it worked while being very careful of where it was pointing and what she was doing, and ejected the clip.

She tossed the clip into the darkness behind the building, then set the gun down in a gap between gutter and a chimney-pipe.  It would be hard to find in daylight.

Chase was chanting.  Nicolette hung back, looking miserable, eyes on the ground.

Rae shouted.

Where?  Avery looked around.  They’d tended to Fernanda and Kass.   There was still Mccauleigh.

Was Mccauleigh back in her family’s room?  Hiding out?  Or- had she gone with family?  Avery didn’t see any of the Hennigars.  She hadn’t since Hadley had left the building, when the others had been stuck in the top floor of Bristow’s building, listening to that music box.  Hadley had jumped out of the window.

Hennigars were gore-streaked.  They did the warcry thing as part of a war-pact that let them endure or deal with pretty much anything, as long as they paid for it in violence.

Had they gone looking for trouble?

Toward the ‘enemy’.  Toward the back of the school, where Zed and Verona still were?

Avery turned, took a running start, and leaped from the rooftop of the workshop to the canopy over the outdoor dining tables.

From canopy to the sloping rooftop over the window that looked into the library.  She landed, slid down half a foot, then scrambled up.

Up to the peaked rooftop, where she had a view.

Chase’s chant was getting louder.

Whatever he was doing, it wasn’t good.

Avery scanned, searching.

She wished she had Verona’s eyes for seeing in the dark.

Verona and Jorja were surrounded by the Hungry Choir.  Twenty children gathered around them, warding off Bristow’s group and Tedd.  It looked like Zed might have taken a punch, because he was sitting on the ground, one hand at his cheek.

The Hennigars.  Had they followed?  They’d want to be close to the action.

Avery looked, scanning… scanning…

Smoke erupted behind Avery.

Lucy and Chase.  She had tried to interrupt him.  But he kept chanting.

Nicolette put herself between Chase and Lucy.

Avery wanted to help, but the way she could really help was by spotting the target.

One person to find out of the twenty-five or so that were in the gloom.

If she used a light, she might get a glimpse.  But she would get pursuers, interference.  Whatever else.

Musser was down there with his niece and son.

Past them were the Hennigars.

“Alpeana, Alpeana, Alpeana,” Avery murmured, finding and reaching for that connection at the same time.  She gave it a tug.

Black drain-hair and smoke swirled up the side of the school building and pooled.  A pale face and limbs emerged from it, tilted and bent in odd ways.

“Thar she is.  Tha Belanger laddie is preparin’ to wake ’em all.”

“How?”

“He dinnae say.  Ye sure want a dangerous one, Avery.  That Musser family isn’t a joke.”

“Do you need help?”

“Distract them, aye?  And dinnae go blamin’ me if we’re short on time.  Unless ye want ta get tha Belanger blowhard while ye’re at it.”

Avery nodded.

“Git tae!” Alpeana exclaimed, as she slipped from the roof to the woods.

Circling around.

Avery went further down the rooftop peak, closer to Bristow.

Then she let herself slide, making noise as feet scraped shingles.  She banged the gutter.

Musser and Bristow both looked up.

Ted put himself between her and Bristow.  Musser took a running start, disappeared from view, then appeared, gloved hand gripping the roof’s edge.

“Uncle!” Raquel shouted.

He ignored her.

His focus was on Avery.

His son followed.  Blackhorne put a hand out and practically heaved Reid up to the roof’s edge.  Drowne followed shortly after, flung with the other hand, moved faster, and caught Reid as he landed on the roof, helping secure his balance.

Reid drew two knives from his waist.

Musser walked with his hands in his pockets, moving easily along the sloped roof.

“I don’t intend to let you by,” Musser said.

“What if I say please?”

“Uncle!  Reid!” Raquel shouted.

Again, the two were silent, focused on their enemy.

“Try waking the Hennigars again, Raquel!” Mr. Musser called out.

“We’re- there’s an Other!” Raquel shouted.

The men looked.

Alpeana and the goblins were at the edge of the clearing, near the Hennigars.  Raquel couldn’t advance any further because Tashlit was there.

Avery let herself slide down the roof, toward Bristow, and Musser moved to counter.

She scrambled, running, and made a beeline for Chase, instead.

“Reid, deal with her!” Musser called out.

He changed direction.

Avery skidded, running on the southern side of the rooftop, closer to Alexander, Chase, Nicolette, and Lucy, as Reid, Blackhorne, and Drowne crested the peak.

Blackhorne ducked out of view as Rae looked.  Drowne, a little more capable of passing as human, carried on after.

Avery half-ran, half-skidded on her way down, and threw herself toward the ground, rolling many times as she landed.

She hoped the others could deal with Musser.

Drowne was fast, and the Other with wet hair matched her pace with ease.

Black smoke erupted around them, and Avery decided to trust it, hiding in it, instead of avoiding it.  She could hear Drowne, hear Chase, and hear Rae shouting.

Maybe if she got the gun-

A hand seized her neck, not for the first or second time today.  Clammy, cold, and wet.

Drowne had her.  And, as he reached into the smoke, he had Lucy too.

Reid was there on the roof, holding a chain stretched taut between two fists, like there was some purpose to it.  He smiled like it was all planned.

All of those still sleeping and unconscious had lights glowing between their two eyelids.  Rae didn’t seem to notice.

“There we go,” Drowne said.

“Open your eyes!”  Chase shouted, clapping.

The clap came with a breeze, or a shockwave.  The lights in people’s eyes went out like candles blown out in a strong wind.

The sleeping people awoke.

Did we get enough?  We got Kass, we got Fernanda.  No guarantee they’ll take the cue, but if a nightmare can be a wake up call about something…

“Just step-!” Lucy called.  Drowne gave her a fierce shake to get her to be quiet.

“Don’t change sides!” Snowdrop called out.  She’d woken with others.  “Don’t give Verona and Avery and Lucy credit!”

“That is the worst reverse psychology I’ve ever heard.  And I’ve had a geriatric try to tutor me in emotion manipulation.”

Kass’s head hung.

No sign there.

Nobody seemed willing to step up or be the one to cross the lines.

This was supposed to be a second win.  They’d committed to three and they’d been pared down to two, no matter how much Verona seemed to think the Aware could be taken out as a third condition.

“Don’t join the side with my friends on it!” Snowdrop called out.

“Shut up!” Fernanda shouted.

“Fernanda,” Alexander said.

“No!  You shut up too!” Fernanda called out.  “You were supposed to either lose or make things better when you got back!”

“Either-or?  You should blame them.  They’re the reason this is messy.”

“Get bent!” Lucy shouted at him.

“You suck!” Avery called out.

“Enough,” Drowne told them.  “Insults can be come curses.  Come.”

“Can you tell Lawrence I’m waiting patiently while he struggles to get his house in order?” Alexander called out.

Drowne glared at the man, and dragged Avery and Lucy with.  Avery motioned for Snowdrop to hang back, and Drowne shook her, somehow slapping her hand down and away.  Dead eyes met hers, warning.

Nicolette shifted position.  She reached out for Lucy.

“I don’t need help,” Drowne said.

“I’m helping regardless,” Nicolette said.  She extended a hand to Lucy’s face.  “Sorry.”

“You suck!” Avery shouted at her.

Nicolette moved her hand, touched Drowne’s face, and closed his eyelids.

He jerked, stumbling back, then remained where he was, still holding them, eyes still closed.

He let go of Avery and Lucy, hands going to his face.

“-kkkkkkked!” Avery forced it.  “You rock now!”

“I don’t know that I do.”

“What the hell are you doing!?” Chase shouted.

“I guess I’m giving up on a really cool position with a group of Augurs.  And ending up on the bad side of both Bristow and Belanger,” Nicolette said.  She pushed Avery and Lucy behind her.  “I’m probably going to be in a lot of debt as far as deals I’ve made, I might lead the rest of my life destitute, doing this.  But… I think I can make do.”

“Did you forget I’m better than you?” Chase asked.

“You are… as an augur,” Nicolette said.  “I’m pretty darn good with some scary arts, you know.”

“I have more years of training in elementalism, shamanism, fighting…”

“We can try fighting,” Nicolette told him.  “Your call.”

“You’d have to deal with us too,” Lucy said, from a position a step behind Nicolette.

Avery nodded.

Snowdrop hurried over.  She wrapped her arms around Avery in a hug.

Chase didn’t opt for a fight.

“Rae,” Bristow called out.

He was there, at the corner of the building, walking around.

Avery’s Sight alerted her to motion.  Verona appeared at the roof, cat form.  Avery raised a hand, and Verona bounded over.

“Yessir?”

“Go inside.  Relax.  Find Kevin and Shellie.  Send them out.”

Ted and the Mussers followed behind Bristow, along with Tanner, two of the Hennigars, and some Others.  Blackhorne was with them.

As the man arrived, students sorted themselves out.  Many were still waking up.  They backed away from one another, as battle lines were unconsciously drawn.  A gap sat between Alexander and Bristow.

Kassidy crossed the gap.

Fernanda situated herself off to the side, near the alley between two buildings.  Not choosing either, her head hanging a bit.

Verona hopped down and became human, and joined Avery, Lucy, and Snowdrop.  They took up positions opposite Fernanda, at the edge of no man’s land.

“What happened, Fernanda?  Your family’s fortunes are rising,” Bristow said.

“I’m a manipulator.  I know they were messing with me, showing me those things.  Putting Laila in front of me.  I don’t care.  It happened on your watch.”

“Kass?”

“Been thinking about this for a while.”

Bristow nodded.  “The original allegation was forged.”

“Doesn’t matter.  The school handbook warns the brownies may act if they get your gratitude, affirmations, or positive feedback,” Verona said.  “I looked it up.”

“Followed by two halfhearted, paltry attacks,” Bristow said.  “I’ve told Mrs. Hayward that we do not operate in absolutes.  A regret about an outcome is not a regret about what I’ve done regarding her hometown, nor is a general sign of happiness over outcomes aimed at the staff.”

“Halfhearted defenses on your part, you mean!” Verona shouted.  “All of this, us three working so hard against you!?  Follows from what you did to our home!  And you owe the staff for the help you got!”

“Paltry!” Bristow spat the words.  “And a few changed minds?  Is that your form of attack?  Two students who barely rate?  Lesser daughters from lesser families?”

Lucy touched Verona’s arm, indicated Nicolette.

“Four,” Verona said.  “Mccauleigh has doubts, and Nicolette’s abandoned you.  You put so much importance on people but you don’t keep them!  You lost them.  Is this the kind of leadership you’re going to have?  You’re going to keep losing people, and you put so much pride on holding onto people like Clem, like Kevin, or Ted.”

Was this Verona’s hope?  That she could find the leverage to affect the Aware, score a win there too?

But Ted didn’t budge.  Kevin and Shellie emerged from the building, and took up spots behind Bristow.

“Your office is trashed,” Shellie told Alexander.

“Easily remedied.”

“Not the kind of damage I did.  Don’t lie, Alexander,” she said, her voice low.

Alexander pressed his lips together.

“It’s scarcely anything in the grand scheme of it all,” Bristow told Verona.

“It’s a win for me and a loss for you.”

“And?” he asked.  He spread his arms.

Verona was silent.

And!?  For all this petty teenage drama, this interference, this petulance!?” he asked.

Verona didn’t have an answer.

“It weakens your position, Bristow,” Alexander said.  “Funny how that works.  May I continue, then?”

They didn’t have a third challenge.

Not unless Avery wanted to jump up to the roof and maybe try to gun down Kevin.

Probably wouldn’t work.  Musser was there.

Was this all their effort had amounted to?  A shaking of Bristow’s cage, giving Alexander the win?  When he’d stood by like that?  He’d probably planned this this way.  It was what he did.

“If you must,” Bristow said.  “But-”

“Wait!” Avery took off.

Running.  Straight for Alexander.

“What are you-?” Alexander asked.

She ducked around him, bumping him a bit, to knock him back.

Taking Clementine’s hands.  Avery’s momentum was such that she circled around Clementine, spinning the woman in a half-circle.

“Give us-”

“Give them nothing,” Alexander interrupted.  “They interrupted us, they made us wait, Bristow isn’t right about much, as far as I’m concerned but he’s right that their attempt was feeble.  They-”

“They’re kids!” Clementine spoke up.  “They’re kids, and I don’t understand anything, but they were kind to me and they should be listened to, not talked over, especially by their teachers.  I think they were fair to me, when they could have been harsh.  Mr. Bristow?”

Lawrence didn’t speak.  He remained there, backed by two tall men, flanked by students, by staff.  Others who the Aware shouldn’t see hung back in shadows.  Visible to Avery, Lucy, and Verona, but not Ted or Kevin.

Clementine cleared her throat, and then addressed Mr. Bristow, “Mr. Bristow, Alexander has things to say to you.  So do tenants who think you’ve failed to do a very good job, because you’re spreading yourself too thin.  My sink still needs fixing, I can speak on behalf of a few others who have wanted your help or attention but haven’t been able to get in touch.  You let things slide.”

“All will be tended to, barring interference or extraordinary event.  I promise,” Bristow said.

“Okay, well, while we’re on the topic of promises, this is the big one.  You promised me you’d answer a question for me.”

“In due time.”

“I am in my rights,” she said, glancing at Alexander, “to demand an answer now.”

“I gave her some advice,” Alexander said.

“Give,” Avery whispered. “Help.”

“Everyone wants answers now.  Go home, Ms. Robertjon.  I’ll speak to you there, barring unexpected circumstance.”

“I demand my answer,” she said, more firmly.  “You owe me for the trouble-”

She paused.

“For the trouble Daniel, Sharon, and I put those three girls through.  For their sakes-”

“On our behalf,” Avery said.

“On their behalf, please answer in the here and now.”

“Third challenge, woo!” Verona whooped.  “Let’s do it!”

Bristow gave her the side eye, then stared Clementine down.

“Third challenge, sure,” Clementine said, very serious.

Stolen from Alexander.  He had to have something prepped against Bristow.

Alexander didn’t look happy.

“What are the questions?”

“Question one,” Clementine said.  “How may I, Clementine Robertjon, or anyone I designate to search on my behalf, access the most valuable pieces of information you keep on me?”

“Pieces of information?” he asked.

She shrugged.

Diagram? Avery thought.  Is this the arrangement that has the Aware all secured and trapped?

“Ask your second question.”

“How many I, or anyone I designate to search on my behalf, access the most valuable pieces of information you keep on Ted Havens, tenant and assistant manager of the building?”

“And the third?”

“How may I, or anyone I designate to search on my behalf, access the most valuable pieces of information you keep on Sharon Griggs, tenant and sometime helper of yours?”

“I can guess how the rest go.”

“Are you going to rush home?” Alexander asked.  “It’s a long, long drive.  I can testify, as I just traveled the opposite direction.  And I can tell you that Wye may be injured, but he’s ready.  Everything you have on them, to keep them under your thumb?  It’ll be long gone by the time you even cross the provincial border.”

“I want my answer now,” Clementine declared.

“Third challenge!” Verona crowed.  “Is it going to be a third, sucky half-answer?  Because that sounds pretty bad for you as far as our back-and-forth go over your difficulties with the staff.  You’re wobbly with your word, got it on paper, as you’ve seen, you’re not keeping students-”

“Letting them die,” Fernanda said.

“-and you’re not keeping promises made to tenants?  Gosh!”

“Thank you,” Avery murmured to Clementine.

Ted laid a hand on Bristow’s shoulder.  Bristow, wordless and still, flinched, jerking back out of the way of the hand.  He took a few seconds to resume his prior posture, gradually resettling.

“Lawrence?” Alexander asked.  “Cede.”

“No,” Bristow said.

“There are ways.  Verona- if you’re claiming this win and he can’t dispute, would you agree to go easy?  There are ways to deal with the staff, the tenant situation, but you’d need to clear it.”

“Sure!  If he agrees to terms,” Verona said.  “Gladly, sure.”

“Stepping down,” Alexander said.

“You don’t get to take control over this!” Lucy raised her voice.  “You failed people here.  You let things slide, you- you ruined Seth!”

“Seth ruined Seth.”

“You don’t get to win here!” Lucy raised her voice.  “You don’t!  You don’t get to decide terms!  Bristow!”

“Can you call me Mr. Bristow, please?” the man asked.

“Step down,” Lucy said.  Verona nodded beside her.  “Make amends to Laila.  To all of us, we deserve something for the pain and stress you put everyone here through.  Release your hold on your tenants.”

“Agree to leave us alone,” Verona added.  “No retaliation against anyone here, or anyone related to us.”

“Giving up everything?” Bristow asked.  “Everything I’ve built, everything I am?”

“You’d be alive, you’d even be able to salvage relationships,” Lucy said.

“I wouldn’t even have the flames of hate and revenge to drive me forward.”

“You’d be alive.  Free.”

Unforsworn, Avery finished.

“I won’t make this any easier by surrendering.  I’ll leave the mess that follows to you,” Bristow intoned, his eyes downcast, the light making veins and lines on his head very visible.  “In a little while, bad things will come to pass.  Things that end cities.  I don’t know what they are, but the conditions are right.  What I was going to build here would have prepared us.  Yes, it’s harsher.  Yes, fewer students make it through, but we’d be ready and organized against threats to come.  It won’t be in the next few years, it may not even be in the next decade, but I think these wrongs are coming in your lifetimes.  And I damn the lot of you to it.”

He turned.

Ted reached for him again, and he smacked Ted’s hand aside.

“Bristow!” Alexander called out.

“You most of all,” Bristow said, without turning back.

On either side of him, in blue tinted windows that glowed with interior light, x-shaped eyes opened, orange-red.

They multiplied, opening from bottom to top, in all of the available windows.

“This is dumb,” Verona’s voice was barely audible, talking to Bristow.

Verona’s eyes were purple with the Sight, visible only to fellow Sight-havers, and as the orange eyes filled the window, turning it from pale blue to orange-red, Verona’s eyes reflected that, doing much the same, purple to a warmer color.

The Aware, looking back, didn’t seem to notice the interior lights were different.

“As my last act as headmaster, you and your friends are expelled, for acting against a teacher.”

“I don’t think you’re headmaster anymore,” she said.

Bristow shook his head.  He turned to Musser to say something.

He pushed the doors open.  For the brief moment the double doors were open wide enough to let him pass through, the room was bright and stirred, as if an orange-red flame burned inside.

The doors closed behind him.

The multitude of orange-red eyes closed, or turned away.

The interior returned to a soft blue.

Verona didn’t even seem to flinch.  Lucy’s eyes were downcast.

Avery felt a bit sick.

“As practical lessons go,” Alexander Belanger said, “that was a steep one.  Shall we-”

“You’re not headmaster,” Nicolette called out.

Alexander stopped.

“Can someone get Ray?” Nicolette asked.  “Zed?  I know you’re still mad, but please?  Tell him Bristow’s gone, he doesn’t need to worry about taking sides anymore.”

Zed nodded.  He hurried up the stairs, past the remnants of Bristow’s continent.  Into the building.  No ‘fire’ of x-shaped eyes burned inside as he pushed the door open.

“This goes smoothest if I resume my position as teacher.”

“Let’s wait for Ray,” Nicolette said.

Ray didn’t take long at all.

He stepped outside, wearing red sunglasses despite having been indoors, long hair combed, dress shirt and suit jacket on, with a very narrow red tie.

“Sorry for the inconvenience,” Raymond said.  “Bristow’s gone?  Can I get confirmation?”

There were wary nods here and there.

“Students, I’m sorry.  I believe we’ll have a reduced class selection for the next few days while we get things sorted and organized.  Mr. Musser, while I have your ear, would you happen to be available?”

The man shook his head.

“Mrs. Graubard?”

The woman nodded.

“Alright.  I know some students haven’t eaten.  I’ll ask the staff to please put something quick together.  Guests- you are-?”

“Tenants,” Clementine raised her voice.

“Tenants of Lawrence Bristow.  You’re welcome to stay for dinner.  It shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to get ready once I get them started, and the quality is top notch.  If you are unable or unwilling to make the drive home tonight, I can look into accommodations.  Things are chaotic, so I beg your patience in all things.  I beg everyone’s.  I’m not good at this, I don’t enjoy it, but I will do my best for all of you.”

“Raymond,” Alexander said.

Raymond held up a finger.  “Students, please be aware, I’ve expressed a very strict no-tolerance policy in the past.  If there are any lingering disputes, please put them to bed, or reach out to staff to resolve them.  If I have to expel anyone as a result of this, rest assured, I will not be paving the way for those expelled students to return.  A headmaster will replace me, I’m sure, and their policies will be their policies.  I’ll do what I can to ensure the selection is as agreeable to everyone as is possible.”

“Ray,” Alexander said, approach.

“Alex.  Can you please seek accommodations elsewhere?”

“This isn’t the way to do this.”

“Please,” Raymond said, voice firm.  “I will find you as soon as matters are settled here.  I hate deadlines, but I’ll suggest a gentle one of two or three days.”

“Make it a vote,” Alexander told Ray.

Raymond shook his head.

“You realize, by taking any other course, you earn my enmity.”

“By making it a vote, with what you’ve set up here in this school, I’d be making you headmaster.”

“The alternative is having me as a very dangerous enemy.”

“Understood,” Ray answered, quiet, very serious.

Alexander remained where he was.

A student put up their hands.

“I know there are a lot of questions,” Raymond said, to the student.  “And many of you will want to speak to me.  I’ll do what I can, but if you’ll be patient, ask classmates what you can, get comfortable, eat when food is served… hopefully questions can hold until tomorrow.  I’ll send Durocher out with her apprentices to address any medical care.”

Alexander turned.

His eye fell on Avery, and it was bright in the gloom.

She watched him warily as he strode on down to where his car was parked.

His headlights flared on.  As that light faded, his eyes remained bright.  More anger and intensity in there than there’d been in that orange-red frenzy-fire that Bristow had walked into.

That kind of anger, that kind of fury?  He wasn’t going to let things sit.  He’d come for them, and soon.

Having me as a very dangerous enemy, he’d said.  And she believed him.


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

[7.8 Spoilers] Can We Talk About The Girls?

The cafe was dark enough it could be mistaken for being closed.  But there were people inside, and staff bustled from table to table, delivering drinks and small cakes on platters.

Most of the illumination came from candles on tables and the display cabinets that stretched along the right side of the cafe.  On the left side of the store, a projected image of a clock provided some diffuse light.  A trio of couples were sitting here and there.  Two twenty-somethings and a vibrant elderly couple.

A laugh from the elderly woman and the faint sounds of dishes being washed in the back cut through the relative quiet.

There weren’t many tables that sat more than two, and Jasmine picked one further in.  It was hard not to feel like she was underdressed even though she’d picked one of her nicer shirts, a wide-sleeve, wide-neck top that almost fell from the shoulders, and airy, summerweight pants.  Maybe underdressed was the wrong word, though it wasn’t entirely wrong.  It was as if she were intruding on this intimate setting.  She hadn’t picked the location, and she wouldn’t have, if she were familiar with this place and given the choice.

She ordered tea and a brownie à la mode, got her tablet out, and got some work done while she waited.

“Hello?  Hi, are you Lucy’s mom?”

Jasmine looked up.  Avery’s mother wasn’t underdressed, and looked surprisingly at home in this place.  She had makeup on, her hair was up, and she wore a lightweight blue blouse, skirt, and a silk scarf at the neck.

“Yes, I’m Jasmine.  Hi!  It’s so nice to meet you,” Jasmine said, with some genuine cheer.

Avery’s mother took a seat opposite Jasmine.  “Hi.  I’m Kelsey, Connor’s parking the car.  We’ve nearly crossed paths a few times now.  There was the school event, I think you were leaving just as we arrived-“

“Work, yes.  My schedule is all over the place,” Jasmine said, wincing.

“-and a wave from a window.”

“Yes, absolutely, yes.  I actually stepped outside my house to say hi but you’d moved on.”

“Did I?  I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.  Gosh, that’s embarrassing.”

“I didn’t mean-“

“No, no.  I didn’t mean anything by it.  I don’t know.  That might have been the time Kerry was crying in the back seat, or my father was needing the facilities.  I do that a lot, actually.  I get so caught up in things I lose track.  I’m really glad we’re doing this.  Connor!”

Connor was a trim man in just about every respect.  Short red hair, short beard, well-fitted clothes on a lean body.  He’d dressed up too.  Kelsey was lucky.

“Hi!  Hi, Jasmine, if I remember right?  We had a conversation on the phone,” he greeted her.  His handshake was two-handed and effortless, like he casually shook a lot of hands.

Jasmine nodded  “We did.  Thank you for having Lucy over.”

“I apparently snubbed Jasmine.  By accident, I promise,” Kelsey said.

“It’s really okay.  I- with Booker, my oldest, I was all over the place.  He started running before he could walk and every time I thought, um, one year or two before he gets into girls or gets curious about drinking, he’d surprise me by a considerable margin.”

“Rowan was the same.  More about getting into trouble.  He was more careful with girls,” Connor told her.

“Ah yes.  They were in the same cohort, weren’t they?  Or even the same classes?”

“In the last year,” Kelsey said.  She looked like she was in a good mood, leaning forward to practically beam at Jasmine.  “Rowan wanted to at least try high school, make sure he was on the right track after all the homeschooling.”

“He was sick of us,” Connor said.  “Rightly so.”

“No!” Kelsey said, laying a hand on Connor’s chest.

Jasmine missed that.  That easy company and companionship.  She still smiled. “Booker turned out well, though.  I was worried for a time.  Now he’s off to school and struggling a bit with the culture shock of the city and the expectations of one or two classes, but he’s doing really well.”

“That’s so great,” Kelsey said.  “Rowan’s taking a year to figure things out.”

“Part of that is the long goodbye with his girlfriend,” Connor said.  “It took them five seconds to fall in love and it’s taking a year to part and go their separate ways.”

“Heartbreaking,” Jasmine said.  “Was it like that for you two?”

“The first part, yes,” Connor said, looking at Kelsey.  “As for the second part, different era.  I strongarmed Kelsey into following after me.  Made it up to her after.”

“Keep making it up to me, mister,” Kelsey said, mock-stern.

“So are you two familiar with this place?”

Kelsey beamed.  “I love this place.  I know it’s an odd choice, but Connor has to twist my arm to get me to choose another location or activity for our date nights and anniversaries.  We don’t get many chances to get away, especially while I’ve been traveling for work.”

“I know that pain,” Jasmine said.  “Traveling out of town for work.”

“Yes, absolutely.  I thought if we’re making plans to get away from the kids, why not cheat and treat ourselves?”

“It’s great.”  And a little pricier than I would have gone for on my own.  She thought of Verona’s dad and wondered what he’d think.  “Verona’s father may not be able to make it.”

“Something about the hospital?” Connor asked.

“Yes.  It’s been a little under a week, I’m not sure how mobile he feels.”

“And her mother?  Can I ask?” Kelsey asked.

“I called, we had a long conversation.  Did some catching up.  We were friends, before, as much because of the girls putting us in close proximity as anything.  She thinks if she had more notice and if we do this again, maybe without her dad present, she’d like to come into town and catch up.  She feels starved for information on Verona.”

“I can’t help but read between the lines there,” Connor said.  “Acrimonious?”

“I don’t want to dive into other people’s business-”

“Of course.”

“But I think I would avoid-” Jasmine started, turning her head as the door to the cafe opened, bell giving a single ‘ding’.  Verona’s dad loomed in the doorway.  Far from trim, looking tired, he wore a work shirt and khakis.  “-the subject of her mother.”

“Good to know, thank you,” Kelsey said, voice quiet and serious, in contrast to how she smiled and waved to Verona’s dad.

“Hi, Brett Hayward.”

“Kelsey, and this is Connor.”

“Hi.”

“And you know Jasmine, of course.”

“I do.  Thank you for looking in on me, Jasmine.  I didn’t know what to do with myself.”

“How are you feeling?”

“Good.  Managing.  Let’s see…” he plucked a mini-menu from between the salt and pepper shakers.  He looked for about two seconds before saying, “All of this looks good enough I think I can justify using it as a trial run for my stomach.”

“I’m partial to the apple crumble,” Kelsey said.

“I’d go easy, Brett,” Jasmine said.  “I’m not a doctor, but if your stomach is still inflamed-”

“Then I’ll suffer for it later.”

“Can I suggest plenty of water and half a portion size?  That’s not medical advice, that’s me as a concerned friend, trying to mitigate the damage.”

“Water’s a good compromise.  But when you’re as big a man as I am, unfortunately, I think a regular portion is a half portion,” he said.

Jasmine frowned at him, and almost said something about Verona being concerned, but she didn’t want to betray that trust, and both Kelsey and Connor looked uncomfortable, talking with one another about their orders.

“Do we order over there, or do they come to us?” Brett asked.

“I waved a waitress down when I ordered.  Are you two decided?” Jasmine asked.  She gave Brett a warning look, her eyes flicking to the menu.

“Yes, absolutely,” Kelsey said.

“She decided before we left the house,” Connor said, laughing.

They ordered.  Apple crumbles à la mode for Kelsey and Brett, strawberry rhubarb pie for Connor, and some coffees, with water instead of coffee for Brett.

“What do you do, Brett?  I feel like I’ve seen you around the office once or twice.”

“I think so.  I was going to say.  Our real role is specialized systems for departments.  Too many office environments and official environments are running off of systems designed in the 90s, with java or basic.  We’ll do a specialized system for H.R., or for I.T. tickets, or email streams.  But our fallback bread and butter is installing server architecture, handling everything internal.  Then I moonlight a bit at a second job, a group of smaller newspapers pay me to translate articles to the web and maintain an analogue with a paywall, keep everything running.  It’s automated, they mostly forget I exist until something goes wrong, at which point all hell breaks loose and inevitably it’ll be when there’s freezing rain, trees taking down phone lines, and hell breaking loose at the office of my first job.”

“When it rains it pours,” Connor said.

Brett nodded, “Absolutely.  Too much of the job is cleaning up after others.  The younger generation is here and I wish they had more training or education.  They come from Thunder Bay or Toronto or Ottawa prepared to change things before they’ve even seen how things are done or why.”

“What about you, Jasmine?” Kelsey asked, cutting in.  “You travel?”

“I’m still a registered nurse,” Jasmine said.  “Not with a hospital.  For right now I’m working with a pharmaceutical company, I travel to patients homes, make sure they know how to store and use the medication provided.  It’s serious medication, and the number of clients are relatively small, so I make triply sure they know everything they need to know, sit with them for the first few injections to make sure there’s no reaction.  It’s not the work I’d choose.  The pay is… doable.  But the scheduling is entirely dependent on the clients.”

“I was wondering why it was so hectic,” Kelsey said.

“What would you do?” Connor asked.  “Given the choice.”

“Working with patients at a hospital.  The scheduling wouldn’t be perfect, necessarily, but at least I wouldn’t be driving two hours, sitting by a sleeping patient’s bedside for three hours, then driving home to get back at one in the morning.”

“Oh gosh,” Kelsey said.

“If you want, I can put in a word,” Connor said.  “I know people.  My brother does insurance with the hospital.  I can tell them to keep an eye out for you.”

“I- I definitely wouldn’t object.  If it’s no trouble.”

“Not at all,” Connor said, waving her off, like it was the simplest thing in the world.  “It’s how these things happen.”

“We have nine to fives- or a nine to five and an eight to four, but we have to do so much juggling, what with my dad and the various kids and their schedules.  And then summer hits, half of them are off doing their own thing, and I miss it.”

“Kelsey’s traveling to Thunder Bay every other week to move the main office,” Connor said.  “But at least when she’s here, we can reconnect a bit.  Do stuff like this.”

“We can’t do this when all the kids are around,” Kelsey said, laughing.

“You don’t bring your kids here?” Jasmine asked.

Kelsey laughed.

“I don’t think the business would survive it,” Connor said.

“How many?” Brett asked.

“Five.  Oldest is twenty, youngest is six,” Connor answered.

“It’s exactly as chaotic as you imagine it,” Kelsey added, tittering.

“I guess that makes you the parenting experts at this table,” Jasmine said.

Kelsey laughed, looking almost scandalized.  “No, no, no.  Definite no to that.  I think when Kerry is old enough to leave for college, I’m still going to feel like I’m learning the ropes.”

“Is Verona an only child?” Connor asked.

“She is.  I’m happy it’s the case.  I barely manage, I don’t know how you manage five.”

“We don’t!” Kelsey declared, through a laugh.

“We get by on a day by day basis,” Connor said.

Kelsey leaned over the table, simultaneously laying a hand on Jasmnie’s arm.  “Before you boys arrived, I was telling Jasmine that I’m so glad we’re doing this.  Our girls became such good friends, we should at least know each other.  It’s so much easier when they’re young, or if they’re part of the homeschooling curriculum, because there’s more events that force the parents together, but like this, all the different work schedules…”

“Don’t even get me started on work schedules,” Brett told her.

“Brett,” Connor said, affecting a very serious tone.  He held his coffee cup up near his face, leaning over the table, and wagged the index finger of his other hand.  “If you’re not going to do it in the here and now, when will you get the chance?”

“Haha, sure.  I’ll keep that in mind then.”

Jasmine’s smile was a tight one.

Kelsey turned to Jasmine.  “You had to leave the one school event, and I think at one point you said all three were at your apartment but you were off to work?”

“Yes,” Jasmine said, a bit wary.  “I figured they’re either out wandering and there are parts of town I wouldn’t want them to do that in-”

“Of course,” Connor said.

“-It’s better if there are four walls around them.  As long as they have a television and computer, they can occupy themselves, and Lucy’s very responsible.  Worryingly responsible.”

“I think you could put Verona in an empty room and she’d be happy as can be, off in her own little world,” Brett said.

“Maybe,” Jasmine said, and the smile wasn’t tight, this time.  “She’s a great kid.  Avery too, she’s a gem.  I’m so glad they connected.”

“Yes!” Kelsey said.  She had a bite of apple crumble in her mouth as she exclaimed, and covered her mouth as she spoke.  She hurried to swallow.  “Mm!  I was so relieved.”

Brett adjusted his seat in his chair, laying a hand on his stomach.  “Verona hid Avery away when they came by, the last time.  I think she’s at that stage where she’s embarrassed by her dad.”

“Yes, it’s so tough, it’s hard,” Kelsey said.  “They’re trying to find themselves, and that means pulling away.  Are we okay with the topic, by the way?  Can we talk about the girls?  I think if we get onto the subject, we might end up going down memory lane, and it might be hard to find the off-ramp.”

“I wanted to talk about them, yes,” Jasmine said.  “Nothing serious.  Just touching base.”

“I suppose,” Brett said, sighing.  “It’s tricky.”

“You’re talking about Verona pulling away, Brett,” Kelsey said, “disconnecting from the parents, becoming independent-”

“Rebellious.”

“-rebellious, even.  I’ll be upfront, I think we messed up with Avery.  She had such a hard time, moving from homeschool to regular high school, and we missed it.”

“Kids change,” Brett said.  “It catches you off guard.”

“It caught us off guard,” Kelsey said.  “A teacher had to tip us off that Avery wasn’t doing well.  She didn’t feel comfortable telling us.”

“It’s humbling,” Connor said.  “So much of how we’ve approached parenting is- you come home with your first kid and you’re terrified.  They’re so small, so fragile, and all you can do is act like you know what you’re doing, be confident, fake it until you make it.  The more confident you are, the more fluidly it all seems to go.  Until you run face-first into a wall.”

Jasmine nodded, holding her tea in front of her mouth with both hands.  “I’ve smacked into that wall.”

“We’ve done it twice now in a matter of months with Avery.”

“We’re not sure about the second,” Kelsey said.

“Sheridan pretty much confirmed it.  I look back and I think, how could I not have seen the signs?  How could I not have been paying attention?  So many assumptions, the stupid confidence…”

“You can do everything right and they’ll still find ways to surprise you,” Brett said.  “Not that I’m doing everything right.  Just the opposite.  But I’ve got to salvage my ego where I can.  It’s hard, when you have a kid as imaginative as Verona or headstrong as Lucy-”

Jasmine raised an eyebrow.

“-she is headstrong, Jasmine.  And- sorry.  Verona hasn’t introduced me to Avery.  But every hint I’ve managed to get has suggested she’s a stellar kid.”

“She is,” Connor replied, with a smile.  “How is she getting along with the others?”

“It’s so hard,” Jasmine said, “Lucy and Verona have known each other since they were five.  That’s eight years of history and being on each other’s wavelength to break into.”

“Is she getting along with either of the two more?” Connor asked.  He looked at Kelsey, who frowned.

“I couldn’t say,” Jasmine admitted.  “But I don’t see any sign she’s not getting along with either of the other two.  She’s upbeat and helpful if I have Lucy and her helping me put dinner together.”

“We tried that with our kids, but it ended in tears and chaos so many times…” Kelsey added, wincing.  “We gave Rowan a crash course in adulting this year, now that he’s talking about moving out.  That may be the policy for the rest of them.”

“She does just fine.  They seem to get along.  The hardest thing is trying to keep them in one place for longer than it takes to feed them before they run off to do who-knows-what.”

“Maybe I could have Avery over more,” Brett said.  “I could do with that good cheer rubbing off on Verona.”

“Not so good?” Kelsey asked.

“No.  Not good.  Verona’s moody.  I’d chalk it up to hormones, but there’s a guy at my office who is all about weightlifting and I’m pretty sure he gets some chemical help, and there’s none of that with him.”

“What’s the problem?” Jasmine asked.

“It’s like her skin crawls if she’s in my company for more than five seconds, she runs off to her room or leaves the house at the next opportunity.  I can talk to her in the most reasonable tone, as level as the tone I’m using with you now, explaining matter of fact things, and she’ll respond with literal screams.”

“Sheridan’s had her moments,” Connor said to Kelsey.

“This was weeks of moments,” Brett said.  “I was looking things up and thinking about oppositional defiant disorder.”

Jasmine asked, “Could it be what you’re saying?  Even if it’s reasonable, the wrong things might-?”

“I don’t really think so, Jasmine.  I can’t talk to her about my work, basic household needs, school and homework… and the longer it goes on, the harder it is to talk to her at all.  I can’t help but feel like we’d be best friends if we could just have a single conversation without the screaming, door slamming, or her finding some excuse to run off.”

“What was she like before?” Connor asked.

“So clever in many ways that she outsmarted her way out of doing well in school.  She took up habitual lying…”

“Oh yeah,” Jasmine said.  “I remember that.”

“Jasmine knows.”

“It’s that imagination,” Jasmine said.  “She had no outlet.  She stopped art, and she had nothing, so she started telling stories.”

“The teachers caught on,” Brett said.  “And teachers talk to one another.  I think it impacts her classes, because they don’t trust her from day one.  I can’t even blame them when I have to pause to double check if what she’s saying lines up with reality.”

“It’s been a while since she did that,” Jasmine told him.

“It comes up now and then.  Nothing about Verona has been easy.  Except, I suppose I’m lucky she’s slow to develop.  She’s the most kid-like of the three, I think.  A late bloomer.”

“Not that late, Brett,” Jasmine said.

“Oh no.  Don’t tell me that.”

“When she and Lucy were old enough to know how to navigate the web but young enough to not know about internet history, let’s just say the searches I saw raised a few eyebrows.  Only when Verona was there.”

Brett put his face into his hands.  Kelsey laughed.

“I had filters in place, but Verona and Lucy are clever.  They would have been about eleven.  And I’ve seen more hints lately.”

Verona’ sketchbook.  She’d shown Jasmine a picture she was drawing of Booker for Lucy, and some of the pages she’d flipped through… unabashedly into drawing figure studies of boys and men.  Some women, but it was a ten to one.  And then there was the app.

“What about Lucy?” Connor asked.

“Has little crushes, I asked when the class photo for picture day was delivered, she made me guess, and I guessed wrong about four times.  Just, um, Brett, before the conversation moves on, if you haven’t had the conversation with her about the birds and the bees, because you think Verona’s a late bloomer, you should.”

“I gave her a book.”

“Um, okay, but if that isn’t enough, you know, talk to her-”

“I can’t,” Brett said.  He looked frustrated and flustered.  “I can’t talk to her about anything right now.  I’ll admit it, I’m a bad parent.  I failed, I screwed up raising her, with everything going on.  I’m so busy, nothing’s easy.”

“She’s a good kid,” Jasmine said.  “She is.”

“Teenage girls are hard,” Connor said.

“I didn’t understand them when I was a teenager, and we didn’t have the internet then, or these social dynamics.”

“Reach out?” Jasmine asked.  “If it’s about the talk and you don’t want to direct her to her mother-”

“Ha!”

“-I’m happy to teach her the essentials.  With your permission.  And you know, there’s therapy.”

“If only I could afford sending her to therapy.”

“For you and her both, Brett.  It’s a two-way street.  You find a way.”

“I thought about one of those wilderness survival retreats.  You know those?  Send the kid out into the woods to rough it, disconnect from technology and outside influences, make them build their own fires, teach them self-reliance and discipline, respect for authority?”

“I think that would be like putting a penguin in the desert,” Jasmine told him.

“That’s the point, isn’t it?” Brett asked.

“Avery would probably love that,” Kelsey said.  “If there was teamwork, nature…”

“They can be problematic,” Connor said.  “It’s hard enough handing your kids off to a school, but something like that, where there’s no checks or balances?”

“It ended up being a moot point anyway,” Brett said.  “Since they left for another thing, this summer.”

“I meant to ask about that,” Kelsey said.  “Where-”

“Excuse me,” the elderly couple from a few booths down interrupted.  They’d finished and were getting by.  Verona’s dad was heavyset, and sat with his back to the aisle.  The couple had to navigate by.  He scooted in, then winced.

“You okay?” Jasmine asked.

He nodded, but he was flushed and sweating.

“Sorry, you were saying?” Jasmine asked Kelsey.

Kelsey snapped her finger a few times, eyes roving, trying to remember.  “Oh!  I’m not sure if this was it, but while we’re talking about influences, sorry, I came armed with a few questions.  I hope you don’t mind.  I haven’t been able to get a straight answer out of Avery.”

“Me too,” Jasmine admitted.  “My own questions.”

Kelsey flashed her a smile.  “The influences and people our kids are around.  Names came up.”

Jasmine nodded.

“Matthew and Edith?  Ring any bells?  Relatives of yours?”

Jasmine shook her head.

“No,” Brett said.

“What was the context?” Jasmine asked.

“I don’t know.  But I’ve overheard bits now and then.  When Lucy and Avery were getting ready for the party.”

“Classmates?” Jasmine asked.

“Not on the class list.  They aren’t teachers at the school either. Their teachers last year were Lai, Sitter, uhhh, Bader-”

Jasmine made a face.

“Saw that,” Kelsey said.  “I want to ask about that.  Um, and Hardy.”

Connor sighed at that last name.

“And I heard that,” Jasmine said.

“I’m having trouble keeping up,” Brett said.

“Ummm, putting this… what was it?  Matthew and Edith?”

Kelsey nodded.

“Putting them aside.  Bader was… not the best with Lucy.”

“He’s been a really solid coach for Avery.”

“I believe you, but separate from that, he singled out Lucy all semester.”

“She can be hard to get along with,” Brett said.

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t mean that in a bad way.  I mean that she has a strong personality and she doesn’t budge easily if she thinks she’s right.  It’s like with Verona and the chronic lying.  Teachers have so many students, they rely on shorthand.  And first impressions set the starting point.  If that starting point isn’t great…”

“Lucy’s instinct was that there was something race-driven about it.  The fact that he fixated on her washing her hair, refused to hear different, and was resistant to my input on the matter until I threatened to go to others… I do believe her.”

“Has he said anything specific?  Or done anything?” Kelsey asked.

“No, I wish it were that easy.  And so does Lucy for that matter.  No.  But even if you take race out of the equation, he was still singling out a student and that’s not great.”

“Is it possible she did something wrong at the start of the semester-?” Brett asked.  He stopped as Jasmine looked at him, frowning.

“Brett.  Remember that conversation we had, way back when, a little awkward?  Verona and Lucy were on the play structure, Verona with the kitty hat, Lucy with the neon pink coat.  And Lucy was so mad at you and-” and your wife.  She turned to Kelsey and Connor.  “-she’d slept over, had a bath with Verona, they washed and blow-dried Lucy’s hair, and it was a-”

“Disaster.  Yeah,” Brett said.

“Poor girl,” Kelsey said.

“I don’t blame you, Brett. Hair types vary.  Lucy’s is different from mine.  We had a few misfires before figuring out the best approaches.  But you asked, you were upfront-”

“About being an idiot about these things.”

“This is one of those cases you wanted me to get out in front of, tell you straight.  Lucy’s instinct is that Mr. Bader’s first impression of her was her skin.  She might be young but she’s been around that block a few times, she got bullied by some older kids at the lake.  Some classmates picked on her until others put them into check.  She kicks herself and dwells on stuff if she gets it wrong, it’s why she’s overly mature and way too serious sometimes.  If there was something that set off Mr. Bader like you’re implying, I think she would have fixated on that.”

Brett nodded.

“Trust her instincts?” Kelsey asked.  “Is this something we need to act on?  Mr. Bader?”

“I don’t know, I don’t think so,” Jasmine said.  “I talked to the school.  If they’re aware of it and he’s aware of it hopefully the next non-white student that walks through the doors gets it easier.  I just hate that- it impacts Lucy’s confidence, you know?  It puts her on the defensive.  Would Avery have found sports like she did if she was having to hold back?  Or if her teachers were fixating just a little bit more on what she did wrong than on what she was doing right?”

“Avery’s wobbled,” Connor said.  “Confidence-wise.  She’s had rough patches.  I can imagine the wrong comment or a bit more resistance tipping her over, or pushing her into giving up.”

“Or running away,” Kelsey said.

“Yeah,” Jasmine answered.  “That’s it, isn’t it?  Life can be hard.  A little bit more difficulty can turn a speed bump into a wall you have to scale.”

“I wanted to ask,” Kelsey said, “the day Lucy first came over?”

“Yeah,” Jasmine said, pursing her lips.  She’d anticipated this.

“What’s this?” Brett asked.  “Verona doesn’t tell me these things.”

“It was just Lucy and Avery.  I imagine Verona got filled in,” Jasmine said.

Kelsey shook her head.  “What happened?  We only got bits and pieces.  They left laughing, leaving Sheridan drenched in ice water, and Avery came back shell-shocked.”

“Lucy ran into the man who would have been her stepdad.”

“Paul?” Brett asked.

“Yeah.”

“I liked Paul.  Still run into him from time to time.”

“What happened?” Kelsey asked.

“He broke all of our hearts when he left.  I didn’t realize how much Lucy was holding onto it.  And then with everything about Mr. Bader, about the way the world is…”

“Pent up?” Connor asked.

“I’m not even sure that’s the right word.  Unresolved?  Unanswered?  These things happen and she’s just had to let them go.  But sometimes when you let things go, that doesn’t mean you’re free of it.”

“Then Paul,” Connor said.

“Then Paul.  He wanted to go, she wanted resolution, it was the last straw on the camel’s back.  She couldn’t let it go.”

“Ah,” Connor said.

“If the gas station attendant had called the police or if Paul had been- I don’t want to say less kind, because the dick couldn’t even give her a straight answer, but if he’d made an issue of it, she could have gotten into deep trouble,” Jasmine sighed.  “I got her into therapy, she knows what she did was wrong, we’re doing what we can-”

“Is she okay now?” Kelsey asked.

Jasmine shrugged.  “The therapist said that- um, this was the old therapist, not a good fit, we changed, but he wasn’t entirely wrong either.  He said that as much as I or Lucy might want to look at this as a resolution, a release, it isn’t.  All of that stress and worry and lack of resolution is still there.  It’s not fixed or better.  She’s certainly not happier or healthier in the wake of it.  We put supports in place. She’s got the girls- I hope she’s got the girls, that this doesn’t change things.”

“She’s so good for Avery,” Kelsey said.

“I couldn’t separate her from Lucy if I tried,” Brett said.

“Okay, good.  Yeah, we can work on coping mechanisms.  But all of that is still there.  I still think back to moments when I was Lucy’s age.  When my mom was shamed in front of me.  That, um-” Jasmine picked a tear out of the corner of her eye with a thumbnail.  “-It sits with you.  It changes how I act as a mother with Lucy and Booker.  You know?”

Kelsey and Connor nodded.  Brett had a concerned look on his face.  He looked uncomfortable, one hand at his stomach.

“It doesn’t go away.  These things accumulate and unless the world drastically changes, they’ll always be factors, always unresolved or left as questions unanswered.  I’d love to tell you she’s better, you don’t have to worry, but I really don’t know.  I don’t know if she’ll blow up again, or what she’ll do if it gets to be too much.”

“I hope us meeting like this to compare notes at least helps,” Kelsey said, laying both of her hands over Jasmine’s.

“It does.  They’re pulling away, far too soon, they feel so distant.”

Brett sighed.

“I think if we do this again, we need wine, to drown these melancholy feelings,” Kelsey said.

“Please,” Jasmine said.

“It’s a happy sort of melancholy, isn’t it?” Connor asked.  “They’re growing up.”

Brett groaned.  “Give me the ten year old Verona back.  She was so happy as a kid.  Less screaming, for one thing.”

“It’s good, Brett,” Connor said.  “Part of the process.”

“I’m gonna- dessert isn’t sitting so well with me,” Brett said, rising from his seat.  “excuse me.”

“I told you,” Jasmine told him.

“Yeah, yep, sure.  You sounded a lot like your daughter with that line.”

“Good, I’m glad.  As much as I worry, I adore her, top to bottom.”

“Mm,” he grunted.  Still halfway through getting up, he paused, not moving, like any movement at all would be too much.

“You alright?”

“Mmm,” he grunted.

He walked off.

“I wanted to ask about Julie Hardy,” Connor said. “Going back to the subject of influences-”

“Don’t,” Kelsey said.  “Please let’s not.”

“What’s this?” Jasmine asked.

“She helped us a lot, tipping us off that things were wrong,” Kelsey said.  “I brought it up earlier.  Connor and I have been divided about her role with Avery.  I have no complaints, myself, she’s been very upfront, there are rules about teachers counseling students.  She’s been kind, caring, and considerate-”

“I don’t disagree with any of that,” Connor said.  “Really.  I don’t.  But I personally think back to when I was a teenager.  I was awkward and struggled and I tried on a lot of different hats and explored a lot of different identities as a way of diagnosing and trying to fix what was wrong with me.  When it was just regular puberty.”

“It’s not a hat, Connor,” Kelsey said.

“Hear me out.  Okay?  Avery was drowning, and Julie Hardy was like a life raft.  So she clings.  Mrs. Hardy is traveled and talks about her travels in class and Avery starts talking about wanting to go globetrotting when she’s old enough.”

“That sounds great,” Jasmine said.  “Interest in the world?”

“She was always going to be someone who wanted to travel,” Kelsey said.

“And then the tattoos- Julie has tattoos, so Avery expressed interest.  Other stuff?  I worry that the homeschooling may have left her without defenses.  Kids want to be like their mom and dad, and then as they go to school they meet more adults and the world slowly broadens, but she jumped in with both feet first, straight to high school-”

“She does that.  Can we let this go, Connor, and talk about it later?”

“Just, do you see where I’m coming from?  The degree of influence, when a kid is vulnerable?”

“Which she’s cognizant about and taking all appropriate steps with.  I don’t think Julie Hardy will even be teaching her next year.”

“She might be, and if she isn’t, she’ll still be at the school.  I’m just trying to figure out-”

“Can we not argue?” Kelsey asked.  “People are noticing, and I like this place.”

Connor frowned, looking around.

“There’s a lot going on,” Kelsey told Jasmine.  “It complicated things.  This is… secondary to the big questions.  We have to have a massive discussion with Avery later.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“No, no.  There’s nothing we can do until we’ve talked to Avery,” Kelsey said.  She raised her eyebrows, forehead wrinkling, as she looked at Connor.  “Figured out what we’re doing.”

“Yeah.”

“We’ll have to meet like this again.  We may go over it with you later.  Um, but, Jasmine, you said you had something on your list, a serious question you wanted to ask?  You didn’t get a straight answer.”

“Right, yes,” Jasmine said.  “Right, um.  So there are a few open secrets and other secret-secrets that go around.  The kids as a whole get up to stuff.”

“Right, yeah,” Kelsey said, frowning.  “I worry sometimes.  It’s why we had Connor doing the homeschooling, at first.  But we let our kids be free-range.”

“You have to.  You absolutely have to,” Jasmine agreed.  “So this is touchy, because I don’t want to violate confidences.  There’s things I can’t get into-” like the fucking app. “But I’m sure you were aware of the party at the end of the year.  They went to your place to get ready?”

“Yes.  Yep.  There were older kids chaperoning.  We were told no drinking, no drugs.”

Jasmine made a face.  “From what I found out from Booker a few years back, that can vary.”

“We told the girls that if anything happened, if they were uncomfortable or anything, we’d come get them, no questions asked, no fuss raised,” Connor said.  “I hope that wasn’t overstepping.”

“I said something similar to Lucy,” Jasmine said.  “But what happened?”

“Well you read the paper, didn’t you?” Kelsey asked.

Jasmine shook her head.  “I don’t have the time.  I listen to the news, but that’s usually when I’m driving out to a client, and the radio stations are more for the general area than Kennet.”

“Okay, wow, this is delicious, weird, and worrying, but… some man crashed the party, apparently high as a kite…”

🟂

“I don’t miss that part of things,” Brett said.

Kelsey and Connor were bickering a bit beside their car.  The topic had turned back to the Global Studies class and the teacher Avery had a crush on.  Avery had told her before she’d told her own parents.  It made the entire discussion hard.  She didn’t want to violate confidences.

Jasmine folded her arms.

Kelsey got into the car, slamming the door.  Connor didn’t get into the car, standing there.

Fuck.  Fuck.  Jasmine could have spit.

“How are you?” Jasmine asked.  “Stomach okay?”

“No,” Brett said.

“You okay to drive?”

“Got to, can’t leave my car parked here,” he said.  His stomach audibly burbled, and a look of pain crossed his face.

“Drive safe.  Go see a doctor if it’s not better in the morning.”

“Okay,” he said.

“I mean it.”

He raised a hand in a wave, climbing into his car with a glacial slowness.

She’d promised to report in to Verona and Lucy, but she wasn’t sure how to report on this.  Would she say Verona’s dad was better?  Or was he not, but being an idiot?  He was out of the woods, but she was worried at the same time?  Lucy was anxious and Verona had an active imagination and she had…

…She had no idea where they were at mentally, right now.

Brett drove off.  Kelsey started up the car.  Driving off, leaving Connor on the sidewalk.

He meandered over.

“Want a ride?” Jasmine asked.

“No.  I’m going to walk.  Clear my head, think about things.”

She nodded.

“This was nice.  Thank you for arranging it,” he said.

“We should do it again,” she told him.  “When we can get schedules to align.”

He nodded.

She gave the roof of her car a pat, wondering how to disengage.

“About Brett,” Connor said.

“Hm?”

“Avery has expressed some concerns to her mom.  I was hoping to get a clear picture about why, but… Brett’s take is only half a picture, isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

“How worried should we be?  You know him.”

“I don’t know.  Lucy stopped going over to spend the night and I nudged her into following her gut.”

“You talked to Verona’s mom?  Get any clues there?”

“I talked to her, but nothing in the way of clues.  She’s- before you arrived, Kelsey talked about getting so caught up in things she’d lose track.”

“Oh yeah,” Connor said.

“It’s like that.  But it wasn’t one semester at school.  It’s been ongoing.  She’s more in the dark about these girls than any of us who were at the table tonight.  It’s hard to figure out where to assign the blame, there.”

“I assign myself a lot of blame for that one semester Avery slipped through the cracks.”

“But it’s not that cut and dry.  Verona was as mad as a wet cat after the divorce, her dad whispering in one ear, her mom not pushing back or doing the same back.  She pushed her mom away, her dad pushed her away, she was busy, had a lot of opportunities, and nobody but her seemed to want her to stick around, so she went.  Now she’s out of the loop.  She said Verona asked about her moving back here and letting her move in-”

“Chance to reconnect?”

“But she wasn’t in a position to.  She’d have to quit and she wouldn’t have a job lined up here.  The closest would be Brett’s company.  So…”

“No middle ground?” Connor asked.

“I don’t know.  I really don’t.  I- I don’t know how she phrased it or what other considerations went into it, I don’t know any of that.  Verona takes in stuff and digests it privately, and her mom’s similar to her in that.  The thought processes behind the scenes can be impenetrable sometimes.”

“And we don’t know about Brett?”

“We know it’s not great.  We’re all- me, teachers, Verona, Lucy, we’re aware of different parts of it.  We keep an eye out, try to piece together a picture.”

“I guess you’ll have me and Kel as part of that.  Does he play any sports?”

“No, none.”

“Or- does he go to the bar?”

Jasmine shook her head.

“I’ll try to contrive some excuse to hang out.  Dad and dad.  Sound things out.”

“Thank you,” Jasmine said, looking in the direction Brett’s car had gone.

“Nights like tonight are good.  They help.  What, um- was there any one thing that made you want to do it?”

Jasmine shook her head.  “A bad feeling.”

“A bad feeling?”

“Like I don’t know how Lucy is.  The last time I felt that distance widening, she blew up at Paul.  Now it feels wider than before.”

“Another blow-up incoming?”

“I don’t- therapy’s equipped her with better tools.  What I was saying before, about how frustrated she is at the state of things?  Big and small?  That’s there and I don’t know how she’s sitting with it, I don’t know where she stands, if the kids and staff at camp are being good to her or if there are Mr. Baders and Paul incidents stacking up, unbeknownst to me.”

“Wasn’t it a summer school?”

“Thank you!” a member from the cafe called out.  They were locking up.  “Have a good night!”

Jasmine and Connor waved.

“I just-” Jasmine started, stopped, shook her head.  “If she’s going to be pushed to take action, I want it to be later.  When she’s equipped, educated, grounded and secure in herself.  Change the world, you know?”

“Yeah.”

“And if you don’t have those things, that grounding, education, preparation, what happens?  Another Paul incident.”

Connor ran his hand over his head, through short hair.

He didn’t have an answer.  If there was an answer that could have come that easily, Jasmine probably would’ve already been able to manage.

“About Avery,” she said.

He looked at her

“She’s so terrific.  Whatever it is you’re so stuck on… things have to start and stop at her happiness.”

“I just want to make sure it’s her happiness, and not some teacher’s take that she’s been inspired by.”

“I don’t think that’s how it works.  She’s a good kid, Connor.  I think you should trust her instincts.  She knows her own experience better than anyone.”

He nodded.

“You sure you don’t want that ride?  It’s a long way.  I’d stay and chat, but I’m getting chilly.  We can keep talking in the car.”

“I’ll walk and think, I think.  You should go.  Thank you.”

She nodded, climbed into her car, and started it up, leaving him there.

🟂

“Can we talk about the girls?”

“We have to, don’t we?”

“End of summer.  The judges will force John to take the Carmine seat.”

“It’s a shame.  I like John.  But we have to-”

“Destroy him.  I will.  I don the furs, I deal with him, I take the seat.  Then that’s it.  Everything falls into place, Kennet is taken care of.  The rest of us are taken care of.  The only thing is-“

“The girls.  Miss picked some scarily good ones.  I keep being surprised.”

“Can we deal with them?  I don’t want to kill them.”

“We’ll avoid it if we can.  Let John be the only casualty.”

“I wish we hadn’t let them go to that school.  They’ll come back with a lot of knowledge.”

“Miss again.  Is it bad if I hope this school incident leaves them… less capable of mustering their full strength?”

“I don’t want them hurt any more than I want them killed.  They’re playing their part.  Let’s put our energy into playing our parts well enough that everything goes smoothly.  Counteract, distract, whatever we need to do.  We all need to be on the same page.”

“I’ll pass it on.  You just be ready.  Depending on how this ends, they either come back soon or they come back educated.  Both pose their own problems.”

Gone Ahead – 7.8

Verona

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter


“Stay!” Gashwad hollered.  A hundred ‘x’ shaped eyes narrowed or moved.

Verona crouched, trying to watch Bristow, Musser, Ted -why did she keep wanting to call him Tedward in her head?- and the countless Brownies.  At the same time, she tried to make sure she didn’t miss what Avery and Lucy were doing.

Because Avery and Lucy were good at doing.  Verona was good at the practice but not so good at the hairy situations.

They looked so determined, Lucy with her mask and cape and hat on, eyes burning red behind the eyeholes.  Avery with her mask pushed up, game face on, hat on a string around her neck, cape flapping.

She’d promised Lucy that she would back her up, and the best way she could do that would be to solve this whole damn mess.  Which was looking less and less likely as Ted and Musser and Mr. Bristow all got closer.

To watch for that precise use of language.  In any conversation, she was always tensed, poised to catch that extra loophole, that stray word.

God, this noseplug made it hard to think.  Like a soggy dead cat’s matted armpit lint, filling her nostrils.

Avery broke into a run, cape following behind her.  Verona turned to look back and figure out why Avery was running, and saw Laila running for it.

Verona hadn’t been thinking much about the other group.

Verona’s Sight flashed on, and she could see meaty things doing a wacky arm-flailing thing, all frantic and overworked, like a cartoon mom running around with wobbly noodle arms while children waited for a fire rescue team to get them out of that second floor window.  Except without running around.  Or the funny.

Avery stumbled badly, scraping her leg.

Verona couldn’t go.  That was- it wasn’t going to work on five different levels.  She wouldn’t be any faster than Avery, for one thing.  She couldn’t run, either, both because she just wasn’t a fast runner, and because she had to be here, by the Ruins circle, dealing with Bristow.

Avery dipped out of sight.

But if not Verona herself, then maybe… Verona raised her voice, shouting with a volume that felt like it could rupture her lungs or push the noseplugs out of her nose.  “Tashlit!”

She held her phone in one hand and her arm in the other hand, and fingernails bit into her forearm as she willed power and connection to Tashlit.

“No tricks!” Musser shouted.

Verona twisted around, facing him.

“This brownie thing is about us, not them.  Let the other students go,” Lucy raised her voice.

“This is about so much more than you,” Bristow said.

John hung back, side pressed to a tree, gun held in both hands.  Behind them, lurking in cover, Toadswallow was holding an egg that looked like it had barnacles or tumors on it.  The entire thing practically throbbed, and to Verona’s sight, had something meaty and diseased to the point of being black writhing beneath a translucent, already cracked surface.

Toadswallow gestured, and the others broke into a run, heading into the deeper woods.  Which immediately got the brownies in the trees moving.

Musser started forward, and Toadswallow dropped the- The bad egg?  About as fast as it took Verona to turn from looking at Toadswallow to looking at Musser, Musser drew a gouge into the dirt between himself and Toadswallow.  A straight line.  As part of the same motion, he pivoted, ducking behind a tree.

Ted followed Musser’s lead, a beat late, but didn’t draw the line.  It wouldn’t do anything for him anyway.

And Bristow stepped back, indicating the brownies should move in.

Verona didn’t smell what they smelled.  Brownies bent and crumpled, hands to their faces.  Even Musser sagged.  Ted didn’t.

Musser had a handkerchief.  He pressed it to his lower face.

“Walk away, Bristow!” Lucy called out.

“Why should I do that?” Mr. Bristow called back.  “You’re doing harm to students and faculty, I have to act my part!”

“You brought some metaphorical mad dogs to campus!” Verona called out.  “And-”

She coughed.  Just opening her mouth had let the smell in.  It coated the inside of her mouth, sucked out the moisture, and turned that moisture into something gross.  Like a homeless person with bad teeth had vomited into her open mouth.  She shielded her mouth against more, folding her arms around her face and shouting into the crooks of two elbows.  “You haven’t kept them in line.  Funny how they’re mostly or totally going after people you don’t like!”

Had to get him talking.  It was something she’d already establsihed as a weakness.

“You-” Bristow started to respond, waving with his hand.

Musser started forward, one hand holding the handkerchief to his lower face, other outstretched.

Bristow didn’t continue.  Musser didn’t continue.

Brownies stopped in their tracks.  Meaty wobble-arm things that danced inside trees and from the foliage above went still.

The smell cloyed inside Verona’s mouth, punishing her for talking.  For speaking.  And she’d gotten nothing out of it, because Bristow had fallen as silent as anyone.  She hadn’t gotten him talking.

Something had just happened.

“What a pity,” Bristow said.  “She had promise as a student.”

Avery?  Verona felt her blood run cold.

No.  She would have felt something.  They were tied together.  Laila.

What the hell?

“I suppose this lends a degree of justice to what I do here,” Bristow called out.

“Fuck you!” Lucy shouted, before coughing.

Bristow was far enough away to not be caught in the worst of the stink-cloud, and he was, shitty as he was about so many things, really good at projecting.

If Verona were a little more mentally agile in this moment, she’d have a quip ready about that.

“I suppose I’ll quell the rebellious students, you, and that will be a recent victory to remind the spirits that I’m not to be trifled with.  Alexander is coming, and I’ll meet him, fresh off the back of several recent wins and one gainsaying.  It should be a good result, borne of good instinct.  You probably didn’t even realize you were helping me more than hurting me with this brownie ploy.”

Musser twisted around, looking back at Bristow, holding the handkerchief in place.  His eyes alone communicated more than most full expressions.

“Yes, let’s end this,” Bristow said.  He waved his hand.

Musser stepped forward, head ducked low, face covered, and fast-walked forward.  John immediately opened fire, one shot, that Musser caught out of the air.  Or the bullet went to his hand, as all the ones prior had.

Catcher’s glove?

John charged in.  Playing defense, buying time.  He had a combat knife, and Musser caught that too.  But stabbing wasn’t the intention on John’s part.  He gave up the knife and punched Musser in the neck.

It was a weird exchange.  Like neither cared nearly enough about what the other was doing.  Musser’s automatic catch, the trade of giving away/taking the knife with the punch.  Then the next exchange of moves; Musser stabbed John in the upper arm, as John snatched the handkerchief.

The wind tore the handkerchief from John’s hand.  He backed away, hand going to the knife that was embedded in his arm, while Musser staggered and coughed.

Verona made sure her phone was set, switching over to the automatic translation of Jessica’s ruins-chant.

The brownies were recovering.  The second wave was coming, and they’d wrapped cloth around their faces for the smell.

John went after Musser again, and Musser did the line-draw.  Verona reached for her back pocket, pulled out a paper, and threw it, letting the spirits carry it true.

It didn’t fly true.

She’d been gainsaid.

If anything, it only few in a mostly straight line because Musser had used that glove, because it flew straight there and Musser caught the paper out of the air.

John stopped short of crossing the line, as Musser tore the paper, doing his best to cover his lower face.

“You can’t cross a line in the dirt?” Lucy asked.

“Not if the line is from someone strong,” John said.

“Then go after Bristow!”

John ducked off to the side, where his bag was stowed, and reached inside.  He paused for a second, then retrieved a spare gun.  Gun in one hand, bag in the other, he made it about one step before Ted was there.

Musser, again, didn’t seem to give three rat craps about John, and came after them.

The man held one arm to his face, and he went after Lucy.  Lucy pulled out a pen-sword, using her ring.

A cracking sound made Verona jump.

John and Ted fell to the ground.  The bag John had been carrying was damaged, and it smoked from a hole in the side.  John and Ted were bleeding.

“John!” Lucy shouted, sputtering and coughing.  “If you don’t stop it with the sacrificial plays, I may have to kick your ass!”

“The man doesn’t die,” Toadswallow said, from the bushes behind them.  “Miss Hayward!”

Verona twisted around.

He reached up out of the bush.  A bit of roadkill dangled from his hand.  It looked like about twenty large ticks were stuck to its hind-end.  “You can still use trinkets and items.”

“What do I-”

“Smack things with the butt-end, dear girl.”

She gripped the roadkill by the head.

“Musser,” Bristow said.  “You’re adept in War Magic, aren’t you?  You know how to bind a vicious dog such as this?”

“Busy!” Musser growled the words.  He coughed.

He was better at fighting than Lucy was, but Lucy wasn’t suffering from the smell.  Not as much.

Verona, meanwhile, did what she could to guard the Ruins diagram against the brownies.  She had the ugly stick, but she didn’t want to destroy them.  That was… she’d use it on Musser or Bristow.

So she smacked a few brownies with the gross, limp, and unidentifiable animal carcass.  Flies and fleas and all kinds of other things erupted out around them, leaving them flailing and running.

They were being surrounded.  It had been the sides, front, and back, but now the bushes between them were seeing those eyes appear.  They seemed to be avoiding Ted’s attention, but he was down and taking a bit to recover.

A brownie grabbed Verona, and she had to throw it off her.

John, on the other hand, was already on his feet.  He headed after Bristow, who jumped a little as he realized.

Bristow ducked behind a tree, as John opened fire.  Wood splintered.

Bristow drew a line in the dirt, as Musser had.  John opened fire, tearing up the ground where the line was.

“If the staff would please-!” Bristow shouted.

Brownies threw themselves at John from above and the sides.

They’re strong and Ted’s getting up and we need a win.  I can’t use the tricks I was going to use to fight back against the Brownies, not yet.  If we waste it, that’s it, there’s nothing, Verona thought, her mind racing.

Lucy fended off Musser with sword swings.  He caught and let go of the blade three times in quick succession.

Avery threw herself out of the trees, going after Musser with her mask in her hand.

He caught the mask, then bodily threw her back and behind him, so he could focus on Lucy.

Avery landed in front of Ted, who had just risen to his feet.

Verona wanted so badly to communicate something, to encourage, to steer this or strategize, but her throat was caught up with gas.

They were losing.

Toadswallow was in the bushes, protecting some of the Ruins diagram, fending off the encroaching brownies.  They were supposed to have Laila as part of a multi-stage defense.  To hit them with stink, then curse them while they were down, because curses would work better if they could get a bit of coup in first.  If they could be standing while their enemies were coughing and sputtering.  Then they’d make their dashing escape, after having bought time for the others and making the necessary time to talk to Bristow and surrender the gainsaying.

Snowdrop and Avery fought to escape Ted.  Avery scratched with fingernails to break his grip on her shoulder, and he deflected her groping hand with the back of his, then a push at her wrist, then a smack, to drive her hand down closer to her hip, so it took time to raise it again, and he could use that time to deal with Snowdrop, pushing her back.

Verona hit the button on her phone.

To start the ritual.  The sound file started to play, but it wasn’t immediate.

Get Avery out,” Verona whispered, her voice strained with the way she wasn’t breathing much.

Lucy made the same kind of play John had.  Turning her pen-sword into a cane, then using the cane to hook Avery, pulling her back.  A sacrificial play, because Musser was then able to grab her arms.

It wasn’t the right trajectory, so Lucy gave Avery the boot, a light kick-push to send Avery into the diagram as the chant began.

Avery looked so wounded, somehow.  Because of Laila?

Lucy caught Snowdrop’s hand and swung her into the same area.  Snowdrop knew what she was doing, and she belonged with Avery, so that maybe helped get her where she was going.

The circle erupted.  Water splashed out in every direction, like a bucket had been upended on the circle from high above and now it had to go somewhere.  It washed over and past them, soaking Verona through clothes and seemingly to the very bone, and with it came that startling, too-bright, too-caring emotion, direct from Avery.

Pain, loss, confusion, and a bit of shock.  But shock for Avery wasn’t a numbness that bought time, it was a shake around the collar, that told her body move and really failed to do the same thing with her brain.

Maybe if she had better instincts in a pinch, like Avery, she’d be able to deal with it, but for right now, she fought uselessly past the brownies that had managed to get a grip on her.

That Laila had died.

The feelings rolled over Verona and she wasn’t really equipped for it.  She thought of her dad and how she’d left him.

She was running and she was far enough away from things that the brownies weren’t drenched from the splash or choking from the smoke, which may have been mostly cleared up by the water, because they weren’t choking or suffering.

Brownies were grabbing her and hooking fingers into soaking wet clothes and she wasn’t a fast runner and-

Was this karma?

She grabbed the dog tag from her neck and instead of pulling it over her head, which might have been impossible with the brownies clinging there, she tore it from her neck until the chain snapped.  She threw it down.

If she could get John away from there and over here, deal with the brownies, reassess, flank…

A brownie caught it before it could hit dirt.

Verona slipped, too top-heavy with something like seven brownies clinging to her arms and hair, her shoes wet and the ground still muddy in places from last weekend’s heavy rain.

She landed on roots that were sticking up out of the ground, and felt more hands on her.  They climbed onto her and pinned her, leaving her lying on uncomfortable ground, knobby and bulging, her face half in mud and half in grass.

Was it really karma?  Was this the punishment she deserved, for abandoning her father?  The spirits held to old ways and one of the ten commandments was to honor thy father and thy mother, and that sure seemed like old ways.  They probably hadn’t even invented awful dads way back then.

Her dad had been sick and suffering and he’d asked for help.  And she’d said no.

She’d left to attend classes and learn more cool magic stuff and in the end she hadn’t gotten much of that.  She’d put her dad out of mind and passed the job on to Lucy’s already busy mom, and that didn’t feel right.

Brownies picked her up as a group, with broomstick-narrow limbs and knobby joints, heads shaggy with manes, sideburns, braids, and beards.  Her head hung until brownies gripped it and held it up.

If she’d taken another path- if she’d stayed home, bit her tongue, got her dad that frigging flat ginger ale, changed the sheets, and let her friends go back, maybe let them go back without her, she could have helped out more at the perimeter.  Maybe when things went bad, she could be the true backup.  Let Lucy and Avery be the doers, Verona as the backline type.  Getting things set up in Kennet, so they could send more Others here when things got bad.  Do an actual rescue, instead of sending a shocked and disoriented Avery into another realm with hopes she could help later.

Lucy wasn’t loving this and Avery wasn’t happy and they’d been having chats and Verona was stuck doing what?  Putting on a brave face?

Not so brave now.

“Can we make a deal?” Toadswallow asked from the shadows of bushes.

Brownies hissed.

Verona raised her head.

“Brownies are of summer and fall.  I believe I could scrounge up some royal mead if you gave me the time.  Having some of that on your shelf is a veritiable status symbol.”

They ignored him, except to hiss when he got too close.

Toadswallow emerged from the bushes to pick up the weapon, the animal carcass, that she’d dropped when she’d gotten hit with the watery explosion.

“If you’re of Fall, you might want to buy or trade.  If you’re planning on selling her at auction in markets, let me jump the queue.”

Brownies standing between Verona and Toadswallow shook their heads.

“Thought not.  It was worth a try, considering you could be low on funds, maybe I’d hit the mark.  A good trade at a good moment of need,” Toadswallow told them.  He tightened his grip on the animal carcass he held.

He was going to fight them.

There were maybe fifty holding Verona and thirty or forty more that Verona could see.  She was being held with her nose or chin a couple of inches above the dirt, and the hair that wasn’t being held against the sides of her head by tiny hands that needed something to grip was a curtain on either side of her face.  And she could still see thirty or forty around Toadswallow.

He was going to fight them and it would be disastrous.

“You’re faerie-related, right?” Verona asked.

They ignored her.

“You’re faerie-related, and you like a good show.  Let me put on a good show.”

They continued to carry her.

“You want to score a win?  I’m a reckless practitioner with barely over a month of practice under my belt.  He’s a big kahuna.  He’s Lawrence Bristow, with people he’s in charge of and power and all that good stuff.  He’s got magic items and fancy clothes and Others he can summon, I’m betting.  He’s got some dude that’s lived for hundreds and-or thousands of years serving him like a slave.  Some students follow him and he’s got worldwide connections.  I knew going in that I was the underdog.  And don’t dramatic types love an underdog?”

Toadswallow followed alongside, giving them some space as they carried her.

“If you want the karmic motherload, he’s your guy.  If you want a trade in the markets, I’m betting a guy of his power and background would sell.  If you want a laugh or you want to be sadistic?  He’ll be way more fun to go after than I will.  I just shut down, guys.  He’ll probably puff and rage and shout and try to deal and you can mess with him for years, I bet.  I don’t think you’ll get that much out of me.”

She watched the ground slowly move beneath her nose.

“All you have to do is give me a shot.  Give me until- until when?  Ten o’clock tonight?  I don’t need long.  Or wait, midnight!  Midnight’s a classy time, it-”

“No,” Toadswallow said.

“No?” Verona asked.  She struggled to get a look at him, but the angle of trees, path, and the fact she couldn’t turn her head with small hands gripping her hair made it hard.

“You conceded ten as a time.  You can’t negotiate up from there.”

“Ten,” Verona said.  “Until ten.”

She could smell the kitchens.  She could see glimmers of light, like the ones that had shone through trapdoors.

Their kitchens.  Their places.  Like various parts of this forest were secret trapdoors leading there.

She snorted and the whiff of dead cat armpit flooded her brain.  She gagged, then snorted again, this time to push the wad of lint out of her nose.

A moment later, Brownies crowded her face, and the progress of how they carried her slowed.

One with one eye and a thick braided beard held a very shiny apple.  Others jabbed at her cheeks, pushing them between her teeth, until her mouth opened, and the one with the beard pushed the apple into her mouth.  She twisted her head to the side.

“Don’t friggin’ fight it,” Toadswallow said.  “And don’t swallow any of the thing, either.  Let it be.”

She took the advice, twisting her head around, this time more to make it less uncomfortable.  The apple felt like it would tear her lips from the stickiness or break a tooth from the hardness.

Her teeth sank in as the apple was pushed into place, and she had to fight to keep it from dragging in the dirt, which was so close to her face, twisting her head to the side and lifting her head up.  It was a honeyed apple, so sweet she saw stars behind her eyes.  The contortion included keeping her tongue from touching it.

“It’s good,” Toadswallow said, quiet.  “You got your deal.  Now they want you to shut up and put up.”

She would have nodded, but she wasn’t able.

They carried her down the path.  There wasn’t a perceptible change of direction.  Toadswallow disappeared into shadows.

“And here she is,” Bristow said.  “Would you deal with her hands?”

She scowled at him.

Brownies dropped her, then, after a moment, slid bags over her hands, tying them there.  It felt like they were filled with sand.

“You’re essentially gainsaid, by our deal.  As this rebellion on Alexander’s behalf wraps up, I’ll finalize it.  Still, let’s keep you from practicing.”

“I’ve got a cut lip or something,” Lucy spoke up.  “It hurts like heck, can we skip the gag?”

“Let’s be safe,” Bristow said.  “Lips can heal, pain will pass.  Your rebellion and games will end soon after Alexander’s arrival, and I can bring things back into order.”

“What if I swore to not do anything in that department while I’m in your custody?” Lucy asked.

“I intend to be headmaster for some time, Lucille.  All of my students are technically in my custody for as long as they are here.”

“I don’t want to be a student under you anyway.  You’re not a very good teacher and you’re an even worse headmaster.  If you end up in charge in any capacity I want to be far away from that.”

Lucy, my best friend.  So good at making friends.

It was nice she could be sarcastic in her thoughts, at least.

The brownies brought the apple, smaller than a normal one, golden, with a kind of candied-but-honey-ish exterior.  From the way a hole in the apple’s exterior leaked a blob of the coating, it looked like it was either filled or it came naturally that way.

“You’re such a pretender!” Lucy raised her voice.  “You talk about civilization and pretend to be civilized but you’re a brute, doing this!  You’re crude, you’re blind!  You pretend to be a leader but you barely lead, you just insinuate and hint and you don’t own up to a single thing you’re doing!  If this is the practice then I can’t imagine much worse than it becoming more widespread!  Your entire end goal is-”

She fought a lot harder than Verona had, as the apple was pushed into place.

“Of course you’re unhappy,” Bristow told Lucy.  “You’re losing.  But this is the way things trend.”

“Don’t bite through or eat any part of the apple,” Musser said, from the sidelines.

John.  Had John escaped?  Or-

She had to flop over a bit, and Ted’s foot went out to stop her from flopping over the entire way.  The bottom of his boot was gritty against her elbow and side.

John was sitting inside a circle drawn in the dirt by Musser, disarmed, looking very casual, one wrist resting on his knee, other knee touching the ground.

“I thought the brownies would carry you off, Miss Hayward,” Bristow said, as a brownie crawled up to his shoulder.  It hissed.  “And you made a challenge.”

She glared at him.

“With a deadline no less.  I would have pushed for midnight.  It’s a classic, but that’s just me.  Your generation is so rushed.”

Damn itDamn it, damn it, damn it.

“Things are in order,” Bristow said.  “Would each of you bring one of the girls?  We need only to wait.”

Ted stooped down.  He looked Verona in the eye.  “May I carry you?”

Bristow loomed over Verona.  She twisted her head around.

He took her mask off, then threw it into the woods.  He did the same with her hat, then her scarf.

“Magic trinkets.  Always a good bit of amusement” Bristow said.  “When the dust has settled, I may see about getting these.”

I’m a student, it’s my property, you can’t!

He took her stuff.  Her backpack was on, so he took the strap apart so he could simply pull it away without sliding it down her arms to her bound wrists and bagged hands.  The ugly stick, the hot lead, two bags of glamour, the rat-skull lockpick, her quill, and the big red button they’d confiscated from Brie.

He took her phone, the spell cards, the glamour cards, the pen she kept in her right pocket, and the twenty bucks and crumpled receipt from her left.

She couldn’t speak to challenge him.

He turned to Lucy, took her hat, and dumped the stuff he’d gathered so far into it.  “Do you like earrings, Musser?”

“Not particularly.  Nothing that low quality.”

Lucy grunted.

“Raquel maybe?”

“She’s not a real member of the family, she’s not privy to our methods, and, funnily enough, I wouldn’t make her wear that thing.”

Bristow walked over to John, leaving it to Musser to divest Lucy of all her stuff.  He reached through the circle and John seemed to let him.  Bristow touched the tags, sorting through those that remained.

“Which is yours?  Norman Nescio?  Noakes?  Roe?  Stiles?”

Bristow’s eyes turned to burnished gold as he stared John down.

He pulled a tag free.

“Your choice.  Be bound temporarily to this tag for twenty minutes, stay with the two girls, and if we are somehow waylaid around the time the binding ends, you can be free again and in our midst.  Or stay here, and Musser uses what he knows to grind you down.  There aren’t enough hands who can carry a young teenager, so the brownies will have to bring one.”

“Bind me temporarily, then.  I follow the accords of Solomon.  I would forfeit too if I lied about such and that would hurt them and me more than any lie could benefit, if I could lie.”

“Sometimes his kind emerge naturally,” Musser said, his arms folded, “and they won’t know what’s happening, they’re too aggressive, many don’t even have faces.  Just… blurs, dirt smudges.  They won’t even know what the accords are, they just grandfather into them.”

“Mm hmm,” Bristow said.

“This kind of knowledge doesn’t come with the package, or with the clarification as they refine their Self, as if they were taking progressively smaller chunks of clay out of their raw Self, to create more detail,” Musser said.  “He’s either killed practitioners, or he’s seen others of his kind get bound.”

“The other tags,” Bristow said, pulling them over John’s head, wrapping them around his hand.  “One or both of the girls had them too.”

“I’ve already agreed,” John said.  “Do you intend to draw this out?”

“Mr. Musser is shedding some light on you as a being, Stiles,” Bristow said.  “You’re fascinating.  Very interesting.  Be bound, then, twenty minutes and then freedom if you aren’t inside my property and secure in a prepared diagram.  Starting now.”

Dirt, leaves, and dust picked up around John and filled the circle.

Only John’s eyes, dark and sad, remained, staring out of the storm.  Metal glinted here and there in the midst of the dust.  Clothes, skin, and hair took on a camouflaged pattern to fabric and paint, respectively, and then the camouflage got lost in the shuffle.

The dust dissipated, the tag Bristow held out swayed as if pulled by a magnet, then swung back, catching the light and losing all tarnish as it dropped limp again.

Bullets, flecks of metal, bits of chain and bits of dog tag littered the bottom of the circle.

Bristow gave the little tag a swing.  He spun it in a circle, tossed it into the air, then caught it.

“Careful.  There’s a lot of power driving that one forward,” Musser said.

Lucy twisted around, kicking while the man was distracted.  Musser caught the foot one-handed, grabbed her by the shoulder, and lifted her over one shoulder in a fireman’s carry.

“May I carry you?” Ted asked Verona.  “If it’s not me, it will be whoever or whatever carried you from wherever you ran to, to here.  They’re much slower, I don’t think it would be as comfortable.”

This way, at least, she’d have more time at the destination to try to make things happen.

She nodded.

He picked her up, then practically threw her into the air.

Positioning her so she sat on one shoulder.  He reached up to hold her elbow with one hand and stooped low to clear her head of branches.

“This is for the best,” Ted told her.

She stuck her shoes out, then kicked down at his chest with as much force as she could manage.

“And that, if you do it again, will lead to you being carried in a much less comfortable way,” he told her.

She didn’t do it again.  It was still satisfying.

“I’ve seen things, out there.  Evil, wrong, destructive.  When the next big evil comes, we’ll need to be ready.  Lawrence Bristow’s methodology gets the world ready,” Ted told her.  “I looked around, I got a lay of the land, tried to figure out what there was out there that could help me, or help with the next big evil.  If we don’t address this now, then we won’t be ready.”

He pulled a dead branch from a tree and used it to push another branch out of the way for Verona.

“I know what he’s doing and most of how he’s doing it.  It’s necessary.  Everyone else is too complacent, too selfish, too wrapped up in what they’re doing.  Even you.  I have to ask, if you knew to the point of certainty that the well being of the world hinged on working with a man like him, would you?  He’s good at heart, but he’s also equipped with the tools and motivations necessary to organize the infrastructure, and those often conflict and override the goodness.  It will take time and education and meeting the right people to get him to a better balance.  Losing the right people, even.”

Bristow turned his head to glance at Ted.

“We’ve talked about this, Lawrence,” Ted told him, placid.  “This shouldn’t be a surprise.”

“We have.  And it isn’t.  But I’d rather you not prophecise that.”

“I’m only a man who’s been around for too long,” Ted told Bristow.  “I can’t see the future.  I see only a great deal of one piece of history.  Some of those who cannot learn from the past and apply that learning are doomed to repeat it, you know.”

“I learned from past encounters with Alexander, and you’d better believe I’m applying it,” Bristow said.

“We’ll get there.  So please understand,” Ted said, to Verona.  Or to Lucy, who was slung over Musser’s shoulder, lifting up her head to glare at Ted.  “We need a tyrant for a moment, and he has it in him to be a true hero.  I know this in a way I couldn’t possibly convey to you.”

The glare softened as Lucy turned to look up at Verona.  It was less of a glare now and more… accusatory?  Or whatever sentiment went along with ‘you better know what you’re doing’.

Which Verona didn’t.

Not anymore.

But she could look down at the top of Tedward’s head and then look at Lucy and shake her head slowly.

Lucy smiled.

“What a shame,” Ted intoned.  He’d seen or felt the motion.  He sounded so sad.

Good.

🟂

A music box played a full concert in plonky, artificial instrument sounds.  America hummed tunelessly along.

Verona had seen the clock on the wall before they’d been brought in here, into a building in construction with tarps on parts of the outside and plastic sheets on the inside.  Windows and walls were open and a breeze blew through, but they were on the second floor, and wards protected against intrusion.

Dolls the size of people moved in degrees appropriate to the length of each bit of music, percussion for the feet, string instruments for the arms, a bit of wind for the heads.  Each stop brought the respective doll to a halt.

Patrolling the space to the sound of the music box.

Estrella sat facing them, studying them, a wand laid across her knees.  Hadley had put three chairs together and lay across them, picking at dirt and blood from under her nails with a toothpick.

America, Lucy, and Verona sat in chairs with no ropes to bind them, no more apple-gags, no bags of sand over their hands.

Only music that kept them from moving until the performance was done.

John was off to the side, sitting in another circle.  Olive branches were laid out in a circle, and a magic circle surrounded that.

Verona couldn’t see the time, but she could see it was getting dark.  She’d seen a clock on the way in, telling her it had been six thirty, and she’d counted while the music box played to get the measure of the song.

Each song was nine minutes, thirteen seconds long, more or less.  The same song every time.  It always skipped for a second or two at the end, which made the dolls fall to the floor.

The nine-ish minute intervals allowed her to keep track of the passage of time.

They’d been here for sixteen plays of the song.

Bristow’s every intention was to keep them here, under constant watch and secure guard, until such a time as they ran out of time or were rescued.  But this place was a fortress and there had been no rescue attempts that Verona was aware of.

Not that anyone on the outside knew the exact deadline.

Ten o’clock.  It fast approached.

Hadley stuck a foot out, and one doll collapsed violently and prematurely.  The rest followed suit a few seconds later.

“Don’t be mean!” Talia said, from the doorway.  She stormed her way into the room, going to help the one fallen doll.  Even though all the others had fallen too.  Her canopy jar doll familiar helped.

It reanimated as the song started anew, and Talia stood back, huffing a breath, then started smoothing out hair and clothes, apparently satisfied.

“My mom used to use this box on me if I threw tantrums, or if I crossed a line.  My familiar hated it because she’d have to dance along, back before she was a familiar,” Talia said.  “If I got two hours to watch TV, it meant two hours, and if I went a second over, then I’d have the same two hours with the music box, which usually meant a cold dinner, after.”

“I think we’re well aware of how horrible your mom is,” Hadley said.  “Poor you.  Come, sit.”

“I don’t think I will,” Talia said.  “And my mom is not horrible.  I have a roof over my head, food, education, practice, and opportunities, thank you,” Talia said.  The reply sounded automatic.

Hadley stomped her foot in time as the music played.  Wooden doll feet clacked against the floor.

“I hate this song,” Talia said.  “So, so much.  It makes me want to cry and I don’t know why.”

“Your bell, my dear Pavlovian dog, has been thoroughly rung,” Hadley said, stretching on her makeshift bench of chairs, feet on the ground, head on the verge of hanging off the other side.

“I’m not a dog,” Talia told Hadley.

“You’re absolutely not.  You’re right,” Hadley said.  “My siblings are dog-like.  They bite a lot.  Do you want a hug?”

“Not from you,” Talia said.  “I barely know you.”

“You know Mccauleigh.  A little older than you.  About the same age as them,” Hadley said, pointing at Lucy.  “Mccauleigh is cool.”

Verona moved her focus to the very corner of her gaze, looking in Lucy’s direction, and saw Lucy doing the same.

Not that they could do anything about Mccauleigh and what they knew there.  Alpeana had seen Mccauleigh in dreams, having nightmares and doubts about the family, apparently.

“I’ve got someone to hug,” Talia said, hugging her familiar.

Her familiar hugged her back, then gave her two perfunctory pats on the back and two on the head.  Talia nodded and straightened up again, again checking no hairs were out of place and that her clothes weren’t wrinkled.

Estrella remained where she was, with near-white hair, hands on her lap, fingertips at her wand, feet and knees together.  She’d moved less, probably, than America, Lucy, or Verona.

America’s humming changed, going out of tune.

Hadley reached over her head, sticking out a finger, and poked Estrella in the side.

Estrella didn’t react.

“Tickle tickle.”

Estrella swung her hand down, lightning-fast, for a full-faced slap on Hadley’s face.

Hadley shifted feet around and sat up, looking at Estrella, bewildered.

“None of that,” Estrella said.

“I guess I found a vulnerability.  Don’t like tickles?”

“You shouldn’t touch someone without asking,” Talia said, prim.  “The bodies of the living belong to them and you should respect that.”

“I like how you specify ‘the living’,” Hadley said, rubbing her cheek.

“The dead can be touched as necessary.  But it should be respectful and mindful, not just of the quality of any materials, but of the sentiment for the dead.  One day we shall be dead and we should be so lucky as to be made useful after, and treated with respect in the process.”

“Geez, kid.  I don’t think this music box is good for you.  You don’t usually sound like this.”

“I hate it.”

“Then why are you here?  I refuse to believe you’re our relief shift-”

“No.  No.”

“Which isn’t for another twenty minutes,” Estrella said.  “Timed to fall in the middle of a song.  One just ended around the time Talia arrived.”

“We’re being harassed and bothered by the other group of students.  They’ve been breaking in and making messes, and people are worried they might have Jorja talk to me and try to sway me.  But I think it’s more likely I could get Jorja to change sides.  Especially since they’re losing.  Then we could be friends again.”

“What’s the status on the siege, then, Talia?” Hadley asked.

“I don’t want to start another argument, but the last time I heard from those downstairs, the majority seemed to think that this didn’t qualify as a siege.  Sawyer was arguing it was.”

“Not a siege,” John said, from the binding circle.

“It’s a siege, man,” Hadley said, sitting up.  Estrella tensed, one hand going up, wand at the ready.  Hadley held both hands up in plain view. “Supply lines were cut off, delivery guy came and we could fucking smell that shitty pizza.  And he wouldn’t let us have it because he thought our money was no good.  Now they’re out there, they’re forcing us to watch-”

“Hadley,” Estrella said.

Hadley stopped.

“Don’t volunteer information.”

“It doesn’t matter.  I’m not going anywhere until I was freed, and if I was freed, it would probably be because the situation is over, your win, or my side has broken into or taken over the building.  In either case, doesn’t matter.” John said.  “It’s not really a siege.  Sieges are primarily military.”

“You want to play games, soldier boy?” Hadley asked.  “Siege gets used for hostage situations and other stuff that isn’t military.”

“You should look at where those police forces are getting their equipment from if you think so.  Some is from the military.  The police are militarized and they’re trending more in that direction over time.”

“Bull.  It’s a siege.”

Verona kept track of the song as the debate continued.  The seventeenth play of the song finished, and the dolls clattered to the floor.

“God!” Hadley said.  “Hate that.”

Only Talia and Estrella hadn’t reacted.

“There’s people in the hall,” Hadley observed.

“They came up with me.  We were told to stick together.”

“You’re a bit suspicious.  Estrella, is there any chance of glamour-?”

“No.”

“Or trickery, or disguise, or-”

“No.  Stop, Hadley.  Accept a no.”

The wind blew strong through the room.  John looked down at the olive branches and sighed.

Yeah John.  It’s pretty ironic, Verona sympathized.  Olive branches.

“Hey Estrella?  While I’m accepting that no, can you accept something from me?”

“No.  As a matter of principle, I don’t accept questionable gifts, verbal barbs and insults, middle fingers, or weak comebacks, Hadley.”

“Okay, fair enough.  All I’m saying is my family knows people.  Some great doctors especially, who can put kids together after they’ve taken a battle axe to the face, no questions asked.  And if you needed help from a certified proctologist, to haul the twisty, blunted icicle I’m imagining wedged up your asshole and small intestine…”

Estrella shook her head.  “No.”

“Or your hoo-ha.  The health of hoo-has is so important, Estrella.  You can’t have icicles up there.  It’s so important.”

“And sexual harassment is so not funny,” Estrella said.  ”

Verona looked to the window.  She could see beyond, into the gloom, and with her Sight, she could make out the people crossing the field.

Avery, Snowdrop, Zed, and Jessica.

The others were there too.  Some of the Oni kids.

Verona jumped a bit despite herself as something slammed into an invisible wall.

A knife, black as night, almost invisible against the dark blue sky, except for the fact it was glossy.

John stood.

“Jesus,” Tanner said, as he stepped into the room.  He put a hand on Talia’s shoulder, moving her closer to the door.  “That-”

There was a second knife.  It slammed into an invisible barrier instead of flying between the struts of the building where there was no tarp, plastic, or material.  It hung there in mid-air.

A firework or very sparkly flare went off.  Small with a long-lasting light as it drifted.  Verona only watched, unable to even smile.

“Watch out!” Tanner called out.

Hadley was running across the floor.  She looked to Tanner, down to the floor-

Too slow, for how fast she was moving forward.  Her foot intersected the shadow of the knife that was cast by the light.  She didn’t step onto the shadow.  She kicked a three dimensional object made of shadow.  It split the toe of her boot and shed a mess of blood across the floor.

“Music box,” Tanner said.  His eyes were blank from corner to corner.

“Got it,” Estrella said, hurrying over.

There were two knives and two shadows.  One shadow moved through the room, not high enough to touch the chair legs or, fortunately, their feet.  Not low enough to hit the music box or the table there.  They left a furrow in the floor as the shadows traveled.

Very cool, Verona observed.  A little trick to get past barriers, since the shadow could extend through.  Kind of played off of ideas like how if a superhero on TV had a forcefield that let light and sound through, it shouldn’t protect against sonic or light based attacks.

Shouldn’t, but it often did.  Stupid.

Estrella made a swirly gesture with her fingers.

The music box sped up, taking on sharper beats, and doubled in volume.  The dolls got a lot more aggressive.

Hadley, with one ruined foot, had both hands and one foot planted on the floor.  She sprung forward, hop-running to minimize how much she walked on her damaged foot.

She hurled herself into the open, glass-less window in construction, bracing herself in the windowframe for a second before throwing herself to the right.

Verona blinked as the third knife slammed into Hadley’s head.  She and the knife dropped.

“She could have caught it but she wanted to show off,” Estrella said.  She cupped her hands and created a floating light that shed flakes of white.  It erased the shadows from the two knives that were still up there.

Hadley, on the ground four stories below, screamed her declaration of war.

Oh.  The knife hadn’t hit her.  She’d thrown herself into the incoming knife, to remove it from play.

Two more knives hit the barrier.

“Stop at three like a self respecting practitioner,” Estrella declared.  She sounded legitimately annoyed.  She lifted up the light and walked closer.  The knives disappeared as the light swept over them.

She swept her arm to one side, and the open spaces in the wall, which were really deceptive with the barrier there, all disappeared.  It became a white lace against a black surface instead.

If Avery had thought about using Lucy’s trick and trying to become the wind, she could have slipped into here.

But at the same time doing a Faerie trick while a master Faerie practitioner was present was probably a bad idea.

There were noises in the wall.  Scampering, clattering, dropping things.

Estrella paced, her eyes half lidded, head turning this way and that as she identified the sources of the sound.

As she’d done with the exterior wall, she remodeled the interior one.  It was the same surface as the other, white lace on black, but flowers appeared here and there.

She gestured, and two more flowers appeared.

America didn’t seem to care, tunelessly humming.

Small noises were coming from the wall.  Estrella closed her eyes and exhaled fogged breath.  She reached up to touch it, controlling its movement through the air, until there were only three horizontal lines of concentrated, fogging breath.  In summertime.

“Mmmfph!” Verona grunted.

Estrella looked at her, and Verona gave her best eye roll.

“Good winter magic isn’t easily disbelieved.  If you’re lucky, it may pass you over without paying any mind to whether you exist or not,” Estrella said.

She flicked all five fingers out at once, and the three lines impaled the wall as icicles.

Two of the impaled bits of wall bled, blood traveling down the length of the fine icicle and freezing there.

“Talia, would you go somewhere safe?  And send some help my way.  This may be a rescue attempt.”

Talia fled the room.

Another firework went off, and shone through the wall as if it were paper thin.  Estrella’s head snapped around, looking at the wall, and it immediately went solid, thick, no sign of the flare-firework visible.  Like a chastened child straightening up.

“Ah!” Talia retreated back into the room.

Two small goblins had crawled forward.  They’d been out there in the forest.  One immediately headed for the music box, the other climbed the doorframe.

Estrella waited until there was a gap, then sent Talia back through.  She went to defend the music box, one eye on the goblin at the wall.

A sharp stomp of one high-heeled shoe crippled the goblin on the floor.

“Again!” it cried out, voice high.  “Again, please!”

The one on the wall, female, just spat a gobbet of something.

It landed at the back of Estrella’s head.  She touched it and pulled a string of gum back away from her styled, bleached-white hair.

“Gum?  You made your way past the barriers that were supposed to be on the field, past the building’s temporary outside barrier, past the building’s security system, past soldiers…”

The little goblin nodded with enthusiasm.

“Made your way, I presume, up four flights of stairs, when you’re barely the size of a milk carton.”

The goblin nodded again.

“To spit gum in my hair.  Is that your sole contribution?”

The goblin shrugged and nodded.

“Is it at least magic?”

The goblin shook its head.

She cast out a handful of glamour.  The goblin froze in place there.

One of the Legendre boys, covered with dime-sized injuries from last night, came to the door, followed by Austin, Songetay and Sutton.

The Legendre boy was Milly Legendre’s brother.  Mid-teens, not all that impressive to look at, with a curly mop that had been buzzed to near baldness at the sides and back.  The Legendres were the binder and goblin exterminator.  Good skill to have.

Austin was a necromancer, Songetay a war mage and summoner, and Sutton an alchemist.  Sutton was shaking a thermos.

The three came through just after the Legendre guy.

“Where the heck is the window?” Songetay asked.

Estrella gestured, and part of the changed wall reverted.

Legendre was the first one there.  He took up the entire window, hands on the sill, elbows out, said, “Crap,” and fled the room.

“Nice trick, windows and walls where you want ’em,” Songetay said, as the boys headed to the window to get a view of the outside.

“I suppose if you ignore that it was earned with centuries of work and alliances,” Estrella said.  “It’s a ‘trick’, sure.”

Estrella glanced at Tanner, who stood off to the side, and the two of them nodded.  She crossed over to where the music box was, then touched her ear, touched the box, and then the table.  Tanner took up guard at the door.

She carried the box over to the boys, leaving the music playing where the box had been.  It was a surprise attack, as she created a blade of silver and pressed it to Songetay’s neck.  Once he realized what was happening, he backed up, hands in the air, and retreated, blade to his throat in what looked like a very careful placement, like Estrella knew exactly where the blade should be to do the most damage.

“What the hell?” Austin asked.

“Stand down,” Tanner told him.

“Your discipline sucks,” Estrella addressed the three boys who had just come in, as she pushed Songetay back.  He landed hard in Verona’s lap, sprawling into Lucy’s as well, and nearly fell to the floor.

She held the music box there, just over his face, and adjusted the position of the small silver blade so it wasn’t against his throat with tip at his jugular, so much as it was directly above his jugular, like a sword about to drop point-first.

She held the music box so the little dancing man turned right before Songetay’s face.  Then she lifted him by the collar, off Verona’s lap, and forced him into a sit.  He remained frozen, entrapped by the music, which kept skipping back to the beginning instead of going to the final stanza.

She slapped him, and Songetay became Corbin.

“Shit!  Where’s Songetay, then?” Sutton asked, no longer shaking his thermos.

“Don’t know, don’t care.  If you three failed badly enough to miss that he was abducted and replaced to infiltrate our group, I do hope it’s painful, to drive the lesson home,” Estrella said.  “Zed was out there with Jessica.  Both travel.  Expect gates.  Do we have any barriers, any summonings that guard ways?”

Corbin shook his head.

“Who does?  I’ve been busy with special projects, I don’t pay attention to the incomings.”

“I don’t- Palaisy?  Gardener, he-”

“Go find the man, you tit!” Estrella told him, giving the boy a push. “And make sure it’s actually him.”

The separation of music box and music had let Estrella sneak up on Corbin in his Songetay disguise, but it had weakened the effect.  Estrella immediately set to fixing it up again.

But the weaker effect let Verona turn her head.  She looked at the others.

America’s discordant humming rose in volume, her eyes widening as she made eye contact, head moving in a slight nod.

Verona began to match, trying to follow along.

Lucy picked it up too.

America shook her head.

Lucy switched.  Not adding strength to what America was doing, but being more discordant.

Verona picked up, doing her own tune, trying to drown out the music.

“Stop,” Estrella said.  “Or this blade is getting plunged into the thigh of the next girl to hum.”

She moved like she was going to stab, and Verona and Lucy stopped.

America continued.

Estrella stuck a narrow silver blade into the middle of America’s thigh.

America stopped.

“And here we are.  Please tell me that concoction is useful, Sutton.”

“Should be.”

Estrella remained where she was, looming over Verona, Lucy, and America, watching their every move, so still it barely looked like she was breathing.

The commotion outside continued.

“They hit the main building, broke into the brownie kitchen.  I think they just wanted food.  Or to limit our access to food if the brownies started cooperating.  That was an hour ago.  We scared them off into the woods, but they kept circling around, taking weird routes,” Sutton said.

“I was there, remember?” Estrella asked.  “Before my shift here, babysitting three people while this inane music plays on loop?”

“Yeah.  Yeah.  Just… filling silence, I guess.”

“Don’t.  Silence is useful,” Estrella said.

As if to insult or prove the worth of that statement, goblin giggles could be heard in the hall.

“How many of you got in here?” she asked, toeing the crushed goblin on the floor.  It tried to kiss her shoe.  “How many of you goblins?”

Two goblins entered the room through the doorway.  They had what looked to be Bristow’s tighty whiteys on their heads, the two goblins standing three feet apart, one with no nose and big blunt teeth smiling while the elastic from the pair of underwear pulled on the left side of his head, the other skinny and tall with a droopy nose standing with the elastic pulling on the right side of his head.

Estrella turned and saw them.  She immediately began doing something with glamour.

Verona motioned with her eyes.

Music box.  Music box.

“I hate goblins so much,” Estrella said.

The goblins charged the table.  Dolls intervened, the goblins bowled through the first dolls, started to pick themselves up, and headed for the table again.  Estrella had to tackle them to protect the music box, and in the process, they wrapped Bristow’s underwear around her face.

She hit one with glamour, and it froze where it was.  She threw the half-frozen underwear to the ground, and part of it shattered.  The other goblin was free and sprawled, scrambling to get the door, where another goblin ran down the hallway with a fire.

Liberty’s shouts could be heard.

Estrella took up a position at the door.  “Sutton!  Guard them!  How is this so out of control?”

“It’s easier to attack than defend,” Sutton said.  “We’re trying to find their ways in.  Every time we set up a defense, they poison it or infiltrate it.  And Bristow is more focused on preparing for Alexander than on managing this.”

She shook her head.

America took up the humming again.

“Stop them from doing that,” she ordered.  She cast out some glamour into the hallway.

Verona picked up the off-beat, random humming.  Corbin and Lucy did the same.

Dolls danced around them, slowing and getting sloppy as they got close to the humming.

“Tanner or Sutton, stop them from doing that.”

Sutton took up position in front of Lucy and America, and he held the heavy metal thermos over his head, like he was about to use it as a bludgeoning weapon.

America kept going.  So Verona did too, one eye wincing.  If Lucy got hit, she’d- she didn’t know what she’d do.

But it wasn’t pretty.

The humming loosened the effect of the music box, which freed their heads and shoulders.  America started headbanging with increasing intensity.

“Stop them!” Estrella ordered.

Sutton lowered the thermos.  “I’m not that kind of guy.  I don’t hit helpless people younger than me.”

“Move,” Tanner said.  He reached for America’s neck and held her firm, making her stop the headbanging.

But Corbin, Verona, and Lucy had just started it.  And each swing of their heads freed up more of their bodies.

The glamour shattered.  Verona rose to her feet- or tried.

She and the chair fell hard.

“Ow!  What the hell!?”

She was tied to the chair.

“I like to be doubly sure.  Why would I trust a flimsy music box to handle everything?” Estrella asked.  “I just thought you’d be more comfortable if the restraints were glamoured away while you were bound.”

“You’re a scary woman,” Tanner said.

“I’m pissed off.  Every hit to my glamour slows me down.”

Verona lay on the ground, hands in bags behind her back.  She could feel abrasion now, and she was pretty sure her hands were buried in salt.

One of the bags had loosened a bit in the fall.  She struggled, scooting around, and Tanner stepped on her chair to keep her where she was.

Lucy’s foot settled on the bag.  Verona pulled a hand free.

She’d been gainsaid, but it was the second of three, really.  She hadn’t practiced in a bit, but this had to be worth some cool points that made up for losing a bit to Bristow, right?

She scraped her fingernails along her arm, digging in.  At her back, until she probably had red tracks there and skin under her fingernails.

If she was vulnerable to Shellie enough to be turned into a cat-

She made the hand-motions to manipulate glamour.

She didn’t need to be a cat, but-

“Meow, meow, meow,” Verona said, deadpan.

“Stop,” Tanner said.

“Don’t try to sound intimidating.  You’re too nice to hit the captives,” Lucy said.  “You won’t hit us now.”

“Don’t tempt me,” he said, still holding onto America’s throat, holding her firm in the chair.  “Sutton!”

Sutton was dealing with Corbin, who hadn’t been tied up beneath the glamour.

“Meow meow meow,” Verona said, making the hand gestures.

“Heads up!” Sutton shouted.

Verona’s hand changed.  One large cat’s paw, very nice, and cats paws had claws, and claws could cut binding.  Or maybe not, but she was riding a high and buying her own bullcrap and it worked.  The claws cut through the cordage.

Tanner straightened, and she went straight to him, points of her claws going to his neck.  She used him as cover against anything Estrella might pull.

“Whatever,” Estrella said.  “I tried, I fully intend to tell anyone who asked, I tried.  If you’ll deal with me I’ll deal with you.”

“Deal?” Lucy asked.

“If Bristow wins this clusterfuck, tell him I tried here, I did a stellar job, it was their fuckups.”

“Hey!” Sutton shouted.

“And if Belanger wins, or I end up captured or cornered or you’re trying to decide what to do with prisoners, I get clemency.  You argue on my behalf.  I want an oath from all of you.”

“Oaths with a faerie practitioner?” Verona asked.

“The other option is that we fight, both sides get hurt, both sides get pissed off…”

“I agree,” Tanner told Estrella.

“You’re on my side, you loser!” Estrella raised her voice.

“I still agree.  Fighting isn’t worth it.  Bristow has my loyalty, but I’m not going to risk dying or being maimed for him,” Tanner said.

“What do we get?” Lucy asked.

“I leave, I’ll only protect myself, nothing aggressive unless I must, and I’ll avoid seeking out circumstances that force my hand.  I’ll get my younger brother and we’ll step down from any fighting for the time being.  I so swear.”

“We can let you be if you allow us,” Lucy said.  “Clemency and a report of… you were an effective jailer, I guess.  I’ll swear it unless the others want to-”

“I want to interject!” America raised her voice.

“Oh god,” Estrella muttered.

“I interject, you stabbed me in the leg.”

“Justly.”

“And I want to stab you in the boob.  Sorry hon.  That’s my condition.”

“You could stab me in the leg to make it even.”

“I don’t want to make it even.  I want to stab you in the boob.”

Estrella shook her head.

“Or I’ll chase you down and stab you in the boob anyway.”

“Just… fine.  Don’t go overboard.  One stab, shallow.”

America walked over, pulled the knife out of her leg, took a lighter to it, and then jabbed Estrella.

“Ow.”

America nodded, satisfied.  “There is justice in the world.  I swear to what she said.”

“Same,” Verona said.

“Such lazy oaths.  Whatever.  Thank you.”  Estrella turned and strode from the room.

“I can’t swear the same, I made direct oaths to Bristow,” Tanner said.

“Me either,” Sutton said.

Lucy walked over to the music box, picking it up.  She looked at him.

“I’m not a fighter,” Tanner said.  “I predict events.  I do long-distance seeing.  Sure.  Take me out of the fight.”

“Alexander’s close?” Lucy asked.

“With a few of Mr. Bristow’s tenants.”

Lucy stopped the music box, closed it, and it shed a bit of glamour in the process.  She opened it and started it, holding it in front of Tanner’s face.

He stopped moving.  She pushed him down into his seat.

Sutton took a seat as well.

“Is this anything cool?” Verona asked, kicking the thermos on the ground.

“No, not yet.  But it’s getting there.”

“Damn.”

Lucy set the music box down, hesitating.  “Wish we could bring this, or leave the music behind while we retreat…”

“Let me have it,” America said.  “I’ll hold down the fort here, send goblins up to me if you see any.  Then I can keep the thing and goblinize it.”

“Right.”

“You tits took way too long to catch on about the humming,” America said.

“It’s been a long, long day, America,” Lucy said.  “Don’t give us any crap.”

“And thanks for the rescue, I guess,” America said.  “Really really slow-to-catch-on rescue.”

“Long day,” Lucy said.

Verona scooped up all the spare Winter glamour she could, while Lucy kicked a hole in the binding around John.

“Don’t you dare use that glamour,” Lucy said, as she and John joined Verona.  “I’d be worried it’d make a lot of permanent glamours a lot more easily, from what we’ve heard and read.”

“Maybe.  But to get down to the ground-”

“Old way,” Lucy said.

Old way was elementary runes.  Simple weight-reduction air runes in a diamond, extended to their bodies.

They jumped from the window and floated into the darkness.

Verona saw Avery come running.

She braced for the incoming hug better than Lucy did.

“Oof,” Lucy said.

Avery had Lucy’s hat with the rest of the stuff folded in.  Their masks were stacked on top.

“I rescued your stuff and Toadswallow got the goblins to grab the other stuff from the woods, but I couldn’t get to the upper floors.  I thought about Pathing in-”

“You’re as ridiculous as Verona sometimes,” Lucy said.

“-but I didn’t have any precise landing points.”

A light flickered overhead, and Verona stumbled back into the safety of darkness.

But it was a fluorescent light, flickering overhead.

One of many.

The field became a room, slightly transparent, like the walls were made of tinted glass.

“They planned for me and acted against Raymond,” Zed said.  “I’ve been here for the emotional support more than any fun tech.”

“Where is Raymond?”

“With Belanger and Bristow,” Avery said.  “So’s Durocher, and most of the teaching staff, Nicolette, and a lot of the students who retreated from the fighting.  Bristow was putting a lot of resources into making sure you were staying put, but that was about it.  They gave us the lower two floors after a bit, made the staircase disappear-”

“Stop, stop,” Lucy said.  “Easy.  There’s a lot of ground to cover, but, after.  Verona has a deadline?  Bristow said.”

Verona nodded.  “Ten o’clock to bounce back.  My phone?”

Avery pulled Verona’s phone out of the hat.

Verona hit the power button, then mashed the other buttons.

Totally dead.

Zed, wearing his power glove, gave it a tap.  The battery icon flashed on and then went to full.

“Thank you.”

There wasn’t much time.

Which was good.  Fantastic.  Because it was showy, to cut the line close.  It was dramatic and drama made the spirits sit up and pay attention.

She just had to dig into the phone, find if she had what she needed.

She’d let Bristow do his thing and gainsay her.  Hoping to hear some key words.

Or rather, to use the apps that she’d bookmarked after trying to open lines of communication with Tashlit.

One of them was speech to text and text to speech.

And on that app, sitting on her phone, was Bristow’s statements to her and the others as he’d caught up with them.

“Zed?” Verona asked.  She’d hoped for more.  For a key word to drop.  And the fact it hadn’t made her worry.  “I need a thousand percent marks on presentation here.”

“What are you thinking?”

“Broadcast?  I want to reach a lot of ears.  And not just human and Other.”

“Give me a second,” he said.

He pulled out a computer and set on a table, with enough force the table buzzed and fritzed, glitching like a bad computer graphic.  He opened it up and began typing.

“I can put your voice in every phone nearby.  Or just magnify.”

“Both?” Verona asked.  “Or what about a photocopier?”

“You’re all over the place, Ronnie,” Lucy said.

“What do you need from us?” Avery asked.

Verona gave Avery’s arm a squeeze.

She hated that she didn’t have anything more concrete.  She’d wanted Bristow to say some key words, so she could get it on her phone in text, to manipulate and abuse.

With her quill pen, she moved writing from phone to paper.

It’s good.  Gracious.  I have no regrets.  I’m happy.  I’m glad.

She’d hoped for a thank you.  It’s why she’d let him gainsay her.  In hopes his overly talkative self would spill the word as she handed him power just before he was supposed to deal with Alexander.

So she could take Bristow’s words again, crystal clear, and give them to the brownies.

But he hadn’t given her anything great.

The best was that line toward the end.  You probably didn’t even realize you were helping me more than hurting me with this brownie ploy.

She’d use it.  The man talked too much and she’d use every little finger-hold and toehold she could to scale this wall.

“You’re up,” Zed told her.

“I, Verona Hayward, and my colleagues, wish it to be known…” Verona intoned.

Her voice reached many phones.

“…Lawrence T. Bristow expressed his great pleasure for the activities of the staff brownies tonight…” Verona continued.  “I have it in written form before me.  He was grateful for the victory he thought he had because of them, in a roundabout way for the edge it affords him against Alexander now…”

She hesitated, trying to find the words.  She was sore, muddy, and tired, and she had about six different cricks in her neck.

“…I ask you, Lawrence,” she addressed him directly.  Her voice echoed in the various phones nearby.  “Will you concede that you regret crossing us?  That you have some form of regret?  You said you wouldn’t, and we made that a contest between us.  Recanting would mean you’re gainsaid at this critical juncture, and I do believe the timing is bad, with Alexander in front of you.”

She swallowed, looking to Avery and Lucy.

“Or are your words true, and you’re pleased at this final outcome that you got with the help of the staff?  You, grateful to the brownies, with all the implicit danger that comes with that expressed pleasure and happiness?”

She let those words hang in the air.

There was no way to know what he was doing.  He might even be sending people her way.  Kevin or Ted.

“I demand…” Verona spoke into the phone.  She hated public speaking.  She hated it, she hated it, she hated it.  She couldn’t even do a presentation on frogs in front of the class.  So stupid.

Avery touched her arm.

“I demand satisfaction and answer now, or I’ll consider you forfeit.  The timing might be inconvenient for you, but you forced that inconvenience by capturing me and allowing me to go free at this recent moment.  I’ve wanted to do this for hours and have acted at the first opportunity.  The brownies have indicated that they expect resolution soon.”

Because of the deadline she’d set for herself, but she didn’t need to elaborate on that for their audience.  Bristow might, but that was fine.

She paused, looking in the general direction of the parking lot and front of the school.  The dark school building separated her and her friends from the front steps where Bristow and Alexander were no doubt facing off.

“This is my first of three challenges put forward to you, regarding our back and forth,” she told him.  She hung up and ended the message.


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