Let Slip – 20.3

Verona

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“And the ice thingy disappeared and they’re waiting for it to come back and they’re too intimidated by the flickering thingy, they don’t know how to interact with it, so… yeah.  Probably this sort of thing is going to be a decades project, not a short term project,” Verona explained.

“I see,” Avery’s dad replied.  “I think.  I’m not sure.”

Verona picked off a chunk of her lemon-cranberry muffin, then popped it into her mouth, before pushing papers around in front of her.  She had a little cup of coffee, her container of water, and she’d eaten most of a breakfast sandwich- an English muffin with sausage and egg.  The muffin was dessert.

She read a bit off her notes.  “Okay, so, question-”

“Wait, wait, wait.  You didn’t answer my question,” Connor said.

“Didn’t I?”

“What are they?  What’s Avery wrapped up in now?”

“I mean, we don’t know?  It might be months, years, decades or more before we know?  But we can make educated guesses.  It says a lot that the frozen thingy bailed when we approached.”

“Does it say anything good?”

“I dunno!  I think it’s neutral?  Like, imagine if you had incontrovertible truth- is incontrovertible a word?  Did I just make that up?”

“It’s a word.”

“Did I use it right?”

“Yep.”

“Heck yeah, reading.  Anyway, imagine you had proof the Sasquatch was real.  But he was shy and didn’t want to approach.  Pretty cool, but also like, who knows how long that’s going to take, am I right?”

“That wasn’t a Sasquatch.  That was a building-sized piece of architecture, a bunch of them, actually, and the moment they showed up, an army of… corporate… wizards?”

“Sure.  Corporate wizards.  Works.”

“They changed their attitude.”

“Well, you read Hundred Years Lost, right?”

“Yeah.  Early on.  I didn’t have the grounding- I need to go back to it.”

“Sure.  Well… I guess we know what it isn’t.  First guesses were that it was celestial… getting into angel type crap.  Cherubim, thrones- not to be confused with stuff like the Carmine throne, powers, blah blah blah… doesn’t fit.  Too big, too static, too plain, not enough fractal eyes and pants-shitting terror.”

“…Rrrright,” Connor replied.

“Lucy fought an angelic type thing once.  One of Musser’s guys called it in.  It put up a wall near Half Street that’s still there.  Ummm, oh, the Tearaway Kid can give you a show, if you want to see what an angel type thing is like.  You met him, right?”

“Yes, but I’m okay, I think.  I’d rather skip the pants issue.”

“You’d rather leave your pants unshat?  Unshitted-in?  Do you do English tutoring, Connor?”

“I- I can teach it, but let’s loop around back to that.  I’m reminded of trying to teach Declan.  It’s great we’re learning and discussing, but let’s refocus back to the original question.”

“Sure!  Yeah.  So what are they?  Let me think…”

“Right.  Good.”

“If you go by a Hundred Years Lost, they’re important.  And they may only be accessible if you’ve earned the access, but being able to answer the question of what they are and how they tie into the Paths might be a big piece of how you earn that access, and being able to just observe from a distance is huge.”

“Right.”

“And they’ve kind of been mentioned in reference to the levers and pulleys of the universe.”

“I read about that but there wasn’t much- there was the chapter of notes exploring the idea, but I don’t think I understand.  I don’t think the experts understood.”

“That’s science, though, right?  Or practice-science?  It’s important to recognize what you don’t know, what you know, to build theories, test the theories…”

“But-”

“But yeah.  Mysterious.  I think, if I were to try to explain it, I’d think of this guy at the Blue Heron, Ulysse?  He found a hidden deity type thing, became its champion.  You know how Prometheus brought the fire of the god to the people?”

“No?” Connor asked, leaning back in his chair.  He grabbed for his coffee, frowning, but didn’t actually drink from it.  Just held his hands around the steaming cup.  “Was that actually a thing that happened?”

“Maybe?  Maybe spiritually or abstractly or something?  I’ll get back to that.  But the deal here is that Ulysse’s deity, he was a competitor of Prometheus and if he’d brought fire to humanity instead of Prometheus, then maybe it would be metal and not wood that’s flammable, things would change.  Right?”

Connor frowned at Verona through the steam of his coffee cup.

“Okay, and so the way I line everything up in my head is that the levers and pulleys of the universe, they change things like that.  And if they changed something like that, then mythology like the gods and what gods are doing, that changes.  Said I’d get back to that.  And cosmology changes, and spirit, I guess, and the normally intractable, inflexible forces like Death and Nature and whatever, they’d go from intractable to tractable at least for a bit, changing their routes and I dunno.  So metal can burn, or-”

“That’s-”

“-so, I dunno, living things hurt less on their way from dying to being dead,” Verona told him, shrugging.  “I figure the levers can change that.”

“How does that even work?  Innocence is a thing.”

“Innocence finds a way.  Like, pulling from my credentials as a member of the doomed generation, but like, we’re overdue for a solar flare to really fuck us up, right?  Or earth’s magnetic field could spontaneously shift?  We find out metal can carry way more electrons if the wavelength is right, revise our entire understanding of science, I’m totally bullshitting, but long story short… we find some excuse for why metal can burn.  Or whatever.”

“I’d worry that… I dunno.  Maybe I misunderstand, but with how science works, if you moved that lever a millimeter…?  Wouldn’t that just make a lot of things stop working, burn down…?”

“Yeah.  Oh yeah for sure, hypothetically though.”

“And ecosystems are delicate and if you nudged something like the dying thing, I dunno, that- that could have ramifications?”

Verona nodded with emphasis.

“Right,” Connor said.  He frowned.

“And that’s not the thing you’re asking about, but I think it’s close to the thing, or these things are the way to the lever and pulley thing.  And your daughter’s close to the thing that’s close to the thing, which is really cool.”

“When I was fourteen, I was convinced that if I could get a pair of nice jeans I could fix all my issues of getting awkward and oversharing with the girl I had a crush on.”

“Kelsey?”

“No.  Nah,” Connor said.  “My dad, Avery’s granddad, her Grumble, he made me work for him at his business to earn the jeans.  I changed my mind and spent the money on music.  Regretted that pretty hard.”

“Huh.”

“That’s fourteen year old decision making in my mind.  Then what you guys are doing…”

“Some of the Others say humans were expected to be way more mature for a lot of history, and exceptional people could step it up even more.  I think Avery’s exceptional.  Lucy too.”

“You too,” Connor told her.

“Thanks for saying that,” Verona said.  She shrugged.  “We rise to what’s expected of us.”

“But you’re talking about levers and pulleys and giant vanishing, reappearing constructions and you’re referring to gods and moving forces that aren’t meant to be moved, like Death, or changing core laws of reality…”

“Sure.  It’s cool, right?”

“It’s scary.  And as much as I think Avery is exceptional and you are and Lucy is… holy shit?”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  She popped another bit of muffin into her mouth.  “If you want another analogy… it might be kind of like if your daughter had a talent for science and she played a part in helping figure out, I dunno, fusion power?  And like, holy crap, but it’d still be a few years or decades off-”

“Always, with fusion power.”

“And she’s working with people and they can be butts about some stuff but they’re level headed and adult about other stuff, I wouldn’t be okay with her working with them if they weren’t.  So you can figure… few years before this becomes anything.  Lots to explore and tentatively figure out.  Lots to negotiate.  Wunderkand may be negotiating for limited access, maybe, that could be a payday, hard to say…”

Connor was nodding.

“…and that takes time, she’ll keep growing up in that time.  She’s got people watching out for her from multiple corners in the meantime, I don’t think anyone’s dumb enough to pull the trigger, and the universe tends to have reasons why people haven’t gone and fiddled with stuff like those levers and pulleys in the past.  Right?”

“Yeah,” Connor said.  He sighed, then drank his coffee.

“Food for thought?” Verona asked.

“Yes.”

“Cool.  Now, on to the more important subject matter… question twenty-seven.”

“Right.  We were tutoring you.”

“We were having a back and forth, because I think you agreed to help me out in exchange for info and so you ask one question, I ask one.  You just asked a doozy, so…”

“Yeah.  What’s question twenty-seven?”

“Canada as a post-war middle power.  One shitty thing about this online class is it’s so focused on the world wars and the aftermath.  There’s more history than that, right?”

“Hmmm.  Is that the issue?  Do you want to try to communicate something to the school?”

“I mean, my issue is like, okay, sure, Canada, middle power, economy good, military okay, good, Canada as a moral leader, okay, whatever… maybe?”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

“Sorry, reading aloud, trying to find the stuff that was throwing me.  Them talking about Canada as moral leaders was like… okay weird, but that’s only part of it, give me a second…”

“Sure.”

“So Canada and the Suez Canal, Canada in the Korean War, Canada takes the lead in peacekeeping, Suez Canal war averted, quote, largely because of the role Canada played as uninterested peacekeepers.”

“Sure.  I’d say… less invested peacekeepers, more than uninterested ones.”

“How do you know it’s legit?  And not like, masturb- uh, pro-Canada propaganda?”

“Hmm.  Well, that’s an interesting conundrum.  I have an answer, but you might not like it.”

“Shoot.”

“When you run up against something like that?  Sounds too good to be true?  Research it.  Hit up the library, check out some books, read online.  See if it lines up.  Maybe look for controversy.  Does the school let you submit extra material?  Maybe you could get extra marks for following up.”

“Doesn’t really, but I could use their built-in ‘ask a teacher’ chat thing, and submit it that way, I think.”

“Might be worth doing, or trying.”

“I know I could’ve reached out to them to ask, but like, on the one hand… you hear about textbook manufacturers being weirdly political down south, pushing agendas, maybe the people I’d be asking would be too?  And also like… cool to talk to you, I guess.  If that’s okay?  I hope I’m not being a pain.”

“No, you’re not.  I was a homeschool teacher for a while.  I did it because I liked it.  Nice to dip my toes back into the waters, especially when my kids don’t ask anymore, and when I’m on Christmas vacation.”

They’d been here for a bit, going back and forth.  The conversation had opened up a bit more since the people at the next table had left.  A lot of people who were up at this hour were out at the ski hills already.

Verona flipped through her books, looking for any sneaky sticky notes she’d put in to mark questions she’d wanted to ask.  “Thanks though.  I kinda want to avoid falling into the traps I see practitioners fall into.  Sure would feel dumb if I bought into that sort of thing after moaning and groaning as much as I have about practitioners buying into their own bullcrap.”

“It’s important to interrogate the facts.  Especially if it feels one-sided.  Usually it’s complicated on some level.”

“Usually complicated.  Cross checking that against everything to do with politics, power, all that that I’ve been doing, adds up.”

“Good.  My question?” he asked.

“Sure, with standard rules.”

“Holidays coming up.  Lot going on.  I know Lucy’s been distracted, getting ready for Booker.”

“Getting back to center with her mom.”

“Jasmine asked me to check in.  I was thinking about it, I know Avery’s coming over tomorrow… I don’t know how much she’s in touch, but between the Garricks, the aftermath of Musser and the people she was in touch with, and Nora, travel…”

“Yeah yeah yeah, no, she’s- she hasn’t said much, but I don’t mind.”

“You been okay?” he asked.

🟂

“Okay, so, here’s the deal, it’s still very, very much a work in progress,” Verona warned, as she led the way to the House on Half Street.  “Go easy.”

“Understood.”

“I grant you access to my Demesne.  Be welcome and comfortable.  May your spirit be strong.  May your Wi-fi signal be consistent.”

She motioned, and the door opened.  Cold air swirled on either side of the door, without entering the ground floor.  Luna Hare was inside, and led Shoe out of view, stepping around behind a bookshelf to remove her mask and peer between the books.

“Hello!?” Luna called out, wary.  She pushed at Shoe, who was coming around to her side of the shelf, and pushed at his hat.

The pigeon and squirrel were around, helping to tidy, working together to fold cardboard boxes and tie them with twine.  Peckersnot was upstairs in the kitchen area, awake and in among the tubes, brass pipes and other alchemy things, which was curious-

Oh.  There was a very pretty white cat in the little high window in the stairwell, where the railing kind of intersected and blocked part of the window.  Peckersnot liked to move down to that spot in the mornings, when the sun shone in through the window and he could sleep in sun, out of sight for the most part, but aware of any comings and goings on the ground or shop floor.

The cat stirred, looking up, while the pigeon and squirrel slipped out of view, pulling the stacked and mostly tied cardboard down with them so they could finish knotting it, moving it aside.

“…Practitioner?” Blankshanks asked, after studying Zed for a moment.

“What the hell!?” Zed exclaimed.  He grabbed Verona by the shoulders, hiding behind her.  “That cat talked!”

“Ha ha,” Blankshanks said, putting his head down.  “Practitioner.”

“What were you actually going to do if the answer was no?” Verona asked.

“People fool themselves.  They wonder, did that cat talk, or did they hear something else?”

“I hope you’re not pushing that too far.  Especially in Kennet, where the boundaries for Innocence are weaker.”

“I’m not an idiot,” Blankshanks replied, twisting around to stretch in a bendy way and maximize stretch-age in a space that was probably only good for a half-body stretch if Blankshanks were stretching out straight.

Verona pulled off her coat and set her bag aside.  “Luna, you and Shoe can mask up.  No need to hide.  Is Wormface around?”

“Busy in Kennet below,” Luna said, pulling the mask on.  She faced the newcomers.  “Hello.  Luna Hare.  This is my friend Shoe.”

“They help out,” Verona supplied.  “Wormface too.  He’s a foundling, but he spends time in Kennet below.”

“Shoe does the lifting, I do the organization,” Luna said.  “Wormface keeps it fun, kind of.”

“Sounds good,” Zed said.  “Whimsical collection of locals here.  So you got a cat?”

“No.  I guess he dropped by and… someone I trust let him in?”

“That was me,” Luna said.  “He looked so cold out there in the snow.”

Verona gave Blankshanks a look.  He smiled in a way cats shouldn’t be able to.

Zed and Nina explored the space.  Zed stepped back as the pigeon flapped its way up to the counter, hopping over to the serving tray.  Verona bent down and got saucers.  Decorated one for herself for tea… “Tea?  Coffee?”

“Coffee would be great,” Zed told her.  “Nina?”

Nina, midway through perusing the shelves, made a wounded sound, turned around, and forced a smile.  “Yes?”

“Tea?”

“Oh, yes, thank you.”

Verona put another fancy saucer and a plain white saucer on the tray.  “Luna, Shoe?”

“Is hot chocolate okay?” Luna asked.

“If the pigeon doesn’t mind making three different drinks?”

“And soda for Shoe?” Luna asked.

The pigeon cooed.

“If you’re okay with it.”  She added two coasters- one with a chocolate bar brand name on it, and one with the soda brand.

The pigeon cooed at her, ruffling.

“I know you don’t need it.  But I like to keep track and stay organized, it helps me.  So.  Squirrel, want to go get snacks?  Just whatever?  Help yourselves.”

Squirrel and pigeon hopped onto the tray.  Verona gave the rope a light tug and the zipline-like arrangement began retracting, pulling the serving tray up by way of cords that went to the four corners.  Pigeon, squirrel, saucers and coasters went upstairs to the kitchen.

“And check on Peckersnot?  Send him on down?” she asked, while they were still on their way up.

The squirrel chittered something, glancing at Blankshanks.

The cat was smiling.

“Blankshanks.  Have you been tormenting my goblin friend and sometimes-lodger?”

“I’m innocent for once,” Blankshanks told her.  “If he’s tormented, it’s his own fault.”

“Is it now?”

“He and his friends came after us, they learned their lesson.  If he’s scared now, it only means the lesson was well taught.  He brought it on himself.”

“Be good.  There’s meant to be a truce.  We have enough enemies, we don’t need infighting.  And he’s earned his spot.”

“I’m working too,” Blankshanks said.

“What?  Being pretty?”

“That too,” Blankshanks said, twisting and stretching again, rubbing against three sides of the little window that was barely bigger than a mailbox, sun shining through and illuminating glossy white fur.  “But I’m getting rid of a little bit of goblin stink.”

“He has the right of way here.  That’s a spot he likes, so vacate.”

Blankshanks smiled wider, head upside-down now.  He groaned out the words, “In a moment.”

“I’ve given you a warning.  Take that for what it’s worth.”  Verona turned her attention to her guests.  “Sorry.”

“Hm?  Oh no, work in progress, you did say, I’m sure it’s fine,” Nina said, her eyes on the shelf.

“Nina,” Zed said.

She turned, eyes wide, hands pressed over her heart.

“She was talking about the issues with the guest.  Or being distracted-”

“I get distracted easy,” Verona told him.

“Me too,” Nina said, not changing her pose or expression.  She glanced at the shelves.  “I like your stock.  Interesting books.”

“Yeah, getting there.  This is all preliminary,” Verona said, stepping onto the footrest of a stool on her way to sitting on the counter, hands in her lap, facing them.  “I’m glad you like it, I’ll be bringing some other stuff in.  Bulk of it’s probably going to be along these lines.  I don’t know if the book supply gets better or more intense when Kennet found gets bigger and stronger, but I can do some peddling stuff to draw in books.”

Zed looked between Nina and Verona before turning to Nina.  “Hey.”

“Hi Zed,” Nina said, glancing over the shelves.

“Be nice.”

“Wow,” Verona remarked, leaning back a bit before remembering she was sitting on the counter and there was nothing behind her.  “That feels a bit like, I dunno, I’m a kid at daycare and a mom tells her kid ‘I know she has a really punchable face, but don’t punch it, okay?'”

“Sorry,” Zed replied.  “This is a thing where Nina is particular, not a you thing.  Your shop’s cool.  I like it.”

“Is it the aesthetic of the shop?  The stock?”

“The aesthetic is wonderful.  You’re still building and adding shelves, I see, and tables?”

“Tables yes.  Shelves yes.”

“The stock is curious and fun.  I was telling the truth before.”

“The sorting system?” Verona asked.

Nina glanced at Zed.  “I love it as a window into a specific slate of tastes and interests.  Like a tactile, explorable ReadgoodR booklist.”

“Do you want to sort out my bookstore?”

“Yes, please,” Nina replied, pushing her sleeves up.  “Tell me your requirements and limits.”

“Luna?  If you’re up for it, I’ll pay you to help Nina here.  Keep track of what she’s doing.”

“Yes!” Luna replied, chipper, perking up.

“Nina?  Fill me in after.  You’ve got to explain what you’re doing to Luna and to me so we can keep doing it after you’re gone.  So be careful about any weird PSBN sorting system, or… I don’t know what kind of coding Lost books have.  I don’t think they have any.”

Nina was already moving, scanning shelves.

“You don’t have to,” Zed commented, moving around so he could lean on the counter and watch.

“No, I mean, stings a bit, but if I wanted to be a boxer and I met a Pugilist animus, and he told me I was throwing a punch wrong, I’d listen, right?  I should?”

“I mean… yeah,” Zed said, like he was ruminating on the answer as he said it.  “But there’s also the reality where he could train you to throw that punch, but he’ll always be a bit unhappy with how it’s not perfect.”

“Right.  Hm.”

“You were mentioning stuff you needed.  To start you off…”

He put his bag down, then opened it.  “Do you actually have a modem?  Router?”

Verona shook her head.

“You’re just… Demesne-connecting things up?”

“Basically.  But the internet comes and goes with the whims of the spirits, severity of a situation.  Things calmed down a bit, they kinda got spotty on me.”

“Two options,” he said.  He pulled off his winter leather jacket, draping it over a stool.  Wearing a black t-shirt, he pulled on gloves, then lifted a device up.

The serving tray zipline was shaking.  The pigeon, squirrel, and Peckersnot were on their way down, with a lid covering the steaming pots and things.

The device Zed had was a modem, it looked like, but it looked like someone had taken a lighter to the outside, and scratched a password into the top.

“This one is pretty solid, but it has a mean streak.  That’s going to take any power you put into it.  Give you free, one hundred percent uptime internet, no bill.  I’ve gotten up to two gigs a second, if you put more power into it, you could get a bit faster with more power to spare, Demesne efficiency, you know.  Not sure what you’d be doing with something that fast, except maybe trying to download the entire Atheneum Arrangement, but I thought it might sound nice to someone in a small town.”

“Huh.  I don’t have a good measuring stick for this stuff.”

“It’s fast.  It’s free.  It’s- not consistent, I couldn’t say that, exactly, but it’ll be reliable.”

“What’s the difference?” Verona asked, poking at the burned plastic.

“Well, there’s the catch.”

“The mean streak.”

“The mean streak,” Zed confirmed.  “You get all that, but once every thirty to three hundred minutes, it’ll mess with you.  Jumpscares when loading a webpage, pull up the wrong video, pull up the right video but corrupt one part of it, to be different.  Some shock stuff.  You can’t ever entirely let your guard down.”

“Shock stuff, like…?”

“There’ll be the occasional rude video with geriatrics and bodily fluids that look like very pulpy orange juice, sometimes a beheading-”

“Zed!” Nina admonished him from across the bookstore.  “You’re not giving that to her, are you?”

“It’s Verona!” Zed protested.  “It works on a lot of levels, it’s powerful, it’s fast, it’s cheap to run, and she seems like she has tolerances.”

Verona stared at the modem.

“You could curb its tendencies over time, with the Demesne.  Start out by pushing it so it’s closer to three hundred minutes, instead of thirty.  Extend that time, diminish how long the images or videos are on screen…”

Verona lifted the lid off the serving tray, then took tea, hot chocolate, and soda over to Nina, Luna, and Shoe.  “What’s the alternative?”

He lifted a tiny cooler out, unlocked it, and adjusted the handle which acted as another lock.

The cooler was filled with blood.  He moved drinks off the serving tray, laid down napkins, and lifted the device out of the blood and onto the tray to drain.

“Goblin?” Verona asked.  “Abyssal?”

“Technomancy.”

“That, sir, seems like a cop-out.”

“It is.  I dunno what it is.  It’s a modem, it bleeds.  It bleeds more if you use it more.  Like… regular machine getting hot with use, except it’s blood, thick hair, and gristle, not heat.  At its worst, it’ll be buckets at a time, so I wouldn’t go binging the entirety of any multi-season shows in 4K definition, unless you have good drainage.  Speed’s alright.”

“Blood can power stuff.”

“It’s bad blood.  No.  It’s the sewer water of blood.  You wouldn’t use it to practice any more than you’d use sewer water to cook food.”

“But… you can use sewer water for some stuff,” Verona protested.

“The entire point is it’s inconvenient.  If you turn it into a convenience then it’s not a price, right?”

Verona groaned.

“If you’re getting some internet signal through your Demesne reality hacking, then it’s supplementary.  It’s up to you.  You want either of them?”

“I want the first one, just for the speed and convenience, but… I should take the second, I think.  Peckersnot, you okay doing blood cleanup?  And letting me know if it’s too much for one little goblin, if I’m not tapped into my Demesne?”

Peckersnot peeped.  He was keeping his eye on Blankshanks.

“Blankshanks, second warning.  Vacate.”

He hopped down from window to railing and then railing to stairs, with an aura of pure smugness.

“Gotta be careful.  It’ll clog most drains eventually,” Zed pointed out.

“Hm?  Right.  Okay.  How much?”

“Hmmm.  How much do you have?”

“What do you say we both write down what it’s worth, and then compare?”

“Sure.  Kind of curious where you’re at.”

Verona got some paper, pens, went to hand one of each to Zed, but he had his flip phone out.

“Right,” she said.  She glanced at it.  Then she wrote down a number.

For Zed, it was $500.  For Verona, it was $400.

“Close.”

“I read your other notes on stuff.  I figured you’d get close to that.  I thought the drawbacks would take it down a notch,” Verona replied, leaning over the counter, sipping tea.

“It’s still basically free internet.  Figure that’s fifty dollars a month, you’d need the modem, discount time factor in cleanup, hassle, setup… five hundred feels right.”

“I’ve got three hundred.  I’d have more, but things were hectic.  I had to bribe someone, too.”

“I’m kind of surprised you had that much.  I didn’t at your age.  Avery help?”

“Nah.  It’s my cut from the local market, with a bit of an advance because Christmas.  I can write up an IOU, two hundred dollars in value to be spent in the market here, then whoever ends up with that can ask me for the money later.”

“Round it up to, let’s say two-fifty?  Because it’s limited to the market, I’d have to go shop?”

Verona nodded.

He put the modem back in the cooler, then slid it toward her.  She used the extra paper to write the IOU, got the money out of her register, and passed it to Zed.

“Pleasure doing business.”

“Thanks for helping me get set up.”

“I’ll dig around, see what looks interesting.  There’s a bunch of stuff over at the Blue Heron, I’m not sure what’s up there.  If the school shuts down for good, I’m probably inheriting a storeroom’s worth of stuff, as my share from Ray.  Less, if some of his other apprentices get off their asses and come over here.  Which I don’t think they will.”

“Good deal.”

“You get wild practitioner power from your town of Others, random gifts for shallow but broad assortment of practice stuff and resources, and some info that misses a lot of crucial bases.  With my mentor, I get the crucial info, some gifts and inheritances, and focused but narrow teaching from an expert.”

“Hmm.  Sure.  Makes sense.”

“Good coffee,” Zed remarked.  “And good cookies.”

“Thank you.”

“Cookies with coffee is a bit weird to me, though.”

“Noted for the future.”

Blankshanks hopped up onto a stool, spooking Peckersnot.  Peckersnot mooned him.

“Blankshanks,” Verona said, leaning over the counter.

“Yes?”

“I told you Peckersnot has right of way.”

“I’ve done nothing except join the conversation,” he said, in a very insincere way.

“You’re bugging my goblin friend.  Scoot?”

“Scoot, tsk.  And here I thought you were a cat person.”

“I am.  But you, you’re not a cat.  You’ve got the aesthetic, you’re very pretty, but if that was all it took to make me do something dumb, I’d be salivating over Guilherme.”

Zed snorted.

Blankshanks scoffed, then hopped down, moving over toward where Luna, Shoe, and Nina were organizing shelves.

“What is he?” Zed asked, quiet.

“Strangeling.”

“Ahhhhh.”

“Not your field of expertise?”

“Read about them at the Blue Heron, but no.”

Strangelings were like a lower-case-f fairy or a capital-F Fae’s changelings, where they swapped out actual babies for fairy or Fae babies, except they replaced household pets.  Scoundrels.  Rogues.  Mercenaries.  Fae and fairies couldn’t really get into or at households, so a strangeling sometimes handled opening the doors.  Or if a Fae lost something and a human picked it up and took it into their house, sometimes the strangeling would handle tracking the object down, infiltrating the house, getting the item.

Which was a very nice resource to have on tap.  But also a mondo pain in the ass.

“Peckersnot,” she told her buddy.  She put a finger on Peckersnot’s head and moved his scalp-skin around.  “This is your turf.”

He peeped.

“Here’s some tape,” she told him.  She handed him a roll of tape meant for gift wrapping.  “Tear off some pieces.  Varying lengths.  The more you dislike that guy, the more pieces you tear off.  And if he messes with you or overstays his hospitality, we’ll use it to mess with him.”

Peckersnot nodded.

“Put ’em down with just the edges stuck to the edge of the counter or something.”

He peeped.

Arms folded over the counter, Verona watched Peckersnot get to work, aggressively reeling out and tearing off squares of gift tape to lay down.

“And you’re cleaning it up if we don’t end up using it.”

Peckersnot chirped in a determined way.

Without shifting position, still sort of draped over the counter, Verona grabbed a biscuit and ate it, before chasing it with tea.

“Thanks for bringing Nina by.  Felt like I was probably doing something wrong with the setup.  This helps.  Magic modem too.”

“For sure,” Zed said.

“Didn’t bring Brie with?  I mean, given how she got the bristly end of the broomstick the last few times she came, Hungry Choir, kidnapped by goblins, tattoos ripped out of her skin…”

“Nah,” Zed interrupted.  “Not that.  She’s with her family.  Holiday stuff.  I’ll join her later.  Said I had work to do, I’m not lying, right?”

He tapped the money and IOU she’d given him.

“But why do you have to make excuses?”

“Because you know… don’t want to complain…”

“Complain.”

“Family stuff bums me out.”

“Ah.  Yeah.”

“I can take it.  In controlled doses.  Even Brie’s family.  They’re sweet.  But like… fuck.”

Zed had drawn his shoulders together a bit,leaning over the end of the counter, changing the way he’d talked.

Verona remained silent, leaving it up to Zed to carry on or stop.  She watched Peckersnot getting through the entire roll of gift tape, determined.  Nina, Luna, and Shoe bustled around.  Blankshanks had found an empty shelf with some sunlight to lounge across- at least for now.

“Brie’s family let her down, you know?  Back when she was sick, with eating metal, eating stuff and barely realizing it, burning a hole in her intestine from a little battery, mercury, lead, fuck, like… they’re not bad parents, they’re dopey, they’re sweet, maybe they haven’t dealt with enough crap in life to know what to do when the shit hits the fan, right?”

“Right.”

“And shit hit the fan for Brie, they lied to themselves to say everything’s alright.  They’re good parents, but they were only good when she needed great.

Verona nodded.

“My parents let me down,” Zed said, voice quiet, eyes on the modem that was oozing blood out the vent at the top.  “I let myself down.  I was a mess.  But they didn’t help.  They made it worse.  And the more I figured shit out, the worse they got.  In the end, I came out as trans, they cut contact and took my sister away from me.  Forbade all contact.  She’s young enough she says what they say and think what they think and… yeah.”

“Fuck,” Verona whispered.

“Give it a few years, maybe she’ll turn around, think her own thoughts, say her own words.  I’ll probably try then.  But in the meantime, if I’m over at Brie’s, and things are good?  I resent it.  Little bit at first, then it builds.  If they’re bad?  I’m reminded they let her down like my parents let me down, and I get pissed on her behalf.  Probably more pissed than she’s ever been.  And I know that’s me with my family shit to get over.”

“But you’re keeping visits short?”

“Trying to look and sound busy enough to convince them.  Don’t want them thinking I hate ’em.  Because I don’t.”

“Yeah.”

“I put a lot of importance on the people I gather around me.  You know?”

“Yeah.  Same,” Verona said, indicating Peckersnot, the pigeon, and the squirrel.

“Yeah.  I know.  I figure you get it in ways Lucy and Avery don’t.  Even Brie’s parents, for how complicated it feels sometimes, they count.”

“Cool, that’s good, I think.”

“You count.  You three.”

“You had me braced for being angry and frustrated at parents, not that.”

“Want me to warn you next time?”

Verona put an arm out, to punch Zed lightly in the bicep.  Zed blocked, wrist bumping her wrist.

She moved over, unsure what move to use, not sure what was appropriate or right in the moment.  She ended up leaning her head against his shoulder, watching Nina sort out her bookstore.

Peckersnot peeped.

He’d used up an entire roll of gift tape, laying out the strands at the counter’s edge, turning it into a kind of centipede.

He threw down the plastic case of the empty roll, then put out a hand.

“Little guy’s got a real hate-on for that cat, huh?”

“Not a cat, but yeah, seems so.  I think that’s all I got for you for now, Peckersnot.  Unless you want to get your own?”

Peckersnot reached for the papers she’d pulled out for the IOU.  She pushed it closer to him.  He began tearing them up.

“I’m worried about you guys,” Zed said.

“Well gosh,” Verona replied.  “If that’s a thing now, I’m concerned it’s going to be a condition that persists for years and years without break.”

“Sounds like you gotta find a way to un-persist it, huh?” Zed asked.

“Would be nice.  Kind of feels like we’re getting there, but, you know.  We’re on the shitlist of a higher power in the region, we gave the Wild Hunt an excuse to go after his buddy, and in a week and two days, that’s it.  He’ll react.”

“Yeah,” Zed replied.  “I wanted to check in.  Partially for the reasons I said, getting away, staying busy.  Partially for that, because that sounds big and if you need anything…”

“You’ll make me pay five hundred dollars for it?”

“Wait, wait-”

“I’m joking.”

“You did say-”

“I know, I know.  It’s important that if we’re a market, we do market stuff.  Yeah.  I’m happy to pay you.  Especially if it means you can buy Brie something nice.”

Zed nodded.  “I mean it.  Wanting to help.  You guys saved the life of the girl I ended up falling in love with.  Pretty solid starting point.”

“Thanks.  And you started out being a metaphorical burning pain in our urethras, invading our town.  But you turned out okay.”

“Speaking of being a pain, I have to admit, part of the reason I dropped in is because I’m really curious about that thing Avery just did.”

Verona laughed, pulling away from Zed’s shoulder.  “Everyone freaking is.”

“People that I know who know I know you guys are asking.  Some aren’t even in Canada.”

“Huh.”

“It’d be nice to know.”

“Avery’s not in Kennet, and she’d be the best one to explain.”

“Damn.”

“Sorry.”

“Well.  I want to stick around, see the nightmare market.  Maybe I’ll snowboard some this afternoon, after checking in at places.  See if anything’s at the other markets.  Head out to Brie tomorrow morning.”

“You might get Ave, might not.”

“Okay,” Zed replied, nodding.

“I wanted to say, you know, I’ve written letters to key people.”

“You’ve brought that up before.  You and Lucy asked if Nicolette and I would walk your important people through key stuff.”

“Yeah.”

“Gods and spirits,” Zed murmured.  “Don’t fucking do this to me, bringing this up like you’re really thinking you could die.”

“Or something.  I don’t know what would’ve happened to Avery if she got tossed off the Paths, or Lucy if she lost a major fight when someone like Musser could’ve taken everything she is, whatever that means.  But… if you’re doing us those sorts of post-Verona or post-Lucy type favors anyway, do you think you and Nina could put my bookstore on the list?  It’d be too sad if the books don’t get sold.”

“No,” Zed told her.

“But-”

“No, the answer’s no.  So your only option is to fight a little bit harder, okay?  Or do whatever you’re doing.”

Verona sighed, reached for her tea, and watched as Peckersnot stacked up torn strips of paper with snot on one side of each.

The tea had gone room temperature.  She guzzled the remainder.

“You have things you want to hold onto?  Fight to hold onto those things,” Zed told her.  “You’ve got people you’ve found, whether they’re like family or they’re just fun odd sorts that you’ve gathered in your periphery?  Fight to keep ’em.  But fight.”

“When I tried getting in touch earlier, couldn’t get ahold of you.”

“Technomancer work, sorry.”

“I tried Brie.  I worried.  She mentioned, uh-”

“The move,” Zed replied.

“So are you moving?”

Zed shrugged.  “Depending.  Musser’s gone.  I don’t know what happens with the Blue Heron.  It was a second home to me, it’s shut down, I don’t see how it starts up again with the situation being what it is.  Ray backed off, he’s got too much going on with international politics to be knee deep in this mud.  Durocher’s Durocher.  Who else is there?  Because of the other practitioners in the region, out of anyone who could or would, they aren’t as strong as Musser, and Musser couldn’t pull it off.”

“So you’re maybe moving.”

“Gotta earn a living, gotta be safe.  Technomancy work here’s drying up while the situation is what it is.  If I’m living here, picking up job offers from anywhere else in the world, there’s competition from every other technomancer in the world.  I’m Ray’s apprentice, that helps, but…”

“Yeah,” Verona replied, very quiet.

“I don’t want to live under the Carmine Exile.  I don’t want to constantly worry that I’ll be gainsaid, or that this greater power with a history of some pretty deranged shit will decide I’m his next enemy, as an apprentice of one of the people who supported Alexander.”

“So you’re maybe moving,” she repeated.

Zed met her eyes and held that gaze.  “Yeah.  Maybe.  Inching in that direction.  A little more likely every day or so, as I weigh the options.”

“After saying all that about holding onto people?”

“After saying what I said about you needing to survive.  Can’t hold onto anyone if you’re gone.”

Verona sat on that for a moment.  She watched as Peckersnot finished with the papers, then sat down hard, looking up at her.

She gave his head another rub.

“Okay,” she said.  “Then what?”

“I mean, it’s not a very organized mantra.  They’re just things I go back to.  Survive.  Number one.  Hold your best people close.  Keep your treasures, anything else you’ve built.”

“Then what?” she asked.

“Study practice?”

“Studying ten different practices at different rates, finding the ones I like.  I’m not too worried about that part.  And it’s not the most efficient thing to work on when I’ve got other crap to do.”

“Right.”

“Sorry, shooting down good suggestions.  Practice is a good suggestion.”

“What about, uh, getting sorted?”

“Cleaning?” Verona asked, looking around the bookstore in progress, the sawdust in corners, the piles of unsorted books, the books that were currently being re-sorted.

“No.  Getting you sorted, your head.  Your heart.  Your body.  Double check you’re equipped, you’re in the right mindset.  At the end of it, you know, they take your stuff, they take what you’ve built, they take away your people.  You’ll have one thing.  You.”

Verona thought about her recent experience.  The life without a Kennet council.  Without Avery, without Lucy.  Dying to Kevin, as the easiest, most vulnerable target.

Which made her think-

“Did Avery mention the challenge with Musser?  What we did?”

“Yeah,” Zed replied, smiling a bit.  “Been thinking about that.”

“I can tell.”

“I wasn’t subtle enough,” he said.  “Thought I’d try to slide that one in, sound insightful.”

“You don’t need to impress.  But yeah.  I guess not kicking sufficient ass at that challenge is a sign of what I need to work on, huh?”

“Maybe.  I want to say magic words that help you guys, give you that crucial piece of insight.  To have the right tool for you.  Something.”

“I think you doing what you’ve been doing is great.  And if you happened to want to help a little bit more?  Sticking around for just a little while after New Years might be it.”

“You thinking you might need to call on me?”

“I’m thinking we might need to call on a lot of people.”

Zed nodded.

Verona reached out through her Demesne sense, to get a sense of what Nina and Luna were doing with her book organization.  In the process, she felt Blankshanks at the shelf-

A vaguely cat-smeared smudge of light against the ceiling and wall, cat hair, and fairy glamour.

She turned to Zed, took a step to the left, and saw Blankshanks padding around, acting like an ordinary cat.

Really?” she asked.  “Ballsy.”

“Who, me?” Blankshanks asked.  “What do you mean?”

“You asked the most naive person possible to get an invite here, knowing I’m starting a business, knowing I love cats and you could probably pull some real bullshit.  And inside a Demesne, you start pulling something?  Trying to trick me while I’m distracted?  Again, in my Demesne?”

“What did I pull, what did I do?”

“Let’s find out-” Verona said, reaching.

“No touchy!” Blankshanks replied, scampering back.

Verona reached out.

The wind stirred, blowing through vents and through the room.  An adjustment made the connection between tape and counter break, and the tape blew through the air, landing slick side down, sticky side up.

Blankshanks avoided the worst of it, stepped onto one, had it stick to the pads of his feet, and immediately began freaking out, trying to remove the tape only to get it stuck on other limbs.  He didn’t seem to know how to function when something like tape was messing up his ability to feel the ground he was walking on.

“I’m a cat person, and you may not be a cat, but you’re enough like one for your weaknesses to be the same.”

“Okay!” Blankshanks raised his voice, kicking his feet in the air, rolling on the ground.  Bits were stuck to his side and the whiskers on one side of his face, making his head twitch.  “Okay!  Mercy!”

She reached.  He swiped claws at her hand.

She tried again, using the hand that had the brace on it.  A bit of armor.  She got hold of the ruff of Blankshanks’ neck, and lifted him up.

“What do you even think I’ve done?” he asked.

She used her Sight, while marching him over to where a sunbeam would shine through his long white fur.

She could see the meaty silhouette wrapped in gauze that was more loose thread than weave.  A ghost cat with a polished, lithe nugget in the center, like a soapstone sculpture in crimson.  And smudges of shadow in the light.

She reached in, working around the swiping paws, and dug into the ruff of his neck, where the fur was so thick she could touch a fingertip to the solid part of his throat and the fur at the longest part extended to the heel of her hand.

She dug out the three hundred dollars and the IOU she’d given Zed, two nice pens, the nice eyeshadow she’d gotten from Lucy, and her super-old MP3 player that was like, from the late 1900s that she kept in her bag for when her phone died.

“I have a sickness,” Blankshanks told her.  “Have you heard of kleptomania?  Do you think I want to do this?  To be this?”

“Is your sickness kleptomania?” she asked.  “Can you really not help yourself?”

“Even among the Strangelings and fairies, compulsive stealing is-”

“Answer the question, dude,” she told the cat.

She let the draft within her Demesne blow Peckersnot’s home-made bits of adhesive paper across the floor, surrounding Blankshanks.

Peckersnot sauntered over to the edge of the counter and loomed there, trying to look imperious and dangerous, while Blankshanks shrank back from the very gross trap around him.  Paper loaded with sticky goblin snot.

“Let’s try another question.  When you say you have a sickness, do you mean you’re sick?  Or that you have like, a minor plague in a jar, somewhere in your possession?”

With each question, Blankshanks tensed some more.  He shifted his stance, going bipedal, legs spaced apart, head ducked down, forelimbs out to either side.

The tape on one foot stuck briefly to the ground, and he broke stance, falling, fighting for his life against that one piece of tape, trying to attack it and get it clear of his foot.

“Blankshanks, dude, you might actually be as bad at decision making as Tatty’s group.”

Peckersnot peeped.  Blankshanks narrowed his eyes.

“Take that back,” the fairy cat told her.

“Robbing a nascent sorceress in her Demesne?  Big respect if you succeed, but you were never going to succeed.  That puts you solidly in Tatty tier, guy.”

“You can stick me with tape, you can even use that goblin mess, but you can’t-”

“Okay,” Verona interrupted.

She let the Peckersnot tape get picked up by the draft.  Blankshanks shrieked, leaping through the air, in a kind acrobatic, bullet-dodging move that avoided nine out of ten of the first volley.

Verona moved her head.  The floor went slick.  He landed, found no traction, and crashed into a bookshelf.

The papers caught up with him as he shrieked in a voice that took the combined qualities of a human’s cry of horror and a yowling cat, and chased it with sheer terror.

He began thrashing.

“I think you had that coming.  Peckersnot, thank you for your assistance.”

Peckersnot peeped.

“Zed, your money back.”

“He slipped a glamoured replacement in my pocket,” Zed noted.

“The absolute nerve,” Verona said, smiling.  She gestured, the wind shifted, and the papers lifted up and away.

The bell on the door chimed.  All heads present turned.

“First warning.  Innocent or close approximate approacheth,” Verona noted, for the benefit of everyone present.  “Bell chime is approach from Kennet above, jangle-jangle is from Kennet below, and musical sound is from Kennet found.”

“That’s a system,” Zed remarked.

“Hey Blankshanks?” Verona asked.  “Two ways this can go.”

Blankshanks was on his back, surrounded by goblin snot papers that fluttered like they were going to drift to the ground, but weren’t actually losing any altitude as they swayed in the air.

The bell on the door chimed twice.

“You can endure this until we’re done with the customer, or you can agree to make it up to me and Zed with a bit of work.  If you don’t agree, it’ll be option one.  You don’t have long.”

Blankshanks’s expression twisted to anger this time.  And worry.  He looked at the door-

The bell chimed once.

Twice.

“Yes!”

And Verona discarded the papers.

Thrice.

Peckersnot disappeared.  Luna pulled her mask off, as did Shoe, the two of them disappearing into different corners to fuss pointlessly at books, backs turned and bare faces hidden, to preserve their modesty.

The door opened.

Mrs. Schaff came in.

She took stock.  “So this is the little bookstore you mentioned.”

“It is.  Tea?  Coffee?” Verona offered.

“Coffee.  Is that Blankshanks?”

Blankshanks meowed mournfully.  He’d been played.  If he’d done nothing, Mrs. Schaff was sure to rescue him.  Now he was on the hook for labor or repayment of some kind.

“That is Blankshanks.  He was out in the cold-”

“He keeps slipping out and regretting it.”

“-Luna there let him in.  Now he’s miserable because he stuck his nose where he shouldn’t.  Warned him.”

“Well, let him learn his lesson.  You said you had a book?”

“I do,” Verona replied.  “Thanks for coming in.  Are you familiar with this one?  Veterinarian’s guide to cats.  Bit old, but-”

“I have it,” Mrs. Schaff told her.  “I have the full set of those volumes.”

Verona nodded, glancing down at the book, feeling a pang of loss.

Yeah.

“But do you have this one?” she asked.  She reached under the counter and pulled another book out.

The first one was the one she’d shown Jeremy, when Jeremy had brought Sir to her room.  She’d dug it out, just for reference.  A veterinarian text with charts, nutrition, details on how to deal with various maladies, and so on.  Other volumes in the same series covered breeds, breeding, surgery, etc.

The one she brought out now was something she’d asked around about.  She just hadn’t expected it to line up with something she was already familiar with.  When she’d come across it, she’d known it was for Mrs. Schaff.  Maybe when Miss had created Kennet found, she’d known in the back of her head about the Aware and she’d let her unconscious mind design something.  Who knew?

Verona had gone asking around for any Kennet found books on cats.  She’d found this.  A secret volume for the same set she’d shown Jeremy, except this volume didn’t exist in reality.  A book on unusual cats.  The Miscellaneous stuff.  The appendix that went beyond where other appendixes for the set went.  It wouldn’t cover all the bases for the sorts of cats that ended up at the Aware cat lady’s house, and it was vague in places, but it would cover some, while equipping her for others.

Verona served tea, and let Mrs. Schaff sit, paging through the book, drinking some tea.  Nina covered most of the reorganizing, Zed and Verona made light conversation, Luna and Shoe were bashful but Luna helped Nina on request, Peckersnot remained hidden, while Blankshanks beat a retreat.  He’d back later, to honor the deal.

Mrs. Schaff finished her tea, stood, and nodded.  “How much?”

“Twenty.”

She was breaking even.

But, she wrote on carbon paper for the receipt, tore it off, then handed Mrs. Schaff the one half.

As Mrs. Schaff departed, the little bell tolled, signaling the coast was clear, and Verona saw the receipt become a card.  The three of apples.

It had been a massive amount of work, going digging, convincing the foundling to part with it, bringing it over, and the card wasn’t anything especially special.  She broke even financially.

But it was progress.  A win.

She felt like she needed that win, if Zed was working on convincing himself to leave, if Avery was scoring the Promenade and Lucy was going to war against Musser and convincing Durocher to challenge him.

She pulled off her brace and rubbed at her palm.

She’d been working on her angle for her problem, her way of dealing with Charles and the Judges, and it wasn’t coming together.  She needed momentum.  A small bit of momentum.

🟂

“You’re good though?” Connor asked.

She shrugged.  “I got good people around me.  Good projects I’m working on.  Pursuits, interests.  I’ve got you helping me get squared away with this- less about the homework issues on this last bit, just the… the moral.  Wondering what I’m going to do with some of the tougher questions, if they come up.”

Connor nodded.

You good?” she asked.

“For now, yeah.  Sunny morning, the family coming in.”

Verona nodded.

“But Verona, look, I agreed to do a check-in, I know you’ve been avoiding home, you’re in your Demesne a lot.  I hear that’s dangerous.”

She shrugged.  “I balance it out.  I think it’s dangerous if you isolate yourself in it.  I’m not isolated.”

“You’re eating?  Sleeping?”

“Yes.”

“Your needs are met?”

🟂

“A contract?”

“Been doing a lot of contracts recently.  What’s one more?” she asked.  “Curious?”

“Yeah, you know what?  I actually am.”

Mal was staying over, and there was a group of people in the living room space of the House on Half street, eating snacks, talking, while music played.  She was about ready to send some home, so of course Mal had sensed it and started talking about more interesting things, so conversations would get underway and it’d be harder to get rid of everyone.

And that would probably lead to Mal arguing people should stay overnight, blah blah blah…

Whatever.  No big.

A bit of company in the lead-up to Christmas.

The guy who followed her into the dining room was a bit dour.  His eyebrows were perpetually curled into a look of worry or concern, his upper lip was very ‘m’ shaped, his lower lip pulled in a bit like he was regularly biting it, and he had a long head, long straight nose, and long-ish brown hair.  Long.  Like, not tall, but proportioned out like someone tall and narrow, then adjusted down to another height.

“It’s ridiculous, right?” Mal asked.

Verona gave Mal the finger.

“You’re supposed to say it isn’t, you goober!”

“Who’s the goober?  I haven’t read any of it yet.  How could I, when it was just mentioned?”

Verona opened the file, then let him peruse it, watching over his shoulder.  Or from beside his shoulder, more like.

She’d cobbled it together from various sites.  Broken it down into a before, during, and after.

“It’s not done, but I could get it done if I had to,” she said.

“Okay.”

“Formalizing the casual relationship,” she noted.

He studied the ‘contract’, while she stood off to the side, studying him.  She liked his mouth.  The way he hunched forward while reading.  His darker hair made a kind of faint whorl of hair at the back of his neck, peeking up out of the back of his turtleneck sweater.  A whorl made up of those little hairs on the neck that would stand up.  When he straightened more, his longer hair covered it.

He’d hung out with them, he’d been cool.  Helped check some boxes.

“I like it.  Huh.”

“If you want to do this, I’ll need referrals.”

“For a formalized casual relationship?  From what?  Other girls?”

“Or your friends.  Or teachers, I dunno.  Just give me some clue.”

“Can I get a copy?  To read on my own?” he asked.

“If you tell me you won’t share it and I believe you, maybe.”

“I’d be interested,” he said, scrolling.  “If you’d be interested?”

He had a look in his eyes, that worry hinting at vulnerability.

Like, gosh.

“I might be.  Depending on how it’s filled out, references, that sort of thing.  Really, this isn’t something I was super serious about.  Like, just organizing thoughts, thinking about what I’d want and need, and like, who I’d be when I’m thirty, or fifty, or sixty.  I could see myself being some lady that’s all, like, I like sucking on dicks, turns my crank, I like this, I like that, not this, these are the rules.  Bam.  Needs met.”

He scrolled through some.  “What if someone breaks the rules?”

“Set ’em on fire with magic?” she suggested.

He glanced at her.

“Joking.”

“Oh, gotcha.”

The fact he’d reacted like that, without alarm, or whatever?  Just one teeny tiny notch in the ‘he’s okay’ column.

This entire thing was so tricky now, compared to just being able to meet up with a guy she’d kinda known and paid attention to since kindergarten.  Jeremy.

“Probably not going to follow through with this anytime soon, especially while there’s other stuff going on,” she told him.

“Put my name into the ring?” he asked.  “Check my sources, I’ll fill out whatever.  If you’re busy, that’s okay.”

“Maybe,” she replied.  She gestured, and the House on Half Street reacted, stirring awake.  The shitty printer upstairs whined and groaned, but it started printing out the pertinent stuff.  “But let’s talk about that another time.  It’s late, I’m tired, I’ve got guests to get rid of.”

“Need help?”

She nodded.  “And uh… since it didn’t come up earlier?”

“What’s that?”

“Your name.”

“Anselm.”

“Okay.  Verona.”

“I know,” he said.  And he gave her a brief flash of humor and a ‘you’re ridiculous’ look before turning away, which made her lower abdomen go woooo.

Yeah.  Woo.

Woo.

Anselm dragged some of the guys out, the guys leaving meant some of Mal’s friends from school left.

Then it was just three of them.  Mal lingered, lounging, trying to buy time because she’d rather sleep over than walk home.  And Verona’s fetch was lying on the couch, eyes open.

“You good?” Verona asked.

Her fetch nodded.

Verona sat down at the midpoint of the couch, poking her fetch in the belly until she retreated, back to the couch’s seat-back, making room for Verona to scoot back.

“What’s the catch?” Verona asked Mal.

“Huh?  Catch?”

“Anselm?”

“He’s sixteen.  But you’re mature.  Sort of?  Uhh, he’s quiet.”

“He’s from the Undercity.”

“He is.  So am I.  So are a bunch of us.  Who cares?” Mal asked.

“It just feels like the moody, dark, good looking guy from the Undercity might have more going on.”

“He writes angsty poetry.”

“How angsty does it have to be that he’s native to the Undercity?”

“Pretty angsty, I guess?”

“Useless,” Verona’s Fetch said.

“So not helping, Mal,” Verona added.

“No no no no, no ganging up on me.  I did good, didn’t I?”

“On purpose or by accident?” Verona asked.

“On purpose!  After the Appaloosa disaster, I went looking!” Mal replied.  “I asked about shit you like and he seemed sorta right, so I invited him to party tonight.”

“Being a pretty good friend,” Verona’s Fetch remarked.

“Yeah.  I guess.”

“Above and beyond,” the Fetch added.

They carried on, discussing the contract some, and boys some, and things that would’ve been out of bounds with Lucy.

In the back of her head, though, Verona was dwelling on other things.

Connor, wondering about big questions, and interfering with forces that should be left alone.

Zed, recommending turning attention inward, toward the Self, toward Self-care, and toward improving whatever it was she did.

Connor talking about needs.

This was that.

Not the boy thing.  That was a want.  Sometimes a lot of want.

But need?

Verona stretched back on the couch.  Her Fetch’s body was behind her, and she squeeze-crushed her counterpart, who rough-housed back a little bit.

“Hey, other me?” Verona asked.

“Yeah?”

“Seriously, I’ve asked before, but the timing was bad.  Seriously.  You good?  You okay?”

The Fetch shrugged.

Yeah.

This wasn’t what Zed had been talking about, or Connor, or any of that.  But she had never been especially inclined to follow the standard procedures.  So, if it came down to studying Self and working out the best pattern she could, why not just deal with the Fetch as a symbolic way of dealing with her own Self?

If she could create a compromise or get the Fetch working on her behalf, that would count for something, right?

“Because I want to talk options.”

“Options?”

“Compromise.”

🟂

“And there we are.”

She twisted in her seat.

Her mom was outside, trying to navigate the bustling crowd.  She’d taken so long to find a parking spot, it seemed, that Verona had started to wonder if she was going to show at all.

“I know you’re having good discussions with your mom.  But I also know she can’t know everything about practice and things.”

“Right.”

“And so if you ever need something from an adult that’s more in the know about practice and things?  You have my information.”

“Thank you,” she told him.  “Can we keep doing this tutoring, maybe?  Like we did this morning?”

“Sure.  Yeah.  Work schedule allowing?”

“I hear you.  I mean, like, my schedule’s super open, but also, there can be major stuff that gets in the way.”

“Yeah.”

Her mother entered the cafe, which was starting to exit the slower part of the morning and get into the very busy lunch, and navigated tables, chairs, the lines, and the idlers.

Verona hugged her mom fiercely.

“Happy holidays,” her mom said.

“Happy holidays.”

Her mom greeted Connor, they had a few words- they’d only really ever talked over the phone, and at Yeast Inception.

They started to get underway, talking again, and Verona had the sense she’d have to wait until a gap opened up.

But they were both very conscious of her this time around, and there weren’t any big distractions.

“So what’s going on with you?” her mom asked.

“Since our very recent phone call?” Verona asked.

“Since the last time we talked online.”

🟂

Self care.  Holding onto key people.  Holding onto plans.

“Compromise?” her Fetch asked, “Like, nobody’s happy in the end?”

“Actually no.”  Verona turned, looking at her Fetch-self draped on the couch.  “Compromise as in you get so much of what you’ve dreamed about, basically all, I handle reality, and then we split the difference.”

The Fetch went from lying down to sitting up.

“You can handle what we need you to handle, in my life as Verona, but otherwise?  Mainly, anyway?  You’d get to be-”

🟂

“A cat.  I’m thinking of getting a cat,” she told her mom.


Previous Chapter

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Let Slip – 20.2

Avery

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They got off the train, entering a train platform that looked like any number of little-used subway stops.  An underground alcove with a set of stairs at one corner, a bench at another, and faded paint that had changed texture and hue from smooth where the lights had shone on it for too long.  From sewer green paint to pocked and peeling mint green.  The entire space was about thirty paces across and five paces deep.

A sign above the bench read ‘CAKEWALK’, and graffiti that looked like it had been put up with charcoal portrayed a cake and knife.

The train moved on.  Avery leaned over the tracks, peering into the dark tunnels the train had come from and gone into.

“Wouldn’t,” Cliff said, brusque.

“Hm?” Avery asked.

“We’ve poked around.  That’s not a way out.”

“Okay,” Avery said.  She nudged Snowdrop.  “Tell us if your Lost senses tell you anything?”

“I’ll keep it to myself, thank you very much.”

Clay volunteered some information, telling them, “As near as we can figure, the trains are some metaphysical approximation of the connections between Paths.  If you use the runes for the Gate of Horn with certain tools, you can reinvent the train into an elevator.  If you’re alone.  Otherwise, it has the form the majority give it.”

Avery nodded.  “The Page of Suns asked me to travel along a thread, and I think he was drawing a parallel to travel between Paths.”

“Jude mentioned,” Adorea said.  “Sometimes he tells us stuff about you and it sounds like he’s figured out how to lie, it’s so off the wall.”

Avery frowned.  “I don’t think I’m doing much that’s that special.”

“Even the Founding wasn’t all that,” Snowdrop said.

“Oh, yeah, that was over the top,” Avery corrected.

Cliff walked between them, making Avery take a step back, hand at Snowdrop’s shoulder.

“The phone?” he asked, looking around.

Avery checked, shook her head, and realized he wasn’t looking at her.  “No.  I think it worked only because we were on the train.  And that was an in-transit type thing.”

“So Wunderkand is setting up at the Promenade entrance.  They’ll be riddling the Station Promenade out with some of the best Finders and Path Runners and the best resources in the business,” Cliff said.  “We get the one shot.  If we can’t see this through, then I don’t think we get another chance.  They’ll be there, they’ll get in our way, they’ll sabotage our efforts to start over.  If they don’t outright block us, complicate entry.”

“Sounds right,” Clay replied.

“Wolf’s there, his fixation is us.  He won’t leave as long as they’re there.  They won’t leave as long as there’s an opportunity.  The Promenade is big.  I don’t think you can look at it and not realize it’s important.  So they’ll keep bringing people in.”

“Upside is I guess the Wolf being there messes them up too, right?” Avery asked.

“Remember your soldier friend going over the edge, holding onto the Wolf?” Cliff asked.  “He’s not impossible to deal with.  They’ll have tools, magic items, practices.  Things that buy them time.  Protections.  Maybe enough times they can figure something out.  Wouldn’t put it past them.”

Avery nodded, frowning.

“Sorry, by the way,” Clay said.

Avery raised her eyebrows at him.

“It’s our mess, here.  Shane and Kimber.  The betrayal, info getting out.  We got you involved, then things went to shit because of them.  Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” Avery said.

“Thanks for saying so.  I get it’s okay to you, but it’s not okay to me or us, I don’t think,” Clay said.  He looked over at his uncle.

“Yeah.  Hrmmm.  Sorry,” Cliff said.

“It really is okay.  I think these things happen to all families, it’s just… big money, big events, family business, they make it worse.”

“Clayton Garrick,” Adorea said, nudging her cousin.  “Angling to be family leader someday?  Flexing your diplomat muscle?”

“Not my goal.  Just trying to keep things… going smooth, I dunno.”

“I was going to say you’re so good with words, and then you had to fuck it up at the end,” Adorea told him.

“Enough of that,” Cliff said.  He looked grim.  “We’re as good as stranded, everything’s on the line, and we’ve got a tough Path ahead of us, with the Wolf probably right after.”

“Partial Path,” Adorea noted.

“Right.  Part of the Cakewalk.  From this train station to the next train stop.  But it’s a dangerous one.  That’s the bad.  The good is that you three are very competent Finders.  We wouldn’t have had you on the core team, Clayton, or you two girls on the alternate team, if you weren’t.”

Avery nodded.  “Three girls.”

“Two and a half,” Cliff said.

“I think that’s worse.”

Point is, we can give it an honest try.  But we need to focus.”

“I’m totally focused,” Snowdrop told him.  “No bundle of nerves, internal screaming, and trash obsession here.  I got you, champ.”

Cliff looked down at her like he was trying to fight suppressing a sigh.  He jerked a thumb toward the stairwell.

They walked over, and they stopped, looking up at the long, narrow stairwell.  Leading up to the Cakewalk.

“You done this?” Avery asked.

“In two test runs.  Third go, we had a close call, even knowing what we were doing.”

Avery nodded.

“Our plan was to run it until we were sure we could be consistent.  The close call was close enough we decided against it.  Figure if you’re going to get in a metaphorical cage with a tiger, might as well give it only the one chance to eat you.”

“No internal screaming here,” Snowdrop remarked.  “I don’t know anyone who’s done anything like that.”

“If the Promenade’s worth running, we can work out the Cakewalk some more,” Cliff said.

“Okay,” Avery said.

“Not okay.  You guys have been so shitty-”

Avery covered Snowdrop’s mouth.  Snowdrop lightly bit her fingers.

They started the climb.  The entire place had the sense of a place that was both traveled enough that passerbys broke stuff or wore stuff down, but disused enough that nobody came to fix it.  The stairs had metal braces for traction at their edges, but the occasional one was broken.  The lighting was similarly broken – one in every ten or twenty lights, at least.  The problem was the occasional case where both happened.  Avery tripped over one bit of metal at the stair’s edge that had pulled away and peeled up.

She’d heard that realms could overlap with one another.  This seemed like one spot of the Paths that could be connected to the Abyss, which would fit.

“Fireflies of Left Field… lend me a hand.  I’ll put on the bug movie for you some time later, okay?”

The fireflies broke pattern, flying ahead, checking the darker areas, tracing steps.

One flew a playful path, taking more time than necessary.

“You, uh, I’m going to call you Wiggle, if you don’t want to like, draw another name in the air…” Avery said.  “Come here?”

It didn’t draw another name, but it did come.

“Love the personality,” Avery told it.  “But since tonight is serious, can you do me a solid and stick to the basics?  I don’t want to be distracted by a wiggly firefly, thinking it’s trying to signal me, when it’s just messing around.”

The firefly bobbed a ‘yes’ up and down.

“Thanks.  I’ll make-”

Snowdrop lunged, mouth open, and ate Wiggle.

“Snowdrop!”

“What?” Snowdrop asked, without opening her mouth.

“Do not eat my magical companions!  Especially ones I just named!”

“I didn’t eat anything,” Snowdrop mumbled.  “Be awful if I did.”

“It would be awful, Snow.”

“I didn’t do it!” Snowdrop told Avery.  She opened her mouth in the process, and Wiggle flew out.

“That’s-”

Snowdrop snapped Wiggle out of the air again.

Avery gripped Snowdrop’s collar with one hand and the top of her head with another, like she could open her head like a pizz dispenser.  “You did it again!”

“Didn’t,” Snowdrop mumbled.  She tripped over a step, because they were still climbing.  “Didn’t!”

“Stop- wait, is the reason you’re saying you did it over and over again because you’re celebrating?”

“Can you talk louder?” Snowdrop asked, out of the corner of her mouth.  “Because I can’t hear you over the sound of the dopamine rush I didn’t have.  Nothing like scoring a goal”

“Snow!”

“No instincts involved.  All me.”

Avery tried to pry Snowdrop’s mouth open, tugging to keep her moving up the stairs, while Snowdrop clamped everything down, eyes squinting shut, mouth pressed closed, biting down on her lips from the inside.

Wiggle escaped out of Snowdrop’s nostril.  Snowdrop made a small sneezing sound.  “If I swallowed, would she fly out of my butthole?”

“Snow!”

“No instincts, no goblin influence.”

“You okay, Wiggle?” Avery asked, releasing Snow, but keeping a hand ready to block another lunge.

Wiggle seemed to be okay, confirming yes, and doing a playful twirl, a little less glamour trailing behind her.

Avery pointed a finger at Snowdrop.

“How does it feel, being in a familiar relationship that’s a low-key, twenty-four-seven comedy routine?” Adorea asked.

“I don’t think it’s that bad,” Avery said.  “I think Snowdrop’s trying to distract me from the tension of the situation.”

“Nuh uh.  Avery’s wrong.  It’s so bad.  The dynamic makes thing so much harder,” Snowdrop added.

“Most people get used to it fast.  Except her best friend Cherrypop.”

“I level things out, Avery makes it weird, it’s a balance,” Snowdrop said.

“It’s a survival thing, I don’t regret it at all, but I brought Snowdrop into the world, I feel responsible.”

“Huh,” Adorea replied.  “And you’re-?  Are you…?  You know?  Eating your opossum’s candy jewelry something or other?”

“No!  Gosh, no,” Avery replied.  She glanced around the group, and saw a sidelong glance from Cliff.  “No, no.  That’d be a bit weird.  God- gods and spirits.  I hate that that’s something everyone here knows now.  Um.  Hmm.  Is it a problem?”

She caught the backward glance from Cliff, who was leading the way.

“Don’t think so.  Weird that you and Jude pulled one over on us.”

“I’d really rather leave Jude out of discussions until Jude can be included in the discussions.”

“Didn’t think he had it in him.”

“Really truly.  Please.  Let’s not bring him up?” Avery asked.

“Avery and I are totally, you know,” Snowdrop said, expression placid.

“Friends.  Familiar-practitioner, partners,” Avery asserted.

“I don’t even bite her or nibble on her sometimes,” Snowdrop said.  “Or cuddle.”

“Not helping, Snow,” Avery hissed.  “No.  She’s like, not even a year old, technically, so that’d be…”

“You can tell because I put out an aura of maturity,” Snowdrop said.

“Makes me wonder,” Adorea said.  “About my dormouse.”

“Your- your boon companion?” Avery asked.

“Yeah.  The Forest Ribbon Trail, you forget what the Wolf does, but you never forget the Wolf himself.  Or the fact that you’re guided through this terrifying, complicated, scary first Path by a sweet, innocent soul-”

Snowdrop grinned, showing off her crowded teeth.  “So innocent.  So sweet.”

Avery mussed up her hair.

“-and you sacrifice them.  Like this big symbolic gesture.  Welcome to the Paths, there’ll be no more guides, no more comfort, no more handholding.”

Ominous words for the steady staircase ascent to a dangerous Path.  Avery ran her hand along the wall.  Tiny bits of paint flecked off.

“Makes me feel guilty, constantly, in this tiny way that should be a much bigger than tiny way, you know?” Adorea asked.  “What if I’d found a way to save her?”

“It’s horrible,” Snowdrop said.  “Just appearing out of nowhere, and like, no way do I want to die.  For some stinkbutt like her?”

“You wanted to die?” Adorea asked.

“Like, no point to it,” Snowdrop said, as if she hadn’t heard the question.  “What a way to go, horribly maimed by the Wolf.”

“Snow has suggested in the past that there’s some grand sense of joining something greater,” Avery clarified.  “Maybe The Child.  Who may or may not be an architect.”

“It’s a pattern,” Clayton said.

“Definitely,” Avery replied.  “Enough of one to alter the Forest Ribbon Trail, apparently.”

“Do you think that’s why you’re different?” Clayton asked.  “Or is it the Wild Practitioner thing?”

“I dunno.  I really don’t think I’m that different.  I make mistakes.  I get caught up in stuff.”

“Keep secrets,” Cliff said, from further up the stairs, his back to her.

“Do we need to hash this out?” Avery asked.  “Maybe if we can get in touch with Jude, sometime between now and the Promenade-?”

“No.”

“But- you realize this is what the Wolf wanted, right?  To get at weak points, divide us, so we’re vulnerable, so she can come after any one of us…”

“There’s too high a chance that if we try to ‘hash this out’ as you say, even with Jude as part of it, it makes things worse.”

Avery stopped

“Uncle,” Adorea said.

Cliff turned around, looking down at Avery from about ten stairs up.  “We need to keep moving.  Focus on the Path.  We’ll figure this out later.”

“I’m not perfect, but I don’t think I’m a bad person.”

“Okay,” Cliff said, frowning.  “Position noted.  Can we move on?”

“When it came to the negotiation for items and books, my instinct was to just work with Jude, do that, give you the info.  If you gave me something, that’d be a bonus.  But Miss, and the others, they said if I did that, people I deal with might take me for granted, or get greedy.  But now I feel like it’s flipped around, and I’m- am I being made out to be a bad guy because I took money, like I was manipulating you for some scheme?  Because I wasn’t.”

“Doing this now, when everything’s on the line?  It’s making the situation worse,” Cliff said.

“Then engage with me, let’s get this over with.  What do you want from me?  I made a mistake not telling about Max Garrick- I told Jude, before he did the big Founding thing with me-”

That was why he was weird,” Adorea said.  “I thought he had PTSD from-”

“Adorea,” Cliff interrupted.

“I didn’t want to do anything big without knowing.  I don’t want to get onto the subject of Jude in case it gets him in trouble, but I gave you a huge discount on Cakewalk info and other stuff, and offered my help here because I do want to make it up to you.  I want to-”

Cliff was shaking his head, not even making eye contact, shoulders turning slightly away, like he was ready to turn and walk away.

“What!?” Avery raised her voice.  It echoed in the stairwell.  “What am I missing?  Because I’m okay at the Path stuff, I like Jude as a friend, I like your family, I like working on the big project, I’m invested, I’m interested, I’m here, I’m doing what I can!  I gave up my rope and spare rope to get Esme and Lance out!  Why can’t that be enough?”

“Are you done?”

“I don’t know!  Are you going to give me an answer?”

He didn’t look like he was.

“Is it that I’m gay?  Because seriously, you reacting badly to that isn’t super great to begin with, but if it’s because you really thought you could wear me down and marry me into the family, that’s not super great and then it’s way worse because you’re ignoring stuff I’ve repeatedly and very clearly said!  That’s sketchy!”

“You’re a- you’re deceptive!” he answered, angry now.  At least he was making eye contact.  He descended two stairs.  “I’ve had my fill of deception, I’ve lost sleep over it, and I didn’t think it would come from you.  I’ve told my son- I’ve told other kids in the family, look at Avery.  Emulate Avery.”

“That’s not on me!”

“You being deceptive is!” he roared the words back, emphasis on the last one.  “You made me look like a fool.”

“You-”

“What?” he asked.  “I what?  I nearly lost and had to rebuild my relationship with my brother because of you.  I did that rebuilding by telling them there was a chance.  A chance we could bring you in.”

“I’m in!” she told him.  “Look!  Me!  Here!  Without ropes, because I gave everything!”

“You weren’t there these past few days.”

“And I won’t be!  In some hypothetical reality where I wasn’t gay and you married me into the family, I’d still be a person with other obligations!  If you’re building me up, if you’re telling people I’m something great, and if you’re making promises, that’s you, not me!  I’m a girl that’s fast on her feet, a bit of a scatterbrain, but I’m okay at the Path stuff!  I treat Others like people and ask how they’re doing and I get a lot of support from my friends and mentors!  That’s it!  That’s the recipe!  My mentors gave me a lot of power to work with but that comes with responsibilities!  You were there, that day of the founding-”

“Which we came to, for you!

“And I appreciate that, but you saw what I’m doing!  What we’re up against!  Don’t resent me for what you built me up to be, for what you thought!”

“I resent you for the lies!  Start to finish!  Jude comes to me to say he established a good rapport, you know what you’re doing, okay.  That there was interest?  That’s how it starts!  That’s my son!  My older brother’s got some screwed up shit going on with girls he knew from college?  My cousin and cousin-in-law are traitors?  Who the fuck am I supposed to trust?”

“That’s not me!  That’s not on me!  Don’t make me the scapegoat for all the other shit you’re not ready to work out!  Because I am fucking here Cliff!”

There was a sound of a train.

She breathed hard.

“Train,” Adorea noted.

“I have ears,” Cliff said, brusque, staring Avery down.

“If an Other gets off from the Promenade, we should stick to some Cakewalk standard practices.  Don’t move, don’t say anything…”

The doors hissed.

“Yeah,” Cliff said, quiet.

They pulled back to either side of the stairwell, leaving the middle clear.

A 300-pound hamster wearing what looked like an overelaborate bondage getup was the only apparent passenger.  Muzzle, high collar, criss-crossing leather straps that each had decoration.  Twelve nipples in total down the front, each with a fat nipple ring put through one, the metal as thick across as three of Avery’s fingers put together, and it wore a leather thong with metal to protect it, because the hamster’s proportions and physiology meant that the pronounced genitals were awfully close to the ground.

The thong clacked against every stair as the hamster made his way up.

Avery’s phone buzzed in her pocket.  The hamster paused, glancing back.

Avery surreptitiously checked her phone as the hamster moved on.  The delayed ring was a message from Lucy, catching up as the magically boosted service provider found her.

‘Incoming’.

And a picture.

“We need to go,” Avery whispered.

“Let the hamster go, then we go,” Cliff said.

“I think we should deal with whatever that hamster does if it’s provoked, because-”

Avery heard the tapping.  Boots and something else clacking against the ground.

She hurried forward.  Summer glamour…

Free ribbon at her wrist.  Nothing magic or anything big.  Just… material.  She situated it in the light, so the High Summer glamour would have more to grab onto and represent.

Drawing up a flat surface, at first.  Matching it to the walls, then letting details fill in, while she cut out something else-

The footsteps were getting closer, walking the length of the truncated, train-car-wide platform.  Slowly.

She made a door.  Then used the ribbon to decorate it.

Ribbons meant things in the Paths.  Ribbons were often a warning.  She hoped that was a secret terminology that an expert in the field would catch onto.

She didn’t have time to make the full sign, so she made a shitty one, scratched out, faded by time and wear, eroded at by light.

She backed off, hands raised, glamour tinted to be one-way.  Giving them a view down the length of the stairwell, some blurs of color obscuring, while the woman at the bottom would look about a hundred feet up the stairs and see a dead end.  A painted concrete wall with peeling paint, a sealed door, covered in ribbon like a crime scene was covered in police tape, with ‘occupied’ written on it.

A young woman appeared at the very bottom of the stairwell.  Avery could look at the phone, then look at her.

Back when she was Declan’s age, Avery had been over at Olivia’s.  Her original best friend.  They’d been reading some celebrity rag and talking about everything under the sun.  For whatever reason, they’d gotten onto the subject of what word to use to refer to a woman’s chest.  Maybe because they’d been starting to get their own, they’d recently gotten the talk, because they were old enough to know shit and unfiltered enough to talk randomly about it.

They’d started talking out a categorization scheme, and flipping through the magazine to work it out and test what they’d sorted out so far.  The basic idea had been that longer words referred to bigger ones, and different- Avery figured they’d be roots, now, but that hadn’t been their terminology then, referred to shape and disposition.  So bits or buds for the starter set, terminology taken from the ‘what the fuck, body?’ puberty book, pink edition for girls.  That graduated to the breast, classic and normal in every sense, then to the respected and vaunted boob, which was technically a shorter word on paper but was longer when said, and heavier, a low sound, bass.  Then anything up from there got into the bazookas, the bazongamongas, and so on.

Midway through discussing the progression of the terms starting with ‘t’, the pointier boob with potential to thrust outward, and where ‘tit’ fell into the terminology and system, Olivia’s mother had stepped into the doorway to give them a look, like she’d heard way too much, she wasn’t going to stop them, but also, like, they should stop.

They hadn’t stopped, but they’d been quieter, talking about what they wanted – deeming bigger as better, obviously and stupidly.  Then Olivia had turned the discussion toward dicks and if there could be a similar system for those, and for some reason, the discussion had lost half of its steam.  For some reason.

But like, seriously, it hadn’t been nearly as clever or fun.

Which was all a roundabout way of saying the woman in the picture and at the bottom of the stairwell and her mammary-hammers warranted a flashback to when Avery had started paying attention to women’s chests.  It was never something Avery had obsessed over or given as much attention to as the average boy seemed to, but she had started noticing at one point, that discussion with Olivia was a firm starting point, and this might’ve even been a very not-firm end point.  Like nothing she saw in real life would really stand out or surpass this in sheer impact.

The woman had white hair that looked like a wig, with ringlets big enough in places Avery wondered if she could put her arm through them, but most prominently, the woman was a member of Wunderkand who had an outfit.  The outfit in this case was a corset-style top with a scoop neck that scooped out a whole lot, and pushed what was there up and forward.  The effect, even from a distance, was that what was there trembled and jiggled with every small movement, like water in a glass- in a goblet, that was threatening to spill with every step its carrier took.

There was also a dress, short in the front and long in the back, with cascading frilly layers disguising the shape of the ass, and high boots and a croquet mallet.  Yeah.

They retreated up the stairs, being careful to not make too much noise.  Avery drew a silence rune on the wall, outlined it as a barrier, and Clayton nodded.

“I might join Wunderkand,” Clayton whispered.

Not funny,” Cliff growled.

“What?” Adorea asked.  “Oh.  If you’re going to get with that, you’d better get good at backrubs.  And shoulder rubs.”

The woman tapped the ground with the croquet mallet as she sauntered forward, taking her time on the first few stairs, approaching the glamoured barrier.

Her familiar took its time approaching.  A wolf, small-W, big as a pony, with a collar that looked like it could be part of an ox’s yoke, or a plaque that an animal’s head was mounted on, but with the animal’s head thrust through it, mirror-shiny.

The wolf padded its way up the stairs, sniffing.

Then it snorted, hard.

The glamour was blown away.  Scraps of ribbon trailed through the air, disintegrating as they blew this way and that.

The woman’s lips moved.  Then she frowned.  She walked up the stairs, taking her time, and they retreated about as fast as they could without provoking her to do anything more sudden, moving slightly further and faster than she was.

She swung the croquet mallet at the wall where the silence rune was.  The rune was destroyed, concrete shattered, and a ten-foot-by-ten-foot chunk of the wall was consigned to oblivion, blown up, demolished, the chunks disappearing into emptiness beyond.  The air stirred, the woman’s white ringlets and frilly dress blowing toward the nothingness to her left.

“As I was saying, heh, your illusion was a cute trick.”  The woman leaned against the wall, holding the mallet in two hands, mallet’s head over her head.  Her wolf advanced, taking its own time, and stopped when its head was near her knees.  Giselle looked up at her upstretched mallet’s head as she said, “Giselle Seidel.  Chief operating officer of Wunderkand’s security.  Second in command for now, but I’ll run the department one day.”

Avery’s group kept retreating toward the Cakewalk.

“You detoured like you had a plan.  You even coordinated to grab the tickets at the same time, then went to the same place.  What does coming from there to here do to this Path?”

Nobody replied, continuing to back away.

“Tell me,” Giselle said.  “And maybe we’ll give you a partial share of the dividends.”

She lowered the mallet, holding it level with her bellybutton, stretching across the stairwell’s breadth, pointed at the hole in the side of the stairwell that had only blackness beyond it.

“An alternative is I extract it from you, by way of my mallet here, if you’re lucky.  Or my familiar, if you’re not.”

She moved the end of the mallet slightly toward the top of the stairwell.  The familiar brushed past it, padding its way up.

“Want to take a guess?” Giselle asked.  “What are you up against?  What the heck is that familiar?  Why is it so big?  Want to try?  Crack, spill the beans, convince me, I’ll leave you alone.  Live to fight another day.  Guess my familiar but give me nothing else?  I’ll give you the mallet.  But if you give me neither?”

The mallet pointed at the wolf as it padded its way up stairs.  Black-furred, with red eyes.

“No,” Cliff murmured, staring down at it.  “No, it couldn’t be.”

“Point to the big man,” Giselle said.  She started walking up the stairs.  “I’ll give you that one.  Mallet for you.”

“What is it?” Avery asked.

“Wolf?” Cliff asked.  “As a familiar?”

Avery looked down at the glowing red eyes.  They seemed to know her.

“The recipe is as follows,” Giselle said.  “One precocious youngster on her way to the Forest Ribbon Trail.  Nervous, which is understandable.  She takes precautions, in case something goes wrong.  Which it usually does, often in little ways.  She brings a powerful magic mirror.  Her plan is to fight fire with fire.  And what better way to do that than to capture fire’s reflection?”

The reflected Wolf abandoned its wolf guise.  It became an old woman, tall, with white roots in black hair, an addled smile.  She put one foot in front of the other, advancing at the same pace, one hand at the wall to steady herself.  Each time she pulled her hand away or let it drop, fingernails gouged concrete.

“The Wolf cooperated.  Let me walk away with my prize, after my standard deal, of course.  To better secure it, to ensure that if Wunderkand wanted what I had, I needed to make it so they had to go for the complete package.  I established the Familiar bond.  It’s only a sliver, really.  A reflection.  But a reflection of the Wolf?  Not a Wolf, but the Wolf?  It might have only a fraction of the original’s power, but I haven’t met much that can stand up to it.”

“It must be so unpleasant to be bonded to,” Avery replied.

“Speak up!” the woman called up.  “Project!

“It must be so unpleasant!”

“Yeah.  Wunderkand has had seven others try doing what I did.  For three of them, they didn’t get past trying it on the Wolf, Four of them couldn’t stand it.  It sure isn’t a picnic.  But for me?  The money and power make up for it.”

“I’m sorry,” Avery told her.

Giselle walked slowly up the stairs.  She ascended a step, then swung right, smashing out a chunk of wall there.  Another three steps, swung left, smashing out another chunk of wall.  “I won’t say I enjoy this part.  I’m not a monster.”

“What part?” Adorea asked, looking between the Wolf and Giselle, still backing up.

“Where you realize that you need to make it through the Path head with me and my reflected Wolf on your heels… and there’s a Wolf waiting for you when you’re done.  Caught between a Wolf and a Wolf place.”

Avery gripped Snowdrop’s shoulder, helping keep her moving upstairs.

“I don’t enjoy it, but it’s satisfying, does that make sense?” Giselle asked.  “I could explain it better in German-”

She broke another wall to her right.  Only a bit remained between the two holes to the right, and it cracked, breaking away.  The jiggle of impact rippled across her chest and over to her shoulder, where there was enough tissue pushed up by her top that it could do the shimmer-wobble thing too.

“-it’s like eating your greens.  Not fun, but you feel better off when you’re done.”

“Hurting people seems like something that eats at you more than something you’d be stronger for,” Avery said.

They were close to the top of the stairwell.

“You’d think, wouldn’t you?” Giselle asked.  She swung, knocking out the left wall.

Soon she was going to be ascending a staircase with oblivion on either side of it.  No walls to keep the ceiling up.

“I have an appointment with Milton.  Relations.”

Giselle nodded.  “Milton can write a complaint to me for messing up his appointment schedule, and I’ll be sure to ignore it.  He’s a regional head, isn’t he?  North East.  Regional heads answer to me.”

“Avery,” Clayton whispered.

Snowdrop turned her head.  Avery could sense it.

“Yeah.”

They hauled the door open, then ran through.  As they moved to slam it behind them, the Wolf broke into a run, laughing that addled, off-kilter laugh.  Avery’s every nerve and hair stood on end.

Cliff had a box of adhesive bandages, and quickly stuck them around the doorframe.  He pushed Avery out of the way so he could get another angle.  Cliff stepped in, drawing on the door itself.  A seal.

The door banged, heavy, as the Wolf reached it.  The door didn’t open, but the wall around it cracked.

Avery hurried to slap down some spell papers on the wall, floor of the hallway, and then as they started to glow, ready to go off, she connected them with lines.

Spirits here were slow to answer.  Like they had to wake up from long naps, or gather the requisite energies.  That bought her time.  If one was one second from going off and she tied it to one that was three seconds from going off, it became a two second timer for each.  She kept going, as fast as she could, slapping down more, drawing lines.

“Adorea, get us started.”

“On it.”

An explosion rune with a sixty second timer bought her some time, even if those sixty seconds were split about twelve ways-

Cliff stepped back from the bandage application and tripped over Avery.  He nearly fell, and Avery was bowled over, falling onto her side.

“Fireflies,” Avery called out, pointing and drawing a line with her fingers.

The fireflies traced a line through the air, tying runes to one another.

Avery scrambled forward, making the lines chalk before the golden glamour lines could fade.

“Seven coats on the bench, nine pairs of shoes.”

“Bannister,” Clayton said, finishing his rune.

“Is the bannister before or after the bench?” Adorea asked.

“Figure it out,” Clayton urged her.

Avery drew a circle to the network of papers, then drew a big ’30s’ inside it, hourglass shape at the bottom of the circle.

“For-”

The door banged, hard.  The cracks opened wide enough Avery could see the light from the stairwell through the gaps.

Avery smudged out the ‘3’ and turned it into a ‘1’ instead.  She whispered, “For Kennet, and for the Garricks, who’ve supported us.”

The recently drawn portion glowed, fighting to override the timers in other portions of the network.  It wasn’t terribly balanced either.

They backed away.

Avery watched the magical diagram changing in real time, counting down.

It was Giselle who broke through, using her mallet.  She paused, adjusting her head like she was fixing a crick in her neck, then saw the papers.

She assessed the setup, stepped through quickly, and without even turning around, reversed her grip on her mallet and used it to smash out what remained of the doorframe.  It was obliterated, consigned to oblivion, leaving a void behind her instead of a way down to the train station.  Giselle stepped backward into oblivion, being swallowed up by it in the same second everything went off.  Explosions, wind, water, and fire.  Boxed in by the same lines Avery had used to connect everything together.  Mostly.  Those lines disintegrated, and the group of them had to back up and away.

The wolf couldn’t come through while the door was like that.

“Christ,” Cliff said.  “You know just one of those could leave your average novice staggering around for the day after?”

“Yeah,” Avery replied.  “But that’s juice I earned, by doing stuff like taking those days away to help Kennet, you get that, right?”

Avery glanced back over her shoulder.  The Path itself was indoors, inside a large but dingy apartment.  A crowded large and dingy apartment.  The closet was overfull, and enough guests had arrived that coat and shoe didn’t have space, and had been relegated to nearby surfaces.

About fifty Lost inside.  The catch to this space was that it was organized by a certain logic.  Miss had provided some information on that.  The rooms weren’t evenly spaced out enough to make it obvious, but it was a nine by nine arrangement of spaces.  Entryway, with a second door because they’d come from the train station.  Then kitchen, then dining area, which was more or less the staging ground.  Six more rooms were for the party itself, with most of the guests standing or milling around there.  Some places didn’t allow passage from one room to an adjacent one – there was a wall between the entryway, room one, and room four, for example.  Good thing, too.

The Cakewalk is a Finder Killer.

There were streaks of blood on the walls and ceiling.  The floor had been kept mostly clean- but there were no guarantees there.  A partial hand was in the dustpan that was situated beneath a broom, hidden off to one side.  Three fingers and a thumb.

Other places were worse.  This was just the entryway and getting obliterated in the entryway was rare.

Adorea looked back at the doorway to oblivion, then kicked the shoes and upended the coats, throwing them around.

“I hope your memory’s good,” Cliff said.

“Took pictures.”

“Good girl.  Coats off, if any, shoes off.”

Avery had both.  She removed them, attaching them to her charm bracelet.

The Path was upside-down and backwards in a lot of ways.  For one thing, it wasn’t usual for there to be so many important points of setup and clues in the very opening part, before the entry point.  But if they went from entry way to kitchen, kitchen to dining room, which was the entry point, then they couldn’t cut back through the kitchen to check the entry way.  They’d get killed trying.

Another backwards thing was that a lot of Paths had a large or important Lost like Sootsleeves, the Falling Oak Avenue’s Teacher, Left Field’s Scarecrow Keeper, or the Watcher of Ways in the Watched Way.  They tended to appear at the end, which Avery figured was a way to minimize the hassle of having to get dressed and ready for every passer-through.

Here, the Cake Lady was right there in the Kitchen, room two out of nine.  She was taller than the room, by about two or three times, and the ceiling wasn’t low.  She was dressed like a fifties housewife, wearing a cake patterned dress and apron, but her head and shoulders were phased through the ceiling, like a ghost or hologram stuck through walls.  Everything from about the mid-thigh down was the same.  She took up a lot of space, bustling around, and they couldn’t let her bump into them.

“What a ruckus you’re making,” she said, her head upstairs, voice muffled by the intervening surfaces.  She opened one of the two ovens and pulled out a platter of cookies.  “Excited to attend?”

“Yes ma’am,” Avery and Snowdrop joined their voices to Cliff’s, Clayton’s, and Adorea’s.

Avery glanced at the second oven.  Three broken bodies were stuffed into a space that should’ve been given space for one.  They could have been here for decades, because they didn’t rot here.  The kitchen garbage was stuffed with another one or two people.  Three more were on the counter, pushed off to the corner.  Blood oozed out, but didn’t drip.

This wasn’t even the dangerous part.  But stepping into the kitchen without taking shoes and coat off at the entryway got some killed.  Not being polite got others killed.

Which accounted for eight bodies in the kitchen alone, that probably wouldn’t even degrade or go away, at least until the Path did.

“Be a set of dears, would you?  Because you’re late, would you take the dessert in the dining room and make sure the other recent arrivals are served?  In order, of course.  We don’t want our guests getting too hungry or offended.  That’s a recipe for trouble.”

“Of course, ma’am,” Avery joined her voice to the chorus of the four Garricks and Snowdrop.

They moved on to the dining room.  Someone had died here and Avery wasn’t sure how, because this was a staging ground, a neutral spot before the Path proper began.  They’d been pushed against the carpet with enough force that carpet had torn, flesh had abraded, and a bloody streak crossed the room at a diagonal, starting at a point near the one corner, and extending to the wall beneath the long dining table in the corner, where a body lay, neck and head bent at a violent angle.  Plowed into carpet and shoved into the wall with enough force to break her neck and pulverize part of her head.

In the open concept space, there wasn’t any architectural dividing line between the dining room, room three, and room six.  but the carpet marked a transition point.

In the next room over, various Lost were standing around and talking, or lightly dancing.  Elsewhere, they were acting different.  Avery could see across the apartment space to rooms four and seven.  The lights were off, the only lightning coming from strobe lights and cheapo fog machines, light machines, and illuminated disco balls.  The occupants of those rooms were dancing frenetically, on a surface made slick by those who had ventured inside, died, and been pulped under perpetually dancing feet.

Forty-nine guests, and the Cake Lady made fifty.  Seven to nine guests needed to be served.  In order, based on who had arrived earliest.

Sitting atop that table was the cake, divided into nine.  Nine guests.

There were rules.  There were patterns.  Strict rules outlined how the party could be navigated.  Walking between two Lost who’d formed a connection earned the ire of those Lost and any they called friends, here.  Sometimes that was ongoing conversation, sometimes it was regular eye contact, and sometimes it was bullshit they couldn’t be expected to know for sure.

Adorea got her phone out, flipping through.  Cliff and Clayton leaned in.

Avery stepped back, taking stock.

There was another catch.  The catch.  The guests.

The Clod, from the Amarinthine Conundrum.  Sick Girl, from the Hospital Hallway.  The Killer By Night from the Neverending Night.  The Cigar Smoker from the Up in Smoke.  Pumpkin Belly from Cinderella Run.  Those were just the ones she could identify.

Forty-nine killers from various Paths.  Some were staples, as much a part of a Path as anything, some wandered between Paths, serving a role when a Path needed a danger.  All attending a stale, boring dinner party in a dingy apartment littered with the carcasses of those who had come before.

Every last one of them looking for an excuse.

“Human skin coat, looks like it was dyed black, but the dye rubbed off where it rubbed against the body, so maybe they’re, you know, smudged?”

“Human skin slippers in the back corner with the shoes,” Cliff noted.  “That’s our obvious number one.

“We’ve only got seven coats, so that’s two wild cards,” Adorea said.  “Two where we can’t use the way coats were piled to judge the order they might’ve arrived.”

“They might’ve dressed heavier?” Avery suggested.

“Maybe.  Or they don’t care about cold,” Adorea replied.

Clayton asked, “These shoes separated.  Were they thrown in late, over top of stuff, or were they early, but placed in a messy way, then separated later?”

Adorea shrugged.  “I don’t know.  But if you look?  Metal tips with skulls on them.  That’s extra.  If you try to match them to the coats, there’s two good candidates.  Leather jacket, and the, I don’t know what you call it.  Cape?  Cloak?”

“Mantle,” Cliff said.  “Jesus Christ, Gods and spirits, you kids need a solid grounding in terms and labels.  Could save your life one day.  We can make a weekend of it.”

“I feel like depending on how today goes, we’re going to spend weeks celebrating, or, gotta admit, way more likely?” Adorea asked.  “Weeks sulking.  Either way, not running Paths for a while.”

“You need to keep up with your studies.  Any of this can make or break the difference.  Details matter.  Labels matter.”

He glanced at Avery at that last bit.

Avery used her Sight to survey the room, but there was way too much going on for her to easily assess it.

“What can you see, Snow?” Avery asked.

“Not much.”  She started to borrow from Snowdrop’s Lost Sight to see what ‘not much’ was, then stopped.  She got her bag, fishing inside.

“Too many maybes,” Cliff said.  “If this happened in our test run, we’d say stop, quit, start over from scratch.  Hope the Cakewalk’s clearer.”

“We can’t,” Clayton said, his voice low.

Snowdrop’s head turned, alarm spiking through her.  Avery turned to look.

Giselle was back, stepping through the door at the entryway.  The Wolf was beside her now.

“Shit,” Clayton whispered.

Avery wasn’t digging around for chalk, but she found some, and drew a line firmly across the carpet.  Just in case.  A barrier, to ward off any tracking, practice, tricks, magic items… it wasn’t much.

The Wolf started to lunge, and Giselle caught it by the collar.

Still holding her reflected Wolf, she looked around at the scattered coats and shoes.

Then she used a practice.  Wordless, without gesture or apparent item.  The shoes became echoes, echoes sorted out.  Like time was rewinding.  Everything going back where it had been.

“We’re out of time,” Cliff said.  “Clayton, you carry.  Adorea, keep an eye out for our guests.  Avery?  I don’t even know.  Keep an eye out for our pursuers.  Be careful about using practices, it can be their excuse to kill us.”

Avery nodded.  “Miss said the rooms are split into categories.  Four and seven blend some, because it doesn’t really matter, but like-”

“I’ve read your notes,” Cliff said, curt.  “Thank you.”

It sounded reluctant.  Angry.

Six rooms with forty-nine guests between them, nine of whom needed to be served.  Had to watch where they navigated, couldn’t jostle or bump the wrong guest, if there was a clear passage through.  Bypass the wrong guest, and things went wrong.  Serve the wrong guest, things went wrong.  Wander, dawdle, frick around too much, trying to figure things out, things went wrong.  Some guests had special rules, that could make things go wrong.

It was very possible for one misstep to lead to three to six killers coming after them simultaneously.

What Miss had clued them into was that there was more organization here than not. Rooms four, five, and six, cutting across the middle of the layout, had mandated killers.  Who killed when and where the Paths required it.  Rooms seven and eight had the willful Lost who enjoyed killing.  Six was incidental killers who didn’t want to kill, a scattered few.  Five and eight were ritual killers, who had patterns and rules they killed by.  Four and seven were chaotic killers- the dark rooms with the heavy, intense dancing and messing around.

So by that logic, seven had the Others that killed because they liked killing and who killed chaotically, unpredictably, and accidentally, just as one example.

There were clues to find the guests.  The ones who’d eaten and drank didn’t stray more than a few paces from where they’d put their cups and plates, until provoked or given an excuse to start murdering.  So when there was six plates and eight Others in one corner of a room, that hinted that two of the seven needed to be served.

The Garricks had known that, going in.  What they hadn’t known, besides the general organization of type of killer by room layout, was that the Others who were dangerous who hadn’t yet been served were in the wrong rooms.

So a pattern killer who killed because the Path required it should be in room five, but if they were in room six, for whatever reason, that was a giveaway they needed their cake.

And all of that amounted to a puzzle with very little room for missteps.  Coats, shoes, and the aesthetic of the guests were clues.  Plates, who was where, they were clues too.  All needed to be solved without stepping between the wrong two Others, without delay or making a mess, and without serving cake to the wrong Other, or in the wrong order.

“Fuck,” Clayton whispered.

“Don’t say that.  What?” Cliff asked.

“Ice cream cake.  Partially melted.”

The cake was on a glass stand, and visibly slid an inch to the side as he lifted it, stopping as he fixed the slant of the stand.

“It’s heavy too,” Clayton added.

“Plate it?” Cliff suggested.

“Plates are worse,” Clayton replied.  “No raised edges, and they’re small, compared to the pieces.”

“Fuck, then- I don’t know.  Snowdrop.  If something slides too much, do your best to help.  Serve it onto a plate.  I don’t know.”

Snowdrop looked at Avery.  She sent a quizzical impulse.

Giselle, in the entryway, was studying the surroundings she’d echoed back together.

“Yeah.  You have a good eye for food.”

“Not so much for mess,” Snowdrop told Avery.  “I’m mess-blind.”

“Okay.  Do what you can.”

Snowdrop went over to Clayton’s side, then stopped.  “That piece is bigger.  And has two and a half strawberries, instead of two.”

“Does it matter?” Clayton asked.  “Does your Lost sight tell you that?”

“It’d matter to me.  My stomach tells me that.”

“Um, Cake Lady?” Avery asked.

“Do not interrupt me,” the Cake lady said, intense.  Then, sweeter, she said, “I have so much to do.”

“Is there-”

Cliff grabbed Avery’s shoulder, hard enough to hurt.

“-a guest of honor here?  Someone the party is for?”

“The party is for everyone,” the Cake Lady said, voice muffled by the floor that separated head from body.  She moved across the kitchen, but then stopped, turning.

Cliff and Adorea braced themselves.  Giselle paused in what she was doing, watching.

“But yes.  The Cornered Rat.  Please do hurry, though.  The cake will melt.”

“Go,” Cliff said.

Avery finished digging in her bag, pulling out a magic item she hadn’t gotten much use out of.  The Sunset Specs.

The Specs, confiscated from Brie, then given to them permanently by Zed as payment, cast the world in bright sunset hues.  Music was playing elsewhere on the Cakewalk, which helped keep them functional, and the room flared up with colors that represented mood.

She glanced back at Giselle and the fake Wolf, then joined Cliff in stepping into the next room, one hand at Snowdrop’s shoulder, because the Specs made it harder to see where she was going – and see the details.

The color changes were hard to read, because there were so many things in the apartment that were colorful, and that obscured things and changed tints.  But she could use them for a few purposes.

Like noticing when two Lost were on similar wavelengths.  She beckoned fireflies over, then subtly pointed at two.  The group navigated around them.

And there.  One Lost who wasn’t on an even remotely similar wavelength as the rest of the group he was with.  Smiling, eyes half-lidded, radiating chaotic violence.

She drew a circle with her finger.

“By his size, that might be four or eight,” Adorea murmured.  “Number one is the guest of honor?  The Cornered Rat?”

“By rules of hospitality, should be.  Biggest piece, most strawberries,” Cliff murmured back.  “Look in the corners, I guess?”  Not just of the room, but between furniture and room?”

“Yes ma’am,” Giselle said, in the other room.  “Ooh, that’s hot.”

“Fresh out of the oven.  Let me do a quick frosting, it won’t even be thirty seconds…”

She was right there, coming through with her own cake.

After checking, they moved from room six to room five.  Clayton managed the sliding, slowly melting ice cream cake.  Snowdrop stood by, her attention split between the room, Avery, and keeping cakes and serving knife ready.

Avery could see through room eight to the fire escape.  Train tracks ran parallel to the fire escape.

“We don’t need to do the entire Path,” she whispered.

Cliff looked from her to the window, then nodded.  “But if we try to cross that room and we’ve left someone behind who should’ve been served…”

“Yeah.”

They wouldn’t make it across the room.

Avery pointed out more of the people that stood out from the rest, using the Specs.  If she studied them, really pushing herself, trying to use her Sight and finding it diffracted and blurry, she could intensify the auras she was looking at, try to analyze them.  A deep purple-blue welled at the stomachs of some.  A hunger, she guessed.  But there were some who didn’t experience hunger.  An orange around the mouth of others.  Anticipation.

Adorea wasn’t close, so Avery wrote on her arm, making quick notes.  A symbol to represent each.  She made marks by each to represent intensity of hunger and-or anticipation, if either existed.  Ordering them.

“Where’s the cornered rat?” Cliff asked.  “Is it an actual rat?  Are we looking for an animal that’s that small?  Christ.”

He sounded more nervous, and he hadn’t exactly been Mr. Calm before they’d entered the Cakewalk.

Giselle stepped out of the dining room, carrying a foam-style cake with strawberries and frosting on top.  The reflected Wolf, wearing a wolf’s body, padded alongside her, mallet clamped in its teeth.

It looked like she had a different order.  She served someone who definitely wasn’t the cornered rat.

“Avery Kelly,” a Lost greeted her.

She glanced over.  At the border between room eight and room seven.  Todd.  No resemblance to a Barney’s Todd, like what Biscuit was on the lookout for.  No.  One of the first non-Kennet Others Avery had met.  On the Forest Ribbon Trail.

“Hi Todd,” Avery asked.  “How’s the laying eggs in corpses thing going?”

“Slow.  I don’t think I’m equipped right now.  I need to get off the Paths.  The cake is good, at least.”

“Cool, cool.  I don’t suppose you could point me to the Cornered Rat?”

He laughed.

“No?  Maybe you could-”

Avery judged the room layout.

The Wolf and Giselle were blocking the way to room six.  They’d have to get past them to deliver to the guy who was number six or number eight on the list of people who needed to be served. Maybe.

“-deliver a cake for us?”

“And if I spill even a crumb on the carpet, or serve it with icing or drips on the side of the plate, I get torn to pieces by literally every other Lost here?  No.”

“Noted,” Clayton said, quietly.  Snowdrop used a napkin to wipe the edge of a plate she’d used to push the cake back to center.

Todd laughed again.  “Why would I help you in the first place?  How did you get stupider from the last time I saw you?”

“Want cool sunglasses?” Avery asked.  “Cool points?  Look stylish while you try to lay eggs in corpses?  Why not?”

“No.”

“Okay.  Moving on then.  Unless you’d be motivated by getting one over on the Wolf?”

“I want to see her rip you limb from limb.  I’d like that.  It would at least liven up ths whole thing.”

“Okay,” Avery said.  “Well, I don’t think I would.”

“I can’t lay eggs in your corpse, but you’d damn well better believe I’ll try,” Todd said, his voice low.  He smiled, then retreated into room seven.

“Yep.  Okay,” Avery said, quiet.

“What did you think would happen?” Adorea asked her.

“I dunno!  I just figured it couldn’t hurt to ask?”

Snowdrop bumped lightly into Avery.  Avery felt an impulse from Snow, and looked.

Room four.  A dangerous room to be in.  Things were violent in there, unpredictable.  Almost a mosh pit of murderer Others.

The standard route meant having to progress through a few times, dodging the groups of Others.  Get bumped into, you might drop cake, or upset the wrong Other.  There was a reason the carpet in that room had about ten to twenty bodies that had been pulverized and stomped into the weave.  She could smell it, and it made her uneasy.  It made her think of the Wolf-

Who was close.

“Giselle,” the Wolf said, in her old woman voice, almost sing-song.

“Yes, Wolf?”

“What do you say we break rules?”

“We’d have to fight literally every Other here.”

Avery followed Snowdrop’s line of focus.

To the next room.  Up.

There, in the corner, to the left of the door.  Sitting on the ceiling, legs folded under him.  Four legs, with little human baby feet, which fit two pairs of shoes.  Was one of the guests shoeless?

He had the body of a rat, mostly hairless, but his face was human, slack-jawed.

To the Specs, he was very hungry, anticipating cake and a bunch of other things.

“Clayton?  I’ve got our first guest.”

“I’m more focused on-”

Snowdrop leaned in, serving knife ready.  She quickly moved cake onto plate-

Avery leaned in, putting her foot out to catch a dripping that escaped the cake stand’s edge.

Snowdrop turned, reaching up with cake overhead-

The cornered rat took his.

And things didn’t blow up.  Nobody lunged in to murder them.

One out of nine? Avery thought.

“I’m willing if you are,” the reflected Wolf told Giselle.

Giselle stared down at Avery’s group.  Then she dropped her cake.

The glass cake pan shattered on the floor.  Cake spilled out, individual layers sliding apart from one another.

The Cake Lady screeched from the kitchen.  Others throughout the room turned, lunging.  Giselle took her mallet from the reflected Wolf.

Clayton, jostled, nearly dropped his cake.  He recovered, but in a bad spot.  There were Others coming from multiple directions, they barely seemed to see him-

“Over here!” Avery shouted.  She didn’t want to step on furniture, that was a capital offense here.  So she hurdled the armchair, taking Snowdrop’s hand.  By coordination, she pulled at the same time Snowdrop went small, and pulled Snowdrop clear over it, letting her turn human as she landed on the far side.

Clayton came.  He couldn’t hurdle it with the cake in hand, but Avery had her hands out.

“I need two pieces!” Adorea shouted.  “And I need clarification on who is three!”

“Cornered Rat had four shoes, I think one of our guests to serve is shoeless!” Avery shouted.  She took the cake and fought to keep it balanced.  It didn’t help it was missing one piece, or that the cake stand felt like it was made of fifteen to twenty pounds of lead and the cake itself could be another another five or ten pounds.

Clayton used a magic trick -maybe a magic item or boon- to get over the armchair, landing on the other side.  He put fingers on one side of the cake stand Avery was holding, righting it.

The Wolf was tearing through the various Others.  About one or two a second, and there weren’t that many present.  Giselle smacked a couple, then turned as the Cake Lady moved through the wall as if it wasn’t there- reaching out one hand with long fingernails painted with cake patterns.

Giselle smashed one hand with the mallet.  It was smacked away quickly at first, then moved as if by slow motion, and then disintegrated over what would be five or ten seconds.

“It’ll grow back,” Giselle said, over the Cake Lady’s scream.  “And so will you-”

She smashed Todd.  He exploded into a spray of body parts and maggots, and his silhouette lingered, moving in slow motion, a Todd shaped hole to some mixture of void and oblivion.

“Eventually.”

Cliff had taken the plates, and was writing on the edges.  He passed one to Avery and Snowdrop.

The cake stayed relatively centered.

“Won’t last long.  It’ll drain me,” Cliff muttered.

“Okay.  How sticky or balanced is it?”

“Very.  But don’t go turning it upside down or flinging it around.”

“Damn.”

The Wolf was angling-

Prey instincts through the opossum bond let her sense something was imminent.

Her own instinct was to freeze.  She fought it, moving, cake in each hand.

The Wolf lunged with barely any forewarning, claws gouging armchair and wall behind where Avery had been standing.  Three Others leaped onto the reflected Wolf.  Because they had to.

And two were torn to pieces almost immediately.

“There.  Number two!” Adorea pointed.

Avery passed it to an other in room eight.  She’d already spotted them with the specs.

“I don’t know which is three, still!” Adorea called out, an unhinged note in her voice.

Avery pushed her bracelets out of the way to see what she’d written on her arm.  “According to my specs, skull-face is hungrier than the lady with scissors.  Guy with the holes in his body and face wants to eat more than the guy with the sword-wang, who wants to eat more than the lady with scissors.”

“Did you have to make it a riddle?”

“Who’s number three?”

“Either the sword-dick or lady with scissors.”

“I think he wants cake a lot more than she does.  I don’t think that guarantees anything, but maybe if you need a tie breaker?”

Adorea went over to Sword-wang, in room eight.  She visibly braced herself, ready to be attacked, and then when she wasn’t, she hurried to give Sword-wang a plate.  “We’ve got a clear route through room eight!”

To the window, to the fire escape, and to the train.

They bolted.  Avery threw a spell card to stall one Other that was swinging a weapon like he was trying to emulate a blender, giving Cliff time to slide by, then backed up toward the window.

The reflected Wolf saw.  It came for her-

She went back through the window.  Little-w wolf became human, and the Wolf reached-

Cliff swiped a hand out, sticking an adhesive bandage to the Wolf’s finger and the wall.  As repayment, she clawed the back of his hand open, clear to bone.

But when she pulled back and tried to pull away, the bandage held.  Sword-wang came at her from behind, sword erect, pelvis ready, and she backhanded him, shattering sword, knocking his plate aside, and demolishing part of his ribcage.

She pulled back with more force, and tore half of the window-frame away from wall.  What wasn’t torn away broke, falling down part of the way.

With teeth, she bit into and tore at the wood, until only the chunk that was dangling by the bandage remained.

“The train,” Adorea said.

The four of them had backed as far away from the window as they could.  There wasn’t a lot of room.

“It hasn’t arrived,” Adorea pointed out.

“Yeah,” Cliff said.  “It has a schedule.”

The Wolf pulled away another chunk of window.  She attacked another Other that had come after her.

There couldn’t be that many left.  Giselle was holding the Cake Lady at bay.

Just… strong enough to wade through a Path as dangerous as this one, smashing and killing any obstacles.

That was Wunderkand, Avery supposed.  Or the security arm of Wunderkand.

“Here, out of the way,” Giselle told her reflected Wolf.

The Wolf tittered, that addled, old-lady laugh that made Avery feel something a little bit like dying inside.  Like she was back to being her worst self.  Especially here, so far from friends.

Snowdrop took her hand, squeezing.

“Watch my back?  This should be good.”

The Wolf laughed.

Giselle held her arm out in front of her, forearm horizontal, level with the top of her chest.  She placed the croquet mallet on the back of her arm, almost like she was lining up a pool shot.

Her focus wasn’t on any of them, Avery realized.  As they moved aside, each of them to one corner of the fire escape, she didn’t change her target.

Cliff had another bandage ready, but it wouldn’t do anything.

Giselle was aiming for the fire escape.  She’d smash it, consign it to void and oblivion or whatever the fuck that mallet was supposed to do, and then they’d have nowhere.  No platform, nowhere to stand…

If Avery could put something in the way-

Avery stepped back, tapping her foot three times.  She flashed a smile at Giselle, mostly to try and throw her off her game.

The wind stirred.

Then she leaped.  Straight up.  She tapped a foot against the wall to adjust her trajectory a bit.  It pushed her further out, just a bit, but also turned her in the air.

The organization of the space blurred.  She could see through windows and walls to where the head of the Cake Lady was in an apartment above-

Not her focus.  She tumbled through air, twisting- reaching down and screwing up her potential landing instead.  She fell almost face-first.

She nudged Snowdrop.

Snowdrop leaped onto the railing, put hands up and out-

Arms out to Avery’s shoulders.  Avery put a hand to Snowdrop’s shoulder.  To break her fall and keep from face-planting onto some Lost fire escape on the edge of the Cakewalk.

The curtains billowed out.  The Build Up boon.  Curtains and ropes and things appearing as convenient when falling.

Giselle hesitated, wary.  To buy time, Avery moved her legs, wobbling slightly, still on her way down, kind of, delaying her descent a fraction-

Giselle saw the gap in the curtains and aimed for it.

Avery caught them and tugged herself closer to the fire escape, pushed sideways off Snowdrop’s shoulders.  Snowdrop pushed back.  Pulling curtains over-

Giselle’s mallet smashed the curtains.  Avery collapsed almost upside-down onto Cliff Garrick.

The way the mallet seemed to work, it smashed things clean out of existence.  At least temporarily.  And it left messy holes in reality in their place.

Meaning the stretched out curtain became a wall of hole-in-reality.  One covering the exit Giselle needed to get at them.

One Giselle could pass through, but… they’d seen earlier, that took time.

The Wolf was tearing away wall and brick.  Cliff reached up, Avery still partially on top of him, and stuck finger to wall.  Making the reflected Wolf have to tug a few times to get free.  Slowing it down.  He repeated the process again.

Avery sighed as she heard the train honk.  She rolled off Cliff.

The train stopped, one car door open near the fire escape, and they boarded, leaving Giselle, reflected Wolf, carnage on the Cakewalk and everything else behind.

Avery didn’t fully relax until the doors slid closed and they were moving.  She could see the Wolf reaching out, tearing through the wall.

“Real wolf’s stronger,” Cliff huffed, as he sat back into a chair in the train car.  “Bandages and walls wouldn’t stop her as easily.”

Avery nodded.

“Fuck,” Cliff grunted.  “I’m getting too old for this.  If you told me I was about to have a heart attack, Id believe it.”

“Thought you were bailing on us, jumping up and away like that,” Adorea said.

“I don’t know what I gotta do to keep your trust,” Avery told the Garricks.  “Don’t keep making me the scapegoat for the other betrayals you’re dealing with.  Don’t make me out to be the next Hazel and then get mad at me when I don’t live up to that crazy expectation.”

“I have reasons to not be impressed with you,” Cliff told her.  “The lies, letting Jude lead us on-”

“I don’t-”

“I know you don’t want to talk about Jude without Jude here.  Tough.  You put my son in a shitty, shitty position, having him keep a secret.  Secrets destroy practitioners, you know that, right?  You know that what we do, it’s about our word mattering?  Truth, enough the spirits know to pay special attention to what we say, gesture, write, whatever.”

Avery nodded.

“Putting him in that position-”

“I didn’t ask him to.”

“Yeah, I figured.  But you put him in a position where had had to, didn’t you?  Because he’s fond of you, you’re a pretty little teenage girl and he’s a teenage boy, if you asked him to lop off an ear, he probably would.  Leave him in a position to keep a secret and keep you around, or be honest with his parents and walk away from you?  I know what he’s going to do.  Some because he’s a healthy boy, some because he’s a teenager and that means being a bit more rebellious.”

Avery kind of resented parts of that that had to do with gender, because like… she really wanted to bring up the fact the core team had all been Garrick patriarchs and the promising maybe-future-leader Clay, going in.  But doing it now would feel petulant and it would only make things worse.  Leaving it alone, though, it felt bad too.

She guessed Lucy could pull something off, arguing both parts without screwing everything up.

“I think…” she trailed off, standing in the middle of the aisle, between rows of empty seats, “…if it was just that, you wouldn’t be so mad at me.  And you wouldn’t have gone off about the other stuff, before Giselle and her fake Wolf showed up.  I’m not saying I didn’t mess up.  But I don’t deserve all of this.”

Cliff looked incensed, still.

“…I’m going to go sit over there.  Hmm.  And if you want me with?  If you want to try doing this?  Come on over.  But you gotta leave the extra stuff behind.  And the current stuff?  The fact I didn’t tell you guys about Max right away?  Jude and putting him on the spot?  Okay.  But let’s deal with that after.  For right now we have a bunch of problems.”

Adorea nodded.

Cliff and Clayton gave Avery nothing.

“If you’re going to be shitty about me being gay, or me not telling you, when I couldn’t know for sure how you’d react?  Don’t come over.  Because that’s either you being a bigot, or you not being understanding of where I’m coming from… and I dunno.  But either come on over, we tackle this thing, or stay, we go our separate ways.  If you wanted to be fair, considering I saved your wife and nephew?  Sure would be nice to have an escape rope.  But I won’t expect it.  It was my call.”

She walked over to the other end of the train car, Snowdrop coming with.

There was a lot more that needed hashing out, that wasn’t okay.  The subtle treatment of women and girls in the family, the focus on the marriages, and how stupidly offended he was that she wasn’t eligible.  But if she was expecting him to put stuff aside to hash out later, she could do it too.

If he came over.

“Well, gotta say,” Snowdrop told Avery.

“What do you gotta say?”

“I think I’m done with cake.  Just not in the mood.  Might never be.”

Avery clicked her tongue.  “Yeah.”

“Good thing too, since I’ve been trying to lose weight this winter.”

“Hibernation issues, huh?”

“Nah.  I put more emphasis on being pretty than food.”

Avery nodded.  “There’s a balance though.”

Snowdrop scoffed.

Avery thunked her head back against the seat headrest, closing her eyes.  Her foot braced against the leg of the table that was positioned between the seats, separating her and Snowdrop.  Snowdrop matched her, foot placed a little higher up, because her leg was shorter.

Snowdrop turned her head.  Avery could sense it.  She didn’t open her eyes.

She heard the sound of something landing on the table.

Avery opened her eyes, and looked down at the escape rope.

Cliff had a bandage on his wounded hand.  Crimson bled into the white, second by second.  Avery leaned over, and saw Adorea putting away first aid stuff.

“Spare.  I wasn’t thinking.  You should have that,” Cliff said.

“Is this goodbye then?” Avery asked.

He sighed.  “Any ideas on how we’ll handle the real Wolf as we arrive?”

“Maybe.  I don’t know.”

“Got what it takes to pull together another illusion?” he asked.

“Yeah.  Some.  But I don’t know how well that’s going to work.  The reflected Wolf got through the one glamour real fast, between the train and the Cakewalk.”

“And when I lied about having a boon?” Snowdrop asked.  “She saw through that right away.  Or she didn’t but she had to pretend she did.”

“Yeah.  That’s true, isn’t it?  She’s one of the only Lost who didn’t get you lie, or she had to pretend she didn’t, like you said.”

Snowdrop shrugged.

“Interesting,” Avery murmured.  “Some kind of Wolf-Child interaction?”

“It’s something,” Cliff said.  “You could write an essay on that sort of thing.  Easy couple hundred bucks, minimum.”

“I’m not much of an essay writer.”

“It’s still a thing.  Even shitty writing, if it’s got tidbits to use, it’ll sell.”

“Huh,” Avery grunted the word.

It was hard to let go of the tension from earlier, from arguing and being frustrated with him.  But she was trying.

Adorea and Clayton ventured closer.  Snowdrop wriggled her way under the table and sat by Avery, while Cliff sat across from her.

“My uncle,” Cliff said.  “Brother of Walt and my dad.  He was gay.  Might still be, I don’t know.”

“Okay?” Avery asked.  “If he was gay, he probably still is.”

“If he’s alive.  Old enough to be old, don’t know what happened to him.”

“Okay,” Avery agreed.

“His dad worried.  What’s the world going to do to someone like him?  There wasn’t- it didn’t happen.  People didn’t talk about it.  It was hush-hush, and if it wasn’t hush-hush, it was rude to bring up.  There wasn’t a script to follow, no rules, no path.  Just a guy doing something out-there in scary times, putting himself at risk.”

“Dude,” Avery said.  “The way you’re phrasing this-”

“It was bad.  Whatever you want to call it, however you want to put it, it was a bad time to be that way.  He acted a lot like you acted here-”

“Because his dad was being a butt?”

“Because… I dunno.  But he did something similar to you walking over here.  Except he didn’t go down to the other side of a train car.  He traveled halfway across the world.  Took what he thought was his share.  Except he didn’t have kids.  My dad, uncle Walt, they did, they had to supply their new Finders.  Me, I was old enough to be underway.  But- he took a third.  When there were three of them, seven or eight of us kids.  He took a third.”

“Maybe he thought it’s what he’d end up with if he’d had the chance to have kids?  Or he had kids later, he wanted to make sure they got what they deserved?”

Cliff sighed heavily.  “People died.  Kids went in with less equipment and stuff.  My cousins, nephews.  Dex.  When they died, sure enough, conversation would go to my uncle.  If they’d just had one more item, one more book on practice to study, would they have made it?  Peter and I, we were old enough to be around when he left, see the aftermath.  See the casualties.  Guy turns out to be gay, deceives us-”

“That’s not- it’s not intrinsic to being gay-”

“It’s not not, is it?  And this situation, it’s similar, it’s pushing similar buttons, but way I think about it, you gotta hide it, hiding means being deceptive, that lays-”

“Stop,” Avery told him.

He stopped.

“If you make me get up from this seat and walk away… that’s it.”

“I’m trying to apologize.”

Avery huffed out a small laugh.

“Doing a bad job of it, I guess.  I’ll try again.  I hear you.  Shit that happened elsewhere, family shit?  Not on your shoulders.  My fault for making promises and sales pitches for you to keep.  My fault if I look foolish after doing that.  Yeah.”

“Okay.  Thank you for recognizing that.  Again, I’m sorry for my part in it.”

“So that story, that’s why I was warned about bringing up the subject?”

“Warned by who?  Jude?  Fucking Ed?”

Ed being the city mage Zed knew who’d referred her to the Garricks.

“No comment.”

“Yeah,” Cliff replied.  “Fuck.  I guess it would be.  They didn’t specify?”

Avery shook her head.

“Good.  Private family business.  Yeah.”

Avery nodded.  “I won’t share, then.”

“Thank you.  Sore spot for a lot of us.  Especially the older generations.  Anyway.  So that’s that.”

“Yeah.”

“Let’s talk about the Wolf that’s greeting us in…”

He craned his head around.  Looking for a clock or something.  “Don’t know when we arrive, but if it’s as long to get back as it took to get out here, we have some time.”

“Let me try contacting my friends.”

🟂

They remained ready, ducked down.  Their illusory copies were gathered, hiding a little less successfully.  Decoys.  They’d stop, the Wolf might be on the platform, or maybe she’d drop down from above.  The decoys would run, draw attention-

They were already prepared to go out the window on the furthest side from the Promenade, when the Wolf wasn’t looking, go out, over the top or under the bottom of the train, and then get onto the Promenade.

The Promenade came into sight.

Only moments later, the train jerked.  Glamoured copies were thrown against the door.  Glamoured Adorea lost an arm.  The rest of her began crumbling with increasing speed.

The Wolf had gotten out in front of the train.  The train car jerked again, then jackknifed violently.  Adorea’s glamoured self was destroyed.  The rest of them were thrown free of their hiding places.

The train derailed, and the thing beneath the rails was empty Nothingness.  Slowly, car by car, the train leaned out or stuck out over the emptiness.

“Getting too old for this,” Cliff grunted.

Avery motioned.  The glamoured copies of the four of them that were still mostly intact headed for the window closest to the Promenade.  Climbing out.  Making the leap.

And the Wolf was there.  Ready.  Leaping.

Adorea had a window frame that helped make an easy exist, placed against the top of the train car, exiting into any outside space with a clear view of sky.  They climbed out onto the top of the train car, which was pointed sideways, almost completely away from the Promenade, and Avery borrowed opossum climbing process, scaling the length of the car, moving down and away.

The air was filled with paper airplanes.

Into the space between the cars.  The train groaned loudly as it teetered, moving closer to the edge.  The crumpled part at the front was sticking to the rails, and the part at the back of the Cakewalk’s train was leaning but not yet tipping.  Both served as a bit of an anchor for the bits that had jacknifed and gone sideways.

The Wolf laughed, loud.

“Verona Verona Verona,” Avery whispered.

Verona said the command word.

The airplanes dove.  Each loaded with a bit of Garrickstuff, and Averystuff.  They hadn’t had enough time or resources to make full copies.  But they’d made some.  And they’d added other things.  From Cliff’s wife and the parents of Clay and Adorea, they’d gathered up some hair, some other smelly things.  Scent blockers.  Now glamoured bits and bobs were emerging from the wreckage of paper airplanes, scampering around.  Blocking smell.

The Wolf let out a howling laughter that echoed across the Promenade.

Wunderkand’s forces were mostly a third of the way down.  Some were taking the same route Giselle had.  Fighting the smiling Others.  The most successful of them were halfway down, but they were getting bogged down now.  From the destruction, it looked like the Wolf had gone after them while waiting for Avery’s group.

There were less Wunderkand people around.  Avery wasn’t sure if some had died, bailed and started over, or if they’d clued in from how Avery’s group had done it that they needed to leave and come back.

According to Verona and Lucy, there was still a lot of setup happening in the entryway.

The Wolf’s endless howling laughter made Avery’s hair stand on end.  She could remember being stuck with the Wolf.  Something she’d suppressed.

A lower, scarier point than being a friendless Avery who’d never been rescued by Ms. Hardy, who’d never found her friends, never worked with Kennet, who’d been going to the Ruins because the pain of being overtaken by echoes was easier to bear than the pain of being herself, alone.

Just gotta…

She rubbed Snowdrop’s shoulders, working her way to a middle point, waiting for the three Garricks to catch up.  Cliff was using a practice to walk sideways on the train car.  Treating it as if it was upright.  He crouched.

Had to wait, had to  bide their time, act when the Wolf’s focus was elsewhere…

Avery Avery Avery.

It pinged her.  Verona’s voice.

Good enough.

She motioned, then dashed out, stepping onto colored tile, then resuming her normal ‘long knight’ movements.  She didn’t technically have to, but she worried that not doing that would alert the Wolf.

To the second post office.  Hurdling the counter the employees were crouched behind.  Dropping onto a red square.

“Give me a job,” she told them.

“But- Wolf.”

“Give me a job, and there’s a chance this ends sooner.  I’m on your side.  And I think you guys really want us on your side here.  Not Wunderkand.  They’ll corporatize you.”

“In a fun way, though,” Snowdrop said.

“Get-”

One post office employee with a huge mustache pushed another, motioning.

They opened a box, pulled out the post uniform, measuring tape, checked the coast was clear-

The tape was put around Avery, then pulled on, spinning her.  She was lifted up into the air, numbers flying off the measuring tape.  Letters and envelopes lifted into the air.

She did the whole transformation sequence, the mid-height flat cap with a brim, simple epaulets with envelope style patterns on them, big brass buttons, mailbag…

Her feet touched ground.  She crouched.

“Not very spiffy,” Snowdrop told Avery.

“What’s the job?” she asked the man.  “I’m in a bit of a hurry.”

“Uh…” the employee grabbed an envelope and passed it over.  “Put a stamp here.”

“Hm?” Avery asked.  She found a stamp lying on the ground, amid the litter of the ongoing destruction elsewhere.  She licked it, then stuck it in the corner.  Part one, apply stamp, part-

She lifted up into the air, turning.  The uniform was pulled away, her regular clothes put into place simultaneously, to keep her modesty.  She got her regular stuff back, then dropped to the ground.  Now with a package of postal worker clothes with her, a coin in her hand.

“There.”

“Wait, seriously?  That’s it?”

“If you think you can get things back to normal… we’ll deliver the mail ourselves later,” the man with the mustache said.

“You’re so uncool,” Snowdrop said.  “And your mustache is stupid.”

The man smiled.

“What she said,” Avery told him.  “You think I could convince the other places of employment to do something similar?”

“Depends.”

“I’m going to go, then.  See what I can do.  If I can’t convince their employers to go easy for the sake of normal, I’ll run interference.  Or can I send them to you?”

“Yeah.  If they haven’t started one yet.”

Avery nodded.

She waited until she heard the Wolf’s howling laughter, then exited the shop, crossing colored tiles as necessary, mingling with other illusory Averies and sensory decoys.

With a sound rune to distort direction and source, she had Snowdrop shout.  “We’re over here!”

The Wolf moved, chasing.  And Avery ran for the gap.

🟂

Adorea fixed the bandage at the back of Cliff’s hand.

“Last stretch,” Clayton said.

Avery nodded.

They’d done the errands, got the ticket, and left just as Giselle had gotten off the train from the Cakewalk.  She hadn’t caught up to them, and she hadn’t appeared on the Watched Way.

Black deer with glowing eyes stood everywhere.  Like lawns with way too many flamingos, or houses with too much in the way of Christmas decorations, but they were shadow deer with headlight eyes.  She avoided making eye contact with any of them.

And another Deer loomed at the end of the Path.  Massive.  The Watcher of Ways.

They weren’t going to the end though.

The train passed behind some houses, pulling to a stop.  The bar lifted up.  The space between houses led to the open train car door.  They jogged over.

Ascended the stairs.

Into a mostly empty train car.  It seemed like traffic was pretty light, considering the situation.

“Whatever happens,” Cliff said.  “Good path running.  Good finding.  I’m proud.”

“Condescending,” Adorea muttered.

“Come on now.  Don’t pick up on this kid and her opossum’s snark.  Take it how it’s meant to be taken.”

Adorea nodded.  She heaved out a breath.

“Are we thinking the Wolf is going to show?” Clayton asked.

He’d had a minor panic attack earlier.  He wasn’t so good when the Wolf was involved.  Like, he could handle what he was doing, but he kind of shut down.  Locked down to handling one thing, and that was it, and he’d freeze with whatever else.

Probably not leader material.  Avery agreed with him.

“I think she didn’t see us board, so there’s a chance she won’t be there when we get off.”

“So we got to get from a platform two thirds of the way down the Path to the end of the Path, and we gotta do it fast,” Cliff said.  “No jobs to do, no tickets to barter for, no shenanigans.  But the Lost will be dense there.  Every time we leave and come back, we arrive to less numbers.  But they’ll still be thick, there’ll still be a lot.  Even with Wunderkand there.  But them being there means we don’t reset.  We can’t rely on the edge, or the Wolf might notice.  We do any of that?  We do it sparingly.”

There were nods all around.

“Wunderkand, the Wolf, smiling Others in large numbers, and whatever else the Path throws at us,” Cliff said.  “Be ready.  Remember, close as we are, don’t be stupid.  It’s easy to get brave in the moment.  But I’d rather you tug on your ropes and get jerked back over to Earth-”

Adorea, elbow on table, covered her mouth with her hand, trying not to smile at the innuendo.  Avery managed to keep a straighter face.

“- than try for a stupid low chance of success, get killed.  I’d rather my family’s alive than have a slightly higher shot at staking out the Promenade.  I’d rather you’re alive, even, Avery.”

“Wow.  Ringing endorsement, I guess?”

“It’s meant- even if you’re not family, I care.  You’ve done pretty darn good.  We owe you a lot.  You get a share of this.  But don’t go dying for it if you can help it.”

Avery nodded.

“But you can go ahead and die, Cliff,” Snowdrop said.

“Yeah,” he replied.  “Not planning on it.”

The words had been said.  There was no strict schedule for when the train would arrive, so there was no way to time the speech or planning for their arrival.  It became a weird preparatory silence.  The train rolled over tracks, rocked occasionally at gusts of wind, and moved between night and day, sunset and rain like other trains passed into tunnels.  Here and there, there were fantastical sights outside, like schools of fish diving through cloud to ambush flocks of birds, or roads and tracks building themselves out of nowhere, or barren Paths on weird trajectories, spinning a thousand kilometers an hour, casting things away, or colliding with one another three times in the time it took the train to pass by them.  But mostly it was dense, smoke, clouds, mist, and white sky.

And it was like, any second, the Promenade could come into view.  Then it would be less than a minute before the train settled at its stop.

Avery ate a protein bar and drank water to wash it down.  Snowdrop had the same.

There wasn’t a lot else she could do to prepare.  She considered wearing a uniform onto the Path, but that came with complications.  If there were surviving decoys, they were dressed like her, and if she wore a uniform onto the Path, there’d be benefits, but there’d also be assigned work.  And she really just wanted the coast to be as clear and uncomplicated as possible for getting to the end of the Path.

Spell cards sorted.  Tools and things set up.  She had one of the ‘down to earth’ baseballs ready at her hip.  Familiar at her side.

She ran her fingers through her hair, like she was going to put it into a ponytail.  She looked at her reflection.

Condensation was collecting.  She reached out and smudged parts of it.

Past the white clouds, there was a dark patch.  The dark patch clarified, clouds peeling back as the train plunged, traveling along tracks with no ground between them and sky.

The Station Promenade.  Final length.

She put her phone to her ear.

Lucy answered the group call first.  Verona was a second later.  Lucy’s voice came through.  “And?  Are you okay?”

“Coming in now.”

“Good luck.”

“Is my dad there?”

“He left,” Verona said.  “Then he came back.  I helped.  He’s fun.”

“Is Wunderkand being a problem?”

“They’re okay.  I mean, as far as we’re concerned.  Busy setting up.  Terminals, temporary quarters, maps, gathering information.  They made it pretty far up.  Not even leaving and coming back,” Lucy said.  “Do you want to talk to your dad?  I could set up his phone-”

“Or I could give him mine,” Verona said.

“Or that,” Lucy said.

“Hmm.  Yeah, sure.  If you could?” Avery asked.

The Promenade was coming into focus now.

“Hey there,” she heard her dad’s voice.

“Final bit.  Next minute or two decides what months of work and preparation come to.  Like a sports match, you know?  Months of work, hard fighting, injury, all for minutes of actual play.  The final period of a hockey match.  Overtime in a soccer match.”

“Final song in a singing competition,” her dad replied.

“Barf.”

He laughed.

“Don’t put me off my game right at the end.  I hate those shows so much.”

“Yeah.  You good?  You okay?”

Weird question to be considering as her stomach plunged, train dipping, rollercoaster style, drawing close to the stop, barely slowing.

“I think so.”

“These guys, I don’t think they know what to do with me,” her dad said.  “They’re building up so much.  It’s like they’re assuming the conclusion is a given.”

“It might be.  But we offered them a slice of the Promenade, if they’d get out of our way.  Bird in the hand, instead of the two in the bush.  But they decided to slap away our offer.  I’m hoping we get to make them regret it.”

“Is that you?  Coming down in the distance?”

“That’s me.”

“I’ll let you go.”

“Love you,” she told him.

“Yeah.  Love you too.”

“My love to Lucy and Verona.  If either or both of them are on, still.”

“We are.  Lucy’s being an eavesdropper, won’t hang up,” Verona said.

“I’ll hang up then.  Gotta focus,” Avery said.

She hung up without waiting for another response.  The train was slowing to a stop, and the back and forth could continue for a while.

Another moment of quiet.  The Garricks were talking with one another, moving toward the exit.

As they stopped, a flying basket spiraled out of the air, crashing into a stall.

Disaster girl, Avery thought.  This far back?

And she saw Wunderkand.

This far forward.

The train doors opened.  Avery didn’t go out onto the platform, instead slipping out the side, between the train cars, then climbing up, Snowdrop following.

Not stepping on the tiles bought her time without having to follow the regimented movement.  Being on top of the train bought her a vantage point to see.

Smiling Others were crashing into Wunderkand, and the suited, sometimes gussied up members of the corporate Path group were fighting them back.

Roughly equal in number, maybe.  There weren’t that many smiling others, even this far in, when so many of the regular Lost were now smiling, moving aggressively, being aggressive.  And Wunderkand had a lot of forces to deploy.

The thing seemed to be that if a Lost was removed, it was replaced.  Maybe it was the same one popping up near the back.  Maybe it was new ones, getting off of trains, immediately breaking into smiles and moving on the tiles.

But Wunderkand was strong.  Even the lowest tier guys and ladies in suits were pretty darn competent.  Maybe on par with or more competent than Adorea.  People with the upper hand, skill, resources, against Lost, who didn’t stay down for long, who had the home turf advantage.

And, technically, since they had means of getting out in an emergency, regrouping, and coming back, they too could return, like the smiling Lost were doing.  Maybe the turnaround was longer, but they needed to do it less.

The catch, really, was that for every bit of progress they made, the harder it became to advance.

And Avery had to get past that same issue.

So she remained atop the train.

It started to roll forward, and she adjusted her position, running along the top of it, Snowdrop beside her.  It moved forward faster than she could run backward along its length.

It curved upward as it pulled out of the station.  She slid down one car, putting a foot out, and stopped as her foot hit a ledge- a ventilation hatch.

She tapped her foot three times, riding it straight up.  Drew a spell card…

Snowdrop went small, clinging to her.

And she leaped from a train that had gone up as much as it had gone forward.  She twisted in the air, curving her body and letting the wind push her around a hundred and eighty degrees, and then she threw the spell card.

An explosion of wind.  Thrusting her out and away, in coordination with the air-empowered leap.

Another twist in the air- trying to get her feet under her, before she went spread eagle, coat open, cape fluttering behind her.  Blocking the wind.  She felt like she was going to land on her legs first, but she was able to stretch- leg up and forward- she hooked her arms around it, hugging it closer to her body, more ‘down’-

Glad for the pre-lacrosse stretches and runs, she thought.

Her toe made contact with the ground.  Ground rippled, and smiling Lost around her lost their footing.

She reverse-jackknifed, straightening, stumbling forward, traced her steps, and then took a step to her right.

Snowdrop went human, dropping down, feet planted at the corners of the red tile, stopping Avery’s forward momentum.

Then the smiling Lost were around her, and on her.

There were too many, and there was too much going on.  There was no way to track their full motions, no escape except to go over the edge, and if she hung from the edge, she was pretty sure the Wolf would come.

It was meant to be the way across this tough patch, she figured, in a reality where they hadn’t been screwed over, Wolf summoned onto the Path by a wasting of their ‘plays’.

Wunderkand had drawn up battle lines across two thirds of the Promenade, extending across the foot of the stairs that led up to the bridge that ran through the center, and across the rightmost footpath.  The smiling Lost seemed to take the shortest route they could get to obstructing or attacking, so they’d clustered there, a wall.  Wunderkand attacked, pushed back, used summoned Others, and drove them back.  Making a few steps of progress at a time.  Others were coming to reinforce.

Avery could go forward, into smiling Lost, and into the thick of things, but she wasn’t sure how that would go.  So she retreated.

Down toward the footpath that was on the left, if coming from entrance to endpoint.  Mostly empty.  Some Lost lingered, and some Wunderkand people were taking shelter.  They’d figured out they could stop in the shaded cafes and places, so they’d turned those places into rest spots.  Places to lick wounds and regain stamina, before replacing others at the inching progress on the front line.

Avery drew the attention of smiling Lost down toward those cafes, before triple-stepping and leaping up onto the bridge.

Some waited up for her there.  A Lost fellow was spraying so much urine from his dick that he was airborne, spiraling in the air, body ragdoll limp.  Lost were treating the tiles he’d flooded as gold ones.  Or as one extended gold tile, hurrying along its length while the clock allowed.

He wasn’t smiling.

“Buddy!” she called up.  “Want help!?”

He banked against a railing so hard she could hear the ‘thwack’.  His head went down, his pelvis went up, and he skidded about twenty feet along the bridge, bowling two smiling Lost off their feet.

Avery passed one collapsed stall place with a tarp over it, pulled the tarp free, and chased the guy.  She could see Cliff and Adorea below, trying to navigate.  They’d reached the left side, where things were clearer, but had run into problems with Wunderkand.  A few of the Others she’d led around were getting closer, and the Wunderkand underlings looked antsy.

She had to trust them.  She’d help in a moment.

For right now, she ran after the peeing man.  She threw the tarp over her back, reached for his arm, and hooked her elbow at his.  The tarp protected him from his damp and stained clothing, and she was able to spiral with him for a second, grounding him, before pressing him against the railing, extending her arm back, and hooking her left elbow with his.  Back to back, elbows interlinked.  he’d stopped, but continued spraying.

“Better?” she asked.

“Bluh.”

She could hear him throw up.  Opossum Snowdrop reached up, pawing at the back of his head.  Patting.

“Want to help me clear up this situation?  Deal with Wunderkand?” she asked.

“No way-” he grunted.  He sounded badly injured.  “No way am I getting close to that.”

“What if you don’t have to?” she asked.

“How?” he asked.

“Work with me on this, keep doing what you do, and if I can, I’ll tell the important local Lost you were a help.  I don’t know if that’s a medal, or feel good, or-”

“Without getting close?”

“Not to the front lines,” she said.

“Okay.”

She moved.  It felt like moon walking.  She had a shitty -or piss-poor, rather- jetpack, and it boosted her forward and up, the spray constant behind her.

She bounded over, toward the Lost, and sprayed the Wunderkand mooks who were bothering Cliff and Adorea.  A few spell cards froze what was there, and Cliff was able to finish them- pushing one over the edge and driving the heel of his hand into the other’s chin- knocking him backward when his legs and feet were frozen into a ground that didn’t really allow a graceful way down.  Something probably broke or badly sprained as he went down.

But that wasn’t her focus.  She didn’t need a jetpack, and she didn’t need a weapon to spray people she jumped over.  She could paint the tiles.  She could lure the smiling Lost.

Over to the rooftops of shops and collapsed stalls.  Spraying them yellow.  Like one broad tile.

Smiling Lost came running up, toward the bridge…

And she led them over.  Down the other side.

Well behind Wunderkand’s front line.

They came in as a trickle, then a river.  A collection of smiling Lost now attacking from behind.

She air-shoed her way up, went way higher than expected for a landing on the bridge, tarp fluttering around her, and then landed on the left side.

“That’s it, that’s all,” she told the pissing man.

“Sorry if I got you dirty.”

“It’s okay.  Did them way dirtier.”  She started to toss the tarp aside, then paused.  “Hey, Do you want to be a kite?  More control?”

“Avery!” Cliff bellowed, pointing.

A volley of Lost projectiles came at her, turning in the air.

She ran, dodging, shucking off the tarp and letting the pissing man have it.  No time to tie cords or set him up.

The volley didn’t stop until she’d circled partially around, Clayton found her, and he threw up a seal into the air, disrupting the connection between projectile and whoever was directing them.

Together, they advanced.  The smiling Lost weren’t as condensed at the point point, as they now flowed out and past the Wunderkand front line, which was a tenth of what it had been two minutes ago, and started to distribute themselves along the Path.

Still a lot, though.

With her Sight, she spotted the guy who was directing projectiles- a Wunderkand guy wearing suspenders and bellybutton high pants who was hiding.  He was currently tearing down Clayton’s seal, so he could resume doing what he’d been doing.  Others lurked nearby, using magic items and practice circles to produce flurries of projectiles that they were aiming at smiling Lost until they could start shooting Avery again.

She used a spell card optimized for long distance.  A spark of flame that exploded into a patch of burning ground.  Forcing suspenders guy back.

Smiling Lost noticed the fire and came at him from three directions.

The endpoint wasn’t even that far away.  Like, two city blocks.  But with everything going on, with Wunderkand’s soldiers prepped… they couldn’t make it through, it seemed like, because at a certain point it was like, eight aggressive Lost on them at a time, but they could hold the line okay, make occasional progress, and from this vantage point, they could interfere with Avery and her group.

She tried two more spell cards, but they were interfered with before they reached their destination.  Wunderkand Lost came after her, forcing her down off the bridge, onto the one side, and leaving her running.

“Do we try!?” she asked.

“Is it doable!?” Cliff asked, back.

She wasn’t sure.

She wished she could call in an airstrike from the Tearaway Kid and his girlfriend, but he’d said no.  If he got bound by Wunderkand, that was it for him.

She had some goblin fireworks, as a just-in-case for Wild Hunt crap, but that wasn’t a lot.

She backed off, away from Cliff, trying to take in the surroundings.

She heard the Wolf’s addled howling laughter.

She looked into the stalls.  Maybe if she took a job?  Pilot of a zeppelin?

No.

“Guys,” she addressed the Lost.  “Will the smiling Lost attack you?”

The Lost inside shook their heads.

“I’ll make a deal with you,” she told them, before the movement requirements forced her to step away.

One ventured outside.  “What deal?”

“You get to keep doing what you do.  No control, no oversight.  We don’t bind anyone on the Promenade except the most dangerous of you,” she said.  “Only with permission and cooperation.  You help us, we help you get rid of the guys turning this into a real warzone.”

He left.  Back into the shop.

Avery navigated her way back to Cliff-

And saw more of the projectiles curving lazily in the air, veering back toward them.  Clayton managed another seal in the air.

“Can’t keep doing this!”

“Yeah!” Avery called back.

The guy came out of the shop.  “No!”

“No!?” Avery called back.

“Too dangerous.  But there’s some further back!  They were tricking and interfering with those other guys.”

“Wunderkand?”

“Sounds right!”

She nodded, turning.

“Duck shop!”

She went.  The projectiles rained down at her.  They seemed to aim for wherever she was standing, so as long as she kept moving, they hit wherever she’d been a second or two ago.  But she did have to stop as part of her pattern of movement, so that forced her into awkward patterns, where she had to move to awkward spots or backtrack before being able to move under temporary cover.

She found the duck shop.

“Want to fight back?” she asked the Promenade rebels of the duck shop.

“How bad a fight is it?”

“I think you might not even have to fight at all,” she told them.

She led them out, down the length of the Promenade.  Some smiling Lost had trailed after her and filtered down this far, so she used it as an example case.

Smoke was everywhere, rain was coming down, and the sound of fighting filled the Promenade.  Various Lost practices and weird Lost quacked, exploded, and screamed.  More zeppelins kept taking off only to find excuses to be taken out of the air and crash land.

“Block him!” she told one of the Duck rebels, indicating one of the smiling Lost.  “He moves at diagonals!”

A lost did.  Giving Avery clear movement forward.  “And someone picks up where he left off…”

They did.

Chaining movement.  A group of fifteen with their own movement patterns blocking them off.

Keeping that smiling Lost stuck by a wall for a solid ten movements.  Avery got far enough ahead she didn’t need to worry, detoured right onto the bridge to let the Duck rebels catch up, then led them down the concourse.

“Go ahead, block off movements where you can,” she told them.  “We need a course at the left side.”

“And you can end this?”

“I think so.”

“Your Familiar ritual was cool, you know.  Opossum all decked out.”

Avery nodded.  “She’s great.”

“You look after her.”

Avery gave him a thumbs up, before moving to avoid the projectiles.  It looked like Adorea was trying to stop the guy now, but it had turned into a back and forth where he had a torrent of never-missing shots and she had some next-to-zero-accuracy Lost party tricks that made him keep his head down for that one percent chance something could actually hit him and do serious damage.

“How long will it take them, brute forcing it like this?” Avery asked, changing position.  Knives and darts rained from the sky, embedding themselves in the tin roof of a shack she’d taken shelter in.

“Days,” Cliff said.  “Pushing?  Not ceding ground?  Except when you draw a flank around to their sides?  There’ll be gaps.  But they won’t keep brute forcing it.  This just keeps the situation where they like it, they’ll have experts on the job, they’ll unravel this thing in minutes or hours.  That Giselle woman might have already figured out a good bit of it.”

Avery nodded.

“They’re getting set up!” Clayton shouted.

A gap.

“Go,” Cliff ordered.

They went for it.  Smiling Lost were moving toward the bottleneck where Wunderkand’s stragglers were holding the line, and where more Wunderkand people were setting up and trying to squeeze out the flankers.  It moved them right.  With some cooperating Lost in the way, dangerous smiling Lost weren’t left with clear movement when Cliff led the way through and around.  Past the lines of smiling Lost.

But as they made forward progress, someone else did too.

They ran, coast made clear by the cooperating Others, but Giselle was there, far right, swinging her mallet back and forth, her reflected Wolf charging forward, using raw strength.

None of the smiling Lost were able to stand up to it or get past it.  The mallet hit them like an eighteen wheeler, smacking them out of reality.  The fake Wolf tore them limb from limb like they were paper.

And Wunderkand’s people raced in behind her.

“No fucking way,” Cliff muttered.   “No way does she follow in our footsteps, then lunge forward at the finish line.  No fucking way.”

He pulled a sheaf of paper from his jacket.  He let the wind catch them, and they blew out and back.

They stuck to the air.  Papers stuck end to end, forming a circle.  And another circle at the center.

“Was saving this for a gift for Jude or Tess,” Cliff said, voice low.  “But I’d rather they have the Promenade as a place to go.”

“What is it?”

“Pages from the Page of Sun’s book.”

The pages glowed.

Giselle leaped over the railing, with way more grace than Avery would have expected for someone of her proportions, in a corset and long skirt.  Giselle leaned back, hand at the railing.  Using the edge.

“She’s figured shit out, or Shane and Kimber found stuff out and told them,” Cliff muttered.

She was using the edge.  The pages finished glowing, then spat out a fierce shaft of fire that blazed a trail across the Promenade.

And stopped at the railing.

It burned the false Wolf, at least.

“Will that draw the real Wolf’s attention?” Clayton asked.

“I don’t know.  Should.  But she’s got a fucking weird relationship to the thing,” Cliff growled.

They’d bought time, at least.  As long as the laser burned, the Wunderkand security manager or whatever she was couldn’t move much.

Avery reached for the Down to Earth ball, aimed, and threw.

She wanted to hit Giselle’s hand.  Something that would bypass abnormal rules, act like a normal baseball would, ignoring the shenanigans and usual crap.  She might have hit Giselle’s body.  But Giselle chose that same moment to move.

It sailed past the edge and into the Lost sky beyond.

“Nice idea, but no,” Cliff said.

The pages were running out of firepower.

Giselle, teeth clamped around mallet, reached for the burning false Wolf- grabbing the mirrored collar at her neck.

She pulled it out of the false Wolf’s neck.  The Wolf ceased to be.  Leaving her with a powerful magic mirror in her hand, her other hand gripping the railing.

“Careful!” Avery shouted.  “Mirror!  Don’t let her reflect the fire beam!”

She didn’t.  It wasn’t the goal, if it was even something she could do.  But she aimed the mirror down the Path, it glinted, light refracted, and the camera flare, sunspot, rainbow reflection type stuff that shone off it all gathered together.

And Avery could hear the howling laughter of the addled true Wolf, elsewhere.  Further down the Path.

The false Wolf reappeared, whole, directly ahead of Avery.   Wearing the mirror collar again, while Giselle held spots, camera flares, and rainbow refractions.

Grabbing her.

The false Wolf howled her laughter, addled, and Avery felt a stab of fear.

She could see and hear the convergence. The laughter down the Path and this laughter aligned.  The image clarified in ways Avery hadn’t realized it was unclear.  It trembled at the edges.

As the fire beam tapered off, Giselle sat on the railing, swung her legs over, and set her feet down on the other side, standing.  She walked forward, mallet and heels clicking against tile as she walked.  “Sure.  You can have the glimmer of you I took back, destroy her.  Then separate again?  We go back to the status quo?”

“I’ll destroy you eventually, my darling,” the Wolf told her.  “And you’ll look back on all of our moments together with a special kind of horror.”

“Maybe.  Go ahead.”

With the permission, the trembling resistance faded away.

The false Wolf had become the real Wolf.

“Move, and I break her in two,” the Wolf told the Garricks.

Avery held onto the Wolf’s wrist, to keep from choking and blacking out.  The texture of her skin felt like it was fine tuned to be offensive, too papery, too moist and swollen beneath.  Eczema cut at Avery’s fingers.

The Garricks remained where they were.  As they did, violating the movement precept, the unsmiling, helpful Lost behind them started to smile.

Avery pointed-

“Move and I break her in two,” the Wolf warned.  She walked, carrying Avery with her.  Then she leaned in close to Avery, her breath sour with the smell of rotted teeth.  “They’ll move eventually, and I’ll eventually break you in two, but not today.  Today I want to break you in other ways.”

Avery gasped, fighting whole-body for small tenths of a breath of air.  Fingers scratched.

The Wolf carried her to the end of the Path.  Up the stairs.  Then she held Avery out.

“Careful!” Giselle raised her voice.

The Wolf smiled.  Avery averted her eyes, fighting.  She happened to look down, past the darkness creeping in at the edge of her vision.

“There you are.  A hair’s breadth from the final step.  From the door, the boon, from success after months of work,” the Wolf told Avery.

Avery strained, toe reaching.

“Closer than any human ever has.  If you’d eaten one more meal with family, would you be that hair’s breadth taller, to be able to touch it?  If one Other could reach out, one Garrick pull a trick out of his pocket to nudge me, you could touch it.  But they won’t.  They’re fighting for their lives.  I think, hmm, two will die.  Cliff is strong, he has tricks.  But he won’t be strong after he has to explain the death of a niece and nephew to his older brother and cousin.  It will be the end of him.”

Avery strained.

“Try harder.  Push.  Break something,” the Wolf told Avery.  “Tear a muscle, get close enough to claim victory.  Less than a millimeter.”

Avery pushed.

Snowdrop came out of hiding, biting the Wolf’s hand.

The Wolf didn’t even flinch.

“Sacrifice your boon companion?” the Wolf suggested.  “The old deal holds.  It would be a victory.”

Avery closed her eyes.  She shook her head.

She jerked.  The Wolf turned, striking something dark out of the air with the back of her hand.

Cliff Garrick.  He’d used something to attack with, been stabbed in the arm for his trouble, and was now losing the fight against smiling Lost.

“So close.  It’ll eat at him knowing how close you all got.  If he’d been a little faster, more focused, stronger, more willing to make sacrifices.  It’ll eat at you.  In all things, you hate losing, don’t you?  Especially bitter losses.”

Avery’s fingernails dug in.  Snowdrop bit again.

“Come back to the Path.  Or try.  You’ll have to, in vain, slim hope that your competitor fails, and there’s another chance.  Come, see what it looks like after it’s theirs.  There’s little worse than getting this close and failing so miserably.”

Avery grunted.

“Wolf?” Giselle asked.

“Hmmmm?” the Wolf asked, her voice an off-kilter hum.  She turned, Avery dangling, so close to passing out that just being swung around made her go black for a second.

“Finish with her?  I want this done.  And I need your help to clear the way to the platform.”

The Wolf laughed, and then, with a casual toss, flung Avery sideways over the edge.

Thirty feet out, Avery realized, as she fell, limp, gasping out a breath, the surge of darkness that had been claiming her vision giving way to too-sharp alarm.

No Others flying in to the rescue.  Too far away to grab a trailing wire or anything.

Too seen to black rope.

Friends turned to smiling enemies by shittiness.

Garricks being cut down.

Cast out into nothingness.  The Path disappearing above her as clouds moved between her and it.

She reached out to Snowdrop with thoughts too fuzzy from being strangled to articulate full thoughts.

Snowdrop, clinging to Avery’s neck and shoulder with back paws, stretched out, forepaws out, nose extended up.

Fireflies flew out from Avery’s sleeve.

Avery willed it.  Snowdrop moved, forepaws moving, slashing through air, directing them.  She’d read over Avery’s shoulder from the beginning.  Download basics.

Trails, drawing lines in air.

Avery put a hand back.  YeahDo it.

Putting power into it.

A massive air rune, drawn in glittering gold, with lines.  It took time to draw in air spirits, to wake them up.  But the fireflies kept drawing, retracing their steps.

Avery slowed in her fall, a cushion of wind beneath her, making her clothes and hair flap in insane ways.

Lines fade.  Need-

She wanted it.  Snowdrop articulated it.  Redrawing the central part.  Giving it another focus.  An air rune and a push.

Snowdrop helped aim.

Pushing Avery up and out.  Toward the Path.

Giselle was watching.

Avery heard the voice.  Faint.

“No.”

The mallet came down.  Runes flared in the air in its wake.

And the air around Avery was smashed down.  She went from an upward and a forward trajectory to one that sent her straight down, ten feet from the Path.

She twisted in the air, hurtling.

Reaching out-

She’d gotten close.

Her hand out, she grabbed a cord that trailed from the bottom of the Path.  She grabbed hard, and it ripped at her palm and fingers as she fought to find traction.  Her hand felt wet as skin tore and blood slicked the way-

She’d slowed some, though.  She brought her feet down, clamping them on the wire, and hugged it full-body.

Coming to a stop, swinging madly in wind.

She heard the Wolf’s howling laughter.

A tarzan swing- a failed grab.  Her hand-eye coordination wasn’t all there.  But she could move her body.  A rush ran through her, she swung her legs, reached again, grabbed on.

And she wasn’t observed, down here.  So she could reach to her wrist, pull out the black rope…

Punching it upward.  She moved, bringing Snowdrop with, and grabbed a ledge beneath a train platform.

She climbed, as fast as she was able.  She got ninety percent back to pre-strangulation normal as she did.  She peered past the railing.

The smiling Lost were fighting Giselle and the Wolf.  Wunderkand’s people were forging their way forward.

A bit of glamour.  One-handed.  She didn’t have time.

She motioned.  Snowdrop helped again.  Providing two paws, twisting them in air to change colors.  Red hair to black.

She climbed up through the railing, pulling out spell cards.

She made it about two seconds before being noticed.  A Wunderkand suit sparring with smiling Lost shouted once in alarm.

Avery slapped down a silence rune.  Giselle turned.

The guy tried to get to Avery, but the smiling mascot-headed Lost was happy punching and tearing at the suit.

Giselle didn’t see Avery.

She pulled away.  From a point close to Wunderkand’s camp, breaking into a run, toward Giselle, the Wolf and the four or five Wunderkand suits who were backing her.

“If you’d let me continue,” the Wolf said, smiling.

“What?” Giselle asked.

“You told me to get rid of her.”

Avery was fast.  She covered a lot of ground.  People that saw her in the corner of their vision took her as a suited Wunderkand employee.

She tapped her foot three times mid-stride, touched ground with the other foot, twisting-

Navigating the immediate crowd with one boon.  She crashed between two people, turning in the air, knee fully bent, ankle at her rear end, tucked in, so she wouldn’t graze the wrong target.

She kicked Giselle in the side.  Wind-boost runes at her shoe glowed for a moment-

And with a rush of wind, Giselle was kicked clear off the Path, two steps from the landing at the top.

She hurled her last few spell papers at the Wunderkand crew who’d been behind Giselle, then threw herself sideways.

Papers detonated.  A torrent of fire, ice, lightning, flashes, cracked ground-

A few smiling Lost didn’t need much advantage to collapse in on them.

And the Garricks-

Hurt, captive.

The Wolf-

Behind Avery.  Blocking Avery’s path.  Stalking toward her.

Avery rolled down a few steps, scrambling away.

Losing ground.

“That will eat at her,” the Wolf told Avery.  “As I said.”

“Yeah, I bet,” Avery said.  She glanced to one side.  Nobody was in a great position to get to the Path landing.

The Wolf closed in.  Trying to crawl backwards down the stairs, Avery slid down about three or four stairs on her tailbone instead.

“As for you… what shall I do?” the Wolf asked.  “What would break you?  Gouges on your face, for your girlfriend to wonder about?  Taking your legs?”

“We’ve talked about all this before,” Avery said, without the confidence she would’ve wanted.

“Foreshadowing.”

Snowdrop moved at Avery’s shoulder.  She was thinking about the rusty fork.

No.  That trick wouldn’t work here.

The Wolf shook her head, like she could read Avery’s mind.  She continued advancing.

Maybe-

She didn’t even want to think it.  She was against a primal force that was meant to foil her, break her.  Something almost animal.

“There are two people you’ve ever really gone truly still with.  Not going, not coming, not departing, not arriving.  Your girlfriend is one.  But me?  I had you for a long time.  Shall we go for two out of three?  Shall I keep you this time?  Your Founder Miss can’t come this time, the Garricks will be broken without the Promenade, your friends won’t know how to reach you.  Not for years.  And they’ll be weakened with you gone.”

Avery tried to stand.  The Wolf lunged a step, a mad look in her eyes.  Avery fell back down onto her rear end.

The Wolf swept in, grabbing her.

“Or-”

She lifted Avery like she’d held her before.  Like there was no point, like it was inevitable that things would go the way they had before.

Cliff Garrick used a practice again.  Throwing something- a piece of black paper with white writing.  It flew like a dart, or a swooping bird.  The Wolf backhanded it out of the air.

And this time, Avery put a foot out, on the Wolf’s knee.  Pushing, twisting.

Grabbing Snowdrop.  And flinging her underhand.

Out, forward.

Onto the landing.

Snowdrop became human, then stood.

The Wolf glanced back.

“She’s me, and I am her, we’re paired.  Master and familiar.  Established at the start of this Promenade.  Important right here, at the end,” Avery managed.

“Then she and you are both in my grasp, ready to have your necks snapped.  Paralyzed for life.  Done by me, it will be permanent.”

“We’re at the end of the Promenade.  Out of your jurisdiction.  I’ve read up on you, on the Forest Ribbon Trail.  Too many Finders wondering if you’ll come reach them, appearing in their nightmares.  The words are written… only in your territory.  Only in your Path.”

“Then,” the Wolf brought her face close.  That sour, tooth rotting smell made Avery’s face turn away.  “We’ll strike a compromise.  I have you.  You just don’t know it yet.  And I will see you soon.”

Avery grimaced at the puff of sour breath, and the flood of memories it evoked.

She was dropped, released, and landed hard on stairs.

She could go down to help the three Garricks, but she climbed instead.  Before she missed her chance.

“This space, the Station Promenade, is claimed, by the Garrick family and Avery Kelly,” Avery said, climbing the steps.  Snowdrop took her hand and helped her up.  “We’re done.  Screw the Wunderkand Finders.”

The smiling Lost who’d been gathered around the Garricks turned away.  Changing their focus.  Ignoring Cliff, Adorea, and Clayton, now.

Clayton was hurt, stabbed in two places.  He barely made it up the steps before falling.

He had the seal stuff ready.  To lock the way, to complicate entry.

To seal the Promenade access, barring permission.

The Wunderkand Finders that were coming through were replenishing their numbers at the start.  Some were coming and going, apparently, and as they went, now, they couldn’t get back in.

She sat down on the top stair, breathing hard, throat hurt, unable to talk.

Cliff patted her on the shoulder as he came up beside her.

She drank water, wincing at the pain.  Then she texted her friends.

This would take a while to clear out.  But Wunderkand’s numbers were already dwindling a bit.  Just a bit.  Maybe she’d sit here for hours in total, watching.  Guarding the end of the Path.

“I’ll signal home.  Tell them, hm.  I don’t want them hurt.  Not this late in things,” Cliff grumbled.

“You are bleeding so much,” Adorea told him.

He nodded, then sat down hard.  She cut at his sleeve to expose bleeding wounds, and tended to them.  She looked at Avery.  “Need anything?”

Avery pointed at her throat, made a croaking sound, then shrugged.  That would recover.

They could sit, wait, watch, guard this spot.  Until the Lost stopped smiling and everything reset before her eyes.

That would be cool.

Snowdrop rested her head on Avery’s shoulder.  The fireflies rested on her bracelet, glowing.

You guys get so much bug movie, she thought.  And you…

She looked at Snowdrop.  Snowdrop lifted her head up, then thunked it back down at Avery’s shoulder.

Yeah.

They sat, recovering for a bit, waiting, watching the foremost Wunderkand group trying to fight past the thick of things without Giselle and Giselle’s fake Wolf familiar.

When that group gave up, retreating, they relaxed a bit.  Avery got up, checked the sides, checked the sky, then turned, looking at the big set of double doors with the clock over it.

“Want to see?” Cliff asked.

Avery nodded.

“She totally doesn’t,” Snowdrop said.

Cliff Garrick walked over.  Clayton and Adorea went to his left and right, respectively.  Avery followed.

“There’s guidelines about who goes through, does what.  Based on what you said, I think we all push,” Cliff said.

Avery reached between Adorea and Cliff, touching the wrought metal gate, almost two stories tall.

She pushed.  So did the others.

Hinges squeaked, and doors swung wide.  Light shone through- not because this place was darker, but because smoke and dust from the fighting and destruction choked a lot of the sky on this side of the doors.

Avery took it in.

A city.  She’d seen Lost cities and towns before, but this took it to another level.  A similar aesthetic to the Promenade, extended to something bigger.  Parks and towering buildings, multi-layered streets kind of like what Kennet found had, except there was no baseline road below, no bottom.  Just the arching bridges, paths, and connective tissue.

Lost were already going from the Promenade into that place.  Like, matter of fact, nobody seemed to think it was weird it had been closed, it was just convenient now that it was open.  Maybe they’d had ways to get here from other angles, but now another big one was opened.

It wasn’t a Path, though.  Avery could feel it.  It was supporting structure.  And the structure it was supporting – at least part of it…

A metal cube, suspended in air.  Bridges reached to it.  It was damaged, clearly no longer suffering the function it once had, decayed from neglect and age.  Slowly, it turned in mid-air, one corner pointed down, the spinning with a wobble to it.  The bridges and paths that extended to it formed a kind of halo around it, both horizontal and vertical.  Framing.  It looked like they could move, to be retracted or adjusted.

There were others, though.  A sphere of ice, with something dark within.  And something that flickered when Avery moved her head.  Like she could almost see it, but not quite.  Like there was one position of head and eyes a fraction of a hair’s breadth wide, that she could be jarred from with a single beat of her heart, that let her see it.  Fleeting.

And a final one.  The Promenade ‘s concourse led forward, colors fading to pure black, creating a straight path and bridge to one empty space, where no construct sat within.  Nothing frozen, metal, flickering or otherwise.

Avery walked through, looking around.  Noises rustled around her.

Each one had a path extending out.  To open gates.

“Avery,” Clayton said.

She turned.

On either side of her were doors to buildings.  One was black, painted with a white mark she couldn’t decipher.  One was blue, with a light blue mark.

She stepped back.  Doors slammed.  The doors changed to something that matched the rest of the surroundings.

She stepped forward again, and the doors ‘slammed’ into place in the same way she could use her Sight to open her eyes a second time.

Tinted doors.

She stepped back.  Cliff stepped forward.

Same deal.  Doors changed to something else.

Cliff walked over, then opened the black one.

A black sea with white water.  It looked like the moon was at the horizon, melting into the sea and tainting it.

“Neverending Night,” Cliff said.  “I wonder how that works.  Wherever we go, doors give us access to other Paths?  Is it only if we’re on a Path?  After we finish one?”

Avery rubbed at her throat, wincing.  She didn’t feel brave enough to try talking.

“We can set you up with jewelry or something,” Adorea said.  “Something to suppress the door thing, if it gets inconvenient.”

Avery nodded.  They’d gone over that earlier.

“Makes getting around pretty easy, huh?” Clayton asked.  He checked for himself that it worked.  “We get choices now.  On top of…”

He gestured at the setup around the constructs.  The buildings, the Lost network.  Whatever else this was.

Avery was pretty sure she knew whatever else this was, now.

A halfway point.


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Let Slip – 20.1

Avery

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A brain tumor.

Terminal.

With that, her hopes and dreams, her big plans, her idea of romance, it all stopped, it was all cut short.

Avery Kelly, she ran pretty fast, then she stopped running forever.

Wouldn’t that be nice?  Being able to stop?  To stop struggling against the insurmountable?  Being able to put it all to rest?

Avery had been okay, not that long ago.  Then that stretch of loneliness, start of high school.  She’d found magic.

Magic that taunted.  Ways to collect specific, special flowers, dry them, and grind them up to make fairy glamour.  Ways to use that glamour to make herself loved.  She’d even collected the flowers.  She hadn’t ended up using it.  It felt skeevy, and it felt like if it had gone wrong, she’d have broken down entirely.  So instead, she’d taken the route of breaking down entirely, but slowly.

The connection blocks had been part of that.  She’d used the connection blocks on family, because being around but being ignored was worse than being out on her own.  Or so she’d thought.  Like the not-speaking thing, she’d closed a door and found it too hard to open again.

She’d skipped her meeting to talk to Ms. Hardy and then found it harder to go the next day, which made it harder the day after, and when faced with Ms. Hardy’s obvious growing concern, facing the weight of all of that, she’d connection blocked her teacher and left.

Olivia’s friendship bracelet braided into her hair at the side of her face, a token, the last thing she had that resembled a connection, she’d gone wandering, exploring cool areas.  The spirit world.  The ruins.

She ran, hurdling a chasm.  Echoes of people who’d met horrible fates moved past her, or she moved past them.  Each one gave her an impression of what fates they’d met.  Brain tumor.  Burning alive.  Injury.

She wished she had an excuse.  A big reset button, especially if it would give her a pass for everything going on up until now.  She could blame being weird and cowardly and distant on a tumor.  People would care about her again.  They’d have to pay attention.

The echo was following behind her, matching her footsteps.  It fed details into that line of thought, made it feel real.  For moments at a time, she was in the hospital, surrounded by family.  Then those moments became minutes.

And as more gathered, even the space between those minutes-long stays were filled in with other impressions, other events.

She stopped as she saw someone.  An older teenager with light brown skin, hair in a black braid that trailed down over one shoulder, wearing an old fashioned yellow raincoat, with cracks in the material.  She stood by a small blue fire.

The echo reached into and through her.  Putting her back on the ward, walking, hobbling down the hallway.  The teenager was put out of sight.

“No,” Avery said, pushing echoes away.

They flocked back to her.  Like she was in the ocean, trying to push the water around her away.

“Let me-”

She staggered forward a bit.

“Go away!” she shouted.  Pushing the echoes away with something fiercer.

The girl with the raincoat turned her head.

Avery waded through the echoes who hadn’t yet recovered, then walked over to the teenager.

“Can I share your fire?”

The girl studied her.  “If you fuel it.”

“With?”

“Here?  Good, mostly-forgotten memories.  You reach out to the fire, push it out-”

Avery reached.  The teenager pushed her hand down.

“Not yet.  When it runs low.”

Avery nodded, staring down into the flames.

“Sit,” the teenager told her.

Avery sat.

“Do you have food?”

Avery shook her head.

“Can you talk?”

Avery opened her mouth, and her voice was a creak.  “Yeah.”

Streak broken.

“You don’t have food?”

“Not- um, not much.”

“Next time, bring more.”  The girl handed her a protein bar.  “What are you here for?”

“Getting away.”

“Not a very good reason.”

Avery shrugged.  “Um.  What about you?”

“Looking for someone.  A piece of someone.”

“Oh.  Do you want help?”

The girl gave her a long, searching look.

“No.”

Rejection again.

“Taking something for nothing creates debt.  I don’t want to be in anyone’s debt.”

“Tell me more about things like the blue fire?”

“I don’t know many people that would help with something like this.  It’s suspicious.  Are you with the Belangers?”

“Um, are they Others?”

“No.  Practitioners, who were asking about me.  Came by my place.”

Avery shook her head.  “I’m not.”

With shaking hands, she brought the protein bar to her mouth.  The echos were staying out of the fire’s light, gathering in a mass at the edges.  Avery twisted around, looking.

“I want to help, that’s all.  It’s, uh, something to do, I guess?  Something good to do.  It is good, right?  They want to be found?”

The teenager nodded.

Avery had finished her chocolate-covered protein bar and was putting the wrapper away in her inside coat pocket when she heard the teenager say, “Okay.”

🟂

Avery leaned over the old dresser, which was now littered with Kerry’s things.  It had once been divided into threes, with some nudging and jostling for space, like three kids crammed into the back seat, elbowing at one another.  Sheridan’s jewelry, Kerry’s odds and ends, and maybe a few things of Avery’s.

The dresser had a mirror built into the back, flush against the wall, with a crack in it from when she, Kerry, and Declan had shared the room, pre-puberty, and had banged the dresser while roughhousing.

She leaned forward, so she could see into that mirror.  A bit of glamour created a hazy image- hazy because she used High Summer glamour to tweak it, and it wasn’t a very High Summer image.  That Avery she’d seen in the challenge.

In my worst life, in a life when I hit my lowest point, found magic, and then used that as an excuse to push everyone away?  That version of me that ran away, instead of running toward?

Still helped people.  Still found people.

She’d helped Jessica, she’d forged a loose friendship.  Jessica had taken Avery back to her place, so her girlfriend could give Avery advice Jessica didn’t know how to give.

The image in the mirror- Avery tweaked it, and the other her raised her head slightly, meeting Avery’s eyes, before instinctively glancing away.

With the tweak, there were streaks of Ruins-dreck on the other Avery.  Blurrier, but that kind of worked, because it was echo-ey.  Fingerprints from echoes and from her own hands.

Standing in opposition to that image, she could let the checkmarks stand out.  She pushed hands through hair, like she was going to do a ponytail, then let her hair drop.

Snowdrop was crawling on her dad, who tried to hide her as he walked by the living room, where Declan was playing a game.

Go easy on Dad, Avery thought.  Come up?

Snowdrop, midway through crawling on her dad, turned human, thumped the floor, and ran up the stairs.  Declan asked a question, but Avery didn’t know what the question was.

The door to Avery’s room opened.

“Did Declan see you?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.  Be more careful?”

“Nah.  He’s a jerk, I gotta keep him in his place.”

“Uh huh,” Avery said.  She put out an arm, and Snowdrop kind of collided into her, for a one armed, side-hug.

There was no Snowdrop in the mirror.  Just a blurry echo near Avery.  She moved, flexing, then flexed some spirit-muscle, pushing something more Opossum-like into the scene.  Until it was a ghostly opossum in the corner of the scene, tinted blue by the fire.  She moved her head around, tongue lolling out, teeth bared, trying to find the best angle for the reflection.  “Aaaaa.”

“Speaking of ‘aaaa’, did you get what you needed?”

Snowdrop wriggled, reaching back, then pulled the rusty fork out of her back pocket.

“Sure.  And you checked out Cherrypop’s slide?”

“It’s terrible.  Doesn’t even go through the different parts of Kennet.”

“Wait, really?”

“I didn’t even have to help her.”

“That actually sounds cool, though.”

Snowdrop stuck the fork into her armpit, pressing down, to muffle what she said so the fork wouldn’t hear.  “It’s way less cool than I’m making it sound, and we know just how we’re going to make it magic.”

“We’ll figure something out.  Maybe asking Sootsleeves.”

“Ugh.”

Avery shifted the hug, mussing up Snowdrop’s hair a bit in the process, which made Snowdrop fight back, reaching up to mess up Avery’s.  Avery responded by pushing the tip of her chin into the top of Snow’s head, while hugging her tighter to pin her arms against her side.  Snowdrop bit her lightly through the fabric of her sweatshirt.

Then Snowdrop pulled back, turning.

Avery borrowed senses, heard the incoming footsteps-

Her dad, by the weight of the steps.  He approached the door.

“Come in,” Avery said.  The knock on the door started when she was halfway done.

Her dad opened the door, stepped into the room, then closed the door again.  He stood with his back to it like he was guarding it.  “Kerry’s at her friend’s.  Declan’s so fixated on his game he won’t move for hours.  Grumble’s napping.”

“Thanks for sneaking me around.  Easier to do stuff from home.”

“This is it, then?”

Avery looked at the mirror.  The image there had been destroyed by the contrary images of her and Snowdrop play-fighting.  “Yeah.”

“Do you need anything else?”

“No, I think I’m prepped.  I guess the only thing I might want is… you?”

“I should be around in case Grumble rings his bell or Declan needs something.  Or if Kerry calls.”

“Oh.”

“This Promenade business is a pretty big deal, by the sounds of it.”

Avery nodded.  “It would mean a lot to me if you were there.”

“It’s tricky.  I’d like to be there.”

“I wonder if we can rig it.  I think we can have the door stay open.  Then- can you bring me Grumble’s bell?”

“I can do it,” Snowdrop said.  “But I don’t want to.”

“Is this going to be okay?  It’s nothing too weird?”

“It should be fine,” Avery told her dad.

He went to get the bell.  Avery set about handling the rest of the prep.  Connection-sensitive alarm, minor seal… Kerry had an old toy she’d grown out of with a bell as part of it.  She used an erasable gel to draw a series of runes on it, wrapping up with a Pisces rune, and adding the word ‘pair’ for extra measure.

Her dad returned, and she set up a simple rune on the inside of the bell.

“What is this?”

“When Grumble rings his bell…” Avery rang the bell experimentally.

Kerry’s toy rang.

“Oh.  Huh.”

“Plus some extra range, bit of supporting practice.  And the ring… stand at the other end of the room?” Avery asked.

Her dad backed off, while Avery carried Kerry’s toy to the opposite corner.  This should be ok.

“Ring it?”

He rang Grumble’s bell.  The toy went off.

“I see it flash,” her dad said.  “But-”

“But the sound doesn’t reach you.  It won’t weird Declan out or anything.  Now I’ve got an alarm for the door, if anyone but me or Snowdrop comes with intent to find you or come into the room, it’ll activate.  And that’s your notice to step through.  You pull a paper out, and the door will go back to normal.  As far as they’ll know, unless something goes horribly wrong, you were just in the room.  Making the beds, maybe.”

“And my phone?  If Kerry calls?  She’s had some fights with friends before.”

Avery popped the case off, drew a rune, and put the case back carefully.  “Should extend it for you.  The Garricks use this for their walkie-talkies and stuff.”

“Okay.  Hm.”

“Hm,” Avery replied.  “You don’t have to.”

“I want to.  I guess I prepared myself to see you leave, and to worry, and it feels different, somehow, if I’m…” he trailed off.

“You’ll still be seeing me leave.  But closer.  Just don’t step out of the shade of the building on the main platform,” Avery said.  “You good?”

“Let me check on Grumble and Declan first.”

“Okay.”

Avery took the time her dad was out of the room to triple-check everything.  Rope with weird knot at her waist, she had her magical tools, she had her bag.  She put her cape on, then her mask.  Her hat she left on the charm bracelet, loaded with runework, in case she ended up in a tough spot in reality.  Dark green sweater, jeans, and her old running shoes with the air runes.  She pushed the mask up onto the top of her head, the ribbon and her attachment to it keeping it roughly in place.

Snowdrop wore a necklace with opossum teeth on it, looped around her neck a few times, a gray sweater-dress with ‘This cat is weird’, and leggings with holes in them.  Her headphones with the ear-shaped rims at the edges were around her neck, and she had heavy eyeliner on her lower lids, in a way that drew out the perpetual circles around her eyes.

“You with me, guys?” Avery asked, tapping her charm bracelet.

The fireflies flew out, drawing a circle around her.

She touched the spot she knew she had a golden checkmark on her arm, and then gestured, connecting it to the fireflies.  Her fingers twisted as she did the gesture necessary to draw out some color and adjust the hue.

“I’d like that back when you’re done, but just to make things more clear…”

The checkmarks pulled away, and trailed behind the fireflies, each firefly with a two-foot line of sparkles behind them.  One did a little twirl, like it was playing with the effect, before falling back into formation, circling around her.

Her dad returned.  “Okay.”

“Okay?”

He nodded.  “Declan’s good.  Grumble’s sleeping.”

Avery texted her friends, checked the time, and then started getting things ready.  Folded invitations and tickets in the doorframe… wedging it until it was closed.  The Garricks had confided in her about how they’d tweaked the entry to the Path.  This would be what Wonderkand had to work out if they wanted to break in.  If they couldn’t find another way to get to the same Path, anyway.

White invitation, green, white, white, blue, white, green.  She arranged them, judged the door, and then decided to do another repetition, same pattern.

They’d chosen this for a reason.  It made experimentation hazardous.  Wonderkand would have to work out the Path entry requirements, which, okay, unfortunately they had the tools to sort of figure out the right ballpark.  But even if they got in that ballpark and their magic items and practices told them “hey, right idea, just gotta be more specific”, they had to figure out the combination.  If they wanted to brute force it, they ran the risk that they’d choose a red piece of paper, which would take them to another Path entirely.

She finished, double-checked the pattern, then backed up.

“Charles, I’m not conspiring against you here.  Just trying to follow through with the Garricks.  Don’t screw me over here.  It doesn’t help anything,” she spoke out loud.

No response, of course.

The silence felt heavy with the implied.  Like a lot of things were being said by her saying that and Charles’s silence after.  The feeling made her think about the Avery of the Ruins.  Of the challenge.

We got this.

She looked at her dad, took Snowdrop’s hand, then, together with Snowdrop, kicked the door hard.

It slammed open, even though the doorframe didn’t go that way.  But it didn’t open the way to the Promenade.  Instead, it opened into a storeroom, or an attic.  Items were everywhere, boxes were stacked up, and the box-tops and edges where they were stacked improperly were home to odd things and knick-knacks.

The pilot’s cap atop one box was her starting point for navigating the space.  There was something under it, but it was a red herring.  She had to go with the direction the pilot’s cap was facing, track it to one obvious item on top of a box… a music box.  There would be something reflective here… She popped the lid open, and music started playing.  A mirror, inset in the underside of the lid.  She looked in the reflection, moving left, then right, turned-

Snowdrop was already there, standing with her hand on an old boat motor.

“Hit it.”

Snowdrop yanked the pull.  The engine roared to life, and the room shook.  Things fell, pieces of wood hanging on the wall dropped away, landing in haphazard piles, and the view of cloudy landscape on the far side of the window began to move sideways.

They were in a vehicle.  By the feel of it, a train car.

Delivering them to the Station Promenade’s entrance.  Nothing fancy, just another small barrier to entry with some traps hidden among the odds and ends, but doing something fancy would’ve taken more than the Garricks had.

The train car of odd items pulled into the Station Promenade.  Double doors slid open to either side.  Avery hurried to put pieces of paper on the door and double check- the way back led straight to her old room.

“Snowdrop!” a Lost called out.  “And her Path Runner partner.”

“Screw off,” Snowdrop told them.

“You had the ceremony here?”

“Lies,” Snowdrop replied.

“We did,” Avery confirmed.

“Lovely.  More should do that.  Do you have something else going on today?”

“Just trying to get to the other end of the Promenade.”

“Good luck.”

“Thank you,” Avery replied, adjusting her bag clips at her collarbone and mid-ribcage so it wouldn’t jostle much.  She stretched as she walked, glancing back at her dad, then looking out toward the mouth of the Promenade itself, where a smaller team of Garricks waited.

The clock thudded.  Train cars had no engines, but were pulled by various mystery animals that had arms, legs, and parts of heads sticking out of broken parts of ceramic kettles, teapots and things.  Where there had been zeppelins or hot air balloons, there were now baskets with wings sticking out the sides.  Steam from the kettles flowed skyward, creating a heavy haze above.

The sun and moon were a giant firefly and moth moving in a set pattern across the sky, rotating slowly.

“You see that, guys?” Avery asked her fireflies, one arm straight over her head while her other arm pulled on it.

“Here, here, we’re here!” Verona called out.

Avery turned, walking backwards, and smiled as Verona and Lucy caught up.

“As witnesses to greatness, we hope,” Lucy said.  “Hi, Mr. Kelly.”

“Hi Lucy.  You guys can show me the way back if we get turned around?  I feel pretty far from home right now.”

“For sure,” Verona replied.  “I like your toy phone.”

He held it up.  “Magic, I think?”

“Runework.  The phone itself isn’t magic,” Avery pointed out, still walking backwards.

“Got it.”

“We’re just going to go just-” Avery pointed at the Garricks.

“Go.  Kick ass,” Lucy told her.

Avery jogged the rest of the way, Snowdrop following.

Into the thick of the discussion, a whirlwind of details and particulars about counting the hours that had Avery second guessing herself.

But the fireflies were there, circling around her, and the golden trail that followed them was something she’d built and earned.  A hundred tiny victories.

🟂

“Cliff Garrick, uniformed as an officer of the law, with one subject apprehended!” the voice crackled through the walkie-talkie that was clipped to Avery’s belt.

“Two alternates!” Peter Garrick ordered, his voice overriding the end of Cliff’s.  “You’re clear to take a job.  Keep count!”

They had twelve ‘plays’ on the clock.  That made for twelve engagements with the Promenade’s special features before the Wolf came.

The Garricks had worked out the counting system.  If they all left the Path at the same time, which included roping out or taking a train to another Path, then the count would reset.

Four core people doing jobs for coin, a big pause to figure out best moves and timing, then the team maneuvering to simultaneously exchange coin for a ticket at one of the key vendors, and finally, the team departing, that handled the core team.  Allowing for weirdness, that could use up half of the ‘plays’ available to them, or nearly all of them.

They were really riding the wire, but according to the head of the Garrick clan, they could get away with some of the alternates getting on board too.

Avery wasn’t about to complain or point out the issue, especially when they’d done her a favor by waiting, but the core team had started out as Peter Garrick, patriarch of the Garrick clan; Cliff Garrick, Jude’s dad; Reece Garrick, lesser brother of the Garrick clan; and Clay Garrick, the one who’d helped with the negotiation over the Promenade info.

The alternates were there to replace those who had to drop out, if it was possible.  They had the contradictory job of both being in position to drop in as replacements, but also to prioritize helping out the core team.

Avery, carrying Snowdrop as Snowdrop assumed regular opossum form, leaped up onto the roof of a store.  Zed had used a program to figure out the pattern that made the special shops and vendors stand out.

Above the store was an apartment.  A Lost was freaking out.

“What’s wrong?” Avery asked.

“My man, my lad, my sir, he’s leaving on the train,” a Lost replied.  She was an earthworm, body holding a position roughly similar to a human’s silhouette- a loop for the head, a twist for the arm, ‘wearing’ a dress and floral headband.  “I’m blind, or I’d go after him.  I’m so useless without him, but together, we have enough eyes between us.  Do you know a messenger?  Are you a messenger?”

Avery gave Snowdrop a nudge. Time to see…

“I can’t,” Snowdrop replied.

“Oh no, what will I do?” the earthworm asked.

Darn.  Was really hoping Snow could take the role without me.  The Garricks had been hoping it too.

Avery passed the walkie-talkie, her bag, and everything except her hat, scarf, and mask to Snowdrop.

“I can,” Avery told her.

“Will you?”

The curtain at the woman’s window was already billowing out, past the window and onto the ledge Avery stood on.  It pressed against her, lifting her up, turning her around.

“Number sixteen train,” the earthworm woman told Avery.

Avery’s things were tucked away.  She rotated in the air, surrounded by billowing curtain, her clothes exchanged for a fresh outfit.  They wanted to take her bracelets and ribbons, her cloak, hat, and mask.  She clapped a hand over them.  “No.  They’re part of my Self.”

“You’ll know him when you see him,” the earthworm woman told her.

Avery reached for the High Summer rose, drew a checkmark down the line of bracelets and things – Sheridan’s bangle, the wooden bead bracelet for detecting pursuers, the friendship bracelets, the ribbon, the charm bracelet, the black rope… okay, that last one could go.  She hooked her thumb on it and passed it to Snowdrop, best as she could.

With that same glamour, twisting in the aether of billowing cloth, midway through a role change, her feet not touching the ground, knees at her chest, hands at her shoulders and head, Avery shrunk mask, hat, and cloak.  She passed them to the charm bracelet, where they hooked on automatically.

The transition finished.

Avery landed in a crouch.

Flat cap with a brim, white collared shirt, pants that were faded and made soft from travel, a jacket matching the cap, with patches on the sleeves, and old-fashioned black shoes.  And the messenger bag at her side, heavy with the weight of her things.

No equipment, no protections.  Wearing an outfit for a job meant not having the black rope, no shoes with air runes, no escape rope for if the Wolf came.

The end of the earthworm tail had enough stick to it that it could hold onto paper.  The earthworm woman extended a limb out of the window, toward Avery.  Holding an envelope.

“He leaves in a minute.”

Avery tucked the letter into an outside area of the messenger bag, took Snow’s hand, and broke into a hard run.

Her look was old-fashioned.  Or a bit hipster-y.  But everything fit, and it was comfortable.  Even the shiny black shoes that would’ve normally made her worry her feet would get torn up by running with them on.

Avery reached back for the walkie-talkie, and Snowdrop was already passing it forward, reading her impulse.  Snowdrop went small, and Avery brought the walkie-talkie to her ear at the same time she lifted Snowdrop forward.

“Avery Kelly, messenger, running an errand.  One minute!”

“Heard,” was Peter Garrick’s response.

There were no movement restrictions while she was on the job, delivering the letter.  She didn’t have to worry about tiles, and she only had to worry about going as fast as she could while avoiding the smiling Lost.

“Adorea, temporary firefighter.  I guess I’m looking for fires to put out.”

On a lower level, hard to miss, Avery saw one of the Others from the familiar ceremony with Snowdrop.  It was a girl who was followed by constant chaos and destruction.  Midway through dodging the collapse of a stall’s overhang.

“I remember you!” the girl called up, smiling.

“Yeah,” Avery replied.  A canister of what looked like cooking gas rolled away from one street stall and under another.

“Sorry about this!” the girl called up.

“It’s okay!”

The canister exploded under the stall, sending the contents skyward.  Avery saw glints of light in the middle of the flying objects.

One hand raised to block the glare from the firefly sun, she looked skyward.

Not that baseball was ever my game, really, it’s like trying to catch a fly ball.  Except it’s the exact opposite, Avery thought.

Snowdrop sent a sensation of amusement through the familiar bond.

“Adorea,” Avery reported.  “Smiling disaster girl near platform eight.  And one fire, I think.”

“I heard the boom.”

It took a bit, but the shadows came down just about as fast as they’d gone up.  Avery scrambled back, pushing at the railing to her right to get a little boost of backwards momentum.  The knives and one sword came down point-first, embedding in the surface.

Snowdrop became human and tugged, and Avery went with the tug, careful with foot placements-

More of the knives and things came down in the spot she’d just been.

Fire burned in the damaged stall.  Fireflies were out, looking, and they zoomed to Avery and forward.  Avery went from a forward jog to an all-out run.

The stall exploded, more gas or whatever detonating.

The disaster girl bounced off an incoming train, and was launched forward.  Onto the bridge that ran down the middle of things.  She looked alive, but wounded.

Pieces of debris landed around her- still face-down and trying to pick herself up, she instinctively put one foot up and back, stopping a wall panel that had just speared down from falling over top of her.  A potato landed in a pipe that was acting as a chimney, plugging it.  It began to bulge.

Avery kept running.

Schoolchildren.  Of course.  Girl with a metal ruler, sharpened, boy with a craft knife.

Esme Garrick, Jude’s mom, was ahead of Avery, dressed up in a long coat, carrying an umbrella, holding the hand of a Lost, in what looked like a procession line of Lost kids in school uniforms.  Teacher, or nanny, maybe.

She hadn’t announced it.

Avery put the walkie-talkie to her mouth.

“Esme Garrick is on the job of what looks like nanny or schoolmarm.  Didn’t report in, which I think means she can’t… talk?”

Esme, looking over at Avery, nodded.

“Thank you for letting us know.  Adorea, Leona, Jude, Lance?  Hold off.  Help the others.”

Couldn’t have the alternates doing too much.

The pipe that had been bulging finally gave- but not in firing that potato or whatever skyward.  Whatever was below the pipe gave way, spitting flaming oil over Lost customers.

Flaming Lost spilled out of the store in question.

It looked like Esme was trying to lead a procession of kids from point A to point B, but the kids trailed behind her, each occupying one space.  Like a game of centipede, but it was a game of centipede played on a chessboard, where various pieces were moving around willy-nilly, each by their own rules.  Friendly Lost ‘bounced off’, so to speak, but the smiling ones didn’t, and the smiling ones were converging.

She was having to work one-handed, because the umbrella was a part of the uniform.  Folding paper against her body, while also navigating the squares and keeping up with the pattern.  Red, yellow, white, black, pause, red, yellow, white, black, pause.

It looked like maybe Esme Garrick hadn’t chosen a pattern that covered enough ground.  Except she’d gotten this far out without Avery.

The flaming Lost were making the process that much harder.  Esme didn’t seem willing to put children in harm’s way of them.

“Is that your way clear!?” Avery called down.

Esme looked up, held a finger to her lips, and then said something Avery couldn’t hear.  Maybe if Avery had pulled on opossum senses… but what she really wanted was Lucy senses.

“Okay!” Snowdrop called down.  “I’m good at being quiet!”

They moved.  Avery moved to one side, watching what was happening below.

The schoolkids seemed to hate the nanny with the uniformed kids in tow.  They’d converged like sharks to blood.  Esme’s tightly contained movements had the kids bunched up.

And the disaster girl-

Avery looked just in time to see one of the winged basket zeppelins crashing into the bridge they were on.  Connectors snapped, broke, and debris scattered.  A bunch of cables and connectors snapped, part of a store collapsed.

Worse, a bunch of new triggers for connected disasters were set in motion.  The girl had managed to avoid the worst of the crash, but things were smoking, going wrong.

Avery kept an eye on her, reaching over to Snowdrop, who passed her spell cards out of her bag.

This was against the spirit of the ‘do your job without your usual stuff’, but… Avery picked one and tossed it in Esme’s direction, before hurrying on her way.

It exploded behind her.  A paste-wielding schoolkid was tossed into the empty aether between the train platforms.  The girl with the metal ruler who had sliced Jude’s butt cheeks open was thrown sideways into a shop.  Avery couldn’t see the angle, but Snowdrop kind of could, with her weird Lost sight, and the girl was stuck in a store sign.

Avery knew from the last visit to the Promenade that Lost -and Others like John- would be fine whatever happened.  They’d reappear.  But not for this visit.

She still had to make it to her destination.  She’d had a minute and she’d spent most of that.

She ran.

Trusting Snow to watch the coast ahead of her, a second set of blurry, awkward eyes, Avery glanced back again.

Esme finished folding the paper into an origami pattern, tossed it, then led the kids through.

To the far side of the Promenade.  Away from the worst trouble that was converging on her.

The girl with the ruler pulled herself out of the sign and closed in on the kid at the tail end, a girl in a different school uniform who only seemed to exist while moving.

Avery prepped another spell card, running backwards, glancing back to check the coast was clear, before hopping up onto the railing for the height and clearance it gave her.

Snowdrop brandished her rusty fork against a smiling Other that was coming for Avery’s ankles.

Avery threw.  A dart of red hot heat, optimized for dishing out the hurt and setting fires from a distance.

A smiling Lost schoolkid threw himself in the way of the dart, getting caught in the arm, while blocking the dart from reaching the girl with the ruler.

She caught up to the kid at the end of Esme’s procession, paused, then waited until the girl started moving, before slashing her back savagely, over and over.

Others all around them turned their heads, looking.

Avery paused.

The Others in Esme’s area had taken offense, and were now getting upset at her, all of them closing in, now.

“Snowdrop, spare escape rope to her.”

Snowdrop nodded.  Avery ran and Snowdrop- less ran, more scampered, if human bodies could scamper.  Both of them in opposite directions.

Avery had lost time here and there, trying to help, and the timing was meant to be tight, she figured.

But she trusted her legs.  Training at school had only helped, along with all the practice stuff.

She sensed Snowdrop pushing her way past.  Hopefully avoiding smiling faces in the crowd.  The Promenade Lost were noisy, Avery could tell.

She had to avoid her own smiling Others.  She hurdled them, leaping the railing and landing on the roofs of little buildings along the Promenade, even hopping down to the rightmost concourse at one point, before scaling a stack of boxes and rising again.

A family in swimsuits was running down the concourse below Avery.  They wore colorful swimsuits, but the patterns of the swimsuits extended onto skin, blurring the line between the two.  The adults and oldest son carried an inflatable pool filled with water, the daughter carried a fishbowl over her head.  All of them were smiling.

And their pet, a goldfish sized shark, leaped from goldfish bowl to inflatable pool, becoming briefly shark-size, mouth open, triangular teeth primed, then shrunk down to something scaled to size for the inflatable pool just before splashing in.

Avery saw a boy with a glass of water, similar swimsuit deal, red and yellow swoops on the swimsuit extending up onto his bare chest.  His mouth had matching slashes and swoops around it, painting a macabre smile.  He carried a glass of water.

“Esme Garrick has left,” the voice came through the walkie-talkie.  Esme’s.  “Thanks for trying, Avery.  Thanks for delivering the rope, Snowdrop.”

Avery moved to avoid him, but he moved the other way.

The shark came leaping about two hundred feet, from inflatable pool to glass of water.  Avery avoided it.

The shark went back, with enough force the boy had to brace against it.

Explosions marked some more of the disaster girl’s work.

Avery had to run this errand, then run back.  She’d have to navigate that wreckage.

A spark of alarm from Snow made her glance-

The shark.  Returning, going for the cup of water again.

The boy hurled the cup through the air.  The contents sloshed out.

But it was a good throw.  The shark was right on trajectory for Avery as it curved through the air, moving towards the water that was its target.

Avery dropped down, sliding down the sloped roof of one storefront, landing awkwardly, almost hitting a Lost, and saw more smiling Lost waiting for her.

Tamer ones, at least.  No massive accidents, fire, or explosions, no surprise shark attacks.

These ones just wanted to come at her and stab her.

But they were timed.  She ducked between two before the clock’s movement let them move again, then broke into her fastest run.

The train at the sixteenth terminal was leaving.

She ran, full-bore, ascended the stairs, and leaped onto the back end of the train.  She had to duck low because the station framework that the trains passed through was going to knock her clean off, then she climbed up, running down its length.

“Guys, go find the letter’s recipient,” Avery said.

The fireflies emerged.

“I think it’s a spider wearing a business suit and bowler hat.”

The fireflies zipped off, chased by golden trails.

The trails were calming.  Reassuring.  A reminder of her strength and successes.  Avery moved down to the side to avoid being swatted over by station infrastructure.

The train was picking up speed.

The fireflies emerged, one car down.  Avery climbed up, ran, ducking low, slid- and slid off the curved topside of the train car.

She grabbed the open windowframe on her way down.

“Mr. Spider?” she called out.

The spider in the business suit was on the far side of the train car.  The fireflies highlighted him.

He stood, approaching, reaching with two spider limbs crammed into one sleeve of a suit shirt and suit jacket.  He took the paper.

And left Avery a coin.

She shifted her footing, glanced, and then hurled herself backwards.

Her left foot touched solid surface- some more of that metal infrastructure that supported the platform and helped it stand out, with loops that the trains and train cars passed through.  The metal rippled slightly, absorbing the full impact.  Avery pushed off, then landed on the platform.  Again, it rippled.

A tablecloth ripped its way free of a nearby table, catching Avery, leaving her momentarily blind.  She felt that weird brush of cloth against skin, the shift in weight, the impossible-to-put-a-finger-on-it adjustments, and then the tablecloth blew away.

She was left as Avery again, wearing Avery clothes, minus what she’d handed off to Snowdrop, and she carried a bundle with the messenger outfit.

She was surrounded by smiling faces.

The deeper they went in, and the more time that passed, the more smiling Others would appear.  Hostile, denser in their movements, more tricks coming along with them.  It quickly became impossible.

Which was why they needed the reset.

“Avery Kelly.  I’ve got payment for my ticket.”

“Come, bring it to Clay, so he can pay for his ticket.”

She’d lost a lot of good graces by not being as willing to help with the prep and testing.  They still wanted her talents and insights, but her road to glory with the Garricks wasn’t quite as straight and clear as it had been.

Felt bad.  Not just the fact she was putting in the work to support others.  There was the fact that the core group was four men and the supporting group was four women -now three- and another guy.

The original organization had changed a bit.  Clay, they thought, had earned a spot on the core team of four.  He’d gone the extra mile with the prep, study, taking risks, including sticking around to keep an eye out for the Wolf as they tested, knowing how much could go wrong.

Which, like, okay.

But then the other three slots were taken up by three brothers.  Presumably because leaving any of them out would be a disaster for family relationships.  Family relationships in tense times, even.  Because they still hadn’t caught the culprit who had leaked info to Wonderkand.

Avery moved in accordance with the rules again, now.  She’d chosen the long knight’s move.  Three forward, one over, or one over, three forward.

It at least thinned out a little as she got back to the Station Promenade’s beginning.  There were some tricky moves, but she got clear of the worst of it, then kept moving ‘long’, as far as she could toward the entrance.

Disaster girl was focused on Jude’s cousin Adorea, who was putting out fires, dressed in a stylized fireman outfit, with thick material and rose gold, flame-shaped bits around the catches that closed the coat, collar, and where the tank attached to the coat.

“Get yourself in sight of platform four.  That’s where the Other we’re bartering with is.  We need to know where you are when we pause things.”

She had to navigate the disaster, still.  Broken, sloped ground made it hard to land on the right tiles.  Fire and destruction just took a whole swathe of the Promenade out of contention.  Twice, Avery was forced to move fast, and only saw trouble coming when she got that far.  She used wind-based spell cards to blow some Lost out of the way, then dashed through.

Snowdrop was waiting for her with a high-five.  She became an opossum, riding on Avery’s shoulder.

Avery.  Avery.  Avery.

“My friends are trying to signal me,” Avery told the teams, on the walkie-talkie.

“Yeah.  Something’s wrong,” Peter Garrick said.

Avery scaled her way back up to an intact portion of bridge, checking on Adorea.  She chucked a spell card at Disaster girl.  Adorea had a backpack with a hose attachment that gushed water, and was using it to keep Lost at bay.

“What’s wrong?” Clay Garrick asked.

“I don’t- Wonderkand is on the Promenade.”

Avery looked, as far as she could see.

They were there.  People gathering, studying the situation.

“It was Shane and Kimber,” Cliff said.

Two Garricks stood off to the side.  It looked like Lucy and Verona were saying something.  Avery wasn’t anywhere near close enough to hear.

Poppy’s parents.  Avery had received Poppy’s stuff.

Resentment, disconnection, all sorts of reasons- the road had been clear for betrayal.  Add in money, maybe…

“I’m sorry,” Avery said, over the walkie-talkie.

“Keep the line clear for business only,” Cliff said, voice harsher than Avery had heard it before.

Shane Garrick stepped up onto the Path, scaling the archway that divided entrance from actual path.  Toward the clock that was mounted on it.

“Shit,” Cliff said.  “Someone get to a clock!”

Avery looked.  “I’ve got one in three moves!”

She moved closer to the clock.  Then she had to pause.

Shane was pretty spry for a middle-aged guy.  A lifetime of Path Running.

He reached the clock first.

Stopping time.

Screwing up their entire organization and plan.

The ticking across the Promenade resumed, Avery moved closer to the clock, reaching-

And Shane Garrick beat her to it.  His hand was right there.  He just had to catch the minute hand of the clock.

“What do we do?” Avery called out.  She was close enough for others to hear.

“Organize, get ready to hop on the train.”

Avery moved back toward the platform.

Shane stopped time again.

A basket with wings sticking out the sides veered wildly to one side, zig-zagging across the sky as it came down.

“Do we bail?”

“And leave the Path to them?” Peter asked.

“Yeah!”

He looked back.

“They still have to figure it out right?” Avery asked.  She moved closer.

“They’ll camp out here, interfere with us, screw things up.  They won’t leave until they’ve solved this.  But they’re blocking us from a solution too.

The descending basket touched ground.  It was as if the occupant had become a statue in the moment they made contact with the ground, but the basket didn’t.  The effect, given the speed it was coming down and scraping the ground, was that the basket was demolished.  The Wolf stood in the middle of it, slouched, fragments of basket flying off at high speeds, her ragged dress and the graying hair that had been badly dyed white flapping madly in the wake of it all.

The Wolf’s breathing- it was a low, raspy, death-rattle sort of sound, a growl by another name.  It cut past all the other sounds of the Promenade, the shouts of people, the noises of trains.

Snowdrop drew closer to Avery.

“Rule is if we get the Wolf, we run, right?” Clay asked.  He sounded nervous.

The Wolf was fixated on Avery.  But maybe to every person present, the Wolf was there, facing them down.

“Bail!” Shane hollered, top of his lungs.

Peter Garrick gave the man the finger.

The Wolf smiled at Avery.

“It’s the Wolf, don’t be stupid!” Shane shouted.

“Is that the deal you made?” Peter called out.  “You get us out of the way by any means necessary!?”

The Wolf started towards him while his focus was elsewhere.  He was slow to react.

She dropped low, then lunged.

Peter scrambled out of the way, keeping to the colors he had to meet.

She kept coming at him.

“Get your tickets, whatever combination works!” Peter hollered.  “Don’t let them twist this into a win!  Keep going!”

“You will always be a loser, Peter Garrick,” the Wolf snarled, before letting out an off-kilter, addled laugh.  “You only got control of the family because your older brother couldn’t hack it.  You only married her because your first two choices laughed at you.”

Avery glanced at Peter’s wife.  She looked hurt by that.

“Peter, what a good name,” the Wolf growled the words.  “What a good name for a loser like you.  When’s the last time you saw Janell or Andrea, and didn’t furtively, violently squeeze out your dribbles of seed within a matter of hours, cooped up in a bathroom?  Sometimes even with your wife in the next room.  Hauling off on your crooked, uncircumcised peter, fantasizing about the life you could have had with them?  About their bodies, better than your wife’s, their charm?”

“Peter,” Peter’s wife called out.  “She’s trying to distract you.”

“I’m not trying anything,” the Wolf replied.  “When I act, he plans to pull on that rope.  He’ll leave, but he’ll leave with a parting gift: knowing that I and everyone listening now know that Peter Garrick hauls off on his crooked peter, obsessing about the bodies and charms of women he couldn’t have, imagining their lips on his manhood.”

“That’s just life,” Peter’s wife replied.

“Don’t engage!” Cliff shouted.

The Wolf wheeled around.  “It’s a loser’s life and you’re no better for accepting it from him.  Did you know he spills his seed while imagining them laughing at him?  Rejecting him?”

Avery eased her way around.  She wanted to study the surroundings.

“Run!” Shane hollered.  “Pull the ropes!”

He sounded more nervous now.  He didn’t seem like he’d considered that they might not bail the moment the Wolf showed.

Maybe if Wonderkand wasn’t right there.

The Wolf went on, “He thinks it’s an intrusive thought, but it’s not.  He doesn’t even enjoy the humiliation for humiliation’s sake.  It eats at his soul, but that man, your husband, is willing to force out his seed while obsessing on that soul-eating, unhappy humiliation and shame they piled on him.  Do you know why?”

“Don’t answer!” Avery shouted.

“Because the worst from women like that, beautiful women, is better than the best you’ll ever give him,” the Wolf grolwed the words, more intense now.

“Don’t listen!” Avery shouted, continuing to move.

Too late.  The Wolf started forward, mocking like she was going to lunge.  And Peter’s Wife pulled on the rope.  She didn’t even look like she regretted falling for the feint.

The Wolf turned on her, and it felt like the air was squeezed out of her lungs, collapsing them in her chest under the weight of that stare, that uneven smile with drool crusting in the corner of her mouth.

“Don’t listen?” the Wolf asked, pacing toward Avery.

Avery moved again.

“Shane!” Cliff bellowed, top of his lungs.  “You could get that girl killed if you touch that clock again.  Do Not!”

She kept moving back and around the Wolf, as she paced closer.

“Don’t listen, okay,” the Wolf said, smiling a lopsided smile, because crusted drool sealed one corner of her mouth closed.  Her eyes were rheumy, but fixed on Avery’s Soul.  That was how unerring and intense it felt.  “Don’t listen as I tell you that your every success, even in the challenge last night, was because you got lucky.  You chanced on the right people.  Your friends, pushed on you by Miss.  Jessica in the dream.  You’re a cheat, Avery Kelly.”

Avery circled around, hopping up to the bridge, moving toward Jude, who watched from above.  She didn’t respond, didn’t break eye contact.  Watching for the slightest movement of an eye could be more of a cue than trying to watch the Wolf’s body.

“Get tickets!” Peter shouted.  “If you don’t have any, bail!  Time it best you can.  Four is best, three will do!”

The Wolf stomped, then picked up a tile.

Avery moved carefully, ready to jump if she had to.

“You don’t deserve anything you have-” the Wolf growled.

The Wolf whipped the broken tile around, holding it by one corner.

Avery ducked, but it wasn’t aimed at her.  Or Jude.

The way it was whipped around, the Wolf released it only at the very last second.  It went flying toward Peter Garrick.

“-loser.”

He pulled his rope too.  He disappeared before the tile could make contact.

Avery dashed.  Long knight’s move toward the ticket vendor at platform four.

“Shane!” Cliff hollered.

“Just go!  Leave!” Shane shouted, emotional now.

“As bad as this feels?  You’ll carry it the rest of your life!” Cliff shouted.  “If any of us die!?  It’ll feel worse.  You might have money, or power, or a job, but you’ll die inside!  When Reece and I had to leave our older brother behind-”

The Wolf turned her attention to Cliff, and he stopped talking.

“Avery Kelly has lied to you,” the Wolf growled.

Cliff had something origami in his back pocket, that he teased out and then held out of sight.  He moved across the tiles, walking backward.

He turned as a smiling Lost came at him, fending it off.  The Wolf broke into a run, rushing him while his focus was elsewhere.

Adorea used her fire hose, spraying.  She caught the Lost first, spraying it toward the edge of the platforms.  Then the Wolf.

Avery could see twenty different faces of the Wolf as she walked into the spray, like the refraction in the water droplets changed the entire scene.  Scary men, pleasant men, beautiful women, children, all with black hair, all wearing red.

It barely slowed the Wolf at all.

Avery threw some spell cards, pulled out the stapler, and fired off some shots- each one flew through the air and delivered hits with punch.  Jude had a wooden box that he popped open.  A torrent of bits and bobs came flying out, pelting the Wolf.  Acorns, whittled wood, old, tarnished coins, pressed flowers.

He hit a lever on the side, and the torrent increased.

“What is that!?” Avery asked.

He didn’t respond.  His focus was on suppressing the Wolf.

She dropped to all fours, head bowed with chin pressed to collarbone, crooked back bent so the the individual segments of spine stood out against papery skin with its burst blood vessels and other flaws.  With her head tucked in and away like that, the water and knick-knacks didn’t stop her from talking.

“Max Garrick.  You stand by family, Clifford?  She knew about Max’s death and said nothing.  The other you’re cooperating with?  She set it up.”

“Avery told me!  I told her what to do to make it up to us!” Jude raised his voice.

Confirming what the Wolf had said.

Avery wanted to clarify the point, and say something about how it wasn’t ‘set up’.  But she felt like speaking would only feed into whatever distrust or problems were at hand here.

“Let’s-” Avery started.  She froze as the Wolf raised her head in the face of the water stream and Jude’s faltering onslaught of bits.

“She and her familiar even helped Jude to mislead you.  Hints she could marry into the family-”

“Shut up!” Avery raised her voice.

“You led them to believe it, and you didn’t say what could have put the issue to rest, Avery Kelly!” the Wolf growled.  Her eyes were wide, her face distorted by the spray of water.

“I said no!” Avery raised her voice.  “Listen!  Let’s get Garricks to the Promenade’s end!”

Trying to rally them to a cause.  Remind them of the goal.

“Woo!” Jude whooped.

“At the same time you were getting cozy talking about possibilities and bringing her into the family, Clifford Garrick?  Avery Kelly was eating candy jewelry off her girlfriend’s neck.”

Cutting right through that enthusiasm, to shake things.

Adorea looked at Avery- it was just a glance, but Avery was struck by a recollection of Declan playing at a carnival, spraying a water gun into a clown’s mouth, filling up a gauge.  He’d been winning, but he’d glanced over to see how the next kid was doing, and started missing, and then he’d lost.

Adorea lost just like that.  The Wolf was able to sidestep the torrent, and move just ten percent faster.  Straight for Adorea.  Others scrambled to get away, obstructing Adorea’s way clear.

Lance Garrick, on the far side, hollered something, and shoved on a wall.  He was wearing a yellow hard hat with a Lost rune on it, a vest, and gloves.  He grunted, groaning-

But the wall moved.  Rusty steel slid into the Wolf’s path.  The Wolf slammed a fist into it, then clawed at it with her nails, gouging metal and peeling off strips and flecks.

Lance had already done one job, and he’d donned a costume for another, just for the ability to manipulate the environment and mess with the Wolf.  But that meant he had to finish his job before departing.  Problem was, he was stuck on the Promenade without his rope, because changing into a costume meant leaving stuff behind.  Unless there was someone like Snowdrop to pass stuff onto.  Or maybe he could drop stuff and-

“Do you have a rope!?” Avery called down.

Lance shook his head slowly.

Avery undid hers from her waist, then threw it down.

“Are you sure!?” he asked.

She had options, at least.

She had to get away.

The Wolf punched the part of the wall she’d gouged, punching through it.  She began to tear it.

“Get him to pull when I’m done, then get ready for the ticket vendor,” Avery murmured to Jude.

“I couldn’t get a job.”

“You have a rope?”

He nodded.

“Okay.  Good luck.”

“You too,” he said.  “Sorry.  For pushing you to keep quiet.”

“Is your family going to hate me?” Avery asked.  “Am I in danger?”

“I don’t know.  Some will get weird-”

Her heart sank.  She took a step back.

“They say stuff.  Some.  Others don’t say anything either way.  I don’t think you’re in danger.  Not from my family.”

She nodded.

Then she took another step back, lower back hitting the railing at the one side of the bridge, she tapped her shoes, and then she leaped forward, stepping onto the railing in front of her, leaping from there.  A lazy, long frontflip over the Wolf’s head.

“Bad Wolf!  Stay!” Avery hollered.  She threw the Jounce.  The ball stored aspects of Lost places she’d been.  She’d borrowed from Kennet found.

A bit of stuck-in.  It came in as a patch of shadow and accumulating snow, then a surge of black grasses and fronds, weeds and other things stabbing their way up from the patches of snow.

Avery landed on train platform number three, which didn’t have any trains.  The ground rippled, absorbing her landing.

The Stuck-In Place had been a tar pit.  Avery spread the tar, like this.  Maybe weaker, because it came from Kennet found and not the Stuck-In Place.

But it helped catch the Wolf where she’d been casually scratching and tearing through the wall.

Jude signaled, and Lance hauled back on the wall, using the permission for construction he’d obtained with his uniform.  Pulling it back in, a divider between shops.

Until the Wolf, partway through the hole in the wall, was trapped and held there.

Adorea collected a coin as she ran.  A cover from one stall blew through the air, hitting Adorea and then blowing on.  She’d reverted back to Adorea proper, but with a neatly bundled up, stylized firefighting outfit dangling from a cord.

The Wolf fought her way free, Lance pulling back.

Cliff Garrick caught up with them.  He’d chosen a way of moving around that covered a lot of ground, so he skipped forward, positioning to be ready to meet the vendor.

The original plan had been to stop time, assess where everyone stood and who needed to move where, and work out the best way to get four people to stand on four sides of the ticket vendor at the same time.

Clay looked scared out of his mind as he navigated between shops.  He’d been on the far side.  Keeping shops and bridge between himself and the Wolf, cutting through a shortcut.  His eyes were wide.

He didn’t deal well with the Wolf.  It hadn’t even paid much attention to him, and he looked like he was far from his best.

They needed three tries to land the vendor, which took something like twelve moves.  On the first two, there were color combinations that didn’t work.  Avery needed a yellow, but the spot left to her was red.  She moved three times, then Clay needed a white.

The Wolf tore her way free.

“Lance Garrick out.”

They got the combination right, and Avery accepted her ticket.  They were by the fourth gate, but they needed the tenth.

There were so many smiling Others down that way.

And they were barely even the big concern.

The Wolf was free and moving toward them at a pretty decent speed for an old lady.  And behind her, in the distance, barely more than silhouettes, she could see various members of Wonderkand.  A few elite members in old fashioned ‘tea party’ clothing, and the rank and file in business suits.

“Is Shane going to cut off our retreat?” Clay asked, as they wove around one another.

Cliff shook his head.  “But as long as they’re there, we don’t reset properly.  For now, get on the train.  I hope the damn payday was worth it.  Nearly getting family killed.”

Avery pulled out her rune-decorated lacrosse stick.

“Railing!” Adorea called out.

The Wolf had grabbed the railing further down.  Hauling on it, she tore the metal beam free from its mounts.  She jerked it, and it swung left.

Avery stumbled out of the way, missed her color, and was immediately attacked from one of the nearby stalls.  Her lacross stick knocked the Other down, and she held it out front, ready against anything that came after her.

Disaster girl had set off something like fireworks by accident, crashing through a store, and was scrambling her way up and away from the area of the Promenade where the sparks were really flying.  She went up onto the bridge, but the fireworks were shooting at the flying baskets.  Shooting them down.

Three came down almost at the same time, smoking where the rockets had hit.

Disaster girl ducked and covered.

The rest of them couldn’t afford to.

The Wolf, quickly catching up, didn’t care.

Avery turned, running backwards, and shot concussive staples at her.  Buying moments of time.

Moments she lost when a smiling Lost grabbed at her, lifting her overhead, throwing her to the ground.

The ground rippled with the collision, but it didn’t absorb all of it.  Avery got to her feet, shot the Lost, and struggled to catch up to the others, resuming her pattern.

The train was pulling in  Lost were getting off.

Avery reached for her bag.  Snowdrop turned human, holding the bag so Avery could use both hands.

“This is going well,” Snowdrop said.

Avery didn’t even want to think about all the ways this wasn’t going well.

“Watch for the Wolf!” Avery warned Lost.  “Wolf ahead!”

She grabbed a sheaf of papers.  Then, as Lost departed, she began handing them out.

“What-”

“Wolf ahead!” Avery pointed, as more got off.

“-are you doing?” Cliff asked.

“Marketing.  Ski vacation to a founded territory, quiet, peaceful, easy to access if you can get off the Paths.  If you have skills or talents, there may be jobs for you.  Plenty of room,” Avery said, running through the pitch she’d practiced earlier, as explanation and to just convince some Lost to hold onto the papers and not bail.”

The Wolf closed in.  There were Lost who’d ignored warnings, who saw the Wolf too late.  Picked up and thrown aside.

They squeezed past the last few stragglers, got onto the train, and then backed into the train car itself, watching to make sure the Wolf didn’t follow.

The Wolf remained on the platform for a short while, then walked down stairs.  She fast-walked away, smiling, toward a point further up the Promenade.

“She’s going to where we’ll end up,” Clay said.  He looked nervous.

“Yeah, probably,” Avery replied.

“When we get off the train, she’ll be waiting.  Do we have a solve for the Cakewalk?”

“Just clues,” Avery replied.

“Then we’re stuck going back and forth between a Path the Wolf is waiting for us, or a dangerous-as-fuck Path we don’t know how to solve.”

“Um, excuse me,” Avery said, to one of the last stragglers.  She put one of the papers down on the table between the bench seats.  She quickly scribbled down a note for Lucy.  She turned the page over to the pitch they’d had for Kennet found, and scribbled in the margin- Favor, AKelly.

“If you just run this to the Promenade entrance, find Lucy Ellingson.  Fourteen, fox mask, brown skin, pretty.  Give her this note, you can get the VIP treatment in Kennet found.  Favor for a favor.  We’ve got a varied market.  It’s neat.”

The straggler considered.

“There’s a Wolf on the Promenade, so be careful,” Avery said.

The straggler nodded agian, then hurried off the train before the doors closed.

“Ski town, super great,” Avery told more Lost, passing papers to those who were sitting down, waiting for a future stop.  “Visit before the new year.  Probably gets dangerous after.  Warnings on the pages.”

“Lost are bad at that sort of thing,” Snowdrop said.  “Timing and ‘turn into a pumpkin after midnight’ stuff?”

“Yeah,” Avery replied.  Saying that Kennet got dangerous later with the Charles situation was more workable than it would be with humans.

They found an empty seat and sat together.  Avery noticed a couple of glances, from Cliff and Adorea.

“What was the note you wrote?” Clay asked.

Cliff’s relative silence felt like a lot right this moment.  But maybe he was out of breath.

“To my friend Lucy.  She has an earring implement.  She’s good with signals, communication, listening in.  She might’ve caught some Wonderkand details.  And if I have this drawn-”

Avery started to draw the mark.

“-and we reinforce it like this…”

“That’s from our books.”

“The walkie-talkies even,” Avery said.  “And if we set that up, and she sets something up on her end…”

Avery finished.

It took thirty or forty seconds before the answer came.  “Hello?”

“Hey,” Avery said.

“Hey,” Lucy replied.  “Verona’s here.  And also a lot of weirdos.”

“Wonderkand, I think.”

“Think so, but with disguises being what they are?  I’m not going to guess for anyone I don’t know enough to see tells in.”

Avery folded her arms on the table, leaning hard on them.  “Can you find someone to negotiate with?”

“What are we negotiating with?  What are the terms?  What’s the offer?  They seem to think they have this set.  As soon as you’re out of the way, they’ll reset things and take it.  They seem pretty confident.”

“They’re assuming we’ll be out of the way.  What if we succeed?”

“I don’t know,” Lucy said.

“I’ve been negotiating a lot of trade deals,” Avery said.  “We’re out of sight, and if Lucy isn’t tipping them off, or if Shane and Kimber don’t have info-”

“They don’t,” Cliff said, curt.

“Then they have to wonder.  Can we offer them something?  A slice of this?  With a lot of contracts to protect it from tricks?  Because they seem tricky.”

“They’re not the only ones.  You misled us?”

“About being gay?”

“About Max.  But that too.  Feeling a whole lot like a fool.  Cousin’s selling us out as we speak, son lied to me, you lied to us.”

“It’s complicated.  I feel like this is a conversation that goes back to Jude so much- too much of what I could say, it’d be bad if said wrong, and I’d probably say parts wrong.  Jude should be a part of this conversation.”

“So we carry on?” Cliff asked.

“Let’s get Garricks to the end of the Promenade.  I promise, my intentions were good, or dumb, but not evil, not too selfish.  That’s not me.”

Cliff stood from his seat, restless, annoyed.  “God.”

“I’m not good at this, I’m fourteen, I screw things up sometimes.”

“My son’s in love with you.”

“I- really can’t do anything about that.”

“You could marry him for the family, add your strengths to ours, make up for Max.  Have some kids, however you want to figure that out.  Marriages don’t have to be about love.  They can be business.  Reconciliation.”

“I won’t,” Avery answered.  “No.  That wouldn’t be fair to Jude, or me.  Again, I’d rather have any conversations where Jude might come up while Jude is here.  Can we focus?  Can we do this?  Can we come up with something?  Because if the Wolf is there at our destination, waiting, if Wonderkand won’t move to let the Promenade reset, and if we can’t leave by another way, if the Cakewalk doesn’t allow any detours or side routes-”

“It doesn’t,” Clay confirmed.

“Then talking about marriage doesn’t even make sense.  Because we’re stuck.”

“Rope?” Clay asked.

“I gave one to Esme, and my spare to Lance,” Avery said.

Cliff looked at her.

Avery shrugged.

“Dumb,” Cliff said.

“Yeah.  But they were in a pinch and they didn’t have theirs.  Costumes override ropes.”

“Lance put his rope down, Lost stole it with some other stuff while he changed,” Clay said.  “Esme’s role- we thought it was the homework helper role, but she got nanny or something.  Hands occupied holding the hands of little kids, couldn’t talk.  Bad luck.”

“It was dumb to give up your rope,” Cliff reiterated.  “But thank you.”

“You’re very welcome,” Avery told him.

“Then we leave?” Adorea asked.  “We figure out something for Avery, or put her somewhere safe, come back with more ropes, we rope out, get organized again…”

“No,” Cliff said.  “No, if we leave, Wonderkand takes over the Promenade.”

“Then we need to talk plans,” Avery told him.

There was a special kind of frustration reserved for when someone was on the same side as you, and they refused to take the steps necessary to realize.

Then again, he was only just finding out about Max.  Plus, he was coming to terms with the idea the marriage wasn’t going to work.  Hopefully.

“Getting Wonderkand to back off would make everything easier,” Verona said, over the phone.

“We need to give them something.  We offer them a bird in the hand over the two in the bush.”

Cliff sighed heavily.  “I’m not Peter.  He’s family head.  If I give the wrong answer…?  We won’t be okay after.”

“We can share the load,” Clay said.  “Agree unanimously?  That to get the Wolf gone and secure this thing, we make an offer to Wonderkand?”

Cliff Garrick, standing over the table, Adorea, and Clay were all in agreement.

“Access rights, provided there’s a ton of contract work to make sure it doesn’t become something they use to take over.  We’d hire someone,” Jude’s dad said.

“First look at magic items the family isn’t taking for themselves?” Avery suggested.  “Came up in one meeting.  Small discount?”

Jude’s dad sighed heavily.

“Lucy?” Avery asked, leaning over the diagram on the paper.

“I’m here.  Got it on paper.  Bullet form list.  I’m going to find someone to discuss it with.”

“Be careful.”

“Yeah.”

“Tell Kimber and Shane to fuck themselves,” Cliff added.

“I don’t think we’ll do that,” Lucy said.  “You hold onto that and deliver it yourself.  It’ll mean more.”

Cliff huffed.  A Lost came down the aisle of the train, and Cliff moved aside to let them by, before plunking himself down in a seat.

Avery stroked Snowdrop, who she held in her lap.

The dynamic felt different.  Worse.

Maybe more honest.  Like she wasn’t being put up on a pedestal anymore.

But worse, too.

Or maybe the Garricks had taken enough of a beating they didn’t have the strength to lift anything onto pedestals.

I need this to matter.  I need this to work.  We’re up against Charles, in the new year.

“I’m back,” Lucy said.

“That was fast.”

“They didn’t waste any time.  They said no.  No deal.  It’s all or nothing for them.  They’re pretty convinced you’ll fail, especially with the Wolf waiting for if you finish at the Cakewalk and return to the Promenade.  After you’ve lost, they’ll sweep in to take the Promenade for themselves.”

“They already started setting up shop at the entrance,” Verona reported.

Cliff Garrick buried his face in his hands.


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Crossed with Silver – 19.z

Interlude

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Ryan’s pen twirled around his finger as he kept one eye on his computer screen, another on the street.  His computer program ran, progress bar filling.  Rune work on the underside of the laptop let him connect to the internet of the business that was next door and upstairs without wiring himself in.

It didn’t have to be a computer program.  It could be paper.  But his hand was still cramped from the last time he’d handled things on paper.  That was the reason for the pen-twirl exercise, trying to loosen things up.  At least this way he could do two things at once, borrowing the internet of a Turkish fusion cafe and eating at the same time.  Tea with sugar in it and fresh made baklava, with a bare minimum of vegetables and protein in a kebab, to keep himself from collapsing or getting scurvy.

46%

The last time around, he’d reached sixty percent before having to stop early.  He’d picked too large a chunk to try to take, tripped security, so to speak, and he’d had to run.

Now he was almost out, and he badly needed to hack the system, get enough to get a hotel room, sleep, eat properly, and get back to being okay.

“Ryan?”

He startled, looking up, reaching for his bag before his eyes even clarified who he was looking at.

“Lori from high school,” he said, wary.

“What a horrible way to be remembered.  From high school.”  She smiled to signal she was joking.

“But that’s when we knew each other?”

“Yeah,” she said.  “It’s really good to see you.”

“It’s good to see you too.”

Lori was beautiful.  She’d been one of the beautiful girls.  He’d been part of one group, she’d been part of another, but there had been overlap.  When the popular kids had been gathered together for a party at someone’s house, they’d mixed.

He’d always kept one eye out for Lori.  A night he happened to see her was a good night.  They’d even had conversations.  One had been at the senior year party, in a hot tub, even just the two of them for a fifteen minute stretch that had felt like an hour and had replayed in his head since.  It held a place in Ryan’s heart and mind that he figured was normally reserved for guys seeing their wives on their wedding day.

And here she was.

Gods and spirits, damn it.

“How have you been?” Lori asked.

“Hectic.  It’s been hectic.”

“Oh no.”

“It’s okay, or it’s going to be, I hope.  Started a business with my brother, now I’m doing my own thing.”

“What thing?”

“Software,” he said, indicating the chunky laptop, before clarifying, “Computers.”

“Already?  Doesn’t that take time to learn?”

“I dabbled, before.  I didn’t really tell people, because, you know, you get stuck with a bad label.”

“Nerd?” she asked, humor in her voice.

Lunatic.  Weirdo.

“Wouldn’t rule it out.”

“Good for you, Ryan.  I hear there’s money in that these days.”

“There is, apparently.”  He glanced at the progress bar.  “I guess we’ll see if I get any.”

48%

Fuck.

This whole situation… he felt a chill.  This was bad.

He closed the laptop lid.  It would keep running, humming along.

“I hope that works out.  Very cool,” Lori told him.

“Yeah.  It’s something.  Anyway, that’s me.  How are you?” he asked.

“Oh, um, that’s a hard question to answer.”

“No pressure.”

“No, no, no.  Um, I don’t know how I am.  Just divorced.”

“Oh no.  Or are congratulations in order?”

“I don’t know.”  She shrugged and it took all the willpower his overtired brain could muster to not glance to see what that shrug did with everything that was beneath her top, especially when there was so much beneath.  “The ex took my daughter for the week.  She was pretty upset.  Too young to grasp what’s happening.  He snapped at me, right at the end- it made it worse for her, overhearing that.”

“Oh, that’s- that’s horrible.  That’s bare minimum, not doing that.”

“Isn’t it?  But that’s why we’re divorced.  He didn’t- nevermind.  It’s- I’m okay.  I’m weirdly okay, now that I’m done being so pissed off about that shitty, stupid comment right at the end.  Like I’ve been on a boat in a storm for a year and now the waters are tranquil.  I don’t know what to do with myself.”

“That’s good.  I- I kind of get it.”

“Do you?  Relationship or-?”

“No, nothing lasting, no time,” he admitted.  “The work I’m doing.  Scrambling to get things done.  Tranquility is… rare.”

“Are you in a storm right now, or is it tranquil?”

“You could call it a storm,” he said.  “But I don’t want to turn the conversation back to me.  You?  Are you working today, coffee break or-?”

“No.  At home today, got restless.  Lonely.  Empty house for the first time in… two years, I guess.  Half the things in it taken.  Random pieces of furniture missing.  Half a life.  Figured I could at least talk to the Barista.  Sherry.”

“You know her?”

“No.  I read the nametag.  That’s how starved I am for- nevermind.  That sounds bad.”

“Nah,” Ryan replied.  “I get that too.”

She smiled, then, jumping like she’d had a thought.  “But then I run into you.  I’m not bothering you?  I feel like I’m interrupting.”

“No.  Um.  Very not bothering me, just-”

His eyes went to the window, looking past the ‘Tea with Limon’ lettering on the glass to scan the road, rooftops, cars, bystanders…

“You’re expecting someone?” she asked.

“In a way.  Related to-” he tapped the laptop.  “I’m not ready for that run-in.  Gotta get more work done first.”

“I see.  I think.”

“Do you want to sit, or-?”

She sat with no hesitation, putting her drink down.  When he glanced at it, she said, “Chocolate milkshake with brownie.  I thought I deserved it.”

He smiled.  “Go for it.  Honestly, that seems pretty easygoing, considering.”

“I’ve got Oh Me Oh My ice cream in the freezer back home,” she confessed.  “Thought I deserved that too.”

He chuckled a bit, nodding.

She tucked some hair behind her ear as she leaned down to take a pull on the straw.  More beautiful than she’d been in high school.  The sun shone through the big window one table down, highlighting her hair on the one side, the peach fuzz on her shoulder and upper arm, the soft fabric of her top.

He took the moment she wasn’t looking at him to glance outside.

He couldn’t see anything, but… shit. 

Yeah, the bad feeling wasn’t going away.

“So where are you staying, are you traveling right now?” she asked.

“Always traveling.  Hotel room tonight, maybe.”

“Oh no, don’t do that.  Look, this might be forward, but I’ve got an empty house, there’s a fold-out couch, if that’s okay?”

“I don’t-”

“You’d be doing me a favor.”  She met his eyes for a moment, in a way that made it feel like a moment, not just regular conversation.  “So long as you don’t judge me for the state of the house, missing furniture and all.  And help me eat that ice cream.”

It reminded him of the hot tub.  But at the time they’d been in the hot tub, she’d been attached, presumably to the guy who was now her ex.

She’d always been attached.  He’d never had a chance.

“Do you have internet?” he asked.  “A modem?”

“No.  Unless my ex got it and I didn’t know?”

“You’d know, I think.  Okay.  I think I need it for work.”

“You don’t have it now, do you?  Do hotels have that?”

“I’m managing for now, but it can get tricky.  I just- I don’t think-”

“Okay,” she said, a little quickly.

He glanced out the window.

“Do you want to walk?” he asked.

“Burn off some of these calories?”

“If that’s the reason that works.”

“Yeah,” she said.  “Yeah, yeah, for sure.”

The smile she shot him.

He went to pay.

“No need,” the barista said, looking up from the surface she was wiping down.

“Sorry?” Ryan asked.

“The customer before you said they wanted to pay for the next few customers.”

“Lucky,” Lori said.

Ryan popped some of the money into the tip jar, then left, hurrying now.

He was one step out the door, bag with his computer and things at his shoulder, holding the door for Lori, when he saw her.

She didn’t see him, it looked like, but the fact she was here…

A woman in a form-fitting dress that looked like it was made of small, overlapping gold coins, not sequins, wearing sunglasses, smoking.  Looking.

His Sight wasn’t strong.  But it confirmed the obvious.  The world was cast into blurry black and gray, every individual a silhouette in light gray.

And she, the woman in the gold coin dress, was a silhouette in burnished, molten gold, backed by a complex, ever-changing sigil that looked like someone had knifed reality itself, dragging out a wound, and then poured molten gold into the crack, with the gold overflowing.  Flecks of it escaped the wound and drifted out, lazy, until they darted out to stab people, stab circumstance.  The sigil looked like a four leaf clover and a circle had merged, with arms extending out to the left, right, up, and down, past and through buildings, up into sky.

Weather wasn’t under her purview as much, but she got some say.

He chose a direction, Lori coming with, walking away from the woman in gold.  His computer beeped angrily as the connection to the nearby building was lost.

On a rooftop nearby, two more.  A man, heavy duty clothes stained and frayed, skin dirty and greasy, head shaved.  There was something blunt-edged about him.  Callused in a way that went beyond just the hands.  Something regal too.  Proud.

The sigil behind him was like a circle, mounted on his shoulders, with a pair of rectangles forming a shape like a gavel or sledgehammer.  The world around him and the sigil seemed to bow under the weight of it.  Like the roof’s edge wasn’t even completely straight anymore, caving in slightly.

The other- the person was small enough he saw the sigil first, even though it was normally easier to see.  A sigil in bright orange, a column, bright orange with cut stones ascending like they were smoke, crumbling and dissipating as they went.  It flashed bright.  The person-

Tom.  Tom was a she, despite the name, bad haircut, clothes disheveled.

Tom had been an acquaintance, once.  Maybe even a friend.

Three.

Three had come.  Three big ones.

He’d anticipated a steady progression.

He saw others congregating.  Two were especially noteworthy.  A woman in a clown’s harlequin, green with gold diamonds on one side, gold with green circles on the other.  Her back was straight, and there was zero humor in her.  He knew of her as the Whammy.  An Envoy.  She’d split into green and gold, visiting two people.  Making them offers.  Each could take what luck and circumstance had granted the other, choosing at the same time every day, until such a time as both decided not to take anything.  There were catches; they could only take what luck and fortune had provided, like good health, sanity, family money, and  and got nothing if they asked for something that had been earned, whatever was taken using the envoy counted as ‘earned’, and couldn’t be taken back.

She had two subjects with her.  Two teenagers who stood on either side of her, both of them looking rather worse for wear.  Her targets inevitably destroyed one another.  She might have made them an offer, letting them off the hook if-

If they’d find and help deal with Ryan.

The Wagering Man was another Envoy.  He wore a cap from the fifties, a suit jacket, and long coat.  Ryan knew less about him, only that he was an Envoy for Venture, who was an incarnation that was maybe fifty percent with Fortune, thirty-five percent Fate, and fifteen percent Nature.  He let people explore paths not taken, adventures they’d turned down.  But with rules.  Restrictions.  Don’t touch a dog.  Don’t be outside after eleven at night.  New rules each time they wanted to extend the deadline or adjust the reality.  And goals, to seal the deal, make the new reality real.  Get the girl.  Earn Dad’s approval.  Could they manage it, before they screwed up and broke a rule?  Or would the accumulated rules and paranoia around them ruin them?

There were more.  The foot soldiers.  Fools.  He couldn’t identify them in the crowd with his normal eyes, but his Sight could track them by the gold tint.

One of the bits of escaping gold darted down nearby.

A stray twenty dollar bill sprung into existence where the gold had hit, then floated through the air with the wind, slapping Lori’s shin and sticking there.

“What- no way.”  Lori beamed a smile at Ryan.  “Did you see that?”

“Leave it,” he said.

“What are you talking about?  It’s-”

“Think-” he had to pause to come up with an excuse.  “Think of it like a quarter glued to the sidewalk.  I don’t think it’s real and it’s- just shake it off?”

“Are you sure?”

Too late.

With his Sight active, he could see the sigil reorienting, shedding its gold light over the area.  Like a spotlight shining down on him, while he tried to escape a prison at night.

And with that… well, similar deal to Lori finding Ryan.  He didn’t know if Lori had been the equivalent of putting out feelers, or if it had been genuine good luck that had tipped certain forces off, but he was pretty sure the bill being paid off was a feeler, and the bill.

The woman in the gold dress had noticed.  She’d maybe even identified him.  She was distant, but he could see her lips move.  Lady Luck herself.  Or a Lady Luck.

And someone heard.  Tires squealed.

A car out of control hit a hydrant, went up, then the nose came down.

He pushed Lori clear, reached for his pocket, and went limp.

Going limp was usually a good idea with the big stuff.

A fragment of shooting star got bright in his hand.  He folded the paper around it.

That was half his numbers gone.

The car hit him, bumper dragging against the sidewalk.  Ryan hit hood, windshield, slid on roof-

Front-flipped through the air.

And landed on his feet, unharmed.  Luckily unharmed.  The car bumped into the wall by a window with enough force the window cracked and partially broke anyway.

Every single one of Fortune’s Fools, both Envoys and the Incarnation of Hardship snapped their attention to him.  Every Other present who hadn’t already been focused on him.

“Oh my god,” Lori gasped.

“I’m okay.”

“You got hit by a car!  You flipped!”

“I’m okay!  Really.”

“You need to go to a hospital.  There are injuries you might not even know you have.”

Lady Luck had already seen him.  So had Tom, who had presumably delivered the airborne car.

Who wasn’t Tom anymore.  She was Disaster.

He wondered if that was what was in store for him.  Being put on the job.

Lady Luck might be too annoyed with him at this stage.

One of the concerned bystanders that was approaching was one of Fortune’s Fools.  Slightly better looking than average, disheveled, in a ‘just rolled out of bed looking good’ way.  And his pupils were the clubs symbol of a playing card.

He reached out to offer a helping hand, like he wanted to check Ryan was okay.

Ryan avoided the hand, bumping into Lori.

“I gotta go,” he mumbled.

“What do you mean?  Ryan?”

He broke into a run.

“Ryan!?”

This sucked.

If Lady Luck had brought Lori to him just to rip her away, he wouldn’t be surprised.  She could be cruel, especially to those she didn’t like, and she didn’t like Ryan.

He pulled out the papers.  He’d done calculations, he’d done his best to keep track.  If he lost his place or missed circumstances unfolding around him, then he’d have to find it again… or reset.

Use of the shooting star was that.  A big hit of Fortune, that drew way too much attention, but also acted like a reset button on his other tools.  He could trust that where he’d folded the paper was the right number now.

A bit of practice, some tools to help decipher and decrypt…

Two more of Fortune’s Fools ahead of him.  Two women.

2, poor luck.

He snapped his fingers twice before indicating, himself with thumb, nearby sandwich shop with ring finger, two Fools with middle finger.

The door of the sandwich shop opened.  A crowd of people were leaving what looked like a private event.  Slowing the fools down.

He could hear sirens, now.  Incarnations liked to use authorities.  Usually they could find a way to pull on them.  Institutions.  Anything fixed and big enough would have strings that could be pulled.  If he’d been up against Nature, Nature could draw on instincts, the power imbalances, pursuit and tracking, territory, and so on.

Fortune could just line up the right cop in the right moment.  At least from her perspective.  For Ryan, it would be the wrong cop in a bad moment.

The Envoys were fast, moving across rooftops, trying to get out ahead of him.  Fortune’s Fools were everywhere and all they needed to do was touch him.  Death had a similar thing going with the grim reaper type thing.  If they touched him, he wouldn’t die, probably, but he’d be hit with fortune.  A coin flip as to whether he’d be blessed with good fortune, and the net would close, or he’d be robbed of it, and he’d be met with disaster or rendered destitute by a bank error.

Fortune, who also went by Lady Luck was following, taking her time.  Hardship was doing something similar.

Disaster -Tom- had picked up the pace.

Fuck.

Further down the street, he saw the gold reach of Fortune, and a car’s brakes failed.  It rolled down the slope to hit a poorly fitted hydrant, rode up on it a bit, and then the car’s weight pulled it over.

Water geysered out.

Chaos ensued.  People moving, running, going to play, trying to get clear before they got wet.

Slowing him down.

A Fool stepped out of the shop, a heavyset man with a glow of good nature about him.

“Sorry, buddy,” the guy said, reaching.

The next number on the paper- Ryan moved his thumb.  The next number was a six.

“Yeah,” Ryan agreed.  “Sorry.”

The flows of fortune and fate were already tilted in that direction, looking for an excuse, and Ryan was cheating the system.  He glanced up, saw an air conditioner.  He used the Sight, gesturing at the same time.  Eye movement and hand movement-

He backed into someone, who pushed him slightly.  The reaching hand of the Fool got within an inch of him.

The air conditioner fell and caved in the Fool’s head, neck, and shoulder.

Ryan backed away- saw the Envoy crossing the street, invisible to everyone present.  Fools followed after, in a loose crowd.

The guy would live.

The entire deal was that Ryan had figured out how to cheat Fortune herself.  He’d helped the business he and his brother were running, clearing away all obstacles, he’d shared info and techniques with Tom, along the way.  Someone reasonably nearby, working with Fortune from other angles.

Except cheating Fortune was a wrinkle.  One that stacked up, each cheat having ripple effects on the fabric of it all, that piled onto one another, got messy, and started to affect other things.

It could be smoothed over in all sorts of ways.  Fortune’s Fools were sent out to find wrinkles and balance scales.  Those without Fortune’s favor -the poor- were easy targets.  So someone could win the lottery, then meet ruin shortly after.  Unless they were already rich, in which case it was less of a bump in the road.  Other agents of the universe were conscripted.  Items or circumstances to draw in excess, like shooting stars, or put out into the world to fill a lack, like lucky coins.

Or Fortune herself could get involved.  She could just reach out, altering reality to fix things in all sorts of ways.

The net was closing, he wasn’t having any luck finding a good way out.  He was only spending what he had – the last batch of numbers he’d managed to get, that let him take chance and happenstance and do away with it entirely.

He stopped short as cops pulled onto the street.  The paper slipped in his hand.  A fleck of liquid gold, and his thumb had slid, the gold streaking as it had moved on.  From a 1.

Miserable fortune.

Yeah, she was way too close if she was able to fudge and spend his numbers for him.  That cop was going to shoot him, now.

He had tools and practices.  The same things that had drawn the negative attention from a member of the universe’s middle management team were ways to handle her.  The fragment of the shooting star for something big, numbers for nudges and tricks… except he only had fifteen numbers left.

Fortune would chase him down, use her agents to keep an eye out, and always, inevitably, she would show up again.  If he could do a good batch of fresh numbers on his computer, he could go to a hotel, trust a turn of good luck that he’d lost the trail, rest.  But usually he was up and running for days at a time, scrabbling for what he could get to survive.

In his back pocket were some side options.  There were places he could go, that were between realms, or pocket realms where, according to people and Others he’d met, the demiurge or owner of a Demesne would trade, barter, or just provide sanctuary in exchange for company.  But even that was a finite resource.  Spend too long there, and Fortune would eventually find her way to him.  If he burned a community hiding place by staying too long or not taking precautions, they’d burn him.  Doors would close.

But there was a reason he’d kept to London, Ontario, instead of leaving the city, even with the increased pursuit.  Moving elsewhere would help, but he had a contact.

He’d established a familiar.  A bit of city spirit, tied into factory, commercial real estate, road.

Sovereign, he reached out.

This, too, was an option that could be burned if he relied on it too much.

He ducked into an alley.

The city spirit Sovereign stirred as he reached out through the familiar bond.

Sovereign helped.  Ryan ran down the alley, glanced back, and saw a wire fence where there hadn’t been one before.

The cop was on the far side, just rounding the corner, gun in hand.  Two Fools stood further back.

“Hey!” the man barked.

If Fortune willed it, it’d be my bad luck to resemble a notorious criminal.

He put a hand on the wall to speed his turn around the corner.  As he did, Sovereign flashed a signal at him.

A door was unlocked.  He stepped inside, closed the door quietly, then took stock, breathing hard.

The kitchen or bakery inside was dark.

He crossed the kitchen, went to the main dining area… and saw Whammy the clown.

Whammy flipped a poker chip, caught it, then flung it to one side.

The chip hit a stray glass on one table, tipped it, it hit other things, and in a cascading series of events, tipped a chair, which knocked over a table, and the round table rolled a partial circle…

In the end, three tables and several chairs knocked over, things littering the ground.

The Wagering Man stood from amid the chaos, fixing his hat and suit coat.  He flipped the poker chip, caught it, flipped it…

Stared unblinking at Ryan.

“There’s a deal on the table,” the Wagering Man said.

The Whammy stalked around the edges of the room, silent.  Feral tiger-in-a-cage energy, serious expression, very un-clown-like posture and attitude.

“Okay.  I don’t figure it’s a good deal.”

“Considering the alternatives?  It’s better than what you stand to get.”

“Yeah?”

“Me or the Whammy.  Take what we offer, give it an honest shot.”

“A rigged game that you’ll rig worse.  Wipe out a little wrinkle-”

“You’re not making little wrinkles, Ryan,”  Lady Luck murmured.  Ryan took a few steps over to see.  She was sitting at a table at the side, wearing gold-tinted sunglasses despite the fact the lights in the restaurant were off, the blinds drawn.  “You use your machine to run the code, you use spirits as messengers between yourself and the business you’re connecting to for their internet.  If the spirits are asked to relay a message, they need to hear it.  They register it.  They’re influenced after.”

“Hm,” Ryan grunted, acutely aware he was being surrounded.

“I can clean up some of it, but some of it escapes my reach first.  Different jurisdictions, different Lords who don’t welcome me and my influence into their domain.”

“A few spirits with a minor influence of Fortune?  I understand if it’s irritating, but…”

“That’s the little stuff, Ryan,” Lady Luck told him.  The end of her cigarette burned gold in the gloom.  He could see molten gold eyes behind the reflection of the sunglasses, when the angle was right.  “By putting yourself out of my sight and reach, you’ve broken from reality.  The only fortune you get is when my light shines on you.”

Her Sign was becoming visible even without him using his Sight.  The room took on a gold cast.

“I guess I have you to thank for the opportunity to see an old classmate?”

“Yes.  This isn’t an irritation, it’s not a… you called it a wrinkle.  It’s a gouge, and you, you don’t realize how much you’ve twisted yourself into being something without luck, good or bad.  You’re a tool that doesn’t know it’s a tool, dragging itself against the world and leaving gouges everywhere.”

“Huh.  I figure you would’ve found me faster, then.”

“I’ve been busy clearing up the damage.  I haven’t been able to clean it all up.  I was considering recruiting you to the task.  There are about sixty disasters unfolding that you were part of, practitioner, that are outside my scope to act.  Ordered by priority, if we change you to not need sleep, putting you on the job, not a minute of rest, you should be able to deal with most.  At the conclusion, when you’ve finished cleaning up the damage you caused, I can use you as a sink for karma and consequence, to help balance the scales.”

“In essence, the better you do, the better you end up,” Tom said.  She glared at him as she came in the door behind him.

“Hi Tom,” Ryan greeted her.

“Not my name anymore,” Disaster told him.  “Pay attention.  This is important.  Sometimes people in your circumstance don’t even get an explanation.  They have to figure it out from the moment the starting gun goes off.”

“Figure what out?”

“On the one hand, fail, and we will make sure you experience the very worst that Fortune, Disaster and Hardship can make a practitioner experience, and you’ll experience it for a very long time.”

“And if I succeed?  Sixty disasters to tackle, no sleep, no breaks?”

“Sixty and counting,” Fortune told him.  “Damage takes time to repair, and new problems sprout from every instance of it.”

“If you get it ninety nine point nine percent right?  Then it’ll still be metaphorical hell,” Disaster told him.  “You’ll feel the harm done by that point one percent you could not prevent, and you’ll feel it without relief.”

Ryan clicked his tongue.  “What if I get it one hundred percent right?”

“You won’t.  All of the rest of us working in concert couldn’t.  And if it looked like you might, I’d make sure you broke your ankle, right at the end.  To guarantee there’s some suffering.”

“Tomasin-”

“Disaster.  I’m Disaster now.  Because of you.”

Because, while running from the metaphorical bear, he’d pushed her over, to give the bear something to eat.

“A small Disaster.  Brand new, still very Tom.”

“Not winning any favors from me, Ryan,” she said.

“Are there even any to be won?”

“You could start by apologizing and begging.  Then we could see.”

“I am sorry.  I didn’t realize how bad this would get.”

“People warned you.”

This close to Fortune herself, his numbers wouldn’t work.  The shooting star wouldn’t work.  It would backfire, if anything.

“How bad?”

“What are you asking?” Fortune asked him.

“These things I have to go up against.  How strong?”

“They vary.  Some are barely stronger than one of my Fools.  Aware.  Others… a false incarnation.  Spirits forged into something else by coincidence.  A god in a computer server.  Some will take years to emerge.  Others are doing damage as we speak.  Many of them will do their damage.  Many of them will create their own wrinkles, their own Others, and things will be set in motion.  I’d call you a Fool but you don’t deserve the title I give to my agents.”

“Should’ve taken my deal,” the Wagering Man told him.  “At least you would’ve had a chance.”

“I don’t believe in chance,” Ryan replied, backing up.

He pushed through the swinging kitchen door.

The cop was there, red-nosed, like he had a cold.  Which explained why he couldn’t smell the reek of gas that was flooding the room.

He’d drawn his gun.

“Get down on the ground!” he hollered.

Zero trigger discipline.

Damn it, Tom.

Sovereign!  Ryan thought.  Now.  Anything, everything!

“Down!” the cop hollered.

He could feel Sovereign reaching through the walls.  City magic distilled.  A reconfiguration of space.

“Now!”

He crouched, working his way to his knees, hands raised.

“Face on the floor!”

He couldn’t, because then he’d be trapped.

“You can start work now, swear to capture the sixty by the rules we impose, or you can do the exact same thing starting in a few hours, with third degree burns over most of your body,” Fortune told him.  “He’s about to fire a warning shot in a gas-flooded kitchen.”

“Who’s behind you!?” the cop roared.

It was a matter of running, never sitting still for long.  Everything had to be bought with hard earned currency.  Any knock on the door or person coming around the corner or down the street could be an agent of a fundamental authority.  Or the authority herself.

“If you have accomplices, Jonathan, they need to show themselves now!

“Not my name.”

“Shut up!”

If he could buy enough time, find enough moments to revise his formula, solve luck itself, he could slip free.  If he could set enough things up, gather power, improve, maintain a long enough streak of running away that coup was on his side, and timed the killing of this version of Lady Luck with a good enough getaway, whoever took up her mantle wouldn’t be able to give chase.  He’d be free.

“Now!  I know you in the back can hear me!”

He had his aces in the hole, refuges, back alley markets, places outside of space and time.  For brief stints.  He had other aces in the hole.  For the little escapes.  For the emergencies.  And for the real emergencies, he could burn his aces.

It’s okay to show yourself, he thought.

“Come out now!  Hands up!” the cop roared.

From this point on, everything would be harder.  His secret familiar who could reorganize streets and give him directions, while confounding his pursuers?  No longer secret.

He reached for the back of his shirt, and grabbed a paper.

Using a back way like this was burning another bridge at the same time.  Once it was found, word would get around.  It wouldn’t work as an escape route.

The practitioner who ran it had extorted him last visit anyway, so he didn’t feel too bad.

The officer coughed, then coughed harder.  “Fucking cold.”

“That’s the gas leak,” Ryan said.

Sovereign reached into the building’s fabric, folded it, altered it, and made a way.

And with the paper he held- an invitation, he could take that a step further, altering the path, leapfrogging past it.

He took his moment, while the cop was doubled over.

There was a bang, the ceiling shifted, and pipes came tearing through, cascading down.

Blocking the door as Sovereign opened it.  A tangle of pipes and wood he could crawl through- if he had two minutes.  He didn’t.

He could see the open park on the far side.

“No,” Fortune told him.

She was in the room now.

“You!” the officer shouted.  “Down!”

Fortune didn’t comply.

The gun went up.

By any means.

Sovereign’s centipede body snaked through, grabbing him around the middle, and pulled.

It was not a perfect or gentle way through.  His upper body hit some pipes, his leg hit another.

The gun went off, echoing in the kitchen.  The explosion came so fast after it it sounded like one continuous sound.

Ryan’s spine folded with the force of Sovereign’s pull.  Internal organs were damaged.  Cold fire consumed his legs as the explosion took the kitchen and everything up to the doorway, while he wasn’t all the way through.

Except not.  The cold fire was his nerves.

Sovereign, in human form, gilded businessman, shut the door behind them.

Buying them minutes.

“Let’s go, before she follows us in,” he told his familiar, groaning out the words.  “There aren’t many options left.”

We’re not going to solve the formula now.  There’s no time, I’m too hurt.

There’s nobody to put in the way of the metaphorical bear.

No good refuges.  Not when she’s on my heels like this.

One option left.

Sovereign scooped him up.  It was all he could do to not scream in agony as his lower body moved.  All he could do to hold on.

Sovereign flowed into the spirit world, bringing him with.  He drew on Sovereign’s nature to become less corporeal and more spirit, which made it easier to endure the pain.  Not that he could get rid of all of it.

“Let’s go talk to the Aurum Dame, see if we can’t get to her before Fortune gets to us,” Ryan told his familiar.

🟂

“I expected more fighting, having to extract deals, having to argue my case,” the Carmine Exile said, walking through snow.

“What argument would you have made?” the Aurum asked.  He wove his way through

“That the system is broken, that it’s mutated at the hands of the self-interested.”

“We know that already.  Argument made before you made it.  There.  Easy.  Efficient.”

They’d reached the school.  It hardly mattered, when they could move across their realm at will.

“We’re all such contradictions, aren’t we?  By nature?” the Aurum asked.

“All of us?” the Carmine replied.

“You were a forsworn criminal, and now you are Law, your word matters, Carmine.  The Alabaster, whose role put so much emphasis on mercy and sacrifice, has lasted longer than any I know of, and her heart is colder than any of us four.  The Sable Prince is arbiter of death and other passages, and he lives in a sense, he acts.”

“And you?”

“The unchanging arbiter of change?” the Aurum asked, before shrugging.

“People in jail make some of the greatest students of the law,” the Carmine Exile said.  He looked at the Aurum with red eyes.  “Mercy doesn’t require warmth any more than sacrifice requires death.”

The Aurum laughed.  “True.”

“And if having no semblance of life was a requirement for the role, I do not think our judge in black would be very effective for his role.”

“I can see you, Carmine.  The entirety of you as you are now, and everything that fed into making you you.  Your childhood, your past.  I know you enjoy this.  What a shame you weren’t able to attend a practitioner school, and have educated debates, battles of wits.”

“I was hardly the type.  I would have kept to myself, no debates.”

“You don’t think you could have been drawn in by a young Alexander?  Or even a young Musser?”

“Depends how young a Musser you mean.  But that’s more about who they are than who I am.  I don’t think there’s many out there who could resist Alexander’s charisma, if he truly wanted to get on your side, or Musser’s force of will.  How Musser could make you feel so privileged to be in his good graces, considered a friend.”

The Aurum Coil extended a hand toward the building, palm up.  The Carmine Exile nodded.

They stepped from a point ten paces out from the school building to the inside of a classroom on the second floor.

The Sable Prince sat on a chair, wearing a black suit with a black shirt beneath, black tie, hair wild.  His foot was propped up on a student’s chair.

At the desk next to where he sat, an echo with some soul attached sat at his desk, wearing his school uniform, head down.  Sixteen or seventeen.

“Are you a creature of contradictions, Sable Prince?” the Aurum asked.

“Some respect, please,” the Sable replied.

The Aurum looked.  To the echo, to the moment that created it, then back out to the future.

“The boy’s still alive.”

“Something died in him at this moment,” the Sable replied.

“He knew he was different,” the Carmine said.  “But here, he was confronted by it.  He tried for a long time.  He got help.  Tutors, direct lessons with teachers.  Extra time.  He was held back one year, in hopes that would be enough.”

The Aurum looked through the echo and around the room.

Other students were younger.  Smaller.

“But at sixteen, he had the capacity of a twelve year old.  He won’t have higher when he’s sixteen, twenty, forty, or sixty.  He shouldn’t be in this high a grade, it’s only causing him misery,” the Carmine finished, looking down at the boy.

“This is the moment, staring at the backs of smaller students in front of him, that it all strikes home,” the Aurum noted.  “He feels an emotion deep enough to leave an echo behind.  A coherent one.  A piece of him breaks.  Fortune and Nature are cruel with the hands they deal.”

The Sable put out a hand, resting it on the echo’s head.

“Carmine Exile,” the Alabaster said.

All three of them turned to look at the doorway.

“If we left you alone long enough, you’d go to war against the pillars to keep things like this from happening,” she said.

“I’ve already started, Alabaster,” the Carmine replied, looking at the echo.  “Undercities, to capture those who’d fall through the cracks.  Lords, powerful and ruthless, to crush those who’d trample over others on their way to the top.  A climate where someone in this kind of pain will see that pain given form, that form acting to make sure others know.  To force corrections.”

“This one won’t,” she said, as she walked over, footsteps silent.  Dew from melted snowflakes beaded the fur portions of her dress and hair.

“No.  But the climate will change and will continue to change as long as I’m in power.  In a month, maybe the next echo that resembles this one will.”

“You’re speaking of the future more,” the Aurum said.

“I can see so much.  Power, past, future, flows,” the Carmine mused aloud.  “Yet I’m baffled.  They haven’t come for me.  They haven’t found their footing.  I’ve situated myself in a hard to reach spot in a town with passionate defenders, and even then, I thought our enemies would put together an answer.  A part of me wants to push things further.  To cross more lines in order to see…”

“Passion, instead of self interest,” the Aurum supplied.

“Perhaps.  The Blue Heron.  The team, the practitioners gathering together, working together.  Alexander recognized the importance of that moment, the confluence of forces.  Some great men and women in alignment, others- not so great in the grand sense, but capable of supporting and enabling.  I would have liked to see something like that spring up against me.  Maybe I could have said something profound to them before they undid me.”

“But there’s nothing?” the Sable asked.

“Nothing overt.”

The Alabaster put a finger to the echo’s throat, looking at the Sable.  He nodded once, hand still atop the echo’s head.

She drew the finger across the echo’s throat.  It parted the faintly transparent, ephemeral impressions, parting everything there.  The echo crumbled.

She caught the fragment of soul in her hands before it could fall and break.  Walking to the window, she cupped her hands and said, “He needs you.  Back you go.”

The exhalation that came with the words was enough to send it on its way.  It passed through the glass as if it didn’t know it was supposed to stop against the hard surface.

“We must contradict,” the Sable said.  He met the Aurum’s eye.  “Else we’d be Incarnations.  Death.  War.  Innocence.  Fortune.”

“Ah,” the Aurum said, smiling.

“Why ask?” the Carmine Exile asked him.

“We do important things.  If we’re gone, the universe will contrive to put something in our place, whether that’s a neighboring judge getting more jurisdiction, or something else eventually springing up in our place.  Things carry on.  But as a kind of thanks for not making it a harder process, we’re afforded leeway.  Flexibility.”

“Mm hmm,” the Carmine Exile grunted his reply.

He knew more than anyone about that leeway.  There really was no firm or pre-established restriction on what leeway could be taken, what liberties could be explored.  The Carmine Exile had taken the idea and run with it, and he would keep running with it until stopped.

“The agents we choose or don’t choose, the Others we raise up, the personal interests we may serve.  Typically small things.  If it’s unwarranted or extreme-”

“You get replaced,” the Alabaster said.

“That’s the idea,” the Carmine Exile murmured.  “Something’s broken or missing.”

“Or the Seal was made for people of a different era and nobody who had a hand in it imagined things extending to this scale, civilizations this dense,” the Aurum said.  “Either way.  I was not too greedy.  I unmade a certain Incarnation, and one of her subordinates, who I’d known before she was an Incarnation.  I gave some fortune to a lady, and some to my brother.”

“The same lady who is now dying,” the Sable noted.

The Aurum nodded.  “The fortunes she got will go to her child when she passes, and the child will do well, and I will, if trends hold, be replaced, and whoever follows may do away with that precedent.  My deeds will be undone.  I’m not introspective all too often.  There’s enough to do.”

“Why fixate on the contradictions?” the Carmine Exile asked.

“I’m left thinking about what we are.  The why of it.  I was and am a cheat of the highest order, cheating reality itself, now I dictate the rules.  I am a judge of change, but unchanging.  I am a judge of scales and exchange, but I am a higher power, interacting with those beneath me, with little parlay.  Any quippy observations to that, Carmine?”

“I’m sorry that this woman you thought so highly of died.”

“The irony,” the Aurum observed, centipede body flowing around the room as he shifted posture, reclining a bit.  “Is that Fortune favored her already.  She didn’t need my help.  She was born beautiful.  I may be sexless now, above and past those concerns.  But I recognize that much.  I play into your concerns, Carmine.”

“It’s fine.”

“The powerful get power so easily.  A woman fortunate enough to be beautiful and lucky enough to be able to afford to be kind wins the heart of a young practitioner, and when he ascends to a higher role, she gets favor from an arbiter of Fortune.”

“Except now she dies.”

“Out of Fortune’s reach.  She was poisoned at work, handling chemicals with gloves insufficient to the task.  No luck involved.”

“I see.”

“Are you asking for assistance in saving her?” the Sable asked.

“No.  Don’t worry.”

The Sable Prince didn’t reply, silent.

The Aurum went on, “I never dwelt on it much.  I supported my brother and Lori removed some enemies in the shuffling we naturally do when we take power.  I didn’t think of it again until now.  Now that she’s passing, things seem different.  Contradictions seem difficult to reconcile.”

“We don’t stand alone,” the Alabaster said.

The Aurum looked at her.

“When we stand alone, we are weak.  We saw this with the past Carmine.  Her isolation killed her.  We have tacitly agreed to stand as four against threats.”

“I didn’t ask you to,” the Carmine Exile said.

“You assume I’m speaking about you specifically.”

“Aren’t you?  I’m the biggest target.  I’m the biggest threat to the sorts of forces that have the ability to remove us.  They’re too busy infighting to act, but they could.”

“I am speaking mostly about you.  Only mostly.  I’ve been doing this for some time now.  I’ve seen the various holders of office come and go.  Certain things remain the same.  Roles.  Relationships.”

The Aurum listened.

“We each hold certain things that are for ourselves alone.  Violence is the Carmine’s.  Fortune is the Aurum’s.  Death is the Sable’s.  Pieces of each of those things can be shared out.  We have common ground too.  The Carmine and I hold a closer connection to nature.  The Aurum and I are both arbiters of transformations, of different types.  The Sable and I both oversee sleep and dream.  I could list fifty things any pair of us share.”

“Contradictions too,” the Aurum noted.

“We each have common ground, and yes, we each stand as opposites to the others in other ways.  Violence and passivity.  Life and sustenance against death.  Stability against progress.”

She looked at the Aurum as she said that last part.

“Yes.  I know this intuitively, but hearing it said aloud-”

“Closes the gap between heart and head?” the Sable interrupted him.

“Yes.”

“What the Carmine is doing?  You’ll help him more than either of us two, at least for now,” the Alabaster told the Aurum.  “If you choose it.”

“It’s a flawed system, I see a system, especially one with flaws to exploit, and I want to cheat it.  I choose.”

“The Sable will help the Carmine through the aftermath.  The interstitial stage.  People will die.”

The Sable nodded.  He still sat by the now-empty chair, boot propped up on a chair seat.

No mention is made of choiceBecause he’s older.  An edifice in this system.

“I, when all is done, may be the one to secure it as tradition going forward.”

Even less than the Sable.  It was treated like it was assumed she’d accept whatever happened as a new status quo.

“You took the throne with a self-imposed mandate, the mandate fits your role,” the Alabaster said, as she turned away from the window.  “You’ve given us no reason to stand in your way.  Carry on.”

“Either I create something harsh enough to force change, or they collectively change enough to stop me.”

“Or some combination therein,” the Aurum added.

The Carmine nodded once.

“So be it,” the Alabaster said.  “They’re waiting downstairs now.”

The Aurum led the way.  The centipede’s body rasped against ground, legs whirring as the body flowed through air, running against corners and doorframes.

He reached the gym and circled its outermost perimeter.

Five students were inside, at the center of the gym.  One was young, and had retreated to the middle of the huddle, hiding a bit from the adults in the room.

Four men and two women were standing outside the large diagram circle that had been drawn onto the gymnasium floor.

It was a Judge’s prerogative to have or not have agents, as it had been Lady Luck’s prerogative to have her Fools, the envoys, and the aid of subordinate incarnations.

One more figure sat off to the side.  A young lady in a private school uniform.  She’d inserted herself into the school as a student in the background, whispered here, whispered there, and she’d hand selected five to start with.  She had her eyes on others.

The Aurum’s chitinous body rasped against the stage that overlooked the gymnasium, before settling there.

“They were getting restless,” Lis told him.

“Is that better or worse now that I’ve arrived, riding a giant insect?”

“I don’t think it changed the fact their teachers cut intimidating figures.”

They did.  There was a look in their eyes that resembled a soldier that had been at war, or someone who’d endured unimaginable pain.  The Carmine Exile had that look at times.  Too wide eyed, unblinking, unflinching.

“For this to work,” the Carmine Exile’s voice echoed in the gymnasium, before he’d even fully entered.  “It needs to be unanimous.  Judges, facilitators, teachers, students.”

The Alabaster and Sable followed him in, Alabaster behind his right shoulder, Sable behind his left.

“If you have reservations, say so now.”

“They’re so young,” Yiyun said.  One of the teachers.  Chinese-Canadian, long-haired.  She had fled her family with her daughter in tow, hoping to save her daughter.  She hadn’t, even after being forsworn in her efforts to rescue the girl.

If any would have reservations about children, it would be her.

“Them being young is the point,” the Carmine Exile said.

“We’re not that young,” Nomi said.

“There is a standard process for Awakening, a standard diagram” the Carmine Exile told them.  He paced around the gymnasium.  Around the non-standard diagram that had the students at the center, teachers ringing the perimeter.  The Aurum and the two other judges were standing or sitting at cardinal points, around the edges of the room.  The Carmine was taking the long way around to getting to his spot.  The Carmine Exile went on talking, telling them, “But it’s not obligatory.  There are other paths.  Someone can be introduced to the world of Others by a higher power, or they can run up against the supernatural so often and so forcefully that no Innocence remains.”

The ex-Forsworn and children hung onto his every word.

“Some of you five are here because you need power.  Some because you’ve tasted Awareness, you’ve seen that this town is changing and you know you’re on the outside of that change.  Some of you have natural talent and the willingness to exercise it.  Even when it means breaking into the school at a late hour.  Facing down people like your teachers here.  Facing me, the Aurum, the Sable, the Alabaster.”

One of the boys, Teddy, made a greater effort to meet the Carmine’s eyes, as if rising to the challenge.

“Something brought you here and keeps you here.  Something will keep you here when things get more intense,” the Carmine said.  He was halfway around the circle now.  “You have your reasons.”

There were some nods.

Teacher stared at student, studying them.  Each teacher had come from the lowest points a practitioner could reach.  Many looked to see if the children had what it took to survive reaching those points, if it should come to that.  For weakness.  For strength.

“The typical process for this is a binding oath.  You make an oath to spirit, to Otherdom as a whole, and pledge your word.  It’s common to put children in this position.  Common to turn them into soldiers and tools.  I won’t lie and tell you that your potential teachers here won’t have expectations.  Or that I won’t.  But above anything, I want to change the worst parts of this typical process.”

The children, the Aurum could see, didn’t truly get it.

They might, in the future, after they’d seen more.  But then again, the Carmine Exile’s words weren’t for them.  He was creating new law.  Stating it for all to hear.  He ensured it was witnessed by the Aurum, Sable, and Alabaster.

Like Fortune, Lady Luck, with her sigil behind her.  Reaching its arms outward.  He wanted this to do something that went beyond these children and this room.

“At any time before you turn eighteen, you may forfeit what tonight gives you,” the Carmine said.  “At any time before you turn eighteen, your teachers may, with the agreement of myself or another judge, withdraw what you will be given tonight, if they think it’s not for you.  If you are soundly defeated and you are in true danger, what was given to you tonight will be withdrawn.  If you put the others at risk by sharing information with outside powers, be they outside Kennet or inside Kennet but opposed to us… what was given to you tonight will be withdrawn.”

There were some nods.  Mostly, they’d been warned about parts of this in fragments.  This was pulling it all together.

“If we withdraw you, it is to protect you.  You will lose the ability, the word, and memories.  It will not be offered or given again.  You will return to your ordinary life, as much like it used to be as we can contrive to make it.  Enemies will know you to be Innocent immediately, when the practice is taken from you.  That may protect you.  But I cannot guarantee it.”

He found his spot, at the south edge of the room, opposite the Alabaster.  Though, truly, as the Alabaster had explained, he was opposite to each of them.

“The young often need practice.  Some of you need it.  But the practice is not kind to the young.  It is, too often, too rigid.  This is a compromise.  A new kind of Awakening.  A tenuous one.  Your practice will be weaker than if it was a true, lifelong Oath.  I intend to give you access to powers on a great enough scale that being stuck at a quarter of your usual strength won’t matter.  When you turn eighteen, the oath will be binding, and you will inherit the full suite of powers… while losing the ability to withdraw.  Decide before then.”

The diagram on the floor included a void- an empty circle.  The space in that void rippled in response to the Carmine’s last statement.  The teenagers shifted their feet nervously.

“There are five of you and six teachers here, soon to be ten.  Together with us, you’ll nominate more to join you, over time.  I’ll find more teachers as you do.  You’ve talked to the teachers, you’ve talked among one another, you have your own needs.  Have any of you decided?  You’ll learn something from each teacher, and you’ll share with each other what you learn, but each of you will have one mentor.  You’ll decide later.”

Already, the Aurum knew that Nomi Bearden would go to Yiyun Jen.  They’d talked.  Nomi had lost both of her parents and lived with her grandmother.  Yiyun had lost her daughter in the worst way.  Both were touched by death, and Yiyun could teach necromancy, constructing undead.

Joshua Roberts would go to Lenard Lily.  Joshua wanted strength, because his father was a brute.  His need to defend others from more brutishness would lead him to take the scariest teacher, to protect younger kids like he wanted to protect his three younger siblings at home.

The Aurum, in response to unspoken symbol, helped to power the diagram.

The circle at the center where the youths stood changed, becoming a door.

Maricica the blood goddess rose up out of the diagram as if she’d been lying down, larger than she had been, blood-slick, impaled in the heart with an iron spike.  She was careful to rise up in a way that kept her from toppling or hurting any students.

Some retreated a few steps, but stopped short of stepping outside the circle.

Faced with the prospect of leaving, forgetting everything, or finding reasons to stay and face Maricica in her bloody glory, they managed to stay.

Lis began to recite words in old languages.  Less the Aurum’s purview than the Alabaster’s.  He could translate but didn’t bother.

Maricica was careful as she bent down to touch the forehead of each youth with her lips, leaving bloody marks at each.  The blood was absorbed by skin.

A reserve of power for each that would need to be replenished with another meeting with Maricica.  They’d have more once they connected with the outside Lords the Carmine Exile had erected.

Already, with this alone, and with the power the Carmine Exile and the Judges invested into this effort, they had power reserves greater than most average practitioners.  Even with their power being a fraction of what it should be, with the oaths being so tenuous.

“From here on out, until you withdraw or are withdrawn, you are in Lis’s hands, your teacher’s hands.  What you do is up to you,” the Carmine told them.

Or so he said.

The Aurum could read deeper, see deeper.  The Carmine’s intentions were good, borne of an intent to give an example on how to do things better.  But like the children, the Carmine needed something out of this.  He’d designed them as a counter.  A parry and a thrust, he’d called it, while talking to Maricica and Lis at one point.

🟂

Parry and thrust.

The Aurum, interested in this venture, was watching the imminent ambush closely.

They’d been taught Calling.  Argumentative diagrams were drawn up and left unfinished.  A few strokes would wrap them up.  Then each of the nine youths would call on a different Lord of Carmine provenance.

Lenard stood by, ready to help.  To disable Musser, delay his allies, and use his practice to try to create a doorway.

Nine Lords with some Abyss in their makeup would be summoned or draw on in some capacity and aimed at the man with explicit orders to disable or capture.  To drag him through the doorway that Lenard made, and into the Abyss.  Musser had lost on several counts, he was tired, distracted, and they had a coordinated trap, separate from oaths and obligations to hospitality that the core Kennet group were holding to.

It might even work.

“Josh,” Lenard said.

Joshua’s immediate reaction was nervousness.  Lenard spoke, and Josh flinched.

“Yes?”

“If one of the younger children falters, fails their ritual, you need to step in.”

“Yeah.  Yes.  I knew that already.”

Nomi Bearden whispered something to Kira-Lynn Everett.

None of the children were especially fond of Lenard.  His appearance was offputting, according to the children.  Among themselves, they’d talked a fair bit about him, describing bad teeth, juicy, full lips that drew the eye to the teeth, eyes with a lot of white around them, under brows that were perpetually lowered in what could be read as a glare or perpetual confusion.

The girls especially had trouble taking him seriously.  Only Joshua had seen the full brunt of what Lenard’s experience with the Abyss could do.

“What the hell?” Nomi asked.  “Step through.”

“Shhh,” Lenard shushed them.

She made a face, before glancing at Kira for validation and finding it.

The Aurum watched as Lucy Ellingson created her arena, contract in hand.

The Wild Hunt, omnipresent in Kennet, were drawing near.

He was reminded of Fortune’s forces closing in on him.

“We’re done,” Lenard told the group.  “Wipe away your diagrams and pack up.  Leave no trace.”

“What the hell?” Nomi asked.  “Done?”

“Keep your voice down.”

“We just spent thirty minutes huddled in the cold, we drew diagrams with freaking gloves on, and we’re leaving?”

“I’m here to teach you and give you advice.”

“Listen when Mr. Lily says something,” Josh told the others.

“Yeah,” Teddy said.  “He might know something we don’t.”

“I’m meant to teach you, so I’ll point this out.  The Wild Hunt of Winter who’ve been circling around Kennet the past week are congregating.  Winter especially demands respect, and the easiest way to pay respect to them is being a safe distance away.”

Once he’d verified everyone had picked up properly, Lenard led the way.  Some of the other teachers in supporting roles on the flanks converged on their position and talked to Lenard.

The children weren’t as cooperative.

“There’s two cool teachers in the bunch,” Kira said.

“Mine’s one, right?” Nomi asked.

“Yeah.  And I guess the practitioners from the Allaire group are alright, but they’re not doing much.  The rest of them, they’re creeps like mine or they’re weird or they’re creepy weirdo cowards like Joshua’s teacher,” Kira said.

“Are you going to stick up for your teacher?” Stefan asked.

“No,” Joshua replied.  “But he’s strong.  I think.  He said if something went wrong he’d hold them off for a bit.  And I kind of got the impression from the way they described the guy we’re not supposed to name- the guy we were going to ambush, he’s no joke.  So if my teacher can do okay or buy a little time, that’s a big deal.”

“Do you think you could?” Kira asked.  “Or like, against one of the three witches of Kennet?”

“Maybe.  I dunno.  I wouldn’t want to try.”

“We need actual experience,” Nomi said.  “We need to do something.”

“Yeah,” Teddy said.  “We really do.  Waiting until shit goes down and then that being our first big time being in a bad situation, that’s a problem.”

“Then let’s ask a teacher,” Joshua said.

“Oh my god, Josh,” Nomi groaned the words, sounding like she was dying.  She clutched at his sleeve.  “Has the suckiness of your teacher rubbed off on you?”

“We ask a teacher, I’m serious.”

“You got a scaredy-cat for a teacher and now it’s making you worse, and you weren’t brave to start,” Nomi accused him.

“Teddy?” Joshua asked.

“Okay.  We ask one of our mentors.”

Nomi groaned.

“We pick and choose carefully.  I bet there’s a few who’d probably say yes.  Or if they say no, they might not make a big deal if we go to someone else and ask them,” Teddy said.

“Ask mom, if mom says no… ask dad?”

“Basically.  Same idea.”

They stopped in their tracks as they saw Lenard had stopped.  A Winter Fae was trudging through the snow.

“Sir,” Lenard said, ducking his head in a bow.  The kids followed suit.  “Good hunting to you.”

The Fae didn’t respond, and trudged onward, toward the rooftop where the situation was wrapping up.  Musser had lost Durocher’s support.  She didn’t brook weakness, and he’d shown too much.

The Aurum withdrew from the scene.  It wasn’t one that required a judge, and if Durocher went on the offensive for any reason, it would be dangerous to all involved.  Even Judges.

The St. Victor’s group left the vicinity of the rooftop and the growing number of Faerie, Joshua agreeing to carry the heavy stuff back to where they were storing it at the school, and where he’d talk to Lenard.  The rest split off to go to their individual homes.

The Faerie didn’t hurry, didn’t delay.  He arrived precisely when he wanted to, and he wanted to arrive in concert with the bulk of the Wild Hunt, meeting the people who were finishing their confrontation with Musser.

“You’ve finished your business with Musser. Now we can address you without you being distracted,” one said.

The Aurum observed without being present, as did the Sable and Alabaster.

The Carmine was present, however.

“As Verona and I are the only proper students of Winter here, can I ask you to let the rest leave?” Lucy asked.

“They are complicit.”

“I’ve been thinking.  I think I know the answer you want.”

“Of course you know the answer we want.  We don’t ask questions if we don’t already know the answer.”

“Then you know the answer I’d give is best given to you without others around.”

“You’re kicking me out?” Avery Kelly asked.

“Only- we left you out of Winter at Guilherme’s recommendation.  To ensure there was someone unscathed if we ran into trouble.”

“I’d like to be part of this.  I’ll swear oaths of confidentiality if I have to.”

The Fae loomed over the girls.

“Okay,” Verona said.

Lucy glanced at Verona, then looked at the closest Wild Hunt Faerie.  “We awoke together.”

“Then send the rest away.”

“You’re sure?” Matthew asked Verona.  Lucy hugged her mom.  Avery held her dad’s hands in between them and talked to him briefly about plans and expectations.

The wind picked up, and snow was scattered into the air.

The street was empty, and it was empty because of the Wild Hunt’s influence.  Across Kennet, a glint in a car windshield made someone miss the turn of an incoming car.  A jam at one intersection.  People were kept from stepping outside, by the passing of cold air that cut through one winter jacket, leading them to think they needed another layer.  Cars didn’t start.

Seeded and prepared for a final conversation.

The girls and the opossum familiar were left alone with the Wild Hunt, standing in an empty downtown street during Kennet’s busiest season.  The Carmine Exile looked on, but was ignored.  He was omnipresent, as was the Aurum.

It was, to the Aurum Coil, a reflection of what he’d faced once, in his final days as a practitioner.  Being hunted by a foe that was inflexible, unyielding.

It was also a contrast to what the Carmine Exile was doing.  He wasn’t just railing against the practitioner establishment.  He had concerns about what the council of Kennet was doing, and the shape things would take down the road, if others emulated it.

He’d intended the practitioner students of St. Victor’s to be an effective parry and thrust.  Except they’d been countered, tonight.

Had they succeeded in removing a threat as major as Musser when the existing practitioners had failed, then they could have pushed their way into being the guardians of Kennet.  Or at least co-opted some of that role, responsibility, and power.

But they hadn’t.

Avery finished swearing the necessary oaths.

“Our concerns are sufficient for us to remove Guilherme to the interior court, and to dispatch the three of you, rendering you unable to access or practice winter glamour by death or injury.”

Lucy nodded.

“Um, that’s not great,” Verona murmured.

“Shh, just-” Lucy didn’t finish the sentence.

“Convince us otherwise.”

Lucy’s hand trembled.  She shifted her stance.

“Unless you can’t.”

“I’ve been trying to think-”

“Don’t prevaricate,” a woman Fae said from the sidelines.

The Aurum could look, however, and see the justifications behind words.  Especially when it came to deals.  The ideas weren’t guarded, Lucy was open about them, so they were easy to access.

Lucy had dwelt on the idea of Estrella Vanderwerf and Silas Vanderwerf.  Both impressive, but neither perfect.  She had reflected on conversation with her mother, as her mother had wrapped fresh bandages around the arm with stitches from wrist to inner elbow, and around the other arm, where they extended a short distance from elbow down forearm.

Drawing comparisons between the Wild Hunt and real things.

That authorities tended to punch down.  The Aurum liked Jasmine Ellingson’s analogy to tax offices.  That they would prey on a hundred people who’d made two or three digit errors in their accounts, while not pursuing the hard targets – where even one company’s wrongdoings, if properly uncovered, would outweigh the nickel-and-diming of an entire province’s lower class.

Which wasn’t quite his own experience, but… he liked parallels either way.

“It’s my current assumption,” Lucy told them, “that we are not your concern.”

“Is it?” a human member of the Wild Hunt asked.

“I know for a fact that Estrella Vanderwerf and Silas Vanderwerf, while very good practitioners from everything I’ve heard, don’t necessarily meet the bar you’ve asked us to meet.”

“Is it your intention then, to deflect us from you to the Vanderwerfs and their failures?”

“No.  What I want to do is paint a full picture.  It’s my intention to keep learning under Guilherme.  I will try to protect Winter’s reputation when he cannot.  I am already custodian and guardian for Kennet-”

“We are,” Verona added.

Avery nodded.

“-and with your allowance, we will extend our duties to all elements of the Winter Court.  I think we’ve shown we’ll go as far as it takes on this.  I went up against Abraham Musser tonight.  I’ve fought Anthem Tedd and I think I did well enough that people weren’t left with a bad impression.”

“You lost.”

“He’s one of the most dangerous practitioners in the region,” Avery protested.  “An expert fighter, versatile, strong-”

“And you, Lucy Ellingson, lost.”

“I lost the skirmish but won the war.  Which was more important.  I needed him to lose that way, to win other victories,” Lucy said.

“Are you saying you could have won?”

“No.  But I wouldn’t have been as likely to pick the fight if I couldn’t achieve something.  I didn’t embarrass Winter.  I’d challenge you to pick a random student of Winter with the amount of training under a mentor that I have, pit them against Anthem, and compare how we did.”

“We even have Anthem in Kennet found, we could borrow him if we needed,” Verona volunteered.

The Fae raised a hand, gesturing for them to stop.  “No need.  There are too many other concerns.”

“Melissa and Bracken have the veils of Innocence over their eyes still.  Partially.  It’s a happy middle ground.  If they succeed they can carry Winter’s reputation for skill and talent with them.  If they fail, they’re Aware, something was missing.  They don’t know what Winter or Guilherme are, exactly.  It comes down to Guilherme himself, us three, and the council.  Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think what you really want is commitment.”

“We can give you commitment,” Verona added.

“If you want to scare me off and wound me, that won’t stop me.  If you want to attack me in my home?”

“Take away my practice twice?  Won’t stop me,” Verona said.  “We have responsibilities here.  We swore to protect Kennet.  Guilherme is part of Kennet, and Guilherme is Winter.”

Avery’s eyes widened momentarily.  The moment of realization drew the attention of her familiar, who felt it through the familiar bond.

She understood what Verona and Lucy were referring to, now.

For the rule of threes, she’d need to add something to what the others had said, while walking the same fine line they were.

“From Kennet or my role further afield, I’ll help guard the various elements of Winter.”

She understood.

A new Winter Fae had come into being in Kennet, a civilized area, outside the Winter Court’s reach and immediate attention.  Reputation mattered, and for all his strengths, Guilherme was new to Winter, and he had not yet found any true consistency.

“I’ll swear an oath to that effect,” Lucy told them.

“If he makes a single mistake-”

“No,” Lucy interrupted.

The Fae drew a blade.

“I’ll protect your interests and his with the same kind of vigor I use to defend Kennet, as part of defending Kennet.  I think that’s better than you’ll get from most.”

“Yet we could do better, hewing to the plan we stated earlier in this conversation.  We take him to the court interior, remove you and other involved parties-”

“Remove witnesses?” Avery asked.

“Witnesses to what?” a Fae with a musical voice asked, the music in the voice taking an accusatory, harsh tilt and echo.

Lucy interjected, “I can guarantee you, if you remove him and remove us, it will cast Winter in a worse light than if you let us do what we’re offering to do.”

“That is not our observation,” a large Fae with draping wings asked.

“It’s mine.  It’s the internet, stuff gets around.  Practitioners talk, and they’re talking more in this era of the Black Box.”

“That’s an app,” Verona cut in.  “A program that helps track and keep notes on Others, and warn people about what’s in what place.”

“Have you spoken to anyone in this machinespace about Winter Court matters?”

“That’s private, we wouldn’t, except between us,” Lucy said.

“I’ve been handling a lot of the communications… it’s just not the sort of thing we talk about or do,” Avery told them.

“But,” Lucy cut back in.  “If something happened to us, our trusted companions know the Wild Hunt was in town- it’s common knowledge-”

“Because Black Box,” Avery added, quick.

“They have the tools to know what happened and likely why.  And that will trace back to Winter,” Lucy said.  “What I’m proposing is better.  I do believe that, and not because I don’t want to be on your bad side.”

Fae in the back conferred, while others remained up front, stern and silent.

The ones who’d conferred stepped forward, while the ones in front slipped back.

What Lucy hadn’t admitted was why she was so certain word would get out.  She and Verona had talked before tonight’s meeting.

Trying to reconcile what didn’t make sense to them.

Then Verona had set up a number of emails, each scheduled six months in the future, to communicate just what had happened, and what Winter might have to hide.  If they died and she wasn’t able to cancel the scheduled email, then it would eventually go out.

Giving them their cover and Lucy’s certainty.

An issue remained.  Fae discussed with Fae.  The Carmine Exile had a reason for remaining, watching.

“We cannot return empty-handed,” a Fae addressed the three.

Lucy turned, looking at the Carmine Exile.  “Charles?”

“Chuck?” Verona threw in.

“No.”

“I’d like permission,” Lucy said.

“No,” the Carmine Exile answered, harsher this time, his voice taking on that faint growl that came from years of being Forsworn.

“You realize you’re forcing our hand, right?” Verona asked.  “Because if it’s us and Kennet on the one side and you on the other…”

“I’ve made deals and sworn oaths.”

“So have we.”

He didn’t reply.

But he was here to witness.  To mark the occasion.

Verona Hayward rubbed her hand.  Lucy had a hand on her injury.  Avery had a grip on the back of Lucy’s sleeve.

“Allow us Christmas,” Avery said.  “Give us this.  A reprieve, and then-”

Lucy picked up where Avery paused, telling them, “We’ll give you what you want.  We’ll tell you a weakness and we’ll give testimony against a Fae who has betrayed us, apparently betrayed all courts-”

“And spoken badly about Winter, and we can give some details on location,” Verona said.  “Is that enough?”

“That you know her and can testify is vital.  The weakness and location-”

“What weakness?” the Carmine Exile asked.  “I hope you mean something more complex than-”

“No comment,” Avery interrupted.  Charles talked over her, but was interrupted by a sharper, more skilled voice.

“Carmine,” a Fae rebuked him with a word.  “This is not your role or jurisdiction.”

The Carmine Exile fell silent.

“In the new year, is it agreed?” the Fae asked Lucy.

“Yes.  The new year,” Lucy answered.  She turned to Charles.  “Will you give us this?  We’ve tried to be fair.”

“You’re aware of what this means.”

Lucy nodded.

“Have your holiday, then,” he turned.  The other part of it was implied.  That after, they would be in conflict.

He turned to go, and the three girls and the familiar watched as he faded into snow and shadow.

They turned back toward the Wild Hunt, and the street was empty.

They’d bought the Wild Hunt off, at the price of war with the Carmine Exile and the Carmine’s agents.

The Aurum was satisfied.  A question personal to him answered.


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Crossed with Silver – 19.17

Avery

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Avery reached out, her left hand taking hold of Lucy’s right.  Lucy reached for Verona’s hand.

This felt like a Path.  Maybe it kind of was.  The Page of Suns had described a leap of faith involved in any Path.  Then, aesthetically, the glass of the greenhouse had a tint to it, droplets of moisture catching light from different sources.  With the angles of the glass and a bit of creative reinterpretation to fit the weight of the four Judges, the light on one side was brighter, moisture on the window like stars on the night sky.  At another window, it was dark, and the light that was there in the area was dimpled with the shadows of the droplets.  At a third, it was gold, glittering, and changing as steam left a duct at a nearby restaurant, making them not just shine, but glitter, lighting up and fading.

Each cast a shadow from their window, the shadows intersected at the midpoint between the fire escape with the glass door keeping the cold out, and the fine, wrought-iron table Rook had set up for the meeting.  Standing where the shadows intersected, Charles stood over the table.  The windows didn’t reflect him, but instead, he was so red that it seemed to tint everything else just a tiny bit.

Three of the judges conferred, while Charles stood there by the table.

“Can you hear what they’re saying?” Avery asked.

Lucy shook her head.

“Abraham Musser will be called back,” Charles told them.  “Things that were said were assumed to be true, or they may have fallen to a middle ground and tipped his way due to the precedents he’s already established.  If you wish to call him out, ask the judges to weigh or test the validity of a statement.”

“It’s like when you’re playing Babel and someone puts down the letter tiles trying for one of their three words that aren’t made up, right?  You challenge it?” Verona asked.  “If you’re right about it being a real word, you get to take their word off the table and get a point, and if you’re wrong, they get another point.”

“Yes,” Charles said, with a tone like he was humoring Verona.  “It’s like Babel.  Except the consequences are more severe.”

“What-” Avery’s dad spoke up.  “What are the consequences?”

“A long gainsaying.  Coup.  He could ask for a prize.  He could weaken your overall claim to Kennet, asserting power and control with ease.”

Avery thought of the Promenade.  The Garricks expecting her.

If she got gainsaid and couldn’t help at all, they’d probably forgive her, but…

“The higher the stakes of what you’re challenging, the higher the cost if you’re wrong,” Charles said.  “And you challenging everything Musser is?  He may retaliate to a failed challenge with a claim against everything you are.”

“Yeah,” Lucy whispered.

Avery nodded.

“Lucy,” Lucy’s mom said.  “I’m sorry, I have to speak up.”

Avery glanced to her left, and saw Lucy shut her eyes.  Avoiding eye contact with her mom.

“It’s a town.  I know it’s a town that’s special, it’s a town you’ve fought for, it’s a town you’ve worked for- you talked about bleeding for it, sweating for it, crying for it.  I know- I know it’s horrible of me to say it, here, at this table, with people who don’t have great alternatives on where to go.  I know it’s horrible when we’ve talked and I’m trying not to-”

She sighed, like the words wouldn’t come.

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“I’m trying not to be a negative force here.  I don’t want to distract or hurt or weaken what you’re trying to do by speaking up, but…”

“This feels like a long shot,” Avery’s dad finished the thought.

“It’s not just Kennet,” Avery said.  “I’ve been all over the place.  You’ve- you came with me sometimes, Dad.  Everywhere that was dangerous to drive through, it used to be Musser’s.  Those were all places where they couldn’t or wouldn’t fight.  Some of those places were places where I bet there were people like us who had to decide if they’d try something like this, or if they’d leave, and they left like you’re wanting to.”

“And those places used to be a place with a man in charge, basically, who’d do what he was saying earlier.  Using girls and women as bargaining chips.  Killing people who he disagrees with.  He said he’d burn Kennet.  If he can’t take stuff, he’ll destroy it.”

“I know, but it’s not your responsibility-” Avery’s dad started.

“But it’s-!” Avery interrupted.  Even though she didn’t have a full thought ready to go out.  “-It’s, it doesn’t stop there, you know?  People talk about practitioners doing this kind of take over of areas as being inevitable.  Like Musser’s organized takeover of Ontario was something that would eventually happen everywhere.”

“There are other places it’s happened,” Verona pointed out.

“There are, but this still matters.  If he makes another try at it and we just accept it, or we leave, or if we fight back but end up retreating, because two of us are hurt from the Wild Hunt, and Musser’s pulling out all the stops, like calling in Durocher… that’s allowing it.  That’s…”

Avery trailed off.

“It’s accepting it,” Lucy said.  “It’s like Booker- my brother. It’s what he talked about, about having to vote, having to protest, having to fight back against evil and ignorance.  Because they won’t stop there.  Besides, we said it, right?  There’s no backing out?”

“No,” Charles replied.

“There are ways to mitigate it,” Miss said.  “If you wanted to retreat, or if you had second thoughts, you could adjust the line of argument, set the stakes of the challenge low, lowering the cost by equal measure.”

“This is true,” Charles said.

“I don’t want to mitigate it,” Lucy said.  “I think we touched a nerve, we got close to something there, and- you told me to trust my instincts, mom.  That they’re good instincts.  Dr. Mona told me to trust my instincts.”

“I want you to trust your instincts when it keeps you safe.”

“Is this less safe?” Lucy asked.  “Isn’t it worse if we- if we’re so-called ‘safe’ now, but then in fifty years, or twenty, or ten, we’re living under a tyrant?”

“Or we move, we try to get out of reach of that tyranny, but the boulder’s started rolling downhill and there’s no stopping it?  Crushing everything eventually?” Avery added.

“I wanna see,” Cherrypop roused, pushing up to a sitting position where she’d been lying on Snowdrop’s belly.

“If we’re wrong, we eat the consequence.  It’ll probably be bad,” Verona said.  “But it’s worse if there might be an actual shot and we don’t take it.”

“Say yes,” Lucy told her mom.  “I think if you’re behind me, that helps.  That matters, that’s as good as ammunition for our guns, metaphorically, in this world.  I get you’re concerned, but I need you behind me.  It matters if we have people behind us.  Convincing the spirits.  This is like a popularity contest, and that’s crappy, but it matters.”

“Okay.  I trust you.  I believe you.  What I said before, it’s not that I think you’re wrong.  It’s that I love you and I know the stakes are high.”

Which worked.  If spirits were listening, clarifying that really did matter.

“Dad?” Avery asked, nervous.

“I’m behind you.  One of my biggest regrets in life was letting you down, last year, start of this year, then doing it again, this summer.  Not seeing you, not being there for you, not supporting you.  I’m here, and I see you.  What you’ve done, what you’re doing, who you are, what you’re building and becoming?  It’s good.  I trust you.”

Avery closed her eyes for a few seconds, moisture gathering to where it felt tremble-y between her eyelashes.  She nodded and turned before she could embarrass herself.

Lucy was looking at Verona, who looked-

Maybe a bit drawn-in.

Oh, they’d set up a stupid three-beat.  Like when the other two would just improv a stupid mini-ritual and Avery would have to scramble to think up a rhyme to tie it together.  She’d hated that.

Except this was worse.  Because they’d invoked their parents, got support and…

Tashlit gave her a thumbs up.  Peckersnot thrust a fist into the air.

Verona clicked her tongue, firing finger guns at them.

Which was nicer than nothing at all, but…

There was a bang.  Mal, sitting on a counter, with hands in the pockets of her open coat, put her foot out, heel of her boot striking the edge of the wrought metal table.  Dangerously close to the Vice Principal, as Lucy saw it.  “Hey.”

Verona turned.  “Heya.”

“We’re all with you, dumbass.  You’re a good witch of the town, you’re pulling off cool tricks.  You pulled off the Founding, and I guess that was a big deal.”

“You guess?” Lucy asked.

“It was a thing, pretty big, maybe, I don’t have any point of reference-”

“Mal,” Verona said.  “I know you’re joking around, but words matter right now.”

“Fine.  You did good,” Mal said, shrugging.  “It was badass, you’re pretty bad- you’re badass.  You guys got these three sitting next to each other-”

Mal angled her foot so the toe of her shoe pointed more in the direction of the Bitter Street Witch, Stew Mullen, and the Vice Principal.

“-and working on projects together, you’ve dealt with problems inside and out.  You’ve got your shop, you’ve got cool stuff going on-”

Verona coughed, mumbling through the cough, “Demesne.”

“-And a Demesne?  Heck yeah.  You want to say this is your town, you’ve got claim, you’re legit, you’re leading shit?  Sure, yeah.  That Musser guy seems like a dildo.  Fuck him.  Fuck his claim.”  She got louder.  “Fuck!  Him!  That’s what you threatened right!?  Fuck Musser, words matter and you wanted to make that a big thing!?  Fuck him in his handsome smugfuck face!”

There were some voices piping up now.  Goblins joining in.  Some from the undercity.  Ramjam banged something as he shouted, and that got Stew Mullen paying attention, banging his hand to punctuate statements.

“Fuck Musser!”

“Fuck Musser!”

Avery wondered if that was pinging Musser and what he thought might be happening.

“He wants to claim Kennet,” Verona said, pitching her voice to be heard.  “He’s made plans to come back in a month, he thinks he can burn it down between now and then and he can claim the ashes?  No.  He doesn’t get to claim even that!”

The voices were louder now.  The glass around them helped the sounds bounce around.  Some Dog Tags were stomping.

“Fuck his claim to the market,” Toadswallow said.

“Fuck his claim to Kennet found,” Miss said.

Avery was pretty sure that was the first time she’d heard Miss swear.

It went around the circle.  Kennet below.  Kennet above, from Louise, their rep from the human end of Kennet.

“We got to him, I think, we scored a win, we need to use it,” Lucy said.  She didn’t try to pitch her voice as much, but she didn’t need to.  She had a bit of volume, and she wasn’t addressing the room.  She was addressing Charles and the Judges.  “It feels off, I don’t buy it.  Enough-”

She paused, looking at Verona, then Avery, then down the table to her mom, who was joining her voice to the others.

Then to Charles.  “-Enough that I want to call his bluff.”

“We,” Avery added.  “We want to.”

Charles smiled that mean smile again.  “You did get his goat, didn’t you?  Fun to watch.”

“Gotta make it count though,” Lucy said.

“Yeah,” Charles said.  “You do.”

Avery turned to look at Snowdrop, who was holding Cherry up over her head, so Cherry could see and participate in the commotion, punching at the air and hollering.

Charles briefly met Avery’s eyes, then looked away.  “Then let’s see you do this.”

He turned to the other three Judges, who’d finished talking among one another a while ago, and who were now waiting.

The glass of the greenhouse cracked abruptly, making Avery jump.

She watched as the cracks spread, each with blood wedged in the gaps.  The interior of the greenhouse was bright and the outside dark, so it was hard to see through, with reflections getting in the way.  Those reflections changed, showing Musser and his group.

The weirdness of that quarter-second of eye contact pulled Avery out of the moment, even with the energy coming from Snowdrop.

What he’d said.  Not the ‘let’s see you do this’…

Got his

goat.

Avery’s hand tightened at Lucy’s, squeezing.

The cracks traced outlines around Musser, Durocher, Graubard, and Hall.  They moved as the four people turned around, looking straight at them.  The familiars were in the background.

“What is it?” Lucy asked.

“Musser’s heroic?” Avery asked.

“What?” Verona asked.  She was on the other side of Lucy, and her coming over, still holding onto Lucy’s arm, turned their talk into a huddle.

Behind them, the image was resolving, turning from a reflection to something real, framed by the cracks.

“I think Musser’s not immortal, but he’s doing something with heroic practice.  That might be the shenanigans-”

“The bullshit,” Lucy said, not like she was correcting Avery, but coming to the same conclusion.  “How sure are you?”

“Maybe eighty percent?” Avery replied.

“Okay, so what is it?  What clued you in?”

“I don’t know, but-”

She didn’t want to say it out loud.  Because the hint came from Charles.

“When I beat Easton,” Verona hissed the words, leaning in.  “He gave me a practice.  It’s bullshit, it’s super high tier War summoning that expects me to have a bunch of specific summons of specific lines already done and ready, a full workshop with high-end devices, expensive-ass spell components, and like, three other rituals already done and locked down.”

“Your point?” Lucy asked.

“Really now, Charles?” Musser asked, behind them.  He’d resolved enough to peer through.

“It’s not me, it’s the Kennet practitioners,” Charles said.  He turned, and saw them huddled, whispering.  “Are you with us?”

“Yeah, you can bring him through.”

The glass broke, and Musser, Durocher, Hall, and Graubard came through.  The window remained open, a portal to the street, where Graubard’s doll and Musser’s familiars gathered.

Durocher walked over to Charles, and put a hand at his cheek.  “You aged well.  You look good.  Better than you did when we had you at the Blue Heron.”

“I’m still worn out as shit, Marie,” Charles said.  “What the fuck are you doing with Musser?”

“You don’t know with all the power at your disposal?”

“I know.  I want to hear it.”

“You create all these huge, interesting Others for him to fight, and you’re wondering why I’m taking interest?”

“This is more than that…”  Charles turned toward them.  “Ready?”

“Let us finish talking?” Lucy asked.

“You have moments, not minutes.”

Okay.  They couldn’t afford to keep listening in.

Snowdrop joined the huddle.  Avery put an arm around her.  Cherrypop was perched on Snow’s head.

“The thing,” Verona whispered, her one hand clutching Lucy’s sleeve near the shoulder, her other hand balled up into a fist and resting on Avery’s.  “It was about heroic summons, the components were heroic relics, and it was a practice partially authored by the Mussers.  Went looking, couldn’t find anything elsewhere, including the prerequisite bullshit.  I think it was given to the Songetays as payment.”

“Okay,” Avery said, “I’m about, ninety percent sure now, I guess?”

“What was the practice?” Lucy asked.

“Something to support a heroic spirit, summon a dang solid spirit castle complete with siege weapons out of nowhere.  But you had to be right in the middle of it.  Basically so close you’re molesting your big hero spirit.”

“Bahahahahaha!  Molesting!” Cherrypop cried out.

“What are you discussing?” Durocher asked.

The goat, it hadn’t looked special.  Avery snapped her head around to look at Musser, her Sight flashing.

He looked back at her, past gold-rimmed spectacles.  He didn’t look special, there was no hint, but there didn’t have to be.

“Or you’d have to be the hero, right?” Avery asked the others, breaking eye contact with Musser.  “That would work?”

“Doesn’t solve it,” Lucy whispered back.  “He wouldn’t have the right to claim anything else his family did, still.”

“Are you done?” Charles asked.

“Channeled power,” Verona said.  “Read about it while looking to see if I could pull the practice off, out of spite.  Channeled power of the bloodline, brief strength, um, um.”

She snapped the fingers of her good hand.

“Channeled experiences?  Channeled responsibility?” Verona suggested.  “Channeled credit?”

“I move to break the challenge and take recompense,” Musser said.  “If they’re delaying instead of following through.”

“Good enough,” Lucy said, turning away, clapping hands onto Avery and Verona’s shoulders before walking between them and stepping forward.  She faced Musser and Charles.  “No need.  We’d like to narrow the focus of our challenge.”

Musser replied, “If you’re approaching me as three, backed by your unofficial council, I’m in my rights to have a group with me, and the assistance of my familiars.”

“We awoke together, we’re a trio together,” Lucy said.  “Nah.  But that’s not what I’m talking about.”

Lucy had energy that practically rolled off her, following the backing of the council, the cheering, the swearing, and everything else.  Like fire inside now.  Mal had spoken up because of Verona, but people adding their voices together for what had felt like months and months of frequently thankless bullshit- that mattered to Lucy too.  Backing from the community.  Validated as fuck.

Hell, Avery kind of felt it still.  Some of it thrummed through to her from Snowdrop, like raw excitement.  A nervousness that made everything feel like it had gone more still.  Like being in the zone, in the middle of a game.

And Verona- Verona gave nothing away.  Or barely gave anything away.  But Avery thought about the Verona she’d glimpsed when she realized she and Lucy had both asked their parents for backup, and Verona had nothing.  She could imagine a similar Verona who was a little dead inside, gone cold, shut off, like she’d seen after hearing Verona’s dad bitching at her, in that weird, dark, cold house.

And then she looked at Verona now and- it was a difference of the eyes being more receptive, taking things in, a difference of fractions of angles, maybe.  But it was a different Verona.

“Abraham Musser,” Lucy said.  “Those present soundly refute your claim-”

“Doesn’t matter.  I’ve made my statements.”

“-and with Judges present this time, we challenge you.  I challenge you on leadership, I challenge you on legitimacy, let them interrogate your word, and only your word.  Let’s leave the rest of the Musser family bloodline out of it.”

Musser smiled.

Oh shit.

Oh shit oh shit oh shit, Avery thought.

They were really doing this.  They were doing this and Musser was smiling and oh shit she’d brought up this idea and they were doing this and was this how everything got fucked over?

“What did you tell them, Charles?” Musser asked.

Oh shit.  They were on-target?  Oh shit.

“I thought it was fun they got your goat.  You were irritated.”

“What is this, Abraham?” Durocher asked, she sounded a bit amused.  “What did they find?”

Maybe Musser had thought that he’d gotten Charles, because Charles had pulled something, but he didn’t seem to now.  He looked confused, and the smile he’d had moments ago fell.

“Your involvement makes any proceeding biased,” he told Charles, ignoring Durocher.

“Oh shit,” Avery said, before she realized she’d said it.  “Are you scared?”

“Only acutely aware that one of the judges of this contest has a grudge against me, and that, based on Verona’s cooperation with him, you may be in league with him.”

Musser had already refuted their efforts to turn the tables on him when they’d pointed out his involvement in putting Charles on the Carmine Throne, back when Kennet had been attacked in fall, and after talking with Harless about the kinds of arguments and things that could go into contracts and things like this, they’d agreed not to lean on that.  It would be weak.  Useful as a finisher, maybe, but a bad foundation for any actual argument.

It was so tempting though.

“I can agree to act as a vehicle for the others.  Let them act through me, limit my speech and action only to what they’re unified in doing.”

“With all respect, Charles,” Musser said.  “I don’t trust you for even that.”

“I’m fine as long as I get to watch,” Charles said.  He turned to the other Judges.

“We will test the accused to determine the validity of the challenge.  Any statements?”

“I move that I and the Musser family are inexorably intertwined,” Musser replied.

“I move for a test of leadership and legitimacy,” Lucy said.  “Musser- Abraham Musser, if you deserve leadership, the contacts you’ve made, all of that?  If you’re legit?  Earn it again, on your own merits.  Only on your own merits.  Starting from a station like us three, without family money, without family books.”

“An unreasonable challenge.  The points of comparison, the minute factors… no.”

Charles glanced in the direction of the Aurum a moment before the Aurum spoke.  “An amendment.  The question is about leadership, character, and merit.  The three challengers will participate.”

The centipede rasped as it grazed floor and glass.  It let the man who’d been seated on the gold centipede’s head down to the floor, but remained in constant contact with him as it slid by, reaching.

For Avery, Verona, and Lucy.

“Us against him?” Avery asked.

“Each of them alone,” Musser said.  “I must insist.”

Alone?

Avery felt a bit of trepidation.

“We awoke together,” Lucy said.

“It’s a fair adjustment, to keep to the spirit of the challenge,” the Aurum said.

“This won’t-” Verona paused, as the centipede’s long body slid between her and Lucy.  She rubbed her palm.  “It won’t Worold us or whatever the term is?  It won’t screw with our heads?”

“No more than briefly experiencing being Carmine did,” Charles said.  “Your conscious and present mind doesn’t need the challenge.  You may retain the highlight reel.”

The coils kept gathering, meshing.

The Sable spoke as darkness deepened.  “Two out of the three of you must surpass him in leadership and legitimacy.”

The darkness became deeper than anything.

🟂

“Avery.”

Avery turned, both hands gripping the right strap of her bag.  Ms. Hardy.

Oh gosh, she was beautiful.  Her hair was dyed white and her makeup was always stellar and she was right here.  Gosh.

Avery raised her eyebrows, shoulders drawing together a bit.

“You’re not in trouble, don’t worry.  Do you have a minute?  Can we chat in my classroom?”

Avery nodded.

“Leave the door open?  Sit wherever.”

Avery left the door open.

She was going to break her streak.  She’d had a good run.  Fifty days without speaking up in school, except to answer questions when asked by teachers.  She wasn’t in soccer because they didn’t really have a soccer team, and hockey was over… not that hockey had been better.  The Kennet team didn’t have enough interested girls in her age range because the Dancers stole so many and only, like, Melissa was really willing to go that extra mile.  So they had people from Tripoli come over, but that meant there was less coaching, less socializing…

So she’d gotten to fifty days.

Home was a bit different.  The rules for home were that her streak ended if someone asked how she was and meant it.  Or if they asked for her actual opinion, or gave her a choice for what to watch on TV or what to get for dinner, and she wasn’t immediately drowned out.

Home hadn’t broken the streak either.

And being the quiet, weird homeschool girl who hadn’t spoken up or talked to anyone for fifty days meant that less people wanted to even try to talk to her and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“I wanted to ask, are you okay?”

She felt like she was drowning.  Like she had a lump in her throat that had been there for weeks, and she could barely breathe around it.

She shrugged.

She wanted to reply, she was supposed to reply, being asked if she was okay was one of the things that could break the streak.

But she couldn’t.

She’d heard about how an athlete could get the yips.  Like a golf swing that would get a weird quirk in it that the athlete couldn’t get around, or a gymnast’s flip or whatever, where they’d self-sabotage and whatever they did, it was stuck like that.  They’d have to retrain from scratch.

She felt like she had that, but for words, her voice.

“Not sure, huh?” Ms. Hardy asked, sitting on the edge of her desk.  “Okay.  No pressure, for the record.  Like I said, you’re not in trouble.”

Her tattoos were so cool, but Avery didn’t want to stare.  She felt like she could start crying but she didn’t want to do that either.  Not in front of the cool teacher.

“I noticed in your education plan, it said you were homeschooled.  How was that?”

Avery shrugged again.  It wasn’t the homeschooling’s fault, not really.  It’s me.

“And home?  It’s okay?”

She was studying Avery.

She felt like she was at the bottom of a pool, every day that had passed since she’d last talked a stone on top of her she now had to get out from.  To get up, get out, breathe again.

The tears, they felt like they could come.  Like she could crack and-

“Ms. Hardy?”

Ian Dobson, with Noah Sauve, in the doorway.

“What do you need, Ian?  I’m with a student.”

“It’s an emergency.  The kind only you can deal with,” Ian said.

Avery stared at the floor.

“An emergency emergency?”

“A run emergency,” Ian said.

Ms. Hardy started toward the door.  “Avery, is this okay?”

No.

Because she felt like an emergency too.

She nodded, opened her mouth to speak, then swiped a hand toward the door.  As in ‘go’.  Nodded again.

“If you stay- no, I don’t know how long this will take.  Can we talk in the morning?  You could come in a bit early.” Ms. Hardy lingered for a second in the doorway, checking.  “Mr. Lai is in his classroom, actually, if you’d check in with him?”

Avery nodded quickly.

Then Ms. Hardy was gone.

Avery sat on the desk, her back to the windows.  She watched as straggling students left.  Gabe whatshisname was with three slightly younger students.  There were older boys out on the soggy grass of the field, running relays.

When nearly everyone was gone except the janitors, she made herself get up, hop down from the desk, and go to her locker.

She didn’t have homework, didn’t need her bag.  She shoved it in, and it got wedged inside.

She kicked it, hard.

A panel at the back of the locker caved in.  Something fell.

Avery leaned in, hand on her bag for support, and peered through, best she could.  A book?

She reached for it, blew off the cobwebs, and then pulled back into the waning light of day.  A notebook, fat, with papers taped or glued in.

The cover.  Tell no one, do not share.  This book contains magic.

Well.  Those instructions would be easy to follow.

She pulled her bag free of the locker, stuffed the book inside, and then pulled it on.

She didn’t go to Mr. Lai, she didn’t go to the guidance counselor.  She didn’t go to see Ms. Hardy in the morning.


Verona

“Tell no one, do not share.  This book contains magic,” Verona read it aloud.  “Cool as hell.”

She grabbed some of the sweaters she’d picked out, a taxidermied rat, and the book, and took them over to the counter.

“And the book?” the woman there asked, with her fake Scottish accent.

“Not yours.”

“You didn’t come in with it.”

“No, but I know who it belongs to,” Verona lied.  “And it’s not tagged, so it’s not yours either.”

“If someone left something behind, we should keep it in lost and found.”

“I come in here all the time, do you not trust me?” Verona asked.

“I don’t know you.  Can I see the cover?  Or the book?”

“No.  Man, you’re annoying,” Verona replied, as she backed away from the counter.  She fished a twenty out of her pocket.  “For the sweaters and the rat.  Do you want the sale or not?”

The woman seemed to debate whether to pursue things.

But that was the trick.  It was possible to get away with a lot of things in life if you made yourself a big enough pain in the ass.

The woman reached out.  Verona closed the distance, passing the bill over, before stepping back.

The sweaters and rat were bagged, Verona popped the book into the bag, and then she got on her bike to head home.

How cool would it be if there was something to it?  Random magic book, hidden in a box of stuff that hadn’t been unpacked yet?

She leaned back, hands off the handlebars for a brief while, seeing how far she could push things.  She got to the bridge, had to make the turn, tried to do it without touching the handlebars, and ended up having to put her foot out to stop herself.  She biked normally the rest of the way.  Back to the house.

“Where were you?” her dad asked.

“What does it matter?” she asked.

“It matters because I needed you for something.  Where were you?”

“With friends.”

“You don’t have friends, Verona.  You take after me like that.  Come downstairs.  I want to get started on the floor, but my back’s a mess right now.”

“I’ve got to go to the bathroom,” she lied.

“Come right back down when you’re done,” he called over, already on his way downstairs.

She rolled her eyes, went up to the bathroom, and locked herself in.  Sitting on the toilet, she opened the book in her lap.  Pages from other books had been taped inside.  Essentials…

“Verona!”

She bit back a swear word.  “I’m in the bathroom!”

“I can’t find the box cutting knife!  I think you took it!”

She had.

“I didn’t!  Keep looking!”

Fundamental conceits.

Awakening.

🟂

Jeremy put his arm around her shoulders, and she leaned into him.

A big thing of whiskey or something was being passed around.  Jeremy took it, gulped down some, then passed it to her.  She passed it on.

“Are you the designated driver?” Mia asked.

Verona rolled her eyes.  “Not sixteen yet.  How drunk are you?”

“Not drunk enough.  Pass it.”

George had tipped the bottle back, and bubbles were rising as he guzzled.  He held up a finger.

“Dude, go easy, it’s not beer,” Bryson said.

“I’m fine,” George said.  He tried to burp and it didn’t really happen.  “I’m good.”

“My uncle let me get supervised-drunk a couple years back,” Hailey said.  “Figured if I’m going to do it, and obviously we’re going to get drunk he should be there to supervise.”

“Isn’t your uncle a cop?”

“No comment,” Hailey said, in a slow-motion drunk voice, with a look on her face like she thought she was being more clever than she was.  “But what I’m saying, here’s what I was going to say.  I’m saying you learn your tolerances.  He believed, he thought, you need to know how far you can go.  I think that’s smart.  I think that’s how things should be and kids- right from the time you’re a kid, you should know how much you can take.”

“Hey,” Jeremy murmured.  “You good?”

Verona nodded.

“You!  You’re not sensible, Verona Haywood.”

“Hayward.”

“You’re pulling a Weagle on us, you weasel.”

Alayna Weagle was their religious, rather uptight classmate.

“Okay.  I think we should cut you off.”

“Weagler!”

“Alayna’s not that bad,” Verona replied.  “She’s uptight, but I was doing group work with her a lot, and she can be funny.”

“She’s a Weagler,” Hailey said.  “And you’re being a Weagler.”

“Okay.  Just saying.  Parents can suck and if she got stuck with hyperreligious parents, and she’s dealing with being the odd one out, I’m going to-”

“Weagle.  You’re going to Weagle.”

“Okay, Hailey,” Verona grunted as she stood.  “I think you’re done and you need to sleep this off.”

“You good?” Mia called over.

“Uhhh…”

“Want help?” Jeremy asked.  “I should watch out for Wallace, but… maybe I can find someone-”

“I will manage.  I think Hailey can stand and walk mostly straight.  I think I’ll just steer.”

Hailey accepted Verona’s help in getting to her feet, before leaning in.  “Weagler.”

“You look after your boy.  I will look after Hailey because I don’t trust most of these losers to.”

“You are the designated driver,” Mia said.

“With feet, not wheels.  Oh.”

Jeremy was leaning in for a goodbye kiss.  Verona kissed him.  He tasted like whiskey.  Interesting.

“I could do that a few more times,” she told him.

Hailey leaned into her.  “You’re not a Weagler like this.”

“That’s not a thing, I think you’re the only one here who gets it, and it’s mean to our classmate.  Stop.”

Hailey smiled, then she started, “That’s a Wea-”

“Stop.  No.”

Verona had to stop her a few more times before Hailey gave up.

“See you tomorrow?” Jeremy asked.

“Maybe let’s make plans for the afternoon.  I’m guessing you’ll have some hangover.”

“You think?”

“Drink water,” she ordered him.  “And go find your boy.  He went off to pee, what, five minutes ago?  If he’s still peeing after five minutes I’m really worried about how much he drank.”

“More worried about food allergies than the drinking, but yeah.  See you, girlfriend.”

“See you.”

She steered Hailey in the direction of Hailey’s house.  Hailey brought the whiskey she’d brought to the party, and Verona had her hands full keeping Hailey moving while also trying to keep the bottle from being in easy view of nosy neighbors and passing cops.  And stopping Hailey from taking any more swigs.

“You have a boyfriend.  How cool is that?” Hailey asked.

“I dunno, Hailey.  I really don’t,” Verona replied, and she couldn’t lie, either.

“Are you good?  Is he good?  Is he secretly sexy?”

“He is unsecretly sexy in my metaphorical books.”

“Your books are weird.”

“Maybe they are.  I’m happy being weird.”

“That’s weird.”

Verona looked at Hailey as they walked down the street, dark, without even streetlights.

“You’d be the perfect person to confide in, huh?” Verona asked.  “I’m willing to bet you won’t remember any of this.”

“What?  I lost track.  What?”

“Yeah, exactly.  It’s okay.  Jeremy’s okay.  It’s boring, kind of, you know?  Do you get that?”

“No.  Maybe because it’s Jeremy.

“Can’t see what another boy would do better.  It’s just dull sometimes.  Kissing?  Good.  Talking cats or art or books?  Good.  But I dunno.  I thought I’d feel more attached after a while.”

“Have you boned?

“No comment.  Also, I hate the word ‘boned’.”

“Boned boned boned…”

“Yeah yeah yeah.”

“Boned Weagle.”

“Yeah okay.  I walked into that one.  I think the thing that eats at me is like, he’s super into me.  I don’t know why.  But he is.  And I’m not that into him?  At all?  Like something’s broken or disconnected.  So it feels like I’m being unfair.”

“Bone it to make it up for it.  Him.  Bone him for him.”

“It’s like… okay?  He’s fine, he’s cool, I enjoy his company, but I’m not excited for his company.”

“Maybe you’re gay.”

“Maybe.  I dunno!  But it’s like… alright, I guess?  And if I’m going to be bored anyway, I might as well be bored with a guy to talk cats with and to fool around with and bone.”

Hailey’s mouth opened into a shocked, accusatory ‘o’.

“You’ll forget I said that, I bet.  Anyway, it’s fine when it’s fine and low key, but if I’m too emotional, I feel like my dad, and if I’m not emotional enough I’m like my mom so what the fuck do I do?  Or is that my dad’s just such a constant meltdown, everything more adult and mature feels dead and dull to me?”

“You-”  Hailey raised a finger, waving it through the air.  “-bone him.”

“Okay, should’ve guessed the punchline there.  That’s on me, I guess.”

Hailey started silently laughing, leaning harder into Verona, making Verona work to keep her upright for a minute as they walked.  When Verona had to stop them and focus wholly on keeping Hailey from punching the road using her face, that ended the laughing fit and got them back to where they could walk again.

“You should-” Hailey said.

“Are you going to repeat the punchline?”

“Use a medium amount of emotion,” Hailey replied.

“Oh yeah?  Huh.  Why didn’t I think of that?  It sounds so easy.”

Hailey patted Verona on the back.

“It’s not easy though.”

Hailey’s cheeks bulged out.

It took Verona a second to realize Hailey wasn’t making a face to try to get a smile out of Verona.  “Did you-”

Hailey’s eyes were watering.  A look crept across her face, cheeks still bulged out.

“Oh god.  Over here-”

She had to work to help Hailey bend over the ditch to throw up, and keep her balanced so she wouldn’t drop face first into the ditch to punch the vomit and ditchwater at the bottom with her face.

Hailey ended up bending down, periodically throwing up.  “It went into my nose.  I nose vomited.”

“Okay, honey, okay.  I don’t know what to do about that-”

Hailey leaned back abruptly, and Verona had to haul back to keep her from falling over.  Because it was so much work, she missed what Hailey was doing at first.  Unbuttoning her jeans.

Hiking her jeans down to mid-thigh, standing on the yellow line by the side of an empty road.

“No, no, no, you’re not at all okay or positioned for a number one, and that’s-”

It was not a number one.

“Oh god, oh no-”

Hailey vomited as well.  For the leverage, and because Hailey was starting to cry, Verona managed an awkward hug-slash-chokehold around Hailey’s neck and shoulders, stabilizing her.

“Oh honey, oh no, oh, that’s- oh that is a full-body rebellion against what you drank tonight.  Oh, that spattered my shoes.”

Hailey sobbed, ass hanging out, right on the side of the road, snot and vomit on her face.

“Yeah, I know.  Poor you.  Okay,” Verona told her, smoothing her hair back.  “You owe me so much for this.

Hailey moved abruptly, trying to thrust a hand between her legs-

Too late to adjust anything.  There was the number one.  A stream, when she was not positioned for a stream.  It hit the back of Hailey’s pants as she squatted there.

“Oh no.  Well.  There’s no real way of salvaging this.  That’s- Hailey!”

The bottle had pressed against Verona’s thigh as she crouched by Hailey, and Hailey had inadvertently tipped it out all over Verona’s right leg.

“Fuck off, come on, fuck you Hailey.  You owe me so much.  Double for not telling anyone at school this.  I think your parents are going to have to find out.”

“I’m sorry!” Hailey wailed.  “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

“I’m sorry too for yelling.  I’m sorry.”

They got caught in a few cycles of looped apologies, which Verona went along with mostly because Hailey got distraught without the feedback.  Verona avoided all hazard zones as she helped Hailey hike up gross pants, then got Hailey moving back toward her house, a lot slower than before, with Hailey’s complaining and whining throughout.

She wished she could see an Other, but there weren’t many local ones.  Some really dumb and hostile goblins, some spirits.  But nobody major.  Trust Kennet to be boring.

She dropped Hailey off, led her upstairs to the bathroom, and ran the shower.  That woke up the parents, Verona gave them the rundown, she washed her hands, and then she skedaddled before there could be any questions.

Maybe she could use magic to forget this.

She let herself inside, and she was quiet as she climbed the stairs, knowing just where to step and how to step on a stair to avoid creaks, even when the stairs were old.

She shut the door quietly, changed, and went to the bathroom.  Only to find her dad there in the hallway, just to her left.

“I could smell the alcohol on you from outside your room.  You reek of it.”

“None of your business.”

“You are my business, Verona!” he raised his voice.  “And when you’re not my business, you’re the reason I do what I do.  You’re the reason I work hard, you’re the reason I try.  And you’re wasting your life.”

“I’m thirteen, what do you want from me?  Should I go invent something?  Run for Prime Minister?”

“I want effort, Verona.  I want you to help me, I want you to connect more-”

“Oh god,” she groaned.  She passed him and went into the bathroom.  He followed her in.

“Excuse me.”

“Excuse yourself, walking away while I was talking to you.”

“I’m going to take off my pants and wash off the alcohol that was spilled on me, and I think I have someone’s whiskey diarrhea spatter on my shoes, and maybe my pants too, which I’d love to wash off and hang up to dry so they’re dry for tomorrow, so excuse me, get the fuck out.”

“It’s my house, my bathroom, and you can wait one minute, explain what my thirteen year old daughter is doing coming home drunk.”

“Not drunk, got spilled on.”

“Yeah, sure, I don’t believe you, ladder girl.”

“Do you want me to do a breathalyzer?  Try me.  Actually try me.”

“You know I don’t have one.  I should, if this is the route you’re going down.”

“I’m not going down that route!  I was good!  I helped someone, I hung out with my boyfriend, and I was good!”

She started to pull off her shoes, careful to touch only safe zones.  She tossed them into the sink.

He shut off the tap.  “I.  Don’t.  Believe.  You.  Ladder.  Girl.”

“Then fuck you, you’re an idiot, fuck you!  Now get the fuck out so I can pull off these pants before they stick to me or whatever!”

“I wiped your ass for so many years, ten times more than your mother ever did.  And you’re worried about taking your pants off in front of me?”

“Okay, get the fuck out of my way then, let me out, let me- I can change in the laundry room, I don’t care.”

He blocked her.  “Let’s talk.”

“No.”

“Well, you can stay there and wait and be uncomfortable and you can wait until I’m done, and if you-”

She covered her ears.

He stopped, arms folded, waiting, blocking the doorway.

She pulled her hands down.

“Thank you, that didn’t take long, I can wait every time you do that, I’m not going anywhere.  Now, sit, let’s talk.”

She contemplated her options, and then she shrieked.

“Okay, Verona-”

She shrieked again.

“Verona, stop.”

She did it again.

“Verona-”

She shrieked, and he covered his ears this time.

She tilted her hips, folded her arms, and waited, breathing hard.

He pulled his hands down, and she started it up again.

“Verona, stop,” he said, covering his ears.  “I have a stress headache, you’re making it much worse-”

She kept going.

“Verona, stop.”

She pushed it further.

“Verona-”

It came out of nowhere.  A swipe of the hand.  A few cosmetics, some containers of hygeine stuff, empty ink bottles and glass mason jars for painting that she’d rinsed out.

They went from being lined up behind the bathroom sink to the far wall, hitting tub, curtain rod, and falling across the floor.  Shattered glass from the ink bottles littered the floor.

“Okay.  You’re acting like a child,” she said, talking as normally as she could as her heart hammered.  She was legit scared.

“Let’s talk,” he said.

She looked down at the glass on the floor and her bare feet.

She reached for her shoes, with the tiny brown flecks on the upper halves-

He grabbed them, pulling them from her hand, because she’d already had a partial grip on them.  He threw them into the tub too.

Two paces away for her.  Across a sea of glittering glass spikes and flecks, getting closer to him, they might as well be in space.

“Let’s talk,” he repeated.

She bent down, and she picked up the biggest piece of glass.  A triangle of glass, that she held between thumb and index finger.

“I can call the police if you don’t stop.”

“You’ll want to rethink this,” he said.  “There are camps that taken in troubled teens.”

“You’re my only real trouble.”

“Wilderness, no internet, no phone.  Only the fires you make yourself for heat.  Give you discipline, get you on track again.  No alcohol-”

“I didn’t drink, so fuck you!”

“Stay civil, I’m being reasonable here.  If you can’t treat me like a daughter should treat a father-”

She shrieked, brandishing the glass.

“Stop fucking screaming, Verona, stop!  Stop!”

She swiped at his reaching hand, that was grabbing for her mouth.  He pulled back, and she kicked the mat in the middle of the bathroom, flipping it up and over, giving herself a bit of ground to stand on, lunging forward.  He seemed to think she was going to stab or slice him, and tried to fend her off, which gave her an avenue- she stepped onto his foot for another place to get footing, and leaped for safety, out of the bathroom.  She still got glass in her foot, somehow, a sting of pain.

She stumbled, fell, twisted around, and brandished glass again, breathing hard.

He didn’t push things further as she retreated into her room, glass stabbing the sole of her foot with every step.

She closed and locked the door to her room.  She’d stolen the doorknob from the bathroom in the basement downstairs, because it had a lock.

Her dad banged on the door.

Breathing hard, she put the glass down, sat in her chair, and used tweezers from her art stuff to get the glass sliver out of her foot.

Okay, she thought.

Okay… time to pull the trigger.

Time to deal with her dad, because she couldn’t do this anymore.  It was too much.

She looked at her magic stuff.  Protected with connection blocks.

She checked the time, then put the numbers down in sequence.

She stared down at the numbers for a long time.

She released those numbers into the aether.  Reaching out.

Her dad pounded on the door.

It was done.  Just had to wait.

“Verona!”

The call was answered.

She put her cell phone to her ear.  “Mom.”

“Verona!  I need you to come out here right now!”

“Can I come to stay with you in Thunder Bay?” Verona asked.

🟂

“Is this for a job, or for another thing, or…?”

“An opportunity,” Florin told her.

“So is this like, student athlete gets scouted and this is the next step?” Verona asked.

“It’s not not like that,” Florin told her.  “But frankly, I think it’s much better.”

“I’m down.  Sure.”

“Alexander?” Florin asked.

Another man joined them, walking through the water to the clearing the Lord had made and left intact for them to meet.  Narrow, orange hair, gray streaks by the temples.  Solid nine out of ten in the looks department, if she ignored the old, and the wrinkles around the eyes as he studied her.

His eyes went to the Others she had with her.  “I’m Alexander Belanger.  Augur.”

“Verona Hayward.  Don’t know what to call myself.”

“I see you have friends.  A bogeyman, I gather?”

“Sounds about right.  That’s Foodtruck.  My bodyguard and chauffeur.”

Foodtruck was a bogeyman, or bogeywoman, like most women in their thirties, but she’d had her jaw torn off at one point, along with her cheeks.  She kept her hair long and hunched forward.  She stuck around to be a bodyguard, but Verona kept her around to be a friend.  If she’d just left it at ‘friend’, Foodtruck wouldn’t have stayed.

“A fairy, hm?”

“Tooth fairy,’ Verona clarified.  The Other was as tall as an ordinary adult woman, but about half the weight, dressed in a gauzy dress Verona had dug up.  Her lipless mouth was crammed with small teeth.  There was something almost insect-like about her, and it wasn’t the narrow dragonfly-like wings.  It was the dark eyes, the way she spoke, the frame of her.

So cool.  Verona smiled at her.

The tooth fairy chattered her teeth at Verona.

Verona replied with clicks of teeth and tongue.  She knew she was butchering it.

The tooth fairy laughed.

“What did she say?” Florin asked.

“That I have a cavity,” Alexander replied.  “It’s the food at the school.  And sugar in my coffee, I’m sure.  Even if it’s a small amount, with the amount I drink…”

“School?” Verona asked.

“First…”  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a skull with markings engraved onto it.  The skull, smaller than a normal skull seemed like it would be, was yellowed with age.  The markings etched in past the surface layer had gone brown.

He handed it to Verona.

“What is it?” Verona asked.

“What do you think it is?”

“A test?” Verona replied.  “To get into the school?”

Alexander raised his eyebrows, but didn’t volunteer much.

She examined the skull, turning it around in her hands.  Then, hearing a click behind her, she turned, passing it back to Dentienne.

Dentienne examined the skull’s teeth, then passed the skull to Foodtruck, who sniffed it, deep.

“Gluck,” Foodtruck said.

“Want to write it down?”

Foodtruck accepted the writing material.  In violent pencil slashes, she wrote out: Girl.  Young.  Killed by is wrong.  Alchemy.  Acid 2 Prisoner 2 slow death 2 still a little alive.  Rinsedeath 2 Butchered.

“Killed by is wrong?” Verona asked.

“Uckuh.”

Verona used her Sight as the skull was handed back to her.  She glanced between it and Foodtruck, who periodically gestured.  To her Sight, cats were moving in line with various flows and triggers and activations.  But the spirit cat that was inside the skull, nestled in the bowl of it when she turned it upside down…?  It was sleeping, waiting.

“Sleeping spirit cat,” she whispered to it.  These things worked best if kept private.  “What are you about?”

It didn’t respond.  But it stretched, claws exposed.

She whistled sharply, then she nodded.  Deaf.

She handed it back to Alexander.  “Alchemy, I think.  The skull rouses on its own.  When it feels like it.  Whispers about alchemy, I assume.  Young girl born to an alchemist family a long time ago, something happened.  Acid was thrown in her face.  I’m guessing by the family.”

Dentienne chattered in that obscure tooth fairy tongue.

“Special acid.  Didn’t stop slowly burning her face away.  Didn’t kill her.  Couldn’t.  Her father kept her locked up after.  Killed her father, escaped, was taken to a hospital, they rinsed her wounds clean, she died.  Body was returned to the family for burial, they took it apart for parts, I guess.  Including this.”

“Anything else?” Alexander asked.

“There’s a dangerous side to it.  The spirits inside it tried to scratch at me.  Or scratched at me by accident.  I think whatever power in it is sleeping, or doesn’t hurt.”

“The Alchemist’s Daughter is a story much like you described.  But she identifies items and their value, at a cost of making you see other good things as bad, potential potions as poisons, and bad things as harmless or desirable.  It’s been tempered somewhat, the side effects reduced.”

“Did I do okay?”

Alexander turned to Florin.  “Her experience?  Mentor?”

“Discovered text.  Self taught from there.  She has a good head for it.”

Alexander gave her an appraising look.

“Can you afford the tuition?”

“I can ask my mom.  How much is it?”

🟂

Kass Knox turned to Verona as Verona walked by.  “Decide on a specialty yet, newbie?”

“Why would I want to specialize in anything?  I want to get good at just about everything, so I can pull off whatever strikes my fancy.”

“Everything is a lot of stuff.”

“Ergo me, library, devouring all the knowledge I can.”

“It loses its shine after a while, you know?”

“Then I’d better read more, and I’d better do it fast.”

“That’ll burn you out faster.”

“Don’t go moving the goalposts.”

“I’m not moving goalposts, I’m trying to communicate reality to a butthead.”

“Manners,” Nina murmured, as she passed by, bapping Kass on the head with a book. “And volume.  Thank you.”

Kass sat down by Verona.  “Hey.”

“This is the dinner reminder?” Verona asked, craning around.  “I think I’ll keep reading and get a snack from the kitchen later, to tide myself over.”

“How do you not appreciate food?”

“I eat when hungry and I’m not hungry often.  I want to keep reading.  Without interruption.”

“You’re so rude.”

“Who’s rude?  You’re interrupting my reading.  I’ll play with you when my eyes get tired.”

“Play?  We’re not kids.

“Okay, then that’s all the more reason to dive into these books.  Because fooling around and being immature is one of the few things that’d get me away.  When my eyes get tired.”

“Gods and spirits.  Okay, listen.  Important.”

Verona sat up, put the book down, and gave Kass her best bored look.

“Civil war imminent.”

“Oh that.  I think I’ll camp out here, read.”

“You won’t be able to.”

“Then I’d better spend the time I can reading, hadn’t I?”

“If it was possible for a human to become a Librarian Animus, I think you might manage it.”

“Badass.”

“No.  Ugh.  Okay, look, basic reality?  Dinner is soon.  Battle lines are being drawn.  If you are not seen, both sides are going to think you were with the other side.  You get me?”

“You can tell them I wasn’t.”

Kass sighed.

She was nervous, Verona realized.

“Fiiiiine.  Fine.  Am I taking a side by being with you?”

“No.  Yes.  But we can handle that.  There’s kind of a ‘neutral’ table you can sit at.”

“I want to sit at the table with the Others.”

“Leave them alone.”

“They’re cooler than people.”

“Come on.”

Verona got up, and let herself be dragged away.  She whispered, “Nina?”

“Yes?”

“Can you hold onto that book for me?  I really do want to finish it.”

Nina winked.

Outside, Verona navigated the battle lines.  She watched, she saw the staff patrolling.

She sat at the neutral table and wished she’d brought a book.

She watched as people navigated different groups.  She made sure to talk to both, to be noncommittal.  She watched Bristow’s seven Aware- Clem, Daniel, Shellie, Kevin, Kevin’s girlfriend, Sharon, and Ted.

A faint screech drew her attention.

She got up, walking over, down toward the woods.

There, by the path, she saw Milly Legendre.

She’d set a bowl from the kitchens down.  It was filled with water and ice cubes, with a wreath of flowers within.

A small goblin, about the size of a hot dog bun, was sitting in the water, shivering, shrieking.

“What are you doing?” Verona asked.

“Shit, you scared me.”

“What are you doing to him?”

“Sealing him.  The flowers cover the ‘running’ portion for the water.  The cold just makes him miserable.  He got further than goblins are supposed to.  I’m trying to figure out if he’s one of the goblins with special infiltration tricks, or if he was sent.  So I’ll let him sit and shiver.  Goblins can’t rescue him, there’s nobody and nothing else that’ll get it done.”

“Oh.”

“Did you pick a side?”

Verona shook her head.  “Don’t plan to.”

“You’re not Durocher.  You might not be able to get away with that.”

Verona shrugged.

“If you’re gone too long, people will think you’re on my side, conspiring.”

Verona sighed, and she walked away.

🟂

Quietly, she slipped outside.  A bit of practice got her through the doors, that were locked.

Some teeth from a woodpecker in hand, with a bit of tooth fairy practice- she became a bird.

Flying past some wards and things.  Her Sight and some ritual practice she’d set up prior helped her avoid the worst of them.

Kids really weren’t meant to be out at night, and if she tripped the wrong wards, she’d get attention, and attention meant problems in this climate.

She landed past the big wards, and became human again, spitting out the teeth.  She glanced around, and saw some people outside, talking.  By Bristow’s building in progress.

They didn’t seem to see her, so she ducked down toward the path.

The hot dog bun of a goblin was still sitting in the water, shivering.

“I bet you’re all pruned up.”

He turned to look at her, eyes reflecting light in the gloom.

“Like a ballsack,” she told him.

He smiled, but it was a feeble smile.

“I’m probably making enemies doing this, but… let me check the wards…”

She poked around, her Sight representing the wardings as cats.

A benefit from picking cat themed items for skull, knife, timepiece, coin, and so on.  For personal item too.

She went to draw a line through one, and something that she hadn’t been able to see in the dark reacted.  It sparked, bright and sharp, burning her hand.

“Fucking- fuck.  Fuck ow,” she swore.  “She really didn’t want you free, huh?”

The goblin didn’t respond.

“Yeah.  Let’s see… deciphering this, gotta deal with this, gotta handle this first, so there’s an order.  It’s cyclical.  Daisy chained.  Then…”

She fed power into it, from a trinket she’d gotten from Deb for running an errand.  She didn’t have much power of her own, so everything was a chore.  But still.

Power to feed it, illuminating the diagram.

Which made it easier to see the side parts.  And one side part was meant to trigger, feeding something into the rest of the diagram.  She could modify it carefully, remove the reference, the Legendre family seal being used to feed family power into it… and she put a fragment of a broken abyssal knife she’d gotten from Foodtruck down into that circle instead.

Feeding Abyssal energy into the ward, which corroded and…

It popped, sizzling, ground cracking.

She used her toe to tip over the bowl.  The goblin fell out.  Water sloshed out around it, probably draining it a bit more.

If it could be drained more.

She picked it up.  “Hey guy.  Got a name?”

“Squirt.”

“Hi Squirt.  Is that the goblin equivalent of being a John or an Eric?”

He started to shrug, but he didn’t look like he had the ability.  It was like he’d been brought to the cusp of death and held there.

“What do you need, Squirt?” she asked.  “Food?  I could grab something.  Water… that feels like adding insult to injury.”

“Warm.”

“Need to get warm?  Come on.  Body heat.  Don’t poke me, don’t make me regret this.”

He didn’t look like he had it in him to make her do much.

“Ah, people suck, don’t they?” Verona murmured, pacing, hugging him close.  “Others are more interesting.  You know I thought about being an Other?”

He sighed.

“By the time I found out I could, I’d mostly gotten away from the reasons why.  I figure I’ll flirt with the possibilities, practices in that direction, and if the universe sees fit, I won’t complain.  How’s that?”

He was asleep.

“I was hoping for a bit of conversation, but it’s okay,” she told him.  “Gets a bit lonely, is all.  Being the odd one out, not really clued into everything going on with this war or practitioner families or whatever.”

She scratched his back with her fingernails and he stretched out as much as he could, pressing against her stomach.

“Sorry it took me a while, I wanted to make sure-”

A spark from the diagram made her head turn.

It was powered again?  Despite-?

Her Sight told her that spirits were flowing.  And so were shadows.  A chance flow, maybe, a random bit of spiritual weather, flowing this way.  The diagram, even ruined with cracks, still had something active, and the power that was running through it-

That part she’d triggered before kicked off at full force.

“What the fuck?” she asked, backing away.

But there were still spirits and shadows.

She turned, and she saw a man in the field.

A green glint in one of his eyes, visible in the gloom.

Taking her as a target because she was easy?  Disconnected?  Because he didn’t like her face?

The world groaned and moaned, cracked and-

She turned just in time to see a tree falling.

She tossed Squirt clear.  He hit the grass, bounced, and rolled.  She did try to move, hoping branches would catch on neighboring branches on their way down, or that something would make up for the fact she was slow on her feet.

I hope I become a badass wraith, she thought, going to that quiet, emotionless place she’d been trained to.

🟂

The coils of the Aurum centipede pulled away.  She was back on the rooftop.  The memories were vague like a dream.  Enough she could piece it together.

“And?” Toadswallow asked.

She shook her head.

While shaking it, she saw Avery, sitting.  Snowdrop leaned on her.

“Ave?”

“Heya.  You okay?” Avery asked.

“I died in a pretty bullshit way, way too early to build anything.”

“I made so many mistakes,” Avery said, quiet.

“It would be best,” Miss said, “to avoid saying anything that would be read as a declaration of defeat, before the judges can decide.”

“We’re our own worst critics,” Louise said.

Verona didn’t want to say some of it out loud anyway.  Because if she did, she felt like she’d be gainsaid.

Jasmine came over, bringing tea and things.

I didn’t do the assignment.  I didn’t grow anything.  I didn’t kick ass.  I didn’t show leadership.

She watched the winding and unwinding tentacles, that enshrouded Lucy and Musser.  Charles stood by, watching nothing in particular, and she could imagine him tracking what Musser was doing, seeing Lucy.

He wasn’t smiling.

They were still in there.  Still alive, in an alternate world, where-

“That was us, in a world we never met each other?  Never had the Kennet council?”

“It was you, in more than one sense,” the Alabaster replied.

“What do you mean?”

“You, and lessons you’ve learned readied as opened doors, circumstance, favorable changes in chance and randomness,” the Alabaster replied.

And I got a bad luck tree falling on me, so I guess that says a lot?

The Sable went on, adding, “Enemies made, the risks taken, the investment, the seized opportunities, the points of personal growth.”

“Have to admit, that seemed pretty B.S. to me.  Not much of a test when it was cut short.”

“You have your talents as a leader, but in a world where you forged forward alone, your natural tendencies left you vulnerable.  You took risks along the way, you had immense potential and enough ambition to take chances here and there, but risks, vulnerability, and a lack of people make for a poor leadership, if the leader ends up dead.”

“So I would’ve died, without them having my back?”

“It’s likely.”

Miss shifted position.  Not clearing her throat, but trying to communicate something.  A reminder.  Not to get too deep into her own failings.

Verona wasn’t sure how to process it all.  She felt dread, because this was a contest, and two out of their three needed to surpass Musser, and the two of them were sitting out here, feeling defeated.  At the end of the day, Avery had been isolated, once, disconnected, and Verona hadn’t been the biggest fan of people.

As a result here, it was terrible.

Thing was, she had expected to be an ambitious villain and she’d been a mediocre good guy instead, and that felt weird.  Weird in the same way she’d been willing to let Alpy put her dad through a nightmare up until it happened, and she’d surprised herself by caring.

Except this time, it wasn’t her dad.  It was herself.  Caring about herself.

Here, she’d shocked herself, and she wouldn’t dare say anything about it, because in all the months she’d been condemning herself, convinced she’d have turned out awful, she’d made a lot of statements that would count against her.

“Well, I might be thinking about that for the rest of my life,” Verona murmured.

Avery nodded with emphasis, and then hugged Snowdrop tight enough Snow’s head moved down, and kissed the top of Snowdrop’s head.

“Is Lucy okay in there?” Jasmine asked.  She hadn’t left after delivering the tea.  She just hung back.

“I sure as heck hope so,” Verona replied.


Lucy

“That’s it then?”  Booker asked.

“That’s it.”

“Protective wards.  Might as well use the last of the magic items.”

Lucy nodded.  “You draw on me?  I draw on you?”

“I’ll draw,” her mom said, as she came downstairs.  “Show me the pages you’re referencing.”

“Yeah,” Lucy agreed.  She stretched.  “Huh.”

“What?” her mom asked.  She moved Booker into a seating position on the arm of the couch.  Lucy plopped herself down in front of Booker, and adjusted her top so he had access to the nape of her neck and her shoulders.

“I just realized – I think I’m as tall as you.”

“Bit taller,” her mom murmured.  “I noticed months ago.  You’re grown up.”

“Damn.  Where did the years go?” Lucy asked, twisting.  Booker made her turn back around.

“What a question to ask.  You know, I remember sitting a lot like this.  Doing Booker’s hair, him sitting in front of me, you sitting in front of him.  He’d comb out your cornrows.”

“I hated those.”

“I loved those moments though,” her mom said.

They kept working for a bit.  Lucy paged through one of her notebooks as Booker drew on her.

“Be bulletproof, my son,” her mom whispered, instilling power with practice.

“The bulletproof line is mine, not Booker’s.”

“Can you blame me?”

“Do you want me to suit you up, mom?  Runes, diagrams?”

“I may hang back.  Old injuries.”

“Yeah?  You sure?”

“I want so desperately to be there.  But I’d slow you down.”

Lucy nodded.

“Stop squirming,” Booker told her.  “One more minute.”

“You’re so slow.”

“I’m a perfectionist,” Booker murmured.

He stopped drawing.

“You done?  Can I move?  Sitting twisted around like this is making my back hurt,” Lucy told him.

“Be bulletproof, baby sis,” he told her, quiet.

The runes flared to life.

She shrugged the straps of her top back into place.

She stood, stretching.

Then Lucy stood there.  She, her mom, and her brother, with nothing to say.

When there weren’t witch hunters, there were dangerous Others, or calamities, pressures from Lords.

As practitioner families went, they were small.  Novice.

It felt like she needed to say something, but there were no words.  She would’ve preferred Booker to say something, because he was good at that.  She did angry, outraged words, and he did the speeches.

But today… no speech.

She’d spent her power sources and all she’d be drawing on today would be her Self.  Until the last.

For now, at least, she could get some stuff done, using power from the Demesne sanctuary.

“Hear me,” she said.

Her implement activated, paying attention.

It was only then that she realized she’d broken the silence.

“From every curse laid, something taken.  Let that something be a seed.”

Booker was casting too.

“Let the seed be planted, and let it grow to be a shell, and let the shell be a vessel,” she murmured.

She had a little something from every curse she’d cast, just about.  And she’d cast a lot.

Each became a soldier.  Vestiges.  Partial people.  Gradually, they filled the ground floor of the house.  Some appeared on stairs, sitting.  All were uniform.  All wore outfits in her magenta and smoke.

Booker was preparing summons.  Bigger, more solid, the heavy hitters.

Her mother would be the backup.

Trouble always came home.  It invaded the home, so they’d made the home a sanctuary.  They’d done it in Kennet, and they’d done it here.

If they made it through today, they’d do it in the new place.  A third Demesne ritual, the other Demesnes left behind.  Because that was the kind of circumstance and choice they made.

Booker’s head turned.  “They’re here.”

She could hear helicopters.

The enemy on their doorstep.  Again.

Them against the world.  Or so it would feel.  Again.

She used a spear to draw a circle in the floor.  Gouging it.

Personal power flowed through the spear, past runework, and carried the messages down to that circle.

The nearest vestiges collapsed in, merged, and became her arena.  A space for her.  A giant head that was cracked like dropped pottery and reaching arms formed a protective three-quarter circle around her.

She sighed, and then she opened the door.

The enemy attacked, and they broke into the Demesne with the force of their first wave of attack, past natural protections, past her arena, past wards.

🟂

The Aurum Coil retreated.

Lucy’s eyes went immediately to the last places she’d seen Avery and Verona, didn’t see them, and looked for them.  They were sitting at the table.

They didn’t look happy.

She accepted a hug from her mother as soon as her mother reached her.

“You took my family away?” she asked the Sable, because he was nearest.

“To even the scales, so you all started from roughly equivalent positions,” the Sable replied.  “You gained them back, by the same tracks and choices that led you to make your mother Aware.”

“And he’s still in there, when you cut mine short?” Lucy asked.

“He’s finishing a conversation,” Charles replied.

Lucy walked back to the table, feeling disoriented.  She didn’t sit, but instead stood behind the chair, forearms braced against the high back.

“We’re not discussing too much,” Avery told her.  “In case anything we say could be read the wrong way.”

“Good policy in courts and with cops, I guess, and I guess this is kind of a court.”

“Weird ass court,” Verona replied.

Weird ass scenes, and moments.  Something extending into the future.  Enough things had been moved around or redacted, she wasn’t sure how prophetic to take it.

She had so many things she wanted to ask or say.  A life without her friends.  Without her family, even, to start with.  Her mom hadn’t coped after her dad had died so Barbie and Ran had taken her in, and they’d been cold.  Removed.  Aunt Heather had taken Booker.

It had taken work to get out of that.  Learning magic to find some kernel of strength and then using strength to reconnect with her mom and brother.

The coils released Musser.

“My army would’ve won,” Musser said.  “You didn’t have to end it early.”

“It was done.”

Army.  He’d had an army.  He’d managed to forge something?

She’d built up a family, and loose alliances.

And the others-?

“I can tell from a glance.  This is over.”

“This only gives us a fair, balanced set of tools to work with.  To represent and build a greater picture,” the Aurum Coil said, as he sorted himself out.  “Images-”

The images appeared, gold and bright, on the windows. Lucy and her family, herself summoning the vestiges.

Musser, in a school very like the Blue Heron, surrounded by students.

The scenes aligned against one another.

And it was Lucy and her family against Musser.

“-that can crash together.”

The scene resolved in a bloody fight.

Lucy and her family cut down.

“That we can turn to, when answering questions like the ones asked before Musser departed this rooftop the first time.  What can someone build, when they start a step behind?” the Alabaster asked.  “It’s hard.”

“I managed,” Musser replied.

The scenes shifted, changing.

At the Blue Heron.  Verona, with a tree atop her, so badly wounded she couldn’t move.

A goblin tugged on her hand.

And the building across the field emptied.  The various students who emerged were similar to the students that had been at Musser’s school.  The scene froze, those people in the exact same position they’d been in before they’d attacked the image of Lucy and her family.

“What happened?” Lucy asked.

“Bad luck.  It’s easy to fall a long way when you’re alone.”

And a scene with Avery.  A very different Avery, who looked washed out, and tired.  The brightness wasn’t there.

She was with Jessica.  And other similar people, and scattered Others.  Echoes.  Ruins Others.

“I didn’t get my feet under me like I wanted to,” Avery murmured.  “Got caught up in Ruins stuff instead of Lost stuff.  Met Jessica.  Saved some people.”

But, Lucy could finish the thought, almost reading Avery’s mind.  Didn’t get very far.  Didn’t grow.

“Gave me an appreciation for you guys.”

“I actually kinda kicked ass at not being a horrible person,” Verona remarked.  “I made good calls, got away from my dad…”

That stung.  The idea that Lucy was part of the reason Verona was suffering with her dad, still, instead of leaving.

“…But my life didn’t have much life in it,” Verona murmured.  “I’d choose this any day, and not because a tree fell on me in that version of my life.”

Lucy smiled.

The smile fell away.

Avery’s scene was surrounded by Musser’s army.  They appeared like echoes, but the conceit was the same, again.  The scenes collided.  Avery’s side was outnumbered.  Outdone in strength.

Cut down.

Zero for three.

Lucy’s mother rubbed at her shoulders.  Where she’d have the bulletproof wardings in place, in another circumstance.  But tonight was about words, not weapons.  Leadership and legitimacy.

“There’s more to it, isn’t there?” Miss asked.

The Aurum nodded, flowing around the room.  “The question raised earlier was if people would have support.  Would their followers choose to back them?”

The scene displayed in windows went to Lucy at the house.  The images flared gold, igniting with some energy within.  Herself, her immediate family.

Verona’s scene, on another window.  A few odd people.  The little goblin.  Other goblins from that neck of the woods.  Kass.  Laila.  Nina the Librarian.  Alexander, even.  Weirdly.  Nicolette.

Verona, dopey and a loner, had still won over some hearts, pursuing her passions.

Avery’s scene.  With Jessica.  With the other rescued.  Easy flares, counting up.

Then Musser on a fourth surface.  He’d built something big, he’d created a school.

And roughly sixty percent of the students were with him.

Outnumbering the three of them by far, even if they joined their forces.

The scenes kept going.  Starting at the end.  Rewinding.  Verona with her mom.  A few weirdos she befriended in Thunder Bay.

Avery connecting with some family.  She’d found a familiar.  A Ruins other.  She got to keep that, in some fashion.  Scattered people along the way.  She’d gone to therapy at one point, after shutting down.  Ruins stuff combined with life stuff.

And Musser made contacts.  Outnumbering them all by far.

Scenes rewound.  To earlier in school.  Early practice.

“When legitimate.  When your strength is your own.  We stated our terms for the contest.”

Lucy missed what had happened – as scenes fast forwarded backwards, Musser’s was live for only a moment.  But it was like poison had been injected.  The poison coursed up and forward, through scenes, fast forwarding to the endpoint.  About a fifth of the students in Musser’s contingent that had been lit up went dark.

“I know what you speak of,” Musser said.  “But the ability to take strength is vital.”

“Abraham,” Charles said.  “You don’t want to litigate this.  We’ve taken a generous slant.”

“Why the fuck are you being generous to him?” Lucy asked.

“He defends against a challenge with little warning.  It’s convention.”

Lucy shook her head.

Such bullshit.  Every damn game was rigged, even one meant to be made fair.

She saw as Verona took care of a sick classmate.  She saw herself, standing up for someone at a party a lot like the one with Pam.  Avery helping her grandfather.

Minor things.  Counting by single digits.

Musser pursued multiple at each step.  Matching or exceeding their combined numbers.  And it wasn’t about their numbers combined compared to his.

“Speaking of convention,” Musser said.  “Earlier, Mr. Hall noted some points of order and civility.  I cite those now, and call them in.  To move the needle.  If we’re to weigh the value we put in myself and those three girls as leaders, generals, and decision makers, then wherever the spirits lie undecided or in the middle… let’s nudge that over.  For each slight.  Phones and reading material at the table.  Raised voices.  Breach in hospitality, with threatening delivery of wine… Mr. Hall?”

“I can’t say,” Mr. Hall murmured.  “Sorry.”

“Of course.”

“Yes,” the Alabaster said.

Three movements of the so-called needle.  Students who were apparently in the middle now fell on a side aligned to Musser.

“If it’s about leadership and legitimacy-”

“You’ve lost,” Musser interrupted.  He turned to the judges.  “There’s nothing else?”

“No,” Charles said.  “That was a representation of your Selves laid bare, put to the question of leadership and legitimacy, and compared.”

“I would argue-”

“You should stop talking,” Musser interrupted again.

“Are you afraid of what I’ll say?” Lucy asked.

“It’s done,” Musser told her. “You tried and you failed.  Judges?  I’m due a prize for overcoming the challenge.  I ask they be gainsaid.”

“Agreed,” the Alabaster replied.

Musser looked over at the three of them.  “Together you may be able to cobble something together, but it seems you defeated yourselves by trying to separate me from my family, allowing me to separate you three from each other, at the same time.  Even at my weakest, I was capable of doing what needed to be done.  You three?  Less so.  So it was decided.”

“Did good things,” Avery said.

“It’s not a question of good.  It’s a question of capable.  Leadership and legitimacy.  That was the challenge.  Perhaps you let good be the enemy of perfect.”

There were quips Lucy might’ve given.  Easy responses, but she didn’t want to fall into his tempo.  She had to think.

He turned to go, his final line spoken.

Lucy looked across the table.

At the local Others.  At Connor.  At Louise.  The Undercity denizens.  The scattered Foundlings.  Goblins.

“I think he’s coming.”

Lucy turned her head.

From the far side of the portal.  Distant, faint.

She turned her head, looking at Charles.

Of course.  Charles had a modus operandi.  Sweeping in at the last moment.  With complete and total bullshit.

The practitioners he’d prepared would fit the bill.  The St. Victor’s kids.  And they were apparently there, while Musser was distracted?

They’d either die, and it would change the tenor of everything happening here- maybe even provoke Durocher.  Or they’d succeed and take the win.

Lucy wasn’t sure what that meant, but it felt important.

“Trust me?” she murmured.

“What’s this?” Avery asked.

“Yes,” Verona said.  “But tell us-”

“The St. Victor’s kids are out there.”

Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a spell card.  With three lines, she changed it.

She broke into a run, as Musser stepped toward the portal of broken glass, back toward his familiars.  And the St. Victor’s kids.

She stepped onto the table, leaping, card drawn from her pocket.

“Lucy!” her mom shouted.

“Arena!” she shouted.

It was her habit to reach for a weapon ring.  Her hands were full, but she could trail her thumb along the chain to the weapon ring and slide it on, as a practiced maneuver.

She didn’t.

Her bad arm gripped the spell card, feeding power to the Arena.  Setting its terms.  Musser reacted, turning, his glove implement protecting him from the incoming object.

He grabbed paper.  Contracts.

She’d replaced the line that was the sword or spear in the duelist rune with lines to make it a rectangle instead.  A square, for paper.

“You want to fight?” he asked.  He sounded incredulous.

“I want to make my argument on my terms, without you interrupting, without you leaving,” she told him.

And without them interfering.

She saw glimpses of them.  Heard footsteps.  Some of Musser’s familiars were turning their heads.

Local Others had risen from their seats, approaching.  Durocher, Hall, and Graubard stood by the sidelines.

Musser reached for her, then stopped.

“A noncombat duel?” he asked, eyebrow raised.

Maybe stronger, because of the influence of Kennet found.

Before, she’d been Lucy, with the fox mask, Lucy with the goat mask, and then a false Lucy, for the one that didn’t exist yet, with Guilherme in her place.

Maybe this could be something else.  An unmasked her, tied to Kennet found by paperwork and pacifism.

She straightened.  She’d hurt her ankle a tiny bit by jumping like that, and the way her blood was pounding made her arms hurt where they’d been sliced open.

“You left, ready to pursue a claim against Kennet, even if you had to burn it first.  We had too great a setup for you to overcome.  Too big to eat.  Too tangled up with contracts with various markets.  You left, irritated,” she said.

“And yet you undermined your slight advantage, by pursuing a challenge.  Bringing me back for a test of leadership and legitimacy, the advantages given us our starting positions stripped away.”

“Leadership and legitimacy,” Lucy said.  “From the looks of it, you failed one.  It was called into question, you screwed up, you didn’t seem to like that.  If a test is split into two parts, and you get a zero in one, best you can do is a fifty percent.”

“You made a double-pronged allegation.  If you fail to connect with both prongs, that’s it.  That’s the end of it.”

“We just keep running into times you seem scared, Musser,” Lucy told him.  “Times you’re quick to leave, when you back down and it doesn’t make sense.  So I challenge-”

“I counter your right to challenge,” Musser replied.  “You already had a challenge tonight.  You were refuted.  If you start to abuse the system, I’ll start calling in favors, things to even the scales.  Punishments, for frivolously abusing the ability to challenge rulings.”

“Such is your right,” the Aurum Coil replied.  “You may pursue nonetheless, Lucy Ellingson, but at a disadvantage.”

This was already hard enough.

There was a tap on the arena’s wall.  It wasn’t a hard tap, but the arena shivered, spirits turning unsteady.

Durocher, at the edges.  Her lips moved, and no sound reached them.

This was meant to be the arena for the two of them.

She debated the risks.  If she dropped the Arena, Musser could act, and so could the St. Victor’s kids.  Swooping in.

Lucy canceled it anyway, dropping the paper.  Musser turned to go, and stopped, because Durocher was in the way.  She’d act if he got violent against Lucy now too, Lucy was willing to bet.

“She won’t need to make a challenge to get the truth,” Durocher said.

She’d heard.  The arena was one way.  That wasn’t a catch or a trick or anything.  Just reality.

“I know what Lucy’s after.  The same point I’m stuck on.  The Judges are obligated to keep things quiet if a challenge is made over a point of fact.  The truth may be revealed, but someone like Lucy would be unable to use the information gained.  To protect secrets from being uncovered using wanton challenges.”

“What are you doing?” Musser asked Durocher.

“The timing.  You were young, you had a turnaround.  I’m not a scholar, I don’t write many books.  The ones I do write are more about my celebrity than my ability to string words together.  But I remember things.  I must.  I can share the secret you want to keep, and there is no compact or Law that means it must stay in bounds.”

“What’s the secret?” Lucy asked.

“That Musser did something to steal from Timothy Crowe.  A friend of his.  He left Timothy with nothing, and Timothy died.  Brain damage.  His head emptied.”

“He stole someone’s brains?” Verona asked.

“Heartless practice,” Matthew said.  “My father did something similar.”

“Something like that,” Durocher said.

“On the point of goblins- on the language issue, I do the slight thing.  They tried to call it out, it failed, the rules about failed challenges… it turns around.  Counts against them for trying.”

“It’s minor,” Musser said.

“If spirits are divided on whether Musser is legit, based on the fact he stole someone else’s brains… if that happened?”

“Say it definitively,” Durocher murmured.

“When and where spirits are divided, let that failed challenge of his lawyer count, or ask for reconsideration.  Musser was not legitimate because his strength was Timothy’s.

“His power was his family’s,” Verona added.

“You’re beating a dead horse,” Musser said.  “That’s one side of a two pronged argument, you need the other to land.”

“I’ll make my own request for consideration,” Durocher said.  “In the school?”

The scene behind them changed.  Reflected in the window was the school.  The hypothetical one that Musser might’ve built, if he’d started from nothing.

There were less students on his side now.  A consequence of calling him out on the lack of legitimacy?

“I’m there, aren’t I?

The scene shifted.  She was a teacher or something at the school.

“Guest teacher,” Musser said.

“I ask to be removed,” she said.  “And all the support that would have come with me, the growth, the contacts.”

“It’s a simulated reality,” Graubard spoke up.  “The course he chose, he won you over.”

“With deceit.”

“But he won you over.  He had you on his side, he earned that, he may count it.  You can’t rewrite history you weren’t a part of.”

“I deal with forces that predate history.  I have my own clout, I have cachet with spirits.  I have karma stored from my work to protect the world from primevals, binding and subjugating them.  Powers that can take multiple communities cooperating to merely slow down.”

“You do,” the Sable Prince replied.

Lucy glanced at Charles, who was in the background, at the part of the roof that was furthest from this conversation.  He was smiling.

“I would remind the Judges that simulations are imperfect.  I would ask them to reconsider, and analyze my part in things in more depth.  Take what you consider fair from my stock of karma, consider my clout, and consider my place in the greater picture, with everything from spirit to the oldest things of the cascus wilds.”

“We can,” the Aurum replied.  “What would you ask us to focus on?”

“He, in this other timeline, beginning from nothing, he still took, didn’t he?  That’s the thread that runs through to the end, wounding his standing at the end.  Would I not have an inkling of how false a man he was, if I were working more closely with him from an earlier time?”

“You’re being emotional,” Musser said.

“We wined and dined, fought, worked, cried, and some of us even slept with Luisa Crowe.  You’ve worked with Timothy’s brother.  They were friends.  The best of us.  Too good to be around us.”

She looked between Musser and Charles as she said it.

“She always disliked you.  Did she suspect?” Durocher asked.

“Yes,” Charles commented.

Durocher nodded.

“Sometimes, she came with us, hoping for truth.  She’d be open and excited from the start, studying us, but by halfway through the night, she’d realize it wouldn’t come.  There would be no answers this time.  After enough times?” Charles asked.  “She stopped altogether.  She condemned us all for what we were doing.  Many different things.  Being criminal.  Worse, turning a blind eye to evil in our number.”

“Are you done?” Musser asked.

“Analyzing the role Marie Durocher’s recruitment played,” the Alabaster said, pacing around.  “If she spent time in your company, she may have realized.  If we take a portion of her support away…”

Scenes flickered.  Moving.  Without Durocher’s full support, there weren’t other elements.  Things changed.  Crumbled.

All at once, there was no school.

“I don’t do things by half, it seems,” Durocher mused.  “I withdrew all support?”

“He showed weakness and you abandoned him.”

Durocher nodded.

Lucy studied the scene.

Musser and a handful of criminals from organized crime.

If she weighed that against what she had built?  Her leadership role in her family, some scattered allies, against what he had?  Criminals?

As she looked, she could see that scene playing out.

Her family coming out ahead.

Avery’s group against the ghosts, similar number and strength.

Fending them off.  Pushing them back, binding them.

And Verona, laying under a fallen tree, broken.

The lesser goblins defending her.  The Tooth Fairy guarding her where she lay.

A draw, maybe.

The totals kept adjusting, as it went backwards.  Musser had whole courses he’d gone down that changed, and were poisoned, by badmouthing, by questions and doubt, as people paid attention to Durocher’s leaving.

“I would never have known if you hadn’t done the exact same thing you did to Timothy in this simulated reality, to some other poor soul,” Durocher said.

The scene shifted.  Musser and a kidnapped student, who lay sick and limp in a cell of some kind.  A young Musser there.  Harvesting… brains, Lucy guessed.  Not even the goons he’d used to help with the kidnapping liked him.  They were innocent, by the looks of it, just thugs, and they weren’t on board.

“If I hadn’t, I might have been legitimate, but what else?  Not all of us are blessed as you are, Marie.”

“I knew your family had done something, to infuse you with their strength.  You changed, from A.J. to another man, between one of my encounters with you and the next.  But to think you’ve been this hollow for this long?  Even when I met and knew you as A.J., you were cobbled together?”

He shifted position, like he was thinking of storming out.  Graubard stepped away from him, then kept stepping back.

“Really?” he asked Graubard.  “You’re taking moral high ground?”

“No, I’m actually concerned Marie is annoyed enough at your lies that she’ll summon something that will swallow up a portion of this rooftop.”

Musser glanced at Marie.

“We’re allowed a prize, right?  We win, woo,” Verona chimed in.

“I would not get in the middle of that, for the same reason Graubard’s talking about,” Lucy whispered.

“What are we asking for?” Verona asked.

“Making him give up implements and familiars?” Avery suggested.

“You’re not paying attention,” Lucy told her friends.  “Either of you.”

“That would be a delicate extraction,” Graubard said.

“What?”

“The removal of familiars and implements.  He has things arranged to cause harm should they be sprung.  And some will remain with him, even if the bonds are dissolved.  Let others handle that.”

“You too?” Musser asked.

“Then we push him out,” Avery said.  “The shrines.  The perimeter.  Let Musser be denied Kennet.  We won with the contracts, we won here.  He has nothing except threats, so… take away the threat.  Let no practice of his and let him be stuck outside the perimeter.  Forbidden from access.”

“When Durocher is done,” Lucy quickly added.

“Thank you for that courtesy,” Durocher said.  “I won’t kill you, Musser.  But I will see what you’ve built broken.  What you see unfolding in that scene is a preview of reality.  I will make sure that everyone that matters knows that if they support you, I will not cooperate with them.  I will not warn them before I practice near them.  I will not answer their calls.  If you create something, I will send something to level it.  A house, a business, a group of practitioners.  I will make sure people know what you are.  And what you aren’t.”

“That’s way better than an eviction,” Verona murmured.

“Even if it means the Carmine thrives?  I seem to be only one trying to stop a reckless greater power from taking control.”

“That’s the wrong argument for me, Musser,” Durocher told him.  “A reckless greater power isn’t a concern for me.  It’s a point of interest.”

He shook his head.

“I’d ask if you truly planned to send students away to be married or if it was a threat, to put them on the defensive,” Durocher said.  “But I see a boy chained in a basement, while you let him vent his brains out, for you to gobble down.  I can only imagine you doing that to Timothy, then lying to Luisa’s face for decades.  You’re capable of anything.”

“Something most of us have in common,” Musser said, turning to glance at Charles.  “We were great and terrible people, world class, and we found each other.  For a brief moment, we were almost friends.  The things we did and the things we could have done.  Then we crashed into one another, again and again, until we destroyed each other and ourselves.”

“All too common,” Rook said.

“Are we done then?” Lucy asked.

“I am,” Marie said.

Verona and Avery confirmed.

Lucy reached for her friend’s hands.  They gripped her hands tight.

“You have no claim here, Musser.  No power, and what you have is going to be in shambles, later.  No claim to Kennet.  No claim to us.  No claim to victory.”

“You don’t deserve what you do have,” Verona said.

“You couldn’t even hack our market, you can’t hack it here.  We’ve beaten you three times now.  With it, you and any familiars or workings of yours lose your claim to be here,” Avery said.

“Agreed,” Sable said.  “Merciful, considering.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that,” Charles said.  “His car is here.  He can’t send anyone in to get it.  It’s cold out… Durocher is unhappy with him, and there are many unkind Lords between him and the next place he can truly stop.”

“If I don’t level it before he reaches it,” Durocher said.

Charles moved his hand.

And Abraham Musser was gone.

Another movement-

Lucy heard the chatter and rustle of familiars disappear.  The open gate of broken glass that had acted as a portal between street and rooftop no longer had the familiars in it.  Only Graubard’s doll.

There was a pause, some conversation she couldn’t get the words of.

Then the St. Victor’s kids fled.

Durocher pulled her coat on, stretching.

“Good students.”

“We were barely there for a few weeks.”

“I hope you get a chance to return.”

“I hope we can do that too,” Verona said.

“You may age out by the time it happens,” Durocher said.  “Charles would have to finish doing what he’s doing, or he would have to be finished off.”

Charles made a low sound in his throat.  Almost amused.

Graubard followed Durocher, wordless.

Hall paused.  “Thank you for not turning some of that gainsaying and consequence against me.”

“Doing your job, right?” Verona asked.

“That is the idea.”

“Doing your job, but I do think you’re a scuzzball,” Lucy told him.

He sniffed, put the tea he’d been offered aside, and then walked away.

That was it.  That was Musser.

Lucy glanced over, looking for Charles, and she saw him, still there at the back.

But the other Judges were gone.  Challenge asked, managed, and answered.

“How’s your blood sugar?”

“Could be better, I bet.”

Matthew, talking to Louise.

Lucy felt exhausted.

“Are we done?  Because this meeting went long before they showed up,” Matthew said.  “I know we should have a meeting to debrief, plan, but…”

“It makes sense,” Miss said.

Rook spoke up, “Dog Tags?”

“Guards for the girls and their homes?”

“Please.”

Charles was still here.  Lucy wasn’t sure how many people realized that.

“Charles?”

Some heads turned.

He didn’t reply.

The silence was contagious, the contagion spread with his presence.  People sorted things out.  Luna Hare poked her head in to gather fallen papers and contracts, mostly the ones Lucy had wielded against Musser as her ‘weapon’ in the arena of Law she’d quickly put together.

Lucy took them, put them away, and got help putting her backpack on.  Her arms hurt.

Her mom put an arm around her.

“Charles?” Lucy asked.  “Is it the St. Victor’s kids?  Who were going to sweep in and take the credit?  Are you here to watch that?”

“No.”

“The Wild Hunt?” Verona guessed.

Charles didn’t reply.

“Musser sent them, didn’t he?  Or, indirectly, through Estrella?” Lucy asked.

“Be careful,” Miss urged.  Then she was gone.  Snapping back to Kennet found.

Be careful.

The broken portal was gone, so they headed for the door, reaching the fire escape.

The first of them -Luna and some goblins- stopped dead in their tracks.  Others in the group were gathered at the top steps or landing of the fire escape.  More were at the window, looking.

They were invisible at first glance, dark shapes against a dark background.

Disguised too, because they were gathered in enough numbers that they were almost camouflaged against one another.

It was the Wild Hunt.

“You’ve finished your business with Musser.  Now we can address you without you being distracted.”


Previous Chapter

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Crossed with Silver – 19.16

Lucy

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter


Lucy’s leg bounced nervously as she waited.  Her earring didn’t catch any imminent approaches.

It was dark out, and the snow that blew around was wet.  Rook had set up her greenhouse-like construction over the roof, and where snow met glass, it melted, leaving moisture.  Moisture caught light, including the light from the town and the light from the ski hills on either side of Kennet, and between a light fog, a bit of frost, and that moisture, it made the outside world seem dulled by one measure and turned glittering and dreamlike by two others.

It sucked that Musser wasn’t closer, or further.  There wasn’t enough to hash out in terms of news, considering the market, keeping tabs on the St. Victor’s students, or reports on the Wild Hunt.  They’d talked, and they’d run out of official meeting stuff, and now they could only chat and wait, tense.

Verona didn’t seem like it was affecting her, but she was rubbing at her hand.

Avery was chatting quickly with her dad, while Rook had gotten up to talk to Hollow Yen.

“Did you run the Promenade?” Lucy asked Avery, as Avery finished with her dad and walked over to the roof’s edge.

Avery shook her head.  “I postponed.  They’re antsy, but they want to take a serious shot at it, so when we’re done here, barring any big emergencies that we have to handle, I’ll take a quick break and handle that.”

“Imagine if you got some godly boon and were all, ‘oh fuck, should’ve done that sooner’,” Verona said.

“I don’t think it would be ‘godly’,” Miss said.

“Wait, do you know?” Avery asked.

“If I could go and look, I could give you some sense of it, but I’ve only passed through and heard more through word of mouth.  It doesn’t have the hallmarks of something that would give you power in that sense.”

“Hmmm.  Do you have any idea what it would give?” Avery asked.

“Sootsleeves would be a better person to ask,” Miss said.  “She’s managed the boons and gifts a practitioner can collect.”

“We’ve had conversations,” Avery replied.  “Hmm.  Anyone else?  Sootsleeves is pretty touchy about the subject.”

“I could point you to some Others to talk to.”

And that was the conversation.

“Nothing to do but wait, huh?” Lucy said, before realizing she’d said it out loud.

“We’ve extended an invitation,” Rook replied, “and it would be bad karma to then interfere with him in any way.  Even plotting actively against him could be an issue.”

“Can you exploit that?” Verona asked.  “Accept an offer to meet someone from halfway around the world, take your time?”

She craned around, looking at Rook, Miss, Toadswallow, then Matthew.

“I don’t honestly know,” Matthew said.  “Is that ever going to come up?”

“It’s not about what’s practical,” Verona said.  She winced as she shifted position in her chair, touching her injury.  “It’s about understanding what we’re doing, how things work.  If it does work, then that’s a whole direction to take future stuff.”

“My dad would’ve loved to have you as a daughter.  Ambition, a head for this stuff,” Matthew said.

“Being sore like I am, the idea of becoming immortal or doing the Heartless thing Matthew’s dad did sure is tempting,” Verona said, shifting position again, like she couldn’t get comfortable.

“Preying on people though,” Avery pointed out.

“I’d have been so shitty without you guys,” Verona said.

“My almost-first thought is the ‘daughter’ part would be sticky,” Lucy said.  “Sorry, Matthew, I know I don’t have any basis for that.”

“No, that’s fair, I guess.”

Lucy shrugged.  “It’s just an assumption that feels really reasonable when talking about most non-first generation practitioners.  That they’re shitty to women and girls.”

“You should’ve seen the Whitts and other families at the Musser house,” Avery added.  “Definitely seems to be a thing.”

“I wonder,” Matthew said.  “Never crossed my mind, but I never really saw him with many women.  It was him and me, mostly.”

“How old was he?” Miss asked.

“I have no idea.  But I think he’d been around a while.  Since ‘the war’ and he didn’t mean the Vietnam war.”

“Immortals and those who are functionally immortal can be behind the times.”

“True.  Damn.”

“You’re just not that inquisitive a soul, huh, Matthew?” Verona asked.

Lucy elbowed Verona.

“It’s more like…” Matthew groaned, sitting back.  “…if the brain’s a house full of memories, then sometimes it’s better to turn some of the lights off.”

“Heartless practice?”

“Once.  But mostly repression.”

“If it helps,” Louise said, “I think you’re doing darn good on that front.”

There was some general chatter, none of it especially directed at Lucy.  She drank her tea.

Lucy studied the pair, trying to see if there were any hints of a deeper connection.  She honestly couldn’t tell.  Maybe there were reasons.  Like Edith still being out there.  Jealous ex-wives were one thing, but a jealous ex-wife with the ability to manage echoes and set fires at will?

It got her thinking about Wallace, just because that was her relationship, and Wallace’s mom, and the shadow that had cast over things.  She looked over at Avery’s dad, but Avery’s mom was still in Thunder Bay…  So was Avery’s girlfriend.  Verona and Jeremy had broken their friendship-plus off, and as far as Lucy knew, Verona hadn’t gone chasing anything else.  Toadswallow’s partner was gone, back with her practitioner, at least for now…

“It’s so hard to hold onto things,” Lucy said.

“What’s that?” Avery asked.

“Thinking aloud.  It’s so hard to balance all this with actual life.  In the movies and TV shows, usually it’s a few mishaps and stuff, or one episode that gets the special superhero struggling at school thing, or whatever they are.  Alien, robot, secret pirate.  But then the episode is over, show moves on, and they go back to doing okay.”

“How were your grades?” Avery asked.

“I passed.  You?”

“Worse than I’ve done since the first semester at high school, but I’m at peace with it.”

“More other stuff.  Like… are Nibble and Chloe the only relationship that’s not, I dunno, patchy?”

“Snowdrop and Cherrypop?” Avery asked.

Lucy looked over.  Cherrypop was fast asleep, lying in Snowdrop’s fur.  “Not so romantic, though, is it?”

“Pshhh, romance,” Verona murmured.

“Are you okay, though?  Both of you?” Avery asked.

“Got some of my best grades ever, faster than ever, shop’s underway, setting up the nightmare market.  Just, you know, Wild Hunt of the Winter Court, feels like guillotines bigger than freaking Kennet are hanging over our heads, you know?”

“Yeah.”  Avery looked at Lucy.  “You?”

“No.”

“No?”

“Not okay.  But let’s get through tonight.  Either the one guillotine falls and we deal after, or we get one out of the way.”

“Hey,” Avery said, tapping Lucy’s shoulder with a fist.  “The idea we think we can maybe get one out of the way is pretty crazy, given what we’re up against, don’t you think?”

Lucy nodded.

“Speaking of?” Reggie- Hollow Yen asked.  They were looking over the edge.

Lucy’s leg bounced nervously.

She made it stop.

“Bread out of the oven,” Rook told Reggie.  She walked over to the far corner of the roof, where the Vice Principal, Stew Mullen, Oldbodies, and Bitter Street Witch had gathered, talking quietly.  Rook returned to the table and began refreshing drinks.

People took their seats and sat for about thirty seconds before Lucy heard the first steps on the fire escape with her earring.

“Good luck, everyone,” Miss murmured.

“Goblins?  Be good,” Toadswallow said.

There were some nods.

With her earring, she got a sense of Musser with his familiars- the way they followed his footsteps sounded to her special hearing like geese flying in a ‘v’ formation looked.  There were others.  She heard the footsteps and counted them.

The familiars were being asked to wait at the foot of the stairs.  Musser ascended without his familiars.

Musser was first through.  Lucy had seen that kind of dominance game with the people of Kennet below, making an issue of who was first through.  There were some who were unfashionably late, sometimes, but that felt really childish to Lucy, and stupid.  She didn’t see the point.  They almost always moved on without that person around, and it put the person in a bad position.

He wore a red winter coat, with a thick wool scarf worn like a fucking ascot, and had snowflakes in his hair, with more stuck to the frames of his glasses, though they avoided sticking to the glass.

“A white rabbit told me to come,” he said.  “I assume rules of hospitality are in order?”

“They are,” Rook said.  She set a drink and bread down.

“You know, I’ve never once known Luna to not introduce herself, why not just admit your memory’s terrible?” Lucy asked.

“Easy,” Toadswallow grunted.

Someone was behind Musser, but she didn’t recognize him.  He had a similar vibe, expensive and put together, with a preppy gray wool overcoat, expensive blond-brown hair, but he looked like he could’ve been a member of a boy band other girls would squeal over.  Trim, slim, shorter, like a teenage boy fashion model who hadn’t ever lost that youthful look, and who now wore a carefully cultivated stubble to counter how naturally young he looked.

Eliana Graubard wasn’t a huge surprise.  She was followed by a large doll with hair rigged up with ornaments that didn’t seem to fit any nation Lucy knew.  The clothing was similarly expensive.

It made her think a bit about the Fae that had stormed into her room.  Big, and dressed up in a way that made her feel as if it was broadcasting ‘I spent thousands on this outfit, I’m wearing it to a warzone, and I can do that because I’m good enough to know it won’t be ruined.’

Which didn’t change that they’d done pretty well against Eliana Graubard the last time around.  Was she bringing a bigger metaphorical gun with her this time around?  Digging into family reserves?

Lucy recognized the fourth person to come up.

No.

Mousy, frail-looking, and tall, unassuming despite her stature in the community.  She didn’t have an expensive haircut- it looked like she cut her own hair and washed it one day a week less than she needed to.  There was a situation like the doll, where it might wear expensive clothes because it was powerful enough it could fend off trouble and not ruin them…  There was also a situation like this, where there was no need to care about a coat with a purple-black stain at the lapel.

Nobody would say shit to Ms. Durocher.

“Abraham Musser, making a preliminary visit before a planned claim next month,” Musser said.  “With me are Clark Hall, Eliana Graubard, and Marie Durocher.”

Rook indicated the end of the table closest to the fire escape.

Introductions were made.  Tea, wine, and bread were provided.

“You’ve sided with Musser, Ms. Durocher?” Avery asked.

“You can consider me a concerned neutral party, who has reason to cooperate with him.”

“What reason is that?” Lucy asked her.

“The Carmine Exile situation.  Charles.  I have to admit, I’m surprised he isn’t here,” Durocher replied.

“We’re not with Charles, you know,” Lucy replied.

“I know.  But I’m surprised.  I shouldn’t be, I remember he was shy, before.  Thoughtful, careful.  I thought after being bold enough to do this, he’d be bold enough to come.”

“Are you trying to summon him?” Miss asked.  “If you bait him like that, I could see him paying a visit.”

Ms. Durocher smiled.

Did she actually think she could put up a fight against Charles, if it came down to it?

“I’ll ask, because you have quite a rabble here, who’s in charge?” Musser asked.  “I would know from my last visit, but I know dynamics have changed.”

Lucy had to fight from keeping her leg from bouncing.  The latent frustration was boiling up, and she worried she’d say something snarky that wouldn’t help things.

“It’s a committee leadership, with members of multiple factions, but everyone gets a voice,” Louise said.

Musser didn’t look impressed.

“You’ve gathered a large number of Others,” Ms. Durocher observed, turning toward Lucy, Verona, and Avery.

“You say that like it was us,” Avery replied.  “We’re not in charge or anything, we’re not binding anyone.  But we span three realms, we’ve got a big market that ties into everything.  Others come.  Others were made in the founding, or when Kennet below happened.”

“If you had to, could you name every last one?” Durocher asked.

“Why does that matter?” Matthew asked.

“Curiosity.  I have several yardsticks I use to analyze situations.  Others gravitate toward where Others are.  Goblins gather near other goblins.  I’m curious if you’ve passed the point where this town metaphorically exhales, and then inhales, and comes away with a net change of more Others.”

“If you want to see for yourself, there’s a city spirit,” Verona said.

“Oh!  Interesting.”

“Just to let you know, Charles has a policy, apparently, of finding an excuse to gainsay anyone who approaches him or members of his conspiracy,” Lucy added.  “City-spirit-slash-doppleganger included.”

“Oh?  I’d ask him to make an exception,” Ms. Durocher said.  “If I’m gainsaid or forsworn, about one to two hundred practitioners around the world will have to scramble to clean up the messes that pop up.”

“Primevals?” Verona asked.

“Among other powers.  Charles knows.  A part of me wanted to see what you’ve been creating.  It seems as if you’re trying to build something big.”

“Some things fell into place,” Miss said.  “We were lucky enough to have some good minds of the right types, and those with big ideas and the willingness to see it through.”

“Kind of like what you were doing, Mr. Musser,” Lucy said.  “You were lucky, found good minds, found people with big ideas and drive.  With one key difference.”

“Prior relationship with the Carmine Exile, instead of prior enmity?”

“Broader than that,” Lucy told him.  She shrugged.  “You.”

Musser sniffed.

“We’ve got, well, us.  Community and support and-”

“I’m not here to be preached at by a little girl.”

“We’ve broken bread,” Rook told him.  “Many of us will have things to say, and we expect to be heard.  You will, I’m sure, have your declarations.  We will be obliged to hear them out.”

“Go on, Lucy,” Toadswallow croaked.

She hadn’t actually scripted this.  She would’ve been fine poking at a weakness and getting a curt, defensive response.  Wordplay was like swordplay and Guilherme, who’d skipped tonight, had tried to convey that at a few different points.

Against a threat like this, there were worse things than getting a few key jabs in and getting away unscathed.  Over time, they could add up.

“When things get hard, we protect each other-”  She glanced at Grandfather and Horseman.  “Provide resources, shuffle things around, we get angry on each other’s behalf.  I’m not saying you don’t.  I know that’s a function of what you tried to set up.  But when we talk to the people at the edges of what you’re doing, who are losing faith or hurt, or struggling, or captured-”

“By you?” Eliana Graubard asked.

“Sure.  Or by Others.  Or by their own families.  We ask what they’re doing, and you come up.  It’s attaching their fortunes to yours, it’s faith in you, it’s fear of you.”

“It’s called leadership.”

“Tyranny,” Rook commented.

“It’s on you though, if it’s your leadership,” Lucy pressed.

“If I may interject?” Mr. Hall asked.  “To clarify a possible misunderstanding?”

Lucy glanced at Miss and Rook.  The rules of hospitality-

“We’ll be sure to allow you to finish what you’re saying after.”

Damn.

“You may,” Miss told him.

“I can testify, in my efforts to get the lay of the land before I got involved, and in anticipation of lines of attack like this, I asked various figures in Abraham Musser’s group, and there was a majority agreement that the fault of the current situation lies at the feet of the Carmine Exile, not Musser.”

“Can second,” Eliana Graubard added.

Verona had her phone out.

“I also formally request that, if we’re holding to the rules of hospitality, that we stick to the rules held by families all around the civilized world.  In various forms, for hundreds of years, no reading at the table, and for as long as cell phones have been in common use, no phones at the table,” Mr. Hall said.

“It’s our table,” Rook said.

“That remains a slight.  I’d like that noted for the record.”

“Noted for the record,” Miss said.

Shitty thing was, according to what Lucy had read, that mattered.

Who was this guy?

Lucy had only barely finished the thought when she saw Verona put her phone down on the table.  She’d opened the Atheneum Arrangement, and looked up Mr. Clark Hall.

Compact Word, 4th Edition, Clark B. Hall representing the Hall Circle
A classic text on contract practices and rhetoric in the modern, North American and European contexts.  The assumed reference for tutors of those areas introducing their students to Law practices.
PSBN: 6841795780006
Paid access to online text, fees paid to the Atheneum arrangement, profits directed to the Hall Circle; $210 CAD permanent or $21 for 30 days.
Level: Intermediate
Schools: Contract, Rhetoric, Law

Signing Off, Clark B. Hall
Following the loss of a friend and colleague who wrote and signed a contract, only to meet calamity, Clark Hall undertakes a three year trip, visiting his colleagues and peers across the world, contract in hand.  Mixes an autobiographical style with discussions of perspectives, individual approaches to contract practices, and varying degrees of analysis and rewrites of the same contract by beginners, experts, and world leaders in Contract practices.  In each, he asks what his friend might have missed and seeks to unravel[…]
PSBN: 6840440237688
Paid access to online text, fees paid to the Atheneum arrangement, profits directed to the Hall Circle; $2300 CAD permanent.
Level: Advanced
Schools: Contract, Deals, Law

He’d written books on contract magic and Law practices.  She’d learned some things from Mr. Harless and he probably saw this guy or this guy’s family as the people to look to.

Verona slid her phone down the table toward Matthew.

Lucy felt that like a physical blow, and turned in her seat as she felt it, adjusting posture, gripping the table’s edge, to better face Musser.  No way did she want to lose momentum.  “Musser’s situation with the Carmine Exile is his problem, not ours, and it doesn’t undermine my point that this counts against him.  Durocher is here, she’s, as far as I can tell, not being bothered.”

“Be clearer about what you’re asserting,” Mr. Hall said.

“Get bent.  I was clear enough.  You make a clearer counterpoint, because if I compare Musser and us and how things ended up, things are a mess.  And you can’t say that’s on the Carmine Exile, because the Carmine had a prior relationship with Musser and with Durocher, as far as I know, that relationship wasn’t that different back then, and now he’s getting his ass kicked and she isn’t.  The common part of this is the guy with the gold-rimmed glasses.”

“Okay.  For the record, first thing, just to get it out of the way, I formally request that we tone down the vitriol and language.  It’s a slight, it runs against-”

“Rule of discourse, Mr. Hall,” Verona cut in.  “We swear at this table all the time.”

“There are goblins present, sir,” Sir Toadswallow croaked.

“Admittedly, not something I have the most experience with-”

Write a fucking book about it, Lucy thought, glaring.

“-Withdrawn.”

Lucy smiled.

“Second, there is a clear and evidenced course of action by the Carmine Exile.  He’s getting meaner, he’s getting more ruthless, he’s acting against his own prior goals and beliefs, he was a broken, Forsworn man when he became Carmine Exile, and he took on a mantle of power that’s inherently corrupting and violent.  I can testify that Abraham Musser had a working truce with the Carmine Exile, which you yourselves witnessed in action, extending from late August to October, that was breached by the Carmine Exile through no fault of Abraham Musser.”

“No fault?  He led more than sixty-five practitioners in a violent and reckless attack on the seat of the Carmine Exile’s power!” Lucy exclaimed.

“He acted on the final stages of plan of action that had its groundwork and initial actions taken well ahead of the Carmine Exile taking his throne and the making of that truce.  He sought to take a town to secure it-”

“Against the Carmine!  He literally talked about stopping the Carmine.”

“You may surmise that, but we can point to something far clearer.  The truce kept the Carmine Exile from gainsaying Abraham Musser.  If the truce was breached by Abraham Musser in a failure of leadership, as you suggest, then the order of events would have been Abraham Musser attacking, the Carmine Exile responding by thoroughly gainsaying him, as he’s taken to doing with wanton and reckless abandon.  Both Carmine and Musser were moving against each other.  That’s allowed.”

“I’m losing track of this,” Avery admitted.

Lucy and Mr. Hall started talking at the same time.  Lucy leaned forward, hands gripping the edge of the wrought metal table, her chair squeaking against the floor, and Mr. Hall relented.  Lucy’s cut arm and stitches throbbed as she clenched the table.

Lucy answered Avery, “Musser is like a guy who started out with nine hundred, ninety nine million, nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand, nine hundred and ninety dollars, and is really proud at earning ten bucks and closing the deal on becoming a billionaire.”

“Started halfway to home plate and acts like he hit a home run,” Avery added.

“Sure,” Lucy said.  “And he still bit off more than he could chew, he got fancy and he choked.  He failed, that’s on him, when he had so much.  He screwed up, he tried to take what I’m sure most would agree is an unreasonably sized amount of territory, he went up against the Carmine Exile, a higher power, he got reckless, he was a shitty leader and we keep hearing how shitty he was and is, and he fucking choked.”

She met Musser’s eyes as she said it, letting the frustration of the last few days, weeks, and months lace every word.

Mr. Hall remained calm, by contrast.  “Abraham Musser undertook a plan he’d worked on and discussed thoroughly with his peers years before the Carmine Exile was even a consideration.  He made a truce to delay an emergent and obvious threat, and did what was fair and reasonable during a truce with a reckless higher power, which is to prepare and anticipate.  The Carmine Exile taking power and doing what it did was unpredictable and next to impossible to anticipate.  You might as well take your hypothetical almost-billionaire and blame him for his other hundreds of millions getting struck by lightning and set ablaze while he reaches for his last dollar.”

“I can blame that guy if he’s so caught up and rushed in what he’s doing-”

“Again, reckless, emergent, and immediate threat, that appeared unexpectedly, even to you, in the midst of his plans.”

“-he didn’t protect his shit.  If you’re so rushed that your money, your everything is in a position to be set on fire by a so-called freak accident, didn’t put it in a bank, didn’t insure it, didn’t plan- hell, by the timeline you’re talking about, Mr. Hall, he had months he knew about this threat and didn’t secure things.  If this is a threat he has to plan and prepare for, don’t leave shit out in the metaphorical thunderstorm for months and get surprised if it’s ruined.”

“There was a reckless, emergent, immediate threat in a higher power gone rogue.  You cited rule of discourse earlier, I’ll point to the same ideas.  Again, I talked to various families across this territory, across Musser’s contingent.  Just as rule of discourse is based on what everyone thinks and does in speaking, the fact the majority involved don’t blame him and are still willing to work with him -insofar as they’re able- puts this debate heavily in my favor.  I polled his people, they disagree with you.  If we’re talking about leadership, the people being led are a very important voice.  Your voice is a lonely one, by contrast.”

“She’s not that alone,” Avery said.

“Still.”

“You’re falling back on majority rule?” Lucy asked.

“That is the world we live in- Lucy, was it?  As a visible minority, you should know.”

Oh, she hated him.  “Don’t bring my skin into it.”

“I’ll change the subject then.  To answer something you said earlier… your analogy.  The millionaire on the cusp of being a billionaire, or the man who started partway to home plate and had to take only a few steps.”

“Is this what tonight’s going to be?” Matthew asked.  “We start with an accusation that Musser, the guy with a coalition in shambles, is a bad leader, and then get increasingly granular, arguing every few words and statements?”

“I love granular,” Mr. Hall said, smiling.  “If Lucy there wants to forfeit her point, we can move on, but I think we all know this is a tone setter, and a setup for later points.  I’m not going anywhere, I’m being well paid, I am perfectly willing to fight you over every last grain.  Now, Lucy’s made an argument we had to put aside, I feel it’s important to refute it, or else this becomes less about the spirit and letter of the law, and who can make the most points the fastest, to see what slips through.”

“Isn’t that the world we live in?” Miss asked.

“Fortunately, those protective of the rule and spirit of Law have prepared us against that.  There is precedent and support for both of my points.  For majority rule, and for calls to order against tides of falsehood.”

Lucy really hated him.

“If I may continue?  No, let’s reword that.  I may continue, by precedent.  Say otherwise and we can litigate that, and you’ll be arguing against centuries of-”

“Continue,” Rook told him.

“Thank you.  If I could get a refill on my drink, actually?”

“Of course.”

This was shitty.  It was a shitty she kept running into, too.  Going up against heavyweights.

A lot of Guilherme’s training had been to teach her to fight people who were bigger, because she was small.  People who were stronger, because while she was reasonably athletic, she wasn’t going to beat the average person in an arm wrestling contest.

But it went past that.  She was up against verbal heavyweights.  Winter Fae, who had centuries of experience and if she ever even came close to winning an argument, they could pull a horn out of their fucking asses and blow on it and they’d call a fucking inquisition of stupidly strong Fae down on Kennet, drag her off to Winter or something, and that would be it.

Musser, who could pull absolute bullshit.  ‘I’m a winner so let’s cut to the chase and just say I won’.

And this guy.

It didn’t matter that she was right.  They were powerful, privileged, and protected.

“Thank you for the tea,” Mr. Hall said, putting his cup down.  “Had a lot of salty foods on the trip over, I was parched.  Don’t want to lose my voice.”

“Carry on,” Matthew said.

“If you’ll allow me a moment to confer?” Mr. Hall asked, leaning over to Musser.  Musser immediately put a hand up, the backs of his gloved fingers against Hall’s mouth.  He leaned in close.

“Lucy there has enhanced hearing, by way of implement.  Mind what you say.”

“Noted.  I won’t be specific.  But about things you shared in confidence…”

“I know what you mean.  You may reference it, but mind you avoid specifics.  You swore oaths.”

Hall leaned back, took another sip of tea, thinking, then addressed the table.  “The assertion was made that Musser did not earn what he has.  I can testify, he has.”

“Are you actually saying he’s not from a rich family?” Lucy asked.

“He is.”

“But he earned everything he has?”

“He did.”

“What, he won the approval of his dad and that earns him everything he got handed?” Lucy asked.

“He did win the approval of his father, and that is a factor from certain angles.”

“Okay, if we’re allowed to point to majority rule bullshit, I think we can look at what the majority views a standard wage and ‘earning’ is, and there is absolutely no fucking way that Musser put in the hours to earn what he apparently has.  Jets, multiple million-dollar properties, libraries, your -I‘m sure- expensive ass.”

Mr. Hall smiled.  “Arguments can be easily made that the majority recognizes vast disparities in wealth and that many earn disproportionately more for a given amount of work than others-”

“If you argue that that the majority of people think it’s legit a trust fund baby can get millions for doing practically nothing because of that disparity, or that they consider it fair earning, I’m liable to gainsay your ass,” Lucy told him.

“Amen,” Louise commented from the sidelines.

“I’m not arguing that, as a matter of fact.  I said you could easily make the arguments.  But you’re arguing against a point I didn’t make.  Allowing for reasonable variance based on time and place, and allowing for things like investment of income and pursuit of ventures on the side to turn one dollar into ten, so to speak, Musser here earned every dollar he has.”

“Again, his winning over his family-”

“Not what I’m arguing.  A facet, but it’s not at the heart of this.”

“Just to be clear-”

“Please.”

“He earned every dollar he has, according to you.  You’re actually saying he worked for every last dollar.”

“He did.  At reasonable rates, allowing for variance, even, and there will always be some degree of exploitation, investment…”

“You’re also saying he was given everything that he has by his family.”

“He was.”

“But he didn’t earn what he has by way of winning over his family or working to get them to hand over that money?”

“Exactly so.  Being in his family’s good graces and being allowed to continue was a facet, but it wasn’t at the heart of his earning.  Obviously, if he was kicked out of the family, that would change a lot.”

“There is a significant fucking contradiction here, Mr. Hall,” Lucy said, leaning forward.  “If he was given what he has by his family he didn’t fucking earn it, did he?  We’re using ‘earned’ as in he worked for the hours a reasonable person would deem necessary and valid, not cheating his way through?”

“Correct.”

Lucy sat back.

“We were just talking about Heartless practitioners, before,” Verona said.  “Are you immortal, Mr. Musser?”

“I’m not at liberty to disclose what was shared with me in confidence,” Mr. Hall said.

“It’s fine.  I will live and die as my father and grandfather did before me,” Musser said.

“Is this some bullshit claim practice?  You did some ritual to be able to lay claim to the family fortunes as if you technically worked for it?”

“Again, I am not at liberty to disclose,” Mr. Hall replied.

Mrs. Durocher looked a little restless.  We’re in the same fucking boat, because I can’t stand sitting here and listening to this bullshit.

Mrs. Durocher’s restlessness was probably more frustration with the deeper legal conversation being a legal conversation.

“If you can’t back it up, then I don’t see why it should count.”

“If it helps refute accusations made against Mr. Musser here, I can stake my word on this.”

“That Musser was given what he has by family, and did not earn it, but also earned it, but the two aren’t connected by some thread like him earning his father’s approval?”

“Not how I would phrase it, but in that neighborhood.”

“And you can’t give evidence?”

“No, but again, I stake my word on this.  In lieu of gainsaying you, Lucy, by way of Law practice, I instead request to spirits and powers that this be set forward, so it may count in future deliberations against you tonight, when spirits and higher powers are weighing your arguments against ours and finding themselves less sure.”

“If you’d like, you can challenge him,” Musser said.  “Challenge him over his word on this, swear the oaths to keep the confidences he does, and litigate this.”

“On his bluff?” Matthew asked.

“If you think it’s a bluff,” Musser said.  He cut a bit of bread off, took some cheese, and took a bite, chasing it with red wine.

It wasn’t a bluff, Lucy knew.  There was no way a practitioner like this would chance everything on a bluff when up against a teenager who could do something impulsive out of anger, when she was pissed.

This was such bullshit.

“Questions of leadership and legitimacy set firmly aside, shall we begin?” Mr. Hall asked.

“If I may?  As Ellingson there initiated the prior discussion?  I’ll start us off,” Musser said.

“You may,” Rook said.  Still acting as arbiter and host.

“We’re faced with the reckless and dangerous Carmine Exile.  He’s designing powerful Others to counter specific practitioners.  The one possibility that strikes me is that it’s inevitable he comes for you.  If so, you should want to stop him.  Let me establish a Lordship.  After I claimed the Lordship, my niece Raquel Musser would be made interim lord, deferring power to me in much the same way the Carmine Exile’s lords defer power to him and the other judges.”

“Doesn’t sound very appealing,” Louise said.

“It’s the same deal you offered before, just slightly sweetened,” Lucy said.

Musser shook his head.  “Comparatively, it’s much sweeter, relatively, but let’s not get distracted.  Another possibility is that you’re on the Carmine’s side.  In that event, I see it as my responsibility to step in and keep you from doing further harm.  Raquel has worked with you, and signed a contract of unknown provenance, and action would have to be taken to protect the family against her.”

“You’re using your own niece as a pawn?” Avery’s dad asked.

“I would be protecting her after she’s made deals with a reckless group working in concert with the Carmine Exile.”

“There are other possibilities than those two,” Lucy said.  “One being that you’re a dangerous, crappy leader and we don’t want you to be in charge but we’re still not okay with him either.”

“You already litigated the question of my leadership and legitimacy and lost,” Musser replied.  “There’s another consideration.  On our way here, just outside your doorstep, even, I was confronted by an Other.  One who asked me to step into the shoes of a man who led a group against me, resisting my taking a Lordship, and to fight myself.”

“What about it?” Lucy asked.

“It was effective.  A trap meant for me.  The Carmine Exile is dangerous, and if he eventually comes for you, he may use similar methods against you too.  I suffered two setbacks before my eventual win.  It was pointed.  Mr. Hall had to call on some powers to get me here in a timely manner.”

“I think you mean you lost twice,” Lucy said.

Steps on the fire escape made her think one of his familiars had been called.

It was her mom, instead.

Not trying to be fashionably late- she’d had legit work.

Lucy smiled briefly at her mom, but she knew the smile didn’t reach her eyes.

Her mom walked past her to Connor’s side, leaning in, so he could give her the rundown.

“I prevailed.  I don’t think you, should you face the focused ire of that deranged, small little man, will prevail.  But I have to wonder if you’ll even try.”

“What makes you think we aren’t already?” Lucy asked.

“That you’re still here.  And the glasses I wear and my Sight are tuned to let me identify items and their value.  Their provenance.  Wouldn’t you know?  Someone here helped make it.  Her fingerprints were on it, so to speak.  Not the primary architect, but when Charles crafted the trap, she counseled.”

Crap.

“Musser,” Miss said.

“Let me finish, then I’ll let you have your turn again.  She conspired with Fernanda Whitt, who she spent time with at the Blue Heron before departing, expelled.  She interacted with McCauleigh Hennigar during McCauleigh’s long so-called imprisonment, and McCauleigh just rejected her family and the family’s involvement in my ongoing efforts.  She interacted with members of lesser families, such as Andrea Fulton, née Andrea Conrad, who have similarly conspired.  A reckoning is in order.  Verona Hayward.”

“Yo,” Verona replied.

“Technically it wasn’t Verona doing that conspiring,” Avery said.  “It was me.”

“She played her part.  Do let me continue.  Andrea Fulton can die and her daughter can be married off, they barely matter.  McCauleigh Hennigar can be married off overseas, to a husband who can temper her wild and aggressive spirit, and she will cease to be a consideration.  Her family agrees with the idea.  The Whitts are in a poor position after losing Alexander Belanger’s mentorship, and in exchange for my favor and funding, I do believe Chase will let me arrange a similar handling of Fernanda Whitt.”

“That’s monstrous,” Louise said.  “They’re children.”

“They are dangerous conspirators exacerbating a bad situation in dangerous times.”

Teenagers.  But it barely mattered.

Verona looked physically ill.  Like she had before she’d thrown up, after Bristow had gone off to the kitchens.

Lucy’s mom had arrived just in time for this.

“Ms. Durocher?” Lucy asked.  “Please don’t be cool with this.  A lot of these are your students.”

“I’m not,” Durocher replied.  “But for now, the subject is being expressed in terms of what can be, beliefs, nothing stated in absolute.”

“Yet,” Avery said.

Lucy added, “And when it’s stated in absolute, it’ll be too late.  Or will you draw a hard line and turn Musser into a smear when he tries?”

“If I said anything of the sort, I’d be taking a side-”

“Against someone who wants to sell off teenage girls for political gain because they disagree with him!” Lucy raised her voice, rising up out of her seat.  “Your students.  Your ex-students.”

“I know you have no cause to have faith in me, so I won’t ask you to try.  All I can say is I don’t take sides.”

“Can I ask that we lower our voices, hold to standards of decorum?” Mr. Hall asked.

“Fuck your decorum.  Fuck your so-called not taking sides,” Lucy said, angry now.  “Are you fucking done, Musser?  Said your piece?  Made your threats?”

“I have other individuals you should know are at risk due to their own malpractice and cooperation with dangerous groups like yourself.  People who’ve walked the line in a dangerous circumstance.  If we’re to establish order… Nicolette has worked with you and through you, the Carmine Exile.  Zed too, but in a more nebulous way.”

“And what do you have after?” Bitter Street Witch asked.  “You’d kill the women, children, and someone like Zed, who I’ve never heard a complaint about?”

Nicolette, Lucy thought.  The Bitter Street Witch wouldn’t want to sound sentimental, but it’d be Nicolette who provoked her to speaking up.

“I’d kill and marry off traitors to those who can curb their tendencies.  To achieve some semblance of order.  I don’t expect this to be easy.”

“You call that order?” Rook asked.  “Let’s be clear, it’s tyranny.”

“When a situation is this bad, there is no way to create order from chaos without seeming terrible,” Musser replied.  “A surgeon cutting out cancer may seem like a butcher to those who don’t understand.”

“To turn things around, a butcher with an ego may imagine himself as intricate and skilled as a surgeon,” Miss told him.

“I’ve said my preliminary piece.  I may have more to say after, but first, have your turn, it’ll help me know where you stand,” Musser said.  “I’d like more wine.”

Rook stood with a sweeping motion, stalked her way over, and picked up the red wine on the way.  She slammed the bottle down in front of him with enough force that Durocher’s glass of tea almost tipped over.  Durocher caught it.

“Thank you,” Musser said.

Lucy looked again at Verona.  She looked almost green.  Avery was rubbing her back.

Lucy put her hand at the back of Verona’s hair, fingers with hair between them, cupping the back of her friend’s head.  “Hey.”

“It’s okay.  Keep going,” Verona murmured.

Lucy dropped her hand.

Few things felt as bad as having something missing for most of your life, hurting because of it, and then getting it, only to face the idea of it being taken away.

Lucy had felt it with Wallace, and with friends.  She’d felt it more recently, working hard to feel strong and competent, only to face off against…

Against all of this.  The Wild Hunt.  Musser.

“Lucy?” Louise asked.  “If I remember right, you wanted to handle this part.”

Lucy nodded.  She’d wanted to handle a lot of it.  “It’s our job, right?  To be the representatives when practitioners come?  It came up at our awakening.”

“It is,” Miss answered.

Lucy nodded.

Okay.

“Kennet is now established as the premier market in the region,” she told Musser.  “Do you intend to claim it?”

“I do.  But let me interrupt you,” Musser said.

“Oh really?  Your lawyer there was talking about decorum, and you just said I could have a turn.”

“This spares us both hassle and annoyance.  As Headmaster of the Blue Heron, though it’s closed, I am privy to certain things related to it.  You’ve used the Atheneum Arrangement to get information on peddling.  The sale of cursed items for personal gain.”

Lucy glanced at Verona.

“Mrs. Graubard?” Musser asked.

Eliana Graubard nodded.  “We discussed what you might be doing.  We knew you were having people such as Raquel Musser sign contracts.  We found out you were working with Charles on the creation of the one Other, but we were already prepared to act if he moved against us.”

So they’d brought Hall to counter the contract, they’d brought Durocher as an answer to Charles, someone who could probably go toe to toe with the greater power of a region.

They’d brought Eliana Graubard to…?

Graubard met Verona’s eyes.  “Tell me it wasn’t your intention to peddle your town here, Kennet, at its would-be Lord.  A poison pill for him to swallow.  A cursed town.”

Lucy glanced sideways at Verona, eyebrow arched.

“If I don’t answer, I guess that says enough, huh?” Verona asked.

“Yes.”

“It crossed my mind.  I took some steps.  It wasn’t a primary plan.  Just something I dabbled in.”

“While I’m a specialist in dollmaking, I’m very good at handling cursed items and curses,” Graubard said.  “It won’t work.”

“Cool,” Verona replied.  “You know what’s neat about being a dabbler who jumps from one thing to the next?  Your enemy can’t anticipate you.  I didn’t actually go through with that.  If you came to deal with that, you wasted your trip.”

“I thought it was worth getting out of the way, regardless,” Musser said.

“Back to what I was saying, before your pointless interruption… you intend to claim Kennet,” Lucy said.

“Again, I do.”

“I have contracts with me,” Lucy said.  She got the contracts out of her bag, and stacked them on the table.

“May I?” Mr. Hall asked.

“No you may not.  It’s privileged information with each of the parties involved.  It’s part of the terms,” Lucy said.  “I may read excerpts or give summaries at my discretion, or allow people to read it if the groups in question are protected enough, but the only way Musser gets to read these in full is if he takes custody of them.”

“Custody being the key word,” Mr. Hall said.  He nodded, leaning back.  “Which is to say you’ve contrived to make it so that if Abraham Musser claims Kennet, then he-”

Lucy finished the sentence, “-takes on the responsibilities that come with Kennet.  Which include obligations to-”

Lucy held one contract, and pointed the sheaf of papers at Avery.

Avery sat up.  “-Nineteen markets, including ones related to Faerie, fairy, goblin, echo, and spirit world, fourteen lesser councils and groups you’ve overlooked, and roughly forty individuals ranging from craftsmen and Others with a mind for art or toolmaking, to booksellers and Aware with odds and ends to sell.  Some innocent stuff on the side.”

“It’s a lot,” Lucy said.  “It’s a lot for us, when we’ve got a bunch of varied Others with great skillsets, three practitioners, Aware, a mirror version of our town full of enterprising undercity denizens to work factories-”

She indicated the replacement foreman, Stew Mullen.

“Among other things I won’t get into.  And we’ve got Kennet found, another overlapping mirror version of our town know you’re acquainted with, lots of helpful Foundlings.”

“If you take Kennet, you’d better believe we’ll quit on you,” Verona said.  “We will strike, we’ll stop working, we’ll get in your way, we’ll make you fight for every last bit of it.”

“You’d better be prepared to have goblins of specific types,” Lucy said.  “Nightmares, and a whole lot of Lost and Founded stuff.  You’ll need resources, you’ll need information.  To do what the contracts outline.”

“Resources of the town come with the town,” Graubard said.

“We didn’t say they were with the town,” Avery said.  “And not all contracts come with the town either.  So if you take Kennet, if you’re intending to meet its obligations, you need to make sure you have certain things set up outside of Kennet first.”

“Means having to track down the right people who we dealt with, to make sure you have the things for sale or for refining goods,” Avery said.

“Which suggests I need to know what the contract terms are before I become obligated to follow the contract,” Musser replied.  “Which would mean expensive hiring of Augurs.  Chasing down threads in advance, chasing down things after.  Managing people.”

Time and work when you are stretched thin for both.

“Yeah,” Lucy replied, glaring at him.

“No.”

“No?” Avery asked.

“There are multiple ways this can fail.”

Miss said, “If you intend to try to establish a Lordship in Kennet without its active market, when we’ve made the market integral to its identity, tied into civilian business in Kennet above, Aware, Kennet below, Kennet found, and Kennet’s identity in other regions and with other groups… you hardly have a claim at all.”

Meaning that in the Lordship, you’d be potentially fighting blindfolded with a hand tied behind your back, Lucy thought.  If one side had more claim to something, then it changed the terms of any contest, making them more lopsided, to represent that claim.

“Don’t talk to me about claim,” Musser said.  “I don’t need any sort of lesson, nor do I need much of one.”

Did he seem just a bit irritated?

“We have bled for Kennet,” Lucy said.  “Fought, battled, suffered, drawn blood.  Killed.”

“I’m aware.”

“We sweated for Kennet,” Avery joined in.  “Worked our asses off, ran here and there, went from Blue Heron to here to Blue Heron again, I’ve gone back and forth from Thunder Bay.  These guys have built up industry with hard work, I’ve worked to connect people to Kennet.  That’s claim.  That gives us claim, absolutely.”

“I see what you’re doing.”

“Cried for Kennet, lost people for Kennet,” Verona said.  It looked like thoughts of the friends she’d made were heavy on her mind.  “Wrestled with personal demons for Kennet.  Blood, sweat, tears.”

“If you’re not taking the market, if you’re not willing to claim something that major?” Lucy asked.  “And you’re up against us, when we’ve got the claim that extends to three corners of our Selves?  We’re not going to make it easy.  We’re going to challenge you.”

“All of Kennet will reject you,” Louise said.  “We’ve talked about it.”

Toadswallow croaked, “If you care about majority rule, you’d better be prepared to go against everyone with a say in this town, everyone that’s come in to build something in our market.”

“I thought there was more room to discuss other things,” Musser said.  “Collaboration against the Dropped Call, as you’ve termed it.  But I see where things stand.  I’m not worried.  I’ll see you in a few weeks.”

He stood, glancing at his companions, who nodded and pushed their chairs back.

No.

No, Lucy knew just enough about claim and Law that she knew he didn’t want to be hammered like this.  He could make a claim and maybe with an arm tied behind his back and a blindfold on, he could still win, but anything they said would be a drop he didn’t want in the bucket.  Leaving meant that stopped.

“No,” Lucy said.  “If you walk away, you fucking coward, we’re going to say it every day until you come back.  That we reject you, that you have no claim, that you ran, that you’re a coward.  I will make it a fucking meme, I will get kids from my High School to say ‘fuck Musser’ because they want in on a secret project like the Arcade we used to have.  And they won’t know what it means but they’ll say it, and I know it’ll count against you.”

“Maybe it’ll even spread,” Verona said.

Musser, having stood, leaned over the table, one hand planted on the flat surface.  “You’re not the first to try to make their Lordship too complicated to seize.”

“We’re doing it fairly,” Lucy said.  “We want things this way.  So do others.  All these contracts, they’re invested in this.  That’s more claim.  This isn’t the kind of thing where you flip the table on us and say it’s unfair because we can’t handle the challenge we set up.  Because we are.”

“You insist on lecturing me about things my family is expert in.  I’m not worried.”

“I wonder,” Durocher murmured.  “Did you tell the people you were doing business with about the risks?”

“That sounds like a threat,” Avery said.  “From someone who said she’s neutral.”

“It’s a concern.  I’m not saying something Abraham hasn’t thought of, or anything you shouldn’t have thought about.  One way to handle a knot of a scenario like this is to cut through it.  Targeted removal of every party of the contract.”

“We told most,” Avery said.  “A couple weren’t communicative.  One person signed without reading any of it.  When you find them and confront the groups and people we’re working with, there’s an understanding they’ll stop working with us.  The idea is we pay them a fee even after they stop doing business with us.  It’s in your interest to leave them alone, turn them into penalties for us.”

Lucy wondered if he’d refute that.  She’d had her own worries he’d make an argument about maiming or killing them.  Screw the karma, screw the technical advantage in accepting surrender and leaving them be – he could threaten to terrorize them, knowing that the rippling waves of fear of being part of their deal would scare people off.

But he wasn’t saying or doing anything like that.

“It still takes time,” Lucy said.  “Finding them.  Even with Augurs, with Chase in your back pocket.  Time you don’t have.”

“Effort,” Verona added.  “Not always easy, not everyone is going to back down.  I don’t think you’ll be able to disentangle yourself from everything.  People who aren’t in the loop will assume Kennet is holding to current responsibilities and stuff.  Those assumptions have power.”

“Travel,” Avery said.  “While you’re tackling all that, you’re having to go back and forth.  Dealing with Lords.  Charles’ traps.  And don’t forget, we can still find more while you’re dealing with others.”

“Still complicated,” Lucy said, cutting back on the swears because her mom was watching.  “Come on.  You want to make a play?  Either tell us, let’s hash it out, or admit you don’t have a play, and we’ll be calling you out and fighting your claim in the meantime.”

Musser straightened, cracking his knuckles.  Then he turned to Mr. Hall.  “There’s precedent.  Others have tried similar things.  It doesn’t work.”

“There is.  It traces back to what we were talking about, rule of discourse.  Establishment with the public, establishment from the public.  In Canada’s national government, a government in power can’t make binding deals the next party to be in charge is forced to uphold.  Essentially.  It defeats the purpose.”

“The Seal has its weight.  It can’t be denied,” Musser said, turning toward the table, looking across it, from Miss and Rook to Matthew and Louise, to the parents, and then to Lucy and her friends.

“Nothing to do with government, Lords, or any of that.  It’s partnership,” Lucy told him.  “The contract herein is intended to wed the organized markets of Kennet above, Kennet below, and Kennet found, hereafter referred to as Kennet, to the organized practitioner enclave of the- let’s redact that.  In case you’re violent and try cutting through what we built here.  Wed.  And on page… sixteen, if you want out or are forced out of Kennet, represented by its leadership, you must divorce yourself of the partnership, paying penalties and making restitution based on your total net worth.”

Hall snorted a short laugh.  “Who wrote that?”

Lucy didn’t respond.

“I know most.”

Lucy was silent.

Hall turned to Musser.

“Well?” Musser asked.

“I’d have to see the contract.”

“Then get your hands on it.”

Clark Hall turned to them.  He paused, then said, “Earlier, I said you could challenge me.  Call me on what you seemed to think was a bluff or falsehood.  There are provisions, deals we can make, elements of practice-based Law that allow for word to be examined.  Especially for contracts and oaths.”

“And?” Lucy asked.

“I call on those provisions.  The arbiter’s proviso-”

“Which requires you to be neutral,” Verona said.  “I read up on that.”

“More neutral than Durocher is apparently being,” Lucy added.

“-interrogated word, receipts of affirmation, the arbiter’s testimony, nineteen ninety three-”

“Sounds like gibberish to me,” Matthew said.  “Are you trying to sound clever?”

“There is substance to each of these assertions.  I’ll cut straight to the point.  I could twist your arms and force you to let me see, but that takes time, it’s a hassle, it costs both of us.  I can swear an oath of secrecy, I won’t speak of the contract details.  I’ll simply verify if it does what you say it does.  I’ll look at three random ones, if you can attest to the fact there’s no major traps in the remainder.”

“Why would we attest to that?” Lucy asked.  “The whole point is if you want to try to claim this place we bled, sweated, and shed tears for… you gotta work for it.”

“Because you’re repeating that, I’ll answer it,” Musser said. “I state my own claim.  On three points of Self, I’ve staked my own claim.  One I would argue is superior.”

“I actually want to hear this,” Toadswallow spoke up.

“Me too,” Lucy said.

“Fine.  I’ve bled for Kennet, in my fight to claim it.  I’ve bled here against Witch Hunter, as prospective Lord, and in fighting your Dogs.  Drops of blood, but they’re drops more than I’ve shed elsewhere, and more blood has been shed as a casualty of my coming here.”

“But have you nearly died for Kennet?” Lucy asked.

“I’ve come closer here than I have in most places.  Which wasn’t close at all, but the prerequisites for points of Self can’t be too high, or people would be denied any right to Self at all.”  Musser turned toward Rook.  “Say I’m wrong to claim it.”

“Why must I say anything?”

“Because you’ve concerned yourself with process, you’re apparently the host.  Tell me I’m in the wrong to claim blood of my Self.”

“No.”

“I’ve sweated for Kennet.  I’ve labored, the very fact I’m here.  I’ve made alliances, given breath, wiped sweat off my brow, in the comings and goings, in warm weather and cold.  Prior to my claim of it, I worked to take most of Ontario.  An act I don’t think you can come close to matching.”

“That was against Kennet,” Avery said.

“You may not agree with the nature of the work I was doing, but I wasn’t in the wrong nor was my sweat devalued by it.  It has merit.”

He didn’t ask Rook for that one. Maybe he figured answering Avery was enough to nail it in.

“Did you cry?” Verona asked.  “Because honestly, I wouldn’t blame you, what you lost, but I kinda just want to hear it.”

“Sex,” Musser said.

Verona blinked, before turning to Lucy.  “What.”

“Blood, sweat, and sex.”

“Do tell, Mr. Musser,” Toadswallow leaned in.  “What of Kennet did you fuck?  Who did you give your seed to?”

“I gave my seed to Kennet,” Musser answered.  “I issued it forth, it gestated, and it grew up into a young man, borne of my seed.  At my urging, he was brought to Kennet.”

“You’re actually using the fact you sent your son to his death?” Lucy asked.

“He was my seed, raised as my son, and on Kennet’s foundation, he was spilt and spent.  Blood, sweat, sex.  I answer your claim of Self with my own.”

Clark touched Musser’s shoulder.  He wasn’t as tall as Musser, so Musser had to bend down for them to exchange whispers.

“I can offer to stand down, for a look at the contract.  You can use another member of my circle.  You lose the benefit of my advice, but the others are nearly as good.”

Musser nodded.

Mr. Hall looked at Lucy.  “Let me see the contract-”

“And you stand down?  You swear to silence?”

“Until all relevant matters are done, I won’t speak of the details without permission.  I’d appreciate some grace from you, if we get further along and establish a neutral relationship, but I won’t expect it.  My silence, except to verify and report on how much of the contract can be argued, I state its validity, and I remove myself from this situation.”

And if it’s not valid, if you can find a way through, then what do we even have?

This at least made Musser work for it.  He’d have to find someone else after this.

Lucy looked at her friends, then at Miss and Rook, then Louise and Matthew.  Her eyes passed over her mom.

She nodded.  “Say it.”

“So sworn.  Silence, but for the exceptions stipulated here, and I remove myself from this situation, not speaking of this, nor working to help Abraham Musser against you in the future.”

Lucy nodded, then motioned.

Mr Hall walked around the table to their side of the one end of it.  He ran a finger through the stack of contracts, then split it, and took the top one, pulling a felt-tip pen out of his pocket, the tip and cap a dull, rusty orange-red.

He circled the occasional word as he skimmed, the pen poised over the lines he was reading.  The marks were quick.

The first paragraph past the summary, he drew four diagonal lines through- an X, but with a space for a word.  He wrote ‘invalid’.

The next paragraph, he crossed out a key line.  He wrote ‘no’.  He scribbled out a quotation.

Another paragraph with an ‘x’, ‘invalid’.

One circled.

Lucy watched as he went through it with an expert hand.  Like a man cleaning the hundredth fish he’d ever cleaned, working easily to separate this from that, to identify the vitals.  It was almost like he didn’t need to read it to identify the weak points.

To kill it, piece my piece.  Invalid.  Invalid.  No.  Questionable- can argue down.  A paragraph with ‘weak’ written over top of it in red felt.  Another invalid.  A circled paragraph with a question mark.  A paragraph with a down arrow drawn over the words at the right hand side, a note- ‘can argue down, becomes negligible’.

He went back a couple of pages, crossed one he’d circled out.  ‘No merit’.

He got to the end, reread it, scribbling out two more sections along the way.  “I’d like to look at two more.  Three in total.”

“What do we gain if we allow that?” Verona asked.

“Clarity?”

“Just say it,” Lucy told him.  Her blood was throbbing through her in time with the heartbeat, and it reminded her body it was injured.  The stitches throbbed.

Mr. Hall turned toward Musser.  “There are parts that can be removed or argued away.  A better lawyer than the one who wrote this can cancel this, eliminate this, let you ignore all of this.”

Lucy thought she might faint.  All that buildup, all that preparation.  For nothing.  Fodder for an expert, expensive contract lawyer to come through and annihilate in minutes.  Weeks of daily work, time she could’ve been with friends, boyfriend, or working on practice stuff, to handle this another way.

Then she saw his finger.

He was pointing at sections.

“Overall?”  Musser asked.

“It’s window dressing.  The stuff I cut away, the stuff you’d argue down, it’s extras, unimportant.”

“Things I’d have to work through, individually.  Different for each contract?”

“I’m not allowed to answer that.  The bones of it, the heart, it’s there.  You either accept Kennet with its responsibilities to each partner, or you disclaim what I’m guessing is every contract.  You can try to take Kennet without any of the contracts, but with virtually no claim at all.  Meanwhile-”

“We get a ton, right?” Lucy asked.  “Because we took on that responsibility.  It’s ours.  It’s part of our claim.”

“I can’t elaborate or agree too much.”

If Musser wanted, he could reduce that claim.  Shrink the stack of contracts by eliminating key people.  But what did that even get him in the long run?  Ontario without many of its markets?  An aftermath of messy Lordships?

“If I put a pawn in place here?  To hold the Lordship?”

Lucy answered, because Clark Hall couldn’t.  “Goes back to the ‘partnership’ and ‘divorce’ thing.  If you put a pawn into place to handle things and get this in order, they’re in the partnership.  It’s between them and their partner.  They can’t be your subordinate while they’re doing those things.  And if you put someone in place as Lord and they then vacate the seat to give it to you… they have to go through the steps in the contract for the divorcing part.”

Same for you, Lucy thought.

He seemed deep in thought.

“Then burn.”

“What?” Lucy asked.

“You’ve set up relationships to markets.  Relationships predicated on two things.  That there be an outside market, yes, you’ve explained why it would be a problem to try to track them down, answer each individually, and handle it while you’re trying to match me in speed, recruiting one for every one I remove.  But it’s also based on there being a Kennet market here.  There is no need to hunt for it, no need to hold back.  So expect my visit.  Expect ruin, expect less gentleness than I’ve shown so far.  I’ve stated my intentions, there’s no reason to denounce my claim.  In the meantime, I’ll handle those who betrayed me to assist you and the Carmine by proxy.”

Lucy glanced at Durocher.

Do you see?  Do you care?  He wanted to hurt your students.  Now he’s threatening to burn our market to the ground.

Durocher didn’t say anything, but looked thoughtful.

“Expect me,” Musser said, turning to go.  “Thank you for the hospitality.  Mr. Hall, I know you can’t speak of anything or cooperate, but let me drive you home, and protect you on the way.  No obligations or expectations.”

He walked down the fire escape, followed by the three practitioners.

“That’s it?” Lucy asked.  “We cornered him, made Kennet too unappetizing, and…?”

“He’ll burn it down, rule over the ashes,” Matthew said.  “All he really needs is the territory.”

“A man like Musser, left with no good way to get what he wants, will not give up what he wanted,” Rook intoned.  “He will give up ‘good’.”

“And the guillotine over our heads remains?” Avery asked.

Lucy tensed.  Her hands were clenched and she worried she’d popped a stitch in her arm, because it felt bad, and maybe wet.

Maybe that was sweat, or her mind playing tricks on her.

“Bull,” Lucy said.  “No, there’s- this sucks too much.  There’s too much bullshit.  This is really how the world works?  He’s powerful, so he gets away with everything?  His fancy lawyer gets to rewrite events?  He gets away free?  He hurts people we care about?”

“Too often, you’re right, that’s how the world works,” Rook replied.  “I’ve been down this road many a time.  You learn to compromise more, to soften the blow.”

Lucy looked at her mom.  There was a degree of bewilderment, but she supposed that was fair.  That had been confusing, and convoluted, and her mom had missed the lead-in, because of work.

“What if we call the bluff?” Lucy asked.  “If we’re facing the risk we lose everything… if there’s thirty days left, we get a Christmas and most of a peak ski season with Kennet, then lose Kennet altogether… why not?”

“Because as much as this was a valiant project,” Rook said, “many of us can leave.  Miss and Kennet found can be put out of reach.  He can take the Lordship and unseat the Carmine and if we seal things enough, we can keep him from taking Kennet found.  We have full existences ahead of us.  More to do.  We will try again.”

“What if we don’t accept that?  What if we want this to be the try that counts?” Lucy asked.

“It did,” Miss replied.  “Even if it was a loss, it was a fine effort.  There may be a chance you can fight him.”

“With the Wild Hunt dogging us?” Lucy asked.  “For another month?  Can we get that far?  He came here because he needs a win and a win against Charles here will do a lot to weaken him, right?  Well… we need a fucking win too.”

“I suggest a vote,” Louise said.

“Fast?” Lucy asked.  “We need to do something.”

“Friends,” Verona said.  She looked at Avery.  “McCauleigh.  Other allies.”

The vote was called. There were parts of the vote she didn’t care much about.  She respected the leaders of Kennet below but if they voted on Lucy’s behalf or wanted to fight Musser when he attacked next month, it didn’t really matter.

But Connor and her mom didn’t raise their hands.  Lucy cared about that.  That mattered.

“That’s enough, I think,” Louise said, making a tally in her notebook.  “An agreement.  No, to the question of whether to let Musser go unanswered and flee Kennet.”

“We’re doing this?” Lucy asked, to be sure.  She smiled a bit at her mom.

She was pretty sure her mom got it, now.  What they were up against.  She didn’t ‘get’ practice, and she had grudges against some of the people here, but the dangers… their parents had all come around.  Where applicable.

“Alabaster,” Lucy said.  “I call on you.”

“Sable,” Avery said.  “You’ll do too.”

“Aurum,” Verona added.  “Any of you three, or all three.  Let’s leave the Carmine out of this?”

The light at the glass of the greenhouse-like encasement over Rook’s movable rooftop garden distorted further.  White light, golden light, and shadow intensified.

Glass broke.  Blood oozed from cracks.

All four Judges were present, now.

“Didn’t invite you,” Lucy told Charles.

“As if I’d miss it,” Charles replied, a fierce look in his eyes.  He had a Durocher-like energy, restless.  “Don’t worry.  I won’t say or do anything my fellow judges aren’t willing to say or do.  Make your statement.”

“I, Lucy Ellingson, challenge Musser.”

“I, Verona Hayward, second the motion.  We challenge him on-”

“On all that he is,” Lucy added.  “The points we made, the challenges, we called him out?  We made ourselves stand out and made ourselves something good, here, helping people.  We denied him what he wants.  He shouldn’t get to pull this shit.”

“No way he runs,” Avery said.  She glanced over the rooftop of Kennet’s Others and Aware, some of whom had risen from their seats.  “No way he leaves this hanging over our heads a third time, making threats for the future.”

“I don’t buy that he’s a leader,” Lucy added.  “I don’t buy he’s legit, either.  Not like he’s a self-made man.  So let’s make that challenge, test us, test him.”

“Granted,” Charles answered the statement, and he did it with a mean smile that Lucy didn’t trust at all.


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Crossed with Silver – 19.15

Lucy

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“…Some of the word choices seem weird, and I’m sure there’s a good reason, but this stuff gets tricky because I can’t exactly look it up,” Lucy said.

“Right.”

Sebastian Harless was on a video call with her, same program she used when talking to Dr. Mona.  Lucy had the window open so the document was on one half and Mr. Harless was on the other.  Avery had made the connection between Lucy and the magical contract lawyer from Thunder Bay.

Lucy went on, “I can read example contracts and statements and see what comes up, learn it like how you learn new words when reading and sort of get the meaning, even if you’ve never read it.”

“I think that’s how you have to do it.  It’s the product of years and years of work, lots of reading, lots of practical experience.”

“I have two days, and it’s like I’m kneecapped by the Wild Hunt, and a bunch of other distractions.”

“What’s the end goal?”

“Trying to make an argument that someone like Abraham Musser can’t just, I dunno.  Wave his hands and nullify?”

“Wild Hunt and Abraham Musser, huh?  Can I be honest?”

Lucy sighed heavily.

“Is that a no?  I don’t want to overstep.”

“It’s not a no.  It’s… I want to hear.  Avery’s paying you for your expertise.”

“This isn’t expertise, exactly.  I hope you take this question in the way it’s meant, which is me arguing my way out of a paycheque, because I’d rather do right than make money.  But are you sure this is the route you want to take?  Contracts, against them?”

“Like challenging a giant to an arm wrestling contest.”

“Yeah.  Something like that.”

“What else are we going to do, Mr. Harless?  It’s not going to be much better if we try to fight, I don’t think.  We can try, we can pull strings, we can do stuff, but… words first?”

“I suppose.”

“The way I figure it, if I’m challenging a giant to an arm wrestling contest, maybe I can like… drive a truck into their arm when they aren’t expecting it and bam, score before they know it.”

“Avery has impressed on me that he may now know the general thrust of what you’re doing, so I’m not sure that’s valid.”

“Right,” Lucy said, quiet.

Avery had called during one of the council meetings and they’d discussed their options.  They’d decided that if Avery was okay trying, she could go talk to Fernanda and Raquel, trying for a win, because what they had set up already hadn’t felt like enough.  And they’d won some, lost some, when they definitely couldn’t afford to lose some.

“If you do want to try this, I’m happy to continue working with you on this.  But I’d hate to think that I helped you with this and gave you a false sense of security, and you- I don’t know.  Faced consequences?”

“Thanks,” Lucy replied, quiet.  She’d set up in her bed, laptop in her lap.  She glanced at the window, half expecting to see a member of the Wild Hunt there, peering in between the curtains.  “I’m not feeling very secure, don’t worry.”

“I’m sorry.”

She adjusted her position, and showed him her bandaged arm.  “The Hunt came into my school and sliced my arms open before disappearing.  They would’ve cut my throat if I was a little slower.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Lucy’s response didn’t come out when she tried.  She could see him, graying hair, not wrinkled, but he looked like the kind of person who wore wrinkled suits from head to toe, somehow.  Or like he was someone who’d been mugged, dragged into an alley, beaten, and he’d gotten up after, dusted himself off, and limped home, just accepting it as a matter of course.

That was the default look on his face, that she’d picked up from him.  The face of someone who’d been through that.  Yet he looked so sorry for her as he said that, his eyes so kind, that it left her momentarily speechless.

“That sounds horrible,” he added.  “I can’t imagine.”

“I- I wasn’t looking for sympathy.  I was- trying to make it clear where the situation is at.”

“Okay.”

“Look, I- I don’t want to sound like I’m being a pity whore, but- my arms are pretty sore and weak.  I’m not in great shape to fight, and if I do get better, or stronger, or find an edge, I think the Hunt will come again.  So I’m not really trying to get stronger.  Not physically.  Let them leave me in this state.  I don’t think they understand the internet, so they’re not blocking this call or interfering with this.  To them, I think it looks like I’m just lying around, feeling sorry for myself, waiting for Musser to come crush us.”

“Careful.  They may be able to hear you.”

“I’ve got an earring as an implement, I’ve set up wards with the implement to protect it, I’m pretty sure I’m okay as far as protection against eavesdropping goes, at least.”

“Alright.”

“I’m trying to look some stuff up, that gets into Law, the processes, the way these things work.  I know I’m up against a heavyweight.  But maybe I catch him on a bad day.  Maybe there’s a chance.  And patterns count, right?  So if he underestimates me, maybe I can start establishing a pattern.  I want to fight back, do something, but I can’t, you know, actually fight.”

“Me either,” he said, with a note of humor in his voice.  “I don’t even have the excuse of being wounded.”

Lucy smiled.

He asked, “Are you going to be okay if this doesn’t work out?”

“I don’t know,” Lucy replied.  That question didn’t come across as a vote of confidence so soon after she’d tried to rally her spirits and talk about possibilities, chances, and fighting back.  “But there’s a better chance of it working out if I can keep from fumbling things if he starts challenging me on the contracts we made with other groups and people.  If he picks out some word and I can’t explain why we used it, that’d take everything we’re building, network-wise, and slash this big, shitty sword through it all, you know?”

“Okay.  Do you have suggestions open?”

“Suggestions?”

“Which program are you using?”

“It automatically opened to… Xenix twenty-twenty.”

“Okay.  Let me open that up.  I try to keep them all, in case something doesn’t convert.  Okay.  Toolbar, edit…”

He hit a key combination, and his picture was replaced with a view of the contract.  He showed her where to go as he explained verbally.

The little option was ticked, and the document came alive with highlights and speech bubble style annotations.

“Oh hey, wow.  This is great.”

“Some of those notes are mine, but if you notice a strange word and it’s tied into something like… see this line?”

On his screen, he clicked a highlighted line, and focused in on a speech bubble.  It brought up a citation that reminded Lucy of what she’d had to do for school for a big essay, except legal.

“I see it.”

“If you’re really stuck on something or something seems important, you can try searching for that.  It might get you better results.”

Lucy scrolled, clicking on things.  “Okay.  This feels like a lot to wrap my head around still.  Maybe I can keep my laptop on hand to reference stuff, but that feels shaky.  I don’t suppose I could do some practice, have your voice in my ear?  I think I could pull that off.  Use my implement to fine tune it?”

“I’d be the Cyrano to your Christian?”

“Huh?”

“A play.  That would come a little too close to me confronting Musser directly.”

“Crap.”

“Give it a read, skim the comments, if something is puzzling you, or if you spot something that doesn’t make sense, even after you’ve read it, I can try explaining.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “There’s one in the first paragraph?”

“Of the body or the-”

“The introduction part.  Statement of intent, summary, whatever.”

“There shouldn’t be anything too puzzling there.  It’s plainspeak.”

Wed,” Lucy said.  “The contract herein is intended to wed the organized markets of Kennet above, Kennet below, and Kennet found, hereafter referred to as Kennet, to the Thunder bay Fairy Circle, hereafter referred to as the TBFC, in a mutually beneficial business arrangement.  Kennet intends to take the bulk of responsibility in this contract, blah blah blah, the individual parties are named, with key figures listed, council, faerie, signatures included, blah blah blah, no expectation to defend Kennet… and then it appears a few more times at the bottom of the summary.  And in other places.”

“Ah,” Sebastian said.  He let out a rueful chuckle.

“It’s not a trap?” Lucy asked.

“No!” Sebastian hurried to assure her.  He switched back to camera, maybe to show her he was genuine.  “Not at all.  But I can see where the word would trip you up.”

“It’s one of the weird words that jumped out at me.  And it’s something that keeps cropping up, like the universe is bugging me about it.  Popped up in my Implement ritual, the Wild Hunt were asking me to make an obligation…”

“Okay, let me try to explain.  This is contract work, it ties into rhetoric, language, discourse, and Law.  Do you know what rule of discourse is?”

“If I talk a certain way, use words a certain way, it holds more sway, doesn’t get counted as a lie.  I know a goblin that’s wrong all the time, but that’s her rule of discourse, I guess.  Snowdrop talks backwards.”

“Right.  But there are other dimensions to that.  The rules of discourse are shaped and helped along by society as a whole.  What’s a common utterance…? I keep thinking of rude ones.”

“I don’t mind.”

“No, no, thought of one.  Literally.  In many circles, the word has been used for emphasis, even when it’s not strictly literal.  Which is fine and accepted, and even in dictionaries… and that works, in those circles.”

“Right.”

“Would you want to use the word that way in an oath?  Probably not, but you might get away with it, if all parties involved understood and accepted that use of the word.”

“Even if challenged?”

“Potentially.  A lot would depend on the disposition of the Lord of your area, or the higher powers like the Judges in areas without Lords.  But I could see that happening in a very specific region.  In this scenario, you make a casual oath using the word literally to mean figuratively, someone challenges you, but because everyone else that’s involved, Lords or higher powers, spirits, and maybe even the random hypothetical individual pulled off the street to quiz for an interpretation were all in agreement, you could get away with it.  And stuffy practitioners halfway across the world would throw a fit, I’m sure.”

Lucy smiled a bit at the idea.

“The society we’re in sets its rules for discourse.  That goes for contracts and Law, too.  The word we choose here sets the tone for a lot of this document and agreement.  If I were to use the word bind, for example…”

“Stricter.”

“Yes.”

“But we wanted strict.”

“You do, but your potential partners don’t.  Especially after having met some of them, I can confidently say that they wouldn’t have signed something with that terminology.”

“Okay.”

“One of them, a fairy, he liked the use of ‘wed’.  I squeezed in a ‘divorce’ in one paragraph toward the end.  It’s highlighted, there’s a note on why it’s in there, actually.”

“I’m not going to end up with Musser wagging his finger at me, saying I have to marry this fairy or someone, right?”

“No.  It’s word choice to skew things toward a particular kind of deal, with expectations, connotations, and all of that matters if you end up in a situation where someone’s having to decide how to read it.  Like with the rule of discourse, but it’s less about truth and more about whole package of rules and ideas we’re including in here.”

“Hmm.  Yeah, sorry, this is still hard to wrap my head around.  I think I get you.”

“There are word choices and ideas I can put in this that would make it so if the council changes, things are more flexible and open to reinterpretation, even if the overall terms were the same.  Ways to make this harder to walk away from, temporary, positive…”

“Okay.  So ‘wed’.”

“Implying partnership, combination of strengths, something you or your new partner can walk away from, given an excuse, ties into my use of ‘divorce’, but it’s not something that others on the outside can easily interfere with.  Strict but comfortable.”

“Okay.  Alright, that makes sense, I guess.  It’s a bit uncomfortable.”

As she voiced the word ‘uncomfortable’, she unconsciously wanted to check her surroundings again.

Peering in between the curtains were a pair of narrow silvery eyes, angled like the head had been tilted to a right angle.  One near the curtain rod, the other below it.

“Did the feed die?  You froze.”

She’d frozen because she didn’t know what to do.

She shook her head slowly, not taking her eyes off the two silvery eyes.  Everything beyond the window was so dark that she could only see the eyes, reflecting the light from her room.

They blinked slowly, stared.

Then they closed again, and they didn’t open.

“Is there anything you need me to do?” Sebastian asked.

“Give me a sec?” she asked.

She stood, forgot she had her headphones on, and nearly pulled her laptop to the floor.  She caught it, pulled the headphones off, and put them on the bed, before walking over to the window.

Standing closer to it let her see that there was no silhouette there.  She could see the ski hills lit up by lights, skiiers going up and down the hill.  It would be a mostly adult crowd at this hour.

Lucy searched the backyard, nearby trees, and looked for the Fae.  Or whatever it had been.  The Wild Hunt weren’t necessarily Fae.  She’d figured that much.

She pulled the curtains closed tight enough there’d be no gap to peer through, then went back to the laptop.

She didn’t make it a full two steps before the window shattered.

Lucy tumbled, even though nothing had actually touched her.  The figure was big enough that them crashing in through the window at a high speed and stopping pushed the air at her, knocking her off balance mid-step.

Freezing cold draft, snowflakes, and fragments of window washed over her as she flipped over onto her back.

The Fae was tall enough his head nearly grazed the ceiling.  He was framed by panels of what looked like stained glass windows, each panel in the windows frosted ice of different consistencies and shades, to allow the images to stand out.  He kept his hands folded inside his sleeves, dressed in flowing clothes.

“Lucy, wha-” Sebastian’s voice came over the laptop, and it was abruptly cut off.

The wards around the room had gone off.  Connection block stuff, a silencing effect.

Her window was gone.  Broken, torn out of the frame.  Her bedroom had a gaping hole in it.

Paper fluttered, and Lucy recognized the octopus drawing Verona had given her.  She saw the linework on the backside.

An apology gift from Verona, back when she’d given Avery and Verona a chewing out for making her take care of them while not having her back as much.  Verona had done some intricate diagram work on the back side of the page, with the idea being that Lucy could blow a hole through her wall and escape a bad situation, she’d said.

Except Lucy already had a hole in the wall.  She shielded her head and face, squinting her eyes to keep track of what was happening.  An adjustment of her body to anticipate the heat, letting it slide past her-

The explosion was focused, a column of roaring fire and light that took the damage that had already been done to her bedroom and compounded it.  More runes lit up, responding to the presence of fire, insulating things.  Insulating her.  She hadn’t needed to adjust her stance- as much as she had one, lying on her floor.

The Fae -and it sure as fuck looked like a Fae- blocked the worst of it with the three panels of ice, levitating them into the way to shield itself.

There was no sound to it.  The connection blockers she’d put at her room in case some magic item blew up or her mom started spying on her while she and Verona were doing something- made back before her mom had been turned Aware, all lit up.

Keeping civilians unaware of the house.

And that was its own little benefit.  A bit of coup, knocking this tall Fae off balance, a bit of karmic pendulum-swinging, automatically cleaning up the mess this Fae had created.

If she rounded it out by lashing out…

What would that even accomplish?  They’d blow the horn.

She remained frozen, lying on the floor, breathing hard.  Flame licked parts of her bedroom and the pieces of wood that had been part of the window.  Glass, ice, and snow made things glitter.

The Faerie didn’t even pull his hands out of his sleeves.  One of the glass panels had partially reformed after being broken, and as he turned his head, the panel slammed into the wall, its jagged edge punching through paint and drywall, piercing the sound-nullifying ward.

It came back to return to its place in the arrangement and continued regenerating.

The voice was like a smooth whisper at speaking value, but with no rasp or hiss to it.  “If a king were to visit, would you dare shut a door in his face?”

Lucy knew she couldn’t forfeit too much momentum here.  “I’m afraid I don’t pay much attention to kings.  Are you a king?”

“No.  But I am deserving of respect, aren’t I?” he asked.  He walked around the room, fingers running over her desk, which was covered in splinters and glittering bits of snow and ice.

“I don’t know you.”

“You should know enough of us.  Or do you need a more serious injury to leave you with a more lasting impression?”

She shivered.  She hadn’t been dressed for having a hole in her wall.

She shivered more because she was freaked the fuck out.

He kept asking questions that cornered her.

“If your teachers have failed you in your instruction, then they should be corrected.  It is vitally important to show the proper respect to officers of the Court.”

Lucy clenched her teeth, shivering, not moving.

“Executing you in front of them should be sufficient correction,” he said.  He stepped onto a piece of burning wood, extinguishing the lick of fire.  Then he turned to her, those narrow silvery eyes studying her.  “Convince me otherwise.”

“Anything I say or do will only be more reasons and ways to come at me, won’t it?” Lucy asked, and there was resentment in the words.  She knew he caught it.

“If you’re that sure of that, then there’s no reason not to deliver a verdict now.”

“It’s a question, not a statement,” she told the Fae.  She was afraid the words wouldn’t come, like how she’d been speechless with Sebastian earlier.  That would be it.  She had to be careful how she worded what she said.  A parry and thrust from the Fae would be it too.  “The home is a sanctuary, I’ve had to clean up your karmic mess-”

“It was handled.”

By me,” Lucy told him.  “I handled it.  There is currently a giant hole in my wall, and I can see the connection blocks are active.  That means I’m handling it.”

“It was unnecessary.”

“Handling karma is widely seen as necessary.  I handled it,” Lucy told him.  Because I set stuff up to go off automatically, because from the very beginning, I was worried about this crap getting in the middle of my life.  She shook her head, finding her steam.  “You stormed in here, intruded, triggered the-”

Her phone rang.  It sounded more high pitched than usual, with the way her entire body and every sense was tensed.

The Fae turned its head, looking down at her bedside table.  “The shrill device has words.  Call: Verona Hayward.  Oh.  The words disappeared.”

The phone went silent.

Lucy tried to pick up where she left off, saying, “Intruder, you-”

“You named two things,” the Faerie cut her off.  “The home as a sanctuary, karmic caretaking.  If you name a third, the Wild Hunt will have to assume this is a challenge.  A challenge we will answer.”

The words were a threat.

He stared her down.  Inviting her to continue.

He paced over to the hole in the wall, and the faint light that shone over from the ski hills highlighted the images in the three panels.  They looked like Winter Court nobles, each bearing a weapon.

Lucy started to stand-

A panel flew her way, stabbing through the upper end of her dresser and embedding itself in the wall on the far side.  The shattered drawer broke, slumping, depositing socks, hairbands, hair ties, scarves for sleeping, and other hair accessories on the ground near Lucy’s feet.  The makeup and jewelry on the top tipped the other way, one case hitting the plastic trash can and sending it spinning.  Lucy could see the bullet hole in the wall from when she’d used the ring to make a gun.

She gave serious thought to using the weapon ring to make a weapon now.

Stay down.  The implication was clear.

She started rising to her feet again.

The one panel jerked, hauling itself backwards, to return to the Fae’s side, while another plunged outward, right at Lucy.

She didn’t flinch, and didn’t move.  The panel grazed by her, the coldness of it making the fabric of her sleeve stick to it.  She jerked, turning almost ninety degrees sideways, as it effectively tugged on her sleeve, then released it.  It crashed into the wall, and the lights sparked and went out.

She shivered, trying to control her breathing, while giving the Fae a level stare over her shoulder, now.

“Lucy.”

The voice came from the yard.

Guilherme.

Guilherme hopped up to the hole in Lucy’s bedroom wall.  She hadn’t seen him outside the cave much, these past few weeks, and there’d been other stuff going on when she had.  He had an intensity around him, like a percentage of his body fat had burned away, drawing out the edges in his bone structure and the lines of his muscles and veins.

“Aralu,” Guilherme addressed the Fae.

The floating panels changed angle slightly.  Two of them fixated on Lucy.

Every instinct she’d trained, every lesson she’d learned from scraps, fights, chases, they told her that there was no dodging this.  Guilherme could stop one, but she could try to dodge, and it wouldn’t work.  She knew.

So she didn’t position herself to dodge.  She positioned herself to take it.

The Fae smiled.

“In the future, if the Wild Hunt or any other Fae authority is in the midst of investigating you, do not obstruct, connive, or hide.  We will finish things off when we are satisfied the standards of the Winter Court are being met.”

Guilherme stepped out of the way to let him leave through the hole in the wall.

She waited until she was pretty sure the Fae was gone, then let out a shuddering breath.  She met Guilherme’s eyes.

“Mind your manners with the court,” he said.  “I warned you about the need to be meticulous before I introduced you to winter glamour.”

“What?” she asked.  She was shaking more now that she was cold and coming down from relief, and him doing this now was not helping stabilize her any.

“I shouldn’t need to repeat myself.”

“Guilherme,” she said, pushing on the dresser to steady herself.  Wood creaked, and she pulled back.

“A movement of one of his allies led me here.  He was ready to kill you in front of me.  You may have rallied in the last moments, but you need to improve by vast measures, and you need to do it fast.  Even if you eke out a victory against Musser, they’re likely to finish you off if you waver or falter for a moment, after.”

She swallowed hard.

“I should go before someone else decides to carry out that lesson,” Guilherme said.

“Guilherme,” she said, to his back.

“Do you have anything to say that isn’t repeating my name?”

“You’re better than this,” she told him, relief dropping out of her like her stomach on a rollercoaster, to let a heavy sadness take its place.  She hadn’t known what she was going to say until she said it.

Guilherme hopped down to the snow below.  When she walked over to look down, he was gone.

Shivering, she turned, her back to the ruined wall, and she looked at her bedroom.  Papers and posters from Booker’s music subscription had fallen and littered the floor.  Bits of wood.  Ice.

She had to pick her footing carefully- her feet were bare.  She walked over to get her phone.

“Lucy.”

She turned to look at the laptop.  The angle of it meant he’d only seen her when she’d stepped next to the bed.

“Hi, Sebastian.  Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry.  I messaged your friend.  The local one.”

“Thank you,” she told him.  “I guess she’s not home, or she’d be here already.”

She put her phone into her lap, then went to unlock it.  Her hands shook enough she couldn’t input the waggle to unlock it.  She clenched her hands into fists, instead, but that only made the stitches in her arms hurt.

“Can you message Verona?” Lucy asked.  “Or call her?  Make sure she’s careful on her way over?  I don’t want her hurt.”

“On it.”

She heard his chair creak as he stood up, phone to his ear.  She looked through the screen of her laptop to a place that was hours away, warmer, and not destroyed.

He sat back down.  “Do you have a parent there?  A guardian?”

“My mom’s at work.”

“Your dad, then?”

“Dead, for a long time,” she said, quiet, eyes surveying the damage.  “Next closest would be… Guilherme, I guess.  And he just left.”

“From what I overheard, that doesn’t sound like a guardian.”

“My friend will be here,” Lucy murmured.  “Or she should.  They might’ve- Verona, Verona, Verona.”

Lucy, Lucy, Lucy.

She shivered.  She’d caught the nuance in the reply, the tone, the tension.  Worry, but Verona wasn’t worried for her own sake.

Not that she ever was, not enough, anyway.

Verona was coming, she hadn’t been intercepted yet.

“Do you want me to go?  We could resume tomorrow morning.  I have an appointment, so it would need to be early, or close to lunch.”

She hesitated.  “If it’s okay, would you…?”

She looked at the glass, the splinters.

The huge hole that every connection blocker was working overtime to help the rest of the world ignore.

Posters she’d liked.  Socks torn.

“…Stay on the line?  Talk to me about contracts?  If you’re not busy?”

“I’m not busy.”

It took nearly ten minutes for Verona to show up.  Lucy got the dirt on wording, intent, and Mr. Harless even gave her the short form of some of the points of precedent and citation, that looked more important.  Verona let herself into the house, then called upstairs.  “Lucy!?”

“Here!  My room!”

“Shall we end this here?” Sebastian asked.

“Okay.  Thank you.  I appreciate it.”

“Let me waive my fees.”

“You don’t have to,” Lucy told him.  “Don’t.  That sounds weird when it’s Avery paying.”

“It’s fine.  I’ll waive my fees this time.  There, it’s said, it’s done.”

“That doesn’t seem like a good way to run a business.”

“It’s not about business.  I’ll let you go, I’ll be available tonight until eleven or so, and then I’ll be available from about six fifteen until eight tomorrow, and then after ten o’clock, if you have more questions.  Emailing you and Avery my schedule so you know.  If you’d like, I can send another update tomorrow around noon.”

“Okay.  I’m… I’m honestly not going to turn down help.  I’m not sure I’ll be in a position to call, but I appreciate it.”

“Good luck, Ms. Ellingson.”

He ended the call.

She sat on the bed, listening to Verona’s running footsteps.

The angle of approach to the house hadn’t given Verona a view of the damage, made more obvious when her first reaction was, “What the hell.”

“I don’t suppose you know a good repair magic?” Lucy asked.

“Are you okay?”

“I’ll be more okay if I know there’s a repair magic in your back pocket.”

“I’ve seen one.  I think I could find it again if I dig in my browsing history for a few minutes,” Verona remarked.  “I don’t think it’d replace some of the one-of-a-kind things.  More walls and windows.”

“Walls and windows is good.  I don’t want to stress out my mom.”

“Let me get looking.”

“I’ve got to visit the shrines tonight,” Lucy said.

“Take the Dog Tags.  For that matter- why aren’t you calling on the Dog Tags now?”

“I don’t think they’d have made the situation any better.”

“They’re pretty chill, Lucy, they’re not going to make it worse.  They can follow my cues, and I’m a weirdo… they can definitely follow yours.”

“I always feel like I’m bothering them.  Big and time consuming asks, guard duty, when I don’t have much to give them.”

“You do realize that a big chunk of why they’re in town is to back us?  They’re just awkward about it.  And now you’re being awkward about it.”

“I can ask for their help when I go on patrol.”

Verona walked over, then smacked Lucy lightly across the head.

“Ow,” Lucy said.  She felt Verona’s hand at the back of her neck, fumbling, tugging on the chain there-  “Stop.  Stop it.  Verona-”

She poked Verona’s stomach, then poked it twice, then poked it three times, harder-

Verona collapsed on top of her, manhandling her, until she’d pulled the chain over Lucy’s head.  She threw it back over her shoulder, across the room.

Lucy went limp, huffing for breath.  Verona pressed her hands down against the bed, avoiding touching the injured part.  It still hurt a bit.  “Fuck.”

“Is Lucy possessed?” Grandfather asked.

“She’s possessed of tha dumb,” Verona said, moving the laptop aside before sitting at the head of the bed.  Lucy had a view of Grandfather, now, standing by her bedroom door.

She pulled a blanket around herself.  Verona and Grandfather were wearing jackets.  Her room was cold, like this.

“I didn’t want to- it’s no big deal,” Lucy said.

“It looks like a big deal.  There’s open fire.”

“It’s still warded.  I don’t think you could set fire to my room if you tried.  Verona can fix the hole where my window used to be, apparently, Wild Hunt is going to do what it’s going to do.  I might need backup for the shrine visits.”

“I’ll stay with you now, you can call in more help for the shrine visits.  Where can I find a broom?”

“Oh, you don’t have to.  It’s my room, my house.  I can.”

“You’re injured, and you’d better believe they make sure we know how to get stuff tidy and keep it that way.”

“They?” Verona asked.  “The nebulous people who trained the people who ended up becoming you?”

“Yeah,” Grandfather said.

It felt like they were trying to strike a lighter tone, to make up for how absolutely shitty things were.  “The hidden talents of Dog Tags, not covered in the texts.”

“Where is your broom?” Grandfather asked.

“There’s a closet down the hall, by the bathroom.  Should have one in it.  I’m going to feel like an ass if I’m just sitting here watching you both clean and fix my room.”

Grandfather was already leaving on his broom hunt.

“Did you do the call with the contract guy?” Verona asked.

“Yeah.”

“Talk me through your notes, get things sorted, magic talk to give me energy.”

“It’s boring magic stuff.  Contracts and rhetoric.”

“I love magic rhetoric.  I’m good at magic rhetoric.”

“You’re good at improv magic rhetoric, but this is dry magic rhetoric.  Citations, like in those bibliography things you hated.”

“Magic citations!”

“Dry, legal magic citations.  And distinctions between an agreement that weds two parties, and one that binds-”

“We’re talking about magic still, right?  Not, you know, uh…?”

“Magic stuff still.”

Lucy began to read through the highlighted comments, when Verona cried out, “Shit!”

“What?”

“Stop sweeping, stop sweeping, don’t move anything.”

Grandfather raised his hands, the broom held in one.

“Everything you move is going to resist going back where it should.  Crap.  I had a gut feeling.  Uhhh… okay, hold off.  Let’s see how intact we end up, and I think there’s other stuff I can pull out.  I read a book on demiurgic domains while researching how to fine tune my Demesne.  I think I can use that to patch and spackle anything that got swept that isn’t going back.”

“You’re tapping into the same kinds of power that a god uses to make their personal realm of Creation to patch and spackle a broken wall and window?” Lucy asked.

“Yeah!  And that dresser, and the wall.  They’re not always a god.  Can be any big power.”

They went back to work, Grandfather holding the broom but not using it, Lucy reciting the contract, and Verona using the spot Grandfather had cleared to draw out a celestial diagram.  Like the basic diagrams they’d started doing, but ratcheted up to ten times the complexity, with math and geometry worked into it.

Avery sent an alarmed text, which told Lucy that she’d gotten a message from Mr. Harless.  Lucy sent a reply, saying she was putting her room back together.

Then Avery made a video call.  Lucy accepted, and then filled Avery in, with a view of the room.

“I’m coming to Kennet soon,” Avery told them.  “Stay alive?  Please?”

“Yeah.  Will try, obviously.  Hey, Verona, changing the subject, remember the octopus picture you drew me?  Way back in spring?”

“Yeah.”

“It triggered today.  I liked the picture, even if it was a weird fit on my wall.”

“Was it cool?  Was it useful?  Wait, it wasn’t what blew out your window, was it?”

“Explosion came inward,” Grandfather remarked.

“True.”

“It was cool.  It was as useful as anything.  Made him stumble.  I was ready to use that against him, but I decided against it.”

“I wondered, ’cause it was one of the first really tight, dense elementary diagrams I did, that’s awesome.  I’m glad.  Do you want another?  Another octopus picture?”

“I mean… I won’t say no if you give me art.  I like anything by you.  But maybe something else?”

“Boys?  Wallace?”

“My mom would be weirded out.  I’d be weirded out if you drew a picture of my boyfriend.”

“A fox?” Verona asked.

“A fox would be cool.  I like foxes.”

“Awesome.  I’ll get back to you on that.”

“Nora seeing the pictures you drew of random places around Kennet was how the subject of her coming for Christmas came up,” Avery said.  “I’ve got the friendship bracelet, the antler jacket, Lucy recommended music I showed Nora and she took it to her band, because they were being snarky, and Sophy said she’d sing a cover for whatever song she picked.”

“Which?” Lucy asked.

“Humpwump.”

“Oh.  That was not what I was expecting,” Lucy said.

“The drumline, the bass!  Making Sophy sing those lyrics!  It was great.”

“The lyrics, the style,” Lucy replied.  “I was going to suggest putting it on to change the vibe, but I’m not sure that’d be the kind of change we want.”

“If you’re holding back on my account, don’t,” Grandfather said.

“Well now you have to,” Verona told Lucy.

“I warned you,” Lucy said, before opening up her PlaylistR.  She connected to her bluetooth speakers.

The music came pounding out, with lyrics that were gobbled more than they were sung.

“I regret this,” Grandfather said, in the one second of silence while the singer caught their breath.

“This is what goblin music would be like,” Avery said, excited.

“Ramjam would dig this so hard!” Verona exclaimed, bobbing her head with the rhythm.

“He did.  I showed it to him.  But he has a short attention span, so he gets excited every time I put it on, like it’s the first time.”

The gobbled lyrics got explicit.

Grandfather looked at Lucy.  “You like this?”

“I like unique sounds.  This isn’t regular listening, though.”

Lucy looked at the connection blocks, checking they were okay.  Blaring music out through the hole in her wall was probably not the way to go to keep those diagrams intact.

Verona started wiggling with the music, dancing some, while holding her phone to see what she needed to put down in chalk.

It felt a lot like Verona had started out trying to manage an upbeat, excited tone, to counter how shitty a lot of this felt, and then got so into it she forgot what she was doing.

Grandfather put a hand on Lucy’s shoulder.

“Don’t sit there like a lump.  You can’t use your hands so well, but you can dance,” Verona urged Lucy.  “You too, Ave.  Being on the wrong side of a computer screen hours away from us isn’t an excuse.”

I liked sitting here with Grandfather being supportive, Lucy thought.

But she relented, standing, blanket still wrapped around her.  She liked Verona being upbeat and fun, too.

It reminded her of how things used to be, years ago.

🟂

“Lucy!” her mom called up.

Lucy hurried down the stairs, snatching up her coat, where she’d hung it on the post of the railing at the bottom of the stairs.  She grabbed her bag from the bottom of the stairs, and opened the door.

Grandfather.  He stepped inside, glancing at the Dog Tags who loitered outside, and shut the door behind himself.

“Verona got attacked this morning,” he told them.

Lucy felt a chill run over her.  “What?”

“During the shrine visit.  She had three Dog Tags and ghouls with her.  It didn’t matter.  The Wild Hunt came.”

“What happened?”

“They changed the weather, she tried to use practice to fight back and resist, it didn’t work.  The group was overwhelmed, then confronted when too cold to fight back.”

“But is she okay?  She didn’t text, she-”

“She didn’t want to bother you.  She has a stab wound, arm.  It bled a lot.  But there was a medic with them.  Some of the parts that were frozen are still numb and swollen.  She gainsaid herself, thinking they would back off so long as they made their point.  She was right.”

“She should have called.  Someone should have called,” Lucy’s mom said.  “She’s still at the House on Half Street?”

“She wanted to use alchemy and Tashlit.”

Lucy glanced at her mom, who looked hurt.

“She called Louise, Louise picked them up, took them to the House on Half Street.  Tashlit met them there, healed the worst of it.  She fell asleep pretty quickly.  From what Angel said, she didn’t sleep last night, she visited the shrines early this morning, she was tired.”

“Can I visit?” Lucy’s mom asked.

“She’s sleeping, but I don’t think she’d mind a visit.”

“This is ridiculous.  Fuck this,” Lucy said.  “Fuck.”

“That seems to be the take,” Grandfather said.  “Shared by most in the know.”

“Are the ghouls okay?  And the Dog Tags?  Sorry, I didn’t mean to put them last, I just assumed the Dog Tags recovered.”

“They did.  The ghouls are mending back at the factory.  We’re having another council meeting later.”

“Fuck.”

“You wanted to go out?” Grandfather asked.

“No,” Lucy’s mom said.

“I’m not any safer at home.”

“Can they even attack you at home?” her mom asked.

“Probably.  Will they?  I don’t know.  They might think there could be too many wards and protections around the house,” Lucy said.  Not that it matters, but it slows them down and makes them look bad, and that does matter.

“They might,” Grandfather said, playing along.

“And if we don’t get out there and handle some stuff… one, my mental health will suffer, and two, we need every last bit of advantage we can get.  We can’t let this slow us down.”

Her mom was shaking her head.

“I have an idea,” Lucy said.  “And I think it might be what makes the difference.”

“What idea?”

“We pay a visit to- what’s her name?  Mrs. Schaff.  I’ve told you about her.”

Lucy hadn’t even known her name until recently, when she’d come up in the context of Kennet found.  There were black sheep who were of a particular type that fit well enough into Kennet below and wandered their way in.  George, heavily drunk, had done that.  The Trenchcoat mouse, apparently, had done it too.

But now they had a first lost sheep.  Someone out of it enough that they’d entered Kennet found without bouncing off or anything too weird.

“Louise was visiting her, if I remember right?” Lucy’s mom asked.  “Why her?”

“Doing multiple things at the same time,” Lucy said.  “It’s better if I don’t say it out loud.  It really is better if I’m out there, staying active, getting stuff done.  Lying low didn’t work.”

“What can I do?” her mom asked.

“Check on Verona?  Give her some mom-age?  Let her handle her injuries her way, but make sure she’s okay?”

Her mom reached out.  Lucy accepted the hug.  The very, very tight hug.

“I hate this,” her mom whispered.

“I am not the biggest fan either.”

“Be safe.  Constant messages.  Don’t you dare keep any emergencies or secrets from me.  I will cancel Christmas.  I’ll tell Booker not to come.”

“You might have to, if we can’t clear this up.  So I really, really want to clear this up.”

“Can you?” her mom asked, breaking the hug.

Lucy shrugged.  She turned to Grandfather.  “You good to go?”

“Absolutely.”

He opened the door for her.

Lucy stepped outside, saw the Dog Tags.  Grandfather behind her, Horseman sitting on the bottom stair, Doe standing closer to the driveway, wearing a scarf but no hat, jagged scar on her head, and Fubar as the only one without a dark look in his eyes, because he wore sunglasses.  His lips did all the work of conveying the appropriate attitude, mouth set, lips pressed together in a way that made a notch of a scar that crossed one lip to the other stand out.  All wore winter jackets, heavy and capable of hiding the hardware and kits they carried with them.

“I want to talk to Mrs. Schaff.”

“Why the fuck do you want to talk to her?

Because it’s interesting.

“Gut feeling.  Come with?”

“Of course,” Grandfather said, behind her.  “Doe?  Lead the way a bit?  Keep an eye out?”

Doe immediately broke away, crossing the lawn.

The other three accompanied Lucy, Horseman standing and matching her pace as she reached the bottom stair, hands in his pockets.  Grandfather followed behind, and Fubar almost fell in step to her left as she passed him, paused, then caught up a moment later, as if he was making a point.

She’d hoped to see Wallace as she passed his place, simultaneously dreading the idea of overhearing his mom.  Neither were home.  Mrs. Schaff wasn’t that far from Avery’s, so she had to cross the bridge.

“I’d offer to stop in at the convenience store, buy you guys snacks,” Lucy said.  “But I’d rather keep on target.”

“We don’t have to eat anyway,” Grandfather said.

“But you can eat.”

“Yeah.”

They crossed the bridge, waited for cars, then jaywalked across the main road, heading over to the houses in Avery’s dad’s neck of the woods.

The Wild Hunt lurked.  One stood by the shore, watching, looking like a shepherd dressed in white, staff in hand, but with wolves milling around their feet instead of sheep.  Another was a woman underdressed for the cold, who seemed to not be looking at her at all, but she felt watched by them anyway.

They weren’t attacking her, though.  She’d been worried they’d ramp up.

Some houses in Kennet were old, and Mrs. Schaff’s was of that type, surrounded by denser trees than a lot of the ones in the neighborhood, inset a little further back from the street than modern zoning would probably allow.  Doe waited for them at the edge of the driveway.

Branches snapped and broke in a sudden commotion as Lucy and the other three Dog Tags caught up with Doe.

The noise made Mrs. Schaff look out the window to check, at which point she saw what Lucy belatedly realized would be a pretty intimidating image, of Lucy and the Dog Tags just looming there, looking at the house.

Ramjam had been up in the branches, had gotten excited as they turned up, and then started to climb down, before his spiraling horns caught in the branches and he ended up getting caught in a kind of limbo.

He couldn’t descend while Mrs. Schaff watched, so he had to cling to branches to hold himself in a place where he was covered by the pine branches, but he was stuck and uncomfortable while he couldn’t move.  He grunted.

“What are you up to, Ramjam?” Lucy asked.

“Hi!  I’m standing watch!  Tatty’s paying me!”

“Mrs. Schaff is off limits, Ramjam.”

“I know!  But Tatty said she’d pay if we kept watch and took notes, and she didn’t take back the offer!  I can get money to spend on things for people for Christmas!  It’s great!”

“That is great.  Serves Tatty right for bothering Mrs. Schaff, huh?”

“Yeah!  Unh.”  Ramjam looked like he’d snap his neck, horns caught on branches, body twisting, claw-tipped fingers and toes clinging at branches and trunk at weird angles.  “There’s a market!”

“I know there’s a market.  It would be very weird if I didn’t,” Lucy said.

“It’s great!  I can buy stuff!  Do you want something?  I can buy you something.”

“That’s okay.  Do the gift exchange, maybe.”

Mrs. Schaff moved away from the window.  Ramjam twisted, jerking his head this way and that, until branches broke and he could fall, bouncing off a branch, hit the hard-packed snowbank, and slide out into the road.  He hurdled the snowbank and jumped into snow as Mrs. Schaff, now wearing a coat over her housecoat, and a bright yellow scarf, stepped outside.

She was maybe sixty, hair tied back into a messy bun, white hair with a shock of black that hadn’t changed with age yet, running to the back.  Pretty, but no makeup, with a look about her like she could be a schoolmarm in some movie, ready to smack kids knuckles with a ruler.  A natural glare and distrustful look.

Maybe Lucy came off that way to others.  Or a way she might’ve ended up if she’d never had Avery and Verona, or if she’d never had practice.  If instead of being bulletproof, she’d stopped caring a bit.

And- Lucy saw past the woman to the house.  In the gloom, house lit only by the light coming in from the windows, she could see the reflection of various eyes of cats.  Yeah.  In the recipe it’d take to create this woman from elements of herself and people she knew, she’d have to add in a love for cats that surpassed Verona’s.  If that was possible.

“What do you want?” Mrs. Schaff asked, putting a foot out to block a cat from running outside, before closing the door behind her.  She hugged her coat closed.

“To talk?”

“Can you tell whoever or whatever it is that’s been in the trees and sneaking around the property to stop bothering my cats?”

“We did.  We can try again.”

“I see your driveway could use a shoveling,” Grandfather said.

“I see someone needs to mind their own business.”

“I’ll shovel it, if you’ll hear Lucy out.”

The woman looked between them then jerked her head toward the house.  She hit a button by the door, and the garage door automatically began creaking its way open.  “Shovels are by the trash cans.”

“Thanks,” Lucy whispered.

She hurried down the driveway and waded through the calf-deep snow to the front door, stepping inside to a house that smelled really bad.  Like five dead cats had been soaked in pee, left out to get stale, and strapped to her head and face.  Horseman followed her in, but didn’t even flinch.

Lucy had regrets.

“The monkeying around in the trees, that’s been going on for a long time,” Mrs. Schaff said.  “Worse in summer.”

“A lot of things were worse in summer, yeah,” Lucy agreed.

“Lately, though.  I had that sleepwalking daydream I don’t think I was sleeping for.  The girl with black hair, that’s your friend?”

“Yeah.”

“She talked to me after that.  Lots of weirdness.  Lately, the cats will react, I’ll see someone walking down the street.  Someone I don’t think I’m meant to see.”

“Yep.  If they’re who I think they are, I wouldn’t go out of my way to talk to them.”

“Animals sense things.  A booming, eerie howl this spring, my cats watching out the window- I go to look, the moon’s bleeding.  Meanness in the air this summer.  A bleeding moon again this fall.  Now a waking daydream into a jumbled version of Kennet, and strangers I shouldn’t talk to?”

“About right,” Lucy replied.

“So what do you want?”

“Business opportunity.”

“What makes you think I want an opportunity?”

“The sort of people who notice what you notice… they don’t tend to thrive in society.  I guess what I’m offering is a chance to do a little better.”

The woman studied her, then nodded.  “I’ll come to the living room in a moment.  Sit or don’t sit, I don’t care.  There’s blankets on the high shelf.  Throw one over any surface you’re going to be sitting on, tan side up.  I’m making tea.  Do you want some?”

“No, uh,” she looked at Horseman, who shook his head.  “No thank you.”

“Through there.  Mind the cats.”

Holy fuck, there were so many cats.  Lucy had heard how Tatty and Peckersnot had invaded this house, but just realizing that there wasn’t a single piece of furniture without a cat on it, virtually every surface occupied- half the stairs on the staircase occupied, almond-shaped eyes peering past or under railing… she kind of had a bit of respect for the bravado they’d shown in picking a fight with this.

If she were less than a foot tall, wading into an arena like this… it’d be a lot.

She debated sitting on the blanket, but decided to stay standing.  She wasn’t sure she wanted to be sitting on some of the piss-stained furniture even with a blanket between her and the stains.

Besides, she wasn’t sure how she’d get the cats that were currently lying on the furniture to move.

As she stepped through the door, a cat threw itself at her, all four claws out, aiming for her face.  She deflected it, it hit the wall, dropped, leaped less than a half second after touching the ground, and came at her again.  Horseman caught it out of the air.

The cat screeched and yowled, clawing madly at his jacket sleeve, failing to find purchase in the heavy material.  It tried to twist to bite his hand, but he had index finger at one corner of its chin and middle finger at the other, gripping its neck.  Big freaking cat, too.

“Oh, that’s Timberwolf,” Mrs. Schaff said.  “She’s protective.  Wild soul.”

“Are you sure she’s not half Lynx or something?”

“It’s something.  Timber!”

The call made Timberwolf stop.

Something rattled, and Timber wrestled her way free, dropping to the ground and darting off.  About fifteen other cats roused, hurrying in the direction of what Lucy assumed were treats.

“With you in two,” Mrs. Schaff said.

Other cats remained.

“I don’t suppose any of you talk?” Lucy asked.

“Couple of us do,” one cat replied, quiet.  It reached for the table by the couch, picking up a letter opener.  “You smell like blood.  A recent injury.  Depending on how this goes, you could smell a lot more like blood.”

He transitioned into a purr as he finished talking, eyes looking at her in a very un-catlike way.

“No.  It’s fine.”

“What’s your angle?  You’re offering her money?”

“Chance to do business,” Lucy told him.  “Money means more for you all.  The smarter cats helping would make this a lot easier.”

“Not a cat,” the talking cat said.  “But close enough.”

Another cat, white and very pretty, had roused from the couch, and stretched between Lucy and the couch, front paws on the former, back paws on the latter, making it hard for Lucy to move away.  It nuzzled her side.

She snatched her hand down, stopping it before it could finish picking her pocket and take her wallet.

“Drat,” the cat said, in a quiet, masculine voice, pulling away.

“I’ll buy you a bit more time,” Horseman murmured, before going to the kitchen.

“I’m guessing that pickpocket there isn’t really a cat either?” Lucy asked.  “I didn’t think there were so many… odd ones?”

“Things have changed.  She’s gotten stronger.  And if you give her this deal, she’ll be stronger still.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

“No.  So long as she stays.”

“Why is that important?” Lucy asked.

“This is a training ground.  Not-cats like me and Blankshanks over there, sometimes we need a refresher on how a cat’s meant to act.  It’s a resource.  The right cats, the right things, useful.”

“Are you aiming to use that resource?” Blankshanks the pickpocket cat asked.  “Steal it?  Drain it?”

“Use it,” Lucy replied.  “Like you said, she could get stronger.  She’d have more money.  What happens if she gets a bit older, gets sick?  Consider it an investment.  Get a little less today, get more in the long run.”

Blankshanks hopped up to where the cat with the letter opener was.

“It’s not the worst offer.  We’ve talked about what the future holds.”

“Or doesn’t hold.”

“It’s a chance to offload some of our more noisome residents.”

“Which?” Lucy asked.

Both cats looked at her, startled.

“Castleberry.  A goblin-ish thing.  Looks like roadkill.  Violent.  She coddles it.”

And these two cats were Fairy-ish things.

“Okay.  There might be a home for Castleberry.”

“There’s another upstairs.  Died, went unclaimed, spirit found its way back to the body.  Undead now.  Could get messy in the wrong circumstance.”

“Messy how?”

“If it bit another cat, there’d be two undead cats.  If it bit a human, it would be two undead cats and an undead human.”

“Ghoul?  Zombie?  That sounds like a problem.”

“One or the other or both.  Only reason things haven’t gotten worse is it’s doing what it did while it was alive.  Lies in a sunbeam all day.  Only difference is it doesn’t eat, drink, make waste, doesn’t have to move.  But it stinks and we have to work to keep others from trying to share the sunbeam.  All it would take is a reflex bite.”

“We can put someone on that.  Things are a bit messy right now.”

“The Wild Hunt?  Yes.”

“Yeah.  How many special cats or cat-like Others are here?  It hasn’t always been this way?”

“There’d be one or two, before.  And a few cat that had special talents or skills.  Like being very good at dealing with bad little goblins, or sensing and fending off ghosts.  Now?  Five to twelve.”

“Jesus,” Horseman swore.  “How do you not trip over them every five seconds?”

Good signal.

The cat put the letter opener back, then started acting like a cat again, bounding off.

“Being good?  I don’t have much worth stealing.”

“Not stealing.  I was talking to your cats.”

“They act like they know more than they’re letting on.  I wouldn’t be surprised if some answered me someday.  They never do, though.  You should know, I don’t have many talents for business,” Mrs. Schaff told Lucy.

“We do.”

“You and your scary hit squad?” Mrs. Schaff asked.  “Is this a protection racket?  I don’t make a good target.  I don’t have much to spare.”

“We’re running a side market, we’re not broadcasting it, but it’s odds and ends.”

“A flea market?”

“More accurate than some guesses you could make.  But what we’d want is maybe special cats who could use a home, potentially… if you’re open to that?”

“They find me more than I find them.  I won’t ever turn one away, but if one had a better home to go to, I’d welcome it.”

“I guess that’s what I’d want to do too.  And besides that there may be…”

Blankshanks leaped onto the coffee table a few steps from Lucy, depositing a hair comb there.  A moment later, the cat that had had the letter opener leaped onto the coffee table, putting down a mangled mousetrap.

“…those,” Lucy finished.

“Odds and ends?  I don’t know where some of them come from.”

Lucy used her Sight.  She could see the staining, spreading like watercolor where the items rested on the table.

“You could bring those.  Random things cats like.  If they have instincts that let them sense trouble… they might have instincts that let them find those things.”

Or they’re not-cats cooperating with me to get you better set up, Lucy thought.

“What’s so special about these things?” Mrs. Schaff asked.

“I don’t know, but they might’ve picked up some special-ness from being around special cats.  In our market, there are people who pay attention to that sort of thing.  Even look specifically for it.  I can’t promise a fortune, exactly, but…”

Lucy looked at the two not-cats.  “…something to get you better set up.  Which can get your cats better set up too.  And honestly, I know someone who does housecleaning, she’s looking to earn.  If you helped us by working with us, we could subsidize her coming in.”

“It’s not as bad as it seems at first glance.  Things are mostly tidy, they just aren’t clean.  Needs a few days.”

“She could give you a few days.  We can help cover it.  If you work with us.”

Mrs. Schaff looked at the two not-cats.

“If Spades and Blankshanks like you, that’s enough for me.  We can talk.  Then you can tell me why the cats are so interested in what’s outside the window.”

Lucy looked, and saw that cats had stirred, gathering near one window of the house, almost crawling over themselves to see.

Timberwolf was hissing and spitting.

The Wild Hunt.

Lucy could only hope her plan was working here.  Yes, they were Wild Hunt.  They were of Winter, but they were Faerie.

Maybe, she hoped, they could stand a little entertainment.  If what she was doing was puzzling, interesting, finding uses and niches for oddballs like Mrs. Schaff, maybe they’d hold off.

And she just needed them to hold off for a little bit longer.  At least until they could deal with Musser.  Maybe.  If it was even possible.

Just… all she could hope for, was that she could solve or postpone one problem.  Get Musser out of the way, maybe she could free up enough brain cells to riddle a way past the Wild Hunt.  Or Verona could.  Or Avery.

Or something.

There had to be something, which was why she was in this house with air stained watercolor yellow with piss under her Sight, trying to find new angles and approaches.  Racking up tiny advantages.

One more vendor for the market.  One they’d have to work around, to keep her remaining Innocence intact, but… one more.

🟂

Mr. Black rubbed his chin.  “I- I just don’t get it, I think.”

She’d known it was going to be a hard sell, and what made it worse was she wanted to make the sale fast.

Because this wasn’t as interesting.  If they’d attacked her midway through her talk with Mr. Harless because of boredom, talking to her classmate’s dad wouldn’t be much better.

The store was an outdoor wear place, and it was busy with the ski season.  But Mr. Black had been kind enough to hear her out.  She felt like she was rambling, giving a bad explanation.

“Let me make sure I understand you,” the man said.  “It’s a special event?”

“A regular event.  But special, yes.”

“This is like the Arcade?” Brayden asked.

Lucy nodded.  “But way bigger.”

“Dad, you have to.  You really have to.  You.  Have.  To.  People have been going nuts over this, trying to figure out who started it, and you’re being invited in!”

“I don’t even know what this is I’d be agreeing to.”

“Look, Mr. Black, it’s simple.  Think of it as a midnight market.”

“Is this for Halloween next year?”

“Every weekend.”

“I don’t see the interest in something like that.”

“You’d get your old stock.  Winter jackets that didn’t sell, gloves, whatever, take them a few blocks over, set up in a stall.  We can have one ready for you.  I can pretty much guarantee you’ll sell out.”

Kennet below was suffering for a lack of winter wear.  They wouldn’t care that stuff wasn’t the latest new brand.

“I don’t see how or why that makes any sense at all,” Mr. Black said.

“Dad, oh my god, this thing went viral, except not online.  None of it makes sense, that’s why it’s so great!”

Brayden was really not helping.

“I’ll make you a deal.  Do this once,” Lucy told him.  “We’ll have someone show you where to go, or show a trusted employee-”

“This feels like we’re being invited to unload a car full of winter clothes we could sell, and we’ll get mugged- I’m not accusing you, but I’m worried you’re being misled.”

Lucy shook her head.  “Limited stock, then.  Maybe only a few items, first night.  If you’re worried it’ll get stolen.  If it sells out, then come the next weekend.  Same deal, maybe you bring more.  Keep the prices reasonable, we all win.”

“If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.”

“Dad!” Brayden pleaded.  “Come on!”

“Why?” Mr. Black asked.

“Because it takes this project we’re working on, and it ties things back to Kennet.  Supports the community.  Gets the stuff from one of the nicer businesses downtown, and gives it out to people who wouldn’t normally come to buy.”

“But they’ll come to a market at midnight on a weekend?  All year ’round?”

“I’m almost positive, yes.  Winter at the very least.  I don’t see what you have to lose except a bit of sleep.”

“Is this the point you tell me that Kennet has a secret population of vampires who can’t come out in the daytime?”

“No.  But you’re not that far off the mark.”

“Is that the theme?” Brayden asked, excited.

A shadow passed the window.

Lucy glanced over, and saw Horseman, who was standing guard, had tensed.

“I’ve got to go.  We’ll send someone to escort you and help you out later.  If you don’t want to, that’s okay.”

“I’ll think about it.  I’m sure Brayden will do his best to convince me.”

“Don’t pester your dad too much, okay?  You’ll scare him off if you’re annoying.”

Lucy left.

The group of three Dog Tags came with.  Doe was out there too, but she roamed, scouting for trouble, signaling back at Grandfather or Horseman.

“What’s next?” Grandfather asked.

“Another Aware, they live in the apartment building up that way,” Lucy said.  “It’s a long shot, but maybe they have stuff.  Then there’s a white sheep from Kennet found.  Foundling that migrated up here, ditched the mask.  They’re weird, but they might know or have stuff.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Grandfather replied.

She was keeping an eye out for the Wild Hunt when she saw Wallace, in the midst of his Christmas shopping, his mom at his side.

Traffic moving down the street was going just fast enough Lucy wouldn’t feel comfortable crossing or trying to run through, but not fast enough that it looked like it would clear up and leave gaps.

She raised her hand in a wave.  He waved back.

He got his phone out.

Wallace:
who are they???

The Dog Tags.

Lucy:
Friends.  Can’t stop to chat.  Stuff to do.  Really want to spend time together when things aren’t so hectic.

She saw him nod with vigor.

Wallace:
is your arm okay??

She gave him an exaggerated shrug and nod.  Because it was easier than finding words.

He nodded back.

But with the gap between them, and the sheer amount of shit on her plate that she had to deal with… it didn’t feel like there was a fast route to closing that gap.  It felt like not closing it was letting it widen, at the same time.

She wasn’t sure if she’d fallen out of like with Wallace, or if she just didn’t have the spare emotions to devote to it.

Sucked.

Mrs. Davis looked at Lucy, and Lucy could feel the weight of that gaze.  Knowing she was insufficient, she somehow didn’t qualify.  It didn’t matter she was okay looking, or that she got good grades, or that she came from a good and decent family.  It didn’t matter that Wallace apparently liked her and enjoyed their projects together, like sharing horror movies and tie-in games.

The Wild Hunt watched her from rooftops and from the trees at the end of this southeastern corner of downtown.

She was getting used to those stares.  She had to be careful and aware of that feeling.  Because it felt more and more like she was ready to snap, and she wasn’t sure they’d allow her to survive whatever it was she did on impulse.

🟂

Verona sat at Rook’s council table.  Lucy hurried over, and Verona stood, awkward, like something in her midsection hurt.

“I’d hug you but I can’t raise my right arm,” Verona said, “and my left hand has been cramping.  And I know your wrist is bad.”

Lucy gave Verona a careful one-armed hug anyway.

The moment the hug ended, Verona collapsed back into her seat.

Connor was talking to Louise.  Lucy’s mom was working the afternoon, but she’d be over if she could get away.

Miss came over.  She was stretching an elastic band behind her, that tied her to Kennet found, and she might have to leave early, pause, and come back.  But she was here now.

“How was your expedition today?”

“Two contracts.  Maybe a third.  I think Mr. Black from the sports store will give us a shot.  We’ll have to take precautions.”

“Separate area,” the Bitter Street Witch said.  She’d come back, and was already seated.  She looked healthier, if still very crooked.  “One block reserved for the more innocent.  Black sheep.  We’ll keep the weirdos at the opposite end.”

“Why the sporting goods?” Louise asked.

“Winter coats, gloves, hats.  Stuff that gets hard to find when the supply from Kennet Found’s factories and things aren’t that consistent.  Or get stolen, or whatever.”

“I love that store,” Avery said.

Lucy twisted around.  Verona, sore in the middle, couldn’t twist, and didn’t have it in her to stand unsupported, so she just struggled, up until Lucy grabbed her under one armpit and lifted her up.

“You’re here,” Lucy said.

“Gotta be, don’t I?  To get stuff sorted, make sure you’re all okay?”

Lucy went to hug Avery.  Verona walked up, and unable to lift the one arm, or let go of the hand she was rubbing, she sort of headbutted her way into the hug-huddle, letting Lucy and Avery put their arms around her.

“You got two more contracts?” Avery asked.

“Yeah.  Made the deals around noon, went home, printed, brought the stuff over to sign.  One more possible deal, but that doesn’t count for much.”

“Mr. Harless was useful?”

“He’s great,” Lucy replied.

“Awesome.  I’m glad.”

They broke the huddle.  Melissa, coming up the stairs with Bracken, punched Avery lightly in the shoulder as she passed.

People gathered.  Goblins stormed in, and found spots at the fringes.  Cherrypop was already with Snowdrop, talking a mile a minute about the slide she was building in Kennet found.  Which was probably why they hadn’t seen as much of her.

One face was conspicuously absent.  They were on Rook’s rooftop, gathered at the table, protected by glass above, heated by stoves at the edges that Reggie, or Hollow Yen, was tending and feeding wood to.

But Rook… short of someone like Lucy’s mom, who was bound to be late, Rook was the last to arrive.

“You were delayed?” Miss asked, a string of masks hanging, covering her face.

Rook took the seat next to Miss.  “Following up on details.  Musser is coming.  He’ll be here within the hour.  Before our meeting is done.  He has a group with him.”

That was it, then.  There wasn’t much time to gather more assets, grow the market, or organize.  They had magic items, tools, resources, reserves, they’d talked things over for probably a hundred hours since fall, about what tonight would probably bring.  Strategy, what a solution would look like.

“Well,” Lucy said, as she digested that.  “Let’s invite him to the council meeting for a chat, then.”


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Crossed with Silver – 19.14

Avery

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter


“You’re sure you want to come?”

“Yes,” her mom replied.

“Because this will be weird.”

“I saw the town I had my children in transform.  Mobs of wizards- practitioners causing a fuss.  Just yesterday, I was in some laser hologram world.  How much weirder can it be?”

Avery arranged the stuffed animals on the table.  Monkey, Duck, Squirrel, Bear, Pig, Yak, Fawn.  “Landlord’s out?”

“No, she’s there,” Snowdrop said.

“I hope you’re right.  Invitations are taped to the table, stuffed animals set.  That’s our entrance.  Our equipment, got my bag.  You?”

“Handbag.”

“I always have tons of stuff,” Snowdrop commented.  “No need to ask.”

“Layered clothing, easy to put on and take off?” Avery asked.  “With something nice enough for when we get to the other side?”

“Think so.  Like going on an airplane.”

“I don’t have any particular attachment or fussiness to my clothes,” Snowdrop said, pulling the bottom of her shirt out to read the front, which read ‘Mar-super-ial’.

“ID, money, phone that works if we somehow get chucked into Siberia or something?”

“Um, yes,” Avery’s mother said.

“Water, snacks, extra food?  I’ve got some.”

“Not important,” Snowdrop said.

“I’ve got some too,” her mom said.

“Flashlight, check, first aid, check, multi-tool, check.  Climbing rope, that’s a check.  Notebook, check.  Fireflies…”

The fireflies emerged, swirled around her, then went back.

“And…  Oh!  The contract!  One second.”

Avery left her mom and Snowdrop behind, then jogged upstairs.

What a move that would’ve been.

She caught her mom and Snowdrop having a conversation as she came back down.

“-in the garage?”

“Sucks.  It’s terrible.”

“I see.  I was going to offer for you to stay in the house.  Little cat bed, maybe.  Regular food?”

“I can imagine the fifty flavors of shit fit Sheridan would throw if she had to share a room with another living creature,” Avery said.  “And if Kerry caught a whisper, even a whisper of us owning a pet when we haven’t had one all these years…”

“I’d be a good pet,” Snowdrop said.  “Staying put, never stealing food, clean, quiet.”

“Up at night,” Avery supplied.

“Nah,” Snowdrop agreed.

“I asked her before if she wanted me to sneak her inside some,” Avery told her mom.  “But she’s a wild animal.  She doesn’t mind the chance to get cozy, but she likes her freedom.”

“So long as it keeps me away from goblins.  I’ve gotten thoroughly sick of them,” Snowdrop muttered.  “Got the contract?”

Avery held it up, then put it in her bag.  “Okay.  So, repeating this, careful what you touch, don’t wander, careful what you say, follow my lead, and if I say to do something, do it first, think about it second.”

“Okay.”

“Declaration.  Charles, Carmine Exile, co-conspirators, I hereby declare this isn’t intended to mess with you or have secret meetings.  Don’t sabotage me.”

She waited for some signal, didn’t get one, and shrugged.

“Now just stand here…” Avery guided her mother over, standing with her back to the table.  Snowdrop helped, standing on the other side.  “Close your eyes.”

“I would rather do whatever this is with my eyes open.”

“Are you sure you want to do this at all?  Really truly positive?” Avery asked.

“I’m wanting to take a more focused attempt at guiding you, Sheridan, and Rowan in your life goals and objectives.  Kerry and Declan too.”

Avery stepped up onto the card table they’d set up for this purpose.  Snowdrop did too.  Her mom turned to look, and Avery gently pushed on her mom’s cheek to get her looking the other way.

“Look, I’ve been doing it with Rowan already, but I’d like to step up my efforts with you and Sheridan.  If you have something you want to do and you want to do it seriously-”

Avery, hand touching her mom’s cheek to keep her looking the one way, glanced at Snowdrop, and then nodded.

“-I want to be in a position to support that.  Whether that’s equipment for Sheridan-”

Avery gently clotheslined her mother, arm at her neck, one hand at the back of her coat, throwing her weight backwards toward the far end of the table.  Snowdrop did something similar.

They crashed over and through the card table, animals scattering, and landed roughly on the other side.

“What the hell, Avery!?” her mother exclaimed.  “Did you think that was funny?”

She was glad the Path meant she couldn’t hurt herself on the landing.  But it was startling.  She lay on her back, taking the implicit tip from Hazel’s writings in 100 Years Lost and taking stock before doing anything else.

Her mother started to stand, then froze.

“Stay still,” Avery said.  She moved her head around, looking.

The alleyways were covered in graffiti, none of the buildings looked accessible, with the few doors and nooks she could see being boarded up or rusted shut.  Half the time she could barely tell a door was there due to the density of graffiti, which went up two stories on just about every surface around them.  On the second and third floors, there were homes, all in a style that made her think of apartments in a Chinatown style district, except it wasn’t China.  The balconies weren’t really balconies in the sense that they stuck out, but most of the apartments above had a short ‘outside hallway’ with a railing, inset into the building.  Balcony-ish.

Avery checked herself over.  She’d heard a story about someone doing Bound to the Party, getting transformed into a horse as part of the conceit, and then breaking their legs because they didn’t know how to walk.  They’d never walked right again, even after turning human.

Her shirt had changed.  So had the coat with the antlers that Verona had made for her.  The shirt was patterned after a deer, the coat had turned black with the antlers in tan, the ruff more exaggerated.

Avery’s eyes widened as she saw her mom.  Heavy makeup, the side of her head was shaved where it wasn’t tightly braided, jewelry fixing hair close to one side of her head.  Her mom’s clothes had changed too.  She wore a shirt that said ‘Bambi’s mom has got it going on’, with a doe framing the words.  And she had tattoos, Avery noticed.  An antler tattoo across the side of her face, a tattoo saying ‘just doe it’ at her neck, and doe hoofprints on her palms.  She had a gold necklace, a gold bangle at her wrist, and about six rings across ten fingers.

“Okay.  we’re good to stand and take stock, pause, examine the area further…” Avery said, climbing to her feet.

Her mom’s eyes widened as she saw her.

“It’s temporary.  Probably.  Ninety-nine percent sure we’ll be fine if we do this right, and I know what to do,” Avery said.

Her mother stood, looking around.  Avery pulled an uncooperative Snowdrop to her feet with a grunt.

“Should you be showing me this?” her mom asked.

“You’re asking that now?  No, it’s… I take responsibility.  But I figure if this goes wrong and you get hurt, then normally I’d suffer for it, but like, you’re my mom.  If something happens, I suffer anyway, obviously.”

“That’s a worrying direction to take things.”

“Yeah, well, hmm.  Anyway, I figure it works the same as parents awakening their kids.

“And it’s that easy to get… here?” her mom asked.  She jumped a little as she saw her hands.

“Kind of have to do some stuff first.  The Forest Ribbon Trail makes it way easier to get to places like this,” Avery said.  She pulled off her winter coat, undid the top flap of her bag, and draped her coat across the top before pinning it there with the flap buckled down over it.

Snowdrop just turned into an opossum, climbing over Avery’s shoulders, hopped down, and became human again, discarding the coat in the process.

Avery paused for a moment to admire her tattoos, pushing the collected bracelets and things up her arm to see some of them better.  Deer silhouettes formed a flowing pattern from shoulder to fingertip where they twisted in air, and the voids between the dark deer shapes were women.  On the inside of her arm, running from armpit to the paler, less freckled part of her wrist, there was a lengthy bit of script, that was kind of awkward to read.  ‘Spring forth, wayward children.  Prance and the world prances with you.  Fall, and you fall alone.’

She looked at her mom.

“No.  You know the deal.”

“Right.”  Avery pulled her phone from her pocket.  “Snow?  Picture.”

Snowdrop took Avery’s camera, then shot some pictures of Avery.  Avery moved over to her mom to let her mom in on it.

“Not sure if these will revert when we go back,” Avery said.  “Maybe if I had a technomancy camera.”

“Worst case scenario, there’s a mother daughter photo I didn’t have to twist arms to get?” her mom asked.

“Yeah, maybe.  Come on.  We have an appointment to make.”

“Just the one,” Snowdrop added.

“True.  Good point.  Two appointments to make.  A party, and the negotiation in the lion’s den.”

“Which is a weird contrast when you think about it,” Snowdrop said.

“True.”

A man sitting on stairs stood up as they approached.  Big, muscular, wearing a yellow tank top and jeans, a massive belt buckle that looked like a barrel, and he was hairy.  He looked like a bouncer, a perpetual ‘watch yourself’ glare on his face, beneath heavy, hairy eyebrows.  He was Bald, but making up for it with thick black hair on shoulders, arms, the back of his hands…

Gold Banana on a gold chain at his neck, tattooed letters on his fingers reading ‘ooook’ and ‘ooook’… okay.

“Mr. Monkey?  Are you going to the party?”

“Mr. Ape.

“Oh.”

“Yeah.  Oh.  Are you going to the party?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah.”  He sighed, like it was the most annoying thing in the world he had company.

Mr. Bear was a heavyset guy wearing a leather vest over a white tee.  Avery put Snowdrop on the task of annoying him.  Duck was a kid wearing a baseball cap and a shirt with the sleeves torn off, hair flipped up in a weird way at the side and at the back, by the neck.

Avery was getting the pattern – everyone looked a bit like some exaggerated gang member, or someone who could hold their own in cartoon gangland.  It was a cool aesthetic, even if it made all of this a bit more intense, visually.

“Nice to meet you, Duck,” Avery said.

“Nice to meet you,” Ape said.

Duck nodded, glancing around, wary.

“Can we talk?  Pass the time while we walk?” Avery’s mom asked.

“Uh, no, I think it’s best if I concentrate,” Avery said, watching as Snowdrop bothered Mr. Bear.  She was making enough of a commotion that Mr. Ape was avoiding her.

“Okay.”

“Hey, Mr. Ape?” Avery asked.

“Hey, Ms. Stranger.”

“I’m calling you out.  You’ve been copying me, but you didn’t when I replied to my mom.”

“Oh?  Didn’t realize I was doing that,” he said.  “Yeah, I guess that’s why it’s best if we concentrate, thanks.”

“Yeah, sure.  And Mr. Bear?  Are you okay?”

“I can deal, thanks,” the man said, in a low voice.

“I didn’t even want him to give me a ride on his shoulders like some people would.  Wouldn’t make sense,” Snowdrop said.

“Oh yeah?” Avery asked.  “I hear you.”

Mr. Pig was eating at a restaurant that was inset into the rows of alley like the balcony-ish areas had been.  A big man with an upturned nose, and a lot of scars.  He paid for his meal and joined them.

Avery started unloading the extra snacks she’d brought, letting him pig out.  She’d gone for volume over quality.

“Thanks,” he said, as he took some more convenience store sponge cakes.

She kept a mental count.  Three.

If they did what their animal names verbed as, as a default thing, then she was supposed to look out for the exception, keep them on track.  If they didn’t, she was supposed to force it.

Mrs. Yak was a tall, heavyset middle-aged woman with short, dense, curly hair and horn-rimmed glasses, and she talked a mile a minute, punctuating statements with heavy smacks of a mitt of a hand into the other.  Squirrel was a nervous, mousy girl with frayed clothes and a bandage taped over one eye, which fit because the old stuffed animal had been missing one inset eye.

The narrow alleyway had a wheelchair ramp for access to a place, and Duck went up it, just because it was more clear footpath than the walk down the alley with three rather large men accompanying them.

Avery sent a signal to Snowdrop, who went after Duck.  As Duck went to hurdle the railing at the end of the ramp, Snowdrop intercepted her, bullying her out of the way.  Duck went under either, and Avery put out a hand to help them step down.

“Thanks.”

“Yep,” Avery agreed.

“Oh my god, look at you!” a girl cooed, looking down from a balcony-ish space above.  Avery looked up just in time to see the girl hopping down.  ‘Y’-shaped, truncated antler hairpin, fuzzy coat, short skirt, and boots that were more heel than anything.  She used the railing Duck had just gone under to step down, then hopped down the rest of the way.  She skipped forward, arms perpetually cocked out to the side.  A bit younger than Avery, but just barely.  She acted and looked like a teenager sneaking out to go to a club, trying to look older than they were.  ‘Bambi’ was in gold on a short necklace that was barely more than a choker.  “We almost match!  You look so good.”

“I guess we do,” Avery said.

She still had bases to cover, and this was everyone.  She only barely caught-

“Mrs. Yak?  You were saying?”

“Oh yes, thank you…”

“You look so good, the tattoos really work for you,” Fawn said, hugging Avery’s arm.  “Can we be best friends?”

“I’ve already got a very cool animal companion.”

“Oh.  So you do,” Fawn said.  She looked at Snowdrop.  “You look, uh…”

“You were going to say something nice?”

“I was going to try, yes.  Thank you.”

Avery could hear the club music.

She looked at Squirrel, hands on her hips.

“What?” Squirrel asked.

Avery used her Sight, tracking connections.  She was free and clear of anything trailing between herself and something Squirrel was carrying, but…

She reached over, Squirrel grabbing her before she could grab Squirrel, fighting back-

Snowdrop helped.  So did Mr. Ape.

“You’re so cool,” Fawn said.

“Avery?” her mom asked.

Avery reached into a pocket, pulling out some receipts and… a gold wedding band.

She passed it to her mom, then gave Squirrel a light push toward the club.  “Let’s just go.  Mrs. Yak, you were saying?”

Mrs. Yak resumed going on about types of grass.

“What would have happened if you hadn’t found that?”

“Not-good things.  But I was on the lookout,” Avery said.  “It’s cool.”

“Yep.  It’s cool,” Mr. Ape said.

Avery did a final check that everyone was on track, she’d triggered or kept them doing their thing once each…

She pushed her way through into the club, the animals, her mom, and Snowdrop with her.

“And our guests are here!” someone said over a microphone.

The room exploded into confetti, dancing people who were barely visible in the lights, and a boom of music.

The last times she’d been here, she’d been playing by different rules.  She’d brought Florin Pesch here, and so she’d been exempt from rules, and she’d been exempt from getting rewards.

She squinted, trying to see the box’s color as the lights of the building shifted colors.  When she couldn’t, she reached for her charm bracelet.  “Guys?”

The fireflies emerged, then went where Avery pointed.  They produced a faint yellow light, but clustering together as a trio, they were able to illuminate a patch of the box’s material.  Avery pointed at the next, then the next, double checking.

“Thanks guys.”

They returned, slipping into the cup of the little silver lacrosse stick, the hollow of the witch hat, and one going to another bracelet.

Avery picked a red present box as she passed the table.

“I hope it’s not food, please don’t be food,” Snowdrop whispered, barely audible over the booming music and cheers.

The box was a foot across on every side, red, and tied with a thick ribbon.  Avery opened it, then took out a bullet.

“Woohoo,” Snowdrop said, without enthusiasm.

“A bullet?” Avery’s mom asked.

But the music was too loud for an explanation.  Avery took her mom’s arm.  She wanted out of here in case the Path tried to move things along to another length.  Bound to the Party could connect to the Party Down, which could connect to Down the Tubes, which was best described as going down a child’s slide with a razor blade embedded in it, a fast track down to the Abyss.  But the Party Down wasn’t the only option.  This place could become the Party Crash, which was a fast and frenetic transition to Crash Course.

Avery much preferred those sorts of connecting ideas between paths, but it was really down to the discovering practitioners to do that.  She hoped if she was ever mapping out new territories, she could do that, with a logical sense connecting the ideas.

It was hard to see in the dark, so she borrowed Snowdrop’s night vision and gave her arm a shake to shake the fireflies awake.  They circled around her feet, spread out and looping, casting a faint glow and avoiding obstacles, giving her a sense of where tripping hazards could be.  Avery kept pushing her way through hallways and doors until she and Snowdrop shoved open a set of double doors and came face to face with a wall of snow.

“Coat on,” she told her mom.  Snowdrop undid the buckle on her bag and handed her her coat.  “Thanks.”

“What’s the bullet?”

The fact the snow was right there and the music came from the other end of the building made it a little easier to talk.  She held the bullet between her fingers, then put it and her hand through the doors.  The bullet disappeared, and a nugget of metal traveled a path that left a trail of floaty iron shavings behind it.  Like a steely firefly.

It settled into the ‘barometer’ bracelet she’d made herself a while ago, where it became a little circle of metal, held fast by the weave around it.  The woven friendship bracelet had little bits and bobs here and there, wedged between the fibers, or included with the fibers.  A thin ribbon worked into the weave, a white stripe in the mix.  A little key in primary school red.  A bit of fishing-line style material that caught the light easily.  There was a loose thread here, eager to be caught, and one of the fireflies had taken roost in another hollow, from the Left Field.

There were others, but she didn’t have time to really dwell or hunt for them.  Some were sneaky.  One was always pointing away from her line of sight – she had to feel for it, and it was a bit tacky to the touch.

“It’s a boon, a little bit of magic I get for finishing the Path.  Bound to the Party gets walked a fair bit so it’s a bit weak.  Most of the easy paths are, just because they’ve been used a lot.”

Her mom was buttoning up her jacket and pulling a hat on.

“Anyway, means about once a day, I can ask a stranger for something you can have in large numbers and run out of, and they’ll probably have it.  Notecards, pen, bullet…”

“Food,” Snowdrop muttered.

“Not food.  There’s three boxes, each has a set of rewards that they tend to give.  There’s a cherry pit pie, and if you eat the slice, you find random food a lot.  Random box of cookies sitting by the road, or whatever.  Or if you’re stuck in a desert, like, a box will fall off a passing plane.  Makes it hard to starve to death.”

“It sounds so awful,” Snowdrop protested.

“And we didn’t get lucky, Snow.  Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  Really.”

“You ready?” Avery asked her mom.

“I guess?  You’re not going to pull another wrestling move on me, are you?”

“Not for now.”

Avery took her mom’s hand, Snowdrop’s hand, then leaped through the door, her mother a step behind her.

The distance looked like a foot, but space distorted as they made the leap, and it ended up feeling more like five feet, and the ‘wall’ ahead of them was actually a field, so they had to flip at right angles too.  The passage through the door helped with that.  Still, Avery felt a lurch in her stomach as she made the mental transition.

They landed in snow.  Avery felt the ground ripple a bit under her feet.  Her mom grunted.

Tattoos and bits gone.  Avery was almost disappointed.  She was glad her mom wouldn’t kill her, but man, it would’ve been fun until she could find a way to fix it.

“You good?” Avery asked.

“I think so.”

She knew Snowdrop was good, but she asked anyway.  “You?”

“I’m okay.  I’m so glad we didn’t get the cherry pit pie.”

“Don’t be too cranky about it, okay?”

“Fine.”

Avery smoothed down Snowdrop’s hair.

They were standing in snow off to the side of a road, but it wasn’t an official road, and might’ve even been dirt, so it had a lot of snow packed into it.  She could smell nature.  Trees.  Manure.

She turned, looking, and saw the house.  It was the kind of house that went for two million dollars, and had six different cars parked at various angles on a driveway that was spacious enough that Avery’s Kennet home and Thunder Bay home could have been plopped down side by side on it.

The driveway wasn’t even the most spacious part of the property.

The building had wings, but the wings were tightly arranged together.  It was stone, old, each window squared off at the bottom and peaked at the top, surrounded by metal framing, with sheer curtains tied off to either side just past them.  The cars looked nice, most of them sleek and black, but Avery wasn’t much of a car person, and winter had a way of taking nice looking homes and cars and bringing everything closer to neutral.

Avery could see a woman standing by the side door, wearing what Avery realized was a maid uniform; the dress was ankle length with frilly bits beneath, glasses, a frilly collar with ribbon, and she wore a black coat that looked like it had been tailored.

No maid cap, but she wore a little party hat, and held a balloon.  The woman put a little noisemaker to her mouth and blew.

“That’s the first time in my life I’ve seen a maid outfit that wasn’t a costume, outside of shows and movies,” Avery’s mom said.

“Thank you!” Avery called out.  She had to work to extricate herself from the snow she was almost knee deep in.  Her mom was a help, longer-legged, capable of reaching over to give some support.  Snowdrop became an opossum, bounding across the harder crust on top of the snow.

“Why is she doing that?”

“Giving us a destination,” Avery said.  “If there wasn’t a party of one nearby, we’d go to the next nearest.”

“Which is how you could get sent to Siberia?”

“Yeah!” Avery said, perking up.  “Hey, you’re paying attention.  Yeah, there’s lots of stuff like that.”

“I remember the one Jude’s… cousin?  She got sent somewhere.”

“Yeah.  But yeah, you can path back if you memorize ways, but just in case, it’s nice to have a passport and money.”

“Wouldn’t you get some questions if you were using your passport to get from some obscure place, with no explanation how you got there?”

“Connection blocks.”

“Okay.”

“But yes.  Good point.”  Avery shook the snow from her legs, kicking the road to get more snow free.  “Do I look presentable?”

“Terrible.” Snowdrop said.

Avery fixed a few stray strands of Snowdrop’s hair, but it felt like more pried themselves up to make up for what had been fixed.  Snowdrop flashed a toothy smile, and Avery pushed her head lightly, sending her toward the house.

The maid blew on the noisemaker again as Avery, her mom, and Snowdrop drew closer.

“You don’t have to do that anymore.  Thank you though.  It helped.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the maid said.  She pulled off the conical party hat, then tucked the balloon under her arm with a rubbery squeak.  “If you’ll please come with me to the common greenhouse?”

“Sure.  Sorry if that was awkward.”

“Not at all, ma’am.  A change in routine.  This way.”

They walked down a shoveled path all the way around the house, snaking past what might have been a guest house, and walked along a fenced in field that probably had horses in it in warmer weather, going by the smell.  Past the guest house was a long greenhouse attached to a stone tower in the same style as the main building, with a smaller greenhouse attached.  They went to the small one, the maid holding the door for them.

Snowdrop went small, and Avery handed her to her mother.

Inside were rows of counters, tables, and troughs of herbs and plants.  It was warm, too.  And Avery could see Fernanda, two women who could’ve both been Fernanda’s relatives, twentyish and thirtyish, a young woman with black hair and what looked like broken glass earrings and necklace, and an older woman who looked similar but wasn’t wearing the same.  Raquel Musser stood there, arms folded, looking anxious.

“You made it,” Fernanda said.

“Heya,” Avery greeted her.  “Hi Raquel.”

Raquel smiled like she was genuinely pleased, but the anxiety and defensiveness didn’t drop.

“Mom, this is Fernanda Whitt, fellow student at the Blue Heron.  Nicolette’s mentor’s little sister.”

“Actually ew,” Fernanda muttered.  “What a way to be described.”

“Sorry.  She showed me around the Faerie market, she was a big help.  We kept in touch.  Raquel Musser, niece to Abraham Musser.  We’ve stayed in touch some, she’s Sheridan’s fan.  Maybe number one fan.  I’m afraid I don’t know anyone else.  Everyone, I announce myself as Avery Kelly, this is my mother, Kelsey Kelly, and my opossum spirit familiar, Snowdrop.”

“Andrea Fulton, my daughter, Cara Fulton,” the black-haired woman said.

“Fernanda Whitt, as introduced, my cousins, Valeria Hull, née Whitt, and Regina Degroat, née Whitt.  Come in, coats off.”

“Née?” Avery asked.

“Means originally.  Miss Braaten?” Fernanda asked.

“Yes, mistress?”  The maid turned.  She’d stepped off to one side, to talk to a maid that looked about sixteen, who was wearing a slightly more rugged version of the maid outfit, frill-less, complete with a stiff apron with tools in the front and work gloves.  Same general outline, though.

“I would be grateful if you didn’t mention this ongoing meeting, if it can be avoided.”

“Mistress,” the maid curtsied slightly.

“If you’d like to take a break and be at ease, I could tell the housekeeper I asked you to be at my disposal.”

“If it pleases mistress, I have duties to return to elsewhere.”

Fernanda nodded.  “Try to stay out of the way of anyone nosy as you go about those duties?  Please?”

“I will.  Mistress Fernanda, Mistress Raquel.  Guests,” the Maid said, ducking her head down, curtsying.  Then she left, cold swirling in while the door was open.

“Darn,” Fernanda said.  She walked around one of the counters, until she faced Avery.  “That increases the risk of interruption.  Someone’s going to ask for details sooner or later.”

“Hi, by the way,” Raquel said.  “Make yourself comfortable.  This is a Musser house.  The Whitts were attacked in theirs, we offered this property for them to use, but as things are going the direction they’re going, we’ve had to adjust.”

“More families in this one house,” Fernanda said, indicating Andrea Fulton.

“You guys got attacked too?” Avery asked.

“How freely can we talk?” Andrea asked, glancing at Avery’s mom.

“With my mother here?  I take responsibility.  Say whatever.  She’s not awakened and probably isn’t going to be, but I’m not really hiding stuff or making this awkward by trying to talk around certain subjects.”

“Okay.  We didn’t get attacked, but the Lord and Carmine Exile changed balances.  Our power base and everything we’d established were destroyed or put out of reach.  It’s as if… imagine you bought a property, hoping to set up a bakery, only for the government to rezone and disallow business in your neighborhood, specifically to counter you.”

“To get away without interference, I said I wouldn’t plot against him,” Avery said.  “But this isn’t really about the Carmine.  I’d like to say it’s about survival.”

She said that because Raquel had stressed that.

“Yeah.  Thank you.  We have to do tough things, walk odd lines,” Raquel said.  “Navigate the uncompromising.”

“Thank you for allowing us to talk to your circle of navigators, then,” Avery said.

“Ooh, well said,” Raquel replied.  “That could be a line in the show.”

“Oh my god, shut up about your show,” Fernanda replied.  “Please.”

Raquel sniffed her amusement.

“Set the ground rules?” Regina asked.  Fernanda’s thirty-something cousin.

“This isn’t about rebellion,” Fernanda said.

“Right,” Avery agreed.

“We’re not going against our families.  If we did, whatever you got, it would be short term,” Fernanda said.

“Poisonous,” Regina added.

“Poisonous, even.  It’d come with problems later.  I know things are desperate, and getting a win like that is tempting, but we can’t do that,” Fernanda said.

Avery nodded.

Raquel sighed heavily.  “Okay.  I’m going to give you the rundown I couldn’t give over email.”

“Can we trust her?” Regina asked.

“I think so.  She’s one of the only people who’s been decent with me these past few months,” Raquel replied.

“Decent is good, it’s important, I’m glad you have that,” Valeria said, voice soft.  “But it’s not necessarily the kind of thing we need right now.”

“If I’m wrong, I’ll make it up to you,” Raquel said.

“Alright,” Regina said, stepping away a bit, like she was distancing herself a bit from the conversation, even as she relented.

“Thank you.  I’m getting the impression this is heavy stuff?” Avery asked.

“The maid in the corner?” Fernanda asked.  “That’s Sadie Braaten.”

“Mistress?” the teenager in the gardening version of the maid’s outfit asked.

“It’s okay.  You can relax, Sadie.”

The maid nodded, peered through the window, then sat down in the corner, pulling out a phone.

Fernanda leaned into the counter.  “Servants are drawn in with promises.  Little favors.  Sometimes it’s love,” Fernanda said.  “A simple but decent boy from a small town is offered a job as a servant, gets told that if he’ll work for our family, someone will tell him when and where to go talk to the girl he’s admired from afar.  Right place, right time, no practice.  Only a few Whitts keeping an eye out, watching someone’s heart to see where they stand.  If he does as we say, he’ll find her in a position to have her heart stolen, to be stolen away from a cruel father, a distant husband, a frustrating circumstance.  The job is easy, he gets paid okay, he and she get a cabin to hide away from the world in, on the outskirts of a Whitt property.  Good food, nice clothes, gifts when a child is born.”

“But?” Avery asked.

“One of the hooks is youth.  Alchemy that keeps them young, but there’s an effect.  Someone like Sadie’s mother, who is in her forties but looks twenty, the world starts to push back.  More true for people like Sadie’s grandmother, who is seventy but looks thirty.”

“Like with Aware,” Avery said, glancing at her mother.  “Or more problematic Aware.”

“People get uncomfortable, it gets hard to find other work.  ID stops lining up with the details as they seem.  They can’t leave.  They get promoted, brought further into the family interior, working with more important members of the family.  Sometimes unkind ones.  Ones that would drive a servant to leave, if the servant could.”

Avery nodded.  She glanced at her mom.  Her mom was frowning.

“The children become servants too.  And the children’s children.  When a third-generation servant like Sadie decides she wants to leave, she gets told no.  Sent to the stables,” Fernanda explained.  “Gardening.  Shoveling manure.  With the idea that with enough dirt, toil, and time, she’ll stop asking about leaving.”

“Slavery.”

“We call it other things,” Fernanda replied.  “There are a lot of things like that.  For me, for Raquel.  We weren’t offered promises, but I got to ride on a unicorn, I had stars in my eyes until I saw a very angry family member dragging her nephew by the hair until hair came out of scalp.  He dropped to the ground, and she had a handful of hair, and he had a bleeding scalp where the hair had come out.  I tried to tell people and I realized pretty quickly that very few people cared enough to do anything about it, and the ones that cared weren’t in a position to act.”

“It’s so hard to convince people to change when they profit on the status quo,” Regina said.

“Yeah,” Fernanda said.

“It all sounds horrifying,” Avery’s mom said.  “Can we help?”

“No,” Raquel said, very quickly, alarmed.  “If you try to intervene directly, you’ll make things worse.”

“You’d only be removing a drop from the bucket.  ” Fernanda said, quiet.  “From the servants to the top.  They stack up.  It becomes this warning.  Act this way, play the game, do this, cooperate, marry the person you’re told.  If you’re a good girl, a pretty, sexy girl, maybe the person will be nice.”

Fernanda glanced sideways at Raquel, who was staring down at the counter, arms folded.  Raquel looked like she was going to say something, then just said, “You can hope.”

Fernanda turned to Avery’s mom.  “You see it but you’re not in a position to do anything about it, or talk to anyone about it.  Usually.  If you have enough fire in you to fight back or try to change the status quo, they’ll keep you away from others who are similar.  Surround you with people who pressure you to stay in line.”

“The upside of a messy situation like what we’re dealing with, is there are cracks forming,” Regina said.  “They’re too busy to keep us apart.”

“Which is why and how we’re here, meeting,” Fernanda said, very seriously.  “Sadie is a triple-crosser.  A rebel first, told to keep an eye on us for her mother’s sake, but she passes them a filtered story.  If we get caught, we’re wide-eyed and guileless little idiots, playing our games in the background to try to get a little bit more power, or better husbands.”

“Understood,” Avery said.  “Look at me, people keep telling me I’m a ditz.”

“The ditz, the bitch, the snob,” Fernanda said, looking from Avery to Raquel.

“Why the fuck am I a snob?”

“Do you know how to use a washing machine?” Fernanda asked her.

“No.  Why?”

“Cara?” Fernanda asked.

“Sure.  I think.  For a basic load?”

“Avery?”

“Yeah.”

Avery’s mom rubbed her back for a moment.

“And you do?” Raquel asked Fernanda.

“I do.  The Whitts dress big, buy nice things, keep nice houses and cars, but it’s about appearances.  It works, even.  But we don’t have servants unless we have people over.  Rest of the time?  I do some laundry.”

“Huh,” Raquel replied, sounding dissatisfied.

“You’re such a snob you don’t even realize you’re a snob.  The rest of the world doesn’t live like you do.”

Raquel drew her eyebrows together.  “That’s annoying.”

“It’s reality.  Snob,” Fernanda told her.

“Let’s stay focused?” Regina asked.  “For all we know, someone with nothing better to do is quizzing the maid about what she was doing earlier, and they’ll be coming our way.”

“It’s likely,” Fernanda said.  “Okay.  That’s the rundown.  Those are the stakes.  So long as we’re ditzy, bratty, stupid little girls playing at scheming, the stakes stay low.”

Avery nodded.

“This can’t be about rebellion,” Raquel told her, insistent and quiet.  “It can’t be about stopping my uncle, hurting our families.  It can’t even be about saving Sadie.  Because if it is and we’re caught, that’s it.  It’s not our place, we’re not positioned to confront it directly.  My cousin, Uncle Abraham’s son, he was positioned, he even did everything his father wanted.  But he waded into a warzone on my uncle’s orders, got hurt, and that was enough of a failure.  He got plunged into the Abyss to harden him up, then thrust into a fight to the death he lost.  I don’t think Uncle Abraham even blinked over it.”

“If we go against what they want and fail, they won’t even be that kind,” Regina said.  “So we will follow the very letter of what they want.”

Avery nodded at that, slowly.  She’d caught the inflection.

There were two kinds of law.  The letter of the law and the spirit of the law.  That so much emphasis was placed on the one…

Andrea spoke up, “the same goes for my family.  We’re not a part of a dynamic like what Fernanda and Raquel are describing.  But we’re close enough to them that when they go to war, bombs can land in our metaphorical backyard.”

Regina spoke again, “Anything we do must, at worst, raise both of our families or situations up.  If we’re caught having our little meetings like this, we need to be able to say we were trying to serve our families.  We were trying to raise ourselves up, serve our situations, get stronger, but we were helping to raise our families up while we did it.”

“Or we were trying,” Fernanda said, shrugging.  “We brats, little girls, and idle wives.”

Cara, Andrea’s daughter, chimed in, saying, “Musser’s in a bad position, we don’t want-”

“Cara,” Regina said, interrupting.

The greenhouse was humid, but Avery felt the chill in the word.

“Exactly my point,” Fernanda said, shrugging, leaning forward over the counter.  “That’s not the kind of thing we talk about here.  It’s inappropriate, it could get us in trouble, and frankly, if Avery knew, there’s no need to tell her, and if she doesn’t know, there’s no need to inform her.”

“Why don’t you go sit with Sadie?” Andrea suggested.

“What a good idea,” Regina said, voice still chilly.

Cara nodded and then went over to sit near the maid who was slumped in a reclining chair that hung from a beam overhead, listening to something with her earbuds in.

“What would you even do if something happened?” Avery asked.

“Scatter, maybe end up somewhere far from this Carmine Exile’s realm,” Raquel said.  “Depending on how bad that something is, maybe start over from square one.  Which we may end up doing anyway, so… why not fight?  Why not support the family?”

And, flipping that question around, why not let the family fall and get away from the traps they’ve worked to put you in?

Okay.  Avery had a sense of the terms of this negotiation.  By the letter of the law, everything had to be legit.

But by the spirit?  These women and girls wanted out.

“Okay,” Avery replied.  “I want to do business.”

“We’ve been doing business already,” Regina said.  “Side things.  Online.  Little enchantments, magic items, resources, currencies, tools.  When we had to abandon one of the primary Whitt properties, we took the books, the more important tools and items, they said to burn the rest.  We went the extra mile to save some things, and sold some later.  It took some doing, we drove hours with boxes in our laps so heavy our legs went numb.  But we earned something, bartered for other things.  Much of which we put back into the family.”

“For your benefit, for the family’s,” Avery said.

“Exactly.”

And you kept some for yourselves.

“We can funnel some things your way, if they’ll be useful in starting from square one,” Avery said.  “Cheap.”

“We have sources for things,” Regina said.  “It would be hard to explain why we went to you, someone our families are on uncomfortable ground with, when we could go to more traditional channels.”

“Very cheap?” Avery tried.  “If they’ll go to a friend.”

“That’s more in the right direction,” Regina said.

“It’s hard to sell things,” Valeria interjected.  “Markets being what they are.  Everyone in emergency mode, being attacked, relocated, dealing with dangerous Lords and uncooperative higher powers.  Sometimes even the spirits are unfriendly.”

“I won’t say we’re not in emergency mode too… but our market’s open,” Avery said.  “I hate to ask, but is what you’re selling reasonably ethical?”

“Don’t you have goblins in your market?  It was a goblin market to start with, wasn’t it?” Fernanda asked.  “And you sell Abyssal things?”

“Yeah, but we’re steering things in a positive direction, adding regulations here and there.  I know it’s not perfect, but we’re trying and that’s why I’m asking.”

“Remember the Fae market you wanted to go to?” Fernanda asked.  “They had a currency.”

“Like, baby’s tears or something?  Marbles.”

Fernanda pointed at her older cousin.  “Regina’s part of the Whitt family primarily works as heartforgers and heartfishers.  Capturing and crystallizing emotions, turning them into objects.  Like those currencies.  We don’t use glamour to do it, we use dreams.  These things- do you have any?”

Regina reached into a pocket and placed a lopsided ball of what looked like molten glass down.  As the glass heated up and cooled inconsistently, it settled into shapes that looked like screaming faces, or ridges were highlighted in ways that looked like pulsing veins.

Fernanda explained, “They’re like… nuts and bolts at the hardware store.  If you’re building certain things, they’re really useful to have.  Evoking emotions, controlling or balancing emotions, giving a little bit of an edge to a curse.  Building a personality for something like a doll, six of one kind of thing, four of another, and so on.”

Avery nodded, looking at the little slug of glass.

“We have heartfisher items.  Tools that help harvest these things.  The product of these things.  Heartforger items… a knife made of anger, a phone saturated with black, bilious resentment.”

“Anything happy?” Avery’s mom asked.

“You wanted ethical.  If we take happiness, we’re taking someone’s happiness away from them.  You might get something that helps spread happiness, but at what cost?”

“But on the other side of that,” Avery said, leaning forward to tap the counter near the glass slug.  “If we take someone’s anger, maybe they calm down, but we get something angry, that spreads anger?”

“We had two major buyers.  One family of necromancers that liked to make echoes solid, who could channel a lot of their strength into a weapon like the angry blade I just talked about.  Wiped out, house set on fire, books burned.  Ground salted.  Kids orphaned,” Valeria said.  “Pair of heartless, been around a long time.  Paid their dues, retired, but they’re basically immortal.  Pay enough, you can get them out of retirement.  They liked our stuff, because it was the only way they could feel certain emotions.  Musser paid enough to get them out of retirement, they went up against a Lord, and now they’re trapped.  We can’t rescue them, Musser can’t or won’t.  Now we have items with nowhere to go, and we’re still making more.”

“Have to keep making more,” Fernanda said.  “The means of acquiring the sentiments and emotions are out there.  If we don’t use them to make stuff, we end up with closets full of distilled trauma.”

“I can imagine that leading to some nasty Others popping up,” Avery said.

Fernanda nodded.

“I know that sounds like we’re in a desperate position and you can pay very little to get a lot, but we’re trapped by circumstance, deals, and expectations,” Valeria said.  “We can only go so low.”

“Okay,” Avery said.  “Tricky material like that, that can do bad things in the wrong hands, we want to give them to salesmen we can trust.  Vendors we can trust.  Ones that can read or read up on a customer.  So either you need to send someone our way to handle the sales in our market…”

“Not in a position to do that,” Regina said.

“…or we need time, luck, or we need you to recommend people you trust that we can trust.”

“I can’t think of one off the top of my head,” Regina said.  “But if nothing spoils what we’re doing or pulls me in another direction, I’ll check the family’s Dramatis Personae soon, and see if anything stands out.”

“We were able to get away with more things than I think the Whitts were,” Andrea said.  “We want to sell, because having money or other currencies give us the ability to change our circumstance.  We don’t want to leave, but we don’t want to stay either, because we’re accruing an unspoken debt.”

“What do you have?” Avery asked.

“Tools.  For managing and analyzing spirit, animus, vestiges.  Tools for measuring incarnate forces.  Magic items.  Some scattered relics for heroic lines we’ve stopped keeping track of.”

“Relics.  Huh.”

“We hoped to trade them to the Mussers to pay our rent, so to speak, but if we have something in wood, they have it in steel.  If we have something steel, they have it in silver.  Anything we have in silver, they have in gold.  Always better.  We can’t even offload to lesser Mussers who are getting set up.  I think it’s more convenient for them that we hold onto them, we pay for the storage lockers, we wait, the implied value of the items dropping.”

“All this space and you can’t store that somewhere?” Avery asked.

Raquel shook her head.  “Store rooms full of specialized furniture, magical tools and things here on this property, and if the situation changes, you might get relocated, the items left behind, or the items might get moved by servants, and then what?”

“Any ethical concerns?” Avery asked.

“Not especially.  Some pieces of history kept in private hands instead of museums,” Andrea said.

“Okay.  Sounds more immediately doable,” Avery said.  She got her phone out, opened up the messages, and clicked the little plus sign, before sliding the phone over.  “Put your information in there?  We can agree on someone to independently assess the items.  I think the augurs can move around relatively freely- they’re not enough on Musser’s side that the Lords are picking on them.  It might be Nicolette, or the Bitter Street Witch.”

“I don’t know that last one.  I’ve heard of Nicolette.”

“A friend.  Related to the market and the Augurs.  Nicolette can walk her through assessing and pricing the stock.  Then we’ll find a way to take possession of the items, sell them through the market, give you a cut.”

“How many pieces?”

Avery puffed out her cheeks.  “All?  Depends on the price.”

“Hmmm.”

“Maybe not all at once,” Avery said.

“How much do you have?” Avery’s mom asked.  “Whisper it?”

Avery leaned over to whisper in her mom’s ear, “Last time I heard a number being thrown around, it was like, thirty thousand dollars spare.  To bring in new people, build stuff, buy stock.”

“Hmm,” her mom murmured, then she whispered back to Avery, “That’s not that much.”

“Really?” Avery asked, surprised.

“We should talk to Toadswallow.  Mrs. Fulton?  Can you give me a rundown of your items, your best guesses of the prices?”

“Can you do that off to the side?” Regina asked.

Avery’s mom glanced at Avery, who nodded.

They went to the next counter down, Andrea on one side of the counter, Avery’s mom on the other.  Avery’s mom pulled out her tablet, and began taking some notes.

“Avery,” Fernanda said.

“Hmm?”

“I’m pretty good at reading people.”

“That’s your thing, kind of.”

“And when you came here, you didn’t come here like you were open to possibilities, wondering if there was a score for your market.”

“I mean, I’m not not, right?”

“You came with something in mind, didn’t you?  Something more important.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “Two things.”

“Which are?” Raquel asked.

“A contract.  To establish a business relationship.  No tricks or traps, nothing sketchy.  The emphasis on responsibilities falls on Kennet, to uphold certain standards.  A bunch of others have signed.  Markets, individuals, families.”

“Why?” Fernanda asked.

“It turns Kennet into something else.  We were hidden before, diverting and distracting people who got too close, but that fell apart.  We tried to set up a perimeter, fight off all comers, but that didn’t work.  We have an angle now.  A market, a three-layered city with a potential for a three-layered market, that can cater to different groups.  Something people are invested in enough they don’t want to see it wiped off the map.”

Fernanda narrowed her eyes.

“What?” Avery asked.

“What are you up to?  Because you might actually be a ditz if you think that’s enough,” Fernanda said, eyes studying Avery.

“Can’t it be enough for now?” Avery asked.

“It wasn’t enough for the Blue Heron, and the Blue Heron had more, wider, more powerful investment than anything you could’ve set up these past few months.”

“The Blue Heron was a cleaner, easier target,” Avery said.

“Was it?  I don’t mean to gainsay, but the Blue Heron had Ray, Durocher, and measures by Alexander.  Layered defenses.”

“But it can be captured by anyone that takes the headmaster’s seat.  Which is why Bristow fought Alexander.”

“And Kennet can’t be taken by taking a Lordship?”

“We’re hoping it isn’t as clean and easy a move.”

Snowdrop became human, making Avery’s mom startle.  “We don’t even have as many goblins anymore.”

“Which makes us a little less clean,” Avery agreed.

“What’s the other thing?” Raquel asked.

“That it sure would be nice if we could deal with the Dropped Call.”

“That’s what it’s called in the black box, right?” Raquel asked.  “I browsed.”

Avery nodded.  “It’s pretty annoyed at me for letting Milly Legendre bind an Other it wanted to work with.  A child taker.  Something old.  Honestly?  It’s messing with Christmas plans.”

Raquel sniffed her amusement.  Arms folded on the counter, she toyed with the sleeves of her sweater with her thumbs.  “That’s so mundane.”

“I’m bringing a date home for Christmas, so it sure would be nice to get a mystic coalition of enemies together to defeat or scare off a demiurgic tech god or whatever it is, keep the route clean?”

“I remember!” Raquel exclaimed.  “The date.  Wow.  Spicy.”

Spicy sounded more like a thing from the show than a thing Raquel of early summer would’ve said.

“Not too spicy,” Avery’s mom said.  “Please.  You’re fourteen.”

“That makes it more spicy,” Raquel whispered.

“Mistress.”

Avery turned her head.  The maid, Sadie, had stood, and was smoothing out her dress and apron.  Phone put away.

“What is it?” Fernanda asked.

“Someone’s coming.  It looks like Mrs. Karla Whitt.  She’s coming from the main house as I speak.”

“So that’s it then,” Fernanda said.  “I shouldn’t be surprised.”

“What’s it?”

“Our meeting.  There are people who could react worse to this meeting, and people who are nosy enough to find us, but not many are as nosy and as big a problem as Karla.  This was good.  If we can force it, we’ll be in touch.  Get something going with your market.”

“Sadie?” Regina asked.

“Yes, Mistress?”

“Tell them we were trying to arrange something for money for Christmas gifts.  That people have been talking about Musser taking Kennet as such a sure thing, it’s money that circles back to the family anyway when he takes everything the town has.”

“Yes, Mistress.”

“Is that even a fib?” Valeria asked.

“I hope it’s a fib,” Avery replied.

“Is it a fib?” Raquel asked.  “Do you have plans?”

“If I told you I have plans, wouldn’t it be-”

“Andrea?” Regina asked.  Still making plans, maneuvering.  “We got snappy with Cara after she said something thoughtless, Cara backed off, you stepped back, imply you were not all too happy with us.”

Andrea hesitated, then nodded.

“-wouldn’t it be problematic?” Avery asked Raquel.  “That just gives you information that could be extracted.”

“But it’s important,” Raquel told her.  “Do you really think you can stop him?”

“Dangerous question to be asking,” Fernanda said, voice low.

“She’s at the stable,” Sadie said, as she busied herself in the garden.

“I don’t know,” Avery replied.

“I need you to know,” Raquel said, insistent.

“Dangerous topic,” Regina said.

“I don’t know, though!” Avery exclaimed.  “He’s strong, he’s dangerous, he’s relentless.  But he needs to take things, get back into the swing of things.  Last time around, Kennet was one of the last pieces of the puzzle he needed.  He didn’t get it.  This time around, it’s like we’re the first piece he needs to remove.  Nothing else is budging, he needs something.  Maybe we can counter him.”

“Why is this important?”

It felt like Raquel’s question could so easily be her grasping for something to salvage her position with the Mussers.  Something to avoid the worst of the sting from being caught having a clandestine meeting with an enemy.  Or a sort-of-enemy.

But it could easily be something else, too.

Avery decided to trust.  “It’s like he’s starving.  He takes, the longer he goes without taking, the hungrier and weaker he gets.”

“What does the contract do?”

“She’s close,” Sadie said.

“It helps make Kennet too big to eat.  Or too big to eat in one bite.  And I’m not sure he’s in a position to take multiple bites.”

“But you’re not sure he isn’t?” Fernanda asked.

“Give me the contract,” Raquel said.

Avery dropped her bag, opened the flap, and pulled out the contract in the hard-cover folder that kept everything flat and tidy.  She put it down on the counter.

Raquel quickly turned it around, taking Avery’s pen, searching for the places to put her name.

“You’re signing it unread?” Fernanda asked, galled.  “Don’t be stupid.”

Avery was left with another question, but she felt a similar kind of gall, she figured.

Rather than ask or distract Raquel, she put a hand out, finger touching Raquel’s hand.

She had a gold band around her ring finger, one large diamond inset in it, two smaller diamonds beside it.

She’d had her arms folded up until now.  Hiding it.  She hadn’t said anything.

“Who?” Avery asked.

“Does it really matter?”

“Doesn’t it?”

“Raquel,” Fernanda said, insistent.  “This is going against everything we were saying at the start.”

Raquel answered Avery’s question, ignoring Fernanda.  “He needs to get back to where he was.  A wife seals an alliance. in a way other things can’t.  Ties the husband’s fortunes to my uncle’s, and vice-versa.”

Karla Whitt, maybe ten years older than Avery’s mom, with gray in her hair, joined by two twenty-ish men, came into the greenhouse with a draft of cold air.

“Braaten?” Karla asked.  “Take Ms. Cara to the main house, upstairs.  We’ll separate key people here, see if stories line up.”

“Yes, mistress,” Sadie said.  She snatched her coat off a hook, pulling it on quickly, then helped Cara with hers, taking her outside.

“Fernanda?” Karla asked.  “Main house, sitting room.”

Fernanda hesitated.

“Now.”

Raquel stopped short of the final page of the contract.

“Tell me this counts,” Raquel whispered.

“It helps but I’m worried it doesn’t count for as much as you need it to,” Avery told her.

“Raquel Musser.  I dearly hope you aren’t signing a contract without the approval of your uncle.”

“I advised her not to, auntie,” Fernanda said.  “I even called her stupid.”

“You don’t have the authority to tell me what to do,” Raquel said.  “None of you here do.”

Karla didn’t even flinch.  “I’m going to assert that authority, and I’ll apologize to your uncle later if I was wrong to do so.  Boys?  Take Ms. Musser to the main house, the study.  Our intruders to the barracks.”

“Raquel,” Avery said, her voice quiet.  “I don’t know.”

Raquel looked up at Avery, meeting her eyes.  She murmured, “Work on it then.”

Then she scribbled her name, pushing the paper toward Avery as one of the boys grabbed her by the upper arms, near the shoulders, pulling her back.

The other boy circled around toward Avery.

“What were you up to?” Karla Whitt asked.

“Talking business,” Avery said.

“What business?”

“Christmas money,” Fernanda said.

“I’m going to tell your older brother and father you were disobedient.  You should have left when told.”

“Okay,” Fernanda said.  She didn’t leave.

“We were talking opportunities,” Andrea said.  “Mrs. Kelly runs a company, the Whitts keep girls who model.  It could be an opportunity.  A burst of cash in tough times.”

“I cannot speak for lesser families such as yours, Mrs. Fulton, but our times are more than fine, financially,” Karla replied, cold.  “Modeling?”

“Five to six women, three to five men, catalogue and print runs going to a national chain, international distribution,” Avery’s mom said.  “It wouldn’t take much to pull strings and use the Whitt’s agency.”

“How much would that pay?” Karla asked.

“Mid to upper six figures.”

It seemed like Avery’s mom and Andrea had been talking in the background, sorting things out on a level.

Which was kind of cool, because Avery sort of saw herself as the person on the flanks, doing jobs to set things up and score the surprise hits.  And here her mom was, kind of being that.

Karla, while pretty-ish, looked like she could suck on a lemon and make the lemon want to twist up from how sour and bitter she was.  But like… she couldn’t say a lot about this?

And the impact of that was like, the guy pursuing Avery stopped in his tracks, checking with Karla Whitt, who didn’t urge him to go forward, as she considered.

“It’s a cool idea,” Fernanda said.

“Yet it’s an idea that should be presented to the likes of Musser himself, or Chase or Tomas Whitt.  No, I don’t trust this gathering.  And I don’t trust this contract-”

Damn.

Still, it had bought them time.

She reached for it.  Avery put her hand on it and pulled it out of reach, before continuing to retreat from the guy who was circling around the counter.

“I signed it on impulse, alone, without the say so or agreement of the other ladies present,” Raquel said.  She touched her engagement ring.

“What a stupid girl.  Take her to the house.”

The boy manhandled Raquel toward the door.  He paused to throw the coat over her shoulders, not even putting her arms through the sleeves.

“Raquel,” Avery said.  She wanted to give Raquel something more, but she didn’t know what to give, except, “I have a Christmas present for you.  Something dumb, from Sheridan.  In case she makes it big, you could say you were the first big fan.”

“Hold onto it,” Raquel said, resisting being pushed through the door.  “I don’t think I’ll be in a position to enjoy it for a bit.”

Then she was pushed outside.  She stumbled a bit through snow, being roughly pushed along.  Avery watched her go, while retreating from the goon.

“You,” Karla said, turning to Avery.

“Heya.”

Avery, walking backwards, bumped into her mom, who held Snowdrop.

“We’d like a copy of that contract.”

“Reach out by official channels, I can oblige in seven to ten business days.”

“Meaning that what you intend to do takes effect before those seven days?”

“Not what I said.”

“But it’s clear enough.  I can See meaning, intent,” Karla said, and her eyes flashed as she said it.

“Probably a good cue for me to get out of dodge then,” Avery said.

She dropped a spell card, putting a foot out to brace it against the incoming guy’s lower stomach, before he could grab her.

Light flashed, bright, and Avery took advantage of the momentary blindness, black roping through the window and into the woods at the edge of the property, her mom and Snowdrop in tow.

“Oh my gosh,” her mom said.

“Eyes stay closed, move in the direction I’m tugging.”

The guy who’d been coming for her pressed against the window.  Avery saw him shimmer, blurring at the edges.

“Snow?  In my bag, dig for salt.”

Snowdrop went from Avery’s mom to Avery’s shoulder to Avery’s bag, worming her way in.

Avery black-roped her way through the woods.

The guy came through the woods like a ghost with a rocket strapped to him.  He wove through trees, blurring, extending out, and shed contempt so thick in the air Avery could taste it, and it poisoned her a little.  He wasn’t even getting close, but it made her feel smaller and weaker when she got the fallout from being thirty feet away.

She felt Snowdrop’s surge of victory.  Salt found.  Avery stopped dodging, leaving her mom behind while she put herself in the way of the guy who had turned himself into an astrally projected emotion bomb.

Snowdrop struggled to get to where she could pass the salt to Avery.

“Come on, Snow!”

Snowdrop stretched herself up, Avery got the salt, and she unloaded it, cap off, a full dose, right into the guy’s face as he charged her.

The emotion rolled past her, but the guy disintegrated.  The traces of him reeled back in toward his body.

Avery sagged, catching a tree to stop from falling entirely.

“Are we okay?” her mom asked, quiet.

“Let’s keep moving before they send anyone or anything else,” Avery said.

“Okay.”

Avery didn’t feel strong enough to move, and her mom didn’t budge.

“Maybe, uh, you stay home from now on?” Avery asked.  “I get you wanting to help and stuff, but-”

“Did I hurt things?”

“No.  You’re good.  You’re like, really good at those surprise deals and stuff.  But…”

But protecting you is hard.  This is all hard.

“…Trust me?” Avery asked, when no better phrasings came to mind.

“I won’t say no.  What am I trusting you to do?”

“Right now?” Avery asked.  She tested her legs to make sure they had the strength she needed.  “Taking you home.  Then I need to get to Kennet.  Because I’m pretty sure they’ll have some idea of what we’re pulling after interrogating or magically interrogating those guys, and once they catch on, Musser is going to want to come for Kennet ASAP, before we can get stuff sorted.”


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Crossed with Silver – 19.13

Avery

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter


“You’re still here?” Avery asked.

“I don’t think I’m going anywhere anytime soon,” Gilkey replied.  “Be careful.  The air around me is poisonous.”

“Yeah.  Taking measures.”

“The very measures will be poisoned as well.”

“Is there anything I can do?” Avery asked.

“Keep this short.  Five minutes, little more.  Consider it a hard limit.  It feels like anything more could shorten your life.”

“Okay.  I don’t want to leave things like this though.  This isn’t our last talk.”

“Alright,” Gilkey replied.  “Send someone, though.  Don’t come back yourself, not for at least a year.”

“Okie dokie,” Avery said.  “Sorry this sucks.  I do want to help.”

“Help me by helping me get revenge.  She screwed me over, she put others at risk, both by making me this, and by letting the primeval come this far into a settled area.”

“Maricica then.”

Gilkey was counting under his breath.  “Yes.”

“You saw her become what she is?”

“She was being hunted by more than one thing.  Faerie, I think.  I don’t have much exposure to Fae, being what I am.”

“Understandable,” Avery said.  She watched the diagram she’d drawn up with care.  “The Wild Hunt.”

“Sounds fitting.  She had help from a purple-skinned woman, who gave her a black spike.  Metal.  They were talking strategy.  There was a man, with red hair, red beard.  The Carmine Exile, I think.”

“Sounds like.”

“They needed to shake the pursuit of two pursuers who were unflinching, immovable, too hard to kill or beat.  Even poisoned, the primeval beast was going to eventually get her.”

“Yeah.  So they did this?”

“The spike, to drive her down into a dark place of turmoil, taint her Fae-ness.  The Faerie pursuers- the Wild Hunt, they sensed what she was doing, the degree of taint, and they closed in.  It was timed so they’d have a front row seat.”

“As she became a goddess?”

“The spike plunged her down, but the Carmine Exile, as she explained it, he has say over what gets to emerge, what gets to come up out of dark, violent places.  So he got to lift her up.”

“So she got a dip in a dark bath, I guess?” Avery asked.  She thought of the abyssal beast that had come after them and Reggie.  She thought of Reid, who’d been tainted, according to Raquel.

“More than that.  They were boasting to the Wild Hunt, and I got the impression they believed the boasts, because the primeval seemed to sense it too.  She has her feet in the Abyss and her head is up in… not heaven.  A place that rains blood, instead.  Power was funneled into her, she’s connected to and worshiped by forces in the deep Abyss, she’s connected up here and enabled by the Carmine.  If someone tries to kill or remove her, it’s going to make a mess.”

“A mess?”

“She’s a conduit.  Divine things, abyssal things.  Blood.  Smash a branch, you get splinters and bits of bark around, right?  But if you cut a pipe?  Or me?  Or her?  Contents spray out.  Remove her?  If you even can, when the Wild Hunt and a primeval couldn’t or wouldn’t?  Abyss sprays up, along with worshipers, divinity empties its way down, along with a lot of blood.”

Avery thought of the death of the Carmine Beast.

“Putting us back to square one,” Avery said the thought aloud.  “Probably a similar effect.  Probably worse.”

“Her side seemed to think she could reform from near-total annihilation, if the Abyssal worshipers sprayed forth and prayed in her name.  The Wild Hunt seemed to think to unmake or undo her, they’d have to retrace her steps, and they weren’t willing to go where she’d planted her feet.  The primeval beast I was poisoning… its heart quickened as it recognized divine power.”

“I think primeval beasts only lost their dominant place in this world when gods started to spring up,” Avery said.

“The spike in her chest.  If I wanted to hurt her, I’d go after that.  I do want to hurt her, but I’m not in a position to go after it.”

“Hm.  Any ideas, Snow?” Avery asked.

Snowdrop shook her head.

The spike.  If it was keeping Maricica Abyssal enough to have her feet in a dark place with worshipers who’d feed her power, or who could emerge and keep her going, maybe removing it would disconnect her from that.

Leaving other problems.  Like the blood and divinity pouring out the other portion of her.

But still… it was something.  Maybe it was something they could use to free the Wild Hunt to go back after her.

She wanted to say more, but she knew the Carmine Exile was probably watching, and he’d be protective of Maricica.

She couldn’t even tell the others, because dreams were out, and any other method of communication might see him warning Maricica.

“I’m not sure that works,” she said, more for the Carmine Exile’s benefit than because she believed it wouldn’t work.  If he was listening, she needed him not to worry and not to warn Maricica.

“Alright…” Gilkey replied, and he sounded a little dejected, pausing like he wanted to say more.

I’m sorry.

Whatever else he’d wanted to say, he didn’t say it, instead telling her, “…you should go.  Time runs out.  I don’t want to poison you.”

“What can I do for you?”

“To start, don’t let your life be another one I end too early.  Stop her.”

“But for like, you as a person.”

“Thirty-nine… thirty-eight… thirty-seven…”

“Beyond revenge?  Anything else?”

He shook his head.  “Go.  Thirty-four… thirty-three…”

She squeezed Snowdrop, then turned to go.

She heard him behind her.

“…thirty-two… thirty-one…”

🟂

“Ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… one.  Papers down, pencils down.  And stay seated.”

Avery leaned back, waiting while the volunteers went down each aisle, picking up the papers.

“And you’re done.  Congratulations, thank you for your hard work, enjoy your Christmas break.”

The response was less than enthusiastic.  Avery remained in her seat for a short bit because her desk opened to the right, with a metal bar on the left attaching her seat to the desk itself, and there were people in the aisle.

And then there were people at the front, clogging the way, talking to the teacher, taking their time finding their bags.  There were only about twelve of the original sixty still in class, but they were apparently the twelve who were best at getting in the damn way.

“Avery, you up for lacrosse next year?  And track?” the teacher asked.

“Lacrosse for sure,” she said, craning her neck to see past people.  “When hockey ends.”

“Good luck.”

“Thank you sir.”

“Same to you, Hui.  Good luck.”

“Thank you.”

So weird, being recognized for stuff that barely got a nod in Kennet.  And like, Gianna was in the room too, but Avery supposed she didn’t give off a ‘does sports’ vibe.

She finally got her bag and escaped.  Nora was in the hallway with some members of her team.  Hui and Gianna from the team followed Avery out.

“Down to the wire?” Nora asked.  “That bad?”

“Yes,” Hui volunteered.

“Not that bad for me,” Avery said.  “I wanted to quintuple-check the test, because I can miss obvious stuff.  Like putting my name down.”

“Oh my god,” Sophy said.  She’d just caught up with the group, apparently having just hit the vending machine for a drink.  “You’ve forgotten to put your name down?  That’s tops ditz energy.”

Like putting my name down.  I haven’t forgotten to write my name since the very start of high school.  But there was another time they wanted us to put our student number, and I wasn’t sure if it was the one on our library card or student card, so I wanted to ask the teacher, but she was busy, and then I forgot to.”

“I spent the last ten minutes trying to keep from panicking,” Hui said.  “I told myself we could have a joint study session-”

“What the fuck?” Putnam asked.  “School’s over, screw your study session.”

“No, like a study session.  Where we have a planning meeting, how to convince our parents not to ground our asses into next year.  I guess Avery’s not going to be part of that?  She was ditz-proofing herself?”

“One, I’m not that much a ditz, go easy.  Two, sorry, I’ve got so much to do.”

“Tragic.  Gi?”

“I got you, babe,” Gianna said, thumping forearm against Hui’s shoulder.

“I thought your parents weren’t that strict,” Sophy told Hui.

“They’re not, but my dad’s all, ‘if you won’t try at school, you won’t try at work, if you won’t try at work, you won’t make money, so better get used to it’, and cuts off my allowance.”

“Oh no,” Avery chimed in.

“I want in,” Putnam said.  “We can work out a plan for convincing the parents, do a powerpoint, realize it’s futile, then change over to breaking into the school, using our athletic abilities and special skills to go full cat burglar.  Change your grades.”

“Anything we do with Putnam as part of it is going to be so much less efficient,” Hui said.  “She seems insincere even when she’s being sincere.”

“Bitch, what?” Putnam asked.

“See?  Right there,” Hui said.  “You’re great though.”

“Damn right I’m great.”

“Can we bring the boys teams in?” Gianna asked.

“Yes!” Putnam exclaimed, grabbing Gianna by the sleeve.  “Yes.”

“They’ve got to have some dumbasses who need to plan around bad report cards,” Gianna said.  “We need a name.  And slogan.”

“Team fail?” Hui asked.

“You didn’t actually fail, did you?” Nora asked.

“If you ask my parents they think anything less than a seventy is basically a fail,” Gianna replied.

“Team dum-dum.  Play up the self-abuse angle,” Putnam said.  “It only matters when we’re seniors, as a slogan.  Works for the sports stuff, works for school.”

“Bleh,” Hui said.

Nora, standing off to the side, looked a little bewildered.  Avery navigated the group until she was by Nora’s side.  Sophy, coming over, stopped short, trying too hard to look innocuous.

“Don’t slink away,” Putnam told Avery.  “Contribute.”

“She thinks she can get off scott free,” Hui said.  “She was staying to the end to flex on us.”

Uncomfortably close to what Jeanine had been driving at, portraying Avery as if she thought she was better than everyone else.  Not helped by the fact that Hui walked the line of being between Jeanine’s side and Avery’s.

“I’m so terrible at names,” Avery said.  “I threw in a name suggestion for a little guy my cat-loving friend back home-”

“At my old school-!” Putnam, Sophy, and Hui jumped in, not very in-sync.

“Screw off.  I threw in a name suggestion for this one-eyed, runny nosed little guy, I think he still resents me for it.”

“What’d you name him?” Nora asked.

“Snoogie?”

“I love Snoogie,” Putnam said.  There were some added points of agreement.  “Hit us with a team name.”

“Hmmm.  I feel like I’ll make enemies if I go with anything too mean-”

“They can take it,” Putnam said.

“It’s my whole thing,” Hui said, thumping her chest.  “Footwork, endurance, and I can take a hit.  God, I wish women’s lacrosse had more checking.”

“There’s always hockey, my dear.”  Putnam over-acted how consoling she was being, patting Hui’s back.  Hui played into it.

“Hmm.  Team Never-passes?” Avery asked.

“Wow, back off,” Gianna said.  “I didn’t do that badly.”

“I feel so called out,” Hui said.

“Oh!” Gianna startled.  “I missed the pun.”

“Starting to realize why you’re struggling in school,” Sophy chimed in.

“Slogan,” Putnam told Avery.

“I- one idea jumps to mind, but-”

“Now you have to tell us,” Hui told her, folding her arms.

“You’re obligated,” Putnam added.  In true Putnam style, she went straight to over-acting, hands clapped to her heart, tone apologetic.

“Fast on the field, slow in the classroom.”

Hui uncrossed her arms and turned away.

Putnam looked over, then turned back to Avery.  She’d dropped the drama, and visibly winced.  “There’s being clever and there’s being a bitch, and you just crossed the line into bitch.”

“Woah, hey- no,” Avery said.  “Sorry.”

“Full bitch,” Gianna tossed in.

Avery glanced at Nora, who was wide-eyed.

“You said I was obligated.”

“But pull back, hold back, come up with something else, seriously,” Putnam said.  “Jesus.”

People elsewhere in the hallway were turning to look.

“Is this a nightmare?” Avery asked.  “Can we skip to the next part?  Point made.”

“It’s real.  Too real,” Gianna replied.

“I’m not even that fast on the field,” Hui said.  “Does that mean you think I’m slower than that?”

No.

“That’s the first thing that came to your mind for a slogan?” Putnam asked.

Hui wasn’t able to keep a straight face.

“You guys are assholes,” Avery said.

“You’re the asshole!” Putnam exclaimed, angry now.  Then she glanced over.  “Oh, Hui gave it away.”

“Oh man,” Avery said.  “Don’t do that!  You’re not mad, right?”

“Nah,” Hui said.  Gianna shook her head.

“What a good way to burn off exam stress,” Putnam said, smiling.  “I’m so proud of you, my girls, getting on board right away.”

Avery mock-strangled Putnam.

“I hope you guys did okay,” Nora said.  “Keep your allowance and everything.”

“So do I!” Hui said.  “Maybe I did better than I thought.”

“Can I steal Avery away?” Nora asked.  “I’m busy for most of Christmas, and I won’t have time later.”

“Steal away.”

“Bye!” Avery waved, before joining Nora on the way out.

All the way back at the house, Snowdrop stirred partially awake, taking mental note of Avery and the fact Avery was on the move, then pushed something at Avery.  It was similar to how Avery would sometimes ask Snow to take fatigue away from her, but this time, it was coming the other way.  Cold?

Avery shivered a bit, absorbing about seventy-five percent of a cold draft coming Snowdrop’s way, leaking in around the garage door.  Which let Snowdrop turn over, belly up in the garage, basking in the light shining in through the garage door window, before dozing off again.

You dink.  Avery jammed her hands in her pockets.  You could’ve moved a bit instead.

But she took it, anyway.  Snowdrop fielded a lot of minor crap.

She and Nora had to find space to talk that wasn’t too close to any groups, and that was hard with the way people were gathering outside, talking, making plans, and calling or waiting to get picked up.

Her bracelet clicked.  She saw Jeanine in the crowd with Oli and some of the girls from sports.  It was kind of becoming a dividing line where Jeanine was holding onto the people from track, and Avery had never been that into track, except when practices were joint- Coach Artrip’s attempt at getting her a taste of track and field.

And… she looked, then startled.  Sophy was at the door, peering past the glass, trying to look like she wasn’t spying.

“Still good to come?” Avery asked.

Nora nodded.  “But like I mentioned, my mom wants to cram extra time with me before I go.  I don’t think I’ll be able to hang out much.”

“I’ve got a lot too,” Avery said.

“Shopping.”

“Oh, that too.  I actually should really get going.  The next few days are going to be nuts, if I want to be free on Christmas day.”

“I thought.  You sounded on edge about stuff this morning.  I figured I could pull you away for selfish reasons, but also, if you need to go, my feelings won’t be hurt.”

“Yeah, thank you,” Avery said.  “I think Sophy wants to talk to you, too.  She’s been hanging at the fringes for a bit now.”

Nora looked.  “Oh.  Maybe she wants to talk to you, not me.”

“Let’s see.”  Avery waved Sophy over.

“I know things are busy, but talk later?” Nora asked.  “Video call before bed?”

“Yeah.  I’ll try, for sure.  Can’t easily promise, but…”

“I like the-”  Nora stopped as Sophy approached.  “One sec?  Sorry.”

Sophy stepped back out of the way, rocking on the spot, looking at everything but Nora and Avery.  She put earbuds in.

Nora dropped her voice.  “-I like the routine.  Talking before we sleep.  Or even texting, when you don’t want to bother your sister.”

“Same!  For sure.  But I might be traveling, or busy.  I don’t want to promise.”

“Okay,” Nora looked side to side.

“What?”

“Make it up to me if you can’t?  Don’t go silent on me before Christmas when we have plans.”

“For sure.  Uh, like, I’m thinking of my friend, she wanted cat pictures.”

“I don’t care about cats.”

“What about pictures of me posing with Snowdrop?”

“That’ll do,” Nora said.  “Anything that doesn’t leave me hanging and wondering what’s going on.”

“For sure.  I like you being assertive.”

“I’m not sure if it’s assertiveness or organized anxiety.”

“It’s good.  I like it.  I think we’re good?  Sophy?”

Sophy was listening to music, watching the crowd.

“Sophy!” Avery raised her voice.

She and Nora reached over simultaneously to jostle Sophy, who jumped.

“Sorry,” Avery told her.  “Owe you a soda or something, okay?”

“Whatever.  Nora.  Let’s talk band.”

“I’m not sure what I can do about the band, my mom wants to cram family time in before Christmas.”

“Then let’s talk band fast.”

“I’m going to go,” Avery said.

“I want to email you the lyrics Stuart’s been working on.  Get your feel for them.  He wants to work in some percussion between some of the song lines, but I think they’ll sound like, you know, badum tsch?  Punchline riff?”

“Yeah,” Nora replied.

“Have to do it right.  I want to send you sound files too big for texts, and if you’re busy, we should work out something to do in the time between, like sharing music we like and want to copy.”

Nora nodded with some enthusiasm.  “That sounds good.  I can do that.  I’ve got playlists with about three thousand songs on them, where I like the sound.  I could link you them.”

Avery smiled a bit.  She liked how hard Nora went at the music stuff, completely out of nowhere.

“Let’s cut that down to like, thirty max.  Maybe fifteen, depending on how many other people are coming up with…”

Avery touched Nora’s arm to get her attention as Sophy went on, waved a farewell, and then headed off, leaving them to it.

“Ave!” Sophy called out.

“What’s up?” Avery asked, turning to walk backwards while also dodging a group of people.

“Exams are done, treat yourself!  Happy holidays, enjoy the rest, see you next year?”

“Happy holidays!”

Avery was pretty sure there wouldn’t be rest.

For so many people here, the countdown to turn over the last of their exam papers had been a relief.  Weeks of mounting stress before a semester was done and tied up, finished.

But for Avery, this brief respite aside, it was the very start of stuff she needed respite from.

Market, Musser, Promenade, she needed to clear the way for travel, last of the Christmas shopping, helping Gilkey, a low-key Christmas eve and morning with family.

If she couldn’t get it done, she wasn’t sure what she’d do, so she had to get it done.

Four days.  She had four days.

Too many people were counting on her.

She broke into a run.

🟂

“Someone in the Garricks tipped off Wunderkand,” Jude’s dad said.

“What?” Avery asked, alarmed.  “About the Promenade?”

“Yeah,” Jude replied.

“And they got a payday, I’m sure, or a job, or Wunderkand found them on the paths and spellbound them to tip them off if we were close to anything juicy, or something.  All we know is Wunderkand is sniffing around.  They made two attempts at getting into the Promenade already.”

“That’s good, we can take them,” Snowdrop said.

Avery leaned back.  She watched as the digital model of the Promenade unfolded around her.  It wasn’t quite how she’d seen it, but the basics were there.  There was the Promenade station, where they’d entered and where she and Snowdrop had done the familiar ritual.  There were the shops down the center, the three walkways, the train stops…

In this version, probably drawn from someone’s specific take, pouring water gushed down silently, in violent, frothing, waterfall-like curtains that left only slight gaps past the railings.  Things moved within those waterfalls, badly rendered.

Avery fidgeted.  “They tried and failed?”

“Correct,” Jude’s dad said.

“So whoever tipped them off knows about the Promenade, but isn’t in the loop enough to know about the extra measures we put into place?” Avery asked.

“Correct again.  That gives us a fairly narrow band of suspects.  We’re going-”

“Peter Garrick,” a disembodied Zed interrupted.

Painted in amber shades, Peter Garrick, head of the Garrick family, stepped out of the shadows.  He joined Jude and Jude’s dad.  “Sorry I’m late.  Internal stuff.”

“We were talking about it,” Jude’s dad said.

“I wish I was there for that, Cliff.”

“Okay.  Want me to wait next time?”

“I want there to never be a next time for this sort of betrayal.”

Peter looked at Avery.  “Sorry, but I need to know.”

“It wasn’t me, I haven’t intentionally given up any information, I don’t want this, I don’t like it, I hate that it’s screwing things up when things are already complicated.  My only interaction with Wonderkand has been pre-founding, at least that I remember.”

“Have you been on Paths?” Peter asked.  “Could’ve run into one, been made to forget.”

“Went over that,” Cliff said.

Avery shook her head.  “Not much lately.  If I was, I think the Carmine Exile would’ve gotten snarly at me.  Only really been using Paths to quick travel, but it was pretty brief, mainly to get around.  I think I would’ve noticed something odd.  Like, my dad was waiting for me the one time.”

“Fuck.  I almost wanted it to be you.  What did they gain?  A ten thousand dollar payout?  A shit corporate job?  This is the sort of thing that can make our family.”

“Avery,” Zed interrupted.

“Yeah?” Avery asked, raising her head.  She and Snowdrop were painted in shades of pink.

“Your mom is trying to call you.  It sounds like she wants to be included, if you’re doing anything business-related that’s not going to be complicated by her participating.”

“Really?”

“It’s what she says,” Zed replied.

“Weird.  Hm.  Can you loop her in?”

“She’s innocent,” Zed pointed out.

“I’d rather keep this simple,” Peter Garrick said.

“And I’d rather loop her in if she wants to be looped in,” Avery said, as assertive as she could manage.  Her mom hadn’t actually wanted to be part of stuff to this degree.  Her dad had engaged with it a lot more.

So if her mom was wanting in now?  She wouldn’t say no.

“Let’s,” Cliff said.  “As soon as we tackle the question of Innocence.  Do we log off, do this through video call, Zed showing us on computer screens?”

Avery shook her head.  “She’s Aware, so it’s a complicated Innocence.  Hmmm.  Let it be known, America Tedd has claimed responsibility for the Awareness of my mother, Kelsey Kelly, and what she cannot claim, I will claim for myself.  Talk about whatever.  It’s okay.”

“You’re not really holding back, huh?” the disembodied Zed asked.

“No.  Can’t.”

“I’m jealous.  Okay.  Going to walk her through joining the video call.”

“Where were we?” Avery asked.

“Me ranting,” Peter said.

“Okay, uh, before my mom joins, just saying, you guys are my example of a mostly functional practitioner family.  It’d be cool if we could ease her worries some.”

“Fuck me, I don’t feel functional,” Peter Garrick said.

“No,” Cliff agreed.  “Hurts.”

“What hurts?” Avery’s mom asked, as she appeared.  Cast in pink shades like Avery and Snowdrop, her image wasn’t as good a resolution as anyone else’s.  It clarified over time, and Avery could see faint images as pictures that had been uploaded online were used as reference, popping up and disappearing around her, like buzzing, teleporting flies.

“Hold your phone up to your face so the camera can see you?” Zed asked.

The image of Avery’s mom clarified by a lot.

“There we go.  You can put the phone down, back to your ear, whatever,” Zed said.

“I’m seeing things.  But if I turn my head too fast, I’m back in my car.”

“Then stay with us.  As long as you’re not driving,” Cliff said.  “Nice to see you again, Mrs. Kelly.”

“Kelsey.  And of course I’m not driving.”

“I thought you’d want to be part of this, mom.  Easier than explaining to you after, and you don’t have to wonder if I’m leaving stuff out,” Avery told her.

“Okay.  What’s this about?”

“It’s complicated,” Peter Garrick said, looking and sounding deeply unhappy.

Avery tried explaining, “Someone in the Garrick family betrayed the family business.  Gave a big corporation tips about the big project they haven’t fully finished.  Now it’s a race to see who figures it out.”

“About sums it up.”

“Who are we thinking?” Cliff asked.  “I can’t help but notice Reece isn’t here.”

Reece was the dad of the two cousins of Jude’s he’d brought to the Build Up and the pre-founding path spree.

“Don’t think it’s Reece.  Or if it is, he doesn’t know.”

“He’s been a little put out that he’s not in the loop about the Avery stuff.”

“I asked him outright.”

Avery’s mom looked at her.  “What stuff?”

Avery lowered her voice, “I’m pretty good at this stuff, and I have the inside scoop through Miss, so Jude and his immediate family, they’re kind of their own mini-branch of the family, they got points for establishing a good working relationship with me.  Peter is head of the family, and it took a bit for me to clue in I was being rude, but I’ve started working with him too.  But I guess Reece isn’t part of that, so he’s feeling rejected?”

“Yeah,” Cliff said.  Apparently he’d heard Avery well enough.  “But he’s ruled out?”

“Yeah,” Peter answered.  “And he knows the extra measures we set up.”

“Could’ve held them back.  Gave them a taste, while seeing if he could ask for more for the keys.”

“If he did, he’s unaware.  I trust him enough after talking to him, I put him on the task of watching others.”

“Only names that jump to mind, who know enough, but not too much…” Cliff rumbled, musing aloud.  “Walt’s of a retiring age.”

“Got eyes on Walt, but I think I trust him.  Talks too much about planting saplings that future Garricks can enjoy the shade of.”

“Then… hate to even bring it up, considering…”

“Yeah,” Peter said.  “Reece is watching ’em.”

Avery went through her mental map of the Garricks.  Peter, Cliff-Jude, and Reece were the main branches, most involved in the active Path running, with the rest contributing here and there, or doing their own types of things, like writing books.

“Is there a reason you’re not saying?” Avery asked.

“Stings if true, is all,” Peter said.

There was only one extended branch of the family that consistently evoked strong emotions, putting the rest on the back foot.

“Probably best if we all know,” Zed said.  He appeared, cast in blue, with Nina in his company.  “Especially if I’m handling communications and simulations like this.”

“Poppy’s parents?” Avery asked.  “Um, Shane and-”

“Shane and Kimber,” Peter said.

“Poppy died,” Avery murmured to her mom.  “They got a lot of flex and freedom, naturally.  Right now the active family units are Peter’s, Cliff’s, and Reece’s, but it used to be Peter’s, Cliff’s, and Shane’s.  Shane backed off, so it… sucks if they took advantage.”

“Sucks is putting it lightly,” Cliff said.  “You’ve got it right.”

“For the record?” Zed commented.  “Can’t really  be quiet or whisper in a space like this.”

“Oh shoot, I’m sorry, I was trying to fill her in, I hope I wasn’t disrespectful.”

“You’re fine,” Peter said.  “You’re right.”

“I’m sorry for the loss of your… niece?” Avery’s mom asked.

“Niece,” Cliff agreed, nodding.

“Bit of a way of getting away from it all?” Avery asked.  “If they can’t get over the loss… it makes a kind of sense to try to cut ties and distance yourself from- from everything?  Obviously it’s horrible, but…”

“I paid their mortgage for three years,” Peter said, arms folded.  “Paid their property taxes.  Tried to get them in a position where they could get out from under the medical bills.  Kept them on the payroll even when they weren’t-”

He stopped, shaking his head.

He was a digital representation of a man, captured on webcam and translated to a three dimensional image, supported by various other pictures and feeds stored online.  Avery could still see how deep the hurt ran.

“I hope it’s not them,” Avery said.

“Whoever it is, it’s something we’ll lose sleep over.  I’m sorry, Mrs. Kelly-” Peter quickly corrected to, “Kelsey.  This isn’t normally us.  I’d call this a once a generation type kind of family drama, but I don’t think my father or grandfather dealt with anything like it.”

“This Promenade business is a lot of money, isn’t it?” Avery’s mom asked.  “I think any family can run into that, around inheritances or lottery winnings.”

“Yeah.  I thought we were better than that,” Peter said.

“I’m sorry it’s happening.”

“Let’s get down to business, then,” Peter declared.  “Plan was to do some test runs and then give the Promenade an honest shot.”

“I’ve rendered the best depiction of it I can with what I was given,” Zed told them.  “Nina’s looked over the notes to see if any threads can be pulled out. I’ve highlighted some.”

“Let’s walk and talk.  Zed and his Other are sworn to secrecy.  Avery?  Your mother.”

“I’ll keep an eye on things.  I don’t know the specifics for access anyway.”

“I wouldn’t know who to tell,” Avery’s mom said.  “I’d talk to the other girls or Jasmine, but if you want me to keep quiet-”

“Please,” Cliff said.  “To be safe.”

“Okay.”

They walked into the simulated Promenade.

Peter explained, “Test runs with various forms of movement didn’t change anything about the Wolf’s arrival.  But we have a theory.  We can stop the clock by interfering with the various clocks on display, we can hang off the edge, we can restrict comings and goings by holding onto ropes and wires, we can trade, we can change our fortunes by taking on certain errands…”

“Go over that one with me?” Avery asked.

“Ticket booth, post office, bookstore-”

Nina gripped Zed’s jacket in two places.

“-shop that stands out above the rest, and a few other places we’ve been able to identify.  Go in, there’s ways to take on a job.  While you’re in that job, you can break from rules you were following.  Like the set pattern of movement.”

Avery nodded.  “Okay.”

“Deliver a letter to someone who’s moving in an odd pattern, get a cow to the butcher’s, when it has its own movement… things that seem like more trouble than they’re worth, but I’ll get back to that.”

Avery nodded.  She glanced up at her mom, who was looking around.

“You get the outfits as boons, and Promenade currency,” Jude said.  “They change your outfit on the spot, send you on your way.  I got a pretty spiffy postman outfit.”

“Postman Jude?” Avery asked.

“Tess insists on calling it cute.  It’s spiffy.”

“I think if you’re that spiffy, enough you’re saying it twice, that makes me think you deserve respect.”

“Thank you,” Jude said.  He turned.  “Wait.  It’s Snowdrop saying that.”

“It’s a good word to go to,” Snowdrop said.  “Evokes positive, cool sentiment.”

Jude groaned.

“I like ‘spiffy’ as an idea,” Zed said.

“Does the outfit have associated powers?” Avery asked.

“Relax some rules of Paths, but tacks on some annoying side stuff.”

“That sounds pretty good.”

“Can be,” Jude said.  “Even if we stick with this, we might end up with a situation like Wonderkand has, where they give their best members magic outfits.”

“Neat.  I might like to grab those so I have ’em.”

“We were hoping you would,” Cliff said.  “We were going to ask Walt to test things, put his familiar in an outfit, see if he could leech the protections while letting the familiar handle the errand.  But things are shaky, obviously, and it gets iffy, if we’re asking Walt to run the path.”

“It’s good because his familiar was a resident of the Paths, once,” Peter said.

“What was it?” Avery asked.

“Envoy of Doubt.  Lurked the paths, offered a deal to people.  Like a localized little Hungry Choir thing, but it was about suspicion and doubt.  Let people choose something, and they’d get the benefit of a doubt, or people would ignore key evidence, or they could choose a statement or truth, and people would give it a hard, doubting second look.  Let criminals get away with crimes, let certain lies travel around the world before the Truth had his shoes on, let people ensure someone didn’t get away with something.  But it was a double-edged sword.  Whatever you asked for, it’d come back at you, for something you’d said or done.  Could be in the past, retroactive, could be now, could be in the future.”

“Seems like a pretty raw deal,” Avery said.

“An Envoy’s deals tend to be.  Like your Choir, not wanting too many people to succeed.  It becomes a question of finding the right people.  An academic who built their career on a false study, for example.  Or a crime boss about to see it all crumbling down.  Or a schoolchild who saw someone they hated get away with something.  Get desperate or hold enough hate in your heart, maybe the deal seems worth it.”

Avery looked up at her mom.  “So that’s a thing, huh?”

“I can’t imagine,” her mom said.  “But it sounds like it could be life ruining on both sides.  I could imagine myself doing it, if the wrong thing approached me on the wrong day.”

“Really?” Avery asked.

“Remind me to tell you about my worst university class ever, sometime.  I’m not a saint.  If there was a deal like that, to get rid of that professor I hated to the core of my being, on the worst day, before I dropped the class instead, took an extra year to finish?  Maybe.”

“It’s hard to imagine you hating anyone.”

“I’ll tell you sometime.  But I don’t want to distract from what you’re doing.”

“I thought it’d be handy for Musser, call him out on something, but it seems like it would backfire,” Avery said.

“It backfires on principle,” Jude said.  “That’s the whole idea.”

“I mean beyond that, you goofus.  Musser would turn it back on us, I think.”

“I’d rather not get into that,” Peter said.  “We’re trying to stay more neutral.  The offer to transport people out of Kennet, served both sides, it’s good.  This?  Not while Garricks can hear or be implicated, please.”

“Sorry.”

“Speaking more generally?  Was more of a thing in the old days.  Eye for an eye.  Doubt for a doubt.  Wound for a wound,” Peter said.  “Mostly we steer clear.  But the Envoy ended up on a Path, stranded there by someone who expected it to pay a price, got tangled up in that Path’s rules.  Happens a lot, apparently.  Walt rescued it.”

Avery frowned.  “Doesn’t that complicate investigating him?  Like how I was dealing with a Forsworn murderer?  Where we felt like we instinctively suspected him, so we pulled back and like, didn’t suspect him enough?”

“Wait, does it?” Jude asked.

Cliff smiled, turning to Avery’s mom.  “I like this girl.”

“Already accounted for,” Peter said.  “Let us worry about that?”

Avery nodded.

“Long story short, Walt’s familiar has enjoyed a fifty year vacation from their envoy duties with Walt, but they’re not friendly, it does some chores for him as he gets older, he mostly ignores it.  When he dies, they’ll go back to the job.  If Walt could run this path with more confidence, we would have tested it out.  But if you wanted to, we’d support you on a short visit, to see if Snowdrop can handle an errand, or if you can borrow from her to make it easier.”

“I’m not really comfortable running around on my own,” Snowdrop told him.  “I’m not great on the Paths.”

“Are the outfits transferrable?” Avery asked.  “Could I get a bookstore outfit-?”

“Yes,” Nina said.  “Sensible.”

“-and give it to Verona?  Since she’s starting a bookstore?”

“Also sensible.  Zed told me about that,” Nina said.

“I want to talk to you after about that,” Avery said.  “But can I?”

“Custom fit,” Jude said.  “Doesn’t work.  Outfits should grow up with you.”

“Huh, okay.”

“Exactly,” Cliff said.  “Anyway, errands are under Fortune.”

Avery counted.  “That’s Time with the clocks, Fate with the cords, War with the edge, Fortune with random jobs…”

“Used some hints and magic items to figure out one of the others,” Peter said.  “If you’re in the shade, or if you’re eating Promenade or Lost food, rules are relaxed, and if you’re eating in a shaded area, you’re free and clear until you’re done.”

“Sometimes the sunlight is rain and it’s staying dry,” Jude said. “It’s about shelter.”

“Right,” Avery said.

“This is all baffling,” Avery’s mom said.

“Weird place with weird rules,” Avery said.  “So if I sat down to tea with the old Lost ladies I saw?  I’d be okay?”

“Yep, kind of,” Cliff said.

“Kind of?” Avery asked.

“Get to that soon.  Anyway, there’s your Nature.  Two things for Nature, like with Fortune.”

“See the promenade entrance?” Jude asked, turning and pointing.

Avery turned.

“Everything inside is in shade,” Avery noted.

“We think it’s scaled,” Jude said.  “So big shade or great food, more protection.”

“Okay.”

“And we don’t know what Death is, but speculation is it’s to do with falling off or the exit,” Peter said.

“Makes sense,” Avery told them.  “Or the temporary exit?  Leaving and coming back?”

Cliff looked over.  “Could be.  Huh.  We could’ve been missing the forest while looking for individual trees, huh?”

“Which gets us to the catch,” Peter said.  “What we figure, partially validated by our test runs, is these things are a limited resource.  We think we get twelve.  That’d be twelve stops of the clock, or six wire pulls plus six edge hangs.  Could be two of each of the six.”

“Total, shared by everyone present,” Jude added.  “We think if I do most of this, use eight, you come on, you start, you inherit the eight.  And the Wolf comes from all sorts of directions.  Sometimes obvious, sometimes sneaky.  Path has to be clear of non-Lost before it resets the count.”

“And we need two trips on the train?” Avery asked.  “If that’s the Death one?  For departure?”

Peter nodded.

“We were going to test it out,” Cliff said.  “Came to the Promenade from another Path, found Wonderkand at the door.  We traced things back, asked Zed.”

“They were tipped off.”

“And that’s where we’re at,” Peter said.  “The shelter and food thing under Nature and the fact we can either run errands or barter under Fortune… means there’s a chance there’s multiple ways to trigger each one.  We want to test, make sure it’s really a count of twelve.  Then we were saying we’d want to keep it down to eight things triggered out of twelve, so we don’t stumble on a few more and get the Wolf after us.  Which means keeping a core team.  Anyone else, they rope out at the first sign of trouble.  For the core group, we stop the flow of things only if we’re in a pinch.”

“If bartering for the tickets is Fortune, we’re potentially even more limited,” Cliff noted.  “Four people is eight barters.  If you count the departures… we’re already over.”

“Have to barter and travel separately,” Snowdrop said.

“Or that,” Cliff said.  “That’s a pain to coordinate, isn’t it?”

“Not at all,” Snowdrop said.

“All of us landing on spaces adjacent to someone who’ll tell us how to get tickets, in the same move?” Peter asked.

“Which, if you break it down?” Avery asked.  “If we barter twice, have to run an errand each time, potentially the same places that give out the outfits, leave twice on trains, assuming I’m right…”

“Already that’s six, with a lot of coordination,” Peter said.  “And I think I get your drift.”

“It sounds really restrictive,” Avery noted.  “It’s sure looking like we have to do two things for each of the six pillars.”

“Rumors from people like Avery’s tea ladies are the surefire way to know who to go to in order to barter for tickets,” Jude said.  “Or we can just try multiple times and keep the two uses for other things.”

“So there’s leeway,” Cliff said.

“Either way, if we assume we want to do this by the book, and it’s looking a lot more rigid than it seemed… that’s sitting down to eat or drink and get rumors, run the errand to get the means of getting the ticket, use the ticket to leave, run the other path, repeat… that’s eight,” Peter said.

“What do you want to bet stopping the clock and doing the edge hang become necessary?” Avery asked.  “Nine and ten, then eleven and twelve.”

“Wolf,” Jude said.  “Might be Wolf after twelve, we don’t know.”

Avery ran her fingers through her hair, before remembering she was a digital avatar.  “Miss might have navigated it okay because she’s Lost and some of this is intuitive.  Like, Snowdrop seems comfortable with the idea of running the errand.”

“Except the animal herding one, that one sounds awful,” Snowdrop said.

“So that might be it?” Avery asked.  “You move like a chess piece of your own design, avoiding the smiling Others who are trying to interfere, following a routine.  Eat in the shade and get a rumor, do a job to get what you need to pay for the ticket, use the ticket, travel.”

Probably stopping along the way to pause time and get the lay of the land, organize your next moves,” Peter said.  “Probably using the edge to avoid a smiling Other in a pinch.”

“Take too long, too many others build up.  Rush, you run the risk of making a mistake,” Avery said.  “There’s leeway.  A lot of this stuff, you can buy yourself flex.  So if we recognize a Lost on the Promenade as someone who barters, that saves us a step.”

“And gives us one thing we can use- a pause, a rumor, a bartering for an item…” Peter said.

“I bet-” Avery paused.  “Yeah.  Okay, a lot of this, it rewards being Lost.  Being native to the area.  Probably to the point they don’t think about it.  If you move perfectly you don’t need to use the edge to dodge smiling Others, if you’re moving easily, according to the natural flows, you probably don’t care about pausing for time to figure out the lay of the land.  Errands are easier…”

“And, to build on the second big hint Miss provided,” Zed cut in.  “There’s a logic to how things are laid out- the shops move between when you leave and come back.  Probably second nature to a Lost, who can see things by weird angles.”

“Can it be second nature to us?” Peter Garrick asked.  “Or do we need to borrow help from Walter’s envoy, Avery’s opossum, or one of the familiars one of our less experienced runners have?”

“I did something up in the computer, to show you guys the arrangements.  Nina deciphered the patterns in signs and symbols.  Want to guess how many special shops there are?”

“Magic number seems to be twelve,” Peter said.

“Yep.  Here, let me show you the permutations.”

“Can I borrow Nina while you do that?”  Avery asked.  To the Garricks, she explained, “Zed already ran this by me, to check if it lined up okay with my practical experience.”

“That’s fine, I think,” Zed said.  “I can put you two on a separate line.  I’ll bug you if we need you?”

“Shouldn’t be long,” Avery said.

The Garricks and Zed faded out.  Their voices became muffled and quiet.

“Hi,” Avery said, to Nina.

The librarian animus smiled.  “Hello.  It sounds like your friend is doing exciting things.  Hello, Kelsey.”

“Nina is an animus.  Like the dog tags.  But she collects information, reads and collects books, shares knowledge.”

“That sounds a lot more positive.”

“Verona’s setting up a bookstore,” Avery said.  “And occasionally a market stall.”

“I know!  Zed told me.  She asked him about PSBN numbers and registering obscure texts.  Made my day.”

“I think she was inspired a bit by you.”

“That makes my day again.”

“I’ve already kind of got a Christmas present for her, but I was also sort of wondering, in the interest of doing two things at once… would you happen to be able to help us figure out additional lines or sources of books?”

“How many days do you have for me to prattle at you?” Nina asked.

“I should leave in, like, half an hour, to eat dinner.  So… one forty-eighth of a day?”

“Okay,” Nina said, unfazed.  “I want a book from her bookstore to keep.”

“We get vetoes,” Avery said.  “Just in case there’s some, I dunno, Excalibur of books buried in a box.”

“That’s a possibility?” Nina asked.  “Well now I have to visit.  Even if I don’t get a book.  Vetoes, okay.”

“To expedite, I swear that if I can’t work out payment after talking to Verona, I won’t share or use what you say,” Avery said.

“That works.  And what do you need?”

“I- a supply line of books?”

“I need more details.  What does she have?”

“Books from a Founded place.  Books that were never written.  Some goblin books.  One or two Abyssal ones she was excited about.  Occasional weird practitioner texts.”

“I’ve been to a few of those.  Always fun.  That sounds wonderful.”

“Most of the books are bartered for with local Lost, but we’re not sure how long that holds up if she gets a customer base.  Or, like, if she only sells so many books a day, how sustainable is that?”

“I’m not a businesswoman.  I’m a connoisseur of knowledge.”

“Yeah.”

“But I assume she needs someone willing to sell her books she can sell on at a profit.”

“Yes.  She might be willing to break even, just for the power she gets from selling.”

“What are your priorities?” Nina asked.

“First off, honestly, just getting people to the market, or supplying stuff for the market.  Second, good books for Verona’s store, if they’re not willing to come or work with us.”

“I can tell you of one bookseller who is struggling, his area’s changed.  Human, collects obscure texts.  Can I have your email?”

“You can’t have it, but I’ll tell you it,” Avery said, before reciting her old email she still had from her old school district.

“And sent.  It’ll be waiting for you later.  Another bookstore in Montreal, it’s run by an elf.”

“Like, big elf, little elf?  What’s an elf?”

“Fae-related, but not a fairy.  More… other direction, I would say,” Nina explained.  “If small-f fairies are mischief, small thinkers, and temporary, not very prone to writing, Fae are schemers, complex thinkers, and lasting… they can write some wonderful poetry and clever pieces of literature, but often they’ll be distracted making the book pretty instead of making the contents richer.”

“Of course.  I can see that.”

“Elves are at the opposite end of the spectrum from the small-f fairies.  Deep thinkers, removed, very serious, rooted in the oldest places in the deepest parts of realms, particularly the most remote and intense Fae woodlands, mountains, chasms…”

“Huh.”

“They write epics.  I am an avid reader, as you can imagine.”

“No way,” Snowdrop said.

“It’s true,” Nina said.  “And even those elven epics can be a little much for me.  Take from that what you will.  But everyone should read one in their lifetime.  I imagine most mortals can only get through one in their lifetime.”

“But about the bookstore?”

“Oh!  It’s lovely.  Quaint, very pretty, the disguised elf that runs it is miserable, being as close to humanity as he is, misery that deep gives the store quite the atmosphere, it soaks into the wood and paper.  He’s created side rooms and dug a hole that goes about three miles deep, with bookshelves all the way down.  Obscure texts and odd bits of writing throughout.  It’s marvelous.  It’s how he whiles away his eternity.”

“Huh.”

“He barely stays in business, I worry so.  He needs to earn money to keep the store and avoid being homeless, but he hates having customers.  Drives them away.  Except for me.  I do count as an exception.”

“And he’d sell to the market?  Or Verona?”

“I imagine he’d prefer it!  I’ve told him how email works.  He does some business online.  I’ve sent you his information.”

Nina ran through about four more vendors and sources for books.  Avery politely took the information for one bookstore of cursed books, but privately suspected she’d avoid following up on that.

Zed was signaling them, and Nina was getting into some weird stuff, so they cut it short.

“Get what you needed?” Zed asked.

“Supporting the market in Kennet,” Avery told him.  “I think so.  I owe Nina a book, or I can’t use the information I got.”

“Let me know if I can facilitate that,” Zed said.  “We covered the stuff I talked to you about.”

“Cool,” Avery said.  “So what’s next?”

“We need to work fast,” Peter Garrick said.  “Or Wonderkand will snipe us.  They’ll figure out key parts of this in hours, where it took us days.  Plan was to run this four or five times, do a practice run or two with you, then run it proper, in a serious attempt at finishing.”

Avery nodded.  “But?”

“But we can’t afford that.  Once we’ve rooted out our sellout, we’re going to cram in as much as we can, to figure out the parts we haven’t sorted yet.  Probably pulling an all-nighter, maybe two.  Working in shifts.  We were talking before the call, want you as part of it.  Since hammering out what we did here, I believe it even more.”

Avery frowned.  “Going that hard, there’s room for more errors.”

“There is.”

“I’ve got so much going on… I wasn’t planning on devoting this much time to the Promenade.”

“I said before, the betrayal of one of our own?  Not even a once in a lifetime thing.  The Promenade?  Same deal.  And it comes down to the next few days.  Can we get this and secure it?  If we can finish it, we can set up protections and lock it down against other practitioners on multiple vectors.  If they beat us to it?  They will do the same.  It’s how they operate.”

“We’ll pay,” Cliff told her.  “You’re competent, you have a familiar-”

“You guys have some Lost familiars, right?”

“Some.  But we don’t have many good Path runners with workable familiars who we can get up to speed on time,” Cliff said, turning to Peter.

“It should be underlined, and said emphatically, I’m unworkable,” Snowdrop told Avery.

“It’s really a lot,” Avery said.  “At a bad time.”

“The way I see this happening?” Peter ventured, arms folded.  “Right now, we’re a mess.  Betrayal in our ranks.  If we do this, we’re doing it with me, Cliff, Reece, our wives as a core team.  We go in expecting maybe four of the core members to make it through.  Our kids and extended family, minus the traitors, is in there to support and act as relays, keep track, be eyes on the scene, either on the field or hanging back in the shade of the Promenade entrance.”

“If we board a train, they leave the Promenade, let it reset properly, come back.”

“If one of us gets in a bad spot, cornered, whatever, we rope out.  Next in line takes up the slack.  We can pass the tickets on if we have to.”

Avery nodded.

“You’re quick, you’re powerful, you’re good at this, you know the Promenade, you have a unique relationship to Lost, you have inside information, you have a familiar that may be key as far as utility goes.  You’re probably on par with Reece or Shane in the old days, Walt in his prime, maybe you’re stronger.  So if it comes down to it?  We want you on this. One of our core team has to drop?  You pick up where they left off, best you can.  Excluding some eldest kids, you’re up on the list,” Peter said.

“I hear you, I appreciate this, but like… you’re talking about going hard at this.  Forty-eight hours or more of drilling this, problem solving, working out the rules, and I’m not sure I have those forty-eight hours.”

“Forty thousand,” Peter said.  “U.S. dollars.  You give us two days and your full, undistracted effort.  If Wonderkand beats us to it, then that’s that.  You still get the money.  And you get a share of whatever turns up at the end.”

“Which is guaranteed to be good,” Snowdrop said.

“Hold on,” Avery’s mom said.  “How dangerous is this?”

“Like being a firefighter, I’d say,” Avery said.  “We can take precautions but there’s no guarantee.  Snowdrop makes a good point- there’s no guarantee what’s at the end will be good.  Paths can be really random.  Sootsleeves’ path was really hard but the reward was garbage.  If you pay me money and it turns out to be worthless, won’t you resent me?”

“No.  That’s the gamble we take,” Cliff said.  He put his hands on his son’s shoulders, gripping the fabric there.  “This feels like there’s gold.  It feels important.  It’s too connected to everything else.  I believe the gamble is worth it.  Forty thousand?”

Avery shook her head.  “It’s not like that.”

Cliff held up a finger, then pulled something out to write something down, showing Peter.

Peter nodded.

“It’s not about money.”

“Seventy-five thousand.  We can’t go much further.  Those are our coffers mostly emptied, a few belts tightened.”

“If it ends up being that Shane betrayed us, we can have him sell his house to pay me back,” Peter Garrick muttered, but the mutter carried at almost a normal speaking volume.

“If it isn’t him, we’d regret any deal we made promising that house money,” Cliff said.

“Yeah,” Peter said, with resentment rich in his voice.  “What do you think?”

“It’s not about money,” Avery said.

“And I think you’re pressuring Avery,” her mom said.  “This is bewildering to me, and she’s fourteen.”

“I’m okay,” Avery said.

“Ave,” Jude said.

“Heya.”

“What is this about?” he asked.

“It’s once in a lifetime,” Peter said.

“Let her talk?  Let her answer?” Jude asked.

“It’s my friends.  They’re up against crazy powerful stuff.  The Wild Hunt, Musser, the Carmine Exile- I’m pretty sure the Exile’s listening in.  He’s been watching us.  If I abandoned them, right now, it’d be like I was-”

She fidgeted, shaking her head a little.  “I already abandoned them by leaving Kennet.  But the idea was, I’d be helping them from the flanks.  And the market, everything else… even this, it’s kind of a long shot, but maybe we solve the Promenade and we find a solution to problems like Musser or the Wild Hunt.  It’s always in the back of my head.”

“So if you agreed to our deal, took money, ignored them and what they’re dealing with…” Jude trailed off.

“I’d be betraying them just as much as the person who sold out your family to Wonderkand, feels like.”  Avery’s voice went quieter the longer she talked, not that it mattered, here.

“What if we took the seventy-five thousand and invested it?  Bought the help of people who could assist your friends, while you help us?”

“I mean, like, you could spend seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars, and you could hire people, but like, Musser, I’m pretty sure he has more money than that. So he’ll spend more and hire better people, kind of.  And that’s just Musser.  The Wild Hunt’s different.  Weirdo practitioners they can’t really engage with, different.”

“And you need to help,” Jude said.

“I mean, I don’t want to imply I’m worth more than a seventy five thousand dollar mercenary.  But is there a substitute for someone who’s connected to Kennet, rooted in it, power-wise?  Someone who knows what’s going on, who sorta knows what we’re up against?  I care in a way even someone with a big payday coming couldn’t.  Even if I was totally and completely useless, I feel like I’d owe it to them to be there.”

“A lot of that, it’s why we want you on the Promenade,” Peter replied.

“I know.”

“Can we count on you the day of?  When we try it for real?”

“That’s the plan.  I don’t know what’s going to happen though.  I can devote some time, I think, but I can’t give you two days of time where I won’t be able to regularly check in, can’t coordinate allies, can’t help pull some of the moves I’ve been helping to set up.”

“What will it take?  More people?  Tertiary Garricks?  Breaks between problem solving attempts and analysis?  This is a valuable learning opportunity.”

“Can I interrupt?” Avery’s mom asked.

Avery wondered if they were regretting letting her bring her mom in.

“We’re pressed for time, the situation’s messy,” Peter said.

“You’re pressuring my daughter, things are heated, I’m not getting the impression you’ll take no for an answer.  This is veering into business, and as much as I don’t understand a lot of this, I understand business, and the need for cooler heads.”

“It’s not that.  Look, what do you do?”

“I co-run the Thunder Bay branch of a national business, researching, making, marketing, distributing, and selling products through our public storefronts.”

“Okay.  I was going somewhere with that question, but that threw me for a loop.  What do you make?”

“Under our original branch, we made some casual wear, work clothes, jackets, and winterwear.  We absorbed another company and now we also make athletic apparel, underwear, swimsuits, and casual wear.  Our R&D work currently includes a contract with the Canadian Government designing materials and fabrics for spacesuits.”

“Really?” Avery asked.

“Yep,” her mom said.  “We’re not the only ones doing it, but it’s still a pretty big deal.”

“That’s pretty cool.”

“Are you Vikare?  Dassler?” Peter asked.

“Working on getting there,” Avery’s mom replied.

“I guess if I was going to draw an analogy, we’re up against those guys.  We’ve got a recipe for what sure looks like, in this analogy, the miracle material.  There’s no guarantee, but we’ve spent generations getting to this point, we’ve had people die or disappear, and I know that’s going to set off all the ‘mom’ alarm bells.”

“Doesn’t help,” Avery’s mom said, in that weird, digital-space kind of quiet.

“All to get here, hoping for this one shot at something that looks this good.  Hell, we’d be happy to be in a spot to tackle something that looks half this good.  We’ve got maybe three, four practitioners who I’d call A-grade.  A-plus, A, A-minus, four of us, let’s say.  I’m one, Cliff, Jude’s dad, is another.  Handful of Bs, mostly our older kids.  Some Cs.  Some Ds, some Fs on the fringes.”

Avery’s mom nodded.  “Thank you.  That helps.”

“We’re allowing ourselves two days before we try a serious run at this.  That might be too generous, they might still beat us to it.  Because they’ve got A-plus guys by the dozens.  They’ve got better than A-plus people, handpicked from all around the world.  All we’ve got is our head start, and we’re rapidly losing it.”

“You’re angry at the betrayal, you’re desperate, you’re willing to empty your bank account,” Avery’s mom said.  “To get a teenager on your side.”

“If we’ve got three or four A-grade people, bringing one more in is probably what makes or breaks this.”

“And if you come at this heated and rushed, you’re going to make mistakes.  If you panic, then that headstart will disappear fast.  Circular arguments here waste time more.”

“What, then?” Peter asked.  His arms were folded, but the one hand that was visible was clenched, adding to the effect.

“We’re going to hang up on you shortly.  I’m going to see my kids are fed, that includes Avery, which serves all our purposes.  It sounds like you have things you need to get handled that you’d be doing if Avery agreed right now, agreed later, or never agreed to.  Sort out your family betrayal.  Batten down the hatches, make sure there are no more leaks, get everyone organized, sort out what you need to do.”

Peter shook his head slightly, looking away.

“It has to be done.  It’s going to hurt, it’s tough, but you know you can’t move forward until you’ve managed that much.  If you’re running this like a family business, and the family part is bitter, focus on the business part.  They’re fired, they get escorted to the door with no opportunity to sabotage or take information with them.  Send them their things later.  Sort out the family part of it later.  This project is a big deal, so have your arguments and the hashing-out next week.  Or next year.”

“Might need to secure leaks further,” Avery said.  “Bindings or guarding them with Others.”

Lock them in the cellar.

“Yeah,” Peter said.

“I know that’s not super legal, or super cool, but with this much on the line-”

“Let’s not dwell on that,” Avery’s mom interrupted her.  “That’s your business, handle your business.  In the meantime, I am planning discussions with each of my children, from my nearly-nineteen year old to my seven year old, about their plans, work, and projects.  I’m going to talk to Avery about this.  Clear heads, no pressure.  I need more details about this Promenade business.  If you think you can help us with what we need help with, reach out with new offers.  If we say no, or offer a partial yes, you need to accept that.  If she’s saying not helping her friends and her hometown would be a betrayal she’s not willing to make, listen.”

Peter Garrick sighed.

“Talk to each other, sort it out.  If you have an offer to make to her, run it by me too.”

“Toad, Miss, Nicolette, and Zed were doing a pretty good job helping me with the last offer.”

“And now you’ve got one more person in your corner,” her mom said.  “If that’s okay?”

“It’s great.  Yeah.”

“I was planning on making dinner, but this ran long.  Takeout?  Celebrate exams being over?”

“Sure,” Avery replied.  “I know you said you wanted to try other places, but Sheridan would go bananas for Overloaded.”

“We’ll make an exception for tonight.  Make things a little easier.  Want to hang up?  We’ll talk after dinner.”

“I can take you off the call,” Zed said.

“Please,” Avery said.

“Good luck,” her mom said, to the Garricks.  “I mean that.  We’ll be in touch.”

🟂

Avery paged through the notes the Garricks had sent her.  They were running the Promenade now, trying to work out the specifics about what counted and what didn’t.  Every time they hit twelve, it seemed like, the Wolf would appear shortly after.  Each time was a close call.  They had to simultaneously rope out before she could block their ability to leave.

It was nerve-wracking to just read the notes.

Her mom, done talking to Sheridan, sat down at the dining room table, scooting over to see the laptop.  Avery angled it so she could read better.

“It’s not your responsibility.”

“But-”

“You have such a big heart.  And I know you want to help people.  But don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.”

“It’s a lot of money.”

“Seventy-five thousand dollars.  It is.  Invested, it could go so far.  It’s not life-changing amounts of money, though.  I know it may seem that way.”

Avery shrugged, clicking on a new email and downloading the attachment.  “Money doesn’t matter that much to me.  I mean, like, I don’t pay bills or have a place of my own, exactly, but…”

“I know.  But at the same time, I think when they started talking about big money, it changed the conversation.  Maybe money doesn’t matter to you, but it sounds important, it is important to so many.”

“Hmm.”

“And because it sounds that important, because it sounds like they were willing to bankrupt themselves, it makes you feel more guilty.”

“Maybe, yeah.”

“And you’re sitting here, agonizing, wanting to go to them to help?”

“Maybe.  Yeah.”

“Getting very little done, when you have a lot to do?”

Avery nodded, then decided, “maybe I’m a bit burnt out.  A bit overloaded.  I want to help the others, but like… can’t deal with the Wild Hunt, can’t deal with Charles or the kids at the school, can’t deal with Maricica or help Gilkey.  I could maybe do the Promenade prep…”

“Except you’re burnt out.  In a place to make mistakes.  Especially with that five figure sum hanging over your head.  Pressure to do well.”

“Yeah, but I’d be out of touch if the others needed me but they don’t need me, so…”

“So sleep.  Tomorrow’s another day.  What’s your priority?”

“I don’t know.  Reading more of the Promenade stuff.  That’s day after tomorrow.  Market stuff is the only thing I’m doing that feels productive.  Finding people willing to work with or through the Kennet market.”

“Why is that important?”

“Because it makes us bigger, harder to bite into.  Lucy’s words.  Because it’s opening doors.  It’s connecting us to people.  And that’s all stuff I value.  And I can try seeing if there’s a way to get around the Lord that’s making it hard to get to Kennet for Christmas, while I’m over that way.”

“Is there something you can do about that tomorrow?”

Avery nodded.

“Then let’s do that.”

“Us?”

“Yes,” her mother said, sounding tired.  “I’d like to participate.  Especially if you’re doing business.”

“Why, hmmm,” Avery frowned.  She looked at her mom in the dimmed dining room lighting.  “Why?  I had the vibe that before, you kind of wanted to be my dose of normal.  A reality check.”

“Hmmmm,” her mom hummed, considering, shifting in her seat.  “I did.  Couple things.”

“Things?”

“The big reason I asked to participate in that meeting you had before dinner is a coworker had a crisis today.  Her son was traveling to meet someone for work, riding a motorbike in winter, he fell and went under a car.  They didn’t know if he’d live.  It shook me.  It’d shake anyone, seeing a mother react to news like that.”

“Yeah.  Yeah, for sure.  Verona’s described something like that.  With someone I might be meeting, even.”

“It left me thinking, if you’re up to something dangerous- like riding a motorbike in icy, wet winter, if something happened, could I make peace with it?  And my answer was no.”

“Huh.  I’ve debated stuff like that before.  Asking if I could be okay just… not doing this.  Matthew especially has nagged us, saying we don’t have to be Kennet’s heroes.”

Her mother reached out to stroke Avery’s hair.  “My biggest problem with this was how intangible it felt.  Even seeing it, it didn’t feel real.”

“Does it feel real now?”

“It does.  It might sound stupid, but hearing them put a dollar amount on your help… it helped clarify things.  Made it something easier to process.”

“It kind of backfired for them, then, huh?”

“It might have,” her mom said, smiling.  “Instead of staring at the computer screen feeling helpless and frustrated, why don’t you go sleep, okay?”

Avery nodded.  The only thing that really got her up out of her chair was knowing she could and should call Nora for a before-bed conversation.

Standing, she typed out a message.

“Tell them I’m coming,” her mom said.

“It’s, uh, different,” Avery said.

“Is it a problem?”

“It’s just… like, the Garricks had their issues today.  Betrayal.”

“They did.”

“And that’s awful.  But this?  It’s the last big meeting I can arrange, besides some stuff on the phone with these people Nina mentioned.  Counts for a lot.  But this is the den of awful.”

“Do you really want to do business with the den of awful?”

Avery thought.  “Yeah?”

“Then let’s talk it over tomorrow, before the meeting.”

Avery typed out another line, suggesting her mom was there to help Awareify things and keep it innocent, like an unofficial ‘no weapons at the meetup’ thing.

Then she closed the laptop and sorted out her cords, before giving her mom a one-armed hug and going upstairs to bed.

Time was running out.  She could prepare, but it was like practice for sports.  She could focus on teamwork, she could practice, plan, she could make sure her equipment was good, but at the end of the day, other people decided when the game started.

She could only do her best from that point on.

She changed into clothes for sleeping, dialed Nora, and then lay in bed, sideways, laptop by her head.  Sheridan was awake, headphones in, so she figured she was good to talk.

“Heyyy,” Avery murmured.

“Heya,” Nora replied.  “I was halfway convinced I’d get Avery pictures instead of this video call, after you talked about being busy.”

“Ended up being a lot before dinner and then a talk with my mom about plans.”

“Us plans?”

“Plans in general.  Life plans.  Then talk about burnout, me wanting to help people.”

“Oh.”

“Why?” Avery asked.

“I was going to talk about stuff but-”

“Talk.  I want to hear.”

Nora paused.  She shifted position, until she was lying down, head sideways in her laptop’s view, resting on the pillow, matching Avery.  “I came out to my dad today.”

“Oh wow, hey.  Did it go okay?”

Nora nodded.

“That’s so good. I’m so glad.”

And from there, Nora had fifty minor things she wanted to process, and things she’d told Avery before that Avery didn’t mind hearing again, about worries, and plans, and hopes.

But she was okay, and it was positive, and it was nice.

A message came in while Nora was talking.  Confirming the appointment.  Inside the lion’s den.

Avery replied with a key combination to put a thumbs up in the window box, and then sent, before going back to listening and talking with Nora.

The conversation went on for twenty minutes- about halfway through, Sheridan settled for bed, and Avery had to switch to typing.

And then Nora fell asleep, video feed on for five more minutes before timing out or something.

Avery moved her phone to her bedside table and settled in, turning off her light.

She wasn’t sure if the lesson for the day was that she needed to back off and do self-care more when other people were dealing with their own stresses.  If it was, she was ignoring it.  She had to help Nora, she wanted to support the Garricks, she wanted to help Gilkey.

It was just a question of finding the best way to do all of that.  And talking to her mom, she knew that if she helped the Garricks with doing stuff that, really truly, she was not that much better at than the average Garrick, she’d be less useful for them on the day of.  It was striking balances, figuring out what to prioritize, knowing what she couldn’t tackle.  Like the metal spike possibly being Maricica’s weak point.

But if she could set up these market connections, that helped.  Opening doors, making connections, making it inconvenient to attack or co-opt Kennet… other stuff.  It put tools into the hands of Lucy and Verona.  Then she just had to trust them.

Musser had struck a pattern, trying to take lordships and use the momentum from everything prior to deal the knockout blow to the last few threats.  He’d stumbled right at the end.

Now she was doing something similar with business and tying practitioner businesses to Kennet.  Fairy markets, goblin traders, practitioner booksellers, an elf bookseller, the Heroic market Gilkey had been near… and the lion’s den.

Last of all was a group of people, rendered powerless, not even equipped to work with the major players to tackle the situation.  Or at least, they weren’t deemed equipped, because they were primarily women.  Some had taken up various new businesses and magic craftsmanship, trying to find a way forward in this new dynamic, and Avery was in a position to throw them a lifeline.  Every benefit of the moves she’d been making with the markets was magnified here, in a massive, huge way.  If she could make it work.

Just had to convince them to help take the Dropped Call out of the picture, or moved to a less inconvenient spot on the highway.  Had to convince them to do business.  Even in a small way.

The stakes of it all left her wired, thoughts flying through her brain.  The call with Nora hadn’t done enough to ease tension or relax her.

Snowdrop handled it, passing on some drowsiness, rousing herself to go check on goblin business, starting her shift, while helping to put Avery to sleep.

The people she was going to be doing business with were the Whitts, the lesser Mussers, the Kennedys, and members of lesser families that had all banded together in close proximity to one another, because Charles’ Lordships were awful places for residents there.  Avery had been in touch with members of each group.  Members of families or family branches who’d had everything screwed up when Charles had pulled his stunt with the Lordships.  People who struggled to travel without being attacked, or had business grind to a halt.  The Blue Heron was shut down and didn’t seem like it would be revived again soon.

They were Musser’s people.  Musser’s ignored people.

A long shot.  Dangerous.  Messy.  Her mom would be there, to see the worst of practitioner society.  But if she could make it work, she could be at peace, more or less, that she’d done what she could to set the others up for victory.  And then she could seek out her own, with the Promenade.


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Crossed with Silver – 19.12

Verona

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The hull of the boat scraped across the ice, then grated against the rocks of the shore.  Tashlit swam and pulled it up the rest of the way.  Soaking wet, her clothes and bits of her flesh took on a frosty glaze that built up as more moisture oozed out over it.

When things were steady, Verona stood, groaning.  Even with blankets folded beneath her, it was a long time to spend mostly sitting down, with the dinghy’s curved bottom making it hard to even put her feet down flat.

She’d made herself a nest in the bow to sleep last night, and unpacked it, sorting things out.  Tashlit reached over, putting a hand on Verona’s shoulder, and Verona looked over.

Tashlit gestured between herself and the blanket-nest, then pushed at her stiff face-skin and freezing hair before reaching out a hand.

“You sure?  You don’t want to come with?”

Tashlit indicated Verona, then made a grasping gesture that closed into a fist she thumped against her heart.

“I… no.  I wouldn’t mind company, but it’s not obligatory.  If you’re more comfortable hanging out here, or heading into town, that’s cool.”

Tashlit shrugged, then gestured some more.

“Stand back, hold off, fist… uhhh…” Verona interpreted.  “I don’t need a bodyguard.  I don’t know that there’s a ton you can do if this goes bad.  It’s okay.  It’s been nice talking, though.  Kind of a surprise camping trip sleepover?”

Tashlit nodded, then mimed carrying.

“Umm, sure.  Just let me get sorted?  Like, a lot sorted.  I need to clear my head.”

Tashlit nodded, and began folding blankets.

Verona made a brief stop in the trees, used snow elsewhere to wet her hands and wipe her face clean, running fingers through hair, then jogged back to warm her hands on a thermos that still had some alchemical heat in it.  She got something to drink, gulping down the rest of the water in a thermos, grabbed her bag, and made sure she had everything together.

Tashlit gestured, one arm extended, the other hand moving- drawing a bow.

“That is a concern.  Uhhh, come with, at least to start?”

Tashlit nodded, then got her own stuff.  She took the thermos of alchemical heat and tucked it in the front of her coat to help defrost herself, steam rising lightly off her face and hair as the open container blew up and out.

As they moved away from shore, Verona could see a large, rangy rabbit or hare bent over the neck of a dead coyote.  Its face was crimson, incisors digging in, tearing, pulling out strings of gore it did its best to gulp down.  It was thin enough there wasn’t any padding, and muscles stood out just beneath the rusty fur, which was shot through with salt and pepper bits of white and black.

Further down, on the other side of the path, a group of small birds were, to varying amounts, either eating or perching atop a dead bear.  It looked like its eyes had been ruined- clawed or pecked out.

“There’s supposed to be a sign, if I remember right.  This works,” Verona said, giving a the carnivorous rabbit and flock of bloody songbirds a good bit of space, by traveling an ‘S’ down the path.

There were side routes visible now that hadn’t been there when they’d walked down to the boat yesterday.  Verona took one, hands in her pockets, earmuffs on, scarf around her lower face.  Tashlit walked beside her.

The snowy wooded path cut back through to the south end of Kennet, and its most dilapidated buildings.  Old red paint survived on the parts of the roof’s raised edge where snow didn’t survive, and more painted the way forward into a fractured image of Kennet.  To Verona, even without Sight, it looked like a window had broken, blood caught in the cracks, and she walked through and past the cracks that turned out to exist in three dimensions.  She saw a Kennet that had been put together post-breaking, reconfigured in such a way that she could cross on rooftops and fencetops to travel a straight line to a place in the middle of Kennet- an island that didn’t exist otherwise.

Something Abyssal rose up out of the snow as she crossed one rooftop.  A man, maybe, with a black sack cloth tied over his head, a black winter coat and sweater, and black pants and boots.  He had almost no distinguishing features, except for a mark painted on the mask in blood, dried to a dark brown that was only really visible when the light caught it.  Which it did, because most of the environment around them was white snow.  A series of indistinct smudges, a diagonal line with a horizontal line through the upper part, then a blot.

Maybe a representation of his weapon – where he had almost no distinguishing features, he carried a mangled torso on a mangled twist of metal and that had more than enough character.  The bottom end of the spear-like weapon was essentially a long spike of twisted metal, and the upper half was stabbed into the bottom end of a torso that had been ripped free of the lower body, intestines left to hang out and become a scabby, bloody ruin.  She still wore a shirt she’d worn when she was intact, with writing on it, reading just ‘Be’, and she was thin to the point she could be a feral ghoul.  Hair hung in her face, sticking to the bloody mess there, and her lipless mouth left teeth bared, gnashing and opening to show a tongueless mouth.  Arms grasped out blindly, reaching for him, to claw ineffectually at his winter coat, before reaching forward.

He moved the weapon, and the woman that was the ‘head’ of the weapon reacted, becoming more animated- snapping at the air, making hoarse sounds, and lashing out with long, damaged fingernails in a flurry of blind strikes.

Tashlit stepped between Verona and the bogeyman.

He reached under the cloth that covered his head, which had no eyeholes or mouth-holes, and pulled out a tube.  After some tugging to get it free, he pushed it through the tangled, blood-clotted mane of hair of the woman at the end of his weapon.

The voice was deep, strained, and it was pushed through a surgical tube.  “Do yo-sss-”

The word was cut off as the woman snapped her teeth, closing her mouth.  He gave the weapon a jostle, shaking her until it looked like she might get concussed.  She went more limp.

“Magic items?” he asked.

“I’ve got some,” Verona said.

He pointed at a blank, snowy patch of roof.

“I get them back after, right?”

He didn’t move or respond.

“I’d better get them back after.”

She moved things over into a plastic bag she’d kept in her bag for keeping things more dry, in case the boat tipped.  Sanguine stone, tattoo, wet tug rope, rasp, some goblin knick-knacks from the market, the pet morsel of flesh that had ended up being like a real-life Hatchawachi toy, a comb from the Abyss that spread Abyssal taint that she hadn’t found a use for, a whole load of alchemy stuff, and various components, which included misfires and failed efforts from her experiments in alchemy and dollmaking.

She paused, wondering if he’d notice if she left something behind, saw him blocking the way, and then finally removed some of the alchemy containers.  When she had, he moved aside, sitting down beside the spot where she’d put the items.  Maybe guarding it.

They had to navigate a bridge that was little more than a snow-crusted plank, cross a roof, and move down a snowbank that had piled up to slope from ground to the edge of the single-story house.

Through some woods, and then to the shore of the river, which was wider here.  Giving space for a small island with a cabin on it.  The water beneath the ice was a crimson-black, and the ice itself inherited a faint red tint.  Where the ice was cracked, it oozed like blood.  There was a band of uncracked ice, though, Verona noted.

No people, she realized.  She glanced over Kennet.  It was day, but the ski hills were unoccupied.  As if they were on a separate layer of reality.

They crossed the band of uncracked ice, which had more traction than she’d expected, and stepped onto the island, passing through some trees.

Two fires burned- one a campfire, the other a bonfire.  The snow around them that had melted had melted to a congealed blood texture, staining the earth.  Charles sat in a throne, partially turned to gaze into the fire with red eyes, hair and beard red and scruffy in a way Verona had to admit was pretty on point.

“Yo, Chuck.”

“Verona.  Would you rather do this inside or outside?”

“Tashlit’s here too.  Just in case you didn’t notice.”

“I’m omniscient in all matters relating to my duties,” he said, turning to look at her.  “I noticed.  You’ve played at being Carmine, in the Alcazar ritual.  You know.”

“For all I know, you’re a crummy Carmine?” Verona asked, shrugging.  “Stuff comes easy to me, I don’t know if you have the same experience as Carmine as I did.”

“The reason I didn’t mention her is because she didn’t come with seeing me in mind.  You wanted my audience?”

“Yeah.”

“Inside or outside?”

Tashlit touched Verona’s arm, then mimed.

“Translate?” Charles asked, sounding weary already.

“Man, Chuck, you really need to up your game here.  You can’t even communicate with your constituents?”

He gave her a very unimpressed look.

“Am I going to be safe after?  Should she stay to guard me from the Wild Hunt as I go from here to home?”

“The way out is protected.  It’s part of the arrangement.”

“I get home, I’m clear?”

He nodded.

Verona turned to Tashlit.  “Want to head out, tell the others I got here okay?  I’ll be a little bit, I think.”

Tashlit nodded.

“Here, let me grab some of my necessary stuff.”

She took some of the stuff Tashlit was carrying.  A small cooler, a canvas bag, and the tools she needed to put back in her dad’s basement.

“Actually, let me unload that…”

Tashlit nodded.  Verona opened the cooler, pulled out two things of beer, and set them aside.  Tashlit put some things inside for ease of carrying, and tucked it under one arm.

“Okay?”

Tashlit nodded.

“See ya.”

Tashlit nodded again.

“Inside?” Verona asked Charles.

He got up from his throne, put a hand on the backrest, and tossed it casually toward the cabin.  Partway through the mid-air arc, it folded into itself and then folded into itself again.  From three dimensional to two dimensional to one.  He led the way up the broad cabin steps, under the tin overhang that was propped up with full de-barked logs, and around to the door.

It vaguely resembled the cabin he’d been living in, that they’d raided while trying to get info on him.  And ones in that area.

“I noticed the beer.  Is it your intention to challenge me to a drinking contest?”

“You know, Chuck, you get pissy about me not realizing you’re omniscient, then you go and show you’re really not paying attention.  How do you not know I don’t drink beer?”

He opened the door.

“It’s a gift, Chuck,” she said, looking up at him.

“A bribe?”

“For it to be a bribe, don’t I have to be asking for something?”

“Aren’t you?” he asked.

She stepped inside.

Again, similar aesthetics to that cabin he’d holed up in, just outside Kennet, but extended out and up.  Durability over looks, but aesthetic sort of came together because of the simplicity of it all.  Wickerwork furniture with crimson canvas-ish material and cushions lashed to it.

Antlers were mounted over one door, and a diagram from one of the old Summoning texts Verona had perused was on the wall- she judged from that that it was a classic and recurring bit of imagery for anyone studying summons.  Among the pictures on the wall were some pictures of lakes and maps, and in each, the water was crimson.  An assortment of seven masks were arranged on one wall, hanging on hooks that made them ‘float’ a bit away from the wall’s surface.

In the main room, most of the furniture was arranged like furniture in a house’s living room would be, but it centered around a brickwork edifice in the middle, more open than a fireplace would be- accessible from most sides.  Maybe it was a forge.  Some seats were right next to it, and others were next to a long coffee table with a map of the region inlaid into it.

She put the two sixpacks of beer onto the coffee table.  “Kennet special here.  Six craft beers, two from Kennet above, they’re apparently pretty okay.  Two from Kennet below, they’re pretty much hard alcohol.  Brace yourself.  And two from Kennet found.  I have no idea if they’re good, I just grabbed whatever.”

He put his hand out, and the throne he’d flung finished being flung- unfolding the way it had folded to stop mid-air, his hand catching it at the backrest.  He set it down facing sideways, between the coffee table and the fire in the brickwork stove.

“And six of this one craft beer Matthew said you liked.”

“He got it for me as part of most of the shopping runs he did for me, after I said I liked it,” Charles said, with a weary burr in his voice.  He put his hand out so the flames from the fireplace licked his fingertips.  “I didn’t have the heart to tell him that most of the time, it would be retroactively spoiled.  Mold or fungus, or a bad batch.  I couldn’t enjoy it the times it was fine, either because I had to brace myself with every gulp, or there would be something else.  I’d be sick, or hurt.”

“You just let him keep spending that money?”

Charles heaved out a sigh.

“It wasn’t about the beer.”

“Wasn’t it?”

“It was about the kindness, the gesture.  It was one of the few things I had that the Forswearance couldn’t easily take from me.”

“I dunno if the prices have jumped since then and now, but maybe you could’ve told him and just assumed he was going to continue being a stand-up guy?  This was like, thirty bucks.”

“What are you here for, Verona?”

“Right this very moment?  To tell you that was a dick move, not letting him know his money was going down the drain.  And, you know, murdering or almost-murdering people I care about?  Fucking things up.  That too.”

“If that’s all, and you intend to annoy and insult me…”

“I brought you gifts.  Obviously that’s not all.”

“Sit?” he offered, gesturing.

She pulled her bag off and put more things down, but she didn’t sit.  “Stiff from the boat ride, still.  Long, cold weather, metal surfaces with no padding unless I padded them myself, awkward positions.”

“Bread and something to drink?  If you request hospitality, I’ll give it to you.”

“I don’t have to break bread with you for this to work, right?  I took the necessary steps to secure an audience, I get one, right?”

“Yes.  The hospitality too.  I tried to make it sound genuine, because it was, but even if it wasn’t genuine, if you asked for it, I’d have to give it to you as I hear you out.  An added layer of formality.”

She nodded.

Then she leaned over the back of the couch, forearms on the backrest, looking at him.  He still wasn’t wearing a shirt, still had a wild edge to him he hadn’t as a human.  The fire closer to him was redder.

“Was your plan to come here to expect your gainsaying to end just after you arrived?”

“No.  Felt like it would last longer.  Winter Court and all.”

“And you’d be right in that,” he said.  “I was ready to bring it up if you didn’t.  Are you here to challenge it?  I didn’t think there was anything that pressing.”

She shook her head.

“Alright then,” he said.  “That was my guess.”

When she didn’t fill the silence, he looked at the fire and mused aloud, “The moment Miss brought you to the Awakening ritual, I worried we’d end up enemies.  That I’d have to destroy you, or you’d have to destroy me.  Here we are.”

“Are you going to destroy me, Chuck?”

“Not today, I don’t think.  It depends on what you want.  Why are you here?”

“You don’t know?”

He gave her that unimpressed look again.

She meandered around the outer edge of the room a bit, mostly to stretch out the parts of her that were sore.  “Humans suck at being alone.”

“Don’t I know, hm?  I was forsworn.  Few things lonelier.”

“You had a friend bringing you beer you didn’t even drink, you murderous butthole.”

“Again with the insults.  Are you planning to assault my mind by giving me repeated whiplash?”

“I’ll get to that.  Look, being alone screws people up, yes?”

“Yeah,” Charles said.

“Turns their heads around.  We kind of need other people for perspective in a screwed up world.  Or we have to keep our worlds very simple.  It’s when someone’s got only their own imperfect thoughts to reference, it’s hard to get a reality check.  Thoughts and memories become imperfect copies based on imperfect copies and so on.  Magnifies the bad, leaves things out, puts certain stuff on loop.”

He reached for one of the craft beers, removing a bottlecap with a flick of his thumbnail.  “Are you lonely, Verona?”

“No.  You.  I know the Carmine throne is a lonely one,” Verona said.  “Loneliness killed the last Carmine.  Kept her from being effective.  The other judges entertained her now and then, but mostly, she got to watch the world keep turning.”

Charles nodded.

“I don’t want to be your friend, Chuckie.  Honestly, that’d be suspicious as fuck, and you’ve been enough of a butthole, I don’t think you should want to be friends with anyone who’d want to be friends with you.”

“Uh huh?” he asked, with a note of faint humor in the utterance, a very skeptical expression on his face.

“But I figured you might need a reality check.  A reality check from someone willing and able to call you a bloody butthole when you’ve been a bloody butthole.  I figure Maricica’s probably not super great for that, and Edith probably hates you, and Lis always felt a bit more like a pawn.”

“I think I’m fine, Verona.  If that’s all-”

“It’s not.”

“Okay.”

“And I don’t think you’re fine.  I mean, besides the fact you’re a bloody butthole, just like, really an asshole of the next level-”

“Your feelings on that have been hammered in enough already.”

“-You’re a monster.  You didn’t just kill John, a friend who, as far as I know, did nothing to you, and you didn’t just murder and mutilate his adopted kid, you killed and mutilated a victim.  A, like, confluence of victims.  Geez, man.”

He raised his eyebrows, twisting in his seat, and propped one boot up on the corner of the coffee table.  The look he shot her was a big ‘are you done?’ one.

She meandered some more, in a less intense sort of pacing, glancing here and there at books on shelves that were inset into the walls, and placed on surfaces, and at art.  “But I also think you’re losing your way.”

“Is that your expert opinion?” he asked.  “You’ve found a kernel of direction, started forging toward a future you have in mind, and now you’re the expert in these things?  You are fourteen.”

“Wow, Chuck,” Verona said, stopping.  “I spent just about twenty-four hours on a dinghy in the middle of winter to bring you beer, I’m here to be company, and you’re being snide?  Asshole.”

He sniffed his amusement.

“While we’re on the subject, since you just suggested you are paying enough attention to me to know what’s going on, you’re not like, spying on me when I’m taking a leak in the woods or changing or anything, right?”

“When you had a glimpse of being Carmine, did you spy on five year old little boys, Verona?”

“Nope.”

“Trust me, it’s essentially the same here.  No interest.”

“See, that’s suspicious,” she told him, turning.  “You didn’t just say no, you said no interest.  Which means you’d do it if it was a woman you were interested in?”

“It’s not one of my responsibilities, so-”

But she was having fun now.  “No TV, I notice, something’s got to keep you entertained.  Chuckie, Chuck, Charles… do you have a suite of women you’re spying on with your omniscience?”

“You really see me as a degenerate, huh?” he asked.

“Murder ritual that killed a few hundred people-”

“That was corrupted from its original intent.”

“The original intent which was to kill dozens of people?  Including the occasional uninvolved apprentice or friend of these people?  The Red Heron Inveiglement?  Before it became the Hungry Choir?”

“Yeah.”

“You’re quibbling over degrees, Chuckie, and I think, you know, the label sticks.  If you fuck a pumpkin a little you’re still a pumpkin fucker.”

Charles sighed, but he seemed like he was in a weirdly better mood than before.

“I mean, like, come on, dude.  You’ve been at this for a decade, your best sources for reality checks and guidance were a Faerie and poison-my-husband Edith James, right?  And they wouldn’t want to that much spend time with you, you were forsworn.  Gross, right?”

“Yeah,” he breathed out the word.

“And if these half-assed justifications you’ve been giving me here, the stuff you were telling our parents back when they were freshly aware, all that jazz, if that’s where you’re really at, like, come onCome on.

She plunked herself down on the couch, putting her foot up on the edge of the coffee table as well.  “Come on.”

“If I agree to reflect on the points you’ve raised, will you go away?” he asked.

She stretched herself across the couch, turned over to face him, then said, “You know, out of Lucy, Avery, and me, I’m the one who’s most willing to go along with things?  If I was dropped into a different situation, with Alexander running the Blue Heron, Bristow, maybe even Musser, I’d probably go along with a lot of the status quo?”

Charles nodded slowly.

“Maybe I would’ve hit a bump in the road and been like… oh, this isn’t necessarily the best fit for me?  Like I did with school.  I might’ve realized hey, I’m damn good at communicating with some Others, like Tashlit, and Peckersnot, but I’m not a thousand percent sure that I would’ve clicked like, oh yeah, binding and enslaving Others is bad.”

“We’re the product of our environments.”

She twisted around and stared up at the ceiling.  “Maybe I’d realize only because I knew Lucy, but I’m not sure I’d know her as this hypothetical me who grew up in another hypothetical environment, and how much credit can I take, personally, if it’s like, I know this person so I know better.  At what point can I say, hey, I’m a decent person who’d realize?  Or a very average person who wouldn’t?”

“Do you want me to expend power and try to search through realms of possibilities?  This question of moral weights would be more in the Alabaster’s purview.”

“Nah,” she said.  “I’m musing out loud.  And I guess what I want to say is… um, cuts in other directions?  I, Verona Hayward, am someone who gets stuff others don’t.  I’m okay with stuff others wouldn’t be.  Undercity?  I like it.  I think there’s dumb shit, shit you missed, stuff, but you talk about a world where you’ve set up more undercities?  I can live in that world, camped out on the fringes of it.  The same way I can live in Alexander’s conniving-ass practitioner world, on the fringes, finding the cool parts I can get into.”

Charles nodded at that, his eyes falling on the fire.

“I’m pretty good at figuring out systems.  If you’re in this for the long haul, and me and my friends and Kennet all need to learn to live with you as a Judge… okay.  Help me figure this out, so I can go back to them and start making adjustments.”

“And what will you tell them when you go back?”

“Well, I’d hope you’d tolerate me being around enough to let me run some stuff by you.  Legit stuff, about the current situation.”

“What stuff?”

“If I tell you then you can give me a quick answer and then be like, did your job, fuck off, and kick me out, right?”

“Not quite but yes.”

“I want to make you tolerate my company and see if like… I dunno.  Maybe you’re so weak-willed the Carmine role is overtaking you, and that’s why you’re so shitty.  You were forsworn for a long time, right?  Leaves you in pretty rough shape, mentally.”

“I’m strong enough.”

Verona sat up, “Okay, but like, seriously.  It’s not just that I want to be in a position to look things over and give you a reality check… Louise was saying there were rules for supervillains, and you really need a five year old on staff to be like, hey, that’s a dumb idea.  Sometimes we miss stuff.  I know I miss stuff.  Right?  But also, I think it’s really important that we do a reality check for us.”

“Us?”

“Like, all of us need to stop and go, okay, we’re dealing with confusing, messed up stuff.  But if there’s an opportunity to hit pause and stop, take stock, and make sure the reality we’re dealing with is like, actual reality?”

“Like with your school.  Making sure you’re hyperfocused in the right directions.”

“So you have been looking over my shoulder,” Verona said.  “Creepy.  But okay.  Yeah.  Like with my school.”

“And now you’re gainsaid, you want to use this as a big pause button, so to speak, get in position to take stock…” Charles trailed off.

Verona nodded, but she didn’t give an answer.

Charles continued, “…of me, and you talk to Lucy and Avery about various major threats.  Students at St. Victors, Musser, the Wild Hunt.”

“I mean, that’s part of why I’m… doing a temperature check.  Checking the reality check, if you want to put it that way.  Seeing if you’re capable of getting a reality check, like, from me, from anyone.”

“Hmmm.”

“I don’t know if the others are one hundred percent on the same page as me, but depending on how this goes, it might be me going back and nudging them to put off the Chuckie-the-big-red-asshole question until another day.”

“Or?”

“Or it might be me saying hey, that’s a dude who was broken by the forswearing, the Carmine furs have influence over his thoughts, and the closest thing to someone steering him back to reality is an ex-Faerie who talks to him once a month, that needs dealing with.”

“The furs don’t have that influence over me, my will wasn’t broken, and I confer regularly with other Judges, Maricica, and Lis more than once a month.”

“Twice a month?  Five times a month?  Every day?”

“When I need to make adjustments.  Sometimes that’s five times in a day, with the Judges, to count more responsibilities under my umbrella, with Maricica and Lis, to handle other things.  Sometimes it’s a few weeks before I talk to any of them.”

“But how often are they like, hey, man in the red fur coat, you’re going too far, chill out, stop?”

“How often do you think?  I have responsibilities, and being ‘chill’ is not one of them.”

Verona clucked her tongue once.  “Right.”

“Anything else?” he asked, with an air of restrained tolerance.

Okay, she didn’t want to push too far…

“How often are they like… Hey, man in the red fur coat.  Are you okay?”

Charles arched an eyebrow, then tipped his beer back, drinking.

“They aren’t, huh?”

“I don’t need that.”

“The part of the Carmine Beast that went into making her her had a yearning for certain feral things, certain spiritual things.  And even she really needed someone to check in to see if she was okay.  You were human once.  The part of you that went into being Carmine Exile was human.  Humans are social creatures.”

“Some are.”

“And some aren’t?” Verona asked.  “I used to think I wasn’t.  That if I could get my dad to chill out, I could hole up on my own for a while, and I’d be fine.  I don’t think that was right.”

“I’m older, I know myself better.  It’s fine.  Really.”

“Because you were forsworn?  Because you had to be okay being on your own?  I don’t think that’s the same thing.”

“Maybe,” he said.  He stood from his seat.  “This is getting a bit old, Verona.  Maybe we should move on?  Talk about the forces arrayed against you, in Kennet?”

“When’s the last time someone asked if you’re okay, Chuck?” Verona asked.

He stood there, framed by the fire, the movement of heat and cold making hairs on his head and coat stir a bit.  He played with the mostly empty beer bottle in his hand.

Verona fished for her bag, keeping one eye on him, got out some mostly-finished lemonade, and drank.

Charles sighed.

“Are you thinking, using that sorta-omniscience?  Are you-”

“Thinking,” he interrupted.  “If I ignore the check-ins, to see if I was in okay shape to carry out my part of the plan?  Could’ve been Edith.  Might’ve been Avery, around the time Lawrence’s Aware came to Kennet, interrupting your stay at the school.  Might’ve been when you came to interrogate me in the nightmare.”

“You can’t use your powers, go digging?”

“No.”

“Hmm.  That’d be like, six months, though.”

“Perhaps.”

“Only memory to go by, and memory’s one of those things that loneliness can really warp and screw with.  Are you okay, Chuck?”

“Do you really care?”

She shrugged.  “Maybe a bit.  I’ve been Carmine, even if it was a taste, all pretend, while using the Alcazar, so I sorta get it where I’m not sure even Maricica or the other Judges could.  And there’s a part of it where, you know, if you’re not okay, I care about that because you have a lot of power and you could really wreck shit if you ended up unhinged.  Wreck it more, anyway.”

“I know you’re plotting to stop me,” Charles said, voice low.

Verona adjusted her position in her seat, one foot propped up on the coffee table, wrist on her knee.  She met his eyes.

“Undermining me, undoing what I’m doing…” he said, walking slowly in front of the forge-style fireplace.  “Coming here, trying to get information.”

“Sounds like paranoia.  Should I head back and report you’re not okay, then?”

“Verona.  I know.  You’re a clever, capable girl, you remind me a lot of Alexander-”

“Not the first time someone’s said that.”

“-with a key point worth keeping in mind.  Alexander tended to respect the intelligence of those around them, and raised himself up to match and exceed them.  Take a lesson from that.  Don’t assume that because you’re clever, the people around you are idiots.”

Verona sipped her lemonade.

He got another beer.  Then he sighed.  “I wish I could get drunk.  I don’t sleep, it would be nice to have the ability to stop my brain.”

“Which one are you drinking?” Verona asked.

“My old usual.  I’ll save the others.  I have to avoid mentally flinching as I smell it.  Too many times I tipped one back, and got a mouthful of fermented mold with a mucus consistency.”

“Yep.  That’d get to you.”

“Thank you, by the way.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m not mad, so you know.  But I want respect.  I went too long without any at all.”

“I mean I’m here.  You’re my enemy, but I brought you something.  Avery met Mr. Samaniego over food at a diner.  She wanted to know what he had to say.  Same deal here.”

Charles nodded.

“I think there’s a kind of bond that springs up from that sort of thing.  Avery said Mr. Samaniego drew comparisons between himself and her.  And Bristow, and Clem.”

“He did.”

“You dealt with criminals, before, right?  You did summoning work for them, you worked with a gang, you worked with sketchy people, helping to steal stuff.”

“I did.”

“And they were cutthroat too?  You had to watch yourself?”

“Less than you’d think, watching some shows and movies, but… some.”

Verona nodded.

She’d crafted a bit of her approach here with those shows and her time in Kennet below as her only real context for how criminals behaved, to try to connect to Charles here.  The approach of being hostile and annoying at the start and easing off, that was part of it, while also being her best plan for getting him to let his guard down.

“The right enemy can be a reality check too,” she said.  “I wasn’t joking when I said I thought it was important you have that.  Outside perspective.  Someone to bounce off of.”

“You implied earlier you think I’m making mistakes.”

“The Dropped Call- I don’t know what you call it, it’s the name we gave it-”

“Works.”

“It’s gathering power, playing politics, extending influence.  It wanted the Beorgmann.”

“I’m aware.”

“Are you okay with that?  Just asking.  You apparently cared enough to not want kids awakened back at our awakening ritual, you made some jabs at the Blue Heron students, gainsaying them.  But you’re okay cooperating with an Other that’s kidnapped hundreds of kids?”

“Give me time.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Things will make sense in time.”

“Okay, but… what if you don’t have that time?  What if you let the Dropped Call arrange for the Beorgmann to go free, to add the Beorgmann’s power to the network and, I don’t know, Cherrypop ends up the next Carmine, and doesn’t bother to change the situation.  Beorgmann goes on a rampage, and it’s kind of on you.”

“Cherrypop?”

“You’re focusing on the wrong part of what I said.”

“It hasn’t come to that.  Milly Legendre was freed, she found the Beorgmann, she sealed it again.  The Beorgmann’s ruse didn’t come full circle.”

“But if it had?  What about all the other pieces in play that are on shaky ground?”

“Name some?”

“I can’t really name any, Charles.  I can’t even really leave Kennet without going by water, or I run the risk of dealing with your Lords.  Information’s screwy.  But you know you’re playing fast and loose, right?  You’ve created a mess that the next Carmine’s going to have a hell of a time cleaning up.”

“I’m hoping I’ve set up something bigger and more important than ‘a mess’.”

“Yeah, well.”

Verona took a drink of her lemonade, throwing the bottle back to make sure she got the last of it, then capped it and dropped it into her bag.

She leaned forward a bit, looking at the coffee table with the map.

“I guess now’s the point where I ask for what I came for.  Keep the conversation moving.  To start with… can you bring John Stiles back?”

Charles frowned.  “No.  It’s key to the contest for the Carmine Throne.”

“Or Yalda?  She wasn’t a contestant.  It’d make the Dog Tags happy, which would make Lucy happy.”

“No.”

“If you could do anything like that?  Even pulling some Summoner shizzle..?” Verona asked, indicating the masks on one wall and the decorative summoner diagram on another.  “Draw together some echoes of John or Yalda, animus bullcrap, key elements?  It’d do a lot to… I dunno.  Smooth things over.  Maybe we’d still be enemies, in terms of ideas, the risks we’re willing to take, all that, but maybe we wouldn’t be bitter enemies.”

“It would be a half-formed mockery, not the real John Stiles.”

“What if you thought about it for more than five seconds?”

“If you asked an electrical engineer if you can generate power by plugging an extension cord into itself, you’ll get a fast answer.  I was a decent summoner.  Now I’m a great one.  I don’t need to deliberate.  I know what’s possible.”

Verona shook her head.

“What else?” Charles asked.

“Figured I should ask.  Then, second part… my gainsaying?  Again, figure I should ask.”

“Will be over by the time you wake up tomorrow.  Then for a day after, you’ll notice your practice is weaker.  It’s not worth the trouble to try to undo the gainsaying.  I would have to call in the gainsayer, who did not name himself, and even if you argued your way past it, you’d only gain hours of more effective practice-”

“Take away his power.  Whatever he gets from being Aware.”

“You would.  But he would go away, others would step into his place, they’d seek to hurt or gainsay you immediately, to keep up their assault.  It’s not worth the trouble.”

Verona sighed.  “So they keep coming at us, cripple us, disrupt us, gainsay us, terrorize us, even, and then Musser comes and cleans up?  Convenient.”

“It’s his tendency to send in forces in advance to weaken the opposition.  He’ll send some shortly, he may even make an appearance himself.  He’s on good terms with Estrella Vanderwerf, who works with the Winter Court, I don’t imagine they’ll bother him.  He’ll find you weak and probably have someone make a Lordship for him to claim himself on his actual, scheduled visit.”

“Sure seems like that’s the situation.”

“Musser has lost too much,” Charles said.  He approached the coffee table with the map, and moved his hand.  The table shifted, wood-cut images sliding, growing, spreading.  Stain spread across wood.  “Practice is said to be rooted in power, pattern, connections, and establishment.  Establishment comes from the patterns so ingrained they become fact.  Musser’s establishment has been broken at its foundation.  He has homes he’s traveled to, only to find them raided, or occupied, his family is fractured and not in easy communication.  His connections to outside parties are frayed.  They trust him less.  Key pieces like Anthem are off the table.  Well done, by the way.”

“I dropped a bridge, but it was really Lucy doing most of that bit.”

“He was working off a pattern.  Claiming territories, using the momentum he gained to claim more.  It’s how he got Toronto.  Had he finished taking the final territories before I made my move, he could have put the feather in the cap of his established power base.”

“Yeah.”

“That leaves power.  He’s strong.  Some few patterns, some connections, some establishment remain.  He’ll lean heavily on those.  Every major family has archives they don’t dig into, storerooms with magic items from decades ago, and favors owed that have calcified.  Favors that are almost forgotten, or treated as a formality, recognized but never called in.  Until the chips are down and everything is on the line.”

“I thought you were supposed to be unbiased.  You’re giving me this information?”

“I’ve named him an enemy of the Seal.  His family has mastered and leveraged key elements of the Seal and then strained them to a near-breaking point.  When he lost as much as he did…?”

“Coup.”

“And I can be justified in saying that what was strained has broken.  He owes the Seal a small debt, in effect, and until it is repaid or he has regained what was formerly established, I can call him the Seal’s adversary and act against him.  Telling you particulars, for example.”

“Hm.  Cool.”

“It is cool,” Charles said, smiling a bit, looking down at the table.  “A lot of what I’m doing is arranged against him.  To him, it must feel as if he’s spent immense amounts of his resources to move mountains, only for another mountain to slide into the removed mountain’s place.  He needs a win, for himself, for pattern, to unfray connections, and to regain what he once had so firmly established.”

“And Kennet’s a choice target.  No annoyingly complicated or powerful Lord that’s in league with you.”

“There could be.  If you asked for it, allowed it, there could be.”

Verona shook her head.

“It would protect Kennet from Musser.”

“And screw up so many things.  Defeats the point of Kennet, leaves us vulnerable against seal based stuff, no.”

“If he makes his attempt, and you’re not in a position to win, I will have to spring a trap on him, my Lord will wrest the attempt at the Lordship from him, so he can’t get ahold of the territory beneath and around this throne.”

Charles indicated the seat he’d taken earlier.  The Carmine throne.

“Then we have to not let things get that far.”

“Is that a fair compromise?  One enemy to another, striking a deal to frame our fight against a mutual enemy, over beer and lemonade?”

Verona nodded.

“Look,” Charles said.  He indicated the map.  Verona watched as borders marked out the Lordships.  Seats taken by Musser, then taken by Charles’ Others and Other-like effects.

“Yep.  Looks accurate.”

“There is a group in position to take the lordship from the Multifaceted Pig.  When that happens, the Lord from this adjacent Lordship will move, taking that Lordship back, another will move into their place…”

Verona watched as shadows moved across the table, each stopping when they got to the center of a territory.  Leaving one territory not that far from Kennet, blank and unshadowed.

“With one left empty.  I have time to create an Other.  It may be the last proper Lord I create before Musser makes his initial move on Kennet, to soften it up further, and set up a Lord.  He’s probably going to pass through this territory on his way.”

“Hmmm.  Could.  If he doesn’t take the water, or come from the west somehow.”

“What would you make?” Charles asked, taking his seat again, and scooting it closer to the table, so he sat across from Verona, the flames of the open fire in the forge behind him.

“That’s a fun question.”

“I thought it would be.”

“Does Maricica normally do this?  Helping you to theorize what you need to make to throw uniquely effective obstacles into the other side’s way?”

“I often muse aloud about what I’m thinking, and she guides me here and there.”

“You as the idea person, her as the strategist?” Verona asked.

“Don’t think I miss the implication,” Charles said, his voice a bit more growly than usual.  “I know what you said to Tatty Bo Jangles.  I should be glad I’ve moved up in your estimation from Cherrypop tier to Tatty tier, but… I think you can give me a little more credit than that.”

Remaining silent, Verona looked down at the map.

“Speak out loud,” Charles said.  “Share your thoughts.”

“Uhhh… it seems like I should be giving an answer that’s properly Kennet.  Creating a dilemma that forces them to recognize Others are people.  That seems to be a pretty consistent flaw across our worst enemies.”

“Unfortunately, it’s difficult to force that result on a challenger.  They brute force it, work around it.  Bind, enslave, one way or another.”

“Hm.”

“I’ve thought about it.  I think I even thought about it after observing your practice and activities, as you did shrine patrols and started doing favors for the locals.  But I haven’t found a good way.”

“The most annoying thing that keeps cropping up, I think, is that establishment crap.  When they’re like, we have all this precedent, we’re a family of winners, so we get to claim we win, basically.”

“Yes.”

“I was reading a few weeks back about how you can have a Chosen, like Ulysse Miraz, back at the Blue Heron, someone given gifts by a god, but they’re challenged, tested.  And one example test, they had to fight themselves.  They’d asked for all this strength, but in the challenge, they had to prove they were a fair opponent, and that they were greater than the gifts they’d been given,” Verona mused.

Charles stroked his beard, then he gestured.

The light from the windows went out.  Light shone in through the summoner diagram on the one wall, casting lights into the middle of the room, an indistinct extension of that image, an outline of a person and a series of corresponding marks within that outline.  As the source of the light on the far side moved and changed shape, the beams of light moved.  Spaces shuddered with their passing, smoke rising where the shafts of light crossed the air.

Those shafts of light that traced the outline narrowed to concentrate on one spot, until they focused on the table, which no longer had a map in it, but a three dimensional outline of a shape, faceless, but humanoid, trembling air and trembling crimson light framing it, smoke rolling off of it where light met air.  It moved an arm or leg here or there, or arched its back, and light flared, air trembled more, or more smoke rose up when it did, until it found alignment again.  The marks pulsed.

“Source?” Charles asked.

“The root of this thing’s power, where it comes from?”

“The very same.  You’ve read the texts.  Some of which you took from my old home.”

Verona nodded.  “Law?  Or something inevitable, maybe, like one of the pillars.  More specific than Death or Fate.  Parity?”

“No Parity exists in easy reach of this region, I could create it, but it’s easier to use Law.  The Seal itself is a power source I’m closely acquainted with.”

“Kinda noticing you’re using that a lot, when you don’t like the Seal.  Against Musser.  Then here.”

In the dark room, lit only by this living diagram and the now flame-less embers of the fireplace behind Charles, light peeked through the ceiling as if there was a light upstairs and it was shining through the floorboards.  It wasn’t floorboards though.

The Seal.  The star of Solomon, with all the surrounding marks and framing.  It narrowed, focusing in like the beam of a magnifying glass.  Branding the work in progress at the root.

The flames and flickers around the image became an intense white, the smoke cleaner, the shudder more intense.

“The power base?”

“Different from the source?”

Charles nodded.

“Divine?  To go big?”

He put out a hand, closing it into a fist, then squeezing it until veins stood out and his hand trembled.

“Surprised you aren’t asking Maricica,” Verona observed.

“A different sort of power than what we’re looking for here, and she’s preoccupied.”

The clenching of his fist continued until something broke.  Blood flowed out, crimson, a trickle, directly into the belly of that Other.  Filling it out.  It writhed.

“Lore?  Its knowledge base.  It’ll use that knowledge to build its scenario.”

“Recent events?  Do echoes work?”

“Incarnations.  For the inevitability you asked for.  Nature follows desires, War tracks the conflicts, Death punctuates the endings, Fate weaves her tapestry, and Time moves back and forth across it.

The same way light had come in to brand the seal, darkness intensified and pushed its way in.  The space within that glowing framework darkened.

“And the specifics?”

“That the contender has to trade places with someone they defeated recently, and win.  Exchanging practice, magic items, allies, tools, body, situation,” Verona said.  “A kind of imagined or dreamed scenario, but true to life.”

Charles corrected, “A human they defeated recently.  It wouldn’t be fitting if Musser were to trade places with one of the Lords he’s been up against recently.  Defeats the intent.”

“True.”

“There’s a chance you may find yourself facing this Lord.  Is it fair?”

“The consequences don’t have to be that bad, do they?”

“It’s better if they aren’t.  Inevitable, lawful, and divine forces… they have a weight.  Maricica taught you three about how to challenge an unfair contest.  If someone challenged something this weighty, there wouldn’t be much flexibility.”

“Hm.”

“What consequence to those who challenge this and lose?”

Verona thought about what Lucy had said.

“Time?”

“Go on.”

“My first thought is they rewind back to that last fight… redo it as themselves again.  Except that doesn’t cost Musser time.”

“It can be arranged to.  Go on with your idea for now.”

“I was thinking they lose something critical this time around.  The tool or practice they used to win it last time.”

“He’d loathe the idea.  There would need to be mechanisms to retrieve what is confiscated, but that costs him that critical amount of time, when he’s stretched thin.”

“Yeah.”

“It’s easier to manipulate time on the small scale.  The debt he accrues in a step back will have to be made up.  If he’s sent back three weeks, he can’t truly alter the past while he’s there.  Usually someone will get sick after, or delayed, or injured.  Some excuse to put them out of the way until the rewound pocket of time can re-align with the current one.  And then some.  A bit of a rebound.”

Verona nodded.  “Sure.  Sounds perfect.”

Charles smiled.  “And you’re okay if this is you facing the challenge?”

“Can I avoid it for the time being?  Or forever?”

“You can avoid it for as long as you want.  This kind of Lord warrants being kept in the back pocket for Musser and his ilk.”

“You won’t sic it on us?”

“I won’t.  You’d have to go find it and try to defeat it yourself in a Lordship contest.”

“And it won’t be in Avery’s way?  When she comes?”

“It’s for Musser.  No, it won’t be in her way.”

“Lucy and Avery are like… they’re excellent and talented.  That’s why Miss picked them.  I think they could do pretty well with someone else’s setup and kit.  As for me, I’m versatile enough I could manage with someone else’s abilities, or I could repeat a contest without one tool or whatever.  We’ll try to avoid challenging this Lord just after facing the Wild Hunt, for example.”

“Wise.”

“That does lead me to think there’s a loophole.  If they set up a fake contest beforehand?”

“It can be made a victory that mattered, no artificial ones.”

“Then that works.”

“I hope, very much, that Musser gets a lesson in fairness,” Charles said, as the light intensified and the figure swelled.  It began to take shape.  A woman.  Buxom.

“Can you make him a skinny dude?” she asked.  “Or maybe more gender neutral, for the ‘balance’ aesthetic?”

“I don’t know what goes into that,” Charles grumbled.

“You’re nigh-omniscient within your domain. Look, doofus.”

“First of all, that’s not in my domain.”

“Try harder.”

“Second of all, I’m creating a being from fundamental forces of this universe, from centuries-old powers and precedent, and giving it the ability to manipulate time, fate, war, all to enforce a Law of Parity.  And you want to quibble over aesthetic?”

“Heck yeah, aesthetic.  Step it up, Chuck.  Make them badass, while you’re at it.”

“I’ll give you a skinny man, and I’ll research it later, how’s that?”

“Fine,” she said, folding her arms.  “But I’m not happy about it.”

Charles rolled his eyes a little, but the figure began to take shape in a slightly different way.  Drawn out.  More masculine.

The light became glowing strands, and glowing strands became substance.  Darkness intensified until it was solid, like onyx.

The figure extended one long leg down to the floor, toes finding hard surface, and the floorboards of the cabin creaked beneath his gravity.

Onyx at his core, but his flesh was a light brown.  He was bald, skinny, and dressed in a kind of gender neutral draping toga with chains running from the armpit-ish area to the ground.  That was the only real non-masculine thing about him.

He raised a hand, and a spinning top appeared in it- the sort that looked like a UFO with spindles extending out the top and bottom.  Spinning like it was trying to drill through his hand.  Mirror sheen, vibrating with the top’s intensity-

Verona looked into it and saw the man from the Wild Hunt from yesterday, past him to the students at St. Victor’s, then her dad, then an echo she’d seen on patrol a few nights ago.

“Not here, not now,” Charles murmured.

The man with the top clenched his fist.  The top was bigger than his hand- bigger than his head, even, but he closed his hand around it with ease.

And following that, for a moment, Verona could see the reaching diagram work that had been spilling out from the top, like a net closing around her.

“On your way.  You know where to go, what to do,” Charles said.  “A Lordship will be handed to you.”

“But the primary principle of administration will belong to the Judges,” the man replied, voice soft.

Charles nodded.

Then the man was gone, chased after by the diagram work, like an afterimage on Verona’s vision, after bright glowing lines, circles, and symbols- except she hadn’t seen those symbols, lines, or shapes beforehand.

“I look forward to seeing if he trips Musser up,” Charles said.  “If either of us break Musser, even if it means one of us crushes the other, I’ll see that as a win.  But it would be satisfying if it was a joint effort.”

“Hmmm.”

“The last of the worst of the Blue Heron Institute,” he mused.  Light was returning to the room, and he looked at the fire.  “Core staff, anyway.”

“Pretty wild, anyway.  You were pretty quick in putting that together.”

“Mm hmm.  It’s a small gift to you.  I thought you’d enjoy it, and it balances the scales after you brought me a gift.  With that, I think we can call this visit concluded.”

“I was going to ask about other things.”

“I know.  But I’m not in a position to arbitrate the Wild Hunt.  They answer other powers.”

She knew it was dangerous to ask, but she didn’t want to not ask, either.  “And St. Victor’s?”

The tone of his voice changed slightly.  Almost admonishing her.  “As you said, I must be unbiased.  They’ve done nothing to breach the Seal.”

“Uh huh?”

He changed the subject.  “You’ve come, gained answers about your gainsaying.”

“Partially recovered tomorrow morning, better twenty four hours after that?”

“Roughly, depending on your conduct.  You’ve asked about Musser, I’ve given you an answer, and because he’s an enemy of the Seal at this moment, I am justified in balancing things with the creation of a new force.  A creation you had a small hand in.  Consider it symbolic of this bond between enemies.”

“Okay.”

“You’re safe until you return home.  But don’t dally for long.”

“Can I stop in to check on people?  Guilherme?”

“Keep it under a minute or two.”

Verona nodded.

“And Verona?” Charles asked.

“Yeah?”

“Tread carefully.  We can be tenuous enemies.  But if you cross a certain point, interfere with me, my allies, my work…”

The way he inflected that last bit.  It matched the admonishing tone he’d had a moment ago.  Like a teacher telling her off for lying, back when she was little.  Yeah.  She’d known she shouldn’t bring up St. Victor’s students.

She pushed it, though.  “You’re not leaving us many options for the Wild Hunt.”

“I know.”

“And if we were to take the obvious option… one I think they’re trying to pressure us into?  They might want us to go after Maricica, to be the jagged rocks she falls on, like they want Musser to be the jagged rocks we fall on, while they’re forcing our hands, weakening us, and all that.”

“Very likely.”

Verona shrugged.  “You realize that’s a shitty situation you’re putting us in?  The Wild Hunt comes for us, they want us to help turn over Maricica.  But if we do, we get them off our backs, but we-”

“We stop being enemies in name only.  I will act.”

Verona nodded.

And that lined up with what Lucy had overheard.  The message intended for them.

Confirming it for sure.  That Charles was behind the St. Victors stuff.

She collected her things, got her coat on, slinging her bag over her shoulder.  She didn’t have to take the beer on her way out, which left her hands free.

“I’m okay, by the way,” Charles said.  “To answer your question earlier.  I’m doing very well, as a matter of fact.  Thank you for asking, and thank you for the company.”

“Noted,” Verona said, before shutting the door.

She paused, standing outside the door, then leaned into the cold wind, hands in her pocket, her one hand twinging painfully.

It was easier to go than it had been to come, and it had been easy to get in, once she’d met the prerequisite of traveling for a day to get there.  She collected her items on the way out, stowing them in her bag, before quickening her pace to get away from the bogeyman.

She walked until she reached the shore, paused briefly to take in the view and the quiet, and then turned around, heading back North.

That was one more mark against Musser.  One more delay, one more interference in his time, his logistics.  If power was the thing Musser still had in abundance, then they’d make him take the place of one of the people he’d crushed underfoot and make him confront that same power.  If he couldn’t, he’d lose things.

Maybe he’d find a way past.  Probably.  But until then, it would hopefully cost him or his allies.

There were a whole lot of other things she’d found out, too.  About how Charles operated.  He’d been free with information, and she strongly suspected it was because he felt guilty.  He’d called her out, on wanting to stop him, he’d known.  Okay.  But she’d been right enough about him being lonely that he’d given those answers, he’d let her participate in making a major Other, and he’d endured her company.

She had a better sense of Charles’ particular connection to his awareness of his realm and responsibilities.  The things he dug into, the things he didn’t know.  She’d had a taste of it, in the Alcazar, but Charles had been expanding his scope.  He’d probably been careful with what he told her, but any information was a good thing.

The second most important tidbit, though, was about schedule.  He worked with other Judges and with Maricica or Lis in bursts.  Probably tied to certain projects.  If they could figure out the timing of those bursts, they could possibly strike out at key targets.

Verona had a few targets in mind.  Alabaster, Sable, and Aurum.  White, black, and gold.  They’d abdicated their responsibilities, and they were just handing Charles power.

Okay.  If she and her friends could find an opening, they’d engage with the other Judges first, to raise the subject, clear the air, challenge them.

If the Judges didn’t cooperate, then they’d take other measures.  Change the broken system.  Verona had ideas.  Then if they could start taking back what they’d lent to Charles…

That would be a way forward.  Maybe, depending on how strict they could get the Judges to be on the backswing, they could neuter Charles.

As far as Verona was considered, destroying Charles wasn’t the only option.  At least in the annihilation sense.  Would it be the worst thing if they limited the scope of his duties to things that were very strictly Carmine, restrained what he could do even then, and let him wallow in lonely misery?  A prison of his own making, instead of death and oblivion?

He’d made Lucy cry.  He’d killed a lot of people, too.

She trudged through snow.

The Faerie cave was on her way up the shore, and she traveled a route that looked like the number ‘4’, going past the arch of trees, doubling back to move through them, and taking a hard turn east toward the cave.

“Guilherme?” she asked.

“I’m here.  But I don’t know for how much longer,” he said.

“I can’t stay for long.  I’ve got a free pass to leave unobstructed, but that falls apart if I delay too much.”

“I assumed as much.”

“You’re okay?”

“The Wild Hunt stalks me, I think they are preparing to remove me to the Court interior.”

“Well, we don’t want to let that happen.”

“No we don’t,” he replied, from the shadows.

“Is there time?”

“Days.”

“Okay.  I’ll let Lucy know.”

“Do.”

Verona sighed.  She really wanted to do more with this, but… no time.  “Alpeana?  You awake?”

“Aye, I am noo.”

“Sorry.  Having nice dreams?”

“Ah dinnae dream, lassie.”

“Okay.  Any requests for candy, favors, treats, anything?  I’m hitting the shrines south of here first thing tomorrow morning.  Probably with a pretty large contingent of bodyguards, for what it’s worth.”

“It won’t matter,” Guilherme murmured, from the shadows.

“Dinnae worry yer wee head about it,” Alpeana replied.  She made a yawning sound.  “Be safe.”

“Sleep well, then.”

“Aye,” she said, yawning out the word.

🟂

Freezing rain was hitting the area with a fury.  It came down heavy, and it painted trees in ice, giving snow a hard crust that she slid on as often as her boots punched through.

With hood up, scarf around her lower face, and multiple layers, she was still getting damp, pushing her way through.

She saw a figure in the snow.

“Hello!” she hollered.  The sound of rain, wind, and frozen-over branches blowing in the wind nearly drowned her out.

He turned.

She motioned, because going to him and then the way she wanted to go was too much effort.

She felt a thrill when he got close enough for her to confirm who it was.

Verona led him down the path, a bit away from town, and around a bend.  There was a one room cabin, barely more than a shack, very similar to the one that Avery had done the Forest Ribbon Trail ritual in.

A rest stop and storage place for rangers.  Verona had to work to get the door open, with snow and ice crusting between the bottom of the door and the ground.  She kicked with her boot heel.

Kyle Kelly joined her, hand at the door above her head, heel kicking and scraping, to try to make enough room for the door to get open.

“Fancy seeing you here!” he hollered.  “If that is you?  Avery’s friend?  Verona?  Can’t see much past the hood!”

“That’s me!  In town for the holidays?”

“Yeah!”

They managed to get the door open almost a foot.  She pulled her bag off, then squeezed through as best she could.  Kyle followed her, and they had almost as laborious a process of getting the door closed as they’d had getting it open.

“Whoo!” Kyle gasped, stepping away from the door.  “You saved me!”

She huffed for breath, nodding.  “Glad to.  You’re Avery’s family.”

He took a seat on the ancient looking cot in the corner.  Rusty springs squeaked.  The only light that came in was through a window that had a thick layer of ice on it.

“Didn’t think it would be that bad,” he said.

“Sneaks up on you,” she said.  She found a lamp and lit it.  Then she lit others.  Filling the cabin with warmth.

There was a little stove too.  She put some wood in and lit it.

Then, that done, room lit and heat on its way, she leaned back, her back to the door, and huffed out a breath.

She wasn’t sure what to say, and he didn’t volunteer anything, at least until a good minute had passed and he said, “We might get snowed in.  Or frozen in.”

Wouldn’t be the worst thing.  Stuck somewhere with Avery’s cute cousin.  “Yeah.  Could break a window if we had to.”

“Oh yeah.  That’s true.”

Rain drummed hard on the tin roof.  The heater was working its magic, though.

He was shivering pretty badly.

“You okay?”

“Not so much.”

“Get warm.  There, get the wet stuff off.  Lie down.  Blankets.”

He nodded, and it was a shaky nod.  He did some of it, but when she started to help, he let her, settling down on the cot, springs squeaking and squealing a metal-on-metal squeal.

“Heater and layers of blankets should do you okay.  But keep me up to date?  And don’t fall asleep?” she told him.

He nodded, head on the dusty old pillow.  She reached into her bag, got a spare top, and had him lift his head up while she put the t-shirt on over the pillow as a pillowcase.  She toyed with the arm that flopped at the corner.

“I wonder what we would’ve done without that heater,” Kyle said.

“Shared body heat?” she joked.

He got a goofy look on his face.  Flushed red or not, it was pretty.

“Wouldn’t complain,” he said, quiet.

She snorted.  “Too bad you’re my friend’s cousin.  I wouldn’t want to upset her.”

“I asked her.  About you,” Kyle said.

She smiled, wry.  “Oh yeah?  That must’ve been an awkward conversation.  Oh well.  I’m not looking for a relationship, as sorely tempted as I am…”

“I’m not either.  Not long distance.”

“You’re really streamlining this whole thing, huh?” she asked  “Making this that easy?”

“It’s weirder you’re complicating it.  Just get under the covers,” he said.

She took off her boots, then did, snuggling in closer.

“I was looking for you,” he said, mouth near her ear.

“Oh yeah?”

“Looking for this.”

“Woo.”

“Come on,” he said.

She leaned in closer.  “Edith James.  Get a message to her?  Get her to come see us?  Ideally during a time the Carmine is distracted.”

“That it?” he asked.

“Yeah.  Pass it on to he who created you?” she murmured, quiet.  “So he can handle it?”

The dream-Kyle didn’t even respond.  She woke up.

Leaving her lying in bed in the very empty House on Half Street.

You didn’t have to go right away, you could’ve finished delivering on the good dream, she thought, frustrated.

With Alpeana, they’d worked out some code phrases while in one of their first nightmares- Lucy’s idea, in case any of them was compromised or if something happened.  One was the one she’d recently invoked, asking Alpeana if she’d had good dreams.

A message to covertly reach out to one of her peers, an agent of racy dreams, so they could act in Alpeana’s stead.  Charles was watching dreams, but Verona had good reason to believe he wouldn’t peek in on a potentially lewd dream of a teenage girl.  He was watching Alpeana, mostly.

A trick they’d have to use in very, very limited quantities, or else they’d risk tipping Charles off.  This would probably be it.  One move to convey one message.

They had to operate in blind spots.  They had to make any moves on the other Judges in the times Charles wasn’t communicating with them, they’d do the same with Edith, because Edith was a blind spot.  She’d been absent from his comments throughout Verona’s meeting with him.  Lis, Maricica, they had roles.  But Edith had played hers.

Everything she’d said to Charles was valid for Edith.  She was an asshole, she was dangerous, but she had to be desperately lonely right now.  Charles had everything going his way, his enemies crumbling.  Edith was the opposite.  She had to be frustrated, resentful.

Making this the right time to make a play.


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