Go for the Throat – 23.8


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Lucy watched as the texts rolled in.  With things already tense, the texts coming in as fast as they were, as upset as they were, did not help.

I saw the look on her face and thought one of you was dead.

She showed up at the hospital looking for me.  I tried to fob her off on Averys parenting.
Did you have to get her this panicked right before leaving?

Shes hovering.
Shes waiting for me to take a break or finish.
I already took an extra break to respond to a false alarm by the dog tags.

“Your mom went to my mom and is bothering her at work.”

“Tracks,” Verona said, before pausing and making a sympathetic face.  “Sorry.  To you and your mom.”

“I’d say it’s not your fault but it kind of is, and-” Lucy started.  Avery whapped her in the back of the head.  “-it’s okay.  It’s understandable.”

“You guys and your honesty,” Oakham said.

“There’s honesty and there’s saying stuff you don’t have to, leading to hard feelings,” Avery said.

“This is coming from you?” Verona asked.  “Avery?  Hey.  Hey, Avery, remember when, hey, hey-”

“Whatever incident you’re going to bring up, I don’t want to remember it.”

“Do you think there’s just one incident of radical honesty from you that made things harder?”

“Let’s go easy, okay guys?” Lucy asked.  “We’re tired, we’re frustrated.”

“I’m not,” Oakham said.  “I’m alright.”

“I’m kidding.  Really, Ave,” Verona said.

“So long as you’re not bringing bad stuff up.  I have enough groanworthy moments when I’m lying in bed at night,” Avery said.

Lucy typed her reply to her mom.

“They’re on their way over,” Avery said, indicating the group by the road, turning into the parking lot beneath the ski slope.  The parking lot here was a bit inaccessible and needed a bit of a plow.  “Verona’s mom didn’t go to my parents?  Or did she go and leave?”

Verona shook her head.  “My mom doesn’t know your parents.  Like I said, it tracks.  My mom likes her, not sure what to call them.  Haunts?  Old usuals?  Church, before.  Work.  The whole setup at Thunder Bay, with friend groups and stuff.  I think that’s why she likes socializing with experts…”

“Scintillating,” Oakham said.

Verona says sorry.  A lot of bottled up stuff came out with Verona weirdness to spice it up.

“…having someone available to consult in case of any scenario, kind of?  Your kid’s an artist, don’t know enough about art, have an artist friend on hand who makes four hundred thou a year doing what she does to call and meet.”

“And my mom’s her parenting expert?” Lucy asked.  Her phone buzzed.

Verona weirdness?  What weirdness specifically?

Lucy typed.

“Or her Verona expert,” Verona said.  “For keeping tabs.”

“I can kind of appreciate that take.  Covering your bases, knowing people, not expecting yourself to have every answer, about everything,” Avery suggested.  “Obviously actually being directly involved with you as a daughter would be better.”

“Would it, though?” Oakham asked.

Verona pushed on Oakham’s arm, hard enough Oakham nearly slid off the end of the table they were sitting on.

“And it falls apart as a coping thing if you don’t actually have an expert for the actual problem,” Lucy said, before sending the text.  “This is a magic thing, not a mom thing.”

Verona weirdness is “I’m going to throw a bunch of curveballs at you and hint magic is real and I almost died once” to keep ownership of conversation.


Except it controls things now usually.  Later?  Sometimes messy.
Sorry for mess.

You safe?  You ok?

For now.

Yiyun, Nomi, Adrian, and Harri had made their way over.

“Oh, heads up, watch out, there’s- the timing is important, we need- say cheese, needed to, seconds ago…” the little homunculus piped up, craning his head around then went quiet.  He used a little flipper-limb to stroke his chin.

“That’s a good reminder, don’t use your Sight!” Avery warned.

“That looks like one of Josef’s little alchemy things,” Adrian noted.  “Except his things have legs.”

“It’s a homunculus,” Lucy said.  She adjusted the position of her bag so Alexanderp wouldn’t get seen by a passerby driving along the main road.  “Different purpose.”

“Reminds me of Seth,” Harri said.

Nomi frowned.  “Except Seth is cute and-”

“Ew,” Lucy said.

“-that’s an abomination of nature.”

“Repeating the ew so it doesn’t get lost or forgotten,” Lucy said.  “Seth?”

“That little abomination is mine.  Came out pretty well,” Verona said.  “Based on Alexander.  Seth’s uncle.”

“Hm,” Adrian grunted.  “Wow.  That’s fucked up on a few levels.  Wasn’t that a guy you guys killed?  Also the guy that forswore Seth.  Basically tortured Seth, for months.  And you made… that?”

“Look at his little expression, and he’s wearing a sock with a suit on it,” Verona said, holding up Alexanderp, with his wreath of scarf that Avery had put around him.  Oakham brought her head over and mimicked the smirk.

Lucy elbowed Verona, and Verona changed her tone to be more serious, adding, “Seth was and I do believe is a very problematic dude.  I don’t mind if this gets his goat, and it’s kind of ideal if this gets his goat, since that makes it work better.”

“About Seth,” Yiyun said.  “He seemed okay, at first.  A lot of the others did.”

“The others don’t seem okay,” Lucy countered.  “The other ex-Forsworn seem fucked up.”

“Because they are,” Adrian retorted.  “Or they were.  You gave Cameron a nightmare she was Forsworn?  Of course she’d lean harder into their side.”

“Wasn’t really the point,” Verona said.

“They.  Were.  Forsworn,” Adrian said, enunciating every word.  “Look, hate them or not, they weren’t all bad people.  Then they were made into bad people.  Objectively, they were people, all sorts of people, and then the rules were changed and the whole dynamic changed, and the Seal turned the world against them, said this person sucks, they fail at everything, they don’t get anything, they don’t get love, they don’t get justice, they don’t get family, or jobs, or hopes or dreams.  They are now bad people, like how a person tossed into a septic tank is a shitty person.”

“We’re not fans of forswearing.  I’ve got twenty or so contracts with market partners and certain practitioner families that specifically include clauses to minimize forswearing,” Avery said.

“I’m not saying you are.  I’m saying they were people, good and bad, pretty and ugly, scary and… whatever the girls think Seth is.”

“Cute,” Nomi said.

Lucy made an ‘ick’ face.

“Cute,” Adrian said.  “Sure.  But they were people, and they were made bad.  They were fucked, that’s a verb, up.  Their normal was abnormaled, they went to dark places a lot of people don’t come back from, and then weren’t allowed to die when they wanted to, for some.  I don’t like what they’re doing, I’m… not out, exactly, but I’m here, and I’m not going to say they’re bad at heart.”

Lucy glanced at Yiyun.  “They horrified a child.  Gillian Belanger-Ross.  They were willing to sacrifice some of you, while they were getting us, back at new years.”

“Because they were fucked up.”

“Some were fucked up before.  Helen screwed over another family-”

“Was made to,” Harri said.


“By her family.  Super strict, really fucked up family.  She hinted at some of the stuff she went through, that she couldn’t and wouldn’t have me do, as part of the family practice.  It was bad.”

“Okay, well…” Lucy floundered.

“Seth made a pass at Snowdrop,” Avery said.  “When she looked years younger than she does now.”

Nomi frowned, looking at Snowdrop, who smiled, a bit toothy.  She was wearing her nicer outfit, a silver dress that faded to black on the way down, with gray leggings.  She had her headphones around her neck, and wore her coat partially unzipped, so the top of her t-shirt was on display.  ‘Meme beast’.


“Are you dissing my familiar?” Avery asked.  “Because that tone makes it sound less like you’re concerned about Seth and more about not thinking Snowdrop rates on some level.”

“It’s okay,” Snowdrop said, looking at Avery.  “I get it.”

“Let’s not fight,” Lucy said.  “Enough of that going on tonight.”

“Seth went through a lot.  It’s beside the point anyway, isn’t it?” Adrian asked.

“It’s on point, for a lot of points,” Lucy said.  “But… let’s drop it.”

“How old was this guy?” Oakham asked Verona, quiet but still loud enough to be heard in the parking lot by the Killaloe Dough.

“Eighteen,” Verona replied.

“And she looked younger?  Geez.”

“Let’s drop it?” Lucy asked, more pointedly.

Verona nudged Oakham, almost knocking her off the table again.

Avery shook her head and adjusted her scarf, which she’d put around Alexanderp for warmth, a nest for him as he stood on the table.  Or sat on it.  Lucy wasn’t sure.  He was a living thing.  He ate, he drank, he got cold.  He smirked up at Avery as she finished, like Alexander with an ‘all according to plan’ look on his face.

“They’re peeking at us to see what we’re doing,” Avery said.

“That gets me thinking, like, we should find a goblin with the biggest, hairiest, ugliest butt we can, and have it be a backdrop for their next peek,” Verona said.

“Of course that’s where your mind goes,” Lucy said.  She looked at the three students and Yiyun, who were standing in a huddle.  Verona, Avery, and Lucy had all seated themselves on one of the picnic tables outside the Killaloe Dough that had closed in all the chaos.  Shuttered, lights off.  Snowdrop stomped around in the snow.  Oakham lived about as close as it was theoretically possible to, and had been first to join them, settling in beside Verona.

They’d cleared off the snow from the table before settling in, sitting, bags and Alexanderp between and behind them.

Gashwad was by the sign.  She’d heard him muttering to himself.  He didn’t have the ability to magically teleport, and he’d given them the little shivs that were supposed to summon him, so it looked like his game plan was to stalk them until they had an occasion to use the things.  She wasn’t sure what he was thinking for when they split up.

“We’re still waiting for someone,” Verona said.  “We can start when she gets here.”

“I have no other plans,” Yiyun said.  “Worst that happens to these guys should be that their parents start wondering where they are.”

Yiyun was Chinese – Lucy had looked up the name when researching Yiyun as an enemy, before, shorter than average, with straight black hair and eclectic clothing choices.  Lucy was put in mind of Avery’s practice to shuffle things- like how a Path could have the same ‘bones’, as Lucy thought of it, same key elements, like something big and round, but it would differ depending on the visit or depending on the observer.  A giant wheel in one visit, a moon in the other.

Yiyun fit in a similar mental framework as Verona’s mom, to Lucy.  Being shorter, the clothing choices where they clearly knew how to find nice, high-end clothing, but by some quirk, it didn’t add up to being one hundred percent polished as a complete outfit.  For Verona’s mom, it was the sort of thing where you could say ‘I love your boots’ or ‘I love your bag’, but the boots were red faux alligator skin and the bag was mustard yellow leather and they didn’t go well together.  Not that it was usually that garish or weird, but… Verona’s mom liked nice things, for the sake of having them, more than anything else.  A contrast to Verona’s set style.

Yiyun was like the Gate of Horn shuffled version of that.  Same bones, different problem.  Stuff was nice but hadn’t been taken care of, as if it had been pulled out of storage and shaken free of the most obvious dust.  It made her look a bit older and more tired.

Both Verona’s mom and Yiyun gave Lucy vibes of like, moms, minus the kid.

Adrian and Harri were cousins, Lucy remembered.  They were the sorts that were so lacking in color they were almost albino, very blonde, pale to the point blue veins stood out in brighter light, with the winter really not doing them any favors- both noses and Adrian’s ears red, eyes a bit red-rimmed.  Adrian wore glasses, and Harri had earmuffs on, as well as the hairband that kept her bangs back.  They wore black coats that Lucy was pretty sure were ordered through whatever vendor sold the St. Victor’s uniforms, because so many students who went there had them.  Like the uniforms, they sat somewhere at the intersection of simple, classy, and maximally cheap.  Both Adrian and Harri had regular clothes on underneath, with stuff like earbuds and maybe practice stuff in easy reach.

Nomi was the first defector- or maybe deserter was a better word.  She’d left the night Edith had been killed, Girl by Candlelight extracted.  Brown hair straight and parted in the middle, freckles lighter and less dispersed than Avery’s, with a yellow wool hat that was tight around the head but floppy otherwise.  She had a nose ring, choker, at least two necklaces, and two earrings in one ear.  And bracelets, peeking out from her sleeves.  Loading on accessories – she’d collected more over time.  Lucy wondered if it was practice based, or if Nomi liked to put on more stuff that was all removable at the end of the day.  Nomi wasn’t wearing the black coat the other two were, just a regular winter jacket, and Lucy wondered if it was so she could have a front breast pocket for a small mummified mouse to peek out of.

The group was assessing them, too.  Which was fair.

Her phone buzzed.  Just her mom confirming, saying to be safe, all that.  Okay.

“You guys crossed lines, you know?” Lucy asked.

“Is this what we’re here to talk about?” Adrian asked.

“No,” Avery said.

He turned to Harri.  “Want to go?”

“It’s not what we’re here to talk about,” Avery said, glancing at Lucy.

“Waiting for Louise before we get into the important stuff,” Lucy said.

“I was hoping to start with the more positive stuff,” Avery said.

“I was going to get there,” Lucy said.  “You guys crossed lines.  I think all four of you did.  There’s some we know about, some I’m guessing we don’t and maybe won’t ever.”

Adrian looked restless.

But,” Lucy emphasized.  “You’re here at least.  So that’s a step forward.”

“Right,” Adrian said.

“It’s a starting point.  We’d like to bring you guys into the good parts of what we’re doing.  In an ideal world, we win, you get to be part of magic, learn stuff, get involved with the market, meet Others.”

“Do you really think you’re going to win?” Adrian asked.

“Easy does it,” Yiyun said.

“In a less great situation, there are things we’d want to keep alive, keep doing, market still, protecting Kennet, and we probably have to work around what they’re doing.  Charles and his people.  If we could stay in touch, maybe we can work together on that?”

Yiyun spoke up, saying, “This is where-”

Lucy’s head turned.  Louise was pulling in.  She returned her attention to Yiyun.

“-I should make it clear, we swore oaths to their side.  Including oaths to not tell you everything.”

“Including about the oaths themselves?” Verona asked.

“Kind of,” Yiyun replied.  She considered for a second.  “I can’t really explain.  Due to the things sworn.”

“Frustrating,” Lucy replied.  And I can’t say there’s zero chance you guys won’t turn on us.  “Okay.”

Avery waved to Louise, while Snowdrop ran over to her, to meet her partway and walk over with her.

“We couldn’t have met somewhere indoors?” Harri asked.

“People are indoors,” Lucy noted.  “And this probably shouldn’t be overheard.  Here, there’s not many people around, but it’s easy enough to get to.”

“Connection blocks?” Harri suggested.

“We’re conserving practice and keeping things light,” Avery said.

Verona explained, “We get power from local Others and they’re out there.  We get more power and take less from each Other in town when there are more Others on board, swearing oaths to Kennet, but even one percent could make a difference.”

“What are you even doing here?” Nomi asked.  “So many people are gone.  A lot of stuff’s gone dark.”

“Talking to you,” Lucy answered, while Verona made a zipped-lips gesture to Nomi.  She amended her statement, to not be as hostile.  “If we told you the full story, we’d risk problematic people listening in.”

“It’s all so fucked up, huh?” Nomi asked.  “No straight talk.”

“You can’t tell us everything that’s going on, we’re blocked by oaths,” Harri said.

“Hey,” Snowdrop said, as she and Louise reached them.  Louise looked very tired, and a little washed out.  “Let’s encourage Louise to smoke like we agreed.”

Lucy raised her eyebrows.

“I haven’t had the one cigarette I allow myself yet today,” Louise said.

“You’re supposed to be down to none,” Avery said.  “You told us to give you a hard time if you did.”

“Special circumstances.  Nervous, my home’s gone.”

“Sorry,” Lucy said.

“Can you guys not give me too hard a time on this one?” Louise asked.  “And tell me Matthew’s okay?”

“He was okay last we saw him, but we’re not getting updates,” Lucy said.  “Stand downwind?”

Louise nodded, wet a finger and held it up, and then moved south of them.  Yiyun followed, and was faster to get her cigarettes out.  They were in an antique-style cigarette case, black and silver, and the cigarettes themselves were black from end to end.

“I’d offer one to you, but I hand roll them, can’t testify to quality…?” Yiyun left it hanging like an open question.




Yiyun handed one over.

“Boo and hiss, for the record,” Avery said.  “Because I said I would.”

“Okay,” Louise said, lighting her cigarette.  “I did ask for it.”

Snowdrop elbowed Avery.  “You cover the boo, I’ll cover the hiss.”

Avery narrowed her eyes at Snowdrop.  “That’s… I don’t think that works.  I’m trying to get my head around what you want, with the familiar bond helping, and it’s confusing me.”

“Isn’t it just opposite speak?” Harri asked.

“No.  It’s opposite intent.  So if I say boo?”

“Boo,” Snowdrop said.

“Yeahhhh,” Avery sighed.  “Can’t trick it.”

“Getting back on track,” Lucy said.  She had to shift position because her ass was a bit cold, sitting on the wooden table.  “I think we’d be willing to bring you guys in on some level.”

“Market, the town events,” Avery said.  “Council, in a way.”

“We talked about compromise with this group some, after you three were run out of town,” Louise said.  “At New Years.  What compromise would look like.  Mostly me and Matthew, but we all talked at the council table, too.”

“And?” Lucy asked.

“The market would have to be theirs, the Carmine’s.  Or, technically, ours.”

“Can we fudge it?” Verona asked.  “Say, Louise is head of the council, more or less, a responsibility shared with Miss and the warlords of Kennet below.  We fold you in as assistants to Louise, with a stake of ownership, uh-”

Everyone except Harri was shaking their heads already: Yiyun, Adrian, Nomi.


“No,” Yiyun said.  “Before the new year, Rook told us that you had a habit of bringing enemies onto your side.  In retrospect, I think the Carmine anticipated that, and wanted to get out ahead of it.  The idea was, for the children, that they could either be in or out.  Not halfway.  Not joining you or compromising.”

“Then you took ‘out’ away,” Adrian said.

He sounded angry.

Adrian shook his head.  “Then doing things halfway was taken away as an option by the deals we made, which I can’t talk about in detail without being forsworn.  And then being in didn’t feel good.  So we’re-”

“Nowhere, as far as where we belong,” Nomi said.  She looked at Yiyun.  “In a suspended state.”

“Suspended states are a concept dealt with when you create undead,” Yiyun said.

“We sort of know, from dealing with our local ghouls,” Lucy said.

“Of course.  It’s not unlike undeath.  Being caught between factions like this.”

“So what then?” Lucy asked, folding her arms.  With her gloved hand, she toyed with the necklace.

“Was this why you asked us to come?  To offer a compromise we can’t take?”

“To-” Avery said, as Verona said, “We-”

“Go ahead,” Verona said.

“We asked you to come for other stuff,” Avery said.  “We have a greater plan, but if we could get certain information from you… I don’t want to sound like it’s some deal and that we wouldn’t be trying to find a workable place for you if it wasn’t for the plan.”

“You want information?” Adrian asked.

“Yeah,” Lucy replied, glancing at the others, who nodded slightly.  “About you guys.  About the others.  About your families.”

Adrian frowned.

“Families?” Yiyun asked.

“What?” Harri asked.

“The last time we did something on this scale, our parents became Aware through it.  Mostly the fault of invaders, one invader, really pushing things.  But things were going that direction.”  Lucy’s hand gripped the tags at her neck harder.

“My dad especially, but again, someone else’s fault.  Poking holes in Innocence.”

Verona had an intensity about her as she leaned forward from her seat on the table.  “And what we’d be doing next, people would become Aware.  For some people, especially those around you guys, that could get really complicated really quickly.  Your parents would be the first to tip over to Awareness, we’re guessing.”

“And that’s why they’re here?” Nomi asked, indicating Louise.  “The experts?”

“Moral counsel, for a move that could be immoral, if your parents are the wrong people,” Lucy said.  She studied the kids.  Even if they couldn’t say anything outright, which was her guess, maybe they could give something away, in terms of how well this worked as a move.  “Question becomes, if we do this and people become Aware along the way, who do we work to keep out of it, and who could be a positive?”

“Positive?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“What, you want to pull some big ritual, like the way you made that third Kennet, and if some parents become Aware along the way, you figure they’ll call their kids and ask them to come home?”

I don’t know.

We’re trying to figure out how to capitalize on any weak links, and with the other Red Heron kids way over at the BHI, I figured maybe they’d be stretched thin.  And with parent issues on our minds…

“It was a thought,” Verona said.

That, yeah.

“We can’t give you that kind of information,” Nomi said.  “About parents, about the other guys… is it the parent stuff you’re after?  Is that it?”

“We might fight them,” Lucy said.  “Or have to work against them, not a fight exactly.  If they pull some practice…”

“Does that bother you?” Avery asked.  “Were you friends?”

Adrian looked at Harri and sighed.

“Is that touchy somehow?” Avery asked.

“It’s… if we were friendly, or if we were going to be friendly, I don’t think they would’ve picked us.  Not that they picked us to be mean, but they picked-”

“Can’t say,” Nomi said, cutting Adrian off.


They’ve hinted at it before, and Miss has mentioned it too.  It’s the same as us, just… different type of hand picking.  People that are disconnected or not part of society, picked with bloody hands instead of nonexistent ones.

“Hmmm,” Lucy pondered, sitting forward, chin on the heel of her hand, elbow on knee.

Verona, to the right of her, smirked.


Verona pointed past Lucy, and Lucy saw Alexanderp, leaning forward, chin on flipper-hand.

“Remember when you had me do write-ups on everyone?  In the little black notebook?” Nomi asked Yiyun.  “Students and teachers?”

“I do.”

“It was an exercise, somehow relating to undead, wasn’t it?  I didn’t get that.”

“Finding the throughline of a being’s physicality, immaterial components…”

“Right.  Yeah.  Learning to look for that.”

“And I thought it would be a good way to keep track of the other young students and get your thoughts on them.  I’d get Dony and Stefan and Travis mixed up.”

“Aha,” Nomi said.  “It’s too bad I can’t do anything with those notes.  Trade them away, leave them where they can be found.  Hint at where they are.”

“You’re already walking the line,” Yiyun warned.

“Right.  It’s not like you guys made a good offer, either, right?” she turned to Lucy.

“Can’t really, can we?  It’s all jammed up.”

“I’m so curious what you’re doing,” Nomi said.  “Big picture.  Big enough some people are bound to be Aware.  That’s gotta be hitting Kennet with something, huh?”

Verona did the zip-lips gesture again.

“Is that it, then?” Yiyun asked.

“I don’t know,” Avery said.  “I hoped there’d be a way.”

“They made sure there wasn’t much of one,” Yiyun replied.  “I was mostly sticking around in case other kids needed me.  But with things being what they are, I think that’s over.  Tonight, some may kill, some may be killed, some may be changed.  I’ll leave.”

“Fuck,” Nomi said, quiet.

“I appreciate you being fair,” Louise said.

“I wasn’t.  I did bad things.  I was plunged into darkness, I was made a bad person, a fucked up person, to use Adrian’s phrasing.  I surfaced, thanks to the Carmine Exile, and then I stayed bad and fucked up for a while after.  I haven’t made amends.  I haven’t fixed everything I broke.  And I’m not going to try.  I’m going to leave, I’ll go elsewhere, fresh start, and I’ll maybe do some good.”

“It’s better than you doing what the other ex-Forsworn are doing,” Verona said.

“I’ve taken a loan, from practitioners I probably shouldn’t take a loan from.  I’m good at what I do, I can take contracts and do work.  I can work on a spellbook I’ve had in mind throughout all the time I was forsworn.  But with the loan I have money,” Yiyun said.

“Those are things you’re planning to do, but what do you want?” Lucy asked.

“What I want… it’s impossible.  But I’ll dabble in practice, stay in contact with people studying necromancy.”

“To raise someone?” Avery asked.

“That would be a tall order, with the time that’s passed.  I don’t think the best necromancer could do it without a preserved body and a soul captured after it left the vessel, after this long.  I’d settle for talking to her, as a goal.”

“There might be possibilities,” Lucy said.

“There usually are.”

“The Sable has someone working for him as an agent.  Who has a deal, to be able to talk to his children, who I think are dead,” Lucy said.

“God damn,” Oakham said.


Yiyun replied, “If I had to guess, the children died in his domain.  My daughter didn’t die in the Sable’s domain.  Besides, staying in the Carmine’s realm when I don’t think he’s especially happy with me, it wouldn’t sit right.  I can imagine bringing me in wouldn’t sit right with the Sable if it puts them at odds.”

“If the Carmine gets beat, maybe that stops being an issue?” Avery asked.

Subtle, Ave.

“Either way.  I doubt it’d work.  For a few reasons.”

“For the other thing, we might know someone who could help find her, maybe, it’d be an ask.”

“And I’ll stop you there.  If she’s an ally of yours, then cooperating with him or her, it would run up against oaths we swore.  Ones I’ve already strained by helping these three, but was only barely able to survive because technically, we made the deals we made with the idea they could go.  Don’t tell me your ally’s name, and I’ll be content knowing there’s someone out there like that.  If I run into them, it will have nothing to do with you.”


“But thank you.”

“Right,” Lucy said.

“Can I ask why?” Yiyun asked.

“Why what?”

“You asked what I wanted.  I get the impression you’d be happy if we went and confronted the Carmine, added our strength to your side’s, even without anything that could be called an alliance.”

“I mean, yeah,” Lucy said.  “But fuck.  Whatever.  You’ve been half-decent to us, at least, even if you say you’ve been bad.  It’d be nice if you could talk to the person you lost.”

She shrugged, sitting up a bit, and felt the slight shift of the dog tag and ring against her skin.

“Hmmm,” Avery said.  “One thing we talked about, where we could use manpower, if you happen to be going in the direction of Winnipeg, there’s a place with a concentration of Aware.”

“Sargent Hall.”

“Yeah.  If you happened to send certain people our way as they showed up…”

“According to the oath…”

“If they were as much a problem as a benefit?”

“…Maybe,” Yiyun said.  She gave them suspicious looks, puffing away.  Then she turned her head.  “Harri, Adrian?”


“I already told Nomi, I’ll set some aside for you.  It’ll go to guardians you trust.  Nomi’s is going to her grandmother.  We talked about our options around the time we talked to Rook.  If we stay, we’ll be at odds.  We can’t fit into or cooperate with what they’ve built, with the oaths we swore.  We talked about leaving.  Walking away.”

“We didn’t want to get on the Carmine’s bad side,” Adrian said.

“We’re already there.  We’ll need to watch our backs, in case he sends someone to fetch us or ensure he gets what he wanted out of us.  But it’s best to go.”

“When?” Adrian asked.

Yiyun glanced at Louise.  “Do you need us to stay for any reason?”

“Protection,” Louise said.  “We have people from the undercity, we have a handful of Foundlings, we have the three girls who don’t want to use practice, and we have some goblins without leadership.  Things are delicate.”

“We can’t coordinate patrol schedules with you, or I think we’d be testing oaths,” Yiyun said.  “We may or may not help protect Kennet.”

Louise nodded.  Bloody tears glinted in moonlight as she glanced around Kennet.  She drew on the cigarette.

“I’ll leave when others start returning.  Nomi?  Let’s put this into action?  Find a way to convince your grandmother?”

“Can I go where you go?” Nomi asked.  “Not, like, living with you, but if you go to a city, somewhere outside of the Carmine’s territory, I’d like to go with you.”

Yiyun finished her cigarette.  She disposed of the ashes inside a compartment of her cigarette case.  “Okay.”

Nomi seemed to be trying to look like that didn’t mean a lot to her.  She nodded, a little too fast.

If you can convince your grandmother.  Adrian, Harri?”

“We’ve got family here.  I don’t think they’d budge.”

“Lis.  The city spirit,” Louise said.

“There’s a thought,” Yiyun said.  “Reaching out, maybe a move to another location?  She can link to places tied to Kennet, can’t she?”

“No,” Louise said.

Lucy turned.

Lis was there, wearing the St. Victor’s private school uniform, looking like a senior student.  Cheap-but-tidy coat and all.  The Alabaster Assembly was there too, eyes flowering, wearing a black coat, carrying a coffee.

Lucy listened, as she rose to her feet.  Avery was already two steps ahead of her, while Verona busied herself picking up Alexanderp.

“Here?  Is this aimed at me?”

“It’s across his territory.”

“Charles.  He’s doing something,” Lucy said.

“He has been doing it for as long as you have been having this conversation,” the Alabaster said.  She was now behind Lucy.

Lucy turned, backing away.  She, Avery, and Verona formed a loose triangle around the Judge in white.

“Doing much as you’re doing, talking to others about where they belong, responsibilities, and, I think, enacting a broader, subtler plan.  I do not know what he’s after, and I don’t know what you’re doing, but grave things are happening.”

“What’s going on?” Avery asked.

“He’s taking back what he made.”

“Us?” Harri asked.

“Not you.”

The Alabaster bent, planting her travel coffee mug into the snow, then straightened.  A slack thread slick with blood extended between her hands, as she held them up.  The thread had a dramatic bow in the middle of it, wet with that blood.

“A knot?  Kennet below,” Verona said.

“Things have reached a point,” the Alabaster said, gathering up the thread in each hand.  The loops that extended out from around the bow began to shrink as the thread was pulled.  “Where parts of this fall within in my backyard.  What happens to deals of protection and sanctuary if-”

Lucy was first to move.  Avery was fastest once she got moving.

By instinct, lunging forward to cross the ten or so feet of snow between herself and the Alabaster, Lucy reached for the thread.

Lucy put fingers through the loops of the knot before they could all be pulled through, before the thread could cease to be knotted and made straight.

She wasn’t sure why she’d jumped to do that.

“-he takes too much?  What happens to the people who made the oaths?  I have answers, but maybe you have a better one.”

The Alabaster let go, then walked to the side, ducking beneath the length of thread.

Lucy had her fingers in the loops, keeping them from being pulled straight.

Verona had pulled out pens and markers, doing what Lucy did.  Lucy wasn’t sure if the effect was better or not, the loops were smaller, taut around the pens and things, but she’d preserved more of the shape.

It looked like Avery had grabbed the Alabaster’s hand or hands, and now held a mostly limp thread with a small residual knot.

The three of them each holding a representation of the knot, the thread forming a triangle between them.

“The market, the people,” Verona said, breathless.

“Bracken?” Oakham asked.

“We can’t know who or what, yet.  This whole thing?  It cuts both ways,” Lucy said.  “Think about what happens.  Not just the deals broken, the contracts we made with other little markets… knots can have consequences.  We only barely avoided this one killing Kennet, between Summer and the founding.”

Avery stepped forward, taking Lucy’s hand and Verona’s hand.  She brought their hands together.

They pulled back a bit.  Threads extended to the knot between the three of them.  Lucy’s outstretched hand blocked some loops from being pulled tight, as did Verona’s pens and things stuck in it all.  Avery’s hair and the ribbons on one arm blew in the wind.  Verona had a dark look in her eyes.

“What do we do?” Avery asked.  “This?”

“No infighting.  Someone gets their hands on something?  They get it.  You want something like that?  Get there faster.”

Lucy turned her head, trying to find the source of the whisper of a voice.

“The Founding ritual, same principles,” Verona said.  “It’s a strategy that’s worked for us.  The pens and marker?  They’re a stand in for-”

“The mundane items from the Paths?  Specific random items that code in as Earthly but Lost?” Avery asked.  “That’s more Path-specific.”

“But it’s something,” Verona said.  “And we should reinforce Kennet found too.”

“Alabaster,” Avery said, turning.

The Alabaster was gone.

“This is what they do,” Lucy said, trying to absorb the impact of this, trying to brace herself to even begin to think about what they might do.  “Alabasters don’t tend to get as involved.  They put the right people on the path to solving things, if I remember right.  Knights on quests with only hints, visions, and symbols to insulate the Alabaster from direct involvement.”

She looked down at the knot between them, and it was gone.

Just there to give them the right idea and start them on the right path.

She looked at the St. Victor’s practitioners, Yiyun, and Louise.  They wouldn’t cooperate, they couldn’t, really.  Not unless they’d won, subjugated Kennet for Charles’ sake.

“Louise!” Lucy called out.  “The knotting of Kennet below might be changing.  Charles is drawing power out of it or something!”

Not a message meant for Louise, but for the people near her.

“Do we call people back from the fight?” Louise asked.  “Matthew?”

“Don’t think we can, it’s too far, I don’t know what they could do.  I don’t know what we can do, exactly.  Just be ready and available?”


“Come on,” Avery said, hand at Lucy’s arm.  “We should see if we can scrounge up the right items.”

Items… if Verona’s idea of the markers and pens blocking up the loops was a representation of the items they’d used for the founding, the fingers were something else.

The attack, destroying Verona’s home… pulling Rook away?  Had Charles been laying groundwork for something?  Weakening them in a way, so this would land better?

“Wait,” Lucy said, resisting being pulled away by Avery.  She turned, “Wait, one more thing, Louise!”


“Remember the founding ritual?  We needed items and we needed fixtures, we needed-”

“The Demesnes?”

“And the council seat.  Can you open the council?”

“A council of just me?  Almost everyone else left.”

“And anyone else you can scrounge up.  Not everyone left Kennet to fight.”

“On it,” Louise said.  “Rook gave me what I need to open the roof.  Oakham?  You come help?”

“I’ll go with them,” Oakham said.  “Are we going downtown?”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “I think?”

“I’ll come to you after,” she told Louise.  “But I want to help Bracken and Bag.”

Avery was pulling on Lucy again.  Lucy let herself be pulled.  She saw Louise nod.

The fingers she’d jammed in were stand-ins for the locations they’d used.  Fixtures, anchored in a way the pens and markers weren’t.

“Girls!” Louise called out.

They were moving.

“We don’t have Matthew.”

“We’ll figure something out!” Lucy called out.

We don’t have a third Demesne with someone present, Lucy thought.

She’d called out to Louise before, but she hoped the others had heard and would act.  That Yiyun, Harri, Adrian, and Nomi could do something.

They ran.  Oakham joined them.  Her ankle wasn’t great, but Verona put out an arm.  Oakham ended up grabbing Verona’s shoulder, to lean on her a bit.

“So glad-”

Oakham made a pained expression.

“-I got more serious about physio.”

Lucy.  Lucy.  Lucy.

A goblin’s voice.  From that same non-direction.

“It’s so quiet,” Snowdrop said.

“Calling you?” Lucy asked.

“Barely any.”

“Tell me my undercity friends are going to be okay.  Tell me Bracken’s okay.”

“We don’t know,” Lucy said, tense.

“Fuck!” Oakham swore, the word coming out strained, with her exertion from running.

“There are goblins in the Undercity,” Lucy said.  “And people there can sense something’s going on, I think.  Or they knew this was the plan.  I hear whisperings, I think coming from the access ways.  They’re planning an attack.  A raid.”

“They’ve done that before.  Raiding Kennet?”

“I want a nice two bedroom house.”

“Might have to evict people.”

“Or keep them.”

“This feels different.”

“Guys,” Avery said.  “Remember our write-ups on knots?  The shapes they can take?  We ended up with a mirror version of Kennet, but what happens if we get one of the other versions?”

“Noose, bulging, pocketing, thinning, emptying,” Verona said.  “Only some of those were valid when we were researching Kennet below.”

“Neighborhood by neighborhood.  It’s easier to get through windows than doors.  Scare the people in the houses bad enough, they won’t think about resistance.”

“Fuck!  We stabilized this, and he tears it down just like that!?  What do any of those things do to the rest of Kennet?  Kennet above, Kennet found?” Lucy asked.

“A lot of things,” Verona said.  “Few good.  It would potentially warp both.  We lose Kennet below as a mirror of the other two, Kennet found might stop being a mirror too.”

“And then?” Avery asked.

Verona nearly slipped on some ice.  She was between Avery and Lucy, and both of them caught her. “Fucking- fuck.  Um.  Get me back on track?”

You’re still tired, and distracted.

“Kennet found stops being a mirror and?” Lucy asked.

“Noose, bulge, pocket, thin, empty,” Verona huffed.  “I forget the exact terms for some.”

“Noose, common, uh, the natural forces shift.  Kennet’s people leave, Others might move in.  Kills the town in the area, Innocent society explains it away as the place being unlivable.”

“I don’t want to be killed.”

Lucy saw Lis standing on a rooftop.

“Toadswallow’s place!” Lucy shouted up to Lis, touching her earring to help it carry.  “Then the passage down the street from there!”

The road straightened.  Buildings began to slide past them, like they were in a car on a dark highway, and they were passing streetlights.  It had that effect where things looked like they were barely moving closer, sped up as they got close, and then zipped by their right or left side.

“So this could kill Kennet,” Verona said, finishing her thought from before.

“We kind of had that.  Emptying.  Before we stabilized,” Lucy said.  “The slow death.”

“It can be a mix,” Avery explained.  “Bit of noose, bit of bulging.”

“Can be a pocket.  Stuff bulges up and through, distorted space all around it, like an intense knot.  A neighborhood or building in the middle of a city that’s hard to reach unless you take a sequence of roads,” Verona explained.

“Bristow mentioned something like that, I think,” Avery said.

“Or it was a partial knot, instead of something created,” Verona said.  “Don’t remember if that building suddenly existed or existed before.  Doesn’t matter.”

“Right,” Avery said.

Lucy could see the Arena to the left.  The Arena had been a regular thing in a lot of Kennet weirdness.  Kennet below had originated from it.  The Carmine Beast had died there.

“Cover Alexanderp?”

Verona wrapped Avery’s scarf around Alexanderp until he was totally covered.  He wobbled his head around.

Sight on.

She saw the Arena.  The arena from Kennet Below was there too, overlapping, painted in very watery watercolor – but the burning tree and the hole in the side were definitely there.  Blood red watercolor washed out, taking in more and more of the orange and black from the fire and tree, until it looked like a bomb from one of Wallace’s games.  The sort that was black to start with, but then glowed red and then orange and then yellow, with increasing rapidity, until the point of detonation.

“Thinning is when the barriers between real and not get super weak, usually that’s the beginning of the Abyss or something taking the town, and-”

“I think it’s a- it looks like it’s going to blow up,” Lucy said.

Verona passed Alexanderp to Lucy.  Lucy made sure he was wrapped up.

“Yyep.  Like a pimple waiting to pop.  Stuff oozing in from below.  That’s a bulge.  A primed knot.”

“The Arena?” Oakham asked.

“I think Kennet below might just explode up and out of it,” Verona said.  Lucy nodded.

“Doing what the fuck to what?” Oakham asked.

A muffled voice spoke up, “It will, you might find this alarming, we’re in the middle of a crisis, it’s, if I can be clear, putting things on a scale of one to ten, we’re actually-”

“Fuck you, Chuck!” Verona raised her voice.  “Fuck.  It’d mean no more Kennet below, maybe, and it’ll be like a bomb went off.  Fire, echoes, spirits, negative emotions… to people outside, it might look like there was a disaster, like someone actually bombed the Arena, and everything went wrong after.  Riots, panic, people being their worst selves.  Kennet above and Kennet found, if they’re even distinct, would be laced through with below stuff.”

They paused at a property that had a fence that was almost a wall around it, posts with board between them, too tall to see over.

There was a tree beside it that had grown around an old chain link fence.  When the new fence had been put in, the old fence had been cut out as best as was possible.

Squeezing between the wall and the gnarly fence-eating tree was one passage to the Undercity.

The tree had fallen, the fence torn out, the wall damaged, and there was old, blackish blood all around it.

To Lucy’s Sight- she covered Alexanderp to be safe.  Yeah.  She could see that pulsing swelling around the damage.

They went down a block.  There was a power pole with extra wire lashed to it, forming a loose loop.  Or there had been.  The loop was gone, torn down, the way obliterated.  Old blood in the snow and damage.

We’re losing doorways.

“This is happening fast,” Avery said.

“Let’s go,” Lucy said.

Lis was carrying them to Toadswallow’s speakeasy.

“There could be horrors,” Avery said, like it was an answer to a question that hadn’t been asked, or a thought she was having out  loud.  “Innocents would be horrified, or twisted, like some people in Kennet below are twisted.  In ways that don’t fit them.”

They reached the front window, covered with plywood.  Traffic that had coincidentally just happened to not be on the street started flowing around them.  Whole parts of Kennet that had been pulled out of the way came back in, like a breath had expanded Kennet’s chest and then exhaled.

And Lucy could see more buildings picking up that energy.  The Arena was worst, because of course it was.

In a way, more than the town center with its glowing clock above it, the Arena was the heart of Kennet.

“We need something like a third Demesne,” Verona said, under her breath.

“Me?” Oakham asked.  “If I did the magic thing, then claimed, I dunno, anything?  The Arena?”

“Awakening takes time.  The Demesne ritual does too.  This might be happening in less than an hour,” Avery replied.

She moved the plywood aside.

Lucy saw on Oakham’s face what she was holding in her own heart, even if she wouldn’t and couldn’t let herself panic.  She’d been trained by Guilherme and Bubbleyum to manage her composure, or lack thereof.

In a way, it was good Oakham was here, to make those feelings more real, when Verona, Avery, and Lucy couldn’t afford to.

“I need to do something.”

Lucy gave Oakham’s shoulder a squeeze before stepping through.

Lucy then stopped the first awake goblin she saw.  A stranger.  “Go to Kennet found, Warrensways should be open if the usual ways aren’t.  Check if Miss is back.”

The goblin paused.

Lucy pointed, in the general direction of the back offices, where she figured there might be doors.

The goblin hurried off.

“She’s supposed to rubberband back after a bit,” Verona said.

Avery lobbed an opossum into the air.  Snowdrop became human, and landed, feet skidding on a dirty floor.

“I know, but I don’t want to waste time checking and I don’t want to encourage a rubberband too fast, if she’s doing something useful.”

“She can’t be our third seat.  She is Kennet found, basically.”

“I know,” Lucy said, short.

“This is a test!” Snowdrop raised her voice.  “Safely ignorable, I don’t care if you listen or not!  If you know anyone who’s not here, signal them to stay away, because we’re getting into some real boring procedural bullshit.”

Goblins that had been asleep woke up and poked their heads up.  Lucy could hear overlapping goblin voices, as names were called.

The room quickly filled with goblins from the market.  Ones too small, detached from Kennet, or incapable of joining the fight.

Avery took over.  “We need to pull together the items we had when we founded Kennet found.  Mundane items.  I think some have been in storage here, but some might have been carried off.  So… big scavenger hunt, and we need it fast, or we lose all of this.”

“No prize to the winners if we make it through this,” Snowdrop said.  “You’ve got an opossum for a goblin sage, so you’d better figure there’s zero point in trying at all when it comes to scavenging.  That base is thoroughly covered, there’s nothing to prove.”

Lucy saw the little toad-protector looking like she wanted to help and wanted to put the toad somewhere, but didn’t want to leave it, so she ran back and forth a bit along the same section of the bar, beneath the stools.

“Lucy?” Oakham asked.  Oakham hadn’t come through, and stood with her back to the window.  Lucy really wasn’t sure that it mattered, though.  On a lot of levels.  Oakham had seen so much already.  Maybe it was a question of deliberateness.

I guess we’re going to have to find out, with whatever would be the opposite of having training wheels on.  Rocket strapped to our backs.

“What do I do?” Oakham’s words had an emotional intensity to them that was threatening to cut straight through to Lucy’s own emotions, and she wasn’t prepared for that to happen.

Lucy bent down and took the toad.

The toad-hugger looked up at her, horrified and forlorn, following Lucy to the window.

Avery was outlining what they needed in terms of items.  Goblins were pulling things out from the back room.

“Oakham,” Lucy said, quiet, passing Oakham the toad.  “You okay guarding this with your life, until the owner comes back?”


“I’d say it’s someone’s whole world, and we need her to be a scavenger,” Lucy whispered to Oakham.  She crouched down, whispering, “That’s what you want, right, little one?”


She felt like she got Verona and Peckersnot a little more.

“We gotchu,” Lucy whispered.

The goblin nodded fast and then ran forward to join the thicker parts of the crowd.

It looked like some other goblins had seen.  Lucy gave them all looks, and they scattered.

Lucy stood, then whispered, “Okay?”

Oakham nodded.

It frees the little one up to be useful and keeps you out of my hair.

Which wasn’t fair, but… she really had no idea what to do with herself, let alone Oakham.

“Stay where we can get in touch?” Lucy whispered.  “Go to Louise when it feels like things are more intense?”

Oakham nodded again.

“Guys?” Avery asked.  “I’ll do this part.”

It was said in a way like, Please go, I’m not sure this will be enough.

Lucy nodded.  “Lis?”

“Lis,” Verona said, when there wasn’t an immediate response.

“Lis,” Avery said.

“Yes,” Lis replied, stepping into view.  Bits of glass and dust were pushed across the floor, like a small shockwave had hit.  Lis looked agitated.  When she turned her head to look at them, she briefly slipped into the appearance of Nettie.

“When we first came to Kennet, goblins were limited in the parts of the town they could access.  Under Ken, we really opened that up.  And you’ve been keeping it open too.”


“If these guys are hunting for the right items to finish these sets of mundane items… can we open things up more?  To homes?”

“That costs.  I take responsibility.”

“Goblins?  For these items only,” Lucy said, as authoritative as she could be.

“You can fuck with them a little, this time,” Snowdrop said.

“Done,” Lis said.  “I hope you’re right that this matters, because I’m barely holding things upright.”

Then she was gone.

“Okay, guys,” Avery addressed the room.  Some goblins were bringing things out from the back.

Lucy stepped through the window, pushing the board aside.  Verona followed, cradling Alexanderp.  Oakham trailed behind them.

“I’ve got to be at my Demesne,” Verona said, to Lucy.  “I can- I’m worried I’ll go and I won’t do anything else useful.”

“Then eyes forward, keep us on task for what comes next?  Or nap-” Lucy asked.

Verona laughed, fierce and brief.

Oakham was tenser, hearing that laugh.  It reminded her of how she’d felt when Kelsey had laughed, when the Aware-ening of the parents had happened.  When it had felt like her life was crashing down around her.

“Mal, and Anselm…” Verona said.  “I should ask a goblin-”

“Mal’s gone,” a small goblin said, near the window.

Verona looked down.

“Went to fight.  Said it’d be funny.”

Verona swayed a little on the spot.

Lucy reached out, and pulled Verona in for a hug.  With a hand, she grabbed the scruff of Oakham’s coat at the shoulder, pulling her in too.

Oakham, for once, wasn’t stubborn about shit.

Heads knocked together a bit, after they’d settled into a hug-huddle.

“Kennet below’s like this really shitty, really fucked up cat I put so much of myself into,” Verona murmured.  “At really hard times.”

“I know.  It’s good you’re saying it.  That’s some good claim there.”

The goblin Lucy had sent off was back.


The goblin shook its head.

“It’s dark in Kennet found?” Lucy asked.


“We need a third place to claim,” Verona said.

It felt like a microcosm of the entire thing, planning against Chuck.  Avery with an idea that might not be enough, but that laid groundwork.  Verona with no ideas.  Lucy…

“I’ve got it covered,” Lucy said.  “Okay?  It’s handled, I think.  So you handle other stuff we can’t right now.”

Verona nodded.


“I’ve got a toad.”

“You handle Ronnie, then Louise.  Round up goblins to be part of the council.  Make sure to talk about Kennet below a lot.”

“It’s important?”



Lucy broke away from the hug.  She faced the other two.  The plywood that was nailed at one corner and could be moved aside to be their door into the speakeasy was ajar, and she could see Avery, talking, organizing.

She nodded, communicating silently with both.

Then she went.

The town distorted in front of her as she ran.  Traffic passed her, then didn’t keep coming.  Places that were dark illuminated.  Parts of it distorted because Lis was working to shorten the ways.  Parts distorted because of the way the knotting was going.  To her Sight, which was freer now that she was further from Alexanderp, the watercolors were being applied in increasingly bright and intense concentrations.

It looked like swords were being poked through the paper of reality from the other sides.  Points sticking through with no handles or ribbons.

She could hear more of the mob.  The raid that was imminent, eager.

“Lis, Lis-”

“I’m here.”

“I guess this is where things come back on you,” Lucy said.  “When you did what I asked you to do, were you serious about it?  Did you set it up so it’d stick?

Lis seemed to infer her intent.  The way cleared, the turn in the street moving closer to Lucy, so she could see straight ahead, to the town center, with its clock above.  They’d fought the Choir under a clock like that.

And between here and there was a part of Kennet that had been made to look nicer for tourists.  With old-style lamp-posts with electric lights inside them, and paved walkways, and gardens.

The monument they’d installed.  A series of short steps led up to a short pedestal, with the statue above it, epigraph below.

“Sable?  We made a deal,” Lucy said.  “That certain things would matter more.  That I’d get more karmic weight.  That they would.  To make up for a wrong done by the powers that be.  To make up for oversights.”

She put on her weapon ring on her left hand, the chain with John’s tag and Yalda’s ring attached.  She closed her fist around it, winding chain around hand.  To use some things like the duelist’s arena, she’d have one hand occupied anyway.  She could still grab spell cards in a pinch.

“Made a deal with Lis here, to establish this spot,” Lucy said, to the open night air, surrounded by a distorted Kennet, that had been pushed back and away to isolate this spot and give it more prominence.  “Again, addressing past wrongs.  To reach a tough compromise.”

The town strained.

“Do you think you can give me a good door through, Lis?” Lucy asked.

The distortion happened locally.

A door through to Kennet below opening around Lucy.

She didn’t walk through, but straddled it.  Kennet above and Kennet below.

She could shift her weight slightly to the left and the monument was one with a few battle scars, but it stood there, a fountain instead of an epigraph.  Military dogs in various poses, pointing, snout down, lying down injured, piled up there.

A shift to the other side, and it was a man.

Avery came running, slowing for a second as she saw Lucy.  Then picking up speed.

“I’ve got them on the job.  We have one near-complete set of mundane items.  One goblin who really likes footwear took pieces from three different sets of items.  Some goblins are trying to find where they might’ve stowed things.  It doesn’t- it doesn’t matter the shoes are clean, right?”

“Might even be better.”

“I’ll manage them, help Snow.  I- you okay?”

“Have to be.”

“You want me to come back?”

“Get to the rooftop before anything goes off.  Each of us in one of the three locations.”

Avery nodded.

Have to hold Kennet up before we even know how bad the damage is.  What he took out.

She thought of Verona and Oakham’s expressions.

Bracken… was a friend.  A training buddy.

She thought of all the people that she’d seen on the other side of the river.  Disadvantaged, struggling.

It wasn’t a mean cat she’d taken care of, but she’d done a lot to try to find some kindness in it, and give kindness to it.

“The rooftop is Kennet’s future, our goals, our plans,” Lucy said, glancing at Avery, who’d lingered, looking out at swollen, distorted Kennet with her eyes misty green.  She hadn’t taken the time to peek when Verona and Lucy had been looking.  Avery mostly saw connections as lines of film, and the traces of things that were left behind represented as handprints.

“Verona’s demesne is us in the moment, our thoughts, our ability to act, the people we’re holding close at any moment,” Lucy said.  I hope you’re listening, Sable.

She could see the people from Kennet below now.  A concentrated group.  She’d seen them as a mob before but it had been a mess.  People had pushed back.  There’d been people lingering, looking out apartment windows, not participating.

This was more focused.

It was like she’d had Lis open up a vent-hole, and the people that were now funneling this way were responding to it.

“And here we have a monument to the past.  Things we lost, people we’re carrying with us, even though they’re not here anymore.  A bit of John in here, a bit of Ken, because city magic made it happen.  And if we lose anyone from Kennet below, let that give weight to a space like this too.”

“We’re losing a lot,” Lis said.

“Sable, by the Law, by the deals we made when I came to see you, by the karma invested… fucking stop that.

She felt the air stir.

She stepped into it.  A counter-move like Bubble had taught her, applied to the ability to stand so the wind or cold slid past her.  Except she let it hit her, let it catch her.

Her ponytail was pulled to one side, as was her coat and the end of her scarf, wind whipping around her, making constant noise.  She stood across the doorway that had formed here, one eye peering into Kennet above, and one into Kennet below.

“Now we’re not,” Lis said, quiet.  “But pressure…”

“Let’s hold onto who we have,” Lucy said.  “We’ll manage best we can.”

The Family Man was in the crowd.  Not at the front, but people moved around him, showing him respect.

“You going to be okay?” Avery asked.

“No idea.  Gotta try.  Or my mom will be upset.  Plus…”

Lucy looked up at the monument.

“Of course.  You know, what’s happening, in abstract…”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“Yeah,” Avery said.

And then Avery ran off, going around the monument so she could black rope.

This is, in a way, a lot like what we had in mind.  Except what we’re going to do is going to be ours, not his.

Awareness.  It wasn’t a side effect of what they were doing, as she’d alluded to, with the St. Victor’s deserters.  It was the point.

Avery was gone.  Lis was here in spirit only.

Lucy stood here alone.

They would stand together against the seal.  They’d tear out its teeth if they had to.  There were things that were needed but things needed to change, too.  Assumptions.

The family man and his people gathered.  Lucy had her hole through to Kennet above, and Lis was holding it open.  Everything was being pressured to vent out.  This was the pore the pimple popped through.  The opening the explosion would blast across.

Here, at least, Lucy was alone.  She stood against the very worst of Kennet, of society, brazen and clear to see.  Enough people that the space between the building faces on one side of the downtown street and the other side was packed, and people still leaked through, coming out side roads north and south of there, or across rooftops.

Anything and everything she could do to handle this would reduce the force of what was pressuring to burst out through Kennet and knock down that three-sided town.

The Family Man wore the thorn in the flesh that Verona had stabbed him with as a necklace.  He was shirtless, less gaunt than he had been, and pale skin looked like it had been splashed with blood so often that the stains had set in.  He spread his arms wide, smiling indulgently.  Religious leader to his shitty congregation.

“My child,” he said.

“You have no idea how stupid that is,” she told him, and she stood so the wind rattled past her, weapon in hand.

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Go for the Throat – 23.c


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The foundling put the bow to her violin, below a hard white mask that covered her lower face.  She wore a long, slinky red dress that opened up around the feet, and a white fur coat, and snowflakes clung to her black hair.

“Uh,” Mal said, as the woman began drawing out a long, eerie note, giving away their position.

A finger was pressed to her lips by one of the foundlings next to her.  She considered snapping at the finger.  One of the ones from the town hall, who worked under Miss.

The woman stepped out of cover, past the frontline guys Stew had brought in.

After some hesitation and signaled communication, some of those guys hurried forward.  They worked in the factories, and hoarded metal.  That metal got melted down and put to work, with Stew’s enforcers getting plenty to keep.  Makeshift body armor was worn over winter clothing, to the point barely any skin showed, and a lot of that skin was scarred.

The lead enforcer was a woman, wearing an inch-thick steel plate on her front, welded to a collar, which her helmet was welded to, in turn.  Whatever wasn’t welded to another piece was attached with chains.  She carried a grouping of homemade shotguns on her right leg, doubling as armor, and a sliding steel door she’d pried away, attached handles to, and now carried as a makeshift shield, big and sturdy enough she could probably stand up to a small rocket.

The other three that hurried up and raised similar shields were in that same ballpark.  One had a large irregular metal blade and the other had a teenager following behind him, carrying what he needed for the cannon he’d slung around his back.

The violin playing began in earnest, with the armored enforcers guarding her from three directions while she trudged forward through the back field behind the Blue Heron.

Others started forward.  The Foundlings and Lost didn’t crouch, and looked very casual as they walked forward.

Someone bumped Mal’s arm.  A guy, smoking.  It took her a second to recognize him- and she didn’t, really, until she saw past him, saw his friends, and the woman in chains they were trying to keep under control.

He didn’t want to talk, with everything going on, so he waved, smiling awkwardly with one half of his mouth while keeping his cigarette in the other half.

She gave him the fingers and moved a little distance away.  Fucking nah.  She knew them.

Shortly after Kennet below had connected up to Kennet above -Mal liked the idea it had always been there- some middle aged woman who thought she was hot stuff had trawled past the hangout spots near the school for teenage boys.  Yeah.  A self-described ‘cougar’, to use the slang term.  She’d been so caught up in the ‘prowl’ she hadn’t noticed she was in Kennet below.  She’d apparently been of a mind to put up with anything, so long as she got what she was after, which led to the collar, muzzle, and chains, and all the boys had been interested in was having an attack dog.  Or an attack cougar.  So now she got nothing, which was good, and Kennet found had helped them make the black sheep ‘cougar’ rabid and a little more animal, which was just, maybe.

It was the sort of thing that made Kennet below make way more sense to Mallory than the alternatives.  What would even happen in Kennet above?  The boys would get spooked by the old lady’s overtures, cry and run home to their mommies, then cry some more?  Get tucked in nice for a nap?  Or worse, they wouldn’t, and the cougar would get what she wanted?  This way, at least, she’d become something that contributed to bigger dynamics.  There was no ecosystem up there.

Mal glanced around.  The foundlings and others who were moving forward here were leaving her more and more alone in the shadows of the trees.

Given the choice between being alone or being part of the group, she joined the herd that was crossing the no-man’s land between the trees and the building.  There was something going on, right?  Some magic, some trick to make them invisible, maybe?

She kept crouching, using the heaps of snow that had accumulated for cover- more like snow dunes than actual mounds of ground with snow over them, she quickly found out, as her arm went through one.

Mal could see a bogeyman- bogeywoman?  Creepy angel lady, winging her way through the air.  She dropped out of the sky, landing in the snow ahead of them.  Wings were stitched to the ends of wings.  They draped around her, and the snow was stained black on contact, like creeping mold was seizing it.

The lead enforcer reached for one of the shotguns, then paused.

The angel had a strip of rusted metal bolted to her jaw, comb-like narrow teeth extending upward, that she peered through with yellowed eyes.  She threw one arm back, making one wing fold and awkwardly bend, like a cape tossed back out of the way.  There were half a dozen people huddled in the blackened snow beneath, covered in sores, with black branches and bits of black stone embedded in the diseased and infected flesh.

Okay, they definitely weren’t invisible.

Mal looked back at the fifteen paces-long gap between them and the trees, considering her options.

The music played through the standoff, the violinist moving slowly because she wasn’t walking very fast, and the snow was deep.  The enforcers moved slowly because they were each carrying or wearing at least three hundred pounds of steel.

A flare of orange caught her eye.  The edge of the roof.

Edith, right?  Or- no, her name had changed, since the human part was dead.  The Girl by Candlelight.  The spirit was a ghostly white woman with a massive candle held across one shoulder, both ends burning.  Wax ran through her hair, and the ends were lit.  The snow melted around her, and it melted into black wax, which had little bowls with candles on them floating in them.  She was on a part of the roof that sloped, and the candles-in-bowls slid down the slope and were eased down to the ground by the slower-flowing liquid wax.

And there was one that they’d been warned about, when the Bitterstreet Witch had outlined who they might be fighting.  A man in overalls, a winter jacket, high winter boots, and a toque, who held a scalpel, and moved funny.

Mal hesitated, then glanced back over her shoulder, assessing her options.  The cougar boys were there, and if it was down to the cringe factor of being near them or being here and getting torn apart, she wasn’t ruling out the latter.

Mal knew them because they’d come by her stepmom’s place for her extra dog stuff and a cage.  Her stepmom had adored them, and they’d played up the act of being nice boys, which, like, read the room, stepmom.  There’s a snarling woman with a leopard-print top and a makeshift muzzle crouched in the corner of that room, which is our kitchen.  Don’t want to get close to them.  It was the sort of thing that wouldn’t fly now, with Verona and Lucy wanting black sheep handled a certain way, certain things kept more surface-level polite, whatever.  But this was one of the things that had been there before they’d laid down the law and grandfathered forward.

Either way, one of them in particular kept coming up to Mal, complimenting her tattoos, or her clothes, or offering her free snacks, cigarettes, and pot.  Probably buttering her up to get close to her stepmom.  She didn’t want to have to deal with whatever silently mimed bullshit they pulled right now, in the middle of this.

If she could get by them- yeah.  The cougar didn’t like the violin, that was playing more and more intently as they got closer and closer to trouble, so they moved further to the side.

She started to retreat.  There were plenty of buildings around here.  And shacks.  Every person from Kennet below was their own kind of ‘double check to be sure’, and so she glanced at some kids who trailed behind, struggling with what was close to being waist-deep snow for them, in places, saw how they were chain-smoking… she had to guess age.  Each grade level below high school and set of classrooms was a gang in the school.  Seconds, thirds?

Wait.  The cougar boys, and the thirds, and the seconds.  Some scattered fourths, fifths, sixths, sevenths, eighths, and then high schoolers like the cougar boys.  And they had cigarettes in plentiful supply.

Mal knew better than to think a love of Kennet would get these guys to all play along.

It was the Vice Principal, who’d been hard to see past some of the administrative foundlings and the other kids, because she didn’t have her steed.  She was wearing a suit jacket and tie with a tutu-style poofy dress, eye shadow heavy, hair floofy, with lots of makeshift piercings and decorations, including bars running through eyelids.  A grouping of pens, jewelry, coins, and bits of paper had been hot-glued onto what might’ve been construction paper wrapped around cardboard, and pinned to her chest.  Oh, there were gold watches laid across her shoulders.  It was probably meant to be like a fancy military general might have.  The things at her chest would be medals from tours of duty, except they were things like tickets from winning one of the tournaments in the arcade, wedding rings taken from people she’d beaten up, and other odds and ends she probably thought looked cool.

The Vice Principal pointed.  Forward.  A silent instruction to stay with the group.

Verona had told Mal that this would be way too much for her and to hang back, so obviously she had to wait until Verona had passed through, then go through herself.  She’d pull off something cool, steal something as a memento and proof, and then lord it over Verona for a long while.  If she could find a boy to pair up with for a while, that was a bonus.

Mal looked at the angel, the Girl by Candlelight, the scalpel guy, and the gaunt goons who’d come with the bogeyman.  The violin playing filled the air, and some of the foundlings from the city office had papers in hand, held so they were rigid, and rapped them against their arms in sync.  The sound of the papers all together was like a snappy drum.

The scalpel paused, then ran off.  The angel flew off to the other side.

Was that because of the Vice Principal?

She casually reached for her tattoo gun, and the music intensified.  It reached a sharp pitch that made her flinch as her hand brushed against the handle.

So that was what was going on.

Mal straightened a bit.

We’ve got a nice easy walk over to the building, but then what?

It suited the Vice President to be part of a move like this, where the bridge was basically burned behind them.  Except it was more like they were on a boat, and the boat wouldn’t be guaranteed to make the return trip.

Okay.  She’d have to keep an eye on their security.  Whatever that looked like, when they couldn’t do much.

The wax flowing off the roof was making a small lake, off the back of the building.  It was darker than water would’ve been, with the candles floating in bowls drifting out until they hit the shore, where they melted snow into more wax.

Blocking the way.

Mal, a little more aware that her well being depended on the violinist, moved forward, careful, and bent down.  She extended a finger, then pulled back.

The wax was hot.

The Girl by Candlelight leaped down from the roof.  Or flew- it was a little vague, like she became momentarily liquid, a rush of flame streaking behind the wicks.

Circling around.  It took two cougar boys hauling back on the chain to keep their attack cougar from lunging for the Girl by Candlelight.  With the way she was moving, she’d wade straight into the hot wax.

They were being closed in.  Encircled by this sea.  Smoke rose off of candles and steam rose as snow sizzled and melted, and it made clouds.

The view past those clouds was a little vague.  Shifting.

At least very few of their people seemed to be panicking.  The enforcers in their welded steel armor didn’t give anything away.  The violinist played a mad, intense solo, the foundling administrators were unflinching.  There were people from Kennet below who were putting on a brave face, and it was only some of the kids- especially kids who were on their own, who were looking nervous.

It was better if they acted like they didn’t care, if it was a student from the sevens who was mostly surrounded by a group of twos.  Showing weakness could mean getting stabbed from a low angle, the moment the Vice Principal wasn’t looking.

Mal had to take her own advice, and stood straighter.

One of the enforcers dropped their shield onto the wax.  The violinist and two of the administrators stepped onto it, and the enforcer kicked it.  The pool of wax was shallow, and the shield skidded across it, stopping at the far ‘shore’.

The Girl by Candlelight rushed forward, eyes burning, and the violinist stepped into her way, playing, head tilted.

Two more shields were dropped in, one after the other.  Three in a row was enough distance to cross this ‘moat’.  They weren’t at the school, but they didn’t have far to go to get there.  Everyone crossed, with Mal taking care to hurry over before the cougar boys could follow.  She didn’t want to be associated with their cringe.

The Girl by Candlelight took off, flying.

Three big guns had been arranged around them, all had left.

The enforcer with the cannon aimed the weapon at the exterior wall of the school.  An administrator put a hand up, moving a finger to tell him to wait, head bobbing up and down with the music.  A second put a hand up, waving the finger through the air like a conductor with his stick, head also bouncing.  A third, head bobbing in sync with the others, put both hands up, counting down from ten.

Was that the timing, for a cannon to go off in sync with the music?  The violin built in volume and intensity.  Sweat flew off the violinist’s forehead as she whipped her head around, despite the fact it was as cold as shit.

He squared off, bracing himself, one leg bent, the other straight, back end of the cannon braced against the back leg, watching.

The sky brightened at a spot over the trees.

The countdown was at ‘four’ when the light swept over them.  It felt like a bomb had gone off, and the shockwave was hitting them all, but it wasn’t a bomb, it wasn’t fire.  There was no noise to go with it.  There was quiet, with the violin playing cutting through it.

The violin had been building to something, but did a little pivot, and countered the new scene.  Mal could feel her clothes rustling, and saw her winter clothes turning to something lighter and brighter, her tattoos peeling off- no!

There was a push and pull to match the violin’s sound.  A note played, long and loud, and it pushed back.  It paused, in the brief shift between notes, and ground was lost.

Mal stumbled as the landscape changed, dropping to her knees.  As she did, she felt the effect nearly take her.  Something warm and dark slid over her, like a pleasantly wet blanket, the space between her legs, between arm and body, between fingers, between chin and shoulder, it pulled, and it pulled in a way that crumpled her, folded her.  No pain, just more warmth and wet.

No thinking, just watching with a mind dulled, like a house wired with electricity, but no need for the lights to be on right now, because it was sunny and warm.  She was folded and compressed, her body split between two people, a boy and a girl holding hands.  She weighed a hundred and eleven pounds and all of her was crammed into that tight space, about half the boy’s chest, his arm, the girl’s arm, most of her upper body.

Like putting a foot into a shoe to find a dead and maggoty mouse in the toe, she found other things here, long dead.  Birds, insects, and mice.  Some were alive, some were dead but still aware, twitching, rustling, finding their own positions crammed into this place.  They reacted to her presence, and added pressure, with blind panic, rage, something else- and they bit, scratched, dug into her.  She reacted the same way, head and heart dulled, body reacting instinctively, twitching, digging in and clawing as much as she was able to, when there wasn’t an iota of space.  If pulling a hand away from a hot stove was flight, being crammed into a tight space with others who occupied it produced something fight.  Every inch of her.

The boy and girl smiled.  All was cushioned by warm wet pleasantness, like damp grass on a summer day, mind, heart, and body.  All- this neighborhood, the people, the grass, the buildings, it was nice.  Pleasant.  She could lose herself in it further.

Through senses that weren’t one of the ones given to her as a human, as if she was crammed in so tight that it wasn’t always certain where her nerves ended and other ones started, she could feel it.  How every inch of this place stretched over that bloody, desperate, crammed-in struggle.

She could lose herself in the sun, in the kiss, the comfortable, sunny clothing.

The boy and girl turned to one another, kissed, then stopped holding hands and went in separate directions.  Half of Mal was carried away in the boy, and half was carried away in the girl.  She was in their skin, in their bones, in their clothes, traces of her exhaled into this bright, sunny neighborhood when they breathed, to meet sun and grass.

There was a flash of a golden sunbeam behind the school with the blue windows.  Trees rustled.  Every person in the neighborhood turned to look.  Some started walking in that direction, and Mal could feel how the weight was being shifted, concentrated over there.  That was where the festival was.  That was where everyone was, of course they’d go.

A homemade shotgun fired.  Some heads turned to look at the source.  Nobody had acted like they had been shot.  Another shot followed.

Very, very far away, the cougar was released by the cougar boys, and threw herself into things.  Tackling someone just ahead of Mal, biting, clawing, for only two seconds before she was consumed, swallowed up by grass and one bystander.

Multiple things pushing back, and the shift of focus-

Mal had a leg sticking out.

She wasn’t nice.  She wasn’t pleasant.  She didn’t trust nice or pleasant.

She could-

She had an arm free.  She reached down, and with most of the rest of her still swallowed up, one a dozen feet away, and still walking, not even caring about the commotion now, she grabbed her makeshift tattoo gun out of the holster.  The ears that heard the violin weren’t hers.  The hands that would have covered those ears but still felt the music weren’t hers.

There was push and pull, still, weaker now that the focus was elsewhere, and she could- she timed for the pull.  The gun fired, vibrating, and raked a line across her arm.  It was a homemade tattoo gun, made by Verona, third edition, a Christmas present.  Part of the tube broke, and when she moved it, there were times the needle was jabbing past skin, into deeper tissues.  Another pull- another tattooed gouge- more of a u-shape.

The violinist moved closer to her, and the effect pulled most of the way away.  Mal was still attached to the boy, and a spooled-out, gory thread of her stretched between her legs, stomach, and right arm and the part that had her head and arm.

People with bags over their heads, sharp-toothed mouths drawn randomly across the bags, like some shitty pattern, were approaching.  They paused.

The scene shifted.  Mal was relinquished.  A picnic table long enough for a hundred people stretched out at the foot of the hill that led up to the school.

She knelt there, stunned, flinching faintly when there was movement to either side of her.

Her left eye didn’t work.  A lot of her felt cold.  Especially her head and left arm.  Her left arm-

She reached over with her right arm, rubbing it.  It prickled painfully, numb, and the blood wasn’t flowing properly from the wounds, neither the ones from the tattoo gun or the bites.

She couldn’t even get a good look at it.  Her left eye was blind, her arm hung limp, flesh of her hand blue where it lay against her hand, where the blood didn’t run a thick, goopy black-red, like blood from a corpse instead of from her.  She couldn’t even reposition it, because moving it made the pins and needles too intense.

She made her hand move.  It hurt.  She opened it wide, fingers splayed, then, with two attempts, clenched it into a fist, breathing through grit teeth.

That small amount of exercise got blood flowing.  Fresh red blood pushed the thick black dead blood out of the way.  She slapped her arm a few times.

One of the adminstrators turned, putting finger to lips.  Shushing her.

Are you actually serious?

She tried to focus on what was happening.  The bogeymen were coming in, lining up behind chairs.  One approached her, extending a hand, taking her by the arm, grip firm near her armpit, hauling her to her feet.  She tugged her way free, stumbled, still a little dazed, and watched as he pulled her chair out.

The others were settling.

One bogeyman broke apart a baguette of bread.

The violinist ceased playing, sheathing her bow.

The administrators rustled papers and sat down.

The Vice Principal took the chair at the one end.

Plates of cookies were being passed all around.

Clothing rustled as the bogeymen got settled in.

One remained standing, pouring out cups of tea.

A break from the suburbia, everything in rhythm.



spread out her hand, clenched it, spread it out, clenched it.  Working the blood through her arm, so it felt like crushing agony instead of dead flesh.

She thought of Verona.  Verona’s hand.

“I do love tea parties,” the Vice Principal said, with a clap of her hands.

Bogeymen dipped their heads in acknowledgement, bag-covered heads ‘facing’ her, for lack of a better word.

“We are so glad,” one of the bogeymen answered, clasping his hands together.

The Vice Principal sat at the end of the table, and put elbow on table, looking at the administrators from Kennet found.  Miss’s hands.  “So.  You were with the violinist, now you’re with me…”

“Miss Principal, we must insist you show manners at the table.  You are a guest,” a bogeyman said.

“You already know what I had in mind, do you?” she asked the administrators.

They were silent.  Papers had been set down by their place settings.  One took tea that was handed to her.

“Miss Principal,” the bogeyman said.  “It’s rude to ignore your hosts, especially when they are letting you know the rules of the house.”

Is this a three strikes thing?  It feels like a three strikes thing.

The Vice Principal sat up straighter, hands in her lap.  She smiled at the bogeyman that was serving her, and took a piece of bread.  Then, to the bogeyman that had spoken, she said, “I apologize.”

Mal felt uncomfortable, hearing that.  Too weak.

She felt fucking uncomfortable about a lot of this.

“You can’t interrupt the violin music, right?” the Vice Principal asked.  “And now we’re here, and-”

“Miss Principal-”

“Hold on, hold on, don’t interrupt.  That’s rude,” the Vice Principal said, her tone getting more dangerous.  Which helped Mal ease up a bit.  “-now we’re here, and we’re eating bread, and I know from my meetings with the Kennet leadership, that’s a big deal, it is, it’s magical politeness, and I’m betting you twist those rules up, don’t you, waiting for someone to screw up before you punish them for breaking some obscure magic politeness rules.  I want my plus-one.”

The final line changed in tone.

The bogeymen were silent.

“You guys work for Miss, don’t you?” the Vice Principal asked the administrators.  “You take any magic lawyer ‘can’t do that‘s and make them stick better?”

Mal felt a thump.  She looked back.

The Vice Principal’s predecessor.  He’d been in charge of the school when everything had connected up, Kennet below materializing.  A hardass, a tyrant.  And under the Vice Principal, he’d been twisted up into something monstrous.

He forged his way across the field, oversized and clumsy.  The size of a house.  Clothes didn’t fit him, but the way weight hung off him, it didn’t matter- no bits were visible.  Old paint and scars covered him.  He spent a third of the time staggering on his feet, a third of the time crawling, and a third in the midst of falling or getting up, carried by momentum.

“He was not invited.”

“He’s my plus-one.  If I can plan a tea party and include people like him, I don’t see why you can’t.  Or… can’t you serve him?”

The man stomped forward.

“He was not invited, this can be treated as an act of aggression,” a bogeyman said.

The bogeymen began to rise from their seats.  Mal reminded herself where her makeshift tattoo gun was, even as she saw an administrator raise a hand a bit off the table, to gesture ‘stay’.

“According to Mince’s Handbook on decorum,” one of the administrators said, “1887, an invitation includes an implicit welcome for any life partners of your guest.”

“Her minion, and that rule is absent in the ’88 edition.”

“Addressed in Letters to Polite Patty a year later, and whatever the partnership is called, it fits the standards in chapter three…”

Mal looked around the table, searching for someone who was as confused at this as she was.  Even the Vice Principal was playing along, apparently.  Stew Mullen’s lieutenants in their heavy armor were too hard to read, with their helmets on, and her eye traveled down the table to the cougar boys.  One of them shared her look, clear on his face, which was good, she wasn’t crazy.

One of them winked at her, though, which ruined it.

Keeping some creepy-ass woman as an attack cougar on a chain?  Sure, whatever.  Everyone needed a thing, but they called themselves the cougar boys.

The cougar boys.

She cringed and put her still-stiff hand up by the side of her face.  Which reminded her that she was still blind in one eye.

The ex-principal had lumbered up to them, and had stopped behind the Vice Principal’s chair, confused.

The Vice Principal beckoned, and he bent down.  She undid the clasp on his head-enclosing helm.

It thunked to the ground, heavy.  His face was red, and his hair and beard were plastered to his face.  He stretched his jaw open, and it audibly cracked.  He eyed the table of food.

“-sets out standards for tiers of partner, and outlines how improper it is for a mere beau to crash any party-”

“-of a certain measure of class, if you recall Mince’s handbook, ’87 again, chapter four, where Mince outlines what a party is.  We are outdoors, in casual dress, some of us messy from what we may classify in the exercise and games class.  This tea party should be classified as an affair, with all the standards therein.”

“However it’s classified,” the Vice Principal said, “my guy’s been standing there without anyone even asking if he wants a seat.  Or tea, or any of that bread.”

“We can waive the seat,” one of Miss’s administrators said.

“Can we?” the Vice Principal asked.

“We can, but even a guest who arrives under mistaken conclusions should be given refreshments.”

“The guest is a boor.  He arrives in a shabby state of undress, sweaty and greasy,” a bogeyman replied.  “Ample excuse to turn him away, Mince’s notes, ’89.”

“Turn him away from the door, you know as well as we do.  We are outdoors, evidently.”

Do they?  Do we?  Is this real? Mal thought.

“The door in this case is metaphorical.  But if you wish to stress the fact we are outdoors, then we can turn to Persimmon’s Rules for Picnics, if you’ll allow.”

“A classic text on rules and decorum.”

Mal rolled her eyes.

“Persimmon writes that in a picnic in particular, a guest must be careful not to be a glutton, for the basket has only so much, and I must say, it’s a certainty you brought a glutton here, which forces a point of contention.”

“And we get to the heart of the matter.  We are within a minute or two of easy walking of a kitchen.  You seem to stand unprepared to feed a guest’s partner you had reason to expect.”

“We are prepared, and we must continue to take issue with the notion of him being a partner.”

“Yet you made no comment of the inclusion of the muzzled woman on a chain, at the far end of the table there.  Here you have a guest of class, a military leader and a warlord, and you’re not prepared to extend the same?”

“Again, we are prepared, if you continue to say we’re not we must take issue.  The point at issue is once we start to serve him, we’ll find ourselves at a stalemate that serves neither of us.”

Ohhhhh, Mal realized.  All this dancing around was them trying to avoid being put in a weird situation with trying to feed and serve a bottomless pit.  And apparently that mattered?

“When you’ve insulted a guest’s partner by calling him a glutton and a boor?”

“Can I say something?” the Vice Principal asked, abrupt.

One of the administrators nodded slightly.

“Kennet’s hardcore school handbook, rule one, bam.

Mal tensed.

A bogeyman replied, “We’re not familiar with that text, they aren’t relevant-”

“Can I- what’s the word?  You’re a liar!” the Vice Principal said, leaning forward.  “It’s very relevant.”

“You’ll need to cite it and prove that.”

“I did.  Bam, that’s the citation.  That’s the rule,” the Vice Principal said.  She glanced back over her shoulder, frowning.  “Bam.”

The ex-principal startled, then lunged forward.  He swatted the table, upending it, slamming it and all the bogeymen sitting at one side of the table into the hill.  One of the administrators sitting to the Vice President’s right was only barely pulled out of the way.

“That’s the rule.  Bam.  I use it a lot.”

Mal got to her feet, tattoo gun in one hand, a knife pulled out from a belt sheath in the other.  The bogeymen were getting up, or pulling themselves out from under the table.

Two attacked people sitting at the end of the table.  Stabbing the lead enforcer where armor didn’t protect her.  The cougar on a leash was unmuzzled, and pounced.

The ex-principal put his weight onto the long table.  Wood cracked under his mass, but he took another step, and it didn’t crack, and compressed.

A deafening explosion startled Mal enough she fell down.

The cannon had blown a hole in the wall.

Trouble was coming from all directions, and the weird altered reality was pressing in.  Mal felt her heart leap in her chest.

Couldn’t wuss out.

But backing away was smart.

“To the hole!”

The Vice Principal whistled, and the big guy leaned forward, reaching out, and pulled that two-foot wide hole in the wall open, tearing the wall partially down.

The massive ex-principal was being swallowed.  His legs were becoming a crowd of people and a pair of cars parked on the grass.  He crawled away from it, punching at the air, only for his hand to get pulled into the effect.

The violinist began playing.  It seemed to take all of her effort to protect the ex-principal alone.  The effect encroached in around them from all directions, and it was all the intense violin playing could do to keep it from swallowing up her or the oversized man.

Mal and the rest of them climbed through.  Mal’s hands and shins scraped against the broken edges of the wall.

The big guy sat down, his back to the hole in the wall, him and the violinist outside, the playing muffled.

The room was so crowded Mal couldn’t see what the small space even was, and feeling closed in made her feel like she’d react like she had when compressed inside that weird warm wet space… so she was eager to get away.  Maybe too eager, moving before thinking.  A hatch opened in the wall, a tiny gnome-man fighting a squirrel and a rat with a tiny hat tumbled out, nearly tripping Mal, who did a little skip-hop to avoid them.

She glanced back to see the Vice Principal grab them before they could go under the bed, a space that glowed the same ominous orange as the world beyond the little hatches.  The Vice Principal hurled the gnome thing through the hatch.  The squirrel and rat threw themselves through the hatch, after it.

“Brownies,” someone said.

It was so distracting Mal barely realized she’d crossed the hall, which was punctuated by more glowing doors.  Some of the lights had broken, and shadowy figures moved this way and that.

She hauled another door open, to go inside there.  She left the door open, so she could see across the hall.  She struggled to catch her breath.

It didn’t look or sound like anyone had seen her or identified her as an invader as she’d crossed  It didn’t look like the ‘everything is bright and sunny grossness’ thing reached into the school.

A lightly furnished bedroom.  Like one of the barracks rooms that was at the school.  There were open trapdoors and hatches on the wall and even one on the blue-tinted window, painted to look like the outdoors.  Or what had been the outdoors.  It showed winter and outside she could only see a sunny outdoor barbecue in some really preppy neighborhood.  Fires roared on the far side of the trapdoors, and ominous shadows moved, with nobody quite showing themselves.  She saw some rodent and bird shapes race across, shadows cast from orange-tinted little hatches to the far wall of the room.  She saw the shadows of brownies.

She tensed.  There was a boy crouched in the corner.  She’d almost missed seeing him with her eye fucked up, the light playing tricks on her.  He sat there in his tighty-whiteys, pants around one ankle, flushed.

He was holding a girl’s underwear.  But he was masked.  The mask was almost the only thing he was wearing.

“Yo.  Foundling?”

“It’s not what it looks like.”

“I really don’t care.”

“I needed cloth… for reasons I don’t want to get into.”

“Don’t care.”

“Of someone that’s allergic to anything that’s not silk.”

“Don’t care, okay,” she said, absently, as she peeked out into the hallway.  A group of brownies were marching toward a hatch, carrying one of Sootsleeves’ little urchins, who was lashed to a pole with an apple in their mouth.  Pigeons were similarly lashed to the parts of the pole the kid didn’t require, with apple slices in theirs.

They were confronted by people from the other room, that had come in with Mal.  The brownies abandoned their prizes.

The coast was clear, it seemed.  A group of her guys were standing by a weird dead end at the end of the hall.  The other end of the hallway disappeared around a bend.

She felt a prick at her back.  Sharp.  The boy’s breathing was heavy on the other side of a mask made of interconnected blocks.

She went still.

“Don’t move, don’t say anything, don’t signal,” he said.  “Stay behind, be quiet and good, I’ll treat you as nicely as I can, given the situation.”

“What’s the situation?”

“We’ve been bound,” he said.  “Bound and spellbound.  But there’s leeway, still.  I get to use you before they get you.”

He took her knife away.  She let him.

He didn’t seem to care as much about the tattoo gun.

She hung back as the people who’d come through signaled, organizing.  They broke into two groups.

One of the cougar boys glanced at Mal in passing, but didn’t see the boy behind her.

The boy peeled away parts of the blocky mask he was wearing to expose his lower face, then pressed the silk underwear to his nose and mouth and inhaled, deep, before murmuring, “Good.”

“Yeah?  Good for you, bud.”

“Shhhh.  Now open your mouth.  Stick out your tongue.”

He put something on it.  Pills.  Her mouth was dry enough they stuck.  She didn’t have saliva.  She was already kind of fucked up from everything earlier.  Being caught by that weird neighborhood effect.

“Not in any way legal, but sometimes a guy has needs.  Swallow.

The blade dug in a bit deeper.  He leaned into her, then used his foot to nudge the door to swing closed.  The side of his foot stopped the door at the last second, so it wouldn’t slam.

“Did you swallow?” he asked.

She tongued the meds into the side of her mouth, between cheek and gums.  Then she lied, “Sure.”

He grabbed another pair of underwear, and pushed it into her face, partially into her mouth.  “Keep that there.  Now…”

He maneuvered her so she stood with her back to the window.  He was holding a knife, and had hers in his belt.  He stood with his back to the closed door.


She gave him a long, lingering look.

“We’ll need something to keep that there,” he pointed the knife at her face.  She still had the underwear clamped in her teeth.  He reached over to the desk, where a roll of tape was.  “Strip.”

She raised one foot off the ground, then fiddled with the laces.  He turned his attention to the tape, trying to find where it started to peel it away.

So she, leg already raised, knee bent, kicked him square in the underwear.  Hard enough for nuts to be introduced to gut.  He banged against the door.

She spat out the underwear and pills, while he let out a long gurgling sound, doing his best to stay standing.

Around the same time, the door opened, hitting him, and sending him face-first into the bag of girl’s clothes.  Two girls looked as startled to see the two of them as they were to be interrupted.  It looked like the girls had rushed into the room to get out of the way of people in the hallway.

Two girls in the uniform for the private school.  Enemies.  Practitioners.  Not ones Mal had seen when Rook had been talking to them on the rooftop, while Verona, Lucy, and the other one were away.

“The fuck?” one girl hissed.

“Bind them now,” the other hissed, reaching for her waistband.

The boy lying on the ground in his underwear kicked the girl’s legs out from under her before she could get what she was after.

So he wasn’t bound?

Was this an opossum situation?

She didn’t have time to dwell on it.  She hadn’t had a moment to think, really, since leaving the trees.  She had a general sense of what practitioners could pull, by now, and she knew she couldn’t let either girl pull anything.  The boy was trying to handle the one girl, who was a bit older than him, and Mal was left to deal with the other.

She rushed the girl, hopping over the boy and the girl he’d knocked over.

Mal wasn’t a fighter.  She’d come out the loser in more than half the fights she’d been in.

No moment to think since leaving the trees, an edge of panic had dogged her since she’d been eaten by the sunny neighborhood thing, and she hadn’t even had a chance to figure out what to think about it before the boy in the weird mask and his underwear had held her at knifepoint.

She grabbed clothes and hair to pull the girl forward, while rushing into her, trying hard to get the girl’s head down, and get her own body in the way of the girl straightening up.

It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t graceful, it wasn’t even a fight– the closest she came was bringing her knee up to try to pop the girl in the face.  This was a scrap.

The girl tried to pull away, and Mal went with it, pushing.  They passed through the doorway, across the hallway, and into a barracks room on the other side of the hall.  The girl fell, and Mal had a moment where she stood tall.

“Goddess of bloody glor-”

Mal grabbed the nearest piece of furniture, a short bookshelf, and hauled on it.

“-uhh!” the girl gasped out an inarticulate sound as she saw the bookshelf start to tip her way.

She flipped onto her belly and scrambled to get out of the way.  In the process, she didn’t notice Mal wasn’t strong enough to actually bring the bookshelf down on top of her.

But it was a chance.  Mal jumped onto her back, twisting the one arm that wasn’t under the girl up and into an awkward position.

“I’m not one of the nice ones who offers surrender, sorry,” Mal said, leaning her body into that twisted arm to make the shoulder bend in ways it shouldn’t.

“Wouldn’t-” the girl grunted.  “Ask.”

Someone had gone to help the boy, it looked like.  Okay.

“You going to get around to breaking my arm?” the girl asked.  It sounded like she was trying to be brave, but the fear leaked in, and the fact she’d asked betrayed weakness.

Mal was pissed.  For a lot of reasons.  She’d come with a plan in mind, and it’d be a bit of glory, a bit of casual theft from people who deserved it.  A boy if she wanted the bonus points.  Except this didn’t feel glorious.  She wasn’t getting a chance to steal.  The only boys who paid attention to her were losers.

She thought about Verona.  The look on Verona’s face.  That tired edge.

She felt that.

Empathy fucking sucked.  She felt a flare of rage.

Rage was better than the alternatives right now.

She got her tattoo gun, which dangled from an elastic lanyard at her wrist, ready at hand.  Then she leaned harder into the arm to immobilize the girl, gripped her hair with one hand, and drew out words.  The girl struggled, which made the lettering shaky.  She focused more on keeping the needle at the right depth for the ink to stick.  If it punched in any deeper, it would gouge and maybe scar instead.

FUCK.  F near the temple, K near the center of the forehead.

YOU’RE.  Y near the ear, E by the nose.  A bit crammed in.  The girl shrieked.


The girl managed to twist free, making strangled scream sounds, and pushed Mal away.  She scrambled backed away, between bed and dresser, sobbing.

The hole in the wall with the back of the Vice Principal was just beside her.  She looked baffled to see it there, in her panic.

“Want me to finish the last word?  Supposed to be goddess.”

“You tattooed me!?”

“I wasn’t done,” Mal said, voice low, as she straightened.  She felt very tired all of a sudden, and sore.  “Just so you know, the plan is to kick you in the face until you say a lie and lose your magic for a while.  I’ll try to avoid scuffing the tattoo, since it’s fresh.”

“You tattooed me!”

“Hey,” Mal said.  She crouched down, and the girl flinched, arms going up to shield her face.  “Hey.”

“You tattooed me.”

“Yeah.  Oh, it’s prison ink.  There’s iron in it, so don’t think you can laser that off.”


“It’ll overheat and burn.  And magic shouldn’t do too hot either,” Mal lied.

She saw the horror on the girl’s face.

“What the fuck do you think is happening?  Where do you think you are right now?” Mal asked.

“I don’t-” the girl stuttered.  She was dissolving into panic again.

“Hey,” Mal said, her voice soft.  “You were going to bind him?  You were going to bind me?  You’re worshiping this shitty goddess?  What do you think all of this is?”

The girl shook her head.  She was crying, one hand to the side of her face.

“People are dying.  People are in agony, every second right now, because of the people you’re working for.  How long have you been at this?”

“Since the New Year’s.”

“Fucking hell.  And they drag you out here?  All of you hate your parents that much?”

“They set up magic.  Magic called connection blocks.  To make our parents not worry too much about us being gone.  I threw in the word evacuation and they acted like it made sense.  Getting kids out of the town while it’s scary there.”

Mal snorted.

“Oh my God.  How am I supposed to show them my face?”

“Dunno.  Makeup or something.  Funny how you’re mentioning God when you’re meant to be worshiping this naked bloody lady.”

The girl didn’t seem to hear her.  “What did you draw?  It felt kind of aimless.  Did you scribble on me?”

Mal ignored that.  “How’d they sell that to you?  Hey.  How?”

“It wasn’t a sell- it-” the girl shook her head.  “It all went to shit, start of the school year.”

“I might take offense to that,” Mal said.  “Since that’s when me and my people showed up.”

“Sorry, I-” the girl hesitated, looking scared.

“I won’t, though.  Keep going.”

“It went to shit, they said our school might close.  People left.  Then it kept going to shit.  Gangsters in the streets, flipping cars, and people kept leaving…”

“Theirs, yours, the side you joined, they were flipping the cars,” Mal said.  She paused.  “Some were ours.”

“Then the riots a few nights ago, buildings burned down.  It felt hopeless, scary,” the girl muttered.  She wasn’t even focusing on Mal.

“Their hopelessness.  The team you joined, they did that,” Mal told her, still crouching, sitting on her ankles, tattoo gun held in one hand.

“I dunno, I- I guess they came to anyone who didn’t feel like sticking around.  Saying, you know, you want to not feel hopeless?  Helpless?  It’s friends, it’s feeling like you have power again.  It’s the opposite of hopelessness, it’s the opposite of years and years of… of feeling like there’s nothing but an overheated planet and old men getting rich by doing nothing about it.”

“How’s that working out for you?”

The girl gingerly touched her face.  “They didn’t tell us- didn’t tell all of us we might have to fight like this, until we were already here.”

“But you stayed, after.  You fought.  You had to know, that they’re shitbags, they’re hurting people.  Hurting your town.  Just because they’re not overheating the planet or whatever, doesn’t mean they’re better.  They’re hurting the people who are better.”

“I didn’t know.”

“Seriously?  The grungy guy in the red fur coat, the bloody goddess with the creepy dudes she totes around?  I’m not saying we’re all angels, on this side, that’s obvious, but seriously?  If you all can’t read the writing on the wall there, maybe you shouldn’t worry about the writing on your stupid face.”

“I didn’t know,” the girl said, quiet, looking down.

Mal used the end of the bed for stability as she pushed herself up to a standing position.  “Maybe you didn’t deserve that, then.  Whoops.  Maybe find me later, I’ll turn the words into flowers.”

The girl let out a small, incredulous sound.

“Or don’t.  I don’t care.”

“She wouldn’t deserve it, but she just lied, twice,” a voice croaked.

Mal turned around.

Toadswallow.  Mal hadn’t realized she had an audience.


“I suspect your bit of canvas over there thought you were going to gainsay her anyway, so she might as well get out ahead of the running with a convenient lie.”

“Huh,” Mal grunted.

“It doesn’t work that way.  The lie is meant to be more costly than truth.”

“Is me being a bit more pissed off about the lie part of that cost?”

“The lie will hurt what she was trying to save.  It will find a way to dog her, maybe to her home, her parents.  Those words you wrote specifically, I think, they’d hurt her connection to her goddess.  She’s well disarmed.  If you were one of my goblins, I’d give you a prize.  There’s an entire practice of goblin namecallers, who try to do that sort of thing by sticking crude words to someone, you could teach them things, you could learn things.”

“I’ve got some mojo, huh?”

“On this subject, it’s more her failing than your strength, my dear, a relationship to a higher power is fraught, easily damaged.  Let a temple get damaged in your sight, it permanently harms it, and wear those words-” Toadswallow croaked, pointing.

“What did you write on me!?”

“-Maricica may well be obliged to hold her graces back from this dipshit disciple,” Toadswallow finished.

“No mojo.  Damn.  That’s cool, though.  We can ruin the Goddess’s shit?”

“Desecrate it.  You have a little ‘mojo’, dearie, and you’ll get more, pushing yourself like this.”

Mal nodded.  She still felt shaky, adrenaline running through her.  She didn’t like it.

“You couldn’t have used a permanent marker?” the girl on the ground moaned.

“Permanent tattoo means a bit more.  Spirits don’t listen nearly as much to the unawakened, but if they’re going to listen some, that’s louder.”

The girl moaned.  It looked like she wanted to bury her face in her hands, but the raw tattoo hurt too much to touch.

Mal shook her head, angry emotions running through her.

Toadswallow was distracted as his girlfriend leaned in to whisper something in his ear.

“Hey,” she snarled at the girl on the floor.  She used her toe to prod the girl’s chin, to raise her face, so the girl would look up at her.  The girl roughly pushed the foot away, in a flinching sort of way.  “Girl.”

“I have a name.”

“People are fucking dying,” Mal reiterated.  “Getting hurt.  So don’t go bitching about a scribble on your face.  You played your part, however small.”

She feigned a kick, and the girl shielded her face.

Mal shook her head and turned away, angry.

Others had subdued the other girl.  People slipped past her to handle the girl she’d tattooed, to tie her up, or something.  One of them was one of the people hosting a shrine spirit, head hanging forward, scalp torn open.  They breathed heavily.

Her arm throbbed.  Her left eye was still blurry and dim.

Empathy feels lame but I feel you, buddy.

She felt upset, and that upset came from a place she didn’t like or want to dig into.

She was here to prove Verona wrong, to steal some shit, score some points…

That uneasy anger stirred at that.

She faced down the boy who sat on a bed in his skivvies, wearing the block mask with the ends of the underwear sticking out the sides, where the blocks had been reconnected over nose and mouth, trapping it inside.

“Is he trustworthy?” she asked.

“No,” Toadswallow said, behind her.

“He held me at knifepoint, threatened me, then stopped this one,” Mal said, pointing to the other girl, tied and gagged, sitting on the chair by the desk.

“It’s complicated.  I’d guess he was holding a knife and you happened to be at the end of it.  He might not have realized.”

“He stuffed underwear in my mouth, told me to strip.”

“Perhaps because you needed it, dearie?”

“I needed underwear?”

“And your hands were full?  The mouth works.”

“One of my hands was full.  He took my knife.”

“Maybe he needed it, and your other hand?  Ah,” Toadswallow said, taking note of the injury and the discolored skin, bruised where it stuck out of the sleeve.  The mark from the lines she’d drawn with the tattoo gun was badly inflamed, the blood oozing still, in places.  “You had no free hands.”

She narrowed her eyes, looking at the boy.

“What he said is sounding good,” the boy said, pointing at Toadswallow.  “Let’s go with that.”

She folded her arms, tattoo gun in one hand, tapping against her bicep.

“Anything else, I plead the fifth.”

“We’re Canadian.”

“I want to plead the fifth anyway.”

She turned to Toadswallow.  “So there’s an explanation for everything?”

“We’ve got the east wing, they’ve blocked the way to the rest of the building.  We’re making some inroads, but we’re losing people.  We have ten different things we need to do, without the people to do it.  It’s up to you if you’re willing to help the boy.  It’s fine if you say no.  The Vice Principal would work well, but we need a leader,” Toadswallow said.  “And I’m not it.”

Some other goblins had made it into the hallway.  Peering around Toadswallow.

I just came here for a lark.

Did I just come here for a lark?

She looked across the hall, at the girl with the bleeding face.  The fucking stupid fucking idiot.  Senseless.  She’d done all this because she felt hopeless?

A thousand half-formed thoughts ran through Mal’s mind.  Her world was Kennet.  Everything she liked, everything she hated, everything unfinished.  The boys she liked, fucking friends, weird friends.

She thought of Verona- times when Verona had been lowest.  Because of this.

She felt angry again, in a way she couldn’t put words to.

She looked to the side.

Some administrators were talking to- to Belangers, by the looks of it, with the blue color scheme to their clothing.  Not any of theirs.  Had these ones hidden out?  Or come in?


“And you need me?” Mal asked, finally.

“You’re one of the best options we’ve got,” Toadswallow said.

“And with this guy, what?  I’m supposed to trust him no matter how sketch he sounds?”

“Mm hmm.”

She looked at the boy.  She nodded.

“Strip,” the boy said.  “Get on the bed, and you’ll definitely want this.”

He handed her a container.

“Lube,” the boy said.  “I always carry this with me.”

She turned to Toadswallow, glaring.

He smiled ear to piggy ear.


Her heart leaped into her throat when, just when she was most helpless to do anything about them, a bunch of brownies ran past.  She was stuck, fighting to get traction, clothing pulling as she worked through the gap.

A group of rats ran by, which really wasn’t better, in terms of the claustrophobic feeling and the reminders about being crammed inside that wet, weirdly pleasant space.

Hands pushed on her from behind.  One touched her butt, and she managed to kick them in the head.  A pretty good connection.

It took a couple minutes, but Mal, having stepped onto the bed, managed to squeeze herself through the largest hatch.  She squeezed through the narrow corridor, and dropped down to the ground on the far side.

She’d stripped down to a t-shirt and the pyjama shorts she’d been wearing under her jeans because she’d run out of clean underwear and didn’t want to do the laundry.  Both articles of clothing had been soaked in the lubricant, which she’d slathered all over the rest of herself.  She’d still scraped ribs and hips raw at the sides, climbing through.  She adjusted the mask she’d improvised out of a handkerchief, to help deal with the smoke, here.

She clapped her hands, once.

Someone tossed a handbag they’d emptied and stuffed with her things at her.  She’d greased up enough that residual grease on the floor of the corridor helped the bag slide to her.  She pulled it over her shoulder, then crouched.

Blazing ovens and fires nearby illuminated her.  Many of her tattoos were on display, on bare arms and legs.  There were plenty she didn’t remember giving herself.

She still had plans.  Ideas.  She needed to interconnect them.

Sliding fingers over them, she composed herself, catching her breath.

Boy Suspicious had gone ahead, and as she crouch-walked down a corridor so small her shoulderblades grazed the ceiling, he popped out ahead of her, chewing on something.  The silk underwear had been converted into a mask that helped him breathe.

“Whatcha eating?” she asked.

“Doesn’t matter.”

“You know there’s a bunch of stories about eating things in these places?  If a dumbass like me knows…”

“Doesn’t matter.  It’s not food,” he said, before finishing chewing and swallowing.  “Let’s go.”

She was the skinniest, smallest person who could be trusted, who knew enough about enough different Other things and practice.  Or- well, she’d picked up things.  Like drawing the line on her skin with the tattoo gun.  Which shouldn’t necessarily have been a thing, if she didn’t practice, but maybe it had given her that one percent edge.

Her arm throbbed.

She looked down at the wound, ragged and angry, the lips of the gouge standing up and peeling back a bit.  She’d gotten a bandage, but then when she’d been slathering herself up, it had gotten gross and come off.  She’d handle it later.

The pills had been strong prescription painkillers.  Allegedly.  She wasn’t getting much out of them.

And her eye was still fucked.

Fires roared at the base of massive pots, some of which had boiled over.  The lubricant doubled as protection from the flames, which was a big reason she’d gone for full coverage.  The cloth face-covering only barely helped, and did nothing to help her eyes, which watered and blurred as fast as she could clear them.

A lot of it had been left untended.  She could hear the fighting out where the pot tenders had probably gone, a neighboring room.

Huddled in shadows, smoke rolling away from nearby fires, helping to hide, it, was a rat.  The rat raised a flag, using it to signal, pointing.

They were almost to the rat, crouch-walking, when it squeaked, flag swatting her shin.  It barred her way, or barred it as much as a rat could.

It motioned, and they hurried to hide between a pot and the wall, heat radiating off of the simmering fires beneath that pot.

A group of brownies ran by.  Some little moth-winged fairies fluttered past, accompanying them.

She gave it as long as she could before escaping that heat, skin prickling in a way that felt like it might reveal itself to be a mild burn later.

The rat directed them.

A ladder that had been grown out of the wood of the wall ran up the wall to a catwalk, which was similarly naturally curated wood, some of which still had coppery wire wrapped around it, controlling the directions it curved as it grew.

When Boy Suspicious was near the top, she climbed too.  She wasn’t heavy, but the wood creaked, threatening to break under her weight.  It was meant for the brownies that ran these kitchens, who were easily a tenth of her weight.  She found the most stable point, waiting, so she didn’t drag Boy Suspicous down with her if she broke it.

From her vantage point, she could see across the tops of the pots.  Lots of similar dishes were being cooked.  Many walls had massive mirrors, or sometimes many, trimmed in coppery decoration, with the rolling clouds of steam from nearby pots and smoke from fires playing off one another, wiping the slate clean, hinting, drawing out images.

There’d been a fight here, and this particular lab had been abandoned, the scraps moving elsewhere.  She could hear the screeches, hisses, and bird noises.

Didn’t matter.  A pigeon was at the top of the ladder, holding a flag, pointing.  Boy Suspicious paused to collect a shard of mirror that had broken in fighting earlier, and surreptitiously slid it into the back of the waistband of his underwear.

He saw her looking and turned his body so she couldn’t see.


She climbed, and the pigeon bounced, pointing.

At the top of the catwalk, weird as it was, she still needed to crouch.  There wasn’t much space between the extended platform and the ceiling.  Her greased shoulder squeaked briefly as it rubbed against a mirror.  She felt a chill, and saw her reflection, wide eyed, looking startled.

In the course of the fighting, Sootsleeves’ minions had found a few ways to navigate this place.  They’d reported back, Boy Suspicious had heard, and this was what he’d wanted of her.

Or as he’d explained it, he wanted to drag her off to an isolated location with no direct communication in or out.

The heat from the fire was bad near the ground, but the heat and limited vision from the mingled steam and smoke was worse up above.  Mal could see the shifting fog on the mirror that ran alongside the catwalk, and through it, she could see that even though there were fifty pots here, each massive enough to drown a car in, managed with long wooden spoons with handles reaching all the way to the catwalk, there were more.  She could see through the mirrors to another version of this space, with details slightly different.  Pots with different things floating in them, pots managed by brownies in that world that weren’t present in this one.

It was the same, from room to room.  There were rooms with gardens, ingredients being grown under jars with glowing fairies in them, rooms where ingredients were processed into spices, chopped, or carved.  Many more rooms where dishes were being prepared.

It looked less like they were making things to order and more like they were preparing literally everything theoretically possible at every moment, variations covered by the spaces behind mirrors.

Mal looked into a mirror, and saw herself.  Wearing different clothes, with different tattoos, arranged in different ways.  Like she’d focused on doing sleeves, an idea that had crossed her mind once.


She looked, studying the surroundings.

She tracked the location of one in the mirror, hanging from a section of the ceiling to dip a long-handled spoon into the mix and taste it.  Her eye fell on a chandelier-like twist of wood with lights on it, that helped illuminate up above where fires weren’t as present.

Twin glowing eyes shaped like ‘x’ marks opened with four eyelids, peering around from the middle of the twist of wood.  Camouflaged.

The eyes glanced past them, and she wondered if they were shaped like ‘x’s because it somehow protected against the heavy smoke and steam.

It didn’t make them much better at seeing, though.  Maybe they didn’t need it.

The eyes closed.  Or stopped glowing.

She looked back at the mirror, and the brownie thing was gone.

She started to move, then stopped as a bell rang, high, and brownies came out of places she’d had no idea they were in.  Hatches and hiding places.

Fairy-lights were snuffed out, lights flared on, a dozen bowls were already being filled with what might have been butter chicken, passed from brownie to brownie with lightning speed.  They worked in twos, one passing it along, bowls moving so fast they had to face the wall more than they faced the ceiling, to not lose their contents, the other ones adding garnishes, and silverware.

Rapidfire, high-pitched voices screamed out, and bowls were discarded.  Like they’d picked a dozen sub-variations to fit the order, then narrowed it down by specific criteria.  Tossed bowls clipped the ground and went into little disposal hatches along the sides of hallways.

Two bowls made it as far as the midpoint of the hallway.  An artificial, non-orange light poured out of some door Mal couldn’t see from her current angle, some distant and modern music playing.

At which point mice, a pigeon, and an urchin crashed into the brownies and food was spilled, dish broken.

That distant hatch slammed, music and light cut off.  Fifty different brownies screamed in unison.  Ones further down the catwalk, around the corner, and in the next room came out, throwing themselves down toward the tops of the steaming pots, gripping the edges with bare feet and hands, preparing more bowls, while others went to deal with the invaders and clear the way.

Boy Suspicious grabbed her arm, hand sliding on skin.  They ran, ducking low, so the railing could provide some cover.  At each turn, one of the rodents or pigeons was hidden and waiting to direct them.  As they went that direction, the animals followed, matching them.

They turned a corner, ran down a hall, and then had to pause.  A mouse dashed ahead, waved a flag at the exit to the hallway, and a signal was given elsewhere.

It sounded like a hundred glasses shattered.

Brownies screeched and went running in that direction.

Clearing the way again.

They passed over a bridge that ran over various drinks, in what looked like an alchemy setup a thousand times as complex as Verona’s in the kitchen.  Below them, they could see various goblins going another route, to a different destination.  They had the girl that Mal had tattooed with them as a hostage, it looked like.  As they passed by, decorations on the wall clanged and rang.  Anti-goblin wards, alerting brownies.  Allegedly there were some anti-spirit wards and other things too.

Not so many anti-human wards, for Mal to trip.  Part of the reason it had needed to be her.

“Shit,” Boy Suspicious muttered, under his breath.

She followed his gaze.

At a catwalk to their right that ran against the wall, parallel to the bridge, there was a group of brownies matching their movements.  As Boy Suspicious slowed, and Mal, running behind him, was forced to do the same, the brownies matched their speed, coming to a near-complete stop.  Some fanned out, and started climbing things.

“If things get bad, I’m leaving you behind,” Boy Suspicious said.

“Right.  I guess I’m supposed to… thank you?”

He turned, looking over his shoulder, and gave a half-smile, snorting and rolling his eyes.


She reached into her bag.  Tattoo gun.  She liked having it with her.  Bits and bobs for the gun.  Wire, ink, sandpaper.  And some things she’d bought at the market.

She pulled one out.

A goblin candy.

She held it over the side of the bridge.  Over one of the huge vats of fruit juice.

Every brownie froze.

They moved back and out of the way as she and Boy Suspicious came down the bridge.

When she reached the end, she shifted position, ready to lob it underhanded in that direction.  Some brownies were scrambling to get below, ready to catch it.  As more collected, the others got braver.

She moved, fist closed around candy, which was behind her head.  They scrambled to prepare for a long-distance lob, instead.  Buying her and Boy Suspicious a few more seconds.

Sweat mixed with the lubricant and rolled down her.  It was black, almost, from the smoke that filled the air, and the grit she’d picked up working her way through the hatch.

“Hey, Boy,” she said.  “Reach into my bag, and grab another candy?  We can relay this, maybe.”

Brownies continued to prowl around her.

She turned to look at him.  Boy Suspicious wasn’t there.


A distant crash made brownies startle.

Part of the group preparing to either catch the candy or come after her split off, running away.

She took stock.

“A bit shorthanded?  Stretched thin?” she asked.

She backed through the doorway and stopped at the way to the next room.  If there wasn’t an option…

It was a room that, mercifully, had a high ceiling.  Very high.  Shelves went a few hundred feet up, hidden in a haze of shadow and mist at that height.  On every shelf, it seemed, there were preserves.  Mirrors on either side were angled to reflect variations on those preserves and pickled things.  Even the floor was a mirror, to enhance just how tall and deep this pantry was.

Brownies followed her in, keeping a fifty foot distance, tense.

A distant bell rang, with another immediately following.  Brownies scrambled to action, popping out of more hatches.  Some high above grabbed things, dropped them for others to catch, which were whipped through hatches.  Quick, mechanical motions.

And, in the wake of it, the brownies finished that job, and there were twenty more brownies suddenly paying attention to her.  They screeched, and others replied, screeching, high-pitched voices chattering, overlapping one another, like they didn’t even take turns talking, they just communicated all at the same time.

They got brave, closing the distance.  So she tossed the candy, quickly reached for more- something in one of the candies poked her finger, and she tossed a handful more.

Some bounce off shelves, others banked off jars.  But some didn’t.  At least one plopped into a jar.

And brownies shrieked.

They threw themselves as a group toward the shelving unit, pulling jars off shelves, tossing them down.  Others caught them.

She ran, glancing back.  She saw candies raining from the sky.  Not the ones she’d thrown.

They’d fallen into the mirror below and had come out the ceiling, different, maybe.  Or there was a complete other her who had done the same thing above.

It unnerved her.

Ninety nine out of a hundred brownies seemed preoccupied by the pollution of their preserves pantry.  Others did chase.  Squirrels and mice and one scrawny kid came to the rescue, intercepting them.  Most of them.  Mal punted one of the ones who got close, carrying a bucket of boiling tea.  She had to vault, kind of, grabbing a railing to get the clearance necessary to avoid wading through the spilled tea.

A pigeon flew ahead of her, flapping madly and making awkward landings to pivot fast enough to round the corners.

She saw Boy Suspicious.  He was opening a hatch.

“Nice one, guys,” she told the animal helpers who’d come this far.  She put out a hand for a high-five and a pigeon headbutted it.

“Shhhh…” Boy Suspicious whispered.

The hatch moved.  It looked like a painted picture.  A girl from Sootsleeves’ territory, wearing a rat hat, put her hands up, and mimed shadow puppets on the wall.  “Hisss, rawr.  Ggraaah.”

Mal could hear distant voices.

She moved to Boy Suspicious’s side.

“You made it,” he whispered.  “Let’s operate under the assumption I didn’t use you as bait.”


“And that I knew you’d be okay.”


She peered through, and got a view of what might’ve been the main classroom.  A bunch of kids in the private school uniforms, like they couldn’t be bothered to change into regular clothes, then some others.  Bogeymen, maybe.  A guy with a big cannon made of twisted metal.

Boy Suspicious pointed.  Mal had to crowd him out of the space to get the angle to see.

There were a bunch of their people there.

Boy Suspicious had said they were bound and spellbound.  Used in the same way that someone might say they had burn victims.  Not everyone was burned, not everyone was spellbound.  But ‘they’ had been compromised.

She saw the victims.

“Here, I’m pretty good at this,” he murmured.  He dragged his fingernail against wood.  “You’d be surprised how many girls I’ve lured to a window in the dead of night.”

A head turned.

“More power to you, bud,” she replied, still whispering.

“A lot of them aren’t with us anymore.”

Someone came.  A foundling woman, with a living fox and living fur coat, a fluffy mask at her eyes.  Glowing diagram work encircled her neck, and her eyes matched that glow.

As she rounded that set of bookshelves that blocked their view of the rest of the room, Boy Suspicious moved the hatch to a nearly closed position.  He scratched again, making a faint sound.

Riding that line between being alarming enough that someone would say something about it and alert the room, and minor enough it could be ignored.

The woman moved close enough to notice the gap between the painting and the wall.

Boy Suspicious threw the hatch open and lunged.  He caught her around the neck, then pulled back.  Choking the woman with furs, covering her mouth to keep her quiet.

His eyes widened, as he looked at Mal.

Oh.  Fuck.  I’m supposed to do something?

She got her tattoo gun.

It was on a half-second before Boy Suspicious kicked her.  The jarring of the kick made her let go of the trigger.

The boy grunted.

Mal could see that the woman’s living fox fur collar with a fox head near the collarbone had reared up and bitten him.

She leaned in, and instead worked with an awkward angle, trying to find a gap where the boy’s arms weren’t in the way, working with a broken tube that the wire fed through.  She reeled out wire, snipped it, then quickly rubbed it on sandpaper at an angle.  She didn’t have her jeans on, to rub away any burr.  She tried using the back half of the sandpaper.

The way the device was built fed ink through to run down the wire, the wire, shaved down to a point, would pierce skin, depositing ink at a layer.

He was losing his grip, trying to hold on with greased arms.

She worked as fast as she could.  She didn’t know how these things worked, but there was a diagram, she knew lines did something to block stuff… so she used the tattoo gun without the motor, poking out the tattoo as fast as she could, against a squirming subject.

Trying to get enough of a line, crossing that diagram… not too obvious, maybe.

Because that woman was in enemy territory, and she wouldn’t fit through this hatch.

She went back to fix a part where the line was more dotted than consistent, and the glow broke.  The diagram remained, burned onto skin, but with a somewhat jagged black line interrupting it.

The boy carefully released the woman.

She turned, and looked at them with damp eyes.  Her fur collar raised itself up and licked the Boy Suspicious’s bloody arm, like an affectionate dog.

He moved his head, motioning, and she nodded.

Casually, she walked away from them, fixing her collar to hide the missing glow.

He moved the hatch partially closed, then scratched.


Mal hurried to trim, extend, and sand the wire.  She poured alcohol over the end of the setup, then wiped it.

Not that this was hygienic, but maybe it’d make the difference between an ugly infection in a day or an infection in an hour.

They’d already drawn someone else in.  A guy.  Some bruiser from the undercity.  Maybe one of the Bitter Street Witch’s.

They repeated the process.  More awkwardly this time, using the cover of a bookshelf.  The mice and pigeons and things had carefully looked for a vantage point this good.

But it was harder.  The man was bigger, Boy Suspicious had an injured arm, slick with blood and lube.

The woman with the furs reversed direction, and discreetly lent her aid, helping to pin the guy against the wall.

Mal was a little quicker this time.

Two down.

Hatch closed.

Scratch.  Scratch.

The woman with the furs and the bruiser moved to the side, pretending to talk in murmurs.

“You are weirdly good at that,” Mal noted.

“At luring people into compromising positions?”


“It’s a specialty.  I’m getting to use a lot tonight,” he said.  He reached down to his shoe, and pried off the toe.  He leaned out of the hatch, over to the bookshelf that stuck out and away from the wall, as a subdivider for the larger room, and placed the block there, between books.  “There.  Another specialty.  It’s a hidden camera.”

“Sure dude.”

He scratched, paused.

People walked by.

Scratched, scratched again.

Someone came.  He moved the hatch to a nearly closed position again.

A girl, this time.  With a domino mask.  She glanced to one side, at the pair, as if wondering if they’d noticed.

She reached the picture, and he grabbed at her-

She ducked it, evading, backing off.

The woman with the furs and the bruiser came at her.  Cornering her.

She moved, hair flying as she found a gap-

Boy Suspicious managed to grab her hair, pulling, and then grabbed her head.  Pulling her neck into the edge of the hatch.  She coughed and made a gurgling sound.

“What’s that?” someone asked.  The guy with the cannon.

Mal did what the Sootsleeves kid had done before, and hissed, making screeching sounds.  Boy Suspicious made a squealing noise.

The woman with the furs stepped away, eyes rolling, shaking her head, as she fluffed the furs at her neck.

“Fucking brownies, putting me on edge.”

The girl fought, struggling.  Slippery.

Mal couldn’t get an angle at that tattoo.

The bruiser pinned the girl, holding her arms.

Boy Suspicious dipped low, he pulled his mask and the silk underwear away from his mouth, and he planted a kiss on her.  Four, five seconds long, as Mal got hair out of the way and got to work.

“The fuck?” the bruiser whispered.  “You know her?”

“Yeah.  My sister.”

The bruiser looked at Mal.  She gave her head a tight shake.

“I thought true love’s kiss might work.  Sometimes does for this sort of thing.”

The bruiser looked like he was going to say something.  Mal shook her head again.  Poking.  It wasn’t enough to cut off the lines that were there, the line she was drawing had to be its own thing.

“Let’s just simplify things and say it’s brotherly love and that that can be true love’s kiss too.  I really love my sister.”

“Okay, whatever,” Mal hissed.

She did what she needed to do.

The diagram broke.

“Something’s wrong,” someone at the far end of the room said.


“Hey,” Boy Suspicious whispered.

“Hey,” the sister replied.

“Dad?  Was he able to find-”

She shook her head.

“Can we-?”




“Fuccck,” he whispered, his fingers tracing his sister’s hair, tucking it behind her ear.  “We-”

He paused.  Pointing.  The sister’s eyes flicked right.

The hidden camera?

“Wanted to get more,” Boy Suspicious whispered.  “Planned to try true love’s kiss on dad.”

“Of course,” the sister replied.

“Four soldiers, two o’clock.”

She nodded.

“Three… two…”


The girl dashed to the side.  Boy Suspicious threw himself to the other side, pushing Mal.

The soldiers opened fire immediately.

“That’s all-”

A bullet punched through the wall below the hatch, an inch from the top of Mal’s thigh.

“All we can do.”

The gunshots had brought brownies.

They scrambled.

Pigeons and rats were ready to meet them.

They passed a hatch some rats were drawing attention to.  She peered through, and saw an angle of one of the hallways.  Not the one she’d been in.

She could hear more gunshots.

If anything counted… any distraction at all…

She reached into her bag and got more of the crap she’d bought.

A lighter.  A firework.

She dropped it through.  Moving on.

They were running out of space.  It might be that Sootsleeves’ people weren’t able to put up as much of a fight, or that they’d reached a point in this huge, sprawling labyrinth of a place that was too far away from that help.  Brownies got close enough that Mal had to punt one.  Another gouged her leg with a fork in passing.

They weren’t fighters any more than she was, but there sure were a lot of them.

“I think-” she grunted, panting for breath.  The accumulated aches and pains were catching up with her, leaving her feeling drained.  “We need to go out the next hatch that won’t get us instantly killed.”

“Coo!” A pigeon cooed its reply.

“CooOoo?” Mal asked, trying a sound she’d heard from the pigeon that worked under Verona, getting warbly in the throat in the middle part.

“Coo!  Coo!”

So dumb.

A rat stood by one hatch, forelimbs crossed.

“How dangerous?”

It held its limbs up, each at a diagonal, rat’s right, her left.


She checked the coast was clear behind her  It wasn’t.

She hauled the hatch open, saw she had a view from the ceiling down, looking at Seth Belanger, who sat at a long table, surrounded by cards and things.

He looked up at her.

She pulled a box of spiders out of her bag and threw it at his head, shutting the hatch before she saw the result.

Sootsleeves’ contingent were leading the way, down a side path.  The ran through a larder where a very tall man, human, was sitting, sorting labels.  He looked at them, dazed, watching them go by.

Not a good place to work if you’re tall.

A brownie came out of a hatch, biting her leg.  She kicked it off.  Mice and a squirrel followed up, attacking it, so it couldn’t come right back after her.

Hatch open, low to the ground.

Boy Suspicious ran forward, then dove, arms out above his head.  Relying on momentum and the residual lubricant to let him glide through.

This contingent of rats, mice, squirrels, and pigeons all flooded out.  A little girl in rags, even, came out of a side path, a jar of apples under her arm.

Mal slowed, pulling out some of the last stuff out of her bag.

She’d done what she could.  She wasn’t sure she had a lot of fight left in her.  She’d keep some, to beat a retreat, but for now, she unloaded tricks, modified mousetraps, candies, and other things, spilling them out onto the floor.  One was a stinkbomb- she almost dropped it and let it roll away, but she managed to catch it.  She had to throw it hard.

It detonated.  She hurried to get clear before the expanding gas cloud reached her.

“Coast is clear!  This is a good spot!” an urchin shouted.

She dove through the hatch, relying on momentum and lube.  To Boy Suspicious, the rats, the mice, squirrels, pigeons, and orphans.  The edges of the hatch door scraped at pits, ribs, and hips as she slid through.  It might’ve been a two minute struggle if she didn’t use momentum.

But momentum meant a violent tumble through to the other side.  Nobody caught her, because of course they didn’t.

She slammed the hatch shut, jammed the tube of her tattoo gun into the gap, and broke it off, hoping that would pin it closed.

Everything was quiet.  She used a windowsill to help herself stand, and looked through.

They were in the building behind the school.  This had been one of the vantage points they’d been trying to take.  They were supposed to have this and the eastern wing.

This was a good vantage point.

“Fuck,” she groaned.

This was very quiet.

She turned around.

No Boy Suspicious.  No rats, pigeons, squirrels, or urchins.  No brownies.

She turned around again, toward the window.  She startled.

The Carmine Exile, wearing his red furs, sitting askew in his throne.

Mal backed away a few steps.

She was alone, facing him.  Bleeding.  Blood soaked into her the t-shirt where she’d rubbed ribs raw going in and out of hatches.  Her arm bled in multiple places.  She’d been bitten in the leg.  She was blind in one eye.  She had nothing much in her bag.  A noisemaker, a firework, some candies that she could toss into the mouth of something that wanted to eat her, maybe.

“Mallory,” the Carmine Exile said.

“Mr. Big red sloppy dick, huh?  And not in a good way.”

“You are Verona’s friend.  Still pushing that?  It’s not even clever.”

“It’s not meant to be.  The dumber it is, the better.  Repeat it often enough and it might stick, right?”

He gave a halfhearted grunt.  “Not really.”

“Goblin namecalling?”

“It’s not really important, is it?” he asked.

She fell silent, studying him.  She eyed her escape route.

The room was becoming more Carmine.  Blood bled through the paint on the walls in the same way it seeped across the fabric of her shirt.

“Let’s talk,” he said.  “Verona’s friend.”

“You and her get along in some weird way, right?” she asked, restless, nervous.

“A little less every time she pulls some of her shit.”

“You say this is important but… I’m not.  I’m not important.  I’m some loser from Kennet below.  I give old women heart palpitations.  I don’t even rate with guys from Kennet below, and I’m easy.  I don’t ask for much.  Just ridiculous good looks, a sense of humor, and money.  The closest I get is some fucking cougar boy, and I don’t know if he wants me as a pet, another member of his stupid fucking gang with a cringe name, or if he likes me as a girl.”

Charles didn’t much look like he cared.

“I’m not important,” she reiterated.  “But I guess I’m important to Verona on some small, shitty, third-rate level, so… is that your angle?”

“I’m matching their angle, for the moment.  The three girls are talking to people too, right this moment.  A mirror to this conversation I’m having with you.”

“Talking to bloody, lubed up, scantily-dressed girls?”

“They’ve got a plan, they don’t want me to know.  I’m left to infer, and maybe to do something about it.”

The last words had a bit more weight.

Mal glanced at the door.  “Can I opt out?”



“We’ll see how ‘fuck’ of a thing that is,” he said, shifting position slightly.  “I’m still unable to draw all the power I want.  It’s frustrating.  But we have the edge.  My side.  I’m arbiter of conflict, so I can see those things.”

“Sure,” she replied.  Her heart pounded.

“World powers are calling soon, to offer me power, security.  I could easily be five times as strong fifteen minutes from now, with power enough to waste, enough guarantees from outside sources that I don’t even need to watch my back or guard my borders.  Or it could happen tomorrow.  It depends when they call.  It’ll make up for what I lack.  The question is, can your side break down my side, find a weak point, take a key actor out of the equation, before then?  The chances are slim, but they’re there.”

Mal shrugged.  “You know which side I’m rooting for.  So what’s the deal?  You kill me, make an example, throw them off their game?”

“It’s funny.  The plan of attack is so close to what the girls do.  Maybe because the girls were selected by Miss.  And a lot of this is Miss.  You have the heavy hitters, straightforward, brutal when they need to be, sometimes when they don’t… Kennet below.  You have people who come by weird angles, who try to break rules while they do it.  Constantly moving, evasive… Kennet found.  You’ve seen that in action.”

Mal shrugged.

“And waiting in the wings, devising a plan, hoping it will be enough.  The girls.  Kennet above.  Parallels.”


“Miss isn’t a strategic mind, but she has a sense for these balances, for reaching deep.  Kennet found is hers.  The foundlings and Lost she’s collected around herself, they’re much like her.  She’s invested in them.  The administrators have worked as her hands long enough they can bear power out to others.  She’d bury us under hundreds of foundlings, half of which have peculiarities that need to be accounted for.”

“Go us.”

“The girls did that.  Creating that world.  That realm.  It’s cut off from me.  A lot of my power that I could use elsewhere, it’s harder to pin down your Boy Suspicious, your Red Cent, or your Doll of Many Colors.  They can enter this state where they’re willing and able to do violence, but it’s segregated, carefully, from my reach.  They created a whole side of Kennet.  It’s really remarkable.  The three girls and Miss, and they’re Miss’s creations too, in a way.  Miss owns all of that.  A great achievement for a Lost who wasn’t that much more potent than your Boy Suspicious.”

Mal eyed the door again.

“There’s no leaving, Mal,” he said, his voice low.

She went still.  Her heart was beating faster.

“It took me becoming Carmine to do something similar.  To make Kennet below.  To make other inverted spaces.  To make you.  You’re mine.  Like so much of that is Miss’s.”

“You going to call yourself my daddy?” she asked.

He straightened how he sat, and dropped one foot to the floor.  “It’s up to you-”

“Whether you’re my daddy?” she asked.  It was dumb, forced, but she didn’t want him to have all of the momentum.  “You going to take me to a ball game, throw the ball for me in the backyard, I don’t know why my head goes to balls, maybe it’s because you’re a big sloppy dick, and not in the fun way.”

She was rambling, nervous.  Trying to talk over him.

“You’re mine,” he said, before she could figure out a way to keep going.

“Rejected.  I want emancipation.”

“I made Kennet below angry, more willing to respond and fight back against a distorted system.  Individual strength.  Where struggle could mean something.  Because it has to mean something.  You’re mine, you fall under my domain, you were created at my hand, your anger is an echo of mine.  You are, in a significant way, my daughter.”


“Powers like me, we get to decide if we want agents or not.  How we spread our influence.  How we adjust balances.  I made you to be and do something.  Now I have to decide… is it worth keeping?”

“If I say yes, can I go now?”

“A big part of what we do- what me and the other Judges do, or have our agents do, is smooth out wrinkles, handle stray Others, keep everything flowing smoothly.  The inversions, undercities?  Kennet below?  The denizens that have sprung forth?  They -you- are wrinkles.  I can justify them, saying they contribute forces and energies the world needs.  And I can take them away.”

“Just like that?” she asked, snapping her fingers.

“Not a snap of the fingers.  But… it wouldn’t take long.”

“Spending power just to scrub us?  A failed project?”

“No,” he said.  He met her eyes.  “I would gain power.  I’d no longer be on the back foot.  I’d be at full strength.  A little stronger than I was, even.”

“Cleaning up your own mess?”

“Collecting on a longer-term investment,” he said.

“And you come to me?”

“Being entirely honest,” Charles said, heaving out the words like a sigh.  He turned his attention to her.  “I’m talking to a lot of people right now.  A slice of me to each of them.  This rates slightly above average, because you know more about what’s going on.  You’ve seen more, you’ve been a helper, a messenger.  And you’re Verona’s friend.”

She swallowed.

“Conversations with hundreds of Denizens.  Putting the same idea forward.  Asking them the same questions.  Kennet below can’t be scrubbed entirely, it’s tangled up in the demesnes.  Some are out of reach, they’re tied up in other things.  You were all collectively harder to reach, some tangled, some not, clustered together.  The Bitter Street Witch and the Belangers, contracts.  Market vendors.  The Family Man.  Not that I would.  He’s being useful.”

“I don’t suppose I’m so lucky?”

He shook his head.

“I guess I should’ve opened that stall in the market to do quickie tattoos, huh?  Might’ve counted?”

Her voice changed a bit on the last word.  She looked out the window.  The landscape outside was shattered.  Blood seeped in through the cracks.

“Might not’ve,” the Carmine replied.  “Might’ve.  We’ll never know.”

“Snuffing me out, huh?”

“It’s up to you.  If you swear allegiance, I could enforce it.  Bind you to me.”

“Or you snuff me out?”

“Either I have the added power from a loyal servant, more developed than the quick creations I made to help set Maricica in place, or I have the power from unmaking you and all the others who say no.  Either way, the debt is gone.  The wait until I get that call is easy.

“And I don’t even factor in?”

“Yes or no, Mallory?” he asked.

“I had plans,” she said.

“Then join me, see them through.”

“Tattoos,” she said.  “I was going to do this super intricate, detailed, full-body thing, where all the shitty tattoos suddenly make sense.  I could have some done with ink that glows under a blacklight.  So you see it and you go, ohhh, it all makes sense.  But I need to get way better first.”

“That doesn’t matter right now.  Decide.”

“What’s your decision?” she asked.  “You asshole.  What are you doing?  What are you even about?  What are you doing?  What the fuck is your dream?  You- you’re all about hating the big guys on top, right?  You give us this anger, this- fuck, nobody gets power without earning it.  Nobody’s born to it, we’re all shit and we start pretty low to the ground, and if we get there, it’s by clawing our way up through the rest of the shit.”

He was silent.

“Fuck government, right?  Fuck anyone who isn’t giving us incentives, paying close attention, fuck all that.  So we make our end of the town… we get there.  There’s a balance.  The warlords are doing cool things.  Fuck law, fuck practitioner families- that’s the bug that crawled up your ass, right?  The big gross ass-crawly bug?” Mal asked.

He stared at her, expression unreadable, mouth mostly hidden by his thick red beard, red hair messy.

“And you side with them.  You were working with Musser before you even won that fucking contest.  You sided with those assholes.  And you wonder why we don’t follow you anymore?  Say something!”

Those two last words came out as a roar.

“I can promise you I’ve wrestled with this far more than anything you could bring up now, if you had all night.”

“You’re all about justice?  Bloody justice?  That’s the whole reason you got forsworn.”

“You paid attention.”

“Talked to Ronnie-”

Her voice cracked a bit.

“-because she got me curious about our origins.  Where we came from.”


“Some.  You fucking asshole.  Where’s the justice in this?”

“There’s more injustice in a world where people like me do nothing.”

“Fuck you, fuck that bullshit.  Fucking- you wanted to protect the kids?  At the school here?  And you fuck that up too?  How many kids have gotten hurt.  Or scared?  How many of us are you going to wipe out of existence?”

“Not wiped out of existence.  Recycled.”

“What are you even about, Carmine?  You come in, saying you’re going to burn it all down, you’re going to be change, and you do this?  You sign on with them?  World powers?  You… you put us through all of this?”

She turned away, then turned to him, shouting, “Fuck you!  What even are you doing, now!?  You got power and you’re holding onto it!?  Fucking no better than a Burger Bin manager with an overinflated sense of importance, fucking lording your shitty power over people, destroying lives for a little chub-chub in your fucking red pants?”

“If I have power over a long time, I can change things further down the line.  If I stop, if I give up, or if I fail, I can’t trust someone else will come along to try to fix what’s broken.  Then everything is lost.”

“Wasn’t the whole difference between you and Miss that you wanted to get it done faster?  Guess you kind of cocked that the cock up, you fuck.”

“There are still other differences.”

“Fuck you.”

He nodded.

“Your answers aren’t good enough.”

“They’re the answers you get,” he said.  He stood.

She backed all the way up, until her back touched the wall furthest from him.

“I want a second opinion,” she said.

“Others have already asked for the second opinions of other judges.  Opinions have already been given.  The Alabaster, even, is forced to concede that the inverted spaces are firmly in my domain.”

“Fuck off with that.”

“Mallory, there’s more people swearing at me, more people arguing.  Trying different angles.  You said it well.  You learned me better than most of the others did, you said things I’ll think about for months to come.  You stood out.  But this is going to have to happen, and you have to give your decision.  Do you want a future, fighting for change under me, or will your legacy be that you mutilated a scared girl earlier tonight?”

“I did other stuff.  Saved people.”

“You did,” he admitted.  “Take a second.  Consider.”

She thought.  How the night had begun.

“If I hadn’t come, tonight-”

“I would still be talking to you.  I’m talking to everyone that sprung forth from the inverted spaces.  You’re getting distracted.  Consider,” he said.

She thought.  About the offer.  About her earlier plans, to do this for a lark.  To steal a trophy, maybe bag a boy.

That wasn’t the real reason.

Kennet was her home.  She was invested in the fight.  In the hints that there was something good.  Something better, fun, dark, dangerous, bright, airy-fairy-Lost, whatever.  It was cool.  It was an answer to what the girl she’d tattooed earlier had said.  About hopelessness.  A real answer.

She met his eyes, then opened her mouth, “Fuc-“


The tattoo gun clattered to the ground.

Charles ran fingers through his hair.  He un-divided one more part of himself.  With each one that said no, he drew multiple slivers of himself together.

Many to the same place.  Where the Alabaster was staring him down, expression grim.

With each one that said yes, he spent a bit of power, to ensure it, lock it in.  Making them his agents, in some small part.

“I hope you lose,” the Alabaster said.

“Not exactly a vote of confidence from the people I’m trying to save, is that?” he asked.

“Give me the fucking power you owe.”

He did.

Balancing the scales, finally.

Some more said yes.

A few more said no.

He was back at full capacity.

Then a bit more.  Enough to invest in his Lords.

The Alabaster was gone.

And he started spending the power he’d been waiting for.

Previous Chapter

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Go For the Throat – 23.b


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“I thought the raid on the Whitts was a good haul,” Cameron said.  The storeroom had been well organized, once, but it looked like a lot had been pulled out, and papers were everywhere, with bits of handwriting, making notes.  She’d seen others in the library- deciding what was on loan and should be returned, what went to Nicolette, what went to the Belanger family, and what went to Wye’s circle of high-end augurs.  “There are so many doors and so many of them have stuff behind them.”

“Glad you stuck with me yet?” Seth asked.  He walked up behind her and wrapped his arms around her.  It pinned her arms at awkward positions at her sides, so she leaned forward and twisted a bit to give him an eye roll.

“Of course.  Wasn’t in question.”

He kissed her, then let her go, smiling.

Coppery hair, good looks, slightly older- only eleven months older than her.  He wore the Belanger uniform- he’d raided Alexander’s closet for dress shoes, suit slacks, a button-up and a vest that was blue silk on front and black at the back half.  The blue button-up shirt didn’t quite fit him, the shoulders poked out slightly, but it was still a really good look.  He’d rolled up the sleeves some, while they were doing carrying and lifting.

It was the eyes that pulled her in.  The Belangers liked blue, and for good reason- that coppery hair ran through half the family, from what she had seen, and went well with blue, but the eyes.  Belanger blue.  She didn’t know if the family had started out with those eyes and gone, ‘augury, of course!’ to match the eyes, or if the blue came with generations of being a family that could See things, but she’d read up on the various key points of Self and it tugged at all of them.  From the crown of the head- she was sure she could dream of those eyes, to the eye- she couldn’t help but stare into them, all the way through the rest of her Self.

Seth’s especially.  All the Ex-Forsworn had sad eyes.  Even Charles.  But Seth… from the hints he’d given, he’d been kind of Forsworn before Alexander had said the words, so it was deeper.

One hell of a combo.

“I worked with most of these,” he said, surveying the room.

The puffs of air that came out with the words had a faint yellow tint.

“Did you now?” she asked.  There was a cube-shaped chest of old wood, edges heavily banged up, and she did a backwards-hop up onto it, sitting.

“Mm hmm.  I think Nicolette and the Belangers were working on carting things off from Wye.  Divvying it up.  I haven’t seen it around, a quick augury didn’t turn up anything,” Seth said, and the words ran a faint pink, with those sentences.  “They must’ve taken it with.  If I could find some partial sets or volumes of books, I should be able to trace it.”

From pink to clear to yellow.

He laid hands on her thighs, then stepped between her knees, and pulled her a bit closer, until she was barely sitting on the edge of the box, stopped from falling by him being there.  “What?” he asked her.


“What’s running through that brain of yours?” he asked.

The little Seeing she’d had running wasn’t obvious from any clear light in her eyes, any glow, or anything like that.  A little fairy magic she’d found in one of the books, to help a dumb fairy or a novice augur navigate intrigue.

Her own bit of intrigue: it was easier to distract than to answer, sometimes.  She kissed him again.

There were footsteps in the hall.  Her lips dragged from his mouth to his cheek as he turned his head.

The footsteps passed.

“Stay in my room tonight,” he told her.  Red words.  “Move in.”

“I’ve already said no, not yet,” she told him.  “Repeating yourself isn’t sexy.”

“You and me together, all night?  That’s sexy,” he said.  Red, still.

“I like having my own room.  I just left home, my mom was blowing up my phone, last I saw.  It’s moving really fast.  Let me-”

He started kissing her neck.

“-let me- Seth.”

She pulled back, hands going out behind her to prop her upper body up, neither sitting nor lying down, neck out of reach.  “Let me get…”

She didn’t have the words.  She looked into those blue eyes.

“…let me stand still first?” she asked, unsure.  She lifted one leg up and ran the side of her calf against his hip, to let him know she wasn’t mad.

“Is it in the cards?” he asked.  Faint green.

“Do you mean have I done the augury?” she asked, half-joking.

“For the future?” he asked.

She nodded.  “Sure.  I won’t promise, but it-”

He leaned forward to kiss her.  Mouth, tip of chin, neck, side of collarbone, center of collarbone…

She put a hand on his shoulder, then hesitated before pushing him back.

She lived here, now.  She was with him, now.  All day, every day.  Relationships were supposed to have compromises, right?

“Hey,” she said, voice soft.  “It’s in the cards, but you stop-”

She almost said nagging.  Nagging made her think of her mom.

He’d stopped, having kissed as low as the v-neck cut of her sweater allowed, hungry to go lower.

“Stop pushing,” she said.  “There’s no rush.”

“Stop pushing here, or stop pushing on the room thing?” he asked.

Compromise, right?  “On the room thing.  We can fool around a bit, but we are in here for a reason.”

“I’ll stop pushing,” he said, and the words were green.  “So long as it’s in the cards.”

She nodded.  “Just fooling around, just a bit.  Keep it-”

“Above the belt?” he asked.

“-easygoing,” she finished.  “It’s not sexy to say it like that.”

“Confidence isn’t sexy?” he asked.  He leaned in, and she went with it.

He had lifted her sweater up to her ribs when the door opened, startling them both.

Another Belanger.  Blue eyed, not as good looking as Seth, with straight blond hair cut straight across his forehead, and a rounder face.  He was wearing a winter coat from having just been outside, cheeks red.  Redder for having walked in on this.

Seth stepped away, and Cameron composed herself, pulling clothes back into order.

“Bode, saints and sevens,” Seth breathed, still leaning over Cameron.  Red words.

“Bode?” Cameron asked.

“Boden.  Cousin.  Friend?”

Boden shrugged one shoulder.  “Sure.  More when we were kids.  I was supposed to move stuff out of here.”  From green to blue.

Cameron could see someone else behind him.  An older woman.  Same blue eyes.

“Well.  Cameron was just telling me we should get moving on some of that stuff.”

“Was she?” Boden asked.  “Huh.”

Yellow, there.

Seth stepped away from her and the box, and with the way she’d been positioned, she dropped to the ground.

“You guys handle it?” Seth asked.  “Apprentice, cousin?  Anything that looks useful.  Weapons or augury.  Check the lists.”

“Sure,” Cameron said.

He pointed at her.  “Later?”

She nodded, then found the word, “Sure.”

Which was weird, because it was a word she’d just used.

He smiled.

He left, and she couldn’t help but relate back to being in school, when the class ended before she was asked to present a thing for class she hadn’t finished yet.

Except Boden entered, and that feeling came back, different.  Because she didn’t know Boden.

Some Belangers had defected to Seth’s side when they’d attacked the building.  Boden was one- one of the lesser cousins, like how Seth had been treated, but without even the benefit of Alexander seeing something in him.

Rural.  Out at the compound they’d raided, the way Seth had explained it, there was one truck with a plow, but mostly, after things got to a certain point, or with houses on the periphery of that settlement, they used snowmobiles instead of driving.  Like, Kennet wasn’t urban, but it wasn’t rural like that.

Boden was in the space, a bigger guy than Seth, and while there was some room to navigate, it left her feeling a bit cornered.

Less gentle than Seth.

She retreated to the back end, idly checking her phone.

Mom: (41 new messages.)

She turned it off.

“Gods, that’s a lot of stuff,” Boden said.

“I know, right?” she replied.  It felt a bit like she was putting on an act.  Artificial brightness.  “I was telling Seth that.”

“Might be a good idea to ask…” Boden trailed off, turning.  “Gwen?”

The old woman standing behind him was mute.

“What do we call you?” Boden asked.

Still mute.  Still looking at the two of them like the shit on the bottom of her shoe.

“Librarians?  Curators?” Cameron suggested.

“Curators, maybe,” Boden said, giving the old woman a long look before turning back toward Cameron.

There were Belangers like Boden who’d stayed because Seth had made an impression, they’d said words, they’d agreed to be on Seth’s side.  Because Seth had power and he’d demonstrated it.  They’d been threatened with displacement twice in a short time, first from the compound, then here, and they’d taken the easier road.  Staying here instead of going wherever the other Belangers had gone.

But there were others, too.  They’d agreed to stay and they’d said words too, but it was for much different reasons.  They wanted to track and preserve things here, and to know where books and certain things went, so they’d made agreements to be strictly neutral.  It came, probably, with the same side benefits of being able to stay, eat, and be warm.  Many were older.

She wasn’t sure what needed preserving, really.  The space was free of even a speck of dust.  Everything was maintained, even the things in the bottom shelf behind a box, that had probably sat there out of sight for years.

Boden moved closer to her, and that feeling of being cornered got worse.

She eyed some of the papers that littered the place.  Inventory, from the recently evicted group.  Red case… she found it.  Like a flute case, but a bit longer.  The box was red wood, and it had been knocked around enough the corners and edges were rounded off, chipped, and dinged.  There was a coat of arms on the lid, scuffed.

She pulled it down, and put it in a position with the end sticking out, blocking Boden from getting closer.

Wands.  For combat practice, apparently.

“That’s from one of the magic schools,” Boden said, tapping the coat of arms on the open lid.  He peered over, past the lid and at the contents.  “Yeah.  Probably the one Alexander was sent to.”


“Considering what’s coming at us?  Yep.”

She left the box there, a bit of a barrier.  On the list, in place of the ‘Wye’ or ‘Nicolette’ line, was one that simply had ‘discuss’, underlined, in blue ink, overlapping a part of the word ‘Legendre’.  The left-hand column read ‘Ss.O.P. / Cavalier, Armatura’.

She found a cardboard box with the same written on the side and a top flap.  The box was big enough to fit a small child in, but the contents weren’t that big.  It was like moving a box with some weights for exercise at the bottom.

Bracelets.  Or bangles, more like, two inches across, each, silver, with round seals inset in gold at the top, each seal holding a diagram.  She counted five.

It did not seem like it should weigh the forty or fifty pounds the box felt like it weighed.  She reached down to move one, and found it lightweight.  She turned it over in her hand, then put it down on the paper, tugging.  Heavy when not held or worn.

“Nice find,” Boden said.  “Don’t wear it until you find out what it does.”

“Seth might know,” she said.  “If he worked with this stuff?”

“Seth was a lackey,” Boden said.  The words were faint green.  “I think the work with this stuff was just toting them back and forth like you’re doing.  Except you might get a chance to use them.”

Faint green words, and she could think back to Seth’s yellow ones.  Had Seth been misleading her?

He didn’t have to do that.

She could smell the cigarettes on Boden.  It made the space feel smaller.

“Well, this is heavy enough I don’t want to carry a lot more,” she said.  She closed the box of wands and got sorted.  She hefted the big box, two bangles out of the box, pinned between finger and cardboard- she would have done more but it was awkward and she didn’t want to risk activating them.  The long red case was on top, where she could use her chin to keep it from sliding around.  “Excuse me.”

He was in the way, between her and the door, and gave her a long look instead of moving.

“Excuse me,” she said.  “Back out?  Let me through?”

“You’re scared of me,” he said.  Green words.

“I don’t know you.”

He gave her another long look.  Was he using Sight?  It didn’t have a tell.

Then he moved out of her way, backing out into the hallway, past the old lady, stretching.

She made it a step out the door before the old lady stopped her.  She had a paper.  “Hold that lower?”

“Can’t, really, without getting on my knees,” Cameron replied.  She glanced at Boden, who was pacing.

The woman held the paper against the front of the box, pushing it there with enough force Cameron had to shift her footing.  She scribbled something down, making a note.  “When you hand that off, you make absolutely sure that one of us knows who you handed it to, and you make sure the person who you hand that to knows too.”

“Is it important?”

“It’s all important in its way.  Some of it, if it gets lost, will mean headaches for key people down the road.  Gifts.  Things bound inside that get free if the containers aren’t preserved.  I don’t want it said that it’s because the Belangers were careless.”

“Is it strong, you think?” Cameron asked.

“I’m not here to help you or guide you,” the woman said, expression sour.

“Right,” she said.  She shifted her grip on it.  “I’m going to go.”

“Remember what I said.”

Boden, not carrying anything, followed her out.

“Um,” she said.  She flashed a smile at him.  “What are you doing?”

“Wanted to say something.”  He touched her shoulder, stopping her from walking, and she dipped her knees, turning, to move away from that hand, putting the boxes she held between them.

“You shouldn’t be scared of me,” he said.


“I’d fuck you, but you’re Seth’s.”  Red words.

She felt a chill.

“Seriously?” she asked, disapproval in her tone.  Her mind raced through the answers she could give, her options for moving.  Turning her back on him with her arms full felt too vulnerable.  A ‘fuck off’ felt like it could provoke things.  The red ‘breath’ of his words was still curling through the air near his lower face.

And in the midst of racing thoughts, she said nothing.

He turned and went back.  Past the old woman who was peering in through the door, either out of earshot or ignoring this.

Cameron moved on, because she had to.  She was at the east end of the east wing and she was carrying this to the other side of the building, and it wasn’t so heavy it would destroy her arms, but it was still uncomfortable to hold.

I’d fuck you, she thought of his words.

She wasn’t totally sure that he was even factoring her opinion into the matter.  Which was scary.

It also stirred up concerns that she knew had been implanted.  The three witches from Kennet had delivered a big psychological attack, putting them to sleep and hitting them with nightmares.  Cameron had gotten a taste of what it meant to be Forsworn.  How degrading it was.  How dark, how lonely.  Where the sadness came from.

In the middle of all of that, she’d been confronted with a version of Seth that obviously drew on aspects of the real Seth, but took it to a dark place.  He’d taken her in, promised protection, and he’d preyed on her vulnerability.

Nothing had really happened, in the nightmare, but she’d had to deal with the knowledge it would.  It cast a shadow every time she was around Seth, now.  It was frustrating, because it was obviously the intent of the nightmare.  What the girls and their pet Other had wanted.  To drive a wedge.

It was weird how she really wanted to call her mom, now.  She wasn’t sure what she’d say or how she’d talk around stuff, but Boden saying that, and Seth being pushy?  Seth and Boden were friends, and she could see nothing redeeming about Boden.

But she wasn’t on good terms with her mom, especially now.

She passed the library, where four of the ten or so old Belangers that had stayed behind to ‘preserve’ were going over books and having tea and biscuits.  Mostly the tea and biscuits.

Josef was in the kitchen.  It was really only there for show, anyway, or in case the Brownies went on strike, if that was even something that could happen.  Brewing alchemy.  He would’ve used the workshop, but they’d wanted to keep everything close by.  It was too easy to get cut off.  Easier to retake a wing of the building if they lost it, than to cross snow and darkness to get to one of the buildings between here and the parking lot.

The rest of the hallway felt pretty empty.  One boy whose name she didn’t know was doing protective wards on the walls.  Some more were in the rooms, doors open, just hanging out, some playing games or drinking alcohol, others being more serious for a situation that was about to get really serious, going over books and cramming to learn what they could.

She didn’t know them well enough to talk to them, they were a year or two younger, they were the recruits from St. Victor’s, so that well was poisoned anyway, and she couldn’t really talk to them about Seth or Boden.

Past the dorm rooms, before the central building with the main classroom, there was the little indoor dining area and lounge.  Tables and chairs were in the center, couches and chairs arranged into booths at the edges.

Most of the main crew was here, notebooks out, talking.  Dony and Travis, Teddy and Kira-Lynn.  Some of the other students they’d recruited had come too.  Six girls and four boys, gravitating toward Kira-Lynn and Teddy as the leader.

Cameron idly wondered what the school thought about so many students running off.  Or the other parents.

“Whatcha got there?” Teddy asked.

“Going to find out.  We could use more help carting stuff out of the storerooms,” Cameron said, resting the box on the edge of the table to spare her arms a bit.

“You’re that girl who stole money right?” one of the girls by Kira-Lynn asked.  She was sitting over a cup of tea.  It looked like she had a cold.  “From the fundraiser?”

“It’s fucked up,” another girl said.  “You just take some bills-?”

“A bill,” Cameron said.

“And slip it into your pocket?”

Cameron didn’t answer.

“Bag,” Kira-Lynn said.  “They searched it and found it.”

“Fucked,” the second of the girls said.  The word came out yellow.  “Why?”

The ‘why’ was red.  Targeted.

Cameron answered anyway, “I felt like I deserved it.”

“Triple fucked.  I don’t know how you didn’t get expelled.”

“Her mom,” Kira-Lynn said.  She shrugged.  “If you have that privilege, use it, right Cameron?  Your mom ran all the events, got a lot of money for the school.  They’re not going to give that up if they can help it.”

She was so done with this conversation.  She’d been done with it for a long time.  One mistake chasing after her.

“Can one of you help me with carting this stuff out of the storerooms?  It’s valuable, if we find one good weapon or tool, it probably counts for way more than any beginner practice you could learn in the next few hours.”

“Drinking tea,” the first of the girls she didn’t know said.

“You can order a fresh cup from the brownies later.”

“But I want this tea and I want it now.”

The second of the girls smirked, like it was some smart retort, or some ‘win’.

“We, I’m talking Travis, Dony, Kira-Lynn, Teddy, and me, we obey the mentors.  You guys are supposed to obey me.  I’m going to drop this off, you finish your tea and cookies.  When I swing back this way, I want you ready to come with.”

The girl came very close to rolling her eyes.  She looked over at Kira-Lynn and Teddy.

“Yeah,” Teddy said.  “Finish up so you can go with her when she’s back.”

“Yes sir,” the girl said, to him, smiling.

Like it was more him saying it than Cameron.  Like her word didn’t count.

Cameron walked away.  She heard them laugh, and glanced back.

Yellow words from Kira-Lynn, the air that was used to form the words coming out like thick colored fog.  It produced some light laughter from the girls.

With a spitting of something red.  Like an insult, lining up with a momentary glance her way.  Eye contact.

The ritual let her see the slant of words.  A lie detection practice meant very little when nobody could technically lie, but this helped in other ways.  Red words were forward words, aggressive, or intentional, goal-driven, reaching forward, wanting something, doing something, pushing for something, taking something.  Insults.

Blue words were the opposite.  Backwards words.  Retreat, calming, apologizing, being conciliatory.  Relatively rare here.

Green words were connection-forming ones.  Meeting words.  Extending trust, establishing a bond.  Small talk was green, so was making a deal, or sharing a vulnerability.

And yellow, she interpreted, as sideways words.  Avoidance words.  Verbal evasion, manipulation, misdirection, things left out, secrets, deceit without lying.  Too common, from all corners.

Passing through the back of the main classroom, she could see Maricica sitting on the stage, taking up most of the front of the building that had once been a church.  Lenard was there, as was Helen, and the Oni Crooked Rook stood by, regal and suspicious.

Maricica had been dogged by bogeymen, and Lenard had bound twenty or so.  Half of those bogeymen were now gathered on one side of the central building, waiting.  The other half were out patrolling and setting traps.  Two guys from the grade above Cameron were talking to Lenard.  It creeped Cameron out that they seemed to be on his wavelength, wanting to learn that Abyssal stuff.

“Cameron,” Maricica greeted her.

Lenard, who had been saying something, stopped.

“Greetings, goddess, glorious and soaked in blood,” Cameron said, bowing as much as she was able.  “My respect and my loyalty to you.  You grace us with your presence.”

“It’s quite comfortable here.  They prepared this space to receive gods.  There are stones under the wood of the stage, I think, and they’ve called enough powers here that the sharper edges have been eroded.”

“I’m glad,” Cameron said.  “I’m also worried I’ll embarrass myself in front of you by dropping this, if I don’t hurry.  It’s heavy.  I’m taking it through to Seth,” Cameron said.

“I don’t think you’d embarrass yourself.  You’re doing well, Cameron,” Maricica said, smiling.  The upper half of her head was so bloody that hair, hairline, brow, and eyes were covered in it.

I’m doing well.

She so rarely got to hear that.

“They’re coming,” Maricica said.

“The Wild Hunt?”

“They stalk the edges.  Expect them.  But no.  Our adversaries.”

“Do I have time for another trip, carrying stuff?” Cameron asked.

“For two more, if you don’t dally too long.  But dally some.  Your Self needs it,” Maricica said.

Cameron nodded.

“We’re being attacked?” Kira-Lynn asked.  She’d come around the corner behind Cameron.

“Shortly, my child,” Maricica said.  “Be ready.”

My child.

Cameron didn’t know what to say or do in response to that.  She was doing well, but Kira-Lynn got a ‘my child’.

She turned to go, moving as fast as she could while carrying the box, bangles, and the case of wands.

The other teachers were in Alexander’s old office.

“We’re supposedly being attacked soon,” she told them, as she entered.  Griffin held the door open.

“We know,” Seth said.  “They’re organizing to leave right now.  They’ll probably transport themselves over.”

She set the boxes down on the coffee table.  “Maricica said I can make another two trips.  With a brief personal break, I think.  I’ll take some of the new St. Victor’s kids over, we’ll grab whatever.”

“Good,” Seth said.

“And you should talk to Boden.  He was being creepy.”

“Hmm.  Okay,” Seth said, as he walked up.  “Might have to wait until later.”

He looked at what she’d brought, while she looked at what he’d been doing.  The fragile little ‘board game’ model of Kennet had collapsed.  Little figures representing key players had scattered across table and floor.  A larger figure of Seth or Alexander had been dropped on top of it, lying in the broken mess with its oversized head, unfocused eyes and a goofy smile.

“It can be fixed.  It’ll need recalibrating.  Be careful where you aim your Sight,” Seth said.


“These are good,” he said.


He drew a wand out of the box.  “Older is better.”

“I thought wands were usually implements.”

“Anything suitable to be an implement can be a good vehicle for a magic item.  These are keyed into combat practices.  Griffin?  Aim something at me?”

“Uhh, sure.”

Griffin whispered something, then gestured, weak and limp.

A spirit manifested, small and made of swirling water.  It staggered forward, straight for Seth, becoming more liquid in the process.  A little localized wave.

Seth, holding the wand like a fencer might, swished it.

The water spirit moved in the direction of the swish.

Another, fiercer swish and it turned around, reversing direction, rushing Griffin with more intensity than it had initially used to go after Seth.

Griffin made a triangle with his fingers, whispered something else, and unmade the spirit and its water before he could get drenched.

“That would have been a lot more dramatic if you’d come at me with more force,” Seth said.

“It would’ve been, you’re right.  It also would’ve been bad if I’d come after you hard enough to hurt and it turned out there was a binding on those wands to keep them from interfering with anything else in the- you got these from the storeroom?”

“Yeah,” Cameron replied.

“Yeah,” Griffin said.

“The three witches like to use spell cards.  These would be really effective,” Seth said.  “Maybe we give them to the novices.  Good.”

Green words.  Positive, organizing.  Teamwork.  Connecting to her.

“And these.  I got the impression they were major.”

Seth looked at the bangles, nodding slowly.  “Think so.”

“Do you know what they do?”

“Some idea.  Seals of protection.  Here.  Raise an arm.  Imagine you’re raising a shield to protect yourself.”

“I was told to- I was told two things.  Not to wear them without identifying them.”

“By who?”


“Boden doesn’t have practical experience.”

“And to make sure someone knew who I handed it to.  Tracking chain of custody.”

Seth made a disgusted sound.  He motioned.  “Like you’re holding up an invisible shield.”

She lifted her right arm.

“Right arm it is,” he said.  He clipped on the bangle.  Then he dug for and got the other four, so they were all in a row, taking up most of her forearm.  “They’re powerful.  What’s your read, Griffin?”

Griffin’s eyes glowed.  “There’s a time component.  I think a long one.”

“Three and a half thousand?”

“Five thousand.”

“Dollars?” Cameron asked.

“For a strong magic item?” Seth asked.  “Could be Hugh paid for part of his kids tuition with those.”

“Armatura.  You’re looking at carefully configured, balanced, layered protections, for complete coverage, each one made with others in mind,” Griffin said, arms folded, studying the bangles with glowing eyes.  “I could see a professional Sealer getting his hands on those and realizing they don’t fit in well with other protections he’s carrying.”

“I don’t have anything except these, I don’t think,” Cameron said.  “How do I use them?”

Griffin motioned, and she raised her arm.  He peered at it with Sight, and the light from his eyes made it possible to see faint lines, diagram-work and magic circles above the ‘seal’ parts centered on each bangle.  “What Seth said works.  Hold it out like a shield.  It may just protect you from anything, the next time you’re attacked, whether your arm’s raised or not.”

It was so weird, to feel this way.  Cared for, after that lonely, scary walk down the corridor, talking to the others.  Protected… for the first time in four years, about.  She’d been tall from a young age, she’d filled in a figure.  Multiple people had mistaken her for an eighteen year old when she had been thirteen.  Sometimes those mistakes had been scary in the way Boden was scary.  Earlier this year, she’d unironically been offered a drink by someone who thought she was twenty-one.

Weirdly, looking more adult didn’t make her feel more adult.  If anything, it stunted her.  It made people treat her differently.  Girls resented her.  Guys stared at her.  She’d gotten into volunteer work because it was the only way to have company.  To get a circle of people around her long enough to make friends.  From there she’d cobbled together a reputation and then it had all blown up.

It had been lonely.  Dark, lonely, frustrated.

They had taken her and awakened her because they wanted a thief.  Someone who could scheme, who wasn’t too tied into things, who wouldn’t tell about the secret magic stuff.

That hadn’t done much to dampen the loneliness.  Only Seth had.

It hadn’t answered what she’d been looking for, not really.  There had been a taste early on.  She’d liked arming herself.  But this fit better.

She met his eyes.  Blue and sad.

“What?” he asked.

“I want more of this.”

“You want more crazy-expensive jewelry?” he asked.  He looked at Griffin.  “Fuck me, what am I in for?”

“More protections.  More… more in this direction.  This kind of practice.”

“Ah,” he said.  “Hmm.  There are auguries I can teach you, that act as protections, ways to avoid danger.  It’ll have to wait for when we get through this.  To look for danger.”

That idea, just the idea, it built on this magic protection she was wearing, and it felt…

It felt like she’d been at the bottom of a well, standing in cold water, since she was twelve, being leered and sneered at from everyone passing above, a lot of people, none seeming to see her.  And now there was a hand, reaching down, with rays of light around it.

She’d gotten deeper into religion for a bit in her early teens, then she’d gotten into magic.  Maybe because she’d wanted that hand reaching back to her.

And here it was.  With beautiful, sad, dark blue eyes she could drown in.

“Please,” she said.

“I do like the idea you’re protected,” Seth told Cameron.

“A thousand dollars of protection from each?” she asked, feigning brightness, because she worried she could cry, otherwise.  She raised her arm.  “How protected do you want me?”

It felt lame, like fishing for compliments.  Fishing for those positive affirmations.  For more.

“We were guessing five thousand dollars each,” Seth said.  To Griffin, he asked, “Right?”

“I figure.”

“Five seals, that’s twenty-five thousand dollars of protection on your arm there,” Seth told Cameron.  “And I still feel anxious.  You’re one of the best things in my life right now.”

Green words with red at the edges.

She started to say something, then stopped, mouth closed, tongue lightly bit between front teeth.

As bright and warm as this felt, there was darkness elsewhere.  She thought of the nightmare.

“What?” Seth asked.

“Handle the Boden thing?  If you want me safe?  He’s your cousin.”

“Okay.  I’ll talk to him.  Do you want to hang back for now?  We’ll send someone to get more stuff?  You can stick by me.”

“I do want that…”

“I can go,” Griffin said.

“…But I also want the new recruits to respect the fact I’m-” she flailed for the word.  “-Senior to them.  And we need more.  So I’ll go, get more boxes.”


“But thank you for caring.”

“I’ll go too,” Griffin said.  “Different timing.  If they give you crap, we’ll whip them into shape, make them carry something heavy.  Maybe you can be the good guy while I’m the asshole, how’s that?”

“I could do that,” Seth said.

“You could,” Griffin said.  “But everyone knows you and her are together.  It’ll mean more if it’s me involved than you.  You focus on stuff here, catch me up after?”

Seth nodded.

She turned to go, and Seth grabbed her arm, stopping her.

Griffin paused, glancing back.  “I’ll go ahead?  You catch up?  You want me to get the recruits over, or-?”

“I’ll wrangle them.  If you’ll be over there when we come?” she asked.  “Just back me up a little?”

“Can do.  Hand out the wands, before giving the orders they might be cranky about?” Griffin suggested.  “Manipulation one-oh-one.  But it works.  They should say yes.”

She nodded.

Griffin closed the door behind her.

“Have you eaten?  Do you want tea?  Coffee?”

“It’s not hard to get food here,” she replied.  “I’m okay.  I really should-”

“It’s logistics.  This matters.”

“Okay,” she said.

“What comes next is likely to be intense,” he said, walking over to the table of various auguries in progress.  Cameron walked over to the other side.  She picked up a card.  It had a drawing on it, of the same figure that had crashed into the middle of the game board.  ‘Alexanderp’ read along the bottom.  She turned it around to face Seth.

“Intense, I believe it,” she replied.

“I think if we can get clear of this, come out the other side, we win, that’s it.  And it’s very possible we can.  The cards, before they started throwing a wrench into things, they were promising.  But we’ve got to get through it,” Seth said.

Cameron nodded.

“This fight might take a while.  I want you safe,” he said, looking at the bangles.  “I want you close.  If things happen overnight, then I don’t want to be wondering where my apprentice is.”

“You want me sleeping in this wing?”

He nodded.  “My room.”


“It makes sense.  The other rooms are taken.  What happens if we get attacked again overnight, and you’re at the far end of the school?  Or if it’s a fight that goes on for hours and hours, we start needing to sleep in shifts to stay coherent, and I can’t find you because you’re sleeping somewhere over there?”

Yellow words.  All yellow words.  With red at the edges.

“You have augury.”

He picked up a card, turning it around.  It had the smirking caricature of Alexander on it.  “Not a sure thing.”

She paused, rubbing her right arm, fingers running from silver to sweater to silver again.

“It makes sense,” he said.  “We don’t have to do anything.”

She dropped her hand.



Summer, Last Year

“Turn out your pockets?” Dwight Frick asked.

Cameron did, turning the pockets of her jean shorts inside out.  No back pockets.


She lifted up her shirt, then did a little circle.

“This is ridiculous,” her mother said.

“The money went somewhere.”

“I will pay fifty dollars to be done with this ritual humiliation.”

Cameron let out a small scoffing sound.

“It’s about something more important than the money.  Principles,” Mr. Erly said.


She stepped on her ankles to help pull her shoes off, then pulled off her socks.  The ground was damp.

The guy checked her shoes.

“Bet you’re enjoying that, Mr. D!” a guy from school called out from the sidelines.

“I heard that, Justin.  Be better,” Mr. Erly said.  He sometimes led the school through service, and he could be the kindest or the fiercest man.  “This is about all of our principles too.  How we handle this.”

“It could be tucked into her bra,” a girl said, as if to intentionally poison that statement.

Cameron glanced over her shoulder, looking for who might’ve said it.  Then, a second later, she searched for the people who might be glancing at the girl who might’ve said it.  It didn’t look like Mr. Erly spotted her either.

She felt emotionally numb, but that, the barbed comment, the fact someone there in the background was rooting against her, making this harder, it broke through the numbness.

“…Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” Mr. Erly said, voice soft.

“Are you seriously going to strip search my daughter?”

“No, we’re not.  We’re asking for her cooperation, to rule things out as much as we can.  We’ll ask for your cooperation as well.  Then, once we’ve talked to everyone who had access to the lockbox, if we haven’t figured it out, we’ll bring police in.”

“Over- over a hundred?  Was it?”

Cameron suppressed a sigh.


“Fifty dollars?  I don’t understand.”

“It’s about integrity.  Look, we don’t need an audience.  Go home.

“Are you really going to check her bra?”

“No,” Mr. Erly said.  And it started to seem like he was angrier at the other students than he was about stolen money.  “Go home.  Trust us to work this out.”

“Whose bag is this?” Dwight asked.

“Mine,” Cameron said.

He lifted it onto the chair that had been behind the booth.  They’d taken the booth apart, shaking out the tablecloth, to make sure nothing had been hidden away to be collected later.

“I can search your bag or we can talk to the police.”

“No, it’s fine,” Cameron said.  She put her hands in the pockets of her denim shorts, tucking them back in as she went.

“Hands where we can see them.  I don’t want you moving anything around from place to place on your body as we search.”

She pulled them out, and pulled her pockets inside out while she was at it.

He went through her bag.  Handing her things.

There were tampons.  She heard comments from boys.

Since I was eight, she thought.

He opened the front flap.  And pulled out a fifty dollar bill, holding it between two fingers, like he didn’t want to get direct fingerprints on it.

Mr. Erly didn’t seem to care about that.  He unfolded it.  There was a little bit of scribbling on it.  A message.  He showed it to the guy who’d donated.

“Oh my god, Cameron,” her mom said.  “I’ve never been more humiliated.”

People were watching.  Mr. Erly hadn’t managed to clear the crowd.

“This was money meant for three dead teenagers,” Mr. Erly said.  He didn’t get loud or mad or severe.  He sounded so disappointed, instead.

“What did you expect?” Cameron asked, wheeling on her mom.  On him.  “You drag me out to these things all the time, you make me do unpaid labor-!”


She felt it in her gut.  Like a shockwave that rolled out, across the Blue Heron.

She dipped her head a little to look through the window by the glass portion of the front door.  That window was occupied by others.

There was a bubble around the Blue Heron.  Veins of raw red flesh and burned black chased their way across it, finding faint lines and circles.  Nodes expanded, tumorous growths seizing on power, drinking it up, using it to feed, then exploding out into more.  More veins, more dreck, more awfulness.

The horror was becoming the barrier.


“I could stop it, but what’s the point?” Helen asked.  “They’ll knock it down.  We only got it part of the way back up after breaking in.”

“When it encircled Kennet, it shut off spiritual flows,” Griffin noted.

As the horror crept its way across the barrier, it made noise.  Overlapping, terrible noises.  Radio static from broken radios, nails on chalkboards, squeaky shoes on snow, wet sounds like chewing, all building and overlapping together, some sounds that shouldn’t boom booming out, reaching them a few hundred feet away, to be felt across skin and in the depths of bones.

“Right,” Helen said.  “I guess they want to drain my batteries a bit.  You could see it as a compliment.”

“Hurry?” Griffin asked.

He sounded anxious.

Helen pulled out the black sticks.  She formed an arrangement, left hand in a painful-looking position, impossible without the sticks to brace fingers against.  Her right arm extended, bones breaking, limb jerking to move in a new direction every time something broke, which was often.  Broken bones pushed through flesh, and the arm went a surprising distance before arcing downward, smashing into snow and ice.  The rippling effect of that mild resistance made more of the arm break.

Doubly so when she smashed something harder than snow.  The hand had made contact with the barrier.

“A lesson for the apprentices,” Helen said, voice strained, back arched, lines standing out in her neck.  She manipulated the sticks, then touched them to her arm.  “Horror practices are necessarily practices about protection, constraint, barriers.  You must know and master these things before you can break the rules.

She moved the sticks.

Every break, every split in skin, became a sprouting for a new arm, some of them elongated like this was elongated.

She moved the sticks a little further down her arm, and the points the arms extended from moved, sliding out and toward the barrier.  Until it was almost like she was making an umbrella or palm tree out of arms, with a long, very narrow, several-hundred-foot-long stem.

The arms began to slide across and through the barrier.  They made contact with the horror there, and were demolished.  Demolished flesh sprouted new arms.

A tug of war ensued.

“Carmine Exile, if you’d please?” Helen asked.

Cameron could suddenly smell blood thick in the air.

“Thank you,” Helen said, perfunctory, short and polite like someone had just held the door for her.

Helen began to aggressively win.  Hemming in the horror.

The horror withdrew.  The dreck rippled, formed rolls, bunching together.

Cameron used her Sight, then held her upper and lower eyelids apart to draw on the surface of her eye.  Moon.

In her right eye, all sources of illumination became sources of darkness.  Darkness became illumination.  She couldn’t keep her left eye open at the same time, because the two inputs conflicted, so she kept it screwed shut.

She could see a faint difference in one section.  The bunching gathered around a circular bit of diagram work in the bubble’s surface, the redness in the middle of it stretched thin, then popping like a soap bubble.

Leaving a hole in the diagram.

“There’s a gap,” she said, pointing.

“Move.  Move!”

Joel pushed through them with enough force that two people crashed into Cameron.  She and they fell into a heap.

She accidentally opened her left eye for a moment in the process, and felt pain in both eyes, that radiated back from eyeball to brain, settling in as a dull pounding sensation that might eventually become a migraine.  Probably not for just a second of contradictory Seeing.

She scrubbed that Sight off anyway, rubbing the eyelid against eyeball and blinking rapidly a few times to clear out the remainder.

And he’d been gentle.  He was carrying one of his Dragonslayer weapons, a mess of twisted metal that only barely formed a complete tube shape, all the twists and sharp points pointing out toward the tube’s opening.  Something glowed a dull orange within.  If that had bumped into them it would have cut or scraped them in ten different ways.


“Don’t,” Helen said, a moment before he collided with her.

He stopped himself from slamming into her by smashing the end of the tube into the doorframe.

He hesitated.

“Can’t move,” Helen told him.  “Sorry.”

He paused for a second, looked past her, and then stepped over Cameron and the two people, stepping on the one guy, maybe.  He broke the window with his tool.

Cameron, by luck, could see just past his armpit to the circle.  A long, narrow limb like Helen’s, on the far side of the barrier.  Made of that red veiny dreckstuff.


Whipping something.  Something big.

“Car!” she shouted.

Joel fired.  The weapon was a cannon, and it belched out a blast of liquid flame, some of which kissed the inside of the windowframe and spilled out inside.

The car was obliterated.  It came apart in pieces.  One hit one of the workshops.  Something -maybe the engine block- hit ground and rolled until it punched into the wall of the east wing.  Cameron could feel it.

He backed up a step.  “Move.  I need better footing to aim if they’re going-”

“Cut my arm off,” Helen said.

Joel shifted, then swiped the cannon-tube of twisted metal through Helen’s extended arm.  It wasn’t a clean or pretty cut, smashing bone and tearing through flesh at five different points.  The weight of the cannon made the tears stretch and come apart.

“Thank you,” Helen said, still in that little polite ‘someone held the door for me’ way.

She backed away from the door, hemorrhaging blood from her torn arm-stump.

Cameron scrambled to her feet.

“Good call-out,” Joel said, standing in the open doorway with the cannon leveled.  His breath fogged in the air, in contrast to the still-smoking cannon.  “I might not have seen that in time.”

“We’re losing the barrier,” Helen said, idly.  She manipulated sticks, and a new arm thrust itself out of the stump, pushing pulp and torn flesh out of the way.  She kicked the worst of the mess to the side of the hallway.

“Yeah,” Joel said.  “Better to not have one than to have one that’s fucking us up, right?”

“Yeah,” Lenard said, behind them.

Joel stepped forward, then dropped to a crouch, butt end of the cannon on the ground.  As he hauled on one bit of twisted metal, other bits peeled back and planted down, clawing into the staircase that led up to the front door.  He pulled back on another bit, and the mouth widened.

He fed it something that glowed, and then hauled back on the central horn.

It spewed a glob of magma.

He kept firing.

The tint and lines of the bubble intensified.  By the ninth shot, it folded.

“And they come.  Split up like we talked about.”

They sorted into the pre-arranged groups.  One combat-ready apprentice, one noncombat apprentice, three new recruits.

For Cameron, that meant she was buddying up with Travis.  A couple of years younger than her.  Two girls, one with a red wand, one without, one of the seventeen year old boys who’d liked working with Lenard.  Who liked the Abyss, that had driven Joshua away.

She licked her finger, then drew a curved line in the condensation on a shard of the glass from the broken window.  She ran her thumb over her eyeball to get moisture and drew another curved line, curved the opposite way, ends meeting, then checked her arm.  She’d scraped it a bit when falling.  There was blood.  That was more convenient than it was a problem.  She drew a circle between the curved lines, finishing the crude picture of an eye.

She kept her finger there as she finished drawing the circle, closed her eyes, then opened them again.

She could see out of that eye.  A view of what was going on out front.

Kira-Lynn commented, “I thought you had to be careful with augury.  Or you get the-”

“The styan in my eye.  I know.  I’ve got an eye wash solution, I can clear it out once or twice,” Cameron said, as she walked over to her group.  “It’s only if I See it.”


“You know the words to say if you need me,” Maricica said, sitting at the head of the class, on the stage, windows behind her.  The blue tint had become red.

Cameron nodded.

It felt like she was on a rollercoaster.  But it wasn’t the fighting that made her lurch and go from fear and thrill to anticipation.  It was the people.  A goddess who was giving her favor and attention.  Seth.  The students she was trying to corral.

She led them out to the east wing.  They ventured in just enough that they could see past the rooms that jutted out into the hallway, to the doors at the far end.  Library rooms to their right, showers and bathroom to their left.  Rows of dorm rooms behind them.

She could see what was happening outside.  The Lords were here in force.  The star mother, the ghoul king, a folded wraith, the Black Scalpel.  She could see static on the horizon, could see as red tint tried to overtake it, and lost.  One horror fighting a technomancy Lord.

Many of the Lords were, on their own, things that would’ve taken organized, concerted effort.  That had fended off organized, concerted efforts by witch hunters and Musser’s people.

And they were working together, mostly.

So the initial wave of resistance came, people venturing in past where the barrier had been, and they were immediately on the defensive.  Ten people would come in, and immediately nine were scrambling for cover.

The stealthy, the small, and the insignificant filtered past, finding hiding places, making staggered progress.

One in ten who made it through.  Half of those who reached the front door, that Cameron could See through the eye on the window, they had to deal with bogeymen.

Some others got through.

She could estimate.  Judging by the position of the school, if some were getting to the front door now…

“Get ready,” she said.

Lenard had had them practice with branches from trees in the deep Abyss, wrapped in bindings that constrained their power, keeping it from blowing back on them.  Mostly they’d preferred the weapons Joel had given them, even if those lesser weapons ranged from basically being a handgun that shot fire to being a dagger that was awkward to hold because of the bent metal shape.

The branches did a lot more raw damage.  Cracked ground, shattered obstacles.  On contact with flesh, they exploded it and tainted what they didn’t explode.  The thing was, they felt bad to use.  Even with the bandages reducing kickback, helping to keep the darkness from digging into hand and arm.

But Travis had a big branch.  It was as long as he was tall, charcoal-black wood wrapped in black bandages.  He’d wrapped his arms up to the elbow, with bandages that were both tight and loose.  Given the size of the branch, he had to hold it against his hip to aim it, so he’d wrapped bandages against a fanny pack or hip pouch or something, making a cushion.

She figured if he was going to go that far, it would be better to learn the bedlamite screaming and rig up protections for that, but… whatever.

She pried her eye open and drew on it.  An ‘x’ shape.

Lights no longer provided illumination in her right eye.  She got some from the people gathered around her, and some shone out of the hallway the kitchen was in, but the rest of the hallway was dark.

She’d had to do a ritual, to set this up.  Every form of Sight had a practice associated with it.  The ritual involved nesting that practice inside another practice, to frame it.  Then she had to keep the Sight on and repeat the gesture or sign at specific times, and she had to do it a certain number of times.  If she wanted three types of Sight, she had to do it three times.  If she wanted seven, she had to do it seven times.

She’d gone for twelve, and slightly regretted it.  A lot of these Sights were hard to keep on for as long as she needed.

The ‘moon’ vision, inverting light and dark, she’d had to repeat the gesture every hour on the dot, twelve times, while being basically blind in daylight.

Standard ‘see the spirits’ Sight, the second instance of the ritual, she’d had to repeat the gesture of drawing on her eye every two hours precisely, twelve times.  It meant waking up in the middle of the night, constantly, being very careful.

The combat vision?  Every three hours, exactly, twelve times.

She’d only gotten that far.  When she eventually got to the twelfth, she figured it would have to be powerful Sight she codified in.  She’d have to key it in every twelve hours exactly, twelve times.  But then it would have the establishment of all the ones she’d successfully done, and she could switch it on whenever she wanted, without the annoying prep-work or ritual required.

It was annoying, though.  If she screwed up the timing once, across any of the rituals, she lost all the easy-access Sights.

Apparently Nicolette Belanger, Chase Belanger’s apprentice, had done it but had used her glasses as an implement to help it.  It gave her leeway in the timing and meant she didn’t have to start all the way over on any failure.  She’d done seven, if Cameron remembered Seth right.

There.  She could see the glow through the door.  People.  She could see their aggression as a red-tinted light.

“Fire in three… two… one.”

The doors banged open.  Travis was already firing.  The darkness ripped apart the tile of the hallway, knocked two dorm room doors off their hinges, and tore through the people in the doorway.

Two, at least, were definitely dead.

Others flooded in.  Cameron held the red wand, ready.

No practitioners yet.

But there were mice.  And pigeons.

Mice that scurried under doors.  Pigeons flapped madly about, taking cover in the wall decorations, or dipping off to the left, toward the storerooms.

They hadn’t been able to empty the storerooms, but they’d cleared out everything that looked problematic and then they’d sealed and trapped the doors.

She scrubbed the combat-vision out of her eye.  It was hurting more than it was helping.

Travis fired again.  Shooting the corner of the library.  It tore through the wall and through a bookshelf that was against that wall.  Pages from books fluttered out.

And some pigeons that had been on the other side were obliterated or maimed.

A girl in a mask came running in, full-tilt.  Travis wasn’t fast enough to get the big Abyssal branch ready again in time to fire at her.

The masked girl ducked left, out of sight, near where pigeons had gone.

Not Avery.  The mask was more like a domino mask, but rigid, hard over the nose.

She ran by again, from their right to their left.  Into the girls’ showers.  Travis fired, missing, and so did the seventeen year old boy with a smaller wand.

A bunch of mice and pigeons plunged into the hole in the wall.  The seventeen year old shot at the place they were going, killing a few, and they stopped going that way.

It wasn’t like there weren’t already other holes in the wall.  It looked like they’d pried open vents and were going in there too.

Cameron felt the throbbing of the headache from briefly mixing normal vision and a contradictory Sight earlier.  She kept a careful eye on the entrance to the girls’ showers.

Running footsteps behind her told her the masked girl had slipped past or around them, somehow.  She turned, and got pushed out of the way.

The running girl hit one of the prepared barriers.  An invisible wall.  Her nose gushed blood, and she stumbled.

The seventeen year old shot her with the smaller dark branch before she’d recovered.  Shattering her left arm.

Like Helen’s had been removed, but this girl didn’t seem to have the ability to heal.  So it was this massive, probably terminal wound.

“You,” Cameron directed the girl with the red wand.  “Bind her.”

“I think she’s actually human.  Or human-ish.”

“Then spellbind her.”

“I don’t know-”

“I’ll do it,” the seventeen year old said.  He passed the branch to the girl.  She looked at it with distaste, holding it at arm’s length.

“Hello!” a man shouted.

Travis fired.  The side door of the school had taken enough of the big branch that it was basically a hole in the wall.  No door remained.  Cold air blew through.

“Guess what I did!?” the man hollered.  There was a deranged note in the question.

The ground rumbled as something big hit it.  She saw the man stumble.  It didn’t look like he’d anticipated that.

Travis fired again, while the man was visible.  But the time it took for the darkness to get to those doors meant he had time to get clear.

She saw two goblins get into the building.  Small ones.

So that protection was down, too, then.

“I said guess what I did!?”

“Petitioner?” Cameron asked.

“No idea,” Travis said.

“Petitioner?” one of the girls asked.  She was watching the library.

“Asks questions.  You’d better answer,” Cameron said.  “Sometimes you need a very specific answer.”

“You almost got shot just now!” Travis shouted.  He glanced at Cameron, then shrugged.  “Right?”

“I did!  I did that!  I did it!  But that’s not what I’m talking about!” the man hollered.  “I raised a daughter who is very good at getting out of a scrape!”

Cameron turned, just in time to see the girl with the exploded arm and the mask sweeping the seventeen year old off his feet.

“I did that, I did it!  I’m so proud of her!”

She kipped-up to her feet at the same time she let a handful of small cherry-sized spheres roll out of her hand.  Brown, dark green, yellowish-

“I think that’s gob-”

Travis, in the process of aiming at the running girl, while trying not to smack the girl with the red wand and branch with his weapon, changed his mind.  He aimed low, firing at the little spheres before they could go off.

Two were explosive.  Not in a big way, but they might’ve hurt.  At least one was a stink bomb.

The branch obliterated the worst of it.  One stink bomb had gone off.  Cameron covered her nose and mouth with her elbow.  Brown fog rolled from the side of the hallway, low to the ground.

“Retreat,” she managed, and opening her mouth was a mistake.

The taste filled her mouth, and it seemed to roll out from her sense of smell and taste to skin, stomach, sense of balance, vision, even.  Tinting everything brown.

It was bad enough she threw up, but she didn’t even know when she’d started throwing up.  The taste of puke in her mouth was better than the taste of the air.

They clumsily retreated, closer to the center of the main building.

There was a paper tacked onto a door she passed, with a tiny fork.

We recognize this is a breach of protocol.

“What?  Who?” she asked.

Travis didn’t reply.  He was too busy suffering from the stink.

A door popped open as they carried on retreating.  She pushed it open, ready in case it was an attack.  Another note was tacked to the inside of the door, at eye level.

The mice and pigeons have come with an offer.

“Brownies?” she gasped.

Puke rolled out of her mouth at the end of that word.  Punishing her for opening her mouth to speak.  She ran faster, harder, to get clear of the worst of it.  Travis supported her.

There was another note further down.  Longer.

Yes.  Staff, as we’re often referred to.
We’re having trouble discerning who is in charge.
The Carmine Exile is away.
The Goddess is unapproachable.
Others fight.
You are most available.

There was a little arrow pointing to the side.

She opened that door.  Another note on the inside of the door.

We’re poised to turn down their offer, at which point they’ll go to war with us.  But we would like someone’s go-ahead to do so.

Fuck.  She’d heard half the information on the brownies when they’d been mobilizing to attack this place and then half the information had been shared in a very serious conversation, yesterday.

She hoped she didn’t get this wrong.

“I can’t tell you, that would upset the natural hierarchy.  I won’t thank you either if you act in defense of the building,” she managed.  She wiped at her chin.

Was the offer that had been brought to them that good?  Because if it was…

Hidden doorways and hatches all up and down the hallway rattled.  Some burst open.  Mice, pigeons, and little goblin-fairies with glowing orange ‘x’s for eyes burst out, fighting one another.

It wasn’t.

Okay, good.

More doors and hatches opened.  Floor tiles slid to the side, and there were spaces beyond.  Orange glows from fires in kitchens and things on the far side filled the hallway.

The lights went out, but the orange glows remained for illumination.  It made it hard not to step on someone or something.

There were more spaces on walls, floor, and ceiling that were hatches than not.

“Keep going,” she said.  She gagged on residual taste, like something had gotten into her mouth and she’d chewed it as teeth met.  “Fucking-”

A door burst open.  It wasn’t a brownie.

The running girl, one armed, held what might’ve been a screwdriver or toothpick.  Going right for Travis.

Cameron raised her arm, ready to let her hand be impaled if it meant Travis didn’t get it in the neck.

The seal from the bangle nearest her wrist erupted into light.

A shockwave of light expanded out.

The running girl was hurled into the wall with enough force that there was a vaguely human-shaped bloodstain and mess of webbing cracks left behind on the parts of the wall that weren’t open hatches to the brownie kitchens.

Bones probably shattered.  Skull included, from the shape of the bloodstain.

Cameron felt numb about it, but it was a shaky sort of numb she was worried would crumble.  She wished she could tap into the Abyss like Kira-Lynn had had them do, before the New Year.  To kill that feeling and turn it into something vicious instead.

“I brought her here.  I did.”

She wheeled around.

Travis aimed the big branch at the masked man.

“I came prepared to help my family if they were hurt.  I came prepared to do some shockingly awful things to anyone who hurt them,” he said, his voice low.

“Is that a choice?” Kira-Lynn asked, wary.  “Or are you going to try for both at the same time?”

He didn’t answer, looking down at the girl, who was breathing gurgling breaths.

The east wing was being overrun now.  The big thudding that kept hitting the ground was the Ruins serpent, slithering in and out of that dark realm.  Echoes flowed with it as it moved.  It was blocking the door, mostly, but that didn’t stop the group that had already reached the door.

It was fine.  They were prepared to give this up.  It was just easier if they didn’t have to.  Lenard had suggested they prolong how long their enemy was out in the cold.

“It works best if you focus on helping her.  We’ll let you if you swear an agreement to be spellbound, or bound, depending.”

“I’m Lost enough you can bind me,” he said.  “Not her.”

“She has to agree too.”

“She will.”

“What’s your healing?”

“Alchemy.  Bone-mending healing potions, potions to restore organs, potions to mend flesh.”

“You went and bought all that?” Travis asked.

“I did.  Let me help her?”

“Carry her.  Faster is better than gentle,” Cameron told him.

He scooped up his daughter without hesitation.

There was a bunch of goblins at the very end of the hall.

“Excuse me!” a voice came from one of the open hatches.

They ran down the hallway.

“If I could borrow you for just one moment!?”

There was too much to do to entertain brownie weirdness.

“If you could pass on a message!?” a human hand reached out of a hatch.  A very ruddy face peered out another one, five feet away.  Apparently the same person.  Spatial weirdness.

She couldn’t.

They entered the center building.  She told Dony, “Seal it.”

Dony used the laptop.  The way between the central building and the east wing was blocked off, the entry to the long hallway becoming a wall.

“Got a person for you to heal,” she told Maricica.  “They’ve agreed to be bound and spellbound.”

“I may not be that easy to bind,” the man said.  “I’m not sure my word counts.”

“If you make a deal with me, it will.  That’s a me thing, not a you thing,” Maricica said.  “Hurry now.  I should make an appearance, and once I do, I won’t be coming here to heal the girl.”

He carried the bloody, wheezing girl to the end of the church.  If he had any reservations about approaching the bloody goddess, he pushed those away in favor of maybe saving his daughter.

Cameron watched.

She wanted to think she was a good person, doing that.

The numbness was crumbling, and that was all she had to cling to.


Early Winter, Last Year

She entered her bedroom, and her mom was right on her heels.

“Can you give me some space?  You’re hovering.”

“I- I was going to say-”

Cameron hesitated.

Her mom’s expression crumpled.  She began to cry.

“Mom?   What happened?  What’s going on?  Did someone die?”

Her mother shook her head, but was crying too hard to get words out now.

It had been a long day, with school, after school work helping paint set decor for the drama club, then homework, she’d made dinner, because Mom was at work and Dad was away for work, driving.

And now this?  Cameron started crying too.  Her own exhaustion made it too easy.  “Mom?  What happened?”

Nervous now, she went into the other room, for the landline.  She’d call dad-

Her mom followed close behind, fingers clutching the back of Cameron’s shirt.


Late Winter, Last Year

“Thank you, everyone, for the hard work,” her mom addressed the group.  “I’d like to treat everyone.  If you’d like to head out to Heroes’?”

There were cheers.

It was dumb, it was mediocre sandwiches and poutine.  But whatever.  Free food.

“Can we afford that?” she asked her mom.

“It’s okay,” her mom said, gathering stuff to load into the van.  “I’ve got the money in my account, but because this is easier…”

She unlocked the lockbox.

Cameron pushed the lid shut.

“I’ll replace the money,” her mom said.


Early Spring

“I’ll replace the money,” her mom said.

“You don’t.  You won’t.  You seriously aren’t.  Do I need to videotape you?”

“There’s zero need.  I’m the most organized person in Kennet.  I’ve got this handled.  Now, I promised pizza, I’m going to get pizza.”


“Cameron!” her mom raised her voice.  A hair too loud.  Turning heads from people who were still in the parking lot.  A tremor in the voice.  Unsteadiness.

Cameron relented.  Because the alternative was worse.

“How much are you taking?  People noticed money went missing before, when I- you didn’t put the right amount back.”

“Eighty-five.  See?  Eighty-five.”

Her mom shut the lockbox, then locked it.  Then she joined the great migration of students and volunteers toward the upper end of town.

Cameron remained by the car.  Letting herself in.  She was glad she had the key, from getting her license.  She had a spare key to the lockbox too.  Because her mom had lost hers twice.


She put her own money in.  For what was the third time, now.  Money from Christmas, all gone.


Late Spring

“It’s called sundowning.”

“She’s fine.”

“I’m fine,” Cameron’s mom said.

“You’re acting weird at night, and you don’t even remember.  It’s- every time we do volunteer work and it gets into the late, darker hours, you get generous.  You… you take money out and forget to put it in.  Dad.  This is real.”

“It’s fine.”

“She freaked out, almost hit me, a week ago.  She cries.  She follows me around, constantly asking questions, confused.  And it’s starting in the day too.  Forgetting little things.”

“I am not,” her mom said.  That little waver in the ‘not’.  Fear.  “I’m too young for that.”

“It happened to gran.”

“I am not, will not lose my mind!”

“It’s fine, Cameron,” her dad said, hands on her shoulders.  “We will handle it.  I’ll talk to the doctor.  But really, I think you’re making a big deal out of nothing.”



Persona non-grata.  The thief.  The girl who stole from boys who’d probably been killed.

She hadn’t been thinking.  She had the job of being a student, but she also ran the house, she took care of her mom.  Still mostly fine in the day, but at night she’d dip into dementia.  It was better to keep all the lights on in the house, to make sure food was regular, to not let her mom stay up.  But that only worked a little.

Her dad, she’d quickly realized, had to know what was going on.  But he didn’t want to deal with it.  So he didn’t.  He found excuses to leave for work.  She didn’t know if he was going to divorce her mom.

She’d given up all her money, trying to cover.  So it meant instead of Christmas money and money for her birthday, she had nothing.  It meant instead of getting to kick back and watch television after school, she had to take care of her mom.  No rest, no breaks.  Only dreading whether her mom would cry or throw a tantrum, or be scared and confused.

Taking the fifty had been a panicked thing.  A way of telling herself she still existed.  She’d seen all the help and sympathy these missing boys were getting and she’d acted on impulse.  She’d felt she deserved it.

In the aftermath, it was easier to be a thief than to try and explain and be the daughter of a demented person.

A thief got in trouble.  The daughter of a demented woman lost everything.  Home, reputation… the daughter of a demented woman had to face the reality that she might go the exact same way her mom and grandma had.  That her life could be over before she lived half of it.

The numbness that had carried her through this humiliation was crumbling.

Someone was staring.

“What?” Cameron asked, and there was a quaver in her voice.

“Nothing,” the girl said.  Kira-Lynn, from a grade just below Cameron.  “Just thinking.”


Where aer you?  please call
I’m scared

She turned off her phone.

Shouldn’t have clicked that.

Cameron had called for help, to get someone to her mom.  The timing was objectively terrible.  Kennet had been torn apart just days ago.  Multiple fires, a lot going on.  So apparently nobody had gone yet.

She’d abandoned her mom.  She hadn’t been able to take it any more.  She’d needed to go and they’d asked her to stay, so here she was.

She’d pulverized another living person.  In defense of a-

Not a friend.  Just Travis.  A colleague.

None of the other students were especially friendly to her.  She’d grown up too fast.  Girls were jealous and boys leered.

She closed her eyes, and opened the eye she’d drawn on the window.

The fighting was ongoing out front.

Seth entered from the west wing, escorted by two bogeymen.  Her heart leaped.

She thought of the nightmare.  Boden.  Pressure.  Compromise constant, on one side of the equation.  hers.  Her heart sank.

“Got it,” he said.

“Paris?  Or whoever?” Teddy asked.

“No.  Not yet.  I think the idea is they call Charles or the Judges directly, somehow.  No.  Helen?”

“My family?” Helen asked.

“I passed on the message.  You’re alive, well, unforsworn, you’re set up to have a lot of say in the whole region, and world powers are looking to cede power and respect to us.”


“They’re coming.  The Kim family is on its way, from folded places to here.  They’ll lend their aid, they’ll ask little, except that Helen be given her due for her contributions.  Which at this point includes the entire Kim family.”

“Good,” Helen said.  “You know I’m the runt of my particular litter, so to speak?”

“I’m jealous,” Seth said.

“Of me being the runt?”

“Of your family being willing to go to bat for you.”

“I had to be positioned right,” Helen said.  She glanced over her shoulder at the Oni.  “Don’t say anything.”

“I said nothing.  I gave some advice on timing, to be heard or ignored, that’s all.”

“I still don’t trust you.”

“That’s fine.  Speaking of positions, you said that stage was comfortable,” the Oni told Maricica.  “Is it that comfortable?”

Maricica smiled.  “Timing, as you said.  And position.  It’s good to have someone at the helm, front and center.  It matters to the brownies, and to certain powers looking in.”

Here and there, some hatches opened, but neither the Lost things or the brownies wanted to be close to Maricica, so at most, they hung open, shadows moving between the cooking fires and the open door, so the light they cast danced on walls and arched ceiling.

Seth joined Cameron’s side.  “Tea?”

“Herbal.  Headache.  I got bumped, I slipped up.  Conflicting Sight.”

“Ah.  And your bracelet.  Bangle.  Bracer.”

He noticed things about her.  Paid attention.

She’d never been lower than after she’d been caught with that fifty dollar bill.  There weren’t many things she could imagine that were worse.  Being hated, resented, or looked down on when anyone had to pay attention to her.  Being ignored, treated as invisible, otherwise.  Her mom wasn’t a source of love or support.  Just the opposite  Mood swings and more resentment, a constant fight.

Where could she be but here?

The one gold seal was dark and tarnished.

“I think each use takes seven years to reload.  Got four left.  If you want me to take them off or share them…”

“No.  I want you in one piece,” he said.

“Trouble!” Lenard called out.

She could see out front.  An eighteen wheeler.  Carrying fluids.

Joel was shooting.  Trying to gun it down before it got close.

The flame arced away.  Crude elemental drawings on the front of the truck glowed.  There was something else.

She saw the logo on the side as it swayed, avoiding running over goblins on the attacker’s side.

“Oil.  Fuel, that’s gas or-!” she raised her voice, rising to her feet.

“Dog Tag,” Seth shouted, his own eyes flashing.  “Flame type-!”

“The coast was too clear.  They’ve been pulling their people back, planning this!” Lenard called back.  “Shoot it, Joel!”

“There’s someone inside.  The Host.  He’s helping.  He drew the runes,” Seth said.  He pulled on Cameron’s arm.

“I could-” she said, raising her arm.

“Or it might not work and you might be a bloody, scorched smear,” Seth said.

“Girl by Candlelight?” Kira-Lynn asked.

It was close.  It had cleared the parking lot and it was by the workshops now.

“Out back,” Maricica replied.  She hadn’t lifted a muscle.  “We’re fine.”

Light swept past the outdoors, consuming everything, too bright to look at.

Cameron closed her eyes, then opened them.

Green grass.  Homes, houses.  A sprawling suburbia.

The fuel tanker was replaced by a truck.  A shift in momentum that came with the changing size made it spin out.  It corrected, kept coming.

The Dog Tag with the half-melted face and the Host leaped free of the truck as Joel hit it with his cannon, obliterating it.  Chunks of flaming pickup rolled down the hill that was now in front of the Blue Heron Institute, and dipped into grass, swallowed up.

The Blue Heron Institute remained the Blue Heron Institute.  Broken glass was fixed.  Everything was set back in place.  Hatches for the brownies closed.  The building went quiet.  Framed by forest.  But it stood on a hill, the patch of suburbia spread out around it.  Nice homes, green lawns, daylight.  Families were out for what could be mistaken for a community barbecue or festival.

Cameron could feel the effect wash over her.  Light injuries and scrapes were washed away.  Her clothes changed, to a nice navy blue dress with a white collar.  Seth, beside her, wore a full suit, one that fit, with a light blue button-up and blue tie.  Perfect.

But the Ordinary Family didn’t sink its teeth into her.  It left her Self intact.  She kept her mind.  No brainwashing.  No being consumed in other ways.

She was almost disappointed.  It would be so nice to just sink into that, one hundred percent.

“We’ve fed this particular beast quite well, haven’t we?” Maricica asked.  She slowly got to her feet.  “I should participate now.  Our Lord here is stretched thin, and they’re well equipped to push back.”

The Goddess float-walked past Cameron without so much as a glance.

Cameron’s heart sank with that.

Maricica paused to turn to look at her.  Her heart soared with the recognition.

“Our patient is well enough to be spellbound.  Her father has potions he can give her to get her back into tip-top shape, for after.”

Cameron nodded.  “Yes, goddess.”

“You’ve done well.  Carry on with that.”

Then Maricica dissolved into blood.  Blood flowed in between floorboards, disappearing.

“Carry on with what part?” Cameron asked.

“Flipping pieces to our side,” Rook said.

“Speaking of, we don’t have any great spellbinders, do we?” Seth asked.

“I started,” the seventeen year old said.  “But it was slow.  She attacked me.”

“I can,” Griffin said.  “Still slow, but… I can handle her.”

Spellbinding.  Binding humans.  Griffin did his work.  The magic circle he painted in the air was centered around the girl’s neck where it would become a collar.  The girl’s father, already bound, watched, mute, looking grim.

Cameron’s focus had to be elsewhere.  She had orders.

The pickup that had been obliterated… it hadn’t had two passengers.  It had had four.

She could see them creeping, through that eye on the window.

She began to mesh her fingers together, into the gesture for the gate of horn, like Seth had taught her.

She wasn’t good at it.  But he took her hands, helping her fingers find the right angles and position.

She showed him what she Saw.

Two Dog Tags had clung to the back of the vehicle, and used that to get close.  They were carrying rifles, ducking below the level of windows.

“Lenard?” Seth asked.  “Come here?”

“I’m watching out front.”

“Come here.”

Lenard pulled away.  Seth put a hand on Cameron’s shoulder.  Lightly pushing.

He glanced at some of the others.  Travis had his branch resting on a bench-seat beside him.

No need.  No, in fact, there was a need to not rely on Travis.

She tracked the Dog Tags as they passed the window she could see out of.  Entering the short hallway that separated the entrance doors from the main classroom, huddling there.

She decided to take the risk herself.  She pushed the other set of doors open, stepping into that same hallway.

One of the Dog Tags lunged for her.  He looked young.  He grabbed at her arm-

And she pushed her sleeve up enough to show the second of the bangles beneath, muscles flexed beneath.

The shockwave of light erupted out.  Flinging both Dog Tags back into the wall with that same devastating force.

Travis had acknowledged her more, after she’d fended off the runner, saving his neck.

But this was more of a display in front of everyone.  She smiled.

“What was even the plan?” Seth asked, as he walked over.

For a moment, she thought he was criticizing her.  But he was talking to the Dog Tags.

Seth bent down, and he reached between the men to haul out a small can without a label.  Already opened.  There was wiring and something packed inside it.

“Suicide bomb?”

“That was my fellow’s job,” the young looking Dog Tag said.  “That’s insurance against binding.”

That’s obvious enough for an augur to see,” Seth said.  He lobbed the bomb outside.  It was swallowed up by the grass.  “What was the plan?”

“There’s Charles, there’s Maricica.  But then what?  You’ve got some new people, but really, it’s six teachers, five students, right?  If we get one of you, if we get you, Seth, you guys can’t see shit.  If we get him, you probably lose control of all the bogeymen.  You’re the weak links.  We get one of you, we leave.  Find another angle.”

“Not that weak, apparently,” Seth said.  He straightened, and he flashed a smile at Cameron.  “Who can bind these things?”

“I can,” Joel said.  “Let me wipe my hands clean.  Watch them a minute?”

Seth nodded.

“We’re coming for you, weak links,” the Dog Tag said.

“No,” Seth said.  “See, that’s not right.  We’ll bind you, now, we’ll leash you, Dogs, and then the people you’ll be going after?  They’re out there, attacking this building.”

The man narrowed his eyes.

Joel came over, wiping his hands.  He nodded at Seth, then bent down, checking the tags.  “Horseman and Mark.  Let’s begin.”

Seth joined Cameron, and they walked over to stand at the top of the stairs, looking out.

The change in landscape had pushed enemies away, scattering them.  It had bought them time.

A rifle shot went off.  Cameron felt her heart leap.  Wondering if maybe someone was out there with a sniper rifle.

The fear response was irrational.  The Ordinary Family had the sky, too.  Of course.  The intervening air.  The bullet didn’t make it that far.

Irrational.  She was dressed up like a housewife from a nice neighborhood, her man beside her.  White picket fences and organized hedgerows.  Sunny skies, and a moment of quiet, before the Ruins worm surged through the space, dipping out of it shortly after.  Screaming echoes chased in its wake.  The screaming was cut off by this altered reality.

Her phone was in her pocket, buzzing as her mom messaged her.

They’d weathered the initial attack.  They’d lost the east wing but they’d planned to give it up anyway.  They could retake it, maybe even before the next wave.

The phone kept buzzing.  Like a voice, far away and deep down, trying to say something to her.  Except she knew what it was going to say.  The questions it was going to ask.

They had some injuries, but they’d picked up some assets.  Joel was taking the Dog Tags.  She glanced back over her shoulder, and saw the hard look one dog tag was giving her, lying there with a broken body slowly mending.  The other had eyes turned inward, inside.

Taking their minds.  Liberty.  Control.

The phone kept going off.  Panicked.

I can’t deal with that emotional instability, momI did my part.

Her heart sank if she dwelt on it.  The phone or the Dog Tags, the girl in the back of the church Griffin was working on.

Her eyes moved.

It might just be that with this demonstration, she’d earned some respect from the others.  If this would continue to be hard, they’d need to find a way to work together, that wasn’t spiritual surgery to get Abyss-ness in them.  This was good.

A look of maybe-respect from Kira Lynn, even.

Cameron felt her emotions swing from a confused, aimless mess to pride.

“Really?” Seth asked, as her phone kept vibrating.

“My mom.  She’s freaking out, I think.  She wants to know I’m safe.”

Seth put an arm around her shoulders, tight.  She smiled at him.

“Did you talk to Boden?”

“I did, briefly.  He didn’t mean it the way you took it.”


I got away, mom.  I had to.  I can’t sacrifice my life for you.  I need to be free.  To have control.

“Headache still there?” he asked.

He remembered.  He noticed.  She replied, “Yeah, but it’s mild.”

“Maybe this is too soon, but while it’s quiet, we could retire and catch fifteen?” Seth asked.  His arm tight around her shoulders.  Already kind of steering her that way.

The phone buzzed.  A far-away voice, calling out to her.

A detonation rippled through the suburbs the Ordinary Family had painted around them.  The fabric rippled, things shaking.  The facade nearly crumbled, then erected itself again.

Another attack imminent, this soon.

“Or not,” he said.  “Darn.”

“Or not,” she replied.  Her smile was tight.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Go for the Throat – 23.7


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Avery climbed out of the car, taking a cardboard box, while her mom gave directions to the others.  “Rowan, if you could bring the grocery bags in, please and thank you.  Sheridan, it’s your choice if you want to bring the trash from the car and the leftover car snacks or if you want to bring in the big bags from the back.”

“Wonderful, love it,” Sheridan said.

“You really need to work on your lying,” their mom said.

“Take in the trash or be a beast of burden.”

“I’d give you the option of groceries but I think you do intentional harm to things like bread or eggs whenever I do.”

Sheridan ascribed to a philosophy of ‘do a job badly enough and you won’t get asked to do it again’.  Which had backfired more than a few times, but that only made her dig in harder.

“Oh, Grumble’s up,” Rowan said.

Grumble stood in the doorway, only seemingly able to stay upright because their dad was holding onto his armpit.

“Trash it is,” Sheridan said.

“Right,” their mom replied.

“What’s the logic?” Avery asked.

“Because the front hall is going to be clogged, having something lightweight but stinky gets people out of my way.  Having the big bags means I’m standing there awkwardly until the clog clears.”

“You know, you could do mom a solid and take on the burden,” Avery said.

“Counterpoint: if you really think about it, mom’s indirectly responsible for every bad thing in my life,” Sheridan said.

“You used to be such a sweet little girl,” their mom said.

“If you want, I can take the big bags in,” Avery offered.


“I might be a suck-up but you just suck sometimes, Sheridan,” Avery said.

“Don’t, with your injury.”



Avery groaned.

“I’ll come back for the big bags,” Rowan said, grunting as he got all the bags at once.  “Don’t worry about it, mom.”

“You’re lovely.  Here.  Let me take some of those, then.”

They navigated their way up the slightly icy driveway, and then up the stairs.  Greetings were had, hugs exchanged.  It was a bit silly, since Avery had been home a while- she hung back.  But Sheridan and Rowan had stopped in while the kids were sleeping and then left again for a bit.  They accepted stiff hugs from Grumble.

She could imagine it becoming a dumb little ritual, making a big obnoxious show over being apart for a little while.  But Kerry seemed happy over it, and if Avery had to guess, it was the sort of thing that replenished her parent’s Self.  The family being together.

As Sheridan had predicted, there was a clog.  Grumble took one step every three seconds, with assistance, and Avery’s dad supported him, so that basically blocked the hallway.  Avery had to hang out on the front steps to wait until there was room to slip inside, squeeze to the side to let the door by, and then there was Sheridan with the trash and snacks, Rowan and their mom with groceries, and Kerry squeezing between them, while their mom tried to keep Kerry from bowling Grumble over.

“What are we having for dinner?”

“We ordered in, it’s on its way, it won’t be long.”

“You can put the box with the other things we’re moving between houses.”

“Yep,” Avery replied, quick.

“Technically an apartment and a house,” Sheridan said.

Technically two apartments and a house,” Rowan interjected.

Technically two apartments, a house, a backyard, and garage.”



“-nically two apartments, a house, a backyard, garage, and patio Avery likes hogging.”

“Don’t rope me into this.”

“Miss ‘nobody pays attention to me’ turning around and saying ‘don’t rope me into this’,” Sheridan teased, poking Avery near the armpit with a hand holding a bag of wrappers and things from the car.

“Hey, hey,” their dad said.  “Positive energy tonight.”

“That’ll make me wither and die like a vampire in the sun,” Sheridan said.

As Grumble was guided into the living room, the way through to the kitchen and upstairs got clear, and the clog cleared.

Avery left the box in a corner of the living room with some other boxes of things in transition, and gave Grumble a quick hug she hadn’t been able to manage before.

Still feel weird, like the Wolf is closer when I’m hugging him, she thought.  It was disconcerting.

“Y’arrigh?” he asked.

“I’m good,” she replied.  “How are you?”

“Eh, ‘fben worse,” he mumbled, smiling.  “H’mpart oa mooie cluh nah.”

“Hm?” she asked.

“It’s going pretty well,” her dad said, food in hand, that he’d pulled out of the canvas bags.  “Classic movies, right dad?”

“Ahll sors.”

All sorts.

“Just started yesterday, still figuring out a routine,” her dad said.  “Plan for the first movie is to watch late tonight or early tomorrow.  They meet in the morning, when he’s a little more clear.”

“H’m clear ‘nouf,” Grumble replied, with a dismissive and stiff wave of the arm.

“So it’s something like I’m doing?” Sheridan asked.  “With the podcast?”

“Hmmhm, summin lie ha’.”

“So, what, you watch movies, like a book club reads books, share thoughts?” Avery asked.

“Mmhm, s’arrigh, Arry.  Keeps m’ busy.”

“Cool,” she replied.  “I’ve got a friend, her family didn’t encourage watching movies, so she’s only now getting into stuff.  It’s interesting to keep track of.”

“Shul’ john in.  Brin ‘er in.”

“That’d be a picture.  What’s the group demographic like?”

“Lots of people in Grumble’s age group,” her dad said.  “That’s why they’re accommodating of him bringing in a video summary.  Organizing thoughts and getting the best takes together.”

“That’s so cool.  I hope you enjoy it,” Avery said.  “Do you know what you’re watching?”

“‘Unno,” her Grumble said.

“We can check after dinner,” Avery’s dad said.

“That’s really cool though,” Avery said.  “I’d love to hear about the movies you’re watching.  Maybe if any are good I can recommend it to my friend.”

“I can’t believe you have friends,” Declan said.

“Okay, wait, hold on,” Avery’s mom said.  “Everyone together.  Round table.  Let’s make this quick, before food arrives.  Come on, everyone.”

“Am I in trouble?  I’m only speaking truth.”

“Everyone… there we go.  Make a circle.”

They did.  Grumble was seated in his reclining chair, so he spun around to face the center of the living room, while the rest of them formed a… more of an oblong.  Whatever.

“Feels religious,” Rowan said.

“Avery’s going to the hospital tonight,” Avery’s mom said.  “She should be okay, but what we would really, really love to see is this family pulling together.”

Avery wasn’t going to the hospital.  It was a cover story.

Avery was going to deal with Charles.  Allegedly.  And it wasn’t that far off, either.

“You guys can be snarky, maybe it’s funny sometimes, a lot of times it isn’t,” Avery’s mom said.

“You get that from me, not being funny,” Avery’s dad threw in.

“But,” Avery’s mom said, and she reached out to Avery, giving Avery a squeeze on the shoulder.  “You have to be able to stop when it’s called for, like when feelings get hurt, or on nights like tonight, where we want to have as many positive vibes going around as possible.  When the chips are down, we support each other.”

The nods and reactions ranged from Rowan being receptive to Declan’s barely restrained eye roll.  Kerry seemed to be listening but who knew what would be flying through her glitter-dusted, wide-eyed head an hour from now?

The box Avery had brought in moved.  Kerry’s head snapped around.

Oh, right.  That, probably.  Either because Kerry would be terrified or ecstatic.

“Puppy?” Kerry asked.  She turned her head to her parents with enough speed that, if it were physically possible, Avery figured she’d have snapped her own neck.  “Cat?  Puppy?”


“Is it a puppy?  It’s okay if it’s a cat but I want a puppy.  If it’s a cat I’m going to feel so bad for wanting a puppy but I want a dog.”

“You know what would be hilarious?” Sheridan asked.  “If it was mom’s quote-unquote ‘back massager’.”

“Sheridan!” their mom raised her voice.

“Positive vibes- positive energy, Sheridan,” their dad said.

Sheridan cracked up at that, laughing hard enough she had to lean against the couch.

Avery focused on Snowdrop signals, to tune things out and push the mental picture Sheridan had put out there out of her mind’s eye.

“What is in the air today?” Avery asked.  “First Verona with everything going on, now you?  The horrible mental images.”

“Can I open it?  Can I see what it is?” Kerry asked, hovering over the box, not taking in any information that wasn’t specifically about the box.

“I don’t want you to be spooked, and you have to be gentle, and quiet-”

“Oh god, get it over with,” Declan said, sounding bored or annoyed, but Avery could tell he was excited too.

“Puppy puppy- Declan, I want to open the box!  Don’t open-”

“Then hurry up!”

“Quiet, nice volume for sensitive ears,” their dad said.

“Please be a puppy, please be a-”

Kerry looked like she was going to throw a fit when Declan was the one to do the final motion of opening the box, but then she looked inside.

“This is so much better than a puppy!”

“Volume!  Quiet for sensitive ears.”

Snowdrop looked up at them from the bottom of the box, which was littered with the remains of the fruits and vegetables that had been put in there with her.


“It’s an opossum, Dad.  One Avery rescued, as I understand it-”

“My friend did, but gave her to me.  Snowdrop and I have been hanging out a lot since.”

“Wha’re’ye brinnin inna this house?”

“It’s technically Avery’s, but in a way it’s also the family’s, and we decided things work a lot better if it’s a part of the household.  It’s technically wild, but we’ll be seeing it around.  Her.”

“Snowdrop,” Avery said.  Avery stepped forward and reached past Declan and Kerry to pick Snowdrop up.  Snowdrop clung to the arm with all the bracelets and ribbons.  Avery then transferred her to Kerry’s shoulder.

Kerry, not sure what to do, put a tentative hand out to steady Snowdrop, and sort of froze, paralyzed in some paroxysm of joy and nervousness.  She flinched a few times as Snowdrop’s nose poked her hand, neck, and ear.

Avery cleaned up the bits of vegetable and fruit peel, gathering them to take to the kitchen.  She washed her hands.  Through the front door, which had been left open, the glass-and-screen door just past it keeping most cold air out, she could see the delivery guy.

“Delivery’s here, I’ll go meet him so he’s not walking on the driveway,” she said.  “Back of the car’s still open, by the way.  Want me to close it?”

“I’ll get the bag,” Rowan said.

She met the guy, who Rowan apparently knew, the two chatted for a few seconds while Avery fished a fiver out of her wallet to tip him.  Rowan hauled the bag out, balancing on the driveway, while Avery navigated it with a bit more ease.  Path boons, and if she fell, it wasn’t like it’d hurt.

“Grumble’s harder to understand,” Avery remarked, quiet.

“Been going that way for a while,” Rowan said.  “You just haven’t been talking to him as much.  Especially at night, when he’s way worse, since you’ve been going out all the time.”


“I don’t want any specifics, really, but with everything going on tonight, are you going to be-”

He nearly slipped.  She caught his arm.

“Thanks.  Are you going to be going out at night, after?”

“I’m thinking… maybe always?”



“Dunno.  Sometimes you seem far away.  It kinda- nevermind.”


“Nothing, Mom and Dad said positive energy so… Dunno.”

“Real positive,” she told him, walking up the stairs backwards, ahead of him, so she could face him.

“I’m glad you’re not as far away tonight, how’s that?”

“Same, I think,” she replied, turning to let herself and Rowan into the house.

She scooped up Snowdrop from Kerry’s shoulder, moving Snowdrop to her own shoulder as she walked through to the dining room, where she deposited the paper bag of cardboard containers in the center.  Kerry followed with eyes wide, bumping into and clinging to Avery, because practically climbing on Avery was the fastest way to Snowdrop.

“No TV,” her dad was telling Declan, who was in the midst of dragging the TV around to face the dining room.

“But the start of the new season of Knack Knack is tonight.”

One of the big talent competition shows.

“No TV.  It can wait and there are reruns.”


“Come on, it takes effort for all of us to get together like this.  Let’s enjoy each other’s company.”

Avery found her souvlaki-chickpea wrap in the bag, and put it by her seat, fished out a ginger ale, and put that there too.  She got settled, Snowdrop on her lap, expressing great interest in the food smells.

“Don’t put the opossum on your lap,” her dad told her.  “Come on now.  At the table?”

“Sh’n’t be in th’ ‘arage, een.”

Avery rolled her head around, then bent down, letting Snowdrop down to the floor.

“Thank you,” her mom said.  They passed out plates and napkins, the food, tzatziki rice, wraps, golden potatoes with spices, and Greek salad.   All the baklava went to the center.

“Where’s’re girl, tha’ Larrie?” Grumble asked Rowan.

“Laurie?  She’s in Thunder Bay.  She’s in school.  I feel a bit left out, seeing them all studying.  Really aiming to get in next year.”

“S’good, she’s good, y’keep that’n, eh?”

“Yeah, that’s the plan,” Rowan said, and maybe he seemed a bit dejected, like maybe his girlfriend was already slipping through his fingers.  Maybe Avery was reading too much into it.

“What does Snowdrop eat, just out of curiosity?” Declan asked.

“Limit the table scraps you feed her, please,” their dad said.

“She can eat anything I can eat,” Avery said.

“What’s the plan tonight?” Sheridan asked.  “Avery’s going, then…?  Please don’t tell me I’m babysitting.”

Snowdrop wasted no time in climbing Avery’s leg to get up to her lap again, and hunkered down there to hide from the parents, her chin on Avery’s thigh, communicating her interest in food.  The little glutton.

“I talked to Owen.  From my senior year?”

“How’s he doing?”

“He delivered our food,” Rowan said.  “I might go see him later, if things are quiet.”

“You’re trying to stick me with the kids!” Sheridan exclaimed.

“I’m not a kid,” Declan said.  “I don’t need a babysitter.”

“We will be fine.  Your mom and I are going to be here, Avery will be at the hospital,” their dad said.  “You can chill, maybe watch the movie with Grumble, if you’re interested, but this is a low-impact night, okay?  Ordering in, bonding, taking care of Avery.”

“You going to die?” Declan asked.

“Declan, come on.”

“Not planning on it,” Avery said.

Kerry noticed Snowdrop and put a hand out to pet her, looking down, and Avery nudged her, giving her a tiny head shake.  Kerry straightened and pretended not to notice, while her hand rubbed Snowdrop.  Avery subtly moved Kerry’s fingers to behind Snowdrop’s ears, and had her scratch.

She was ninety percent sure her mom saw what was going on, it wasn’t subtle, but maybe she figured some sibling bonding and having a relatively safe secret between them was a bigger positive than anything.

As the containers were all broken open and portions divvied out, Snowdrop figured out she could climb between Kerry and Declan and the two of them were her best bet at getting bits of food.

Declan seemed to be pretty happy with that, even if he tried hard not to show it.  Kerry whispered in his ears, probably telling him to play it cool, and Avery, at the same time, signaled Snowdrop to not eat too much and get too full to be useful tonight.

This is perfect, she thought.

She saw Whistle walking down the street, walking her dog.  She’d lost the military garb, but something about the way she carried herself still stuck.  It wasn’t the first time she’d walked by, doing her laps around the area, keeping an eye out for trouble.  There were others, probably.  Had anyone noticed?

The nicest dinner I’ve had with family in a long time.  Maybe ever.

The shadow of the fact she’d almost died hung over things.  It made things feel like there was a faint tint of sadness behind it all.  Or was that in her head?  Worry?  She wasn’t sure how to read it.

“Snowdrop is the coolest,” Kerry said.  “You’ve known about her and you didn’t say?”

“She’s okay, she’s not all that,” Sheridan said.

“She’s great,” Avery said.

“You do have to respect the love for awful food, and the willingness to be scruffy and lazy,” Sheridan conceded.

Avery’s mom scoffed a little.  Her dad’s hand was resting over her mom’s, and it was staying there.

That little detail, more than the Dog of War doing patrols, or the repeated mentions of the hospital with the attached reminder of what had almost happened, hand over hand, even as they ate, the subdued attitudes, the insistence that everything be nice, and the fact they were eating without the television blaring…

It felt a bit like a last supper.  Like they’d almost said goodbye to her, and as she went off to war, for what was supposed to be one last time, they wanted this moment with her and the family.  Just in case.

That wasn’t her imagination.  She could see it in her mom and dad’s eyes.  And a bit in Rowan and Sheridan’s too.

To her right, Declan and Kerry were charmed by Snowdrop, which was a good enough distraction.  A tiny taste of what they could have.  A few years down the line, they could be awakened.  Maybe they’d have their own boon companions, saved by taking the detour.  Their own scares with the Wolf?

Avery’s skin crawled, thinking about it.

She made sure her hand was clean, and stroked Kerry’s hair.  Kerry, distracted by Snowdrop, only shot her a fleeting, wide-eyed, wide-smiling face, before resuming eating, with glances to the side and down where Snowdrop straddled two chairs, poking Avery’s younger siblings with her nose to try to get more morsels of food.

Avery took her first proper bite of her souvlaki-chickpea wrap.

“Is it okay?” Avery’s mom asked.  She wasn’t just asking about the food, and there was something anxious behind the question.

“It’s great,” Avery replied, also not talking one hundred percent about the food.  Also anxious.


They walked across downtown.  Grandfather walked a bit further up the street, and Pipes trailed behind them.  Clearing the way and watching their rear.  There was some concern that Charles might send someone after them to try to disrupt things just before anything happened.

“Think Verona energy when she’s deep into something, but channeled at people,” Avery explained.

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Trying to picture that.  Like, troll-y?  The joking she was doing today?”

“Nah.  Not that much.  Hmmmm.  Like, oh hey, I can use this alchemy and this diagram and suddenly I’m breaking rules and doing wild stuff, right?”


“But instead of alchemy and diagrams it’s… a friend and the team, or it’s a pair of people in a relationship and a party, or… yeah.”

“Wow.  It’d be cool if you could- no, that sounds bad.  I don’t want to say ‘you could learn something from her’, because you’re doing great with the markets and outreach and obviously you have your talents,” Lucy said.


“But man, wouldn’t it be great to learn to…”

“Be a social artist?” Avery asked.  “Social engineer?”

“Yeah.  I’d say I want to learn to do that, but I’m not in Thunder Bay.”


“I hope I didn’t come across the wrong way, saying that.”

“No no no, you’re fine.”

“And that’s Put-”

“Putnam.  And I don’t know if she could teach what she knows.  You know?  There’s, in sports, there’s people who are naturally strong, fast…” Avery paused.

“Verona’s not here,” Lucy said.  “I won’t get on your case for a sports reference.”

“Right.  Well, yeah.  And you have people who train, put in the effort.  It doesn’t take much training to beat someone with the natural ability who doesn’t train at all, but it can be really frustrating to give your all and not measure up to someone talented who trains only a little.”

“Aren’t you kind of that person with natural talent?”

“Well, yeah, but it doesn’t cover every base, right?  I’m fast at running, but when it comes to precision, I’m average.  So I can see it from different angles.”

“Fair.  I don’t think I’m that good at anything.”

“Your ability to argue, keep a bunch of things in mind, like you’re juggling them.  Whether you’re on a battlefield or arguing with Musser.”

“Hm.  I guess.  I feel like that’s more like something a lot of people can do.”

“Really, really not.  Anyway, the greats, I think, are people who have the talent and then work their asses off.  And especially in the major leagues, that’s a lot of people.  I can see Putnam becoming that.  I’m a fan.  Not in a romantic way, she’s pretty but she’s not my type.  But I can see it.”

“Mia talked about that a few times.  The boys she sees potential in.  The ones she doesn’t.  Who’s going to be defined by what Kennet is and especially by what it isn’t, and who’s going to escape that definition.  She says she sees potential in me.”

“Well duh.”

Lucy frowned a bit.  Then she indicated Avery’s phone.  “Okay.  Back to this.  So then Putnam is the social artist, a bit fae?  Or fairy?  Just in terms of style, approach?”

“I may be overselling her.  She’s also a bit Tatty.

“Okay.  How?”

“Plans on tier with raiding the cat lady house, or stealing a tiger.”

“Got it.”

“But you never know if it’s serious or not.”

“Then Hui is the funny one?”

“I like Hui.  She’s in a bunch of my classes.  She’s part of team Never-passes.”

“Still an ominous name.”

“And it’s like, she’s easy to get along with, but also she gets along with people in Jeanine’s circle.”

“Eager to please?  Doesn’t want to be anyone’s enemy?  Or actually neutral, in that really complicated way we keep running into?”

“The first.  I think.  Which, like, I can sort of understand, with how much it can suck being Jeanine’s enemy.”

“Huh.  Okay.  I’d be worried about information leaking to Jeanine that she then uses.”

“Maybe I’ll ask Hui not to talk about me to Jeanine, and so she can stay neutral, not to tell me anything about Jeanine either?”

“Maybe,” Lucy said.

Avery flipped through some photos on her phone.  She pointed at a face.

“Sophy,” Lucy said.  She put her hands out to the side for balance all of a sudden, as her boot skidded on ice, gloved hand thwapping Avery’s arm.  Avery caught her arm to support her.

“Yeah,” Avery said.  “Jeanine’s friend.  A little more… biting?  I sort of get the feeling that if there were still mean girls like there are in old movies, she’d be one.”

“I wonder if Mia would be.  The way she went after Hailey.”

“Yeah.  Maybe!  Instead it’s all subtle and people do anonymous shit online.  It’s where there’s a bit of a break in the team.  I don’t know where that goes or what happens, or what Jeanine is planning.  Feels like any weakness, she’s ready to pounce on it, and that’s really freaking exhausting, you know?”

“Yeah.  Oh yeah.”

“And it’s silly because I don’t even know if it matters.  What if things go bad, tonight, and I have to leave Thunder Bay?”

“I don’t know,” Lucy said.  “And-or I’d have to leave Kennet?”

“It’s tricky,” Avery said.

“Best option: don’t lose,” Lucy said.

“Yeah, well…”


They walked for a few seconds.

“Anyway, doesn’t really matter.  It’d be cool if you could meet them, but don’t feel obligated to figure it all out beforehand,” Avery said.

“I want to know what you’re doing.  How you’re doing.  I want to understand what’s going on when you say you’re having an issue.  And if I do end up meeting them, well, don’t underestimate how much I prep to cover all the bases, be bulletproof, before meeting new people,” Lucy said.

Avery nodded.  “Mostly for me I’d describe it as me ditzing my way through things part of the time and internal screaming and cringing the rest of the time.”

“She comes by all of that that naturally,” Snowdrop said.  “I don’t want any blame.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Avery said.

Verona’s mom was staying at the motel, which paralleled the one that Lucy and her mom had been staying in.  Snowdrop made herself scarce, and the rest of them crossed the street and walked over.  Verona’s mom was by her car.

“There they are,” Verona’s mom said.  “Glad to see you before I have to go.  Lucy- you’re okay with Verona staying until things are more settled?”

“Sure.  She’s basically always welcome, unless, like, you or her dad kick up a fuss.”

“I just want her happy,” Verona’s mom said, putting a hand on Verona’s shoulder.  “And Avery.  You’re doing okay?  Your parents said you were in the hospital, then said you’re back in the hospital tonight?”

“They did, yeah,” Avery replied.

“And I want to be here with Ave,” Verona added.

“Got it.  I don’t think I’ve ever had a friendship as strong as what any of you have.”

“We’ve been through a lot together,” Avery said, throwing an arm around Verona’s shoulders as Verona joined her and Lucy, turning to face her mom.

With the arm-to-shoulder contact, she could feel as Lucy lightly jabbed Verona.

“So,” Verona said.  “Thank you for coming, great to see you.  Video call at the usual time?”

“Of course.  You can call anytime, not just the usual times, for a video call or if you want me to drop in.  I obviously can’t be here every day, I have work, but if you ask for me I’ll do my best.”

“Sure.  Uh-”

Lucy jabbed Verona again.

“Stop, Lucy, geez.  Leave me- Mom.  Uh.  I wanted to have a bigger conversation, but things kinda got messy-”

“We could talk now, if your friends are patient, or if they want to be here.  I- Lucy seems to know?”

“I know too, I think,” Avery said.

“It’s a daylight, full-focus conversation, and things right now are…”

“The house burned down, of course.  You and your dad need to navigate things, and-”

“I mean, yeah.  Related to that.  I was going to bring stuff up, but then I slept like crap, my hand acted up, which made sleeping and napping hard, other stuff going on… and I didn’t want to get into this big, uh, super serious stuff with other stuff in the way, me not at my best.”

“Okay,” her mom said, very serious.  She had her bag over her shoulder, and she turned, putting it on the roof of the car.  She faced Verona, hands clasped in front of her.  “Very serious.  Okay.  And you don’t want to share right now?”

“Another time.  Soon.  As soon as other stuff clears up.  I’m not ready yet.  Um, so keep your schedule clear, I guess, for a big conversation.  Probably we have to time it with Jasmine and Avery’s parents.”

“Kelsey and Connor,” Avery said, not sure if that was helpful.  Maybe to bring her parents to par on the first-name basis thing.

“A big, serious conversation with Jasmine, Kelsey, and Connor all there,” Verona’s mom said.

“And us,” Lucy said, indicating herself and Avery.

“Are you safe?” Verona’s mom asked.  “Are you in danger?”

Verona hesitated.

“I’ll take that as a no.  I’m sorry, I know you said you didn’t want to make this a conversation for right now, you’re tired, okay.  But I have to put pieces together, and- you don’t want to stay with your dad.”

“Well, I mean- that’s not a secret.”

“-and the last big piece of news I heard and was navigating was the tenant issue with your dad, which was really concerning, and you don’t feel safe, so I have to draw a certain conclusion…”

“Is that the vibe I’m giving off?” Verona asked.  “Nah.  That didn’t progress any further.  But it kind of… I stopped seeing even a glimmer of hope with Dad after that.  Um.  No.  But it relates to that.”


Her mom looked increasingly concerned.

Avery thought back to the Nora situation.

“Ronnie?” Avery ventured.


“I dunno for sure, but maybe just come out with… as much of it as you can.  You’re hedging, it’ll make things worse, not better.”

“I want you to move to Kennet,” Verona said.

“Verona, I’m-” her mom looked exasperated.

“And- and-” Verona talked over her mom for a second.  “Mom.”

Her mom relented, going quiet.

Verona had asked for the space to speak, but now that she was here, she didn’t seem to know what to say.

Avery hadn’t seen her tongue tied like this very often.

“There’s some pretty good reasons.  I have a sales pitch.  Way better than you’re probably imagining,” Verona said.

“I can’t see it happening.”

Verona’s eyes had dropped to the snow-dusted parking lot at her feet.

“Keep an open mind?” Lucy asked.

Verona’s mom sighed.  “We’ll talk at that future point, okay?  Maybe not a big meeting, I don’t want to come across like the bad guy, or be pressured with other parents and your friends all there, or-”

“That doesn’t sound like an open mind,” Lucy said.

“We’ll talk.  I’ll hear you out,” Verona’s mom said.  “You can make your pitch.  I know you have great friendships, Jasmine said you were contributing things to a market, I think?  You’re doing great things like the concert.  You’re doing amazing things, and I want to support and encourage that.  I want to be part of it.  But-”

“But,” Verona replied.  She didn’t raise her eyes, and she nodded.

“If you’ve got a ‘no’ in mind now,” Lucy said, “And you’re holding that in mind throughout, is that even fair?  I think Verona could make a really good, shocking pitch, one that’s really relevant to you and everything you’re doing, your entire approach.  Exciting stuff.  But if you have that ‘no’ in mind like that, then I could see it poisoning things.  Even with a great argument that’s good for both of you.”

“Verona and I have talked about this, and there are other elements in play, personal ones, I don’t want to hash out in a parking lot, when Verona’s tired and hurting.”

“She’s worried she’ll become her worst self, stagnating in Kennet,” Verona said, not making eye contact with her mom.

“What if you become a better self?” Lucy asked.  “What if she’s actually pitching something amazing, and you’re so scared of becoming your worst self that you-”


“-you miss out on something great for both of you?” Lucy pressed on.

Verona’s mom sighed.  “It’s late.  I- don’t think it’s that simple.  I don’t see how it could be.”

Lucy pressed, “Verona’s got a great mind for seeing things that I don’t even know how someone could visualize it or connect the dots for it, and she’s great at talking to people who can’t talk.  She’s- you really should give her a shot.”

“I will.  I’ll come, we’ll talk, we’ll discuss,” her mom said.

“But you’re holding that ‘no’ in mind?” Verona asked.

“Just… do me a favor, and you hold the possibility I won’t be able to say yes in mind?  I’d hate to disappoint if you’re putting everything on this and then I can’t.”

“What if, theoretically, I earned a million dollars?” Verona asked.

“Are you sure you don’t want to have this discussion now?”

“This is a prelude to the discussion.  It’s necessary groundwork to the discussion.  What if?  What if I had a million and I needed you to help me when people wanted to take the money or big things were happening or I needed advice on how to put the money to good use?  And I couldn’t ask Jasmine, because she doesn’t have custody, I obviously couldn’t trust dad with it, he’s terrible with money.  And if I left Kennet I wouldn’t get a million?” Verona asked.

“It’s not a million dollars, though, is it?” her mom asked.

“No,” Verona said.

“I’ll hit the road, we’ll talk, we’ll figure out how to time things-”

“What if it’s bigger than a million?” Verona asked, deadly serious.  “Or at least, if I could choose between what this is and a million dollars, I’d take this?”

“Then… I wouldn’t feel prepared to tackle it.  I’d help you to find someone who could be a resource and-”

“And have them be the mom?” Verona asked, her voice a bit hollow, eyes on the parking lot.

“No.  I’ll always be your mom.”

“I don’t think you realize what you’re saying when you say you won’t tackle it,” Lucy said.

“I don’t.  I have no idea what’s going on, I promise you, I’ll come and we’ll discuss, we can hash this out.  Just let me know when.  I’ll make the time.”

“Okay,” Verona said.

“I love you.”

“Okay.  Same sentiment here,” Verona replied.

“I don’t like leaving things on this note.”


“Have a good time with Lucy?  Like I said, I’ll be in touch?”


The responses were robotic at this point.  Verona’s left hand trembled.  Avery wasn’t sure if it was the pain or the… pain.

Like Lucy had said, Verona could talk to people and spirits who didn’t have mouths.  She could figure stuff out, she had been on top of the technical truths way ahead of Lucy or Avery.  Especially Avery, Avery knew.

Still working on that.

But when it came to her mom, it was like… it was like Verona was a rocket ship that could only go forward and back and left and right, and turn on a wiggly diagonal, and her mom could go up and down and turn clockwise on a horizontal or vertical axis, and the two were trying to make contact without smashing to pieces against one another.  Because Verona’s mom wasn’t exactly wrong, not exactly, but…

But what?

This was hard.  Because Verona was clearly stung by the non-response, one of a few she’d gotten- Avery had heard about the firm ‘no’ she’d gotten after the stuff with her dad had really kicked off.  Avery wanted to help, but she didn’t know Verona’s mom as well, which was why she’d barely contributed to this conversation.

Verona’s mom came over to give Verona a hug, stiffer in its way than any of Grumble’s, and Grumble was an underweight old man who’d had multiple strokes.

Then Verona’s mom opened the car door, taking her bag from the roof to put in the passenger seat.

And Verona was…

Hurting.  Hurt.  Frustrated.  In as dark a place, maybe, as she’d been after the incident with Brett, and Verona’s mom didn’t seem to notice.

“Mrs. Hayward?” Avery asked, because she’d hate herself if she didn’t say anything.  “Hm.  It is Mrs. Hayward, right?  And not Ms. or your maiden name?”

“It is.  But call me Sylvia.  Hi Avery.”

Avery swallowed.  She glanced at Verona.  Was she making a bad situation worse?

Verona looked miserable.

“Hi, Sylvia.  Hmm.  Sorry, I don’t have my thoughts that organized.”

“I think I forgot to say but I hope your visit to the hospital goes okay.”

Avery shrugged.  “Thanks.  I wanted to ask, maybe a silly question, maybe I’m missing something, but when’s the last time Verona was priority number one?”

“That’s a complicated question.  I’m worried I could give you a genuine answer, talking about me coming all this way, as one example, but that can mean different things to different people.”

“My dad would say him, always him, he made me priority one, he’s always sacrificed, but he sacrificed for himself, really,” Verona said.

Avery nodded.

“McCauleigh.  Anselm.  Mal.  Tashlit.  Even Oakham, a bit. Julette, Peck,” Verona said.  “You guys, obviously.”

“I’d like to meet those people,” her mom said.

“Let me rephrase,” Avery said.  She felt like she was between those screwy rocket ships, now.  “I remember it being mentioned, I’m really hoping I’m not overstepping or bringing up anything bad, Ronnie, hm-”

“You’re okay, I think.”

“But that argument with your dad, and you told me and Lucy you said, for him it’s about sacrifice.  And it only matters if you sacrifice something for him.  If it hurts.  Your other friends, they’re great, but they don’t have much.  When’s the last time an adult, not a teenage friend, an adult, didn’t ask you to sacrifice, but sacrificed something for you, Ronnie?”

She looked at Sylvia, and it felt like maybe there was an inkling of something there.  Maybe?

“I mean, my mom coming into town, I don’t want to say that doesn’t mean something to me, it-”

“A big level.  A life or lifestyle level,” Avery said.  “When it wasn’t when you were hurt?”

Hands in her coat pockets, she could feel the mostly unnecessary bandage at her hip.

“Or you hurting- maybe it’s better to say you in crisis,” Avery added.

She could remember Mrs. Hardy bringing her loneliness up to her parents.

“Jasmine,” Verona said.

“Not in crisis though,” Avery said.

“Still my mom, I think,” Lucy said, to Verona.  “I might be biased.  But she had a job she hated, really truly hated, before she got a job at the local hospital.  The drug demonstration home visit thing.  She probably had better options in other places but a big reason she stayed in town so you and I could stay friends.”

“Fuck,” Verona said.  “That got mentioned, briefly.  I wasn’t paying attention.  I guess I’m not so good at connecting dots, huh?”

“Jasmine backs you up and that’s great, but… I feel like your mom should too,” Avery said.

“Jasmine backs me up, but I’m not her priority number one.  That’s Lucy.  I’m priority by extension,” Verona said.  “No, you’re totally right.  I don’t think I’m anyone’s priority number one.”

“I didn’t want to get down on you,” Avery said.  “Or get you down.  Just to paint a better picture of why this is frustrating and what you’re asking for, maybe.”

“You know, if Lucy dropped me as a friend?” Verona asked.

“I won’t,” Lucy said.

“-and I wanted to go over and it wasn’t an emergency?  It probably wouldn’t happen, right?” Verona asked.  “She’d check in, maybe have me over for a holiday, but…”

“Sorry,” Avery said.

“Are you fucking with me?” Verona asked.

Avery was in the midst of glancing at Sylvia, to see if she was getting the point, and was caught off guard, “No.  I’m just…”

“Because this is one hell of a kick to the clit when I wasn’t exactly feeling chipper,” Verona said, making a fist and swinging her arm sideways as she said that.  The playful emotion was at odds with her voice, which was increasingly thick with emotion.  “What, nobody loves me enough to go out of their way for me?  Verona sucks, I guess?  And you’re bringing this up tonight?

“It’s similar for me, that’s part of- you’re not alone.  It’s a problem in general,” Avery replied.  “Or it was a problem and it’s a bit better, but-”

She thought about that dinner at home.

“-I’m not sure, I’m still figuring that out.”

“Was it?  Your dad homeschooled you.  He quit his job to, right?  And he let you go to Thunder Bay, even though it was messy…”

“He- he did for us and I got lost in the us, you know that,” Avery told Verona.  “But it felt like years of everyone letting me down.  And Thunder Bay was a crisis thing.”

“Fuck all of this,” Verona replied, stress thick in her voice.

“I get it and I think you get it too, I think that’s one place we’re really similar, and… I don’t think it helps anyone, not having it out in the open.  You looked so miserable.”

Verona shook her head, and let out an exhalation, the sound of that exhalation hitting on two different major emotions that Avery couldn’t place between the start, middle and end of the breath, shoulders hunching, expression momentarily twisting.  “Okay.  Let’s get it into the open, I guess.”

“Sorry,” Avery said.  “I didn’t mean it to come off like an attack or…”

“No, no, let’s- sure.  Dad was the opposite of making me a priority.  Sorry, mom, love you, like hanging out, but I’ve asked, I’ve begged, I’ve hinted at what was going on with dad, and it’s… I’m not getting- no.  Not unless it’s an emergency and even then…”

“Can I give you a hug?  We should talk this out,” Sylvia said.

“No.  Fuck.  I’ve got stuff to do.  I’ve- no hug.  I-” Verona shook her head quickly.  She couldn’t form full sentences.  “No teacher that had me as a favorite or singled me out to mentor.  No- closest I had to that was Alexander fucking Belanger, maybe-”

“I don’t know him or what happened-”

“-he went into the woods to get a bullet in his head.  And he almost got Avery killed and tried to destroy everything I’ve been trying to build-”

“Hey,” Lucy said, reaching out for Verona’s shoulder.

Verona grabbed Lucy’s sleeve.  Holding Lucy’s wrist while Lucy had her hand there, but not stopping.  “-before the bullet, but hey, I think he saw something in me somewhere in the middle of that, so yay, I guess?”

“Can you slow down?” Sylvia asked.

“And I fucking had a teacher I liked last semester, went to tell him he was doing a great job and he fucking quit before the next class, I think, so what the hell, right?”

“You told me about him.  I didn’t realize it affected you-”

“It’s everything!  It’s… no real parents, no teachers, no mentors, no neighbors, no role models, really.  Closest I’ve got is Tash, who’s losing her skin, and Zed, who doesn’t even live in the province anymore, and Jasmine, by proxy, through Lucy.  And okay, sure, fine.  I’ve got McCauleigh and Anselm, Mal, all the others, I’ve got a house to stay at, just leave me the fuck alone, but no, apparently I need a parent and that’s this big freaking deal, so I reach out and what do I even get?”

“What house are you staying at?  Jasmine’s?”

“No.  I own a house.  It’s got a shop downstairs.  I’ve been trying to tell you shit and you’re not meeting me halfway.”


“Is that the point?” Lucy asked.

“She’s telling the truth?  Or is this a return to the ladder-”

“Fuck the ladder girl story!” Verona raised her voice.  “I haven’t lied here!”

“It’s true,” Lucy said.  “About the house.”

“How do you have a house?  Assuming this isn’t you three trying to make a point.”

“That’s not what we’re doing,” Avery said.

“Small wonder I hate the idea of growing up, when every other adult seems so fucking sad and disappointing.”

“I’m sorry,” her mom said.  “I’m trying.”

“Are you going to maybe consider moving- stop!”

Avery jumped a little with the force of that last word, which bordered on a screech.

“I didn’t say or do anything.”

Verona’s eyes were glowing lavender.  Not that her mom could see that.  “You were preparing.  Ready with an answer before I’d even finished the question.  Let’s try that again.  Will- Mom!

“What do you want me to say!?” her mom raised her voice some.  “No, wait, I know what you want me to say, but-”

“Stop!  Stop saying ‘but’.  Start- I’m not even asking you to say yes.  Give me some sense you’re willing to hear me out, that we can hash out all the possibilities, that I can lay things out, tell you what’s really going on, and that you’ll consider it before shooting it down.  Because then the next step, it’s- we gotta figure something out, because I basically burned my bridge with dad and I can’t leave Kennet.”

“I-” her mom sighed again.  “I’m forty-seven years old.  I’ve got a long history of studying myself, because I’m a hard person for even myself to work out.  I stayed with your dad for too long because I was too slow to realize certain things.  I- I’m worried.  Because I found a version of me I’m okay with and I don’t think there are many other versions of me that are good for me or for you… and I get the feeling you’re- you’re in the same boat, maybe.”

“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Avery said.

“Maybe.  But even without those extra complications… if we’re each clinging to the ‘normal’ we’ve managed to scrounge up after a lot of work, can either one of us budge?”

“What Avery was saying?” Verona asked.  She shrugged.  “You brought me into the world.”

Verona shrugged again.  Like she’d already forgotten she’d shrugged a second ago.

“Maybe I’m owed you… budging?  Maybe-”

Her voice shook a little.

“Maybe I’m tired of being the one constantly letting go, having to take the leap, getting my own damn house when I can’t be at Dad’s, starting a business, and finding people and… why is it always me making the sacrifices?  Can’t I, just this once, say, fuck, you let go, you budge?”

Avery glanced at Lucy.

A good three or four seconds passed without anyone speaking up.

“I’m not even asking you to agree to it right now.  I want to hammer that in.  I just want to feel like what I’m saying matters and what I’ve been doing counts for something.  I don’t even know if Kennet’s going to be here next week.”

“You keep saying things that I can’t get my head around.  What are you even talking about?”

“That’s the point though, isn’t it?” Verona asked.  “I’ve got to reach out.  I’ve got to be the one to explain.  I’ve got to be the one to take the risks and make the sacrifices.  I’ve been going my own way, figuring it out and now I’m being asked to fill you in on the full story, and it’s fucked.”

“I’m sorry.  And I’m confused.”

“You know what’s fucked up?” Verona asked.

“What’s fucked up?” her mom replied.

“You want the good fucked or the bad fucked?” Verona asked.

“I could do with some good.”

“You, talking to CAS.  Talking to Dad, to threaten him, to get him on board.  So I could stay with Jasmine.  That counts.  That was a good moment.  It’s not- it’s not what I’m asking for.  But it was good.  Fucked I wasn’t quicker on the draw, remembering that.”

“I’m glad it was a positive.”

“You know, um, when I had the big argument with dad, towards the middle of Summer?”

“I won’t forget.  I wasn’t there, obviously,” her mom replied.

“I told Dad I almost died over the summer.”

Her mom shook her head.  “You keep mentioning things-”

“They’re real,” Lucy interrupted.

“I told Dad I almost died over the summer, and he bulldozed past me, he didn’t get it, he barely even heard the words,” Verona repeated, almost robotic, the words already chosen.  “I told you I have something here that’s bigger than a million dollars and I need backup.  I feel like, if you were really listening, really taking me seriously-”

“I am.”

“-you would’ve asked more about that.  That’s the bad fucked thing.”

“You said you didn’t want to share yet.  That it was waiting for the meeting, with the other parents.  After the stuff with the house fire blows over.”

Verona shrugged.  She turned to Avery.  “Fuck.”

“Sorry, I didn’t realize I was…”

“Opening a metaphorical Pandora’s box?”

Lucy stood behind her, hands on her shoulders, now, rubbing through her winter coat.

“Yeah.  Is it really that much better if I don’t?” Avery asked.  “Sorry.  That sounds aggressive.  It’s a genuine question.  Is it better to tackle the tough stuff tonight with things unsaid and painful, or said and raw?  You looked miserable enough I was worried it’d hurt things.  I honestly don’t know.”

“I dunno either,” Verona replied.  “I’m not good at this stuff.”

“When you’re talking about tonight, you mean the hospital stay?” Verona’s mom asked.

Verona’s mom was still by the car, car door open, watching.

Verona snorted, shaking her head.

“I hear what you’re saying,” Sylvia said, in a very measured, calm voice.  “You’re right.  It’s not fair.  I know you’re frustrated.  At the same time, I get the feeling I’m also being made out to have done something wrong, when I’m not sure what that extra thing is.”

“You don’t know,” Verona said.  “There is no hospital stay.  That’s a cover story the others are going along with.  We’ve been lying to you, others have been lying to you, we’re keeping info from you, it’s really all very shitty.”

“Ronnie?” Avery asked.

Sylvia was frowning now.

“It sucks, it’s unfair, huh?” Verona asked.  “Not cool to you to hold info back, then get mad at you for not knowing.  But I’m stuck in something big here, I can’t leave it, I’ve got to go handle it, and if you’d met me partway before or even tonight, I don’t think much would be held back and we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“What’s going on?”

“And as unfair as that may be, or may not be, I dunno.  I don’t think you’ve been fair to me here, either.  I don’t know how many times I said dad’s a problem or hinted there was more going on, that you maybe intentionally avoided confronting, because it was convenient…”

“Maybe subconsciously?  I don’t know.  But Verona, you have to tell me.”

“I have to handle some serious shit.  I’ll get back to you on that.”

“We really do,” Lucy said.

“Fuck, I’m lobbing some awful crap and hard questions into your parents’ laps, huh?” Verona asked.

Lucy, arms folded, noted, “My mom’s working tonight.  She asked for the shift.  I think in case I ended up in the hospital.”

“Call my parents?” Avery told Sylvia.  “Or go to them?  I’ll text them to let them know.”

“Tell them I’m sorry while you’re at it?” Verona asked.  “For all this bullshit?”


“I’m really tired,” Verona said.  “Of a lot of this.  And I’m tired of my hand hurting.”

“Yeah,” Avery replied.

“I’m going to bail,” Verona told her mom.

“We really should talk this through.  I could try to get another night at the motel, or we could go to Jasmine and Lucy’s, um, I know she’s working tonight, but it’d be a better venue, more comfortable.”

“Nah.  I’m going to bail,” Verona said, her eyes glowing lavender.  “You can talk to Avery’s parents, they can confirm stuff’s not B.S..  They can’t tell you the full story yet, so don’t get on their case.”

“What story?”

Verona jerked her head to the side.

Avery wasn’t sure she agreed with leaving things like this, but it was Verona’s call, really.  They headed away from the end of the motel parking lot that, thankfully, wasn’t so close to the rooms that the raised voices would have bothered many people, then crossed the road.  There wasn’t much traffic.

Sylvia caught up with them, putting a hand on Verona’s shoulder.

“You left your car open,” Verona pointed out.

“Look, talk to me.  Come with me.”

“Stuff to do.”

“Stay put, let me close that.”

“I’ll talk to you later,” Verona said.

Her mom hesitated, then held up a finger, jogging back toward the parking lot and the car.

Verona turned, leading the way.  Snowdrop waited in the alley, carrying Alexanderp, and reunited with them, and helped to guide them to one of the ways through to Kennet below.  Between some partially uncoiled hoses looped around at the back of a wall and a bit of wooden fence, through the fence, then back through the other end.

They were just barely through when Avery could hear Sylvia calling out to Verona.  Footsteps audibly jogged past the twist in reality they’d passed through.

Avery texted her parents to let them know.

They took a second, Lucy and Verona leaning against one wall of the alley, Avery and Snowdrop leaning against the other.

“If I may interject?” the little homunculus that Snowdrop was carrying interjected.  He mugged for a nonexistent camera.  “Outside of my usual commentary, if you’ll allow me, I think this exceptional situation warrants a departure from the usual programming, as I bring our attention to, again, only if you don’t mind my interruption…”

“Seth or Chuck, we’re not even saying anything,” Lucy spoke over the babbling homunculus.

A moment passed.  It went quiet.

Avery couldn’t hear Sylvia anymore.  Silence reigned in the little alleyway in Kennet below.

“Fuck,” Verona said.  She closed her eyes.

“Sorry again,” Avery said.

“I don’t know what happened.  That wasn’t a curse, was it?  Or omen?  Charles’ influence?  I feel like I would’ve Seen that.”

“I didn’t See anything,” Lucy said.  “But I do think it’s Charles’ influence.”

“Fuckery?” Verona asked.

“He’s a scumbag and a monster who’s pushed things to a limit, his people burned your house down, we’re going to try to deal with him… that’s influence.  Your dad has influence over you.  Logan’s annoying fucking face influences me.”

“I’m usually better at handling my shit.”

“Your house burned down,” Avery said.  “We’re under pressure.  Pent-up stuff comes out, I guess.  You going to be okay?”

“I dunno.  We should go, right?  It’s late.”

“…Yeah,” Lucy said, clearly unsure.  She met Avery’s eyes.

“Then let’s go.”

Kennet below was not in the best place.  Avery felt uncomfortable, more than she usually did, here.  She hadn’t had the weeks to get used to the residents or help police it, she hadn’t formed bonds, and she didn’t get it, on that same, usual level.

In a way, it felt a bit like Verona earlier.  Like everyone or anything could be provoked in a bad way, and all it took was stumbling onto the wrong trigger.  Going to the wrong territory, crossing the wrong person.  Too much eye contact, too little, get in someone’s way, show too much weakness?  There’d be confrontation.

It was worse because the people who’d been with Maricica hadn’t all been cleared out.  Were there any people that Avery was walking past that might try to stick her with a knife, just for the brownie points with the goddess they still worshiped?

She imagined it was what being in prison was like.

The Vice Principal and her faculty were present, with the kids from the school all around them, ages five to seventeen.  Some Stuck-Arounds had been corralled.  The Bitter Street Witch was here- she’d dealt with the Oldbodies, and her brothers were here.  Even Stew Mullen had showed up.

Factions were in their own groups, with a kind of no-man’s land between them.  The major factions of Kennet below were apparently cooperating, but that didn’t mean there wasn’t some jostling and stuff.  The spaces between the undercity groups were filled by goblins, who had a lot less in the way of allegiances.  The local goblins, merchants, Warrens things- Avery wasn’t sure, but it might’ve included a fleshmongler?  Orchestrated by Toadswallow.  Toadswallow stood with his back to them, talking in a low croak of a voice to various goblins.  Bubbleyum stood beside him, several times his height, her hair down- long locks of what might’ve been bleached blond hair, turned tacky and pink-ish because bubblegum had been worked into it and then pulled out.  She chewed gum slowly and watched them with one eye.

“So?” the Bitter Street Witch asked.

“So, way we discussed it, it’s best if we go to Kennet found to gather our forces to one place.  Exceptions for the usual mask rule,” Avery said.  “If everyone’s ready?”

Toadswallow, glancing over his shoulder, gave them a sharp little nod.  Nothing too obvious, like he was being devious, keeping his role as a major player in Kennet below a secret.

“Yeah,” the Vice Principal said.

“Miss,” Lucy said, pulling on her fox mask.

“Miss,” Avery said.  She shook out the charm for her deer mask and pulled that on.

“Miss,” Verona finished, cat mask already on.

Miss made her appearance, with a swirl of snow, and a distortion of perspective.  She was a figure of hard-to-define perspective, who could’ve been leaning against the ski hills or been right in front of Avery.

Hair, skirt, sleeves, and snow all stirred around them.  The hair and cloth rose around the entirety of the one-or-so thousand people in the Kennet below group.  As it closed together, encircling them all, the moon overhead flashed, and turned red.  The sky above them bled out into a different tone and shade, still laced with that red.

The cloth came down, curtain parting, and they were in Kennet found.  All of the foundlings and Lost in red were still there, a little better prepared.  Sootsleeves was there, at the edges, sitting in a jeep with winterized tires, leaning out the open door.  She had a flare in one hand, and it cast even more of a red tint, with smoke rolling out around her.  Birds, rats, and orphans filled spaces around the periphery here in much the same way goblins had in Kennet below.

The rest of Kennet’s Others were present.  Except Guilherme.  Miss, Freak and Squeak, Matthew, Alpeana, Tashlit, Nibble and Chloe, the Dog Tags, Jabber, Montague, the Turtle Queen.  Not everyone had masked up, and those who’d come over from Kennet below were unmasked.  It didn’t look like the red-tinted foundlings and Lost cared.

Luna Hare jumped Snowdrop, hopping onto her back, as a surprise piggy-back ride.  Snowdrop only barely avoided faceplanting by pulling on Avery’s natural abilities for a moment.

A few absences caught Avery’s eye.  Guilherme, naturally.  No Rook.  No Hollow Yen.

Matthew had a few people with him.  It took Avery a second to connect just who they were, until Verona gave Avery a look.

Matthew had found fifteen people.  Avery wasn’t one hundred percent sure about the organization of it, and they overlapped, but it wouldn’t have surprised her if it was five white sheep, five black sheep, and five lost sheep.  Those who had made crossings, in spirit and style, to end up in Kennet above, Kennet below, and Kennet found, respectively.  He was meant to pick out people who had a sense of what was going on, were Aware, or had made friends who’d given them enough details.

While Verona had been doing spell cards, some minor magic items and alchemy, Avery had done a circuit of the perimeter.  A bit of love and a few preparations and traps dropped off.  She’d refreshed herself on the shrines, and did an arrangement for each.

She got the twigs and twine out of her bag.

Sixteen arrangements, stacked over one another.

She passed them over.

“Pass them around between yourselves,” Matthew said.  “Feel the weight of the arrangements, try to get a feel for what’s inside.  If one feels okay, hold onto it, keep passing them around.  Figure out which ones have the best fit.”

“It’ll help if they’re in a circle,” Verona said.

“Right,” Matthew replied.

They got into a circle.  With how things were arranged, the Kennet below factions as a tighter circle than the Kennet found one, where everyone gave each other a bit more room, or stood off on their own, stood on rooftops, the sixteen people were a tighter circle yet, toward the center.

While they did that, Avery undid her bracelet.  She slipped it into a pocket, and walked around the outer edges of the group.

Doors slammed.  The noise of it felt more jarring than it ever had.  Conversations were kept to low murmurs.

“Mom?” Lucy said.  Phone at her ear.  “Yeah.  Now.  Yeah.  When I can.”

Verona, cat mask on, stood there, hands jammed into pockets, introspective.  McCauleigh and Julette navigated the crowd to get to her side.

Avery was worried that it would be as hard to find a door that worked as it had been yesterday.  In a way, wouldn’t that be a relief?  A completely excusable, workable explanation for how this couldn’t go to the next logical step?

How much of Verona’s reaction had been her wanting to avoid this next step?

She found herself looking at a doorway.  Upside-down cake in white, the door was dark blue, almost black, with a splash of magenta-pink paint.

She pushed on the door.  It opened on its own, swinging out, then pulling itself the rest of the way open.  Gravity swayed, almost pulling her in with it, and she could see down the length of the Path.  It was a spiraling descent, the Path arranged like a long tube, with balconies, ledges, and jutting pieces of equipment corkscrewing down its walls.  Objects were regularly thrown or sent falling, some Lost made leaps both precise and sloppy, the latter falling down the length of the tube to the hole at the end of it.  Eerie music played.

Lucy had asked for extra karma.  Was this path being here right now that karma in action?

“That works, doesn’t it?” Miss asked, behind Avery.

“Familiar with it?” Avery asked.

“Never saw it before today.  But it does work.”

“Yeah, just…” Avery trailed off, looking.  “I’ve only passed through it in this brief way.  The Party Down.  Usually you go from Bound to the Party through this to Down the Tubes.  It’s tricky to navigate, and if you misstep, you fall…”

She indicated the center of that corkscrew.  The alignment of the Path meant that ‘down’ was straight out past the door.  People could leap from balcony to ledge and keep close to the walls, and if they could do that for just a little ways, they’d get out into Down the Tubes.

But if they fell, they’d gravitate toward the middle, they’d plunge out the other side, and like a lot of Path dismounts, they’d get sent to a place that met certain prerequisites.  Sometimes that prerequisite was so narrow that someone like Jude’s cousin would get sent to South America, because it was the nearest place.  Falling Oak Avenue deposited its people on the nearest Oak street, Oak avenue, Oak boulevard, or whatever, to where they wanted to be.

A dismount or effective ‘fail’ in Party Down put the Finder in close proximity to an enemy or rival who would be most annoyed with their arrival.

Yeah.  This worked.

Avery turned to speak to the crowd, just in time to see Matthew helping the first of the fifteen volunteers.  A young woman, maybe someone who’d gone from Kennet found to Kennet below, if Avery had to guess.

The twigs and twine had broken porcelain worked into it.

The woman’s chest thrust forward, back arching, as bits of the twigs and twine broke.  Matthew’s arm was out straight, holding it firm, and with the way the outer frame for the arrangement held, while the inner frame broke, and Matthew blocked the flow backward, there really was only one way out.  Into the woman’s chest.

Her skin and the hair that was billowing around her turned white.  The blue detail on white porcelain pattern crept across her, with some cracks running from eye to temple.  Clothing shattered.


Others got their turns.  Florescence, Lott.  Machinehead- of course it was the biggest dude.  Blushstroke, Footspur.

“Okay,” Avery said.

The murmur of conversation went quiet.

“Ahem,” Alexanderp cleared his throat.  “I’ll take this opportunity to speak, thank you all for hearing me out, thank you all for coming, I know it’s a long trip for some of you, I extend my thanks, especially with the importance of what what comes next…”

He trailed off.

Whoever had started listening in had backed off.

“This is it,” Avery said, voice soft.

There were some nods.

“People that know the way to the Blue Heron should go through first.  From there, we should keep a steady stream going.  Everyone just follow the rest.  You go through, leap, avoid the balconies and ledges.  Straight down the center of the hole.”

“That would be Tashlit, Gashwad, Alpeana, Cherrypop, and myself, among the Others,” Toadswallow croaked.  “I’m not a good one to lead this.  I had things to talk to others about.  Away from prying ears.”

“Yes.  Toadswallow, Undercity leaders, we had more strategy to discuss,” Miss said.  “Go through this way, to the ledge.  We can talk, then you join the tail end of things.”

“Leaving Tashlit, Gashwad, Alpeana, and us five,” Avery said, indicating herself, Verona, Lucy, Snowdrop, and Cherrypop.  Cherrypop wouldn’t be the best one to direct them.  “I think, just to make sure we land at the destination we want, one of us three should lead.”

Matthew had finished with the fifteen.

He was the sixteenth.  He pressed the arrangement to his chest and crushed it.

This was Heartless magic.  Hosting, specifically.  The Doom of Edith James was so weak it was nonexistent, and Matthew Moss was more a practitioner than he’d been in a long time.  Edith was gone.  There was only the Girl by Candlelight, out there.

Matthew was free, and he’d chosen Smoulder.  The spirit of smoke and embers.

His eyes flared.

There was something to that decision, Avery figured.  She wasn’t sure what it was.  A homage?  A rebuke?  Anticipation of the Girl by Candlelight targeting him when he got there?

“I should stay to keep the door open,” Avery said.

“Then I’ll go,” Lucy said.

“If there’s an interruption in the stream of people we’re sending through, we’ll reboot with Gashwad, Alpeana, or someone else who knows the area we’re going to.  It’ll make it easier for the connection to hold,” Avery said.

Lucy nodded.  “I just go through?”

“Yep.  Keep an eye out for any hostile Lost.  They aren’t too bad here, but…”


Lucy paused.  Then she took a running leap, throwing herself through.

Verona directed people to move.  Following immediately after.

That vertigo feeling intensified.  People were pretty consistent about going through in a steady stream without jamming at the doorway, but when there were gaps, Avery could see people basically skydiving.  A crowd falling down the Path’s length.  Smaller goblins, pigeons, rats, and kids went through beside the adult people who were passing through.

Miss passed through, and the lights in Kennet found went out.

Toadswallow was after her, and then the Undercity leaders and Matthew.  The Vice Principal had no steed, apparently having sent it out ahead.  All angling themselves to land on a balcony so they could talk and say things without Charles listening.

“Remember that the Belangers have tools to spy on Paths!” Avery called through.

“Got it, my dear!” Toadswallow called back.

She stood back a bit, Snowdrop in front of her, as the people went through.

At the midpoint, Verona made the leap.

Avery got her phone out, one eye on things, to make sure it was okay.  She saw a break, as two different queues of people from Kennet below clashed, pausing too long, staring each other down, each person wanting the other to let them go through first.

“You,” she told one side of the queue.  “Right after Gashwad.”

Gashwad helped re-establish the flow, and kept them targeted toward the Blue Heron.

Avery, phone out, went through the sub-folder of contacts she’d singled out.  Texts were written, left hanging, and she was really glad her phone hadn’t auto-updated and cleared everything.

She sent the green light to others.  Contacts, friends they’d made.

“Going!” Matthew hollered, and his voice had a quality to it that was probably the spirit of Smoulder he was hosting.

“Okay!” Avery called back.

That would be Miss, Toadswallow, the Undercity gang leaders, and Matthew leaving the balcony.

Avery ushered more people through.  Still wary of the people from the Undercity who could try to screw this up.  If there was a group at the tail end who pretended to be a part of all of this, then came at Avery with bats?

Some Stuck-Around types gave her dangerous looks, but they went through.  Some of the last.

“Snow,” Avery said.

Snowdrop broke away from Luna, went through, and Luna Hare went after.

Avery looked around.

Kennet found was dark.  Empty, now.  Without the lights of other things, and maybe because the sky was a few percent darker than it had been, the red seemed to consume everything.

She went through the door.

Into the Party Down.  She could hear the door slam far behind her as she fell, hair and coat whipping around her.

Arms stretched out, ribbons and bracelets fluttering at her wrist, where her coat sleeve had pulled back a bit with the wind, she embraced the Path as a moment of peace.

Black rope around her wrist, she navigated using it.

Past the stragglers, like that group of Stuck-Arounds.

Out to Snowdrop, who she caught with one arm.  Snowdrop was skydiving in concert with Luna, opossum and hare moving like they were meant to be people who spent their lives falling like this.  Lost navigating Paths with more ease than visitors could.

Avery did okay, she figured.

She black roped forward again, catching up with Verona, who was a good ways down.

“It’s long!” Verona hollered, voice stolen by the wind.

Avery only nodded.

But the exit was in sight.  A night sky, and a dim, distorted view of the campus.  Bristow’s building was finished.  The west wing, the church-like center-building, the east wing, the workshops between the main building and the parking lot.  Blue-tinted glass for most of the windows, especially in the main part of that central building.

She could feel the barrier protecting that space as they fell.

Lost practices had some benefits, and there were Finders who specifically ran Paths for the dismounts, navigating their way to certain Paths, knowing they could get inside a magic circle.  Something like Thea’s vault, with her magic items each linked to a pocket world, all the protections in the walls and door?  A good dismount from the right Path could drop someone straight into a place like that.  The Lost practices were niche, and the countermeasures weren’t in wide employ.

Countermeasures had been put into place.  Avery didn’t know if the creators of the school had done it from the start or if Charles had suggested it, but there was a barrier, and instead of landing all over campus, across the rooftop, and everything else, they were diverted.  They curved as they fell, and curved more sharply as they got closer to the ground.

Avery, Verona, and Snowdrop hit road.  Just past the school.

The Path dismount didn’t let them get hurt as they fell.

Luna, who’d kept close to Snowdrop, went through nearby trees like a person had been thrown out of an airlock of a plane overhead, breaking branches on the way down, and came out of it unscathed.

Avery could See Others coming down.  Streaks from above, curving in the air.  Pushed out toward the perimeter.  They were being scattered into a loose circle surrounding the campus.

Not as close as she’d hoped as she saw it was the Party Down, but she’d been willing to get dropped off with less accuracy or proximity when she’d started looking for doors.

Something howled.

Light flashed in the distance, above trees, bright against the night sky, from another direction than the howl, like lightning had struck, but there was no thunder, and that light was static, like television static.

Avery backed up a step.

There was a barrier around the campus.  Someone or something began to attack it, and it glowed, almost a bubble surrounding things.

“Lucy, Lucy, Lucy,” Verona murmured.

Then she nodded.

Avery, Avery, Avery.

Lucy’s voice.

Avery and Verona looked in the same direction.

Avery used the black rope as they moved through the trees, and the fact it was trees made it all a lot easier.

People who’d been dropped off closer to the edges were wading through snow and moving between trees.  Tense, almost ready to attack as Avery and Verona came through from the flanks, circling around and moving in a strange way instead of moving toward the school.

A multi-note explosion went off, and the dark forest lit up blue as the barrier glowed, reacting, or glowed because it was the source of the explosion, rebuking some fierce attack.  The thunder without the lightning strike, this time.

She found Lucy, crouched in snow, with Dog Tags around her.  Lucy straightened as she saw Avery, and moved over to join her and Verona.

Verona’s finger pointed.  Snowdrop was holding the homunculus, who was posing a bit, smiling awkwardly.

Are they watching us?

Waiting to see what our first play is?

Fuck, this felt so fucked.

Even Horseman and Grandfather were giving them looks.

Avery pulled a charm off her bracelet and cast it down.

The door materialized, freestanding, planted in snow at a slight angle.  Immediately, a door to the Paths replaced it, slamming into existence with enough force some snow was spat up.

That one worked too.  Avery nodded.

She pushed it open.  A place that could’ve been mistaken for a mixture of a red carpet event and a royal court was in full swing, there.

“Don’t wander on this Path,” she told her friends, her head turning.

As if she could look out and meet the eyes of Charles or Maricica, or someone else.  But there was only the darkness.

That howl happened again.

She walked through.  Into the Crossed Hearts, hands fixing her hair some, the snowflakes that had fallen on it providing the dampness to get stuff pushed in the right directions.

It felt weird.  Putting the bracelet back on.  Letting that door close.  Snowdrop on this side, Luna on the other.  Lucy on this side, the Dog Tags on the other.

The door slammed shut, disappearing.

Them on this side, the fight happening over there.

They could only participate once, and they’d been told it was better if they waited.

Avery took two glasses of fizzy soda from a waiter with a passing tray.  The bubbles were heart shaped.  She handed one to Snowdrop.  Lucy got one of her own.

“Let’s find a table,” she told the other two, eyes scanning the outdoor patio.  “This is as close as we’re going to get to being out of Charles’ earshot, I guess.  Two priorities.”

“Stopping Charles,” Lucy said.

“And protecting Kennet.  He’ll probably strike out, while it’s empty of most of its defenders,” Verona said.  “Miss is going to rubberband back.  She can do stuff.  We’ve got some stuff.  But if he wants to throw the people attacking him for a loop, making them wonder if they should go back to Kennet to protect it is a good way.”

“Yeah,” Avery agreed.  She checked her Zed-issued phone.  “We should get an alert from him and Nicolette if there’s movement in that direction, then we can drop in, try to handle it or figure it out.”

“How are we going to keep track of what’s going on?” Lucy asked.  “When we’re not there?”

Avery shrugged as she walked, looking for a place to sit.  “We can loop back around.  I remember how this Path goes, from what I read about it.  We can finish it, get dropped off back at home.  If there’s a way, we can step back out onto a Path that gives us a good bird’s eye view of what’s happening.  But for now, while we’re out of earshot, basically…”

She looked at the homunculus, who sat there looking pleased with himself, but quietly, and not really posing.

“….Let’s pull things together,” Avery said.

The others didn’t object.

She spotted an empty table.  She was already taking mental note of who the key players were in this stage of the Crossed Hearts.

Verona sat, sprawling forward, chest, arms and chin on the table.  Snowdrop, sitting opposite her, did something similar, resting her forehead against Verona’s, arms just outside Verona’s, and Verona smiled.

Lucy plunked herself down, sighing.  Clearly restless.

Avery went into her bag, to pull out things she’d printed out, and notes in general.  She was restless too, in a slightly different way.

She’d called in favors and contacts.  Discreetly, Miss was letting Anthem out.  There were markets and fellow students they’d met in their summer at the Blue Heron.  And there was Clementine and the Sargent Hall Aware.

All chips down.  Everyone participating.  Except them.

They had to make this count.

It was a refrain that had dogged her when she’d made a plan against Maricica.

They had to make this count.

“You should nap,” Lucy told Verona.

“Do you think I can?” Verona asked, head and arms still on the table.

“I know.  I wouldn’t be able to either.  But you should.”

Verona grunted lightly.

“Let’s talk plans,” Lucy said.  “We’re in a bad place.  I think I bought time with my chat with the Sable, but I think the people Charles was considering dealing with are people who don’t really wait.  So if they call, and Charles says yes…”

“Disaster,” Avery said.

“Okay,” Verona said.  She groaned as she straightened a bit, sitting up.  “Then I’m just going to open right up and say it.  We have a track record of being involved in the downfall of Alexander, headmaster of the Blue Heron, and Bristow, de-facto headmaster of the Blue Heron.  Then Musser.  Not always responsible, but involved.”

“And Charles…” Lucy ventured.

Lucy’s leg was bouncing, like she couldn’t keep it still.

Verona finished, “…Has centered himself on the school.  I dunno about you guys, but to me that says he’s headmaster.  Let’s keep the pattern going?”

“I’m down,” Avery said.  She paused.  The whole thing with her parents.  The blow-up between Verona and her mom, especially, and Lucy’s anxiety here… it was all rooted in the same sort of issue.

“Notes, notes, notes,” Verona said, pulling her backpack onto her lap and digging inside it.  She laid out items and vials on the table.  Special order, basically.  Things with specific intents in mind.

“Remember way back at the beginning, when we asked who would be capable of killing the Carmine Beast?” Lucy commented.  “We were told the strength we’d have to bring to bear would be equal or similar to what it’d take to stop all violence in the region, weren’t we?  Or am I confusing that with John and what it takes to stop a Dog Tag?”

“That’s why we took notes,” Verona said.

Lucy got her own notebooks.

Laying things out.  Getting their heads straight.

After all of this, after the initial investigation, the Blue Heron, the struggle, the compounding complications across Summer, the absolute clusterfuck of complications after Summer, with Charles’ reign as Carmine, and everything else… it was getting too hard to see the other side.

“We’re doing an okay job, mustering forces in that department, strength-wise, right?” Lucy asked.

“Hmmm, maybe,” Avery said.  “It’s a different dynamic, since the area emptied, power’s shifted around.  Charles is still a bit weak from being gainsaid.”

“Right.  But that’s the scale we’re talking about.  And we’re hoping our guys can find or create a chink in his armor for us to go after,” Lucy said.  Her leg bounced.  She put elbow on the table and her hand played with the chain at her neck, with the weapon ring, John’s dog tag, and Yalda’s ring on it.

Verona’s mom had wanted to establish her boundary.  Verona had wanted, Avery figured, to have hope that when everything was said and done, war fought, there could be an ideal outcome.

Avery’s parents, she figured, were just scared as hell.  Jasmine probably was too.  That they could die.  That something terrible could happen.

Lucy worried about the Others.  People she’d bonded with.  The surest way to protect them was to be involved, and she couldn’t.  Because the Kennet Others had their own fear about what was on the ‘other side’ of this conflict.  After this fight, what lay beyond?

It could be an endless series of fights.  And they’d be forsworn?  Maybe Charles could push for that and maybe an allied Alabaster and neutral Sable couldn’t mount a sufficient resistance to it.  Avery wasn’t sure.  But they were united on it, so… okay.

The chain at Lucy’s neck jangled as she fidgeted with it, pulling everything out from beneath her collar, as she looked down at notes, refreshing herself.

It all came down to the future, and what lay ahead, and what might happen if that future looked particularly troubled or dark.

Avery had only loosely sketched out her plan with the others with Alexanderp as a protective element, but she hadn’t felt secure enough to get into the nitty-gritty.

Now that they were out of earshot, she could, except she wasn’t sure if her plan was going to make the future look any brighter or less troubled.

She turned to a blank notebook page, and then began outlining it, explaining as she went.

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Go for the Throat – 23.6


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One percent would’ve made a difference, Verona thought.

She lay in her bed in the House on Half Street, dimly aware of other things going on in the House.  Get up, you have stuff to do.

It’s cozy, her brain lied to her.  It wasn’t that cozy.  It was her demesne.  Everything was cozy.  There was no real excuse that bed was that much more comfortable than being out of bed, because she could adjust the thermostat and air with her brain.

McCauleigh and Anselm were together.  Either napping or making out.  Verona didn’t pry.  McCauleigh’s corner of the demesne was her own, as was her time with Anselm.

Peckersnot had fallen asleep on watch.

The pigeon and squirrel were playing a Lost board game with overly convoluted rules in the bookstore-in-progress, with small containers of fruity alcohol next to them, in quantities so small that it made Verona smile to think about.  Proportionally, the squirrel and pigeon didn’t have much body mass, so they didn’t need much for their nightcaps.

The smile dropped from her face as she thought about Avery having so recently been in the hospital.

Grunting, more because it was awkward than heavy, she lifted her laptop over from her bedside to her stomach.  She hit the spacebar on her computer to kick it out of sleep mode, then typed in her password.  She checked the spreadsheet.  Every percent makes a difference.

Avery had taken maybe fifteen doses of the healing potion.  One percent in the way of impurities was multiplied fifteen times over.  Technically more, since these were things that compounded one another.  One point of weakness opened the door to more, and there was a whole bunch of alchemical math she’d put into her computer, to do rough calculations.

Rule of three, five times over.  It compounded as the count climbed.  One percent across fifteen doses came out to… thirty seven point thirty seven total impurity intake.

More than double the fifteen percent it would be without the compounding.  Except she hadn’t made her healing potions with one percent impurities.  Even if she worked it for years, she wouldn’t get down to one percent.  She’d measured herself closer to twenty percent.

Fed to and poured onto her friend in a time of need.  And Avery had paid for it.

That was her motivator, to sit up.

Julette, sleeping beneath the covers, back against Verona’s stomach, flipped around, and extended claws lightly, enough to prick Verona’s arm and side.

“Don’t be an asshole,” Verona told Julette.  She reached over and scrunched up the cat’s head-skin, so it was all wrinkled and bunched forward toward the front of her face.

Julette became human, and made faces as Verona tried to do something similar with her face skin.

“Come on.  I might need an assistant, the pigeon and squirrel are doing their off-duty wind-down.”

“Bleh,” Julette replied.

Verona moved her knees to drive them into Julette until Julette rolled off the mattress and onto the floor with a thump.

“That’s a good way to de-incentivize help,” Julette said.

“It’s cool magic stuff,” Verona said, climbing over Julette.  She took stock of her room.  “I should get bedroom furniture.”

“Not the first time you said that.”

Her ‘bedroom’ was still a mattress on the floor, some boxes piled together to be a bedside table and dresser, and then some spare bits of furniture that had been in the house when she’d moved in.  A dresser with one drawer missing, a shelf nailed to the wall, that had her art stuff, and a very crappy painter’s workbench.  The workbench was basically a paint-and-ink splattered board with legs, that served as her art desk, which was also her desk for practice, as evidenced by the partially depleted stacks of notecards in paper wrappers that sat at the back.

About thirty pages of her sketchbooks and art pads had been torn out and stuck up, on the bed-and-dresser side of the room.  Over in the other corner, with the desk, it was mostly reference notes for runes and patterns.

Practice could be improvised.  A spell card could have a line or diacritic mark added, and there were a lot of ways it could be used.  Small, localized rituals could be altered, words could be chosen.  She could scribble out a variety of spell cards, pull out something approximating what she needed, maybe add a couple lines, triangles, or a pairing symbol with a marker, and she was sitting pretty.

It wasn’t that way with alchemy, really.  She was pretty sure that if she got a few more books under her belt, more sources for key ingredients, and some practice in, she could toss something into a flask and shake, for that same effect.  Until then, the direction she chose for a bit of alchemy was locked in and deployed when the alchemy was used.  The cumulative impurities were pretty much decided early on, too.

She’d put stuff on to simmer, showered, then caught a two hour nap, which was probably the worst length of time for a nap.  Not quite a catnap that could re-energize, not long enough to be proper rest.

She got up, stepped over Julette, who rolled over and snatched up a sweater off the ground.

“No nice sweaters if we’re going to be in the kitchen,” Verona told her, before stooping down to snatch up a favorite pair of black, paint-stained jeans.

Julette stuck a foot out, and dragged it out of reach of Verona’s hand.

Verona could’ve changed the traction of the floor or something to win that, but she let Julette have the win.  She found some flannel pants that tended to catch on her leg stubble if she hadn’t shaved her legs, and pulled them on.

She grabbed things, laptop included, and went downstairs, Julette following.  She poked Peckersnot awake as she passed him.  Little lights she’d set in beneath the shelves provided back-lighting so she could see the contents of the alchemy setup she’d put together.  Brass and glass bits of tubing stretched between various containers, distilling, dripping, self-stirring.

She got a hair tie and tied her hair back into a ponytail that was about as short as a ponytail could be and not pull its way free.  She scrubbed her arms down, tied on a black rubber apron, and then pulled on elbow length black gloves of a thinner material.  The safety goggles were last.

She hated this phase of the learning curve with Alchemy.  Where trajectories were set, and room for creativity was limited.  No adjusting a project after it unfolded.  Only the fact that things could get messy kept her moving through the process.  She could initiate projects, which she then had to see through or containers would overflow, things would mix, and she’d have to throw out whole parts of her setup.  The shadow of Avery in a hospital bed dogged her, making it a bit worse.

Julette was standing with her back to the alchemy setup, looking at a sketched figure on the wall.  A lithe man wearing only a gas mask and very low-slung jeans.  The image moved faintly; light shone past containers and through vapors and steam, and the shadows cast on the wall disguised most of it.  The jeans weren’t so low that anything was revealed, but low enough that the point where the pelvis stopped and the leg began was visible, and it was obvious the figure shaved his body hair.  Peckersnot sat off to the side, studying the image too.

Verona gently turned Julette around to focus on the setup.

There were different things that could be distilled with alchemy.  This was stuff that overlapped with just about every field of study.  Along the way, she’d been working at either setting herself up to tap into those fields, or taking the preliminary steps so that if she needed to break into that stuff, she could get there in a week.

Glamour was everywhere, and Shellie had demonstrated some ability to find and collect traces of it to use against the Fae.  There were washing processes that could rinse an item of trace glamour, specifically, which was a good way to get maybe a tablespoon of glamour for an hour’s work… or to get an item clear of glamour, specifically, so it could be tempered like that, putting it through ritualized ‘hardening’ in anticipation of it being a magic item or ritual component.  Hard wash of a cloak, that she then tempered, for example, could be a good way to make glamour not stick to her.  A more advanced practice to temper glamour into the item, say, the inside of the cloak, and she could make it more conducive to transformations.

Except she was pegging that as weeks of work and she gave it a fifteen percent success rate, as things were right now.

Spirits were easy to manipulate and could be inserted into things.  There were processes to bind spirits to insert them into a solid or liquid substance, and then have a liquid form of that spirit, which could then be used as a component or as the central force being manipulated.

There were ways to screen emotions out of an area, or out of a substance.  A technique favored by Hydes, who would extract emotions to maintain balance between themselves and their alter ego, and emotion manipulators like the Whitts, who would try to get people to drink distilled lust or anger or whatever.

Some of the more valuable resources in alchemy were trace elements of Creation itself in certain things.  Refining and maintaining things like primordial clay and promethean sparks could get semi-renewable resources.  Use one of those for a curse and the curse would grow over time, iterating and even evolving, adapting around countermeasures or gaining a degree of intelligence.  It could be used to capital-c Create life, or, in sufficient quantities, foster a pocket world.  A personal dimension.

She had a strong suspicion that the hot lead had a spark inside it, and that was why it renewed in power, with the metal of the bullet folded around it keeping it from leaking out or getting inventive.  She would’ve loved to pry that open and see if she could salvage the spark, which would probably be better in the long run, but she knew that would sit badly with Lucy.  What she’d managed to refine were pieces as big around as a dollar coin, of low power and middling purity.

She leaned down to peer into a series of beakers.  Each beaker had a homunculus inside it, of a slightly different type, and different stage of growth.  They took a week to grow, and she was trying to infuse portions of primordial clay, promethean sparks, breaths of life and fonts of creation in roughly equal amounts.

The foetal ones looked like someone had spooged in the beaker, with a little dark spot where the heart was.  That apparently wasn’t much different from real life, and the people in the city who carried signs around with bleeding fetuses on display saying ‘1 week’ were basically making stuff up, or they’d been lied to.

At different stages, they took on different forms, and with the different end goals she was planning, they went from mirroring the development of human embryos to going off in their own little directions.  Potato-ish, tadpole-ish, little human.

“So, this is critically important,” Verona said, her arms folded.  “Peckersnot, are you paying attention?  Because we’re going to need you here.”

Peckersnot nodded.  Julette mimed Verona, arms folded, so Peckersnot joined in, while standing on the counter.

“We’re going to unearth this fella.  Avery found a gem of a homunculus out in Thunder Bay.  And I’ve created one.  It needs two more things to finish.  One should be on order in the Kennet found market.  So we crack this little guy open, and we need to feed him the key ingredient to fuel him for what we need.  I’ve got setups for echoic drip, I’ve got spirit concentrate, I’ve got little elements of Creation, I’ve got Abyssal extract, I’ve got goblin alchemy…”

Peckersnot uncrossed his arms long enough to thump his chest.

“Which you contributed extra to.  Thank you,” Verona said.  “But there’s some extra stuff, I’ll get to that later.  But for right now?  This…”

She unhitched the jar from the wire setup.  It was being kept at a certain temperature.  Within was a homunculus with a scrunched-up face.

“Is a styan.  Anti-clairvoyance homunculus.”

“The ‘Eyy wot’ guy!” Julette exclaimed.  “With the mustache.  Sitting in the bird nest!  I love that guy!”

“Here, in the war room…” Verona indicated.  She didn’t want to get pollutants on her gloves, so she used her foot to push the door between the kitchen and the war room open.  On the blocky table she used for maps and things, she had some practice stuff laying around.  She indicated, Julette got it out, and she put it front and center, removing the weight with an anti-rune charm on it.  “…Thank you.  It’s just about the lowest level augury I could conveniently do.  Binocular practice.  For Kennet, testing things for the greater effort.”

The diagram was already faintly animated, but it lit up at the words.

A loose orb shape, about a handspan wide, appeared over the paper.  Verona crouched down a little, and peered through it.  “See?”

Julette, setting Peckersnot down on the table, leaned down.  The three of them could see into the kitchen, with the practice forming a kind of magnification lens, to view the alchemy stuff on the far end of the kitchen as if it was a foot from their faces.  Moving it around produced a motion-sickness inducing shift of the point of view.


“Now… this should work.  Kind of worked earlier…”

Verona left them there, and, still carrying the jar, walked through the field of view as she did a lap around the table.

“Woahh,” Julette murmured.

Verona circled back around to Julette’s side.  Sure enough, the image was focused on the jar she was holding.  The face took up the entire lens, magnified with a fishbowl tilt, focusing on the scrunched-up face in dark-tinted liquid.  The view tore up as she moved the jar around, and fuzzed out and fuzzed back in again as she let it clarify and lock on again.

“He’s asleep and sleeping in its ‘womb’, so to speak,” Verona said.  “It’ll be stronger after.”

“Heck yeah,” Julette replied.  “What goes into him?”

“Some Ruins stuff.  Attention, attentiveness, obsession.  Some stickiness.”

Peckersnot peeped.

“He helped there.  It’s like if someone bends over and he’s wearing a pink thong, you can’t not have your eye go to the thong?  Or gas mask guy on the wall?”

“I like gas mask guy,” Julette said.

“Similar deal, Augury can’t help but look, and then you stick the metaphorical ‘eye’ to it, so it can’t stop looking.  Alexander talked about how, when the Blue Heron God first showed up, before he got everyone together and they had their big night of drinking, the god would appear in augury and be generally annoying, so he felt he had to go out and deal with it.  Similar deal here, just way smaller in size.”

“I hear you,” Julette said.  “Cool.”

“It is also, I’m pretty sure, going to work as an aphth.”

“Did you just bite your tongue while trying to say empath?” Julette asked, smirking.

“No, but also you’re in the right ballpark, weirdly enough.  The tongue.  One of the most annoying things we’ve been running into is that we’re being listened in on constantly.  Even without the Charles factor, we’ve got an Augur, Seth Belanger, and his apprentice, who is one of the ones who hasn’t bailed.  So?  Anti-clairaudience homunculus.”

“I like it,” Julette said.  “Cool concept.”

“Not my idea, just a thing I found in alchemy texts.  He’s got a balance that has very little breath of life in him.  It makes him less able to walk or crawl around.  Usually Creations without much breath will stick to the same spot, doing the same sorts of things.  Very little promethean spark, it makes him less inventive and less likely to exceed his bounds, be creative, be passionate, and all of that.”

“What hell,” Julette said.  “I’d like to think we have more spark in how we’re made than your average cats.  Us three?”

Peckersnot peeped.  Verona shrugged.

“In setting this up, Peck and I biased it toward the font and especially clay.  Water and earth, the way gods like to use ’em.  Font means he’ll have appetite, he’ll get tired, he’ll age, and a lot of that sounds bad, but it also means he grows, he heals, he has strength in youth, which is great because he’s young now and old age is a ways off.  Hell, given a chance he’ll breed.”

“Not a porny website I’d be tuning into, gotta say,” Julette noted.  “No offense, little jar man.”

“And clay is durability and presence in the world, it’s the anchor for all the other elements, so he doesn’t destroy himself moving or doing his thing.  It’s reinforcement to hold the other ingredient which we’ll add in a bit.  And because he’s mostly wet clay, when we ‘hatch’ him from this jar, he’ll be moldable.  We can choose his appearance.”

“Ahhhhh,” Julette replied.  “That’s fun.

Peckersnot stroked his near-nonexistent chin.

“Want to help me on that one?” Verona asked Julette.  “Sculpting new homunculus flesh?  I’ve got the tools and jars of hair, and the unawakened can do it.”

“Hell yeah,” Julette said.

“Have that be your incentive?  I need an extra pair of hands.”

“I’d do it anyway, but I like incentives.”

“Cool,” Verona said.  She took the container back to the kitchen-lab and popped the homunculus onto the wire configuration, putting a thermometer in through the open top.

She paused, standing in the middle of the kitchen, taking stock.

Idly, she commented, “I’ve got an idea on what we might do for the face, but that’s for later.  For now…”

She trailed off.

She looked across the setup, at what was brewing, what was on her list to brew, and what she might be able to do with the resources available.  Her thumb rolled around her palm as shooting pains ran through it.  Damn it.

“Elemental and spirit there, vacuum jars.  Spell cards get us most of the elemental stuff we need, but the vacuum jars are so useful.  Ruins setup, I want curse removal oil.  If there’s a quiet period, I’d like to hatch another, more general homunculus and get it working on some of the menial tasks.  Healing potions, of course, and I really, really want to get the impurities down for those in particular.  And honestly?  A huge dose of poison would be good.  I’m thinking ‘kill something big’.”

“Makes me think of Avery’s friend Gilkey,” Julette said.  “And how there’s that whole Alchemist cabal in the region that went the way of the dinosaur, what was it?”

“Twentyish years ago,” Verona said.  “Went bad, yeah.  Good reminder to be careful.  Maybe avoid taking on too much.  Except all of this feels essential.  Stop me if I start getting into side projects?”

“Alright,” Julette said.

“You want to look up the curse oil stuff?  Since you don’t have gloves on, you can turn pages.  Peckersnot, let’s turn on the condensers, the vacuum pump.  Let’s see, we’ll want the plate I drew heraldry on, for concentrating spirit there…”

Peckersnot scrambled through and around the setup, to turn tabs and hit switches things as she mentioned them, like a jungle gym of fire, glass, and containers of elemental energies, while Julette plunked herself down in a corner with one of the binders that Verona had put some printed out pages into.

There were so many things that bothered her, that she was worried about.  Avery being in the hospital bed, after their recent scare.  The fight, the fact the Others were involved.

The other two didn’t know about the parents’ involvement.  Verona still felt like that was sitting in the back of her head, asking for her to deliver a verdict.

Then her mom, and that whole deal.  Where was she going to go?  What was she going to do?

Her home was burned down.  Her relationship with her dad was… she didn’t figure it was ever going to be good, after CAS had mandated therapy and he’d gone straight back to being himself after.

But there was a difference between knowing something was dying and terminal and taking it out behind the shed and shooting it.

She was surrounded by burners, tubing, brass piping, vessels, practices concentrated down to liquid and powdered forms, nascent lifeforms she was making from scratch -and a few baseline tissues-, and the alchemy workshop was roaring to life.  This was the fun part, launching each project, before the requisite hours of juggling keeping temperatures, formulations, and balances precise.

She just wanted to go upstairs, down the hall, over to McCauleigh’s room, and crawl into that bed so Anselm was between her and McCauleigh.  Press herself against him, not for anything horny, but to have another human being there.  Or napping with or sitting and lightly chatting with McCauleigh, if Anselm was out, or just lying in her bed with cat-form Julette and the covers pulled over her head, failing that.  It being a boy was obviously preferable, but that was aesthetic and leaving the door open for fun stuff, maybe.

Her heart felt weary, she dreaded this fight that was coming up fast, and she wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming hours of project maintenance once she got started.  The only balm for those things, it felt like, was a good week of resting like she’d just imagined.  Naps with people she trusted as a rest thing.  Hanging out with those same people or with Lucy and Avery or drawing as a mid-intensity thing.  Getting into random practice stuff where the stakes were lower and one percent of difference could mean that her friend didn’t have to get her stomach pumped as her high intensity, exciting thing.  Homework, mom, working on the shop, chores, and catching up on life to fill the spaces between, as a non-intensity, thing.  A side thing.  Grounding herself.

That was the dream.

Peckersnot did a peep that slid into a whistle.

She startled a little, emerging from her thoughts.  She turned to Julette.  “Favor?  Cheek slaps.  I’m wearing clean gloves.”


She closed her eyes, then paused, sensing-

Julette was sitting down, one arm all the way back, ready for a homerun swing.


Julette relented, and slapped each of Verona’s cheeks, twice each, quick, fast, and just hard enough it stung.  Getting her fully awake.

“Thank you.  Let’s get to work.”


Her hand twinged, and as she moved it in reaction, the twinge became a lightning-strike of pain from palm to spine.  She almost dropped the beaker she was holding.

She grunted, “Fuck.  I’m definitely going to need those extra hands now.  My left hand is giving up on me, I think.  Using it too much.”

“I’m so glad I only have that hand thing as a visual thing.  You okay?” Julette asked.

“I think I’ll be back in a minute.  Can I get you cleaning more containers and jars?  And the gloves?  It’s one of those tasks Peckersnot’s less good at, when it comes to being lab assistant.  Some part of it usually ends up weirdly sticky.”

Peckersnot peeped.

“On it.”

Verona pulled off the gloves and draped them on the sink’s edge.  Moving her hand to get it free of the glove made more twinges shoot through it.  She left the apron on, jogging upstairs.

Over-the-counter everyday painkillers, which, ironic with a hand like hers, were a pain in the tit to open one-handed, then… brace.  She got two out and tried to assess whether she could get away with the soft one, rather than the one with the metal part that pressed against her palm and kept her wrist and hand at a fixed angle and position.

McCauleigh sidled into the doorway, leaning against the frame.  She had severe bedhead.

“Heya,” Verona said.  She winced as her hand twinged.


Hard brace for now, she’d swap it out for the soft one later if she had to.  She put her hand through and awkwardly strapped it on.  Another irony, that it wasn’t made to be easier.

McCauleigh reached over to put a finger down, holding one part down so Verona could strap it.

“Napping with Anselm?”

“Some chat.”

“I like your aesthetic together.  I’d like to draw you two, in calmer times,” Verona remarked.

“Maybe.  Not sure what that involves, but sure.  Doing alchemy?”

“Yeah.  Bunch of stuff.  It’s pretty neat.”

“When I did it at the Blue Heron, I got frustrated.  First thing I did, instructor’s all, “No, no, there’s too much emotional turmoil in you, it tainted the batch.  Like, fuck all the way off, tell me that beforehand?”


“Second batch, I dunno, something about me moving too aggressively while carrying the solution?  And third thing, I don’t even really remember.  I think I got a three in the math and that changed things and we definitely weren’t warned enough about it beforehand.”


“Three things where I couldn’t know in advance it was going to be a problem, trashing my work and I kinda went, fuck alchemy, you know?”

“I hear you.  You have to do reading in advance.”

“I’m not so good at retaining reading,” McCauleigh said.  “And my head was in a different, angrier place back then, I think that got in the way.  Still, fuck alchemy.”

Verona shrugged.

“I don’t know how you juggle all these things.”

“Eh.  I’ve got a decent memory, I’m good with creativity, improvising, and I’ve got good hand eye coordination, for making stuff and diagram work, I dunno.  Or I had good hand eye coordination.”

She thunked the hard part of the brace against the edge of the counter.

“You look tired,” McCauleigh said.  “Be careful you don’t blow yourself up.”

“Had a two hour nap.  Like you and Anselm.”

“Yeah, but we were sleeping in, we slept, beyond those two hours, and you were up.”

Verona drew her eyebrows together, thinking.  Her head swam a bit.  Had she overslept or underslept?

“It’s eleven thirty.”

Verona paused, thinking.  “AM or PM?”

“The fact you don’t even know…” McCauleigh sighed the words.  “What day do you think it is?”

“It’s either the night before everyone’s leaving to go deal with Charles, and I’ve got twenty-four hours, or it’s the day we’re going to deal with Charles, and I’ve got twelve.”

“The day.  Twelve,” McCauleigh said.

Verona took that in, made the mental adjustments, then, eyes closed, right hand clutching the brace on her left hand, which prevented her from massaging her palm, she nodded.

Her eyes went to the window.  She liked things darker, as a general rule, lights dimmer, light levels brought down by the trees around the property, so there wasn’t morning sunlight streaming in through the window… but that was a her decision.

She un-adjusted and light came beaming through, making her eyeballs hurt.

The Demesne made it hard to keep track of time, sometimes, because of the little adjustments like that.

“What can I do?” McCauleigh asked.

Verona thought about going with McCauleigh to that bed Anselm was lying in, and crawling under the covers.  Her back pressed hard to Anselm’s front, him spooning her, McCauleigh on the other side, arm draped over, so Verona could hold it.  Sleeping like that for ten straight hours.

But she’d started her alchemy stuff.  She could leave it for a short time, maybe, but not ten hours.

“I know you said fuck alchemy…”

“I did.  I meant it, too.”

“But did you get enough know-how that you can help Julette and Peck keep an eye on things?  Help them figure out what to do if something starts boiling and it shouldn’t?”

“I know some.”

“Probably better off than Julette or Peck.  Can you?  Is that okay?  I need to get out of the demesne and run an errand while I’m at it.”


“Thank you.”  Verona lifted off her apron and put it over McCauleigh’s head.  She bent down and rinsed her face, and when she’d straightened, washcloth pressed to her lower face, McCauleigh was already on her way into the kitchen, talking to the other two.

She went and pulled on the sweater Julette had wanted to grab, then changed out the pyjama pants for old jeans.  Ones she’d worn last year.  There had been a point between Thanksgiving and Christmas where she hadn’t been able to get the button through the hole, but she’d run around enough in the last few weeks that they fit again.  Socks… she went with mismatched ones for speed.

She sorted things out, got her bag, got notebooks, scribbled out an insulating setup onto paper and then put that in between two layers of the brace she couldn’t put a hand over, so her fingers wouldn’t get cold, and made sure to bring some Kennet found currency, pocketing it.

She checked on the others, who were chatting while watching everything, McCauleigh helping with cleaning jars.


“What’s up?”

“Heading out.  For the sake of making the most of our time… you want to just do the styan-aphth homunculus yourself?”

“Yeah?  You’re for real?”

She badly wanted to do that, because it was cool and a couple of weeks had gone into this, really, but… time was short and she didn’t have the resources.  “I’ll go get the last components.  Don’t feed it.”


Verona did have to get involved, helping to set up the workspace, while Julette got the tools.  Then she got the little guy out of the jar, pouring the fluids into a strainer that caught him in it.  He writhed there, bubbles forming at his mouth as he ejected the fluids in his lungs and started breathing for real.

“Gotta work fast before he dries out.  You should have one to two hours,” Verona told Julette.  “Hair…”

She moved a jar of hair into reach.

“And my suggestion.  If it doesn’t work out or you need to go another direction because something went wrong or you feel inspired, do that, but…”

She put the picture she’d printed out onto the table.

“Got it,” Julette replied.

“I aim to be back within an hour,” Verona said.  Her hand twinged.  She got her duffel coat, shrugging into it, and secured her cat mask before leaving, stepping outside.

The pigeon flew out and settled onto her shoulder as she stood on the stairs, thinking about the order of operations, here.  She greeted it, “Yo.”

“Coo,” the pigeon replied.

Even venturing into Kennet found, where things were in perpetual just-past-sunset or just-before-sunrise twilight, the lights were too bright.  She needed a minute to adjust.  Bending over, hair a shield from the lights from the glittering Lost-and-Foundling ski hill, she texted the others, to see who was doing what.

I’ll come

There were some stalls which were making food, so she stopped at one and handed over some bills with Cherrypop on them to pay, and ate while checking at some stalls, buying some odds and ends.  Fried pastry in the shape of a snail shell with a creamy-spinachy-meat mixture inside.  Like with alchemy, magic items had a frontloaded focus.  With skill and tricks, they could be adjusted or skewed in function, and some items interacted together, but mostly what you started with determined what you ended up with.

Starting with the right items for the right practices was vital.  Fae magic in an ugly item?  Abyssal stuff in something mass-manufactured?  Goblin practice in something delicate?

She didn’t have time to prepare much in the way of magic items.

Some belts, a bell, a box, a lens…

Pain jolted through her hand.  She had to stop everything she was doing, putting her food aside, on the edge of the counter of a stall, one hand gripping her forearm, because the brace made her hand inaccessible.  A pins-and-needles numbness at her pinky and ring finger promised an imminent worsening.

“Coo?” the pigeon asked.

She couldn’t bring herself to answer before another lightning strike of pain ran from hand to spine- some of that might’ve been imagination.  Knowing what nerves were, her mind filling in blanks as her body just processed pain.  The ‘lightning strike’ didn’t end either, but sat in her arm, a coursing of signals, twisting, making muscles clench and convulse in connection to what was going on in her hand.  It left her entire arm shaking.

She resumed moving.

“Coo?” the pigeon asked, turning around.

“Sorry,” she muttered.  Can’t really chat with you.  Or explain right this second.

“Verona?” someone asked, behind her.  “Sorry, you’re Verona, right?”

Someone else, now.

The guy with the stall.  He indicated the food she’d set aside, that she’d almost left behind.  She didn’t want to let go of her arm, even if technically gripping it wasn’t doing anything to stem the pain.  Wasn’t- wasn’t damming the flow of badness or numbing it by cutting off circulation.  But she couldn’t pull her hand away.

Like sticking a finger in an outlet, or what they’d run into using the escape key, they’d gotten from Brie and Zed.  Like electricity coursing through you, locking up the muscles needed to pull away.  Like that, but not that.  It was paralyzing all the same.

She was glad she was wearing her mask, down here.  She didn’t want to drop to her knees and start crying here.  Not with cool Others around.  Not in general.

“Thanks, sorry,” she said, her voice tight.  She forced herself past the paralysis, grabbed the container, and clutched it awkwardly with her good hand, hugging the foil and remaining pastry against her side.  Maybe getting a stain on her coat.  Her throbbing, shaking, pain-wracked hand got jammed in a pocket.

There was no out-thinking the pain, no denying it, no willing it away.  She could push herself to an emotionally dead place, where she didn’t feel like crying anymore, could move mechanically, choosing to put one leg in front of the other, focusing on not hunching over, keeping her arm still even as it wanted to jerk and twitch.

She let herself into the store with the post on one side and shelves of resource books and reference materials, maps, and educational stuff on the other.  It looked like the guy at the post desk was in the back, sorting out boxes.

“Ferris,” Verona called out.  Was her tone bad?  The pain was a constant, she really wanted to stop and cry, and it felt like she’d come across more curt or angry than she was.

“Hey.  Uh.  Hi,” the man greeted her.  He was human, a lost sheep, meaning he’d started elsewhere and come over here, and his mask was three simple plastic clown masks rigged to a headband with what looked like tiny motors, so they rotated steadily around his head, his face partially covered at all times.

“Hey, good to see you,” she said, to temper her earlier tone.  “Hope you’re doing okay.  My package was supposed to come in?”

He made an expression that was hard to see with the masks.  “It did.  That was the guarantee.”

“Sounds good.”

“Be right back.”

Her arm jittered,

He pulled up the box and set it down.

Verona gave him a look, then picked up the box.  She gave it a light shake, then put it down on the counter.  She leaned forward, reaching past the cash register for the small knife he had there-

“Woah woah woah woah-” Ferris protested, backing off.

-and used it to open the cardboard box.  She checked the contents- or the lack thereof.

She turned it upside down to verify.  “Ferris.”

“The package arrived, as was promised.  The contents are due in another week.”


“Not my call,” he said.  “Can you put the knife down?”

Her arm jittered again.  She took a second, then put the knife down, giving it a light push to put it close to where it had been.  “I wasn’t even thinking about using that to hurt you.  It was for the box.  And I couldn’t hurt you here even if I wanted to, which I didn’t.”

“Okay,” he said.  He moved it back to where it had been, beside the register.

She looked at the box.  “Fuck, I really wanted that.”

“Sorry.  Again, not my call.”

“You can’t do that,” she told him.

“I didn’t-”

“You can’t- Ferris!” she interrupted his protests at innocence.  “Ferris, dude.  You can’t fucking lead me to believe I’ve had a package I’ve anticipated show up when it hasn’t.  I get in trouble for lying.  Lost and foundlings get in trouble for lying.  You don’t know- you can’t know for sure if a human-ish tourist that shows up gets in trouble for lying, okay?”

“Sorry.  Figuring all this out.”

“You’ve been around for months, and this is-”

Her arm jerked as pain ran through her hand again.  She let out a small sound, eyes shut, face turned toward the ground.

She turned her eyes back to him.  “-it’s important.  It’s vital.  I’ve got a fucking war coming up, and if I got gainsaid, what the fuck, dude?  If I’d said it was good the package came in and it wasn’t good, I could be in trouble.  Stuff matters!

“Okay,” he said.

She sighed, looking at him.

“Sorry,” he added.

“I had two weeks worth of alchemy work making a little lifeform in a test tube, not counting the other weeks I put into reading up and preparing.  I just hatched it from the tube earlier, and now…”

“That sounds cool.  Sorry again.”

“…You didn’t tell me the box was empty, Ferris!  You could’ve gone out of your way to tell me the box was empty and now the work is probably wasted, it won’t do what I needed it to do.”

“I kinda wondered, maybe I got it wrong.  It says it’s something divine, so maybe it was light, or actual light, I dunno.”

“God milk.”

“Yeah.  That’s what the label said.  But I didn’t know until a bit earlier, I got a bad feeling and called, to figure out what happened.  They needed to keep to their word for the delivery time, so they sent the package, without the contents.”

“Okay,” she said.  “Fuck, though.  Fuck, two weeks of regular work…  I was working on this when I thought my best friend might be dead, so the work wouldn’t be wasted, and this bullshit?”

“Sorry,” he said.

She wanted to flip on him.  Her hand clenched up, pain running through it, and she wanted to cry.  The hand, the product, the work.

“Sorry,” she said.  “You caught me on a bad day.  Seriously though, communicate?”

“Got it,” he said.  “Sorry.”

She shook her head slightly.  “Let me know when the contents come in.  It’ll be too late, and who knows if it’ll even be sour when it gets to me, but I can still find a use, probably.”

“Will do,” he said.

She stepped outside.  Her hand jittered.  The brace helped keep it from forcibly closing up, clenching until it felt like something would tear or break, but it didn’t help beyond that.

“Sorry,” she told the pigeon.  “Not me at my best.”


“Do me a favor, look out for Avery?  I wasn’t precise about where I’d be or what I’d do.”


The pigeon took off.

Verona took a couple minutes to herself, leaning against the wall, eating the pastry that had gone lukewarm, looking out toward the river canal.  Letting her arm relax.  Maybe.  Deep breaths, fresh air.  Cool practice waiting for her… even if she didn’t have the milk.

Her phone buzzed.  She fished it out and checked.

Coming.  Where do I find you?

She replied.

kf.  outside the dumb post

The pain and having to focus on keeping things together around the pain was exhausting.  A few times a week, to varying degrees, and that number wasn’t improving.  It hit at random, asleep or awake, busy or not, and she just counted herself lucky that it hadn’t happened in a big way when she was in the middle of a serious fight or practice.

She saw the pigeon circling above.  Then she saw Avery drop out of the sky.  Verona crossed the street and went to the railing, to get a better look.

Verona raised a hand, leaving her braced hand wedged in her pocket.  Avery, who had landed on the bank of the canal, looked up at her, hurriedly pulling her mask on.  Snowdrop, as she went to human form, came with the opossum mask already on.

Avery jogged, with Snowdrop following, to where a giant, bipedal, mammoth-like Lost with an ivory mask was wading, because the street was too narrow for him.  She said something to the figure, and he raised a hand, which Avery stepped onto.  He lifted her up and across the road.

Avery ran to Verona, black roping as she disappeared behind a telephone pole, to cross the street where an apparent teacher was leading a bunch of Lost kids in various animal masks in a human chain.

“You’re so energetic,” Verona greeted Avery.  “Ugh.”

Avery hugged her.  “Heya.”

“Hey.  You know, the fact you dropped in without a mask, I figure it’d be like being in Kennet above and you just hop out onto a busy street while you’re still getting dressed, flashing a bit of tit while you work on pulling your shirt on.”

“Hey Verona, sure, leap right into that, huh?  How are you doing?”

“Eh,” Verona grunted.  “Hand’s acting up.  I-”

Verona stopped as Avery lifted up her mask.

“-You just metaphorically lifted up my shirt and flashing the entire street.”

“Only I saw, I’m pretty sure.  You have circles under your eyes,” Avery said, flipping the mask back down.

“Unique,” Snowdrop said, putting out a hand for a high five.

“Represent,” Verona agreed, slapping Snowdrop’s palm with her good hand.  “And pigeon saw.”

“Coo,” the pigeon said.  He’d settled on the railing.

“How bad is it?  The exhaustion?” Avery asked.  “You need to go back, or-?”

“It’s bad.  Not as bad as when I first went to the hospital, or when I visited your place in Thunder Bay.  But close.”

“I’m sorry.”

Verona shrugged.  “I screwed up my sleep schedule, and eating schedule, I guess, and… I guess I had extra caffeine, drinking tea while staying up.  Plus sugar.  I might’ve been asking for it.”

“It sucks that it happens, still.”

“Changing the subject.  How are you?” Verona asked, indicating Avery’s hip.

“That part of me’s fine.  Scar’s a bit gnarly but I can deal with that.  Stomach’s a bit fucked.  That’s harder.”



“I guess my gut bacteria are wiped out, or something?  Things aren’t sitting so hot.  Like after you have the flu and things are tender, and you feel like you could throw up if you have something too rich?  But for a few days, now.”

More guilt.

“Don’t eat yogurt, give it to me,” Snowdrop said.  To Verona she said, “she’s been good about that.”

“I’ll eat yogurt that wasn’t in the trash of some random business, Snow.”

“I respect that.  Right, pigeon?”

“Coo,” the pigeon replied, clearly affronted.

“He’s a pigeon of class, he doesn’t eat trash can yogurt,” Verona said.  To Avery, she said, “Errand’s a bust, but Lucy’s coming, so… should wait for her.”

“Bust?” Avery asked.

“They sent a package, no contents.  No god milk.”

Snowdrop reached forward, grabbing the front of Verona’s coat.  Behind or inside that perpetually open mouth of the opossum mask, her mouth hung ajar.

“I know.  Sucks.  And I need to find some alternative in the next hour if I’m going to pull this project together.  I don’t suppose you know of any markets that have something like that?” she asked Avery.

“No,” Avery said.  “Hmmm…”

“Don’t get distracted by the thought of some hundred foot tall goddess lactating majestically.”

“You are in a mood, Ronnie,” Avery said.  “Geez.”

Verona snorted.  “You’re thinking about it now, I bet.”

“No comment.  You get like this when you’re emotionally wiped out.  What’s up?  Is it your house, your dad, your mom?”

“The fight.  Preparing.  Trying to cover stuff that’s likely to come up.  Batches of potions.  Spell cards.  Magic items.  Not having a great game plan, despite everything.”

“It’s not your job, you know.  You don’t have to have a big move in mind every step of the way,” Avery told her.  “The Founding, replacing the Alabaster…”

“The Aurum, partially.”

Avery sighed.

It’s the job we assigned me when we kicked all this off.

“I might have an idea,” Avery said.  “We’ll see.”

Waiting for when we aren’t being listened in on?

“Okay,” Verona said.  “I don’t know if that makes me feel better or worse.”

Verona rested her head against Avery’s shoulder.

“If you need to close your eyes while we wait for Lucy…”

“Coo?” the pigeon chimed in.

“If you would,” Verona told it.

It took off, flapping.

“I’m sorry,” Verona told Avery, when they were alone.  Or more alone.


“For indirectly committing genocide, I guess.”

“Hmm.  Yeah, that sounds bad.  Huh?”

“Of your gut bacteria.  Because the potions weren’t better.”

“Oh that.  Don’t be silly.  The potions saved my life.  It’s my fault for getting shot.”

“Yeah, that wasn’t great either, but honestly, we’ve been shot at plenty.  It was a matter of time.”


“The council’s probably right to say ‘no more’,” Verona said.  “Considering.”


“I know it’ll be temporary, only as long as we’re insisting we’ll go and fight, but I’m anxious about it anyway.  I know Charles likes to keep gainsaying in his toolkit.  So that’s a bit of why I’m focused on the alchemy and items.  That stuff works even when you’re gainsaid.”

And it equips us if we want to press on for a second try after things have failed.  Or if someone needs rescue, or whatever.

“There’s other things, you know?” Avery said.

“Hm?  The power of love and friendship?”

“Kind of.  Others.”

“I guess not every Other we could call on for help is tied to the council.”

“There’s a whole mess of them here in Kennet found,” Avery said.

Verona looked around, head still resting against Avery.  “True.  How are you doing, Snowdrop?  Doing the goblin sage thing?”

“I’ve got it all figured out.”

“I figure it’s symbolic in a way that’s not about having some actual wise person in place.  The sage is important because the sage is important, that’s circular, it takes the load off.  Like, maybe even a slightly crushed can of soda could be held up as a ‘sage’ to-”

“Ronnie,” Avery cut her off.  “Really?”

“Shit.  No, I didn’t mean you’re worthless.”

“You’re a jerk.  Doesn’t make me feel better at all,” Snowdrop said.  “Isn’t that weird?”

“Okay,” Verona said.  “That’s good.  Sorry.  Pain and tiredness means I’m accidentally mean, I guess.  I think you’re way more valuable than a slightly crushed can of soda.”

“I give crappy advice.”

“And you’re fun.”

“As boring as unbuttered toast,” Snowdrop replied.

“How much more do you have to do, workshop-wise, Verona?” Avery asked.

“I could spend a week preparing and it wouldn’t feel like enough.  I’ve got some alchemy waiting for me to get back and finalize it.  I might squeeze in some tempering and quick enchantment.”

“Cool.  I’d like to see.  I-”

“I’d like to have you over.”

“Yeah.  Let’s do that.  The pigeon’s signaling us that Lucy’s over that way, I think.  Here.  I’ll black rope us.”

“Less walking?  I’m down.”

Lucy was a few blocks over, wearing her red coat from the Dog Tags and her fox mask, earring glinting in the light of the ornate streetlights.

“Good mask protocol,” Verona said.

“What’s she talking about?” Lucy asked Avery.

“There was a thing.  Verona being Verona.”

“I notice how we’re not asking me for clarification,” Verona said.  “Here, Snowdrop, be buddies with me.  We’ll be a pair of the chronically misunderstood and maligned.  A trio, you can be included too, pigeon.”

“Coo,” the pigeon said, from where he’d perched on a rail.

“Will you tell me what god milk tastes like?”

“If my shipment eventually arrives and it’s not spoiled, maybe I’ll even give you a taste?  Hm, I wonder what happens if a regular person or spirit-opossum boon companion drinks it.”

“What a shame, there’s no way to find out,” Snowdrop said, dead serious.

“God milk,” Lucy said, still catching up.  “Okay.”

“Yeah, presumably from some majestically lactating, hundred foot tall goddess,” Verona said.

“Is this mental image meant for you or me, Ronnie?” Avery asked.  “Because you seem to be enjoying it so much.”

“It’s sort of funny, so… both?”

“Alright, fair enough.”

“Draw it, maybe, if it’s that good a mental image,” Lucy suggested.

“There’s an idea, for when I have time,” Verona said.  Then, to get more on track, she clarified, “There was supposed to be god milk, but no luck.  Shipping issues.  I’ll look it up, Snow.  I’ll probably have to find a use for it, anyway.”

“People keep feeding my familiar weird stuff,” Avery griped.  “Toadswallow with his gremlin candies, then Rowan with his failed attempt at chili, he’s still getting his course in adulting, then Nora was asking if she could bring Snowdrop mealworms from the pet store, which I feel weird about.”

“Why?” Snowdrop asked.

“Because you’re human most of the time.”

“I would like to formally reject you from the club of the chronically misunderstood and maligned.  Because there’s no way I’m misunderstanding or thinking awful things about you, right now.”

“I remember Nora, on our first meeting, saying she’d basically belong in that club.  But here I am with what feels like my foot chronically stuck in my mouth.  She’s being really tolerant.”

“You’re a fit, dashing, mysterious type,” Verona said.  “You’re nice, in a way most people aren’t, you’re adventurous, you’re interested in bettering the world.”

“I wasn’t actually fishing for compliments.”

“I’ll give you them anyway, you’re a friend to animals, including weird opossums, you turn enemies into allies, which is a rare and special skill derived from how genuine you are.”

“Okay, okay, alright,” Avery said.

“I struggle to recall anyone who doesn’t like you as a person, Ave,” Lucy threw in.  Verona clicked her tongue and gave Lucy a thumbs-up behind Avery’s back.

Avery pulled away from their grouping and turned around, walking backwards and facing them.  As she did that turn, she said, dead serious, “America.  Jeanine.”

“Kept those slung in the side holsters for a quick draw, huh?” Verona asked.

“Even America’s okay now, though,” Lucy said.

“She tolerates me, I guess.”

“And Jeanine doesn’t hate you, I’d argue,” Verona said.  “It’s not your personality, it’s that you’re awesome and you don’t want her.”

“But hey, things are stable, it’s confirmed, you’re talking to Nora again?  It’s not pulling teeth?” Lucy asked.  “I didn’t get any updates while with the Sable or on the way back.”

“Yeah,” Avery said.  Her expression was hidden by the deer mask, but it seemed like she was happy.  “Regular talking.  Awkward but only in the usual way, not pulling teeth.  Obviously my focus is going to this, but-”

“But you’re talking.  That’s great,” Lucy said.

“Awesome,” Verona said.  “Have you given her that cake you talked about with Liberty and Nora?”

“It’s on the agenda.  Obviously, again, this.  We’re doing a whole thing.  I’m happy to be in a decent place.”

“For sure,” Lucy said.

Verona’s arm jerked.  She caught a glance from Lucy, who reached out past Avery to briefly rub her shoulder.

Yeah.  That was kind of the best response, not drawing special attention to it.

“It’s good to hang out,” Avery said.  “Feels weird.”

“Weird?” Lucy asked.

“Like… when was the last time we really got to spend time together without other stuff getting in the way?”

“The Christmas party,” Verona replied.

“You ever get those moments where it’s all… I’ve been working my ass off, going to morning practice with the team-”

“Never,” Verona cut Avery off.  “No team, I don’t think there ever will be a ‘team’, if it’s the sports type.”

“Ha ha.  But seriously, morning practice, school, friends, actual practice, council meetings, errands for the local Lord, family, family dinners, and then whatever the current crisis is?  There are these weeks and you’re so busy, you just focus on doing everything, and then one day there’s free time and you’re like… I don’t know what to do with myself?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.

“Not so much,” Verona said.  “But I might be a little messed up by years of feeling like I’m windmilling my arms around trying to get my balance whenever I’m in school, or doing day to day, everyday life stuff.”

“You did okay,” Lucy said.  “It’s when you fell behind from being focused on other stuff that the problems really started to show.”

“I did okay,” Verona admitted.  “But I still felt like I was flailing my arms around, off balance, and I wouldn’t know I was doing it right or wrong until after the feedback rolled in.  Give it a big fat bias toward ‘no’ if it was chores at home.  Add the occasional strict teacher who doesn’t give me leeway, and then I’d start thinking I’m a fuckup in general, and everyone else is only entertaining me because I’m okay at playing to their tastes.”

“Hmm,” Lucy made a sound.

“You seem down, Ronnie?”

“Just… dreading a lot of this, and this metaphorical kick in the damn shins when I’m trying to get a major project going…”

“Yeah.  But you know, what they were saying to me, about my gut-”


“-is that gut health and brain health are linked, so bad gut health means depression and anxiety, and I was already pretty rigged to go for the anxiety… I was feeling down.  Still am, a bit.”

More guilt.

“You know, getting shot, also a cause for feeling down.”

“Sure, absolutely,” Avery said.  “But getting around to what I was saying.  Have you eaten?”

“Ate a pastry.”

“Vegetables, protein?”

“Some protein, some vegetable in there.  Mostly caffeine.”

“There you go, hm,” Avery said.  “Let’s get something better to eat.”

“I’ve got a shrinking time window for my project.  It’s going to be so much less useful than I’d planned if I can’t make this happen.”

“Okay,” Lucy said.  “Is that priority one?”

“I wouldn’t go that far, necessarily,” Verona said.  “I’m here chatting with you, recharging.  You guys are priority one.  But it’s up there.”

“God milk.  Does it have to be milk?  What’s our leeway?  What’s the principle at work?”

“I don’t have an alchemy setup to tap into that whole spectrum of practices.”

“What spectrum?”

“Like the classes Durocher would teach,” Verona said.

“Miss as founder?” Lucy asked.

“Don’t get me visualizing milking Miss,” Avery said.  “That’s… traumatizing.”

Verona cackled.

“You went and put that in my head, Ave.  You could’ve kept your mouth shut,” Lucy said.

“It’s the sort of pain that has to be shared,” Avery said, with dead seriousness.  “I don’t want to bear it alone.”

“I could whip up a quick alchemy that would get that stuff flowing,” Verona said.

“That’s the kind of book you’re reading?” Lucy asked.

“Actually, yes.  Or a syringe.  But Miss doesn’t have a face to feed her through and she doesn’t have a heart to pump drugs through the rest of her, so… no go, I figure.”

“I can’t believe this conversation went even one more step beyond the mental picture,” Avery said.

“If it’s important?” Lucy asked.

“It’s… yeah, it’s important,” Verona said.

“It’s about things greater than and lesser than milk,” Snowdrop said.

“Then we figure this out,” Lucy said.  “Tashlit?”

“Slid the direction of the ophidian, or the megahydrophiidae, if you want to be specific.”

“You’re just going to randomly spit out something official-ish, huh?” Lucy asked.

“It’s Tashlit related.  I did reading.  But yeah, she’s half big sea snake.  Doesn’t incline itself toward the boob.  And I wouldn’t, either.”

“She has… skin.  Tissues?” Avery ventured.  Draping skin with… if you whipped something up?”

“I wouldn’t,” Verona said, seriously.  “It’s Tashlit.  Sticking a syringe into Miss’s chest to drug her and get her producing, and having her squeeze out a cup of-”

“Aaugh!” Avery groaned, dropping down to a crouch, heels of her hands pressed to her forehead.  “My brain.”

“-milk, that would be one thing, if it was possible.  But Tashlit is another thing entirely,” Verona told Lucy.

“Does it have to be milk?” Lucy asked.  “If we asked Tashlit for something else?  Tears?”

“It’s Tashlit,” Verona said, trying to convey with tone what she couldn’t with words.  “It’s… everything she’s been through, what she holds onto.  It’s… sacred.”

“You said it was important,” Lucy said.

Verona paused, thinking.


The kitchen was noisy with the sound of things bubbling, churning, and self-stirring in earnest.  McCauleigh hung back, keeping an eye on things, with only periodic glances through the door they’d propped open.

The homunculus was molded, and stood, head-heavy, with legs that became a fused mass like an inverted, flat-top mushroom.  Not ambulatory.  His hair was an orangey-brown, parted on the side, with streaks of white at the temple, and he had light lines in his forehead, with large, piercing blue eyes, and a tendency to smirk by default.

“I vote that we call it Alexanderp,” Julette said.

“Good work,” Verona said, as she moved around the group, hand on top of Julette’s head.  “Your vote counts for double.  We’ll discuss the name.  You want to run upstairs?  I have a sock on the table.”

“I know what you mean.  Be right back,” Julette said.

She became a cat to travel more freely around the people in the house, most of whom were crowded in the war room to see.

Tashlit batted Verona’s shoulder with a hand.  Verona looked over.

Tashlit held out her hand, closed, like she was vying for a fist-bump.

Verona put her hand below Tashlit’s.

Two teeth.

Verona took the teeth with what felt like appropriate reverence-

And almost dropped them as pain ran through her hand.


She caught the teeth in a washed and boiled spoon.  Wearing one of her gloves, she laid one of the teeth atop white bread that she’d torn out from inside the encircling of crust and placed on a sterile platter.  With gloved hand, she balled it up, dampened it with store-bought milk, and then dropped the first nugget into the homunculus’s mouth, which opened and turned toward the ceiling as her hand came nearer.

She did the same with the second.

Tashlit quietly cinched the bag she kept with her at all times closed, putting the loop around her neck again.  Lost fingernails that would never regrow, teeth, and locks of hair.

She was god-begotten.  There was a trace of something in there.  And if they were going to make this work, maybe that would get the door open.  And if it didn’t… what?  Tashlit had given up teeth she’d treasured?


Please work, Verona thought.

She didn’t need more guilt from projects she’d failed to get one hundred percent right, where even a slim percentage of imperfection could have rolling effects.

She backed away, and her eyes flashed as she used her Sight.

The moment the homunculus was in her field of Sight, it leaped forward, consuming the full field of vision, a caricature of Alexander Belanger’s face, smirking, looming, leering, turning his head in little directions, to look at her with the one eye on the one side of his head, then the other, then to turn his nose up and look down at her, smirking.  He moved around, agitated, trying to find the right angles.

She closed her eyes and shut off her Sight.  The image of his face loomed in her field of vision as an afterimage, still.

Sight off… she was fine.  Normal vision unaffected.  She walked into the living room.  Sight turned back on…

And with a few moments to wriggle his way in, he was there, taking up her full field of vision again.  He’d gotten his hooks in.  It would probably take a few minutes of looking away before he lost his grip and Sight became normal again.

She walked over, and picked up chalk, using her sense of the Demesne to avoid bumping into Lucy or Avery or Oakham or Mal.

She drew a circle around him, then, without even breaking that motion, continued the circular motion for a second loop and wiped away the chalk she’d just drawn.  Breaking the connection.

Back to the other room… she was clear.

“Good?” Lucy asked, breaking the silence.

“So far, working as intended by base,” Verona said, as she pulled off the long glove on her right arm, while walking around the table.  She’d gotten chalk on it, and while chalk wasn’t likely to be an impurity, she tossed it into the kitchen to the sink, for later cleaning and boiling in distilled water.

Luna, hanging back, immediately started washing it.

With her hand free of the glove, which would be too grippy, Verona pinch-stroked her eyelashes until one came free.  “Exclusion.”

He gulped it down, head bobbing.

“You guys will want to do the same,” Verona noted.

Avery, Lucy, and McCauleigh all managed to get eyelashes out and feed them.

“So he intercepts and redirects Sight and stuff to himself,” Lucy said, arms folded.

“That’s the plan.  The divine side of the main ingredient we fed him makes it stronger, more tenacious.”

“And the hearing part?” Lucy asked.

“That, I think, your implement wouldn’t be the right angle.  It filters through your ear, it’s too close to regular hearing, and he doesn’t activate with regular hearing.  We’d need to take him out of here, I think.  The Demesne might act too much as a filter.”

“Whatever you say,” Lucy said.

“I read him the lists,” Julette said.  “I saw what you wrote, figured we didn’t have time, if you weren’t back already there was a snag, but I could get that part imprinted.”

“That speeds things along,” Verona said.  “Good work.”

“I didn’t mess it up?” Julette asked.

“You did good.  Good.  Thank you.

“Cool.  You let me do the cool flesh sculpting thing you were probably looking forward to.  Good way to get me incentivized,” Julette said.

“Come on,” Verona said.  “Let’s go out.  Masks on, we’ll go to Kennet found.”

They got their winter coats and masks on, and Julette got the sock Verona had mentioned.  It was done up like a sock with a tuxedo print, close to knee length, but it was a suit with a tie, and with the toe cut out.  Pulling it down over the homunculus’s head, she got him dressed, tugging to get things aligned right, tie under chin.  The ‘foot’ remained what it was, upended mushroom for a body that would basically stay wherever it was plopped down, but it was something.

Verona let Julette carry him, leading the way.  She did a little turn, and Verona could see the little eight-inch tall homunculus smirking self-indulgently at things as he took in his surroundings.

The rest of the group followed.  Snowdrop threw an arm awkwardly around Luna’s shoulders, and Luna went with it.

Letting them lead meant she could hang back, with Tashlit.

“Thank you.  I don’t know if it’ll work, but it means a lot.”

Tashlit nodded.

That it wasn’t being waved off as insignificant and that there was context Verona had taken in over a lot of time spent with Tashlit, especially over the summer?  It meant it was significant.

Maybe the spirits would hear that and give this a little bit more of an edge, letting this work better.

“Are you fighting?” Verona asked.  “Tonight?”

Tashlit made a so-so gesture, then pressed hands together.

“Makes sense.  I kind of got the impression you pulled away some after we tackled the hospital in Kennet below.  I showed a kind of mean-ness, maybe?”

Tashlit shrugged one shoulder.

“You’re not a fighter.  And I guess you’re not a stay-er?”

Tashlit trailed a narrow black finger with eyes taking up its length through the air, drawing out what looked like a sideways ‘eight’, then a circle.

“But you have places that anchor you and you stop there, make those parts of your routes.  Back to your dad, then extended family, brothers, sisters, then here again, maybe?  Check on things?”

Tashlit nodded.

“I can try to keep your cabin intact.”

Tashlit tilted her head, then mimed sweeping, before pointing at Verona, tilting her head more.

“Yeah.  I’m not a chore person, you’re right.  But I can assign someone to the task, I can use practice to try to preserve it.  We carved you out a little corner of the world here.  You did good things.  You were a support.  You came here, drawn by Clementine’s earring, and when I said to stop, you stopped.  That was big.  I needed someone that wasn’t my friends to listen to me.”

Tashlit nodded.

“And you were genuine throughout.  You backed me up in hard times.”

Tashlit tapped Verona’s back, then pointed.

There was McCauleigh, Mal, as part of the group, now.  Her other friends.  Oakham, who wasn’t here.  Anselm.  Julette.  The Pigeon and Squirrel, again, not here.

Verona nodded.  “Doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate it.”

Her hand jumped, pain darting through it.  She almost snarled.

Tashlit touching her head made her flinch.  She froze, shoulders hunched up, unsure what Tashlit was doing.

Then she felt the cool wash of Tashlit’s power.  Some trace of a sea-related divinity running through her.

“That’s not efficient, and it doesn’t really help with my hand.”

But Tashlit offered a bit of healing.

It was weird, because it didn’t make Verona less tired.  But it did take that battering Verona felt from the raw exhaustion, like eyeballs that felt like they were being punched whenever she looked at bright light, or the stiffness in her shoulders, and it washed it away.  The accumulated impact on the body from being stressed and in pain.

“Thank you,” Verona said.

This time, Tashlit waved her off like it was nothing, when it was kind of something.  That was healing someone else might need.

It was also, Verona was forced to admit, healing she needed.

They walked until they reached a part of the road leading away from Verona’s demesne, where it arched a bit and provided a view over Kennet found.  A lot of roads seemed intent on having some inclusion or offshoot that provided that, to the point it made Kennet found crowded in a way the town normally wasn’t.

“When do we know?” Lucy asked.

“I dunno.  Depends.  We might need to provoke Charles to listen.  We know he spies on us, so if we start talking about how we’re gonna-”

“Ahem,” the homunculus cut in.  The voice was fairly Alexander-ish.  Not quite there, but that made it better.  “I have to warn you, this is important, before you say anything else, there’s a matter to be discussed and that matter, I-”

“Okay,” Lucy said, almost drowned out by the homunculus.  “Are we sure this isn’t a curse for us?”

“-I have to say, do listen, it’s utterly vital that we impress these facts, these important facts, which are, you must understand, critical, and without this information, if you aren’t careful, you’ll find yourself on the back foot, so do hear me out when I say it’s critical, paramount, even, that this is communicated promptly, and-”

“Holy shit.”

Verona turned her head.  She felt a jolt run through her skin, paralleling a jolt in her hand.

Charles.  He stood down the road a little ways, looking a little miffed.

They’d gotten his attention.

“-because this is of serious import, communicated from me to you, and if you don’t listen with utmost care, then you stand the risk of falling prey to the all-too-common fallacy that is uncommon ignorance, so let me educate you on these critical facts-”

“Ronnie,” Avery murmured.

The Sable, to her left, standing on a rooftop.

“How?” McCauleigh asked.  “How much power did you put in that thing?”

“Fair bit,” Verona said.  “My blood, to help it grow.  Um.  The divine energy saturating Tashlit’s teeth as a god-begotten, definitely helps.  More importantly, it’s supposed to open the door to the aphth having some boggling effect on other higher powers.  Gods, judges, founders.  Tashlit probably gets audience a lot more easily with these guys than we do, just by virtue of her birth, kind of.”

“This is why I didn’t want you going to meet the Sable,” Lucy said.

“The effect doesn’t work as fully as you probably hoped,” Charles said, as he approached them.

Tashlit touched Verona’s shoulder.  She looked over and saw the Aurum Coil was present as well.

“It works enough I’ve got three of you here, huh?”

“More than three,” the Sable said.

Verona turned around.

The Alabaster was sitting on a rooftop that was level with the raised, Kennet-found path they were walking on.

And Miss stood behind them.

“You guys think I can add this to my list of titles?” Verona asked.  Her heart was pounding, from some mixture of fear and excitement.  “What would it be?  God-botherer, in a sense beyond the usual?”

“We’re not quite gods,” the Sable said.

“Higher-power-botherer doesn’t really roll off the tongue,” Verona said.

“Excuse me,” Charles said, and he strode forward.  Directly for the styan-aphth hybrid.

McCauleigh got in his way, pulling out a long knife, and he reached out, grabbing the blade, holding it as he kept walking.  She tried to put herself in his way and he moved her aside with relative ease.  Julette, meanwhile, scrambled back.

“It’s not your jurisdiction!” Lucy called out.

“It’s not!” Avery chimed in.

“Fuck off, Chuck!” Verona called out.  The hand pain, the exhaustion, it played into her not being as witty as usual, maybe.

“It’s mine,” Miss said.

The ground shifted.  The path Charles was walking along dipped, and the path Julette was on rose.  The difference became a short wall in front of Charles.

“My realm, which you were ejected from, at the outset.  Here, any area you would have claim to is managed.  I channel violences into a specific period of time and circumstance,” Miss intoned.

The lighting began to change.

“You know the reason for our timing, here,” Miss said.  “Or will you say moon phases never crossed your mind in all the time the hungry choir was tearing into innocents?”

A red tint took over Kennet found.

“Visiting Lost and the foundlings who don’t wish to participate have already vacated the area,” Miss told Charles.

As the red took over, Luna’s white mask became red, and her white dress and stockings did the same, with the stockings darkening.  She threw an arm over Snowdrop’s shoulder, awkwardly pulling Snowdrop off balance, and the hand at the end of that arm dangled a bit, holding a serrated knife.

Snowdrop didn’t look like she knew what to do.

Various Lost and foundlings who’d stayed in Kennet were stepping outside, or they were already outside.  They took on similar changes in color scheme and appearance as the moon changed.

“I’ve already told them, if they wish to participate in a red moon celebration, it’ll be a little different tonight,” Miss said, walking over to the top of that ledge.

Charles backed away a few steps to be able to look at her without craning his neck all the way back.

“-I’ll break it down for you, but let no one point take precedence over the others, don’t let any details slip your attention, we truly have failed this generation of youth by failing to inform them-”

“Did this thing bother you, Miss?” Verona asked.

“No.  I have no eyes nor ears, as it happens, so it’s failed to get much traction with me.”

“Good, sorta figured.  Um, Sable?  Alabaster?  If you guys want to pass me an eyelash, I can exclude you from any obstruction this thing throws at you.”

“It’s not blocking us from looking or listening in,” Charles said.  “Even with the power you’ve put into it.”

“Too bad,” Verona muttered.  A damn shame I didn’t get that delivery of god milk I was promised.

About eighty percent of the population of Kennet found was outside now, looking in their directions.  Some masks had been swapped out.  Some were wearing bloodstained clothes.  The canals, in this lighting, seemed to run red with blood.

Avery came back from the Alabaster, with a flower petal in hand.  She gave it to the empowered homunculus.

“All you’re really doing is annoying.  And if you truly wanted to be accurate, for a creature saying so much while saying nothing at all, you should have made it Larry Bristow.”

“Hey, little guy,” Verona told the homunculus.  “List two.”

The homunculus blathered, “-before I even get to the points, are you taking this down, there are things to consider, and ultimately, what I’ve been stressing up to this point, is, you see, you’re miserable and it seems like you’ve been miserable for a long time, you festering dick pimple,” the homunculus said, “and the common denominator, across all these people who failed you, all the disappointments, all the frustrations, is you.  You, the failure, you, the disappointment.  The world isn’t against you as much as you think it is, you just suck.”

The words, conveyed with Alexander’s face, were meant for either Charles or Seth, whoever spied in.  Maybe Seth’s apprentice or the Aurum, too.

“And back to list one,” Verona said, not breaking eye contact with Charles.

The homunculus carried on, “So, with that in mind, I’ll impress upon you the importance of taking in what I’m about to tell you, the…”

Charles nodded slowly as it went on.

“Figured I’d reserve the option to sling in something like that as you listened in on us.  I figure it comes across way better from Alexander, though.  Annoying you, pricking pride, reminding you of people you hate.  If it makes you miserable…”  Verona shrugged.

Avery came over with a single eyelash from the Sable pinched between fingers.  She gave it to the homunculus.

“When you attack me like you’re planning, with this?” Charles asked.  He indicated the various foundlings.  “People will die.  This is a last chance to stand down.  The Sable should have told you about what we were offered.  Do you really want to pressure me to say yes to the offer?”

“Get out of my realm,” Miss told him.  “You don’t have the jurisdiction or right to be here.  I can handle anything the Carmine would otherwise, and I supercede you here.  Aurum too, for that matter.”

Charles half-turned, paused, like he was going to say something-

“-and listen, please, do take note, the way things stand, if I can convey this appropriately-”

Charles gave them a long, searching look, as if trying to find an angle, or a clue about something.  Then he was gone.  The Aurum slithered away.

Sable and Alabaster disappeared too.

The homunculus went quiet.

“Hunh,” Verona grunted.

She looked at the homunculus, who looked up at her.

Then she looked at Miss, and then Kennet found.  The foundlings were standing by railings, on bridges, and on streets, not really roaming, or talking.  Just watching and waiting.  Some a bit more restlessly than others.

“We have a few hours,” Miss said.  “Do what you need to do, you know where to find me.”

“Come on,” Avery told Verona.  “You had more you wanted to do, for alchemy and making magic items, and assuming we now have a warning system about if Charles is listening…?”

She trailed off, adjusting tone at the end, making it a question.

“It seems you do,” Miss said.

“I can tell you what I’m thinking, plan-wise,” Avery told Verona and Lucy.  “You can help poke and patch holes in it.”

“Get yourselves ready,” Miss said.  “You leave with us…”

She paused for emphasis.  Still being careful.  Maybe in case of spies.

And then we double back.

We hope you guys can push back against Chuck enough that a chink in the armor reveals itself, and we capitalize on it.

“…We’ll be counting on you,” Miss told them, turning to survey her realm, the bough of a low-hanging tree hiding her face, the wind blowing her hair around some.  The red-dressed Lost and foundlings were there, looking at her, it seemed like.

The moon wasn’t changing back.

It gave things a weight.  A few hours.  An entire facet of Kennet now battle-ready.  Swords metaphorically drawn, and they weren’t being sheathed again.  Because the fight was that imminent.

Was there some meaningful fondness that would’ve appeared there, on Miss’s nonexistent face, if Verona had been able to see it?

“Kennet rests in our hands,” Miss said.

Verona’s arm jumped, hand run through with a lightning bolt of pain, jarring enough that she would have dropped anything she was gripping.


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Go for the Throat – 23.5


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Lucy watched as Toadswallow got settled.  He cleared his throat loudly to be heard over the crowd, then cleared it louder, then began hacking and coughing loudly enough that the crowd quieted and turned to listen.

Goblins from Kennet were at the center of the room, afforded a bit of space.  Strange goblins who were assisting the market were gathered throughout the room.  Some were as small as Peckersnot or Cherrypop.  Others were as tall as Lucy.

He coughed up a fair-sized amphibian, which landed on the floor.  While it was there, stunned, some goblins reached for it.  One smallish goblin snatched it out of a larger goblin’s hand before that goblin could bite it in half, then found herself hugging a toad nearly as large as she was, standing in the midst of five or so larger goblins who had interest in the little creature.  For food or other nefarious purposes.

The little goblin, naked, with thin, very limp hair and a mouth set so low on her face it looked like she didn’t have one at first, gave the stunned and confused amphibian a pat on the head, turning to shelter it with her body.

“I gotchu.”

“Ahem,” Snowdrop cleared her throat.  She sat in a decorated little area just to the right of Avery, Lucy, and Verona, wearing a shirt that had a opossum hanging by its tail above the words ‘I’m over this’.  “Toadswallow has his usual nothing to say.”

The crowd went properly quiet, turning to look.  More for Snowdrop than Toadswallow.

Lucy, edging to the side, quietly put a foot out and slid the little toad-rescuer to one side with her foot, then slid her back a bit, blocking her from view and immediate attack by the other goblins.

“Arright, ladies, gents, those who are both, those who are neither, those who can be either, the unladlylike, the unladylike, the ungentle, the outright objectionable, the detestable, the motherless, the soft-mothered teat-sucklers, the motherfuckers, and everyone else,” Toadswallow addressed the room.  “I’m going to say some words, lay out some offers, and Goblin Sage Snowdrop is in the house to help make those words matter, conferring the full extent of her sagely magic on us.”

Which is nil, right?  Lucy thought.

One of the goblins realized the toad-rescuer had slipped away, saw her peeking out from the side of Lucy’s leg, and scowled, prowling forward.

Lucy put her leg forward, blocking it.  He looked up, and Lucy gave him a serious look.

He backed off.

“…She’ll be here all night, so hang around, give your offerings, ask your questions.  Business, pleasure, madness, treasure, murder, birth, romance, or self-worth, she’s here.”

“Romance especially, I’m an expert,” Snowdrop told the assembled goblins.  “Sometimes you need a wise master with decades of experience and zero interest in opossum-related bestiality, so if you want it serious, I’m here.  But if you want a mean laugh at someone’s expense, my loser practitioner Avery is here to dispense absolute uneducated nonsense on the romance front.”

“Hmm,” Avery made a sound.  “What?  And also, hm what?  What?  Snowdrop.

“You should see how badly she’s messed up with this drummer girlfriend,” Snowdrop said.  “So uncool, both of them.”

Lucy leaned over, past Avery, and whispered, “Maybe ask before including Avery, Snow?”

Snowdrop discreetly flipped her the bird.

“But that’s a later thing.  So’s our grand festivities,” Toadswallow addressed the goblins.  “The market’s opening up properly again.  Bubbleyum’s going to be showing up, so don’t mess around.  The way we do this, we make such a badass market that fairies will beg us to be involved.  We’ll have loads of things that offend their delicate sensibilities, stuff they turn their dainty little noses up at.  Loads of things that I know you all love.”

Now that Snowdrop had gotten things smoothed over, goblins were getting into it.

“You want to sell?  Run it by me and my crew.  You cause trouble that gets in the way of the business?  You’re paying for it.  This is the crap that puts us on the map.  A chance for the smallest of us to shine, and if our bigger goblins are still ten times better than them?  They’ll be bosses.

He looked over the group, giving them a moment to think about where they could be.

“The reason most of you are here is there were whispers you could get your hands on merchandise, and you wouldn’t be any poorer for it, right?”

There were murmurs of agreement.

“I’m going to tell you about a man,” Toadswallow told them.  “A man who came into this very speakeasy with bags of spare weapons.  Guns.  Grenades.  Knives.  Traps.  Military grade, scavenged, stolen, bought, and made.  As a gift.  A man who could drink like he wouldn’t die from it.”

Lucy caught Biscuit off to the side, doing the goblin cross.  They weren’t very consistent in how they did it, but it was recognizable anyway.

“A man who dueled a noble Fae of High Summer, one that was a so-called fighter, dueled him multiple times, and went hard enough he slapped that glittery derriere down, multiple times.”

There were goblins nodding.

“Here’s the deal,” Toadswallow told them.  He lowered his voice some.  “Buy shit, buy your weapons.  Get loans and get tricks, get whatever you want.  We’re picking a fight, day after tomorrow, so get your dicks in a row.  If you join in, you come to me after you did something, say honestly you helped?  I’ll pay you back for whatever you bought and used.  That shit becomes free.  And that’s not all, darlings.  There’s more to my offer.”

Toadswallow definitely had their interest now.

“The reason we’re doing this?  We’re going after Charles Abrams.  Carmine Exile.  Also known as the dickless fuckspittle who killed that faerie-dueling, drink-you-under-the-table, arsenal-toting, motherless son of War herself.  Killed my friend.”

Lucy closed her eyes.  Moisture was trapped between eyelashes, ready to fall the moment she opened her eyes.  So she didn’t, yet.

She felt the bonk of Verona’s head against her shoulder.  Avery rubbed Lucy’s arm.

“You make him bleed, suffer, annoyed, you interrupt him, you distract him, you ruin his shit?  Any of that?  Using shit from this market?  Come tell me about it after, I’ll give you a free drink, and I’ll pay you back double, instead.  Work as a gang to do it?  Deal goes for the whole gang.”

“Cheat him,” Snowdrop said.  “This is ripe for abuse, and it’s right and just if you screw him over it.”

Lucy opened her eyes and rubbed at her cheeks.  She double checked the little goblin with the toad was okay.  The goblin was nodding, looking very sincere, while patting the toad.

Lucy was glad that Cherrypop was in what seemed to be a minority of one who didn’t know about Snowdrop’s rule of discourse.

“I don’t even care if you lot try to cheat me,” Toadswallow said.  “I want Charles Abrams to bleed in places he’d be embarrassed to show his doctor.  You lot go and do that.”

“Cheat him,” Snowdrop stage-whispered.

Goblins around the room nodded.

“If you’ve got shit to sell, get it to the market and get it sold, if you’ve got shit to buy and plans to make, get your gangs together, get going on that,” Toadswallow said.

He paused, looking around the room, eyes narrowed.

“What the fuck are you waiting for?”

The crowd dispersed.  Lucy had to move her leg to block one goblin who casually reached for the toad-rescuer as she walked by.  Lucy stuck her toe into the goblin’s leg as she did it, and she stumbled.

“I should get out there before too long,” Verona said.  “Manage the market some.”

“Give me a recap and show me around while you’re at it?  I should shop, too,” Avery said.

“Sure,” Verona said.  “And we’ve got to get you more involved in Kennet found.  Lost are showing up here and there, now.”


“You guys get yourselves ready,” Toadswallow told them.  “You know the deal goes for you too, right?”

“Cool.  Time to get stocked up on goblin tricks,” Verona said.

“You going to be able to afford all this, Toad?” Lucy asked.

“I’ve been running a market for months, with surprisingly high demand and a lot of goblins and others who are bad at math.  Yeah, I’ve saved up enough.”

“You know you might have a better chance of getting this market thing to the next level if you don’t cheat your customers and sellers?” Lucy asked.

“Honestly, Lucy dear?  They wouldn’t respect me if I didn’t.”

Lucy sighed, then considered that, and nodded.  She crouched down.

“What is this?” the Cherrypop-sized goblin asked, wide-eyed, still patting the traumatized toad Toadswallow had horked up.

“Before I tell you, I’m going to make you a deal,” Lucy told the little goblin.  “Do you have a name?”

The goblin shook her head.

“Didn’t think so.  I’m Lucy, I trained with Bubbleyum.  Ask, and people will tell you she’s a boss.”

The goblin nodded.  “I’ve heard of her.”

“That is a toad, I think.  And in a year, if you’ve raised that toad to be big and healthy and happy, and we meet again, I’ll give you a name.”

The goblin nodded eagerly.

“Or my friend will.  Or she’ll help,” Lucy suggested, as a just-in-case.

“I’m pretty good at it,” Verona said.

“Pretty sure toads eat bugs,” Lucy said.

“So do I,” the small goblin said.

“And they don’t like the cold.”

“Neither do I.”

“Go on.  Good luck,” Lucy said.

The goblin ran off, carrying the toad.

“Don’t be mean to helpless small animals, okay Toad?” Avery asked.

“Some newcomers came in and dropped that into my open mouth while I was sleeping, before anyone could tell them the rules,” Toadswallow said.  “Did you know my given name isn’t even Toadswallow?”

“Huh?  I almost forgot,” Verona said.

“But nicknames can have power.  Including inspiring goblins to find toads to feed me when I’m not paying sufficient attention.”

“Hm.  Thanks for trying, I guess.”

“Yup,” Toadswallow said.

There was a look in his eyes.  Like baring his soul and showing how angry he was to the goblins had really drained him.

“Come on,” Lucy said.  She pulled on her coat from the Dog Tags, and then hung her mask on a clip she’d sewn to the shoulder, so it was in easy reach.  Her claim to it kept it from falling.

“Hey Snow, I’m going to shop and get familiar with everything that I couldn’t get filled in on over Christmas or the chaos after.  You good on your own, being Sage?”

“For a long while.”

“I’ll loop back around then.”

They went outside, into the cold of Kennet below.  Turning to head toward the thick of it, Lucy nearly tripped over Gashwad.

“Hey there,” Verona said.

He was malingering, hanging out by the door.  Too ‘cool’ to be a part of the mob inside.  He might as well have been scuffing those bare, clawed feet of his in the snow.

“Need something?” Lucy asked, because a lot of things she could say would prick his pride and scare him off.

“Here,” Gashwad said.  He held up a fistful of makeshift shivs- bits of scrap metal with red cloth wrapped around the handles.  “No saying they work more than once.”

“What do they do?” Verona asked.

“S’like the Dog Tag tags,” Gashwad said.  “Stab something, I’ll be there, I’ll fight it.”

“Hmm,” Avery said.  “Cool.”

“It’s whatever,” Gashwad said.

Lucy couldn’t shake the notion of him scuffing the ground with his toes.  Lucy thought of it as the boy who laughed at the girl’s clubhouse, until it got bigger and cooler than he’d ever imagined, and now he was left looking in the windows, with only his facade.

Speaking of, Gashwad wasn’t a great fighter, according to multiple sources.  Mean, armed, sure, but she put his general danger level on the same tier as a very angry dog, trading out foot speed for climbing ability and tool use.  Which meant he was even further from where he wanted to be, when his ambition exceeded his ability on that front.

He did have other talents.

“Gash,” Lucy said.  “I don’t suppose you could tweak these?”

“It’s a free gift, you need help, I want to cut smirks off faces.  An’ you want changes?” Gashwad growled.

“The Thorn in the Flesh,” Lucy said.  “It’s in the Family Man, but it was really useful.  You made that, right?”

“Yeah,” Gashwad replied.  “I can’t make another yet so fuck off if that’s what you want.”

“The Thorn was cool,” Verona said.  “Got a lot of mileage out of that one.”

“No, no.  Just… I remember training with Guilherme, and you came out of the trees and you went after the god baby tree thing.”  Which wasn’t a fighter.

Gashwad nodded.

“And at the Blue Heron,” Avery said.  “You had a way to break into the building.  Am I on the right track, Luce?”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “Look, this is great.  Thank you.”

“Pagh,” he grunted, dismissively.

“But what we might actually need is someone who’s really good at…” she searched for key words that’d work with Gashwad.

“Perverting?  Blaspheming?” Verona suggested.

“This is you bringing up what Toadswallow talks about!” Gashwad raised his voice.  “No!  Get fucked!  You want to give those back!?”

This was Verona’s natural penchant for brainstorming tripping them up.  Lots of ability to fill in blanks, recall details, and come up with ideas or answers on the spur of the moment.  Less immediate judgment when it came to sensitivities.

“No, Gash,” Lucy tried.

“You want to give those back!?”

“Gash!” Lucy raised her voice.  He tensed, glaring.  “Same thing, different angles.  You fuck things up.”

“Ooh, I like that,” Verona said.

Gashwad narrowed his eyes.

“And what we might really need is the ability to stab, I dunno, a practice, or a barrier.  A living thorn in the flesh.  Get through that practice or barrier and then maybe you cut smirks off faces.  I reserve the right to veto that.”

“If you use the sticker, you know what you’re asking for.  Give it here.”

Lucy was genuinely unsure if he’d take it and walk away or if he had plans.  She handed it over.

He coughed up something, dug a finger into the back of his throat, and then put the nail of his claw to the shiv’s side.  Etching the blade with an angular little scribble.

“There.  Signed it.  I’ll do like you asked.  You stab it, I’ll be there to fuck it up, but there better be a fight in it for me.”

He took the other two and signed them too.  The signature wasn’t very consistent.

“There,” he said.  “Don’t fuck around.  If I can’t cut something living, don’t use it.”

“Okay, Gash.”

Gashwad stalked off.

The market was busy now.  Stalls were being set up.  Some locals had a thing going on where they’d help by storing stuff for stalls in their apartments, in exchange for a small cut.  New goblin came along, looking to set up a stall?  There was a stall there.  It did get to be a small problem when some things smelled up an apartment or ruined a surface.

Lots of security too.  It had only been a few nights ago that Maricica’s people had controlled these streets.  Some were still around, she figured, watching but not interfering, because now they were slightly outnumbered, and there wasn’t much to gain.

“You were nice to the little goblin,” Avery said.  “Offering to name it?”

“Hm?” Lucy grunted.  “Yeah, I guess.”

“I’ve already got some name ideas,” Verona said.

“Of course you do.  Give me a chance though?”


Lucy watched as things picked up.  It was starting to feel like Toadswallow had initiated a goblin Black Friday.  Stalls weren’t even open and goblins were cutting one another in line.

“Things I talked about with the Sable,” Lucy said.

Avery turned her head.  “Hm?”

“Me helping the little goblin.  Reframing a lot of things.  I’ve been wrestling for a long, long time, about…”

She looked down at the shiv.

“About knives.  War.  What I want to be.  Things fell into place.”

“That’s good,” Verona said.  “You going to share?”

The market was getting noisier.  Things weren’t settling down.

“Let’s sneak around back and take stuff while he’s putting that next bit together.”

“Yeah, probably.  but later.  Come on,” Lucy told her friends.  “Things are getting messy.”

The noise of the crowd only got worse as they walked into it.  Hundreds of overlapping, excited voices.  People, friends, businesspeople talking up their wares before they were even on display, different cultural groups mixing and playing off one another.  There was even some music, led by one member of what might’ve been Liberty’s crew of ‘most annoying sound’ contestants.

Lucy made a beeline for the goblins who were conspiring to rob a stall, Verona went to talk to some Kennet below citizens who had a lot going on, and Avery went to follow, with some Lost or Foundlings intercepting her to gush or talk about something- Lucy would have listened in, but other things were already pulling at her attention.

Chaos and noise.



Silence and stillness.

Lucy was aware of a tall man in dark clothes stalking them as they walked through a dark hall of the Sable’s realm.  He had a thick black beard and hair that was all curly locks, and deep brown skin – middle eastern, maybe.  The beard, though very full, didn’t hide how gaunt he was.

The Sable seemed to notice her noticing.

“Ali,” the Sable said.  “Do you need to stop to rest?”

“No,” the tall, gaunt man replied.

“You might.  There is a group of tenebrous undead that are multiplying.  Take the afternoon, eat, visit your sons, get stronger, or the shadows might beat you.  See to it tonight or tomorrow.  Once you’re done with that, go see Marianne.”

“How do I find them?”

The Sable moved a hand.  “I’ll give you a second shadow.  It’ll point the way.”

The gaunt man left without so much as a farewell.

“Ali lost his sons,” the Sable said.  “He fumbled the attempt to bring them back.  I sorted out that business, and I give him the ability to visit them in exchange for him helping me sort out business.  Sometimes it’s as much work to manage him and his ilk as it would be to do things myself.”

“So he’s like you, hard to manage,” Grandfather murmured to Pipes.

Pipes chuckled softly, but even the normally loud Pipes was subdued here.  The place felt oppressive.  The darkness crushed inward, and it was silent, to the point every word and footstep echoed.

The interior of the place was like a manor, but with ceilings five times higher than any non-Church building Lucy had been in.  Books in black leather sat on slate-like stone shelves, the floor was black, the drapes were charcoal gray.  If anything moved, Lucy wasn’t sure if it was a lingering echo of the now-distant force of the heavy front doors closing or her eyes playing tricks on her in this arrangement.

“I do it because I was originally spirit, not human.  They provide perspectives I can’t, and many of the ones I select are people who might be pressured to take the Sable throne, because of circumstance or other things.  It’s easier to provide a solution or partial solution, a taste of the role.  If they do eventually take the position from me, they’ll be more prepared for it.”

“Good mentality,” Lucy said.  “It seems like he was thin, and you had to tell him what to eat?”

“Yes.  He doesn’t, unless given a reason.  He won’t visit his sons as often as he wants to, either, despite the deal.  Marianne is good for lifting his spirits, so that will help too.  I do not think Ali would take my position or be good in it, but time will tell.”

“Hmm.  Does that bother you?  Being replaced?  Dying?”

“I would prefer it doesn’t happen.  Sometimes spirits don’t have that spark of whatever required to give them self-preservation.  It should be little surprise that those spirits don’t tend to last as long.”

“Makes sense.”

“It’s good you noticed Ali’s state and what I was doing.  Given a few years and pressures to grow in the right direction, I think you could be a good Judge, Lucy Ellingson.”

“It seems like a miserable job,” she said.  “Lots of frustrations, lonely.  I don’t think I’ve seen a happy Judge.”

“That is the nature of the role.  In the hierarchy of powers, it occupies a difficult position.  Not powerful, but required.  It is hard to invest yourself in any one thing, because there are many forces that can supersede you.  What use taking on a pet project, if a Lord may take it over?  What use any goal, when you could be Lawfully challenged and removed at any time?”

Lucy nodded.  “I’ve compared it to being the janitor of the building.  What the bosses say goes, but you’ve got the keys and full access to things, you’re there after hours, often not even noticed, you’re still required to keep things running smoothly and stop the messes from piling up, still responsible for emergencies.”

“That summarizes things.”

“I don’t think I’d want to be a Judge.  I don’t think John wanted to be a Judge.”

“I hold the opinion that the job is best suited to forces like higher spirits,” the Sable said.  “That may be one of the few biases I allow myself, and to argue against that bias, the Seal as outlined is meant to allow for others to step in.”

“It’s a bit problematic, sometimes,” Lucy noted.

“Necessary, to allow others to audit things, perhaps.  If it was closed to spirits, some spirits would run away with the power.  I know you’ve discussed the idea of a ‘vent’ in practice, such as your glamour work.  An intentional outlet, to keep pressure from building.  I’d posit the role itself can be a vent, catching individuals and issues before things get too extreme.  I can only theorize, I did not know Solomon or his intent.”

“I think someone threw a metaphorical stick of dynamite through the vent and blew things up,” Lucy said.

“That in itself may be the vent at work.”

“Or maybe it’s better to say the vent is a weakness, and someone crawled through that metaphorical vent, through the metaphorical air ducts, and got into the building, got the metaphorical janitor’s keys to the building, and is now wreaking havoc.”

“Say what you will, Lucy Ellingson, Charles Abrams did achieve his position Lawfully.  He went through the front door, metaphorical keys handed to him.”

Lucy frowned, giving the Sable a look to show how not cool with that idea she was.  “I’ve said how I don’t think that’s exactly true.  The Ephing bird only got out because of you guys, cooperated with Charles, and stole Yalda’s ring.”

“John Stiles may have been denied a tool he could have used to fight Charles, yes.  The tool arguably shouldn’t have been introduced late in the tournament.”

“Seriously?” Lucy asked, a little angry now.  “It’s fucked how Charles was introduced late in the proceedings-”

“Perhaps, but still Lawful.  The tournament allows for it.  John knew that from the start.”

“-and if the bird can get out to fuck with things, then the ring should be able to go in.  That’s fair.”

“It’s unfair to John that it didn’t, which is a different thing from the Lawfulness of Charles Abrams’ position.  The Alabaster handled the boundaries of the arena and allowed the so-called Ephing bird to escape, the impact of that was a key reason your challenge against her worked, and she paid that price.”

There was a sound behind them.  Lucy turned.

Grandfather had punched a wall.  It looked like he’d broken his hand.  The blood was so bright it looked iridescent in the darkness of the hallway.

“This is my realm.  You’d find it difficult to damage the wall, if that’s your intent,” the Sable said.

“I’m punching the wall because I might punch you if I didn’t,” Grandfather said.  “That’s a whole lot of bullshit.”

It wasn’t like Grandfather to lose his cool.

He hadn’t been around for the talk with the Alabaster.  That might’ve been worse.

“If you wish to try and change it, become or find someone willing to be a Lord and make different decisions.  You or they will find Law ties some hands,” the Sable replied.

“Hey, Sable?” Lucy ventured, stepping between them, putting up a hand partway to signal for Grandfather to ease down.  “It can be both bullshit and Law.  I don’t think it’s quite fair for you to punt all of the blame to the Alabaster.  Especially with the other factors, like the deal you struck with John.”

“She oversaw those boundaries and those matters, and I kept to the deal,” the Sable said, matter-of-factly, and then he turned.  “Follow me.  With the current state of things, the Carmine and Aurum still recovering their power, many tasks are falling to my purview.  I can manipulate things to manage more in less time, but I’d rather not.”

The place felt big, and for such a big place, the decoration was minimalist.  In place of plant life, there were collections of the spears of onyx or obsidian that the Sable had created when showing off in front of Edith, when they’d accused her.

There weren’t any people, either.  No animals, no rustling of branches, no wind, no insects.  Only the white firefly-like motes.  They walked down the full length of the long hallway to what Lucy supposed was the center of the Sable’s domain.  Double doors of black stone parted, sliding aside with a dull and echoing stone rumble.

It looked a bit like a practitioner’s sanctum, but there were things missing, and the windows punctuating the room gave a view of the spirit-world-like space beyond.  The chamber floor looked like a puzzle box, styled after a magic circle, with black stone in inset rings that worked and wove around one another, some pedestals and circles in fixed and measured positions.  As the Sable entered, every part of it moved, sliding through or over other segments, except for one part- the Sable’s throne.

Two people were present-

Lucy heard a wet sound, and looked up.

Three people were present.  A third person was sitting on a balcony on what would’ve been the third floor, with legs through the rungs, looking down, a black archway behind them.

The first of the two on the ground floor looked vaguely like an echo, her black hair bleeding out wisps and blurring into itself, as it moved faintly, but was wearing solid clothes, a long black coat, and a good portion of her body was solid.

Another was wearing a white mask of a human face, with heavy, old fashioned clothing with a lot of belts cinching things tight, and barbed wire here and there where they’d maybe run out of belts.  Not a trace of skin showing.  Lucy might have figured them for a bogeyman, but everything except the mask was black, so it was hard to make out if there was any staining.

And the one up above might’ve been a… vampire?  They didn’t look well, their facial structure was altered, vaguely cat-like or bat-like, their hair was matted, and they were chewing on their own fingers, suckling the blood out.  They were too high up for Lucy to clearly see.

As the doors they’d come through started to close, the one with the metal mask turned to go, walking past them.  Lucy caught a whiff of perfume, that smelled like it was covering something else up.

“Ostreon?” the Sable asked.  The room was still moving things around, pedestals arranging into a grouping behind the black throne.

If he was talking to the perfumed, masked figure, they didn’t acknowledge it, and didn’t slow down.

“Don’t get directly involved.  Use intermediary and subtle forces.  It’s best if the fate he meets is by his own hands.”

Foggy was kind of in the way, and wasn’t paying enough attention to move clear, so Angel tugged on his arm to make him move.  Lucy figured the guy was big and burly enough he probably had gotten used to people going around him, and dopey enough nobody had learned to be considerate.

The figure didn’t acknowledge the Sable or Foggy, and quickened their pace to get through the doors in time before they shut.

“What’s he handling?” the echo-woman asked.

“The neglectful realm-maker,” the Sable replied.

“Thea?” Lucy asked.  “From Thunder Bay?  The Blackforester?”

“No.  Theodora Knight takes existing realms and ties them together,” the Sable said, he ceased walking in front of his his throne, and put hands in his pockets.  “A young practitioner made some of his own.  He was arrogant, smart enough to be bored with regular education, frustrated he was made to study at a school of Innocents, he occupied his time by trapping fellow students in a magical magazine.”

The rearrangement of the room finished.  A single circle, level with the rest of the floor, with only a thin rim of silver at the edge, was placed in the center of the room, in front of the throne.

Images began appearing above it.  Ontario and some of Manitoba.  Then that image split.  Ruins, overlapping.  Abyss, running through at jagged angles.  Spirit world, overlapping at first, then bleeding out like mist.  Fae, adjacent.

Things centered on a magazine with a scantily clad teenager on the cover, thong riding high enough it was visible over the top of her low-riding jeans, her top torn.  It looked like she was holding a door shut against a zombie.

The title read “Teen Pulp”.

Lucy startled slightly as the eyes on the cover suddenly moved, looking at her.

The image of the magazine vibrated, then shook, and eventually came apart, exploding into a scene, contained within the scope of the circle.  Different, similar magazines with the same title rotated around the circle’s edges.

“Sixteen students in total were captured in the pages.  He would take their hair or blood by some mechanism or another and then trap them within.  The fact only three were boys is suggestive of his motives.  They live out the stories of teenage dramas, fantastical and not, but rarely true to life.  It’s dramatized for an audience.”

“Shlock,” the echo-woman said.

“School shootings, sex, sexuality, love, betrayal, bullying, suicide, zombies, drugs, cults, family drama, business, sports… the people captured within are actresses and actors in these stories, sometimes in scenes only lasting minutes, sometimes lasting days, and any ego or will they manage to dredge up is ground down by the constant changes and adaptations.  When he began, it was a way to get access to girls he coveted, or to punish the occasional rival he was jealous of.  To force them into roles in stories that the world would engineer and flip between.  He’d pick storylines and prolong them, customize them.  A god and sometimes a main actor in his realm.”

“Past tense?” Lucy asked, her own arms folded.  “I’m sort of hoping he’s dead, after all that.”

“No.  He lives,” the Sable said, sorting through the scene.

“If you want him dead…” Angel murmured, trailing off.

The Sable answered before Lucy could tackle that problematic suggestion.  “He was arranged to marry, he moved on, cleaned up his act, so to speak, if that’s the sort of act that can be washed clean.  He turned his focus to other realms.  But he did not undo what was done, he stowed it away and put it out of mind.  The Teen Pulp magazine was left to languish in storage.  An Aware looking for her high school friend tracked it down, broke in, and was consumed by it.  The item has become something ambulatory, seeking out more victims.”

“Seems like it really should eat the creator and then be locked up for good,” Lucy said.  “From a pure justice standpoint.”

“In that, we agree.  I fear Ostreon is too blunt a stick for this.  They’re interested because it’s such a bloody subject matter.  Hm.”

“It’s a weird intersection,” Lucy said.  “But Raquel Musser is very interested in some teen drama stuff, she knows the tropes, she’s good at handling magic items, and she has the subtle touch- I think her magic items go for subtlety and the less confrontational stuff.”

“You may be right.  Except she’s her own individual.  I must use my agents.  Dakota?”

The suckling above stopped.  Lucy looked up at the person on the balcony.

The figure briefly met Lucy’s eyes, flinched, averting eyes from Lucy’s, and then bit fingers again, fiercely, suckling on the blood again.

“Go by Immaterial routes, bring Ostreon with you.  You only need to nudge things, put the magazines in the way of key players, so they can handle it.”

The person on the balcony stood.

“Maybe arrange for the magazine to puke out its victims?” Lucy asked.

“At this point, a decade into things, that would cause more problems than not.  Perhaps the Aware can fight free, if the borders are thinned…”

The Sable moved a hand.  The image rearranged.

“I’ll give you the tools, Dakota.  Do your best,” the Sable said.

The person on the balcony got up and headed through the archway behind them.

“Asking a rabid chihuahua to be a guide dog for a murderous elephant,” the echo-woman said.

I’m not the only one comparing them to a dog, huh?

“It should do,” the Sable said.

“Vampire?” Lucy asked.

“Dakota?  Yes.  Vampire,” the Sable said, stroking his chin and the scraggly beard there, as he looked through the realms.

“And they’re hungry?  Still craving blood?”

“Many of the ones in this region fall to me eventually.  It’s unfortunate, but the patterns of failure and wretchedness that dog their kind are entrenched enough, I cannot raise them up or stabilize them, even if I can ease their thirst, so their services are short-lived.  Dakota sucks her own blood to self-soothe.  It’s habit, nothing more.  I don’t begrudge her it, any more than I begrudge someone their drinking or smoking.”

“I take it I can smoke, then?” Pipes asked, voice unnecessarily loud in the room.

“As you wish,” the Sable said.

He moved a hand.  Looking through realms.  Points where realms overlapped glowed, then the glows erupted into little collections of images and diagrams.  A point at the edge of the circle exploded into a whole collection of images and diagrams, all interlinked.

“Someone keeps making gates between realms, and there’s a lot of doors opening on the horizon,” the echo-woman said.

AveryOr the intersections opening in Kennet? Lucy thought.  She glanced back at Grandfather.  “Um.”

“Not your friend, or anything like that,” the Sable Prince murmured, stroking his chin.  “Avery Kelly and the Garricks close doors behind them.  This is someone else doing something similar, moving between realms, and not closing the doors.  Innocents are finding some.  The problem on the horizon is something else, I suspect.  Milagro, are you alright to handle the door maker, and venture past my realm, and look into things?  My protections will falter.”

“That’s fine,” the echo-woman said.  “Do you want me to clean up the person poking holes in the walls before or after?”

“Your choice,” the Sable said.

“Before, then.  In case I run into trouble.”

Lucy watched the woman go.  She didn’t wait for the door to open, but became fully echo, ‘splashing’ apart on collision with the door, then having the ghostly echo-stuff seep through the crack.

“The Alabaster is knocking on my door.  I think the business is brief.  With your leave, Ms. Ellingson?”

“I’m sort of curious why it’s okay that your agents are around but you’re worried about the Alabaster coming in.”

“You asked that discussions be kept private from Charles Abrams.  The Alabaster would see and hear everything here, in a way my agents can’t.  She could theoretically report things to Charles.”

“I think it should be fine.”

The doors opened.  The Alabaster walked through.  She dipped her head in a nod to Lucy.  “Sable.”

The Sable indicated an intersection point between two realms in the image that was between him and the Alabaster.

“I saw.  I noticed your assistant going there.  If you weren’t doing anything about it, I would’ve handled it,” the Alabaster said.

“It’s handled.  That’s not why you came.”

“One of the inversion points near a church, it’s overlapping a demesne.  Closed space.”  She said a word or two, but the Sable chose that moment to raise a finger, then lower it.  Lucy was deafened with the raised finger, given hearing again with the lowered one.  The Alabaster continued, “-pushing for it to be inverted.  An anti-demesne for something to live in.”

“And you want a second opinion?”

“It’s a move coming from someone known to argue hard about these sorts of things, and as much as demesnes are my purview, realms are yours.  So sure, give me a second opinion.”

“It’s fine to say no.”

“Okay.  Changing subjects, the Bardanes realms?”


“That’s simpler.  Gets less simple if people start invoking connections to it.”

“It’s blocked.  If they try to invoke it and fail, they’ll say it’s because of distance.  No need to overthink it.”

Lucy frowned.

“A family overseas devised a trick, and the powers of that region allowed it,” the Alabaster explained.  “The family’s practitioners claim demesnes linked to one anothers’, give full access to family, and then before they die they make themselves immortal, living statues.”

“Reminds me of something a Witch Hunter had.”

“One and the same recipe.  The Witch Hunters use it as a form of binding the visceral.  The family uses it to their advantage.  The result is a fairly extensive realm, at this stage, getting more extensive as the family grows and leaves a more or less permanent legacy, grafting each new demesnes to the last, like an endless, forking collection of bridges extended over void.  There are entire segments of the Bardanes family who never leave, intermarry and breed with family.”

“Isolated, weird locations, interbreeding… Oddfolk?” Lucy asked.

The Alabaster nodded.  “Yes.  Some.  It’s become one of the larger practitioner-made realms that interconnect with the rest of the world.  Tendrils extend past the ocean and toward us, and are even invited to extend, and…”

“And we say no,” the Sable said.  “Simplest.  Your third ask, Alabaster?  You tend to wait until you have three points of interest before paying a visit.”

“The senior Musser is dead.”

Lucy raised her eyebrows.  “Abraham Musser’s dad?”

“Yes.  And his things must be dispensed of,” the Alabaster said.

“That’s my sphere of interest, not yours,” the Sable said.  “Demise, in its original rendition of meaning.  The transfer of property and claim after death.”

“Mercy is mine.  It’s merciful that certain things go to their original owners.  The Mussers would normally contrive to keep such things in the family, passing them down.  Except now the Musser claim is broken, the family is weaker.”

“Your predecessor wouldn’t have bothered.”

“I’ll bother.  I wanted to get to you before you handled it.  You’ve acted on certain things before I could even get a metaphorical word in, with assumptions like that.”

“In this instance, I won’t.  We should discuss his demise, we’ll list his things and investigate the claims, discuss together.  But after.  I have business to attend to.”

“Another blow to the Mussers.  One they wouldn’t have even blinked at a few months ago,” the Alabaster mused.

“I don’t care to dwell on name and sentiment like that.  It introduces bias.”

“Sure.  I’ll come back later.”

“Very well.”

“Hey,” Lucy told the Alabaster.

“Hello.  Ms. Ellingson, are you well?”

“I’m okay.  But if we’re talking about mercy, there’s that magazine thing…”

The Alabaster glanced at the Sable, and maybe because of unconscious pressures, the image in the center shifted, showcasing the Teen Pulp thing again.

“…With an Aware inside, at the very least.  And a lot of victims.”

“Do you mind?” the Alabaster asked the Sable.

“I sent some agents to handle it.”

“I’ll send one of my own as well?”

“Very well.  It’s minor, in the grand scheme of it all.”

“Alright,” the Alabaster Assembly said.  “Anything else?”

“This deal with international powers,” Lucy said.  “You’re agreeing to it?”

“I’m leaning that way.”

“How does that work?” Lucy asked.

“The leaning or the deal?” the Alabaster asked.

“Either.  Both.”

“The Alabaster Assembly, as she was formed, represents a large proportion of Ontario and a share of Manitoba, Nunavut, and America,” the Sable said.  “Skewed in disposition to favor caretakers, the responsible, and the Alabaster-like.”

Lucy nodded.

“…Even with that skew, she is representative of a largely self-interested population.”

“That’s an annoying way of saying I want to protect the people,” the Alabaster said.  To Lucy, she said, “I haven’t made a firm decision yet.”

“Okay.  Can I ask about that decision?”

“I fear we’re straying from your stated goal for seeing me,” the Sable said.

“I’m trying to get a read on you.  How you handle a major decision that deals with Charles is part of that,” Lucy said.  “It might even be most of it.”

“Very well.”

“Am I right in interpreting it as, what, Charles agrees to stop being an asshole by expanding his borders and threatening big rules, and gets huge concessions, power, security, enough that he’ll be hard to budge?  He doesn’t get to keep pursuing his agenda, but he gets to stay?”

Lucy’s earring caught a wet, grinding sound.  She glanced back and saw Grandfather with arms folded.  The grinding sound was bones of his still-broken hand moving against one another as he clenched his fist.

“More or less.  There would need to be free passage through the area.  We would need to curb certain behaviors.  The mass inversion of the area that Maricica started would have to stop.”

“Would you have to remove Maricica?”

“That was not discussed.”

“No,” the Alabaster said.  She drew in a deep breath.  “She would be free to carry on as goddess of her domain.”

“Does she lose the followers she literally created to worship her?”


“I came here to see if maybe there would be a way to get one more judge either on side or neutral enough they’re not helping Charles,” Lucy said, quiet.  “But… everyone’s helping Charles again?  Is that what we’re doing?”

“The forces arrayed against our region are powerful,” the Alabaster told Lucy.  “The likes of Ottawa, Winnipeg, and some American cities have been worried enough about Charles pressing them that they reached out.  Worldly powers answered.  Now, we have a choice, and the options aren’t good.”

“If we agree to their deal, Charles is fixed in place.  He may resent it, struggle, and be slapped down.”

“He may resent it, struggle, and find ways to keep doing all the things we don’t want him doing,” Lucy said.  “At least for a while.  He was Forsworn.  He literally had the Seal and, what, basically the universe and every realm aligned against him?  And he managed to get where he is.  Now he’s where he is, we’re looking at Paris, Rome, all those other guys being aligned against him, and what, we’re going to say he can’t pull it off?  I don’t want to underestimate him.”

The Alabaster shrugged one shoulder and looked at the Sable.  “That’s a fair take.”

“Perhaps,” the Sable replied.

“The problem is that any decision that isn’t agreement with those powers is an intervention by those powers,” the Alabaster said.  “You fought tooth and nail, literally biting and scratching at several points, to avoid a Musser Lordship over Kennet.  I don’t have the scope of knowledge or resources to say for sure, but I think if worldly powers sent nieces and nephews, the result wouldn’t be far off from that Musser lordship, and it would extend over Ontario.”

“And the easiest days of fighting and resistance would be as vicious as the hardest day you faced,” the Sable said.  “Potentially for years.  They wouldn’t even mind a war if it meant Charles was suppressed and distracted enough.”

“The Sable has interacted with some of those families,” the Alabaster noted.  “They passed through the region while he was a power.”

“Can you give us a chance to go after Charles?” Lucy asked.  “Before giving a decision?”

“That would not be us making that decision.  It would be the world powers, and the world powers aren’t people you call.  They call you.”

“Ran into that while staying with Zed,” Lucy said.

The Sable nodded.  “The timetable is theirs, and their patience is short.  As I said, we were the subject of a five minute conversation.  They’re not inclined to have another.  They’ll call, I could not tell you if it will be in a day or a week, and if we do not have our answer, they’d likely dismiss us, say a few words to key people, much as I directed my followers, not even a minute of discussion in total.  Much as I trust my agents to do their work to establish order in my realm of interest, so it would be for London England, Paris, or Rome, sending their agents.”

“Who you compare to Musser.”

“That would be my instinct,” the Sable said.  “But humans vary.”

Lucy ran her hand over her hair at the top of her head, smoothing it.  “So either Charles wins or he gets this war against the world that he wants?  I don’t think it’s even possible to do what we need to do to get everyone involved, in that tight a timeframe, we’ve got people who literally aren’t in this realm who won’t show up in time.  We’re supposed to rush more?”

“I know the Sable said it could be a day or a week, but I would warn you not to average that out and tell yourself it’ll be four days,” the Alabaster told Lucy.  “It’s likely to be soon.  I don’t think you have a day to wait for your friends, and another day to launch your attack.”

“This isn’t us telling you that you have a narrow time window to act and that you should rush,” the Sable told Lucy.  “That would be biased.”

Lucy had to resist rolling her eyes.  She shook her head.

“It’s us telling you that the time window was from the end of summer to the end of the year, and the rest of the world wants resolution now,” the Sable told her.

“Are we-” Grandfather started.  He glanced at Lucy.  “Sorry.  Interrupting.”

“No, no.  Go ahead.  You made the journey here too.”  And if you do become my familiar, I want you to have a say.

“Okay.  Are we expected to leave things where they stand, with what happened to Carnivore?  To John Stiles?  Charles gets to continue?”

“It was the prior Alabaster’s decision and that Alabaster bore the weight of it,” the Sable replied.

Again, that grinding of bones as Grandfather clenched his hand.

Angel and Pipes didn’t look happy either.

“You agreed it was unfair.  What happened to him,” Lucy said.  “Bringing this up again, for the record.”

“Fairness can be a matter of Law-”

“A balancing factor,” Lucy said.  “It’s rarely enough to decide something or change a practice on its own.  But for karma, weight of actions, nudging things… like you wanted to nudge things with the magazine toward other people, for them to deal with.  That asshole preyed on women and used his little realm to punish boys he didn’t like, and it’s fair if his creation eats him, right?”

“Yes,” the Sable said.  “Things would naturally progress down that path if he wasn’t careful.  He is careful.  We’ll see how Ostreon and Dakota do.”

“You…” Lucy paused, trying to take all the ideas in her head and pull them together.  “If John Stiles were alive, he could argue there’s a throughline here.  Implicit promises were made and he was repeatedly let down.  Not by the old Alabaster, either.  By you.”

“Are you here to destroy me after all?” the Sable asked.

“I’m here to know you,” Lucy said, and Grandfather’s anger behind her was contagious.  “And I’m here to say that John Stiles was asked to kill Yalda.  He did it because of the implicit promise that he’d get to put her to rest.  That she wouldn’t have to hurt anyone again.  Intentionally or not.  He was asked to be Carmine, and he did it because of the implicit promise you guys would help him out, give him the win.”

“As we attempted to do, but the furs supercede.  We’re going in circles, Lucy Ellingson,” the Sable told her.

“No, because I’m going somewhere with this, this time,” she said, still pissed.  “I saw into the arena, you know?  I got a peek, after he called the Dog Tags out.  I saw his coat.  It had turned red.  Like the one they gave me.  They won’t tell me the details.  I think they can’t.”

She looked back at Grandfather, who gave nothing away.  She looked back at the Sable.  “Yeah.  To me, a red coat screams ‘implicit promise’.  John played by the rules, he played along with what you wanted, he sacrificed, and what do we get?  The Sable doesn’t clean up the body, the Alabaster Doe lets the bird go, the Aurum helps Maricica fuck up the market and everything else John wanted to protect.  You three- Doe, Prince, and Coil, you helped Charles thrive after.  And you’re going to cave to world powers to confirm Charles into his position, so he can’t be budged?”

“It would be difficult,” the Sable Prince told her.

“So what-” Lucy started.

Then she had to pause, because emotions were getting in the way of words.  Her breath caught in her throat and came out as a small whimpering sound.  She let tears fall, glaring.

“-what the fuck else is left on the list, guys?  Are we close to done spitting on every last fucking thing he wanted?  What’s next?  Me?  Them?”  She indicated the Dog Tags.

“Lucy Ellingson,” the Sable said.  He crouched down in front of her, sitting on his heels, so his face was level with hers.  “You came here to know me.”

“Yeah,” she whispered.

“The emotional appeal may be lost on me.  I am not and was not human.  I find fleeting moments of connection or humor, but far less than most would ascribe to me.  My empathy lies with echo, spirit, and those who straddle thresholds, far more than it could lie with humans.  I think, in quieter times, you might agree it’s good that they have someone to speak for them.”

“You’re going to tell me to fuck off, huh?” she whispered to him.

“I’m only telling you where things stand.  I judge every case on its individual merits, weighing context and greater need.  I obey Law.  If you want confidence that I, as a judge, will side with you every time, I’m sorry, but I must disappoint you.  I cannot be won over to one side or another, and I think every party in this conflict has been caught off guard at least once because they expected it of me.  I will continue to judge cases on their individual merits, hewing close to Law and the perspectives of spirits.  If you don’t want that, remove me.  Champion the person who would best represent your ideals.  That is your right.”

“There’s not exactly enough time to pull that off, is there?”

“It would be a task,” he agreed.

She closed her eyes and took a deep breath.  “Nicolette Belanger told me of when Alexander forswore Seth.”


“Alexander inherited rights and responsibilities from Seth’s… grandmother?  So that’s a thing, huh?”

“It is a thing, yes,” the Sable agreed.

“John Stiles is gone, he can’t argue about the injustice.  But I would say that because these guys are his legacy- all the Dog Tags of Kennet, they’re picking up where he left off…”

“At that point meanings get looser.  I talked about demise earlier.  Technically, no words were said handing down any karmic rights.”

“You said, when I came here, what was it?  I started from a place of war, I had war as companions, I fought, and if I came with war in mind, I should be shipped off to the Carmine?”

“That would be my inclination.”

“John started out with these guys, he was with them throughout.  He did what he did for Yalda, for them.  Up until the end.  Then he sent them out with… I don’t know what messages or instructions.  I’m firing blind here.  But they at least left that Arena and had a reason to stay and help Kennet, after.”

“Most.  Richard Miles and Joe did not.”

“Semantics,” Lucy said.  The word made her think of Tatty.  She almost smiled.  “What you’re doing?  Your idea of ‘fairness’?  It hands victories to the likes of Musser, who had the weight of family behind him, so many victories under his belt he gets to rewrite the rulebook.  Or to Charles, who cheats and bends rules, undercuts.  And then you- you punish the guy who listened to you, who did things by the book?”

“Punish may be a harsh word.”

“Fuck off.  Like I said, there isn’t a lot John wanted out of all of this that you didn’t fuck with before, during, or after.  And if you get mad and gainsay me or whatever, that’ll only be adding more to that scale.”

“That’s not what I am, who I am, or how I do things,”  the Sable said.

“You let Musser actively fuck with things and when Verona dropped a tree, you put her in a life or death situation.  So, forgive me, but I don’t fucking trust you,” Lucy told him.  “You can do things on your case by case basis but your idea of ‘fair’, of ‘neutral’?  Nah.  What is it, where does it get us?  Win most battles of fairness, lose the war?”

“Got us here,” Grandfather said, behind Lucy.  “Big cities calling.  We don’t call them, they call us, and if they don’t like our response, they’ll do what they want.  I’ve got soldiers from multiple sides of a conflict in me.  Gotta say… I’m getting tired of that.”

“I hoped to reveal who and what I was,” the Sable said.  “There’s no deceit in me.  I would then turn things around and ask you, Lucy Ellingson, who and what you are.  You awoke with knives, you haven’t been able to convince yourself to put them down.  You’re with the Dog Tags, you wear their colors.  The red of War.  I said you could be a Judge one day.”

“Don’t want it,” Lucy said.

“The role may be best suited to the people who don’t want it.  Your friends tasked you with finding a suitable Carmine.  I think you know, deep down inside, that if you wanted a swift and efficient resolution to this crisis, challenging Charles Abrams yourself, taking the Carmine Throne, and defeating Maricica’s attempt to counter that taking, it would resolve everything to your satisfaction.  The contest would give the Lords of major cities around the world a legitimate reason to wait and see how things are unfolding, if we can confidently say the Carmine Exile is likely to be replaced.  Your placement would be a decade or two premature, but you could grow into the role.”

“I don’t think the answer is as elegant as the Sable Prince paints it,” the Alabaster told Lucy, pausing to study the Sable’s expression, as he crouched in front of Lucy.  “But I don’t think we have many elegant answers.”

“Much in the same way as I might have liked to ease our way through that discussion and reach that offer.  But I think the direction the conversation took and the nature of your challenge don’t allow for it.  So I’m putting that in front of you now,” the Sable said.

Lucy felt Grandfather’s hand on her shoulder.

“You said you wanted to show him.  You wanted him to feel it.  As you set the contest, you could make it about that.  It’s a succinct solution to many problems before us all.”



“Oh hey, running back to Snow.  Getting pinged,” Avery said.  “I think we’ll head back to Thunder Bay right after, but I’ll be in touch a lot.  We’ve got a lot to organize.”

Lucy accepted Avery’s hug.

“Your ear is cold,” Avery told Lucy.  “Your cheek is too.”

“It’s okay,” Lucy replied.  “I like the cold.”

“Okay.  Get inside if you get any colder though.  It’d be really awful if we had everything riding on what happens the day after tomorrow- is it the day after tomorrow?  Is it past midnight?”

“No,” Lucy said, as Avery tried to pull off damp gloves with damp gloves to get to her phone.  Lucy turned to the clock over the town center.  “Not quite.”

“It’d suck to get a cold, huh?” Avery asked.  She flashed Lucy a smile.

Lucy smiled a bit as well.

“Talk to you soon,” Avery said.  “Still getting pinged.  Love that opossum, she did me a huge favor by saving my life, wasn’t easy at all, I know that.  I thought she deserved this, but holy crap, is it a pain.”

Lucy nodded, jamming hands into pockets, shoulders hunched up a bit for warmth.

Avery ran off.

Lucy texted, and got Verona’s location, and then walked from gritty, intense downtown to Kennet above.  It was dark out, and there were places around downtown Kennet with Christmas lights still up, giving everything a magical gleam.  After all the chaos and hurt that had come with Maricica lashing out, people were only now emerging to really meet.  A bunch were around one church, maybe getting out of a late-night service.  Others were dining, visible through cracked windows.

She saw goblins, and she saw one goblin of a human being, Oakham, with Bag and no Bracken.  It might’ve been that Bracken was picking something up in a nearby store, or she was babysitting.

Grandfather fell in step beside Lucy, hands in his own pockets.  She turned and smiled.

She wasn’t sure what to say.  They’d spent a lot of time together, going to and from the Sable’s domain.  The weight of everything they’d talked about while they were there had meant conversation had been thin on the way back, which was good, when they were worried about more attacks from Lords and forces like the Black Scalpel.  Easier to be quiet, digest-

Digest everything.

-and listen out for trouble.

She was glad for his company though, as they walked a few blocks.

He clapped a hand on her shoulder, and she looked over and up at him and nodded.  He stepped away, walking over to where two Dog Tags stood guard over the area, ready to protect it.

She spotted Verona.  Verona and McCauleigh were with Mia and Sharon.  Mia would be thrilled to have McCauleigh as a Dancer.

That was, assuming McCauleigh made it through the next few days.

All of this, like the Christmas lights, felt like it was right and okay, and it felt like it could break apart with a sharp tap, it felt like it could all go away.  Packed away into a box, forgotten until being resurrected in a slightly different configuration another time.

On a timescale of generations, not annually.

Lucy, standing by the road, waiting to go across the downtown street, had a car slow, preparing to stop in the middle of the road to give her the space to go across.  And she opted not to, turning and walking a bit more.  Pacing.  The car continued on.

Mia laughed at something McCauleigh said.

Verona smiled, then turned her head.  She met Lucy’s eyes directly, and then rubbed at her sleeve.  Pushing it up.  Showing Lucy the wooden bead bracelet, that notified them when they were being spied on.

Like an ‘I see you watching me’.

It wasn’t meant to ping off of one another’s attention, or it would be going off all the time, but Verona might’ve tweaked it, knowing her.

Lucy sighed, and she got out her phone.  She went to her contact list, and hovered her finger over Booker.

What would she even say?

She thought about the Sable’s offer, again.

“Yeah, no,” she whispered, to herself.



“No?” the Sable asked.

“I don’t think you’re hearing what I’m saying.  Because big picture?” Lucy asked, angrier again, now.  “I don’t trust you.  You could promise me all sorts of things but I’m going to think of John and how badly you let him down.  Technically, maybe you were mostly fair, but in general?  This conversation doesn’t end with you proposing a tidy, neat solution.”

“Ah.  How would you suggest it ends, then?” the Sable Prince asked.  He straightened to a full standing position, a fair bit taller than Lucy.

“I mean… I’m inclined to tell anyone who’ll listen that your word is worth very little, even if you don’t technically lie.  That your deals are hollow, that you might keep to the technical letter of the law but you’ll metaphorically piss on the spirit of it.”

“Ironic, for a guy who says he was a spirit,” Pipes said.

“Yeah,” Lucy said, “yeah.  Ironic.”

“Is that your intent, then?  A petty revenge?”

“My inclination is not only revenge,” Lucy said.  “But getting John what he was owed.  These guys are his legacy.  They’re what he left behind.  If I remember what happened during my time in the Carmine Alcazar right, you took John apart for power.  Dismantled him until he was gone.  You want to say the system’s open for auditing?  I’m calling you out and asking you to pay up.”

“Does that balance the scales, then?”

“It doesn’t even begin to,” Lucy told the Sable.  “Because the irony is, the little wrongs you did to John fed other problems, and it all worked against the Seal and against Law.  By all rights, you guys should be scrambling to make things right.  I’d even say that if London or Paris or Japan come sweeping in to install Lordships and displace you guys, it’s to manage your mistakes.  Doe, Sable, and Coil, for the record.  Carmine too.  You’re mostly fine so far, Assembly.”

“Mmm.  Up until they sweep in and remove me, hm?”

Lucy pulled the corner of her mouth back, expression apologetic.  “About-”

“The-” Grandfather started talking in that same moment.

“Go ahead,” Lucy said.  “Or is it something that can wait?  About to move onto another point.”

“New point to make about an old point,” Grandfather replied.


“I’m not sure what giving a bit of John’s power would mean, honestly.”

“Power plus interest,” Lucy murmured.  “Plus some karmic weight.  He was wronged, he was shortchanged.  So let’s give some extra change to the Dog Tags, please.”

“Sure,” Grandfather said.  “Not sure what that means either.  But she pointed out that this coat-”

He grabbed the side of Lucy’s hood, by her shoulder, with enough suddenness that it startled her a little.

“It’s John’s.  And this?  If you-”

He motioned.

Lucy moved a finger in the general area he’d motioned to, until he nodded slightly.  She pulled at the chain at her neck, drawing Dog Tag and the little ring out from under her shirt, bringing it into the ‘light’ of the Sable’s black palace.

“-that’s his legacy too.  I can’t say everything he said to us, but I’m not leaking anything special if I say he was fond of her and she was fond of him, and that was as obvious as anything when she was looking through the door, upset to be losing him.”

Lucy closed her eyes for a moment.

“Her too.  Power, karma, weight.  The other girls, while you’re at it.”

“If someone can come here to ask to correct a Forswearance,” Lucy said, “I can come here to argue against a wrong.  You wronged John.  The scales tipped against him, you took away things he sacrificed to protect.  Tip the scales back.  Give back.  And tell me you at least won’t let him pull his forswearance bullshit without helping push back.”

“Charles Abrams remains in my debt,” the Alabaster said.  “He probably will until the call comes from overseas and they give him that power, security, and other assistance.  Let’s say that the Alabaster Throne owes, even if it wasn’t me, specifically, much as it is owed, when it wasn’t me.  If he owes me and I owe you, we can agree that you can demand your payment from him directly.  I won’t contest it.”

“You’re making my life harder,” the Sable told the Alabaster, “Agreeing to this.”

“It’s right,” she said.

“Power to the Dog Tags, and Lucy,” the Sable said, considering.

“And my friends.  We’re connected by Awakening anyway.”

“Very well,” he agreed.

“And what I was saying, before Grandfather was making his point?  I’m asking you not to agree to this deal, if they do call.  Because that buys us time.  Say we’re handling it.  Say… say anything that isn’t giving Charles this win.  The others need something like a day, at least, to get organized and sort out their stuff.  We need time after that.  If you say no, it still takes the Lords overseas time to give marching orders, get their people on planes, or teleport over, take stock of the situation, or whatever.  But the words, the agreement, that they’d give Charles?  That’s too fast.  And things are over, then.”

“We’ll discuss,” the Sable said.

“I don’t trust you, you know?  For all the reasons I said,” Lucy told him.  “So you say you’ll discuss, but…”

“We will discuss.  We will weigh the options, with everything you’ve said in mind,” he said.

Lucy frowned.  She looked at the Alabaster, who nodded.



Lucy was cold.  She’d said hi and bye to Verona.  Verona had led her mom to believe she was staying with her dad and she’d led her dad to believe she was staying with her mom, and she would stay at the House on Half Street, cramming late into the night on practice stuff, doing alchemy, and writing up spell cards.

Lucy had walked with Mia and gotten a bite to eat at the Burger Bin.  Mia’s mom hadn’t wanted Lucy to walk home alone, with everything that had happened, but Lucy had slipped away.

Then Lucy had walked a little further south, on the treacherous shores.  Icy slate and icy water in the dark looked very similar, and it was hard to trust she wouldn’t slip or step through ice into freezing water.  Snow deceived.

Through the trees that made an arch.  Hard left and a little back, a route not a lot of people would instinctively take.  Then she approached the cave that revealed itself.

There was no illumination of ice or anything.  No moonlight shone through to catch on blades in the dark and reflect onto other blades until the cave was bright enough to see in.  Nothing gradually brought anything forth.

It was empty.

Lucy leaned against the doorway, back to the trees, and the shore and river that indistinctly bled into one another.  She frowned, her heart feeling hollow.


“Hey, Alpeana.  You haven’t started your rounds?”

Alpeana kept to the darkness.  “Ah’ll be daein’ tha midnight merkat t’nicht.”

“Cool,” Lucy murmured.

She stared into the dark, empty cave.  Alpeana crouched in the darkness by the entrance, the only occupant.

“Ah’m sorry, Lucy.”

“The Wild Hunt came and went,” Lucy said.  “Supposedly after Maricica?”

“Oh, aye.  He said he’ll hulp, t’morra nicht.”

“The emptiness feels like it means something.  He’s not coming back?”

“Na.  He’ll ride wit’ tha hunt o’ cauld January, then fin’ his way tae th’ court proper.  Fae what he said, he’s taught ye all he kin teach ye wi’out hurting ye.”

“Okay,” Lucy said, because saying more was too hard.

“Dae ye want company?”

Lucy shook her head.  “You were headed out to the market, right?”


“Are you helping tomorrow night?”

“Aye.  All of us are, Lass.”

“Got it,” Lucy said.  “Okay.  Let’s see what we can do, then.”


Then Alpeana was gone into the night.

Lucy ventured into the cave, starting to use her phone flashlight at first, before instead reaching for and using glamour, to create a mote of light she could hold in her hand.

She found some swords, and she had an instinct Guilherme had put them aside.  They could break them down and they’d be a good bit of glamour.  She’d have to see them in the light to know if any of it was residual High Summer stuff.

Improvising a way to carry them was a little harder.  In the end, she used a canvas bag she kept in her backpack for snack shopping, so her homework wouldn’t smell of dry pepperoni sticks, and she knotted it around handles to have something that she could sling over her shoulder, blades dangling behind her.

She was put in mind of Booker leaving, off to university.

Not just Guilherme.  Alpeana was going to war.  The goblins were gearing up.  Everything was different.

War and aggression had started her on this journey and it had dogged her the entire way, and now it would end in what?  Charles’ defeat?  How many Others from Kennet would they lose?

Kennet soaked in blood from the start of that to now.

She took a route that didn’t intersect with too many people.  Not that this route had a lot.  Past the factories, toward the bridge.


Chloe.  No Nibble.

“Hey,” Lucy said.  Her eyes traveled over the surrounding ground.  Just in case.  She hadn’t been that far from here when Chloe had attacked her.

Chloe unzipped her winter jacket and pulled it open.  She was wearing a white sweater beneath.  “I love it.”

A gift.  Same as the other.

“I’m glad,” Lucy told her, as she walked up the slope.

“If you only ever gave me the one, that’d be more than enough,” Chloe told Lucy.  She offered a hand, sticking it out to Lucy.  Her fingers were like knives, and were doing a number on the gloves she’d pulled over them already.  Lucy caught her wrist and used that for the leverage.

“I’m just glad you like it,” Lucy said.  “Went with a different glamour, to not make something you’re allergic to.”

“I noticed.  Can I give you a hug?” Chloe asked.

Lucy hesitated.  “Can you?  Sorry, but-”

“I’m okay,” Chloe said.

Lucy paused, “Uh.”

“You don’t have to,” Chloe said.

“No, uh.  I’m carrying swords, so just… careful.”

“And I’ve got bones like blades,” Chloe said.  “Always careful, when I’m there enough to be.”

Lucy nodded.

“But I’m there, here, now.  Am I making sense?”

“Sure,” Lucy said.

Chloe wrapped Lucy in a tentative hug, then squeezed super tight when she was sure neither of them would get sliced up.

“Thank you,” Chloe said.  “Thank you.”

Lucy nodded.

The tight hug was something she needed, and not because that empty cave felt like an ache.  The Sable had so naturally assumed Lucy for the Carmine seat, and she’d wrestled for a long time with whether she’d carry the knives.  He’d planned a whole argument and the fact he’d even brought it up meant that in the back of her mind, that argument was raging.

She’d told him, at the meeting’s outset, she wanted justice, she wanted Charles to see what he’d done.  But she didn’t want to become Charles as she did it.  Except what would she become?

The Sable had seemed to think it would be another Carmine, just of a different flavor.  A lonely, angry thing, dwelling on blood.

The tight hug made that angry argument quiet down, like someone had a volume control and was holding the volume-down button down.  In a way, she hadn’t realized how loud it had really been until she felt what it was like in quiet peace afterward.

She could be this.

She sighed.

“First person since Nibble I’ve hugged in a while, sorry,” Chloe murmured.  She flashed an awkward, toothy smile.

“Don’t be sorry,” Lucy told Chloe.

She almost asked if Chloe was going, tomorrow night.  Except she knew the answer, and she really didn’t want to spoil this moment, by returning it to something Carmine.

They were all going.  All of them, their allies, and every resource they could tap.  Everyone except Lucy, Verona, and Avery.  They’d feint, suggesting they were participating, but they wouldn’t actually follow through on that.  They’d pull back, then prepare to engage after.

They had to decide this.

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Go for the Throat – 23.4


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Lucy closed her laptop.  Avery checked in with.  Verona… Lucy checked her phone.  She’d sent some texts, Verona hadn’t gotten back to her.  But Avery figured Verona was okay.


There was laughter around the fire.  Lucy couldn’t help but worry she was intruding on a dynamic if she approached.  She was a teenager, she knew some of them liked to tell jokes that her mom wouldn’t be okay with.

She made herself get up anyway.  Laptop tucked under one arm, cola in hand, she walked over toward the group.  Fallen trees formed a loose pentagon around a fire, and were being used as benches.  Lucy had done up a diagram to keep the cold out, so a lot of coats had been removed and were being used as cushions.  She took off her own coat and followed suit.

Pipes was loud enough Lucy had done up a quick sound-altering ritual as part of that diagram, to make it so the loudest voices and laughter wouldn’t intrude on her call.  He boomed, “…and there are the guys with wives and kids at home?”

He indicated Midas.  One of the newly released ones, with the gold tooth and ‘golden hand’ with a gun.

“You want to die?” Midas asked.  “Or wake up being dropped headfirst into a hole we dug to shit in?”

“We don’t need to eat, sleep, or shit, so we don’t have much in the way of a latrine hole, and I’m too big for you to pick up,” Pipes told Midas, grinning, patting his belly.  He was built like a barrel.

“I can bribe the others for help,” Midas said.  “Foggy?”

“I’ll help,” Foggy said.

“I didn’t even tell you what the bribe was.”


Foggy wasn’t too bright.

“Let me continue before you decide if you get pissy.  ‘Sides, I didn’t say it was you, you’re the one drawing attention to yourself.”

“I know the story you’re going to tell.”

“With edits.  And you’re trying to get me off track so I won’t tell it, so-”

Midas began to talk to interrupt, and Pipes was able to be loud and persistent enough to be easily followed despite Midas’ voice overlapping.  “There are the guys, the kids, who enlist, they know there are benefits if they’re married, money, special housing to share with the ball and chain-”

“Maybe they’re the ball and chain,” Lucy interjected.

“Uh huh.  Either way, they marry early.  Have kids early.  So a certain Dog Tag got a good bit of that in them.  Enough soldiers who had wives and kids-”

“This is an asshole move, the sort of thing you take to the grave.  That is a threat,” Midas said.

“-and he’s unpacking stuff, Dog Tag stuff, came with the kit he was given, gifted by War herself-”

The sound of a gunshot made Lucy jump out of her skin.

Pipes wheezed.  Blood pumped out of a hole in his chest.  Lucy tensed, watching carefully.

“Midas,” Horseman said.  “Pipes is still healing, damn it.”

Midas got to his feet.

“-and I see what-” Pipes groaned out the words.

Midas aimed and shot three more times.  Pipes fell off the log.  Mark, sitting next to Pipes, jumped to his feet, hand on his gun.

Horseman was silent as he got to his feet.  Deft, as he grabbed Midas’ gun, managing to take it away from someone who wanted to keep it while also not pointing it at anyone in the process of taking it away.

Seeing Horseman without a coat on, hair a little longer than it had been at the start of fall, Lucy was struck by how he was a teenager.  Muscular, athletic, geared up, with a dark look in his eyes.  He looked younger than Booker.  Some shadow of various kids who were sent off into a warzone.  Recruited out of high school.  Or, on the other side of the conflict, maybe even younger, thrown into things for a cause.

Trick was similar.  He looked more Middle Eastern.  Where Horseman’s look ranged from quietly confident to cocky, Trick ranged from sad to serious.

“That’s enough,” Horseman said.

“Won’t kill him.”

“He’s healing from being messed up by the horror lady, Helen.  And it still hurts him.  We hurt enough, we don’t need to hurt each other.”

“What if he’s hurting me?”

“Is he?”

Midas shrugged one shoulder, gaze cold as he stared Horseman down.

Pipes started wheezing again, lying back on snow with no coat on.

Lucy heard Whistle moving through the trees, dog at her side.  “It’s okay, Whistle!”

Whistle took another few seconds to pick her way through the woods and snow.  She emerged, moving quietly.  The unnamed dog was by her, eyes lit up by the fire.  “Gunshots?”

“Midas getting cranky,” Horseman said.  “You were pretty far out.”

“Yeah.  Keeping close enough I can see the fire.  The mutt keeps close enough he can see me.”


“Okay,” Whistle replied.

As if they’d come to some agreement, she reversed direction, going back to her patrol.  The ‘mutt’ ran on ahead.

“That’s enough,” Horseman said.  “We don’t shoot our own.”

Midas stared at him.

“Yeah?” Horseman asked.

“Yeah,” Midas said.  He sat.

Lucy glanced at Grandfather, who was stirring a pot of soup that hung from a wire and rod setup at the edge of the fire.  He watched, quiet.  She’d kind of pegged Grandfather as more of a leader, but in situations like this, or in direct combat, Horseman seemed to step up more.


Pipes let out a long wheezing sound.

“Sounds like your lung collapsed.  You get a choice, Pipes.  Let this go, and we hope Midas eases up a bit in the future, or you tell your story and it’s a bit of a punishment for Midas, here.”

Midas sighed.

“Can I… tell it… because it’s… funny?” Pipes asked, grunting out the words.

“Do what you want.  But if he’s cranky about it, that’s for you to deal with.  So long as there’s no bullets,” Horseman said.  He sat back down beside Trick.  “We need more wood for the fire.”

Angel was using a knife to cut away branches from the trees, making the benches more comfortable to sit on.  She threw a pile onto the fire.  Grandfather put his stirring stick out to keep the pot of soup from toppling as some branches tumbled down the other side.  Pine needles turned shades of orange as they caught fire.

“Who’s next for fetching firewood?” Grandfather asked.

Angel spoke up, “I was last so…”

She looked at the space next to her.  Lucy smiled as everyone chuckled.


“Seat still warm?” Grandfather asked, unsurprised.

“He took it with him, but…” Angel touched the log.  “Yes.”

“I can,” Lucy offered.

“No,” Grandfather said.  “From the way this was described to me, you’re meant to be going to the Sable.  They might be aiming to interrupt it so let’s avoid giving them the chance.”

Lucy frowned.

“Mark?” Grandfather asked.

Mark, sitting at the next available space, got to his feet, pulling on his coat.  He headed out into the dark woods.

Pipes worked his way back onto the bench, coughing and wheezing.  “Back to my little story.”

“If that’s what you’ve decided,” Horseman said.

“…He’s packing his kit up, getting ready to leave.  What’s that thing, I asked him.  Funny little device, I thought it was a breathing apparatus or drug dispenser.  Put it over your mouth, press a button, get some funny gas, maybe.”

His voice gained strength as he talked.

“So this dog tag, who shall remain nameless-”

“We know it’s Midas,” Angel said.

“-who shall remain nameless, throws the thing away.  So naturally I dig it out of the trash to look at what it is.  And what do we have?  We’ve got a hardcore living spirit, an animus, out in snowy Quetta, assigned by War herself to this conflict, outfitted, armed, and given grit.  And part of that outfitting from War, for whatever reason, she saw fit to have him accidentally pack a breast pump from his nonexistent wife back home.”

There were some light chuckles, Pipes’ laugh was loudest of all.

“That’s sweet though,” Grandfather said, eyes on the fire.  “We carry things from people.  Killed in war, killing themselves, getting killed.  Some get killed by us.  And I think it’s a good thing, that you’re carrying something like that inside you.  Preserving it.”

“Yeah,” Lucy said.  “It’s human.

“Doesn’t suit you though, Midas,” Angel remarked.  “You as a husband and father of a baby?”

“Because it’s not me.  It’s a bit of some dead guy that got stuck in me.”

Lucy dug into her bag and got out a plastic container, putting it on the bench beside her.  With her biggest notebook set across her knees as a flat surface, she got out some foil she’d folded up and put in the lid of the plastic case, then laid some bread across it.  Once it was arranged, she put it on the stones by the fire.  More to warm up than to toast.  She put the little containers for the toppings near the fire, but not so near that the plastic would burn or anything.  Just to get it spreadable and not almost frozen.

“How was your call?” Grandfather asked.  “Love advice?”

“Do I need to throw more balled up paper?” Pipes asked.

“More about Awareness, Innocence.  Bringing someone into this world.”


“But that’s heavy stuff, I don’t want to be a downer or anything.”

“If you let us carry on like we usually do, we’ll start bickering again, until you lose all respect for us,” Grandfather said.

“Nah, I have a hard time imagining that happening,” Lucy said.  “The loss of respect part.”

“Because you don’t respect us to begin with?” Pipes asked.

“Did I give that impression?” she asked, a little hurt.

“Nah, joking.  Joking.”

“Okay.  Good,” she said, smiling.  She wished she could play more into the ‘joking’ stuff, but she was here, sitting with six Dog Tags, with three more in the woods, Whistle doing a patrol, Elvis MIA, and Mark out getting firewood.  Nine other people who were years older than her, professional, with their own group dynamics.  What if she made a joke, like, just you, Pipes, only you I don’t respect, and it didn’t land?  What if she joked and it made her seem like a kid?  Or created more distance between her and them?

She used two sticks to rotate the foil with the bread on it ninety degrees, controlling which pieces sat closest to the flame.

“You were saying?” Grandfather asked.  “Bringing someone into this world?”

“Kinda.  That ties into stuff that’s more the business of my friends.  But I think what it really breaks down to is team dynamics,” Lucy said, feeling a slight pang at the pivot, because she knew romance was a touchy subject for Dog Tags, and she’d made this precise pivot with John, before.  “Contributions.”

It felt like there was a little more willingness from the others to engage with that.  Yeah.

She went on, “And I guess broader… Kennet-side dynamics.  I don’t want to get too much into what Avery was saying, that’s her business, but it does kind of suck that you guys don’t want to push this further than the-”

She paused, searching for a way to phrase it that straddled both the actual plan and the plan that had them doing a follow-up attack.  She looked up, and the feel of the group had changed slightly, enough that the one pause became two.

The silence felt a little too pointed.

She dropped her eyes to the bread.  “-the one big attempt, I guess?”

“You guys talk, keep yourselves occupied,” Grandfather told the others.  He used a stick to pick up the wire fixture that the soup pot dangled from, and walked over to plunk himself down on the same log Lucy sat on.  Horseman scooched over.

The others moved further away.

“The agreement was made by people with more say than us,” Grandfather said, poking at the legs of the contraption where they dug into the embers and soot, to get it more level.  The soup was steaming.

“But you agree too.  You swore an oath to keep this to one more big attempt?” she asked.


“There’s a limit to how much war anyone should see,” Horseman said.  “Especially the young.  It gets too ugly.  Changes you.”

He said that while looking a lot like a sixteen year old.  As close to being her age as he was to being Booker’s.

“What if it should change you?” Lucy asked.  “What if… what if there’s a lot that’s wrong in the world, and if the really fucked up thing is how blind and complacent and distracted they all are?  Your average person.  I’m not talking about practice stuff only, either.  It’s people not caring about politics, or not even respecting attempts at trying for change, or recognizing what a lot of people are dealing with on a day to day basis?  How many people out there don’t get it?  Don’t even try to get it?  Understanding the other sides?”

“You did say this might get heavy,” Grandfather mused.


“No, no,” he said.  “I said to share.  I wish I had a good answer for you.  We might not be good people to ask, here.”

“Not really asking,” Lucy said.  “I’m… frustrated.  Sorry.”

“Difference between us Dogs and most others?  We can’t put it away,” Grandfather said, voice low.  “Other soldiers, they have homes they’ll go back to.  Families.  Wives and babies.  For us, we might feel like there are shadows of things like that, but only shadows.  A quiet restlessness, an ache that won’t quit.”

“Wanting home but not ever leaving the battlefield behind for good,” Horseman added.

“John found peace, kind of.”

“In a way.”

Lucy reached into her shirt and pulled out the necklace with the dog tag and ring, along with the Dog Tags she’d been given, that were really redundant right now, since she had most of the Dog Tags with her anyway.  “He came to Kennet, because he wanted- Yalda wanted to come to a place with snow.  John came because he remembered something about town like Kennet, that felt familiar.”

“Yeah.  That’s right.”

“So you can chase the shadows and get somewhere good, right?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” Grandfather replied.  “Not to…”

He trailed off.

“Not to what?” Lucy asked.

Grandfather shifted his position, then stirred the soup, metal spoon scraping against metal as he got the bits that were sticking to the bottom.  “I wonder if he got there in the end.  Or got close.  You’re saying people are complacent, and, what, it’s better that people like you are being sent off to war, fighting for a cause, than to be complacent, no fight in you at all?”

“Considering what’s going on in the world?  Not just Others being bound, or racism, but… fuck.  Poverty, class divides, gender divides- the fact that me and all my female friends have gotten looks and gross comments from men old enough to be our dads.  Yeah.  And then guys don’t get that?  Every boy I tell it to acts surprised or gives a vibe like they don’t believe me.  It’s all like that, all a fight to get people to even accept there is a different side to understand, let alone get them over onto your side.  Or it’s a fight to stop the problem at its source.  Then if you don’t fight it, what are you condoning?”

“Let me turn that around on you,” Grandfather said.  “If you’re always fighting it, when do you enjoy the good parts?  What are you fighting for, if there’s always going to be another fight?”

“Getting a bit too real there,” Horseman murmured.

“Hmm?” Grandfather grunted.

“You and me and them,” Horseman kept murmuring.  HIs eyes roved over the others, who were talking among themselves.  “There’s always going to be another fight for us.”

“But that’s not the end of the world, right?” Lucy asked.  “I’m not saying there won’t be moments, but I guess- you find them between fights.  I do okayish.  I liked dating Wallace.  I hang with Verona and have sleepovers, where we mix being doofuses with strategy.”

“Then let’s say- let’s pretend,” Grandfather mused.  “Let’s pretend that you win.  You win, Charles is defeated, you use the Sword Moot to get the violent practitioners of the area and the area around our area to calm the fuck down, play nice, work together against the really bad stuff, if it comes up.”

“Like maybe the redcap queen in eastern Ontario that had Bluntmunch scared.”

“Sure.  Let’s say you do that.  Let’s say the market becomes a thing, Kennet found prospers.  Let’s say you stop the bad guys, stop the child-kidnapping old thing whose name I can never remember.”

“Beorgmann.  Okay.  I stop them…”

“And you dedicate your life to tying a nice neat bow on it that ensures it’ll last.  Fight for the causes, make a serious and noticeable dent in creeps being creepy, racists being racist, all that.  And let’s say you get everyone on your side and they make dents too.”

“With you so far.  Objectively good, right?  I’m guessing you’re taking this to a place where it’s not.”

“Next generation springs up.  They look at the world and they say it’s fucked.  They say it’s still got stuff wrong.  New wrongs sprout up, the local war mages and war types and the next-to-local war mages and war-types are being good, but the ones next to those ones, a little further away, they’re still assholes.  The good and safe places need to be protected extra because of the sacrifices of your generation.  So the next generation, your kids, they carry on the fight.  And they keep the good moments squeezed in between the fights, while you and all the immortals who’ve been watching the trends see them wearing down, wearing out, getting bloody.”

“And the next generation takes the same approach I’m suggesting?” Lucy asked.

“Yeah.  And maybe there’s a big, multi-generational setback.  One big fight gets lost, something else.  If that happens every few generations, that’s a good recipe for a forever-war.  Hell of a way to be, if nobody gets to be fat and happy and ignorant, if nobody gets to be complacent.  If everyone’s wedging in the narrow good moments between the exhausting hell of fighting forces and realities as big as the whole damn planet.”

“Could even go beyond Earth,” Horseman said.  “Other realms.  You fixing the Fae?  The goblins?”

“We kind of are?” Lucy ventured.

“Well there you are,” Horseman said.

Grandfather went on, “Isn’t it a bit frustrating, if you give your all in this and the next generation gets a life squeezed in between a lot of fighting?  Like soldiers going to war halfway across the world and coming home to realize nobody cared, nobody even recognizes what they were doing?”

“Might be a mercy,” Horseman murmured.

“-Sure.  And there’s going to be a new, fresh war, and that’s the way it is?” Grandfather asked.

All the Dog Tags except Grandfather, in Lucy’s experience, had this ability to show a look in their eyes that reminded her of that one she’d seen in John and her mom.  All in slightly different ways, slightly different meanings.

For Horseman, it was a bit of that bone-deep weariness.  Grandfather was harder to pin down.  Maybe because it had gone bone-deep or soul-deep and then permeated through the rest of him.

“So, what, it’s insulting to Rook, who’s been fighting practitioners-”

“Rook’s… complicated,” Grandfather said.

“Sure.  Bad example.  Rook is weird.”

“Not sure what she’s up to.”

“I wonder if she’s sure what she’s up to, and I’m not sure I want to ask,” Lucy mused.  “What’s a better example?  My mom and the change she’s seen across her generation?  Miss, depending on how you look at Miss?  Toadswallow and his attempts to change goblins, depending?”

“Yeah,” Grandfather said.

“I’m not saying I’m one hundred percent in this until I’m old.  But I’d like to finish what I started with Charles and win some minor victories on the way.”

“You can finish what you started.  The deal we struck was that you get the one shot before you’re eighteen.  Once you’re eighteen, you’re old enough to decide for yourself.  It’d be a shame if you spend the entirety of your teenage years on this, or close to.  Miss out on vital shit, find yourself older and… irrationally upset at a breast pump, maybe.”

“Hunh?” Midas raised his voice, from the far side of the bonfire.  “What’re you on about?”

“Eavesdropping?” Horseman asked.

“No, but I heard certain words and I’ve been told not to shoot people, but nobody ruled out throwing knuckles.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Grandfather said.  To Lucy, he said, “The things you’d only ever have a shadow of.”

“Verona would say that with the practice, anything’s possible.”

“Mmm.  Maybe.  I think it’s hard to recreate… the Wallace thing you talked about.  Being a kid, fumbling your way through the romance stuff with another kid.  First… hand holds, I don’t know.”

Lucy nodded.  She rotated the bread ninety degrees again.

“Goes the other way too,” Horseman said.  “There are things that are hard to undo.  What happens if you end up thirty years old, you realize you’ve been fighting all this time, and the fighting’s all you have?  Can’t walk that back.  Can’t walk back the scares, the anger, the hurt you’ve given and received.  There’s no peace.”

“Talking about yourself?” Lucy asked.

Horseman shrugged.

“You know…” Lucy again had to thread a certain needle.  She couldn’t gainsay him.  In this situation, it was polite to validate, finding a ‘yeah but’ answer.  “You’re probably right, no peace like that as things stand.  But there’s a way.  I offered it to John, once.  Becoming a familiar.  Offered it to him before, offered it to him the night he was going to the Arena.  He said he almost considered it.”

“He should’ve accepted,” Grandfather said.

“I’m not complaining,” Horseman said.  “But I wouldn’t have said anything bad about him, if you woke me up from my binding and said it’s what he did, before returning me to servitude.  He made the decision he made.”

Lucy sighed.

“Peace, huh?” Grandfather asked.

“You know, you guys gave me this coat.  You gave me John’s tag, Yalda’s ring.”

“Mm hmm,” Grandfather grunted.

“You guys have been welcoming, cool.”

Horseman shrugged.  “You’ve been cool back.  Midas is a bit of a canker sore, but we’re glad to have him.  Foggy too.  Whistle’s a treat, and useful to have around.  You freed ’em for us.”

Lucy nodded.  “But-”

“But?” Horseman asked.

“It’s a hard group to get into.  I feel like I’m guessing Avery felt, coming to school.  Trying to be part of this group that’s known each other and been through everything together.”

“Sorta together,” Grandfather amended.  “We lost some along the way, gained some.”

“Yeah,” Lucy agreed.  “I think, like, hearing you guys talk, hearing how Horseman frames things?  It’s like, especially after hearing this ultimatum about letting us have one more fight before we’re eighteen, hearing what you’re saying about me taking the opportunity to enjoy the… the fruits of past victories?”

“There’s a saying, I know I’m opening myself up to jokes saying it, but the world is great when old men plant trees they know they won’t sit in the shade of?  It’s sad if you’re spending all your time planting trees, then the next generation does the same, and that’s the dynamic forever.”

“That’s not the plan,” Lucy murmured.  “Even before that, the others and I were talking about when we quit, what it takes.  There’s a middle ground, where we’re not letting evil win- not letting the asshole who killed John and desecrated Yalda win, but still leaving room for life.”

“Sure,” Grandfather said.  “Speaking of.  Food, you need food to live, right?”



“Sure.  Let me finish saying what I was saying, though?”

“Oh, sure.”

She tried to gather her thoughts.  She felt less articulate around this group, and a big part of what she was trying to articulate was why that was the case.

“You guys… it’s like, on the one hand, you’re saying hey, you’re included.  Offering me soup, coming with me.  On the other, though, you’re saying stop fighting, take the chance to go back, relax, go on dates… am I off base so far?”

“I think it’d be a shame if you couldn’t relax and go on dates, sure,” Horseman said.

“But you’re also saying you can’t.  I’m not saying I want to be a Dog Tag, one of you in every way, but it’s a bit of a mixed message when it’s like, you’re an honorary member of the group, part of what defines our group is we’re going to keep fighting forever, that’s what we are, and you, you stop fighting and go home.”  Lucy feigned a deeper voice for that last part.

“Hmm.  Sorry, not what I was going for,” Grandfather said.

“Nah, I know.  But it’s like…” Lucy searched for the phrasing.  “I’m not saying hey, let me in.  I’m saying hey, ease up a bit and let yourselves come the other direction.  You guys don’t have to fight forever either.  John got close to a peace and if he…”

She remembered the dog tags shifting as he bent down, his hands touching them.  The look in his eyes.  If he hadn’t, just then…

“…if things were slightly different, I think he could’ve had peace.  And without making too big a deal of it, I’m pretty sure I’d like a Dog Tag as a familiar.  So… I might not be equipped for a forever war, but you guys don’t have to be either.  I don’t think you need to be a familiar to find peace, but it sure would help.  That’s what I wanted to say.”

She glanced at Grandfather, then looked away, turning her focus back to the bread.  She moved the bread onto napkins, quickly daubing on some oily garlic butter and spooning on the bruschetta.

Neither Grandfather or Horseman were saying anything.  She’d brought up the familiar thing, then said something else, and now she wondered if they’d gotten the message.  She really didn’t want to make it a big deal, even if it was a big deal for her.

She kept her focus down on preparing the bruschetta.  She answered the silence.  “I’m not looking for a replacement John.  But I like you guys and what you’re about.  I’m thinking my mom would probably feel better if I had a permanent bodyguard, and I dunno, faster healing.  If I can give you guys a break, a chance to eat in a way that matters, a chance to rest, that’s a bonus in my books.”

She kept some for herself, moving it over onto the lid of one of the containers.  “No pressure, I’m not even thinking I want to do this before handling Charles.  I’m not looking for a Snowdrop, just someone to watch my back, a sometimes-dog, a friend.  But it’s what I’m thinking, just to give you a bit of a clue.”

“Don’t see myself doing that, sorry,” Horseman said.  “I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”

“Sure,” she said.  “Like I said, I don’t want to make a big deal of it.”

Horseman nodded.

I didn’t figure you were up for it, she thought.  I’d really only take Horseman as a familiar if I was gearing up for that forever war, instead of nudging one of you in the other direction, off the battlefield.

She tried to stay casual as she passed the rest of the bruschetta to Grandfather.  She met his eyes briefly.  “You don’t need food to live, but you can enjoy it.”

“True.  Part of why I made soup.  That stuff you made is probably better than canned soup.  I remember you making it before.”

She nodded.  “Pass this on?”

He did, and the bruschetta was passed around the circle, everyone taking one or two pieces.

“You like this stuff, huh?” Grandfather asked.

“There aren’t a lot of things I know how to make that I’m also okay sharing with others.  Cookies and brownies, I guess, but that feels… weird.  Plus this counts as breaking bread.”


She took her own bruschetta, and used one of the topping containers for her portion of the soup.  “Do you guys get some Self out of this?”

“I don’t even know,” Grandfather said.  “Maybe.  Reminds me, we wanted to ask some stuff, about Dog Tags.  John picked up some know-how about practice.”

“Yeah.  From killing practitioners?” Lucy asked.

“We’ve got some odds and ends.  We had a talk before, about whether we should funnel certain kills to certain members of our group, or spread it out.  Needs to be human or human-like.  Not that we’ve been killing that many people.”


“We got distracted by events.  Didn’t return to that talk.  But it’s been in the back of my mind.”

“I can look into some books and stuff.”


“How do you eat this without making an ass of yourself?” Pipes asked, voice loud, using two hands to try to keep the toppings from tumbling off.  One of his hands wasn’t working that well.

“Step one, don’t be an ass,” Lucy said, at the same time a few Dog Tags around the campfire said more or less the same thing.

There was some light laughter.  Pipes rolled his eyes, licking some fingers mostly clean of butter and oil.

Lucy eased up on the heavier topics, trying to find a few opportunities to joke around a bit.  It was easier, with the familiar topic raised and dropped without incident, and with her talking about how the dynamic was a bit hard to break into.  If Grandfather or Horseman were doing anything different, it was subtle enough she couldn’t tell if things improving was a her thing or a them thing.

Soup and bruschetta eaten.  She wished she could shower, especially with trace smoke in her eyes, but they were camping.  Mark, Elvis, and Whistle came back in, Whistle only staying long enough to get a bit of soup and bread without toppings.  Mark took a bit more.  Horseman and Angel went on patrol, and Whistle went after them as soon as she was done.

Lucy yawned.

“It’s eleven forty five.  If you’re waiting for this crew to pass out or give some signal it’s okay to go to sleep, you won’t sleep tonight,” Grandfather murmured.

Lucy nodded.

“I was thinking, if you’d be more comfortable in the truck…”

“Might be colder than the tent.”

“Could run the heater, you could do your thing…”

“The hard geometry of the vehicle breaks up the spiritual flows.  So you end up insulating the space between the truck and edges of the diagram, but not the inside of the vehicle, weird as it sounds.  It could get colder again, while the space between stays the same temperature.”

“Hmmm.  Okay.”

“I already set up the tent.  I’ll be okay.”

Grandfather nodded.

She got to her feet.

“I’ll think about it,” Grandfather said.

It took Lucy a second to realize what he meant.

Right.  She nodded.

She picked up her stuff, including bag, notebook, food containers, some leftover bread, laptop, and phone, and Grandfather clapped a hand on her shoulder as she passed by.

She stowed stuff in her tent, then got out some bundles of sticks and pre-prepared papers, full size notebook pages, not just notecards.  “I know you’re coming a long way, guys, but Kennet’s reach has been improving…”

She put the paper on the tree and fixed it there with a few tacks, before hanging the bundle of sticks and twine.  “Footspur.”

Some Dog Tags twisted around and looked.

“I put in exceptions for Dog Tags.  If you guys want to bring someone else through, some goblin in the woods, someone needing a fire and rest, gotta hold their hands or stay in contact with them.  Then wake me up so I can add to the exceptions.”

“Got it,” Grandfather said.

Lucy tore off the corner of the page with the rune-block, allowing the rune to come to life.

The spirit stirred.  Snow blew, and when it did, it outlined the spirit, who faded into existence, a girl crouched low, long hair trailing on the snow, hands and feet on the ground, broken tree branches sticking up through each hand and foot.

Lucy did another.

“Boughbreak.  For the shelter against outside effects, with added emergency measure if the shelter fails.”

The spirit stirred in the same way.  A figure in the thickest branches, carrying a branch, hair wild with foliage and moss running through it.  Branches bent, ready to snap back.

The branch it carried had an angry looking growth in it, pulsating.  Something dark and elemental in there.  From the way the spirit carried it, it looked like it weighed more than it should’ve, for its size.

“Nyeh, for the alarm.”

Nyeh was a scowling, grumpy-looking spirit.  All the traits of a humorless old man, hunched, big nose, permanent scowl, but without being old.  He had a light to him like he was standing in lighting more like daylight than the darkness around them, slightly out of sync.

“With a curse to hold.  You’re a tough one, Nyeh, so I’m giving you this responsibility.”

The conjured sliver of Nyeh looked unhappy at the added responsibility, but Lucy gave a bit of a food offering, and he took it and stomped off into the woods.

Lucy used the Sight to check she’d set up the arrangement okay.  Placed around the campsite, it radiated outward.  The spirits would protect the surrounding area.

She went into the tent.  It was big enough for her, Avery, and Verona to share, and it was just her.  She drew a little circle for heat management, and then, because she’d promised her mom, she warded the tent itself.

She liked the Dog Tags.  She trusted most of them.  But she was still a teenage girl camping with adults and there were some Dogs with darker edges to them.

She sorted herself out, changing into flannel pants and a lighter top, not so much because she wanted to, but because she felt a bit sweaty and clammy from a day of travel and then sitting by a fire.  She unfurled her sleeping bag, freshly washed, and set up bag, coat, old clothes and stuff to prop her up into a sitting position to browse for books on Dog Tags.  She’d already checked at the Blue Heron when looking up how to bind John and other Kennet Others, so she had a sense there wasn’t a lot.  Maybe the Tedds had something.

She found some book names to ask about, in appendices, and bookmarked them.  Then, because she wasn’t really up for more, she left it at that.

No reply from Verona, but if Verona was deep into a project, then Lucy guessed she’d be up until two to four in the morning, and she’d send a middle-of-the-night text then.

She left her setup up as a kind of bedside table, rolled over, bringing pillow with, and plunked her head down.  After consideration, she left her earring on.

She was tired.  It didn’t take much to fall asleep.


It didn’t take much to wake her.  An un-Dog Tag sort of rustling that her earring picked up woke her.

Lucy didn’t turn on the light.  She pushed her sleeping bag down instead of unzipping it, rolled over, and, on hands and knees, ground alternately lumpy and mushy beneath the tent’s floor, she crawled across.  Sleep clothes still on, she stepped into her boots, and quickly laced them up.  She got her coat on.  Then her mask and cape.  She pulled her backpack on.

Silence rune for the tent flap.  The zipper made no noise.

The fire had died down to a dull orange glow.  The moon didn’t do a very good job of penetrating the leafless foliage.

Horseman was partway to her.

“I was coming to you to wake you up,” he whispered, barely audible.  Trusting her earring to work.  “Seems you’re on it.”

She nodded.

“Don’t know what it is,” Horseman whispered.

Lucy could hear it move.  Its footsteps through snow were as quiet as footsteps through snow could be.  Here and there, a piece of fabric scraped bark or branch- not even scraped, a tenth of a scrape, a whisking past.

Lucy pointed, identifying the direction.


Lucy walked past Horseman, arm still out.  Some Dog Tags who were up and alert took notice and nodded.

“Seems so,” she murmured to Horseman, as she passed him.


Lucy saw movement, but it didn’t fit the sound.  She used Sight, and saw Footspur, moving, agitated.

Crossing the campsite to that end of things, Lucy kept eyes open.

“Blood in the snow,” Grandfather whispered, as she got closer to him.

She could see now.  Footspur’s work.  Every few steps the intruder took, they got gouged.  She could almost hear the sucking sound, as a foot was impaled, pulled away from the spike of bone, wood, glass, or metal, blood suctioning between wound and material.

Corresponding with another rustle, faint.  A hand going out to brush against bark, maybe.  For balance, but with a scary quietness.

Step.  Step step step, fast, running silently.

Branches rustled.  Lucy could see the corresponding movement of branches, pushed by Boughbreak to bar the way-

And the figure.  Skinny, hair messy, mostly dressed in black, forced to stop, pause.

The figure turned, looking directly at Lucy.

Eyelids had been removed and the places eyelids had been cut were scabby.  It made the orbs of the eyes seem overlarge.  Black cracks or veins ran across their body, mostly starting at their left hand, running up the arm, across the body, up neck and face.  She let her eyes adjust a bit more.  It was a man, maybe a bit older than Booker.  Black stuff was sticking out of the veins or cracks in the man’s hand and arm.

“Hold up!” Grandfather shouted.

The figure darted to one side.

Disappearing from view like Avery did, passing behind a tree at a full-tilt run, blood gouting from the multiple wounds in foot and ankle as feet were picked up off snow and moved forward.  Except this Other, like Avery, didn’t emerge from the far side, like the eye and physics seemed to suggest they should.

But she could hear noise.  Hand rustling on bark.

“Still there,” she pointed.

Her hand moved, tracking the ascent.  Climbing the tree, silently, fast.

“It wants us,” she observed.  “It’s not some Other passing through.  It came, there was pushback, it’s still coming.”

“What is it?”

“Black cracks and veins makes me think Abyssal.”

“Maricica’s?” Horseman asked.

Lucy shrugged.  “We’re outside the Carmine realm, but…”


Boughbreak tried to bar further ascent.  Lucy could see branches fall.  Meanwhile, Footspur was preparing spikes below, in case the Other plummeted.

“Where’s Nyeh?”

“Alerted us, got cut down, we think.”

Nyeh was the type to take that personally.  Extra offerings for the next month or two, probably, to make nice.

Verona had done some repair work on Lucy’s weapon ring.  It wasn’t a full job, her blades might not be as sharp as it could be, but her weapon wouldn’t fall apart and the ring wouldn’t break if she tried to use it in too harsh a situation.  She drew a blade.

Then, tracking the threat, the sound, and everything else, Lucy adopted a stance, one hand folded behind her back, blade pointing, tracking the target.  Hold the blade light-

The branches barred the Other again.  It tore its way past them.

Light enough your heartbeat can move the tip.  Then aim it at your target’s center.  That’s usually the heart.

She used her ears to track the target, forcing herself to be calm, centered, and firm in her own power.

The enemy was fast enough that it was hard to get a bead on their heart.  She had to feel for it.

They got past Boughbreak, then paused.

She found that wavelength.  Herself and the target.  Her blade’s point was pushed aside with every competing heartbeat.  Like there was a hand on it.

Her eyes flicked open.

“That thing is stronger than Guilherme.”

“Hm?” Grandfather grunted.

“And me.  And all of you.”

“Whistle was out in the woods.  She hasn’t come back.”

“That’s a pretty bad sign.”

“Dog didn’t even bark or whimper, that we heard.”

Lucy nodded.

“Maybe your earring counters it?”

“Guilherme taught me a practice, for measuring strength.  That thing is strong in a fight.”

She pointed, tracking its movements across the upper branches of trees.

“What are our options?”

“We can’t leave Whistle behind.  Assuming she’s out there in the woods, recovering from whatever that thing did to her.  It’s Abyssal, so its wounds will take longer to heal.”


“Let’s keep retreating to the trucks as a plan B.”

“My instincts say over-the-top violence,” Horseman said.

“Guns don’t work so well against Bogeymen, especially.  They’re a coup thing, not a ‘make it stop’ thing.”

“Not sure what that means.”

“Buys you a chance to turn the tables, but won’t put it down for good.  Slasher movie monster logic.”


Angel, a healing Pipes, Grandfather, Horseman, Midas, Mark, and Foggy.

Whistle had been out in the woods.  Elvis, like usual, was nowhere to be seen.

“Where’s Trick?”

“Woods,” Grandfather said.  “On patrol with Whistle.”

“Wish we had Ribs or Black,” Horseman muttered.

With the fires in Kennet, they’d wanted to keep Ribs back.  Black was worse off than Pipes, after Helen’s work.  They’d had to cut off parts of her and Pipes and break them so they’d heal back to a regular shape, set of angles, and number of limbs.

“I’m not sure explosions would do it,” Lucy admitted.

“If it’s about counting coup, we’ve gotta count a lot of coup, right?” Horseman asked.

“I’m worried you won’t get the chance.”

“Right.  But not taking any action at all gives us zero chance.”

Lucy nodded.

She pulled out spell cards.

“Who has a shot?” Horseman murmured.

Mark whistled, short and faint.

Horseman gestured.

Mark still had a silence rune on his gun that Lucy had given him a couple of days ago.  The gun flashed.

Angel followed up, aiming at the same target, as the flash of the gun illuminated general shapes.  A dark shape fell.

Lucy tossed a spell card.  A blast of ice, to encrust, slow down, hopefully.

Except it was a heavy branch with Whistle’s dog speared on a part of it.  Now speared and covered in a thick layer of ice.

In the aftermath of the gunfire, it took Lucy’s ears a second to readjust.

A second was too slow.  The figure moved across treetops, flinging themselves forward, caught a branch, and swung like a monkey.

On landing, spiked branches thrust up out of the snow, spearing both feet from below.  The wide-eyed man didn’t seem to care.  He bolted, right for Angel.  More branches thrust up out of the snow, stabbing his feet.  Angel leveled her rifle at him, firing, and it pinged off something on his arm.

The way he moved- it was like his body wasn’t a body.  He held something in front of him, and it was like a chicken being held in the air, head at a fixed point, while the rest of him moved independently and in service of that.  A weapon, held out at a specific level and angle, moving here and there, as Angel shifted her footing, firing again.  One grazing hit, one hit blocked by the blackened arm again.

There were other gunshots.  Horseman, not far from Lucy, opened fire.  Trees in the way blocked most of the shots.  Others missed.  The Other paused once, as a tree blocked him from their sight, throwing off aim and tempo, before lunging for Angel, low to the ground.

Lucy strained to see.  In that one hand, reaching out ahead, was a black stick.

A black scalpel.

Fuck.  That’s a-”

He jumped Angel.  Arm hooked around her neck, scalpel cutting chin, cheek, temple, forehead.  She fought him, grabbing, and he deftly fended her off.  Other temple, other cheek.  She drew a combat knife and stabbed, and he blocked it with the elbow of that black-encrusted arm, holding scalpel near the palm as he hooked fingers in nostrils.

He ripped off Angel’s face, using the fistful of skin to grab the combat knife out of her hand.  His other hand gripped her hair to hold her up as as a shield against incoming gunfire.

Horseman just opened fire, shooting through Angel to get the guy.  Lucy couldn’t tell if any connected, but it seemed he didn’t love being shot.  He moved behind a tree.

Fuuuck!” Angel shrieked, falling to her knees.

A hand and arm reached out from behind the tree, deftly stabbing Angel three times in the back of the neck.

Her eyes widened, and she fell, limp.

Three little cuts between vertebrae.

“Black Scalpel!” Lucy raised her voice.  “Carmine Lord, it used to be bound because people couldn’t get rid of it, it kept coming back, they sealed it inside an area and Charles fucking let it free!  It’s an Abyssal tool!  A really strong one!  Try not to kill the host!”

“What do we do?” Grandfather asked.

“Who has the keys?”

“You want us to run?”

“Something like that.”

“Mark was driving.  So was Whistle.”

Whistle was probably out, except, maybe…

No, if she thought a few steps ahead-

A gunshot from the trees dropped Pipes.  Right in the forehead.

With Angel’s rifle.

Fucker,” Grandfather whispered.

Lucy saw the figure move between trees, throwing the rifle aside.  Maybe because he didn’t want to bother reloading.  Maybe because one hand was occupied with the scalpel.

Elvis was there, stepping out of the darkness, combat knife in hand-

And lost the ensuing tangle.  The moment the struggle turned against him, Horseman began unloading bullets into him, not caring he was being used as a human shield.

Holes in the feet, every other step seemed to be a prompt for Footspur to stab the guy from below.  Bullets meant holes in the legs, one arm.  It was slowing the wielder of the Black Scalpel down.

Abyssal, bogeyman-style energy kept them upright.

“I need your tags,” Lucy said.  “And I need the keys.”

“Mark!” Horseman shouted.  “Do you have-”

The Scalpel threw something out of the upper branches of the trees.  At Mark.  Mark swatted it out of the air, aiming and shooting at the source of it.

Angel’s face-skin.

Mark glanced at it, grimacing.

Which was a mistake.  A momentary distraction, emotional attachment-

And another projectile came flying.  Angel’s knife, taken from her.  It impaled Mark in the forearm.

He aimed to shoot again, as the bogeyman came running, low to the ground.  But something about the placement of the knife meant his trigger finger didn’t work.

From where he was positioned, there was no clear shot at him that didn’t go through Mark.

“Go down!” Horseman shouted.

Mark threw himself sideways, into snow, simultaneously dropping his gun into his left hand.  He aimed-

And the Scalpel leaped over fire.  Kicking the burning embers and stray bits of wood outward.  Burning wood slapped Mark’s upper chest, sparks flying off it.  Other things went toward Midas, who flinched, and Foggy, who mostly ignored it, aiming and firing a shotgun.

The force of the pellets hitting the Scalpel knocked it over.  But it wasn’t enough.

Lucy moved, darting toward Mark.

“Say yes!” Lucy told Mark.

He was struggling to turn over and get a good angle on this fast-moving Scalpel.  A target that would be hard to hit without murdering the host.  He looked at her.

The Scalpel had reached Foggy and cut his face off.  Thick glasses fell to snow.  The body fell on top of a wounded Midas.

She used a dueling paper, pulling it free of the rubber band with the rune-block on it.  Her arena unfurled around her, catching Mark in it.  “Fight me.”

“The fuck?” Mark asked.  “Sure.”

The dueling circle solidified.

An arena for herself and Mark.  The snow became a pink-white, the trees black.  She and Mark were illuminated in brilliant colors, her hair white.  Mark’s scars stood out, including the ones framing his eyes- a ‘plus sign’ of scars around one eye that hadn’t been there at the start of fall.  The faint patterns of his military jacket shifted like clouds on the sky.

The Scalpel approached, staring at them with lidless eyes.  As Horseman fired, shattering the Scalpel’s shoulder, the Scalpel moved around, behind the two parked vehicles, then behind the barrier of the dueling arena.  Using it to block Horseman’s gunshots.

“Fucker,” Mark muttered.  He pulled the knife out of his forearm.  “I have to fight you?”

“It’s kind of a rule.  I’d appreciate it if you lost.  I want the keys to the van.  Really hoping you have them.”

Mark nodded.  He fished them out.

Horseman threw two homemade bombs.  Probably parting gifts from Black when they’d left.  One thrown to each side of the dueling arena.

Trusting that the arena’s boundaries would hold.

Nails and other makeshift shrapnel flew out.  It wouldn’t do much to an Abyssal thing.  The Scalpel stumbled, then darted into the trees.  Boughbreak blocked the way, and the Other pushed through.

Between the damage and the force of the push, Boughbreak’s other side came through.  It was a complex spirit, one with a bit of an elemental tumor in it.  So when the Bough broke-

The wood shattered, splinters exploding out with a lot more force than the bombs had had.  The Scalpel fell.

Only to pick itself up again.

“Okay.  Should I lose now?”

“I don’t know.  Let’s… hold on.”

“Here.  Since you’ll probably win,” Mark said.  He threw the keys at Lucy.  She caught them, not taking her eyes off the Scalpel.

Horseman went for it.  He drew a combat knife, then rushed the Scalpel, who was wounded by the splinters, countless chunks of wood embedded in flesh, wounded by multiple gunshots, and countless stabs to the undersides of his feet.  The Scalpel was pretty much moving on the stumps of footless legs, at this point, maintaining balance and speed.

Horseman took two steps, ducked left- with Grandfather directly behind him, ready to fire in that moment.  A pre-arranged signal Lucy hadn’t caught with the arena’s barrier up.

Three more steps, duck left again.  Grandfather fired.  One more step, duck right- the Scalpel dodged that one.

And Horseman clashed with it, knife against scalpel.

Lucy wasn’t in a position to measure power, but the Scalpel had taken a fierce beating and Horseman was good.  Maybe not as tricky as John, not as ready to answer stuff like glamour, dunking Lucy in water.  But… good.

Good enough to win.  Fending off surgical swipes with the scalpel, stabbing less surgically with the combat knife.

The Scalpel, losing, stumbled back, and then casually threw the scalpel aside.

It rolled, skidding over snow packed by multiple footsteps, bounced, and fell into the paralyzed, faceless Angel’s hand.

Her fingers closed around it.  The Scalpel-wielding Angel wasted no time in lunging to her feet, darting to the side, taking trees as cover.

“Fucking-” Mark muttered.

“Mark,” Lucy said.  “First blood okay?”

“Whatever you say.”

She used her rapier, and she watched the Scalpel.  Tracking movements, listening.

Angel was quieter.

Faster to ascend the trees.  That was her whole thing.  She was agile, fast.  Parkour stuff.

She leaped from high treetop to Horseman.  He moved to one side, shooting- the Scalpel barely cared.  She landed, and Lucy swore under her breath.

The provisions to exclude the Dog Tags from the spiritual defenses counted against them here.  Her feet didn’t get stabbed when she landed.  She was faster, stronger, and she met Horseman as the Scalpel without injuries, this time.

A stab of the knife was deflected with a forearm meeting forearm, scalpel in hand burying itself in wrist.  Horseman lost the use of his fingers.  The scalpel was pulled free, slashing Horseman across the throat in the same motion.

Lucy poked Mark in the chest, drawing blood.  The arena barrier quietly broke, and she put a hand on Mark’s arm, pushing him lightly in the direction of the attacker.

“Yeah,” he whispered.  “Fuck me.”

Lucy went for the van, as Grandfather, a bleeding-out Horseman, and Mark all engaged with the Scalpel.

She put keys to ignition, basically having to sit on the very edge of the seat to get foot onto the pedals, because Mark’s legs were longer than hers, and fumbled, trying to get the van to start.

Swearing, pulling her bag off, she got the twigs out, spilling two onto the floor of the passenger seat.


She pressed the arrangement of twigs and metal bits against the dash.  “Come out!  Drive!”

The spirit emerged, flowing into the vehicle.  The key turned, it turned on- probably a necessary component, because ownership mattered for this.

Then Enginehead kicked them into roaring motion, gearshift clicking madly as it adjusted, wheels skidding.

They narrowly avoided trees on their way out.  Leaving the Dog Tags behind.

She looked back as they reached the road, and she saw the Scalpel in Angel’s body, stepping out onto the road, standing there, looking.

“Keep driving.  Have fun, go fast,” she told the spirit.  “Don’t get us killed in the meantime.”

She buckled up, then got her phone.

She dialed.  Conference call.  It’s three in the morning.  I hope I can reach them.

Avery was first to pick up.

“What’s wrong?” Avery asked.

“Dog Tags.  You have some.”


“Use them.  Now.  Fuck, I can’t get Verona awake.”

“She sleeps heavy.  Call-”

“McCauleigh,” Lucy said, already switching to the contact list.  Click, hold, select ‘add to call’.

The phone rang.

“Is Verona there with you?” Lucy asked.



It took a second.

“Lucy?” Verona asked.

“Dog Tags.  Use them ASAP.  Gotta get the Dogs out of a bad situation.”

“On it.”

“They’re nearly dead,” Avery said, over the same call.

“You got them out?”


“Fuck, also, be careful none of them is wielding a scalpel.  I don’t think it works that way, but-”


Lucy patted the dash.

“Oh man, oh man,” Verona said.

“You got ’em?  You got yours?”

“I’m not getting a reply from Midas.”

“Midas is a pain in the ass.  Fuck,” Lucy muttered.  “Fuck.  I’ve got- Enginehead!”  Lucy slapped the dashboard a few times.

The engine roared in response to the name and signal.

“Stop.  Let me do this, then I think you can drive for a while.”

The van reluctantly slowed.  It fishtailed a bit as it hit a slower speed, like Enginehead got to be a worse or less effective driver when not going full blast.

Lucy pushed the door open.

She couldn’t really rush this.

“Tell us what happened?” Avery asked.

“Carmine Lord outside the Carmine borders,” Lucy said.  “Black Scalpel.”

“Haven’t heard about that one in a while.  I thought Musser stopped it.”

“Comes back,” Lucy said.

She put the phone on the top of the wheel so it was close enough, and drew in chalk on the road.  It was dark, it was a rural road.  Nothing came by, or looked like it was coming by.

She explained what had happened to the others.

Was this strong enough?  She didn’t know.  The Scalpel was a nasty one.

She pulled off the tags.  Facing the direction they’d come from, she stepped forward, throwing all of them down into that barrier circle.  All of them except the ones who hadn’t come with her today.

From the tags she carried with her, that meant Angel, Grandfather, Pipes, and Foggy.

She remained tense, ready for Angel to be wielding the Black Scalpel, to come tearing through that barrier.

She wasn’t.  No Scalpel in evidence.

But none of them were in good enough shape to pick themselves up or help her get them into the van.

So she remained there, sitting with her butt against the wheel hub, bloody and mutilated soldiers at her feet, taking a painfully long time to rouse.

A scalpel wound takes longer for them to heal than a weapon of war.  She remembered that from working with John.  Musser had the one scalpel-wielding Other.

There was no sound out there, except for the hum of the engine, and the raspy breathing of the Dog Tags slowly pulling themselves together.

Grandfather recovered enough to sit up.  A moment later, he was on his feet.  With Lucy’s help, he lifted Pipes up and roughly pushed him onto the floor of the back of the van.  A faceless, slashed-up Angel followed soon after.  It helped Angel was half of Pipes’ weight.  Then Foggy, who was heaviest, but Grandfather had healed enough to manage that, and Foggy was coherent enough to help himself a bit.

Lucy got her phone and shut the door.

She let Grandfather sit in the driver’s seat, with instructions to let Enginehead have the wheel for a while.  She took the passenger seat, in the van that smelled like blood.


It was early afternoon by the time they arrived.  One scare with the Scalpel showing up somewhere ahead of them on the road.  They’d let him slash a tire and had driven on the rim to the next town, where Lucy had used Marlen’s machine-repairing egg beater to fix things up and get them going again.  One tease of a sighting of the tea party bogeymen, who the Lord of that local area had helped avert.

When she gave her report to her mom and Verona, she’d said that last bit was less eventful than it sounded.  It had been.  But she was worried that Charles was this willing to push beyond the boundaries of his realm, sending powerful Others into adjacent spaces.  Worried it was Seth aiming these Others at her, Lucy put some anti-Augury measures into place and that did seem to help cut down on how much these threats showed up.

The sky got darker in the mid-afternoon, and things got far darker as they went down the road.

The Dog Tags were taking a while to heal up.  Angel especially.  With the others in Thunder Bay and Kennet, the group had shrunk a lot.  Even if they’d been in fighting shape, it would’ve been rough to have another encounter.

“It’s hard to not put you in the same box we put Yalda,” Grandfather said, quiet.

“Hmm?  That’s fair, though,” Lucy said.  “I can see where it’d happen.”

“You’re not at all like her, though.”

“She’s probably better at singing than I was at guitar.”

“Let us listen sometime.”

“I’m still pretty bad.”

“John was bad too.”

“He got okay,” Lucy said.  “Only thing was he insisted on singing along, and he didn’t have the voice for the singing he liked doing.”

Grandfather nodded.

Shadows between the trees deepened.  The trees and light-posts that the van drove past swept past them, becoming more and more evenly spaced, trees becoming more like fixtures.  Light-posts becoming more natural.

Until they were on a road lit only by headlights, passing through a series of black-painted arches, with a sea of misty darkness on either side, behind, and ahead of them.

Then there was no road.  No sound of wheel on roadtop, snow, or ice.  They passed through a series of arches, hypnotic in how they punctuated every few seconds of travel, silently sweeping past.

The van coasted, maintaining trajectory.  Grandfather, driving, turned the ignition off.  It didn’t change anything, except to make the car interior a bit darker.

The shadow of one archway swept past, and then the Sable was there, sitting on the stubby hood of the vehicle, wearing a black suit with a midnight blue dress shirt, black tie.  His hair was long and thick, his beard narrow and scraggly, his eyes black.

“Are you here to unseat me?  Destroy me?” the Sable asked.

There was no windshield to block the sound.

“No.  Even if we were, the idea would be we’d approach you, trying to sound you out.”

“I heard from the Aurum.  I looked into the Alabaster situation.  If you were, I’d say that your journey began from a place and time of violence, you met violence on the way, you had violence as traveling companions, you had violence in mind.  That’s cause enough for me to send you to the Carmine Exile.”

“I have capital-L Law in mind,” Lucy said.  “There’s more to my friends here than violence.  There’s more to Kennet and what Kennet is doing right now than violence, too.  I met Charles’ fuckery on the way, I think sending right into the way of more fuckery would be…”

She wasn’t sure how to phrase it, and puffed out her cheeks slightly.


“If you’re truly here to see me, and if there’s no cogent argument to make that you’re truly seeking the Carmine, then you’re entitled to an audience with me by Law.”

They passed through an archway like all of the others and it was like coming out of a tunnel.

Lucy had seen the spirit kingdoms in books.  Places, especially out east, where there was more establishment of spiritual identities and cultures.  Where Animus mingled with spirit and Others often had a place to go to, passing through some threshold into a misty, majestic place.  A big part of the Oni wars had been an effort to segregate the world of humans and the world of Others by forced relocation of Others into the spirit world.

The van had stopped.  So they got out.

A shifting, ghostly landscape of majestic buildings in a sea of mist.  It was so still it looked like a painting, except little details would bleed out or shift.  It was more Western than Eastern in style, but there were faint influences.  Like some artist who’d drawn in a different style all their life was drawing manors or ivy league university buildings on rolling hills in black mist.  There were no birds, no sounds.  The silence was so heavy it felt like it sucked something out of Lucy.

And, here, with one distinct detail.  It was cold, dark, and done up in black stone.  The gardens were more black stone, in splinters and slivers.  There was no sky, but some vast cavern ceiling of more black stone.  Firefly-like white lights drifted with the mists, illuminating traces of the water’s surface, and giving some fleeting sense of what would otherwise be black architecture and landscape against a black background.

“It is customary to ask for a favor, to make a statement of intent,” the Sable said.

“Is this discreet?  Does the Carmine listen in?”

“If you ask for him to be left out, then he cannot hear.”

“I’m asking.”

“Then he cannot hear.  Your favor, your intent?”

“A conversation,” Lucy told him.  “I want to know where you’re at, the role you play in this.”

“I oversee the Pale.”

“An older term for boundaries.  Borders.”

“Very much that.  Between realms.  Between life and death.  Your intent?”

“Oh, you wanted both,” Lucy replied.  “You think the conversation is the favor, and not the intent?”

“That was my interpretation,” the Sable said.  “The intent.  What reason for the conversation?  What do you want, here?”

“To know your stance.”

“Why?  Behind that intent?”

“To stop Charles.  Because he’s ruining everything we’re doing, he’s ruining what you’re doing, I think.  He’s ruining everything.  I don’t think his reasons are good enough.  I think in terms of Law, he’s skirted rules.”

“Many of the rules he flouts are ones that haven’t been set in stone.  With your sword moot, you tried setting some things in stone.”

“Maricica seemed to get away with flouting those things.”

“And weakened your position somewhat.  But she is being punished in a way.”

“I want to stop him.  I want to figure out where you stand in relation to that.  We’ve got one judge I think we can trust to be reasonable, one that’s compromised, and one that’s a real problem.  Depending on where you stand, it becomes fifty-fifty or it’s one against three.”

“It’s rarely that simple in pure numbers.  However, I do follow your sentiment.”


“I must see to some business while you’re here.  Bear with me.  I’ve taken on the Alabaster’s responsibilities, now that I’m the oldest Judge.”


“You can observe or potentially participate.  Perhaps the light that shines on my actions and roles will help compensate for the fact I’m distracted.”

“So long as it doesn’t involve me getting into trouble, or any traps, feeding any information to the Carmine Exile…”

“Nothing of the sort.”

“Okay, sure.”

“If I say I’ll continue to support the Carmine Exile’s endeavors, what will you do?”

“Big question.  Feels like I’m tipping my hand if I say,” Lucy replied.

“If you provide no information to give me context on how to answer, my answers may lack nuance.  It’s up to you.”

“Putting it in simple terms?  I think we’d treat you as part of the problem to be solved.”

“And how will you deal with the problem?”


“If that’s how you frame it.”

“Charles… his side shot my best friend.  Burned my other best friend’s home down.  He cut up my friends.  He’s terrorized Kennet.  Killed Ken.  Killed John Stiles.”

Lucy glanced back at Grandfather, Pipes, Angel, and Foggy.

“In that last point, at least, he was acting in alignment with Law,” the Sable replied.  “The contest was announced, he answered it, as is the right of every being, and he won.”

“We said this to the Alabaster, but you guys telling John to try for the role, giving him these guys as incentives, and then turning around and fucking him over, giving Charles the ability to go in wearing the furs, letting that bird slip out to steal the ring?”

“The bird was the Alabaster’s failing.  The rest was Lawful.”

“But Charles also desecrated Yalda’s remains.  Everything that happened with Yalda… you guys asked John to remove her?  Because she was complicating things?”

“We did.”

“You didn’t clean up after.  Charles noticed, didn’t he?  That you didn’t clean up that mess.  You might’ve disposed of her body, but… there’s a lot more to an animus.  Spirit.  Influences.  You guys got lazy, and you left a mess behind, and a forsworn asshole took that mess, made a weapon.  And you guys, again, the Judges at the time, you twisted that weapon around to become something nastier, as a ‘fuck you’ to the forsworn guy.”

“That was the Carmine Beast’s prerogative.  Her right, as Judge, to dictate how those violent forces might align.”

“You guys didn’t clean up the mess, you could have stepped in to limit the mess the Carmine caused.  Call it mercy.  Call it an afterthought.  Call it a question of transformation and transition.  Argue for it to be another Judge’s business, then stop it from becoming the Hungry Choir.  Find another way to tell the forsworn guy to go fuck himself.  You could’ve.  You didn’t.  Let’s get that out of the way.”

“As you wish.”

“And, in the long run, it was why Charles was able to triumph in the Carmine Contest.  It’s why he’s in power now.”

“A large part of it.  Arguments could be made that he or his Fae ally would have found another way, but I will not make those arguments.”

“And it’s messy.  The stuff happening because of him, the way things are leaking out into neighboring territories.  The way the region is being gutted.  Bound forces being released…”

“Mess is not inherently bad, and it is ultimately-”

“The province of the Carmine?” Lucy asked.

“Yes.  This type of mess, in any event.”

“You guys didn’t clean up enough after you got rid of Yalda.  You didn’t stop the Carmine Beast from twisting Charles’ ritual into being the Hungry Choir.  You didn’t stop him from misusing Yalda.  You didn’t stop him after he took power.”

“Nobody asked us to.  It was the Carmine Beast’s prerogative to make the Choir.  It was Charles’ prerogative to use the resources at his disposal.  It was his prerogative to set his own mandate and change things as he saw fit, when his changes didn’t override existing establishment.”

“He overrode a lot,” Lucy said.

“If you wish to discuss the terms and Law of it, that is your right.”

“It’s my prerogative to tell him to go fuck himself, right?” Lucy asked.  “To stop him?”

“Customarily, that is done with the Carmine contest.  If you do not like how that domain is being managed, you find another manager.”

“It’s a real bitch to find a Carmine that I’d trust with the job, who I’m okay with basically sacrificing, giving up to the role.  And at the same time, that’s too easy, isn’t it?” Lucy asked.

“Is it?” the Sable asked.

“Charles, what, winks out like a light switch goes out?  Ceases to be, erased from everything?”

“In many senses.  Not erased from memory, for example.”

“He gets to leave his shitty legacy, it takes us generations to clean up?” Lucy asked.  She looked back at Grandfather.  “A multi-generation setback?”

“Perhaps,” the Sable replied.

“I want to stop him, I want to stop the people who helped him.  He did everything he did with- with viciousness.  Edith, the way he betrayed friends, us.  I want to stop him in a way that hurts him.  Hurts his allies.  That’s my right, right?  To try?  Prerogative?”

“It’s an avenue open to you.”

“Eye for an eye, right?  That’s old Law.  A lot of practice, like rebounds, it’s got eye for an eye baked into it.  Right?”

“It is.”

“I’ve been nice, giving people outs?  Chances to ask for mercy, to change sides, to drop the fight?”

“You have.”

“And that’s Law, too.  Gives a karmic advantage, every time we’re doing it?”


“And we’ve done it a lot.  Almost as a rule.  When we don’t have to.”


“It matters I’m saying this to you now, right?  That you’re saying ‘yes’ a lot.  When I’m bringing the receipts to a judge?  That’s a whole thing in Law practices.  Statements of intent, statements of claim, statements of ‘I deserve better karma than I’ve been getting because of reasons’, all that matters?”

“Yes.  It does.  Within my realm, as far as my ability to act applies.”

Lucy paused.  “That feels like a weird thing to highlight.  Why does it matter?”

“Other forces are acting.  Beyond my reach.”

“What forces?” Lucy asked.

“I would not say, except you’re certain to find out shortly after our meeting.  The Carmine has been, as you note, expanding borders and testing limits.  The region, in a global perspective, is a footnote, a five minute conversation between the Lords of China, for Japan, for Paris, for other major Lordships, in the midst of greater business.  They made an offer to the Carmine Exile, Alabaster Assembly, Aurum Coil, and myself.”

“They could just remove him.  He’s weaker right now.”

“He’s weak, but that is precisely why they timed it as they did.  He’s likely to accept now.”

“What’s the offer?”

“Legitimacy.  Security.  Power.  From multiple corners of the world and other realms.”


“Because it means the matter that was a five minute conversation between world powers remains a five minute conversation.  They deal with worldly concerns, they don’t like distractions or recurring nuisances like this.”

“And he’s accepting?  That’s hypocritical to everything he’s doing.”

“He’s entertaining the idea.  But it falls to all of us Judges, and we’re likely to vote three to one in favor of the deal.  Faced with a fight against us three, the Kennet side of this conflict organizing against him… he may tell himself he can say yes to the deal, making it unanimous, or work in some details, and find a way to keep pushing his agenda.  It may even be possible to.”

Lucy shook her head.

“Come.  Inside.  We can discuss there.”

“You know, his whole method?” Lucy asked.  “The brutality, the viciousness, going after everyone that wronged him?”

“Eye for an eye?” Grandfather asked.

“Statement of intent?  I don’t want to take Charles’ approach.  I want to do better.  I want him to learn a lesson, I want it to hurt, to sting, to destroy him, even, but because there was a better way, when he took the awful road he took.”

Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

Go for the Throat – 23.3


Previous Chapter

Next Chapter

“Baptized in bin juice.”

“Please don’t baptize my opossum in bin juice,” Avery muttered.

“It’s fine, my dear,” Toadswallow told her, reaching up over his head to pat her arm.

“Ringed in trash fire!”

The fires were lit.

The orange-red light and thick black smoke filled the back rooms of Toadswallow’s speakeasy.  Snowdrop sat atop a precarious pile of furniture- sitting in a chair with legs crossed, hands gripping ankles, given an ominous light.  The fire framed the stray hairs that stuck up and away from her head.

She was wearing a t-shirt dress with black leggings underneath.  ‘Ticking and Screaming’ was emblazoned on the front.  She wore a jacket over it that recurred and seemed to have more patches on it every time Avery saw it, headphones with the extended, opossum-ear rims around the earpieces, kept around the neck, and torn up old shoes that were perpetually unlaced, but never seemed to trip her up.

Not really dressing up, but that seemed to be the point.

Avery could feel Snowdrop suppressing a cough as the smoke reached the upper part of the room, and pulled on the familiar bond.  Avery discreetly did the coughing for Snowdrop.

“Let’s see your shitty offerings!” Tatty screeched.

Offerings were put forward, where the trash fire didn’t reach.  Bits and bobs.  Pretty things, improvised weapons.  Maybe a few minor goblin magic items, of the lowest quality.

Snowdrop couldn’t carry a lot of things, even with Avery suppressing that Lost tendency, but she could stow things in a personal area, and she’d have her own quarters after this.

Some goblins, not finding a good place to give their gifts, tossed them up to Snowdrop.  A few got the bright idea to try pelting Snowdrop.  Snowdrop caught a few things- a small flask of something that wasn’t liquor, a dead mouse or something painted in neon blues and greens.  Something banged against the leg of the chair that was precariously perched up high.  Another something bounced off the seat and landed in the trash fire, like Snowdrop might if things went wrong.

“Let’s hear the words!” Tatty screeched.

Snowdrop had a battered old microphone that Avery was two hundred percent sure she’d seen at the crummy old record store across from the motel.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaa!” Snowdrop screamed, arms above her head, microphone unnecessary.  Avery saw the chair shift slightly, scraping a half-inch to the side at the shift in weight, and tensed.

Goblins picked up the cry.  Cherrypop was barely able to stay standing, kicking and punching at the air in her excitement.  Avery could feel how much Snowdrop was enjoying Cherrypop enjoying herself.

Snowdrop dropped her arms.  The room went quiet, except for the noisy pop of the fire.

“I’m going to be your old fogey sage,” Snowdrop told them, speaking into the microphone.  The sound quality was terrible, but it kind of worked.  “I’m going to be your retired warlord.  I’m going to be your slimy monster in a dark alley, so weirdly goblin I can barely do anything except spit random wisdom at you all.”

There were nods.  Cherrypop was nodding especially eagerly.

“You need advice?  Get bent, I’m no trashy dear crabby advice columnist for goblins,” Snowdrop told the room.  “Market stuff?  Forget about it.  Market’s done for.”

Snowdrop’s voice took on a darker edge with the smoke congestion.  Avery did her best to absorb the worst of it.

“I’m basically her familiar,” Cherrypop told a goblin, who kind of stuck a foot out sideways to nudge Cherrypop to be quiet.

Avery bent down, picking up the little red goblin, and stepped forward, arm around her lower face, to pass Cherrypop up to Snowdrop on her high perch.

Snowdrop put Cherrypop on one knee, where the goblin sat, looking as happy as anything.

Snowdrop leaned forward, which shifted her balance in an already precarious position.  “You want my sagely wisdom and guidance?  It’s time you all get serious.  I’m talking mindless violence.  Let’s cut this group down to almost nothing as we wean out just about everyone.  No place for the weak.  There will be no Liberty or America Tedd guest stars.  There won’t be anything cooler than the slide or the arcade… fun’s over.”

Avery idly wondered how many goblins didn’t get Snowdrop’s gimmick.  The ones who didn’t didn’t seem to have the memory to really remember most of this, at least.

Snowdrop held out the microphone in front of her.  Fires crackled.  The microphone’s audio popped for unrelated reasons.

All the goblins were tense.

She dropped the microphone, and it was like the starting gun had gone off.  Goblins started partying, pushing at one another to try to sneak-grab some of the offerings that had been left.  Snowdrop took advantage of that moment of confusion and of how bodies between fire and furniture blocked some of the light, leaping from the chair.  Startling the hell out of Avery.

But Snow became opossum, rusty fork clamped in teeth, and Avery caught her.

To the goblins who weren’t paying attention, Snowdrop had disappeared.  For the ones who were, Avery supposed it was still kind of cool.

Toadswallow was navigating the crowd, and picked up some offerings, while Avery, tears in her eyes from the foul smoke, retreated back into Toadswallow’s speakeasy.

It looked like the chaos was becoming a bit of a party.

“That alright?” Avery asked Snowdrop.  She could already tell, but it’d be a weird familiar bond if she and Snowdrop stopped talking because they could sense answers through the internal back-and-forth.

“Nah.  Look at them having fun now, I wanted to sell them more on my no-nonsense, bloody warlord approach.  That would’ve been a lot easier if I wasn’t covering you for your wimpiness with the smoke.”

Avery gave Snowdrop a half smile.  “You wanted this, we’re doing this as a partnership, I want you to have it.”

Temporary partnership.  You’re bound to bite it sooner or later, sooner if I can help it, and then I’ll keep going,” Snowdrop said.

“Good enough?” Avery asked Toadswallow.  He’d climbed a pile of plastic crates to get onto his stool, then from stool onto the ledge behind the bar, where he could face Avery more directly.

“Good,” Toadswallow said.

“Gives goblins a reason to come in, get involved?”

“Get our market going again,” Toadswallow said, He nodded, chin dipping in and out of his neck fat.  “I’m stuffed things worked out this way, in the long run.  Way I’d originally planned it, I’d have my Sage, get everything lined up, then kick it off.  But messier is better.  We went off-plan, I made it mine, first, kept a card close to the vest, and now we get to play that card.”

He stepped onto the bar as he talked to clap a small clawed hand at Snowdrop’s shoulder.

“That’s you,” Avery said.  “Tricks in your vest.”

“And Warrens mud in my trousers.  She’ll be around?”

“I’ll be coming back and forth as we prepare.  But I’m going to Thunder Bay, so it’ll be a bit of traveling.  I’ll- yeah.  Yeah?”

She directed that last ‘yeah’ at Snowdrop, who’d brought Cherrypop out of fork form again and who was trying to bite her.

“We’ve had enough of each other, so I’ll stay here,” Snowdrop told her.

Avery messed up Snowdrop’s hair.  She looked at Toadswallow.  “Evenings?”

“I can sell that.  This lot mostly sleeps through the days, anyway.”

“I wonder if there’s a way to… just trying to think of ways to make this work.”

“Appreciated,” Toadswallow replied.

“…Alpeana?  If we’re getting the midnight market going, maybe a ticket system?  I might’ve been listening to my dad talk about his work too much.  Or a screening system.”

“For nightmares?” Toadswallow asked.  He tilted his head.  “What are you thinking?”

“I’m thinking, like… goblin passes on that they need advice, or sagely counsel.  They write something up or-”

“Goblins write great,” Snowdrop said.

“Or, I dunno, whisper into a specific crack in the wall.  Someone or some magic takes the words down.  Alpeana connects Snowdrop to goblins, spooky weird opossum nightmare time, Snowdrop gives counsel?  We’d obviously pay Alpeana for her trouble.”

“We’ll figure something out,” Toadswallow said.

“Lots to figure out,” Avery noted.  “Stuff’s still crazy with Charles, even if they’re busy picking themselves up and getting organized too.  There’s the plan-”

“Let us worry about that,” Toadswallow said, with subtle emphasis.



I know you’ve got your plan and we’ve got ours, and I’m not supposed to tip off Charles, but if we’re doing that, then shouldn’t we at least pretend to help out?

“This feels weird,” Avery told him.

“As an expert in weird feelings, I’m willing to listen if you’re willing to talk,” Toadswallow said.

Snowdrop, one hand messing with Cherrypop, pinning her to the counter, put her chin in hand, looking at Avery.

“Hmmm… I screwed up, got shot, and now it seems we’re being punished, like you guys don’t trust us, or you’re only now considering other options because of me.”

“It’s not because of you.  Many things have been leading up to this.  When my plans for the market first came out, I told you three I was willing to adapt to any circumstance.  I’m older for a goblin.  I could have my own sprogs with my lady Bubs.  I’ve traveled realms, I stand somewhere between Miss and Rook in worldly experience.”


“I know we might lose.  I know things might go bad.  But goblins are tenacious,” Toadswallow told Avery.  “It’s always been buried somewhere in this thick skull of mine, that I need to make plans for if it all goes wrong.”

“Plans, huh?”

“From the moment I brought up my market with you all, I was talking about the shapes it could take, if we lose every fight.  If we lose key people.  Now, I certainly don’t want that to happen, but if it does, there can still be a market.  And Miss, Rook, and all the rest, they’re starting to do the same thing.”

“It feels like giving up.”

“It’s measuring up,” Toadswallow told her.  “If you’re taking responsibility for something, part of that responsibility is being ready to cut your losses, give up the dream to preserve what you can of the reality.”

“Heavy,” Avery said.  She paused.  “Worrying.”

“A heavy place we’re getting to.”

“When we kind of eked out a win despite me going and getting shot like a loser?”

“Don’t get down on yourself.  Does this have anything to do with you losing those glitterninny checkmarks you were giving yourself, for confidence?”

“Not how it works, I double checked,” Avery said.  “It’s more like how my Grumble, after his first stroke, got really depressed for a few years.  He didn’t have my Gran.  It was really a letdown in a big way.  Got him reflecting on life.  Getting shot, even if I’m okay, it has me doing the same.  Kicking myself a lot.”

“You should,” Snowdrop said, head and one shoulder now on the counter, arms outstretched.  She used both hands to ‘fight’ Cherrypop.

“You shouldn’t, the furball is right,” Toadswallow said.  “Killwagon told me something once.  If you’re towing a load and it starts wobbling, what do you do?  I know you’re not a driver yet, Avery.”

“It’s going to be a problem when I am, because that’s when the Zoomtown boon will really start itching me, I think.  But yeah.  I… don’t know?”

“If you stop, your load gets rammed up your tailpipe,” Toadswallow said, smiling wider.

“That’s fun,” Snowdrop murmured, half her focus on Cherrypop.

“Slow down and try to play it safe?  Your load wobbles more, because you’re wobbling, in the heart.  Try to steer with it?  You’re liable to flip your load and yourself with it off the side of the road.”

“It strikes me you probably don’t drive or tow loads either, Toads,” Avery told him.  “You can’t see over a steering wheel.”

He laughed.  “I learned from someone who does it well.  That’s all we can do, with our different experiences.  Do you want to know how you handle it when your load wobbles?”

“I really don’t,” Avery said.

“Double check your connections, you don’t want to spill that load everywhere, but you tow that load harder, faster.  Show it you’re the boss.”

“Go harder huh?” Avery asked.  “That’s definitely goblin advice.”

“If you’re asking a goblin, I think you know you want this advice.”

“How come you’re not a goblin sage, Toadswallow?”

“Because those saps in that room, they don’t like me.  They don’t understand me.  I understand them, they’re not very complicated.”

Ramjam wandered into the room.  He smiled a crooked smile at each of them.

“There’s only so many times I can tell them what to do, before they start pushing back.”

“You need something pushed?” Ramjam asked.  “I’m good at pushing.”

Ramjam coming through and talking to them had drawn some eyes, which meant other goblins were filtering in from the other room.  Snowdrop hopped down from her stool to engage with them and distract them.

Toadswallow moved across the bar, until he was sitting on the edge, closest to Avery.  His voice low, he told her, “Goblins don’t open up unless you crack them open, or you give them a good excuse.  Some goblins will come from far away to talk things out with a sage, because otherwise, nobody listens.  And there are others who’ll come for a fun and interesting sage, then realize later they can open up.”

“I mean, it’s good they’re opening up, I don’t want to say that’s not important, but… is that important?” Avery asked.  “For your plans, I mean?”

“I’ll focus on changing the goblins in the big ways.  Market, jobs, focus, distractions.  Bread and circuses.  They don’t have to like me for that to work,” Toadswallow said.  “Your girl?”

Snowdrop had climbed up onto the barrier that separated two booths.  Goblins were climbing over one another to get to her.

Avery glanced at Toadswallow, then followed his gaze.

Cherrypop.  She looked like she was having the best time, even though it was Snowdrop who was goblin sage of Kennet now.

What exactly that role would mean, Avery was sure she’d find out in coming days or weeks.  Some of it was bound to be a headache, or a logistical nightmare, but so many things were.  School, Nora, Avery’s family.  If she had to pick one to deal with, she felt it was Snowdrop’s turn already, especially with how Snow had saved her.

“Lonely.  Not being the one that’s liked.  Sorry, Toadswallow.”

“Pshah.  All of us are lonely,” Toadswallow said.  “Some of us, it’s some of the time.  Some of us, we know what love is, but we have business that takes us different places.”

“You and Bubbleyum?” Avery asked.

“Your mother and father,” Toadswallow said.  “But even Matthew and Louise, they’re together most of the day, but he has his work, she has her business.  They have to part.  The loneliness is sharper, knowing what they’re missing, every moment.”


“Even when they’re side by side, even when Bubbleyum and I are sticking tongues down each other’s throats, even when your parents are putting odds and ends together to make the new member of the Kelly family-”

“Toad,” Avery said, taking her eyes off Snowdrop and looking at Toadswallow.  “Off limits.”

“They’re lonely even together.  We’re different souls, trying to align.  Coming different places, going different places, with different reasons.  When we’re at our best, we’re walking the same road together for a while.”


His voice got even lower, living in the croak that his voice could dip into when he got serious.  “I resigned myself a long time ago to the fact I may be one of the scattered few who think the world of goblinkind, and I won’t be more than a footnote in their stories, I won’t be someone they get excited to talk about five years after I pass.  I may start something, maybe because of me, goblin markets will be a thing, and goblin glamour and murmurings of the eighth court will be dangerous secrets that certain goblin princesses and those they deem worthy will teach…”

Avery nodded slowly.

“Or you three.  There could be a few others over the years.  I plan to be around for at least as long as any of you three.  Maybe I can do that.  But I daresay I won’t get the credit.  I’ll live like a pig in the shit, a duke in his duchess, I’ll back up my new Sage if she needs it, so don’t worry about that.  Then I’ll be forgotten like a friendless beggar.”

“Toads, no.  That’s… that’s really sad.”

“It’s how they are.”

“Change that too, then?  Maybe we can have Snowdrop nudge them, using her role as Sage?” Avery asked.

Toadswallow chuckled.  “That’ll be a good lesson in pushback.  But let’s save that for a little later.  There’s other business to see to.  I’ll start up my market.  She’ll take her baby steps as Sage, I’ll help with that too… and you?”

“I’m heading back to Thunder Bay,” Avery said, more decisive than she felt.  “I’m drained, but it’s not something I can fill up on back here.  Self.  I’ll be going back and forth a lot.  My mom’s cutting me a lot of slack if I break curfew.  She’s cooperating with that whole idea, about you guys not wanting to have another fight.”

“Tightening things up some,” Toadswallow said.  “It’s better than everyone having tricks up their sleeves, last reserves, and whatever else, saving them with different timelines in mind.”

Avery nodded slowly.  “I still don’t like it.”

“I know.”

“But my mom and dad do, so… I dunno.  I’ll restore my Self, maybe I’ll do what you said, establish those connections.  Like you said with the towing stuff.  Check connections first, make sure nothing’s going to snap…”

“They missed you terribly, you know?  I talk about loneliness, but your parents were distraught, your friends’ souls were wounded.”

Avery’s eyes went to the side, staring at a random tear in the wallpaper.  Snowdrop sensed something and turned to look, which was the opening Ramjam needed to tackle her to the floor.  Tatty grabbed her hair.

Playful roughhousing, even if it looked like murder was happening.

“That’s not a condemnation, my girl,” Toadswallow croaked.  “I’m only saying, time with them is time that heals your Self.  I know that much.”

“Lucy left for the Sable, that’ll take a while.  Verona’s digging into her sort of stuff.  I’ll use the time right now to… I guess to be more centered, more me.”

“Find your confidence?”

Avery nodded.

He clapped a hand on her shoulder again, leaving it there.

She signaled Snowdrop, who began to pull away from the goblins.  Snowdrop put Ramjam between herself and the mob, then gave him a little push, which made him the target of the goblin depredations.

Panting, with a black eye and blood at one nostril, Snowdrop grinned toothily at Avery.

“Have you hit the shrines, or do you need to make time for that this morning?” Toadswallow asked.

“I did.  With the rotation, we’re doing Verona tonight, Others tomorrow morning, me tomorrow night.  I can bring Snowdrop over tomorrow night?”

“Not tonight?  Even if you’re not visiting shrines?” Toadswallow asked.

“If you need her, yeah, or if she wants to go?” Avery asked.

Snowdrop shrugged.

“But we’ll have the council meeting, I think, and other stuff.  My mom likes to do these sit-downs in the evening,” Avery said.

Toadswallow passed them the choice items from the offerings that had been given and then seized up in the aftermath of Snowdrop’s sagely announcement.  A few minor magic items.  “Tomorrow night, then.  We’ll manage.”

Some minor magic items, goblin candies, trinkets, odds and ends.  One rock from Cherrypop.

“They’re yours, but you want me to hold onto them?” she asked Snowdrop.


“You’re not taking on too much?” Toadswallow asked.

“Go hard, go fast, right?” Avery asked.


Doors slammed as Avery jogged down the street, Snowdrop running ahead with a silence rune to make it so they wouldn’t disturb any of the foundlings in the houses.  Avery sent Snowdrop ahead to the far side of the street to check doors there, then followed, letting the doors change.

She backtracked to the side of the street her family was on, walking at a decidedly more placid pace.

Her mom walked behind her, periodically nudging Rowan and Sheridan, who were blindfolded.  Not that they were blindfolded well.  Sheridan kept peeking.  She made brief eye contact with Avery, then scrunched her eyebrow down so the blindfold would cover her eye again.

“Mom,” Avery said.

“Snitch,” Sheridan told her.

“You don’t even know for sure what I was going to say.”

“I can guess.  And you are a snitch, even if you aren’t snitching right now.  When you were ten-”

“When I was ten?” Avery asked, turning to walk backward and face Sheridan while talking.

“The copper candle thing?  Snitch.”

“Watch where you’re going, Avery, please,” her mom said.

Avery spread her arms, continuing to walk backward, onto a stairwell.  She walked down the stairs without looking, glancing at doors as she passed them.

“It would be great if you fell,” Sheridan said, peeking.  “Acting all cocky like that.”

“You’re looking?” their mom asked.  “Sheridan, seriously.”

“Can I take the blindfold off?  I’m in this, I’m wanting to do this, so let’s just ease me into it.  I’ve seen shit at the Garricks and in our freaking kitchen, anyway.”

“You want to do this, even knowing what happened to Avery?” their mom asked.

Avery turned back around, before her mom locked her sights onto her, and jogged ahead a bit.  Her mom and Sheridan had their back and forth.

Doors.  Doors, doors, doors.  She shifted her focus, trying to recall what symbol meant what.  Bell, pen and ink pot, weird indistinguishable blob- she cracked that door open.  There was a steep drop from door to the sandy wasteland below.  Below a deep blue-black sky, multiple buildings drifted twenty or thirty feet above the ground, creaking as they did, dilapidated, abandoned, and vaguely haunted looking, each with trailing ‘roots’, like plants that had been pulled up.  The sand had a glow that illuminated everything from below, the only light available, but didn’t really reach high enough to shed any light on the silhouettes of the Lost sitting, standing or riding on the roofs of the towers, houses, and other buildings.

She had an ominous feeling about that one.

She pulled the door shut and made a note on her phone.

“How long is this going to take?” Sheridan asked.

“You know, there’s a Garrick who’s taken on the job of figuring that out?” Avery asked.

“Convenient!  Let’s call them!”

“In a general way.  Making and opening doors, taking notes, what’s known, what isn’t… how many are known to be easy or safe to cross.  What ones are common, what ones aren’t.  You’ve seen the glamorous side of this-”

“Have I, though?”

“But you could sign on to all of this and be assigned a boring job while you’re learning the ropes.  Taking notes on a spreadsheet.  Figuring out the running odds of getting a good door, finding trends in the doors?  Research?”

“There’s a thought.  I wouldn’t mind either of you on a desk job,” their mom said.

“I’d rather a desk job about putting data about freaky dream spaces into a spreadsheet than one where I’m, I dunno, reviewing social media.”

“Valid,” Avery replied.  “Except don’t call them freaky?  It’s like going to, I dunno, Africa, and talking trash about Africa.”

“This is Kennet though,” Sheridan said, fake-scratching her head so she could nudge the blindfold and peek with one eye.  “Weird Kennet but it’s still Kennet.”

“La la la la, can’t hear,” Rowan said.

“It’s a Kennet with a lot of people in it that are from, in this analogy, Africa.”

“La la la la.”

“We should really have a serious sit-down with your dad before we okay you taking off the blindfold, Sheridan.  The fact you’re not listening worries me.”

“Oh my god.  In what universe is anyone going to say, hey, magic, cool, I’m going to turn away from it, get back to the boring?  Except Rowan, he doesn’t count, he’s committed to being lame.”

“I’m not committed to being lame.  I’m committing to other things.”

“Which I think is admirable,” their mom said.

“So much for la la la, huh?”

Avery opened another door.  Teacup.  Tea meant tea shop, which could be more chill, right?  She popped it open.

A city, dark and gritty, to the point of being noir, but in tints of brown, not black and white, with steam rising from manhole covers, and men and women in old fashioned gangster suits, with Lost features.  Several had shadows instead of skin, and the shadows they cast were various textures like grass and loose boards with nails sticking out.  Others had animal heads, with cheap and battered top hats propped on top.

In the distance, Avery could see, was a harbor, with what might’ve been a great lake or ocean.  Massive teabags and cages with teabags in them bobbed in it, some dangling from cranes, and the water had a tea color, and a strong tea smell.

They gave Avery sharp and wary looks.  Several of them had cups of tea they casually held.  Some had knives and batons.  Some had both.

“Oh!” someone shouted, across the street.

Avery turned, hand holding the door open.  A man in a suit with very white skin and a very black mask ran across a bridge, across the road, and to the door, disappearing through.  As he did, his skin turned to shadow, and his shadow turned to the texture of white paper.

A dozen paces into the Path on the far side of the door, he stopped in his tracks as he saw the gangsters.  “Oh.”

“You need help?” Avery asked.

But he was already running.  Gangsters picked up and moved powerful lanterns so their shadows would sweep in his direction.  He tripped on one wet shadow, stumbling and falling.  He picked himself up and ran to places Avery couldn’t track from the doorway, the gangsters starting to run after him.

“Good luck?” Avery suggested.

“Me?” Rowan asked.

“Oh my god, you’re so annoying,” Sheridan said.

Avery started to close the door, and bumped into her mom, who was looking.

“Hope he’s okay,” Avery said, shutting the door as soon as her mom moved aside.  “I bet they have tea better than anything we have, there.”

“We have to get a move on,” her mom said.

Avery took a second to make a note on her phone.  She could sense Snowdrop waiting.  “Yeah.”

One door with a chair at an odd angle.  She popped it open.  It looked like an opulent dining hall, with food all down a long table, but tables, chairs, and just about every fixture were tied with ropes.  There was no floor- just a drop into darkness that went hundreds or thousands of feet down.  All the furniture was suspended.  Nope.

She shut the door.

Another, not that dissimilar.  It was a rich building, with lots of animal heads mounted on the wall, and a velvety rug with gold trim running down the length of a long hallway.

“Coursing mounts,” Avery noted.

“Hm?” her mom asked.  “Safe?”

“No.  And… politically problematic,” Avery said, frowning.  “Because that’s a Path that got locked down by someone else.  Like how the Garricks locked down the Promenade.  The… either the Latimores or the… shit, name escapes me.”

“Language,” her mom murmured.

“Whoop, sorry.  One of the non-family groups.  They’re doing some research, locked it down temporarily, but ‘temporarily’ became a year and a half, I still think I’d make enemies if I were caught wandering through there.  Not that I would.”

“What happens, theoretically, if you steal something?” Sheridan asked.  “Could I just get, like, an elephant head for the wall in our apartment?”

“I’m a vegetarian, I don’t like leather, you think I want a giant elephant head in our room?”

My room.  Technically everything on my half of the shower curtain… it’s fake, isn’t it?  It’s… abstracted, from symbols and stuff, changes when a different person looks at it?”

“La la la,” Rowan started saying, hands at his ears.

“It’s maybe fake, but I’m not really a vegetarian or disliking leather because I care about animals, exactly, it’s-”

Snowdrop snapped her head around to look at Avery, saying something, that was muted by the sound rune.

“I’d tell you to shush if you weren’t already muted, Snowdrop.  You know what I mean.  Shush your familiar connection whatever.”

Snowdrop laughed silently.

Avery turned back to Sheridan and her mom.  “It squicks me out, and…”

Avery bent down to grab some snow, packing it together into a snowball.  She lobbed it into the room.

A fireplace that was set halfway down the hallway roared out a blast of flame, stopping just short of charring wall and floor, but covering just about everything else.  Pictures of men with rifles fired their rifles, sinking bullets into the opposite wall-

Avery flinched a bit, at that.  She felt papers she’d stashed on herself go hot.

-and a blade on a pendulum slid out from between two bookcases, sweeping the hallway.

“Badass,” Sheridan said.  “Could you get to the other end of the hallway if you tried?  I dare you to go to the other end of the hallway.”

“I can’t, I won’t, I’d make enemies with finders I might like to work with someday, and-”

“And you might die or come close to dying,” her mom said, in a pointed way.

Avery shut the door firmly.  “Yeah.”

“You said we could spend more time with Kerry, Declan, your Dad, and Grumble, and you’d get us back in time.  Can you?”  Her mom was getting antsy.

“It’s a luck thing,” Avery said.  “Recognizing the right doors we can use.  It’s just a series of bad luck right here, that we’re not finding a great door.”

A few houses down, there was a door with a window inset into it, that partially obscured the symbol, and it had a vertical bar down the middle.  Black on either side, gold down the middle, black… chains?

She opened the door.  She could see a town, with chains stretching this way and that, like clotheslines, connecting buildings.  Rain came down in a downpour.

“Oh.  This might be a place I know.”

“Wet,” Sheridan noted.

Avery flipped up her hood, peering through the door at every possible angle, to see as much of the area as she could.  It was behind a house.  Maybe the viewpoint from a shed.

Snowdrop came over, with the spell card in hand.  Avery turned, looking, and pulled Sheridan’s blindfold down before she beckoned for Cherrypop, who followed their group, keeping rough time with the doors slamming.

Avery bent down to take the paper from Cherrypop, who resisted unnecessarily before letting it go.  She tore the papers.

“Hmm.  This looks like the Commons’ Thread, maybe, got lots of ‘threads’ tying stuff together,” Avery observed.  “The areas that are like Lost marketplaces and bits of civilization tend to be more chill.  So… let’s see…”

She stepped through, Snowdrop at her side, and paused.

Not the Common Thread.

Her breath caught in her throat as she turned- there was commotion.  Sheridan had poked her head in, her mom had tried to stop her, but her mom was guiding Rowan behind her.

Avery turned to say something and stop her mom, but couldn’t talk.  Rowan bumped into the door with enough force it bumped into the corner of a house near it and then banged shut.


Avery could see her mom’s eyes go wide, as her head turned.

Meant for you to hang back.

There was no air.

Rowan turned the knob on the door.  It rattled, but it was locked.

Avery turned, breath frozen in her throat, and scanned the surroundings.

On a clothesline-like chain high above…

She stomped three times, then leaped, going high.  Even with the wind shoes, she didn’t get that much clearance.  She fell.

Sheridan, leaning back against a wall, seemed content to suffocate while giving Avery a ‘really?’ look.

Snowdrop slapped her hand into Avery’s.  Then became opossum.  Sensing Snowdrop’s intent, Avery leaped again.  Wind stirred her coat and hair as she went high, about thirty feet up.  When she was high enough, she tossed Snowdrop up.

Snowdrop became human, flailing arm and foot sort of catching on the chain.  She grabbed two keys that dangled from it, then dropped.  Becoming an opossum again.

Avery caught her, while simultaneously pushing some of the ‘fall protection’ boon onto Snow.

As rain came down heavily on top of them, she could see that mist from the spray of the pelting rain.  And in that mist, ahead of Snowdrop’s mouth-

She did Snowdrop.  Key to that keyhole in the air.  Nothing.

Second key to that keyhole in the air.


She did her own.

She went to her mom, who’d dropped to a sitting position, back to the wall, and motioned, fingers flicking.  Her mom blew air that wouldn’t come, and the keyhole clarified.  Avery inserted it, then turned.

Then Rowan, who seemed to be dealing with the lack of oxygen the worst, then Sheridan.

“Whooooo,” Sheridan said, as she got her breath again, eyes wide.

“In the future?  Wait until I signal before coming through,” Avery said.

“I was in a rush,” her mom replied.  “I didn’t think.”

“And I should’ve been clearer,” Avery said, panting for breath herself, not just because of the brief patch of exertion, but because she’d nearly offed herself and her family.  Her hood had fallen down and her head was already soaked.  She ran fingers through wet hair.

“I saw three things I shouldn’t have,” Rowan said, groaning.  “You jumping, the opossum shape-changing acrobatics, the keyhole.”

“Seriously,” Sheridan told Avery.  “Next time, wait until Rowan has his blindfold fixed before you save our lives.”

“That’s not what I’m saying,” Rowan said.

“In the future, we can stick to using the car,” Avery’s mom said.

“I’m not- I like not having a three or four hour drive in the morning,” Rowan said.  “But can’t we walk the middle ground?  Be more careful about getting into situations where lives need saving?”

“Let’s,” Avery’s mom said.

Avery groaned.

“So,” Sheridan said.  She turned and jiggled the door.  It was still locked. “We locked in?”

“We are, and the way to get from one place to another is locked, and so is just about everything here,” Avery said.  “Welcome to the Keyways.”

“Are we in trouble?” her mom asked.

“No,” Avery said.  She walked down a ways to a stone washbasin that was set into the middle of a space between four different buildings.  There was a staircase off in the corner, behind a locked gate, that led up to a higher level of the town.  A claw mark had gouged the wall, like someone or something had casually dragged claw-tips through stone while walking by.  She dropped her bag and fished inside it, pulling out a length of rope.  She put it around Rowan’s waist, and then did the complicated knotting required to secure it.

“Sibling bondage,” Sheridan commented.

“Gross,” Avery said, at the same time her mom said, “Really-”

“-gross,” her mom finished, picking up what Avery had put up there.

Sheridan grinned.  Rowan just rolled his eyes.

Avery gave the rope a firm tug, which produced a faint mechanical sound.  She pulled hard, and Rowan took a step toward her.  She put a hand out, keeping Rowan put, then pulled tight again.  A fiercer mechanical sound.

The knot was blocked.  A keyhole shape appeared in the space between the portions of rope.

She freed Rowan of the rope and put it away.  The little alley from this little washing area between houses and the road was sealed with a metal gate.  “Hmmmm.”

Walking over to the washbasin, looking past the surface of the water, which was frothing with rain, she could see a key at the bottom.  The sign on it seemed to match the gate.

She reached for it, and her fingers crashed into the water’s surface.

She pushed, and there was another mechanical sound.  Pushing hard, a void appeared in the frothing water’s surface.  Keyhole shaped.

Air key was pretty easy, they’re common, usually up in the air, she thought.  This gets trickier.  Wouldn’t be surprised if it’s six layers deep.

Snowdrop nudged her.

Some of the long chains above them had closed in a bit, dipping lower, moving to be closer to them while they weren’t looking.  Those would need to be addressed too.  A different key for each one.  A security measure put into place after the Wolf had torn through, once?

“But we should maybe plan on missing morning classes,” she told her family.


Basketballs drummed on the floor.  Two large carts of well worn basketballs had been wheeled out, many imperfectly inflated.  They practiced shooting hoops while waiting for the proper gym class to start.

In the end, she had only missed the first half of the first morning class.  She’d spent the other half of that period sorting things out in the front office and figuring out her class schedule.  Then she’d come here.

Avery was reminded of what Lucy had talked about.  How things had gone with Wallace.

Nora was in her gym class this semester.  Locs tied back, wearing a black gym shirt and baggy basketball shorts.  She hadn’t approached Avery, which at first was like, okay, changing in the locker room, especially weird for the two of them, and Avery didn’t mind being able to stand in a corner and not have everyone see the bandage taped to her hip.  Except it had carried on after?  Avery wasn’t sure if she should approach Nora.

So Nora shot at one end of the gym and Avery shot at the other, and Avery felt like her heart was on the floor and someone had their foot on it, and that someone was steadily, slowly increasing the amount of weight they were putting on it.

She focused on shooting baskets.  Aim was something she needed to work on.

“Avery Kelly?”

Avery turned her head.

Her gym teacher was a very petite woman with a polo shirt, clipboard, and whistle at her neck.  She could be mistaken for a senior.  She apparently recognized Avery because Avery had missed a couple classes already.  The one face she didn’t recognize.

“The name behind the legend?” the woman asked, with a tone like she wasn’t impressed, her eyes scanning her clipboard.


“Mr. Artrip sings your praises.  You’re the reason Jeanine’s going so hard lately, huh?” the woman said, eyes on the papers.


“The tall one.  You don’t know her?”

“I know her,” Avery said.  Jeanine wasn’t hard to miss, running around in the background.  She was significantly taller than the next tallest girl.  And kept glancing at Avery.

“She was the fastest in your cohort, didn’t even have to try.  But now she’s got a rival, she’s actually trying.  Artrip’s happy.”  She’d turned to the last page.  “You were away, came back with a doctor’s note?”

She showed Avery.  The doctor’s note Avery had brought from the Kennet hospital had been photocopied and handed out, apparently.


Shattered hip, according to the note.”

“It’s all healed.”

“That’s what the note says.  Shattered and healed.  I’d love to talk to your doctor.  How’d you manage to shatter your hip and get back to where you’re standing in front of me, between your last practice with Artrip and today?”

Avery shrugged.

“You weren’t attending lacrosse practice with cracks running through your hip, were you?  It wouldn’t be the craziest thing I’ve seen, but it’d be one of the stupidest.”

“I wasn’t.  That happened after.”

“Still got that indestructibility of youth, huh?  Or the doctor’s prone to exaggeration.”

I don’t feel indestructible, Avery thought.  Plus I feel like my heart is being stepped on, but that’s a whole other thing.

She just shrugged.

“Okay,” the gym teacher said.  She held the clipboard by the bottom and tapped Avery’s shoulder with the top end, almost like she was knighting Avery.  “We’re keeping it super light for you today.”

“I was hoping to really go hard, work out some stuff.”

“You’re that type, huh?”


“Too bad.  Part of my background is in physical therapy.  Let me see you walk?  There to there.”

Avery walked between the two designated points.

“Hike up your shirt and do that again?  Just enough I can see how your hips are moving?”

Avery did.  Aware the bandage was on display.

“Jog in a circle around me.”

Avery sighed and jogged.  She caught Jeanine looking.  Jeanine had turned hostile with the party at her place, and Oli wasn’t really fielding that or stopping it.  So it was a thing constantly going on in the background at school.  The looks.  The feeling that every weakness was something that this person who now hated her was willing to pounce on.

“Okay,” the teacher said.  “Nothing’s jumping out at me.  Your gait looks fine.  I’ll keep an eye on how you’re moving.  Overcompensating for pain or weakness on one side can lead to problems as you put excess strain on the other.  Let’s keep you at a light jog at the fastest, and if I see you go any faster, you’re sitting down the rest of the class.”

“I really, really, really, really want to run.  Actually run.”

“I’ve got a doctor’s note in front of me I have a lot of questions about and little other information I trust.  I really, really, really don’t want to see a promising young athlete do permanent damage to herself because her pain tolerance is higher than her body’s tolerances.  Light jog or nothing.”

“What if I say I’m going to go run anyway, later, and it’s better if I do it while supervised?”

“No blackmail.  I’m serious.  Artrip said you liked hockey?”


“I work with the coach of the local team, I’m who she calls if a player gets injured, and I’m around every night the team’s playing, for the more serious games.  That means I’m one of the people you want to keep happy if you want a place on a local team.”

Avery nodded.  “Until?”

“Until I decide otherwise.”


What the hell? Avery thought.

It struck her that she was a little more Lost than not right now, and she was starting to worry that she was feeling the consequences of that now.  If Aware could be shunted away from careers and things where their talents could see them excel, and Avery’s trip into the Paths, hospital stay, and heavy draw on Snowdrop had seen her take on more Lost-ness, did that mean that reality would contrive to give her a teacher with a specific focus on keeping her from running her fastest, being the excellent athlete she could be?

That was scary.

She really needed to recoup her Self, then.  The human stuff.

And she couldn’t run.

Nora was barely looking at her.

She started to walk over to Nora, and the whistle blew, shrill, behind her.

“Okay, guys, let’s get started!  Balls in the carts!”

She really hoped Nora wasn’t also a thing that she lost as she moved further away from humanity and Innocence.


Putnam burst into the locker room of a gym class she wasn’t in.  Putnam, pretty and dramatic and like some immature half-fae, great in a lot of ways, but also not very chill.

“Nora, Nora!” Putnam set her sights on her target.  “Can I steal you?”

“Right now?  I’m changing.”

“When you’re done.  I’m trying to get everyone together, it’s like herding cats, and you’re the quietest, most evasive cat, so I’ve got to find you where I can find you.”

Avery kept her back turned.  It was hard not to feel like multiple eyes were on her, watching to see if she so much as glanced at someone else, since she was quietly ‘out’, with a flag on her backpack.  Mia back home had said that it was fine, she’d back Avery up, whatever.  And she probably would’ve, but it took so freaking little for one problematic person to get really problematic, and Avery didn’t have it in her to deal with anything more problematic today.

Nora had talked about something similar, but it had to do with worrying that one unconscious glance or bit of awkwardness would be the thing that outed her.

Then having this happening?  Putnam and Nora.  Avery changed quickly, rearranged the contents of her bag, and kept rearranging as she left the locker room.

She was halfway to the cafeteria when she heard Putnam.  “Avery!  Holy shit!”

Avery turned around.

Putnam ran up to her.  “You’re here, you made it.  We missed you.”

“I’m here.  Missed you guys too,” Avery said.

She glanced at Nora, who hung back, glancing left and right, awkward.  Not moving from where she’d been when Putnam had run forward to Avery.

“Hey, look, you know how I am.  Brutally honest.”

“Uh oh.”

“If you look great, I’m going to say you look great.  And you look like shit.”

“Not sure how to respond to that.”

“It’s good, you’re still dashing.  But it’s very end-of-the-movie, hero’s covered in scabs, a little gaunt-”

“Scabs?” Avery asked.  “Gaunt?”

“It’s like that.  You’re not scabby.  That I can see.  But you’re a bit gaunt.  And you wear it like a movie star, don’t worry.”

“I’m worrying a bit.  This isn’t making me feel better,” Avery replied.

“Come.  We’re eating lunch together.  Lots to catch up on.  Actually not that much, but we only have thirty minutes.  Where-”  Putnam turned around and put her hands on her hips.  “Nora.  What are you doing?”

Nora ventured closer, expression unreadable.

“What’s going on?” Putnam asked, looking between them.

I don’t know, Avery thought.  But the fact I can’t tell Nora the whole deal might be souring things.

“Nothing,” Nora replied.

“Something’s going on… and… neither of you are talking.  Okay.  Can we eat lunch together?”

“I thought you wanted me to talk with the band.”

“This is more important.  I can talk your ear off about some band stuff, Nora.  But I also want to hear everything from Avery.”

“I’d like to eat lunch together,” Avery said.

Nora paused, then said, “Sure.”

They headed to the cafeteria, finding an empty table.  Putnam sat across from Avery, and Nora sat to Avery’s right.  With four short bench seats on each side of the square table, there were two people’s worth of space between herself and Nora.


A hand messed up Avery’s hair, then pulled away.  “Ew.  Why are you damp?”

“I just had gym,” Avery said, turning around, while fixing her hair.  “Sheridan.”

Sheridan looked down at her.  She glanced at Nora.  “Hey.”

“Heya,” Nora replied.

Avery kept fixing her hair, feeling the awkwardness steadily increase.  “Why are you here?”

“Ooh, wait, big sister?” Putnam asked.

“Not engaging, I left my lunch over there, I don’t trust people not to mess with it.  But I thought I’d warn you.  Snowdrop packed us lunch.”

“She packed- what?” Avery asked.

“Snowdrop… the opossum?” Nora asked.

Avery could see Sheridan’s brief ‘oh shit’ moment.  She’d thought she was being clever or subtle when she really wasn’t.

“Inside joke,” Sheridan said.  “When something strange happens or the parents get weird.  Blame Snowdrop.”

“The opossum, who’s not supposed to be this far north,” Avery said.  “Which is weird.”

“Thought I’d warn you.  Have you eaten that stuff?”

“What stuff?” Putnam asked.

Avery got her packed lunch out.  Sure enough, it was extra heavy.  She remembered Snowdrop feeling guilty, them mischievous through the familiar bond.  While Avery was sorting out her growing collection of Keyways keys, Snowdrop had eaten some of Avery’s lunch, then probably realized Avery needed all the food she could get, and had given Avery some Lost food she’d saved up.

Sheridan too, for some reason.  Maybe Snowdrop had eaten some of Sheridan’s lunch, but why would she feel bad for doing that?

Sheridan left without so much as a goodbye, while Avery was focused on her own deal.

Avery put the colorful, indecipherable packages on the table alongside the half of an avocado club sandwich that Snowdrop hadn’t eaten.  She craned around, finding where Sheridan was sitting.  It looked like Sheridan was getting attention for her weird food, too.

Which Avery was too.  Some members of the team were already coming over, but the weird food had them extra curious, enough that some other heads were turning too.

Damn it, Avery thought.

“Is this, like, Indonesian?” Putnam asked.  “Korean?”

“I… couldn’t tell you,” Avery said.

“Hey, Dang!” Putnam exclaimed, leaping to her feet.  She hugged her friend.  “Heyyy.”

“Why are you being weird?” Dang asked.  “Huggy.  Are you high?”

“Putnam’s always like this,” Hui said.

Putnam said something Avery didn’t catch, then, “Sit, sit.  Here, totally unrelated to the hug, is this Indonesian?  Or whatever?  Do you know what it is?”

“My family’s from Vietnam, not Indonesia and I only speak French and English.  That doesn’t look like anything I’ve seen before.”

Others took their seats too.  The team.

Members of the team who weren’t sitting milled around.  Which, in its way, was a nice distraction from the awkwardness with Nora, and a bit of bolstering of Self.  People kept picking up the packages and investigating.

“Glad you’re back,” Hui told Avery.

Avery smiled.

“You look worn out.”

“Can you guys stop saying that?  Really bruising the ego here,” Avery told them.

“Where did you get these?”

“I didn’t.”

“What are they?”

“Surprises.  I bit into one the other day and it was chocolate with coffee inside.”

“That’s not that weird.”

“No, actual liquid coffee,” Avery said.  “I spilled it all over myself after biting in.  I also bit into one that had meat, which I don’t eat, so… if you guys want to work out a deal?”

“A deal, hm?” Putnam asked, hovering over the table.

“Taste test, take the risk, you get half.  But I need some for my lunch, since I apparently only got half a sandwich.  So if it’s meat free, I want the other half.”

She sent a signal to a dozing Snowdrop, who was in the apartment with Avery’s mom.  Snowdrop startled awake with enough force that Avery’s mom noticed.  Snowdrop seemed to connect to what Avery was bothered by, then felt guilty.

Glutton.  Troublemaker.

Sorry, was the reply, in wordless sentiment.

“Scoot,” Putnam told Nora, urging Nora to move over.  Nora did.  “Now scoot more.”


“Unless there’s a reason you shouldn’t?”

Avery glared at Putnam a little.  Meddler.

“I unpacked my lunch, and Dang and Hui took the spots there,” Putnam said, pretending to be reasonable and subtle when she was being very obvious.

“You told me to sit here,” Dang said.

“And you haven’t unpacked your lunch yet, so it’s easiest for you to move,” Putnam told Nora, ignoring Dang.

Nora and Avery gave Putnam their annoyed, unimpressed looks, but Nora did scoot over to the next bench down, sitting by Avery.

Putnam sat down in the spot Nora had just moved from, looking very satisfied.  “Three packages.  Who tries what?”

If being in gym class with Nora with things being weird felt like having her heart stepped on, pressure steadily applied, then being next to her was a whole other ball game.  Avery would have leaped to her feet and bailed, maybe, if she thought she could get away with it.  Could she get away with it?

“So what’s up?” Nora asked, quiet.

“Up?” Avery asked.  “Uh.”

“Why do you look like my brother does when he’s hung over?” Hui asked.  “Are you hung over?”

“No.  I was in the hospital-”

Which was more attention grabbing than the strange snacks.  Because everyone was concerned, everyone was talking over one another.

“This is why you were so low energy in gym?” Dang asked.  “I thought you were intentionally fucking up.”

“I was.  Not fucking up, but the teacher told me to go easy.”

“What happened?”

“Fractured pelvis, passed out from blood loss, where people couldn’t find me.”  A bullet shattered pelvis is fractured, right?


Which put Avery in the position of trying to explain what had happened without actually saying what happened, which was really not her skillset, and the only saving grace was that she had six other girls at the table- seven if she counted Nora, who was silent, and the questions came in pairs, or overlapped, or they asked for details, and yet at the same time if she shied away from answering something they didn’t get too on her case.

So she could just kind of fumble around and paint a picture without telling a coherent story that would have its obvious gaps in the narrative.

Maybe she could thank Innocence for something today.

“This is why you didn’t call?” Nora asked, in a moment where enough people had taken bites of their food at the same time that they weren’t talking over each other.  The first question she’d asked, in the chaos.  The one question Avery did want to answer.

Was that the problem?

“I- I was incapacitated for a few days.  Then I had to get my stomach pumped because I had a side effect to medication.  I did send a message pretty much as soon as I could,” Avery said.  “I had to wait for my phone to charge, then fell asleep while it was doing that, and then when I woke up, I didn’t want it to happen again, so I sent a quick message.”

“Really quick.  Didn’t say a lot,” Nora said.  “And I wanted it to say a lot.  I figured you might be backing off.”

“No,” Avery said, quick.  “Definite no.”

Nora touched her arm, smiling.

It felt like that stepped-on heart of hers was now doing the opposite.  Like how an arm that was being pushed down could feel buoyant when the pressure was relieved.

Avery glanced at the team, who were all looking at her and Nora.  She moved the arm Nora wasn’t touching, batting the snacks closer to her friends.

“Let’s see these snacks,” Putnam said.

Avery’s right hand was on the table, and Nora’s hand was near her elbow, hanging on there, Nora sat next to her, shoulder touching Avery’s, and everyone pointedly ignored all of that, pretending to obsess over the snacks.

“Cake-y exterior, inside is… soy sauce but not soy sauce.  Vegemite?” Hui guessed.  “With ginger.  And… crab?  I have no idea what this is.  Meatier than crab or lobster.  But seafoody.”

“Do you eat seafood?” Putnam asked.

“Fifty-fifty on seafood.  Maybe less.  Take it.”

Her friends portioned stuff out.  Putnam had some cucumber and nori sushi in her bought lunch, so she gave some to Avery to compensate.

“Best guess: dehydrated strawberry and basil.”

Avery clapped her hands.  Half the package was slid onto a napkin for others to share, while the other half of the package was slid over her way.  Avery shared with Nora.

“I think you pull this key thing…”

The tinfoil package inflated, to the oohs and ahhs of others.  Steam began to come out as the food cooked in the little package.

“I hope it’s not actually explosive,” Avery said.  I’m not one hundred percent sure this is all edible by humans, actually.

Someone had a plastic spoon and pried the tinfoil package open.

“Dumpling with citrus smells… and- and very yellow contents.  Looks like someone drowned a canary in yellow paint.  Tasting…”

“Godspeed,” Hui muttered, wincing as a bite was taken.

“Beans in lemon juice.  It’s actually good.”

Avery didn’t end up getting half, despite the deal she’d struck.  But they tried to compensate, so she got a medley of things, and that was kind of alright.



“Do you at least feel a bit more human?” Lucy asked.  “Self recharged?”

Avery was on the snowy patio, Snowdrop sitting across from her.  They kept the chairs and stuff covered when not in use, so they were snow free, if still cold enough for skin to stick to.  But it was quiet and she could look up at the stars.

Lucy was in a similar environment, but a good distance away.  The background was a dark green tent, and there was a fire burning nearby.  Avery had plugged speakers into her phone so Lucy’s voice wouldn’t be too low quality or quiet to hear, using those same speakers to prop the phone up.

“Some,” Avery said.  “I’ve got the meeting with the local council in about an hour.  So I’ll be cutting this short.  But I wanted to call.”

“I’ll fill you in later.  I should keep this short too.  Even if it’s Zed’s phone and even if we’re protected… there are Technomancy Lords out there.”

“Yeah.  The Rot thing and the Dropped Call.”

“Yeah.  I’m good.  Mostly I wanted to stay in touch.  Because I need to recharge too, you know?  And you recharge me, you know?”

“Thanks,” Avery said.

“How’s your recharge going?”

“Feels like a lot of stumbling blocks.  Like I can’t get my footing.  I don’t know if things worked out at school because of luck or some other factor, or if I’m just feeling down and then taking all the bad stuff that’s happening and calling it karma, or Innocence or something else.”

“Down because of the injury?”

Avery’s hand went to the bandage that was covering the gnarly scar.  “Yeah.  Some.”

“Makes sense.  Did you get in touch with Ronnie?”

“Briefly.  I think she feels pressured to come up with something here.  Plus her mom’s in town.  Stuff.”


“Are we okay?” Avery asked.  “Us, as a trio?  Are we a team?  Are we coordinated?”

“Or, in our weird little dynamic, do we all feel like we’re falling behind and we need to step it up and really do something right now?” Lucy asked.  “While we’re each tackling a lot?”


“Well, let’s see, I’m camping out in sub-zero weather with a few embodiments of War, while on my way to talk to the arbiter of death, passages, passage to death, dreams, nightmares, the heavier realms, yadda yadda, to see where things stand in a big war situation, and I feel like I need to do more, so I’m reading some stuff.”


“And Verona is busy balancing the three sides of Kennet, doing her end of starting up the market again, plus she’s learning new practice and possibly working out a play against Charles.”

“Yeah.  But then me?  What- I’m maybe talking to people later?  I took a bit to help make Snowdrop goblin sage?”

“Woo!” Snowdrop whooped.

“You’re healing.  Reconnecting with family.  Supporting your familiar, who is basically family.  That’s key, that’s important.”

“That’s-” Avery huffed out a quick laugh.  “It’s nothing, compared to you guys.”

“Ave, you just did your own maneuver from the back foot, it- it’s like an injured player scoring three goals back to back and pulling a victory out of what looked like certain defeat, and then people ask the next day, ‘what’s that guy bringing to the team?’.  Bull.  Shit.  Fuck.  That.”

“If you’re using sports metaphors to make me feel better, you should know I’m not that easy.”

“Damn.  But seriously, Ave.  Maybe look at it as a part of your flanking deal.  If my role tends to be that I’m charging forward, and Verona’s is that she hangs back and then pulls out big practice, and if your role is that you circle around, come in from the odd angle, for the rescue, or catching them off guard?  Maybe timing’s a part of that.  You just had your big moment, don’t pressure yourself to have another.  Or do, but don’t get down on yourself for it.”

“Okay,” Avery mumbled.

“The tone of that okay could not sound more unconvinced by what I said.”

“How’s things on your end?  Camping, hanging out with the Dog Tags?”

“Changing the subject, are we?  Yeah.  Good.  It’s good, camping and hanging out with the dog tags.  I did a bit of practice to keep the campsite warm.  So far it’s clear, we’ll see though.”

Avery’s mom came outside, saying the words, “Knock knock,” rather than actually knocking.  “Coast clear?”

“Yeah, just catching up with Lucy.”

Her mom hadn’t knocked because she had steaming cups in each hand, with spare fingers balancing a plate.  Avery jumped forward to grab some of it.

Cider, and leftover Christmas cookies Kerry had made.

“I’m leaving before super long,” Avery said.  “But thank you.”

“Council meeting?”


“I’d like to come.”

“Alright,” Avery said.

“Lucy, you’re doing okay?”

“So far!” Lucy said, over the video call.

“I’ll tell your mom that.  Am I interrupting strategy?”

“I’m bitching and moaning,” Avery said.

Her mom smoothed her hair down and back with a hand.  “What about?”

“The Nora thing.  Not feeling useful.  Feeling like I failed everyone by getting hurt, and now the Kennet Others are treating us different.”

“I didn’t get the impression you failed at all.  You were hurt by a horrible, desperate enemy and you triumphed despite that.”

“Lucy was saying that, sorta.  That last part.”

“I tried to convince her!” Lucy’s voice came over the speakers.

“And the Nora thing, well…”

“I know I’ve postponed talking to Leona Garrick, she knows a bit about that stuff.  But I don’t feel like it’s going to be useful, and I think she dated Peter Garrick when she was an adult, and the turnaround on being made Aware and then later Awakened is, you know, way tighter.  I don’t have that with Nora.”

“Do you need it with Nora?” her mom asked.

Avery struggled to convey just how much she did probably need it with Nora, yeah.

“It’s basically marriage,” Lucy stepped in, supplying the words while Avery floundered.  “The weight of what you’d be doing or sharing, or whatever.  It’s a lifelong commitment, responsibility.”

And when there’s a responsibility, and there’s a wobble in the load, I’m meant to tow harder, faster?  Avery thought.

It was a lot harder to process that thought when there was a face to put to the responsibility.

“She’d need to be eighteen, but after four years of this strain, I feel like our relationship wouldn’t survive,” Avery said.

“Leona might be able to help with that,” her mom said.

“It won’t be the magic bullet, though,” Avery said.  “I can’t see how it would be.”

“We’ve got lots of magic bullets here,” Lucy said.  “Hey guys, guys.”

She was talking to the Dog Tags.

“Any romantic advice?” Lucy asked.

There were grumbles and moans and someone threw a wadded up ball of paper Lucy’s way, hitting the tent behind her.  Lucy smiled, and Avery half-smiled with her.

“Seriously though, um,” Lucy said.

“It might not be a magic bullet,” Avery’s mom said.  “But maybe she can tell you about enduring that strained part.”

“For four years though?  Nothing fixes this until I treat the symptom and the symptom is a huge lie.”

“Did you agonize this much over telling me, did Lucy over telling her mom?”

Avery’s mouth opened, then closed.

“Yeah,” Lucy said, coming to the rescue again.  “Honestly, yeah.  Except it’s different.”

“Is it?” Avery’s mom asked.

“Because you love us to a much more… I hate the word unconditional, tougher?  Tougher love, tenacious love.  Avery’s not there yet with Nora.  I dunno-”

“Really freaking early in the relationship to be talking about love,” Avery muttered.

“-but it’s different.  The stakes are higher because the love’s weaker.  Like a baby bird you want to cherish and treat gently.”

“I’d never eat a baby bird,” Snowdrop said.

“Or eat, I dunno how that metaphor works,” Lucy said.

“I understand,” Avery’s mom said.  She rubbed Avery’s shoulders.  “I guess I could flip it around.  I had rough patches with Avery’s dad and work which coincided with taking care of kids young enough to unconditionally love me.”

“Still tenaciously love you, I think,” Avery told her mom.

Her mom made a small grunt of happiness.  “Thank you.  You know, if you do happen to find any books on Awareness and that sort of thing, I’m curious myself.  If I’m allowed to read them.  It’s kind of important for me, for the kids who haven’t done the ritual to awaken.  I don’t know how it works, exactly.”

“Mmm,” Avery grunted.  Her mouth was full of hot cider.  She swallowed, despite it being a little too hot.  “It has vague areas.”

“But areas you’re pretty certain are locked in stone?  You seem to be implying it’s like marriage, you don’t want to clue Nora in until she’s eighteen?”

“Hmmm,” Avery grunted again.  “That’s more… that’s not a rule.  It’s more like I’m changing her entire life by introducing her to this stuff.  I don’t know how long I have to wait or how committed I have to be before I do that to her.  With Sheridan and Rowan and you guys it was kind of forced or accidental.”

“That’s where I’d want a good book to read on the subject,” her mom said.

“Convention and establishment,” Avery murmured.

“What’s that?” her mom asked.

“There are things we do because of really ingrained patterns, because it’s how we’ve done them for a long time.  And there are things we do because of really ingrained patterns, entrenched over a long time, that became capital-L Law.”

“Capital-L Law.  Right.  When we were talking to Miss, months ago, trying to wrap our head around that, I would’ve liked to know about that.  It would’ve made it easier to categorize things in my head.”

“Yeah?” Lucy asked.  “Was my mom part of that?”

“Yeah.  Your mom was part of it.  Your dad too, Ave.”

“Hmm,” Avery grunted, sipping her cider.  She wanted to finish it before she left.

“Miss was talking about changing Awareness, all that time ago, which might tie into our conversation about Nora, and how to judge that,” Avery’s mom said.  “Was she talking about changing convention, or was she talking about changing the capital-L Law?”

“Depends what she was saying,” Lucy said.

“Making Awareness something where it was pretty much the default in and around Kennet.  And it wasn’t penalized or bad to be Aware.”

Avery sat back heavily in her chair, head bonking against the metal rim at the very top of it.

“That, I think,” Lucy said, “would be convention, for ninety percent of it, and the penalization part would be the capital-L Law, that she wanted to change.”

“Got it,” Avery’s mom said.  “Still want any books you can find.  If I’m allowed.”

Lucy said something, but Avery’s thoughts were mulling over that whole deal.

She’d already touched on the subject of Awareness when talking to Clem and the Witch Hunters, but the way the conversation had gone with Samaniego, she hadn’t gotten much out of it except a contact for the markets.

There was too much in the way of assumptions here.  About Awareness, how Awareness was bad.  They were already in a situation where they were reconfiguring that.  Anyone who brought someone across that threshold had to navigate that.

What if they simplified that?  What if they changed the game?

It was what Charles’ approach had been.  Take the things that were established but not convention- essentially assumptions, and use those things to challenge, bend and break the conventions.

Previous Chapter

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Go for the Throat – 23.2


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Verona’s breath fogged as she tromped over snow.  A lot of her neighbors were outside, taking care of driveways or just talking with one another.  Probably a bit because of the chaos last night.  Finding community?

Heads turned her way as she walked down the street.

If they’d taken a closer look, they’d have seen the marks on the cheap-ass sunglasses she’d bought.  Gate of horn, to borrow Sight.

Her childhood home was a burned husk.  From one angle, it looked okay, but as she got around to viewing it from the front, she could see more of the side where the flames had done the most damage.  Part of the top floor had collapsed, and it looked like part of the back wall had fallen in or was open to the sky.  The inside looked weirdly bright, with indirect sunlight flowing in.

No car in the driveway.  Made sense.

She was glad that she’d moved a good share of her things to the House on Half Street.  That included a lot of art stuff, jars of hair, winter and fall clothes, but there were a thousand little things she’d accumulated over the years that hadn’t made it out.  A lot of things that she wouldn’t have thought about, but maybe she’d dig them up when she moved out, or they’d be part of a junk drawer and she’d empty it and she’d get a fond memory.

On the way over she’d been dwelling on the pencil topper Lucy had given her, way back in the day, like the vibrating astronaut one she’d been drawn to, that had initiated her friendship with Lucy.  The rocket ship wasn’t as cool as the astronaut had been, it wasn’t important- Lucy had forgotten it was even a thing.  It was still a part of the fabric of her life up until now.

She didn’t really like the ‘real world’ all that much, so losing even a few crummy things felt… crummy.

She used her regular Sight first, peering around the house.  No live electrical wires.  She looked up at the ceiling, peering through the open front door.  “How stable are we?”

The flat meaty thing in the ceiling shrugged and gave her what she presumed was the equivalent of a thumbs up.

“Thanks buddy,” she said.  “Sorry you got burned.  Or is it like a grunge thing?  The equivalent of me wearing a torn T-shirt and crap?”

The spirit stared blankly at her.

“Yeah, sorry.  Doesn’t mean much to you, I guess.  You live a life of flat.  You’re flat, you hold things up, you get held up, flexing the flat.”

The meaty flesh thing stretched the closest thing it had to a face into a smile.

“Do me a favor, don’t fall on me?  I know we’ve had a decent relationship, I keep things clean, bit like tending to a shrine, you’re a ceiling, you hold things up. You’re kind of also the floor above.  I figure you’ve done good work, let’s cap off with you not killing me in an embarrassing way?”

It nodded at her.

She wrapped her scarf around her lower face and ventured inside.  She wasn’t sure it was necessary, with the fire gone cold and the cold weather keeping the smells down.  And fumes down?  Whatever.

Someone down the street saw and shouted at her.  She ignored it.

There was a layer of frozen dreck at the ground floor of the house.  Water from the hoses had collected the crap and then it had frozen.  There wasn’t much to salvage here.  She bent down, pulling on a picture frame, and hauled it out of the muck.  Family photo, from when she’d attended her Uncle Grant’s wedding.  It had been a pretty modest thing, with Aunt Lorraine not even wearing a wedding dress, and the marriage had barely lasted two years.

Two kids, one born a few months after the wedding, the next about eleven months later.  Divorce shortly after.  Uncle Grant didn’t really stay in touch much.  He sent out one big batch Christmas letter, and he was her dad’s go-to when her dad wanted to vent and Verona wasn’t around, and Verona’s impression was that Uncle Grant had stopped picking up the phone as much, or had backed out of being the emotional support.

She shook the frame to let the broken glass fall out, then pried out the somewhat damp picture.  The smoke and grossness had combined with the damp, creating a thick layer of black grit that pretty much ruined it.

“I’m going to put on sunglasses, I won’t be able to chat with you,” she told the ceiling spirit.  Other black-charred spirits watched her from all angles, in this house she’d cleaned top to bottom, multiple times.  “Don’t fall on me.”

It nodded at her.

Sunglasses on.  Through the Gate of Horn, she borrowed Snowdrop’s Lost Sight.

It was cool Sight.  She liked it a lot.  Seeing around corners.  Things looked a little warped, which took a bit of bending the brain to adapt to, but she could take in more of the world.  She imagined it was like a baby learning object permanence was a thing, but it was applying to her, after fourteen years of figuring out how the world worked.

There’s a thing behind the thing, even though I can’t see it.

Stone figures from above the fireplace.  There was a plastic box that had weathered the fire well enough to hold its rough shape, so she grabbed that and began stowing salvageable stuff inside.

There was a cabinet in the kitchen, by the dining room table that had been crushed by a bit of fallen wall, with some old, mismatched chinaware, some cracked by the fire or by falling over when things had shifted knick-knacks, some figurines on the top shelf, which had partially fallen when some glue had melted on the one side.

There was a folded towel in there, bottom layer, cushioning and providing some support for a plate and other things, so they could stand up without sliding on the wood floor.  Little folded towel with a heart partially visible.  What was the opposite of her dinky little rocket ship pencil topper, that was way more sentimental than its one dollar price tag?

She pulled out a drawer and found napkins.  Singed but serviceable.

She carefully removed the chinaware and used napkins to separate each piece from the one beneath, before surrounding it with more.

Until there was only the towel.  She pulled it out, and it stuck to the wood, it had been there long enough.  Or maybe the fire had helped that happen.  She shook it out, and even though the cabinet had a glass door, there was a bit of dust there, beyond what had leaked in with the fire.

I love Vancouver.

No love there.  After she’d come back from a trip with her mom and forgot her dad’s birthday, he’d flipped.  In desperation, she’d offered some souvenirs.  But that ‘I love Vancouver’ towel had been like fuel on the fire.  Everything he did for her, everything he bought for her, he’d said, and she couldn’t remember his birthday?

He’d trashed her art shelf.  Which was bad.

She wished she’d remembered this when David was here, and the subject of her dad’s tantrum had come up.  Maybe that would’ve helped David twig to there being something wrong.  Maybe it would’ve been too much.  Because this aspect of it, she felt, was a bit worse, in a big picture sense.

That her dad had held onto the towel.  Put it on display, in a roundabout way.  Not in a way that anyone else could see and know, but she knew and he knew, every time they looked at the display case and saw that sliver of heart at the fold of the black towel, back corner.

Like he wanted it there so he could remember.  Fuel the resentment.

She tossed it aside, tromped on it to get it flat, and then kicked some burned stuff and snow that had come in through the now-open exterior wall over it.

Photo albums… some wet, some with a thin layer of plastic on the wallpaper-like patterns of the front and back covers that had crinkled with the heat, but as she opened them, there were a bunch of photo negatives in plastic bags in a plastic sleeve at the back.

She set those aside until she found another box and could slot them all in in a row and then keep them propped up with one of the soapstone carvings her dad liked.  It made the box really heavy, though.  She partially dragged it toward the front hall.

“Hello!” one of the neighbors said.  She might’ve been the one to call out to her as she’d gone inside.  She was fifty or so, and had a permanent ruddy complexion that Verona supposed might have been alcoholism.

“Hello,” Verona replied.

“I’m so sorry about your house.  I heard it was arson?”

“Was it?” Verona asked.  She looked at the structure.  “Damn.”

“I really don’t think you should be in there, um?”

“Verona.  Hayward.”

“Hayward.  Right, remember now.  Been a… decade, I guess, since I talked to your dad.”

Just lived down the street from you all my life, in a small town, Verona thought.  Then she amended, don’t blame you.  She pulled her scarf down to flash a small smile.

“You shouldn’t be in there,” the woman reiterated.

“I got the go-ahead,” Verona said.  She pushed her sunglasses up and looked into the house.  The ceiling spirit smiled at her and nodded.

“I… really?”

“Thanks for caring, though,” Verona said, jamming her hands into her pockets.  She could see her friends coming.  Neighbor thing cuts both ways.  “Did you guys get affected?  Fire near your place, or…?”

“No.  We got woken up by the noise, then we were up for a bit after, watching.  But I don’t work, so I could sleep in.”

“I slept in too.”

“Where’s your dad?  Even if it was safe to go in, you should have him around.”

Verona turned to wave at the others.  McCauleigh wore a new white winter coat, Julette with ass in the hood, chin resting on her shoulder.  McCauleigh matched Anselm in height, while Mal was shorter by a couple of inches and Oakham was an inch or two below Mal, only slightly above Verona.

“Yo,” Mal greeted them.  “Hey, lady, I remember you.”

“You’ve met?” Verona asked.

“She was the one who gave me the stink eye, I mentioned her, way back when.”

“You have tattoos,” the woman said, frowning a bit.

“So many more,” Mal said, grinning, pulling her sweatshirt and coat to one side to show her neck and shoulder.

“That’s- no,” the woman said, very concerned.

“It’s way better than when I was cutting the images in with razors and rubbing ink in,” Mal said.  She turned to Verona.  “Saving up to buy a real tattoo gun.”

“Maybe buy art lessons, too?” Verona suggested.

“Maybe shut your spit hole?”

Verona smiled, giving Mal a light punch on the arm.  “Hey, McCauleigh, hey Oakham.  Hi Julette.  Anselm, didn’t think you’d come.”

He shrugged.  His long brown hair reached to his shoulders and got in his face a lot, and his eyebrows were drawn in with perpetual… she liked to think of it as thoughtfulness.  He wore a black sweater with no shirt beneath, and a long black coat.


“We hired some people to pick through the pieces of our house,” Oakham said.  “Insurance is covering it, but my parents aren’t happy.”

“Your house was one of the ones that got set on fire too?” the neighbor asked.  She’d backed away a bit.

“Nah.  Truck drove through the front of it.”

“Does anyone know why any of this happened?” the woman asked, very concerned.

Mal glanced at Verona, and Verona could kind of read her mind.  The woman wasn’t going away.

“Random bad luck, I guess,” Oakham said.  “Maybe the police will come up with something, oh wait, ha ha.  Our police are useless.”

“Really building that relationship for when you become a private investigator, huh?” McCauleigh asked.

“Do you think I can get away with being that pain in the ass type investigator you see on TV?  Surly, drunk, but I get the job done and handle my shit, so they roll with it?”

“If they’re useless, does it matter?” Verona rebutted.

“I don’t think I’d be doing it here.  I’d have you, Lucy, and Avery stepping on my toes, and my one foot’s already fucked enough without them doing that.”

“I’m going to poke around a bit more, see if anything’s salvageable, dunno if you guys want to sit around or come in.”

“I really don’t think you should,” the woman said.  “Maybe you misunderstood whoever you think gave you permission.”

“I’m kinda curious to see,” Oakham said.  “Smells.  You smell.  Like burned trash.”

“You calling my old house trash?”

“Just saying it smells like burned trash.”

The neighbor fretted visibly, but it looked like the group intimidated her a bit.  Mal especially, which was funny.  Julette was a literal pussycat and was more dangerous than Mal.  Oakham had trained with Guilherme.  Only Anselm being around saved Mal from being the weakest here.

Mal walked over onto the driveway, getting a better look at the damage.  As she did, the neighbor backed off, keeping a distance from Mal.  Once she was back a few paces, she seemed to decide to retreat, glancing over her shoulder.

“Thank you for your concern!” Verona called out.

The woman frowned at her.

“Hey,” Verona said, turning around, flipping sunglasses up, and pointing at the ceiling.  “Don’t fall on my friends?”

The spirit nodded.

“I don’t See clearly enough to know what you’re talking to or about there,” McCauleigh commented.

“Ceiling.  I’m talking to the ceiling.”

“If there’s any intelligent spiritual force there, isn’t there a good chance it would buy into the drama and mischief of falling on us at a bad moment?” McCauleigh asked.

“Well, now that you say that, there’s more of a chance,” Verona replied, annoyed.  “Pretty sure we’re still clear.  It has a trustworthy… face?”

“You said that like you don’t know if it has a face,” Oakham said.

“Because it’s a ceiling,” Verona said.

“Sure.  Whatever.”

“Be good,” Verona muttered at the ceiling.

She picked her way through things, finding containers and boxes.  There was a little foot-high shelf in the front closet that served as a rack to slide shoes into, with most of the shoes in bad shape, but the rack had survived, so she repurposed it as a box, moving things in and passing them to McCauleigh, who had shucked off her coat so it wouldn’t get soot on it.

Some crows that were perched in the hole where the kitchen window had fallen out cawed and fluttered as Oakham explored that way.  Oakham went to the door that led to the basement.  Verona happened to have her own Sight going, and saw the ceiling spirit react, ‘mouth’ opening wide.

“Oakham?” she interrupted.

“What’s up?”

“Pretty sure opening that door would be a bad time.”

The ceiling spirit trembled in anticipation and alarm.

“Bad time how?”

“Fuck up your neck like your ankle was fucked, maybe.”

Oakham raised her hands and backed off a bit.  “Damn.  That leads to the basement, right?”


“Wanted to see if it flooded when they put out the fire, and froze up.  Could be a cool thing.  Tragic, obviously, but cool.”

“No idea.”

“I think you had me over for a birthday party once, way back when.”

“Back in the day when we’d all invite the entire class,” Verona confirmed.  Same kids in their class from the beginning til now, mostly.  Except for the ones who’d left, and the occasional new addition, like Bracken last fall, and Avery the fall before.  “Probably.”

“And we’d go down there.  I remember it was pretty creepy, but you had good costumes.  Or am I mixing you up with someone else?”

“Yeah.  Good costumes.  Fixed that basement up, actually.”

“Fat lot of good that did, huh?” Mal asked.

Verona snorted lightly.  “Anyway, that’s where we had renters.  The two creeps?”

“Right, yeah,” Oakham said.  She leaned on her cane while walking over uneven floor, into the kitchen.

The thought of the costumes provoked a bunch of other complicated thoughts.  They were a thing she’d like to have, even if they probably aged badly.  She wouldn’t wear them or use them, it wasn’t like she wanted to have kids ever, but they were more of a fond memory, a time her dad had actually put in effort.  Mingled with the memory of the time she’d fought her dad the night Avery had gotten stranded on the Forest Ribbon Trail.  Screamed at him.  It felt like the moment things had started to trend from an ongoing but stable bad to worse.

The way he’d screamed at her in the kitchen, before breaking her stuff.  Like he’d been holding it in, waiting to use it.  From the shouting match in the basement in the spring until the summer.

She checked with the stair spirit, then ventured carefully up the stairs, further from the basement.

“You okay?” McCauleigh asked, quiet, following behind.

Verona shrugged.  The others were downstairs, except Anselm, who trailed behind a bit.  McCauleigh had passed Julette on to… Verona looked.  Mal.  Sure.  Mal lounged with Julette on the torched couch in the living room, which looked more uncomfortable than lounging just about anywhere else.

“I thought you’d be more bothered, or less bothered, joking?  Dunno,” McCauleigh said.

“Not sure,” Verona echoed McCauleigh’s sentiment.  “In a lot of ways, I said goodbye to this place already.  It’s the little things.  The sneaky memories that filter through the metaphorical netting that you put up to catch things.”

“Mmm.  Yeah.”

“Hey.  How are you?  It hasn’t actually been that long since I got you out of that place.”

“You know how they say, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, blah blah, blah?”


“It was a shithole.  I was in the hole and got treated like shit.  Ate shit.  People talked shit, stirred shit.  I talked shit, stirred shit, went apeshit on people, ’cause I had to.  I felt like shit.  Because of how I acted, and because shit people sling at you sticks.”


“Yeah,” McCauleigh said, without any actual humor or admiration in her voice.  Then with five different kinds of emotion in her voice, she said, “Shitty.


“You’ve been good to me,” McCauleigh said.  “Giving me a place to stay, clothes, not laughing when I, dunno, don’t know how to shave my legs.”

“It’s cool.  You’re alright to have around.”

“You too,” McCauleigh said. “Mrs. Kelly took me shopping and was really sweet, even when she was obviously freaking out about Avery and trying to hide it.  The Garricks made sure I had clean sheets and nice sleep clothes.  Didn’t push me, even slightly.”

“They’re cool.  Dorky but cool.  They can be pushy, though.  With Ave.  I’m glad they weren’t with you.”

“Gave me food when I was hungry, let me sleep in, fell over themselves making sure I had what I needed.  Brought me back this way when I said I wanted to go, no questions asked, even though it seemed like a pain in the ass.  There was no shit.”

The way she kept putting so much emotion into that word, it was like it was- it wasn’t shit, but a shorthand for… for a lot.  For being beaten, starved, kept in a cage, and for being treated that way because her parents had decided she had to.  Because she’d gone her own way.

All that, wedged into a four letter word.

“You don’t deserve that shit.”

“I can’t shake this- I feel like I don’t deserve-” McCauleigh tried twice, aborting each time, clearly growing frustrated with herself, her voice quiet but insistent.  “The Garricks, they gave me these clothes to sleep in, these soft clothes.  Silky flannel, I dunno if it was new, but it felt new.  Like the kind of stuff you’d give a baby, except I dunno if I ever had that.”

“Makes sense that your family wouldn’t,” Verona said, as she checked, then opened the door to her room.

Unsalvageable, at first glance.

“I was wearing them, sitting on this bed, big puffy covers, tired as I’ve ever been, just had to pull my feet up, put the covers over them, I knew I’d fall asleep right away.  I sat there, feeling like a fraud.  Like shit.”

“You’re not, you know.”

“Felt like it.  I felt like it, and these soft pyjamas-” McCauleigh’s nose wrinkled, like she’d just had shit thrown in her face and disgust was overwhelming her, but she was talking about flannel.  “-I was angry.  Too angry to move, to pull my feet up, to let myself sleep.”

“At your parents?”

“At me.  Myself.  For being, I dunno, shitty?”

“You’re not, you know.”

McCauleigh looked restless.

Fuck,” McCauleigh said, with the emphasis of someone realizing they’d forgotten to bring an important assignment to school.


“I’m supposed to be backing you up, not talking about my shit.”

“I asked.”

“I’ve been dealing with this for days.  It’s your turn to get backup.”

“I’ll let you know if I need it.  I asked.  You’re fine.”

McCauleigh looked miserable, still restless.

“Guess we could get you some soft pyjamas.  Gussy up your bed in my Demesne some?  Make that the new normal, until that doesn’t feel fake anymore, until you feel like it fits you?”

“Does that work?” McCauleigh asked.  “Does it fix anything?”

Verona shrugged dramatically.  “Wish I knew.  But I figure, if being treated like shit got you feeling like this, maybe being treated good will move you the other way?”

“It’s probably going to take a lot more time to go the other way.”

“That’s ’cause you’ve got a whole lifetime of lead-up to that crap,” Verona said.  The plastic bits that let the drawer of her bedside table slide in and out had melted enough the drawer didn’t budge.  She hauled it open, and found the cheap set of drawers had basically no bottom and no substance to it, and a lot of it had just burned out from beneath and behind.

“I didn’t really like the extra fluffy, soft stuff,” McCauleigh said.  “It’s hard to pull covers around you when they’re this puffy blanket that’s, I dunno, a foot thick.  The flannel was staticky.”

“Then we can find something else.  Just let me know, I’ll back you up or help you find it, how’s that?”

“Want a really bad segue from that?” McCauleigh asked.

“Like, funny bad, or weird bad, or hurt-my-feelings bad, you’re leaving bad…?”

“Not leaving.”


“I don’t know.  Awkward segue.  Awkward bad.”

“Give me the awkward bad, McCauleigh,” Verona said, picking through clothes in her dresser in the corner of her room.  She was reminded of having Jeremy in her room.  Throwing bras in his lap, before showing him the clasps.

It was less the fire and more the heat.  Everything with polyester in it was trash.  A lot of stuff without polyester in it was questionable.

“Anselm,” McCauleigh said.

Verona frowned, turning away from her clothes.  “Has he been screwing around with the deal he and I made?”

“Nah.  I don’t want this to screw up our friendship.  So if you say no, I won’t mention it again.  But if he and I were to…”

“To?  Date?  Or do what he and I are doing?”

“What you and he are doing.”

“Messing around,” Verona said.


Verona thought about that.  She found the raccoon skull and put it in a box.  Her books on her bookshelf were toast.  Not literally, but… not readable either.  She had to fix her scarf, because the smell of smoke was thick, even now, even in winter, even with part of the outside wall gone and snow creeping into the bathroom across the hall.

“I mean… yeah?  Yeah, no, that’s fine, if he keeps to the deal.  If it was dating and he wanted to be exclusive with you, that’s-” Verona tried to find the words.  “-annoying?  Especially after Jeremy.  But also if he’s your fuzzy pyjamas that make you feel welcome and better, I’m okay with my arrangement with him ending.”

“Nothing like that.  Anselm!”  McCauleigh raised her voice.

“Not listening in!” he shouted up from downstairs.

That’s more suspicious than if you said nothing, Verona thought.

“Come up!” McCauleigh shouted.

He came up the stairs, which creaked a bit ominously.  He peered in the doorway.  “Your room?”

“Yeah,” Verona said.  She was glad she’d left her closet open, because if it had warped in the heat, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to open it now.  She fished out some stuff.  There were old clothes way too small for her, a few spring clothes that she wasn’t sure she’d be able to wear…

“I like that shirt,” McCauleigh said, as Verona tossed it across the room, to the area with the most damaged stuff.

“Too small for me, or for you, pretty sure,” Verona said.  “You know what the real bitch of this is?  So many clothes are just… awful.  So I’ve got to find stuff in my style, that isn’t see-through, that isn’t too tryhard, right?”

“Are we not talking about Anselm?”

“We can, but let me get this out first.  Because this?”  Verona found a top that had been lying on the floor of the closet, that had absorbed enough smoke and heat it was fucked.  “This sucks.  Because when you’re my size and my body type…”

“You have to wear kids sizes?” McCauleigh asked.

“No,” Verona replied.  She indicated her chest.  “Because these.”

“I like those,” Anselm said, helpfully.

“I kinda do too but anything I wear that’s my size that accommodates these makes me look like my stomach sticks out.  And I had clothes I was okay with, and now I don’t.  What ass.

“Your mom wants to take you out shopping, right?” McCauleigh asked.

“Yeah.  Gotta navigate that later,” Verona muttered.  She got fed up with the state of things.  She found some stuff and pulled it out.  It was one of the junk drawers of her childhood, kept to a little resealable plastic box that had suffered for the heat.  No pencil topper, though.  She tucked it under one arm, turned, and faced them.  McCauleigh standing by her bedside table, Anselm in the doorway.  “So.”

“I told her it didn’t matter, we talked about this, made a deal, sorted it all out in advance,” Anselm told Verona.

“I wanted to double check,” McCauleigh said.

“If you guys are messing around and he and I are messing around, and Julette and he are messing around-?”

“She draws me, that’s it,” Anselm said.

“Right.  Still, makes it extra important to be safe.  If you give me herpes through Anselm or whatever, I’m not ruling out making it super herpes and shucking it off me to send it to you as a curse,” Verona warned.

“Don’t see myself doing that,” McCauleigh replied.

“Then sure, if you’re off with someone I trust, someone I like?  Just let me know if you start catching feelings, don’t let this be some thing where it goes on for a year, and you start hating my guts for hanging with him while I have no idea.”

“I like you as a friend more than I like him as a whatever,” McCauleigh said.  She looked at Anselm.  “No offense.”

“None taken.”

“Might change,” Verona said, sighing.  She had to fix her scarf to keep it from slipping down.  Her nose was starting to run from the smoke smell.  “But yeah, whatever, sure.  Did you go to him about this, or did he go to you?”

“Sort of- mutual?” McCauleigh turned the statement into a question midway through.  Anselm shrugged and nodded.

“That’s nice.”

“Do you get dibs?  Like, if you want to ‘hang’ with him, and that’s a whole thing…” McCauleigh trailed off.

“Anselm’s his own boy who can make his own decisions.  Right?”

“Right,” Anselm replied.

“Let’s try not to get pissy with each other, whatever happens, whatever decisions those are,” Verona said, picking idly through her destroyed room, using a toe to nudge stuff that had fallen to the floor and was now stuck there, melted to it by heat or whatever else.  And before McCauleigh could say anything else, she added, “And we probably will, I’m thinking.”

“You think?” McCauleigh asked.

“Like, we don’t always realize what we’re feeling, or why we do what we do.  Stuff gets funky.  Lucy’s my best friend, and after a few weeks of living with her, we were fighting pretty hard.  Other stuff going on, of course, but yeah.  A lot of that makes more sense when I think about it now, but in that moment?”

Verona shrugged.

“Okay,” McCauleigh said.

“I hope we figure it out.  Let’s talk, communicate, share what’s going on?”



“Cool,” McCauleigh said, hands in coat pockets.  She looked around the room.

Verona was glad she’d done some reading.  Boy stuff and navigating this crap was just as arcane as practice.  Lots of variables to take into account.  Still, she didn’t mind so much.

“Sorry about your shit,” McCauleigh said.  “And sorry if this is adding more shit onto your plate.”

“Could be worse,” Verona said.  “Might be worse in the future.  You know, considering what I’m probably going to be up against, in the fight against Charles and his people, and considering what nearly happened with Avery…”

She looked around her room some more, because eye contact was hard.  McCauleigh stared intently at her.

“…I had a letter for my dad.  Wanted to double check the connection block around it wasn’t burned while leaving the letter fine.  It’d be messy if my dad or some cleanup people found my ‘just in case’ letter.”

“Makes sense,” McCauleigh said.

“If something happens to me, I want you to have the house, for as long as you need it.  I’d prefer it if you made it a place people can retreat to, but don’t do that if it’s going to make you and other people miserable.  Use it, ditch the shop idea if that’s not your thing, or make a deal with Luna to run the shop downstairs while you live upstairs, or… something, live there for a few years and then move on to your own thing.  Whatever works.  But I don’t want you to be locked out if something happens, so I’m saying this and willing it to work this way if we end up there.”

“Okay.  It won’t be a Demesne.”

Verona shrugged.  “Raquel has that whole deal with repurposed implements.  Alexander’s office was apparently Belanger H.Q. after Alexander bit it.”

McCauleigh nodded.  “Sure, but it won’t have the usual conveniences.  It’ll be better than it should be, but…”

Verona nodded.

“Sure,” McCauleigh said.

“Thanks for stepping up last night.  Didn’t mean for you to have to join in, start screaming.”

McCauleigh shrugged, but there was a bit of a look in her eyes… yeah.

Getting her away from that shit she’d described would mean minimizing the whole screaming thing, or finding some kind of replacement for it.

“Help carry?” she asked.

McCauleigh nodded, taking one of the plastic containers.  Anselm took another that Verona put some stuff on top of.

She added a few things to her bag as she spotted them.

Pictures in the hallway, pretty gone.

She wished she could think of more things to scrounge for, but there wasn’t a lot.  She felt like she’d have a moment weeks from now where she thought about the house and something in a closet or cabinet that she’d really miss.

A crow cawed downstairs, and she used sunglasses with Lost Sight to get a better view of them, making sure they were regular crows.  Yep.

“Good enough?” Oakham asked.  “Nothing from the kitchen?”

Verona wandered through, checking the kitchen.  The heat had taken the magnetism out of the magnets.  She hadn’t had stuff on the fridge, and her dad wasn’t the type to put her art up there of his own volition.

“I wonder if it’s toxic,” Verona mused.  “Nothing I want that much.  I pretty much transport all the snacks from here to the House on Half Street.”

There was too much crap from the collapsed wall occupying the rest of the back end of the house for her to really go looking for stuff in cabinets.

She heard the car.  It was a familiar sound, altered because the walls were different.  The car pulling in.  A familiar feeling.  The faint sinking in the gut.

Maybe the last time.

“Verona,” Oakham called out.

“I know.”

She moved through the kitchen to the living room, where Oakham was.

Her dad.  She heard the car door slam.  She brought some of the flat, shallow plastic containers out with her, placed them on the stairs, then went and got some she’d set by the door.  The chinaware and stuff.

“Not Lucy and Avery, huh?” he asked, glancing at her friends.

She gave him the box.  “Avery’s in the hospital.”

“Is she okay?”

“Stomach obstruction or something in that neighborhood.  She’ll be okay, I think.”

“Did you visit?” he asked.

The house had been burned by a horror and there was something horror-like about how the words he was saying were nice… barring context.  Barring an angle.  Everything twisted, so he might even look like a normal dad to Mal and Oakham and McCauleigh, but what he was really doing was leading into some bullshit.  When he’d had his bowel obstruction she’d been at the Blue Heron.  For most of it.  She’d stopped in and then left.

“Yeah, helps that I’m in town,” she said, keeping it simple, pre-empting the bullshit.

“Uh huh,” he said, with loaded meaning in those non-words.  He glanced at her friends, studying them.  “I recognize… Melissa, was it.  Or Mia?”

“Melissa Oakham.  She’s going by Oakham.”

“I don’t know the others.”

Verona glanced back.  The others had come outside.  McCauleigh had Julette in her soot-stained arms, winter coat still off.  Anselm leaned against the railing of the stairs, hands in pockets.  Mal had her coat collar turned up, hiding her neck, though she still had some decoration on her cheekbone and temples.  It could be explained away as pen, from afar.

“I can introduce them.  That’s-”

“Verona, I have a lot on my mind.  I’m tired.  I won’t remember.  What are you doing here?  With your new gang?” he asked, emphasis on that last word, making it a middle ground between something accusatory and something… maybe he was trying for playful and failing?  Trying not to come at her head on?

“Old gang is still around.  These guys are more friends in the circle.”

“Your name came up around the time of the fire.”

“Did it?”

“Did you do this?” he asked.  “Did you play a part?  Did you think it was funny?”

There was more tension in the words, now.  It felt a bit like that terse conversation before he’d blown up at her.  That flip-out in the kitchen.  Except she had people around.  That changed the dynamic.  He always put in effort when others were around.

“Do you really have to ask?” Verona asked.  “Really?”

“Your name came up.”

“You said.”


“If you happened to tell me the context of my name coming up, I could possibly follow up with an answer.”

He looked at her friends again.  After a long deliberation, he said, “it doesn’t matter.”

From tone, she felt like it mattered.  It felt like it mattered a lot.  Except there were people around, so it was a thing that would sit in his head like that towel had sat in the cabinet.  One sword among many hanging over her head.

“There are a few more boxes.  Some I’m taking for me.  Some you can take.  Photo albums?”

“Memories of my ex, your mother, and of a time we had a better relationship.  Too sad to look at.  Will be for a long time.”

Almost nice words.  Except for the tone.  Except for the tension, like he was holding something back.

“Do you not want them or-?”

“I want them.”

“Because mom would take them, I know she’s asked for copies of-”

“I want them, Verona,” he said, with a note of anger.  He looked at the house.  “I’ve put so much of myself into that house.  So many memories are rooted there.  Thousands of hours of time at the office, time at my second job, and it’s gone, just like that.  Up in smoke, and I can’t even fucking grieve without your little gang there gawking at me.”

“Backing Verona up,” Oakham said, looking really uncomfortable.

“Oh, so you’ve got backup.  How amazing for you.  The house is gone-” The look he gave her as he said that was accusatory.  Studying her.  “-and you’ve got backup.”

“Yep,” Verona said, hands in her pockets.  The trace soot on her hands made them feel- whatever the uncomfortable opposite of clammy was.

“A neighbor called, said you were poking around the house.  Didn’t say you had company.  She was worried.  I’m worried.”

“I’m okay,” she said, her voice soft.  “Picking over the bones of our life.  Bit of a bummer.”

He looked like she’d slapped him in the face.  A bit angrier, now.  He twisted it into something like sadness.  He brought fingers up to his face, pinching the inner corners of his eyes and the bridge of his nose.  “Can you send your new friends home?  This is a family tragedy, I’d rather deal with it as a family.”

“It’s okay.  I don’t mind.”

I mind.  I’ve just lost a house- my first major accomplishment as an adult was getting that house.  I got married in that house, we had you in that house, my ups and downs of the last fifteen years were in that house.  I separated from your mom in that house, I divorced her -the woman I love- from that house.  That is our life!  Our life!”  He gave the two words different emphasis the two times he said it.

He looked like he was going to cry.

“I thought it’d be a nice gesture to dredge up some stuff, so you haven’t lost everything,” Verona said.

“You know what would’ve been nice?  If you’d been around.  If our house hadn’t burned down.  If you weren’t pulling… whatever it is you’re pulling right now.”

“Not pulling,” Verona said.  “I’m here, talking.  Processing.”

He made a light snorting sound.  His face was red.

It felt a bit like, with the house burned and cracked open, this part of their life and dynamic was pushed out into the open.  Because it couldn’t be inside that contained space.

She felt like this might be it.

“I’m taking a leave from work, but I have a project to wrap up before I do that, and I can’t abandon my second job or they’ll find someone else to permanently take over.  That’s only the beginning of the stuff on my plate.  The places to stay here are all full, but there’s a place an hour or so down the highway.  I think it’s where David stayed the one time.  Can you load up the car with those boxes while I take a quick look around in the daylight?  We’ll head out to the room I booked after.”

“Nah,” she said.

He rolled his jaw, eyebrows drawing together, eyes roaming, as if he was looking for something, anything to grab onto, that wasn’t saying what he wanted to say, which he couldn’t say with people around.  “Things are hard enough.  There’s a lot to do and figure out for how we move forward.  You’ve had it real nice with the online schooling, lots of time over with your friends, I haven’t been on your case much, but this is when we’re meant to come together.  You need to help me out, give me your time, give me a bit of your focus.”

“I don’t think I could bring Julette, so that’s a wrinkle.”

“Leave that cat with Lucy for a short while.  Or whoever it was who had it before.”

“Sir.  Oakham,” Verona jerked a thumb at her friend.  “I don’t think I’ll do that.  I could stay with Lucy, maybe.  That way I don’t need to go in and out of town, Julette is easier to handle…”

With restrained patience, eyes looking up at the gray sky, he said, “You don’t need to go into town.  You study online.  We’ve just had a major life-altering event.”

“Then I’ll get out of your way.  You can handle stuff.”

We can handle stuff.  I’m going to be up to my neck in five kinds of paperwork.  I have my own work to do, I’m in a hell of a position with the tenants I took on-”

“The ones I vetoed?”

“The ones who were paying us rent.  Not only am I paying for my hotel room, but I’m paying for them as well, because they’re on the lease and apparently it’s my job to house them if they can’t be here.  I’ve got a million expenses coming my way, I don’t even know where to begin.  I need you.”

“For what?”

“There’s a stove in the room we’ll be staying at.  You can make dinner- we can’t live off takeout, not with these expenses.  You can help me with organizing the paperwork.  I read out loud, you type.  We’ll buy some bare necessities in the way of clothes until insurance money comes through.  I hope it comes through.  I let it lapse around summer.  Even if you’re only running errands or tidying up, keeping me company to keep me sane and awake, it’ll make a world of difference.  When you’re not doing that, you can do your homework.”

It felt like getting control over her was his way to get a handle on everything overwhelming here.

“You know mom’s in town?”

She knew she was taking that control away, bringing this up.

“As if my day wasn’t bad enough already,” he said, jokey in everything except tone.  “I’m kidding.”

“Want to have a sit-down, sort some stuff out?  You, me, her?”

“I want to get a handle on all of this.”

“Do I figure into that?”

“Haven’t you been listening?  I just spent at least a minute telling you how you fit into it.”

“Into your life.  I figure I’ll see Avery-”

“She gets two visits, I see.”

“Check in with mom-”

“You’re in my custody.”

“Until mom says boo or I call the CAS guys.  Obviously things can get shuffled around.”

Was she burning a bridge here?  She was burning a bridge here.

She turned away, walking back toward her friends.

“Where do you think you’re going?”

All of this, the damage and the destruction, it felt like an end result of everything that had unfolded, the last few years, with her and her dad.  She felt like she could try and convince her dad in ten different ways that she wasn’t responsible for this fire, she could have Oakham say something clever.


It wouldn’t matter.  It didn’t matter.  She could say she did it maliciously, she could have proof of innocence.  He wanted to be mad, he lived in resentment.  From the moment she’d screamed in his face, the night Avery had gotten stranded, things had rolled downhill.

That scream had opened a door to her screaming more, trying to communicate with him, and him just… not getting it.  He didn’t get it if she said she was having a bad day, he didn’t get it if she said she had almost died, he didn’t get it when the house burned down.  He’d held onto the screaming as a point he wanted to make, and then he’d flipped, showing that the art shelf thing wasn’t truly something he regretted, but something he’d build on if the situation called for it.

That, after its own bumpy road, led here.  To the house being burnt down, because, Verona supposed, her dad wasn’t really ‘family’.  So the protections were thinner.

“Verona!” he raised his voice, closer.

McCauleigh stepped forward, hands in her pockets.  Oakham descended a stair.

Verona partially turned to look at him.  He’d followed, and was right on her heels.  Hand out but not grabbing her.  Close.

“Don’t act like that,” he told McCauleigh.  Or Verona.  “Don’t pretend I’m any kind of danger to her.  But if she’s going to walk away, I’m going to follow.  I have to parent her.”

“If you’re following, you could follow me to some place to eat, then,” Verona said.  “I can call mom on the way, we can meet, we can talk, we’ll hash out a game plan.”

“I won’t be in the same room with that woman.  I love her, still love her, and she tore my heart out in the worst way.  She tore yours out too.”

Anything good she did wouldn’t be remembered- that had been sinking in before, but it had been ocean-floor sunk after.  Anything bad she did would be held over her head forever.  He would go out of his way to remind himself.

All they’d had was the house and the house was gone.  Her dad would keep being this.

If therapy and a wake-up call from CAS hadn’t changed anything…

She blinked and a tear came out.  She rubbed at her eye.

More than the house burning down, there was this.

“So this is what you want to do then?” he asked, voice low, like he figured the others wouldn’t hear.  As is, it was hard to judge.  Maybe he thought he’d seen a crack, in that tear.  “You cried as much as I did when your mother left.  She didn’t care.  And your response to that heartless psychopath was to become her?  To do the exact same thing, take whatever you want from me, use the house as long as it’s convenient, take the food I make and buy, then turn around and spit in my face, abandon me?  Think hard about what you’re doing, Verona.  Think hard.”

“You said you wouldn’t do that anymore.  Compare.”

“What the fuck am I supposed to do when you’re acting just like she did?  She betrayed me without even blinking or apologizing and now you’re doing the exact same thing.  Apples and trees, right?  I’ve never known her to really truly care about another living soul that wasn’t named Sylvia Dunn, later Sylvia Hayward.  I thought at least you had that in you.”

“Maybe if you got to know her, you’d know how much she cares,” McCauleigh said.

Oakham stuck out her cane, holding the end, so the right-angle of the handle stuck out, hooked Verona’s shoulder, and tugged a bit.

Verona stepped back, and then let herself be pulled back.

“She never gave me the chance,” her dad said.

I did, Verona thought.  This conversation was one of them.  If you’d genuinely changed after the wake-up call with CAS, I’d be talking to you now with a different goal in mind.

I’d offer you the same thing I’m planning on offering mom.

She stared him down, hurt in her eyes.

“Right,” he said, bitter.  He headed back to the car.  “If you decide you need me after all, you have my number.”

“You didn’t want the photo albums, figurines?” she asked, before he could climb in.

He reached for the back door, opening it.  “Put them back there.  On the floor, so they don’t slide around.”

She didn’t budge.  Her group didn’t either.

“You won’t even do that for me?  You can’t extend even that much effort my direction?”

She turned, grabbed some boxes, and picked them up.  When Anselm bent down to help, she indicated which were okay.

Then she went.  Taking her boxes of her things.  She’d kept the negatives from the photo albums.  The rest of it she left on the stairs for her dad to take or leave as he wanted.

Avery was okay, and now they needed to get stuff sorted, and fast.


She opened the door to the House on Half Street.  She subtly kept the cold out, while stepping out of the way.

Her mother peered inside, then stepped into the house.  “Oh.  You’ve spent time here.”

“Is it that obvious?” Verona asked.

Moments before her mom got to any angle where she’d see, images and murals were moving across walls, until they became decorative borders along walls and doorways.  Instead of full-fledged images spanning entire walls, they were eyes peering around corners and doors, the surrounding visual effects tracing the wall.

“Is this the big project you’ve been working on, then?” her mom asked.  “With the eco-friendly bottles that cost so much?”

“That’s a connection I didn’t expect you to make.  Kind of?”

“Kind of.  So there’s more.”

“This is the tip of one hell of an iceberg,” Verona said.

The house was clean.  Floors clear of little bits of debris and trash that had a way of accumulating.  There was no alchemy setup in the kitchen.  Just food.

“What is this place?  A party den for the older teens?”

“Sometimes, maybe.  Not that much since I claimed it.”

“Jasmine alluded to things that were going on.  With you, your dad, you not spending much time at home.  I didn’t realize it was this.”

“I can fend for myself.”

Her mom frowned.  “Just you?”

“No.  There are others.  Most aren’t here.  People that needed a place to retreat to.”

“Was the idea that you’d get emancipated?”

“There were a lot of ideas,” Verona said.

Almost experimentally, she reached out to make an adjustment.  Taking the Demesne to Kennet found.

Less as a prelude to what she was going to show her mother, once she’d broken her in, tested the waters.  More to help frame her own line of thinking.

“What other ideas?  If you’re okay showing me?”

Verona knew she was her dad’s kid.  She knew she was her mom’s kid too.  There were patterns of personality and behavior.  A really tentative, uneasy way of forming connections.  The more time she immersed herself in the rest of the world, the more she moved past that.

But in this case, Verona being very Verona, her mom being very Sylvia Hayward, it was two people who, taken on their own, would see a signal to back off and back off.

Stay backed off.

If she said she wasn’t okay showing her mom, she felt like her mom would just accept that.  Accept it, then find a configuration for their relationship with that new boundary.

Which got really complicated when there were a whole lot of miscommunicated and misread signals in the mix.

If Verona said or did the wrong thing, then it felt like her mom would take that as a signal to back off and they wouldn’t get anywhere.

“Sure,” she ventured.  “This way.”

She opened the door under the stairs and that was a door that led down steps.  Past the little nook that Peckersnot had made in that window that was barely a foot and a half by two feet across, the stair railing running past it.  That Blankshanks liked to sneak into when Verona wasn’t around.

Luna was in the shop.

“Oh!” Luna jumped.  She hesitated, then pulled her mask off, face a bit stricken in the aftermath.

“Hey Luna.  Didn’t think you’d be here.”

“Just so happened to be… yep.”

“Is this a library?” her mom asked.

“A bookstore,” Verona said.  She navigated into the familiar but unfamiliar space.  Past vague books.  Zed’s Librarian Nina had given her a sorting system and Luna was putting it to work.  “Luna helps out sometimes, for kicks.  At ease, soldier.”

“I’m not a soldier, I wouldn’t be a very good one,” Luna said, biting her lip.  She looked like she really wanted to bury her face in her hands, and squirmed as she tried not to, hands clasped behind her back.  “Hello, I live in the general neighborhood.”

“Luna’s great,” Verona told her mom.

Her mom looked through the books.  “These aren’t…”

“They’re special books,” Verona said, to help things along.  “Books you can’t find anywhere else.”


“I have contacts.”

She knew this was the sort of thing her mom would love to dig into, to pick apart.

Dangerous ground, but… it was probably also the avenue by which her mom would best connect with this world.  For Avery and her mom, her mom had helped with market stuff and negotiations, stepping up for Avery to make sure Avery didn’t get walked all over.  But Kelsey’s thing was Avery, first and foremost.

“This is ambitious for someone your age.  These books are…”

“Special,” Verona reiterated.  “Weird.”


“Mom,” Verona said.  “What would it take for you to move to Kennet?  For good?”

“Is this about your dad?  Do you think he might get a house elsewhere?”

“Maybe.  Fresher start.  Might have to stay, for his work at his company.  But it’s about you.  Really truly, it’s about you.  What does it take?”

“I don’t- I really don’t see myself ever doing that.”

“Because you love the city?”

“Yes.  The people.  The opportunities.”

“The things to do, the things to explore?” Verona asked.

Her mom nodded.  “And as far as Kennet goes, I- there’s nothing for me here.  There’s nobody for me here.  Except you.”

“Good save.  You like Connor okay though.  And Kelsey?””

“I’d go crazy if it was just him and Kelsey.  They’re lovely.  I love Kelsey’s drive.  I love finding people for her to network with.  But I’d go crazy.”

Verona moved some books, restless.  She saw Luna was keeping herself busy, with one hand.  The other hand scratched the bridge of her nose nervously, so the hand covered a lot of her face.  “Hey Luna?  You don’t have to stick around.  You’re always welcome, but if it’s awkward-”

“I’ll make hot chocolate?” Luna offered.  “And tea?”

You just want hot chocolate.  “That’d be great.”

Luna rushed upstairs, wasting zero time in pulling her mask down on the way.

“What’s with the mask?” Verona’s mom asked her.

Verona shrugged.  “Among the least of the weird bits you’re liable to run into, keep hanging out with me.”

“Artists and friends of artists?”

“I don’t even put artist on the top five of things I call myself.”

“It’s all over the walls.”

“There’s a lot to me, I guess.  And there’s more to Kennet than you think.”

“I remember chatting with the mayor.  There were little events.  There was the rooftop concert, I heard about that after.”

“Yeah.  Tip of the metaphorical iceberg.  What if there was more going on in Kennet?  If it was growing, doing interesting things, and you could be part of that growth, the interesting things, the interesting stuff that came to Kennet as a part of it?”

If she was too gentle about it, or mistepped and gave the wrong signal, that was a problem, yeah.  But if she was blunt and pushed hard, laid everything on the table, it could be like when she’d asked her mom for help, before the end of spring party.  Getting a hard ‘no’.

That ‘no’ in itself was a miscommunication, there was more behind it, in terms of context and stuff going on.  There was less behind it, in that it wasn’t a rejection of Verona.  And there was enough clumsiness around it that instead of navigating their way past that miscommunication, they’d just parted ways, Verona hurt, her mom feeling vague regret but maybe not entirely understanding how hurt Verona was.

She didn’t want that to happen here, so she had to navigate carefully in a situation that was already hard to navigate.

“I’d be worried I’d get your hopes up, but it wouldn’t be enough.  I’d wither and stagnate, I’d become my worst self.  I don’t want that worst version of me to be your mom.”

“Even if it’s the only real option?” Verona asked.  She stacked some wood meant for shelves more neatly.  “If Dad isn’t an option?”

“Oh, honey.  I know he’s upset, after the fire, but…”

“I might’ve burned bridges.  I don’t have a lot of options.”

“It’s rarely as bad as that.”

There it was.  One of those statements that read in more than one way.  Was her mom just wrong, or was her mom subtly trying to fob her off, make sure there was a clear route of escape, from being cornered by Verona in a high-pressure ‘I need you to move in’ move?

If it was the former, she needed to correct her mom.  if it was the latter, pushing would seem like she was trying to corner her mom, and it would move fast toward that kneejerk ‘no’.

“With dad stuff gets bad more than you tend to assume, I think,” Verona said, carefully.

Her mom looked concerned.

Verona didn’t know how to navigate this gap.  To bring her mother across it.  Too gentle and nothing happened.  Too firm and things collapsed.  It was a hard enough subject to navigate in general.

Mom, Verona thought the words, without saying them.  Magic is real and I want to show you it.  I want you to get into it in a serious way.  Into the market.  Into the practitioner families, the Others, and a whole world of overly invested people to drink wine with.

She looked toward the door.

Mom, there’s a ton of awful stuff out there.  Exciting too, but lots of awful.  I don’t expect you to tackle it, but it’s dangerous and violent and I don’t have the backup that Lucy and Avery do, at home.  If shit gets fucky and CAS starts getting involved to the point I can’t stay here, telling me to go to dad or to you, that screws too many things up.  If I dive into the fucky stuff and I have problems instead of a safety net, that might make the difference between me making it and me ending up dead or worse.

In the midst of thinking about how awful and exciting and fucky things could be.  She nudged the outside, and now the door to the shop led out into Kennet below.

She ran fingers through her hair.

Her hand twinged, and she rubbed at it.

“How bad is it?”


“Your dad.”

“He doesn’t let go of things.  So I don’t think the bad ever goes away,” Verona said, flopping forward onto a counter that stretched between her and her mom.  “It’s there, it’s not better.  I don’t think it’ll ever be better.  So I put distance between him and me.  I kind of don’t see myself being twenty five and visiting him regularly, you know?”

“And you don’t see yourself getting married, so you don’t imagine him coming to that.”


“I’m sorry.  That’s sad.  I- the non-invitation to a wedding you don’t expect to happen.  I’m sorry things aren’t working out with him.”

“I don’t want this to be about him.  Because he doesn’t change, that won’t change.  I’ve gotta navigate life around him.  So… I’m showing you my place I retreat to.  I’m showing you my shop, and I can show you some market stuff…”

It was dark outside.


Verona propped her head up, hand on cheek, elbow on counter.  Her other hand hurt, so she pressed it hard against the counter.  “There’s multiple markets.  Interlinked.  With special craftsmen.  The concert thing was related to that.  Obviously with the fires and everything, we’re set back a little, but… we’re making Kennet something else.”

“Markets and a shop.  Hm.”

“And craftsmen, cool artists and things way different and, I think, way more interesting than what you’ve been seeing.”

“It’s a neat little venture.  But- I mean, that’s amazing, but-”


“But that’s the tip of the metaphorical iceberg, mom,” Verona said.  “Really truly.  Want to see?”

Pain lanced through her hand and arm, making her almost faceplant onto the counter.

“Fuck, no.

Verona sat up, the dream falling away, as she lurched forward, accidentally elbowing Anselm in the head, who lay beside her.  Her hand cramped.

One of the bad ones.


“What’s wrong?” McCauleigh asked.  She’d been napping on the far side of Anselm.  “Cramp?”

Verona nodded, tears springing to her eyes.  With one hand cramping and the other grabbing it, and the bed occupied, it was awkward to get up.  McCauleigh reached out, providing a supporting hand for Verona to get fully upright and be able to walk over the edge of the bed.

Anselm, despite the elbow to the head, was slower to rouse, confused as Verona went over him.

Verona went to the bathroom, running water.

“It woke you up?” McCauleigh asked.

“Happens sometimes, I sleep on it wrong or wedge it under my pillow and something tweaks,” Verona muttered.  “Fuck.  Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck.”

“It’s okay.”

“I was getting somewhere.  I had plans.  It’s a bitch to coordinate sleeping at the same time.”

“It’s a bitch to coordinate a nap but most nights your mom will sleep, I figure.”

“But there’s too much going on.  I wanted to get one thing solid.  One thing today, before we get onto other stuff.”

Verona ran water over her hand to numb it, pressing it down into the sink’s surface, palm down.

Sensing the commotion, the squirrel had come upstairs.  He tilted his head and put paws forward.

“Tea?” Verona asked.  “The herbal stuff.”

The squirrel scampered away.

“Thanks buddy,” Verona said, having the House carry her voice far enough.

Well.  That was a bust.  She’d hoped to have a general ‘life’ game plan for tonight.

She pressed her hand down, pain making her whole arm jump.  McCauleigh was by her, tailbone against the edge of the counter, by her, without much more to add.

She’d hoped to run things by her mom, with the cover of ‘it was all a dream’ if things didn’t work out.  Laying it on the table, seeing how her mom took to it.

She leaned forward, head between her arms, groaning.

“How was it going?  I was waiting to back you up, but we didn’t get that far, I guess.”

“I don’t even know.  It’s not easy, and then this throws a wrench into things?  Such bull.”

“Total bull,” McCauleigh said.

A very sleepy Anselm peered in.  He shot her a sympathetic look, then wandered downstairs.

Well, she wasn’t with him for the emotional support.

“You want to help the squirrel bring tea upstairs?  Gets a bit awkward when you’re not much bigger than the teacup,” McCauleigh called down.

“Sure,” he called back.

“You’re bossing him around a bit,” Verona muttered.

“Am I?  Shit.  Is it a problem or-?”

“I dunno.  Just observing.  He’s getting a pretty good deal here for a few ‘come here’s and ‘get that’s, so I don’t think he’s complaining much.”

“I’ll watch out,” McCauleigh said.

“What happens if this shit pops off right in the middle of one of the key moves against Charles that’s bound to be coming up?” Verona asked.  “It’s always in the back of my mind.  What do I do?  What happens?”

“You adapt.  You have help.  Backup.  Us.  Your friends.”

Verona nodded.

She winced as fresh pain darted up and down her arm, from the cramping hand.

She’d gotten off pretty easy, going up against Charles at the end of summer.  Avery had scraped by.

What happened next?  Would they keep scraping by?


“We don’t want you to keep just barely scraping by,” Miss said.

“What’s this?” Verona asked.

The others were gathering.  It wasn’t easy, getting here, but ‘here’ was a complicated place.

Avery was doing the escorting.  She flashed a smile at Verona, hurrying over.  Verona and Avery hugged, tight.  Lucy was off to the side, and Avery ran off to greet her.

Wanting to move around a lot after being in the hospital bed overnight.

The Promenade.  A place Charles couldn’t and wouldn’t hear.

Being here meant that Oakham couldn’t come.  Bracken wasn’t wanting to dive into the weirdness any more than he already had.  A bunch of their allies and forces had to stay behind and hold down the fort.  As things got dark and they entered night-time the night after all the shit went down, they were expecting some people sympathetic to Charles to cause a fuss, on the level of vandalism and other stuff, so that needed backup too.  Goblins.  Dog Tags.

Grandfather and Horseman were here, though.

Yiyun Jen, Harri, Adrian, and Nomi were all in attendance, looking a bit awed by this place, keeping to themselves.

Miss had come, and it apparently took some doing to extend herself from Kennet.  They were planning to keep this short, to lay out some ground rules and plans for making plans- future meetings, who to contact, and so on.  With Miss’s movements outside of Kennet being strained as they were, they’d have to really nail timing, so the last stragglers weren’t being brought over just as Miss was having to leave.

If Miss rubber-banded back to Kennet, then at least Luna was here, looking very animated and pleased to be in her element, ready to take notes.  She leaned precariously over the railing that looked out on Earth.

Snowdrop, too, was in her element, and tackle-hugged Luna, nearly knocking her over.  Luna managed to keep her position without toppling.  That antagonistic friendship.

“Lucy?  Avery?” Miss said.

The two, talking with one another, gave Miss their full attention.

“We talked about things, and we have concerns that you’re too invested in this war and it threatens to put us all in jeopardy.  We swore to support you in long and full lives.  With Avery’s close call…” Miss said, trailing off.

“That freaking oath,” Verona said.

“It saved us more than once,” Lucy said.

“Ughhh.  Technically, the wording-”

“The spirit of the rule is a concern too.  Especially with the judges being set up as they are,” Miss said.

Toadswallow arrived, escorted by Jude.  He looked like a terrible match for the Promenade in a lot of ways, short and sauntering forward with an unwavering course, that made Lost have to change direction to get out of his way, where the Lost normally moved around the space in a natural way.

The Bitter Street Witch and Vice Principal were here, Vice Principal on her steed, Bitter Street Witch in a wheelchair pushed by her brother.  Toadswallow intersected them, and it felt like a bit of a stand-off, Toadswallow smiling like he was enjoying himself.  Would they move out of his way like the Lost had?

The brother started to move her out of Toadswallow’s way, and she hauled up on the long walking stick that sat alongside her leg and body, jabbing him with the top end of it.  The Vice Principal did move.

Once he had the room, Toadswallow opened a container, and Alpeana flowed out, a mess of black hair, black cloth, and black dreck that had pale, awkward limbs and a pale face with black eyes stick out of it, crawling forward and pulling together into a girl shape.

“Ah, lassie!  Verona!”


“This is chaos,” Miss muttered.

“A’m sorry I dropped ye.  Tis hard enough tae keep th’ nightmare oot o’ the nightmare.”

Verona unclasped her hand-brace and rubbed at her palm, nodding.  “It’s okay.  Wasn’t your fault.”

“Aye, ah’m sorry all th’ same.”

“My mom was giving me weird looks when I met her this afternoon, after the nap and the failed attempt.”

“Aye, that’s richt.  Ah had tae come up wi’ somethin’.  Ah hud a wee thing speiled oot whur ye said ye wur up th’ duff.”

“I was what the what?”

“Pregnant,” Avery volunteered.

“Oh come on.  That makes things harder if she catches on I have a secret house and she had recent nightmares about me being pregnant.”

“Ah dinnae haf much time, ye disappeared on me!”

“She should catch on!” Jasmine raised her voice.  She was coming over, Kelsey and Connor too.  Escorted by Jude’s dad.

Verona groaned.

In the background, Queen Sootsleeves was coming in on horseback, with her ‘kingdom’.  It looked like the Promenade was five kinds of messy, overflowing with the individual Lost.  Or were they considered a part of Sootsleeves, still?

“Seriously,” Jasmine said, having adjusted to a normal volume and more sympathetic tone, now.  “Any headway?”

“I don’t know if I’m going to tell her, but I’m leaning that way.  I want to do a better test run, an ‘it was all a dream’ peek at things, see how she rolls with it.  But if she doesn’t… I dunno.”

“Move in with her, maybe possibly?” Avery asked.

Verona looked at Lucy, and saw Lucy’s hurt expression.  Lucy would be alone.

“I really don’t want to,” Verona said.  “But I can’t go back to my dad.  The house was the… I dunno.  The thing keeping it together.  Bridge burned, in more than one way.”

“You need a parent,” Jasmine said.  Connor, in the background, was nodding.

Ugh.  She’d liked Connor, as a tutor, peripheral to her life without controlling it.

Ugh, ugh ugh ugh.

“We’ll work something out,” Julette said, as she came back from her idle wanderings.  Verona had arrived early, and Julette had poked around while waiting for others.

“I don’t want you and you pretending to be Verona to be part of that working out,” Jasmine said.

“They’re onto us,” Julette murmured.

“We really gotta re-tie some of that twine, tweak the twigs, rewrite something, make you a bit more subtle,” Verona told her.  She sighed, turning to Jasmine, Connor, and Kelsey.  “I knew we’d have to chat about things, my plans, where I was going, you made that clear.  But I had a hand thing, it derailed the plan.  I tried to sound my mom out, but she’s… tricky.”

“She is,” Jasmine agreed.  “Let me talk to her?”

“Okay.  Do me a favor though?”

“Maybe,” Jasmine said.

“Let me stay at the House on Half street or with you for the next bit?  Until the Charles thing wraps up?”

Jasmine looked like she was going to say something, then stopped herself.  She looked back at Kelsey and Connor.

“What?” Verona asked.

“It’s a tall order,” Jasmine said.  “You’re a teenager, unsupervised.”

It felt a lot like that wasn’t what Jasmine had been about to say.

“We’ll talk about it later.  Sorry for the interruption,” Jasmine told Miss.  She said it weirdly and with more deference for Miss than she’d showed in the last… ever.


“It’s alright,” Miss replied.  “I think the way this is organized… or not organized, we’ll be interrupted constantly throughout.”

Their group had to part because a guy in a business suit who was on fire was trudging forward, heading off in the direction of the trains.

“Maybe that’s the best place to start, if we have to start somewhere,” Miss said.

“You want us to back off some?” Verona asked.

“No.  Almost the opposite,” Miss said.  “We’re making plans.  We want to make our move against Charles.  Without you.”

“What?” Avery asked.

“One decisive move, all of our assets, all of our forces.  You hang back.  When we’re done, we regroup, quickly organize, and then we make another move.  An attack, a ploy, a major ritual, whatever that may take.  While he’s weak and reeling, or his focus is on the method or angle of our initial ploy, you three catch him in another.  That is the part we want you to be involved in.”

“We don’t want you to hold back, dearies,” Toadswallow croaked.  “We want this to be the last major effort you’re involved in.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Lucy said.

“It’s necessary,” Matthew said.  “We talked it over.  You’re kids, you’ve given your all, you’ve put your lives on the line.  It’s our turn.  If you try to help for the initial attack, we abort, things will probably be a disaster.  If you try to get involved after your part in this… we swore the oath to long and full life.  To give you that, we’ll turn off the power source.”

Lucy shook her head a bit.

“Temporarily,” Louise said.

“For however long we think you’re trying to pull something against Charles,” Matthew said.  “We won’t cooperate.”

“We’ll ask for gifts back,” Toadswallow said.  “That ugly stick is technically still on loan.”

“Is this because I got shot?  You’re giving up on us?” Avery asked.

“Not at all,” Louise said.  “Don’t blame yourself.  It’s not about that.”

“Would it have happened if I hadn’t gotten shot?”

“Sooner or later,” Matthew said.  Then, as if responding to a cue or warning look Verona didn’t see the source of, he added, “maybe a bit sooner.”

Verona turned to study the crowd.

“I think this is a mistake,” Lucy said.

“It’s our decision.  Firm,” Miss said.  “We discussed, we swore an oath.”

“You what?” Verona raised her voice.

“If this carries on, it destroys you, it destroys us.”

“War, that thing I talk about,” Grandfather joined the conversation.  “Both sides losing.  There’s only so much we can take and do.  Maybe we can stop him.  Maybe we push him back and threaten to test him every time he comes at us, and we have an uneasy truce of threatened mutual destruction.”

“Or mutual enough-damage-to-hurt,” Matthew amended.

“Except we’re not part of that mutual?” Avery asked.

“You go and enjoy sports, have your girlfriend.  Work with the Garricks.  Lucy should go to school, find a boyfriend if she so desires, she should make her connections in the practitioner world, build on what she started with the sword moot, if it doesn’t agitate Charles too much.  Verona can have her bookstore.  If we can secure Kennet, it doesn’t matter if the surrounding region is messy.  You can have your wandering bookstore wander outside.”

“If Charles allows,” Verona said.  “Or the Aurum.  That’s more his deal, I think.”

“Right now, we’re at a place where two judges are against us, one is on our side, and one appears to be neutral,” Miss said.  “Charles has made his moves against us, we’ve made moves against him.  If this really truly can’t budge, we may have to adapt to a new climate.  Let another group be the ones to target Charles.”

“Gerhild is said to be on the way, five or ten years from now,” Toadswallow said.

“This is such bull,” Lucy muttered, angry.  She couldn’t stand still, and moved like she was going to storm off, then turned around, staying, because she couldn’t miss this conversation, either.

“We can’t keep throwing ourselves against a brick wall until we’ve smashed ourselves to pieces against it,” Miss said.

“We’re not saying it’s impossible,” Matthew said.  “We do want to make an attempt.  If we fail, hopefully it’s a demonstration of what happens if he provokes us.  If we succeed, we stop him.”

“There’s no chance he just gets angry and comes at us harder?” Verona asked.

“I think, knowing him, knowing his motivations and grander plans,” Miss said.  “If we make it clear we’re throwing our hands up, he’d welcome that.”

“That would be so fucked if we did that and he did that,” Avery said, voice low and quiet, almost horrified.

“Then let’s win,” Horseman said.

Verona’s eyes settled on the parents.


They were conspicuously quiet here, when they should have a lot to say.

Probably better not to bring that up.


Everything was tangled together and as one thing fell to pieces, the rest was dragged down with it.

They couldn’t let more things fall to pieces, then.

“While we’re on the topic of the neutral judge… Avery went to talk to the Alabaster, back in the spring.  Verona went to talk to Charles in his realm, back when she was gainsaid.”

“You what?” Jasmine asked, looking at Verona.

“Did we not have that in the notes?” Verona asked, as innocently as she could.

“I’m thinking I’ll take a hike.  Find the safest way to go, pay a visit to the Sable.  He’s neutral.  Very by the books.”

“He’s dark, I like dark, I could do that, theoretically,” Verona offered.  Solves the ‘where do I sleep’ issue for a couple nights.

“He thinks you’re a pain in the ass,” Lucy said.  “That’d be a bad idea.  I can handle myself-”

Jasmine looked like she was gearing up to say stuff.

“-But I wouldn’t mind company and backup, so my mom doesn’t fret.”

“Okay,” Grandfather said.

“So you guys can all plan and do your initial attack, I’ll see the Sable, see if there’s any way we can have two judges on our side, or more clarification on what it means for him to be neutral… because ‘neutral’ as an idea makes me uneasy.  Switzerland or whatever else, it doesn’t tend to actually be ‘neutral’.”

Verona nodded.  They’d talked about this idea before.

“Is she going to be safe?” Jasmine asked.  “Backup or no backup?”

“There are ways,” Miss said.  “I suggest a declaration made to him before you leave and make your approach from whatever oblique angle you have planned.  So he won’t treat you as the Aurum did Avery.”

Lucy nodded.

“I’m feeling my ability to stay here is limited, so I may have to go.  If you decide on more things, Luna can pass them on to me.”

Luna stood a little straighter.  Snowdrop poked her in the side of the stomach.

Sootsleeves, mostly a bystander, moved closer to Miss.  Various Lost who had been talking to Sootsleeves in the background flocked closer, moving in the midst of the sea of urchins, rats, and pigeons.

They surrounded Miss.

As Miss departed, disappearing from here, by angles that weren’t up, down, left or right, she brought Sootsleeves and about a dozen Lost who were interested in visiting Kennet found with her.

That was cool.

“We should work out a schedule, organize better so we can have more of these meetings,” Louise said.  “What worked best, what slowed us down?  How can we tighten this up?”

There was some discussion that followed.

Verona walked around the group, and stuck out the toe of her shoe, prodding Toadswallow in the butt cheek.

He looked at her, then followed her as she stepped away.

She drew a line in chalk, blocking Lucy, which made Lucy frown at her.  She gestured it was okay.

Life would be less complicated if Lucy didn’t overhear.

“How’d they get you to agree to all of that?” Verona asked Toadswallow.

“Whatever do you mean?” he asked, trying very badly to look innocent.

“The parents,” Verona said.  She worked her way down to a sitting position beside Toadswallow, undid her hand brace, and rubbed at her palm.

“I think some of us were feeling the need for there to be an end to this back and forth already,” Toadswallow said.

“That’s deflecting.”

“They brought up the oath.  To let us know they were serious.”

“Hmm.  Reckless, you think?  I don’t want relationships to sour or-”

“No, dear,” Toadswallow said.  “They care about you.  I think they would have made the same threats if we were all humans.  They may not understand our individual quirks, but they see us as people, except for the initial wobbly steps into this world, I don’t think they’ve failed to treat us as people.  If they didn’t, Miss would rankle more, I would too.”

Verona nodded.

“You can’t bring up forswearance or gainsayings without there being some hard feelings.  Gets right to the fabric of some of us, shit-stained or glittering.  But only a few, easily smoothed over.  I think the group understands.  A fair few were worried about our sweetheart Avery.”

Verona looked at her friend.  Avery looked okay now.  She had an arm around Snowdrop to stop Snowdrop from harassing Luna.  Luna had ventured a bit closer, as if teasing Snowdrop by being just out of reach for more harassment.

Avery was smiling over that, a bit, even if a shadow had sort of fallen over all of them, with the whole deal here.

Verona sighed.

“Let me know if you need anything,” Toadswallow said.  “Lessons.  Or if you read something and you want someone to bounce it off of.  I’m very bouncy.”

He slapped his belly a bit.

“That’s a really cool offer.  I’ve got Julette, but…”

Julette had ventured close enough to listen, and was nodding.  Verona reached over, pulling on the back of Julette’s top, making it pull against her throat.  Julette made a small ‘hurk’ sound, then sat too.  Badly positioned.  Verona reached over to lengthen the line so Julette wouldn’t let something leak.

“…it’s a cool offer,” Verona finished.  “We’ll have to figure some stuff out.”

“That we will.  All hands on deck, nobody on the benches,” Toadswallow said.

“Except us three, at first.”

“Except you three, at first.  We open the doors, you storm through.  Or something.”

“If you’re offering help-”

“I am.  All of us will be.”

“Market?” Verona asked.  “I know it’s awkward, so soon after everything.  But if we can get the market going again…”

“I’ll see what I can do.”

Verona nodded.

They sat, watching, listening to the ongoing organization and logistics stuff.

Gotta keep my options open, Verona thought.  I’ve lost power too many times and it hurts too much.  Especially for how I function.  The gainsayings, the power hit when Avery was out…

If the council was saying they’d turn off the spigot temporarily, to force Verona, Avery, and Lucy out of the fight, then Verona’s instinct was to make sure there were options.  Magic items worked if the spigot turned off.  The market sold magic items.

She wasn’t sure whether that was to defend themselves if Charles got sneaky while they were powerless, or if it was to get in one after-the-final-battle parting shot, but it only made sense to do.

It was how Charles had beat them.  By having those resources.

Previous Chapter

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Go for the Throat – 23.a


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Next Chapter

The hospital cafeteria was dismal.  There were windows high off the ground, showing the dark sky of the night- or the very early morning.  Fluorescent lights were hung overhead, two of them turned a slight orange by age, and one was slightly dim.  The fixtures looked like Burger Bin chairs and tables that were as old as Rowan, bolted to the ground, with chips missing at the seams and a faint discoloration from years of being wiped down with heavy chemicals.

Some efforts had been made, most of them concentrated on the counters and little confection area.  Plants were set in the corners, rubber trees which weren’t quite tall enough to be visible over the tables, but the confection area had more, along with colorful displays, things were tidier and fixed up, and everything looked fresh and almost forcefully bright.  Except for the skeleton crew of staff.

Dismal, but…


“I expected there to be more people here,” Connor said, as he joined her, interrupting her observations.

There were only three tables of people, when the hospital cafeteria could have maybe sat fifty.

“You got back fast.”

“I gave Rowan the keys.  He and Sher are going to go back to the house, catch some sleep, and look after Declan, Kerry, and Grumble.”

“I’d rather have them close.  All of them.”

“I know.  But for now… it’ll be okay.  Two soldiers are with them.  Things seem to have eased up.  Not that you’d know, seeing the lobby.”

“Yeah,” she said.  It didn’t feel like enough, but what would?

“Food, coffee,” he told her.

She got the largest size of coffee cup, placing it on the tray Connor pulled down.  Then she paused at the baskets of foods in shrink wrap.  Leftovers from yesterday?  There were some triple chocolate muffins.

She shouldn’t, she knew.  She’d regret it later.

She looked at the bagel melts, with a colorful ‘Mr. Fiber!’ sticker on the front of the woven tray they’d been arranged in.  Egg, cheese, and… avocado?  She squinted at it.  Cucumber.  Yeah, that made more sense.

She eyed the muffin briefly, again.

Caught in the crux of the decision, she asked Connor.  “Should I quit my job?”

“W’hem,” he coughed out a sound.  “That’s a question.”

It wasn’t the question she’d had right in front of her, but it was the question that came out.

“Do we move back?” she asked, carrying on instead of stopping.  “Or do you come?  Get you, Kerry, Declan, and your father out of here?  Do we tell Avery, no, doesn’t matter, we’re the parents, that’s it?”

He smoothed the hair on the sides of her head down, then rested his hands there, fingers at the back of her head, palms at the sides, not quite covering her ears.

“I don’t know, dear,” he said.  “It’s complicated.”

His eyes went over her shoulder, glancing.

With his hands where they were, she had to duck her head a bit to see.  The very tired looking middle-aged cafeteria worker was standing there, waiting patiently, a half-smile on her face.

She laid her hands on Connor’s chest.  “I’m-”

My daughter is in the hospital and everything she’s dealing with is bigger than I can wrap my head around.


“-going to step into the bathroom, rinse my face.”

“I’ll get you food and coffee, have it waiting?” he offered.

She nodded quickly, put the bagel melt on the tray, gave his chest a little pat, and then went.  A group at one table she passed looked like hospital administration, papers and coffees arranged on the table as they leaned over their work, talking in quiet tones.

She had so much work waiting for her.  Eyes were on her after the Compton thing, plus she’d made Noah that promise.

It seemed so far away.  Farther away than a four hour drive.  Insurmountable.

So the words had slipped out.  What if she gave up?

She bent over the sink and rinsed her face.  Moisture welling in her eyes joined the water from her cupped hands and disappeared.

Someone else entered the women’s washroom and glanced at her.

The smile directed Kelsey’s way was sympathetic.  Kelsey offered a smile back, but she suspected the look the woman had given her was because she thought Kelsey was sick.  Face damp, red eyes, no makeup, tired, in a hospital?  Yeah.

She patted her face dry with a brown paper towel, then took a minute to apply some makeup, just to shore herself up a bit.  So she wouldn’t look sick.

Connor was at a table, distant from the other people sitting around the room, and he sat by Jasmine, who wore a jacket over blue scrubs.

Kelsey walked over, then sat.  “Hi.”

“Hi,” Jasmine said.  She had her own coffee.

The bagel melt steamed lightly.  It looked like he’d had them warm it.  He’d prepared her coffee for her, and he’d picked not one but two of the triple-chocolate muffins she’d been eyeing, putting them on the tray.  He was eating his own, breaking off chunks and popping them into his mouth.

“Sorry for that mini-meltdown.  I feel like I have two heads.  A woman in the washroom looked at me funny too.”

“It’s a hospital,” Connor said.  “If someone’s here and having a bad time, I don’t think anyone’s going to be that surprised.”

“Absolutely,” Jasmine said.

“Hey, um,” Kelsey told Jasmine, changing the subject.  “I don’t know if I’ve thanked you for everything with Avery tonight, but-”

“You have.  It’s fine.  We’re friends.  Our daughters are- we’re family, almost,” Jasmine said.  “I don’t see any way we’re not in each other’s lives in a big way, going forward.”

Kelsey smiled, nodding.  “Do you mind if I eat while we talk, or-?”

“Not in the slightest.  I’ve got my coffee.”

Kelsey took a moment, taking a bite.  The bagel part of the melt was dry and not very good, and she washed it down with coffee that was so hot it was only tolerable because the food already in her mouth absorbed most of it.  The rest of the bagel was fine, her issue was mainly the dryness and density of the bready part.

“The work question surprised me,” Connor said.  “I think it might not be a question to be asking at this hour, in this heated a moment.”

Jasmine quirked an eyebrow, so Kelsey, after a moment to consider, answered both him and Jasmine at the same time.  “I’m currently co-leadership with a man named Noah Greene in Thunder Bay.”

“I remember that,” Jasmine said.

“We’re given our leeway and people listen to us if we want to have a voice, but if orders come from higher-ups in Vancouver, we’re meant to adapt.  That’s usually broader strategy-level stuff.  They had word come down about a month after I started in Thunder Bay.  They want a flatter management structure.”

“Fill me in?” Jasmine asked.  “I don’t know the terminology.”

“Removing middle management.  There are bosses, there are employees.  Employees get more independence to navigate through their roles and find out what works, and communicate directly to the bosses.  Also means finding roles for those middle managers.  That’s not easy to begin with, you know.  Egos, relationships.  But that’s something I can do, it’s a challenge, I’ve faced others.”

Connor nodded.  He already knew, though.  They made a point of video calling each other most nights.

“I can break things down into discrete problems that I can tackle, that’s alright.  Five big branches of employee we’re removing middle management from.  Sales, marketing, engineering, innovation, and logistics.  It’s a relief in a way, you know, because problems happen in departments and the managers become an insulating layer.  They handle things- or hide them, and word doesn’t get to us at the top.  Work from marketing gets shunted off to over-stressed workers from sales.  Marketing doesn’t get stuff out on time, which means logistics has to put in the extra hours…  Sorry.  I’m fixated on work, I think, because it’s one thing that makes sense.”

“It’s okay,” Jasmine said.  “It’s a dose of normal.  Sounds like marketing is a common issue, or is that just examples?”

“Our man from marketing…” Compton.  “Let’s call him Russel.  Like a Jack Russell terrier, enthusiasm and drive and nowhere near the level of competence to see it through.  I came to Thunder Bay and I think, with my fresh eyes, I could see what others were missing, because he was charming and brings an energy to the room that covers up a lot of things.”

“Ahhh.  I might know some people here like that… don’t mention I said that,” Jasmine said.

“Same.  It’s unprofessional of me to talk about it, as well,” Kelsey said, putting a finger to her lips briefly.  “Lots of unforced errors that sat for weeks or months before blowing up.  Ticking time bombs.  But Russell was good at dodging the consequences.  He’d charm people into helping him and his department out, and basically hand those ticking time bombs to others.  Or he’d blame economy and changing trends, or claim it was miscommunication.  People liked him.  Noah liked him.”

“People hated him, too,” Connor said.

He’d been paying attention.  Kelsey rubbed Connor’s arm for a moment, smiling.  “There were people who had gotten on the bad side of how he operated and yeah, hated him in a way that was poisonous to everything we were doing.”

“Happens everywhere, I think,” Jasmine said.  “What did you do?”

“I… when we first started talking about things, they were talking about having Russell do what I was doing.  Move him to a place where he could be a leader or co-leader of a major branch.  I drew attention to things, carefully, and they changed to more of a lateral move.  Putting him in Kennet or a place like Kennet for a while, see how he did.  Which I couldn’t do to the man I set up to take over for me, or to the employees I worked with for the last fifteen years.”

“Fair.  Good of you,” Jasmine said.  “You could have said yes and been rid of him.”

“I said no.  I spent… call it political capital, on that no.  So instead of moving up or more laterally, with the middle management role being removed he got demoted.  People want me to… not fail.  But they want me to be wrong, so they can be right about believing in C- in Russell.  That’s one of four things related to the ‘flattening’ that are hanging over my head or Noah’s and my head.  Except they never do things on the one level.  There’s another initiative they’ve been pushing this last year, in concert with the ‘flattening’.  Giving employees ways to train, work with sustainability and environmentally focused organizations…”

“That’s a lot,” Jasmine said.

“It’s fifty percent corporate B.S. meant to look good, but there’s another fifty percent in there that’s a good idea.  The employees are happier, and they get these complicated and involved knowledge bases that don’t easily move to the competition.”

“Which does sound like there’s some corporate B.S. in there,” Connor said, joking a bit.

Kelsey smiled.  “I told Noah I’d handle that side of things.  He’s keeping things running and handling the restructuring, I’m doing my share of externally focused things and handling the employee independence and training options.  It’s part of what I did in Kennet that distinguished me and got me the promotion.  Finding ways to do it in a remote branch like this.  Online, travel.  Getting them to make accommodations, getting our side to sponsor and invest in them.  And I haven’t even made calls I should’ve started making three days ago.  I can’t imagine- I can’t imagine sitting down anytime today to call the people I connected with for the online stuff.”

“How buried are you?” Connor asked.  “Do you need me to shoulder the load or-?”

“I need- I want to take care of my family and sleep for two days straight,” she told him.  Then to Jasmine, she said, “Words slipped out, I said I was thinking about quitting.  Coming to Kennet.  Giving up.  Turning my focus to the most important things.”

“That’d be a bit of a waste,” Jasmine said.  She leaned forward over the table, arms folded with the coffee cup right in front of her.  “All that time developing that career, losing it.  Letting the Russells sneak on by?  Isn’t that a part of why we get worse wages than men?  We’re more willing to sacrifice opportunities and abandon or stall careers to focus on kids and family?”

“In fairness, I did talk about the other option.  Going,” Kelsey said.  “Taking the kids, Connor’s dad.  Sorry.  I know I’m talking about that option like it’s assumed you’d quit, but-”

“I’d quit,” he said.  “I love my job.  I love the people I work with.  But I’d go.  This is scary.  I can pick up where I left off somewhere else.”

It was really, really scary.

Kelsey nodded.

There was a kind of tension that held its sway over the table.

“Can we talk about the girls?” Connor asked, quiet.

“Have to,” Kelsey said.

“Remember when we thought Avery was the easy one of the five?” Connor asked.

Kelsey laughed, high and too loud, in the mostly empty cafeteria.  Heads turned her way.  She didn’t care.

“Lucy never felt that easy,” Jasmine said.

“No?” Kelsey asked.  “You showed me the pictures, where she was this little kid, cute as a button, hearts on the thigh of her overalls, all colors and smiles.”

“She internalizes,” Jasmine said.  “Even then.  She’d laugh out loud and smile when it was time to smile.  But if something went wrong, I could plead, I could hint, I could prod, I could prompt by sharing a bit of myself, she’d keep it to herself until…”

“Bit like Avery on that front,” Connor said.  “Different behaviors at the end of that road, I’m guessing.”

“Yeah,” Jasmine said.  “I guess Verona does the same thing.  They do different things with what they hold inside, that they shouldn’t hold inside.  God.  With Booker, I’d get so frustrated.  He’d do something wrong and Roy and I’d- we’d struggle to find a way to get through to him, and my parents, with me, they’d use the switch.  We had to find our own way, and whatever I did or said to Booker, he wouldn’t care.  Send him to his room, he’d listen to music.  Take away the music and he’d sleep.”

Connor laughed a bit.

Jasmine smiled a bit at that, maybe a bit fondly, too, for the memory of Booker as a child.

“I could make him do chores and he’d find a way to make it fun.  I could bring the misbehavior up an hour later and he’d be dumbfounded, like he’d forgotten or didn’t think it mattered.  It felt like the universe was really testing me sometimes, really making sure I was going to keep that promise to myself, that I wouldn’t physically discipline my kids, then giving me a kid where nothing seemed to work.”

“Ahh, that sounds pretty familiar with most of our five,” Connor said.  “Not quite the same, but… they’re tough sells when it comes to punishment.  Not Avery, though and… not Sheridan.”

“That’s interesting,” Kelsey said, voice soft.  “Yeah, I can see that.  Sheridan pretends she doesn’t care.”

Connor nodded.

Jasmine went on, “I wish Lucy could forget or not care.  I approached her at first like I did Booker, expecting to have to say things three times, no nonsense, clear, blunt, borderline loud.  But I found out that I could come at her with half the intensity and then a day later she’d still be dwelling on it, wary, sulking.  That girl with the hearts on her-”

Jasmine’s voice broke a bit.  She put fingers over her eyes.

Kelsey leaned over to rub Jasmine’s back.

“-on her overalls,” Jasmine managed to say, voice still broken.  She moved her fingers to the sides, leaving streaks of moisture from eye to temple, and blinked a few times.  “Shit, damn.”

“Not even that long ago,” Kelsey said, voice soft.

She got it.  The sheer distance between what they were doing here, and that time, not that long ago.

“She bottles it up, sometimes it explodes.  The Paul thing.  I thought she was doing better, but then the way I saw her react to Anthem?  And that was with me there, when she knew.”

“Throwing herself into danger,” Connor said.

“Sometimes it’s not bottling up.  Sometimes it’s… what I just talked about.  Internalizing.”

“With the company things I was telling you about.  Russell.  The people who hated him.  Frustration, resentment.  It was like poison, for the company.  Like that, but for her as a person?” Kelsey suggested.

Jasmine nodded.

“And Verona?” Connor asked.

“Internalizes, until her body tells her something’s wrong,” Jasmine said.

“I don’t know her that well,” Kelsey admitted.  She asked her husband, “You were tutoring her?”

“She comes to me when she’s stuck on a school thing, with the independent study.  It’s only been a few times.  Half the time, I think she only wants the company.”

“Or someone dad-like,” Jasmine added, under her breath.

Kelsey blew a long, thin stream of air through her mouth, turned to blowing her coffee, and drank.

“Yeah,” Jasmine said, as if she was responding to something Kelsey had said.  “Which is a whole other set of problems, isn’t it?  Does she need someone in her corner, who knows what’s going on, and can parent?  Because I can try, Connor can tutor-”

“I wouldn’t even compare the levels of responsibility or how much- familiarity.  There we go, that’s the word.  You watched her grow up.”

“I might have taken her in, if that really was an option, last summer,” Jasmine said.

“Wow,” Kelsey said.  “That sounds lame, saying ‘wow’ like that, but I- that’s amazing.”

“I love her.  She’s been a great friend to my daughter.  She’s a bright spark.  She is a conundrum sometimes, so independent, but… yeah.  I talked to her mom a bit ago, by the way.”

“Wait, in the middle of the night?” Connor asked.

“She called me.  Brett called her after the fire.  She wanted to know what was happening from a- from me, I guess.  Verifying.  She’s on her way.”

“Oh,” Kelsey said.  “Wow.”

She kept saying that.  It might have been the fatigue.

“I don’t know what the plan is.  But I can guess how Verona will react if her mom does like I expect and tries to take her to Thunder Bay.  Just like I can guess how Avery will react if you guys move out or away from Kennet altogether.  I can guess what Lucy will do if I send her to her Aunt Heather’s until things settle down.”

“They’ll want to stay,” Kelsey said.  “They’ll fight to stay.  Avery will walk a Path and get here and then do what she can.  We could go to the moon and she’d be here.”

“Can take away their phones and they use magic to talk to one another,” Connor said.  “Plot a way to keep doing this.”

“In a situation they’ve unironically, seriously called a war,” Jasmine said.  “One where your bright, empathic, slightly awkward, athletic, warm sweetheart of a daughter got shot.”

Hearing the words felt a bit like getting shot.  Words failed Kelsey.

Jasmine saw and her expression changed, apologetic.  “Sorry.”

“Eat, Kels,” Connor said, quiet.  “You need fuel.  Doesn’t matter if it’s good fuel, let’s just make sure you have the energy to face the coming day.”

She picked up one of the muffins and took a bite.

“They’re doing good things, as far as I can tell,” Connor said.  “Their reason for doing this is good.  They save people.  They want to improve the world, stop… I guess everything we saw tonight?  That would become more normal?”

“They are,” Jasmine agreed.  “I don’t know how to say this, but I’m glad Avery is with them.  I think she tempers- wrong word.  She balances out qualities in the other two that needed that balancing-out.”

“Verona leans into the darker stuff, right?” Kelsey asked.

“I think Verona leans into a variety of stuff, whatever captures her interest, and a lot of that is darker.  Maybe it’s more compelling because it’s more risque.  Maybe there’s a lot of dark stuff out there.  I didn’t fully understand what she meant when she talked about her bookstore, but it seems like she turned something bad to good use.  Her potion healed Avery.”

“Bless her.  Even if the side effects…”

“She survived a gunshot because of that.  That’s what’s important,” Connor said.

“Out of all of us, I think I’ve been the least willing to accept all of this,” Kelsey said.

“I think you helping Avery with the market stuff was good,” Connor said.

“What are you doing?” Kelsey asked.

“Recognizing the good where it happens,” he said.

“I interact with the Garricks to stay involved, I think there are things that are positive. The opossum is cute and I love the idea of Avery having someone to look out for her.  But I feel like, in a better world, with better oversight of all of this, we’d have been invited and we’d have been part of her connecting to Snowdrop.  Damn it, I don’t want to keep being negative, but the past few days have been a waking nightmare.”

“Yeah,” Connor said.  He let out a short, almost derisive laugh, “I can’t believe we thought Avery was the easy one.”

“You have all my sympathies,” Jasmine said, and that much was clear on her face.  It looked like Jasmine might tear up again, which made Kelsey’s own eyes well up.

“I had this patch where I went into business mode,” Kelsey said.  “What can I do?  What’s the worst case scenario?  I talked to Connor about this.”

“I said it was barely a question, but Kels pointed out it is a question,” Connor said.

“What question?” Jasmine asked.

“If we never heard back,” Kelsey said, serious now, eyes moist.  “Or if we heard back and the news wasn’t good news.  What then?  Does the school call?  Do people get involved?  Does our family get investigated?  Torn apart by CAS?  Do they take Declan and Kerry away if they suspect foul play?  Sheridan, even?”

“I’m not sure if it works this way because of how it happened,” Jasmine said, “but if you remember what Miss said, a lot of this stuff gets covered up, automatically.  Without that, I think the locals would take steps to protect us, for the girls’ sake.”

“Isn’t that scarier, in its own way?  What would we tell our kids?” Kelsey asked.  “Sheridan?  Declan?  Kerry?”

“I don’t know,” Jasmine replied.

“Is it irresponsible of us to not take them away?”

“I don’t know,” Jasmine replied.

“If the tables were turned, and I was in Sylvia’s position… If Connor and I weren’t on good terms, if we divorced and if the kids didn’t follow me to Thunder Bay, if we were estranged, a little, with lots of complicated feelings around the divorce mucking things up?  If it was Sylvia and Brett and you sitting at this table, with a sense that I have a career, and I’m not suited for all of this?  How do I feel about that hypothetical me being left in the dark?”

“When bringing her out of the dark has its price?” Connor asked.  “Potentially stalling this Connor-less Kelsey’s career?”

“I don’t want to get too far into the hypothetical,” Kelsey admitted.  “But how would I feel?  How would you feel, Jasmine?”

“I don’t have to think very far back,” Jasmine replied.  “I remember how I felt when I realized.  And Connor, I don’t think it stalls your career unless you take it into account in how you do things.  I don’t think.”

“Hmm.  Okay,” he said.  “We had talks about where we want to be.  Kelsey’s hopes and if she’d take more promotions, say, a decade down the line.  We thought it would be harder.  But we accepted it was the cost of opening up the world to the kids.”

“But this world?” Kelsey asked.  “War?”

“Definitely a harder ask,” he said.

“I met with Sylvia a few times, in Thunder Bay,” Kelsey said  “Once with Verona in tow, kids meeting.  A few times just as lunch meetings.  Introduced me to people.  She’s a networker.  One person was- someone I really need to call for work, but instrumental for what I’m doing.  She’s helped me.”

“I like her,” Connor said.

“And then I feel like I’m spitting in her face, keeping silent.  Not just- not just about magic and it existing.  But Verona’s going down a path.  She’s pursuing things and dabbling in things, and as a parent, how can she deal with that, if she doesn’t know and nobody tells her?  It’s like, if she was in a gang- if Verona was.  And we didn’t say?”

“I don’t think it’s really like that,” Jasmine said.

“I- yeah, okay, but, you understand what I mean?  Verona and the abuse.  What Brett was doing.  Is doing?  If we’d known and never told her?”

“I don’t think it’s like that either.”

Frustrated, Kelsey rested her forehead against her closed fist, elbow on the table.  “I’m tired.  I barely slept and I cried myself to sleep so hard, last night, I think I woke up more drained than when my head first touched the pillow.”

“I do get what you mean.  I do,” Jasmine said.  “Even if the analogies aren’t perfect.”

Kelsey lifted her head.

“I get it,” Jasmine said, seriously, with a lot of emotion in her voice.  “But I want to be careful.  Because I didn’t sleep very well either, even-”

Again, Jasmine’s voice cracked.


Kelsey nodded quickly, using a fingernail to scrape away a mascara-stained tear from her cheekbone.  What had she been thinking, putting makeup on like this?  Knowing this conversation was happening?

Jasmine’s voice was low and serious.  “Whatever decisions we make tonight- this morning.  Or as a result of this?  We have to live with them.  The girls have to live with them.  And you’d better believe they’re sharp enough they’ll call us out if we’re doing it because of emotion, or anything like that.”

“Or they won’t call us out,” Connor said.  “They’ll ignore us.”

“Aren’t they already, a little?  I don’t think we’re getting the full story.  I’m going to bring up Verona again,” Jasmine said.  “Have you two met that cat?”

“Julette?  The copy?  I did a double take when I saw her,” Kelsey said.

“I think she’s spent more time away from her dad than she’s implying.  Having the copy as a stand-in.”

“Where does she go?” Kelsey asked.

“The Demesne.  Her special magic house where everything is comfortable and easier,” Jasmine said.  “Which- I can’t blame her.  But she’s a teenager with an interest in sex who interacts with elements like… the thirteen year old girl with the tattoos, there’s McCauleigh.  There’s, ah, the Oakham girl.  Verona deals with Kennet below in general.  She’s a girl of a creative, dark, and daring attitude with access to a crowd of dark and daring peers.  And she has a secret house.  What do you think she’s doing?”

“She’s fourteen,” Kelsey said.  “What, you don’t think she’s… active?”

“I know she’s active,” Jasmine said.  “I made condoms available to both the girls at the same time other hygiene needs were being met.  A few weeks later I went to get a reusable shopping bag and there was a receipt in the bottom.  I checked to see if it was mine – I deduct anything for work from when I was doing the at-home nursing.  Definitely Verona, and she bought another box.”

“Aha,” Connor said.  “At least she’s using them.”

“At least,” Jasmine said.  “Still, that’s at pace with when I was married with a loving husband and, um, in my prime, let’s say.”

“Could she be giving them away?” Kelsey asked.  “If she’s with these kids who…”

Jasmine seemed to consider for a second.  “That’s… actually pretty likely.  It fits her.  It fits how she interacts with them… Yeah.”

Kelsey felt a bit relieved.

Jasmine switched from mulling it over as she talked slowly to a pretty quick, firm, “But I also think she’s a teenager with an avid interest in the physical side of boys, access to boys, and a secret house.  Draw your conclusions.”

Connor clicked his tongue.  “Yeah.”

“Are Avery and Lucy…?” Kelsey asked.

“My read on things, admittedly biased, is that my daughter is taking her time, still gets shy about holding hands, and wants to find the right person.  Which is lovely and much easier to engage with.  Avery…”

Kelsey was aware she was a little on edge as Jasmine trailed off, considering.

“…is in a similar-ish place, I think.  From what little I saw of Nora and Avery together, they’re both a little nervous, and I think they’re good together.”

Kelsey relaxed.  She flashed a little smile at Connor.

“To get back to my point, though, they have the power to get away with so much.  There’s a lot we’ve been talking about as we go, be careful, the girls are capable of doing this, watch out for that, they can’t lie so you can’t ask them this, watch out for ‘I thinks’ and that kind of language…”

Kelsey nodded along.

“But sometimes you sit back and take it in aggregate?”

Connor asked, “Do you have those moments where you want to slap your forehead, because you think back to a weird little conversation or incident and realize, magic?”

“It makes me die inside a little,” Jasmine said.

“Like, holy hell,” Connor whispered, leaning forward.  “There was a time I was talking to Avery in the middle of the usual family hustle and bustle, something was odd, and I look back and I think, that wasn’t my daughter.”

“I remember last quarter of summer, when Verona was staying with me, Verona was being weird, the responses were awkward, and I called her out on it.  She panicked.  I remarked on it to Lucy, after, and she seemed exasperated.  I think… I think they were training or practicing how to make the dolls… the ones they dress up as themselves with the fairy magic.  Julette, the cat, she’s one, they made her permanent, I think?  And they weren’t good at making them yet.”

“Oh, that’s weirrrrd,” Kelsey murmured.  “Because they did get good at making them, right?”

Jasmine nodded slowly.

“Family policy, swat all our kids firmly in the back of the head as a form of greeting?” Connor asked, smiling.

“Not that funny,” Jasmine said.

“Right.  Sorry.  Buckets of cold water out of nowhere?  That works, right?  Good morning, splash.  Ready for dinner? Splash.  You’re grounded and I think you might’ve snuck off?  Splash.”

“Funnier,” Jasmine said.  “But the whole situation, the dynamic…?”

Kelsey nodded.  “And it goes back to what I was saying about Sylvia, and to a lesser extent Brett.  They’re unarmed in this fight.  We’re scrambling to keep up and stay aware and they don’t know.  That’s rotten.”

“Let’s…” Jasmine considered, weighing her words.  “Let’s let Brett earn back Verona’s and our trust before we give him any information that could be used against Verona.  I’d rather equip Sylvia with the right knowledge or find some other option.”

“Things are still that bad?  I know CAS intervened, and he’s backslid some, but…?”

“Still bad,” Jasmine said.  “Worse in ways.  His tenants creeped on Verona and he was resistant when she tried to veto them.”

Kelsey felt a sadness settle into her chest at that.  “I really hoped.”

Jasmine shrugged slightly, hands around her coffee cup.

“House burned down, so that solves that problem, huh?” Connor asked.

“Solves the symptom, maybe.  But the problem?  No,” Jasmine replied.  “It’s worth keeping an eye out for her, by the way.  It wasn’t a home anymore, but she had a lot of herself and her things in that place.  Years of art.  Things she’d collected.”

Connor nodded.

“Okay,” Kelsey said.  She sat back, picking apart the muffin, eating some.  “Enough moping.  Game plan.”

She saw Connor sit up a little straighter, nodding.  More serious, now.  He knew what wavelength she was on.

“Non-negotiables?” Kelsey asked.

“Kids stay safe,” Connor said.

“I don’t ever want Avery in that kind of danger again,” Kelsey said.  “And I don’t ever want to be in that position I was in these past few days.  I don’t want you in that position.  I don’t want Sheridan or Rowan knowing and agonizing quietly over it.  I don’t want Declan, Grumble, and Kerry sensing something’s wrong but not being able to know or do anything about it.”

“There’s always going to be danger.  The kinds of things Avery does?” Jasmine asked.

“I try to tell myself it’s like she’s into surfing, or rock climbing.  It’s easier to make that leap from my mental picture of who she was to who she is now.  I’ve talked a lot with the Garricks about it.  But this- the war?

“Fighting someone with everything to lose,” Connor said.  “Who will apparently do anything to protect himself.”

“It’s the endless nature of it,” Kelsey said.  “I think it’s hurting the girls more than they know.  We talk about this being like poison, and… it’s poisoning them in little ways.  They’re great.  They’re brilliant, they’re brave.  But they’re tired, they’re getting hurt more, I think they’re hurting others more.”

Jasmine sighed.  “The Sylvia thing.  Sylvia needs to know, or Verona needs to go live with her mom, or we need to find something sustainable and workable.  But it’s dawning on me just how little she’s been with her dad.”

“That’s a non-negotiable?” Kelsey asked.

“Yeah,” Jasmine replied.  “Verona is fourteen.  She’s independent as hell, she’s setting up the bookstore as a project, she’s been involved with the market, and that’s great, she’s probably eating better than she was with her dad, and I’m thinking worse than when she was with me.  I’m pretty sure that house can’t burn down, flood, or anything like that.”

“There could be magical things that happen to a personal place like that that we don’t know about,” Connor said.  “I dunno, like… magic house cancer?  House gets a mind of its own and all the furniture starts moving around and rebelling?”

“Okay,” Jasmine said.  “That’s… yes.  If we’re weighing options and considering where she’s at, there may be things we don’t know.  I can ask, but yeah.  But she’s fourteen.  She wanted to stay in Kennet, she wanted to stay to fight in this war.  Not because of her dad.”

Kelsey nodded.

“She’s been avoiding him more than she’s been letting on, I think.  All considered… Verona needs a parent.”

“How’s Lucy?” Kelsey asked.  “Where’s Lucy at?  Avery got shot, Verona’s definitely… detaching.  But Lucy?  I don’t want to neglect her.”

Jasmine flashed a little, tight smile, like a little ‘thank you’.  Then she dropped the smile.  “That mental picture of her, a day after I’ve been upset at her?  Wary and almost disappointed in me?  That’s still her.  Losing John, she’s been carrying that for four months and she’ll be carrying it a year from now, I think.  Guilherme too, to a lesser degree.  She comes back from afternoon or weekend morning training with him in a mood, sometimes.  Like she doesn’t realize a light went out in him and then she’s a little less light when she’s spent an hour or so interacting with him.”

“Any non-negotiables?” Kelsey asked.  “For Lucy?”

“I-” Jasmine stopped herself.

“Say it,” Kelsey said.

“She’s mine.  My daughter.  Not the Dog Tags’.”

“Is that a concern?” Connor asked.

“Practically?  No.  But as a feeling?  This- this situation?  The war they’re set on fighting?  I couldn’t point to a nightmare, I don’t really dream, but if I had one, I feel like it would be me, watching her leave the house like she’s a kid going off to her first day in kindergarten, but she’s older, wearing that red jacket instead of the yellow raincoat she wore before kindergarten.  And the Dog Tags are all there, in a group, to welcome her in.”

“Have you spent time with them?” Connor asked.


“They’re pretty good people, and I don’t think they’re after Lucy in any way, like that.”

“They are… some good.  Some damaged.  Some dangerous.  I’ve had the full rotation, going to and from the hospital with escorts.”

Connor nodded.

“It’s not that I think they’re going to kidnap her or anything like that.  I don’t want War to have her.  This war, or War in general.  I don’t want this to be her life.  I don’t want that to be her family, getting the big moments, the time, the affection.  If that’s what she decides when she’s older, that’s one thing, but I don’t think- I don’t think I’ve done so badly as a mom that War should get them instead of me.  Does that make sense?”

“I don’t think you’ve done that badly as a mom at all,” Connor told her.

“I think we’re mostly on the same page,” Kelsey said.  “That this isn’t good for them.  That we’re struggling to parent them.  Especially with the outside forces pressing in, and the trajectories they’re taking.”

Connor nodded.

“The option that leaps to mind is leaving,” Kelsey said.  “I told Avery she put in the time, she bled, I don’t think anyone can tell her she hasn’t given her all.  But they’d find their way back, and we’d lose a bit more of our ability to parent, and we’d lose them, a little bit of their faith, trust, we’d lose that.”

“So do we rule it out?” Jasmine asked.  “Or do we leave and… enable?  Let them use Paths to get in, do things in a limited way?  Require permission?  Because as I’m saying that, trying to imagine it, I can’t- I think of War taking Lucy again.  Of her having that trajectory.”

“There’s nothing we can take away or manage, that would let us put a rein on things?” Connor asked.  “So we can tell them that yes, they can do this, but they need a better mission plan, they can’t be reacting, then reacting to the reaction to their reaction?”

“Nothing we can take away,” Jasmine said.  “Except forcing them to lie so they’ll be gainsaid.  But if we do that, we’ll break our bonds with them.  No.”

Connor nodded.

“So the question is, and this is a horrible, horrible question,” Kelsey ventured.  “Is this a situation where it’s worth breaking or damaging our bonds with our own kids, if it keeps them safe?  Avery almost died, that’s the last straw, we will never go through three days of agony again, we will not let the three of them face that level of risk, at least in the face of… of evil, of someone dangerous actively trying to hurt them.  We will try to take them away, we will make them lie and lose their magic if we believe they’ll try to slip past us.  But that’s it.  Then we hope they forgive us when they’re older and looking back.”

Jasmine’s finger stabbed the table, and remained there, pressing down.  “Point of clarification.”


“We can’t and won’t control them forever.  So it’s really until they turn eighteen.  Four years.  Less than.”

“That’s time they can prepare, grow, take stock…”

“Yeah,” Jasmine said.  The finger remained where it was.  “And when you say ‘we’ll gainsay them’, you mean we’d try.”

Kelsey nodded.  “Implicit in all of this is… we’re saying it’s us or this.  I hate that, that I’m throwing down such a horrible ultimatum, but it scares me to death that it’s a question of whether-”

She had to pause, composing herself.

“-If we’re willing to sacrifice our relationships with our own kids if it means they’re alive in two years.”

“Or we lose both.  We upset them, break their trust, and they keep going, until they’re possibly…” Jasmine trailed off.

“I’d hope they’d know, even in their reaction to this, that we’re doing it out of love and concern.

Connor looked like he was ready to cry.  “I’m flashing back to this summer.  I fumbled things with Avery after her coming out.  I fumbled things with Declan on top of it.”

“And her grandfather,” Jasmine said.

“That’s- I’m not sure I can see it as a fumble.  I don’t think there’s a clear solution.  He’s old, I’m mentally reducing my best guess on how long he might be with us after every single doctor’s visit.  He’s stubborn and set in his ways.  I’ve tried pushing back, and joking, and other things, but he’s teflon.”

“You’re spending how many minutes talking to him?” Jasmine asked.

“I don’t know.”

“And he’s spent how many total hours in front of that TV, with regular broadcasts?”

“If I push or try to convince him, matching or making up for that, what is that, except months or a few years of bitter, ugly arguing that puts Avery in the spotlight, accomplishing nothing except making my dad’s final years bitter and angry, the house unpleasant and toxic to be in?”

“It’s months or years of Avery having those news broadcasts and her grandfather getting vocally angry about her, Connor.”

“Not about her, he loves her.  She’s the apple of his eye, not to be corny or anything.”

“It’s about her, Connor.  Who she is, it’s about the girl she loves and the girls she’s going to love in the future.  It’s about Zed, a role model and peer.  It’s about her friend Jessica, it’s about her.  It’s hate, punctuating those broadcasts, constant and carefully fabricated so it worms into the public consciousness, poisons it, so it earns ad dollars, so it serves political ends for friends and allies of the people who run or put their faces on these networks, creating a ‘them’ for your father to be angry at.  And your daughter is a ‘them‘, here.”

Connor looked miserable, where he’d been putting on a brave face before.

It was Kelsey’s instinct to reach out and support, to put a hand on his arm.  She held off.  They’d talked about this on some levels before, but nothing as blunt as Jasmine was putting it.

“If it’s not months or years of you doing something about your dad, it’s months or years of Avery knowing that you weren’t willing to stand up for her, and that you’d let things slide.  You want to talk about what we’re willing to sacrifice for our kids’ well being?  This counts.”

“I’ve been getting him to cut back a lot.”

“But it’s still on, for an hour in the morning and at primetime, just before dinner,” Kelsey gently corrected.  “Times when Avery’s most likely to be around, when she’s in town.”

“Is he tech savvy?  Because you can block certain websites, I think,” Jasmine suggested.

“Yeah, I mean, no- he’s not tech savvy.  Yeah, I know you can do that.  He doesn’t use the internet for much except the rare email and the once-a-season video call with relatives overseas.”

“TV channels can be blocked.  Or de-listed from the channel browser.”

“I thought about it, but he’d get upset.  Censorship, he’d explode.  It’s worse, all the bad stuff would come out.  Is it right, to take that choice from him?  He doesn’t get many.  But you’re going to ask if it’s right to have it on in the house.  Right.”

“We can find a time,” Kelsey said.  “If Avery needs to stay near the hospital, we say we need things quiet and light.  No TV for a bit.”

“I don’t think she needs to,” Jasmine said.  “I don’t know her full story, but I think she’s healed.  Bone healed a little funny but not in a way that should impact her.”

“Or we let the blow-up happen when she’s not around.  We can make plans for Declan and Kerry,” Kelsey said.  “Send them to a friend’s house for the night he realizes the channel isn’t there.”

“I can’t tell you what to do or how to handle your family.  I have family members where our relationship is warped in its own way, where people could criticize me for what I do,” Jasmine said.  “You know your dad better than I ever could.  But you can take steps to make sure that the next time Avery comes home, that’s not on TV, and it’s never on TV when she’s home- or ever.  You can take steps to protect Declan and Kerry- we don’t know who they’re going to be as they grow up, but straight or not, cis or not, they’re going out into the world with or without that background noise of the voice on the TV in their heads, subtly informing them.  You can try to push back against your dad, so there’s a chance her last memories are of acceptance.”

“I don’t think there’s a good chance of that,” he said.

“Okay.  You can do some or all or any of that.  But if you don’t do anything, just know what that stands for.”

“Avery’s Wolf is someone old,” Kelsey said.  “Her- her nemesis?  Her personal demon?  I read that in the notes they showed us and it made me really sad.”

Connor thought about it for a moment, then he nodded a little.

“That a yes?” Kelsey asked.  “TV controls, we strategize around that?”

Connor nodded again, looking glum.  But maybe a bit relieved too.

“We could have Declan and Kerry come to Thunder Bay for a brief bit.  A week with a long weekend, so they only miss three or four days of school.  Use her sister being recently hospitalized as an excuse.  You can focus one hundred percent on your dad,” Kelsey said.

“That won’t exhaust Avery?” Jasmine asked.

“It will.  But it’s not about physical health, right?  She’s healed?  The way Snowdrop explained it, if I understood her right -really a skill you have to learn- it’s about heart.  About who you are.  So… family.  Foods she likes.  Mmm… skating?”

“Time with Nora,” Connor said, voice soft.  “You know that’d heal her heart more than Kerry climbing on her, wiping snot with glitter somehow in it on her, or any of that.”

“From what I gather, things have been tense, with her pulled away by… this.”

“I want her to have that,” he said.  “Without that tension.”

Jasmine nodded.

“What I was saying, though?  Sorry, to pull us so far off track.  I know what it’s like to have your daughter disappointed in you.  Upset at a- on a deep level,” Connor said.  He picked up a napkin and touched it to his eye to blot out the tears.  “I feel like Avery would be angrier at me, after a big ultimatum on the magic, because I’ve failed her so badly, so recently.”

“I think I let her down when I wasn’t able to come to grips with the magic on the level she needed, as fast as she needed,” Kelsey said.  “So you’re not totally alone.”

“But?” Jasmine asked.  She moved her hands, miming scales.

“I’d rather have her alive but unhappy than risk the alternative.”

“What happens?” Connor asked.  “What do we think their response will be?”

“If I say it’s me or them?” Jasmine asked.  “Me.  Lucy would choose me.  But I think there would be that look of wary hurt on her face for… for a long time.  I think, for her, she’d feel like injustice had won.  That would be hard for her to carry.”

“Other people can fight.  You’ve said that repeatedly,” Kelsey told Jasmine.

“Yeah.  It’s not just the three of them.  But if she wasn’t there?”

“Avery…” Connor ventured.  “If we asked her right now?  I think she’d say us.  I think she’d go to Thunder Bay, I think she’d spend time with Nora.  I think she’d reclaim some ‘normal’.  But over time?  She explores, she stays in touch with people.  I think she’d drift that way.  Back toward wanting to do something.”

“And Verona?” Kelsey asked.

“I asked her outright,” Jasmine replied.  “She said she’s in this to back up Avery and Lucy.  If they say they’re out, I think she’s out too.”

“Simple enough,” Connor replied.



“I think the way she works?  It would tickle the back of her brain.  I think she’d dwell on it.  It doesn’t matter if she’s with Sylvia or not, it doesn’t matter if Sylvia knows or not, Verona’s going to find a way to pursue this stuff.  She lives for it in a way Lucy doesn’t.  Put those together, and I don’t see a world where she isn’t going out there with a big magic or special magic bullet ready to solve the problem and stop it from nagging at her.”

“And she’d pull the others in as part of that.  Either telling them, or they find out and…”

“Yeah,” Jasmine replied.

“So does the ultimatum even work, then?” Connor asked.  “We failed Avery-”

Kelsey let out a little sound, almost a sob.

“-We did.  We missed something vital that was going on.  So she was pulled into this, because she was vulnerable at that moment.  Verona’s dad was abusive.  So she was vulnerable, she got pulled into this.  And Jasmine-”

“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Kelsey said.

“I did some things wrong.  I didn’t realize how it was adding up.”

“-You’re a good mom,” Connor said.  “But the world, the world let her down.”

“Disappointed her.”

“And she wanted to fix it and that was a vulnerability, that was- that let her get pulled in.  That’s the reality, as I understand it,” Connor said.  “So… we lose the ability to be parents, here?  To shelter our kids?  Because they are kids.  I know Lucy has that thing, she stresses they’re teenagers, but that’s not a stable state, you know?  Being a teenager isn’t- it’s not a set of traits you can add up together, it’s not… being a teenager means being a kid sometimes and being an adult sometimes and they rubber band between those things in ways that can even scare them or throw them for a loop.”

Kelsey nodded.

Connor went on, “They can be really mature and adult sometimes, and they can be vulnerable, scared, and curling up with a fuzzy animal, because the world’s too much for them.  And you never know what parts of them are going to leap forward and be really adult and what parts are going to stay surprisingly ‘kid’ even when they’re eighteen.  We’ve got to at least try to protect them when they’re rubber-banded into the kid parts.”

“We can try,” Kelsey said.  “We can do what works, accepting they may not like us much, even if they love us and even if we’re acting out of love and concern.  We can anticipate that Verona might try to tackle this, or that Avery might get pulled into it, and take steps.  Again, it’s got to be better than the alternative.”

“It shouldn’t be this hard,” Connor said.  “Or hopeless.”

Kelsey’s coffee was empty and she really wanted more, but she felt like if she got up, she’d want to go to Avery’s room, not back to this table and this conversation.

She thought about options.

“Do you think he’s listening?”

“The enemy?” Connor asked.

Kelsey nodded.

“Probably, I guess.  I would be.”

“Do you think he’s happy, licking his lips, fingers crossed?” Kelsey asked, miserable.  “Thinking, ‘it sure would be convenient if those parents convinced the kids to give up the war’?”

“You’re not thinking of making any kind of deal with him, are you?” Jasmine asked.

“No,” Kelsey said.  “That’s a whole other kind of betrayal, isn’t it?  I don’t hate what they’re fighting for.  I don’t like what Charles Abrams is about.  I wouldn’t do something that’s that far in the wrong direction, when the girls are after peace and connecting communities and finding a good way forward.  But I wish it wasn’t them.”

Which was the conundrum.

She considered going to get that coffee.  Maybe if a thought or idea crossed her mind, it could bring her back to this table.

Jasmine’s phone on the corner of the table blooped, and all three of them jumped.  The shadow of Charles Abrams that fresh in their minds, after talking about him.

“Is that Sylvia?” Connor asked.

Jasmine nodded.

“Is she close enough to join this?”

“No.  Two hours out, still.”

“I think we should let Verona decide between the options with her mom,” Connor said. “I think it’s her right.”

“I’m going to get more coffee…” Kelsey said.  She paused, then admitted, “And check on the kids.”

They were asking if the kids were willing to forfeit, but saying that felt like a forfeit.  She wasn’t sure she could come to this table and find a solution.

“I’ll come,” Connor said.  “Eat.  Especially if you’re chugging caffeine.  Your stomach’s too empty, you get another of your caffeine headaches.”

Kelsey bit into a triple chocolate muffin, giving Connor a look.

Jasmine picked up her things too.

It felt like Charles Abrams was watching them.  The man who’d shot her daughter, or had others shoot her.  The right thing to do felt like the thing he wanted most.

She got her coffee, tipped the very tired-seeming cashier again, then they walked out into the hallway.

Dog Tags standing by the cafeteria entrance, chatting in low voices, separated.  Mark went ahead, while Angel hung back.

Mark clearing the away, Angel trailing behind them, out of earshot, keeping an eye on their rear.


I have so much work to do, she thought.  Real life didn’t get put on pause for the big work things.

“That’s such a gloomy little cafeteria, no offense,” Kelsey said.

“No, it’s fine,” Jasmine said.  “I usually bring food and eat in the staff room.”

“Too bad we don’t have that option.  You know, it’s gloomy, but…”

“But?” Jasmine asked.

“I’m still on the fence about work.  And there’s a part of Kennet that’s… it’s home.”

“It is,” Jasmine said.

“Even the run down parts.  Did you have Lucy here?”

“I did.  You?”

“Yep.  Yeah.  I was only in the cafeteria once, though, and I was pretty out of it after Avery.  Each of them threw me for a loop, you know.  Different ways.  Rowan was the first, so obviously that’s scary.  Sheridan baked in the oven for a while, but Avery…”

“Oh god,” Connor said.

“Was it a tough birth?” Jasmine asked.

“Nine and a half pounds.  Rolls of baby fat.  Not that you’d know now, she’s so lean.  I don’t know how I’m functional after that.  Declan scared the daylight out us when he stopped breathing.  Kerry tucked hands under armpits, elbows out, knee up in an awkward way, little contortionist.”

“You got to know that cafeteria pretty well?” Jasmine asked.

“In the aftermath, for sure,” Connor replied.

“Sylvia insisted on going to the city.  It was a point of contention Brett would bring up years later.”

Avery was there, sleeping, sprawled out.  Lucy had pulled up one of the cushy chairs and sat in it, head, chest, and arms on the bed, sleeping, with Avery’s leg butting up against the top of her head.

Verona had taken Snowdrop for whatever reason, and was curled up in the other cushy chair in the corner, feet pulled onto the chair, Snowdrop in the ‘u’ of body and legs.

Kelsey, Connor, and Jasmine lingered in the doorway, looking at the sleeping girls.  Did Jasmine see the criss-crossing of pale marks on the back of Lucy’s hand, that stretched across the bed and towards them, like a silent reaching out?  That hadn’t been there the last time Kelsey had seen Lucy.  How much hurt was that?  Healed up and meant to be forgotten?


Their babies.

Jasmine’s arm was braced against the doorframe as she peered around, and the hand at the end of that arm clenched.  Jasmine had been holding things together, but the occasional thought, like a younger Lucy, would make her crack, breaking for a moment, before she pulled it together again.  This was different.

Kelsey could almost read her mind.

And there, in that anger, there was maybe a possibility.

Like with her work, with Russel, if the situation wasn’t working, and there was no clear path forward, the dynamic needed to change.


Months Ago

Jasmine’s fist clenched.

Kelsey and Connor followed, Kelsey’s eyes roving, taking in the odd vistas.  The buildings that seemed familiar but weren’t ones belonging to the town she’d spent twenty years living in.

“I think we’re hoping the river can become a canal, it would be really interesting,” the foundling girl talked a mile a minute.  “It could be a way for those of us who work to get to work.  I don’t know if you’re aware, but we do have that option, it’s going to be so interesting to see how-”

“Um, miss, or- kid?” Connor asked.

“Luna Hare,” the girl said, crisp, turning to face them, hands clasped behind her back, her eyes black and eerie, the expression of the rabbit mask flat and unchanging.  “Guide, errand runner, and possibly other things, I suppose we’ll see.  If you have any questions or if you need anything, do let me know.  I do believe I already introduced myself.”

“It’s been a lot,” Kelsey said.

“Of course.”

“Can we just have a bit more time to take it in, quietly, with our thoughts?” Connor asked.

Luna nodded.  Her head tilted slightly.  “You’re mad.”

Kelsey looked at Jasmine’s clenched fists.

“Not at you,” Kelsey said.

“If you’re mad at Miss, that might be a problem.  If you’re a danger, um, you should know there’s no violence-”

“We want to talk,” Jasmine interrupted.

“Can you give us some quiet on the way, so we can compose our thoughts, and make it a nicer talk?” Kelsey asked.

“Of course.  I’ll lead the way.”

Luna turned and walked ahead, hands still clasped behind her.

It was a winding path, and Kelsey didn’t know if it was meant to be scenic, or meant to give them time to cool down, or if all the paths were winding and scenic here in this new Kennet.  It looked like they could be.

Luna had to do a puzzle at a gate to open it, which made another two gates swing closed.  Some foundlings ducked through as if they were cars trying to beat a red light.

They walked to the town hall, which was more elaborate and fancy than anything in Kennet.  Like some Victorian university, gray stone cast in a blue tint by the perpetual twilight, clocktower at the top, and birds flying out with papers in beaks and talons.

They went up a set of stairs, around the catwalk-like second floor that looked down on the fluttering papers that were collected and sorted in the lobby, and around to the back half of the second floor, where Miss was sorting things out, penning the occasional paper, while her subordinates milled around her.

“Give us some privacy?” Miss asked.

The foundlings that were going this way and that didn’t even miss a beat.  They went from speed-walking from shelf to counter to desk to shelf again to speed walking out of the space.

Luna ducked her head in a curtsy-bow type gesture, then hurried off the way she’d come.  Kelsey watched as the girl went over to the counters, and it looked like she was offering help.

“I expected this meeting,” Miss said.  “Can I offer you anything?”

“Answers,” Jasmine said.

“I was thinking more along the lines of tea and biscuits.  There are rules for hospitality.”

“I was thinking of harsher words than an ask for answers,” Jasmine said.  “Loud and rude and harsh- would it matter?  Could anything I say change how these people you’ve made for your little town see you?”

“Yes.  I spent too long dealing with enemies who aren’t held accountable, I want them to question me.  We may be in a bit of a honeymoon period, and I don’t know how this goes in the long run, when I’m tied into this place.  But they can leave.  Go to another side of Kennet, or leave Kennet altogether.”

“This argument has been raging in my head ever since I found out what’s been going on.  The secrets you’ve kept.  That you used an underhanded method to target vulnerable children and make them your champions?  I’ve had a hundred ‘how dare you’ statements, a hundred ‘you had no right’ arguments pass through my head,” Jasmine said.

“It’s not that different for me and Connor,” Kelsey said.

“It wasn’t meant to become what it did.  From the beginning, they were told they only needed to serve a symbolic role, to do the bare minimum.”

“In the notes,” Jasmine said, voice a little louder and firmer now.  “It says you can see into people.  You can read them, interpret them, see their character.  You had to know that Lucy- that the others, that they’d take this tack.  That they wouldn’t, couldn’t do the bare minimum.”

She circled the long table at the center of the administrative area as she talked.  Miss moved aside, moving around the table too, and birds that flew through the air blocked the view of her face.

“Stop that,” Jasmine said.

“It’s as much a part of me as your hair is a part of you.”

“Stop avoiding me.  Moving away.  Is that a part of you?”

“In a way.”

Can you see into the depths of people?  Did you know that they’d do what they’re doing?”

“Only to an extent.”

“Are you dodging the question?” Jasmine asked.

Connor, hand at the small of Kelsey’s back, walked with Kelsey to the corner of the table, cutting off Miss’s retreat away from Jasmine.

Kelsey glanced back and saw the foundlings of the administrative building taking notice.  Jasmine’s sharp, harsh words in the library-like space were attention getting enough, but there might have been more to it.  Like they were poking the queen bee and the hive was taking notice.

At least fifty masked faces were turned their way.

“Stop backing away,” Jasmine said, as Miss moved toward bookshelves, instead of Connor and Kelsey.  She swatted angrily at the papers that started flying through the air, blocking the view of Miss’s face.  She moved her head.  “Face me!”

“I can’t.  I don’t have a face.”

“Are you going to evade?  Dodge?  Use weasel word phrasing until you get to one that the notes haven’t covered?” Jasmine asked.  “You used my daughter – our daughters!  For your agenda.”

“I’ve given things up too.  Locking myself into this, becoming this.”

“For your agenda!  But they’re the ones out there, facing the danger.”

“I got shot.”

“For your plan!  For your dream!”

“For your fight against Charles,” Kelsey said, arms folded.

“It’s their fight too.  It’s the fight of a lot of us.”

“Don’t evade, don’t dodge,” Jasmine said.

“It’s what I am.  It’s in the name.”

“That sounds like a dodge on its own,” Connor said.

“If you’ll allow me…” Miss said.

Things shifted, like furniture was moving, but it wasn’t.  It was in the ceiling and walls.

A mask fell from the ceiling, hanging by a chain.

Miss settled, standing there amid the bookshelves, the mask of a woman with closed eyes facing them, blocking the view of her face.

“What am I supposed to say?  The dramatic lines feel like they’d fall flat,” Jasmine told Miss.  “How dare you?  They’re children.  But it doesn’t- it doesn’t come close to matching the anger, the outrage.”

“I’m not angry or outraged,” Kelsey said.

Miss turned her way, the mask rotating.

“But I could be.  I’d really like a reason to not despise you, to understand you.  Some reason to not have you as an enemy.  Because if you can’t give us good answers and if you really did put our daughters up to this, then you’re someone to keep them away from.”

“You haven’t done your job, keeping them safe.  Letting them live their lives.  You haven’t supported them nearly enough for what you’re asking of them,” Jasmine said.

“Dangerous words,” Miss replied.  “I made oaths.  I’ve tried.”

“Dangerous to do what you did with them and then fail them.”

“Give us an answer?” Kelsey asked.  “Help us understand?”

“I don’t know if the answers are good ones,” Miss said.

“Try?” Kelsey asked.

“They’re stellar, exceptionally capable girls.”

“They are,” Connor said.  “This phantom town, a lot of it was them, wasn’t it?”

“Lost town.  Founded town.  Yes.  They’re- if it wasn’t them, then it would be someone else.  Or you would be asking a vulnerable population to not find someone to help protect them.”

“They’re children,” Jasmine replied.

“Children pick up the practice faster, the younger they are.  Obviously there is a balance.  The very young lie and get gainsaid.  And being children meant they could fly under certain radars.  They could attend the magic school.”

“Where someone died,” Jasmine replied.

“It meant the conspirators could underestimate them.”

“They won anyway,” Jasmine said.

“That’s not yet decided.  We’re still struggling.”

“They’re still children.”

“Is that your motte, then, Mrs. Ellingson?  Your position you’ll retreat to?”

“I wouldn’t put it that way.  I’d say they’re children and you haven’t really acknowledged that fact.”

“I acknowledge it.  But fine.  If that’s the point at the heart of this… this world was likely to take them anyway.  If not me, then something or someone else.  Maybe even the new Carmine.  Charles.”

“What do you mean, take them?” Connor asked.

“You’ve been told what Awareness means.”

“We’re Aware.  Not awakened, but aware?” Connor asked.

“You are.  And of the special kinds?  The extreme kinds?”

“Not really.”

“Some odds and ends in the notes.  That group that came in,” Kelsey said.

“Clementine, Daniel, and Sharon,” Miss clarified.  “It’s a question of how much, how far, how damaged, and how the universe scrambles to accommodate… or doesn’t.  Many of them are… think of messes left in the corner, because it’s more convenient, junk drawers, scapegoats, things you might buy in case you need them, then never take out of the package.  All of those things and none of them.  The sentiment should hold.”

“What does this have to do with anything?” Jasmine asked.

“Those girls, on the courses they were on, were slipping away from humanity.  The innocence that protects people isn’t a firm thing.  It can fluctuate.  In moments of sickness, weakness, infirmity, in old age and youth, innocence slips.  People can glimpse the supernatural.  People can be targeted by the supernatural.  Vicious bogeymen find and select the isolated and the disconnected, because it’s easiest.  Because the cleanup is fast.  Past a point, convention even helps that happen.  The girls were on that track.”

“You can’t pass on a message, let us know?” Connor asked.

“If it wasn’t for the girls, we would have selected someone else.  An adult or group of adults, I strongly suspect, would have been eaten alive.  They come to the table with too many preconceived notions, and people are too ready to remove an adult.  If I didn’t select the girls, then they would have carried on the courses they were on, and from what I saw in them, I would say it’s a coin flip for each of them, if this world would’ve targeted them.  Especially in light of what Charles was doing.  Melissa Oakham was one candidate I noted once, and she was targeted like that.  Jeremy Clifford was another, he wasn’t.”

“So instead of a coin flip for a half chance of being in danger-” Kelsey said.

“Of being put in a situation where they would’ve become aware.  Which isn’t to say it would have been an easy road otherwise.  Verona might have strayed into substance abuse.  Lucy might have reacted to Paul like she did, but gotten into trouble with the law.  Avery might have had something inside her change, a certain spark going quiet.”

Kelsey shut her eyes.  Her arms were folded, and she folded them extra tight against her body.

“But instead of a fifty-fifty you took the sure thing?  Guaranteed they’d be flung into this world?” Jasmine asked.  “You still used them.”

“In a way that empowered them, instead of tearing them down.”

“You used them.  Children.  Because it was convenient to use children.  When they were vulnerable.”


“You maybe possibly saving them… that doesn’t negate the using them part of it,” Jasmine said.  “You saved them, and you used them.”

“Succinctly put,” Miss said.  “Yes.  Would it help if I reminded you I’m not human?  If I said that it’s only through knowing them that I can relate to these sentiments, and regret what I did, but that I didn’t parallel humans in the same ways when I did it?”

“That sounds like an excuse,” Jasmine said.

“It is.  It’s up to you to decide if it’s a good one.  There’s something else.”

Jasmine frowned.

“When I look at someone, truly look, which requires uninterrupted time and calm, I see not into their future, but into the continuum of their being.  If their traits are like branches, I can see their angle and how that is likely to appear.  I can see what they might be, and imagine it in a certain frame.  Allowing a small portion of Kennet to become aware as you did in the founding was intentional.”

“We already sort of figured it out.”

“But your perception of it all was deepened.  Had things gone smoother, according to my plan, John Stiles installed as Carmine, I hoped to make Kennet a bastion, a place of subtly different rules.  The founding wasn’t a part of it, but it’s still a step in that same direction.”

“What rules?” Jasmine asked.

“Among other things, it would be a place where being aware is common or universal, and where awareness is not a hazard or a limiter for most.  One piece of a greater change I wanted to put into effect.”

“What does this have to do with the girls?” Jasmine asked.

“I said most.  Left alone, if things carried on like that, I had the impression that in their struggles, they would respond to this new set of rules and this awareness in a bad way.  Do I think they would have been villains?  No.  Do I think they would have hurt themselves or others in their rush to find something to cling to?  Possibly.”

“Then don’t do it,” Kelsey said.

“That does more harm in the long run,” Miss said.  “Things need to change.  The girls recognize that.”

Jasmine asked, “So you picked them because if you didn’t and things went according to plan-”

“I picked them for a hundred reasons, many of them… I won’t say good.  Along these lines.  Justifiable but with their injustice as well.”

“One of the reasons you picked them was because if you didn’t, and your plan went forward, they would have been problems.”

“And because I didn’t pick others, they may be problems, or they may have their own issues.”

“If your plan goes forward,” Kelsey said.


“But it’s not?”

“I hope it will.  Toadswallow has his goblin market idea.  That’s expanding quickly in concept.  It may extend into Kennet found in some fashion.  Things are moving forward.”

“That’s your thing,” Jasmine said.  “My daughter-”

“Wants this too.  Or aspects of it.”

“She was supposed to go to school, get a boyfriend, be safe…”

“And I am telling you that for each of the girls, it’s possible- I used the coin flip analogy before.  It’s not quite a tidy fifty-fifty chance, but it’s a chance within ten or twenty percent of that, for each of them, that this world might have targeted them or swallowed them up.  More, over time, if Charles won and continued to hold sway.”

Kelsey sighed, turning to study Connor’s concerned face.

“And had they survived that chance, there was another chance in that neighborhood that, depending on how things develop and how practice, Others, and magic gathered around Kennet, they would have seized on that.  To awaken on their own, to find a magic item, to find a way of pushing back against the rest of the world.”

“Destiny?” Jasmine asked.

“Very much not.  Disposition.  Personality.  They were reaching for something, and whether it’s fangs in the dark that snap at reaching fingers or magic finding a foothold near here and their reaching hand finding that, there was a good chance.  Would you flip a coin twice and trust your daughter’s well being to that?  Or would you accept that when they fell, some very imperfect, not-very-human beings were there to pick them up and offer a not-very perfect way forward, putting ourselves on the line in various ways to protect and encourage them?”

“I feel like we’re being manipulated.”

“All conversation is manipulation, but no.  That’s- that’s not my goal.  I’m not that canny.  Not when I’m being as straightforward as I can be.”

“There were better ways to save them than this.”

“Absolutely.  But many of us were desperate.  We were reaching too.  I was reaching, despite having no hands.  In the moment I saw opportunity and ruin mounting around Kennet and reached out, Avery was there, looking back at the Arena, unwittingly standing close to the place where a deceased higher power had just died.  The other two girls were not far away, a good match for her.”

Kelsey dropped her eyes to the floor, arms still folded.

“Things are moving forward.  I used a tree analogy earlier.  The branches can grow around an obstacle.  They can grow with us, and I truly believe it is good for them.”

“The obstacle.  Charles?” Kelsey said.


“Branches can also burn,” Connor said.

Miss paused, then accepted that with a, “Yes.  The girls don’t want to see it burn.”

“If they can grow with the branch, they can burn with it too, right?” Connor asked.

“Yes,” Miss said.  “But I really didn’t think things would be this bad, or that the obstacle would burn this fiercely.”

“So what are you going to do about it?” Jasmine asked.

“I’ve tied myself to the tree,” Miss said, turning toward the open space of the administrative building.  “I will do what I can.  I must.  I can’t change what I’ve done, I can only do my best going forward.”

“I’m still not okay with this,” Jasmine said.  “I don’t think- you do a lot of things that don’t negate or address the actual problem.”

“That may be an issue of my nature.  That I don’t confront.  I circumvent, I evade, I put obstacles in the enemy’s path and make them circle around.  And in the coming weeks or months, it may frustrate you, because I’ll continue to be this.  A subtler, more passive force.  That doesn’t mean I won’t be giving my all, in my way.”

Jasmine shook her head a little, turning away.

“Could I suggest that you go and talk to them?  Digest what I’ve said.  I will make myself available if you need me.”


“You said you’d make yourself available,” Jasmine said.

“I did.”

The council was gathered on the hospital rooftop.  No Rook.  Louise and Matthew had returned.  So had the ghouls.

They’d asked for everyone and this was pretty damn close.

“This is the put-up or shut-up moment,” Jasmine said.  “Miss?”

“I’m listening.”

Kelsey spoke up, “We’re worried this becomes an endless war.  Or a short one, that ends only because key people, our daughters included, are dead.  Can you tell us this won’t happen?”

“No.  It’s possible this drags on.”

“The girls can’t- shouldn’t be in front of this, the entire way.  It’s taking too much, and they’re in too much danger.  The stakes keep rising.  Verona lost her childhood home and everything she had in there, my daughter nearly lost her life,” Kelsey said.  “Are we wrong about any of this?”

“No,” Miss said.  “‘Too much danger may be subjective-”

“Don’t,” Jasmine said, short, curt, and angry.

“No, you’re not wrong,” Miss said, simply.

Kelsey said, “We’re getting close to a place where we’re considering saying you’re in contravention of the awakening oaths.  I don’t know if we can call you out on that, but…”

“My dears, sirs and madams, please don’t do that,” Toadswallow said.

“You can say it, you can call for it,” Matthew said.  “You have less clout than a practitioner.  We could theoretically argue against it more easily than we could if Verona or Avery was going to say we failed.”

“But we can?” Kelsey asked.

“You could,” he said, voice low.

“There have to be better options,” Louise said.

“We’re feeling the lack of options,” Kelsey said.  “Don’t worry.  We’re not planning on doing that.  That would destroy you, right?”

“Some of us,” Toadswallow said.

“Okay,” Kelsey said, taking that in.  “If Charles swooped in right now and tried to accuse you of it, we’d argue you’ve done your share, that counts for extra coming from us, I hope.  We don’t want to destroy you.”

“Then why bring it up?” Nibble, the ghoul, asked.

“Because we’re desperate.  Because that’s the point we’ve reached, in our discussions, trying to find some way to protect our girls, where that option is even being discussed.”

Nibble nodded.

“We’re hoping you guys can help us find a way,” Connor said.

“I’d like to,” Matthew said.

“Miss,” Jasmine said.  “When we first talked to you, after we became Aware, the one on one talk?  We talked about trees and branches and obstacles.”

“We did.”

“That obstacle keeps seeming bigger and bigger.  The girls are being made to reach out, further and further, until things are looking like they could break.  Fair?”

“Fair,” Miss replied.  “I would point out that the obstacle, at least very recently, has diminished.  In part because of Avery’s efforts.”

“That really doesn’t make me feel better,” Kelsey said.

“I know.  I’m sorry.  But it’s true, and if we’re painting an accurate picture before you ask what you’ve come to ask… it’s good to keep in mind.”

“We talked,” Jasmine said.  “We discussed, and we can fight you, we can fight this, we can try dragging the girls away, or taking away magic, or holding our relationships to them hostage.  And it’s ugly and it’s terrible.  You owe us.  You admitted that what you did with the girls- you used them.  You’ve been using them.”

“I did, I have.”

“There’s a reason we didn’t invite the girls here to talk,” Kelsey said.  “You owe us, and we deserve to not be the bad guys here.  We’re offering you one.”

“One girl?” Matthew asked, frowning.

“One chance.  One try.  The girls are going to want to fight, no matter what happens.  So let Avery pick up and heal, let the girls prepare.  Decide what you’re willing to invest.  If you can’t decide this, if you can’t win in one more big confrontation, then accept it’s an endless war.  Do what you want after that, but don’t involve the girls,” Kelsey said.

“Keep them safe,” Jasmine said.  “Because depending, if one of them dies, if something really does happen… we might be talking about that awakening oath again.  Lines were crossed when you chose to awaken them.  A line was crossed with Avery getting shot.”

Kelsey looked skyward, at the moon.  It was still early enough in the morning that even though the town was awake, the sky hadn’t lightened up.

“That’s not meant to be a threat,” Jasmine said, moderating what she’d said a bit.  “I don’t want to be the villain.  I don’t want to be at odds.  The way we were talking about it, we want all hands on deck, all hands helping, all hands fully invested in keeping the girls safe.  If it’s not, you shouldn’t be asking for them.”

There was a lot of tension around the rooftop, even with that softening of her stance.

“It’s conditional,” Connor said.  “The way you talk to them about this, the way you do this, if we really are letting them fight in this war they’ve invested in, if we really are letting you have them this one last, major time?  You frame it to them and you frame it among yourselves that it is the last time.  Then you become the bad guys, to ensure it is the last time.  You temporarily revoke magic, as much as you can, if it’s needed to keep them from pursuing the fight.  Can you do that?”

“Technically?  There are ways things could be worded or stressed, theoretically,” Miss said.  “One part of the oath about keeping them safe and allowing them long and full lives emphasized, at the cost of revoking the power we promised them.”

“You tell them to quit.  You tell them you tried, they tried, it’s too hard, you’ll do something else.  Then do that something else,” Jasmine said.  “You convince them.  You keep Verona from taking it on herself to devise some big countermeasure or attack on Charles and starting things up again.”

“I feel a need to point a matter out,” Toadswallow said.

“Sure,” Connor said.

“The Carmine watches.  He’ll know.  The fact he knows means his forces and power will be concentrated into defeating that one next assault.  Or whatever it is we decide to do.”

“Figure it out,” Jasmine said.  She looked at Miss, who stood at the far corner of the roof, amidst snow that was blowing in swirls, hiding her face, hair, scarf, and dress fluttering.  “Can you?”

“Or does this become us fighting to save our daughters, ugliness, us fighting you, and everything falling apart?” Kelsey asked, emotion thick in her voice.

“That would be a matter for the council to discuss at length,” Miss said.  “We’d need to hold a vote, and as part of that, before, during, or after, we’d need to find ways to talk without Charles overhearing, we’d need to consider how to address the girls.”

“It’s a consideration, then?” Kelsey asked.  “You’re not saying no right this second?”

“I’m not,” Miss said.  “In my perspective, at least, especially considering circumstances, the offer is very fair.  I’m inclined to say yes.”

There were enough nods among the Others around the rooftop that it settled the matter.

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